Gate Jumpers Saga: Chapter One

Part One: Bound to the Alien

Chapter 1

Taryn was bored. She moved her fingers aimlessly over the touchscreen in her lap, numbly flicking through digital page after digital page of reports. She sighed, and glanced to her right. Jeline and Sherre, her pilot and navigator, were talking in excited tones. They had been happily slaving over the Solar Positioning System tabletop for the past hour, their heads bent together as they pointed and made marks. Taryn grinned in spite of herself. At least someone was having fun.

“I really think you should take something.”

Taryn rolled her eyes, and pointedly ignored Lyra standing directly to her left. She was the ship’s medic and a decent colleague, but there were moments when Taryn felt like the woman had been assigned as her own personal nurse from hell. Moments like now, when she was trying to force-feed her pills.

“Taryn.” Lyra crossed her arms, towering over Taryn, who merely slouched under her shadow. “What’s an earache now could be a migraine by the next jump—”

“Nope,” Taryn said with a particular hard flick to her screen. “I’m not taking that crap. It puts me to sleep, and I’m not playing the nod-off game in a jump sequence.”

Lyra pursed her lips, glaring at Taryn. She stood there for a few seconds, holding the pose until her infamously short patience ran out and she huffed a sigh. “Taryn—”

“Leave me alone.”

“But—”

“That’s an order, Medic Conrarson.”

Lyra threw her hands in the air, exasperated. She turned on her heel and marched away – with any luck, back to sick bay. Sure, a scout ship for five wasn’t exactly extravagant, but it did mean a medical lab down the hall between the café and the dorms. Just far away enough for Taryn to avoid Lyra completely, so long as she planned it right. “I’ll show you an order,” Taryn heard Lyra mumble as the doors opened for her.

Taryn waited until she heard the click of them closing behind Lyra to relax. She turned off the reports, tired of the endless figures, and tossed it onto the table before her. With a sigh, she let her head flop back against her headrest, ignoring the headache brewing behind her left eye.

“Sherre, report,” Taryn groaned. She’d meant for it to come out as more of a bark, but really, Sherre was young enough to do anything but not take her captain seriously, anyway.

“We are proceeding to Gate Three, ma’am!” she beamed, her two braids bouncing on her shoulders as she whirled around to look at Taryn. Jeline smiled as she leaned on the Solar Positioning System next to her, softly shaking her head at the girl’s enthusiasm. She was the youngest of them, just barely at the cutoff age of nineteen.

“…How much longer?” Taryn sighed.

“ETA is…” The beeps of the buttons Sherre typed filled the room. “Twenty minutes, Captain!”

Taryn groaned, scrubbing a hand over her face. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand, it was the time it took to do jumps. Oh sure, when the first jump gates had been found it’d revolutionized space travel. They might as well be called time travelers now, what with how far a jump gate could really jump someone into new space; into a new solar system. But all those jumps had to be kept track of so a crew could find their way home, only to turn around and jump through them all over again. Maddening, really. Not to mention how far apart each new set of gates were from each other. Taryn hated jumping through one and feeling that jolt, that addictive vibration of speed and light, only to have to spend an hour or so cruising to the next closest one.

“And after that? How long to the next gate?” Taryn almost hesitated to ask.

“After that, we don’t know,” Sherre shrugged. “It’ll be a new set of jump gates.”

That made Taryn sit up a little straighter. If there was one thing she loved about working on a scout ship, it was the exploring. It was the reason she’d joined as a pilot for jump service, rather than enlisting as a fighter on a weapons ship. Sure, she probably would’ve seen an alien life form by now, but there was a good chance that the form would’ve been an aggressive one. No, out here she was with the stars, alone to venture forth and explore space without the deadlines of war.

“Well? What do you think, Willovitch?” Taryn called to her engineer, Stephine Willovitch. “Should we go right, or left at the new gates?”

Willovitch looked up from her computer, owlishly blinking her large green eyes at Taryn. “There’s no telling that there will only be two jump gates, Captain,” she said flatly. That was the other problem with making jumps – you had to remember which gate you went through, because there was never just one. “There could be a third. Or an undocumented fourth.”

“But say there are only two,” Taryn leaned toward her. “Right? Or left? What are you feeling?”

“I have never had a feeling solely in charge of which direction I should take,” Willovitch replied blandly, already turning back to her screen. “Though when we come across them, I will be sure to run diagnostics as per the usual and give an educated guess.”

“Well, sure,” Taryn grinned. “I never expected less.”

“Captain,” Jeline interrupted them. “We’re approaching the gates.”

“Excellent,” Taryn left Willovitch to her own devices, just how the engineer liked it, and turned her attention to her pilot. “Jeline, where are we?”

“Two miles out,” she reported, clicking away at her desk. “Three gates.”

“First appears unstable,” Willovitch was already running tests, using protocol to count the gates from left to right. “Running tests for the second and third now.”

“No one has jumped here before,” Sherre chimed in. “None of my reports match these gates. First and third have some unusual markings with a flexible outer layer of green.”

