Home Sweet Home
The Captain rolled out of bed at the alarms and muffled a groan. You can't keep crew sharp on these exercises if the captain bitches.
He touched his screen to bring up the situation report.
He got the schematic showing the wormhole region. Wormhole. Station. Various automated navigation beacons. Ships in green (civilian) ships in blue (??? Navy) ships in yellow (Everyone else's navy) Unidentified or enemy ships in red.
A single red blip had obviously just exited the wormhole. It was broadcasting in radio on the right wavelength. Someone fried their automated beacon, he thought, and touched the screen to listen in.
". . . umpship Bride of Frankenstein. Please give us an easy vector into a distant parking slot. We claim discoverers rights to numerous alien artifacts, including most of this jump frame. Is there a military presence here? They will want to be notified. We need to send letters to the family of the crew, to let them know we're alive. We are a mixed batch of miners and scientists. We escaped the Alpha Crux B Supernova through that system's beta singularity. I repeat. Unregistered Jumpship Bride of Frankenstein haling ????? Traffic control, we have no transponder. Please give us voice directions to a distant parking orbit. . ."
Captain Miller studied the power reading and the visual scans. A battered long shape. Twenty variously shaped lumps attached. Some smooth and sleek, some square and blocky. In among them, eight miscellaneous lumpy battered asteroid mining ships clamped on.
He keyed the communicator. "Tell traffic control to put the Bride of Frankenstein in the outer ring, with the derelicts, and that we'll take it from there."
The Dolphin kept the same hours as headquarters downside, so with a glance at the clock he decided to take a look at this 'alien' ship first. Between the time and the communications lag, he could have visuals for the Admiral, and still get him out of bed early for that virtuous feeling of having met an emergency in a timely fashion.
One close look at the details of the jumpship and the unidentifiable small ships clamped in among the asteroid miner's ships and he was sending visuals to the Admiral's comp and pinging the duty officer.
The fourteen people aboard all had valid IDs and the asteroid mining ships separated from the frame and made for the station.
"Steaks, bread. _Chocolate_." A woman's incredibly sexy voice murmured over the radio.
Orders for Miller to stand off and touch nothing arrived from HQ, so Miller turned his ship over to his Exec and took the skimmer to the station.
The group was easy to spot. They'd taken over three tables in a corner and were scarfing bread and butter. The eldest woman was working slowly and sensuously on a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
One of them spotted Miller and waved him over. "Figured someone would show up pretty soon. Luke Wittner." He introduced the rest of the group.
"I'm surprised you aren't out there hovering over your find." Miller pulled up a chair.
"We know the gov's going to claim it. Nothing to argue about but the money. So we figured we'd make it clear that we're prepared to be reasonable. Of course, if the government isn't reasonable we may have trouble remembering where we found it." The older scientist shrugged, obviously trying to look innocent, but with a wicked gleam in his eye.
"Not to mention where we left the rest of it." Zack, another of the asteroid miners broke open a roll and inhaled the fresh bread aroma.
"Food synthesizers break down?"
"Too many people, too few of the right inputs." The brunette woman sighed. "We've rather over stretched our friends' resources."
"Our pleasure." That one was Jamie Klevin. "Any time, really. Although . . . I may be a bit more cautious around incipient supernovas from now on."
A waitress intervened with huge steaks sizzling on platters.
They put away an amazing amount of food, and afterwards adjourned to the meeting room he'd rented while they ate. Admiral Benoch met them there, with a string of experts, half civilian.
"The government has the right of eminent domain."
The mixed group of miners and scientists all nodded. "We've talked it over exhaustively." Roslyn Croke, the old woman with the incredible voice smiled at the Admiral. "We'll negotiate on price, not fight you for possession. It's too big of a job for us."
"Mind you, we had a great time exploring." Clint Coutts, the head scientist grinned at the surrounding scientists and lowered his voice. "Breaking into alien warships, with no idea what dangers we faced. Climbing through corridors either too short or too narrow, hoping for some clue, a simple star map that would get us home."
A scrawny old man glared at him. "Those seven ships are irreplaceable treasures, and you've been into all of them? Contaminated them?"
Miller frowned. "Why do you say _warships_?"
Coutts pulled out his laptop and brought up a holo. "There are several thousand, probably tens of thousands, of ships in a distant orbit that carries them across several wormholes." The arc of sparkles covered about a third of an inclined orbit. Three red spots, presumably the wormholes, flashed. "There's obvious damage to almost every ship we inspected." The holo displayed a succession of ships, all with obvious weapons damage. "There are two types of ships. They have different markings, are built for beings of different sizes. We brought back some of each."
