Original Work The Unseen

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jun 11, 2012.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    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-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “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.
     
    kaijafon, ssonb, kom78 and 6 others like this.
  2. Grizz-

    Grizz- Monkey+

    [pop] This can go anywhere [applaud]
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “Do you know, exactly, what we’re doing here?”



    Zachary Lynn resisted the temptation to roll hiseyes. Professor Nanette Quinn was one ofEarth’s foremost experts on quantum space – and very easy on the eye, he had toadmit privately – but she’d been complaining about how the Federation Navy hadpulled her out of her university since he’d met her, when they’d both boardedthe shuttle to an unknown destination. Zach had worked with the military long enough to know that some secretswere secrets for a very good reason, but no one had told him why they’d suddenly been called up by the Navy either. They seemed to have no need-to-know.



    He glanced around the briefing compartment and shrugged. Pelicanwas a converted fleet tender, he’d been told, named in honour of another shipwhich had served well during the Earth-Hegemony War. She was a modern ship, built on Earth ratherthan purchased from the Galactics, and as such was more advanced than any otherstarship he’d seen. They’d been escortedto the briefing compartment as soon as they’d boarded and been asked to staythere until someone came for them. Itfelt as if the military had scooped them up without being quite sure what theywanted to do with them.



    “Something interesting, I hope,” he said, finally. Nan was a respected professor, someone whohad developed new techniques for exploring and exploiting quantum space. They wouldn't have pulled her away from Earthunless they had a vitally important reason, not when they didn’t dare riskallowing her to fall into enemy hands. “Andmaybe you will find it interesting too.”



    Nan scowled at him, running one hand through her darkhair. “I have work to do back home,” shesaid, crossly. “And what do the Galacticshave to show me that I haven’t already seen?”



    That had been puzzling Zach as well, although he wasn't aboutto admit it. Galactic technology hadstagnated for thousands of years, ever since the Cats had built the Associationand concentrated on inviting as many races as possible to join their interstellarcommunity. The only world known to havedeveloped new technology was Earth – although Zach suspected that many of the Galacticshad their own versions of the NGW program. With the Cats withdrawing from the mundane universe and the Association slowlyfalling apart, the other Galactics had to be preparing for war. Perhaps the military had discovered – or captured– an advanced Galactic starship and wanted Nan to analyse it. It would certainly account for the secrecy.



    The hatch opened, revealing a tall young man with a baldhead, wearing a Marine uniform. Henodded politely to Zach, allowed his gaze to linger on Nan for a few additionalseconds, and then took one of the other seats. Zach was no military expert – his expertise was limited to spendingseveral weeks on military bases when Earth played host to Galactic trademissions – but he was sure that Marines normally wore rank badges. This Marine wore nothing to signify his rank.



    “Hey,” Nan called, to the Marine. “Do youknow why we’re here?”



    The Marine shook his head. “My unit was called up only two hours ago,”he said. His voice was flat, affable,but Zach detected a note of irritation in his tone. “All I know is that it is a priority-onesituation and that we will be briefed once Pelicanenters quantum space.”



    “So we’re going away from Earth,” Nan said. “How am I supposed to explain that to myfacility bosses?”



    “I dare say that the military will take care of that,”Zach said, quietly. Like him, Nan wouldhave signed papers allowing the Federation Navy to call on her if necessary, inexchange for unfettered access to the data collected by the Federation’stechnical research programs. Unlike him,Nan had clearly never been called up before. “Your superiors won’t have any choice, but to accept you back.”



    “We’ve done it before,” the Marine said. He held out a hand and Zach shook itfirmly. “Captain Buzz Osborn, 2<sup>nd</sup>Pathfinder Marine Detachment, at your service.”



    “Zach,” Zach said. He'd heard rumours about the Pathfinders, but the Federation Navy hadsaid very little about them officially. Rumourhad it that they were black ops personnel, genetically-modified to pass formembers of non-human races. “Pleased tomeet you.”



    He leaned back in his chair as the hatch opened onceagain, revealing an older man wearing an Admiral’s uniform. A badge Zach vaguely recognised marked himout as attached to the 9<sup>th</sup> Cruiser Squadron, which probably made himthe squadron CO. Behind him, a youngerman wearing a Captain’s uniform followed him into the briefing compartment,taking one of the seats as the Admiral stepped up to the podium.



    “If I could have your attention, please,” the Admiralsaid, “we can begin. I am Admiral LouisVaclav, CO 9<sup>th</sup> Cruiser Squadron. For those of you who don’t know me, I served under Admiral Sun at theBattle of Earth and then spent two years in ONI before being appointed assquadron CO. I apologise forthe...abrupt manner of your summons to this ship, but there was littlechoice. We have a situation here.”



    He smiled at his weak joke. Zach studied the Admiral with someinterest. Very few people had survivedfrom the Earth Defence Fleet when it had fought to defeat the Hegemony’s finaldesperate attack on Earth. If AdmiralSampson hadn't made it back to the Sol System in time to destroy the Hegemony’sremaining ships, the war might have been lost to the Hegemony and humans wouldhave become their slaves – assuming that any survived the war. The Hegemony fleet had bombarded Earth andkilled millions in the final hours of the fighting.



    “Two weeks ago, the cruise liner White Star left Earth on a voyage that would have seen her callingin at several different alien worlds before returning to Earth,” the Admiralcontinued. “You probably couldn't escapethe coverage of the ship’s departure, unless you spend most of your time hidingaway from the world. White Star was the first majornon-military starship built by the human race.”



    Nan looked blank, but Zach nodded. There had been global coverage of the White Star, endless rumours about hercapabilities, and tedious media bios of everyone who had boarded the ship forher first voyage. It had even playedhost, if he recalled correctly, to a handful of alien ambassadors on their wayback to their homeworlds.



    “On her voyage, WhiteStar was scheduled to pass through the Unseen Reaches,” the Admiralsaid. Nan sat up straight beside him insurprise. “Escorted by a singledestroyer, she should have been safe, but instead...something happened to her.”



    “The Unseen Reaches have been marked as dangerous forover two thousand years,” Nan said, primly. “Was there a reason why the ship’s commander chose to ignore the warnings?”



    White Star couldnot have been allowed to fly through what remains of Hegemony space,” theAdmiral said, quietly. “The prospect ofone or more of their factions attempting to seize or destroy the White Star out of a desire for revengecould not be ignored. Flying through theUnseen Reaches was the only safe path to her destination within a reasonabletime period.”



    He cleared his throat. “What happened next, two days ago, is unprecedented,” he continued. “The Randolph,the escorting destroyer, reported that they encountered an energy storm thatappeared to be chasing the White Star specifically,forcing the Captain to order an emergency transit back into normal space...”



    “Energy storms do not chasestarships,” Nan interrupted. “Theysometimes expand rapidly, threatening to overwhelm any ships in their path, butthey do not chase starships.”



    “You can see the records the Randolph forwarded to us, once the briefing is over,” the Admiralsaid, his voice betraying a hint of irritation. He tapped a switch on the podium and an image of the starship appearedin front of them. “What happened next...”



    Zach leaned forward as the White Star struggled to open a quantum gate to escape the energystorm. The vortex spun into existence,threatening to break up as quantum space rolled and seethed with enough energyto vaporise every starship in the galaxy, and then...something appeared in front of the White Star. As he watched,the two shapes seemed to merge together and then...the images just cut out.



    Nan found her voice first. “What was that?”



    “We don't know,” the Admiral admitted. “Our best guess is that the White Star’s quantum gate interactedwith another quantum gate, one opened by another starship at roughly the samecoordinates. The two ships should havecollided, but instead...”



    He tapped another switch and the image changed. The WhiteStar was still there, floating in normal space, but a translucent ghostlyimage of...something else shimmeredaround the ship’s hull. Moments later,the White Star seemed to shimmer outof existence, only to reappear in a different position, as if the ship wasspinning while slipping out of normal space. But it didn't seem to be spinning...



    “We have been unable to identify the starship that seemsto be...co-existing with the White Star,”the Admiral said, quietly. “The Randolph’s sensors were badly damaged bythe energy surge that marked the interpenetration event. We are fairly sure, however, that it is not a known design. Whoever made that ship is a new player on thefield.”



    “My God,” Zach said, softly. “That’swhy you wanted me along.”



    Earth had had precisely one First Contact in its history,when Mentor – a rogue Cat – had made contact with the human race and giftedthem with the technology humanity would need to survive and carve its own placein the galaxy. All other known races hadbeen contacted by the Association and shared its communications protocols, evenif they shared very little else with the interstellar community. Even races so alien as not to need Earth-likeworlds had been contacted by the Association.



    But there were other worlds – and other races – out beyondthe edge of the Association and Earth had been very active in sending missionsout there. Zach had been trained inFirst Contact protocols, but his training had been purely theoretical – until now. If the WhiteStar had run into someone completely new, there would be a chance for Earthto make peaceful contact with them before anyone else. A new alien ally for humanity was worth anyrisk, he knew; Earth had few allies in the Association. Those who didn't regard humanity as a pack ofjumped-up upstarts feared human ambitions.



    Nan cleared her throat. “Admiral,” she said, bluntly, “the odds against colliding with anotherstarship upon leaving quantum space are immense.”



    “We know,” the Admiral said, “and yet it happened. The Unseen Reaches have sometimes beencompared to the Bermuda Triangle, for the number of starships that have disappearedwithin the energy storms there. Butthis...this is unprecedented.”



    “But two starships cannot coexist in the same place,” Nansaid, thoughtfully. “Unless...onestarship is existing in quantum space and the other in normal space...but thenwhy would they be stuck together? Couldit be that they have partly fused intoone mass?”



    “We don’t know,” the Admiral said, patiently. He tapped the podium. “This situation has grave implications. First and foremost; what happened to the White Star? Was it just an insanely unlikely coincidencethat she happened to collide with another ship, or was it deliberate enemyaction? We have to discover the truthbefore an unknown enemy comes looking for Earth.”



    Zach felt his blood run cold. Military-grade starships carried explosivecharges to destroy their computer cores if threatened with capture, and allmilitary personnel were forbidden to bring anything that might provide theenemy with useful tactical data, but there was no telling what civilians mighthave taken onboard a luxury cruise. Anyone from the Association would knowwhere Earth was – the Cats had shared all of their data with the rest ofthe Association – yet if there was aNewcomer, an unknown alien race, who knew what data they’d find helpful inlocating Earth?



    “Second, the fate of the passengers and crew of the White Star,” the Admiral continued. “You will have realised, no doubt, that amongthe thousand passengers were a number of very important people indeed. They included the Heir to the British Throne,the Vice President of Russia, an important Chinese businesswoman with strongties to the Central Committee...the list goes on for quite some time. I don’t need to tell you, I think, that thosepeople’s relatives would very much like them back. So far, the Federation Navy has kept thedetails of the White Star’s experienceto itself, but that won’t last forever. Ideally, we need to recover them, alive and well, before the truth sinksin back home.”



    Zach nodded. Hemight not have paid much attention to politics, but even he knew that the Federation was a very frail entity. The fear that had bound it together had beenlargely dispelled by Earth’s short victorious war against the Hegemony, whichmeant that political stresses threatened to start tearing it apart. And then there was the endless barrage ofaccusations from the Third World that the Federation was intended to maintainthe domination of rich nations over poorer nations. They believedthat they were being shafted on colonisation rights – and they were probablycorrect. Why would China, or Russia, or America,give up a world to the Third World when theyhad paid the settlement bills?



    “Finally, we want to make a successful contact with theunknown aliens,” the Admiral concluded. “Atthe very least, we want to make sure that they are not inclined to be hostiletowards the human race; ideally, we want them as friends and allies. Their technology appears to be very unusual,from what little the Randolph wasable to pick up with her scanners. Theycould teach us genuinely new things about the universe.”



    “Assuming that the aliens didn't intend to interpenetrate with the White Star,” Buzz said, thoughtfully. “How do we know that they’re not hostile?”



    “We don’t,” the Admiral admitted, after a pause. Zach realised that his career was riding on asuccessful recovery of the rich and well-connected passengers. The Federation Navy would need a scapegoat ifthe mission failed and the Admiral, the CO, would be the most likely person to receivethe blame if the **** hit the fan. “Butas our professor points out, the odds against a deliberate collision are quitehigh.”



    “But we did bringour ships out of quantum space quite close to their targets during the war,”Buzz pointed out. “Maybe their drivesare better than ours.”



    “I’m surprised that there are no good visuals of thealien ship,” Nan said, before the discussion could go any further. “Why didn't the Randolph attempt to obtain some better visuals?”



    The Admiral hesitated. “She did,” he said, finally. “Onceshe reported back to Earth, she launched a pair of probes – and then attemptedto slip closer to the conjoined ships in hopes of boarding the White Star. We lost contact with her shortly afterwards.”



    Zach felt his blood run cold. “She was destroyed?”



    “We don’t know,” the Admiral said. He hesitated. “Our analysts have been looking at the sensor readings; their best guessis that the unknown starship was jamming the Randolph’s sensors somehow, using technology we didn't recognise. An alternate explanation is that the spatialdistortion surrounding the conjoined ships made it impossible to get good sensor readings of the alien hull.”



    Zach frowned. “Orthe alien ship could be so alien that we literally cannot understand what we’re seeing, while our instruments refuseto even recognise its presence.”



    “Nonsense,” Nan said, briskly. “Alien technology may look alien, but it will have to follow the same laws of science aswe understand them. We will deduce the principlesbehind any piece of technology, particularly technology derived from what theCats produced over the years. The ideaof completely alien technology is little more than nonsense dreamed up by a badscience-fiction writer.”



    “But these aliens were clearly unknown to the Cats,” Buzzsaid, thoughtfully. “Might their technologyhave evolved along different lines?”



    “Perhaps I wasn’t clear,” Nan said, impatiently. “The solutionto technological problems are always the same, at least in generalterms. Building a quantum drive must always follow the same principles,even if the control system is designed for a being with four legs and tenarms. The basic scientific principles donot change.”



    She shrugged. “It’smuch more likely that the distortion caused by the gravity flux surrounding the conjoined ships caused the sensors tospit back unbelievable readings,” she added. “We do know that long-range sensors are utterly unreliable in quantum space. Perhaps this is merely more of the same,just...dressed up differently.”



    The Admiral coughed. “Once we reach the location of the conjoined ships, you will be goingonboard,” he said. Zach found himselfexchanging glances with Buzz, who looked almost excited at the thought. Maybe Pathfinders went in ahead of the mainforce, scouting out enemy positions and reporting back to their superiorofficers. “In the meantime, the 9<sup>th</sup>Cruiser Squadron will hold position ten Au from the conjoined ships, ready toprovide support if required. Pelican alone will remain nearby.”



    “Practical,” Buzz said. “And if the newcomers prove hostile?”



    “We will react as the situation demands,” the Admiralsaid. He glanced around the compartment. “Any further questions?”



    Nan scowled at him. “And how long will it take us to reach the conjoined ships?”



    “One week, running the drives flat out,” the Admiralinformed her. “By then, we should knowif any other Galactics intend to respond to the ship’s distress call.”



    Zach scowled. The Associationhad insisted that all civilisations were to provide support to starships indistress, even when there was a war on. But few races would want to operate in the Unseen Reaches.



    And yet, if they had even a vague idea of what hadhappened to the White Star, theymight take the risk. A completelyunknown alien race with advanced technology would be a prize worth fightingfor.
     
    ssonb, STANGF150, kom78 and 3 others like this.
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “Do you know, exactly, what we’re doing here?”



    Zachary Lynn resisted the temptation to roll hiseyes. Professor Nanette Quinn was one ofEarth’s foremost experts on quantum space – and very easy on the eye, he had toadmit privately – but she’d been complaining about how the Federation Navy hadpulled her out of her university since he’d met her, when they’d both boardedthe shuttle to an unknown destination. Zach had worked with the military long enough to know that some secretswere secrets for a very good reason, but no one had told him why they’d suddenly been called up by the Navy either. They seemed to have no need-to-know.



    He glanced around the briefing compartment and shrugged. Pelicanwas a converted fleet tender, he’d been told, named in honour of another shipwhich had served well during the Earth-Hegemony War. She was a modern ship, built on Earth ratherthan purchased from the Galactics, and as such was more advanced than any otherstarship he’d seen. They’d been escortedto the briefing compartment as soon as they’d boarded and been asked to staythere until someone came for them. Itfelt as if the military had scooped them up without being quite sure what theywanted to do with them.



    “Something interesting, I hope,” he said, finally. Nan was a respected professor, someone whohad developed new techniques for exploring and exploiting quantum space. They wouldn't have pulled her away from Earthunless they had a vitally important reason, not when they didn’t dare riskallowing her to fall into enemy hands. “Andmaybe you will find it interesting too.”



    Nan scowled at him, running one hand through her darkhair. “I have work to do back home,” shesaid, crossly. “And what do the Galacticshave to show me that I haven’t already seen?”



    That had been puzzling Zach as well, although he wasn't aboutto admit it. Galactic technology hadstagnated for thousands of years, ever since the Cats had built the Associationand concentrated on inviting as many races as possible to join their interstellarcommunity. The only world known to havedeveloped new technology was Earth – although Zach suspected that many of the Galacticshad their own versions of the NGW program. With the Cats withdrawing from the mundane universe and the Association slowlyfalling apart, the other Galactics had to be preparing for war. Perhaps the military had discovered – or captured– an advanced Galactic starship and wanted Nan to analyse it. It would certainly account for the secrecy.



    The hatch opened, revealing a tall young man with a baldhead, wearing a Marine uniform. Henodded politely to Zach, allowed his gaze to linger on Nan for a few additionalseconds, and then took one of the other seats. Zach was no military expert – his expertise was limited to spendingseveral weeks on military bases when Earth played host to Galactic trademissions – but he was sure that Marines normally wore rank badges. This Marine wore nothing to signify his rank.



    “Hey,” Nan called, to the Marine. “Do youknow why we’re here?”



    The Marine shook his head. “My unit was called up only two hours ago,”he said. His voice was flat, affable,but Zach detected a note of irritation in his tone. “All I know is that it is a priority-onesituation and that we will be briefed once Pelicanenters quantum space.”



    “So we’re going away from Earth,” Nan said. “How am I supposed to explain that to myfacility bosses?”



    “I dare say that the military will take care of that,”Zach said, quietly. Like him, Nan wouldhave signed papers allowing the Federation Navy to call on her if necessary, inexchange for unfettered access to the data collected by the Federation’stechnical research programs. Unlike him,Nan had clearly never been called up before. “Your superiors won’t have any choice, but to accept you back.”



    “We’ve done it before,” the Marine said. He held out a hand and Zach shook itfirmly. “Captain Buzz Osborn, 2<sup>nd</sup>Pathfinder Marine Detachment, at your service.”



    “Zach,” Zach said. He'd heard rumours about the Pathfinders, but the Federation Navy hadsaid very little about them officially. Rumourhad it that they were black ops personnel, genetically-modified to pass formembers of non-human races. “Pleased tomeet you.”



    He leaned back in his chair as the hatch opened onceagain, revealing an older man wearing an Admiral’s uniform. A badge Zach vaguely recognised marked himout as attached to the 9<sup>th</sup> Cruiser Squadron, which probably made himthe squadron CO. Behind him, a youngerman wearing a Captain’s uniform followed him into the briefing compartment,taking one of the seats as the Admiral stepped up to the podium.



    “If I could have your attention, please,” the Admiralsaid, “we can begin. I am Admiral LouisVaclav, CO 9<sup>th</sup> Cruiser Squadron. For those of you who don’t know me, I served under Admiral Sun at theBattle of Earth and then spent two years in ONI before being appointed assquadron CO. I apologise forthe...abrupt manner of your summons to this ship, but there was littlechoice. We have a situation here.”



    He smiled at his weak joke. Zach studied the Admiral with someinterest. Very few people had survivedfrom the Earth Defence Fleet when it had fought to defeat the Hegemony’s finaldesperate attack on Earth. If AdmiralSampson hadn't made it back to the Sol System in time to destroy the Hegemony’sremaining ships, the war might have been lost to the Hegemony and humans wouldhave become their slaves – assuming that any survived the war. The Hegemony fleet had bombarded Earth andkilled millions in the final hours of the fighting.



    “Two weeks ago, the cruise liner White Star left Earth on a voyage that would have seen her callingin at several different alien worlds before returning to Earth,” the Admiralcontinued. “You probably couldn't escapethe coverage of the ship’s departure, unless you spend most of your time hidingaway from the world. White Star was the first majornon-military starship built by the human race.”



    Nan looked blank, but Zach nodded. There had been global coverage of the White Star, endless rumours about hercapabilities, and tedious media bios of everyone who had boarded the ship forher first voyage. It had even playedhost, if he recalled correctly, to a handful of alien ambassadors on their wayback to their homeworlds.



    “On her voyage, WhiteStar was scheduled to pass through the Unseen Reaches,” the Admiralsaid. Nan sat up straight beside him insurprise. “Escorted by a singledestroyer, she should have been safe, but instead...something happened to her.”



    “The Unseen Reaches have been marked as dangerous forover two thousand years,” Nan said, primly. “Was there a reason why the ship’s commander chose to ignore the warnings?”



    White Star couldnot have been allowed to fly through what remains of Hegemony space,” theAdmiral said, quietly. “The prospect ofone or more of their factions attempting to seize or destroy the White Star out of a desire for revengecould not be ignored. Flying through theUnseen Reaches was the only safe path to her destination within a reasonabletime period.”



    He cleared his throat. “What happened next, two days ago, is unprecedented,” he continued. “The Randolph,the escorting destroyer, reported that they encountered an energy storm thatappeared to be chasing the White Star specifically,forcing the Captain to order an emergency transit back into normal space...”



    “Energy storms do not chasestarships,” Nan interrupted. “Theysometimes expand rapidly, threatening to overwhelm any ships in their path, butthey do not chase starships.”



    “You can see the records the Randolph forwarded to us, once the briefing is over,” the Admiralsaid, his voice betraying a hint of irritation. He tapped a switch on the podium and an image of the starship appearedin front of them. “What happened next...”



    Zach leaned forward as the White Star struggled to open a quantum gate to escape the energystorm. The vortex spun into existence,threatening to break up as quantum space rolled and seethed with enough energyto vaporise every starship in the galaxy, and then...something appeared in front of the White Star. As he watched,the two shapes seemed to merge together and then...the images just cut out.



    Nan found her voice first. “What was that?”



    “We don't know,” the Admiral admitted. “Our best guess is that the White Star’s quantum gate interactedwith another quantum gate, one opened by another starship at roughly the samecoordinates. The two ships should havecollided, but instead...”



    He tapped another switch and the image changed. The WhiteStar was still there, floating in normal space, but a translucent ghostlyimage of...something else shimmeredaround the ship’s hull. Moments later,the White Star seemed to shimmer outof existence, only to reappear in a different position, as if the ship wasspinning while slipping out of normal space. But it didn't seem to be spinning...



    “We have been unable to identify the starship that seemsto be...co-existing with the White Star,”the Admiral said, quietly. “The Randolph’s sensors were badly damaged bythe energy surge that marked the interpenetration event. We are fairly sure, however, that it is not a known design. Whoever made that ship is a new player on thefield.”



    “My God,” Zach said, softly. “That’swhy you wanted me along.”



    Earth had had precisely one First Contact in its history,when Mentor – a rogue Cat – had made contact with the human race and giftedthem with the technology humanity would need to survive and carve its own placein the galaxy. All other known races hadbeen contacted by the Association and shared its communications protocols, evenif they shared very little else with the interstellar community. Even races so alien as not to need Earth-likeworlds had been contacted by the Association.



