Chapter 1 Sample
October 23, 3481.
The light blinked every three point two seconds, and for some reason Derek found it riveting.
He was not in the habit of staring at blinking lights, but this one was all he cared to look at. It wasn’t until higher portions of his brain began to function that he began to wonder, what exactly is that light?
Now that the question occurred to him, he wanted an answer. The light was actually a number of lights, each in a distinct shape. No, some of them repeated.
A few more neurons jostled back into position and began to fire. Suddenly he remembered what letters were. Yes, the lights were definitely letters. This raised a new question: Why couldn’t he read?
He tried again. Critical…brain…damage. Please…stand…by.
Derek found himself unsurprised. He was damaged enough that he’d forgotten how to read.
Prompt, he thought. The light flickered in response. Status.
A basic diagram flashed into view.
Spreck. What happened? His brain was blinking between white and grey status, indicating cybernetics that were hard at work, trying to put him back together. The rest of his body was between white and yellow status.
His carefully-trained – if battered – mind went to work deducing the pattern of his injuries. He’d suffered a major concussion along with blunt force trauma to his entire body. There were no major lacerations, though, and he had suffered very little blood loss, which allowed his repair cybernetics the opportunity to work at full force. More, if his brain was being repaired, that meant that Shadow was fine and supervising the rebuilding. The AI just hadn’t realized that Derek had found his way to a form of consciousness.
Time to let him know. Shadow.
There was a moment of silence before the AI responded. [Hey. Tired of snoring while I’m pulling you back together?]
…snoring? Derek consulted the diagram again. His lungs were definitely too torn up for him to actually be breathing right now.
[It looks like your sense of humor died in the crash.]
Sorry. I just…nevermind. What happened and where are we? Crash?
[Yeah, crash. We went down hard.]
Hold on. What could we have hit? Derek struggled to remember where he had last been, and came to a horrifying possibility. Did we pancake into the side of Prometheus Station? If so, he would never live it down.
[No. I’m still not sure what we hit – at least, to start. But we’d better start at the beginning. What’s the last date you remember?]
Going to bed last night, in guest quarters at the station. It was Tuesday.
[Not too bad. I’ll do another run on your short-term memory; you’re only missing a few hours, but they were…eventful.]
Okay. So fill me in.
[Seneca declared a full-colony alert due to NSW - that’s some kind of technical term. Means ‘I dunno what to call it, but we’re about to get squashed.’ Our orders were to gather supplies, abandon the planet’s surface, and ride it out. Full briefing was to follow the event – that’s usually code for ‘we might call this a drill if nothing happens’.]
With you so far.
[Well, that’s the last thing I have to tell you that makes sense. Zero hour came and the entire ship went crazy. Thermal readings all over the place, an impossible gravity flux…I have no idea how it happened, but our sensors were reading twenty Kelvin when we were scorched badly enough to fuse the hull. Then we got an exit wound on our port side. We lost two gyros, but there’s no entry wound anywhere – like whatever hit us came from inside the ship. After whatever-it-was scorched us, we did a full space to ground nosedive with single-digit engine function and no maneuvering gyros. With the hull fused, we couldn’t even deploy wings.]
Derek’s mind wandered for a moment, then jumped on a fact that happened to shine through. Two hours, fourteen minutes.
We were at L1. Two hours, fourteen minutes to the lunar surface. Isn’t that right? He hesitated. I’m assuming you meant that we hit the moon.
[Negative. Whatever we hit had atmosphere – and we were less than three thousand kilometers from Prometheus Station. Total time from last sensor reading to impact was fourteen minutes. We didn’t hit Artemis or Elysium.]
Derek’s brain, overtaxed by the reconstruction, ground to a complete halt. If we didn’t hit the moon or the planet, then what DID we hit?
[Still working on it – and there’s been no contact since before the scorch. And our comm gear worked until we hit the ground; we squawked out a distress call the whole way down, and we didn’t get a single response.]
Weird. Well, how’s the ship doing?
[That, at least, is something I can report on. The Nicobar got a quick refit to Leto-class for the evacuation. We’re carrying a lot more gear than normal, and while most of our systems are hosed, with a few weeks of both of us working on it, we might be able to get it space-worthy again. Most of the ship got beat to pieces, but the computer survived without a scratch. Not much we can do with it, but it’ll fix itself up in time.]
