Authors: Allen Steele
Perhaps our leave-taking should have been more eventful, but it wasn't. There was only a cold and unwelcome silence from the com, as if the Talus had turned its collective back on our party: good-bye and good riddance. With Ali gently working the maneuvering thrusters, the
Pride of Cucamonga
glided backwards out of the docking bay, and soon the ship was in free space. One last glimpse of
, then Ali performed a 180-degree turn that put us on a heading for the nearby starbridge.
Once we were under way, Jas floated over to the helm. This time, Ali made no attempt to disguise his loathing for the Prime Emissary; he backed as far away from the
as he possibly could, and watched with disgust while Jas removed hisher glove and planted hisher left hand against the
navigation system. Jas said nothing as heshe slipped hisher key into the slot and entered a code into its keypad; but once heshe was done, heshe turned to Ted.
“I wish to return to my quarters now, Captain,” heshe said. “If you want to speak to me, you will find me there.”
Ted responded with only a nod; his gaze remained fixed on his instruments. Jas hesitated, and for a moment it seemed as if heshe wanted to say something else. But instead, heshe turned away from the console and, using the ceiling rails, pulled himherself over to the floor hatch. Without another word, Jas disappeared down the manhole.
Several people breathed a quiet sigh of relief once heshe was gone. But when I looked over at Ash, I couldn't help but notice that his face was pale. Perhaps he couldn't tell what Jas was thinking, but nonethelessâ¦well, he knew something was wrong, even if he was unable to say exactly what it was.
Hjarr fell away behind us as the
headed toward the
starbridge. Once the ship was on final approach, Ali slaved the helm to the starbridge AI, then lifted his hands from the console and folded them together in his lap. Everyone cinched their seat harnesses a little tighter; Rain didn't take my hand this time, but I could tell that she was nervous. She felt it, tooâa certain sense of foreboding, as if something lay ahead of us that was both unidentifiable and unavoidable.
The silver ring lit up, and the
hurtled toward it. I took a deep breath, shut my eyes, and we plunged into hyperspace.
Hot Jupiter fudgeâ¦
four and a half million miles from Hellâ¦
the only acceptable option.
One second, we were in hyperspace. The next, we were in trouble.
I knew something had gone seriously wrong the instant the
emerged from the wormhole, because every major alarm aboard ship seemed to go off at once. Startled, I opened my eyes, only to be blinded by white-hot light that blasted through the windows.
I screamed an obscenity and clapped a hand over my face, but not before a negative afterimage was burned into my retinas. Everyone else was shouting as well, and for several seconds bedlam reigned within the command center. No one was able to make out what anyone else was saying, though, until Ted's voice rose above the confusion.
“Close the shutters! Close the goddamn shutters!”
“I can't find theâ¦wait, I got 'em!” Emily managed to locate the button that operated the outside blinds. The intense glare that swept through the bridge suddenly diminished, although harsh light still seeped through cracks at the bottom of the shutters.
“Someone kill the alarms!” Ted yelled. “No, wait, I think Iâ¦!”
Through the brown haze that blurred within my vision, I saw him searching for the master alarm. The various bells, buzzes, and shrieks abruptly went dead, and I suddenly became aware of a frigid blast against the back of my neck. Turning around, I nearly caught a faceful of cold halon gas pouring from a ceiling vent behind me. The fire suppression system had automatically kicked in, even though I couldn't see a fire anywhere. But come to think of it, why was the bridge so damn hotâ¦?
“Cut the extinguishers!” Rain was struggling to unclasp her harness; her eyes were squinted half-shut, though, and she evidently couldn't see any better than I could. Someone managed to find the fire-control button, and the vents clamped shut, but not before everyone seated beneath them had their hair frosted. A moment later, exhaust fans activated, evacuating the remaining gas from the compartment.
“What the hell's going on here?” On the other side of the deck, Morgan's voice rose in outrage. “Howâ¦Captain Harker, what are youâ¦?”
“Shut up!” Ted kneaded his eyes with his fingertips, trying to clear his vision. “Doc! What's our status?”
“Working on it.” Doc was bent over the engineering panel on his side of the console, peering closely at comp readouts. “Ship's okayâ¦no hull breaches, all systems still onlineâ¦but I've got outer skin temperature at two hundred four degrees Celsius and climbing.” He hastily tapped a command into his keyboard. “Emergency cryonics activated. We can keep the major systems cool, but I don't know how much longer.”
“Keep on it.” Ted looked over at Ali. “Helm, reportâ¦where are we?”
