Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
Sarah Williams - The Old Astronomer to His Pupil
They skipped out with klaxons still blaring, the Angels suited up and in battlestations. Jensen and Jared were in the auxiliary command right down by the quarters, safety-webbed in with the Jo boys and a cabinet of weapons. The drop-ship pilot and scan-tech that manned those boards went into the jump under the lightest possible sedation, in the hopes that they could react on time if the Nebuchadnezzar caught up mid-skip.
It was possible, just possible, if the Nebuchadnezzar never slowed down in her wild career across Tripoli's elliptic. The thought of that other troop ship - shielded, weapons live, and every ANGEL on board suited up and ready to go - finding them in the bubble made Jensen's heart pound, fury and panic skittering through the 'net. It was already saturated with stress-reaction, Tiamat having exited Tripoli at full power, g-force making the heart labor and the blood want to pool, making the lungs fight to reinflate. Four hours to get up to skip-velocity and out of Tripoli's pull; four hours with the whole of Tripoli scrambling behind them, shoring up holes and making sure of stories and doing their best to foul Tiamat's wake, and make her trail less clear.
From Tripoli, though, there were only a set number of places to go, troopship or no, and Tiamat had to stay ahead until at least four jumps down the line. Then choices multiplied, and for at least six jumps after, there were a dozen directions to choose from. Seventy-two times, more or less, for Tiamat to shake their pursuit - for Nebuchadnezzar to get it wrong.
A handful of jumps after that, almost twenty, all told, to the Giraffe. Years, Jensen thought, and Jared turned his head toward him, teeth gritted, sweat trickling in rivulets down his temples and his hair already stuck to his skull, lank.
"What? What d-do you me...ean? Years?"
"Real time," Jensen said, and then gave it to him in the 'net: the wheeling course of skips and stars, the way the universe would swing and turn and sail, as they skipped above/below/beside, from point to point, bubble gliding along the interface. Months in the skip, two, five, nine...adds up….
Long? Jared thought, with an emotion underneath that Jensen couldn't quite grasp, and Jensen closed his eyes, fingers tangled in the webbing, just touching Jared's hand.
Years. Five, six years. Only months, for us...twelve or thirteen.
"Jen-Jensen," Jared said, his voice strained and wavering and sorrow, lost, so lost, all gone, changed and done and over in the 'net, an ache so profound that Jensen had to catch his breath against it.
"We're here," Jensen said, and all of us together, no different, no matter, leave it, Jared, let it go, it's done, we fly, we fly…. "We're here," Jensen said again, and then the pulse came through the ship, the siren-bleat of warning, and Tiamat skipped out.
Two skips, three, four, and then they had half a system to traverse before they could reorient and find the next skip-out point. A few hours, for stressed bodies to try and relax a little, recover. Jensen dragged Jared up and off the bench, reeling with hunger, exhausted and hyped at the same time, forcing his head out of the static-grey nothing it went to, sometimes, in the long dark of the Betweens. Missing, with an ache that went to the bone, the skip-packs and the drugs and the warm, electric embrace of the suit, that made trips like these… ’a piece of easy’, Kee would say, and Jensen missed her, with a violent pang that made Jared start, gasping.
"Sorry, sorry," Jensen muttered, shutting that down. Tugging at Jared's arm, he kept them both moving, out of aux-com and down the corridor, right and then left into quarters. The Angels were already there, going by squads into the showers, never more than a quarter of them at a time on stand-down while the ones left suited did scrub-down and systems check, all routine. Jensen lifted a hand to Malik and Sous, already lathered and under the shower spray, as he pushed Jared toward the laundry chute and started to strip.
"C'mon, Jared, gotta get clean." Forty-plus days of sweat and skin, their jump-stalled bodies revving up to full gear as the drugs cleared their systems. Jensen shoved his wrinkled, sweat-stained clothes into the chute and staggered to a shower head, feeling a burst of surprise from Jared when he registered the fact that any padding of fat they'd both had was gone. Jared had never skipped so long or so far, and he wasn't used to it. Jensen stood under the spray and then jerked, startled, as a hand touched his shoulder.
"Jensen, your hair," Kane said, and Jensen blinked water out of his eyes to see a handful of strands tangled around Kane's fingers, dripping water.
"What the fuck?"
"S'normal," Jared said, eyes shut and face turned up into the hot water, and happens, like skin, like everything… comes out after a skip, did it before. Jared had done a two-jump trip, from Kin-Gin to Salome, and a three and a two, after, working for the Company. Longest skips he'd ever done, before this one. But he still knew something Jensen didn't, or maybe something Jensen had simply forgotten, in all his years on the Tiamat.