Derek stepped up his consciousness level to a low-quality simulation so that he could scratch his chin, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. Okay. What do we know about where we are?
[Right now, about all I can tell you is that it has atmosphere and it has a gravity level of .997 g’s. That’s about .4 g’s lower than anywhere on Elysium. Anywhere in the system, even.]
…check again? For the first time, Derek felt fear creep into him. A shattered body was nothing he couldn’t handle if he had a few hours. But if he wasn’t in the system, how would he get home?
He added a basic room to the simulation. Four walls, a roof and a cozy chair that he could sit in, drawn into existence without detail to cut down on the processing required.
[Checked and confirmed. We’re nowhere in the New Athens sphere of influence. My best guess? Well, you’re not going to like it.]
[Well, gravity’s very, very close to 1.0 g. You know what planet has that as standard.]
Yeah. Earth. But we can’t be on Earth…it’s a few centuries’ worth of travel away!
[So’s any other planet outside of the system. And we can’t be on any planet in our home system, so we’re at a stalemate: we are quite clearly nowhere.]
Okay! Okay! You win. We might be on Earth and outside the system. How soon can I get up and look around?
[About two hours. Until then, you should probably get some sleep.]
Two hours later, Derek was awake and alert. He could even move a little, and use his real eyes to look around. The ship’s sensors were trashed but there was enough flexibility in the hull left for him to create a small porthole.
It was one thing for his Shadow to have assured him he wasn’t on his home planet, and another to see plants growing wild. Though his people had been working for centuries, their homeworld was still barren – at least, outdoors. His father had kept a well-cultivated garden, complete with imported weeds and pests, for added authenticity.
The world he saw was obviously not in his home system, but some of the plants looked familiar. He broadcast a request for the ship’s computer to help out.
It instantly identified seven separate species before his eyes; twenty-six others were flagged unknown. The speed at which it responded gave him pause when it occurred to him that he was cut off from Clotho, the data administrator. That meant that he was limited to what was in his ship’s databanks. He sent a thought, asking the computer what other files it had, then spent a moment blinking at its terse response: All of them.
It was a completely literal response. The ship’s computer contained a full record of all public information. He could picture Seneca’s avatar, with that smug little smile and a wink, spouting his familiar motto, ‘Just in case.’
Derek found himself trembling as he faced what ‘in case’ constituted this time. He was somewhere out in space, now. His ship was crippled. Whatever phenomenon had thrown him an impossible distance may have destroyed his home as well.
He pushed down the fear and forced himself to focus. What did the computer have that could help him, right now?
The files included a briefing on why Seneca had ordered an evacuation, but it shed no light on the situation. Seneca had detected an incoming disturbance years ago, but the AI hadn’t found cause for alarm until he had seen its effects on an outer planet. The monitoring satellites which had recorded the event had survived unscathed but the planet had been ravaged. The solution was obvious: get everyone to go into space.
Related files included details on the refit his ship had suffered. It was comprehensively equipped. A full construction suite had been packed into the ship - enough tools to build an entire colony.
Another file, flagged for his attention, revealed that he currently possessed a firearm. Lacking other things to do, he ran himself through training simulations while he waited for other systems to come online. Especially his stomach; the ship had begun feeding him intravenously before he’d regained consciousness, but in their desperate need for fuel, the nanites had stripped his body of almost all its fat.
[Most of our internals are nominal; we just have a number of fractures to repair. ETAs on repairs on the ship include the environmental assessors in 43 hours—after which we may be able to go outside without the suit, which I wouldn’t recommend until we know we can breathe here—gravity systems in fourteen hours, and advanced scans just came online. Conning tower is deploying. C’mere, you relevant bits of data, you.]
There were no screens; the visual feed went directly into Derek’s mind as new fields of vision. He panned his focus around slowly, taking in the crater his landing had produced. The subsequent fire had spread little but still smoldered. Beyond the burn line were trees; monoliths that reached up a good ten to twenty meters with vast layers of green leaves bearing just trace hints of red and yellow.
