So I woke up about 5:30 this morning, pretty normal for me, and I was doing my usual morning routine, reading the news, listening to my husband and son getting ready to go to work. And suddenly, it attacked: the writing bug! It grabbed me from behind and refused to let me go unless I wrote the idea that had appeared, fully formed and furry, in my head. So I wrote. Which gave me a raging headache. Joy. So that’s why I’m running late today.
Anyway, today is Fiction Day, and I owe you an installment of Helen and Mac and the crew of the Fortuna. So without further ado, shall we go?
Cat Like Tread, Part Three
When she was a student at the Beaumont Military Academy on Imperium Prime, Helen had started biting her nails. The doctors had diagnosed her with stress-related anxiety, given her pills to help her sleep, and painted her nails with a nasty substance that tasted like ass. It had been unpleasant, but she had never bitten her nails again.
Now, as she sat in the co-pilot’s chair and watched her brother pilot the ship, she tasted copper on her tongue. Surprised, she looked down. The fingertips of her left hand were wet, the nails bloody and ragged, torn down into the quick. She brushed her thumb over the tip of her index finger, wincing at the sting it caused. She curled her hands into fists and jammed them down into her lap.
“How we doing?” she said.
“We’re not gonna die out here, Helen,” said Mac calmly, not looking up from his console. “Have a little faith in me. I’m the best, remember?”
“I remember. But we’re off the beacon. Going off the hyperspace beacon is a death sentence, that’s what they taught us in school,” said Helen.
“I know, they told me the same thing,” said Mac. “We’re still not gonna die. I was very careful when I made my — what’s that?” Mac frowned down at his console.
“What? What!” said Helen, jerking upright in her seat. She leaned over the co-pilot’s console and keyed it to life. The displays flickered, coming to life only slowly, but displaying only static. Helen growled and thumped the console with the heel of her hand. The display flickered again, went dark, then came back to life. It showed the same display it always did in hyperspace: a blank green field with no landmarks ahead or behind; the beacon they had left was too far behind them to show up anymore. Now a red circle had appeared ahead of them, floating in the green.
“What’s that?” she said.
“That, my dead sister, is a jump gate!” said Mac, grinning triumphantly. “I told you we weren’t going to die out here. I’ll accept your adulation, worship and tribute. Especially the tribute; four or five really pretty girls, preferably experienced, definitely scantily clad.”
“Man-whore,” said Helen absently as she frowned down at her console. “Fresh out of hookers, Big Brother. Will you accept my thanks instead?”
“Only if it comes in a bottle marked ‘drink responsibly,'”said Mac. “Not that I intend to be responsible with it, mind you.”
“You got it. What’s the ID link on the gate? Where does it lead to?” said Helen.
“Umm… hang on.” Mac tapped keys on his console, and frowned down at the results. “The….Troyens system. Ident says it’s a proprietary gate; Berlioz Mining Company passcodes accepted only.”
“Troyens. Strange name,” said Helen. As she spoke, she reached for the comm system, toggling it on. “Bridge to Engineering. Casey, you down there?”
The comm crackled to life. “Where else would I be at a time like this?” said Casey; his voice sounded tinny and thin over the comm.
“We need your skills to get us past a secure jump gate. Come on up to the bridge, please,” said Helen.
“On my way,” said Casey. The radio emitted the double tone indicating that he’d closed the link.
“Decelerating; we’ll be at the gate in ten minutes. I don’t want to hit the field until Casey has bypassed their security. Mining companies can be nasty about their territory, and Berlioz is one of the worst.”
“Troyens. Troyens. Why does that sound familiar?” said Helen.
Mac shrugged. “No idea. I’ve never heard of it before. I don’t recall ever robbing any Berlioz Mining ships, so I doubt the local authorities are looking for us there.” He keyed his console again. “Troyens. Binary star,” said Mac, reading from the display. “Three terrestrial planets, none life bearing; one gas giant, one asteroid belt. Discovered by Berlioz Mining, umm, say fifteen years ago. Registered as Berlioz property later that same year. Looks like they’re mining the asteroid belt, though it doesn’t say what for. Any of that ring any bells?”
“Not really,” said Helen.
Further comment was stopped at the sound of heavy boots clanking up the steps. Casey appeared in the doorway, his usual half grin on his face. “Here I am! Did you miss me?” he said. He came to the co-pilot’s chair and jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “You. Move.”
“You talk to your captain like that all the time?” said Helen.
“Yeah. My rudeness is equal opportunity,” said Casey. He sat down in her chair, laced his fingers together and, with one extravagant gesture, cracked his knuckles. “Transfer the code sequence to my station, Mac.”
“You got it.” There were a few beeps as Mac complied, and then Casey’s console lit up with rolling text. He started tapping the keys, frowning and muttering as he did. Without looking up he said, “Helen, have you noticed anything strange in your bunk this week?”
“Ummm… I don’t think so. Why?”
Casey continued typing. “Well, the other day I found a note in the engine room. It said, ‘Get revenge on Helen.’ It was my handwriting, so it had to be from me, right? Except I didn’t remember what I was supposed to be getting revenge on you for. But I trusted my own judgment, so I went with it. I can only assume you got what was coming to you.”
Helen looked at Mac, nonplussed. Mac shrugged. “Don’t look at me,” he mouthed.
“Umm….well, whatever I did, I guess I deserved it,” said Helen.
“Let that possibly be a lesson to you,” said Casey.
Mac’s board started beeping, and he consulted it. “Jump gate is in visual range now,” he said. He tapped his board, and ahead of the three of them, the shielded shutters that protected the main windows of the Bridge. The swirling red and black of hyperspace slid into view. Lights, unknown distances away, flickered in and out of existence. People had been driven mad by looking too long into hyperspace. Helen felt the old familiar terror rising in her. Just breathe, she thought. Breathe, there’s plenty of air, just keep breathing, even, in, out, quit panicking! She ground her teeth and forced her breath into an even rhythm.
In the center of the maelstrom beyond the windows was the jump gate. It was unremarkable, just a ring of silver grey metal, dotted with blinking lights, at the moment all bright red; spaced evenly around the outer perimeter of the ring were great blocks of gray and black metal, housing the power plants to fuel the gate. Each one was marked with the logo of Berlioz Mining. There was nothing near the gate give a comparison, to allow a guess for size, but Helen knew it was enormous, big enough for the largest interstellar cruisers to pass without hindrance.
“We reach the gate’s primary fields in three minutes, Casey,” said Mac. “You going to be able to crack it in three minutes?”
Casey didn’t look up. “Omnes una manet nox, et calcanda semel via leti,” he intoned as he typed.
Mac glanced up at Helen. “That doesn’t reassure me.”
“Me either. Casey, neither of us speak… whatever it was you spoke. Are you telling us it’s good or bad?” said Helen.
Casey tapped the console one more time, and then sat back, sighing. “It means we’re in.” He pointed at the gate beyond the ship. As Helen looked up, she saw the ring of red lights around the gate flicker then turn white, one by one. The passcode had been accepted.
“You’re a genius, Casey,” said Helen.
“I know,” said Casey. He beamed at Helen, and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Accelerating. We enter the gate in thirty seconds.”
Okay, I’m done for the day. I. Am. Exhausted. I’ll be back on Wednesday, the first of October, and I can’t wait! In the meantime, don’t forget to tweet, share, comment. If you have any recommendations for Fun Friday, contact me at the email address on my About AJ page. Until I see you again, don’t forget to be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!