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The Wrong Stars

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The Wrong Stars

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Author: Tim Pratt
Publisher: Angry Robot Books, 2017
Series: The Axiom: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Colonization
First Contact
Space Opera
Avg Member Rating:
(22 reads / 15 ratings)


The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials... and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.


Chapter 1

Callie floated, feet hooked over a handrail in the observation deck, and looked through the viewport at the broken ship beyond. The wreck hung motionless, a dark irregular shape--a bit of human debris where no such debris should be. Was this a crisis, or an opportunity? Every unexpected event could be one or the other, and sometimes they were both.

The dead ship was long and bullet-shaped, pointlessly aerodynamic, apart from a bizarre eruption of flanges, fins, and spikes at one end that looked like the embellishments of a mad welder. The wrecked craft was far smaller than Callie's own ship, the White Raven, a fast cruiser just big enough for her crew of five people (or four, or maybe six, depending on how you defined "people") to live comfortably along with whatever freight or prisoners they had to transport. If the White Raven was a family home, the wreck was more like a studio apartment.

Ashok floated into the compartment, orienting himself with tiny puffs of air that burst from his fingertips and heels--showy and unnecessary, but he had a gift for turning simple things into engineering problems he could solve in complicated ways. He hovered with his head near hers, sharing her view--though it probably looked a lot different to him. "Oh captain, my captain."

She glanced at his complex profile and grunted. "You got new eyes?"

He shook his head. "These are wearables, not integrated. I'm giving them a test run before I implant them."

"That's almost cautious, by your standards."

He grinned, insofar as he was physically able. One of the lenses on the array attached to his face rotated and lengthened toward the viewport. "So do we get to crack the mystery ship open and see what's inside?"

She went hmm, pretending she hadn't already decided. "Last time I let you clamber into a wreck, you lost an arm."

Ashok held up his current prosthetic. The translucent diamond housing revealed glimpses of the mechanical motion within as he flexed his hand, which was really more like a nest of tiny, versatile manipulator arms. "That was just an opportunity for an upgrade, cap. I say we fly over with torches and cut a hole and poke our heads in and look around." No surprise there. Ashok believed in radical self-improvement, and every mystery was a potential upgrade in waiting.

"I like the enthusiasm, Ashok, but we're still factfinding. This doesn't look like any human ship I've ever seen, and it doesn't look like a Liar vessel, either, despite all that weird shit on the stern. Didn't the Jovian Imperative try to solve its toxic waste problem by launching tubes full of poison randomly into space? What if this is one of those?"

"Space is big, so throwing bad stuff into it wasn't such a terrible idea, as far as terrible ideas go. But that's not a waste container--our sensors sniffed it thoroughly. No toxins or bad radiation. Besides, your boy Shall just identified the vessel."

"He's not my boy," she said, but she was too interested in the wreck to put much growl into the ritual denial. "So what is it?"

"Once Shall filtered out all the weird stuff welded to the ship's ass, the profile matches a model in the historical database." Ashok lifted his chin, which, unlike the rest of his head, still looked like a baseline human's. "That, captain, is a goldilocks ship."

Callie frowned. He might as well have told her it was a Viking longboat or an Apollo module. "From the bad old days? Before we had bridge generators?"

"A genuine old timey antique. It's gotta be about five hundred years old." Ashok gave himself a little spin, changing his orientation so she was looking at his feet, because actually being still for any length of time was outside his considerable skillset.

"A goldilocks ship. Wow. Weren't they propelled by atomic bombs?"

"Pretty much, yeah, at least the first wave, and this was one of the earliest models launched. Looks like it's had some modification since then, though. The goldilocks ships were no-frills. They didn't go in for decorative S&M spikes."

"Maybe a pirate crew found it and tried to make it look more badass?"

"That ship is old, cap. No pirate would want it for anything other than scrap, or to sell to a collector."

"So what's it doing here? Goldilocks ships aren't supposed to come back. That's the whole point. They took one-way journeys, way out, trips of desperation and exploration. Now five hundred years later it's just floating in trans-Neptunian space? By cosmic terms it's practically back where it started."

Ashok nodded. "That's the big juicy mystery. No way that ship came back from anywhere, right? It's not like they had Tanzer drives back then. They weren't zipping around the galaxy. Unless they found a bunch of plutonium lying around on their colony planet and built more bombs to stick up the ship's butt, there was no coming back."

