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Vanguard Rising: A Space Opera Adventure, page 1

 

Vanguard Rising: A Space Opera Adventure
 



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Vanguard Rising: A Space Opera Adventure


  Vanguard Rising

  A.C. Hadfield

  Binary Books Ltd

  Contents

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Afterword

  Also by A.C. Hadfield

  About the Author

  First Published in 2018 by Binary Books Ltd

  Copyright A.C. Hadfield & Colin F. Barnes 2018

  All Rights Reserved.

  The moral right of the author has been asserted. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  No part of this publication may be produced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

  Version 1.0

  Cover design by Dusty Crosley

  https://www.artstation.com/dustycrosley

  Acknowledgments

  I would like to thank the following wonderful people for all their help and input. Their combined efforts helped make this book a reality. Thank you!

  Aaron Sikes, Paul Lucas, Ryan MacGavin, Pauline Nolet, Krista Walsh, Dusty Crosley.

  1

  SFSA Shuttle Rubicon,

  en route to Jupiter’s moon Europa

  When death arrives, what is the final measure of a life?

  Is it the sum of wealth accumulated? One’s humor? What brave deeds one has completed? For many, it is those things and more, but for Gianni Mazzari, it was what one discovered about life, existence, the universe. What absolute truths were revealed. And he knew he was close to sealing his measurement as one of the greatest people to have ever existed.

  He sat forward in the space shuttle’s seat and stared with wide-eyed wonder into the void of space as he noted that, in over a hundred years of colonizing the solar system, humans were still the highest form of biological life—for now.

  Gianni had always wondered what it would mean if humanity discovered something more advanced. And now, as he approached, he speculated what the strange signals he had recorded from the Europa relay would lead to.

  The spectrum of hypothesis stretched from an alien uplift to humanity’s doom, and a thousand speculations between.

  A part of him, the scared boy he was as a child who would look out from Atlas Station and shrink away from the possibilities, wanted to instruct his shuttle’s AI pilot to slingshot around Jupiter and head back to the relative safety of the inner planets.

  Another part of him, the element that signed up to the Solar Federation Space Agency, ignored his childhood fears and instead brought up the image of Europa on the large wraparound cockpit screen.

  Although the probes had found no life in its vast oceans, the Jovian moon would provide a base for future deep-space exploration missions. He’d seen high-resolution imagery of Europa before from the SFSA missions, but to behold it in context with Jupiter dominating the great expanse behind was something else.

  Europa was a pale, light-gray bauble, its surface decorated by tendril filaments the color of tobacco, its stature a tiny mote, orbiting the all-seeing oculus of its gravitational master.

  A breath caught in his throat as awe overtook him. This would be his view for the next few months, and a more inspiring one he could not have wished for.

  He’d thought this moment would never arrive.

  That the management at the space agency refused to listen to his theories meant he’d had to go it alone. Upon discovering the signal, he had deciphered it as some kind of communication, although the language, if it was such thing, remained indecipherable.

  Whatever it was, he would be the one to claim the discovery. And here he was, approaching the shining pearl in the expanse, a stepping-stone to greater discoveries.

  No longer would those at the head of the SFSA be able to ignore him.

  “Sarah,” Gianni said, activating the ship’s AI, “I can’t see the astronomy structure. I thought I’d see it from here.”

  “We’re currently obstructed by the orbits. The AstroLab will be visible within the next fifteen minutes. Do you want me to magnify when we’re in view?”

  “Yes, thanks. Are all other ship functions working normally?”

  “Affirmative. All systems are normal.”

  They modeled the AI’s voice on his sister, Bella. The SFSA training he had undergone—before deciding to go rogue—had instructed him it’d be beneficial to his mental wellbeing to have a familiar voice to accompany him during the two-week journey from Atlas Station.

  The concept worked. Too a point. It freaked him out on occasion, primarily during the interstitial moments of waking and sleeping when he would think he was back home on Atlas Station as a child, running through the level with Bella, getting into trouble. He and his sister had taken very different paths since then, and he’d never been so far from her as he was now.

  It was but a small sacrifice to make for scientific discovery.

  For a place in human history.

  “Sarah, how long until we dock?”

  “ETA two hours. Reducing thrust to half g.”

  Gianni yawned and raised his arms, flexed the muscles. He shifted beneath the straps around his shoulders. He couldn’t wait to dock with the AstroLab and stretch his legs. He settled into the crash couch as the gravity reduced within the shuttle. Head back, he looked up at the view from the external cameras. He shook his head, a smile stretching across his face. I’m going to do it. I’m really going to do it. They’ll remember this day forever…

  Then the image of Europa before him darkened as though a great cloud had passed between it and the sun.

