Copyright 1995 by Wil McCarthy
Limited license is granted to print or distribute this file in unmodified form.
“Exalted Creature, they flee directly into the nebula.”
White frills expanding in anger. “Pursue them.”
This place had been a stellar creche, a coming together of gasses, a birthing place of new suns. But as the ages raced by, as Fleet pursued the Enemy at the very edge of lightspeed, things had changed. One of the young stars exploded, touching off neigbors. Now, within the cloud hung stars gone prematurely ancient, withered dwarfs and collapsars among the newly born. The result was not beautiful, nor safe to travel through.
“Particulate matter in the nebula, Exalted Creature. We dare not.”
“Also collapsed matter, vermin, and they have the Shield! If they brave the time fields to graze a collapsed body, and they do not emerge for an age of ages? No! We have come too far to give them up.”
“We risk the Fleet, Exalted Creature.”
Tight, angry silence. And obedience.
Fleet changes course yet again. The nebula looms large, shifting colors as timespace contracts ahead. Soon, Fleet screams through a sleet of tiny particles, and then larger particles, and larger ones still.
“Great danger ahead!” Warns a lesser being.
Exalted Creature raises frills again. “We do not curl back when–“
The glittering Shield does not easily lose integrity, but when a flake of matter strikes… Exalted Vessel, in its beak-point position ahead of Fleet, becomes a splatter of radiant liquid.
Death strikes with suddenness.
But Death, like all things, must yield in the presence of superior force — Exalted Vessel is destroyed, but its vector has scarcely altered. It roars still toward the heart of the nebula, in timespace-contracted pursuit of its ancient Enemy.
All Fleet’s beings are privy to the sight, and they are made brave by it.
Chief Technical Officer Miguel Barta peered, with eyes insubstantial, at the data his instruments were bringing in from the Soleco hypermass, and he cursed to see it. Something was happening, something he hadn’t expected and, no doubt, hadn’t been trained to cope with.
“Hey,” he said to his Tech Aid, Lahler. “These readings don’t match the projection, not at all. Open more buffer space for the instruments.”
“None left,” said Lahler, her voice flat.
He turned and looked at her over his shoulder. A young woman, new, first voyage. And taking orders from him! She had a quick mind, and yes, admit it Miguel, a nice set of curves and a very nice face to go with them. Not that he was supposed to notice. But just now her appearance did not seem so nice, with the glazed eyes, the softlink harness sprouting cables from her head like Medusa-hair.
Miguel, also in softlink, shifted cybernetic “gaze” into the data buffers and saw that she’d spoken truly. No margin in the buffer space.
“Damn,” he said. “Cut some loose from the engine monitors.”
“Already did that. And from the navigation backups. Really, Miguel, we don’t have any more.”
“Then damn again.” he said. Without moving, he signaled the bridge for comlink.
Almost instantly, a face appeared on the holie screen in front of him. “Chelsea,” the face said.
Miguel had spoken with the captain, Lin Chelsea, several times before, and to his credit, he did not flinch this time. Like most of Introspectia’s bridge crew, Chelsea had wiring that ran deep, portions of the link harness hooking in to penetrate her eyes and ears and nostrils. An accident victim, a humanoid robot partially disassembled. No cold, link-eyed stare from her, just the jumble of the sensory interface, less human than the face of a bug. And yet, Miguel had once heard her laugh.
Damn, these were strange times he was heading into.
Miguel’s first mission would be called a “paperwalk” by some, just a flick out to Centauri and back on a diplomatic sprinter. Hardly time to get used to the ship, and barely a decade gone by in the outside universe. But the second trip, oh… He’d spent forever in the belly of a Priority Cargo barge, making the “third circuit” from Sol to Procyon-A to Procyon-B and back again. He’d returned to earth forty objective years later to find things… changed.
And now, on Introspectia… A good job, responsible and variously rewarding: Chief Technical Officer! But this time around, he paid his price in centuries. Not yet to his hundredth birthday, he would return as a bleeding fossil. But a rich one, yes.
