Like a million television channels being watched simultaneously the under-layers of space flew by the intertwined ships in a frenzy of maddening colour. A vortex of images turned itself inside until they were reflections seen in a backwards dream. Storms knitted from the entrails of a winter midnight whirled in funnels and coils of clotted shadow that built into sculpted columns of tangible darkness. They stretched upwards beyond the sight of mortal eyes and outwards to the infinite horizon in countless rows of curdled murk until everything that was, that had been and ever would be was forcibly drowned in a seething smog of dark matter. The gloom broke for fragmented moments to reveal a foundation and a firmament of thunderbolts that flickered and flashed like every light bulb that had ever existed being turned on and off at once. From time to time portions of it condensed and solidified into memories of events that had never happened like children skating on a lake of burning ice, leaves turning green as they fell from trees, merrymakers sipping from glasses of solid wine and silent voices crying out. Except they were only silent at first, then they grew louder like a tremor that became a quake in the ear canals. Their whispers crept through the air like the last fitful wheezes of rodents impaled on thorns, the words soft as dust tumbling down a staircase of sun beams. As the ringing in Gren's ears faded, his mind reattached itself to the present after he adjusted to the transition into a realm that Einstein and Rosen had only dreamed they could comprehend by rationalising with numbers and symbols all the gaps in their logic like plumbers trying to plug leaks in the pipes they themselves had broken.
Reality poured from those holes in cascades of silver threads then gathered itself in shimmering pools before sculpting itself back into something recognisable as the crew around him shifted out of their own unimaginable imaginings with gasps of relief and sometimes regret. He steadied himself against a console as it re-materialised in his hand and remembered how to breathe in order to form the words, 'Weapons status?'
A young tactical technician wiped sweat off of her brow as she forced herself back to her senses, 'Offline whilst we're jumping.'
Even Gren who had spent most of his life traipsing around the galaxy had never been through such a strenuous transition, but then he'd never been on a ship crossing the threshold in the vicinity of dozens of black holes. He felt as though he had been scraped together from all the cellular detritus left on a penny. It was not an experience he ever wanted to repeat; tiny parts of him seemed to be missing as though he'd been pulped and pushed through a sieve, the rogue molecules left floating in space like balls of phlegm dangling from spitefully pursed lips. 'Anyway to get them functioning?'
'Not possible. Computer safeguards prevent any ordnance discharge during sub-spatial transit.'
'There is no override! The hardware itself is designed not to operate inside a wormhole.' It was a good thing too, one stray shot could have caused a counter-reaction that would have collapsed space in on itself for light years, leaving it as nothing more than a tangled mass of conflicting energy spikes and partly demolecularized matter like barbed weeds growing through the flagstone floor of a crypt.
'Navigator are we on course?' Still somewhat reeling from the shift out of normal space-time Gren triggered a burst of pain killers from his support braces as he struggled to stop the screen he was staring into from blurring.
'Our trajectory is stable! We've managed to compensate for the loss of our engine but the remaining thrusters are on the brink of failure. Output from the power cores is fluctuating, at this rate we'll be lucky if we reintegrate into normal space without losing half the ship!'
That wasn't a particularly appealing proposition, although given the circumstances losing half the ship would be preferable to losing it all when they emerged from the jump gate and were blown to smithereens by their pursuers. 'Give me options!' Desperation was not something he was accustomed to, but more than just his own life and the lives of his crew hung in the balance. He was not desperate to avoid death, it was inevitable and sometimes in the early hours of the morning when he awoke from nightmares about his ribs peeled aside and his skull cracked open, he longed for it. But if he died then so did the Republic and that he would do anything to prevent. Almost anything.
'I'd love to, but with those hooks in our hull they're limited.'
'Anything is better than nothing.'
The navigator paused to consider, his eyes flicking back and forth then up and down as though he were chasing his ideas through the neural maze his mind had hidden them in. 'We could jettison the compromised sections but with our power reserves as low as they are we'd have no way to contain the breaches until emergency bulkheads sealed the corridors.'
That could work. 'Time frame?'
'Four seconds.' That was too long and they all knew it.
It might as well have been an eternity. 'That could cost hundreds of lives!' Lives that would be better used in long and productive service.
'Anything is better than nothing.' The retort was swaddled in a mocking sneer.
