DREAMBONES is a non stop tale of Science Fiction action and adventure!
…. Eric Rice is a deepscout, a pathfinder to the stars. He works alone for a number of reasons, one of which being that most of his friends and family have been murdered, but that is another story. Right now, Eric has more pressing problems, such as running out of air in a deteriorating spaceship and being forced to land on a hostile world he isn’t prepared to deal with.
…. Deepscouts never land, they reconnoiter, but Rice has no choice, at least there is air down there. There is also civilization of sorts, but Rice is about to find out it doesn’t deal with strangers very well.
…. His adventure is told in DREAMBONES, an epic Science Fiction novel currently serialized in four issues of Tales from TOMORROW. Read chapter one and you will want more.
The black, fist-sized cube rotated lazily above the grimy console of the Wanderin’ Star. It made a handsome enough ornament, though that was not its intended function. Myriad gold contacts glittered as it spun, reflecting the console telltales which were currently the only source of light on the flight deck of the converted shuttle.
The glossy planes of the weightlessly twirling polyhedron also caught the reproachful stare of the sole owner, captain, and crew of the scoutship. The anger and frustration that once raged in those gray-green eyes now only smoldered. It was difficult to maintain a proper high dudgeon for eighteen months, particularly when there was no one to take it out on. The parts department of the InterPhase Corporation’s Sol Haven branch had been spared a great deal of pain and tumult. So far.
Every four seconds the little embossed I.D. plaque affixed to the cube passed into view as the object turned. Its damning message was unchanged despite thousands of revolutions of intent observation.
PHASE INTEGRATION MODULE
The eyes narrowed as they shifted to an empty box floating beside the cube. Air resistance had slowed it down. Slumped carelessly in his command couch, Eric Rice pursed his lips and blew gently. The open box turned in response. Yep, there it was again, right under the, now broken, inspection seal:
PHASE INTEGRATION MODULE
Not for the first time, Rice wondered how many other PIMs were sitting around in the wrong boxes, just waiting to ruin someone’s day, big time. It was unlikely that anyone would ever complain. It was usually a long walk home for crews of broken starships. In Rice’s case, it was possible that he had not even been logged as missing yet. Free-lance deepscouts were not known for their adherence to schedules, and Rice was no exception to that rule.
If anything, he tended to wander even farther and stay out longer because of the very nature of his ship. Unlike the cramped company singleships which eventually brought out the claustrophobe in even the most resolute loner, the Wanderin’ Star had room to rattle around in. As big as some intrasystem freighters, the Star began life as EXETER 03, one of the six-shuttle complement serving the EXETER, first of the great starliners.
When the proud old liner made its last flight to the Sol Haven scrapyards, the ship’s boats were salvaged and fitted with InterPhase plants, making them starships in their own right, just as EXETER herself had originally been upgraded from interplanetary service. Unfortunately, the new drives sat almost in the middle of the shuttles’ holds, an awkward arrangement in a cargo vessel. Still, the combination of aerodynamic and interstellar capabilities appealed to certain people: parcel and small freight-delivery services making runs to remote colonies, smugglers, and a certain deepscout to name a few.
Having just auctioned off coordinates to a potentially rich world, Rice jumped at the opportunity to trade in his cramped singleship for the greater comfort and longer range available in the converted EXETER 03. Too, he was not above feeding his ego a little. It still turned heads in the early Twenty-second Century when one casually mentioned that he owned his own starship.
A grunt of sour humor passed his lips. What had been that line in a holo drama a few years back? Oh yeah, ‘I don’t ask much of life; just immortality and my own starship will do.’ Or had that been a comedy? He couldn’t remember. He had too much of a headache to waste time thinking about it. No matter. No one remembered the show, but the line had caught on.
But, no sooner had he spent virtually his last capital outfitting and provisioning the ship, than things began to go wrong. His first two trips out in the Star turned up little of value. Unable to find bidders for the worlds he’d spent months charting, he had to satisfy himself with basic discovery fees paid by the Haven Corporation.
