A Chen-Hau field wasn’t so much about moving faster as persuading everything else to move slower. Da speed-oh ligh’, as Doc Francis has told Zachariah Obo in school, is a mothafuckah. The early spacefarers got close to it, tantalizingly close, but like an asymptote or the end of the world, it remained impossible to achieve that final end. Worse even than the limit itself, or that stonefaced smug symbol of C that meant three times ten to the eighth meters per second. You just couldn’t go that fast, to say nothing of going faster. Non-negotiable. The closest colonies started as generational journeys—the folks getting on the ship knew they wouldn’t live to see the far side, though their children might—and even after the Rail Lines were built and Xenophon Whaling provided a fuel bonanza, it was years between systems. Travel got faster and cheaper, but nobody ever beat that “mothafuckah” C.
When ya canna beat somet’in, Francis had said, mebbe ya git aroun’ it. ‘Cause motion is all abou’ da refah-ence frame. Ya change da frame an’ erryt’ing diffah-ent. Now, what if Cee is da frame, his own self? You t’ink dat way an’ bang! He’d spread his hands and leered to the lecture hall, his gap-toothed smile coffee yellow below a dead right eye. Radiation exposure, the students figured, given his long history with experimental starship engines. But nobody was sure. When asked about the organ sitting flat and white like a boiled egg in his face, Francis never gave the same answer twice.
The breakthrough came, he’d explained, when Dr. Kwan-Sian Chen looked backwards through scientific history rather than forwards. At the turn of the 21st century, physicists had succeeded in slowing the speed of light. The discovery was momentous in the physics world, but outside of a few arcane fields it was quickly forgotten. Dr. Chen stumbled across the old work and had an epiphany. He musta ‘bout shat hisself, Doc Francis had declared with a cackle. Centuries of technology had opened experimental avenues never imagined by those ancient researchers, whose leader he would ultimately honor beside his own. By expanding the light-altering effect to a three-dimensional static field in a vacuum, Chen ignited the greatest revolution in human history. If Da Vinci wasn’t a paintah, ain’ nobuddy remembah him now.
The principle was deviously simple: mount a C-H generator on a moving platform, and then drop the local speed of light below the speed of the platform. The resulting bubble moved through “normal” space at whatever proportion of light speed its velocity demanded. A few thousand kilometers per second—barely a crawl in cosmic terms—functionally became hundreds of C. No rules of physics were truly broken, for at no point in space did anything travel past the local speed of light. That was simply the result. “I have cheated God,” is a famed Dr. Chen saying which he never actually uttered.
The system was elegant and efficient, if fantastically expensive to construct given the exotic semiconductors involved. It left one enormous practical difficulty, which Francis named on an old graphite chalkboard haunted by ghosts of lectures past. GRAVITY. Iss’ da one uddah t’ing in the Univahse dat make iss’ own rules.
What about the Ouro? someone had smugly asked from the gallery. Not Zachariah.
Da Ouro doin’ da same t’ing as us, Francis waved it away with an annoyed growl. Same fiel’, dey juss’ make it diffah-ent. Dass’ anuddah leckchah.
Gravity pulled at objects in a C-H field just as it did everything else. Worse, it warped the field itself. Since any ship was functionally propelling itself through its own ever-moving bubble like a tank on treads, a bulge in the bubble naturally propelled the ship in that direction. At such high speeds, the combined effect of a warped bubble and gravity itself could be catastrophic. Ships could be pulled off course in fractions of a second by even a modest gravity well and suffer the same sad fate as ECV Bronwyn. Space was very empty indeed, but gravity wells were much larger than the masses generating them. Precise control was needed, but so was anticipation. Visible light being useless at such speeds—objects could only be seen after passing them—pinpricks of distant gravity were the only guideposts. In test after test, the human brain proved superior to A.I.s at this particular form of spatial reasoning.
Hence, the Pilots—immersed in a kind of high-functioning coma to achieve perfect concentration for hours on end. Dose high achievahs dat getchoo home safe an’ nevah stop t’inkin yo’ ship is dey own. Obo smiled, thinking of the admonishment, watching Pilot Mohinder’s vitals on his own monitor and ready to drop the field at any moment should they crash. Stroke, seizure, heart attack—he’d never seen them but had read the case files. He practiced the kill procedure every day, just so nobody could ever finger him for such an accident. Never an Obo, not coming from where he had. They knew about it, Vivek and Ashley, and had never showed him the kind of scorn Francis warned them all to expect. Those were Navy flyboys he’d meant, full of brass and pride. No Pilot landed in the Explorer Corps without coming down a few pegs.
