A ship’s day later, the torn-up galaxy dominated the screens. The Wooden Shoe’s advanced detectors were able to give the travelers a picture of just what was happening in that spread of hyperspace before them.
They sat at the mess table with a model floating over it, and, as he had done before, Captain Tchulik Chresti was playing devil’s advocate.
“It’s perfectly true that not all this mess is instantly lethal. However, What this high-level distortion has done has made long tubular areas and splatter-type areas the equivalent of the interior of a star. If we try to navigate through this chaos as if it were ordinary high-dimensional hyperspace, gradients could and would drag us in unexpected directions into zones that would vaporize us instantly. No force-shield could resist it.”
“And there’s no way of going around it,” said Lieutenant Quintus Octavian.
“I’ll remind you in the nicest possible way that this model is only a three dimensional reduction that makes it possible to look at. No. Plus the fact that the less-visible homology chain is more reliably impenetrable. So hell no.”
“But what about the fourth dimension?” Terence Ransom asked. “ Two possibilities is that this galaxy was put there deliberately to block the path into the Wild Reach--or that it’s the result of a battle between the good guys and the bad guys. If it was in fact created, couldn’t we backtrack to the point before it happened?”
“That’s easier said than done,” said the captain, stroking his feathers, “but not impossible. A direct negative-timelike trajectory would be incredibly dangerous coming into contact with forward-moving particles--but since we’re out in intergalactic space the few individual atoms per cubic kilometer would only be like an ordinary small-arms bombardment. The Dirac electron-positron pairs gives us an upper limit to our speed, but since they’re time-symmetric we can compensate.”
“Now he’s just showing off,” the crow’s voice came over Jeanette’s bracelet.
“What we’d have to do is to maintain station for about ten ship’s days to build up a good picture of how the galaxy changes,” the Captain continued. “Using that we can project backwards to before it went catastrophic. We go back too far, and the path into the Wild Reach might have shifted or vanished. It might go back a few thousand years, which will make it quite a journey.”
A week and a half with nothing to do but eat and read and let the machines do their work did not seem all that terrible to Jeanette, nor, for that matter, to Senhor Capoeira Capybara, the Lieutenant, or the Queen of Hearts. It was positively a service to acquaint the Lieutenant with some of the non-computer-screen games she had gotten used to playing with Wynken, Blynken and Nod, since they kept him from keeping wistful attendance on the Queen every possible minute. O Tse even joined them and the capybara for a few games of Sorry! Which was fun even though she only won once.
She also spent time just before going to bed with the Captain up on the bridge. He seemed to like her, and she liked him--with the tiny little corner she kept open in her brain reminding her that he might not be everything he appeared to be.
“Tell me about the Pilgrims. One comes across all sorts of amazing myths about them, does one--but if there are nuggets of truth in them, it’s nigh impossible to tell,” he said. The screens of the bridge were all active, but apparently didn’t require his attention.
“Well, we got thrown very very far back in time, back to a time when universes were connected by big Gateways--permanent physical ones, you know. There was a whole bunch of fighting and monsters, and we got thrown even farther back, to when they were first being built, and that’s when we met them. They had owl-eyes, like yours but bigger, and the lower part of their faces were more like mine than yours. They were tall and wore robes, and seemed to really like just seeing things. They took us through the atmosphere of a star, and that was really something.”
She was being clumsy, she knew, because she was leaving things out again. But she didn’t want to lie to him. If he hadn’t told her his weird story, she’d probably just have accepted himm by now, and why not?
“They seemed to have an awful lot of power, but they didn’t seem to be into using it, you know. The eventually helped us get back to our regular time--or at least the one we left from.”
“I’ve heard of the Gates,” Tchulik said with a pause. “But not in connection with the Pilgrims.
I’ve even heard that there are some still in existence, and that work.”
He turned away from her to look at the colossal smear on the front screens. “I will tell you that it hasn’t been that often that I’ve been privileged to talk with youngsters like yourself. The life doesn’t tend to attract such. I surmise you’re quite a courageous girl, to follow your father around like this.”
“Well, I dunno. Kind of,” she stammered. “Thank you.” She left the bridge.
The day came, and they gathered in the hold, because the model was very big and complex. The captain lifted a small device, and a super-realistic representation of the galaxy filled the space of the hold. Tchulik swept his arm to the left, and the galaxy started to contract. The smeared and torn areas resolved themselves int recognizable stars, and the galaxy assumed a familiar spiral shape.
“Zero point is about 730 years back. It’s purely a guess, but 735 would be an optimal time. Just a bit earlier than the blowup, but not so far as to be completely separate. Does that sound good to you all?” And they all nodded assent.
And so the adjourned to their cabins and strapped themselves in--except that Jeanette changed her mind, and went up to the bridge, to occupy the fully equipped Executive Officer’s chair. She looked at the Captain, who smiled at her. “Brave, you guess.”
All the screens went dark. “On the mark, activate! MARK!”
The ship seemed to expand some how. Jeanette got pushed pack in the chair, hard, and then harder. She heard a clatter against the hall, like machine-gun fire, she guessed. There was an increase in temperature. There started to sound an occasional ptwee!
“Mark at Five! Four! Three! Two! One! MARK!” The Captain shouted.
The motion stopped--and they were rocked by an explosion.
Tchulik swept the screens on--and there was their spiral galaxy--sparking with explosions everywhere.
“Shit! Damn! Shit and Damn! It’s as you surmised, doctor--our zero point wasn’t a single event, but part of a shooting war!”
From over the communication plate came her father’s voice. “Is the path detectable?”
“Eminently so---right through the middle of the war.” The captain started moving his hands over the screens. “We can’t do another jump. No point.”
The screens all went red. “I guess it’s time we found out just how good a warship this is!”
The ship jumped. Jeanette was thrown back into the chair, and everything went white.