Smart Browsing

2 Ratings (4.5)

Available Formats
PDF
ePub
Mobi

Close Encounter

Escape Velocity I

Cobblestone Press LLC

Heat Rating:
Word Count: 21,000
Available Formats
PDF
ePub
Mobi

Dr. Sean Cohen is a few months from completing a solitary research assignment on an isolated research post orbiting Jupiter's largest moon when his AI alerts him to a failing escape pod. Inside it, he finds a woman a hundred years out of her time who awakens protective instincts in him that he thought impossible.

Is he ready to give Captain Eliza Hawthorne a connection in a future she was never meant to see?

Excerpt

March 5, 2245

Ganymede Research Station

Dr. Sean Cohen stepped out of the narrow shower cubicle to the ping of an incoming communication. “Arti, take a message.”

“It is an emergency beacon, Dr. Cohen.”

Sean paused in drying himself off and glanced upward as if to look at the artificial intelligence that saw to the regular mission work on the single-man research station he’d been on for the past ten months. His twelve-month rotation in the research post orbiting Jupiter’s largest moon had been uneventful, practically a vacation compared to the schedule he endured when he was on Armstrong Station or Earth. “From where?”

“An escape pod. I’ve initiated the retrieval protocol. The pod is damaged and losing power.”

Sean pulled on a pair of boxers and grabbed a T-shirt as he hurried out of his quarters and toward the small landing bay that the pod would be hauled into. “Origin of the pod?”

“Unknown, sir; the transponder is not Teko Solutions.”

“Speculation.”

“Both the North American Union and the Euro-Dome have manned space explorations in progress.”

“You mean military,” Sean said as he slid into a UVA suit and clipped the helmet into place. “Time?”

“Ten minutes until the pod is beyond our reach, Doctor.”

“Swing the starboard arm out in case we miss it,” Sean ordered. “It’ll give us a second opportunity to catch it before we have to pass the situation off to Mars Station.”

“The pod will not make it to Mars Station,” Arti said matter-of-factly. “If we fail to retrieve it—the person within will expire in 19.87 minutes.”

“Have you found the information on the passenger?”

“Not yet, Doctor; the pod is transmitting basic data.”

“How big is the pod?”

“Seven feet by three feet.”

Not much bigger than the pods used for the supply shipments he regularly received from the large gas mining station that Teko Solutions had orbiting Jupiter. “Okay, we got this.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Open the doors,” Sean ordered.

He hooked a tether from his UVA suit to the console that governed the retrieval system, input his approval code, and let Arti handle the targeting. The pod didn’t have a matching transponder for the system, didn’t have a locking mechanism for them to catch onto for safe hauling. Two hundred things could go wrong, but he hoped that whatever bad luck had put this person in a pod had already run its course. The retrieval system pinged, and Arti launched the flexible arm out of the bay and into the path of the pod. Machinery within the bay whined under the strain as soon as the retrieval claw clamped onto the speeding pod.

“Arti!”

“Sir, the pod did not disengage thrusters,” the AI explained. “I’m attempting to hack the system, but it’s military and heavily encrypted.”

“How long before life support fails?” Sean demanded as the arm started to pull the pod toward the bay opening.

“15.75 minutes.”

He could see thrusters firing in rapid succession as if it was trying to free itself from a trap. Which, he thought wryly, wasn’t quite wrong. “Find some way to talk to that thing!”

“I’ve accessed codes available to commercial vessels during an emergency situation, and the pod is processing. Approval granted. The propulsion system has disengaged.”

The retrieval system sped up, and the pod entered the bay just as the claw lost its grip on the slick surface. The pod fell to the floor with a heavy, ominous thunk. “Close the fucking doors.” Sean started forward only to have the tether still clamped to his waist jerk him back into place. He huffed as he unhooked it and jumped down off the control platform. “Any information forthcoming?”

“The passenger is…Captain Eliza Hawthorne, NAU-Space Command.”

