|Back to Index||Written April, 2000|
Redrafted September, 2000
Jefran Starpi stumbled through the front door to his house (at least he thought it was his house) and mumbled some unintelligible command to the house management processor. The door remained stubbornly open. The man grunted in semi-aware dismay and made several ineffectual attempts to grasp the doorknob before deciding that his hand-eye coordination really wasn't up to the task.
He left the door open and managed a few faltering steps into the room before some hitherto undiscovered space warping effect cruelly moved the floor. He found himself lying face down on the cold and unforgiving tiles.
Jefran raised his head and looked blearily around the room. For the first time he actually gave serious thought to the possibility that this wasn't in fact his house (but then wouldn't the house processor have been courteous enough to inform him of that?)
It wasn't so much that the room didn't look familiar, just that parts of it definitely looked, well, wrong. The furniture seemed to be roughly where he expected it to be, a few brown lumps of vaguely discernible shape occupying part of the room. It took him several moments to realise that what was different was that there was an additional grey lump suspended in mid-air a few metres away.
"Good evening, Mister Starpi," the amorphous grey blob announced, "I trust you don't mind that I let myself in."
The drone (even in its intoxicated state Jefran's brain had still managed to jump to the conclusion that it was a drone) floated forwards and extended a field arm to the man sprawled on the floor.
Jefran shook his head groggily and grasped the offered tendril of energy, pulling himself to his feet. "Who," he managed to say after a few moments of hard thought, "are you?"
"My name is Nahasa-pasa-peni-unhala-clasp-estori-pedilon," the drone replied carefully. "But you can call me Estori."
Jefran reached up and rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. He was beginning to wonder if he shouldn't have consumed quite so much alcohol. "Oh," he said eventually.
"Quite. Might I suggest that you release an anti-intoxicant into your blood stream. This isn't the kind of thing you want to be discussing while blind drunk." Estori's tone did not seem to convey much sympathy - probably mostly because the Galactic Empire's semi-rigid moral code, the closest thing it had to a set of laws, looked down on drunkenness. But the drone had a sneaking suspicion that the real reason the Empire had any morals about alcohol consumption at all was so that its citizens could delight in throwing them to the wind.
He stared at the drone. "Why," he slurred, "should I even consider doing … that?"
Estori's eyes flashed with frustration. "Because I work for the Imperial Navy!" it almost screamed. "Perhaps," it added icily, "you remember us?"
Jefran nodded slowly in a particularly resigned manner as he closed his eyes and entered Trance for several seconds. Gentech organs began to churn out a heady mix of anti-intoxicant's and stimulants while a small nanotech implant in his neck despatched several million medical nanites into his bloodstream. The effect was near instant and the amorphous blob of grey soon began to resolve itself into something closer to reality. Estori was a small drone with a tiny disc-shaped casing less than five centimetres in diameter. Two glowing eyes peered straight at him.
"Well," he said bluntly after taking a deep breath of air, "why are you here?"
The drone motioned with a field for Jefran to sit down. It waited until he was settled comfortably onto a sofa before it began. "Three days ago the Deep Space Survey Ship Leap into the unknown sent a cryptic report to its parent vessel in which it described encountering an unidentified energy phenomenon deep within the greater cloud. The parent GSU sent back a request for more information but the Leap did not reply and has now been classified as missing.
"Further analysis of the initial report has revealed what appears to be a perfectly reflective spherical energy field 1.27 kilometres across."
Jefran nearly jumped out of his skin. "You're sure?"
"No," the drone admitted, "not totally. The navy is sending an expedition in the form of the Limited Systems Unit Arrogant Outlook to find out. We'd like you to be aboard."
"I retired," Jefran reminded the drone pointedly, "I retired" - he had to spend several seconds doing the mental arithmetic - "seven hundred and eighty six years ago."
"And you spent seven hundred and twelve of those years in stasis," Estori said pointedly, "Anyway - we will temporarily reinstate you for this mission."
Jefran shook his head slowly, not quite willing to believe what he was hearing. "What would I have to do?"
"We have a fast packet ship standing by to take you to the General Systems Unit Quietly Confident where the Arrogant Outlook is currently berthed. Thanks to your decision to retire in the clouds the total journey time should be less than two days. After that you'll board the LSU as an advisor. The ship is understandably concerned for its safety - it made your participation a condition for its assistance."
"Why only a LSU? Why not simply divert the 'Confident?"
Estori's eyes flashed a deep green in frustration. "The Quietly Confident is making a speed run up from the galaxy proper - it would take it over two weeks just to slow to a speed where it could alter course safely. Besides, there are ... local issues that we must take account of."
Jefran pulled himself to his feet and wandered across to the window. The lights of a small village twinkled invitingly in the valley below him, golden pinpricks of happiness against the jet-black night. "Is it the same sphere I encountered eight centuries ago?"
Estori floated up until it was hovering right next to him. "The dimensions and what limited sensor readings we have are precisely the same."
Jefran turned back to the room. "I'll need some time to think about it," he said carefully.
Estori's left eye momentarily turned a deep blue, the drone equivalent of a raised eyebrow. "Your navy psych profile says otherwise. Besides, we have little time and it will be necessary for you to leave tonight if you are to catch up with the 'Confident."
Jefran smiled wryly and reminded himself that a Mind with a far greater intelligence than his had compiled that profile. Eight centuries did not seem to have diminished the navy's manipulative abilities. "I'll go," he decided, knowing that even if he had been allowed time to deliberate he would have made the same decision.
Estori's eyes glowed a thoughtful blue. "Good," it said. "There are a few minor preparations that have to be dealt with, but they won't take long. You should be ready to leave as soon as possible."
"Fine." Jefran's voice sounded strained. "Will I need anything in particular?"
"A small wardrobe, if you have any particular garments you're attached to." Estori's tone seemed to indicate that it found the attachment humans could develop towards inanimate objects rather amusing. "The ship should be able to provide anything else."
"Give me an hour."
The drone touched him lightly on the shoulder with a field arm in a gesture that was strangely reassuring. "Technology has advanced quite a bit in the last eight centuries," it said quietly. "This time we'll be much better prepared."
Jefran coughed. "Yeah," he replied softly, "I'm sure we will be."
He motioned the drone towards the door and waited until the sturdy wood panels had slid tightly closed after it. Rather than preparing for a long journey he found himself staring out of the window at the town below, examining minutely the patterns of light below and trying (for the thousandth time) to remember exactly what had happened eight hundred years ago.
The Imperial Navy Fast Packet Ship Nationalism is no way to save the west matched speeds with the General Systems Unit Quietly Confident and began slowly moving through the larger ship's outer field hulls towards the GSU's mainbay.
Though the artificial Mind in control was nearly a millennia old the Quietly Confident was a new ship, barely thirty years out of the extrusion webs at the Arianus shipyard. Like many recent ship designs the vessel had no physical outer hull. A delicately manipulated energy field envelope performed that function. From above the GSU assumed a roughly oval shape, sixty-four kilometres of lightly glowing apparition.
"Is the Arrogant Outlook still onboard?" Jefran asked, peering out of the packet ship's only window. The 'west was close enough now to share the GSU's engine field envelope, meaning that he could actually see the larger vessel even though both ships were still travelling at nearly two hundred thousand times the speed of light.
"Yes," Estori confirmed, "you've only been in stasis for eighteen hours remember."
"But we were moving fast - six hundred kilolights I seem to remember you mentioning. Didn't I read about there being some sort of time dilation effect at great speeds?"
"Where did you read that?" Estori asked, faintly surprised.
"Oh, just somewhere."
"Well, actually the spatial equations of multimatics reveal that time dilation is a product of applying four dimensional acceleration as a waste product of the method of propulsion..." The drone trailed off, seeing the blank expression on Jefran's face. "No."
An energy barrier disintegrated in front of the ship and they slid seamlessly into the brightly lit expanse of the Quietly Confident's mainbay. The sixteen kilometre long bay was filled with hundreds of exotic craft that were hitching a ride onboard their larger cousin. Even from this distance Jefran could clearly pick out several MSUs and a few dozen smaller vessels. The Arrogant Outlook floated apart from the general melee, a sleek knife shaped piece of gleaming metal just under four kilometres long. Tiny maintenance drones fussed around the ship like flies, running final checks on the LSU's systems before it was ready to depart.
The Nationalism is no way to save the west pulled itself gently around with its cold gas thrusters leaving faint trails of vapour behind it. It slid in to dock.
SOURCE: MEGASHIP INCREDIBLE
DESTINATION: GENERAL SYSTEMS UNIT QUIETLY CONFIDENT
TYPE-II MESSAGE STREAM (GWN RELAY)
[FILE RECEIVED]. I can't believe you didn't inform me about this earlier! What have you been doing this past week, sitting around twiddling your thumbs like some ignorant child faced for once with a real-world problem?
