Authors: Andrew Hindle
Tags: #humour, #asimov, #universe, #iain banks, #Science Fiction, #future, #scifi, #earth, #multiverse, #spaceship
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Hindle
All rights reserved.
For my sisters Clare and Bella
This, too, shall pass.
There was no such thing as a beauty pageant for starships. The great AstroCorps ships of the line, and the ancient, majestic monsters of the Molran Fleet, didn’t parade up and down the catwalk of the stars. They didn’t flaunt the revealing eveningwear of their hull shielding or show off their talents in acts of stunning diplomacy, blinding speed, staggering personnel capacity or raw, world-chewing firepower. Starships didn’t get to present themselves to a panel of judges and answer questions about inter-species politics, the ethics of cloning, and the ever-present threat of the Cancer in the Core and What We Should Do About It.
And that was a shame, Commander Z-Lin Clue reflected, because starships – the big ones, at least – most certainly had minds of their own and would probably have given some pretty interesting answers to those questions. And if there
been such a thing as a beauty pageant for starships, mind of her own or not,
Astro Tramp 400
would have absolutely mopped the floor in the Best Personality category. If only because, compared to the other competitors, she would actually have been rather like a mop standing next to a group of beauty pageant contestants, pretending to
Yes, in the hypothetical beauty pageant and talent show of interstellar travel, the
was the plucky nobody with bird-nest hair, the indomitable widow with three kids and stretch marks, the utterly unsuitable fish out of water who just wouldn’t stop. And in the end, everyone fell in love with her even though she lost by the widest margin in pageant history …
“What are you thinking, Acting Captain?” Decay asked. The seven-foot-five-inch Blaran’s tone was polite, but they’d been in the so-called soft-space of relative speed for long enough that the grey gulf was beginning to grate on everyone’s nerves, rendering that
slightly sarcastic in Clue’s ears if not in Decay’s harmonious bifid larynx. Even if soft-space wasn’t as uniquely horrible as the
space had been, it was far more prolonged and no less mind-numbing for its comparative familiarity and frankly infinite psychological preferability.
,” she said, “and let’s hear what you were thinking before I go embarrassing myself.”
“I was just thinking that soft-space is so dull, it’s funny the things the mind wanders to,” Decay said innocently, his wide-flared webbed ears rising in an unreadable Blaran emotional signal as though a small pink bat was preparing to take off from the back of his head, “in an effort to distract itself from the nothingness.”
“Then we are very much in accord,” Z-Lin said. Sally, over at the tactical station, gave a little grunt of agreement. At the moment the bridge was minimally crewed by Clue, Sally, Decay and Zeegon.
“Say what you like about the grey,” Zeegon spoke up from the helm. The dark-haired young man had been sitting at the controls and doing nothing in particular since the start of his shift, simply because it was his job to be at the helm even if the ship was steering itself while at relative speed. The calculations were done ahead of time and if any adjustments needed to be made to their course while in soft-space, nothing short of an executive override and a synthetic intelligence doing the recalculations would help them. “At least it’s not such thorough nothingness that it turns out to be full of anti-something that wants to convert you into blobs of stuff that only exists because your senses all band together to agree that nothing can possibly be that nothing-y.”
This much was true, and another case of Z-Lin and the crew being on the same essential wavelength. Compared to their brief and near-disastrous foray into hitherto-undiscovered alternative forms of interstellar travel, the grey void of soft-space was warm and familiar. It was unreality, technically, but at least you knew it was unreality on the opposite side of
your own universe
In fact, Z-Lin resolved for at least the twentieth time since they’d been deposited back into real space and had turned their weary faces towards what the charts assured them was the nearest registered settlement, it would be best to just pretend the whole underspace experiment had never happened. At least not to them. Some things were best dismantled and forgotten. Soft-space had been good enough for her forefathers, and it was good enough for her. And with any luck, within the next hour it would successfully and safely drop them in an inhabited star system. It wasn’t much of a habitation – barely a footnote in the charts with an extremely skimpy technological profile attached – but it was something.
Travelling at relative speed, ten thousand times the speed of light and faster, normal space reversed itself and the reality around and containing the relative-capable vessel dropped into a user-friendly – or
user-friendly – layer of unreality.
Soft-space. The grey. Ol’ Drabby, as Z-Lin’s father insisted his grandmother had called it.
Any speed faster than light but slower than relative, and a starship was torn to pieces by the laws of physics throwing a temper tantrum. At relative speed and above, the laws of physics went away and the laws of
physics stepped in. They were bigger, more monolithic, and had far less time for little mites from reality and their flippant little actions and reactions … but at the same time, they were a bit more forgiving of the small stuff. It allowed faster-than-light transit from one region of space to another, bypassing the rule that said faster-than-light travel was impossible. And as long as you didn’t get greedy, and try to get Ol’ Drabby to do anything more for you, the transaction was complete and you were free to continue living in linear time and with all your atoms where they belonged.
So it was relative speed, or a subluminal crawl that just about guaranteed your great-great-grandchildren might have a shot at getting to their destination. Humans didn’t, rather famously, freeze as well as the more hardy Molranoid species – your Molren, your Blaren, your Bonshooni.
