The Cosmos II
Dirck had no idea how long he'd been out, only that the pain gripping his skull indicated he was alive. The flightdeck was dark except for the glow of red emergency lighting, status lights on the console all amber or red. Closing his eyes he took a deep, cautious breath and tried to flex his tingling fingers. The smell of melted plastic and toasted electronics lingered, intensifying the nausea.
“’Merapa,” he called, voice hoarse.
He held his breath, waited a moment then crawled down the ramp to the open hatch that led below. “’Merapa? Are you all right?” he tried again, straining to see. A moan escaped from a mishappen mound on the floor then his father turned over and muttered what must have been an Esheronian expletive. With that he half-crawled, half-climbed up the rungs and to the flightdeck, muttering uncomplimentary statements about Troy and his TL-87; Dirck followed sluggishly, half walking, half crawling.
His father switched to test mode and checked the systems, one by one. The sluggish TDM was dead. The vertical control disks were warped, but usable at half-power, they'd blown an APU, the one that provided the power for tachyonic transmission mode. So much for ‘Merama’s message.
“I should have known,” ‘Merapa grumbled, squinting at the few active displays. More came up when he smacked the console with his hand. The ship shuddered as he eased the phase coherency generator into service, then, a flicker of time later, the remaining cabin lights came up and the chamber vibrated with a reassuring hum.
“What happened?” Dirck asked. “What'd we hit?”
Dirck sat up straighter, cringing with the effort. “What's that?”
“One of the consequences of space travel,” his father said, rubbing his face with both hands. “Tampering with warp harmonics involves time and space. I probably caused it, trying to disengage the harmonic inhibiter. The warp drive system is designed to manipulate space and time. You can't flex one without affecting the other. You never know where you might wind up, either. In other words, we may get back after everyone we know has died, or even on the other side of the universe, depending which way we bumped.” He grimaced, perhaps with the thought then rubbed his neck and shoulders painfully as he continued. “We were set up. Troy had them set the inhibiter, knowing I'd need more than one-five to get there on time. I had a feeling something was wrong when we left the Aquarius.”
“Troy set us up?”
“Absolutely. Unless he's stupid enough to think I still might work for him. If that's the case, probably not. It's possible it was just a faulty TDM and the work crew took advantage of the fact he wasn't the one going out.”
“So how do we get back?” Dirck asked, questions fighting one another to get out. “We can, can't we?”
“First question, roughly the same way we got here. Second question, I don't know. Let me see where we are.” ‘Merapa queried the navilater, studied the results then slumped pensively in his seat. “At least we're on course,” he said.
Dirck closed his eyes. “I still don't get what caused it.”
“A few principles of physics get fouled up. Time is a dimension affected by velocity as much as matter. Warp harmonics are based on an extremely delicate balance. All it takes is a gyro out of sync or a power surge, anything that nudges you between harmonics, and you end up in a timebump. The worst part is you can't always fix it.”
“If you go forward, your chances for technical assistance are fairly good. The HIO operates a time adjustment station, or TAS, in the delta-quad, not too far from here. If you go too far backwards you're stuck. Then the best you can do is set yourself up as a demi-god or pseudo-prophet on the nearest inhabited planet.”
“That might not be so bad,” Dirck said, trying not to smile.
His father gave him a look devoid of amusement. “Besides entailing more responsibility than I ever want to have, at any compensation, it would also mean we'd never see our family again.”
The silence that followed said more than words.
“So,” Dirck ventured at length. “What do we do now?”
“The first thing is to not only determine wherewe are but when we are by collecting a new star signature.”
“Nothing in the universe is stationary, Dirck. Everything is moving in a predictable way, within certain realms of probability. Planets are rotating around their host star or stars, stars are rotating through their galaxies, and so forth. At any instant in time their positions represent a timeprint that will never be repeated. So, let's see when we are.” He entered a few commands into the navilater, results spilling across the monitor moments later. They'd moved forward by about a kilochron or a thousand days.
“The nearest TAS is under two thousand lightyears away. Let's set the coordinates and get some rest. I don't want to face a TAS director with this headache. They can get pretty nasty.”
“Time is one of the most powerful weapons in the universe. It's their responsibility to make sure no one abuses it.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Think about it, son. Just think about it.”
Philosophical discussions held little appeal with so many urgent questions still screaming in his head. “So how long will it take to get back? Can we get to Creena in time? And what about ‘Merama and Deven?”
The previous answers had come quickly, almost mechanically, but this time ‘Merapa paused.
“I don't know, son,” he said softly. “I honestly don't know.”
