The Span Of Empire – Snippet 30
The morning of the jump-off for the big voyage, Caitlin gave Ed a long and lingering last kiss at the mouth of the boarding tube to the Lexington. At length, she broke away, held her hand to his cheek, and whispered, “You be careful.”
His mouth quirked, then he folded her into a massive hug that caused her ribs to creak. “You, too,” he said. “You come back to me.”
Caitlin nodded as she broke the hug. She placed her hand on his heart, to be pinioned a moment later by one of his. “I will,” she said.
She finally turned from him and walked into the boarding tube without looking back. If she hadn’t, she might not have gone at all. Tamt and Caewithe followed close behind.
Caitlin proceeded directly to the Command Deck. All her gear was already in her quarters, and she could just as easily follow their progress from there, but today she was too nervous to shut herself up down there. It helped to be in the middle of things.
She was one of the last to arrive. “This is not going to be a single jump for the fleet,” Wrot said, meeting her as she entered from the lift. “First, the fleet will retrace our path to one of the former stars we checked out at the edge of the Orion arm, then the Ban Chao will jump to the first star in the path to the Sagittarius arm.”
Caitlin nodded. “And then we wait.” In response to Wrot’s nod, she asked, “How long?”
Wrot shrugged, and stroked the place on his cheek where his bauta scar had once been. “Oh, we will know within a few hours if the Ban Chao survived the jump. If the Frame Network can connect to the ship, then they survived.”
That was good news, Caitlin realized. She’d been afraid they’d have to wait for the messenger to return before they’d know if the Ban Chao had survived. “And then we wait,” she said. “How long for that?”
“The Starsifters elian believes it will take about a week of observations by Terran measures before the rest of us can jump.”
“A week,” Caitlin said. “Joy.”
Wrot responded with another shrug.
It wasn’t long before the fleet–no longer a flotilla–was ready to move. Fleet Commander Dannet gave the order.
Jumping was familiar now, that gut-twisting feeling of being nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Lexington went first. Caitlin closed her eyes as the great ship leapt. They were going back to a star already checked out. There should be no surprises, no fleets of Ekhat ships waiting to fire upon them. “Easy-breezy,” she murmured as minutes later they emerged in the star’s photosphere.
Jao voices read off the readings. Flue Vaughan was at his station, tapping pads and murmuring. No one seemed upset. The smell of overheated wiring came to her faintly, but the repair crew was on it in an instant. Even Dannet was calmly striding about the bridge, not striking anyone who incurred her displeasure. It was oddly anticlimactic.
Within a couple of hours, the rest of the fleet had followed without incident. “Now,” Dannet said. “The Ban Chao will go on.”
“And we sit around here and wait,” Caitlin said, “which is in many ways the hardest part.” Suddenly, she understood why Tully had insisted upon going.
She should have gone too.
The Ban Chao was not a small ship, though smaller than battleships like the Lexington and the Pool Buntyam. Tully tucked himself in a corner of the Command Deck and watched its crew, mostly Jao, busy themselves for the blind jump. The assault troops were suited up and locked into their shock frames. Everything was ready.
More could go wrong with such a jump than a regular one, even when going to a normal star, much less the variable that was their target today, but the Jao were used to the operation. If they couldn’t jump blind, they’d never get anywhere they hadn’t already been, limiting to say the least.
Vanta-Captain Ginta gave the order to jump. Tully was a bit startled. He’d expected more of a build-up to the moment, maybe even an inspirational speech; but then again, these were the Jao. They didn’t get overly dramatic. They had a job and they did it. Anything else was just emotional histrionics to them.
The awful inside-out feeling crawled over him, sizzled down through his bones, threatened to make his brain boil out through his ears. He felt like the top of his head was going to melt. Was it just his imagination or was this jump actually worse than the others he had been through? He pressed his back to the bulkhead and tucked his hands into his armpits.
Jao voices rose around the Command Deck and he thought he detected a thread of alarm. The ship shook as though in the grasp of a great hurricane. He was hard pressed to keep his feet. Vanta-Captain Ginta was darting from console to console, checking readings, directing adjustments, his voice stressed.
Finally, with a great heave that knocked Tully sprawling to the deck, the ship arrived–somewhere. The shaking ceased. He pushed up from his stomach. The viewing screen was a blaze of over-bright light. Sweat dripped down the back of his collar.
“We have pulsation!” a voice said.
“Inward or outward?” Vanta-Captain Ginta asked.
The speaker hesitated. “Inward.”
“Full power!” Ginta said. “Get us free!”
