Day One: 3 June 2153
Joel Gilmore's life was saved by a faulty component module, the vagaries of SkySpy's maintenance roster and a called-in favour.
The module in question was deep in the guts of the Big Scope and that was where he was wedged, hot and tired and even more hungry than when he had started. The Big Scope was one of the many items of surveillance equipment that hung in space around the SkySpy asteroid, trained permanently in-system, and Joel was surrounded by girders and strutwork and was not enjoying himself. It had taken five minutes to get this far and he wanted to go home. Not back to the base, and a meal and a shower - home, which had much more to offer.
In front of him, a quarter of a mile away through the visor and framed by girders, was the dull, dark rock of SkySpy. There was a much more interesting view if he squinted up through his helmet's top-plate: the Shield, a mighty gas giant, bigger than Jupiter, eternally trailed by SkySpy on its endless trudge around the solar system. The giant was fluorescent with greens and yellows. A spectacular sight for eyes that were prepared to appreciate it.
Well, it had been one more useful lesson for life, he thought: don't give sarky answers to admirals at your lieutenant's exam. If you're right then they can't fail you, but they can take revenge in sundry other ways. For example, making your first posting in your new rank the most unwanted position in the Commonwealth Navy.
Something dark moved in the gap and obscured his view of the gas giant.
'Are you in position?' said a voice inside his helmet.
'Yeah, I'm here/ Joel muttered. 'Pass it through!
'Here it is.'
No-one could mistake the pressure-suited form clinging to a girder ahead of him for a human. The fact that all four limbs pointed in the same direction was one clue. In gravity, Rusties were dumpy quadrupeds. In micro-gee they were amazingly agile, with all legs able to operate independently in any direction. Boon Round's forefeet held the replacement module - a cube the size of Joel's head, packed with crystal and electronics - and the Rustie passed it through the gap. The working space was so narrow that Joel could not have carried it in with him.
'Thanks. Component three-thre~_zero-three-nineoblique-alpha,' Joel said. 'Right here.' In front of him, a row of similar modules poked their casing just proud of the innards of the Big Scope. He took hold of one and twisted it ninety degrees. It slid out smoothly and he passed it out to Boon Round, then pushed the
replacement in and twisted it back to lock in place. It took thirty seconds.
'Module replacement complete/ said the Big Scope. 'All systems now optimal.'
'Oh, good,' Joel said. He reminded himself for the thousandth time never to promise someone a favour. He had owed Sal Gedroyc one, and that was why he was out here right now while Sal enjoyed the first shift in the SkySpy canteen. Sal was less qualified for this work than Boon Round, so it would have been the Rustie who would have had to pull the contortionist act. But Joel was more qualified than Boon Round, and Rusties were absolute sticklers for concepts like hierarchy and precedence.
The Commonwealth was all about combining Rustie tech with human initiative, but Joel had joined the Navy to ... well, the jury was still out on exactly why he had joined, but furthering his career and doing interesting things had definitely been part of it, and they both sounded better than 'because it was inevitable' or 'why noff Putting up with Rusties, a naturally pedantic race at the best of times, had been a necessary evil and he was prepared to grin and bear it. He had even been quite sincere at the citizenship interview about his desire and ability to get on with them. But sitting out a six-month posting on a dull rock replacing components had not been part of the dream.
'I do not understand your flippant attitude to maintenance work, Lieutenant,' said Boon Round. 'It's very important.'
'You don't say?' Joel said. Only five months and three weeks to go ...
J have just said it.'
Now, that could have been a joke, Joel thought. Not a funny one, but a joke. He drew a breath to explore the subject further, and a glowing white spot appeared on the surface of the asteroid. It erupted a second later in a cloud of molten rock and vapour.
'What was thatT he exclaimed.
Other spots appeared next to the first, turning into matching superheated geysers, and then the spots began to move, scorching white-hot canyons across the rock. For a second, Joel just stared at the sight, aghast, his brain trying to make sense of the fact that SkySpy was being strafed by military-strength lasers. Then he swore and started to wriggle backwards out of the Big Scope, as best he could in a pressure suit intent on wedging itself into every nook and cranny.
'Go to general band,' Boon Round said urgently. A cacophony of voices and blaring alarms filled Joel's helmet. Words could be picked out of the gabble.
'Negative radar lock. Negative radar lock.'
'Fireflares. Lock on visual.'
No-one could have got close enough to SkySpy to strafe it without very good stealth tech indeed. The base had been built by masters at remaining unobserved, but now it seemed the masters had been surpassed.
Down below him on the surface of the asteroid, hidden hatches had moved aside and turrets had sprung up into space. Joel caught the brief flaring blur
of torpedoes firing off. A bright white light, SkySpy's flares, glared through the mechanism of the Big Scope and he tried to move even faster. The flares might illuminate the attackers, but bright lights could shine both ways.
'Visual lock! Fire.'
More blurs, more torpedoes, more flashes. There was a battle going on out there in space and Joel couldn't see a bit of it.
'This is most spectacular,' Boon Round said. Joel gritted his teeth and kept squirming.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Xenocide Mission by Ben Jeapes. Copyright © 2002 by Ben Jeapes. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.