Chapter 6: Wherever we’re going

VI. Wherever we’re going

 

1.

There were several little meetings, in that cavernous bay aboard that Manhattan-sized freighter, ostensibly flown by furry starfish-shaped aliens who had, in fact, murderously depopulated Manhattan and the rest of Earth. None of the furry aliens was invited.

First, Vera Santos, Natasha Kleiner, Padfoot, and Su Park confabbed with three Errhatzky and one of the Tskelly. They went about their business for a few minutes, while the gigantic freighter accelerated from 17% toward 18% of light speed. The Errhatzky named Hhmvyvya came out of the panel-work after some minutes and had another little conference with Vera, Natasha and Skzyyn.

Park, Clay, Rachel, Anand Ree and Skzyyn and Dzvezyets got in their fighters in the outer bay and simulated. The Fyaa at least pretended to learn Parkian discipline; Clay worked hard to not take on some of the Tskelly attitude toward risk. Natasha and Vera came out and updated them on the situation. Park gave encouragement and suggestions, but managed to hold herself back from micromanaging.

Vera and Tasha went back to work on the plan, as did Dzvezyets, who seemed to be getting on particularly well with Tasha. Skzyyn, hanging on Clay’s arm, said, “Clay Gilbert, Clay Gilbert, maybe you would like—!”

“Mr. Gilbert,” said Park, “would you and your friend like to make a very quick recon?”

“In our fighters?” asked Clay.

“I was thinking just your vac suits,” said Park. She held out her hand: in it were three little gadgets. “Just step outside and have a look around you, and place a few of these cameras our Fyaa friends brought. I think Mr. Ree and Ms. Andros and I might simulate a bit more. You may join us when you come back in.”

“Commander,” said Clay, “perhaps when we come back in, I could rest up a bit?”

“Of course,” said Park. “You must be so worn out. In any case, perhaps you should get in some rest time, in case the plan includes a particularly important role for you.”

He did a double take, which amused both Park and Skzyyn. He laughed and said, “Do you mean it does? I mean, important role? That sounds, um, important.”

“Go, have a look out there, when you come back and get some much needed rest and relaxation, we can talk about important roles.”

So Clay and the little Fyaa pilot, sealed up their vac suits and headed out through a side airlock for personnel. In seconds they were outside, Clay’s boots gripping the metallic hull, Skzyyn hooked by a short lead to Clay’s shoulder. The vast bulk of the freighter extended before them, and the stars, slightly blurry already with relativistic speed, covered the black sky in a silvery haze. There was no sign of any other spacecraft: without magnification, the accompanying Ngugma cruisers and the distant, pursuing human-Fyaa-Primoid fleet were far too tiny to be seen.

“Su Park is definitely a commander,” said Skzyyn in Clay’s helmet.

“You have one like that in your fleet?” asked Clay, as he tried to fix one of the cameras to the top of the mesh. It has a field of view that covered somewhat more than half a sphere, facing up and back. “One like Park?””

“Yes. Yes, I did. I left, uh, that one, uh, it? Clay Gilbert, this he-she-it distinction.”

“You don’t have genders.”

“Only some of the time,” said Skzyyn. “It’s, well, it’s complicated.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Clay. “That look good?”

“I will fix it,” said Skzyyn, hopping up onto the inside of the top of the mesh walkway and finagling the camera into place. “See? It attaches there and there. See?”

“I see,” said Clay, admiring what amounted to somewhere between a magnet, an alligator clip and a bit of Velcro. “I’ll tell you, gender is complicated for us humans, and we always have the same gender. So, your version of Commander Park.”

“My Commander Park is named Graeeghhaer, that would be a Kaahriig,” said Skzyyn. “The commander of fighters at, at what you call PSB6. And she, he, no, that one is a she, she is now far behind and I will never see her again.”

“Sorry? About not seeing her again?”

“No, not that one. Not that one. But this Park. I like, uh, her.”

They hung there on the skin of the gigantic hauler, as space flew by faster and faster around them, as the unmoving stars blurred just a little. They looked all around, down the hexagonal walkway, left and right around the vast curve of the freighter, and then Clay said, “Climb up onto the top of the forward section? That might be the place for these two cameras.”

