A human geneticist. An alien refugee. And a xenophobic people who want their citizen returned to his native planet... at any cost.
When Eshel arrives on Starship Cornelia, no one knows what to make of him or his cold, arrogant personality. Catherine, fellow scientist and the only human Eshel trusts, helps him navigate the world of "outsiders"... but she can only teach him so much. Eshel faces those who don't understand or trust him, political barriers to conducting his prized scientific work, and other challenges he never anticipated. When he crosses the line by violating one of his people's most rigid taboos, Eshel must face his own internal struggle... until he discovers that he has a far more treacherous enemy.
"I would put this book on par with works by the old masters such as Robert Heinlein and Asimov."– Goodreads reader
"I've been reading science fiction for 50+ years and grew up on the masters... I'm excited to find an author who lives up to the hype."– J.D., sci-fi reader
"I read a lot of sci-fi, my favorites being Foundation, Dune, Ringworld, Hyperion, and the Ender books. All that to say: I can't believe I got to meet someone who could keep up! Well done and thank you!"– A.D., sci-fi reader
Choose carefully who you associate with during the first six months of a long-term space mission; these individuals will become your closest companions for the next three years… if not for the rest of your life.
– old Space Corps adage
Thursday, Catherine walked into the ship's mess. As she stood in line, she tried to make a quick decision about what to eat. The mess usually served up a few options, including at least one alternative for those otherworld crewmembers who disliked human food. Catherine often wavered between the usual fare and the otherworld option. Today she chose otherworld—a bowl of sea vegetables with ornon, the white gooey flesh of the ubiquitous sea creature that swam in the waters of Derovia's northern hemisphere.
She looked around for Tom and Snow. Crewpersons in black uniforms occupied the mess, eating and filling the large room with the din of conversation. Catherine spotted Tom's curly blonde hair and headed in his direction.
It was Tom Kingston who'd convinced her to sign up for the longest mission the Space Corps allowed. Across from him sat Jebediah Snow, Tom's childhood friend. But nobody who knew Jebediah called him by that name. He was known only as Snow. If someone referred to him otherwise, Snow would correct that person, even if that person were Admiral Scott. Tom loved to tell that story.
"What do you think, Finnegan?" Tom asked as she sat down. "You up for playing some poker tomorrow night?"
Catherine dug into her meal. She was starving. "Possibly," she replied between bites. "I have a project to finish for Steele and it's due tomorrow, so I'll be working late. Are you playing for sure?"
Tom and Snow both nodded.
"Let's start later, say twenty-one hundred," Tom said. He turned to greet a couple of women who happened to walk by their table, briefly discussing their plans for that evening. Once the girls left, Tom turned his attention back to Catherine. "You should be finished by then. It's Friday night. We'll get a little…" he made a drinking gesture with his hands, "and make it a late morning."
Catherine smiled. "Okay."
Snow eyed her meal and made a face. "How can you eat that?"
"How can you eat the same thing every day?" she said, eyeing the beef and potatoes he'd almost finished. His serving of vegetables sat untouched.
"Because it's good."
Tom shook his head. "It's the same shit we ate growing up in the service. And he hasn't eaten veggies since his folks forced him to. I'd drop by his house after dinner and he'd still be sitting there at eight thirty with a pile of broccoli on his plate. I'd eat it when his mom left the room."
Snow shrugged. Suddenly, he looked around him. "Whoa."
"What?" Tom also looked around, but saw nothing to clue him in.
"We just dropped out of FTL."
"How can you tell?" Catherine asked.
"I'm an engineer," Snow replied with a crooked smile, gathering his dishes. "If the fuel ratio is off by even a tenth of a percent, I lie awake at night."
Catherine started laughing.
"You're so full of shit," Tom said.
Snow stood up to leave. Duty called.
