Voyager in night, p.2
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       Voyager in Night, p.2

           C. J. Cherryh
 
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's small quarry had surfaced and paused.

  (!), <> sent at once, in pulses along the whole range of O's transmitters. (!!!) (!!!!!) It was an ancient pattern, useful where there was no possibility of linguistic similarity and no reasonable guarantee of a similar range of perceptions. <> waited for response on any wavelength.

  Waited.

  Waited.

  Even delays in response were informational. This might be recovery time, for senses severely disorganized by jumpspace. Some species were particularly affected by the experience. It might be slow consideration of the pulse message. The length of time to decide on reply, the manner of answer, whether echo or addition, whether linear or pyramidal . . . species varied in their apprehension of the question.

  The small ship remained some time at residual velocity, though headed toward the hazard of the dark mass by which it steered. Presumably it was aware of the danger of its course.

  <> remained wary, having seen many variations on such meetings, some proceeding to sudden attack; some to approach; some to headlong flight; some even to suicide, which might be what was in progress as a result of that unchecked velocity.

  Or possibly, remotely, the ship had suffered some malfunction. <> retained corresponding velocity and kept the same interval, confident in O's own agility and wondering whether the ship under observation could still escape.

  <> observed, which was O's only present interest.

  The little ship suddenly flicked out again into jump. <> followed, ignoring the babble from the passengers, which had been building and now broke into chaos.

  Quiet, <> wished them all, afire with the passion of a new interest in existence.

  The pursuit came down again as <> had hoped, at a star teeming with activity on a broad range of wavelengths.

  Life.

  A whole spacefaring civilization.

  It was like rain after ages-long drought; repletion after famine. <> stretched, enlivened capacities dormant for centuries, power like a great silent shout going through O's body.

  Withdraw, some of the passengers wished <>. You'll get us all killed.

  There was humor in that. <> laughed. <> could, after O's fashion.

  Attack, others raved, that being their natures.

  Hush, <> said. Just watch.

  We trusted you, <-> mourned.

  <> ignored all the voices and stayed on course.

  The intruder and its quarry went unnoticed for a time in Endeavor Station Central. Boards still showed clear. The trouble at the instant of its arrival was still a long, lightbound way out.

  Ships closer to that arrival point picked up the situation and started relaying the signal as they moved in panic.

  Three hours after arrival, Central longscan picked up a blip just above the ecliptic and beeped, routinely calling a human operator's attention to that seldom active screen, which might register an arrival once or twice a month.

  But not headed into central system plane, where no incoming ship belonged, vectored at jumpship velocities toward the precise area of the belt that was worked by Endeavor miners. Comp plotted a colored fan of possible courses, and someone swore, with feeling.

  A second beep an instant later froze the several techs in their seats; and "Lord!" a scan tech breathed, because that second blip was close to the first one.

  "Check your pickup," the supervisor said, walking near that station in the general murmur of dismay.

  That had nearly been collision out there three lightbound hours ago. The odds against two unscheduled merchanters coinciding in Endeavor's vast untrafficked space, illegally in system plane, were out of all reason.

  "Tandem jump?" the tech wondered, pushing buttons to reset. Tandem jumping was a military maneuver. It required hairbreadth accuracy. No merchanter risked it as routine.

  "Pirate," a second tech surmised, which they were all thinking by now. There were still war troubles left, from the bad days. "Mazianni, maybe.”

  The supervisor hesitated from one foot to the other, wiped his face. The stationmaster was off-shift, asleep. It was hours into maindark. The supervisor was alterday chief, second highest on the station. The red-alert button was in front of him on the board, unused for all of Endeavor's existence.

  "... it's behind us," he heard next, the merchanter frequency, from out in the range. "Endeavor Station, do you read, do you read? This is merchanter John Liles out of Viking. We've met a bogey out there . . . it's dragged us off mark . . . Met ...”

  Another signal was incoming. (!) (!!!) (!!!!!)

  ". . . out there at Charlie Point," the transmission from John Liles went on. An echo had started, John Liles' message relayed ship to ship from every prospector and orehauler in the system. Everyone's ears were pricked. Bogey was a nightmare word, a bad joke, a thing which happened to jumpspace pilots who were due for a long, long rest. But there were two images on scan, and a signal was incoming which made no sense. At that moment Endeavor Station seemed twice as far from the rest of mankind and twice as lonely as before.

  ". . . It signaled us out there and we jumped on with no proper trank. Got sick kids aboard, people shaken up. We're afraid to dump velocity; we may need what we've got. Station, get us help out here. It keeps signaling us. It's solid. We got a vid image and it's not one of ours, do you copy? Not one of ours or anybody's. What are we supposed to do, Endeavor Station?" Everywhere that message had reached, all along the time sequence of that incoming message, ships reacted, shorthaulers and orehaulers and prospectors changing course, exchanging a babble of inter-ship communication as they aimed for eventual refuge out of the line of events. What interval incoming jumpships could cross in mere seconds, the insystem haulers plotted in days and weeks and months: they had no hope in speed, but in their turn-tail signal of noncombatancy.

