Shimmering threads hung in the air around Orlando, their colourful arrangement just short of coherence. He twisted and swayed, trained movements designed to align his body and mind with the wormhole generator and bring order to the disarray surrounding him. A sense of anticipation deep in his chest told him that a connection was about to resolve.
Even on one of the simulator’s lowest power settings, faint visions of alternate realities still scraped across his attention. Fortunately one didn’t become a senior Journeyman in the Guild of Navigators without developing the mental discipline to keep one’s focus on the only universe that mattered. He teased at his mind’s tangled fibres, trying to coax out the combination of dimensional tweaks and subspace alignments that would snap the whole thing into focus. He could nearly —
The intercom chimed. Orlando jerked and the almost-grasped solution darted back down into the unreachable depths of his subconscious. Language rendered socially harmless only by his current solitude echoed through the cabin. He would never finish his masterwork if people kept interrupting him.
The holographic display vanished as he stepped away from Navigation panel. The luxurious feel of the latest in bioengineered floor coverings against his bare feet, usually a source of great comfort, did little to improve his humour. It only took a few steps in the disgracefully small room to reach the old-Earth antique desk on which the communications panel rested. ‘What is it? I made it clear that I wasn’t to be disturbed for anything short of an act of god. And even then only one by a major deity.’
There was a pause at the other end of the line. Orlando thought he heard a sigh ghost across the speakers.
‘Mr Orlando, this is the Captain. We’ve cleared the planetary system and are ready to make the jump. Would you be so kind as to join us?’
It baffled Orlando as to why Captain Fernanda insisted on his presence on the bridge. He worked much more efficiently in the peaceful confines of his quarters. In defiance of all logic Fernanda claimed she was uncomfortable with what she called that “Navigator hoodoo shit” and preferred that he practice his art where she could see him.
Reminding himself that this job funded the lifestyle which was due a Navigator of his status, Orlando smoothed the irritation out of his voice. ‘On my way, Captain.’
The spartan bleakness of the corridor provided a harsh contrast to the civilised comfort of his cabin, further spoiling his mood. While he walked he prepared the patterns in his head, resigned to yet another tedious demonstration of his craft . The trip to Eridani followed a well-trodden path, and well-trodden equalled boring. When he reached the bridge he took his place at the Navigation station, launched the display and ran his eyes over the array of colours representing the condition of local space. Everything looked normal.
He glanced over at Fernanda, who sat with distressingly good posture in the centre chair. While now captaining a private freighter, Fernanda was ex-Space Corps and ran her ship with martial consistency. Orlando ran his hands down his stylish ensemble, glad all over again that he had insisted on a dress code exemption in his employment contract. Those military grade coveralls might be good enough for the general crew, but Navigators had a certain reputation to maintain.
Fernanda made a casual gesture in his direction. ‘Weft the warp, Mr Orlando.’
Raising his eyebrows at the colloquialism, Orlando engaged the controls and began the grand manipulations of quantum filaments necessary to open the link. His mind synchronised with the complex apparatus as his hands traced out broad strokes to mould the outline of the connection.
Not for the first time, he reflected on the difference between plying his trade within the established boundaries of the Republic and the delicate precision required to forge his masterwork. As a Master candidate working to find a unique configuration that led to a new star system, one had to practice subtlety and grace else the glimpses of other universes could be overwhelming. Expanding the map of accessible space had its share of risks, but the work was glorious.
This simplistic display felt like squishing a lump of clay compared to fashioning the Venus de Milo.
‘Link forming, Captain’, the helmsman Phillips said. ‘Sensors confirm Eridani.’
Fernanda’s reply was the same as always. ‘Wait until we confirm stability and sensors detect nothing hostile on the other side. Only then full steam ahead, Mr Phillips.’
After two years on this bucket Orlando thought Fernanda would have learnt to trust his ability to maintain a wormhole. He shook his head, buried his emotions and gave the Captain her precious stability.
When the ship started to move towards the secured wormhole entrance, Orlando stopped monitoring the connection and let his mind drift back to his masterwork. He lost himself in idle contemplation of one of the more troublesome patterns, mentally trying and discarding variations on his current working model. New options occurred to him and he itched to return to the privacy of his cabin where he could get back to some real work.
Without warning the old freighter started to buck and spasm. Only a lifetime of training allowed him to keep a hold of the link as he re-engaged with the wormhole generator and fought to calm the wildly fluctuating threads.
‘What the hell is going on?’ Fernanda yelled.
A technician looked up from his display. ‘There’s a severe subspace surge coming from the wormhole, Captain. I think…’
Fernanda obviously didn’t care what the sensor monkey thought any more than Orlando did, because she cut him off mid-sentence. ‘Mr Phillips, get us away from the damn wormhole. Now!’
Fernanda ran a tight ship, Orlando had to give her that. The crew all stumbled to their stations, their practiced movements in stark contrast with their drawn faces. The ship’s superstructure groaned as they banked, tortured metal screeching in outrage at stresses caused by the combination of churning subspace and emergency manoeuvres.
Orlando lurched sideways, banging his knee on the side of his console. As pain dropped him to the floor, he set in motion a sequence of improvised remedies, but the upheaval only grew worse. Other realities pressed in on him, fighting to expand into this universe’s subspace now that his inattention had provided an opening. If the wormhole imploded now the freighter would suffer significant damage, perhaps even total destruction. His interface swelled with a tidal wave of colour that peaked then tipped towards entropy. Images of alternate universes strobed across his mind like a badly synchronised video broadcast. Micro-bursts of emotion grated his nerves as he touched on countless alien consciousnesses, each too fleeting to register as anything more than static. In an instinctive attempt to insulate his mind Orlando spun a binding construct, its pattern insignificant against the maelstrom, then closed his eyes as he braced for the inevitable shockwave impact.
After a few mercifully explosion-free moments passed, Orlando opened his eyes to the sight of subspace swirling in gentle eddies around his virtual display. The crew stood frozen in place as if a single movement might break their fragile safety and bring disaster crashing back down on them all.
Fernanda’s voice slid across the silence, her quiet tone at odds with the vehemence of her words. ‘I want an explanation for what just happened you arrogant, incompetent, self-centred bastard.’
Orlando ignored her as he gazed at the structure that shouldn’t have held together. In a flash of insight he saw in his temporary patchwork the answer to the problems in his masterwork. The culmination of 40 years honing his craft. His ticket to mastery, a new trade route and the extravagant way of life the resultant royalties would bring. In spite of the shudders that wracked his body in tardy reaction to the crisis, Orlando’s face stretched into a grin.