This is the twenty-sixth 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 33 (Cont’d)
Interstellar space near Wolf 359
1009 – 14 Mandela, 429
The fall out of warp had wrecked the ship’s systems. Artificial gravity disappeared, and dim emergency lights replaced the already anemic normal lighting of the ship. Friese, who had hastily pulled on a pair of coveralls, had no idea what it was like back in the warp sphere. She had not been permitted to see the drive that allowed the ship to travel faster than light despite Einstein’s admonitions that it was impossible. The most she saw of it was a poster in the breakroom of the ancient scientist sticking his tongue out that read, “E still equals mc2, bitches.” It hung next to one of Isaac Newton that read, “I still don’t get it.”
Overlapping chatter from the intercoms filled the CNC as Friese floated up through the tunnel from below decks. Only now had it occurred to her that she had not seen the rest of the crew, just Havak, Danaq, and Shonsi. Well, she did see Raven Claw, the old doctor, briefly in the breakroom. It sounded like a full shift at a gate control center. “How many people are back there?”
“Five,” said Shonsi. “But they make up for it by yelling when things go wrong.”
Through the forward viewport, Friese could see their dilemma in full. An angry black mass lit by cracks of flame and occasional flashes of lightning hung in space before them. “Is that…?”
“Brown dwarf?” said Danaq, leaning over his console as he tried to take readings of the stars around him. “Yep. A big one. Should have ignited when you think about it.”
Havak came up behind her and floated to her usual seat at the center of the room. “Sit tight, Patty. We’re going to need your expertise shortly.”
“Mine?” Friese had not even known warp drive existed until a couple of days ago. How could she be of any help?
“You manage hypergates,” said Havak. “You’re going to talk to one. On Dakota’s network if we’re lucky.”
“Maybe we can get Raven Claw to stay behind,” muttered Shonsi. “He’s always bitching about this posting anyway.”
“Can’t,” said Havak. “He’s the only doc available cleared to fly aboard this ship.”
“How am I supposed to reach a hypergate?” said Friese. “I don’t even know where we are.”
“Leave that to me,” said Danuq. “Soon as I know the local constellations, I can get you the coordinates. All you have to do is send one of the hyperdrones on ahead.”
“Still say we should send it back to Earth,” said Shonsi. “Is anyone on Dakota even allowed to know we exist?”
“Someone is,” said Havak, “or we wouldn’t be able to pick up a shuttle there.”
“What about Farigha?” asked Friese. “If that’s off…”
“It ain’t off, Sergeant,” said Havak. ” Burke wants to know why Farigha was destroyed. She’s got us Dasarius equipment, which means she’s going over the Fleet Admiral’s head.”
“To Defence? The Security Council?”
“To Tol Germanicus and the Dasarius family.”
A thousand conspiracy theories swirled in Friese’s head, most of them urban legends about Dasarius, how they were a shadow government for the Compact, that they owned the Security Council and the Assembly, that the Navy was really Tessa Dasarius’s own private fleet. She found herself thankful her clearance forbade her from talking about this mission. The last thing she needed was several uncles gleefully telling everyone they told them so. She suspected Dasarius had become involved because they had sunk a lot of resources into Farigha on behalf of Mars.
And Mars, urban legend or not, was notoriously cheap.
1112 – 14 Mandela, 429
It took Danaq the better part of an hour to find three familiar stars to reset the ship’s navigation. They could, he explained to Friese, have gone around the brown dwarf now boiling beneath them and tried to get a reading from there. However, the Alcubierre had no EM drive, no projection drive to generate even a short wormhole, and really nothing to get it out of orbit besides the warp drive.
And the warp drive would occupy those hiding back in the sphere for the next few hours. With any luck, one of Havak’s engineers would take pity on the rest of the ship and restore artificial gravity.
“Don’t expect much sympathy from back there,” said Danaq. “They have to work in zero-G all day. They don’t care what happens up here in the habitat even when they’re off duty.”
Lovely, thought Friese. Maybe I can keep my breakfast down.
She distracted herself by working with Danaq on recalibrating the ship’s stellar map. Once he had located Dakota’s star, it only took another ten minutes to find another familiar one, Wolf 359, to triangulate off of it.
“We’ve got automated telescopes in that system,” muttered Danaq. “Why the hell haven’t they spotted this beast before?”
“Those telescopes monitor gravity waves?” asked Friese, well aware those were part of the stellar weather report she needed to do her regular job at the port.
“Gravity waves?” asked Danaq. “Never thought about it. I know they do a lot of electromagnetic recording. But this thing is close enough to Wolf 359 to affect its center of gravity. Why didn’t anyone see it before?”
“Wolf is small,” said Friese. “And this thing has even lower mass, so its pull on a red dwarf is negligible. Besides, there’s barely anything orbiting Wolf 359 that wasn’t put there by humans or Qorori, so it’s just sitting there in interstellar space, making a useless gravity well. Major pain in the ass if you’re flying a projection drive ship, and Wolf’s subspace gravity well is between you and your destination.”
“And you wonder why you’re on this mission.”