"No mystery at all, then, Ashok. This is just as far as they got. The crew took off on their brave voyage, reached the edge of our solar system, suffered some critical failure, and... that's it. Nobody ever expected to hear from the goldilocks ships again, so no one went looking."

"You think that ship spent the past five hundred years drifting among the iceballs out here and nobody noticed? With all the surveys and mining vessels tagging everything even halfway interesting?"

Callie shrugged. "You said it yourself. Space is big. The ship was just overlooked. What's the alternative?" The idea of this enigmatic ship breaking down centuries ago was comforting, in a way, because failure was common, plausible, and non-threatening, unlike most of the other possible explanations.

Ashok wasn't having it. "I don't know what the alternative is, but there's something else going on here. Who made all those modifications? Space vandals drifting by with buckets of epoxy and loads of sheet metal? Outsider artists among the asteroids?"

"Seems unlikely."

"And what about the energy readings? Parts of the ship are still warm."

"I know. They were made to run a long time, the goldilocks ships. Some of them are still completing their journeys. Could just be some old systems ticking along in the midst of critical failures."

"Nah, these readings are weird, cap. The whole thing is weird." Ashok sounded quite chipper about it, as he did about most things. "It's a mystery. Mysteries are great. Let's peel it open and see if it's wrapped around an enigma."

"I hate mysteries," Callie said, not entirely accurately. "You always think it's going to be a box full of gold, but usually it's a box full of spiders."

Ashok made a noise that might have been a snort in a baseline human. "And yet you always end up opening the lid, don't you?"

"What can I say?" Callie unhooked her feet and pushed off toward the doorway leading deeper into the ship. "I like gold more than I hate spiders."

"Launching magnetic tethers." The voice in Callie's headset had the clipped tones of someone who'd grown up under Europa's domes, which meant it was the navigator Janice, and not the pilot Drake--he was from one of the Greater Toronto arcologies, populated mostly by the children of Caribbean immigrants, and his accent was a lot more melodious to the captain's ear.

Watching from the window in the airlock, her angle was wrong to see the metal tethers bursting from the side of the White Raven, but seconds later Janice said, "Contact. Connection secure." Janice didn't have a particle of romance in her soul, which was a good quality in the person who was supposed to tell you where you were going and where you'd been.

As soon as the airlock unsealed and yawned open, Ashok launched himself out, snapping a carabiner on to one of the steel lines that now attached the White Raven to the dark wreck a scant thousand meters away. He would have spacewalked without any safety gear at all if Callie had allowed it: he liked spinning to and fro in the void with nothing but puffs of compressed air to get him back home, but Callie insisted on a modicum of safety in her crew, at least in micro terms. On the macro level, she sent them into danger all the time, with herself at the front of the line. Space had a billion ways to kill you, so you prevented the ones you could, and didn't waste time worrying about the ones you couldn't. If you got hung up on a little thing like the terror of the unknown, you might as well head down a cozy gravity well and become whatever people were down there. Wind farm technicians? Organ donors? Crime scene cleaners?

She attached her own line behind Ashok's, following at a suitable distance as he pulled himself along the tether toward the wreck.

They made the journey in near silence, the only sound her own breath in her helmet. They didn't need to talk. The White Raven did a lot of contract security work for the Trans-Neptunian Authority: skip-tracing, investigation, fugitive recovery, chasing down smugglers. They dabbled in freight and salvage work when other jobs were lacking. She couldn't count the number of times she and Ashok had crept silently up on a ship, not exactly sure what they'd encounter when they arrived. Neither one of them had died yet, though Ashok had come close a few times. If they ever perfected mind uploads, he'd be even more reckless with his physical wellbeing: he'd doubtless jump at the chance to stop half-assing it as a cyborg and go full robot.

They reached the wreck, the dark curve of its hull smooth and cold before them, the towering spikes all over the stern looming like a misshapen forest. Ashok's voice spoke in her ear, close as a lover. (What a terrible thought. She wasn't that hard up for companionship. She had access to useful machines that didn't come with Ashok's cheerful obliviousness attached.) He thumped the side of the wreck with his prosthetic fist. "The hull looks intact. I'd like to get a look at that mess they've got where their nuclear propulsion system should be. I guess you want to check out the interior first, though?"

