Please Help Support CTTA By Checking Out Our Sponsers Products

In space no one can hear you scream… Wait a second! That one’s already been taken… hmmm… how about… In space be careful who you invite inside…

Master Seeks New Flesh


Clay Waters


Rhiannon's funeral was the second one on the Yarbro--the first since Captain Willis had also failed to wake from the cyrosleep freezers.


How long ago had that been? Malloy wondered… fifty years… at least. None of the crew cared to know precisely. They'd been in and out of the freezers too many times.


Captain Willis had looked bad for a while. Although the liquid balm of cyro theoretically froze body functions, sometimes nature abruptly rebelled--as if Willis' chronological clock had abruptly begun ticking down his real years, not just his "warm" years.


Now the freezers had unexpectedly taken young Rhiannon as well. The Yarbro crew, already skeletal, was down to six: Plus Troy, a government man from colony council who'd cadged a free ride to Earth.


Luckily, they'd made their last jump and were heading into the wormhole--the extra-stellar portal that would take them to Earth for some well-earned downtime. For Malloy that would mean all the steak she could devour. Having just swallowed whole her first post-freezer meal, she was looking forward to eating something that hadn't already been digested.


The remaining crew had gathered around Rhiannon's freezer pod, which sat just outside the ship's main airlock. Orchestral meanderings filled the vast antechamber--a room usually reserved for ceremonies for chief executives and the occasional fleet captain. It had an aesthetic absent from the ragged utilitarianism of the rest of the ship. The curved sides were plated gold (Earth had since run out) and bulged with biomorphic embellishments, resembling a god's assembly line. One side displayed a line of breast-like objects, another a bas-relief of jutting geometric figures, which were either elbows or an artist's conception of six-dimensional space.


As first technician Thorpe, handiest with mechanics, worked the music, acting captain Orson approached Rhiannon's pod, wearing the traditional red-and-green striped funeral vestments. Malloy found the ponched hat and stripes tacky, but it was tradition... someone's tradition, anyway.


She was startled to realize Orson's eyes were actually wet. Something about deep space required extra stimulation to make lachrymal glands work. Other body parts tended to dry out as well, which often meant that space travelers resorted to sex by other means.


Was that why Rhiannon and Orson had gotten on so well?


The casket (Rhiannon’s cyro pod, transferred robotically to the antechamber) had been sealed for disposal. With unsettling ease the freezer pod had morphed into a burial chamber.


By unspoken tradition, female crew members prepared the dead for burial. Rhiannon had done it for Willis. Now Malloy was providing the same service for Rhiannon.


And who would do it for her?


Nosgard would leer too long. Kalute the navigator gave her the creeps. Thorpe perhaps. Never Troy.


Malloy had passed on Rhiannon’s private stash of checked skirts and rubber-soled shoes, choosing instead to dress the dead girl in her warrant officer uniform (neatly pressed, rarely used). Rhiannon's frozen face was grandly blank, in death as it had been in life, except when it was contorted under some Orson-inspired beastliness.


Rhiannon would be accompanied by her stuffed frog and diary. Malloy tucked both items under the dead girl's folded arms. The diary's pages were spilling out of their bindings. Had Orson ripped the hot bits out?


Malloy kissed Rhiannon's forehead and then got out of the way for Orson. The resulting emotion was too naked to look at (and Malloy's memories of the two in the ship's relaxation chamber too horrid). After an indecent interval, she motioned to Thorpe, who began lowering the freezer's shield.


Orson had wanted to bring Rhiannon to Earth for burial, but Prentiss reasonably noted Rhiannon had never been to Earth. Like most space-jumpers, she'd been a colony kid, birthed on a small sphere orbiting a minor sun several trillion klicks away from the home planet. Space burials were typical. Even Captain Willis had gotten the standard heave-ho through the airlock.


Orson had no real pull to demand otherwise. Though he was nominally in charge by superior rank, Prentiss had taken practical charge of the Yarbro upon Willis' death.


