Two days ago . . .
The chime tore Ayatollah Håkan Brezhnev awake from a wonderful dream. He'd been riding a horse — a real one, not some mechanical imitation — and leading the faithful on an armed crusade, or a jihad, or whatever it was supposed to be called, against the Emperor of Sirius. They were nearing the Imperial Palace, and he could almost taste the fear that decadent, self-aggrandizing, pompous twit must be feeling. Fear of him, for a change, instead of the other way around. The palace spires had just come into view when reality intruded.
The chime sounded a second time. Brezhnev rubbed his eyes, muttered a curse, then pressed the comm stud and barked, "Yes, Piotr?"
"Sorry to wake you, your Holiness," the voice on the other end sounded genuinely apologetic, "But there's been an incident."
Brezhnev was in no mood for more bad news from the Sol front. "What kind of incident?" he growled.
"A high-speed intruder just emerged from the HC hyper hole. The Second Guard units stationed there were unable to shoot it down. It hasn't changed course toward any high-value targets yet."
Brezhnev bolted upright, all anger washed away in bewilderment. "Did you say the HC hyper hole?"
"That's correct, sir."
"The Human-Centaurians?" Brezhnev asked. "They're attacking? They've never even tried to breach our space since hostilities began."
"We're not sure it's an attacker, sir," Piotr's voice replied. "It's too small to be a fighter, and it's only accelerating at 2g. They launched a 100g projectile toward the Sol hyper hole, and its flight path and radar profile are consistent with a message missile. They also transmitted a message to the Gate Guard, and to the Second Guard units. It was an unencrypted audio recording claiming to be Chairholder Yukariah Heap. It's pretty short. Would you like me to play it for you?"
Brezhnev shook himself, still fighting off the last remnants of sleep. "Yes. Yes, play it."
The voice on the other end changed. The lack of nasal tones, like a man with a bad head cold, marked the speaker as Centaurian. "This is Yukariah Heap, Chairholder of Human-Centauri. The message you are hearing is being broadcast throughout the Sirius system, and is stored aboard a message missile bound for Sol space. It is only with the gravest concern for all our futures that we take such extreme measures.
"We have sent out a small starship with a new, experimental means of collecting the interstellar medium. Its destination is the UV Ceti system. We have strong reason to believe that there may be dire consequences, not just for ourselves but for the entire Pentagon, if we do not reach UV Ceti in ten years. Unfortunately, Human-Centauri is twelve light-years away from UV ceti. Our only hope to reach UV Ceti in time is to first route our starship to the Sol system, which lies only eight-and-a-half light-years from UV Ceti, and to do this the starship must cross Sirian space and transit through the Sirius/Sol hyper hole into Sol space.
"Let me emphasize that this starship is not a military spacecraft, nor is its mission military in nature. It is purely scientific. We intend absolutely no harm to either Sol or Sirius, despite the state of war that currently exists between our nations. As Chairholder of Human-Centauri, I beg you, Sirians and Solars alike, please, allow this one tiny spacecraft safe passage."
Piotr's old voice came on again: "That's the end of the message, sir. We also received an identical copy of this message on a different channel at about the same time the report from the Second Guard units arrived here, probably beamed to us by the intruder itself."
Brezhnev's lips curled into a wry grin. "I assume his Imperial Majesty has already been informed of all this?"
"Yes sir," the voice replied.
Of course, Brezhnev thought. The Ayatollah's always second in line for everything.
It hadn't always been that way. 188 years ago, for two brief, shining years, the Ayatollah had ruled all of Sirius. To be honest with himself, though, "All of Sirius" wasn't much at the time. Just a single continent, no bigger than Madagascar back on Earth, sitting in the middle of the northern ocean of Sirius A IV. Nor was the population anywhere near the millions overspreading the world today; the initial colony fleet carried less than a thousand settlers, mostly young women and a whole army of frozen embryos. That first generation had to give birth at an astonishing rate, because otherwise the second generation would be at risk of collapse. And lording over it all was the Ayatollah, leader of the faithful and absolute ruler of every human being within eight light-years.
Then the second wave of immigrants came along and installed their own Emperor. Oh, sure, they let the Ayatollah remain on the throne, and every six years, per the original Sirius Constitution, a new Ayatollah still got elected by the people. But the position had been drained of all real power. The Ayatollah at the time couldn't even object when the Emperor declared independence from Sol. That first Emperor had even had the gall to rename this planet "America."
There were some from the first wave who remained faithful to the Ayatollah, and resented the Emperor's usurpation of power — at least for a few years. But when the Centaurians arrived, thinking they could just waltz in and colonize the southern half of Sirius A IV without so much as a peep of protest out of us, all that resentment vanished. The whole population, faithful and newcomers alike, rallied around "their" Emperor to put the xorns in their place. There's nothing quite like a threat from an outside enemy to unite rivals. And to many of the colonists living there, the Centaurians were a threat — the memory of that horrible xenoepidemic they'd spread to Mars was barely two decades old. Realistically, relegating the xorns to the southern island belt, thousands of klicks away from any human habitation, would have been more than enough to prevent any cross-contamination from native diseases. The tropics had a way of heat-sterilizing anything stupid enough to try crossing them unprotected, even a bacterium. And, hell, it wasn't like Sirius A IV had a breatheable atmosphere to carry any airborne aerobic infections either. But try telling that to a panicky mob who were still struggling to survive on a hostile world. Sirius's fledgling military space fleet, built to stave off the threat of Sol cracking down on their newfound independence, turned instead to the duty of capturing the Centaurian "invaders" and subjugating them to the Emperor's will. The Ayatollah had become completely irrelevant.
Officially, the Ayatollah was now just an advisor to the Emperor. Unofficially, even that toothless role was only for show.
"I suppose," Brezhnev resumed, "His Majesty would like my personal recommendation in this matter." Just so he can say he asked, he thought.
"Uh, yes sir," Piotr's voice replied.
"Well," Brezhnev began, "Their message spins an . . . interesting yarn, to say the least. Does any part of their story check out?"
"Hmmm," Piotr's voice trailed off a bit, then Brezhnev heard muffled conversation too far away for Piotr's mike to pick up. Finally: "At least the intruder's engine design really does appear to be experimental. Its exhaust is pure hydrogen. None of our tech weenies have ever heard of a spacecraft that puts out only hydrogen. The intruder's 2g accel is also consistent with it being manned, and none of the course-corrections they've made suggest that their destination is anything other than the Sol hyper hole, which is where they say they're headed."
Brezhnev smirked — not that Piotr could see it over the audio-only pickup. "But what do they think of that cockamamie excuse of theirs? They have to get to UV Ceti in ten years, or else all civilization is in jeopardy? That's awfully cryptic, and pretty damned hard to swallow. It's just the kind of cover story an enemy might make up to sneak deep into our space with a disguised secret weapon."
Piotr was silent for a couple of seconds, then: "I just had a thought. Officially, Human-Centauri is also at war with Sol. What if the intruder really is a secret weapon in disguise, but we're not the target? What if they're planning way far ahead? I mean, they'll have to open their campaign against Sol some time, right? So why not do it by sneaking in through the back door?"
Brezhnev rolled his eyes. Piotr really needed to do a better job of thinking these things through before he opened his mouth. "You do realize that the only reason this intruder made it past the HC guard units was because our HC Second Guard consists only of a token show of defensive strength that's never seen action over the course of the entire War, right? Human-Centauri's military may be weak, and its people hopelessly delusional, but they're not stupid. They know how much fighting has been going on between Sirius and Sol, and anyone with a brain bigger than a walnut would know that the Gate Guard and Second Guard on Sol's side of the hyper hole will be alert, well-seasoned, and above all very well-armed. Provide 'em with just one target, no matter how small and how fast, and it will get shot down."
