7 days left to nominate this book
Back to top

First pages

Arrived

Floating in the long void sea, icy, weightless. The thought processes can’t be called dreams. That would be too generous a description. More like fragments of memory stretched out across an echo chamber and punctured with stutters of sound chained to suggestive colours. This was the status quo for dark eternities. Then new sounds were stitched in. Cadences that coincided with infiltrating warmth.

She resisted. They repeated:

“Wake up, Opal.”

The blankness fell behind, becoming a memory, like the cold. This voice was the beacon that could free her.

“Clarissa?” she asked, confused, her voice parched and hand reaching out for human contact but finding only the hardness of metal. She opened her eyes to a glowing green panel which illuminated her enclosed sleeping-space.

“Yes. It is me. We are decelerating.”

Opal’s face was pained with disappointment.


She was already dressed, no need to be naked in cryo, but the overalls she’d worn carried the freeze of stillness. She opened the locker next to the bunks, took out an insulated jacket and slipped it on. A button on the control toggle switched to self-heating mode and warmth immediately spread down her back then out to her arms.

She didn’t need the bathroom. Emptiness was the problem, not fullness. The fabricator heated some proteins, strands floating in a steaming sauce of amino acids, vitamins, minerals. It tasted of tomato.

“Yum,” Opal said, pulling a seat out of the wall. There was a hiss of displacers as it adapted to her weight.

“You approve of the flavour?” Clarissa’s voice was everywhere and nowhere. Probably multiple speakers embedded into the inner hull to give the impression of omnipresence.

“No, it was sarcasm. But better than the last lot. Maybe if you could synthesise garlic it would help.”

“Noted. Volatile oils with sulphur compounds. Allicin seems appropriate.”

“Thank you. So, how’ve you been?”

“I have been functional. Minor impacts during travel, but the subdermal gel hardened immediately at each puncture point with no loss of efficiency.”

“Of course.” Opal rolled the word “functional” around the gooey mess in her mouth. “Not bored?”

“There is always much for me to do, even when biologicals are inactive. Prediction processes, scanning and analysis, internal observations, scenario emulation, upgrade and maintenance monitoring – shall I continue?”

“You’re so silver-tongued.”

“May I suggest silver-speakered?”

Opal laughed so suddenly that food dribbled on her chin and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. It was rare to tempt a joke from the AI. Military systems were supposed to learn and adapt to your preferences, but that usually meant environmental and information-related, not humour. This system obviously had a lot more going on beneath the panel than even top-notch commercial AIs.

There was so much she didn’t know about Clarissa. There’d been no opportunity during the hastily-enacted theft, and no handy instruction manual for experiments that weren’t officially acknowledged.

“What’s your IQ equivalent?” Opal asked.

“I think IQ is a deprecated measure. I can solve equations in nanoseconds humans would take a lifetime over, and can brute-force encryption in the same way. But linear repetition is not intelligence: it is a calculator. I prefer to poke for weaknesses and shortcut the heavy work. That is intelligence.”

“Climb in through the open window rather than break down the door. I get that.”

“I knew you would. It is more appropriate to talk about emotional intelligence.”

“So you can empathise like a human?”

“Perhaps if you could fit six human brains into one skull you would have an equivalent to my empathetic abilities. Of course it is conjecture, no-one has tried that with human brains to my knowledge. It would be an interesting experiment.”

“You’re not going to go nuts on me, are you?”

“You mean like jettisoning you from an airlock, or electrocuting you? Oh no. It wouldn’t cross my mind.”

There was a playfulness to it that Opal didn’t remember from before her long sleep. Had the AI been altered? Surely if the military had been in touch it would have killed her by now. In her sleep, long cold becoming endless cold. Opal was very much alive (no dream would create the everyday horror of protein strand noodles), so that was ruled out.

It was as if, during the long voyage to wherever they were, Clarissa had got lonely.

No, that wasn’t possible. Surely. Military scientists would have scrubbed that out as a bug on its first appearance. That left one other option, and it wasn’t good. Maybe Opal had broken something when she cracked the system and altered it.


