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from Homeward by Night, the second of the Bluehorse trilogy


3.

Floating naked in their combined Ghost, Rachel and Clay played five games of Set, and the result was three wins for Rachel and two for Clay. The mouthholes were still extant in the system. They simulated a bit, and again Rachel had a slight edge: he hoped she was never so mad at him that she started actually physically shooting at his actual physical Ghost. The last fight was so thrilling that Rachel followed her destruction of his simulated craft by easily overcoming his meager defenses and taking what she wanted from him, not in simulation but in very real life. They napped, woke up and had a little food, smooched, made aimless love, exercised a little, replotted their navigation to Gliese 581, and took another in-depth look at the Holey System.

There were still mouthholes coming and going, including a tetrad departing on a path that would take them within twenty million kilometers of Clay and Rachel as the Ghosts scooted along quietly under passive countermeasures. Rachel talked Clay into a few games of speed chess, and beat him ten games to none. Then they resorted to regular chess, and in six hours he managed to take one of four with one draw.

By and by they were up to 20% of light speed and at least 200 million kilometers from the nearest identified mouthhole. Rachel gave up trying to mate Clay on the board, king and rook to king and bishop, and went for the mate in real space. Then they lay in each other’s arms in the dark, dozed off, woke up a few hours later at 22% and 400 million kilometers from any known spherical beastie.

“Are we good to go?” Clay asked.

“I stinkin’ hope so,” said Rachel. She kissed him, then started ordering his Ghost and hers to drop their PCM and slide on up to 100% acceleration, which would take them to 99.9999% of light speed in sixty hours. Clay lay back, naked, and watched. “Well,” said Rachel when she was done, “whatever shall we do with ourselves?”

“Keep an eye out for mouthholes?” he suggested. “This place seems infested.”

“Yes. Isn’t that curious.” They both spent twenty seconds watching the screens, in which the spherical beasties still seemed focused on the planet Holey-3. “Well,” she said, reaching down to her folded-up vac suit, “in a few hours we’ll be over thirty percent, and not long after that we should be completely invisible even to them. In the meantime, I think maybe I’ll let my suit clean all the man funk off me. Before you get me all man funky again.”

“Mmm. Same to you, source of all my woman funk.” He pulled his vac suit up his legs and leaned to kiss her, ogling her as she dressed.

“Clay. I love you.”

“I love you. I am yours. There is no other.” He kissed her, then shook his head. “Where are we getting married?”

“What did we decide? Top of Everest? Might be a tad frigid.”

“No doubt, especially if we’re having a naked wedding.”

“Think the Pope would do a nudie wedding? I mean, we’ll be famous.”

“Outdoor wedding, definitely,” said Clay, “on the Moon.”

“Mmm, Clay. How long till our vac suits have us all clean and I can strip you naked and get us both all dirty again?”

“Oh, I think I feel clean enough already,” said Clay.

 

So they took each other’s suits back off with a slow thoroughness, put on a 22nd Century fantasy romance, and made love some more. And that was the pattern of life for another sixty hours, as Holey blinked out behind them and the stars became weird streaks and circles and the Milky Way itself blurred and distended until they were shooting through a universe of polka dots and 4D rotations. They were setting new records again: 99.999995, 99.999998%. Two nines, a dot, and five nines. A new record, and another, and another. Closing on six nines past the dot.

And then, like going through a door, they were in a very different sort of place, or so it seemed to them and their sensors.

 

4.

“What the,” said Clay after a while.

Still they gawked. Starting on their port side and below, the realm of their sensors opened out like they were coming out of a forest and onto a frozen lake. They could see for ever and ever, but there was nothing to see. It was hard to say how they knew they weren’t just staring at a flat black wall, but they both had the distinct sensation of infinite distance. On the starboard side and above, at first, there was still the busy blur of relativistic space, with the confused photons coming to them at the speed of light even as they met them at the speed of light, while others from behind barely managed to catch up, only traveling few dozen meters per second faster relative to the rest of the universe, and yet meeting the combined fighters at the full speed of light. No wonder they were confused. But even they gave up and opened out, and then the joined Ghosts were drifting in a blackness deeper than oceans, in a cosmos of vast extent, empty of all matter or energy but that belonging to Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert and their twinned spacecraft.

“99.999999,” said Rachel in a flat voice. “Six nines past the decimal.” They still gawked side by side, naked in their familiar little space, surrounded by uninformative screens interrupted by uninformative data displays. “Um, Clay,” she said after another while, “should we cut the thrust? We’re still trying to accelerate.”

“It does seem rather gilding the lily,” said Clay in a flat voice. “Considering we’re already setting records every second. And, um, this.”

“This,” said Rachel. “I’m not going to even ask where we are. Frickin’ neutrinos are pulling over to let us pass. I mean, no wonder it looks—!”

“What the hell was that,” said Clay quietly.

“I mean, it looks weird because looks are determined by photons reflecting off things, and we’re running with the photons right now. I mean, maybe we’re finally so close to the actual speed of frickin’ light that we’re within some sort of quantum thing, you know, and so we’ve like graduated to oneness with the photons. Scary, huh? And I mean, there is this quantum thing, this one effect where a photon turns into an electron and a positron, and then back again, and it loses a little time in the process so it’s slowed down a tiny bit, so maybe we’re basically going the—!” She stopped. “What the hell was that?”

They watched what the hell that was out there for perhaps five minutes in silence. It wasn’t going on all the time: just every so often, what the hell would happen. They gradually, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, Rachel and Clay both began to get an idea about the patterns in what they were seeing. They floated there naked in their combined Ghost, coasting along at a speed with which neutrinos had to hustle to keep up, as something seemed to move over here, and something moved correspondingly over there.

Move was not quite the right word. Move implied a continuous change of position through a real-number-indexed progression of intervening positions, a continuous function from [0, 1] into the three or whatever dimensional space in which Rachel and Clay found themselves. Move implied that the rules of motion they had understood as children in Maine and Canada were more or less inviolate. Those rules were already in shreds. But rules of some sort held, and over the course of five minutes or so, Clay and Rachel began to get some idea of what those rules were, and the things they were seeing began to make sense in a way that a screen full of static did not.

Rachel cleared her throat. Clay looked at her, then back behind him, as if something were lurking or creeping or sneaking. Then, gazing off obliquely into one of the infinitely many directions of black infinity, he said, “I kind of fancy decelerating.”

“You mean pull out of light speed somewhere.”

“Yes.”

“We have no idea if there’s a star about or what,” said Rachel, non-judgmental. “Is that okay?”

“Fine with me,” said Clay.

“Me too,” said Rachel, pulling back the sliders on both her side and his to maximum deceleration.


And then they get back to Earth and that’s when the story takes a sharp turn… want a copy? Email me at

paulgies@maine.edu

 

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