Snippet–The Unseen

4 Jun

Chapter One

“I am bored,” Nancy Brigham said.

The sixteen-year-old girl’s stepmother looked up at her in some irritation. Nancy’s father had married again after his first wife had died, marrying a girl who was barely five years older than Nancy herself. The stepmother had no illusions about her stepdaughter’s feelings; the first time they’d met, Nancy had accused her of being out to steal her father’s money. There was nothing she could say or do that could mend the rift between the two women. Nancy missed her mother too deeply to accept any replacement.

“Then go and explore the ship,” Mary Brigham said, finally. The cruise had lasted two weeks so far, giving Nancy enough time to explore every nook and cranny of the White Star that was open to the public. By batting her eyelashes at a couple of crewmen, she’d even managed to get shown around the engineering department and the bridge. “Or go and find someone your own age to talk to.”

Nancy rolled her eyes. The other teenagers on the ship were either too young, too spoiled or too hormonal to be interesting. It would have been better if she’d been permitted to bring one of her few friends from home along on the trip, but while her father had been willing to pay her friends parents had all refused. The last thing they wanted was for their children to travel hundreds of light years from Earth.

“There’s no one to talk to, Mary,” she said, affecting the tone she knew drove her stepmother to distraction. “And I have run out of things to do.”

Mary scowled at her. “There is an entire library of entertainment movies you could watch,” she said. These days, at least partly thanks to Nancy’s father, a single person could store all of Earth’s vast collection of movies on a single datachip. Johann Brigham had pioneered the adaption of Galactic technology into something that could cross-link with merely human technology to reshape the world. It had made him famous and wealthy – and doomed his daughter to social isolation. “Or you could swim in the zero-gee pool, or you could even request permission to spacewalk…”

“Not in quantum space, Mary,” Nancy reminded her, snidely. Floating in empty space was remarkable, but quantum space – the alternate dimension that was used for FTL travel – was too dangerous to risk allowing anyone outside the hull unless it was an emergency. “And the movies on this ship are boring.”

“How would you know,” Mary asked reasonably, “if you haven’t seen them all?”

Her stepmother straightened up. “Your father is currently in a conference with several other important people,” she added. “You are expected to join us for dinner at 1700 – until then, I suggest that you explore the ship and maybe try and make a new friend. You’re not the only teenage girl on this ship.”

Nancy opened her mouth to retaliate and then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Her stepmother wanted to be famous, if only by association. She wanted to go to parties where everyone knew her name, pointing to her as if she were a rock star or one of the military officers who had fought and won the war against the Hegemony. Nancy would have preferred a life where her path wasn’t already shaped by her father, where his reputation wouldn’t constantly follow her through the world and haunt her life. She wanted to be something more than the daughter of Johann Brigham, even if she had to buy an old freighter and set out across the stars as an independent trader. Perhaps she could convince her father to buy her a starship when she finally turned twenty-one.

The thought distracted her as she walked through the vast ship to the observation deck. It was mostly empty in quantum space, with a pair of crewmen standing guard at the hatches, checking that all visitors knew that they were going to be looking out onto quantum space. Back in the olden days, travellers had had to worry about becoming seasick; now, travellers had to worry about being unable to tolerate looking out at quantum space. Nancy had never had any trouble in the past, unlike Mary. Her stepmother had taken one look shortly after the White Star had left Earth and had had to retire to her cabin, feeling unwell.

Nancy smiled at the memory as she stepped onto the observation deck. A vast transparent sheet of metal greeted her, allowing her to look out onto the flowing sheets of energy that marked quantum space. Flashes of lightning, each one powerful enough to rip an entire fleet of starships apart, flared out in the distance, shimmering into existence and then fading back into the energy storms that marked so much of quantum space. Navigation, according to one of the young officers she had courted, was tricky in quantum space. Only the system of beacons established by the Galactics ensured that interstellar trade worked on a reasonable basis.

She stepped right up to the portal and peered out, looking along the white lines of the luxury starship. Her father had invested heavily in the project, pointing out that humanity would need more than military force to make its place in the galaxy; the White Star and her planned sisters would be able to showcase human achievements to the rest of the Association. The Galactics were currently very impressed with humanity and her father planned to capitalise on it. There was no way of knowing how long it would be before the Galactics decided that humanity was still nothing more than a minor race in an insignificant part of the galaxy.

Nancy smiled and sat back in a chair, watching as one of the energy storms seemed to be coming closer to the starship. Quantum space was almost hypnotic – and besides, it beat looking at Mary’s face. She just knew that her stepmother had had plastic surgery to help her win a man with the fame and fortune she craved.

And then she felt a dull tremor running through the entire ship.

***

“All right,” Captain Terrence Smith said, “what do we have?”

