Friday, February 16, 2007


What follows is a complete science fiction novel that was published in the 1990s. It was the last of a three book series that dealt with military intelligence in the future. It was an outgrowth of what I was doing for the Air Force in the 1980s and it reflects that.

They entire novel is published, through some of it might need to be accessed through the February 2007 archives. I wanted to publish it in order and started with the last chapters, working forward. I thought it might be too confusing for the first chapter to be at the end.

I know that some people like to know how a book comes together. Robert Charles Cornett and I were writing a short series known as "The Fifty Million Years War" (the first of which was "Seeds of War."). We have envisioned something longer and in the course of putting together one of those books, I realized that I had actually written two short novels. One took place on a water world and about halfway through that book, the action shifted to the world of The Citadel. I realized that the reader might not like that transition. Because of that, I chopped this story out of the other series (and the book which became "The Aquarian Campaign").

But when it came time to write the last of the books in what is known as the "Military Intelligence" series, I thought that his might be a good place to rewrite that part of a book I had edited out. The Citadel was born in that way.

I wanted each of the books to be stand alone, which means that if you picked up the third book first, all the information you needed to understand that story was in that book. It didn’t rely on a reader who had already read the first two books. So, as they refer to the asteroid that had trapped them, they are referring to events in the second book called "The Rat Trap". There is no need to read that book to follow the action in this one.

This book contains the complete text of the published novel, though there have been slight modifications so they do not agree exactly.

So you now have all the information you need to read this book. Enjoy.


"This, ladies and gentlemen," said the Colonel, "is our enemy."

He pointed at the holographic orb that hovered over the conference room table. It was a large ship that they had captured a few weeks before. "We know next to nothing about them," he continued, "except they are the only other living spacefaring race we have encountered."

Captain Joshua Price, known as Tree to his friends, wasn't sure the Colonel was right about using the term enemy. Price had been on the ship, a huge asteroid that had been converted into a ship by encasing it in metal and adding engines to it. As they had tried to explore it, Price and his team had been captured by it and held for testing. Of course, that was a little strong. The ship had been like a giant rat trap, letting them enter but then sealing itself so they couldn't escape. There didn't seem to be a hostile intent behind it. A yearning for knowledge, a way of exploring the galaxy using a device that was ingenius because it was not faster-than-light, but was fully automated. That seemed to be the key.

There hadn't been a biological entity on board for the purposes of regulating the testing or even designing the testing. But there had been one to repair the machinery if it broke down and the self replicating technology needed something a little more individualistic. It had been held in statis until its special skills had been needed.

Price didn't want to be in the conference room or to listen to the Colonel's briefing. He knew more about the internal workings of the "enemy" craft, of the living, intelligent creature found on board, of the whole system as anyone who in the fleet. Hell, the Colonel was reading from a report that Price had helped construct.

"We believe," said the Colonel, "based on what we've been able to learn from the computer systems and records, that the asteroid... the ship, came from a point very near the galactic center."

Price closed his eyes momentarily. There were a dozen things he'd rather be doing. He opened his eyes, turned slightly and glanced at windows, thick blocks of glass that looked out on the blackness of space. The closest stars were light years away. Some were very bright, like Venus when it was near Earth. Others were tiny points of dim light almost invisible in the thick haze of drifting hydrogen atoms and space dust.

The Colonel studied the faces of the officers around the table and saw that they were bored. He grinned and touched one of the buttons in front of him. The orb vanished in a flickering of light. An outline of an alien body appeared, filled in and then turned at the same speed that the orb had revolved earlier. It gave everyone at the table a complete view of the alien but more importantly, something new to look at.

It was a small creature with long hair from the elbows to the wrists and from the knees to the ankles. It was a feline looking creature with pointed ears and yellow eyes. Of course Price didn't have to see the holo of it. He'd seen it when if first appeared on the alien ship and then had worked with it as they tried to construct common ground for his interrogation of it.

As he watched it rotate above the table, Price thought that it didn't look like much of an enemy. There had only been one of them on the ship and it seemed to function as a maintenance man. At the moment there was absolutely no reason to call it the enemy.

"The autopsy," said the Colonel, "revealed a very simplified internal structure. It looked as if someone had taken the human body, figured the best way to restructure it, and then genetically engineered it to a specific function. One adapted to the function that it fulfilled...that is, sleeping most of the time."

Price hadn't been listening closely. He'd been wondering how soon he could get out of the meeting. There were things that he wanted to do. People he wanted to see. And then the Colonel's words sunk in.

"Autopsy?" said Price, not realizing that he had spoken out loud.

The Colonel turned his attention on Price, seemed to pin him to the chair with his gaze. He stared at Price for a full thirty sceconds and then nodded. "Yes, autopsy. I'm afraid that the creature died two days ago."

Price was going to protest, to suggest that it had been healthy enough the last time he'd seen it, and then decided to say nothing. He was not an exo-biologist, knew next to nothing about the study of anatomy and didn't know how to begin. Even with that, it didn't seem right that the alien should have died with no warning.

"Dr. James?" said the Colonel.

James stood up. He was a short man with pasty white skin and jet black hair. There were black circles under his eyes and he had thin lips that made his face look skull like. His hands shook, as if he didn't like the idea of speaking to the group of officers assembled.

He opened a folder, took a sheet of paper from it and placed it on the table in front of him. He glanced at it, looked up at the holo and said, "I have made a detailed study of the internal organization of the specimen..."

Price watched the doctor rather than listening to him. He was standing with his hands behind his back, rocking from heel to toe, speaking in the monotone that put generations of medical students to sleep and giving his information in such detail with so many technical terms that no one other than another doctor would understand it. If, however, he could stay awake long enough to hear much of it.

James wound down and the Colonel took over again. He left the holo of the alien spinning slowly above the table, talking around the problem, letting the ship's chief navigator speak, letting the astronomer speak, and adding his own comments after each.

Finally, when he had dragged it out as long as possible, the Colonel touched a button and alien vanished. He dropped back into his chair, turned so that he was staring into space and said, "A spacefaring race we don't know is a danger to us all. They may know exactly where we are but we can only guess where their home world is."

He paused dramatically and then said, "That is why we have been given a new mission. Find them and fit the if necessary, destroy them."

Chapter One

The intelligence office was a small cabin on the main deck of the flag ship. It was one of the few with a hatch that could be locked because of the nature of the work done on the other side. When Price arrived and centered himself, the hatch irised open without his having to use the combination.

Sitting at the console, her back to him, was Lieutenant Emma Coollege, know as Jackknife. She was looking up at a display screen, her fingers on a keyboard. The information was parading across the screen and was easily visible from the hatch.

"If you're reviewing classified data," said Price, "the hatch should be locked."

She glanced over her shoulder at him. She was a tall, slender woman with delicate features and short black hair, the result of a recent assignment. She was as deadly as any member of the team yet looked sweetly innocent. It was the best disguise she could have.

"I know the security regulations as well as you, Tree. I don't have to be reminded."

Price stepped deeper into the office and let the hatch iris shut. He stood looking at the array of screens attached to the bulkhead. The smaller, satellite screens were dark. Only the center screen was being used.

He dropped into the chair next to Coolledge and twisted around so that he could watch as she worked. Finally he asked, "Is that anything important?"

"No. Idle curiosity," she said. She let her fingers fall from the keyboard and looked at him. "I was trying to figure out the most likely candidates for the home world... Is there something wrong?"

"We lost our major asset."

For a moment she was confused and then said, "What happened? He escape?"

"After a fashion. He died. I just heard the results of the autopsy."

Coollege fell silent and then put her hands back on the keyboard. She cleared the data from the screen, thought for a moment and then tried to access the new data. She couldn't find it on the menu, and tried to access security files from the flag area. When that failed, she tried the medical section, science section, and finally the intell section though she knew that they had added nothing to it. Access to the intell section was strictly limited to only a few people and it seemed logical that someone else who had that access might have added the data in there.

"I find nothing here," she said.

Price had been watching. "The doctor might not have his notes input yet... or it might be under the captain's log or in the regimental commander's private logs."

"Uh-huh." She thought for a moment, glancing up at the top of the bulkhead as she concentrated and then began to type again. When the security screen flashed, she only grinned, shot a quick glance at Price, and typed in a six digit code.