  In station central, the supervisor roused out the stationmaster by intercom. The thready voice from John Liles went on and on, the speaker having tried to jam all the information he could into all the time he had, a little under three hours ago. Longscan techs in Endeavor Central were taking the hours-old course of the incoming vessels and making projections on the master screen, lines colored by degree of probability, along with reckonings of present position and courses of all the ships and objects everywhere in the system. Long-scan was supposed to work because human logic and human body/human stress capacities were calculable, given original position, velocity, situation, ship class, and heading.

  But one of those ships out there was another matter.

  And John Liles was not dumping velocity, was hurtling in toward the station on the tightest possible bend, the exact tightness of which had to do with how that ship was rigged inside, and what its capacity, load, and capabilities were. Computers were hunting such details frantically as longscan demanded data. The projections were cone-shaped flares of color, as yet unrefined. Com was ordering some small prospectors to head their ships nadir at once because they lay within those cones. But those longscan projections suddenly revised themselves into a second hindcast, that those miners had started moving nadir on their own initiative the moment they picked up John Liles' distress call the better part of three hours ago. Data began to confirm that hypothesis, communication coming in from SSEIS 1 Ajax, which was now a fraction nadir of original projection.

  Lindy had run early in those three hours, such as Lindy could . . . dumped the sling and spent all she had, trying to gather velocity. Rafe plotted frantically, trying to hold a line which used the inertia they had and still would not take them into the collision hazard of the deep belt if they had to overspend. Jillan ran counterchecks on the figures and Paul was set at com, keeping a steady flow of John Liles' transmission.

  If Lindy overspent and had nothing left for braking, if they survived the belt, there were three ships which might match them and snag them down before they passed out of the system and died adrift ... if they did not hit a rock their weak directionals could not avoid ... if the station itself survived what was coming in at them. They could all
die here. Everyone. There were two military ships at Endeavor Station and Lindy had no hope of help from them: the military's priority in this situation was not to come after some minuscule dying miner, but to run, warning other stars-so Paul said, who had served in Fargone militia, and they had no doubt of it. It was a question of priorities, and Lindy was no one's priority but their own.

  "How are we doing?" Rafe asked his sister, who had her eyes on other readouts. The curves were all but touching on the comp screen, one promising them collision and one offering escape.

  "Got a chance," Jillan said, "if that merchanter gives us just a hair.”

  Paul was transmitting, calmly, advisingyo/m Liles they were in its path. On the E-channel, Lindy's autowarning screamed collision alert: the wave of that message should have reached John Liles by now.

  "Rafe," Jillan said, "recommend you take all the margin. Now.”

  "Right." Rafe asked no questions, having too much input from the boards to do anything but take it as he was told. He squeezed out the last safety margin they had before overspending, shut down on the mark, watching the computer replot the curves. In one ear, Paul was quietly, rationally advising/o/m Liles that they were ten minutes from impact; in the other ear came the com flow from John Liles itself, babble which still pleaded with station, wanting help, advising station that they were innocent of provocation toward the bogey. "Instruction," John Liles begged again and again, ignoring communications from others. It was a tape playing. Possibly their medical emergency or their attention to the bogey behind them took all their wits.

  "Come on," Rafe muttered, flashing their docking floods in the distress code, into the diminish

  ing interval of their light-speed message impacting the 3/4 C time-frame of John Liles' Doppler receivers. He was not panicked. They were all too busy for panic. The calculations flashed tighter and tighter.

  "We've got to destruct," Paul said at last in a thin, strained voice. "Three of us-a thousand on that ship-O God, we've got to do it”

  Sudden static disrupted all their scan and com, blinding them. "She's dumping," Jillan yelled. John Liles had cycled in the generation vanes, shedding velocity in pulses. They were getting the wash, like a storm passing, with a flaring of every alarm in the ship. It dissipated. "We're all right," Paul yelled prematurely. In the next instant scan cleared and showed them a vast shape coming dead on. Rafe froze, braced, frail human reaction against what impact was coming at them at a mind-bending 1/10 C.

  It dumped speed again, another storm of blackout. Rafe moved, trembled in the wake of it, fired directionals to correct a yaw that had added itself to their motion. Scan cleared again.

  "Clear that," Rafe said. "Scan's fouled." The blip showed itself larger than Ajax, large as infant Endeavor Station itself.

  "No," Paul said. "Rafe, that's not the'merchanter.”

  "Vid," Rafe said. Paul was already flicking switches. The camera swept, a blur of stars onscreen. It targeted, swung back, locked.

  The ship in view was like nothing human-built, a disc cradled in a frame warted with bubbles of no sensible geometry, in massive extrusions on frame and disc like some bizarre cratering from within. The generation vanes, if that was what those projections were, stretched about it in a tangle of webbing as if some mad spider had been at work, veiling that toadish lump in gossamer. Lightnings flickered multicolor in the webs and reflected off the warted body, a repeated sequence of pulses.

