Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Boneyards
Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February of 2011. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous twelve novels, click here.
This month, I’ve excerpted Boneyards, which is the third novel in the Diving series. You don’t have to have read any of the other novels in the series to read this one, but you might enjoy it more if you read the others first. You can read an excerpt from the first novel in the series, Diving Into the Wreck, here.
You’ll find ordering information for Boneyards at the end of this post.
Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
When multiple Hugo Award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch decided to put her stamp on classic space opera, readers wanted more. Now Rusch’s popular character Boss returns in a whole new adventure, one that takes her far outside her comfort zone, to a sector of space she’s never seen before.
Searching for ancient technology to help her friends find answers to the mystery of their own past, Boss ventures into a place filled with evidence of an ancient space battle, one the Dignity Vessels lost.
Meanwhile, the Enterran Empire keeps accidentally killing its scientists in a quest for ancient stealth tech. Boss’s most difficult friend, Squishy, has had enough. She sneaks into the Empire and destroys its primary stealth tech research base. But an old lover thwarts her escape, and now Squishy needs Boss’s help.
Boss, who is a fugitive in the Empire. Boss, who knows how to make a Dignity Vessel work. Boss, who knows that Dignity Vessels house the very technology that the Empire is searching for.
Should Boss take a Dignity Vessel to rescue Squishy and risk losing everything to the Empire? Or should Boss continue on her mission for her other friends and let Squishy suffer her own fate?
Filled with battles old and new, scientific dilemmas, and questions about the ethics of friendship, Boneyards looks at the influence of our past on our present and the risks we all take when we meddle in other people’s lives.
Boneyards is space opera the way it was meant to be: exciting, fast moving, and filled with passion.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch Published by Pyr Books
Sector Base W
Rubble everywhere. Dust. Debris. I feel filthy and we’ve only been inside this room for fifteen minutes.
If you can call where we are “inside.” Most of the rubble around us comes from caved-in rock, destroyed, not by time, but by some kind of blast.
We’re here because Coop has finally tracked the location of Sector Base W, the base that was under construction when he and his Dignity Vessel, the Ivoire, left their timeline and got caught in foldspace. Five thousand years have passed for him, which is hard enough for me to grasp, but must seem impossible to the crew of the Ivoire.
Not all of them have dealt with it well. Maybe none of them have dealt with it well.
But some are dealing better than others.
I like to think Coop is one of those who is dealing with the loss of his friends, family, and universe quite well.
It’s cold here, the kind of cold that I associate with failing environmental systems on spacecraft instead of with planets. Some of us are wearing our environmental suits (without the helmets) so that we can stay warm. Others—the planet-raised for the most part—are wearing layers of clothing.
That doesn’t matter to me at the moment. At the moment, we’re not going to do heavy work. But when we decide what heavy work to do, I’m going to make the ground team wear environmental suits, just for ease of movement.
Technically, I am running this mission. Coop has hired me, not as the CEO of a now-huge corporation called The Lost Souls, but in my former capacity as a wreck diver. He has decided that he needs my expertise, and I have decided that I need to return to basics.
We have brought quite a crew with us. My three main divers Mikk, Roderick, and Tamaz, are on the team, along with the Six. The Six are civilians who have a genetic marker that allows them to work in stealth tech. Or, at least, they were civilians. They’ve now worked in and around stealth tech for five years.
Archeologist Lucretia Stone, historian César Voris, and scientist McAllister Bridge finish off my team. Coop’s team includes military officers from the Ivoire, a cadre of linguists, and a large group of scientists who specialize in what we have come to call Lost Technology, even though we should probably call it Found Technology, given the circumstances.
We have one large ship in orbit, Nobody’s Business Two, although it’s not large by Dignity Vessel standards. (A Dignity Vessel can house a thousand people somewhat comfortably, although it’s designed for 500.) The Two is large by my standards. Even though I have run a huge corporation for almost a decade now, I still think of myself as the woman who ran a small diving operation out of a ship barely big enough to hold the team on this ground mission.
Most of our crew is not on this ground mission. Most are still on the Two. We wanted a small team down here—well, I wanted a small team down here—to assess what we need to launch some kind of study of this place.
The ground mission isn’t risky the way that some of my wreck dives have been risky. We’re not operating in the vacuum of space, and we don’t have any inexperienced tourists with us. We’re operating in the remains of a mountain on a planet with normal gravity.
But the ground mission is still difficult, and not just because we’re working in the unstable remains of a mountainside. We have strange levels of command here, and even stranger levels of emotion.
For Coop, this place must seem surreal. He had looked at the schematics of the Sector Base before it was built, approving the design in a large meeting with the other captains of the Fleet. In his mind, Sector Base W is both a place that’s still under construction and a place that was ruined centuries ago.
It represents a hope, now gone, that he will find his people again—or what remains of his people, five thousand years in the future.