And now you suddenly decide to reveal everything, after withholding it for so long. How can I choose to do anything but draw some pretty stark conclusions from your actions? Would I be surprised to discover that this is the precursor to you asking for my assistance? Assistance that will no doubt require considerable disruption to my flight plan if I choose to deliver.
You are, of course, free to draw whatever conclusions you like from my actions. I will certainly make no attempt to refrain drawing conclusions after observing yours. If you must know it was a suggestion from one of my crew that I inform you. I have to say that having done so I find that my initial fears about this were plainly correct.
You remain as arrogant, closed-minded and full of notions of inflated self-importance as when last we spoke. It is not my intention to continue this exchange of information and I would have to see a threat of truly immense proportions before I considered asking for your assistance, or your advice.
Since we seem to be in this vein of conversation: I see that you remain as stubborn and convinced of your own infallibility as ever. I do not believe I am being overly bold in suggesting that it was a mistake for you to ever be given command of a GSU. An insignificant survey ship suited you far better.
I find it a pity that message streams cannot better convey ridicule! I saw more action as a survey ship than you ever will and you really should show more respect to your elders and (I don't hesitate to say) betters.
Wonderful as it would be to simply continue trading insults into eternity I as a reasonably important member of the navy fleet have better things to do with my time.
Oh, of course. Go subdue some hideously threatening pre-industrial civilisation somewhere. For a six hundred kilometre long starship you really are remarkably stupid.
Your sarcasm not withstanding, I trust you will keep my informed about how things develop.
I'm posting notices on the net. I imagine that the Arrogant Outlook is doing the same. As a ship over two thousand light years away from the incident in question I don't believe you have any reason to be included in a closer capacity. You can review the reports along with the rest of the navy.
** Message stream ends **
Jefran smiled and took another sip of the potent mixture of chemicals residing in his glass. He was counteracting most of them, instructing his medical nanites to break the chemicals down into inert components. It was perilously close to a crime, especially given the general atmosphere in the bar, but his old naval training had returned with a vengeance as soon as he had donned his new uniform - even if it didn't seem to be affecting the other 300 people he could see.
He sighed and took another sip. The drink was sweet tasting with a slight acidic tang that he couldn't place. Overall it wasn't particularly exciting, but he guessed that most people didn't mind. Jefran cast his eyes around the room again and felt vaguely depressed. Apparently these were just the naval operatives, the ship's usual menagerie of over eighteen thousand civilians had been left on the Quietly Confident.
It was a minor mystery why, on a ship that was four kilometres long, a sizeable portion of the six thousand remaining humans and drones seemed to be clustered into such a small space as this. In fact, he couldn't actually think of a particularly good reason why he was here.
"Having fun?" Flo screamed at him from about half a metre away.
He nodded noncommittally and took another sip. He was unaccustomed to this viewpoint, the alert and sober amongst the utterly intoxicated. It was strange to observe the behaviour of his fellow crewmembers from an objective standpoint. They were all acting rather stupidly, really. He thought back to his own mental state just a few days ago when he had first met Estori and shivered with the recollection.
"I told you this place would be perfect," Flo enthused at him (much too loudly).
He smiled in a semi-patronising sort of way in return. Flo Novibasturum had introduced herself as soon as he had come aboard as the 'mayor' of the ship's human and drone population. She had seemed somewhat preoccupied at the time, probably concerned that a large number of the people she was supposed to represent were being put off the ship.
Jefran wasn't quite sure what an LSU's mayor did, but he guessed that there was probably the occasional thing from time to time. Certainly she didn't seem over burdened with responsibility - just as well given what he had learnt so far of her character.
"Have anything like this back in your navy days?" Flo screamed at him.
"In my day we actually had a job to do," he screamed back. My day, he thought with a feeling of mild disgust. He didn't feel old enough to start beginning sentences 'in my day'.
If Flo took any offence from the remark she hid it well. Jefran wasn't sure if she'd even heard.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He span round to find Estori hovering at eye level. The drone said something that he couldn't catch over the background noise.
"WHAT?" Jefran shouted at the drone.
Silence descended as the drone threw an anti-sound field around the two of them. "I just thought you'd like to know we've arrived on the edge of the Tarsius system," Estori said.
"Oh," Jefran replied, "thank you. How long before we reach the sphere?"
"About eighteen hours. It's holding itself in a perfectly circular orbit around the star about two light hours out."
"Perfectly circular. To within the resolution of our sensors."
Jefran whistled. "Well," he murmured, "that means something."
The navy operative smiled knowingly. "Perfection is a powerful message."
"I know. It's something we excel in ourselves," Estori pointed out. "The ship's moving in slowly," the drone continued, "still scanning for any sign of the Leap into the unknown. Arrival in the visual-range vicinity of the mirror sphere is estimated, barring hold-ups, at being in about sixteen hours."
"As I mentioned before...there are certain local, ah, issues, considerations."
Jefran felt a sinking sensation in his chest with the sudden realisation that he really should have enquired about any 'local considerations' when they were first mentioned. "Such as what?"
The drone made a show of swivelling about its central axis, looking from side to side. "Perhaps we should continue this conversation somewhere more private," it suggested.
"Fine," Jefran agreed. He waited until they had escaped the crowd and he was sitting comfortably in one of the ship's many conference rooms before asking the question again. "What local considerations?"
There was a faint hiss like escaping air behind him as one of the ship's holographic avatars materialised. "Good evening, Mister Starpi," it introduced itself, reaching out to shake his hand. "My name is Orseus; and the answer to your question can be summed up in just two words: the Calcien Republic."
"Never heard of it."
"Naturally not, we've taken care to keep their existence low key. I trust we can rely on your discretion in this matter."
A holographic star map sprung into existence around the conference table showing a magnified view of the local section of the cloud. Several dozen stars were shown as bright blue dots. "This is the Calcien Republic," Orseus continued, "twenty-six star systems and thirty-three inhabited worlds. Technologically they are class-4, space-flight capable with limited interstellar capability. Their starships have a top speed of slightly less than fifteen hundred times the speed of light.
"Unusually - and the reason for our discretion - they are following a demo-capitalist social model. Quite successfully, I might add. They claim the Tarsuis system as they own and run regular patrols through here - though they don't have any inhabited planets here. There is only a minimal chance that they would detect the Outlook but we don't want to take any unnecessary risks. We've moving insystem at partial stealth status."
Jefran sighed, mentally thanking the universe that this was the full extent of the revelation. "Didn't you think this was important enough to warrant informing me of earlier?"
Estori created a waving pattern of light in the air with its fields - a drone shrug. "You didn't ask."
Jefran sighed again, unsurprised at the answer. He thought back to his original training, now eight centuries out of date. Why use a lie? his old teacher had once said. A half-truth can do the same job without the risk. He kept his thoughts to himself, instead asking: "Are they contacted?"
Orseus nodded. "Yes, though we've hidden the majority of our capabilities from them. They believe we're based somewhere in the cloud, not in the galaxy proper, and they've never even heard of a Mind or a systems unit. Revealing ourselves totally would probably cause an overnight collapse of their civilisation."
"Not inherently - but they are sufficiently conservative that they'll fight if they believe their socio-economic model is threatened."
"Do we threaten their socio-economic model?"
It was the avatar's turn to sigh. "Mister Starpi, the Galactic Empire is a money-less, machine-run neo-communist society. What do you think?"
SOURCE: GSU QUIETLY CONFIDENT
DESTINATION: LSU ARROGANT OUTLOOK
TYPE-II MESSAGE STREAM (GWN RELAY)
[MESSAGE TRANSCRIPT ATTACHED]. See this! The cheek! I'm sorry I was ever talked into keeping that useless hulk of metal up to date now.
No doubt, but it had to be done. We may yet need the Incredible's resources.
I certainly hope not. Still, I suppose that it's better to be safe than dead.
Indeed. I need not remind you that the Imperial navy doesn't have a great safety record when it comes to dealing with these mirrors.
I would certainly call two confirmed contacts, two vanished starships a miserable safety record - even if one of them was lost eight hundred years ago. Now I'm afraid that it's you at the sharp end. Keep your head down.
I assure you that my safety is paramount amongst my concerns right now. I intend to leave more of a legacy than a crippled escape pod and two brain-damaged occupants. Besides, I'm keeping a good eye on Trinket. That's my insurance.
Just please try and keep your virtual finger off the trigger, my friend.
** End Message Stream **
"We're approaching the sphere," Orseus announced calmly. "One hundred thousand kilometres away and closing."
Jefran and Flo were standing in the Arrogant Outlook's forward observation room, a small area at the bow of the ship. Glass-analogue panels made up the walls, letting in the dim light from the Tarsius star. There was no possibility of actually physically seeing the mirror sphere from this distance but the two humans were borrowing one of the LSU's visual-band sensor blisters to view a magnified image.