"Where in the hell did you get that?"

Still grinning, she said, "I'm in intelligence and part of my job is to know these things."

The menu came up and she began to scroll through it. "Might be here."

The screen showed a coded document labeled simply, "Alien Harvest."

She opened the document and saw that it was nothing more than a report to higher headquarters detailing the finding on the alien ship, including pictures of the equipment found, the interior of the ship, and a brief look at the powerplant. It suggested where detailed information could be found under various tabs in the supporting documentation.

"Hell of a lot of work when into that," said Price.

"Nothing about the alien being."

Price leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin. He realized that he was going to have to shave soon. As a teenager he couldn't wait for his beard to form. Now it was becoming courser, darker, and the chore of shaving was beginning to annoy him. He thought about having it permanently removed but hesitated. There were still areas where beards were grown and to fit into the local population he needed to be able to grow his own.

"There is something fishy about this," said Price. "I don't like it."

"Why? Because you weren't told that the being had died?"

"That's part of it. We should have been informed immediately. And, I should have been at the autopsy."

Coollege shook her head. "You ever been to one of these autopsies?"

"Hell, this wasn't a human. Nothing to get squeamish about. I would have liked to watch just to make sure that everything was done according to the book."

Coollege laughed. "Talk about your intelligence officer getting paranoid. What in the hell are you thinking?"

"Nothing," said Price. "I just don't like relying on information supplied by others when I haven't seen the source of that information."

"I'm sure the doctor was qualified," said Coollege.

"Yeah," said Price.

Coollege turned her attention to the screen and then the keyboard. She closed the files and returned to the main menu. "I don't know where to look for the data."

"Well, we're authorized to see it, so I guess I'll ask the chief of staff where it's hidden."


"No," said Price. "It's too late for us to do anything constructive anyway. Tomorrow. At which time I'll brief both you and Rocky on the next mission."

"Let me guess," said Coollege. "We're going to make a concentrated effort to locate the alien's home world."

"How'd you know?"

"Just makes sense. We find an alien intelligence out there and the first thing we're going to want to do it learn where their home world is located."

Price didn't respond for a moment, thinking. There was nothing else he could say. The briefing in the morning would cover the mission and until that time there was nothing more to discuss.

Finally he said, "You interested in getting something to eat?"

"You know, Tree, that is the one thing we seem to do all the time. Work awhile and then you want to get something to eat."

"Is that a no?"

"It's merely a comment on the situation. It's more of 'a just a minute and let me get ready.'"

"Shut down the computer and lock up," he said, "and I'll meet you in the corridor."


Chapter Two

Rachel Susan Monier stood at the hatch on the shuttle deck, waiting for it to cycle open. She had arrived on the shuttle, having come by courier ship from Earth and had been told that she would be met. No one had met her, other than to place her on the shuttle. Now she stood at the hatch, her small duffel bag in one hand and her computer, containing her orders in the other. But no one had told her a thing other than billeting would be found outside the shuttle bay, that the regimental office was located near the bridge, and that she was now on her own. They were too busy to have someone take her up there.

Of course she hadn't needed the advice of those others about the locations of the billeting cabin or the regimental office. Even though no one had briefed her on it, she knew where they were. Just as she had known that no one would meet her at the shuttle bay or that the mission coming up would move them all from the explored section of the galaxy into an area where only a few scout ships had ever ventured and from which none had ever returned.

The hatch irised open and Monier stepped through into a dimly lighted corridor. Only a few people were walking along it and none of them looked as if they wanted a thing to do with her. They didn't even seem to see her.

She was wearing the uniform of a first lieutenant, though the rank was more honarary than real. She was a short woman, thin with jet black hair and large brown eyes. There was nothing unusual to distinguish her from any of the others in the corridor.

Without asking directions, she walked aft, studying the corridor. She reached a lift, waited, and then took it to the main deck. She exited, walked down a corridor that was brightly lighted and filled with people doing their jobs. She found the regimental office and entered.

In all the videos and holos she had ever watched, the new man reported in saluting. She stepped to the desk, glanced at the man sitting behind it, tried to salute and said, "Lieutenant Monier reporting in." She dropped her hand.

The man kept working for a moment and then slowly looked up at her. "First, you don't report to me. Second, you outrank me so there is no need to salute. And third, I'm a sergeant. You never salute a sergeant except in return."


"Orders," said the sergeant gruffly.

Monier set her duffle on the deck, shuffled through it and held out the computer disc. The sergeant tapped the desk on the right with his index finger and let her set it there. He didn't pick it up right away, but closed out the document he had been using.

"You reporting in?" he asked.

"Yes, sir."

That stopped him again. He looked up at Monier, at the silver bar on her collar and asked, "How long you been in the service?"

Monier focused her attention and began to understand. She smiled and said, "Long enough, Sergeant. I'm just overly polite to my elders. Now please do your job and let the Colonel know that I have arrived."

"Yes, ma'am." He picked up the disk, shoved it into the disk drive, and watched as the screen lit. He read the information, scrolled down and then laughed.

"I was right," he said. "You were called to active duty just three months ago."

"That's right, Sergeant, but I'm a very fast learner."

He scanned more of the information and asked, "Just what is Long Distance Data Processor? Sounds like something that should be part of the computer."

One of the few things that she had learned was to say as little about her job as she could. There were those with the need to know and those with none. "It means that I work with computers," she lied.


She stood watching as the sergeant added her to the computer data base, checked on the authorization codes embedded on the disk and then removed it from the drive. He held it out. "Here you go. I think before you meet the Colonel you should meet Captain Price. He'll be your boss."

"Price," she said.

"Nice fellow."

"Okay," said Monier. She stuffed the disk into her pocket. "Thanks."

"You go out the hatch, take the mid-lift down two stations. Intell office will be on the right. There is no sign on the door. That's how you know it's the intell office. Everything else is labeled."

"Thanks," she said again.

She left the regimental office and walked to the lift. She rode it down and saw Price leaving the office. Without being told, she knew the officer was Price.



"Good afternoon, sir. I'm Rachel Monier. I've been assigned to your office."

"Nope," said Price. "I've heard nothing about it."

"You will, sir."

Price waited until Coollege joined them and said, "You know Lieutenant Coollege?"

"Called Jackknife," said Monier.

"Right," said Price.

"You've been doing your homework," said Coollege suspiciously.

Price stood for a moment and then said, "You want to join us? We're going to get something to eat."

Monier looked at Coolledge and then at Price. "No," she said. "I think that I should get settled in first. Find my billet." That was a word she remembered someone using to describe the cabin she would use.

"If you are truly assigned to us," said Price, "then this would be a very good chance for us to get to know one another before we start in the morning."

"I believe..." started Monier.

"Join us," said Price. He turned to Coollege. "No reason for her not to join us is there?"

"Nope, Tree. None at all." Her voice had a sharp edge to it that Price ignored.

"Then it's settled."

"I need a place for my duffle."

Price waved at the hatch. "Drop it in there and we'll lock up."

"Yes, sir."

As Monier stepped around him, Coollege leaned close and said, "I thought it was just going to be just you and me tonight, Tree. I wasn't counting on reinforcements."

"She's new and is assigned to us."

"So she says."

Monier tossed her duffle through the open hatch and straighten. She was smiling broadly. "I'm ready."

"So are we," said Coollege.

Chapter Three

Randly Clark enjoyed being a scout. More often than not he was on his own, away from the fleet and in deep space, exploring areas that had only been seen by astronomers. According to the regulations, he had given numbers to the stars that weren't in the normal guides, but he was allowed to name any Earth-like planets he discovered. That was why there was a Clark's World and a Randly's Planet, and half a dozen others named after his family or his current girl friend.

Clark was not a young man by scout standards. He was just over forty and had been flying through space alone for twenty years. At first he had been bothered by the enforced loneliness but quickly grew to enjoy it. There were no commanding officers to harass him about the length of his hair or the fact he hadn't shaved. There were no early morning meetings, no rigid schedules that had to be followed and no reports to be written until he returned to the fleet. Then, most times, he could find someone who would transcribe his notes for him, or he could use a voice access computer and just talk about his trip.