Of course, if they waited a few hours longer, Orson would get his wish. Once the Yarbro reached a certain point, it couldn't expel any space junk out of the airlock. At that point the ship would be too close to the wormhole, which required a near-vacuum of space in which to inject exotic matter. Space junk within the ship's parabola could cause sufficient corruption during transmogrification to annihilate the ship. It was virtually the only way to harm a near-light vessel like the Yarbro, which was full of fail-safes.


The airlock door irised open, allowing Rhiannon's pod to slide inside, then closed up again. All was ready.


Orson began reciting the standard funeral recitation, plugging in "Warrant Officer" and Rhiannon's name at the appropriate places. When he hit the concluding phrase, "We commend her body to the stars," Thorpe fingered a sequence of buttons and opened the outer doors of the airlock, the depressurization shooting Rhiannon into space.


Automatically, Malloy turned to the telemetry screen, though it was a hologram simulation, not an actual view of space. The first near-light speed travelers had found the real thing too disorienting: Doppler effects and the distortions of travel at .96 light speed made people ill.


Represented on screen as a thick, pale, slightly curled cylinder, the wormhole was actually a bright-white loop of plasma throated by a frame of exotic matter that turned on its central axis every 108 years. The Yarbro had arrived just in time--in 30 more hours the wormhole would "turn," becoming unavailable, and they'd have to go back into cyro and wait another century. Prentiss had tried to explain it to her once, but he could just as well been speaking Chinese.


Otherwise, black nothingness reigned onscreen, perversely reminding Malloy of wide green spaces. This would be her first trip to Earth and she wasn’t a little excited.


Carrying into deep space the context of centuries of speculation, man had been both proud and disappointed to find itself the most interesting thing in a vast and mostly empty universe. Sporting near-light speed ships and aided by Tachus wormholes, he'd found metals and minerals, and--most luckily--orehounds to work the far-flung mines of entities like the Argus Co., sponsor of the Yarbro. But the decadent home planet retained its pull.


Malloy stared out the porthole longer than the view compelled, to avoid eye contact with the others. With Rhiannon's death, she'd become unique.


She was the girl.


Orson had plucked Rhiannon; did he count on having first dibs on her? Females weren’t common in deep space, and it got lonely at night. In space it was always night. A good thing the trident in her scabbard was more than an antique holdover from Earth sea ships. It could come in handy, if someone tried to grab her down one of D Deck's long corridors.


The funeral ceremony complete, the group broke up, some to workstations, others to loaf until launch. Malloy would loaf. On-planet, she was charged with laying mines. Off-planet, she monitored the production of the orehounds--the slave race that lived, worked, bred and died in the Yarbro's vast hold, digesting the mountain rock and breaking it down into tergenium more efficiently than human technology could, while leaving an inoffensive byproduct. Big metal shitters, Nosgard the tech called them with offhand affection. Men in colony bars loved her job title--Slaver. As if she went around in black vinyl wielding a whip. Her actual work was rather boring and benign, especially now that the mining of the planetoids was over.


She entered the lift, which irised shut. "B Deck," Malloy said.



As she'd expected, Thorpe was in the A-V room. Old Earth news flickered on the wall. She saw the datelines--the stories were from the last batch of newswire reports received centuries ago, with intriguing headlines like "Model Mugged in Central Park" alongside boilerplate like "Chow Down on Chowder."


She lay beside him. "Hit the end of the world yet?"


"Can't tell," Thorpe said. "The headlines could give out and I wouldn't know whether the planet blew up or the company didn't pay its bill. It does make me miss the old place. Ironic, innit?" He'd never been to Earth.


"Anything strange this time around?"


"I had an epic. Lots of tragic turns and twists. One of those hundred-year dreams. Bugger if I remember any of it, though."


Their dreams got stranger as freezer time got longer, they agreed: The kind you’d wake sweating from if you weren’t already frozen.


"Poor Rhiannon," she said.


"Yeah. Too young. It's past time for us to be home."


"Wonder what it'll be like?"


"Dunno," Thorpe said. "Prentiss is the only one who's been, as he never hesitates to remind us. Listening to him slag it, you wonder why anyone would bother."