The bridge crew had only seemed busy before. Now, they were frantic, adjusting this, augmenting that, running about in controlled chaos. And there was nothing Tully could do except stay out of the way. He heaved back onto his feet.
“The inward rushing current is pulling us with it,” a Jao officer said. “We can slow the process, but we don’t have enough power to break away.”
The Starsifter elder apparently knew what he was talking about, Tully thought. He craned his head, trying to see what the crew was doing. They had to get out of the photosphere as quickly as possible. The shields wouldn’t hold forever. He’d seen back at the battle of Valeron what happened to ships who encountered a star’s fire with a naked hull.
“Come port eighty-four degrees and down sixty,” Ginta said, peering intently at a screen.
The ship vibrated, caught in the immense forces of the solar tides as the crew tried to follow orders. It shook so hard that Tully lost his balance again and fell heavily to his knees. He felt so damned helpless!
Thank goodness the rest of the fleet had not followed on their heels. The Jao were innately cautious in their practicality. He’d never had more reason to be grateful for that than he did at the moment. And for the moment, he almost regretted on insisting the jinau remain onboard.
“We have to ride it until the pulse reverses,” Ginta said. “Then we can use it to push us out of the photosphere.”
But could they last that long? The view screen now showed a vast canyon of fiery white-hot plasma, laced with flickers of red and blue and yellow, around them. They were sliding along, all but out of control, fighting with every erg of power they could wring from the Ban Chao’s engines, trying not to get pulled in too far.
There was an electronic squeal, then something failed. The lights on the Command Deck went out and the emergency lighting flickered on with a sickly orange tint. Ginta didn’t seem to notice. He pulled a tech out of his seat before a monitoring station and manned the controls himself.
Just like Dannet, Tully thought numbly. Hands-on all the way.
The ship bucked and shook and quivered as though trying to escape Ginta’s firm hand. Tully wished there were something–anything–he could do to help besides stay out of the way.
“Pulse slowing,” a voice said. “Wait, wait.”
“Reversal initiated,” Ginta said as though discussing if he would take a swim. “Brace for impact.”
Tully swore and scooted back against the wall. A second later, they were hit so hard, his teeth clicked together and he bit his tongue. His head collided with the wall and for a few seconds, he was dizzily out of touch with the situation.
He swam back up to full alertness, his mouth tasting of blood.
“–full power!” Ginta was saying, unusually animated. “If we don’t free ourselves from the photosphere with this pulse, we may not last long enough to make a second try.”
The Ban Chao shook and wavered. The Command crew was frantic, increasing this and adjusting that. He only hoped they knew what they were doing.
“Increase power!” Ginta said.
“But we are already exceeding all safety parameters,” a Jao tech, female, said.
Ginta knocked her to the floor and took her place. “Safety parameters cannot help us here,” he said grimly and pushed the lever down. The ship shook, as though in the grip of an angry giant, then–they were free, moving through increasingly less turbulent plasma, and finally gliding out into blessedly black space. It even seemed cooler, although Tully knew that had to be an illusion.
“We are out,” a Jao female said. “Hull surface readings falling, although we still have to shed the plasma we picked up.”
Tully regained his feet, soaked in sweat. He was suddenly glad that Caewithe wasn’t here. It was hard enough to be brave with no one looking.
He toured the Command Deck, looking at the monitors and readouts over the shoulders of the techs. He could read a few of them, but those few told him very little.
“Any sign of civilization in this star system?” he asked one of the sensor techs.
“Nothing in the way of technology,” she said absently. “At this distance, we might not pick up other signs right away. Not that we expected any, in a system like this one.”
“Establish orbit around the star,” Vanta-Captain Ginta said.
Tully tried to imagine the Lexington or the Pool Buntyam leaping into that hell and shuddered. The Ban Chao, being somewhat smaller and with correspondingly more powerful engines, was more maneuverable. Could the larger battleships have handled those conditions? He wasn’t sure they could, and he was very glad they hadn’t had to find out the hard way.
“Orbit established,” one of the command deck crew said. Tully looked over his shoulder and read the distance from the sun. He pulled his com pad out of his pocket and converted the Jao number to human measurements. The Ban Chao was about twenty light minutes out, or a bit more than twice the distance from Earth to the Sun. He relaxed a little at that.
He relaxed even more when messages from Major Liang and First Sergeant Luff arrived on his com pad indicating that the assault troops had come through the jump wrapped in their shock cages with nothing more than bruises.
After watching the command crew for a few more minutes, Tully left the Command Deck and went to his quarters where he showered for a good fifteen minutes, letting the cool water sluice through his hair. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t wash away the feeling of having been very nearly burnt to a crisp.