On The Outside, Looking In - Chapter 4

The ship shudders - like a wheeled vehicle running over some obstruction in the middle of the road - and Sajaire curses, exhaling a vigorous stream of syllables that I feel glad don't reach my ears as words. "Navigational sensors are out, too", she growls. "We should've been able to backtrack...!"

My screen comes to life again, displaying a basic version of the controls in front of the Gorgon. "I'm giving you control", she announces. "Hopefully, I'll be done rerouting things before you need to get us moving, but be ready!"

"I... I've never done this before", I mumble back at her. "I've never needed..."

"Left arrow, turn left, right arrow, turn right", mutters Sajaire as her head disappears under the control console. "Up arrow to bring the nose up, down to... that should be pretty obvious..."

The lights on Sajaire's control panel flicker as she tinkers, out of sight. "Power gauge is at the centre of the control cluster - press twice on the up-arrow to accelerate, ten per cent power a time", she continues. "Twice on down-arrow to decelerate, same amount. Press twice, then hold for all stop or maximum acceleration. Don't do anything just now - wait for me to give you the word..."

Something under the console bleeps insistently, and the interior of the canopy becomes a "star-map", a larger and more detailed version of what used to be on my seat-back screen. "Do you see that?", calls out Sajaire. "Do we have visual...?"

"Yes", I respond, relieved that maybe I won't have to fly the ship. "A chart of the bubbles - about a third of a circle, with Dominion at the... the centre, I suppose. Down by the nose..."

"I'll bring up a three-dimensional version", continues the Gorgon, and the map flickers, becoming a field of circles, in all directions. "Now, can you see a gap?"

"Yes, off to the right, and up a bit", I reply. "I guess this is when I start flying."

Sajaire looks up from the foot-well of her pilot's seat. "Yes - steer for that opening, and don't worry about hitting any of the really small bubbles that might show up", she instructs me. "Ten per cent forward power, eight steps right, two, maybe three steps nose-up, and we should be fine. Get a feel for how she handles, and be ready to make any urgent course changes - but don't step up the power unless I tell you. The faster you're going, the trickier it is to steer!"

I follow her directions - one tap on the up-arrow if the power gauge, eight taps on the flight control right-arrow, two taps on nose-up - and the ship does indeed point itself towards the least cluttered area of "space". Now and again, there are shudders, but nothing as violent as the one we first experienced - one more step of nose-up, and we should be there...

Fate, however, appears to have other plans. "Sajaire, the bubbles - they're... moving."

The Gorgon looks up again. "What? That shouldn't be... accelerate, up to fifty per cent, and make for the biggest gap you can see. Stop for nothing - we may have sprung a trap."

A trap? That seems to suggest that something - or someone - inside that bubble can control what lies beyond it, and that's an idea I find very uncomfortable. It's one I have to ignore for now, as I do as I'm told, and take us up to half-power. Steering does indeed become more difficult, the vessel swinging around more violently now, but always doing exactly what the controls tell it to do. One step left or right is still that same portion of a complete circle...

The bubbles ahead of us are definitely moving, closing in around us. No matter how fast we go, I... I don't think we'll ever be fast enough. Luckily, there is always another option when I'm around, and I allow a portion of my mind to "wander", and start "feeling around" in Brightspace...

Sajaire returns from rewiring our navigational equipment, and calls up a fresh display of her own - sensors and the like, not the flight controls. "Keep going", she tells me. "I'll try and find a way to keep these damned bubbles off us. They seem to be trying to weigh us down, and they're not just clumping together randomly - they look like they're forming some kind of... web..."

That's certainly what I'm seeing on the cockpit projection: bubbles gathering like pearls on a string. It would be beautiful if not for the fact that these strings are being formed to ensnare us.

"Darkhawk preserve us", gasps my companion. "This is most definitely not good. Some conscious power is directly manipulating the trans-spatial fabric...!"

Those brazen fingers dance over the controls again. "I'm going to try and disrupt the energy patterns influencing the bubbles", Sajaire continues, talking not to inform me, but to boost her own confidence. "This may antagonise whoever is exerting that control, but it's this or end up trapped!"

"There is another way", I tell her, but Sajaire doesn't seem to hear me. I better not interrupt her any further, and prepare my own "escape route" - better we have two plans to attempt than none at all...

The "net" tightens, the bubbles drawing together far faster than before, the spaces between them closing faster than we can act. "Fires and storms", spits Sajaire."I'm sorry, Bright Lady..."

"Don't be", I reply, and open the way into Brightspace, right in front of us. I've never been so glad to see that realm of mist and light - but I can't help but feel that we don't entirely leave that which threatens us behind. My grip on consciousness slips away, and in that briefest of moments between consciousness and unconsciousness, I think I see... something...

I'm glad I don't see it for long enough to remember...


...o O o...

The next thing I remember is a different kind of light; bright, but cold, and artificial. Voices call to me and Sajaire from within that light, which at first sight is just too intense, but I welcome its purity, just as I would welcome a roaring fire after coming in from the cold...

We're on board a Dominion starship, although only in passing do I later discover this is Toltemm's ship, The Seed Of Inspiration. It takes a while for me to "grasp" this reality again, and for shapes and muffled noises to once again fully resolve themselves into faces and anxious, enquiring voices. It seems that our companions have had trouble tracking us down, as we suddenly "fell off their scanners", most likely when I pulled us into Brightspace, and it took quite some time for our identification beacon to be picked up by Dominion's space-tracking network. Apparently, we ended up in "normal" space, a couple of light-years from Mystalorn...