Derek made note of the species as tagged by the scanner. Only about a third were identifiable; the rest were clearly labeled as non-Terrestrial.
So is this Earth or what?
[Everything’s just a little off. Gravity is very close, but if this is Earth, it’s very little like the Earth our ancestors left. For one, even if we landed in a nature preserve, we should be swarming with people by now. It’s possible that something happened—Hold up.]
[A human just came into scanning range. Headed right towards us.]
A New Athenian?
Let’s see him.
[Her, actually.] A window opened up a real-time display of the approaching human. Derek gaped.
She was definitely human, but her resemblance to anyone he had ever encountered ended quickly. Her skin, though tanned from exposure to this world’s sun, was slightly paler than Derek’s own, and she was dressed in crude garments of material he had never seen before. She carried odd implements, and moved through the rough terrain with a surprising—and, to Derek, unsettling—ease. Her right eye was covered by some form of thong; the other eye was continuously scanning the forests around her, as if she anticipated an encounter with someone, or something.
What in Tarus is she wearing? And carrying? And what’s that thing on her face?
[Checking. Never seen it either…okay. The computer’s database says that the material she is wearing is most likely boiled leather.]
[Skin stripped off of dead animals, processed so that it doesn’t decay.]
Spreck. She’s a barbarian or something.
[Or something. Other parts of her clothing are analogous to organic silk. Some of the things she is carrying are weapons; others appear to be crude mechanisms designed to help her survive.] The A.I.’s voice was suddenly very puzzled. [Despite the low technology of her equipment, some of the metal she’s carrying is titanium-steel alloy. Compared to the sophistication of the rest of her gear, it’s several orders of magnitude more advanced.]
A mannequin-like representation of the woman appeared. [She appears to be carrying bladed weaponry concealed on her person in these locations.] Red outlines appeared on the woman’s outfit. Derek shook his head in dismay. What kind of person was this?
[Also, for your last question, the leather thong on her head is covering up her right eye socket because she is missing that eye. ]
[Scanning. The wound looks recent, and also included the dye that colors that half of her face. It doesn’t look like a tattoo of anything I’ve ever seen. Just looks like some kind of splotch on her face. It was uncommon, but not unknown, for primitive cultures to include ritual self-mutilation as an expression of personal fortitude. Or it could have been accidental.]
Derek had no response to that other than shocked disbelief. He picked up the gun and checked the clip, finding enough gel for fifty flechette rounds, plus six high explosive bolts. He put the weapon down and swallowed hard. Technically, every citizen of New Athens was a soldier. He had basic weapons training, but he’d chosen the common route of opting to get his pilot’s license for his advanced studies. He knew he could use the gun, but he wasn’t sure that he could actually shoot someone with it.
[Derek, she’s here.]
What? How did she know we were here?
[Well, either she’s tapped into a satellite feed and has been watching us the entire time, or it’s the fact that we’re sitting in a giant smoking crater.]
Oh. Uh…let’s see her.
The strange woman was studying them, biting her lip. She circled the crater carefully, examining the craft from every angle. She looked back at the trees that had snapped as the craft landed, then, shrugging, examined the ground around the craft.
What is she doing?
[I am not sure, but she looks…uneasy.]
Well, I’d better let her know that I come in peace. He hesitated briefly. Her presence and those plants imply that I can breathe the atmosphere, and I have to make first contact one way or another.
[Go ahead. Probably safe, all things considered.]
He broadcast the manual release for the craft’s side door. The woman crouched, her weapon raised into ready position as the door slid open.
For a moment, Derek and the woman looked at each other wordlessly. He estimated her height at about a meter and a half, and probably a third of his mass. She had dark brown hair reaching a little past her ears in the back and drifting down on the right side of her face, which was streaked with purple around the eyepatch. Derek smiled and sent out a standard greeting broadcast.
The woman did not respond. Did we get a ping off of her?
[Negative. Scans are revealing that she has absolutely no cybernetic hardware whatsoever.]
Well spreck. Going to have to do this the hard way. Derek turned off the suspension system, took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and froze. He quickly dialed back his perception of time.
So. I talk to her…but what do I say?
[How do I know? I’ve never talked to anyone in the flesh before. People have done it for millennia. Figure it out.]
