Ordinarily, one writes an entire novel before writing a sequel, but this is a sequel to Earthright, even though Earthright isn’t finished; I actually started writing Technoplague first, then backtracked. (I’ve done this with other series, as well.) I should maybe mention that Amelia Hand has already appeared in the comic book story “A Breath of Fresh Air,” and the short story “That Doggone Vnorpt,” though there are inconsistencies between the comic book version and the prose version. Also, I should maybe have mentioned when I posted the opening of Earthright that it’s the result of merging two previously planned stories, “Legends” and “Labyrinth.” This stuff didn’t exist in a vacuum; it was always intended as a series.
The Tristan Jones dropped out of hyperspace into the Lambda Aurigae system right on schedule, and alarms immediately began sounding.
“Damn,” Captain Amelia Hand said, her attention focused on the navigational displays. “Tris, what the hell is happening?”
“Nothing terrible, Captain,” the ship replied. “There’s a lot of unscheduled traffic in the area, that’s all. Those alarms are brainless stuff – unmapped objects, drive proximity, that sort of thing. There’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Then shut them off.”
The various hootings and beepings suddenly stopped.
“That’s better,” Hand said. “Now, what’s all this traffic?”
“I don’t know, Captain. Lots of ships, apparently all headed out-system. None on a vector for our location, though.”
Hand frowned. That didn’t sound good – why would there be more ships than normal, all outbound? “How many is lots?”
“That’s lots,” she agreed. If thirty-eight ships were headed out of the system at once, there was presumably a reason. “Are you picking up any chatter?”
“Nothing useful or out of the ordinary.”
“Any idea why everyone’s leaving?”
Hand considered for a minute, then shrugged. “Keep listening, let me know if you hear anything, and meanwhile see if you can get us down on L.A. 3 without running into anybody. Let ’em know we’re here.”
“Will do, Captain.”
They were, according to the displays, roughly six light-minutes from their destination: Amphitryon Port, on Continent Two, Lambda Aurigae 3. Their relative drop-out velocity was around thirty million km/hr, and decelerating at a steady two g’s would put them on the ground in about twenty-eight hours. That gave her more than a day to figure out what was going on and decide whether to land, or crank it back up and aim the next jump.
A day at twice her normal weight, of course, which wouldn’t be much fun, but she was used to these inconveniences.
“Put a call through to Amphitryon,” she said. “Let ’em know we’re coming in, and ask why there’s extra traffic.”
“Will do, Captain.”
She sat up, no longer straining at the screens – the ship had things under control, now that the crucial moment of drop-out was past, and she could let it fly itself.
“Got ID on all those ships?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. One jumped out before I could get anything beyond a drive signature, and at least three appear to be running silent, but I’ve got the others.”
“Are they all human-built?”
“Yes, they are, Captain. No alien presence has been reported in the Lambda Aurigae system in a dozen kilodays – the local colonists, including the authorities, run to mild xenophobia, and nobody’s bothered butting in where they’re unwelcome.”
“So who are they?”
“Well, four are scheduled traders running late, seven are unscheduled traders, eighteen are local transports, two are local military, and three I can’t classify.”
“Four traders running late?”
That was bizarre. Something was very definitely strange here – but bypassing the system would cost her money and throw her off schedule, and besides, her stores were low and she didn’t want to eat recycled paste all the way to her next port of call. “What’s the turn-around on that message to the port?”
“About another seven minutes lag-time if they pick up right away,” the ship replied.
“Put it through when it gets here.”
That said, she sat and watched the screens, counting the signals indicating other hyperspace-capable ships in the system.
Thirty-seven, as Tris had said – and then thirty-six as another ship jumped.
Of course, those ships had already been gone when Tristan Jones had dropped out, but their signals had taken time to reach her, just as her message to the port and its reply would take roughly six minutes each way.
She waited, and a moment later a screen lit up. An unfamiliar face appeared, and a young man said nervously, “Tristan Jones, this is Amphitryon Port – welcome! We’re expecting you on Pad Four. As for your question about the traffic, we had a little trouble here, but everything’s under control now, and we’re looking forward to your arrival.”
Hand stared at the screen as the man smiled uncertainly. Then the image vanished.
“Replay,” she said.
The ship obeyed, and Hand watched closely. When the message had finished again, she said, “I wonder what happened to Ricardo, and who this guy is.”
“I don’t know, Captain. Should I ask?”
“Politely, just for curiosity, yeah.”
“Done. We should have a reply in about eleven minutes.”
“Good. Tris, do you believe him when he says everything’s fine?”
“Nope. He’s lying about something. They shouldn’t have had a human reply – machines are more convincing.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Hand said. “Stay alert, get ship’s defenses ready – but let’s go on in and see what’s up.”
“Unless you spot wreckage. If they’ve shot up any ships, we’re out of here.”
“Understood, and may I say, Captain, I think that’s a good call.”
“Yeah,” Hand said. Then she slapped the console. “I’m going to go get something to eat. Pipe me any messages that come in, and keep an eye out for trouble.”