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       Ad Astra, p.1

           Jack Campbell
 
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Ad Astra


  OTHER BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

  Stark's War

  STARK'S WAR

  STARK'S COMMAND

  STARK'S CRUSADE

  Paul Sinclair: JAG In Space

  A JUST DETERMINATION

  BURDEN OF PROOF

  RULE OF EVIDENCE

  AGAINST ALL ENEMIES

  The Lost Fleet

  DAUNTLESS

  FEARLESS

  COURAGEOUS

  VALIANT

  RELENTLESS

  VICTORIOUS

  The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier

  DREADNAUGHT

  INVINCIBLE

  GUARDIAN

  The Lost Stars

  TARNISHED KNIGHT

  PERILOUS SHIELD

  Short Story Collections

  SWORDS AND SADDLES*

  BORROWED TIME*

  AD ASTRA*

  *available as e-books from Jabberwocky Literary Agency

  Ad Astra

  Copyright © 2013 by John G. Hemry

  Cover art by Tiger Bright Studios.

  Collected for the first time in this e-book by Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. in 2013

  ISBN 978-1-936535767

  PUBLICATION HISTORY

  "Lady Be Good"

  first published in Analog (April, 2006)

  "As You Know, Bob"

  first published in Analog (April, 2007)

  "Do No Harm"

  first published in Analog (July/August, 2007)

  "Down the Rabbit Hole"

  first published in Analog (May, 2001)

  "Generation Gap"

  first published in Analog (December, 2002)

  "Kyrie Eleison"

  first published in Analog (September, 2006)

  "Odysseus"

  first published in Analog (February, 1999)

  "One Small Spin"

  first published in Analog (September, 1997)

  "Section Seven"

  first published in Analog (September, 2003)

  "Standards of Success"

  first published in Analog (March, 2005)

  "The Bookseller of Bastet"

  first published in Analog (March, 2008)

  CONTENTS

  Lady Be Good

  As You Know, Bob

  Do No Harm

  Down the Rabbit Hole

  Generation Gap

  Kyrie Eleison

  Odysseus

  One Small Spin

  Section Seven

  Standards of Success

  The Bookseller of Bastet

  Author's Note on Lady Be Good

  One of my favorite writers is Leigh Brackett, who was not only a good science fiction and fantasy author but also worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, playing a role in films from The Big Sleep to The Empire Strikes Back. I like her way of writing, and her hard-bitten and wounded heroes (Humphrey Bogart was a particular favorite of hers, which is why Han Solo in Empire takes on the depth of one of Bogart’s characters). Something else that had always fascinated me was the saga of a US bomber named Lady Be Good which had vanished in 1943, only to be discovered intact in the Libyan desert in 1959. Her crew had died within days from heat and lack of water, but the bomber had remained as an silent memorial to them, perfectly preserved. I wanted to write about that, but not simply retelling that story. I wanted something about sacrifice, but also achievement. One day I started writing this story, and it flowed out as if Leigh herself was whispering the words to me. I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve written. Lady Be Good won the Analog magazine award for best novelette of 2006.

  Lady Be Good

  There’s a place, they say, where sailors go when their last voyage ends, when their ships come apart among the drifting reefs of an asteroid belt or vanish in the great dark between the stars that light worlds. A place where the engines never falter and the hull never cracks, where particle storms never rage in sudden fury that pierces shielding to shred the workings of machines and men and leave lifeless wrecks in their wake. A place where every sailor has a safe posting and a fair wage and every Captain sees a decent profit from a hard run. A place where the bars are cheap and honest, the planet-tied greet sailors with open hands and hearts, and every ship finds welcome and a safe berth.

  The place is called Haven, they say. No chart shows you the way, no sailing directions offer guidance, no star map carries the name. But when the need is great and the time is right, a true sailor will find it. Or so they say.

