The Company Wars Chronicle

Part One - Page Two

 

 

The black hole grew before them. It was an awesome sight, even though they were common: too common for some. The majesty, the power, the beauty they held would never diminish for him. They were already in its gravitational grip, the Warriors engines on idle, as they were ever faster sucked inwards.

Rhea had noticed that the craft had started buffeting; nothing serious, just a kind of vibration running up through her body; but enough to unnerve her.

As if he knew her mind Alexi half turned in the command chair, speaking over his shoulder. “It may be more comfortable if you fastened your gravity straps professor.”

Quickly, almost too quickly she reached above her shoulder and pulled the clasp out and around her body. It was the one single belt, but it seemed to envelop her. “Don’t destroyers have neutralizers?”

Our previous test showed that what we are about to experience is far greater than normal systems usually cope with.”

His words were far from comforting. She had been apprehensive about the whole tunneling process from the start. Okay if she… they were going to die, so be it; but that didn't mean she wanted the process prolonged. Her mind was diverted by Claries voice.

Seventy percent.”

Commander?” said Rhea anxiously.

Yes professor.”

When we pass light speed... Is there any…. sensation?”

You mean do we feel it?”

Or see something?”

Sorry to disappoint you, but no, well other than a Doppler effect.”

She spoke hesitantly, slightly embarrassed. “I thought with the shock wave?”

The hydrogen wall?”

She was a scientist and it felt slightly humiliating asking a soldier to explain scientific fact. “My science is planet bound.”

The accumulation of hydrogen, moments before light speed kept us prisoner until we developed tunneling. At the moment of terelectron shock wave, the radiation will be extreme, but we will pass through too quickly for harm to be done.

Then the vibrations?”

What you’re feeling is the black hole. I thought you knew...?”

She tried to smile. “A briefing is not the same as the experience.”

Of course...”

Eighty percent,” interrupted Claries.

Shut down non-life support systems, divert power to hull integrity.” Then back to Rhea. “Professor stop me if I go over what you know, but when you hear of talk about the Warrior; or any other craft traveling at light speed, it actually means just that. I remember a lecturer I once had describing it to me. Light speed is like a dyke on a plain. You have two steep embankments with a channel between. If you take a long enough run, and if you have enough strength, you can get up the outside of the embankment. Then you run down with ease into the channel. Now you can run up along the channel as far as you want. But say you wanted to get to the other side. By standing on top of the first embankment you could run down and across the channel as many times as you like, but without the run up you would probably never make it to the top. That’s why the early experiments never got past light speed, and traveled at it, well as good as.”

And getting back?”

The scenario is purely an analogy. In the return case think more of an electron field loosing energy and dropping out of orbit. Returning doesn't present us with too many problems, though again apparently it did to the pioneers.”

So how do we get to Tachyon space, according to your lecturer?”

Easily, if you can't climb over a wall, you dig through both embankments, and come out the other side. Hence, we tunnel.”

Your teacher seems to have been a very down to Earth person.”

Alexi turned in his chair and looked at her. “Is that a pun?”

No,” she said innocently.

Well. No.” He said sitting back. “He wasn’t, but he got the point through.”

So our digging tool is the Black hole?”

Yes.”

Correct me if I’m wrong…” she knew she wasn’t. “…But doesn’t time slow the closer we come to light speed; to the point where time as good as ceases to exist?”

Yes, and the time warping becomes the key to leaving this reality, it’s all in the….” he hesitated searching for a suitable word, but couldn’t find one. “…Approach.”

That sounds almost like cheating,” she said slightly disappointed. “I was under the impression the Warrior had some amazing ability to zip between time epochs at the flick of a switch.”

Alexi’s voice was defensive. “I’m simply pointing out the physics as we know them.” He wondered if her apparent lack of knowledge was real: did she say something only to make him underestimate her. Intelligent women sometimes did that to make a man feel smarter, but why would she? “Tunneling is still not well known and until we have more experience we stick to the basics. What we do know is that approaching the event horizon in different ways produces an opposite effect on the departure. Our engines are at zero thrust while we are approaching the event horizon. At a precise moment we commit everything the ship has in one burst, so instead of time slowing until it appears to stop, we achieve light speed almost instantly at the boundary of the virtual particle emission jet. A little bit of fancy flying and were ejected out, the other side of light speed; mirror image into Tachyon space.”

As easy as that?”

As easy as that.”

What makes me think your glossing over the negative's?”

Negatives?”

Like actually entering the event horizon. Approaching at the wrong angle or velocity, and being torn into atoms. Appearing in a parallel bubble. Shall I go on?”

I didn't think you wanted to know about things like that?”

I don’t. So please don’t point out anything that I have missed.”



The swirling ring was almost filling their view. Rhea tried to see where it began; but the color change from black to deep, deep red was so subtle that she couldn’t. It seemed that the blackness of space was itself a colour that just merged into the outer reaches of the dust ring. The same could not be said for the ultimate lip of the void itself. Here the particles had been so super-heated by friction that they glowed the most brilliant white, until suddenly they dropped out of existence. There at that point, the line between black and white was so sharp and abrupt, that it hurt her eyes to concentrate on it.

As remarkable as the sight was, it was the emission that her eyes sought. Their lifeline, the road they would ride out and follow to the unknown. It was there, faint, but becoming clearer with every passing moment.

It too seemed to appear out of nowhere. A fountain of particles reaching up and out into space, away from the axis of the hole like a giant spray of glitter.

Somewhere between the two visual displays lay their future, and ultimately that of mankind's. She was acutely aware that she was prepared to trust this man with her life, but not with the secret she carried. “Would you tell me when we reach light speed?” she said.

I won't have to. Listen to number one; she'll talk us all the way through.”

As if she had heard Claries spoke. “Approaching committal point commander.”

His voice lost all of the apparent friendliness of an instant ago. A bold, confident tone now carried the clear and sharp words. “Affirmative. Take us in.”

We may all die in a few moments from now’. Rhea thought, but Ellis was right, she would have gone with the best. Her reassured thoughts evaporated at the sudden screaming of an alarm. Rhea's heart sprang up into her throat. The light’s failed and the room fell into darkness. It was only with the most extreme will that she did not cry out. She felt her lips dry, her skin began to crawl. Her breath came in short gasps. But she was the only one. No one else muttered a word as the cabin slowly became bathed in a red glow.

Battle station ready,” said Claries calm efficient voice.

Rhea forced herself to breathe slowly. Her heart felt as if it was about to tear out of her breast. Slowly she realized they were on the ultimate level of alert. For a moment her fear had almost betrayed her again.

The swirling disk filled their forward view. It was as if nothing else existed in the universe except the brilliant whirlpool that was about to consume them. The slow, almost sedate rotation of moments ago was rapidly changing to a vision of confused violence, as the outermost fringes passed away. Below after millennia adrift, the grains of dust, boulders, and mountain-sized chunks jostled and crashed together, in their last throes of existence; seemingly meters below.

