Hard Drop

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PROLOGUE: THE SHADOW

As mining ships went, the Conrad was a mid-sized cruiser. More scrap than metal, as the adage went, they were built to withstand long years of unrelenting abuse far from civilization and its drydocks. It was common to see them floating by, solitary, misshapen, and crumpled from impacts that would have swallowed smaller ships whole, one engine burning dimly into the horizon. As a raw recruit, Tyco Hale had seen the worst of them limping into port at Enceladus, towed on occasion by the massive solar sails that filled the sky for days on their approach. He had seen their ragged crews emerge from their hulls like moles into the sunlight, unwashed and unshaven, flush with credits from their profitable exiles and eager to spend them before scurrying back into the far reaches of the galaxy.

The Conrad was different. Her disappearance three weeks ago was a matter of public record, and had raised few eyebrows – mining ships failed all the time, and were never heard from again. It was her reappearance that was troubling – and classified. As she hovered unsteadily outside the Admiralty Ship Huxley’s portside docks, Tyco had a good view of the vast scarring on her undercarriage and the long, ugly burn marks on her massive wings. She had put down recently, and not by plan. How she had made liftoff with that damage, or why she was here, now, no one seemed to know. There had been rumors from the start, whispered and uncertain. A smaller ship, the AS Portnow, had discovered her days before, drifting and unresponsive. Vital scans proved ineffective, thwarted by the overwhelming glow of a massive, uncontained reactor leak. The decision had been made to board the Conrad twenty-four hours ago, and the Portnow had sent a regulation boarding party across. Twenty minutes later, the Portnow, too,had gone silent, locked in unresponsive stasis with the much larger Conrad.

Both ships had been quarantined since, cloaked in secrecy half a lightyear from civilization. There they had stayed, the Admiralty’s plans unclear until the Huxley – and her complement of Marines – had been summoned. Additional light cruisers had accompanied her, taking up observation stations at a distance from the Portnow and Conrad and advancing no farther. The sheer number of them present raised sinister questions about the Conrad, and the shipboard rumors went wild. Some said pirates had taken the ships, others that a fast-moving pestilence, contracted on some foreign moon, had run its horrific course. Still others whispered of strange transmissions from the Portnow, and evidence of a hostile, alien intelligence. The Admiralty, meanwhile, was silent; the marines were given no idea what they were facing, no briefing or intelligence to go off of. By the time they had been called to the airlock, minutes from crossing the narrow divide and boarding the silent ships, everyone had reached their own, grim conclusions. Not that Tyco cared for the rumors: it was the Admiralty’s profound silence that worried him.

It had been a long 36 hours since arrival. The crewmen knew the troopers on sight, knew they would be the first to board the ghost ship, and treated them warily as a result, almost as if they, too, were ghosts. It gave everything a macabre air, as if every word, look, breath, or meal could be the last, and now that it was almost time, the wait felt crushing.

Tyco stared out at the Portnow as the Huxley’s airlock bridge slid across to her, anchoring her lazy spin to a slow, contained roll.

A comm link crackled up ahead. The entire row of troopers snapped to attention, staring up at the Captain, waiting on his signal.

There was never a command. Just five fingers raised, then folded, one by one, counting down. Tyco crouched low in the row, ready to swing into action.

The airlock hissed; the door flashed open, and the team moved in. Tyco swept in behind the veterans, covering their flanks. They moved quickly and quietly into the bridge, the ethereal light from the planet below gleaming dully through its opaque walls. Tyco felt the walkway shift underfoot, heard his breath echoing in his ears, and pushed on towards the Portnow. The team moved in tight formation, kneeling in the middle of the passage as the Captain overrode the Portnow’s airlock.

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