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Imperfect Isolation

Imperfect Isolation

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Imperfect Isolation

Length:
435 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Feb 23, 2021
ISBN:
9780463775110
Format:
Book

Description

In northern Sweden, the young son of local cop Kennet Carlsson discovers the body of Andreas Lindt, a crewman listed as being aboard the SpaceFleet science ship Belgrade, over 250 million miles away.

Escaping the apparently doomed ship, Lieutenant Enna Dacourt is forced to land a shuttle on an inconsequential asteroid. Her captor is Andreas Lindt.

In New York, a murderer is found dead. His accomplice takes flight towards the border, fearing that unseen powers are at work.
At a chateau in rural France, two men await a signal that will determine the fate of their unsuspecting hosts.

Soon, Enna discovers that her escape is neither luck, nor coincidence.
She is a pawn in a scheme that a powerful man cannot afford to lose.

At stake are the lives of her family, the future of humanoid robot development, and the destiny of the most successful company on Earth.

Getting off the asteroid alive is only the beginning of her adventure...

Publisher:
Released:
Feb 23, 2021
ISBN:
9780463775110
Format:
Book

About the author

I've been a multi-genre author since 1991.My favourite work to date is 2019's “Tow Away Zone”, a quirky small-town comedy drama, set in modern day Arizona. It has shades of the Coen Brothers’ film canon, and the black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank.It’s been well-received by readers, with 5* reviews on Amazon.In 2020 I published the sequel – “Go Away Zone” - which take the characters into a romcom caper with more love and livelihoods at stake. In 2021 I'm hoping to complete the trilogy.My sci-fi journey started with space opera “Scared Ground” being available on Kindle in 2012.It explores the deliberate, and accidental, casualties of a long interstellar war. It’s about uncertainty, faith, and the consequences of actions.In 2018 I self-published my 2nd sci-fi novel – “Imperfect Isolation - which embraces robotics, asteroid mining and a snowy drive in an 80-year-old Porsche. It's a wild ride for my wisecracking heroine Enna.The sequel, “Reprisals”, followed in 2019. This takes the heroes of the first book, and the consequences of their actions, and dials up the stakes for their survival.In early 2021 I released the 3rd instalment, “Trip Hazard”.I'm currently editing a reflective Western, which was developed from my 2005 screenplay script. It explores prejudice against the deaf community and the Native Americans, as a man struggles to reconnect with his lost son and come to terms with his own failings.I've written a collection of offbeat humorous stories and vignettes in the style of early Woody Allen prose - a real inspiration for me. “The Real Jamie Oliver and Other Stories” is basically a window into my nonsensical side.In 2021 I rediscovered short story writing and have released a variety of stories – most free to read – in genres of comedy, romance and drama.I also write pantomime & stage drama scripts. I’ve had 8 works performed and reached a total audience of over 5000 to date.


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Book Preview

Imperfect Isolation - Chris Towndrow

reserved.

1

The fists beat silently against the door only once more. Then came the echoing thud of the mechanism rolling into action and the head whipped round to take in, wide-eyed, the true horror of what had been inevitable.

The hiss of escaping air flooded the chamber even before the eyes could make out any divide between the two rumbling expanses of steel. Then it appeared—a wafer-thin slice of blackness slowly stretched out by the receding walls. The hiss became a rushing torrent and the world inside the chamber began to escape.

A hand shot out for the grab rail and clamped on—not a heartbeat too soon—as feet were lifted from the ground and space beckoned to him. He knew it was there—he didn’t need to turn and stare down the throat of it.

He hung like a puppet in the half-vacuum, gulping involuntarily, forcing the dying air into his lungs, straining with every ounce of muscle, reaching a flapping arm out towards the rail for greater purchase.

The doors clanged home into their recesses and the bellowing roar of air evaporated.

He gasped, his strength failing, fingers losing their grip. The mist of unconsciousness descended, the arm shook and fingers gave up their fight.

The open doors took him, body convulsing, throat sucking uselessly for air he would never find. Out, out of the chamber and into the infinity, to begin a journey that would never end. The eyes fixed blankly on the stars, the arm outstretched towards a hope that was never there, he began to tumble slowly, end over end, end over end.

The ship retreated and death took him in its cold cloak of darkness.

2

Jana was beginning to think that yesterday would have been a better day for it. But yesterday had been a school day, so it had been out of the question.