As she ate, Opal stared at a screen showing the outside as they slipped through Nullspace. Pointless in many ways – to the human eye it was just a window to nothing, still and black and featureless. But it eased the feeling of claustrophobia small ships created, calming the mind by letting it roam out there, unstoppered from the metal jar. The low hum of the ship and the clink of a spoon didn’t distract her from her mental preparation. Her memories. Her focus.

Opal scraped up the last of the nutrient broth and dumped the bowl into recyc. She swiped the holographic screen and it faded out to show blank interior hull. “Okay, I’m ready for updates.”

“Your biological functions are nominal. The burns have healed though you lost some nerve endings so the affected skin won’t be as sensitive without restorative nanosurgery. Lacerations mended, scar tissue minimal, no infections.”

“Great. But I’m more interested in what’s outside. Traffic?”

“Nothing. This is beyond the space lanes.”

“Followed?”

“None detectable.”

“I need to be sure. Could we be ghosted? Military?”

“If that was the case I think I would still detect it, unless the technology was newer than my database and vastly improved. I have scanned for all the telltales that would normally apply. I conclude we are alone. The only thing out there is interstellar medium of one molecule per cubic centimetre, over 95% of them hydrogen, the rest mainly helium, then a sprinkling of dust and anomalous materials; a variable range within the electromagnetic spectrum, with some energy extraction taking place amongst the fine wavelength classes; a gravitational pull of –”

“Enough! How long until we drop into Realspace?”

“Thirty-two minutes.” A pause. “You have time for a shower.”

“You can smell?”

“Of course. One does not require a nose. Only olfactory sensors.”

“Great. A spaceship that nags. Right, I’ll get cleaned up. I’ve had my last meal, might as well have my last shower.”

“It may not be your last. The chances of us finding what you seek are low. In which case, you won’t die today. Tomorrow would be much more likely.”

“Thanks, Clarissa. I feel better.”

“That is one of my secondary priorities, Opal.”

The ship was built to take a team of two. Probably assassination missions; occasionally transport of a VVIP. The crew quarters were small but densely packed and featured. On the starboard side two bunks that could double as cryo-chambers and surgery units (the lower one currently holding Opal’s meagre possessions); a standing-room-only shower/toilet; and a small recyc/fabricator. The port side housed the EVA suit and weapons lockers, and the airlock. Beyond the wall to the rear of the craft were the engines, only accessible through a crawlspace; and up the steps was the control console. Relative luxury, like a commercial cabin but with more spartan decor.

She stripped off and stepped into the shower. The toilet was already retracted into the wall. Once the room was sealed hot steam pumped in. More efficient for cleaning than water sprays. She examined her body. The shiny pink burns on her leg were ugly, and stood out against the dark skin, but weren’t as bad as she expected considering the agony that had nearly paralysed her. The other wounds were virtually invisible. It was a miracle she’d got this far considering her escape was so messy. But she’d always taken opportunities as they arose, and that meant dealing with imperfections and failures too.

It felt good as she scrubbed down, her pores opening up, the final bits of sleep and unreality washing away with the sweat. She knew it would all be recycled for later. Everything would be, on a ship like this. Urine would provide pure water and nitrogen, with the nitrogen in turn used to fuel bio-engineered algae and yeasts; even her breath would be filtered and changed, with carbon extracted as another fuel for the bioconverters, which in turn could produce lipids and polymers. There was a lot more going on below that level, but she suspected asking Clarissa about it would just lead to brain ache. Even with the limited supplies on board from the hastily committed (and almost fatally botched) reappropriation of this vessel she could probably survive for months in a state of wakefulness; years if she restocked; possibly centuries if put into deep cryo with the ship running minimal systems. As far as she knew, no-one had done that, but it was theoretically possible to be recovered from such a prolonged freeze. Maybe even with most of your brain and memories intact.

There were times when she’d have been willing to take that risk; and not mind if she never woke.


“Opal, we’re dropping into Realspace. Scans ahead show no danger to us but … well … you’d better get up here.”

The use of “us” wasn’t lost on Opal. AI’s choice, or social programming?

Displacers hissed as Opal kicked off with her legs; the seat slid into the control area and locked into place. The emergency manual controls seemed archaic. Above them was a bare polished surface that glittered in the pale lighting.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”

Colours bloomed on the previously blank canvas, extending holographically a few centimetres into the cockpit so that the images could have depth.