    But there were other worlds – and other races – out beyondthe edge of the Association and Earth had been very active in sending missionsout there. Zach had been trained inFirst Contact protocols, but his training had been purely theoretical – until now. If the WhiteStar had run into someone completely new, there would be a chance for Earthto make peaceful contact with them before anyone else. A new alien ally for humanity was worth anyrisk, he knew; Earth had few allies in the Association. Those who didn't regard humanity as a pack ofjumped-up upstarts feared human ambitions.



    Nan cleared her throat. “Admiral,” she said, bluntly, “the odds against colliding with anotherstarship upon leaving quantum space are immense.”



    “We know,” the Admiral said, “and yet it happened. The Unseen Reaches have sometimes beencompared to the Bermuda Triangle, for the number of starships that have disappearedwithin the energy storms there. Butthis...this is unprecedented.”



    “But two starships cannot coexist in the same place,” Nansaid, thoughtfully. “Unless...onestarship is existing in quantum space and the other in normal space...but thenwhy would they be stuck together? Couldit be that they have partly fused intoone mass?”



    “We don’t know,” the Admiral said, patiently. He tapped the podium. “This situation has grave implications. First and foremost; what happened to the White Star? Was it just an insanely unlikely coincidencethat she happened to collide with another ship, or was it deliberate enemyaction? We have to discover the truthbefore an unknown enemy comes looking for Earth.”



    Zach felt his blood run cold. Military-grade starships carried explosivecharges to destroy their computer cores if threatened with capture, and allmilitary personnel were forbidden to bring anything that might provide theenemy with useful tactical data, but there was no telling what civilians mighthave taken onboard a luxury cruise. Anyone from the Association would knowwhere Earth was – the Cats had shared all of their data with the rest ofthe Association – yet if there was aNewcomer, an unknown alien race, who knew what data they’d find helpful inlocating Earth?



    “Second, the fate of the passengers and crew of the White Star,” the Admiral continued. “You will have realised, no doubt, that amongthe thousand passengers were a number of very important people indeed. They included the Heir to the British Throne,the Vice President of Russia, an important Chinese businesswoman with strongties to the Central Committee...the list goes on for quite some time. I don’t need to tell you, I think, that thosepeople’s relatives would very much like them back. So far, the Federation Navy has kept thedetails of the White Star’s experienceto itself, but that won’t last forever. Ideally, we need to recover them, alive and well, before the truth sinksin back home.”



    Zach nodded. Hemight not have paid much attention to politics, but even he knew that the Federation was a very frail entity. The fear that had bound it together had beenlargely dispelled by Earth’s short victorious war against the Hegemony, whichmeant that political stresses threatened to start tearing it apart. And then there was the endless barrage ofaccusations from the Third World that the Federation was intended to maintainthe domination of rich nations over poorer nations. They believedthat they were being shafted on colonisation rights – and they were probablycorrect. Why would China, or Russia, or America,give up a world to the Third World when theyhad paid the settlement bills?



    “Finally, we want to make a successful contact with theunknown aliens,” the Admiral concluded. “Atthe very least, we want to make sure that they are not inclined to be hostiletowards the human race; ideally, we want them as friends and allies. Their technology appears to be very unusual,from what little the Randolph wasable to pick up with her scanners. Theycould teach us genuinely new things about the universe.”



    “Assuming that the aliens didn't intend to interpenetrate with the White Star,” Buzz said, thoughtfully. “How do we know that they’re not hostile?”



    “We don’t,” the Admiral admitted, after a pause. Zach realised that his career was riding on asuccessful recovery of the rich and well-connected passengers. The Federation Navy would need a scapegoat ifthe mission failed and the Admiral, the CO, would be the most likely person to receivethe blame if the **** hit the fan. “Butas our professor points out, the odds against a deliberate collision are quitehigh.”



    “But we did bringour ships out of quantum space quite close to their targets during the war,”Buzz pointed out. “Maybe their drivesare better than ours.”



    “I’m surprised that there are no good visuals of thealien ship,” Nan said, before the discussion could go any further. “Why didn't the Randolph attempt to obtain some better visuals?”



    The Admiral hesitated. “She did,” he said, finally. “Onceshe reported back to Earth, she launched a pair of probes – and then attemptedto slip closer to the conjoined ships in hopes of boarding the White Star. We lost contact with her shortly afterwards.”



    Zach felt his blood run cold. “She was destroyed?”



    “We don’t know,” the Admiral said. He hesitated. “Our analysts have been looking at the sensor readings; their best guessis that the unknown starship was jamming the Randolph’s sensors somehow, using technology we didn't recognise. An alternate explanation is that the spatialdistortion surrounding the conjoined ships made it impossible to get good sensor readings of the alien hull.”



    Zach frowned. “Orthe alien ship could be so alien that we literally cannot understand what we’re seeing, while our instruments refuseto even recognise its presence.”



    “Nonsense,” Nan said, briskly. “Alien technology may look alien, but it will have to follow the same laws of science aswe understand them. We will deduce the principlesbehind any piece of technology, particularly technology derived from what theCats produced over the years. The ideaof completely alien technology is little more than nonsense dreamed up by a badscience-fiction writer.”



    “But these aliens were clearly unknown to the Cats,” Buzzsaid, thoughtfully. “Might their technologyhave evolved along different lines?”



    “Perhaps I wasn’t clear,” Nan said, impatiently. “The solutionto technological problems are always the same, at least in generalterms. Building a quantum drive must always follow the same principles,even if the control system is designed for a being with four legs and tenarms. The basic scientific principles donot change.”



    She shrugged. “It’smuch more likely that the distortion caused by the gravity flux surrounding the conjoined ships caused the sensors tospit back unbelievable readings,” she added. “We do know that long-range sensors are utterly unreliable in quantum space. Perhaps this is merely more of the same,just...dressed up differently.”



    The Admiral coughed. “Once we reach the location of the conjoined ships, you will be goingonboard,” he said. Zach found himselfexchanging glances with Buzz, who looked almost excited at the thought. Maybe Pathfinders went in ahead of the mainforce, scouting out enemy positions and reporting back to their superiorofficers. “In the meantime, the 9<sup>th</sup>Cruiser Squadron will hold position ten Au from the conjoined ships, ready toprovide support if required. Pelican alone will remain nearby.”



    “Practical,” Buzz said. “And if the newcomers prove hostile?”



    “We will react as the situation demands,” the Admiralsaid. He glanced around the compartment. “Any further questions?”



    Nan scowled at him. “And how long will it take us to reach the conjoined ships?”



    “One week, running the drives flat out,” the Admiralinformed her. “By then, we should knowif any other Galactics intend to respond to the ship’s distress call.”



    Zach scowled. The Associationhad insisted that all civilisations were to provide support to starships indistress, even when there was a war on. But few races would want to operate in the Unseen Reaches.



    And yet, if they had even a vague idea of what hadhappened to the White Star, theymight take the risk. A completelyunknown alien race with advanced technology would be a prize worth fightingfor.
     
    STANGF150 likes this.
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “This is a standard Mark-III survival suit,” Buzz said,two days later. They’d spent the firsttwo days working through every last scrap of sensor data from the Randolph before finally starting toprepare for the mission itself. “It isn'tquite up to Marine standards, but it is tough enough to keep you alive againstmost threats.”



    He smiled at Nan and Zach. Nan was definitely pretty and worthcultivating, even though she had an attitude that wasn't uncommon amongacademics, who generally distrusted and despised the military. It wasn’t an attitude that had won them manyfriends on Earth after the Hegemony had forced Earth to surrender TerraNova...and it was even less popular now that the Federation Navy had proveditself. The Hegemony’s final bombardmentof Earth had scarred the current generation of humanity for life. It would be a long time before revisionisthistorians could make a convincing case – to those who weren't there – that theHegemony had been the innocent victims of human expansion.



    “We’ll spend the next few hours in the simulationchamber, practicing for all the scenarios you are likely to encounter,” hecontinued. “You will be carryingweapons, but they will be locked out unless I or one of my team activates themfor you. My men are trained to maintainfire discipline under the harshest of circumstances; you haven’t had thattraining and we don’t have time to put you through it. Ideally, you should concentrate on your ownsafety and worry about protecting your own ass. Let us do the fighting.”



    Nan scowled at him – it seemed to be her defaultexpression – but Zach nodded, reluctantly. Buzz understood what he was feeling; few men would be happy to be ordered to act like acoward, even if they recognised the sense of it. But there was little room for evading thegist of their orders, not here. Zach andNan – Nan in particular – were not considered expendable. The nine Marines had all volunteered knowingthat they might be sent to their deaths by their superior officers.



    The Federation Marines were composed of the best andbrightest operators from Special Forces around the world. Buzz had been a Navy SEAL for two yearsbefore transferring into the Federation Marines and spending four more years aspart of the force that had taken Terra Nova and boarded a handful of enemystarships during the war. Afterwards, hehad been streamlined into the Pathfinders, where he had served on a dozenworlds it would have surprised the human population to know that human forceshad served at all. The Pathfinders werethe elite, the best of the best. And expendable.



    The more he studied the sensor data, the less he likedthe mission. Most of the sensor datasimply didn't make sense at all. Therewas no clear image of the alien ship’shull, nothing they could use as a baseline to determine its technology orinternal makeup. Anything built by theAssociation followed the same basic lines, but this ship was different. They’d already practiced boarding operations on the White Star in the simulator, yet in the end they’d had to call ahalt. There was no way to know just whathad happened since the White Star hadmet the unknown alien ship. They couldbe boarding anything from a wreak to an intact starship that had interpenetratedwith the alien ship.



    Some of the Marines had wondered why the two ships hadn’texploded. The White Star hadn't been carrying antimatter, but if it had interpenetratedwith an alien ship they should have been destroyed, if only because two objectscouldn’t share the same location atthe same time. Nan hadn't been able tooffer any answers, although she had speculatedthat it was the dimensional flux that was keeping the two ships conjoined, withatoms constantly flashing between normal space and quantum space. Buzz really didn't like the thought of being caught up in such an effect, butthere was nothing for it. Marines wentin, even if it was damn near suicide. The ghosts of the Marines who had died on Terra Nova, liberating a humanpopulation from alien servitude, demanded it.



    He used his implants to transmit a command into the suit’sprocessor and it opened up in front of them, inviting Nan to step inside. “This is never pleasant,” he admitted, as thequantum space professor climbed into the suit. “Brace yourself.”



    There was a yelp, followed by choking sounds, as the suit’shelmet came down over her head. It wasfilled with a jelly-like material that provided protection for the wearer’sskull, but breathing through it was difficult, even for the most experiencedMarines. Buzz had seen men who laughedin the face of danger turn into scared little girls when told that they wouldbe expected to breathe through the jelly...and some never mastered it. Nan’s choking died away as her body struggledfor breath, finally sucking in oxygen from the jelly. Not telling her what was coming had been cruel,part of him gleefully admitted, but it had stopped her panicking over what wascoming – and had forced her to learn rapidly. There were prospective Marines who never mastered the trick.



    “Good,” he said, as the suit reported that Nan was asstable as he dared hope. He looked overat Zach. “Your turn to get into the suit.”



    He kept his face expressionless as the two civiliansstarted to learn how to use their suits properly. Prospective Federation Marines were alreadyintimately familiar with their bodies and how to use them; few civilians werethat fit, even the ones who worked out during lunch hour and thought that theywere strong. Suits required carefultraining to use properly, if only because a single accident could have disastrousconsequences. He'd already warned themthat they were not to touch anyonewho wasn’t wearing a suit, whatever the reason. The suits were strong enough to effortlessly crush a human body beforethe wearer even realised what had gone wrong.



    The simulations went through a dozen differentpossibilities, ranging from rescuing a thousand very scared passengers todealing with alien hijackers. Buzz had beeninvolved in a planned mission to liberate a hijacked ship in his career,although the hijackers had surrendered before the Marines could insert themselvesinto the ship and take them out. It wasstill used as a training simulation for prospective Marines back on Luna, with variantsdepending on how sadistic the drill sergeant was feeling that day. One of them was rigged to ensure that theMarines failed to rescue anyone, no matter how carefully they carried out themission. Buzz had the uncomfortablefeeling that this mission was shaping up to be a no-win scenario too.



    “Nice,” Jimmy said, coming up behind them. He was the platoon’s medic, sniper andexplosives expert – the Pathfinders didn't allow specialist Marines – as wellas the platoon’s practical joker. “Didyou tell the babe that she’s supposed to wear nothing more than underwear, ifthat, in a suit?”



    “I think she probably doesn’t need to know that yet,”Buzz said, patiently. Jimmy was asdedicated as anyone else while a mission was underway, but when off duty hecould become a little wearing. “Besides,they have to master the suits before they can do anything else.”



    “Such as getting onboard a very weird ship,” Jimmyagreed. He winked at Buzz. “Do you want to place any bets on what we’llfind?”



    Buzz eyed him sternly. Gambling was forbidden in the Federation Navy, which meant that itremained firmly underground, tolerated as long as it didn’t get out ofhand. Crewmen needed something to keep them distracted onlong voyages, particularly when they were off-duty. The Marines were the same, even though therewas always something to do. Jimmy knewbetter than to let it go too far.



    “I think I’d prefer not to gamble,” he said, turning backto watch the two civilians blundering through a simulated starship wreak. “And you can remind the others to keep theirbetting to themselves. The Admiral isnot in a good mood.”



    He waved to Sergeant Singh, his second in command. “Keep an eye on those two and make sure theydon’t injure themselves,” he ordered, briskly. “I’m going to suit up and run through a pair of exercises myself.”



    “Yes, sir,” Singh said. Pathfinder teams were informal,despite formal differences in rank, but no one had ever managed to convinceSingh to relax. “Try Simulation #7. It has a whole host of new surprises in it.”



    ***

    Zach stepped out of the suit, feeling sweat pouring downhis back as he stumbled into the shower. He’d worn a spacesuit before, but a modified battlesuit was somethingdifferent; his entire body ached, even though the suit had done most of thework. His muscles ached and he foundhimself staring at the Marines, wondering how they handled it. They wore suits all the time, particularly oncombat missions. He staggered into theshower and allowed the sonic vibrations to pour down on his clothes, washing awaydust as well as his own sweat.



    Nan stumbled in beside him and took the shower next tohim. “That was ghastly,” she announced,to the world at large. “I could have killed that young boy.”



    The young boy had been a simulation, but a terrifyinglyreal one. Zach had never realised justhow far holographic technology had developed under the Cats, or how much Earthhad managed to improve on it over the years. Disney and a hundred other entertainment producers had concentrated onproducing holographic stories for their audience, but the military had found afar more practical use for the technology. A combination of holographic projection and gravity fields created atraining area that was frighteningly realistic.



    They hadn't bothered to hide the blood, either. Zach had had to learn how to use his suit tosave children – and had been forced to watch as children died because of hisineptitude, forcing him to learn quickly. He’d never realised just how hard the military trained, or how mucheffort went into producing the men who had liberated Terra Nova. Each of the Marines on the ship had hundredsof hours, at the very least, in their suits. They’d sometimes spent weeks intheir suits on deployment, using the suit’s recycling facilities to keep themalive. Zach had known that,intellectually, but there was a difference between knowing it and having itmade real to him.



    “I think that they don’t have a choice,” he said,finally. A standard spacesuit provided protectionfrom vacuum, but almost none against enemy action. The training he’d had the first time he wentinto space had warned him, in graphic detail, of just how much could go wrongwith a spacesuit. At least Nan didn't haveto go through the explosive decompression drills. The instructors had been brutally honest.



    “All of our simulations assume that you are close to somekind of rescue gear,” they’d said, more than once. “If you’re not, you’re dead; bend over andkiss your ass goodbye.”



    He stepped out of the shower and waited for Nan to joinhim, then led the way up to the starship’s mess. The Navy provided surprisingly good food forits officers and personnel, although they weren’t too clear on just where the food came from. Some of it was almost certainly recycled fromthe crew’s wastes. Fresh fruit and vegetableswould become increasingly scarce as the voyage proceeded. He picked up a tray of food and sat down atone of the tables. Nan joined him after aminute.



    “At least you have something to do,” she said,ruefully. “Right now, I feel useless.”



    Zach grinned at her. “You don’t think that you have enough to do?”



    “I’ve studied all of the sensor records fromthe...incident,” Nan said, patiently. “Noneof them make any sense. There have been theories that energy stormsare attracted to starships in quantum space, but none of them have ever beenproven. Everything I know about quantum spacesays that what happened to the White Starshouldn't happen, which suggests that either the sensor data is badlywrong...or that what we know about quantum space isn't as complete as wethought.”



    Zach considered it as he took a bite of stew. The Cats had been the first race to discover quantumspace – and the only known race tohave discovered it independently. They’dshared the science with everyone they’d encountered, but while some races hadalready expanded into space before they were discovered none of them hadentered quantum space before the Cats arrived in their star systems. As far as anyone knew, the Cats had workedout the mysteries of quantum space centuries ago, but surely others hadresearched the alternate dimension as well? But there was no way to know.



    “I see,” he said, finally. “And how much don’t we know about quantum space?”



    “Too much,” Nan said, flatly. “No one has ever come up with a clear explanationfor why it exists in the first place, or accounted for the presence of energystorms...”



    She shook her head. “If we take the sensor readings completely on faith, the newcomers have technologybeyond anything the Cats have ever shown us,” she added. “And thatis worrying, isn’t it?”



    Zach shrugged. “Ifthey’re inclined to be hostile, it’s very worrying,” he said. Disrupting quantum space to produce energystorms was easy enough, if indiscriminate. Someone with the power to actually manipulateenergy storms would become an instant superpower. “Or could it be one of the other Galactics?”



    Humanity claimed to have been the first race to actually improve upon Galactic technology, but noone actually knew if that was true. TheCats were a satisfied race – they’d seen no reason to improve upon their technologyany further – yet they weren't the only advanced race out there. Someone else, anticipating the coming wars,might easily have developed their own advanced technology and kept it tothemselves. If humanity could give the Hegemony a bloody nose, who knew whatadvanced technology could do when mated to a race possessing a hundred starsystems and thousands of warships?



    “I would have said that what we've seen is impossible,”Nan said, flatly. “But if we managed tocreate an energy storm on demand, who knows what someone else can do?”



    She shrugged. “Maybewe gave them the idea,” she added. “There’sa Galactic race trying to build a Death Star. What else might they have learned from us?”



    Zach chuckled. Earth had had little to offer the Galactics, but entertainment. Films such as Independence Day had been an instant hit in the Association,although they’d been branded as comedies by the Galactics who’d sold themonwards. Star Trek and Star Wars hadalso been hits, while some horror movies or western flicks had brought thehuman race millions of credits. The onlymovies that hadn't found a Galacticaudience were chick flicks, romantic comedies and the like. Most of them were completely incomprehensibleto the watching aliens.



    “They made us watch hundreds of movies in my training,”he said. “Sometimes they want to makejokes, sometimes there’s a serious point behind it. Did you realise that one of the most popularmovies was The Day The Earth Stood Still? The Galactics loved it, but it took us yearsto realise that they loved it because it flattered them.”



    Nan frowned. “Butwe didn't even know they existed when we produced that movie...”



    “They didn't seem to realise that,” Zach said, wryly. “Why do you think they found Independence Day so amusing?”



    He shook his head. “But they didn't make us spend all our time watching movies,” headded. “Sometimes we actually got somereal work done, researching what happened when the Cats made first contact withthousands of races...”



    Nan smiled. “Andwhat happened to them?”



    “Some went badly,” Zach admitted. The Cats preferred to spy on a newly-discoveredrace long enough to crack its language, unravel its local politics and ensurethat they posed little threat to the contact team. But at least one spy mission had beendiscovered by the aliens before the Cats made open contact. “They ended up having to retreat under fireand making contact from a safe distance. One of the main trouble-causers in the Association today discoveredtheir spy mission and demanded retribution. Instead, they were given the keys to the stars.”



    “Nice of the Cats,” Nan observed. “And what will happen when the Cats are gone?”



    “I don’t know,” Zach admitted. Humanity had upset so many apple carts thatthey couldn't count on the Galactics to remain neutral after the Cats weregone. “I don’t think we’re going to likeit.”



    “Hence this mission,” Nan said.



    “Hence this mission,” Zach agreed. He hesitated, and then took the plunge. “Perhaps you should join us in the loungethis evening.”



    “I don’t date,” Nan said, automatically. She looked him right in the eye. “I don’t have time for it.”



    “I had something else in mind,” Zach said. Nan shooting him down wasn't entirelyunexpected; besides, she wasn't the only woman on the ship. Pelicanhad a mixed crew and half of the women were clearly unattached. “A movie we should all watch.”



    He smiled, rather dryly. One movie had been watched time and time again by the trainee contactteam members, back on Earth. Babylon 5: In The Beginning had focusedaround a First Contact gone horrendously wrong, with Earth exposed to the wrathof a horrendously powerful alien race. The instructors had warned the trainees that Earth didn’t need moreenemies and their work might one daymake the difference between Earth becoming a major power in the Milky Way andrefighting the Battle of Earth against a far more powerful enemy than theHegemony.



    And who knew just what would offend the newcomers?
     
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  6. Pezz

    Pezz Monkey+

    Wow, great start. I really want to read the rest.

    Thanks
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    He was dreaming.

    He had to bedreaming, and yet he was awake. It washard to think clearly in the heat, in the sense that something was surrounding him, pressing down on him, but he wassure that he was awake. His thoughtsseemed to be scrambled; every moment, he would move from considering what washappening to him to a vague thought that had nothing to do with what was goingon. A memory – his wife playing withhim, the night he’d been told that he would command the White Star – kept playing through his head. It had been a night to remember and yet...yetnow, he was somehow sure that the memory was keeping him from thinking properly.

    His eyes were closed. It was strange how long it had taken him to realise that his eyes wereclosed, as if something was physically holding them shut. The sense of something outside him was stronger, as if there was a presence onthe other side of his eyes. A wash ofheat, almost feverish in its intensity, washed through his body, followed bysomething pressing gently against his ear. He winced in pain as something started to poke into his ear and then pushed right through the eardrum, reachingright into his head. A flash of panictore through his body and...

    ...Captain Terrance Smith opened his eyes. He was on his bridge, seated in his commandchair...but something was wrong. It washard to think, yet he knew thatsomething was wrong. He thought hard,trying to place it, before finally realising that the entire bridge was as darkand silent as the grave. The consoles,which should have been glowing with light, were silent; the omnipresent hum ofthe ship’s drives was gone. There was nosign of his crew at all. He tried to standup, to move from his position, but his body refused to obey orders.

    There was a flicker of light, right at the corner of hiseye. He tried to turn his head to seewhat it was, but nothing happened. Hisbody was entirely paralysed, save only for his eyes, flickering from side toside as they tried to see what was holding him in place. The sense of growing pressure against theside of his head grew stronger, followed by a very weird sensation that seemedto reach through his mind. Something hadjust been pushed right into his skull...

    ...He felt a flash of pain that seemed endlessly,followed by a rush of emotions so powerful that his thoughts were sweptaway. Panic and fear became joy andhappiness, followed by a lust so powerful that he knew he would have lostcontrol if he’d been able to move. Asecond later, sheer disgust overcame him, followed by a suicidal urge thatseemed irresistible. His tongue tingledas it tasted a thousand different tastes, some so disgusting that he would havethrown up if his body hadn't betrayed him. Thoughts and feelings crashed through his head...

    ...Sometime later, he felt his thoughts slowly return towakefulness. He’d blacked out, he toldhimself, or something had simply switched off his brain for a long while. How long had it been? The paralysis gripping his body was as strongas ever, but the flickers at the corner of his eye seemed to demand hisattention. It was impossible to move,yet...

