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All the Stars Within Our Grasp

All the Stars Within Our Grasp

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All the Stars Within Our Grasp

Length:
367 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 10, 2020
Format:
Book

Description

The Exterran Stretch, some 59.6 trillion miles into the heavens.

There was nothing normal about the job that the Taiyang Empire bureaucrat just offered to Jennifer Shen, but the payoff was just too damn good. It all seemed straightforward, too - track down a thief who absconded with a research project and make more money than any manhunter could ever hope to see in one lifetime. The one catch is the thief's destination - a place known to criminals of all stripes as "the Cradle," the homeworld of humanity whose location was lost when the planet was abandoned over a thousand years ago.

Jennifer isn't one to turn down a job just because it's impossible. She has an illegally modified ship ready to fly, a crazy Boy Scout type to pilot it, and a foul-mouthed refugee from an alien cult to navigate. Ten light-years of uncharted space is all that sits between Jennifer and retirement.

But there's more to the job than the bureaucrat mentioned. For one, there's the tiny detail that the research project in question has the potential to destroy most of the galaxy if the thief activates it in the wrong way. And then there's the Cradle itself, a planet abandoned when humans destroyed it...or so they thought. Humanity was brought low for a purpose, the beings who blew it all up are still watching, and they just noticed Jennifer and her crew.

Publisher:
Released:
May 10, 2020
Format:
Book

About the author

Born in rural western Kansas, ANDREW JOHNSTON discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Nature: Futures, the Arcanist and Mythic and will be featured in the upcoming Bad Dream Entertainment Horror/Humor Anthology.Learn more about the author at www.findthefabulist.com.


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All the Stars Within Our Grasp - Andrew Johnston

www.findthefabulist.com

CHAPTER 1

The case in the stranger's hand was certainly something more than an ordinary suitcase - cast in high-grade titanium, sealed with thick steel bolts and an epoxy of unknown composition, the surface studded with curious sensors from which nanoscopic wires wove neatly through the metal. He bore the thing with unexpected ease and care - cradling it, minding it, treating it as though it were a delicate ornamental box from some lost civilization. He always had one eye tilted slightly in its direction, even as his other senses stayed tightly focused on the loquacious salesman guiding him through the vast array of spacefaring vessels.

This one should suit your needs, friend. The salesman cinched up his impossible smile as he gestured to one of the sleek metal falcons lined up on the showroom floor. It features pulse engines for accelerated travel across shorter intrastellar distances and both gravitonic nodeline and linear-dimensional engines for superluminal travel. You did mention you were doing some planet-skipping, correct?

Indeed, sir. The stranger nodded knowingly, allowing his pale lips to curl into a gentle grin. I will be going on a particularly long journey in the near future.

Then you'll be interested in hearing about the bells and whistles. The avarice of the deal gleaned in the salesman's eyes as he launched into his rehearsed pitch. You've got shielded cameras offering full scanning across all three axes - no more risky exposed bridges! You've got the new Tetra-Grid navigation system which will create a real-time map of the surrounding one-twentieth cubic parsec within one-point-five seconds - useful if your Class V on-board AI navigator somehow fails to find your way. And, of course, it comes with the usual shielding against extremes of temperature, radiation, electromagnetic interference...believe me, the only way you're getting hurt in this thing is if you die laughing while watching your favorite movies on the included Tru-Immersion panel display.

The stranger closed his eyes for a protracted moment. Can you have it ready immediately? Time is of the essence.

You can fly it right out of the dock...after you've paid, of course. The salesman drew back his smile a bit as he sized up his mark, a genetically unimpressive specimen whose slender frame vanished within his forgettable garb. Do you have an imperial account with us, or shall we set up an installment plan?

Actually, sir, I will be paying up front. The stranger extended his bone-white fingers. In full.

The salesman drew back, shooting the stranger an incredulous look. You have that kind of money? This technology does come at a premium, you know. I'm talking three billion, and that's for the basic package. All in, it'll be at least five or six.

Then that's what I'll pay.

