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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

In the Black

Patrick S. Tomlinson

Tor Books

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ONE



Captain Susan Kamala woke up in stages. After her first drill-filled training deployment in the Combined Corporate Defense Fleet as a lowly E2 banger’s mate, she’d picked up the trick of waking up in the span between resting heartbeats. Twenty-four years later, after going mustang to become an officer and eventually captain, she’d mastered the art of recognizing when that trick wasn’t necessary.

Instead of a blaring klaxon portending some unfolding calamity, the noise that had roused her from a rather pleasant dream about swimming in the Melville Ocean on Osiris was a gentle repetition of the door chime to her quarters.

Susan waved a dangling arm over the side of her bunk to trip the ceiling lights, which came to life and cast their harsh, bluish-white glow. They said the output gave the ideal balance of energy conservation while still delivering the wavelengths necessary to synthesize vitamin D, but nothing beat the sensation of soaking up real sunlight, melanoma be damned.

She unbuckled the straps over her chest and thighs that would hold her to the bunk in the event of gravity loss. She’d been lax about it as a younger officer, as were many other crewmen who’d entered the service after artificial gravity had been perfected. But her first CO came from the old school. He’d run a surprise drill in the middle of third shift where he ordered the gravity cut while a third of the crew dozed, then flipped it back on again. Susan had gotten a concussion, a reprimand, and a newfound appreciation for the importance of anchoring straps. She’d even run the drill herself once attaining command of her own boat, and broke an ensign’s arm.

Susan swung her feet out into space and hopped down from her bunk. “Who is it?” she called to the hatch.

“Azevedo, mum,” her Brazilian XO answered.

“Miguel, you do know it’s…” Susan glanced at the chrono in her augmented reality retinal display. “… 0350, right?”

“Yes, mum. It’s important.”

Susan sighed. “Isn’t it always? Just a minute. Unless you insist on seeing your captain in her undies?”

“Not if you paid me a bonus, mum.”

“I’m not actually sure how to take that, Miguel.”

“Anytime there’s a question, default to respect, mum.”

Susan smiled. “You’re a smart kid; I’ll just be a moment.” She moved from the bed to her closet, which took all of two and a half steps. Compared to any other ship’s quarters she’d ever occupied, the captain’s suite aboard Ansari was palatial. But compared to any dirtside apartment she’d ever rented, it didn’t even rank as a studio.

But it was hers alone: she had a bathroom with a door, a genuine water shower, and a kitchenette with the only supply of genuine Darjeeling tea to be found within four light-years of their current position. A gift from Miguel, as it happened.

And a steward for my laundry. She smiled as she pulled an immaculately cleaned and pressed duty uniform off the rack. She fell into the clothes from muscle memory alone, then went to the vanity in her bathroom to straighten her hair. It was longer now than strictly permitted by regulations, but seeing as she was the ranking officer for at least two parsecs in any direction, there really wasn’t anyone to call her on it until the tour was over. Besides, Susan felt she’d earned the silver in her hair just as much as she’d earned the gold on her shoulder patches, and displayed both with equal pride. She donned the gold beret top cover with black trim of a warship commander in the commission of the Combined Corporate Defense Fleet, gave it the five-degree tilt to the left she fancied would draw attention to her good side, then touched her forehead and chest in offering to the two small statues of Durga and Shiva in the cubby above her bed she’d long set aside as a shrine. They were hollow porcelain instead of traditional solid marble, owing to personal mass allotment aboard a warship, but Susan assumed the Gods understood the sacrifices of military service.

Susan took the three steps to the hatch, spun the wheel until the toothed bolts hit the end of their tracks, then pulled the handle toward her. Her XO stood across the threshold, waiting patiently.

“Commander,” she said playfully. “What brings you to my door at this hour?”

“We lost another recon drone, mum.”

“Another?” Her mind recoiled at the thought. “A second meteoroid strike?”

“Scopes doesn’t think so, mum.”

“We’re going to the CIC,” she said firmly. “Warm it up.”

“Yes, mum.”