* * *
Vivek had to piss. It didn’t feel quite like that—there was no pressure in his pelvis, no tingling along with it—but in the back of his mind had crystallized a particular sensation of needing. The pod’s computer did its best to trip up those base-brain impulses before they reached his higher processes, but biology always got its way eventually. He’d learned to recognize the signs, as any pilot did. Re-learning them with the implants had cost him two contact suits, each soiled in the last ten minutes of a dive. He’d wanted to die and Lorena, bless her, hadn’t said word one. He was sure she’d tucked it away, maybe waiting for him to find a girl so she could drop it during the wedding toasts. If she weren’t invited, she’d find a worse way to get him. He tried to imagine what that might be, keeping Konoko steady on a course for her planned emergence point.
FR-5594 was the star’s given name, a musty little white dwarf on the spinward reach of the Open Territory. It was named with all the care it deserved, for there wasn’t much to see. A thin belt of asteroids formed a dusty halo and a half-dozen aborted frozen planetoids orbited in feeble light. If once they’d lived, the star’s earlier stages had blown away their crusts and atmospheres. Nothing remained to commend the place, neither to humans nor Ouro. No installations ever built.
The system lay just past a spar of hot gas extending out from a local nebula. It reared like a brilliant orange castle in a haze of blue helium, built by a madman with spires and parapets askew in all directions. Vivek couldn’t see it except as a flood of subliminal data, but he felt the diffuse mushy drag of the gas and the pinpricks of nascent stars. He pulled the ship wide left before twisting his shoulders and rolling right, hitting the thrust as he did so to corner the nebula at a nifty four hundred lightspeeds. He thrilled at the sensation but willed his body to stay calm, to swallow the adrenaline before it could be released. This was what Ashley chased, along with those infernal transit records. He’d stopped thinking of those years before. Konoko would hit her emergence point safe and whole, with a minimum of excitement. That’s how the C.O. liked her dives, and it was her X.O.’s job to make that happen. Ashley’s times and scores put his to shame, but everyone landed in the Corps for a reason and he was First Pilot for a reason.
* * *
Lorena woke to the gentle whispers of a pop song, one she’d danced to as a teenager with the stems of flowers slipped through braided hair and a hemline so high she’d slipped out the front door without saying goodbye to her parents. The chords grew steadily louder as she blinked five hours’ sleep from her eyes, the stereo raising its volume, firmly reminding her to get up. It wasn’t a problem she typically had. Lorena dressed, pulling on her drab blue and white coveralls—ugly but still preferable to the figure-hugging jumpsuits they used to foist on women. With the new policies giving preference to female C.O.s (they promoted long-term social stability, a fact which had somehow taken decades of studies to settle), the “slip suits” only lasted a few more years. Most women, it turned out, didn’t like giving orders in sexy get-ups. Who knew?
She was making coffee in the galley when the ten-minute emergence tone sounded. Authentic dairy cream from honest-to-god cows that walked real earth and ate real grass splashed into the dark fluid, swirled chaotically at its surface. It was winter on Earth and so too somewhere in the basest parts of her brain. She was prone to depressive moods in the winter, and dairy products seemed to help. Like red meat on the bad days of cramping, it didn’t have to make sense.
Today, however, Lorena Mizrahi wouldn’t get to finish her morning coffee. She was nearly to the Navigation Suite—just twenty yards down the hall—when the pitching deck sent her ceramic mug flying to smash against the bulkhead.
* * *
On the final approach, Vivek throttled back to compensate for FR-5594’s mounting gravity. The well was manageable so long as he kept Konoko centered on the star’s mass—the C-H bubble warped straight forward. He was aware of the planetoids but felt them as distant, meaningless brushes against the hairs on his arms. He accounted for all six, clearly arrayed as they were against the backdrop of empty space. No maneuver needed to avoid them; a clear shot to the emergence point above the orbital disc. In just minutes he’d get to piss!
