Welcome to Episode 2 of Gravlander, a new serial story written by GeekDad writer Erik Wecks. This isn’t just a novella in the works… it’s a nail-biting method of story delivery that typically ends a chapter or episode with a cliffhanger. If you read Episode 1 from last week… well, you got your first dose of how Erik is pacing his story.
If you didn’t read Episode 1, click HERE to go back and read Episode 1: The Crucible and then you’ll be ready for Episode 2 below. And, of course, we’ll see you back here next week for Episode 3 and find out what’s next for… well, let’s not spoil things.
One new item — Erik has a new Kickstarter that just went live. Its purpose is to raise funds to cover the costs of a cover for the finished novella. Ask any published author out there (indie or traditional) and they’ll tell you that a professional-created cover can really make a difference when it comes to book sales. If you’re enjoying the story that Erik’s putting together here, please consider backing the project. Be sure to check out the Kickstarter project HERE and check out the rewards. Just $10 will get you four digital books (that includes Gravlander when it’s completed). Pitch in $50 and you can even pick the name of a character in an upcoming episode of Gravlander! You can also see the cover image that Erik is trying to purchase at the top of this post — pretty cool, huh?
Oh, and don’t forget — Erik is still offering up a free e-book to anyone who visits his website and signs up for his newsletter. Sign up during the ten weeks of the serial and you will also be eligible for a random drawing to win one of fifteen Audible copies of The Far Banks of the Rubicon. Point your web browser to www.erikwecks.com and sign up. Look for the link that says “Get a Free Story.”
Now… let’s check in on Jo.
Episode 2: The Timcree
With her head forced down by long, gray fingers splayed on her neck, Josephine’s mind sped forward as she jogged back along the corridors of the Galant. One of the Timcree had a weapon pressed into her back near her kidneys. In front of her, two of the other Timcree trotted, pausing only once as they came to the well-lit areas of the ship. Sophie and her child had been left behind, sealed in the airlock with the fourth intruder.
Furiously orbiting around the unknown, Josephine’s mind tried to see the possibilities that might make sense of the now and help her react to whatever came next. Since before she could remember, Little Jo had always worked the angles, scanning circumstances, places, and, above all, people, making them safe through her constant efforts to understand and predict them. To some, it made her seem almost prophetic. Her vigilant mind drew conclusions before others. To outsiders, she always seemed to know the right thing to say, the right thing to do. Inside, she just felt afraid.
Prescience consumed Jo. She depended heavily on her reasoning skills for a sense of safety, and when she couldn’t see a way forward, Josephine drowned in waves of panic and fear. It was this constant state of fearful alert which had made her last two years on the Gallant so difficult, and it was what made her panic now in the grip of the Timcree behind her.
How did they even get aboard? she wondered. More importantly, she wondered how they intended to get off again. It’s not like the Ghost Fleet didn’t know there were Timcree in the Cruicible. Undesirable in civilized places, Timcree tended to gather in the same kinds of spaces sought by the Ghost Fleet. Jo knew that the fleet had tracked their movements in the Crucible. They had a pretty good idea on which forsaken moons and asteroids they lived. By all estimates, the scattered Timcree could pose no real threat to the fleet. Their technology was meager at best and their existence brutal, which made this whole raid—whatever its purpose—completely nonsensical to Jo. The Timcree risked a massive retaliation for little if any gain that Jo could see. It was hard to imagine what four raiders could take from a hospital ship to make this worthwhile.
The first sign they had been noticed came before they had even seen anyone. A klaxon suddenly blared, and an automated voice stated matter-of-factly, “Do not move. Assistance will arrive shortly.” It was the same message the AI used when an unauthorized patient left their bed. Jo wondered just what kind of security protocols the ship had in place and if the security AI were making it up as it went. There were only a few marines on the Gallant, nothing that could be called a fighting force. They were used mostly for the occasional unruly patient.
Jo felt the hand on her neck tense. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the Timcree behind her looking up at the ceiling as the automated voice repeated its message. She thought she could feel the hand shake a little. They kept running. The Timcree seemed to know exactly where they wanted to go. Up to this point, they had only slowed at each intersection as the fully suited Timcree in front of her—the one who had used the clicks and beeps to communicate—gestured.