“Certainly,” said Skzyyn.

Clay climbed up an extension of the mesh walkway, onto the top of the front section, and then climbed out onto the outside of the mesh, and up onto the top of that. Skzyyn climbed up next to him. Clay handed Skzyyn one of the two remaining cameras, and without any words in any language, they fixed the cameras so they covered opposite half-spheres of space.

Then Clay sat down on the mesh cross-legged, and snapped a magnet on his suit onto the mesh. Skzyyn gave itself some more lead and crawled a few meters up the mesh. They sat there, near each other, watching all that nothing as it slowly went by at 25% of light speed.

“Skzyyn,” said Clay, “you grew up on Fyatskaab?”

“I did,” said Skzyyn. “Most of us did. The colonies are nothing compared to Fyatskaab.”

“Was it beautiful?”

There was a pause. Skzyyn said what must have been several verses of a poem, or lines from a famous speech, in the Fyaa lingua franca. It made a noise that was not its laugh. After another silence, Skzyyn said, “The world was very beautiful. Clay, ah, Clay, one cannot express these things.” It sort of shook itself. It said, “Your world, your Earth, it was beautiful?”

Clay thought of Arthur Dent talking about those rolling blue oceans, and Marvin the Android saying he hated oceans. Clay thought of oceans. He thought of stormy oceans, sunny oceans, powerful oceans, oceans full of whales and watched over by albatross. And oceans with Ngugma freight shuttles rising up out of them. “Yeah,” he said, “it was very beautiful. Oceans. You understand oceans?”

“Fyssyh, Fyatskaab-1 you would call it, where I was born, it had oceans, most of it was ocean. The Ngugma simply dropped to the bottom, mined and came back out. Our other planet, Zyshe’ye, had only small oceans, it had mountain ranges long and high, it was quite beautiful.”

“Mountains,” said Clay. “Rivers. Deserts. Islands. Forests, oh, yeah. Forests.”

“Forests? Is this a place with many tall plants?” asked Skzyyn.

“Yeah,” said Clay. “My homeland, it’s called Maine, it’s covered with forests, lakes, mountains, it has long rocky coasts, cliffs, thousands of islands.”

“I think it must be beautiful like Fyssyh. Very beautiful. But,” Skzyyn went on, “but then, we Fyaa did things we should not have done. We were trying to destroy these Kleegrg, these Primoids. We sub-joog-gated.”

“Subjugated.”

“We subjugated. We subjugated the Hyai, that’s what we call them, on Hyastyaz, we subjugated the Vyni, they did not ever fly in space so we subjugated them, we occupy Vynyatz, we take their precious metals. We subjugated others to take their worlds, because they lived too close to Fyatskaab. We subjugated, but we did not destroy all life. Yet you can see how one is just the other only more. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Actually I can. Rachel and I went back to Earth, to our home world, to let them know the colony at Bluehorse had been founded, and that’s when we found out about Ngugma. And we had a sort of argument about whether what humans had done to one another was like what the Ngugma had done to us. And of course we did not, nothing we did excuses the Ngugma destroying two hundred million humans. But, still, yeah. We never got around to subjugating aliens on other planets, but we subjugated the heck out of each other. People killed off whole populations of other people just to steal their stuff. The Ngugma are much like us. Like you, the Fyaa, are much like us. I think it’s the, uh, Kleegrg who are different.”

“I like them,” said Skzyyn. “It is, ironic? It is ironic that I used to try to kill them. Is that what it means to be ironic?”

“Oh, who the heck knows,” said Clay. He laughed. “I used to try and kill them. I killed a few. I killed a few Fyaa too, a few of you Tskelly. Now I’m kind of sorry. I like you.”

“Perhaps you like Skzyyn, and I like Clay Gilbert, and all the others are horrible.”

“Do you think that’s true? I like Dzvezyets pretty well.”

“Dzvezyets is a fine fellow. No, Clay, I do not think it’s true, because I like all of you I have met. I think you are all good. I think that when we meet in our suits, in our fighters, we hate each other, and when we meet to our eyes, our faces, it’s different.”

They sat there for a minute longer. “Well,” said Clay, “shall we?”

“I see no enemy out here,” said Skzyyn. “Do you have more of that smoke?”