    ...A memory flashed through his head; the first desperatebattle to reclaim Terra Nova. Herecoiled as his starship went through the battle, followed by the other battles– and his promotion, his unwanted ascent to higher rank. Memory followed memory, each one concentratedon Earth – and the Federation Navy. Hetried to think of something else, remembering times he’d spent with his wife,but they were pushed away. It was almostas if something was reaching into his mind and studying his memories...

    ...Something was reachinginto his mind. The realisation shockedhim back to full awareness, leaving him paralysed and helpless as an outsideforce searched through his memories, recovering everything he knew about theFederation Navy. Naval personnel hadsuicide implants, designed to protect them from interrogation if captured, butthe implant seemed to have failed – or been disabled. If something had captured his ship...

    ...His eyes seemed to be fading as the outside force grewstronger, feeding on his memories and drawing them out of his mind, one byone. He heard the sound of somethingmoving behind him, but it refused to come forward, into his field ofvision. Another flicker of light appearedat the corner of his eye, before flickering out of existence. His ship had been taken, boarded by hostilepowers...his memories were so confused that it was impossible to make any senseout of what had happened to them. He’dfailed in his duty to the passengers and his crew – and he’d failed theFederation Navy. Everything he knewabout the Federation Navy – and he had been a Captain and then a Commodore,granted access to briefings that were never granted to civilians – was nowknown to the aliens...

    There were voices all around him, whispering in alanguage he didn't recognise. He wantedto call out to them, to beg them for mercy, but his mouth refused to obey. The whispering grew louder and louder, eachone speaking of...something that wasjust beyond his comprehension, and yet he was convinced that he wouldunderstand if he could hear them properly. They seemed to grow louder, echoing through his mind in a form oftelepathy...

    ...There was a final flicker of pain as something was driving right into hisskull, and then he blacked out.

    ***
    Nancy opened her eyes.

    She’d hoped that it had all been a dream, perhaps theresult of an aerosol she'd tried two days ago knowing that Mary would disapprove. The effects had been interesting, but shehadn’t really enjoyed it as much as the boy who’d given it to her hadsuggested. But then, he'd been trying toget into her pants. Perhaps a few moredoses and she would have been willing to try anything with him. Boys just wanted one thing, after all.

    But it hadn't been a dream. She’d fallen asleep on the deck, afterpunching and kicking a hatch that had steadfastly refused to open. Her stomach hurt as she pulled herself to herfeet, a reminder that she hadn't eaten in...how long? She glanced down at the watch her father hadgiven her, one of the very first to roll off his assembly line, and stared atthe blank screen. It had been the latest,capable of combining timekeeping, internet access and telephone services, butnow it simply refused to function. Therewas no way to know how long she'd been asleep.

    She pulled herself to her feet and looked up at thehatch. It was ajar. Staring at it, Nancy inched forward until shecould place her hand in the gap between the hatch and the bulkhead, and thenpushed at the hatch enough to force it open. Outside, the air was hot and muggy, as if the atmosphere governingsystems had failed. She took a breathbefore she could stop herself and tasted...somethingunpleasant in the air. Part of herjust wanted to stumble back into the observation blister, close the hatch andhide there until help came, but there was no way of knowing just how long itwould be until help arrived. Or even ifit would come at all.

    The corridor felt different to her as she inched her waydown the passageway. There was aghostly, almost translucent shimmer surrounding part of the bulkheads, while ahelp station she discovered simply refused to work when she tried to activateit. In the distance, she was sure thatshe could hear sounds, but she couldn't tell where they were coming from, or even if they were human. The human race was one of many thousands ofraces in the galaxy – she’d picked that up in school – and many of them weremore populous than humanity. Who knew what had happened to the ship? Perhaps they’d been boarded by pirates orhijackers...

    In a second, she realised what was missing. The sound of the ship’s engines had been adistraction at first, pervading all of the cabins in an ever-present hum. But now it was gone, leaving the interior ofthe ship eerily silent. She caughtherself glancing from side to side as the passageway stretched onwards,wondering exactly where she was. In hertime on the vessel, she had exploredevery nook and cranny, but she wasn't sure where she was any longer. The ship’s interior seemed almost alien.

    She paused outside a half-open cabin hatch, and thenstepped inside. It was a smaller cabinthan the one her father had paid for, but that wasn't too surprising. Not everyone could afford to fly on the White Star and even those who could hadproblems paying for the best cabins on the ship. This one was small, only three rooms and a showerrather than the massive bath Nancy had grown used to using, but it wasopen. Inside, there were a number ofbags tossed across the cabin deck, their contents scattered everywhere. Nancy bent down and picked up a long deviceshe didn't recognise, studying it before tossing it only to bed and picking upa second tool. Unlike the first, sherecognised it even though she hadn't seen one before. The person who owned the cabin was addictedto electronic simulation.

    Nancy shook her head – her tutors had always warned herof the dangers of electronic simulation, even if the technology had broken the drugs problem back onEarth – and put the device down, searching the rest of the cabin as quickly aspossible. The bags were mostly full offemale garments, so she deduced that the owner was female, assuming that onlyone person had occupied the cabin. Perhaps there had been more than one female, she told herself after amoment; there seemed to be more garments that one person could comfortablypossess. One drawer revealed a mound ofexpensive chocolate from Earth – England, in particular – and she pulled themout as her stomach rumbled. If theowners of the cabin came back, she told herself as she unwrapped the chocolate,her trust fund was more than enough to replace the missing chocolate.

    Thus fortified, she headed towards the stairwell thatshould had led down to the lower decks, including where her father and Mary hadbeen staying. The stairwell wasgone. For a moment, she was convincedthat she had simply looked in the wrong place, but a quick check around thedecks proved that she had been correct the first time. The stairwell no longer seemed to exist. It was so strange that she tried to tear atthe bulkheads, convinced that they’d moved in to seal off the stairs, butnothing happened. Human strength couldn'tbudge bulkheads that didn't look as if they’d been designed to move in thefirst place.

    Shaking her head, she headed over to the internal elevatorsand pressed the button out of habit, before realising that if the internalcomputer systems weren't working it wasn't likely that the elevators would beworking either. She turned away, just asthe doors hissed open, revealing nothing more than an empty car. Nancy hesitated, half-convinced that steppinginto the elevator would trap her between decks, before screwing up her courageand walking into the cab. There was along pause after she pushed the button for her father’s deck, before the doorshissed closed and the elevator sunk down into the interior of the ship.

    The doors opened on the third deck, not the fifth as she’dordered. Nancy waited for severalminutes before deciding that the lift wasn't going to go any further. Feeling a chill crawling down the back of herneck, Nancy stepped out of the lift and into the leisure compartment. It had always been busy – youngsters playingwith holographic games, older folk playing pool or gambling in the casino – butit was empty now. As far as she couldsee, there was no sign of any living human in the entire compartment. A compartment that could house hundreds ofhumans was completely empty...

    ...And then it struck her that she hadn't seen any bodiesat all. If something had happened to theship, surely there would be bodies? Butthere was nothing. She stepped forwardand touched one of the bulkheads, reassuring herself that it was solid. The translucent effect that she'd noted onthe upper decks didn't seem to be in evidence here. But the absence of bodies puzzled her.

    She stepped into the gaming room and froze. There were signs of a massive struggle; thepool tables had been picked up and tossed across the compartment, while theanimated chessmen that had been used by players lay crushed and broken wherethey’d fallen. She checked around, justas the incredibly dishy actor who’d played Sherlock Holmes would have done, andsaw bloodstains on the deck. They seemedto lead towards the sealed compartment at the back of the gaming room, wherethe ship’s crew had stored the pieces of the games when they weren't inuse. Nancy hesitated, unsure if shewanted to follow them or not, before deciding that it was the only way offinding her father. A quick look atwhere the stairs should have been revealed that they too were missing, sealedoff by immoveable bulkheads.

    The entire ship seemed to shiver as...something raced through the hull. Nancy found herself on the floor, convincedthat the entire ship was breaking apart around her, only to feel a tremor asthe wave passed over her. When shelooked up, the entire compartment had changed. The bulkheads had become ghostly, translucent, just like the bulkheadsshe’d seen on the upper deck. Eerielight seemed to flicker over her, turning the entire compartment into somethingalien, almost inhuman. The sense thatshe was being watched grew stronger as she pulled herself to her feet,staggering back towards the elevators. Unsurprisingly,the doors had closed and there was no way back to the upper decks. She cursed her own mistake as she realised,dimly, what was going on. Something was controllingthe ship and manipulating it to force her into a position where...

    ...Her imagination ran out. Why would anyonewant to do this to astarship? Nancy had been told, more thanonce, that there were people who wouldwant to kidnap her to bring pressure to bear on her father, but surely common kidnappers couldn't do this to astarship in quantum space? It was morelikely that they’d been attacked by aliens and left adrift, yet why would anyaliens bother with just wreaking the ship? They’d either want to take the ship’s passengers and crew as prisoners,or blow her to atoms to cover their tracks.

    Shaking her head, she stumbled forward, trying to followthe bloodstains. They’d become almostimpossible to follow in the shifting light, leading her into a bulkhead thatseemed to have become invisible, if not intangible. It took several minutes for her to find herway to the compartment where the bloodstains were leading, and yet...nothingseemed quite right about it. The entireship seemed to be shifting around her. Desperately,she reached up to touch the sealed hatch leading into the compartment andjumped as her fingers went right through thematerial. She honestly couldn't believeher eyes. The bulkhead should have beensolid and yet she could push her fingers right through.

    She heisted, unsure of what would happen if the shipreturned to normal, and then took a long breath, bracing herself. Pushing her head against the bulkhead, shepushed through the material, feeling almost as if she was pushing through thickwater or jelly. On the other side, sheopened her eyes to see...something. Flickers of light, dancing at the corner ofher eye, surrounded her as she tried to take in what she was seeing. The ship’s bulkheads had been replaced bysomething her mind refused to see clearly, but it was clear that the interiorwas far larger than the starship’s exterior. In the distance, she could hear the sound of something breathing loudly –and what sounded very much like a scream...

    And then...something came into view, advancing down acorridor that shouldn't have existed at all. Nancy took one look at it and felt overwhelming terror, even though she couldn'tsee it clearly. Frantically, forgettingall reason, she pulled her head out of the translucent bulkhead and fled,convinced that the very demons of hell were after her. The sense of being watched grew stronger asshe ran, running through some bulkheads and rebounding from others as sherealised that they were still solid. Somethingwas after her; she could feel it,even though she could hear nothing. Thesense of steady footsteps following her was too strong to ignore.

    The elevator doors were still closed and no amount ofpushing the button convinced them to open. Desperately, she flung herself towards one of the areas she’d been toldnot to visit, unless accompanied by a crewmember. The Jefferies tubes ran through the entirestarship, allowing her crew to make repairs without alarming the passengers,who might have questioned any repair work carried out under flight. Nancy’s fingers scrabbled at the hatch as thesense of something following her grew closer and then managed to open thehatch. Inside, the tube was reassuringlynormal; Nancy clambered into it and yanked the hatch shut behind her, beforeclimbing through the levels back to the upper deck. The panic gripping her mind refused toabate. Whatever else happened, even ifshe ran out of food, she knew that she didn't dare go back to the lower decks. Everyone there was dead or worse than dead.

    And yet what else could she do?
     
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “All hands, prepare for re-emergence into normal space,”Captain Atwell said. His oice echoedover the ship’s intercom. “I say again,all hands prepare for re-emergence into normal space.”



    “They should have let us onto the bridge,” Nan said, asthey sat together in the observation blister. “We’re the ones who will have to board the White Star.”



    “They don’t know what we’ll encounter when we return tonormal space,” Zach pointed out, mildly. Quantum space had been more active than normal as they approached the White Star’s last known position, withenergy storms flaring up out of nowhere and then receding back into the fabricof quantum space. The Galactics mighthave had a very good reason for advising everyone to avoid the UnseenReaches. “Whatever happens, they won’twant a pair of civilians underfoot.”



    Nan snorted as she studied the live feed from the ship’ssensors. “Nothing about this makes anysense according to the theory we know,” she said, changing the subject. “I think we’ll have to come up with some newtheories.”



    Quantum space twisted into a black tunnel as the gatewayopened, allowing Pelican to slideforward and into normal space. Zach felthis chest heave as the starship passed through the gateway and left the eerielights of quantum space behind, the gateway closing behind her as soon as shewas back in normal space. The constantglow of the stars surrounded the starship as she rocketed forwards towards the White Star.



    “Curious,” Nan said, as the ship rocked suddenly. “There are hundreds of discharges from quantumspace present in this sector.”



    Zach looked up in surprise. Quantum space was normally only accessiblethrough opening a gateway, but it wasn't entirely unknown for gateways to openup naturally and discharge energy into normal space. No one, not even the Cats, had come up with atheory to account for the discharges – and as they were very rare, no one hadbeen too worried. But the spacesurrounding the White Star seemed tobe infested with discharges, each one powerful enough to destroy an entirestarship.



    Nan studied her console as the ship hit another pulse ofgravity waves, the fabric of space itself twisting under the discharges. “We very rarely keep gateways open for longerthan five minutes,” she said, after a moment. “The power requirements start to skyrocket very quickly and even a fixedgate can't remain open for more than fifteen minutes. But whatever happened to the White Star has been active forweeks. The discharges may be a responseto the pressure put on the barrier between normal space and quantum space.”



    “So this area of space is likely to get a great deal moredangerous in the near future,” Zach said, considering the practicalimplications. No starship could survivebeing caught up in an energy storm, or a discharge from quantum space. “We need to try and disengage the White Star from the alien ship quickly.”



    “If it’s possible,” Nan said, flatly. “If one ship remains in quantum space whilethe other is in normal space, it should be possible to separate them...but ifthey are interpenetrated, cancelling the effect holding them together could be disastrous. Both ships might be destroyed in theexplosion.”



    She hesitated. “AndGod alone knows what would happen in quantum space.”



    Zach nodded. Quantumspace reacted to energy discharges within the dimension, including weaponsfire. Few battles were fought in quantumspace as energy storms tended to appear near the combat zone, threatening bothsides with destruction. A largeexplosion – like the combined mass of the conjoined ships being reduced toenergy – could make the Unseen Reaches impassable for generations. Hundreds of light years of normal space,including a handful of settled worlds, would become inaccessible to the Association,their populations permanently isolated from the rest of the galaxy. The possible consequences of disaster didn't bearthinking about.



    “This is the Captain,” Captain Atwell’s voice said. “All members of the boarding party are toreport to the briefing compartment. Isay again; all members of the boarding party are to report to the briefingcompartment.”



    “That’s us,” Zach said. He stood up and held out a hand to Nan, helping her to her feet. “It’s time to go face the music.”



    ***

    The briefing room was crammed. Apart from Zach, Nan, Buzz and the Admiral,there were eight other Marines and a pair of crewmembers he hadn't met on theflight. The Marines would be escortingthem onboard the White Star; theothers might be watching from outside as the ship waited for them toreturn. On the main display, an image ofthe White Star floated in front ofthem. Even at a distance, it was clearthat something was badly wrong.



    Zach frowned as he tried to grasp what he was seeing. The WhiteStar looked twisted, as if it was caught up in a gravity field strongenough to bend light around its hull. Parts of the hull seemed to be missing, replaced by...something. The alien starship itself was impossible tosee properly; it seemed to be so....alienthat his mind couldn't quite comprehend it. It moved from being a sphere to a moth-like shape and then seemed tofade out of existence altogether, intermingled with the White Star. The process,whatever it was, was still underway; parts of each ship shimmered in and out ofexistence, following a pattern that made no sense.



    “We have been unable to get a good image of the alienship’s hull,” one of the unnamed officers said. Zach realised that he had to be a sensor expert. “The probes had been suffering glitches asthey get closer to the alien ship, suggesting some form of advance sensorjamming technology. However, we areconvinced that she is larger than the WhiteStar, but most of her mass remains in quantum space. Unfortunately, so few of the sensor readingsmake any sense that we are unable to say anything about her internal layout.”



    “Assuming she has one,” Zach mused. Who knew whatmight have been developed by a race that had evolved independently of theAssociation? “For all we know, the shipis actually a living being native to quantum space.”



    The Admiral stared at him. “Are you serious?”



    Zach shrugged. “It’sas good a theory as any,” he said. Looking through the records, it wastrue that a handful of spacers had reported sightings of colossal blackbat-like ships in quantum space, but the Association had disbelieved thereports, at least officially. Sensorswere so unreliable in quantum space that spacers had been known to see thingsthat weren’t there, or were on the other side of the galaxy. At least one world had gone to full alertwhen a spacer had seen an invasion fleet heading towards his homeworld, only torealise – days later – that the fleet had been nothing more than a sensorerror. “I just wanted to make it clearthat we know absolutely nothing about these aliens.”



    The Admiral nodded to the sensor tech, whocontinued. “The two ships are definitelyconjoined,” he said. “As far as we cantell, both ships are slipping in and out of quantum space constantly, avoidingthe problems caused by two ships interpenetrating. Quantum space itself appears to be in flux aroundthe ships...”



    “Which isn't too surprising,” Nan said, briskly. “What you’re looking at there is a permanentgateway into quantum space.”



    She tapped her console to show the live feed from theship’s sensors. “I cannot account for how it has happened,” she said, “but Ican tell you that the ship – the ships – are trapped in a gateway that appearsto have become more of a tunnel, fluctuating between quantum space and normalspace. We might as well call it arevolving door; when one side is in quantum space, the other is in normalspace. The discharges in quantum spaceare almost certainly caused by the revolving door’s presence. Quantum space resents intrusions from anotherdimension and is attempting to force the revolving door to close permanently.”



    The Admiral frowned. “And how long do we have until the...revolving door closes?”



    “Unknown,” Nan said, cheerfully. “Admiral, this whole...event isunprecedented. Everything we know about quantumspace says that a gateway cannot remain open for longer than fifteen minutes,if only because the power demands rise swiftly towards infinite levels of power. This revolving door has been open for atleast two weeks. We simply don’t knowenough to even guess at how long it will remain open. It could close in the next five minutes, orremain open for a year.”



    Captain Atwell cleared his throat. “In any case, we cannot remain here for ayear,” he said, flatly. “Pelican is not designed to survive in aregion of space being rent apart by quantum discharges. Assuming that the discharges continue tomultiply in the manner we’re seeing – no matter how impossible it seems to us –this area will become impassive within three weeks, at most. We will have to withdraw in two weeks, atmost.”



    Nan blinked at him. “Captain,” she said, “there is a chance here for genuinely original science. We cannot just reject it...”



    Randolph ismissing, presumed lost,” Atwell said. His tone brooked no compromise. “Wehave not even been able to locate any debris. I suspect that one of the discharges opened up right on top of thedestroyer, vaporising her before her crew even realised what was happening tothem. I would prefer for Pelican not to suffer the same fate.”



    “I have ordered the cruiser squadron to hold positionsome distance from the rupture in space,” the Admiral added. “They should be reasonably safe from quantum discharges.”



    Zach shared a glance with Nan. Quantum discharges were inherently unpredictable;there was, at least in theory, a danger that the cruisers themselves might beaffected and destroyed. But all previousdata on discharges suggested that they were very rare, even in the UnseenReaches. The ship should have been inmore danger from a spontaneous meltdown in her fusion cores, statisticallyspeaking. And yet this region of spacewas growing dangerously unpredictable...



    “Good thinking,” he said, out loud. The Admiral sent him an annoyed glance. “With that in mind, how do you intend toboard the White Star.”



    The Admiral nodded to Buzz, who looked irked at having tospeak. “Parts of the ship appear to bemore...stable than others,” the Marine said. He tapped a console in front of him, bringing up an image of the ship’shull. “All of the airlocks appear to besubsumed within the alien ship, but the observation blister appears to be relativelystable. We have only seen it vanishonce, only to return a few seconds later.”



    “Perhaps the interpenetration wasn’t complete,” thesensor tech mused, out loud. “If we interpenetratedtwo cruisers at different angles, the interpenetration itself would be confinedto a specific area...”



    “The Admiralty would certainly refuse to allow you toexperiment,” the Admiral said, quickly. “Colonel?”



    Buzz smiled, rather dryly. His rank had been automatically boosted, inline with the precept that there was only one Captain on a starship. “I propose to take a shuttle to theobservation blister and cut our way into the hull there, once we have surveyed thearea to ensure that there are no nasty surprises waiting for us,” hecontinued. “Once the hull is open, theshuttle will become our airlock, allowing Pelicanto dock should we recover the passengers.”



    Zach felt a chill running down his spine. He’d viewed the entire exercise as anintellectual puzzle, but Buzz’s cool reminder had reminded him that there wereliving humans trapped in the conjoined ships. God alone knew what had happened to them. WhiteStar should have been capable of feeding them for years without resupply,or placing them in stasis if it became necessary to crawl to another system onsublight drives – the Cats had very high safety standards, which theAssociation enforced on all passenger starships – yet it was clear that theinterior had to be messed up. There wasno way to know what state the ships were in until they boarded them.



    “I have a question,” he said, suddenly. “Did we not try to signal the White Star when we arrived?”



    “Of course,” Captain Atwell said, tartly. Zach realised that he’d effectively accusedthe Captain’s crew of incompetence. “Wesignalled on all frequencies as we approached – and we’re still trying tosignal now. There hasn't been anyresponse, barring a great deal of static interference caused by the energydischarges. The White Star is as cold and silent as the grave.”



    The Admiral tossed him a sharp look. “But we will hope for the best,” he said,quickly. His career would probably notsurvive losing all of the passengers, even if it hadn't been his fault. He had good reason for praying that they allsurvived. “Our priority remains therescue of our people; we can worry about whatever caused this disaster afterthey are safe and well.”



    His gaze swept the compartment. “Once we have located the passengers, we willuse shuttles to bring them out to the cruiser squadron,” he continued. “They will be placed in stasis or druggedinto hibernation to ensure that they don’t cause problems on the flight back toEarth. After that, we can probe theconjoined ships as much as we want and attempt to make contact with the aliens –assuming that there are aliens and we’renot dealing with a cosmic fish.”



    He gave Zach a sharp glance. “Are there any questions?”



    Zach nodded. “I’dsuggest trying to use the First Contact package to signal the aliens,” hesaid. “If they can talk to us...”



    “We transmitted the entire thing to them,” Captain Atwellsaid. “Again, no response.”



    Zach shook his head in disbelief. Mathematics was supposed to be universal –the Cats had certainly found it so – but no one was really sure how good theFirst Contact package actually was, not when the Cats had spied on its intendedrecipients for years before revealing themselves. It consisted of a set of equations to proveintelligence, followed by the building blocks of a basic language that could beused for communication and eventual mutual discovery. The aliens could learn the various galacticstandard languages later.



    But the newcomers hadn't responded at all – and that raised a number of concerns. They might be too badly damaged to pick upthe transmissions, or they might not have the technology to receive radio orgravity-pulsed signals, or they might be too alien to understand what they werehearing...or they might simply be ignoring the transmissions. There was no way to know, although he foundit hard to believe that the aliens didn't have something akin to radio. The Galactics had moved on to different formsof communications, but they’d kept the ability to detect and respond to radiosignals too.



    He looked up at the indistinct picture of the alien shipand shivered. Even looking at it made his head hurt, as if it existed in more thanthree dimensions. The lines of her hull,or what he thought were the lines, seemed to twist in and out of existence,reaching in to an alternate dimension that he couldn’t perceive. Could it be that the ship partly existed in apocket dimension? There were plenty of fictional examples oftransdimensional technology – the Doctor’s TARDIS, for one – but theAssociation was nowhere near as advanced. Pocket dimensions weren't even the stuff of theory.



