The Pentagon War


Roger M. Wilcox

(Originally begun on November 1, 1980)

chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4
chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8
chapter 9 | chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12
chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16
chapter 17 | chapter 18 | epilog


231 years A.C.

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. The handholds presented their own set of problems. Though they were on an HCDF mission, this starship was originally intended to transport civilians, and civilians came in all stripes and all levels of experience, from the century-old spacers whom time dilation and SMS had kept young and spry to the neophyte who'd never been on a spacecraft before in his life. The newbies had a tendency to settle into their normal walking gait whenever the craft's thrust or braking provided them with a "down" direction, which meant they weren't expecting things like handholds to suddenly appear in their path when they turned a corner. After the first few complaints about "tripping over these damned things," it became custom on civilian spacecraft to never put a handhold on any surface that could serve as a floor when the vessel was underway.

Mercurand's 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. Switching handholds when brachiating through those sharp twists and turns was a challenge, often requiring some serious planning ahead from both of them.

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."

Now Torra was intrigued. It pulled itself through the hatch into the short access tunnel beyond. Even though they were in zero gravity, millions of years of evolution climbing the cliffs on Go'orla meant there was one, instinctive way for a Centaurian to proceed: it "climbed up" the handhold ladder with one eye stalk craned above, one eye pointed at the wall, and the third eye scanning the area below its feet. The last, in case any wild predators should approach from below, of course. That topmost, craned eye could see the glimmer of stars directly above — or directly ahead, depending on which direction one wanted to call "up" at the moment — but there was something . . . off about them.

As Torra slowly pulled itself nearer to the window, and it grew larger in its field of view, the problem with the stars became obvious. There were far fewer of them than there had any right to be. And the few stars that were visible were clustered all to one side of the window. It only took Torra a second or two to piece it together. At the speed a starship travelled, it had to keep its nose pointed in the direction of travel for most of the journey; the collectors there were the only way to keep the onrushing interstellar medium from slashing through parts of the spacecraft it shouldn't. This meant Torra was now staring out sideways, at an angle perpendicular to their course. Torra glanced at the "thrust floor" and "braking floor" markings to make sure; yes, the side of the window toward the front of the spacecraft was the side with the stars.

Torra finally pulled itself all the way into the observation bubble, a plexiglass canopy not much bigger around than its own body. And when it realigned all three of its eyestalks in their usual 360-degree ring, the full, spectacular panorama struck with all the awe and wonder of Creation.

View from the observation bubble, facing ahead

Mercurand's own hull cut the view in half. Like standing on a tiny, tiny planet, the gloss-black starship hull produced its own horizon line. Only the hemisphere above Torra's eye stalk was open to view. But what a strange and wonderful hemisphere of stars it was! Neraly all the stars lay clustered ahead of the starship, like a vast sun setting over the forward horizon. That was the stellar aberration. They were streaking toward and through the light sources nearly as fast as their photons were headed toward them. Like running through a rain shower, when the vertical raindrops appear to be slanting down upon you at an angle, so the photons looked to be coming from a different direction than they actually were.

And the effect wasn't uniform. Dead center ahead of them should have been the constellation of Cetus the whale, but Torra couldn't make it out. For one, the stars were squeezed too close together. For another, a little ways off from the center, those same constellations were squeezed a little less tightly. The overall effect was like a funhouse mirror, or a pattern stretched in different directions on a lump of silicone bouncing putty. Even if Torra could have recognized the squished star patterns in the center, their progressively wonkier distortion the farther from the center Torra looked rendered them utterly unrecognizable.

The stars also looked a little . . .  bluer than they should have been. That was the blueshift. At 920 permil, the light from those stars directly ahead had 4.9 times its normal frequency. Even ordinary red light was shifted well up into the ultraviolet. The light Torra could see from those frontmost stars had started out way down in the infrared, shifted to visible only because Mercurand — and the three passengers aboard it — were charging toward them at such a monstrous pace. A few degrees off from directly ahead, the stars were still the blue-white color of the hottest blackbodies, but now it was a higher-frequency portion of their original infrared light that Torra was seeing.

The effect would have been even more pronounced had Centaurian eyes posessed the red and green cones of human ones. As far as color sensitvity went, the backs of Torra's eye stalks — the surfaces that served as its "retinae" — had only an analog to a human's blue cones. But they also posessed a kind of full-spectrum light-sensitive cells similar to, and far surpassing, a human's "rods." These rod-analogs could operate equally well in both dim and bright light, had an almost uniform frequency sensitivity, and produced an image every bit as sharp as a human's daylight vision. The whole picture painted by a Centaurian brain's vision center was like a well-focused black-and-white photograph, onto which various intensities of blue had been overlaid. This combination of super-rods and blue cones had been enough to allow its ancestors to survive the plains of Go'orla for millions of years, and they were also enough for Torra to tell the difference between normal stars and these overly-blue pinpricks of light shining in from straight ahead.

Outside that central disc dead-ahead, about 20 or 25 degrees away, the stars looked more normal. Some were bluer, some less so, and most were the neutral white that marked a normal night sky. But farther off, more than about 25 degrees to one side, the stars appeared less blue than they should have. A human like Ken, with his tri-color retinas, would have called them "red," or at least a dull "pinkish."

The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 12.
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