Aftermath (Part 20 - Finale)

by Simon Challands

an Élite story
     On the Constrictor's bridge were six people, all who were intending to undertake the dangerous journey back to places they knew. Kirrik was there, as was Arrachachak, neither of whom had any particular connection with their current location. Kirrik was obliged to return to the Navy, whilst Arrachachak had decided to go where most of his people went. Most of the pirates had decided they would rather stick together in the world they knew, instead of seeking a new future in a complete unknown. Two of them, though, took up that challenge. Mychov had long wondered about the almost legendary Sol system, and to everyone's surprise Sawaka insisted on going with him. Apparently they had been together for some time, although they had played it so low key that nobody had even guessed.
     Even more of a surprise was Marchero's decision to return. Although she had made a few comments about hoping to have a chance of seeing Kirrik come to a bad end it seemed more likely that she was not prepared to face what might be a significantly different world to that which she was used to.
     The local forces had already sent ships ahead to the co-ordinates of the gateway, and reported apparent success in powering it up. The final test - that of establishing a link to the gate near Esdi - would await the Constrictor's arrival.
     The Constrictor itself had been overhauled in a professional shipyard, although in a few cases Kirrik had insisted that work was only carried out by robots that subsequently had their memories erased. With full supplies, equipment in working order, and a much smaller crew than before their previous worries about food and water were hopefully a thing of the past. As were troubles with the door. Instead of the patch of bare wires there was a tidy panel.
     On the final approach to the gate after leaving hyperspace Marchero started to fiddle nervously.
     "You sure this is going to work?" she asked everyone in general.
     "It did on the way here," Kirrik replied calmly.
     "This gate was unknown. Heaven alone knows what might be waiting at the other end!"
     "We've been some time. They might very well think we were destroyed in the transit. I would like to know if they get any warning that something is coming through, but we'll have to put up with that."
     "This is suicide," she muttered.
     "That's why you had the chance to stay behind," Arrachachak pointed out. "The worst that I think is likely to happen is a minefield or a ship parked across the exit."
     "Thanks," Marchero snapped.
     They continued in silence, watching the distance markers on the main screen gradually decrease. The lights of ships eventually grew visible. The lights of several ships, some quite large. Someone had decided that a not insignificant military presence was a wise decision.
     As the ship came to a halt near the gate a bulky vessel manoeuvred into position above them. It dropped a tube to an access portal on the upper hull, and began pumping Quirium fuel into the tanks. There had been continued reports of Schriy activity in the nearby Wolf 1421 system, and scooping there so as to enter the gate with full tanks had been viewed as an unnecessary risk.
     Its job finished, the tanker backed off, as did all the other ships except those providing power to the collection of rings.
     "System charged, as far as we know. We'll try to open the gate on your command."
     "Acknowledged," Arrachachak replied. "Shut down," he told the bridge. Lights went dead and displays disappeared as most of the ship's systems were turned off. This time they were standing some distance clear of the rings, facing exactly down their tunnel.
     Satisfied that they were as ready as possible, Arrachachak re-opened communications.
     "Start it up," he asked simply.
     "Starting. Good luck, and we hope to hear from you some day! IPT Alexander out."
With most of the Constrictor's sensors switched off they could not see the build-up of Witchspace distortions that had heralded the the first opening, other than by telemetry from several sensor buoys that had been placed nearby. A minute passed before the first hints of the glowing charge appeared in the rings. The telemetry data started to go wild, although with the majority of the computer subsytems shut off they were unable to analyse it.
     There was a distorted crackle over the speakers, out of which an artificial voice could just be heard. "Deep layer hyperspace link apparent to uncertain location in Far Colony territory." So far, so good.
     The ship started to move, without any effort from its drives. A few sparks shot out from the nearest ring and were absorbed by the shields. The glows coalesced, exploding into a blinding flash that briefly illuminated the device and the nearby vessels. The Constrictor was drawn into it. In an instant the light vanished, and so did the ship. The instruments on the buoys reset themselves a few moments later, but all they could see were the emissions of their own ships.
