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Evergence 2: The Dying Light

Sean Williams & Shane Dix

"Darkness is looking forward and saying: 'I do not know what to do next;
I have lost my way and it is too late to find it now.'" Hubert van Zeller

"The cruellest lies are often told in silence." Robert Louis Stevenson

PART ONE: PALASIAN SYSTEM
CHAPTER ONE

IND Ana Vereine
'955.01.19 EN
0415

Alone but for the screaming wind, she fell. Her outstretched arms sought to find equilibrium, but to no avail. With nothing around for her hands to find purchase upon, her fall continued unchecked. The sickening sensation persisted in her stomach; the wind at her face and in her ears was relentless.
When exactly she had begun to fall she couldn't tell. Not that it mattered. Once she had been weightless, now she was falling; the only difference between the two was a matter of destination. Everything in the universe was just an orbiting body looking for something with which to intersect. If she had found her ultimate trajectory, then perhaps that was for the best. At least the waiting was over.
Suddenly from the darkness, something touched her hand. She pulled away instinctively, sending herself into a spin. But the touch against her skin was persistent. It fluttered like a flesh-warm moth, moving along her wrist, her elbow, and finally settled on her upper arm.
She tried too late to pull away. Its grip tightened; slender, smooth digits dug deeply into her and tugged her forward. She called out in panic, but the blackness absorbed any sound she made.
When she flailed at the limb clutching her, her hand found skin. A hand. No fur, no scales, no chitinous exoskeleton; no claws, no suckers, no pincers. It was a Pristine hand.
Cautiously, she explored the one that was falling with her. She moved her fingers along the person's wrist, elbow and upper arm; her other hand found a smooth stomach, rib-cage and breast. Then, alarmed by the all too familiar terrain, she gripped the other person tightly. Wanting to push her away, instead she pulled her closer.
From the darkness she saw her own frightened face emerge; from the roaring wind she heard herself call out ...

#

Morgan Roche woke with a start and clutched her sweat-drenched sheets to her chest. A lingering vertigo made her giddy, and for a moment she didn't know where she was. The narrow bed, the dark room, the smell of deep-space service: she could have been anywhere, aboard any Commonwealth of Empires' vessel, on any number of missions for COE Intelligence.
Then, in the dull glow from the room's ceiling light, she saw the valise resting on a nearby table, and reality suddenly dispelled her confusion. She was in the Second Lieutenant's quarters of the Ana Vereine, a former Dato Bloc vessel now registered under her name, and she had no mission apart from the one she had given herself. Her indenture to COE Intelligence was a thing of the past--a memory returning to haunt her like the nightmare she had awoken from, and just as difficult to shake.
Rubbing at her arm, she vividly recalled the falling, the fear.
Then the flat echoes of an incident alarm wailing beyond her room goaded her to full consciousness. Disentangling her legs from the sheets, she climbed out of the bunk.
"Full lights." Squinting in the sudden glare, she amended: "Half lights. Half lights!"
The glare dimmed as she stumbled to the cabin's small wardrobe. She grabbed the first shipsuit she saw. Standard fare for a Dato Bloc officer, it consisted of a unisex, form-fitting garment cut from a rust-coloured fabric with black insignia at shoulders and waist. Active fibres tightened the weave around her limbs, guaranteeing a perfect fit every time.
As she dressed, she sent a subvocal inquiry via her implants to the transmitter on her left wrist:
<Uri? Box? What's going on?>
The voice of the Box answered immediately, the AI's neutral tones coming from the tiny speaker beside the bed:
"We have completed our final jump, Morgan. The Ana Vereine entered real-space fifteen minutes ago."
At the end of the sentence, the sirens ceased.
Roche glanced at the clock beside her bed. <Why? We weren't due to arrive at the Palasian anchor-point for another three hours.>
"Indeed. That was our original schedule." The Box paused before adding: "There has been an unusual development. Cane thought it best that you were here on the bridge."
<What sort of 'development', Box?> A knot of worry began to tighten in her stomach. <Is it the other clone warrior?>
"Nothing so dramatic, Morgan. Simply--perplexing."
She took a deep breath to hide her irritation. If the Box was perplexed, then she doubted she would be much help. What the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in the Commonwealth couldn't fathom, no mundane Human would have a chance of deciphering.
Still, tired or not, she had to keep up appearances. Sitting down on the bunk, she slid her feet into a pair of boots and fastened the ankle-straps.
<Okay, Box, tell Cane I'm on my way. Are the others on deck?>
"Kajic and Maii are asleep. Haid is awake, but has not responded to my summons."
<Where is he?>
"In the rehabilitation unit."
<Break into the program, then. We need three on the bridge, just in case it turns out to be serious.>
"Understood." Again the Box hesitated, as though it was about to debate her assumption that it didn't rate as a crew member. But all it said in the end was: "I shall wait until you have arrived before taking any action."
<Good.> Boots on and fastened, Roche stood. At her approach, the door to her quarters slid open. She heard an airlock chime in the distance, ready for her to step into the ship's central transit corridor. <Give me two minutes.>

#

The Ana Vereine, first of the new Marauder class combat ships to roll off the Dato Bloc production lines, was designed to hold a full complement of three thousand crew members. Its size reflected that--uncomfortably at times. Currently carrying a crew of just five, its labyrinthine holds were sealed; active life support was restricted to officers' quarters, the bridge and a handful of essential areas; major access-ways were dimly-lit and cool, filled with nothing but the gentle susurrus of hundreds of cubic kilometres of moving air.
Sometimes it seemed to Roche, as it did now, on her way to the bridge, that she had been swallowed by a vast, metal beast. That at any moment the ship would spring to life, shrug free of its carbon-based passengers and head off on its own adventure. And perhaps it would serve them right if it did; they were so far from realising its true potential.
In the eighteen days since leaving COE Intelligence HQ, they had travelled a highly circuitous route. Fearing a double-cross from Page De Bruyn, Head of Strategy and Roche's former employer, the Box had plotted an untraceable course to Walan Third, where they had surrendered Makil Veden's body to the Commerce Artel. That small but necessary detour cost them time: although they remained at the Eckandi base for less than a day, their total on the run had already reached eight by the time they left.
From Walan Third the Ana Vereine headed toward Baeris Osh, a Surin territory, before abruptly changing course for the Handrelle System. Every time they completed a hyperspace jump, Roche half-expected to find an ambush waiting for them. The chances of De Bruyn second-guessing their path were practically zero, since it was impossible to predict the destination of a ship once it had entered hyperspace, but the fear was hard to shake. Only on the last two jumps, when they finally angled back toward the border of the Kesh N'Kor Republic and their original destination, had she begun to believe that she was actually safe, that she might yet outrun her past.
Still, there was always the future to worry about. If an ambush was what De Bruyn intended, Palasian System was the obvious place to stage it. Only a stubborn belief--based mainly on recent experience--that COE Intelligence would never do anything quite so obvious kept her from losing sleep over that possibility. Page De Bruyn had revealed herself to be a far more cunning and deceitful opponent than that.
Besides, it wasn't what she was running from that most concerned her, but what she was running to. The Box had said that the alert had nothing to do with the Sol Wunderkind in Palasian System. A gut instinct told her that that was not the whole truth.
Rounding the last corner on her approach to the bridge, Roche felt the peculiar hopelessness of her dream return with a vividness that stung. She slowed her pace and took a few deep breaths, wanting to regain her composure before she stepped onto the bridge to join the others.
The last time she'd had that dream had been the night before sitting the Armada entrance exam on Ascensio, many years before. But why had it returned now, on this, her nineteenth day free of COE Intelligence? She was at a loss to understand the connection. The dream spoke of her deepest fears: of failure, the future, and ... freedom?
She shook her head to free herself of the discomforting notion. She was glad to be free of COE Intelligence, wasn't she? She didn't like to think that even the smallest part of her might be having regrets.
When her mind was relatively still, if not entirely clear, she took another deep breath and stepped through the open portal and onto the bridge.

