Youthful Captain Brent Antiochus is on his first mission with his privately owned cargo ship, The Lady Bountiful, when his crew spots a man-shaped escape pod floating free in space. After retrieving it, they discover a cryogenically frozen man inside. The rescued man calls himself Sirgi Melik, who has no memory of who he is or how he came to be inside the pod. Slowly, he and Brent develop a relationship that is going well until new evidence suggests that Sirgi is not all he claims to be.
When pirates attack the cargo ship and threaten its priceless load of life-saving Ferrox pods, Brent must decide whether Sirgi is his ally or the mastermind behind the deadly raid.
Before he headed for Cargo Bay Two, he pressed one more button on the console and summoned their on-board, all-purpose scientist, Dr. Inya Ephivi, to meet him and Zillah there. A reptilian from the Odelisq system, Inya was brilliant and had studied everything from engineering to the biological processes of various species. If anyone would know what to do with the strange object, it would be her.
The three waited outside the room and watched on a screen while the automated tractor beams sucked the object inside their small ship. When the hatch was sealed and life support reestablished in the cargo bay, they entered.
The first thing that struck Brent was the pod’s size. Even though he’d already seen it on the viewscreen, it was still much smaller than he’d expected. The shape, too, wasn’t oval as he’d first thought, but curved like a man with broad shoulders and a tapered waist. In fact, it reminded him of a mummy sarcophagus of the kind he’d seen in books about ancient Earth. He understood Earth museums still had some of them, though he seldom visited Earth anymore and had never examined one up close, and they were made of painted stone and not grimy, space-weathered metal. That suggested the contents might be…no, not a dead body. There had been some kind of pulse, Hari had told him.
He’d seen plenty of different styles of cargo containers over the course of his shipping career, but never anything like this. “How do we open it?” he asked Zillah and Inya, who moved forward to study it.
“Good question.” Inya knelt down, examining the sides and applying a hand-held sensor, which would give a far more accurate reading than the distance sensors projected from the hull. “I do recognize the make. It’s an older model, of Earth origin, at least a century out of date. Either someone’s using salvaged equipment, or this thing’s been floating out there a long, long time.”
“You mean it’s unlikely anyone—or anything—could be alive in there?” Brent asked.
“I wouldn’t go that far. Some of these units, even back then, were equipped with what we would consider primitive cryogenic chambers. They might have used other kinds of life support I’m not familiar with.”
While the three of them continued to gaze at the pod uncertainly, a high-pitched whining noise, like that of a gear engaging, issued from its interior. They jumped back in unison, and Brent worried for a minute that Hari had been correct—for all he knew, the whole thing might explode or emit some kind of knockout gas to enable a waiting band of pirates to swarm their ship.
To his relief, nothing happened except that the noise stopped and the pod’s top panel split in half and slid sideways like an elevator. Brent, Zillah, and Inya crowded in for their first look at whatever—or whoever—lay inside the man-shaped pod.
Brent felt his jaw drop. A human male, most likely of Earth origins, lay there, all right. But he looked like no man Brent had ever seen before. The fellow was enormous, his shoulders broad and lined with muscle visible even through the silver bodysuit he wore. His face, too, was stunning—strong-jawed and pale-skinned, with thick dark brows that matched the short-cropped hair on his scalp. The hard plane of his chest rose and fell slightly. He was alive.
He seemed unresponsive, as though he were comatose or in some similar state of suspended animation. That made sense if in fact he had been floating in the pod as long as Inya suspected. Brent supposed the large number of wires crisscrossing the width of the pod and connected to metal disks on his chest, limbs, and forehead might have something to do with that.
“What should we do?” Brent asked. He raised a hand toward the open section of the pod, then realized he didn’t know exactly what he was reaching for, and let it drop again.
Inya’s lizard-like eyes widened. “Better not touch him. We don’t know how this device works. He’s survived for a while like this. A few more hours won’t hurt.”
