Chapter One.

As she ran down the dark, narrow, seemingly abandoned corridor of the Station of the Lost, Earth Unity Ambassador Chanda Kasmira's lifesuit, which normally served as a spacesuit, snapped on.  Energy bolts sizzled to either side.  Her companions Akira Kuroda and Haj Kontos, close on her heels, laid down covering fire.

Tangled cables and piles of debris made each step treacherous, especially when combined with grav one-fifth stronger than Earth-normal.  My feet come down harder and faster than I expect, she thought. I could turn an ankle and fall in an instant.

Close behind them, three Human males kept firing.

A hit, against Chanda's right shoulder!  She stumbled, but her lifesuit armor took most of the blow and she kept moving.  We don't even know why they're shooting at us, Chanda thought, unsure whether to be frightened or angry.

"Got one!" Akira said.  She was tall and lanky, part of Chanda's diplomatic team, and Chanda had to lean to one side as she risked a glance back.  She was heartened to see one of the men following them fall.  The other two Humans slowed for an instant, one of them checking the third.  The man should only be unconscious; Akira and Haj, conforming to Earth Unity protocols, were only using their stun settings.

Chanda looked forward again, said, "We've got a grav tube up here."  The tube was set into the wall, standing tall enough to accommodate any of the Galactic species here on the station, but only wide enough for one of them to use it at a time.

Akira overtook Chanda in just a few steps, saying, "I'll go first, then you.  Haj -- "

"Got it," Haj said.  He was shorter and stouter than either Chanda or Akira, and was the head of security from the starcraft Nivara 2.  He paused to lay down covering fire.

Akira stepped into the grav tube and fell away.  Chanda, even as she took her own step into the tube, thought, We can only hope we're headed someplace safer. 

Her body stiffened as air rushed around her much more swiftly than she expected, and she fell much faster than she expected, faster than terminal velocity on Earth.  Just beneath her, Akira's arms and legs flailed.  She didn't expect this either, Chanda realized.   

Akira passed up one, then two exits from the tube.  Chanda realized Akira was trying to get them as far away from those shooters as she could.

From above, a couple of energy bolts passed her -- she looked upward and saw Haj, also in free-fall,  firing stunner blasts in response.  The two Humans stepped into the tube to follow them.

"Heads up, Chanda!"  She looked down again.  Akira's body slowed as they neared another exit point from the tube.  Akira grabbed the edge of the exit and swung herself onto the deck.  Chanda did the same, landing within very different surroundings from those they'd left -- wider and brighter, with grav slightly less than 1 G now, and with voices carrying close by.  Not Human, Chanda thought.  But too far away for my datalink's translator tech to make out.  She pulled her stunner and told Akira, "We'll cover Haj as he comes out."

In the next instant, Haj swung himself onto the deck, then turned to face the tube's exit.

No one arrived.  After a few seconds, Haj said, "Cover me," and looked up and down the tube.  He shook his head.  "No one there."

Chanda said, "They must've taken one of those exits we passed up."

Haj said, "I'd suggest we not take any chances, Ambassador.  Time to head back to the shuttle." 

"Agreed," Chanda said. 

Haj pointed down the corridor away from the grav tube.  "About half a click that way, we should come upon the transit area."  The Station of the Lost was about five kilometers across and ten and a half "tall."  An open area about forty meters across ran its entire height and allowed small craft or individual fliers to traverse that entire area, top to bottom and back again.

Chanda touched behind her left ear to activate her datalink.  "This is Chanda to Irene."

"Go ahead," Irene Radford responded.  She was their pilot aboard the shuttle Kamoi, which stood in a docking bay several levels down.  It was from the starcraft Nivara 2, which was stationkeeping about a hundred kilometers away. 

"We ran into some trouble.  Head toward the transit area.  We should be about halfway up."  Chanda knew the shuttle would have to leave the docking bay and enter the transit area from one end of the station itself.

"I'll hone in on your datalinks.  Any kind of trouble I need to be concerned about?

"Just be ready to take us in quickly if you have to.  We'll keep you posted."  She told Akira and Haj, "Let's keep going."

