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Dropping from the Lanes after an unplanned jump is not simple. There is no matrix to grasp for, no familiar shapes to press into the surrounding aether; the best the mind can do is hold its last known direction and search for something similar.

Herakles had faded from my vision as I jumped away; after subjective hours of wavered searching with no hint as to my Lane I felt a sudden thrum in an unknown sense, wavering...I turned 'back' in the fluid colors of the Lanes, picked out the minute sharp-tasting line and expanded it. Reaching in and down and out, stepping from nonexistence into a darkened, busy space.

The air rushing into my lungs stilled me, breaths I had been suffering to draw now drowning me. I panted upon the floor, regaining my self and sense; this alone saved me from detection. Instinctively I tucked my legs and rolled towards the edge of the darkened space, feeling someone walk up and past where I had been lying. Only when I was sure I'd reached a wall did I slowly and carefully raise my head, blinking.

I was on what was recognizably a Starship's bridge. Here, then, the similarity chanced and caught. The compartment was filled with consoles, manned by men and women of indistinct nature, all wearing armored uniform. I could sense, now, the hum of busy hands and minds as the crew performed their tasks. Out the sweeping glassy expanse of what was either a transparent canopy or a viewscreen of unequalled resolution I could see the angular nose of the craft silhouetted against a sea of clouds and glowing blue/green - an atmosphere. The sound of the address system startled me back into a crouch against the wall.

The voices were indistinct. I heard, as I always did, the meaningful thoughts behind them, gift of the Lanes. The cadence and the stresses survived this physics translation.

"Internal stabilizers?"

Another voice. "Internal stabilizers at positive dynamic, set and cross-checked."

"Maindrive inactive?"

"Maindrive inactive, set and locked."

"Primary converters set to green, yellow-green."

"Converters to green, yellow green, set."

The rhythm settled into my bones with a shiver, one I knew. Checklist. Part and parcel of the life of those who wrestle with metal giants and the Gods of Speed and Time. I hunched up into a cross-legged position, folding wave around myself and listening. The litany of mechanistic worship and prayers for safe return went on.

"Contact control."

"Contacting control on three-five-eight. On the wave."

"Control, this is Fleet escort Intransigent, Eretal Simshal Seven-Six-Four with you level at synchronous forty-four, level 9 for Center with information Zenta."

Fleet Seven-Six-Four, this is Fortunaro Approach, we have you level at synch-44 with information Zenta. Cleared direct to beacon Flicton Seven for Center, descend and maintain planetary level three thousand five hundred.

"Approach, Fleet Seven-Six-Four is turning right two-one-five to Flicton Seven, out of synch-44 for three-five."

The view rotated slightly, a swooping sensation tickling my innards as I looked around myself. There were seven consoles on what must be a bridge, all occupied; two at the center were manned by figures in armored suits playing on their controls wth the verve of concert pianists. One was looking at the oncoming view, the other at an infopane hung holographic in the air. That one touched the pane with an armored finger (one of five). "Starting Descent."

"Starting Descent aye."

"Hull integrity check."

Another voice, another console. "Hull check three green lights."

"Atmospherics on and stable at transition rate."

"A-drive on and stable at transition, load at five."

"Auxdrive shutdown, cross-checked."

"Aux is down, crosschecked."

"Autoflight to off."

"Autoflight is off, stet."

I was almost kneeling now in my eagerness to see. Herakles had never favored me with this level of intimacy between its creators and itself. We had dipped into the blue glow, now, and the ship (for it was a ship, a sizable one from the little of it I could see) was shouldering aside atmosphere in burning swaths. The relatively smooth ride spoke of the vessel's weight and balance.

"Approach, this is Fleet Seven-Six-Four at level three-five, we have the Flicton beacon, requesting vector for Central."

Fleet Seven-Six-Four, turn to one-nine-zero, descend and maintain level three thousand.

"Approach, Fleet Seven-Six-Four is one-niner-zero, out of three-five for three."

There was a bumping jar. I glanced up; the prow of the vessel was slicing through thicker air. A blowtorch breath was playing on the fragile-looking canopy.

"Atmospherics?"

"Online, green-green."

"Collision detect, collision alarm."

One of the figures raised a hand to its panel at the center console. "Collision is armed." There was a single blaring sound that permeated the area. "Alarm is live."

"Beamguide set."

"Beamguide set and crosschecked."

Fleet Seven-Six-Four, turn right two-two-zero, descend and maintain two thousand five-hundred. Cleared to Ralliart Beacon; contact Central on seven-seven-one.

"Approach, Fleet Seven-Six-Four is two-two-zero out of three for two-five, going direct to Ralliart, will contact Central on seven-seven-one, thank you and good day."

"Comm switched."

"Central approach, this is Fleet Escort Intransigent-" I turned from the ongoing action and found a hatch at the rear of the space. Quickly, folded from view, I undogged the hatch, slipped through and reclosed it. Turning to face the expected metal-walled corridor, I was only slightly surprised by the dark lighting that hid the tube-like space. Moving aft, I reached out with a Gate to find my goal; an observation port some meters aft. Reaching it, I peered through the crystal ceiling at the flowing roar of friction, and through it-

Through it was a dark promontory, to the rear, a stabilizer fin of some sort. At the top was another crystal viewport, glowing slightly in the sipstream, some hundreds of meters distant. I squeezed my eyes shut and gave up my name, dropping halfway into the Lanes, the equivalent of one hand left behind to trail across the structure of the ship in guide. I popped back out inside an empty cupola, with a single couch facing the burning view. I strapped myself in, and looked out the front.

