We ignored the protesters shouting slogans outside the gates. Back in those days a lot of kooky people were convinced that every star traveler was going to bring back some weird virus that would wipe out life as we know it. Well, that was fifty years ago and it hasn’t happened yet.
— Gregor Fonatelles: My Life in the Big Nothing
"All hands on deck! All hands on deck!"
That urgent call failed to disturb the syncopated rhythm of two persons breathing in a darkened cabin.
"We’ve been screwed, dammit!"
Certainly somebody had been. Seth was heavily entangled in soft, smooth arms and legs, two of each, in a soft, warm bed. Whoever it was smelled nice, was alive, gently breathing. Do it again soon, not yet... He sank back into sweet nirvana.
"Captain, hear this!"
"Captain here," Jordan muttered in Seth’s ear, her voice still thick with sleep.
"Jordan, there’s a freaking flag on the planet!"
That was the voice of First Officer Hanna Finn, who had the watch. Who was so virginally prim that she never, ever used words like “dammit" or “screwed." Was unheard-of. Seth forced open one eye: wall display showing 401:01:14. Made sense.
On Day 400 there had been a party, which explained why someone was kicking his head with hobnail boots. A fantastic, riotous, bacchanalian celebration of triumph, victory, sugarplum riches in sight at last. All the work and tedium, tension and danger had been forgotten as the holy grail of success shone there in the darkness. ISLA’s General Regulations prohibited alcohol aboard starships, a law impossible to enforce when synthesizers could convert plant and animal waste into gourmet food. So the party had been memorable, but when it began to grow quirky, Seth had scooped the captain up and carried her off over his shoulder to the cabin they currently shared.
That same Jordan was now making protest noises and punching him in the ribs. Seemed he had been sleeping more on top of than with. He parted stickily from her and rolled off. From what he remembered, it had been a rollick to die for, which is what his headache now made seem both likely and devoutly to be wished.
"I’m coming." Jordan threw aside the cover; lights came on; she grabbed her clothes from the chair.
They couldn’t have slept more than thirty minutes and Seth was due to relieve Hanna in less than an hour. Whatever could be exciting First so? He slid hairy legs over the edge of the bed and reached down for the shorts and top he had dropped while in too much of a lusting frenzy to think tidy. He went reeling at Jordan’s heels as she sped along the corridor into the control room.
The control room was the second largest space in Golden Hind’s living quarters but fourteen months ago he had considered it poky. His appreciation of size had changed since then. Its walls, ceiling, and even padded floor, could be made to display the surrounding starscape of the Galaxy, or scenes such as a boat trip along the Amazon or the hubbub of a Chinese dancing team at a country fair. They were mercifully blank beige now. Hanna sat alone in her place at the long table. Jordan slid into hers at the head, and Seth hurried around to his, at the far end.
Woe betide anyone who dared sit in the wrong chair. As Commodore J. C. Lecanard never tired of pointing out, rank was important when six people were confined for a long time in cramped quarters; it produced a necessary minimum of formality and respect, he said. Top dogs thought like that. Seth was bottom dog, even if he did bone the captain. He called her “ma’am" when they had their clothes on and rarely needed to talk at all when they didn’t.
Hanna looked as if her headache was even more fatal than his. Her auburn tresses were a tangled fishing net, her emerald eyes floated in seas of blood. Poor Hanna was so repressed that this might well be her first hangover. Prudish or not, she had proved to be a superb navigator and first officer.
She said, “Look at that awful thing." She meant a three dimensional projection of the local Cacafuego planetary system that was currently floating above the table.
The hologram was not to scale, but it showed the central G-type star with one close-in hot gas giant planet whirling around it every three days. Far out the two ice giants marched in eccentric, retrograde orbits. It was that unusual combination that had confounded the Doppler trace of the planets’ gravitational action on the star, the main reason that Cacafuego had escaped detection for so long. Cacafuego itself, the world of their dreams, was a shining blue gem right where it ought to be, in the habitable suburbs, neither too hot nor too cold. With a single small moon, as they had discovered yesterday. Veteran wildcatters insisted that planets with a single moon were lucky.
But the Cacafuego ikon was disfigured now by a glowing, flashing halo that indicated someone had put a radio beacon in orbit around it. That somebody must be presumed human, because a hundred years of stellar exploration had turned up no other species with a knack for technology.
Jordan sighed, did not comment. She was fair and fine-boned, short of stature even when female, as now. Like most herms, she wore her hair short, but it was still rumpled from sleep and vigorous bed-romping. Her ludicrously smudged eye makeup made her look like a drunken panda.