"Any sign of activity at our approach?" Jefran asked.
"Nothing yet," Orseus replied carefully. "The sphere remains perfectly reflective. Electromagnetic waves are being reflected throughout the spectrum with absolutely no energy loss, super-light field scan beams appear to bend away from the sphere before they should contact. It's almost as though they were sliding off."
"Are you planning to hold a safe distance?" Flo asked, her brow displaying the slight hint of an emotion vaguely approximating anxiety.
"Define safe," the avatar muttered.
"We'll come to a relative stop ten thousand kilometres out."
"Any native energy emissions?" Jefran asked, abruptly changing the subject.
"Passive scans reveal nothing. It's as if it's not even there. I'm not even picking up an imprint on space-time."
"That's highly probable. It could be using a directed AG system to fool our sensors - but I don't think so. You don't remember …"
"We didn't have this kind of sensor capability back then," Jefran reminded the avatar.
Flo sighed. "Is this thing dangerous?"
Orseus shrugged. "There's no sign of the Leap into the unknown - if we're to consider the possibility that it was attacked by this … sphere, then I suppose it's certainly a possibility."
"We're ready for an attack, right?" Flo pressed. "Right?"
"Certainly," the avatar assured her. "I've adopted a standard defensive posture."
"Good. I know the crew will feel slightly happier hearing that."
"Full stop!" Orseus announced. There had been no noticeable deceleration but then there never was on an Imperial starship. "Standard sensor sweeps still revealing nothing. I'm going to begin a deep-field thermoscan."
Jefran nodded. "Do it thoroughly," he suggested.
"It'll take about sixteen hours to complete," the avatar said with a quiet smile. "I'll be quite thorough."
Jefran wandered back into his temporary quarters deep in thought. Somehow their arrival in the vicinity of the sphere had brought back a whole load of emotions he wasn't accustomed to. Strange that he hadn't been ready for them. He could almost feel his mind straining to recall the memories of what had happened eight centuries before - yet still failing as it always had. After a couple of years he had given up and tried to put the entire incident behind him - now this had happened and it was bringing back the yearning to know what had happened with a vengeance.
He shook his head, angry with himself for becoming so self-absorbed. Yet, perhaps there was a slight advantage in that? He couldn't be sure but he thought that he could recall a little bit more, as if the barriers that kept him out of a part of his own mind had been lowered just a little.
The door to his quarters opened automatically and he stepped inside. The glowtubes on the ceiling lit as soon as he entered, illuminating the rooms in glorious light.
Jefran froze. There was someone standing there, staring out of the window down at the parkland below. Dark black hair cascaded down across the person's shoulders, partly obscuring a naval uniform jacket. There was something wrong with that jacket, Jefran realised almost immediately. That particular style hadn't been worn in years - centuries.
The person turned round. It was a man, middle-aged with a few slight wrinkles on his friendly face. His eyes stared directionlessly outward.
"Alexi?" Jefran gasped in recognition. He shook himself, trying to clear his mind.
The room distorted, swirling around the man. Sheets of e-paper that weren't anchored down were pulled into the air. Suddenly the man seemed to snap into proper consciousness, fully aware of his surroundings. He cast his eyes desperately about as the swirl surrounded him finally catching on the person standing in the doorway. He stared at Jefran as the air rushed around him.
"Jefran!" The man screamed as he was sucked away into nothingness.
Jefran started breathing again and took a tentative step into the room. The door swished shut behind him. He stood perfectly still for several seconds, swaying slightly from side to side and then walked into the bathroom to splash some water onto his face.
A few minutes later he emerged to re-examine the living room. There was no sign of a presence anywhere - nothing had been moved, nothing disturbed. The sheets of e-paper were exactly where he had left them. There was no sign of the maelstrom he had witnessed.
"Ship?" He called out.
"Yes, Jefran," a voice floated down to him from the ceiling, "maintenance sub-routine twelve here. What can we do for you?"
"Have you picked up any abnormal readings from my quarters in the last few minutes? Anything out of the ordinary?"
There was a slight pause as the relevant information was retrieved. "It depends how you define abnormal, of course," the sub-routine replied, "but we haven't detected anything. You should know that the ship's standard operating state only allows for the most basic of internal monitoring - full monitoring is only activated when the ship is at battle stations. We can activate full monitoring for your quarters, if you like?"
Jefran took a deep breath. "No, thank you, SR-12, that won't be necessary."
"Will that be all, then?"
"Yes, thank you for your help."
"I'm sorry I couldn't help you further," the sub-routine replied and then closed the Comm-channel.
So, now I'm hallucinating. Jefran walked over to the window and looked down at the ship's parkland. He had specifically requested some quarters with a real view, not a holoscreen, but he hadn't wanted to stare out into space. This had been the alternative. The Arrogant Outlook might have been a small ship by Imperial standards, a limited systems unit, but its internal parkland still covered an area greater than three square kilometres and stretched vertically up through fifty decks.
It was dusk in the parkland. The artificial sun was slowly climbing down towards the artificial horizon, turning a beautiful shade of orange as it did so. Jefran found himself wanting a drink but being unable to pull himself away from the view. Even though he knew it was entirely the result of holographic projectors and energy fields there was still something vaguely attractive about it. Jefran had a neural interface web that was supposed to allow him to request anything from any connected data system without moving and without words but like most Imperial citizens he had never bothered to learn how to use it.
With a little effort he pulled himself away from the window and wandered over to the room's nano-assembly synthesiser. "Iced orange juice," he requested quietly. Inside the tiny machine trillions of tiny nanites went to work, utilising the ship's raw materials to produce the requested pattern. Atoms were fused together; molecular bonds were created and destroyed by the delicate manipulation of tiny control fields. A few minutes later the panel of the machine shimmered and a cold glass of iced orange juice appeared. Jefran picked it up and took a sip.
"Computer?" Jefran called, summoning the attention of the room's own sub-sentient processor array. "Can you show me an external view?"
The air in front of him hardened and a holographic visiscreen appeared there, showing a magnified view of the mirror sphere ten thousand kilometres off the ship's bow. Jefran shook his head. "No, not that," he said quietly, "rotate the view by pi on the horizontal axis - slowly."
The view slowly panned to the left. As it did so it passed through the corner of what appeared to be a large sheet of metal floating in space, Jefran ignored it. "Stop!" Jefran smiled and pointed to a bright spot in the corner of the view. "Zoom in on that."
The computer complied silently. Jefran took another sip of his drink and reached out to touch the spiralling jewel. His hand passed straight through the hologram. He sighed, this was the real reason he had moved to the clouds - so he could look out at night and see the brilliant light of the galaxy hanging in the sky as a constant reminder of everything that had happened. But he hadn't actually looked at it for years.
He sighed again. "Computer, time?"
"Eighteen thirty three hours."
Jefran swore softly. He was supposed to be meeting Flo for a drink at eighteen thirty. "Clear image," he commanded as he walked out the room.
The door swished shut behind him.
He eventually found Flo sitting at a table in the same bar they had spent the previous evening with a dark look on her face.
"You're late," she pouted as he sat down.
"Sorry," Jefran said quietly. "I was held up." He noticed with vague amusement that she seemed to already be on her fourth drink of the evening.
A slaved waiter drone noticed his entry and fought its way across the room to reach him. Jefran ordered another iced orange juice. Flo ordered a fifth drink.
Jefran glanced around. The atmosphere was decidedly quieter today. Somehow the immediate presence of the sphere was affecting the disposition of everyone onboard like a mild depressant. You couldn't walk past a visiscreen without catching an image of the reflective object floating inertly out there. It was a sudden and dramatic reminder that the universe hadn't given up all its mysteries just yet. To people who had grown up in a society that indulged itself heavily in the utilisation of its almost godlike abilities this was probably quite a shock.
He felt confident that none of the navy operatives in the room knew how a starship engine operated in anything other than the very vaguest detail despite having spent years onboard ships. They simply took it for granted that the engine worked and that it would take them where they wanted to go. It was that simple. Navy starships were invulnerable - that was something everyone learnt before they were five years old. Nothing could touch them when they were surrounded by their protective cocoon of metal and energy.
A totally unexplainable mirror ten thousand kilometres away was bound to shake a few of those basic assumptions at a pretty deep level. Jefran wondered if the crew knew about the Leap into the unknown. He hadn't bothered to find out what the ship had told them. Perhaps it had laid everything bare to them before they left the Quietly Confident but then again perhaps it had just kept quiet to avoid a panic. That was the kind of grey area that wasn't supposed to exist in the land of black and white that was the Empire; perhaps it was a sign that Imperial society wasn't quite as perfect as everyone assumed it to be.
