Laura E Reeve
A DEADLY TRAP
Not knowing what waited for her on the other side, Ariane grabbed a handhold as she opened thedoor. There was no decompression, so she stepped to the threshold. The slate's alarm went offin her hand, vibrating as well as flashing red dots.
It felt surreal to look up at the status displayed above the door—calm green—then to lookdown at the slate and see blinking lights and the text WARNING! OXYGEN CONTENT INADEQUATE!TEMPERATURE DANGEROUSLY LOW! DO NOT EXPOSE SKIN!
At least the suits had been equipped with shrink-to-fit gloves, so she hastily saved theslate's data with a single action of her thumb. Still standing at the threshold, she reachedaround to flip the emergency disablement switch before stepping all the way into the gym.
The door closed behind her anyway.
She whirled, her breath starting to come faster. She'd toggled the mechanical disablementswitch, yet the door had closed. She was beginning to feel persecuted, and those feelingsbecame overwhelming as the lights dimmed and a text message formed on the back of the door:
HOW CAN YOU HANDLE THE GUILT, ARI? SOON YOU'LL HAVE NO TROUBLE SLEEPING. . . .
To the U.S. Air Force and Army members I've had the privilege to work with, and the many other
military personnel who heard the call to duty and followed it without hesitation
Most novels grow from many favors and much input. This one is no exception, and I apologizethat I can acknowledge only some. First, my husband, Michael, deserves recognition for hisencouragement and scientific advice, including his ability to simplify subjects ranging fromquantum physics to cosmology. I am also indebted to my parents, Gerry and Norma, for theircontinuous support and for not noticing when I filched books from their library. I'mexceedingly grateful for the patient reviews and astute questions from my critique partner,Robin; my sister, Wendy; and my first reader, Summer. My agent, Jennifer Jackson, deserves allthe accolades I can compose for her, after sticking with me through multiple manuscripts.Finally, thanks to Jessica Wade and the staff at Penguin Group, who brought this series intobeing.
The name Pax Minoica might satisfy the damned latinized League, but the Minoans
[ Link to theories regarding modern Minoans encountered in twenty-first century ]
That's not the purpose of the name; the Senate's appealing to net-think nostalgia
by hearkening back to pre-Terran Earth. Two ancient accords, both successful,
carried the name of Pax Minoica. Alexander the Great brokered the second, so the
Senate gets the bonus of megahero aura, helping them spin these treaties to
citizens . . .
—Anonymous Sophist at Konstantinople Prime University, 2091.98.10.22 UT, indexed by Democritus9 under Hypothetical Effect Imperative
The floodlights from Aether's Touch washed over the vessel on the portside slip, enhancing
its tortuous lines and pulsing skin. It looked like an amoebic parasite sucking life away fromAthens Point rather than a docked spacecraft using legitimately leased resources.
"Matt? Get us a different slip. They're putting us next to Minoans," Ariane said over internalcomm to the only other crew member on Aether's Touch . Her fingers flew across her console and
strengthened their firewall, a precaution she took when docking at any habitat. She wasn'tparanoid, only sensible.
"I'll talk to Command Post," Matt replied from the protected array compartment.
He sounded altogether too fresh and cheery, she thought sourly, because he had gotten rack
time during N-space. The bright pumping into his bloodstream since they entered real-space hadcleared his head. She, however, had to stay awake through N-space, and that meant clash, asmost pilots called it. Clash kept her terrors at bay, her reflexes sharp, and her thoughtsclear but jaggedly edged with irritability. Running her fingers through her loose, short curls,she felt them tremble against her hypersensitive scalp. The clash pushed uncomfortably behindher eyelids when she closed them, and the bright wasn't helping.
"That's all they can give us. All their class-C slips are taken." Matt no longer soundedcheerful.
"That's shit from the Great Bull itself. Who'd we piss off?" Ariane's question was rhetorical.Everyone followed the rules when Minoans were around, so she and Matt would suffer the mostrigorous inspections possible from Athens Point Customs and Flight Records.
"We can't afford Minoan attention. Do you think they know what we're carrying?"
