Read Aces Online

Authors: Craig Alanson










By Craig Alanson













copyright © 2016 Craig Alanson

All Rights



Great Britain, Earth



s it?” The man peered skeptically at the object, and gently poked
at it with a pen. “All this old alien junk looks the same. This thing actually
works, after all this time?”

“Yes.” Replied
the scientist with a weary sigh, as he nudged the pen away. “Please don

t touch it, the instruments are very sensitive.”

The object of
such intense interest sat on a laboratory workbench, a plain, black,
rubber-coated workbench, with the object itself resting gently in a foam
cradle. The object was covered with sensors which had been glued or taped to
it, and multicolored wires ran from the sensors, so many wires that the object
looked like it had fallen into a bowl of spaghetti.

Lighting in the
lab was dim, except for a spotlight which shone a harsh cone of light down on
the workbench. There were two people in the room, the only two people allowed
access through the many layers of security that surrounded the company
laboratory. One person was a scientist, wearing a white lab coat, peering
intently at a display screen, nodding his head, murmuring softly to himself
while he fiddled with his instruments. The scientist was exhausted, and it
showed in the dark circles under his eyes, the wrinkled lab coat, the sagging
shoulders. The other man was younger, wearing an expensive suit, his collar
still buttoned, his tie still straight, his white shirt still crisp and
unwrinkled, his brown hair still combed just so, despite the fact that it was
past 3 o

clock in the morning of a long, long day.

The two men
absolutely despised each other.

“Yes,” the
scientist repeated, straightening up, “I'm sure. This is it. It works, but I

t control it without the other piece.”

The younger man

s lips tightened in a grimace he might have intended as a
smile. “The missing piece, you

re certain about that

The scientist
closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been working almost
continuously for two days, ever since the object came to his attention. He
pulled a bottle from his coat pocket, tilted his head back, and squeezed a few
drops into each eye. “Now that I know what this is, I know the piece that

s missing, it fits perfectly. I saw it listed in the survey

The younger man,
the scientist

s boss, Senior Vice President Todd Martin,
frowned. He looked down at his left sleeve, and picked a tiny piece of lint off
the fabric. Cleaning his suit absorbed his attention, the scientist forgotten
for the moment, which only emphasized the other man

total lack of importance, in the grand scheme of things. Back to the present.
“Pity you didn

t ask to have it included in the original shipment.”

The scientist
shrugged defensively. He resented having to report to this non-scientist, this
ignorant, money-grubbing jerk. The only mathematics Martin was interested in
was about money. “If I

d known, I would have. Three days
ago, this was just another useless old alien trinket. Until
saw its
potential. Now that second piece is in government quarantine.”

As a scientist,
Dr. Nigel Watson was adequate, perhaps mediocre, no more than that. He had
worked in the labs at JST Research Corporation for over twenty years; there had
been only a few minor discoveries from his work, even fewer useful patents
granted during his career. Solid, dependable, unimaginative. The only award he
was likely to win in his life was for perfect attendance. The only reason
Watson was assigned to this project is that it had been Watson, by pure luck,
who discovered what the alien device was.


s first thought, after Watson told him
what the device was, which piece was missing, and where that missing piece was
located, was that now, had been that now he didn

t need
Watson. Martin could arrange for Watson to have a tragic accident. So sad, and
so fortunate.

But, Martin didn

t get to be a Senior Vice President by making hasty decisions.
His second thought was that, even if he got the missing piece, he still needed
a scientist to make it work. And if he needed a scientist, Watson was actually
the perfect person for the job. Watson was weak, and Todd Martin knew how to
manipulate him, how to use Watson

s fragile ego to make
the scientist do whatever Todd wanted. “If we need that missing piece, then,”
Martin said, “we need to acquire it.”

Watson looked
down at the workbench, where the object rested in the spotlight. It did look
like so many other pieces of ancient alien junk. “Acquire it? You mean
it. Arcadia Scientific,
” he mentioned the name of JST

s chief competitor, “owns it, they

d never
give it up. Especially if they figure what it is. And if we try to buy it from
them now, that will only make them look more closely at it.”

