By the time I turned off the water, I didn’t have any answers, but I’d made up my mind that I was going to get some. Nosy mercs might be dead mercs, but there was a point where not knowing was more dangerous than snooping, and we’d passed that when Rupert had fired his first shot. This job was my ticket to the Devastators, and that was too important to risk being ignorant.
Feeling infinitely better now that I’d made a decision, I padded down the empty hall to my room. Technically my shift had started while we were cleaning, but with all the time Cotter had wasted bragging, I figured I could grab two hours or so before I’d need to go back out. Enough time to catch up on a little rest. Can’t go sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong on zero sleep, after all.
I set the alarm on my handset and flopped into my bunk. This time I didn’t even see Nova’s hangings. I was out the moment my head touched the pillow.
Of course, now that I’d decided to uncover the truth about Rupert, I didn’t actually know where to begin. I’m a merc, not an investigator. “Shoot first, question later” is practically tattooed on my forehead.
If I were still in the Blackbirds or the army I’d just report my suspicions up the chain of command and let them deal with it, but Rupert was Caldswell’s man, so I couldn’t very well go to the captain for answers. With my normal route cut off, I was floundering to come up with a suitably clever plan that would uncover what I needed to know without risking the most important job of my career. I still hadn’t thought of anything by the time we reached the hyperspace gate the next morning, and by that point I was entirely sucked into preparations for the jump.
A hyperspace jump is always a grand affair. Everything has to be locked down, because even with the best equipment, the transition can be rough, especially on a smaller ship. It made sense. We were, after all, leaving our own dimension and slipping into the strange space between realities. I didn’t understand much more than that, but neither did anyone who wasn’t a hyperspace engineer. All I knew was that it involved a lot of math, and while any ship with a hyperdrive coil could jump into hyperspace with or without a gate, the gate was the only safe way.
Free jumps were horribly dangerous, though not because hyperspace itself was dangerous. Hyperspace was actually the safest place you could be, because when a ship went into hyperspace it created its own miniature dimension where it was the only thing that existed. That was why Cotter and I were off duty during jumps: no need for security when there was nothing to attack you. No, what made jumping dangerous was time, or, more specifically, the difference between time in hyperspace and time in the real universe.
It had been the discovery of the hyperspace coil that had gotten humans off Old Earth. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for ships to vanish for years, sometimes centuries, though their onboard clocks said they’d only been in hyperspace for a day or two. It was called time dilation, and it was a huge problem. So far as science knew, time only moved forward, but how much and how fast got fuzzy once you left the boundaries of our dimension.
Getting into hyperspace was simple—all you needed was enough energy of the right kind to jump out of reality, sort of like a fish jumping out of a creek, but the math of landing again at the right place and time was something else entirely. There were millions of variables involved with leaving hyperspace, and an error on any of them could mean coming out decades later than you’d planned to. For centuries this meant only the craziest ships used hyperdrives and everyone else stuck to what they could reach through near light speed travel.
The gates changed everything. They weren’t even gates, really. “Gate” implies something you go through, but a hyperspace gate is nothing but a space-station-sized supercomputer capable of quickly and accurately doing the computations needed for safe jumps. A gate’s math guaranteed you’d come out of hyperspace exactly where and, more importantly, when you wanted. Jumps across the universe were routine these days. I’d done hundreds of them in my career, but I still prayed to the Sainted King every time to bring me through safely. After all the service I’d given him, I figured it was the least he could do.
We were using the Portcullis, the newest and largest of Paradox’s three hyperspace gates, and we were not alone. The wait to jump was nearly two hours, and I spent the whole time with Caldswell yelling in my ear as I tied things down like a damn deckhand.
“You do remember that I was hired to be security, sir?” I snapped as I helped Mabel finish securing the engine room. “You know, the reason you and your entire crew aren’t languishing in some xith’cal slave pen right now?”
“Your heroism never leaves my mind,” the captain drawled. “But we all pull our weight around here, Morris, and soldiers don’t complain.”
I closed my mouth and slammed the last of Mabel’s enormously heavy tools into the wall case. Fortunately, the engine room was the last of it, and when Caldswell called for everyone to prepare to jump, I stomped upstairs to the lounge windows to watch the show.
Outside I could see dozens of ships, mostly Paradoxian cruisers, floating around the fat, lumpy sphere of the Portcullis gate station as they waited their turn to jump. One by one, the ships lit up and vanished, winking out like dying stars as the gate guided them on their way across the universe. The flashes grew closer and closer until, at last, it was our turn. I felt the thrum through my boots as the hyperspace coil began to spin up. Outside, the hull of the Fool was lit with glorious white light as the coil glowed brighter and brighter.
As always, the actual jump took me by surprise. On the other ships it had looked like a firecracker popping and fading, but when you were standing on top of it, the jump flash was like a splash of cold water in the face. The light filled the ship, creating the tiny dimension where we would wait out the journey. I could almost feel myself being pulled out of space and time as it passed over me, and I had to fight not to throw up. No matter how many jumps I made, I never got used to that feeling. Human bodies just aren’t meant to change dimensions. Thankfully, it lasted only a second, and then the ship bucked hard, like a boat hitting a wave.