For me, Sector Base W is a curiosity, albeit one that has a firm grip on my imagination. I want to know what happened here. History always captures me, and now that I’m working beside living history, I’m even more captivated.
But I’m worried as well. No matter how often I do planetside missions, I hate them. I prefer to explore in zero-gravity, so that I can float around the problems, propel myself forward with my arms alone, look at everything from top to bottom without climbing anything.
I have learned that ground-based missions are not my strong suit, which is why Lucretia Stone is actually in charge of the physical part of this trip. Stone, one of the most highly regarded archeologists in both the Empire and, now, in the Nine Planets, has perfected the art of ground-based exploration, and I was foolish on our very first mission not to trust her experience.
In the five years since, I have rectified that. Stone has proven herself time and time again to be an able group leader. I’m just not a very good follower, and neither is Coop.
He’s beside me now, standing on the wreckage of a platform with the word “Danger” written on it in Old Earth Standard. He is tall and broad shouldered, with dark hair and intense blue eyes. If I had to tell someone years ago what a captain of a Dignity Vessel looked like, I would have described a man like Coop. The square-jawed hero of legend.
Only Coop’s not a legend, and at the moment, he looks heartbroken.
I want to slip my arm around him, but I don’t dare.
Right now, he has assumed his professional persona, that of Jonathon “Coop” Cooper, Captain of the Ivoire. Captain Cooper remains strong for his troops, even when there aren’t many of them around him. Only two of his people have joined us on the ground. Joanna Rossetti, small and tough, has moved closer to Stone, trying to see deep within the rubble. The Ivoire’s chief engineer, Yash Zarlengo, stands beside Coop, hands clasped behind her back.
Yash’s face is always hard to read. She was raised planetside by an engineering family at one of the sector bases, and has the thick muscles and firm bones of anyone raised in real gravity. Coop has them too, although not everyone on his staff does.
Yash should be back at Lost Souls, working with one of my teams on the various anacapa projects. The anacapa is a specialized drive developed by the Fleet, something no culture has replicated in five thousand years. Initially, my people thought the anacapa was stealth technology. It functions that way sort of, but really, it’s much much more. Yash heads anacapa research in Lost Souls but she, like Coop, wants to solve the mystery of the Fleet. She wants to know where her people are, even if they are her people no longer.
The condition of Sector Base W, however, has all three of them upset.
“A lot of this damage could just be caused by time,” says Stone.
She’s in the very middle of the debris field, trying to look through the boulders and the broken rock at the remains of the room beyond.
I have been inside a sector base before, albeit one long shut down. The main room of a sector base is huge, big enough to hold several Dignity Vessels. The floor is smooth, and there is lighting everywhere. In the very back, there should be apartments for visiting workers and storage rooms. The ceiling is high, and in some sector bases, should open to the planet above.
If you didn’t see the Old Earth Standard word “Danger” on the platform Coop is standing on, you might not realize that this is a manmade cavern. The door is long gone, the corridors leading to the room have collapsed, and there is no equipment that I can see.
Of course, I’ve learned from Stone that time adds to our problems in understanding what happened. Over time, dirt and debris and basic garbage cover the ground layer, burying the path that people walked on five thousand years ago in centimeters, sometimes meters, of material.
Plus planets change. They’re living things, just like we are, and they expand, contract, and alter as their atmosphere and environment wear on them each and every day. That doesn’t count what humans do to planets, carving them up for bases or building roads. Nor does it count things that impact planets from the outside, like large asteroids that don’t entirely burn up as they hit the atmosphere.
Stone assured me before we came into this part of the mountain that mountains age like everything else. Old mountains—like old humans—grow shorter with time. Sometimes mountains implode from within. Sometimes rain and other forces wear at mountain sides, and those tumble away. If the mountain is filled with caves or is, like this one, mostly hollow thanks to the work Coop’s people did on it five thousand years ago, then that rock slide, that tumble, might lead to a cave-in, which could lead to something like this.
It looked, as we landed, like someone had taken a scoop and carved an opening in this mountain, then left all the debris to gather at the base. Some on my team—away from Coop’s people, whom we’re treating very delicately—made a variety of comparisons: a half-eaten grapefruit, a shattered ball, a wall display punched by a gigantic fist.
Despite our work with archeologists and geologists and land-science people, most of my team isn’t used to working planetside. We live in space, we function in artificial environments, and we know that if anything happens to our tiny worlds, that anything is usually caused by malfunctioning systems, mismanagement, acts of war, or something else that can be blamed on human beings.
Arguing whether part of a mountain has come down over five thousand years because of natural causes just seems strange to me, and I wonder if it seems strange to Coop.
After all, he was born in space, to a culture constantly on the move. The Fleet never went backwards. It only moved to the next system, the next sector, solving problems and meting out its own version of justice.
