The appearance of the warp drive from the long lost spaceship, Fenrir, triggers an epic quest for Captain Mikhail Volkov. According to the drive’s computers, Fenrir had been lost to hypothetical ‘nowhere’ of subspace, but with the drive’s housing covered with coral and sea life, obviously Fenrir has gone somewhere. Faced with genocide at the hands of the alien Nefrim, humans need a miracle to survive. On the chance that Fenrir’s mysterious location holds such a miracle, Mikhail jumps into the unknown and crashes into the endless blue of the Sargasso Sea. Every ship that misjumped from any race that discovered travel through subspace has crashed into its waters, creating a graveyard of rusting spaceships. On the Sargasso’s great oceans, humans live alongside aliens. His ship damaged, his younger foster brother lost, and his sanity rattled, Mikhail discovers a secret that might save the human race if he can repair his ship and return home.
Excerpt from Chapter One: Out of the Blue
At first Captain Mikhail Ivanovich Volkov couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at in the cavernous drydock of Plymouth Space Station. From the observation window where Mikhail stood, the thing tethered in the zero gravity looked like a rough pebble, or, considering the vastness of the dry dock, a boulder. The rock’s bottom was bulbous and rough, as if it had been scooped out of bedrock, but halfway up the edges smoothed to gently curved walls. Only when he forced himself to look at the upper section by itself, did he realize what the boulder truly was: a ship’s warp drive imbedded in rock.
Judging by the housing protruding out of twenty meters of stone, the drive was from a very large ship, most likely a carrier. Its manifolds were buried somewhere in the stone – which didn’t make sense. An impact hard enough bury the drive that far into rock should have shattered it. The walls of the housing, however, seemed intact, although coated with a white material.
One thing was sure – the misshapen rock was why his ship, the Svoboda, had been yanked off the front lines and ordered by the United Colonies to jump halfway across human space. A New Washington lieutenant, sergeant, and two Reds had escorted him through Plymouth Station security. They bristled with resentment that the U.C. required them to let a Russki like him onboard and refused to answer any of his questions. Since they were giving him the silent treatment, he was ignoring them while they all waited for the U.C. officer. Said officer was taking his time.
A tentative “Misha?” made Mikhail turn — surprised that anyone would be calling him by his childhood name.
The Minister of Defense, Andrew Heward, was immediately recognizable from his square frame and solid, heavy jawed face. Like most people from his childhood, Heward was shorter than Mikhail remembered, coming only to Mikhail’s shoulder.
The Defense Minister cocked his head and looked uncertain of Mikhail’s identity, even though he was the only one in a Novaya Rus militia uniform in sight. Behind him, the Washingtonians seemed stunned that the Minister was on a first name basis with him– obviously they hadn’t put much thought into Mikhail’s family name.
“Minister Heward, it’s been a long time.”
Heward grunted slightly. “You don’t look like your…father.”
Some people avoided the labels of “father” and “son” when discussing Mikhail and his father since they were both clones of the same man, the legendary Tsar Viktor Pyotrvich Volkov. They made the mistake of thinking Ivan and Mikhail were both figureheads that the loyalist party created. They somehow discounted the fact that Tsar Ivan personally forced the Novaya Rus Empire into the United Colonies before Mikhail was born. Heward, though, had dealt with Ivan enough to know that Ivan ruled everything and everyone with an iron hand. That meant everything about Mikhail’s life — including his inception — fell under Ivan’s control. Biologically Ivan was Mikhail’s twin brother, but in every other manner, Ivan was his father. So why the hesitation? Had Heward originally meant that Mikhail didn’t look like Viktor? Possibly. Heward would also know that both Ivan and Mikhail disliked being compared to their famous original.
Mikhail tapped his crooked nose. “It’s the nose – I broke it in the Academy–and I smile more than my father. Crowsfeet. Laugh lines. Those kinds of things.”
Heward eyed him. “I wouldn’t have thought it would make that much difference, but I suppose it does. Ivan always looks like he has a lemon shoved up his ass. Your hair is darker too.”