Clay laughed. “Of course I do,” said Clay.

So they climbed down again, and just outside the personnel airlock, they stopped and surveyed the grandeur of space. Clay wanted to take big breaths of grandeur, except that there wasn’t any air out there. And then something shot past, low, perhaps ten meters above them.

“What the—?” said Clay. Skzyyn said, “Fyevya! Holy sheet!”

They looked at each other: Skzyyn was hanging onto Clay’s arm with its back four legs. “That was a sarzyrk,” said Skzyyn.

“A mouthhole,” said Clay. “Great.” They watched the space where it had been, but it had shot past seconds ago and could not be seen, and no more followed it.

 

2.

Clay and his Tskelly friend went back inside and announced the presence of at least one mouthhole to Park.

“Sarzyk,” said Dzvezyets, over by the open console, and an Errhatzky nearby just made what was obviously a disgusted gesture.

“Well,” said Park, “clearly it was too much to hope that they didn’t live in this neighborhood. It didn’t seem interested in biting?”

“No, it seemed interested in flying,” said Clay.

“I worry about the rest of the fleet,” said Park, “but I suppose they can take care of themselves. There was only one?”

“Only one, Commander,” said Skzyyn. “We too know of these.”

“Do you.” She sighed. “All right. I must go manage a bit. Andros, Ree, Mr. Dzvezyets, you may stand down, everyone needs a rest.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Rachel, who sidled up to Clay and had a smooch.

Park went into the inner chamber where all the action was, and Dzvezyets turned to Rachel. “Excuse,” it said, “but what is means ‘Mister’?”

“Never mind that,” said Clay. “Term of endearment.” He held out a smoking tube from his Ghost. “Here, Mr. D, you guys have lungs, right? Try some of this stuff.”

 

Relax, and rest, and sleep, and wake to another meeting: this one took in every non-Ngugma aboard the freighter. They sat around inside the bay control room, with Padfoot and one of the Errhatzky who wasn’t Hhmvyvya by the opened-up console keeping an eye on status. Coffee was shared about among the humans, the Tskelly and the Errhatzky. It had come a long way from Ethiopia, it was synthesized coffee with synthesized cream, but it was still coffee.

“Friends,” said Park, “Ms. Kleiner and Mr. Hhm, Mr. H, need to update us on the situation, and then I need to assign some roles.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Natasha, standing up and floating a little off the ground, her frizzy hair gathering around her head. Hhmvyvya, its frog-head poking up out of its six-limbed vac suit, climbed up onto what seemed to be floor cleaning equipment to stand beside her. She looked at her Errhatzky companion.

“We theenk,” said Hhmvyvya in a voice that was both squeaky and raspy, “that we have isooo-lated these chamber from thee rest of thee sheep. Een that when thee Ngugma attempt to destroy us, we theenk that they cannot. But.”

“But we don’t know every way they might try to do that,” said Natasha. “They’re clever. They’ve already tried shutting down our oxygen, shutting off our heat, turning our heat up. They’ve tried several times to send attackers. They’ve tried to put things in the air.”

“We stopped all these, obviously,” said Rachel. “Well, you stopped all these.”

“What sort of things are we talking about?” asked Vera. “Poisons? Organisms?”

“Yeah,” said Clay, “we’re not talking about the pathogens from Earth, are we?”

“Pathogen, organeeesm,” said Hhmvyvya, looking at Natasha.

“We haven’t seen them do that,” said Natasha. “There’s too many different species here, anyway. They don’t even have anything that will kill off Tskelly or Errhatzky, except poisons, which they’ve tried, and radiation, which they probably won’t try till they think nothing else will work.”

“It’s like stopping cancer,” said Park. “You have to kill the cancer but not kill yourself. But they’ll keep trying.”

What is cancer?” Skzyyn whispered to Clay.

“Cells of your body grow uncontrollably and kill you,” said Clay. “Happened to my dad.”

Okay, I know this cancer thing. What is dad?”

Clay settled for smirking at him. He looked back at Park just in time.

“So as you can see,” she was saying, “it requires constant vigilance, and we have people maintaining just that.” She smiled behind her at Padfoot and her Errhatzky friend. Then she looked at Clay. “So,” she said, holding his eyes, “we’re stopping anything they try, but we’re looking for them to try something in particular.”