"Don't see how. I don't think this is personal; it's just bad luck." Ariane focused on thedirectional lights flashing at their slip.
"Bad luck all around. I already notified Nestor and told him to stand ready."
"Great—him and every lurker on this habitat," she said.
"The claims will be puncture-proof. Really."
She didn't answer. Among Matt's frustrating qualities were his unshakable confidence, goodhumor, and optimism. As a perennial pessimist, she doubted that he and Nestor could close theloopholes. By now, lurkers had seen their ship arrive and had their legal vultures ready tomuscle in on the action. Once Nestor submitted their claims and the deadline expired, thecarnage would start. Aether Exploration's claims would have to withstand everything from patentinfringement threats to good old-fashioned claim jumping.
She oriented Aether's Touch and started Y-vector approach into the docking ring. Everythingwas right on track. She had time and was as curious as the next mundane, so she reviewed thevideo of the portside ship.
No mundane human, to her knowledge, had been on board a Minoan vessel. Net-think speculatedthat the outside skin was a partially organic composite, perhaps because of its mottled green-yellow color and the pulsing movement of conduits. Lights glowed through its hull, but didn'tresolve into decks. Net-think also postulated that Minoan shielding allowed true windows intheir N-space ships. Ariane couldn't guess where their referential engine was located orwhether the ship was armed. She didn't dare direct her lights and cam-eyes toward the Minoanvessel again, as she didn't want to attract their attention.
She idly watched the approach video from the starboard cam-eye, happy to see the angularoutline of a mundane ship. When she saw weapons pods, however, she magnified the video andfrowned as the AFCAW logo slid by. Why would a military ship, in this case a lightweightcruiser, dock at Athens Point when it could use Karthage?
"Let's get through docking without a fuss. How's it look for flight records?" Matt's voiceinterrupted her deliberations about the cruiser.
Ariane chewed her lip.
"You're legal, right? Ari?" His voice became sharp.
The logs on Aether's Touch would prove she'd stayed within real-space safety limits, but thatwasn't the source of Matt's concern. She considered the cocktail of drugs inside her body. Thestreet smooth she'd added to take the edge off the clash wasn't an approved supplement. On theother hand, regulations didn't prohibit smooth, and in this case Athens Point Flight Records
got to decide whether she had used a safe dose.
"I'm not sure," she said reluctantly.
"Look, I only added some smooth. Plenty of pilots use it, with no problems."
"But we're going to be hammered with every regulation possible," he said.
"How'd I know we'd be squeezed between Minoans and AFCAW?" Her voice rose and her stomachtightened. She should have made this run strictly by the book. Too late now .
There was ominous silence over internal comm.
"Cruiser, lightly armed, docked to starboard."
"I'll be on deck for final connection." Matt cut off to lock down the array compartment. Aether's Touch was a second-wave prospector, and while she supported a crew of only two, shehad the latest exploration-rated equipment. Sapphire-shielded crystal arrays held theirprecious cargo: information gathered through every possible remote sensor and telebot availableon Aether's Touch . Physical samples were stored in the compartment aft of the vaults.
Ariane turned back to her console and concentrated on the approaching slip. The autopilotwasn't foolproof and any pilots worth their salary wouldn't let their ship attempt dockingunattended.
Matt climbed to the control deck as station supply and recycling tubes were clamping on to the
Aether's Touch. He was more protective of the ship than Ariane; she knew he watched thestation crews critically through the cam-eye, ready to pounce on any safety deviations.Ariane's fingers danced over the smooth console surface. She turned over environmental controlsto the habitat so they could run on station resources and power. Of course, Athens Point wouldbill Matt for every second of each service.
"Aligned and using station gravity. Switching over air supply." Ariane called out her checkliststeps over intercom as was required by regulations, not that anyone needed to hear them. Mattknew when his air supply changed. She watched his reflection turn and sniff the air, hisangular cheekbones, nose, and jaw showing a pleasing profile. He kept his blond hair short, cutin a military style that Ariane preferred. Not that she'd made her preferences known to him. .
