All the Stars Within Our Grasp

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CHAPTER 20

That night was a restless one aboard the Taleweaver as the crew, packed five to a space that ordinarily would support one - finding sleep in the cabin on assigned shifts, making camp in a chair or on the floor the rest of the time. The return of the sun’s revivifying warmth would mean even less rest, though, as the crew set to work making desperate, makeshift repairs in hopes of delivering the wounded ship to the lost origin. The old landing vehicle provided just enough usable scrap to patch up the Taleweaver’s heat shields and make a few minor repairs to the engines. It was not a pretty process or a pretty conclusion, yielding a spacecraft held together by solder and prayers, but Tommy was adamant that the gnarled beast would fly.

Jennifer wasn’t quite so confident. Standing with the others around the exposed elements of the engines, watching the ship sink by degrees into the moist grit, what she saw was something that should not be able to function, not by any stretch of the imagination. The fat, rust-speckled steel bands hastily bolted to the subluminal pulse engines were terrifying enough, but it was what they had done to the linear-dimensional engine that truly looked wrong. FTL engines are strange and incomprehensible things in any circumstance, beyond the understanding of anyone with less than decades of experience in top-level physics, but the patchwork repairs to parts of the machine that she could barely pronounce were far easy to understand. The engine was already an impossible machine, but in this state it simply couldn’t work.

Naturally, it was Morgi who first asked the question on everyone’s mind, doing so with typical sensitivity: “You expect me to climb into this thing and launch it into space at many times the speed of light?”

“Well, sure!” Tommy was studying his handiwork in his best hero pose, fists pressed against his sides. “Hey, I’ll give you that it’s not pretty, but what have looks ever had to do with deep space travel, right?”

Darius leaned into the open maintenance hatch. “What happens if this thing cracks up while we’re past light speed?”

“...Scattered over a quadrillion cubic miles,” muttered Morgi.

“Well gosh, guys, I am the expert here. She is my ship and darn it, I’m telling you that she’ll fly. The engines are not a problem.” Tommy heaved the maintenance hatch shut. “I’m more worried about my secondary systems. You need special materials to fix up those rotational gizmos and I just don’t have any. She’ll fly, she just won’t fly with her usual grace. My sweetheart’s a ballerina with a sprained ankle - she knows the moves but it just hurts when she tries them out.”

“We have little choice,” said Yang Yizhen. “The Cradle awaits, and this is our only chariot.”

“What about the ghost ship?” said Jennifer.

“Well, that’s where it gets a little wild and wooly.” Tommy crossed to the open hatch leading into the bridge. “I checked this morning and the Emirhan Marangoz is still up there, so I ran a few real quick calculations. Now, we can’t use the linear-dimensional engine while we’re inside the atmosphere, because the influence of the planet’s gravity will throw us way off, we’ll get pointed in a random direction, shot to the other side of the universe, and-”

“Boom,” added Morgi. “A quadrillion cubic miles.”

Tommy snapped his fingers. “Exactly. We have to be in space, away from the planet for at least a few minutes to safely make that jump. The way I see it - and this is a lot of guesswork, but it tracks - our subluminal engines are probably faster than the ones on the ghost ship, and they’re certainly in better shape, so it won’t be able to catch up to us. That means that all I have to do is make one daring evasive maneuver to avoid its initial attack and we’re totally clear.” He let out a mighty laugh. “And I’m not too worried about that.”

“Wait, you just said you can’t evade like that,” said Morgi. “The ballerina with the screwed-up ankle? Remember?”

“And the landing will hurt something fierce, but darned if she can’t make it into the air,” said Tommy.

“Did you get enough sleep last night?” said Jennifer. “That sounds like a hell of a big risk.”

“Oh, the biggest, but I’ll pull it off. Honest!” Tommy stepped into the bridge. “Come on, don’t you guys have any faith in my skills?”

As the others exchanged wary glances, Yang Yizhen assuredly stepped forward. “Thomas, I am prepared to follow this quest through to its conclusion. I have the utmost confidence in your talents and I will gladly follow you through the stars.”

“Ain’t that something?” Tommy beamed at the other three. “Anyone else?”

Jennifer chewed at her cuticle, waiting for one of the others to step up. “Well, hell,” she said. “Clear some room, I guess I’m in.”

“You guys are making me look bad, like I’m some kind of coward here.” Darius shrugged and approached the ship. “All right, make it four.”

From the access hatch, eight eyes fell on Morgi, still standing in the silt with his head bowed. “Can we make this unanimous?” said Tommy. “Come on, we need our fighter. Hey, no one else has the grit to go head-to-head with an alien horde, right?”

“Every crew needs a badass,” said Jennifer. “You’re not going to lose your nerve now that things are actually going our way?”

“I always knew I was going to die in space,” grumbled Morgi. “Down here or up there...one way or another, this is how the curtain closes.”

“No need to be so dramatic,” said Tommy. “I will say that based on the rotation of this planet, we’ll hit an optimal exit angle a few minutes from now. If you could make up your mind now, that would be super.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Morgi dragged his feet through the silt as he entered the hatch. “I swear, if you screw this up I’ll haunt you until the end of time.”

