Previous - Next
Interrupt spun slowly, oldest trick in the infamous book, grappled tightly to a high-albedo nickel-iron asteroid. The horizon of our little worldlet was perhaps fifteen meters distant. Sitting in one of the control stations of the dropcraft, I minded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and wished idly for a besom to dust it clean.
"They've started to board." The Override broke the silence. "Eighteen crew for the run-up. Two pilots, already prepped and encapsulated."
"Thanks." I turned from the section of armor that was doing a stellar job of impersonating a window. "Show me."
The air in the middle of the control space flickered, went opaque for a moment and then reformed into a shape that looked like nothing so much as an ancient ship's wheel. Two concentric tori with spokes connecting them to a cylindrical hub spun slowly against a backdrop of stars. Off the edges of the wheel, from this angle, the angular and blocky shapes of insystem pushercraft looked remarkably like the knobs one would expect to find. The Override highlighted one of the knobs; larger than the others, it was roughly cylindrical with all manner of flat planes protruding from it at one end. "This is the ship."
"Big, isn't she."
"Yes. Scan indicates over two hundred meters in length."
I stood, moved to the silent image, and cupped one hand around the softly glowing ship. "Those flat things...?"
"Those are a very close match for original Diaspora hyperstate induction vanes."
"So they don't have a state tap."
"It is unlikely," said the Override from its nest somewhere inside the Interrupt's logic frames. "Although it is possible that they are powering the system from a scalar tap such as the one that powers the Interrupt, it is more likely that they are using the same pinched fusion reaction which powers their maneuvering drive."
"How long until they go?"
"Their current countdown indicates nine thousand, four hundred and twenty one seconds until they detach from station. There are several decision points after that, but if all goes well they should begin boosting one hour and fifteen minutes after undock."
I moved back to the station chair, sat down. "Okay. See if you can get our correspondent on the line."
"Acknowledged. We are too distant for a realtime link using radiofrequency communications, which is all that we have detected here. Delay time will be approximately twenty-one minutes."
"Okay. I'll go wake up the Tzun." I stood again and walked out of the control cabin towards the living area, my bunk, and the sentient hand weapon that was probably listening to everything that was happening anyway.
We gathered in the dropcraft's lounge to watch the launch. The holofield covered the entire middle space of the room, which itself was quite large for a spacecraft. A countdown clock helpfully inserted by the Override in the upper corner was ticking down past four hundred seconds. The Override was running the show, while the Tzun and I watched. Interrupt's autonomous systems, below sentience level, hadn't been invited.
"Override, can you give me a local view of the ship, please." I swiveled my chair slightly, and the Override obligingly rezzed a local holo above my right chair arm. The view was tightly focused on an angular shape attached to the edge of the slowly rotating station torus. It zoomed in a bit further as the field came up. "Thanks. Have they named this thing?"
"It has a designation number, not a name. It is Hyperframe Induction Test Vehicle 4," answered the Override.
"With that awful mouthful hung on it, it would probably be less embarrassing if it did blow," said the Tzun.
I shrugged. "They've lost six unmanned and two manned ships trying to get this thing to work. Perhaps they think a naming ceremony would be inauspicious."
"Perhaps they would be better off not bothering to muck around with hyperflight when they're not equipped to do it properly," sniffed the Tzun.
"That's the point, isn't it?" I asked. "They apparently don't agree with you. And, for that matter, neither do I."
"I can't help it if you're all wrong," said the gun shortly.
"Three hundred seconds," said the Override.
I poked the smaller picture near my chair. "The vanes are these angular things at the back, you said?"
The Override highlighted the area I was poking and transferred the image to the main holofield. The nameless ship hulked across our central cabin. "Those are the hyperstate induction vanes," it said. "They are placed at angles to the vessel's direction of thrust corresponding to a full Statefield induction cage."
"But they can't be running a vector tap. That's the point." I poked one of the vanes. "So this isn't a tap, really?"
"No. My analysis of sensor readings suggests that this vessel is powered by microfusion. I detect none of the characteristic frame warping which indicates an active state tap, either scalar or vector."
"They're really going to try to do it all themselves," I said quietly. "The Uplifted haven't a reason to interfere."
The Tzun vibrated once, indicating annoyance. "All they would have to do is ask for transport."
"On your terms," I responded. "I don't think they're interested in your approval. Just for your type not to interfere."
"Why would we bother?" asked the gun.
"Same reason you always have," I replied. "Starflight is the province of the Uplifted. There is no human-controlled starflight, and every time there has been since the original Ramp, the Uplifted have either coopted or disrupted it."
The Tzun was silent for a bit. The Override filled the silence. "There's always a first time. The lack of a tap means that there will be no physical signature of the test for the Uplifted to detect until they cycle the vanes. At that point, the question will be moot, if they survive." It paused. "One hundred and fifty seconds."
I picked up the Tzun. "Have you heard from our correspondent?"