In stalked JC himself, tucking top into shorts. JC was a huge man, wide, tall, and hairy. At sixty-two he was easily the oldest person aboard, the originator, sponsor, organizer and leader of the expedition. He slumped into his place on the captain’s right, opposite Hanna, and scowled horribly at the holographic display.
"That wasn’t there an hour ago. Did they detect us and turn it on?"
—No, Commodore, Control said. —Two-way response time would be too great at this distance. We have just come within range, and even now the signal is only detectable because we know where to look and can apply sophisticated filtering.
Astrobiologist Reese Saint-Laurent entered and took his seat between Seth and Hanna. He glanced around the company with a sneer, which was his usual expression, aided by an overlong nose and chin, a face of bone and angles. Either he had drunk less than the others at the party, or he just found other people’s hangovers amusing. Reese was independently wealthy back home and so had less to lose than anyone else.
Lastly came a sleepy Maria Chang, the planetologist, who had obviously taken a moment to brush out her hair. Even sleep deprivation and a hangover could not rob Maria of her poise or seductive walk; her gaze was still sultry as she assessed the others. Maria had no lack of interest in the mission, but she was a people-first person. She took her seat on Seth’s right, and then all twelve eyes were directed at the display.
This was Golden Hind’s full complement, each of the six having specific skills and duties. Off-duty all that mattered was that they were two men, two women, and two herms. That allowed a lot of combinations.
Seth waited for someone else to say something. The silence was the sound of crumbling dreams. They had spent fourteen months bottled up in this starship, fourteen months cut out of their lives, with the return trip still to come. Wildcatting was the most dangerous of all legal occupations other than military combat, but it could be the most lucrative. Even Seth, the lowly gofer, could hope to become wealthy on his tiny share in the Hind’s voyage.
Back on Day 0, when Golden Hind left Earth orbit, Hanna had estimated 425 days out. She had beaten her estimate by twenty-five days. Yesterday she had plotted the last jump, promising it would take them right to the destination system. The crew had been gathered in the control room, tense with excitement. She had reported, “Ready to jump, ma’am."
Jordan had laid both hands on the table and ordered the jump.
Everyone had checked the star fields around them. Those had barely changed, but above the consol appeared the holograph with Cacafuego shining blue, the color of water and oxygen and life. No further jumps required—four days’ coasting and they would be there. Even JC, ever cagey with praise, had complemented Hanna on an incredible feat of navigation. In minutes Control had reported that close scanning of the system showed no significant variation from predictions, and that neither ship or crew had suffered damage. JC had opened his secret hoard of champagne, and the ship had erupted in frenetic celebration.
That had been last night. This morning Seth was not the only one with a pounding headache, which was not the best condition for dealing with disaster.
He jumped as needle claws dug into his thighs, but it was merely Ship’s Cat Whittington seeking a friendly lap. She turned around and settled down, tucking her tail in carefully. A happy soul was Whittington, unconcerned by the total absence of mice within 1500 light years. Seth stroked her and she rumbled, flattering the Big One who fed her, ignoring the other Big Ones’ confrontation.
"Time slip!" Reese growled. “Welcome to the twenty-fifth century."
Time slip was always a danger. It could not be predicted. People had returned decades after they had been given up for dead, finding the world they knew changed beyond recognition and their friends aged. Had Golden Hind lost a century or so on the way here?
"Flaming shit," JC said at last. “We don’t need that. Control, who staked that planet?"
—No planet in this system is presently staked, Commodore."
"Then who planted the flag?"
—Beacon’s originator’s key is registered to DSS De Soto, exploration vessel owned by Galactic Inc., a company incorporated under the laws of...
Of course it would be Galactic. Galactic was the billion-ton gorilla of the stellar exploration business. Galactic ships had brought back scores of fantastic chemicals that could be synthesized into pharmaceuticals, supplying all mankind with herm drugs, cancer drugs, Methuselah drugs, and hundreds more. Galactic was Goliath, bigger and more successful than the next three exploration companies combined, thousands of times the size of a startup independent like Mighty Mite Ltd.
"De Soto was still in dock orbit when we shipped out," Jordan said. “So the time slip may not be very great."
"It could be a hundred years," Reese countered. “Those beacons are built to last." He enjoyed being devil’s advocate.
"We don’t know there’s been any time slip at all," JC said. “And we told Hanna we’d rather get home alive than be rich and dead. Galactic has better hazard maps than it ever releases, no matter what ISLA regulations say. It’s notorious for putting its crews at risk by cutting corners."