It was only when Konoko drew close enough that he finally saw the obstruction, deep enough in the system perceive the shifting angles between bodies. Disguised just seconds earlier in a planetoid’s mass shadow, it became clear in his mind with the awful suddenness of a deer on a dark highway. A seventh mass, screaming right towards him at impossible speed.
No time for rational reaction. There was only a twitch in Vivek’s brain, in the reptilian core that felt death’s icy breath and lashed out in desperation. So he spun away, lunging to the left for no particular reason. Konoko kicked over on her back and pulled a wrenching hundred-twenty degree turn in less than an eyeblink. Every thruster was thrown to one side at full blast, spinning the ship like a top. It was only at this moment that the drive computer realized something was terribly wrong. Score another point for the human brain.
But then consider taking that point back, because the shock and panic of the moment had thrown Vivek out of synchronization with his own pod. The computer knew what to expect from Pilot Mohinder’s nervous system, and this was not it. What’s more, the last maneuver had broken every red line on the failsafes. Procedure was clear at this point: lock out the Pilot and scram the Chen-Hau generator. Both these things were accomplished in an instant.
His first feeling was a kind of bemused astonishment. He was alive. How did that happen? The second was a fresh panic, realizing he felt the space around him but had lost his ability to maneuver. Like waking up suspended in utero, unable to move or speak. It was hell, and Vivek wanted to scream but choked it back. He realized seconds late that he’d been locked out, replaying the events in his head. There was a seventh body, uncharted and invisible until his approach’s last moment. What could he have done? It wasn’t my fault. Extracting his left hand from the control pocket, he turned in the pod’s cylinder to pull the cap off the emergency release and punch the button.
* * *
Karl Genz had fallen asleep at his post. It was a bad habit, his parents had always told him, büseln immer, but he found the world consistently presented boring spells in which one might conveniently nap. The better to be fresh for anything exciting! In this case, his bad habit had saved him the indignity and bruises of being thrown from his bed. The bridge had large cockpit-style seats complete with restraining straps, and Karl always felt better sleeping with some pressure on his chest. Blankets or safety belts; they were all the same. So while he woke in a panic, Konoko’s violent maneuver wasn’t as violent as it might’ve been. Snapping eyes of Teutonic blue to the emergence clock, he saw the digits frozen and red. They’d come out early, something obviously amiss but the ship still intact. That was something. All of them might easily have been smeared across parsecs of space, as tended to happen when anything went seriously wrong in a C-H field.
He unbuckled himself from the seat, noting neither gravity nor power had failed. Perhaps something terrible befell Pilot Mohinder? Karl picked up the intercom and was about to flip its channel switch when he saw the blot on his console. The handset clattered to the deck trailing its coiled cord. He leapt back into his seat, fingers working the scanner console to explode one signal to full screen. There was no reason for it to be there, even less so at the end of a botched emergence. But there it was. Gott im Himmel.
The Scanner Tech fumbled for the fallen handset with shock-numbed fingers. He set the channel to General Address, pressed the TRANSMIT key and let it go again without speaking a word. After thinking a moment, he pressed the key again. He should ask about the crew. Even though it didn’t seem the most important thing at the moment, he had learned that others didn’t share his priorities. In fact, they often took offense. Think of how other folks interpret your actions, not how you mean them.
“Is everyone all right?” he asked with as much sincerity as he could muster. It dawned on him that anyone who wasn’t all right wouldn’t be able to answer. Now he felt stupid, like he’d made a mistake and wasted everyone’s time. Karl Genz hated nothing in the universe more than feeling stupid. Zachariah Obo’s voice was the first to reply.
“Bumped and bruised down here. The gen’s intact, drive systems too though I’ll need to check everything. Everything auto-scrammed after the jolt.”
Vivek checked in sounding breathless. “Mohinder in Nav. There was an obstruction, I turned and the computer locked me out. Oh shit, Lorena.” The link clicked dead. Karl was close to panic, thinking he’d explode if they didn’t let him say what he had to say. He read over the scanners once again, soothing his mind and ensuring there was no mistake.