* * *
Creena tried to sleep but pain and the sheer weight of her burdensome body intruded persistently. Sometimes it wasn't even physical, like the most recent which featured another nightmare starring Dirck. This time he was trying to push her out of his 'cruiser above a moisture intake station on Mira III. She awoke with a jolt, heart racing as one horrifying scene dissolved into another. After several moments of effort she pushed herself into a compromised sitting position then collapsed against the wall. Only a few chrons had passed but it seemed like eons. It still felt as if her body were molten lead, dizziness persisting at the smallest movement.
Suddenly the pod trembled to the rhythm of a deep and sinister rumble, followed by a series of swells. The silence of space had seemed the loneliest of sounds, yet she'd never felt more isolated than now as the planet convulsed beneath her. The lights flickered. The rumbling grew louder and stowage lockers rattled as objects fell. A tremendous explosion went off overhead and the lights failed, followed by the clamor of debris. Creena buried her face in her arms and waited to die.
Gradually the bombardment slowed and the blasts faded, but movement continued, the floor vibrating at a low, rhythmic frequency. She sat up slowly, eyes fighting against the dark. Something groaned, followed by another sound, the repeated clatter of something falling. The overhead lights whimpered, flickered, then came on at full power. She looked toward the racket and saw genour hurling from the dispenser. They flew in rapid succession for what seemed a long time, then all was still. She crawled over slowly to the huge pile of packages and ripped one open with shaky fingers, not even bothering to look for one of her favorites, which were few, anyway. It looked horrid, her stomach lurching in agreement. She wasn't even hungry, her digestive system long-since dormant. Yet, without it, she'd never be able to leave the pod. She swallowed hard then devoured it in a few greedy bites. It wasn't good but it was food.
And with it maybe she wouldn't have to leave at all. Maybe she could wait it out until someone found her. Yet there was something about the pod that made her uneasy. For chrons the recurring thought had haunted her that maybe her jettison hadn't been accidental. It lacked logic like so many of her thoughts yet she knew beyond a doubt that something had been there on the Aquarius, something evil, the remembrance of which chilled her still. And that feeling had been there in some degree the entire time. Getting away once and for all definitely held grand appeal.
Now that she had food she could regain her strength and leave. If she didn't she had a feeling that things would get worse and even though it didn't make sense its urgency was undeniable. She had to get back on her feet, literally, and leave. That was all there was to it.
It wasn't long before her stomach made its presence known by refusing to work. She crawled to the sanicube barely in time where she vomited violently. It would take several chrons before it relearned its task, her coaxing driven by renewed will. As some strength returned, she kept moving as much as she could, waving her arms, crawling, rolling. More chrons passed before she could sit up without the dizziness but then a few chrons after that she could climb onto the marching machine and take a few steps.
Disciplining herself to voluntary zones felt awkward and strange after being directed so sternly for her entire life yet there was a certain satisfaction to it, also. She wasn't doing it because she had to, but because she wanted to, which lifted the burden of subconscious resistance that made any task harder.
Motivated or not, learning to walk again was still a disheartening feat. Even as strength returned the wobble and clumsiness of her unsure steps were somehow humiliating as she'd stagger back and forth across the lower level, begging fitness to return. Within ten more chrons her persistence paid off when she was able to achieve her goal of climbing the steps to the flight deck, an accomplishment that made her feel as if at least once in her life she had done something right, even though she was breathing hard and shaking by the time she got there. The point was that she did it, that she had made progress and done something she couldn’t have done the chron before.
Everything on the console was dead except the holographic view of the outside on the holoscreen. All it showed now was a profusion of green topped by lavender sky. She'd never seen anything like it in her life, even in holovids.
The land between cities on Mira III varied little from a vast limestone waste, the heavens hidden, forever veiled by pinkish haze. Graceful buildings and sculpture twisted and arched around synthetic parks and artificial gardens, any incident beauty due to man and his civilization. For truly Mira III itself was wasting away, its substance stagnant and being consumed by legions of bacteria they were wont to overcome.
What little she could see of Verdaris, however, far exceeded comprehension. The biodomes were filled with plants, but this was different. These weren't organized in tidy rows but wild and chaotic. They moved and lilted, sometimes in harmony, sometimes solo but always animated with a life of their own. Just watching them gave her the creeps and the thought of going out there drove her nearly to tears. Yet her only chance of finding help was to seek it out.
As far as she could tell there was nothing to explain the explosions. Which direction they'd come from was unclear and several chrons had passed since. She thought she saw a smudge of gray toward the far horizon, but whether or not it related she couldn’t tell. The sky seemed clear at first but as she studied it for any cruiser or space vehicle activity she couldn't help but notice odd patches that surged like eerie bubbles then faded in what appeared to be some kind of atmospheric disturbance.
But first things first. As anxious as she was to leave and find a way home she knew it was crazy to attempt anything until more strength returned. She wasn't that stupid. No telling what was out there. She sighed heavily as remorse gripped her again.
She hated to admit it, but at this point it was more than obvious. She definitely should have listened to DORAI.
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