     For the travellers that world was behind them, and currently the least of their concerns. The passage had been smoother than before, but the ship was still tumbling wildly and it was still pitch dark. Held in by their belts, they clung on to the side of their seats and gritted their teeth.
     The stomach-churning motions slowly subsided, then faded away completely.
     "Initialise re-start," Arrachachak ordered, his voices loud in the silence. The computer picked it up and started waking the primary systems. The lights came on and sections of the consoles started to come back to life, allowing their operators to keep a careful eye on them as they brought dependent components back up.
     Protected by the cautious entry the ship was in better shape than it had been during the first passage. Nothing appeared damaged, although the shields had been knocked down to ten percent and the energy banks had taken a battering from somewhere. As far as they could tell they were travelling in the same manner as before. There was no means of measuring progress, and all they could do was assume that the subjective time would be identical.
     With only six people on board the ship seemed empty. The crowding that had so irritated some people had become as much of the Constrictor as the layout of the bridge or the noise of the air pumps. With nothing that needed to be done and nothing to do only two people were usually present on the bridge, and two or three would be sleeping, or trying to. When awake and off duty there was the collection of information they had brought with them to browse through, or videos and music from Earth, but they failed to lift the subdued atmosphere.
     When, by their reckoning, they only had a couple of hours left until they re-entered real space, Arrachachak and Silsi were on the bridge. Arrachachak was lounging in the command chair, idly watching the hypnotic display on the view screen. Silsi was supposedly monitoring the flight control readings, but the slow, regular pattern of her breathing suggested she had dozed off.
     Arrachachak squirmed, as if his seat was becoming uncomfortable. At the same time Silsi twitched awake, glanced at the monitors, and closed her eyes again. Five minutes later there was a shudder, as if the vessel was a sea ship on an ocean with a gentle swell, which quickly died out.
     Mu staggered onto the bridge. "What're doing?" he demanded at Silsi.
     "It's not me," she replied.
     Mu dropped himself into a chair and peered at the sensor readings. He spat. "It's changed," he said, "although heaven knows what it means."
     "Duck down a bit," Arrachachak ordered, moving over next to Mu and trying to read the screens.
     "Damn," he breathed after a moment. "Mu, kick everyone up and get them here at once!"
     "What?" Silsi began.
     "Let's wait for everyone else," Arrachachak replied firmly.
     Soon people were ambling into the bridge, a couple alert and with worried expressions, the later two dull-eyed and sleepy.
     "This had better be good," Marchero yawned as she sat down and slouched in her usual seat.
     The swell rocked the ship again. A subtle change in the light caused heads to turn to the viewscreen. The same distorted tunnel pattern was there, but now there seemed to be faint pulses of light passing by in the distance.
     "Err..." someone muttered.
     "Kirrik, have a look at this," Arrachachak asked, pointing at the sensor readings Mu had noticed.
     Holding onto various chairs and walls to brace himself against the motion, Kirrik stumbled over to the console.
     "Everyone strap themselves in!" he announced suddenly, staggering over to the empty secondary gunner's chair. There was a brief period of chaos as people stumbled around to obey, but they were quickly secured.
     "The tunnel is being distorted," he informed them when they had settled down.
     "Which means?" Mu snapped.
     "We could be torn apart if it gets worse," he said calmly, even though the disturbances seemed to be quietening down.
     "Aren't you worrying too much?" Marchero commented.
     "I can't see how anything could be changed without outside influence," Kirrik replied. "Which probably means someone is fiddling with one of the gateway portals."
     "Destroying it?" Silsi asked incredulously.
     "Shooting at it, moving it, whatever. I can't know," he said sharply. His point was reinforced by the sudden return of the distortions. This time the ship started to buck about severely, causing hands to grip tightly the side of their chairs. The shield indicator started to drop, suggesting that what they were feeling was only part of the story.