“Localised tremors in quantum space,” the navigation officer said. Navigating in quantum space was as much of an art as it was a science, particularly along the Unseen Reach. But it was the safest route from Earth to Abel. “I think we may need to alter course.”

Terrence nodded. His early career had been spent in the Federation Navy; he’d commanded a cruiser at the Battle of Terra Nova and then been promoted to Commodore to replace the former commander of the cruiser squadron, who’d died when his ship had rammed a Hegemony superdreadnaught at a later battle. The promotion hadn’t been satisfying and when he’d heard that the White Star needed a Captain, he’d been quick to apply for the position. He hadn’t understood why there had been so few candidates until he’d skimmed through the list of passengers. There were one thousand people on his ship and most of them were rich, famous and very well-connected. A single mistake could be career-wreaking.

But he wasn’t going to take chances, even if it did mean that they would be late arriving at Abel. “Alter course to evade the storm,” he ordered, flatly. “And notify the staff that they might have to explain a course change to our passengers.”

He settled down in his command chair as the White Star began to alter course. The Cats – the enigmatic masters of the Association, the first among the Galactics – had surveyed this area of space before humans had learned to make fire, only to class it as a sector prone to random fluctuations in quantum space. Reading between the lines, Terrence suspected that the Cats didn’t know why the Unseen Reaches were so unstable, but they weren’t about to admit it to races hopelessly junior to themselves. The Unseen Reaches had swallowed a handful of starships in their time, enough to worry him even without the escorting destroyer from the Federation Navy. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the direct route between Earth and Abel was a war zone, he would have refused to take the White Star anywhere near the Unseen Reaches and sought a better path through quantum space.

The display kept updating, tracking a handful of distortions in the rolling edges of quantum space. Civilians never really understood just how volatile or dangerous quantum space could be, but Terrence felt it deep within his bones. Most flashes of energy blurred into the background fairly quickly, yet these seemed to be growing stronger, as if a new energy storm was on the verge of blowing up out of nowhere. If that happened, his only choice would be a crash transition back into normal space and a long period of waiting for the storm to blow over before they returned to quantum space. The passengers wouldn’t be happy, but at least they’d be alive to complain. There were no reports, in all of the Association’s long history, of a starship surviving a brush with an energy storm.

“Captain,” the navigator said, suddenly, “the energy distortions are following us!”

Terrence leaned forward in disbelief. The navigator had to be wrong, except he wasn’t. It looked very much as if the storm was taking on shape and form, coming right after the White Star as if it intended to swallow the entire ship. Starships had vanished in this area before, he remembered, and cursed the planners who had insisted that taking the ship through the Unseen Reaches would be safe. He should have refused their orders and to hell with his career. They wouldn’t be the ones on the stand when the Federation carried out an inquiry into what had happened to his ship.

“Helm, alter course to evade,” he ordered. He’d never seen anything like it – and no one else, as far as he knew, had ever seen a storm chasing down its prey. But then, perhaps the people who had seen it hadn’t lived long enough to make it back home. “Alert the Randolph and…request that they shadow us to the rear.”

“Aye, sir,” the helmsman said. Terrence didn’t relax. If the storm was being attracted to the starship, perhaps the Federation Navy destroyer would draw it off. But he’d never seen anything like it before. Maybe there was a very good reason why the Unseen Reaches had such a bad reputation. “New course laid in…”

“The storm just altered course to match ours,” the navigator said, a moment later. “I think something we’re doing is acting like a lightning rod.”

Terrence shook his head. The energy storm had blossomed to life, casually tossing around enough energy to vaporise the entire Federation Navy. It was smaller than the average energy storm, with enough oddities marked out by the sensors scanning the storm’s composition to fuel genuinely original science, but that wouldn’t stop it being dangerous.

His intercom buzzed. “Captain, I have Colonel Haverford on the line,” his steward said. “He wants to know if there’s any danger to his principle…”

“Tell him that I am busy,” Terrence snapped. Right now, the last thing he needed was very important passengers and their bodyguards demanding updates – particularly since he didn’t know what he could tell them. Quantum storms were no respecters of rich and powerful people, even if they did have enough money to bribe even a Galactic Oligarch. “And don’t let anyone else disturb me again.”

He broke the connection savagely and looked over at the navigational display. The energy storm was growing stronger, closing in on his ship. It seemed to be completely ignoring the tiny destroyer, even though the ship was far closer to the storm than the luxury liner. A cold chill ran down the back of his neck. It was impossible, every Galactic science textbook said it was impossible, but could the storm be under intelligent control? If humanity could create an energy storm that made it impossible for starships to enter quantum space, could someone else have actually taken the principle far enough to actually direct a storm? The thought was chilling. Anyone who succeeded in harnessing the colossal power of quantum space was going to have a decisive advantage over everyone else.