During the years with the fleet, Clark had been assigned a single ship and had been allowed to modify it. That was one of the rewards for being a scout. Too many couldn't stand the lack of human companions. A deep space mission drove them to the brink. Clark didn't mind it and the modifications allowed him to take the longest of the missions. He had a library of old Earth movies, books in the computer, and a computer navigation system of his own design that allowed him to sleep twenty hours a day if the mood moved him.

So, when Clark, who had been launched with a dozen other scouts to explore the center of the galaxy finally located the enemy, he had been asleep. He had been dreaming about a steak dinner, baked potato and green salad. He'd never eaten a real steak, but had eaten salads and potatoes but he d eaten wonderful simulations of them. Or so he had been told.

He snapped awake, his attention focused on the radar display in front of him. There was a single target more than five thousand miles from him. He glanced at the navigation console and saw that the closest star system was more than four billion miles away, the star at the center a bright ball of light and off to his right.

"Okay," he said out loud and reached for the joystick. He touched a button so that he had full control of the scout ship. He pushed it to the left and began a rapid turn. He touched the thruster and shot forward, toward the small ship displayed on the radar.

With the forward view screen at full magnification, he could see that the enemy ship... or rather the unknown ship, wasn't much larger than his own. It was a fat orb with stubby wings and a clear canopy set forward. It looked nothing like a fighter or interceptor or even a space craft. It looked more like a lifting body designed to fall through atmospheres without incinerating itself. It was not like anything that belonged to any group, race or planet that he had ever encountered.

"Okay," he said again. He slowed slightly, but kept his nose pointed at the other ship. He activated the computer voice input.

"Identify craft located four thousand, six hundred miles in front of us."

"No matches found."

"Is the craft manned?"

"Insufficient data."

"Thanks for nothing," said Clark. "Did the craft come from the closest system."


"Number of planets in system?"

"Twenty-two...Six inner planets, two in the biosphere. Three that are rocks. Eleven that are gaseous giants on outer edge of the system."

Clark took a deep breath. He rubbed a hand over his face and then turned his attention to the craft. It was closer and seemed to be coming straight at him.

"Okay," he said. He turned to the right and dropped away from the enemy. "Let's see if it follows."

He activated the rear camera and watched the other ship as it blossomed with flame and turned to pursue.

"Okay," he said. "I get it."

Now he accelerated and pulled back on the stick, lifting the nose and beginning a loop. When he was pointed at the enemy ship, he rolled to the right to level out and continued to accelerate. There was no reaction from the other ship.

Clark raced forward, accelerating as he closed the distance. All sensors, radars and detectors were on. If the enemy didn't know he was there, it would soon see him. He was radiating electro-magnetic waves across the spectrum. He'd look like a small star to a radio astronomer.

"Computer, do you have a reading on any occupants of that craft?"

"Insufficient data."

"Fine. Is that craft armed?"

"Insufficient data."

Clark took a deep breath and kept the nose of his craft pointed at the enemy ship. He didn't waver, holding the stick steady and continued to accelerate, all instruments searching for additional detail.

"There is a ninety percent probability that the craft contains a single air breathing occupant."

"Thank you, computer."

Clark decided that he would buzz the enemy ship, photograph it and then make a run into the planetary system. Then, depending on what he found, he'd head back to the fleet.

"Warning! Warning! Shot detection. Shot detection. Missile has been fired."

Clark jinked right and then left and then fired a flare as he retarded the engine to cut the heat from it. "Type of missile?"

"Radar homing."

"Suppress it."

"Missile launched and homing on intruder," said the computer. "Missile running true. Interception of incoming missile in fifteen seconds...Detonation, detonation. Threat has been eliminated."

"Well, now we know," said Clark excitedly. "We'll go after him."

He pushed the stick forward into a deep dive, and continued on around, rolling out heading for the enemy. He accelerated, forcing himself back in his seat. He fired his laser knowing that the beam would be dissipated by the distance. It wouldn't have the power to punch through the enemy's ship's skin even if he managed a hit. With the laser firing, he launched two missiles, one behind the other.

The enemy ship dipped and then turned, rolling away from him. The dogfight was taking place at over three thousand miles using sensors and radar. Clark couldn't see the enemy ship visually and knew it couldn't see him.

"Beam weapon," the computer warned. "Outer hull is beginning to heat."

Clark jinked right and then left and the beam slipped off his hull. "Status of missiles," he said.

"Running hot and true. Impact in two minutes, fourteen seconds."

Clark had thought about using the enemy's own beam to aim a missile. It could ride the radiation thrown off by the beam for guidance, but that would be wasted if either of his missiles destroyed the target.

"Keep me advised of missile progress."


Clark rolled out, pointed his nose at the enemy ship again and accelerated rapidly. He wanted to close the distance between them and destroy the enemy. At the moment there was too much distance and it gave the enemy pilot too much time to react. A kid with a BB gun could take out the missiles at the distance they were fighting.

"Beam on again. Hull is heating."

Clark jinked up and twisted around, putting a different side of his ship toward the enemy. He began a slow, continuous rotation so that the beam couldn't lock onto a single point to superheat the skin of his ship to punch through it. It was the best defense.

"Two thousand, five hundred miles to enemy ship."

Clark checked the heads up display. The enemy ship was running straight toward him. The closure rate was climbing rapidly.

"Time to impact, one minute, thirty seconds. Missiles running true."

Clark watched them as they raced toward the enemy. The heads-up displayed them as pin points of light, the track marked in yellow and the enemy ship in flashing red.

"Missile destroyed," said the computer.

There was no spectacular explosion. The first missile blip just disappeared from the HUD. The track faded leaving only the second missile and the enemy ship.

"Second missile destroyed."

Clark hadn't expected either of them to get through. He just wanted the enemy to know that he had some teeth too. He continued to roll, twisting right and left, presenting a difficult target for the enemy. He fired his laser, saw it touch the side of the enemy ship and slide away.

"Distance five hundred miles."

Clark nodded, not realizing that he had. He kept his attention focused on the HUD and the enemy. It was beginning a slow turn as if to retreat into the star system.

"Two hundred fifty miles."

Clark fired the laser, aiming at the tail of the enemy ship. Numbers on the HUD told him that the skin temperature of the enemy ship was increasing rapidly. It spun away, dove straight down relative to him and rolled, breaking the beam lock.

"Fire two more missiles."

"Missiles away. One hundred miles."

The nose of the enemy ship seemed to erupt. Clark knew that it was firing at him, but he ignored it as the distance shrank. They were only fifty miles away from each other. Clark flipped a red cover out of the way and hit the button concealed under it. A spread of torpedoes flashed out. Small weapons that homed on the only heat source around. Clark made sure that it radiated heat by keeping the laser beam on it.

"Twenty miles."

Through the tiny windows of the cockpit, Clark actually saw, for the first time, the enemy. The ship was a dark color, barely visible against the backdrop of space and had they not been close to galactic center, Clark doubted he would have seen it.

"First missile destroyed," announced the computer. "Beam weapon superheating hull."

Clark aimed his ship right at the enemy and kept up the pressure with his laser. The second missile disappeared in a bright flash of light and then the first of the torpedoes struck the enemy ship. There was a flash of light near the nose of the ship, a second one a few feet behind it and then a brilliant burst of brightness at the center of the enemy craft. An explosion that was hotter than a star flared. Clark turned his head and closed his eyes.

"Enemy ship destroyed," said the computer.

Clark couldn't resist the victory roll. He aimed at the center of the expanding cloud of debris, then pulled up to fly over it and barrel rolled as he passed it. "Got you, you son of a bitch."

"Enemy craft contained two life forms," the computer announced. "Two escape pods monitored."

"Direction of flight?"

"Toward the star system. Wait one. Target planet is fourth from the star. Intercept possible."

"Life forms on board?"

"Wait one."

Clark turned toward the star system. He couldn't see any of the planets nor could he see the escape pods. They were too small and too far away.

"Probability of lifeforms in pods is twelve percent," said the computer.

For an instant Clark was confused. Why provide escape pods if not for the crew. Then he thought about the intell probes carried in his ship, that were carried by each of the scout ships. They were designed to home on the fleet rally signal and provide data in the event that his ship was damaged or destroyed and he couldn't report.

