It was a little hard to wrap one’s head around, that the two ships, the Absolute Elsewhere and the Paradox Swan, were sailing along towards their destination, but going backwards in time as they did so. What that meant, since the universe was an antimatter universe, was the massive energy release involved in matter meeting antimatter would occur in the future and they could edge by.
What that looked like, though, was an immense cloud of explosive energy astern of them, since the future was back that way. None of them felt like they were getting younger, or talking backwards, but that was answered by a terse “All reference frames are local” on the part of Captain Odile, which was translated as ‘shaddap.’
Jennifer had cleaned up the mess she had made in her cabin, and was looking at her eyes in a mirror, wondering if there was an easy way to remove the contact lenses that gave them their lynx-look. She had calmed down, but was still darkly miserable and partly scared. There was no proof that Captain Transcendent--Captain Jennifer Random Transcendent--was telling the truth: she still could be her own self from the future, and she could be lying when she said that their adventures would turn out fine. What, she was going to tell them something else?
But even if it did turn out well, the fact that there was a book of their adventures--Jennifer’s favorite, she said--made her feel trapped. What business did she, a character in a book, have thinking and feeling? There weren’t any good answers that she could see.
Diotima Urantia Gearheart came into the cabin and saw what Jennifer was trying to do, and immediately came over. “I understand perfectly,” she said, not understanding at all. “It’s a good thing to differentiate yourself from Jennifer, even though, I have to say, I like the way they look on you.” The lynx took the small box from Jeanette’s backpack. “Now let me help you do this so you’ll be able to slip them in and out by yourself. They’re self-adaptive lenses, and a couple of blinks will set them perfectly. But for now, lean forward and press very lightly like so…”
When she and Diotima came to the mess for dinner, she could tell that everyone was relaxed more than a little by the contacts coming out. She was wearing the dress Jennifer had given her, so everyone was happy except her. But the presence of her companions made her previous thoughts less real and less oppressive.
After dinner, Captain Odile made an announcement. “We’ll be reaching the point where the Deep Chaos track leaves this damned universe in about six hours subjective time. Captain Transcendent and I have been working this out. And it’s going to be tricky, especially because it will be in our densest matter-field yet. Because past and present become meaningless when one is doing a universe switch, we’re going to have to time our separation pretty well exactly, or else we’ll end up on a radically wrong trajectory--or still in this universe when the annihilation cloud catches up to us. So say your goodbyes now: the Captain and I have work to do.”
Jennifer shook hands and hugged: it was clear she’d charmed everyone enough for the affection to be real, even through the strangeness. Dada hugged her sincerely: in a way, the strange possibilities might be worse for him. And the last hug between her and Jennifer was as tender as she could make it, especially because she knew they would never meet again.
But after all, the most optimistic part of Jennifer’s brain argued, just because she’d seen the wreckage of her ship on the mountain ridge behind haven, she may have had a wild, wonderful and exciting life before the end, and may have found what she was looking for. (Which she’d never asked about.) But maybe was at least enough to keep her from weeping all over again.
She went over to her father. “Do you mind if I ride this out with you?” She asked. “I can think of worse arrangements,” he answered, and they walked to Terence’s cabin.
He sat in his chair and she sat on his bunk. He asked about the book she was reading and she eagerly talked about Iqbal Oryx Tløn and his adventures. At first they resolutely talked about everything but Captain Transcendent, but then Dr. Ransom, motioned her towards him.
“Jennifer Lynx-eyes let slip about us being her favorite book. I know that’s very bizarre and even frightening. It scared me a bit too: but if the future is real and people come from it, it’s probably inevitable that this comes up. There’s nothing more disheartening than feeling that your life has already been written.”
He brought her close. “But then I remembered how many times they remade Batman. I think we might not be so trapped as all that.”
She tried not to, but she started to laugh. So did he. “I love you, Dada.”
It was in the early morning hours, ship time, that the Captain spoke. “All hands strap into safety restraints. We’ve got some unanticipated turbulence to go with our anticipated turbulence. At least as tough as the last time, so don’t get comfortable.”
Jennifer strapped in with her father, and the shaking began. A view of the florward telemetry filled the cabin, showing the sculpted wood ford of the Absolute Elsewhere ahead of them. There was blinding light coming from a number of directions, increasing in intensity until the image reset and started climbing again. Finally the AE was an irregular black blob weaving amid the glaring white.
Jennifer’s voice came on “We have a crossover window of a bout two minutes starting in five , but we can’t do it unless we’re completely in sync. We’re getting knocked off sync by all this energy, so don’t give me a flash unless you’re dead on zero. Copy?”
The Swan bumped as if it were flexible in the middle. There was a cross-hair and sphere graphic in the corner of the graphic, and Jeanette focused on that. The bucking got worse, and then worse again.
The sphere hit the crosshairs dead center, but then immediately slid right and up, and Ngozi’s voice said ‘shit.’ Then there came a sequence of severe turbulence, where the sphere was all over the place.
“We’re in the window. Any time, Captain.”
There was a crash, and the lights blinked, which the lights had never done before. They were back on in an instant, and the sphere seemed stuck in one corner.
“I don’t want to cut you loose, but I will if I have to,” Jennifer’s voice said. There were glitches in the sound.
The sphere started to cross the area. It touched the center, and a hard silvery ping ran through the ship.
Then they were calm, and the view was dead black.
The triumph was muted by the fact that the Absolute Elsewhere was gone. Even though that was the expected outcome, it still brought them down from jubilation.
The Captain’s voice said dully, “We’ve lost the Deep Chaos track.”
Which meant it had all been for nothing, Jeanette knew.
Then she was back. “Man a direct diagnostics trace. We might have a bus rupture. MOVE, and that means the rats too!”
It was a few tense minutes. Then: “Third subsidiary bus collapsed. That was the crash we heard. It’s a complete mess.”
“Have to do it through the main drive. Cut our power in half for a while.”
The eternal sound of the engines changed.
The Captain said, “We’ve got it. We’ll need to replace the profile from backup, but we’ve got a trace. Thank you.”
Her father’s cabin was not as abundantly supplied with snacks as the one she shared with Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, but he did have a variety of juices. So they sipped patiently.
“Trace has been refined. We’ve got a small solar system within spitting distance , and the track looks like it comes to a node there. That may be an artifact, but it also might be our target. You can release from restraints now.”
A few hours later, they were approaching a dark planet of roiling clouds. The sun was a main-sequence yellow star. “I know we might have preferred some black or extinguished star, but the track definitely comes to a node inside the planet.”
“The Night Land,” Dr. Ransom breathed.
“All hands beat to quarters. We have a welcoming party. Twenty, twenty five uglies.”
The view refocused, shifted over to a detail at the edge of the cloud planet, then magnified.
“Theravaders,” Ransom said.
“They see us.”