Far on the edge of settled space, the colony world Mallachrom is mostly wilderness. Years ago, during an invasion by the alien Talroqi, many adults were killed while most of the children vanished, spirited away to safety by the sentient canines known as Shadows.
Those children came back from the wilderness changed, bound to the planet in ways they can’t, or won’t, explain. Called the Taken, they live on the edges of civilization. The new government on Mallachrom fears them enough to want to exterminate the Shadows and claim the Taken are dangerous–under the corrupt influence of Shadows.
Rover Pilot Nureen Keala, Rhianni Day’s best friend, is on patrol on the other side of the galaxy from Mallachrom. She would rather be supporting Rhianni’s mission, but the bureaucrats aren’t cooperating. Responding to a distress call puts Nureen in the wrong place at the wrong time. She falls through a vortex into another universe that has never heard of the Rovers or the war against the Talroqi.
On a space station belonging to the Trefarian Empire, Tedrin Creed has been waiting for the vortex to open again. Five years ago, Talroqi ships attacked his ship. After sending his crew away to safety, he defeated the Talroqi before the vortex sucked down his ship. He has been lying to the Empire’s people ever since, waiting for the vortex to open, so he can go home. When a ship and a pilot claiming to be a Rover fall through, his chance has finally come.
Problem: This ship is like no Rover ship he has ever seen, and the pilot doesn’t like him, or believe he is who he says he is. Nureen has every reason to distrust this man who claims to be Tedrin Creed. She knows all about him. He was her grandfather’s best friend, and died a hero fifty years ago.
Time is the problem, in several ways. The vortex and the way home will only be open for a short period of time. Can they learn to trust each other and escape the dangers of the Empire before time runs out?
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GENRE: Science Fiction (strong romantic theme) ISBN: 978-1-922548-06-1 ASIN: B093FYMWTC Word Count: 28, 628
Rover Pilot Lieutenant Nureen Keala retreated to where she always went when space was too quiet, she needed to shred someone, and the warty Talroqi ships hadn’t appeared or attempted battle in days. She went to the scout craft Slipstream and got as far as she could from her assigned ship, Star Sword, without losing contact. After all, it wouldn’t do for the chief pilot to be away from the ship if a full battle situation ambushed them.
Fat chance of that happening. Nothing had happened in the Maktai Sector since Commodore Tedrin Creed defeated three Talroqi battlecruisers, saved several nearby planetary systems, half an armada, and vanished into a vortex fifty years ago. It was as if the galaxy mourned the loss of one of the fleet’s greatest heroes–and her grandfather’s best buddy since basic training days. Nureen thought that fitting. But that didn’t make it any easier to be here on the rim of the galaxy furthest from the action.
What she wanted was to be in orbit around the colony world, Mallachrom, ready to support her best friend since childhood, Rhianni Day. Something peculiar and inexplicable was happening there, and Rhianni had been sent to lead a Rover team to investigate. After delivering some poachers and unusual air samples to Rover headquarters, Nureen–and Star Sword, of course, because where the ship went, the triple pilot team went, and vice versa–had been assigned to Maktai. No explanation. No chance to argue with Commander General Day (Rhianni’s uncle, scorch it!) and beg to be re-assigned to supporting Rhianni’s team.
It wasn’t like she could risk her career, jump ship, and find her own transport. Nureen had been bred–almost literally–for her post. It was generally assumed when the mental bonding of ship and pilot occurred they were paired for life; either the life of the ship or the life of the pilot. Leaving the Star Sword was almost like cutting off a limb. And there was the pride of being assigned to a ship of that size, carrying three full squadrons of dirtside troops and all their equipment and transports, along with twenty battle-class shuttles and ten scout craft that included Slipstream. No one had ever been assigned that much galactic tonnage at such a young age, much less made chief pilot. Besides, she was fourth-generation Rover. Obedience, as well as the need to sacrifice herself in service, was programmed into her genetics.
That didn’t mean she had to like it, or put up with it quietly. At least, not when she was out of communication range of the upper brass.