'Don't even try and get smart with me.' Gren began to stare savagely at the helmsman but his line of sight was broken as the man was thrown from his seat as the ship was hurled sideways. The crew did their best to hold their positions whilst tiny magnetic spikes in his boots locked him in place like a titan bracing himself against the wrath of the oceans. 'What was that?'
'You're the genius, you tell me...', that was clearly one step too far over the line so the navigator hastily but grudgingly added, '...sir.'
Gren punched up a duplicate helm display and watched as the computer extrapolated a new course, or at least tried to. All it managed to display was a vague line that bounced from point to point as though the ship was caught in a galactic dot-to-dot picture. 'Our heading has changed!'
'I didn't do it.' The navigator held up his hands as if the mysterious error made him fear for his life.
Before Gren could respond, everyone else on the bridge gave him similar looks of protestation. Of course no one would take responsibility, then they would have had to deal with the blame. Still, he found it encouraging that even after all they had done they still maintained their sense of humour and innocence. 'Well something did.' He grinned and found others grinning back but the moment was shattered into a billion segments of expression, reflected like the terror of a man being murdered with shards of stained glass, as the ship was battered by another wave of turbulence. 'Try and get us back on course!'
'She's not answering the helm!' A navigator hammered at non-responsive controls with such rage it seemed that he was on the brink of snapping his keyboard over his knee.
'It's the Imperials; their mass is altering our throughflow.'
'Compensate!' As the ship continued to shake Gren regretted his choice not to have a seat installed for himself, at least that way he would have had something to hold on to.
'Not enough engine capacity!' Like a convict dragging a ball and chain through rancid mud at the edge of a flooded field the ship listed on its axis, uncertain of its purpose and ignorant of its destination.
'Where are the controls to detach the compromised compartments?' Gren wafted a cloud of steam away from his face as a pipe in the floor burst and a shower of sparks left a pattern of burns in his trouser leg, the tell-tale signs left by a demon that wanted to be caught and punished for its sins.
'On deck ten, in the secondary operations centre.'
'Then that's where I should be.' As much as it pained him, Gren knew what he had to do but he'd never been comfortable with people being killed either by accident or without choice. Death should have always been a choice, the decisions of how and when and why to be made only at a moment of one's choosing. Only an accident or illness could ever justifiably rob someone of their agency in that matter.
'What about the crew in those areas?' Several officers turned to him afraid that they already knew the answer. They were going to die and there was nothing that could be done about it, but death was something they had all accepted when they agreed to follow the prelate on his quest; they knew the price they would have to pay for their service to the Republic. But asking someone to risk their life was one thing, taking it without their permission was something else entirely.
'Evacuate as many as possible, I'll answer for any deaths when we get home. This is my mission, if it fails it's my fault.' Gren managed to hobble to the door of the bridge even as the deck buckled and shook beneath him. He'd not felt so unsure of his steps since the first time he'd been granted the use of his legs after an eight month stretch of being strapped to a table whilst “doctors” painfully and intricately mapped his nervous system. 'Keep this ship flying until I get back.' That wasn't an order or a request, in some ways he felt like he meant it as prayer. Strangely that didn't make him recoil in horror as much as it would have done, perhaps there was something to be said for faith after all. He still shuddered a little at that thought as he made his way to the lift that would whisk him away down through the ship.
'Is our hold on the Republican ship secure?' Alvin peeled himself off the back of his chair as the quakes rattling the ship came to an unexpected halt. The sweat rolled down his back in frigid rivulets as though an autumnal storm was rolling in waves out of his pores. A standard journey through a jump gate was relatively smooth but like a cat having its fur stroked the wrong way it wasn't something that one ever really got used to. That jump was different, it felt like something ancient and malevolent watched him from the bottom of the lake of acid in his stomach and scrutinised him from the inside out.
'We're locked on for now, but the stress on the cables is starting to buckle the surrounding hull plates. Any more jolts like that and one way or another they'll disengage.'
'Meaning the cables will snap, or we'll lose the entire forward section of the ship.'
'No pressure then...sit tight sir, I'll fetch us all some tea.' Elliot instinctively snatched his hand away from the headrest of Alvin's chair as the captain turned and frowned up at him. It probably wasn't the best time for jokes, but then he could be dead soon and he would have hated to leave the land of the living without having said something vaguely memorable.