The command room was silent as everyone concentrated on their tasks. Rhea wished there was a noise. The tick tock, of her great grandmother's timepiece would feel so welcome now. Would she ever go back to the isolated mountain again?

The red glow below had disappeared. Now they passed over the yellowing zone. Almost gone was the chaos. The unfortunate rocks had been whipped and pulverized into submission as they sped along in orderly overlapping lines. They were almost there.

Approaching zero thrust capture point,” said Claries casually.

Rhea remembered a lecture she had attended. It was lamely announced as ‘Psychological effects relating to the human physiology in extreme gravity conditions’. The lecture had been as dry as the title, but one thing jumped back into her mind. At zero thrust the hole had complete power over them.

As if she understood Rheas thoughts Claries spoke. “Zero thrust imminent.”

Rhea knew that at this moment; at this time, the gravity drawing them to oblivion was stronger than the power they had available to get out. If they didn’t get through to the ejection field she was already as good as dead.

Point nine light.”

Even as the woman said it, Rhea could feel that they were slowing down. She felt the Warrior was dropping, her stomach lifted. Of course it was an illusion, and one that still seemed incomprehensible. The faster you went the slower you traveled. Is it any wonder she had chosen metallurgy. Metal was metal. Rock was rock. It was something you could always rely on to be the same.

Rhea tried to focus her academic mind on the scene below. It seemed almost stationary now, but she knew they were traveling incredibly fast. Deep in her memory she remembered the face of a teacher, somewhere, sometime, telling her there was a paradox. …Simpkins paradox. Actions were relevant only to the time frame of observation. If she looked away; inside the warrior, everything was normal. Outside was anything but. Mass increased, stretched, slowed; everything that common sense told her it couldn’t, it did. Was there any wonder that observing a second frame from the first caused a paradox that the mind could only dealt with in terms of the first frame? Everything was an optical, a neuroptical illusion.

Point nine five.”

Ever more slowly creeping over into the brilliant white of oblivion. The mountains were no more. The boulders had crumbled to powder. Her friends the rocks had no benefit of hull integrity. Outside dust was the order of the day.

Point nine six.”

The warnings were coming almost constantly now, or was it her imagination.

Point nine seven.”

The vibration had given way to a definite, nerve wracking bucking, when at last Alexi spoke. “Maximum internal gravity.”

Rhea felt herself glued to her chair.

Point nine eight.”

This is the commander speaking.” The voice carried throughout the craft. “We are about to achieve light speed. For those of you never having experienced it before. There may be slight psychological discomfort. It will…”

Rhea anxiously wondered what he meant by psychological discomfort. He hadn’t mentioned anything before?

Point nine, nine.” Droned Claries

...Soon pass. I’ll talk to you on the other side.”

She noted how confident he seemed, that was not how he had come across before, had he tried to unsettle her? Was it some power trip he enjoyed holding over non-flyers: or women?

Point nine, nine five.”

She stared at the solar shield. Now there was only blackness below it gave her a sick hollow feeling, the same one she had in the mountains when standing too close to the edge, and knowing just emptiness lay below her. She lifted her eyes from the complete abyss toward the fountain of streaming yellow particles dancing tantalizingly before them.

Point nine, nine seven,” Claries was almost speaking continually now. “... Nine eight.”

Rhea realized she wasn’t breathing. She couldn't.

...Nine, nine.”

She wanted to close her eyes but couldn't.

Even Claries voice had taken on an urgent emotion. “Super heating… Light speed ignition.”

At last Alexi spoke. “Maximum power to reactors.”

Nothing seemed to happen. Rhea gripped the armrests with white knuckles. Her mind told her that they still hurtled forward, and downward. Had the engines misfired? The terrifying thought screamed in her brain. She couldn't see Alexi’s expression. A feeling of nausea swept over her.

Maximum pitch; bring her up,” his voice seemed so welcome, so comforting.

But nothing happened; time did stand still. A season, two, three… they seemed to peel away from her life as she looked into absolute nothingness. Then at long last: almost imperceptibly, they were lifting. Gradually the Warrior was tearing itself away from the void.

Time we were out of here,” said Alexi to no one in particular as he coaxed the Warrior's nose reluctantly away from the blackness.

Slowly, so very slowly the emission stream began to ease across their forward view. Even slower it moved down past them. Then almost as if by magic they had it beneath, and the welcome speckled blackness of space emerged above. Their relative speed was building and they began to move over the emission stream. Glancing urgently up she could see nothing in the rear view screen, but she knew there behind was the singularity; hidden; still drawing, still waiting for them; still ready and unwilling to give up its meal without a fight.

Now they were running under every gram of power the Warrior could produce. Skimming along the emission fountains edge until at last it sped under them as they picked up its ejection energy; and were spat out of the holes gravity sump like a baby's pacifier from the mouth of oblivion. Now everything seemed to happen in an instant, as they rocketed forward at an unbelievable speed. The shrinking hole dwindling to a total nothingness behind, as around them the stars changed, red to blue, blue to red.

Suddenly there was the alarm again, but this time not as shrill, not as long, and accompanied by the faint flickering between the red glow and bright normal light.

Cut internal gravity, re-establish normal working modes,” said Alexi, as he released his own harness and stood. “Professor?”

Are we there?”

In Tachyon space?”

Yes.”

We are… and traveling back in time?” He nodded. “I can't be precise but I'd guess you were born in the region of thirty instants ago.”

What?” her eyebrows lowered in part confusion.

I estimate we are traveling back in the region of six seasons per instant… and increasing.”

We are?” She smiled.

Something like that; at this velocity its hard to pin any actual figure down, but don’t hold me to it, in around eight sleeps from now; as my children would say, and we'll be seeing the truths or myths about...” Whatever Alexi was about to say was interrupted by Philip, the navigation officer. He was a little older than Alexi; in fact he was the oldest crewman on the Warrior.

Commander.”

Alexi looked away from Rhea. It puzzled him why Philip had called to him so abruptly. He was supremely conscientious. In fact too much so, and Alexi had, had to take him aside to try and get him to ‘lighten up’ on more than one occasion. It was to no avail, Philip seemed to be out to prove himself; rumour had it that he felt he was too old for combat, and was constantly on the lookout to show he was up to it.

Yes Nav?”

I have a reading that does not compute commander.”

In what way?”

I can’t explain its reason.”

Tell me.”

As we came out of tunneling, the hole was resealing itself. Then it seemed to fluctuate.”

Seemed?”

It did fluctuate.” He said more sharply.

Can you be more specific?”

It was half closed. It opened, and then closed again.”

Alexi looked at him puzzled. “Your sure?”

Philip looked offended. “I can run more analyses, but I thought you should know?”

Of course… Could such a thing be expected?”

Theoretically no; without power anything would be drawn back into the hole… But without data from a number of tunnels we can’t know for certain what is normal or what’s not.”

Any explanations spring to mind?”

Only one that I can think of right now. That we drew something out of the accretion disc and took it with us.”

There was doubt in Alexi’s voice. “Is that possible?”

Probably not, but everything is new from now on.”

