Chapter 1

The cold shimmer of light that lanced out from the edges of the rift washed across the cockpit's surfaces and the face of Dar Kree, overwhelming the dim emergency lighting.

"Nest, this is Claw Three Echo Seven Light," Dar called into his comm. Again there was no response, only the soft hiss of an open channel.

"Claw Leader, Claw three," again the forlorn hiss was the only reply.

Dar worked his way back from the cockpit into the crew quarters. The damage to the ship did not make it easy, even as agile as he was. Nor was he as agile as was normal for him. He may have lived through the disaster, but he had suffered some injuries doing so. At first he had hoped he would find others of Kadamon's crew alive, but the hope had been dashed, first by his failure to get a response over the ship's internal comm, and then more utterly by the bodies he found when he was able at last to tour the ship. The Chief Engineer and the engineer's mate had died at their stations, as had the two ratings who normally manned the ship's pulse cannons.

The Kadamon, had dropped its four squads of marines on Numaza, taking only moderate damage getting back into orbit. Dar had known it was a bad sign when the orders had come almost immediately for a relief pickup. The Fighting Fifth's four squads who made the Kadamon home must've really stepped in it, he'd thought at the time. The ship had taken even more damage going back into atmosphere, but nothing she wasn't built to take, and Dar had been looking for the pickup beacon when the orders had come to bug out. A bug out call had to mean that the beast had been well and truly gutted and stuck on the spit, planetside, he'd thought when that call came. By the time the Kadamon had slipped out of atmosphere, she had damage that was going to require some time to fix. Nothing the shipboard repair drones couldn't handle, but serious enough.

"Ship, how goes the scan?" Dar asked, knowing that there would be no news. The ship's keruden would have contacted him immediately if there had been any change.

"85 percent complete commander," came the ship's reply. Again Dar regretted his decision to use his mate's voice for the keruden. The war mind was the current state of the art in Sondag Electronic Intellects, and if he was going to live, it would probably be due to the keruden's ability to interface with the ship systems, but it haunted him to hear that voice now, knowing he may never hear the real one again.

There were serious signs of the entirety of Claw Three having stepped in it by the time he'd gotten back to high orbit. The cover ship that was supposed to be keeping any of the enemies big boys off his back was nowhere to be seen. The Kuros, the Heavy destroyer assigned to cover his cover ship was spitting fire from places it shouldn't and had dropped into a much lower orbit than it should have. The ship told him that there were a half dozen other planetary landing craft and supply ships spinning their gears trying to get into high orbit. 'The Kuros must be trying to provide cover for us.'

The destroyers efforts seemed to have been effective, as several dozen craft lit fires under their engines and fled the Sionnex system entirely.

Dar's circuit through the ship served no purpose except to give him a sense of purpose, and he knew it, but busy work was fine with him, even if it was busy work he gave himself. He'd cleared out the remaining bodies days ago, and the repair drones were almost completely finished restoring the blown bulkhead that had been the outer wall of the warrior's training and equipment repair bay. Dar looked with curiosity once again at the row of biomorphic polyarmor suits that hung on the inner wall. If the ship's crew had been wearing those suits when the disaster had happened, they would more than likely all still be alive. The armor was designed to survive far harsher attacks than that which the Kadamon's crew had been exposed to. The space marines were bio-engineered though, to make them capable of wearing the suits, and the crew of the Kadamon was not. The pilot's pod, where Dar had been offered a similar level of protection, though certainly not accompanied by the mobility or lethality the armor offered the marine who wore it.

Past the marine billet, he worked his way back past to the engineering space. It too looked to be restored completely. The engines themselves were another story, Dar knew, and since he was there, he checked with the ship. "Ship, what's the status of the engine repairs?"

"The port engine will be operational in three days, five hours and seventeen minutes, commander. The starboard engine will be operational in six days, eleven hours and nine minutes. Both engines will be restored to fleet nominal status in twelve days."

