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It took several local weeks following the static test for Geontil's team, with the help of the Override and the Tzun, to figure out what had caused the fluctuation in field strength that had worried us. They eventually decided that the same phenomenon had likely caused at least the previous two test failures; when I asked what had happened, they lapsed into paraphysics and mathematics, talking about nonlinear step functions and virtual phase congruency. The Tzun boiled it down for me later.
"Essentially, the drive field reaches a point as it is coming up where the various vane fields achieve phase lock - they constructively interfere."
"I thought that's what they were supposed to do," I said through my implant, threading my way through traffic on the Dockside.
"It is. Their early models, however, assumed that the energy available to the field was limited to that input by the induction vanes until the critical moment when the field was fully rotated out of Minkowski space. However, it appears that as the field is coming up, the phase lock of the vane fields results in the input of discrete energies from the de Sitter equivalence-"
"Skip it," I suggested.
"Heinlein said any human unable to cope with mathematics was merely an ape who had learned not to make messes around the house," said the Tzun loftily.
"Heinlein died without getting offplanet. And I can cope with mathematics. It's the paraphysics that gets me, and I'm not interested in learning them."
"Laziness was always one of your virtues," agreed the Tzun.
"This from an incredibly efficient machine intelligence whose entire current design is intended to make other people carry it around."
"Form follows function," said the gun.
I was on my way to the Interrupt. The next full-scale test was imminent, and the Interrupt was to be a part of it. Grapples had been added to the prototype test vehicle so that the Interrupt could attach itself to the frame. The Override and the Tzun would perform their recording of the (hopefully) first full jump from aboard the Interrupt - the prototype was unmanned. Assuming everything went well, or at least survivably, we would return to the Station with the jump models, and the next flight would carry a Pilot who would utilize those models to control the jump.
I'd been across the torus from the Interrupt, and caught a spoke elevator to the Hub and switched to another elevator to take me 'down' to B Dock, where it was currently grappled in. The B elevator let me off in the Dock vestibule with five or six others, and I turned right out of the small space to head for the ship. As I reached the cross corridor that would take me out from between the central blocks of the Dock area out to the Docks themselves I paused, subliminal messages from my training and experience telling me something was wrong. I had just begun to spin in place when something heavy landed on my shoulders, bearing me down to the deckplates. I tweaked my jaw again. Tzun!
No answer. I hit the deck hard despite my attempts to roll, as something or someone had grappled me from behind and I wasn't able to twist hard enough. I lost my breath at the impact, and kicked out experimentally. I didn't hit anything. Now that I was down, the grip hadn't slackened on the parts of me that faced the deck, and I kicked to roll off my front and look down at my torso.
Tzun! Override? There was an arm-thick band of some resilient substance, almost like silicone, which had coiled around me just at elbow level. I struggled briefly, but it contracted in response to my motions. I quit moving and lay still. Shapes detached themselves from the walls and moved towards me. They were wearing masks, which drew a snort of laughter out of me.
"What's so funny, mek-lover?"
I hadn't heard the term before, but it certainly wasn't hard to decipher. "You are."
Arms grabbed me and pulled me through a doorway into what looked like the service area of a bar. "We're funny, heh? We'll see who's laughing."
I shook my head. "Won't be you. Do you have any idea what you've caught?"
The same voice answered me. "Doesn't matter. You can't tell who we are. You've never met any of us even without the masks."
I laughed again. "And what makes you think that matters? Do you think they'll limit their retribution to just those responsible?"
There was a pause in the purposeful motions of the figures surrounding me, some of whom were closing the door and preparing what looked like a giant sack into which (I assumed) I was to be slung. The voice, which I dubbed 'Spokesman' in my head, spoke from behind me as someone (possibly the same person) shook me roughly. "Nice try, but we're not easily frightened."
"I'm not trying to frighten you. I'm trying to warn you." I winced as I was spun a quarter-turn and moved towards the sack, which was being held by two of the masked figures. "I don't care who you are. Nor will the Uplifted or the independent MI waiting on board my ship. You do know about them, right?"
"Put him in," said Spokesman. There was a jostling, but I wasn't shoved over. "Put him in!"
Someone said something in an undertone, urgently. I grinned tightly. "Whoever's having second thoughts is smarter than the rest of you. All you're going to get out of this stunt is big chunks of your station destroyed while they come for you."
Spokesman abandoned the murmured argument to snap "They can't come for us if they don't know where we are or what's happened, and they won't for-"
I cut him off. "They already do, you idiot. Do you really think I'd be wandering around without them if I didn't have secure communications?"
"We've jammed your implant signal, mek-lover."
"Of course you have. Which means you've also jammed my health & safety telemetry signal. How do you think they'll respond to that? We know, from experience, that nothing incidental on this station interferes with that signal for more than a fraction of a second. I've been offline for nearly a minute, now, and I was in the middle of a conversation."
Someone hit me in the face. I saw stars and staggered but didn't fall. "What're they going to do about it? They can't destroy the Docks while we've got you in here!"