After eating, on the way back to her lab, Catherine passed a small window with several crewpersons crowded around it. She halted. They had no scheduled stops that day, or even that week. They weren't close to any star system of significance or known phenomena. She searched for an opening among the others and found a tiny one, spotting what appeared to be the aft end of a small ship, the rest of which was out of view. Captain Ferguson would eventually send a bulletin to the crew; until then, they must satisfy themselves with speculation.
After her crew completed their duty shifts, Catherine worked alone in her lab and finished writing up the results from a project Commander Steele had assigned her. She forwarded the write-up to Steele, leaving her to one last odious task—the weekly progress report he required, detailing how she, and the two crewmen who reported to her, spent each hour of each shift. She slumped in her chair.
Where she came from, such progress reports were unheard of. Grants and publications were the hallmarks of a scientist's progress—you either got them, or you were out of a job.
Catherine fabricated half of her progress report anyway. Once she learned what Steele expected, she would craft the report according to those parameters. She sent the report to Steele and walked back to her quarters.
Having her own quarters, as cramped as they were, was a key factor in Catherine's decision to take the three-year mission. Those with the rank of lieutenant or higher got a window. She couldn't see much more than dark space from her small window, but it still gave her a feeling of freedom. In her limited bulkhead space, Catherine had hung photographs: skiing with her friends, her parents, her and Tom when they graduated from the Academy, a trip she'd taken to the Himalayas. She left one bulkhead space empty, hoping to eventually fill it with some otherworld art or artifact, acquired during their mission.
She changed out of her uniform, grabbed her cup, and headed to Tom's. She arrived a few minutes early, and often did so intentionally, hoping for the rare chance to chat with Tom without interruption.
Tom organized the poker games and they always took place in his quarters. Due to his rank, Tom's larger quarters could accommodate a second table that, when combined with his table, fit ten people. He decorated his quarters with a series of weapons, most of which were antiques. Over many years in the Corps, Tom had assembled a nice collection of artifacts, only a sampling of which he brought on board with him. The remainder were stored back in Chicago with his other belongings.
"Beer?" Tom said.
"Sure." She gave him her metal cup. He filled it from a vessel stored in the large cooling bucket he routinely borrowed from Soren, a bartender they were chummy with. Tom turned his chair backward and sat down at the table.
"Did you finish it?" he asked, referring to her report.
Catherine scowled. "Yes."
"Why that face?"
"I don't like working for him."
He waved a dismissive hand at her. "Long-term missions aren't about work, Finnegan. They're about adventure and seeing what's around the corner. Work is just something you do because you have to." He smiled, his blue eyes crinkling. "How many people back on the rock get to see what's out there?" he said, gesturing out his window. "This is awesome."
She smiled. Tom's enthusiasm was hard to ignore.
"You should've become a soldier," he admonished. "It's better than sitting in that lab, staring into a microscope, surrounded by a bunch of whitecoats."
"Come on, Tom, don't start the soldier-scientist shit. I get so tired of that. And you're starting to sound like my dad," she added.
"You'd make a good soldier. How is Jimmy, by the way?" Tom had worked under Catherine's father, Captain Jim Finnegan, on several brief missions.
"He's good. We holo-chatted pretty regularly until we got out of range." She shifted in the hard chair, trying to get comfortable. "How's Weapons?"
He grinned. "We have a good time down there. The only problem is there are no women." He shook his head in disbelief. "Did you know that Weapons is the only section on this damned ship with no women? Even Engineering has women. Even a cranky bastard like Snow gets more female proximity than I do. I'm telling you, it's wrong."
Catherine laughed. "You're the boss now, Kingston. You couldn't date them anyway."
He shrugged. "I know. Life's just better with girls around." He rapped his hand on the table. "Speaking of which, how'd your date go with Kovsky?"
She shook her head.
"You don't like him, either? Why not?"
"He talks too much."
He shrugged. "Yeah, he's kind of cocky, but he's alright. Give him another chance."
She shook her head again, tucking her auburn hair behind her ear.
"Stubborn. You're running out of options, Finnegan. You're stuck on this ship for three years. There's only so much porn I can loan you."
Before she could think of a good response to Tom's crack, the door sounded.