My suit handled the bump without much fuss. The bottles in the locked bar clattered, but otherwise it was a pretty smooth transition. The shaking stopped after that first lurch, along with all sense of movement. Outside, the black expanse of space disappeared, replaced by the grayish purple wall of our tiny pocket dimension. We were in.
“Jump complete,” Basil’s whistling voice said over the ship com. “Seven hours until Mycant, and before any of you say anything about the bump, that was the shoddy Paradoxian gate’s fault, not mine.” I caught the sound of Nova’s laughter before the com clicked off.
Because there was nothing that could bother us and nothing to do but wait, hyperspace was time off. I shed my armor and went looking for Rupert with the vague idea of asking him some subtle questions. He was nowhere to be found, though, and I wasn’t so out of options that I was ready to go banging on his door just yet.
While I’d been gone, Cotter had commandeered the lounge and was using the vidscreen to watch some god-awful armor exhibition game, the kind with impractically large weapons and tank-sized suits piloted by men with egos to match. I guess all that talk about Reddeath had put him in the mood, and since I wasn’t about to have that argument again, I went to my room to put in Phoebe’s new blade. When I opened my door, though, I found Nova sitting on the floor with her eyes closed and some music that sounded like a duet between a flute and a malfunctioning com system coming from the speaker in front of her.
“Am I interrupting anything?”
“Yes,” Nova said. “But I don’t mind. Meditating to feel the flow of the universe is a bit of a waste when you’re not actually in the universe anymore.”
I laughed. “No oneness in hyperspace?”
“None except that which we hold in us always,” Nova said, opening her eyes. “What can I do for you, Deviana?”
I was about to tell her to just keep doing as she liked since I was going to work on my weapons, but then another thought occurred to me. “Actually,” I said, sinking onto my bunk. “Maybe you can answer some questions for me.”
“Questions are the first step toward knowledge,” Nova said in a way that made me think she was quoting someone.
Taking that as a yes, I set in. “How long have you been on this ship?”
“Almost two years,” Nova said proudly. “The captain says I’m the longest serving sensors operator he’s ever had.”
That didn’t sound like something to be proud of, but I kept my opinion to myself. “Has Rupert been here that long?”
“Oh no,” Nova said. “Mr. Charkov came on about six months ago. Before that, we ate precooked rations.” She wrinkled her nose. “The food is much better now.”
I bet. “And do you know anything about what he did before joining Caldswell?”
Nova thought a moment. “I don’t think so. He told me once that he taught himself to cook, though.”
“Has he ever fought on the ship?” I said, pressing a little harder. “Like in a pirate raid or something?”
“Not that I remember,” Nova said, shaking her head. “I don’t think he does anything but cook and help look after the captain’s daughter.” Her face fell. “I feel so bad for her, her aura is so dim.”
“Ren?” I didn’t believe in auras, but Rupert had mentioned she’d had a tough life.
“Yes,” Nova said. “She used to talk only to the captain, but now she talks to Rupert, too.” As suddenly as her face had fallen, Nova was smiling again. “I’m glad he’s here.”
“Me too,” I said thoughtfully.
“I’m happy you’re here, too,” Nova said, her dreamy voice growing serious. “Thank you for saving us. I’m sorry I didn’t get to tell you earlier.”
I sat back in surprise. I couldn’t remember anyone ever thanking me for doing my job before. “Thank you for saying so,” I said at last. “I thought you would be mad at me, actually.”
Nova’s wispy eyebrows shot up. “Why would I be angry?”
Because all the spacey religious types I’d encountered before had been nut job protesters who thought you shouldn’t shoot other people, even xith’cal. “You just seem to be a peaceful sort of person,” I said instead.
“Life and death are equal parts of the universal harmony,” she said with a shrug. “Though I am always where I am supposed to be, I don’t exactly want to end up in a xith’cal feed pen.”
I grinned. That was the most normal thing I’d ever heard her say.
“We have six and a half hours before we have to return to our duties,” Nova said, getting up off the floor. “What would you like to do?”
I’d meant to keep working on Rupert’s mystery, but Nova looked so happy about having someone to hang out with, and it wasn’t like I knew what my next step was anyway. “Let’s see,” I said, leaning over to dig into my duffel. “Want to play cards?”
Nova’s eyes went wide. “I’d love to,” she said. “How do you do it? I’ve never played cards before.”
That was music to my ears. I love corrupting innocents. “It’s not hard. Here.” I pulled out my deck and, after a quick shuffle, dealt her five off the top. “We’ll start with poker.”
Nova caught on quick. She couldn’t bluff to save her life, but she counted cards like a pro right from the first hand, no doubt a result of all those years of math you have to master in order to qualify for systems work. I taught her the five basic poker variations and all the common cheats. By the time we got to the royal rules, she was a little cross-eyed.