Episode 5: Barky the Space-wolf -How Dark is your Wormhole?

Theda slithered down into her seat, pushing back into the synth-foam as it cradled her once more. Could she get a bed made of the same material? Sleep was scarce in the salvage hub, but it was so comfortable here in the Sprinter: all mod cons and uber-science, unlike the ragged start-of-the-century slum that was the main craft.

Her head dropped backwards onto the spongy backing of her helmet and she closed her eyes. She needed to think.

How had she suddenly heard Barky – no, Haela, and she needed to get used to calling the space-wolf by her proper name – when she hadn’t heard her in the main craft? Why now? And did that mean the wolf could hear everything she was thinking? She stopped and waited, expecting to hear Haela in her head either laughing or agreeing with her.

A hand smacked onto her shoulder, making her jump. Carla had turned and was gesturing to her, circling her mouth. Theda switched on her microphone and earphones.

‘Did you want me?’ she asked.

‘There was nothing out there, was there?’ Carla asked. ‘I told you so…’

Theda thought about telling Carla that Haela was crouching under the Sprinter, clinging to the rail, but decided against it. ‘Have you tracked down any trace of the wormhole?’ she asked.

‘I picked up a ping earlier, while you were out. It flashed, then disappeared, but I got the coordinates. Now you’re back, we can go over and check it out.’

Carla tapped the coordinates into the screen above her head, and the Sprinter hummed into life. ‘Hold tight, I’m going in fast,’ she said, and gripped her own thrustbar. Theda stopped watching her. She wasn’t a great fan of pushing off from a standing start, especially if the end speed was close to the speed of light. She forced herself even further into her seat, braced her feet against the pads in the deep footwell, gripped her thrustbar and shut her eyes. Tight.

‘Are we ready yet?’ she asked. ‘My feet are getting cramp from pushing into the footpads.’

‘You aren’t fit enough for these trips; your muscles are too slack. You should spend more time in the gym.’

Theda wriggled her toes to get the feeling back into them. She should do more exercise, but … meh. If it left her with Carla’s brick outhouse silhouette, she’d put up with the cramps.

Carla gripped the joystick and began a slow pull back. ‘Hold on, here we go.’

Theda pushed in further and prayed she wouldn’t be sick. Being sick inside a space-suit was one of the most disgusting things she had ever experienced. The way bits floated in front of her face inside the helmet was… she pushed the repellent thought away. If the acceleration didn’t get her, the imagery would.

The Sprinter leapt into life and shot forward, leaving Theda’s stomach to catch up in its own time. She gritted her teeth. No, no, no. Swallow. That’s it. Force it all back down.

‘Whoooo!’ Carla shrieked. She glanced sideways at Theda. ‘You alright in there? I’m stopping again in a moment, so dig in deep…’

The craft lurched and came to an abrupt stop. Theda’s insides carried on forward and dumped their contents into her suit, just as she’d feared. She started up the suction cleaner inside the helmet, installed for just such a purpose, held her breath and let the machine do its work.

Why was Carla never affected? It was so unfair.

‘Oh dear,’ Carla said. ‘Learn to drive. The thrust isn’t nearly as bad when you’re holding onto the controls. I’m not sure why, but it isn’t. Don’t look at me like that…’

Theda had briefly side-eyed her, not totally out of malice; she couldn’t move her head yet without something floating around and getting in her eye. The machine finished up. The red indicator light inside the helmet turned green, and she breathed back in. Her nose tingled from the fresh-scented ozone released by the cleaner.

‘Are we there yet?’ she asked, sounding, even to her own ears, like an Earth five-year-old three minutes into a long drive.

‘We’re at the coordinates I picked up from the ping earlier. In theory, this should be where the wormhole last appeared, but we’ll have to see. We should be able to bore through into the tunnel if this is right for the entry cone.’ Carla leant forward over her console, muttering numbers to herself. ‘Okay. Let’s give this a try.’ She flicked three switches in succession. A wide, open cone appeared in front of the craft, and she punched the air. ‘Yes! There it is.’

‘Is it the right one, though?’ Theda asked.

‘Have some confidence in me, please! There is no other trace of a wormhole having opened here in the last three salvage periods. It has to be the right one. Anyway, we’re going in.’

She pushed gently on the joystick and the craft slid into the wormhole entrance.

‘I thought we might try out the camouflage settings while we’re here. I’ve not seen it in action yet.’ Carla depressed a row of buttons, one after the other.