Maybe they should have gone to the zoo.

Her boots sank a full twenty centimetres into the snow. Left. Crunch. Right. Crunch. Although she was used to it, the pain in her calves nagged.

No such problem for Tomas—he was metres ahead, crunch crunch crunch, little feet punching shallow holes in the whiteness, the seemingly boundless energy of childhood.

At least ten centimetres overnight, Jana reckoned. Harder to walk, and less likely they would find any animal tracks, but when you promise your son to go out ‘hunting animals’, you go.

It was past eleven o’clock, the cool sun not yet overhead in the duck-egg blue, its glare off the white carpet not unduly troubling their unshaded eyes. Close by, the ice crystals reflected a translucent white; far away, just a tinge of yellow to the undulating landscape. The trees had their fingertips weighed down, gravity and foliage in constant struggle, and over her shoulder, Jana checked the town was still there; it was that quiet.

Bird tracks were usually a safe bet, a dog, occasionally a wolf, and plenty of human footprints. Tomas would follow most things. Neither were natural trackers, and not so much as a catapult accompanied them—to all intents and purposes it was a walk, but it was what it had become, and today it looked like being as close to a random walk as possible, with the snow so fresh.

Evidently not. Something had been out on the hills that morning. Or, given Tomas’ cry of excitement, Jana guessed as much. She scrunched away left, where the red-coated figure stood, a little finger on a little hand arrowed at the ground.

‘People.’

Jana reached the spot.

‘Person,’ she said, correcting him.

The depressions were footprints—that much was certain. The peanut-shaped hollow had smooth sides and was no more than five centimetres deep—it pre-dated last night’s fall.

‘These came before the snow, didn’t they Tom?’

‘Yes, they’re very little. It snowed a lot last night. Where did he go?’

He looked off to the left and scrunched away alongside the trail.

Jana was mildly impressed—the direction of travel was not readily apparent, but having come across the trail running perpendicular to his walk, Tomas was both clever and quick enough to set off in search of some answers. She followed, one pace to every two of his new perfect hollows.

Two minutes later she caught up with the boy, standing stock still in a small evergreen copse, head scanning the ground. The trail didn’t vanish magically—it wasn’t that sudden, though it did end here. Amongst the trees, where only some drifting snow had blurred history and the footprints were noticeably deeper, the steady left-right march ended in trampled snow and not a single other thing.

‘Where did he go to, mummy?’

‘I don’t know, darling.’

Jana cast her eyes back down the trail. Close by, there was no departing trail—the boot imprints showed that. The visitor had not retraced his steps, or at least not without walking backwards in his original forward-facing marks for hundreds, maybe thousands of metres. Almost as if he’d… vanished.

She scanned the ground, unconvinced by her own conclusion.

‘Maybe he died.’

‘Oh, darling, don’t say that.’ Her voice was tinged with sadness.

‘Maybe he died in the cold.’

‘Or he put on snow shoes for the way back,’ she offered, though without an answer to the question of why the person would come here in the first place.

Tomas hadn’t heard. His gloved hands pawed at the loose surface snow, scrabbling it away in search of a prize his conscious mind would never truly have wanted him to find. Jana, reaching out a hand to stop him, retracted it—curiosity was no crime and even if it was morbid curiosity, ten centimetres of drifting snow would never cover a man who had keeled over dead without rhyme or reason.

She knelt down to watch, but couldn’t bring herself to help as the boy scooped and scraped, his little fingers surely touched by the cold but too keen to feel it.

A flash of blue appeared.

‘Mummy.’

In the weeks that followed, she wondered whether that had been the moment to haul him to his feet and usher him, frog march, carry if necessary, back across the fields and home. To silence his words and force him to forget what he’d seen, say it was a dream, nothing but an old coat someone had left, anything. To deny what they had surely found.

She didn’t. She sat there, on knees and haunches in the cold silence as Tomas, second by second, handful by handful, parted the icy white sea until they were staring into the cold dead eyes of a man.

3

The asteroid didn’t have a name. It only had a number: KB440. Astronomers have better things to do than give names to uninteresting rocks in space, most of which no-one would ever look at twice. To rocks in space that had never—and would never—support life.

No life—microscopic or macroscopic—looked out from this cold, desolate and impossibly quiet rock, as the shuttle craft appeared high over the pinpricked black horizon and began to descend. No eyes, human or alien, passed judgement on the amateurish yawing motion or the approach that was at least 50kph too fast.

