Hyperspace is a strange place. I grew up with it. I spent my youth traveling to most of the Core Worlds. I thought I understood it. But then The War came for us all, and I learned that I knew very little about hyperspace at all. It is an alien universe, literally, and we travel its paths with great care. We must learn more about it, if we are to ever break out of our tiny corner of the galaxy.
When mankind first discovered hyperspace, they found a panoramic view of multicolored rivers of gravity flowing beneath the surface of the normal Einsteinian universe everyone was born in. Humanity soon discovered that those rivers ran from star to star, linking the galaxy from edge to edge. And those early explorers learned a secret that brought the stars within reach. The gravitic currents, and any ship that sailed them, traveled faster than the speed of light itself. But the rivers were treacherous.
The first ships to Alpha Centauri rode a slow, calm river away from Earth, moving perhaps two or three times the speed of light as those in normalspace measured their progress. But that river accelerated up to nearly ten times the speed of light as they approached the Alpha Centauri trinary star system. The ships followed a dangerous series of twists and turns as the currents shot past Proxima Centauri like an ancient slingshot and then fell into the whirlpool of the binary star system at the heart of Alpha Centauri. There they found multiple worlds, brimming with life and waiting for us to colonize them.
And they learned why the river between home and Alpha Centauri was so much stronger than any other. Early scientists assumed it was simply because Alpha Centauri was closer. But Alpha Centauri’s three suns twisted the gravitic currents of hyperspace more than mankind’s home star, spraying out torrents of gravity far more powerful, and far faster, than any other. Alpha Centauri became our gateway to the stars for a hundred years. Every ship from Earth sailed to Alpha Centauri before turning to head to the stars.
And then the Peloran made Contact. They brought faster and more powerful hyperdrives that could break out of the tiny streams connecting stars, and forge their own paths through the true depths of hyperspace. Normandy and the other starships of the Wolfenheim Project used the best Peloran hyperdrives, built into them by Peloran shipyards and powered by Peloran reactors. They were Peloran starships in every way that mattered after years of being ripped apart and put back together by Peloran hands, built to spend a lifetime traveling through the stars.
They’d spent the last thirty-four days traveling across the ninety-four lightyears between New Earth and Sunnydale at a thousand times the speed of light, as the outside world measured time and space. A mere seventeen days passed by aboard Normandy, and none of her sisters ever accelerated past a hundred measly kilometers per second by their measurements. Now Normandy rose up through the multicolored currents of gravity like a shark, watching for enemies. The giant whale of Wolfenheim’s bulk crested another current nearby far less gracefully. The colony ship was slow and clumsy compared to the tiny piranhas that surrounded her, ready to kill anything that threatened her as they searched for their destination.
The New Earth–Sunnydale Run had been mapped out for decades, with survey ships scanning every conceivable current in the area. It was updated every month by new ships arriving to add their navigational information to the database. But it was always changing as the galaxy twisted and turned its way through the universe.
A ship on the New Earth–Sunnydale Run followed the mapped gravitic currents for seventeen days of internal time and then spent several hours moving “up” towards the wall in hopes that they could detect the gravitic fingerprint of the F1V star named Sunnydale. It was one of the brightest stars that mankind had colonized, and it had a more energetic interaction with hyperspace than most. Gravitic sensors could detect it from a full two lightdays away, making it an effective beacon star for long-range travel. If they got thrown off course by a current that wasn’t there the last time a ship came through, or if they calculated the wrong time-dilation factor, they could miss their target by lightyears or more. But if they got everything right, they just might find that they arrived in the vicinity of their target where a hyperspace buoy would be broadcasting the local date, time, and maps.
It was like throwing a dart across the yard, during a windstorm, and trying to hit a dime attached to the fence. Very few humans had ever shown the natural aptitude it required to do that. Modern navigational computers usually hit their targets. Usually.