Any direct consequences to the ship?”

I don’t see any, but I’ll get the analytical systems to run all possible scenarios.”

Alright. Keep me informed.” Alexi moved away after Rhea, but his mind was on Philip. It was strange for the man to bring what appeared such a minor thing to his attention, still tunneling was new, and Philip was just being Philip.



The following day was spent in relaxed anticipation, and while there was a colossal amount of data to record, and observations to be made; and had been made since before the moment they committed to the tunneling, most was done automatically. In reality Tachyon space was little different in real terms to normal space, but then it was the same space, just another version of it. After the first burst of eagerness in rechecking checked equipment, both scientists and crew settled down to the semi tedium of deep space flights. But several days later the morning was different.

Alexi smelt the fresh scent of Caalaan, his mind swam with pleasure as he ran through the undergrowth, chased by his laughing children; he deliberately stumbled to the ground as they caught up with him, and piled on top of his weakly protesting body. A smile covered his face as his eyes opened. Out of the corner of his eye he looked at the stark command quarters, and before him the back of a still sleeping Kale. He sighed deeply, making a mental note to reprogram his rouser; it depressed him now, rather than putting him in a good mood for the day.

He came onto the bridge still fastening his uniform. Claries and Philip were talking. “Good morning commander. Sorry to break into your slumber,” she said as he came through the doorway.

Is it; are you?” He mumbled, forcing a smile.

Oh I think so. A while ago we picked up an anomaly on the photon receptor?”

Alexi crossed the room to their side and stared at the display. Quickly he looked back up at their expectant: almost grinning, faces. Again he checked to receptor. Now they really were grinning as he looked up again. “I see,” he said, feeling a smile breaking onto his own face. “How long?”

Mid second half.”

Have you informed Professor Thain?”

As commander we thought you would want to inform her. Stone has gone to wake her.”

Alexi had to banish the grim as a few moments later the door opened and Rhea walked in. She looked disheveled and still half-asleep. Alexi didn't know how much rest she had, had, but it obviously wasn’t enough.

I'm sorry we had to wake you professor,” he said in a serious way. “But we have something that I would like your opinion on?”

He pointed to the display. It showed a bright point of light against a velvet background of sharp but smaller specks.

Rhea looked at the dot for long enough that Alexi was unable to hold the stern face and he began to smile.

Slowly she turned. “Earth … Already?”

No professor, something far more interesting.” He waited a moment as if to tease her. “In a short time we will be the first people in our un-recorded, history, to look upon… The Arc's.”

The Arc’s?”

Maybe it was because she had just woken, but for some reason Alexi didn’t feel comfortable in his now beaming smile. It wasn’t totally the reaction that he had expected



The news spread quickly, and soon every person on the Warrior was wide-awake, irrespective of his or her time of withdrawing. Excitement buzzed from one end of the ship to the other. Alexi called an immediate meeting of the crew and scientists.



As you realize this is an historic moment for humankind. In one stroke myths have been proved, and evidence shown. We as an individual race can now trace our lineage back across the galaxy.”

Commander,” it was Abbot again. “What about the diverging?”

What about it?”

Has it occurred? Are we still one people, or have the Carroll Corporation, or what will become them split away?”

That is impossible to know, at least for now.”

But how many arcs are there?”

At this distance our detector does not have the resolution. It could be arcs are close together. We don’t know for sure, but we estimate some fifty individual reflective sources “

The legends say there was sixty seven.”

Then sixty seven it could be. We will know if there are more as we get closer.”

So we are one people.” Abbot said in satisfaction.

If the legends as we know them are true then yes, it does look like we have arrived before the diverging occurred.” Several voices echoed the same question, but Alexi answered Abbot.

Commander, we will be able to see the fleet closer up?”

It was something he had already been considering. “It will require a change in our direction, I have not been authorized to make any changes to the orders.”

There was an audible gasp of communal disappointment.

But… This is a moment unparalleled in our history; it would be a greater breach of duty to ignore the opportunity than obey.”

The mood of disappointment evaporated into clapping, laughing and cheers.

How close will we be?” someone called out.

That is the second part of why I have called you all together.” Alexi looked around the cabin, wondering how they would take his decision. “The sealed orders from Terran state that primarily the Warrior is to provide all assistance and help in conducting the scientific interests of the expedition to Earth, and secondly to provide whatever security is needed to make that happen. There is no mention of the arcs so I have made a decision that fulfills both those requirements, and covers this unforeseen event. I intend to slow as we pass the arcs and undertake a full scan for us to present to the directorate.”

For a moment there was a stunned silence, then a rousing murmur of agreement, but not from all. Chief of the dissenters, and first to speak was Ferguson. “Commander isn’t that unwise?”

In what way Mr. Ferguson?”

We will get too close and be discovered,” the scientist snorted.

Alexi shook his head. “I assure everyone here that the Warrior’s cloaking technology is second to none.”

You may be confident in that thought, but you don’t know what level of sophistication the equipment on board those arcs is at. Can you really be so certain that we will not be seen?”

I grant you that I don’t know what they are capable of, and we will continue to determine that as we get closer.”

And what if their equipment is not switched on. They have no fear out here, why would they be on alert?”

There are other ways we can estimate just where their technology is in relation to our own, but I believe they will have everything working. This is unknown space to them, dark matter, asteroids; any manner of thing could be in their path. But if I suspect there is even the faintest possibility that they may detect us, I guarantee you we will make a very wide detour to avoid them.”

Ferguson stared at him. “I’m not sure your guarantee is good enough, if your reputation is as I have heard.”

Alexi stiffened at the insinuation. “My reputation?”

For making your own rules. As you are at this moment “

Then you have heard wrong. I follow the instructions I am issued; otherwise I would have lost command of the Warrior long ago.”

Ferguson looked around the room. “It seems you have the support of the majority. So you will do as you intend, but I speak to everyone here when I say that one mistake; one error in judgment that reveals us to the people on board those arcs may change our past, present, and our future beyond anything that we can comprehend.”

The cabin fell silent as the enormity of what the man said sunk in.

Mr. Ferguson no doubt some here will agree.” Alexi quickly countered him. “…And others may not, but none can argue that we shoulder a great responsibility to remain in the future of the people aboard those arcs. I assure you and every person on this craft, that I will not give them any reason to suspect anything.”



They went into cloaking mode, and for some time began slowing, weaving and performing other unusual and provocative maneuvers before the arc’s. There was no response, electronic or visual. Nothing gave them any cause to think that they were seen or sensed. Confident of their invisibility Alexi positioned the Warrior directly in the fleet's path. Though in front was more of somewhere between, for the procession was spread out wide and long over an area of some hundreds of klick’s.

It soon became clear that although they were loosely in two rows, there seemed to be no pattern as to position; some grouped close, others way apart, both in width between and distance back. The Warrior just hung in what could be considered empty space, between them. The spaceship was dead and almost powerless, everything but life support and observational equipment was shut down in the scant possibility that some sensor on an arc may detect something.