Derek settled on something to say and popped out of the rush.
“Uhm. Hi. Could you tell me what planet this is?”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Earth,” she said tersely.
Shadow called him back into the rush. [Great, great! Now, ask her what year!]
Why would I do that?
[Well, you’re trying to figure out what happened to us, so that might just help. Remember, we just apparently traveled faster than light – which is supposed to be impossible. Theoretical physics says we might’ve gone through time and space.]
“Th-thanks. What year is it?”
[Oooh, good good good!]
Why? We’re apparently in the distant past!
[No, we’re not. They didn’t speak English in six ninety-four, and actually didn’t widely use the common era year system until seven thirty-one. But, if you assume the people of Earth adopted a new calendar after something big happened, and go back about seven hundred years, we get back to what event…?]
Derek didn’t need any further prompts. Last Transmission. Something must’ve happened.
So, what do I ask next?
[Hrm. Probably no point in asking why she speaks English – seven hundred years is a long time for language to change but she’s understood us so far.]
[Just a hunch but she doesn’t strike me as a linguist.]
…fine. What to ask next?
[Your turn. You figure it out.]
“I was wondering if you knew what happened that people set the calendar after? I mean, it was a while ago but I thought…” He trailed off. The woman was glaring at him with one green eye. It was the grumpiest look Derek had ever seen, and it set him back for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” she started, her voice thick with sarcasm and a slight accent Derek had never heard before, “but it sounds like you fell out of the sky in order to ask stupid questions.”
“Stupid questions…? Well, what would be a smart question, then?” Derek tried to disarm her glare with a friendly smile.
“Where am I? Are we safe here? Are flesh-eating monsters coming to burn me to death or is it safe to sit around talking? Of those questions, only the third’s important because the answer is yes and we should get going before they show up.”
He stared at her dumbly as she scowled. “You’ve heard of orcs, right?”
[You really never read that much mythology, did you?]
Why? You know what she means?
His perceptions slowed again as Shadow uploaded information to his brain. [Depends. Orcs are fictional, but that doesn’t mean that people who encounter something similar won’t use the name. Considering her agitation, it’s probably based on their attitude.]
They’re not nice?
[You’re so cute when you do understatements.] Shadow closed the connection and the world returned to normal.
“How about gnokla?”
Derek queried his dictionary. No hits. He shook his head.
“It’s what they call themselves…anyway. Less talking. More running away from burning crater.”
Our physical status, Shadow?
[We still have two fractures remaining. Our right arm and leg both are being worked on as we speak; they’ll be ready in a moment. We could just have the suit bolster us, but it would be best if we used that time to grab supplies.]
“Give me two minutes,” he said.
“My leg is broken.”
The woman stared at him for a moment, then started muttering as she turned away into the forest.
[We may have a problem.]
[Something else is approaching. Scans just picked them up…and we have bad news.]
How can today get worse?
[You should know better than to ask that. First, we know what orcs look like now.] A still image appeared in Derek’s view. Derek stared at the creature for a long moment, taking in its inhuman features. Its face had large, bulging eyes, a wide mouth and a pair of tusks that pointed down from its snout. It wore leather armor over a scaly hide, and carried things that were similar to the woman’s gear, but, though it hardly seemed possible, cruder.
[We need to get going as soon as possible.]
[That thing detected my scan.]
[The orc is some six hundred meters away and closing. I switched to passive scanning the moment it reacted, but it definitely felt something and is on its way. ETA is between three and five minutes. More of them have entered my scan radius. Time for some quick thinking; better go to full rush.]
Derek complied, slowing his perception of time to its greatest extent. Despite his faster thought processes, no solution was coming to him. A full minute passed in his altered perception as the situation hung over them. I don’t know what to do.
[It’s okay, I’m…] Shadow broke off in mid-sentence.
What? What’s wrong?
[Reality. I have to stay with the ship. You have to go.]
Derek took a moment to absorb the statement. His mind shied away from the idea. When he did respond, even his thoughts stammered. You – I can’t – don’t leave me alone!