Callie had an elemental aversion to slicing holes in hulls. That skin of metal was all that divided a bubble of life and air inside from the emptiness all around outside, and she'd spent her adult life living in places where a hull breach meant panic at best and death at worst. "Janice, are we sure there's nobody alive on this thing?" Janice wasn't just the navigator: she also ran their comms and squeezed every bit of useful information out of the ship's sensor array.

"You can't prove a negative, captain," she said. "But if there's anyone on board, they aren't transmitting or receiving any communications, and we did everything short of knocking on the door and yelling 'Hello, anybody home?' You two could try that next. There is a strange set of energy signatures, so some systems might be functional. Could be life support. No way to tell from here."

Callie's executive officer Stephen, who was also the ship's doctor, joined the conversation, his voice a sedate rumble. "I've been doing some research. If the ship really has been out here since the first wave of goldilocks ships took off in the twenty-second century, the crew could still be alive, in cryosleep."

"Oh, damn. They still used cryosleep back then?" People didn't do a lot of centuries-long voyages anymore--the bridges had made such projects seem pointless, for the most part--but there were better options for human hibernation nowadays, with stasis fields and induced zero-metabolism comas. Cryosleep was a lot less reliable, from what she'd learned in history class, and could have short- and long-term neurological impacts on those who went through the process... if they could be successfully thawed out at all.

"Somebody made modifications to the ship and left it here, though," Ashok said. "The original crew, or someone else. The joyriders could still be on board. Maybe it's Liars. You know they like to tinker with things."

"Do they now? You don't say." Drake's accent was melodic, but there was a spiky edge to his tone that made Callie wince. Ashok was tactless because he was clueless, not malicious, but it took a special failure of compassion to talk about Liars that way when Janice and Drake were on the line. They'd experienced the Liar predilection for technological improvisation firsthand.

"Settle down, children," she said. "Mommy's working now."

Stephen chuckled over the comm. When it came to running the crew, Callie was the stern disciplinarian, and he was the deep well of patience. She pressed her gloved hand against the side of the ship, imagining she could feel the cold through the thick layers of fabric and insulation. "If there's someone awake on this boat, they had ample chance to announce themselves. See if you can get inside the nice way first, Ashok, but if not, slice away."

Ashok floated close to the hull, sliding both his gloved hand and his unprotected prosthetic one around the airlock until he found a panel he could pry open. Filaments sprouted from his mechanical hand, and he hummed to himself over the open comms channel as he tried to convince the ship's ancient and rudimentary control systems that he was authorized to open the door. "Ugh. This is like trying to punch soup."

Callie considered. "Punching soup would be pretty easy. Assuming it wasn't too hot. I've punched lots of things worse than soup."

"Yes, fine, but punching soup wouldn't accomplish much, is what I'm saying... ah. There it is. Have I told you lately that I'm a genius?"

"I'm not sure. I don't usually listen when you talk."

"I'm really sad the door opened for me. I've got a new integrated laser-torch I wanted to try out in the field. Maybe next time."

The hatch unsealed, and Ashok grabbed a recessed handle and hauled it open. Callie turned on her helmet light and looked into the airlock beyond. Ashok gasped--it was almost a shriek--and then coughed to cover it.

"I thought they were bodies for a second, too." Callie watched a couple of old-fashioned, bulky gray spacesuits float in the airlock, but they were empty, their helmets hovering nearby. Callie unhooked from the cable, clambered into the ship, and deftly stowed the suits out of the way in the sprung-open locker they'd probably escaped from. Ashok came in after her, and then sealed the door.

"We're inside," she told the comms.

"Your heart rate's up a bit," Stephen said. "Is the ship full of space monsters?"

"I assume so. How are Ashok's vitals? I thought he was going to faint when we saw a vacuum suit float by."

"Ha ha." Ashok peered around the dark with his multi-spectrum lenses.

"His vitals seem fine, but since he installed those hormone pumps to regulate his physiological responses, it's impossible for me to tell what's going on with him based on his suit data. He doesn't need a doctor, he needs a small engine repair shop."

Ashok was normally happy to trade banter, but he could focus when the need arose, and he was working on the control panel for the interior airlock door now. "There's pressure on the other side, cap. I'll sample the air, see if it's breathable."