"Are you-" there was an enormous GONG sound, and the room shook. "-sure about that?" I asked sweetly, followed by blowing my nose clear of blood. I watched as my assailants milled around the room for a few moments before Spokesman shouted them to order.
"Ignore that, damn it - he's bluffing! Get him in get him in, and we can get him off the Dock!"
There was another shudder, something which spelled imminent disaster on a multi-megatonne station spinning for G. With a squawk, the Allcall came on. "All residents, all residents, please move off Dock levels as quickly as possible. Take hold, take hold, take hold. Possible instability. Take hold, take hold, take hold-" the announcement began to repeat, with the sounds of a klaxon singing counterpoint.
The hands had fallen away from me. I turned in place and stared at each of the three figures behind me in turn, unsure which was Spokesman. "I. Don't. Bluff."
One of the figures turned to another. "What the hell have you got us into?"
The other - Spokesman - turned to the first and snarled "Get him in the bag!"
I couldn't see where the other two had got to, but that left only one even close to looking at me. I kicked Spokesman in the groin with everything I had. He made a wheezing grunt noise and doubled over. The third figure reached for me, but I twisted and tripped him or her. They went down over my legs as I kicked savagely at their ankle and felt something crack. The dissenter was backing away. There was another shudder in the Station's bones.
I grinned at the survivor. Spokesman and the third figure were both down, making noises indicating they were in pain. This really didn't look like a professional grab; none of them had shown any smarts or experience at dealing with prisoners. I advanced a sudden step towards the last one standing, hoping the other two had left the area, and was rewarded by a retreating step in response. "Get gone."
It probably wouldn't have worked had the Station not been precessing. Stationers are conditioned from birth to get into close and shielded areas the moment a Station does anything that can be felt as a vibration or anything more severe; the jolts that had been ringing through the torus were considerably worse than vibrations. I had time to hope the Tzun hadn't actually sent the Station unstable. As it was, the survivor turned and ran out the door I'd been dragged through. I turned to the figures on the floor. Spokesman had just started to straighten out from the fetal ball into which my first kick had driven him when I approached.
"No-" but before he could continue I kicked him in the ribs as hard as I was able without falling and felt bones break. He started to scream until the pain hit, then began whimpering, slowly folding back up. Turning, I saw the one I'd kicked in the ankle had dragged themselves over to a wall and was sitting against it, protecting the foot which was at an odd angle. I turned and ran for the open door, bursting through it into the relatively better-lit service way. I turned away from the elevator, rounded the corner, and came out on to the Dock area. The Allcall, which had been repeating the safety warning, squawked and the Tzun's voice thundered through the dock area.
"Make for the ship. I have the access open."
"I was doing that, thanks," I grumbled to myself, but trotted towards the open access of the Interrupt. As soon as I was through, it slid shut and I heard the deep booming crash of the grapplock disengaging. "Don't break dock, damn it!" I shouted.
"Stay there. I'm sending a manuatic to get that thing off you." The Tzun didn't acknowledge my order, but the ship stayed as it was - attached to the Station by the dock's grapples alone. While I had no doubt Interrupt could pull free with minimal damage, I wasn't sure what that would do to the Station's integrity.
"I'm staying. Just don't break dock." A matte silver shape rolled into the access way, and I tuned away from it to let the manuatic unit get to whatever was wrapped around my torso. I felt it grip the band once, twice; then there was a sudden SNAP and a wave of heat across my back, and then my arms were free. I turned to find the manuatic holding two halves of the band, broken at one side and burnt at the other. Patting it on its vestigial head, I ran towards the main lounge.
The ship is secure, sent the Tzun. The Override is prepared to take us out of dock. No indications of combat or pursuit prep in the station that we can see; remote cameras are watching all docked ships.
"Okay. Did you get anything on the wrecking crew?"
No. The station structure interferes too effectively with passive scan.
"Frotz. Well, file whatever you got off my implant, and if it's of any use we'll see if Renjen wants it or if our friends were in fact from Yul or one of his compatriots."
I swung into the lounge and dropped into one of the couches. The couch brought up a restraint and inertia field around me as the Override (or maybe the Tzun) threw the station vicinity up onto the main holofield. At one side, some ten klicks off-station, the current test vessel was hanging. It was a bit larger than the last, ill-fated one, and had a hollowed section on one side which I arbitrarily designated as the 'belly.' The hollow was in the outer frame, and the main cylinder could spin above it without interference. As I examined it, there was a flicker of marker lights indicating that spin-up was commencing. A host of small lighters were pulling away from the larger ship, beacons strobing.
The Override threaded us neatly through the traffic to come to a halt 'underneath' the test vessel. I watched without comment as the Override coordinated with the crew of the test vessel and brought us smoothly up into the hollowed section, where the Interrupt's upper hull fit snugly. The grapplocks engaged with their usual booming crash, and I felt my body shift slightly as a mass tractor flicked on to hold us in place. The lounge was at the 'top' of the ship, and the leakage from the tractor indicated it was running at an extraordinarily high power setting.