The salesman fought the urge to laugh as he fished out his biometric scanner, placing the silver sphere into the stranger's palm. The device emitted a series of mellifluous metallic chirps, a sure sign that the sale could proceed. The salesman stared at his monitor with confusion, a feeling he quickly shed as he warmed up his gigawatt smile once more. Sorry about that, Mr...Izmik. Merely an obligatory question when dealing with high-end craft, I certainly never meant to insult you by questioning your means.

No offense taken, sir, said the stranger. You'll escort me to my craft, yes?

Absolutely! And don't even bother with the legal niceties, I can swing all of that myself. No need to waste time on such trivialities. The salesman extended his hand. I'll even open the bridge hatch and load you and your belongings on...along with a voyage basket, on me.

The stranger settled both hands around the hefty metal handle of the case. I appreciate the offer, but I'm under certain...protocols, let's call them, that demand that only I handle this particular object.

Of course! And far be it for me to interfere with your protocol. The salesman rubbed his chin as he glared at the case. Uh...I'm sure it's also against your protocols-

You wish to know what's in the case, yes?

The salesman waved his hands and shook his head. Not at all, I mean...not if it violates your obviously firmly held commitment to professionalism and, ah...secrecy, privacy, whatever you wanna call it.

It's hardly a secret, sir, said the stranger, caressing the surface of the case. But there is something of a challenge in describing my mission in plain language.

Ah. Well... The salesman glanced around for several seconds before proceeding at a whisper. ...In plain language, then...what's in there?

Why, everything, sir, said the stranger. Everything there is.

CHAPTER 2

Yang Yizhen's hands trembled in transcendent anticipation as he waited for the door of the transport to grant him access to the Dragon's Court. The trip had only taken a few hours - nothing at all to an enlightened scholar and bureaucrat who knew how best to use his time - but he had found himself far too eager to concentrate on his rituals. When he found himself too engaged to meditate or compose poetry, he had busied himself by carefully smoothing and adjusting the folds of his robe, gauging his appearance in the distorted reflection offered by the recently polished interior of the transport. It was foolish vanity, but who could possibly blame him for this momentary weakness? After all, how often did a fourth ring bureaucrat receive a summons to the Court - and from the hand of the Celestial Empress herself, no less? This visit had the potential to define his life and status as nothing else could, and none would fault him for paying special attention to the details of his appearance.

At last, the door chirped its readiness and slid open, revealing the Great Hall that ringed the perimeter of the Court. As befitting his humble status, Yang Yizhen had never been allowed to travel any deeper into the Court than this, but even this outer area was filled with wonders of its own. The light within was as true as that of a star - the result of a stable artificial sun, one of the Taiyang Empire's many famous scientific achievements. The radiance fell gently upon the ancestral decor, the masterfully shaped sculptures of mythical beasts and the murals depicting the epic 7,000-year history of their enduring culture. And then there were the noble servants - the imperial guards standing at the ready with their Huolong powered armor and Gauss rifles, the inner ring bureaucrats hustling from chamber to chamber with their faces lost behind their analytical devices, the famous state composers and poets working their artistic magic.

This visit has a distinctly different feel, one that in many ways eclipsed the usual spectacle. There was a deference in everyone he encountered, an unspoken understanding of his purpose and presence. He never needed speak a word - the guards at each door stepped aside to offer him passage. They even kept their heads low, as did the bureaucrats who couldn't help but pause and stare at the new arrival. Yang Yizhen wondered if this was envy, and even allowed himself a mere moment to bask in self-congratulation.

At last, the doors of the Inner Court opened for Yang Yizhen, and he was at last standing in the glorious presence of the Empress. For a mid-level bureaucrat, the imperial family may as well have been a collective of gods, so seldom were they seen. Beyond that, though, he had never set his eyes upon the Empress in all her glory. Photographing Emperors had long been taboo, so those outside of the court only knew of their rules through the depictions of courtly artists and poets. They were masters of their art to be sure, but he could now see that none of them were capable of capturing the grandeur of the woman who set the stars in motion. She disappeared within her elaborate robes, face barely visible behind the veil of the imperial crown, but what Yang Yizhen could see was radiant beyond his dreams.