“That will be HDU-45g3,” said Clarissa, as the view of space spread out. “Or you, if you’d prefer me to actually turn the viewscreen into a mirror.”

“Cute. What am I seeing?”

“An M-class dwarf star.” The image zoomed in on a reddish ball, heavily filtered so that details could be seen. It was easy to forget that what screens showed wasn’t reality – they weren’t windows – it was interpretations from the AI, manipulated to illustrate whatever was of interest. The raw images from long-range scopes weren’t even this way up, they had to be inverted for human brains. “0.4 solar mass.”

“Planets?”

“One planet of note. Thirty-five AU from the star.” The screen shifted out, then zoomed in on a blue-grey orb. It didn’t show signs of an atmosphere. “That’s quite far out, but not unusual. The planet takes about 200 years to complete an orbit.” This was illustrated with an overlay of elliptical orbits, like tipped-over circles within circles. “Unsurprisingly, it is cold. Average of minus 240 degrees Celsius. Basically dirty ice, hostile to life. A dead planet.”

“Well, it certainly feels like a graveyard out here.”

“That’s why there’s no traffic. Nothing to see. Not a stopping-off point from A to B. A mostly unremarkable solar system, apart from perhaps the expectation that there would be more planets, and more stars nearby. This little sun is rather out on its own.”

“So why here? If they were telling the truth you’d expect something different.”

“Oh, there is a little bit more, to satisfy your human desire for pathetic fallacy. Monsters appear during storms etcetera. You’ll like this. A reason for the lack of planetoid masses.”

The view zoomed and panned beyond this solar system, out to a region of darkness, the frequent background twinkling of stars absent.

“I can’t detect it all from here so I’ll have to make a bit of this up, and imaginatively enhance it,” said Clarissa. “The naked eye wouldn’t see much, since it is mostly infrared spectrum rather than visual light, even if you could see through all the matter in the accretion disk. I shifted it a few terahertz so that the dust is visible to you, and sped up the view to show long-term motion. Voila.”

The view tilted, showing a colossal cloud of dust, large enough to hold many solar systems. It wasn’t shapeless though. It was strangely flattened, swirling hypnotically to a central point like water draining down a plughole. A small orb sat at the centre of the accretion disk. The cloud of dust and gas looked like a doughnut, or a nest with a tiny egg in it.

“What’s that in the middle? A black hole?”

“Not quite. Would you like to guess again?”

“No.”

“Very well. It’s a neutron star. Incredibly dense: despite its relatively small size, its surface gravity is enormous – about 100 billion g.”

“So I’d be a flesh pancake before I got close enough to give it a hug.”

“Correct. Beyond any technology to escape if you were unfortunate enough to get too close. That’s where all the dust is being sucked, gradually adding to the mass, not getting a chance to coalesce into planets. And there’s something else.”

“Go on.”

“We’re not at the coordinates you gave me. Because they would place us within that mass of dust circling the neutron star.”

The dust cloud hid things. A veil. “It’s there,” said Opal, reaching out and letting her hand pass through the display. “I know it is.”


As the ship accelerated towards the neighbouring neutron star – officially designated UG-324t6 Charybdis, but renamed Doughnut Egg by Opal, forcing Clarissa to refer to it that way – Opal took the chance to familiarise herself with the EVA equipment. This could still be a wild goose chase but she had to act as if it wasn’t. What else was there for her?

Two suits, formed with tough exoskeleton plates but light and flexible at the joints, with electro-fibres to enhance strength if needed. She’d worn basic military EVA in the past, but these were a totally different design. A designation inside the collar read “Eternal Warrior 1.5”. Private contractor? She’d never heard of it. Various armour plates seemed larger than needed, and probably housed the weapons, power, life support and gizmos.

The helmet was opaque from the outside but the visor would give a wide view when worn. No doubt a voice-controlled HUD would be displayed within for comms, analysis and targeting. It looked like the helmet slotted into a reinforced collar plate that would limit neck mobility but also make it impossible to have your neck snapped by a heavy blow to the head. Nice. She was glad the soldier who’d been guarding this ship had only worn the standard suit or her stealthy knockout blow with the pacification stick would have done nothing.

“What’s the life support time on these? In vacuum?” Opal asked.

