The artificial time, synthetic food, enforced idleness, and incessant hum of space travel plagued her sleep. Andrea slept fitfully in her berth aboard the armed merchant Benwoi. Her mind grappled with a collage of memories.
The teak decks are damp. Morning dew collects as cool droplets on the railings. The Deeper Well rocks slightly -- more from movement on board than from the glassy water. Steve comes up from the cabin with a steaming cup of aromatic coffee. He kisses me. The stubble of his beard rubs my cheek, a touch more stimulating than caffeine. He seems distant -- preoccupied -- as he walks to the forepeak to raise the jib. Little Glendon, my little pixie, scampers up the ladder wearing an orange life vest and nuzzles her cheek into my breast, jostling a bit of hot coffee that splashes on my bare leg, but I ignore the insignificant pain. Glendon's hair smells of lilac shampoo. She says "I love you, Mother," with perfect diction, too old for a child of three. Glendon's voice has lost its innocence. Glendon looks into my eyes. I watch as those pixie eyes dim. I'm confused. Glendon stops breathing! Then she slumps into my arms, cold and lifeless. I shake my child who suddenly is covered with blood. I can do nothing but scream, "Steve! Help me!" The man at the forepeak raising the jib turns. He is irritated by the commotion. He says coldly, "I'm not Steve."
Andrea woke to a shrill pulsating alarm. She dismissed her dream and sat up sprightly, slapping the comm-panel on the bulkhead above her berth. With the alarm silenced, the quiet hum of the ship returned like a long somnolent note played on an oboe. But Andrea was instantly and completely awake, perspiring.
Even in her sleep, she'd anticipated this important wake-up call. She glanced at the status panel: systems nominal. Tara, her partner and the only other soul aboard ship, was already on station. Not surprised -- Tara was a clone. Andrea held the common bias that clones worked not from need or virtue, but from habit.
At the top of her panel, the chronometer counted backward: four hours, twenty-eight minutes until they slid out of faster-than-light speed into kinetic speed. Enough time to dress, eat, and rehearse their critical first minutes in the Jod system. Andrea touched the intercom button, "Tara, I'm awake. What are you doing up so early?"
After a pause, a sleepy voice replied, "I prepared a hot..." The message collapsed into a long yawn. "Excuse me. A hot meal, and I brewed some black gaval."
"You'd better have another cup." Andrea waited for a reply but caught the last audible part of another yawn over the intercom, which she clipped short, saying, "I'm switching off before you put me to sleep." She touched the pad closing the channel.
Andrea slipped her long legs out from under the thin cotton sheets till her feet touched the cold floor. Her plain undershirt had hiked up over her stomach during the night while she'd slept. Standing in her small quarters, she bent over, stretching her hamstrings, placing the palms of her hands flat on the floor, then grabbing her ankles, she stretched her strong leg muscles. She gracefully unbent herself and stretched her arms above her head as she rolled her head in slow, grand circles to limber her neck. Her shoulder twinged slightly from a wound not completely healed.
Her purloined clothes lay draped over a chair where she'd carefully laid them. She'd plundered the clothes lockers of the all-male crew -- one of whom was quite small. She'd consigned her own set of foul, tattered clothes to waste disintegration; all but the wilderness cloak that Brigon gave her. Brigon, how is he? The cloak hung from a hook on her cabin door. Stained with smoke, blood, and sweat, the cloak smelled dank, but she dared not launder the garment and risk damage, because she did not know the secret of the cloak's technology -- how it perfectly camouflages the wearer.
With a sense of practicality and irreverent mirth, she mixed and matched the crew's wardrobes to fit herself with a tunic, shirt, and trousers. The white pullover shirt fit well although roomy at the waist. The tunic hung loose on her shoulders and the sleeves were a bit short. Trousers were a much harder fit and she settled for the diminutive crewman's trousers that hung low on her narrow hips. Fortunately, the cloth had some give, as the trousers were tight about her seat and thighs. Serviceable, clean clothes, yet on her the outfit lost its military aura; instead, it broadcast a mixed signal of authority and tease. She fastened the belt with an audible click, then pulled on a pair of small boots -- the smallest boots aboard the ship.
