The warning lights at the Jenova-Celato jump beacon began to pulse. It began slow at first but grew more rapid as the Bohr’s-field event horizon coalesced.
Flashes of blue and white were accompanied by invisible burst transmissions on a hundred different frequencies, all broadcasting the same warning; Jump Incoming.
The curtain of stars shimmered and twisted in upon itself. For one infinitesimal moment two star systems appeared to occupy the same space – for one infinitesimal moment, it did – then reality remade itself and twelve spacecraft hung in space where before there were none.
One by one, eleven ships lit up their main drives and began their slow transit of the Jenova star system. The small fleet gradually broke apart to chart their own courses and lock their destinations into navigation systems.
One ship remained, a battered, box-like craft of burnt orange with a stubby horn of sensors protruding from the nose of the craft. It drifted alone five-hundred kilometres starward of the nexus beacon.
On board, Ellie was arguing with Malachi.
‘That was never fourteen minutes! It wasn’t even fourteen seconds. It was instant.’
‘It only seemed that way to us,’ Malachi said. He kept his gaze on the console to avoid being distracted by another question he had answered a hundred times. The short-range scanner on the console blossomed into life as the projected vectors of their eleven companions traced their colourful curves across the display. Each line would ultimately intercept a planet, space station or another beacon where they would continue their journey to the Praxis star system, or most likely, to Kendal. Very little legitimate traffic had cause to go to Praxis. Only two of the other ships appeared to be heading for Parador.
Ellie was still adamant, ‘I timed it!’
Malachi drummed a fingertip on the ship’s chronometers.
‘Look, this is local system time. This one is Celato system time. See the difference? Our chronometers are reset to local time by the beacons when we arrive.’
He could see Ellie was still struggling with the concept. Malachi knew his own brain could get tied up in knots thinking about the weird physics involved in instantaneous travel between the stars, but there was no reason for Ellie to know that. She didn’t need to know he didn’t really get it either. Not really. He simply had a basic knowledge she didn’t, and a familiarity with concepts of physics she never had to think about. Without a trace of meanness in his voice he said, ‘Ellie, you’re a fantastic pilot, but a lousy astronavigator.’
‘Well, you’re a great engineer, but a lousy pilot,’ she shot back.
Malachi offered Ellie his hand. ‘Agreed.’
She shook it with mock seriousness. ‘Okay, I believe you, even if it makes no sense.’
Malachi offered the same hand to Tila, who had watched this conversation with folded arms and, unsurprisingly, a frown. ‘Agreed?’ he said.
Tila swatted his hand away. ‘Now we are all friends again, can we, Mal, chart our course to Parador? That is why we came, remember? Or have you forgotten that in the last few minutes?’
‘Seconds,’ said Ellie, and playfully poked Malachi in the ribs. Malachi sighed theatrically before he answered Tila.
‘The computer’s plotting the course now. Our little runabout can’t run the calculations as fast as those other ships.’
Tila leaned over the colourful arcs stretching across the scanner display. She traced the lines with her fingertips.
‘Wouldn’t it save time to just follow one of those ships?’
‘It’s not as simple as that. Our route has to be calculated based on our own thrust and mass, and we don’t know exactly where those ships are heading. This ship is fine for flying around the Juggernaut but a cross-system journey like this is more than it’s designed for, so we’ll take the most efficient route we can.’
‘Will that take long?’ Tila was already growing impatient again as she fell back into her seat.
‘Not once we’re underway. You’re lucky we came when we did. Parador’s orbit is close to us this time of year. We should be there in less than a day.’
‘A day!?’ exclaimed Ellie.
‘Hey, it could be worse! If we were really going to Mirador, like I told my father, we could be stuck sitting in here for at least two days.’
Ellie grumbled something about it taking too long.
‘Hey, I’m a great engineer, remember?’
‘Well then, it’s a good thing we’re not going to Mirador,’ said Tila, pushing the memory of that lie from her mind. They would have to deal with those repercussions later, but for now it was light-years behind them.