Piotr didn't answer.
"And even if the Human-Centaurians did think they could get away with it, why wouldn't they just tell us that was their intention in the first place? Human-Centauri usually goes out of its way to avoid deception. And if they wanted to expend their own forces in an attack on Sol? That's like a free hit for us. Hell, we'd give 'em a royal escort. In fact, if they wanted to launch a campaign against our main enemy, why not ask for an alliance—" He stopped himself. "Oh. Yes." He chuckled dryly. "I remember a few of the things I said to Yukariah Heap at the summit. And all the times we turned down a request just to visit our space diplomatically since then. No, they'd never believe we're open to the possibility of an alliance."
"So . . ." Piotr hesitated. "Do you believe their story, sir?"
Brezhnev let out a long sigh. "I don't think it matters. They're an intruder. The forms have to be followed." His voice turned sour. "The integrity of American independence must be maintained at all costs. What's my recommendation?" He paused. "We shoot the intruder down."
"All right, sir," Piotr's voice was somber, "I'll let the Emperor know."
Brezhnev closed the connection. There was no way he could get back to sleep now. He stretched and stood up, kneading his back. The bed creaked and groaned as he took his weight off it. The bed, like most of the comforts in the Ayatollah's inner sanctum, was an antique from Earth, dating back before First Contact — and that meant it was built for Earth's surface gravity, not the 1.1g here on Sirius A IV. It was always under that tiny extra load which threatened to snap its timbers. And, worse, every other bed on A-IV was built lower to the ground, both for the safety of its occupants and to make crawling into bed less of a strain. Brezhnev felt like he ought to lash himself to its side and drive in a few pitons whenever he made his nightly summit attempt on the mattress. He wished it were in a museum where it belonged, not butting into his sleep as a public reminder of the Ayatollah's opulence.
He crossed to the window, and spread the curtains wide. It was late afternoon in the streets below, and as summer was still approaching the skies were utterly cloudless. There were a few people walking the street with their breathers on, but there was no rush hour. The Americans — how he hated that word — the residents of A-IV had long ago learned to ignore the procession of day and night on their world. Humans still slept and rose according to the 24-hour internal clock of their Earthly evolution, and no 13-hour rotation period of their planet was going to change that. Those few xorns who lived here, he guessed, probably kept to that ridiculous 17-hour-40-minute circadian rhythm of theirs too. As a result, those people down there were only the ones who happened to be in their own personal day-shift at the moment. What always amazed Brezhnev when he looked out on this scene was not the fact that they were willing to brave an unbreathable nitrogen-methane-ammonia atmosphere, but that they were willing to expose themselves to daylight. No oxygen in the air meant no ozone layers above them, and all the ultraviolet from that frighteningly powerful sun in their sky came streaming down unhindered until, fully scattered, the very air was aglow with enough radiation to give a man a sunburn in the shade. There was a reason Brezhnev's window glass was so thick with anti-UV layers.
As a matter of fact, he could see a Centaurian or two muddling its way through the streets. Hmph. Those xorns should go back to the night side of Sirius A II and live in the ghettoes with their own kind. But the Emperor had insisted on work visas the moment the War began. His imperial majesty didn't give a damn about the integrity of the "independent America" that had caused his predecessors to bar the planet from the xorn colonists in the first place. "A war means a need for skilled labor," he'd announced, "Whether the laborer has two hands or four." Well, here they are, your highness, waddling along under the strain of a 1.1g world that won't even let half of 'em use their foot wheels. It kinda serves 'em right to be invalids here in the Capital.
Brezhnev had even taken secret pleasure four months ago, when a raid from Sol made it through their defenses and pounded Sirius A II with antimatter bombs. Once the Space Defense Force determined that that was Sol's target, they pretty much let it happen. In the aftermath, Sirius A II had begged the Capital for aid in rebuilding, but their pleas had fallen on deaf ears — starting with Brezhnev's own.
He closed his eyes. There was probably a xorn or two on board that Human-Centaurian intruder, too. With their kum-ba-ya insistence on working together in "harmony," their government probably insisted on a mixed crew. Brezhnev wouldn't miss any of them.
Emperor Ivanov the Second waited impatiently for his aide to read the dispatch, then asked without turning to face her, "So, what did our Ayatollah suggest?"
Olesya Engström glanced back at her data pad, then summarized: "He suggests that we kill the intruder."
The Emperor pursed his lips, then let out a brief sigh. "The forms have to be followed. I was actually hoping he might grow a backbone this time, and recommend letting the Human-Centaurians through. Or forcing them to surrender. That would have been interesting." He paused, scratching his ornate moustache. "All right, let's make it official. By order of his imperial majesty, the intruder is to be attacked and destroyed. I leave the details to my chiefs of staff."
The Emperor made the tiniest of gestures with his right index finger, which Olesya knew from long experience was his sign for "now go away, don't bother me." Olesya nodded her head and silently strode from the room.
General of Space Defense Ingmar Urayle rubbed his chin and frowned. Before him lay every military spacecraft deployment throughout the Sirius A system, projected in a meter-wide cube atop his desk. Each small green dot was a fighter, each large green dot was a deployer carrying two or more fighters. A white arrow jutted from each green dot, scaled in length per its unit's current velocity. The whole ensemble looked like a balding porcupine.
There were a red dot and an orange dot in this space aquarium too, with their own white arrows. The red dot was the intruder from Human-Centauri, whom he'd been ordered to destroy. The orange dot was its projectile, most likely a message missile. With the whole Space Defense fleet at his disposal, there were any number of ways he could kill the intruder. All he had to figure out was which way would be cheapest.
Brigadier General Vilda Shubin stood on the opposite side of the desk and studied the display with him. As was the fashion with female SD officers, she wore her red hair long on the left and cropped short on the right beneath her cap. It looked fine on a younger officer, but on an aging general like Shubin it seemed a little out of place. She was just grateful that a woman could be a general these days, if she had the ability. Her grandmother wouldn't have been so lucky.
Hypothetically, she was here to lend her "more immediate" field experience to aid Urayle, but the reality was she'd been safely down here on North America with him for the entire war. Not that field experience would have helped with a bogey this unusual. What was Human-Centauri up to?
Urayle brushed a finger across a touchpad, and new dashed lines crisscrossed the projection. These were the courses every unit would take if its acceleration remained constant. Both the intruder and its projectile were making separate beelines for the Sol hyper hole, or perhaps the Gate Guard stationed there.
He scanned the other dashed lines, then frowned. None of them came close to intercepting either the intruder or its missile. And if the Emperor's orders were going to be carried out, the intruder had to be intercepted. He couldn't count on his cruise missiles to do the job for him. One of his units would have to be rerouted. He rubbed his chin and sank deep into thought.
"General?" Shubin seemed impatient.
"Well, I'd like to send a fighter after it on a rendezvous-intercept," Urayle mused, "But I don't have to tell you what the Stargrazer Strike did for that."
Brigadier General Shubin nodded. The Stargrazer Strike had been the biggest single blow Sol had dealt to them in the entire war. Sol had wanted to focus on their real enemies over in Alpha Centauri. Sirius was just a pipsqueak, small fry enemy, too unimportant to risk a large invasion fleet on. That unpleasant but unavoidable truth had always rubbed Shubin the wrong way. Nevertheless, what Sol had opted to do to them was almost as bad: Less than a month into the war, a Sol strike force had poured through the Sol/Sirius hyper hole, battered its way to their main station at the L4 Trojan point between Sirius A and America, and wiped out every Stargrazer that had had the bad luck to be within a million klicks of the place. Not every Stargrazer pilot had survived.