#

The bridge was not the largest room on the Ana Vereine, even though it felt like it could have been. The main chamber was roughly heart-shaped, with a single holographic screen dominating the left lobe, more specialised displays in the right, and various officer stations sweeping in three arcs towards the rounded base. A smaller, circular room at the base of the heart was the Captain's private chamber. This chamber, plus the shape of the bridge itself, leant the entire floor-plan a passing resemblance to the Mandelbrot Set, with the Captain's podium located at the intersection of X and Y axes. Except that on the Ana Vereine, there was no Captain's podium. There was just a large hologram projector occupying its usual spot.
Mollifying the bewildering array of displays and control stations, the walls bore the colours of late sunset with the occasional tapestry to blunt sharp corners. The lighting was muted, and only ever brightened under battle conditions.
One person occupied the vast area. He was leaning against the astrogation officer's station with his arms folded, the shipsuit he was wearing emphasising his supple strength.
"Sorry to disturb you," said Cane, straightening as Roche entered. His dark brown skin and bald skull made him seem Exotic, subtly alien, and the little Roche knew about his origins didn't help shake that impression.
"That's okay," she said, wishing she could emulate his alertness. Not for the first time, she cursed the modified genes responsible for his extraordinary resilience. "What's the situation?"
"We found something." Cane nodded at the main screen. "Or at least, the Box did."
She crossed the bridge to the First Officer's chair as he talked. "Show me," she said, sitting.
"Well, that's the strange thing," Cane said. "There's nothing to show."
Roche, frowning, swivelled in her chair to face him. Before she could speak, Cane added: "At least, nothing I can see."
"The phenomenon we have encountered is not visible on the physical universe," explained the Box, its voice issuing from speakers at the base of the holographic projector.
Roche shifted her attention back to the main screen. The only thing it revealed were the cold specks of distant stars.
She sighed, impatience rising within her again. "Is someone going to explain what's going on here?"
"Of course," said the Box. The view on the main screen changed, became the route plotted by Roche and the Box while refuelling at COE Intelligence HQ. "Our original course from Walan Third consisted of fourteen hyperspace jumps across the Commonwealth of Empires, culminating in one final jump to the anchor point of Palasian System. We travelled entirely without incident until this last jump." An arrow skittered through the depths of the screen, settled upon a point almost at the end of their route. "Here. Four hours into the jump, sensors aboard the Ana Vereine detected an anomaly in our vicinity."
The screen displayed complex diagrams representing the distorted topology of hyperspace--that strange realm where even the basic laws of physics could not be taken for granted.
"The disturbance lay directly in our path," the Box continued, "although its distance from us in physical terms was difficult to determine. My one attempt to change course around it was unsuccessful, perhaps because of the influence it was--and is still--exerting over our navigational data."
"What sort of influence?" Roche asked.
"A type I have never encountered before, Morgan. Our course became increasingly uncertain the closer we approached it. By attempting to go around it, we ran the risk of passing through it instead. Eventually the potential hazard became so great that I decided to return prematurely. We had nearly completed the final jump by that point, so I thought the loss in time would be off-set by the chance to see what awaited us."
"And?" Roche watched in guarded fascination as the main screen changed again; n-dimensional mathematics was not her specialty, but she assumed the Box knew what it was talking about.
"The source of the disturbance remains a mystery."
"So? As long as we don't hit it, we can still make it to Palasian System, right?"
"If only it were that simple, Morgan." The screen returned to the picture it had displayed when Roche had entered the bridge: stars, none so close as to be remarkable, and nothing else within the external scanners' fields of view.
Nothing ...
"Where's the primary of Palasian System?" she asked, frowning.
"We can't find it," Cane said. "That's the problem."
Roche's frown deepened. "We're lost?"
"If anything," said the Box, "it is the system itself that is lost." A navigation chart appeared in the screen. "If you study the data, you will see that we have arrived with the correct orientation one light-week short of the terminus of our original jump, two light-weeks from Palasian System. Star-charts confirm this. What we are seeing is what we should be seeing, except for one important detail: Hintubet, Palasian System's primary, appears nowhere within the starscape before us."
"I find that hard to believe. It has to be here somewhere--"
"None of the stars in this region produce a spectral match. Neither do any within a fifty light-year radius." The Box paused before pronouncing its conclusion: "Palasian System is patently not where it is supposed to be."
Roche found her sense of fatigue quickly fading. "That's impossible. The disturbance must have knocked us more off-course than you thought."
"Not by so great a margin as to lose an entire star, Morgan."
"Then the star-charts must be wrong."
"They aren't. Apart from a few slight discrepancies, every other navigational marker in this region matches."
"Well, what then?" She shook her head in annoyance. To come so close to her destination only to find that it had been snatched away from her was like something from a bad dream--another one. "A system can't just disappear without trace!"
"I agree that it is improbable," said the Box, its tone mollifying. "But the only conceivable alternative is that it has been destroyed."
"How?" She automatically glanced at Cane. No-one knew exactly what the genetically modified clone warriors made by the Sol Apotheosis Movement were capable of--possibly not even Cane, who was one of them. "Surely not even a Sol Wunderkind could do that."
"It would seem unlikely that the entire system was destroyed," agreed Cane. "But when you consider that the only alternative explanation is that it has been moved, you have to admit--"
"This is a rhetorical point," the Box cut in. "We lack data, Morgan. What measurements I can make from this distance are hampered by the fact that light from the region is at least one week old. I have found no evidence to suggest any sort of event sufficiently calamitous to destroy a star without leaving any trace of stellar wreckage--but I may be missing something. We need to go closer to find out."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I thought you said the disturbance posed too great a risk to navigation?"
"Not necessarily. Long-distance jumps through this region of space are likely to be perturbed. I suggest instead that we approach the vicinity of where Palasian System used to be by increments, studying the anomaly as we go. Should the risk increase further still, we can come to a halt again and consider other courses of action."
Roche nodded, agreeing in principle with what the Box was saying. If the risk was only to navigation and the ship was in little physical danger, then there was little reason not to continue. The lack of information, however, made it hard even to guess how much danger they were in: if something had destroyed Palasian System, then they might be heading right for it.
Nevertheless, there was no choice. They had to keep going. It was either that or turn around--and the latter was hardly an attractive prospect. With the possible exception of the Box, none of them had a home to return to any longer.
"What does COE Intelligence have to say about this?" Roche asked. "Is there any mention in the data they've given us?"
"Very little, I'm afraid, Morgan. We have the report transmitted by the battalion of Armada Marines before it was destroyed, including a vague description of the damage done to the system at that time. It describes Palasian System as quarantined or sealed, but nothing else."
"No updates since then?"
"Since the Ana Vereine disengaged from COE Intelligence HQ, reports have been intermittent at best."
So much for their agreement with De Bruyn, she thought sourly. Still, if that was the worst the Head of Strategy had planned, then she should be grateful. Unless--
Again she shook her head. Not even Page De Bruyn would destroy an entire solar system to obtain revenge--especially not when the fate of the Commonwealth of Empires might be at stake.
"I agree with your analysis of the situation, Box," she said slowly. "We need to find Palasian System, but to do that we need information. We will, therefore, proceed with your plan: to approach the last known location of Palasian System more cautiously, by slow-jumping a little closer each time and taking stock as we go. That way we'll have a chance of staying on course and avoiding anything waiting for us."
There was almost an air of smugness to the Box's tone as it replied: "Very well, Morgan. I will begin plotting a new course immediately."
"Good. But don't perform any manoeuvres until Uri is conscious and watching what you do. We don't know what effect rapid transfers might have on the ship. Defer to him if he thinks you should take it more cautiously."
"Naturally." The Box's smug tone had faded, and Roche did her best to suppress a smile of satisfaction. Although the uniquely self-aware AI had been programmed by its creators on Trinity to obey her orders, that didn't mean it had to enjoy the situation; any chance it found to assert its independence, the Box took it. She had learned the hard way not to give it generalised orders that were too easily evaded, or outright perverted, in order to meet its own hidden agenda--whatever that was. Where her own lack of experience made it difficult for her to be specific, she allocated an overseer to keep an eye on the Box's activities, just to make sure.
If that bothered the Box, all the better. She had earned this subtle form of revenge, at least, after the way it had manipulated her in the past and probably intended to in the future.
"Okay," she said. "You get started, Box. Cane, track down Maii and get her up here. We'll need her to search for life-signs when we get close enough. I'm going down to rehab to see what's happened to Haid."
"Shall I rouse Kajic?" asked the Box.
"No," said Roche, levering herself out of the chair. "He'll be awake soon enough, if he isn't already. Let him come to you in his own time, when he's finished any status checks he needs to perform. We don't need to rush him. I want to take this slowly: we might not get a second a chance to find out what's going on."
Especially if the other Sol Wunderkind is behind it, she added to herself.
"I'll notify you when we are about to begin," said the Box.
"You do that," Roche said as she left the bridge.