Sean unclamped his helmet with a curse and let it drop to the floor. “Are you certain?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” He rushed to the pod and jerked the cover up from the control panel. “Her condition? How did she get past Jupiter Station, and why didn’t they warn us in advance so we’d have a better chance of catching her?”

“Jupiter Station is requesting information from us, Dr. Cohen. Their sensors didn’t pick up the pod until I did. We have an incoming data-burst from Armstrong Station. Admiral Jason McAlister.”

Why the hell hadn’t Space Command warned them that they had an incoming pod? It was infuriating that they’d risked the life of one of their own rather than share the data with the private sector workers in the area. Though, it didn’t much surprise Sean. He’d spent ten years in Space Command himself and knew exactly how far they would go to keep a secret.

“Relay all the data you have and a brief outline of what we’ve accomplished so far to everyone,” Sean ordered. “Activate the medical lab. I need the codes to crack this thing before she loses life support.”

“Admiral McAlister included the security protocols for opening the pod,” Arti explained. “She is in cryo-sleep, which could be a problem.”

“Explain.”

“If she were injured when she went into the pod… her nano-bots wouldn’t have been able to repair that damage during cryo-sleep.”

“Nano-tech?” Sean questioned. “The Kepler Exploration mission left Mars a hundred years ago; we didn’t have nano-bots in use at that time.”

“She has a full complement of nano-bots, military configuration,” Arti reported. “Not as advanced as your own but well within acceptable perimeters. I’ve taken the liberty of requesting upgrade protocols for her bots in the event she is physically damaged.”

“Any implants?”

“She has a neural implant.”

Sean stepped back as the pod’s lid cracked of its own accord and broke away with a hiss of hydraulics. Eliza Hawthorne had left Mars at the age of thirty-six. The NAU reported the mission lost a year after that. The woman didn’t look even thirty years old much less the hundred plus years she technically was. “Injuries?”

“She has significant lung tissue trauma. An indication that she was exposed to some sort of smoke shortly before she entered cryo-sleep. Two fingers on her left hand are fractured. Most of her body is bruised, but there is no overt organ damage. We’ll need the medical scanner for a more in-depth study. You can pick her up, sir.”

Sean nodded and carefully scooped the slight woman out of the pod and winced at the coolness radiating off her body. “What do we have to do to get her out of cryo-sleep?”

“I’m waiting on a response from Armstrong Station.”

Sean accepted that in silence as he left the cargo bay and headed toward the infirmary. It was a well-equipped space with a variety of automated equipment, since it was rare for more than one person to be on board the research station. A medical platform was already protruding from a wall, and a diagnostic droid was hovering nearby. He placed her on it and took a step back. She was dressed in a dark blue uniform, but it was dirty, torn, and in some areas scorched. He leaned back against the wall near the door and watched in helpless silence while the machines around them handled her care.

She was beautiful, but then, he thought, that was one reason why she’d been the star of the Kepler mission. Eliza Hawthorne had been the poster girl for Space Command’s Explorer Initiative. One of the first missions to leave the solar system in search of a habitable planet or moon. There had been others since, including two privately funded ones headed toward the Kepler star.

“Dr. Riley is on the relay, sir.”

Sean went to the communications panel in the infirmary. “On screen, Arti.”

“Sean? What the hell?” Stephanie Riley leaned forward and took a deep breath. “Armstrong Station is pinging the hell out of us demanding direct access to you. We’re going to relay Admiral McAlister to you in three minutes. He’s insisting on an encrypted channel. Preston is working as fast as he can.”

Sean checked his watch. “You need to move faster then. I’m fifty-two minutes from orbital blackout, and I won’t have direct communication with anyone for forty-eight hours.”

“Did you really recover the pod of Eliza Hawthorne?”

Sean looked over his shoulder briefly. “Yeah, I have her out of the pod and on a medical platform in the infirmary. She’s in some kind of deep cryo-sleep that didn’t end when Arti cracked the pod. Steph, she’s got…” He slid his fingers down a sensor pad, and the comm screen popped out of the wall so he could take it across the room. “Nano-bots, military grade, and a neural implant.”

