Chapter 1


The Crash



   “Talk to me someone! Where the hell are we?” Captain Tambyr knew they were in trouble, deep trouble. The ship was way off course and bleeding badly. The readings on the panel in front of him were dancing all over the place, but the one that worried him the most was the core temperature.

   “Outer edge of the spiral arm… but there’s nothing out here, no outposts, no colonies, nothing.” T’Pesh was his first officer, the only female in his crew, and a damn fine first officer that would one day lead her own crew.

   “What’s our status?”

   “We will lose the main drive any minute. Trying to hold her together, but she’s just too badly damaged.” The engineering station was in the rear compartment separated from the rest of the crew, and where Orstock and Obyr were trying desperately to contain the emergency. It was getting noticeably warmer where they were sitting. Precious seconds ticked away.

   “There is nothing out here, I’m telling you, wait… think I have something.” The instruments were registering a change in the void of space. It was a slight variation in the gravity field, a weak change but it was tugging at them the way a small child tugs on its mother’s coat. Dhampir sitting at the Navigation station off to his right was working feverishly. The silence seemed to go on forever. “Yes, it’s a system. Passing the details to helm.”

   “Okay, I got it. Now tell me about it.”

   “Waiting for the data.”  Ferratu, at the Science station off to his left, was looking for the variations in the radiation, magnetic, and gravitational fields that would tell them all they need to know about the system.

   “How we holding together?” The communication microphone by his mouth was voice activated and relayed everything back to the engineers.

   “Not good, I don’t think we will make it that far,” replied Orstock.

   “Transfer everything to the drive. Keep it up as long as you can.”

   “Already done that,” came the reply.

   “What about the Passenger?”

   “Still in stasis, bio-signs all green.” Upyr on the medical station had an extra panel that he was monitoring. It had been installed just for this mission, but he had used something similar before, and all it did was monitor the life signs of the subject in the stasis chamber.

   “Wake up time, then transfer all the power where you need it.”

   “You can’t do that, Captain!” Strigou was just a passenger as far as the Tambyr was concerned, but he had authority in all matters relating to the Passenger, but this was neither the time nor the place to argue about it.

   “I just did. I find the idea of floating around out here just so we can keep our Guest in stasis not as appealing as reaching a planet where I can breathe as long as I want.” The discussion was over.

   “Revival sequence in progress... Transferring power, now.”

   “It’s working, but I can’t say how the landing will go.”       

   “Okay, we will handle that when we get there. Positive thoughts people.”

   “The data is starting to come through, its main sequence, no binary star. Mid age, heavy elements detected.”

   “So far so good. What else?”

   “Give it time, for crying out loud.”

   “We don’t have time.”

   “Nine planets... no wait, only eight and a captured asteroid by the looks of it.”

   “A lot of use that is. Come on. Give me a target will you.”

   “Okay okay, four gas giants, four solid. Inner two are too close, three and four look good.”

   “Fine, keep it coming, heading for three and four.”

   “Entering system, back us down.”

   “Slowing drive engines.” There was a loud bang from aft.

   “What the hell was that?”

   “Looks like number three just blew out. We are leaking plasma. Shutting down number four.” Orstock was managing to keep them going, but he was losing ground.

   “We’ll never make it.” Strigou was a nervous passenger.

   “Quiet in the cheap seats.”

   “Four is no good, no free water and the atmosphere is too thin.”

   “What about three?”

   “Working on it.”

   “I don’t want to die out here,”

   “None of us do, now shut up and let them work.” Upyr, although he was on the medical station, was as helpless as Strigou and just as nervous, but he wasn’t about to show him that.

   “Okay, Yes! Three has atmosphere, water, my god its perfect. Water, atmosphere is oxygen and… nitrogen. Its fine, do it.”


   “Will we be alright in the nitrogen?” Upyr was the only one that was not ignoring Strigou, they were far too busy. He felt he had to say something.

   “It’s inert, just like your brain.”

   “I didn’t ask for this assignment you know.”

   “As if we need reminding. Any signs of life?”

   “Nothing so far. No transmissions, checking sub light band.”

   “I’m taking us in, start the pre-landing sequence.”

   “It’s quiet, no artificial emanations of any kind.”