Malcolm sat at the rear of the bridge, watching as Normandy and her little fleet snuck up into the shallows of hyperspace, scanning for threats as they followed Sunnydale’s scent. His squadron should be the first arrivals from New Earth since the confrontation with Commodore Murphy. Through some highly serendipitous events that couldn’t possibly be tracked to him, no couriers had been available at New Earth to warn anyone at Sunnydale of their imminent arrival. And he had reason to believe that Murphy would “just happen” to receive an old hyperspace map when she asked for a cartography update.
But if all the preparations he could swear up and down he had nothing to do with failed, Murphy’s squadron could have made better time than the massive colony ship and they could be lying in wait. Olivia was a very careful captain. She hated surprises, and had already received one very unhappy surprise today. They’d found Sunnydale, but the buoys were silent. They had no updated maps, no time, no date, no word at all from the largest Alliance fleet base this close to the Hyades Cluster. And so they very carefully rose towards the hyperspace wall.
“Contact!” The single word shot through the bridge and Malcolm turned to look at Lieutenant Anton Lee as even more words tumbled out of the man’s lips. “Contact! Single ship, directly above at six five zero zero meters. Designating Bogey One.”
“Does she see us?” Olivia asked, her voice hardening into her captain’s alter ego as she spoke. Malcolm glimpsed an on-duty recon fighter already accelerating towards the target on one display as the bridge crew reacted to the new arrival.
“Bogey One moving.” The report came quick, words short and clipped as the officer communicated as rapidly as possible. Displays flashed on the man’s stations and he tensed. “Identified Shang scout! Running.”
“Firing solution?” Wyatt demanded as even Malcolm’s untrained eyes caught the scout ship beginning to pull away.
“Bravo,” Lee answered without hesitation.
Wyatt hadn’t waited for his response, having already turned to her tactical officer. “Guns?” she asked as Lee’s mouth closed.
Malcolm nodded in approval. It was amazing to see them react so quickly and professionally. He could see the instincts and training that must have brought them out of Epsilon Reticuli alive. But a proper cybernetic intelligence on the other side would have already opened fire. He glanced at Dawn as Lieutenant Thompson confirmed Fire Plan Bravo, and saw the grim smile as she met his eyes. Yes, she could have fired already.
“Fire,” Wyatt ordered without any hesitation.
Thompson hit the button and missiles poured out of Normandy’s flanks to streak out after the fleeing scout at the equivalent of point-blank range. The other seven ships added their own fire to the effort, and missiles converged on the scout from eight different directions at once. It was like tanks firing at ten paces, and the Shang crew had no time to even realize they were under attack. Only the Shang computers saw the missiles coming in time to react, and if they weren’t cybernetic minds their artificial intelligence was perfectly suited to operating point-defense batteries in an emergency. The scout’s laser clusters came to life without waiting for orders that would never come from the crew, strobing on and off faster than most eyes could register.
Missile after missile ripped apart in less than a second, victim of the scout’s point defense, but there were a dozen more missiles for each one that fell, and they bore in on their victim. The first to breach the point-defense grid exploded outside the scout’s deflection grid, reaching out with talons of focused gravity to rip the concentrated bands of gravitic shielding apart. Missiles following them sailed through the shredded deflection grid with impunity, though three actually hit sections of the grid still online. Those missiles disappeared without a trace, twisted and ripped apart by gravitic shear measured in the thousands of gravities.
The other missiles found their target easy prey, though, and erupted into miniature black holes that tore through the scout with impunity. They only had enough power to maintain their attack for a fraction of a second, but in that time they twisted and tore at the scout and the streams of hyperspace around her without mercy. The very fabric of hyperspace itself vibrated with the assault, and gravitic whips lashed against both missiles and the nearby scout.
“Firing, Ma’am,” Thompson finished repeating her order, in accordance with standard Navy doctrine, as the missiles tore the scout apart before their eyes. That particular protocol seemed rather pointless to Malcolm as anybody with working eyes could see they were firing. But the Navy had their regulations. The wreckage of the scout began to drift apart before his eyes, victim of the gravitic currents swirling around the devastation.
“Good job, guns,” Wyatt congratulated, and turned to Malcolm with a smile. “Well. That was exciting. Did you enjoy your first hyperspace ambush?”