They turned their attention to the display—it was Snow. Once Tom called for the door to open, Snow walked in. He wore a t-shirt, revealing arms covered in tattoos, and he'd put earrings back in both ears.
Following Snow was the remainder of the invite list, which included the other poker regulars, plus three newbies. The regulars included Private Javier Zander, the youngest of the bunch and part of Tom's Weapons crew, Petty Officer Mackey Middleton—friend of Zander's—and Petty Officer Shanti Patel, who worked in the communications center. All the players carried their own cups, and two of the three newbies carried beer under their arms.
"You forget something, newb?" Tom asked the empty-handed newbie.
"You didn't tell me to bring beer, LC! I swear!" he said. "You started talkin' to that blonde girl from Supply… and…" The newbie, a brand new Private Recruit, took a couple of steps back.
Hearing Snow snort in disapproval and seeing his glare, Tom relented. "Alright, alright," he told the newbie. "Bring it next time."
Snow and the others filled their cups with the brown murky beer and began chatting. It was, by some standards, an unusual mix of people. On a starship, social groups often formed in predictable ways. Many banded together based on the department they reported to. And those from Derovia—about twenty percent of the 507 crewmembers—often associated with their own kind. Soldiers and scientists typically socialized with their own. However, the most important social divider was rank—officers ate in a separate area from enlisted crew, and the two groups rarely fraternized.
But that night, their poker game represented several departments, ranks from Private Recruit to Lieutenant Commander, one scientist, and one Derovian newbie. Tom's view was that once they were off duty and in his quarters, things like rank, department, and race no longer mattered. He didn't allow his guests to wear uniforms, salute, or address by rank. If anyone didn't like it, they weren't invited back.
Everyone sat down and Tom dealt the first hand. The conversation began as mostly idle chatter about growing accustomed to life on a starship and estimating when they would arrive on Derovia, their first encampment.
"So what's the story with those aliens we picked up yesterday?" Zander said, posing the question to anyone.
A few of them, Catherine included, looked up from their cards. That's what she'd caught a glimpse of yesterday—an otherworld ship. The Captain still hadn't sent out a bulletin, and they hadn't yet resumed their course.
Everyone looked to Tom. Recently promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Tom was the highest-ranking officer in the group, and a well-informed one due to his wide acquaintance. If anything interesting happened, Tom usually knew before most people.
"Were they Calyyt?" Middleton said. "They had to be with that piece of shit little cruiser."
"You didn't hear?" Tom said, taking a peek at his cards.
Snow looked at Tom impatiently, tossing in his folded cards. "No, LC, we didn't hear. We aren't in the know, part of the privileged few."
Tom grinned at Snow's sarcasm and placed a large bet into the pot. "They weren't Calyyt." He paused. "They were Korvali."
A silence fell over the table.
"Korvali?" Catherine said.
"Way the hell out here?" Snow said.
Tom nodded. "They were a group of ten or so. They'd been stranded in this region for weeks, and we were the first to pick up their SOS."
"Where are they?" Catherine asked, looking around.
Catherine felt her blood run cold. "All of them? What happened?"
Tom shook his head. "I don't know. That's all I got. This has never happened before, so it's anybody's guess."
"Wow," Shanti said. "I only know one person who's even seen a Korvali. Why didn't the Captain make an announcement?"
"Don't know that either," Tom replied. "They're probably still trying to figure out how to handle ten dead Korvali. Think about it: what are we going to do with them? Bring them all the way back to the Forbidden Planet, where they'll wage war on us? Dump them into space like garbage? It puts the Alliance in a tough position."
"I say dump the Mutants," Middleton said. "They hate us anyway."
"Don't call them that, Mackey," Shanti said, frowning. "It's mean. And what do you know about them? You've never even met one."
Middleton glanced at his cards. "I don't have to meet one. I've heard the stories. When the Sunai entered their space, the Korvali killed them all with some kind of virus."
