This is the twenty-eighth episode of No Marigolds in the Promised Land, a serialized Compact Universe novella. To get the entire novella, go here for details.
Dedicated to Dave Harr and in memory of Andre Polk
DAY 34 (cont’d)
Interstellar Space (near Wolf 359)
1744 – 15 Mandela, 429
Friese helped ready the second drone attached to the ship’s hull in case the first failed to return from Dakota within a few hours. It only underscored the pointlessness of the warp drive project to her. Warp travel allowed the ship to move through space at incredible speeds while maintaining its position in time. Technically, Ling, acting chief engineer, told her, the ship was actually traveling backward in time. The explanation of why the clock aboard ship was synced with those on Dakota and, indeed, back on Earth made Friese’s head hurt. No wonder most people became violently ill looking directly into wormholes.
Around 1740 hours that day, a large projection-drive ship materialized off the Alcubierre‘s starboard. It was a cylinder with a dish at each end revealing the projection drive itself. Unfortunately, the wormhole had opened without warning. Shonsi had been looking in its direction when it happened, resulting in the snack she had just eaten at her console ending up on her console.
Coughing, the young ensign said, “Okay, we’re going to have to work out a protocol for that.”
That was another thing that bothered Friese. Warp drive, which took days, and conceivably months, to get to where wormholes carried ships in seconds, also left the ship susceptible to anything uncharted. Havak had assured her that smaller objects would simply be smashed by the passing of the ship’s warp field, that they would even be unaware of the impact. It was the larger objects with gravity wells that bothered Friese. The Qorori, who lived around one of the stars of the Centauri trinary, had bunny-hopped a hyperdrone to Wolf 359 once. They found the space between their set of stars and this boring little red dwarf littered with rogue planets, several brown dwarfs, and at least one failed star their scientists mistook for a black hole. The distance had only been three-and-a-half light years.
There were fewer light years than that left between their position and Dakota.
“The ship is a drone,” announced Danuq. “Apparently, the Navy doesn’t want anyone on Dakota seeing us. At least not in the middle of nowhere without an explanation.”
“Too bad we can’t fit through a hypergate,” said Havak. “We could just jump to The Caliphate and warp from there.”
“I’m sorry,” said Friese, “why don’t we have projection drive again?”
Havak smiled. “Have you really looked at this tub from the outside? It’s a big sphere with a habitat module slapped onto the side. And I can neither confirm nor deny that the Navy is refitting a warship with warp drive that will have its own projection drive still mounted on it.”
In other words, thought Friese, screw Cybercommand. This crew wants to go home.
“Ling’s going to be upset,” said Danuq. “The drone won’t dock. They’re going to have to depressurize the sphere and do EVAs to load supplies.”
“Can’t be helped,” said Havak. “Give me intership.”
Shonsi wiped a section of her touchscreen still sporting her half-digested fruit, then fingered it active once more. “You’re on, Commander.”
“This is the captain. Clear the sphere. Lieutenant Ling and Specialist Mayer, please don EVA suits and prepare for vacuum operations.”
The response came back instantly. “Are you kidding me? They couldn’t send a small ship to dock with us?”
“Cybercommand is still driving the bus on this ship’s existence, Lieutenant. Now suit up and begin cabin depress.”
Friese could hear grumbling through the commlink before the channel closed. Moments later, Ling came back online saying, “Go for EVA. Chamber cleared. Beginning cabin depress now.”
Havak looked over at Friese. “I’m going to need you to manage the drone, Sergeant. Babysit it until Ling gets all the supplies offloaded.”
The commander had done some homework. Friese had, in fact, started her career wrangling wayward hyperdrones. It was part of the apprenticeship for gate management. The drones themselves were not remotely intelligent, but they could contain enough data to transport an AI presence through a wormhole if that is what was required. Its own brain had just enough computing power to run the projection drive engines and store the coordinates for a point in space or a hypergate. They were barely smart enough to ping a gate.
Which meant sometimes they went a bit wayward.
“Commander,” she said as she took her place next to Shonsi and set herself up on a vacant console, “may I ask why we are not communicating directly with this John Farno person or sending him supplies?”