In deep space light is at a premium, especially so inside the spacecraft where all lights had been extinguished, even the red battle lights: yet a face looked out of every window, watching as the leading arcs approached.

Inside the Warrior it was total darkness, but the polychromatic viewing panels enhanced what was available outside, so in effect each arc illuminated itself. Now they could do nothing but wait, as the point of light broke apart into many, and these resolved slowly into recognizable shapes.

In a way it was disappointing. The arcs were quite unremarkable, excepting for their immense size, some five klick’s in diameter, thirty or more in length. Bracing and machinery, hung untidily on the outside of the cylinders. Along some they saw wide clear sections, running almost the entire length, and occupying maybe ten percent of the surface. These gave a glimpse of what was inside. And what was inside astounded them.

From the first that passed it was obvious that each contained an entire city. Streets, buildings, open grassed and forested areas, even large bodies of water were laid out. As the first slipped by, then another and another, it became obvious that this was not the rushed and panic driven evacuation of a desperate race that the myths suggested. Without speaking everyone knew this could never have been organized as an emergency escape from a dying planet. It was clear these were not space ships; these were space colonies, and building craft on this scale would have taken a considerable length of time. The vista continued to roll by with no change to the outsides, while each successive internal view provided a different scene.

Nobody had expected this. Cramped and converted freighters definitely. Maybe a towed orbital space station or few, but not such a deliberate and structured exodus. Even the space between them was abuzz with a constant and regular traffic of ferries and transports.

As the fleet drew away, there seemed so many more questions than there had ever been before; it left the mood on the Warrior somber. Of course it wasn’t, they had experienced something more moving than any of them had dared to hope for in several lifetimes. The myths had confirmed their origin as a race, yet in the same instant the myths had been found false. Each coped with the experience in a different way; some needed to talk, and others solitude. Alexi was one of the latter. He was sat in the command chair staring out of the solar shield contemplating how he would react at their next momentous meeting, with Earth. His thoughts were broken as Philip came to his side.

Commander.”

Yes Nav.” He said almost startled.

The processor came up with something I thought you should see.” He waited as Alexi got up and followed him to the navigation workstation, then brushed a symbol on the display. Several rows of text and a graph appeared in front of them. Alexi leaned forward, his attention glued. He looked at Philip. “Are you sure?” he said more in disbelief than doubt.

The words had been uttered in surprise but the man seemed slightly hurt. “I’m certain. I've re-checked, and run through the back up data.”

Alexi looked at the screen again.

There's more,” said Philip.

There can be more?” Alexi said with more than a tinge of apprehension in his voice.

The anomaly I reported to you after the tunneling. I couldn't get it out of my mind when I saw this, so I put it onto priority analysis.” He reached in front of Alexi and brushed another symbol.

Alexi read the data displayed; his face bore a look of total alarm as he slowly lifted his eyes to meet Philips.





Rhea and Ferguson were the last to arrive, and they had to push through those standing by the doorway. The man was not pleased and soon made it known to all in the canteen.

Commander. I object to being ordered around as if I am one of your crew. None of us are members of the armed services, and I for one have very important work of my own without wasting time on these continuous …Community meetings.”

Alexi calmly let him finish before speaking, not to him personally, but to the room and beyond. “Thank you all for coming. I know you have important work of your own,” he paused. “Since we last spoke I too have had work to do, the results of which, have increased in significance to a point where it has greater importance than yours.”

There were mutterings of rebuttal, which he ignored.

From this moment on you will be required to submit a brief synopsis of your work to me… for approval to continue. If I do not give that approval you will put whatever you are doing on hold.”

You can't be serious.” Rhea had been the first to speak out, but was almost immediately drowned out by the rest of her group as each added their protest. “Commander,” she demanded over the rest. “You can't do this. You were ordered to take this expedition to Earth, and by definition that places the scientific team’s interests above your own.”

Actually if I may remind you, my crew and I volunteer...”

You're splitting hairs commander.” Interjected Ferguson.

Alexi raised his firm voice, and spoke over them. “...And at that time I was led to believe that our role in this expedition was no more than that of transport facilitation.” He looked at Rhea. “It would certainly have made our job easier, and the security of this venture more secure, if I had been fully informed as to what to expect.”

What are you talking about?” demanded Rhea angrily.

I’m referring to the fact that the Carroll Corporation has more than a passing interest in Earth.”

It has long been believed that we have a common ancestor commander. I would have thought that was quite obvious without it being mentioned.” She shot back at him.

I realize that, but I wasn’t informed that they knew of our plans.”

They don’t?” her voice sounded less confident, as she tried to guess what Alexi meant.

Then apparently things have changed professor,” he said curtly. “A short while ago my attention was drawn to the results of some sampling done as the fleet bypassed us. One result showed traces of benxzium thirteen.” He saw recognition in some, in others confusion. “For the benefit of those of you who may not have a chemical background, benxzium is a synthetic product used specifically as a propellant additive. Neither it nor its other forms are naturally occurring. It is an extremely complex mix of artificial compounds, and is unlikely to have come from the arcs.”

Commander.” It was Ferguson again.

Yes.”

I am well aware of the product and….”

Alexi looked back at the assembly and continued speaking over the scientist. “This substance raises a direct effect on our…”

Ferguson now interrupted him. “If you are about to claim some malfunction that will change the …Instructions you have commander, then I insist we all have access to that data.”

Then you are welcome to check the data Mr. Ferguson, but the emission is not from the Warrior.”

Ferguson looked about him. “Then I am sure we are all relieved the craft is functioning as normal, but that leaves your previous assumption at fault. You are making the presumption that the occupants of the arcs are technologically inferior.” He looked smug. “May I point out that from your own observations that could be a gross miscalculation.”

To be quite honest I don’t know if they are inferior, or far in advance of what we ourselves know. In fact judging by what we have seen I intend to give them the benefit of that doubt.”

Then why are we here; why are you making such a fuss about one single chemical trace that they themselves could possibly have emitted?”

Because it is exactly that: one single chemical trace. We sampled through the entire encounter, and only once did Bz13 show up in any strength. That trace was traveling between arcs.”

Exactly as one would expect.”

As I just said Mr. Ferguson, that there was the one and only trace.”

I am reassured to know that you understand the purpose of each arc commander, because to me they are all a mystery.”

Which ones?” said another scientist, Abbot.

Alexi hadn’t expected the question and didn’t know the answer. “Exactly where it started and where it finished is at this moment not relevant.”

Ferguson smiled. “Which in my experience generally means that you don’t know.”

Alexi knew he was only digging a deeper hole to explain his way out of. “Actually Mr. Ferguson, you are correct, I don’t have that information.”

So you arbitrarily order us about on some vague assumption; that by your own admission you cannot be sure of details, …and expect us to just accept it.”

No, and that is not my intention. This is a serious development that likely will affect us all; consequently I have called us together as I may need to divert some of the scientific team to the investigation.”

If you are unable to identify this ‘trace’ then surely first of all you should establish the where’s and why’s before you demand we halt our own work?”