Stephanie’s bright blue eyes widened in shock. “But none of that tech was available… Fucking military. I wonder how long they had biological nano-tech, bio-modifications, and neural implants before they were forced to share it with the public. Millions of people died that could’ve been saved with…” She huffed and waved a hand when someone shouted at her from the background. “Preston is ready for you. Good luck with this, Sean. I’ll prep a package for her to include in your next supply shipment. I’ll try to do some research, too, see if I can update her on any family she might have living.”

Sean grimaced. “Don’t bother, Steph. You need to brush up on your history—the entire crew of the Kepler Exploration Initiative—none of them were supposed to have family. She might have a few friends alive though. That might be a nice way to help her reconnect with people.”

Stephanie’s face disappeared and was replaced by an older man in a Union Space Command uniform. He pressed the comm panel on the wall near the medical platform and took a deep breath. “You’re Admiral McAlister?”

“Yes, listen, son, I know you have a limited amount of time before your orbital blackout. Space Command has already launched a retrieval ship for Captain Hawthorne. They’ll reach you in forty-three days.”

“That appears to upset you, Admiral.”

“It upsets me a great deal,” McAlister said bluntly. “We picked up her pod on our sensor net four months ago, Dr. Cohen, and someone higher ranking than me blocked every plan I had for retrieving her. Someone with a great deal of power doesn’t want to hear her story, didn’t want anyone on Earth to know she ever returned. Thanks to you, Dr. Cohen, the news of her recovery is moving swiftly through the ranks and the company you work for. I trained that young woman behind you, and she’s one of the bravest, strongest people I’ve ever known. She accepted nano-tech when it was experimental. She took a neural implant first—before any of the other members of her crew were fitted with one. Her pod is the only one coming—so whatever happened to her ship and crew must have been extremely bad. Shortly after my last attempt at retrieval was undermined, I sent a data-burst to her pod, which should’ve redirected her to a retrieval ship I have in orbit around Mars.”

“To protect her?”

“She has no family on Earth, Dr. Cohen. There is no one legally tied to her. If someone in the government wants her silenced—there is no one with the legal standing to ask questions, to demand answers if she disappears. Do you understand?”

“I do.” Sean closed his eyes briefly. The North American Union had been born out of years of world war and an encroaching ice age. Large city-states, some domed and others not, made up the country, and there were power games at play at every level of government from city governors to the office of the president. “Is she still active duty in Space Command?”

“Yes. Her status was changed shortly after her pod was picked up on our system; though she’s more than served her original contract terms.”

“They’re going to come here, take her into custody, and hold her hostage until she parrots whatever story they want told about the Kepler mission. She has no family, and you’ll be ordered to shut the fuck up,” Sean murmured. “And I don’t… Admiral, what do you want from me? I’m hardly in the position to fight off your people. I don’t even have any weapons on board.”

“How do you feel about marriage, Dr. Cohen?”

Sean’s mouth dropped open. “Pardon me, Admiral?”

“Marriage. A legal contract that binds two or three people together in the bonds of legal and emotional bondage until which time one of them regains their senses and files for a divorce.” The Admiral leaned forward. “I had a few minutes, Dr. Cohen, when I was waiting on your people to connect us directly. Your military records tell me you are an honorable and smart man.”

Sean sighed. “Arti, are you recording this?”

“Yes, Dr. Cohen.”

Fantastic. Maybe they could include it in their wedding holos. He glanced toward Eliza Hawthorne. “She’s unconscious, sir.”

“I’ve transmitted the protocols your AI needs to rectify that situation. We can have her awake inside of five minutes, but she won’t be conscious long, due to the length of her cryo-sleep. If you don’t agree, we can leave her in the suspended state she is until she is retrieved and returned to Earth.”