  “Bunch ‘a crap,” Dingo mumbled around his beer mug as the old drunk at the next table kept talking about the mythical sailor’s paradise known as Haven. Dingo drained the last of the brew and banged his now-empty mug on the table. A passing waiter paused just long-enough to slop more beer into the mug, allowing a big head to form, and tapped the counter on his waist racking up Dingo’s tab. Dingo grunted with disgust and blew off the foam, squinting at the actual beer level. “They do that on purpose.”

  “Really?” I pushed a lot of sarcasm into the word so that even Dingo would pick up on it. “When’d you figure that out?”

  “Go to hell, First Officer Kilcannon, sir,” Dingo suggested. “They’re cheating us, is what they’re doin’.”

  “And they do the same damn thing in every damn bar in every damn port from here all the way back to Mother Sol.”

  Dingo drained his beer again, belched, and got another partial ‘refill’ almost as fast. “That’s what I mean. That attitude. What makes them think they can get away with that?”

  “Experience with dumb sailors.”

  “Screw you, Kilcannon.”

  “No, thanks. I’ve already had that taken care of today.”

  “Then why’re you bein’ such a wise-ass? Wasn’t it any fun?”

  I shrugged. “It was business. Services paid for, services provided.”

  “Saints, but ain’t you in a foul mood. Have another beer.” Dingo flopped backward and smiled loosely. “Works every time.”

  It did for Dingo, anyway. I looked at him, sagging into his battered chair, his eyes glazing over as the alcohol from several earlier beers finally hit his system. Dingo didn’t believe in Haven, maybe because he thought he could find it in every bar. As long as his money held out and I got his drunken carcass back to the ship afterwards. “Don’t forget we’re sailing tomorrow.”

  “Why do you think I’m getting this drunk?” Dingo stared blearily at his beer mug, as if uncertain whether it still held liquid.

  “I’m going to need you functioning tomorrow. We’ve got three new hands coming onboard.”

  “Hah! How’d you swing that? Lie about our next port?”

  “Yeah.”

  Dingo began laughing silently, his sides shaking and an enormous grin splitting his face. He bent over, gasping for air. “They’ll kill ya when they find out, Kilcannon,” he finally managed to stammer. “I swear they’ll kill ya.”

  “I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

  “You do that.” Dingo raised his mug, tipping it vertical to get every drop. It fell back onto the table again but before the waiter could slosh any more into the mug I slapped his hand aside. “Hey. I ain’t done.”

  “Yes, you are.”

  “You ain’t my mother and you ain’t the Captain and dammed if I’ll let you nursemaid me, Kilcannon! I quit!” Dingo struggled to his feet, his hands clenched into fists. I stayed seated, just looking back at him. “Get up! Damn ya, get up! When I’m done there won’t be enough of ya left to run through a recycler.”

  “Right.” I stood slowly, keeping my hands lowered. “Let’s go.”

  “I told you I quit! I ain’t goin’ on this voyage! I never aimed to and I won’t! Not there!”

  “Okay.”

  My answer took a moment to penetrate through la
yers of alcohol-soaked brain cells, then Dingo lowered his fists a little and stared at me. “Okay?”

  “Sure. Let’s get your stuff off the ship. You’ll need it.”

  Dingo grinned broadly, wavering on his feet. “Now that’s a saintly way to be, Kilcannon. I was wrong about you. Sure I was.”

  I plopped a credit chip on the table and steered Dingo out of the bar. We wended our way back to the ship, dodging other drunk sailors as we went. Every once in a while, the orbital port’s gravity would stutter a little in our area, making me waver on my feet as badly as Dingo for a moment. That’s one of the hazards of being in the low-rent areas of any port off-planet. Outside every bar in the area near the port were other hazards, men and women who looked young and cheap and pretty in the dim lighting, beckoning and calling invitations to visit the particular establishments where they got kick-backs for luring in customers. I fended off all of them.

  Our IDs got us onto the pier and onto the ship. Dingo paused outside his quarters, swaying on his feet as if our ship was riding on a planetary ocean. “Ya sure this is okay, Kilcannon?”

  “Yeah. No problem.”

  “I’m gonna get my kit.”