    Nan was right, he decided. There wasgenuinely original science researchto be done here.



    Captain Atwell tapped the table and silence fell. “The shuttle will depart in one hour,” hesaid, flatly. “All members of theboarding party are ordered to report to the shuttlebay at 1534 for finalbriefing and suiting up. Colonel Osbornwill have overall command of the mission; his Marines will provide security andbasic medical aid, if necessary.”



    Zach nodded. He’dbeen struck by the absence of a medic on the team, until he’d been remindedthat all of the Marines had gone through a basic course in battlefield medicineand five of them were ranked as expert medics. The shuttle would carry a large supply of medical equipment they coulduse if necessary, while other supplies could be shipped over from Pelican if they ran short. He found the Marines a little scary – what littlehe’d been allowed to read of their records suggested men who had doneeverything – but he was glad that they were coming. He wondered how Nan, the only woman on theteam, felt around them.



    Buzz stood up. “Meetus at the shuttlebay at 1534,” he ordered, and walked out of the compartment,followed by his Marines. From what he’dsaid while they’d been trying to learn how to use the suits, the Marines hadbeen practicing in their own simulators, memorising the interior of the White Star. Zach wasn't sure if the ship’s interior wouldstill match the internal diagrams, but they did need to know everything theycould about the ship before they boarded her. He caught himself staring at the alien ship again and shivered. It was very far from anything a human wouldrecognise as a starship.



    “An hour,” Nan said, very quietly. Zach looked up to discover that they were thelast two people in the briefing compartment. “An hour until we face the unknown. I’m scared.”



    Zach blinked at her. She hadn't shown any sign of fear before, but then...neither had heuntil he’d seen their destination for the first time. Nan was an accomplished scientist andresearcher, yet she’d never been outside her university, let aloneoff-planet. A little fear wasn't toosurprising – and besides, it might help keep her alive.



    “I know,” he said, finally. “I’m scared too.”
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “Here we go,” Buzz muttered, as his armoured combat suitcame to life around him. Data links wereestablished with the shuttle, Pelican andthe other Marines inside the shuttle, marking their position on his internaldisplay. The live feed from the droneslaunched by Pelican slid into hishelmet, allowing him to view the conjoined ships directly. They seemed to flicker in and out of existence,like ghostly warships fighting long-ago battles. “Ready?”



    “All clear,” the shuttle pilot reported. “Good luck, Captain.”



    “Marines make their own luck,” Buzz grumbled, as theairlock hissed open. He took a stepforward, and then another, until he was standing right at the edge of theairlock. The shuttle was floating a barefifty kilometres from the conjoined ships, but he could see them, a faint glowing light in the distance, surrounded by theever-present stars. “Here we go.”



    He stepped out into empty space. Strong men had been defeated by theconviction that they were falling endlessly through space, towards an unseendestination, but spacers learned how to overcome it if they wanted to remain inspace. There were people who just seemedto be natural-born groundhogs, people who could never master space...and hepitied them. They would never see thetrue glory of outer space, never take a ride along Saturn’s rings or fly abovethe Great Red Spot. And they would neverbe able to leave Earth for a colony world at the edge of the Human Sphere.



    The suit activated its gravity drive and started to propelhim towards the conjoined ships. Buzzkept one eye on his HUD, watching for energy discharges that would swat him outof existence as easily as they had destroyed the Randolph, while he kept the other eye on the glow that marked thelocation of the conjoined ships. It grewlarger as he flew closer, seeming to expand into dimensions that his eye couldn'tquite grasp. The First Contact expert’ssuggestion about the alien ship being a pocket dimension of some kind seemedpossible, although the Pelican’s scienceteam had scoffed at the idea. It just didn'tseem possible that anyone couldproduce something like that and not be able to avoid a collision with a farmore primitive starship.



    Buzz disagreed with them. As a Navy SEAL, he had operated in the protectorate that was all thatremained of Saudi Arabia, as well as taking part in cross-border raids on Iran beforethe Mullahs had been replaced by a government that, overtly at least, seemed tobe inclined to bury the hatchet and work with the Federation to fight theHegemony. It was almost insulting toknow that a Navy SEAL could be killed by a primitive IED, or an AK-47 put togetherin a primitive blacksmith’s workshop somewhere in Afghanistan, but it wassomething that couldn't be ignored. There was no reason why a race far more advanced than the Association couldn'tsuffer a technical disaster, or accidentally lose to a less advanced – but morecunning – race. And that raised another concern. As far as anyone knew, what had happened to the White Star was an accident, but would the aliens see it thatway? What would happen if they believedthat they had been deliberately attacked?



    He pushed the thought out of his mind as the vague glowstarted to take on shape and form, convincing him to slow his passage until hecould grow accustomed to what he was seeing. The White Star was partlyvisible, illuminated by the glow from the alien ship, but parts of her hullseemed almost translucent. For a baresecond, he was sure that he could see right throughher hull and into a set of empty cabins. A check of the suit’s onboard recorder revealed nothing, apart from a blur. Thousands of credits had been spent onproducing the best sensors in the entire galaxy for his suit, only for them tofail at the crucial moment. TheFederation Navy would not be happy when they heard about it.



    “It seems that the Mark-I eyeball works better than thesuit,” he said, knowing that whatever he said would be heard by everyone in thearea. “I can see details the suit doesn'tseem to be able to recognise.”



    “It could be an optical illusion caused by the quantum flux,”Nan said. She seemed to be spending muchof her time with Zach, much to the annoyance of some of the Marines. “Or perhaps the human eye is more adaptablethan we had realised.”



    Buzz nodded absently and started to steer his way towardsthe observation blister. The ghostlyglow seemed to grow stronger for a moment, and then part of the White Star’s hull simply vanished, to bereplaced by...something that seemedalmost impossible to see properly. Themore he looked at it, the less visible it became until it had vanishedcompletely into the glow, leaving him with an impression of a pearly-white hulland a strange, almost organic material covering the ship. Once again, the sensor records had failed toshow any of that, leaving him deeplyworried. They’d all started theirtraining by learning to operate without the suits – there weren't enough ofthem to outfit anyone, but the Federation Marines – yet they were in a veryhostile environment. What would happenif the life support systems started to fail?



    He ran a full diagnostic as the suit drifted towards itsdestination, only to discover nothing. The internal monitoring system reported that the sensors were functioningat full efficiency – and indeed, they seemed to have no problems tracking Pelican or any of the drones floatingnear the conjoined ships. It was thealien ship that was presenting problems to the scanners, as if its nature wasso alien that they couldn't grasp what they were seeing. Or maybe it was just a highly advanced sensor jamming system. The human race had improved upon Galactic technologiesand there was no reason why someone else couldn't do the same.



    “I’m moving in on the observation blister now,” hereported. The alien ship didn't seem tohave so baleful an effect towards the upper decks on the White Star, although there was no way to know for certain. Perhaps the parts of the ships that hadbecome conjoined were lower down the hull. The sensors seemed to clear up slightly as he hovered above the deck,making his way towards the blister, a bubble of transparent metal that allowedthe ship’s passengers and crew to peer out at the stars. “Stand by for landing, once I call you in.”



    He braced himself as he touched down on the hull. The translucent effect he’d seen during his approachseemed to be missing, but he was careful to test the hull before pulling allhis weight on it and activating the magnetic boots that should hold him to thehull. One of his sensors reported thatthere was a standard gravity field still in operation, something that puzzledhim as he started to clump towards the observation blister. If the WhiteStar had been completely disabled, how come the gravity was stilloperating?



    “It could be the alien gravity field,” Zach pointed out,when he asked out loud. “Most racesprefer similar gravity fields to humanity.”



    Buzz shrugged. Itwas true enough, just as it was true that the Marines used a higher gravityfield to force prospective Marines to grow stronger on Luna. But the aliens who had built the conjoinedship seemed to be so alien that there was no way they could count on themhaving anything in common with humanity – and there were aliens who had evolvedunder higher gravity fields. His sensorsreported that the gravity field was a match for Earth, which wassurprising...unless the White Starwas still producing her own gravity. Very few planets had completely identical gravity fields.



    He activated his suit’s onboard weapons systems as hereached the observation blister and peered into the White Star. Inside, therewas a small bar, a handful of chairs and little else; there was certainly nosign of any living thing. He tapped theobservation blister hard enough to reassure himself that it was still intact,and then started to signal the shuttle to come down and land beside the blister. Everyone knew that observation blisters wereweak points in a starship’s hull – there would be an airlock inside thecompartment they’d have to force open to gain access to the ship’s interior –but it was the simplest way ofgaining access to the hull.



    There was a flicker of light in the distance and helooked up, sharply. A piece of the hullglowed bright white and then vanished, to be replaced by something else. Otherflickers of light seemed to be shimmering into existence all around him, fadingin and out of existence like nothing he’d ever seen before. His suit sensed his agitation and brought theweapons up to full readiness, ready to engage a target as soon as he designatedone. Buzz took a deep breath, refusingto allow his sudden nervousness to rattle him, and cancelled the alert. The weapons systems slid back into the suituntil they were needed again.



    “What the hell,” he muttered to himself, “is going on?”



    The shuttle fell out of the darkness of space and landedbeside the observation blister, one end of its airlock tube extending out togrip the transparent metal. Buzz waitedwhile the operator checked and rechecked his settings, before he activated thecutting blade and started to burn a hole in the observation blister. The cutting blades – they’d been called somethingelse until the movie producers had complained, loudly – could slice throughalmost anything short of a starship’s hull. They shouldn't have any difficulty slicing their way into theobservation blister.



    He watched as a sheet of transparent metal fell inwards,helped by a kick from one of the Marines. As soon as the path was clear, the first fire team poured into the ship,weapons at the ready. There was a briefexchange of signals between the Marines, before Sergeant Singh confirmed thatthe observation blister appeared to be empty of civilians, crewmen and unknownaliens. Buzz nodded to himself, climbedback into the shuttle, and dropped through the airlock into the White Star. The ship’s gravity field caught him again andhe clumped to the floor, landing awkwardly.



    “Oxygen,” he said. The suit’s atmosphere monitors had confirmed that the White Star was filled with breathableair. “We can breathe here, but don’tremove your suits until I give the order.”



    “Curious,” Singh said, through the datanet binding theMarines together. “I feel like I’m beingwatched.”



    Buzz couldn't disagree. Like all combat veterans, he had developed something of a sixth sensefor danger, a sense that alerted him when something didn't feel quiteright. Something was definitely wrong,completely out of kilter, even though he couldn't place it. They were definitelybeing watched by something. Two of the Marines advanced towards thehatch, weapons at the ready, and attempted to key it open. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened.



    “They have shipboard lighting, but no power to thehatches?” Gino Benedetti asked. The Italian Marine was also their technicalexpert. “It’s supposed to be the otherway around.”



    “Unless the environment on the other side is poisonous,” JoeBuckley pointed out. “Don’t civiliansinsist on having airlocks that can tell the difference between good old oxygenand the poisonous stench that follows you around when you take off your armour?”



    “This side of the hatch is more likely to become exposedto vacuum,” Gino pointed out. “Butcivilians would never be able to stand the stench of your farts...”



    “As you were, gentlemen,” Singh snapped, crossly. There was a time for joking around, but it wasn'twhen they were exploring a derelict starship that had been merged with an alienship of unknown origin. “Gino, can youopen the door?”



    “I’m not sure,” Gino admitted. He bent down and removed the coveringconcealing the inner workings of the hatch. “As far as I can tell, this unit doeshave power, but the hatch is simply refusing to open for us. It may have been locked, or emergencyprotocols might have sealed the interior of the ship off from the observationblister.”



    Buzz scowled. “Well,we’re not going to learn much from remaining here,” he said. “See if you can hack into the system and openthe door. We’ll keep the airlock sealed,just in case the aliens breathe poison.”



    “That’s quite possible,” Zach said, injecting himselfinto the Marine datanet. “There arequite a few alien races who breathe methane, or even something...”



    “That will do,” Buzz snapped. He calmed himself with an effort. “I know you want to help, but we have toconcentrate on this before we go any further. Please stay off this channel.”



    He turned back to Gino as the Marine dug into theoperating systems. “I think I canisolate the hatch from the rest of the ship,” Gino reported, pulling out a computerchip that looked to have been installed directly into the hatch’sprocessor. “That should allow us to open the hatch...but there’s no way of knowingwhat’s on the other side. Could beanything, dude.”



    “Fire Team One, cover the hatch,” Buzz ordered. “Fire Team Two, cover the airlock. Don’t let anything get past you.”



    There was a loud click from the hatch as Gino inserted acable from his suit into the control processor. “I’m overriding it now,” he said. There was a long pause. “Interesting;the hatch’s processors don’t seem to note any reason for the hatch being closed.”



    Buzz snorted. “Typicalcivilian garbage,” he said. The Cats hadbeen obsessive about their personal safety, which wasn't too surprising for arace that was biologically immortal, but even they didn't match human lawyerswhen it came to digging up grounds for a lawsuit. Given how many wealthy and well-connectedpeople had chosen to fly on the WhiteStar, the designers and operators had clearly chosen to record everything, probablyincluding intimate footage from private cabins. It was probably buried in the fine print somewhere.



    Singh was more practical. “There’s no record of a hostile atmosphere or attack?”



    “Nothing,” Gino said. “The records seem to have been wiped, or never existed in the firstplace – and that should beimpossible.”



    “Leave it for the moment,” Buzz ordered. He readied his weapons. “Open the hatch.”



    There was a final click from the hatch, which slid openso violently that he felt the deck shake. Fire Team One advanced forward, to see nothing. They were standing just outside one of theinternal passageways leading around the upper levels of the ship, surrounding ahandful of cheaper cabins and the playpen for the toddlers onboard. Part of the upper deck was marked as notbeing for public access, although the internal diagrams weren't clear on whatwas actually there. It was probably astorage area of some kind.



    We’ll have to checkthat, he told himself, as he led the way into the corridor. An environmental display blinked up in hisHUD, confirming that the temperature was almost tropical, but there was nothingdangerous in the air. The ship’sinternal atmosphere processors were probably still active, although that proved nothing. Even if they stopped working altogether,there would still be several weeks worth of air in the hull – and there were other means of replenishingit. He looked down at the deck andsmiled. The carpet wasn't a real carpet,but something composed of a genetically-modified analogue of grass, producing alimited amount of oxygen even if the life support failed completely...



    And then he swore out loud. “The oxy-grass is dying,” he said, as herealised what was happening. It hadn't beenapparent until he'd looked closely, but the grass was dying rapidly and turningto sludge. Up close, the atmospheremonitors reported the stench of decay in the air. But that was impossible, wasn't it? Vacuum would kill the grass, as surely asanything else, but the White Star hadn'tbeen opened to vacuum. The air was stillbreathable and it should have kept the grass growing for years.



    “Maybe there was too much oxygen in the air,” Joesuggested, after a moment. “What wouldhappen to the oxy-grass if the oxygen levels became too high?”



    Buzz shot the question back to the shuttle, hoping thatone of the experts could answer that question. “It would start to hibernate,” Zach said, shortly. Of course; he would have been briefed on allthe genetically-modified plants and animals produced by the Cats. “I think it would simply wait until thelevels of waste gas grew high enough for it to reinvigorate itself.”



    “True,” Buzz said. He keyed his communicator and spoke to the Admiral. “Admiral, so far we have encountered nothing,but dying oxy-grass. With yourpermission, I intend to call the rest of the team into the ship and startexploring properly.”



    “Granted,” the Admiral said. “I am going out to the cruisers – remain incommand of the situation and keep me updated.”



    Buzz concealed a smile. Was the Admiral remembering his duties to the cruiser squadron, or hadCaptain Atwell finally started to hint that the Admiral might be better off onanother ship? There were strictprotocols concerning the issuing of orders on a ship and the Admiral hadviolated several of them. He couldn't seeCaptain Atwell being very pleased at having his authority usurped, even if theAdmiral’s career was on the line.



    He switched back to the general channel. “The rest of you might as well come inside,”he said. “Just watch your feet. You never know what you might be treading inthis days.”



    There was a flash of light at the corner of his eye, butwhen he turned around to see it...it was gone. Buzz shivered, feeling the sensation of being watched growingstronger. Something was definitely very wrong on the White Star.
     
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    Zach had to fight down the urge to run as he passedthrough the airlock and into the WhiteStar’s observation blister. Thesense of being watched that the Marines had mentioned had appeared almost assoon as the shuttle touched down on the hull, leaving him feeling hellishlyexposed as he entered the conjoined ships. There was nothing threatening waiting for them, but that only made thefeeling worse. Something was watching themand biding its time, waiting for them to come into its parlour.

    “Curious effect,” Nan said, from above him. She was looking out towards the eerie lightsflickering over the hull. “I wonder ifthere are many revolving doors, rather than just one.”

    Zach shook his head. Up close, it wasn't an academic puzzle, but a fight for survival. And he was starting to wonder if there wasany point at all in him being there. Ittook two parties to have a successful first contact, but one of the partieshere didn't seem interested in talking to the human race. Pelicanhad added communications lasers to the other methods of communication in anattempt to draw a response from the aliens, yet there had been noresponse. One of the techs had evenconsidered firing warning shots, only to be deterred when Zach had pointed outthat opening fire was also a way of sending a message – and the aliens mightreply with weapons of their own. Themilitary wasn't used to dealing with the unknown, not after they’d masteredGalactic technology. All of humanity’s potentialenemies used technology from the same source...

    ...But the newcomers didn’t. And thatmeant that whatever they used was likely to have surprises they couldn't evenimagine.

    He glanced around the observation blister, searching forsigns of life. There weren't any that hecould see, apart from the three Marines who had taken up station in front ofthe airlock connecting to the shuttle. Theirfaces were hidden behind featureless helms, but he could read their nervousnessin their stance. The sensation of beingwatched was wearing away at their discipline and self-control, just as it waswearing away at Zach himself. It wasimpossible to regard the White Staras a fully human ship any longer. Shehad been infected with something utterly alien.

    The suit automatically ran a full sweep of thecommunications bands, searching for everything from a deliberate signal to anautomated distress beacon, but found nothing. There was no one onboard either ship, or if they were they weren’ttrying to call for help...and that wasworrying. White Star was larger than some Galactic superdreadnaughts, buteven she couldn't have carried so many passengers without some degree ofcramming them all into a single hull. What had happened to the passengers in the weeks since the ship had hadits accident? Some of them should havesurvived in an atmosphere, assuming that they'd had something to eat. And regulations stipulated that all starshipshad to carry enough ration bars to keep the crew and passengers fed if thevoyage ran overdue. Few people would want to eat ration bars, particularlythe Bandit Six bars produced for the Federation Navy, but they’d keep thepassengers alive.

    He frowned as he stepped up towards the hatch and outinto the corridor. The sense of beingwatched grew stronger as Nan followed him, pausing to allow him to glance left andright. One of the Marines was waiting bythe hatch; the others seemed to have proceeded in a clockwise direction aroundthe hull. The suit’s internal HUDbrought up the ship’s diagrams and informed him that the Marines were headingtowards the parts of the hull that had been sealed off from thepassengers. There were no reportedbodies so far.

    Nan was studying the feed from the nanotech sensors theMarines had scattered around, as well as a handful of her own sensors she’d hadconstructed onboard Pelican. “There’s very definitely a strong dimensionalflux, I think,” she said, finally. “Itrather reminds me of some of the warp field experiments they were conducting onEarth, before First Contact, but they never got the concept to work properly.”

    Zach glanced back at her. “Why not?”

    “I think the warp field refused to form properly inside agravity well,” Nan said, after a moment. “I don't know if they carried out any further experiments since Mentorgave the human race the keys to the stars.”

    She shook her head. “But half of the sensors already seem to be useless,” she added. “None of their reports seem to make anysense.”

    “That seems to be fairly common around here,” Zachmuttered as they rounded the corner. TheMarines were waiting for them, gathered in front of a pair of sealedhatches. “Captain?”

    “Stay there,” Buzz said. “We’ll have to blast this hatch inwards. It doesn't respond to anything to open it.”

    Zach took up position as the Marines fixed explosivecharges around the hatch and stepped backwards before triggering theexplosives. The hatch seemed to waver,almost as if it was shimmering in and out of existence, before vanishingcompletely. In its place, there was along corridor illuminated by pearly white light that seemed to stretch intoinfinity...which vanished a second later, to be replaced by the hatch. Buzz stepped forward and tapped on themetal. It sounded as tough as ever.

    One of the Marines let out a low whistle. “What the **** was that?”

    “I don't know, but the dimensional flux increased themoment you detonated those explosives,” Nan said. She sounded happier now that she had raw datato study, even if half of it made no sense. “I think the energy of the blasts was actually pushed into quantum space,flicking the revolving door...so to speak.” She hesitated. “It would be onehell of a defensive trick if we could get it to work properly. Anything above a certain level would beinstantly snapped into quantum space.”

    Buzz cursed out loud. “Are you saying that our weapons are likely to fail?”

    “It’s a possibility,” Nan said. She didn't sound worried, but then she didn'thave much military experience. Thenewcomers, deliberately or otherwise, might have disarmed the entire platoon. “It’s also possible that the hatch hadintersected with part of the alien vessel and your explosives merely sent thehatch spinning through quantum space rather than destroying it.”

    “The sensors didn't pick up that...alien corridor,” Buzzsaid, after a moment. “How do we getback inside?”

    Zach snorted. “Doyou want to get back inside?”

    Buzz chuckled. “Ithink we’d better finish searching this deck first,” he said, wryly. “Gino; you and Joe concentrate on opening thestairwell or the elevator tubes. Everyone else; split up into three teams and start searching the cabinson this deck. Keep in contact and don’thesitate to scream if you get into trouble.”

    “Yes, mother,” one of the Marines said.

    Zach followed Buzz as the Marine broke into the firstcabin. It was tiny, smaller than the boxhe’d been given on Pelican, butsurprisingly luxurious. A quick searchrevealed nothing apart from a collection of computer chips that refused to workand several bags of clothing, mostly female. The computer panel included in the cabin refused to work, even when Buzztried to remove the main display and hack directly into the system using hissuit’s processors.

    “This room looks to have been abandoned without astruggle,” he said, finally. Zach heardthe worry in his voice and found it hard not to share it. There should have been at least fiftypassengers on this deck, judging by the number of tiny cabins. Where werethey? White Star had been crammed with passengers. “Anyone found anything more interesting?”

    “I think so,” a Marine said. Zach’s HUD identified him as JOEBUCKLEY. “There are definitely signs ofa struggle in this cabin, and a usedgun.”

    Buzz led the way over to the cabin Joe had identified. There were a handful of bloodstains on thedeck, staining the dying oxy-grass – and a single pistol lying on the bed. Buzz picked it up and looked at it, frowningdown at the barrel, which appeared to have been bent and twisted by someonesuperhumanly strong. He opened thepistol and checked the rounds, noting aloud that the weapon had been fireduntil it had run out of bullets. Butthere was no trace of what the weapon’s owner had been firing at.

    “The blood has decayed quite badly, but I can identifythem as belonging to Albert Johannesburg,” Jimmy said, extending a sensor tubetowards the bloodstains. “That fits inwith the starship’s manifest; Albert was a bodyguard assigned to protecting theBritish Prince, along with five other SAS operators. He must have been off-duty when the **** hitthe fan.”

    “And slept right through it,” Buzz said. He sounded doubtful. “All of the records we got from the Randolph suggested that the...event wasvery violent. They should have all beenawakened by the collision.”

    “Maybe he went back here to get his gun,” Nan suggested.