Mr. Ferguson you are quite right. I should find out, and I intend to, but the following arc's had stirred the trail up, and weakened it. Nonetheless there were traces around arc are seventeen to twenty-three.”

Seventeen to twenty-three. That’s seven arcs; eleven if you allow an error factor, and at that you’re not certain?” Added Rhea.

I said almost certain.”

She spoke again. “I for one still don’t know what you're suggesting. Even if you have a trace and knew where it was from, just what has that got to do with us?”

Benxzium thirteen, as its name implies is the result of numerous redefining of the original chemical compound. I won't go into details.” He stared at Ferguson. “Please ask your associate; but suffice at this time to say that thirteen can only be produced from twelve and that from eleven, and so on down. Now most of the other forms are extremely useful in their own right, so the old hasn’t been discarded for the new in every advance. Instead each refining allows an additional use. So it would be more than expected; in fact it would be highly unlikely to find the end product of a line of useful additives on its own, without at least indications of another of the twelve.”

... And this is?”

Yes professor. One trace, of the most complex variety.”

Then how do you suppose it got there?”

Well,” he sighed. “If we disregard the arcs, then as far as I am aware.” He glanced at Rhea to see her reaction. “Other than another Alliance craft. The Corporation is the only user of benxzium thirteen in their propulsion systems that I know of.”

Rhea was dumfounded. “Are you telling me… Us, that there is a Corporation warship, here in amongst the fleet?”

That is exactly what I'm saying.”

That’s impossible,” she snapped.

Is it?”

Of course it is… You have to have made a mistake.”

Professor are you prepared to vouch for every one of your team. Everyone on Terran. Every person aboard the Ikaban III. Do you truly believe that not a single person, who has knowledge of this flight, could have sympathy that lies outside of the Alliance?”

No I'm not saying that. It’s… it’s just impossible that they could have found out...”

Ferguson interrupted her. “It also could also be one of your own people commander.”

No. Of that there is no doubt. I did not think I would actually be thankful for it, but apparently my crew was not deemed secure enough to be informed until just before we made the tunneling.”

But they could have then?”

No I don’t believe that’s possible. We were in communication lock down, and we went straight from Pengis to the Hole. Even if someone could have, it’s impossible that the Corporation; no matter how efficient they may be, would have had time to put a cloaked destroyer at the tunneling coordinates.”

Rhea spoke in shocked surprise. “There was a Corporation destroyer waiting for us?”

I don’t know what type of ship it is.” He conceded. “But it’s my belief that a craft of some sort was waiting, and as civilian craft are not designed to tunnel; then most likely it is something equivalent to the Warrior.”

This is taking too much to believe.” Said Ferguson. “Your telling us that as we went through, a cloaked Corporation space ship was waiting and followed us into Tachyon time?”

That’s precisely what I’m saying, though followed is not what they did. Under power the craft would have revealed itself, so it’s likely that we picked it up before the black hole, and took it through.” He looked at their unbelieving faces. “We had massive gravitational forces acting all over the Warrior, a single lock from a tractor beam, would not have been noticed.”

How can you be sure this… this destroyer came through with us at that point, and not at a later time?”

We would probably have never known, other than our navigation officer tried to get all the passive observations he could on the tunnel, and by astute observation saw what we must now assume was a warship behind us. Once through we made no secret of where we were going. The commander could easily compute our course, then skirt around us and already be traveling towards us with the fleet as we sat waiting.”

Skirt around,” snapped Ferguson. “Flying rings around would be more apt and still it wasn’t noticed.”

Then Mr. Ferguson I have been lax, but I will not be again. The Warrior is in full scan mode from now on.”

Rhea spoke again. “Hypothetically,” she said to get his attention. “If someone had leaked information then the Carroll warship would have thought we were going to Earth, not looking for the fleet?”

True, we didn’t come looking for the fleet; in fact up until a short time ago, I personally was not convinced there was one, and as the arcs could have come through any winding route it didn’t seem worthwhile to even look for them. All I can assume is that the Corporations commander also saw this as a stroke of luck too good to pass by.”

Maybe it was just a drone commander.” Ventured Abbot nervously.

No, if anything, under tractor the maneuver past the event horizon is even more complex. It requires intuitive decisions, and I don’t like to think the Carroll robotic craft are that smart.”

Rhea spoke more confidently. “Commander you’re words; they don’t reflect your actions. It seems to me that you’re making a case for a deliberate and organized attempt to reach the fleet before us, not a stroke of luck on their part?”

I am not a great believer in luck professor. Neither do I think it was just to reach the arcs: in fact I consider it a calculated plan to establish contact with the arcs before us.” His words brought an immediate reaction, even members of his own crew felt unable to contain themselves.

They can't do that. That will alter time itself,” spluttered Abbot above the others, though his words echoed everyone’s feelings.

On the face of it, that’s right.” Said Alexi. “But we don’t know if time hadn't already taken such a meeting into account?”

It was Rhea who at last brought them back to what faced them.

Commander. Assuming you are right; and I’m not agreeing you are, but if there is a Corporation presence between, or even on board one of the arcs. We still must wait until we receive orders from Terran before we make any decisions.”

I haven't informed Terran.”

You must.” She said urgently. “This is something they have to know about.”

I can't inform them. We’re in Tachyon space. Communication with our own time is impossible. We don’t exist to them or them to us.”

Then we must return to our own time,” added Abbot.

That I intend to do, but firstly we must establish that a Corporation vessel does exist. I’m confident one does, but to abort and return from this mission with assumptions and not proof will not be well received. Secondly we must discover the Corporations purpose here, whether to gain support, inflict sabotage, or other options that we cannot pre guess. Once we have confirmed beyond doubt, that we have had a breach of security, what damage has been done, and what if anything can be done to correct it, we will return immediately.”

The meeting broke up, but only into smaller groups, and talk went on. There was no other subject to talk about.



They caught back up with the fleet in the middle of the rest period, though that didn't matter, no one slept; no one felt tired.

The problem of where they were to find the enemy craft; if there really was one, seemed an impossible task, but they had one advantage. Before they had been dead in space, so it was unlikely that their own emissions would have been detected. At least they were the hunters.

Although they gave the others a cursory inspection the real search started at arc twenty-five. It was a daunting task. Something as big as a needle in the proverbial haystack would have seemed too easy, but one by one they eliminated the arcs. Minutely examining the space around each for any traces of the benxzium, or any disturbances in the fabric of the space-time, that could betray a cloaking devise. There were none, nor should there have been, at least with the cloaking. It was an art form that they themselves excelled in. The whole idea was not to be seen, but they had the slim advantage, that their quarry didn't know it was being hunted. All they needed was just that one slip. At arc seventeen it happened. They ran across a clear fresh trail of benxzium; trouble was that it ran back the way they had come.

Don’t let him get away Nav…” Urged Alexi.

It’s good clear trail. Appears to lead up round the back of the arc.”

Stick with it.”

They've made a sudden correction to the course.” Called Philip

Conclusions?”