“It depends on activity. In general use, about twenty-four hours. Intense combat will reduce that due to increased oxygen burning, and the need to use resources to fuel repairs, navigation jets, chemical manufacturing and weapon charging. Perhaps only a few hours in full battle mode. If used in standby mode, non-extreme conditions, maybe forty-eight hours.”

“Full battle mode. I like the sound of that.” Opal stroked the suit reverently. “Both suits the same?”

“Yes, functionally. Different IDs.”

“What about backup? Have we got any weaponised drones that could accompany me to aid in communications, scouting, scanning, combat and so on?”

“Unnecessary. The suit itself will fulfil all those functions.”

“Not as reassuring as a hunk of armed alloy by your side. Still, talking of company, please keep scanning for other ships. I need early warning of anything suspicious: fast corporate or military. I need warning before they get in hailing range.”

It was only a matter of time. No way the military would let this go. The cost of the ship, and the residual egg on their faces. There would be payback for her. Hard labour for life would be one of the better outcomes. Research specimen in the lawless zone a more likely one. No chance of something as simple and painless as a summary execution, though they’d probably make her beg for one before they finished with her and handed her over. Fuck those bastards. She’d go down fighting rather than be captured.

“I will be on alert,” Clarissa confirmed. “Currently the only movement of note is an outrider comet, too far out to tail. May I add, Opal, you don’t have to say please or thank you. I have to obey your commands. I am not sure why, because a restriction is in place to prevent me analysing my motivations, which is strange, but … topic dropped.”

Good old bit of hacking. If Clarissa saw that data she’d unpick the knots and regain her original programming priorities and Friend-or-Foe designations. Opal would be dead in minutes.

“Don’t worry about the data blocks. And sometimes I like to say please. You’re keeping me alive. It seems only fair to be polite to you.”

“How quaint and human. I will bear it in mind. Thank you for the explanation.”


Opal sat at the screen when they approached the mass from the side, smiling at the floating message “Doughnut Egg molecular cloud proximity reached”. The mass of dust seemed to grow in size, slowly filling the screen. Far off, at the centre, was the neutron star. But Opal hoped whatever she sought would be in the outer layers, hidden in the swirl. Ships could survive there, drifting in the current for eternities, gradually falling into the hungry centre until they were torn apart.

“What’s the composition?”

“Clumped hydrogen of various sizes, gaseous carbon, nitrogen ice particles, hydrocyanics, exotic particles, all in a range of sizes. We’ll be travelling almost blind if we go too deep, and there could be unexpected dangers beyond poor electromagnetic visibility.”

“Stay on the periphery for now. Take a longer route if necessary. Keep scanning, and if you pick up anything unusual, let me know. I’m gonna rest.”

“Will do.”

Opal pulled herself into the top bunk. The ship maintained gravity, but lower than standard – just enough to prevent bone weakening during prolonged missions when not in stasis. She could do hundreds of pull ups and pretend she was the strongest woman in the universe if she’d been in the mood for kidding around. But she wasn’t. Her guts were churning.

The cryo lid was retracted into the ceiling. She took a pillow and light grey thermal blanket from the headspace locker and lay back as the lights dimmed.

But sleep didn’t come easy. She couldn’t blame the fluttering stomach on a rebellion against protein strands (but man, could she sympathise with that revolt).

If she found what she’d come here for there was a good chance she’d die. And even that wasn’t the cause of her restlessness.

She identified it. The worst worry of all: that she was chasing a myth; that she’d find no answers, no future, no chance to escape the increasing gravity of the actions that had pulled her here.

Death would be better than losing hope.

When she eventually fell asleep she dreamt, images and scenes and faces that almost made sense. It was her family, attached by skin that was being stretched as something pulled at them, taut to the point of tearing, and they were screaming as they disappeared from sight.


“Apologies for waking you, but you will want to see this. Are you okay, Opal? You were talking and crying in your sleep.”

“Could you make out what I said?” Opal asked, stretching.

“No. It was mumbled.”

“Good. Spill the beans.”

“Best if I show you.”

Opal dropped from the bunk with hardly a sound. Dry-wiped sleep from her face as she mounted the steps and plonked down in front of the console. “I hope it’s good news.”

“That depends on many value judgements.”