It did stay in an area for a designated period of time, building bases along the way for ground repairs and other such things. The Fleet cycled back and forth in that designated area until it was time to move forward again, and then it did, sending teams to build bases ahead of the core of the Fleet, and letting older teams close the bases too far back for the Fleet to ever easily return.
Sector Base V, the base where I first encountered Coop, where the Ivoire appeared one magical day when our blundering saved his people from their trap in foldspace, was one of the bases that had been properly shut down. The last of the equipment, five thousand years old, still thrummed with a bit of life, but most of the tools, all of the furniture, records, and important items, were long gone. Sector Base V had not only been abandoned, it had been forgotten by the people who lived on the surface. No record of the base existed in any of the histories—our histories, anyway—and nothing, not even legends about it, remained on the surface.
When we discovered that base, it was as if we had found an entire world that no one, not even the people planetside, had known existed.
There is no one planetside in this part of Ylierr, and according to the planet’s various official histories from all of its cultures, there has never been a community on this location. Ylierr was settled one thousand years after Coop’s people touched the place.
No settlement—that we’ve found anyway and, granted, we’ve only just started to search the various databases—was ever established on this site. We don’t know why yet, whether the destruction we see before us was already here, or if the mountains—which are formidable—scared the other settlers away.
Stone believes the other colonists looked at various places on Ylierr’s eight continents and found those places more amenable to settlement: closer to water, arable land, an abundance of plant life.
Coop believes the other colonists looked at this location, saw ruin, and decided to go elsewhere.
Both of them could be right, but I haven’t said that. Even though I lead this overall mission, I don’t see it as my responsibility to settle an early argument with two invested adults. The histories will eventually give us the information we need. Histories, and the stories the land itself tells.
But right now, we’re just guessing.
There appears to be a makeshift path through the rubble leading to the still-intact back wall. We seem to be standing on the platform closest to that wall, but I am not certain.
Yash has a touchpad with the schematics that the Fleet approved for this base before a battle trapped the Ivoire in foldspace. She holds the pad up now, trying to find something that corresponds.
Stone has devices that overlay holographic images on top of such sites, but she didn’t bring it at the moment. She doesn’t want us to go into the area yet, but Coop does.
“I can answer this debate with one simple check,” he says to Stone. “Let me go back there.”
“You don’t know how to move in an unstable environment,” she says. “You could send the entire rock pile down on yourself.”
He gives her a withering look, so intense that it makes my breath catch. There’s a reason he was chosen to command 500 people at such a young age. He has a power, an authority, I have never ever encountered before.
“I’ll be fine,” he says flatly.
Stone is oblivious to his power. Stone is oblivious to a lot of human interaction. It is both her weakness and her strength.
“You don’t decide what rocks do,” she says. “They decide. No matter what happens, Captain, the natural environment will triumph over the human spirit every single time.”
He does not argue with her the way a lesser person would. He was raised in space; he knows that human will cannot conquer everything.
But in this instance, it does not matter to him. I can see it in the set of his jaw, the look in his eye.
Mikk, one of my divers, who has come down here, not to dive or explore (since this trip is truly informational), but for muscle in case something horrible does happen, gives me a sideways look. I can read Mikk’s expressions after decades of working with him.
He wants me to step in and settle the conflict between Coop and Stone.
Technically, I should step in. But I suspect there will be a lot of interpersonal battles on this trip, and I am not going to risk my authority arbitrating a fight I will lose.
Stone is right, of course: Coop should not go in there. But Coop has spent the last five years coping with loss and change that would devastate most people. I am not sure he cares if the rocks slip and he gets crushed.
“You do realize,” I say softly to him, “that if you’re back there and injured we might not be able to help you.”
He gives me the same withering look he gave Stone. He realizes it and, as I suspected, he doesn’t care.
“You have my permission to abandon me for the sake of the mission,” he says.
The words have just enough sarcasm to anger me. But I don’t let that out. He’s baiting me when he’s really angry at Stone for treating him like an idiot.
“What are you trying to find back there?” I ask, pretending like his previous words don’t matter to me at all.
“Evidence,” he says.
“That’s what the prolonged investigation is for,” Stone says.
“I don’t want to have a prolonged investigation if we can settle this in a few minutes,” he says in a tone that vibrates with frustration.
They have had this argument before, clearly not in my presence, and they still haven’t settled it.
Now Yash is the one to give me the sideways look, but not before Stone starts down the argument’s familiar road.
“You can’t determine what happened from guesswork,” she says, not trying to hide her frustration either. “Sometimes I think you don’t understand what five thousand years really means in terms of the toll it takes on everything from buildings to mountains.”
Her words echo in the rock-strewn space, and then she blanches. She has just realized what she has said.
“Captain, I’m sorry—”
“No, you’re not,” he says. “I’m going in there.”
And then, he stomps into the small corridor made by those rocks.