Kalute's soft voice horned in on the quiet: "Attention, please, your attention. Please, all crew, come to the bridge." The navigator cleared his throat for the full two trillion meters of ship volume to hear. "There has been a development. Thank you."


Thorpe clapped his hands, shutting the A-V feed and lighting the room. "Are we evacuating or having a birthday party?"


"He's Jamaican, mon," Malloy said with irony. "He has to be casual. Plus he's dead tired."


"I can relate."


Physically, Kalute suffered worst from the cyro, though he played stoic. Jamaicans are great sleepers, he'd say, grinning and showing off a gold cap he'd acquired for his perfect teeth, which were constantly chewing through his stash of freeze-dried caffeine pills. People like Kalute needed to stay out of cyro.


Perhaps, Malloy theorized, the navigator embraced his ancestry as a comfortable cubbyhole to reside in during warm hours. She recognized the impulse: The same one that had gradually made her "Irish," from her purposely furred accent to her acquired thirst for stout. A DNA analysis she'd had done on a colony mall had slotted her heritage within .95 certainty as Domebrough County, Ireland. Her red hair and all-over freckles were additional clues. To tease her, Thorpe would point out that as a menial Irish worker on a British-flagged colony ship, she was recapitulating a millennium of Earth colonial history.


They arrived first on the bridge, followed by Prentiss and Nosgard. Orson showed up last, sporting the monocle he reserved for official appearances. Malloy thought it made him look rather ridiculous.


"To be blunt," Kalute began, "we are stuck in orbit. I can’t plot to the wormhole. There’s a ship in the way. It won't respond to our handshake. Look."


The wall filled with a schematic of space dominated by the wormhole and two smaller masses.


"Well, tell them to move," Prentiss said.


"I cannot. The spacecraft is not of human origin," Kalute said.


Prentiss' eyes got big. "That's impossible."


"No, merely inexplicable. The first Earthlings have seen." He smiled. "And it's parked precisely--to the last micron--at our required point of entry." Kalute enhanced the view of the alien ship.


Thorpe stroked his chin. "It looks like a harmonica."


"Most definitely not one of ours'," Orson said. "Unless we've been asleep a millennium too long."


Prentiss shook his head. "Not even then, probably. They're already bumbling near-light tech. The point is we must access now. Rendezvous is in 28 hours. Otherwise we have to go into ellipse and risk another long sleep. We’re on the long side already."


Every space-jumper knew the numbers: 1 in 458 cyrosleeps ended in failure--death. The longer out, the worse the odds became--creeping to nearly 1 in 200 at the fag end of longer runs. The Yarbro was going thru entropy, making odd lurches that couldn't be explained away by theory or practice.


"So what will we do?" Malloy asked.


"Send a scouter ship," said Orson.


"We don't have any," Nosgard said. "There's just the prospector buggies, the jalopies."


"A space buggy as peace emissary?" Prentiss sounded doubtful. "Not very dignified."


"Sending a scout is standard procedure," Orson said.


"Do they know that, I wonder?"


"So who gets to go in the tank?" Malloy asked.


Nosgard raised a beefy arm. "I’ll go."


"Wait! There's no need," Kalute said.


"They've gone?" Orson sounded hopeful.


"No. They're here." Kalute punched up the vid. "The visitors are now resting in the Yarbro airlock."


"They opened it themselves. Without permission." Orson sounded awed.


Kalute shrugged. "They are superior beings."


"Should we greet them?"


"We'll need weapons," Troy said.


Thorpe shook his head. "All we have are pulse rifles."


"If they could open the airlock by themselves," Kalute said, "Weapons might just make them angry."


Prentiss shrugged. "That's sensible, actually. Thorpe, it's the two of us."



Thorpe's hands were shaking, so Malloy adjusted the pressure seals on the back of Thorpe's suit for him. "The ship looks strange on the vid," Thorpe said. "Imagine they do as well."


"You ready yet, Thorpe?" Prentiss said, peering into the airlock through the embedded polyglass.


