Coming to the end of a jump was by now also
very routine. About half an hour before crossing the barrier we all made
our way to the bridge. One by one we took up our positions. Around the
ten minute mark everybody was at his post. Usually, but not always, the
captain arrived last. We powered up our stations, went through the test
sequences, and then waited. The routine orders were given and
acknowledged. And eventually the navigator called out: “Normal space.”
I always talk about a barrier when we leave normal space or return to
it. In actuality it is no physical barrier. As a rule we did not notice
it inside the ship when we popped through this barrier. Only our
instruments told us. Very occasionally we would have a brief feeling of
vertigo as we crossed it.
For many centuries this barrier marked the ultimate speed one could
travel in space - today we call it normal space. The old fusion ships
could approach it. It was, of course, the speed of light. Even today we
cannot accelerate a radio wave beyond it. But several hundred years ago,
after Adar had been discovered and settled, a professor at some
university had come across a formula which neatly lets us sidestep this
limit and today it is no barrier at all. Rather it is a border or
Oh, there is one other thing I have not mentioned. Once we cross this
threshold or barrier, as it is commonly called, our ship has the same
velocity, that is the same speed and direction it had when we began our
jump. For that reason we usually, but not always, begin a jump at as
high a velocity as possible.
The navigation computer naturally has in its data banks the velocities
and relative position of all the known stars and planets and their
moons, meteors, comets, denser accumulations of interstellar dust and so
on. Our navigators can pinpoint the location where a ship will return to
normal space with a high degree of accuracy.
Of course they cannot be exact to within a few thousand kilometers, but
certainly within a few thousand AU’s, which is really quite a feat when
one considers that many jumps encompass several light years. The shorter
the jump is the more accurate we can pinpoint where we will cross the
barrier. And in planetary systems we can jump to within fractions of an
Navigator Petra Baird called out: “Normal space.”
Tora Two was deserted. Our sensors and scanners picked up nothing. We
were all alone. Everybody wanted to set foot on Tora Tw o but Captain
Litvak vetoed our presentations. Of course he would. He had been on the
“There is nothing there to interest you,” he said. “The entire planet is
one vast desert. Sand and rocks and minerals. And it is hot. In seven
days we will be on our way back to Inverness. You can set foot on it
when we arrive there.”
Nobody went down to Tora Two.
The navy - I beg your pardon, the Survey Service - has many strange
customs. Among them is the way we approach a star system, any star
system. We jump to within thirty-seven AU’s of the primary. The theory
goes something like this. It is distant enough not to arouse any
suspicion, should an enemy have a strong presence in the system. We
could easily be overlooked and in fact, when we approached Tremaine and
now Tora we were counting on it, on not being noticed. On the other hand
it is close enough for us to ascertain whether the enemy has occupied
We jump to exactly thirty-seven AU’s. Not thirty or forty or thirty-five
or twenty. Thirty-seven AU’s, no more and no less. So far I have been
unable to find out why exactly thirty-seven.
Ah, you ask, how far is it? It is a very good question. I am not sure
what the AU stands for. Some say it has been derived from some old
measure used on Earth many centuries ago. Others claim that is found its
way into our language as a measuring tool at about the time the calendar
was changed. It is the distance light travels in five hundred seconds.
It is a measure of distance used in planetary systems. Interstellar
distances are officially computed in parsecs, while colloquially we use
light years. Confusing? Perhaps a bit at first. But one gets used to it.
We were cruising in the Tora system from the edge of the atmosphere of
Tora Two all the way to one hundred AU’s out. We jumped back and forth.
One thing we rarely did was to jump directly to or from the edge of the
atmosphere of a planet. Apparently it is dangerous and has to do with
the gravity well of the planet.
After six days of hanging around Tora Two we were thoroughly bored. Even
Captain Litvak was wearied by the dullness of the patrol. I doubt though
that our efficiency suffered much. Commander Yonge stood on the bridge,
stopwatch in hand, timing our response time on each exercise.
We had been at the edge of the atmosphere of Tora Two for well over six
hours. We were preparing to move to our jump-off location for the hop to
the thirty-seven AU position. We were on yellow alert, code two.
Yellow alert or code two meant a slightly relaxed condition from code
three or red alert. All stations were occupied, of course.
We went through the motions of keeping a sharp lookout. In reality we
were bored to death after six hours in normal space without sighting so
much as a rogue meteor coming our way. And that after six days of
perhaps the dullest patrol on record in the Survey Service!
Captain Litvak was in his command chair. He appeared to be asleep but
that was an illusion. Every so often he would cast a glance in my
direction or watch the helmsman or give an order. When the captain had
his back to the first officer Commander Yonge would relax, his posture
almost slouchy. Second officer Ruth Appleyard let her eyes wander from
her station for long periods of time. Everybody was sick and tired of
I found my station the most interesting one on the entire ship. I had
rows upon rows of lights, red, yellow and green ones. I had dozens of
gauges measuring almost everything one could think of. And I had more
than a dozen monitors displaying moving and snaking lines of every
description. I was fully occupied all the time.
My eyes roved constantly over the arrays of instruments. Did the needle
of the doppler gauge quiver? What about the motion detectors? No, they
were at zero. But again I had the unmistakable feeling that they were
not steady. How about the mass-proximity units? No, nothing there
either. Ye t I felt distinctly uneasy.
