Lieutenant Arys turned from the helm controls. ‘The last shuttle of the Relief Op is underway, sir.’
‘I’ve dropped a comms buoy into orbit, the most powerful we have,’ Lindgren added. ‘If we start roaming the system, Whixby should be able to relay a signal through it and still contact us.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Good thinking, Lieutenant. Patch me through to the Merlin.’ The viewscreen shifted to show the runabout’s cockpit, Sadek buckled in next to Ensign Harkon and Lieutenant Adupon. ‘If you forgot to pack anything, Aisha, now’s the time for me to toss it out an airlock at you.’
‘Please.’ Sadek rolled her eyes. ‘You’re the forgetful one. I still remember shore leave to Brendtan Thakos –’
‘Okay,’ Rourke said hurriedly. ‘You know the drill planetside. Make sure both the relief teams and the weather control teams keep liaising with First Secretary Hale; if the leaders of Whixby are aware of the good we’re doing, it might make the diplomatic team’s job easier.’
‘Or I could show up to a fancy party straight from a fourteen-hour shift in a trauma centre and see how they like it,’ Sadek drawled.
‘And this is why you’re not on the diplomatic team.’
‘Sure. But you’re still teaching me how to suck eggs, Matt.’
Rourke sighed, back loosening at Sadek’s casual confidence. He knew she could do this, could run operations like this in her sleep, would probably be able to pull out of her sleeve a whole additional rescue mission if another island tried to sink under the sea. But the magnitude of Whixby left this situation unorthodox. ‘We’re beginning the hunt for the Odysseus and that’ll likely take us out of orbit, sensor reach being limited as it is. You should be able to comm us, but we might be slow to respond or get here if you need us.’
‘You can cut the umbilical cord. It’s day one and I have everything I need.’ But Sadek’s gaze grew more serious. ‘Go find our people.’
‘I will, Merlin. Endeavour out.’ Rourke sighed as the viewscreen shifted to show Whixby’s orbit, the small fleet of auxiliary craft of Sadek’s team descending like gnats towards the blue seas. Transporters were unreliable in the Paulson Nebula at the best of times, and for the first time he felt the breathing space of his new ship’s considerably more extensive selection of shuttles and runabouts to dispatch people and material.
Then he turned to Graelin, and considered the second challenge before him. ‘How are our scans coming along?’
Graelin arched an eyebrow, not looking up from Science. ‘I have the Black Knights sweeping the periphery of the system and any blind spots our sensors are having trouble penetrating, which means our map is a little cobbled-together. But Lieutenant Lindgren has done an excellent job acquiring the sensor records from the shuttles that were here when the Odysseus went missing. Even if they’re not very precise during a phenomenon noted for blinding us.’ Now he raised his gaze. ‘But yes, I’ve narrowed down the region where the rift will have appeared.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Then let’s take a look. Plot a course, Mr Arys, and take us closer. Slowly. I want us checking every damn inch if we’re half-blind.’
‘I would think,’ Graelin said delicately, ‘that if the Odysseus were drifting out there, I would have detected it.’
‘One step at a time, Commander,’ came Valance’s colder reply.
On the one hand, Rourke liked that someone else was curt to Graelin so he didn’t have to be. But the tension rippling off both Valance and Kharth was not setting him at any ease. As Endeavour pulled out of orbit and headed as Graelin had directed, somewhere in the vicinity of the sixth planet, he turned back to Science. ‘What do we know of what happened, so far?’
‘The story’s a little unclear, even with everyone’s sensor feeds,’ Graelin admitted. ‘But the Odysseus hadn’t been in the system for more than a few hours before the rift manifested. We have the comms exchange between Commander Aquila and Administrator Falyn as well as the sensor feeds picking up the tachyon radiation to confirm this. The storm, too, but the storm manifested very quickly and made these sensor feeds… unreliable.’
Still he pressed on, reaching to swap the display on the viewscreen for a time-lapse map of the system showing Whixby, the Odysseus, and the presumed region of the rift. ‘The Odysseus proceeded to the proximity of the rift, and that’s where communication was lost; they went straight into the storm. It looks as if they attempted to use their navigational deflector to project a dekyon pulse – R&D’s recommended means of manipulating a rift. I believe that failed. It’s a little difficult to tell what happened next. But a cross-reference of every single sensor feed suggests the same thing: the Odysseus flew into the rift.’
Valance straightened. ‘Into?’
‘I’m confused as well. I don’t know what they thought they would achieve. Perhaps the sensors are wrong; we’re talking civilian systems trying to pierce the Paulson Nebula’s usual interference amidst a high-level ion storm around a subspace rift positively seeping with tachyons.’ Graelin shrugged. ‘But whatever happened, it looks like it worked. The Odysseus drops off sensors, and soon after the tachyon radiation stops. Of course, it took a while before it dissipated enough to stop the storm, and the damage was done to the Azure Chain, but even another five minutes could have triggered atmospheric storms on Whixby that might have consumed the whole resort.’
Arys tilted his head. ‘Did they perhaps try to manipulate their warp field from close proximity to the rift and… something happened?’
