"Visual ID?" Aeyris asked.
"Too far away."
"No serious damage," Kirrik told him. "The shields are nearly recharged, and the hyperdrive should be ready in a minute or so."
The bridge descended into silence. The other three were watching Kirrik and Aeyris, waiting for a decision.
It was Kirrik who spoke first. "I want to investigate. We'll go in slowly, and jump if there's any trouble." Aeyris shrugged in response, so Kirrik ordered Silsi to move in slowly.
The scanner image grew stronger as they moved closer. On the viewscreen a point of light became gradually brighter, slowly resolving into several separate spots. The mark on the scanner remained single. Other sensor readings started to register low EM emissions, seemingly white noise.
As they crept closer it became apparent that the object was large; the lights appeared to form a ring, although no details could yet be discerned.
Eventually their ship was drifting close to thing. The ring was torus, two hundred feet across and with an internal diameter of at least half that. They had approached it almost straight on, and it was not until they were close to it that they saw there was a series of eight rings, in a row. The lights illuminated a multitude of protrusions and indentations on the surfaces, and webs of wires and girders linked them together. Three shuttles had been tethered to it. Close scans on them revealed high energy output, as if they had been loaded with generators to power the device. Nearby were four Fer-de-Lances and a Boa, too close for the scanners to have been able to separate their signals from that of the object. They were inactive, displaying only parking lights.
"Kirrik?" asked Aeyris.
Kirrik turned from his contemplation of the viewscreen. "I have no idea."
"How about that?" Aeyris said, pointing at the arm of Kirrik's chair. "Incoming message" was flashing on the small screen there.
Kirrik acknowledged the message. A voice announced "Commencing activation. Turn engines off in ten seconds, and good luck!"
"Do it," Kirrik said.
"Ignore him," Aeyris snapped. "I want us out of here before we fall into more trouble."
"This is what it's all about, and this is the only chance we'll get to find out what it is," he said firmly.
"I couldn't care less, and this ship is full of people loyal -" The ship lurched forward, towards the device. "Silsi, back off!"
"I'm not doing anything! We're being pulled in!"
Readings on various sensors started to increase. "Disengage engines!" the remote voice repeated urgently.
Silsi put the drive onto full reverse. The ship throbbed, and warning indicators rocketed. The viewscreen image started to break into noise as a series of vicious electrostatic discharges from the device voided against the shields.
For a second everyone was caught in amazement, then Aeyris shouted "Turn the engines off!" As soon as the ship's power was reduced to minimum levels the discharges ceased and the view returned to normal. The sensors now revealed a stream of charged particles spewing out from some part of the device. Over the radio the voice sounded angry, but the details of its words were lost in noise.
Other phenomena were starting to appear, gravitational distortions that only the ship's advanced equipment could detect, and a glowing green mist in the torus that could be seen by everyone.
"The hyperdrive has gone off-line," Marchero announced. Aeyris cursed it, and started to work at the engineering station. In a minute he had re-configured it to allow him to attempt analysis of the strange effects.
"Damn it!" he exclaimed, slamming his fists against the console. "It's something like a Witchspace entrance, but far deeper into hyperspace. I can't tell what's going on."
The glow grew brighter, then suddenly flashed into a blinding light that passed down the row of rings. It rapidly distorted, clearing in the centre and growing brighter around the edges, forming a tunnel. Into it the ship was being pulled.
"Oh my," Aeyris muttered. All eyes turned to him. "It'll come out a long. long way from here."
"Where?" the secondary gunner demanded in alarm.
"Can't tell. Maybe a thousand light years, maybe more!"
Silsi started to frantically grapple with the controls, but with the engines off only the manoeuvring thrusters were active. They had no effect whatsoever. She tried the laser, which drained its capacitors rapidly and then cut off. Marchero shrieked at her to stop, although her worry was unfounded as the weapon did nothing. In vain Kirrik tried to activate the hyperdrive, despite Marchero's announcement. The ship was still drawn onwards.
When the Constrictor passed into the first ring all the external sensors, including the viewscreen, went dead. The lights flickered and then steadied. For a couple of seconds everyone waited. Then the ship started shaking, its hull groaned under some immense stress. The shield indicators started to slowly decrease. Time fluctuations started to appear, although they were quite unlike the entrance to hyperspace, and the ship started to roll.
Next the vessel started to twist around the pitch axis. The dive/climb indicator registered no movement, but the artificial gravity was acting as if it was. Most of the bridge crew wore belts, Aeyris managed to do his up before being tipped out of his chair.
Suddenly there was a huge bang, and the lights failed, apart from a few glows from the systems monitors. The pitching stopped as the gravity vanished, to be replaced by a violent roll as it no longer compensated for the real movement of the ship. People were shouting in fright or anguish. Aeyris was trying to restore order, but no-one could see him clearly in the dark or hear him amidst the noise.