“And that would be?” asked Clay, still not sure why this was about him.

“Narrow beam radiation,” she said. “A charge of radioactive particles aimed just at this small part of the ship. Their problem is that they obviously don’t have a system set up to fire radiation just at one particular maintenance bay, but they can work around that, and in fact they have, by using robots to set up generators and aim them just right. Obviously they can’t simply set off astatine bombs or whatever, because Ngugma are just as susceptible to radiation as we are.”

“We all are, right?” said Clay. “Are we all carbon-based? I take it the answer is yes.”

Park and Natasha looked at Hhmvyvya, who did a sort of Errhatzky shrug. “Allow me to answer,” squeaked Skzyyn. “I do not know exactly what carbon based is but yes, we are all, Tskelly, Errhatzky, even Kleegrg, Primoids, even Ngugma, I think, we are all mostly carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and, of course, water. We breathe oxygen, as you do. Potassum, Potassium. Phosphorum, is that one?”

“Phosphorus,” said Rachel.

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “We’re pretty much all made of the same elements, we all have cells, and yeah, we’re all badly affected by radiation. So: they gave us one shot of that, and the Errhatzky stopped it before it happened. So they know it didn’t happen, they know the narrow beam never activated. All they have to do is figure out how we kept it from activating, and they can work around what we did.”

“But,” said Vera.

“But next time,” said Park, “we need to make them think it worked. When they try again, and we think this is the thing they are most likely to try, we need to mask our biological signatures and at the exact same moment stop the radiation, block it somehow.”

“Commander,” said Padfoot, looking over her shoulder, “we have that one covered, we think. We think we can mask our signatures. And we think we know how to stop their next narrow-beam radiation attack.”

“You think?”

“We’re pretty sure.”

“All right,” said Park, “there are no guarantees in a situation like this, it’s terribly annoying. But let us assume we get to that point. Then what do we do? Well, we obtain control of the ship’s engines and navigation, and even as we do that, we let them continue to run the controls, because we don’t want them to know we’re in charge until we get wherever we’re going.”

“So,” said Clay, “we stop them killing us but make sure they think they killed us, and we wrest control from them but make sure they think we didn’t wrest control.”

“Well put, Mr. Gilbert. And once we get wherever we are going, and we are in control of their ship, what do we need to have?”

She glared at him for some seconds, and suddenly it occurred to him to say, “Someone to take over for their pilots.”

“And that,” said Park, “would be you.”

“What? Why me?”

Park smiled and looked around. “You flew lunar freight shuttles. That’s the closest we have to experience flying an Ngugma super-freighter.”

“But,” he started, and then stopped.

“Face it, Clay,” said Anand Ree, “you are the man.”

 

3.

They discussed some possibilities, then they simulated a bit and played some chess. Skzyyn wanted to learn chess and learn chess it did, but even Clay could beat it, even letting it take back moves. At least Mr. S wasn’t perturbed by its losses. Half an hour of that, and Skzyyn was ready to take a nap.

“Do all sentient life forms sleep?” asked Clay as he and his wing plus Skzyyn and Ree stood in the bay.

“Primoids do,” said Natasha. “They sleep four hours out of every forty, or something like that.”

“All the Fyaa species do,” said Skzyyn. “Tskelly sleep one period for every three awake. We can stay awake for a very long time, and then we sleep one third as long, and all is good.”

“I understand that dolphin brains sleep one half at a time,” said Vera, “but they have to keep swimming.”

“I don’t think Park sleeps at all,” said Natasha. “Hey Ree, does Park sleep?”

“Hmm? What?” said Anand Ree, who was cat-napping. They looked around, all of them including Skzyyn, but Park did not burst from the inner room to tell them she slept one hour out of every twelve.

“And now is when I must sleep,” said Skzyyn. It popped open the hatch of its little tube of a fighter, zipped in, stretched out, and shut the world out.

Rachel punched Clay in the shoulder. “Come on out for a stroll, hunkalicious,” she said.

