Lieutenant Commander Nika Vagin watched as his little sister, Petty Officer First Class Altandai Khan of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, put her hands on her hips and stared up at the ship from the asteroid's surface. "That's it. Ship 645v, aka An Ordinary Star. Launched on June 17, 2330. Carrying three hundred and fifty-three popsicles—"
"Jenks." He let the threat in her nickname carry over the coms.
"Sorry," she said with a grin, clearly unrepentant even through the dim glare of the star on her helmet. "Three hundred and fifty-three people."
She wasn't wrong about them being popsicles, though. These poor bastards froze themselves for nothing. The Voyager Company developed wormhole tech just before the last wave of transport ships left Earth. When they were sure it was going to work, Off-Earth sent in larger freighters via wormhole to scoop up the SJs and take them on to the Trappist system.
Correction: they picked up the ones they could find. Nika shuddered a little at the thought.
Some were destroyed by system failure or space debris and nothing was left but rubble floating in the black. And some had simply vanished into the great nothing—no signal, no trace. All told, there were still a few dozen registered vessels missing, and a double handful more unregistered ships carrying a few desperate families who hadn't realized or hadn't cared that there was one—and only one—company with the legal ability to ship humans off-world.
"I'm getting no life-sign readings at all," Nika said, staring up at the ship. "There had better be someone on that jumper. If there isn't and I hiked my ass halfway across this surface when we could have just called the station and had an Earth Security Cutter tow them in, I'm going to chew out someone's ass."
"Relax, Nik." Commander Rosa Martin's voice was crisp over the com. "There are people. Though the ones on ice are probably freezer burned and the ones who aren't have everything locked down so tight we can't see a single thing from out here."
"I still don't see why we couldn't have just used the EMUs straight from Zuma's Ghost."
"Because she's noisy on the radar," Jenks said, "and then I wouldn't get to do this." She took off running with that low-gravity bounce, did a handspring over an outcropping, and launched herself into the starlit blackness beyond.
Nika cursed, his ears ringing from Jenks's whoop and the laughter of the rest of the team as he followed her. His helmet display gave him the necessary trajectory, although he was sure his little sister had done it on nothing but faith.
He launched himself off the asteroid's surface, flying through the vacuum toward the mysterious ship. Jenks soared through space ahead of him, kicking in the thrusters on her EMU to slow her approach at the last second so that she made less noise than a piece of space debris when she hit the hull of the ship. The name was faded and pockmarked from dust impact but still read clearly AN ORDINARY STAR next to the door.
"This is an older model of SJ, Jenks." Ensign Nell Zika's cool voice came over the coms as the readings from Jenks's scan scrolled across her terminal back on their ship. "One of the last waves from 2330. It's registered, though, legal and everything. Huh—that's weird."
"What's weird, Sapphi?" Rosa asked the ensign. "Tamago and I just connected with the back end of this beast."
"We see you, Commander. Did you know that there were twenty-seven missing ships in total? And twenty of them were from the last wave?" Sapphi asked.
"I did not know that," Jenks replied. She didn't look up as Nika made contact with the ship next to her. "How many were in the last wave?"
"Only thirty," Sapphi replied. "The wormholes were the big news story and people wanted to wait and see what would happen with them."
"Yeah, I get that, but a sixty-seven percent loss for a single wave seems like a really high failure rate for Off-Earth Enterprises, and it was never in the news?"
"How do you know that?" Nika asked.
"I read the briefing."
Nika reached out and tapped the side of his sister's helmet once, hard enough to push her into the ship.
"Okay, maybe I read more than the briefing," she said. "It was interesting. People were flipping their sh—"
"Focus, Jenks, you had your fun. Time to work," Rosa ordered.