“Agreed,” Willovitch nodded. “I advise the second gate for our next jump. It appears the most stable.”

“Well,” Taryn stood up, clasping her hands behind her back. “Let’s get to it then. Jeline, take us in. And Willovitch – put it up on the central hologram.”

Jeline typed away, sending command after command to the autopilot. Manually controlling a ship in space was always risky, especially during a jump, and Jeline had long learned to copilot the ship automatically, prompting – almost nudging – the ship in the direction she wanted while the autopilot remained online and compensated for any complications. It took Jeline seconds to align the ship with the middle gate, at which point she added speed, lightly rolling her fingers over the screen to give the ship a gradual boost.

“Is this it? Are we jumping?” Lyra asked, the doors whooshing open as she jogged into the room. One glance at the hologram sporting three ethereal gates in the middle of the room, and she knew that they were in the middle of performing a jump. She practically flung herself into the nearest chair, yanking the safety straps up and over her head as she buckled in.

Taryn laughed at her, grinning as she watched her pilot and navigator.  “Jeline—”

“Taryn, What are you doing?” Lyra interrupted her. 

Taryn didn’t make a move to sit down. “My job,” she answered dryly, her mouth twitching as she fought a smile.

“Standing? Before a jump?”

“Yes,” she said, like it was the most natural thing in the world. “Now, if you don’t mind, Medic Conrarson, I’ve got a jump to orchestrate.”

A strangled breath. “You can’t be—”

“Jeline!” Taryn shouted over her. “Are we a go?”

“Yes, Captain!” she replied from her station.

“So far so good,” Willovitch agreed.

“Initiate countdown!” Taryn ordered, her eyes on the hologram portraying the gate ahead of them, the jump imminent.

“Five,” Sherre began. “Four, Three, Two—!”

It happened before Sherre could even open her mouth to form the next number. One moment they were staring into the hologram’s best impression of the black abyss of a gate, and the next Taryn was stumbling forward, bracing herself on the bridge’s chrome railing. She laughed at the lightning igniting her bones and filling her veins, watching as the hologram grew to a vast black hole.

And then, something horrible happened.

The ground shuddered under her and seemed to flip, throwing her over the railing and onto the lower floor. Someone called out, yelling for her, but everything was moving too fast. She reached out a hand to grab a nearby chair, silently panicked as it took her three tries just to get a grip strong enough to right herself. The ship seemed to stabilize, gaining some semblance of solidity, and she pulled herself to her knees until she could get into a crouching position. Glancing behind her, she felt her heart sink at the sight of the broken hologram.

“Willovitch!” she barked. “Status report!” If anyone knew what was going on, it was her engineer.

“Captain,” she grunted. “We’ve taken a hit.” Even as she spoke, the ship bounced sharply, as if under attack. In fact, Taryn didn’t have any reason to believe that they weren’t.

“Jeline! Have you got eyes on the outside?!” she demanded.

“W-we’ve entered a meteor storm, Captain,” Jeline announced distractedly, her eyes on the screen in front of her as her hands danced over the keyboard.

“A meteor storm…?” Taryn shook her head, trying to clear it even as things banged and crashed all around them. Doing her best to stay close to the ground so as not to fall off-balance again, she half-crawled to where her pilot and navigator were furiously working.

“Sherre,” she hooked her arm around the girl’s armrest. “Talk to me.”

Sherre didn’t even look at her, her eyes wide as they glanced repeated between the print and the screen. She was relying on two different medias, shifting through the papers and online accounts at her fingertips. “I-I don’t know,” she finally muttered. Papers were falling to the floor around her feet, and those that she was clutching in her hands were becoming wrinkled and damaged. “I have no idea where we are. We’re in an unprecedented jump, and I can’t see anything!” She gestured to the hologram, quiet and useless in the center of the room.

Taryn opened her mouth to tell the girl to focus, but before she could someone else laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Calm down,” Lyra said, her amber eyes calm as she appeared beside Taryn. “The last thing you want to do is panic.”

“Lyra!” Taryn cursed. “What are you doing? Get back to your seat—”

“Says the woman who stood up during a jump!”

“Says the Captain who is relying on her only medic to be alive and kicking!” Even as she yelled at her, the ship rumbled all around them.

“Sorry,” Sherre pipped up, her head down.

“Why are you apologizing?” Taryn huffed, still glaring Lyra down.

“No, I mean…” she shrugged, throwing a hand to indicate her cluttered desk.

“You can do this,” Lyra insisted, squeezing her shoulder. “I have faith in you. So does the captain. Right?” she glanced at Taryn.

“Of course,” she agreed. “Why else would I have allowed a rookie to join my crew?” Not that any of it was her choice, really – every citizen was required to serve four years in some sort of space-related occupation. After that, they were free to continue in their field or lead a life where their foot never had to fly outside of a planet’s atmosphere again. Sherre’s service had just begun, which made her status as a navigator all the more rare.

Taryn turned to Willovitch as another bang erupted near the back of the ship. “How are we holding up?”

