Chapter One - Excerpt

Was it morning yet? It felt like morning. There was something weirdly natural about the beam of light that played over his chest. He blinked slowly and gazed at the small shadows shifting around like they had some purpose.

Sethran Kada felt his brow furrow more deeply as he tried to figure this out. His violet eyes shifted to the cockpit console before him. Inactive. Then to the com panel to his right. Silent and dark. It all looked an awful lot like an emergency shutdown. Finally, he peered up at the small window set into the ceiling to find the perpetrator of the sunbeam on his chest.

Why was a white star wandering around out there? He was supposed to be in the vicinity of a red dwarf. A couple of days from now he'd enter the jumpsite to Aram where Timo was currently freezing his scales off, waiting for the drop. Somehow he thought he might have missed the turn to Aram. The shadows in the cockpit weren't thrown by any red dwarf star.

"Isn't this embarrassing," he muttered, mostly to assure himself that everything was in working order. "Good thing nobody saw that." He released the restraints of the pilot bench and sat up, suspecting that the sub-space leap through that gate had taken him far deeper than he meant to go. Although just minutes had passed since he let the Dutchman fall into the jumpsite, he had that disoriented, hung-over feeling one got after a long jump.

No one doubted that it was possible to take a wrong turn inside sub-space. Perhaps some split-second glitch could shift the exit point by some fraction. Of course, no one ever returned to tell about such miscalculation. Any sensible navigator plotted an exit before entering a jumpsite to make sure that didn't happen. But clearly this wasn't anywhere near Aram Gate and he just hadn't taken a simple chart jump. He felt it in every bit of his long-limbed body.

Seth rubbed his eyes and sent a mental directive to the Dutchman to begin a reset and diagnostic. He listened to the blips and buzzes as it groomed itself to check for damage. Something worried the ship enough to rerun some routine repeatedly. He resolved to spring for a more thorough overhaul of all systems when he returned to Magra.

What had happened back there? As sub-space leaps went, this span should have been an easy hop, fully mapped and one he'd taken before. He prided himself on his skills as pilot and on the quality of his ship. It made it possible for him to travel without crew, a definite advantage in his line of work. This jump, however, had felt like someone tried to crack his ship like a seed pod to get at the chewy morsel inside.

"Where are we?" he said although the controls were not set to voice command, a system too easily compromised. It was the neural interface embedded at his temple, connected to the main processor, that relayed his inquiry. The ship's scanners took a look around the sector and started to scroll information onto the display screen in front of him. Two stars nearby. Some planets. Definite signs of traffic and habitation. Atmospheric conditions, life forms, environmental threats, evidence of technology and sentient populations were analyzed, recorded and then the Dutchman decided on the most likely location.

"Rishabel," Seth said, unconvinced and not at all happy. Another thing the Dutchman displayed as routinely as the cabin temperature was that his coolant supply was utterly drained. And so unless he found some way to supply the ship's processor with a way to keep from disintegrating during a sub-space jump he had one hell of a long walk home.

He called up information about Rishabel. Part of the Benstar system, the planet lay so far outside any point of interest that it had been mapped and then immediately forgotten by everyone back in the Trans-Targon sector. At some point it had supported a few colonies that had eventually failed and been abandoned. Still, habitable planets were hard to find and so this one still played host to a fair bit of traffic moving through this sub-sector. Like a crowded harbor in the middle of an empty sea, people came and went on their way elsewhere. Rebels, mostly, and folks whose welcome in more civilized places had worn out. Trading fleets, heavily armed to ward off pirates, also shifted goods and personnel here before heading into other parts of the sector.

Sighing, he set course for Rishabel, choosing an orbiting spaceport unlikely to ask why he wanted to enter their airspace. Perhaps it was wise to find out how he got here, or why, before announcing his presence. He suspected that paying for a supply of coolant tubes in this place was going to sting. He looked up when the com console alerted him to an incoming message. Who was calling at this hour? This wasn't the sort of neighborhood where travelers were stopped and frisked.

He tapped the receiver. "Kinda busy here," he said, offering no identification.

Instead of a reply, every alarm on the controls surrounding his pilot bench went into alert mode. Programs ran for no particular reason and things flashed that he'd never seen flashing before. Audible warnings added another layer of mayhem as the Dutchman tried to determine the nature of the threat.

Seth winced when a spike of pain drove through his skull. His headset was little more than a thin wire comfortably slung from one temple to the other but now he could not even tip his head to push it away. His body arched as if through some electrical charge but the only pain he felt was in his head. The field of his vision closed in and he thought that passing out was likely the next experience he was to have today.