It was Martin

s turn to shrug. “Arcadia may technically own it now, but they

t have possession of it yet. Acquire, steal, it

s all the same in the end. Need I remind you, Nigel, this is a
guaranteed Nobel prize for you. You would prefer they award it to someone else?
Say, doesn

t your old friend Patel work for Arcadia now?”

Watson twitched
reflexively, as Martin knew he would. Patel did work as a consultant for
Arcadia, and he had already been awarded one Nobel prize. Patel, who had been a
student when Watson was teaching astrophysics at MIT. Smug, arrogant Patel.
Martin knew just how to push Watson

s buttons. “You
understand, this could be a great leap for humanity.” Watson said, as if that
were his primary motivation. He pictured himself accepting the Nobel prize in
Oslo, meeting Patel at the party afterward. Patel, who had shared his Nobel
with three others. A prize awarded for their work on stellar formation theory.
Meaningless drivel. Who cares about how stars formed, billions of years ago?

s work on the alien device would
change the
. The technology would be named after him. His name would live
forever. He was committed now. “M-“ he started to say ‘

, but couldn

t bring
himself to address the young suit that way, “M-mind you, we have to... acquire
it without anyone finding out what we took. If anyone figures out which item we

re interested in, they will investigate, and eventually
everyone will know what it is. There are no patents for rediscovering existing
technology, you know. Without a patent, there won

t be any

Martin smiled,
genuinely this time. He noted that Watson had said ‘we

time. Martin liked to win. “And no Nobel prizes, either. Don

worry about that. I know a man who does this kind of... work. Clean, and
discrete.” He patted the scientist on the shoulder, reassuringly. "Another
Nobel would be good for the company, eh?"

Despite his
exhaustion, Watson's eyes burned bright with desire for a Nobel prize of his
own. "Yes. Of course."



Spacedock, Highpoint Station, Aurora orbit

The spacedock
supervisor watched the small ship back slowly out of his dock, attended by two
dockyard tugs. He bit his lip, and shook his head. It was a nice ship, if a bit
old and in need of maintenance. What concerned him was that the ship

s hyperdrive engines were past due for a major overhaul when the
ship had arrived at Aurora four months ago. The only place the ship should be
going was straight to Earth, because only Earth had the civilian spacedock
facilities for such heavy overhaul work. The people who had bought the ship
last week had been evasive about where they were taking their new ship, which
they had purchased in a hurry, skipping the usual safety inspections. And the
supervisor had not liked their captain at all. The man, and his pilot, held all
the proper certificates for flying such a spacecraft. But the man was too
slick, his smile too thin, his answers too rehearsed. The supervisor didn

t trust him.

Well, there was
nothing the supervisor could do about it now. He

d filed
the official notices with the Registry. As the nose of the small ship
disappeared from view, he waved it goodbye. “
Good luck,


Los Angeles,
USA, Earth

“Kaylee, Manny,
get your stuff together. Let

s go.” Joy Sanchez threw one
of her daughter

s sweaters over her right shoulder and
bent down to push the suitcase closed. As she straightened up, her blonde hair
swept across her face, she pulled it aside. “Come on, we

already late for the spaceport. The shuttle isn

t going to
wait for us.”

“Mo - om,” Kaylee
Sanchez drew the word out into two syllables, as teenagers do when exasperated
by their
uncool parents, only Kaylee was barely fourteen, albeit
going on twenty two, and
much more sophisticated than her mother gave
her credit for. “I can

t find my blue duffel bag. I packed
it this morning.”

“You mean this
one?” Rick Sanchez poked his head in the door, his arms full of various small

“Yes!” Kaylee
leapt across the room and snatched it from her father, hugging it to her chest.
“Where did you find it?” She asked suspiciously.

Her father was
taken aback. “It was in the hallway, near the front door. Why?”

“I didn

t put it th-“ Kaylee started to scold her father in

”I put it there,
Kaylee.” Her mother interjected. “It was under your bed, and I knew you wanted
to bring it. Give it here.”

reluctantly let her mother take it, and add it to the pile at her feet.

“Honey,” Rick
looked in dismay at how much luggage still remained to be loaded into the van
for the ride to the spaceport, “
I hope we don

t have much more than this.” Their major items had been packed
up by movers weeks before, to make the slow trip up the space elevator.