The Navigation Suite intercom popped back to life with the C.O.’s voice. “We had an early emergence,” Lorena declared like nobody knew it. “Myself and Pilot Mohinder are fine. Sit down, Vivek,” she said into the background. “You’re going to pass out, breathing so hard. You got spooked, relax.”
“There was an obstruction!” Karl heard the Pilot protest. He pressed TRANSMIT to intrude at that juncture, but Lorena cut him off brusquely.
“We need to be sure Pilot Duggins isn’t hurt. Tech Genz, run and check her cabin. I’m staying here to treat Pilot Mohinder.”
“Doctor,” Karl began knowing she wouldn’t be happy with his answer, “I respectfully insist you come to the bridge. Please. It is…an emergency.”
* * *
Lorena’s first instinct was to bite Karl’s head off. Something was seriously wrong with the ship and possibly her Executive Officer. What she really needed at this juncture was to have her simple orders followed. She clicked the handset’s button and took a breath to excoriate the Tech, but then reconsidered. Karl didn’t do well with aggressive criticism, and besides she detected an odd strain in his voice.
“Fine, Genz,” she finally said into the handset. “I’m coming up. You better have something great to show me. I’ll check Ash’s cabin on the way.”
“For what? Banged up, pissed off pilots?” Ashley’s voice rang down the hall. She strode barefoot into the Nav Suite in a white workout shirt and shorts, to take up position in the doorway with hands on hips. “They’re all right here. What the hell, Vee?” That nickname represented the only scrap of affection in her words.
“Obstruction,” Vivek groaned holding his head. His occipital implants felt like six hammering pistons against his skull.
Lorena pointed to him. “Duggins, stay with Mohinder. I’m going to the bridge, so don’t do anything dumb. In fact, don’t do anything at all until you hear from me.”
Ashley moved aside to clear the doorway, scowling until she took another look at her commanding officer. Her eyes widened. “Lorena, your knee!”
Blood had soaked the C.O.’s knee through her jumpsuit. “It’s just a scrape. My mug broke and I landed on a scrap. Karl’s got something upstairs and I’m going to see it. Stay here,” Lorena repeated, and primly exited the Navigation Suite. She broke into a jog the second she left the Pilots’ sight.
Down the hall and up two decks she ran with just a pause atop the stairs to breathe. Composed, she walked confidently onto the bridge and snapped “Report!” It was a very C.O. thing to say. Karl Genz sat at his station, hands folded in his lap, facing the door and waiting for her. He said nothing, just swiveled slowly back towards his screen to direct her attention. Her eyes flicked to it under furrowed brows that rose at first glimpse.
Karl hit a control to transfer the image to the big screen. “I believe that is the obstruction Pilot Mohinder encountered.”
It was an ovoid, like a football tapered at each end, hulled with solid metal. Blister-like bulges protruded from its foresection, a cluster of eight squat thrusters from the rear. The scanner plotted yellow conduits where power coursed through the structure. Eighteen hundred meters long, six hundred deep and wide. Average density slightly higher than that of water.
Lorena tried to pick her words carefully but settled on a single one. “Ouro.”
The Ouro, indeed. Karl nodded. “It was waiting when we emerged but hasn’t changed course or speed since. Just two thousand kilometers per second. Basically stopped.”
“Have they hailed? Have you?”
“No transmissions sent or received. I was waiting for you, Doctor. That’s why I called you up.” He seemed slightly hurt and she regretted her choice of words. There was a lot to take in at the moment.
“Is it a warship?”
“The design matches nothing in the naval database.” Nahsing, the accented word grating on her nerves. “And her power levels are quite low. A civilian ship, I would guess.”
“Maybe marooned, if they’re sitting here. Can’t project a field.”
“It is possible, Doctor. I don’t wish to speculate.”
“Well, shit,” Lorena breathed. She picked up the intercom. “All hands to the bridge, please. Vivek, I know you’re not feeling well but I need you. All of you, now.” Hung it up.
“What…would you like me to do?” asked Karl, the C.O.'s cursing having tilted his emotional axis. Sloppy on her part.
She thought for a moment before barking with laughter, which did nothing to help his mood. “Genz, I want you to go to the galley and make me some fresh coffee.”
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: PART THE THIRD! WHEREIN COFFEE IS CONSUMED AND INTERSPECIES DIPLOMACY ATTEMPTED.