Lights blazed into the gloom as she came in lower, slowing now, the pilot picking out a landing spot. She jinked into a turn, round an impact crater, lower and slower, reaching out for the surface. The final metre was the fall at the end of the glide and the superstructure shuddered under the impact of a misjudged touchdown. The engines powered down, lights went out and all fell as still and quiet as death.

Under the dim shadow of the crater’s rising edge, the shuttle sat silently for ten minutes, as if waiting for something. Then the large side door slid back against the bodywork and a wide shaft of light beamed out across the rocky surface. Two figures were silhouetted against the craft interior for a few seconds before stepping out onto the bodyside ledge and then the anonymous landscape.

In their grey and white EVA suits, the two figures walked out from the ship, gingerly at first, then with more gait, assessing the gravity balance. They had set the suits up almost right—with a springy step, bounds of two, three metres were possible. The short exploration over, they returned to the shuttle and disappeared inside.

4

Giancarlo Verdoni was a greedy man. It was the reason he’d been selected, it was why he’d taken the job and, finally, it had killed him.

It was almost ironic, but he would never know irony again. He would never know anything again.

The greed was for a status society didn’t owe him, possessions that didn’t become him and a lifestyle he could only aspire to. Greed drove incessant gambling. It was supposed to be the solution; instead it became the problem, then greed became the necessity to feed the habit.

To Ground Technician Giancarlo Verdoni, one hundred thousand credits was a lot of money, and when someone tells you that all they want in exchange for it is a few scraps of information, the decision time is very short.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been approached in a late night alley and it wasn’t the first time the stranger knew his name. However, this stranger wanted to offer money rather than demand it. Loan sharks have a habit of catching up with you.

The two men were well dressed, well-spoken, and knew his name—but he was not to know theirs. They also knew his situation—though many people knew his situation, despite his attempts to lead a normal life and blend in with the nine-to-five Joes.

The proposition was simple, and, omitting any reference to smuggling or gun-running, he felt confident this would be the easiest hundred grand he’d ever earned. Sure, it couldn’t have been entirely lawful, but if he’d got here by not being entirely lawful, he could at least try to get out of it the same way. He agreed, and never saw a weapon during the entire rendezvous, which was an improvement on some of his previous encounters.

A week and some careful snooping later, he stood in the same alley with information in his head and a card up his sleeve. He had a feeling they would be late—this kind of people generally were; they liked to check you were alone—so he didn’t rush to the appointment. Okay, so it was a hundred grand, but damned if he was standing out on a cold March night into the bargain.

He had more than an inkling that the card he held wouldn’t be well received, and was right. The two men didn’t show it, but he’d pissed them off. He wasn’t aiming to—just pushing his luck.

‘Is this another one of your gambles, Giancarlo?’

‘Like how?’

‘Like we decide the information isn’t worth the extra fifty thousand you now want. And we walk away. You lose the hundred we offered at the start.’

‘Gamble. Hadn’t thought of it like that. But, yeah, I guess. But I gamble with my job getting you this. So what’s it worth? You guys must be from an organisation with money—that’s how it works.’

‘Is this the calculated part of the gamble?’

‘I guess. You found me out—it’s not a two minute job. Which is worse, going back to the big guy and asking for more cash, or going back and saying you didn’t get the information?’

‘For a loser, you’re a smart guy, Verdoni. I think your obedience and the silence that goes with it is worth the extra. Same time tomorrow night, bring the information and we’ll bring the payment.’

They must have suspected that Verdoni’s stalling was designed to set a trap for them, because it was well over twenty-four hours later when he was approached by the two men.

‘I take it the coffers were not bare.’

‘You take it right.’

‘So how does this work?’

‘You examine the currency, we examine the information. If we’re okay on both sides, we walk away. This never happened.’

The gifts were exchanged and Verdoni began counting through the currency as the unknown benefactors checked the infopad. Happy with what they saw, they waited as Verdoni reached the end of his counting.

‘Hey, there’s only a hundred thousand here!’

‘Well, what do you know, the big man doesn’t like to be screwed with.’

From nowhere, Verdoni was staring down the barrel of a weapon, but only for a half-second. The energy blast caught him square in the chest and his suffering was over before he hit the cold ground.

5

‘I was hoping for a real sign this time.’ Sall Markson fingered the brass pin on her husband’s shoulder blade and her hand gave the environs a gentle rub.

