The navigational systems of Ramon's car are, shall we say, a little wonky at the best of times. There have been occasions when the dashboard computer showed us an oirentation that was off by an entire tenth of a degree, putting us 3.5 million miles from our target, which is peanuts to the whole of space but does make for some tense moments as we try to figure out how much gas we have left to look for a space station. Sometimes that's a blessing in disguise, as various people holding our debts have been waiting AT our intended destination, and our unpredicted course threw them off as much as it did us.
On the other hand, it means that Ramon will never let me take the wheel because he has to keep us on a steady course, and I can barely relax because I have to make sure the computer isn't futzing out on us. No cruise control for us in this thing. WE'RE the cruise control.
The fact that Aristede is doing all the navigation work from the back seat means that Ramon and I can finally relax for once.
"You still aren't letting me take the wheel," I say to Ramon.
"You're the Captain," says Ramon. "Captain doesn't take the helm. The helmsman takes the helm."
"I didn't ask to be the captain," I say. "I'm still not asking. We're not military here. I don't even like the thought of being hierarchical. What happened to good old fashioned democracy?"
"You want to vote for it?" says Ramon. "All in favor of making Robin the captain say aye."
"Aye," says Klunk.
"Aye," says Aristede.
"Nay", says I.
"Aye," says Ramon.
"Son of a bitch," I say, "Now it's official. Ah but wait! The Resistance kids aren't here to vote! We don't have a quorum!"
"They have their own ship," says Klunk. "They have their own captain."
"What are we," says Ramon, "Pirates?"
"We voted for captain," says Aristede. "I think that's a yes."
"What about Sword Lesbian? Damn, she has her own car." I sink into my seat and pout. "You guys are dumping all the responsibility on me here."
"And all the power," says Klunk.
"Does that mean I get to decree that I will take the wheel?"
"My father tells me that the best way to lead is to delegate power wisely and judiciously so that people do all your work for you," says Aristede. "For example. I'm handling the fiddly details of navigation. Klunk will handle any hardware issues. And Ramon will fly the car. All you have to do is relax and tell us to set the mainsails now and then."
"So what's the point of being the captain?"
"You get to wear a nice hat," says Ramon.
"Very well," I say, "For my first decree as captain I shall wear a nice hat." I whip Ramon's skullcap off his head and jam it onto mine.
"Hey," says Ramon, "you haven't washed your long mane in a week anyway." He grabs the hat back and jams it onto his head.
In the few seconds the hat is off his head, I am reminded precisely why Ramon never takes the hat off.
"I had no idea you were bald," says Klunk.
"I had no idea you had a tattoo on the top of your head," says Aristede. "It almost looks like a starchart that -- "
"That leads to hidden treasure," says Ramon. "Yeah, guess what, it is. My dad shaved my head bald and tattoed this bullshit into my head so he could have a map that followed him around. I was always getting grabbed so people could read my head. You know what it's like to have to sit still for the barber? Oh wait, Robin, you clearly don't. Well, try to imagine having to sit still while someone walks an ancient navigational compass across your bare head. And then -- "
"You mean like the magnetic compass?" says Klunk. "I haven't seen one of those in a while."
"No, I mean the one with the pencil and the pointy thing. Imagine the pointy thing being poked on your head every time someone wanted to figure out where they were going. Imagine being told that your pain is worth less than a hunt for hidden treasure. Do any of you know what that's like? Do you?"
"Well, that's why I hold onto the wheel. It's my damn car, I go where I want, and if I drift off course well maybe that's better than having to follow a stupid map."
Aristede coughs. "Did your dad ever manage to find -- "
"It really doesn't matter," says Ramon. "What matters, right now, is that we find out whatever's going on with Captain Bones at the Space Slug."
I'm the captain of the Barracuda, officially, but for the next while the real captain was tense silence.
Aristede finally mutinies, saying, "We ought to be there within the next twenty space-minutes."
"You're sure we're on course?" says Ramon.
"Absolutely. The navigational systems in the back here are miles more advanced than what you have up front. I don't understand why you two never noticed this stuff."
"You expect someone to yank off the cushions in the back seat?" says Ramon.
"Well, if the mechanic had -- "
"One thing we never had time for either," says Ramon. "Always chasing the next pot of gold I suppose."
"Look where that got us," I say.
"You never had to come along."
"How could I possibly leave you to run off by yourself?" I say. "How could I let you leave me? Neither of us had anyone else left on Earth."
"I had my mom."
", you really didn't."
Ramon glares at me. "I've already told you to shut up about that."
"Tragic backstories aside," says Klunk, "I'm beginning to think that we're going to be encountering more tragic FRONT stories in a few minutes. I just looked out the window and saw the big neon sign that folats above Altair Skep's north pole. If our navigation system is correct then that planet is about 5300 Astronomical Units away from its proper location. And there's Altair Maserati."