“That is totally fair and I will understand if you hate me forever,” said Tommy. “All right, everyone get snug. Next stop, the Cradle, birthplace of all humanity.”

------

“Okay, approximately one minute to launch.”

Apart from Tommy’s voice it was deadly still aboard the Taleweaver, nothing at all to hear save the tremulous thrum of the crew’s hearts. All safety restraints were pulled tight in anticipation of a rough voyage and the faint but undeniable fear of a even rougher failure. Few aboard the ship had the nerve to watch what was to come - Yang Yizhen and Darius conspicuously averted their eyes while Morgi, trying and failing to maintain his facade of cool strength, merely cast his gaze askance. Jennifer, on the other hand, had both eyes fixed to the personal display before her, taking in every detail of the sky and all of the relevant data points guiding them to their target. It was ultimately pointless given that they were all little more than cargo, but at least it did something to occupy her thoughts.

“All right, I’d like to let everyone know a little bit about the plan just so no one loses their head when we take off,” said Tommy. “We’re going to do a couple pulse accelerations so that I’m sure that we’re clear of this little dirt crater we’re sitting in. After that, we’ll be headed straight and true as we break free of the atmosphere. The Emirhan Marangoz will likely charge right at us, at which point I will whip the Taleweaver into a spin and then initiate one more pulse to leave the ghosts in the dust.”

“So we’re playing chicken with a malfunctioning computer?” said Jennifer.

“Well, that’s a negative way of putting it, although I guess it’s accurate,” said Tommy. “Once we’re clear of the planet and the ghost ship, we’ll trigger the linear-dimensional engine and make a beeline for the Cradle. I triangulated the source of that signal and it looks like we have a straight shot - we can make it in a single jump.”

“And how safe is that?” said Morgi.

“Well, if you’d prefer, we could make five or six separate jumps,” said Tommy.

Morgi’s face drooped with sickness. “Fine. One jump.”

“...And it looks like we have our trajectory ready.” Tommy wiped his hands on his jacket before wrapping them around the joystick. “Here we go. We’re doing this thing. Ooh, warm in here all of a sudden. Anyone else feeling a little sweaty? Oh, never mind. Launching!”

There was an abrupt jerk as the engine coughed out its first blast of velocity. The safety restraints lobbed Jennifer back against her chair with such force that she momentarily believed that the ship itself was trying to strangle her. The next burst came a second later, then a third that finally pushed the spacecraft free of its gritty moorings. Then the craft began to tremble as the engine, loosed from the earth and straining against its haphazard repair job, pushed the vessel toward the heavens - and toward the ghost ship, which loomed ever larger in the display.

“All right, approaching the exosphere...” Tommy was pouring sweat but didn’t release either hand from the joystick. “Meeting the ghost in five...four...”

The dead ship twisted its bulk to align perfectly with the fast approaching Taleweaver. There was a faint flash from the rear of the Emirhan Marangoz as its half-ruined engines propelled it mutely toward its target. From this angle, it was as a wizened steel-skinned whale bearing down on them with all of its failing strength.

“Three...two...”

The thing was growing larger in the displays. For the first time, Jennifer could make out the fine details on the ship - the fragments of metal and silicon suspended in the void around its gaping wound, the airlocks jammed open and bleeding what remained of the ship’s cargo. That’s what it was - a cargo ship, perhaps far off course, perhaps hijacked by some desperate soul headed for the Cradle. If only they’d known how close they were when disaster struck.

“One...”

The hull of the Emirhan Marangoz filled each display, a giant bullet closing fast with its target.

“...Bingo!”

Tommy flicked his wrist and the Taleweaver went into a wild spin, arcing away from the ghost ship. The smaller craft was scraping along the side of the Emirhan Marangoz, no more than feet of space between them - not even a molecule’s distance in relative terms. Twisting the other way, Tommy triggered a counterspin that righted the Taleweaver. Not even a full moment passed before the engines kicked in again and they left the ghost ship sailing in the wrong direction at top speed.

“Dynamite!” Tommy thrust both fists into the air. “That really couldn’t have gone better.”

“We could have never crashed in the first place, that would have been better,” said Morgi, mustering the nerve to look at his own display. “Hey, look at the other ship.”

Tommy’s assumption had been that the Emirhan Marangoz would turn around and try another charge, truly futile in light of the Taleweaver’s superior maneuverability. Instead, the ghost ship, already moving at maximum velocity, had been snared in the dead planet’s gravitational field. The thing attempted to fire its retro engines, but it was far too late to stop what was coming. They couldn’t see it, but Jennifer could imagine what was happening - the metal shell smashing into the ocean, those dense crimson waters destroying whatever remained of the vessel’s operating capacity as the blood-colored waters swallowing the corpse. The ghost had put itself to rest.

“We have made it,” said Yang Yizhen. “The Cradle awaits, and with it my destiny.”

“That it does, chief,” said Tommy. “All right, the linear-dimensional engine is just about primed. Everyone take a deep breath, and when you let it out it’ll be behind us.”

The Taleweaver compressed itself once more and streaked through the pitiless void, finally on the proper trajectory.

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