“He spends more time in the sun.”
“Ah.” Heward gave slight grunt of understanding, adding a wave toward the black of space beyond the drydock’s great soap bubble shield. “No, not much sun up here.”
Heward dismissed the Washingtonians. Their conversation was going to be private – or at least, that was how Heward wanted it to appear.
“You took heavy losses during your last intel run?” Heward led off with questions instead of explaining where the drive came from – more proof that it was going to be tied somehow to Mikhail’s future. “How do you stand now? Are you at full strength?”
Had Heward been trying to get Mikhail to lower his guard? The truth was that while Heward had been at the palace often, Mikhail would not have called him a friend of the family.
“My ship is fully repaired,” Mikhail said carefully. “My Red commander is picking up replacements for the men I lost.”
Heward nodded blandly, but there was a tightening around his mouth as if the news was bad. “Anytime you take on a large number of Reds, you end up with dominance issues.”
So Heward was going to want him to ship out immediately.
“I have no concerns.” Mikhail put steel into his words. Most Captains made the mistake of pulling replacements from multiple crèches, which resulted in all the Reds vying with each other. Mikhail deliberately tapped only one crèche at a time so the replacements already had an established dominance order. The in-fighting was kept to a fight between the leader of the crèche Reds and his foster brother, Turk, who was his Red commander.
Heward waited for him to add more, but Mikhail wouldn’t weaken his position by trying to justifying his statement.
Instead Mikhail took command of the discussion, pointing to the drive. “Where did that come from?”
“It warped into local Plymouth space seventy-eight hours ago. A crew went out to clear it and when they realized what it was, they brought it in.”
Seventy-eight hours – allowing for Heward’s travel time to Plymouth – meant that Heward’s choice of the Svoboda wasn’t based on convenience. There were many ships closer to hand.
“Come on,” Heward said. “I want you to see this first hand.”
As they stepped into the confines of the airlock, Heward said, “You’ll have to get your nose fixed before taking over for your father. It makes you look too much like a Red.”
Mikhail nodded to the last statement; that was what he liked about his skewed nose. At the time he merely just didn’t want to look like Viktor or his father anymore. That it gained him respect from the battle-torn Reds was now the main reason he didn’t get it fixed. Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to inherit his father’s position. Considering the mess he’d made of his life, it was also unclear if the loyalist party would allow him. That was the whole point of him being the captain of a war ship: if he became a military hero his early misadventures might be overlooked.
The airlock opened to the drydock which was under pressure but still at zero gravity. A skimmer was waiting to take them across the vast floor, touching down and locking into place just short of the rocky edge. The drydock’s floodlights cast multiple shadows of the drive on them, layering them in shades of gray.
The rock gave way to fist-sized objects, seemingly organic in nature, clustered tight together. The creatures reeked like dead fish. Under their stench was another odor, something elusively familiar, but he couldn’t name it. The band of organisms was three meters wide, ending in the durasteel housing which was coated with a rough layer of white powder. A fine grit drifted in a halo around the base. Mikhail moved closer to scoop a handful of grit out of the air. He rubbed it between his fingers.
“This is sand. This rock is coral.” Mikhail recognized the underlying smell now – the briny scent of something long soaked in the salt water. The white powder could be salt crusting the steel.
“Three different species of coral, all trademarked.” Which made them Earth species adapted for terra forming purposes. “So far we’ve picked thirty-two life forms off the housing. Other than the coral, we couldn’t identify any of them.”
Mikhail had seen what reentry of an Earth-like planet would do to most spaceships. Gravity and wind-shear tattered the ship into pieces which tumbled down into the blue, at first like pebbles dropped into water, and then the pieces would start to smoke. Finally they flashed to fireballs of molten steel, becoming a firestorm…
Mikhail shook off the memory, focusing on the mystery at hand.
There were no scorch marks on the drive housing – which begged the question of how it got into an ocean without undergoing reentry? And where was the rest of the ship?