#

The ship's rehabilitation unit was four levels down from the bridge, in an annex off the medical unit. On the way down, Roche was joined by a fist-sized drone that darted from a service hatch and assumed a position near her right shoulder. The jets of air propelling it sounded like a cough played at high speed. When the drone spoke, it did so with a tinny version of Uri Kajic's voice.
"What do you think, Morgan?" he asked.
Roche glanced at the drone without breaking step. "I thought you'd be listening in."
"And?"
"I think something strange is going on."
"Likewise. The sooner we find out what it is, the better." The drone skittered ahead, emitting agitated fft's as it turned a corner. "I do believe the Box, though," he said, "when it says it doesn't know what the anomaly is."
"So do I, strangely enough," Roche admitted. "Otherwise it wouldn't have brought us out of the jump so suddenly."
"There's more to it than that, Morgan. I've studied the astrogation data. The Box mentioned a few 'slight discrepancies' but it didn't tell you what they were."
"Are they significant?"
"Perhaps. The stars in the direction of Palasian System appear to be closer than they should be. Not much closer, admittedly--a few billion kilometres or so--but closer all the same. It's as though a big chunk of space is missing from this area."
"The space containing Palasian System?"
"That would seem the logical conclusion," Kajic said. "But can you imagine the force required to achieve this? Destroying a star, or even moving it, is bad enough; taking the space surrounding it as well is a completely different matter."
Roche contemplated the possibility for a long moment. She had never heard of such a thing--indeed, she found it hard to visualise. Nothing could destroy space itself, surely? Nothing she had ever heard of, anyway.
"All the more reason, then, to make our approach a cautious one," she said. "Will the ship hold up? Can it slow-jump as often as the Box would like?"
"I've looked at the basic plan, and it seems sound. We'll drop in and out of hyperspace once every ten minutes, travelling several million kilometres each time and accelerating between. At first we'll approach the anomaly in tangents, so we can look at it from a number of directions; that way we might be able to determine exactly how large it is. If things go well, we'll try getting a little closer to see what else we find." The drone bobbed as Kajic spoke. "The ship itself will be fine. Its engines are designed to function under battle conditions. In fact, it'll be good to have a really thorough work-out. The last time we put it through its paces was back at Sciacca's World."
Roche nodded to herself. The Ana Vereine and a handful of Raiders had made short work of the Midnight, the ship she had been travelling in at the time. Only the Box's decision to blow the Frigate's anti-matter reserves had prevented the Dato Bloc Captain from capturing the ship, or destroying it himself. As a result, the Ana Vereine had yet to make its first kill.
Still, it had performed well in battle, and she accepted Kajic's opinion that it would survive the coming hours. It was only an old superstition that made her hesitant to place her faith completely in a new ship.
"We'll stick out like a beacon, jumping that often," she said, half-heartedly trying to pick holes in the Box's plan.
"True. But there's nothing we can do to avoid that." Kajic paused, then suggested: "We can camouflage the ship, if you like. Make it look like a freighter experiencing drive difficulties--?"
She shook her head. "Palasian System has been quarantined. Only a fool would try to get in, faulty drive or not. If we stumble across an Armada blockade, as unlikely as that is, they'll shoot us out of the sky regardless what we look like."
"They can try." Roche heard the ghost of a grin in the thin reproduction of Kajic's voice. "Any other questions?"
"Only one." The one she had avoided asking herself: "What do we do if we can't work out what happened to the system? Where do we go from there?"
"Only time will tell us that, Morgan. Time, and the right data."
"I know, I know." Roche inhaled deeply, trying to centre herself. "Just make sure the Box tells me if we do find something, okay? That'd give me one less thing to worry about."
"You have my word," said Kajic. "And don't worry, Morgan. You're doing fine."
Roche smiled. "Thanks, Uri."
With a staccato tattoo of air-bursts, the drone accelerated ahead of her and ducked into a maintenance closet.
Roche continued the rest of the way to rehab alone, genuinely reassured by Kajic's closing comment. Her relationship with the Dato Bloc ex-Captain was still an ambivalent one. Although both had been betrayed by their respective governments, making them allies of sorts, Roche had initially felt uncomfortable having the ship's previous commander aboard. Removing or imprisoning him had never been an option, though: he was as much a part of the ship as the navigation AI or the engines. What remained of his body floated in a life-support tank in a little-visited section, plugged by an experimental neural interface into the workings of the vessel surrounding him. As much as she might have preferred, she couldn't have one without the other.
So it was just lucky that he had chosen to take her under his metaphorical wing and train her in the art of command. All her years in COE Intelligence had taught her how to obey orders, not how to give them. Already she had come to rely on his judgement in many matters, not just those to do with the ship; without him, these last few weeks would have been considerably harder.
Still, she could understand why others might be suspicious of a Dato Bloc Captain in their midst with unlimited access to the entire ship. The situation begged betrayal of some sort--which is why she had instructed the Box to keep as close an eye on Kajic as he was keeping on it. She couldn't allow her own, possibly irrational, opinions to place her or her other companions at risk; she mistrusted all of them equally, had to do so in order to keep going. And if Kajic ever found out, she was sure that he would understand.
The Box's voice broke into her thoughts via her implants: <All is arranged, Morgan. We will proceed in ninety seconds, once the Ana Vereine has achieved the necessary velocity to slow-jump.>
<Good work,> she subvocalised. <The ship is in your and Uri's hands.>
<Understood.>
She increased her pace through the Marauder's glowing corridors. The entrance to the rehabilitation unit finally appeared on her left. At the same time, a warning buzzer sounded, alerting the occupants of the ship to an imminent hyperspace jump.
Barely had she steadied herself when the ship's drives went to work. Reality flexed around her; space-time twisted in impossible directions. A wave of giddiness came and went, making her blink.
Then everything was as it had been a moment before--except that the ship was no longer a part of the physical universe. It had entered hyperspace, and was accelerating at many thousand standard gravities relative to the normal universe. For all the effect the jump had on the interior of the ship, however, it might have gone nowhere. Which was exactly how it should have been.
The doors to the rehab unit slid open when she took another step forward. Yet another step took her across the threshold, into a world she rarely visited.
Rehabilitation, as the term was employed in most military organisations, was synonymous with cybernetic enhancement. Where more orthodox medical techniques failed to heal a wound, replace a limb or rebuild a broken mind--or there was no time to employ sophisticated methods of healing--technology stepped in to breach the gap. Everything from artificial limbs to neurone patches could be provided by the best mobile rehab units in the Commonwealth of Empires, and those of the Dato Bloc were at least as advanced. The Ana Vereine in particular, given its recent manufacture, possessed facilities Roche had only ever heard about.
The large workroom was designed as an open surgery, with several adjoining chambers available for procedures requiring more sterile environments. Four long tables, uncomfortably like mortuary slabs, awaited patients in states of perpetual readiness, while close by hung numerous multi-jointed waldoes, medical scanners and replacement parts. Along one wall, screens could project views of any operations under way, or retrieve from memory similar situations to compare prognoses. Another wall boasted three holographic 'cybercorpses'--Human bodies composed entirely of replacement parts, from carbon-fibre bones to synthetic skin--with no single part repeated in either 'body'. Designed for reference, the cybercorpses rotated once every twenty seconds, as though performing a macabre pirouette. When Roche stepped further into the room to look for Haid, six glassy, empty eyes seemed to follow her for a moment, then drifted away.
She found him in one of the auxiliary chambers, hardwired into a simulation that was teaching him to use his new support biomesh. After their escape from Sciacca's World, an immediate priority had been to equip Haid with a body at least approximating the Pristine. Time had been against them, however. The surgery alone required for a total rebuild would have taken several weeks; recovery and readjustment at least the same again. Haid had opted instead for a basic overhaul: an eye to replace his empty socket, the support biomesh to compensate for his lack of an arm and to supplement the strength of his legs, plus new interfaces to control the lot.
The installation, undergone piece-meal, had taken seven days. Another five had seen him on his feet for the first time. The remaining seven had been spent in the simulator, retraining his reflexes to respond to new stimuli.
When Roche found him, he was floating in free-fall, twisting about his centre of gravity in an ungainly manner. The glossy, black mesh of the exoskeleton stood out against the grey of his undersuit, but perfectly matched the sweat-soaked sheen of his midnight skin. Despite years of abuse and layers of scar-tissue millimetres thick, Haid still possessed the distinctive colouring of a Montaban native--along with the rugged good looks.
His eyes were uncovered, but Roche could tell that she was invisible to him--along with the rest of the ship. Placing her left hand on a panel flush to the door frame, she synchronised her own implants to the illusion in which he was embroiled. The vision through her left eye went grey with static for a moment, then cleared.
With his feet anchored by magnetic soles to the hull of a spacecraft, Haid was trying to thread a gossamer-thin guideline through a moving eyelet. He was naked, apart from the biomesh, and very clumsy. The surface beneath his feet moved without warning, making his judgement unreliable, so every action with his new arm had to be carefully considered. In other simulations that she had observed, he had run over burning sand while carrying a glass of water, balanced on a narrow ledge with his old arm behind his back, and attempted to imitate the movements of garishly dressed dancers--all with the critical eye of the rehab AI grading every movement.
Roche gave him five minutes before actively interfering. In that time, he came close to tying a loop through the eyelet, but a sudden shift in the surface beneath his feet cost him his grip on the thread, forcing him to start again. His lips moved silently, cursing under his breath.
"Haid." Roche tried to keep her voice soft, but its incongruity broke the illusion instantly. "Ameidio, can you hear me?"
Haid sighed; his new skeletal arm, with its black, mesh skin, sagged. "Yes, Morgan, I hear you."
"The Box said you weren't responding, so I thought I'd better check on you myself. Is everything okay?"
Ignoring her concerns, Haid said: "This rehab AI is a sadist. I swear this damn hole is getting smaller." His eyes gazed blankly into the distance, away from her. It wasn't just the simulation: he was exhausted. "Next time I'll get it, though. Next time I'll--"
"Something's come up," she interrupted, trying to keep her voice firm and level--a line dragging him back to reality. "We needed you on the bridge."
"I felt us come out of hyperspace," he said. "Are we there already?" He looked around him, as though waking from a dream, and frowned. "No, wait. We jumped again just a moment ago, didn't we? That wasn't planned."
"No, it wasn't." She outlined the situation as briefly as she could--that Palasian System appeared to have disappeared--not wanting to worry him, but at the same time reinforcing the fact that he hadn't been there when she might have needed him. If the ship had been under attack--
"I would have noticed instantly." His voice was calm but there was no disguising his indignation. "There would have been sirens, impacts, power fluctuations. Not even a wirehead could sim through something like that."
"But if you had noticed, it would've been too late for you to do anything."
"Like I could do anything, anyway, with this." Haid raised his new arm and flexed it. The movement was smoother than it had been even a day earlier but was still noticeably jerky.
Roche shook her head, even though Haid wouldn't see the gesture. "Your other arm is fine. And besides, you don't need coordination to help on the bridge. Not unless we're boarded--and I hope it'll never come to that."
"Likewise." He let the arm fall to his side. An instant later, the illusion collapsed around them, brought to an end by his mental command. The zero-g field relaxed, eased him slowly to the floor of the auxiliary chamber. His legs became rigid when they touched the floor, held him upright as his full weight returned. "But the fact remains that you need me in full working order--and that means as much deep-training as possible--"
"It also means getting some rest." She let go of the touch panel and took a step closer. "You look terrible."
He grimaced. "Thanks a lot."
"I'm serious. Take a shower, have something to eat and drink. Then meet me as soon as you can to discuss what's going on--"
A second wave of disorientation rushed through her as the Ana Vereine returned to real space. Roche moved forward as Haid swayed, but he reached out with his new arm and steadied himself.
"See?" He smiled wryly at his own achievement. "Give me another week and I'll be wrestling clone warriors barehanded."
"I sincerely hope not," she said, turning her back on him and walking out of the simulation room.
"Any news on that front?" Haid asked, moving stiffly after her. Picking up a towel from a bench by the door, he wiped the skin of his upper body dry, where the active fabric of his absorbent undersuit was unable to reach.
"None," she said. "We're still too far away."
"Unless the disappearance of the system is a related event." Haid put the towel aside. "Does anybody know how advanced the Sol Apotheosis Movement was? Maybe they found a way to camouflage an entire system."
"I doubt it," she said, although the possibility wasn't one she had considered. "If they'd possessed that sort of tech, they wouldn't have been destroyed so easily. They could have camouflaged their base and escaped the siege any time they wanted."