I curse silently. I had asked what he was looking for so that I would have an idea of how long he would be back there. I want to know if we’re going to need to worry. It’s a simple precaution we use on space dives—timing everything, giving limits because they ensure that the diver remains focused on the task at hand.
I take a deep breath to calm myself. Of course, Coop will stay focused on the task at hand. He’s the one who has been focused on this mission from the very beginning.
Still, reflexively, I glance at my watch, then move to the mouth of that corridor. Stone grabs my arm and moves me back a dozen centimeters.
“I don’t want you to get hurt if those rocks fall,” she says quietly.
She seems resigned. Maybe, like me, she has always known he would go in there and that there would be little we could do to stop him.
I want her to reassure me that he will be all right. I want her to tell me that ground accidents are rare. I want her to say that we’re not silly for letting him go alone.
But I know she will say none of those things. I wouldn’t say them if we were on a real dive.
Instead, I beckon Yash to my side. “Let me see those schematics,” I say.
She taps the pad, zooming in on the part of the room that she believes we’re standing in.
Just like I thought, we’re near the back of the gigantic room, not too far from the doors that open onto the apartments and the storage areas.
If, of course, the Fleet built Sector Base W according to these schematics and didn’t change the design as they worked on the site. Yash, who was raised on a sector base to a family of technology specialists, says that often the design will change as the engineers discover problems inside the base’s location.
She often discusses a base she apprenticed on, a base that had to make all kinds of alterations because the presence of methane threatened the entire build.
“What’s he looking for?” I ask her.
She shrugs, but I recognize her expression. She knows. And she’s not willing to tell me.
She assumes everything is confidential. Coop is still her commander, and she operates as if everything he tells her is under seal of that command.
I don’t have that attitude. Coop and I have had a lot of go-rounds since we met, many of them over who is in charge. It took me months to get him to call me Boss, which is what everyone calls me. I don’t acknowledge my so-called “real” name, not because I dislike it or even because my father was the one to christen me with it, but because that name no longer applies to me.
It hasn’t applied to me for decades.
Coop finally gave in one afternoon over coffee. He shook his head, and said to me, I can’t avoid your name forever. I have to call you something. I’ll just pretend “Boss” is your given name. After all, it’s not like I’m using that word in my native language.
His native language, our joint linguists have figured out, is one of the parents of my language. Even the language has twisted and altered over 5,000 years, so much so that when we first met, we couldn’t speak to each other.
I know Stone’s accusation is a false one: Perhaps more than the rest of us, Coop knows how long 5,000 years is. He deals with it every single day.
And just when I think he has the knowledge—and the feelings it engenders—under control, he does something like this.
We crowd around the opening in the rock pile, which is probably not the smartest thing we can do. But Stone and I are standing only about a meter away, and when Yash joined us, it became an unspoken invitation for everyone else to join us.
Mikk turns on the wrist lights on his environmental suit, lights that can imitate bright flares, and he aims them at the opening. He looks, to the casual observer, like an insecure man flexing his muscles. Mikk already has more obvious muscles than most people I know—something that has come in handy in more than one crisis situation.
“I don’t need any damn light,” Coop says from not too far away, but he doesn’t ask Mikk to turn them off. Coop is still surly from the power struggle with Stone, and is probably regretting his impulsive decision to go in there without inspecting the area first.
He’s usually a lot more cautious than this. His uncharacteristic impatience is a testament to how long he’s waited to come here, how much he has given up these last few years.
“Do you need a damn tiny person?” Rossetti asks in a tone that, if she had been on the Ivoire, bordered on insubordination.
To my relief, a chuckle floats out of that opening.
“Probably,” he says, sounding a lot more like himself. “But there’s no sense in risking you. I’m almost there.”
I move a little closer and look inside that pile of rock. I can see Coop, outlined in the light from Mikk’s suit. Coop is crouching as he makes his way through, turning from side to side to avoid outcroppings of rock.
He really is too big to be inside that opening, but he’s going to go through with this now, not out of stubbornness, but because there’s something he needs to know for himself, and it’s not enough to have someone else tell him. He needs to see it in person.
I’ve only seen Coop act this way one other time before, and that was the day we joined forces. The Ivoire had been trapped for weeks, first in foldspace and then in Sector Base V, and Coop couldn’t quite believe what all the evidence was telling him. I think he hoped, deep down, that I was lying to him, that the evidence was lying to him, that he had ended up at the wrong base in the right time period rather than the right base in the wrong time period.
Whatever his motivation, he nearly got everyone on my team arrested for treason by the Enterran Empire. Only some quick thinking and even quicker action on his part and mine saved all of our hides.
I hope his impulsiveness now doesn’t cause another emergency. I’ve been inside rock fall only once before and I hated it. I’d rather die in the vacuum of space than be crushed underground by a pile of rock.
He slips around a corner and I can no longer see his entire frame. Now I only catch glimpses of him as he moves along.
At least he’s moving carefully and so far we haven’t heard much from within, not even the tinkle of a falling pebble.
