Chapter 2

This is crazy, Megan told herself. I'm not just risking my life, I'm shredding my career.

Well, she decided, it was still worth it. From the day of her commission in the Space Force, Megan had vowed that someday, when the opportunity arose, she would try to find her sister. If the Force refused to stage a rescue, Megan would damned well do it herself. She needed the Space Force to give her access to the necessary equipment.

Little had she realized, that early, the extent to which an essential piece of the equipment would be a product of her own efforts. A specialist in particle physics, Megan had jumped on the discovery of iota particles, those unimaginably tiny points of matter scattered by the interaction of ordinary matter with the twisted space of a wormhole. In principle, every ship that transited a wormhole left a permanent, slowly-decaying trail of iota particles in its wake. In practice, it took state-of-the-art detectors and the fastest computers in existence just to distinguish iota particles from all the other flotsam generated by particle collisions. The idea that an iota detector could be installed in a space as small as a single ship had been regarded as impossible just five years ago. Megan's own research had been driven by the conviction that it was possible, that it must be possible. Her team had caught her infectious enthusiasm, in spite of disapproval at the administrative level, where the beancounters wanted some evidence that such a detector would have some practical use that would justify its cost. Ships that had passed through wormholes didn't need to be "tracked" -- either they were still sending signals, or else they were presumed lost and unrecoverable due to wormhole collapse. To the higher authorities in the Space Force, Megan's "gadget" had seemed a dubious project that probably could never justify its expense. Without Megan's stubborn insistence on continuing the project, and the grudging admission by her supervisor that some increased scientific understanding of wormholes might well result and turn out to be useful someday, the project would have been terminated long ago. And now the prototype iota detector was in this very ship, the small one requiring only a single person to operate, that Megan had... well, "stolen" was a harsh word. She preferred to call it "requisitioned."

Megan rubbed her eyes -- she'd been staring at the computer screen for hours, as her computer examined all wormholes within range, analyzing their iota output. It was possible, by weighing the ratio of iota particles to the more standard bits of matter among which the iotas hid, to make an estimate of how long it had been since a ship had transited the wormhole. Megan terminated analysis of any hole whose iota signature was less than twenty years old or more than forty, and ignored any from which communication signals were emerging that implied an active ship had used it and would soon return through it, as well as the ones with no iota signature, which presumably had never yet been used by any ship.

It was possible that the wormhole Megan wanted had drifted out of this region of space altogether. But most likely it was here somewhere.

There! That one looked promising. Megan spoke a command into the computer that refined its analysis, bringing it into better focus. Yes! Thirty-year-old iota signature. No current ship communicating from the other side. Her heart pounding, Megan steered her ship into the wormhole.

*   *   *   *   *

The passage through the wormhole was rough. The sensation was usually equivalent to a monster roller-coaster ride, and despite motion sickness medication, many rock-hard women had lost their lunches in transit, bits of which often hung in the zero-G cabin afterward as if to remind the poor woman of her moment of weakness. This trip seemed unusually out-of-control, as if the roller-coaster was nearly losing contact with the rails...

And she was through! Wormhole collapse, Megan thought with elation, has already been disproved now. The wormhole Aurora had used was a still-functioning portal to another star system.

Megan scanned the star and its entourage of planets with the ship's sensors. There, that planet! That has to be it! I am looking, Megan told herself, at the planet Janny has been stranded on all these years!

A sudden blinding shock that rattled the ship astonished Megan -- she'd never had that happen before, following wormhole emergence. The computer screens went blank, and the cabin lights went off for at least five seconds, returning dimly afterwards. As the computer went through a reboot, Megan looked quickly around the cabin to see if she spotted any damage. It looked okay. There was no whistle of escaping air. Her attention returned to the computer screen. She'd have to do an immediate system diagnostic.

Life support -- okay. Navigation... there were a few glitches now, but only in the fully automated pilot area. If she could see a destination, she could still direct the nav system to it. Return beacon... there we go. She was still receiving the signal from Earth, and would be able to follow the signal home. They won't have to come after me...

Megan frowned. Her ship seemed no longer to be generating its own signal. She hurriedly punched in commands, her heart pounding. The computer had lost access to portions of its software, and that was one of them: the beacon signal that told Earth where her ship was. It's okay, she told herself, it's okay, it's okay. I didn't want them following me anyway.

She was aware that any ships following her would probably be military police vehicles, sent with instructions to arrest her.

It was disconcerting to realize that Earth authorities could no longer determine her current whereabouts and no doubt thought she was dead. But she could still return home when she was ready. With Janica.