The third trip was a foredoomed fiasco. Finding a system with a prime terrestrial world barely a month out, he spent another month in orbit gathering his data and gleefully returned to Sol Haven only to learn that the system had been logged in by a rival just one day after his departure. A small satellite left in orbit to announce the claim would have saved him the trouble of a wasted trip, but the other scout had been operating on a tight budget too.
Disgusted over the three months wasted, Rice immediately refueled on company credit and shipped back out. This time he ‘went long’, hoping to get a jump on the competition. If he returned empty-handed this time, he was going to end up with a new partner – the Sol Haven Corporation. Rice did not mind scouting for the Haveners, but he valued his independence even more than did most inhabitants of the huge cylinder in space. They still had bosses. Bosses made rules and gave orders. Rice routinely broke rules and ignored orders.
For eleven weeks he phased steadily outward, resolutely ignoring promising systems that might be within the range of his rivals’ singleships. His goal was an area rich with G-class stars about two hundred light years coreward of Sol and well above the galactic plane. Habitable worlds in such an out of the way region would be of interest to the many dissident groups pouring into Sol Haven from Earth as the UN tightened its autocratic grip on the old nations. Bidding would be lively, especially for unrecorded worlds. Many of the refugees fully intended to get lost as far from Earth as possible. They would not depend on Sol Haven’s distant orbit between the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud to keep the expansionist UN at bay forever.
The organization was already talking up its vision of an even grander governing body; a United Planets. UN or UP, it would be run by the same despots who were now laying the stifling hand of their bureaucracy on every shoulder it could reach. Those that could were leaving in droves. Burned once when their governments fell, they would leave no records for the new order to follow. That might mean a fatal ‘accident’ for his autolog and some Quarantine time, but it would be worth it.
Unfortunately for this potentially lucrative scenario, Rice’s InterPhase plant started jitterbugging just a week short of his destination.
He had been flicking through an unpromising open cluster of K and M class stars when the smoothly regulated one hundred phases per second of his drive suddenly became a wild, shuddering dance followed by a long ominous silence.
It is generally agreed that the biphasic interstellar drive was first developed by Professor Harold Freeman of Elfor Labs (later, Elfor University) in 2041. Unfortunately, Harry, his invention, and about twenty billion dollars worth of shiny new orbiting laboratory disappeared forever approximately one/one-hundredth of a second after he fired his latest breadboard up on its test bench one day.
Everyone agrees the damned thing should never have worked. Even Harry thought he was ‘just going to turn the coils over one more time’ that day, having experienced one failure after another, despite the mathematical purity of his equations.
Freeman’s theorem had led him to believe an FTL transmitter was possible. What his math did not account for was the intensity of the interference generated by the sun. Later experience would demonstrate the futility of phasing that close in. He would have had better odds of success in the Global Lottery, but he did not know that, so he kept tinkering, improving and strengthening his dual-field coils.
As a result, when Professor Harry Freeman finally won his physics lottery, it was with a set of field coils that had gone far beyond the requirements of a mere transmitter. When he finally ‘caught a wave’ as one fellow physicist later put it, his lab inadvertently became humanity’s first starship, taking with it Harry and 2,483 of Earth’s best and brightest scientists and technicians.
With UN bureaucrats stifling research on and near Earth, another forty-seven years passed before the InterPhase Corporation, based in Sol Haven, duplicated his work. In almost thirty years of ever-broadening exploration since then, no sign of Professor Freeman or the lab was ever found. As phase theory developed, it was speculated that his breadboarded coils remained in phase too long. Accelerating exponentially, the lab would have fallen into a ‘Long Jump’ toward infinity. Thus the phrase ‘looking for Freeman’ became the ‘wild goose chase’ of the 22nd century.
The key to preventing ‘long jumps’ was the Phase Integration Module or PIM, developed by the InterPhase Corporation. It kept the twin drive coils in carefully prescribed synchronization. After the coils themselves, it was the one absolutely essential component in a biphasic drive. And, though PIMs were built to NEVER fail, a spare was always included with each installation, for peace of mind if nothing else.
It took several hours for Rice to diagnose the problem and dig out the spare PIM. It took less than a minute to figure out that his ‘spare’ was too big to fit in place of the bad one. The damned thing didn’t even have the same number of contacts.