"Ugh. I might leave my helmet on anyway. These little ships always smell like recycled farts."

"People on ice probably don't fart too much, but suit yourself." The airlock hissed as the pressure equalized, and after a few minutes a light above the door turned green and there was a whoosh of seals unfastening. After the inner door swung open Ashok entered a dim corridor, his helmet light shining on blank gray walls, and he held up a finger like someone planetside trying to feel which way the wind was blowing; there were sensors embedded in his prosthetic digits. "Hmm. A little oxygen-rich for my taste, but if we don't play with any open flames, we should be OK." He unhooked the latches on his helmet, removed it, and took a tentative breath. "Smells fine. Not as good as the spinwise gardens on Meditreme Station, but it'll do."

Callie took off her own helmet and sniffed. The air was stale, but fine. It didn't smell like death or burning, which she found reassuring. "I guess it won't kill us."

Ashok glanced at her. "Your nose is a feat of structural engineering, cap. I bet you can smell all the way out to the asteroid belt."

"That's big talk coming from a one-armed man with a computer stuck to his face." She tapped the side of her admittedly considerable nose. "This is the Machedo family pride. Signature of a noble lineage. Some say it's my best feature."

"Everything is somebody's fetish."

"Do you think making fun of your captain's nose is a good idea?"

"No, but it's no worse than my other ideas. Like poking around in ancient spaceships full of zombie space suits."

The banter and insults were a form of whistling in the dark. For Callie, every disabled, drifting, battered, or broken ship was a reminder of the fate that could await her own crew if she made the wrong decision, or ran into a situation where bad decisions were the only ones available.

Ashok took the lead, his light sweeping back and forth across the corridor to illuminate every step. He was doubtless peering around with other, more advanced senses, too, so they might get some warning if there were nasty surprises lurking. "Shall managed to find some old interior schematics for ships like this. There's only one set of living quarters, since the crew was mostly expected to be frozen, with the ship waking one of them up for a day every year or so to do a manual check of the systems. Most of the space is given over to supplies--seeds and embryos and communications equipment, tools, crude old-school fabricators. Maybe we can find a collector interested in obsolete pre-Liar technology." He stopped by a closed metal door. "The cryochamber is through here."

Callie hit the button by the door, but nothing happened, not even the whine of a mechanical failure. The ship was pulling power from somewhere, for something, but apparently not for opening doors. Ashok shrugged, then worked the fingers of his prosthetic hand into the minuscule crack where the door met the wall. He could exert a startling amount of pressure with those fingers, and the metal squealed and shrieked as it slid forcibly along its groove and disappeared into the wall. The room beyond wasn't entirely dark: a faint blue glow shone off to the left. Most of the cryopods were dark, but the instrument panel on the last one in the row was illuminated.

"Do you think they made the pods look like coffins on purpose?" Ashok took a step inside. "As a way of getting the people inside used to the idea that they were probably going to die on the trip?"

There were six pods, each roughly rectangular and big enough to hold a human, but they didn't make her think of coffins. They reminded her more of big chest freezers--which, in a way, they were. Five of the pods were open and empty, which gave her a chill right up her spine and into her backbrain. She couldn't help but imagine dead crew members, blue-skinned, frost rimed on their faces, lurching through the black corridors of the ship, eager to steal the heat of the living.

"There's someone on ice over here." Ashok stood by the last container, its glowing blue control panel casting weird shadows on his already weird face. "Most of the power on the ship has been diverted to maintaining life support and keeping this pod functional, I think."

Callie joined him and looked into the pod. There was a window over the inhabitant's face, and the glass wasn't even foggy or covered in ice, the way cryopod windows inevitably appeared in historical immersives. Artistic license. The figure inside was a petite woman with straight black hair, dressed in white coveralls. She looked like a sleeping princess (peasant garb aside), and something in Callie sparkled at the sight of her. Uh oh, she thought.

"Can we wake her up?" she said. Not with a kiss, of course. This wasn't a fairy tale, despite the glass casket.

Ashok shrugged. "Sure. We can try, anyway. The mechanisms all seem to be intact, and Shall says the diagnostics on the cryonic suspension system came back clean. Want me to pop the seal?"

"Let's get Stephen over here first in case she needs medical attention." Callie activated her radio. "XO, get suited up and come over. We've got a live one on ice."