They have changed their minds, or have detected our own emissions?”

How far are we away?”

Hundred and thirty-forty klick’s, judging by the dispersal pattern.”

Close on them. I want the Warrior right up their…” Alexi glanced around the control cabin. Other than command crew, only Rhea was there. He looked at her, then at Kat. “One clear shot.”

Sir,” was the curt reply, as the girl readied her weapons systems.

A look of horror spread over Rheas face. She came quickly to his side. “What are you doing?”

My job.”

You realize where we are?” she said pointlessly.

Have you a better suggestion? If you have I'm ready to hear it.”

I haven't, but here? You may as well de-cloak, and have a good old-fashioned dogfight.”

I am very aware it will ring alarm bells all over the fleet, but when nothing else happens, they will settle back down.”

You believe that?”

I have to.”

Got you…” Snapped Kat. Her displays suddenly came alight with activity as the plasma cannons loaded. Thin columns of colored lights raced from zero to charged, holding with a dulling pulse.

Follow the track to it.”

I don’t need to commander. I've got him right in my sights.”

They were facing directly at the end of arc seventeen.

No,” said Rhea anxiously.

We have to.”

You can’t. How can you hit something you can't see?”

I can't, but weapons can.”

There's an arc right behind them.” She protested.

I know that professor.” He said, annoyed that there was.

You can't fire now. What if you're wrong? What if you miss, you could hit the arc?”

He saw Kat’s back stiffen slightly at the less than veiled accusation. “We won't miss.” He said confidently.

But right alongside the arc. The explosion may damage it. You could destroy the arc. It will be bound to cause panic onboard.”

Alexi sighed and pursed his lips. “Hold your fire,” he said reluctantly.

The girl turned to him.

Wait until you have it in the open.”

Time stopped at that moment as they waited, and waited.

Do you think he knows we’re here?” said Alexi to Kat.

There doesn't seem to be any strange behavior. He's close, but not actually docked at a port.”

Nav. what’s his power status?”

Idling. It looks as if he is about to transfer or pick up.”

I'm not sure I want to hear that.” Muttered Alexi.

Maybe… Maybe we should declare ourselves.” Rhea said uncertainly.

Her words struck Alexi like a fist. “What we de-cloak and shout, hi after all we have discussed?”

No,” she snapped back. “Ask the warship what their intentions are.”

Professor “Alexi felt bewildered. “A few instants ago you were afraid we would declare our presence. Now you want us to announce ourselves and tell them we know they are there. If we do that they are just as likely to turn their weapons on us.”

They are humans like us commander, this seems an admirable time to remember that it could be beneficial to us both.”

Does the D.S…”He stopped as her eyes glared at him. “Does the… directorate know of your humanitarian feelings professor, after all we are at war.”

Her voice was controlled but firm. “Not here commander. Here we are one peo… “

I can't understand what he's up to,” interrupted Claries diplomatically. “It seems strange that he would be here this long. He must know that there will be some traffic control on the arc. They could pick up the engine vibration pattern, or their proximity sensors may have activated. After this long they must be aware that someone's ther...”

He's moving,” Kat called out triumphantly.

The Warrior rotated slightly, apparently keeping the invisible target in the middle of the solar shield. Slowly the background became the starbed

Discharge,” said Kat as a thin sparkling beam of electric blue light streaked into space. “Damn,” she said almost immediately. “They have gone to light.”

Number one,” said Alexi.

On our way.”

In an instant the fleet shrank behind them.

Moments later the young girl called out again. “Got him,” she said determinedly, hitting the fire icon as she spoke. A second strip of blue light raced forward, ending in a brilliant eruption. For several instants the flames fed off the oxygen and fuel from the doomed spacecraft, then almost as quickly as it had started, the inferno extinguished. “Target destroyed.”

Rhea looked at the fading fireball. “It seems you were right commander. I suppose that pleases you?”

It gives me no satisfaction.”

It doesn’t? Your military, killing the enemy, isn’t that all that matters.” She turned to the doorway.

It’s my primary duty to protect the Alliance. Destroying its enemies is my last resort.”

Even though they are people like yourself.” She walked through the doorway.

Alexi was angry at the accusation; he followed her into the corridor. “I don’t have the luxury to consider them that way...”

And if you did, would it make the decision harder to take personal responsibility?”

If you want to think of it that way.”

Evidence that the citizens of the Carroll Corporation are our brothers and sisters is out there commander.”

Biologically yes. Ideologically no. I believe in freedom professor. I don’t consider my fellow as only tools or income.”

Freedom is a relative point of view. Some would consider having work, having food or having access to education as freedom.”

I'm sure they would, but the opportunity to provide on one's own behalf, is as equally valuable.”

And fail?”

That too, if necessary. Freedom to me is choice.”

I may agree with you, but a starving man may not.”

Professor this is a pointless discussion. There are merits to being a Corporation employee. I can see that, but I will never accept decisions being made for me.”

I’ll remember to tell Ellis that,” she smiled sweetly. “Although he already knows doesn't he,” she went to walk away.

As long as it’s only Ellis you tell.” The words were spoken in irritation and immediately regretted.

Rhea stopped, and spun to face him. “Excuse me?” she said angrily.

Alexi had no choice but to say what he felt. “You have not told me the truth since you came aboard the Warrior.”

I don’t have to tell you anything that’s not your concern.”

Everything is of my concern here; and especially now.”

I disagree.”

You obviously would. Your agenda is different to mine.”

And what do you mean by that?”

You knew there was a leak.”

We are at war commander. Espionage and misplaced sympathies are always possible as you yourself pointed out.”

He stared at her unmoved, his suspicions confirmed, and his voice became assured. “But you knew there was a leak.” He said confidently.

All right,” she said defiantly, “Director Ellis did say there was a possibility.”

Yet neither of you saw fit to tell me.”

It was only a possibility, and there are hundreds of possibilities. I doubt it was ever imagined they would mount an attempt to reach the arcs.” She wondered if she was right.

Not any longer, so I think it’s time you told me the truth.”

The truth?”

Exactly what are we up against?”

What I will tell you...”

But nothing more was said as Ferguson burst into the corridor. “Am I hearing correctly? Have you just discharged your weapons?”

Yes. I have.” Alexi said in resignation.

Are you totally crazy?” The scientist shouted.

Rhea turned and walked away. Alexi watched her go before turning to the man. “I had little option.”

You promised to return to Terran first,” he said accusingly. “You’re… military... minds. You... just can't see anything else can you. No other solution than... than, just blow it out of existence. You realize that this has alerted the fleet. It has destroyed everything we came to do. The maker only knows what the consequences will have on time itself?”

Alexi had no argument to offer. What was said could well be right. But he had done what was necessary, and he was prepared to take the consequences, including listening to the civilian berate him. He stood silently as Kale came up to him slipping a writing tablet into his hand. Alexi lifted it and read while Ferguson continued to rant. “There is something you should be aware of.” Alexi interrupted him when he paused for breath.

