Reality Dysfunction: Emergence

Chapter 01

Space outside the attack cruiser Beezling tore open in five places. For a moment anyone looking into the expanding rents would have received a true glimpse into empty infinity. The pseudofabric structure of the wormholes was a photonic dead zone, a darkness so profound it seemed to be spilling out to contaminate the real universe. Then ships were suddenly streaking up out of the gaping termini, accelerating away at six gees, twisting round on interception trajectories. They were different from the spherical Garissan naval craft which they had tracked between the stars, graceful, streamlined teardrop shapes. Larger and dangerously powerful. Alive.

Nestled snugly in the armoured and sealed command capsule at the heart of the Beezling , Captain Kyle Prager was shocked out of a simple astrogration review by a datavised proximity alert from the flight computer. His neural nanonics relayed information from the ship’s external sensor clusters directly into his brain. Out here in the great emptiness of interstellar space starlight wasn’t powerful enough to provide an optical-band return. He was relying on the infrared signature alone, arching smears of pinkness which the discrimination programs struggled to resolve. Radar pulses were fuzzed and hashed by the ships’ electronic-warfare pods.

The combat programs stored in the memory clusters of his neural nanonics went into primary mode. He datavised a quick sequence of instructions into the flight computer, desperate for more information. Trajectories from the five newcomers were computed, appearing as scarlet vector lines curving through space to line up ominously on the Beezling and her two escort frigates. They were still accelerating, yet there was no reaction-drive exhaust plume. Kyle Prager’s heart sank. “Voidhawks,” he said. On the couch next to him, Tane Ogilie, the Beezling ’s patterning-node officer, groaned in dismay. “How did they know?”

“Confederation Navy Intelligence is good,” Kyle Prager retorted. “They knew we’d try a direct retaliation. They must have monitored our naval traffic and followed us.” In his mind a black pressure was building. He could almost sense the antimatter-confinement chambers inside the Beezling , twinkling like devilish red stars all around him.

Antimatter was the one anathema which was universal throughout the Confederation. No matter what planet or asteroid settlement you were brought up on, they all condemned it.

The penalty if a Confederation Navy ship caught them was an immediate death sentence for the captain, and a one-way ticket on a drop capsule to a penal planet for everyone else on board.

There was no choice, of course, the Beezling needed the fantastic delta-V reserve which only antimatter provided, far superior to the usual fusion drives of Adamist starships. The Omutan Defence Force ships would be equipped with antimatter drives. They have it because we have it; we have it because they have it. One of the oldest, and feeblest, arguments history had produced.

Kyle Prager’s shoulder muscles relaxed, an involuntary submission. He’d known and accepted the risk, or at least told himself and the admirals he did.

It would be quick and painless, and under ordinary circumstances the crew would survive. But he had orders from the Garissan Admiralty. Nobody was to be allowed access to the Alchemist which the Beezling was carrying; and certainly not the Edenists crewing the voidhawks: their bitek science was powerful enough already.

“A distortion field has locked onto us,” Tane Ogilie reported. His voice was strained, high. “We can’t jump clear.”

For a brief moment Kyle Prager wondered what it would be like to command a voidhawk, the effortless power and total superiority. It was almost a feeling of envy.

Three of the intercepting ships were curving round to chase the Beezling , while the frigates, Chengho and Gombari , only rated one pursuer each.

Mother Mary, with that formation they must know what we’re carrying.

He formed the scuttle code in his mind, reviewing the procedure before datavising it into the flight computer. It was simple enough, shutting down the safeguards in the main drive’s antimatter-confinement chambers, engulfing nearby space with a nova-blast of light and hard radiation.

I could wait until the voidhawks rendezvoused, take them with us. But the crews are only doing their job.

The flimsy infrared image of the three pursuit craft suddenly increased dramatically, brightening, expanding. Eight wavering petals of energy opened outwards from each of them, the sharp, glaring tips moving swiftly away from the centre. Analysis programs cut in; flight vector projections materialized, linking all twenty-four projectiles to the Beezling with looped laserlike threads of light. The exhaust plumes were hugely radioactive. Acceleration was hitting forty gees. Antimatter propulsion.

“Combat wasp launch,” Tane Ogilie shouted hoarsely.

“They’re not voidhawks,” Kyle Prager said with grim fury. “They’re fucking blackhawks. Omuta’s hired blackhawks!” He datavised an evasion manoeuvre order into the flight computer, frantically activating the Beezling ’s defence procedures. He’d been almost criminally negligent in not identifying the hostiles as soon as they emerged. He checked his neural nanonics; elapsed time since their emergence was seven seconds. Was that really all? Even so, his response had been woefully sloppy in an arena where milliseconds was the most precious currency. They would pay for that, maybe with their lives.

An acceleration warning blared through the Beezling —audio, optical, and datavise. His crew would be strapped in, but Mother Mary alone knew what the civilians they carried were doing.

The ship’s acceleration built smoothly, and he felt the nanonic membrane supplements in his body hardening, supporting his internal organs against the gee force, preventing them from being pushed through his spine, ensuring an undiminished blood supply to his brain, forestalling blackout. Beezling shuddered violently as its own volley of combat wasps launched. Acceleration reached eight gees, and carried on building.

In the Beezling ’s forward crew module, Dr Alkad Mzu had been reviewing the ship’s status as it flew towards their next jump coordinate at one and a half gees. Neural nanonics processed the raw data to provide a composite of the starship’s external sensor images, along with flight vector projections. The picture unfurled behind her retinas, scintillating ghost shadows until she closed her eyelids. Chengho and Gombari showed as intense streaks of blue-white light, the glare from their drive exhausts overwhelming the background starfield.

It was a tight formation. Chengho was two thousand kilometres away, Gombari just over three thousand. Alkad knew it took superb astrogation for ships to emerge within five thousand kilometres of each other after a jump of ten light-years. Garissa had spent a lot of money on equipping its navy with the best hardware available.

Money which could have been better spent at the university, or on supporting the national medical service. Garissa wasn’t a particularly rich world. And as to where the Department of Defence had acquired such large amounts of antimatter, Alkad had studiously avoided asking.

“It will be about thirty minutes before the next jump,” Peter Adul said.

Alkad cancelled the datavise. The sensor visualization of the ships faded from her perception, replaced by the spartan grey-green composite of the cabin walls. Peter was standing in the open oval hatch, wearing a dark turquoise ship-suit, padded on all the joints to protect him from bruising knocks in free fall. He smiled invitingly at her. She could see the worry behind the bright, lively eyes.

Peter was thirty-five, a metre eighty tall, with skin actually darker than her own deep ebony. He worked in

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