Off-duty, she regularly took the Slipstream out to practice short-range evasive maneuvers and battle simulations. With the cabin sound pickup turned off, so she could work out her frustrations by imagining General Day was the enemy with whom she held a space ballet/destructive duel. She always returned to the ship sweaty and exhausted, her throat sore from shouting.
But at least she wasn’t going to blow an O-ring on her captain and her fellow crewmembers.
So that was where Nureen was at T-minus twenty minutes until she had to head back to the ship and get her requisite six hours of sleep before going on duty again.
“Lieutenant Keala, report,” Captain Solrak said, breaking into her musings.
“Keala reporting.” She grinned at her reflection against the darkened viewport window. Nureen had almost forgotten to turn the pickup mic back on before talking. If she was going to get herself dishonorably discharged, it was going to be for something spectacular, not for sloppiness.
“We’re picking up energy fluctuations going off the scale at both ends, about thirty kliks from you. Coordinates coming through. What are you reading?”
“Systems–” All the alarms on her console went off at the same time. “Readings coming through now, sir.” She narrowed her eyes and slid into what pilots referred to as the bright zone, where the electrical signals in her brain merged with the crystal network that ran her scout craft. When not in use, Slipstream was in full system merge with the ship’s system, so it could also become an extension of Nureen’s mind when necessary.
Now was definitely necessary.
“Vortex, sir,” Nureen reported. She blinked, consciously registering the word after it left her lips, and almost pulled out of the link. “Double-checking–“
“That’s what we’ve been getting, too. We were hoping you’d have a different analysis, that much closer. “
“Picking up a mayday.” She knew better than to wait for the order. “Going in.”
“Unsure at this point. No specs on the craft except that it’s–” She closed her eyes, the better to visualize the readings spilling through her inner mental “screen”. “The craft is smaller than my scout, contains one life form, and is falling into the vortex.”
“Sending assistance. Don’t fall in, Keala.”
“Don’t intend to, sir.” She grinned at the visual pickup crystal, teeth bared in fierceness rather than humor, and tipped two fingers off her forehead in salute.
The auxiliary controls slid up out of the console, toggle ball for the left hand, joystick for the right hand. In rescue situations, especially with a rare space phenomenon to deal with, standard controls for the scout craft wouldn’t be fast or sensitive enough. Sometimes, primitive was better. Between her mental link with Slipstream and the auxiliary controls, Nureen had a better chance of survival than ninety percent of the rest of the Galactic Fleet.
She shot her craft toward the lip of the vortex and the tiny green spot of energy that was the unknown ship in distress.
“All-Maker, Source of Life, guard this fool,” she muttered as the first gravitic streamers from the vortex reached out greedy fingers for her ship.
Getting in was easy–she wanted the whirlpool of gravitic and magnetic forces to pull her in, closer to that struggling little ship. Half her concentration focused on tracking the patterns, looking for the weaker zones among the stronger radiation bands of the helix pulling everything into the galactic whirlpool of the vortex. The trick–or so older and wiser and luckier pilots had always told her–was resting long enough in those weak rings to catch her breath and use them for a jumping off point, but not so long that the downward motion pulled her in.
A tiny, quiet spot in the back of her mind wondered what the chances were that this vortex was the one that took her grandfather “Killer” Keala’s best friend, Commodore Creed. What were the chances of it returning now, while she was here, grumbling in this sector of space? Well, her grandmother always said the All-Maker had a nasty sense of humor.
Squeals came over the cabin speakers and Nureen turned down the volume. The EM pulses were messing with the communications. It sounded like someone was trying to talk to her. In case the other ship had better receivers, she called out her ship’s code.
The squeals changed to the clicks and shrieks that had sent a chill down Nureen’s back and through her guts the first time she heard similar sounds.
Talroqi. That little craft slipping into the vortex wasn’t any recognized Talroqi craft. How could she have fallen for such a stupid trick?
“No, please! I’m not the enemy,” a buzzing voice pleaded. “–beyond me. They chased me in here. Help me, please!”