“And call everyone out of those stupid VR chairs. We have real work to do.” Susan pushed past him across the hallway and called the lift. The captain’s quarters sat deep inside the Ansari’s forward hull, safely behind many meters of armor, structural material, and other compartments, and directly adjacent to the main elevators to give her ready and rapid access to the rest of the ship. The Command Information Center was only two decks above, but the elevator was still the quickest way to get there.

The decks, all thirty-five of them in the forward hull, were stacked vertically along the ship’s keel like the floors of a skyscraper turned on its side, instead of layered horizontally like the decks of an oceangoing vessel.

The Ansari was a class ship, the first and namesake of the CCDF’s new generation of long-endurance, system-defense cruisers, and Susan was a plank-owner. Not as captain, but as a greenhorn ensign on her first assignment as a commissioned officer after her snotty cruise aboard the fast frigate Halcyon. The Ansari was seventeen years old now, and the paint had worn off her sharper edges, but the edges themselves hadn’t been rounded down yet, and she was fresh out of the first of three planned midlife refits. It had been during that stretch in drydock that Susan had been reunited with her old ship.

The elevator stopped and slid open onto deck twelve and the home of the CIC, possibly the only spot on the ship buried underneath more armor and composite than the captain’s quarters. Save for the antimatter confinement tanks, of course. One of the ship’s marines stood watch just outside the main hatch to the CIC, polished, resolute, and bright blue in the face.

Susan buried a smile as she approached the young man. “Private Culligan, have you been holding your breath?”

His shoulders squared to parade-ground attention. “No, mum.”

“Then why is your face blue?”

“Someone put microfracture test dye in my shampoo, mum.”

“As revenge for?”

He began to blush, turning his cheeks purple. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know, mum.”

“Mmhmm. I hope it’s not a permanent lesson?”

“Doc says a week for the skin to grow out.”

“I see. Permission to enter the CIC?”

“Of course, mum.” The azure private spun open the hatch and, standing on tradition, leaned inside to announce “Captain on deck!” to an empty compartment.

“Thank you, as you were.” Susan stepped over the lip of the hatch into the Ansari’s heart. Or more accurately, its brain. The compartment was still cool, but Susan could feel the air processors working overtime to warm it up to a more comfortable level. No one had been inside for weeks except to run system integrity tests and a drill or two.

Most of the bridge preferred to pull their shifts in the VR environment, as had become customary across much of the fleet over the last fifteen years. It held several advantages, not the least of which was that during a live combat situation, no single shot or internal failure could take out the entire command staff.

Still, Susan had been around long enough to have some of her own old-school opinions of the-way-things-are-done.

“XO on deck!” the private standing watch announced as Azevedo crossed the threshold followed closely by two junior officers and a noncom. The rest of third watch would be along in another few seconds or they’d be running crash assembly drills for a week.

“Stations, people,” Susan said as she sank into the command chair, her chair, and thumbed it to her presets. “What do we know?”

Ensign Mattu, seated at the Drone Data Integration Station with a mop of hair that looked a little worse for the early hour, turned to face her captain. “We lost another Mk XXVI platform, mum. Number Thirteen. It wasn’t an accident.”

“And you can prove that?”

“Yes, mum, I believe I can.”

Susan nodded. “Show me.”

“It’ll take a couple of minutes to compile all the data, mum.”

“Take your time, Petty Officer.”

Miguel took his usual position hovering behind Susan’s left shoulder, far enough not to intrude on her personal space, but close enough for his presence and support to be felt. He was, at present, the only man in the CIC, the rest of the stations filled by women and whatever Ensign Broadchurch settled on, if they cared to.

This wasn’t unusual. Indeed, the Ansari’s crew complement was sixty-four percent female, which was right in line with crew breakdowns in the rest of the fleet. The demands of long-duration deep-space operations favored female recruits in a myriad of ways. Psychologically, women trended more toward cooperation and conflict resolution, while men tended to be more confrontational and competitive, which could cause friction and personality conflicts on long voyages. Women’s bodies had been found long ago to have a slight edge when it came to tolerating high-g maneuvering. And most importantly, the average woman’s daily caloric requirements were just sixty percent that of the average male, making their onboard food stores and aeroponics capacity last that much longer.

Indeed, the men who did manage to overcome these selection biases had to be very good to earn a slot. Of course, they had a very strong incentive to study hard and get a billet. If they did, they guaranteed themselves a place aboard a sealed metal tube where they were outnumbered two-to-one by young, physically fit women for eight to sixteen months at a time.