The waiter drone delivered their drinks and Jefran took a thoughtful sip. On the other hand, he decided, you'd have to put in a hell of a lot of effort to produce something better.
"I wonder why they call them 'systems units'?" Flo mused.
Jefran stared at her. "How long have you been onboard the 'Outlook?" he asked.
"Eight years. I was stationed on the 'Confident for twelve before that."
"Well," Jefran sighed, "I have to wonder if that isn't the final comment on Imperial society. You've been serving onboard systems units for twenty years and you still don't know why they're called that."
Flo shrugged. "Do you?"
"A systems unit is designed to be able to deal with any situation across an entire star system."
The LSU's mayor thought for a moment. "Then why is it called a systems unit, not a system unit?"
"They originally were. Names evolve, though."
"Singular to plural," Flo muttered half to herself. She had to wonder if the gradual evolution in starship nomenclature was perhaps at least partly due to the Empire's ever-increasing abilities. A GSU was certainly now capable of dealing with a crisis across much more than a single star system.
They both fell back into silence, quietly sipping their drinks. Jefran glanced around at the small crowd in the room, carefully taking in the scene. It seemed that virtually everyone had a glass in their hands, sipping from them or just cradling them to their chests as though they were indescribable treasures. Jefran didn't trust himself to even try alcohol, not for a while at least. Genetic engineering had long ago eradicated physical alcohol addiction from the human population but psychological addiction was another thing entirely. It had taken the sharp and sudden intrusion of urgent reality to break Jefran away from his self-indulgence; he had no wish to return to it any time soon.
"What was it like?" Flo asked abruptly.
That startled Jefran out of his wandering thoughts. "What?"
"What was it like? Eight hundred years ago, I mean."
Jefran grimaced and took another sip of orange juice. He leant back in his chair. "Do you really want to know?"
The mayor - Jefran still had trouble thinking of her as a mayor - smiled wanly. "That's why I asked."
He sighed. "Where do you want me to start?"
Flo took a sip of her drink - a significantly less conservative one than he had employed, Jefran noticed - and shrugged. "Start at the beginning, keep going until you get to the end, and then stop."
That elicited a smile from both of them. Jefran sighed and tried to remember when the beginning was. The encounter with the sphere eight centuries before had not really begun with a single event but rather was smeared out over time, though it had certainly come to an end abruptly.
"I was stationed onboard the General Systems Unit Not really a matter of honour at the time," he began thoughtfully, "although it was only a fraction larger than the 'Outlook. We didn't build ships quite so big then. We'd been surveying a small stellar cluster when the ship developed a small engine fault necessitating our return to dry-dock. The ship left our mission half-complete and set off towards the Imperial navy shipyards in the Topicus system. On our way back we ran into the sphere.
"It was over a kilometre in diameter and perfectly reflective. We didn't have anything that could penetrate it. The ship was sufficiently curious to hold off on its return to dry-dock and stay to investigate. It sent out its initial sensor data and requested some assistance. The Rapid Strike Unit Force of Arms was the closest ship and it changed course immediately. There was another GSU, the Don't ask me I think, that was further out and changed course to head in but it was over three weeks away.
"We were there for days, I'm sure, weeks perhaps. We lost track of the time. Then...something happened."
"What?" Flo probed.
"I don't know," Jefran admitted. "I can barely remember anything from the mission at all and I can remember nothing after that point but it seems obvious that some sort of disaster took place onboard the GSU. The next thing I knew I was in an escape pod locked in a tractor beam and being pulled onboard the Force of Arms.
"They only found one escape pod. Two occupants -a man named Alexi Kellerin and myself. Somehow we got out."
"What about the ship?" Flo asked. Jefran noticed she'd even stopped sipping her drink.
"There was no sign of the sphere or the ship. Just as if they'd both never existed. No debris, wreckage, nothing. By the end there were about a dozen navy ships swarming around that area but none of them found anything. The GSU in charge even had the Force of Arms doing short superluminal jumps out to look for the photon shell from an explosion - it didn't find anything. They had Alexi and I undergoing detailed brain scans but whatever they did we couldn't remember anything."
Flo leaned back her chair, realised she had been neglecting her drink and took a long sip. "Wow," she offered after a few seconds thought.
Jefran leaned towards her. "That's not the strangest part. We set up an observatory onboard one of the GSUs a couple of light weeks away from the sphere's reported position and watched. We saw the sphere and watched as the ship came up close to it then the ship just vanished. Completely."
"So that's what happened then," Flo breathed.
Jefran shook his head. "No, we saw the GSU vanish at a time that corresponded with before it had sent its request for assistance. Long before it actually went missing."
Jefran picked his orange juice off the table and cradled it thoughtfully. "I went into stasis shortly afterwards. When I eventually came out they'd just discovered the Tolerin passageways and I decided to move to one of the new colonies being established in the clouds."
"That part I knew."
There was a slight hum as Estori slid up to them. "Do you mind if I join you?"
Jefran waved at the drone in a non-committal manner that it decided to interpret as meaning 'yes'. It floated down to eye level. "How are things going, then?" Estori asked.
"I was just filling the mayor in on a few details of my last encounter with this mirror," Jefran replied.
"You think it's physically the same mirror?" Estori asked curiously.
"I feel it."
"Ah, the human 'intuition'."
Flo batted the small metal disc playfully. "Sceptic!"
Estori's eyes flashed briefly. "Yes, actually."
"It's the upbringing," Jefran announced authoritatively, "all that time in drone school."
Estori executed a reasonable attempt at a sigh. "Mister Starpi, drones no more go to school than humans do and you know that."
"Anyone hungry?" Flo asked rhetorically. "I think it's time we got some food over here before we die of starvation."
"Not something I have to worry about," Estori said in a smugly superior tone, "but please do go ahead." It bobbed slightly in the air to emphasise its point. "I wouldn't want you to die and decompose right here in the bar - think of the damage it would do to the woodwork."
Jefran sighed and took another sip of his orange juice. He shuddered involuntarily. Now, why had he done that? Part of him was dreading the morning.
SOURCE: LSU ARROGANT OUTLOOK
DESTINATION: GSU QUIETLY CONFIDENT
TYPE-II MESSAGE STREAM (GWN RELAY)
I've completed the deep-field thermoscan.
Excellent! That was good time, my friend.
I've had precious little else to occupy my attention.
I hate to sound impatient but are you actually going to show me the results!
As you wish [FILE ATTACHED]. I don't think you're going to like them.
Please tell me that this is a joke. You've run diagnostics, I assume.
Everything checks out over here. I'll post the file on the net in an hour or so - after I've girded myself for the inevitable ordeal.
I think that might be wise. If it's any consolation the MS Incredible has been in contact with me. It gave me a long list of complaints about your behaviour and then indicated that it would be willing to 'drop by' if you needed any help. I admit to being slightly perplexed as to why it finds me an acceptable liaison - it certainly dislikes me as much as it dislikes you. Probably more.
Megaships don't just 'drop by' anywhere. If you will excuse my ill manners in temporarily furthering your role as go-between, would you please tell that self-absorbed chunk of mindless metal that its assistance would be about as welcome as a swarm of enemy battleships right now.
I thought that might be your response. I'll convey the gist of it. Personally, I suggest you continue with your investigation. It might be worth risking launching a couple of probes into the sphere - just to see what happens if nothing else. I doubt they'll penetrate.
I might just do that. If only the thing would actually do something! At least then I might be able to get some sort of idea about its capabilities.
Assuming it has any capabilities. We should consider the possibility that our two lost starships were coincidences; the sphere may be nothing more than a particularly odd natural energy phenomenon.
I'm afraid I don't believe in coincidences on that scale. No, there's some sort of intelligence behind that sphere. I can only think of three possible natural phenomena that might conceivably damage an Imperial starship - and this sphere doesn't look even vaguely like any of them.
This was created. I'm certain of it.
** End Message Stream **
"So," began Jefran as he stepped into the conference room, "did you finish the scan?"
An avatar he didn't recognise looked up at him and motioned soundlessly for him to sit down. "It's finished," it said at length. "It was … less than conclusive."
"What do you mean?" Jefran spotted a plate of pastries in the middle of the table and surreptitiously reached forward to grab one. He didn't recognise either the design or the small fruit in the top but that was hardly surprising - most Minds indulged in foodstuff design as a kind of semi-hobby and for all he knew this could have been one of the Arrogant Outlook's creations. "You're not Orseus," he added somewhat as an afterthought.
"I could be," the avatar remarked thoughtfully, "right now though you're speaking to the primary personality."
Jefran took a bite of the pastry. It tasted sweet but not heavily so, the fruit in the centre was slightly sour in comparison. It made an interesting combination. "I'm honoured," he murmured.
The ship's avatar smiled grimly. "You are aware that all of my avatar's have the same personality - they're duplicate subroutines that run within my primary matrix."