Yash holds the pad out as if staring at the schematics will help. Rossetti has moved even closer. Mikk still stands with his arms raised. Stone has her arms crossed and she glares at the interior of that opening.
She doesn’t understand why I let Coop go, why I didn’t rebuke him. We all know he would have listened to me, however reluctantly.
But I understand, maybe better than anyone else on my team, what he’s going through. He’s been remarkably patient so far.
He has waited years for this moment.
I don’t know if I could have waited that long.
Coop spent his first year upon arrival at Lost Souls learning. He learned our language, he learned a broad general history of the sector, he learned our customs. He also spent the rest of his time dealing with his own crew.
The shock of moving so far forward in time devastated everyone. Some coped by resigning their commissions and leaving the Fleet altogether, claiming they never wanted to experience travel under an anacapa drive again. Others worked even harder on maintaining the Ivoire, shoring up discipline and acting like the ship would rejoin the Fleet. Still others offered to work for the Lost Souls Corporation, helping us with scientific research.
And a few, a hopeless despondent few, found ways to take their own lives.
Those people, including Coop’s first officer, Dix Pompiono, challenged everything the crew of the Ivoire knew and believed about themselves. The members of the Fleet don’t give up, Coop kept saying to me, even though their own history, by his own account, belied that.
The Fleet simply had methods of dealing with those who could no longer travel, and were no longer up to the rigors of military life aboard such a ship. The team always had the option of remaining planetside at any planet they visited or they could leave their ship and volunteer for duty in a different ship. They could join other cultures, or become ground crew at sector bases or leave the Fleet altogether, at any point.
But the handful who died believed themselves trapped here, in a way that Coop didn’t entirely understand. For Coop, rejoining whatever remains of the Fleet five thousand years out, is like rejoining family. Many of the others believe the same thing.
Those who died, however, knew they would never see family and friends again, and couldn’t cope with that loss. So they imposed yet another loss on the survivors of the time shift, a loss that made Coop angrier than anything else.
“He’s been out of visual range for a long time,” Mikk says softly to me.
I glance at my watch. At least fifteen minutes have passed since I last saw him through the gaps in the rocks.
“You want to send someone in?” Mikk asks, which means he’s saying, in Mikk-speak, that he’s volunteering to go inside because he believes it crucial.
“Not yet,” I say.
The rocks haven’t fallen. We would have heard it. But I’ve talked to Stone enough about the risks to know that Coop could be in danger even if the rocks haven’t fallen. He could be stuck in a tight area, one he wedged himself into and now can’t get himself out of.
“The amount of time that has passed is relatively insignificant, given what he’s trying to do,” Stone says, letting us know that she overheard us and that she should be the one making the decisions on what happens next.
“We’re not sure exactly what it is he’s trying to do,” Mikk says.
“He wants to see if shutdown procedures were followed,” Yash says.
I look at her in surprise. She hasn’t been willing to answer that question until now. I can’t tell if she’s speaking up at the moment because she’s worried about Coop or because she’s tired of our arguments.
“Even if he finds your equipment, which I don’t think he will,” Stone says in her snottiest tone, “he won’t be able to tell how it was shut down.”
“You don’t know our equipment,” Yash says in an equally snotty tone.
“I do know that in an undisturbed environment it can survive,” Stone says. She was with us at Sector Base V, even though she was never allowed inside. “But this environment has been open to the elements for a very long time.”
“Yeah, I know,” Yash says dismissively. “He does too.”
I look at her. She knows even more than she’s saying. But I don’t ask. I figure it’ll all play out shortly.
I move closer to the opening. I don’t see him any longer. This time, Stone doesn’t try to stop me.
Mikk glances at me, still worried. I shrug. Stone says we’re going to wait, so we’ll wait.
Another twenty minutes go by before we see movement behind those rocks. It only took Coop about ten minutes to go from the opening to that point on the way in, but it takes him almost a half an hour on the way back. At first, I think that’s because he is carrying something, but it’s really because he can’t quite maneuver his way out in the same way that he went in.
Stone tries to explain it to me, something about rock angles and protruding outcroppings, but I don’t want to think about it. Although as she talks, I find myself remembering all the ruined wrecks I dived in space, and how sometimes going in one direction, avoiding all the pointy edges, was a lot easier than going in the opposite direction.
You can’t always see the hazards, and you need to avoid them or you make things worse.
As Coop gets closer to the exit, his face stands out in sharp relief under the lights. Mikk has lowered his arms and turned down the lights somewhat so that they don’t blind Coop as he emerges, but they still wash out his skin.
At least, I hope the lights have caused him to look paler than usual. I hate to think that he received even more bad news.
We move away from the opening as he comes through. He has scratches on one side of his face, a ripped sleeve on his environmental suit, and so much dust in his black hair that he looks like he has gone gray.