The Stargrazers were transmute tankers with lots of heat shielding and big scoops on the front. They went on regular runs, diving toward Sirius A and plowing through the outermost layers of its photosphere. Though tiny compared with the electromagnetic scoops used by the old starships, the scoops on the Stargrazers were big enough to gulp down over a tonne of hydrogen per minute. This provided all the fuel they needed to return on a one-gee brachistochrone and produce a king's ransom in deuterium along the way. The Stargrazer Strike had robbed Sirius of nearly all its deuterium production capability, and the bulk of its normal hydrogen production. For the past year, the Empire of Sirius had had to limp along on hydrogen extracted from America's oceans, which might do God-only-knew how much ecological damage to the planet in the long run.
Needless to say, the deuterium for which fighters had such a monstrous appetite was still on strict rationing.
"Hold on," Urayle said. He leaned in closer to the cluster of light-dots around the Sol hyper hole. "Pinta? That's a Deployer. What's a Deployer doing stationed at the Gate Guard?"
Shubin bolted to a keyboard and frantically typed in a status request. "Lemme refresh my memory," she lied. She had zero recollection of Pinta's activities, but she didn't want the General of Space Defense to know it. The answer appeared a heartbeat later. "Oh yes. She's running tanker duty. She's carrying full D2 and H2 loads, but she's only towing one fighter."
Urayle frowned. "Where are the rest of her fighters?"
Shubin's face was a mixture of apology and regret. "They were lost beating back the last Sol incursion. They're slated for replacement in 4 months."
Urayle winced ever-so-slightly. "One fighter, hmm? Is that fighter in good shape?"
Shubin tapped in another query. "Yep. Looks like Pinta 2 is undamaged. It's got a full weapons loadout and no outstanding squawks for repairs. Pinta is in the middle of refuelling it as we speak."
Urayle got a crafty look in his eye. "From Pinta 2's position at the Sol Gate Guard, the intruder's almost on a direct line to the HC Gate Guard. That's perfect. Our fighter won't even have to turn around and come back. It can take out the intruder and coast on over to one of the deployers in the HC Second Guard. Minimal deuterium expenditure! And the sooner it gets going, the better. How's its refuelling status?"
"When they sent this data, Pinta 2's combined fuel load was —"
Urayle held up a finger. "I meant, what will its fuel status be, if we sent an order for them to undock right at this moment."
"Oh," Shubin said. She typed a couple of keystrokes, scratched her temple, then typed some more. "Given that this data is a quarter of an hour old, and another quarter-hour transmission delay, its combined fuel load will be 28 400 tonnes. That represents a delta-v budget of ... ten permil."
"All right, send the order. Pinta 2 is to close with the intruder at two permil absolute, and destroy it. In the highly unlikely event that the intruder survives the pass, Pinta 2 is to turn back and make a rendezvous-intercept with the intruder. Even for that maneuver, it's carrying a lot more fuel than it needs." Urayle smirked. "So when the intruder doesn't survive the first pass, it'll give our HC Second Guards a nice little bonus deuterium ration."
"I wouldn't be sure of that," Shubin worried. "The intruder could put a hole through its fuel tank."
Urayle snorted. "That little blip? Pinta 2'll hulk 'em before they get close enough for an accurate slug shot. Even if they're carrying missiles, how many could they carry? Three? Four, maybe? Not enough to put a dent in Pinta 2's point defense. The only way they could hurt us is if they were packed with antimatter."
Anya Blomgren watched the newscast with growing horror.
"Space Defense has been tracking the Human-Centauri intruder since it first emerged," the anchorwoman said. "Thus far, it hasn't deviated from a course directly for the Sol hyper hole, and poses no threat to America or any other Sirian planet."
Lev had his arm around Anya's shoulders, and could feel her mounting tension. He withdrew his arm; he knew better than to try and comfort her when her anti-war activism started to flare up.
"They're harmless," Anya said to her boyfriend. "You heard the recording. They just want to get to Sol space. Why the hell can't our military thugs just leave them alone?"
The anchorwoman continued, and they could both see her expression begin to sour: "We reported some time ago that the intruder had launched a projectile toward the Sol hyper hole, which would arrive there a few hours from now. Although this projectile was consistent with certain communications platforms in use by both military and civilian space traffic, Space Defense has elected not to risk the potential damage it could cause to our Sol Gate Guard facilities. The projectile has been intercepted and disabled."
"So they really did it, then," Anya said, "They shot down the message missile."
The anchorwoman grimaced. "The office of the Emperor would like to remind every citizen that all enemy transmissions are classified as military secrets. Any dissemination of such transmissions —" she blinked, seeming to hold back her anger "— will be considered an act of treason."
Anya flicked off the newscast and stood up, fuming. "Damned cretins!"
Inwardly, Lev sighed. "So what now? Protest march?"
"No." She glared straight at him. The fury in her eyes would have frightened Ares. "Space Defense stopped their message missile from getting through. So, we finish what Mercurand started. We get the recording to Sol."
Lev practically choked. "What?! You heard what the news lady said! If we try to send that transmission anywhere —"
"We'll be committing treason," Anya finished. "Yes. And I know what the consequences will be if we're caught." She snorted angrily. "But I also know what the consequences will be if we just sit back and do nothing."
Lev took a deep breath. "You're not just thinking of beaming it directly to Sol from here, are you? You'd need line-of-sight on the other side of the Sol hyper hole, and it won't be facing us here on America for, what, another three months?"
She shook her head, almost imperceptibly. "That's why we're going to need help from Simon."
"Oh, no no no," Lev said. "You're not dragging the Blue Pearl's crew into this mess too."
"The crew won't have to know," Anya said. "Only Simon. He knows how to play the plausible deniability game, if it comes to that."
"Oh come on," Lev answered. "If Simon gets caught, do you think they'll just let the rest of the crew go merrily on their way? They'll all get locked up. They'll be lucky to get out of it with their heads still attached."
Anya shrugged. "They'll just have to not get caught, then. This is important. If Space Defense gets their way and Sol doesn't hear a peep out of Mercurand until it pops into Sol space, Sol's just gonna assume it's another one of our probing missions and swat it like a fly. I couldn't live with myself if I just let that happen."
Lev sighed, outwardly this time. "Okay, I guess there's no talking you out of it then. But how are you going to get the message to Simon in the first place? It's not like the Blue Pearl is within radio broadcast range. You'd need to send the bits via comm laser, and —"
"And comm lasers can't get through the atmosphere," Anya finished his sentence again. "And all the orbiting facilities with comm lasers are under government control." Anya let the slightest hint of a smirk show on her face. "But there's another way."
"Hm?" Lev said. "Magic?"
"No no, I'm serious. You know how the Emperor likes to have tight control over the military, right?"
"Of course," Lev replied. "He doesn't want a coup landing on his front doorstep. How does that help us?"
Anya continued, "Every Emperor was the same way. They've all traditionally been really, really paranoid about ensuring that they're never out of touch with Space Defense. We didn't always have this vast orbiting network of comm laser relays; a century ago, we only had a handful of them, and they weren't a hundred percent reliable. So, the sitting emperor built a small network of ground-based comm masers. They're still around, and still kept operational by the Emperor's personal staff, in the highly unlikely case they're ever needed. On the receiving end, you can't even tell the difference between one of their long-range microwave beams and a short-range broadcast." This time, her sly smile was unmistakable. "And I've been inside one of these comm maser installations before. It's less than eighty klicks north of here."
