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The Dark Between
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-789-7
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 183 Pages
Published: November 2010
OUT OF PRINT

From inside the flap

Celeste is a salvage expert working on an outpost in what she calls the butt-end of space. What she wants more than anything is to stake the first claim on a valuable piece of salvage and buy her way back to civilization.

At first it seems like fate has decided to shine upon her when, while on a routine patrol, she comes across an unusual vessel.

The derelict spaceship is unlike anything anyone has ever seen. And Celeste is certain she’s finally found her claim to fame and fortune. But once she tries to lay claim to the vessel, things go badly indeed.

The Dark Between (Excerpt)


CHAPTER ONE

From the diary of Celeste Miner, Salvage Specialist:

The proximity alarm sliced through the cabin’s stale air.

Damn, I thought. There hadn’t been anything on the scope seconds before when I left the bridge. The claxon made my ears pound, interrupting what had, until then, been an uneventful shift. In the corridor, I heard the slap of boots against the metal deck plating as the rest of the crew headed for the bridge. If I wanted this claim, I had to be the first one there.

I bolted down the hallway, my heart thumping in time with the alarm. Not much happened in the butt-end of space. Those of us unlucky enough to inhabit it grimly accepted our destiny and endured. To relieve the boredom, we entertained vague dreams of staking a claim, striking it rich enough to escape to more interesting parts of the galaxy. Not much happened... until the minute I least expected it.

I have to admit, the moment I saw that strange ship on the scope, I thought my dreams had come true. I’m going to lay claim to that thing, I thought; buy myself a ticket to a better life. If only I’d known how very wrong I was...


***

Half a shift down, Celeste thought with relief. Ten standard hours on, ten off. Ten standard days on, ten off. She’d traded a shift, so that made her week eleven days long. She was certain she’d die of boredom before it was over... and then maybe die of boredom anyway.

She knew the rest of the crew were in the galley, reliving last week’s planet-side leave. To listen to those two, you’d think they’d bedded every female between here and the Andromeda galaxy. Maybe they had, but she highly doubted it.

She flipped the toggle switch that opened the mic to the galley and listened in on the play-by-play.

"And she had these amazingly huge... " she heard Kai say before she turned it off in disgust.

She would never indulge in that kind of bragging, even among other women-even if she’d seen any action lately, which for the record, she thought darkly, she hadn’t. In any case, she wouldn’t have shared. As the only female on the crew, she knew better than to go there-with that pair, anyway.

Another glance at the scan told her that things hadn’t changed in the last half-hour. She glanced at the antique watch she wore on her wrist-not that it would help. The ancient timepiece had ceased working countless years ago. Even if it still kept time, the watch would be useless. In deep space, allied outposts had adopted the standard ten-hour day, ten-hour night. Still, she loved the twelve numerals on the oval dial and the phases of the moon forever frozen in place in the small window at the bottom. An heirloom her mother had given to her as child, it had been passed down to her mother from some long-forgotten ancestor from Earth. Along with the watch had come a gold charm bracelet with gold planets, a golden sun, and a matching golden moon. That comprised the sum of her legacy. Even when she’d been desperate for funds, she hadn’t sold them.

Rousing herself from her musing, Celeste looked up at the chrono on the control panel and groaned. Another five hours. She’d go completely crazy before it was over.

The shiny black metal of the control panel reflected her wan face. Her gray eyes had blue circles beneath them from too much work and too little sleep. She should take better care of herself, she knew. One standard year spent in med lab recuperating from cancer had taught her that. Bad genes and too many shifts spent in inadequately shielded spaces had conspired to give her a near-fatal illness early in life. Having narrowly escaped, she depended on the nanobots in her system to keep her healthy. Celeste tucked a nearly colorless strand of blonde hair behind her ear and sighed. Fine and good to feel well again, but somehow she had to pay for the treatment that had saved her life.

Still, she had survived. As long as she was alive, she intended to entertain the hope of a better life. One day, one day for sure, she was going to know what it was like to stand under the open sky in the warmth of the sun.

