Tila fell back in to her seat and shut her eyes. She opened them again slowly, afraid to look in case she discovered that what had just happened had not really happened. The air escaped her lungs in a rush. She didn’t realise she was holding her breath.
Malachi stared at the stars before them with a wide-eyed stunned expression. He seemed transfixed by the view. He had paled, not at the closeness of their escape but at the sure knowledge that he was going to have to return and explain himself.
Only Ellie seemed energised by the start of their adventure. “That was easy!” she said.
Malachi made a small choking noise. “Easy?”
“Don’t worry, Mal,” she said, patting him on the head. “We can tell everyone I made you do it.”
“How could you make me? You’re the least frightening thing I know.”
“I can be scary!”
Tila smiled at the very idea that Ellie might be able to frighten anyone.
“No, Ellie, you can’t,” she said. “But that’s okay.”
“I can be if I want to be,” Ellie muttered and dropped herself into the centre seat.
“Now all we have to do is get to the jump point,” said Malachi.
“So, it’s over?” said Ellie.
“Almost. The hard work is done. Things should be easier now, assuming we can find Tila’s cabal of investors.”
Ellie leaned forward on the console and looked out at the stars. As excited as she was walk on a planet for the first time this was what she lived for; the eternal magnificence of the infinite night.
“How long does a jump take, anyway?” she asked.
“Exactly?” said Malachi.
“Fourteen minutes and three seconds.”
“She said ‘exactly’, Mal,” said Tila.
Ellie sprawled over the star chart in the console’s central display. Her head was propped up on one hand with her fingers buried beneath blonde hair. She swept her other arm across the screen until she found what she was looking for. She planted a finger on their destination and facts and figures about Jenova began popping up on the display. She examined the screen.
“So even though Jenova is sixteen light years from here it will only take fourteen minutes?”
“And three seconds. That’s right.”
“That’s quite fast, isn’t it?”
Ellie touched another star in the opposite heading. “And what about this one, Selah. That’s twenty light years away. That takes fourteen minutes too?”
“And three seconds, yes.”
“So, would it take twenty-eight minutes and six seconds from Jenova to Selah?”
“No, fourteen minutes.”
“And three seconds?” offered Tila.
Ellie sat up. “That makes no sense, Malachi.”
“It’s weird, I know, but that’s how it works. It doesn’t matter how far you go. It always takes fourteen minutes and three seconds.”
“But it’s nearly twice as far! Are you sure?”
“That’s hyperspace physics for you, Ellie. It’s just how it works.”
“So even if we went here,” she picked a star at random, a white dwarf two hundred light years away, “It would still take fourteen minutes?”
“And three seconds. Although we couldn’t make it that far, anyway. Once you start trying to travel more than twenty-five light years, even with a beacon, the maths becomes almost impossible. There’s no telling where you might end up.”
“How do you understand all this and still have room in your brain for everything else you know?” Tila asked.
“I’m an engineer, not an expert in hyperspace physics. I don’t understand this, not really. That’s just the basics everyone knows.” He looked up. “Don’t they?” he asked seriously.
Tila and Ellie exchanged a look.
“Yeah,” said Tila.
“Sure,” said Ellie. “Of course.”
“Hmmm,” said Malachi.
“So how far away is the beacon for Jenova?” Ellie asked as she flicked through different screen displays.
“Not far at this time of year. Only a couple of hours.”
“Two hours? Why didn’t they build it closer?”
“Ellie, the Juggernaut orbits Celato. The distance changes all the time. You’re lucky it’s not a couple of days. Anyway, it’s as close as it can be. Beacons can’t be too far inside a star’s gravity well or they won’t work properly. Luckily, we have no planets so they built it closer.”
“Why does the star make a difference?”
Smiling, Tila leaned over Ellie’s ear while Malachi wasn’t looking. “Here comes the lesson,” she whispered.
“I heard that. Because the gravity well of a star or planet is so massive that jump beacons can’t operate too far inside a system. Well, they can, but the jumps become more dangerous. It’s easy around Celato because the Juggernaut is pretty much the only thing in this system. Think of the star like the middle of a giant whirlpool. Around Celato there is nothing to disturb the whirlpool except the Juggernaut and a few asteroids and comets. In other systems, each planet is trying to make its own little whirlpool of gravity. All those whirlpools overlap with each other and with their star, and that creates a disturbance in the uh, water.”
“Does Ellie even know what a whirlpool is?” said Tila.
“I know! I’ve read books. Just because I grew up in space it doesn’t mean I don’t know anything,” Ellie protested, then to Malachi she said, “So, it’s sort of like ‘space-water’?” said Ellie.
“I guess,” said Malachi.
Tila patted Ellie on the shoulder.
“He’s good with the science but bad with the metaphors,” she said.
“He’s not that bad. It makes sense to me now,” said Ellie. “There’s nothing in our system so it’s like a smooth pond, but other systems have planets spinning in all directions so it’s harder to find somewhere to make a landing because the gravity is disturbing the space-water?”
“Uh… actually, that’s pretty good,” Malachi admitted.
“Is it called a gravity well because of the space-water?” asked Ellie.
“Not quite, El,”
“So, you do understand everything about jump beacons too,” Tila said playfully.
“No, this is still only the basics. But you know that already, don’t you?”
Tila and Ellie looked at each other.
“Yeah,” said Tila.
“Sure,” said Ellie. “Of course.”