They had escaped, but they weren’t safe.
Kira checked the ship’s records, unable to believe that none of the Jellies or the nightmares had overtaken them.
One of the Jellies had headed after the Wallfish a bit over an hour ago, closely followed by the two remaining nightmares. The three ships had been only minutes away from opening fire on the Wallfish by the time it transitioned to FTL.
In order to leave Bughunt as quickly as possible, the Wallfish had executed a hot jump, transitioning to FTL without taking the time to properly cool the ship. To do so would have required shutting off the fusion drive for the better part of a day. Hardly practical with hostile ships so close behind.
Even with the drive extinguished, the heat radiating from it—as well as the thermal energy contained within the rest of the Wallfish’s hull—would quickly build up to intolerable levels inside the Markov Bubble. Heatstroke would become a very real risk, and soon afterward, equipment failure.
Kira could already hear the life-support fans running harder than normal. It wouldn’t be long before the Wallfish would have to drop back into normal space. But it almost didn’t matter. Whether in subluminal or superluminal space, the ships chasing them were faster than any human-
They’d escaped, but it still looked like the Jellies and the nightmares would catch them. And when they did, Kira had no illusions of what would happen next.
She couldn’t see how they were going to get out of the situation. Maybe Falconi or Gregorovich had an idea, but for herself, Kira thought the only
option would be to fight. And she had no confidence in her ability to protect the crew, much less herself, if more of the xeno-like nightmares attacked.
Her throat tightened, and she forced herself to take a breath, calm herself. The Wallfish wasn’t taking fire. It wasn’t being boarded. Better to save her adrenaline for when that was actually the case.…
She had just started for the door when the bell-like tone sounded again. So soon? Was something wrong with the Wallfish? Out of instinct born of far too many trips on spaceships, she reached for the handhold next to the desk.
The stump of her arm swung past the hold, missing it.
“Fuck.” Momentum nearly spun her around, but Kira managed to catch the hold with her left hand and stabilize her position.
A faint tingle passed across her skin, as if the electrical charge of the air had increased. She realized they’d just dropped back into normal space.
Then a thrust warning rang out, and she felt the wall press against her as the Wallfish turned and then began to burn in a new direction. “Ten minutes until next jump,” said Gregorovich in his warbling whisper.
Kira hurried straight to Control. Falconi, Nielsen, and Hawes glanced at her as she entered.
The lieutenant was pale and hard-faced. If anything he looked worse than the previous day.
“What’s going on? Why did we stop?” said Kira. “We’re changing course,” said Falconi.
“Yes, why? We just left the system.”
He gestured at the ever-present holo in the center of the room. It showed a map of Bughunt. “That’s the point. The Jellies are jamming the whole area, and we’re still inside the jamming. That means no one saw us drop out of FTL, and since the light from the Wallfish will take over a day to get back to Bughunt—”
“No one knows we’re here,” said Kira.
Falconi nodded. “For the time being, no. FTL sensors can’t pick up sublight objects, so the assholes chasing us aren’t going to see us when they fly past, not unless—”
“Not unless,” said Nielsen, “we’re really unlucky and they decide to drop back into normal space to take a look.”
Hawes scrunched his forehead. “They shouldn’t, though. They don’t have any reason to.”
Falconi gave Kira a look from under his brows. “That’s the idea at least. We wait for the Jellies and the nightmares to go by, and then we blast off in a different direction.”
She frowned, mirroring Hawes’s expression. “But … won’t they pick us up on their instruments as soon as we leave the jamming?”
“Shouldn’t,” said Falconi. “I’m guessing the Jellies don’t want the rest of the nightmares to know about you, the Staff of Blue, or anything else at Bughunt. If I’m right, the Jellies following us are going to keep up their jamming, which means they’ll be limited to short-range observations in FTL.”
Kira was doubtful. “That’s an awfully big guess.”
He nodded. “Sure is, but even if the Jellies drop their jamming … You know anything about FTL sensors?”
“Not really,” she admitted.
“They’re pretty crap. Passive ones have to be big, real big to be effective. Not something most ships can haul around. Active are even worse, and it’s active we have to worry about. Range is only a few light-days at best, which isn’t much at the speeds we’re traveling, and they aren’t particularly sensitive, which is a problem if you’re trying to detect Markov Bubbles, since the bubbles have such a low energy state. Plus … Hawes, why don’t you tell her?”
The lieutenant never took his eyes off the display as he spoke, his words slow and deliberate. “The UMC found that the Jelly sensors are about twenty percent less effective directly behind their ships. Probably because their shadow shield and fusion drive get in the way.”
Falconi nodded again. “Odds are the nightmares have the same issue, even if they don’t use a shield.” He brought up an image in the holo of the three ships chasing them. “Once they’re past us, they’re going to have trouble detecting us—assuming no jamming—and every minute is going to make it that much harder.”
“How long until they realize the Wallfish isn’t in front of them?” Kira asked.
He shrugged. “No idea. Best-case scenario, a couple of hours. Worst case, sometime in the next thirty minutes. Either way, it should still be
enough time to get out of their FTL sensor range.” “And then what?”
A flicker of sly cunning crossed Falconi’s face. “We take a random walk, that’s what.” He jerked his thumb toward the aft of the ship. “The UMC gave us more than enough antimatter to fly to Bughunt and back. We’re using the spare to make a few extra hops, changing course each time, to throw off anyone trying to follow us.”
“But,” said Kira, trying to visualize the whole arrangement in her head, “they can still flash trace us, right?”
Gregorovich cackled and said, “They can, O my Inquisitive Mammal, but ’twill take time—time that will allow us to make our most hasty retreat.”
Falconi tipped a finger toward the speakers in the ceiling. “With each jump, it’ll be harder and harder for the Jellies and the nightmares to track us. This isn’t like the trip out here. We’re not going to be dropping out of FTL at regular intervals in what was pretty much a straight-shot flight.”
“We took precautions,” said Hawes, “but nothing as extreme as this.”
Nielsen said, “Once we’re out of sensor range, the Jellies won’t be able to predict when we go sublight. And if they miscalculate even one trajectory or miss even one jump—”
“They’ll end up waaay off,” said Falconi with a satisfied grin. “The Wallfish can cover almost three-quarters of a light-year in a day. Think how long you’d have to wait on a flash trace if you were off by even a few hours on one of our jumps. It could take days, weeks, or even months for the light to reach you.”
“So we’re actually going to make it,” said Kira.
A grim smile appeared on Falconi’s face. “Seems like it. Once we’re out far enough, the chances of any of ’em finding the Wallfish, even by accident, are going to be pretty much nil. Hell, unless they track us to our last jump, they won’t even know which system in the League we’re aiming for.”
The pressure pushing Kira against the wall ceased, and she had to hook the stump of her arm through a handhold to keep from drifting across the room. Then the jump alert echoed forth again, and again she felt the strange tingle pass across her skin.
“And which system would that be?” she asked.
“Sol,” said Nielsen.