“It was…quick,” Malcolm responded, holding Dawn’s gaze for another second. She nodded back without a word. It could have been them under surprise attack. Four years of planning wiped out in seconds by a chance meeting, and he couldn’t have done a thing to stop it. It was a humbling realization. “Do you think that scout ship destroyed the buoys?”
Wyatt nodded very slowly, expression sober. “Probably.” She turned back to her crew with a sigh. “Lieutenant Lee. What is our distance to Sunnydale?”
“Grav sensors estimate we are fifteen lighthours short of Sunnydale, Ma’am,” Anton Lee said.
“Ariel, launch all fighters,” Wyatt ordered with one look at the ship cyber, and then turned to her helm officer. “Lieutenant Lopez. Bring us up into normalspace once all fighters have launched.”
“Roger, Ma’am,” Jorge Lopez said, and began running his hands over the helm controls. He finished his commands as the sound of fighters launching reverberated through the carrier’s hull.
“All fighters have launched,” Ariel finally reported and Wyatt nodded towards Lopez.
“Surfacing now, Ma’am,” Lopez acknowledged, and the fabric of hyperspace began to twist around them as Normandy’s hyperdrive flexed her muscles. Every exterior display blinked out for a moment, and when they came back online an inky darkness filled by pinpricks of light surrounded them. One by one, the other ships of their fleet flashed into being around them, a rainbow of light radiating from them as they bled off the excess energy of their transit. It only took a few seconds for every last member of the Wolfenheim Project to arrive at their destination.
Sunnydale was the last major colony short of the Hyades Cluster, the linchpin in a network of military bases that kept pressure on Shang forces holding the cluster. Malcolm knew that intellectually. News reports of the brave stand of Sunnydale were legion. But as the massive network of fortifications began to populate the sensor displays, he truly began to realize what they meant. Most of the stations were mere sensor platforms, scattered throughout the star system to keep track of starship traffic, but many others displayed the symbols of true forts inside jamming bubbles that disrupted hyperspace a lightminute across. The forts ringed both inhabited planets, protecting the inner system from the sneak attacks the Shang had become famous for.
Normandy and her charges had arrived far outside that cluttered part of the system though, nearly four times further from Sunnydale than Neptune was from Earth. They were fifteen hours away as light traveled, and so the Alliance fleet base that dominated the inner star system was fifteen hours in the past. There was no way of knowing if that reflected the current conditions, or if a Shang attack had finally succeeded in breaking everything less than fifteen hours ago.
“Give me a full recon of the inner system,” Wyatt said to Ariel and the cyber nodded. One squadron of fighters dove back into hyperspace a few seconds later.
“Recon fighters on the way,” Ariel returned and Wyatt gave Malcolm a long look.
“Lieutenant Jones,” Wyatt said and turned to her communications officer. “Verify that all ships are rigged for maximum dive.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jones said as Wyatt turned back to her helm officer.
“Lieutenant Lopez. Plot me a course out of here at maximum acceleration.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Lopez answered and his hands flew across his controls again.
Wyatt spent a moment looking around at her crew, and then turned to Malcolm again. “And now we wait.”
“Safety first,” Malcolm returned and they shared a nod. He wanted the fresh information and supplies he could get at a major fleet base, but it would do no good to the Wolfenheim Project if he brought them into the middle of an occupied system. So he would wait as the fighters moved forward to recon the system. He turned to Dawn and she nodded in agreement.
“Charles is here,” Dawn said very softly. “All his Cowboys were scheduled to be here by now.”
“And if anybody can send the Shang packing it’s his Cowboys,” Malcolm returned in the same tone of voice.
Dawn nodded. “They’ve done it enough times so far.”
“Hopefully this isn’t the time the Shang managed to pull one over on them.”
“It could have just been Shang harassing tactics. Blow up some buoys to confuse incoming starships.” Dawn raised one eyebrow at him.
“And we were lucky enough to arrive before Sunnydale could replace the buoys?”
Dawn shrugged. “It’s possible.”
“Is it likely?”
