A Centaurian can't hibernate safely forever. Even a hibernating cold-blooded metabolism isn't completely lifeless. Every five months onboard time, Torra Zorra's chamber slowly warmed, and the 130-centimeter creature recovered and replenished itself.
The first time, before awakening Torra, the S.I. had courteously reduced thrust from their cruising acceleration of 2g to the comfortable 0.5g of Torra's home. It had made the excursion almost pleasant, to say nothing of offering a unique opportunity to use its wheels the way evolution had intended. Torra had rolled itself out onto the thrust floor, stretching its four arms 'til all the stiffness had vanished. It made a line straight for the food stores and shoveled handful after handful of oood(v)(r)uut(l) into its mouths, washing it down with enough salt water to fill all four of its stomachs. Then came a leisurely couple hours of scanning its compatriots' coffins, exercising its arms and wheels, and checking the instruments to make sure the S.I. hadn't missed any comeuppances (it hadn't). They were right on schedule, having burned through over half their antihydrogen fuel, and their speed had reached an impressive — but expected — seven-tenths of the speed of light.
It would have been futile to look for messages from home at this early date, though. Sure, the HCDF knew their mission profile well enough that they could predict their precise position in space at any time, and thus could tight-beam signals directly at where they were. XRCP meant that such signals would be more than clear enough, and powerful enough, for Mercurand's UV receivers to pick up and decode. But even though they'd only been en route for five months, their initial transits through two hyper holes had put them over seven light-years away from Human-Centauri. Any signals beamed to their anticipated position still had to lumber through space at the speed of light, so they wouldn't be able to intercept such signals for at least another six years, probably more. Torra had glanced once at the empty message queue — just in case its hopes for news of home had somehow broken the laws of physics — and then rolled back to its refrigerator, sealed the door, and started the next five months of deep sleep.
The second time, Torra floated out into null gravity. They'd reached their top speed of 920 permil a month ago and were now on the long coasting phase. That, Torra had expected. What Torra hadn't expected was for Captain Tractor to be floating right there in the same room.
"Ken?" Torra Zorra rubbed the last traces of hibernation from one groggy eye stalk. Ken was awake? Had something gone wrong with the humans' SMS chambers? Had there been a spacecraft malfunction that the S.I. couldn't handle? They couldn't be there at UV Ceti after only 10 months onboard time, could they?
Ken Tractor grinned with a meaning Torra couldn't fathom. "I woke up early because I want to show you something. Something very few humans or Centaurians ever get to see."
"Well, what is it?" Torra asked.
"Follow me," Ken said. He brachiated out into the exit corridor.
Torra hated it when humans got all enigmatic like this. All it could do was follow the Captain and hope that whatever surprise he had in store, it wouldn't hurt much. "Did you wake up the Colonel, too?"
"I . . . didn't want to disrupt her SMS," Ken said.
Out in the hallway, Ken took an unexpected turn toward Mercurand's outer hull. Torra had never had occasion to venture into this part of the starship before, even during the walkaround back on Human-Centauri III. The "thrust floor" and "braking floor" markings adorning the walls twisted sharply every time the corridor made a right-angle bend. Switching handholds when brachiating through those bends was a bit challenging for both of them. Though they were on was an HCDF mission, this starship was originally intended to transport civilians, and it was custom on civilian spacecraft to never put a handhold on any surface that could serve as a floor when the vessel was underway. The designers had gotten rather . . . creative when it came to following the letter of that custom. Some of the handholds were so far apart that it was impossible to reach one while still holding onto another; in other places, the handholds had been crammed close enough together to serve as a ladder while the starship was thrusting or braking.
Ken stopped abrutly at one of these ladders, which ended a few meters farther out at an open hatch.
"Here we are," he pointed outward through the hatch. "Mercurand's one-and-only observation bubble. Go out and take a look."
"At what?" the Centaurian asked.
Though Torra couldn't read Ken's expression, he was looking positively smug. "At the universe at ninety-two percent of the speed of light."
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 12.
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