“I think we can turn off the detectors now. We can use the power going to them to better use right now,” the Pirate Queen of the Night said. “Senhor Capoeira, could you go to the hold and see that everything is secure. It would be better than relying on remote sensors.”

“At once, captain.” The capybara’s voice came over the air.

“Dr. Ransom, did you tell me these ships were being held off by jet airplanes?”

“Yes, although our crashing one of their own ships into them was what did them in. But knights mounted on flying horses did a fair job of defense the second time,” Terence responded.

“Very encouraging, Doctor. Thank you.”

Jeanette said to her father, “She sounds awfully confident against over twenty ships.”

Ngozi Makena Odile responded to her from wherever she was controlling the ship. “They’re big and loaded with armament, but they’re in and orbit close to the equator , and in the direction of the planet’s rotation, which usually means they need that boost to launch from the surface. We’re in a whole different class from them--especially since we didn’t let all that antimatter annihilation go to waste. They’re about to learn a few lessons.”

A display filled her father’s cabin: Jeanette could tell that it wasn’t a live image but a simulation, showing the Paradox Swan, the Theravader ships, and the sphere of the planet. It almost bothered her that the Captain was so relaxed and confident, but she had yet to witness her overestimate her  capabilities.

The Swan approached the planet, and just before they got close to the enemy ships, it swung wide and entered an orbit opposite to theirs, against the rotation of the planet, and within a matter of minutes had the planet between them. Jeanette could see that the Theravader ships were assembling into a defensive array (she should know this from all her gaming--it wasn’t a phalanx, what was it?) Ready for an attack over the curve of the planet.

Then father and Daughter were thrown backwards as the Swan did a loop like a stunt airplane and reversed direction, ignoring all the inertia of the orbital mechanics, reversing direction, and powering around the planet via the main drives opening up.

“All hands, raking fire!” came the Captain’s voice as the ship went through the formation from the rear. As they passed through, blasts from the Swan went right down the sides of the enemy ships. Jeanette could see explosions coming from the insides, and she had no doubt that the simulation was being faithful.

They were now parked with the planet between them, and the Captain decided to fill them in. “Whatever the target is, it’s a safe bet that there are ground forces--or at least a grounded ship--guarding it. And their armaments will far exceed that of the ships. They are also under no illusions about how powerful we are. So this will be tricky.”

Dr. Ransom said in a low voice, “I hate it when she uses the word ‘tricky.’”

“I thought you’d have more faith in me by now, Doctor,” and Jeanette tried to digest the idea of the Captain and her father having a thing together--any sort of a thing.

“Senhor Capoeira Capybara, could you retrieve the very last tracking data from our detectors and transmit to me?”

“Is that the red button or the green button?” The capybara’s voice came back.

“Very funny. Just ask them politely.”

Shortly afterwards, Jeanette’s stomach gave a lurch as the ship started to descend. They were now below the cloud cover, and what seemed leisurely in orbit was now blazingly fast over the gloomy surface--fast enough that she thought she could feel the heat of air friction.

The graphic in the cabin now switched to something like a camera view. It was startling: while the land below them seemed bleak and barren, if ordinary otherwise, what would have been ocean or sea was billowing masses of clouds all the way down, with no surface. You couldn’t call it clouds from this vantage point, but seemed more like smoke billowing from a volcano--except the volcano was thousands of miles in extent.

The Swan was definitely feeling warmer. “Come on, come on, you should be picking up my heat signature by now,” Jeanette heard Ngozi mutter. Then there was a whine and the ship shoved left. “That’s the boy.” Terence looked at his daughter and mouthed the word ‘tricky.’

“All hands: inertial dampers are now on. The good news is that you will not be thrown around like pebbles in a gourd from the maneuvers we are about to make. The bad news is that it can cause severe headaches and nausea. So grab a bag and hang on tight!”

The ship began to swing left and right, and bank down and up. Her father had explained to Jeanette (after watching an old Threee Stooges episode) that the cause of most seasickness was the disconnect between a stable looking cabin and radical motion. She invoked it, but understanding didn’t seem to help.

In addition to the swings and bobs there were the sounds of beams hitting the ship and the ground and smoke near them. Ngozi’s voice, a little jagged, said “Final Approach! On my mark,  all units cut to zero!”

The ship made a very hard left, stopped wobbling, and accelerated. Hits were now coming hard and fast. They were descending, and now deep-throated explosions rocked the ship. The ship’s drive reached into headache territory. The descent became steeper--

--and then they came to an impossibly dead stop. The ship plummeted straight down. They hit the ground.

There was a tremendous rolling explosion.

Jeanette, who had thought that the ‘grab a bag’ was just a colorful figure of speech, held the sour vomit in her mouth desperately, feeling it burn, and patted around the bunk for somewhere to release it. She finally leaned over the side of the bunk and let it go, her moment of gratified release completely ruined.

“If you will all join me outside the ship, there’s something you might like to see,” the Pirate Queen said in an entirely too pleased voice.

But they came out, and stood in the wet gloom. About half a mile ahead was a ragged crater, and a half a mile behind was a heap of wreckage, glowing in places.

“All telemetry says that the few remaining Theravader ships have withdrawn, and may not make it back to wherever they came from. It shows you what conventional Newtonian thinking will do when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t play by the rules.”

“So--where is it? Where are we?” Grandmère Hutan said.

“It took some incredibly sensitive equipment to find the node, so it might not be all that obvious to our senses--but it’s here.”

They began to wander about. The ground  was rock in places, soil in others, and full of mounds and boulders. There were signs of tank-treads and not-very-human footprints, but it all looked random.

It took what seemed like the better part of a day, and Jeanette really wanted something to wash her mouth out. Ahe noticed that the Paradox Swan was beginning to sink further into the ground. But Senhor Capoeira cried out finally, and they all came running. There was a bigger than usual boulder, chipped and rounded oddly. But on the flattest of its surfaces, was a carving of the Decision Tree.

“So one more dimensional gateway--at least one--but it’s here.” Grandmère said.

They all stood around looking at it. They knew the door--well, it might be just a carving, but that would be kind of anticlimactic, wouldn’t it?--Could only be opened be one of them who wore white gloves, but nobody moved.

Jeanette didn’t want to be the headstrong little girl again--but it was getting ridiculous. She finally stepped forward. Her father touched her--but only to stand with her, not to hold her back.

She reached up and pressed the carving, taking another step forward.

Suddenly they were alone in a much darker landscape, populated with tiny red specks under a black sky. There was nothing and no one else--

--and no doorway back.


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