“More or less likely than a Shang attack against the largest Alliance fleet base this side of Alpha Centauri?”
Malcolm shrugged. “More or less likely than a Shang attack against the largest Alliance fleet in existence?”
Dawn winced. Third Fleet’s loss at Epsilon Reticuli would be a seminal moment in The War for years to come. Assuming the Alliance hadn’t just suffered a worse defeat out here today.
“Worst case scenario, the system has fallen and we have to run before they find us,” Dawn said with an upraised eyebrow.
“Best case scenario, the Shang blew up some buoys and everything is fine in system,” Malcolm returned.
“I know which I’d prefer.”
They continued murmuring like that as the bridge crew worked around them. Panels beeped and chimed as messages flowed back and forth through the ship, and low crew voices filled the background. It was the typical bridge of an American warship on alert.
A flash of rainbow light finally heralded the return of one of the fighters a few minutes later and the bridge came to a halt around them. Every eye focused on the communications station as Lieutenant Jones held a hand over her ear to listen. Then she smiled and looked towards Wyatt.
“Lieutenant White reports situation normal in Sunnydale, Ma’am. It appears they were the target of another spoiling raid, but the system is secure. She has requested and received permission for us to enter the system. Receiving transit coordinates now. Shall I transmit to helm?”
“Yes,” Wyatt said and turned to her helm officer with a questioning gaze.
“I have coordinates, Ma’am,” Lopez said as his hands ran over the helm. “Shall I plot course now?”
“Yes,” Wyatt said with a sly smile and a glance towards Malcolm. “Though its unfortunate that we may not arrive exactly on target.”
Wyatt chuckled at his confused expression. “I understand we didn’t have enough time to fully calibrate our new Peloran navigation systems due to our hasty exit from Alpha Centauri.”
“Ah,” Lopez said and glanced around the bridge for a second. Then he smiled and his fingers began running over the controls again. “It is most unfortunate, Ma’am, but I do believe my instruments have developed a slight flutter. I shall surely do my best to adjust, but I cannot guarantee an arrival on target.”
“Understood, Lieutenant,” Wyatt said with another wry glance at Malcolm. “I’m certain our friends on the other side will understand considering the gravity of our situation.”
“Course laid in, Ma’am,” Lopez reported. “Transmitting to communications.”
Wyatt turned to her communications officer with a smile.
“Transmitting to fleet,” Jones said after a slight pause. “Confirmation of receipt from all ships.”
“Excellent,” Wyatt said and turned to face the forward display screen. “Dive.”
“Diving, Ma’am,” Lopez said as the hyperdrive pulsed to life through the core of the warship, hyperspace opened wide around them, and they dropped back out of normalspace onto a river of multicolored gravity.
Malcolm relaxed back in his seat as hyperspace bucked and weaved ahead of them on the main display, while other displays showed the rest of the tiny fleet following them. They dove deeper and faster into the depths of hyperspace than any purely Earthborn ship could have managed as their main engines drove them towards the inner system at up to hundreds of times the speed of light. Then they pulled back up and began decelerating towards the surface and the wall that separated hyperspace from normalspace as they approached their destination.
“Approaching coordinates, Ma’am,” Lopez said as his hands hovered over his controls.
“Initiate surface action at your discretion, Lieutenant,” Wyatt ordered.
“Initiating at my discretion, Ma’am,” Lopez acknowledged and locked his gaze on one of his displays. “In three…two…one…now.”
His fingers jabbed a button, the hyperdrive pulsed again, and Normandy exploded back out of hyperspace in a blinding rainbow flash that reached out to interact with the flashes of other nearby arrivals. Colors of energy jumped from ship to ship in curving arcs until hyperspace closed once more and left the small fleet alone in the starry darkness.
“Nearby space is clear,” Lieutenant Walter Thompson reported from tactical.
“And the designated arrival zone?” Wyatt asked.
“The designated arrival zone is clear,” Thompson answered.
“Good,” Wyatt said and nodded towards Malcolm. There had been no ambush, but he had to agree with her caution. That caution might just save them in the future.