   “Good, strap up tight people, this could get bumpy.”

   “What has it been so far then?” The blue green of the planet loomed large in front of them.

   “Bring her in gently, or we will fall apart.”

   “Fine, just hang on. Give me a reading on the magnetic field.”

   “Got it, poles are stable. Anti-clockwise drift from this end.” They circled towards the planet, spiraling directly down to the pole and allowing the magnetic field to interact with the ships systems. It was far more efficient than the old-fashioned plummeting down out of the sky and hoping something will break your fall.

   “Starting decent… Cutting main drive… Magnetic guidance online… Starting turn…”

   “I hate this bit,” said Strigou, his knuckles visibly turning white.

   “It’s better than a direct approach, we would just burn up,” explained Upyr.

   “Any more comforting comments?”

   “The hull might not withstand the torque.”

   “Sorry I asked.”

   “Entering atmosphere, hold on people.” Their speed was still too high, and the turbulence of the upper atmosphere made it a rough passage.

   “I’ve got a rupture in the main cooling system.”

   “Too late now, we are committed… Cutting in atmospheric glide.”

   “My god, look at all that ice.”

   “Yep, but there is no land beneath, head south, I’ve got major land masses.” The descent from the upper atmosphere seemed to go on forever, and all the time Tambyr was struggling to get their speed down so he could handle a proper landing.

   “We have to put down as soon as we can.” The situation with the engines was not getting any better.

   “I think I got that.”

   “Okay, we are over land.”

   “Taking her down, what’s the atmospherics like?”

   “Still good, I’ve got 21% oxygen and about 80% gravity.”

   “Isn’t that a bit rich on the oxygen?”

   “We will be fine. You will be able to run away from the explosion a lot faster.”

   “What explosion?”

   “Captain, that coolant problem is not going to go away. We have about 5 minutes to criticality.”

   “Damn, give me a landing site quick.”

   “Mountains… Nothing but mountains…”

   “A Valley… Plateau… Anything!”

   “Okay, I got a valley to port there, but it’s covered in trees.”

   “Got it. It will have to do. This is where the fun starts. As soon as we are down emergency evac, I want everyone out. What are the chances of shutting her down before she blows?”

   “That would depend on the landing, but I’ll try,” replied T’Pesh.

   “Trees! We are hitting trees. Keep the nose up!”

   “Fire the emergency pack!” T’Pesh pushed the button she always hoped she would never have to push for real. A section in the nose opened up and fired the Emergency pack high into the air in front of them, it would deploy its own parachute and land somewhere behind them. The ship jolted slightly as the pack was fired.

   “Done, it’s away.”

   “We’ve lost hull integrity. I’m starting the shutdown now,” informed T’Pesh still cool under the pressure.

   “Do it!”

   “We’ve lost mag guidance!”

   “HANG ON!” The craft hit another tree hard cleaving the two port side engines free and flipping her up like a pancake. For a second she stood balanced on what was left of the tree as if deciding to fall belly up or face up. Gravity made the decision, the wrong one as far as the occupants were concerned. The craft came to rest suspended upside down fifteen feet above the forest floor.

   “Everybody still with us?” asked Tambyr.

   “Nice view captain, but I prefer being the right way up.”

   “How’s the shutdown?” he asked T’Pesh.

   “I can’t stabilise the core!” She looked over at Tambyr.

   “Everyone out, NOW!” Buckles were undone and there was a scrambling for the exit. Strigou made for the stasis chamber and Upyr went with him, he knew the Passenger would be slow to get away from the wreck, and it was vital that he survived.

   “I think I can get it captain.” T’Pesh was still strapped into her seat. Hanging upside down was not making things any easier.

   “No, I’ll take it, you go. Blow the hatch.” She pushed the secondary button as she reached for the buckle.

   “Hatch blown; secondary emergency pack fired.” She unbuckled herself and he helped break her fall. Their eyes met as she stood up.

   “Everybody out!”

   “Captain if you don’t contain the leak…”

   “I know, I used to sit in this chair, remember. I’ll be fine, get going.” She looked at him for a moment. “Go.” His eyes said all she needed to know.