"Getting there," Thorpe said. He gave Malloy a tentative thumbs-up. “Update that supermodel mugging for me, won't you?"


"Sure thing. But I can't miss this."


"It'll be no orehounds, that's for sure." Thorpe pulled on the security belt. It would offer little in the way of actual security, if it came to that.


            "Just use the right spoon, don't embarrass humanity, and you'll be fine." She patted him on the back.


            "Get back, Malloy," Prentiss said. "We're receiving them."


            She left the antechamber and let the door dilate behind her so Prentiss could open the airlock. She made it to the bridge just as Kalute made contact on the low-res monitor.


Orson spoke into the mike. "Do you see the alien craft?"


"Yes," came Prentiss' voice, made gravelly by imperfect reception. "Incredible, isn't it?"


"What must they look like, in a ship like that?" Orson asked.


The ship was square-shaped, plated in a strange orange-bronze alloy, intricately filigreed with thousands of ridges over its surface. Were they atmospheric receptors, an arcane steering mechanism, or perhaps a source of thrust? Pure abstraction? There was no telling.


It struck Malloy like a renegade shape out of Thorpe's dreams--a spiky, squared-off star fruit, some five meters high, far too small for a near-light ship. Where would they keep the fuel?


Perhaps it was a scouter pod. But then where was its mother ship?


Then, horribly, the purpose of the ridges became clear. The filigrees exploded outward, transforming into long arrowed tentacles. The airlock filled with sharp white strands, mummying up the view from the bridge. Some speared Thorpe and Prentiss where they stood; those which shot past the target whipped back around and connected.


Malloy felt as if her boots were packed with uranium; rooted, she watched as a strip of the thing's opaque surface begin to shimmer, folding out into a dark, vaguely muscled maw into which were tossed the writhing forms of Thorpe and Prentiss. She only hoped they were already dead.


Malloy jammed her hand in her mouth. With fear and shock was intermingled an odd shame--is this how pathetic we look to them?


"I'm going out there," Orson said.


"And end up like them?" Malloy said.


"Well what do we do?" Orson pummeled the back of his chair, impotently.


The maw uncurled again--spewing out two burnt, ravaged forms that had once been their crewmates. The bodies hit the airlock floor with a damp plop, like squeezed-out fruit.


Malloy retched.


Kalute stood with arms folded, shaking his head. "It raped them," he said, unnecessarily; even the screen's poor resolution gave that much away. "What a foul creature it is."


"Maybe that's how they kill," Troy muttered blankly, as if it was some kind of comfort. Malloy found that it was.


"What is it?" Nosgard pondered. "Spaceship or animal?"


"Or both?"


Amid the turmoil something caught Malloy's peripheral vision: Thorpe's news feed, ticking on a secondary screen, suddenly revived with a renewed flickering.


The headlines began scrolling, alighting on: Loud Booms Heard in Boston.


Booms? "It's talking to us!" Malloy shouted.


Nosgard took the seat. "Here comes another."


"Read it aloud," Orson said, straightening up. He's realizing he's in charge, Malloy thought.


"'Titans soar to victory,' it says." Nosgard called up the full story. "It's from an ancient football game."



"It's using the stupid headlines from Earthnews to talk," Malloy said. "Thorpe was plugged into them."


Orson nodded. "It can't speak to us, but it can parse our language."


"They must call themselves the Titans," Nosgard said. "Arrogant bastards want to scare us."


"Shh," Orson said. "Here it comes again."


Seconds later: We Are The World.


"Who's 'We'?" Troy said.


"It's saying it's not the only one out there," Malloy said, and shivered.


"Perhaps they’re claiming they made Earth. Or else--" Nosgard's voice dropped--"that they are God."


The screen scrolled to: Opening the Doors to College.


Nosgard's chin jutted. "We'll give it an education."


"No, Opening the doors," Troy said. "Get it? It wants access to the wormhole."


"We can't," Orson said. "It will attack Earth."


"There’s nothing left to harvest down there," Malloy said.


"All the worse. That leaves just one thing. You saw what it did to Thorpe and Prentiss. Like the Sephals."


