UV Ceti's pale red-orange light bathed their skins, and the control room, with the same eerie glow that must have greeted Arnold Hasselberg seventy-eight years earlier. Ken had once again set the revive schedule so that he'd wake up first, and in his time alone had set the large status display to show a magnified view of the star. It had not inspired quite the sense of awe in his two comrades that he'd hoped for, but it would do.
Mercurand was still slowing, settling into a 3.5 million klick orbit around the dim red sun. This gave them a comfortable 0.8g of deceleration to walk around in — or in Torra's case, to wheel around in. This braking force was being supplied by direct engine thrust in the back of the craft, rather than the scoop thrust reverser that had been slowing them down on their way into the system, so "down" was currently in the direction pointed to by the "thrust floor" labels on the walls, rather than the braking floor labels. They'd been braking the other way at 2g for the last nine months, all spent in hibernation, which had replenished all 100 tonnes of their onboard hydrogen propellant and (thanks to relativistic antimatter production) fifteen of the 100 tonnes of antihydrogen fuel they could carry. That would help for the return trip, but it wouldn't be enough; they'd need refill their antihydrogen tank all the way before they could cross interstellar space again. They'd have to linger in the system for years gathering hydrogen from the star, liberating its energy through QC&C fusion, and turning that energy into antimatter at a slow, glacial trickle.
On one communications console, the repeated bleeps from a radiobeacon, placed in the system decades ago by investigators, warned all who listened of the dire threat from drifting chunks of a former planet — and of a tiny 200-meter hole in space. Ken checked a nav display and gave a low whistle. "Dang, that debris field is huge."
Jennifer shrugged. "That's what you get when you spread a Mars-sized planet out over its own orbit."
Ken said, "I would've thought the planet's gravity would have pulled most of it back together by now."
Jennifer said, "Do we have eyes on the rogue hyper hole?"
"Yep," Ken replied, pointing to a blip on his own screen. "The warning beacon sends out the hole's coordinates twice a minute. I started tracking it back when you were still in SMS. Right now, it's about 20 degrees ahead of us in its orbit. It's closer to the star, but we're still hyperbolic, so we'll actually overtake a conjunction with it before our orbit circularizes."
"And how's the drogue doing?" Jennifer asked.
"Fine last time I checked. Lemme see how our lower speed's affecting it . . ." Ken pressed a few soft buttons and read his secondary display. "Yep, we're still pulling in H-plus ions at the nominal rate. UV Ceti's stellar wind is making sure of that. Since we're using the engine to brake, the drogue's pointed slightly away from the star, which should keep it clear of any debris from UV Ceti IV's old orbit. If we ever have to thrust directly toward the star, the front of our drogue line'll be a hundred thousand klicks closer to all that shattered rock. It'll still be too far away to get hit by any big chunks, but I'm worried about how far the dust grains are scattered."
And that was when the typing urge struck Torra Zorra again, a hundred times harder than it had in Human-Centauri space.
The Centaurian wheeled at a lightning pace to the closest keyboard, not having to say a word. Ken and Jennifer ran after it as hard as they could. The tentacle-digits of two of its four hands flew across the keys in a blur, clacking out the sentences: "Arnold here. Thank goodness you've all arrived! It's so much easier to talk to you when you're up close."
"Um, hi," Ken answered, not sure which direction he should be speaking.
"Can you hear us?" Jennifer asked.
Torra typed: "No, I can't hear a thing. But I can see you just fine. I can see anything I want to, anywhere, actually."
"Anything anywhere?" Torra enunciated carefully.
"Anything anywhere," the presence typed through Torra. "When I drifted into the unlinked hyper hole in the planet's remains, I entered parallel space and never came back out again. As far as real space is concerned, I'm travelling at infinite speed. So,"
Ken mumbled the answer as Torra typed it, "I cross every point in real space simultaneously."
"So you're alive?" Jennifer asked. "In parallel space? For seventy-eight years with no food or oxygen?"
"Sorry, could you enunciate more clearly?" the Centaurian channeled.
Jennifer sighed brusquely and pulled up a keyboard of her own. "You're still alive in parallel space?" she typed, her words flashing on another screen.
"Well . . . . . . . . . yes and no. I don't think I still have a body. Matter doesn't really have any meaning in parallel space."
Ken leaned over Jennifer's keyboard and typed, "How do you see and think without eyes and a brain?"
Torra paused, receiving nothing. Then: "I don't know."
"I've got a question," Torra said, informing its companions that the next thing it typed would be its own thoughts. It typed, "Our history says that you disappeared just a few hours after the first hyper bomb detonated. This was years before parallel space and hyper holes were even named. How do you know what they're called?"
Torra's hands flew into action of their own accord once more. "I told you I exist everywhere. In deep space, in the interiors of stars and planets, inside other people's bodies . . . and in regular offices and libraries. Any place a display screen gives off light, or light reflects off a piece of paper, I can read it. I tried to read every paper on phased antimatter bombs and the holes they punch in space as soon as it was published, and a few of them even before that. I've become quite the self-taught expert in the field of parallel space physics, if I do say so myself."
Jennifer typed, "So, you're aware of everything going on everywhere at once?"
Torra's hands channelled Arnold's words onto the keyboard again: "No. I can only focus my attention on one location at a time. Although I can switch to any new location instantly."
"And me?" the Centaurian enunciated, not wanting to type this personal question. "How do you control me?"
