The ill-fated trip to Tarn-Vera, all those years and years ago… It had been a walk in the park.
After sneaking away undetected from the Nietzschean vessel, Beka was relieved when they reached a position fit for trying to open a slipstream portal. Of course, she should have known that her enthusiasm had been premature.
The coordinates for their first ride programmed, she found the Maru repelled by some sort of gravitational wave that shook the old vessel to the core and pushed it almost all the way back to the center of the Ral system. At which point, of course, hell broke loose, for after an event of such magnitude and with everyone on high alert because of the collapse of the wormhole, there was no way for them to remain undetected.
With Doyle at the weapons' console firing everything they had available at the Nietzscheans hot on their trail, the ship shaking and groaning around them at every hit as if she were on the verge of breaking apart the next instant and Rafe's panicked voice shouting over the com-link that life support was starting to collapse in medical, Beka headed again as fast as she could for a position suited for opening a slipstream portal. This time though she no longer took her time adjusting navigation and considering all finer points of consummate excellence at piloting the slipstream. The portal opening and the Maru plunging ahead through it happened almost instantaneously. Miraculously – and much against the captain's expectations – it worked this time. But what followed next let Beka wonder if facing once more Ral Parthia's entire Dragan wrath and taking some more time to prepare before diving into the portal would not have been the better choice of action.
She'd been before through stream mazes and slip routes that were nothing short of some sort of enormous thorny paths through time and space. She'd flown courses that were everything from bumpy to rough to dramatic to "we're all gonna die within the next fraction of a second". She'd done it with Nietzschean fighters, Magog swarm ships and huge battle cruisers hot on her heels and taking shots at the ships she was flying. She'd flown into several tesseraciting portals, Routes of Ages - as the Vedrans called them, through mysterious tunnels serving as connections to universes unknown, through wormholes and labyrinths no-one else had previously survived. She had even done it once while trying to fend off an enraged Tyr Anasazi at the same time. And yet, nothing she had ever experienced had prepared her for what was happening to them now.
It seemed as if the Eureka Maru was pushing forward through a much too narrow corridor that kept closing in on her – at high velocity. It was not a flight, more likely something akin to a dive, a plunge into a tiny passage that was continuously collapsing on itself. The twists and turns one normally had to anticipate in slipstream were practically non-existent, seemed more like minimal shifts in the fabric of the whole improbable structure they were passing through. The old freighter was screeching furiously, like some ancient wagon forcing its way through a metal tube too small for its size, while its inner life protested with sparkles and explosions that kept pushing the vessel even more against some huge mass pressuring it from the outside.
With gritted teeth, her fists clenched desperately around the steer control in an iron grip that – had she had the time to think about it – Beka would have expected to never become loose again, the Maru's captain was concentrating on keeping the ship on course, trusting Doyle behind her to be able to keep her together while she was trying to get them out of there. Unbeknownst to herself, Beka was hoarsely shouting: orders at Doyle, questions at Rafe, curses at the hell around them, more or less unaware that Doyle was shouting back, just like Rafe did.
And then, all of a sudden, a blinding light accompanied by a giant push shove them from behind – and the nightmare was over, only to be replaced by… another nightmare. One of a different kind, one like nothing Beka had ever experienced before, the unbearable noise from just moments before gone, taken over, swallowed by complete, deafening silence as the Maru's furious protests ended. Wherever they were, around them was just absolute… nothing, a void without light, sound… or anything at all. Beka could see nothing through the cockpit's windows, Doyle's sensors picked up nothing – and even the sounds of the Eureka Maru herself or the woman's own breathing seemed gone. Had it not been for her heart beating at a rate that kept pushing it against Beka's ribcage in an almost painful manner, the woman would have thought them all dead already and buried in a hole in which nothing existed, not even time.
"Where…?" The question died in her throat, as her voice came out a raspy croak. She cleared her throat, but before she could restart her sentence, Doyle cut in – in a strange tone. A glance over her shoulder, showed Beka that the avatar was at least as freaked out as she felt.
"I… don't know where we are," the Seefrane told her. "I… don't know…" Her fingers ran over the consoles in front of her at high speed, again and again. Then she shook her head. "I don't know anything, Beka."
The woman's eyes widened. Doyle. Strong, cool, dispassionate Doyle. Sounding lost, pleading, almost begging. She once more forcefully cleared her throat.
"It's okay, Doyle. Get to engineering and check out if it's all still holding up."
"I'm on it."
There was some static, but then her brother's voice came in before Beka Valentine could begin to worry.
"Rocket? Are you out of your mind?"
"Sorry. I know it was a rough ride, but I couldn't help it. How's Dylan?"
"Alive. For now, at least, although I can't guarantee what will happen to him if there's more of what we just went through ahead. The stitches on his leg opened and he started bleeding again. I've stopped it, but… I think he's plunging deeper into a coma. And he's cold, Beks. Shock, I suppose, but what the hell do I know?"
"Get him warmed up. I'll send Doyle to help you as soon as she's checked the engines. Make sure he can hold on for a little bit longer."
"He needs a break, Beka."
"We all do, but I don't know where we are. I have no readings, other than the coordinates already programmed by Harper and Trance with the slipstream-scout no clue whatsoever on how to proceed. We can't afford to spend too much time here. Doyle, how's things?"
"Everything looks fine, but…"
"That'll have to do. Get yourself to Medical, Doyle. The others, hold on to something. We're out of here again on the spot. Pray that all of Harper's programming is right."