They exited through the side airlock. The freighter was up to 28%, and the universe had almost blurred past recognition. The stars were even at this speed all but standing still relative to the freighter, but all those photons which had to be moving at the speed of light relative to fixed positions also had to be moving at the speed of light relative to the ship and had become understandably confused. Here outside, without the intermediate rendering of the computers, the effect was undiluted, undisguised. So, surrounded by streaks and ellipses and very oddly shaped points of light, Rachel Andros and her husband strolled down the mesh walkway a few hundred meters and then lay side by side on the hull of the freighter.

“Rachel,” said Clay, “what’s bothering you?”

“Clay,” said Rachel, “you are Mr. Perceptive today.”

“So?”

She rolled to face him. They looked at each other, their faces separated by twenty centimeters and the visors of two helmets. “Clay. Why do we trust the Fyaa?”

“What?”

“Why. Do we trust. The Fyaa?”

“Well,” said Clay. He paused. “You think we shouldn’t?”

“I’m just wondering why we do. Why you do. You trust Skzyyn, right? You trust him? It?”

Clay thought a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “I trust it. I trust Skzyyn. Not as much as I trust you or Park or Tasha or Vera. But yeah.”

“As much as Padfoot?”

“No. But not far behind.”

She gave him that blank glare of hers, which was unaffected by the two visors, the vacuum of space between them, or their relativistic speed, or even the fact that they were clinging onto the outside of the hull of a spaceship the size of Manhattan traveling from the home system of an alien civilization to a system controlled, presumably, by another alien civilization, which happened to have destroyed all human life on Earth.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “why?” He didn’t answer for a few moments, so she softened her face and said, “I just want to know how we decide these things. I mean, I’m not being a, what you call it, human chauvinist, but with other humans, I know what to look for. I don’t know what to look for with a, um, Tskelly. We didn’t know what to look for with Ngugma, and we trusted them, and look how that worked out. So. You know?”

He smiled. “I do know. That I don’t know. I know I don’t know.” He looked around at space, then back at her. “I know, for example, that we know humans so very well that humans are the best ever at deceiving and cheating other humans. But before you ask, yeah, I can’t read Skzyyn’s face, I can’t get those intuitive clues, but it’s like my cat that I had for a while, after a while I could read her expressions even though she didn’t have expressions in the same sense that you or I do. You know what I mean?”

“I thought the Primoids were the cat-like ones. They can’t talk, only meow.”

“Okay, well, you trust Skippy? You trust the Primoids?”

“I guess I do,” said Rachel. “They’ve proven trustworthy. The Fyaa haven’t really done that just yet.”

“So you don’t trust them?” asked Clay.

“That’s not fair, I asked you first.”

“I said. Now you say.”

She gave him a twisted grin, then shrugged and said, “Yes. Yes, I guess I trust them.”

“And Skzyyn?”

“Especially Skzyyn,” she said. “But why?”

“Because Skzyyn is a mensch.”

“How is he a mensch? It, I mean. It is a viciously recklessly ruthless fighter pilot of an alien race that was in a brutal multi-front war with our allies the Primoids.”

“Who we were at war with, and now those cute furry starfish who ruthlessly attacked Earth are also laying waste to the Fyaa home worlds, et cetera et cetera. But Rachel. Skzyyn is a mensch. That’s just a fact.” They looked at the blurry entrails of the galaxy. “You have to trust someone.”

“You do,” she said. “And at some point, it’s just you and me, and there, I have no doubt whatever, but just now, we need the Fyaa and they need us, and, okay. He’s, it’s a mensch.” They gazed up some more. “So I guess that’s my answer. Um, Clay. Why is Skzyyn an it? Do they or don’t they have gender?”

“Skzyyn said they have gender ‘sometimes.’ I don’t know what it means, but there it is.”

“Okay.” They lay another minute. Then suddenly she got up and said, “Thank Goddess we have gender. Viva gender. Come, Clay Babe, let’s check out those gender differences, shall we?”

They went back inside, and just as they closed the inner airlock, Vera came running out of the storeroom. She grabbed them and threw them against the inner wall of the bay.

After ten seconds, they all heard a soft alarm in their helmets. Vera let them go. “Vera,” said Rachel, “what the heck was that?”

“Since we’re still alive,” said Vera, “that was our plan working.”

 

4.