Sean focused on Eliza Hawthorne at those words. He’d seen plenty of beautiful women in his life—they were a dime a dozen thanks to advanced cosmetic surgery bots, implants, and bio-modifications. Beauty was a commodity bought and sold in their society. But she was also brilliant and courageous. She’d given up everything on Earth to undertake a mission that would’ve altered the path of their species had they been successful.

“What if she’s to blame?” Sean asked. “What if she lost it, killed her crew, and destroyed her own ship?”

“That’s probably one of the stories someone is already getting ready to spin, Doctor, but I don’t believe she’s capable of bullshit like that.”

“No,” Sean agreed. He’d read her work in grad school, and read through her mission reports when he’d served himself. She was the stuff space explorers were made of, and he didn’t believe for a second that her mission failed because of her. “I’ll do it if she’s willing.”

“Technically, Dr. Cohen, I’m still her commanding officer. I can make it an order, and I will. I’ll do everything I can to protect her, even from herself. AI-456Y87, you are authorized to revive Captain Hawthorne.”

Sean huffed and ignored Arti’s confirmation of orders. “Christ, Admiral, we can’t drag this woman out of cryo-sleep, tell her she’s a hundred years in the future, and force her to marry a stranger in the time we have left.”

“I’ve already pushed through the forms, Dr. Cohen. I need to witness to make it legal and binding.”

Eliza moved then; a soft groan escaped full lips, and she turned her head. Her eye lids flickered open and went wide with shock at the sight of him. She tried, vainly, to roll off the medical platform. Her body jerked, and a rough cough escaped her mouth. “What… Where?”

“Relax, Captain Hawthorne, you are on board the Ganymede Research Station.”

“Jupiter’s third moon,” Eliza supplied weakly.

“Yes.” Sean took an injector the infirmary droid offered and pressed it against her arm. “A mild stimulant. We need to talk, and there isn’t a lot of time.” He snatched the comm panel off the wall and turned the screen toward her. “This guy seem familiar?”

“Got old,” Eliza whispered hoarsely, and she reached out with trembling fingers to touch the screen. “Sir.”

“It’s been a long time, Captain. We don’t have time to coddle you, young lady. You’re in trouble, and you need next of kin.”

Eliza took a shuddering, obviously painful breath. “Daddy died—six months before the mission.”

“I remember,” McAlister said. “The young man with you—his name is Dr. Sean Cohen. He served ten years in Space Command and left the service as a lieutenant commander. He has degrees in biological engineering and biophysics. Dr. Cohen has a very large family on Earth, never been arrested, never been married, and he’s agreed to become your legal domestic partner.”

“Husband,” Eliza whispered and blinked several times. “At least he’s pretty.”

“Captain, do you comprehend your situation?”

“In trouble…traitor.” Eliza coughed. “Set us up to fail. Meant to kill us all.” She exhaled. “Don’t need a man to protect me, sir.”

“Yeah, but you need a legal spouse to keep your ass from disappearing forever,” McAlister snapped. “Pay attention, Captain.”

“Hurt, tired,” she complained and pushed weakly at the comm screen. “Old man.”

“Thirty-seven minutes to orbital blackout,” Arti announced.

“Eliza,” McAlister began. “Look at me.”

Her eyes opened wide as if she were forcing herself to pay attention. “Sir.”

“I need to see this done before the orbital blackout. I may not have the opportunity to speak with you again after this. Your return has upset some very powerful people, and my ability to help you is dwindling. Do you understand?”

“Marry the smoking hot physicist or disappear into a government-funded hole forever,” Eliza said hoarsely. She held out a hand to Sean and raised an eyebrow when he didn’t take it immediately. “I’m not getting married on my back, Doctor.”

Sean’s face heated as he helped her sit up. “It’s just legal stuff, Captain. I won’t…expect anything from you. I give you both my word on that front.”

“She could kick your ass, Cohen.” McAlister cleared his throat as Sean stuck the comm panel back on the wall. “Don’t let her fall off the platform, Cohen. Five minutes from now she’ll have a license to berate you like a professional.”

