We dream of voyaging through the universe:
Is not the universe within us?
Home of Light: 562ZT
Another 1,250 kilometers.
Peynod’s scarred surface rushed toward the small spacecraft at a furious speed, already filling half of its cockpit window, grabbing at it with greedy fingers of gravity as the muted proximity alarm flashed hectically on the console. Behind the potato-shaped moon, Rasnar crept higher into the sky, eclipsing the stars and plunging everything in a surreal, deep, dark red.
Another 1,000 kilometers.
Yoshiko’s lips moved; her face was pale with tension. She swore cautiously, but the ultra-dense membrane of her space helmet permitted no sound in the near vacuum that ruled the cockpit. She cursed the tazura she was born. She cursed her own spontaneity which, she realized, had unerringly carried her from one hell to another since her childhood. She cursed the now long past moment when Sendir t’Grrt had made her his restrainer and she had been too young to laugh at him and say no.
She most especially cursed this piece of space junk that had split into its separate components and in which she had the misfortune to be sitting. It wasn’t long ago at all this was the ship, the AP Jokingly, that had been the proud showpiece of the Jonferson Space Dynamics Division. Now the craft was little more than a dilapidated wreck.
Another 750 kilometers.
“The creature will surrender!” Sendir t’Grrt’s voice snarled from the audio panels of the membrane helmet. Yoshiko turned on the microphone as a video field with the image of the Split flared up a hand’s width above the console. His lips and long, gray mutton-chop whiskers moved strangely unsynchronized with his voice. “In three mizuras I will catch up with her!”
“You’re going to have to take me out, Taggert,” was Yoshiko’s restrained reply. She glanced at the instruments, then at the cockpit window, which was now completely filled by Peynod and Rasnar. Now that her deal with him and that venomous snake Moo-Key had lapsed, it would give him great pleasure to kill her—that was clear to her. Especially since he knew nothing about the mysterious black orb she had taken from the Three-eyes, and she wouldn’t tell him about that even at the cost of her life. The Split made a derogatory gesture with two fingers of his right hand, but remained silent.
Another 500 kilometers.
The misshapen piece of rock on which the heavily damaged ship was in the process of crashing was far too small to maintain its own atmosphere. But it orbited Rasnar as its innermost moon, and some prospectors lived in dugouts under its surface as they searched for rare carbon compounds that rained down from the large gas planet. Wrong, they had lived there, Yoshiko realized as she noticed the glassy-black bomb craters that grew bigger as she made made their way from the horizon. There was probably nobody alive down there now. Unwillingly, she imagined a family of prospectors, starring in horror at a gravidar screen, unable to do the slightest thing about the oncoming nuclear missiles. She swallowed hard.
Another 250 kilometers.
No. No commiseration, she admonished herself while she checked and readjusted the positioning control systems one last time. She had enough to do with her own problems, and besides—those who had remained in the inner sectors for the last two mazuras had known very well what was brewing above them. Just like Ser Alman, who must have already anticipated the outbreak of the war back then, right at the beginning of this odyssey. Why did he stay with her for so long under these circumstances? There was only one explanation, today she was certain of that. Oh yes, he would have laid the world at her feet, if she had only been honest with him. If, if…
Another 100 kilometers. 50.
Yoshiko broke into a cold sweat; her heart was pounding in her throat. She exhaled, then held her breath as Peynod raced toward her face like a speeding bullet.
The fist a giant struck her as the engines ignited on schedule and immediately went to full throttle. A force that allowed no resistance forced Yoshiko’s gloved hands away from the controls and pressed her arms against the cockpit wall in painfully contorted positions; her head was pressed diagonally against the back of the pilot’s seat like a puppet and locked into position. Only with effort and aching lungs did she manage to catch her breath. With widened eyes and doomed to complete motionlessness, she saw the sharp line of a ring of mountains moving closer, while the AP Jokingly, riding on a bright column of fire, fell ever faster towards the surface of Peynod.
The dull roar of the engines was carried by the ship’s hull into Yoshiko’s pressure suit and blended with the screaming of the generators to make an infernal background noise. The compensators tried to bring the inhumanly high inertial forces under control, but only partially succeeded.
When the AP Jokingly narrowly scraped by the rim of the mountainous ring at an altitude of a mere hundred meters, Yoshiko gasped in horror; she couldn’t breathe enough for more. She suddenly felt the fear of death’s icy hand grip her mind with an intensity that was new to her, and that surprised her. She didn’t want to die, not now, not like that! Not even that degenerate singularity far out in the nothingness had given her such fear. Sure, she always risked a lot. But this time she seemed to have pushed her luck too far. She had calculated the slingshot maneuver sickeningly narrowly, just as she had copied it from Ser Alman many wozuras ago. That was on the one hand necessary because of Peynod’s meager gravity, on the other hand, however, also to gain a few additional sezuras over Sendir t’Grrt. Sezuras, she feared, that wouldn’t be of any use to her when all was over.
Peynod was now so close that Yoshiko could dimly make out individual boulders as she raced by a landslide. Rasnar covered the entire sky of its satellite, ocher and brown like a Teladi mud bath. Soon the ship would come in contact with the ground, it was inevitable! Yoshiko involuntarily tensed her muscles in anticipation of the impact—which was quite useless, as she well knew. The kinetic energy held by the AP Jokingly was about the same as a hydrogen bomb. She would be atomized at the moment of the crash.
On the horizon, a thin, dark line appeared, which rapidly widened to a crack, then a chasm between the surface of Peynod and the enormous disk of Rasnar, and finally grew to a black abyss. White points of light burned pin-sized and cold in its depths.