At least a thousand times since then Rice wondered at the awful coincidence of faulty equipment and an incorrectly packaged spare part on his ship. Nearsighted robots? Maybe. More likely the bony hand of the UN Special Enforcement Office was involved, though this was a few degrees more subtle than their usual thuggery.
Haveners didn’t believe in extradition (especially back to Earth) and made a particular point of frustrating the UN. Several capture attempts having proven costly, it seemed someone in some cubicle in the UN finally decided to forego the expense of a show trial. Just make Eric Jason Rice disappear.
Rice knew that trying to hotwire the replacement PIM was a guaranteed trip to eternity, so he plugged the old one back in. At least it was only mostly dead. They’d screwed up there. Approximately once every hundred thousand tries or so the damn thing actually locked the coils into phase and flicked him just that much closer to his new destination, an unprepossessing G9 system in the middle of the open cluster of cooler stars. It wasn’t just a long shot, it was his only shot at survival.
His initial estimate of whether he would make it or not was just about on the money. He was starving. The air was foul enough that had the recycling plant puked itself into so much consumptive junk, it would not have surprised him. And, after eighteen months of wondering whether, after all the effort, he would end up orbiting a lifeless rock in an increasingly unlivable ship, he was not quite crazy…, yet. But life threw you the damndest curves sometimes.
A low, ironic chuckle ended in a snarl. With an irritated gesture he swept the useless PIM and its treacherously labeled box aside and glared at the data screens. Normally he would have been ecstatic at his extraordinary turn of luck. In his desperation he had stumbled onto a deepscout’s bonanza. Close in to its rather cool G9 primary, he now orbited a habitable terrestrial world.
With a substantial hydrosphere and a breathable atmosphere, the place would have been worth a fortune to him back at Sol Haven. Right know he would have traded it all in for the wildcat mining operation or dissident colony he had been hoping to find.
Running his fingers through close cropped, sandy hair, then down to his chin, he absently stroked the stubble there. Surprised, he realized just how long he had been sitting in the darkened flight deck. It was time for another shave and a stint in the refresher. As his ship deteriorated around him, he had become ever more fastidious in compensation. It did worry him a bit that he’d started putting creases in his shipsuit, though.
With the Wanderin’ Star orbiting in a nose-down attitude, he opened the viewport shields and stared at the blue, brown and white sphere that scrolled by below. Damn if there wasn’t even an indigenous intelligent species. Humanoid bipeds no less. He laughed again at the irony. A double bonus for that. At this point in Mankind’s expansion the novelty of a new race still outweighed the inconvenience of the lebensraum they occupied. Unfortunately for Rice, he was a little early. It looked as if the locals were a few centuries shy of developing an electronics industry. Really just a near miss on the universal time scale. ‘So sorry, Eric,’ the unseen gods of the universe seemed to be saying. ‘Just fuckin’ with you.’
Another burst of laughter shook him, the peals climbing in pitch until he clamped his jaw shut. That last outburst had been just a little too shrill. Closing his eyes and sitting back, he absently stroked his father’s ring, thinking of a wooded lakeside, a warm campfire, and happier times, long gone. After a lengthy silence, he sighed.
“Well, maybe I can still retire as a farmer at least.”
“What’s that?” a voice inquired from overhead.
“Nothing.” He made a face. “Go back to sleep.” The ship’s computer was going dotty even faster than he was. Rice had reduced its workload to a minimum, even shutting down its crew of baseball-sized repair mechs until they landed.
Two of the spidery little machines had already been lost trying to clear a perfectly good thruster. The course adjustment had been minor, but it had been a major tragedy for the repmechs. Worse was what the incident implied about the ship’s computer. He was going to need it and his remaining repmechs a little while longer if he was to survive down there. No doubt, like a lot of worlds he had seen, this one would shape up as a nice place to visit, but living there was going to take a lot of work if he wanted to survive the warranty on his life support system.
