Landscape of Darkness by Sara Light-Waller
Peril Awaits in a Deadly Outer Space Vortex!
The cargo ship from Terra arrived late, and port haulers hasten to unload her before the scheduled storm. Sam Mercury wonders if he should call weather control and demand a delay. It’s early afternoon. Through the long horizontal windows he surveys the landing field, where tri-fin rockets stab upwards and bulky cigar-shaped craft recline on launch cradles on the tarmac. His eyes rise automatically to the graceful skyline of Neohatten beyond.
In a few hours, spotlights will illuminate the silvery façades, changing them to mauve, rose, and aqua. Tinkling music will spill gaily from elegant rooftop gardens. People will think themselves safe for one more night.
If only that were true.
Sam turns away from the window and glowers at the terrified port clerk.
“I don’t care how big a job it is, I want all that cargo checked, not just what’s on the official manifest. I’ve had word that there’s a smuggled load of Heli-Blue on one of the cargo ships in from Terra Prime.” He points to the slowly scrolling record on the desk. “It wasn’t on the first ship, so it has to be this one. Check every square inch, I want that contraband found.”
The middle-aged clerk screws up his pug-like face and wrings his hands miserably. “But Captain Mercury, that’s tonnes of cargo! I don’t have the manpower for that kind of search.”
Sam shoves the holopad back at the unhappy man. “I don’t need to tell you what Heli-Blue will do if it’s released into the atmosphere. Do you want nano-particles loose on this planet?”
The clerk’s face pales and his eyes widen. “No. Of course not.”
“Neither do I. Close the port and impound the rocket until the contraband’s found.”
Sam’s expression shows a modicum of approval. “I’ll send a mechtech over to assist you.”
The clerk wipes his brow. “You’re…you’re sure the Heli-Blue is coming here, to Neohatten?”
“Positive. Space Command captured the lowlife who sold it on Terra. We still don’t know where he got it from, but we’ll find out. Heli-Blue is hard to make nowadays, no one has that tech anymore.”
The cuff on Sam’s arm chimes, indicating an incoming hypertext. He straightens his wrist and a hologram glitters into view. It’s a message from the precinct. “Space yacht, Blue Danube, located in sector Delta 59. Assistance is required. Please advise.” Technical specs follow.
Sam turns his back on the clerk momentarily as he visi-signs a return message. “Impossible. Delta 59’s a dead sector. Recheck data.”
The answer flashes back immediately. “We have conclusive evidence, Captain.”
“On my way…” Sam closes the link, glares one last time at the shuddering clerk and leaves the office. He opens a fresh channel to the precinct’s mechtech division. “Send a tech with a cyber-capable scanner to the main port office, immediately.”
He receives an affirmative reply while threading his way through the heavy port crowds. He’ll catch hell from the City Council for closing the port for inspections. But it has to be done. He can’t let Heli-Blue get loose on this planet, it’s far too dangerous.
A flare of pain punches Sam’s guts, making him grunt and hunch over slightly. He reaches into his pocket and pops a stomach-soother into his mouth. The pain subsides and his body relaxes. The thought of an ulcer attack adds another worry to his list. Rena will insist he get it taken care of this time. He can already hear the conversation. It’ll end as it always does, with him stalling medical leave. There never seems to be enough time for personal things like ulcer repair. Not when the city needs him. And Neohatten never sleeps.
“Show me the data,” Sam barks as he enters the squad room. People turn and look, but are unsurprised by the Captain’s temper. “Terry, your text couldn’t have been right. There’s nothing alive in that sector.”
Terry Rogers, the precinct’s data analyst, tucks a wayward strand of red hair behind one ear and hands him the holopad. “Here you go, Captain. There’s no mistaking it. The original distress call came from sector Delta 59.”
Sam snatches the data pad away from her and scrolls through the compartmentalized screen segments. “What the hell was Blue Danube doing in that sector anyway? There’s nothing out there but space wrack and thick magnetic soup.” He runs a hand through his short, grizzled hair. “Rochester, why isn’t Space Command handling this? It’s their follow-up.”
