‘The Watchers’ is the latest in a line of Shallow Space stories, exploring the worlds and people of this upcoming computer game. For more information on Shallow Space, visit our website.
4: The Limp Home
There were three RelayGates between Messiers and Incorporated Space. Another two to Valhalla. They checked their six at every turn but there was no one back there. At least no one trying to kill them. Just normal traffic. They traversed Valhalla and found themselves in a queue at the Waygate heading for Landnamabok.
It was then that Bones saw the sensor shadow again.
“It’s them, Digs,” Bones said. “Has to be. Three times now.”
Digger turned to Bones. “Three?”
Bones reddened. “I may have seen it on the way to Valhalla.”
Digger hid his face in his hands. “Fates.” Slowly he slid his hands down and looked out at the queue. A Pleiades Engineering and Drive Tigress freighter. Beyond her, a Mayflower Interstellar Systems bulk transport. The ‘Humpback’ as the MFC boys called it. He couldn’t see the next ship in line but sensor wakes indicated displacements ranging from several tonnes to several hundred tonnes. An eclectic mix.
“Good odds they won’t try and kill us in the middle of a busy queue. Too many witnesses,” Digger mused.
“Unless they’re prepared to kill everyone in the queue. Remove all the witnesses,” Bones said.
Digger coughed, straightening in his chair as if he’d been electrocuted. “Yeah, we’re out here. Tighten up yer belts.” He stirred the Asteria from station keeping, looped her out of the queue and blasted away at flank speed. The sudden acceleration compressed the veins in his neck and he had to swallow to push back at the invisible hand squashing him. The ship rattled with the full burn then settled as the acceleration dropped off.
“Where we going?” Bones asked. “Nothing out here but desolace.”
Digger smiled. “This ain’t Montague, my boy. This ain’t desolace. This is space, where the options are limitless.” Digger pressed a few buttons and a new blip appeared ahead at the edge of scanner range. “And this is a Map. Courtesy of the Mineral and Fusion Corporation Board.”
Digger gave a long drawn out whistle. “In the Valhalla system? How did they swing this off Valhalla Corp?”
“For services rendered I assume. We helped them, we get a free ticket out of Valhalla if ever needed. Most MFC ships have the data.”
The sensor briefly registered a blip behind them. There, then gone. A shadow, stalking them.
Bones stared at Digger. “If these people are good enough to track us across two stellar systems, are they good enough to know about this Map?”
Digger grimaced. “Shut your hole. Your optimism is pissing me off.”
The shadow crept closer as they narrowed in on Prometheus, the inner most planet. It was a big ball of gas with a giant double ring. The perfect place to hide a map.
“See anything out back?” Digger asked.
Bones magnified the rear view, studied hard but shook his head. “If they’re out there they’re invisible.”
“Fates almighty, don’t say that,” Digger cried. He shook the thought away. One step at a time. Get to the Map. Get to Landnamabok. They’ll be safe there.
The double rings grew, extending beyond the viewport, Prometheus itself glowing a fiery pink sapphire.
He opened a comm program and pinged the Map. The ping returned five seconds later. It was ready.
“How’s our shadow?”
“Holding its distance,” Bones said with a frown. “I don’t like it.”
Digger pursed his lips. He didn’t either. What the Fates had they stumbled into?
“We’re coming up on the Map. They’re untraceable. Too low tech to have recording equipment.”
Bones didn’t say anything.
The rings became individual rocks, a sea of debris spreading out around the gas giant. Digger adjusted course.
“Dial it up,” he urged, making fine adjustments to velocity. He wanted to hit the Map at speed. It would require precise flying but Valhalla Corp had installed this Map to get their bulk freighters out of trouble. Asteria would have room to spare.
“The shadow’s accelerating,” Bones said. “They’ve figured out what we’re doing. They know about the Map!”
“They’re too late,” Digger said through clenched teeth. He could see the Map now, a distant twinkle. Suddenly it flashed bright like a flare star then died back.
It was open.
He nudged the throttle. Rocks flashed past. They were in the rings. The lapis puddle of the Map’s portal undulated lazily, waiting for him. This Map was tidally locked to the gas giant.
It was drifting out of alignment. He fired a dorsal thruster, slewing back in line.
“The shadow’s gone,” Bones said. He leant forward, concentrating on the sensor sweep, head still, eyes darting side to side.
He flinched back. “He’s right behind us!”
The ship rocked from pellet fire. Digger grunted, but kept the ship heading straight. He didn’t want to clip the Map and only have half his ship transfer to the next stellar system. That would be a ‘bad’ thing.
“Put the Map on a countdown,” Digger commanded. “Twenty seconds.”
Bones sucked in a breath. “That’s tight.”
“Eighteen seconds now. Do it.”
Bones sent the signal as the Asteria rocked again. The portal shivered, flashed white, then returned to lapis. It was preparing to dissolve.
They bared down on the Map. Closer. Closer.
“If you’ve got this wrong. . .” Bones murmured.
“I don’t,” Digger said. I hope, Digger thought.
The portal flashed white again. And again, faster and faster until it was only white. It thinned.
Digger’s mouth went dry. A growl crept from his throat.
An explosion rocked the ship. The Asteria spun, the Map flashing away from the viewport
“No!” Digger yelled-
-Then white enveloped them.
The mottled blackness of space reappeared and the metal construct of a Waygate flashed past. Then they were in empty space, unknown stars creating unknown constellations. Whites, reds, oranges, Blues.
Digger sat stunned, waiting for his blood to stop pounding and his hearing to return. He gave the controls an experimental tug. The Asteria would turn right, but it wouldn’t turn left.
Turning the long way around, he settled the viewport on the Waygate. It was off, and not recycling for another portal. Yet.
Bones looked up from the damage board. “Ever rowed a dingy with only one oar before?”
Digger smiled, the adrenaline fading. “Sure. Why not.”
Get to the Landnamabok system,” Digger said, shrugging. “Before anything else happens.”