That left them alone out here. Though not too alone.
A massive gas giant five lightminutes away dominated the view of nearby space. One display showed a zoomed-in view of the world, revealing the spiraling bright orange and red storms that gave it the name Torchdale. Another display came to life and Malcolm had to suppress a gasp of amazement. Someone else on the bridge failed to suppress the urge, and he couldn’t blame them.
Hundreds of warships from every nation of the Western Alliance orbited the gas giant, icons proudly proclaiming their country of origin. Entire fleets of British, German, French, and American warships held formation near the fortified moons, ready to respond to any Shang incursion. Individual squadrons from other countries dotted the edges of the larger formations, and a few single ships held station next to one of the larger forts. Shuttles and fighters appeared as pinpricks of light, moving around the larger starships in a never-ending dance that betrayed the energy running through the fleet.
Malcolm whistled when he recognized the icon for Columbia, flagship of the American fleet. Far larger than any of the twenty or so dreadnoughts he could see, she didn’t even have an official class name. The newsies joked that it was because there was no other ship that could match her class, and as one display zoomed in on her, Malcolm had to admit they had a point. The largest warship ever built by Earthborn humanity, she dwarfed the “mere” battleships surrounding her in defensive positions. The scores of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates supporting them looked like mere toys next to her bulk, but reinforced how seriously America took the buildup at Sunnydale.
The display shifted again, this time showing nearly fifty brilliant white spires floating in the darkness. Malcolm swallowed and licked lips that were suddenly dry. He’d seen ships like that before, in orbit over Earth, but he’d never seen more than nine at a time. Nobody this side of Independence had ever seen more than nine. Aneerin’s single battle squadron had been the symbol of Peloran support of the Alliance for a hundred years. Now two more battle squadrons floated nearby. He blinked and reread the display to make sure he understood it. Yes. Someone on the other side of The Gateway had shaken loose an actual carrier squadron, and what looked like two escort squadrons, as well. It wasn’t a true battle fleet, but those fifty warships were the most powerful collection of Peloran might seen in Earthspace since their Fifth Battle Fleet assaulted the Hyades Cluster five years before and never came back.
“We’re receiving a message from Sunnydale traffic control,” Jones said in a wry tone. “They note that we arrived out of position and ask if we need help calibrating our navigation systems.”
Wyatt chuckled in amusement. “Thank them for the offer, but tell them that we are working on it ourselves.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jones said and leaned back into her station to murmur her response to Sunnydale traffic control. And the largest fleet assembled by the Western Alliance since the Shang destroyed Third Fleet at Epsilon Reticuli.
Malcolm glanced at Captain Wyatt, wondering if she wished she were here to join the fleet. The very slight quivering of her shoulders that anyone else would have missed answered the question for him. She was a naval officer, no matter what her superiors said. No naval officer worth her salt could come in sight of a fleet like this and not want to be part of what they were about to try to do to the Shang. Even Malcolm felt the allure of at least getting close enough to watch. But that was a deadly allure, and he didn’t have time for it. He had a mission.
“Olivia?” he said in a very soft voice.
“Yes?” she asked in a breathless voice as she turned to face him with flushed cheeks. When her eyes met his, he recognized the lust in them. Oh yes, she wanted to be in that fleet with every ounce of her being.
He aimed a wry smile at her, doing his absolute best to not sound overly awed by the sight. He was pretty certain he failed, but one had to make the effort at least. “Just in case word of our…hasty departure has preceded us, do you think we could keep our distance from…them?”
“Yeah,” Olivia gasped. She scanned the displays again, taking in the impressive sights, and let out a very long breath. “I think I can arrange that.
He glanced at Dawn before coming to his feet. “And Olivia?” he asked and then waited for her eyes to meet his again. “I know how much you want to be there.” He waved at the displays showing the fleet. “I also hope you know how much you are needed here.” He ran his gaze across the bridge to see the rest of the crew looking back at him. “All of you. You have been recruited from dozens of worlds, with abilities and knowledge that this project will need if it is to succeed. You were all chosen for a reason, and I hope all of you know how valuable and needed you are.” He nodded in emphasis and turned back to Olivia with the look of a man swearing a solemn oath. “I will never forget that.”