Voices headed for the bridge. Celeste guessed the meal break was over. Not that Tal or Kai ever paid any attention to such things as the duration of scheduled breaks-unless they were hers.

"Anything?" Kai asked, slinging his lean body into the chair beside her. Tal hovered in the background like a fat gargoyle, watching her every move.

"Nothing," she said. "Want a turn?"

Tal shook his head. "You got it covered."

That she did, but she hadn’t had so much as time to visit the head since the shift began. It wouldn’t kill them to watch the scope while she took a short break, but she knew from experience that once her meal was over they’d be back in the galley playing games of chance on their handhelds and losing their paychecks to each other.

Sure enough, no sooner had the words left his mouth, than Tal pulled out his handheld and held it up for Kai to see. "You game?"

"Sure," Kai said. And off they went.

Celeste waited until they were safely back down in the galley before she engaged the autopilot and headed for the sanitary facilities.

With Kai and Tal on board you could hardly call the facilities "sanitary," she reflected without humor; this was way more unpleasant for a woman than a man. Even a freshly cleaned recon ship began to smell within a few hours. By the end of the shift, she would need an extra-long sonic shower to rid herself of the smell of stale air and unwashed bodies, laced with bathroom disinfectant. She tried not to use the sanitary facilities any more than absolutely necessary, but the three cups of synthetic coffee she’d drunk in order to stay awake demanded release.

She was just undoing the snaps on her flight suit when the claxon sounded. Leaving the top snaps undone, she bolted for the bridge.

The proximity alarm echoed through the ship. Celeste barely made it back to the bridge before Kai and Tal came stumbling in, their eyes overly bright from whatever substance they’d been imbibing in the galley, out of her line of sight.

Though her bladder protested persistently, she’d arrived first on the bridge, so if there was something out there, the find was hers.

Kai and Tal seemed to have realized that as well. Eyes glazed, probably from stims, they eyed her nervously.

Something definitely lurked out there in the dark. Every light on the board blinked in protest. It had to be something huge. She eased the ship out of drive and let it hover while she scanned the scope. The claxon gave up its headache-inducing squeal and lapsed into silence. Whatever hung in the blackness, it wasn’t moving. She squinted at the image, trying to make sense of it. It looked like no other craft she’d ever seen. The dull surface of its hull was nearly as black as the space around it. It looked vaguely organic, like something she’d seen in an old Earth file of undersea creatures. Stingray. The word popped into her mind. It bore an uncanny resemblance to that underwater creature. She could imagine it gliding through space as easily as its earthly namesake moved through water.

Its pointed prow sprouted into a squat neck that branched into massive fins. And yet, it wasn’t overly dense. Its height couldn’t have accommodated more than a tall human being. Perhaps whoever had built it didn’t need the extra height, she thought, looking at the thing. Whatever it was, it was definitely unusual, and that made it valuable.

"Mine," Celeste said, leaping into action. "I’m calling it."

Kai dove for the microphone. Being closer, she reached it first and snatched it from its cradle. "This is Celeste Miner from the salvage ship Your Loss reporting and claiming an unidentified derelict craft as possible salvage." Tal circled behind Kai, obviously trying to divert her attention long enough for his buddy to grab the mic and prevent her transmission to the station, where it would be officially logged.

If they’d been sober, they might have succeeded. But apparently high on low-grade stims, he stumbled. Celeste hit "transmit" and her claim was filed. She backed up the message, complete with date stamp, to her own handheld and pocketed it.

"Shit," Kai said.

"You tried to steal my claim." She brandished the handheld. "You bastard."

Tal’s face darkened at the accusation, but he said nothing.

"Even though I was working while you hung out in the galley, you tried to steal my claim."

"No one was on the bridge," Tal countered. "That’s against regulations."

"I was in the head," she snarled. "With you slackers on your second meal break of the shift, there wasn’t anyone to relieve me."

It was a poor choice of words. Kai snickered. She stared him down. "I’m the one logged in on the bridge," Celeste said. "You really don’t want them looking too closely into that now, do you?"

Tal’s face paled from crimson to gray. The guy had a foul temper. He had a reputation for spending half his shore leaves in the brig.