  “What the…”

  A shadow crept across the moon’s pale surface. The screen flickered before fragmenting into a billion pixels of static. Gianni leaned forward and readjusted the AV controls to no effect. The lights within the cockpit cut out, and the rumble of the engines ceased, bringing complete silence.

  “Sarah? There’s no thrust. You were only supposed to reduce it to half g. What’s going on? Sarah? Do you hear me?”

  No response.

  His pulse quickened. His breath came short and rushed. He focused on the disaster protocols he had drilled so many times during the training months.

  First step—activate the backup power.

  He eased the straps off his shoulders, floated away in the microgravity. Using the foot- and handholds, he pushed himself over to the manual backup switch and pulled down on the red handle. The Rubicon’s reserve generator kicked into life, flicking the screen
back on. He instantly regretted it.

  A high-pitched wail pierced through the speakers, making him wince with pain. The screen’s image shifted and blurred as though he were drunk. It then shut off, and the ship rocked with a sudden violence, causing the airlock warning alarms to blare out.

  Something had entered the shuttle from outside.

  With shaking hands, he dragged himself to the rear of the cockpit, mashed his palm against the emergency transmitter button to set it to record and broadcast as per the protocols.

  The bulkhead door between the cockpit and the rest of the shuttle opened.

  He screamed for Bella, for Sarah, for God.

  But the reply came from none of those.

  2

  Asimovia

  Luna Colony District

  Screw this colony, Harlan Rubik thought. Screw all the people in it. But most of all, screw Santos Vallan. Harlan kept up his mental diatribe as the transport ship lowered on Luna base’s elevator and prepared to dock.

  The fugitive murderer, Santos Vallan, had led Harlan on a chase halfway across the Solar system, exhausting all his patience and relaxed disposition during a two standard-week period. Harlan’s dislike for Santos and the Luna colony could only be matched by the disdain he felt for the transportation system that had tested his stoical learnings to their limits. He’d had to rely on memories of the verbal lessons from his now-deceased mentor, Marius Rubik, from whom he had taken his surname, replacing the assigned name of ‘Doe’, as per the protocols applied to vat-born orphans. Even with those wise words, Harlan’s composure was stretched taut and threatening to snap.

  The old clunker, an ancient Kenmore Group HyperFerry, had dawdled through space from Ceres to Mars and then over to Atlas Station and finally to Harlan’s destination: the industrial colony of Asimovia on Luna. The decrepit ship shuddered violently, connecting to the colony’s dock. The amber lights flickered and settled to just above a nauseating level of dimness.

  Stale, scrubbed air pumped into the carriage, mixed with dust particles from clogged filters to create a thick, unpleasant atmosphere. He coughed, his throat already dry from the two-day journey. Sweat pooled on his forehead and dripped from the back of his neck, soaking his collar.

  The public area—according to a quick scan, the data of which displayed on his heads-up contact lens display—seated some two hundred and thirty-three travelers. As one, they shuffled to life, roused from the bench seats that ran lengthways down the carriage. A hubbub of noise rose from the dozens of languages, dialects, and slang of the Sol-Fed citizens as they stood and stretched their tired limbs.

  Video screens above the seats—responsible for giving everyone a stiff neck during the journey, because hell will freeze over before there’s eye-contact made on a ferry—displayed the bleak monochrome buildings that formed the Asimovia industrial complex, spreading ever vastly across Earth’s moon’s dusty surface.

  Twenty-two other ships lay dormant in the dock. Gangway tunnels, flowing from a central hub, attached to their airlocks like the tentacles of some great mechanical beast. In the distance of the rocky gray moon, a neon sign flashed, promising unregulated off-world gambling. Despite this anachronism, the stakes and potential winnings were not for money like in the old days; gambling on Luna, or anywhere else, was for favors—the currency of choice within the Solar Federation that all the cool kids now called the Sol-Fed.

  The rise of robots and computers handled the majority of jobs, meaning there was little reason for a monetary system anymore. And yet that desire within humans to gamble hadn’t died out. And wherever there was desire, there was someone, or some mechanism, to turn it into profit. Those profits were calorie privileges and access statuses now. Despite that, it never failed to surprise Harlan how people created their own alternative forms of currency, whether it be unrecognized bitcreds, time, favors, or his personal favorite: contraband from the dying husk of Earth.