As they proceeded down the corridor, Akira said, "Not exactly the way we wanted this to turn out."

Chanda could only sigh and say, "Yeah."  She and the others were on the Station of the Lost to see whether it could be adapted into an embassy that would accommodate representatives of as many Galactic species as might want to establish a presence.  To that end, Sobrenian, Cetronen, and Drodusarel delegations were also touring the station. 

When first arriving, you noticed the Station of the Lost as a silhouette against a spray of distant suns.  It was beholden to none of them; trace the station’s path back as far as instruments allow, and you found no planet, no star where it may have originated.  Extrapolate its route forward, and you found no clear destination.  Apparently long abandoned by an intelligence yet undiscovered, the hope was that the station would be perceived as neutral ground, unlike any facility the Earth Unity or other entity might build on its own.

The problem was that over the preceding years and decades, many Humans, Sobrenians, Cetronen, Drodusarel, and other beings could all be found here, in need of a way station, a hiding place, or a home.  Some engaged in trade, whether honest or illicit.  Some led hard-scrabble lives, resorting to begging or petty thievery to survive.  Others used backing from universities or individual patrons to explore the station itself, a quest that so far had yielded little solid information about its origins.

Chanda indicated a group of four Sobrenians up ahead.  They stood about shoulder-height to most adult Humans, with elaborate robes covering rough greenish skin.  Their faces had blunt snouts and their eyes could move independently in their sockets.  Two of the four shouldered pulse rifles, and Chanda made out the bulges of large pistols beneath those robes.  She said, "That must be who we heard talking a minute ago."

"They're pretty well armed," Haj said. 

"Well, they're Sobrenians, after all."  Their species considered weapons their highest artform, and reveled in displaying them.  Chanda had actually fought more than once against Sobrenian forces on the planet Splendor, her previous posting.  Since then, though relations remained cool between the two worlds, Sobrenians had shown a desire to avoid outright conflict.

Akira said, "And they consider Humans to be 'pre-sentient.'"

"Not their most endearing quality," Chanda said.  "But if we leave them alone, they'll probably leave us alone."  I do wonder what they're talking about, Chanda thought.  I can only hope it's something about leaving us the hell alone.

As the Humans drew closer, one of the Sobrenians cast an eye toward them, the other eye still facing forward.  I hate when they do that, Chanda thought.  She nodded toward that Sobrenian, having no way to know whether he would recognize that Human gesture.  Either way, that eyeball swiveled back toward his companions, and Chanda and Akira and Haj kept their steady pace past them.

The corridor widened, and changed to an octagonal shape, for no reason Chanda could discern.  Some sections of floor were grated rather than solid.  Rectangular lights set into the ceiling about four meters apart provided dim, greenish-yellow lighting. 

After about fifty meters, the corridor widened again just before it led into a broad, bright plaza.  Chanda's faceplate darkened slightly against the bright lights shining down upon one of the station's larger marketplaces.  "Let's be a little less conspicuous," she said, and touched her left hand's middle finger into her palm.  Her lifesuit de-activated, its nanotech and biotech absorbing into her body again.  Akira and Haj did the same. 

A Human fruit vendor's loudspeaker immediately assaulted her ears as it blasted his exhortations to buy, switching among several Galactic languages.  She nearly choked on a whiff of some noxious odor as she and the others passed a tri-pedal Kanandran's booth selling some sort of odiferous meats.

"I think something in there is still alive," Haj said.

Chanda rubbed her shoulder where the energy bolt had struck her lifesuit. 

"You all right?" Akira asked.

"A little sore, but that's it."

Over her datalink, Chanda heard Irene calling in:  "I'm just now getting into the transit area.  There was a lot of traffic ahead of me."

"We're getting there ourselves," Chanda said.  She indicated a pathway among several vendors that led to the transit area, which was about fifty meters away.  She caught glimpses of small shuttles, single-person air-speeders, and other craft flashing past, either "north" or "south," as station residents referred to it, along the height of the station.