"Can we still intercept and destroy?" He was searching for the pods on the heads up.


"Plot course for intercept and destroy each of the pods when possible."

The computer didn't respond. Clark felt the ship turn and accelerate. He leaned back, scanning the instruments and then trying to see something through the tiny windows. A pinpoint of light flared and caught his attention.

"First pod destroyed. Second has entered the star system. Course is unaltered."

"Are any of the planets inhabited."

"Sensor scans reveal an industrial complex on the fourth planet."

Clark had been a scout long enough to know that the computer hadn't answered the question that he had asked. It told him that there was an industrial complex but that didn't mean the planet contained any life.

"Second pod has been destroyed."

"Decelerate," said Clark.


"I have the flight controls again," said Clark.

"Ship control relinquished."

"We will make a quiet pass at the fourth planet and then return to the fleet."

"Orders specify," the computer warned in its flat, mechanical voice, "Locate and report all spacefaring entities. The mission has been accomplished."

"I know that," said Clark. He didn't care that he was arguing with a computer. "We will check out that industrial complex first."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chapter Four

Price had decided that he was going to talk to Dr. James in person. A staff meeting with the Colonel sitting in was not the place for him to question the doctor at length. In the doctor's own office, it might be easier to learn something interesting about the alien creature.

Price walked down the corridor where the red lights burned signalling that the night shift was still working. He stopped outside the morgue. The hatch irised open and bright light spilled out into the corridor. Price entered, surprised to see the staff working so late.

There was an anticeptic cleanliness to the interior. The floors were of polished metal, as were the bulkheads. Clusters of lights were mounted over the autopsy tables. Silver shelves held bottles, flasks, and instruments. White cabinents displayed stainless steel instruments. Other instruments were placed by the autopsy tables waiting to be used.

One of the women broke away from her work and walked to meet him. She wore a bloodstained white smock and a surgeon's mask. In her right hand she held a knife.

"What can I do for you?"

"What's going on down here?"

"Is that any business of yours?"

Price shook his head. "No, not really. I was looking for Dr. James."

"He's off duty now. What did you want of him?"

Price studied the eyes over the mask. They were bright blue eyes of a shade he'd never seen. She had light blond hair that was as fine as any he'd seen. The slightest motion of her head set it moving.

He fumbled for words and then said, "The autopsy on the alien creature. I wanted to review the notes made on it."

"Mainframe should have it."

"I checked and couldn't find it."

"Then it's classified and if you don't have the codes, then you must not be authorized to see it." She turned.

"Wait," said Price. "Of course I'm authorized. I'm authorized to see everything."

She turned back to face him and pulled down the surgeon's mask. Her mouth was wide and her lips were thin. Hers was not the classic beauty promised by the eyes and the hair and Price wished that she hadn't pulled down the mask. He'd have preferred to let him mind fill in the image.

"Who are you?"

"Price. Military Intelligence. I need access to that material to properly complete my mission."

"Okay, Price, Military Intelligence, come with me and we'll see what we can find."

Price followed her to one of the offices to the side. She turned on the lights and entered, dropping into a chair near the computer. She powered it up, watched the screen, typed in her access code and finally, she typed in a number and rocked back, letting the computer search for the material she wanted.

When the screen brightened, she pushed on the side of the monitor so that Price could see it. "Tell me what you want to see."

"Cause of death if it could be determined."

She put her fingers on the keyboard and typed.

"Nothing," said Price.

She pulled the monitor around and said, "Must be something. Has to be. Damn. That is strange."
"Why wouldn't there be a cause of death listed."

She looked at him and said, "Could be any one of a number of reasons including that we don't know. It was an alien, after all. Maybe we just couldn't understand why it died."

"What's the file tell you."

She watched the screen as she scrolled through the data, shaking her head. "This is not complete. Some interesting diagrams... hell, this thing didn't have much in the way of a digestive system. The reproductive system doesn't seem to exist. At least I can't see it. Looks like God didn't complete this one before he turned it loose." She looked up at Price. "I didn't do the work on this so I can only guess."

"Is the autopsy complete?"

"Meaning is it ended or was there something left out?"

"I mean, if you had conducted it is there something you would have done that hasn't been?"

She shook her head. "No, doesn't look like it. There are scraps of information missing, but that might be because we're dealing with an alien lifeform. We don't want to draw conclusions without the proper evidentiary base."

Price took a deep breath. "Then you say there is nothing left out."

"Not that I can see. Is there something specific that you're looking for?"

Price sat back, on the corner of the desk and looked at the data on the screen. It meant next to nothing to him yet there was something about the whole thing that bothered him. Unfortunately, he couldn't think of a way to ask the question, or even what the question might be.

"I was just wondering if there was anything irregular about the autopsy."

"Nothing that I can see based on what we have here." She touched a button and let the screen go dark. "Looks to be a very good autopsy."

"Okay," said Price. "I'm surprised, but I bow to your superior knowledge on this."

"Any time. Anything else you need?"

"What happened to the body. Was it destroyed?"

"Oh, hell no. You don't destroy a unique biological sample. You store it for further research."

Price nodded and then said, "There was another alien species found on the ship...all dead. I mean another intelligence species. Anything on that?"

"Not here. That would be over in exo-biology. We're only interested in the recent dead. Those bodies that we get to play with."

Price stood up. "Thanks."


Price left the office and walked to the hatch. When it irised open, he stepped through. The lights in the corridor were now brighter. The new day was beginning. As the hatch shut behind him, Price couldn't help but feel he'd been a victim of a fast shuffle.

Chapter Five

When Coollege entered the intell office, Monier was already there with the regimental chief of staff. Major Ralph Reynolds was standing at the console pointing out the controls. There was one document displayed on the center screen, the red top secret labels flashing brightly.

"Excuse me," said Coollege coolly, "but this is not authorized."

Reynolds completed what he was doing, punched the enter button and then said, "I am providing Lieutenant Monier with a rundown on the operation in here."

Coollege took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Major, this is a classified operation. The hatch is locked for a reason."

"I am cleared, as is Lieutenant Monier."

"That is not the point. And you may not be cleared for everything that we have in this office or to which we have access. Much of it concerns operations of the ship which is outside your area of ship operations. You are not supposed to be in here unless one of the people assigned to the office is present."

Reynolds turned around and stared at Coollege. "Lieutenant, I outrank you and I will thank you to remember that."

"Sir, you are in violation of a half dozen military regulations and security requirements. Not only those of this office but the regiment and the fleet. If you would like to push the matter, I'm sure the provost marshal would be interested in this. You left the hatch unlocked with top secret material prominantly displayed on the main screen and easily visible from the corridor."

Reynolds stood up and it looked as if he was in a rage. His face was red, eyes narrowed, and the veins throbbed in his forehead. And then he laughed. "Of course, Lieutenant. You are absolutely right and I apologize. I should have waited until you were here but the Colonel wanted to have Lieutenant Monier up to speed as quickly as possible."

"Yes, sir."

"If you'll take over."

"Yes, sir."

Reynolds moved to the hatch but stopped before it irised open. "Lieutenant Monier, the Colonel will meet with you for lunch. Please don't be late."

"No, sir."

When Reynolds disappeared, Coollege said, "I'm very sorry about that but the security regulations are very clear on the point."

"You are not sorry," said Monier.

"How would you know?"

"Trust me. I know."

"Just what in the hell are you doing here?" asked Coollege. "You don't seem to have the proper military training. I noticed last night that there are little things..."

"I have only been on active duty for a short period. I have some unique talents that were thought to have benefits in intelligence operation."

"Just what do you do?"

Monier sat down and scratched her head. "That is a question that I answer for only a few people...but I guess you'd be one of few."

Chapter Six

Price returned to the intell office and found Coollege and Monier sifting through the various records concerning the alien ship and the being on it. He watched them for a moment and then walked forward. To Coolledge, he said, "Is she authorized to see all this?"

"Sure, Tree." She picked up a disk and waved it at him. "Complete access to everything we have. Full clearances, confirmed through the ship's office and the regimental headquarters. I could back track it to Earth but tht would take forever."

Turning to Monier, he said, "I hope you understand the reason for asking."

"Yes, sir."

"Have you spotted anything that we have overlooked?" He took the last available chair.

