The Heisenberg had an uncertain future. Cruise liners had enjoyed a glorious past, but their popularity was waning. And now, with insurrection rampant in the Outer Systems, people were far less prepared to take their chances on a ship that was a huge soft target. They would prefer to spend their credits on one of the custom-built resort worlds in the safety of the Inner Systems.
Which was a pity, Captain Smith thought as he stood on the bridge, because one of the wonderful things about a cruise ship like the Heisenberg was that you could go into biostasis in a luxuriously appointed cabin, to awaken months later and feast your eyes on one of the true natural wonders of the cosmos: the Rorschach Nebula. Lying a little beyond the fringe of Dynasty space, it was a big blotchy shape in a mutitude of colours, red, blue, green, purple, extending tendrils out in several directions, and it was absolutely the favourite destination of the cruise ship set. One of the highlights of the cruise was when the ship cranked up the speed and plunged into the ionised cloud, generating fantastic aurorae all around it. Innumerable Dynasty couples had taken their wedding vows amid those cavorting rainbows.
Smith thought, moreover, that the ship was an experience in herself. Two kilometres in length, triangular in section, with a vast glass half-pyramid forming the nose, offering a spectacular viewing platform from the bottommost to the apex, where the bridge was located. It had all the most up to date facilities, including a gravity-free zone, with an immense gymnasium where passengers could fly like birds over holographically-simulated terrain, and a bubble pool, a swimming pool built in the shape of a chain of interconnected transparent bubbles, with a multi-level promenade all around, so that swimmers could wave to friends sitting at pavement cafes.
But there were insufficient reservations to justify future trips. And there were those who saw the Heisenberg as a goldmine of recyclable materials just waiting to be disassembled. Smith felt his hackles rise. It was always so much easier to destroy than to create, wasn’t it?
He turned to his first officer. “Mr. Tintoretto?”
“Are we ready to enter the nebula?”
“Full ahead then.”
For a week, the ship had been skirting the great cloud of dust and gas, taking it in from every angle, and now they were about to penetrate it for what could well be the last time. As the positioning thrusters fired, and the great vessel turned ponderously, until the brilliant spectacle filled the observation windows, Smith felt a lump the size of a small asteroid forming in his throat.
He gave a little cough and opened the public address channel. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. You may have observed that we have altered course. We are about to commence our approach to the nebula. This is the high point of our voyage, and certainly one of the most spectacular phenomena of nature that you are ever likely to encounter. Full details of the physics which form the basis for it may be readily obtained from the terminals in your cabins and all public areas. The first effects of the nebula will be observable around cocktail hour, and I believe that in the old days people used to attribute the effects to the alcohol in their drinks. By the time we are serving dinner, the visual effects will be truly sensational, and we will be enjoying them for about four days. I believe we have seven happy couples who are going to tie the knot during our traverse of the nebula, and it will be my honour to officiate. I trust you are all enjoying your time aboard the Heisenberg, and if there is anything we can do to increase your enjoyment, please do not hesitate to let us know. Thank you for your attention.”
He shut off the channel. Every time he used it he had a recurring vision of his voice echoing endlessly along deserted corridors, bouncing through empty restaurants and skimming across the undisturbed water of the pools. In idle moments, he saw himself condemned to sail through space for eternity, pacing the bridge of a ghost ship.
Smith’s prediction regarding the appearance of nebula phenomena proved accurate, as well it might have, as the liner’s itinerary had scarcely altered in twenty years. At around six in the evening, his clothing programmed to full dress mode, he sauntered into one of the upper observation lounges and began to mingle with the guests. In the past, all the deck lounges would have been full to capacity at a time like this, but now barely two or three were occupied, and even then he could glide from group to group unimpeded.
The first spidery streaks slipped across the glass, and as realisation spread among the gossiping clusters of men and women and the restless children, the hubbub slowly subsided into a hush. Sometimes people stopped in mid-sentence or mid-sip, their posture frozen, only their eyes turned to take in the display. And as the colours intensified and the patterns became more complex, the oohs and aahs began. As the show progressed, these would die away, and the passengers would watch in dumb reverence, moving only when notified that their dinner table was ready, and then with an automaton-like stiffness of the joints.
And there was more. Clearly visible in the turbulent heart of the nebula were twisters, dervish-like funnels and rope-like structures, spinning with unimaginable ferocity, driven by the titanic forces that lurked in this extraordinary nursery of the stars.