    Buzz shook his head. “He would have clearance to carry heat at all times,” he said,seriously. “A full six-man closeprotection team would not allow their principle – the person they are supposedto be protecting – to board this ship without being allowed to bring theirweapons. If he’d been with the Prince atthe time, he would have been armed.”

    “He must have been up here then,” Joe Buckley putin. “So what happened to him?”

    Zach studied the cabin thoughtfully, wondering what SherlockHolmes would have learned merely by glancing around. Someone – or something – had crashed throughthe cabin like a bull in a china shop, tearing through bags and furniture with afury that seemed to be completely undirected. It didn't look as if thesearch had been very directed, although there was no way to tell what thesearcher had been looking for. A lockedbriefcase containing weapons and ammunition had been torn open and then dumpedon the far side of the tiny bed.

    “Not common hijackers then,” Buzz said, as the Marinescarefully retrieved the weaponry and carried it out of the cabin. “They would have taken the weapons with them,if only to prevent one of the bodyguards from breaking free and arminghimself. Whoever did this seemed moreintent on making a mess than anything else.”

    Zach nodded. Buzzseemed to be right. One bag revealed acash chip with Galactic credits and a small sheaf of human currency, enough topurchase tickets back to Earth away from the White Star if necessary. Earth had too few Galactic credits to waste, which suggested that someone had taken the Prince’s safetyvery seriously. He picked up the chipand glanced at the credit limit, swearing out loud when he realised that theowner could have hired an entire starship. Buzz was definitely right. Anyonecould use a cash chip and no hijackers worthy of the name would have left itbehind when they could have simply pocketed it and hidden it from theirfriends, keeping all the money for themselves.

    Two other cabins told similar stories, although one appearedto have been the scene of several grenades being detonated at once. The bulkheads were still intact, but therewas plenty of damage to the cabin’s interior, presumably ripping the bodyguard’sbody apart. Buzz nodded for Jimmy toconduct a brief forensic survey and stepped back, motioning for Zach to followhim. They were only getting in the way.

    “Nothing,” Jimmy said, finally. “I have the DNA of the bodyguard – Eliza Wrotham– on file, but I don't seem to be able to pick up anything from her attacker.”

    Zach blinked as his HUD opened a fire. Eliza Wrotham had been trained in America asone of the very few female Special Forces operators, before resigning and goinginto the bodyguard business, eventually coming to work for a very wealthy Arab whowanted a female bodyguard to protect his daughter’s chastity. God alone knew what had happened to thedaughter, or the remains of Eliza’s body. There was no sign at all of the thing that had attacked her.

    The remaining cabins seemed almost eerily untouched. Some of them had faint hints that there mighthave been a struggle, others looked as if the occupants had simply walked outof their own free will and vanished. Zachheard Buzz reporting to Pelican asthe Marines gathered at the end of the corridor, near the hiddenstairwells. No amount of exploration hadbeen able to locate them, even though the diagrams of the ship insisted thatthey should be there, behind an unmarked and seemingly immovable bulkhead.

    “I’m loathe to waste more explosives,” Buzz said,softly. “Gino, have you had any luckwith the elevator doors?”

    “They’re thoroughly jammed, but I think we can lock outthe command circuits and force them open,” Gino said. “But I have no idea where the actual elevatorcars are. These tubes were designed to run throughoutthe entire ship.”

    “They’re not likely to be working now,” Nan pointedout. “So much else on this ship doesn't seemto work.”

    Buzz shrugged. “Lightingworks, gravity works,” he said. “Computersdon’t work; internal transport systems don’t work; doors and hatches seemjammed. I don’t think we dare assumethat anything isn't working until we establish the root cause of these failures...”

    The entire ship shuddered, lightly. “What was that?”

    “Captain, there was a quantum space discharge nearby,”the shuttle pilot said. Zach cursed hisown failure to learn the man’s name. “Pelican is pulling away from the hull inhopes of establishing a safe distance.”

    Zach glanced over at Nan. “Have you managed to find any way of predicting the discharges in quantumspace?”

    “Negative,” Nan said. She sounded badly rattled herself. “They seem to be completely unpredictable. Even running a statistical analysis doesn't help.”

    Buzz cursed. “Sowe may have to wait for any help from the ship,” he said. “Gino, get the elevator doors open. We’re going climbing.”

    Zach watched dispassionately as the Marine struggled to isolatethe hatch control processors and push open the doors. Even with the suits augmenting their strength,it still needed three Marines to force open the doors and peer down thedarkened shaft. One of them shone alight down and saw the beam vanish in the darkness. There seemed to be no sign of any of theelevator cars.

    “I’ll lead the way,” Buzz said, flatly. “Gino and Joe will follow me, keeping adistance of at least three metres. Do not activate your antigravity podsunless you lose your grip on the ladder and start to fall. We dare not assume that we can trust them to functionproperly here.”

    Zach leaned over to Nan as the Marines started climbingdown the shaft. “Why is so much of our equipmentfailing here?”

    “I don't know,” Nan admitted, grimly. “It’s possible that the alien ship is somehowabsorbing energy from our equipment, perhaps even sensor probes; it’s possiblethat the combination of local space and quantum space has altered the laws ofscience to prohibit energy above a certain level from manifesting. But if that was the case, I would haveexpected the gravity generator to fail too – and that sucks up enough power torun every computer on this ship.”

    She hesitated. “Andthen there’s the possibility that the whole effect is deliberately aimed atcrippling us,” Zach said, into the silence. The First Contact trainees had speculated endlessly on what might happenif the Association ran into an alien race that had mastered quantum spacebefore encountering the Cats. Some racesmight be inclined to test the newcomers first before making open contact, asmultiple episodes of Star Trek hadsuggested. It was possible that thealiens were just making sure that the Marines couldn't harm them before makingovert contact. “Maybe they are hostile.”

    Nan looked at him. “You can't know that,” she objected.

    “They took people out of their cabins, whatever theywanted,” Zach said, flatly. He doubtedthat the crew of the White Star wouldhave any problems in convincing the bodyguards to move down into the lowerdecks, where they could protect their principles properly. No, that had to be the aliens...he blinked asanother flicker of light appeared at the corner of his eye and then vanishedbefore he could look at it properly. “Idon’t think that we can trust to their good nature.”

    There was a burst of static over the intercom, loudenough for him to dial the volume down as quickly as possible. It was followed by a high-pitched cacklingsound that seemed to come right out of a horror movie about evil witches andprincesses under a spell, a sound that grew louder and louder until it finallyvanished, as if someone had just clicked off a switch. Zach saw Nan tapping at his suit and tried tocall her, only to realise that their communicators had stopped working. He leaned closer and pressed his suit’s helmagainst hers.

    “I can't hear anything,” Nan’s voice said. It sounded odd vibrating through thesuits. “What’s happening?”

    “I don’t know...”

    The communicator clicked on again, sending a babble ofvoices right into Zach’s ear. Buzzbellowed for silence, ordering the Marines to pipe down and check in, one byone. Zach cursed under his breath asthey all reported. If the enemy couldshut down the communicators, they could shut down everything else...

    “Captain, this is the shuttle,” an alarmed voice said,suddenly. “Sir...Pelican’s gone!”

    Buzz’s voice was calm, firmly controlled. “What do you mean, gone?”

    “A discharge opened up right on top of the ship,” thepilot said. “Pelican was blown to atoms, without even managing to launch asingle escape pod. She’s gone, sir, and I have no contact withthe squadron at all. They may be gonetoo!”
     
  11. von bohmen

    von bohmen Monkey

    This is good.
    But then I like all your stories. Keep it up.
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    Buzz felt as if he had been punched in the belly.



    Hanging in the middle of an elevator shaft was no placeto think, but there was no choice. If Pelican was gone...



    “Get me a link to the cruiser squadron,” he ordered,quickly. Without the tender, they werestuck on the White Star until thecruisers could pick them up. “Transmit an emergency distress signal to thedrones.”



    “They’re too far away for a direct signal,” the pilotwarned. There was another shiver runningthough the entire starship. “We’d haveto send an emergency signal, but it will be hours before they receive it...”



    “And then they’d have to decide what to do,” Buzzfinished. He considered the problemwhile studying the blank metal walls of the elevator shaft. It was quite possible that the Admiral wouldrefuse to bring any more ships close to the WhiteStar, knowing that another quantum space discharge would destroy a cruiserEarth couldn't afford to lose. Theymight have to shuttle in and out of the danger zone, which would taketime... “Professor, is there no way youcan predict when and where the next discharge will take place?”



    Nan didn't sound panicked, but she hadn't realised justhow dangerous the situation had become in a handful of seconds. “No,” shesaid, “but the discharges are picking up rapidly. It’s possible that this entire area of spacemight become impassable within the next few hours...”



    Buzz hesitated. Heknew what to do if they came under fire, but this was different. If he took them all back to the shuttle andheaded away from the White Star, theymight be swept up in a quantum space discharge and destroyed – and they wouldhave to head back to the passenger liner at some point, if only because thebrass would demand answers. But if theystayed on the ship, God alone knew what they were going to encounter. Unknown aliens, or something completelyoutside the Association’s experience.



    “We proceed,” he said, finally. It was a paradox, but being on the White Star might be safer than trying toescape to clear space. “Gino, jam theuppermost hatches open; tear off the metal if there’s no other choice. I’m going to break into deck two.”



    The diagrams in his HUD insisted that deck two had held aswimming pool, an entertainment lounge, a handful of privacy tubes and a numberof cabins. Unsurprisingly, the elevatorhatch was jammed and he had to resort to main force to punch a hole through itsweakest point and then force it open. The elevator seemed to struggle until it became futile to struggle anymore, and then gave up. Buzz eyed it suspiciouslyas he jammed it open and then stepped out onto the deck. A moment later, emergency messages startedblinking up in his HUD.



    “Power drain,” he said, stepping backwards. The suits were sealed units, with onboard micro-fusionplants that should have kept them operating indefinitely, but power wasdraining from his systems. He tookanother step back and another, before the suit started to grind to a halt asthe power failed completely. “Can anyonehear me?”



    There was no answer. Of course, he told himself sharply, they wouldn't be able to hear him ifhis communicator wasn't working. It wasrated to operate in the most hostile of environments, but no one had everconsidered the possibility of...somethingdraining out the power. The suitfroze completely, the HUD blinking off and leaving him in absolutedarkness. He couldn't even see throughthe suit’s helm without its sensors. Buzz was blind and completely alone.



    He hesitated, and then started to prepare the emergencyescape system. Suits had been rendered immobile before andtheir operators had had to escape manually, but no one had ever lost powercompletely. Would the emergency escapesystem even work if the suit had lostall power? He remembered what hadhappened to the explosives they’d tried to use on the upper decks and shivered,before running through the first steps to activate the emergency systems. He’d just have to take the risk and hope thathe survived without serious injury.



    Something bumped against his suit. “Captain?” A voice asked. “Are you allright?”



    Buzz felt a wash of relief that he forced out of hisvoice. “The suit has lost power,” hesaid, relying on the vibrations to carry his words to Singh. “I’m standing here like a goddamn WeepingAngle, unable to move...”



    The suit suddenly lunged forward, weapons and sensorscoming online. Buzz gasped as the fullspectrum of operating systems blazed into his mind, hastily shutting down themore aggressive units before they decided to start targeting his men. The suit’s internal diagnostic systems didn'tseem to have realised that the suit had powered down for several minutes. No matter how hard he prodded the systems,they refused to admit to anything. Theonly odd point he could see was that time difference between his onboard chronometerand the datanet, which was running seven minutes ahead of Buzz’s onboardsystems.



    “The suit powered down completely,” he reported,grimly. No one else had suffered thesame effect, and Singh had walked further into deck two without experiencing anythinguntoward, but it might happen again. Hewas tempted to order half of the team to remove their suits, yet he didn't quitedare. It was a mystery why the White Star hadn't explosively decompressed,but if it did the suits were all they had to protect them. And it was quite possible that the lowerdecks were decompressed. “I want all operators to maintain at leasttwo meters separation from all other operators at all times. If it happens again, signal an emergency andretreat backwards.”



    If it works, headded, in the privacy of his own mind. It hadn't worked for him. Pushingthe thought aside, he headed towards the yawning hatch to the swimming pool,which would double as an emergency source of water for the ship’s passengersand crew if the White Star wascompletely disabled. The hatch shouldhave sealed itself the moment the ship’s sensors warned it of the loomingdanger, but instead the hatch was wide open, inviting him to look inside. There was no lighting inside the compartment,not even the emergency lighting from high overhead. The compartment was as dark and silent as thegrave.



    “Better not walk in too fast,” Joe Buckley said. “You might find yourself taking an unexpectedswim.”



    Buzz snorted. “I’msure we covered swimming somewhere inBUD/S,” he snorted. The Royal Marines,who had served as the template for the Federation Marines, had insisted thatall operators who wanted to join had to be expert swimmers, as well asshooters, runners and everything else that an SF operator had to cover before officiallybecoming part of the most fearsome fighting teams in the world. But Joe was right. The suits were too heavy to swim properly andclimbing out of the pool would be difficult without antigravity systems. “A SEAL knows how to swim.”



    He activated his suit’s lighting and stared into thecompartment. It was larger than he hadexpected, larger than any other swimming pool in space outside Orbit One, Earth’sgateway to the stars. The pool wouldhave satisfied both children looking for fun and serious swimmers, with anantigravity projector set up to ensure that they could swim in zero-gravity orsplash their way through waves that could become large enough for them tosurf. He’d seen something like it backduring BUD/S, where a gravity generator had produced waves powerful enough tothreaten the prospective SEALs with death in training, but he had a feelingthat the civilian version wouldn't be so rough. Or perhaps it would be. He’d hadsome good times in California, watching surfers ride waves that he would havefound challenging – and then complain that they weren't big enough.



    The surface of the pool didn't look right, but it tookhim several moments to realise what was wrong. It should have glimmered under the spotlights, yet instead it was darkand murky, as if something had been released within the water and ordered to befruitful and multiply. For a moment, hewondered if there were dead bodies in the water, but he saw nothing apart froma faint darkness covering the water like oil. It certainly didn't look safe to drink.



    “I think we have to assume that everyone on the ship isdead,” he said, as he stepped closer and knelt down beside the water. The WhiteStar’s safety systems had been uncomfortably close to paranoid, with somuch redundancy built into the starship that the crew and passengers shouldhave remained alive even if the ship lost main power and half of its mass, butwhatever had powered down his suit for a few seconds had probably knocked themall out. No one had even considered the possibilityof one ship becoming conjoined with another. “Either some force removed them, or they starved to death over the dayssince the ship suffered its accident.”



    The water seemed to bubble slightly as he extended ascanner probe from his suit and ordered it to analyse the water’s content. Without Pelican,it would take longer, but it should at least tell them if the water was safe todrink, whatever it looked like. Therewas a long pause, and then several warnings he’d never seen outside trainingpopped up in his HUD. DANGER –BIOLOGICAL ANALYSIS FAILED – BIOLOGICAL HAZARD – DANGER.



    “Jesus,” he muttered, fighting the urge to jump back fromthe swimming pool. The sensor probe had identifiednothing in the liquid, not even thehydrogen and oxygen that made up water. Everything read out as alien and unidentified, something that shouldhave been impossible. His suit carried avast database on every known form of biological life in the galaxy, butwhatever was in the water refused to be identified. It even refused to be categorised into knownsubsets of galactic life. “What the hellis this stuff?”



    “I don’t know,” Zach said. The First Contact specialist sounded badlyshocked, but then...he’d had the experience to know what losing Pelican meant. “It’s possible that wherever the alien craftcomes from, it is so far from explored space that it isn't related to anythingwe know.”



    “But the building blocks of life are always the same,”Jimmy countered. The team’s medic hadtaken a course on extraterrestrial medicine as part of his training, althoughthere was no way that the course could cover everything. Standard procedure for dealing with woundedaliens was to put them in a stasis chamber until one of their own doctors couldstart working on them. “This doesn't evenseem to be carbon-based.”



    “And yet my suit seems to think that it’s a biologicalhazard,” Buzz said, as he removed the sensor probe from the water and straightenedup. “How dangerous is this stuff?”



    “Impossible to say,” Jimmy said. “Diseases that cross racial barriers arerare, but they do happen – but they only happen when the two life forms are similar. You wouldn't be able to catch anything off a methanebreather and he wouldn't be able to catch anything off you. I think...”



    The suit seemed to fuzz, slightly, as the water bubbledand a mass of tentacles emerged from under the grimy surface. Buzz started backwards, too late; theywrapped themselves around his suit and started to pull him into the water. Red warnings flared up in his HUD as thesmaller tentacles started to probe away at his suit’s openings, attacking hisarmour with a strength no unaugmented human could match. Buzz cursed and triggered the suit’semergency thrusters, hoping that a burst of white-hot fire would discourage thetentacles from maintaining their grip on him. Instead, they seemed to pull at him even harder, forcing him to dig hishands into the marble surrounding the pool and try to resist their bestefforts. It wasn't working. The marble was breaking up as the tentacleskept pulling him into the grimy liquid. Somehow, he knew that merely touching that liquid would bring death.



    “Brace yourself,” Joe snapped. Buzz realised what he had in mind andtriggered the suit’s internal compensators, just before the first grenadesplashed down into the liquid. There wasa pause...and then a furious blast of liquid burst up towards the ceiling,splattering the entire compartment with the mysterious substance. The tentacles seemed to lose their grip, justfor a second, and Buzz triggered his thrusters again. This time, he almost made it clear before thetentacles resumed their struggle to pull him into the water. Joe opened fire with the plasma cannon mountedon his suit’s right arm, burning through the tentacles one by one. A second group of tentacles appeared at theside of the pool and lunged towards him, but he managed to jump back and firein more grenades before they could catch him. “Captain...”



    The final tentacle let go and Buzz found himself blastingtowards the side of the compartment. Hemanaged to spin the suit around, bounce off the bulkhead and land neatly at thefar end of the compartment, before running around to link up with Joe. The tentacles kept reappearing and trying tograb them both, but grenades and plasma cannon fire kept them back. Buzz made it to the hatch and they backed outthrough it, covering the pool with their weapons. His last sight was of the liquid that hadbeen splattered everywhere slowly making its way back to the pool, as if it wasalive. The sight sent a shiver down hisspine.



    Outside, the HUD started blinking up more emergencywarnings, all focused on the danger of biological hazard. Buzz bit down a curse as he activated thesuit’s emergency cleansing systems, wondering how the suit could determine thatthere was a biological hazard withoutbeing able to give specific details of the danger. Logically, it should be able to determine the precise nature of the threat andhow best it could be overcome, but this time it didn't seem to be able to offermore than vague warnings. After nearlybeing dragged into the pool, with his armour dented in a dozen places, he couldhave worked that out for himself.



    “All right,” Singh said, as the unknown threat was slowlyremoved. “What the hell was that thing?”



    “Unknown,” Zach said.



    “State the obvious, why don’t you?” Gino snapped. “I bet you that that...thing ate the bodyguards from the upper levels.”



    “Cut the crap,” Buzz snapped. “Let the man speak.”



    “We don’t even know what it really looks like,” Zachpointed out. “All the sensors saw of itwere tentacles, each one stronger than a human arm by several orders ofmagnitude.”



    “It dented my suit,” Buzz said. Now that they were relatively safe, he foundhimself fighting shock. Armoured combatsuits weren't invincible – plasma cannons could burn through them if theyscored a direct hit – but nothing physical should have been able to hurtthem. And yet his suit was reportingenough minor damage to cripple it – and if he’d been dragged into the liquid,he was sure that the suit would have been ripped open. “And it survived several grenades at closerange.”



    “We don’t actually know where the grenades went off,”Zach said. There were some chuckles fromthe Marines, all of whom had seen the brief engagement on their HUDs and knewwhere the grenades had landed. Zachcleared his throat, embarrassed. “Imean...we don’t know if they went off next to the creature’s head, or if theymerely cut off one of its toenails, or...”



    Buzz nodded. That was a good point. “So we have something that looks like amutated octopus in a swimming pool,” he said, finally. “And a potential biological hazard.”



    “A possible biologicalhazard,” Zach reminded him. “The suits aren'tcapable of breaking it down for study.”



    “So we assume the worst,” Buzz said, bluntly. So far, they’d been assuming that they had plentyof time to search the wreak, even after Pelicanhad been destroyed. That would haveto change. “We’re going to split up intotwo teams. One team will remain with theshuttle and stay on guard – it’s our only way out of here. The other will follow me directly to the ship’sbridge. Once we access the onboardrecords, we should be able to determine what happened just after the two shipsmerged together.”



    “Assuming that the ship’s computers remain active,” Zachsaid.



    “There are backup storage systems on the bridge,” Ginosaid. “If we cannot use the ship’scomputers, we can remove the ROM chips from the system and access them throughthe suits. No power in the galaxy canalter those records.”



    “Captain,” Joe Buckley said, sharply. “Look!”



    Buzz followed his gaze. The edge of the massive compartment had suddenly become translucent,glowing with an eerie light that was somehow utterly alien. As he watched, the bulkhead seemed to fadecompletely out of existence, to be replaced by what looked like a wall of solidenergy. And then it shimmered backagain...still translucent. It was as ifthe ship was turning into a ghost right in front of them.



    “Shuttle,” Buzz said, “please tell me you’re seeing this.”



    There was no reply. “I think we've been shifted into quantum space,” Nan said, after a longmoment. Buzz cursed himself. He hadn't even realised that she’d followedZach down into the lower deck. “Yoursignals won’t reach the shuttle because it’s in another dimension.”



    “Unless the shuttle came with us into quantum space,” Joesaid. He walked over towards thetranslucent wall. “What sort of powerproduces something like this...?”



    It happened too quickly for anyone to react. The deck below Joe’s feet turnedtranslucent...and he dropped right throughit, falling down into the unknown. Buzz shouted and ran forward, but it was too late.



    Joe Buckley was gone.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    They were coming.

    Nancy scrambled to her feet as she felt their presencedown the passageway. At first, theShambles hadn't seemed to be able to follow her into the tubes, allowing her tofind her way through the ship and jump out in places where she had been able tofind enough food and drink to keep her alive. But they’d been getting better at hunting her over the last few days,with some of the Shambles actually climbing into the tubes to follow her. If she hadn't been quicker than them in thetubes, they would have had her by now.

    Down one of the tubes, she saw the translucent effect she’dseen before, marking the shift from one world to another. She couldn’t understand what had happened toher ship, but she did know that the Shambles were always found near the eeriewhite glow. Moving from tube to tube inthe hopes of determining which one held the oncoming Shambles, she finallypicked a tube leading up towards the upper decks and scrambled up the ladderuntil she managed to climb up and into the tube. It was lucky that she’d always been good atclimbing trees and scrambling around, even though Mary had shouted at her when she'dcome back home with her dress muddy and torn. The silly bitch – she wasn't supposed to know such words, but she’dheard her father use them more than once – wouldn't have lasted a day on thenightmare the White Star had become.

    The thought reminded her of her father as she scrambledup the tubes, feeling the gravity field varying around her. A crewman who’d shown her the tubes hadcommented that the gravity field tended to be lower inside the tubes, to makeit easier for crewmen to scramble around the ship, but the changes seemed to betoo harsh for that. Nancy’s own theorywas that the Shambles, whoever and whatever they were, were altering thegravity deliberately to make it harder for her to run, yet if that was the casewhy hadn't they caught her by now?