Kane shook the wet hair off his hand, nose wrinkled, and Jensen got soap in his hand and scrubbed, seeing more swirl away into the drain and imagining a huge, tangled lump of it somewhere in the plumbing, all soap-sud slime and lank tendrils….
"Fuck, don't, don't think about that," Jared moaned, sick, fuck, belly hurts, don't.
"Jared, sorry," get clean, we'll go eat, get some calories into you, you'll feel better Jensen said, blading soap off his skin with the edge of his palm, as he turned under the spray. Kane's squad got out, reaching for towels before heading to the X and the packs Tiamat still had; new drugs, new day, back into battlestations in suits still damp from a wipe-down and de-con. Jinx's squad came through on their heels, focused and fast.
Need to move, go, too slow, Jensen thought, and what Jared sent back was confusion and a little irritation, and the sensation of the water unknotting muscles and easing the pounding in his head.
Only been a couple minutes, don't need us, can't we stay…?
"Fuckin' greenie, fuckin' waste," Jensen muttered, but it was true - they couldn't suit up, he couldn't, and they didn't need to hustle through their shower, didn't need to scramble back into suits and stations. Sorry, yeah, sorry, not the same, not the same anymore….
"It's okay," Jared said, coming around the central, rising line of pipe that sprouted showerheads at the top like a halo. "We can get out, I wasn't thinking. Jumping out soon, yeah?"
"Pretty soon. Couple hours," Jensen said, feeling a little pang of guilt, but not much. He scrubbed his fingers through his hair one last time, dislodging a few more strays, and then waved the water off. He took the towel Jared tossed to him and wiped down, fast; dressed fast too, layering on the long-sleeved, knitted overshirt, this time, against the chill of the corridors. He wanted to talk to Morgan, and they could use the officers’ mess to do it, nobody to stop them.
The line for food wasn't too long. They got a few looks, sure, but more curiosity than antagonism. Jared felt himself relaxing as Jensen took his tray and headed toward a table. Jared took the next one, giving a little nod to the server in the window who looked haggard, dark circles blooming under his eyes. He followed Jensen, sliding in beside him, into a chair with at least a pretense of padding, not the bare glassine or metal he was used to in mess halls from Salome to Axis.
Officers, Jensen thought, with a ripple of disgusted amusement, sharing the instinctive bristling of a troop confronted with a higher-up. But none of the men and women at the tables looked like that brief, image-heavy burst - no fancy food, no special uniforms, no extras. Everyone looked worn and drawn and just exhausted; shadowed eyes, shaking hands, the sleeves and collars of utilitarian grey coveralls hanging loose around too-thin wrists and throats. Doing worse than the Angels were, that was for sure, with no 'net to speak of to help them maintain, or to build back up fast.
Even Morgan, who surely had no duty running the ship, or even dealing with Angels right now, looked harried, scooping up his hash of egg, veg-protein, and freeze-dried potato with the grim air of a man at his last meal. Jensen poured some kind of sauce on his hash and handed it to Jared with a little nudge, and Jared took the squeeze-bottle and sniffed.
Tabasco. Staple of military chow halls since time began, it seemed. Jared tried a bite of the hash without sauce and hastily added several squirts of it. It wasn't bad, just...too processed, too bland, too cooked.
Best they can do, skip-chaining. Everybody's tired, Jensen thought, and Jared agreed as silently, the subdued murmur of the mess not encouraging talk at all.
"Morrigan," Jensen said, and Morgan visibly winced. "Morgan," he corrected himself, a little bloom of remorse in the 'net, for poking at the other man that way. 'What did you tell them that left us?" Jensen asked, and Morgan sighed, lifting a glassine cup to his mouth and drinking what Jared presumed was coffee. Coffeine, maybe; it was too pale to be the real stuff, despite the black market additions they'd taken on at Tripoli.
Save it for later. For winning, was the brief, shakily hopeful thought Jensen passed him.
"Not much. Enough." Morgan's voice was rough, painful sounding, and he coughed shallowly before taking another sip. "Told them we were getting free of the Company hold. Told them we had an alternative to the Company drugs, something just as good. Didn't want them telling tales." Morgan yawned and scrubbed at his eyes, and Jared wondered if the Company would put two and two together...just what they would figure out, in the years (fucking years) that they would have before Doc and Celeste and the rest of the them could really get to work on synthesizing the vaccine. And how long would that take? More years? Decades, maybe, before they could even make a start, and the Company might have plugged every hole, by then, might have fixed every leak...