‘If anyone,’ said Kharth, voice a low rumble, ‘was going to come up with some desperate, untested means of stopping a subspace rift from leaking chaos all over a colony with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake…’
‘It’s Davir Airex,’ Valance finished in agreement.
‘Something certainly happened,’ Graelin said a little pompously. ‘As nobody’s seen or heard from the Odysseus since.’
Rourke put his hands in his pockets and turned to the front. ‘Lieutenant Arys, have the Black Knights fall into escort pattern with us, extended formation and keeping away from our prow. I want them as extra eyes in case of trouble, but make sure they don’t go first.’
Kharth shifted at Tactical. ‘My turn to be the non-scientist. If the rift’s been closed, how are we going to know where it was?’
‘Subspace rifts don’t just vanish with absolutely no damage to the area around them,’ Graelin said. ‘But if it has been fully sealed, with no more tachyon radiation leaking, that may be a subtle matter of detecting variances in subspace, and is absolutely not what I want to do in the middle of the Paulson Nebula.’
Before long they were at the designated region, and Rourke could see their sensor range tighten under the influences of the nebula and any lingering ionisation from the storm. The Black Knights gave Endeavour a little better peripheral vision, but it was still like staggering in the dark.
At length, there was a chirrup from Graelin’s console. ‘I have it,’ he said. ‘Minor fluctuations in subspace filaments suggesting some loosening in the barrier to normal space. Based off scans, I’d say this is it.’ He looked up, and shrugged. ‘There’s nothing to see.’
‘But is there any sign of the Odysseus?’ Valance said.
‘Not yet. Amplifying power to the forward short-range sensors.’
Rourke turned to the map on the viewscreen as if that would help. ‘Is there any danger in getting closer?’
‘I’m seeing no other disruptions, no further tachyon emissions,’ reassured Graelin, and Endeavour slid through the blackness of space micron by micron. Then there was another chirrup, and he straightened like he’d been struck. ‘Slow us down! I have something.’
Kharth tensed. ‘Something –’
‘I’m picking up heavy traces of tritanium and dispersed traces of warp plasma,’ Graelin pressed on in a taut voice. ‘Not enough to be the Odysseus…’
‘A shuttle?’ Valance rounded on Rourke. ‘If there was an evacuation -’
‘Commander Graelin.’ Rourke kept his voice level. ‘Do we go on, or do I send in Lieutenant Whitaker’s pilots?’
He clicked his tongue. ‘Send the Black Knights.’
Rourke nodded to Arys, who gave the direction, and turned to Lindgren. ‘Get me Lieutenant Whitaker and his sensor feed on the line.’
‘I’m starting to see,’ said Graelin as Lindgren got to work, ‘what might have happened here. I think that the dekyon burst didn’t work, that the rift grew too big, too quickly. I think the Odysseus approached the rift and attempted to form a warp field that would make contact with the rift itself, with the intention of using that to manipulate it…’
‘That sounds very dangerous,’ said Valance.
‘For it to work, it would require the most precise calculations to modulate the warp field in-line with the rift’s own subspace oscillations,’ Graelin mused, brow furrowing. ‘It would be incredibly complex.’
Rourke caught Valance and Kharth exchanging a look. Boundless faith in the intellect of Davir Airex was not, right then, reassuring. He turned to the viewscreen and raised his voice to be picked up by comms. ‘Lieutenant Whitaker, where are we?’
Whitaker’s voice came back tinny from the cockpit of his fighter. ‘Approaching the object now. It’s definitely not a shuttle; I’m not picking up any signs of flight systems. My sensors here aren’t great, but -’ Then he stopped, and Rourke heard his voice catch. ‘Oh, no. Endeavour, are you seeing this?’
Rourke frowned at the fuzzy image on the viewscreen, and gave Lindgren a curt look. Her hands danced over the controls to improve the feed, and the object became more crisp. It was Arys who made the first low sound of protest, measured and polite even in a time like this, and a heartbeat later Rourke found his own voice to say, less politely, ‘Shit.’
‘Of course,’ said Graelin in a taut tone, ‘while precise calculations may have allowed the Odysseus to successfully manipulate the rift, if they were too close, its closure might have… ripped the ship in half.’
Rourke tore his gaze at last from the drifting wreck of a torn nacelle that had once belonged to a Diligent-class starship, and cleared his throat. ‘Black Knights, is there any other debris?’
‘How quickly?’ Valance watched Graelin, a quaver in her voice. ‘How quickly would the ship be destroyed?’
‘If you’re asking if anyone would have time to get to an escape pod and be clear of any backlash…’ Graelin ground his teeth together, clearly hating this uncertainty, ‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t be optimistic.’
Kharth leaned across Tactical. ‘We have to sweep this area for remains, for any escape pods, any shuttles -’
But before Rourke could reassure her, tell her they would do just that, Whitaker’s voice came crackling back. ‘I’m not picking up signs of anything else out here. Not even further debris of the nacelle. It’s like they’re just… gone.’
Silence rang out across the bridge, broken only eventually by Graelin. ‘And, of course,’ he pressed on sombrely, ‘if they were in the mouth of the rift itself when they closed it… it could very well have consumed the whole ship.’ His eyes flickered to the image of the nacelle upon which by now the stencilled name USS ODYSSEUS and her registry were plain to see. ‘Almost.’