     "Bloody hell!" someone yelled, then a hopeless "Help!"
     "Marchero, target the hyperdrive!" Kirrik snapped.
     "On what? There's no point of reference!"
     "Well guess, then!" Arrachachak shouted at her. "Whatever happens it can't be worse than staying here!"
     Marchero struggled with the controls, her fingers having difficulty finding the keys in the rollercoaster motion. "Set up for untargetted jump."
     "Hold on!" Arrachachak announced, moments before the hyperdrives started up.
     Empty space. Darkness punctuated by pinpricks of light, like the distant audience of an vast amphitheatre, present but completely removed from the floor.
     A shimmering distortion appears as various exotic particles and antiparticles appear out of nowhere and just as quickly annihilate themselves. A small dark shape is just visible against it, and it remains, now only noticeable as it occults the stars after the distortion dies away.
     It tumbles on, going nowhere significant. After some time a faint glow can occasionally be seen from the object, vanishing as its spinning turns a different face.
     Its presence is detectable elsewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, a faint radio voice crying softly into the void.
     For days it moves where fate had pointed it, the odd disappearing star, the glow not much brighter than a distant nebula and the radio whisper marking its presence. Then three new lights, all close together, gradually resolve themselves from the starry background. They draw closer to the falling vessel. It is apparently oblivious to their presence.
     Two of the lights manoeuvre to take up station on either side of the ship. Bright beams appear from their pointed noses, shining on the stricken Constrictor, and partially illuminating each other. The third new craft descends out of the darkness, the Iguanas' torches showing up the vivid star painted on its hull and the flashes of the Galactic Navy's Search and Rescue insignia.
     The rescue ship, a Moray Starboat, slowly closes with the tumbling Constrictor. Four small cylinders drop out of the Moray's torpedo tubes. Jet flashes appear from the cylinders as they shoot off around the spinning craft, until they suddenly dart in and latch themselves to it. Their jets fire more brightly as they slowly cancel out the Constrictor's spin.
     The Moray locates the door to the dead vessel and extends a docking tube from its own main hatch. With an airtight link established people move down the tube and start working on the door.
     Huddled in the heart of the ship, wrapped in every blanket they could find, the crew were ignorant of the arrival of the rescue mission. Wedged in various corners of the room against the tumbling, the first they knew of it was when the bulkheads started to press less uncomfortably against them. When the spin was damped out they were floating free in the Constrictor's mess room, staring at each other in disbelief.
     The lights were dim, life support was operating at minimal level, they were freezing cold and condensation covered every surface and soaked into everyone's clothes. Yet for the first time in days there was the unbelievable prospect of not suffering in hopeless misery until they finally froze, or starved, or asphyxiated.
     Arrachachak pushed himself against a wall, sending himself drifting across the room. He caught hold of a cupboard handle near the door and jammed his other hand against the opening panel. The light flickered off briefly as the ship's minimal power resources were used to open the door.
     It slowly slid aside to reveal a spacesuited figure carrying a flashlight in one hand. The figure waved it through the door, and taking into account the unsuited appearance of those on board unlatched its helmet.
     "Atmosphere OK," the revealed man reported into an intercom on his suit. "It's bloody cold, though." There was a mechanical grinding from somewhere to his left and a brief rush of warmer air. Light poured through from the same direction.
     "It's your lucky day, sure enough," he called out to those on board. "Let's get you off this wreck."
     The doctors had quickly ascertained that all six were in reasonable physical condition, and whilst they were relaxing with their first hot meal in days Kirrik and Marchero were met with another surprise.
     Into the room strode a man in his forties, with a Naval uniform and familiar features.
     "Ahcal?" Kirrik started in surprise, jumping up to greet his colleague.
     "You sound surprised? What do you think it's like for us, finding you out here? And with this lot?" His eyes passed slowly around the others, as if trying to read them. "You're still dragging her around, I see," he noted, looking at Marchero.
