by John Steiner

The fate of the Astraeus crew is at last known. Serious questions remain as to why they disappeared. During the study of multiple life-sustaining worlds in peculiar orbits, ground support forces brought by the Mockingbird are attacked. Amid working out the nature and intent of the threat, a diplomatic dispute erupts over access to the discoveries. Colonel Ramachandra and her crew fall back on everything they’ve learned over the past year to understand what has brought together life from across the galaxy.


Chapter 1

Shoot to Thrill


Listening to another planet’s winds blow through alien trees reminded Stanley Goddard just what a relief it was when the pressure suit requirement was lifted. Twenty-one thousand, five hundred light-years away from Sol brought Stanley, the Mockingbird crew, the rest of 1st Raven Wing and the Doolittle Strike Group to the weirdest collection of exo-solar planets anyone had seen. And yet ... they were also the most hospitable worlds other than Earth.

Twenty-two planets dubbed by the rescued Astraeus astronomers as One through Eleven O’clock A and B. The whiter-than-Sol sun and its orange tinted partner were known as Noon A and B.

Gazing up at them Stanley realized that was backwards. Todd Ash and Robert Mortenson from the Astraeus were nearby studying the remains of an indigenous, semi-insectoid animal nicknamed a Cicada. Because the Astraeus Fifteen-Hundred had no idea where they ended up, someone among them apparently decided that noon should still be a sun’s reference not planetary.

“See,” Stanley heard Dr. Mortenson say. “The phalangeal pads are triple-jointed. They can bend, swivel and rotate because of this really short second segment. With four pairs of these pads branching off a tarsus that easily makes a complete loop of a grip, I was certain that they were selected by evolution toward manipulating objects in their environment.”

“After having gone through all the xenokaryotes and viral particles in their tissues,” Todd began, “it’s clear they aren’t hosts for microbial intelligence.”

“Hey, Dr. Mortenson,” Stanley called out from the long-felled tree he sat on, “why didn’t you guys keep a dead specimen on hand to study?”

“We didn’t want the live ones to associate us with their remains,” Robert Mortenson answered. “The males seem to catch on to associative connections like.”

“O’Connell to Goddard,” Stanley heard Malcolm through his earpiece.

“Yes, go ahead,” Stanley replied.

“One of the surveyor sats picked up something falling into Five O’clock A’s atmosphere,” Malcolm explained. “It wasn’t pinged by radar or sighted approaching the planet. Stay alert for anything weird, and keep a line open to the security force.”

“Okay,” Stanley said, though his brow furrowed at the details given.

“We’re wrapping up the break-down of the colony and relocating the crew onto the Astraeus, so don’t take too long,” Malcolm said.

“Ah,” Stanley said, and then paused to see that Robert and Todd were out of earshot before he continued. “What’s going to happen to them?”

“I’m told that Dolinsky just got the NoLo-trans about the emergency NATO summit, but nobody that’s talking knows what’s in it.” Malcolm O’Connell wasn’t into gossip, and probably would’ve missed overhearing commentary just out of decades’ long practice of ignoring it. “It’s safe to assume that there’ll be a readjustment and extensive counseling.”

“What if they’re separated from their kids, Malcolm?” Stanley pondered if their ISO astronautics calm would crumble. “I mean...”

“Don’t go there.” Malcolm sharpened his tone. “Keep your head in the job and do only what’s right in front of you. That’s the best thing you can do for them.”

"Flipspace: Confluence" by John Steiner


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