"Beka, no! You need to rest a bit, you can't…"
She never got to finish her sentence as Beka's opening of another slip-portal intervened. The absolute silence was torn by the strangest sound imaginable, something like a tearing roar, if a thing like that could have been fathomed, as right in front of them a gap – tiny and straight and nothing like any slip-point any of them had ever seen – ripped open the blackness surrounding them.
"Okay, people! Get ready for another round of some 'shake, rattle and roll'!" the pilot yelled. I'm losing my mind, she thought for a brief moment. Just listen to me, I'm starting to sound like Harper. She closed her eyes. Stop thinking, Beka. Stop. Just focus. Focus, dammit! Without further hesitation, Beka plunged ahead, the Maru around them once more protesting vehemently against it.
The com cracked.
Closer. Somehow… live…
Doyle. Next to her ear. And strident. Not a good sound for her. Someone was nestling with her safety belt. Who…? Oh, yes… Doyle.
"D…" The rest of the name drowned in a bone-racking cough.
She felt annoyed. And sore. More sore than annoyed, though. Which annoyed her even more. She had to open her eyes! No easy task, but she just had to do it. Instead she tried moistening her lips.
Better. Not perfect, though.
"Yes, it's me, Beka. Come on, open your eyes."
Hearing the commanding tone helped with the leaden eyelids. They cracked open.
"Good! Atta girl! Come on, Beka, focus! No, no, no… Don't close your eyes again!"
The imperious tone matched the violent shaking of her shoulders that reverberated into a most unwelcome attempt to crack up her cranial bones. How the heck was she supposed to focus, shaken like that? Besides: focus on what? Her eyes flew open once more.
"Yep, that would be me."
A pretty, cat-like face swam into her vision camp, the expression it bore somewhere in the middle between relief and frowning.
"You… well, I suppose you flew us through one more hellish passage…"
"We… we all made it…?" Beka asked hesitatingly. Doyle heard her.
"We did," she nodded to her reassuringly. "He's with us, Beka…" Still… The pilot swallowed dryly.
"Rafe's got a bump on his head – and your mother's freaked out, but other than that…"
"What about you? How are you?"
"Me as in me – or the Maru?"
The captain had to smile, as one of her hands came up and swiped at her lips. She shrugged.
"Both, I guess."
"Me, I'm fine. The Maru… Well, not happy, but not as bad as we'll be in a short time if you don't get a grip and… start talking."
"Talking?" Beka frowned. "Talking to whom?"
"Well, captain, I don't mean to upset you, but you've brought us to someplace I can't identify…"
"Surprise…" the woman muttered ironically, but the android refused to let herself be interrupted.
"…which is however the least of our problems, since wherever we are, there are half a dozen Glorious Heritage class-vessels surrounding us at present, refusing to answer any of my calls."
She pressed open the seat belts cutting into her ribcage and lifted an arm to push Doyle aside, for a better view of the control panels and monitors. Indeed, there they were, just as her avatar had informed her: six Glorious Heritage ships, all of them very similar to the Andromeda, but not quite like her. The sensors indicated that there were differences, some vessels seemed more sophisticated than the "Path to Truth and Knowledge", while others appeared more like predecessors. Beka's eyes darted back and forth between the monitors and the view outside the Maru's windscreens showing far away the silhouettes of two of the said ships glowing a slight bronze in the discreet light of some sun the woman couldn't see. For an instant, Beka let herself drop back into the seat. She closed her eyes and frowned. To Doyle it looked almost as if she was readjusting, recalibrating her thoughts, memories… or suspicions, struggling for answers – and for a decision. If she was, it took her not all too long to reach it.
"Doyle, open a channel!"
"Com channel is open, Beka."
"Thanks. This is Captain Rebekkah B. Valentine of the Andromeda Ascendant on Commonwealth freighter Eureka Maru. Please respond."
At first there was but silence and the monitors remained dark. But then a cool, crisp voice answered.
"Captain Valentine, welcome. This is the imperial flag ship Restoration. We suggest you let us pull you in, so that we might finally come to meet each other in person."
"Imperial flag ship Restoration? I hope you don't mind my asking, but… exactly which empire am I talking to right now?"
At last the monitor flickered and came to life. Seeing it, the pilot briefly pressed her lips together, then relaxed them into a slightly bitter smile.
"Ah," she uttered dryly. "That empire… Oh, well. What is it they say? In life you always meet twice." Next to her, Doyle was staring aghast at the screen. Upon noticing it, Beka's grin widened. Oh, you really are Harper's girl, she thought. Judging from what Trance told me, he had the same reaction."However, about your proposal. I'm afraid that we have to postpone that meeting. We're just passing through – and have urgent business elsewhere."
"That's too bad," her interlocutor replied. "I fear we must insist."
"You have things onboard that belong to us."
Beka's eyes narrowed to tiny, vicious slits.
"With… 'things' you wouldn't be by any chance referring to my mother and my captain?"
"Your mother is one of us. And your captain is technically still under my command."
"Oh, I don't think so. I'm not so familiar with my mother's background to be able to judge whether or not your statement about her is true. Dylan, however, is another matter. He was a High Guard captain: centuries ago one of the Old Commonwealth. And later he became one of the Restored New Systems' Commonwealth. But as far as I know, Dylan never served under an empire, and he is not likely to start any time soon. Onboard my ship, my mother is a prisoner, and Dylan in no shape to make any decisions. Regardless, they're both their own persons, not things to be claimed or disposed of."
"You don't understand…"
"You're right, I don't understand. So by all means, pray enlighten me, Admiral Uxulta."