Sean caught her when she listed slightly to the left and wrapped an arm around her waist. “This is the most absurd situation I’ve ever been in.”

“Son, I’ve read your file. I know all about Bangkok,” McAlister said dryly. “I don’t know how you said that with a straight face.”

Eliza glanced at him briefly but lifted her chin and gave her CO a nod.

“Do you, Elizabeth Marie Hawthorne, take this man as your lawfully wedded spouse?”

“I do.”

Sean relaxed slightly. She hadn’t hesitated, which was something, but he was certain she was looking at the whole situation, including him, as some kind of extreme survival scenario. He didn’t blame her at all.

“Do you, Sean Reginald Cohen, take this woman as your lawfully wedded spouse?”

“I do.”

“By the power vested in me by the UN Security Council and Space Command, I pronounce you husband and wife. The forms should be available to you. I’ve already added my signature.”

“Arti?” Sean asked. The comm screen blanked out briefly, and a document appeared.

“Sir, if you would press your thumbprint to the box and add your digital signature.”

Sean quickly did as he was instructed and pulled the screen down so he could bring it close to her. “Here, Captain.”

“Call me Eliza,” she whispered. She pressed her thumb to the screen in the box for the second partner and keyed in her signature shakily.

Sean saved a copy of the file to his personal server and sent a copy to his boss at Teko Solutions before sending it back to the admiral. She wrapped her fingers around the edge of the comm panel before he could put it back on the wall and took a deep breath as the admiral’s face reappeared.

“Orders, sir?”

“Rest, get better, and write your report on the mission. Leave nothing out and send it back to me as soon as you can. The AI on board the station will handle the encryption. I’ve already given him a special set of protocols to use.” McAlister paused. “I’ll do my best to keep my seat and keep you in my command, Eliza.”

The transmission ended abruptly, and she released the panel. Sean tossed the thin device toward the wall, and it adhered where it landed, lopsided and thankfully still blank. “Let’s get you comfortable, Captain.”

“Eliza,” she reminded with a little huff as he lowered her back on the platform. “This thing is hard as fuck.”

“It has sensors in it that will direct your nano-tech in repairing the damage done to your body the most efficiently,” Sean explained. “Arti, is the upgrade for her nano-bots ready?”

“No, sir, I believe she’d be better served with new nano-tech. The upgrades Armstrong Station forwarded are severely outdated.”

Sean looked over her face, taking in the bruises and the dark circles forming under her eyes, which fluttered shut as he stood there. Her breathing evened out as she surrendered to natural sleep. The stimulant had worn off very quickly. “Her cosmetic enhancements are starting to degrade.”

“It’ll be rapid,” Arti supplied. “They obviously did not hold up well during cryo-sleep. I have standard protocols for the cosmetic enhancements, but we’d have to contact Earth regarding any more fashionable options.”

“Prepare a full nano-tech net for healing. Also, go ahead and put in protocols for the recycling of her old obsolete nano-tech. We’ll want to do a full in-depth scan of her neural implant and discuss that with her later.”

“Shall I include her cosmetic enhancements in that recycle order?” Arti questioned.

“Yeah, give her a standard package, I guess. Do you have records on Stephanie Riley’s cosmetic protocols? They have the same basic coloring and skin tone.”

“I do, and I can use the protocols from the captain’s degrading enhancements to tailor the look slightly.”

Sean nodded. “Sounds good. Keep it simple, though. She doesn’t strike me as the kind to really care about the latest fashions.”

A few minutes passed before a drawer opened on the other side of the room, and Sean crossed to retrieve the injector. Her fingers twitched as he pressed the injector against her upper arm and pressed the button. After pulling out a thin blanket and covering her, Sean moved the comm panel close to the bed and left his wife sleeping.