"I don't know that either," its hands typed. "I've being putting myself inside other people's heads for decades. I can't read others' thoughts, but I was hoping some of my thoughts would get "picked up". I had some barely-noticeable success in the early years when some investigators came to study the UV Ceti IV hyper hole, but it only lasted when they were nearby. However it works, it seems to come out of the hyper hole I entered. It took me decades to be able to stretch any kind of mental influence as far as another star system. With you I finally got lucky. And just in time, it would seem."
"Just in time?" Jennifer typed, visibly nervous. "Just in time for what, precisely? You said everything was going to end soon. *Everything*?"
"The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way," Torra typed. "Sagittarius A*. It's nearly 4.4 million solar masses right now. It's close to the upper mass limit for a black hole."
"What?!" Ken barked. "That's crazy! There is no upper limit to the mass of a black hole! We've detected black holes in other galactic clusters that are over a billion solar masses! The whole universe is just the interior of a great big black hole, with a mass of . . . well . . . of the entire universe!"
"There's no upper limit in *real space*," the Centaurian's digits replied. "Black holes bridge the gap between real space and parallel space just like hyper holes do. And there *is* an upper limit to the mass-energy of a black hole in parallel space. Those billion-solar-mass "black holes" you've detected aren't black holes. There was even a paper in _The Journal of Hyperspace Physics_ that proposed this upper mass-energy limit, but it used really hard-to-follow tensor math. Well, hard for *me* to follow, anyway. Do you remember NGC2 +29° 583470?"
All three looked at each other, dumbfounded.
"It was a radio galaxy, spiral class S2, in a
supercluster about eight
gigalightyears away. The supercluster was precision photographed, all the
galaxies in it were assigned New General Catalog 2 numbers, and the
observations were shelved. Most astronomy at the time consisted of local
star surveys for military purposes, so galactic astronomy took a back
seat. 170 years ago the same supercluster was precision photographed
again, only this time, no NGC2 +29° 583470. The few people working on
it assumed that the earlier photo was bad, that maybe the image of another
galaxy from the same cluster had reflected off one of the scope's surfaces and
left a ghost double or something, and it was that false image which had been
called NGC2 +29° 583470.
But I went back and traced the light path from about 200 light-years back, and
the truth was, the galaxy really had been there, and it really had
vanished. The black hole at its center reached its upper mass
limit. The parallel space version of a white hole opened up in real
space, right there in the center of that galaxy, and a spherical wave of utter
annihilation expanded out from the galactic center at infinite speed.
According to the journal paper, there wouldn't have been anything but total
vacuum left within 15000 light-years of the center. Past that, the wave
would be tenuous enough that it might leave behind some hydrogen gas at
interstellar densities, but nothing thicker than that. The whole effect
is supposed to extend outward for about a hundred thousand light-years.
So when I said *everything* is going to end soon, I suppose I was
exaggerating. Only the entire Milky Way galaxy is going to end
soon. Everything else will be just fine.
But I went back and traced the light path from about 200 light-years back, and the truth was, the galaxy really had been there, and it really had vanished. The black hole at its center reached its upper mass limit. The parallel space version of a white hole opened up in real space, right there in the center of that galaxy, and a spherical wave of utter annihilation expanded out from the galactic center at infinite speed. According to the journal paper, there wouldn't have been anything but total vacuum left within 15000 light-years of the center. Past that, the wave would be tenuous enough that it might leave behind some hydrogen gas at interstellar densities, but nothing thicker than that. The whole effect is supposed to extend outward for about a hundred thousand light-years.
So when I said *everything* is going to end soon, I suppose I was exaggerating. Only the entire Milky Way galaxy is going to end soon. Everything else will be just fine."
The three sat or stood in stunned silence for a long moment. Finally, Ken typed, "You brought us here to tell us that the whole galaxy is doomed, and that there's nothing we can do about it?!"
"No," Torra typed-dictated, "I brought you here because there *is* something you can do about it."
Jennifer: "We can stop a four-millon-solar-mass black hole from blowing up? How?"
Arnold through Torra: "Punch a hole in it. If you detonate a hyper bomb just outside the Schwarzchild Radius, oriented so that the hyper hole ends up facing away from it, mass-energy trapped inside the Radius can get out. It'd be like opening a pressure relief valve."
"That's ridiculous," Jennifer typed, "Everybody knows that nothing inside the Schwarzchild Radius can get out, so how would making a hyper hole *outside* the radius help?"
Arnold through Torra: "Nothing inside the Schwarzchild Radius can achieve *escape velocity*. That doesn't mean that matter or energy trapped inside can't go a *little* ways beyond the Radius and fall back in again."
"And how," Ken typed, "Can you *get* a hyper bomb that close to a black hole, and have it remain intact long enough to detonate it, before the tidal gravity turns it into spaghetti?"
Arnold through Torra: "Supermassive black holes have surprisingly shallow gravity gradients. Their gravity may be *strong*, but it's more or less *uniform* close up. It's only the small black holes that have significant tidal forces nearby."
"So, okay," Jennifer typed, "Let's say that this isn't a trick, that you really are the disembodied spirit of Arnold Hasselberg, that Sagittarius A* is really about to go wipe out the galaxy, and that the only hope is to poke it with a planetbuster. Even if all that were true, nobody's *ever* mounted a trans-galactic voyage before. There's no way we can build a spacecraft guaranteed to last the 30 000 years it'll take to reach the center of the galaxy, let alone ensure that the phased antimatter warhead and the live crew or semi-intelligent programming will last that long."
Arnold through Torra: "It wouldn't matter if you could. Sagittarius A* is due to reach the mass limit in a matter of months."