‘What did you want – epaulets, like they had in the twentieth?’ It was said in jest.

‘No. Besides, I’ve got this.’

She waved a thin pamphlet whose decorated front page bore the words SpaceFleet Passing Out Ceremony, Washington Spaceport, 24 March 2069, then followed up her words with a kiss whose length was out of place in a room full of polite conversations, starched uniforms and salutes. A cough from close by confirmed as much.

Two pairs of eyes looked in the same direction.

Ren gathered a salute together while Sall almost managed to keep a look of teenage guilt from her face. Almost.

Ren’s salute was returned.

‘Sir?’

‘Captain. Excuse the interruption to your … family celebration.’

‘Not at all, sir. You remember my wife.’

‘Of course. Justly proud and happy, I’m sure.’ He extended his hand and Sall took it.

‘Admiral Warcek. A wonderful speech if I may say. Now all we need are the politicians with the courage to carry it through.’

‘Thank you, Mrs Markson. I’m sure it won’t go unnoticed, one way or another.’

‘And now you’ll be wanting to steal Ren away. Just for a minute.’ She smiled.

‘Just for a minute.’ Warcek returned the compliment. ‘The world won’t stop turning for the promotion round.’

Sall gestured for them to go about their business. Ren left with a word of excuse and a peck on the cheek.

Crossing the russet close-weave carpet of the ceremonial hall, Markson and Warcek brought their walk to a halt in a spot clear of prying ears.

‘Well I know this is no private pat on the back.’

‘Ren, no, it isn’t. Besides, I know you take that as read from me.’

‘Rightly, I hope. So?’

‘I need you. What you might dramatically call an emergency mission. Or the News would. We can do without that.’ Warcek took a quick look around. ‘The Belgrade is four days overdue at Ganymede Base. We’ve heard nothing.’

‘Four days?’

‘Significant, I know, but the science ships do get a longer leash. And Captain Glazunov has somewhat of a reputation for…’

‘Personal interpretation of Fleet protocols?’

‘Exactly. But not like this. Communications silence and she’s not been picked up within the range of any of the normal commercial traffic.’

‘AWOL?’

‘I won’t speculate. But we need to find her. You’re the right man. Now I know you still have four days leave scheduled, and I don’t like to break up a party…’

‘I’ve had six weeks. When do we leave?’

‘Fourteen hundred tomorrow. The Vancouver’s being prepped and you’re giving the pre-flight at twelve hundred. Half crew complement.’ Warcek reached for an inside jacket pocket and drew out an envelope. ‘Here’s what you need.’

‘And luck.’

‘You make your own luck, Ren, you know that. That pip just made your life harder. That’s what it’s about.’

‘I know.’

‘So find her. It may be nothing. I hope so. And not a word.’

‘Admiral.’

The men saluted and Ren turned to make his way back to his wife.

Next morning, Markson was awake, staring in thought at the ceiling, when the alarm tone snapped the silence and roused Sall into the conscious world with him. She huddled up.

‘What?’ She had sensed his mind was occupied.

‘Nothing.’

‘How long have you been awake?’

‘Not long.’

‘You worry too much.’

‘Not worry. Mysteries,’ he offered obliquely.

‘Why you’re going today.’

‘Hmm.’

Sall knew more than to press on, instead she lay her head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat.

Soon she felt a gentle hand on her neck.

‘I really wanted to be here this year.’

‘And you still can be.’ She sat up. ‘Didn’t you say two weeks?’

‘Two weeks, three, it could be more this time. Two, if there aren’t any problems, but if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be going.’

‘A secret mission where even I can’t be told.’

‘I don’t make the rules.’

‘I know. And you don’t break them, either.’

‘I couldn’t refuse to go, not now.’

‘No, no reason you should. I do have a birthday every year.’

‘It doesn’t show.’

‘Such flattery.’ She kissed him. ‘But you still need to get up.’

‘Yes, put that extra pip to work.’

Twenty minutes later he was showered, dressed, and breakfasting in the spacious kitchen. Sall sat down beside him at the glass table and they ate in silence as the videowall News channel played its morning broadcast.

…and Governor Venkat assured the Earth Council that the latest hundred billion dollar investment in Ganymede was not an indication that Mars and Moon Cities were becoming poor relations. Merely, he said, a confirmation of a desire to further push mankind beyond the realms of the solar system. A true colony on Ganymede was a realistic proposition before the turn of the century, and Ganymede needed the investment to act as a staging post for manned missions further afield.