I never imagined Brightspace could be so powerful, carrying us so far so quickly. It's not something I want to do with any regularity, as there's a definite "hang-over" associated with the effort. Every now and then, particularly white sources of light becomes just too bright to bear, and leave me feeling dizzy and just a bit nauseous, but thankfully that's the only negative consequence of our escape. Sajaire is unharmed, I soon learn, and our ship, and her valuable data, have survived the experience intact - and Toltemm is especially grateful for the latter.

The expedition team is at last reunited when Toltemm requests my and Sajaire's presence in the Explorerhawk's conference chamber, about a day later. The Master Explorer does not look overjoyed - and as he explains what his team have learned, that's not without good reason.

"In approximately four hundred days, the bubble you encountered - which we have designated J7X - will make contact with the boundary of Dominion", he announces. "At that time, the star your discovered, and its attendant planet, will become part of Dominion - and within a year to fifteen months of that, every living being in Dominion will be dead."

"How is that possible?", I murmur.

"That's the problem - it's shouldn't be possible", sighs Toltemm, "but... it is. The star is an unprecedented source of hypertheric radiation, which is deadly to all known forms of life..."

"...except for whatever's living on the planet", interrupts Sajaire. "You must've done more in-depth scans by now - remote probe scans. You know what's in there... the mists, tinged purple by a poisonous sun, the actual light barely reaching the tops of what seems to be a forest..."

"...but it isn't", I add. I know what's she's describing, for I've seen it myself. She's talking about that awful view I glimpsed just as we were slipping into Brightspace. "One... one organism, or a mass of organisms that have grown together, become so utterly intertwined, that one is indistinguishable from the other..."

"Indeed", murmurs Toltemm. "The planet is enshrouded in dense fog, yet despite that and the radiation, we have still detected matter that appears to be alive, covering the entire planet to a depth of several miles. Sajaire, Bright Lady... how do you know this?"

"Something touched me", says Sajaire. "Something... Gorgon. In our ancient history, there are mentions of several explorers who dared to leave Dominion, even though to do so would lead to their deaths. They had to know what was beyond, and to live without knowing... to them, that was no life at all. Those that departed were never heard from again..."

She pauses... then her next words slip out with a tremble. "...until now. They... they did not die. Some-something in there has them, and will not let go..."

"I don't know exactly how I know what's in there", I intervene, to spare my companion any further discomfort, "but I imagine I must've made some fleeting telepathic contact, just as I opened the way into Brightspace. It could be that Brightspace somehow conducted mental impulses..."

"These instances of... contact will be the subject for much conjecture, but for now, they cannot be the focus of our attention", says Toltemm. "The subject of J7X has become all the more pressing with the discovery of this entity. Released into Dominion, it will spread, whether it has access to hypertheric radiation or not - any being that can survive in such an environment can survive almost anywhere."

"Such a lifeform will also be particularly difficult to fight", adds Embraces-The-Wide-Sky. "It will be resistant to our energy weapons, and any technology we develop that could harm it would most likely be as harmful to our people as the hypertheric sun. The solution would therefore seem to be to ensure that being does not enter Dominion in the first place."

"And how would we achieve that?", I enquire. "I'm assuming this won't be just a case of dropping a bomb in there."

"Hardly - but it may be our best option", offers Toltemm. "If we can cause the star to implode, and form a singularity, nothing in that bubble will be able to escape. However, the problem arises that we do not currently have any such armaments that can withstand prolonged exposure to the hypertheric environment..."

I've had enough. If the universe wants me to fight for Dominion, and Darkhawk's legacy, then that's just what I'll do. "Then build one", I snap at him. "Build several... build a whole damn fleet if you have to. Whatever resources you need, you'll get - you have my personal authorisation to proceed, and procure whatever personnel, ships and materials you require. Now get to work."

I get up, and turn to leave, but something makes me pause behind Embraces-The-Wide-Sky. "And if any of the Hawk-Clan object to working with materials from outside of Dominion, I will view that as their admission that they would prefer to see Dominion destroyed, and that will make them traitors to everything they are supposed to hold sacred. By their own words, they will be marked as liars, and unworthy. Fleet Defender, consider yourself assigned as military liaison for this project, effective immediately, your ship assigned to support duties for this project until this matter is dealt with - or we are all dead."

There's a cold, gnawing... something huddled just behind my heart as I leave the conference room. I feel awful about the things I've just said, but... but they needed to be said. Darkhawk... changed when I came into her life - I brought her something she needed, something she never knew she was lacking...

...and maybe there was something I needed to learn from her, and only now do I realise what that is. The need to fight, when the situation demands action.

Four hundred days. There's no way we'll need that long - not when there are people I can call upon whose knowledge goes far beyond that of the finest minds in Dominion... and they just happen to owe Dominion several considerable favours.

This "Bright Lady" might have the body of a child, and the wings of a dove, but she's growing talons - starting today.



...o O o...

Epilogue...

Lakarren'kaeris of Shalnvassa could not sleep. She rarely felt the need, but her day had ended with her feeling unusually... drained, and bed had seemed most inviting. After several attempts to get to sleep, she gave up entirely, and shifted into a nearby chair with a book...

When she opened the cover of the hefty tome, something fell out, into her lap. It was not her normal bookmark, but a paper-thin slice of metal, silver, fashioned into the shape of a feather.

She knew exactly what that token represented. "Good", she murmured, holding the feather up in front of her eye so that the dim night-lights of her captain's quarters could shine through the narrow gaps. "It's about time..."

706-04


- Posted on 25.08.2012 at 16:09 -

Previously...
On The Outside, Looking In - Chapter 4 - 25.08.2012
On The Outside, Looking In - Chapter 3 - 24.08.2012
On The Outside, Looking In - Chapter 2 - 23.08.2012
On The Outside, Looking In - Chapter 1 - 22.08.2012
Words From Under The Mountain - Chapter 3 - 20.08.2012