“Good question,” said Havak. “The answer is because Cybercommand said so. Cryptically.”
Did Cybercommand do anything that wasn’t cryptic? The running joke was that their latrine facilities were segregated by security clearance rather than gender. “Given this delay, shouldn’t we at least inform Farno that we’ll be a while?”
“According to Admiral Burke, he’s managing just fine by himself. Anyway, this is not a normal Navy operation. The admiral is doing an end run around her own Fleet Admiral, and that takes interference from Cybercommand and from Dasarius Interstellar. How do you think you ended up here? If Vu had two neurons to rub together, he would have sent an Olympus Mons-class dreadnought and swept the planet with Marines to pick up Farno.”
“Isn’t the CNC under surveillance, with recordings available to the Fleet Admiral himself?”
Havak grinned. “Yes, but Captain Okada resigned his commission, and our resident warp expert, last I heard, has taken up residence between the legs of some Etruscan senator’s wife. Right now, Vu can’t afford to piss off the rest of the crew of this vessel, or he’ll have no one to run his precious warp program that he supposedly canceled.”
“Then who authorized this as a military operation?” asked Friese. The Space Marshal and the Marine Commandant certainly had no interest in it.
“The G-5,” said Havak. “We are currently working for Cybercommand until further notice. And right now, the G-5 has directly ordered me to keep this ship a secret.”
1927 – 15 Mandela, 429
“Assuming we don’t hit anything,” said Ling from back inside the warp sphere, “I can get you to Dakota in two days. If you want to maintain secrecy, we’ll have to outwarp somewhere in the Oort cloud and ask the Navy for an EM ship tow. Mr. Danaq is not going to have enough control to put us in orbit around Awis.”
Awis, Friese had learned, meant “darkening land” in one of the indigenous languages of North America. Then she realized the main languages on Dakota were all North American, and pre-Columbian at that. She hoped they would not have to go planetside. She’d feel like a tourist. Then again, Awis was a small moon above one of the system’s gas giants.
“We have two hyperdrones,” said Havak, lounging in her seat in CNC, “including one freight drone now. They can send us an EM pack.”
More grumbling came from the back of the ship. Friese had seen ships with EM packs mounted, usually orbital transports not designed for interplanetary space or even translunar trips. They EM packs were clumsy at best, and Friese’s most nerve-wracking days at traffic control came not from overcrowded hypergate queues but ships powered by EM packs transitioning awkwardly to free-fall.
“Begging the commander’s pardon,” said Ling, “but are you aware we’ve never tried to move this ship by EM? Not without it being in the belly of a much bigger ship.”
“Take it up Cybercommand, Ling. I have too much on my plate to worry about explaining our presence to a Navy that thinks the ship is still in storage in Antarctica.” She cut the link and turned to Friese. “How well do you think you can plot a warp course?”
“I can’t,” said Friese. “I could hit another one of those things.” She pointed at the barely visible brown dwarf outside.
“Good. You’re just as knowledgeable as us on the subject. Work with Danaq. I’m going to try and outwarp us inside the system. Danaq, you have CNC.” The tall Bromdarian rose and climbed down the tunnel to the lower decks.
It occurred to Friese that Havak was not the first bat-shit insane Navy flyer she’d ever slept with, just the first female one. She shared a look with Danaq. “Do you have stellar maps of at least the known objects in our path?”
Danuq gave a lewd grin. “This ain’t my first rodeo, Sergeant. Ever try to fly through Sol’s Oort cloud?”
Of course, she hadn’t. Theoretically, it was possibly to fly to Nemesis, Sol’s dim red dwarf neighbor, in about two years. Only what seemed like nearly empty space to, say, the Voyager probes of the World War Era looked like a traffic jam to a ship going at nearly light speed. And then there were the relativistic effects. If one made the trip in two-and-a-half years, their grandchildren or great grandchildren might be there on Trantor to greet them.
“I’ve only been to Earth three times,” said Friese, “and Mars once waiting for a connection.”