At almost 1130, they had a stellar map built with enough detail to launch one of the drones. Friese was able to find one of the hypergates above Dakota and lock into it. On the other side, she knew, was some Border Guard technician like her whose day would be disrupted. It couldn’t be helped. Without using the gates, they could be out here for years if the drone turned up in dead space within Dakota’s star system.
“Aren’t you glad we’re not going to Thule?” she said. “They only have one gate, and if they’re not ready for you, tough shit.”
“You sound as if you’ve been there,” said Danaq.
“No, but I’ve had to ping that gate several times. You use the gate, the Fillipenko Pass, or you stay home. And they jealously guard the Pass.”
Danaq shook his head. “Yet they get a seat on the Security Council.”
1201 – 14 Mandela, 429
Friese found the process of locating one of Dakota’s hypergates tedious. Had the ship not been so close to Wolf 359, the process could have taken the better part of a day. It made her wonder if warp drive was really worth pursuing. Then she realized why wormholes, the entire reason for her chosen profession, might not be feasible.
Farigha was knocked offline by something. And both Burke and Fleet Admiral Vu had to assume that something was hostile. Wormholes generated by ships created a blast of radiation at their destinations that tended to announce a ship’s arrival. In combat, that was very bad. “Hi! We’re here to blow you out of the sky if you don’t surrender.”
Given the anomalies of gravity, ships tended to end their wormholes well away from planetary gravity wells. Hypergates overcame this restriction because both ends of the wormhole were generated by relatively stable power sources. Gravity only served to keep the gate in orbit above a planet and possibly pull an arriving ship into freefall.
Warp drive did not have that restriction. The field surrounding the ship, the part that actually went faster than light without most of the accompanying temporal and mass problems, also dissipated the built-up radiation. A ship could, with proper navigation, come out of FTL almost anywhere within a star system. There might be a tell-tale flare when the ship arrived, but, properly planned, it would be too late for an enemy to respond.
So, despite the Alcubierre being a habitat module slapped on the skin of what Havak had called a “warp sphere,” the giant round aft of the ship, Friese had found herself on an experimental weapons platform.
With no weapons, she told herself. Well, that’s going to suck if there are hostiles still around at Farigha.
That might have been why the Fleet Admiral did not want to send a ship. One ship might end up cannon fodder, and an entire flotilla would be wasted if Farigha simply suffered impact from an untracked asteroid that crossed the planet’s path.
Nonetheless, once they had found Dakota, it took an excruciatingly long time for Friese to fine-tune the new stellar map and ping one of Dakota’s hypergates with one of the drones. “I have Gate Number Two up, Commander. Soon as you record your message, I can send it.”
Havak floated to the center of CNC and stood beneath the ship’s holo-recorder. “This message is classified for planetary commanders of all branches and up. Eyes only. This is Commander Linda Havak of the CNS Alcubierre, the Navy’s experimental warp ship. We have encountered a brown dwarf that has temporarily disabled our drive. As the Alcubierre was originally a test vehicle never really meant to travel interstellar space this far from Earth, we have no projection or EM drive. We request the following parts be sent via projection drive shuttle.” She nodded to Shonsi, who likely appended a parts list to Havak’s hologram. “Contact Admiral Eileen Burke at Tian Central for authorization. The parts can be requisitioned from Dasarius Interstellar. Havak out.”
“Command is going to know Dasarius took their ship,” said Shonsi. “We could all be in trouble.”
“Ensign,” said Havak, “We’re orbiting a previously unknown brown dwarf near Wolf 359. At this point, if we’re under control of Dasarius Interstellar, there’s not a goddamned thing Fleet Admiral Vu can do about it.”
It was then Friese realized the ship had no bridge recorder, or at least one that was not functioning.
“Sergeant,” said Havak, all the warmth she had shown below decks gone, “send your drone.”
Sitting at an empty console, Friese began manipulating one of the hyperdrones mounted on the side of the Alcubierre. “Initiating wormhole.”
White light appeared outside the ship, down and to the right in the CNC’s viewport. It swirled, but no one could look directly into it. That was a good thing. Just being inside a wormhole made some people sick. Looking at one made almost everyone violently ill. The sight of light moving in directions that did not exist in three-dimensional space did things to the brain that made seasickness look like a mild case of heartburn.
“Send it,” said Havak.
Friese tapped the virtual console on her touchscreen that formed when the hyperdrone detached from the hull. They could see the small, fishlike drone, with its projection dishes glowing at each end, move toward the wormhole. It began to disappear within the wormhole, which collapsed as soon as the drone was out of view.
“Hyperdrone away,” said Friese.
“Good,” said Havak. She leaned over to her seat and tapped the arm console. “Nix, Thalmann, how’s the cleanup going back there?”
“Just need the parts, Skipper,” said a woman’s voice.
“And more booze,” said a man’s.
“I promise we’ll stock up again at Dakota. Until then, get the gravity in the habitat module online, then stand down. Havak out.” She looked up. “Shonsi, you have CNC. Everyone else, we still have some booze left. It’s after 1200 hours. I suggest we get drunk while we wait for the supply ship.”
Friese could not argue. Unless they wanted her to launch the other hyperdrone, there was nothing they could do until parts arrived. It had been awhile since Friese had been drunk. She was overdue.