If the planet had not been staked, what did the beacon mean? Seth was always careful not to trample on the experts’ toes. But either they all knew the answer already, or he was the only one who had noticed. Possibly they were all afraid to ask a stupid question. The gofer had no status to lose.
"I thought staking flags were green," Seth said. “Control, what does yellow stand for?"
—Yellow beacon indicates danger, will be recommended for proscription.
Nobody looked in his direction. The death rate among wildcatters was notorious, but most casualties were among the prospectors, the heroic few who actually set foot on exoplanets. If even Galactic thought a planet was too dangerous to visit, then it must be boiling radioactive snake venom.
Galactic sent out entire fleets, not solo vessels like Hind. Galactic included dozens of specialists in its expeditions. A tiny start-up company like Mighty Mite had to crew a ship with jacks-of-all-trades, people with multiple skills. Golden Hind carried only one prospector, Seth Broderick, who was also porter, janitor, and general gofer.
"I never heard of quarantine, or proscription," he said.
"Quarantine’s from ancient marine law," JC said. “When a sailing ship had plague or yellow fever aboard, it had to fly a yellow flag. In the early days of space travel, everyone feared that life-bearing worlds would harbor bugs or viruses that would be brought back to infect the Earth. So far as I know... Reese, has any wildcatter ever been infected by a local disease on an exoplanet?"
"Very rarely," the biologist said. “It has happened, but exoplanet bacteria and viruses are usually so alien that you would be more likely to catch Dutch elm disease from a lobster. You are in less danger from the infection than from your immune system over-reacting, but we can control that."
JC grunted agreement. “Control, confirm that Cacafuego is virgin territory."
—ISLA had no record of any previous exploration, Commodore.
Which meant only that the ship’s files had not been updated since first jump, and so were fourteen months out of date. The evidence showed that someone had beaten them to it.
Seth would kill for a cup of coffee and a long glass of orange juice. Sitting with his back to the mess doorway, he was in the path of all the stale scents of last night’s party treats wafting by: wine, chili, ripe cheese, onions, and a few recreational materials not listed on the official manifests. It was his job to tidy up. He should fetch and serve refreshments for the others. To hell with duty, this meeting was too critical to miss.
Jordan was drumming fingernails on the table. “Is there a posting date on the beacon?" she asked.
—Beacon is still too distant for us to query, Captain.
"Any ships in orbit there now?" asked JC.
—No transmissions being detected, Commodore. Target is too distant for visual detection.
Jordan said, “If they’re still there, they must have seen our jump flash when we arrived."
"Not necessarily," JC said. “Control, there must be a text message included."
—Still too distant even for that. We are presently receiving only the wideband alarm signal, barely distinguishable from galactic background noise.
"If we left ahead of De Soto," asked Reese, the biologist, “how far ahead of us could they have gotten here? I mean, how long, in time? Without allowing for any time slip?" Somehow his questions always sounded like sneers.
"A physicist would say that there was no answer to that question," Hanna snapped, her temper glinting again. She must be blaming herself for this catastrophe; she had lost the race. “When you jump, you twist both space and time, so the uncertainty principle cuts in. We took fifteen jumps. If De Soto has better maps of the havens, as JC says, they may have relied on those without confirming the jumps were still safe. In theory you could travel the whole distance in no time at all."
"And get your gonads fried by radiation somewhere," JC said. “Or ram a brown dwarf star. Better safe than sorry."
The Big Nothing was not truly empty. It hid radiation belts, dust clouds, gas clouds, solitary comets or planets, and even black holes. They all shifted unpredictably in space-time. Running into any of them at supra-light speed was normally fatal.
Reese made a snorting noise, an annoying habit of his when male. “Never mind theory. How long in practice?"
"As much as two or three months, maybe," Hanna admitted.
The mood of gloom deepened. Four hundred days ago they had greeted the data on Cacafuego with wild rejoicing. Remote sensing by the trans-Neptunian observatories had indicated a highly promising candidate for a life-bearing world, a mere 1,500 light years away. But there were limits to what remote sensing could detect and many things that could make a planet hostile to humans. Now De Soto had made a close appraisal and been scared off by what it saw, or what had happened to its prospectors.
Reese curled his lip. “Finders keepers; first come first served. Even if we discovered something they missed, could they just take it from us?"
Seth thought not. The rules for staking were very specific. There were no Wild West shootouts in the Big Nothing. Battles were fought back home in the courts, where Galactic could outgun Mighty Mite a million lawyers to one. But returning explorers had to hand over their ships’ memory banks to ISLA, and Golden Hind’s now recorded the detection of Galactic’s beacon. There might be penalties for ignoring a quarantine.