"Siege?" Haid shook his head. "A simple 'no' would have done, Morgan. You know history isn't my strong point."
"Nor mine," she said. "It took me days to find what little there was available. I've condensed it into a single file and placed it in the open datapool. You can access it later, if you want."
"Maybe." The ship rolled beneath them again. Haid's oddly mismatched eyes--one much like a monocle covering the entire socket, and the other, the recent addition, a crystal sphere where a normal eye would sit--lifted in surprise to meet hers. "The Box's not wasting any time, is it?"
"It's found something it doesn't understand, and doesn't like it."
Haid chuckled softly. "So trying to make me feel guilty about not responding is just your way of taking out on me your frustration with it."
Roche smiled in return, ignoring the jibe. "I'm heading back to the bridge," she said. "When you're ready, join us there. We could use your input."
The ex-mercenary nodded as she headed for the door. "At least it looks like we might have something to do, for a change."

#

Haid's parting comment pursued her after she left the rehab unit. Eighteen days on the run, fearing a COE Intelligence betrayal every step of the way; major surgery, followed by recovery and intense rehabilitation; a destination about which they knew little, except for the fact that it had nearly been destroyed by the deadliest warrior to grace the galaxy in two and a half thousand years--and Haid was complaining about being bored?
Roche didn't need that sort of excitement in her life. In fact, an uninterrupted sleep would have suited her much better.
A familiar mind-touch greeted her as she headed back to the bridge:
<Good morning, Morgan.>
Startled by the unexpected intrusion upon her thoughts, Roche missed a step. <Hello, Maii. Cane woke you, I see.>
<Yes.> The reave's voice carried with it a faint tinge of grief. Hardly surprising, Roche thought; the girl had had so little time to adjust to the death of her mentor, Veden. As his ward, she had earned the right to recite the ritual leave-taking during the ceremony on Walan Third, but she had declined, both reluctant to appear in public and conscious of time pressing.
<Did he fill you in?>
<He said that Palasian System seems to have disappeared. And while the Box tries to find it, you want me to check for life-signs.>
<Near enough. See if you can detect anyone where the system used to be. An eyewitness would be good, but anyone at all will do.>
<I have already tried several times. From such a distance, resolution is poor.>
<I know.> Privately, Roche was amazed that the girl thought she could detect anything at all. <But keep trying. At least there's a chance you might be able to tell us something the Box can't.>
<Okay,> said Maii. <We're jumping at the moment, so I'll wait until we come out again. It's easier that way.>
<Whatever. You're the expert.> Roche walked on, trying to fight the weariness eating at her stride.
<You're tired,> observed Maii. <Cane woke you too?>
<I wouldn't have slept much longer anyway.>
<Another nightmare, Morgan?>
She nodded unnecessarily. <Yes.>
<I can help you, you know.>
As an accompaniment to her words, Maii sent a brief image of an underwater scene: a coral reef lit by mottled green sun sunlight with large, grey fish lightly brushing against her body. Despite the constant motion, the endless cycle of life and death swirling around her, the mood generated by the image was one of peace and inner calm.
A healing dream, designed to ease the girl's own path through grief.
Roche hesitated before answering. As uncomfortable as she still was with epsense therapy, she had to admit that the offer was made with the best intentions. That made a flat 'no' much harder to pronounce.
<I'd be happier to have breakfast,> she said eventually.
<Well, there's not much happening on the bridge at the moment. Cane and I can take care of things for a while if you want to grab yourself a meal.>
Even though she disliked being away from the heart of the action, the offer was appealing. It could be her last chance for a long while. <Thanks, Maii.>
<My pleasure.> A mental smile accompanied her next words: <And don't worry, Morgan. We'll keep you informed.>
Roche hurried to the officer's mess, two levels up from the rehab facility. There she ordered a nondescript breakfast and took a seat at one of the many empty tables filling the room. The dispenser provided her with a good imitation of eggs, cereal and fruit juice. She forced herself to eat slowly, chewing each bite rather than gulping it down.
Every ten minutes the ship rolled as it moved from one universe to the next, edging closer to the anomaly each time. She couldn't help but wonder what the Box was learning along the way, but she refrained from asking for an update. If anything happened, one of them would be sure to call her. Until they did, all she had to do was relax.
After a couple more mouthfuls, she realised that she couldn't. There was too much at stake--and too little known about the situation to help her guess at what she had to do.
There was something she could do, however. Mid-way through the small meal, she routed a display through her implants and selected the file she had collated on the Sol Apotheosis Movement from the combined data resources of the Commonwealth of Empires and the Dato Bloc. Somewhere in there, she hoped, was a clue regarding the technological prowess of her enemy.
Whether she would find anything of use was doubtful, though. The history of the Sol Apotheosis Movement was poorly documented until the time of its destruction. It had been founded early in the 36th millennium, '325 EN, by a visionary whose name was no longer recorded. The Movement's aim had been to achieve Transcendence by means of genetic manipulation and biomodification, rather than by down-loading living minds into AI networks, as was usual. By bucking both tradition and common sense, they were ostracised and banned by their native government--also unnamed--so they sought and found an empty system deep in the backwaters of their region of the galaxy. Acquiring the system by the expedient means of simply moving in and adopting its name, they devoted their considerable energy to consolidating their position rather than taking their message any further--for a while.
By '836 of the following Millennium, they had established trade with the Eckandar Trade Axis which, along with the Commonwealth of Empires, had begun expansion into the area surrounding them. With trade came a new openness, and it wasn't long before biomodified prophets began to spread through neighbouring regions, looking for converts. Some of these prophets were early versions of the Movement's crowning--and most deadly--achievement: the Sol Wunderkind, a genetically modified combat soldier with abilities far superior to any known Caste. Word began to spread, and within decades their existence was well-known, as was the threat they represented.
Many attempts were made to discourage or disperse the prophets, but they persisted. Squabbles broke out when the Ataman Theocracy attempted to reclaim Sol System as its own--even though the system had been abandoned centuries before as an uneconomic prospect. Tempers flared; the Movement countered every attempt to take the system away from them. Eventually an alliance was formed between the Commonwealth of Empires, the Dominion and the Ataman Theocracy--the three largest Pristine nations in the Movement's range--to wipe out the threat once and for all.
The largest joint military flotilla ever assembled by the three nations was despatched to Sol System. There, they surrounded the main base of the Sol Apotheosis Movement and presented its members with an ultimatum: leave or be destroyed. The Movement refused to leave, so the leader of the combined Pristine forces ordered his ships to open fire.
Within seconds of the first shot, the main base of the Sol Apotheosis Movement self-destructed, destroying with it ninety percent of the Pristine flotilla. The Sol Apotheosis Movement was utterly destroyed.
The name of the man who gave the order to fire was Adoni Cane. His fate was not recorded, but Roche could only assume that he had died along with the millions of others in the system.
Details beyond that point were particularly scarce. The Pristine alliance, although nominal victors of that bloody conflict, chose to erase the entire event from their various histories. Exactly why the Movement had chosen to suicide so dramatically was not explained convincingly anywhere that Roche could find. No-one then postulated the theory that they might have considered long-term revenge.
Until now ...
A lone Human with no memories apart from the name 'Adoni Cane' had been recovered from a life support capsule in a backwater region of the Commonwealth of Empires. In the time Roche had known him he had demonstrated extraordinary feats of endurance, intelligence and strength, plus bore an uncanny likeness to the man who had shared his name two and half thousand years ago. At roughly the same time, another such castaway, name unknown, had been recovered near Palasian System. Within days, the system had been in flames, and now appeared to have disappeared entirely. The Sol Apotheosis Movement, it seemed, was back. Why, though, was anyone's guess.
As far as finding out exactly how advanced the Movement had been, there were few indicators. With regards to genetic technology at least, they'd had no peer. The few researchers who had studied the history of the Movement had all arrived at the conclusion that the COE was still behind them in many ways, despite the intervening millennia. Any doubts Roche herself might have had regarding that claim were easily dispelled by the existence of the Adoni Cane she knew. No other mundane civilisation in the history of the galaxy, to her knowledge, had the ability to craft such a superbly capable Human purely by manipulating genetic code. Only High Humans might possess that knowledge, and they had no reason to meddle in affairs beneath them.
In other areas, however, less was known. The destruction of the Movement's base in Sol System had been accomplished by means of an enormous explosion, the likes of which had never been seen before or since. The weapons systems employed by the earlier versions of the Wunderkind had also outstripped anything available at the time. And their defensive abilities must have been remarkable, to have held off frequent attacks for so long before their eventual suicide.