“What ship is it from?” Mikhail asked.
Heward took out a VIDscan, aimed it at the drive, and activated it. After punching in his security code, he held it out wordlessly to Mikhail to read its screen.
Wormhole drive, serial number WDU-290843. Installed in Jupiter-class carrier UCS. Fenrir.
A Jupiter-class was the largest spaceship that the United Colonies made. Years went into its construction, and it had a crew numbering in the thousands. That explained Heward’s involvement. Why had Mikhail been called in? He was Novaya Rus militia, technically not part of the United Colonies force. It was only a matter of goodwill that he responded. The name Fenrir rang no bells, so it had been destroyed prior to him entering the military. Considering the coral growth, it might have been lost even before Mikhail was born, as the United Colonies had been fighting the nefrim years before the Novaya Rus Empire joined the effort.
“What happened to the Fenrir?” Mikhail asked.
“It vanished ten years ago.” Heward scrolled down. “We assumed it misjumped and the evidence partly supports that. The second to last entry shows that a mis-calibration took them to zero.”
Mikhail frowned at the entry. A wormhole drive created a tunnel from one point in space to another. Any positive number would put them in normal space. Zero was the theorized null that the tunnel passed through – the nowhere between two points of some where. While the drive might think that the Fenrir went nowhere, it obviously went someplace. If Fenrir didn’t simply cease to exist, standard protocol for a ship of its size was to radio High Command its new location. Even if it somehow warped into a planet’s gravity well there should have been still time to launch its lifepods; there would have been a chorus of distress signals. And what of the Fenrir’s shuttles, which were capable of lifting off a planet and warping home? Why hadn’t at least one survived to contact High Command?
A ship of the Fenrir’s size couldn’t vanish without misjumping. Since the wormhole drive generated the warp field, it was the only piece of the spaceship that couldn’t be left behind when the rest ceased to exist. The two facts directly conflicted.
“Were there signs of tampering to the engine?” Mikhail asked.
“Every test we’ve run indicates that those are the actual coordinates that the Fenrir went to.”
Heward hadn’t denied though that there been tampering. In another man, Mikhail might have ignored the disparity between his question and Heward’s answer.
“The coordinates are impossible.” Mikhail tried to press him into answering.
Heward held up his VID scanner. “This is proof that they’re not impossible, just improbable.”
Mikhail scowled at the VID scanner’s screen. The last entry was the coordinates for Plymouth Station. Regardless of wherever the Fenrir might be in truth, they’d chosen to return their engine to a recently commissioned U.C. space station deep in friendly territory — a good trick when they’d been missing for ten years. “What explanation did Fenrir give when it sent back its engine?”
Heward made a sound of disgust. “Everything that came back with it only makes the mystery bigger.” There was a guideline set up, circling the engine. Heward hooked onto the guideline and let it arch him around the rock. “Careful on the coral, it’s sharp.”
As they circled the base, it was easy to see that the coral had been cut by the sudden intrusion of the warp field. The field had smoothly sheered the coral off as it shifted somewhere to nowhere to Plymouth Station. The massive steel beams of the support struts had been cut as cleanly as the rock.
On the other side of the boulder was something even more amazing: a boat. It floated in the zero-gravity, anchored in place with mooring lines. It was about twenty-five meters long. Its steel wedge-shaped hull was painted deep blue, with its upper decks a crisp white. Lettering on the stern identified it as the Swordfish. Judging by the heavy laser cannon turret on the bow, it was a simple fishing boat.
“What’s that doing here?” Mikhail asked.
“It came with the engine. There was a large amount of frozen seawater and this boat. We cleared the ice before it melted and made a mess of everything.”
Had the Swordfish’s crew been aboard when it suddenly found itself in deep space? Had they been standing on the open deck? Below where it might be air-tight as well as water-tight? Or had they gone through the broken windows of the bridge?
“Any crew?” Mikhail asked.