Nureen used side thrusters to move up a level in the vortex, putting her above the little craft, even as she got closer. Supposedly, the hive creatures didn’t know how to shoot straight up. But if this was an unknown Talroqi ship, her advantage was probably shot to the Netherhells anyway.
Then the EM static field relented for a few seconds and her ship’s display as well as her mental screen cleared, and Nureen saw the classic bumpy cylinder of a Talroqi queen ship. Energy readings indicated despite the gravitic pull of the vortex dragging the larger, heavier ship down into it, the Talroqi were expending at least a third of their available energy to wrap tangle fields around the little craft. That meant they wanted whoever was inside that ship.
“Enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she muttered, and spun the ball sharply forward. There was no “down” in space, but Nureen still felt as if she had tipped straight down on a steep track with no end in sight. Slipstream dove and she flung her own tangle field around the little craft as she came so close she could feel her ship’s skin scrape against its hull.
Her momentum popped them out through the side of the vortex. The gravitic pull snapped like the dragging roots of carnivorous plants suddenly breaking under the touch of fire. Slipstream leaped forward, throwing her back into her seat and setting off every proximity and thrust alarm, threatening the seals on her craft. Her emergency air mask shot down from its hatch, automatically sealing over her face and startling a scream out of her–she had forgotten that particular piece of equipment was even there.
Then she got control of her craft and hit thrusters from six different angles, to fight the roll that wanted to send it tumbling through blessedly empty, quiet space.
The vortex and the Talroqi ship were nowhere to be seen. Neither was the Star Sword. Nureen pushed that little detail aside for later–as in when she had enough information and a safe place to hole up and assess the data, and she could fall apart in relative security.
“Hailing alien ship,” she said, and hoped the communication system took the breathless sound from her voice. Despite the daring rescue she had pulled off, by pure pluck and luck, she still cared about appearances. With her luck, this would all turn out to be a very nasty periodic test. The problem she had always seen with the drastic tests that were geared to let only the best of the best, the cream of the cream rise to the top, was that the “good enough” and the plain milk were destroyed, not used for something else. You were the best of the best by simple virtue of coming out with your breath still in your body.
“Hello, Rover ship. Thank you. You have no idea how grateful I am–but we’re not out of danger yet,” that same buzzing voice said. “My ship has sprung several leaks. I’ve taken on a non-breathing form, but that makes it difficult to control the ship. May I come aboard, please?”
“Ah… sure.” Nureen reached for her omni-blaster. Depending on what information the sensors gave her when she opened the airlocks between the two ships, she could stun the stranger with electro-neural pulses, smother it with tranq gases, or hit it with acid-point or explosive tip darts–those were last resort, because anything that exploded or melted would end up damaging her ship. There was a reason why many ships issued long blades for weapons while dealing with unknown quantities on board.
She kept her breather mask on, just in case the stranger brought airborne diseases with him. After all, he had to be delusional, talking about taking on a non-breathing form.
The airlock signaled all clear, pressure equalized, and something small and dark stepped into the shadows of the airlock. Nureen watched all the sensor readouts, both displayed in front of her and what came through her ship link, straight into her brain. Everything looked good–at least, nothing had been detected that would endanger her life. That meant nothing, because Rovers knew, better than anyone else, that there were weird and wonderful and terrifying things out there beyond the range of the most modern technology and sensors. Just because the equipment couldn’t see or sense something didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Okay, I give in, she silently groused. I need some shore leave badly.
In response, the airlock pinged, signaling it was ready to open. She made one more check of the readouts, took a deep breath, and sent through the mental signal to open the airlock.
Two seconds later she nearly went to her knees. Nureen managed to hold back the automatic “awwwww” as she stared down at her visitor.
It was less than a meter tall, with enormous emerald eyes and big tufted ears. Its fur was silver shading toward lavender, and its four arms and four legs were short and chubby and sported four fingers or toes with blunt silver nails.
It was all she could do not to scoop up the creature in her arms to cuddle it.