It has been reported this morning that Doctor Steffen Iversen, the controversial and reclusive robotics scientist, is missing from his home near Linköping in Sweden. There have been many threats on his life, and after last week’s highly public speech promoting his work on humanoid robot development, there are fears that his views may have brought a fatal backlash. However, Swedish police have been quick to dismiss foul play, saying that Doctor Iversen’s house shows no signs of a struggle or a break-in, and that it is more likely the roboticist has chosen to take a secret holiday out of the public eye.

Mars yesterday welcomed its thousandth citizen to the City. Darryn Belford, a water treatment engineer from New Jersey…

‘Is this trip so secret that you’ll have a bar on communications?’

Ren finished his coffee. ‘No voice, only message. I don’t make the rules.’

‘No, just follow them. It’s better than silence. At least I’ll get a birthday hello.’

‘I’ll be here. I said I would. Captain’s prerogative. Who’s going to stop me turning the ship around?’ He smiled a shrug.

‘The Admiral I’m sure would have words.’

‘Warcek? A pussycat.’

‘Lose your job and a birthday girl will lose a hero.’

‘So I won’t.’ Ren put his hand on his wife’s, a tiny clear gemstone between flesh. ‘But I must go.’

He collected his two travel bags and they met again at the door as had happened so many times before. A long kiss.

‘Good luck.’

‘I think we might need a bit of it this time. Take care?’

‘You know that. And I love you.’

‘I know. And you know.’

A long kiss.

‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

The door slid open, held, closed, and he was gone.

6

‘Is this a secure line?’

‘I’m not one for professionally–or literally–cutting my own throat.’

‘So you have it.’

‘Like I said—’

‘The source?’

‘Untraceable.’

He continued tying his bow tie. ‘You may have noticed I have a dinner engagement. A pressing dinner engagement. So …?’

‘The Vancouver. I’m transmitting her VIK now.’

‘And the report?’

‘Indicates no easy red flags.’

‘We’ll be able to tell if they find anything.’ He adjusted the bow tie, teased a wrinkle out of the crisp white collar. The face on the other end of the Vidlink waited patiently. ‘The … Scandinavian … issue?’

‘That contract has been terminated.’

‘You’ve handled these two files well.’ His gaze flicked over to the computer, where the other’s transmission had duly arrived.

‘Your company pays well. If I may press on that matter… ?’

‘I’m arranging for settlement immediately.’

‘Thank you.’

‘We never spoke.’

‘I guarantee my silence.’

‘As do I.’ He swiped two fingers across the air and the call ended.

He breathed, centred himself. That was one more step complete.

Eight hundred kilometres away, in a shabby lakefront house in Crystal Rock, Ohio, there was no pressing dinner engagement to look forward to. But there was a large deposit to check on.

He peeled off the false moustache and tossed it into the waste basket, drew up a chair and sat at what passed for a desk. The computer terminal was old, but secure and trustworthy. He tapped a key and the screen came to life. With two more jabs he reached the Bank portal.

Memory had always been one of his strengths. Codes, directions, passwords were all easily committed to mind; part of what made him so adept at his craft.

He’d typed his personal code so many times. This time the anticipation was almost making him nervous. This was life-changing money. He felt that his hands were shaking, but they weren’t. Nonetheless, he tapped very deliberately that 10-digit string. The index finger closed on Enter.

The searing voltage leapt up his arm and scrambled his thumping heart. He jerked involuntarily, toppled from the chair and crumpled to motionlessness on the grubby carpet.

7

She didn’t want to speak first. She’d been stoic in her silence since they left the ship. She was the proverbial swan, paddling like hell underneath. Processing. Seeking meaning. Searching for flaws. Conflict felt pointless.

All through, she had bitten her tongue. When he had given her the landing coordinates. When he had congratulated her on a safe touchdown. When he had demanded she suit up and leave the shuttle. When he had—gallantly?—let her step back inside the shuttle first.

She complied. Assessing for danger, quickly seeing none. Realising this marked only the start of an unknown travail. Knowing that the earlier chaos was neither pure accident nor pure theatre. Trusting instinct. Playing the long game.

She had a hundred questions. A thousand. There would be answers. Sometime. If not from him, from someone, somewhere.