“Well, baby, I’m good. I just need your navigator’s mind for the long haul.”
Friese had never thought of herself as “baby,” let alone a navigator. “You do realize I plot wormhole termini, don’t you?”
“‘Terminuses,” said Danaq. “We aren’t speaking Neo-Latin. And yes. Now that you know the stellar neighborhood, you just need to plot the stop points so we can take a reading. You Border Guard types are the perfect navigators. Might be a commission in it for you, Sarge.”
Friese bristled. She did not like to be called “Sarge.” Or “baby.” On the other hand, she did like the pilot’s cockiness. It was what had kept them from slamming into the brown dwarf outside. “Let’s do this.”
Danaq looked like a kid who found someone to join him in a hologaming chamber. “That’s the spirit.” He turned to his console and tapped a few keys. When the console beside him came to life, he motioned her forward.
“Say, Sergeant,” said Danaq as Friese came forward. “You play chess?”
2001 – 15 Mandela, 429
Friese rubbed her eyes when she said, “I got it.”
“Got what?” said Danaq. He looked over at her console. “You’ve plotted it down to five hundred kilometers?”
Friese smiled. “I plotted four wormhole jumps between here and Awis. At that short of distance, we should be able to pick up gravimetric readings on anything big enough to knock us out of warp. See? I pick up the basics fast.”
Danaq shook his head. “Told you that you guys would all be transferred to the Navy when this goes commercial.”
“Why would this go commercial?” said Friese. “We could have been to Barsoom and back several times by now via wormhole.”
“Yes, but hypergates cost money. Projection drive ships are expensive and resource intensive. Did you know a commercial projection drive ship can only go ten jumps before it needs critical maintenance? And the hypergate system’s getting old. Plus Thule refuses to build one. They use the Yaphit Pass, and rumor has it the Pass is deteriorating.”
The Yaphit Pass deteriorating? To get to Thule, which sat above the bulk of the galaxy, one had to travel to Etrusca, then pick up the Pass at the edge of the solar system. The Pass was the longest self-sustaining natural wormhole known to humanity. And the only way to get to Thule. “What happens after that?”
“Only projection drive ships can get there,” said Danaq as he started transferring Friese’s work over to the helm. “And that’s a dicey proposition. Thule’s in a gravitational void. So artificial wormholes are hard to sustain. They’ll most like be on their own after that.”
Eight hundred million humans cut off from the Compact forever? Friese couldn’t imagine the horror. Even before the World Wars ended, humans had already traveled to Mars, the Belt, and even came up with various schemes to populate Venus. Humanity did not want to be constricted to one planet. It tended to make them more warlike. Not that the Polygamy Wars supported that thesis. “Could you imagine looking up at the midnight sky and seeing nothing? Or the great mass of the galaxy without any means to return to it?”
“The locals are strange. Most of them are rejuves over three centuries old. I think they want to be cut off. It’s like they’ve had enough with humanity.”
“But they’re permanent members of the Security Council, one of the founding core worlds.”
Danaq laughed, but it sounded a bit ominous. “They’re with us because it serves their purposes. Wouldn’t be surprised if they collapsed the Pass themselves, then did something that made it even harder to bring ships into their system. I’m telling you, Friese, they’re leaving. They know something’s going to happen.”
Havak emerged behind them, followed by Shonsi. “Well?”
“Our genius landlubber here plotted us four wormhole jumps. I just tweak them for what we know is out there and take gravimetric readings at each stop.”
“Wormhole jumps?” asked Shonsi. “But we’re going to warp.”
“We are,” said Havak. “But I think the sergeant is using what she knows to plot each leg of the trip. How long to Dakota?”
“She’s got us within five hundred kilometers of the surface of Awis,” said Danaq. “And I’m the bastard that can put us there.”
Havak laughed. “Don’t get cocky, kid. This ain’t a chess match.” She took her seat and tapped a commlink. “Ling, are we ready back there?”
“Warp power at your command,” said Ling. “Say the word.”
“Mr. Danaq, fire her up.”
Within seconds, the entire universe collapsed into the light at the end of the tunnel.