Now, however, things changed. As they approached the next intersection, an energy barrier greeted them. Through the yellowish cast of the barrier, Jo could see that similar barriers had been raised around the three other exits. The Timcree commander stopped and considered the situation for a moment. Then reaching to his belt, he retrieved a flat rectangle with a small handle and ran it up the wall of the corridor next to the barrier. When he had it about chest high, he held it still for a few seconds, while a light flashed red, then yellow, and finally green. Once that was done, he slowly began to move the block away from the wall. As the block moved, the energy barrier stretched, pulling away from the wall with the block. The commander moved the block some fifteen or twenty centimeters before the light on the back of it began to flash yellow again. He let go of the block, which now stayed in place, suspended in the field, leaving a small, triangular gap just wide enough for a person to slip through.
The commander turned his masked face toward Jo. Jo couldn’t make heads nor tails of the beeps and clicks which followed. As he talked, the commander removed what looked like a protein bar from his suit and dropped it on the barrier, whose width could be measured in only a few microns. The barrier efficiently sliced the bar in two, leaving a piece on each side. In fear, Jo nodded her understanding.
The Timcree with his hand on her neck pushed her forward and said with a cadence that made him hard to understand, “You, go now.”
Carefully, Jo squeezed herself behind the barrier. She was about three quarters of the way through when a drone appeared behind them. Brazen and secure, it flew directly around the corner without concern. Even as it took aim, the Timcree who had been guarding Jo reached up and shoved her quickly through the small opening. The guard followed behind her. In one fluid motion, the Timcree expertly contorted his extremely long frame into the gap. Jo recognized this to be her opportunity to attack. While transiting the barrier, he was vulnerable, but Jo’s curiosity held her back. Despite having had a weapon in her ribs, something about the situation told her she was in little real danger from the Timcree. The only way to increase that danger would be to do something aggressive. He crossed the barrier in only a couple of seconds.
The commander backed into position behind the Timcree guard as he fired on the drone, along with the third intruder. Jo recognized there was little hope for the third, as the drone had him in its sights before it turned the corner. Still, he did manage to get off several rounds before being hit by a stunning blast from the drone. The lanky Timcree crumpled to the ground.
The commander did better.
Jo was by no means an expert on munitions, but she had never heard of rounds behaving like those of the Timcree. At first, they seemed to be incredibly slow moving. Jo could see them fly toward the target. It was only when they stopped and retreated as the drone advanced that Jo realized they must be AI controlled in some fashion. Before the drone could aim its second shot, it was surrounded by a cloud of spinning and maneuvering rounds. They looked like a swarm of bees. While it was hard to see them attacking the actual drone, they must have been successful because the drone retreated from the swarm, having been unable to get off a second shot.
Once the drone had backed around the corner behind them, the commander started to move toward his downed soldier, but a squad of marines came around the corner just as he was taking his first step, and he thought better of it. Instead, he choose the safety of the enclosed area behind the energy barrier.
Once inside, the commander squared up and turned to face the oncoming marines, placing his hands on his hips.
The second Timcree once again grabbed Jo by the nape of the neck. He too faced the oncoming marines. This time pointing his weapon at her head, his hand clearly trembling.
Considering the situation, Jo was surprised she hadn’t puked yet. Her heart was pounding, but she had an unexpected sense of watchfulness, almost as if she were waiting for some sign, some call to take action.
The commander of the team of four Marines shouted as the barriers dropped. “Stand down! Drop your weapons!”
In response, the Timcree commander slowly put his weapon on the floor, and at the same time, held up a small holographic projector he had in his other hand. Even as another small group of Marines came running up from a second corridor to their left, a meter-tall image of the airlock below them erupted into the space between the two groups. Inside, a fully-suited Timcree stood with his hand near the control pad for the airlock, while Sophie sat on a small bench, grimly ignoring the danger while trying to comfort her squalling child.
The Marine stopped, his face turning white. “The princess!” he said to himself.
Jo felt the hand on her neck suddenly tense. Behind and above, her she heard her captor speak, “Eik Krozigchen!“
By way of acknowledgment, the commander in front of him simply raised his long forearm, signaling his underling to be quiet.
The marine, now white, licked his lips. “What do you want?” he barked at the commander, brandishing his weapon at him. Jo could sense him trying to stay in control of a situation that had quickly spiraled well beyond his pay grade.