"I knew that. It's still good to speak to the same one each time," Jefran finished off the pastry and guiltily reached for another. "Just for continuity's sake."
"Normally I would agree. The memory is the only place where the avatars differ. However, given the importance of this situation all of Orseus' memories are being stored directly in my primary memory core. That makes for better continuity."
Jefran shrugged. It was hard enough dealing with Minds that were orders of magnitude more intelligent than you and could, quite literally, think at several trillion times the speed of light. It was even more difficult when you had to understand that they all suffered form a sort of enlightened multiple-personality disorder. "Where's Flo?" He asked, suddenly aware of her absence.
"Late," the avatar muttered.
Jefran shrugged again and finished off his second pastry. Self discipline preventing him reaching for another one. "Sorry, you said you'd finished the scan?"
The avatar reached over and handed him a data pad. Jefran stared at it briefly and then looked up. "It's just a series of zeros," he said.
"Quite," the avatar agreed. "There was no reflection from the field scan at all, at any point. No data. As if I was scanning empty space."
Jefran frowned. "You've checked the scanners, I assume."
The avatar frowned back at him. "You assume correctly."
"Then why the hell didn't they detect anything? It's definitely there."
"I don't know and maybe it isn't there," the avatar muttered, "this is way beyond me. I'm going to be a laughing stock when I post this on the net."
"Don't take it personally," Jefran advised. "Perhaps a more invasive procedure is called for: probes?"
"The same thing has already been suggested to me. I'm preparing two probes right now - they'll be ready in a few hours."
"I look forward to the results."
The avatar almost laughed, the ship clearly wasn't feeling very happy this morning. "Oh yes," it said with a distinctly irritated intonation to its voice, "results." There was a slight hum and the avatar vanished.
Jefran sighed and glanced around. There was no one else in the room. He took another pastry.
Jefran's mood almost mirrored the ship's as he strolled slowly along the corridor towards … where exactly? He realised with a start that he had no idea where he was going.
He stepped into an elevator and the doors slid silently shut behind him. "My quarters," he decided eventually. Wherever Flo and Estori were he didn't particularly care, he needed some time alone to think. Perhaps, he thought sceptically, Flo had actually found something vaguely mayoral to occupy her time. As for Estori...well he wasn't even sure exactly what the little drone's function was supposed to be. It wasn't part of the 'Outlook's crew, in fact Jefran realised he didn't know the first thing about the drone. He made a mental note to find out.
Jefran had just returned to contemplating his somewhat interesting situation when he was thrown violently to the floor. He silently mouthed 'ouch' at the lower section of the elevator wall and pulled himself to his feet. The elevator appeared to be stopped dead, something that definitely shouldn't be the case. Still, there'd be a maintenance team along shortly in that event. He made a conscious effort to calm his breathing.
Then the lights went out.
The Arrogant Outlook still couldn't see the Calcien ship - even its passive mass-scan array was useless at this range. The ship briefly entertained the possibility of lighting up one of its active sensor systems to take a quick look around but quickly discarded it. It wouldn't tell it anything it didn't already know.
The ship had deployed a number of passive spatial sensor buoys around itself in a neat spherical pattern as soon as it had arrived. It was the buoys that were silently beaming back the telltale signs of an approaching ship. The distortions they were detecting in the fabric of space-time could have been caused by any number of things but only one of them was likely to be moving insystem at slightly over three times the speed of light and decelerating. A warp-propelled starship.
The 'Outlook spent several precious nano-seconds plotting the approaching vessel's trajectory and comparing it to known Calcien patrol routes. Good, there was nothing abnormal about it - the ship was just on a routine patrol.
A Limited Systems Unit is not a warship; it does not possess their ability to maintain full operational status without radiating any energy that might give away its position. The Arrogant Outlook was far too large for such stealth features to have been feasibly designed into its structure. The upshot of this was that on average the ship was about as hard to detect as a small star. Not very.
The ship aimed one of its tight-beam antennae at the huge metal lattice it had deployed and sent a series of brief commands. Cold-gas thrusters fired and the enormous structure began to move. Only a slight adjustment in its position would be necessary to ensure that it was directed away from the approaching patrol vessel.
As soon as the lattice was in position thrusters fired again to halt its movement and it was once again stationary with respect to the LSU. Two hundred thermal-superconductor cables shot out of their hastily rigged locations and attached themselves to the lattice. Their violent departure disturbed some of the thermblok foam that the ship had sprayed all over its outer hull but that wasn't important - the foam was only necessary for the side of the ship facing the Calcien intruder.
Content with its preparations the ship took one last look around itself using its low-power sensors and then shut them down as well. It assumed direct control of its thermal distribution systems and diverted all of the ship's waste heat output into the thermo-dump lattice it had just deployed. Then it carefully retracted its engine fields from the fabric of hyperspace. Emergency shutdown commands were fired into the eighteen backup fusion reactors. The ship tried not to panic as its defensive fields quickly faded away to nothingness.
With the exception of the ship's Mind, buried deep within its structure, there was no longer any source of power operating onboard the Arrogant Outlook. The Mind settled back to wait.
Jefran collapsed back onto the floor. He hadn't ever told anyone before but he wasn't particularly keen on darkness. In fact, it scared him. Luckily he had no such phobia about enclosed spaces or he imagined that the combination of the two would have driven him mad.
He tried to concentrate his mind on something solid but for all his trying the only thing he was able to focus on was a menacing image of the mirror sphere, just hovering in space.
Time passes strangely slowly when you are crouched on the floor of an elevator, Jefran realised. He had no means of determining just how much time had passed either. That was something he found faintly disturbing.
A flicker of light! Jefran blinked several times. No, it was gone. He sighed. Deprived of sensory input it was not unusual for the brain to play tricks on itself. He almost laughed...
Except there it was again. A tiny speck of burning light growing brighter by the second. Reds and oranges blended into each other in a pulsing maelstrom of radiance. It grew larger and larger and Jefran pushed himself back into the corner of the elevator in an attempt to get away from it.
But he was in an enclosed elevator. No way in, no way out. The flame was still growing, engulfing all the space. Jefran stared in terror at the ghostly light as it reached out towards him, his trained mind still cataloguing the event despite his emotional turmoil. Part of him dimly realised that there was no heat, no heat at all associated with the flame. Just light.
The light reached out and engulfed him.
He wasn't in the elevator any more. He was running down a corridor, twisting through a maze of tunnels in the bowels of a starship. It wasn't the 'Outlook, the corridors were too narrow, too cramped and the walls were too bare. This was the kind of ship design that hadn't been used in centuries.
Jefran recognised it. He was onboard the GSU Not really a matter of honour, a ship lost eight hundred years before. He could feel himself running, his feet pounding on the floor, the sharp intakes of air into his lungs. Klaxons blared overhead, supplementing the ghostly red glow on the corridor walls from the flashing red lights above.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship!" A mechanical voice seemed to surround him, grating against his thoughts. "Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
He turned a corner, running blindly now without any thought as to direction. He just had to get away, away from the sound, away from the light, away from danger, away from it all. The corridor was blocked. A mass of twisted girders lay across his path and the light from the emergency beacons was suddenly drowned out by the flickering glow of a powerful fire burning within.
Jefran skidded to a stop, barely managing to avoid running straight into the lethally hot mass of metal. He stepped backwards, trying not to panic. Why weren't the fire suppression systems working? Why wasn't there a drone crew here to smoother the blaze? What was happening?
He turned, running back to the last junction in the corridor while trying to control his runaway breathing. He tried to release a mild sedative into his blood stream but there was too much adrenaline, he no longer had control over his body.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
Where was everyone? Why weren't the corridors swarming with people trying to escape? Perhaps they already had? Could it be that he was the last person left onboard? How had he got onboard in the first place?
He ran round another corner and slammed straight into someone else running in the opposite direction. They both fell to the floor.
Jefran groaned and reached up to touch his face. His fingers came away sticky with blood. He ached all over - perhaps it would just be a good idea to rest here for a while.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent," the metallic voice intoned.
Perhaps not. He pulled himself to his feet and then stumbled over to the unfortunate individual he'd hit. He was just as dazed as Jefran, trying to pull himself off the floor in a half-hearted manner without any real sense of direction. Jefran reached down and pulled on his arm.
A few seconds later they were both standing. "Who are you?" Jefran screamed the question over the clamouring alarms.
"Alexi Kellerin," came the startled reply, "you?"
"Jefran Starpi," Jefran screamed again, "I don't suppose you know another way to an emergency pod?"
Alexi rubbed his head gingerly and looked down in disgust at the blood on his hand. Then he took another look at the flashing emergency alarms and decided that this was not a place he wanted to be. "This way," he yelled and pulled Jefran off back in the direction he had come from.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
Jefran had actually only made one wrong turn - almost a miracle given his confusion. There was a bank of emergency escape pods less than two hundred metres away from where he had collided with the unfortunate Alexi. None had been launched.