But did they have enough technological know-how to destroy or to hide an entire system? Roche might have accepted the possibility had the Sol Wunderkind that had invaded Palasian System been discovered in a fully-functional warship. With such a vessel, he might have been capable of anything. But he hadn't. He had been removed from a life-support capsule similar--if not identical--to the one in which Cane had been found.
She skimmed through the data collected by the medical officers aboard the Midnight. Cane's capsule had been unique in that he had actually been grown from a zygote within it, but otherwise it had been empty. Its empty shell contained no obvious navigation or propulsion systems; the only life support provided was the hibernation regulator that had kept Cane in stasis during the months until his discovery; only the most basic of AIs kept the whole system operating. If every capsule was the same, then the Sol clone warrior in Palasian System had woken naked and unarmed, not better-equipped than most small armies.
Since then, however, he had somehow managed to commandeer at least one COE Armada vessel and attack no fewer than five semi-permanent COE installations. And now he had effectively disappeared, taking the entire system with him.
So little was known about his--what his intentions were, how capable he was of fulfilling them, and exactly what he had done in the few weeks since his awakening. Even if Roche found Palasian System, there was no guarantee the clone warrior would even be there any more. He could be light-years away, wreaking havoc on other outposts.
Then a new thought struck her. The clone warrior had woken unarmed, but had immediately taken control of the nearest ship. Perhaps he had performed a similar feat in Palasian System as a whole. Given the right knowledge, he could have made his own equipment from the resources scattered across the system--if the right resources were present.
She checked the COE database. Palasian System contained a small Armada refuelling base, one communications outpost, one town-sized colony, and a scattered handful of scientific installations--two of the latter devoted to studying solar flares and xenoarchaeology. That was all, on eight planets and a large assortment of smaller satellites. Nothing stood out as possessing the sort of equipment the fugitive would have required to build a device capable of hiding an entire system. Of course, not knowing how the device worked made it hard to guess what was required to build it, and even more difficult to work out how to counteract its effect.
Before Roche could take her exploration of the files any further, the ship shuddered violently. She looked up in alarm as the bulkheads around her rattled.
<Box! What was that?> she asked via her implants, letting her spoon fall into what remained of her breakfast.
<A difficult translation, Morgan,> replied the AI. <There is no need to be alarmed.>
<If you're pushing the ship too hard-->
<I am doing nothing of the sort.> The Box sounded mildly offended. <We are simply coming closer to the anomaly. Disturbance is to be expected.>
<How much worse do you think it will get?>
<I am unable to answer that question at this point,> said the Box. <But I can assure you that the situation is being closely monitored.>
<Good.> Roche stood and placed her plate into a disposal hatch. <I'm on my way anyway.>
The Box said nothing more, perhaps sensing the renewed determination she felt--partly a result of the food, partly the refocussing of her attention on the goals they all shared. For the first time in the hours since her rude awakening, she actually felt alert.
When she reached the bridge, Cane occupied exactly the same position he had earlier, watching the expanse of the big screen with his arms folded.
Maii sat not far from him. A strip of white cloth covered her empty sockets, matching the loose shift she wore in preference to Dato Bloc shipsuits. Roche automatically sent a smile her way, and when she saw the Surin return one knew that the ritually-blinded girl was using Cane's eyes for visual input. The only other person available to read was Roche herself--but that would have meant the smile would have been invisible to the epsense adept.
Out loud, Roche asked: "Any news, Maii?"
<None so far, Morgan. The area seems to be empty.>
She grunted acknowledgment of the fact to herself, then added: "What if the system was camouflaged? Would it be possible for the Sol Wunderkind to block epsense as well?"
Cane looked up. "The whole system?" he said. "Highly unlikely."
"But it is a possibility." She turned to face him. "A remote one, I'll admit--"
"What I meant was," Cane interrupted her, "if the system is camouflaged, then I doubt my sibling is responsible."
My sibling ... The words made Roche's skin crawl. Sometimes it was hard to accept that Cane and the Sol Wunderkind that had effectively destroyed Palasian System were of the same breed--possibly even identical in every respect.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because, tactically speaking, it makes no sense to be confined to a single system. If I were in his shoes, I would want to move on, taking with me only the resources needed to make my task easier at my next destination." Cane's shoulders lifted in a smooth and easy shrug, as though he was discussing a poor tactic in a bar-room game, not the destruction of a whole system. "Also, to hide in such a manner would be tantamount to admitting defeat. Camouflaged or not, it's only matter of time before the system is found--if not by us, then by someone else."
Roche nodded. "It could be a decoy, then. Something to keep us occupied while he slips away."
"A lot of effort for little reward. However he did it, if he did it, it must have been enormously energy-expensive."
"Maybe. But what if--"
Box's soft, controlled voice cut across her own: "There's really no point even trying to guess until we have more data, Morgan."
"Okay, okay." Roche raised her arms in mock defeat. Sitting in her seat, she faced the main screen to check the status of the ship: it was about to emerge from the short slow-jump that had begun so awkwardly. Maybe when Haid appeared, they could discuss the situation in more detail.
<There is no known way to block epsense,> said Maii, continuing the conversation Cane had interrupted, <apart from at the source. Any thought that slips past a mental shield can be detected. No matter how small. The most powerful E-shield wouldn't even weaken it.>
Roche nodded, absorbing that fact without comment.
"Emerging from hyperspace in fifteen seconds," said Kajic, his voice issuing from the base of the holographic projector. Now that he had no crew to impress, he only occasionally bothered to manifest in a 'physical' form.
The ship groaned back into reality as noisily as it had left. Roche held onto the edge of her seat as the floor writhed beneath her, seeming to melt for an instant as space transformed. Somewhere nearby, something clattered. When the ship stabilised, she forced her muscles to relax, then looked around.
"Someone warn me next time," said Haid from the entrance to the bridge. He held a tray in his new hand, and bent to pick up packages of food that had spilled during the disturbance with the other.
"Klaxons sound automatically prior to every translation," said the Box.
"Yeah, but who listens to them?" Haid finished piling the meal back onto the tray. "I thought this ship could handle anything."
"Not quite," said Kajic. "But close enough."
Haid's face lost some of its good humour at the sound of the ex-Dato Bloc Captain's voice.
"Yeah, well," he said, taking a seat at an empty station. "When the Box summoned me, I thought I'd bring breakfast up here. Hope that's okay."
Roche frowned, puzzled. She hadn't asked the Box to summon anyone. "Box? What's going on?"
"I have an announcement to make," the AI said. "The preliminary survey is now complete and, although much of the data remains to be processed, I have one confirmed observation to report. In accordance with your wishes, Morgan, I summoned Haid to ensure that the entire crew was present to hear it."
Roche didn't respond immediately. The Box wasn't normally so considerate of her wishes. It smacked of over-compensation, as though it was courting disapproval elsewhere.
"Continue," she said after a moment. If it was planning something, then she would have to wait until later to find out what it was.
The Box complied, calling up a number of complicated diagrams on the main screen. "At the heart of the region formerly occupied by Palasian System lies a radiant point-source."
"A singularity?" Roche broke in. She hadn't even considered the possibility that the system had been sucked into a black hole.
"No," said the Box. "The point-source appears to have zero mass and is radiant predominantly in the upper infra-red spectrum. I have detected what may be a cloud of primordial gas surrounding the point-source, but will have to make more observations before confirming that suspicion."
"How close are we?" asked Haid, clearly as disturbed by the thought of a black hole nearby as Roche was, despite the Box's assurance of their safety.
"Twelve billion kilometres." The map on the screen highlighted points as the Box spoke. "The next slow-jump will halve that distance."
"Is that a good idea?" asked Roche.
"All available evidence indicates that the risk of undertaking such a manoeuvre would be small."
"The risk for whom?" said Roche. "Yourself or all of us?"
The Box hesitated before snapping: "Both, of course."
Roche smiled at the Box's apparent indignation. "Okay," she said. "Then I can't see why we shouldn't do it. As soon as you're ready--"
<I have something.> Soft but clear, Maii's words touched Roche's thoughts--as, she assumed, they touched everyone else's simultaneously.
Roche looked across the bridge, the discussion of the point-source instantly shelved. The Surin's face was blank, indicating intense concentration, as it had been since the end of the last jump.
"What is it?" Roche asked, leaning closer.
<Something strange.> The girl frowned. <Or an echo of something. I can't tell which. It's very faint. I've missed it so far because it's so hard to sense at all.>