Aware of, I think everybody is already aware that this mission is a disaster,” he grumbled.

I have in my hand a report on the debris field.”

So?”

There's everything we would expect after a direct hit on a Company warship... with the exception of two things. Firstly. Human remains.”

No bodies?” said Ferguson in surprise.

The ship was empty. It was sent to draw us off. Somewhere back there amongst the arcs is the other missing item.” He paused to try emphasize the gravity of what he was about to say. “Their escape pod. The question is, are they still hiding on it, or have they already boarded one of the arcs.”

Ferguson had no reply.



Alexi stood in front of the solar shield. Whether he had done it deliberately, no one watching him could know, but the effect was that a major part of arc seventeen filled the view behind him. His words were still ringing through their ears. As had been the pattern in their previous meetings it was Ferguson who challenged him first.

You don’t have the authority to declare martial law.” The scientist sneered.

Under the articles of war, a commander on front line duty has the power to declare such a status, if and when he sees fit.”

Well then commander.” Ferguson’s words were said sarcastically. “...There you have me, because I don’t know the articles of war to refute and throw it back in your face. But I would with no doubt say that they referred to a hostile battle situation.”

Or its equivalent.” Said Alexi.

You consider the elimination of a single rogue warship, a war?”

In its context, and in what I believe their intent; I have no other option but to consider the situation we find ourselves in to be exactly the same.”

I hardly think so.”

Then I shall explain it in simple terms Mr. Ferguson. We are in as isolated position as I can imagine. We are alone and facing a known and dangerous enemy with no intelligence as to what to expect from them, or for that matter from the supposedly peaceful arcs around us. Declaring martial law is almost a requirement in such a situation.”

You have found and eliminated one single enemy spacecraft. I see no further danger unless you intend to claim there are others.” He stared around the room seeing the faces, as he challenged Alexi. “Would you like to tell us now that there are others?”

There are none that I am aware of.”

Then to me...” Ferguson looked self-satisfied. “...And I am sure to others here; your words ring more of paranoia than reason.”

I do not require your support for my decisions Mr. Ferguson, only your obedience.”

But the scientist was not finished. “Then excuse me if I am a little naive commander, but can you explain at least to me what do you expect to gain by this ridiculous action.”

Little as such. My own crew are quite ready for any occurrence. My worry is your party Mr. Ferguson.”

Oh I see,” he sneered cryptically. “You’re expecting all five of us to start an armed rebellion.” He gestured to Claries, stood where she was by the doorway. Her open hand held loosely at her waist over the recently issued pistol.

Alexi refused to be drawn. “I have made no secret that members of the crew have been armed. In the declared situation it is regulatory.”

Situation? Which particular one, out there, or in here.”

There seems little point in continuing this Mr. Ferguson. I had hoped I would have your.... everybody’s support and cooperation.”

Then you have made a big miscalculation, and I intend to make sure everybody knows of it when: if, we return to Terran.”

I intend to do everything I can to make sure you have the opportunity to file whatever reports you want to on our return to Terran, and to that end I have made my decision. Everybody on this vessel is now subject to article nine of the Alliance War Code. It will be easier on us all if you just accept the fact that section ten of that code makes me the sole, unquestioned authority on this warship. I am now telling you all; you will obey any direction my officers or I give.”

Enjoy your moment commander,” replied Ferguson. “I can assure you that when we get back to Terran you will be lucky to command local public surface transport.”

Alexi knew the man was not just threatening. “Long before that will come to pass; we have to find a solution to our present problems.”

Rhea spoke, “Commander the problem is not yours. If you would just go back to Terran. It’s the inner sanctums dilemma.”

We are here and the crisis is unfolding in front of us. It is up to us to do what we can to halt or limit what the Corporation has in mind.”

Ferguson had not finished. “You don’t know that the Corporation has anything on its mind?”

Their mere presence here is a direct threat to the Alliance.”

But there is nothing you can do,” insisted Rhea. “By your own words you have no intelligence as to what they intend, and that’s assuming that they in fact did survive your attack.”

Alexi was being forced deeper and deeper in the defense of something had never wanted to do in the first place. Already there was the trace of self-doubt creeping into his mind. He could not afford too close an examination of what he had decided; he needed to keep some facts to himself. “This briefing is finished.” He said suddenly. “You all have work. I suggest you get back to whatever it is you have to do.... Except you professor.” His voice softened a touch. “I’d like to see you in my quarters, as soon as you can find time.”



There was a soft knock on the door. “Enter,” said Alexi curtly.

Rhea stepped into his room. She had a face that reminded him of his girls when they had not got their own way. It amused him that Rhea would actually sulk.

Thank you for coming professor.”

Like I had an option?”

Yes, you did.”

I wouldn't give you the satisfaction of having me dragged here in restraints.”

That would never happen.”

Wouldn't it. During this last few parts a lot of things have happened that I thought would never have happened.”

I can’t argue that.”

This was supposed to have been a scientific expedition. Instead, it’s turning into a nightmare.” She said in frustration.

I can’t argue that either.”

Then for the maker’s sake why are you doing this?”

Rhea.” He tried to sound conciliatory. “I have no option.”

That’s a load of Auraulian passings.” She snapped.

I see were down to basics now.”

Don’t be so smug.”

Professor...Rhea we need to get past this. Our mission scientific or not, depends on us working together. Instead we are tearing apart.”

We... Oh I'm sorry; I assumed that it was just you.”

He would not take her provocation. “No. We are pulling it apart. I... The Warrior and its crew have been used. I know that now. I was an innocent; I believed what I was told. But this was never going to be a quick in and out scientific expedition. Not from the very start, was it?”

She said nothing.

Right. Well I’ll throw my tokens into the center first. Besides Philip and one other, everybody; especially your group thinks I'm being a megalomaniac.”

That’s a fair enough observation.” She smirked. “Though I would have said it’s unanimous.”

But what everybody else doesn't know is that we can’t return to Terran.”

Rhea looked at him puzzled. “Is this some new maneuver you’re pulling?”

Have I your word that what I am about to say will go no further?”

You mean keep it secret from my associates?”

From anybody.”

I won’t give you that guarantee without knowing what it is?”

I believe once you have heard me out you’ll see the reason I ask “

Then it’s a risk you will have to take.”

Okay I'm prepared to do that. What I'm telling you is that we can’t tunnel back.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “I... don’t understand what you’re getting at?”

I can’t make it much clearer. We are stuck here. For the rest of our lives we are destined to follow the arcs.”

Her voice was more puzzled than shocked; suspecting he had some ulterior motive, though she had no idea of what it may be, or its reason. “Are you serious?”

Yes.”

What reason have you to say that?” she snorted.

Between destroying the enemy spacecraft, and a short time ago. A person on this vessel accessed the communications workstation, and erased the return coordinates.”

That’s ridiculous; why would any of us do that?”

I would have thought the answer was obvious: to prevent us going back.”

No. You can’t be right.”

It’s not something I would joke about.”

But that’s impossible.”