All three looked at each other in wide-eyed horror. Ken and Jennifer fought each others' hands on the same keyboard, and both typed: "MONTHS?!"
Arnold through Torra: "Yes. That was why I was so insistent about you getting here within a decade."
Before any of them could respond, Torra's hands flew into action again: "I'll bet you're wondering how you can cross thirty thousand light-years in such a short time?"
"The thought had crossed our minds, yes," Jennifer said aloud.
Arnold through Torra: "There's something here amid all this rubble that might help you do just that. You see, the phased antimatter bomb wasn't the only invention the Mad Scientist was working on when he died. He never told anyone about this other invention, but somehow, the prototype managed to survive the destruction of UV Ceti IV. It's small enough that those visiting hyper-hole investigators missed it, back in the day. When I saw the words "Zero Drive" scrawled across its surface, I went back and researched what-all kind of wonky alternative physics the Mad Scientist had expressed an interest in. Did you know he'd read the few papers on Hyperspace Physics published before his phased antimatter bomb experiment?"
"Yeah yeah," Ken typed, "Everyone knows that. To this day no one's sure whether he knew his bomb might create a Hyper Hole or not."
Arnold through Torra: "Well, apparently, he also had a fondness for an even wackier line of theoretical inquiry that flies in the face of everything we know about relativity. It's called Absolute Space Physics. It starts with the harebrained hypothesis that there *is* a preferred inertial frame of reference in the universe, and tries to follow that out to its logical conclusion. It turns out, it can be made to *work*. All the known effects from relativity -- time dilation, mass increase, Lorentz contraction -- also appear as consequences of the Absolute Space equations, if you assume the speed of light isn't bound to the preferred reference frame. The Mad Scientist even wrote a paper about it. He had it published under a pseudonym, in a really obscure alternative science journal, which is why most people haven't heard about it."
"So . . ." Ken spoke aloud, slowly, "Lemme get this straight. In this 'absolute space' physics, there's this one magic velocity you could have where you'd be at rest with respect to the whole universe."
Torra's hands typed: "With respect to spacetime, yes."
Ken continued, "And there'd be no guarantee that that magic velocity would come even close to the velocity at which, say —" he pointed to a display screen, which currently showed their orbital plot around UV Ceti "— the star you'd been orbiting was moving through space?"
Torra's hands: "That's correct."
Jennifer started typing at her own keyboard again: "And what would be so special about this one magic velocity? What kind of prize does being at rest with respect to spacetime get you?"
Arnold through Torra: "One upshot of the Mad
Scientist's paper was that it should be possible to *suspend* the momentum of
any material object, relative to this absolute frame of reference. Doing
so would be tricky, but not impossible. You could be going along merrily
on your way, orbiting your sun like you are now, and then at the flick of a
switch, BAM, you're at absolute rest. Your momentum and the momentum of
everything else within a certain radius would be held in suspension until such
time as you flicked the switch off. Then you'd resume the old velocity
you had before you flicked the switch.
That's what I think his "Zero Drive" was intended to do. I'm guessing it
survived the blast from the phased antimatter bomb test because, when the first
scattered gamma rays struck it, it must have *activated*. The device
itself, and all the material around it, and the incoming shock wave, would all
have found themselves suddenly moving at the absolute rest velocity of the
universe. Relative to the planet it was standing on, this velocity
would've probably been several kilometers per second, maybe even a permil or
two; but that wouldn't have hurt it because everything around the Zero Drive
would have been going at the *same* speed. Then, an instant later when
the Zero Drive had thrown itself clear of the disaster area, it shut itself
off, and it's been drifting along with the rest of the debris ever
That's what I think his "Zero Drive" was intended to do. I'm guessing it survived the blast from the phased antimatter bomb test because, when the first scattered gamma rays struck it, it must have *activated*. The device itself, and all the material around it, and the incoming shock wave, would all have found themselves suddenly moving at the absolute rest velocity of the universe. Relative to the planet it was standing on, this velocity would've probably been several kilometers per second, maybe even a permil or two; but that wouldn't have hurt it because everything around the Zero Drive would have been going at the *same* speed. Then, an instant later when the Zero Drive had thrown itself clear of the disaster area, it shut itself off, and it's been drifting along with the rest of the debris ever since."
Ken scratched his head, then typed: "That sounds like fascinating technology, if it really works. But even if it does, how will attaining some "absolute zero" speed get us to the center of the galaxy?"
Arnold through Torra: "What do you think would happen if an object at absolute rest were to pass through a hyper hole?"
Ken frowned and shrugged as he typed. "An object at "absolute rest" would still be in real space, wouldn't it? So when it passed though the hyper hole it would enter parallel space, just like always. Then it would be traveling at infinite speed."
Arnold through Torra: "But if it was also at absolute rest, COULD it move at infinite speed?"
Ken typed, "You'll have to forgive us. This is the first any of us have heard of absolute space theory. We haven't had the decades to think about it that you have. I'm guessing you know the answer?"
Arnold through Torra: "Sorry. Yes. I mean, no. No, you can't go at infinite speed and also be at absolute zero velocity. Or rather, a contradiction arises in the mathematics if an object at absolute rest in real space tries to enter parallel space. It can't do so. Well, not fully at least. I'm not exactly sure what would happen. There *is* one solution to the equations that avoids a contradiction, but what would have to happen would be ... really weird. Basically, the object would end up on the other side of the energy curve."
Jennifer made a face. "What in the Plague does that mean?"