She looked into the long mirror to adjust her gig line, a habit held over from her days as a cadet. Her short black hair stood in a cowlick where her head burrowed into a firm pillow. She'd gained a couple pounds during this trip, pounds that brought her back to her correct weight. Her long ordeal on Cor had left her looking gaunt, her face showing the greatest deprivation of food and sleep. Her eyes still showed fatigue. She longed for the sleep of complete resignation, an outpouring of consciousness that refreshed mind and body.
Nevertheless, sixteen days of forced rest and full rations had done her good. She smiled slightly with self-satisfaction. She and Tara had stolen a comfortable Cor ship, the Benwoi, an armed merchant cruiser provisioned for a crew of eight, plus forty passengers. Yet, looking in the mirror, Andrea could see the latent anxiety about her own eyes, tension written in small tell-tale lines on her otherwise smooth olive skin. Now, she wished they'd managed to hijack a more formidable fighting ship, not this armed merchant. This comfortable ship -- this pig, using loose nautical lingo -- lacked long-range weapons, speed, and maneuverability. As best as she could tell, Andrea believed the Cor had dispatched two warships in pursuit.
On previous mornings, Andrea knew that she'd awake in the relative safety of traveling at FTL speed, a demilitarized state of physics where weapons are useless. Ships chasing them could not fire forward lest they fly instantly into their own ordnance. Likewise, the Benwoi could not see aft to target the pursuers, but not for long.
In four hours, they'd come out of light speed into the Jod system, where according to plan, her comrade H'Roo Parh waited with a heavy cruiser. He'd damn well better be there waiting with his finger on the trigger. This kind of fight was new to Andrea -- not the tactile struggle of close combat where peripheral vision, reflex, and strength mattered. She knew physical anatomy better than warship structures. She knew how to use a variety of handheld weapons, not shipborne lasers and torpedoes. For her the proper distance between combatants was measured in one or two arm's lengths, not hundreds of thousands of kilometers. However, one principle applied to both situations: the party who inflicts the first blow usually wins. The Cor had the advantage of being at her back, at present invisible, possessing superior firepower. Andrea paused by the galley long enough to pick up a warm cake made of coarse cornmeal on which she spread a rich butter and a sweet chutney. She poured herself a large mug of steaming black brew, gaval -- a synthetic that she recognized as insipid coffee buttressed with chicory. She loaded it with four heaping teaspoons of sugar to mask an unfamiliar aftertaste. She drank for the effect of the stimulant.
Andrea walked down the short spine of the ship and stepped onto the bridge, the arena of today's battle. The hiss of the door announced her.
Tara turned around in her seat and she offered a wan smile. She looked pale. Her gold-specked, hazel eyes sparked with anxiety. But her spirits picked up just having a companion. She wore her auburn hair loose, pulled behind her ears.
Sipping her gaval, Andrea put her free hand on Tara's soft shoulder, trying to transfer some of her calm to her nervous comrade: words of encouragement were superfluous. Andrea looked at the screens. The forward screens showed them approaching Jod space. The ship's computers filtered the ambient light from the screens to present a picture of approaching stars, drifting from the center toward the edges as the perspective changed, each star eventually absorbed into a milk white glow at the edge of the screen -- a blur of white light reminded the viewer that the screen was a representation, not physical reality.
Meanwhile the rearview screens displayed only charts and a virtual image. The aft sensors were useless because they outran all matter and energy. She glanced at the small weapons console and shook her head ruefully. The ship had no torpedoes in inventory. The laser cannon was small, suitable for intimidating other merchant ships or pirates, but Andrea thought to herself, If we get close enough to use it, we're already dead.
Andrea asked, "Have you figured out where we'll come out of light speed and become fully kinetic?"
"Yes -- sort of." Tara brushed a wisp of auburn hair from her face. "The probable error is significant. The ship's computers have detailed charts leading up to the Jod system, and the Jod system itself -- even the location of artificial satellites and space stations. But we can't confirm our position because we can't get a decent star fix until we come out of light speed. In short, we've been flying dead reckoning, just bearing and time, and I'm not an experienced navigator. This trip will last sixteen days, seven hours, forty-four minutes, and thirteen point six two seconds."
Tara pointed at the ship's red chronometer counting down the seconds, minutes, and hours in the flight. She shook her head. "So the trip takes close to one and a half million seconds. If we're off by just two of those seconds, we'll find ourselves about three hundred sixty thousand miles off course. A ten-second error is not out of the realm of possibility."