Before them was a new star, new planets and hopefully, thought Tila, answers to old questions.
Four planets orbited the G-type yellow dwarf star that was Jenova. Only three were inhabited.
Terador occupied the smallest orbit. It was a perfectly liveable world if you could stand the summers. Next was Barador, an almost lifeless world of grey rock and poisonous gas. Industry had found a home here in the plentiful mineral and gas mines of the planet, but it was no place to settle.
Third from the sun was Parador, and like most third planets in the Commonwealth, it was considered the place to live. For as long as anyone could remember, the third planet was often favoured by settlers as it evoked the memory of the earth, but a third planet which had a yellow dwarf as it’s sun was the proverbial cherry on the astronomical cake.
Superstitions existed even here, and this favoured status was why Parador had always been the most desirable of the three populated worlds of the Jenova star system. It was also why it had, in time, become the wealthiest and the most powerful.
Finally, there was the fourth planet – Mirador. A huge world with a rich, natural biosphere, it had been settled and been augmented with plants and wildlife seeded from earth. It was nearly half as big again as Parador but with almost the same density.
Their present orbital positions put Barador and Terador on the opposite side of Jenova. Mirador was visible at this distance but only as a white half-circle facing the sun. Parador, a smaller dot of pale yellow was, despite its lower orbit, at present the nearest planet to the beacon.
As well as the four planets, the star system was home to several moons and a dozen artificial satellites. Orbital habitats, military bases, research stations and several shipyards dotted the system, but none of these held any interest for Tila. She had focused in on one city, on one planet, that she believed held the answers she sought.
But they were still many hours from their destination, and as alert as she was after their narrow escape from the Juggernaut, Tila was wise enough to know that she should rest while she could.
‘I’ll be in the back,’ she announced to the others as she left the cockpit and stepped into the rear cabin. She folded a narrow bunk down from the wall, and sat on it, testing it for softness, of which it had very little, before laying down. She could feel the hard plastic refusing to yield through the worn padding, and grimaced as she tried to find a position which would allow her to relax.
No one said this would be a comfortable adventure.
By the time the Rhino began its descent through the thin upper atmosphere of Parador, the sun was already bringing dawn to the continent below. Ellie gripped her seat as supersonic winds shook and rattled and howled against the little craft. The blackness of space evaporated like a dream as they flew deeper into the world.
Stars faded into a whitening sky. The hull of the ship glowed under the intense friction of the air. The sky changed again from white to blue, and far below them fluffy clouds of silver-grey gleamed in the fresh morning light.
The dense, lower atmosphere slowed their ship even more, and their flight smoothed. Malachi flew the ship lower. Now they could make out features of the landscape beneath them. Fuzzy patches of green and blue came into sharp focus.
A thin yellow strip of coastline divided land and sea, the blue of the ocean now flecked with the white of cresting waves. Further north, the coastline disappeared beneath snow and ice, and the rough, undulating surface of the sea gave way to sheets of pure blinding white where they reflected the glory of new day’s sun.
The trio watched in awe, drinking in the magnificent sight of a sunrise seen from ten thousand metres up.
Tila spoke quietly, needing to move forward but not wanting to intrude on the moment. ‘Where can we land?’
Malachi forced his attention back to the controls. A soon as they had entered the atmosphere the Rhino’s planetary navigation computer had begun sucking in data from local satellites and surface navigation stations. He flicked through the options before him.
‘There’s some hills or small mountains north of the city. The spaceport is on the south, so I think we can avoid local traffic.’
‘What’s the city called? Is it far?’ said Tila.
‘Caldera. And it’s not far if you don’t mind a walk, but I’ll get us as close as I think is safe. ‘
Ellie, hypnotised by the view outside the ship, said nothing. She had never seen anything so beautiful.
Malachi winced and pressed a palm to one ear. Tila wiggled a finger in her own ear and Ellie squeezed her eyes and swallowed. It didn’t work on land, either, and her ears popped painfully as the pressure seals released. The door hissed and airtight seals retreated into the door housings.
The door opened, and a new world beckoned.