Some sinister nerds had figured out how to stack the Sephals' DNA chains and had used the species as human-shaped sex toys.


"At least it's not using the personal ads," Nosgard said. "Can you imagine?"


"Nosgard, this is serious," Malloy said.


"Oh, I'm being quite serious," Nosgard answered. "We're in big trouble."


Another headline: London Jets Football Team Looks to the Stars for Help.


"Stars. Looks." Orson nodded at Kalute. "Show the porthole view again."


Where there had once been two small distinct masses there was now one large irregular one.


"I believe it's a number of ships similar to the one in the airlock," Kalute said.


"Ships?" Nosgard sounded dubious. "Ships don't have mouths. That thing's organic."


"Organisms can't traverse cold space without protection or transportable atmosphere," Orson said. "Unless it's got a seriously thick hide and some internal means of respiration, not to mention a fuel source. It must be a ship. Or some incredibly evolved hybrid."


"Beyond our imagination," Nosgard muttered.


"We should do what it commands," Kalute said. "Perhaps what it did to our friends is a warning."


"Do we have any weapons?" Troy asked.


Orson shook his head. "This is a tug crew, not a combat vessel."


"Let's open the airlock and blow it into space," Troy said.


"Tempting," Orson said. "But the space junk might get in the way of our wormhole launch. And there's no guarantee it would budge. It looks pretty settled in."


Nosgard stroked his bushy chin. "We've got tanks of liquid nitrogen for cyro outside the airlock. We could try and freeze the bugger."


"Too complicated. How would we open them?"


Malloy felt compelled to speak. “Perhaps we wouldn't have to."


Orson folded his arms. "What's on your mind, Malloy?"


"Well, we’ve still got a half-load of mining bombs left over. They’re better for ripping holes in mountainsides, but they'd probably be effective. They're on C Deck but we can get them if the lifts are still intact. We could plant one near a nitrogen tank."


Nosgard nodded vigorously. "It could work."


"Without blowing a hole in the airlock?" Orson asked. "I'd rather not get sucked into deep space before I have to."


Malloy nodded. "They're designed to shake up rock, not structural metal."


Kalute broke the ensuing silence. “Whatever must be done.”




Twenty minutes later the remaining crew had reassembled on the bridge.


It took Malloy a moment to figure out what was different about Nosgard: He'd shaved his beard to match his bald top, so that he resembled a perplexed monk. Nosgard had volunteered for the airlock.


He thinks he's going to meet God, she thought; a God with a thousand little arms that flies through space.


Then again, why not appear clean-shaven, like a newborn with no sins to conceal? She's seen Nosgard on colony leave; the man was no innocent.


Kalute was playing with a knife.


"Thanksgiving, Kalute?" Orson asked.


"In case it's my time." He returned the blade to its jeweled scabbard.


"God wouldn’t do this." Malloy draped the mining suit over Nosgard's squat frame. "He'd know the way in anyway."


"Who's to say?" Nosgard tugged the suit tight. "Read the Bible archive. God's arbitrary. And perhaps not as smart as he thinks."


Orson nodded. "It's like Prentiss used to say, damn him. Wormhole physics was a fluke. Even near-light speed pales beside it. This creature in the airlock is far ahead of us in every technology, save wormholes. It needs us to learn a shortcut through space. Otherwise it's stuck in its little near-light universe forever." He turned. "Ready, Nosgard?"


"Ready, cap'n," Nosgard said, with bluff cheer.


He followed Nogsard to the lift. They shook hands. The lift closed on Nosgard, who waved goodbye through the lift's transparent doors.


"Goodbye," Malloy said, after he'd disappeared.




Malloy had used the shudder bombs for years without incident, but she'd been trained. Though crude-looking, the bombs were actually rather delicate--she thought of Nosgard's fat fingers gripping the delicate edges and closed her eyes in worry. It was one thing, laying down the shudders on arid mountain plateaus, with you the only living thing for klicks around. Down there, next to that…of course Nosgard's fingers would get sweaty.