  “You do that.” I gestured him inside. Dingo grinned and staggered into his quarters. I waited until he was almost to the bunk, then keyed in the security override on the hatch. Dingo was still turning his head to see what the noise was when the hatch slid shut and locked. I heard a roar of anger, followed a second later by the impact of Dingo’s body against the hatch. Silence followed, so apparently Dingo had knocked himself out. Hopefully he wasn’t hurt too badly. I had no intention of cracking that hatch before the ship was safely underway tomorrow. “See you in the morning, Third Officer Dingo.”

  I walked down the passageway, easily seeing dark patches of mold on the overhead even in the dimmed night lighting of the ship. The Lady Be Good badly needed a full-scale fumigation, but that was just one of the things she badly needed that she wasn’t going to get any time soon.

  #

  The port inspector arrived half an hour late to give us departure clearance. As far as I knew, Dingo still hadn’t awoken and started demanding his freedom, and none of the three new sailors had shown any signs they suspected our destination wasn’t the same one they’d signed on for. The inspector gave the entry lock of the Lady a sour look., but she couldn’t flunk us on the basis of that lock. I kept that working even if it wasn’t pretty.

  The inspector ran down the checklist. “You claim you’ve signed on enough new sailors to meet minimum crew requirements.”

  “That’s right.” You couldn’t be too subservient or the public servants would ride right over you, but you couldn’t dis ‘em either. Not if you were smart. “You can confirm they’re onboard from the pier access records.”

  “There’s ways to gimmick those records.”

  “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

  “I bet you don’t.” She picked a name at random. “I want to see Able Spacer Kanidu. In person. Here.”

  “Okay.” Odds had favored her picking one of the new hires, but I’d still worried she might ask to see Dingo. Dingo would come around once we were underway. He always did after any little misunderstandings while he was drunk. But right now he’d still be a bit upset with me.

  Kanidu answered the hail quick enough. Short and stout, she gave the inspector a bland look and confirmed all of her qualification data. Finally satisfied, the inspector let the sailor go. “I need to verify your cargo manifest.”

  “Sure.” I let her plug into the ship systems and check the cargo containers. A really good inspector would’ve suited up and crawled over the big cargo containers fastened around Lady’s core, even opening the loading doors to check that the contents matched the manifests. But really good inspectors didn’t work the early morning weekend shifts and didn’t bother with small freighters like Lady, so it’d been safe to assume we’d just get a manifest check.

  I’d been assured the inspector wouldn’t be able to spot that the manifests had been falsified. I mentally crossed my fingers and hoped the assurances were accurate.

  Apparently they were. The inspector moved on to more items on the checklist, mostly dealing with equipment. “It’s been a long time since your last engine certification.”

  “We’re within limits.”

  “Time-wise, maybe.” She gave the entry lock another look. “How well does your gear still work?”

  It wouldn’t take a lot of experience for her to guess our gear wouldn’t pass a certification test right now. “It works fine.”

  “Maybe I ought to look at it.”

  Maybe. I knew what that meant. “Hey, I just remembered something. Can you hold here just a sec?”

  She gave her watch an annoyed look and nodded. I went straight to my quarters. In the bottom of one drawer, well wrapped, I found the bottle and carefully carried it out. “I’ve got a friend in port I meant to give this. But I forgot. Could you get it to him?”

  “I suppose.” She took the bribe, examining the label as if ready to reject it, but then her face cleared. “From Mother Sol?”

  “Yeah.” Mother Sol was a long, long ways from the port of Mandalay orbiting the planet of the same name orbiting the star humans had named Ganesha. Anything from Sol, even rotgut, had the exotic aura imbued by great distance, and this wasn’t rotgut. “From Martinique. That’s an island. It’s good rum. You ought to try some.”

  “Maybe I will. I guess this friend isn’t that special if this is all you got him.”

  I shrugged and gestured at the entry lock. “Funds are pretty short right now. It’s all I could afford.”

