These Broken Stars Page 8

Footsteps clang on the metal gantries, voices echoing in a dozen variations on Standard, lesser languages woven in. Everybody’s wondering what’s going on, but nobody knows.

Brightly lit screens flicker nonstop advertisements at me—they line the walls and the ceiling, blaring words and songs and jingles. As I work through the crowd toward the first set of stairs, a 3-D holograph springs to life in front of me, a woman in a hot-pink catsuit throwing her arms wide open to invite me to a club at the aft end of the ship. I walk right through her.

My stomach lurches as though I’m in for a bout of spacesickness. I notice I’m not the only one looking uncomfortable—there are other faces in the crowd turning pale as well.

I can’t be spacesick. I’ve been shunted around the universe on ships so badly tuned you could barely hear yourself over the chugging, and all that time I kept my insides on the inside. I must have overdone it on the sparring mats.

I can feel the metal gangway beneath me vibrating to the hundreds of sets of footfalls banging down on it, but there’s something else under that—a tremor that doesn’t feel right. Abruptly the vid screens all around me freeze, the jingles and voice-overs cutting out so a woman’s voice can broadcast up and down the hallways, smooth and professional.

“Attention all passengers. In a few moments we will be cycling the ship’s hyperspace engines. This procedure forms a part of our routine maintenance of the Icarus. You may notice some minor vibrations. Thank you for your understanding as we carry out this routine maintenance.”

She sounds calm, but I wouldn’t use the words routine maintenance twice in one announcement myself unless I was trying to keep people from noticing it’s not. In two years of space travel, I only ever saw a ship cycle her drives once, about six months back near Avon. By the time we got that tub landed, she was more or less held together by spit and good luck.

This is the Icarus. Newest, fanciest ship to come out of orbital dock, built by the one corporation in the galaxy big enough to terraform planets all by itself. I’m quite sure Roderick LaRoux made certain that spit plays no part in the way she holds together.

I jog along the gangway, ignoring legs that feel like they’re weighted down after my sparring session, and start on the next staircase with one hand on the rail, just in case. It’s a good call—I’m halfway up when another one of those “minor” vibrations hits.

The ship shudders so violently this time that a ripple runs along the gangway beneath me. I can track its progress by the way the civilians ranged along it shout and grab at the handrails, knees buckling.

The crowd’s growing frantic, and I turn my body to push through a gap and make for the stairs, then break into a run as I head for the next flight. At the top, I press my palm against the ID plate, and the door slides soundlessly open.

I hurry through to the richly carpeted hallways of my own deck. Lilac LaRoux’s deck. It’s more crowded than usual as folks emerge from their cabins like they’re going to discover some kind of collective wisdom out in the hallways. Another time I’d pause to admire these women showing off their unlimited sleepwear budgets, but just now I’m moving.

I turn for my own cabin as three sharp alarm blasts cut through the soft music that plays in the hallways. The woman’s voice comes again, this time high with fear, and tense with the attempt to conceal it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. We have experienced difficulty with our hyperspace engines, and the Icarus has suffered substantial damage as a result of the dimensional displacement. We will attempt to keep the ship in hyperspace, but in the meantime, please follow the illuminated strips in the corridors and make your way to your assigned emergency pods immediately.”

The hallway comes to life. It’s clear most of these people wouldn’t know their assigned emergency pod if it bowled up, introduced itself, and offered to tango. I’m firmly in the camp that reads up on all the safety information the moment they get a chance. You develop that attitude after your first this-is-not-a-drill emergency evacuation, and I’ve had more than one.

We military types are all trained to travel with a grab bag. The things you need to take with you if you evacuate, survival gear. None of it is much use out here in deep space, of course, which is the only place you’ll find this ship. She was constructed in orbit. Like a whale, she’d collapse under her own weight if exposed to real gravity. Still, I’m doubling back before I have time to think about it.

I jog up the hallway toward my cabin, fighting my way against the crowd, which is surging along in a panic.

I palm my way into my cabin and unhook the bag from where it’s hanging over the back of the door. It’s a basic hiking pack from my cadet days, designed to fold down small. I hesitate, then grab my jacket as well.

I need to get three hallways along to my right, then take a left and keep going, though with the crowd growing louder and more unstable by the minute, it’s going to take a while. I make it to the first hallway, passing by the doorway that leads out to the observation deck. I glance out sideways through the door.

I know what the view’s meant to be—and it’s not like this. The stars beyond the clear screens blur, then lurch, then come back into focus.

They’re not the long, graceful lines that should be visible in dimensional hyperspace. They’re in focus for a moment, white pinpoints of light, then long blurs again. I’ve never seen a view like this before—it’s as though the Icarus is trying, and failing, to claw her way back into hyperspace. I’m not sure what will happen if she’s torn out prematurely, but I’m pretty sure nothing good.

For a moment something huge and metallic is visible out the corner of the observation window, and then it’s gone. I crane my neck, trying to catch sight of the object again. It’s so massive that it would have its own significant gravitational field, enough to pull the Icarus out of her flight path.

I turn back to work my way through the crowd toward my pod. The press of bodies is too thick, and I duck to the side to slide along the guard railing. On these back passages, the railing is all that stands between us and a nasty drop, all the way down at least a dozen levels. As I turn the corner I collide heavily with someone smaller than me, and I’m instinctively putting my arms out to keep the person from toppling over.

“Excuse me!” says a breathless voice. “Sir, watch where you’re going!”

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