"No, sir. Not yet."

"Tree," said Coollege, "there is something you should know about Rachel."

"No there isn't," said Price. "I have been briefed by the Colonel. My only question is..."

Monier broke in. "Sorry to interrupt, Captain, but the answer is yes. I really can, though the farther the distance, the more difficult the task. And no, I don't invade privacy. I'm not really sure how to describe it easily. Let me just say you can block me if you want."

Price sat for a moment, trying to think. "I'm trying to think of how to ask this."

Monier said, "I can read the surface thoughts but I can't get much deeper than that. I suppose, if I practiced, I could learn to do it, but I have no desire to penetrate that deeply into the human mind."

"So you can read thoughts."

"To a point. But I think my job here is to... see what I can tell from the alien artifacts. To see if I can influence their thinking process by creating random displays for them, and to inhibit their computer functions."

Price shook his head as if to clear it. "Let me have that again?"

"Mental energy," said Monier, "is electrical in nature. As you know, static electricity can cause a computer to introduce random errors. Of course, those are random errors. What we have practiced, on Earth, is to introduce specific errors or to create specific responses on the sensor apparatus. I have practiced this as well and can influence the programming."

She stopped to see if he was still listening and continued, "I have been able to induce specific hallucinations in a cross section of population. Again, I believe it relates to the electrical activity of the brain. And, the electrical nature of thought."

She waited to see if he was going to protest her theory. When he didn't, she added, "I can, sometimes, determine facts from holding objects or clothing that belonged to the subject. I think, based on all that, I can determine some facts about the alien objects."

"If true you could be a very valuable asset to this office," said Price. His voice said that he didn't believe it.

"It's true, Captain. I have been reviewing the records of the alien ship for the last several weeks...before I arrived here. I'm intriqued by that race you found there. The ones that were all dead, trapped as you were."

"Have you learned anything?"

"No, sir, but then I just got here. If I could handle some-thing from them, I might be able to read them better. I might be able to tell you something."

A thought occurred to Price. "Have you tried to locate the home world of the builders of the asteroid?"

"Yes, sir. We have access to a number of artifacts from it and to all the video and holo of it. I'm afraid that we couldn't get much other than it was from the close to galactic core."

"Hell," said Price. "I could have told you that. This is beginning to sound like the psychics from the past. Could tell you all about your life but couldn't give you the winning lottery numbers or who would win the Super Bowl."

"It's not like that," said Monier evenly. "The readings have been unable to provide us with that data at this time. That's one of the reasons I'm here. Maybe if I board the asteroid I can pick up something."

Still skeptical, Price said, "Sure."

"Think of it as one more tool in your arsenal. You don't throw out a rifle because the rifleman misses once in a while. You use it when it fits into the framework of the circumstances."

"Okay," said Price. "I didn't mean to be rude. If you can help us improve our operation, welcome aboard."

"Thank you, Captain."

"Now, is everyone hungry or is it just me. I haven't had any breakfast yet."

"Is that all you people do? Eat? Why don't you all weigh a ton?"

"Because," said Coollege, "we often get sent out to alien planets and we lose all the extra weight we've gained."

"Let's lock up and eat. Then we can get down to work."

"Yes, sir."

Chapter Seven

Clark wasn't sure how he was going to approach the planet. It was obvious a space faring race, proven by the orb that had intercepted him, inhabited the place. The question that had to be answered was if the orb had been a normal picket, out there searching for other space craft or had it been sent up to investigate him specially. Was their detection ability so good that they could spot his tiny ship while it was still in deep space nearly a light year away?

"Give me a visual on the planetary system," he told the computer.

The computer didn't answer but displayed the system on the HUD, showing the inner planets in red, except for the two in the biosphere which were bright blue, and the outer, gas giants in bright green. Pinpricks of light, an dim orange, showed the assorted debris in orbit around all planets.

"Indications of intelligence?"

An arrow appeared pointing to the fourth planet. The computer voice said, "No radiation detected. It is not a radio source."

"Any indications at all?"

"Large scale structures. Atmosphere is nitrogen oxygen without the abundant traces of carbon dioxide that would be indicative of carbon based life."

"Has it been abandoned?" asked Clark.

"Insufficient data."

"Flight time to planet?"

"Under current speed, eighteen hours, thirty-five minutes. Under masking, twenty-two hours, fifteen minutes. Fastest approach could be made in nine hours, four minutes."

"Plot quickest and the masked, and display."

"Course is laid in."

Clark studied the data, decided the enemy already knew he was near, and punched in the quickest course. Satisfied with that decision, he said, "Initiate."

Again there wasn't a verbal response. The engines kicked him, pushing Clark back into his seat. Outside the cockpit nothing changed. It was as if he was sitting still, hovering in space.

Then slowly, the star began to brighten and it was obvious that the ship was slipping deeper into the system. The gas giants, which had been faint points of light grew into blue green balls, tiny pinpricks of brightness near them showing the locations of the satellites. One planet had a network of rings that rivaled that of Saturn. Another had a smaller, dimmer set of rings that looked incomplete.

Clark watched one of them slide by. There was no evidence of any type of outpost it, or on any of them. No lights, no radiation, nothing. Just a big glowing ball of gas orbiting the star.

"Indications of intelligence?" asked Clark again.


That seemed to make no sense, but then, if Earth was abandoned, there would be the cities, filled with machines that would continue to operate, some of them repairing other machines or the buildings. No human life was required now that the machines had been built. At least no humans would be required for a thousand years or more.

"Scan space near us. Any other ships?"

"Scan complete. Nothing sighted."

Clark took a deep breath and rubbed his face. He scratched at his head. It didn't make any sense. It could be that radio was so old fashioned that they no longer used it. They'd found another way to communicate.

"Continue toward the fourth planet."

The computer said nothing.

They continued on their path, the fourth planet slowly edging around until it was centered on the nose of his ship. There was nothing spectacular about it. The color ran toward a dull reddish tan. Three moons circled it.

"Signs of a space port?"

"Negative. One city located at the north pole. Supporting highways toward the equator but no detectable signs of traffic along them. Underground communication system linked to the major complex at the pole."

"Record all this."


Clark watched the heads up, looking for anything unusual but found nothing. No craft were launched, no sensors turned toward him, nothing at all.

He kept his attention focused on the planet as it came closer. No lights appeared on the dark side. Nothing to indicate civilization.

The surface changed until he could see continents and oceans, and then lakes and rivers and mountains. No signs of any cities except for the giant one at the top of the world. Not the best place for humans, but then, no there was no evidence that humans lived there.

The computer chimed and announced, "Sensors indicate that life forms on the planet's surface."

"At the pole."

"Okay," said Clark. "Let's slow down now. Give me a parking orbit twenty thousand miles above the surface. Keep recording all incoming data."


"Give me a magnified view on the heads-up."


Clark studied the image. It was tilted and exaggerated because of the angle and the range. He could detect no movement anywhere on the planet's surface but that didn't surprise him. To see something move, even at full magnification would have meant that a mountain was adrift.

The tans of the planet's surface gave way to a volcano ring at the southern edges of the giant city. The city itself was a chocolate brown. Although it was in the twilight zone of the planet, there were no lights.

"We have been swept by strong sensor probes."

Clark nodded but didn't speak.

They slipped into the parking orbit, looking down of the surface of the planet. The city was made of thousands of concentric rings with roads radiating out from the center like the spokes of wheel. As they moved out farther, more roads were added so that the distance between the streets remained about the same.

"Sensor sweep again," announced the computer. "Electrical activity increasing."

"I thought you said they didn't use radio," said Clark.

"Affirmative. Identification of shielded wiring carrying heavy electrical impulses. No sign of normal radio communications."

"Great," said Clark. "Have to ask the right questions to get answers around here."

"Sensors have locked onto our craft."

Clark didn't like the sound of that. He glanced out the tiny window but that told him nothing. The data was parading across the HUD. There was no way he could tell if it was a weapons system that locked on, a landing beam designed to assist in descent, or something else. Something that was more menacing.

"Record and then let's break orbit."


Clark continued to study the HUD. Red lights began to appear all over it, showing the locations of potential weapons. The outer ring seemed to bristle with them. The center was nearly all red, suggesting that something there had to be protected. Something considered important was there.