She took out her data pad and began tap-swiping the screen. Lev's stomach grew uneasy. This sounded even worse than the last Great Plan she'd had, and that little excursion ended with him taking her home from jail.
"The Blue Pearl's above our horizon," she said, "But it'll only be in line-of-sight for another four hours. Let's go!"
She had her long-sleeve outdoor shirt on before Lev could object. It was all he could do to scoop up their breathers and tail her to the airlock. Oh, the things we do for love.
Simon Sokolov stared blankly at the Blue Pearl's course display, silently counting the other freighters within transponder range. They were on another less-than-official delivery run to Sirius A II, filled with desperately needed raw materials and assembly bots to help the Centaurian ghettoes rebuild their ground-based transmute QC&C stations. Sol's antimatter strike four months ago had hit seemingly random settlements on the night side of the planet, relying on the blast radius of the bombs to catch whatever critical infrastructure lay nearby. It had been crude, but highly effective. Sirius A II still had plenty of QC&C power stations intact, but with only a tiny fraction of their old transmutation infrastructure still working, they could barely make enough heavy elements to survive.
He was only under half a gravity, but still preferred to slouch in his seat. A wistful pop tune played in his earphones; it helped take his mind off of the realities of this damn war. This close to the Sol hyper hole — only a couple million klicks away — he'd seen unmarked blips pop into existence on his display and watched helplessly as the dot of another freighter's transponder turned into the fuzz of a debris cloud. Sirius's decision to fight against the biggest military in the Pentagon was ridiculous. It chewed away at resources, hardware, and lives. None of those lives lost belonged to anyone he personally knew — at least, not yet — but at this rate it was only a matter of time.
His crew felt the same way. He needed it that way. Materiel was officially supposed to support the war effort, and Sirius A II wasn't part of that effort. He'd had an entire shipment turned back once, right there in Sirius A II orbit, because some new bureaucratic regulation had gone into effect while he was en route; and he wanted to make sure that wouldn't happen again. A live crew could think on its feet and disguise the cargo as something that wasn't prohibited yet; a robotic crew couldn't be counted on for that, even with an S.I. calling their shots.
His radio receiver beeped for attention. That was odd. He was over a million klicks away from the Gate Guard and Second Guard stations, way too far for an omnidirectional radio broadcast. Was one of the freighters near his course calling for his attention? . . . No. This radio message was encoded using XRCP. No short-range transmission would bother with that kind of overhead. Who the hell was it coming from? The header packet carried, like all XRCP messages, an ID code for its sender; he ran it through the lookup, and . . .
Who, or what, was "American Imperial maser site 6"?
Well, the message had a short text attachment at the beginning. Maybe that would clear it up. He tapped it, and the first sentence sent a jolt down his spine:
"S, this is A and L. We've snuck this message into a comm maser's transmit queue. Hopefully no one but you gets this. The audio attachment is what the Human-Centauri craft broadcast yesterday. You may have heard about it. The jackboots don't want anyone to hear it. They even shot down the message missile that was carrying it, to keep it from getting to Sol. Can you forward it to Sol, through the hyper hole?"
Simon took a couple of deep breaths. Anya and Lev? Ho boy. What did they have to go through to get a banned message to him?
In any event, he'd heard about the intruder's transmission — the official warnings about it would have been pretty hard to miss — but he hadn't actually heard it. He blanked the text from his display in case a crew member clambered up into his cabin unannounced, then relaxed back into his usual slouch and played the audio attachment into his earphones.
The intruder sent that? Just a plea for safe passage into Sol space? It hardly sounded like the menace Space Defense was making it out to be. Why was the Imperial crown so worried about this message being seen by the public, or by its enemies in Sol?
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, a dozen possibilities flooded his head. This was the first incursion by Human-Centauri since the war began, and by pretending it was a dire threat they could quell public concern that their fighters might be killing "peaceful" Human-Centaurians on the other side of the HC hyper hole. Allowing any unauthorized message to reach Sol might set a dangerous precedent. The message might drum up sympathy for Human-Centauri on Sol's part, encouraging them to drive that much harder against Sirius in order to "save" their besieged neighbor the next hyper hole over. Space Defense might want to blow the intruder up as a precaution — any object travelling thirty permil can do hideous damage just by accident, if its engines fail while on an unlucky course — and they were worried about public sympathy.
Each one of those reasons just made Simon want to get the message into Sol's hands even more. But if he got caught . . .
He squeezed his eyes shut for a second, then took a deep breath. Okay. He'd do it. But if he was going to do it, he'd need a clear line-of-sight through the Sol hyper hole. In fact, he'd need a direct line-of-sight to one of the Second Guard stations on the other side, and — oh! The Second Guards on the Sirius side of the hole were always, frustratingly, positioned right in front of either side of the hole on either side of it. He couldn't be lined up dead-center with either face of the hole, or the damn Imperial Second Guard would get his message instead.
And there was also diffraction splash to worry about. The farther he was away from the hyper hole, the wider his ultraviolet comm laser's beam would become. The beam would only be about a hundred meters wide for every million kilometers of distance it covered, but he couldn't afford to ignore even this tiny width. He'd have to be close enough that nothing near his line-of-sight on the Sirius side of the hole — not the Gate Guard, not the Second Guards, not any of the Space Defense traffic that happened to be stationed there or passing by — would catch any part of his comm beam.
He looked back at Blue Pearl's course plot, and frowned. He'd make closest approach to the hole in about three hours. He'd be more than close enough for a clear shot, and the hole's arrival-side face would be at just about the perfect angle — but he'd also be right along the ecliptic. Sirius's arrival-side Second Guard would be directly in front of the hole. That wouldn't do at all. He'd need to change course, if only a little bit; the sooner, the better.
He rubbed the pertly-cut Van Dyke beard on his chin. He'd better keep his crew in the dark about this little diversion, if only to protect them if they came under official scrutiny. An unannounced course change would only arouse suspicion; he'd need a convincing excuse.
He glanced at his course plot again, and the excuse became obvious.
"Oh, Sven?" He called down through the hatch in the floor.
A gruff, raven-haired man looked up and grunted from the room below. "Hmm?"
"This course is getting a little too popular for my taste," Simon replied. "I've got blips strung out in front of me like pearls on a necklace." Of course, those other blips were mostly headed for Sirius A I, not Sirius A II like Blue Pearl was. And those few that weren't were part of the new Stargrazer fleet that had just started entering service, built to replace the ones lost in the Stargrazer strike; and they were all headed for Sirius A's photoshere. But this far from their destination, all their courses were similar enough to Blue Pearl's for just the excuse Simon needed. "Let's dip down below the ecliptic just a hair. That'll give us some elbow room."
Sven shrugged. "Whatever. Long as you don't go on a goddamn sightseeing trip like you did last month."
"No no," Simon shook his head, "I've learned my lesson there. I promise not to add more than two minutes to our E.T.A.."
Sven rolled his eyes, then turned his attention back to his surroundings without another word.
That little white lie out of the way, Simon typed in the new course parameters. Blue Pearl pitched ever-so-slightly to dial in their new thrust vector. Then he set a timer whose alarm would sound only in his own earphones, and put his music back on. When the time came, he'd need to invent an excuse as to why he was turning on the comm laser; and then he'd have to hit his marks perfectly. He settled in for the three-hour wait.