Joy winked. “This
is just the childrens

items, dear. Our suitcases are
still in our bedroom.”

While the parents
were talking, their twelve year old son Manuel had snuck in behind his mother
and opened his sister

s duffel bag.
This is why Stinkly wanted this bag so bad. It

s got her
precious Us4U holos!”

Kaylee shrieked,
enraged, and lunged at her brother, who danced away triumphantly across the
, holo projector in hand.
“Give it to me!” She
shouted, as Manny activated the unit and tossed it on the floor. Instantly, the
room had three additional occupants, the pretty boys of Us4U, the hot boy band
of the moment. There were three of them, with spiked and frosted hair, tight
pants, shirts open to the waist. They were singing some mindless love song, or
so Rick thought, until one of them ran his hands down his torso and gyrated his
hips. Manny imitated the movement. “Look at me, I

m Zak!
Ooooh, I need you sooo bad, bay-BEE
He sang along, mockingly.

Rick, appalled,
dropped all the luggage, strode over and picked up the holo unit, snapping it
off. “This is awful! Kaylee, you shouldn

t be watching
this stuff!”

“Stinkly looooves
Zak.” Manny taunted, safely on the other side of the bed from his sister.

“I hate you!!”
Kaylee screamed.


s it!” Rick clapped his hands. “Manny, you do not touch your

s things without her permission, and you stop
taunting her. And don

t call her Stinkly again. Kaylee, I

t want you telling your brother you hate him. And this
thing,” he held up the holo projector, “I

m keeping for
now, until I can delete that program. That is inappropriate.”

“Mom?!” Kaylee
turned to appeal to her mother.


t look at me, young lady, I agree with your father.” Joy said,
in order to support her husband, even though she had owned worse holograms at
the same age.

“This is so
unfair!” Kaylee was on the verge of tears. “Why do I have to leave all my
friends, and everything I like, to go to Val-hell-hole? You can

t make me!

“Kaylee,” Joy
spoke in a sympathetic tone, “Valhalla is a very nice planet.”

“And you are
going, young lady.” Rick said flatly, running out of patience, as they ran out
of time. “We all are. Finish packing.” He picked up as many suitcases as he
could hold under his arms, and turned toward the hallway, when Kaylee burst
into tears, ran into her bathroom, and slammed the door behind her with enough
force that pictures hung on the wall swayed on their hooks. Rick dropped the
suitcases again, and looked to his wife.

Joy nodded.
“Honey, I

ll talk to her. Why don

you and Manny get the car loaded?”

Rick silently
mouthed ‘I love you

, and picked up the suitcases one more
time. “Tiger, can you give me a hand here? That suitcase is probably too big
for you-“

“No, I got it,
Dad.” Rick watched his son struggle to drag the heavy suitcase behind him,
grateful Manny was still young enough to like being called ‘Tiger

and also young enough to fall for the old ‘too heavy for you

Rick wanted to savor this time before the children grew up.

More time with
family had been a major factor to consider when Rick had applied for a grant to
explore the alien ruins on Valhalla, a planet only recently cleared for initial
human habitation. He had been awarded the grant, with enough funding for five
years, the opportunity of a lifetime for a young xenoarcheologist. When Joy
arranged a job as a staff exobiologist with New Ventures LLC, the company that
held the colony prep contract for Valhalla, the decision was made; the family
was moving to Valhalla. Now they had to get across the lightyears from Earth to
Valhalla, which meant meeting up in Earth orbit with the massive transport ship
Atlas Challenger
, which meant getting to the Vandenberg spaceport with
plenty of time to go through security to board the spaceplane, which meant
getting the van on the road, which meant getting the van loaded, which meant
getting their alarmingly large amount of luggage packed.  And getting
Kaylee out of the bathroom. Even with the automated traffic control systems, it
might take as long to drive from LA to the Vandenberg spaceport as it would
take to climb into orbit and rendezvous with the transport in orbit. Rick was
about to ping a traffic report request from his bComm, the tiny computer chip
in his brain, when he remembered his manners. Kaylee and Manny didn't have
bComms, and wouldn't be getting them until they were at least eighteen,
probably twenty. This in spite of the fact that some sixteen-year-olds at
Kaylee's school had them already, which was foolish as far as Rick and Joy were
concerned. A sixteen year old brain was too young, too much actively still
growing, to be messing around with learning to work with implanted computers
like a brain communicator. Which was another source of arguments with their
daughter. At home, the parents used their bComms rarely, to avoid reminding
Kaylee of what she didn't have. “House,” Rick called out, “traffic report.”