At that moment, as beams began to flash, the ship accelerated, the beams falling away. Some swung toward him, touching the rear of the ship and then slipped off as he jinked right and left and continued to climb out.

"Missile launched," announced the computer.

"Will it catch me?"

"Insufficient...negative. It is falling away."

Clark turned his attention from the HUD to the tiny cockpit windows. He watched as one of the moons slipped past him and noticed a flash of light on the surface of it, near the twilight zone.

"Missile launched," said the computer.

"Evade it."

The ship accelerated suddenly, shoving Clark into his seat. A curtain of black slipped down, over his eyes and he was looking down a long, thin tunnel. Slowly his vision came back.

"Missile evaded. Falling away."

"Sweep the system in front of us. Any indications of enemy ships?"


"Let's just keep accelerating."

Now that they had moved away from the planet and its moons, the sensation of speed was gone again. Clark refused to look out the windows, but watched the distant build as measured by the HUD. He was racing from the enemy system, about to hit light speed.

"Target located directly in front."

"On the heads up."

It appeared as a tiny flashing light centered on the HUD. The distant to it was just over seven thousand miles. It appeared to be trying to intercept.

"Target type?"

"Insufficient data."

Clark couldn't believe that the object was anything other than another enemy ship. It looked as it was coming at him. And that, be definition, made it an enemy. Anything coming at him was the enemy until he identified is as friendly. That wouldn't happen here, he was sure of that. He put his hands on the controls.

"Second target located."

"On the heads up."

As the new target appeared, a third followed quickly and then a fourth. They were spread across the sky, arranged so that one of them would be in a position to intercept him no matter what he did or how he tried to escape. The others would be in a position to back up if he engaged anyone. He could always retreat toward the sun, but if they had been able to get in front of him, there would be a line on the other side of the star ready to intercept. They could even launch from the planet's surface and still have a good chance of intercepting him.

"How long before I can engage the closest target?"

"At current acceleration, four minutes."

"Course to closest contact. Fire missile as soon as we're at maximum range. I have the controls."

Clark closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He wiped his hands on the his shirt and then gripped the controls. He watched the distance on the HUD shrink. The enemy ship, an orb just like the one he had encountered entering the system, was a small pulsating light on the HUD.

He raced toward the enemy ship, the numbers on the HUD unwinding rapidly. As soon as he was in range with his missiles, the computer locked on the target and fired. Through the tiny window, he could see the pinpoint of light that marked the missile's rocket motor. It faded from sight and he watched the track of the missile and the orb on the heads up. Thirty seconds later, far short of the target, the missile detonated.

Clark took that as his cue. He shoved the stick forward, dived low and turned toward the right, away from the path that would take him back to the fleet. He kept an eye on the HUD, watched the enemy ships. The farthest from him took no action, but the three closest turned with him, diving to meet him. He hit a button and dropped a spread of glowing flares.

He accelerated again, pushing for light speed. He kept his attention focused on space in front of him. Safety was there, if he could break out of the system.

"Missile fired."

"Rear view on the HUD."

Only two of the enemy ships showed, both aimed right at him. The missile was a tiny point with a yellow tail. It didn't seem to be closing the distance.

"How soon to light speed?"

"Transition in two minutes."

Clark grinned. He was going to win again. He kept the stick shoved forward, watching the enemy ships as they fell farther astern. The missile trail flashed and faded as the weapon stopped accelerating, its fuel was exhausted. Evading it was no longer a problem. But the closest of the enemy ships fired a spread of missiles. Four of them designed to prevent him from turning back on them for the moment. Clark wasn't worried by the tactic.

"Give me a spread of mines across our trail."

"Mines dispersed. Transition of light in one minute, thirty seconds."

But Clark wasn't interested in that. He was watching the enemy orbs as they shot forward, at the string of mines that he'd laid. The lead ship passed close to one and it detonated, the fire ball growing brightly to engulf the enemy. A secondary explosion flared and faded. The enemy was gone, now only a growing cloud of debris.

"Transition to light in one minute."

The remaining two enemy ships kept coming. One fired another missile but it malfuntioned, spinning off to the left and detonating suddenly. The second enemy ship seemed to decelerate and began to fall away. It could no longer keep up with the chase through the system.

"Their equipment sucks," laughed Clark.

"Ten seconds to light speed."

Clark braced himself, felt a slight shutter in the ship and everything outside shifted suddenly, blurring to the red. As he crossed over, he began a long, louping turn back toward the fleet. The HUD was clear, the enemy ships having been left behind him.

"Distance to system end," said Clark.

"One minute. Distance to the fleet now four days."

"Let's just keep accelerating."

Chapter Eight

Price held the plastic envelope out and said, "I almost had to sign my life away to get this. It has been put through the decontamination process. No evidence of any biological contamination. It's safe for us to handle."

Monier took the bag from him but didn't open it. She held it up to the light and examined it. "This came from the uniforms of the aliens?"

"Those we found inside the ship. They didn't build it. I think they were trapped like us. You think you'll be able to read anything from it?"

She dropped to the console and studied it. "I should be able to pick up something." She leaned forward, her elbows on either side of the plastic bag.

"We have drawn some conclusions based on what we saw while on the ship."

"I don't want to know it," said Monier. "Not at the moment. I don't want to be influenced."

"Okay," said Price.

Monier pushed the bag with a finger and then opened it, but didn't reach in. She pushed it around carefully, gingerly, as if she expected it to suddenly come alive. "I can't tell much about it."

Price didn't respond.

Finally she picked up the bottom of the bag and shook the patch out of it. It dropped on the console. She touched it with a fingernail and then sat bolt upright. Her eyes glazed over and she threw her head back.

"Fear!" She shouted the word and then fell silent.

"What's happening?" asked Price.

"Quiet," she hissed. She now held the patch clasped in both hands. Her eyes were closed and her head tilted back. "There is something in there with them... something that followed them from the surface of their planet."

"That explains where it came from," said Price but this time Monier didn't respond to him.

"We can't get out," she said almost hysterically. "We can't get out! Help me!"

Price stood up and moved away from her, watching her. Her face had turned bright red and she was tugging at the collar of her uniform with a finger hooked just inside it.

"We're running out of air. Can't breath."

That had been what Price had thought when he'd found the bodies on the alien asteroid. They had all suffocated. It was obvious that they had died never realizing there was a breathable atmosphere on the asteroid, but that was not what he wanted to know. He wanted to learn what he could about the race that had been trapped inside it. Where'd they come from. The level of their civilization. Their military capabilities... the very details of their personal lives, the way they interacted with one another could be left to the exo-anthropologists and sociologists and others. Military intelligence was what he was after.

At first, Price wasn't sure how to react to Monier's display. Then he realized that Monier was not under hypnosis or in a drug-induced trance. He could ask his questions without fear of breaking her concentration or disrupting her train of thought.

"How'd they get to the asteroid?"

"Came into our system. Astronomers spotted it. Tracked it as it neared our home. It came into orbit around our planet. Missiles fired at it disappeared..."

"Do you have interstellar flight?" asked Price, not realizing that he had slipped into interrogating Monier as if she was one of the aliens.

"We can travel inside our system. To our moons and the closest of the planets. We do not leave our system. Faster than light travel is not possible and the distances are so vast."

Questions blossomed in his mind. Hundreds of them. History questions. Military questions. Lifestyle questions. Suddenly he was caught up in the situation. He had a conduit into a new and unexplored civilization.

"We're going to die," she wailed. "There is nothing we can do but sit here and die." She fell silent and then said, "At least the Tramoi will die with us."

"Tramoi?" asked Price.

"A predator..."

She went on to describe it, but Price was no longer interested in it. He had seen the tramoi and had helped kill it. It was nothing more than an animal... with a cunning and slyness that made it dangerous, but it didn't have rational thought as he understood it. It wasn't an intelligent, tool building creature.

He didn't want his attention diverted. There were things that he had to find out and most important among those things was to learn was how long ago did they reached the asteroid. A race that didn't have space flight a hundred years ago might have developed it by now. That was the critical question.

"How long ago did the asteroid penetrate your system?"