    Tambyr was alone now. He had to save the ship if they were to have any chance of getting home. So much for the quiet trip across the void that he had been promised. He should have known, it sounded too easy. Just take the Passenger and deliver him home, but tell no-one which route. As the controls were now upside down he found himself struggling to remember for a second, but then he was on the problem. The coolant was leaking into the main drive compartment. The problem was two-fold. Not enough coolant in the reactor before it fully shut down, and it wouldn’t matter how fast they could run on this planet; the blast would be devastating. The other half of the problem was the coolant coming in contact with the plasma drive. Outside the magnetic containment of the drive chamber the coolant became highly volatile, and if it made contact with red hot manifolds, it would blow the ship to pieces. He hoped that as they were inverted that would not happen, as the drive chamber was now below the manifolds. He struggled with the reactor controls. The reaction rate was slowing but not quickly enough. The lack of coolant was not helping matters. There was only one thing he could do and that was to vent the hydrogen. All the fuel would be lost but at least the ship would be intact. He initiated the vent and entered the command overrides. There was a loud hiss as the hydrogen fuel returned to a gas and vented into the atmosphere. He relaxed with a huge sigh. He smiled because it sounded so like the noise the ship had made a few seconds earlier. His ship, his crew, and he had to get them home. The ship settled slightly as if further relaxing from the tension. A plate in the drive section buckled under the new stress and the coolant poured out onto the plasma manifold lying on the ground beneath the ship. The reaction was violent and the explosion large enough to move the craft from its precarious position, he felt it going and there was nothing he could do. He held on as the ship hit the ground and burst into a huge bright fireball.


   T’Pesh was running as fast as she could through the trees when she heard the first bang, followed by the loud snap of the branch, and turned in time to see the ship moving in the trees.

“Get down! Everyone!” The blast was a great deal bigger than she anticipated. The shock wave knocked everyone off their feet, but it was the heat from the blast that did the most damage. The whole forest seemed to fall over on its side. The sound of snapping wood joined the noise of the blast. Then came the large chunks of metal flying through the air slicing through trees, bushes, flesh, and anything else that happened to be in the way. The heat singed bark and skin. The noise and the shock wave levelled everything that was not firmly rooted to the ground. T’Pesh had managed to dive behind a large fallen tree just in time, but it did not save her completely.


   She shook her head as she regained consciousness and she listened, but there was only the ringing in her ears, nothing else. She had no idea how long it had been. Her head hurt, her arm hurt, in fact she was sure pretty much everywhere hurt. Her uniform was ripped and still smouldering in places, she slapped them till they stopped. She looked back to where the ship had been, it was gone and so was he. The hand on her shoulder made her jump, she had no idea someone was there. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, and she felt dizzy as if she were hyperventilating. She turned and found it was Orstock. He looked as dazed as she was. He mouthed words at her, but he could have been yelling at the top of his voice for the difference it would have made. He pointed behind him; she could see the Passenger and Strigou, the escort with Upyr checking them both over. She motioned him to look for the others; with the captain gone it put her in charge. Not that there was much left to be in charge of.


   An hour later her hearing was starting to return, but it was still difficult to make out what people were saying. She was not alone; everyone was as deaf as she was with the pressure wave from the blast. Sentences were short loud and to the point. The first concern was the Passenger.

    “Is he alive?” she asked.

    “Yes, but very drowsy with the drugs!” Strigou, he had a medical qualification as well as a security one, was the assigned escort, and the Passenger was his responsibility. Any decision was his, except as it had turned out when it meant the survival of the group. She had known Tambyr for a long time, so much so that words were only required when they had to let others know what was going on. They had been a partnership, a team, a couple, and lovers for long enough. But now she was on her own, he had made that sacrifice to save his crew. He had always said that he would if ever it came to it, and she knew it was true and now he had, and it was down to her. As his first officer and second in command it was down to her to complete the mission. But she always had been more than just his Second. She was his first in everything they did. She had doubted that she could take charge if he ever were gone and now it looked like she was about to find out. She sent Orstock to recover the primary emergency pack, it was vital if they were to be rescued that it be recovered as it held the locator beacon, and the long-term supplies as well as the weapons.


