Within the Hanger Bay was a crowd; Elder’s first impression was of thousands of space suits milling around as he paused at the entrance platform. There were several small, glossy white, ships near the exterior doors. From where he stood, across the Hanger Bay from them, they appeared to Elder as though they were barely large enough to hold one person.
“Cadet Trainee Elder, your orders are to proceed to Courier N00043A-0441 and board for transport to examination location.” The voice over the suit radio startled Elder. He acknowledged the command, but got no reply. Therefore, he decided that the Navy was playing with his communications again. However, as he plodded towards the ships, he remembered from his secondary levels that no reply was given to someone who acknowledged a command. How much of his classes in Naval Architecture and Pre-Imperial History would be useful during this test? If some bit of information would be needed, would he remember in time?
Worriedly working his way down the access stairway and through the crowd milling in the Hanger Bay, Elder could see that several space-suited figures were starting to move towards the waiting ships; while others were moving away from the ships, making room for those boarding ships. As he worked his way through the crowd Elder decided it was not as large as he first thought, it was perhaps closer to a few hundred rather than several thousand.
It was almost fifteen minutes before Elder stumbled upon Courier N00043A-0441 mounted upon a launch catapult. Several other courier ships were launched while he hunted, the catapults blasting them out of the Hanger Bay with a roar. Other courier ships were being placed on the catapults from storage elsewhere in the Bay. The crowd shrank considerably,. It now seemed to be just a few dozen.
The courier ship appeared considerably larger, now that he was next to it instead of across the Hanger Bay. There was a gaping maw of an entry airlock open on the side of the ship. Once Elder walked up the black spiral gangway and through the airlock, the hatches fastened automatically behind him with a dull thud.
“Passengers will prepare for launch.” That female voice came from a speaker at the front of the cabin and Elder heard it through the audio receivers in his suit. The Navy was still playing games with his communications equipment, but he had been hearing noised since he had entered the Hanger Bay; maybe if this lasted long enough, Elder could deduce what the rules were for when he could hear and when not. Elder hastily strapped himself into the nearest lime green acceleration couch. He surprised himself by remembering the instructions given him during his trip to the PLETHO., which was convenient since there was no one to help him secure himself into the acceleration couch this time. Looking around once he finished safely pulling the lower net up to his waist and the upper net down to his waist and then hitting the tightening adjustments, he realized that he was the only passenger aboard the courier. There were couches for ten people in the passenger cabin were he was. He remembered the announcement, it had said passengers. Elder wondered where the others were. From what he could remember about the exterior of the ship, this was probably the only passenger cabin. A moment of panic set in as Elder wondered if he was on the wrong ship.
“Launch in thirty seconds.” The voice came again from the speaker, eliminating any hope Elder had of leaving and making sure he was on the right ship; plus, he wasn’t sure he could open the hatches. Then at the appropriate times the voice said, “Launch in twenty seconds.” and then :Launch in ten seconds.”
There was no countdown after the ten-second warning and the explosive acceleration caught Elder off guard. As the courier launched from the Hanger Bay the sudden acceleration whooshed the breath out of his lungs since armor is no protection against the force of acceleration. After a few seconds, the acceleration changed from the ship’s stern and came from the right front of the ship. The ship was changing course and Elder could now catch his breath. After a few seconds, the acceleration reverted to astern as the courier began accelerating to Jump Speed. Elder estimated from the extra weight he felt that the thrust was at least two standard gravities, but that was his uneducated guess.
Elder could see no navigational indicators or instruments anywhere in the cabin, thus, he couldn’t deduce which direction the ship was traveling ar at what velocity it would Jump at; and since there was a direct relationship between the distance of the Jump and the velocity of the ship at the time of the Jump, he would have no idea where he would be going, not that it really mattered. He did not know very much about astronomy and could not make the calculations to guess where he would end up anyway. He was not even sure what system the PLETHO was in, except that it was only one Jump from Krasgia, so he didn’t have a starting point to make the calculations he didn’t know how to do anyway.
That one Jump, his only Jump before now, had been on a transport ship, the INS MANUEL CHRYSOLORAS OP00264F-0174, and it had taken three days to reach Jump velocity, and three days to slow to meet the PLETHO, but the transport had much smaller engines relative to size than this courier seemed to have.
The courier did not accelerate very long, not more than five minutes; the Jump could not be very far. The testing site probably was not over a light year or so away and must, therefore, be in a nearby star system. At least, that was Elder’s uneducated guess.
“All passengers prepare for Jump.” Elder hurriedly checked out his suit, turning it off. He double-checked his Navy-issued computer to ensure that he had safely turned it off. He had no other electronics with him. Electronics could not stand Jump, unless it had special protection; and space suits or personal electronics rarely had the necessary shielding. He expected he was prepared for Jump.
“Jump in thirty seconds.”
“Jump in twenty seconds.”
“Jump in ten seconds.”
“Jump in five seconds.”
It was here that all power was cut and everything plunged into blackness. Elder’s nerves felt like they had gone haywire and he almost thought he smelled something in his suit’s air system but he ignored it as his nerves acting up even though his sense of smell was better than average, due to his oversized nose in all probability. There was the start of panic, but he fought it down, he had survived his only other Jump without problems, he would survive this one.
Elder expected he was better prepared for this Jump; he had suffered a lot from his first ever Jump when coming to the PLETHO. However, his previous experience made no difference. No human mind can ever be prepared for Jump, that transient moment of no-space and no-time. So, although Elder expected the Jump, and guessed exactly when it would happen, he still suffered. His reaction to the effects he felt this time was much worse in spite of his prior experience of a Jump.