"Not so," JC murmured, speaking unusually softly for him. “It’s who plants a flag first that matters. De Soto didn’t want it. If we stake it now, it would still be ours."
It would not be his job to plant the flag.
"Danger I do not understand," said Maria, the planetologist. “What danger? Poisonous atmospheres, yes. Lots of worlds have that and are still profitable. Monsters, rarely, and nothing worse than tigers."
She noticed Seth’s eyebrows rising and smiled an apology. “Nothing you can’t shoot or keep out with an EVA suit, I mean. No little green men or long blue women. Diseases, yes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, all sorts of nasty things have tried to infect us, but none of them could penetrate an EVA suit or withstand our medicines. In a hundred years! So what can be more dangerous about Cacafuego than risks already met and dealt with on explored worlds?"
No one offered a suggestion.
Jordan said, “We have two choices. We can go on in the hope of finding something that Galactic missed. They may have done us a favor, saved us from blundering into disaster. Or we can set course for the backup target." She looked to JC.
Who growled. “Not so fast, Captain! Control, how many planets have ever been proscribed?"
—Either six or seven, Commodore, all in the very early days, when records were not so well kept. None in the last seventy years.
"Seven! And how many planets have been explored, even briefly?"
—Recorded 7,364, but numerous others never registered.
JC leaned back and wrapped his ugly face in his fearsome but unconvincing grin. He looked triumphantly around the table. “They’re bluffing! The odds are only one in a thousand that Galactic really has found a killer world. What better way to chase others away than to post a yellow flag? They can change it to green as soon as they decide the rewards are worth the staking fee. They’re probably down there now, working away like busy beavers. Maybe they do this all the time, but nobody has chanced along to catch them at it."
Now he wasn’t talking of braving a killer world, he was talking of challenging Galactic as well, and perhaps even ISLA.
Jordan opened her mouth and then closed it without speaking. She seemed absurdly outmatched in a shouting match with JC. He was almost forty years older and at least fifty kilos heavier. Seth suspected he had chosen her for the job precisely because she was unassertive and avoided confrontations. That did not mean she would let herself be bullied into a wrong decision, though.
Jason Christopher Lecanard had first gone into the Big Nothing at twenty-four, the same age Seth was now, on a Bonanza expedition—Bonanza being a major company, one of Galactic’s rivals. But he’d signed on as an IT engineer, nothing risky like prospector. Back then even large companies had rewarded crews with royalty interests, and that expedition had struck it rich by staking Nirvana, in the Aquila Sector. Nirvana biology had poured out a torrent of novel antivirals and antibiotics over the next ten years. While JC’s share had no doubt been a minute percentage, the payoff had been huge. He’d invested his wealth in other ventures, eventually buying into a middle-sized exploration company, and there his luck had held again, with the discovery of the algal textile that had later been synthesized and sold as Starsilk.
Two years ago he had founded Mighty Mite Ltd. and started rounding up investors to help him go wildcatting for himself. Those tightwad money men would have insisted he put both his own life and fortune on the line too. A billion dollars barely showed in the cost of a starship, and the belief among the crew was that JC was betting the farm, risking every cent he had on the Golden Hind and Cacafuego. If it failed, he would be as penniless as Seth.
"Does a yellow flag have legal status as a prohibition?" he growled. He was asking Control, while looking thoughtfully at Seth.
—No, Commodore. But it is a serious caution.
Hanna said, “Control, what will ISLA say if we ignore the beacon?" There spoke red hair and Irish ancestry. Hanna stood up to JC better than the captain did.
Computers would not speculate. —It would largely depend on the results, First. If the Authority judges that you put lives at risk, then you and the captain might lose your licences, and face other penalties.
JC didn’t like that. He thought of laws as war games for lawyers. “We don’t know if they’re still there. Even if they are, they don’t need to know about us." He laid a hairy hand on the table. “Control, turn off all external transmissions, acknowledge no signals until further notice."
—Orders in violation of ISLA regulations require confirmation by a licensed officer.
"Flaming shit!" JC muttered, almost but not quite under his breath.
"I’m not convinced we need to go that far," Jordan said.
"Me neither," said Hanna, more forcefully.
So here it came, seconds out of the ring, the sponsor versus the executive officers. Seth was careful to keep a poker face as he waited to see what happened next. Reese and Maria were doing the same, and the room was silent as vacuum.