“So why the frick didn’t you tell us?” inquired Rachel, thirty seconds later when they were in the cavernous storeroom. Everyone, seven humans and three Tskelly and four Errhatzky, stood or sat around the panel, which had been closed.

“It happened way too fast,” said Natasha.

“We couldn’t use comm,” said Park. “You would realize that.”

“I would,” said Rachel. She looked at Clay.

“Yeah,” said Clay, “because we came pretty close to being fried. Where’s our vow then?”

“Clay,” said Natasha, “no offense, but the big news isn’t that you guys didn’t die. The big news isn’t that we are under total silence right now and for all the time till we have to show our cards. The big news is that they tried to kill us, Errhatzky got their blocking beam up in time, every one of us in this room took 0.01% of our lifetime dose of radiation, and the rest was neutralized. And the Ngugma? They think we’re dead.”

“What if they send someone?” asked Clay.

“They won’t. Hhmvyvya has this place emitting like it’s still hot.”

Clay and Rachel looked at each other, then cocked their heads at Natasha. Vera said, “The place would not normally take on a bunch of radiation like that. But they have these little radioisotope batteries, you see, just like we do. They use curium: they power their smaller craft with them. They keep racks of them up here, you saw them.”

“Those are radioisotope batteries?” said Clay. “Those bagel things?”

“Yep. Your pal Skzyyn said, if we got hit with radiation, those things would start emitting. The tube they’re stored in isn’t insulated. They should emit a lot of radiation, it should have really doped them up. But they’re not, fortunately. But Hhmvyvya has the Ngugma picking up radiation.”

“Upshot,” said Park, “they think us deceased, and they can’t check.”

“How did they do this?” asked Rachel. “How did they blast us and how did our side stop it? This happened pretty fast.”

“They almost got the jump on us,” said Natasha. “We’re looking at readouts, and Ree sort of goes ‘Aha!’ And at the same moment, two of the Errhatzky start chattering and running around in there. They’d spotted robots moving through the tube-work, but they weren’t mechanic robots, they were literally motorized radiation emitters. They were moving into position, and for all we knew they’d be ready in seconds.”

“Which is exactly what happened,” said Park. “Ree spotted two of them positioning themselves.”

“They were not moving like mechanic bots, putting machines into position,” said Anand Ree. “They were moving like they were the machines being put in position.”

“And we?” asked Rachel.

“We have robots of our own,” said Skzyyn. “Of course I knew nothing of this, Dzvezyets knew nothing, but our Errhatzky friends, may we never underestimate them, knew their affairs.”

Clay and Rachel looked at each other, then sighed. “Okey dokey,” said Clay, “so what next?”

“What next,” said Park, “is that you come try out the pilot seat we set up for you, and do a little simulating.”

 

The pilot seat was basically a padded space just inside the open panel. The controls were complicated, but he could only imagine how complicated the real controls were. He said so, after simulating a whole bunch of Ngugma freighter dockings and Ngugma freighter accelerations and decelerations and turns. There wasn’t a lot of maneuvering a vessel this size could do, but he did it, five times, with Rachel and Park and Skzyyn and Hhmvyvya watching. After an hour of this, he climbed out and stretched. “We’re up to 36%,” he said. “Are the real controls I’m going to be using this simple?” He looked at Hhmvyvya, who was just crawling out of the panel behind him.

“Clay,” said Skzyyn, “these are the real controls.”

“Really? You already got into their control system?”

“While you were simming,” said Park. “Congratulations. All we have to do is flip the switch, and your station is steering the ship. And your wife can take over the drive system.”

“Rachel?”

“We figured this would make it easier on you, Hunkburger,” said Rachel.

“How sure is this all?”

“Do you mean, how sure are we that we’re in control?” asked Park. “We won’t be sure till we engage. But you can ask our friend here.”

“Meester Geelbert,” said the Errhatzky, “thee probabeelity ees nine nine point nine nine eight percent. More wee cannot geeve you.”

“But we won’t know for sure till we flip the proverbial switch,” said Rachel.

Clay and Rachel looked at each other. “Okay,” said Clay. “I’m feeling kinda lucky.”

 

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.”

 

6.

“What the?” said Clay. “Attacking?”