Rasnar continued to creep up the sky, arcsecond by arcsecond; the washed-out lower edge of the planetary disk almost touched the top of the cockpit window. After further anxious sezuras, the gas planet disappeared completely from Yoshiko’s field of view, while the AP Jokingly—first hesitantly, then more and more spiritedly—began to climb out of Peynod’s tiny gravity field. Yoshiko gasped again, this time with relief as the flashing of the proximity alarm went out: she had no longer counted on that! Unexpectedly, a hard jolt came through which threw her forward in her restraints. The compensators, finally freed from the centrifugal inertial force that hard burdened them, now had to compensate only for the linear component of the acceleration, which they were able to do reliably. Immediately, the artificial onboard gravity returned to its default value of 1.1 G, and the screaming of the generators diminished to a low whine that sank into the rushing of the engines.
Yoshiko’s heart beat as wildly as before, and her breathing was rapid and gasping. But she was alive! She tried to rub her aching arms, but the fabric of her pressure suit was too thick and prevented her from it. With a shrug, she abandoned the attempt and checked the instruments. The slingshot maneuver hadn’t even lasted fifteen sezuras—just a few moments that had felt to her like stazuras!
Sendir t’Grrt’s image still flickered above the console, his pale yellow face now a grimace of astonishment. Yoshiko was able to imagine what was going on in the Split. He had never seen this breakneck trick coming. He was probably wondering where she, whom he had taken for weak and stupid, even had knowledge of such maneuvers!
“Hey, Taggert!” Yoshiko cried in a croaking voice. She cleared her throat as she read the gravidar’s display. Yes, her flight vector was accurate; Peynod and Rasnar were falling back behind her, her target—the jumpgate to Sector Argon Prime—was just ahead, only two and a half light-sezuras away. The AP Jokingly would reach it shortly. She took a deep breath. “You know what?” she screamed loudly into the membrane helmet. She coughed and cleared her throat again. “You’re the creature here, not me! You’re pathetic, you have no honor, and no dignity! I despise you, I’ve always despised you! I’d spit on you if I wasn’t wearing this damned thing!” She switched off the microphone and flicked off the hologram of the Split before he could reply. If she hadn’t felt wretched, she would have smiled broadly. That would make Sendir’s blood boil. And she wanted it to.
But where was he? She struggled with the gravidar and the optics—and winced as the computer dimly brought a nearly cylindrical object onto the screen, noisy, low contrast, certainly several million kilometers away. A Sohnen ship? She remembered only too well the encounter with the fabled creatures and their warning, which she had knowingly ignored. But no, it wasn’t Sohnen. It was just the hull of an Argon space station shining in the sunlight, burned out and abandoned like many of the once-numerous installations in the inner sectors.
Sendir’s ship, on the other hand—an M3-class ship bristling with weapons and a crew of seven—was just starting to emerge from Peynod’s shadow far behind the AP Jokingly. Of course, the Split also had to perform a slingshot maneuver to stay on course—the laws of celestial mechanics made exceptions for no one. However, they had obviously preferred to calculate the orbital data significantly more conservatively than her. “Bah, Split,” Yoshiko muttered contemptuously. “They talk a good game, but when it really counts, they tuck their tails between their legs.”
On the other hand, they could also afford to. The remote sensors revealed that the M3’s engines were boosting to a thrust performance that the AP Jokingly had no way to counter without its tuned JSDD-engines. Unfortunately these had already decayed into a small pile of nano dust two mazuras ago, even before Ser Alman and she had discovered the ancient gate in deep space between the galaxies. Sendir would catch up and fire at her. This wandering would end, very soon, in a few mizuras.
“Crap, I wish I could deactivate the membrane,” Yoshiko muttered, partly to hear her own voice, partly because it was true. She would have loved to rub the back of her neck, where the sweaty knot of her long, blond cornrows had been causing constant itching for stazuras. She shrugged her shoulders. No matter.
There was still a touch of fear in Yoshiko, but a cold calm filled her now. The end might come, possibly. But didn’t every ending also have the chance for a new beginning? Yes, maybe for people like Marteen Winters, that obsessed old man from Earth for whom she’d caused so much grief lately. “It’s never too late for a good idea,” he had giggled, and fixed her with his permanent grin. A new beginning? Maybe for Tebathimanckatt, who owned two of the Ancient Ones’ black orbs, which he would present to the Pontifex Maximus to be declared holy. A new beginning even for Ser Alman? Yes. And for Iliyana!
You can do it, Ili—more likely without me than with me! Good luck, sweetie!
Then it happened. As though in a trance, she followed a tiny, white dot on the gravidar, which was just loosening from the larger blip of the M3 and raced off with high acceleration—toward the AP Jokingly.
It was a swarm of missiles, which the significantly delayed data from the infrared sensors clearly demonstrated. She had known that Sendir would launch missiles at her sooner or later. Being confronted with the sight that he had really and truly done it sent her mind racing, and drove sweat from her pores.
Where was the jumpgate? With her bare eyes, she could already make out a little, silver ring against the night of space. 76 sezuras until she reached it. The missiles would reach the AP Jokingly in 73 sezuras. There was nothing she could do about it now. So much for new beginnings.
“Time to say goodbye,” Yoshiko whispered with a raw voice, releasing the control yoke she tightly clung on to for a few mizuras. There it was again, her old beloved, the fear of death.
Just over seventy sezuras later, the dazzling, white billowing fireball that had once been a nova reconnaissance ship by the name of AP Jokingly passed through the jumpgate to Argon Prime. At the destination, only a cloud of glowing wreckage and pulverized slag came out, that quickly spread a volume of several light-sezuras, and was soon lost in infinity.