"Describe it," Roche prodded.
<It's not a person--but it is alive.> Confusion deepened Maii's frown. <A great distance from here, yet close. I don't understand what I'm seeing.>
"Are you picking up any thoughts?" Roche pressed.
<None. Not even a base emotion.>
"Could it be an AI, then, or hidden by a very effective shield?"
<A shield would leak somewhere, and not even the Box has thoughts I can read.> The reave's body sagged. <Damn. Every time I think I've got a grip on it, I lose it again. It's like trying to catch air!>
Roche reached out with a mental hand to touch the Surin's straining mind and ease her frustration. "It's okay, Maii. Wait until the next jump. It might be stronger then."
"'It' might be the anomaly itself," suggested Haid.
"Now there's a possibility I don't want to consider." Roche sighed as warning klaxons began to sound again. "Box, any thoughts on that?"
"None that would not offend."
The rare joke from the Box elicited a chuckle from Haid, but one that was short-lived. The Box's sense of humour--usually at the expense of carbon-based life-forms or epsense science--only reinforced its uniqueness. Roche also detected a faint hint of annoyance, as though it was peeved that the reave had taken the wind out of its big announcement.
Maii emerged from her trance as the ship jumped in accordance with the Box's wishes. <I sensed no malice,> she said, her mental voice clearly audible through the groaning of metal. The slow-jump was easily the most uncomfortable so far.
"That's something." Haid folded his arms. "But I'd still feel happier knowing what we were heading for."
"A black hole doesn't have to bear us any ill-will to be dangerous," agreed Kajic.
"It is not a black hole," asserted the Box.
"Famous last words," muttered the ex-mercenary.
"I agree with Kajic," said Cane. "Just because it's a natural phenomenon doesn't mean it can't still be dangerous."
"At least we could go in with weapons armed," added Haid.
"Do it, then." Roche agreed with the ex-mercenary's unspoken message: sitting around waiting was only making them more tense. "Cane, work with him."
"Done." The two men crossed the bridge to take positions at the weapons station. "Anything else to report, Box?"
"Some inconclusive findings," it said.
"Such as?" she persisted, silently cursing its reticence.
"The steep flexure gradient in this region is suggestive of significant, and recent, spatial trauma."
Roche's eyebrows knitted. "That means nothing to me."
"Space-time has been warped on a massive scale," the Box translated. "The traumatised region occupies a disc-shaped area roughly seventeen billion kilometres across and two billion kilometres thick. The radiant point-source lies at the heart of this region, although I have been unable as yet to determine whether it is the cause of the flexure or simply another effect. It is conceivable, perhaps even likely, that the point-source and the anomaly are different facets of the same phenomenon. However, more research is required before I can be certain of that."
"How much more?"
"That depends on the result of this slow-jump," the Box said. "We will be jumping to the very edge of what should be Palasian System, not far from the anchor point that was our original destination. It is my conjecture that the degree of flexure will increase sharply at this point."
"Proving ... ?"
"Again, I hesitate to speculate until we have concrete data."
Roche grunted. "How long, then?"
"I estimate fifteen minutes before we arrive at our destination."
"So soon?"
"As a result of the flexure gradient, our relative velocity is greatly increased. In a sense, the anomaly has been drawing us towards the point-source."
"It sounds even more like a black hole, now," said Haid over his shoulder.
"The effect is only relative to real space," continued the Box. "In hyperspace, we are actually fighting an uphill battle: although our movement in hyperspace corresponds to greater than normal movement in the real universe, it is becoming increasingly difficult to move in hyperspace at all. I have consulted Kajic and arrived at a maximum output rating for the slow-jump drive--a rating which we will not exceed."
Roche nodded in satisfaction. Even though she didn't understand how progress could be easier in real space but more difficult in hyperspace, at least Kajic and the Box were cooperating.
<I'm picking up that trace again,> said Maii into the break in conversation.
Roche glanced across the bridge. The Surin was frowning once more. "Where?"
<I'm not sure. It's always hard to tell from hyperspace. The trace is definitely stronger, but maybe no closer. There's still no sense of threat.>
"Can you at least tell if it's mundane?"
The reave looked troubled. <Part of me says it isn't, but that's just a gut feeling. High Human, perhaps, but I don't think it's that either. The source is something I've never come across before.>
A Sol Wunderkind? Roche wanted to ask, but didn't. Maii would have said if that had been the case. Yet she couldn't quash the thought: something in hyperspace was pushing them away while in real space drawing them closer. If not the fugitive, then what?
Roche folded her arms and watched the main screen as the minutes ticked by, the large number of unknowns confronting her making her want to scream out in frustration. She needed answers, not possibilities.
<If there are any answers,> put in Maii, <we'll find them when we find Palasian System.>
Before Roche could acknowledge the truth of the reave's comment, a low rumble echoed through the ship, beginning at the stern and fading to silence at the distant prow.
"Now what?" asked Roche, looking around in alarm.
"Uh--one moment," said Kajic.
"We had a flicker of red lights down the port hull," said Haid, "but they've cleared now."
"A slight disturbance," said the Box. "Nothing to be concerned about."
Roche bit her tongue until Kajic delivered his own report.
"No problems with the drive," said the ex-Captain finally. "We must have encountered some sort of turbulence. Possibly a hyperspatial shock wave of some kind."
"The anomaly again?" said Roche.
"It seems likely."
"We are nearing the edge of the anomaly," said the AI. "Obviously there will be some turbulence."
"Aimed at us, perhaps?" suggested Haid.
"No," said the Box. "Describing what we are experiencing as a shock wave is peculiarly apt. The turbulence may be caused by the anomaly only in the same way that the presence of a large mass 'causes' gravity."
"Not deliberate then, but symptomatic." Roche ran a hand restlessly along the arm of her chair. "It's all the same from this end, isn't it?"
"Not really," said the Box. "If we can piece together a pattern to the symptoms, we should be able to deduce the nature of the anomaly that is causing it."
"Here comes another one," said Cane, his head cocked, listening.
The groan returned, as gradually as before but noticeably louder when it peaked. Roche, her hands pressed firmly into her armrests, felt a faint buzz through her fingertips.
"Could it hurt us, Uri?" she asked.
"Conceivably, yes. The stress is caused by sympathetic vibrations in the hull. So far I have been able to dampen the resonance."
"Let me know if it gets too bad."
"I will. If we encounter it again."
Roche waited anxiously as the ship travelled onward. Barely two minutes later, a third shock wave rolled through the ship, this time accompanied by a slewing sensation to starboard and down, as though the ship were being dragged off-course.
"Red lights again," said Haid.
An instant later, from Cane: "Clear."
Roche waited anxiously for Kajic's report.
"No damage," he said finally. "But it was definitely more severe. The closer we get to the anomaly, the stronger they're becoming."
"Can we ride them for much longer?"
"If they continue worsening at this rate, no," said Kajic. "But we'll come close."
"Good enough." Roche swivelled her chair to face the main screen. There was only a handful minutes left before the slow-jump was due to end. "Pull us out the moment we can't take it. I'll leave that decision in your hands."
"Understood."
As another groan began to build, Roche again put her hands on the sides of her chair and held tight. She felt as though someone were tolling a bell directly behind her head, a bell so large that its vibrations were absorbed by her bones rather than heard. Before it had completely faded, another swelled to take its place.
"Box," she said, raising her voice above the noise. "If you have any idea at all what that anomaly is, I want to hear it."
"I now have several theories, Morgan. Which will be the correct one, of course, remains to be seen."
Roche opened her mouth to demand an outline of the various possibilities, but was cut off by a sudden lurch upwards. Her stomach dropped, then lifted again into her chest.
"We're experiencing gravity fluctuations," said Kajic. "I can only keep us going another fifty seconds."
Roche studied the main screen, momentarily tempted to call a halt. Their planned arrival point was inching slowly closer. Given a further half-minute, they would almost make it. She decided to trust Kajic's instincts.
"There must be some way to dampen the shock-waves," she said.
"I'll raise the E-shields, but I don't think that'll help much." The ex-Captain's voice sounded strained.
"Whatever you can do, Uri."
The noise worsened, despite the shields, as did the rolling sensation in her gut. Maii, lacking eyes of her own and therefore more susceptible to balance problems, looked decidedly uncomfortable. Haid had taken the precaution of fastening his impact harness. Cane, behind him, was as steadfast as ever--but even he swayed when a particularly strong wave shunted the ship in an unexpected direction.
Roche watched the seconds counting down on the big screen: 21 ... 20 ... 19 ...
The shock waves became inseparable, and the ship seemed to toss on the surface of a stormy sea. Red lights flickered on and off across all the boards, registering slight damages across the hull. Most would be repaired almost instantly by the tide of maintenance nanomachines swarming over every external surface of the ship, but the fact that they were occurring at all was disturbing.
Ten seconds remained.
Roche watched their destination creep closer. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hear over the prolonged groan surrounding them.