“No, just sort of following,” said Natasha. “Hundreds of them. Flying alongside, like meters above the hull. It’s definite. They’re mouthholes.”

“They’re not taking bites,” said Park. “They’re just flying along. Where did they come from?”

“No,” said Rachel, “it makes sense. It all makes sense. Clay, remember Holey? And that place between, where we dropped from light speed and there were mouthholes all around us? Oh. Remember at Alpha C, they thought the mouthholes came in the wake of the Ngugma? It all makes sense.”

“Explain it to me,” said Park, and Clay said an Amen from his seat inside the open console.

“Well, I,” Rachel started, and she rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s not like I understand anything. But look, how is it mouthholes find their way to places? Where do they come from? Where do they, you know, breed? Well, when Clay and I were setting records, coming into Holey, coming out of Holey, we hit six nines past the decimal, 99.999999%. The photons were still faster, but man, if they stopped to tie their shoes, we were passing them. We saw some strange stuff, I’ll tell you, a lot stranger than what we saw coming from Earth to 55 Cancri the first time out. So we decided to drop out of light speed and check things, and we found ourselves in a frickin’ cloud of mouthholes.”

“There were mouthholes doing all sorts of interesting things at Holey,” said Clay. “Where we first saw evidence of the Ngugma.”

“And at Alpha C,” said Rachel, “the Ngugma came through, and right behind them, like fifty hours behind, came this huge wave of mouthholes, they nearly destroyed the station.”

“The Ngugma left the station alone,” said Park.

“Yeah, but the Ngugma didn’t have anything they could gain from Alpha C. They thought, the Centaurians thought, that the Ngugma somehow induced the mouthholes to appear, and of course mouthholes love space stations. It’s like putting food out for the cat.”

“I still don’t see the hypothesis,” said Park.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “what we just learned is that the Ngugma have this weird thing they do where they super-accelerate just when you’d think they’d be slowed down by their increasing mass. So they really get up there, way closer to the wall than we ever did. Like we’re doing right now. And somehow that gets the attention of mouthholes. Maybe they live literally at light speed, or in some condition you can only get to when you’re that close to light speed. Or maybe they’re attracted by the exponentially increasing mass, in which case an Ngugma super-freighter ought to do the trick nicely. So when we were really pushing it that first time, you know, from 55 Cancri to Gliese 370, that’s when we first attracted mouthholes. When Clay and I were booking it from Holey, we attracted bunches of them. But Holey’s like the Elephants’ Graveyard for mouthholes, or something. The Ngugma stir them up and they show up all sorts of places.”

“Except Earth, for some reason,” said Clay.

“Yeah. I don’t get that.”

“Maybe,” said Natasha, “the Ngugma don’t allow them where they’re working.”

“You have anything on this?” Rachel asked Skzyyn.

“We see mouthholes,” said Skzyyn, “we call them sarzyk, we see them never at Fyatskaab, but at the colonies, and on forays. We do have a, what is the word, superstition? Hypothesis? That one should not accelerate past the Careful Point.”

“The Careful Point?” Natasha repeated.

“For you,” said Hhmvyvya, looking at a readout on one of its wrists with one of its eyes, “nine nine point nine nine nine nine nine three.”

“Five nines past the decimal,” said Clay. They looked down at him, then they all looked around at each other. Clay said, “And we are now at six nines past the decimal, and a seven, an eight, aaaand: seven nines past the decimal. And the engines are in neutral, as per operational procedure.” He looked up at Park. “We are coasting.”

“Any idea what sort of thing we are flying toward?” asked Park.

“Well, there’s a small yellow exactly on our course and about 46 light years from Fyatskaab. That’s the next object on the line we’re on. And at this speed, I don’t think we’ll be making any sharp turns.”

“All right. At this speed, how long will it take to get there, wherever we’re going?”

“Forty-six years, of course,” said Clay, and he added, as Park rolled her eyes, “Okay, to us? That trip will seem like about eighteen hours.”

“Mr. Gilbert, we’re used to four or five days for a forty-year journey. Less than a day?”

“We’ve never gone this fast before, Commander,” said Clay. He looked back at his displays. “Can’t wait to see where we’re going in all this hurry.”

 

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