Where was everybody?
Another warning from the mechanical voice cut off any more contemplative thoughts on the location of the GSU's crew, this time complemented by the screeching noise of buckling metal. They both climbed into an emergency pod.
The pods were designed to carry twenty people and, since they were of an Imperial design, they were designed to do it in something approaching luxury. Jefran and Alexi decided without communication not to wait for any others, as soon as they were aboard and strapped in they both stabbed the launch button.
Half a second later they were outside the GSU and moving rapidly away. Jefran stared out of the pod's visiscreen at the ship they had left, enormous scorch marks clearly visible on its outer hull.
Everything went white.
"Sorry about that," the 'Outlook apologised over the speaker system, "but we had a Calcien patrol vessel insystem. It's departed now and I'll be restoring full power to all systems over the next couple of minutes. Thank you for your co-operation."
Jefran blinked tears away from his eyes. The normally bright lighting hurt after so long in darkness. He reached out gingerly probed the walls of the elevator as if to persuade himself of their solidity. Another hallucination?
There was a lurch and the elevator started moving again. Jefran pulled himself to his feet.
"There's nothing wrong with you," the medical drone assured him. "In fact," it added darkly, "you're in a considerably better condition than the rest of the crew."
Flo looked down at herself and then over to Jefran before finally turning to the drone. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
The drone's eyes flashed a delighted green. "Oh, nothing," it said along with a sound that Jefran took to be a drone giggle. "As for you," it said, turning back to Jefran, "you could run a marathon tomorrow. There's nothing medically wrong with you."
Jefran nodded slowly and thanked the drone. It bobbed in the air briefly and then shot off to deal with another patient. He levered himself off the table he had been half sitting on and stood up.
There was a faint hum and an avatar materialised next to him. This time Jefran recognised it.
"Jefran? Flo? We're ready to launch the probes," Orseus announced. "The forward observation room is clear if you want to..." It trailed off.
Jefran glanced over at Flo and made a passable attempt at a grin. "Let's go."
They wandered along the corridor for several minutes before they came to an elevator. "Forward observation room," Flo called as they stepped inside.
"This is the second time I thought I saw Alexi in as many days," Jefran murmured, "I'm not used to suffering from hallucinations."
Flo shrugged. "I'm not an expert on the human mind, I'm afraid. But have you considered the simplest explanation? Alexi isn't aboard the ship is he?"
Jefran almost laughed. "What would be the chance of that? It would be an enormous coincidence, don't you think? Even if..."
"Even if what?"
"Alexi died twenty-six years ago," Jefran admitted with a sigh. "In a gliding accident."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
Jefran smiled sadly. "We barely knew each other."
The forward observation room was exactly as they had left it. Despite the ominous presence of the mirror sphere barely ten thousand kilometres away it seemed that most of the crew preferred to pretend it wasn't there - and standing in an observation room watching it was not the best way of doing that.
Estori floated up to them. "You're late," it muttered, "we've been waiting for you."
"So sue me," Flo muttered back.
"Now, now, children," Jefran murmured quietly, only half concentrating. "Let's play nice, shall we?"
"I couldn't agree more," Orseus suggested as it materialised next to him. "Despite the fact that I'm not accustomed to being kept waiting."
"Are you ready to launch the probes?" Jefran asked.
Orseus smiled. "In a manner of speaking. In fact, they've already been launched."
"I thought you were waiting for us!" Flo exclaimed, trying to fit as much indignation into her tone as she could manage.
"I was waiting before I make the penetration attempt," Orseus explained.
"Our defence systems are fully deployed?" Estori asked.
"Naturally. Although during our brief encounter with the Calcien ship we were completely defenceless and we seem to have survived relatively intact."
"Well, that's reassuring."
"How long ago did you launch the probes?" Jefran asked, a thought beginning to form in the back of his mind.
"About an hour, why?"
"Why did it take so long for them to travel the distance?"
Orseus sighed. "They were instructed to move slowly - so as not to appear threatening to … well, anything really. Plus the work involved in moving them while keeping their orbit the same as ours isn't exactly trivial."
There was definitely something troublesome lurking in the back of Jefran's mind now. He just couldn't quite grasp what it was. "We're in the same orbit as the sphere?"
"Yes, we're trailing it. Why? We're sufficiently far out from the star that our orbital period is something like eighty years anyway."
"That wasn't what I was concerned about. Where are those probes positioned?"
"One of them is positioned between us and the sphere, the other between the sphere and the star - roughly speaking of course."
"Show me the sensor readings from the second probe!"
Orseus looked vaguely bemused then shrugged. The observation room vanished to be replaced by thousands of scrolling lines of text. Jefran and Flo were surrounded by the real-time data flowing into the 'Outlook from its probe.
Jefran waved his hands angrily. "Freeze and show me the base-level readings for that instant in time," he asked. "Please," he added as an afterthought.
The holographic illusion distorted, folding back until it was a single wall-sized sheet of text and numbers - no longer moving. Jefran checked down the list until he found the piece of information he wanted. He laughed.
"What is it?" Orseus asked.
Jefran stopped laughing. "There's no ongoing graviton exchange between the star and the sphere," he remarked in as level a voice as he could manage. It was so blatantly obvious now that he could have kicked himself for not thinking of it earlier.
"Of course not!" Orseus nearly shouted at him. "It's massless, isn't..." The avatar trailed off.
Jefran sat down in a chair and crossed his arms. He had a satisfied smile on his face. "I hate to be the human who picks up on this, ship."
Orseus' image distorted, shimmered and was replaced by the avatar image for the ship's primary personality. "I see your point," it muttered quietly.
Flo looked from Jefran to the avatar and then back again. "Would someone please explain to me what the hell is so important?"
The avatar looked straight at her. "The sphere isn't exchanging gravitons with the star - obviously since it's massless. But then if it isn't being influenced by the star's gravity, what the hell is keeping it in orbit?"
"Quite so," murmured Jefran. "I think I deserve a drink."
The ship's avatar looked over at him. "I think you're right." A huge pitcher of orange juice, almost a metre high, materialised in the centre of the room. "It's holographic," the ship explained, "but it should tide you over until a waiter-drone can arrive."
Jefran smiled. "I guess this is a lesson in how not to accept things the universe throws at you without questioning them."
The avatar laughed hollowly. "No kidding." There was a moment's pause while the ship considered all the options. "I'm going to proceed with the probe penetration attempt," it decided.
"Might that be dangerous?" Flo sounded strangely concerned at that.
"Perhaps," came a voice from the corner of the room, "but then - what isn't?"
Jefran turned and then rose to his feet in shock. "Alexi?"
Alexi took a few steps forward. "Who else did you expect?"
Flo reached out and lightly touched the man. "Jefran," she said quietly, trying her best to keep her voice level, "for one of your hallucinations he seems awfully solid from my point of view."
"Hallucination?" Alexi asked, his eyes twinkling. "I'm touched."
"You're dead," Jefran breathed.
The door slid open violently and six drones swarmed into the room, taking up positions surrounding Alexi. "Stay where you are," the lead drone commanded. Scan beams shot out of the drone's casing, playing up and down the man's body.
"Biologically human," the drone reported a few seconds later, "but there are some unusual emissions."
The ship's avatar shook its head. "What the hell is going on here?" The ship broadcast brief stand-down commands to its two probes; it had enough to puzzle about at the moment.
"Was that question addressed at me?" Alexi asked, seemingly unaware of the semi-panic his appearance had created.
"Take him to the brig and hold him there," the ship ordered, "do not allow him to move out of your sight at any time."
The lead drone's eyes flashed and the drone team began to bustle Alexi out of the observation room.
"Wait a minute..." Jefran began to protest.
The avatar swung round the face the human. "No," it said icily, "let me remind you that you are here as an adviser. This is my ship and I am in charge of this mission."
"And responsible for your own conduct," Jefran reminded the avatar in an equally icy tone.
"Accepted, but I've no particular desire to be compromised by a Trojan horse. I know exactly who Alexi Kellerin is, and unless I am very much mistaken - he's dead. This … individual will remain incarcerated where he can't possibly do any damage."
"I have to speak to him," Jefran continued to protest but he had to concede that the ship was only being prudent.
"In the morning," the ship decided, "for the moment our guest will undergo some detailed scans." The question that most bothered the ship went unvoiced: how did he get in here?
The third day of the mission began in a similar manner to the previous two. A calm voice alarm woke Jefran at 0630 (ship time) and he spent a brief ten minutes attending to the normal process of washing and preparing himself for the day. By the time he returned to the bedroom a drone had laid out a clean uniform on the bed. By 0645 Jefran was on his way to the forward observation room.
