He passed a handful of crewmembers as they lurched from handhold to handhold. Their expressions were fixed in professional determination, but Liam could see the fear brewing in their eyes. Even they knew that this wasn't just another storm.
Up a single ladder, and then Liam stepped forward onto the bridge. Even through the tinting effect of the broad transparency that formed the bridge top, the glare of a dozen suns forced him to shield his eyes. Long clouds of superheated gas glowed among swirling, dark streams of dust that twisted in the solar winds. Stellar movements in the cluster were well documented and, these days, rigorously tracked, but the vagaries of solar storms were impossible to predict. Quickly studying the bank of consoles to starboard, he saw the false color images of the nearest stars and their current activity levels. In that moment, the entire deck heaved. It wasn't the sluggish rolls of before: it was a hard movement, like a smack against the hull. Members of the bridge crew, strapped into their seats in a semicircle forward, glanced nervously at each other. One of them spotted Liam and looked back, fear reflected on his face in the glow of red and yellow warning lights on his console. Liam gave him a stern nod, then indicated for him to keep his eyes on his station. An XO couldn't show fear, Liam knew, despite the icy pit in his stomach.
Liam straightened his uniform and stepped into the central command ring, turning his gaze immediately to the young man seated in the command chair. Captain Lord Silverhawk gave him a disinterested glance before facing forward once again. His narrow, youthful features were molded into what many crewmembers took to be command confidence, but Liam knew to be the fundamental, unshakable arrogance of a lifetime of privilege. A lifetime of only twenty-nine years so far, but more than long enough for Silverhawk to believe in his own omnipotence. If the captain was concerned about the strength of the solar confluence into which his ship sailed, he'd never show it.
"Bit of a blow, sir," Liam said with as much casualness as he could muster. "I'll send the roundsmen to secure for storm sailing."
"Very well," Silverhawk replied.
Renaissance tipped to starboard as another wave of solar wind particles smashed invisibly into the hull. Antigravity compensated quickly, but not fast enough to stop Liam from slamming into the command chair. His eyes instinctively shot up to inspect the top mast through the transparent canopy, stretching high above the hull with a full sheeting of solar sails. The mast swayed visibly even as he watched, the giant sails straining in the flow of particles. That last wave had struck the top mast hardest, based on the motion of the hull, but even a cadet could have read the mast status board by the captain's left arm and seen the building pressure on all four. Looking out to his left, Liam could see the taut sails of the port mast, and to his right he saw the wild dance of the starboard sails as they caught random eddies.
Captain Silverhawk paid no attention, either to the visual chaos outside or the intricate readings on his consoles inside. His eyes were forward, staring toward the distant pocket of darkness ahead that indicated where Renaissance would break out of this particular subcluster and back into open space.
"That fop Longridge thought he could get the jump on us," Silverhawk said suddenly, "by detaching Celebration from the squadron while we resupplied. Bet he thinks he can claim the first dance with Her Royal Highness."
"I'm sure that won't be the case, sir," Liam replied, steadying himself as the ship rocked again. So that was the captain's motivation for this suicidal run—a dance with a bloody princess.
"I can picture his jaw hitting that polished floor when he enters the ball and sees me already standing there." Silverhawk's wolfish grin turned momentarily curious as he finally looked at Liam. "Does the local lord have a ballroom with a polished floor?"
The ball was taking place at the home of Lord Grandview on Passagia, which also happened to be Liam's home world.
"I hope it's hard. For when Longridge's chin hits it."
So it was a race, Liam realized. And Lord Longridge's 'Celebration' was too far away to be actively tracked, leaving Renaissance nothing but dead reckoning to try to guess her position. No doubt Longridge was taking the longer, safer route to reach Passagia—so Renaissance was cutting the corner through an area of the cluster routinely classified as off-limits for sailing ships.
Liam noticed the main screen of the command console in front of Silverhawk was a navigation assessment of the two warships, with projected arrival times for each ship. What a bunch of nonsense.