Theda’s throat constricted as she looked out of the cockpit at the throbbing, jelly-like walls surrounding them. She’d always thought wormholes would be a smooth, shiny tunnel, as bright as a clean hole drilled through a slab of metal, but no. This was organic, living tissue. And it made her think again: space wasn’t dead. It wasn’t a vacuum. It was alive, and she wasn’t coasting along its skin the way she usually did. She’d burrowed into its flesh, like a parasite, and it wasn’t going to like it.

The craft gave a lurch.

‘What was that?’ Carla peered out of her side of the canopy.

‘I don’t know. Shall I have a look?’ Theda asked. She was worried about Haela. Was she still clinging onto the rails? Might she have been knocked loose during the accelerated trip out to the wormhole?

‘It seems to have stabilised. Let me just check the feeds, see if we’ve collided with some kind of space debris.’ Carla turned the outside cams on, steering the angle of the camera to view the flank of the Sprinter. ‘No, I can’t see anything to worry about. I’ll check more thoroughly when we get back home.’ She turned the feeds off and went back to flicking switches, muttering to herself.

Theda peered out of her side of the cockpit. She was sure the lurch had been on her side, and as she watched, an ear tip rose, visible alongside the curved canopy. ‘Haela!’ she thought, aiming her words silently at the space-wolf. The ear tip twitched. ‘What are you doing? If the Braan ship is in the wormhole, they’ll see you. Stay close to the craft, inside the cloaking field.’

‘What’s a cloaking field?’ Haela asked.

‘A device to make us invisible.’ Theda replied.

‘But I can see you clear as anything.’

How far out are you?’ Theda’s throat closed and her mouth dried up. If Haela was outside the cloaking field and could see them, then they were sitting smack in the middle of the wormhole, visible to anyone who cared to turn round and look.

I’m this far away…’ As Theda watched, Haela moved into sight. She was about fifty metres away, and certainly would have noticed that the Sprinter had disappeared. ‘And I can see you.’

The thought of the Braan catching the beautiful space-wolf made her insides roll around again. ‘Get back to the rail and don’t move! It’s not safe.’

She turned to face her co-pilot. ‘Carla, did we check the camouflage was working before we came out here?’

‘No, not actually checked, as in, looked at it from the outside. Why?’

‘I don’t know. Just a stupid fear, I know, but I really don’t want to be seen by the Braan before we’re ready for them. I think we ought to go back outside the entrance and check it properly. Have you worked out how far out from the craft we’d have to be to notice if it was working or not?’

Carla lifted her hand in a dismissive wave. ‘Only about twenty metres. Go, if you insist. Feels like a waste of time to me.’

The Sprinter quietly reversed out of the wormhole, stopping on the far side of the cone-shaped entrance. Theda flipped out of her side of the cockpit. She attached her line to a rail, forcing the carabiner into place, and free-fell out into space. She kicked away, swimming her arms and legs to keep herself moving, aiming for the side of the craft away from the wormhole.

Away from the chance the Braan craft was in there, secretly watching everything she did.

She turned to face the Sprinter, its lines smooth and sleek apart from a small, wolf-shaped lump to the underside.

‘That should be far enough,’ Carla said into her earpiece.

‘I can still see us…’ Theda felt sick again. Had she dislodged something when she’d gone out before? Had Haela knocked something?

Carla was swearing steadily into her ear, but she didn’t seem to blame Theda. ‘Get back here. We’ll need to be careful, that’s all.’

The wormhole flashed and expanded, the cone opening wide before Theda’s eyes.

A massive space cruiser headed towards them, a whale compared to the damsel-fly of the Sprinter.

It had seen some recent action, that was clear from the dents and scrapes along its sides. Protruding from the rusty fins towards the rear of the craft, thin hinged rods, like fly legs held open the maws of lacy nets which trailed behind. Round windows studded the oval nose of the craft and through them, Theda saw tiny creatures scurrying, some pointing in their direction. She’d never seen anything so frightening.

The buzzing in the back of her head became louder and more precise. ‘Mum, mum, mum…’ a voice cried. Haela joined in the wailing. ‘Torek!’

The space-wolf erupted into the void, shooting like an arrow towards the cruiser.

‘Oh, my world.’ Theda whispered, and reeled herself back towards the Sprinter.

It was too late to be careful.

The Braan were here.

to be continued…

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