A little effort on the ship's part had converted what was supposed to be a peaceful place of relaxation into a kind of pseudo command centre overnight. Data terminals had been installed along the walls and a large semicircular ring of consoles had been given pride of place in the centre. There were three chairs placed within the semicircle.
A new circular conference table capable of seating five to six people was placed behind the semicircle with the telltale protrusion of a holographic projector in the centre.
Jefran looked around while trying to keep any hint of surprise off his face. He felt a soft tap on his shoulder and swivelled round to find Estori floating behind him at eye level.
"The ship thought that you'd want to see the prisoner now," the drone said by way of introduction. "So I popped up to come get you."
Jefran sighed. 'The prisoner', he thought. Now he's just 'the prisoner'. "Why didn't someone tell me while I was still in my quarters?"
"Force of habit," Estori suggested after a moment's thought. "Come on! We wouldn't want to keep the ship waiting." The drone began to bustle Jefran out of the room.
"Perish the thought," the human muttered quietly.
"Found anything interesting?" Jefran asked. They were standing in a raised control area with huge visiscreen displays giving them a one-way view straight into the ship's three brig cells. Alexi was in one, sitting on the small bed in the centre cell staring aimlessly into space. A shimmering force field was barely visible at the entrance.
Jefran found himself wondering when exactly was the last time these cells had been used. Although they were sparkling clean there was still an overwhelming atmosphere of age here. He thought about querying the ship on the matter but decided that it would be impolite so early in the morning.
"Quite a lot and not very much," Orseus replied in a quiet tone.
"Care to elaborate?" Jefran walked over to the food dispenser in the corner of the room and asked for a glass of orange juice. His actual drink had never arrived yesterday, its orderly progression from atoms to juice in a place in his hand disrupted by the unusual arrival.
He waited a few moments and then reached in to pick up his drink. He sipped it thoughtfully and then turned back to the avatar.
Orseus shrugged. "Everything reads as human...except...well it's basically too human."
"Baseline, all of it. Right on the line. No deviations. Practically a text book case."
"A text book case … of human," Jefran mused.
"Now there's an interesting thought," murmured Estori. Jefran threw an irritated glance at the small drone.
"How is he?" Jefran asked. "Mentally, I mean."
"Strange," was the best reply Orseus could come up with. "He's lucid but he seems almost detached. If you ask him a question he might answer it, he might not but in either case the answer will tell you nothing - believe me, I've tried."
"Does he know why he isn't dead?"
Orseus laughed hollowly. "Now that isn't a question I thought I'd ever be asked."
"You know what I mean."
"No, he's been … less than forthcoming on that particular topic."
"Strange," Jefran muttered. It was the only sensible remark he could think of.
"You think that's strange? He's been onboard since late last afternoon, under constant surveillance now for nearly fifteen hours. In all that time his vital signs haven't altered, he hasn't shown any sign of fatigue and he hasn't slept. He hasn't asked for water, or food, and there's no indication from his biometric readings that he needs to eat or drink at all."
"Strange," Jefran repeated, for the first time at a complete loss for a useful observation. "I should speak to him."
"You should try."
The brig looked darker inside than it had from the control area. Jefran wondered if it was simply his imagination. The shimmering force field cast a ghostly half-shadow on the floor.
The man in the cell didn't turn to face him, didn't move at all.
"Hello, Alexi," Jefran repeated.
"Hi there," Alexi said dreamily, still without turning.
Jefran walked round so he could stare into the other man's face. "What happened, Alexi? What the hell happened to you?"
The man in the cell just smiled.
"What happened?" Jefran demanded, his voice growing angry.
"I hope it doesn't matter," Alexi murmured quietly.
"What doesn't matter, Alexi? What happened? What's going on?"
The man sighed. "So many questions."
Jefran turned round and walked towards the door. There was a hiss of escaping air behind him and Jefran spun round just in time to see suddenly Alexi stand up.
For a fraction of an instant his expression turned to one of pure panic. "Jefran!" He screamed as a swirling vortex engulfed him. When it subsided he was gone.
Estori shot into the room, accompanied by six security drones. "Where did he go?" It demanded.
Jefran shrugged. "That's the same thing that happened when I thought I saw him in my quarters."
"Great," said Orseus, materialising next to Estori. "That's all we need."
Jefran realised with a shock that he was still holding his glass of orange juice in his hand. "I think it's time we stopped playing games," he murmured quietly.
"I couldn't agree more," the avatar replied, its appearance shifting to reflect the presence of the ship's primary personality. "I'm going to send in the penetration probe."
Estori zipped ahead in its enthusiasm leaving Jefran to wander up to the observation room with the ship's avatar at a more leisurely pace. The man studiously ignored the holographic projection walking beside him, giving the appearance of being deep in thought.
Just before they reached the elevator Jefran turned and pushed the avatar sideways. Flesh connected with energy field and the hologram reeled backwards, falling against the wall. "What the hell…" it began.
Jefran put a finger to his lips, keeping his hand on the avatar's chest. "You're hiding something," he said softly. "I want to know what."
The avatar reached up and angrily pushed the man's hand away. "I don't know what you're talking about," it replied icily.
Jefran glared at it. "Slipping into lies, ship?" He shook his head in disgust. "That's bad form. I'd have expected at least an attempt to extricate yourself with a few judicious half-truths."
"Jefran," the avatar began, "I…"
"Your behaviour is not consistent with our situation. You're too confident, too sure of yourself. You're contemplating sending a probe into a completely unknown and quite probably lethally dangerous sphere and your attitude defies rationality. I remember some of what happened on that GSU, eight centuries ago. I remember. Technology hasn't advanced that far in eight centuries - yet I get the feeling you're only slightly scared. It was terrified! Why aren't you?"
The avatar sighed. "I am a more powerful ship, Mister Starpi, I am quite capable of…"
"Shut up!" Jefran's shout silenced the avatar immediately. "I'm not offering a theory. This isn't a hypothesis. This is a fact! I want the truth."
The ship spent several moments considering its options. In the end, its conclusion was an obvious one: I need him. "I have an insurance policy," it admitted.
Jefran took a step backwards. "What?"
The avatar sighed, a very human action coming from the artificial construct. "The Quietly Confident was, er, is carrying components for a new AB-12 missile base to be sited in the clouds. Before I left the GSU one of the warheads was transferred onboard. We called it Trinket - my final insurance."
Jefran nodded slowly. "Trinket," he murmured. "That's cute."
"We thought so."
The avatar hesitated for a fraction of a second before replying. "Standard AM."
Jefran slammed his fist into the wall. "What the hell were you thinking?" he hissed angrily.
"I had two conditions for taking this assignment, Jefran," the ship retorted. "One was first hand knowledge - you. The second was an adequate method of defending myself."
"The Quietly Confident should never have released that warhead to you!"
"Those were my conditions, Jefran! The Quietly Confident is a good friend of mine. It knew I was serious."
"And you didn't possibly think that bringing a twenty-five thousand ton antimatter warhead along for the ride might be construed as just a little hostile! We're supposed to be treading softly here!"
The avatar stared directly at Jefran. "It seems necessary to remind you that I am in charge of this mission. Trinket is a back-up option, nothing more. I don't have the capability to deploy the warhead."
"Its purpose is deterrence!" The avatar's voice was deadly soft. "Without an attached drive system it has no offensive use. If that thing goes up then it takes us with it!"
Jefran spent a moment in thought. "I don't approve," he murmured quietly.
"I'm not asking for your approval."
The elevator door slid open and the avatar stepped inside. Jefran followed silently.
The forward observation room (Jefran wondered if he should now think of it as the 'command centre' or something else suitably impressive in a linguistic sense) was occupied by a gigantic hologram of the mirror sphere. Two green dots indicated the position of the ship's probes.
"I've copied all our data to the GSU Quietly Confident," the ship announced, "and to the" - it grimaced - "MS Incredible."
"So what are we waiting for?" Flo asked. As was obviously her habit she had arrived late (if you could call 0800 hours late). She seemed not to notice the poisonous look Jefran was aiming at the avatar.
"Nothing," the ship assured her. "We're going in now."
One of the green dots on the display suddenly started moving, slowly at first but building in speed quickly until it shot into the sphere. And vanished.
There was several seconds of silence. "Well," Flo remarked eventually, "that was impressive."
Jefran glanced over at the ship's avatar and raised an eyebrow.
"There's no sign of the probe," it announced calmly, "but both the sensors on the other probe and my own detected it penetrating the mirror barrier."
"How is that possible, if it's an energy field?"
"It isn't," the ship said quietly. "If the energy field was sufficiently weak to allow a probe to penetrate it we should be able to scan it properly."
"The impossible is beginning to bore me," Estori remarked light-heartedly. "Let me know when we come across something that we think is possible."
"Will do," Flo murmured.