At once Yang Yizhen fell to his hands and knees and tapped his forehead against the shimmering floor. Great Heir to the Dragon, I have come as you requested. You have but to issue a command, and no sooner-

A firm blow to his temple knocked the rest of the sentence loose from Yang Yizhen's tongue. Falling instinctively to one side, he lifted his hands a moment too late to fend off the next blow, which struck him in the abdomen. He scrambled to his feet, nearly pitching forward onto his face as he struggled to retain his balance.

Assailants! I shall protect you, my Empress! Yang Yizhen spit forth the words a moment before another blow struck him below the knee, sending him back to the ground. He got only an impression of the attacker - an enormous man wielding a ceremonial battle staff of some sort. The attacker brought his weapon down onto Yang Yizhen's prostrate form again and again as the victim waved his arms ineffectually to protect himself. My Empress, save me!

The Empress's hand appeared from behind her robes. That will be enough, General.

The attack ended in a flash, the savage tip of the staff stopping a whisper from Yang Yizhen's face. With the beating coming to a halt, he could at last make out the identity of the assailant - General Hong, Commander of the Center, a man so enveloped in glory that Yang Yizhen would have been honored were he not in such pain. Drawing himself to a sitting position, he saw the Empress with her hand outstretched.

Thank you, my Empress. Yang Yizhen resumed kowtowing as though the beating had never happened. You have but to issue a command, and no sooner have your mighty words sundered the air-

Silence, you imbecile. The Empress turned an accusing finger at Yang Yizhen. You do not have the honor to speak such perfumed words after your failure.

Yang Yizhen froze, eyes locked fast on the imperial finger slicing the air in his direction. ...My Empress?

You have failed, said the Empress, the steel in her words growing sharp. You have failed, and now we are all doomed.

The words of the Empress were a mental torture that Yang Yizhen had never dared imagine. He had been called a failure many times and endured it in his own fashion, but to hear such a cutting comment from the highest authority he would ever know was a special blow, one that lanced through his soul and left a wound that blotted out the pain of his beating. For a moment, the universe as he knew it turned on its head.

You had one job - just one! There was unalloyed fury in the eyes of the Empress, so intense that it smoldered through her beaded veil. And in this one task, this one critically important task which was your sole charge, you proved yourself truly and totally incompetent!

I...failed? Scalding tears welled in Yang Yizhen's eyes. My Empress, my wisdom is as a speck in the void of the universe compared to yours, and I simply cannot fathom how I have failed the empire!

Enough of your poetry! And stand up, dog! General Hong seized Yang Yizhen by the skin of his neck and rudely yanked him to his feet. You'll answer the questions you're asked and still your tongue otherwise. Can you comprehend this, or shall I break your jaw to ensure your silence?

I shall restrain myself, sir, whimpered Yang Yizhen.

The Empress folded her hands before her, each bony knuckle a grim dagger pointed at Yang Yizhen. What was your task, bureaucrat?

Yang Yizhen swallowed hard, readying himself for the thrashing that he was sure would come at any second. To secure the glorious scientific programs of the Taiyang Empire.

The Empress nodded, shifting her imperial crown slightly down on her brow. And what program in particular?

In particular... Yang Yizhen willed his tongue to form the words. ...In particular, I was tasked with safeguarding Reflected Antithesis, keystone project of the imperial extraspatial physics program.

Part of your duties included the vetting and approval of scholars from outside of the imperial program. The Empress waited for one of her numerous attendants to reposition her crown before resuming. Were you thorough in this charge?

I was most thorough, my Empress, said Yang Yizhen, hoping that she could not detect the uncertainty behind his words.

Did you approve a researcher by the name of Reginald Izmik? said the Empress.

Yang Yizhen eyed General Hong before speaking. ...I will have to consult my records to be positive, but if your Highness maintains that I approved a man by the name of Reginald Izmik, then it is surely fact.

The Empress turned her gaze to General Hong. Please, enlighten him as to the nature of Mr. Izmik.

Gladly, my Empress. General Hong spun Yang Yizhen around with a blow to the shoulder and then grabbed him by the front of his robe, bringing the slight man a few whiskers from his howling maw. You let a thief into our program, you mud-crawling worm! Izmik was no scholar, and further he was not even Reginald Izmik! We've not yet gleaned his true identity, but while we knock our heads against the walls, he's absconded with the full remaining project budget. That's 426 billion credits, gone in a flash! And that's not the worst of it!