Stephen groaned. He didn't like EVA. He preferred sitting in a contoured acceleration couch and listening to old music, and only showed real enthusiasm for physical activity during his religious devotions. "Isn't it bad policy for the captain and the executive officer to leave the ship at the same time?"

"He's right." Drake's voice was amused. "With both of you off the ship, leaving me and Janice unsupervised? We could get up to anything. The only thing keeping me from crashing us into the nearest icy planitesimal is your strong leadership. Janice, hold me back."

Callie clucked her tongue. "It's only a thousand meters, Stephen. I think we'll be OK. Ashok and I will finish checking out the ship while you come over."

Their survey didn't take long. The cargo area was a mess--the seed banks seemed fine, but the refrigeration for the more fragile biological specimens had failed. They both put their helmets back on, because the stench was bad in there. There was no sign of the missing crew members.

"What the hell happened here?" Callie floated in the dim cargo hold, scanning the walls. It looked like an ugly, irregular hole had been cut in the ceiling and subsequently patched.

"The crew went somewhere, woke up, welded a bunch of crap all over their stern, one of them got back on board, set a course for Trans-Neptunian space, and went back into hibernation." Ashok fiddled with the buttons on an ancient fabricator, meant to build machine parts on a colony world the ship had never reached. "The 'what' is pretty clear. The how and why are totally mysterious, but if we can wake up the ancient ice mummy back there, maybe she'll have some answers."

"She's more like Sleeping Beauty," Callie said. "Mummies are gross."

"Beauty, huh? You see something you like back there, cap?"

"Shut up. She's a thousand years old."

"Five hundred, tops, and she doesn't even look it."

"Shut up double." She waved him away. "See if you can get any sense out of the ship's computer, especially the navigation system, and try to find a crew manifest. It would be nice to know where this ship's been... and who our sleeping beauty is."

"I'd rather see what's going on with the propulsion system. Engines are way more fun than cartography and human resources."

"You can tinker after you gather intel. Shoo. Do as you're told." She returned to the cryochamber, where Stephen had arrived and was now stooped, examining the control panel on the one active pod. "What do you think?" she said. "Is she going to survive?"

Her XO shrugged. Stephen was a big man, and his default expression was doleful, so he tended to resemble a depressed mountain. "She's frozen. We'll see what happens when we thaw her out." He activated something on the panel, and they both stood back as the cryopod rumbled, the lid sliding down and icy vapor pouring out in a condensing plume of fog.

"The system should be warming her up now." Stephen seldom sounded excited, and he was hardly vibrating with enthusiasm now, but he did sound interested: for him, that was the equivalent of jumping up and down with glee. "These cryogenic procedures are barbaric--they're on par with bloodletting and trepanation, medically speaking--but from what I've read, after she's returned to a reasonable temperature, her heart will be jumpstarted with electricity or adrenaline or both. Apparently the initial reaction can be quite dramatic-"

The sleeper screamed and jolted upright, clouds of vapor eddying around her. Some collection of straps and restraints around her waist and legs kept her from floating up out of the pod, but her upper body was free. She stared around, eyes wide, then reached out, grasping Callie's gloved hands in her bare ones, and pulled the captain close.

"First contact!" she shouted, loud enough to make Callie turn her head away. "We made first contact! I had to come back, to tell everyone, to warn you, humanity is not alone-" She stopped talking, her mouth snapping shut, and then her eyes rolled up and her body sagged.

Callie squeezed the woman's unresponsive hands. "Is she dead?"

Stephen floated closer, removed his gloves, and touched the woman's throat. "No, there's a pulse. The jolt that started her heart shocked her into consciousness, but it wasn't enough to keep her awake. There are a lot of drugs in her system. Some were keeping her healthy while she was in hibernation, and some are trying to bring her metabolism and other systems back up to baseline. She's going to be sluggish for a while. I'll examine her more thoroughly back on the White Raven, but I don't see any immediate cause for concern." He paused. "For someone born in the twenty-second century, she's doing quite well."

Callie let go of the woman's hands and pushed herself away from the pod to float near the center of the room, considering.

"So." Stephen peeled back the sleeper's lids and shone a light into her eyes. "After she wakes up, do you want to tell her we've known about the aliens for three hundred years, and her first contact bombshell is old news?"

Copyright © 2017 by Tim Pratt


The Wrong Stars

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