The guard holding Jo answered. “Medicine nanites! We need medicine nanites! We pay.”
“You won’t get anything! Now put your weapons down and release your hostages!”
The commander shifted a little. Even behind the mirrored suit, Jo could tell he was sizing up the corporal. Tense seconds elapsed before a couple of quiet clicks issued from his suit.
The corporal looked shocked at the sound.
The guard behind her spoke. “We no negotiate with you. We negotiate with commander. We wait.”
The Timcree soldier on the ground started to shift, coming to after being stunned.
Jo saw the corporal’s face turn red. This is the dangerous point, thought Jo, and then the call to action came. “Corporal, he’s telling the truth! They have Princess Sophia and baby Grace in the airlock. I was walking with them back to the royal shuttle when they stepped out of an airlock down below. There are only four of them. Think how desperate they must be to try and do this. It’s suicide, and they know it, so do as he says or the princess will get hurt!”
The words seemed to sink slowly into the Tinhead’s thick skull. She watched them click as his eyes suddenly widened a little. He decided not to play the hero and stepped away, leaving the two contingents of marines to guard the Timcree while he communicated up the food chain.
When he came back, he said, “I’m to escort you to a negotiating room. This way.”
The commander nodded his ascent, and in a careful dance of aimed weapons, the Corporal led them away.
A long hour later, Josephine sat with her captors in a patient room in an inactive section of the hospital ship. The commander occupied the patient bed. Sitting upright facing the door, he had barely moved since he came in. Her minder sat in the only other chair in the room. Somewhere along the way, he had forgotten to point his weapon at her. She could have left, but curiosity kept her there. That left the floor for the stunned Timcree and Jo. The Timcree lay in the corner, shaking under a blanket while recovering from his ordeal. While designed to keep the victim alive, stunners weren’t exactly friendly to the human body. At a minimum, the victim ended up with a massive migraine and a whole lot of confusion as the brain tried to unscramble its overloaded wiring, but the jolt from the energy weapons wasn’t exactly kind on tissues either. It always left bruises and had been known to break ribs.
Jo had tried to help when they had entered the room, suggesting that the wounded Timcree be given the bed. No one had listened to her. Instead, the commander had gone and occupied the bed, leaving the floor for his wounded underling. Now as the wounded Timcree moaned in discomfort, Jo decided she needed to try again. Standing up from where she squatted, she stepped between the commander and the door, forcing herself into his line of sight. Putting one hand on her hip and pointing to the floor with the other, she said, “Listen to me! Your soldier’s hurt. He needs help. I’m a nurse. I can take care of him. I can make it better.”
The commander didn’t answer. In fact, he didn’t even move.
Instead, his assistant spoke up, blinking slow-moving lids over yellow-slitted eyes. “You help? Why?”
Turning to her guard, she appraised him anew. “I’m a nurse. It’s what we do. We help people.”
“Timcree not people. We not human.”
“I help everyone, then.”
The Timcree blinked again.
The third Timcree groaned on the floor.
Unperturbed, the assistant asked, “How you know how to help Timcree? We different inside.”
It suddenly occurred to her that neither Timcree had told her she couldn’t help. They just hadn’t given her a straight command to do so. Having lived in a military environment for the last six years, Jo found herself unconsciously waiting to be told what to do. She was moving to the stocked drawers in the room before she even answered. “Not that different.”
Jo thought she saw a slight smile on the Timcree’s face as she retrieved an injector and a pain dose from one of the drawers. She was just about to inject emergency medical nanites and pain blockers into the Timcree when the door opened and two uber-serious marines advanced into the room, rifles leveled at the Timcree.
Jonas Athena strode behind them, glaring daggers at the Timcree commander. “Let my wife and child go, or I will shoot your soldiers!”
The assistant spoke. “Give us medicine nanites. We pay. Then people go.”
Jonas pointed toward the Timcree on the floor. The marines aimed their weapons. Seeing Jo there holding the injector, he said, “Stand back!”
Jo did as she was told, slipping the injector into a pocket of her medical uniform.
Jonas returned his attention to the Timcree commander. “I think you mistake me. This isn’t a negotiation. Let my wife and daughter go, or I start shooting people.”
