This story is set in the same universe as First Strike, roughly 5 years later. Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comfficeffice" /> “I am bored,” Nancy Brigham said. The sixteen-year-old girl’s stepmother looked up at herin some irritation. Nancy’s father hadmarried again after his first wife had died, marrying a girl who was barelyfive years older than Nancy herself. Thestepmother had no illusions about her stepdaughter’s feelings; the first timethey’d met, Nancy had accused her of being out to steal her father’smoney. There was nothing she could sayor do that could mend the rift between the two women. Nancy missed her mother too deeply to acceptany replacement. “Then go and explore the ship,” Mary Brigham said,finally. The cruise had lasted two weeksso far, giving Nancy enough time to explore every nook and cranny of the White Star that was open to the public. By batting her eyelashes at a couple ofcrewmen, she'd even managed to get shown around the engineering department andthe bridge. “Or go and find someone yourown age to talk to.” Nancy rolled her eyes. The other teenagers on the ship were either too young, too spoiled ortoo hormonal to be interesting. It wouldhave been better if she'd been permitted to bring one of her few friends fromhome along on the trip, but while her father had been willing to pay herfriends parents had all refused. Thelast thing they wanted was for their children to travel hundreds of light yearsfrom Earth. “There’s no one to talk to, Mary,” she said, affectingthe tone she knew drove her stepmother to distraction. “And I have run out of things to do.” Mary scowled at her. “There is an entire library of entertainment movies you could watch,”she said. These days, at least partlythanks to Nancy’s father, a single person could store all of Earth’s vastcollection of movies on a single datachip. Johann Brigham had pioneered the adaption of Galactic technology intosomething that could cross-link with merely human technology to reshape theworld. It had made him famous andwealthy – and doomed his daughter to social isolation. “Or you could swim in the zero-gee pool, oryou could even request permission to spacewalk...” “Not in quantum space, Mary,” Nancy reminded her,snidely. Floating in empty space wasremarkable, but quantum space – the alternate dimension that was used for FTLtravel – was too dangerous to risk allowing anyone outside the hull unless itwas an emergency. “And the movies onthis ship are boring.” “How would you know,” Mary asked reasonably, “if youhaven’t seen them all?” Her stepmother straightened up. “Your father is currently in a conferencewith several other important people,” she added. “You are expected to join us for dinner at1700 – until then, I suggest that you explore the ship and maybe try and make anew friend. You’re not the only teenagegirl on this ship.” Nancy opened her mouth to retaliate and then decided itwasn't worth the effort. Her stepmother wanted to be famous, if only byassociation. She wanted to go to partieswhere everyone knew her name, pointing to her as if she were a rock star or oneof the military officers who had fought and won the war against theHegemony. Nancy would have preferred alife where her path wasn't already shaped by her father, where his reputationwouldn't constantly follow her through the world and haunt her life. She wanted to be something more than the daughter of JohannBrigham, even if she had to buy an old freighter and set out across the starsas an independent trader. Perhaps shecould convince her father to buy her a starship when she finally turnedtwenty-one. The thought distracted her as she walked through the vastship to the observation deck. It wasmostly empty in quantum space, with a pair of crewmen standing guard at thehatches, checking that all visitors knew that they were going to be looking outonto quantum space. Back in the oldendays, travellers had had to worry about becoming seasick; now, travellers hadto worry about being unable to tolerate looking out at quantum space. Nancy had never had any trouble in the past,unlike Mary. Her stepmother had taken onelook shortly after the White Star hadleft Earth and had had to retire to her cabin, feeling unwell. Nancy smiled at the memory as she stepped onto theobservation deck. A vast transparentsheet of metal greeted her, allowing her to look out onto the flowing sheets ofenergy that marked quantum space. Flashes of lightning, each one powerful enough to rip an entire fleet ofstarships apart, flared out in the distance, shimmering into existence and thenfading back into the energy storms that marked so much of quantum space. Navigation, according to one of the youngofficers she had courted, was tricky in quantum space. Only the system of beacons established by theGalactics ensured that interstellar trade worked on a reasonable basis. She stepped right up to the portal and peered out,looking along the white lines of the luxury starship. Her father had invested heavily in theproject, pointing out that humanity would need more than military force to makeits place in the galaxy; the White Star andher planned sisters would be able to showcase human achievements to the rest ofthe Association. The Galactics werecurrently very impressed with humanity and her father planned to capitalise onit. There was no way of knowing how longit would be before the Galactics decided that humanity was still nothing more than a minor race in an insignificant part ofthe galaxy. Nancy smiled and sat back in a chair, watching as one ofthe energy storms seemed to be coming closer to the starship. Quantum space was almost hypnotic – andbesides, it beat looking at Mary’s face. She just knew that herstepmother had had plastic surgery to help her win a man with the