Five hours the Rival Bay and Hollgorrsh hurtled along at 20,000 MPH in orbit above Qualvana, touching by the fingertips of the straw-thin gangplank—the bulky generation seedship and passenger space bus momentarily frozen in synchronous ballet around the largest planetary body of the Khibarran System. All the while a sleek police cruiser hovered nearby, vigilant.
Crimson stormed like a human crutch up to the bridge, and positioned herself on the scanner array, watchful for suspicious vessels. Andross’ personality even seemed bearable compared to the bawling of children, the clamoring of useless pedestrians and their simpleton concerns on the habitorial deck. Gator, Clidjitt, and Cort managed to load all the cargo swiftly, and miraculously Shaak-Rom’s management of the waves of whimpering humanoids only took marginally more time than projected.
The intercom nearly surprised her. Shaak-Rom’s voice sounded weary but accomplished. “Airlock to Crimson, all passengers are aboard. Ready to disengage gangplank.”
“Finally!” Andross sighed, tossing his head back on the neck rest of his chair, as though his strength alone had held the two behemoth vessels intact for the entire 300 minute process.
Honestly Crimson was skeptical. “Are you sure? Are the headcounts confirmed?”
Imperturbable and without hesitation, the Duka Master replied, “Councilman Joffs has already verified the passenger and cargo manifestos. Everyone is aboard.”
“Airlock is sealed. Disengaging gangplank clamps!” Andross was forward in his seat and flipping switches.
Crimson swallowed her annoyance. She would prefer to give orders once and a while; but it was too late. The MiPie wasn’t good because he was slow. Instead she gave herself a task. “I’ll inform the Hollgorrsh. We’re pulling away.”
In the vacuum of space the docking clamps released and the thin gangplank withdrew towards the Hollgorrsh. With traffic control permissions obtained, and all crew to their stations, the Rival Bay fired her engines. She climbed higher angling their orbital pathway to ascend to the magnetic gateways. Qualvana had eight. With a course plotted, they rose to the highest orbital ring of traffic and joined the queue for the outbound tradeways. Ahead of them was a large shipping barge, fat and awkward, and a small passenger shuttle, bullet-shaped and made for short system jumps of under a week.
In twenty minutes the barge entered the massive ring, visible from the surface of Qualvana, if one could see through the steamy clouds. Before it had fully passed through the ring the magnetic conveyance system locked and pulled the massive load through. It disappeared with the barest of visible streaks.
Linkburst chatter from the control towers, invisible along the edge of the county-sized ring, kept them informed of progress. Within the hour the passenger system jumper was launched. Finally Rival Bay hovered into position. After the regulatory safety gap imposed by Qualvanan traffic authorities was appeased Andross fired the engines again and the Rival sidled closer. Clidjitt arrived on the bridge, his insectoid feet clicking on the metal deck. He liked to watch the ship enter mag-jump, and Crimson wondered what his compound eyes made of the event.
“Inertia dampeners to full power,” Crimson said.
“Come on, baby,” said the MiPie, watching the gateway disappear over their dorsal viewscreen.
The Rival Bay flew forward on the magnetic slipstream.
It was six hours to the Jump Launch site. Leaving Khibarra yet again. Andross was off duty, and Clidjitt took over. Crimson risked the journey back to her bunk; she arrived without incident. Her back and shoulder ached from sitting up at the scanner station.
Still, she was grimly satisfied. It had taken them nearly a month to finalize their journey—once signing on with Ferguis Okoullis Company. Now, after the strenuous boarding process, they were underway. She collapsed on her reinforced bunk and allowed the steel bed springs to hold her weight….
She had actually slept. Rare occurrence. Normally she would have felt guarded elation at actual sleep. But the hideous jerk that launched her onto the floor in a pathetic pile made her swear, even before she fully picked her stinging face off the floor. Even her Mindframe was spinning for useless references in her bottomless database without success. An emergency chime sounded before Clidjitt’s chipper voice piped, “Crimson to bridge. We have an emergency.”
Crimson groaned. She pulled her human knee and hand under her and attempted to assume a crawling position. What now? Her limbs were unresponsive.
Just dazed. With a clank she forced her robotic hand up to clamp onto the bed frame. Then, with grinding teeth, she pulled her cybernetic knee towards her and planted the foot flat. Her neural connections were still sluggish from the violent jolt. Her cheekbone throbbed as though it was already swelling from impact with the floor.
The insectoid pilot with four hands and eyes that could observe spectrums far beyond human limit was usually fastidious beyond perfection. If it was an emergency, human error (or bug error) wasn’t the problem. Something happened.
Staggering to the intercom Crimson slapped the call button. “Crimson to Andross. Shaak-Rom. To the bridge.”
Still struggling for control, Crimson wrenched open the portal and clumped out into the hall.
The boys were entering the bridge even as her head finally rose level with the walkway. She forced herself into a metronomic run. She arrived sweating and gasping.
Clidjitt was already explaining.
“Start again!” Crimson snapped between breaths.
The insectoid’s head spun nearly 360 degrees to see her. His mandibles clicked and buzzed. In a moment his translator announced. “We’ve been pulled out of mag-fall. Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Approximately three lightyears from the Jump Site.”
“Diablos!” Andross said, already in the co-pilot seat and reading displays.
“What caused it?” Crimson snarled.
“Still scanning… but I’m seeing magnetic distortions across the stars.
Crimson didn’t waste time trying to see anything against the slowly spinning starfield. Clidjitt had a claw reached across to the scanning station, and Crimson batted it aside with her metal arm and took the seat. She saw the results the same time Andross did from his panel.
“Grav-well!” he exclaimed, “What is with this quadrant?!? Another blackhole?”
Gator’s voice rumbled through the intercom, “Anyone wanna’ explain what’s going on up there?”
“Grav-well. Again. Standby.”
“I thought I told you, the last one was the last one!” Gator complained.
“Cut the chatter!” Crimson barked. To the bridge crew she snapped, “I want answers!”
For a moment Crimson thought her Mindframe had found an audio file of screaming humans. Then she remembered the 300 Bulaxian sphere-huggers they had on the habitorial deck. Voices carried. Shipwide intercom—not good with passengers aboard.
“Switch to private call channels!” Onboard procedures were going to have to be looked at if they survived this.
“Correction:” Clidjit chirped, “It seems to be a magnetic well of immense power, rivalling that of a black hole. We’re caught within the event horizon, if you can call it that. We were pulled out of the magnetic tradeway like a slingshot, and are still spinning. Diameter of the horizon is much smaller than our previous encounter with the black hole by Berkotal.”
“Is there a center?” Crimson asked, sternly, “Is light trapped?”
“I can see it!”Andross announced. He pointed briefly out the spinning viewscreen, and then to his display. “I’ve got a metal center. Spectrograph confirms: Queriddium alloy.”
The bridge crew understood simultaneously.
“Mag-mine,” said Shaak-Rom.