Years ago, Thaddeus Marcell was abducted from the lost and legendary world Earth. Now a mercenary, he fights for the various star empires in the galaxy, all while searching for rumors and clues to Earth’s location so he can return home. It’s been a long, fruitless search.
But everything could change when his men locate a woman he once knew from Earth. However, she’s now cargo aboard a distant slave ship, and he has very little time to race across the stars and rescue her before her ship moves on, losing her–and a clue to Earth–forever…
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Science fiction is my favorite genre of fiction, and I've always wanted to try writing some of my own. I've made dozens of attempts to write science fiction since, oh, junior high school or so. This is the first book in a series of six, using a variety of ideas, characters, plots, and locations that I've daydreamed up ever since I was a teenager.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Originally, many of my main characters are based on amplified aspects of my own personality, which makes it easier for me to write from their perspective. I'm relying on this less and less though, as I gain experience as a writer, and now I spend a bit more time trying to come up with characters that clash with others or cause problems, versus designing characters that are easy for me to write.
“Sir, the Phantom has just left hyperspace and entered our airspace. You asked to be notified.”
Thaddeus Marcell looked up from his work and glanced at the surface of his large faux-wood desk. One of the touchscreens embedded into the tabletop displayed details about the comm channel which had just opened. It identified the speaker as an Ensign Paice, comm officer on duty in the ops center.
“Thank you, Ensign,” Thaddeus replied. His voice crackled out from a dry throat, contrasting sharply with the youthful tenor on the other end of the comm link, and he realized that this was the first time he’d spoken all day. “Will the Commodore be coming down to Headquarters soon?”
“Affirmative, Admiral,” the ensign responded. “Commodore Cooper’s transport is cleared to land in Hangar 5, ETA nineteen minutes.”
“Thank you, Ensign. Tell him I’ll meet him there.”
“Aye, Admiral. Ops out.”
The comm issued a soft double-chirp, indicating that the channel was closed. Thad rubbed his tired eyes for a moment and reached for the glass tumbler on his desk. It was half-full of a dark brown liquid. A few smooth stone-like remnants of ice cubes floated at the top. He finished its noxious contents in one long gulp, feeling the fumes sting within his nostrils for the next few seconds as the familiar sensation of fire forced its way down his throat.
He stood and turned to look out the huge picture window which took up almost the entire exterior wall of the room behind his desk, though there was very little to see. Headquarters was an orphaned asteroid stationed quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The nearest star, almost ten light-years away, provided only negligible lighting to the asteroid. Also, the base was in the middle of its simulated night cycle, so the majority of the asteroid’s inhabitants were asleep and nearly all lighting was dimmed or offline. As he looked outside, he could only make out a few nearby details illuminated by the office windows of a few other late workers, and the barren surface of the asteroid quickly became invisible as his gaze moved farther out. An airtight walkway anchored to the rock glowed dimly from within as it traced out across the asteroid, linking the ops building to the nearby residential dome which itself was mostly darkened save for the light poles that surrounded the pedestrian walkways between buildings.
Years ago, Thaddeus had towed the asteroid out into the part of the galaxy known as the Independent Regions and built it into a secret command center for his organization. The Independent Regions were hundreds of light-years away from any of the galaxy’s major empires, and remained relatively uncharted except for the areas immediately around the populated systems scattered within, making it an excellent place to hide. Few people knew his Headquarters existed, and only a handful knew its precise location. The chances of anyone accidentally stumbling upon it were essentially nil.
He checked the old-style analog clock he kept on his wall. 0200 local time. He really wished he’d been able to sleep. On the other hand, Commodore Cooper was one of his few subordinates that he got along with well on a personal level, so Thaddeus welcomed the opportunity to greet him as he returned from his missions.
Thaddeus tapped a button on his desk, locking his workspace and preventing anyone else from accessing its systems, and left his office. He entered the hallway, passed a lift, and instead took two flights of stairs down to ground level. Within minutes he was in a walkway tube on his way to Hangar 5.
The Headquarters asteroid had numerous buildings and domes anchored to its rocky surface, all interconnected by a network of airtight walkways. A few nodes also acted as hubs for an electric rail system, allowing quick travel and bulk cargo movement between major areas. But unless he was in a hurry, Thad liked to walk. At 0200 in the morning, he had the path all to himself. The walkway was dim, with just enough light to safely find one’s way, yet still dark enough to suggest nighttime.