He watched helplessly, both on the screens and via his mental link, as one system after another was accessed and scanned. His ship possessed the anti-intruder programs used by Air Command's most complex systems and had never been breached. Right now, however, it seemed like someone was looting everything he possessed. The fact that his own brain was plugged directly into the compromised technology filled him with gut-wrenching dread.

Don't fear.

The words appeared in his mind and he was unsure if he had heard or dreamed them. They were certainly not his own. Giving up his fear at this moment was not an option.

The cockpit calmed. One by one, the alarm systems ceased their protest, lights dimmed again, and the Dutchman returned to its diagnostic mode as if it had never been interrupted. Seth exhaled shakily and immediately breathed in again, suddenly aware that he had not been doing that for several minutes. He pried his hands from the armrests of his bench and tested his limbs.


"I don't think so!" he said. But then he did.

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More time had passed, of that he was sure. Seth drifted out of whatever deep sleep had claimed him to glance warily around the cockpit. Standby mode now. Mostly. No indicators nagging him that something wasn't right with the Dutchman. That was reassuring, at least. He checked the ship's timers. He had been asleep, passed out, whatever, for nearly five hours.

"What the hell was that?" he said.

The Dutchman, long used to his mental vernacular, responded by listing the results of the systems-check on a screen.

"Did I hurt you?"

Seth twisted in his seat so abruptly that something in the back of his neck cracked alarmingly. "What? Who's there?" He peered into the cabin that made up the central space of the Dutchman's interior and served as main living quarters for the tiny crew meant to live aboard. Whoever had spoken was not back there. Nor did it seem likely that anyone would be, given that he was the only person within twenty thousand marks of this place.


He removed his headset and used an overhead grip to pull himself out of his couch to stumble into the cabin, still groggy and disoriented. Despite the recent tumble through sub-space, nothing seemed out of place in what was essentially his home. Actually, he thought, much of it was out of place, but that was the usual state of things here. "Wait for what?" He glanced into the tiny galley. No one there.

"Learning language. You are Centauri."

"So I've been told." Seth returned to the cockpit. "Where are you?" He reran the scanners to look for ships in the vicinity. His curiosity, easily the greatest source of his troubles, had taken over. He liked it better than fear, anyway. Whoever was accessing his system was doing it in a way that the Dutchman didn't even notice now. The intruder remained undetectable. Impressive, whatever it was. Then again, he was a long way from home. "Closest ship is a Feydan trader. Not exactly something that can break into this place."

"I did not break anything."

"Not literally."

There was a brief pause. "Wait. Learning language."

Seth raised both eyebrows and made a placating gesture. If the Dutchman hadn't found a way to keep these people out of here, there certainly wasn't anything he could do about it. He looked up at the monitors, uneager to re-establish his mental connection with his ship. Nothing was going on there other than heightened activity in his data bank. "You can look at Union mainvoice," he suggested. "Easier than Centauri language."

"I only need one?"

"At a time, yes. What language do you speak?"

"We do not have language. Now I have many."

"So fast? How many?"

"Centauri, Feyd, Delphian, Magra Torley, Magra Alaric, Phi Nine, mainvoice."

Seth considered a quick emergency signal. The chance of that lone freighter rushing to his rescue, here in this pirate-infested sub-sector, didn't seem very

good. "You're an artificial system? A program? Where did I pick you up? When?"

"Is that a question?" the intruder replied. Seth noticed the beginnings of some undefinable dialect, likely a blend of those on file on his ship. "Still learning... stuff."

"Stuff?" Seth grinned. "It's not really polite, whoever you are. You should ask before breaking... before looking at other people's stuff."

"Can I look at your stuff?" The database scan continued without pause.

Seth sighed. "Help yourself. Don't break things." He sat down and engaged another diagnostic to see if whatever A.I. had invaded his system left any traces. There was no new code, no changes, nothing deleted. It really did seem as if someone was merely browsing through his library. That was not especially worrisome. Having seen the inside of a few prison cells, he stored nothing there that was better left unshared. "Mind if I head for Rishabel now?"


"Can I go... Why am I asking you, anyway?" He directed the Dutchman to resume his journey to the nearby planet. "So where are you, really?"


"In my processors? You're a program, then?"


He pursed his lips. "Let's pretend I don't know who or what you are, shall we?"

"That is sarcasm?"


"All right."

"Who are you?"

"I just am. We don't have words like this. I like them. But I understand your confusion. I found you in-between, when you went by."

"In-between? You mean sub-space?"

Pause. "Yes."

"That's not possible."

"If it were not possible I would not be here." Another lengthy pause ensued. "Oh," the intruder said. Then said it again, with a different inflection as if tasting the word. "Oh, you think I am lying. Exaggerating. Subterfuging."

"Yes, subterfuging," Seth replied, amused. "We do that."

"We do not."

"The ship doesn't recognize you in there."

"I am in your head."

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