    Years ago, she’d read a book about children struggling tosurvive in a world overrun by a hostile force. Some of the children had been captured, only to be released by theircaptors because hunting them down provided useful training for their soldiers. Maybe the Shambles worked in the same way,except that they were so alien that she could hardly bear to look at them. The first time she’d seen one, she’d panickedand fled, driven by an unreasoning fear. It had been like the first time she’d seen a snake, yet she’d managed toovercome that fear over the years since her first visit to a zoo. The fear that the Shambles invoked was sopowerful that she didn't think that she would ever overcome it.

    The gravity field grew stronger sharply, tugging her downtowards the intersection she’d been using as a hiding place. Nancy hung on grimly as her body grewheavier, unable to advance any further without risking a fall down towards theShambles below. Not that it would matterif they weren't there, she told herself; falling under such a gravity fieldwould result in broken legs at the very least. Back home, broken legs could be fixed in a week at an advanced hospital,using technology her father had helped pioneer, but now...the children in thestory she'd read had never been seriously injured. But then, they’d had the writer on theirside.

    She braced herself as the weight on her bones grew stronger,and then it seemed to just fade away. Below her, she heard a shuffling sound as the Shambles came into theintersection, hunting around for their target. Muttering words she knew her daddy would not approve of, she tookadvantage of the opportunity to climb higher, finally reaching another intersectionleading to deck five. Nancy scrambledinto the next set of tubes and pulled the hatch closed behind her, hoping –praying – that the Shambles wouldn't be able to track her. But she had no idea just how they followedher through the tubes. For all she knew,they were as capable as the dogs one of her father’s friends had used onhunting expeditions. Didn't the policeuse dogs to track down a suspect?

    The interior of the second tube was darker, barelyilluminated by the emergency lighting, but it looked reassuringly normal,unlike some of the tubes towards the lower decks. She'd tried, once, to get to the bridge,convinced that she would find the Captain there – or someone else who couldhelp her. The Captain had looked sostrong and reassuring when she’d dined at his table, but every attempt to getdown to the bridge had been blocked by glowing translucent corridors andhunting Shambles. She’d then tried tofind her father’s cabin, yet she hadn't managed to locate it in hours ofsearching. It seemed as if the ship’sinterior was slowly changing around her, all of her carefully-memorised deckplans rendered useless by whatever force had taken control of the White Star.

    She came to the end of the tube and carefully opened thehatch that should have led her onto deck five, where she might be able tolocate more food and drink. Outside, itwas dark; even the emergency lighting had failed. She reached for the flashlight she hadrecovered and switched it on, but it failed seconds afterwards. Some of the other power tools she'd recoveredhad had the same problem, failing for unknown reasons and then working properlyhours later. There seemed to be no rhymeor reason to the power shortages. Itreminded her of a popular British trilogy where the return of magic causedmodern technology to fail, but there was no such thing as magic. Her father had said so often enough, in his lecturesto students who had been trying to crack the secrets of Galactic technology. There was no such thing as incomprehensible technology,just technology that was incompletely understood.

    But if that was the case, what were the Shambles?

    Something moved inthe darkness, close enough to make Nancy jump and scramble backwards as fast asshe could, pulling the hatch closed behind her. She didn't dare open the hatch that led back to the intersection – the Shamblesmight be outside, poking their way up the tubes – but there was another shaftleading up to deck two. Carefully, sheclimbed up it, watching for any sign of threats. The hatch leading to deck three – midway throughthe climb – was shut and no amount of pressure would force it to open. Some of the hatches would lock automatically,she’d been told, if their sensors picked up vacuum or gas on the other side,compartmentalising the entire ship. Perhaps deck three, where she’d first encountered the Shambles, had beenexposed to vacuum. For all she knew, theShambles could survive effortlessly without air.

    The tube leading to deck two was open, thankfully. Nancy breathed a quick prayer of thanks asshe made her way down the tube and through the hatch. She’d spent plenty of hours in the swimmingpool during the first few days of travel, but now she wasn't even sure if theswimming pool was still there. The hatchclicked open, revealing a bare corridor illuminated by emergencylighting...and, at the bottom of the passageway, the faintly glowing translucenteffect that seemed to mark the Shambles. Nancy swore out loud and started to scramble backwards, only to feelsomething grab onto her neck and pull her out with astonishing force, throwingher to the deck. Convinced that theShambles had caught her, she started to scream...

    ***
    Zach stared in disbelief at what Jimmy had caught. It – she – was a teenage girl, around sixteenyears old, wearing nothing apart from her underwear. She would have been pretty if she hadn’t beenscreaming, no doubt convinced that she’d run into something like the monster inthe swimming pool. But she was definitelyhuman. Zach had no doubt of that, evenbefore her struggles revealed a very attractive body. He pressed his sensor against her skin andran her DNA pattern through the database. A name popped back almost at once; Nancy Brigham, daughter of JohannBrigham, CEO of Brigham Technologies, Inc.

    “I need to sedate her,” Jimmy said. Holding the girl down without hurting her wasa struggle; Nancy’s panic gave her the strength to keep fighting even throughit was futile. “Once she calms down, wecan talk to her.”

    “She’s terrified of you,” Zach snapped. The Marines had to look like facelessmonsters to her, wrapped inside their protective armour. She might not even realise that they werehuman. He cracked open his suit,allowing him to step outside and kneel down beside the panicking girl. Nancy’s survival argued that the atmosphere inthe White Star was safe tobreathe. “Nancy? Can you hear me?”

    The girl looked up at him blankly, as if she couldn't quitecomprehend what he was saying. “Nancy,my name is Zach,” Zach said, carefully. “We’rea rescue team. You’re safe now.”

    Nancy stared at him…and then hurled herself into hisarms, almost bowling him over as she clutched at him, tears streaming down herface. She was babbling incoherently ashe wrapped his arms around her and patted her back, waiting patiently for herto calm down enough so that they could ask her some proper questions. Jimmy took advantage of the pause to push amedical scanner against her neck and monitor her heath. Nancy didn't seem to notice as she heldJimmy, as if she was afraid that he would vanish at any moment.

    Just like JoeBuckley, Zach thought, grimly. Whathad it been like to be the sole survivor on the White Star? He couldn't imaginethe horrors Nancy had seen, watching a solid starship bending and twisting aroundher. Perhaps she’d even come face toface with the aliens themselves; she kept muttering the word Shambles over andover again. Zach had never heard of anyrace called – or nicknamed – Shambles, but the universe was vast. It was starting to look as if there were morethings in Heaven or the Association that were dreamed of by the Cats.

    The Marines had started to hunt for their missing comradeat once, but they’d found nothing. JoeBuckley’s transmitter had blinked off the moment he’d passed through the translucentbulkhead, suggesting that his entire suit had been rendered powerless. Zach had no idea how the aliens did that,unless Nan’s theory of a field that zapped all energy above a certain levelinto quantum space proved accurate, but he had to admit that it was aformidable defensive tool. The Marinescould be deprived of their suits and almost all of their equipment at the pushof a button.

    His radio buzzed. “Remindme to chew you out for stepping out of your suit,” Buzz snapped. The biological hazard warnings had gone, butif there was something truly alien present here the sensors might not be ableto pick up on it before it was too late. “What the hell were you thinking?”

    “She was terrified of us,” Zach said, keeping one eye onNancy. She seemed to have stoppedcrying, but she was clinging to him tightly enough to force the air out of hislungs. Like a great many people, she hadcoped fine with the crisis until it was over – and then she’d come to pieces. But it wasn’t over. The loss of Pelican meant that they were stuck on the White Star until the Admiral organised a rescue mission. And that would take hours, at the veryleast. “I had to show her that we werehuman.”

    Nancy looked up at him, suddenly. Her eyes were bright blue, almost inhumanlybright. It wasn't uncommon for women tohave surgery to improve their eyes and Nancy’s father had certainly been richenough to afford it, as well as the genetic tweaks that were coming into theopen market for the rich and powerful. There were still endless protests on Earth over genetically-modifyingthe human race, but the sheer level of demand for children who would neversuffer disease and enjoy a longer life was slowly breaking through the barriersestablished by the luddites. Andbesides, anyone with the money could go to a Galactic world and have theimprovements spliced into their genes.

    “You should run,” she said, softly. Her voice was shaking. “The Shambles are coming after me.”

    Zach held her, gently. “We came here to help,” he said, softly. He’d never been given any training in interrogating the only known survivorof a disaster, even though it might have been useful if a First Contactsituation turned violent and the human ships were forced to retreat underfire. “What are the Shambles?”

    “Monsters,” the girl said. She started to tremble in his arms, having apanic attack that threatened to overcome her rationality. “They’re monsters! Saw me, chased me, almost caught me...they’recoming for me! You have to run beforethey catch me.”

    “I’m bringing my group back to link up with your group,Jimmy,” Buzz said, through the intercom. “It seems that we may not be alone on this ship after all.”

    “Can’t run, can't escape, can't survive,” Nancysaid. Her mouth opened in a scream, soloud that Zach clamped his hand over her mouth before his ears started toache. Nancy’s first scream had beenmuted by his suit. “They’ll get me, they’llkill me, they’ll....they’re in my head, looking for me. Run, run, RUN!”

    “She’s suffering, badly,” Jimmy said. Zach opened his mouth to shout at him forpointing out the obvious, and then decided that it was a waste of time. “I don’t think she ate or drank very wellover the past few days, hence her emotional state and possible delusions...”

    “That thing that tried to pull me into the pool wasn't anillusion,” Buzz snapped. “And if we havealready encountered one threat, we may encounter another.”

    Zach nodded. “Thecreature from the black swimming pool didn't look to be able to move on itsown,” he added. “Or at least it didn't seemto be capable of leaving the pool. Thatsuggests that the creatures that took the bodyguards were different.”

    “We’ll make a Marine out of you yet,” Buzz said, wryly. The Marine Captain came into view as hejogged along the corridor, followed by two of his men. “We still haven’t managed to re-establish contactwith the shuttle.”

    Jimmy reached into his suit’s pouch and produced a small injectortube. “This is one of the many militarysecrets we don’t allow onto the open market,” he said, as he held it out toZach. “A complete meal in a singleinjection, enough to keep a soldier going for several days if necessary, matedwith drugs that simulate the body to even higher levels of effort.”

    “Also dangerously addictive,” Singh pointed out, “andonly to be issued at the CO’s discretion.”

    “Do it,” Buzz ordered. “We need to get answers out of her.”

    Zach carefully tipped Nancy’s head to one side andpressed the injector against her neck. It bleeped when he found the right place, inviting him to push thebutton and inject her with something that might give her a boost. She really needed a proper meal and asedative, and a good night’s sleep, but Buzz was right. There was no time. The injector buzzed in his hand as he pushedthe button, before he passed it back to Jimmy. Nancy seemed to start in his arms and then jumped backwards, landing onher ass in front of the Marines. Zachstepped forward and held out a hand, helping her to his feet while trying tokeep his eyes off her chest. She reallywas quite attractive.

    “All right,” Buzz said, as she looked up at the armouredMarines and then stepped backwards. “We’rehumans, from the Federation. Whathappened to the White Star?”

    Piece by piece, the story came out, although Zach wasn't surejust how much of it he believed. Nancy hadn'tbeen on the bridge during the incident and everything she’d see had been centredon her personally, which wasn't surprising, but it was annoying. Her stories about flickering between alternatedimensions were worrying, yet it was her use of the word Shambles that caughttheir attention. And yet she wasincapable of describing thealiens.

    Maybe that wasn't too surprising; the human eye was lazy,often incapable of truly recognising what it was seeing. Witness reports were rarely completely trustworthy;two people witnessing the same incident might see completely differentthings. And Nancy had been traumatisedby what she’d seen. No wonder herreports weren't exactly reliable. Theonly details that seemed to be understandable was that the Shambles were big,aggressive and trying to hunt her down.

    “Captain,” Jimmy snapped. “We’ve got...ghosts!”

    Zach looked up, sharply. The translucent effect was slowly sliding towards them, rendering thebulkhead and decking untrustworthy. Beyond it, the corridors seemed different somehow, as if they werelarger than they should be. Nancy whimperedin his arms as the glow came closer, muttering the word Shambles over and overagain. There was a faint whispering inthe air, followed by more of the flickering lights at the corner of his eye. The entire ship was changing aroundthem.

    “Don’t step on the glowing parts of the floor,” Buzzordered. It wasn't necessary. Everyone had seen what had happened to JoeBuckley. “Start moving back, now...”

    At the end of the glowing corridor, something appearedand started marching towards the Marines. It was difficult to look at it directly, as if it was so alien that thehuman eye couldn't see its true shape and form. Two more appeared behind it, illuminated by the glow from thebulkheads.

    “Shambles,” Nancy whispered. “Shambles!”
     
  14. Pezz

    Pezz Monkey+

    This is one of your best works yet. The way you manage to convey how utterly unable the human characters are able to process what they see of the unknown ship / aliens is great. Thanks again for all your work.
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    There were people, Buzz knew, who had an instinctive fearreaction when confronted with extraterrestrials. They were commonly branded racists, but itwas far more complicated than the irrational hatred that characterised human racismagainst other humans. ETs weren't humanand that was evident from the moment they came into human view; they didn't movethe same way, they didn't speak the same way and they certainly didn't always think the same way. The more humanlike the alien race, the moredisconcerting humans found it. TV had inventedthousands of alien races that were nothing more than humans in funny makeup,but real aliens were genuinely alien.



    He had overcome that reaction very quickly; those who couldn'tovercome it couldn't become Federation Marines. And yet, looking at the creatures Nancy Brigham had called Shambles, hefelt that old fear crawling down the back of his neck and onto his spine. Even lookingat them was difficult; his eyes just seemed to slide off the creatures asif they weren't really there. His suit’sinternal sensors seemed unable to decide if the Shambles were really there orif they were nothing more dangerous than an illusion. At one moment, they seemed hot enough to showup on even basic IR sensors and at another, they were simply not there atall. He had to render his helm transparentjust to allow him to track them with the Mark-I eyeball. It wasevident that his onboard sensors were untrustworthy, along with the rest of thesuit.



    Zach might have hadthe right idea, he thought grudgingly, as the Shambles came into view. It was easy to see why Nancy had given themthe name, for there was little understandable about their appearance. The lead one appeared to be roughly humanoid,with two legs, but had three arms, including one growing out of his chest. Number two had four legs and no arms, atleast as far as he could tell. And numberthree was clearly a cyborg, with flesh and metal woven together into a single monstrouswhole. Buzz had seen some of theexperiments in creating enhanced humans for fighting the Galactics, but none ofthem had ever been so...brutally ugly. Publicopinion was largely against such enhancements, believing that the victims wouldbe isolated within human society. Theymight well have been right.



    But the Galactics didn't all share that view. There were races that worked endlessly tosplice improvements into their genes, or enhance their abilities to interactwith their technology. The Cats had evenmanaged to render themselves biologically immortal, although they’d saidnothing to the rest of the Association about how they’d done it – and therewere some people who felt that the Cats had realised that it had been amistake, too late. And yet the Shamblesseemed to defy even what merger conventions the Galactics had about geneticengineering. There was certainly nothingregular about them.



    He switched his speaker to loud as he hefted his plasmarifle. “ATTENTION,” he said, loudly enoughto be heard all the way down the corridor. Behind him, part of his mind noted that the unsuited Zach and Nan werehelping Nancy get back, away from the Marines who were taking up position behindtheir CO. “HALT OR WE WILL OPEN FIRE!”



    The Shambles ignored him. In fact, he couldn't tell if they had ears or mouths or any other way tocommunicate. There was no such thing astelepathy in the Association, at least not telepathy that transcended racial boundaries,but it was possible that they had some form of communications implants insertedinto their bodies. The scanners builtinto the suit reported nothing, yet that didn't necessarily proveanything. It was quite possible thatthey used untraceable microbursts, just like the Marines themselves. The lead Shamble raised its arm as it approachedBuzz’s position, reaching out to grab him. There was no more time.



    “Fire,” he ordered. Streaks of brilliant white bursts of plasma spewed out of the plasmarifles and tore into the Shambles, blowing chunks of flesh all over thepassageway. The Shambles seemed to stop,just for a second, and then reassumed their advance, while Buzz watched indisbelief as the damage they’d inflicted on the fleshy monsters healed withterrifying speed. They seemed smaller, somehow, but that wouldn’t stopthem being dangerous. He jumpedbackwards as one fleshy arm reached for his helmet, convinced that it couldtear right through the armour and reach into his head. “Continue firing!”



    The Marines pushed their plasma rifles to rapid fire,something discouraged outside of basic training, and concentrated on vaporisingas much of the flesh as possible. One byone, the Shambles stopped and tried to rebuild themselves, only to be rippedapart by repeated plasma bursts from the Marines. Slowly, they disintegrated into pools of moltenflesh which began to dissolve into steam.



    “Thank God,” Gino said, with some relief. “What sort of creature can stand up to aplasma blast?”



    “The trauma should have ruined their day if nothing else,”Jimmy said. He bent down beside thepuddles that were all that remained of the alien creatures, but they were dissolvingtoo fast for him to analyse them. “Ofcourse, if they didn't have pain nerves of any kind, perhaps they simply didn'tfeel the pain as we hacked them apart.”



    “Lucky bastards,” Gino commented. There was a general murmur of agreement. They’d all gone through the savage trainingcourse that turned a ground-based SF soldier into a Federation Marine, atraining course that had been known to kill recruits or send them screamingback to their national units. Pain hadbeen their constant companion after the second day. “You think they’ll ever manage to create agenetic modification package that will turn off our ability to feel pain?”



    “Use your goddamned implant,” Jimmy snapped at him. He picked himself up from where the Shambleshad died and looked over at Buzz. “I couldn'tget enough of a sample to analyse them, boss. The decay was so rapid that they’re completely gone. Whatever was holding them together failed andthey just...collapsed.”



    He hesitated. “Theyweren't any known species,” he added. “Idon’t even see how something like that could have evolved.”



    “They didn’t,” Zach said. He sounded sick; the stench of vaporising Shambles had wafted along thepassageway to where he was crouching with Nancy, one hand on the plasma pistolthe Marines had trained him to use. “Allknown forms of alien life are symmetrical, apart from those who had some formof engineering in their past. Like theToads, for instance.”



    Buzz winced. TheToads were one of the older Galactic races, but they hadn't been particularlydeveloped when they’d been discovered and offered the technology the Cats haddeveloped over thousands of years. They’dpromptly started engineering their own population, creating a set of castesthat underpinned their entire society. The luddites on Earth, fearful of the dangers inherent in geneticengineering, pointed to the Toads as an example of what could go wrong. Could humanity end up segregated intoworkers, warriors and masters? Theycertainly believed that they couldn't trust the governments of Earth to resistthe temptation.



    Zach left Nancy with the suited Nan and came forward,gagging slightly at the smell. “Wealready know that the alien tech is different from ours,” he added. “They might just use a form of biologicaltechnology instead of mechanical tech like us. For all we know, these...Shambles might have been grown on an assemblyline and sent out to hunt down the humans onboard this ship.”



    “Which leads us to a single question,” Singh put in,dryly. “Where are their masters?”



    “There’s no way to know,” Zach said.



    “Actually, I think I may have a theory,” Nan said. “We may have underestimated the extent towhich the two ships have become conjoined, even though there was no explosivedecompression in the White Star...”



    “In the parts of the WhiteStar we have inspected,” Buzz corrected her. “For all we know, everything below deck fouris depressurised.”



    Nan ignored him. “...Wehave no data on how an interpenetration event might work out,” shecontinued. “What if some of thecorridors in the White Star havebecome linked to passageways in the alien ship?”



    “That doesn't tell us where the aliens are,” Gino said,after a moment. Buzz couldn't disagree;the glow had receded as soon as the Shambles had been destroyed, but it hadn't fadedcompletely. If the interior of the White Star had been blurred into theinterior of the alien ship, who knew what they’d find if they walked down thetranslucent corridor? The White Star’s bridge, or somethingcompletely alien? “Where do you think they are?”



    “On their ship,” Nan said, flatly. “Why should they go hunting for humans themselveswhen they have the Shambles to do it for them?”



    Buzz nodded. “Idon’t think that we can stay here,” he said. Five Marines, two experts who might as well be civilians...and a singlescared little girl. It wasn't a forcecapable of storming an alien ship – and besides, all of the boarding andstorming simulations had concentrated on starships with understandable technology. “They’ll know what happened to the Shamblesand start sending more after us.”



    “It took nearly an entire power pack each to burn downthe bastards,” Singh said. He ejected thepower pack from his rifle and slotted in a new one. “How many more can we destroy before we getoverrun by sheer weight of numbers?”



    “And what happens to us when they capture us?” Buzz asked. There was no answer. Joe Buckleywas still missing and even though his suit was constantly sweeping for signs ofhim, there was nothing. He could beanywhere, a prisoner of the unseen aliens. “Professor...is there any way you can track the distortions in localspace?”



    “I’m working on it,” Nan admitted, after a moment. “But half of my sensors simply fail whenconfronted with the interdimensional rifts. I don’t think we can come up with anything that might work in thisenvironment.”



    Buzz cursed under his breath. Nan was right, perhaps righter than sheknew. All of humanity’s sophisticatedtools to analyse their surroundings needed power to function, as did theirsuits and weapons. If the power drain reoccurred,they might be rendered helpless when the next force of Shambles arrived to huntthem down. The real question wasunanswerable, even though he suspected he knew the truth. Was the power drain a side-effect of slippinginto another universe, or a deliberate attempt to cripple their ability to takeon the aliens when they finally showed themselves?



    “We proceed onwards,” he ordered, finally. “Zach, get back into your suit...”



    “I can't leave Nancy unprotected,” Zach objected. Buzz gritted his teeth. A Marine would have understood the dangers,but Zach was effectively a civilian, doing the wrong thing for the rightreasons. “She can go in my suit...”



    “She can’t, because she doesn't have the training to useit,” Buzz snapped. He felt his temperboiling up, an effect of facing dangers of unknown scope and potency. The Marines would have been a lot happier ifthey’d been leading a nude charge against a Hegemony fortress. “Get into that suit now. That is a ****ingorder!”



    He didn't wait for Zach to finish reassembling his suitand gently pick up Nancy before leading the way down towards the translucentcorridor, weapons at the ready. The glowseemed to grow stronger, but the deck remained solid. Somehow, he didn't find that reassuring. Whatever had happened to Joe Buckley mightnot have been an accident, not if the aliens had such good control over the dimensionalwarp. They might have deliberatelyintended to capture a single Marine for questioning before dealing with theremainder of the platoon.



    There were four Marines – and the pilot – back at theshuttle, but they weren’t responding to his call. He considered briefly sending a small groupback to see what – if anything – had happened to the shuttle, something thatwould get both Zach and Nan out from under his feet, yet he knew that it wouldbe dangerous for the team to split up still further. God alone knew what was happening deeperinside the White Star, but he had afeeling that the unseen aliens were concentrating on picking off small groupswhile waiting for...what?



    He considered the problem as they finally reached thestairwell, or where the stairwell should have been. It was gone, replaced by a blank bulkheadthat seemed to be of human manufacture. Whywere the aliens twisting the interior of the White Star? Were the aliens twisting the interior ofthe ship or was it just a side effect of the dimensional warp? And if thatwas the case, were the aliens genuinely hostile or were they merelyprotecting themselves while awaiting rescue. The Federation Navy had responded to the White Star’s distress; who, if anyone, would respond to the aliensif they’d called for help?



    “We could try to blow through the bulkhead,” Ginosuggested. “We have enough explosive leftto punch a hole in the metal.”



    “Except we don’t know what is on the other side,” Buzzpointed out, remembering what had happened the last time they’d tried to useexplosives. They’d seen...something; now, he suspected that they’dlooked into the alien ship before the dimensional warp flickered and hid itfrom their sight. “God alone knows whatwill happen if we try to punch our way into the stairwell.”