Hangar 5 was nearby, only a few hundred meters from the Ops Building where the bulk of his organization’s administration was handled. The walkway was lined with windows, allowing him to look out at the dark, desolate surface. The complex was built upon a relatively flat plain, although the asteroid was small enough that even its flat spots were noticeably curved. The steep cliffs and mountains which surrounded the base were all but invisible, providing only a sudden, jagged horizon where the starfield abruptly ended.
As he neared the hangar, Thad looked up to see the running lights of an approaching transport in the sky, though not with enough detail to identify it. Anyone not accustomed to the solitude and darkness of Headquarters would find the sight eerie. Above him, the ship was a silent constellation of blinking lights with no distinguishable form connecting them to each other. Only the growing mass of blotted-out starfield suggested that the lights were in fact part of a larger, unseen object moving through the darkness.
He passed through the end of the tunnel and entered the hangar building itself, finding himself in the building’s support wing which contained a few darkened offices, storage closets, environmental systems, and so on. He continued on through the hallway and pushed through a large double-door that led to the hangar deck. It was a smaller hangar, chosen for its close proximity to the Ops Building rather than its storage capacity or throughput. The large rectangular space inside was designed to receive and store some of the smaller vessels used by the highest-ranking individuals in Thaddeus’s organization.
The hangar smelled slightly of grease and oil and stale, reprocessed air. Apart from the crew waiting to receive the Commodore’s transport, it was completely deserted, as could be expected at such an hour.
Several small transports were already landed and stowed, as well as a few of the popular Cutlass-class fighter-bombers that many of Thad’s officers liked to use as personal short-range transports. One of them was half-disassembled, a semicircle of hull panels, LRUs, and tools scattered on the deck around it. Its fusion core sat in a maintenance cradle a few meters away with a bundle of cables running out to a nearby rack of diagnostics equipment which blinked out regular patterns of light as it performed an unattended overnight test sequence.
And a pair of the sleek but diminutive Dart-class recon fighters hung suspended from storage racks on the ceiling, accessible via the network of catwalks which crisscrossed the topmost portions of the hangar.
Thaddeus stood just inside, near a few holotables installed by the wall as an ad-hoc on-deck break room.
The entire north-facing wall of the hangar was one single massive airlock door. Thaddeus listened to the sibilance of air pumps as the airlock pressurized itself to grant access to the incoming transport. The inner door began sliding open, creating a momentary pressure disturbance which popped his ears. The doors then issued a brief hiss which soon gave way to a steady mechanical grind. As the doors lazily slid on their tracks and receded into the walls, they slowly revealed a squad-sized transport which balanced carefully on the violet tongues of superheated plasma that emitted from its downward-facing thrusters. The bright cones of ionized exhaust stirred up the still air, bringing the hot smell of ozone to Thaddeus’s nostrils. The inner doors finally reached the end of their tracks and locked open with a massive clunk that reverberated through the hangar for a number of seconds. Afterwards, the hangar fell into relative silence, a quietness broken only by the gentle, torch-like thrum of the ship’s thrusters.
An ear-splitting roar rang out for a brief moment as the transport fired a quick burst of its main thrusters, sending it creeping forward into the hangar. As it cleared the airlock, the inner doors restarted their slow, grinding crawl which eventually sealed the opening between the airlock and the hangar interior.
The ship expertly glided through the air, following the ground crew’s gestures as they directed it to an empty bay recessed in the wall across from Thad. It touched down and settled on its landing struts, and as soon as the thrusters went silent the crew burst into action. One of the men rolled up a waist-high cart of electronics and plugged into a data port on the transport’s nose. Another fetched a fuel hose from the bay’s refueling system, hooking it up to the underside to top off the pressurized deuterium tanks which fueled the craft’s fusion reactor. Another hooked up the bulky air hose which provided ventilation for the transport, allowing it to shut down its life support systems. Others began slowly circling the landed ship, performing a detailed visual inspection while filling out travel and maintenance records on a tablet.
Finally, the transport’s side ramp opened up and the Commodore himself walked down to the hangar deck, followed by his executive officer and a few other individuals. They briefly chatted with the ground crew, laughed about something, shook hands, and split up. The man scanned the room, and upon locating Thad he began approaching.
