Authors: Craig Alan
Published by Boxfire Press.
HERE BE DRAGONS. Copyright © 2013 by Craig Alan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articls and reviews. For information, please contact Boxfire Press at http://boxfirepress.com.
eBook ISBN 978-1-938191-12-1
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for my brother Justin
I would like to thank my parents, my friends, and my family, for their encouragement and support; every author I’ve ever read, for showing me that the endless daydreams which occupy most of my waking hours could be put to good use; Dr. Scott Sparks and Morganna Conrad, for gamely answering my medical questions, no matter how naive; and Winchell Chung of the website Atomic Rockets, and his many correspondents at rec.arts.sf.science and SFConSim-1, for their deep knowledge of both science fiction and science reality. Any mistakes, exaggerations, or outright fabrications can be safely blamed on me.
And finally my editor Justin McLachlan, for his guidance, criticism, and patience (especially that last one), and for being the first person to suggest that I write a novel in the first place. Without him, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Alone in the Dark
ut here, the sun was no bigger than any other star. But it was still the only one in sight. Its rays had washed the sky as clean as a bright day on Earth, and all around her, space was a deep black in every direction but one. And as she and
raced away at thirty kilometers per second, Elena couldn’t help but look back at that light and stare.
She held tight to the ship’s hull with both hands, legs splayed behind her and floating freely. There was nothing between she and empty space but her grip. Elena had spent nearly half her life without gravity, and would have traded half of it again to keep the freedom to fly without wings. Zero gee came to her so naturally that she didn’t bother with the small thrusters that jutted from the back of her suit, and instead pulled herself hand over hand along the fuselage. It was like clambering headfirst down the side of a cliff.
Elena paused a little more than midway along
spine. The fuselage stretched into the distance, a football field long in either direction, and the topside sails towered above her to left and right. When she glanced up at them Elena felt as if she were crouched at the bottom of a dry metal gorge. She turned to starboard and began to slide laterally along the curve of
beam, one hand at a time, until she had come to the base of the sail. At the moment its gray metal expanse was as cool and leaden as an overcast day. But when the rockets fired and dumped their waste heat into their coils, the four sails unfolding from the hull would burn red like wings of fire.
Elena arrived at the starboard access tunnel, cut into the side of the wall, and hesitated, one hand on the door. She turned to her right, back to the sun and the beams of light that, in little more than half an hour, had traveled nearly all the way to Jupiter to see her.
Heat burned brightly against the backdrop of space, and even with her engines cold
still smoldered with residual warmth. The crew endeavored to keep the ship
on a line between Jupiter and the sun at all times, to mask her radiating sails. Each of the four ran nearly the length of the ship, and each was as tall as
was wide, high enough to blot out the sun and cast the ship in shadow. Once on the outside, beyond the Asteroid Belt, there were no running lights per the General Orders, and any part of
not exposed directly to the sun was bathed in the darkest night. The access tunnel, and her destination on the other side, was pitch black.
Even the reflected light from Jupiter was feeble at this distance, and any object in the sail’s shadow was hidden completely from view. At the touch of a button she could activate her visor and project a false-color image onto the inside of her helmet, so that she could “see” what she was doing. It was effective, but the sense of unreality—like painting a picture blindfolded, while someone else called out directions—unsettled her. Elena had no choice but to trust that what it was telling her was true.
Only once, in her hundreds of hours of walks, had her visor ever malfunctioned. Elena had been in her first year at Phobos Academy—every officer of the Space Agency had spent four years at Phobos, or four years as a licensed civilian astronaut—performing a solo thruster drill as the tiny moon raced through its orbit and into the sunset side of Mars. In space Elena was always intellectually aware of the vacuum, of the enormous void in which she was suspended. But it had never bothered her until that day, when her world had gone as dark as if God had flipped a switch.
The night was total. Elena had looked down, and the arms and legs that she could still feel moving beneath her had disappeared. Her body had gone and left only its phantom limbs behind. Phobos was not just unseen, but nonexistent. The world had vanished around her.
She had closed her eyes to shut out the nothingness, but that just made it worse. Soon she could feel the walls of the universe recede into the distance, leaving her alone in an emptiness so impossibly vast that the sheer size of it seemed to be crushing her. Elena had opened her eyes as wide as they could go, but the night still shrouded her. And then she had felt something else in the darkness—a panic that was swimming in the deep and rushing up to meet her.