The lights flickered once, steadied, then flickered again.
"We have a standing wave in sectors G through K," announced Kajic grimly. "Preparing to abort the slow-jump."
Five seconds. Roche winced as the smell of ozone reached her nose.
Three seconds. On the main screen, the difference between the ship's current location and its destination was measured in millimetres.
Two seconds--
"Aborting now," said Kajic, the very instant artificial gravity ceased entirely. A siren began to wail a split-second later. The lights flickered a third time as the drive drained power from the bulk of the ship to translate itself safely back into real space. In the short-lived darkness, Roche actually heard the engines strain--a deep, regular thrumming coming from somewhere to her left. Their tempo was rapid but reassuringly regular under the circumstances.
Then the lights returned, unsteadily and noticeably dimmer than they usually were. Space twisted inside-out, and the floor bucked under her feet. Her momentum tried to pull her forward, onto the floor and across the bridge. Gripping the sides of her chair even tighter, she resisted the impetus with all her strength. To her left, Maii lost a similar battle and skidded on her knees into a bank of instruments. Even Cane staggered, clasping Haid's shoulder to keep his balance.
The floor bucked again, this time in the opposite direction. Maii gasped in pain as she slid backwards and collided with her seat. The bulkheads around them likewise groaned in protest.
"Uri!" Roche shouted above the racket. "What's happening?"
"We are experiencing difficulty emerging from hyperspace," said the Box, its voice amplified but calm--too calm for Roche's liking. "I will act as an intermediary between Kajic and yourself for the time being. The ship is his primary concern at the moment."
Another jolt almost cost her grip. She clutched behind and over her shoulder to fasten the seat's restraint harness. "Are we going to make it?"
"I should think so," said the Box. "The chances are very good that we will all survive."
Roche was grateful for the 'all'. The Box could endure almost anything, and had been known to assume the same indestructibility of its wards in the past. Cane, on the other hand, had already moved across the bridge to help Maii into her harness.
"We have damage," reported Haid from the weapons station, his voice raised to be heard. "Lost some banks on the starboard bow. I don't quite know what happened; looks like they've been sheared clean off. No pressure-drops reported, though, and hull integrity's intact."
Roche concentrated on what he was saying. "What have we lost?"
"Hypershields in that area. Some A-P cannon. We'll be able to compensate easily enough."
"Good. We--uh!" The Ana Vereine swung to starboard, then down; Roche winced as her restraint harness cut deep into her chest. The thrumming of the engines rose in both pitch and intensity until it became a screaming--like the screaming of a mighty wind--
--she was falling--
--and nausea flared deep within her as the association with the dream made her feel impotent and therefore even more anxious.
The main screen flickered, attracting her attention. Abstract representations of their course swirled into increasingly complex shapes, then disappeared entirely, leaving nothing in their wake. White lines scattered across the screen, making Roche blink; then it went black again.
Without warning, the ship began to steady. Bulkheads settled back into place with a series of decreasing creaks. The screaming of the engines ebbed, losing the desperate edge that had contributed to Roche's anxiety. The groan of tortured space faded with one last renting sound, then ceased entirely.
In the sudden silence, Roche didn't dare ask the question.
She didn't need to.
"We made it," said Kajic, his voice from near Roche's right shoulder clear and relieved.
"Yes," echoed the Box, its voice oddly hushed. "We most certainly did."
At that moment, the main screen came back to life. Blinding light filled the bridge, dazzling Roche until she managed to bring an arm up to protect her eyes. Compensators cut in an instant later, reducing the glare to more manageable levels. Through the gaps between her fingers, Roche peered at what lay before them.
"What the hell is that?" exclaimed Haid, pre-empting her own initial reaction.
A blazing yellow-white oval filled the centre of the screen. At first she thought it was a sun, but the shape was wrong: it was distorted as though giant hands had gripped it at each pole and stretched it lengthwise. In addition, there were no flares or prominences, no hints of corona or sun-spots. Just light, bright and unceasing, coming from something far too close for comfort.
There was only one thing it could be.
"It's the point-source," she said, directing her words at the Box.
"Precisely," it replied, as she'd half-hoped it would not.
"But we should be millions of kilometres away from it. I thought you were taking us to the edge of where the system used to be--"
"I did. Yet here we are, only a short distance from what appears to be the centre. Remarkable, isn't it?"
Remarkable? Roche echoed to herself. She could think of words to describe it, but that wasn't one of them.
Before she could say anything, however, Haid's voice broke into the conversation.
"We have targets!" he called. "Someone else got here before us!"
"Where?" she asked, instantly turning her seat to face his station.
"Two behind us," he said. "One on the far side of whatever that thing is. Emissions suggest ships, probably Commonwealth, but it's hard to be sure. There's some sort of interference fudging our data."
"They've seen us," said Cane. "One of them is moving in to engage."
"Launch baseline probes and broadcast our ID," Roche said, her heart pounding as she considered their options. To Kajic she added: "Uri, keep well out of their way until we know what they are and who sent them. We don't want to intimidate them unnecessarily."
"Don't worry about that," Haid shot back dryly. "I won't be making any moves until you can prove to me there isn't a clone warrior on one of them."
Roche watched nervously as the view shifted on the main screen. Numerous tiny drones spread out in a circle away from the Ana Vereine, expanding their baseline of observation and thereby improving the clarity and range of the picture. The third ship came into view, oddly distorted like the glowing object it had been hiding behind. It was hard to determine exactly what sort of ship it was, let alone where it hailed from; the image was of a warped, white line, burning bright with reflected light.
"Box," she said, "can you figure out what's jamming us?"
"There is no deliberate interference of transmissions in this region," said the Box.
"No? Then--"
"Our sensors are being swamped by emissions from the point-source. It is extremely radiant in both infra-red electromagnetic and Perez radiations."
Roche blinked, surprised. Perez radiation was a side-effect of a crudely tuned hyperspace jump, not what she would have expected of a seemingly stellar object.
Before she could inquire further, the Box went on: "Try looking for transmissions on the Eckandi emergency band. It should be relatively unaffected."
Roche indicated for Haid to do as the Box suggested. Within seconds, a rapid pulse of sound from the speakers of the main screen indicated that the ship had detected a digital transmission. An instant later, text appeared on the main screen and the pulse became an audible voice:
"--ONLY WARNING. REPEAT: YOU ARE IN CONTRAVENTION OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF EMPIRES SECURITY ACT, SECTIONS 45, 63 AND 72. THIS AREA HAS BEEN QUARANTINED. LEAVE IMMEDIATELY OR PREPARE TO BE FIRED UPON. THIS IS YOUR FIRST AND ONLY
WARNING. MESSAGE ENDS."
The voice spoke with the clear, crisp tones of a machine, not a Human--but that hardly made its words any less appalling. Roche took only a second to absorb the implications of what it was saying.
An ambush.
"Haid, Cane--move us away," she said, thinking furiously. "Don't do anything else unless I tell you. Box, signal that we wish to respond; see if you can initiate a dialogue--or even subvert the AI to let us go." Even as she spoke the words she knew it was unlikely the Box would be capable of doing this quickly enough. Nevertheless, she had to at least explore the possibility. "Uri, continue with repairs. Get that down shield back up as soon as you can. And Maii, find out what they're doing here and who the hell sent them. I need to know if we have a chance to convince them to let us through or not."
From her seat on the far side of the bridge, the reave shook her head. <I can't,> she said.
"What?" Roche swivelled to face her. "Why not?"
<I can't read them.> The reave's voice was strangely muffled, as though her thoughts were coming from a great distance rather than simply across the room. <They're not shielded. I just can't pick them up at all. If I could, I would have detected them long before now. We would have known they were here before we arrived.>
Roche frowned. Maii's last comment was worryingly true, if perplexing. "Keep trying. I need to know how they found us and whether they knew we were coming or not. If De Bruyn sent them, we know we'll have to fight, no matter what they say."
"But if they weren't expecting us," put in Haid, "how did they know where we'd be? I thought we couldn't be traced through a slow-jump."
"They didn't need to," replied the Box.
Roche was reminded of the point-source on the screen, twisted as though viewed through a giant lens. The spatial distortion the Box had been monitoring was obviously even more severe than she had imagined: anything trying to enter the space where the system had been was forced to emerge at this point--the heart of the system, yet at the same time its edge.
"They just sat here and waited," she said. "No matter where we tried to go, this is where we'd end up."
"Precisely, Morgan," said the Box.
"And the only way to get away from them is outward, away from where the system should be." She slapped her hand palm-down on the side of her chair. "Dammit. We can't leave now, not until we know what the hell is going on!"
"I have convinced someone to let you talk," said the Box. "The AI has put me in direct contact with the officer in command of the primary vessel."