Commodore Cooper was a middle-aged man of about fifty standard years, below average height, with short salt-and-pepper hair. As usual, he was dressed in the nondescript dark gray trousers and jacket that unofficially passed as a uniform for Gray Fleet personnel. He was well-built, having surprising strength and agility from decades of combat and martial arts experience. He was wily and astute, with nearly thirty years of experience in espionage, and served as the commander of Thaddeus’ intelligence and recon fleet, known as Gray Fleet. He’d been making the local rounds for a few months now in his flagship, an aging, nondescript frigate called the Phantom, quietly visiting nearby star systems and space stations to gather news and reports from his agents. This was one of his regularly-scheduled trips home to report in, check for new orders, and exchange crew members if needed.
The grinning Commodore walked right up to the table and saluted Thad, a gesture he knew his boss hated with a passion. Thaddeus did his best to hide his agitation. “Welcome home, Coop.”
Cooper made a hurt face. “Home?” he responded in his raspy baritone voice while shaking his head dismissively. “I still don’t see how you call this lonely rock home.” He took a seat at the nearest holotable, and Thad joined him. “It’s way too boring here. I have to work too hard to keep myself entertained. There’s no racetracks, no black market, no gambling halls!” he exclaimed with mock indignation.
“Rumor has it Pichler is starting up a poker night again,” said Thad, referring to Headquarters’ executive officer. “Wednesday nights, I believe.”
“I don’t think Captain Pichler’s poker club brings in the kind of riff-raff I’m interested in,” the Commodore replied with a hoarse chuckle. “Headquarters gossip hardly makes for juicy intelligence. Entertaining, maybe, but only in a really sad, depressing way.”
“I suppose that’s true,” replied Thad. “So, find anything interesting out there?”
“Oh yes,” said the intelligence chief. He fiddled with the table’s computer system and a few moments later a projection of a ship hovered between them. Cooper kept his eyes focused on Thad and said nothing, grinning, waiting for him to look it over. It was clearly a starship, but there wasn’t much detail to it. It was a smooth, rather nondescript cylinder with a trio of fusion drive nozzles on the rear. It tapered to a cockpit or bridge at the front.
Thad sighed, feeling mildly annoyed at his subordinate’s lack of explanation. He didn’t feel like playing guessing games, not when he was this tired. He rubbed at the corner of his eye. “Okay, I give up. What is it?”
Cooper smiled proudly. “This is a prototype ship from Academy Engineering. It’s just over a hundred meters long, and the interior is almost completely liquid helium storage designed to cool a hell of an experimental cryogenic hyperdrive.”
“Didn’t they try this a while ago?” asked Thad. “I thought they decided cryogenic hyperdrives couldn’t be done.”
“Yeah, well I guess they had a breakthrough. This one is a brand-new design that makes a lot less heat than normal, through some weird quantum effect when it’s running at a couple degrees absolute. Supposedly, this ship can pull over three light-years per hour for thirty or thirty-five light-years per jump.”
Thaddeus whistled and leaned back in his seat. “That could be a huge game-changer, if it works.” Most starships had a safe cruising speed of about a light-year per hour, including periodic stops for course corrections and heat dissipation. Higher speeds were possible for short periods but would quickly destroy the ship’s drives and cooling systems. “Let me guess. You want to hijack one.”
Cooper gave him a “Who, me?” look, but then flashed a toothy, devilish smile. “Way ahead of you, boss. It’s parked a few dozen kilolightsecs out, with the rest of Gray Fleet. It’ll be a great courier ship.”
As always, your initiative impresses me, Commodore. “How many are there?”
“Five that I know of. AE is still working out some kinks before starting on production designs, but two of the prototypes are mostly functional. I’m still putting together a team to analyze it, as well as all the data we stole, too.”
That’s what made him a good intelligence chief. If he saw something interesting, he’d take it just to add to the organization’s knowledge and technology. It fit in nicely with Thaddeus’s goals. “So besides being fast, what else can it do?” Thad asked.
Coop raised a hand to his chin, and briefly tilted his head to the side. “Well, that’s really it. Minimum crew is about ten. There’s no real room for serious cargo or passengers, but it has a small hangar suitable for a short-range skiff. I bet you could stuff a platoon in there if you really wanted to. Though I’d really hate to see the mess a platoon of Marines would leave in a bay that tiny. You’d never get the smell out.”
Thad furrowed his eyebrows. “It doesn’t look that small,” he decided, although he realized there wasn’t enough detail in the image for him to get a good sense of scale.
“Remember, the interior is almost completely filled by helium tanks, hyperdrive, and the reactor. There really isn’t much space for cabins or barracks.”
“Hmm, I guess. And it works?”
