In spite of Weiss’s presence, Okada and Lancaster did get the ship finished within the two-week time span. It took fourteen twenty-hour days, after which Okada postponed the launch by two days.

“I don’t want my crew falling asleep in the middle of an emergency,” he informed Burke.

The response from headquarters had been swift. Fleet Admiral Tran personally scolded Okada, asking if an enemy would care if his crew were well-rested. Okada responded saying that Tian was not at war with Earth and asked if Command was planning on engaging anything hostile on the first flight. Burke intervened and sent a tale of food poisoning back to Tran. When the Fleet Admiral still pressed, she added a number of the female crew members also complained of feminine issues. As predicted, gender differences frequently favored the woman when that particular subject came up in conversation, even via hyperpacket over interstellar distances. Okada received a three-day extension.

On the morning of the launch, Okada wore casual fatigues. If something went wrong, he didn’t want to have to toss his heavy dress blue jacket somewhere and spend half his time adjusting the tight collar. The crew followed suit, though Weiss reported to the bridge in her black Cybercommand outfit, devoid of any rank or service insignia. “Well, I’m not going to pretend I’m Navy on this occasion,” she informed Okada, who chose not to argue with her.

“Just see that you stay out of the way,” he said. “We don’t need a political officer aboard.”

“So that’s what you think I am,” she said and took her seat at CNC’s Security station.

They began their voyage by detaching the Challenger from Naval Orbital 7 and moving into a parking orbit.

“Are we ready?” asked Okada from the central pod.

Havak, who doubled as both ship’s executive officer and as helm, turned and gave Okada the thumbs up. “We only need clearance from the Port Master.”

“Standard Naval frequency,” said Okada and waited for the chirp to tell him he had an open line. “Traffic Control, this is Challenger Actual requesting permission to leave orbit.”

Challenger, Traffic Control,” a disembodied voice said, seemingly from everywhere in CNC at once, “transmit flight plan and standby for clearance.”

Okada tapped a key on his console and waited. His travel plan consisted of one line: Tian to Earth via unconventional FTL propulsion by order of Fleet Admiral Tran.

Most travel plans were longer but would be acknowledged in seconds. This time, however, Traffic Control responded with, “Stand by, Challenger.”

Of course, they would have to standby. Okada did not mention projection drive nor did he request a hypergate slot. Unconventional FTL? That was the stuff of science fiction.

Challenger,” said Traffic, “your orders are verified. Proceed to E-5 orbit for departure at longitude seventy-five degrees, twenty minutes east. Good luck.”

Seventy-five degrees would take them most of the way around Tian. E-5, however, was several hundred kilometers further above the surface, so the Challenger would need to circle Tian at least twice before reaching her departure point. Okada did not like that. He would be spending most of his orbital fuel just leaving the planet. Then again, Earth promised to be no picnic finding a berth. “Havak, I need a slow burn for E-5. Aft thrusters at one quarter.”

“One quarter, aye,” she said.

The ship shifted ever so slightly beneath Okada’s feet. Artificial gravity may have eliminated the problems of microgravity and null-g, but it did not eliminate all the effects of momentum and inertia.

During the first orbit while climbing to E-5, Okada noted that Weiss looked incredibly bored. Normally, a ship would be lined up for a hypergate within forty-five minutes of leaving dock. And Weiss likely spent that time below, away from anyway viewscreens or windows. But she insisted being in CNC for “security reasons.” Okada doubted anything they did reached the level of Compact security. All the top secret work took place in the Challenger‘s bulky aft, where Weiss had insisted everyone show their security clearances before entering. The Navy had neglected to transmit Lancaster’s credentials, so he said, “My clearance is this ship doesn’t move without me. So if you’d like to explain to the Old Bird why her warp vessel is still dry-docked on the day we’re supposed to depart, be my guest.”

And then he bent down and crawled between the guard’s legs into the warp section. Weiss protested that day, only to be told by Okada that Cybercommand was holding up the works.

Now Weiss sat on the bridge looking bored to tears. Lancaster entered, giving her a mock salute before taking his place in the engineering pod.

“Thought I’d monitor things from up here,” he said. “Besides, I have to swing around back there like a damned monkey just to get to anything.”

Okada smiled at that. “And you don’t want to spend the trip in null-g once we’re at warp.”

“Well, there is cleaning all that vomit out of the equipment. My people know their jobs. They don’t need to know what I had for breakfast as well.”

“Hangover tabs and lots of black coffee?”

“Just the coffee today. With cream.”

That surprised Okada. Normally, Lancaster liked to party the night before a launch. “Login. We’ve got about an hour before we reach warp insertion point.”

In the past, Okada had noticed that crew members with little to do during sublight would surreptitiously look at their palm tatts, no doubt reading the sports pages or watching a vid or something non-work related. They would keep statistics pertaining to their job in front of them, dutifully checking them every minute or so. Mostly, they were waiting to play their part in keeping the ship going.

Weiss, Okada noted, did not do that. She scanned the room, her attention moving from crew member to crew member. She seemed to be making mental notes, and for all Okada knew, those mental notes might actually be recorded somewhere. Cybercommand did not share the taboos against such things the way the other military did. But he now understood Weiss’s presence and choice of uniform this morning. It was a message.

Cybercommand is watching. Cybercommand knows. Cybercommand will not go away.

Cybercommand can kiss my fat pasty ass, Okada thought.

“E5 orbit achieved,” Havak announced about an hour into the flight. “Coming up on warp insertion point in one minute, twenty-eight seconds… mark.”

“Pete?” Okada was not about to call Lancaster “Tripod” in front of the entire CNC crew when he needed everyone focused.

“Warp drive at your command,” said Lancaster. “Commander Havak, please orient the ship toward Sol. We can stop and adjust course along the way.”

Okada felt the ship move beneath him as Havak played with the thrusters to point the ship at Sol. The yellow star, birthplace of humanity, did not sit at the center of the ship’s viewscreen. It couldn’t. Both Sol and Helios, Tian’s star, had moved considerable distances in the decades since the light from Sol left. She pointed the ship at where the computer said Sol was now. As they stopped and adjusted, Sol would actually drift farther and farther from the center until they were within a couple of light years of it.

“Disengage thrusters,” said Okada.

“Thrusters off-line,” said Havak.

“Deactivate EM drive.”

“EM drive in standby mode.”

He stood, eyes transfixed on the distant yellow star that was their destination. Pointing to the screen, he said, “Engage.”

On the forward viewscreen, the universe collapsed into a bright ball of light at the center of the screen.

“Warp drive engaged,” said Havak. “Schedule outwarp in four-point-six hours.”

Okada turned to Lancaster, whose devilish grin had finally returned. “Well, Tripod, we’re off.”

“And with any luck,” said Lancaster, “we won’t hit anything that’ll smash us to atoms.”

“That’s it?” said Weiss. “I don’t feel anything.”

“You won’t,” said Lancaster. “We’re not moving. The distortion of time and space around us is. That’s how we can travel faster than light without worrying about time dilation. If we hadn’t discovered traversable wormholes when we did, this is how we’d be getting around the stars.”

“Speaking of the stars, what happened?”

“It’s called ‘the light at the end of the tunnel,’” said Okada. “We’re going so fast that only the light in front of us is visible, and that is probably the radiation building up on the forward edge of the warp bubble.”

“And how fast are we going?”

“Do you want it in exponents?” asked Lancaster. “Or just how long it will take us to get to Earth?”

“Never mind.” She rose and left CNC.

Lancaster chuckled. “Cybercommand. Get them out of their cellars, and they’re confused as hell.”

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