It had been nearly a year since Jayce Hunter had visited a civilian space station. She had to admit the non-Skywatch orbital accommodations were steadily improving over what she and her crew were used to seeing in more remote systems and their military-only orbital stops. Galloway’s was a completely private facility, designed mainly for tourists and people interested in showing off. Shuttles from Core Three’s numerous spaceway lines were fairly cheap and arrived several times an hour. From the station’s flight deck, passengers could fly on to either of Core Three’s inhabited moons or take the prime line to Core Four, the freight receiving way station at the frontier approach, or any of ten or fifteen more distant destinations, most of which were commercial outposts making regular shipments back to the inner orbits.
Core Three was similar to the Jupiter System in that its heavy line approach facilities were capable of offloading and re-launching star trains. This meant its orbital management, both commercial and military, was at the top of its game. There was no such thing as sloppy when it came to managing spacecraft that required tens of millions of miles of counterthrust to stop. Docking a wet hull cruise ship or driving a railroad freight line was child’s play compared to parking a seven gigaton spacecraft with its own gravitational field.
What Jayce Hunter was facing was likely even more delicate. She was officially forbidden to discuss what had taken place in and around Bayone Three, but there were some things that took precedence over her duty to Skywatch Command.
Eleanor Hunter was by no means a physically imposing woman, but she had the same steely edge in her gaze as her twins. She stood alone along the panoramic observation deck looking out over the western edge of Core Three. An auxiliary patrol boat was parked just over a mile off the station perimeter. Its stationary lights pulsed serenely against the last of the planet’s sunset. Jayce and Jason’s mother was facing the window, as if scanning the black expanse for some clue as to what had happened to her son.
The Hunter matriarch brushed her face with a white-gloved hand and rapidly composed herself, as her children had seen her do many times before. Her gray-streaked hair framed a face as elegant as any belonging to a woman in her mid-forties. Despite the many offers, Mrs. Hunter had never indulged in any of the popular medical procedures designed to help her retain her youthful complexion or physique. Even without the artificial measures, she was striking, and for anyone paying even minimal attention, her daughter’s lineage was unmistakable, even though Jayce was nearly a foot taller.
The elder Hunter and the commander embraced warmly before mother held her daughter at arm’s length for the standard inspection and chiding for not calling often enough.
“You look so tired,” Mrs. Hunter said with a melancholy concern in her eyes. She placed a hand on Jayce’s cheek. “Have you been eating enough?”
“I’m fine, mom. How was your flight?” Jayce guided the way to a seat on a nearby complex of leather couches. A display glowed to life on the table offering a variety of refreshments. Jayce ordered an ice water. Her mother ordered hot tea.
“After waiting all day in official offices I’m getting the distinct impression the brass doesn’t want to talk about what happened.”
“If it makes you feel better they won’t talk to me either. Fortunately I have my own sources of information. Officially he’s missing in action. We’re still trying to track down the particulars. The details are unclear and not likely to get any easier to understand any time soon.”
“I was a system away. Fury never made it to Bayone. I was ordered back to base before I could investigate, but I’m working on other options.”
“Jayce, now I want you to tell me the truth, and don’t do that thing you always do where you try to make it sound better than it is. Now do you understand me? I want to know.” Mrs. Hunter lowered her voice politely as the server arrived with their drinks. Jayce waited until the willowly girl whisked her way back to the bar to answer.
“There’s something about all this that doesn’t add up, mom, and you know how much a fan I am of speculating. Tom is going over Argent’s telemetry. Until we know for sure, there’s nothing to be gained by worrying or guessing. We’ve been through this before.”
“You two have always pushed everything to the limit trying to outdo one another,” Eleanor said. “I’ve had to learn to live with the broken bones and the fistfights and one or the other of you running off to Heaven knows where at all hours. But you–”
“Jason ran off at all hours,” Jayce said with a pleasant grin. “I stayed home and studied.”
“And you were always the one who brought him home. I know. I just expected at least one of you would pick something a little less dramatic, like gardening. You used to love to go out and plant marigolds with me. What happened to that bright eyed girl with the smudged dirty face and her little shovel?”
“You encouraged her to build robots. Remember you wanted a machine to keep the soil around your ivy fertilized? Then you wanted a bird feeder that wouldn’t scare the robins?”
“You tinkered for days. I had to chase you out of your room to come to dinner every night.”
“I had a lot to do! Jason wouldn’t let me play with his model cars. I had to build my own so my dolls wouldn’t have to go everywhere on foot. Putting motors in them was just the next step.”
“And then you followed your brother into space. Jason always said even if he climbed the tallest mountain in the quadrant, you’d get there nine minutes later. Gladys still can’t get over all the shelves of the medals and trophies. Your father was so proud.”
“At least it gives you something to trump the other over-proud parents with.”
Eleanor teared up. Her lip trembled. “Jayce..”
She quickly took her mother’s hands. “He’s alive, mom. I know he’s alive.”
“Because I just do. I’ve known him longer than anyone. Even you.”
Eleanor smiled weakly and held the handkerchief to her eyes.
“He’s up to something as usual, and I’m going to go back out there and find him and bring him home like I always do.”
“I know you will, sweetheart. I know you will.” Eleanor patted Jayce’s hands and dabbed at her eyes again. “Uncle Rich is meeting us at seven. Let’s start heading that way.” Jayce took her mother’s arm and guided her through the foot traffic towards a nearby restaurant.