The big problem would be the biosphere. He had the usual battery of all-purpose counteragents floating around in his circulatory system. All deepscouts did. That didn’t mean that he looked forward to testing them out on an alien world with the nearest med center a hundred light years away. Besides, breaking bioseal was good for a stretch in Quarantine. A condition of his refuel was that he accept a Bloodguard filter. The filter was a standard implant for Sol Haven’s own contract deepscouts. In addition to its medical functions, it acted like an Autolog for humans. If he ever got back to the Haven it would be the first thing they checked in Quarantine. Though he was registered as an independent scout, he let them implant it. Anything that got him through Quarantine faster he was in favor of. The Bloodguard system was just supposed to be a backup in case of an accident anyway.
“Well,” he muttered. “I guess this qualifies.”
“Nothing,” he said again, tiredly. “I was talking to myself again.”
“That is not a good sign. You should have another discussion with the Doctor.”
“Your psychiatric program is loopier than you are!” Rice protested. “It always was. The so called ‘expert’ it is based on must’ve been a head case himself. The software house that produced it probably interrogated one of the good doctor’s patients instead of him by mistake.”
“You bought the program,” the ship’s computer accused.
“It came with the package. Your package,” he pointed out. He waited. There was only a sullen silence. The ship knew better than to raise the point that Rice had spent too much on the ship to afford anything but second-rate software to run it. They both sulked as the new world spun by below. The AI knew it was inadequate and was just cognizant enough to be frustrated by that knowledge. Rice knew it was his fault. For want of a few more capitals they might not be in this mess. A better software package would have included better preventative diagnostics for the drive.
He massaged his temples. His headache was getting worse. The environmental control system hadn’t put out anything but marginally breathable air in months, and he had long since disabled the CO2 alarms. Were it not for a small but thriving garden in the ship’s tiny bio lab, he would have been dead weeks ago. Rice unbuckled his crash harness and stretched, floating up over the back of the command couch.
Wearily he pulled himself back through the old converted shuttle. The air freshened slightly as he entered the bio lab. He had taken to sleeping here lately, drifting above the overgrown hydroponics tank. These plants and a small colony of white mice were his best hope of surviving the inevitable collapse of his aging recycler. He breathed deeply of the marginally improved atmosphere and coughed.
There would be many days yet before he could risk the fresh air of the new world below. He wondered what it tasted like. Each world had its own unique flavor. He hoped this was one of the better ones, because it seemed likely he was going to be stuck with it.
“Ship,” he commanded, “lights out.” As he drifted off to sleep, he knew surviving that first breath would only be the first of his problems. He stared into the darkness and wondered what the locals were having for dinner. Stomach growling enough to make the mice nervous, he drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Despite the grinding headaches, it was almost another week before Rice considered himself ready to attempt a landing. In that time he made a discovery which galvanized him. It happened when he dropped a telefactor to get a better look at the locals.
The telefactor was a small flying disk with laser-fired ram-rockets, like those in his hardsuit. Capable of orbit-to-surface-to-orbit flight, it housed an impressive array of reconnaissance gear, including a number of high-resolution cameras.
The input from the remote even made him forget his predicament for a while, as he lost himself in the pleasure of discovering a new world. Flying the telefactor through the sensory linkup on the ship was better than experiencing a dream flight. Visual and sound input from the command helmet surrounded him. The telefactor was the next best thing to stepping outside the ship.
Focusing the cameras on the first group of locals he spotted, he suddenly found himself looking very closely indeed. The indigenous aliens were neither indigenous nor alien. They were human! If they weren’t, a lot of textbooks were going to need major rewriting. Rice had only one problem with what he was seeing; it was impossible.
Without a biological examination, the locals he saw were close enough to human that he could detect no difference. The only explanation had to be that there was an unregistered colony here after all, perhaps so valuing their isolation that they’d trashed their technology after arrival rather than risk detection.
But what he saw defied such an easy explanation. The population was spread over much of the planet and had to be in the millions. The cities he overflew were old. This civilization had not sprung up in the last three decades, or even in the five before that. He did not think this was the lost Freeman colony so often featured in the adventure vids. The builders of those cities could not have come from Earth, yet they must have. Rice vowed that whatever fate overtook him below, it would have to wait until he solved the riddle of this world.