"Jared," Jensen said, with a little nudge in the 'net, and Jared blinked and looked over. "They don't know enough. And the Company doesn't- It's big, it's like…." There was a flood in the 'net, of images and information, but too much of it was without context, history Jared had no grasp of.
"Fuck. It's the hallucinations. Morgan?"
Morgan wiped his mouth on a paper napkin and took another sip of Coffeine. "Ten, fifteen years ago, the Company switched out some of the stuff in the go-packs. Different drugs, different mix, supposed to make it smoother, better transition, easier come-down. Supposed to work better with the down-packs and whatever shit the Angels use that they all pretend they don't, and the Company pretends they don't." Morgan scowled at Jensen, who snorted into his plate, a little whirl of impressions in the 'net, drugs of all sorts coming across his tongue, into his lungs, explosions of light and sensation and emotion.
"But it didn't work, or...it worked, but it wasn't compatible like they thought. A lot of the troops started having hallucinations, sometimes on the come-down, sometimes during ops. We got a patch on it, some medico off the Kanchinjínga who'd done some study on drug interactions. But it still crops up, and it's not fixed, ‘cause the Company is fucking huge, and it moves slow, and if you ring an alarm in the head, it takes a while for the heel to hear it, let alone react. Plus," Morgan added, with a look at Jensen, who nudged Jared's knee under the table and sent him something in the 'net, a single, blood-soaked image of an unimaginable wasteland; some battle, some where, with no winners and no survivors. "We're expendable," Morgan finished, echoed by Jensen in the 'net.
And Jensen sent something else, as well. Bits of things he'd learned over the years, listening to Kee and Jinx and even Morgan; things he’d absorbed without realizing, and was now pushing at Jared the way he'd got it, in bits and pieces.
The Company had started out small, in the far history-back of Earth and space exploration; Consolidated Mining and Pneumatics Engineering. An independent company that figured out a way to mine asteroids without killing the crews or the ships; figured out a way to make money off that mining hand over fist. Studied radiation and mutations and all the hazards of deep space, not out of concern for the miners, but to ensure profit.
Then the ANGEL program went public, something they had been watching with an avid interest. And it had worked, which had been a surprise, it seemed, even to its creators. And CMPnE got hold of it, somehow; tangled paths of acquisition and influence that were lost in the dim archives of some Suit office.
They had already had decades of taking over military contracts and worming into politics and threading their ideas and their influence and their hold into every crack and cranny they could find; now they had a key to unlock it all, because even after the Federals banned the ANGEL system from the regular troops, you still needed a modified 'net to pilot the jump-ships and drop ships; to navigate a skip, and survive in the Between. So the Company...grew.
That very size and power would work to their advantage, now, because nothing that big could move quickly, and many of the various projects and subdivisions and subsidiaries competed; for budgets, for priority, for relevance. Backstabbing and spying and scrabbling was SOP to keep from being made redundant.
Jared absorbed it all in silence, shoveling food in and hoping, idly, they could get seconds. He hadn't been this hungry since his first months with the 'net, back on Salome, when his body had had so much rebuilding and repairing and catching up to do.
"You really think they won't do...anything? Jensen said…" Jared swallowed, and felt Jensen's knee and calf press against his under the table; felt the little warm rush of affection and support Jensen offered. "Jensen said it was gonna be...years...until we...got there. To the Quo. That's a lot of time for them to...figure stuff out."
"They won't know what to do. They'll be talking to ANGELs who just lost their ship, their platoons - everything." Morgan leaned back in his chair, his expression grim. "They'll be lucky if they're coherent, let alone cooperative, especially if Axis didn't get them down-packs in time. And the crew were just out of jump, and coming down off skip-tranq. They won't be much better."
Something beeped in Morgan's pocket and he fished out a little data-spot, frowning down at it. "I need to handle this," he said, pushing himself to his feet, and Jensen just nodded. He watched Morgan stalk out of the mess, head down, and then turned to Jared. "Let's go mess down with the Angels." Better food, he added, knowing exactly what items the others had bartered for and squirreled away at Tripoli. Chocolate.
"Okay," Jared said, and did his best - like Jensen was doing - to not think about those stranded troops back at Axis; months back, now, but still… Just like me, just like me, lost, Jensen thought, a fleeting impression of his nest down in the Axis Mundi, his thin and shaking hand scrawling his name, and the Angel sign, over and over and over on the dim, metal walls.
The Nebuchadnezzar caught up, three jumps from the Giraffe. They were in countdown, moving by rote. Tired to the bone and sure they were safe. Sure they'd lost the other troopship somewhere stars and months back. Sure they were sailing the void alone.
