All the Stars Within Our Grasp

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The Exterran Stretch, some 59.6 trillion miles into the heavens. There was nothing normal about the job that the Taiyang Empire bureaucrat just offered to Jennifer Shen, but the payoff was just too damn good. It all seemed straightforward, too - track down a thief who absconded with a research project and make more money than any manhunter could ever hope to see in one lifetime. The one catch is the thief's destination - a place known to criminals of all stripes as "the Cradle," the homeworld of humanity whose location was lost when the planet was abandoned over a thousand years ago. Jennifer isn't one to turn down a job just because it's impossible. She has an illegally modified ship ready to fly, a crazy Boy Scout type to pilot it, and a foul-mouthed refugee from an alien cult to navigate. Ten light-years of uncharted space is all that sits between Jennifer and retirement. But there's more to the job than the bureaucrat mentioned. For one, there's the tiny detail that the research project in question has the potential to destroy most of the galaxy if the thief activates it in the wrong way. And then there's the Cradle itself, a planet abandoned when humans destroyed it...or so they thought. Humanity was brought low for a purpose, the beings who blew it all up are still watching, and they just noticed Jennifer and her crew.

Scifi / Adventure
Andrew Johnston
Age Rating:


The case in the stranger’s hand was certainly something more than an ordinary suitcase - cast in high-grade titanium, sealed with thick steel bolts and an epoxy of unknown composition, the surface studded with curious sensors from which nanoscopic wires wove neatly through the metal. He bore the thing with unexpected ease and care - cradling it, minding it, treating it as though it were a delicate ornamental box from some lost civilization. He always had one eye tilted slightly in its direction, even as his other senses stayed tightly focused on the loquacious salesman guiding him through the vast array of spacefaring vessels.

“This one should suit your needs, friend.” The salesman cinched up his impossible smile as he gestured to one of the sleek metal falcons lined up on the showroom floor. “It features pulse engines for accelerated travel across shorter intrastellar distances and both gravitonic nodeline and linear-dimensional engines for superluminal travel. You did mention you were doing some planet-skipping, correct?”

“Indeed, sir.” The stranger nodded knowingly, allowing his pale lips to curl into a gentle grin. “I will be going on a particularly long journey in the near future.”

“Then you’ll be interested in hearing about the bells and whistles.” The avarice of the deal gleaned in the salesman’s eyes as he launched into his rehearsed pitch. “You’ve got shielded cameras offering full scanning across all three axes - no more risky exposed bridges! You’ve got the new Tetra-Grid navigation system which will create a real-time map of the surrounding one-twentieth cubic parsec within one-point-five seconds - useful if your Class V on-board AI navigator somehow fails to find your way. And, of course, it comes with the usual shielding against extremes of temperature, radiation, electromagnetic interference...believe me, the only way you’re getting hurt in this thing is if you die laughing while watching your favorite movies on the included Tru-Immersion panel display.”

The stranger closed his eyes for a protracted moment. “Can you have it ready immediately? Time is of the essence.”

“You can fly it right out of the dock...after you’ve paid, of course.” The salesman drew back his smile a bit as he sized up his mark, a genetically unimpressive specimen whose slender frame vanished within his forgettable garb. “Do you have an imperial account with us, or shall we set up an installment plan?”

“Actually, sir, I will be paying up front.” The stranger extended his bone-white fingers. “In full.”

The salesman drew back, shooting the stranger an incredulous look. “You have that kind of money? This technology does come at a premium, you know. I’m talking three billion, and that’s for the basic package. All in, it’ll be at least five or six.”

“Then that’s what I’ll pay.”

The salesman fought the urge to laugh as he fished out his biometric scanner, placing the silver sphere into the stranger’s palm. The device emitted a series of mellifluous metallic chirps, a sure sign that the sale could proceed. The salesman stared at his monitor with confusion, a feeling he quickly shed as he warmed up his gigawatt smile once more. “Sorry about that, Mr...Izmik. Merely an obligatory question when dealing with high-end craft, I certainly never meant to insult you by questioning your means.”

“No offense taken, sir,” said the stranger. “You’ll escort me to my craft, yes?”

“Absolutely! And don’t even bother with the legal niceties, I can swing all of that myself. No need to waste time on such trivialities.” The salesman extended his hand. “I’ll even open the bridge hatch and load you and your belongings on...along with a voyage basket, on me.”

The stranger settled both hands around the hefty metal handle of the case. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m under certain...protocols, let’s call them, that demand that only I handle this particular object.”

“Of course! And far be it for me to interfere with your protocol.” The salesman rubbed his chin as he glared at the case. “Uh...I’m sure it’s also against your protocols-”

“You wish to know what’s in the case, yes?”

The salesman waved his hands and shook his head. “Not at all, I mean...not if it violates your obviously firmly held commitment to professionalism and, ah...secrecy, privacy, whatever you wanna call it.”

“It’s hardly a secret, sir,” said the stranger, caressing the surface of the case. “But there is something of a challenge in describing my mission in plain language.”

“Ah. Well...” The salesman glanced around for several seconds before proceeding at a whisper. “...In plain language, then...what’s in there?”

“Why, everything, sir,” said the stranger. “Everything there is.”

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