“None that survived.” Heward pointed his VID scanner at the boat, entered his security code, downloaded whatever data the boat was holding and held the VIDscan out to Mihkail.
Torpedo, serial number T-493504835472. Released to UCS. Swordfish.
This got odder and odder.
“It doesn’t have any launch tubes for torpedoes.” Mikhail pointed out.
“It’s using the torpedo’s fission engine as its power unit. A converter redirects the power to a crude electrical engine.” Said electrical engine must be connected to the propeller now drifting several feet off the floor of the docking bay. “Look at the armory timestamp.”
Mihkail frowned at the date that followed the release data. “Have you verified that?”
“Yes. The Swordfish picked up this torpedo from the Fort Armstrong Armory ten months ago.”
The name on the boat did not bode well for the fate of the Swordfish. Still, Mikhail asked, “Where is this Swordfish?”
“The Swordfish was a torpedo ship. It disappeared a week after picking up this torpedo. We assumed it was destroyed by enemy fire.”
“So, two ships, both lost, both in the same place.”
“Yes.” Heward said.
“This is obviously the work of humans.” Mikhail pointed to the boat. “It follows maritime conventions started on Earth. Based on the name, I suspect the crew of the Swordfish.”
“That’s true. Come.”
A second guideline ran up the side of Fenrir’s warp engine. It lifted them up the steep side and guided them down to a safe landing on the top of the housing. The access hatch was open. Plymouth Station had run a string of work lights into the cramped, dark interior.
Mikhail had never worked with an engine this large, but four years of warp field theory at the academy had taught him the fundamentals. What had been attached to — and in some places replaced — the standard equipment was a collection of bizarre…things. He hesitated in calling them machines, although that was what they seemed to be. One looked more like cotton candy than anything mechanical.
“They were modifying the engine,” Heward said. “It’s not clear if the modifications were completed. We’ve analyzed as much as we can without removing anything. Obviously the engine still creates a warp field. What they were modifying it to do is still unclear.”
Mikhail could think of two uses. “Have you considered that this may be a trap? That it might warp Plymouth Station to Fenrir’s location? Or destroy it?”
“We’re taken out the power core and scanned for secondary power sources. We’ve also checked it for all known explosives.”
The warp engine, the alien devices, and the Swordfish all seemed like pieces from different puzzles. Heward obviously wanted Mikhail’s help in solving them all.
“You want me to recreate the Fenrir’s misjump,” Mikhail said. “You want me to find her.”
“I’m basically committing political suicide tapping the Tsar of Novaya Rus’s only child for a mission like this. Believe me; I considered every option before settling on you.”
“To start with there’s your ship, the Svoboda. As a frigate, she can enter a planet’s astrosphere, fly at low attitude if needed, land and take off. As an intelligence gathering ship, the Svoboda has the experience and the needed equipment to move undetected while searching for the Fenrir. Personally — you were raised landside, which means you understand wind and weather. Also you’re Novaya Rus militia. It might not be coincidence that both of these ships are from New Washington. We might be looking at sabotage.”
“Over ten years?”
“We’ve lost a lot of ships to misjumps. It’s been considered unavoidable since jumps are often made by damaged ships under heavy fire. That might not be the case.”
“And then there’s your Red commander.”
Mikhail turned sharply to frown at Heward. “What does my brother have to do with this?”
“Brother? My god, Volkov adopted your Red?”
“No.” Mikhail refused to explain more.
It still amazed Mikhail that otherwise intelligent people couldn’t see that it was morally wrong to treat another as inferior just because of the circumstances of their birth. If his father was going to bring two children into the universe via bioengineering, the fact that one was genetically related and the other wasn’t shouldn’t have made a difference. Turk should have had every advantage that he had; God knows, his father could afford it. At least they’d been equal in Ivan’s affections – which was to say, none.
“How does Turk figure into this?” Mikhail repeated.
“Perhaps it would be better to show you.”