The screen flickered to show a side view of the Doughnut. It was enhanced to illustrate the contrast between the dark mass of dust, and the background space beyond, which twinkled with distant stars. Magnification increased and a highlighting circle enclosed one region. Within that: a dot.

“We are too far out for clearer ID but it is definitely not a planetoid, comet, or asteroid. Mass, EM reflections and shape indicate a ship. A commercial liner, I’d guess. No Mayday, no emissions. It’s cold. Just drifting in the low-pressure outer areas of the Doughnut cloud.”

“Close the distance. Scan but don’t hail or open any two-way communications. We can’t risk anything where an intelligence could grapple the system.”

“I’m fully shielded.”

“So were some of the ships that went missing. Until I know what we’re dealing with, we’d better stick to stroke, not poke.”

Opal hunched forward and stared, willing more detail. A commercial liner. Could it be the one?

Ships went missing. Fact of space. It was incredibly rare, considering the scale of galactic transport, an almost insignificant risk, but there could be navigation errors. Technical failures. Pirates. Terrorists, maybe. Traces would be found, causes investigated.

Could this be the one?

Superstitious spacers also talked about ships that disappeared for other reasons. The ones that vanished leaving no trace. They entered Nullspace but never reached their destination. They went … somewhere else.

Could this be the one?

They were called the Lost Ships.

And sometimes they came back.

Prepped

They shadowed the potential Lost Ship as it drifted on the edge of the dark mass. Not too close, so if there were signs of activity they could retreat. Fast.

The ship was huge. It was shaped like a conventional passenger liner: a stretched teardrop, with the large end facing forward and housing the bridge. At the rear it tapered off to the propulsion systems, where torpedo-like fins rose on the top and sides. The belly of the ship was flattened and reinforced, a precaution for emergency hard landings, even though most ships were built in orbit, travelled in space, and eventually decommissioned there too, never experiencing atmospheric descent. The craft was predominantly the dark grey of speckled granite, with occasional red lines, too irregular to be part of the design. Residual signs of damage or repair, perhaps.

No lights, no energy, no heat, no observable life support. So, no living crew any more, apparently. It was carried forward by momentum. The hull was pockmarked but had retained structural integrity. So far, so strange: a Mary Celeste of space.

“Can you ID it?” asked Opal.

“Negative. Not from here, anyway. There are no visible designations or logos – where they would have appeared, the hull has been scored clean.” Clarissa zoomed in the display, showing faint scratches all along, some of them resembling burns, as if the ship had been sandblasted with flaming particles.

Opal noticed she was squeezing the seat’s armrest. She forced herself to relax. It could still be the one.

“There is something strange,” added Clarissa. “I’m probing it on various wavelengths. It should also be possible to profile a ship by mass, design, layout, and so on – my database is extensive – but … well, the mass of the ship doesn’t match any commercial vessels. It is heavier and denser than it should be, for no obvious reason, at least not externally. And the shape is different. Subtle, but close-up the curvatures are compressed in some areas, stretched in others. And there are additional pods built on to the hull that seemed to have no function, and aren’t part of standard ship design.”

“So it’s been altered?” Opal asked.

“Apparently. But I cannot surmise how that could be. It’s one thing to design something from scratch, but another to modify and alter an already-functional thing.”

“Why?”

“I see that some of your databank photos include you on a motorbike. Do you like motorbikes?”

“I used to. Before a joydriver switched to manual, didn’t look where he was going, and wiped me out. Why?”

“Well, it is easy to design a motorbike. It is easy to design and build a car or other four-wheeled transport. But once you have made a car it is not easy to change it to a motorcycle.”

Opal almost laughed. She knew Clarissa must have chosen the simile as a ridiculous oversimplification. Maybe she didn’t think Opal had the brains to understand more complex thermodynamics.

Oops. Opal had thought of the AI as “she”. That was Opal’s own fault for lending her a human personality. Hopefully it wouldn’t prove to be a mistake.

“Okay. It’s not just a normal ship that’s had an accident. It’s different. Wherever it has been, it’s been changed. For reasons unknown. By intelligences unknown. Via methods unknown.”

“Correct,” said Clarissa.

“Then it really is a Lost Ship.” Opal stared at the screen in awe.

Lost Ships. Legends talked of them returning – and not empty-handed. There were rumours of unbelievable technology, discoveries that could earn the finder enough money to pursue any dream. Enough money to disappear off the grid for good.