"We must be in the Altair system," says Ramon. "And the fancy-shmancy navigational systems are even worse than our old dashboard computer."
"The planetary scans show two Altair planets," says Aristede, "but not the star itself. And there's a planet within five hundred thousand kilometers of both. Clonker Prime. That ought to be way the heck away from here. And Silver Duck, and Vaka Rangi, and...the list is increasing. The computer is picking up more and more planets that shouldn't be near each other."
"Does the fancy computer scan for signs of life?" says Ramon.
"If the're floating in space without their stars then they should logically be frozen and dead," says Aristede.
"Just answer the question."
"What do you want me to look for, the sound of heartbeats? I'm picking up radio signals but they're garbled at this distance. I can't tell what they're saying. Maybe the survivors are buried underground or maybe their radios were left one when everyone died."
"Or maybe everyone's alive," I say, "Because I can see them."
Out the front windshield of the car, each planet within our sights is lit up on one side by one particular bright star. Not that there are many planets -- only 6 or 7. But that's a hell of a lot more within our relatively narrow field of view than there ought to be. Usually when you fly though an asteroid field you don't see more than one or two unless you're looking for them, and if you want to find a planet you need pinpoint accuracy on your nav computer. The walk down to the corner drug store is peanuts to the distance between a planet and its moon, which is peanuts to the distance between one planet and the other, but here they are, ducks in a row, relatively speaking.
"As captain," I say, "I think it would be best if we got away from whatever space-time anomaly this is, and found a safe corner of the universe from which to investigate the matter. All in favor? Say aye."
"I'm not risking the car," says Ramon. "I say Aye."
"Nay," says Klunk. "I want to know what's going on here."
"Aye," says Aristede. "I've risked my hide for enough of one space month. We need to find a place to slow down."
"Three ayes," says I. "Aristede, warp us out of here."
Aristede punches some buttons in the massive keyboard and the space outside inverts, turning white with dark pinpricks where the stars would be.
Space reverts. Once again all the people in the car are glowing blue, because I forgot to roll up my window. It takes longer to fade. Yet, for the minute or so that my vision is blue-shifted, nobody says anything. They just stare out the windows.
"What is it?" I say. "Aristede, where did you take us?"
"I'd like to say I took us to Betelgeuse 5," says Aristede.
I look out the window. There's Betelgeuse 5.
Lit a lot brighter than usual. The star we tried to get away from is still there.
And floating within half an Astronomical Unit of Betelgeuse is...Altair Skep.
"Warp us somewhere else," I say. "Take us to Tikolum."
Aristede punches some buttons in the keyboard as I roll up the window. Space inverts with a flash and then reverts, and we're orbiting a cloudy brown and green planet. Good old Tikolum.
Right next to Silver Duck and Vaka Rangi. And the same star as before.
"Try it again," I say.
"Never mind," says Aristede. "It's too late."
"What do you mean, too late? It's not like we got eaten by a space-monster or anything. Warp us to Earth, I don't care, just get us out of here. That's an order."
"It's one I can't follow, captain. We DID get eaten by a space-montster. Along with the rest of these planets. Our destruction may only be a matter of time."
"What are you talking about?"
"Think about it!" says Aristede. "The Space Slug orbits Setting Sun, and Setting Sun, here on the edge of the galaxy's core, orbits the Great Black Hole. You know how those work. If you hit the event horizon then there's no getting out of it, no matter how fast you go, because all forward paths in spacetime point toward the singularity. There's no parallel or backward paths left. The warp drive -- "
"That ought to work if nothing else!" says Ramon.
"Warp drives typically take you at light speed through folded space," says Klunk. "They don't technically go faster than light itself. The wild tales of warp drives saving people from black holes must have been told by people who never crossed the event horizon. There's no stories of people hitting light speed and finding themselves where they started...only scientific theories."
"Pshaw," I say, "What is a theory to experience?"
"A safe mathematical model that prevents you from landing hard on reality feet-first," says Klunk. "The earliest space pioneers were sent into the void by people who had double and triple-checked their calculations because one slip would have been fatal. Believe when I say that we don't want to run afoul of those models."
"We just did," says Ramon.
"Now hang on a second," says I. "The one thing I know about event horizons is that when you hit them the starfield moves behind you. And there's stars all around us. So maybe we haven't actually hit the event horizon yet."
"Have we not?" says Aristede. "Ramon, turn the car sixty degrees horizontal and fifty degrees vertical."
"Now hang on a second," I say, "I'm giving the orders around here. Ramon, do what Aristede says."
Ramon spins the wheel and the stars shift around us. There in front of us, in the uttermost distance, lies a cluster of light. It's not as hard-edged as the stars themselves, but it is nearly as bright.