Needless to say, everyone was on birth control, and a lot of unauthorized “hot-bunking” went overlooked by the section heads.

“I’m ready, mum,” Mattu said.

“Proceed.”

The round plot table sunk into the deck at the center of the CIC glowed to life and traced a three-dimensional tactical map of the 82 G Eridani system in the air where everyone could see it. The Ansari sat at the center of the display orbiting Grendel, the fourth planet out from the star and the target of this round of surveys. Three different companies had joined up to tackle the claim in a rare display of solidarity. Ageless Corp. held a majority stake, but had partnered up with NeoSun and Praxis Inc. in smaller supporting roles. Usually, the only thing three or more transtellar boardrooms could agree on was the importance of the CCDF budget. “Fleet First” had become a mantra among the various corporations.

Much further out, between about two and four AU distance, icons representing the Ansari’s constellation of recon drones orbited the outskirts of the inner solar system in a shell. At these distances, the heavily stealthed platforms would be nigh invisible, even to the cruiser’s powerful suite of active sensors. The real-time locations of the red icons were best-approximations based on data streamed in from the platforms themselves, adjusted for the light-speed com delay.

The plot skipped, almost imperceptibly at the scale of the display. The time/date stamp had moved back forty-three minutes. Mattu zoomed in on the coordinates of their missing drone until a red silhouette hovered in the air.

“We’re about ten seconds before Platform Thirteen went off-line. It’s fully functional, just ran a surface diagnostic on itself three hours earlier. Network to its siblings and back to Mother is five-by-five. Then…” The drone suddenly jumped to life, sprinting away on six pillars of flame. But less than a second later, the feed cut out. “… it detects something and tries to evade, but doesn’t have time. It takes one in the teeth and we lose telemetry. Still, we know Thirteen survives the first hit.”

“First hit?” Susan asked. “There was a second?”

“CL on deck!” the marine on watch announced from the hatch. A middle-aged man, soft around the middle by military standards and busy tucking a button-up shirt into his slacks, stepped into the compartment. The only nominally civilian person aboard, Javier Nesbit was serving as the Ansari’s Corporate Liaison for the deployment. Every boat bigger than a skip courier had one. He served strictly in an advisory role, but as the designated representative of the interests of the shareholders or private owners of the consortium of the nine transtellars and their subsidiaries that contributed to the CCDF, his voice carried outsized weight.

Perhaps even more than his body did.

“Mr. Nesbit,” Susan said warmly. “I’m glad you could join us.”

Nesbit straightened his collar. “Yes, damnedest thing, but I didn’t get notification we were having a powwow. I wouldn’t have known it was going on if I hadn’t heard the frantic shuffling of feet in the hallway outside my quarters.”

“An unfortunate oversight, Mr. Nesbit, I’m sure.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’ve only just missed the beginning of the briefing. We’re trying to tease out what happened to another of our recon platforms. Ensign Mattu was just about to tell us what she’s learned. Scopes, please continue.”

“Yes, mum.” The plot zoomed back out again. “We were lucky, because Twelve’s wide-angle IR camera just happened to have Thirteen in its field of view at the time of the impact.” The first hit replayed from the new vantage point. The image resolution was poor, but clear enough to make out the cloud of superheated gas coming from the drone as it strained against Newton. The exhaust cut off. “That’s when we lost the feed from the whisker laser; I assume it was damaged. However…” Less than two seconds later, the thrusters lit off again. An eyeblink later, the drone exploded into an expanding field of dozens of heat point sources.

“Thirteen sent out the beginning of a burst transmission just before it died, encrypted, but over high-gain radio, breaking protocol, which is why I think its whisker laser was dead. It also tried to move a second time, but had already burned up most of its hydrazine. I think it saw the threat and was trying to tell us what killed it. That’s why the onboard AI overrode its orders and switched to radio.”

“But it was already damaged. How can you be sure its AI wasn’t malfunctioning?” Nesbit asked.

“Virtual neural networks are firewalled like crazy to keep that from happening. They’re also incredibly fragile. Any damage to the physical components and they just collapse. It’s pretty much an all-or-nothing deal,” Mattu answered confidently.