Megan wondered whether this same thing had happened to Janica's ship: Aurora might have passed through that same unknown energy burst, and been partially crippled in ways similar to Megan's ship. Her excitement grew. It strengthened the possibility Janica was alive: Aurora's signaler had been fried, perhaps, with the ship herself okay. Okay enough to land, at least. Damage to navigation may have prevented her return to Earth, leaving Janica and the crew stranded but alive.

Megan's long range scanner was still working. She made a more complete survey of the planet she had identified. It was, by sensor measurements, fully capable of supporting human life. Sighing at the difficulty of getting there with a partially disabled computer, Megan took down the planet's coordinates and spoke them into the nav system -- the scanner and navigation system were no longer communicating with each other, but she could work around it.

*   *   *   *   *

After entering orbit, Megan flew halfway around the planet before discovering signs of animal life. That seemed odd. The vegetation was unbelievably lush, but there was a definite shortage in the animal kingdom. At least that made it easier to locate any human settlement, which was presumably what Megan was detecting now.

She descended from orbit and floated slowly for a time at treetop level. Any new planet was likely to hide unsuspected dangers, and Megan knew enough about planetary exploration to understand that the first rule is to take nothing for granted. That the planet looked benign was fine, but she wanted to familiarize herself with it a little more before making ground contact.

After an hour of surveillance she let the ship settle softly to the ground. She was a few kilometers from the settlement her scanner had picked up. On landing she made a last systems check, and secured the ship for future liftoff.

From ground level, her systems could make a more accurate assay of the local atmosphere than they could from orbit. It was mostly nitrogen, with slightly higher oxygen content than Earth's, and no dangerous gases in any greater concentration than a few parts per billion. The temperature was only slightly higher than that of a pleasant summer day. Megan decided to remain in the silvery flight suit, without a helmet. The suit reflected light and absorbed very little heat, and it should protect her if any of the vegetation through which she passed turned out to be poisonous or allergenic.

Slipping her arms through the shoulder straps of a provision pack, with a portable scanner in one hand, a blaster in the other, Megan climbed down from the ship to stand on the soil of an alien planet, something she knew she would never tire of. And this one has Janny on it! she told herself. Her heart thundered with excitement. I've been light-years away from Janica for thirty years, she thought. And now I'm within walking distance! Shrugging her shoulders to stabilize the pack, Megan started walking where the scanner led her.

She found, to her dismay, that the hand-held scanner was indicating that the settlement was still some twenty kilometers distant. She rolled her eyes as she realized the onboard scanner had been more messed up than she'd known. But at least the damaged ship had got her here, in one piece. Rather than take the ship up again, she decided to walk it. She wasn't eager to discover anything else wrong with the ship.

The exertion of walking brought out a layer of sweat that cooled between Megan's skin and the all-covering flight suit, before the air-conditioning kicked in. This world was not at all unfit for human habitation, but not terribly comfortable without the aid of the suit's cooling. The planet had very little axial tilt, and probably had no discernable seasons. The odds were that the weather was pretty much like this all the time.

The vegetation had some similarities to Earth, though Megan could tell she must be on another planet. Though trees were plentiful, the ground cover between them wasn't grass, or anything like it. It was more broadly leafed, a little like thick ivy, but more wrinkly. A bit like lettuce, she decided. She got into the habit of lifting her feet higher than usual as she walked, to avoid tripping in it.

Keeping an eye out for potential dangers, the blaster ready for defense if needed, Megan walked quickly. Aside from the sighing of the wind through the leaves of the densely-packed trees, it was almost supernaturally quiet. She probably wouldn't have noticed the singing of birds if it had been present, but its absence seemed almost to assault her senses with its strangeness. She did spot some insects, but they were anything but aggressive -- they seemed much more interested in the blooms on the trees than in her. As if they'd never seen an animal and had no internal tropism that urged them to make use of one.

Megan presumed the settlement up ahead could hardly have been established by indigenous creatures, since it seemed impossible that the entire planet's sentient population, its entire population of animals, in fact, could all be in one small place. It must be Aurora's crew. She felt sure of it. The men of the Hercules cult had been in sleepers during the interstellar trip. Under normal circumstances the crew would have let the men free after landing to fend for themselves, but given that the crew had apparently found themselves stranded, they had probably established the settlement themselves, with an enclosure to contain the cultists and keep them under control, until a more permanent prison could be built.

Luckily, Megan reminded herself, Janica and the other women would never have been in danger from the Hercules cultists. The crew had all the weapons.

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