Eternity's End

Eternity’s End

by Jeffrey A. Carver

PART ONE

Time is the Image of Eternity

—Plato

They who see the Flying Dutchman never, never reach the shore.

—John Boyle O’Reilly

Prologue

Ghost Ship

Streamers of light seemed to coil in slow motion through the corridors of the starship.

The passengers and crew moved in great straining ripples as they walked through the ship, carrying on the business of living, if living you could call it.

The passengers breathed and ate and slept, and socialized after a fashion. And the crew carried out their duties, seeing to the needs of the passengers, repairing machinery, and tending the makeshift hydroponics gardens that supplied the nutritional needs of the five hundred-plus souls on board. The riggers on the bridge continued to search the skies for a way home, peering into the bewildering mists of the Flux and wondering what in the name of creation had gone wrong. Their lives consisted of ennui and bewilderment, interrupted at long intervals by heart-pounding excitement when they sighted another ship… followed inevitably by piercing despair, when their efforts to make contact ended in failure.

It was a strange and terrifying limbo, here where the starship floated, trapped in some enigmatic layering of the Flux, exiled from the “normal” regions of the Flux—never, it now seemed clear, to restore contact with the universe of its origin. Time had ceased to flow in a rational or comprehensible manner. It wafted through the ship unpredictably, a drafty breath sighing through unseen holes in the walls of eternity.

Among the passengers was the Jones couple, married on the ship two days after departure, who now passed their time in each other’s arms—not in perpetual bliss as they had once imagined, but huddled despairingly in their cabin where time, through some twist of fate, had slowed to an even more glacial crawl than elsewhere on the ship. There they found, if not hope, then at least a hint of sorrowful consolation in each other’s company, as their bodies lay entwined in near-stasis.

In the lounge one level down, a pair of old men played the same game of chess they’d been playing for who knew how many years. Had they ever gotten up to eat or sleep? No one could quite remember. The ship’s captain seemed always to be nearby, moving more speedily than the chess players and yet without aging, stumping up and down the corridors, muttering to himself like a tormented Ahab of the stars.

And in his own cabin, the tailor stared for the thousandth time at a slip-needle and bind-thread as though he had just now found them in his hand. His movements stretched out in ghostly projections; he felt as if his life were hardening in amber. He could not fathom what was happening, and had long ago given up trying. And yet, even as he worked, his thoughts reached out to his sister and her family. It was their homeworld he had been bound for, their home lost now across the twin gulfs of time and space. He no longer held any hope of seeing them again, but he could not stop wondering how much time had passed on the outside, and whether anyone he had known off the ship was still alive.

With a prolonged sigh, the tailor drew the slip-needle in a slow, glittering slide down the shoulder seam of the coat he was altering. The seam split, and came together again a centimeter to the right. He studied the results for half a lifetime… and then, with great deliberation, moved on to the next stitch.

Chapter 1

Escape from Captivity

Renwald Legroeder’s eyes darted frantically, scanning for traffic as he guided the scout craft away from the spacedocks. His heart pounded with fear. No general alarms yet, thank God; but how long could that last? The scout’s flux reactor hummed, alive and ready. The rigger-net would spring to life at his command; but first he had to get clear of the outpost.

The raider outpost loomed like a threatening mountain cliff over his back as he powered the tiny ship away. The spacedocks were an enormous, malignant structure, blotting out most of the view of the Great Barrier Nebula that stretched across the emptiness of space behind him. He felt terribly alone.

He snapped on the intercom. “Maris—if you can hear me, we’re away from the docks!” She couldn’t answer, and probably couldn’t hear. She was the only other person aboard—the only one with the guts to flee with him.

Guts—or insanity? Don’t be distracted. Switch over now…

He lurched out of the pilot’s seat and climbed into the rigger-station, yanking the secondary maneuvering controls into position over him. The scout crawled toward the departure area; he dared not go faster. Don’t draw attention.

Had they been spotted yet?

