"It's all set up," Ken breathed nervously. "Nothing else we can do but give it a go."
Torra typed the brief command to open the plasma shutter, and poised a tentacle-digit over the key that would commit it. Its display-facing eye bent toward the temperature reading. "Sending engine heat to the Zero Drive in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . ." It stabbed down on the Enter key.
Both Ken and Torra felt an instantaneous shock, like the shock of almost falling asleep and jerking into wakefulness — and then, everything was exactly the same as before. No freezing, no frying, not even any new sounds in the hum of Mercurand's working machinery. "Is it on?" Ken asked.
"I don't —" Movement on one of the monitors caught Torra's attention. It was an external view. Their little pocket of debris from UV Ceti IV, which had been drifting along with them in stately fashion, now shot past them in a blur. "Our target tracking — look! Every single object on radar just gained a 68 klick bump to its speed."
Ken's hands clacked furiously on his keys for a second or two, then: "Confirmed. We're showing the same gain in our own speed relative to the star. Delta-vee vector is oh two seven by minus three five ecliptic."
"Exactly 180 off the new vectors of my radar targets," Torra said. "No doubt about it, our velocity just jumped."
"We must be going at the absolute zero velocity your ghost was talking about."
"So then," Torra said with some trepidation, "How come we're not frozen solid?"
Ken's brow furrowed. "Yeah. You'd think every molecule in our bodies would have come to a standstill. I wonder . . . ." He pushed himself off one wall as hard as he could, then stopped himself against the opposite wall and made his way back to his navigation station. Then, he checked the histogram for Mercurand's accelerometer. "The spacecraft did register two tiny jolts just then. And they were the right size, too. That means everything inside the Zero Drive's field of effect, Mercurand included, is still subject to Newton's laws. Maybe . . ." he scratched the back of his neck, "Maybe it was just our combined center of mass that got set to this absolute-zero velocity, but we're all free to move relative to our center of mass."
"That would—" Torra jerked its eye turret in alarm. Their radar scan gave them almost no warning. "Collis—"
From slightly to the left of dead ahead, a rock the size of a baseball screamed straight toward them out of the blackness. Their new velocity had given this otherwise-docile intruder a kinetic energy equal to half a ton of TNT. There was no time to react, let alone get out of its way. And then, it just . . . appeared in front of Mercurand, and hung motionless there less than a hundred meters away.
"What in . . ." Torra checked the readouts, not wanting to believe its eyes. "That was . . . doppler radar gave that chunk of debris a radial velocity of nearly seventy klicks per second inbound, and now it's just . . . stopped!"
Ken stared at the floating stone in his forward monitor, uncomprehending. Then he blinked. "Well. I guess, now we know where the boundary of our zero-velocity zone is."
"Oh!" Understanding dawned on Torra. "You think it got close enough for the Zero Drive to affect it, so it instantly attained the same 'absolute zero velocity' as ourselves?"
"That's my guess," Ken said.
"Those tentacle-fingers of yours look so delicate," Ken tried to regain his composure. "I'm surprised they can grip that hard."
"Our ancestors subsisted partly on baaai(t)i," Torra replied, pronouncing the "aaa" in three-part harmony and the "(t)" with a separate mouth while sustaining the "i." "Centaurian lichen. It grows mostly on sheer rocky cliff faces. In 0.8g, our hands had to grip hard to whatever handholds we could find climbing up there."
"Recording incoming signal," the S.I. intoned. A message display console blipped on, showing the Human-Centauri Defense Force emblem while a voice announced, "From New France, this is HCDF News, July 27 . . ."
"Looks like the ultraviolet from their comm laser isn't blue-shifted either," Torra mused.
News broadcasts from the last ten years rushed past their receiver antennae in quick succession, each one dutifully played and recorded in rapid succession, starting with the first HCDF broadcast beamed along their old course to UV Ceti when their mission began.
They saw the news of their own mission.
They saw the second full year of war. And the third. And fourth. And fifth, and sixth.
They watched in horror as New France and New Mars collapsed into rubble.
They worried as Yukariah Heap negotiated with Krammer, and Ken shook his head while Torra craned its eye stalks in stunned disbelief when the Leonian Fanatic Brigade pulled into Human-Centauri's sacred Citizen Areas.
And then came a newscast from one year ago. . . .
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 15.
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