Characters and Text © 1999, 2000, C Sandwalker
Arrallins © Dee Dreslough

"Ten minutes until Gate Entry," said Astro-Navigations Officer Keryss, looking up from his console. He twitched his nose in apprehension as he viewed the immense Gate through the main screen. Despite having travelled through Gates several times, he never felt really confident when going through. He knew the basics of their operation, but that still didn't reassure him any.

Captain Kira Mastersson nodded. "Thank you, Keryss." She turned from watching the main screen and looked at her Chief Engineer. "Sefal, what's our status?" she inquired of him.

His claws clacked on the keys of his console, and a few moments later he had his, or rather her, answer. "Solar panels at full efficiency. Engines 1, 2 and 3 are online and functioning normally, currently operating at fifty percent power. However," and here he paused while he accessed another screen, "Engine 4 is experiencing magnetic abnormalities, interfering with power generation, and ionic flux is down thirty-two percent. Power output is now only twenty-four percent." He glanced up from his display and at his blonde-haired Captain. "Otherwise," he said dryly, "all systems are green."

The Captain nodded again. Aside from that engine glitch, everything was as it should be. She surveyed the Bridge, watching humans and Arrallins working diligently, and sighed. "Carston, open frequency 7 and inform Gate Control that we're approaching the Gate. Request final clearance." She leaned back in her expensive real leather Captain's chair and studied the Gate, rubbing her hands along the luxurious armrests. She had had the chair made especially for her comfort. No grey moulded-plastic chairs for this Captain!

"Yes, sir," said the Communications Officer, following his orders. A second later, and he was conferring with one of the bigwigs who ran the Gate. Less than thirty seconds later he was arguing heatedly with whoever was on the other end. Carston broke off his tirade and appealed to Kira. "Sir, this officious -- " He turned off the sound before continuing. "This officious bastard has just told me that we haven't even got preliminary clearance yet, or filed a flight plan." His face reflected the annoyance he felt.

Kira cursed silently to herself. "Alright, who is he?"

"Chalmers, sir."

"Well, tell Chalmers that we do have prelim clearance, that we have filed a flight plan, and that if we don't go through within the next ten minutes I'll have him floating in the vacuum of space before he can say 'Hell, it's cold out here!' I have the authority to do just that." Kira grinned to herself. Let's see how Chalmers likes that!

Carston raised his eyebrows, but said nothing before repeating verbatim what the Captain had said to the irate Chalmers.

On Carston's screen Chalmers' face reddened and his thin-lipped mouth opened to spew forth another bout of verbal diarrhoea, but before he did Carston ended the transmission, a smug look on his face. "All ready to go, sir," he stated calmly. "Chalmers won't bother us again, I'm sure."

Kira covered her mouth before her smile was seen. "Very well. Now we sit back and wait." The Gate grew larger and more impressive with each passing second, until its boundaries disappeared outside the scope of the main screen.

"Two minutes until Gate Entry," intoned Keryss, whose muzzle, and now his tail, were twitching rapidly, a sure sign of his mounting anxiety.

"Engines to full power, please," said Kira, staring impassively at the main screen into the undulating blackness of the Gate. To be going into the heart of a black hole, though they were always controlled, filled her with a sense of intense excitement. Her heart pumped faster, adrenaline flooded her veins, and she had an incredible urge to bolt from the Bridge to hide in her cabin.

Keryss watched his gauges closely, trying to take his mind off the potential doom the Gate could bring them to. "Twenty seconds...ten seconds...five, four, three, two, one..."

The ship passed into the Gate. To those observing from outside the Gate, it appeared as if the ship just glided into one side, and didn't appear on the other. Those on the ship felt no real discernible effects, save for the people with keener senses, who often experienced minor waves of nausea from the crossing.

It was all over in a few seconds. From an identical portal to the one they had just entered, the ship emerged tens of light years away from its starting point.

"We have now entered the Beta Muscari Quadrant," said Keryss, with visible, and audible, relief showing. He whuffled gratefully to himself.

"Plot a course to Beta Muscari IV, please, Keryss. And could you find us a shortcut? We're a few days late as it is. I'm sure those poor refugees wouldn't like to be kept waiting another week or two. Especially with their government waging all-out war on everybody and everything within missile range." The Captain rose out of her seat, and turned to leave. "I'll be in my quarters should you need me."

Keryss nodded an affirmative and, his claws clacking on the keyboard, began calculating a course to decrease their travel time to a minimum.