Satisfied that things were proceeding as best they could, Dar stopped for a meal at the ship's galley and then headed back to the cockpit. There wasn't really a need for him to be there, the keruden was doing everything that could be done. Once back in the pilots chair, he sighed heavily and queried the ship again.

The sad remains of the fleet had thought themselves safe by the time they'd reached the Volmon Rift. They'd left the Sionnex system and Numaza behind, and were fast approaching the proper jump vector for getting back into Sondag space proper. It was here, within sensor range of their transition point that the remainder of the enemy forces attacked. Operating underneath the sensor blinding haze of the rifts transit interface, they attacked with six Hellmouth missiles. Given the damage most of the ships had already suffered, three missiles could have been called overkill. Only Kadamon's position on the far port side of the Kuros saved her from the obliteration that took the destroyer itself out. Still, it damaged her engines, shutting them down completely, and killing the rest of the crew with a wash of energies designed to disrupt Sondag neuronic interfaces. The minds of his shipmates; the Sondags behind those minds, died immediately. The bodies took some time longer.

"Ship, time to the transition interface?"

"Fifteen hours until transition, commander," came the ship's reply.

There was his real problem. Dar sighed again with a grimace. His ship, and he with it, was slowly drifting towards the Vormon Rift. When the ship reached the transition interface, it would transition through O-space and reappear somewhere else. The ship, with no engines to direct her, would be almost completely helpless when they arrived at the other end of that transition. The odds told him that the other end of that journey would be unknown space. He didn't need the odds to tell him that an un-powered transition was fatal for anyone not in stasis. Few had ever survived it even in stasis and been found to tell the tale. The rifts of space may have taught the Sondag about the existence of O space, and how to jump through it from one place to another, but it also taught them that the rifts themselves were too dangerous. Rifts made good beacons and served as excellent anchors for ships jumping across O space, but they were fickle and dangerous, subject to whims that no being could control and few could even pretend to predict.

"Ship, status of stasis chambers?"

"All stasis chambers are fully operational commander, and the full diagnostic you requested shows they meet all fleet and imperial specifications."

Twelve hours later, a hungry Dar climbed onto the couch of stasis chamber Twelve. Those about to enter stasis were encouraged to do so on an empty stomach. It had no effect on stasis itself, but it did make post-stasis recovery much easier.

"Ship, status please," he called from the couch.

"Three hours until transition commander," came the reply. "All repairs are on schedule. Hull integrity is nominal. Shielding is nominal. Life support is nominal."

"Very well then ship, initiate a thirty minute countdown. When the countdown is complete, you will assume command under Emergency directive 'Lifeboat Zero'. Understood?"

"Thirty minute countdown initiated commander. Standing by to implement emergency directive 'Lifeboat Zero' in twenty nine minutes and twenty one seconds".

"Very good," Dar said, more to himself than to the keruden. He settled into the couch, letting the stasis suit settle itself around him before pulling the access hatch shut above him. The chamber was already set for automatic activation, and with the door sealed, he heard a slight hiss of gas just before the field itself activated.

Twenty eight minutes and forty three seconds later the war mind took command according to the specified emergency directive. Internal power was diverted to critical systems only. Lights blinked out throughout the ship. Air purification ceased. Air in fact was slowly drained out of the ship's compartments and stored.

A little more than two hours later, the ship encountered the Vormon Rift's transition threshold and with a twisting shudder and a brief flare of light, was gone.

"Pete, can you drop the aft tether?" Ross Carson asked through the suit's comm.

"Sure thing. You want any thrusters?" came the reply.

"No!" Ross answered loudly. "I've got things right where I want them now. Don't you dare move a damned thing!"

"Okay boss, calm down." chuckled Pete Lopez. "We're a well-oiled machine, remember?"

"What we are is a jury-rigged salvage operation with a your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine navcom sitting in a rebuilt, second-hand ship whose mortgage is held by a heartless loan officer."

"Yeah, I now," Pete answered. "A loan officer whose never heard the one about not being able to get blood out of a stone. Hey we're doing okay though."

"We're holding our own man. We're making our payments, but we're not socking anything away. One of these days we're going to get hit with some sort of repair that we can't jury rig, patch or work around, and then..."

