Prologue: Shu, Meet Foot
Shu had stowed away aboard the freighter for three days, hiding in an apparently abandoned life support closet as the ship bearing the rare minerals made its way to wherever it was bound. Shu had instigated the plan to board the freighter, knowing she had no better than a two-in-five chance of coming back alive. She wasn’t suicidal—far from it!—but she recognized a calculated risk when she saw it, and that was precisely what this was.
With nearly three weeks of ration bars to chew on, and a water recycler built into her vacuum suit which kept her hydrated, she suspected she would need to hunker down for another week or so before reaching the ship’s destination. It was far from comfortable, but she had endured worse several times over—and if she survived it will have all been worth it.
As the wiled away the time, her thoughts wandered to the exhilarating encounter with Jericho prior to her undertaking this mission and she felt a thrill of satisfaction at recalling some of the more outstanding details of that passionate interlude. She had, as Jericho suggested, ‘played for the other team’ exclusively during her sexual career following years of abuse by her bastard of a stepfather, but that had done nothing to keep her from dreaming of Jericho day and night since not long after he had rescued her. And now, finally—after years of mounting anticipation—she had made those dreams into reality.
Her hand went subconsciously to her belly, but she quickly removed it when she felt the ship shimmer beneath her. It was a faint sensation, to be sure, but her senses were sharper than everyone’s she had ever met—except Jericho’s, of course. She stood from her crouch, cocking her head and activating a small, portable sensor she had brought. It was completely passive and had such a tiny EM footprint that it would be virtually undetectable by any standard means.
Its readings immediately confirmed her suspicion: the freighter had come out of Phase Space. This meant one of two things: first, that the freighter was scheduled to pick up more cargo—which was unlikely according to their best information, which said Virgin was the last star system on the freighter’s itinerary before it proceeded to a series of provably fake way points.
The second possibility was that the ship had already reached its destination—and if that was the case, it meant that she needed to get to a viewing portal of some kind to gather images which would tell Jericho and the others where the freighter had gone.
She replaced her vacuum suit’s helmet, checking the seals and finding them in good order. A few minor tweaks to her suit’s re-breather initialized the suit’s space-walk mode, after which she swept her handheld scanner around the room to verify that nothing was amiss nearby.
Satisfied that the area was clear, she opened the small door which led to the access corridor in the bowels of the freighter. She cautiously proceeded to the nearest viewing portal, which she had passed en route to the maintenance locker after first arriving aboard the massive cargo ship.
When she arrived at the portal, which measure nearly two feet in diameter, she placed the scanner to the transparent sheet of alloy serving as her window and gathered a series of star field images. The stars seemed to twist and tumble ponderously, which meant the freighter was adjusting its orientation in preparation for some sort of link-up with something larger than itself.
She kept snapping images with the scanner until something appeared at the edge of the viewing portal. At first she thought it was the horizon of a planet, but then she realized that it had no surface features whatsoever.
Her confusion was short-lived, and was replaced by something between awe and horror as she saw a crack which let her briefly see behind the massive sphere’s surface. As her view through the narrow gap came and went, she briefly glimpsed a radiant sphere of light on the other side—light which could have only been that of a star.
Her hand went to her mouth as her powerful, agile mind failed her completely for what felt like an eternity. The magnitude of what she had just seen was completely beyond her ability to cope with in real time, and she doubted anyone—not even Jericho—would have reacted much better than she had.
So stupefied by the reality of what they were up against, she barely even noticed the tap on her shoulder which she blankly turned toward just in time to see a set of black, tightly-bound shoelaces collide with her face and send her into the oblivion of unconsciousness.
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