Ken looked at her and shook his head. "No idea. Other side of the . . ." His voice trailed off, then his eyes opened wide. "Wait. The energy curve. The special relativity energy curve? The curve where you plot energy on one axis and velocity on the other?"
Evidently Arnold's ghost had read Ken's lips, because Torra's hands immediately began typing: "Yes. The portion of the curve where v is greater than c."
"So you're saying," Ken typed, "That if we could fly through a hyper hole while this Zero Drive was turned on, we'd travel faster than light? At a non-infinite faster-than-light speed?"
Arnold through Torra: "I'm saying you *might.* None of the equations disallow it. But then again, you might end up like me. Or worse. Hell, according to the accepted model of parallel space, I shouldn't even exist."
"Talk about your long-shots," Jennifer muttered. "The only hyper hole within eight light-years is the one left over from the big boom that took out UV Ceti IV here. We'd have to dodge all the debris just to get to it, and then it's an unlinked hyper hole. There's no other side, like there are with the hyper holes back home. We're not coming out safely in another star system if this physics experiment fails. That's a hell of a risk to take, based just on the say-so of a pair of Centaurian arms under the control of a ghost who might or might not have read a crazy hypothesis correctly."
Her eyes hardened, and she snorted out a breath, a gesture Torra recognized as meaning she was making a command decision. "Regardless, we can't assess any of these risks until this Zero Drive is in our posession." She typed, "Can you bring the Zero Drive to us?"
Arnold through Torra: "I'm not telekinetic or anything like that. The only object I can affect physically is Torra Zorra, and even then I can only move two of his arms."
Torra bristled, all three eye stalks pointing at the console as though raising a challenge. "His?"
"Its. Sorry. I didn't mean to imply you were sexually deformed. I'm still not used to you Centaurians and your pronoun preference."
After observing the entire universe for 78 years?, Torra thought, but then focused on the rest of Arnold's channeled message as it typed it out: "You'll have to get the Zero Drive yourselves. It's a cone-shaped object about three meters long. It's among the debris, less than a hundred thousand klicks from the hyper hole. You'll need to adjust your trajectory for a rendezvous. Target a point on the warning beacon's orbit 2 degrees ahead of it."
"No problem," Arnold said aloud, tapping a display. "Throttling up to 1.0g for new rendezvous coords. We should be there in about 5 hours." Then he turned to his keyboard and typed: "I hope you don't mind that I targeted a point a little *outside* of the warning beacon's orbit. The amount of debris in its actual orbit is so thick I'd worry about some of it hitting us."
Torra typed again, briefly, channelling the last voice of Arnold for the moment: "Good plan."
Five hours later, Mercurand's thrust abated and weightlessness returned. In the side monitor, the debris field glittered like diamond dust in UV Ceti's orange light. Torra settled into its tactical surround-station, and watched Colonel Doe brush past Captain Tractor on her way to her own console. Ken reacted to this brief contact. Something in Ken's face could have been . . . surprise? Concern? Human expressions were so much harder to read than plain Centaurian body language, especially under a layer of military discipline.
Torra had much bigger problems, though. Like finding Arnold's mysterious cone among all of this junk. And radar wasn't helping — targets crammed every square millimeter of Torra's tactical display. There were more echoes than the system could track. "Ugh. Any one of these blips could be the zero drive. There's way too much debris out there to pick out a single three-meter cone."
"Like looking for a needle in a haystack," Jennifer offered.
"What's a haystack?" Ken asked.
The C.O. shook her head. "Never mind."
"Maybe our friend in parallel space can help," Torra said, placing two of its hands on the console keyboard. It typed: "Arnold, can you pick out the zero drive for us?"
Instantly, two of Torra's hands began manipulating the tactical controls. They switched to axis-based targeting, hesitated for just a moment, then rolled the whole spacecraft counterclockwise and pitched it back ever-so-slightly. One specific radar echo was now dead-center on the tactical display.
"Is that it?" Torra asked, switching on a camera and zooming it in on the centered blip. The range finder showed the blip as 23 480 kilometers distant, which was too far away to see anything that small with the naked eye. In the zoomed field of view, small rocks drifted in front of the object; but even partly obscured and lit only by the glow of the red dwarf sun, its shape was unmistakable. It was a narrow, polished, gloss-black cone.
"Holy cats," Ken mumbled, staring wide-eyed at the display.
"Marking the target," Torra intoned, tapping the cone's radar blip; it lit up with a flag and a label.
Ken studied the camera display, then reached over and zoomed back out. "It's pretty close to the main orbiting mass. I feel a bit wary of flying Mercurand in close enough to retrieve it. I can dodge the bigger rocks, but there's a God-awful amount of fine dust between us and it. I'll bet some of that dust is electrically charged, too, which means it'll be sucked in by the drogue. We'd have to retract the drogue before we got close, or risk clogging the intake."
Jennifer piped in, "Could we reconfigure the slug launcher to work as a magnetic snare?"
Torra glared at her with one eye. "You mean jury-rig the E-43's magnetic focuser to yank on a distant target instead of pushing on a slug? Well, if we had a real engineer, which I'm not, and the right set of tools, which we don't, we might be able to build a low-efficiency short-range magnetic snare out of disassembled mass driver parts in, oh, three or four days. But it wouldn't help us even if we did. Magnetic snares don't have enough precision. We'd grab the zero drive and every iron-rich piece of debris in its vicinity."
Jennifer nodded. "It'd probably be easiest if one of you went out to get it in the Ascender." She turned to Ken. "Suit up, sunshine, you're going extravehicular."
"Me?" Ken glanced at Torra's four long arms. "You sure the Lieutenant here wouldn't do better at wrangling a three-meter cone?"