[No choice, friend. If an orc can detect my scans, what else can it do? Can it transmit and interface with the ship? Can it hack? The ship’s just a drone and there’s no time to give it a good mind. Even if I install some security, the whole ‘infinite monkey-descendants’ thing kicks in; they’ll break through eventually, and have a full 34th century factory at their bidding, which I think we can assume is a bad thing. If we turn it off, it won’t finish repairing itself or defend itself if they decide to rip it open – and they still get some of the tools inside. And if they move it, how will we ever find it again? We can’t leave it unguarded, on or off, and you can’t stay, either. If they have some method of realizing you’re inside, they might find you and pull the ship apart to get you. Right now, we have no good way of stopping them short of killing them.]
[On top of that, we have to think about humanity as a whole here. It’s possible that you’re the only New Athenian to make it here; as far as we know, you could be the only one left anywhere. That means this data is irreplaceable. I can fit in the ship. If I make a copy of everything essential and compress it, I can send it along with you.]
Shadow finally stopped. Derek pushed his way out of the rush and slammed straight into a moodcrash. His body was calm, but his mind was in a blind panic, and the dissonance threw him into complete chaos. He gasped, trying to fill lungs that were already full, and blinked through tears that weren’t actually there. His vision flickered for a few seconds as his cybernetics recovered.
I – I’m okay.
[You know better than to do that, man.]
I know. Derek finally got his breathing under control. He could taste blood but didn’t know where it had come from. Start the transfer.
[I’m sorry, Derek.]
[Okay. I’ve dusted off the mediceps and I’m bringing it back online. The suit can brace your limbs until the patch job finishes. If you don’t have further questions, then you’d best get moving.]
Okay. I’m on it.
Derek forced himself up. He had no empty bags, but the suit formed a belt that the ration packs could clip onto. He grabbed a couple dozen packs, then thought furiously. What else in the ship would be useful? He split open a pack and dug in vigorously as he thought.
He should have had plenty of time to think, but his moodcrash prevented him from using the rush. Still, what here would be useful, anyway? Most of the craft was full of modular industrial equipment; things that nanites couldn’t easily replicate. Some of it could be carried, but why?
He considered integrating the gun with his flight suit, but it was bulkier than a standard sidearm, so he placed it against a convenient spot at his side and formed a holster. Most of the suit’s core functions were designed around keeping its occupant alive when crashed on an unknown planet. It would make survival much easier. Derek had even augmented it with a few hobbyist’s tools, including industrial and medical shrouds.
He worked his way onto his feet. His legs felt shaky – Shadow had given him full sensation back when he had left – but the suit bolstered him.
Derek was at a loss for words. The AI had been part of him—literally—since childhood. Stay safe.
[Me stay safe? Me?] Shadow’s laughter echoed in his mind. [I’ve moved out, now. You’re the one keeping your brain inside a bone case.]
The machine’s voice took a more serious note. [Take good care of our body, okay? I want to move back in when I can. Maintain radio silence except in emergency. I will work on finding a system of communication that they can’t detect, and on repairing the ship. The orc will be within line of sight in one minute, forty-five seconds. The woman is twelve meters away, off to your left. Derek’s Shadow, out.]
Derek gave a curt nod, then turned and took a step. The craft’s door closed behind him as he fell on his face. He scrambled to his hands and knees, aghast; the gravity was lower here, but the ground itself refused to support his weight. He ran a hand across the dry earth and saw how it cracked under him.
I can compensate. I have to, he thought, but nobody was listening. He staggered to his feet and stumbled in the direction the woman had gone. He was watching his step so intently that he nearly ran into her. She had been heading towards the ship with a stout branch in hand. She scowled at him.
“I thought you said your leg was broken!”
“My Shadow fixed it!” The look on her face went beyond incredulity, and Derek realized the width of their cultural gap. She didn’t have a Shadow. Well, neither did he anymore. “Never mind, it got better, but we have to go now! There’s orcs back there!”
Her scowl gave way to alertness. “Then let’s go.”
“My name’s Derek. Derek Kazenushi.”
“Mine’s Mycah. This way.”
That’s the end of the sample, folks. I hope you enjoyed it so far. Remember that the full book can be purchased on Amazon - the ebook is only $3 right now. Just look for Chains of Loss - or go to the top of this page for a link.