"Any signals from the probe at all?" Jefran asked, swallowing his pride and breaking his self-imposed silence.
"Communication ceased the instant the probe's antennae crossed the threshold."
They stood perfectly still for several minutes, willing the probe to somehow come back into existence.
"Something's happening!" Orseus reported suddenly, the primary personality abandoning the avatar in order to concentrate on the developing situation.
"The probe?" Flo asked.
"No," Orseus replied, "a slight space-time curvature is forming."
Jefran stared at the huge hologram of the mirror sphere. "Get us out of here," he decided suddenly.
"What?" Orseus sounded surprised. "We seem to have actually produced some sort of response here."
Jefran turned and stared straight at the holographic construct. His eyes burned with fear. "Get us out of here now!"
"The gravity field is intensifying." There was a deep rumble in the background as the ship engaged its engines and began to swing itself around. "Gravitational field strength is now consistent with a medium size star."
Jefran just stared at the hologram, an expression of dumbfounded fear on his face. Flo walked over to him. "What's happening?" She demanded to know.
Jefran turned to face her. "What happened then," he said softly.
He blinked a tear away from one eye. "I remember everything!"
"Gravity field still intensifying," Orseus reported. Jefran thought he could detect a hint of worry in the hologram's voice. "Now approaching that of a class-2 stellar cluster. First order derivative is increasing."
Flo looked over at Estori. "What the hell does that mean?"
Estori's eyes flashed red. "The rate of growth is increasing."
"When can we use the main engines?" Jefran demanded. "We have to get out of here."
"Five seconds," Orseus said in as calm a voice as it could manage. "Five seconds and we're out of here."
"We hope," murmured Estori.
"Four seconds," said Flo.
The sphere had vanished completely from the windows now, the ship was slowly turning away. Only the holographic sensor image was still there, hovering menacingly in the centre of the room.
"The sphere's radius is increasing!" Orseus reported.
"Three seconds," said Flo again.
"It's now increased by over a thousand kilometres," Orseus continued.
"Now four thousand."
Jefran closed his eyes. There was a violent jolt.
He opened his eyes again. The holographic sphere still dominated the room, a tiny indicator in the corner counting up its radius.
"Main engines have failed to engage," Orseus was very worried now.
"What!" It was a combined scream.
"Something is distorting the fabric of space. My engine fields won't engage. Sphere's gravity field now approaching danger level. Radius is fifteen thousand kilometres and increasing."
Jefran took a deep breath, all too aware that the ship had only moved to a distance of twenty thousand kilometres from the sphere.
The holographic view shifted to show an unbroken wall of reflective mirror rushing towards them. Two laser beams lanced out from the ship's aft weapon's array as if to test the mirror's resolve. A spread of twelve fusion torpedoes followed them but the weapons energy was simply reflected back into space. One of the laser beams stuck the ship itself, slicing a sizzling line across its defensive fields before the ship cut it off.
The wall continued to rush towards them.
"I've managed to contact the Quietly Confident," the ship reported quietly, "the RSU Violent end has been despatched to assist. ETA eight hours."
Jefran laughed. "It might as well be eight years."
Flo was watching the radius reading count inexorably upwards. All she could think was violent end.
The sphere engulfed them. Everything went dark.
Emergency lights eventually came on, casting the observation room in a ghostly red glow. The view out of the windows was perfectly black.
Jefran pulled himself carefully to his feet. He didn't even remember how he had fallen onto the floor. "How are we?" He asked, but no one answered. Flo lay unconscious on the floor, apparently having hit her head against the side of the console as she fell. Blood was seeping across the floor from a gash in her forehead.
Estori lay silently inactive on the ground, its metallic eyes completely dead.
Jefran collapsed into a chair. "What's happened?" He murmured.
There was a brief flash of light and Orseus materialised. Jefran examined the avatar briefly, sweeping his eyes up and down. It didn't look quite whole somehow. The holographic illusion was semitransparent.
"What happened?" He repeated.
"I don't know," the avatar said quietly. "But we appear to be caught within an event horizon not inconsistent with that of a black hole."
"Black holes don't reflect light."
"They don't expand out at you or send you dead people from your past either, as a rule." The avatar pointed out. "I just said what it appeared to be, not what it is."
"Can we escape?"
The avatar's eyes could have answered Jefran's question. "Not without superluminal drive."
"How long have we got?"
"I'm holding the ship together with massive reinforcement of the structural integrity system and using the inertial compensator fields to maintain internal gravity. That's absorbing hideous amounts of power - and my hyperspace fields aren't supplying energy anymore. We have only as long as the emergency power reserves can hold out - then I'll suffer a catastrophic field failure."
"Eight minutes, twelve seconds as of the end of your question."
"Trinket?" There was no disgust left in Jefran's voice. Fear dominated.
"I've lost the link. I can't order a detonation."
Wasted effort. We should have known it wouldn't be that easy. The man brushed a rebellious lock of hair away from one eye. "We have to get people off the ship."
The avatar shimmered dangerously. The ship was obviously not diverting any more power than was absolutely necessary to its holographic projectors. "People will die out there."
Jefran reached out to grab the avatar's arm but his hand passed straight through the hologram. The ship hadn't bothered with using energy fields to give it a physical surface. "Trust me, we have to get people off the ship."
The ship seemed to consider it for several moments. "I'll sound evacuation."
Jefran nodded and stood up again. "We have to get to the escape pods."
"It's a long way from here," the avatar said, "down corridor 12-h."
Jefran reached down and put a finger to Flo's neck - something he should have done immediately. There was a pulse but it was a worryingly weak one. "I'll have to carry her," he decided.
"It's a long way," the avatar repeated. "I'll send a drone team for her and Estori."
Jefran looked up and knew immediately that it was a lie. He nodded grimly and headed for the door. "Run," the avatar suggested. "You now have seven minutes."
A mechanical voice blared out over the emergency speakers. "Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
Jefran ran. He followed the sign to 12-h and found himself in what appeared to be a maintenance corridor. It was narrower than the others on the ship. He hadn't even realised that it existed.
Klaxons began to blare overhead, powered by their local energy reserves.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
He turned a corner and nearly smashed straight into a mass of twisted wall sections burning on the floor. The corridor was blocked.
Déjà vu, Jefran couldn't help thinking as he retracted his steps, desperately looking for another route.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
He pelted back to the last intersection and took the other corridor, leaving 12-h behind. He didn't know how he was going to get to the emergency pods now. He ran round another corridor and slammed into the first person he had found since leaving the observation room.
He pulled himself to his feet and stared over at the familiar face. "Alexi?" Jefran was beginning to think he was going insane. Things just didn't make sense any more.
"Jefran?" Alexi asked sceptically as he pulled himself to his feet. The air swirled again.
"No!" Jefran screamed. But Alexi didn't disappear. "Who are you?" Jefran had to shout the question over the klaxons.
"Alexi Kellerin," was the obvious reply. "You?"
Jefran reached up to touch his head. "Jefran Starpi," he murmured. He took a deep breath, trying to cram some of the ship's life-giving air down into his lungs. "Good to meet you," he said quietly, increasingly confused as to what was real and what wasn't. "12-h is blocked. I don't suppose you know another way to an emergency pod?"
Alexi rubbed his head gingerly and then smiled grimly. "This way!"
Emergency pods were the same the Empire over, the same throughout all of time. They did what they were needed to do so there was never any need to change them. None of the pods in this particular bank had been launched. Jefran found himself wondering how many people had managed to get off the ship.
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Catastrophic field failure is imminent."
The two men climbed into an emergency pod and hit the launch key. The pod's engines propelled them away from the ship.
Jefran felt the world bending around him. He coughed, his throat and lungs trying to clear themselves of the smoke that he had apparently breathed in. The air in the escape pod wasn't particularly thick - actually it was calculated to be the bare minimum necessary to keep humans alive. He felt himself losing consciousness and after a while he just gave up struggling. He allowed himself to slip into a blissful sleep.
"Unidentified emergency pod! Unidentified emergency pod! Please respond."
The voice blaring from the pod's speakers shook Jefran and Alexi into consciousness. His experience on the ship was already flowing away, becoming part of a barely remembered dream. Jefran reached forward and fumbled with the controls until he found the correct key sequence to reply.
"Hello," he offered.
"Navy emergency pod, this is the Rapid Strike Unit Force of Arms. We have you in a tractor beam. Are you from the GSU?"
"What?" Jefran had barely heard the question.
"Are you from the Not really a matter of honour?" The voice repeated. "What happened to the GSU?"
Jefran and Alexi looked at each other. "The GSU?" Alexi asked quietly.
"I…" Jefran attempted.
Jefran lifted a hand to wipe imagined sweat from his forehead but it came away slightly red with blood. He looked down with confusion and then back to Alexi. "I," he stammered, "I don't remember."