"I'd rather have a navigator at the controls of the Ascender than a spacecraft weapons operator," she answered. "And not to sound too macabre, but if some disaster happens to the Ascender on the way out or the way back, well . . . Torra's the only one who can get messages from Arnold's ghost."
Ken sighed. "All right. I'll get over to the docking bay and make the preflight checks on the Ascender. They stowed my compression suit in that room, right?"
"Mm hm," the Lieutenant Colonel nodded.
"C'mon, Lieutenant," Ken urged the Centaurian, "I'm gonna need you for post-suitup fitting and syscheck." He launched himself to the exit corridor in the microgravity.
Torra followed along dutifully. They'd brachiated their way into the docklock less than half a minute later. The squat cone of the Ascender dominated the room, but didn't come close to filling it. The Ascender's broad circular base faced away from them, toward the great outer door, with the tip of its cone clamped firmly in a pair of robust docking arms. Ken dove wordlessly into the task of checking its every nook and cranny for spaceworthiness. Now that his C.O. wasn't in the room with him, he seemed to relax just a bit.
Out of nowhere, he turned to Torra and asked, "Did you notice the Colonel's perfu— oh, right, you wouldn't. Sorry."
Torra said, "Perfume. That's one of the things you humans use to change the way you 'smell' to each other, right?"
"Yeah," Ken said sheepishly.
Torra sighed. It was one of the few gestures that meant the same thing for a Centaurian that it did for a human. "You Earth animals and your nostrils. Did she smell bad?"
"Not . . . exactly," Ken worried. "I recognize that particular scent. It's the same perfume she was wearing when we —" He stopped himself. "You know I used to be under her command, and I transferred to a different unit, right?"
"Um . . . yeah," Torra replied. "She says she pushed you too hard professionally. But I've heard rumors. Back when I was on Marsidor, one of the human crew members said she was stalking you."
Ken winced. "Jennifer and I were . . . intimate."
Ken palmed his face momentarily. He'd really have to spell it out. "We mated."
"Oh!" Torra glared an eye at him, trying to think through the implications. "So, you two were married?"
Ken shook his head. "Humans don't always pair-bond with their mates. Sometimes we're driven just by the urge to mate. Sometimes we want comfort and companionship with whoever happens to be available. And sometimes, even with the best of long-term intentions, we find out we can't get along with our mates, or just . . . lose interest in each other. When I first met the Colonel, I was just a Lieutenant like yourself. She was confident and powerful, and . . ." he smirked ". . . she's pretty easy on the eyes, too. But she always, always, always had to be in control. Maybe that's why she gravitated toward command in the first place. She had her own ideas of where my career 'ought' to be going, her attachment to me got cloying, and after a couple weeks of being her lover, I . . . started seeing a side of her I didn't like." He bit his lip. "A scary side."
"Hm?" Torra leaned forward in concern.
Ken waved a hand. "I don't really want to go into the details. It's nothing you need to worry about. Anyway, I broke it off pretty soon after that." He inhaled uncomfortably. "She didn't take it so well. And a jilted lover doesn't make for the best C.O. to serve under. That's why I put in for the transfer."
"And now," Ken continued, "She's requisitioned me, specifically, to be her navigator on a skeleton crew, on a mission decades and light-years away from civilization, and she's wearing perfume — which she never used to wear on duty."
Torra tried to piece his meaning together. Was perfume part of the human mating ritual? "Do you think she might be trying to mate with you again?"
Ken smirked, and snorted. "Maybe. She's flirting with me, hard. I didn't realize just how hard until now. Either she wants to get back together with me, or she's playing at some nasty revenge game." He shook his head. "In either case, I'm not taking the bait. I've learned my lesson. Don't get romantically involved with your C.O.." He turned his attention back to the Ascender. "Especially if she's a utopianist who believes all the problems in the universe will be solved if we just get rid of that pesky Emotional Plague."
He shook his head, and dove back into the pre-flight inspection as though they hadn't spoken at all.
Their checks of the Ascender were done after only another minute. Putting on Ken's compression suit took a bit longer. Suits didn't have the thick, redundant hull of an Ascender, which meant any flaw could spell disaster. An extra three eyes to check and double-check each part of the fitting, and an extra four arms to seal things up in back, came in mighty handy. Thankfully, the suit's makers had done a flawless job — the helmet sealed perfectly, the rebreather and CO2 scrubber were both green, and not a square centimeter of material needed to be patched or failed to squeeze Ken's flesh at the full needed pressure. He opened the Ascender's tiny hatch, revealing a glimpse of its spartan interior. There was only room for one person inside, but that person could be either a human or a centaurian; there was no seat. He clambered through, latched the hatch shut, and started running through the power-on checklist.
Torra took this opportunity to get out of the room and shut the inner docklock door. The light next to the door switched from yellow to green, or as far as Torra's eyes could tell, from no blue to somewhat blue. This shade meant an airtight seal. The window in the door was too narrow to see the entire room through, but it gave a decent enough view of the Ascender front-and-center, and of the wide door to space beyond.
"All clear of the docklock?" Ken's voice intoned over a wall speaker.
Torra pressed a stud next to the speaker and said, "I'm clear."
A brief buzz, and the door's light blinked from green to red. In the room beyond, the air was draining away, slowly, into the starship's life support reserves. This far from civilization, every gram of onboard material had to be recycled, even the air. It would take a few minutes before the docklock's pressure would approach the vacuum outside. There was no real danger of the inner airlock door breaking loose or springing a leak, but Torra's Centaurian instincts always steered clear of taking any unnecessary chances. Torra made its way back toward Mercurand's command center.