Lieutenant Frank Rochester, second-in-command of the precinct, shakes his head. “I don’t know Captain. Command sent the orders along with the new location data.” He consults his own holopad. “The space yacht, Blue Danube, out of Neohatten of Lucen 5, sent out a distress call from sector Delta 59 three days ago. Space Command sent a patrol cruiser to assist. The patrol ship went silent a few hours after arrival. The squad’s last message said there was no sign of the missing yacht, just a beacon on repeat send.”
“Could it have been a prank?”
“No, sir,” Terry says. “Blue Danube is owned by the Turren family.”
“Well, this just gets better and better.” Sam’s mouth thins. He knows Oliver Turren, the man’s no space cowboy. “I want some answers that make sense. Get me the Commissioner. I’ll take it in my office.”
A two-foot-tall hologram of Commissioner Tom Jamison of Space Command HQ projects upward from the top of Sam’s desk. Jamison and Sam are the same age, although Sam looks older. They’ve been friends since the Academy.
“Why are you throwing this back at me, Tom? It was your boat that went missing.”
“You know better than to question me, Sam. This is an order.”
“Why us, Tom?”
The holo-image ripples prismatically as the commissioner answers. “It’s your beat, Sam. If there’s a problem in that sector we need to know about it. And if there is, your patrolmen will have to manage it.” He looks superficially sympathetic. “If you’re short on crews then send out some of your China Dolls. They’ll have to get some color on their faces eventually.”
Sam frowns, he hates the slur, China Dolls.
“You want me to send my youngsters out to clean up your mess? Nothing doing. If anyone goes, it’ll be me.”
“It’s your call, Sam. But if it were me…”
“It’s not up to you, Tom. Not anymore. I’ll light-text you when I’ve got some answers. Mercury out.” Sam slams his palm down onto the desk and the hologram fizzles.
Space Command has no authority over intra-colony matters. Tom knows that! So why did Command send out that patrol ship? It doesn’t make any sense. Unless whatever Blue Danube ran into was a threat to all the colony worlds.
He narrows his eyes. It’s time to get some answers.
Sam studies the latest drone footage from Delta 59. Streams of greenish gas, like clouds of emerald cotton candy, fill the vast space. Pinpoints of starlight burn whitely through the gas clouds as if cut-outs in a lantern. A denser cloud of red with a bow shock of yellow takes up a full quarter of the sector. Unlike the green, the red cloud is opaque with only one Class 5 star shining through it.
He checks the drone’s time stamp. Fifteen hours ago. Crushed rocket tubes, mangled solar sails, and other flotsam rotate slowly through the swirling green eddies. It’s all old junk. Even at extreme magnification Sam can’t see anything that looks like part of a new yacht or patrol ship.
“Where the hell are they?” He increases magnification and peers intently at the screen. Some important detail’s missing. Why did Space Command think this yacht important enough to break protocol and sent their own ship out after it?
A knock on the office door makes Sam curse en sotto voce. “For the love of…” He looks up and the irritation disappears from his voice. “Oh, it’s you. Come in, Pete.”
Pete Mercury’s handsome face is bright with excitement. He strolls to Sam’s desk and scrutinizes the hologram. “So that’s the place. Hmm.” He rubs his square chin thoughtfully. “I heard a rumor that you’re sending out one of the young crews to look for the missing yacht. That true, Pop?”
Sam scowls. “So, that’s the gossip, is it? Well, we’re going to check it out, but it won’t be your crew, Pete. You and your men are too green for this mission. I’m heading up the rescue.”
Pete leans forward across the desk. “Come on Pop! I know you think we’re only good for short moon hops. But we’re ready for more. We can do this.” He gestures emphatically.
Sam rolls his eyes. Rookies are always impatient to get their credentials. That’s why commercial shipping has so many men willing to work long arduous flights for low pay. Space Patrol isn’t like that. They train their crews properly. Sure, it takes longer. But by the end they’re good patrolmen.