“Hey, wait a minute.” Nureen took two steps back from the goomibah. For good measure, she held her breath, in case the totally mythical, appears-only-in-children’s-entertainment-vids creature gave off mind-altering substances that registered as totally natural. They wouldn’t set off red flags in her sensors or be filtered by her breather mask, even as her brain melted and she lost three-quarters of her intelligence rating.
Oh, I’m so sorry, that buzzing voice said into her brain, without the creature’s lips moving. I thought this form would make it easier for you to accept me.
This form? Nureen definitely needed shore leave. Metamorphic creatures were the stuff of legend, just like the goomibah.
We don’t have time to discuss history and fable. The Synch is going to catch up with us. Those horrid hive creatures damaged my ship, and I certainly can’t leave you out here unprepared. You’ll have to trust me.
“Trust you for what?” Nureen dodged sideways, guided by instinct before her conscious mind registered that the goomibah was…flying, straight at her. Without wings.
She shrieked, biting back a string of curses when it flattened and wrapped around her neck and shoulders, knocking her breather mask away. All right, it was warm and soft and smelled of vanilla and ambrosia apples–but it shouldn’t have been able to DO that. And wasn’t there a parasitic flying plant on Congress IV that smelled like paradise when it wrapped around its victims’ heads, rendering them unconscious before digesting them?
I’m protecting you! that voice insisted. Look outside your ship!
Nureen listened to her gut instinct more than the warm, soft sheet enfolding her, and braced herself for the worst as she looked.
It was worse than the worst. Mostly because she usually only imagined one thing at a time as “the worst”. The “worst” she could imagine right now was to see the Talroqi ship bearing down on her.
She was wrong.
The vortex had expanded and was reaching out greedy fingers for her.
It had already grabbed hold of the Talroqi ship and was tearing it apart.
She figured if the vortex had the Talroqi for dinner, she was dessert.
Hold on, the voice said, and Nureen had the strangest sensation of the voice sliding down inside her head, grabbing hold of something solid inside her. She decided not to ask. The only way to survive is to synch—
Not that kind of sinking. We don’t want to fall–we want to synchronize. Become part of it. Move with the rhythm. I’ll explain when we come out the other side.
Where is the other side? she demanded.
It occurred to her that she was talking in her mind to the alien creature with absolutely no practice or training in telepathic communication. It was one thing to mentally merge with her ship–another to touch the mind of a living creature.
Later. Think about it later. Fall apart later, she quietly scolded herself in a corner of her mind she hoped was safe from the invader.
And the next moment, every sensation told her she was indeed sinking, not synching. Pilots weren’t supposed to get space-sick. It was bred out of them. She came from a long line of the best pilots galactic civilization had produced. But her stomach wanted to exchange places and contents with her brain and her kneecaps. She fiercely fought that sensation and held onto the ball and joystick with all her strength and determination.
You’re a genius, the voice said. By the way, my name isn’t Voice, it’s Tessur.
How do you–get out of my head! Nureen hadn’t felt so violated since she caught some hotshot solo-craft fighter pilots trying to slip something nasty into her drink at a victory celebration two years back. Mostly because the drug that was supposed to make her amenable to their attentions ruined the taste of her drink. Her particular bloodline had an inborn immunity to quite a few “amenable” drugs, and a hyper-sensitivity to the presence of the same.
Too bad she couldn’t pulverize her passenger the same way she had those space-jockeys.
Sorry, I’m not coming out until we’re out the other side, Tessur said with a prim tone that made her realize she had hurt its–his?–her?–feelings.
Then the sinking feeling turned into a spinning, like going down a drain. Only she was going in the wrong direction. How she could “know” she was spinning in the wrong direction, Nureen had no idea.
Almost there, Tessur said.
How do you know?
I’ve been caught in the synch more times than I can count.
Do you make it happen?
If that was the truth, she was going to have to do some pulverizing. As soon as she got her equilibrium back.
If I could, I’d certainly stop it from dragging innocent folks through, he shot back. Yes, definitely, Tessur was a “he”. This sector of space is prone to such phenomena.
How often is ‘prone’?