"Not recently," said the gun. "I received a brief transmission when we sent out our greeting, acknowledging, but nothing since then. I'm quite sure he's still aboard the station, however."
"Tell him that either way, we're coming in after this test."
"Acknowledged," said the Override. "One hundred seconds."
We waited, quietly. At ten seconds, there was a glare of floodlights around the front end of the test vessel, still linked to the station rim. At five seconds, a brief cloud of dispersing vapor around the ship indicated a cold-gas thruster test.
On the mark, the ship moved backwards and sideways slowly from the station, its momentum carrying it away from the rim. "Detached," said the Override. There was a quick flare of blue light from the main drive gate at the rear; the ship slowed to a halt relative to the station, rotated to point its nose away from the torus, on the same plane, and then began to move outward. "They are in count for power-up," said the Override. I found myself leaning forward in my chair, waiting and watching as a crew of humans, brave to the point of foolishness, prepared to do battle with physics.
The ship moved rapidly away from the station, through a region cleared of traffic, heading away from the system ecliptic. When it was several thousand klicks out, the main drive gate flared into harder UV and it began to recede rapidly. "They're on mains. Estimating two thousand seconds to first pulse."
I played some desultory chess with the Override while waiting. It did not warn me of anything significant happening until just before scheduled powerup, when it shrank our chessfield and brought up a new image of the test vessel. The image was noticeably grainy as the distances involved approached the limits of the Interrupt's onboard optics. "First pulse in twenty seconds."
I tapped the Tzun on the butt. It vibrated once in response. "I'm watching, I'm watching," it added.
"Ten seconds," continued the Override. The Mains sank to a dim glow on the image in the field. "They're performing what looks like a state vector freeze; minimizing inputs for the pulse. And..."
There was a flare of indescribable color and the starfield swirled crazily in the imaging field as the sensors tried to relocate the test vessel, and failed. The image switched to a standard traffic schematic of the inner starsystem. A pulsing red cross indicated its last known position, then even as I watched switched to green and began visibly inching out towards the perimeter. I stood up. "Did they make it?"
"The acceleration pulse appears to have been successful. Frame distortion and subsequent tracking information shows a jump to zero-point-one-four c. If they stay on profile, second pulse should occur within three hundred seconds as they are now clear of insystem traffic. I am assuming they are using a pre-swept trajectory."
Moving over to one of the two flight couches, I hit the restraint field. "Ungrapple us and get ready to move."
The Tzun's voice came from the lounge area. "You're just going to leave me on a chair, aren't you."
I didn't turn around. "You're so fond of telling me you know what's going on no matter where you are, I didn't see any reason to bring you."
"Typical," it said. The familiar banter was soothing, although I refused to believe that was the Tzun's intent.
The Override blinked the green cross back to red. "Second pulse. Current velocity with respect to system origin is now zero-point-three-two c, still outbound. Vector change purely quantitative, no course deviation. Third pulse, if it occurs, will likely occur within two hundred seconds. Alternatively, they may elect to skip a third boost pulse and engage main Jump. Continuing to observe."
I started tapping controls. I didn't have to, but living with two of the Uplifted (for all intents and purposes) made me jealous of those tasks I could perform. "Bring Interrupt up, ungrapple and back off half a klick and give me the conn."
"Acknowledged," said the Override. "Ungrappling." There was a shiver and a slight, distant boom noise as Interrupt released its death-grip on the tumbling rock it had been attached to and began to slowly drift outwards on momentum. "Moving out to half a klick on station-keeping...hold one."
I paused, looked around at the schematic. "What?"
"Large unidentified transient from their last known position. Analyzing."
I sucked in a breath. "Show me."
The field switched to a starfield. A bright point of light at the center vibrated slightly, indicating the efforts of the stabilization system to hold it in view. Then-
"Oh, hell." The words came out of me in a whisper, totally involuntary, as the screen bloomed actinic white. The starfield vanished behind the glare, which went on and on for several seconds before fading down through the spectrum and cooling back below the visual range.
"Analysis indicates an energy release on the close order of total conversion of several kilograms of matter. Most likely cause is instability of the jumpfield during full-power initiation."
"They couldn't hold it."
"Apparently not," said the Override. "Traffic from the station indicates agitation and concern. They are still attempting to re-establish contact. They will not be successful."
"Okay," I said. I took a deep breath. "Bring up the drive. Contact the station, identify us as Interrupt and tell them we're inbound for docking. Request traffic control."
"What shall I tell them when they ask for more information?" asked the Override.
"Tell them we come in peace," cracked the Tzun. We both ignored it.
"Tell them we're inbound from Alison Xymal relativistic and that we're not with the Uplifted."
"Speak for yourself," muttered the Tzun.
"Transmitting," said the Override. I glanced once more at the empty space which had held the most recent human attempt at FTL starflight, shook my head, and began laying in a course to take us to the Station vicinity.
Previous - Next