    Nancy’s voice could be heard at the far end of thecorridor, where Zach was coddling her. “Iused the tubes to get around,” she said, into the silence. “Can’t you use them too?”



    “Not with suits on,” Buzz said. They could remove the suits, but if therewere other Shambles on their way they’d be caught effectively naked. Even Marines, who were among the strongestmen on Earth, couldn't carry the heavy plasma rifles with their barehands. It took a suit to transport suchfirepower around with ease. His menwould agree to go without them if he asked, he knew, but it was a risk theydidn’t have to take yet. “There’sanother elevator at the far end of the corridor.”



    Everything seemed to shimmer as they walked through thepassageway. For a moment, Buzz feltlight-headed, almost as though he hadn't eaten anything for days and hunger wasfinally catching up with him. And thenhe felt almost drunk, his head spinning so badly that his suit engagedemergency protocols to prevent him falling to the deck. The sense of dizziness grew stronger as hestruggled forwards, his thoughts no longer working properly. It was harder and harder to remember hisname...



    ...And then the glow faded away, along with thesensations. “That was weird,” Gino said,grimly. “What the hell was that?”



    “Theoretically,” Nan’s voice said, “crossing adimensional border would produce disorientation among minds used to normalspace.”



    “Nothing theoretical about it,” Jimmy reminded her. “We feel some discomfort when we slip into quantumspace.”



    “I think the Shambles do it,” Nancy piped up. The teenage girl sounded stronger now thatshe’d been given a chemical boost – and seen three of her tormentors blown tobloody chunks that rapidly decayed into nothing. “I used to feel...odd when I was trying tofind food, but I told myself that it was just hunger.”



    “There are ways to produce barriers that act to repelunwanted guests,” Gino said, thoughtfully. A flicker of light danced at the corner of Buzz’s eye before vanishinginto thin air. “It could be just anotherfield of emotional repulsion.”



    “But dressed up so that it looks something more alien,”Jimmy said. His voice hardened. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn't afield of emotional repulsion be detectable by our sensors? And we’re picking up nothing?”



    “The sensors are also insisting that there’s nothingwrong with the White Star,” Ginocountered. “I don’t think we can rely onanything they tell us.”



    Nan spoke over them. “We’ve been assuming that these aliens are native to the same continuum asourselves,” she said. “What if they’refrom a...third dimension, a third space?”



    Zach chuckled. “Theymade us watch that movie too.”



    Nan ignored him. “Perhapsthe alien tech is so alien because they don’t come from our own universe, butsomewhere where the physical laws are different,” she said. “Quantum space allows FTL travel and producesenough energy to throw a starship thousands of light years in a splitsecond. What if there’s a third universewith very different physical laws. Nothing we’ve seen on this ship makes sensein our universe, or in quantum space, but it might make sense in their universe.”



    “And you think that we might just have been pulled intotheir dimension,” Buzz said, following her line of logic. Humans were native to normal space and couldoperate in quantum space, but the third dimension? The only proof they had that humans couldlive there was the simple fact that they hadn't dropped dead the moment theycrossed the dimensional barrier. If Nanwas right, of course. “So...how do wefind the aliens?”



    “Unknown,” Nan said. “We could start by broadcasting the First Contact package here, ratherthan from the outside.”



    “That would tell them where we are,” Gino pointed out.



    “I think we have to assume that they already know where we are,” Buzz said. If the aliens were genuinely responsible fortwisting the starship’s interior and kidnapping Joe Buckley, he couldn't seethem having any problems tracking eight humans. But then, they hadn't bothered to actually catch Nancy. “Gino, startopening the hatch...”



    The translucent glow returned suddenly, eerie light blazingdown all around them. Zach let out agasp and jumped away from the bulkhead, too late to avoid a questing tentaclereaching for him. Before anyone couldreact, it caught hold of his suit and started to pull him back towards thesuddenly insubstantial bulkhead.



    In his arms, Nancy began to scream.
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    mysterymet likes this.
  17. goinpostal

    goinpostal Monkey+

    This is fast becomming one of you're better galactic saga's.
    Thanks for sharing it with us!
    Matt
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eleven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “I can’t break free!”



    Zach struggled – and felt the suit’s servomotorsstruggling too. But the tentacle wrappedaround his leg was too strong. He threwNancy away from him as the suit went crashing to the deck and scrabbledfrantically for something to hang on to before he could be pulled right throughthe translucent bulkhead. The suit’sarmoured claws dug into the deck, tearing into the dying oxy-grass and themetal underneath, ripping up a concealed inspection hatch and trying to holdhimself still. And yet the pressure onthe suit kept growing stronger. Redemergency warnings blinked up in his HUD, warning that the suit was on theverge of being pulled apart.



    “Brace yourself,” Buzz snapped, as he and Gino pointedtheir rifles at the tentacle. Morewarnings flashed up in Zach’s HUD as they opened fire, trying to burn throughthe object holding him. Zach took hischance and struggle harder, trying desperately to break free – and somethingsnapped. He found himself flying throughthe air, only to be caught by Jimmy before he could slam into – or through –the far bulkhead. The entire ship seemedto be shaking around him as he rolled over, just in time to see the Shamblecome through the bulkhead where it had almost caught him.



    The Shambles that had chased Nancy had beenhumanoid. This one was anything,but. It was a whirling mass of tentacles,without any clear centre, almost like a mutated octopus. Each tentacle was a combination of metal andflesh, worked into a single entity that was far larger than the averagehuman. There was no way to tell how itsaw the universe – no obvious eyes, or ears, or noses – but it seemed to haveno problem seeing the Marines. It cameafter them with deadly intent, each tentacle snapping out towards a different Marine.



    “Blow it away,” Buzz snapped. All four Marines opened fire, burning throughthe creature’s tentacles and trying to find its heart. The Shamble seemed tougher than the last one,almost as if its creators had studied what had happened to the first three andimproved on the design. Zach couldn't imagineanything made of flesh and blood thatcould stand up to plasma fire, but the Shamble seemed barely damaged andcertainly not slowed. The Marines jumpedbackwards, retreating back towards the passageway they’d used to enter thecompartment, only to discover that it had closed itself behind them. The seemingly random shifts through alternateuniverses that dominated the conjoined ships had trapped them.



    Zach activated his own weapons and joined the Marines infiring on the creature, but the Shamble just kept coming – and growing. It was possible that it was far larger thanthey realised, with part of its mass still hidden behind the translucentcompartment. An idea floated through hismind and he put it into practice before he could think better of it, runningaround the Shamble and right up to the bulkhead. Tentacles snapped out at him, moving withterrifying speed, but he evaded them and pushed his head right through the bulkhead. Beyond, he saw an endless stream offlesh...and a twisted head with hundreds of glowing red eyes, peering down athim. Behind the Shamble, there was atwisting passageway that looked to have been hacked out of living flesh. It had to be part of the alien ship...



    Activating the grenade launcher, he fired three grenades towardsthe creature’s head and then jumped backwards, back through the bulkhead. A tentacle caught him and threw him towardsthe elevator doors, which clanged alarmingly when he slammed into them, beforethe explosion sent the remaining tentacles falling to the floor. Like the first Shambles, they started todecay almost at once, collapsing the dust almost instantly. Jimmy tried to pick up a chunk of flesh toanalyse, but it decayed to nothingness in his hand.



    “Good work,” Buzz said. The praise wasn't forced – and Zach felt a glow of pride. “What did you see beyond the bulkhead?”



    Zach looked up. The translucent effect was gone. A quick tap on the bulkhead revealed that it was solid once more. He shook his head as he tried to describewhat had happened, trying to understand just how the aliens could control theeffect – assuming that they were controllingthe effect. There was something quite randomabout Shamble attacks, as far as he could tell. Perhaps the interior of the alien craft was just as screwed up as the White Star’s interior. But there was no way to know.



    “They’ve closed off our line of retreat,” Buzz said. He tried to hail the shuttle, but received noanswer. “I think we’d better keepheading down to the bridge. Perhaps wecan find answers there.”



    Gino and Jimmy walked over to the elevator doors andstarted trying to open them. It waseasier this time because of the dent Zach had left in them when the Shamble hadthrown him into the doors, allowing them to use their armoured muscles to pullthe elevator right open. Surprisingly,they found themselves looking into an empty elevator car, apparently powerless. Buzz didn't like it and ordered the Marinesto open a hole in the bottom of the car rather than risk using it. Zach, who had once had a bad experience withan elevator that had jammed while he’d been riding in it, couldn't disagree. Besides, if the car did turn out to have power, who knew where it would end up? They might be delivered right into the hands –or tentacles – of the next batch of Shambles.



    He watched as Gino shone a light down into the darknessbefore shaking his head. “Nothing as faras I can see, boss,” he said. “The shaftis only fifty metres – we should be able to see something.”



    “Particularly since we’re not on deck one,” Singh pointedout, dryly. Zach took a step forward andsaw what he meant. The elevator shaftwas dark and silent, the beam of light vanishing into the darkness almost as ifit had been absorbed into the shadows. Itwas all too easy for his imagination to fill in all kinds of suggestions aboutwhat might be hiding inside the darkness. “I don’t like this, boss.”



    “Me neither,” Buzz said, “but we don’t have any otherchoice. We can't burn our way throughthe bulkheads and get back to the shuttle.”



    Assuming theshuttle is still there, Zach thought, knowing that the Marines must havehad the same thought themselves. Theshuttle pilot and four Marines should have been able to guard it, but theShambles were growing tougher. Maybethey were safe and bored, wondering what had happened to their CO while theytried to raise the Admiral; maybe they were already dead and the shuttle hadbeen destroyed. There was no way to knowwithout speaking to them directly and the communicators were refusing to workover more than a few meters.



    Gino nodded, knelt down beside the hole they’d torn inthe car and reached around for the recessed ladder built into the shaft. For a moment, he felt nothing and then he duckeddown, into the shadows. The lights onhis suit seemed to dim for a long moment before recovering, casting an eerielight around the darkness. It seemed tobe a living breathing entity...Zach had to remind himself to stop imaginingdangers. The danger they were facing wasquite bad enough.



    “Got it,” Gino called up. The communicator seemed to be slightly disrupted again, with bursts ofstatic punctuating his words. “It isn't toohard to find the ladder even without the emergency lighting.”



    “Glad to hear it,” Buzz said, dryly. “Go down two meters. I’m coming after you, then Jimmy. Nan, Zach and Nancy will come next, withSingh bringing up the rear.”



    Zach reached for Nancy and picked her up, giving her apiggy-back ride on the suit. There wasno other choice; she was shaking so badly that he doubted that she could climbdown the ladder in the darkness. Buzzseemed to be having problems finding the ladder himself; there was a terrifyingmoment when he was convinced that the Marine was going to plunge down into thedarkness before he caught hold of one of the ladder’s rungs and swung himselfdown to join Gino. Jimmy followed,promising to catch Nan if she fell. The quantumspace expert snorted at him as she tried to fit through the hole herself,barely managing to avoid falling herself...



    ...And then the entire compartment started to glow. Singh sank into the deck, barely managing tojump out before it went completely intangible. Zach caught him as he reached the elevator shaft, which had remainedreassuringly solid, just before the next Shamble appeared from the glowingbulkhead. It was humanoid, but had sixdisturbingly human-looking arms and wore what looked like a visor where itseyes should be. And it was staggeringlyfat. There were few humans who werefatter and could walk, but the Shamble seemed to stagger forward on twodisturbingly fat legs.



    “Hit it,” Singh said, sharply. Zach opened fire, burning right into theShamble’s chest. It didn't even slow asit reached out towards Singh, who ducked its arms while continuing to blast itwith superhot bursts of plasma. TheShamble didn’t even seem to notice as it turned to follow Singh, ignoring Zachcompletely. “Captain, this Shamble doesn'tseem to be affected by plasma weapons fire.”



    “That’s impossible,” Buzz said, from his position in theshaft. “There isn't anything outside hull metal that can stand up to plasma weapons forlong.”



    “This creature is,” Singh said. He stood up, unfolding the blades hiddenwithin his suit, and slashed out at the Shamble. The blades tore through the flesh as throughthe Shamble was made out of paper, but the wounds healed instantly. “I’m ****ed if I know what it’s made of, butit’s adapted to what we used to take out its friends.”



    “Just like the ****ing Borg,” Jimmy said. “Get down the shaft, now.”



    “Not yet,” Singh said. Zach blinked as he activated his grenade launcher and dropped one of thegrenades into his hand. “There's somethingelse I want to try first...”



    Before Zach could say anything, he armed the grenade,held it on his palm and slammed his hand right into the Shamble with terrifyingforce. He would have put his hand right through a normal human if he’d struckthem with that level of force, but his hand just jammed inside the Shamble,flesh moving to keep his arm stuck while its armed moved to grab hold of hissuit. And then the grenade explodedinside the Shamble and the creature was knocked back on its heels, coming apartinto a series of fleshy chunks. Singhwas knocked backwards, cursing out loud in a language that Zach didn't recognise. He hit the deck and started to sink into thetranslucent glow, just before Zach ran forward and caught hold of him, dragginghim back to the elevator shaft. His suit’sarmour had been badly damaged by the blast.



    “My thanks,” he said, finally. Zach’s suit reported that Singh had almost certainlybroken an arm, despite the armour he’d been wearing. The blast had gone off right in his palm, afterall. “Boss, my arm is definitely broken. The suit’s medical systems have alreadysealed it, so I can still move, but I’m not going to be at full efficiency untilwe get to a medical centre.”



    “Good to hear it,” Buzz said. “Get into the shaft and...”



    “I think we’d better hurry,” Zach snapped. “Look at the Shamble!”



    The other Shambles had decayed into dust whendestroyed. This one seemed to be flowinginto liquid, which moved across the deck and merged into other pools of liquid,slowly regaining its form. The bigger itgrew, the quicker the other pools joined it, merging into one massive gelatinousshape that took on a humanoid form. There was no trace of a face, or anything a human would recognise as anexpression, but Zach couldn't escape the feeling that it was laughing atthem. Singh had broken his arm trying todestroy it and the Shamble had simply reconstituted its form.



    “Get into the shaft, now,” Singh ordered. “You have Nancy to take care of; I’ll hold itoff.”



    “But...” Zach begun.



    “That’s an order, mister,” Singh snapped. “Go, now. I’ll hold the creature off.”



    Zach took one last look at the Shamble, which was slowlyre-growing its arms, and then headed over for the tear in the elevator car’s flooring. Below him, he could see the lights of theMarines in the darkness, torn between heading down to the command deck orwaiting for their Sergeant to escape. They were trapped, Zach realised suddenly, unable to stay or go withoutthe remaining three humans. He kneltdown and felt around for the ladder, suddenly feeling a whole lot lessconfident about climbing down the shaft. And yet he’d climbed down one before...



    There was a grunt from Singh as the Shamble moved forwardwith terrifying speed, forcing the Marine to boost his suit and evade, dancingaround the Shamble and daring the creature to catch him. The Shamble seemed completely focused onSingh, altering its own form slightly to make it easier to catch a boostedMarine, even through Singh seemed completely unconcerned about the danger ofbeing caught. But one of his arms wasbroken and hanging uselessly and his weapons weren't harming the creature atall...one swipe from the creature scored a hit and Singh was sent hurtling acrossthe compartment and right into a bulkhead. His armour started to sink into it and it was only through desperateeffort that he managed to pull himself free. The Shamble kept advancing towards him, growing newer arms to help catchhim.



    “Stop jerking off and get into the shaft,” Buzzsnapped. Zach cursed his own mistake ashe started to scramble down the ladder. “Hecan’t get in without you moving out of the way!”



    “I’m clear,” he said, as the rest of the Marines startedto clamber down the ladder. Singh shouldbe able to join them now that the path was clear – and the Shamble was toolarge to follow them down the shaft. Unless it could split into multiple Shambles...he pushed that thoughtaside as too depressing, before glancing up as something shook the entire ship. “Sergeant...?”



    Singh swore out loud. “It’s got me,” he said, grimly. Zach could hear the strain in his voice as he struggled with thecreature. “Boss, get moving. Don’t worry about me.”



    “I can't leave you,” Buzz insisted. “I can scramble past the geeks and get up toyou.”



    “Go, I said,” Singh snapped. Zach heard a cracking sound from overhead andrealised that the Shamble had broken into Singh’s suit. “Go...”



    Something crashed down through the elevator shaft,narrowly missing Nancy’s head from where she was clinging onto the back of Zach’ssuit. Singh’s suit hadn't just beencracked open; the Shamble had torn it in half. There was no sign of a body, nor anything from the implants insertedinto Singh’s body. The Shamble mighthave eaten him, or perhaps whatever was interfering with their equipment waspreventing the implants from signalling for help. But the Shamble was coming closer to theelevator shaft and there was no time to speculate. They had to escape before it caught up withthem.



    “Get down the shaft,” Buzz snapped. The urgency in his voice drove them on. “Gino, keep heading down until you reach thecommand deck, then get inside, whatever it takes. Everyone else, just keep moving.”



    Nancy screamed. Zach looked up and saw the faint light from high overhead blotted out bya single massive form. The Shamble seemedto be stymied by the elevator shaft, at least for a few seconds...and then itstarted to extrude tentacles of its own. Zach fought down the panic that threatened to overcome him as hestruggled to get further down the shaft, wondering just how much of its ownmaterial the Shamble could convert into grasping tentacles. It just added another piece to the puzzle,confirming his suspicion that the Shambles had been engineered by an unknownalien race. No naturally evolving formof life – no known naturally evolvingform of life – had such great control over its own biology.



    He ducked as a tentacle reached down and almost caughthis helm. Nancy started to lowerherself, even though she risked losing her grip and falling off. Zach did his best to evade the growing massof tentacles, but finally one latched on to his helm and started to pull himback up towards the Shambles. He held onto the ladder desperately, but the Shamble was so strong that he felt the rungsbreaking under his hands. One broke andhe found himself swinging through the air, the Shamble hoisting him up to itslevel. Panic drove him forward and heactivated the retractable blades buried in his suit. Singh had tried slashing through the creature’sbody and failed to inflict any serious injury, but maybe he could sever a tentacleor two...he slashed out, cutting right through them. For a second, he seemed to float in theair...and then he fell down into the darkness, losing his footing on the lowerrungs. There was a brief moment of lightas he fell past the Marines, only to plunge further into the shadows. They seemed to crawl around him like a livingthing.



    His antigravity pods should have halted – or at leastslowed – his fall, but they refused to work properly. There was a moment when he – they – blew fromside to side...and then he felt right into the darkness. It seemed to reach up towards him and heblacked out.
     
    Sapper John, von bohmen and Pezz like this.
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Twelve<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />



    “We have to go after them!”



    Buzz stared down into the darkness, trying to see some –any – trace of light. But there wasnothing, not even using the highest levels of resolution his suit couldprovide. Zach and Nancy had fallen andvanished – while the creature that had knocked them down was still trying tocapture the rest of his shrinking team. By any reasonable measure, the mission had already failed and he shouldconcentrate on getting everyone out alive, but there was no choice. They hadto go onwards to the bridge and hope that they found answers there.



    “We can't,” he said, pushing his feelings aside. Nancy had been a civilian girl, one of themany the Marines existed to protect; Zach had been a good man, if hardly suitedto join the Marines. And Singh had diedat the hands of the Shamble above them. He wanted to kill the creature, but they didn't have anything else theycould use against it. “Keep moving down,rapidly.”



    Gino was already twenty meters below them, working on thehatch that should have led into the command deck. The remaining Marines activated their plasmarifles and fired on the tentacles as they kept reaching down towards theirsuits, hoping to burn enough of them away so that the creature gave up the pursuit. It crossed his mind to wonder if the Shamblecould reconfigure itself into something that could follow them down the elevator shaft, but he pushed thethought aside. They’d just have to praythat it couldn't reach them like that, or they were dead.



    Nan kept protesting as she was pushed down the shaft,clinging to the ladder for fear that one of the Marines would accidentally hither. Buzz rolled his eyes as he stoppedjust above Gino, who had managed to open the conduits controlling the elevatorhatch and reprogram them to open the doors without an elevator car being on theother side. Gino lunged forward as soonas the doors opened, weapons at the ready, but saw nothing dangerous. The rest of the team followed him, closingthe doors in the hope that the Shamble would lose them. There was no time to look further down the shaftand see if they could pick up any traces of Zach and Nancy. He cursed softly as the doors finishedclosing. They’d just have to pray thatthey were all right. Maybe they’d foundJoe Buckley, wherever he was.



    Nan staggered and sat down against the bulkhead, holdingher armoured head in her hands; the rest of the team glanced around, ready foranything. After what they’d gone throughto qualify as Federation Marines, none of them would give up, even whenconfronted by something utterly outside anyone’s experiences. It was clear that the training simulationswould have to be radically revised.



    He smiled at the thought as he looked around him. WhiteStar had been designed to allow the crew to be berthed away from thepassengers, probably in smaller cabins or even shared bunking facilities, justlike the Marines used on their assault carriers. The entire command deck was meant to besealed off from the rest of the ship, and indeed it looked reassuringly normal. There were no glowing bulkheads or menacingShambles, but a quick tap at a nearby computer access point revealed that theship’s datanet was still non-functioning.



    According to the diagrams in his HUD, they were in theship’s security compartment, where the small army of security officers wouldhandle any threat to the ship’s integrity. There had been so many bodyguards onboard the ship that Buzz suspectedthat the security officers, if they had been worthy of the name, would havebeen deeply worried. Weapons werenormally forbidden onboard interplanetary and interstellar passenger shipping,but the bodyguards would all have permits and the operating company would havebeen warned not to make too many waves. Carefully, he slipped into the office and blinked in surprise. There was a single body lying on top of oneof the tables, dead.



    “Dominic Beethoven,” Jimmy said, checking the man’s DNAagainst his suit’s files. He reached outand pulled the man’s uniform away from his shoulder, revealing a very familiar pairof tattoos on his skin. One was a globeand anchor, representing the United States Marine Corps; the second was a setof nine stars, representing the Nine Stars of the Human Sphere. It was also the symbol of the FederationMarines. “He used to be one of us.”



    Buzz nodded. Therewere no visible wounds, nothing that suggested how the retired Marine haddied. “What happened to him?”



    “Transferred over from Force Recon, served in thelandings on Terra Nova and the later capture of a Hegemony superdreadnaught,”Jimmy said, reading through the highlights of the Marine’s career. “He was wounded in the second operation andforced to return to Earth for treatment. The Corps were apparently willing to countersign his secondment to the White Star; there’s a code on the file Idon’t recognise.”



    “Someone probably wanted to make sure that the civilianswere well-protected,” Buzz said, quietly. He reached down and gently closed Beethoven’s eyes. “What happened to him?”



    Jimmy hesitated, running a medical scanner over the deadbody. “I honestly don't know,” headmitted. “There’s no trace of anyactual damage, nothing that might have actually killed him...it’s as if hisbody decided to simply stop working. Everything just shut down.”



    “Curious,” Buzz said. He frowned, considering the possibilities. “There are poisons that leave no tracesbehind, aren't there?”



    “He was augmented with combat nanites, just like us,”Jimmy reminded him. “You can’t poison aMarine, boss.”



    “Perhaps his augments stopped working,” Ginosuggested. “We know that some tech seemsto fail in this...environment.”



    “They shut down automatically upon his death, but theydon’t seem to have been disabled beforehand,” Jimmy said. He hesitated. “I can try and hack into the recorders, butwithout the right codes I might not be able to do more than accidentally wipethe data nodes. He’s not alive toconsent anymore.”