Nureen closed her eyes, even though she couldn’t see anything other than the inside of her craft. That was exactly why she needed to close her eyes–there was nothing, not even darkness beyond the viewport, and all her screens were filled with static. She gulped, feeling her insides trying to rearrange themselves again, and opened her eyes. If she ever let on that she had gotten space-sick, her fellow crewmembers would never let her forget it.
That was assuming she would get out of this alive.
I can either hold our matter together, Tessur responded, or access your memories and units of measure to answer your question. Take your pick.
You don’t have to get snippy.
Sorry. I realize this is pretty frightening–no, actually, you’re not frightened. Angry, knocked off balance, confused, but not frightened. You are made of rather sterner stuff than the usual unwilling traveler, aren’t you?
And here we are! Tessur sounded vastly relieved. If he had been something other than a sweet-smelling fuzzy blanket wrapped around her, Nureen thought he might have been sweating hard enough to drown her. My ship was pulverized by those horrendous hive creatures. It wasn’t worth what I paid for it, but it was all I had. If you could make arrangements to drop me at… Oh… my.
“Oh my what?” Nureen rasped, as she skimmed over her console, bringing sensors back online and taking in the readings. Even before the first visual came through her scorched video feeds, she knew it had to be serious if Tessur sounded so disconcerted. It was hard reading someone else’s emotions if all she had was a voice in her head and no face–and no real experience–to help her interpret.
I’ve never been in this particular dimension before. Sorry. Tessur slid off her shoulders and melted into something that resembled a neon green puffball with multiple gossamer wings. It floated at her shoulder level, with maybe thirty centimeters between them, and she had the distinct impression that he looked over her console with her, even though he didn’t have eyes.
Nureen stared at the image of a massive mechanical construction hanging before her, several thousand kliks away, in high orbit around a planet that seemed to churn, like the entire surface was covered with lava. She had thousands of images of different worlds in her memory. A good pilot knew how to make visual identification of the various civilized worlds without having to depend on mechanical memory banks. This place was too striking to be easily forgotten. And that meant if she couldn’t recall it, then she had never visited this world or seen it in anybody’s log records before.
And Tessur hadn’t seen it before, either.
I do believe we’ve discovered a new dimension.
“Ya think?” She flinched at the harshness of her voice. “Sorry, Tess. We’re both messed over here.” Nureen glanced over the log of what her ship had just passed through and whistled involuntarily. “Yee-oww. We should have been pulverized to a layer thinner than a molecule and spread across a couple of galaxies by the forces we just passed through.”
Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem of passing through the synch.
“Hey, we’re alive. I’m grateful.” She studied the screen in front of her.
That had to be a space station, though she didn’t recognize the construction. It gave an impression of massive age, with what seemed like a corona of activity from tiny moving lights amid a field of seeming space debris. Like it was slowly disintegrating outward. Her mangled sensors indicated movement and energy outputs. Some larger objects might be small craft of some kind, moving around the widest part of the station, where docks would logically be placed. The problem was if the people or sentient beings of some kind in this new dimension–Tessur did say this was a new dimension?–operated on what she would recognize as logic. Heck, she would settle for basic common sense, and a little kindness and hospitality.
“Okay, what are our chances those folks are friendly? I’m going to guess that’s Human-type construction. It certainly doesn’t look like the ships the Talroqi grow, and nothing like the pod-ships of the Skeddeki… Of course, if they’re Human, they might just be the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later variety.”
“The solar winds don’t taste familiar, so I know I’ve never been here before. No information to help you. Very sorry.” Tessur’s voice in this shape even sounded fuzzy and puffy.
“Okay, well, when it doubt, ask.”
She brought up the impulse thrusters, deciding a slow, cautious approach was best, along the lines of controlled drifting. Any fast movement could be read as aggression, and bring weapons blasting. She definitely didn’t want to find out what sort of weapons these people might come up with. If they were Human-type people.
“Scorch it,” she growled, and danced her fingers over the touch-screen, trying other options even as she sensed they were useless.
“Engines are completely dead. All we have are sensors and life support.”