"The crabs—circle and symbol logos and wide low corridors—were the defenders. We think. The installations on the moons were all built for their shape." Jamie said. "In this system."
"And their star chart that got us home." Luke grinned at their expressions.
"From the amount of drift from the time the charts were made, we figure maybe a thousand to fifteen hundred years since Armageddon." Coutts brought up the orbital chart again. "There was no indication of repair attempts, cleanup, nothing. We are rather queasily wondering about the provenance of these two asteroid belts."
"Damn." Someone back in the crowd wiggled forward. "How many systems did you explore. How long have you been gone?"
"Five years. We landed on eight planets, as we worked our way home." Jaime looked around the group. "Shall we save the rest until the gov coughs up some money?"
Nods all around.
Wittner smiled. "Have fun with what we've brought you, in the mean time."
The asteroid miners hung around until the scientists had run out of questions then moved to New Hasty, downside. The miners all had impressive bank accounts, and paid for the scientists' expenses and even luxuries.
The first ship in from the Capricorn Junction was loaded with hyperspace engineers and exobiologists. The first ship in from Earth had the vice president, with a big check.
The fourteen all nodded their appreciation, banked the check and hired a jump frame.
"I'm afraid we were overly paranoid, and assumed we'd need bargaining chips." Wittner shrugged apologetically. "We'll now go fetch all the rest of the data."
Doctor Coutts gave them his most innocent smile. "Vids of the twelve intelligent interstellar capable species we met. You're going to need lots of linguists."
Instant silence followed by chaos.
They had easily twice the alien ships parked two jumps away, in an empty system.
Half of them went and fetched it, the rest started in tracing their route on federation star charts. They had been well out from even briefly visited systems, but there was enough astronomical data for them to locate themselves confidently.
Admiral Jenkins, with three decades of experience building ships turned up at one of their sessions. "Their jumpships are very similar to our. Basically a big electromagnet with smaller magnets to deform the basic sphere for steering. Unlike us, they must have been able to see neutrinos, because they have a secondary pilot's station solely for controlling the electromagnets."
Miller looked over. "So they could see like a snatch?"
Jenkins leaned on the wall looking down at Wittner. "What I find hard to believe is that you blind jumped so many wormholes without a single disaster. Especially that last one."
Wittner froze, and stared at him for a long moment. Nodded slightly. "Well, you might put it down to luck, or you might think that the Snatchers are scamming you, and perfectly normal looking people with a bit of snatch ancestry are perfectly capable of steering through wormholes. Fully awake and conscious, without being lobotomized and hard wired to a computer. In fact if those people weren't afraid you'd grab them and dissect them, they might even admit it."
[There's going to be some problem back when, that Luke owes Jamie for.]
"Oh? And you assume we haven't studied all the snatch mutations?"
Luke shrugged. "Apparently not well enough, else you'd be raising batches of happy, healthy, intelligent, children with lucrative careers as jump pilots ahead of them."
"So, you're what a normal snatch looks like?"
"A normal snatch looks like a normal human. Is a normal human." Luke leaned back and studied the engineer, the other various military people around. "Either that or we were very, very lucky. Excuse me."
Miller watched him walk out. "Want me to detain him?"
"On what charge?" Jenkins looked over at him. "Existing?"
"But nothing. I've always hated the idea of the snatch pilots, poor dead things. Wouldn't you rather have your life in the hands of a real live human being?"
"Well . . . "
"Unfortunately it won't change over night. So feel secure in the hands of a computer hitched to a damaged brain."
Odessa Hey, the pretty one, cleared her throat. "And imagine how much nicer an impression your diplomatic and scientific mission will make with a regular star pilot, instead of a tortured and enslaved cyborg."
Miller sighed, and put a tail on Wittner anyway. Then, just on general principles, all the rest. At which point he realized that Jamie Kleven was no longer in the system, and had managed to not leave a record of departure. The background checks trickled in, and it became clear that Jamie Kleven was the only possible Snatch hybrid of the group.
Miller send a report up the pipeline, recommending that any female snatch pilots have their ovum collected and fertilized with normal sperm and the children observed. Perhaps in a few decades wormhole piloting would change for the better.
The pictures of thousands of damaged starships surfaced from his memories.
Hopefully we will not be needing a lot of wormhole pilots for a war.