I reached out and cranked the deflectors up to full power. Then I
reached for the switch of the magnetic field generator. It used
considerable energy when set at one hundred percent. I turned it,
slowly at first, click - click - click - and then faster all the way up
to the top.
“What are you doing, Mr. Kester?” Suddenly the captain was wide awake,
sitting up in his chair, his blue eyes piercing mine.
“Increasing the magnetic field to full strength. I have this feeling
that we are not alone.” Everybody’s eyes were on me. The magnetic field
had begun building, just passing the one thousand gauss mark.
“Did your instruments indicate an enemy presence, Mr. Kester?” The
captain’s question had an element of sarcasm in it.
“No, Sir. Not exactly.”
“Not exactly! Yo u will refrain ...” That was how far the captain got in
his reprimand. Suddenly the mass-proximity units jumped across the scale
while the motion detectors shot up to the top, the indicators vibrating
against the stops.
“Battle stations, code three,” I yelled, hitting the red alarm button at
the lower right of my board. It was most fortunate that the doppler
gauge showed the enemy ships, all four of them, rushing off in the
opposite direction from us.
“Mass-prox units off the scale. Motion detectors negative one hundred,”
I shouted. My eyes flew to the gauge indicating the power reserves.
Sadly they stood at only sixty-one percent and were falling rapidly.
“Emergency power, Chief,” Captain Litvak yelled into the intercom.
“Helmsman, course vector 61 92 04 negative. Maximum acceleration.
Weapons deck, full power to ...”
There was chaos on the bridge. It would take almost a minute to energize
the laser banks. What was the matter with Bill Johnson? The particle
guns seemed dead. The red light was still on.
The ship lurched as if a heavy object had hit it. And it had. The
deflector gauge was deep within the red zone. But then it began to fall
towards the yellow band.
“Navigator, give me an emergency override. Quickly.”
I could imagine Petra punching keys on her computer. We simply did not
have the power for an override. Suddenly the mass-proximity units fell
to zero as did the motion detectors.
“Enemy ships have jumped,” I shouted.
The deflectors were just sliding into the green zone. They stood at
forty percent, far too low for a full blast of the enemy’s offensive
weapons systems. The magnetic field was still building and had reached
only a third of its full strength. Our power reserves were still
falling. And the particle guns were also still dead. No energy was
flowing through the accelerator shells.
I could feel the centrifugal forces pulling at me as the ship changed
directions. Power reserves were now down to nineteen percent but the
emergency system was coming on stream and the gauges began to climb
again. We were forty seconds into the action. The laser banks were still
at only twenty-two percent.
Both the mass-proximity units and the motion detectors fluttered once
and then fell back to zero. I knew exactly what it meant.
“Enemy force had taken a bearing,” I yelled. The captain should
immediately change course or else we were doomed. Instead he was
listening to both the engineering station and the weapons deck.
“Give me the emergency escape, Navigator,” Litvak roared.
“ I can’t. We are not powered up enough.”
“Then see to it that we are.”
Our power reserves had climbed to twenty-five percent. We needed at
least forty percent for the override.
“Enemy force has taken a bearing,” I yelled for the seconds time.
The captain looked at me for an instant as if to integrate into his
battle plan what I had just said. Then he glanced at the big forward
screen. It showed only the star field.
“The enemy has taken a bearing?” he quizzed me.
“Yes, about a minute ago now.”
“Helmsman, come to course vector 39 16 03 positive.” He had finally
given a new course. I hoped that it would not be too late.
“Mass-prox units off the scale,” I shouted. “Motion detectors green
sixty.” The enemy battle group had crossed the barrier and was
approaching us at an oblique angle.
The background hum of the overloaded gravity compensators changed to a
shrill scream as the ship obeyed the helmsman’s computer. The
centrifugal forces added to the acceleration were too much for them. I
had the straps pulled tightly on my battle harness. It kept me from
being thrown from my seat. I was dully aware of a thump. I more felt it
than heard it.
At the same time there were a series of loud bangs somewhere aft. Then
our laser banks discharged. Johnson had also finally activated the
particle guns. And the grenade launchers started their
thump-thump-thump. And then they stopped. Power reserves had climbed to
For the second time I more felt than heard an impact. The deflector
gauge for the port deflector rapidly climbed through the red range into
the purple and then into the black. It stayed there for what seemed like
a long time. And then it died.
“Port deflector gone,” I shouted.
There was no reply from the captain. He was intently listening to the
intercom. Engineering had suffered damage and the weapons deck was also
in trouble. It would take another minute or two for the power reserves
to rise sufficiently for an override.
Something was inhibiting the accelerator shells on the particle guns.
The power was not getting through.
“Weapons computer is out,” Captain Litvak said, looking directly at me.
“I have secondary training in weapons control, Sir,” I replied.
There was no way I could leave until the gravitational field was back to
normal. I glanced at my board again. The gauges were falling to zero.
“Enemy has jumped,” I shouted.
“Helmsman, one gee acceleration. Course vector 16 01 90 negative.”
“Aye, aye, Sir, one gee. Course ...”
The tremendous acceleration suddenly ceased. I unhooked my battle
harness, grabbed my code cards with my right hand and jumped towards the
door. It sensed my approach and split in the middle, each half sliding
into the wall. As I stepped across the threshold there was a terrific
blast. The entire bridge was a sheet of brilliant light. And then ...