She had known this terror before. Her father had loved the mountains, and had taken her camping every time the two of them in concert could force her mother into surrender. By then the smoke layer above the clouds had crumbled, and up there in the thin air, far from the cities, the stars were as clear she would ever see them on Earth. Elena would look straight up into the sky, into the bright and beautiful light of the night, and feel as if the galaxy had wrapped itself around her.
But one night a storm had come in before dawn, sudden and violent, and had ripped that sky from her. Elena had awoken in her tent to wind and darkness, and the flap had torn open and she could see into the outside, into the raging power that was threatening to throw her off the top of the mountain. She had waited for a bolt of lightning that never came. In her nightmares her high screams drifted into the wind and were lost.
And over the shrieking of the storm she had heard her father in the next tent, just meters away and impossible to see. He had been singing. Though the storm was strong, his low voice had slid beneath its screams and she could hear him clearly. He had been singing to her. If he had left his tent to reach her the gale might have toppled him, and who knows where he might have fallen—but he had done for her what he could.
En tu cuerpo flor de fuego tiene paloma, un temblor de primaveras…
Elena knew the song, and began to sing as well. They sang every verse in harmony, came to the end together, and returned to the beginning. It was an older song, a song that had been old when her abuelos had been young, and she had to struggle to remember the words, to keep time with him. Her voice was high-pitched and didn’t carry, and she had wondered if he could hear her.
El sol morira morira, la noche vendra vendra…
And there, singing in the dark with the wind in her ears and the rain on her face, she had fallen asleep. The next morning her father had already been cooking breakfast when she left her tent, and neither mentioned the storm.
There in the sky above Phobos, with the panic snarling and tearing at the edges of her brain, Elena had begun to sing. Her thoughts, mindlessly racing, slowed as she fought to recall the lyrics. She remembered who she was, where she was, what she was doing. The pre-planned list of maneuvers she had been given returned as she reached the second verse, and by the third Elena knew which she had performed last.
Envuelvete en mi cariño, deja la vida volar…
Still singing, Elena had taken her thruster controls and completed the drill. By the time she had been retrieved, she had already guessed what she was told next. The “malfunction” had been a test of her composure, and she had passed. What Elena hadn’t known was that everyone on her radio channel—a group which included a number of her instructors—had greatly enjoyed her singing voice.
Elena clung to
wing and looked up into the black, to where the outsiders were waiting for her, unseen. She knew that she had been right to fear the darkness. This time, the monsters were real.
Her communications circuit was open now, and both the bridge staff and the airlock operator could hear her. Elena didn’t sing. Not out loud. Instead she grabbed the next handhold, took a breath, and plunged into the nightside. Only then did she turn on her visor.
Elena clung to the missile pod with one hand. Her legs dangled before the yawning pit of the launch tube. She squinted involuntarily. Telescope 35, mounted on top of the pod, had cut out an hour earlier and had not responded to remote checks. Regulations required a visual inspection as soon as possible, but Elena could see nothing wrong through her visor. She dimmed the brightness, and a ring of fire arose in the darkness. Elena put her other hand out and felt it slip through the center, and into the void where the telescope should have been. A meteor, probably no larger than a seed of corn, had nailed a million to one shot and blown a crater in its barrel. The edges were still hot.
Elena ran one hand along the twisted metal ridges, and felt them jab against the fabric of her glove. The wound was only one of many.
was six months out from Earth, and her pearly hull, carbon skin once iridescent in the sunlight, was now tarnished and pitted by the hundreds of impacts, large and small, that occurred each day. Elena had seen ships returned to port after a long haul with craters deep enough to fit her arm to the elbow.
She squeezed the torn edges of the wound. Then she braced her legs against the pod and kicked off, and dove back up towards the sail. The sun grew stronger as she approached the access tunnel, and her illusory image of the ship faded. Elena pulled through the gap in the sail into the light, and after a brief phosphorescent battle, reality won and she could see naturally once more. She made her back along the topside hull at a steady pace.