Sobering slightly, Kai decided to try another tactic. "C’mon Celeste, you’re not going to freeze us out on this one... are you?"

Damn. It was protocol to ask other crewmembers to help with the salvage part of the claim. That way, no one got left out. Celeste all but loathed Kai and Tal, but she didn’t want to be left out of their claims, either-especially if this one turned out to be worthless.

"No," she said, regretting it even as the word left her mouth. "Of course not."

The mood on the bridge lightened.

Tal jerked his chin at the view screen where the phantom ship floated lifelessly in space. "So, let’s see what we got."

What I’ve got, she almost blurted. Instead, she reached for the joystick and zoomed in for a better view.

The derelict hung in the black sea of space. Nothing had changed while they’d argued. It hadn’t moved at all. It lay lifeless, its dull hull barely visible in the dark. Mentally, she started to tally the worth of such a find and then stopped herself. She wouldn’t dream about open skies and warm water yet-not until she knew for sure.

Kai’s mouth gaped as he studied the strange craft. "Not one of ours, that’s for sure."

By "one of ours," he meant something from one of the allied space stations strung across the galaxy. Tal’s eyes shifted nervously as he came to the same conclusion. Even crewing such a find might work out to a fair bit of cash. He gave Celeste a long, measuring look. "Well, let’s have a closer look."

The craft grew in size as they neared it, dwarfing the tiny recon ship.

"That thing is huge," Kai murmured as they drew alongside.

On the bridge, they were all buddies now. As one, they stared through the view screen. Then, as they coasted alongside the monstrous ship, they gazed through the portholes. The derelict had seen its share of action. Blast marks marred its dull black hull, complemented by a few dents. No signs of life came from within. If anyone inside grew aware of the recon ship’s approach, they paid it no heed.

"We’ve laid our claim," Tal said. "I say we have a look inside."

Again, that use of "we." Celeste wanted to slap him.

"I want the file in order," she said. "It’s my claim. We do as I say. I don’t want anyone refuting it later."

"If we wait for the official acknowledgement, what’s to stop someone else from nabbing it first?" Tal asked. The stims seemed to be wearing off. His eyes had lost that glazed look. Now they shone nearly as brightly with his greed.

"We’re here," Kai pointed out, trying to sound reasonable. "I agree with Tal. Let’s have a look at what we’ve got."

"Might be nothing of any value," Tal added. "That way we won’t waste as much time."

They have a point, the patronizing bastards. They were already coasting alongside the thing. It did seem stupid to go all the way back to the station just to firm up their claim, only to come all the way back out here-leaving the prize drifting in space waiting for the next crew to claim. Refuted claims could take forever to resolve. Half the time pirates left nothing but a stripped-down hull, if that, by the time the case was settled.

They stared at Celeste like salivating dogs being denied a steak-not that she’d seen too many dogs in her lifetime, or eaten a real steak. And damn me, I want to know what’s inside that thing as badly as they do.

Seconds passed in silence, punctuated only by the hiss of the ventilation system blowing more stale air onto the bridge.

"Okay," she said finally. "But first, I want to check with the station to make sure there isn’t a prior claim on that thing."

"You just transmitted the claim." The look in Tal’s eyes had changed from anticipation to anger. "If there’d been another stake, you would have gotten a no trespassing order."

"So I’m going to check once more and make sure there isn’t," she said.

Tal pointed that dangerous look at Kai, who shrugged. "Let her check," he said. "That way, we can at least say we checked twice."

Celeste sent another query station-side. They waited in silence for several more minutes while Tal paced the narrow confines of the bridge and Kai drummed his fingers annoyingly against the control panel.

Finally, just when Celeste was ready to scream from the tension, the station sent back confirmation of their claim.

"All right," Celeste said as the mood eased. "Let’s see what’s inside that thing."

"So who’s going with you?" Tal asked.

Another long moment of strained silence. Damn Tal and his paranoia.