But still going in suits and by turns, not letting their guard down, but bodies ached, after all that time. Guts rebelled against the most bland of foods, lungs wanted to wheeze and cough, and everybody had the same dazed, half-gone stare. The Angels fared the best; burning through pack after pack, meal after meal. But only maintaining, by the skin of their teeth. Too much longer, too much further...and they'd be done. Even the 'net couldn't keep up, at the pace they were forcing, and the partly augmented crew and the civilians were limping, reeling, dropping stitches and moments of time. More dangerous, at this point, to themselves than the Nebuchadnezzar promised to be.
The klaxon went off like a bomb of sound, and Jensen felt his heart thump painfully hard and then start to race just as painfully, banging against his ribs as the lights on the aux-com board went crazy and com did, too; too many voices shouting at once. Kane's squad, already locked into skip-brace against the far wall, unlocked in one motion, suits hissing and blinking to life as they calleds weapons out of the suit's underlay and braced for action.
"Battlestations, battlestations!" That was com-one, a scarred woman with a voice like a clarion, cutting through the chaos. "All hands, arm and ready, strap in, hunker down. We're going to try a double-jump, see if we can fake 'em out. Nephilim, Demons, Archangels, you're first line. Get to the fiver, niner and dozen-deck accesses; hard lock and brace for a blow out."
Jensen caught his breath at that, his fingers all but tearing the webbing he was struggling out of. He felt Jared absorb whatever wild jolt of emotion he'd just broadcast, and sent an apology hard after, but fuck, he was too busy, he was too damn wired. As the Angels marched out - Kane giving a lift of his rifle-arm, little salute toward them - Jensen pulled free of the webbing and dove for the weapon's locker against the wall, thumbing the lock open and reaching in. Pulse rifles, flash-bangs that could blind a suit, if only for a minute or two. Extra battery packs and a row of tasers, with kick enough to kill a man. Another row of ceramic-alloy knives, about the only thing that could cut through the tough under-cloth and delicate wires and hoses of a suit. Only for dire emergencies - for last stands.
"Seraphim, Ophanim, Dominions, you're second line; secure engineering and the skip array, Dominions at the forward weapons emplacement. All civilians to medical aux; brace and seal in, people, move your asses."
Jensen stowed his own choices in his pockets and waist - slung a rifle over his shoulder and then was handing out the rest to the Jo boys, to the crew at the boards. To Jared, except Jared stood there mute and wide-eyed, the 'net pulsing no and can't and Jensen, please, I don't know, I don't know….
"Okay," Jensen said. Gulped and breathed and reached for Jared - yanked him into a hard, sharp-edged kiss. "Okay." Troops only, fuckin' greenie, hair'd foul your aim, anyway, stay safe, help the medicos, it's okay, it's okay
"Sorry," Jared said, not a soldier, I don't know...what to do, please, I'm scared…. and Jensen shoved a knife into his hand, black glassine sheath cool in his fingers. Cupped Jared's cheek, making those warm-hazel eyes meet Jensen's, making him see, and listen.
"It's okay. You don't have to. Get in the web, get tranqed." Jensen rubbed his thumb along Jared's cheekbone, and Jared took a shaky breath, pressing into the touch. "I forget, sometimes...it's okay. The Jo boy's'll stay here. Yeah?" Jensen added, louder, and looked over at the two men, who were slapping battery packs into rifles and shoving extras into their pockets - thumbing safeties off and on again with a little click and hum, checking. Competent. "You keep aux-com clear, keep this greenie on his feet, hear me?"
"Hear you," Jo One said, and Jo Two nodded. They moved with trained precision, getting back into skip-webbing, securing tranq and drinks and Jensen felt marginally comforted.
" Erelim, Malakim - welcome back and sorry for the hurry. Suit up and stand up. Erelim will secure the med wing, Malakim to the bridge. We're in the count, seven minutes, no waiting. Go, go, go!"
"What was that?" Jared asked, jolted again, reeling in the 'net, trying desperately to lock down his own panic and shame and nameless hurt; furious at himself and scared spitless. Utterly unable, at the moment, to sort out the complicated crap that Jensen was throwing his way, purely unintentionally but there, nonetheless.
"Sorry, fuck. Erelim is the new platoon, from all what's left of the old. Re-key, re-set, hooking their 'nets together, making them whole again. It's too soon, but...they'll be okay. Malakim the same. Not enough, not a platoon, just seven of them and their Sergeant. Runners, recon, scouts...we'll find a place, find a way to fit them in…." And Jensen knew Jared had felt his own bitter jealousy - his own still-aching need.