General Sørensen patted his hair dry, then flung the towel onto the shower stall's velcro patch. On a hundred forty kilometer Gate Guard, there was barely enough gravity to pull the shower water down the drain, let alone make a towel behave itself on a rack. He pulled himself into the room that served as both his office and his bedroom, and briefly wondered how his junior officers made do with even less living space. You'd think with over sixty thousand square kilometers of surface, they'd have made this Gate Guard into a sprawling resort by now, instead of this cramped little network of subterranean cabins. He punched an intercom button on his desk phone without bothering to dress. "So, Vick, still haven't heard a peep from Mercurand?"
A muffled fumbling came from the other end; he'd clearly caught his assistant off-guard. Then: "Uh, no sir, we've received no communications from the HC bogey since the last report. It's still making a powered one-permil turn toward us. Or toward the hyper hole, they're still too far away to tell for sure."
Sørensen sighed. "Well, I guess we should be grateful that it's been this uneventful around here. No incursions from Sol in the past month, no Imperial strike force to coordinate with, just one tiny invader who seems hell-bent on committing suicide."
"That's true, sir", the voice on the other end agreed. "And one message missile."
"You're not still on about that, are you?" Sørensen said. "Even if it was just a message missile, the intruder has spent more time in our system than any enemy unit in months. He's had ample opportunity to observe our forces. Any of that intelligence could have been beamed to that missile while it was in flight. Did you really want Sol to know details about our fleet deployments, details that can only be observed from the HC end of the system?"
"Begging the General's pardon, sir," the voice replied diffidently, "But why would the Human-Centaurians send system intelligence to Sol? They're at war with Sol just like we are."
"Because," Sørensen answered as though he were talking down to a child, "If they can cajole Sol into attacking us, all our effort's going to go into repelling Sol. And that won't leave any of our forces to spare for attacking Human-Centauri, now will it?"
"No, sir," the voice said. "I understand, sir."
Sørensen leapt gently aloft and pulled his underpants over both feet. In this ultra-low gravity, he could easily finish putting them on and get half way through his undershirt before either foot touched the ground. "I still can't believe the intruder made it past Pinta 2 without so much as a scratch, experimental engine or no."
"Oh, funny you should mention that, sir", Vick's voice said. "The chipheads just got done with an analysis of Pinta 2's telemetry log. Apparently, in the last half minute leading up to its closest approach with the bogey, Pinta 2 went radar-blind."
Sørensen paused halfway through fastening his trousers and frowned. "Radar-blind? Was it a glitch?"
"They don't think so, sir," Vick's voice answered. "The fighter's infrared and visible cameras picked up some kind of broad-spectrum haze at about the same time. Half of them think it was some new secret weapon we've never seen. The rest are convinced, since the bogey was accelerating directly away from Pinta 2 at the time, that the radar blindness was a side effect of that weird engine they're using. In any event, the bogey must have had some sort of armament, because Pinta 2 suffered kinetic damage within a fraction of a second of closest approach." His voice seemed to wince. "The hit knocked out its radar data bus."
"Ugh," Sørensen grimaced. "You know, I've always thought our targeting tactics relied too heavily on active radar."
"Well," Vick's voice replied, "You don't need me to tell you how hard it is to get the distance to your target without it."
"But up that close ..." Sørensen began, then stopped himself. Damn. If Pinta 2 had had IR sensors at both ends, facing the same direction, the parallax data would've pinned the bogey's distance down perfectly. Well, okay, maybe not perfectly, but close enough for a sizable kill probability with its mass drivers, radar or no radar.
A few muffled noises came from Sørensen's desk phone, like background chatter with a hand covering the microphone. Then Vick's voice returned with a new sense of urgency. "General, we're receiving a radio broadcast from the HC bogey. It's playing hell with a bunch of our local frequencies. Looks like it's unencrypted, too. They must want to be sure we pick it up."
Sørensen perked. "Hm!" He raced through fastening the ceremonial buttons on his strapcoat, then said, "I'm on my way. Be ready to tell me what's in their message the moment you receive each part. Out." He cut the connection.
"General in the Center," a Captain announced as Sørensen brachiated out into the Command Center. This wide room lay right outside his office door, but the forms still had to be followed. Everyone in the Center snapped to low-gravity attention.
"As you were," the General responded mechanically. "Vick, what have they sent us so far?"
A red-haired chocolate-brown young man sporting Lieutenant's bars answered, in the same voice that had been on the General's intercom a moment earlier: "It's video this time." He glanced at his display. "But so far, the audio portion of the video is identical to what they lasered us two days ago."
Sørensen nodded. "It's a recording of their Chairholder, right? They're probably just sending us the video of Yukariah Heap speaking the words, now that they're close enough for the transmission bandwidth."
"Let me stream the first few seconds, sir," Vick said. A video preview area popped up on his display, and a second later a moving image of a Centaurian appeared within it. There was an official Human-Centauri seal clearly visible on the wall behind it. "Yep, that looks like Heap."
Sørensen shook his head ever so slightly. "They can't seriously think they'll change our minds."
Vick made a mild snort of agreement . . . then he blinked at his monitor and frowned. "Sir, there's an attachment at the end. It looks like more audio."
Sørensen raised an eyebrow. "A special plea, maybe? Play it."
"Here it is," Vick said, pressing a key.
The console speakers flared to life. "You've just heard a plea from our Chairholder," a feminine voice said, "Informing you that we're not on a military mission and that this spacecraft is an experimental starship design."
Sørensen nodded and smirked. Yep, it was a special plea.
The voice continued, "What the Chairholder didn't tell you about was what it is that makes this starship's design experimental. You may have noticed, if you'd cared to look, that our exhaust consists not of helium but of hydrogen."
Sørensen snorted, then said to Vick: "Oh, we noticed, all right." Then a thought came to him. Hydrogen. Protons. "Wait . . . are they saying —"
The voice went on, "Our engine isn't powered by proton-deuteron hot fusion, or by deuteron QC&C fusion, or by two-stage QC&C fusion, or by any kind of fusion at all. We. Are powered. By. Antimatter."
The word struck Sørensen in the chest like an icy hammer.
The voice pressed onward: "Our main fuel tank contains nearly a hundred tonnes of antihydrogen, carefully balanced in a metastable state inside a non-magnetic containment tank. If any of your weapons hit us, it's a near certainty that this containment will breach, resulting in the annihilation of most of this antimatter with the material of our hull. I don't have to tell you what kind of radiation storm will be unleashed if this annihilation takes place. Furthermore, I remind you that although most of the antimatter will probably annihilate with our hull, some will almost certainly escape and spread out in a cloud of neutrally-charged — I say again, neutrally-charged — antihydrogen. Since the center of mass of this expanding antihydrogen cloud will have the same speed and course as this spacecraft currently does, at least some of this expanding cloud will eventually make its way to your Gate Guard and Second Guard facilities themselves. Personally, I don't know how well your armor would hold up to such a barrage, but I do know that it will pass right through any magnetic protection fields you could place in its path."
The voice went quiet. Sørensen looked at Vick with alarm. "I need to know if that scenario could actually —"
The voice abruptly resumed: "As our Chairholder has told you, our immediate intention is to transit peacefully through the Sirius/Sol hyper hole and leave your space. In fact, you can verify right now that our powered turn will put us dead-center on course for the peacetime-departure side of the hole when we're three hundred thousand klicks away. But if you attack us, we will detect your weapons fire a few seconds before it reaches us, and we will use those seconds to put ourselves on a collision course with either your Gate Guard or your near-side Second Guard. Even if you reduce us to vapor, there's no way your asteroid-mounted installations can dodge that much antimatter. The consequences will be just as dire for you as they will be for us. Let us pass, and we won't pose any danger to you. Mercurand out."