“Prepare for crash-transition,” he ordered. They’d have to jump back into normal space and wait the storm out. “Bring the quantum drive online and stand by to open a gate.”

“Drive online, sir,” the helmsman said. There was a pause. “Engineering reports that they are receiving odd feedback from the quantum drive.”

Terrence swallowed a curse. “What sort of feedback?”

“They don’t know,” the helmsman admitted. “But whatever it is, it’s threatening the integrity of any projected gate.”

Terrence glanced over at the main display. The storm was closing in rapidly, its mere presence causing quantum space to boil with energy. They couldn’t stay where they were, or they would be destroyed when the storm finally caught up with them. And yet a failed transition into normal space would destroy them just as surely. But there was no other choice.

“Open the gate on my command,” he ordered. The helmsman nodded, bringing the drives up to full power, ready to punch a gate back into normal space. “Now…”

Two alarms went off at once. “Collision alarm,” the navigator barked. “Something’s right on top of us…”

“Feedback,” the helmsman snapped. “The gate is threatening to collapse!”

“Keep pushing the gate open,” Terrence snapped. Right now, they were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But if worst came to worst, they could survive in normal space until rescue arrived. The Randolph could summon help for them if necessary. “Get us out of here and…”

The main display switched to the view from the forward sensors. Something was blocking their gate, wrapped in energies that suggested that it was just transiting into quantum space itself. It didn’t look like any starship the Association had ever built, or something right out of the imagination of humanity’s countless science-fiction writers; it was so big, so alien, that even staring at it gave him a headache.

“Collision imminent,” the helmsman barked. “They’re right on top of us!”

“Reverse course,” Terrence ordered. Panic gibbered at the back of his mind, but he fought it back desperately. His entire starship was shaking madly, as if God had reached down from Heaven and decided to pick up and study his ship. And there was still the storm, right behind them. “Get us…”

“It’s too late,” the helmsman said. “The gravity fields are slamming us together and…”

The alien starship loomed up on the display, and then…something surrounded the bridge crew. Half-seen shapes, monsters of the mind…Terrence looked at them and felt madness looking back at him. And then the world just seemed to fade away into darkness.

***

Nancy felt the White Star shaking as the energy storm grew closer and then saw the flickers of light as the starship attempted to evade the storm by transiting back into normal space. But instead something so big, so utterly beyond human comprehension, seemed to surround the ship. Nancy caught sight of things she couldn’t understand seeming to shimmer in and out of existence around her. Her mind rebelled against the sights and threatened to shut down, leaving her forced to screw her eyes closed to keep herself sane. She stumbled backwards until she crashed into something reassuringly solid, the viewport staring out over the ship’s hull. Somehow, she turned and managed to open her eyes.

Quantum space was gone. Instead, she was looking out into normal space…and then everything changed. She was looking back at quantum space, and then at something else, something so different that she couldn’t understand what she was seeing. Lights seemed to flash out in the distance, illuminating dark shapes that she couldn’t quite see properly. There was a noise, rather like a dull roaring, at the back of her mind; she scratched her ears, only to discover that the noise seemed to be coming from inside her head. She turned, half-expecting to see the starship’s broken hull, and instead saw the observation deck. But there was something unstable about it, as if it was almost translucent. There were things out there.

Staggering forward, her legs utterly unstable, Nancy made it to the emergency console. They’d all been taught how to use them, back when they’d been leaving Earth orbit. But the console seemed to be broken. The first time she touched it, she heard what sounded like a blast of static…and someone laughing, insanely. And then it simply refused to work at all.

The deck seemed to shake under her and she found herself lying on it, half-convinced that her fingers were actually passing through the solid metal. Nothing seemed quite right to her senses, not even the faint sounds running through the hull. She’d grown used to the ever-present throbbing of the ship’s drives, but this was different. The ship seemed to be infested with sounds she couldn’t recognise, or understand. Something seemed to be crawling on the underside of the deck, or perhaps she was just imagining it. It was impossible to tell through the sounds in her head.

She managed, somehow, to pull herself to her feet and stagger over towards the hatch. But when she touched it, it refused to open. She was trapped in the compartment, unsure of what was going on or what had happened to her father – or Mary. Nancy staggered back and tried to think of what to do, but her head hurt too much to think properly. Surely they had been told that there were emergency ways to leave a compartment…

The ship seemed to shake again…and she collapsed into a heap. Blackness fell upon her mind and she closed her eyes, falling into a comatose state. After everything she’d seen, it was almost a relief.

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2 Responses to “Snippet–The Unseen”

  1. Paul Howard June 4, 2012 at 5:01 am #

    Very interesting. Got any more snippets?

    • chrishanger June 4, 2012 at 5:15 am #

      Not yet. But more will be coming tomorrow.

      Chris

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