  Although a given access status provided the individual with everything they needed for a decent standard of living according to their level of status, there were still some who wanted more—yet another hangover from humankind’s consumerist past.

  That was where the unofficial bitcreds came in. If one preferred their own ship, for example, they had to pony up hard cash in the form of the digital currency accepted by the system’s network of criminal syndicates. Unless one was connected to a business-privileged family, one did not get a ship from the Sol-Fed resource distribution system. Harlan rued the fact he was not entitled to his own transport, hence having to travel on decades-old, ramshackle public services.

  As a person with investigative authority, Harlan couldn’t be seen trading in bitcreds publicly. Favors were fine and, to an extent, so was Earth-sourced contraband, as long as he didn’t flaunt it. Which, of course, he didn’t. He had a few choice collections—books, twenty-first-century vinyl records—and his personal favorite: clothes.

  The black leather biker’s jacket and the once-trendy blue overalls he wore came from Earth. They’d once belonged to an NYPD detective called Larry Schneider according to the label stitched inside the garments.

  Harlan often imagined himself as Larry’s reincarnation. He would wonder what it was like in Larry’s time, before Earth became uninhabitable. How did they manage to do anything with such huge populations and inferior technology? They were real detectives, unlike most of the silicon runners today procuring off-the-shelf digital algorithms to solve cases for them.

  A booming crunch broke Harlan out of his thought process and echoed down the carriage, followed by the loud clang of the airlock connection, the force of which rocked the ship hard to one side.

  An elderly lady, dressed in rags, stumbled forward. Her arthritic, clawed hands grasped for the pole but swiped through the air and whacked against the dirty metallic floor.

  Harlan knelt down, reached out for her.

  She slapped his hand aside instinctively, presumably thinking he was after the small pouch of personal knickknacks hanging from her waist. “Get your paws away from me.”

  “I’m sorry,” Harlan replied. “I didn’t mean to… I was just trying to help.”

  The rest of the carriage looked at him with suspicion. The woman glanced up and blinked, clearing the rheum from her eyes. Her pupils dilated, then narrowed.

  Enhanced autofocus. A pre-Migration model.

  “You’re a stoic,” she said, pushing herself up to her knees before scrutinizing him again, then, with a short laugh of derision, added, “Not sure what a stoic wants from this cursed place. It’s all hedonists and capitalists out here.”

  “I’ve business to attend.” He held out his hand once more.

  This time she took it, hauled herself to her feet. Now that she was close, Harlan recognized her perfume. It was the same scent his estranged wife, Leanne, used to wear.

  Even though she’d been gone for nearly a decade, that scent never failed to bring back a wash of memories and emotions—some good, some bad, all of them a kick in the guts.

  The old woman looked him up and down. “Business, eh? That makes sense now. I’ve been watching you since I got on from Atlas Station. Did you know you chatter in your sleep?”

  Harlan didn’t know this, but then, having lived on his own for as long as he had, he’d no one to tell him. Even his embedded peripheral, the AI companion Milo, hadn’t picked up on it. Harlan kept Milo switched off during transportation; he didn’t want to stick out from the crowd too much and blow his cover. Talking to one’s self, even in this day and age of illicit brain-mods, was frowned upon. Peripherals were not officially permitted.

  As a silicon runner—the only officially sanctioned investigative service in the Sol-Fed—he took his cover as an important aspect of his job; not that anyone seemed to give a crap these days. Most runners went around dressed in shiny clothes and sunglasses, thinking they were something special.

  People didn’t respond well to that. A plain-clothed stoic, though? People opened up to a st
oic, trusted them. Harlan used that to his advantage, although it seemed this woman had the advantage over him—or maybe she was just crazy. Lots of them about these days too.

  Interplanetary travel could really mess with some people, push them to the edge.

  “What did I say in my sleep?” Harlan asked, deciding to play along.

  “That’ll cost you two favors.”

  “Sorry, lady. I’m all out of favors.”

  She smiled, shrugged. “Fine, I’ll give you this for free.” She moved closer and spoke into his ear, her breath smelling of cheap, synthesized garlic. “The person you seek disembarked into the colony’s hedonist bar two standard hours ago, on a shuttle. You will owe me, Harlan Rubik.”

  “And you would know this how—and how do you know my name?”

  A horn blared, indicating that they had arrived at their destination and the airlock was ready to go. The crowd burst into life, grabbing their luggage from overhead bins. They moved like a wave, surging past Harlan and the old woman toward the exit at the rear of the ship.

  A large man bumped into Harlan’s shoulder, knocking him down to the bench seat.

 
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