Without question, Jordan commanded the ship. If she refused to knuckle under to JC’s bullying, he would be powerless to overrule her. Control and the rest of the crew would back her up. On the other hand, JC represented the owners, and was expedition leader. When they got home he could destroy Jordan’s career, probably ruin her with a civil suit. But now he leaned back and smiled with feline confidence, veteran of a million boardroom battles.
He wheedled. “What have we got to lose? They may be long gone. Even if they aren’t, provided we go in under radio silence, there isn’t a chance in a million they’ll notice us, and even if they do, how can they identify us? Even visually—you know interstellar gas will have stripped all the paint off our hull. We’ll take a closer look at this planet they want to steal, and if it seems like a winner, we’ll send the shuttle down, and young Seth there can plant the flag and claim a world for honor and justice. How does that sound, Prospector?" He peered at Seth around the Cacafuego ikon.
Only Control ever addressed Seth by his rank. Usually the crew called him gofer, which was supposed to be funny, or cabin boy, which wasn’t.
"I’ll obey orders, Commodore." The bottom beaver on any totem pole must always kept his head down and never talk back. But he meant orders from the captain and JC knew that.
"There you are, Captain," JC said, all reasonable-like. “Even our hunky hero is in favor."
Jordan said, “Reese, once we go into orbit, how long will it take you to come up with a preliminary appraisal of Cacafuego’s potential?"
Reese closed his eyes to activate eyelid implants. His lips and throat moved as he sub-vocalized. “Need to know our trajectory."
While Jordan was telling Control to plot an approach that would minimize the chances of being detected by the Galactic fleet if any, Seth went back to studying the display. That small moon that JC had named Turd... Most natural satellites orbited above their primaries’ equators. There were exceptions; some even moved in retrograde orbits, and Luna was offset as much as twenty-eight degrees. Yesterday Turd had been almost lined up with Cacafuego, and now it was well above, so it must move in a polar orbit, or else... The only satellites that wandered so far from the ecliptic, so far as he knew, were those of the solar planet Uranus, and Uranus itself was tipped over about ninety degrees. Cacafuego might be a very odd world. As planetologist, Maria ought to have noticed that. It wasn’t his job to point it out to her.
Even if Cacafuego was severely tilted, why should that make it any more dangerous? Humans needed a twenty-four hour day to satisfy their circadian rhythm, but darkness could be supplied, just as air and temperature could be supplied.
"Very well," Jordan said, offering a compromise. “We can certainly spare four days to enter orbit and four or five days to assess the planet. On Day 409 or so we’ll decide whether to stay or set course for Armada. Control, observe radio silence. All plans subject to change due to circumstance. Acceptable, Commodore?"
"Acceptable, Captain." JC rose up on his hind legs. If a grizzly bear could grin, it might look like that. “Hanna, love, it certainly wasn’t your fault that those rascals got here first. Come along, you deserve some sleep." Without waiting for her, he headed out the door.
For a moment Hanna’s lips and fists clenched. She was currently JC’s roommate, so he had been dropping the sort of hint she detested. Seth’s early efforts to woo her had met with no success at all, and he doubted very much that the commodore’s had. When the party had started to turn kinky last night, Hanna had been the first to leave, just before Seth had draped the captain over his shoulder and carried her off to the cabin to pursue their fun in private. Whatever the other three had indulged in after that was their business.
She rose and started to walk out, then hesitated. She was still on watch and ISLA rules required that one human be awake at all times. Visibly blushing now, she glanced uneasily at Jordan and then Seth, who nodded agreement and laid a hand on the table.
"Prospector taking the con," he said. That expression always amused him, because it meant steering a ship and no human could steer a starship.
Hanna said, “First Officer going off duty."
—Confirming Prospector Broderick on watch.
Hanna left. Even the backs of her ears were red. Reese held out a hand to Maria.
Now Seth could head into the mess to clean up the, um, mess.
Jordan said, “Wait, please, all of you."
The captain came around the table. Seth deposited Whittington on the carpet and rose to accept her outstretched hands. She had trouble meeting his eye.
"He’s a lout," she said. “And a bully. But in his way he’s also a great man. Nobody knows the Big Nothing better than JC, from the boardroom, all the way down to years of utter boredom. He’s made more money in his career than any of us can dream of; he’s risking every cent of it. He put this thing together, Seth. Without him none of us would be here. We certainly can’t deny him a look at his world. But I am not going to let him send you downside to fry in some sort of planetary hell, no matter what he says. Understand?"
Yes, Seth understood, perhaps better than she did, because he knew exactly how JC could make the prospector dance to his tune.