A remote scuttled across Miguel’s console, its motion a blur of glittering eyes and legs. He stared as it ran by, fighting down the impulse to shriek and swat it with his fist.
“Did you want something, Mr. Barta?” Demanded the thing-captain.
“Uh, yes. Yes. My instrument readings puzzle me. I need more buffer space to sort things out.”
“You agreed to the allocation schedules,” Chelsea said. And yet, Miguel sensed a slight expansion of his buffer space, a token gesture on the captain’s part.
“Yes, Captain,” he said, “But I read something odd about the Soleco hypermass, a slight asymmetry in the gravity potentials.”
“Really?” The thing-captain sounded slightly interested.
Miguel leaned forward. “Captain, in a gravity gradient that steep we should see almost perfect symmetry. We’re not dealing with what I’d call a large discrepancy, but the mass imbalance seems to run right up against the event horizon. Either my instruments have gone twidgy or I have to revise my definition of the word ‘impossible.'”
“I see.” Chelsea said, her mouth curling peculiarly around the words. Miguel felt invisible tendrils probing at the edges of his data. “Can you offer me anything more specific? Are we looking at a science bonus if I cut you more space?”
A shrug. “I really don’t know. I can’t do much analysis with the observation data chewing up my buffers like this.”
“Can you guess?” A little more space opened up in his buffers, like a too-tight belt beginning to loosen.
“I uh, prefer not to,” Miguel said carefully. “I mean with only a few months’ experience and all. But it looks… I don’t know. It looks like we’ve got some matter concentrations down there.”
“Down there?” Chelsea repeated, now sounding genuinely interested. “Matter concentrations? You mean down deep in the tidal stress?”
“Yes,” he said. “Very deep.”
The captain’s thing-face vanished from his holie screen, and in buffer space a door was flung wide, opening a huge portion of the ship’s computing resources for Miguel to plunder.
“Lordy!” he said, then turned to Tech Aid Lahler. “Triple our data rates, would you?”
“Already have, Miguel,” she said, and beneath her Medusa-hair she flashed a sickly and lopsided smile.
The trickle of data became a flood. Working quickly, Miguel sorted and collated, compressed and regressed and, with more than a hint of regret, deleted. Even so, the buffers had begun to fill up again, and rapidly. He knew then that he could fill any amount of space, consume any amount of processing power without generating any real answers.
Time to earn his keep. Time, at last, to push this strange new equipment to its limits. Bracing mentally, he plunged into the data stream, and let the instrument readings wash over him. Thrashing panic for a moment, the shock of sensations wholly unfamiliar. And then like a pond freezing over, his mind siezed into a state of glittery, crystalline calm.
Miguel Barta had become thing-Barta, a piece of the seething group mind that that controlled, nay that was Introspectia. And thing-Barta felt a sense of freedom, of power, for it knew in its heart that it could do, astonishingly well, the task that had been layed out for it. With link-born senses it sniffed and caressed and tasted the data, and, with greater effort, visualized it.
Thing-Barta knew then, with crashing, crashlike suddenness, an amplified and clarified and back-filtered sense of awe so achingly powerful it bordered on the religious. So close to the event horizon… Matter could not exist in that environment! Gravitational stresses would tear atoms apart, tear everything apart, leaving only the quantum electromagnetic vortices that theorists knew as “dots.” And yet…
“Tech Aid Lahler,” he said, in loose and wavering thing-voice. “Do you see that?”
“Yes,” Lahler replied flatly.
Miguel shuddered a little. “Good. Good. I thought perhaps I had…”
“I see it,” she assured him, and even through the link harness she looked stunned.
At the event horizon of the black hole, the data revealed a group of ellipsoidal objects, tens of meters across and quite clearly solid. Against all sense, against all possibility, several hundred of the objects huddled right up against the edge of the darkness, frozen, unmoving.
Lahler’s eyes locked onto Miguel, demanding answers, demanding leadership. “What do we do?” she said.
Miguel pulled away from the images, pulled his mind clear of the link. Impossible. Impossible. Good lord, what was he going to tell the captain? “I don’t know,” was all he could think to say. “I really… don’t know.”
It was shaping up to be one of those mornings.