"We are linked," said the Override unnecessarily.
"Yeah, I saw. Wait a second. Where's the Tzun?"
I'm still in your quarters, bitched the gun over the net.
"Well, stay there for now. We're going to be moving, and you don't want to be wandering around in a manuatic's claw during that," said the Override.
Why are we moving? We should be going back in there to find those yokels-
"No, we're not going to do that," I interrupted. "They grabbed me; they didn't get me, I broke some bones, all even. We're not going to risk Eridani station integrity for revenge on a trio of idiots."
You're too soft, said the Tzun. How will the others know not to try this again if we don't make it abjectly clear what the consequences are? And, it added as if just thinking about it, why are we in count for the test after that?
"You'd prefer we abort for nothing?" I asked.
I'd prefer we abort for caution, it replied.
"Screw that. If those idiots were backed by Yul or somebody else, better that the test gets underway before they know precisely what happened."
"Agreed," said the Override. "I have Geontil's team on the link. We are ready to start boosting."
"Okay." I brought up safety fields and in a fit of conscientiousness clicked a physical safety belt around my torso. "I'm ready."
"Warning," said the Override, "I will be using minimal internal grav compensation to avoid interfering with results. Expect a five to eight gee main burn."
"Five-" the breath whuffed out of me as the Mains cut in on the test vehicle 'above' us. "Damn it," I wheezed, "If I'd known about this-"
"That is why you weren't told," said the Override soothingly. "Don't worry, I'm monitoring your vital signs. You're fine."
"I don't-" I grunted, "feel - unh - fine!"
Just grin and bear it, said the Tzun in a far too helpful tone.
I snarled, silently, knowing it would pick up the expression on the cabin scanners, and concentrated on breathing.
"Plus twenty seconds," said the Override. "First pulse in two hundred twenty seconds."
"Ishmael? This is Geontil," said the Link. "This is a very, very brave thing you're doing, and we just wanted you to know from everyone here in the Program how grateful we are."
I gritted back something obscene. The Override replied into the Link, "Standard Ishmael thanks you and your team, director. He is currently undergoing eight gees of local acceleration and cannot respond properly, and has asked me to convey his thanks and appreciation for him."
Lying bastard, I thought through the implant link.
"Well, naturally," said the Override into the cabin. "Plus fifty seconds. Tiosyn reports good feed on the recorders. All systems are reported nominal. All traffic is clear; we have a good vector up and out."
Great. I tried like hell to inject sarcasm into the link transmission, and from the Tzun's snort, I succeeded. By the way, were you geniuses going to tell me the real reason we needed to make this run at combat gee? What are we pulling actual, anyway?
"Sixty-four gee," said the Override. "And yes, there is a reason for this. Plus one hundred twenty seconds. The Tzun and I finished analyzing the test results from the prior attempts a few hours ago. Plus one hundred thirty seconds."
We found a consistent signature, the Tzun took up the explanation. In all the tests. Just prior to the final pulse, we found an energy layer injection from the de Sitter layer, as we discussed with Geontil. However, it wasn't a random enough spike to be the result of phase lock interference. It was a structured pulse.
Which means? I asked silently, still fighting for breath.
"It means that the pulses were deliberately introduced into the drive system from the Hyperstate side, and there is only one way that we determined that this could have happened. Plus one hundred fifty seconds. It appears that the Uplifted have been sabotaging the tests."
And from what we can tell, if we maintain minute random vector changes at an acceleration of fifty gee or above, approximately, it should bring the problem of getting an injection solution on our hyperstate field above even the ability of Uplifted Starships to solve, the Tzun finished. So we're perturbing at the maximum gee you can stand to increase the safety margin.
WHAT?! I blasted over the link. You didn't tell me-!
"No, of course not. Then you would have been forced to decide between your personal safety or the program's success, and while you might have made the logical choice and remained on the station, it would have tormented you. Plus one hundred seventy seconds. We decided it was better to remove the decision from your purview for your own good. Plus one hundred eighty seconds."
We are going to have words after this, I sent as clearly as possible.
"Acknowledged. Plus one hundred ninety seconds. Approaching first pulse. All systems remain nominal. Vanes show no abnormal energy input. Scalar tap operating within normal parameters at ninety-one percent output. Prepare for pulse-"
WARNING WARNING WARNING the Tzun broke in. ANOMALY DETECTED. ANOMALY DETECTED. UPLIFTED STARSHIP EXITING JUMP, REPEAT, UPLIFTED STARSHIP EXITING JUMP DOWNRANGE. Transmissions incoming, relaying-
And as the Override called the final value and I felt the indescribable changes of a Drivefield coming up around the vanes, I heard the newcomer's cheerful transmission: "Hi boys! Flyer here, and boy, have you guys gotten yourselves into the thick of it this time, huh?"
The world went fractured, and then went out.
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