She looked away. Matt was her employer, the civilian equivalent of her commander. Besides that,
. The only way for a crew to work successfully was to keep the relationshiphe was crew
professional. Ariane clamped down on her thoughts,I'll never make that mistake again.
squashing the memories into darkness.
"Ah, fresh air." Matt sighed.
Ariane suppressed a smile. Only crèche-get could appreciate station air. Matt was agenerational ship baby and carried the generational-line last name of Journey. Because of hisupbringing, he considered any proven crew member to be family. Perhaps he was a bit tootrusting, but this worked in her favor since she didn't have an authentic family or background.
She and Matt trusted each other, which was necessary because new space had its dangers. Thegenerational ship that established the time buoy in the new solar system wasn't responsible forcharting or resource discovery. That was the job of the second-wave prospectors, and Arianeliked being out in the lonely nether reaches for months on end.
"Let's see what's waiting." Matt leaned over her shoulder and activated the cam-eye feed fromthe dock.
Wearing colorful badges and crisp uniforms, three officials stood at the end of their ramp andlooked as pompous as possible. They expected Customs and Flight Records, but not Station Ops.
"I've never seen all three officials on the ramp before, and certainly not in such clean gear."Matt widened the view to show the whole ramp, and they saw the reason Station Ops was present.
"What the . . . ?" she said.
"We're fucked," he said.
Several paces behind the three officials stood a tall figure with an elaborate horned headdressand robes that managed to look diaphanous while remaining androgynous. A Minoan . No one would
have asked its purpose here; the Minoans rarely explained their business to mundanes. It stood,stopping traffic, in the center of the main ring corridor. A buzzing cloud of remotes, tryingto record the rare occurrence of a Minoan on a commercial habitat, kept several meters away.Behind the billowing mass of remotes, well behind them, stood a few onlookers who were just atthe edge of cam-eye view from the ship.
"Don't panic. There'll only be delays. They'll have to do a brain-wave pattern panel to detectand quantify the smooth." Ariane said this matter-of-factly, since the flight records officialhad all the appropriate equipment hanging from her left shoulder.
"As long as no one gets a whiff of our cargo," he said.
She nodded, her gut wincing. The waiting Minoan drew excessive attention to their arrival, morethan Matt's messages or her delays with Flight Records required. The entire station wasprobably watching and loading video of the Minoan onto ComNet. They might as well haveannounced on the feeds that they'd made the most significant find of their lifetimes, which wasfar more important than her pilot license and rating.
After they opened the air lock, Ariane took a moment to digest the smells and the air quality,the unique signature of every station. Heavy equipment wasn't allowed on class-C docks; themixture of perfumes, sweat, and spices overrode traces of ozone and lubricant. As stimulatingas the scents were, the gray deck and panels of Athens Point were similar to those of otherhabitats.
She paused at the top of the ramp, disoriented. The panels near their slip should be coveredwith—ah, now they had been found and targeted. Advertisements aimed at Ariane and Matt,selected per their buying habits, opened and fought for space on the wall and even the ceiling.She knew better than to look up this soon on station, before she was used to habitat-g. Forthis very reason, the deck was off-limits to anything but operational and emergencyannouncements. The audio for the advertisements started yammering in her implanted ear bug; shepressed behind her ear and turned it off, since it would automatically activate for private and
urgent messages. Turning the ear bug off, unfortunately, triggered higher volume from the nodessupporting the wall display. Every merchant she or Matt had ever used seemed to be trottingadvertisements across the wall. After being isolated in new space for more than six months, shewas unnerved by the discordant sights and sounds.
Ariane glanced past the officials. Hopeful advertisers were even peppering the Minoan. Itsheaddress extended its head organically and supported the requisite horns, jewels, andbeads—apparently justifying the jewelry commercials. Hidden equipment obscured its head andface, and raised contours that sucked in light rather than reflected it. The "velvet-over-icemask," coined by net-think, defeated man-made sensors and ensured that facial features or skinwasn't visible.
If Minoans had faces or skin. Net-think had more theories than she could count regarding theorigin of the Minoans and who or what they were. Shortly after the Hellenic Alliance putmankind onto Earth's moon, the Minoans arrived. They offered the essential element for N-spacetravel to several other solar systems. At the time, they controlled the secret to making N-space time buoys, and a hundred years later, they still maintained that monopoly.