They watched his slow progress on the monitors. He laid one of the bombs on top of a nitrogen tank, then huffed away the best he could. The explosion seconds later was audible even on the bridge, and whited out the screen.


"Is he still there?" Orson tried to see what was happening.


"I think so," Malloy said. "And so's our friend." Whatever it was had not reacted.


Nosgard put another bomb down on another tank, and tripped. No--been tripped: A Titan tentacle had whipped out and planted Nosgard on the floor, where he unsuccessfully struggled to free his leg.


Malloy, Kalute, Orson, Troy--the bridge was silent.


Other creepers darted out. Nosgard wasn't going anywhere.


And neither was the bomb he'd laid.


Malloy looked down.


The second explosion was even louder than the first.


She looked up.


The screen unfrazzled, revealing a charred airlock and an unmoving alien. A gash in the titanium-plate flooring was evidence of Nosgard's final bomb. All the nitrogen tanks had shattered, leaving pink and red frozen bits that could have only been…Malloy turned away.


Orson shook his head. Then he started. "Malloy! Arm me like Nosgard and show me how these bombs work."


She took a deep breath, then stared at the captain a hard moment. She caught the import of what he wasn't saying.


He was going down with his ship.




As Malloy tugged the mining suit over Orson he spoke, clipped and fast: "They call themselves the Titans, which fits. They were giants from Greek myth, overthrown by Zeus. I can't help wondering if humans aren't being judged."


"Nosgard shaved to meet God," Kalute said. "Is this your idea of God?"


"I don't believe in God. I do believe in that thing in the airlock. Think about it. For a thousand years, the whole universe was nothing but half-formed creatures like the orehounds, and us. Now, suddenly, we meet something that's so advanced we don't even know for sure if it's organic or artificial. It's almost too much to be coincidence." Orson took a long breath. "I'm not sure if Earth is inhabited. And as we're the most remote craft, it's possible--just possible--that we're the last humans alive." Orson nodded. "Kalute’s senior officer."


There was no time for politeness. "He's in charge?"


"That's not what I said." Orson winked. "Being senior officer didn't help me. Take this, in case."


Orson handed her a printout. She scanned it, recognized its import, placed it in her vest pocket.


"I'll just let our guests know the captain's taken notice. And if that doesn't work--" Orson put on his monocle, manipulating the glass so it glinted off the pearly stanchions of the bridge. Somehow it didn’t look so stupid. "One way or the other, I'll get its attention. Plant myself near the nitrogen, call it names, then set the bomb off in its face, or ass, or whatever. Should shake it up a bit, anyway."


The monocle's glare made her tear up--though perhaps that wasn't all due to the bright light. "Good luck, sir."


"Goodbye sir," Troy said. Kalute waved morosely.


"Put the kettle on," Orson said. Improbably, he began to whistle. Malloy couldn't help smiling. Soon, however, the cold alloy tunneling rendered the warm notes faint and small.


"We are doomed," Kalute said, when the sound had died completely. "It's a god and we're its flies."


"He's made it," Troy said. "He's opening the airlock."


She didn't want to look at the screen--it was like one of her slow-motion nightmares, like falling through some strange planet's filthy atmosphere. But she did.



Orson's defiant voice filtered through: "Get off your ass, you orange-plated freak! Come  and get me, or do you just want to lap me with those silly tongues?"


Orson set a shudder bomb and heaved it at the thing. It clanged home, bouncing off and exploding without consequence. Yet the thing roused itself at last and slid nastily across the airlock deck toward Orson.


Orson waited. She thought, crazily, of an ant beside a harmonica.


"Now," she whispered. "Do it now."


"He's got time," Troy said.


At last came the faint, elongated cracking sound of a shudder bomb, followed by the much louder sound of the nitrogen blasting off.


One, two, three seconds passed. The screen cleared.


"Damn," she said.


"What do we do?" Troy asked.


"We can't let it get to Earth. You see what it can do. And it has friends."


"Even if we die?"


"We're gonna die anyway."


"Maybe we can make a deal," Troy said. "Give it access, give them what they want. We'll use the news feed, send them our own messages."