Willovtich just shook her head, the ends of her short dark brown hair swishing to brush her cheeks as she moved. She was muttering in her mother tongue, the scowl on her face making her appear even more intimidating than usual. “It’s bad,” she finally ground out. “We’re taking hit after hit – this is not good, Captain.”

Taryn sighed, looking around at her crew. Sherre was bent back over her work station, flipping through her papers while Lyra whispered words of encouragement in her ear. Jeline, her hands forever moving, was tense, her back straight as she stared, unblinking, at the screen before her in an attempt to try correcting the ship. Willovitch, back to muttering to herself, was glaring at her screen as she furiously typed away.

“Alright, that’s it.” Taryn said it to herself, first, but then she shouted, “Okay, everyone get in a pod!” When they all just stared at her, baffled, she growled, “Now!”

Sherre moved first, even if it was just to give a jerky turn as she did a double-take at her captain.

“Let’s go, ladies!” Lyra chimed in, yelling as she gripped Sherre’s chair to stand up in the trembling ship. “Move out!” she said, urging Sherre and Jeline to get to their feet.

Willovitch gave Taryn a frustrated look, as if irritated at being interrupted in the middle of her work, but Taryn simply shot her a look right back. Willovitch eventually huffed a sigh, standing with a grip on her chair as the ship took another jolting hit. That made Sherre stand up out of her seat, which left Jeline as the only one not moving.

“Pilot Montias!” Taryn ordered, grabbing her arm and yanking her up by it. Jeline frantically moved her hands, trying desperately to keep control of the ship. “Please,” she pleaded. “Captain, I’m so sorry. If you just let me; if only I had—”

“What?” Taryn asked angrily. “If only you had the ability to see into the future and predict the meteor shower?” Taryn forced a laugh. “Sure, great. Let me just take a fucking seat and wait for you to fix it, then.”

Jeline opened her mouth, no doubt to argue, but Taryn beat her to it. “But,” she said, “In the off-chance that you’re just a normal fucking person doing the best she can, how about you follow my orders and set an example?” At that, she made an obvious glance at Sherre. The girl was becoming more nervous and panicked by the second. Jeline nodded after a moment, the meaning clear.

“Sherre,” she said, grabbing the younger girl’s arm on the unsteady ground. “We can do more research from the computers in the pods.” Pulling her along, the two started for the back of the room. Willovitch, growling under her breath, followed after them.

Taryn watched them go, while she herself retook her seat and punched in a code on the right armrest. A blue shield seemed to spring up before her, acting like a translucent tray across her lap. She typed a few more digits, and a flash of white across it read, “Autopilot Offline.”

“You aren’t coming?” Lyra asked from behind her.

Taryn merely shook her head. “Protocol. Someone has to stay behind.”

“Don’t give me that crap,” she hissed, but Taryn was already waving her hands over the holographic control panel, the ship responding in kind with her gentle movements. “There are six pods, and if you don’t want to leave a record that you took one, you can just squeeze into someone else’s. They fit two,” she insisted. “Get in mine, and—”

“Lyra,” Taryn said quietly, her eyes on her hands. “You remember the first time we served together?”

“Hm,” Lyra hummed, remembering. “You mean when you managed to steer the ship between two gates and miss a jump completely?” Taryn grinned, so Lyra continued. “Captain was furious. That was years ago, but you’re still just as bone-headed now,” she sighed, the sound lost to the rumbling of the ship.

“I was just a pilot back then,” Taryn agreed. “I became a captain after three years, and no offense Lyra, but I’m not going to survive this just to get demoted for breaking practice. Not on my last tour.”

Lyra gave her a look. “If I go in there,” she pointed over her shoulder. “And I go into torpor hibernation, then I’m useless to you. We all are.”

“Yes,” Taryn agreed. “And it’s where I’ll let you all out of once we’ve reached a relatively safe place, and then you can be useful again.”

Lyra scowled. “You really—”

“Lyra,” Taryn stopped her, never even turning to meet her eyes. “As your captain, please, enter the silent safety of your pod and let me concentrate.”

It took a moment, but soon the retreating scuffs of Lyra’s boots mixed with the groans of the ship, and before Taryn could say another word Lyra was through the doors to the emergency pods.

“Well, that was easy,” she grumbled to herself. Removing her right hand slowly so as not to confuse the ship, she typed another series of numbers into the keypad on her armrest, relieved when a voice sounded over the speakers.

“State your purpose,” the robotic female voice prompted.

“Search for a nearby planet,” Taryn called out to it. “One with oxygen, if you don’t mind.”

“Scanning… Scanning…”

“C’mon,” Taryn muttered.

“Planet found. Analysis—”

“Doesn’t matter,” she rolled her eyes. Then, louder, “Coordinates!” The voice cited off a location, and she typed it into her keyboard. Immediately, a spot of red appeared on the control panel. Taryn smiled – she might not have any eyes on the outside, but blindly steering with the panel would put them in the right direction. She waved a hand, and sent them towards it.

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