I was on a leviathan. The prow was visible, glowing brightly, but nearly a kilometer distant. I appeared to be at the leading tip of a stabilizing fin. Reaching around the couch, I located controls and with some fiddling was rewarded with the same calm voices, now some hundreds of meters away. I lay back and watched the unthinkably huge vessel drop towards its assignation with the blue-lit world below.

"Airspeed bugs?"

"Airspeed bugs at two-nine-zero, set and locked."

"Main shields."

"Main shields set to interdict and cross-checked."

"Descent angle?"

"Descending at one-five true on the prow."

So it went.

Some ten minutes later, I could see the world itself below, no longer a featureless sea of cloud. An ocean was visible through breaks in the puffs, an ocean towards which we were sinking purposefully. I could see - with my eyes and with the Lanes - other shapes in the air around us, separated by some tens of kilometers. I wondered if that was enough to dampen the enormous shock cone we must be trailing, but waved it off - everything about this sang out routine, and who was I to argue?

"Hull illumination."

"Hull lumes are...on and set." A multicolored glow grew from the edges of the shape spread out before me, winking green and red and blue and white.

"Converters set to red, orange-red."

"Converters at red, orange-red."

We were scything through the final cloud layer, whorls of vapor being smashed aside by our passage. A cone of disturbed and opaque atmosphere was building around the hull just aft of the prow, Prandtl-Glauert condensation of vapor slammed out of suspension into the shockwave form. It wavered as we dropped through what must be the local speed of sound, moving forward slowly as the bowshock grew. There was a dizzying turn as the ship swiveled through a nearly right-angle course-change, leveling out to show a stretch of water as clear as space itself. Far in the distance, a cluster of shapes which might be vessels were drawn up, but at the sound of a murmured communication, blazing lights lit up along a string of ocean some tens of kilometers long. We sank towards it in ponderous majesty.

There was little warning. A flicker in the peripheral vision, enough time for me to jerk my glance upwards towards the darker blue of the atmosphere above, and then three small dart-like shapes tore past the main deck, barely missing impact. There was a blaring sound, repeated this time, and brilliant rods of light connected each of them to an area of the main deck for a fraction of a second followed by a sickening lurch as the enormous ship staggered in the air. Some sound, some vibration that I had not been aware of as a separate sensation skirled down in pitch and died, and to my horror I felt gravity vanish into the sickening swoop of freefall. The prow lifted higher as the stern sank faster, the ship tilting to the right in an obvious loss of positive control. The three shapes were long gone in the slipstream behind us. I clutched the couch's arms and prepared to Jump away, but listened to the litany that had suddenly gone flat, disinterested and almost absent.

"Helm declares emergency, emergency, emergency..."

"Central approach, Fleet Seven-Six-Four is under attack by three unknown, Atmos lost this time, divert all traffic..."

A new voice broke in, tight with strain. "ALL HANDS, ALL HANDS TO EMERGENCY SHIFT STATIONS, THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

There was a slithering rustle as the couch around me enfolded me in velvet steel restraints and pulled me to its mechanical bosom.

A single shout arose on the comm, the voice of the command pilot: "DUMPSTART DUMPSTART DUMPSTART!"

The ship had stopped pitching up but was obviously falling faster. I could only see sky at the moment, and just then there was a terrific jolt and explosion from the stern of the ship. A shuddering in the frame began, and grew, and grew, and grew. I held on for dear life despite the restraints, waiting.

Slowly, the prow yawed, putting the nose of the ship on an even keel but in a steep climbing attitude. There was a brilliant light flickering from behind my field of view. I watched the cloud layer, now above us, stop receding and slowly begin to draw closer. The ship was shuddering as if in pain, the sense of speed gone, but replaced with one of palpable struggle as uncounted thousand tons of vessel began to claw its way upwards under unimaginable power.

"ENGINEERING, COMMAND, WHERE'S MY ATMOS, STABILIZERS WON'T HOLD THIS!"

"Helm, Engineering, Atmos cycling now, estimate ten, repeat ten, nine, eight..."

There was another grand whoom from the unseen stern, and the nose slowly began to drop, revealing an ocean much closer than before and now suddenly roiled with unknown violence. Steam was flashing through the view. Central Approach could be heard shouting something excited but incoherent over comms. I glued my eyes to the angled prow, overcome by the emotion flooding the ship as all who sailed her willed her to fly. The change to the gendered pronoun was tangible, the vessel transformed from a mountainous conveyance into a giant being, roaring in pain and anger.

A rising note was heard. Familiar as it gained in power, the Atmospherics howled their resurrection and the ship sank slowly to its rest.

A moment before the hull touched water, there was the magic silence of engine idle, and then with a shock and sound that penetrated even the hundreds of meters of air and unknown layers of structure to my perch, Fleet Escort Intransigent (whoever she was) made planetfall in a hurricane of abused ocean. When the view cleared, she was slowing from a headlong rush down to a more sedate amble along the ocean lane, brilliant beacon lights flashing past on either side.

"Central Approach, this is Fleet Seven-Six-Four, down and stable on vector two-seven left, requesting ground."

The voice was calm, almost detached in the manner of pilots everywhere holding off the shakes.

Fleet Seven-Six-Four, ah, affirm, contact Ground on seven-niner-one, thank you and good day.

"Good day, Central Approach, Seven-Six-Four for ground on seven-niner-one..."

I gave up my name and Jumped, wondering what I'd stumbled into, burning the name into my traitor memory. Intransigent.

Intransigent.

Her crew and the ship herself left me shaking with the storm of concentrated will, fear, triumph and exultation as I left her there and fled back into the particolored night of probability.

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