It was just before dawn in the area where the telefactor was operating, and Rice was skimming the one-meter disk along the abrupt demarcation between a large, heavily forested swamp and a broad plain checkered with farms, when something caught his eye. At his command the disk swooped around for a second look and hovered before a large tree on the edge of the swamp. The probe’s night sight was excellent, but he rubbed his own eyes and stared. “Oh my,” he chortled. “There be tree-climbing dragons here.”
The thing did resemble a dragon, if a little smaller than the beasts of legend. Over four meters from nose to tail and weighing at least as much as a horse, it was a formidable looking animal. But, perched in the topmost fork of the tree, it looked utterly out of place. No wings marred its sleek scaly hide, and its legs seemed far too short for an arboreal creature. Also, it was just too damn big for tree work. Yet here it was.
It had been looking up when he first saw it, its spiked dorsal sail spread to the wind. Now the thing stared straight at him, its narrow, ridged head crowned by two straight horns. That the thing could see the probe didn’t surprise him. Anything that big that climbed trees in the dark had damn well better have good night sight. The telefactor’s exhaust would stand out like a flare to anything that could see into the infrared. What surprised him was the uncannily composed scrutiny that the overgrown iguana gave him. It appeared more curious than frightened. A long, forked tongue flicked out.
On a whim, he unlimbered one of the telefactor’s waldoes and waved at the creature. The big lizard’s head shot back, as if startled, then cocked to one side, staring intently. Rice was about to move in for a closer look when the ship interrupted him. He put the telefactor on auto and pulled off the helmet as the computer spoke.
“I have finished cataloging the most likely maglev sites on the continent below. Also, I am compelled to advise you that there has been further deterioration of the Environmental Control System. I predict crew expiration within twenty hours.”
“Thanks for the good news,” the deepscout answered dryly. “Fortunately, I expect to be on the ground long before then.”
“I am compelled to inform you that your intent to land has been entered into the autolog. The autolog wishes me to remind you that landings are not within the purview of your current charter with the Haven Corporation and that all resultant decontamination and quarantine costs will be docked from your….”
“Cut!” His headache was back. “Just drop the Company Line and give me the goddamn map.” He shook his head in irony. Were he able to get back with this find he could buy the Company. Well.., at least a seat on Survey Division’s board of directors. Fat chance.
“Do you wish to see the mascon survey, the geologic survey, the…”
“The mag points, you idiot!” he exploded. At the very least, he’d upgrade the Star’s AI. “I’ve got to get this crate on the ground before I start turning blue.”
There was no reply, but Rice swore that the requested chart snapped on before him with an almost sullen abruptness. He frowned. There were plenty of iron ore concentrations scattered around the planet that would serve as anchors for his initial drop from orbit, but final was going to be a problem.
Predictably, the best clusters that might serve as ‘feet’ for his ship’s magnetic ‘legs’ were in the mountains. He hated mountains. They were always trying to kill you. Unconsciously he ran a finger along a thin scar on his brow that trailed on up into his hairline. There, a streak of silver revealed its continued passage.
Also, the locals seemed well aware of the uses of the metal. The thermal overlay hinted at mines. That meant too many curious eyes too soon. A suddenly squealing circulation fan emphasized that his ship’s systems were not up to par. Mountain landings were out.
One continent seemed largely uninhabited, but the scout did not want to isolate himself that thoroughly. If, despite his doubts, this was a lost colony, there might just still be a usable ship down there somewhere, or at least its drive.
Leaning on the console with his elbows and massaging his temples, he said, “Magnify co-ord Zulu 8.5 by 25 and emphasize topo. The map zoomed in on the largest continent. The greatest concentration of people was there, but so was a large desert. In fact it began just several hundred klicks due east of the telefactor’s present location. Convenient. He nodded in satisfaction.
The bulk of the desert was a large salt flat which curled around the last peaks of a descending mountain range intruding from the northwest. He called up the mascon data and shook his head. More mysteries. A large number of mag points were concentrated around the last three peaks of the range, so many that some appeared to be in rows. If it were Earth or Eden, he’d have sworn he was looking at a major spaceport.
