The relatively short journey meant the risk of pirate attacks was minimal, and for once the limited value of their ship also counted in their favour. It was strange how something so prized inside the city was worth so little in open space.
The rest of the flight to the beacon was uneventful, even if Ellie considered sitting still the worst possible way to spend two hours of her life.
It was a pause for breath between the thrill of the escape and the anticipation of the unknown still to come.
Thirty minutes out from their destination they intercepted other ships travelling from the Kinebar beacon. Together they formed a rag-tag caravan that stretched through space.
Far behind them the Juggernaut had become only a dark spot transiting the large red orb of the sun.
Identity codes and flight vectors of nearby craft popped up and vanished again on the navigational display before Malachi as ships entered and left the boundary of the Rhino’s short range sensors.
The display became steadily more crowded as they approached the Jenova beacon.
As it came into range a tight cluster of blips appeared on their scanner and began to dissipate at once. A jump group had just arrived. The cluster split into two smaller groups of ships like a cell dividing. Each small fleet began the slow transit across the solar system to one of the other beacons where they would continue to Selah or Kinebar, and then to who knew where.
None of the arriving ships headed for the Juggernaut.
Their own passage had already been arranged. Before they had left the city, Malachi had checked for traffic scheduled for Jenova and paid the required fees. The common-law of space travel was that no ship should refuse to provide support to any needy traveller. So, while the fees were expensive they were not crippling. The laws of supply and demand were in effect in deep space just as they were anywhere else.
Fortunately, the Juggernaut was a well-travelled, if not well-loved, system, so there was rarely any problem in finding a jump-capable ship willing to assist. Everyone understood the desire to leave.
For now, he busied himself in the final preparations as Ellie gawped at the surrounding traffic. Tila sat alone in the rear cabin, anticipation gnawing at her insides.
This is it, she thought as the jump beacon announced itself to their ship’s systems; this is when it becomes real.
The last few days had been anything but. In that time, her worldview had been turned upside down. Things of which she had once been sure had been brought into question, and now, in the moments before they left the system, this whole adventure felt real for the first time.
She wondered again if it might have been better to take this journey alone. Malachi was risking a great deal by coming. She knew his help was going to come with a price, not only in terms of his father’s disappointment and anger, but also in real money – money he needed to keep the business alive and the family fed.
The impact on his father’s political reputation within New Haven would also be significant. Malachi was going to have a lot to answer for when he got back.
And so am I. Theo, and everyone else, will know I’m the cause of this. But Malachi needs to go back. I don’t. I’m not family. I can leave New Haven any time I like if – no, when – it becomes too difficult for me to stay.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
Am I being too selfish? Am I jeopardising his family, and Ellie’s safety on nothing but a crazy plan?
But then, I never asked him or Ellie to come. Ellie just wants to come for the adventure, I guess. Just a few days on a planet, and then home again. It’s not much time. I hope she loves it. There’s something about the open sky which people who have spent their whole life among the stars can find unsettling. Maybe she will be like that. I hope not. I don’t need her crying to go back home before I finish what I set out to do.
Maybe she shouldn’t have come. She’s just going to get in the way, I know it.
When Tila emerged from her thoughts they were almost at the beacon.
Twenty kilometres in front of them one of the four vertex satellites drifted across their view in its perfect orbit. Each satellite formed one point of a precise four-sided pyramid. At the centre of the pyramid was the nexus beacon, the powerful supercomputer which coordinated and controlled each jump.
Each vertex satellite was exactly one hundred kilometres away from its closest neighbour, and the whole geometric arrangement spun slowly on all three axes around the nexus.
Above them five small craft were forming up around their surrogate, a cargo ship named Neptune’s Pearl. It was the same ship they had paid to be their own surrogate.
Malachi responded to queries and instructions sent by the Pearl and carefully manoeuvred the Rhino into its designated position within the formation.
Each ship hugged as close to the Pearl as possible to minimize the fleet’s mass radius.
Finally, he tapped a control to transmit their ready status and sat bolt upright in his chair, tense and waiting for the jump.
Slowly, moving as if a single ship, the tight formation approached their departure point.
“We’re locked into their jump calculations and slaved our manoeuvring systems to theirs,” he informed the girls. “Now we wait.”
They didn’t wait long.
The console chirped an alarm to announce the initiation of the jump sequence. The Rhino oriented itself along the vector of the Pearl, and the little ship’s engines cut automatically.
The scene around them trembled, and for the briefest of instants they had the impression of two star fields overlapping. It was like trying to focus on two different images simultaneously: one right in front of them and the other sixteen light years away.
The portal blossomed from nothing in a dazzling burst of white, tinged with red. Neptune’s Pearl led the way and vanished from view as if it had flown into the heart of a star. The smaller vessels raced forward and disappeared, leaving behind them a faint red afterimage.
The Rhino approached the event horizon. In Malachi’s peripheral vision he saw the ship around him lurch awkwardly while the scene directly in front of him remained steady. He felt a twinge of motion sickness as his brain wrestled with the contradictory information being delivered by his senses. He thought Ellie might be unnerved by the effects of a jump in a ship as small as theirs, and he had warned her what to expect ahead of time, but she didn’t seem anxious at all, just excited. It was Tila who seemed tense and uncomfortable in the final moments.
Ellie sat in one of the co-pilot chairs with her feet on the controls. She couldn’t remember ever feeling happier. She had left the Juggernaut for the first time. She was in a stolen ship (she told herself this made it more exciting), and she was with the two people she cared most about in the universe.
Nothing can go wrong, she thought to herself. I hope we can find what Tila’s looking for but even if we can’t help her I’m going to land on a planet and look up at a sky for the first time.
“Here we go,” she whispered to herself. “Now or never.”
Malachi settled back into his own chair, gripping the arm rest with his right hand so no one could see how nervous he was.
I hope I’m doing the right thing. It feels right and wrong at the same time. I’ve never defied my father like this, but then no one has ever needed my help like this before. This could all go wrong in a big way.
I hope this journey is worthwhile. I want Tila to find the answers she’s looking for. She deserves it, if anyone does. She has the reputation of a loner but she’s put her life on the line for others before. Ellie knows that better than anyone. This is the least we can do for her.
Mostly I hope we are long gone from Parador before trouble finds us.
Tila sat in the centre chair, commanding the clearest view of the great portal which filled her horizon.
She stared straight ahead at the white hole, wreathed with stars, into which they were about to plunge. Despite having friends on either side, she wrestled with her feelings alone.
It wasn’t hope she felt. There was no way to change the past. The Far Horizon had vanished and the New Dawn and Rising Star were destroyed. Her parents were responsible for the mission and so they took the blame when it failed. That was the story people remembered; that the man responsible for the technology, and the woman commanding the fleet, her father and mother, were the two people most at fault when it failed.
But that’s what I can change. I can’t change the past but something else happened that day. It might still be happening. Someone had buried a secret about the mission, and it cost people their lives. I have the proof of that, and I’m going to find out the rest. I want to know. I need to know.
Then it was the Rhino’s turn to enter the portal, and their ship flashed out of existence.
Tila realised at last it wasn’t anticipation which gnawed at her stomach.
It wasn’t nerves or fear that tightly gripped her will and compelled her forward.
It wasn’t hope she felt.
It was anger.
Someone has lied to me, she decided, and I’m going to discover the truth.