Not...the worst? Yang Yizhen reeled from the verbal assault and the sheer scope of the crime.

General Hong shook his head. No. The worst is that he stole...it. The project prototype.

You have no comprehension of what this means, do you? said the Empress. This is the culmination of Taiyang science, the project that would have uplifted our court beyond these other petty empires and the moribund Exterran Federation and returned us to our proper perch in the ancestral heavens. But I'll not waste my time trying to fill your empty skull with the physics that make it possible. Do you have any reckoning of what the Reflected Antithesis project was meant to accomplish?

Surely, my empress. Yang Yizhen's dry tongue rolled in his mouth as he tried to find the words to express his limited knowledge. It is a microcosm, an effort to command matter at its most basic phases.

The Empress dipped her head slightly. And do you have any reckoning as to how much power that this entails? How dangerous this project could be if used by someone without the means to command it?

General Hong pulled Yang Yizhen even closer, his boiling breath clouding around the two of them. That thing is in a triple-sealed containment case. It's the only reason we're still alive now.

Then fortune favors us, for no thief could open such a vessel. Yang Yizhen cringed as the words struck the walls and returned to him. ...Am I wrong?

You'd best hope not, said the Empress. If this Izmik manages to open the case and activate the prototype without the proper understanding, then he could trigger a release of energy untold in the history of our species. The Disaster that destroyed the homeworld and nearly wiped out our glorious civilization would be as a squib compared to the catastrophe that he would invoke.

I'll not let that happen, my Empress. Yang Yizhen eased out of General Hong's grasp and fell to his knees. On my life and my honor, I shall return with the thief and the prototype.

And so you will. This is your new task, bureaucrat. But this time... The Empress drifted toward Yang Yizhen, each step thudding heavily in his chest. ...Should you fail this time, then you'd best pray that the demise of the species comes long, long before I again rest my hands upon you.

Yang Yizhen quaked uncontrollably, sweat spilling out into a glistening ring beneath him. Of course, your Highness.

The Empress dismissed the assembled company with a flick of her hand. General Hong will explain your new privileges and duties. And also, General....do remind the boy of the consequences of failure.

A savage smile graced General Hong's lips as he rested a hand on Yang Yizhen's shoulder. With pleasure, my Empress.

CHAPTER 3

Mr. Bella clearly had old-fashioned tastes.

The main living space of the target's apartment was typically dingy and disordered, which was no more than what Jennifer Shen ever expected when she entered the private quarters of a runner. She seldom found herself on the trail of an orderly thief - ironically, the very character that made that type so skillful at larceny, their obsessive planning and well-developed practices, also made them easily traceable. An algorithm could find a man who planned everything in advance, his own techniques turned into an invisible trail of data that followed him wherever he went. It was the man who didn't even plan one second in advance, the one who acted based on simple cunning and raw impulse that so thoroughly vexed the authorities. And it was in their messy personal lives that Jennifer would find the proof of some stray bit of forethought.

Mr. Bae, her current employer, was not quite so enamored with her attention to detail. Might you hurry up? He could be headed out of the Stretch with my company's millions as we speak.

I doubt it. There are too many sentimental odds and ends lying around. I'd say we interrupted him in the middle of packing. Jennifer stopped before the most prominent object in the room - a throwback phonograph and matching sound system, a sizable collection of albums straining the shelf above it. Everything in the room is a wreck but this. Doesn't that tell you something?

So he had a hobby, said Mr. Bae, his foot tapping out an agitated cadence. Knowing this helps us how?

Jennifer slid one of the albums out of its colorful sleeve and studied it in the light. Real vinyl. They don't mass manufacture these the old way anymore, not since those high-fidelity superdense discs went on the market - that's all anyone has sold in close to three hundred years. If he has the real deal, then he either got them from a collector... She drew in close to the flat black surface, eyeballing the grooves, searching for minute imperfections. ...Probably not, they're too clean. Odds are that he went to a molecular fabricator. Wouldn't be cheap with an unusual material like this - have to be a hundred thousand worth on this shelf alone.

