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Chapter 1

The Wyzhyy

Grand Admiral Quanshk shu-Gorlak waited. "Thirty-nine," the ship counted. "Thirty-eight, thirty-seven . . ." After eleven years in hyperspace, Quanshk asked himself, how can these final seconds seem so long? Eleven years of wondering what he'd find. Probably, hopefully, nothing basically unfamiliar.

Most of his people had spent the entire eleven years in a sleep so profound that aging was suspended; even he'd spent alternate months in a stasis chamber. Eleven years of hyperspace, mostly between spiral arms. On the screen's display of the F-space potentiality, there'd been whole months without the matric distortion of a single star. Only today had they seen two on a watch, both clearly unsuitable. And now a third. Judging by its mass not a promising third, but it was time to emerge, examine the starscape.

" . . . twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two . . ."

He glanced around at the bridge watch, all of them tense. Not so much as an ear flicked. But Quanshk was not deceived. Those long brain cases harbored thoughts. Anticipation. Apprehension.

" . . . thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten . . ."

The word "ten" focused him. His eyes gripped the matric distortion caused by the massive stellar object, with a lesser distortion showing "nearby." Unexpectedly he too was gripped by apprehension. Intense apprehension. His bowel wanted to void right there on the bridge.

" . . . five, four, three, two, one . . ."

Stars exploded onto the screen, glorious, a panoply of brilliant points almost stunning in their collective beauty. For a moment Quanshk's emotions soared, then responsibility took command. Responsibility for 26 million people. What would they find in this distant place, or what would find them? Every earlier swarm, over the centuries, had expanded the empire's existing boundaries into space already probed by scouts. But this—was territory totally unknown.

The brightest star was brilliant blazing red, the primary of this system. Ten degrees to its left was the next brightest, a planet orbiting it.

Reaching, Quanshk pressed a key, and on the screen, reality was replaced with a system mechanics simulation, and a data menu. Already navcomp was identifying and computing provisonal orbits for the system's planets, along with their masses, spectra, solar constants . . . Perhaps one of them would prove habitable despite the red giant primary.

Shipsmind would inform him promptly of any technically produced electronics.

* * *

The living gas bag was both ancient and young, had identity without a label, and thought without words. For its kind, language had long since become not only needless, but pointless. It floated in the uppermost atmosphere of a Jovian giant, enjoying the radiation—the sunshine—on its huge balloon-like body. Meanwhile it composed/produced what, for lack of a more suitable label, might be termed music. An activity carried out jointly with its play companion, fifteen degrees of arc—10,000 miles—distant on the same latitude.

A sudden awareness interrupted their activity—interrupted the activities of all the gas bags around the planet. Something else sentient—some sapient presence—had manifested within their perception. An armada was not part of their experience, but the concept intuited within the group mind, and expanded to comprehend the beings operating the ships.

Together, the thousands of great globules contemplated this new phenomenon, among other things perceiving its reason for coming there, its purpose and intentions.

They made a decision.

* * *

What happened next intensified the newcomers' earlier apprehension. For brief minutes they'd been in a planetary system which their navcomp made perfect sense of. A locatable system in real space, F-space. Even now, shipsmind could tell Quanshk where that system was, relative to their home sector. Even though they were thousands of parsecs from it—11.26 hyperspace years, rounding off.

Then for a moment the navcomp had blacked out so to speak, as the Wyzhyy had. They had completely lost orientation—and Quanshk's armada was suddenly at a different location. A location without any recognizable reference point.

The ship insisted that the change had occurred in zero elapsed time, and that they had not left F-space. They'd simply—translocated. Instantaneously. Meanwhile Quanshk and most of the bridge watch stood frozen, transfixed. Only one had lost consciousness, and toppled to the deck.

For a full half minute—a half minute with millions of star reads and trillions of computations—the navcomp labored to determine their new location. Without success. What it was able to do was begin creating a new star chart, centered on current ship position. Which was effectively stationary, relative to galactic coordinates. Clearly they were not in the outermost fringe of a spiral arm, as they had been moments earlier. They were well within whatever galaxy this was.

Acknowledging that was the first step in recovery. Quanshk's muscles twitched. Tremors flowed across his hide. His hair bristled from nape to withers to tail. Bypassing the ship's captain, who still stood cataleptic, Quanshk called the flagship's medical center and ordered the fallen crewman tended to. Then he ordered the ship to generate hyperspace and proceed to the vicinity of the nearest promising star.

To give that order had taken a major effort of will, but he was grand admiral, with all the responsibilities thereof. He tried not to wonder what might happen next, or what it might mean to this migration, this outswarming he led.


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