"You buying this, Kalute?" She looked around--but the navigator had slipped away… with his knife.


Malloy glared at the bridge's sealed door. "He always was a selfish bastard."


"What about it?" Troy moved closer.


"No thanks." He grabbed at her, but she was quicker.


"Malloy, I work for the gov--" he shouted, the closing door shutting off the rest of Troy's protest.


Now what?


The tearing, crashing sounds of the Titan had gotten louder. Had the thing honed in on their location? If so, the end would come sooner rather than later.


Not even suicide was an option: The ship had too many redundancies to even consider trying to blow it up.


She could hide among her orehounds, blind to everything while the monster figured out how to work the ship. With time enough it would, even if it had to wait a hundred years. By then it wouldn't be her problem anyway.


But sometimes you have to get out of bed and get to work.




Troy was peering uncomprehendingly at the controls when she irised back onto the bridge. He smiled softly at her, as if figuring she'd changed her mind. In a way, she had.


She paused, staring for a long moment, then hung her head down. "I don't care. I'm tired." She slumped into Troy's arms.


His lips parted as he leaned in expectantly. "I've always liked you, Malloy." She felt his last-wish need-hope stirring.


It was a moment she'd expected, and she didn't hesitate. Hefting her trident, she plunged it upward into Troy's chest.


Troy gasped in shock and pain; he looked down, surprised, at the embedded prongs. Looking back up, his lips trembled with words, but they were unaccompanied by respiration and remained unexpressed.


"Sorry, Troy."


He slumped to the deck. She stamped her boot on his chest for leverage and pulled out the trident. Troy's dented lungs collapsed slurpily.


She winced; it was a bad way to go. But she couldn't have piloted through the wormhole and kept him at bay as well.


Ignoring the Titan tearing through the ship toward her, and the softer struggling sound of Troy expiring on the deck, she typed in the override codes Orson had handed her, giving herself captaincy of the Yarbro. Orson had known they were doomed all along. Only his damned noble British bluff had stopped him from saying it aloud.


Troy stopped making noise.


There was no one to second-guess her now.


She toggled down through the crew log of dead (or good as dead) crewmates until she hit Malloy: The last notch on the totem poll.


As acting commander, she had authorization to open the outside airlock, which would sweep everything not nailed down into space. But the Titan was safely out of the airlock, out of the antechamber, and was rapidly crashing toward her. The only thing opening the airlock would accomplish would be to create space junk and imperil the wormhole launch.


She opened it. An explosive decompression followed, as ship oxygen rushed into space.


The Titan was moving, sucking itself along by its tentacles. She switched off the vid, but could still hear it. Judging by the noise, the Yarbro's interior walls, meter-thick at the support junctions, offered little resistance as it crashed its way toward the bridge.


Launching the Yarbro into the wormhole was terribly easy. Malloy placed it into the recommended glide path, then ran through the launch commands that would put the ship at the mercy of the wormhole's matrices.


As she'd expected, the ship detected a problem: The parabola was clogged with junk--the sundry ship detritus she'd just expelled from the airlock. Not a massive hunk of junk, but more than enough to register as a danger, enough to possibly ruin the wormhole jump and annihilate the ship, and most importantly, everything on it.


Or perhaps the Yarbro would survive intact, leaving the Titan and its friends to feast on Prentiss' fat, lazy Earth, making her an unwitting transmitter of catastrophe. Then again, maybe Orson would turn out prescient on his assumption Earth was barren and that they--she--was it for humanity.


That would be a kind of glory, anyway. She hoped not to be around to grab it.


The wormhole loomed. She ignored the mainframe warnings, but couldn't shake the sounds. In a few seconds the thing and its roving appendages would arrive.


Again she unsheathed her trident, pointing the Troy-bloodied tips to her own chest, amazed at her own calm.


Just one thing left to do--in case the Yarbro reached Earth.


Thinking back to something Nosgard had said, Malloy typed words into the news feed search. Up popped an ancient personal ad, which Malloy blared across every available screen on the Yarbro:


Master Seeks New Flesh.