Purchased with our money, said Mr. Bae. We can trace that, find the fabricator in a day or two.

You could, but I think we can wrap this up sooner than that. Jennifer returned the album to its proper place and leaned back against the shelf. Can I assume that you've already checked with his family?

Parents, his brother...not a lot of friends, this one, but we grilled anyone who knew him, said Mr. Bae.

And no organized criminal affiliations, I assume?

I should say not. We screen our applicants better than that, I assure you.

Then it's simple. A loner like this doesn't have a lot of places to run. Once you've excluded anything specific, you're left with two possibilities. He either goes home... Jennifer gazed across the apartment, letting her eyes rest briefly on each nostalgic bit of bric-a-brac that cluttered the available space. ...or he goes to the Cradle.

Mr. Bae nearly staggered back at the suggestion, staring back at his manhunter with open disdain. The Cradle? You mean the old homeworld? That's preposterous! The finest deep-space astronomers have been trying to rediscover it for, what...almost a thousand years?

Approximately, yes.

And you'd have me believe that a cheap embezzler like Bella could find it?

I didn't say that he would find the Cradle, I said that he was going to the Cradle. They always go to the Cradle. Jennifer rested a hand on her sidearm - a vintage semiautomatic ballistic weapon, chambered in a technically obsolete but still widely available .45 caliber chemically-triggered cartridge - easing away the securing strap with a twist of her fingers. Criminals are pretty predictable, Mr. Bae. I've yet to meet one who doesn't talk about the Cradle like it's last salvation. You can talk with embezzlers, con artists, robbers, traffickers...every one of them firmly believes that if he finds his way there, then he's home free because he'll never, ever be brought back. There's truth to that, no?

To be sure, I'd never send a crew that far to recover any sum of money, even if it was remotely possible. Mr. Bae, regaining his composure, slid both arms behind his back and straightened his spine in a statuesque pose. It still seems like foolishness.

If it helps, I don't think he's headed out just yet. Like I said, he's still in the Stretch. Still in the Concourse, too. And I'd even bet... With a snap of the wrist, Jennifer brought her sidearm to bear on a section of the wall overlooking the room. You can come out now, Mr. Bella. And don't act like you're not there, I will put a warning shot into the wall if you don't comply. Not my fault if it hits you, I don't know exactly where you are.

There was a curious shimmer over the wall as an unseen hand clicked off the hologram generator. Behind the false wall was a disused ventilation shaft, into which a man - Mr. Bella, Jennifer figured, though it was hard to tell with his limbs so painfully contorted to fit into the cramped space - had awkwardly inserted himself. There followed several anguished moments as he wrenched himself free of the tiny space before falling with a unceremonious thud onto the ground.

Mr. Bella! Mr. Bae's eyes flicked back and forth between his thieving employee and the cramped gap from which he had emerged.

That's right, said Jennifer. Now, we're going to sit down and wait for the police, and I'm sure you're not going to try-

Mr. Bella didn't wait for the end of the sentence to make his move. He lunged for Mr. Bae, seizing him by the arm and shoving him toward Jennifer with panicked strength. By the time Jennifer had recovered her balance, Mr. Bella was sprinting for the door, smacking against one wall before righting himself and speeding outside.

They always try to run. Jennifer hastily holstered her sidearm and broke for the door. I'll be right back.

Of all the dirty tricks that a target might pull, all the novel cruelties and unexpected bursts of violence, nothing irritated Jennifer as much as when they made her run. They usually ran, even the ones whose less than athletic frames gave them little hope of triumphing in a foot chase against a professional manhunter. It was always an tiring chore, even on those occasions when the target happened to live in a tranquil place with plenty of open areas to help maintain line-of-sight. Mr. Bella, naturally, had not opted to live in such a place. His hovel was a stone's throw from the Concourse Exterra, a hub for economic and political meetings between the various Exterran powers and those of the planets that lay beyond. It was the middle of the day, and the inventively curving avenues were packed with a colorful crowd representing a dozen species and countless cultures, none of whom were quite expecting an embezzler and an investigator interrupt their daily business.