"Not very encouraging." Andrea looked at the sensor readouts -- all flat, and she muttered in frustration. "We're deaf, dumb, and half-blind."
Right now, Andrea wanted more than anything to send H'Roo Parh some kind of warning. First, she might not appear in the Jod system where they had planned. Second, she was bringing company, at least two armed Ordinate ships ready for a fight. She knew that a Jod battle cruiser could outmaneuver and outgun the Ordinate ships, providing H'Roo was not taken by surprise. But any message she transmitted to H'Roo would arrive in the Jod system about five hundred years after she arrived to deliver it in person. Andrea leaned stiff-armed against the console. The amber lights reflected from her high cheekbones and forehead. Her deep-set eyes were lost in shadow.
"Maybe the Cor didn't follow us?" Tara's eyes betrayed her own doubts.
Andrea stepped away from the flat screens and stifled a bubble of sardonic laughter. "Oh, they're behind us. Count on it." After all, she reflected, we saw two Ordinate ships accelerating in hot pursuit when we engaged the FTL drive and just barely escaped with our skins. They're motivated. We burned down their Clone Welfare Institute, ruined their crop of NewGen clones, killed scores of their security forces, started an insurrection between the old-order clones and the Ordinate, stole their ship, and set a course straight toward the Jod system.
Andrea smiled grimly, "I'll be pleasantly surprised if we discover that we've got only two Ordinate vessels on our tail. The Ordinate want our heads on a pike. Our best chance is to come out of light speed then pour on the speed in kinetics."
"Maybe we lost them. After all, we traveled in a broad arc -- not even a straight line. They are bound to have the same navigational problems." Tara offered up some hope.
Andrea looked down at Tara and wondered how best to explain to a simple clone who'd never experienced space flight, let alone faster-than-light travel, the phenomenon of quantrails. But Tara seemed to have a gift for thinking in the abstract world of computers, so why not physics? "We're leaving a trail. Even in the vacuum of space, there are hydrogen atoms. We are traveling at such speed that we collide with billions of atoms a second. When the hydrogen atoms smash against our inertial dampeners, the atoms break into their elemental particles -- muons, positrons. The particles spin off in a momentary life, but they leave a brief trail to follow. Have you seen aircraft on a clear day leave long thin clouds behind them?"
"Yes." Tara leaned back in her chair and nodded.
"Those thin clouds are the contrails that come from the tips of the wings -- water droplets or ice crystals left in the wake of an aircraft. Something like that happens with a spacecraft traveling faster than light."
Tara thought for a moment, then observed. "If that's the case, they know our direction, but how will they know the instant we come out of light speed?"
Andrea smiled, seeing where Tara's thought was leading. "Very good. Suddenly they'll run out of quantrail, but by that time they will have passed us. They'll be ahead of us. What kind of time lag are we talking about?"
Tara swung her chair around and tapped her console to bring up some ship's data. Andrea watched her scroll through charts of data, amazed at the speed with which this clone from Cor assimilated information. Can this be? This once timid clone is acquiring self-confidence.
Tara brushed her short auburn hair from her face and said, "Assuming their sensors are roughly equivalent to ours and their onboard computers operate at the same speed, and they can switch down their FTL drive at the same speed...we're looking at a half second -- max." Her face fell: she'd expected a greater buffer.
But Andrea brightened. "Yeah, but that puts ninety thousand miles between us. At kinetic speed, it'll take them a half hour to come about, then catch us."
"That still isn't much time."
"It's thirty minutes I didn't think we had. We need to take advantage of every second. When we come out of FTL, we must have a programmed maneuver. We'll come about and reverse our course for two minutes at maximum kinetic speed. How fast can the ship's sensors pinpoint our position?" Andrea set her cup of gaval down on the console and crowded next to Tara.
Tara answered from memory. "Assuming we show up without a clue as to our position, the computer can identify stars from the charts and triangulate our position within a hundred meters in less than eight seconds."
"Okay. As soon as we have coordinates, we send a distress call to H'Roo. We'll pick a direction, and run like hell."
"The Cor will hear the signal as well. What if H'Roo can't get to us before the Cor do?"
Andrea looked Tara in the face and replied with certainty, "Then we're dead." Andrea picked up her cup and took a sip.