And that left another dilemma. She didn’t want Tal as her backup on a possibly alien ship. Celeste knew she couldn’t really count on him in an emergency, nor could she be sure he wouldn’t take the recon ship and disappear for a while-while she ran out of oxygen, leaving him with the claim. But he probably wouldn’t leave Kai to rot to death in the depths of space, she reasoned. He and Kai were buddies from way back. And Kai was the slightly more trustworthy of the two.

Her eyes flicked from one to the other; she wished she’d been on duty with anyone else when she made her find. Knowing she had to make a decision, she finally said, "I’ll take Kai with me."

Tal’s face reddened. "We’ll need a really good pilot to get us in close enough," she added quickly, trying to mollify him.

"You haven’t registered us as crew," Kai said, while Tal fumed. "We’re not doing nothing until we’re filed."

Filing them as crew meant that if anything happened to Celeste, Tal and Kai would inherit the claim. She didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything she could do. Someone had to pilot the ship while she had a look around in there.

"Okay." Celeste logged back in and filed their names as co-claimants and crew. "Satisfied?"

Tal looked like he was anything but. Kai gave him a wry smile. "Don’t worry, we’ll take lots of pictures." Celeste turned to head down the tube to the airlock. She didn’t hear what Tal said back.

She had to admit, Tal’s skill as a pilot was legendary. How he’d gotten himself banished to a salvage crew remained a dark secret. He brought the recon craft in close enough to scrawl graffiti on the derelict ship, close enough to see the shadow of an access hatch behind one of those giant fins. Kai and Celeste waited silently in the airlock until they felt the thump of their ship’s access tube attaching.

"Ready," came Tal’s tinny voice through the speaker in her helmet.

Celeste looked at Kai. He nodded. His eyes were abnormally bright, even through the faceplate of his helmet. She hoped it was from excitement and not from more of whatever they’d been doing in the galley.

On the bridge, Tal waited for her command.

"Let’s do this," she said finally. The airlock whooshed open.

At the far end of the access tube, the derelict’s hatch beckoned. Up close, it looked all the more alien. The dark metal caught the light from their helmets and swallowed it, as if it had been constructed for the purpose of lurking and deceiving. Celeste fought a sudden compulsion to call off the mission, to leave the ship for anyone else who wanted it.

But visions of warm water and sandy beaches swam tantalizingly through her mind. This was her ticket to fresh air, to warm breezes that didn’t require a suit or a breather. And she’d promised herself she would experience that before she died.

So she took a step into the access tube. Kai followed.

The derelict’s hatch was no more than a thin line that marked the opening. Obviously designed as an access of some sort, the method of entry remained a mystery. Most ships had some kind of emergency entry and exit. But like the mysterious alloy of the hull, the hatch was not self-explanatory.

Kai seemed to be thinking the same thing as Celeste because he raised the toolbox he carried. "We might be able to blast our way in."

As salvage specialists, they’d blasted their way into all kinds of places they weren’t welcome. But staring at that black, dull metal that absorbed every beam of light, she doubted it would be easy. Thoughts of the scents of tropical flowers wafting on warm, humid air drifted through her mind. She refused to be stymied so early. If that truly was a door, Kai had to find some way of opening it.

Her sigh came out in a percussive rush through the speaker. "Might as well give it a try."

Kai placed his tool chest on the metal floor of the access tube. The magnets on the bottom locked it in place. Brandishing the blowtorch, he attacked the hatch.

The alien metal absorbed the heat just as it had the light.

"We ought to try blasting it," he suggested again, waiting for her approval.

Celeste shook her head. "Too dangerous."

Kai eyed the hatch like it was made of gold. Fortune could very well lie on the other side of that door. "I could set the timer, give us long enough to get out of range."

"And if we didn’t?"

He gave her a wounded look. "Of course we would. This is me we’re talking about."

How Kai came by a specialty in explosives, Celeste didn’t know-didn’t want to know. Neither of the men talked much about his past-just about the sexual conquests during their most recent shore leaves.

"I still don’t like it."

"I say, blast it open," came Tal’s opinion over her helmet speaker-like she’d asked for it. This close to potential bounty, neither guy was going to give up so easily.