'Captain, fluctuations in the sub-spatial currents have altered our heading. We're not en route to Mechanis.'
'Then where for space's sake are we going?' Another shudder in the ship's superstructure forced Alvin to turn his question into an inquisitive bellow.
'Navigational computers aren't exactly being co-operative at the moment. For all I know we could end up re-materialising in the Lomat Cluster or the Rheridan Isolation.'
Alvin had gone through plenty of star charts whilst he languished in orbit of Mechanis but he would have been hard pressed to retain memory of every exotic or insignificant locale that he'd read about. 'Where?'
'Exactly!' They were both places so rarely visited that only navigational staff who spent most of their duty hours sifting through astrometric data would even deign to notice, in much the same way that a crucial brush stroke in a portrait might have fired endless speculation amongst critics but remained completely unnoticed by a layman.
'Well, do what you can to keep us steady. We can't afford to lose that ship.'
From the far side of the bridge Lenham's voice rose steadily above the plaintiff groans that rattled out from the bulkheads. 'I've informed the weapon decks to commence bombardment as soon as we exit the jump gate.'
'Good. Make sure they target engines and weapons only, we'll bring them in alive if possible.' Few naval officers were anxious to have blood on their hands regardless of the swashbuckling reputations some of them liked to maintain, Alvin even less so. He had always been told that the enemies of Imperial authority were many and varied; they ranged from random thoughts of re-enfranchisement whispered in factory recreation yards, corsairs pillaging remote worlds for what little of worth they had to take, refugees fleeing in the wake of a stellar collapse or particle eruption or some other intolerable anomaly all the way up to planets that dared to think they were not free.
'Alive? Captain, this isn't a band of petty thieves we're chasing. They're hardened killers, murderers, soldiers. You've seen what they've done, they don't deserve to live!'
'No more so than we do.' Alvin's eyes were like scalpels as he narrowed them at the man who had spoken up.
'How many people have you killed in the name of your uniform?' Alvin watched as the young man thought it through. The slackness of his jaw and the emptiness in his eyes were the only answers he really needed to give. As a veteran officer he expected that, but even so it surprised him. 'You don't even know, do you?'
The science officer was more than baffled by the question, he was astonished that anyone would even ask it. 'Can't say I've ever kept count, but that's different.'
Such casual brutality as was implied by the response was appalling but Alvin was in no mood to debate the socio-political ramifications of the naval ethics curriculum, besides he didn't have the time. 'Of course it is. That's why we're going to try and take them alive, to make sure it stays different. Is that clear?'
The junior officer felt Alvin's pointing finger as though it had pierced his shoulder and pinned him to the wall. 'Yes, sir, but how do you intend to capture them? I doubt they're going to let us tow them to the nearest port.'
Alvin managed to temper his reaction to such venomous sarcasm, somehow resisting the temptation to break the man's jaw. There was a time and a place for questioning a commanding officer and that particular moment in that particular place was definitely not one of them. 'I don't imagine they would. Which is why we're going to board their ship.' He was glad he managed to maintain his decorum it made his proposal sound somewhat less preposterous.
There was only one way that could be accomplished and everyone knew it but Elliot was the only one daring enough to point out that, 'A shuttle would be torn to pieces by their guns as soon as it left the hangar!'
'True, but they can't fire whilst we're still in transit.'
Lenham couldn't believe what he was hearing. 'You're going to take a shuttle...out there?' To take such a craft out into the monstrous maelstrom of the fabric of reality where it would be exposed to a raw, unrelenting power beyond the limits of any tyrant's darkest desires was sheer lunacy. Either that or a stroke of tactical brilliance. Perhaps it was both. He had to admit it would certainly be unexpected.
'No, Mr. Tresselian.' As Alvin clicked a fresh battery into his pistol he knew full well that what he was about to say probably wasn't the wisest choice of words. 'We are.'
Elliot placed a hand on Lenham's shoulder and felt him stiffen as though his spine had just been torn out and replaced with a Neutronium rod. 'Sir, did the captain just say what I think he said?'
At any other time Lenham would have reminded the ensign about protocol regarding personal space on a starship, or any other situation for that matter, but at that moment he found the touch reassuring. It pulled him back from the brink of the abyss and dragged him through a numberless horde of his sub-conscious selves each one screaming at him to throw himself in and hide in the deepest recesses of his mind. Regardless of the hail of insanity, doubt and fear he managed to answer Elliot. 'Yes, yes he did.'