fame andfortune she craved. And then she felt a dull tremor running through theentire ship. *** “All right,” Captain Terrence Smith said, “what do wehave?” “Localised tremors in quantum space,” the navigationofficer said. Navigating in quantumspace was as much of an art as it was a science, particularly along the UnseenReach. But it was the safest route fromEarth to Abel. “I think we may need toalter course.” Terrence nodded. His early career had been spent in the Federation Navy; he’d commanded acruiser at the Battle of Terra Nova and then been promoted to Commodore toreplace the former commander of the cruiser squadron, who’d died when his shiphad rammed a Hegemony superdreadnaught at a later battle. The promotion hadn't been satisfying and whenhe’d heard that the White Star neededa Captain, he’d been quick to apply for the position. He hadn't understood why there had been sofew candidates until he’d skimmed through the list of passengers. There were one thousand people on his shipand most of them were rich, famous and verywell-connected. A single mistakecould be career-wreaking. But he wasn't going to take chances, even if it did mean that they would be latearriving at Abel. “Alter course to evadethe storm,” he ordered, flatly. “Andnotify the staff that they might have to explain a course change to ourpassengers.” He settled down in his command chair as the White Star began to alter course. The Cats – the enigmatic masters of theAssociation, the first among the Galactics – had surveyed this area of spacebefore humans had learned to make fire, only to class it as a sector prone torandom fluctuations in quantum space. Reading between the lines, Terrence suspected that the Cats didn't knowwhy the Unseen Reaches were so unstable, but they weren't about to admit it toraces hopelessly junior to themselves. The Unseen Reaches had swallowed a handful of starships in their time,enough to worry him even without the escorting destroyer from the FederationNavy. If it hadn't been for the factthat the direct route between Earth and Abel was a war zone, he would haverefused to take the White Star anywherenear the Unseen Reaches and sought a better path through quantum space. The display kept updating, tracking a handful ofdistortions in the rolling edges of quantum space. Civilians never really understood just howvolatile or dangerous quantum space could be, but Terrence felt it deep withinhis bones. Most flashes of energyblurred into the background fairly quickly, yet these seemed to be growingstronger, as if a new energy storm was on the verge of blowing up out of nowhere. If that happened, his only choice would be acrash transition back into normal space and a long period of waiting for thestorm to blow over before they returned to quantum space. The passengers wouldn't be happy, but atleast they’d be alive to complain. Therewere no reports, in all of the Association’s long history, of a starshipsurviving a brush with an energy storm. “Captain,” the navigator said, suddenly, “the energydistortions are following us!” Terrence leaned forward in disbelief. The navigator had to be wrong, except hewasn't. It looked very much as if thestorm was taking on shape and form, coming right after the White Star as if it intended to swallow the entire ship. Starships had vanished in this area before,he remembered, and cursed the planners who had insisted that taking the shipthrough the Unseen Reaches would be safe. He should have refused their orders and to hell with his career. They wouldn'tbe the ones on the stand when the Federation carried out an inquiry into whathad happened to his ship. “Helm, alter course to evade,” he ordered. He’d never seen anything like it – and no oneelse, as far as he knew, had ever seen a storm chasing down its prey. But then, perhaps the people who had seen it hadn't lived long enough tomake it back home. “Alert the Randolph and...request that they shadowus to the rear.” “Aye, sir,” the helmsman said. Terrence didn’t relax. If the storm was being attracted to thestarship, perhaps the Federation Navy destroyer would draw it off. But he’d never seen anything like itbefore. Maybe there was a very goodreason why the Unseen Reaches had such a bad reputation. “New course laid in...” “The storm just altered course to match ours,” thenavigator said, a moment later. “I thinksomething we’re doing is acting like a lightning rod.” Terrence shook his head. The energy storm had blossomed to life, casually tossing around enoughenergy to vaporise the entire Federation Navy. It was smaller than the average energy storm, with enough odditiesmarked out by the sensors scanning the storm’s composition to fuel genuinelyoriginal science, but that wouldn't stop it being dangerous. His intercom buzzed. “Captain, I have Colonel Haverford on the line,” his steward said. “He wants to know if there’s any danger tohis principle...” “Tell him that I am busy,” Terrence snapped. Right now, the last thing he needed was veryimportant passengers and their bodyguards demanding updates – particularlysince he didn't know what he couldtell them. Quantum storms were norespecters of rich and powerful people, even if they did have enough money tobribe even a Galactic Oligarch. “Anddon’t let anyone else disturb me again.” He broke the connection savagely and looked over at thenavigational display. The energy stormwas growing stronger, closing in on his ship. It seemed to be completely ignoring the tiny destroyer, even though theship was far closer to the storm than the luxury liner. A cold chill ran down the back of hisneck. It was impossible, every Galacticscience textbook said it was impossible, but could the storm be under intelligent control? If humanity could create an energy storm thatmade it impossible for