She said something that made no sense to Price. And then he realized that she was saying that the asteroid had been traveling at under the speed of light. A general survey of the surrounding star systems, as had been launched by the Colonel, should locate that race quickly, though there was no reason for speed. They were stuck in their own system and posed no threat to the fleet or to the Earth. That is, if what she said was accurate and in the time for the asteroid to travel from their system to his had been so short that the aliens hadn’t discovered interstellar flight.

"There is blackness," she said, interrupting his train of thought.

Price was momentarily confused and then asked, "You're getting all that from the patch?"
Monier ignored the question. "I'm not scared any more. The Tramoi won't be able to kill me. I'll be dead in a short time."

Price knew that they'd be able to brief the Colonel now. He had the information that he needed to create an informative briefing.

Monier shook herself, and opened her eyes. She looked around like she had just awakened. Sweat was beaded on her forehead and stained her uniform. Her hair was plastered to her head, looking as if she had just stepped from the shower. She slumped back into the chair and took a deep breath. She wiped the sweat from her face.

"I didn't expect that. Death always impresses the images so vividly."

"Any idea how long they have been dead?"

Monier shook her head, her breathing still ragged, as if she'd run a long distance. "A while. No way to tell. Images fade with time and these were very crisp, but that doesn't really mean much."

"We have to put together a briefing for the Colonel about these... beings."

"They're no threat to us," said Monier. "They fear that creature, that tramoi, but have the power to wipe it from the face of their planet. They don't because they believe that everything has its role in the universe and to destroy a creature because it is dangerous or because they fear it is a crime against..." She stopped talking for a moment and then said, "I guess the best word would be God."

"Interesting," said Price.

"I'll need to give some of this to the anthropologists," said Monier.

"First we let the Colonel have a look. Prepare a classified briefing for him."

"Of course."

"The danger lies in the direction of the builders of the asteroid," said Price.

"I think so."
Price fell back in his chair then laughed. "This is a hell of a way to gather intelligence. I'm not sure of how much of it I accept."

Monier took offense. "You will find that about ninety percent of the information I gave you is accurate. As accurate as it can be considering I have to deal with an alien mind to get it. This technique has been well documented by scientists on Earth. This is a legitimate method of gathering data."

"It still seems fanciful to me," said Price.

"But you're going to report to the Colonel."

"Of course. I'm not going to reject a source of information just because I find it a little unusual. We'll brief him as soon as possible."
"Yes, sir."

Chapter Nine

Price, stripped to the waist, with a towel around his neck, sat on his cot in his tiny cabin and wondered just what the hell was next. First he is captured by an alien space craft, manages to escape, and then he is presented with an officer whose claim to fame seemed to be a psychic ability. An ability apparently endorsed by higher headquarters. If they hadn't believed the skill was real or that the information was accurate, she'd still be on Earth. Her orders attested to the faith placed in her by the officers at headquarters.

There was a quiet chime and Price glanced at the hatch. He stood up and touched a button so that the hatch irised open. "Come on in."

Coollege did as told and said, "I can come back later if you're busy."

Price rubbed the towel over his head, almost as if his hair was wet. He tossed the towel to his cot and asked, "What can I do for you?"

"What's the real story on this Monier?"

"I thought we had covered that."

"There are rumors floating around the ship. There are a lot of very worried people."

Price grabbed a shirt and put it on but didn't bother to button it. "What are they worried about?"

Coollege turned her back and stared down into the tiny sink as if there was something fascinating trapped in it. Without looking at Price, she said, "It's that mind reading thing. I think I understand it. Hell, Tree, we all have secrets, fantasies, things we've done that we're afraid others will learn. They're afraid that all their dirty little secrets will be exposed."

Grinning boardly, Price said, "What could you possibly have hidden in your past that you don't want anyone to know, Jackknife?"

"It's all relative, isn't it. Things that might not embarrass you could embarrass me."

"I spent most of the day with her and she didn't read my mind."

"How do you know?"

Price sat down on his cot and thought about it. "I don't know. But then, she explained all this to us."

"And you believe it?"

"For the moment, yes. But even if she can read deeply, there isn't anything that I can do about it. She's assigned to our office and I don't have the authority to get rid of her unless she violates security."

"Tree, this really scares me."

Price studied her. "Why?"

"I've tried to explain it. Hell, do you want someone else looking into your brain? The Colonel says something stupid and you know it's stupid but do you want that thought available to him.
Or maybe you don't like someone because of his color. You want that out. That you have a racist bend to your nature. Or that you don't like working with women because you think they get their positions with their bodies. Or..."

"I get the picture," he said holding up his hand to stop her. "I still don't see the problem."

"I don't want someone around who has that ability."

Price hung his head and stared at the deck under his feet. He'd just watched Monier come up with a picture of life on another planet based solely on her impressions from a scrap of cloth. What he didn't know was if that picture was accurate. If it was, that meant her ability was probably real. If not, it meant the whole thing was a parlor trick that had no relevance to his operation or to his life.

"We don't know that she can read minds," repeated Price.

"But if she can?"

"I don't know," he said. "You're basing everything on speculation."

"So you're going to let it go."

"Let's just say that I'm going to wait and see. There's nothing else to do. At the moment."

Coollege stood there silently and then said, "We going to get something to eat?"

Price rubbed his neck and looked up at her. "You sure you want to eat?"

"At the moment, yes. I want to eat."

"Okay, we can go eat." Price buttoned his shirt and tucked it in. He glanced around the cabin to make sure that everything was secure and that he was leaving nothing out that had to be put away. Satisfied, he said, "Let's go."

Chapter Ten

The dining facility, which had once been called a mess hall, would have rivaled a fancy restaurant on Earth. It was filled with tables with sparkling white clothes on them. Red napkins were standing on each plate of fine china. The silverware was gleaming and the glasses were crystal clear. Two of the bulkheads had been paneled with dark wood from the rain forests on Earth. Another of the bulkheads was a real time holo of space outside the ship. Drifting in formation around them was the rest of the fleet.

Price found a table and sat down. He took the folded napkin, shook it out and place it in his lap. When Coollege was settled, he said, "You really want to eat."

"Now that we're here, why not?"

Price turned and watched the shifting the fleet as it moved. The backdrop of stars, some of them brilliant white, others orange and yellow and red, didn't seem to be moving at all. Had the fleet been ocean going vessels, it would have seemed they were at anchor. In space, with the distances so vast, it seemed they weren't moving at all.

Coollege followed his gaze and asked, "Why are we at sub- light speed."

"Searching," said Price. "Scouts are out, searching for the enemy. No reason to burn up fuel in faster than light without knowing where we're going."

"Galactic center," said Coollege.

"That's a huge target. Better to poke along at sublight than waste the fuel."

Coollege took her napkin and examined it. "Sometimes," she said, "I just don't understand what in the hell is going on. We could have bare tables, paper napkins and metal dishes..."

"Morale," said Price. "Gives everyone a feel of importance. And besides, paper napkins are wasteful but cloth ones can be recycled endlessly. Makes more sense than a paper stock that would either have to be dumped into space or stored on board to be recycled later."

"They think of everything," said Coollege.

"You can bet there is some bean counter sitting on the Colonel's staff who makes sure that we are operating on the lowest possible budget. Certainly don't want to waste a nickel."

"The taxpayers are probably happy with that attitude."

Price looked at her and asked, "You really want to get into this?"


"Well, things have been sailing along smoothly but you've just opened a can of political worms. There are times when the bean counters, insisting on the cheapest course, end up causing us to waste a lot of money."

"No, Tree, I don't want to get into this. I'd like to know just one example of the bean counters opting for the cheapest and then costing money."

"Replacement parts," said Price. "You buy the cheapest machine and the contractor, knowing that he is going to lose money on the deal also knows that he can make it back with spare and replacement parts."

"I had't thought of that."

Price grinned broadly. "Sometimes, late at night, in my cabin, I think about that...and that this ship was built by the lowest bidder. If we blow up in space, who's going to know the reason why. We just blew up."

"Thank you for that lovely thought," said Coollege. "I know that I'll sleep better tonight for knowing that."

A shadow fell across the table and when they looked up, Monier said, "I thought I'd find you here."

Coollege looked disgusted. She kept her eyes focused on the table.