About thirty seconds later power came back on and the female voice from before came over the speaker, “Jump complete. Passengers will make medical checks.” A bright orange-red light began flashing on the bulkhead at the front of the passenger compartment and a cover slid down, uncovering an instrument panel. Elder unstrapped himself and struggled to stand. He made it, just barely, on the second attempt, and lurched over to the flashing light. He plugged the medical sensor plug from the panel into the proper jack on his suit on the third try.
“Suit nonfunctional or the subject is dead. Personnel will investigate and communicate which of the two conditions exists concerning this subject.” Elder dimly stared at the console where a different female computer voice had come from for a second before he remembered that his suit was turned off, he hadn’t turned it back on after Jump. He realized the effects of the Jump on his mind were harder to get rid of than the last Jump. He fumbled to switch his suit on and waited for the self-test to finish. It reported no malfunction.
“Suit activated. I did not turn suit on before the first test. Initiate retest.” He spoke in a slur, expecting no response since he was not sure if the Navy had turned his communications equipment back on.
“Retesting.” Then, after a short interval. “Subject matches normal parameters for human personnel. Test complete.”
As the fog started to clear from his mind, Elder wondered when the Navy would take his ability to communicate away from him again. He could not see a pattern in when he had communications and when he did not; of maybe he had before and just could not remember now. However, his mind was not clear of the fog yet.
“Prepare for high gravity acceleration. Acceleration in thirty seconds.”
Elder unplugged from the medical computer and stumbled back to his acceleration couch and began securing himself as the voice announced the twenty second warning and then the ten second warning. He had scarcely secured himself back to the acceleration couch when the ship began accelerating. Wherever this ship was going, it was going in a hurry. Elder estimated that the ship was accelerating at a steady three standard gravities, or close to it. At least it was considerably more acceleration than before.
Once he realized that, Elder wondered why he had dashed across the cabin to the acceleration couch he had started from; there were several others closer to the medical station at the front of the cabin. Was he that much a slave to habit? He had to be more intelligent than that!
After three hours of constant acceleration, the alert came that acceleration was stopping. The ship floated for several minutes, twisting in space, then came another acceleration alert. Another one hundred eighty minutes went by with the thrust at the same strength and another alert that acceleration was stopping came. The ship jerked around for a few minutes and then stopped again.
“Passengers will exit and proceed to the testing location. Passengers will proceed to the training ship situated off the bow of this ship using their suit thrusters.”
Elder wondered if the crew knew that there was only one passenger or if this was a computer program that had only certain stock phrases. Or maybe someone was left back on the PLETHO. If that was the case, would that mean that the test was already over and everyone else on the team failed because someone was late? Elder panicked for a moment at the thought. When did the test start, then or now or sometime in the future?
The entry airlock hatch opened then and Elder unstrapped himself and floated out while worrying about this. He made it through the airlock with the difficulty of dancing with a hippo; this, after all, was his first time trying to maneuver in zero gravity while wearing a space suit. The crew must have shut off the artificial gravity while the ship had been approaching wherever they were since there had been gravity before.
He peered around toward the bow of the courier until he spotted the glossy white shape of a much larger ship hanging in space about five hundred metes away. He could see the suit thrusts of several people as they flew in that direction from three other courier ships ahead of and beneath his courier. A few were already at the other ship. Elder aimed himself and started his suit thrusters. He flew over the center courier, the one directly between his and the ship ahead. He would be the last individual of the group to make it to the testing site. How appropriate, Elder thought, last again.
As he approached the testing ship, he noticed an open secondary airlock. It was easy to recognize since there was a bright white light flashing next to it and some of the others were already entering it. Elder pushed his thrusters a slight bit more so he was not too far behind the others. As he began braking to avoid flying through the other ship, he noticed the softly glowing green marking on the glossy white hull: P01123D-1123 INS Jean Joseph Jacotot. The name meant nothing to him, but he knew enough about the Navy to know that the P classification meant this was a training ship, which made sense.
As Elder got near the airlock, the outer door began closing; and, not wanting to gamble on staying outside, Elder rudely forced his way inside the airlock. There was enough room for six or seven people to fit comfortably inside and with about half again that number inside it was uncomfortable. There was no power available in the airlock, so everyone stood around in the darkness, waiting for whatever was next.
Though he could barely breathe in the crowded airlock (he recognized it as purely psychological since the armor protecting him prevented the others in the airlock from pressing against his chest and lungs) he waited along with the others. After an apprehensive, but short, wait the inner door opened. The people standing next to the inner hatch were forced through it by the mere presence of all the people in the airlock. Some of the first through lost their balance and fell to the deck. Just on the other side was a group of ten dull gray lockers in a U formation, obviously added to the ship after its initial construction since they thoroughly blocked the corridor leading further into the ship. The few standing people ahead of Elder began taking their space suits off and storing them into the chain of lockers. Since it seemed logical to follow their example, one of them might know what they were doing, Elder moved to the locker on the extreme left end and did the same, putting the portable computer back into the tote bag, which he slung around his waist. Once free of their space suits, people mulled around and in general got into each other’s way. Moving around so that others could take their suits off in the too-small space, the first cadets out of their suits tried to find a way beyond the lockers. Elder began examining the welded area holding the dull gray locker to the tan wall. Since the locker went to the overhead deck, Elder guessed that it might swing away from the bulkhead. He quickly discovered that he was wrong.