Sørensen addressed the entire Command Center staff. "Solutions, people! Let's assume the intruder isn't lying about that antimatter. I need odds and outcomes." He glanced at a tactical display. "Fast. The intruder closes to short weapons range in less than six minutes."
Every face in the room buried itself in its console. The normally-omnipresent sound of the circulation fans was drowned out by a cacophony of clacking keys, rapid breathing, and the occasional grunt of panicked frustration. The first to speak was a Master Sergeant: "Sir, their powered turn is still in progress. If we can disable them in the next few minutes, their debris shouldn't come anywhere near us."
The general shook his head sharply. "Our only weapons with a reliable kill probability at this range are missiles." He glared at the sergeant, challenging him to figure it out.
It took only a second. "Oh! Thirteen minutes. Right, sir. Sorry, sir." Thirteen minutes was the flight time for freshly-launched missiles — short range, cruise, or otherwise — to cross 300,000 klicks of space. A missile's engine could only produce a hundred g of thrust, the same as a fighter's. Not only was 300,000 kilometers the outer edge of short weapons range, in this case it was also the point at which the intruder would be on course for the hyper hole — or for their position — and past that point, if they wanted to ram, they couldn't be stopped.
A Captain spoke up next: "Sir, if they do keep their word and head for the hyper hole instead of for us or the Second Guard, we might be able to disable them before they can alter course. They can see our slug launches or proton cannons before they arrive, but not our lasers."
Sørensen narrowed his gaze. "How's their albedo?"
The Captain allowed the barest hint of a smirk to peek through her military discipline. "They're not mirrored, sir. They'll be absorbing the full spectrum." She glanced at her panel as quickly as she could. "I'm estimating a ninety percent kill probability in the first half second of exposure, and that's assuming only half the lasers that can bear on the target are used."
The general took a breath. "Good. I like those odds." He addressed the room again. "Who here is working out the intruder's debris cloud? Show of hands."
Three hands darted up. One was Vick's. The speakers added: "S.I. here, I'm on the problem too."
"Not enough," the general said. "I need two more volunteers." Three more hands waved in the air; the general pointed to two of them. "Okay, you two. Get on it. And don't forget to assume some tonnage of cold antihydrogen in the mix."
A voice came from the general's side: "Uh oh."
"Sir," the red-haired lieutenant replied, "It looks like the shrapnel cloud won't be too bad, but the antihydrogen cloud would — well, if we assume the worst case, and they're storing it at liquid-metallic hydrogen pressure, the cloud'll be bigger than this whole asteroid inside of the first minute."
The general frowned. "Do you think their magic metastable antimatter tank would squeeze it that hard?"
"No," came a voice from the back, "No it wouldn't, sir." A young staff sergeant stood up.
"You are?" the general asked.
"Staff Sergeant Ilya Ericsdóttir, sir. I've heard about this technology, sir. It's whiteflake antihydrogen. It's gotta be. It's like solid hydrogen snow. Cold as hell, but you can't pressurize it. You'd blow yourself up if you tried."
"Thank you sergeant," the general answered curtly, then without skipping a beat said, "Estimate the antihydrogen cloud for low pressure storage, people!"
Seconds ticked by without a word. Sørensen kept glancing at the tactical display, watching the intruder's light-dot edge ever closer.
"S.I. here," the speakers intoned. "I have an estimate. A low-pressure antihydrogen cloud released from the intruder will not expand rapidly enough to reach this Gate Guard. It will, however, overlap the near-side Second Guard. Some will likely reach the far-side second guard as well."
Vick looked up. "Sir, my own estimate concurs with the S.I."
"Damn," Sørensen muttered under his breath. He grimaced at the thought of failure. He couldn't just let the enemy slip past and get into Sol sp—
Into Sol space...
"On the course the intruder is on right now," the General addressed the room, "How long will they be in line-of-sight of Sol's Second Guard before they make transit?"
The Master Sergeant was the first to reply: "My plot says ten seconds, sir. They'll have to come out from behind our Second Guard before they'll have LOS on the hole."
For the first time in too many minutes, Sørensen's frown vanished. "Their message missile didn't get through. Ten seconds won't be enough time for 'em to tell Sol not to shoot! And even if they do get a message off, Sol's not gonna have enough time to tell they're not Sirian. All right, everybody, go dark!"
A chorus of "Yes sir!"s rose up, and one by one every outgoing comm signal switched off.
The General continued: "When the intruder emerges on the other side of the hyper hole, Sol's gonna think it's just another one of our incursions. They'll open fire. And then they'll have to deal with an expanding cloud of antihydrogen!"
Sørensen grunted in satisfaction. Two birds, one stone; and they wouldn't even have to throw it.
Five more seconds. The Second Guard's curved surface filled the bottom half of Torra's visual display, close enough to count the buildings as they scooted past.
Then Ken spoke: "Line of sight . . . now!"
There it was! The Sirius/Sol hyper hole. At high magnification Torra could see the 200-meter disc, filled completely with a view of another Second Guard's surface. Sol's Second Guard.
And that other Second Guard, on the other side of the hyper hole 8.6 light-years away, was already painting Mercurand with radar.
"They've locked on, but no launch telltales yet," Torra intoned. They were weightless now, perfectly on course for the hyper hole, but that respite wouldn't last.
"Transit in five," Ken said. "Ready on partial evasive."
The magnification on Torra's forward view shrank second-by-second, keeping the hyper hole the same relative size as they barrelled toward it. More and more of Sol's Second Guard became visible beyond. Two of Torra's fingers hovered over the slug launch key, ready with the one-and-only shrapnel pack they could fire. Still, no launch telltales . . .
Ken barked, "Transit!"
In less than the blink of an eye, the stars shifted, Sirius's Gate Guard vanished, and Sol's Gate Guard popped into existence. The room spun hard to their left, pointing Mercurand toward the easiest-to-clear side of the Second Guard, while the main engine slammed them down to the floor at 2g; and before any of them could adapt, the gyrations of partial-evasive maneuvering returned.
And still, to Torra's great surprise, there were no launch telltales. Were they waiting for an optimal angle to take a shot?
Ken's plot focused on the small, rocky Second Guard they were hurtling toward. Each second brought them 300 kilometers closer. They'd miss it, but just barely, and only if Mercurand's engine didn't cut out. "Five seconds to closest approach!"
"They're still not firing," Torra said. "I don't get it."
Three . . . two . . FOOM! Quite unexpectedly, their weight increased and they jolted madly to one side. The sensation was over even before they shot past the Second Guard.
"Magnetic snare!" Torra announced. "But a weak one, less than two gee."
"They pushed us," Ken said. "We ended up farther away from the Second Guard than we would've on our own."
"They were making sure we didn't crash into them," Colonel Doe decided. "Now they can blow us up with impunity."
Torra twitched. Still no missiles, no slug launches, no laser hits. Still those ominous radar locks from the Gate Guard and Second Guard, gently shifted to the red as they pulled away. When would Sol break the calm and open fire?
"We're receiving a radio message," the S.I. interrupted. "Strong signal, no encryption, traffic control frequency."