"Then we're screwed and the bank owns our ass."

"The bank already owns our ass. We miss a payment and they stop letting us haul it wherever we want to in their ship."

"Maybe if we played it a little safer..."

"We're managing to keep our heads above water this way," Ross argued. It was an old argument. They scouted out some of the more dangerous but higher value target locations, such as the small unnamed and inconstant rift they were near this week. "Everyone else has investors and insurers who tell them no when they even think of coming out here. We've got no one but the bank, and they don't care where we go as long as we keep making payments."

"Well they're not stupid, are they Ross?" Paul said in retort. "They know just like we do, what can happen to a ship that gets caught too close to a rift when it shifts. Ships get shredded and people die."

"True enough, but we have your special navcom and those modifications to our sensor banks, don't we? You say these mods will give us warning when a shift is imminent, and I believe you."

"You have more faith in my work than I do then," Paul answered more quietly.

"I always have my friend," Ross answered softly. The momentary argument had ended as quickly as it started, just as they always did.

Both men had been working through the entire conversation and with the tether secured and the mass of twisted interstellar debris safely attached, Ross Carson made his way back into the Eudoxus, shedding his space suit as soon as the atmosphere was normalized and headed for the bridge. It was a short walk, as the Eudoxus was not large, save for the cargo hold, which was open to space.

"We've got an alert on the sensors," Pete's voice came over the ship's comm. Hurry up!"

"Already here," Ross replied, opening the hatch that separated the bridge from the rest of the ship. "Get strapped in, we may have to move."

Even as he sat himself down and was reaching for his own buckles, there was a bright flash from the bridge's view screen. Both men looked up in time to see almost as an afterimage, the not-too-distant rift's edge flare and die. Suddenly something seemed to swell in the view screen, something strange and not the typical twisted mass of the refuse they'd been mining. That quick impression was followed by the proximity alarms all going off at once and a sudden hard jerking of the entire ship. The air was full of horrible screeching as tortured metal complained from all part of the Eudoxus.

Pete took a quick glance at his console. "Well, that wasn't a shift in the rift, so what the hell was it?" he asked.

"I think something hit us," Ross answered. "Not sure what though, the sensors are all off line. Half the internal ones too."

"Crap, so's main power. We're on auxiliary."

"I'd better go suit back up and check the engineering pod," Ross said, reaching for the release on his harness.

"I'll do it," Pete offered. "You've already been out long enough today.

Pete checked the telltales on the access hatch, relieved to see that it was still reporting full atmosphere on the other side.

"Looks good, here I go."

"Good luck, I'll start running the emergency checklist from here. Comm me once your in your suit so I can kill the internal lighting. We've got to save power until we know how long its going to take to get the engines back on line."

Ross ran down the list, checking off the things that worked and those that didn't. Most of the failures were from the rear of the ship, it seemed.

"Okay, I'm suited up," came Pete's voice through the comm.

"Alright, I'm killing the internal lights. Only the emergency lighting should still be visible."

"Confirm," came the reply a moment later."

Be careful back there," Ross cautioned. "The telltales suggest there's a lot of damage back there. Keep this line open as you go."

"Confirm. Moving out," Pete answered.

Ross could here his partner's breathing and muttering as he worked his way aft, climbing through the access tunnel that went around the cargo hold towards the rear engine pods. The subconscious stream of muttering interspersed with his hard breathing was suddenly cut off and Ross was beginning to panic when suddenly Pete cursed. "Fuck!"

"Pete! You all right?" Ross called.

"I'm fine partner, but we're not." came the answer.

"What are the engines damaged that badly?" Ross answered grimacing to himself.

"What the engines are..." Pete paused for a moment and Ross could hear him taking a deep breath. " ... is gone, old friend. Completely, totally gone. The entire engineering pod looks like it was just sheared off as pretty as you could please."


"Exactly," came Pete Lopez replied after another long silence. "Whatever just hit us was bit and hard, and we are now officially dead men just waiting to die."

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