As Chanda and the others drew closer, though, she spotted the two Humans who'd been shooting at them heading toward them from another corridor to their right.  "Dammit," she said.  "Let's not take any chances."  She activated her lifesuit again, as did Akira and Haj.  

Chanda saw the third Human just catching up to his companions.  And other beings followed him -- a couple more Humans, a Kanandran, and a snake-like Relajem.  "Looks like they've got reinforcements."  A touch to her datalink, and Chanda said, "How's it coming, Irene?"

"Getting there.  ETA still a couple minutes."

Chanda arrived first to the edge of the transit area, which was open to the surrounding marketplace.  A needle-shaped Drodusarel craft flashed past heading "south."  Several air-scooters bearing individual Sobrenians or paired-symbiont Cetronen or Humans followed.  Only forty meters away, similar craft rushed upward, headed "north."  The station had no traffic controllers, and spacing among the many craft headed in opposite directions was always dangerously tight. 

Chanda leaned over a chest-high wall and looked down.  I'm amazed that there isn't a higher wall or a force field, or something separating this transit area from the rest of the station, she thought.  There, in the distance, she made out the shuttle Kamoi

It seemed much too far away.

The group of Humans and other Galactics was spreading out among the vendors and booths closest to them.  "They're flanking us," Haj said.  "And even with our lifesuits, we don't know what kind of firepower they might have."

"I know," Chanda said.  "And they might not care about who else they shoot, either."  She looked over the wall separating them from the transit area.  "I thought maybe we could jump.  But that's a zero-G environment out there.  We'd be floating targets instead of standing ones.  Although -- wait a minute."  Chanda flopped one leg over the wall separating them from the transit area.  "We all have to go at once.  Irene, get ready for an odd and dangerous rendezvous.  You'll have to grab us with an enticement beam."

Haj, concern apparent in his voice ever over the lifesuit comms, said, "Ambassador, I don't recommend -- "

An energy bolt struck the wall next to them. 

Haj and Akira traded looks, then imitated Chanda's stance, one on either side of her.

Chanda's first instinct was to count to three, but another burst of fire past her head changed her mind, and she gripped the others' hands tightly and pushed off, outward and as much downward as she could, into the transit area.  "Here we come, Irene!"

Chanda looked desperately into the northbound stream of craft to catch a glimpse of the shuttle Kamoi, but she and her two companions began spinning out of control.  "Hold on!" she told the others.  "Irene, have you caught sight us yet?”

"You've got other ships between us," Irene said.  "I'm transferring into the southbound stream, trying to get a more solid lock."

As much as Chanda could tell from quick glances as they spun, she, Akira, and Haj had only ventured outward about four or five meters, and downward maybe two or three.  Akira said, "Our 'friends' are right there at the wall." 

Chanda nearly had the breath knocked out of her as an invisible force yanked her downward, Akira and Haj alongside.  The beam cancelled their spin as they approached the top of the shuttle.

An energy bolt struck Chanda's lifesuit in her left leg, but she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes against the pain. 

Irene's voice over her datalink:  "Get ready -- I'm trying not to make it a hard landing for you."

Chanda opened her eyes.  She and Akira and Haj were quickly bearing down upon the shuttle Kamoi

Contact!  A shockwave blazed through Chanda's body, and she lost her grip with Akira and Haj and fell to her hands and knees.  A quick look to either side, and both of them had landed safely.  "Irene," she said, "open the airlock."

"Already done," Irene said.  "I'll keep us as steady as I can."

Chanda told Akira and Haj, "Go."

Haj said, "You know protocol, Ambassador.  You first."

Chanda shook her head in frustration but let Haj hold onto her as she eased herself down into the open airlock on the right side of the shuttle.  She, in turn, stood at the edge of the airlock and helped Haj and Akira down.  She stabbed at the control to close the outer lock.  "Punch it, Irene," she said.  "Let's head back to the Nivara."

The shuttle accelerated southward, paused to cycle through a large airlock designed to allow spacecraft into and out of The Station of the Lost, and headed back toward the Earth Unity starcraft Nivara 2.