"On this operation, I’m the boss-" Celeste started to say.

No sooner had the words left her mouth, than the hatch slid seamlessly open.

A hiss of moist air billowed out in a cloud into the dry, thin atmosphere of the access tube. Celeste took a step backward as the seemingly impenetrable door slid open across the diagonal, destroying the illusion of what they’d assumed was either top or bottom.

She found that more disconcerting than anything. As a salvage specialist, she was used to the weightlessness required for docking or for ship repairs, but it didn’t stop her from having opinions about what "up" and "down" were supposed to be. It seemed those ancient, planet-side instincts died hard. Your Loss had gravity. Those who spent most of their lives in space needed some measure of gravity to keep the calcium in their bones.

Kai glanced at her through the faceplate of his helmet, his eyes wide. The glazed look in them had vanished. "An invitation?" he asked nervously.

That would mean there were intelligent beings on board-that the ship couldn’t be classified as salvage, Celeste thought.

"What’s going on?" came Tal’s anxious voice through the speakers in their helmets.

"The hatch just opened on its own." Kai sounded unduly nervous.

Celeste felt a little unsettled as well. If sentient beings still inhabited that ship, then not only was it considered unsalvageable, but also, protocol dictated that they call in trained First Contact representatives from the government.

"It could be an automatic response," she suggested hesitantly. "If there’s still some auxiliary power, it might control things like the hatch. Perhaps we just tripped a sensor."

"Maybe," Kai said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

"Probably tripped an auto sensor," Tal agreed, evidently hating the thought of having to give up his claim. They could hear the desperation in his voice.

Kai’s eyes darted back to her face, or at least what she guessed he could see of it through the glare from her helmet light. "Okay," Celeste said, coming to a decision. "We assume it’s a sensor and we proceed with our salvage recon. Until we know otherwise," she added quickly.

The hatch gaped before them, the door having disappeared into some alcove within the hull. Darkness absorbed the view of the other side. She took a step toward the opening. Why, she wondered suddenly, was she so eager to step into the darkness and the unknown? She felt oddly compelled, and that felt wrong.

Nerves, Celeste told herself; human instinct warning her that the unknown could be dangerous. She heard the clank of Kai’s metal-soled boots on the access tube as he moved up behind her. Swallowing her misgivings, she stepped across the threshold into darkness.

She should have listened to that inner warning, she reflected much, much later. But she hadn’t.

Darkness swallowed her. She glanced back, her helmet sweeping a beam of weak light in the direction of the hatch. She’d come only a few feet, but it seemed like she’d been gulped down by a huge beast. Behind her, she could see the pale glow of Kai’s helmet light as he hurried to catch up to her. Obviously, he suffered some of the same misgivings that she did.

"So?" came Tal’s tinny voice in her ear.

"Nothing so far," Celeste whispered back. It seemed sacrilegious somehow to break the dark silence.

With nothing to mark the boundaries of the room they stood in, she found her balance failing. No horizon to show her up or down. No ceiling, no walls. Apparently, there was a floor. She could tell by the click of her boots against it, and obviously by some measure of gravity-at least at the moment. Celeste stared up into the darkness, knowing there had to be a ceiling up there somewhere, likely only a couple of feet above her. But she couldn’t see it in the gloom.

Straightening her spine, she righted herself and forced her head to point in the direction she guessed was up. Kai moved up behind her.

"What d’you make of it?"

"We’re probably standing in some kind of loading bay or storage facility."

He moved his head, shining around the meager light from his helmet. It scarcely penetrated the darkness. "Could be."

Celeste had no idea how big the bay was. Turning, she glanced behind her at the still-open hatch leading to the access tube. Light spilled out into the blackness, a fading trail leading back to their ship, and to safety.

"What’s the plan?"

She turned back to find Kai staring at her, his face pale behind the glass of his helmet.

"We walk," she said. "Until we find a wall, or a door. Or something." With that, she strode off in the direction of where she thought the far wall might be.

"Or something," she heard Kai echo.