“Don't have a fix yet.” Either his reflexes had been a little quicker than anyone else's, or else Arabs just have thick eyelids, but apparently Ali had managed to avoid being blinded by the unexpected glare. “Wherever we are,” he added, staring at his screens, “we're not where we're supposed to be.”
“No kidding? Really?” Ted let out his breath, then looked up at the flatscreens above the console. All had gone dark, save for the ones displaying data from the ship's comps. “Emcee, can you get us an outside view?”
“Starboard bow cam is fried, butâ¦wait a sec, I think the aft and middeck starboard cams are copacetic.” Emily worked at her console, punching one button after another. “Lemmeâ¦oh, my godâ¦”
An image appeared on the screens, and I felt my heart stop. Filling the screens was an immense sun, bright yellow and burning with all the fires of Hell itself, its surface spotted here and there with the tiny black smudges of solar storms. The cameras had been polarized to the max, but one look at this star and I knew that it wasn't 47 Ursae Majoris.
“Got something on the aft port cams.” Emily punched up another image, and now we saw, only a couple of hundred thousand miles away, the bloated sphere of a gas giant. Half of it lay in darkness, with the tiny sparks of electrical storms racing across its night face, while reddish orange cloud bands slowly moved across its daylight side. Whatever the planet was, it obviously wasn't Bear or any other world in the 47 Uma system.
“Hold that picture!” Ali's hands raced across his keyboard. “I can use the background stars to get a fix on our position.”
“Skin temp still rising.” Doc had remained calm until then, but his voice had gained an edge. “And don't even ask about radiation levels.” He glanced up at Ted. “If we don't find some shade real soonâ¦”
“Wait a secâ¦okay, I got it!” Ali tapped another command into the comp, and a miniature solar system materialized within the holotank. “HD 217014â¦51 Pegasi, approximately seventy-five light-years from Rho Coronae Borealis, eighty-two light-years from where we should be.” He nodded toward the gas giant on the screen above him. “That's its closest planet, Bellerophon, approximately point oh-five AUs from its primaryâ¦”
“Oh, Christ!” Emily exclaimed. “A hot jupe!”
I didn't have to ask what she meant by that. A hot Jupiter is a jovian planet whose orbit has gradually become unstable to the point that it begins to spiral inward toward its star. Because of the way they perturb the motions of their primaries, hot jupes were among the very first extrasolar planets discovered by astronomers, way back in the twentieth century. Although they are freakish in nature, the galaxy is full of them.
“How the hell did weâ¦?” Ali looked over at Ted, his face writhing in fury. “Jas. I told you we couldn't trust that turtle-facedâ¦”
“Must be a mistake.” Ted wiped a hand across his forehead, dislodging tiny beads of perspiration. The command center was getting warmer by the second; everyone's clothes were becoming damp with sweat. “Never mind that now. Where's the starbridgeâ¦the one we came through, I mean?”
“Should beâ¦” Ali tapped at his console, and a tiny ring appeared within the holotank, positioned in orbit around Bellerophon. “There. About three hundred kilometers behind us.” He shook his head. “Why the devil would anyone put a starbridge hereâ¦?”
“I don't know, but that's not my concern just now. We need some breathing room while we figure out what's going on.” Ted pointed to the jovian. “Think you can adjust course to put us in orbit around the night side, but still stay close enough to the starbridge that we don't lose it?”
“It'll be tricky, butâ¦yeah, I can do it.” Ali's brow furrowed as he began to plot a new trajectory. “That's providing, of course, that we can go back the way we came.”
Ted didn't respond. He glanced across the console at Doc. The chief didn't say anything either, but the look on his face spoke volumes. The
Pride of Cucamonga
was a good ship, but it was old all the same, and it had never been designed to fly this close to a star. If something wasn't done soon, its instruments would begin to melt down; before then, everyone aboard would be broiled alive.
“Emilyâ¦” Ted began.
“I'm paging Jas.” Already one step ahead of her husband, Emily clasped a hand against her headset as she murmured something into her mike. A pause, then she looked up at Ted. “I've got himher.”
“Put Jas on open channel.” Ted touched his headset lobe. “Prime Emissary, this is Captain Harker. We have a problem hereâ¦”
“Yes, Captain, I am aware of the situation.”
Like everyone else in the command center, I heard Jas through my headset. Hisher voice was ethereally calm, as if nothing unusual had happened.
“I have been expecting you to call me.”
