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5.

For fighter pilots, the lumbering acceleration of the Ngugma super-hauler was agonizing. They were used to increasing their speed by a kilometer per second every second; it could just about manage a tenth of that. The fact that this was still about twice the gee force that bodies could stand testified to the universal invention of the acceleration buffer. They played, they slept, they ate, they played, they slept, they ate, and still it was shambling toward light speed.

Then, at about 95% of the speed of light, the Errhatzky informed Park of an interesting phenomenon.

“Gilbert,” called Park, interrupting Clay in the middle of simulating himself flying a Fyaa fighter against Skzyyn in a Ghost. “May I have a word?”

Fifteen seconds later, Clay, Rachel, Skzyyn and Dzvezyets formed up around Park in the bay. “Well,” said Park, “we seem to be accelerating faster as we approach the speed of light.”

They all stared at her, Fyaa included. “That’s not supposed to happen,” said Rachel.

“Is the drive system running high?” asked Clay.

“Perhaps it is the Ngugma,” squeaked Skzyyn, “attempting to harm us?”

“The Errhatzky,” said Park, “say the drive system is running normally. It appears to them to be acting exactly as their own cruisers or fighters would act, approaching 100%.” She turned her glare on Clay. “Perhaps you should take the con, Pilot.”

“What?” He took a moment, then smirked and said, “Okay, sure. The Spice must flow, right?” He looked around. “Rachel? No one here read Dune?”

“No one here read Dune,” said Rachel, “whatever Dune is.”

“All right. Fine. Let’s go.” He waved a hand, and Park led him and the others back into the cavernous storeroom. “I’m not in charge yet, am I?”

“No, no,” said Park, “the Ngugma still have control, but whatever this machine is doing, I think we’ll want to know.”

“And I’m the pilot.”

“You are the pilot,” said Natasha. “The Spice must flow.”

“You? Really?” She just smirked—the official facial expression of Alpha Wing, forsooth—stepped out of the way and gestured toward the open panel. Two Errhatzky and the two other Tskelly stood around and on it. Clay slithered between them and into his seat. “Really could use some decent cushions,” he said.

“But the gravity is like point one percent,” said Natasha.

Clay shrugged. He pulled on the headset the Errhatzky had made for him, which included a visor: it was a sort of replacement helmet, while his own Ghost-adapted helmet hung loose behind his head. He sat there taking it all in, feeling the eyes of everyone else on him, human and otherwise.

“Well,” he said, “we are definitely accelerating faster. The third derivative is positive.” He poked a few things. It all worked, though not the way humans would have made it work. The earlier simulations might have been oversimplified, but they’d got him used to the way Errhatzky did things. He pulled up two different charts: they were good at charts. “We’re already at 97.2%. The hundredths place is changing fast enough to see. And it’s all going faster. This can’t go on.” He pushed a few things. “We’ll hit a wall.”

“Or we’ll prove Einstein was wrong,” said Rachel.

“Mr. Gilbert,” said Park, “everyone, really. Three things might be happening. One, this is how they normally fly and it’s all normal. Two, something’s gone wrong and we should do something about it. Or three, this is another form of attack, as if the ship is running a fever to kill off its germs. I don’t think it could be three, but one and two both seem plausible, and they carry very different suggested courses of action. So?”

They duly thought for half a minute. Clay didn’t know about anyone else, but his thoughts just went around in a circle a couple of times. Presently Rachel said, “I think it’s one. If it’s two, we won’t know yet for a little while at least, but there really isn’t much we can expect to do. I mean, you’re probably suggesting, uh, Commander, that we might have to take control early. But I don’t see how that would help. We would have much less chance of figuring out how to solve the problem than the Ngugma would.”

“You’re right, Commander,” said Park. “Gilbert, Skzyyn, let us know when we crest 99%.”

Clay assured her that he would, and then settled in for a long wait: even with the increased acceleration, even with the “positive third derivative,” he figured it would be an hour and a half. But the monstrous ship’s suddenly monstrous acceleration grew ever more monstrous. In twenty minutes, he was telling Rachel to get Park.

But of course no one, not even Park, knew what the heck to do. 99.1%, 99.2%, 99.3%. “What exactly will happen,” asked Vera, “if we were to hit 100%?”

“Or go over?” asked Vera. “Maybe we should at least think about bailing.”

They looked at Park, except for Clay, who kept looking at charts. Then they all looked at Clay. After a minute, Park said, “No. No, it’d be too dangerous. At that point, we would still be more likely to survive if we stayed, I think.”

“Besides,” said Rachel, “Einstein is not going to be proved wrong. Not by these buttholes.”

“And we’re at 99.5%,” said Clay.

So they stood around watching Clay watch things on his visor. Around him, three or four Errhatzky scurried about on tasks of their own. One of them hopped in his lap and pawed at him. “What’s up?” said Clay.

“Steel don’t know,” said the critter. “But ees slowing down again, no, not slowing down, but thee acceleration ees less.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” said Clay. “Yeah, I see what you mean. Commander Park. We’re at 99.9999%. But that’s not the news.”

“All right,” said Park, “what is the news?”

“We stopped accelerating?” said Rachel.

“No, we’re accelerating, but not very much. This graph suggests we’ll top out at 99.9999999%, that’s seven nines after the decimal, for a total of, you know, nine nines. That is way closer to light speed than we ever got, and we saw some scary things. But that’s where we’ll top out.”

“Scary things,” said Park.

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “Like I’m looking at those cameras you guys put in outside on the walkway. You know what I’m seeing?”

“God?” said Vera.

“I don’t know,” said Clay, “Yog-Sothoth maybe?”

“No,” said Natasha. “Mouthholes.”

 

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