Their only hope was stealth. Any of a dozen ships of the pirate fleet could destroy him at a moment’s notice. Clear of the docking zone, he popped thrust toward the inner marker. Gently! He ached to punch full power… to sprint away… Keep it slow, keep to the traffic patterns, don’t arouse suspicions

About ten minutes had passed since their shootout with the guards at the maintenance docks. Only a miracle would get them away from here and out of pirate space alive.

Was Maris alive even now? He risked a glance, toggling a monitor to the first-aid compartment. Maris lay in the med-unit, eyes closed, arm flung across her chest. Neutraser burns ran down her neck and shoulder. Life signs flickered on the screen… URGENT: SHOCK: IMMINENT NEURAL FAILURE… He’d started the suppression-field; there was nothing more he could do.

The com blasted, jolting him back: “SCOUT SIX-NINER-SEVEN. STATE YOUR CLEARANCE.

His breath caught as he jabbed down the volume. He stalled, keyed the mike, held it as Departure Control repeated its demand through the static. Every second took him a little farther out. If stealth didn’t work, confusion might.

He drew a ragged breath. “Departure Control, Scout Six Niner Seven, emergency departure Bravo Eleven Alfa. No delay, please—answering an emergency call from sector—”

Something lit up behind him, and he choked off his words. A blaze of lights in the central docking region, and at least one large craft moving out. After him? He scanned hastily. Weapons arrays were coming to life at three key defense points.

SCOUT SIX-NINER-SEVEN, TERMINATE YOUR VECTOR AT ONCE. WE HAVE NO EMERGENCY CLEARANCE ACTIVE. BRAKE TO DEAD STOP! PREPARE FOR INSPECTION! REPEAT—

Legroeder cursed, shut his eyes for an instant, and hit the fusion thrusters.

The scout ship rocketed past the marker buoys, shot across traffic lanes, leaving a plasma trail in its wake. Scan ahead, behind… The weapons arrays on the station were opening fire now, a cluster of neutraser bursts glittering against the dark of space. He veered far out of the departure path, away from the direction they’d expect him to flee, and aimed for the guard field that flanked the channel, all energy and spatial distortions. A neutraser beam flashed over his screen.

Hold tight, Maris!

Another blaze of neutraser fire caught his port-side sensor, partially blinding him. He veered left, then down, and right. The ship tumbled as it hit the guard field. The hull shuddered, and he nearly lost control. Then he was through the field, into the Dead Man’s Zone that enclosed the departure lanes.

Clouds of plasma swirled over the ship’s prow. There was a reason for this place’s name. The spatial distortions were nearly impossible to maneuver through. But if he could manage it, pursuit should be impossible.

A neutraser burst leaked through the field and spun weirdly around the ship. His viewscreen and console began to glow with St. Elmo’s fire. He couldn’t wait any longer. He slammed the maneuvering controls shut, drew a deep breath, and closed his eyes. At his silent command, the rigger-net billowed out into space, a shimmering sensory web. He caught some fragmentary words on the com: “—Going under in the Zone—must be crazy—!

And then he reached out with his arms in the net like wings on a plane, and banked the ship down out of the fiery cauldron of normal-space and into the chaos of the Flux.

* * *

The star rigger’s Flux: a higher-dimensional realm where reality and fantasy became strangely merged, where landscapes of the mind intersected with the real fabric of space, where space itself flowed and surged with movement—and where a rigger’s skills could vault him across light-years, or send him spiraling to his death.

Legroeder was flying in a thunderstorm, wind shear and lightning buffeting and rocking him. His senses stretched through the net into the Flux, as though his head and torso were the bowsprit of the ship. His arms embraced the storm, mists of streaming air coiling through his fingers. He drew around him the only image he could think of: a stubby-winged airplane bouncing through cumulonimbus, stubbornly refusing to surrender.

The craft bucked violently. It was hard to keep a heading in the turbulence—but he had t ...

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