Her eyes started to adjust to the dim light. Darkness began to take on shape. She started to notice a pattern. Shadow took on texture. Light shadow, darker shadow. Whatever occupied this bay, it wasn’t empty. She kept walking toward one of those areas of darker shadow, hoping she was moving in the direction of the far wall. Kai’s footsteps pinged against the metal floor behind her.

A dim light began to glow on what she’d assumed was the ceiling. Pale and wan, it shone sluggishly. Celeste stopped and stared up at it. Her sudden stop caught Kai off guard. He slammed against her back, nearly knocking her off balance.

For a moment, they clung together in an awkward dance-the first time they’d ever touched in any way, she thought. She went out of her way to avoid contact with her male counterparts. She didn’t want them getting the wrong idea.

Celeste tilted her head in the direction of the dim light, which brightened even further when she looked in its direction. Kai followed her gaze, his eyes wide within the faceplate of his helmet. "Whoa," she heard him say. "What do you make of that?"

"Don’t know," she answered. "But it seems someone finally decided to turn on the lights."

"Maybe not," Kai said, still determined to consider this a salvage operation and not first contact. "It could be automatic... like the hatch."

She almost told him that she doubted the hatch mechanism was automatic, but then the light grew even brighter in intensity. Its glow did little to illuminate the vastness of the wide bay, but it was enough to see where they were going.

Suddenly, Celeste realized that within that dark and light crosshatched pattern were... objects. They seemed to be in a storage bay of sorts, designed for long periods of weightlessness. Huge gray nets held an assortment of equipment to the walls, suspended it from the ceiling and even secured it to the floors. The netting material didn’t look like any rope or material she’d ever seen.

Since it was too dim to make out from a distance what kind of equipment lay behind that protective webbing, she began moving toward a clump of it held against the floor. Obviously, on a ship designed for travel in zero-g, the netting seemed meant to hold everything in place no matter which way was currently up.

"What do you think all that stuff is?" Kai’s voice in her helmet speaker made her jump.

"Stuff," she answered, still walking.

He caught up to her and together they peered down at the clump of equipment held under the webbing. "You getting this?" he asked.

Celeste activated the camera in her helmet. There seemed to be enough light now to record something, even if it wasn’t a great picture. Then, she looked down at the equipment at her feet.

The equipment resembled nothing else she’d ever seen. It looked like a bunch of rags mummy-wrapped around... something. That something was gray and immobilized by the strange netting.

"Gross," came Kai’s appraisal. "Think it’s worth anything?"

"The ship alone is worth plenty," she told him. "No matter what’s in it."

Something darted across the darkness, like black bleeding into deeper black. Celeste jerked up her head. Too late. The camera’s viewfinder showed only more of that nearly impenetrable dimness.

From Kai’s expression behind the glass in his helmet, she knew he’d seen it, too. "What was that?" Celeste whispered.

"Nothing," he said.

If something had moved in the darkness, then they didn’t have a salvage operation. If something inhabited this ship, then they were trespassing. Faced with losing her salvage operation, until she was confronted with the undeniable truth of occupation, Celeste was more than willing to deny seeing something, too.

"Well? What have we got?" came Tal’s voice over her headset com.

Celeste pondered his question while again, visions of open skies and the scent of lush plant life wafting in the air drifted through her mind. Some of the station-born panicked when faced with fresh air and an endless sky. But Celeste longed to feel the wind in her hair and a warm breeze against her face. Whatever it was, and wherever it came from, the derelict ship seemed like nothing ever seen by human eyes before. That kind of find was worth a lot of money. That made it her ticket to a better life.

"Celeste? You there?" came Tal’s voice again.

"Yeah, we’re here," Kai answered for her. He turned toward her in the gloom. As one, they cast another glance at the strange bundle beneath the webbing on the floor.

"Well?" Tal repeated.

She tore her gaze from the lump on the deck. Kai stared at her round-eyed, waiting. The hope in his gaze was awful to behold. This salvage operation wasn’t just her ticket out, but his as well.

As if they’d tripped another automatic sensor, the light began to dim again. Celeste glanced around in the darkness, but if something lurked out there in the gloom, she couldn’t tell. Maybe it had been just a trick of the light, she thought-and chose to believe.