She looked away from the Minoan quickly, focusing on her scuffed boots. The officials waited.She jerked her head once to shake her loose curls and make them presentable. As she walked downthe ramp, her boots made light, ringing taps, sounding deceptively delicate. Matt followed, hislanky stride making rude clunks. When she stopped, he put his hands on her shoulders and stoodbehind her, looking over her head. She felt tension in his hands through her coveralls.
"Athens Point welcomes the Aether's Touch into slip thirty-three. She's recorded as owned and
crewed by Matt Journey, and piloted by Ariane Kedros." Station Ops used a clipped intonation."We'll start with the pilot, then move to the ship and cargo."
"We'll need proof of pilot identity." Flight Records handed Ariane the recorder. Proof ofidentity was unusual and she felt Matt's grip tighten on her shoulders.
"Great Bull-s—" Matt swallowed his expletive in deference to the listening Minoan. "What'sgoing on here?"
"This is standard procedure, Mr. Journey," said Flight Records.
"No, it isn't, and I object to paying for retinal matching. The regs don't require—"
"It's okay, Matt. Let's pay, regulation or not," Ariane said. Antagonizing the dockinginspectors wasn't going to speed things up.
She felt his hands relax and took this as acceptance. She held the recorder against her eye totake a reading and handed it back to Flight Records. Identity forgery in the autonomist worldswas almost impossible, because it required changing all primary and secondary documentation incrystal. Once written to crystal, always in crystal. The data couldn't be changed or erased,and both government and commercial security systems protected crystal vaults.
A false identity is impossible, unless your identity is created and paid for by the
. Her mind veered away from those thoughts. I'm Ariane Kedros, she told herselfgovernment
"Any implants with artificial synapse interfaces?" asked Flight Records.
"No." Ariane shivered as the slim, humming detection wand waved over her head, neck, and back.Her implants were the common, innocuous kinds, used for communications, drug monitoring, orstorage of personal information. CAW had outlawed synapse interfaces for piloting vehicles anddenied air and space pilot licenses to anyone who still sported such an interface. Hospitalvegetable bins were full of those who had jumped on the wet-ware craze a couple of decades ago.Early adopters didn't consider the viciousness of the anonymous hacker. Popularity of synapseinterfaces waned in the face of the dangers. When they discovered that synapse-enhanced gamescould be used remotely for murder, the Senate stepped in and created legal constraints onsynapse interfaces.
"Your allowed delta tranquilizer to cognitive dissonance enhancer ratio is . . ." The eyebrowsof Flight Records went up as she read Ariane's profile on the slate. Frowning, she evaluatedAriane's small frame from head to foot. "Those are high."
"Medically evaluated each year," Ariane said.
Flight Records shrugged and held out the slate. "Unlock privacy control and approve dose-ratemeasurements, please."
Ariane thumbed the slate and gave her public password for voiceprint analysis. The slatedownloaded readings from her implant and showed doses of d-tranny, clash, and bright, as wellas radiation exposures. They would request the same from Matt, but purely as a health measure.For the N-space pilot, this was a compliance check.
Now was the time to admit she'd operated under smooth. At the least, she could bypass thebrain-wave panel and Matt might quickly proceed into customs inspections. At the worst, theymight fine her or revoke her license. Ariane drew a deep breath.
"I'm making a statement of personal status," she said.
"Don't, Ari." Matt's hands felt heavier. "Hoping to get through this quickly, Mr. Journey?" Apleasant voice wafted toward them from the remotes in the corridor. Everyone turned to watchColonel Owen Edones glide through the swarm of remotes with his usual ease.
"What's he doing here?" Matt hissed in her ear while his fingers dug into her shoulders.
"I can formally vouch for Major Kedros and speed this up," Colonel Edones said. His blackuniform with the light blue trim and insignia was pristinely pressed and tailored. He strodetoward them. When he passed the Minoan, he nodded his head respectfully.