  “Okay.” Cover story for the bribe established for the benefit of any hidden recorders, and her questioning whether we could give her a bigger pay off also fielded, the inspector pocketed the bottle. “You’re cleared for departure. But I’ve tagged your ship entry. Next time you hit this port you’d better have a recent engine certification or we’ll do a full inspection.”

  “No problem.”

  She grinned at what we both knew was a lie, then headed off, patting the place where she’d stashed that rum. Damn. I’d been saving it for a special occasion. But like just about everything else I’d had to use it in an emergency.

  I checked the lock’s log to confirm everyone was aboard, then sealed the lock tight. “Able Spacers Kanidu, Jungo, and Siri. Meet me in the crews mess.”

  The two tables grandly labeled the crews mess had plenty of empty places even when breakfast was supposedly being handed out. Dingo wasn’t here, of course, but we had a lot of unfilled slots. We couldn’t afford to pay for a full crew, but then again that wasn’t really a problem because it was so hard to get sailors to sign on to a ship in Lady’s shape that recruiting just enough to meet minimum standards was a big enough challenge.

  Kanidu eyed me in a disinterested way as I assigned her to engineering and pointed her toward Chief Engineer Vox at one of the tables. Vox just nodded silently when Kanidu reported to her.

  Jungo was a tall, slim guy with an eager smile who’d been happy to sign on. I wondered what he was hiding and who or what he was running from. I gave him to the cargo section.

  Last came Siri. She was a small woman, thin and shivering slightly, carrying every indication of being a star dust addict. No wonder no other ship had taken her on. She’d go cold turkey for certain on our voyage, which wouldn’t be pretty, but the worst that could happen was she’d die and then we wouldn’t have to pay her. I gave her to ship’s systems, because she’d been certified a System Tech Second Rate at one point. Maybe her dust-addled brain still remembered some of that.

  I stopped next to the Chief Engineer. “We okay to go?”

  Vox nodded wordlessly again.

  “Anything I need to tell the Captain?”

  Vox dug something out from between her teeth before answering. “Refit.”

  “I know we need a refit. As soon as I can -.”

  “Sh
ipyard.”

  I stopped talking and just nodded back. The Lady needed a full engineering refit in a shipyard, nothing less. The Chief Engineer had a responsibility to remind me of that. I couldn’t do a thing about it, but I had to be reminded of it.

  I went forward, trying to figure out where I might be able to get the Lady’s engines looked at for something less than cut-rate prices. Maybe an under-used maintenance facility at a middle-of-nowhere star would be willing to give us a break for the sake of keeping their hands in. It was worth a try.

  Captain Jane Weskind sat in her still-darkened cabin. She’d gotten dressed by herself but didn’t look good this morning. “We’re cleared to leave,” I reported, standing in front of her desk and touching my brow with my right hand.

  A long moment passed. Weskind’s face cycled through a half-dozen emotions before she caught it and froze it in a shaky grin. “No problems?” It was what she always said, now.

  There wasn’t a thing she could do about engineering and she’d already been told we were overdue for a yard period. “No problems.”

  “Good work, First Officer Kilcannon.” She lowered her voice, as if sharing a secret. “The Lady needs work. I know it.” A long pause. “A good profit on this run. That’s all we need. One good run.” Another pause. “Right, Kilcannon?”

  “Right, Captain.” She always said that, too. Just one good run. That wouldn’t be enough, of course, but with the profit from one good run we could set up an even better run and then we’d be on our way up again. Dingo might think Haven was in the nearest bar but Captain Weskind clung to it being one good run away. It seemed it had always been one good run away and maybe it always would be one good run away. Maybe not, though. This run did promise a good return. Not without risk, of course. I smiled and nodded at Captain Weskind’s words because this really could be the one good run we needed, and because I was sure Captain Weskind needed to believe that run would happen and needed to know I believed it, too. “Will you be on the bridge when we leave port, Captain?”

  More expressions chased their way across Captain Weskind’s face. “I…have work, First Officer Kilcannon.”

  “I understand, Captain. I’ll take the ship out.”

 
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