The roll gradually subsided, something was still working. Next the lights returned. Everyone appeared intact, strapped in their chairs, although the secondary gunner was clutching his head in discomfort and Marchero looked green.
Random fluctuations on the systems monitors gradually calmed down to show that the shields had failed, and the energy reserves were low, and not climbing.
The intercom crackled into life, with a rather predictable and angry "What the hell's happening?"
"We've been pulled into a something," Aeyris told them unhelpfully. "What's your status?"
"Everyone is bruised, five people have various broken bones, and Garath is unconscious."
"Can you deal?"
"Tarmarchi thinks everyone will live."
"Good. Get someone into the equipment sector and see if you can restore gravity, and try to get some external scanners on line."
"Have you got a decent engineer?" Kirrik asked Aeyris.
"Not any more," Aeyris replied sourly. "He was the man that tech killed."
"Humph. Well, I've others who know a bit or two. They should do if it's a matter of patching some obvious damage."
Two hours passed. The repair teams discovered that the sensors had all shut down to protect themselves, and their control software would not re-initialise. Further investigations revealed some damage to the computer core, the unofficial construction of the vessel had provided inadequate power breakers. When the damaged processors were removed the sensors slowly returned to functionality. They pronounced the system usable, but advised that there might be a noticeable delay if too much was done at once.
When the viewscreen returned it revealed a strange tunnel. Patterns of multi-hued light shifted about it in an almost hypnotic pattern. Movement through it may have been imagined, although it could just have easily been an optical illusion.
The other sensors confirmed Aeyris' suspicion that they were indeed in a Witchspace tunnel of some description, but unlike anything that anyone had experienced before. The drive systems had been re-started, although the engines were not running. The power from them was being used to re-charge the energy banks and the shields, although progress was slow. Their were strains on them that no ordinary hyperspace jump would produce.
Once the ship was in as good an order as could be achieved its crew had little choice but to wait. The unconscious Garath soon woke, and the broken bones were splinted and bandaged with various bits and pieces that had been scavenged from the rest of the ship. The only medicines on board had been painkillers and anaesthetics, along with some bandages and dressings. Without any regenerative equipment the injured just had to cope.
Another three days went by. The life support seemed to be coping fine with the extra demands being placed upon it. A shift system had been established for the bridge stations, mostly because there weren't enough bunks for everyone to sleep at the same time. The three days' worth of food had not yet been eaten, but on short rations all were hungry. The water recycler had been repaired after a fashion, but it was unable to keep up with the demand.
There were a few minor incidents, scuffles brought on my anxiety and worry. As time went by they became more frequent but less severe. People were feeling the effects of the rationing, and lacked the energy to continue a fight for long. The rest tried to take their mind off things by playing games in a cramped wardroom behind the bridge.
Then the ship dropped back into normal space. Unlike the entry to the tunnel this was a much more gentle affair. The bridge team even failed to notice anything for a few minutes, then Arrachachak, who was squeezed tightly into the front seat, glanced up and shouted "We're out!"
Another bridge member, the insectoid Tikapora, left the bridge to rouse Kirrik and Aeyris, who were both asleep at the time.
When they arrived they looked around in some hope at their surroundings. Arrachachak had turned the ship around. Blotting out the stars behind it was a dark ring. Wherever they were it was dark, darker than the place they had left. No lights illuminated this device, but other than that it was, as far as could be discerned, identical to the one they had entered three days earlier. Sensors showed it to be dead, exhibiting no sign of energy production or usage.
"That's why they had the shuttles at the other end," Kirrik mused. "Where are we?" he asked louder.
Marchero was again at the navigation station. "Uncertain," she said. "The computer is having some difficulty in finding a matching chart to this region."
"Where are we, neglecting names?"
"I mean what's the nearest star."
"Why didn't you say so, then," Marchero replied acidly. "There's an M2 class dwarf point six-five light years away."
"We need supplies, and I think that thing," Aeyris pointed at the dark circle on the screen, "needs power if it's going to take us back. Let's drop a buoy and get to the nearest station."
Kirrik looked thoughtful for a while, and then nodded.
After the buoy had been released Marchero had managed to get a label for the nearby stars.
"The red dwarf nearest to us is Wolf 1421, apparently. Not a catalogue I recognise, but it's twelve hundred light years from Esdi."
"Bloody hell," Arrachachak said. "Has anyone ever been here?"
Marchero shrugged. One of the other people on the bridge, though, started to laugh.
"What?" Aeyris demanded of him.
"You really aren't going to believe this," the man said. "But several dim stars in the general vicinity of Sol are named 'Wolf' something."