It takes me a moment—sometimes I can be slow—to realize that the reason his face is so pale isn’t the light or his reaction to what he found, but that same dust coats him all over.
He comes out and gives me a small smile. Rossetti offers him a bottle of water which he takes with relief. He sits on a boulder, downs most of the bottle, then wipes his arm over his mouth, smearing the gray dust.
“I was right,” he says. “This base exploded.”
Stone snorts. “You can’t know that from eyeballing something. You’re making a rookie science mistake. Just because you want to believe something doesn’t make it so.”
Coop finishes the rest of the water, puts a cap on the bottle, and hands it back to Rossetti. Then he tilts his head back and looks at Stone.
Anyone else would have used their height to an advantage, standing up and towering over Stone. But Coop doesn’t need to. He has that intimidating withering gaze, and once again, he uses it on her.
“We have procedures,” he says, “that are pretty straightforward—”
“And anyone could have tampered with them in five thousand years. I’m sorry, Captain, but you’re being unrealistic.”
Coop’s eyes narrow.
“Shut up, Lucretia,” I say. “You might know rocks and archeology and how time passes, but Coop knows more about these sector bases than we could ever know after decades of study. And I, for one, want to know what he found.”
Stone’s mouth thins as if she has to clamp her lips together so that she can’t respond.
“Thanks,” Coop says to me.
I nod and wait.
“Every sector base that’s built underground has a standard lift that goes to the surface,” Coop says. “One of the most important aspects of a sector base shutdown is to disable the lift. We do it in a prescribed way, so that the lift stabilizes, so that even if there’s a groundquake or some kind of sinkhole, it never opens up the hole we dug for the lift. We don’t want some unsuspecting local, five thousand years in the future, to step on our lift, and fall hundreds of meters to his death.”
Stone is motionless. He has her attention now.
He certainly has mine.
“The lift in each sector base is in the same place, near the living quarters,” he says. “This base is no different.”
“You found the lift,” Yash says.
“And it was never shut down,” Yash says.
“Not only that,” he says, “but part of the lift itself remains in pieces just like that platform over there, as if it was shaken off its moorings and descended rapidly from the top to the ground.”
“That’s your proof?” Stone says. “It means nothing. Someone could have forgotten to disable the lift before your people abandoned the sector base.”
“You don’t understand,” Yash says. “Our shutdown procedures are exacting. No one forgets anything. These procedures get checked, rechecked, and checked again. The kind of error that Coop is talking about does not happen to a base that’s decommissioned. Not ever. Our people might leave a few tools behind or forget an article of clothing. But anything that’s dangerous, well, those things get checked so many times that it is absolutely impossible to overlook them.”
Rossetti is nodding as well.
“You’re making serious assumptions,” Stone says.
I hold up my hand. “Was the lift in Sector Base V disabled?”
Coop nods. “Exactly in the prescribed way, and completely untouched.”
“How did you open the door?” Yash asks.
I frown at her. “What door?”
“The door to the lift,” she says. “It’s keyed to our palm prints. Coop should be in the system, but it doesn’t look like any of the technology has worked here in a long time.”
Stone crosses her arms over her chest, as if this part of the discussion proves her point.
Coop holds up his hands. They’re scraped and the fingertips are bleeding. “I opened it the old-fashioned way,” he says to Yash with a grin.
She grins back, although I look away. “Old-fashioned” is, in part, a joke, considering how long they’ve been trapped here, in their future. They can’t ever go back to their past. Their engineers and experts spent the first year here trying to figure out if they could replicate the series of events that got the Ivoire trapped here in the first place.
The engineers finally decided that they couldn’t do it, not safely. They might trap the Ivoire in foldspace or in some other more inhospitable time.
They decided—as a crew—to stay in the future. But the pain of that decision shows up in words like “old-fashioned” and in Coop’s haphazard grin.
I look at the rubble around me. I believe Coop, which makes me wonder how much of this damage has been caused by time, and how much caused by some kind of external force.
“What kind of explosion are we talking about?” I ask. “Something from above or something from within?”
I ask the question because we’ve learned that some malfunctioning stealth tech acts explosively. Usually, though—at least in a place like this—nanobits effect repairs as quickly as the damage happens. At least, underground. Above ground sinkholes form and other damage happens as well.
We’ve already checked the area for malfunctioning stealth tech. The phrase isn’t accurate: we’re really looking for a malfunctioning anacapa drive. But we use the words anyway because it’s a good way to delineate a working drive from one that has malfunctioned for so long that it’s built up a dangerous field.
We had to check before we got here, because only the Ivoire crew, the Six, and myself could work here if there was still an active and malfunctioning anacapa on the premises. There isn’t, which is why Mikk and Stone have joined us.
Even though we didn’t find any malfunctioning stealth tech before we came down here doesn’t mean that at some point in the past five thousand years the anacapa didn’t malfunction and explode outward. The drive might have been completely destroyed, and the malfunctioning stealth field didn’t happen.