  It had exited C and actually gone negative, so that their relative speeds were a narrowing slow drift.

  "Twenty meters-second," Jillan read the difference. "Plus ten, plus five-five, plus five-seven K.”

  There were no maneuvering options. Lindy was already at the edge of her safety reserve, and a ship which could shift course and stop like that could overhaul them with the merest twitch of an effort. Rafe flexed his fingers on the main throttle and let it go.

  "Maybe it's curious," Jillan said under her breath. "Liles never said it fired.”

  "Got their signal," Paul said, and punched it in for both of them . . . (!) (!!!) (!!!!!).

  "Echo it," Rafe said. They were still getting signal from John Liles, a screen now Dopplered in retreat, echoed from other ships. Station might be aware by now that something was amiss; but there was still the lagtime of reply to go. As yet there was only Ajax sending out her longscan and her frantic instruction to John Liles.

  Lindy, on her own, facing Leviathan, sent out a tentative pulse.

  Scan beeped, instant at their interval. "Bogey's moving," Jillan said in a still, calm voice. It was.

  "Cut the signal," Rafe said at once; and on inspiration: "Reverse the sequence and send.”

  (!!!!!), Paul sent. (!!!) (!)

  No. Negative. Reverse. Keep away from us.

  The bogey kept coming, but slower, feather-soft for something of its power, as if it drifted. "10.2 meters-second," Jillan read off. "Steady.”

  "It could shed us like dust if it wanted to," Paul said. "It's being careful.”

  "So we ride it out," Rafe said. A hand closed on his arm, Jillan's* He never took his eyes from the screens and instruments. Neither did she.

  The bogey filled all their vid now, monstrous and flashing with strange lights, a sudden and rapid flare.

  "It's braking," Jillan said. "4 . . 3 ... relative stop.”

  "Station," Paul sent, "this is SSEIS 243 Lindy, with the bogey in full sight. It's looking us over. We're transmitting vid; all ships relay.”

  There was no chance of reply from station, a long timeline away. "Relaying," a human ship broke in, someone calling dangerous attention to themselves by that sole and human comfort.

  "Thank you," Paul said, and kept the vid going, still sending.

  The surface of the bogey had detail now. The warts were complex and overlapping, the smallest of the extrusions as large as Lindy herself. The camera swept the intruder, finding no marking, no sign of any identifiable structure which might be scanning them in turn.

  Suddenly scan and vid broke up.

  And space did.

  Chapter Three

  Capture.

  Trishanamamndu-kepta reached for the mote with <>'s jump field.

  <> left the star, dragging the captured mote along.

  Rafe had time to feel it happening. He screamed a long, outraged "No!"-at the utter stupidity of dying, perhaps; at everything he lost. His voice wound strangely material through the chaos of the between, entwined with the substance and the terrified voices of Jillan and Paul. He was still screaming when the jump came, the giddy insideout pulse into here and when, falling unchecked out of infinity into substance that could be harmed. He reached out, groping wildly after controls as the instruments flashed alarm. Orientation was gone. They were moving, his body persuaded him, though he felt no G. He pushed autopilot: red

  lights flared at him, a bloody haze of lights and blur.

  Lindy's autopilot kicked in, and it was wrong . . . he felt it, the beginning of a roll, a braking insufficient for their velocity. The wobble Lindy had always had with the directionals betrayed her now. He tried to shut it down, while G was whipping blood to his head, rupturing vessels in his nose, a coppery taste at one with the bloody lights and the screams.

  Paul and Jillan.

  "Jillan!”

  Paul's voice.

  Tumble went on and on. Instruments broke up again, and another motion complicated the spin: autopilot malfunction. They had been dragged through jump, boosted to velocity a good part of C, and Lindy was helpless, uninstrumented for this kind of speed. Every move the autopilot made was wrong, complicating Lmrfy's motion.

  He fought to get his hand to the board, to do something, a long red tunnel narrowing black edges between him and the lights.

  Someone screamed his name. His eyes were pressing at their sockets and his brain at his skull, his gut crawling up his rib cage to press his lungs and heart and spew its contents in a choking flood that might be hemorrhage. The tunnel narrowed and the pressure
acquired a rhythm in his ears. Vision went in bursts of gray and red, and mind tumbled after.

  <> maneuvered carefully to secure the ship: field seized it, stabilized it from its spinning, snugged it close. Getting it inside once stable was no problem at all.

  Getting inside it . .,. was another matter altogether.

  Kill it, some advised.

  moved to do that. <> blocked that attempt with brutal force. An extensor probe drifted along a track and reached down, punched through the hull with very precise laser bursts and bled off an atmosphere sample from the innermost cavity.

  Nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, oxygen . . . Trishanamarandu-kepta had no internal atmosphere. <> started acquiring one, here and in other sections.

  <> had no need of gravity; but <>
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