Jennifer was too stunned to repond for a few seconds. Torra's mind raced through the possibilities. A traffic control message? And short-ranged enough to be over radio, instead of tight-beamed to them over ultraviolet laser? Was Sol ordering them to surrender? Vectoring them to a holding pen somewhere? Vectoring them back through the hyper hole to Sirius? Warning them to evacuate their spacecraft before they blew it to smithereens? Then, wide-eyed, Jennifer sputtered, "P-play it!"
The speakers played a man's voice, stern but calm: "Mercurand" — the single word sent twitches down Torra's central nerve cord. Sol knew their spacecraft's name! — "This is Sierra Gate Guard. Vector at one point zero gee to course two five by minus one eight Celestial, then do not deviate until past the Heliopause."
"Converting that vector now, Commander," Ken said as he punched those two numbers into his console. Sol still used the archaic Celestial coordinate system for navigation, based around where things appeared in the skies of Earth at the vernal equinox. He got his answer, and his eyebrows shot up in surprise. "That's exactly the course we need for UV Ceti!" He pressed a few more soft keys. "Course change ready to execute on your orders."
"Execute," Jennifer said absently, still digesting the new reality. Then, as their partial-evasive gyrations abated and Mercurand settled into position to push them onto their new trajectory, she shook herself and keyed her transmit mike. "This . . . this is Mercurand, Sierra Gate Guard." Her voice was shaking. "We're . . . how did . . . how? How did you know about our mission? Our message missile never reached you!"
"A disobedient Sirian relayed your message to us," the Gate Guard replied, and they could almost hear the speaker's smirk. "Looks like some folks on the other side of the hyper hole didn't hew to their government's 'When in doubt, kill it' party line."
"Well well," Jennifer breathed, barely audible. "The plague shall pass." Then she keyed her mike again: "Mercurand will comply, Sierra Gate Guard." She released the transmit stud, and said to her skeleton crew, "All right, then. Cancel condition red. Looks like I get to take off my Commander's hat."
Ken blinked, then shrugged, the new reality not quite settling in yet. "Aye, Colonel."
Torra powered down the slug launcher, then allowed itself to relax for the first time in far too long. The milder thrust below its wheeled feet was almost as welcome as their new situation. Almost.
Ken glanced at his acceleration plot. They still had the full permil speed they came through the hyper hole with; a mere 1g powered turn meant a long time to change course. "We've got about nine hours before we're on course for UV Ceti. I don't know about you two, but after that long brush with death, I'm bushed!"
Sleep for the humans; a short sleep and hours of lonely — but mercifully safe — routine for Torra. When its companions awoke, a little more than an hour before the course change would finish, Torra did something it hadn't done in days: it joined them in eating breakfast.
"I could tell the risk level was starting to get to you back there, Lieutenant," Ken said. "Good job holding yourself together."
"Most of my clanmates wouldn't have been able to," Torra replied. "There's only a couple of us trained to be warriors."
Jennifer snorted. "Centaurian warriors. Skittish herbivores armed with lethal weapons. It's amazing what little it takes to qualify as 'brave' to a xo— uh, Centaurian." She looked at Torra. "No offense."
Torra had heard the Lt. Colonel say such things before. She normally hid her contempt for Centaurian soldiers pretty well, at least when outsiders were within earshot. "You know, Colonel," Torra answered coolly, "You humans do have an expression: discretion is the better part of valor."
Jennifer nodded. "Yes. And 'he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.' It's a basic principle of guerilla warfare. But guerilla tactics only work if the operatives don't chicken out before they strike."
Chickening? Oh, yes, the terrestrial bird, Torra recalled. "A Centaurian guerilla group wouldn't get to the point of chickening out. If the situation got anywhere near that bad, our lookout would assess the risk and give the call to retreat long before it was too late."
"Calling retreat too early is a kind of chickening out," Jennifer countered. "I can imagine Centaurians guerillas retreating because there might be one armed guard ahead of them."
Torra made a grunting noise with two mouths. "You don't know much about our species' history, do you. Before we encountered you humans, there was no such thing as an unmanned Centaurian vehicle. In every war we fought amongst ourselves back on Go'orla, each war machine had a living pilot — and we inflicted horrible casualties on one another. You don't face down and wipe out whole clans because you 'chicken out.' Nobody's kept count, over the millenia, of how many millions of clans have simply been ended by such wars."
Jennifer grunted back, half in grudging acceptance and half in derision, then quietly returned to stuffing a hash brown in her mouth.
"You know, I just had a thought," Ken said, gently trying to change the subject. "If all goes as planned, this is the last time we're going to eat together for ten years. . . . Er, ten years rest time, I mean."
"Hmmm, yeah," Jennifer said, swallowing her last bits of hash brown. "This'll be the first time in . . . well, decades that anyone's gonna go into submetabolic sleep. If you don't count medical reasons."
"In that case," Torra said, and lifted its bowl of Western Go'orla oood(v)(r)uut(l) in two of its hands. "As we say in our clans . . ."
Jennifer and Ken waited for their Centaurian companion to say something, but Torra just stood there, silent. They glanced uncomfortably at each other. The only sound was the whir of Mercurand's air circulation pumps. Then, jarringly, Torra jammed the bowl up to its closest mouth and crunched at its contents like a starving horse.
Jennifer shrugged. "I guess Centaurians do get hungry."
Ken narrowed his gaze. "Is that one of those . . . uh, food offering things?"
Torra raised a single tentacle-finger in a Centaurian "yes," but didn't stop gorging itself.
"Well, all right then," Ken said. He lifted a cheese-filled bagle off the counter, turned it attentively and silently in one hand, then lunged and bit into it with what he hoped was the same gusto Torra had just shown.
And of course, with hands and mouths full, this would be the moment the S.I. interrupted them with real work. "Powered turn complete," the wall speakers said. "We are on course for the Luyten 726-8 system. Rotating to point our thrust vector at the destination."
The room wobbled slightly to one side, but — mercifully, for the rest of their uneaten meals still sitting on the counter — the 1g thrust beneath their feet didn't abate. It was a leisurely rotation, unlike the kinetotic slamfest of their earlier evasive maneuvering. For the quarter-minute it took to complete, they could hardly tell Mercurand was yawing at all.
"That's our cue," Jennifer said. "Let's go try out this experimental scramjet 'scoop' they've given us."
Torra wheeled its way back to its surround-station, with the Captain and Colonel filing in close behind. The S.I. had already tied one of its displays into the drogue system, with its startup checklist displayed alongside. The massive spool, which held a hundred thousand klicks of hair-thin cable, hadn't gone anywhere while they weren't looking; its electric motors showed as energized and holding position. Though it was still tucked neatly in its bay, the towing unit was transmitting its telemetry, both over radio and down the entire length of the spooled cable. Thankfully, this telemetry showed no cautions or warnings; power was flowing smoothly down the cable into the unit. Though it also held a tiny propellant supply for starting, the unit's ion flow rate currently registered zero. This was expected when it was nestled safely inside Mercurand's scoop, but that would have to change if it were to have any chance of keeping the cable taut during their long acceleration phase.
Torra switched another display to show the inspection camera inside the scoop, which automatically turned on the camera's floodlight. The lumpy towing unit stood out sharply against the star-studded blackness above. The thread of cabling running from its backside to the spool was almost, but not quite, invisible. "It all looks good," Torra told its companions. "Ready to launch the towing unit once you've throttled down, Captain."
"Throttled down?" Lt. Colonel Doe asked.
Captain Tractor smirked. "Do you really want to throw an experimental drogue out our nose, which has never been field tested, while we're getting pushed toward it? . . . Here goes." Ken pulled his throttle lever back to idle. Mercurand's exhaust jet shrank to nothing, and weightlessness returned.