Kira gestured to a shapely Arrallin Alpha who stood by a portal staring out at the unfamiliar stars. "Etayne, you're in command until further notice."

Etayne turned and regarded her superior coolly. "As you wish, Captain." She moved with a fluid motion to the First Officer's chair and seated herself, gazing around the Bridge with her golden eyes. Kira took her leave, passing through the automatic doors and into the long corridor beyond. With a smooth whoosh and a light ker-snick the door closed behind her.

A few minutes later, the relative quiet of the bridge was broken by a chime which, for some unknown reason, played La Cucuracha, closely followed by an exclamation.

"Damn!" swore Sefal, his tail waving in frustration. His long-fingered forepaws flew over his console as he sought for a solution to the problem that had just cropped up. After several seconds he sighed, and leaned back in chair. Looking up to the First Officer, he said, "Request permission to shut down Engine 4."

The attractively thin-striped Etayne got out of her seat, and strolled over to Sefal's station. "What seems to be the problem?" she asked calmly, her golden eyes peering intently at his screen.

Sefal growled. "Basically, Engine 4 has had it. Ionic flux is now zero, magnetic containment is on the verge of collapsing, and the power generated from it is surging like crazy. They're the major injuries. There's a lot of little troubles, but those can be easily handled." He turned his head and looked up into Etayne's eyes.

"Yes, I can see that could be quite a problem. Permission granted. Just keep the others working, hmm?" The First Officer straightened from leaning over Sefal's shoulder, just as another chime rang out.

"Oh, shut up!" mumbled Sefal, quickly switching the alarm off, then initiating the engine shutdown procedure.

With Keryss' skilful computations, the Arralla's Victory manoeuvred through a dangerous minefield of large stars and unseen black holes, and arrived at the besieged planet in just under four days, much less than the usual eight or nine days travelling the normal, safe route. The three hundred and twenty refugees, all that would fit on a craft built originally for cargo transport, were quickly taken on, and then the ship hurriedly left the planet. During the last few months of the governmental warring, even friendly ships were shot down, and only the more stubborn, or suicidal, captains would ever pay a visit.

"Okay, on to Alpha Canis Majora," said Captain Mastersson, once again seated in her leather chair. She longed for the days when she was just a freighter captain, when she could take her time and still get paid. Now she had to hurry around the galaxy rescuing people from wars, planetary disasters and the like. What spare time she did have was spent usually by reading classics from the later centuries of the second Millennium. On a small screen set next to her chair was shown the text of the book being currently read, one of Charles Dickens' novels.

Again, Keryss bent to his task, and after a few minutes of clacking, which the Captain admitted to herself grated on her nerves, the course was set. Casting a glance at Sefal, he said, "Assuming no other...hardware problems...make themselves known, we should be there in roughly eleven months, give or take a few days. Just our luck that the nearest world accepting refugees is so damn far away." As an afterthought he added, "Of course we could be lucky enough to be sucked into a wormhole that led directly to such a planet, but the odds of that occurring are so astronomical -- " He grinned at his pun, " -- we'd stand a better chance of discovering new intelligent life-forms tomorrow."

Kira looked up from her reading. "I'm sure we would. Would you like to put a bet on that?" Keryss had never taken her offer of a bet previously, so she was more than a little startled when he immediately accepted, and offered a year's pay as a stake. Rats! she thought glumly. Can't go back on it now. "Very well, one year's pay it is. I'm pretty sure that neither of us will be paying out any time soon, though."

Keryss smirked, the stripes on his face compressing as he did so. "I know that. That's why I accepted the gamble."

"Hmmph. Very shrewd, you are," conceded Kira. "Now, if you don't mind, I'll resume my perusal of Dickens. Don't bother me unless it's important." With that final statement, she turned her head to the text screen, and picked up where she left off.

It was about three months into the voyage to drop the refugees off when the universe pulled the proverbial rug out from under them. Unfortunately the rug snagged on a nail and ripped, opening up a ragged hole in spacetime. While the universe pondered over fixing the hole, the Arralla's Victory unknowingly passed through it. One moment they were on course to Alpha Canis Majora, the next they found themselves in a totally new neck of the woods.

The universe failed to notice anything going through, and patched up the hole with a few new stars to hold it shut. It then went off to do something else, hoping no-one would notice what it had done, leaving a certain cargo ship trapped who-knew-where...

On to Chapter 5