"The Sunai didn't enter their space, Mackey, they invaded it," Shanti said. "After being warned to stay away. What would you do if a bunch of aliens stormed your house?"
Middleton shook his head. "It's been ten years since we discovered them. They still refuse to join the Alliance and still look down their noses at us." A few of the others nodded.
Catherine rolled her eyes, but said nothing. She'd heard it all before.
"Wait, I don't get it," young Zander said. "If it only takes three days to get from Korvalis to Suna, why were they stranded for so long?"
"They don't have FTL drives, dumbass." Middleton peered at his cards and tossed in his bet. "Their technology is last century. They could get FTL technology in exchange for their genetic technology if they joined the Alliance, but they refuse. How stupid can you be? Who gives a shit about genetics when you can travel to other worlds?"
Catherine looked up at Middleton. Before she could retort, Tom spoke.
"Watch your mouth, Middleton," Tom warned. "Doc Finnegan here is a geneticist."
All eyes were on Middleton.
"Sorry," Middleton said to Catherine, fiddling with his chips. He paused, a confused look on his face as he glanced down, then back at Catherine. "I thought you were a soldier, like us."
Tom started to laugh. Catherine elbowed him. "I'm a scientist," she said.
Middleton and the other enlisted crew laughed nervously.
"The Korvali don't want to travel to other worlds, Middleton," Snow said. "They don't like outsiders. Especially tatted-up losers like you," he added, putting his fist up. Middleton, also heavily tattooed under his clothing, raised his fist and bumped it with Snow's.
"You're both dumbasses." Shanti threw in her folded hand. "They're a different species. Just because the Derovians are so friendly," she motioned to the Derovian newbie, who produced a big smile, "and the Sunai are explorers, the Korvali have to be the same way? The Calyyt aren't friendly, and I don't hear you bitching about them."
"The Calyyt are part of the Alliance," Middleton argued. "And it's hard to be friendly with them because nobody understands their stupid sign language." A few others laughed at this.
"But the Korvali have never tried to harm us, Mackey. And think about it—why were they so far from home, adrift in space? For a vacation?"
Catherine nodded in agreement.
"I don't know," Middleton grumbled. "Who cares?"
"Alright," Tom said. "You kids quiet down. Let's play some poker, damn it!" He held up his beer cup. "To poker!"
Everyone followed suit and raised their cups. "To poker!"
At 0300, after numerous games and one too many beers, Catherine made her way back to her quarters. Tom had a tricky way of keeping your cup full without you realizing it. She undressed, climbed into bed, and fell right to sleep.
A loud beep woke her. Startled, she looked for the source of the offending noise—it was her contactor. She glanced at the time: 0610. Grabbing her contactor, she wondered who the hell would wake her up this early on a Saturday.
It was Dr. Vargas, Chief of Medicine.
"Yes, Doctor," Catherine said, her voice thick with sleep.
"Lieutenant Finnegan, report to sick bay immediately," a gruff voice barked at her.
"On my way, Sir."
She stumbled a little as she got up, still feeling a little drunk. She quickly donned her uniform, threw her long hair back into a ponytail, and gulped a big cup of water. In her groggy state, Catherine wondered if she'd missed a sick bay duty shift, required of all officers once per month, regardless of rank or position. She hadn't had hers in a while.
She walked swiftly to the stairwell and descended four decks, mentally preparing her apology. After only three months, Cornelia's crew quickly learned that missing sick bay duty, or otherwise angering Dr. Vargas, was unwise. When one science officer missed his duty, Vargas yelled at him in front of the other medical staff and assigned him to work both of his off-duty days in sick bay.
Catherine arrived at sick bay, squinting from the bright lights. When she spotted Vargas near his office on the far side of the main chamber, he didn't accost her, yell, or even appear angry. Instead, he impatiently gestured for her to join him.
As she crossed the chamber to where Vargas stood, she noticed a body on one of the medical beds, a tiny, almost transparent IV attached to its hand. She stopped and took a closer look.
He was an otherworlder. He was Korvali.