So I look at Coop, then realize I should have asked the question of Yash. She’s the one with the engineering background.
Coop is looking at Yash too. Stone is about to answer, but this time, it’s Yash who gives Stone the withering look.
“Inside, outside, it’s impossible to tell right now,” Yash says. “We would have to examine the trajectory of the blast.”
“If there’s a single blast,” Stone says. “I’ve dug bombed-out ruins. Sometimes those places were attacked from outside, and sometimes they were attacked from inside. A few times we knew that the places had been felled by a series of bombs exploding in unison. Rubble looks like rubble looks like rubble until you start taking it apart and examining the details.”
She says that not because she’s lording her knowledge over us but because she’s giving valuable information. I have learned the differences in her tone.
I say, “I know you’ve worked many sites.” In fact she’s one of the best archeologists of her generation, and only her anger at the Empire has kept her with us. “I had no idea, however, that you’d worked bomb locations.”
She smiles. “Not recent bomb locations, Boss. Ones that go back centuries. The history of the Empire is really a history of warfare. And some of that warfare is tiny and very personal—happening on a building-to-building, town-to-town level. You’d be surprised what I learn when I dig in small areas.”
“You want to dig in here and figure out what happened, don’t you?” asks Mikk. He has come to respect her as well. But as usual with Mikk, he’s not asking this question so much because he’s curious about Stone. He’s asking it to guide me.
He just told me that he would like to dig in here and explore the area, particularly now that he knows that something interesting occurred here.
“I’m still stuck on inside versus outside,” I say. “If the bombing was external, could it have brought down the mountain?”
“A series of targeted bombs from any point in the Empire’s history could have brought down the mountain,” Stone says. “Maybe from any time in human history. I know Old Earth had bombs that could bring down mountains long before it had anything resembling space travel.”
Coop is watching her as if he’s amused by all that she’s saying. I hope she doesn’t see his expression.
“But that lift,” I say. “The way that Coop described it, and from what we see here with this platform—”
“It could all mean nothing, Boss,” Stone says. “You really do have to factor in time.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes.
“Okay,” I say, trying again. “Knowing what we know about the Fleet—”
And here I nod at Coop. He tilts his head toward me. Now I know he’s amused. He probably thinks all of my questions are ridiculous. Sometimes we have interchanges like this, in which he can’t believe the knowledge we lack. (Of course, sometimes I forget about the knowledge he lacks.)
“—if an air assault attacked the mountain, the Fleet probably had weaponry within the sector base to deal with it. Right?”
I look at Yash now.
“Generally, yes,” she says. “Or they might have called in one of our ships.”
“Exactly,” I say. “The kind of serial bombing you’re describing, Lucretia, doesn’t seem likely, given what we know about the Fleet’s defensive capability. The attack would have been stopped in its tracks.”
“If the Fleet and its opponent were evenly matched,” Stone says. “Superior technology always wins.”
“Usually wins,” Coop says softly. From my understanding, the ships that fired on the Ivoire had inferior technology, but the shot that crippled the Ivoire happened at just the right time.
“Usually wins, then,” she says. “But I’m sorry to say this, Captain,” and now she turns to Coop, “while your Fleet has the best technology we’ve ever encountered, that doesn’t mean that you were at the top of the food chain at the time.”
Yash looks at him. He looks at her.
Rossetti, who notes the silent interchange, is the one who speaks up. “Sometimes we were evenly matched,” she says. “But never, in my lifetime, did we come across a more powerful foe.”
“In the history of the Fleet we did,” Coop says. “But they weren’t necessarily enemies. We didn’t fight everyone. We were pretty well known for our diplomacy.”
Again, he uses that wry tone.
“All I’m thinking,” I say with some emphasis, because somehow the conversation has gotten away from me, “is that it strikes me that an external attack would have had to happen swiftly to completely destroy this base. Am I wrong about that?”
“Again,” Stone says, “we have no way of knowing this. You’re basing your conclusion on a series of faulty assumptions.”
“For once, I agree with Dr. Stone,” Coop says. “We don’t know. But, for the record, we have weapons that could easily and quickly bring down a mountain. Most advanced cultures do.”
“On the Dignity Vessel?” Mikk asks.
Coop gives him a sideways look. The crew of the Ivoire hates the term “Dignity Vessel.” They haven’t called their ships Dignity Vessels for centuries, but I can’t break my people of the habit. Sometimes, I think, we use the term to stay in touch with the myth.
Something about Coop’s look puts me on edge. “The Fleet carries all its weaponry with it,” he says with more patience than I expected from that look.
Which is a long way to say “Of course.”
“I haven’t seen anything like that on the Dignity Vessels that we’ve found,” I say.
The Lost Souls Corporation has five complete Dignity Vessels, although two are rebuilds. I know for a fact that the rebuilds do not have any such weaponry. But I feel odd, standing here in these ruins, discussing the weapons capability of ships I own, capability I didn’t realize those ships have.