'Just checking, that's OK then.' Elliot stepped away from Lenham safe in the knowledge that the matter had been resolved. Of course it made perfect sense that the captain's plan was just a joke...it took him a second or two to realise what he had actually just heard. Careful not to overly raise his voice he asked, 'Has he lost his mind?'
'It's a distinct possibility, but that might work in our favour.' It was incredibly doubtful but anything was better than waiting around to see where the goose chase would lead them.
'What do you mean?'
Lenham flinched away from a console as it short circuited and sighed, 'His plan is so ridiculous that it can't possibly fail, and if it does then at least they'll have something new to teach at the academies.'
Elliot cocked his head to one side when he discovered that he couldn't argue with that. He tried to find a way, he really did, and technically he could have done but it wouldn't have done any good: the extra brace of pistols that Alvin had strapped to his belt indicated that he would brook no discussion. 'Well, I don't envy you the task. Good luck.' He gave a little wave as Lenham joined the captain at the exit to the bridge which had seemed to have grown to a rune-etched portal from which wisps of light drifted in ominous puffs like weak words from the lips of a faithless priest overseeing a failed exorcism.
'You might want to save some for yourself, you're coming with us.' Alvin didn't want to grin, it wasn't really appropriate, but he couldn't help himself.
'Oh joy.' Taking dictation for the admiral and his staff had never seemed more appealing. Elliot tugged at his collar as he followed them off the bridge. Either it was just him or the heat-sinks that funnelled backwash from the engines had malfunctioned, or it could have been the fact that he was about to be dragged out into the void with nothing to separate him from an instantaneous and agonising death except for the hull of a shuttle. They might as well have been cruising through the galaxy in a soap bubble.
Which is exactly what it felt like as the shuttle skimmed across the surface of a suspended pond of dark matter strands that shimmered in the void like a blown pupil. Its engine pylons scraped the nigrescent disc sending out splashes of luminous pseudo-fluid that drifted out in coils which spiralled inwards on themselves before they were scattered by blasts of plasma carried on sub-spatial winds like clusters of flower petals caught in a fire storm. As Elliot looked out through the cockpit windows he saw many lives pass before his eyes, each one his own but each one different, as though he was being marched at gunpoint through a hall of kaleidoscopic mirrors. Some were not too dissimilar from what he knew but in others he was utterly changed in ways that were wondrous or stomach churning. A cough from the passenger compartment brought him back to his present existence and his other selves turned into the blinking of warning lights flashing on the consoles reflected in the windows. Part of him wished he had remained in the delusion as not far ahead of the shuttle was the hind end of the Republican ship that swayed like the tail of a whale glimpsed through a tumultuous squall. Waves of shifting shadow, the solidified doppelgänger of normal space, clashed against its ferrous hide then reached upwards and over it to form semi-ethereal claws that threatened to drag it down into a nightmarish quagmire of almost-somethings and could-have-been places. For a moment he thought that it might succumb to the electro-magnetic shear on its hull and be lost forever in a place where even an instant could be an eternity but instead it rose above the the morass of madness with the Hermod in tow like a wounded beast dragging its knife-toothed predator with it, running even as its haunches were torn and the stone-strewn dirt was paved with its lifeblood.
Pity was not something that Elliot was inclined to feel for the crew of the enemy ship as its stern began to fill the shuttle's forward portholes. As they sped towards the glimmering gap left by the severance of the engine pod, it gleamed in the dark like a parting between curtains of flame blown aside by a gust of wind, he felt his stomach bounce up through his chest. Fragments of metal ricocheted off the windows creating small dents like hail stones exploding on a road. Only the outer layers of the screens were damaged but that didn't stop him from recoiling at the thought of the whole thing shattering and his lungs being yanked out of his chest, his blood turning an icy mist and his cells exploding. He closed his eyes when the proximity alerts boomed like horn-calls off a mountainside and roared in rhythm to the rush of blood in his ears. When he opened them again all he saw was smoke and ruin. Phase One: board the enemy ship. Complete. He wasn't exactly sure what Phase Two was, but as the soldiers in the passenger section readied their weapons he could guess.