“And how do we know the explosion wasn’t the result of an internal failure?” Susan asked. “The platform was already damaged; maybe there was a leak in the hydrazine tanks, or a deformation of one of the engine bells that caused the explosion.”

Mattu nodded. “I can’t rule that out, mum. But it doesn’t explain why Thirteen tried to move again. It saw something else coming and tried to get out of the way. Maybe it blew itself up in the attempt, maybe it was hit. Either way, it was reacting to something.”

Susan found herself nodding along. The ensign’s argument was sound, even if she wished it wasn’t. “So, what was it trying to avoid, micrometeoroids?”

“Two of them traveling in nearly perfect parallel courses less than five seconds apart? The odds against that are—”

“Astronomical,” Miguel finished for her.

“Yessir,” Mattu said. “Losing Eight two weeks ago was remarkable enough. But twice? With a follow-up shot? No way.”

Susan took a deep breath, then let it out through her nose. “Well argued, Scopes. So, someone is not only finding our recon drones, but picking them off.”

“I think we can consider our cage appropriately rattled, mum,” Miguel said.

“How are they doing it?” Nesbit asked.

Susan turned to the head of her Weapons Department. “Warner?”

The stout, short-haired lieutenant looked like she could muscle a three-hundred-kilo guided missile onto the pylon of a dropship wing by hand if the situation called for it. She held up three fingers. “Well, there’s three possibilities: beamers, boomers, or bangers. We can rule out beamers, because you can’t see a laser coming in order to dodge it in the first place. Boomers are out, too, ’cause even if you sent a missile in ballistic and set for kinetic kill only, the energies are too big. Even a glancing blow from a fusion-drive missile is like a low-yield nuke going off. There wouldn’t be anything left.” One finger remained up. “So that leaves bangers. A railgun round fits the circumstances. But that opens up its own questions.”

“Like what?” Nesbit said. “We’re not all tacticians, Lieutenant.”

“Obviously.”

“Lieutenant,” Susan interjected. “No need to be rude. Mr. Nesbit’s specialties inhabit a … different axis from ours. Please, give him a rundown.”

“Sorry, mum. Mr. Nesbit. Just got yanked out of my rack, is all. Mattu, can you pull the projection out to the Red Line?”

The ensign nodded. “Yes’m.” A moment later, the display zoomed out in scale once more, until it encompassed not just the inner system, but all the way out to twelve AU from the primary. At the twelve-AU boundary, a bright red dividing line encircled the system. This was the treaty line negotiated after the Intersection War. This was where company claims to a given star system ended, and free space began. It was the dividing line the Xre dare not cross, unless they wanted to find themselves on the receiving end of megatons or gigawatts.

“Thank you, Scopes. Now, the problem is twofold. One is detection. Our Mk XXVI recon birds are absolutely state of the art. Fresh off the assembly line for this deployment. They have the radar return of a peppercorn and the IR signature of a squirrel fart. We have trouble tracking them even when they’re shining a damned whisker laser at us. I simply don’t believe anybody could spot them from, what’s the closest approach? Nine AU out? No way, I don’t care how good their passive sensors have gotten.”

“Fine, fine,” Nesbit said tersely. “And the second problem?”

“If we’re talking about railgun rounds, which we pretty much have to be, there’s an issue of time-to-target. Our guns are a little slower than the Xre, but they’re limited by the same physics and material science we are, so their projectiles cap out at a hair over fifteen kilometers per second. To cover nine AU at that speed, the projectile would’ve had to be fired … um…”

“Two years and nine months ago,” Susan answered for her.

“Yes, Cap, that’s right,” Warner said after finishing the number crunching in her head, clearly impressed.

“I started out as a banger’s mate.” Susan smiled. “We worked out ridiculous shots in our spare time. So, Mr. Nesbit, the inescapable conclusion is someone fired a railgun almost three years ago at an invisible target that hadn’t even arrived yet.…”

“Or?”

“Or, someone snuck their own armed drones into the inner system to kill ours.”

“Why are you so sure it’s just a drone and not an entire warship?”