When Torra pulled itself through into the room, the Colonel was in front of her console as usual, but staring away from it. She seemed to be looking at . . . nothing. It didn't seem right. She was normally so businesslike and focused. Torra tried to read her facial expression — a hard task for any Centaurian — and couldn't. "Ma'am?"
Jennifer briefly shook her head to regain her composure. "Oh! Lieutenant. Um . . . why don't you go to the observation bubble? I want you to keep to keep an eye on the Ascender while it's loose."
Torra hesitated. "I, I can watch the Ascender just as well from my console. And I'll be able to magnify —"
"I can watch the cameras myself," Colonel Doe interrupted. "But neither of us can get a real direct view from here." She pointed to the Centaurian. "You're Observer now. Get to your post."
"Yes, ma'am." Torra brachiated out into the corridor, and reached the hatch to the observation bubble in a leisurely minute. As the Centaurian climbed the ladder toward the curved plexiglass, and the outside view came closer and closer, Torra's memory of the last time it was in here came flooding back. The blueshift; the bright, bright stars all huddled toward the starship's nose; the utter blackness spangled with the barest hint of dim red dots near the starship's aft; the grandeur of a universe whizzing past at 92% of its own cosmic speed limit. None of that was present this time, of course. The stars were as white, and distributed across the dome as evenly, as any starry vista Torra had viewed back home.
No sooner had Torra stuck its eye stalk into the observation bubble than a faint whir reverberated from far below; the familiar whir of a docking bay's big outer door. A wall speaker relayed the C.O's feminine voice to Torra's ear: "Docklock evacuated and opening to space. Keep those three eyes of yours out for the Ascender, the Captain should be undocking any second."
A light gray cone emerged from below Torra's visual horizon less than a minute later, painted a pale orange by UV Ceti's ever-present glow. It looked so much smaller from this vantage point than it had in the bay. It edged away from Mercurand at a lazy crawl, then kicked in its tiny hot-fusion drive and dwindled into the distance. Soon even the blue-white glare of its engine was lost against the background stars.
Torra pressed the mike stud on the wall next to the speaker. "The Ascender is safely away, Colonel. I've lost visual."
The Colonel's voice came back: "Keep watch there, observer. Just in case."
"Um . . . yes ma'am." Torra was a bit puzzled. Given the distance, there wasn't much a naked eye could make out, even with a Centaurian's sharp low-light vision. But the Lieutenant obeyed.
The Ascender's radar was a godsend. Not only could it hold a fix on the three-meter black cone the whole way there, it sent out continuous sweeps in every direction. Each sweep read the instantaneous position, distance, and radial velocity of every rock bigger than a sand grain within ten thousand klicks. It only took a couple of follow-up sweeps to calculate each rock's proper motion. The result was a gigantic, constantly-shifting 3-D map of surrounding space, with enough predictive power to pick out a safe passage between the rocks in real time.
And it wouldn't have been possible without the War. This technology was only deployed after the fighting had started, specifically to maneuver a spacecraft through a battle zone. Targets hit by weapons fire had a tendency to . . . splinter. A single high-speed slug could send a myriad of tiny spacecraft fragments flying out in all directions, any one of which could spell disaster for another craft passing through them. You had to plot a course that missed all the fast-moving debris — not where the chunks were now, but where they would be when your spacecraft passed near them. It was like threading the needle through an ever-shifting maze, whose safe passages grew and shrunk by the second. Ken had wondered, briefly, if such technology could have saved Arnold Hasselberg from the pebble that had pierced his left arm 78 years ago.
At one point in the course Ken had chosen, the Ascender passed within just 8 meters of a half-centimeter-wide whizzing stone on one side, then within 4 meters of a tiny rock on the other. There was no way a spacecraft the size of Mercurand could have squeezed through.
Now, engine facing forward, Ken braked to a halt less than a hundred meters from his target, then pitched around so that his window faced directly toward it. He'd had to rely on radar for its position all the way in, and even this close it was barely visible. It was a black object against the blackness of space. Only its polished surface, reflecting a tiny, dim image of UV Ceti, made it visible out his window at all; he couldn't hope to make out its cone shape.
"Target in sight, ninety-two meters range," he spoke into his headset mike. "Approaching with maneuvering thrusters."
"Copy your approach, Ken," Colonel Doe's voice sounded over his headset.
Tiny bursts of plasma jetted out behind him, nudging the Ascender gently toward his quarry. Out the window, it crept closer with aching slowness. A minute passed, then two, before its cone shape finally into focus. It was tumbling end-over-end about once a minute. It was a sharp cone, too, with a base barely a meter wide. Ken tried to make out writing, or handholds, or anything at all on its surface, but —
"The cone is absolutely smooth," he said. "It's too big to fit inside the Ascender, so I'll need to tow it back. But from inside the Ascender I don't see any obvious place to attach a line to it."
"Sounds like you'd better take a closer look, then," the Colonel said.
"Yes, Colonel," Ken acknowledged. "Securing my helmet for E.V.A."
Once he'd sealed himself off and run down the checklist for both his compression suit and his thruster pack, he evacuated the cabin, made one last check for suit leaks, and opened the little Ascender's only hatch. He carried the tow line — a cable as wire-thin as Mercurand's drogue line to save on cargo mass — still coiled up as he stepped out into the void.