Just keep hurting you, sorry, I'm sorry, fucking stupid, you're enough, we're enough, it's good.
"It's okay to want what you had, Jensen. It's okay," Jared said. "Wanna tell me where you're going?" Because that was in the 'net, too - intention and decision, and Jensen pushed Jared gently backward, into the bench, into the webbing and skip-harness.
"I...have to...I gotta be there mine, my Angels, my family, can't let them...if it comes to a fight, I have to...can't let them be alone, can't." So many emotions that even Jensen had no clue which were his, which were Jared's, which were just 'net-wired habit and the routine of a lifetime.
"But don't you think...Kane might -" Feel small, feel jealous, his Angels now, you said, aren't they?
"Quemel!" Morgan, in the doorway to aux-com, that deep, rasping voice making Jensen and Jared both flinch and twist to see. He was wearing the body-armour and modified skele all the non-Angel troops used. It gave him some height and speed, protection and a bit more power. Nothing like the Angel suits, that would tower even over line troops in full gear. But it was something. "You're with me. Armor and skele, down in quarters, get moving."
"Jensen -" Jared said, his hand curling into Jensen's sweater hem, and Jensen turned back, feeling Jared in the 'net as yearning and sadness, pride and affection, fear and resolution. "Please don't...please be careful."
"I'll come back," Jensen said, helpless to say anything else, and yielded easily when Jared pulled him closer and kissed him. Promise, promise, be safe, stay here....
"Four minutes thirty, we have our course laid, there will be no free-time between skips, so keep still and stay off the fucking com unless we're breached," com-one said, and the pitch of the ship's engines changed, dropping down into that bone-shaking vibration that preceded a jump.
"Got to move, Jensen," Morgan said, and Jensen nodded, forehead to forehead with Jared, eyes shut for one more moment of we, us, safe, love, love you.
"Roger that. Get that web secured, Jared, and get your tranq. S'gonna be over soon. All over."
"Okay," Jared said, straightening - squaring his shoulders - and Jensen smiled at him and turned and ran. Corridor and turn and turn and quarters, Morgan right behind him in the hum and hiss and rattle of the gear. They worked fast, hooking Jensen into the body-armor, and then he climbed up into the skele, settling the braces, locking down the straps, belting in and powering up, and a flash of memory came from Jared. A moment of time Kin-Gin, skele, walking the hills, Jared's uncooperative body moving with stilted grace across grey-green hills, under a mercury sky. Jensen hung there a moment, gasping, lost in it. And then it was gone, leaving the lingering warmth of Jared's affection. Jensen slung the rifle and grabbed the go-pack Morgan passed him, and then they were both on the move again, corridors and the lift and more halls of grey and glassine, until they hit the austere, grey-and-gold of the bridge.
Pilot and seconds and switchers, com and weapons and life support, arrayed in a grand arc around the skip-pilot and navigator. No captain, anymore; she was back at Axis. Another of the crew in her place instead, looking harried. The engines were throbbing now, sensation below hearing, making Jensen's head fuzz and bones ache. Jensen locked his skele-sheathed left hand around an emergency hand hold and braced for skip, Morgan doing the same at his side, tranqs already in, the Malakim arrayed around the edges of the bridge, in their mis-matched armors, new born to their own private 'net, raw with it, and already under fire. The skip-crew's hands danced over their boards, and com one counted down.
One minute thirty. One minute. Thirty seconds...twenty…. An almighty bang reverberated through the hull, and alarms and klaxons shrilled to deafening life. Another bang, and the whole ship lurched, a sickening moment of null-g, everything feeling like it was expanding outward at supersonic speeds.
"What the fuck was that?" someone shouted - weapons, maybe - and com one half turned in her seat, pale eyes wide, her hands rock-steady.
"Nebuchadnezzar has grappled on. Repeat, Nebuchadnezzar is grappled and locked. Count continues. Eight seconds...seven...six…"
"We can't - can we do that? We can't skip out with them grappled to," Jensen asked, hold on, hold on, hold on to Jared, frantic as his heart. Brace, here we go, we fly, we're free, I'm here, I'm here Tranq taking hold, and everything going slow, slower, warmer, dim.
"Guess we'll find out. They came in at light - they won't slow us down."
"Oh fuck, here we go here we go here we go."
I'm here, hold on, don't let go, come back to me
"Three, two, one - Go."
Tiamat and Nebuchadnezzer, locked tight as two lovers, shivered and scattered and flew, winking out of normal space and time, riding the line, skipping the sea. In the Between, bubble of light in an endless void.