Susan smoothed out a wrinkle on her tunic’s sleeve. “Because, Mr. Nesbit, if they had the technological edge to hide an entire warship from one of our Mk XXVI platforms until it was inside banger range, there would be nothing preventing the same ship from killing every last one of us before we even saw the shot.”

For a long moment, the only sounds to be heard in the CIC were the fans circulating warm air into the compartment. Nesbit cleared his throat to break the uncomfortable silence.

“Why are we sure this is the Xre and not, I don’t know, commerce raiders, or claim jumpers?”

“Because…” It was Warner’s turn, apparently. “… they know attacking our drones would be suicide. Corsairs are like cockroaches. They’ll prey on the odd civilian transport, but they scatter at the sight of even a five-kiloton orbital defense cutter. The Ansari draws a quarter million tons. The dead-last thing any corsair operation wants to do is start poking us in the eye.”

“I agree,” Miguel said. “Someone is making a statement. They’re demonstrating this new capability in a way we can’t overlook or ignore. That someone believes they can match or beat a system defense cruiser in a stand-up fight, or they wouldn’t be poking the bear.”

“But how do we know it’s a Xre incursion and not, I don’t know, a CCDF ship?”

“A rogue crew?” Susan held an exasperated hand to her chest. “With the stalwart defender of the interests of fleet’s stakeholders on the bridge to thwart them? Impossible.”

Nesbit frowned. “There’s no need to be disrespectful, Captain. We both have a job to do.”

“You’re right, of course, Mr. Nesbit. In short, no, I don’t think it’s a mutinous CCDF warship. We keep pretty good track of our inventory, and they’d have the same problems as a corsair, which they would effectively be the moment they stole fleet property. Why risk drawing our attention?”

“Okay, so it’s a Xre incursion. What do they want?”

“Probe our defenses, gauge our new capabilities, observe our responses. It’s been almost seventy years since the treaty, and almost thirty since the last skirmish. They’re as intelligence-starved as we are. This is probably just a fishing expedition.”

“So what do we do?”

Susan smirked. “Grab the rod and yank the fisherman out of their boat. Mr. Azevedo…”

“Mum?”

“Sound general quarters. Warm up our rings and make calculations to pop our bubble one thousand klicks sunward from the platform’s debris field.”

“Yes’m.” The XO keyed the 1MC to bring his voice to the entire crew. A whistle chime sounded throughout the ship. “All hands, general quarters. General quarters. Prepare for Alcubierre transition. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.” He cut the circuit. “Helm, what’s the status of our rings?”

“Alpha and gamma rings are in the rotation for our next jump, sir,” Ensign Broadchurch answered. “Engineering board’s green.”

“Bring them online and make calculations to pop the bubble at one thousand kilometers sunward and zero velocity relative to plot marker six-two-seven-dash-three-eight.”

“Zero relative velocity one kiloklick sunward of marker six-two-seven-dash-three-eight, roger, sir.”

Susan casually removed a piece of lint from her trouser leg. “Manual calculations, Charts.”

“Mum?” Broadchurch said, sounding quite a bit less confident.

“Make your calculations without the flight computer. You do remember your astrogation certifications, yes?”

“Yes’m. Just, um, haven’t used them since the Academy. I might be a little rusty.”

“A warship is no place for rust, wouldn’t you agree, XO?”

“Absolutely, mum,” Miguel agreed.

Broadchurch swallowed. “Of course, mum. I’ll just … um.” They turned back to their station and started digging through menus.

Miguel leaned in close and whispered in Susan’s ear. “That’s a pretty tight window to calculate by hand. What’s that have to be accurate to—nine decimals?”

“Eleven,” Susan said. “Don’t worry, the closest planet is more than twenty light-minutes away. We’re not going to pop our bubble in a molten core. I just want to see what Broadchurch’s got.”

“Your ship, mum.”

“Captain, I recommend we bring CiWS and our active targeting array on line. If there’s an armed drone out there, we should be ready to deal with it in case it takes a shot at us,” Warner added.

Susan nodded. “Do it.”

A few tense minutes of frenzied math equations later, Broadchurch looked up from their station. “Okay, I think that’s got it.”

“You think, Ensign?” Miguel inquired sternly. “I’d rather not go into Alcubierre on a hunch.”