Olivia bestowed a professional smile on him, though a slight amused quirk spoiled its edges. “On behalf of my crew, I thank you for your kind words.”
“Then my work here is done,” Malcolm said with an answering smile and spread his arms out wide to show he had no ulterior motives to hide. “Thanks for letting me watch. It was…enlightening.”
“You’re welcome to come watch anytime you like,” Olivia noted with a genuine smile.
“Thank you for the kind offer.” Malcolm scanned the bridge again, catching a number of smiles being exchanged. “Now I suppose I should stop being a distraction and let you get back to work.” With that, he turned and walked through the hatch.
Dawn stepped out after him and smiled as the guards on either side of the hatch measured them to make certain they weren’t going to go suddenly mad and try to shoot everything in sight. Upon passing the brief inspection, Malcolm and Dawn stepped into the lift that was the only other entrance to the guardroom.
“That was nice,” Dawn whispered as the lift shot away from the bridge.
Malcolm shrugged. “They needed to know they were valued.”
“Yeah,” Dawn returned, an amused sound to her voice. “It is nice how you care for the entire crew.”
He turned to see a glint in her eye and snorted. “If I wanted quips from the peanut gallery I’d find one of those nice, big peanut mascot outfits for you to wear.”
Dawn rolled her eyes at him and placed both hands on her hips. “Oh, you wouldn’t dare.”
Malcolm gave her a very long look. “And why do you think that?”
She gave him a grin the Cheshire cat would be proud of. “Because I have your baby pictures and I’m not afraid to use them.”
Her threat surprised him so much that he just looked at her, mouth agape. And when her smile turned sweet, he realized it wasn’t a threat. It was a promise.
“You are a horrible human being,” he proclaimed moments before the lift opened.
“Yup,” she responded and actually skipped out of the lift, giggling like a schoolgirl as she looked over her shoulder. “Are you coming?”
He shook his head. “Do I have a choice?”
“Nope,” she giggled over her shoulder and kept moving.
He sighed and stepped out to follow her down the corridor. “You know, I seem to remember that you’re supposed to follow my orders, not the other way around.”
“Oh no. I work with you,” she said with a single finger raised in the air, and turned a corner. “The contract is quite clear on that point.”
“You’re not trying to get smart with me, are you?” he accused.
“Oh, no, I would never try anything like that,” she quipped, and then stopped as her head cocked to the side. Then she smiled at Malcolm. “Well, well. What do you know? Somebody has been expecting our arrival.”
“Really?” he asked, intrigued by her shift in mannerisms.
She waggled her eyebrows at him. “It seems there is a supply depot with our name on it. Literally.” Her fingers actually waggled in the air as she leaned in closer to him. “‘Wolfenheim Project’ in great big letters. And it’s just outside the jamming zone.” Her eyes shone bright as she continued. “You’d think whoever put it there might be wanting us to be able to get out in a hurry if we need to.”
Malcolm chuckled at her statement and shook his head. “Well. I wonder who might be so considerate?”
“Yeah.” Dawn aimed a cheery smile at him. “The universe ponders the question of who could be so generous.”
“Hush, you,” he responded with a snort and stepped towards the hatch.
“Oh.” Her dark tone stopped him in his tracks. “Trying to silence me now, are you?” He turned to see her glaring at him, fists on her hips. “You just be careful or I’ll use those pictures. Mark my words, I will,” she finished with the wave of a finger at him.
Malcolm shook his head and frowned at her as the hatch opened. “You are going to be the death of me yet.”
“Oh no,” Dawn answered, her sweet smile back. “If you died, I’d have to find a new job, and that would be so much work.”
“Ah. Right.” Malcolm sighed and aimed an amused look at her. “In that case, it is my profound wish that you never be forced to do anything so horrifying.” He stepped through the hatch into his cabin and waggled his eyebrows at her. “But maybe that’s just the great humanitarian in me talking.”