The commander shifted in his seat on the bed. For a few seconds, he turned and communicated with the Timcree assistant while the assistant whispered back. When they were finished, the assistant nodded his head and then faced Jonas again. The commander resumed his position on the bed, staring forward at the door.
The assistant spoke. “We do this. We have no intention to harm. We need medicine.”
One of the marine’s heads-up devices pipped at him. He spoke. “The airlock is open, sir. Everyone is safe. The Timcree has laid down his arms.”
Jo watched the Prince. She hadn’t known him to be a particularly angry man, but she also knew him to love his family. He didn’t yet seem ready to cool down. His eyes narrowed. “Why are you on my ship?”
Again, the assistant answered. “We need medicine nanites. Children sick, dying. Can’t get well.”
The commander held up his hand, silencing his underling. After a moment, he let his hand rest in his lap again. He spoke in perfect English, modulated by the electronics of the suit. “The Timcree have no quarrel with the Ghost Fleet. For the last six years, we have gone about our separate ways. If we wanted a quarrel with you, Prince Athena, we could have had one before now. If we wanted you to leave our space, we could have told the Unity where to find you. Until now, we’ve had nothing to do with you. Only need has driven us to break the separation between our two peoples. Consider carefully.”
The commander went momentarily silent, allowing his point to linger. Then when Jonas didn’t seem ready to answer, he went on. “For the last year, our children have been dying. They come out of the womb white-skinned, sickly, with bloodshot eyes and no hair. Most do not live more than a month, some make it a few weeks more, but only a few have passed their first birthday, and these are feeble and unhealthy. This is happening across the galaxy, but only to the Timcree. There has been no sign of this disease among the Gravlanders. For the last year, we have sought out a cause for our troubles, and in the last few weeks, one of our peoples faraway found it. Our mothers are infected with a nanite. It attacks the womb, and it passes through to our babies. It slowly changes the DNA of its host into unreadable garbage. The cells do not reproduce, and eventually, our children die.”
Jonas nodded slowly, chewing on the commander’s words. Then he answered coldly. “You threatened my wife. You threatened my child. And now you want me to help you?”
The Timcree commander showed no signs of reaction to this at all.
“This was not our intention. We have no desire to threaten anyone. We had no idea that any person of significance was on this ship when we came aboard. No one was as surprised as me to see your wife in that corridor. It was, shall we say, a moment of opportunity, without which I know I would not be talking with you directly. For the sake of my children, I chose to act on it.”
Josephine watched the Prince think about what had been said. He seemed to crack just a little, and his face relaxed, although he maintained his aggressive stance. “You’re right, you know. If you hadn’t threatened my family, you wouldn’t be talking to me. You said you could pay for the nanites. What do you have to offer?”
The response clearly startled Jonas. Tritium was a useful isotope for fusion reactors but difficult to procure as the source, lithium-6, had been hard to acquire in the Crucible. “How much?”
“Six tons at standard pressure.”
“Six tons? That’s enough to run every reactor in the fleet, for over a year.”
“Now you know how serious we are about getting those nanites. We need them.”
Jonas nodded his understanding and softened his stance. “You have yourself a deal.”
The commander slapped his thighs in satisfaction. “There is one other item. Our medicine is crude. We will need help to treat our people…”
Jonas interrupted. “I’m sorry, Commander. I won’t be able to help you there.”
Suddenly, Jo’s mind recognized the opportunity in front of her. For six years, she had found no way to escape the confines of the fleet which held her. Her feet tingled at the prospect of something new, something away from here. She answered the call before she even had time to think. “I’ll do it.”
Jonas looked at her, clearly dissatisfied to hear her voice. “Jo, I don’t think…”
“I know what I’m doing. I’ll do it. Anything to get off this fleet. Jonas, I don’t want to be a doctor. It’s what everyone else wants for me. It’s not what I want. I’ll do it.”
Jonas started to speak again. “Jo…”
The commander interrupted him. “Then it’s settled. I look forward to the next time I speak with you without threatening your family first. It was a poor start to a relationship.”
Jonas furrowed his brow, turned his face to the commander, but kept his eyes on Jo. “I agree. It was a poor start on your part.” Now he looked at the commander. “The safety of my crew member remains my responsibility. If anything happens to her…” He let his voice trail off.
“Prince Athena, she will be our honored guest.”