The three peaks were oddities as well; tall spires that loomed above the humble hills that otherwise were all that remained of the range at this point. He frowned. The map was a computer composite and this portion must have been shot when it was noon over the site. There was little contrast to show detail, but as with the mag points, there were hints of a pattern. A city? It didn’t seem likely given the locale. Whatever it was, it was long gone and buried. A closer look at the original photos might reveal more.
Rice pressed the palms of his hands against his eyeballs. They ached and his head was throbbing. “The hell with this. I’ll look at it on the ground.” The air filters were almost dead. He would be too if he fell asleep before he landed. He glanced again at the display. In the midst of that blighted terrain there were not likely to be many indigs lurking about. The place had possibilities. He highlighted an area on the flats near the ‘city’ that was rich in mag points, as good as a class A starport. “Ship? Warm up the mags. That’s where we’re going.” He stretched, easing back in the command couch.
A row of red lights immediately winked on in front of him and his hands slammed down on the arms of the couch.
“MagLev pod four has just suffered a catastrophic failure. I suspect micrometeor damage precipitated a short in the coils. It shut down. A repmech inspection of the exterior might have revealed the damage in time to effect repair before current was applied. I am afraid the coils are irreparably damaged now.” Computers were not supposed to sound smug when saying ‘I told you so.’ Somehow, this one did. Rice closed his eyes and swore.
“If you hadn’t taken to blowing the mechs to hell and gone with the thrusters,” he slowly gritted, “we might still be running EVIs. And what the hell’s the matter with number one? It go on strike or something?” He could tripod in on three mags, but two was a job for a stunt pilot. He certainly wasn’t going to trust it to the computer.
“Number one is responding erratically to control impulses. I consider it unreliable.”
Rice bit off his reply. Sarcasm was wasted on Machines. Besides, if this AI considered something unreliable it might be a good idea to take note. He sighed.
“Ok, forget the mags. We know the thrusters still work, don’t we?” Well, maybe just a little sarcasm. He did not wait for an answer. “It’s just lucky this crate’s so old it has wings. Prepare to de-orbit on the next revolution and set up for an aerodynamic approach, same target. We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. I don’t want to advertise our arrival, so use minimal delta V. Load up the old Exeter software for a nice quiet tourist approach. The less heat we generate, the less light, and I won’t have to worry whether the heat shield is still intact.”
His decision made, he suddenly felt invigorated. It would be good to have gravity under his feet again, not to mention air to breathe. He leaned back and smiled. He felt suddenly hopeful. It was a good feeling. Maybe he would never see home again, but what was home to him any more? The overgrown, burnt-out wreckage of Alexandria, Virginia? Sol Haven? He knew a lot of good people there. People who, like him, had been chased to the edge of the Solar system and who refused to be chased any further, but he’d never developed any attachments there. At least none who were still alive.
He clenched his fists, then shrugged. At least he would not be alone on this planet. Even loners got lonely sometimes, and he would be able to pick the time he would make contact. It was unlikely anyone would send the welcome wagon after him out in the middle of that desert.
“Take control of the telefactor. Program it to rendezvous with us in the desert.” He left the cockpit to make the rounds of his ship. For the first time in almost two years he was going to land on a planet, and he did not want anything important flying around loose.
“And tell the autolog we’re going in whether it likes it or not,” he shouted to the nearest pickup. For the moment, at least, he was in command of a ship again and not a drifting chunk of flotsam. For the first time in months, he felt in control of his destiny. “What’s the date, anyway?”
“It is the first of April, 2117.”
Rice grimaced. “Figures,” he muttered.
On the edge of the forest below, the telefactor banked eastward and headed for its new destination. The ‘dragon’ stared after it for a while, then cautiously but skillfully began picking its way down from its perch.
The above chapter is from DREAMBONES. Copyright © 2013 by John R. Patin
You can find the entire 148,000+ word novel serialized in the pages of Tales from TOMORROW, issues 4 thru 7, inexpensively available from Amazon for your Kindle at the following links:
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Sic Itur Ad Astra!