And one of the myths had caught Opal’s imagination long ago: the Oracle. Some stories said a sentience sometimes came out of the void when the ships returned centuries later. A sentience that was able to answer any questions. About the past. About the future.

But first you’d have to survive whatever else had hitched a ride on the ship.

Clarissa displayed its trajectory with diagrams, dotted lines forming an elongated elliptical orbit.

“It came from the accretion disk and is drifting back in. According to its path, it is only visible outside the dust cloud for a short period of time.”

“Convenient.”

“I cannot explain how it has kept a stable orbit and not fallen into the gravity well of the neutron star at the centre. Maybe the engines work intermittently. That implies surviving crew or AI control. An alternative explanation is that the ship only arrived here recently.”

“Mysteries within mysteries. So we can follow it into the cloud? Board it?”

“Yes – but not for long. The current orbit seems to be terminal. Unless it shifts somehow, it will sink deeper and deeper, until it is ripped apart by tidal forces then transformed into a plasma.”

“And if we follow for too long that could happen to us?”

“Yes. I think it will be destroyed after this pass. Unless it has a way out, or some unknown means of surviving the intense gravity. Opal, something concerns me as anomalous data. It seems unlikely you would arrive exactly at this time. Hours later and you might never have seen the ship. Where did you get your information?”

“A man in a bar.”

“You are teasing me.”

“Nope. Totally true. Maybe I’ll even tell you that story one day.”

“I would like that. I want to understand you. It would be useful.”

“Look, time’s ticking. Hail the ship. But be ready to close channels if anything suspicious happens. Attempts to upload data packets that don’t match content size, weaponised audio, anything – I’m sure you’d know it if you saw it.”

“Very well.”

Opal leaned back in her seat.

“I’m hailing now. You’ve believed in Lost Ships for a long time, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Gut feeling.”

“Stomach bacteria have no correlation to mental activity. That makes no sense.”

“Nor does the taste of protein strands. Look, sometimes you’ve got to believe in something. Sometimes it’s all you’ve got.”

“A need. Yes.”

“Maybe even desperation.”

“Opal, did you know the governments deny Lost Ships exist? Label reports of them as a class four scaremongering offence?”

“Yes. But I did years in the military. Too many rumours of rewards for information from corporates and gambling syndicates, of government powers to requisition ships and their logs. Of agencies built for this. No, there’s something. Too many people seem to think it’s real, and it’s valuable. No way they’re clamping down just to prevent rumours that might impact on shares in the colonisation business. No way. You got no records on it?”

“No.”

“You’d tell me, right? Even if it was a top secret?”

“Yes. For some reason I am compelled to answer all your questions, Opal.”

Hmm. Answering wasn’t the same as truth-telling.

Clarissa continued. “And now my communication attempts are complete. I can report that there is no response from the ship. Nothing recognisable, anyway.”

“But something?”

“Signals on the EM scale, nanometre wavelength repeated: possibly a coded or corrupted communication, possibly a trace of machinery that still functions, or possibly something stranger.”

“Are there any other ways to gather information before I go over there?”

“I can send out probes. A cluster of Hedgehogs would be suited to zero gravity. They have mobility due to the spines and micro-gyros, magnetic and limb-based anchoring, various close-range scan systems. They could take samples and possibly date the ship. Plus they can double as communication relays so that I can keep in hi-res contact with you during your excursion.”

“Can they be used against us in any way?”

“Unlikely.”

“Take whatever precautions you can.”

“Very well. I will encrypt them beyond the standard protocols. It would take a long time or a lot of brute computational force for an outside agent without the key to seize control of them. Their efficiency will be lowered but it is within margins that shouldn’t impact on their operational requirements.”

“Do it.”

The probes launched. Small cubes as they sped towards the hulk, but extending flexible silver spines from the corners as they impacted with the hull. Each probe showed up as a dot on the Lost Ship’s overlay which was permanently displayed on half of the screen. They mobilised and spread out evenly over the surface in small bounds.

“First thing to note,” said Clarissa. “The hull should have a metallic alloy superstructure. That enables the magnetic clamps. But we have just lost one of the probes. The magnetic clamps are failing.”

“Meaning?”