Monier asked, "Why are you angry?"

"You knew we'd be here. Knew it. Not thought it. And if you can't read minds, how'd you know what I was thinking?"

"I don't know what you're thinking," said Monier. "I could see that you were angry. You body language shouted it to me. You don't have to be psychic to see it."

Price laughed and waved a hand. "Join us. Jackknife will get over her mad quick enough."

"No, Captain, thank you. I think that I'll just go back to my quarters." She turned and walked stiffly from the dining hall.

"Nicely done, Jackknife. There was no reason for that," said Price.

"Maybe not, but at least we get to eat our dinner alone."


Chapter Eleven

He had outrun their chase ships, dodge them and outfox them as he had jinked and danced through their star system. He'd left them far behind him wondering exactly what he was going to do next and what his destination could be.

As soon as he was sure that they weren't in pursuit, he begin a long, looping turn, and headed for the fleet. He'd found the answer to the question. He'd found a spacefaring race that guarded its system with firepower and even if it wasn't the one for which they searched, it was a hostile one. It was an enemy.

Once he knew he was clear, Clark sank back in the seat, lowered the back so that he was nearly stretched out flat, and then scanned the HUD. Nothing of importance showed anywhere near him.

He reached out and touched a button. The HUD disappeared, replaced by a holographic display warning him that duplication of the copyrighted material was punishable by a stiff fine and more than a year in prison. He wondered how they would find out that he had made an unauthorized copy of the holo and then how they would prosecute him if they did. And a year in prison didn't frighten him.

He dimmed the cockpit lights, engaged the computerized automatic pilot with the course to the fleet plotted, and sat back to watch. The warning faded into a six inch high woman dancing slowly. She was joined by a man and together they disappeared. The story was about to begin.

It was a silly story of a man about to be launched into space and who wouldn't return for more than two years. A story of separation and how the man and the woman lived with that problem. And while he thought it silly, there was nudity in it, and that was one of the criterion he used to judge a holo. As long as he got to see some flesh, the story didn't mean much.

But the story was so silly that he couldn't stay awake. He fell asleep and didn't awaken until the computer chimed. He noticed the holo was replaced by the HUD.

"Target approaching."


"Rock and metal. Sensors indicate it to be natural."

"You woke me to tell me that... avoid it."

"Action initiated. Target to the starboard. Range is two thousand meters."

Clark looked out the window and thought that he could see the asteroid but wasn't sure. It was too dark.

"I assume that there is no one aboard that rock."

"Negative biological indications."

Clark straightened up and raised the back of his seat. He scrubbed his face roughly with both hands and then stretched as much as he could in the confined area of the cockpit. "Distance to fleet?"

"Twenty-seven hours at current speed."

"Let's punch it up," said Clark. "I want to get there as quickly as possible."


Clark scanned the HUD and found it clear. He lowered the rear of his seat again and said, "I don't want to be awakened for natural phenomenon. Evade it and return to course. I want to be at the fleet as quickly as possible."


Clark leaned back and then closed his eyes. There was no sensation of motion, just the quiet sounds of the craft in space. The hum of the computer circuits, the pinging of the sensors as they searched for the enemy or anything that might be in his way, and the groaning of servos as they kept the ship on the proper course.

Normally he couldn't hear the sound or ignored them. At the moment they were comforting, letting him know that the ship was functioning properly. They relaxed him just as the ticking of a clock somethings relaxed small animals.

When he awakened, the HUD showed nothing new. He was still in deep space away from planetary systems and artificial ships. He scanned the other instruments and found nothing of interest there.

"Distance to the fleet?"

"One hour."

"Show me on the HUD."

A series of flashing yellow lights appeared. The distance in miles was shown, as well as the flying time. Clark rubbed his hands together, moved his seatback to the full upright position and said, "I have the controls."


"Activate the IFF so that they know who we are."


Clark settled in to watch as the numbers on the HUD wound down as the distance to the fleet slipped away. He kept his hand on the control stick though there was no reason for it. There was nothing for him to hit. But sitting in the cockpit, controlling the ship, made him feel as if he was doing something important and that helped keep him awake.

"Time to decelerate from light," announced the computer.

"I know," snapped Clark. He pulled back on the throttle but there was no immediate change. The the stars seemed to come into focus and Clark was sure that he felt a shifting in his stomach as slipped through transition from light speed to sublight.

"Give me a view of the fleet."

On the HUD the first of the ships appeared. It was a distant speck barely visible against the backdrop of space. He punched it up and got his first good look at the fleet. The flagship was hidden in the middle of the formation. It was no larger than any of the others. There was nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the fleet. Nothing that would cause an enemy to notice it.

"Begin the landing sequence," said Clark.


His computer was now communicating with the computer in the landing bay of the flagship. All he had to do was obey the instructions on the HUD for landing. It was almost like the computer simulations used to teach the technique.

He wound his way among the ships of the fleet and aimed at the center of the flagship. As he neared it, approaching slowly, a large hatch near the rear became to open. Bright lights around flared and began flashing. The interior, now visible, had a bright yellow line of lights down the center. Against the far bulkhead were red and green lights.

Clark centered his ship using the lights and then leaned back, letting the computer handle the problem of landing. He just didn't feel like doing it himself.

He slipped over the threshold and was inside the flagship. The hatch irised closed and bright lights burst on. The glass of the windows darkened so that the light didn't momentarily blind Clark.

There was a slight bump as his ship contacted the deck, and the computer shut down the various systems, keeping the life support on for the moment. Clark unbuckled his restraints, reached out and patted the instrument panel. "Nice job," he said.

"Thank you," said the computer, the voice suddenly deep and husky.

Clark pushed himself from the seat, cracked the hatch and saw a contingent coming across the hangar deck toward him. "Well, I guess it's time to go to work."

Chapter Twelve

Price was wedged against the bulkhead in his cot, his arm on fire because he couldn't move it without waking Coollege. Finally, he could take it no longer and he tried to slip it free, but she rolled toward him and opened her eyes.

"You awake?" she asked.

"You know that we shouldn't be doing this," said Price. "Upsets the chain of command. Undermines my authority. All rules, regulations and common sense says that we shouldn't be doing this."

Grinning, she asked, "Are you afraid that I won't respect you in the morning?"

"No," said Price laughing. "It's just, well, you know as well as I. You've had the officer's training."
"This is different," said Coollege. "Our relationship isn't just commander and subordinate..."

"You trying to convince me or yourself?" interrupted Price.

"Probably a little of both."

There was a quiet chime at the hatch. Price glanced at it and said, "I've got to get up. Probably the Colonel wanting to know what the hell we think we're doing."

"I know what we're doing."

Price lifted himself up and crawled over the top of Coolledge, tugging at the sheet so that he could look down at her naked body. She jerked the sheet from his fingers and covered herself.

Price touched a button on the keyboard of his computer so that the screen brightened, showing him who stood in the corridor.

"What can I do for you?"

"Captain Price? Colonel wants a debriefing held now. In the main conference room."

"Right now?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'll be there in ten minutes."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. By the way, do you know where I can find Lieutenant Coolledge? She's not in her quarters."

"I'll alert her."

"Thank you, sir."

As soon as the screen darkened, Coollege asked, "What in the hell is this all about?"

"I don't know for sure. Just that we need to get over to the conference room. Maybe one of the scouts has returned."

Coollege threw off the sheet and stood up. She searched the deck near her feet but couldn't find any of her clothes. "I'm going to need to get to my cabin for a clean uniform."

Price found his pants and picked them up. "You'd better hurry. We don't want to have to explain why it took so long to find you."

"Thanks for the help."

As he grabbed a shirt, and draped it over his shoulders like it was a cape. "You'd better hurry," he advised again.

Coollege had put on her pants without worrying about her underwear. "If you come by to get me, then we enter together and no one will wonder about it."

"I'm not sure that will work but you go ahead and I'll swing by your cabin."

She struggled into her shirt. She slipped her shoes on her bare feet. "I'll get the rest of my stuff later."

Price sat on the bed and pulled on his socks. "As soon as I'm done, I'll get over to your cabin."

Coollege ducked her head and opened the hatch. She disappeared through it. As she did, Price said to himself, "I can't believe this. First time and the Colonel wants us."