   The thin oxygen rich atmosphere was still making her lightheaded as much as everyone else, she surmised. Tempers would have to be cooled. Their first priority was to recover the two emergency packs. They set up a small camp in a clearing close to the crash site and T’Pesh had delegated Obyr to organise a fire. Strigou and the Passenger remained there while the rest of them went in search of the packs. The primary pack had been fired well before the crash and contained the emergency beacon. If it were not opened in 20 hours, it would assume that it was not going to be, as all the crew had perished in the crash, and activate itself. It would be a broadband signal intended only as a request for recovery. If it was opened, then the automated beacon would only activate on the receipt of an enquiry signal that the rescue ships would send out. They found the secondary pack relatively easily and close to the edge of the explosion damage. It was badly scarred but intact. T’Pesh stood for the longest time watching the smouldering scar in the landscape. The trees at the point of the blast were gone and those close by only blackened stumps remained. Further out from the explosion they had been uprooted and pushed over. She didn’t hear Orstock come up behind her.

   “I’m sorry T’Pesh. I know how much he meant to you.”

   “He was a special man. He gave his life for us.”

   “He did, but we have to focus on our survival now, and that means you have to fill his place.”

   “I know, I think Dhampir…”

   “Don’t think. You are in charge now. You need to act like it till you are, for the sake of us all.” She understood, fake it till you make it, or you won’t make it at all.

   “Is that thing intact?” she asked pointing at the emergency pack.

   “It’s built to take a battering, but there is nothing that would suffer from it anyway. The worry is the primary, we need to find it soon.” The others were still sifting through the debris.

   “Ferratu, you and Upyr get this one back to the camp while we continue looking for the primary pack.” They both acknowledged and did as she asked.

   “See, it’s not that hard,” whispered Orstock before he moved off.

   “Let’s focus on the way we came in. Take a line through the broken trees and check along it and stay well apart.”

   Twenty minutes later Dhampir gave a yell. He had found it. The big yellow cylindrical container was lodged by its parachute halfway up a tree, with its canvas entangled in the branches. A large chunk of metal was buried in its side.

   “Thought these things were shock proof?” she asked Orstock.

   “Shock proof yes, projectile proof, no, sorry.”

   “Let’s get it down and check the contents.” Dhampir didn’t hesitate he scrambled up the tree and began hauling at the canvas. It did not take much, and he was amazed at his own strength.

   “It’s the oxygen rich atmosphere. It will make you stronger,” explained T’Pesh.

   “Yeah, but I didn’t expect by that much.” The container crashed to the forest floor with a thump. It had been designed to land heavily and still protect the contents, but the piece of the craft was pointed and had been travelling at speed, as a result the metal had pierced the outer layer easily and protruded well into the compartment inside. Orstock tapped in the code on the lid, and it popped open. He lifted the lid and looked inside. There was a locked case inside that contained three hand weapons, it had taken the brunt of the impact from the metal and the lid was open and twisted. The emergency beacon was next to it and was also in contact with the intruder. Orstock struggled with the metal and finally managed to free it from the box. They could now see the extent of the damage inside. The skin of the beacon was damaged with a three-inch gash along its side.

   “Will it still work?” T’Pesh asked.

   “It looks superficial, but I will need to check it out.” He opened the case with the weapons. All but one was mangled beyond repair. T’Pesh took it out and slipped it in her belt. Dhampir looked at her for a second but said nothing.

   “Right let’s get it back to the camp then.” Orstock and Dhampir took a handle each and they set off. It was not such a struggle as it would have been on their home planet. T’Pesh reckoned it was partially to do with the oxygen and partially because of the lower gravity.

   By the time they got back to the camp a fire had been set, the secondary pack had been opened and a meal was in progress. They were seated in a circle around the fire. T’Pesh walked into the centre and stood by the fire to address the group.

   “So where are we?” she asked.

   “You mean apart from being deep in the shit?” it was Obyr the second engineer, young and not very practical.

“If you mean in a galactic sense, we are somewhere on the outer edge of the inner spiral arm.” Technically Ferratu was the science officer, but he was right.

“So where is home?” she asked.

“Somewhere out there.” Dhampir, the pragmatist, was pointing up at the night sky, and she knew he was right.