“I guess not. At least, I hope not.” Brent gazed at his face. The thought of being hooked up like that, a man becoming little more than a machine himself, filled him with a clammy dread that made his spine prickle. Yet the face looked peaceful. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, most likely an Earthman or possibly from one of the many Earth colonies now dotting most of the nearby solar systems. Brent also couldn’t deny that he was the kind of guy he might have shared a drink with in a space bar or even on a pleasure station. “What’s the purpose of a device like this?” he asked Inya.
“Most likely he put himself into it, connected himself voluntarily, and jettisoned himself from some disabled vehicle. It used to happen in the old days. People would eject from their ships and engage a homing device in the pods. His must have malfunctioned, because he’s still floating here.”
“Maybe he can tell us when you extract him.”
“I’ll go back to my lab and do some research. There’s got to be a way.”
“Good idea. I’ll hang around a while, I think—and don’t worry, I won’t touch anything.”
Inya nodded and walked out. Zillah remained behind, stationed in one corner of the cargo bay. Brent could feel her eyes on his back, but she didn’t say anything or interfere when he crouched down for a closer inspection.
Just then the man in the pod opened his eyes. A pair of startling blue orbs flashed as he stared right at Brent.
He opened his mouth to call Zillah over, but by the time he did, the guy was asleep again. Had he imagined it? He went closer and bent down, trying to detect breathing. He listened, not daring to touch.
Then a hand rose and closed around Brent’s wrist. The fingers squeezed with surprising strength. That rugged mouth worked as if he wanted to speak.
“Th-thank you,” he murmured, his voice so soft and rusty that Brent almost didn’t hear him at first. The words told Brent he was from Earth, or at least he’d spent enough time there to learn to speak Terran without an accent. “R-rescued me.”
Brent heard Zillah’s boots slapping the smooth metal floor of the cargo bay as she raced over. He held up his free hand to keep her back. He didn’t want to startle the man, who seemed disoriented and confused.
“Don’t try to speak yet. Let me get the doctor for you.” Brent hit the button on his wristband and summoned Inya. “I mean, well, to be honest, she’s not a medical doctor—but she’s the closest thing we have. Just lie still until she gets here.”
Impulsively Brent brought his free hand forward and used it to pat the fingers that clung to him. “Hang on, we’ll figure this out. We’ll have you out of there in no time.”
The man shook his head as best he could, given the various electrodes and wires attached to him. “No. Have to stay until…” he trailed off, seeming to lose consciousness again.
Inya soon appeared with her medic’s kit and a portable diagnostic machine. She glanced at the patient, then back up at Brent skeptically. Zillah hovered behind them.
“I thought something had happened.”
“Something did. Watch his face.”
As they peered down at him together, the man moved his jaw muscles and frowned. Eventually he opened his eyes again.
“I’ve brought help,” Brent said. “This is Dr. Inya Ephivi, our resident scientist. She’s going to examine you and see if we can figure out what’s going on with your life support system.”
The man nodded. He looked tired. However many years he’d been floating had no doubt taken a lot out of him.
“I want to live,” he whispered. “Whatever it takes.”
“Don’t worry,” Brent answered for her. “We’re going to make sure you do.”
“His vital signs are much stronger than the last time I checked,” Inya confirmed after a few scans. “His system is slowly weaning itself off whatever has been keeping him alive.”
“Is that good or a bad?” Brent asked, frowning.
“I suppose it’s good. There are a few irregular readings, but we can worry about that later. He can hardly live in that thing for the rest of his life.”
“Wrong. In theory, forever,” the man rasped. “But trust me, this kind of immortality you don’t want.”
“Can you tell us anything about how you ended up this way?” Brent asked, bending over the pod again. He shivered, feeling like he really was talking to someone lying inside an open casket.
The man moved his neck a little in an approximation of a head shake. “I don’t. Sorry.”
“What’s your name? Where did you come from?”
The man’s forehead creased as though he were thinking. Then he looked directly at Brent and Inya with wide, pleading eyes.
“I was hoping you could tell me, friend. I have no idea about either.”