She took a deep breath. "Open the line."
"Ready, Morgan."
Roche tried to calm her nerves, then began to speak:
"This is Morgan Roche of the independent vessel Ana Vereine. We are travelling as a peaceful envoy under the provision of Page De Bruyn of COE Intelligence. Why are you harassing us, and by whose authority?"
The moment she finished talking, the automatic broadcast ceased and a Human voice took its place.
"COE Intelligence has no jurisdiction here," said the woman. "I am Commander Bassett of the COE Armada vessel Golden Dawn with orders countersigned by General Ramage. My directive is to prevent all unauthorised vessels from proceeding any further into Palasian System."
"Further where?" Roche shot back. "The system's gone. And as for authorisation, I just gave you mine. We've been sent by the COE Intelligence Strategy Head to study the situation here, and to offer what help--"
The woman broke in firmly: "Your help is not required. Should you not leave immediately, then I have been authorised to use whatever force is necessary to ensure your compliance. You have exactly thirty seconds."
The vocal transmission ceased, and was replaced by the automatic recording.
Roche sat stunned for a moment, unable to believe what she had heard. Treachery she had learned to deal with, but not this blind, military farce.
"We've got confirmation on the ID," said Haid. "It's the Golden Dawn, and it's an Armada vessel as she said. A Destroyer, to be exact."
Not quite a match for the Ana Vereine, Roche thought to herself. But there were three of them.
"Maii?" she asked. "Can you persuade them to change their minds?"
<I'm still not picking up anything.> The reave's voice was steeped in apology and confusion. <A few shadows, but nothing definite ... >
Roche rubbed her forehead. On the main screen, the three Armada ships moved into position around the Ana Vereine.
"All shields to full strength," she said, sitting upright in her seat. "Uri, how're those repairs looking?"
"Almost there," Kajic replied. "Another two minutes and we'll be optimal."
Roche glanced at the screen. The Golden Dawn's half-minute deadline had expired twenty seconds ago.
"They mean it, Morgan," said Cane, watching the screen with naked fascination. "They're going to fire."
Remembering the uncanny way he had picked the decisive moment during the battle for the Midnight, she didn't hesitate.
"Uri, take evasive action. Haid, arm the disrupters. Cane, prepare to return fire on my command."
"You're going to fight?" asked the Box.
"Do I have any choice?"
"Of course you do," the AI said.
"Well, what?" Roche snapped.
"You can turn control of the ship over to me," said the Box.
Roche opened her mouth, then closed it again. "Why?" she eventually managed.
"There is insufficient time to explain, Morgan."
"Try me," she growled.
"I have deduced the exact natures of both the point-source and the anomaly, and in the process have verified the location of Palasian System. By giving me control of the ship, I can take you there in a matter of minutes."
"So tell us where it is and we'll get ourselves there."
"Impossible, Morgan. Not that I am underestimating your abilities; there is simply too little time to--"
Lances of energy flashed on the main screen; static momentarily scrambled the picture.
"They're firing on our drones!" announced Haid.
"Take reciprocal action," Roche ordered. Barely had she finished when Cane began destroying the Armada's own baseline probes. Specks of light flashed in the space between the three ships, their brightness negligible against the fiercely burning point-source dominating the view.
"They're tightening shields," said Haid.
Roche's thoughts went into overdrive. Tightening shields was a standard tactic in close space warfare. Any moment now, the attack would begin in earnest: the three Armada ships against the sole Ana Vereine. Numbers were against them, but that didn't mean that they would necessarily be overcome. Apart from the Ana Vereine's technological superiority, it also possessed a number of armed scutters and shuttles in its docking bays; she could order the Box to launch these smaller craft to assist in the battle, and have Kajic employ the camouflage to make them harder to target. With so many diffuse targets to aim for, the outcome the Armada expected was far from certain. Still, the Ana Vereine was bound to incur some damage.
And if it prevailed, what then? They would be unable to return to the Commonwealth for certain after destroying three Armada ships while on a supposedly peaceful mission, and the matter of Palasian System would still be unresolved. If the Box was right, then it had offered her a way to avoid the battle and to reach her goal--both with one decisive move.
She had seen more death in the handful of weeks since meeting Adoni Cane than she had in twelve years of active service for COE Intelligence. The thought of still more on her conscience made the decision easier than she expected.
At that very moment, the Golden Dawn opened fire.
"Incoming!" Haid's shout echoed through the bridge, closely followed by a juddering wrench as a full volley of flicker-bombs impacted upon the ship's aft hypershields. Cane's fingers played the weapons board like a maestro as Kajic swung the ship to bear on its primary antagonist. As the exchange intensified, violent discharges painted the space between the two ships with fiery colours of death.
"Box!" Roche called out over the sounds of battle: the shouts, the explosions, the roaring of engines. "Whatever you've got planned, do it fast!"
"Thank you, Morgan." The AI's reply was more gracious than Roche had expected, considering the moral victory it had won. To Haid and Cane it said: "Maintain a covering fire across the ship on the upper left of your screens. On my command, prepare to release proximity mines to prevent them from following."
Haid frowned at the screen. The ship the Box had indicated was the one that had been hiding behind the point-source; even now, the white-hot object filled most of that segment of the screen. "Where the hell--?"
"Just do it, Ameidio," Roche ordered, even though she felt less than certain herself.
"I have surrendered control of the slow-jump drive to the Box," said Kajic via her implants, "and I will obey its orders until you tell me otherwise."
Roche nodded dumbly, wondering what the Box wanted with the drive, and why it wanted sole control over the systems. So close to the point-source, massless or not, even the smallest slow-jump had to be risky.
"Prepare for acceleration," announced the Box. "Maximum reactive power in fifteen seconds!"
As though the commander of the Golden Dawn had sensed Roche's change of plans, the Armada ships drew closer in a sudden rush, two of them overlapping shields and forming a solid wall of defence. The third sent bolt after bolt of energy hurtling towards the Ana Vereine--an assault designed to weaken E-shields prior to the arrival of a second wave of A-P fire and flicker-bombs.
An instant before the second wave arrived, the Ana Vereine surged forward. Roche was pressed back into her seat as the view through the main screen rushed at her. The single ship the Box had targeted reacted instantly, obviously believing that the Ana Vereine intended to ram; its E-shield formed a narrow cone pointed at the hurtling ship, hoping either to deflect it off-course or to spear through its hull.
The Box's intention was further afield, however. The Ana Vereine changed course an instant before striking the shield. As the Armada ship flashed by, Roche began to guess where they were headed. At the same time, the two vessels they had left behind began to turn, accelerating in pursuit.
The sound of proximity mines being fired behind them rattled in her ears. Two caught the single ship by surprise, slipping through its weakened aft shields and impacting on its hull. Damage was minor, but significant. Cane focussed more and more firepower on the injured ship until it was forced to turn away, leaving the chase to its more distant, but fitter, siblings.
Too late. There was no way now that any of the ships could intercept the Ana Vereine; its lead was too great, and its destination too close.
Roche watched numbly as the image of the point-source swelled in the main screen. Not even automatic compensators could dull its brilliance.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Box," she whispered to herself.
Haid stared mutely up at the screen, his fingers working the disrupter controls automatically. Then a hand fell across his own.
"It's all right," Cane said. "The E-shields can manage from here."
"No they can't," Roche said urgently, leaning forward. "We'll need everything up front. Kajic, what's the ambient temperature and composition of the region ahead?"
"Unknown," was the ex-Captain's reply. "Our instruments are--"
"Prepare for imminent hyperspace translation," broke in the Box.
"What?" On hearing the AI's intentions, Roche instantly regretted giving the Box absolute control. "You can't be serious! We're too close--"
"Not close enough, actually," returned the Box. "But we will be in ten seconds. Fasten your harnesses, everyone. This will be rough."
Roche's hands gripped her seat as the point-source ballooned to fill the entire main screen. She was dimly aware of the others around her--even Cane--doing the same, and of the stubborn thumping of the Armada guns on their aft shields, still harassing the Ana Vereine from behind. Part of her recalled the way the Box had threatened a collision course with COE Intelligence HQ under similar circumstances; she could only hope that its timing and intentions were as critical now as they had been then.
White fire consumed the screen. Sirens began to wail. The ship jerked once; she thought she heard Kajic call something to her. Then:
Space flowered open before them, unfolding in a series of crimson waves that quickly and violently enveloped the Ana Vereine. The ship shivered from nose to tail, shaken by forces Roche could only imagine. At the centre of the vortex, several tiny specks of light flickered into being--only to disappear again as the main screen went black.
Then everything simply stopped.



Copyright © 2000 Sean Williams and Shane Dix.
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