Attaching the back end of the line to the Ascender was easy. There was even a hardpoint on the hull designed explicitly for this purpose, called the "tow point." But that smooth black cone . . . well, maybe it might have a similar tow point that he'd missed. Maybe. He aimed his body, tapped a thruster stud, and slid gently toward it, playing out the line as he went.
"So, tell me Ken," the Colonel's voice sounded in his headset. There was something . . . odd about the way she said it. It had a slight edge of smugness, almost — but not quite — to the point of being condescending. "Why was Jake diagnosed with the Emotional Plague?"
His blood ran cold. When he finally replied, it took all his effort to keep the shaking out of his voice. "Jake?"
"Yes," her voice came back, "Jake. The old friend you visited just before we left Human-Centauri."
"You're my navigator," her voice interrupted. "Of course I kept tabs on you while you were saying your goodbyes. This Jake fellow was never in the HCDF, so I had no way to pull his dossier. As a private citizen, the reasons he was diagnosed with the Plague were kept confidential, although I did manage to find out that he refused therapy. I was just wondering if you might want to . . . shed some light on his circumstances."
"He . . ." Ken began, then figured he'd better tread carefully. "He doesn't actually believe the Plague exists."
"A lack of belief in the Emotional Plague is a pretty serious thing," Jennifer's voice sounded almost chiding, "But being an aplaguist isn't sufficient grounds by itself for a Plague diagnosis. There must have been some other, real reason, some other crime he committed that gave the needed evidence."
"Uh . . ." Ken hesitated, letting his eyes drift to the black cone still in his charge. "Actually, I'd be breaking his confidence if I told anyone about that. Why . . . why are you so worried about Jake all-of-a-sudden?"
"It's not Jake I'm worried about," her reply sounded ominously in his ears, "It's you." She paused, just long enough for emphasis. "You had a girlfriend just before we left Human-Centauri, didn't you?"
"Uh . . ." Ken couldn't see what she was driving at. "Well, yeah. Why —"
"You had a woman," Jennifer's voice cut him off, "Who had given her heart to you, who should have been the single most important individual in your life. But when it came time to decide whom to spend your last precious moments at home with, did you choose her? No. You chose a man who not only had the Plague, but who didn't even believe the Plague exists. What did Jake say to you? What did you say to him?"
Ken shook his head. The Colonel obviously couldn't see such a gesture at this distance, but face-to-face habits were hard to break when one spoke over a suit radio. "But my girlfriend was important! And she and I both knew what would happen the moment I got your request for an interstellar mission. A decade-plus apart? We wouldn't be a couple any more. Nobody would. That's why we said our goodbyes to each other then."
The Lieutenant Colonel's voice continued, slowly and softly, "Did you even try to convince Jake of the Emotional Plague's existence the last time you met him?"
"Colonel," Ken answered, "That's really a private matter."
"I should have figured," her voice replied, then more sternly: "You're poisoning us. We need to take steps to mitigate possible Plague contamination."
"Colonel?" Ken transmitted, "I don't understand, could you —"
"You didn't think I couldn't hear your conversation with that xorn, did you?" Even through the tinny ear speaker, Ken could hear the edge in Jennifer's voice. "You think the Emotional Plague is fiction. You'd jeopardize everything Human-Centauri stands for just to make life easier on some of your old friends."
Alarmed, Ken slapped the transmit stud hard. "Colonel, Jennifer, listen! I —"
"'Humans don't always pair-bond with their mates,'" she cut him off, mocking his words. "Well, you didn't, that's for sure!"
Ken drew a deep breath. That's what this tirade was all about? "You want to get rid of me, because I had a fling with you?!"
Ken glared back at Mercurand, imagining Jennifer at a transmit station. At this distance, the spacecraft was just a barely-perceptible dot, but . . . he caught a glint. Was the spacecraft rotating?
"Typical emotional plague reaction," Jennifer's voice answered. "The most intimate, vulnerable act two people can experience together, and you pretend it was meaningless. I was in love with you, damn it! But now I see you're just sick, the plague turned you into a heartbreaker long ago. We're all better off without you. Good riddance, Ken!"
Across the void, framed against the gloss-black of Mercurand's right side, a tiny flash of light erupted.
A muffled bang! reverberated across Mercurand's walls and floors. The whole spacecraft lurched madly to one side, slamming Torra Zorra against the observer room's near wall. That was a slug launch!
Torra yanked itself down the access tunnel. Now Mercurand was accelerating in the opposite direction, its side thrusters trying to counter the 30-or-so meters per second of delta-v the slug launch had just imparted to it; that made the climb that much harder, and Torra's shaking tentacle-fingers weren't helping. Just like a human's fight-or-flight response, every muscle in a startled Centaurian came alive with nervous energy. Torra jitterred as much from the bang as from its implications. There was no way the E-43 could go off accidentally; even if every failsafe malfunctioned, someone had to deliberately load a slug into it or it'd have nothing to fire. Had some new threat popped up, so close that Colonel Doe had tried to shoot it? Torra's brain-gut ran through the possibilities as Torra pulled itself along. It had seen the sky rotate just prior to firing; the E-43 would have been pointing damn near where Ken's Ascender was supposed to be. Why would the Colonel endanger both her navigator and her retrieval operation by firing near them? Or . . . clans and chaos, she didn't actually hit the Ascender or Ken, did she?!
Was she . . . Torra inhaled sharply through all four mouths . . . was she aiming for Ken deliberately?