"Those are the galaxies visible from our own," says Aristede. "Andromeda, Triangulum, and the Magellanic Clouds. As spacetime is compressing their location from our point of view, they're a lot brighter than they would be. Those galaxies are on the outside of the event horizon. Everything else is on the inside. However it happened, the event horizon has expanded to encompass the entire galaxy. Nothing on the outside can reach us. Nothing on the inside can get out."
"Well, at least that includes Planet Barracuda," says Klunk. "Maybe I can kiss my family goodbye."
"It includes the Student Loan Company," says Ramon. "Those jerks can get smooshed into a singularity with us."
"I don't want my classic car collection to get smooshed into a singularity," says Aristede. "Nor my father. The rest of the extended family, on the other hand."
For a while nobody says anything.
"As long as we still have the opportunity," I say to Ramon, "Maybe you want to talk about your mom?"
"Not even if it's our final few seconds," says Ramon. "After what you said to me about her, I don't think you have the capacity to understand that situation."
"How long do we have to wait to hit the singularity?" says Klunk. "I'm a bit bored, to be perfectly honest. Can't we at least go to our doom playing a game of cards?"
"Or we could hit up one of these planets," says Aristede. "See what they're up to, how they're getting on. We've been worrying about ourselves too much in here. Captain, what's your idea?"
Aristede's description of the event horizon is bugging me. Something isn't adding up at all. It's not just the fact that the warp drive failed to save us. Why don't any of these planets look like they're suffering from the tidal effects of Setting Sun? Why have we been able to go anywhere within this event horizon, instead of just falling closer to the doomed planets? If spacetime were really curved so that every direction was down, the warp drive would have been worse for us. But Silver Duck and Vaka Rangi are closer to our eyes than Betelgeuse 5. We must have been able to take a parallel path in spacetime after all. Without that ability, a lot more things would be close to us right now. There's no Space Slug, no Student Loan Company battlestars, nothing but a few extra planets, and that one star, which, if this was Setting Sun like it should have been, was the accretion disk of a black hole. Except that accretion disks are effectively two-dimensional, and this is a sphere. Maybe it is a star after all. I drum my fingers on the dashboard. "You said nothing gets to us frm outside when we pass the event horizon, right?"
"That is absolutely correct. Not even a particle of light. In strict scientific terms it's called the Absolute Horizon."
"But the light from those galaxies is reaching us."
"Well, I mean, maybe spacetime hasn't completely enclosed us, but -- "
"Jesus Christ, Aristede! You could have told us earlier that we still had a ghost of a chance!"
"I wasn't certain!"
"Better to pursue uncertain hope than surrender to uncertian doom," says Ramon. "That's how me and Robin have been living these ten years. Always getting out from under the boots that would squash us. Well, this time we'll do it again. Just like old times. Hang on to your seats, folks, I'm pointing this thing at Andromeda and getting us out of here."
"Not yet," I say.
Ramon looks at me like I'm nuts. "What the hell do you mean, 'not yet'? Time is critical here, my fine feathered friend."
"As it is for everyone else falling toward the event horizon. We've got an easy out, comparatively, but...what about everyone else?"
"Do you remember the time on Rigel Rex when we left all those people behind? We could have fit a few of them in the car but you said it would take too long. We left them to die in the expanding gas while we blasted out of there."
"Robin -- "
"And that time on Derullo where we could have given testimony that would have saved that guy but then we would have been executed."
"Look, both of those were hard choices, and you left me to make them."
"It was easy enough to let a few of those folks into the car!"
"And what? Leave the rest? Whoever I saved I would have been leaving someone else behind. The reason I didn't save anyone is because I couldn't choose anyone in time to save any of them. It was down to the last second before the gas would have gotten us that I decided to fly us out of there. And, as I just said, you didn't help me make that decision. You left the whole thing to me. So maybe the reason I insist on calling you captain is to dump on you what you dumped on me. Okay? Now you call the shots instead of tagging along, and you understand what I went through in the first five years we were running around the galaxy."
"Fine! Don't object to my asking us to save everyone this time. Or as many people as possible, at least."
"Can't we just escape this thing, take a breather, and come back to the matter later?" says Aristede.
I turn to the backseat. "I'm really sorry, Aristede. I know we've barely caught a break since Carla Marli but if we abandon the planetside people now, they'll be at the event horizon by the time we can get back to them. We have to take our opportunities in the moment. We have to give everyone whatever chance we can."
"How the hell are we going to get everyone out?" says Klunk.
"Betelgeuse. There's something we can ask them to make, something that nobody else can. To Betelgeuse, Helmsman, with all engines ahead full."
And so we beat a path foward, through a spacetime rapidly betraying us.