“No, sir. I mean, I have it sorted.”

Susan smiled. She sympathized with Broadchurch, she did. But she also needed to know her helmsperson wasn’t going to beach them on a proverbial sandbar if the ship started taking damage and had to get gone in a hurry. The ship’s mainframe was at least thirty years out of the state-of-the-art compared to consumer electronics, but for good reason. It was a time-tested and dead-stable system. Still, every computer, no matter how many built-in redundancies, could malfunction. And when that happened, if you couldn’t break out an abacus and do the maths, you were dead in the water.

She knew from experience.

“Okay, Charts, lock it in. Scopes, do we have a clear sky for transition?”

Mattu pulled up a display of the local airspace around the Ansari. “We have a weather satellite inside the gooey zone moving away at seventeen kps relative. It will reach minimum safe distance in … twenty-seven seconds.”

“Charge rings. Bring us to one-two-six-point-eight-seven-one by zero-zero-one-point-three.”

“Charge rings. Bring us to one-two-six-point-eight-seven-one by zero-zero-one-point-three,” Miguel repeated.

“Come about to one-two-six-point-eight-seven-one by zero-zero-one-point-three, aye sir. Charging rings,” Broadchurch echoed back.

A slight tremor ran through the deck plating as reaction control thrusters at the bow and stern lit off and gently aligned the grand ship with its destination, then counterburned to cancel their momentum.

“On trajectory, mum,” Broadchurch said.

“Sat has cleared the gooey zone. Sky is clear,” Mattu reported. “We’re green to blow the bubble.”

“Thank you, Scopes. XO, at your pleasure.”

Miguel nodded. “Helm, blow the bubble.”

“Blowing the bubble, aye sir.” Broadchurch reached up a finger to their holographic display, touched a floating icon and, with very little fanfare, bent the known laws of physics to within a micrometer of their breaking point.

Behind the Ansari’s forward hull, where all the perishable organisms resided much of the time, lay the engineering hull. Inside it were most of the ship’s mechanicals, long-term stores, drone launch tubes, and of course, negative matter condensers. Mounted to the outside of the engineering hull were three enormous rings stacked one after the other like hula hoops. These were the Alcubierre rings, the innovation that had made FTL travel possible. Like poles on a magnet, a ship needed two rings to create the stressed spacetime field bubble that allowed them to skirt Einstein’s speed limit. Like all warships in the CCDF larger than a corvette, the Ansari held one ring in reserve in case of malfunction or battle damage. In a civilian ship, this would be an unjustifiable extravagance in both tonnage and cost, but in the harsh math of military preparedness, two was one and one was none, so it only followed that three was two. The largest assault carriers went so far as to mount four rings for a fully redundant set.

At the push of the virtual icon at the helmsperson station, banks of capacitors inside the engineering hull released a torrent of energy through three structural pylons into the stream of negative-matter plasma channels and radial gravity-well accelerators inside the rings themselves. Outside the rings in a rough sphere reaching out to five hundred kilometers and change, spacetime had a little fit as it tried to sort out exactly how it was supposed to be shaped. This was, in centuries-old naval parlance, the “gooey zone,” so named because the effect this warping of spacetime had on anything or anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped within it were not conducive to continued mechanical or biological functioning as they tended to end up the consistency of chunky peanut butter.

However, inside the gooey zone, the Ansari pinched off a perfect little bubble of universe of its own. Several things happened then that maybe six living people actually understood. The Ansari stood perfectly, absolutely still inside its little bubble universe, while powerful gravitational eddies stretched spacetime at the bow, and compressed it at the stern. Twisting the very fabric of the universe in such a violent and unnatural way came at a price. Nearly an entire recon platform’s worth of antimatter fuel had to be annihilated just to charge the rings to create the bubble in the first place.

Pulled from ahead and pushed from behind, the bubble universe took off like a scalded cat. At its center, the Ansari sat, perfectly serene and immobile. It was impossible for anything to travel through space faster than light, and would remain so until the death of the universe. But space didn’t actually care what it did inside itself. A simple-enough idea that had regardless taken centuries to take from bar napkin, to blueprints, to hardware.

