Abbott clutched the arms of his seat and closed his eyes as the swirling fire of the membrane swallowed the shuttle and spat it out the other side, five hundred light years along the galactic rim. The transition seemed to twist him inside out and wring his soul dry. It left him light-headed and nauseous, his head fizzing with static.
When he opened his eyes, he was amazed to see the crew going about their business as if nothing had happened. They hung in their slings, slaved to the shuttle’s smartware nexus, hands drifting across touchpads and parallel sensors with the dreamy grace of narcoleptic ballerinas. The pilot was setting course from the Jehovah wormhole to its twin, a thousand parsecs across the star system, while an engineer and a smartware specialist communed with the shuttle as if in comas.
Abbott’s head still reeled.
Through the forward viewscreen, a delta strip above the command slings, he made out the main sequence primary, its lone planet in transit across the sun’s fiery disc. Ahead, a mirror image of the wormhole they had just left, its twin was a coruscating oval interface through which they would pass in six hours en route to Earth.
At least, he thought with relief, they were out of Kryte-controlled territory now. This intermediate system was technically in no-man’s land, strategically important and sporadically fought over.
“… though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” a woman’s voice intoned to his left.
He turned. Some neurological side-effect of the transition had blitzed his short-term memory.
“…I will fear no evil.”
He fingered his crucifix, where it rested on an inflamed area on his chest. Memory started to kick in… The smartware implant, fed in through his chest wall, from where it had infiltrated his entire body. The slave device.
He’d been in conversation with Major Travers, he recalled. Just before the jump. Something about a briefing…
“…For thou art with me.”
It came back to him now. Travers, a blocky grunt who did nothing to disguise her disdain of civilians in general and xeno-psychologists in particular, had been filling him in about the captured Kryte in the shuttle’s hold.
“You okay, Abbott?” Travers looked across at him now, her superior expression putting him in his place. She was an uncompromising-looking woman, with the look of a street-fighter, only accentuated by the reconstructive surgery that left half her face composed of n-gel – so nearly natural-looking, but not quite. Responses on that half of her face lagged a split second behind so that an expression would start on one side of her face and migrate to the left, a peristalsis of the self. “You look rough.”
“I’m fine. Where were we?” He sat up, attempting to look competent.
Travers smiled, her time-lagged smile that Abbott tried hard not to find disturbing. “I was telling you about the Devil,” she told him. “I was telling you about your Devil…”
Abbott held up a hand. “Please. I know they’re the enemy, but demonising them like that does nothing to foster understanding.”
Travers sneered. “I don’t want to understand the bastards, Abbott. I want to eradicate them.” As she said this, she ran a finger across the crucifix tattooed on her left forearm.
“The best way to win the war, or even to contain it, will be to come to some understanding of how the enemy works, how it thinks. Reducing a dangerous foe to stereotypes is self-defeating and foolhardy.”
Something flared in Travers’ eyes, a fighter’s response, an unthinking, uncomprehending reflex. “Listen, Abbott. I lost an entire platoon capturing that fucker back there. Twenty-five fine men and women, blitzed in an instant. If you think I give a damn about what I call the…”
Something in Abbott’s expression halted her tirade.
He reached out and laid a hand over hers. The touch froze her. He wondered at the last time she’d felt the contact of human flesh.
“Major, ten years ago an advanced strike of the Kryte’s rim division killed five thousand colonists on New Hampton. My wife and two year-old son were among the fatalities. Please don’t doubt my enmity towards the Kryte.”
She had the good grace to looked away, cowed.
Abbott went on, “So… where did you say we’d got to?”
“I was describing the… the Kryte. We’re of the opinion that it wasn’t a combat soldier.”
“I thought all Krytes in the forward sector were militia?”
She shook her head. “Not this one. It didn’t have battle armour, and wasn’t equipped with phase array nucleonics. It was in a sub-light shuttle, grounded behind the front line. It was attempting to get away when we broke through and disabled the ship.”
“So what do you think it was doing there?”
“Beats me,” Travers said. “Anyway, it didn’t have time to kill itself. We took it by surprise. It put up a hell of a fight, but we quelled the bastard. We contacted the sector base unit immediately. The rest you know.”
“This is our big chance, Major,” Abbott told her. “Our big chance to understand.”
He saw in her eyes that she knew that this time his use of the word understand had a more specific meaning. The Kryte were known to be extremely long-lived, under normal circumstances – perhaps even immortal. Humankind had never even come close to understanding the secret of this longevity until now. Only three Kryte had ever been captured alive before, so badly wounded that they’d died a few hours later without yielding their secret.
Travers was looking at him, her lop-sided expression unfathomable. “Do we really want to understand?” she asked, her tone even, controlled.
In Transit: in a future war-torn universe in which human expansion has come up against implacable alien enemies, Xeno-psychologist Abbott finds himself the guardian of a deadly Kryte, so that it can be taken to Earth to be studied. When they crash-land on the fortress planet of St Jerome, the alien prisoner turns the tables and takes Abbott into terrible custody. What follows is a terrifying journey across a hellish landscape towards a finale that might change the destiny of the Kryte and humanity, forever…
In Transit: included with six other collaborations in Parallax View by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown, both of whom have novels shortlisted for the 2012 Philip K Dick Award.
In Transit: “The stories in this collection are among the best science fiction. These are stories imbued with a rich intelligence and a deep sense of humanity. These are mature stories, tales of love and loss, of pleasure and pain. Cherish them.” —from the foreword by Stephen Baxter
Cover by Dominic Harman.