Andrea and Tara prepared to decelerate to kinetic speeds. They rehearsed their actions and anticipated decisions. Then, for the last twenty minutes, Tara sat at her console and silently watched the chronometer count down, waiting for the ship's computer to execute a series of maneuvers.
Andrea paced the bridge with an eye on the screens. She wiped a film of nervous perspiration from her forehead as she riveted her attention to the sensors, trying to grab even a half-second's advantage of knowing the disposition of her adversaries before they spotted her.
The final seconds dragged themselves off the clock. The hum in the ship changed markedly to a lower pitch. The screens blinked off, then back with live images fore and aft. The sensors came alive, and the computer strained with the flood of data, attempting to reorient the ship. The engines groaned as the ship jerked to a stop, then scrambled backward. The abrupt shift in speed and direction overwhelmed the inertial dampeners, jarring the ship and knocking Andrea to the floor. Down on her haunches, she looked up at the screens. "Look!" She pointed to the forward main view. "Quantrails!"
Two eddies of sparkles sped past and converged instantly in the distance, then disappeared.
Tara reported, "Two ships: ninety-two thousand miles forward. We are increasing our distance from them -- accelerating." She looked back at Andrea.
Andrea raised her voice to the computer, "Forward screen; full magnification."
The screen zoomed in, delivering a grainy picture of the two Cor ships stopped dead in space. Then in graceful unison, the Cor ships came about, their bows pointing directly at the screen and they loomed larger. Andrea announced what Tara already knew, "They've found us."
Tara attended a message on her console. "We have coordinates and full navigation back on-line. Your message to H'Roo is gone."
"Where are we?"
"Well, we are in the Jod system -- barely. We passed Jod. We're about two hundred million miles from the Jod sun."
Andrea looked at the charts. She jabbed at the screen with her finger. "H'Roo was supposed to wait in the vicinity of the planet Lobar, here." She asked, "What's the distance to Lobar in miles?"
Tara deftly stroked her console keys and the ship's computer flashed a star chart onto the forward screen. A thin red arc on the screen plotted the course and marked an endpoint: 257 million miles farther. Andrea's quick mind needed another piece of data. "How soon will the Cor battle cruisers have us in their weapons' range?"
Tara looked at the tactical display above her and answered. "They can close to torpedo range in twenty-one minutes. Maybe we can make another short jump at FTL."
Andrea looked at Tara and shook her head. "I thought of that. We don't have enough fuel. We could accelerate to FTL, but we would never be able to decelerate: we'd be a permanent streak in the cosmos until we hit something. But H'Roo can make the jump."
"He won't get our message for twenty-three minutes. He might be able to make the jump from kinetic speed in less than two minutes. Nevertheless his travel time to us is at least another five minutes. Best case, we won't see your H'Roo person for at least thirty minutes."
Damn! Andrea rebuked herself for missing the obvious. She lacked experience in this arena: deep space tactics. But she dared not let her nerves show. The bridge seemed to swim around her now, a flood of data, and only experience tells one which data are important, and which aren't. "We need to buy some time. This is just happening too fast." She pressed her fingers to her temples as she thought.
"We need more speed!" Tara exclaimed. Her wide eyes pleaded with the inanimate console.
"No! Not enough fuel. We can't go faster. Not possible." Andrea shot back with a note of exasperation, but her face transformed as her mind seized an idea. "We can't go faster, but perhaps we can make them go slower." Andrea looked at the charts, dragging her finger over the plastic screen along their projected bearing.
"What are you looking for?" Tara asked.
"A tree to climb. A rock to hide behind. There!" Andrea pointed to a planetoid, a mere piece of astronomical flotsam spinning lifelessly in space. "Now, we're going to play this game by my rules. Tara, change our bearing to intercept this rock, Qota Two. Quick, send a message telling H'Roo to meet us there."
"Done." Tara obeyed without question. She played the console like a musical instrument, then wiped her perspiring hands on her smock. Then she opened a channel and broadcast.
Andrea immediately followed with another request. "Give me whatever specs the sensors can provide on Qota."
Tara consulted her console and the screen flashed a detailed set of data with enhanced photography of the planetoid. Tara looked up, surprised to see the rich detail in the virtual image of Qota. "The ship's library has complete survey data on Qota. Do you still want sensors directed there?"