starships to enter quantum space, could someone elsehave actually taken the principle far enough to actually direct a storm? The thoughtwas chilling. Anyone who succeeded inharnessing the colossal power of quantum space was going to have a decisiveadvantage over everyone else. “Prepare for crash-transition,” he ordered. They’d have to jump back into normal spaceand wait the storm out. “Bring thequantum drive online and stand by to open a gate.” “Drive online, sir,” the helmsman said. There was a pause. “Engineering reports that they are receivingodd feedback from the quantum drive.” Terrence swallowed a curse. “What sort of feedback?” “They don’t know,” the helmsman admitted. “But whatever it is, it’s threatening theintegrity of any projected gate.” Terrence glanced over at the main display. The storm was closing in rapidly, its merepresence causing quantum space to boil with energy. They couldn't stay where they were, or theywould be destroyed when the storm finally caught up with them. And yet a failed transition into normal spacewould destroy them just as surely. Butthere was no other choice. “Open the gate on my command,” he ordered. The helmsman nodded, bringing the drives upto full power, ready to punch a gate back into normal space. “Now...” Two alarms went off at once. “Collision alarm,” the navigator barked. “Something’s right on top of us...” “Feedback,” the helmsman snapped. “The gate is threatening to collapse!” “Keep pushing the gate open,” Terrence snapped. Right now, they were caught between the deviland the deep blue sea. But if worst cameto worst, they could survive in normal space until rescue arrived. The Randolphcould summon help for them if necessary. “Get us out of here and...” The main display switched to the view from the forwardsensors. Something was blocking their gate, wrapped in energies thatsuggested that it was just transiting into quantum space itself. It didn't look like any starship theAssociation had ever built, or something right out of the imagination ofhumanity’s countless science-fiction writers; it was so big, so alien, that even staring at it gave hima headache. “Collision imminent,” the helmsman barked. “They’re right on top of us!” “Reverse course,” Terrence ordered. Panic gibbered at the back of his mind, buthe fought it back desperately. Hisentire starship was shaking madly, as if God had reached down from Heaven anddecided to pick up and study his ship. And there was still the storm, right behind them. “Get us...” “It’s too late,” the helmsman said. “The gravity fields are slamming us togetherand...” The alien starship loomed up on the display, and then...something surrounded the bridgecrew. Half-seen shapes, monsters of themind...Terrence looked at them and felt madness looking back at him. And then the world just seemed to fade awayinto darkness. *** Nancy felt the WhiteStar shaking as the energy storm grew closer and then saw the flickers oflight as the starship attempted to evade the storm by transiting back intonormal space. But instead something so big, so utterly beyond humancomprehension, seemed to surround the ship. Nancy caught sight of things shecouldn't understand seeming to shimmer in and out of existence around her. Her mind rebelled against the sights andthreatened to shut down, leaving her forced to screw her eyes closed to keepherself sane. She stumbled backwardsuntil she crashed into something reassuringly solid, the viewport staring outover the ship’s hull. Somehow, sheturned and managed to open her eyes. Quantum space was gone. Instead, she was looking out into normal space...and then everythingchanged. She was looking back at quantumspace, and then at something else, something so different that she couldn'tunderstand what she was seeing. Lightsseemed to flash out in the distance, illuminating dark shapes that she couldn'tquite see properly. There was a noise,rather like a dull roaring, at the back of her mind; she scratched her ears,only to discover that the noise seemed to be coming from inside her head. She turned, half-expecting to see thestarship’s broken hull, and instead saw the observation deck. But there was something unstable about it, asif it was almost translucent. There werethings out there. Staggering forward, her legs utterly unstable, Nancy madeit to the emergency console. They’d allbeen taught how to use them, back when they’d been leaving Earth orbit. But the console seemed to be broken. The first time she touched it, she heard whatsounded like a blast of static...and someone laughing, insanely. And then it simply refused to work atall. The deck seemed to shake under her and she found herselflying on it, half-convinced that her fingers were actually passing through the solid metal. Nothing seemed quite right to her senses, noteven the faint sounds running through the hull. She’d grown used to the ever-present throbbing of the ship’s drives, butthis was different. The ship seemed tobe infested with sounds she couldn't recognise, or understand. Something seemed to be crawling on the underside of the deck, or perhaps she was justimagining it. It was impossible to tellthrough the sounds in her head. She managed, somehow, to pull herself to her feet andstagger over towards the hatch. But whenshe touched it, it refused to open. Shewas trapped in the compartment, unsure of what was going on or what hadhappened to her father – or Mary. Nancystaggered back and tried to think of what to do, but her head hurt too much tothink properly. Surely they had beentold that there were emergency ways to leave a compartment... The ship seemed to shake again...and she collapsed into aheap. Blackness fell upon her mind andshe closed her eyes, falling into a comatose state. After everything she’d seen, it was almost arelief.