Static crackled through her headset as Kai and Tal waited for her pronouncement.

"Looks good," she said finally. "We’re coming back. We’ve got some footage to review, but I think we’re about ready to arrange for that tow."

Kai motioned to the lump on the deck. "Shouldn’t we take some of this back with us? To study... " he added.

"No," she told him. "We’re going to do this all official and legal-like. The last thing we need is someone disputing our claim."

"But-" he started to say.

"Uh-uh," she said. "We’re going to go back to the ship, file our video footage that clearly shows the vessel is abandoned." Or so she hoped. Back on the ship they’d be able to enhance the video, and then she’d know for sure. "And then we’re going to arrange for a tow back to the station. Once we’re cleared, we can start unloading anything we think might be valuable."

She knew Tal had to be listening in on the conversation. She didn’t want any misunderstandings. "You got that, Tal?" she asked, just to be sure.

"Loud and clear," he said.

"Good." Celeste motioned for Kai to head back toward the access tube and the distant light that still spilled out into the darkness.

Reluctantly, he followed her, the metallic clank of their boots the only sound except for the hiss of their breathing. They had almost reached the mouth of the access link when the overhead light died completely.

Celeste stumbled in the darkness, trying to reorient herself toward the beacon of light spilling from inside the access tube. Behind her, she heard the scrape of Kai’s boots against the floor as he steadied himself and headed after her.

"That can’t be an accident," she said. It seemed like too much of a coincidence for the lights to go out just as they were leaving.

"Tripped a sensor, that’s all," Kai said, still desperately holding onto the idea that this was a legitimate claim, and that they’d all be rich. Time to let him down gently, Celeste thought, but she said nothing. Truth be told, she wasn’t ready to give up on the dream yet, either.

In the gloom off to their right, something moved. Again she saw that odd play of texture that seemed like darkness moving across deeper shadow. She swung her head in that direction, trying to frame it in the light from her helmet. Seeing her movement, Kai did the same.

But the insubstantial light from their helmets only illuminated another pile of netting securing another rag-wrapped bundle to the floor. Celeste walked toward it, keeping it centered in her helmet light. Nothing moved within the bundle of rags. The netting appeared to be the same as the other pile they’d examined.

"Let’s go," Kai said. "We can tie up the deal once we’re back on the ship."

Celeste nodded, sending the light flaring through the darkness in waves. Together they headed for the access tube and the relative safety of their ship.

The airlock door closed behind them. They suffered through the decontam unit.

"So?" Tal asked, the second they stepped onto the bridge.

"Let you know in a minute," Celeste said, heading for the spare console. "I want to look at the file I sent over from my helmet camera."

"Why?" Kai and Tal said in unison.

She stopped and faced them, hands on her hips. "Because I thought I saw something moving in there."

"Just a play of shadow," Kai insisted. "I saw it too."

He was implicating himself, but apparently, he didn’t realize it. Celeste didn’t enlighten him.

They fell silent as she replayed the footage of the odd webbing that secured the bundles of cloth to the deck.

"Wow, that’s strange stuff," Tal said, looking at the grainy picture of the inside of the storage bay.

The next shot showed the movement of her head bobbing around madly, trying to catch that elusive shadow. Yet the camera picked up only more of those odd bundles and more netting-nothing that moved. Nothing that could have cast a shadow.

"So?" Kai asked. Celeste cringed at the hopeful tone in his voice. "Are we calling for that tow?"

"No," Tal said suddenly. Surprised, they both turned to look at him. "The last thing we need is the Station Government or the First Contact people meddling in this. Let’s keep this to ourselves. Call in a couple more hands to help us with the survey. I know a couple of guys who can be discreet."

She should have called for the tow that moment, taken the strange derelict ship back to the station and let the experts assess it. She didn’t trust Tal or his friends, but she’d been allowing herself to dream since the moment she spied that derelict on the scope. Damned if she was going to give up on her dreams.

"Okay," Celeste said, knowing full well she was going to regret it. "Call in your team."