How can that be? Andrea thought. How can Cor have details on a cold dead rock in the Jod system? Andrea postponed that question as the more pressing business of survival seized her attention. She skipped the detailed mineralogical studies of the planet and focused on the data affecting orbital mechanics. Qota: 4,765 miles in diameter, mass is one point one seven, with a veil of methane -- a thin atmosphere. Density three point seven times water. Escape velocity three point one seven miles per second...
Tara interrupted. "The two Cor ships got your message; they've set an intercept course for Qota. We just lost twenty seconds. We'll arrive in Qota's gravity well just ninety seconds before the Cor do."
"We'll make the time back -- don't worry." She fixed her eyes on the forward screen.
Andrea pointed to the virtual image on the screen. "We put ourselves into a low equatorial orbit around Qota. There, we hide behind the horizon and keep rock between them and us." Andrea calculated: If they keep their same speed up to overtake us quickly, they fall out to a higher orbit. Qota's gravity removes their advantage of raw speed. Each low orbit takes about fifty-eight minutes. If they continue to chase us, they must slow down, then maneuver. If they choose to wait for us, so much the better. In either case, by the time they devise a set of elliptical orbits to put us into weapons' range, H'Roo arrives. She said aloud, "Each orbit we make buys us about forty minutes. All we need is one orbit." She held up one finger.
Andrea and Tara set a course to put themselves in a close orbit only ninety-seven miles above Qota's surface. If the Cor ships tried to close the gap at their present rate, they'd find themselves in an orbit almost twenty thousand miles farther out -- out of weapons' range. Andrea's small ship disappeared behind the horizon, where, out of sight, she fired thrusters to set her ship in a seven-degree west-walking orbit.
Tara asked, "What's that for?"
"Just in case they parked in a higher orbit to take pot shots at us, I don't want to come over the horizon where they expect us." Andrea put the planetoid's surface on full screen magnification. The thin methane veil reflected the little bit of light that traversed so far from the Jod sun. The shimmering veil hid the surface. Sensors painted a picture of a smooth surface. They could land, but Andrea had hoped for some terrain feature to hide behind. Nothing. The chronometer sloughed the seconds slowly. The relief of being out of the Cor ships' line of sight was palpable. But the relief was corrupted by fresh fear of not seeing her adversary. Andrea strained her eyes at the screen. She noticed how dry her mouth had become in the last twenty minutes of the chase. She felt overwarm. She unbuttoned her tunic and threw it aside on the floor.
"H'Roo should be here by now." Again, Tara wiped her hands on her smock. "What if he doesn't come?"
Andrea snapped back, "He'll come: he's my friend."
Tara grit her teeth, "I didn't mean it like that. Maybe he jumped before he got our second transmission. He'd be sitting at the point of our first transmission. We're out of his sensor range by now."
Andrea balled her hand into a fist. "Start broadcasting our position."
"We're on the wrong side of the planet to send a transmission or receive an answer from H'Roo."
Damn physics! Andrea shook her head in frustration. She turned to Tara and said, "Then we must give up our position." Andrea bit her lower lip then, muttering, "We may need to make a second orbit just to get a good transmission out."
Andrea looked at the forward screens and the over-the-horizon sensors for any sign of a Cor ship. If the Cor were smart, and there was nothing to suggest otherwise, they'd park one ship in a high orbit and send the second to flush them out into the open. From a high orbit the one ship could see a third of the planet. The other, if it followed with a lower orbit, might be constrained to viewing a tenth of the planetoid or less. "Change course. Shift our orbit toward the pole. We've got to go under the planet and come up behind them. While we cross the pole, we can get a good transmission out and we can stay out of sight for maybe another twelve minutes."
"When we transmit, they'll know where we are."
"Yeah, but I don't think they're willing to make the same kind of U-turn we're about to make."
Tara entered the navigational data into the computer. She interpreted the results. "I'm not sure we can make that kind of turn either. We'll lose relative speed to the point where we put ourselves in a rapidly decaying orbit."
"How decayed?" Andrea asked.
"A free fall. We drop from an altitude of ninety-seven miles to less than thirty miles in just forty seconds. At the nadir of our turn we lose altitude at five miles per second."
"The engines can pull us out of the fall," Andrea said with false confidence.
"Barely." Tara looked back, fear showing in her hazel eyes.
"Are you sure?"