Strangely, the Minoan inclined its horns, backed away, and left them. Everyone standing at slip33 watched as the Minoan departed for its strange ship. A few mouths dropped open. Remotesbegan to drift away, presumably to cover other areas of the habitat that were more interestingto their owners.
"What?" said Station Ops.
"Shall we bypass flight records inspection?" Colonel Edones asked. "I have business with MajorKedros and I can vouch for her, by signature."
Flight Records searched her slate, probably only now reading the notes appended to Ariane'spilot license that read "Member of AFCAW Reserve, rank Major, assigned to Directorate ofIntelligence, rated to pilot light military air vehicles under seven metric tons and spacevehicles OFSV-16, OFSV-19, Naga-20, Naga-21, Naga-24." She handed her slate to Colonel Edones,who applied his thumbprint.
Station Ops was peeved. "But our procedures—"
"Bypassed on my authority," Edones said, his tone quiet and implacable.
"We don't need your help, Edones." In contrast, Matt's voice sounded young and rough.
"Major, tell your boy to calm down. I'm carrying orders for you."
Ariane twisted away from Matt to face both of them. She understood Matt's antipathy for Edones,but she'd never figured out why Edones returned the hostility.
"You can refuse the orders, Ari. I'll sign the 932 that says you're necessary for your civilianjob." Matt's face took on that familiar stubborn look. He had evidently read up on theregulations, but sadly, he didn't understand the true hold that AFCAW held over her.
"That'll never happen, will it, Major?" Edones had a small, grim smile on his face.
"I'll remind both of you that I make my own decisions," she said. "I'll decide after lookingover the orders."
"Only under secure conditions. I suggest we talk, while Mr. Journey handles his inspections."Edones turned and walked toward his slip, apparently confident that she'd follow.
She felt a surge of resentment and wondered whether she could puncture his confident arrogance,just once. But if anything defined Ariane Kedros , it was her duties and assignments for the
Directorate of Intelligence. She began to follow Edones, but Matt grabbed her arm and swung heraround to face him.
"Ari, I can't go through this again. You understand?" His eyes were wide, his jaw musclesclenched and raised.
She knew what he meant. Matt had looked like that after he'd supported her head and kept hersafe as she convulsed and vomited, purging her last celebration binge, her reward for getting
through her last assignment alive.
"It won't happen again. I promise." Her voice was steady, but she swallowed hard as sheremembered the rich taste of beer mixed with burning shots of liquor and the sweet smooth—allin quantities that could kill a bull. She was lying.
"Good. Don't take any assignment from Edones until you talk with me." He squeezed her arm withfriendly concern.
Deep down, she felt a tiny kernel of disappointment stir. She was sure Matt didn't believe her,but he wouldn't confront her. Why didn't he walk away and give her the contempt she deserved?
Matt watched Ari catch up with Edones. He shook his head. Whenever that smarmy colonel showedup, Ari would disappear on mysterious missions that Matt suspected were also dangerous.
He'd started to depend upon her. So much that he'd place his life in her hands—already had,for that matter. Just six days ago, he'd collapsed against the inside of the air lock in apunctured, barely operable suit. Ari pressurized the air lock and entered. After opening hishelmet and checking his vitals, she'd proceeded to lecture him.
"We're almost at the end of the season and we can leave that bot. What we can't afford to loseis the ship, and I came mighty close; if we lost her, it'd be your own damn fault. Really,Matt, what's so valuable out there that you'd risk your life and ship?"
Standing there with her hands on her hips and that fierce expression on her face, Ari shamedhim into silence. He reached into the webbed pouch on his suit, pulled out the bot's memorymodule, and held it up.
Her eyes widened.
"Is that a rhetorical question?" he asked.
She stared at him for a moment, and then started chuckling. That was what he liked aboutAri—she knew that sometimes extreme measures were called for to get the job done. That's
probably why Edones keeps giving her assignments. The bruises and medical treatments she haswhen she comes back, the drinking she does—
"Mr. Journey, I'm on a tight schedule!" The customs inspector still waited to examine thecrystal storage and data systems.
Matt glanced down at the shorter man. When he looked up, he saw Ari and Edones turn onto thering corridor and pass from his sight.