The airlock door was a rounded bowl three meters across and sunk below the surface of the hull. Elena halted at its edge and tapped quickly at the broad graphene bracelet wrapped around her left wrist. It blinked slowly with an amber sheen that arose from within its translucent depths. Elena waited.
She raised her eyes just in time to catch the falling star. It struck the airlock door before her and exploded, and sprayed the hull with sparks of every color. Elena threw her arm out, but it was too late. A shower of blazing debris washed over her, and static flooded her visor.
When her vision cleared a moment later, the fire had disappeared and left behind nothing but a gentle light at the corners of her eyes. Elena looked down to see that she was glowing. The tiny dying embers had embedded themselves into the ribbing of her suit like diamonds in the rough, and shimmered softly against the dark blue of her polymer skin. She brushed her arm, and a trail of sparks wafted into space.
Elena’s entire body from the neck down had been wrapped in synthetic rubber, carbon fiber, and liquid armor. The spacesuit was a deep navy, heavily ridged and striated like sheets of blue muscle. Her uniform could stand up to the vacuum, space dust, and a few hours of cosmic radiation. It would even stop a bullet. But that meteoroid, as small and insignificant as it had been, would have punched through her and hammered the ship as if she hadn’t even been standing there. And in a few hours,
would be showered with projectiles much larger, much faster, and much more terrible than a mere shooting star. She was going to war.
Elena silently wished that she would live to see the sun again.
Her bracelet shone again with a soft green light, and the outer airlock door peeled open. Elena knelt and slowly fell forward into the ship, and flipped forward in free fall to touch neatly down on the inner door. She steadied herself on the rail that encircled the chamber, and looked up quickly. The airlock had already begun to close, to protect
soft innards from the same assault that had destroyed Telescope 35, and as the outer door slid shut its leading edge cast a curved shadow on the sunlit far wall. Elena kept her eyes on that light as it slowly died.
Finally it was gone, and a ringing chime and a single green light signaled that the airlock had been completely sealed.
had no windows of any kind, and that had very likely been the last sunlight she would see for the next few months.
The vents activated and began to flood the white drum of the outer lock with breathable air. Elena briefly imagined, as she always did, that she could feel the gentle breath of the currents tickling her. There was a slight popping in her ears as the pressure equalized—
air, normal Earth atmosphere, had been pumped into her helmet to replace the pure oxygen of her tank. A second green light began to burn, and told her that it was safe to come out.
Elena Gonzalez Estrella pulled off her helmet and set it aside to float at her right hand. Behind the faceplate was olive skin and dark eyes set above high cheekbones. She ran her left through her black hair, shoulder length but now pasted to her skull by the helmet, and began to comb it with her fingers. It loosened and fell, and floated around her head, as if she were underwater. Elena breathed deeply, and inhaled the acrid tang of the cosmic particles that clung to the air. The afterglow of the meteoroid had already died and left her uniform blackened and grimy.
The middle door peeled open, and Elena floated through into the inner chamber and let it close and seal behind her. The third green light flashed, and the intercom clicked.
“Captain on deck.”
Elena dropped through the inner door and caught its rim on the way down. She hung in the air for a moment as if she were dunking a basketball, and then let go and hovered in place beneath the bulkhead.
“Enjoy the fresh air, Capitan?”
Third Officer Pascal Arnaud saluted and smiled, then took her helmet to place it back on the rack beside him. He was a steward, the lowest hand on deck, drafted for airlock duty. The soft blue light that bathed the topside corridor cast an inky sheen on his dark skin. Each quarter of the ship was lit with a different hue—red and green for port and starboard, and amber for the bottom deck.
“It certainly brightened my day.”
Elena returned his salute, and favored him with a smile that she knew he needed. Arnaud had served under her for twelve months, but this, of all cruises, was his first trip outside. The crew selection process had come to an abrupt halt when
new orders had come down, and there hadn’t been time to leaven the roster with more veterans. There wasn’t a single person onboard now who hadn’t been with the ship six months ago.
Arnaud shut and dogged the airlock hatch, and smiled once more, as if he didn’t know what Elena was thinking. Out of forty five officers onboard the ship, only two people knew the whole story behind
’s hasty departure—Elena, and Pascal Arnaud. He had never spoken of it to her, and at some point she would have to begin the conversation herself.