"You can check my math, if you wish." Tara answered with equal exasperation. Tara took a deep breath to steady herself and continued, "We'll hit that methane atmosphere and really heat up the skin of this ship. Not much room for error. If the engines so much as hiccup, we're cooked. You don't know what this ship can handle. We might spin out of control."
Andrea decided, "We've got to take the risk. We'll come 'round the far horizon in less than four minutes. I'd rather take our chances with the atmosphere than with those Cor battle cruisers. All we need is another couple minutes. H'Roo can make a short jump beyond kinetic speed, slip in here, and cover us."
Tara glanced sideways. "I suppose I should be dead already." With the stoic resignation typical of her model of clone, she typed in the instructions. "I armed the manual override in case you change your mind."
Andrea pursed her lips at this seeming lack of confidence, but the truth was she had no more confidence than Tara did. "Do it."
The ship banked hard as the engines delivered power to turn it almost ninety degrees. The artificial gravity stuttered as it compensated for the sudden rise in centripetal force. The forward screen showed the horizons expanding as they plummeted toward Qota's surface, and the black of space turned into a dimmed, diffused turbid green. The bridge lights dimmed as the ship automatically sounded an alert.
The hull temperature rose rapidly. The ship's computers, having never anticipated that a sentient being would purposefully put the ship into a crash dive, surmised that the ship was out of control. The computer barked a warning: Helm control! Helm control!
"Kill that noise!" Andrea chided.
Tara complied, overriding the computer's alert. The aft screen showed ionized gases trailing behind. The altimeter showed them dropping like a meteor, accelerating in Qota's gravitational pull. "We're less than fifty miles up." Tara's voice betrayed her anxiety.
The engines strained to accelerate the ship back to escape velocity in their new bearing toward the pole. Tara's voice rose a halftone higher, "Thirty miles."
"Oh, shut up!" Andrea snapped back. She slapped the console, exhorting the ship, "Come on, you pig! Come on!"
Tara's face flushed. She turned back to her console. She muttered under her breath, "Twenty-six miles..." as if she looked forward to auguring the ship into the frozen planet and in the last split second saying, I told you so.
The engines fought back. The ship shuddered as the thin methane buffeted the hull. The ship's retractable wings automatically extended, slightly increasing the surface area, slowing and stabilizing their descent. Then the altimeter reversed itself and showed a steady climb as the ship accelerated on a new heading. The forward screen faded to the crystal black covered with stars.
Andrea exhaled. "Hold this heading."
Both women dismissed the past thirty seconds of tension without comment and focused on their immediate tasks. They passed under the pole where they transmitted their message to H'Roo.
"We should get a reply in a moment," Tara said.
Andrea nodded. "He's bound to hear us now. Put audio on."
Tara complied and immediately they heard a loud, crackling oscillating screech against a background of groaning bagpipes. Tara quickly turned the volume low and looked up at Andrea. "What does that noise mean?"
"It means we're being jammed. It means the Cor did park a ship on the other side. It means they know where we are."
"Can they keep our signal from getting to your friend?"
"They can jam our receiver, but not our transmitter. I doubt they have the power to jam H'Roo. If they did, he'd come to the source -- if he's out there." Andrea stared at the screen. "He's got to be out there."
"That's a comfort," Tara said sarcastically.
Andrea started to chide her until she recognized her own tendency to sarcasm now adapted by this clone. Instead she merely said, "Stay alert. As soon as sensors see anything coming over the horizon..."
"Well, sensors indicate that you've got one ship coming from sixty-seven degrees port, just over the horizon. Altitude: twelve thousand miles. Descending to intercept us."
"Estimated time to weapons' range?"
"As soon as she has line of sight -- one minute fourteen seconds."
"Accelerate to maximum speed. Get us out of here."
Tara obeyed with relish. The ship rose in a sweeping arc in a run for deep space. As they rose, they caught sight of the pursuing Cor ship. Then their plan turned to ashes as the second ship appeared on the forward screen. They were caught in the open.
Andrea looked at her companion, whose face had turned pale. "Got any ideas?"
Tara looked up from her console. Her face glistened. "The forward ship has got a weapons' lock on us. We're in torpedo range. Shall I open fire with our lasers?"
"It's pointless. We can't breach their shields at this range." Andrea shook her head. "I'm sorry, Tara. You did well. Bad odds. God keep you."