“I know you’re eager to test your wings, Pete, you and all the other rookies. But this isn’t the trip for it. Things could get rough out there plenty fast. A million things can go wrong on a transdim voyage. I need a seasoned crew for this one. That’s all there is to it.”
A flush of embarrassment reddens Pete’s cheeks. “I get you. So we’re stuck as China Dolls until your say-so.”
Sam goes back to examining the hologram. “Try not to take it so hard, kid. You’ll get your spacer’s tan eventually. Besides, your mother would kill me if you got marooned on the other side of a portal.”
Pete smiles ironically. “Yeah, she’d kill you then fly out herself.”
“She’d probably find you too,” Sam mutters.
When mankind discovered the mathematical keys to opening transdimensional portals in 2143, the great age of space exploration began. Brave men and women in early-model tri-fin rockets jetted off to grand and glorious adventures in mankind’s newest sandbox — outer space. The fantastical transport tunnels traversed multi-dimensional space/time. First distant stars, then new galaxies, opened up for exploration as men traveled into the far reaches of the cosmos.
Interstellar travel might be achieved though the wondrous transdim passageways, but communications through them proved frustratingly glitchy. Scientists assumed, wrongly, that communication beams would travel as easily through the portals as the ships did. It was a mistake that cost many early spacers their lives. Until buoy markers were set up on both sides of the tunnel, communications were lost as soon as the passageway closed. If a ship in a far sector lost the ability to open a portal home, they were done for.
Space Command instituted protocols for communication buoys to be set up as soon as a new sector opened. Even so, travel to new sectors was dangerous. Ships were wrecked by unstable gravitational forces within the tunnels, or lost when far-flung communications buoys were damaged by meteor storms or other disasters.
Delta sector had a couple of communications buoys set up at junctions 62 and 54. These were survey markers for a colonization run that failed seventy-five years before. Since then, better sectors for colonization were developed and Delta was largely forgotten. But the drone stations were still out there. They performed regular sweeps and transmitted the data back through routinely-opened transdim portals. Technically, Delta was under the auspices of Sam’s precinct, but it was unofficially a dead sector, at least as far as anyone knew.
“Did you see this, Pop?” Pete enlarges a section of the hologram and points out a tiny silver and red shape hanging at the edge of the dense central cloud. “It could be a piece of a Mark VII rocket.”
Sam rubs his chin. “That cloud’s at the heart of the sargasso. The magnetic disturbances will be heaviest there. Those ships might still be intact, but disabled.” The question remains, why did one of the Turrens take Blue Danube into that anomalous region? Curiosity? Adventure? Sam doesn’t buy it. The Turrens are conservative. They might take a pleasure trip out of the system but not to an unexplored sector.
“You know Irene Turren, don’t you?”
Pete’s eyes brighten. “Yeah, I know her. She’s a great girl. And smart! She was top of her class at school. Right now she heads up Marketing for Turren Rockets, but when her dad retires, she’ll take over.”
“An up-and-comer, eh?”
The young man nods, dreamily. “Yeah. And she’s a knockout, too. We went out a few times but…Irene broke it off. Too many work obligations, she said.”
“I wonder if she was the one who took Blue Danube out.”
“Why would she go to the Delta sector, Pop?”
“No idea.” Sam opens the desk, takes out his pistol, and slips it into the holster on his belt. “Get the boys in mechtech to rig up some protection for my ship. I don’t want to get stranded out there in that muck.”
“Right away.” Pete hesitates, fingers clenched tightly around the edge of the desk. “My crew may be too green for this mission, Pop, but I want to come with you. If Irene’s in trouble I want to see her safe.”
Sam thinks of Rena. If she was stranded out there… “All right, Pete. Get Terry started on the portal vector calculations. Tell Greely to have my ship ready for blast off. When I get back from Turren Towers we’ll leave.” He pauses, then adds, “Your mother’s at the lab. Call and tell her we’ll be gone for a few days and…not to worry.”
“You should tell her yourself, Pop.”
“I know…but you do it.” As he turns for the door he imagines Rena’s worried face. “I can’t face her right now.”