It was disturbing, yes. Particularly once you’d been floating through it for a sufficient stretch of time. The sixty-odd hours they’d taken through soft-space from their last location to their next destination, while enough to fray tempers and arouse sarcasm, had barely been a skip. Most of their irritability was residual stress from the events leading them to their last location. Z-Lin was confident that the last traces of it would vanish once they got to an inhabited world, took a few lungfuls of unprocessed air, ate something that hadn’t come out of a printer or a lab and, in short, got to see with their own eyes that the rest of the universe was still out there.
And still alive
, she couldn’t help but conclude to herself.
Despite what any crazy Molren might have told us to the contrary
No, soft-space was nothing like the strange primordial nothingness they’d been subjected to at the four murderous hands of the self-styled Artist. It had a strange, empty familiarity. Backstage at the well-known and well-loved theatre that was their own existence, rather than simply sunk and lost in an increasingly-insistent, increasingly-
“Yeah,” she said to herself, leaning forward at the auxiliary command console she habitually occupied when she was on the bridge, “it’s time to get out of here and look at the stars again. Zeegon, how–”
“If you ask ‘are we there yet?’ one more time, I will turn this starship straight around,” Zeegon quipped, busily rummaging under his console.
“Oh,” Clue remarked, “you learned how to do that sometime, did you?”
Zeegon straightened up, there was a slightly tense pause, and Z-Lin kicked herself. Under normal circumstances, she and the crew enjoyed a bit of banter together. Now, immersed in soft-space and uncertain of what they would be confronted by when they decelerated, the banter had an edge to it despite all the goodwill in the galaxy.
“Yeah,” Zeegon said after that moment’s hesitation, “nothing to it, just turn the master controls to ninety degrees and whack on the handbrake…” Clue relaxed a little as the helmsman turned dark, twinkling eyes on her. “Seriously though, I have no idea. But that bar that was completely blue when we started ticked all the way down to a spot a while ago, then the spot turned orange and stretched back into a line, and now that
line is ticking down quite a bit faster than the blue one did. I’m no pilot but I think after that we get a red line which counts us down into real space on ten.”
Z-Lin sighed inaudibly and Zeegon went back to his rummaging. The orange line was, of course, the hour marker and Zeegon was perfectly aware of this and had in fact announced it ship-wide according to the protocol he was still earnestly learning. But he hadn’t told anyone anything since then, and had been playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with his pet weasel, Boonie, for the past … well, that was the thing. Z-Lin hadn’t really been keeping track of
long it had been.
She considered calling the data up on her console, but was naggingly aware that her doing so would show up on
’s console, and he would probably smarm off at her again, which would in turn risk another minor but unwelcome flare-up. So for the time being she sat, and waited out the invisible clock. Zeegon found Boonie in a currently-empty spare-components alcove that was meant to be kept strictly demagnetised, clinically sterile and absolutely free of rodents, and Clue congratulated herself on not noticing or counting the regulation violations. The long, sleek, moss-matted mammal streaked up the helmsman’s arm like green lightning and took his customary perch on Zeegon’s shoulder, tail draped across his back like a stole.
“Clever,” Zeegon congratulated his unlikely friend, “hiding in my snack holder. Pity there were no cheezy chunks in there this morning, huh?”
Z-Lin serenely ignored this as well, and Zeegon produced a little spray-bottle from another compartment and casually misted Boonie’s head and body with water. The weasel, bred on a rainy and humid jungle planet, liked to be kept slightly damp – and the moss and lichen in his fur needed it too. He chattered appreciatively and coiled, working the moisture down his haunches and tail fastidiously.
Clue just had time to wish that the phrase
hydrating his weasel
had never entered her head, when Zeegon leaned forward and said, “…ten.”
“Wait, are you counting up or–”
The dreary grey of soft-space washed back out into star-speckled blackness of subluminal space, and a solar system blazed across the viewers. Z-Lin’s more audible second sigh and accompanying spike of frustration was overwhelmed by the surge of relief and delight from herself and every other person on the bridge.
“Now that,” Z-Lin Clue said fervently, “is a beautiful thing.”
They were moving at their maximum subluminal cruising speed. It made a smoother transition to and from relative and was AstroCorps regulations, although a standing relative leap was technically possible if you didn’t mind getting a bit of a lurch to every molecule in your body. At subluminal cruise the system almost-imperceptibly shifted across the viewers and gave a sense of ponderous movement, but you wouldn’t want to actually try to
anywhere much further than planet-to-planet in-system.
This particular system, or at least this sector of it, sported a single decent-sized rocky planet with a significantly-larger-than-average moon in tight, borderline-destructive orbit. In fact it was quite possible that the ‘borderline’ was open to debate.
The moon seemed to either still be in the late stages of accretion or in the early stages of spinning itself to pieces after some orbital shift of bygone millennia. A marked eggshell-shatter of ice shelves around its bloated equator showed clearly where gravitational forces between it and its parent were pulling it off-true. The planet was similarly misshapen, if not to the same extreme. Its surface was almost entirely storm-tossed ocean, jade and sapphire and inky black, with barely any landmasses at all – and those few there were had long since been utterly smoothed over and waterlogged. There were no polar ice caps, just a great sea formed into a single leviathan of a tidal wave that followed the grinding moon around its course.