    Buzz scowled. Theadvance in technology allowed senior officers – and Boards of Inquiry – to literallylook out through a Marine’s eyes and see everything the Marine saw. It had caused considerable discontent for theFederation Marines because the recorders were never switched off, allowing thewatchers to see everything from misbehaviour to a Marine’s private time withhis wife, girlfriend or even a random girl picked up for the night. Some Marines, resenting the mistrust shown bytheir superiors, had even started to find ways to hack into their augmentationand turn the recorders off, something that had crippled several Marines whenthey’d accidentally damaged the interface software linking the augmentedMarines to their augments. Eventually,in a rare burst of common sense, the senior officers had determined thataugment records could not be accessed without the Marine’s consent – or clearproof, enough to satisfy a court martial board, that there had been an offenseagainst the Federation Code of Military Justice. Trying to hack into the records withouteither was an offense against military law – and an unsuccessful hack wouldautomatically wipe the records.



    “Leave it,” Buzz ordered, finally. He glanced around the office and spied acomputer, but a quick check revealed that it was powered down and useless. At least they could pull the datachips out ofthe back and carry them in their armour. “I wonder why they didn't take his body.”



    “Perhaps they missed it,” Jimmy suggested.



    “Perhaps,” Buzz agreed, doubtfully. It didn't soundright. There had been over athousand passengers and crewmen on the WhiteStar. They should have been wadingthrough bodies the moment they entered the main hull, just like in some of thesimulations where the Marines were the first into the wreaks of ships that hadexplosively decompressed. And then therewere the ships that had been hit by pirates and abandoned for the Marines todiscover and clean up afterwards. “Butthey took every other body...”



    There couldn't beany other explanation. If the ship haddecompressed, some of the bodies would have been floating near the White Star and Pelican would have detected them before she was destroyed. The remainder of the bodies would have beenfound in the White Star; they certainlywouldn't have decayed rapidly enough to be unnoticeable, not without leavingenough traces for the team to pick up and study. No, the aliens had to have taken the bodies,but why? He could understand taking ahandful of bodies to study – they wouldn't have encountered humans before, sothey would want something they could dissect and study to learn about the humanrace – yet why would they take all ofthem?



    “There’s another possibility,” Nan said, when he spokehis thoughts out loud. She didn't soundsteady, he realised, and she was careful not to look at the body. “There might be a time differential betweenour dimension – technically, it’s not a dimension – and their universe. The WhiteStar might have experienced thousands of years in the two weeks it took usto get out here.”



    Buzz blinked. Stasis fields could stop time, at least for anything caught inside thefield. The standard practice for dealingwith badly wounded Marines was to put them in stasis until a proper medicalteam could be assembled and put to work on the injured Marine. But he’d never heard of a field that couldspeed time up – but then, why wouldanyone want to speed time up for aselected victim? Maybe it would serve asa torture device, he concluded; the victim would literally age to death while afew seconds went by on the outside.



    “Might be fun,” Gino commented. He chuckled, mischievously. “You could move so much faster than the girlsthat you could undress them in a split second and then leave them to realisethat their clothes had vanished.”



    “Trust you to think of that,” Jimmy snapped. “You do realise that such a device wouldleave you much older than anyone else?”



    “There was an episode of the Simpsons that had such a premise,” Gino said. “Such a shame that Bart was too young to putthe time-stopper to proper use, even if he did age overnight into a teenager.”



    “That will do,” Buzz snapped. “Professor...is that even possible?”



    “Theoretically, yes,” Nan said. She hesitated. “It's difficult to explain in layman’s terms,Captain; most of it revolves around wormhole theory and desynchronising theends of the wormhole so that passage through it takes thousands of years, from the point of view of the peopleinside. But no one has done any actual researchinto the subject as far as I know.”



    She shook her head. “There has been some theoretical research done into the prospect ofalternate universes – quantum space might just be one of many, as I suggested –but we might be the first people to actually prove that quantum space isn’talone. If there is a universe where timeruns faster than it does in our own universe, it could account for the disappearance of the bodies...”



    “No, it doesn't,” Jimmy countered. “The oxy-grass would have vanished as well,but when we found it the grass was still dying. And this Marine” – he nodded to the dead body – “would have crumbledinto dust. Unless the time flux wasincredibly localised, I don’t see that theory complying with observed evidence.”



    “And the ship’s equipment would be even more decayed,”Gino added. “The Cats taught us to buildto last, but apart from the ship’s hull there is nothing that would havesurvived thousands of years without decaying significantly. And Nancysurvived without growing into an elderly woman.”



    “She was definitely fifteen when she boarded the White Star,” Jimmy agreed. He looked over at Nan. “I’m sorry, Professor. It was an elegant theory.”



    Nan didn't seem too annoyed. “Theories are broken all the time,” she said,ruefully. “Besides, if they can manipulate time on such a scale...we’reutterly outmatched anyway.”



    Buzz stepped out of the security office and checked thediagrams in his HUD. “The bridge shouldbe down here,” he said. The White Star, like most warships, had itsbridge in the rough centre of the ship, turning it into the mostheavily-protected compartment of the starship. In theory, the ship could be badly crippled and still remain undercontrol from the bridge. Actualexperience in the Earth-Hegemony War had suggested that that was a littleoptimistic, but the basic theory remained sound. “Bring up the rear and watch out forShambles.”



    A warship’s berthing spaces tended to be divided between quartersfor enlisted men and officers, although most Federation Navy warships weren't largeenough to offer more than a tiny cabin to their commanding officers. The enlisted cabins were empty – some withthe same signs of a struggle they’d seen on the upper decks – and abandoned,leaving behind everything from private stashes of expensive food topornographic datachips. Buzz glancedthrough them quickly and then left them behind. If they managed to get the WhiteStar back to Earth, the ship could be searched at leisure and privatepossessions passed to their owners next-of-kin, but right now there was no timeto waste picking up worthless possessions. He did make a note of where the food had been left behind, knowing thatthey might need it if they couldn't get back to the shuttle and out of thedistortions surrounding the White Star.



    “Cool,” Gino said, sounding almost like a new recruitwhen he peered into the Captain’s cabin. “I think we should have berths like this on an assault carrier.”



    Buzz followed him into the cabin and rolled hiseyes. The Captain of the White Star had three entire rooms tohimself, large enough to hold four Marine platoons, one of them containing abath and shower combination that used water – not sonic pulses. It was the height of luxury in space, eventhough water could be recycled along with almost every other form of waste. Federation Navy Admirals didn't get treatedso well...and, looking at the diagrams, it was clear that the Captain’s cabin wasn'teven the largest cabin on theship. For over a hundred thousanddollars – or Association Credits – the very rich could enjoy a suite thatconsisted of no less than ten cabins,all to themselves.



    Captain Smith had seemed to rattle around in his cabin,unsurprisingly. The brief bio they’dbeen given of the ship’s commander had pointed out that Smith had been a formerCaptain in the Federation Navy and would be used to travelling light. Every junior ensign had a strict allowancefor how much baggage they were allowed to bring with them and anythingexceeding that allowance was unmercifully jettisoned into space or sent back totheir families if they were prepared to pay delivery fees. They would rapidly have learned to carrydatapads instead of books, datapads which could store everything fromelectronic copies of famous novels – and training manuals – to music andvideos. There were some bonuses to beingpromoted, like an increased baggage allowance, but not enough to fill Smith’scabin.



    “No sign of a struggle,” Jimmy noted, “but someone doesseem to have run a bath and then emptied out the water.”



    “There’s probably a monster lurking in the internalpiping,” Gino said. “Hey, boss; why don’twe go back to the Admiral, tell him that they’re all missing and suggest thathe opens fire on this ship from a safe distance?”



    “Because we don’t know what happened to the passengersyet,” Buzz said. He hated politics, eventhe limited politics that infested the upper levels of the Federation Navy, butit didn't take much imagination to know what would happen if they returned hometo report that they’d blown up the WhiteStar. Every relative, friend and crawlingsycophant of the dead passengers would be lining up to take a pound of fleshfrom the Federation Navy and Marines. TheAdmiral’s career would be blown out of the water, but that wouldn't be the endof it. There were political stresseswithin the Federation that might tear it apart, given half a chance. “And because we may not be able to get backto the shuttle.”



    He paused, reviewing the diagrams in his HUD. In theory, they could walk along the commanddeck until they reached the hull, whereupon they could board one of thelifepods and use it to escape the ship, but the alien ship was right on top ofthem. The lifepod might be unable toescape, even assuming that it had power. Or they might interpenetrate directly with the alien ship and bevaporised, along with both starships.



    “And because we have no way of knowing what will happen tothe transdimensional rift when one or both starships explode,” Nan added,sharply. “If you open one quantum gateon top of another, you get a massive energy discharge...”



    “An explosion, in other words,” Gino said.



    “...And quantum space is badly disrupted,” Nan continued,ignoring his contribution. “There’s noway of knowing what will happen if we don’t shut the rift in the universalfabric down very carefully. It couldgenerate an energy storm that would render quantum space impassable forthousands of light years around.”



    “The Association would be crippled,” Buzz said. The Association stretched across nearlytwo-thirds of the Galaxy. Losing theability to access quantum space for thousands of light years wouldn’t destroyit, but every world caught up in the disruption would be cut off from itsneighbours. There would be a traumaticshock on a massive scale. “I think we’d definitelybetter get to the bridge.”



    The bridge hatch remained firmly closed until Ginostarted to work on the access point. Amilitary design wouldn't have allowed anyoneto get in from the outside, but the civilians weren't allowed to seal theirbridges off from anyone else. It wasn't awise regulation, in Buzz’s mind, yet it worked in their favour. The hatch jerked and slowly started to inchopen, revealing a now-familiar translucent glow...



    “And what,” Gino demanded as he straightened up, “is that?”
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Thirteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    Joe Buckley opened his eyes.

    He was surrounded by a translucent glow, as if the entireship had become a ghostly version of itself. Looking upwards, it was hard to see anything beyond the glow until hestarted to squint, seeing a ceiling that seemed to be made of pulsatingflesh. He couldn't tell where the glowwas actually coming from, but therewas something chillingly unnatural about it, as if it was beaming down into hisvery soul. Joe started to move anddiscovered, to his horror, that he could barely move his arms and legs.

    Memory caught up with him and he remembered what hadhappened. He’d fallen, hadn’t he? The deck had suddenly turned into an intangibleghost and he’d fallen down into darkness. He prodded his memory, trying to understand what had happened to him,but after the fall he remembered nothing. Where was his suit? Something hadtaken his suit – and knocked most of his augmentation offline. But that was supposed to be impossible. Unlike the suits, the augmentation implantsdrew their power directly from his body. They shouldn't have died unless he'd died himself. Perhaps he'd died and gone to Hell.

    He turned his head and realised, for the first time, thathe was lying on a jelly-like material that was clinging to him firmly. Moving his arm slightly was easy enough, buthe couldn't raise it or tear himself away from the material. No amount of struggling seemed to pullhimself free, no matter what he did. Itwas almost as if the material was anticipating his moves and working to blockthem. Carefully, he peered around him,but saw nothing apart from the glow. Itpervaded the entire chamber.

    Concentrate, hetold himself, firmly. All Marines went throughthe dreaded Conduct After Capture Course and the even more dreaded Escape andEvasion Course during basic training. He’dbeen prepared for torture, truth drugs or mind probes, warned that humanity’senemies might not respect the Geneva Convention...which had been a joke onEarth long before humanity had discovered that it was a very small fish in avery big ocean. Tales of what theHegemony had done to human prisoners had spurred the Marine Corps onward duringthe war – few Marines had allowed themselves to be taken alive – but even theHegemony hadn't put its prisoners in such a weird prison. But the principles were still the same, hetold himself firmly; wait, conserve one’sstrength, learn as much as one can...and then escape.

    The room was hot and muggy, with a strange taste in theair that reminded him of pollen from the cornfields near where he’d grown up asa child. If the aliens breathedpoison...he was breathing it already. Normally, his augments would have scrubbed out the dangerous particles,but now he knew he didn't dare rely on anything apart from his own strength andcunning. Surely they'd know if they werepoisoning him...but accidents happened, even in the Association where basicbiological data on all races was available to all. There were alien races who couldn't toleratealcohol and alien foodstuffs that killed humans within seconds. A single mistake could cause a majordiplomatic incident.

    They wouldn't havecaptured you if they wanted to kill you, he told himself, and managed torelax. The material holding him in placeseemed to relax too; perhaps it grew stronger the more violently hestruggled. Maybe if he lay still longenough it would release him and he would be able to escape before it grabbedhim again. They could have killed you easily when they removed your suit.

    Carefully, he peered into the light, trying to make outthe shape of what lay beyond. At first,there was nothing...and then he spied another table. Perhaps the aliens were intent on examininghim medically, trying to learn what made the human race tick, but if they’dcaptured all of the crew and passengers on the White Star surely they would have enough data already. He couldn't tell if there was someone on the table, yet looking at it thetable seemed to have grown directly out of the deck, as if they were all oneentity. There was no way to know, but itlooked almost as if the alien ship was aliving entity in its own right. TheAssociation had been careful not to develop true AIs, so the concept of anintelligent starship was almost unknown to them, yet the human race had definitelyimagined the possibility. Who knew what would happen when humans createdtrue AIs...

    Maybe they will puton slinky little cocktail dresses and set out to kill us all, he thought,sourly. Turning his head, he peered inthe other direction and saw a fleshy bulkhead. The alien ship was definitely biological, although it was impossible totell if it was all biological or ifit had merged with technology at some point in its development. Maybe both...and coming to think of it,perhaps the technology wasn't as alien as he’d thought. The Marines merged with their own technologyand there were some humans who were so badly crippled that there were experimentsunderway to allow them to live in a combat suit, perhaps even a starship. Perhaps the aliens had just taken the conceptfurther than the Association – or the human race – had ever ventured. Anything was possible, given enough time andresources.

    Something moved,high overhead. He looked up and sawsomething uncoiling from the ceiling, slowly extending itself down towards hischest. Joe started to struggle as ittook on the shape and form of a giant needle, but the material on the tablegripped him so firmly that all of his struggles were useless. The extending device touched his chest andpaused, before pressing down firmly. There was a stab of pain, and then a cold sensation that spread out fromhis chest, anesthetising his entire body. He couldn't tell if it was a mercy or just something that had beenintended to prevent him from struggling further. There was almost no sensation any longer asthe tube retreated, but something was very wrong...

    He started, suddenly aware of his body again. There were things crawling around inside him, hunting through his flesh andblood for something...and leaving other things behind him. He couldn't tell if it was his imagination orsomething real, but panic started to bubble through his mind as he struggled tono avail. Something seemed to burst outof his body and scuttle up towards his chin, the material gripping him nowholding him so firmly that he couldn't hope to even move his head. The tiny creature crawled over his throat andchin, stopping just in front of his lips. Joe tried to see what it was, but his eyes couldn't move low enough toallow him to see more than a blur. Andthen it was inside his mouth, crawling down his throat...

    The panic overcame him and he started to scream. It was far too late.

    ***
    Nancy opened her eyes and looked around. She was lying on something soft, somethingthat had cushioned her fall as she’d fallen into the elevator shaft. The entire area was illuminated by thetranslucent glow, revealing fleshy walls surrounding her, almost as if she’dfallen into a giant creature’s stomach. She’d been on the holorides at Super Disneyworld and remembered one ofthem based around a tiny nanomachines sent into an human body, allowing theriders to see what the interior of their own bodies looked like. The walls seemed to be exactly the same, apartfrom the eerie greenish-yellow colour. But perhaps that was just a trick of the light.

    She stumbled to her feet and almost tripped over thecombat suit. Zach, the man who hadcaught her and carried her down the elevator shaft, had fallen with her, but hedidn't seem to be responding. She tappedthe side of the suit, hoping that he was alive and well, yet there was no response. When she produced one of the multitools shehad recovered and pressed it against the side of the suit, there was still no response. She tried to turn the suit over, in the hopesthat she could find a way to open it up, but it was too heavy to move. Zach had to be dying inside and there wasnothing she could do for him.

    Nancy looked upwards, hoping to see the rest of therescue party abseiling down the shaft, but there was nothing. There wasn't even a shaft! One of the rescue team had talked about theship’s interior seeming to change without warning, and she’d seen somethinglike it herself, yet now she was looking at something alien. The fleshy mass hadcovered the gap and cut them off from the rest of the rescue party. She had survived on her own for several days –she found it hard to believe their claim that it had been two weeks since the White Star had suffered a disaster – butnow she wanted to be with them. As ateen, she had wanted to be independent and alone, yet it had been nothing morethan a delusion. She needed Zach to wake up and recover, justto have someone with her. Carefully, sheprodded the suit again and then looked all over the visible material. There was still no visible way to open itfrom the outside.

    Angrily, she kicked the suit. “Wake up,” she said, unable to escape thethought that she might be kicking a dead body. And yet she’d landed lightly on the fleshy deck; why hadn't Zach landed lightly? Carefully, she reached over and touched thebulkhead with her bare finger, ready to yank it away in a moment if necessary. It felt oddly repulsive to the touch, almost likeit was sweating in the hot air. Nancytrailed her hand across it and then sniffed her finger tips. The smell reminded her of the time when herfather had, in one of his more absent-minded moments, left the freezer turnedoff and all the meat had defrosted and decayed into a rotting mass. Could the alien ship be rotting away?

    She took one last look at Zach and then started to walkdown the passageway. The sense of beingwatched grew stronger as she left Zach behind, as did the pulsations runningthrough the fleshy bulkheads. If thealien ship was a living thing, she asked herself, did it have a heart as wellas a brain? Hadn't one of her father’s favouritestories focused around an entire fleet of biological starships? She cursed her own childish ingratitude asshe stopped and studied the alien flesh. If she’d read the book, like her father had suggested when she’d beenmore bratty than normal, she might have been better prepared for thisexperience. But she had read all of the extensive safety instructions handed out by thedishy man who’d been their attendant and theyhadn't come in handy, had they? Noone had ever imagined a collision in space that left two ships mergedtogether.

    Ahead of her, she heard what sounded like breathing...andthen she heard a scream. Taking fright,she dashed back to where Zach had fallen, praying desperately that he wasalive. Whatever was lying in wait in thecorridor, she knew that she didn’t want to face it alone.

    ***
    Zach awoke to absolute blackness. There was absolutely nothing from the suit,no HUD flashing up in his face, no servomotors buzzing away as they tried tocompensate for the sheer strength of the alien Shambles. The jelly-like liquid that allowed him tobreathe had pulled away from his mouth, leaving him lying in a suit thatrefused to move. It was designed tobreak down slowly into oxygen, he’d been told, but the suit itself wasairtight. Sooner or later, he wouldsimply run out of air.

    Buzz had lost power for a few seconds, Zach remembered,but his power had come back. This time,it was impossible to escape the feeling that the suit’s systems had been shutdown for good. He tried to trigger thesuit’s emergency systems, but they refused to respond even when he pushed downhard on the triggers built into his gloves. The power had been drained so completely that there wasn't even atrickle charge to keep the suit ready for recharging when they returned to thesquadron. He couldn’t imagine what kindof technology could do that...

    But if the alien ship – or whatever – had killed the suit’spower systems, it should have killed him as well. There was electricity running through humanminds, after all, and anything that pulled power out of the suit should havedrained him as well. Coming to think of it, it should have killedBuzz back when his suit had been depowered. Could it be, he asked himself, that the aliens were so advanced thatthey could pick and choose what they drained? Or perhaps they simply targeted power sources that went above a certainlevel and drained them completely, leaving others alone. Logically, they should have killed everythingfrom plasma rifles to grenades, but they hadn't done either. Nothingabout it made sense.

    Different universe,he reminded himself. The laws of thisrealm might be different from the laws governing their universe, but it shouldbe possible to deduce them through observation and reasoned analysis. There might be a universe where magic existed– or technology so advanced that it passed for magic – yet observation shouldallow them to determine what was possible and what wasn't. The aliens had shown that they could drainpower or it was a natural trait oftheir universe. But they couldn’t drain power from human brains. And thatsuggested that their biological technology had something in common withhuman minds, or their technology would have failed as soon as they powered itup.

    Shaking his head, he pushed the thought aside andconcentrated on breaking out of the suit. In absolute emergencies, he’d been told, there was a way to triggerexplosive charges that would blow the suit open, but it was not something to use unless there was noother way to escape. Strong Marines hadbeen killed or injured trying to escape crippled suits – and they’d had pain reduction implants andother tricks to help them survive. Zachhesitated, and then freed his hands from the suit’s arms and pulled them upinto his chest. It was harder than ithad seemed, but in the end he pushed down on the trigger firmly. The entire suit seemed to jerk upwards andthen come crashing down to the deck.

    “You’re alive,” a voice said. Zach looked up through his shattered helm tosee Nancy, tearing away at the remains of his helmet. Right then, she was the prettiest thing hehad ever seen. “I thought you were dead.”

    “I certainly felt that way,” Zach said, struggling out ofwhat remained of his suit. The explosivecharges hadn't detonated properly, unless the simulation they’d been putthrough had been deliberately exaggerated. At least he’d been able to get out of the suit. “What happened to you?”

    “I heard someone screaming down there,” Nancyadmitted. She hesitated, just longenough for Zach to realise that she was scared out of her mind. “I ran...what happened to us.”

    Zach looked up. Unsurprisingly,the elevator shaft was gone. They’d beenknocked down the shaft and then...? Helooked around at the fleshy bulkheads and realised that they must have fallingright into the alien craft. The realmystery was why they were still alive, unless the energy-absorbing propertiesof this universe absorbed kinetic energy as well. Or maybe the aliens had altered the gravityfield long enough to catch them. Walkingaround, the gravity felt lighter than Earth’s gravity field.

    “We’d better go take a look,” he said, grimly. He reached inside the remains of his suit andproduced a chemical-propelled pistol and two of the emergency wristcom units. They couldn't carry everything in their barehands, but they’d have them with them if they needed to use them. The multitool Nancy had dropped on the fleshydeck refused to function, unsurprisingly. So did the laser pistol he’d had mounted inside the suit. “Complete power drain, damn it!”

    “But things run out of power all the time,” Nancy said,puzzled. “My father said that it was amajor problem.”

    “Not like this, they don’t,” Zach said. The more he looked at it, the more he wassure that the alien universe was hostile to mechanical technology. He couldn't understand how it happened, butthe aliens were probably just as confused by human technology and the laws ofthe human universe as he was confused about theirs. “Come on, let’s go see what made that scream.”

    It grew hotter as they walked down the corridor, thetranslucent glow fading in and out of existence. Zach had assumed that it was an effect of theinterdimensional rift, but maybe it was something the aliens were deliberatelycontrolling. The passageway seemed to beshrinking slowly, forcing him to order Nancy to stand behind him, before it widenedsuddenly and they found themselves looking into a large chamber. It seemed to be divided into a number of alcovesand each one held a table, seemingly grown right out of the organic mass thatmade up the ship. The sound of apulsating heartbeat – if it was a heartbeat – grew louder as they stepped downinto the chamber.

    “It’s like a human stomach,” Nancy whispered. Zach couldn't disagree; it felt as if theywere walking through a massive creature, rather than a starship. But perhaps the aliens were used to the strangelyfleshy interior of their ships. “Why don’tthey have proper walls and ceilings?”

    Zach shrugged. “Alienaesthetics are different from ours,” he said, although he had never seenanything quite as eerie as the fleshy chamber. “This might be their idea of a perfect place to work.”

    And then they heard the scream again, coming from thefinal alcove.

    “Come on,” Zach snapped. The floor seemed slippery under his feet, but at least it wasn't fadingaway into nothingness. “That’s a human scream!”
     
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