Then she turned her back to the screen. She knew death would be instantaneous: she need not watch further. Death was not something she was curious about; simply accepted. Of all the deaths she'd endured, hers would be the easiest. A torpedo would pulverize the ship in one cataclysmic concussion. The overpressure would crush her completely, then toss her pieces into the vacuum of space. In that moment, she'd be with Steve and Glennie again...
"Andrea!" Tara yelled.
Andrea braced herself for the impact.
"Look!" Tara reached over and grabbed Andrea's shoulder.
Andrea turned and saw a large bulbous Jod battle cruiser with its beak-shaped bow appear on the screen. Easily one hundred times the displaced volume of the Cor ship, the Jod battle cruiser looked like the head of a serpent protecting her brood. The Cor ship began an abrupt turn to face the greater threat, but with no chance of success.
The Jod battle cruiser fired a broadside of three crimson lasers. The Cor ship returned fire, more a defiant gesture as the Jod shields rebuffed both lasers and torpedoes. Then the Cor shields failed under the massive beating; the lasers sliced amidships, breaching the hull, sending a shower of sparks at the point of laser impact. The Cor ship's hull blew apart with a burst of yellow light and chunks of metal flew in every direction, followed instantly by a blinding scorch of blue -- a ring of light -- as the Cor ship's engines exploded.
All systems on Andrea's ship dimmed to black as the electromagnetic shock passed through them.
"Oh, no. What's happening? Our shields are failing!" Tara said with a slight tremor in her voice as she watched her consoles die, leaving them in total blackness. "The artificial gravity is off!"
Andrea spoke in Tara's direction. "Don't move. Hold on to something. The ship's electronics must have shut down automatically for the shock wave -- mechanical self-preservation. Look, the shields are coming back on-line." She felt herself weighted again. The forward screen flickered back to life with a splotchy resolution from the after-effects of the explosion, just in time for them to see chunks of debris flying at them. In the distance, Andrea could see the second Cor ship turn and disappear into FTL speed.
A small window opened on the lower left portion of the black screen, and Andrea saw a grainy, blinking image of H'Roo's face. His face showed a mix of hope and deep concern, his eyes searching his console. Through crackle and hiss, H'Roo's voice asked, " 'at i- -our stat-s?"
Andrea laughed in an outburst of nervous energy. She moved in front of the communications screen so H'Roo could see her. "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about me, H'Roo."
"I ca- -arely ma- -ur transmiss---." H'Roo asked again, uncharacteristically stiff, "Wha- is your status?"
Andrea answered, "Our systems went off-line from the blast's pulse. Our shields and some of our outer electronics are cooked." The screen resolution continued to improve as processors recovered.
H'Roo allowed a tight smile, but his voice was cold. "I see you now. Mat Flores. Welcome home. Can you navigate?"
Andrea noted the small crew working behind H'Roo on the bridge of the Jod ship. They wore the tan uniforms of the Jod regular fleet, while H'Roo wore the gray and black uniform of the Tenebrea.
H'Roo's face was outwardly aloof, but his hazel eyes sparked. Andrea noticed that the amber and indigo rings beneath his eyes seemed to smile, clashing with H'Roo's refined nose and straight lips. She noticed an older Jod with captain's rank giving orders to younger officers. She discerned that H'Roo's formal demeanor was to frustrate prying eyes and ears. Perhaps wishful thinking on her part. Therefore, she answered with similar professional coolness. "I think so. Our computers are back on-line. We need fuel."
"We'll refuel you from our stores. Then, follow us to Vintell. Travel under dead sensor emission control. We'll keep this local channel open at five watts to feed your computers navigational data." He abruptly changed the subject. He spoke softly, "Mat Flores, we'd almost given up on you. Thought you were..." H'Roo grappled with one word then substituted another, "unsuccessful."
"Just delayed." Andrea added coyly, "Maybe too successful."
H'Roo quickly cut her off. "Tell me later." He glanced sideways to his crowded bridge.
Andrea beckoned Tara to step in front of the screen. "H'Roo, we have a lot to talk about. Where is Hal K'Rin?"
"The admiral plans to meet us at the Vintell safehouse. I informed him immediately when you entered Jod space, and the Tyker is en route."
"Good. I have some information he wants. Also -- " Andrea's face clouded with dark emotion, but she prudently checked herself. She forced a smile on her lips. "I have a couple questions of my own."
Copyright © 2001 by Bill Fawcett & Associates, Inc.