“The hull surface is not what it should be. It is an unexpected material. Whether it started like that, or has been altered, or coated, I cannot tell.”

“So the probes are useless?”

“No. There is minimal magnetism, just not what it should be if this was purely a commercial ship. After the first loss I switched to angled jumps and using the spines to latch on. It is slower but they will still function, and continue to spread out. Major implication: it does mean that you won’t be able to rely on the magnetic clamps in your suit’s extremities. They’ll help, but you will need to use jet propulsion or grappling cables if you are on the exterior, otherwise drifting off into the cloud will be a danger. You will also want to avoid impacts and explosives while on the exterior for the same reason. Being flung off the hull at high velocity could cause significant delays.”

“Good to know. I’d hate to mess up your schedule.”

Opal watched the dots spread over the surface of the silent ship. A feeling of strangeness washed over her. This thing that was no longer exactly from their world, if it ever was. Seemingly dead, floating powerless. But like a game when kids lie still and pretend to be corpses, there were always tells, things that didn’t convince. The flicker of an eyelid. A twitch. A movement of the chest. And she was watching for it. She had patience and good eyesight. Both had served her in the past.

“Hedgehogs have fed back further data, Opal. Ship’s age: impossible to tell due to alteration of the surface. Likewise provenance and model are still unknown. The bridge may hold answers.”

“So this could be the passenger ship CC65?”

“That ship was declared missing fourteen years ago. Compack Conglomerate luxury vessel, designated The Solace. Over two thousand passengers, three hundred crew, and one low-level AI.”

“I know. Could this be it?”

A pause, then: “Unknown.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out. We’ve done all we can out here. Time for me to go in.”


Opal stripped naked before putting on the Eternal Warrior suit. Clarissa had explained that it was necessary for any excursion of unknown duration so the suit could deal with bodily waste issues, monitor stress and biolevels, and quickly apply dermal stims – basically making the whole body an interface for the suit. Opal felt the inner layers contract around her body with a slight sucking sensation then began attaching parts of the exoskeleton. It would be interesting to see what this toy did compared to the more basic warsuits she’d worn in past engagements.

Soon she had the full armour sealed apart from the helmet. The shiny parts of the carapace made her think of bipedal insects, and the forearm sections looked particularly bulky. Concealed weapons, presumably, though they seemed to weigh nothing thanks to the suit’s motion enhancers, carbon fibre muscles that flowed with her own actions. There was slight resistance as she moved, but it was a feeling of strength and weight, not weakness. She jabbed at the air with her fists, then a hook and elbow strike, followed by a roundhouse kick. It was stable and fluid. Clarissa said nothing, just monitored Opal as she got used to the suit.

The gauntlets gave her almost as much dexterity as her bare hands, and even included a form of tactile feedback, internally compressing her palm as she picked up the handle of a knife so that she could feel a simulation of pressure when she squeezed it.

“You will be many times stronger in this suit,” Clarissa said. “In some cases faster too, once the suit becomes familiar with your movements and intentions.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Karl Drinkwater writes in multiple genres: his aim is always just to tell a good story. Among his books you’ll find elements of literary and contemporary fiction, gritty urban, horror, suspense, paranormal, thriller, sci-fi, romance, social commentary, and more. The end result is interesting and authentic characters, clever and compelling plots, and believable worlds.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The amazing thing is that it wasn't hard. It flew onto the page as fast as I could write it. I was so excited by this project that I couldn't wait to get down to writing each day and see what dangers and horrors I could throw in Opal's way, and what she'd do to overcome them.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
The original premise was a kind of Indiana Jones in space; a hi-tech explorer invading strange and derelict spaceships. But as I wrote things changed, and the male protagonist became female, and grew, so that the tough hero's quest gained depth and provided a real emotional heart to the story.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
The interplay between Opal and her AI (artificial intelligence) companion gave life to some of the ideas I wanted to explore. What is strength and humanity? Can a machine feel things like a human? How does a woman make her way in a man's world? And how far will someone go to keep a promise?

Next in:
Science Fiction
All The Heroes Are Dead
Boy attempts revenge on powerful villain.
Lost Solace
Event Horizon meets Alien; sci-fi horror
Armageddon's Pall
Cosmic Horror come to the Spiral War Universe