Ted's eyebrows rose. “If you're aware of this, then you must also know that the ship is not where it should be. I assume that a navigation error has occurredâ¦”
“No, Captain, there has not been an error. Your ship has emerged from hyperspace precisely where I programmed my key to take itâ¦the star system you refer to as 51 Pegasi.”
For a second, no one spoke. We all stared at each other in complete and total shock, unable to believe what we'd just heard.
Morgan was the first to react. “Damn you, Jas!” he yelled, the knuckles of his hands turning white as he gripped the armrests of his chair. “What the bloody hellâ¦?”
“I told you! I told you he couldn't be trusted!” Ali reached for the
navigation system. “That's it! I'm overriding this damn thing, right now!”
“Stop!” Stretching against his harness, Doc swatted Ali's hands away from the helm. “Don't touch it, or we'll never get out here!”
“Stand down!” Ted wrapped a hand around his mike. “Everyone, just cool it!”
An absurd order, considering that we'd just been thrown into an oven, but no one laughed. Ted waited until he was sure no one else was about to do anything rash, then released his mike. “Jas, what are you doing?”
“I am in my quarters, praying for my soul and those of you and your crew.”
As before, the Prime Emissary was strangely at ease, as if resigned to our fate.
“With fortune, our demise will be quick and relatively painless.”
I swore under my breath. Rain's hand closed around my own; glancing at her, I saw only terror in her eyes. We were about to die, no question about it.
“there is one way this can be averted. Captain Harker, will you please meet with me in my quarters? I have to discuss our new mission with you.”
“Our new missionâ¦” Ted took a deep breath, slowly let it out. “The Annihilator. You're committing us to that, aren't you?”
“The choice remains your own. Please come down here to meet with me.”
“Please bring Mr. Truffaut with you. This concerns him as well. No one else may come.”
My heart stopped when I heard my name. Around the bridge, everyone looked in my direction. Ted glanced at me, and I forced myself to nod.
“We'll be there soon.” Ted ran a finger across his throat, signaling Emily to break the comlink. “All right, thenâ¦” He unbuckled his harness, pushed himself out of his seat. “Ali, get us in that new orbit. Doc, Emcee, do whatever you can about holding the ship together. Jules, you're with me.”
My hands were clammy with sweat as I fumbled with my harness. Suddenly, the last thing I wanted to do was pay another visit to Jas's cabin. No choice in the matter, though. One last look at Rain, then I followed the captain to the access shaft.
When Ted and I cycled through the airlock into Jas's quarters, we found the Prime Emissary waiting for us, hisher feet anchored to the floor. Although Jas still wore hisher environment suit, heshe had removed hisher helmet. It was obvious that Jas was just as agitated as we were; hisher fin stood upright, and hisher eyes twitched back and forth, nervously assessing us.
And that wasn't all. As we floated into the compartment, Jas raised hisher left arm and pointed it straight at us. Wrapped around hisher wrist was something that looked like an oversized bracelet, except that it had four narrow barrels that looked uncomfortably like those of a pistol. Obviously a
weapon of some sort.
“Halt,” Jas demanded. “Come no closer, or I will shoot you.”
Ted settled the soles of his stickshoes against the floor. “This isn't a good way to open a dialogue, you know.” His voice was muffled by his air mask, but I could hear the anger in it all the same. “Especially among friends.”
“After what I have done, I doubt that you still consider me to be your friend.” As before, the voice that emerged from Jas's translator was different from the croaks and hisses that came from hisher mouth. “There is also the fact that there are two of you.”
“You asked for me to come along, didn't you?” Placing my own shoes against the floor, I raised my hands to show that I was unarmed. “See? Nothing up my sleeves.”
Apparently Jas didn't get this colloquialism, because hisher head cocked sideways, giving himher the appearance of a curious tortoise that, under any other circumstances, might have been amusing. “Besides,” Ted added, “what's the point of us trying to harm you? Without your help, no one gets out of here alive.”
“This is true.” Jas's fin lowered to half-mast. “I am pleased that you recognize your predicament, Captain Harker. If I do not reprogram my key to the proper coordinates, your ship will not be able to reenter the starbridge, and we will remain in orbit around this planet until we die.”
“I understand this perfectly.” Ted paused. “Just out of curiosityâ¦why is there a starbridge here? So far as we can tell, this planet is uninhabitable. So's the rest of this system, for that matter.”
“My race built it during the period when this world was still in the outer reaches of its solar system. We used it to gain access to one of its outer moons, which was rich with vital materials that we were able to mine, and also to establish an outpost from which our scientists could study the planet's migration. The moon has long since been destroyed, but the starbridge remains intact and operational. It has been seldom used, until now.”