The stress points of human psychology had always frightened Torra a little. They could panic, or snap and turn violent, from events that wouldn't even faze a Centaurian. Torra figured it'd better not take any chances. It stopped at a supply cabinet along one corridor wall, popped open the latched door, and scanned through the sundries tethered inside. There, on the left . . . a stundart pistol, built for a Centaurian's tentacle fingers. Torra ripped the small-but-massive weapon from its velcro mount, and twisted the voltage knob to the detent for a human target; training to use these things for self-defense was one thing, but Torra never thought it'd be using one against its superior officer. It hoped its guess was wrong.
As it neared the command center, Torra slowed and pulled itself along as silently as it could manage. It poked an eye stalk through the side hatch. Jennifer Doe was floating in front of the weapons console — Torra's station — her back to the door, her eyes firmly glued to the console's tactical display. Her head was partly in the way, but Torra could make out the blip it'd tagged as the Zero Drive, and near it, another tagged blip for the Ascender. She seemed to be wrestling with unfamiliar controls, designed for a short user with foot wheels and twice as many arms, trying to move the targeting crosshairs onto the second blip manually. On the control panel, the E-43's three green telltale lights indicated that the waste heat from the previous slug launch had been shunted away, the capacitors were recharged, and a fresh slug was already loaded into place. The slug launcher was ready to fire again at the touch of her hand.
In one beat of Torra's hearts, Colonel Doe went from clan-away-from-clanmate to dangerous predator that had to be hunted down.
Torra moved the pistol level with the eye facing Jennifer and lined up the gunsights. Its hand twitched like mad from the terrible reality crashing down on its psyche. Damn it, Torra scolded itself, Keep that barrel on target! It aimed as best as it could for her broad human back, the biggest target on that bipedal body, and let fly. There came a "poof" and a "crack," and the tiny electric dart lodged itself dead-center in Jennifer Doe's neck.
A stundart was an electroshock weapon, a miniature self-powered taser. Jennifer should have screamed. She should have convulsed. She should have contracted into a jittering ball, the way every electroshock victim did. But instead . . . she simply locked stiff, and then went limp.
Torra suddenly remembered, to its horror, that human muscles lacked the Centaurian ability to lock in place without effort. A limp human muscle was one that had shut down. Torra raced arm-over-arm to her, still gripping the stundart pistol in its third hand lest the gun bounce around the room in microgravity. It grabbed her wrist in its fourth hand, trying to remember where you were supposed to check for a human pulse; when it found none, it tried her neck. Nothing. It yanked the spent dart out of her neck, then bent its eye turret forward, placing its one-and-only ear right next to her mouth; but there were no sounds of breathing.
"S.I.!" Torra called out. "Medical emergency!"
"I see it," the S.I.'s level voice intoned. "Assemblybot deployed, fetching medical scanner."
A few distant clunks in rapid succession gave way to a whirring and a gentle breeze. A general-purpose assembly robot had pulled itself through the corridors with a ducted fan, scanner held firmly in two of its grippers. In one smooth motion, it moved straight up to the lifeless upper torso of the Lt. Colonel and placed the scanner plate in direct contact with the exposed skin of her neck.
"Colonel Doe's spinal cord has suffered burns consistent with a high-intensity microwave beam or a high-voltage electrical current, between the fifth and sixth thoracic vertebrae. The nerve damage is highest severity. Her spinal cord has been completely burned through, resulting in total paralysis below the neck. She is also in non-fibrillation cardiac arrest."
What?! This wasn't supposed to happen, not with a stundart! "Can you repair her?" Torra pleaded.
"No," the S.I. stated.
"Then," Torra grasped at whatever straws it could think of, "Then CPR!"
"Colonel Doe's cardiac arrest is non-shockable," the S.I. intoned. "The electrical current that burnt out her spinal cord may have conducted down her spine into her heart before it burned through. Attempting direct pressure cardiac stimulation."
The assemblybot grabbed onto a handhold with its strongest gripper arm, and pressed Jennifer's body firmly against the wall. It pressed mercilessly against her chest, directly over her heart, trying again and again to thump it back to life. Then, it removed a fearsome-looking hypodermic needle from the scanner package and thrust it deep into her chest cavity.
After an agonizing moment, the S.I. announced, "Cardiac adrenaline injection was ineffective. Colonel Doe's heart is still stopped. I am out of options."
Torra buried its eyes in its hands. Torra was out of options too.
It pulled itself, still shaking, to the comm panel and keyed the mike. "Ken, this is Torra. The Colonel is dead. What's your situation?"
The receiver stayed silent for several seconds. Then: "The Ascender, the Zero Drive, and myself are all unhurt! Whatever Jennifer did before she died, it must have missed."
Torra craned its eye stalks over to its weapons console, trying to piece together the details of what Jennifer must have done. "She fired the slug launcher at you," Torra answered Ken. "Targeting's still in axis mode, from when I marked the Zero Drive on radar. Looks like she was trying to line the crosshairs up with you manually. That's probably why she missed. Even then, she would've gotten you if she'd thought to load a shrapnel pack — which she didn't. Do you have any idea why she shot at you?"
"Yes," came Ken's voice. "She . . . oh boy." A pause. "Did you have to kill her?"
"I . . . I didn't mean to!" Torra stammered. "I only shot her with a stundart. The S.I. said it hit her spine and fried her central nervous system, or something."
"You set it for a human target, right?" Ken's voice asked.
"Yes!" Torra glanced down at the pistol still in its grip, re-checking the position it'd left the voltage knob in.
"That cone looks pretty big," Torra radioed. "Do you think it'll fit in the docklock?"
"By itself, yes," Ken's voice replied. "With the Ascender in the docking arms
at the same time? I doubt it."