No major
incidents along your route, Mister Sanchez. Traffic is moving at 96% of optimal
.”            The
house AI responded.

“Yeah, optimal
for LA.” Rick muttered under his breath as he walked sideways down the narrow
hallway with his arms full of luggage. He was tired already. Once they got on
the freeway he could take a nap. The only driving he would have to do was out
of their street, once they reached the freeway onramp, the computer would take
over, and deliver their rented van right to the spaceport. Then there would be
a ride on a spaceplane, which would be a first for the children, and, Rick
hoped, exciting enough to keep them from being bored. Once they reached the
commercial space station, they had a two hour layover before catching an
orbital transfer vehicle for the ride up to the
Atlas Challenger
, which,
like most freighters, was parked near the top of the equatorial space elevator.
Low-value items like cargo took the long, slow trip up the elevator, people
paid extra to ride the spaceplanes.

was a bulky freighter, not a sleek cruise ship.
Passenger ships didn

t go out the 1,600 lightyears to
Valhalla, and wouldn

t, until that planet was fully
approved for colonization, and the planet

s population
grew large enough to make fast cruise ships economical to operate. The
freighter was under contract to New Ventures LLC to haul equipment and
personnel to Valhalla, in this case it was Rick who was tagging along with Joy.
He had seen holos of the cargo ship

s small passenger
section, and while it was better than he had feared, it did not look like it
had been built for any kind of luxury. Keeping the children occupied during the
more than three month journey would be an adventure in itself.


In her bathroom,
Kaylee took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, to calm herself. It was what
her yoga instructor said to do, restoring her inner balance, or something like
that. Kaylee didn

t yet
attention to the mumbo-jumbo spiritual aspects of yoga, she liked how the exercises
kept her flexible. She blotted her tears away with a towel, and looked in the
mirror. She was pretty, and she knew it. Kaylee didn

have the permanent eyeliner or sparkle implants in her retina like some of the
girls in her school; her parents wouldn

t allow that. She
smoothed her top, appraising herself. Unlike many girls her age, Kaylee mostly
liked the way she looked. Mostly. Not that there weren

things she wouldn

t change about herself, if she could.
Soccer and basketball kept her fit. Supposedly there were people her age on
Valhalla, supposedly there were even sports teams. She didn

want to go to Valhalla, didn

t want to leave L.A., didn

t want to leave her friends. Her mother had tried to persuade
Kaylee what a great opportunity this was, after all, how many of her friends
ever went offworld? Except, of course, for the rich kids, who always looked
down on everyone else, anyway. Valhalla was an opportunity? Yeah, an
opportunity to live in primitive conditions, on a world that wasn

even ready for colonists, only science teams and their families. No matter what
her parents said, Valhalla would be uncomfortable, crude, primitive, possibly
dangerous. And maybe, just maybe, exciting. Even when the coolest kids at
school had teased her about having to move to a hick planet in the middle of
nowhere, there had been a little, a tiny bit of envy on their faces; that
Kaylee would be going where few people had gone, while they stayed in L.A.
Where so many crowded together.

Kaylee splashed
water on her face, checked her fingernails, and paused, her hand on the door
handle, taking a deep breath. Her mother was no doubt waiting outside,
preparing some lame speech that Kaylee would have to listen to. No, she thought
to herself. If I have to go to Valhalla, I

m doing it

She opened the
door, and as her mother was about to speak, Kaylee interjected “Whew! I feel
better now, I needed that. Manny knows how to push my buttons, that little
creep.” She clapped her hands, and looked around the room. “Do you want me to
pack this stuff?”

Joy was
surprised, having been ready for another argument. “Sure, I

take this out to the car. Thank you.”

“Sure, Mom.”
Kaylee said with a toss of her hair, as she knelt on the floor to load clothing
into a suitcase.


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