"Launch sequence start," Torra said, pressing a key. On the camera display, a tiny, blurry jet of ions erupted from the drogue's rear — the same electric arc-jet technology used in attitude thrusters for over a century. When its sensors registered positive thrust, ensuring that the little engine was on, the docking clamps holding it in place popped open. The unit slowly pulled forward — or upward, from the standpoint of Mercurand's deck layout. Then, the massive spool started to turn, unwinding to match the speed of the outgoing ion-rocket. The hum of its motors was clearly audible over their heads.
The towing unit dwindled away into the distance before them. As it accelerated, the spool spun faster and faster, and the pitch of its hum rose ever higher. Soon its hair-thin metal thread was rushing forward faster than a rifle bullet.
"Still getting radio telemetry from the towing unit," Torra reported. "Shouldn't last much longer, though. The transmitter doesn't have the range. We'll be relying entirely on cable-relayed telemetry from that point onward. Okay, time to start the outward ion flow before the unit runs out of propellant."
The cable, thin as it was, was more than just a single metal strand. It had to carry its own tension force, electric current, static charge, comm signals, and above all a steady stream of ionized hydrogen. Even before it began its main job of attracting protons from the near-total-vacuum in front of them, it had to shuttle protons from Mercurand's own onboard hydrogen supply out to the towing unit, to keep it fed with propellant. The mechanism worked fine in a lab, but had never been field-tested in deep space before.
"And . . . there we go!" Torra announced. "Towing unit telemetry shows an incoming ion rate of 5 milligrams per second, and climbing."
Now the whir of the spinning spool really started to rise in pitch. With its outside fuel supply secure, the towing unit no longer needed to hold back, and it had opened its throttle to the full 30g design limit. Torra could only hope that the spool's motors could keep up with it. "The drogue should be halfway deployed in about 18 minutes. Let's hope the towing unit is as good at slowing down as it is at speeding up, or it's going to snap the cable when it reaches the end."
"Are we drawing in any outside hydrogen yet?" the Colonel asked.
"No ma'am," the Centaurian replied, "And we'd better not be. The cable's not statically charged yet. That's not supposed to happen 'til it's fully deployed."
"I wonder why," Colonel Doe said. "You'd think they'd want to ensure the whole system was working before pulling a hundred thousand klicks of wire out in front of us."
"Because," the S.I. answered through the room's speakers, "Any un-deployed cable will still be packed together on the spool. That much electrostatic charge all in one place could damage the spool or interfere with its motors."
The Colonel grinned, almost sheepishly. "I keep forgetting, our fourth crew member knows more about Mercurand's hardware than we do."
The towing unit was long out of sight 18 minutes later, even at maximum magnification, but its telemetry reassured them that it had flipped over and was now decelerating every bit as hard as it had just been accelerating. The spool, still spinning impossibly fast in the chamber above their heads, began to spin not-quite-so-impossibly fast. Another 18 minutes after that, and the drogue finally came to rest at its full 100,000 kilometer length.
"Spool motor brakes engaged," Torra reported. "Swinging the towing unit back to forward-facing. . . . Opening its throttle to zero point zero two gee to keep the cable under tension. . . . Everything's in the green. Let's see what happens when we put a negative charge across that wire."
Ten seconds later, Torra announced: "Charge at minus fifteen microcoulombs per meter and climbing."
"Whoa," Captain Tractor said, looking at his readouts in astonishment. "The inlet's getting ionized hydrogen already!"
"Wow, at this speed?" Colonel Doe said. "We're only going one permil! Your typical starship doesn't start scooping up noticeable protons until, what, about fifty permil?"
"Don't forget," the Captain replied, making arcs with his fingers to indicate the surrounding space. "We're still inside the asterosphere of — oops, this is the Sol system. It's called the heliosphere here. We're still inside the heliosphere of Sol, so we're picking up all the stellar— er, solar wind. It's practically all ionized hydrogen, and a heck of a lot thicker than the interstellar medium."
"All right, Captain," Torra said, "You're clear to take control of the towing unit's throttle. Be advised, signals sent along the cable travel considerably slower than c."
Ken nodded, trying out the control loop. "Yeah, I'm seeing a little over a second's round-trip response time. I'll tie the towing unit's throttle in with Mercurand's, and attach a point-six second delay." He tapped a few soft keys, then grasped the throttle lever. "Okay, here we go. Throttling up both Mercurand and the towing unit to point one gee."
He nudged the lever forward. A little less than a second later, they all felt a little bit of their weight return to their feet. "Seeing any slack on the cable, Lieutenant?"
"None whatsoever," the Centaurian replied. "The towing unit's doing a good job of holding the cable taut so far."
"All right, then," Ken said, "Throttling up to point five gee." Again, after a second, they felt themselves pressed more firmly down against the room's thrust floor.
"Cable's still stiff," Torra said. "We should be good to go all the way up to our 2g cruise level."
"Mmmm," Ken mused, "I think I'll keep it at half a gee until we're all hibernating. No reason to stress ourselves further. Plus, a half gee is what you're used to back home, isn't it Lieutenant?"
"Yeah," Torra said, raising a finger in a Centaurian "yes" for emphasis. "And thanks."
Jennifer rolled her eyes. Torra didn't know what to make of the gesture.
"One more little housekeeping chore," Ken said, typing out a couple of commands. Another, more familiar set of motors whirred into life overhead. "Our ultraviolet comm laser is now sweeping the space directly in front of us. We shouldn't run into a single un-ionized atom of hydrogen for the rest of the trip. And . . ." He glanced at his readouts. ". . . I think we're all set for the long haul. S.I.?"
"Once we're all in submetabolic sleep — or natural hibernation, in the Lieutenant's case — throttle us up to 2g. Keep us accelerating all the way to antihydrogen exhaustion and, uh, go straight on 'til morning."
"Morning?" the S.I. asked.
"Sorry," Ken replied, "It's an expression I picked up from an old vid. Just stay on course for the Luyten 726-8 system, and wake one of us up if there are any emergencies you can't handle alone."
"Of course," the wall speakers said. "And since you mentioned expressions: pleasant dreams."
Ken chuckled. "I've heard stories about people who dreamed while in S.M.S.. They either had the dream right as they were coming back to life, or there was something wrong with their coffin."
"Well, if there's nothing more," the Lieutenant said, "I guess it's time for me to go freeze myself. I'll see you two in a decade."
The Centaurian wheeled out from its surround station and through the door. The Captain stood to follow suit behind it, but as Torra rounded the corner it heard the Colonel say, "Oh, Ken. The two of us don't have to go to sleep just yet. We could stay up for a little while and . . . talk."
"Uh," Torra heard Ken reply, "If it's all right with you, ma'am, I'd like to go into SMS sooner rather than later. We, uh, don't wanna use up any more consumables than we have to."
The Lieutenant continued to wheel its way toward the hibernation room, and the Colonel's voice dwindled in the distance: "Okay. I could help you undress."
And Ken's faint reply: "Uh, I can undress myself, thanks."
As was often the case, Torra wasn't sure what any of this meant. Human social dynamics could be so alien at times. Its freeze chamber beckoned; Torra clambered aboard and shut the door. It could already feel the cold sapping the life from its muscles. Soon, its companions would join it here in their own, artificially-engineered form of hibernation, and in a blink of an eye they'd all leap ahead into the future. . . .
At last, Ken Tractor, Torra Zorra, and Jennifer Doe were beyond the range and interest of any would-be attackers, on a ten year trip into the unknown.
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 11.
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