Mikhail had seen enough Reds exposed to hard vacuum to differentiate the body from a normal human. Reds were genetically adapted so they could change and adapt to extreme conditions. While a Red could survive ten times longer than an un-adapted human, eventually the cold and vacuum of space would kill them.
The Red’s claws, arms and chest were covered with blood. Sometimes a Red would claw up his face and throat during the last moments of asphyxiation. There were no wounds, however, on the Red.
“Who did he kill?”
“These two.” Webster uncovered two purely human males. All three wore natural cotton fabric fashioned into worn, ill-fitting and weather beaten clothing. There was neither rank insignia nor indication that the clothes were uniforms of any sorts.
“Who are they?”
“We can’t establish an ID for either human. Moreover, the Red’s serial number isn’t in our system.”
“Someone is cranking out unregistered Reds?”
“We need to investigate this,” Heward said. “Risk everything and zero out in a jump. Find out what’s out there.”
We? Mikhail stifled a snort. Heward meant the Svoboda alone. “You’re talking about a suicide run.”
“We have to do this, Misha. Two of our ships in the same spot can’t be a coincidence. We’re looking at an organized effort. Currently all of our defenses are designed to counter the physical capabilities and limitations of the nefrim. If the nefrim are mass-producing Reds with the intent to use them against us — we’ll be lost. We’ve lost one crèche after another, so our production is down. And I don’t have to tell you about how much stronger and faster a Red is compared to a human.”
“I know.” Growing up with Turk, he was well-aware of it. Even though Turk was nearly four years younger than he was, his foster brother had been able to win any physical competition between them shortly after learning how to run.
“Our fears are that the nefrim have acquired enough of our technology and biological samples from our Reds to start creating them. This place, wherever it is, apparently lets them overwhelm our ships and hold them for some reason. We think it might be a training grounds for their Reds. They could be teaching their Reds how to capture and disable our ships.”
If that was the case, it would spell disaster for the human race.
“If this was a simple in and out, then anyone could make the jump,” Heward continued.
“We need someone that can think outside the box. Way outside. Take on any situation and pull out a win.”
In other words, the Volkov’s reputation for pulling things out of their butt preceded him.
Mikhail ran his hand through his hair, combing his bangs back off his forehead, thinking furiously. Heward’s strength was that he outmaneuvered his opposition, staging hit and run meetings. He brought things to the table that the other side didn’t expect, wasn’t prepared for, and then arranged deals while holding the upper hand. This meeting was classic Heward tactics. He slammed Mikhail with the huge mystery of the Fenrir’s drive, dropped the bomb of impending doom for the entire human race, and then commanded that Mikhail go.
The question wasn’t whether Mikhail should go or not, but what Heward was trying to keep him from seeing.
Mikhail saw it then, and let out his breath. “The Novaya Rus Empire is risking a great deal – for what? Mass production of Reds requires a crèche. All of the lost crèches belonged to New Washington. If I find a crèche, I would have to bring it back or destroy it. Since production of Reds is down, it would make more sense to recover the crèche. I’m not risking everything and then handing over anything I recover to New Washington. I want anything I recover to be considered salvage, free and clear.”
“Don’t be stupid, Mikhail, this is a U.C. military operation. Any property recovered during all U.C. activities reverts to the original owner.”
Mihkail shook his head. “No, the Novaya Rus Space Force is part of the U.C. force under the terms of the treaty. Our privately funded militia, however, operates on a volunteer basis only with the U.C. I can refuse this mission.”
Yes, that was it. Heward glowered at him.
“If New Washington had a ship you thought had a chance at succeeding, you would have sent them. But you’ve already analyzed this and I’m the only one that meets all the criteria needed for the best success on this mission.”
“I can’t wave away their rights to the crèches.”
“Yes you can. There is even precedent: the Catalina Superliner. Declare that anything I find is free for salvage and I’ll go.”
Heward worked his jaw, possibly chewing down things he knew he shouldn’t say. “Fine, I’ll have it posted within an hour. Here’s a courier packet with everything you need to know for this mission.”