She had answers too. He must know who she was. He must know where they were, and why. He acted intelligent and measured. He broadly knew his way around an EVA suit.

He wasn’t beyond murder.

‘Enna. May I call you Enna?’

She gave him a look about half as withering as she wanted. She consciously brushed her collar pips as casually as she could manage.

He nodded gently. ‘Lieutenant it is.’

She eyed him. Something plainly didn’t fit, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Almost like he was an old man in a young man’s body. The wrong mind behind the face.

Hell, she reflected, there was plenty she hadn’t put her finger on. Like why, instead of enjoying her off-duty hours in the ship gym, she was sitting in an eerily silent cockpit, on a dark tumbling rock, beside an odd companion with an unknown purpose. Too many questions barged each other down the corridors of the mind, like a throng of concert-goers all trying to leave a fire exit at the same time. Too many half-formed insults. Too much disbelief.

Training only takes you so far. Yes, it’s designed to prepare you for any number of scenarios, and to give you tools to cope with others, to extrapolate data, come up with solutions. The problem was that they were procedural, technical, logical. They didn’t account for the human dimension, the unpredictability of personality.

A thruster failure. A minor electrical fire. A useless Ensign. A solar flare. A course alteration. These were all I-deal-with-it-because-I’m-a-Lieutenant things.

This was not that. This was Other.

‘Pouvez-vous aidez moi, peut-être?’

This time her glance was edged with surprise and, against her wish, fear. She knew barely more than his name—at least the one she’d used to address him, and what was on his lapel—but evidently he knew about her in greater depth. If he knew she spoke French, how much more could there be?

Did it really matter? If he’d recited her favourite poem or waxed lyrical about her crazy three-week spell as a water-skiing instructor in Maui, that would be into creepy territory, but this? Simple research.

A sigh.

Communication doesn’t have to mean civility, does it? It doesn’t represent surrender.

She licked her lips. ‘Help with what?’

Just a hint of a smile on his lips—not a nasty one, she judged, more of contentment that he wouldn’t have to struggle on with her silence.

‘We need to unload,’ he replied.

‘You. You need to unload.’

He sighed. ‘Yes. I need. And unless you have something more pressing, I could use a hand.’

‘Why?’

‘Whatever qualifications and qualities you have Lieutenant, you still need to eat.’

‘You brought supplies?’

‘Whatever my own qualifications and qualities—and your view of them—I need to eat too.’

‘Door’s there,’ she said flatly.

‘There’s more than ration packs to unload.’

‘Picnic table too heavy?’

‘We’re taking the full shipping crate.’

Enna looked out of the letterbox front window. The stars were moving above the desolate rocky vista ahead, itself just a few shades lighter, browner, than the deep black of the solar system above. Her face creased in disbelief. ‘Where?’

‘Look lively and I’ll show you.’

It had been a long time since Enna Dacourt’s last low-g outing.

She focussed the spare part of her mind on recalling the exact date as she bounded across the crater floor, helmet headlight beam playing across the route ahead. Not knowing how long they would be here (the ‘why’ wasn’t even part of the equation at this moment), she had the light on a minimum setting. It supplemented the sun’s depressingly weak rays and helped knock out harsh shadows that might trip her. The rocky surface was so unpredictable that a twist or sprain was a real possibility—even cocooned inside the EVA suit.

With the fast rotation period of the asteroid, night could arrive quickly. She reckoned a day equated to between ten and twelve hours. Amongst everything that swirled round her mind, she was trying to concentrate on practicalities. Emotion and answers could come later—would come later, she decided—but now survival was the mantra.

The ground ahead rose. Not in a predictable crater’s edge and not as a wall, instead in bumps and disjointed slopes. She expended more effort to maintain momentum. Her companion, behind and safely off to the right, kept pace.

‘Next time, ask me to land closer,’ she said curtly across the Comlink.

‘I didn’t know how good you were,’ came the voice in her helmet.

‘I’m a better pilot than rockhopper.’

‘We couldn’t risk hitting anything.’

‘Hitting anything?!’ She couldn’t suppress the disbelief in that.

‘I know you have a million questions.’ He was looking at her as they bounded upwards like two trampolining youngsters.

‘It’s been mostly—no, check that—totally bad surprises so far. I’m all for surprises but come on, any chance of a good one?’

‘Trust me.’ His voice tried to be

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