* * * * *

He dropped down in his chair on the command deck with five minutes to spare before the orbital blackout and wasn’t at all surprised when the large screen in front of him activated. Sean found himself face to face with the entire crew of the Jupiter Station. They were all staring at him gobsmacked.

He huffed and glared back at the five-man crew—a crew he’d been a part of off and on for the last ten years. “Well?”

“Holy shit, man,” Preston said, awed. “You just got married.”

Sean sighed. “You guys watched all of that?”

“You bet your ass we did, Cohen,” Dr. Eichi Minobe, the team leader for the entire sector, said sharply. “I’ve already contacted Dr. Tek with the news, and we’re preparing…for whatever may happen. We’re not going to let the military push you or your new wife around. I’m sure your grandmother will be informed shortly as well.”

“You’re not pissed?”

“I was ready to interrupt and marry her myself if you declined,” Minobe said and smirked. “I’m closer to her age at any rate.”

Sean laughed. Minobe was an incredibly fit ninety-two, and he never let anyone forget it. Making people fifty years younger than him feel lazy was the man’s primary hobby. He reached out and activated a viewing screen. Arti anticipated him, and Eliza’s medical platform immediately appeared.

“Has Dr. Tek responded directly?”

“He’s reviewing the footage of her recovery and your conversation with Admiral McAlister. I suggested that you be assigned a legal team. We’ll have some options by the time you come out of orbital blackout.” He paused and inclined his head. “You realize, of course, that an unconsummated domestic union can still be annulled in civil court in the NAU?”

Sean’s mouth dropped open. “Sir?”

“It is an archaic law, but it’s nonetheless true. There was a movement some ten years ago to remove it from the legal code, but with the birthrate already so low, asexual marriage proponents couldn’t gain enough support for the legal precedent to be established.” He cleared his throat. “And, of course, truth testing would reveal dishonesty in either of you should the subject come up in an interrogation. If her circumstances are as dire as Admiral McAlister has indicated, it’s not a risk you can take even considering the influence of your family.”

Sean slouched back in the seat and stared moodily at them. “Arti, do you have a current copy of the NAU Legal Code of Conduct?”

“Yes, Dr. Cohen.”

“Prepare an information packet for Captain Hawthorne and put it on a tablet. We have until Space Command arrives to get her up to date on her rights, responsibilities, and privileges as a citizen of the North American Union and a soldier in Space Command.” He paused and cleared his throat. “I may have to return to Earth for an undetermined amount of time.”

Minobe nodded. “We understand duty at Teko Solutions. Dr. Cohen, we would be pleased to contract Dr. Elizabeth Hawthorne should she choose to leave her posting in the military. The woman is an accomplished engineer, after all. Catching her up on the technology of the day would be worth her future contributions.”

Sean nodded. “I’ll let her know.”

Minobe cleared his throat and inclined his head. “This is a long-term commitment for you, Dr. Cohen. It could be years before…she’s safe from government interference. Teko Solutions will do all that it can to protect you both as long as you are in our employ.”

“Understood,” Sean murmured, his mind already racing with possibilities. “Ganymede out.”

He sat in the silence for five minutes, absorbing what he’d done and how he’d changed his life in a smattering of seconds. He hadn’t had a serious relationship in years and hadn’t had sex with another person in thirteen months. He was quite used to taking care of his own needs or using the VR. Though virtual reality sex was nowhere near as satisfying as having another human being pressed up against him, it helped keep his libido in check.

He was forty-two, but thanks to biological modification and a full complement of nano-bots, he was physically as fit as he was on his twenty-fifth birthday. He had a sex drive to match and had always declined the temporary chemical castration that Teko Solutions offered all of its employees who were handling long, solitary rotations. Space Command had given him a nano-protocol for subduing his sex drive, but he’d had it deactivated when he’d left the service, and considering its classified nature had never discussed it with the people at Teko Solutions.

“Dr. Cohen, it’s time for your sleep rotation.”

“Prep a medical platform for me,” Sean murmured. “I don’t want her to wake up alone.”

People Also Bought: