|Disclaimer: This story contains violence, implied sexual activities, and bad language. People whose sensibilities are offended by such are invited to leave. All characters and situations within this story are fictional, and any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2012 Devon Keene: email@example.com
||the Enigma of Flatness
|No Exit||Part XXIX
Twisting open a pair of cold beers, Sabrin handed one to the lanky Alyan officer on the other side of the galley island. "Thank you captain," Commander Ledsk said, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."
Sabrin had an idea, by the borderline obscene noise Ledsk made once the bottle touched his mouth. "You're welcome. But drop the 'captain', okay? We're off the clock," he said before taking a drink himself.
Ledsk nodded, warmth in his eyes. "I suppose this makes two drinks I owe you now."
"Don't worry about it." Sabrin wouldn't have called them friends, exactly, given that they'd only met once before and not under the best circumstances. Still, it had felt oddly good to see a face he recognized on the other side of the viewscreen and steal an hour to catch up. Maybe having to leave Mark again had left him needy. "And congrats on the new assignment, man. Definitely a step up from a scoutship."
"Heh, thanks." Ledsk gazed fondly out the windows at the ship docked to the Dream, the Alyan destroyer Dsalmuer. "She's brand new. We command staff are all still figuring each other out."
"You and Captain Vanhas seem to be getting along. He practically ordered me to take you off his hands for a bit."
"If I could've convinced him to come here too, I would have. It's been a...rough time for everyone," Ledsk admitted.
Sabrin could read the strain on Ledsk's face, in his posture and voice plain as day. He'd seen various shades of that weariness over and over in the past weeks as they ran around the fringe. It was good, in a way, to be reminded that there was a war on, because the stars themselves never looked any different. "What happened exactly?"
"We have to inspect every ship passing through this system." Ledsk glared into space. "There was a transport and one of the passengers was coughing up blood, so we took him to the medbay...where he exploded."
"Shit." Sabrin grimaced. "How bad was it?"
"We lost two, Henderson and Nistra. A half-dozen more are critical but recovering." Ledsk took a long pull.
"He snuck a bomb in with him?"
"Essentially. Near as we can figure, he was injected with some sort of nano-agent that broke down his cells to make an organic explosive," Ledsk said with a bitter, sardonic curl of his lips. "Hell, the Guilds are throwing so many toys at us it's like Midwinter morning. Some of this crap we've never even seen before. God only knows how they're getting it."
Sabrin stared at the condensation on his bottle and said nothing. Reading the daily bulletins from Command, he had recognized some of the fancy weaponry being used on the Guild side. Croy was gone but the Orions were still pulling strings.
"Sometimes, I swear that the Polarians have it easier on the front." Ledsk shook his head.
"How do you figure?" Sabrin asked. The Polarians were taking the lead in the war and taking it slowly, inching towards Xiuhcoatl one system at a time. Sabrin knew they wanted to avoid thinning their forces too much and leaving openings to the Orions, which didn't mean that he agreed with it. Their caution was playing right into the Orions' hands -- if Mark was right about the Imperials trying to weaken the Polarians and their allies, then they wanted a longer, bloodier war and were pumping arms into the fringe for exactly that reason.
Not that Sabrin could share any of this with Ledsk, who didn't have the rank to even know the Orions were involved. He kept his expression neutral as he listened to Ledsk rant.
"The Guilds aren't stupid; when their units see the Polarians coming with their big guns, they simply duck down until it passes through and then pop right back up behind. We're the ones who are stuck with actually weeding them out."
"The Polarians have taken their share of hits too," Sabrin pointed out. Last week the Niobe's Lament had gone missing -- another in what was now a series of names, all stamped into his memory by the possibility that Mark's cruiser squadron had been responsible.
"I suppose," Ledsk grumbled. "Regardless, all things considered I'd rather be in a fleet, pushing forward."
"Sure, I get ya," Sabrin said; that was the part they used in movies, songs, and recruitment vids for a reason. "But then again, nobody knows what the endgame in Xiuhcoatl's gonna look like." Every day, more and more refugees were cramming into the system. When the Polarians finally got around to it... "I don't think I'd want to be there."
Ledsk grunted. "However it looks, I wish the Polarians would hurry up and have it done with."
"I know the feeling."
Ledsk looked at him like he'd gained some sort of understanding. "Yes, I think you do." He smiled. "Well, what about yourself? How have you and your people been?"
Torn up and anxious, guilty about more than one thing, but could be worse. "We're gettin' by. Keeping busy."
"I can't say that I'm surprised to find the Dream out here in the thick of it too. I hope you're all receiving combat pay."
"We're not in the fight," Sabrin hastened to say, though they were in fact receiving extra compensation for all assignments in-theater. "Command's just having us do support runs."
"Don't say that like it's nothing." Ledsk prodded Sabrin's chest with his bottle-holding hand. "There are people on the Dsalmuer who'd be dead now had you not gotten those supplies to us so quickly."
Sabrin ducked his head, embarrassed but proud at the same time. "Just glad we could help."
"Trust me, we're gladder." Ledsk saluted with his beer again and took another drink. He examined at the bottle afterward, seemingly surprised at how much was already gone. "I'm sick of how we keep getting caught flat-footed by these bastards. One would think that after Dvesh and Zauq we'd have learned."
"Nobody could've predicted Zauq or the other attacks...especially not what happened at Zauq. As for this, well, at least you guys'll know to look out for it now, right?" Obviously that was no guarantee that another similar incident wouldn't happen, but it was something. Sabrin paused and asked, pitching his voice to play it off as polite distance. "Hey, did you lose anyone at Zauq?"
"No one I knew well."
"That's good." Sabrin couldn't tell Ledsk how relieved he was.
"So hey Sabe, spill. How'd your date with Connor go?" Tallas asked later from the helm, when they were on their way back to Alyan space. "Did ya get to hold his hand?"
Sabrin shot him a glare, though Tallas wasn't looking his way. "It was awesome. I'm gonna run away with him and join the Alyan Navy."
"Dreamer, I call captain next!"
"You wish," Dreamer scoffed. "It'd be Lirelle, obviously."
While Tallas clutched his chest dramatically, Lirelle glanced at them with a glint in her eyes and said, "I appreciate the sentiment Dreamer. But Sabrin, rest assured that I have no designs for mutiny in the near future."
"Thanks. I'll sleep better knowing that."
"Wouldn't she say that even if she were really up to something?" Fennic chirped from his simulations on aft station. Sabrin had been getting updates on his progress and made a mental note that he'd probably be ready to practice the real thing soon.
"He's got a point Sabe, and don't think I'll be watchin' your back after the way you just threw me over for Ledsk."
"Oh yeah, I could tell you were real broken up there."
Laughter rang around the bridge. Dreamer gave Sabrin a faux-sympathetic shake on the shoulder as Tallas wove the pattern for the next leg of their journey around his hands.
The Dream of Dawn emerged into the wan glow of a cool orange sun, loitering at the potential while the jump vane recharged. They were the only living things in the system -- what little of it there was -- or rather were supposed to be.
"I'm registering a small object," Lirelle reported, "bearing 2-1-9 mark 1-4-4 at six thousand kilometers."
Sabrin brought up their scans; it was metallic, roughly octahedral and definitely powered with elevated tachyon emissions in the tau band. "Looks like a sensor buoy...and I think it's sending an FTL signal--"
The bridge was bathed in the light from another ship's arrival.
What followed was the chaos of multiple shouts and warning sigils sprouting over every console. Between Sabrin's heartbeats, someone said "Kinjori battle cruiser", someone else said "locking weapons", like he couldn't have already figured that out from the winged shape on the viewscreen, jagged black on black.
The spaceframe lurched with a deep, frantic whine as the Dream twisted down and away. Sabrin had the shields up moments before his head was slammed into the wall and the warm, bitter taste of copper filled his mouth. Alert red spilled across his display and oh god this is only gonna take seconds.
"It's away!" Dreamer's image yelled. Sabrin didn't remember when his avatar had left the bridge.
A solitary point behind the Dream erupted in a pure note of disrupting energy. Over half the sensor readings at Sabrin's station dissolved into static, the work of Dreamer's flash bomb.
"I'm fuckin' goin'!" Tallas snapped at Dreamer as Sabrin pressed his palm to his throbbing temple. No blood. More weapons fire sailed past the windows. Only now, with its active sensors blinded, the Kinjori warship couldn't track the Dream accurately enough to land a hit.
"We're putting on distance," Dreamer said.
The wailing klaxon shattered what tiny respite was in those words. On Sabrin's display, the new yellow symbol blinked frantically and moved, blanking out the rest of his vision. "Lancer torpedo!"
"Shoot it down!" Tallas yelled.
"I'm trying!" Sabrin kept firing but his fingers, his commands were too slow. The flash bomb had taken out their active sensors too, and the Dream's cannons couldn't lock on. It was fast...trajectory constantly changing, interception countermeasures active. In a corner of his mind, Sabrin logged the fact that their aft shields had been shredded, and the more important fact that even if they were intact it wouldn't make a difference if the torpedo struck home.
The little digits beside the symbol flipped past five, four, three. At least, as the torpedo got closer, so did his beams.
The Dream won the race, by dumb luck more than anything else. The symbol vanished and took the klaxon with it. Anti-climactic, Sabrin thought as he slumped in his seat and wiped the sweat off his face. He accepted Dreamer's "good job" with a shaky nod.
"They've stopped shooting," Fennic said shakily.
"Sabe, Ky, you both okay?" Dreamer asked.
Two "yes" answers. Sabrin glanced at the aft station and saw purpling along the sweep of Ky's cheekbone, curling outside his eye.
"The Kinjori are moving to pursue," Lirelle said. The great ship on the viewscreen turned, sunlight catching its facets, becoming a shallow angle with its long wings edge-on. A series of smaller shapes slipped out of its shadow and sped away. "They're deploying squadrons to cover the potential. I'm counting twenty-four interceptors...their entire auxiliary combat wing."
"We won't have an easy time breaking through." Ky's words were beyond understatement. And they would have to break through, because the system only had the one single jump potential.
"Yeah, why don't we worry about the fuckin' battle cruiser first," Tallas snarled. Fear was starting to penetrate his wall of adrenaline; Sabrin heard it in Tallas's voice, felt it himself. The details of their situation were trickling in, his mind slowly working out the angles that mapped just how fucked they were.
"Is the Dream faster?" Fennic asked.
"Yeah, for now." Four sets of eyes went to Dreamer's somber image. "But there's damage to the starboard inertial driver coils. We're losing speed."
Sabrin pulled up the numbers with steady fingers and did the calculations himself. "At this rate the Kinjori will catch us in...three hours, fourteen minutes." And then we're dead.
"Maybe shave off five minutes, if they're feelin' really trigger-happy."
In the thick pall that followed Dreamer's addendum, a chill settled into Sabrin's body. His tongue throbbed dully where he'd bit it and he pushed that raw spot against his teeth. The star system they were in was a pathetic joke, with nowhere to hide and barely traveled.
"The Kinjori are--" Lirelle raised her voice, "They are jamming all frequencies. We can't contact Command."
"Perfect, they've thought of everything," Tallas muttered.
The Kinjori really had -- Sabrin couldn't have picked a better place for an ambush if he'd tried. How they set it up was a problem for another day, assuming there was one. "Okay guys, we do have a tiny bit of breathing room here," he said with forced, brittle calm. "We need to assess the damage to the ship and what we have to work with...and then we can figure out our options."
He could almost feel the collective taking of deep breaths around the bridge. "Agreed." Lirelle was the first to reply.
"Dreamer, you and me should look at the engines first. Lirelle, you know Kinjori tech, maybe you can find a way past their jamming or something else we can use against them. Ky too, if you can think of anything that can help--"
Ky shook his head. "I don't have that level of technical training. Nor have I ever served on an Armada warship."
"Alright, in that case then you and Fennic can give Dreamer a hand, wherever he needs it. Tal, will you watch the bridge?" Tallas touched two fingers to his temple in affirmative salute; Sabrin's heart ached at the familiarity of the gesture. "Everybody keep your comns open. Any brilliant ideas, don't keep 'em to yourselves."
Residual smoke and ozone prickled Fennic's eyes and nose as the bulkhead opened, giving he and Ky access to the shield generator. Banks of emitter segments lined both walls in the V-shaped space, their bottoms descending beneath the grated deck plating. He flinched at a small spray of sparks nearby, coming from a blackened...he scrunched his brow, plumbing his memory of the one time he'd helped Sabrin do maintenance here and coming up short.
Irritated, Fennic tuned into Ky conferring with Dreamer's image. In offensively calm tones they talked about which segments needed to be repolarized, and which ones needed to be bypassed because they couldn't replace them on the run.
The sudden, intense urge to lash out stole his breath. He'd nearly forgotten how much he hated it, the sensation of being hunted. The shadow of panic edging under his skin, down his spine in needles, pressing in on his lungs. The thing was he'd been trying -- filling his days with bridge simulations and whatever tasks the others would entrust to him, and his nights with studying textbooks and manuals -- but he still felt like a stupid, helpless kid hiding behind all the grown-ups' legs.
And Dreamer had finished giving instructions, so Fennic nodded and they were left to work. He stole glances at Ky but never found him looking back, his face always an unreadable mask. If Fennic didn't know better, he would've seemed like another avatar of the Dream, industrious and unflappable.
Of course Fennic did know better, which was why he needed to hear from Ky and not Dreamer. Dreamer really wasn't scared of anything.
He rolled the coupler between his hands. "Um, Ky?"
Ky's face tilted towards his. "Yes?"
"We're in real trouble, aren't we? This is a trap the Kinjori set specially for us and they were waiting." Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I missed some obvious detail because I'm not educated enough, or experienced enough.
Hesitation and a glimpse of gray eyes. "Yes, I believe that's the only reasonable explanation." Ky frowned, his slim body bowing a little. "The Onyx Hand's finally making their move."
It took a second for Fennic to register that finally. "Wait what do you mean, were you expecting this?"
"Extractors are some of the most valuable and well-guarded assets the Onyx Hand has," Ky said. "They could never simply allow one to defect."
"But..." He felt staggered. "I thought we'd gotten away!"
"Why? We found you at Windfall, almost as soon as you arrived," Ky reminded him, devastatingly; he didn't seem to have noticed the pronoun slip that made Fennic flinch. "It was only a matter of time." The scrape of raw regret entered Ky's voice. "I'd anticipated a more subtle approach, not this. I'm truly sorry."
"Subtle?! What're you talking about?"
"I meant...the Onyx Hand usually doesn't like collateral damage. It's sloppy. They must've been aware that the Dream's under Alyan protection. I thought the Kinjori wouldn't risk a diplomatic incident by attacking us openly--"
"Collateral--" Fennic figured it out. "You meant the rest of us. We're the collateral damage," he said with rising fury. "And by 'subtle' you meant you thought they'd only go after you." All this time, he thought one day he would be away from the ship for whatever reason and just end up never coming back. "What's wrong with you?!"
Ky stiffened and very deliberately turned to his work. "This isn't the time to be sentimental."
Hell no you don't. Barely thinking, Fennic thrust his arm into Ky's space. Ky jerked away violently, his back hitting a segment along the opposite wall.
The silence was a tangible thing, as they both gulped in lungfuls of air and stared at each other with wild eyes.
Fennic's still-outstretched hand trembled. "Sorry Ky, I-I wasn't really going to touch you. I just had to snap you out of it. Sorry." He lowered his hand and took a backward step. The shocked hurt that he'd put all over Ky's face sent a rush of self-loathing through his chest. "You...you just can't keep something like that all inside."
Long moments passed. The tension slowly drained out of Ky's frame and he drooped, bracing his hands on his knees. "The facts are as they were," he said. "I thought the consequences were mine, so what would burdening you all have accomplished?"
"Because we're all in this together!" And after all they'd been through, it galled that he even had to say it aloud.
With a quiet sigh, Ky straightened and returned to where he'd been. Fennic mentally traced the profile of his face -- the slight crook of his nose, eyelashes dusky against pale cheeks. The corner of Ky's mouth curled in what was no way a smile. "Sentiment."
The word was a wisp of smoke, insubstantial -- Fennic hadn't been shut out.
He kept his arms down -- he wouldn't do that to Ky again -- but he leaned in enough that Ky couldn't ignore him. "Look at our lives. What else do any of us have that's worth anything?"
There you are. There was the sharpness, the presence that Fennic had missed as Ky looked at him fully for the first time. "Ky, it hurts me that you've thought this way for so long. It tears me apart to know that you believed you can just disappear and it wouldn't matter." He held Ky's gaze and willed him to keep listening. "Please stop. Never ever be sorry. If...if your life isn't worth that much to you, then think about what it's worth to me."
Fennic held his breath and waited for Ky to fade, but he didn't.
"You keep surprising me, Fennic," Ky said, smiling for real.
They regarded the damaged emitters; Fennic wondered why Dreamer hadn't interrupted to prod them. "We should keep working," Ky said. "Our time's limited."
"Yeah." The fear that squirmed in Fennic's gut reasserted itself with a vengeance. He blinked rapidly to clear the stinging in his eyes and turned to his own task. "We'll figure something out, I'm sure."
"Of course we will," Ky said. Fennic took the certainty in his voice and wrapped it around himself.
Too often, Lirelle had the notion that her crewmates harbored an unrealistic estimation of her capabilities. In light of her personal history, she liked to believe instead that she'd grown more aware of her limitations. It took mere minutes to determine that there would be no circumventing the Kinjori jamming.
"You sure?" Tallas had his upper body twisted partway towards her, right arm crossed over his chest to grip his seat back
Checked, double-checked, and more. "The Kinjori have blanketed the entire spectrum--" not even reserving a gap for their own communications, which was both unusual and alarming, "--and we don't have the speed to outrange their interference."
"It would undoubtedly be destroyed before it could reach a distance to broadcast." Lirelle had mulled over various ways to sneak a beacon past the cruiser, either by hiding it or using decoys, but none struck her as realistic assuming the Kinjori were even moderately competent. The space here was simply too empty.
"Okay...okay..." Tallas repeated as though to make it sink in. "So we're on our own for this one. We have to get past that cruiser somehow."
"Yes." To reach the jump potential, their only escape route. Lirelle changed the console display with a swipe of her hand and interlaced her fingers. Impossible was the first thought that sprang up but she forced her mind to stretch, explore the avenues one by one and confirm them as dead ends. "How did the cruiser achieve torpedo lock on us?"
"Huh? What'd you say?"
"The Kinjori targeting sensors had been disabled." After the flash bomb, none of its directed-energy weapons had come close to connecting. "Yet they were still able to lock a lancer onto us."
Dreamer appeared on a nearby screen. "Check out the torpedo trajectory."
Lirelle did so and saw the pattern immediately. "It was programmed to auto-target." The cruiser had fired the torpedo blind and once clear, it had used its own on-board sensors to acquire them.
"Adds to the flight time, but don't think that'll matter for us," Dreamer said.
Tallas knit his brow. "Why's that a big deal?"
Lirelle stared at her console, letting Dreamer field the question. "'Cause the only way past that cruiser is to take out its weapons, and another flash bomb ain't gonna cut it. Not if they can still shove a torpedo up our asses."
"So...what? What other options have we got?"
Her first year at the Academy, Kinjor's rising star, taking Advanced Cryptanalysis. Professor Mesesi gave an upper-level problem each week as extra credit. Lirelle solved every one, until two months in when she hit a brick wall. Hours spent in the library and at the end of the week she'd sat defeated with the rest of the class for the explanation. Mesesi had smiled wryly and explained that the data hadn't been encrypted; it only looked like it had. It was never solvable.
Their situation felt like that, like trying to recompile the program from the Orion disc. Mesesi's lesson had been on the importance of recognizing impossibility, and doing so before significant time and resources were lost.
"I don't know." Lirelle shook her head, avoiding the sliver of hope that Tallas had threaded into her name. "I can see no apparent way to bypass the cruiser."
Tallas looked to Dreamer's similarly grim face, and his expression wavered for a moment. He's so young; Lirelle forgot, most days. Then Tallas narrowed his eyes, apparently deep in thought, before turning back to the helm console. Lirelle craned her neck and saw him inputting a series of commands. "What're you doing?"
"Seein' if we can made it to the sun."
Lirelle closed her eyes; she'd already considered that possibility. "We can't hide the Dream there. Our sensor profile's too large, not to mention they've already acquired us visually."
"No, but we can jump."
The word jump was a splash of ice water, jolting Lirelle upright. "No, no Tal," Dreamer was saying, "That's fuckin' insane."
"There're jump potentials hugging every star. Look, there's one right there," Tallas jabbed a finger at his console, piercing the holographic display. Lirelle realized what Tallas was doing before was disabling the safeguards on the Dream's jump sensors, which normally kept them from registering what he was now pointing to. "See, there's another one."
"They're unstable. D'you even know what that means?!"
"That they'll take us away from here!"
Jump potentials came in two main flavors -- stable and unstable, of which the latter outnumbered the former by a factor of ten. Calculations for a stable potential, done properly, collapsed neatly and predictably into a finite number of solutions, one per destination. Unstable potentials had no solutions, or maybe an infinite number; calculations for them couldn't be right or wrong and any configuration was accepted -- what that meant for the small number of ships that have tried to jump through in the past was anyone's guess.
"Tal, nothing that's jumped an unstable potential has ever come back," Dreamer snarled. "We've got no idea what's gonna be on the other side, if there is even an other side. It's not just stupid, it's suicide."
"Unstable potentials have infinite possible destinations," Tallas recited, setting his jaw stubbornly. "As long as it's not here, who the fuck cares where we end up?"
Dreamer gave a frustrated sound. "That's one theory. Another's that you get de-atomized. Nobody knows! Half of everything jump topologists come up with is just shit they made up!"
"Tallas," Lirelle added, "the principle of reciprocity doesn't apply to unstable potentials. Even assuming we made the jump successfully, we'd be unable to return here. Out of infinite possibilites, the chance of our ever finding a way back to settled space is essentially zero."
"If it's that or die, I'll take the mystery box, thanks." Tallas activated the flight controls and began plotting a course.
Dreamer kept arguing, that it was impulsive, reckless, fatalistic. Tallas sniped back that if anyone offered an alternative "bright idea to not die" before they reached the sun, he'd happily listen. Lirelle watched them, strangely comforted by their passion and defiance. Her own thoughts spun helplessly -- her training insisted that to jump an unstable potential was death, as Dreamer said, and yet...
"We all carry our own preconceptions, such is natural and unavoidable," Mesesi had said. "However, if we aren't careful they may limit our vision, turn a stumbling stone into a roadblock or worse, lead us down a false path altogether." If only the line between perception and reality weren't so blurred.
Sabrin managed to think only about their engine problem for the whole walk to deck five. Dreamer's avatar straightened from his crouch in the utility corridor upon his arrival. "Hey. That was good on the bridge, giving everybody somethin' immediate to focus on."
"Glad you approve," Sabrin said gruffly and bent down to the open toolkit. As his fingers touched the various tools, he realized he had no idea what he needed to be doing and looked up, to find Dreamer holding out a pad. He snatched it with a chagrined, "Thanks."
"It ain't lookin' too good cap'n."
"I can see that." Sabrin scanned the preliminary damage report, deliberately misinterpreting Dreamer's statement. The short story was that there was no way to repair the damaged driver coils without shutting them down first, which obviously wasn't an option. "Okay, my first thought's...we can buy more time with more thrust. We've got a bunch of extra dynamag clamps, let's beef up the conduit containment and run the plasma over capacity."
"I'm already on it. And you know that's not what I meant."
"Shit, man." Sabrin squeezed his eyes shut and buried a fist in his hair. "Gimme a fuckin' minute."
He felt Dreamer's hand land on his shoulder, heavy and warm. "I've sent a couple drones outside to reconfigure the post thrust assemblies. We'll prob'ly have to replace at least the collars after this."
"Oh that'll be fun." Sabrin leaned into Dreamer's' touch in gratitude for a moment, and then they got to work. Despite Dreamer's obliging him though, he didn't -- couldn't -- stop his brain from picking apart their situation. As they toiled frantically to extend their remaining time by two, maybe three hours, a nucleus of an idea was forming. Not perfect -- in fact terrible, engulfing him in guilt for even thinking it -- but workable.
It would require that the Dream turn towards the sun. Sabrin called the bridge and found himself in the middle of an argument, with Tallas unexpectedly advocating same course of action as he was for a different reason.
"How much time'll we lose if we do the course change?" Sabrin asked Dreamer, who seemed anything but happy.
"Sixteen minutes. Now that we've gotten the third generator integrated we'll get there a little ahead of the Kinjori. Sabe, c'mon, you can't seriously be thinkin'--"
Sabrin signaled him to wait a second. "Tal, do it," he said into his comlink. After Tallas's confirmation, he closed the channel and met Dreamer's glare full-on. "I'm not saying we're gonna make the jump. But Tal's right, if we can't get help or get to the regular potential then we need a third option."
Dreamer huffed. "Is this some bizarre Orion thing?"
A low chuckle escaped Sabrin's lips. "I don't know, maybe. But even if it came to us having no other choice than to jump, the worst that could happen is that we die anyway, right?"
The stare he got from Dreamer in return sent chills down his spine. "That's not the worst that could happen. Y'all could die except me."
Sabrin sucked in a sharp breath. "What're you talking about?"
"That's one theory y'know, that an unstable potential's like a regular jump times a billion." Dreamer tapped at his temple. "Too traumatic for a human mind to withstand."
"Did something like that actually happen to you?"
Dreamer paced away, facing the wall and as still as a statue. It looked so unnatural that Sabrin flinched when Dreamer began to speak in a low, husky tone. "It was the last year of the Schism. We were carryin' some intel back to Headquarters, the kind of top secret that you can't put in a transmission."
"We ran into the Sirians -- this was way before NSC made us supposedly chummy -- at Reysch 49 B. Our escape routes were cut off, and we couldn't just keep runnin' forever." Dreamer glanced at Sabrin, who had moved next to him. "We were heading into the Kuiper belt, so the captain gave the order to abandon ship."
"Sounds like you didn't have a lot of choice."
"Oh no, we weren't giving up. We had to secure the intel. My crew put together all the fuel and ordnance and scrap metal we had, and set off a hell of an explosion in space after they'd bailed in the escape pods. I performed an emergency shut-down and did my best Kuiper object impression. It looked like they'd activated the self-destruct, and the Sirians bought it."
Knowing why Dreamer was telling the story, Sabrin hesitated to ask. "What happened to your crew?"
"Well, this was less than eight months before the last Battle of Earth." The bloodiest day in human history. "Nobody was keeping any prisoners by that point."
"Fuck, sorry." Sabrin couldn't imagine what it'd been like to live through the end of the Schism, human or AI.
"That wasn't the end. One of my crew stayed behind in an EV suit. The idea was that once the Sirians left, he'd pilot me the rest of the way home. Thing is, we hadn't figured on the Sirians making a major push in that whole region right then. They didn't leave." Oh god, stop talking, Sabrin begged Dreamer silently as his horror mounted.
"His air ran out, I couldn't risk powering up life support. And with no pilot aboard I was just...stuck. Drifting by myself."
Sabrin swallowed with difficulty, his dry throat convulsing. "How long did..."
"Two years and four months, which was good, actually. We AIs can only live, so I could've lingered for a hell of a lot longer." Dreamer reached out gently and Sabrin rushed to meet him; Dreamer's fingers were steadier than his. "Lemme tell ya, being there alone, nothin' but years of slow decay ahead...I think that's the closest I've ever gotten to being scared."
"The worst thing would be to go through that potential and lose all of you, and still be left. And on my power reserves right now I could live--" the word was spat like a curse, "--for a hundred years."
"Dreamer, I'm..." Sabrin pulled Dreamer in, wrapped his other arm around him and squeezed tight. What could he have said? It was literally beyond human experience.
"No, don't thank me." Shaking his head, Sabrin pulled away. Misery was written all over his face. "I have to consider making the jump, I'm sorry." His other, maybe idea...it didn't apply. "It's a last resort, I promise, but I have to consider it. If it's between a tiny chance of survival and no chance--"
"I get it." There was no recrimination in Dreamer's voice. "Sabe, don't let my sob story guilt-trip you into makin' a mistake. Sure, what happened in Reysch sucked ass, but my captain made the right call, for the mission. There's no mission this time but I trust ya to know which things are important, what your priorities should be. So whatever call you make, I'll back you all the way."
Sabrin dredged up a weak smile. He stooped to gather up their tools, wiping his sweaty palms off on his pants first. The plan. His plan, that he slotted what Dreamer had told him into. Better or worse? He thought about how his crewmates -- how Tallas -- would look at him.
The crew of the Dream gathered around the master situation display at the rear of the bridge. Behind the viewscreen holding the constant view of their pursuer, the sun blazed large enough to throw an orange cast over the room.
"Okay everybody, the bottom line's that the Kinjori have us up against the wall." Sabrin stood with his arms crossed, Dreamer alongside. "There's no fighting or getting past them. But--" he met Tallas's eyes, on the other side of the transparent screen, "--jumping through an unstable potential's way too risky."
"Sabe--" Tallas protested.
"We have no idea what would happen," Sabrin said firmly. "It'd be barely better than just surrendering and counting on the Onyx Hand's compassion."
Tallas backed off, though his face was set in a way that Sabrin recognized all too well. Sabrin exhaled and wet his lips. "I've been thinkin' about that star though. The Dream's too big to hide--" Here we go, "--but an escape pod might manage it."
The expected storm came, the "We're not abandoning the Dream!" from Fennic overlapping with Tallas's incredulous "Say again?!" and Lirelle's more reserved "Are you suggesting--"
Expecting it didn't make it any easier. "Guys, let's not kid ourselves here!" Sabrin barked, raising a quelling hand. "There aren't any good options left. This is about survival and numbers."
"Then I say that we all jump together," Fennic said.
"This isn't a vote!" Sabrin regretted the outburst immediately, more so after Fennic's expression shut down. What he meant was that they were going to decide as a group, and nothing was happening without everyone agreeing. He opened his mouth to apologize and correct himself, but Lirelle preempted him.
"At the cruiser's distance, they will certainly detect and track any escape pods launched."
"I know, I've thought about that." Sabrin thumbed his eyebrow; he had to regain some semblance of order. "Will you all just...just hear me out, okay? Please?" After an exchange of glances, his crewmates nodded.
"Thanks." Sabrin felt the heat of Dreamer's silent attention on his face as he brought up the simulation he'd prepared.
"We take a tangential course, skimming the corona at minimum safe altitude." Sabrin followed the symbol that represented their ship with two fingers. The cruiser symbol behind traced the same trajectory line. "At this point here, the Dream does a one-eighty rotation and releases the starboard side escape pods at point-three seconds in." Sabrin tapped the symbol and it spun around, with several smaller ones appearing on the other side.
"The Dream will then go to maximum engine thrust. At the same time, each pod performs a one second full thruster burn on a random orbital vector, then powers down. If we time it right, the Dream itself should block the Kinjori from seeing the release or the initial burn. They won't know we've launched any pods at all."
Lirelle, who had edged closer to the screen during his explanation, murmured, "It's a viable plan."
"Yeah?" He sounded pitiful to his ears.
"I have concerns about how far Armada sensing capabilities have advanced since my time with them," Lirelle said. "Nevertheless, yes I believe there's a good chance the pods will escape detection."
"The Kinjori won't want to remain here too long," Ky added in his neutral tone. "Despite this being unclaimed space, it's close enough to Alyan territory that their presence will raise unwanted questions."
"Uh-huh, and what happens to the Dream?" Tallas asked, low and deadly.
"Tal... There isn't..." Sabrin turned to him helplessly. Dreamer told me...
Tallas jerked his chin at the simulation, which had run to the end. The escape pod symbols were split apart on separate paths, and the symbols for the Dream and the cruiser had collided. "Is that it?"
No one spoke, or even twitched. Sabrin felt flayed to the bone by Tallas's glare.
"Okay, so tell me..." Tallas flexed his fingers and pointed at the inflection point of the trajectory. "How're you gonna sell to the Kinjori that all of a sudden we decided hey, we actually love dying?" He raised his eyebrows.
"Maybe I wanna look the bastards in the face," Dreamer said. Sabrin noticed that he'd moved slightly behind him, in a subtle show of support.
"Fuck that," Tallas snapped. "I say, let 'em believe it's 'cause we lost our fuckin' minds tryin' to escape." He stabbed at the controls, until a sensor map of the real star overlaid the generalized globe. The old trajectory line for the Dream shifted to intersect a potential. "We'll launch the pods...and one of us'll stay aboard and try to make the jump."
"No. Way." Before he was aware of it, Sabrin had surged around the screen and grabbed Tallas's shoulder. "There's no coming back from that! It's a fuckin' waste--"
"Don't you dare pull that bullshit on me!" Tallas knocked his hand aside. "'Sell the Dream, two lives for one', remember?" Each mocking word was a stiletto punched between Sabrin's ribs. As he struggled for breath, Tallas turned to address them all. "Four of us'll get the good odds, two of us the long shots. Nobody gets sacrificed."
Sabrin lost. He was always going to.
One by one, the crew of the Dream of Dawn indicated their agreement. When it came to Ky, he cleared his throat and said, "I'm the most logical choice to remain--" That set off another argument.
The noise pounded at Sabrin's skull. Ground his shattered pieces into the dirt.
"Shut up!" he yelled, punctating it with his fist bashing the nearest bulkhead. "We're not gonna play that game. We'll draw straws." Dreamer nodded and went to find the needed bits.
"This is right," Tallas said. He held a short piece of yellow wire between his thumb and forefinger. "I'm the one who believes in this."
Once they had a course of action, the preparations moved along quickly. With the sun's glow caressing his closed eyelids, Tallas could imagine hearing waves of stellar radiation crash against the shields. Like music, better than the quiet that was him alone on the bridge, drowning out the fact that the most precious minutes of his life were burning away.
"Tallas, I have the bridge." Lirelle's voice propelled Tallas out of the pilot's seat. "The pods are nearly ready."
"Good." Tallas brushed a hand over her shoulder as he headed for the stairwell; they could say their goodbyes later. He ignored the pang that Sabrin hadn't been the one to come. "Where is he?"
"The mess hall."
The doors hissed open and Tallas found Sabrin and Dreamer standing in the galley amidst boxes of rations. The plan was to put one person per escape pod, which would let them hold out for months -- though hopefully Alyan search and rescue would arrive much quicker than that after the Dream failed to report in.
The two men were deep in discussion, their heads bent close together. Tallas hung back until Dreamer nodded and clapped Sabrin on the arm. Hefting a six-high stack of boxes on each arm, Dreamer left them alone with a passing greeting.
"Hey Sabe," Tallas said nervously, walking forward.
To his surprise, Sabrin gave him a soft smile and a return "Hey".
"What were you two talkin' about?"
"A fail-safe," Sabrin murmured. He blinked and visibly re-focused himself. "I'm glad you're here."
Tallas made a choked sound and closed the last bit of distance between then, cradling Sabrin's handsome face in his palm. Sabrin didn't resist, only hitched his breath, as Tallas guided him into a kiss. He tried to pour everything into it, love and sorrow and contrition.
The first kiss became two, three, Sabrin whispering his name between breaths. Their bodies swayed together, back and forth, and Tallas dug beneath Sabrin's shirt to find hot skin. It wasn't enough.
"There's no...we don't have time--" Sabrin gasped as Tallas dragged them to their quarters, the blue in his eyes compressed to a fathomless ring.
"We do." If Tallas knew anything, it was how much time they had.
Darkness and Sabrin on his stomach on the bed, cries muffled as Tallas pressed into him, painting bruises around his wrists. They didn't usually do it that way despite how much they enjoyed it, which was fine -- Sabrin never said, but Tallas suspected it was because he found it a bit too intense, and Sabrin wasn't a man who could handle coming apart too often. This time though, they didn't need words to know what they both needed.
They could only be fast; Tallas wrenched Sabrin over the finish line with brutal efficiency and followed right after. He drew his fingers down the shivering valley of Sabrin's spine and took the first shower, scrubbing his eyes in the spray. He dressed while Sabrin took his.
"Sabe," Tallas said as Sabrin was pulling on his pants, "About what--"
"I'm not going with the others," Sabrin interrupted. "I'm making the jump with you."
His first, knee-jerk reaction was joy, rushing through every nerve in his body before it soured. The jump might have been his idea, but Sabrin's plan was better, it would've kept him safe. Tallas shoved Sabrin's chest. "Uh, no, you're fucking not."
"Yeah I am," Sabrin said, rock-steady. "Did you really think I could've done anything else?" He tugged his shirt down, the rough motions betraying his emotions, and met Tallas's stunned gaze. Determination was etched on his face, along with pain and anger. "You've said that the risk is worth taking. Were the odds were good enough for you but not for me?"
Tallas stayed frozen while Sabrin stood up. Sabrin's expression gentled and he leaned in for a kiss. "I love you. See you on the bridge."
The sun was almost too bright to look at, even with the bridge windows polarized. The Dream sailed under an arc of solar plasma half a million kilometers long, guided by Tallas's sure hands. "We're comin' up on the target coordinates."
"Pod launch sequences are set," Dreamer said, his presence solid behind the pilot's seat. "Waitin' on your mark."
"The cruiser's closed to fifteen light-seconds," Sabrin reported.
Lirelle, Fennic, and Ky hadn't acted very surprised when Sabrin told them he'd be staying. They had merely made their heavy farewells to him too, and filed off the bridge with parting wishes of luck. Tallas supposed that meant he should've caught a clue earlier. He was ashamed to recognize that he'd been ugly before, trying to get Sabrin off the ship. Now, hearing Sabrin's deep voice as the clock ran down, it only felt right.
At his command, the Dream spun smoothly on its vertical axis. Exactly as timed, three escape pods exited their berths on the starboard side. "...pods are clear, engines to full power." He glanced up at the viewscreen to see a split-second glow coming from the three tiny shapes, propelling them in different directions.
A familiar klaxon split the air. "Four torpedoes incoming!"
The Dream's forward cannons fired again and again. A fiery beam speared through one lancer torpedo, not that it mattered because they were going to jump. Tallas left Sabrin to it and focused on the potential. It read strangely on his sensors, parameters all over the place but not pure chaos.
"Hey Sabe," Tallas called over his shoulder.
"Bit busy!" Sabrin managed to eliminate a second torpedo.
The jump configuration began to build, layers of glowing language coalescing over the console, like none Tallas had ever experienced before. Instinct was his only guide. He felt free. "I'm really sorry for what I said to you before."
"Forget it, just get us outta here!"
"Say ya love him, you idiot," Dreamer prompted, in not that subtle a voice.
"I know," Sabrin said.
Tallas wasn't afraid. His doubts had melted away, leaving an unshakeable truth at the his core. We'll make it.
Energy danced along the length of the Dream's jump vane, building to crescendo. A third torpedo went down as the ship entered the blast radius of the fourth, which detonated a split-second later in an annihilating blast of heat and light.