At this point, Captain Smith slipped quietly away to his quarters, content with having brought this joy into people’s lives.
He was soundly asleep when Tintoretto roused him. On his private channel, he could hear an alert sounding from the bridge.
“What is it, Mr. Tintoretto?”
“Ships, sir. Mostly small fighter types, one larger patrol vessel, approaching us at speed and ordering us to cut engines.”
“Dynasty?” Smith asked, his heart sinking.
Tintoretto shook his head. “Insurrectionists, I’d say, sir.”
“Terrorists, you mean,” Smith replied. “Let’s call things by their right names, Tintoretto. Terrorists. Full engines!”
Smith got up. He felt the shudder as more power came on line. He knew it was futile, but he had to buy time while he figured out how best to save his passengers.
He had barely made it to the bridge when the first of the SLUFFs emerged from the kaleidoscopic murk on the port quarter, and fired a shot across their bows.
“Sound the alert,” Smith commanded. “Have all passengers assemble at their muster points.”
A second SLUFF appeared, followed by other ships.
Bannon’s face appeared on Smith’s viewscreen. “Shut off your engines,” he commanded.
“We are unarmed,” said Smith. “We are a civilian vessel. What do you want with us?”
“We want your ship,” said Bannon. “We won’t harm your people.”
Tristan’s BLUFF appeared, looping around the Heisenberg, under her belly, and back along her flank. A warning signal began to flash redly on a display panel in Smith’s field of vision.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Smith. He could hear the general alert being sounded, along with a call to assemble at predetermined mustering points.
“Yes sir,” said a young lieutenant. “They’ve put down on our port side. A second warning light started up next to the first, its flashing more insistent, and a sound like a repeating klaxon filled the air. “That’s it, sir. They’ve breached the hull.”
“Stop engines!” Smith commanded. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
Tristan slipped swiftly through the hole in the hull of the great vessel, descending into an unoccupied stateroom. He drank in its luxurious appointments as he made his way to the door, closely followed by the other members of the boarding party. With Bannon and the other SLUFF pilots aiming their weapons, it was unlikely that there would be any resistance offered, but, taking no chances, they drew their PPGs before emerging into the corridor outside.
Passengers recoiled at the sight of the black-clad men and women who suddenly appeared among them wielding hand guns, and a few shrieked nervously, but the weapons were all pointed at the ceiling, and the boarders showed little interest in them.
As they made their way towards the bridge, Tristan looked around. The passengers were numerous, but seemed far short of a full complement, and the high-ceilinged galleries and open areas gave the impression of swallowing them effortlessly. These people were indeed, Tristan thought wryly, lost in space.
At one point they became disoriented and had to ask for directions. A jumpy purser directed them to the elevators which would take them to the bridge, before turning his attention once again to his sleep-deprived guests, herding them in the direction of the assembly areas.
They burst onto the bridge. Through the great glass viewing panel, they could see the nearest SLUFF hovering menacingly close by. Tristan stepped over to the window and gave a wave to indicate that all was well. Bannon waved back.
“Which one of you is the captain?” Tristan demanded.
Smith raised his hand. “I am. My name is Smith.”
“Captain Smith, we require your ship,” Tristan said simply.
“What for?” Smith asked.
“That does not concern you. Please vacate the bridge and join your passengers in the lifepods.”
“You realise the Dynasty will come after you and blow you to pieces?” Smith said.
“That is our concern, Captain Smith,” Tristan replied bluntly. “Not yours. But in order to delay that eventuality, we are installing a jamming device in your lifepods, so it will be some days before you can begin transmitting a distress call, by which time we will be well away from here.”
“I see,” Smith said sullenly.
“Why, you...” A young man with short blonde hair and the insignia of a petty officer sprang out of the corner and lunged at Tristan. Tristan fired, and the man collapsed at his feet.
“Dalton!” Smith gasped. “You bloody idiot!”
“Now,” said Tristan with a slight smile, “if you and your crew could make your way quietly to the lifepods?”
Smith and his second in command gathered Dalton’s unconscious body between them, and the bridge crew of the Heisenberg prepared to abandon ship.
As the lifepods manoeuvered away from the Heisenberg, Captain Smith looked out of a viewing port at the great ship. Already her directional thrusters were firing as she adopted a new course, back, it appeared, into the heart of the nebula. Smith resented with all his heart those who rebelled against the Dynasty, but at the same time he took glum consolation from the thought that at least the liner would go down fighting instead of ending her days ignominiously in some recycling yard.