For his part, Mr. Bella put forth more of a challenge than Jennifer had expected from a lifelong bean counter. She would come within arm's reach of the criminal, only to have him unleash a second wind or slither his way through a crowd and put her several paces behind. He pivoted into alleys, vanished around corners, darted into whatever shadows existed in the midday pavilions, did whatever he could to shake his pursuer, but she wasn't about to let this one get away so easily. Inch by inch she closed, drawing some sick strength from the panic and exhaustion she glimpsed every time he dared to glance behind him.

As as they sped past an outdoor bistro on a quiet side street, Jennifer - already tired and frustrated by a chase that had lasted far longer than it should have - tried for a gambit. Vaulting off a patio railing, she launched her entire body at Bella, nailing him between the shoulder blades with her elbow and sending them both skittering along the artistically anachronistic brick street. She rose up on one knee, staring down at her target. This time, I'm sure you're not going to try anything clever. Right?

Jennifer would have killed to be right about that, even just one time. Bella vaulted to his feet, fell back against the outdoor counter and scratched around until his hand brushed against a oddly-shaped knife, the butcher's tool from some alien culture that Jennifer could not (and cared not to) identify. Back off! I'm not going down like this!

That's not your choice. Jennifer reached for her sidearm. The only choice you get to make is whether you're walking away with me or getting dragged.

Bella launched himself at Jennifer, the space between them filled with wild slashes as he swung the knife in a panic. None of the slashes came close to connecting – this was a desperate man of privilege who never expected to be in a knife fight and had no clue as to how to defend himself. Jennifer halted his weapon arm with her own forearm and returned a blow with her free hand, smashing in his nose with a firm palm strike. Bella was on the ground again, both hands clasped over his shattered nose to staunch the blood flow. Jennifer pulled her sidearm, keeping it level at her side. Do that again, and I will shoot you in the knee. Are we clear? The words came out in bursts through her own pained breathing, but it was clear from her vantage point that Bella wasn't interested in a second round.

It took little time for a crowd to form around Jennifer and her prey, the ostensibly genteel diplomats and businesspeople letting their guises drop long enough to gape at the action movie scene before them. Jennifer had never quite mastered dealing with crowds like this. They were always fascinated by the chase, even the ones who tut-tutted as they spoke with their proper friends on the degeneracy of those lowly Stretch types and their crass love of violence. At least this time no one was in a mood to chat - no one asking for war stories or making clumsy passes.

When Mr. Bae finally stumbled across the scene, it was all he could do to slither his way through a dense ring of Federation captains of industry and their Agolgan bodyguards in order to confirm that the contract had been fulfilled. Your thief, Mr. Bae, said Jennifer, her lungs still filled with fire from the exertion.

You could have been a bit more discreet, muttered Mr. Bae.

I could have waited for him to leave the planet, but I was under the impression that this was urgent, said Jennifer. Does this complete the deal?

Mr. Bae stared down at his disgraced employee, his inner rage at Bella betrayed only by the slightest of tics in his well-creased forehead. That it does, Ms. Shen.

Jennifer extended her free hand. One-fifty. I hope you won't try to negotiate over the price.

Mr. Bae fished out a clumsy gadget - a secure biometric communicator, the only way any serious professional accepted payment. One hundred and fifty thousand, as promised. But really, this exhibition was hardly what I had in mind.

Fair enough. Jennifer caught a glimpse of corporate security descending on the scene, ready to lead poor Bella off to some legally dubious location to extract the location of his ill-gotten gains. Looks like you've got this in hand.

That we do, said Mr. Bae. Hopefully this will be our last transaction.

We're in agreement, said Jennifer as she vanished into the crowd, headed back to her own hideaway.

CHAPTER 4

The rise of the old powers and the descent of the Exterran Stretch into petty lawlessness meant fat times for investigators, bounty hunters, and anyone else willing to sell body and soul to the skeletal Exterran corporations. An early entrant into the latest gold rush, Jennifer Shen had acquired enough credits to afford a few extravagances, including an office in the nicest building in the ugliest region of Sagittarius Prime. It wasn't merely low cost that drew manhunters to rough

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