     "Worse... No, I won't say that. Whatever her opinions, she's done us a service, and we should be grateful."
     "I'm glad," Jalsa commented. "Anyway, we'll go through the full debriefing later, but I think it's best that we know where you've been as soon as possible."
     "Around the vicinity of Sol," Marchero told him smugly.
     "Yes, thankyou," Jalsa replied sarcastically. "Kirrik?"
     "She's right. You'll have an interesting time reviewing the logs from that Constrictor, if the computer is still working, anyway."
     Jalsa eyed Kirrik suspiciously. "You're serious, aren't you?" he said after a while.
     "Of course."
     "That might explain why you were away for four months instead of three weeks," Jalsa noted drily.
     "What four months?" exclaimed Silsi.
     "That's what it's been since Kirrik and Marchero were last seen," Jalsa pointed out.
     "It's possible," Arrachahcak told her. "We've no idea what time passed between there and here, and we're lucky to have landed in the right millennium with that last hyperspace jump."
     "The story?" Jalsa reminded them. Kirrik began, but he had only got as far as the discovery of the mysterious "gateway" across a thousand light years of space before Jalsa interrupted.
     "What's that?" he jumped in. "We didn't find any hint of something else on the asteroid!"
     "You've been there?" Kirrik asked.
     "When you didn't return a strike group was sent in, and we captured it. They had had time to wipe a large amount of their computer system first, though. We did find a few things about the original theft that might interest you, but they can wait. The prisoners are being interrogated but we haven't got much from them."
     The discussions continued for some time, but with that news a team from the Moray went straight to the Constrictor to try to extract the critical co-ordinates from its computer.
     The bridge of the Naval frigate was crowded. Apart from its crew the team of Naval Intel officers who had first started out on the search for the remains of the Constrictor were present. Marchero was also there, mostly because no-one had yet decided exactly what to do with her. The shadow of a Fer-de-Lance Lightspeeder hung in space before them, captured from the asteroid base and given to Arrachachak and his crew as payment for their services. Unknown to them it had also been fitted with an advanced tracker, in case they decided to return to their previous career of piracy.
     Ahead of the Fer-de-Lance were a series of broken rings, with other debris scattered around nearby. Lodged within them was the wrecked hulk of a Python freighter, holding them together. A few small fighter craft were darting around nearby, the remnants of the Gateway's forces that had been stranded here when their primary base had been attacked. Navy fighters were pursuing them, whilst other Co-Operative forces had already boarded the Anaconda that appeared to be their command ship.
     "Too greedy to try to hang onto their booty," Kirrik noted sadly, as another fighter vanished in the flash of an explosion.
     "And it's only a wreck, too," murmured Barbeth.
     "Our link home gone?" Jalsa asked.
     "Perhaps," Barbeth replied. She shook her head at the debris. "Why destroy it, though?"
     "I don't think they did," Kirrik said. "We did, I think, when we tried to jump when in transit."
     "And what about the other end?"
     "Who knows? We were much closer to here. Lucky for us, too, otherwise who knows where we would have come out of hyperspace? Too far for our SOS to ever be heard, no doubt."
     "The remains will be studied, of course," Jalsa said. "It may be possible to rebuild it."
     Marchero had been standing quietly behind them. "What will that lead to?" she asked. "We certainly leapt before we looked when we went into it."
     Jalsa looked over his shoulder at her. "That's what adventure is all about," he grinned. "And you might still have one ahead of you. There might be some people wanting their revenge on you. They'll blame you for that," he said, turning back to nod at the scene of the wrecked device. "But you've already come through quite a difficult situation. And from what Kirrik says, still keeping the same abrasive and unpleasant manner."
     Marchero closed her mouth on her retort when she saw his grin.
     "If you want to stay hidden for some time I think we'll might be able to find something for you to do during it," Jalsa offered.
     Marchero's face stayed set, but without a reply she suddenly turned and walked off the bridge.


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