Coop stands up. He’s not going to tell me if the ships have the capability or not. At least, he’s not going to tell me in front of the others, and clearly, he hasn’t told me since we’ve known each other. Apparently nothing is going to change right now.
“Here’s what we know,” he says wiping his injured hands on his suit, then slapping them together as if he needs to get the dust off them. “We know that whatever happened here happened quickly.”
“That still means there could have been a groundquake or something,” Stone says stubbornly.
“We don’t build sector bases near areas that have an active volcano or a recent volcanic history, meaning nothing has gone off in a thousand years or more. We also have the capability of finding fault lines.” Yash is speaking both in present tense about the Fleet and with an undercurrent of anger. She’s telling Stone that the Fleet—whatever Stone thinks—wasn’t stupid when it came to the bases.
“So all of the evidence that we have at the moment argues for an external cause,” Mikk says.
“Not outside necessarily,” I say.
“No,” he says. “I mean something manmade as opposed to natural forces.”
Coop nods. He’s rubbing his fingers. They must be sore.
“Whatever happened,” Coop says, “it happened quickly. That lift argues for an attack of some kind.”
“Why are you so set on believing that?” Stone asks.
He looks at her. “I’m not set on anything, Professor. I wanted this base to be intact, like Sector Base V. I wanted to be able to gain information from it and figure out roughly when my people left this place. The more I learn, the quicker I can track the Fleet’s trajectory.”
“Why does that matter?” Stone asks.
“Because if he can plot the trajectory,” I say, “he can reunite with the Fleet.”
“Not me, necessarily,” he says. “But my ship, probably a few generations from now, can hook up with the Fleet.”
I’ve told Stone this before. She thinks it’s fantasy. But—again, making a lot of assumptions—if the Fleet still exists, if its mission hasn’t changed, if it has followed the prescribed trajectory for another five thousand years, then the Ivoire can eventually find the Fleet. The anacapa cuts both time and distance of the search. Going through foldspace will put the Ivoire within range, provided all those other things (and probably a dozen more I don’t know) actually line up.
Personally, I think this is as impossible as using the anacapa to send the Ivoire back to its own time, but I haven’t said anything to Coop. He needs his own dream to follow, and I think that dream has keep him alive until now. I spoke to his first officer, Dix Pompiono, before Dix’s suicide. Dix was quite clear on his belief that it was impossible for the Ivoire to hook up with the Fleet.
That didn’t kill Dix though. The loss of his world killed him. The loss of his friends and family and lover was something he expected, given his job. But the loss of everything familiar, and the possibility of hooking up with the Fleet he had known—that upset him the most.
Coop seems to believe that the Fleet is the Fleet is the Fleet.
I keep thinking about the differences that five thousand years have brought to an existing language. I can’t imagine the differences five thousand years would bring to a still-existing community of ships.
But I have learned that some arguments are futile. And if Coop believes he can get his grandchildren back to the Fleet and if that belief keeps him going, who am I to question it?
Stone, however, has none of those qualms.
“You do realize you’re being ridiculous,” she says to him.
“I also realize that your people thought my anacapa drive was a simple cloak,” he says.
Her cheeks color. Unlike a lot of people on the receiving end of one of Coop’s sideways insults, Stone understood that he had just called her stupid without uttering the word.
“Tell me again why I’m helping you,” she says.
“Because you’re as curious as I am,” he says.
She smiles just a little. Then she looks at the opening he just crawled through. “Boss, I think we need a team of about one hundred if we’re going to do this dig right and get the information as quickly as the Captain here wants it. I—”
“No,” Coop says. But he’s not speaking to her. He’s speaking to me.
“No?” I say.
He nods. “I got the information I wanted. Something happened here. I want to go on to Sector Base Y.”
“But we don’t have any real answers,” Stone says.
This time, he does look at her. “I have all the answers I need. Something horrible happened here. You figure out what that was if you want. I’m not looking for the details. I’m trying to track the Fleet, and this place won’t help me.”
“You know where Sector Base Y is?” I ask. It had taken him months to find Sector Base W, mostly on missions with a small team from his own ship.
“I do,” he says. “I was hoping we could get our answers without going the extra distance.”
“How far is that?” Mikk asks.
“It’s about the same distance between sector bases,” Yash says. “So as far as we are from Sector Base V.”
Sector Base V is well inside the Enterran Empire. Mikk blanches. The distance is huge.
“We have an anacapa on Nobody’s Business Two,” Coop says. “We can do this.”
Stone turns ostentatiously and looks at the destroyed base. “I think there’s a lot to learn from this place, Boss.”
“I agree,” I say. “But this is Coop’s mission. He asked us to run it, not decide where we’re going. We can always come back here.”
Stone sighs. “I hope you’re right,” she says.
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