Trapped inside its bubble, the Ansari was completely cut off from the outside. The inside surface of the bubble reflected any light or other active energy emissions. If the ship had portals, a crewmember could wave and see a funhouse mirror image of themselves waving back. Anything inside the bubble was nigh-invulnerable to anything in the universe outside, except against sufficiently intense gravitational shearing, such as the forces found inside a star or black hole, which could collapse the bubble prematurely, then collapse everything inside it permanently.

The downside was, as long as they remained inside it, the Ansari and her crew were completely blind. They couldn’t see out to know if they were on course or to see approaching dangers. They couldn’t make any midcourse corrections. They just had to trust in their astrogation and hope for the best until it was time to pop the bubble and see where they ended up.

In the case of this jump, they didn’t have long to wait. The Ansari covered the twenty-six light-minutes of the journey in less than four seconds. The precision necessary to drop them exactly where they wanted to go was beyond human reflexes. A preset countdown that ran out to eleven decimal places reached zero, and the same sequence that created and sustained the bubble ran in reverse, collapsing it in an instant almost too short to measure. The ship reappeared in the “real” universe at a dead stop.

A small bow shock of gamma rays burst out and continued on in the Ansari’s direction of travel at the speed of light, the remains of the handful of dust grains and stray high-energy particles that had gotten trapped on the outer surface of the bubble during the jump. Over such a “short” distance, the effect was minimal. But it compounded the longer one traveled in Alcubierre. After a few light-years, the burst of gamma rays was powerful enough to destroy ships or punch holes in atmospheres. You really had to be careful where you pointed an Alcubierre bubble when it popped.

“Jump complete,” Broadchurch reported.

Susan worked her suddenly sore jaw. Something about Alcubierre transitions always made it clench involuntarily. A succession of ship’s doctors had told her that was impossible and it was psychosomatic, but it stubbornly kept happening anyway. “Stand down alpha and gamma rings,” she said while working her mandible.

“Stand down alpha and gamma rings,” Miguel echoed.

“Standing down alpha and gamma rings.”

“What’s our position?” Susan asked.

“Coming in now, Captain. We are … nine hundred forty-seven kilometers sunward of grid marker six-two-seven-dash-three-eight at zero-point-one-nine-meters-per-second closing rate.”

“Not bad, Charts,” Susan said with satisfaction. “You’re a few dozen klicks past the line. Do you think you can beat that on the next jump?”

“I will certainly try, mum.”

“Weapons, where are we?”

“CiWS is hot and streaming data from the active array,” Warner answered crisply. “Decoys and countermeasures on standby. Missiles on standby. Ready to bring up the laser and railgun systems.”

“I think a ship-killer missile half again as big as a combat drone might be a little overkill, Guns.”

“Overkill is my job, mum.”

Susan shook her head. Some things were universal among weapons officers. “Scopes, bang away with the active sensors. Damn our EM signature. If there’s something hiding out here, flush it out.”

“Yes’m.”

“Also, launch four armed drone platforms and establish a perimeter of a half million klicks at bearings zero, ninety, one-eighty, and two-seventy relative to the eclectic. Don’t bother stealthing them, go full active sensors.”

“Bait, mum?” Mattu asked.

“Something like that.”

“Yes’m. Armed drones at compass points flat to the eclectic. Should be ready to launch in t-minus ninety seconds.”

“Good. XO, alert Flight Ops to get a shuttle and an EVA team ready. I want them in vacuum in fifteen minutes.”

“Mission profile?”

“Retrieval. Bring back the biggest piece of Thirteen they can find for inspection.”

“We’re in an unsecured combat zone. Marines’ll probably ask for combat air patrol to run cover for their bird.”

Susan considered this for a moment. “That’s fair. Scopes, launch another armed drone and hand it off to Flight Ops.”

“Launch CAP drone for the recovery bird, yes’m,” Mattu answered.

Satisfied, Miguel moved away to get on a com line to the small craft bay.

“Okay people, we’ve cut the hole in the ice and dropped our line in. Now it’s time to lean back and wait for a nibble.”

“I thought we were the fish,” CL Nesbit said dryly.

“Yeah.” Susan allowed him the point. “I guess I lost track of the metaphor.”


Copyright © 2020 by Patrick S. Tomlinson