On the contrary. It was too simple. We had far greater things to occupy us, besides that we took no precautions to protect the data. It may seem lax now, but there seemed absolutely no reason to have considered the records at risk from someone on this craft.”

I mean it’s impossible anyone would want to.”

It’s a fact. It’s gone.”

I still cannot accept why anyone would want to maroon us all.”

There are two options; one that whoever it was wanted to delete something else and did not intend to erase the co-ordinates. If we were to arrive at Terran with no indication of what happened at the tunneling, or of shooting the corporation craft; it would be hard to prove that either happened. As for two, maybe someone has decided the best way was to make sure we had no opportunity to even alert Terran that the Corporation beat us here.”

Rhea was shocked. “That would mean we have a Corporation agent aboard?”

That would be a logical conclusion.”

But who?”

Professor do you seriously think we would be discussing this right now if I had a name?”

You’re absolutely certain that it wasn’t deleted by accident or malfunction?”

If it had there would be a residual that we could recover; what has happened is a deliberate clean wipe.”

No…. that’s absurd.”

I agree: unless you wanted everybody to think that the Warrior was destroyed in the tunnel. The crew are dead. Earth was never found. Everything was wasted effort. With all the evidence the Alliance would decide it’s pointless trying again while the Carroll Corporation re-arranges history to suit its purpose.”

She didn’t challenge him. “You can’t calculate the data again?”

It’s impossible.”

Totally?”

Without the initial data there are too many variables surrounding the return through the tunnel for us to make any assumptions.”

You mean we could arrive back at a different time?”

There have been theoretical investigations into what is called an electronic wipe scenario, where the tunnel erases all data. It wasn’t taken too seriously because the same EWS would have crippled every other system aboard, so finding your way back would be the least of problems faced. Before the whole thing was abandoned it was determined that such a return is possible, but that if the tunneling was early or late it would cause an exponential time difference. Theoretically we could arrive back one, ten, a hundred, or more turns out of time.”

She gave a weak smile. “Maybe I could live with that.”

And when you met yourself, or your great, great grandmother, or great, great, great grandchild.”

I said I could live with it, not wanted it. And if we did, couldn’t we make another smaller tunn… I mean get back in increments…” Her voice trailed off as she realized the impracticability of her suggestion.

For an instant Alexi felt like humiliating her with the reasons why it wouldn’t work, but he was trying to get her assistance so he let it go. “If it was that easy, we could try, but we could also end up in one of the parallel universes you scientific people keep proposing, and that’s ignoring the option of being torn to a trillion pieces in the tunnel itself.”

Okay. Okay,” she almost sneered. “But I won’t accept that anything is hopeless.”

I don’t want to, but that’s how I view our position now, so I would appreciate any scientific help you can offer; though as I have explained, unless something unforeseen happens we are trapped on this side of the tunnel; maybe forever.”

What about sub space?”

Without anomaly assistance that could take up to eleven or thirteen turns. I gave up calculating the exact figures.”

Eleven turns. That’s not too bad.”

No. It’s not too great a portion of our lives; if you don’t mind being cooped up in a craft this size. But that isn’t the worst problem, traveling at light speed could return us generations out from when we left.”

So I get back to wearing a loin cloth,” she smiled weakly slumping down onto Alexi’s cot.

Or if we get it wrong a note saying 'sorry everybody's gone'. Anyway it’s all hypothetical, traveling anything over a turn wouldn't matter for our fuel would have become exhausted before then, and as we’re carrying almost twice the crew before that time, even with a hundred percent recycling, nothing would be left for us to eat.”

Nobody else knows all this?”

Other than possibly whoever erased the data.”

I can’t believe one of them would do such a thing.”

It doesn't matter what you or I believe. That’s our situation. What we need to do is find out what the Corporation has in mind.”

You think the Corporation ship and the data loss are connected.”

Not for certain, but yes.”

But you believe there is a link with the Corporation “

That seems the most obvious thing. What really bothers me is that there seems to be an increasing amount of things I’m finding out that I don’t know.”

If that is our situation, then what are our options?”

I was hoping you could tell me.”

Tell you?”

Yes. Tell me what's happening. The bits that I haven't been told about.”

Rhea looked towards the ground.

There is more; isn't there?”

Yes,” she said softly.

Isn't it time we all knew where we stand?”

All right... I’ll tell you.” She stared right at him. “Yes...You were right. The D.S.D suspected the arcs would be between Earth and us, somewhere on the trajectory you were given to follow. If you hadn't have stumbled onto them, I have overriding orders from Ellis for you to find them.”

So Earth wasn’t our destination?”

No and yes... of course we’re interested. We wanted to locate and survey the planet. It still is very important.”

But not as important as the arcs?”

No.”

We’ll what were we supposed to achieve?”

Exactly what you have done. Locate them. Scan and learn as much as possible... Then my orders depended on how things turned out once we intercepted them.” She hesitated. “Once that was done I was to return and report.”

Alexi felt a growing feeling of unease. “And?”

The Warrior was to come back here and guide in the fleet.”

The fleet?” He said in apprehension.

There is a full battle fleet on its way.” She looked straight at him. “It left point one of a turn before we did.”

Hang on...” Alexi could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Let me get this straight. After all this talk about altering time. About utterly changing our future. You’re now telling me we have a full-scale military force on its way towards us right now?”

Yes.”

I don’t believe this.”

Well believe this. One part before the Alliance fleet put out. We had intelligence reports that the Corporations number seven invasion group had disappeared into the void area “

Alexi put his open palms to his forehead. “Oh this gets better and better.” He stood and looked at her accusingly.

I'm sorry Alexi. You don’t know what it’s been like for me. Part of me was desperate to tell you. To share the burden, but I was sworn to silence.”

He began pacing the few steps up and back across his room. “How long do we have?”

The fleets don’t know exactly where the arcs are, or how far they are away any more than we did. All I know is they will be returning through time at maximum gravity warping.”

Alexi was exasperated. “Rhea I don’t want to spend every day expecting to see a sky full of Corporation spacecraft filling the solar shield, you must have discussed time frames.”

All Ellis told me was that the Alliance craft will be behind the Corporations battle fleet, if we could have pinpointed the arcs, and relayed that information back then maybe they could have made the difference up, or even got in front. As it is a full Corporation invasion group is likely to arrive with no opposition.”

I suppose you don’t know if the Corporations agents had access to the full data, or if they have had to make calculated guesses?”

It would be foolish to assume that they have any less than we had. They could be guessing? They could be right on the mark? Depending on that one or both fleets could be here in anything from several decca to a turn, or more.”

Well I don’t know whether I’ll be glad to see our own fleet in several decca's or not. And I know for a fact that those people out there won’t be.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Well whatever that outcome, none of it changes that our first priority is to do as we were originally ordered, and part of that is to stay alive. I don’t even know for sure that we can survive for several decca, definitely not full turns. We have only one option left. We have to board the arcs and hide until the Corporation fleet arrives.”

Continued in Part Two

Friend or Foe

Click for More of the Company Wars Chronicle serial.