Cooper shrugged. “Supposedly. It didn’t have any liquid helium when we, ah, ’acquired’ it, so it just made standard jumps to keep it with the fleet. But the hyperdrive failed after the third jump and we had to tow it the rest of the way. I’m going to tow it in tomorrow and have the guys here take a look.”
Thad’s lips curled up in a silent smile. “You’ve had it, what, a few weeks, and you broke it already?”
Cooper grinned at the jab. “Well, my techs can’t find anything mechanically wrong. They think it’s a software problem. But don’t worry, we also stole a copy of the source code too. We’ll figure it out.”
“I’m sure you will.” He yawned, remembering how long he’d been awake. “Anything else?”
“Oh, the usual,” his intelligence chief responded. “Bunch of logs and manifests from the usual space stations. Made a few supply runs while we were in the area—I love it when the logistics guys owe me favors. Brought back stacks of political reports, mostly the standard dick-waving by area Dukes and Princes and pirates and whatnot. And I managed to get two of my ships hired on as couriers in the Saxon sector.”
“Still trying to read everyone’s mail, eh?” Hyperspace transceivers did exist, using a strange form of energy known as phi-band radiation, but the devices were limited in range to about a light-year for the high-powered units. Some of the closer and wealthier star systems had expensive networks of phi-band relay stations stretched between them, but most communication was sent around the galaxy via courier ships.
“I’m working on it. It keeps my hackers busy and out of trouble. Oh, by the way, did you know that Prince Charming raised your bounty to fifty million?”
Thaddeus whistled again. “Fifty mil?” Cooper nodded. “That’s good retirement money,” he joked dryly.
Cooper grunted. “I don’t think the High Prince’s idea of your retirement agrees with yours.”
Thaddeus made a rare smile. “Yeah, I suppose.” He dropped the smile and scowled. “You’d think after all these years he’d get tired of being angry and just move on.”
Cooper’s expression soured into a stiff grimace. “Marcell, he’s not like us. High Prince Saar is a dangerous man, and he’s probably not sane anymore. Next time you go out there, watch your back, okay? With a bounty that high, you might have a lot of people looking for you.” He paused to chew on his lower lip. “Maybe even from within the organization,” he said carefully.
Thaddeus simply nodded, and Cooper stood. “Well boss, that’s the highlights. The rest of my reports are in the usual place. I gotta run, gotta meet up with the quartermasters and get ready for tomorrow. Resupply, refuel, drop some stuff off, and trade a platoon of cranky Marines for a different platoon of cranky Marines.”
Thaddeus chuckled lightly. “Alright. Take care, Commodore.”
“You too.” Thad winced as Cooper gave him another mock salute. Despite his title of Admiral, his manner was far from military. His organization wasn’t a military attached to a nation-state, it was an independent mercenary force, and so protocol was usually pretty lax.
As his intelligence chief left the hangar, Thaddeus reactivated the computer in the table’s surface and skimmed through the reports downloaded from the transport’s computers, hoping it would be boring enough to finally help him sleep. He picked a folder at random and started scrolling through some of the travel schedules for the Waverly Depot, a space station and refueling center located just outside the Waverly system, about 350 light-years from Headquarters.
As he reviewed a few records, he found himself looking at the manifest of a starship called the Cassandra. It was a converted cruiser which spent most of its time hauling freight of questionable content. According to the manifest Cooper had acquired from Waverly Depot’s confidential files, it had quite a haul of slaves and was on its way to the Depot for a refueling stop.
As he skimmed through the manifest he remembered his own slave days, now many years in the past. At least Thad had been skilled (and lucky) enough to find his way to freedom…
He thought he saw something familiar and stopped to go back a few entries in the list. He frowned and felt his whole body tense up. His jaw dropped agape at what he saw, and he tapped the entry to bring it from the table’s surface into a larger projection above it.
A name and a face hovered above the table, seemingly staring back at him. A name and a face listed as cargo. A name and a face he recognized…from home.
His stomach knotted up, and he felt like he’d just been kicked squarely in the chest. His blood chilled, as if someone had pumped a liter of liquid helium from Cooper’s stolen ship straight into his veins…
TJ Mott grew up on a small cattle farm near the booming metropolis of Westboro, Missouri (population ~140). He holds a bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Northwest Missouri State University and works as a software engineer in Omaha, Nebraska.
He's always been a nerd with a strong interest in science fiction and has decided to try writing some of his own.
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