Excerpt: The Stones of Silence

Peter Grant is self-publishing a new trilogy. An excerpt from The Stones of Silence:

On Colomb’s bridge, her duty watch felt no tension at all as they looked at the Plot display. The cargo shuttle was almost ten minutes out, arrowing toward its rendezvous with the first satellite. They’d all shared in a handsome bonus for capturing the first three satellites, some months before. If they picked up the next three as well, plus the monitoring station that they now knew existed, they’d get the same again – something to look forward to when they got back to Callanish.

Their anticipation was rudely shattered as three traces appeared in the Plot display, the first above them, the second thirty degrees below and to starboard, and the last thirty degrees below and to port. The Plot operator froze for a disbelieving second, then almost screamed, “Vampire! Vampire! Three missiles launched from… they’re all around us!”

Almost before he’d finished speaking, Lieutenant-Commander Macaskill’s voice cut over his from the Navigation console. “They’re not aimed at us! They’re offset to one side, sir!”

Lamprey felt as if he were wading through mental molasses as he tried to cudgel his astonished brain into action. He raised his voice over the sudden hubbub of startled cries and oaths. “Silence! Silence on the bridge!” Every instinct screamed at him to cut in the drive and head for safety right away… but those missiles proved it would be futile. Every one of them had been launched from only half a million kilometers away.

They watched in frozen, dumbfounded silence as the three missiles arrowed closer, then detonated in three starburst icons in the Plot display. Their laser beam cones were aimed away from Colomb, so they did no damage, instead slashing harmlessly through the vacuum of space.

Almost as soon as the last missile had detonated, a voice crackled over the Communications speaker on the interplanetary emergency channel. It was filtered through a voice modulator, so that it came over in a flat, mechanical monotone.

“Attention! Colomb, you are surrounded by armed vessels. Any attempt to flee will result in your instant destruction. Your ship and crew are under arrest. Order your cargo shuttle to return to your ship immediately. Your crew is to enter Colomb’s lifeboats, taking nothing with them, and remain there until further orders. The Commanding Officer, plus a skeleton bridge and drive room crew, are to remain at their stations. Send your Executive Officer to meet an armed boarding party in your docking bay. They will give you further orders. In the meantime, you are not to damage your ship in any way. Leave all systems and equipment in fully operational condition. Do not erase any records, files or programs. If you do, those responsible will face the most severe consequences. Acknowledge. Over.”

There was a stunned silence in the control center as Lamprey reached for his microphone. He somehow managed to keep his voice steady, even though his body was trembling with the shock of his reaction to the missiles that had come out of nowhere.

“Colomb to unknown vessel. Who are you? Identify yourself! By what authority are you trying to arrest us? There is no System Control Service in the Mycenae system, and no laws or regulations authorizing you or anybody else to arrest anyone for anything. This is an act of piracy! Over.”

“Colomb, we are the new security service for the Mycenae system. That’s all you need to know. We don’t care whether you recognize our authority. You’d better recognize the authority of our missiles, if you value your lives! As for your arrest, what did you expect after you stole three satellites from around this planet? Your presence here was recorded, and your ship identified. You are now being brought to justice for that theft. It may be frontier justice, but it’s justice nonetheless. Your ship is forfeit for your crimes. You and your crew will be placed under guard while Colomb is taken away for disposal. After that, plus a suitable interval to make sure you haven’t sabotaged her in any way, you’ll all be returned to Callanish, to explain to your bosses how you lost their ship. Over.”

Lamprey wanted to spit on the deck next to his console, but restrained himself. He was filled with bitter anger and frustration. He knew they had no defense against… whoever these people were. They’d heard vague rumors that the New Orkney Enterprise was considering system security in Mycenae, but his superiors had assured him that nothing had been done about it yet. They’d claimed it would take months, if not years, for NOE to buy patrol craft, hire qualified and experienced crews for them, and set up a formal security operation. What’s more, NOE didn’t have the money to spare for that right now. He couldn’t help thinking bitterly, It looks like they had a lot more money than we thought. They must have hired an existing outfit, rather than taken the time to raise their own. Who the hell are these people? There aren’t many space security companies out there, and I don’t know any who can afford to expend nuclear-tipped missiles as a demonstration like that. They cost too much.

Slowly, he raised his microphone. “Colomb to… whoever you are. We shall comply, under protest. I am recalling my cargo shuttle, and will send my crew to the lifeboats and my Executive Officer to the docking bay. We await your boarding party. Over.”

“Very well. Do as you’re told, and no-one will get hurt, and you’ll all get home safely. Stand by.”
Lamprey switched to intercom. “Drive compartment, stand fast. Bridge, stand fast. The rest of the crew is to proceed to their lifeboat stations at once, and take their places in the lifeboats, but do not launch, I say again, Do. Not. Launch. This is not a drill. I repeat, This. Is. Not. A. Drill. Lifeboat commanders, call the roll. Report to me as soon as all assigned personnel are in their places.”

Faintly, echoing up and down the main passageway, he could hear shouts of astonishment from the crew. Most of them knew nothing of the drama outside the hull, he reminded himself. He’d have to broadcast to them in the lifeboats, and explain what had happened.

He nodded approvingly at Lieutenant-Commander Macaskill, who’d taken it upon himself to radio the cargo shuttle and order its immediate return. “Thank you, Exec. You’d better head for the docking bay to meet the boarding party. Be careful. They may be trigger-happy.”

“I’ll be careful, sir.” Aidan’s voice was tight with anger and concern. “I wonder where they’re going to put us while they take Colomb to… wherever she’s going?”

“I daresay we’ll find out soon enough. As to where she’s going, surely that’s obvious? They’ll take her somewhere they can sell her for a lot of money, cash on the barrelhead. A newly refurbished repair ship, with all its equipment intact, is worth hundreds of millions, even in a no-questions-asked under-the-counter sale. They’ll want to recover as much as they can of the value of the satellites we took from them.”

“I wish we could hand them a worthless, burned-out hulk!”

“It’s a tempting thought, but what would happen to our crew if we did?” They stared at each other for a wordless moment, then Lamprey shook his head. “No. We can’t risk it. Our people deserve better than that.”

“I… yes, sir. You’re right.”

“I’ll broadcast to the ship’s company once they’re in the lifeboats, and make sure they understand that too. No resistance, no sabotage, no funny business at all. Our families want us back alive, not in coffins!”