“If I get this wrong, four thousand people are dead.”
Chief Engineer Yili Curtiss had been running the same series of calculations for what seemed like days. She suspected the results she was getting were due to what was happening outside the ship rather than any obvious mistake in her systems. The battleship Argent was close to encountering what theoretical scientists called a “Jovian Inversion.” It was the hypothetically infinite amount of time that passed while an object crossed a singularity’s event horizon at a hypothetically infinite velocity.
Curtiss and Chief Signals Officer Zony Tixia were hurrying from the deck 28 reactor shielding components service bay to deck 29, where Yili had established a protective screen against the forces pressing against her ship’s hull. Neither of the two officers were looking forward to actually crossing the nearby threshold of destruction, which was the reason they were trying to keep it from happening.
Casualties had been reported from all decks. Most of the ship’s systems were intact and functioning properly, but Argent’s main drive had been damaged by at least one AMAX missile impact. The autosystems shut down the starboard engine to prevent plasma ignition, which pulled the enormous battleship off course and sent it accelerating towards the singularity’s position.
Omicron 474 had been on Skywatch star maps for more than 175 years. It’s theoretical mass equaled more than 12 billion stars, so its gravitational influence was measurable at extreme ranges compared to more commonly encountered astronomical “landmarks.” It was an object that was simultaneously invisible yet responsible for nearly everything that happened within two light years of the Atlantis Frontier, at least as seen from the Core Worlds. And now, DSS Argent had earned the distinction of achieving the closest recorded range to the supermassive phenomenon. The vessel was caught in the black hole’s gravity well, a problem that was currently at the top of the to-do lists of the two officers on Deck 29. They had already patched in all the main control and navigational computer circuits from the bridge and Argent’s cephalon matrix. At the very least, the starboard engine had to be restarted. The operation required full power. So Curtiss and Tixia were visiting all the reactor control systems to make sure one of the behemoths didn’t conk out at an inopportune time. Meanwhile, Yili was working on adding an extra ace to her deck.
The reasoning for the expedition to the depths of engineering was as urgent as the ticking clock. The rest of the Argent’s crew were experiencing the effects of the Jovian Inversion to varying degrees. Most of the bridge officers had been injured by the attack. The battleship’s drive field was failing, and the laws of physics were doing the rest. Curtiss had jury rigged the vessel’s battle screens to reinforce protection for the ship and deck 29 in particular, but it was only a matter of time before the remaining auxiliary power ran out. The two officers were rushing from place to place and working quickly. Zony was in charge of the portable ATMAS retrieval display, reviewing the main computer’s interpretation of their progress as they worked. If their solution took too long, the saga of BBV 740 would end in the eternal darkness of a black hole.
“I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before. We’ve had all the telemetry sitting in our navigational banks for months,” Zony said. “All we had to do was look at the telemetry! It was all so obvious!”
Yili pulled one of the panels off the power transfer relays for reactor six. She adjusted her shoulder light and put on her reactive gloves. “The principle is obvious,” she said. “The practical application of it, on the other hand, is something best left for a laboratory. I’m not entirely sure Jason would approve of using his ship as an experimental platform, but if we don’t come up with a solution–”
Zony was perched ten feet overhead, on the metal gantry overlooking the superstructure above the crown of the reactor six fusion chamber. “This new data makes no sense. According to the navigational computer, we’re only a quarter-million miles out. Our speed is increasing exponentially. At the same time, the range to Omicron 474 is increasing exponentially!”
“That is correct. And if you could hold a stopwatch outside our drive field, you would see that time is speeding up in normal space because time is coming to a stop for us.”
“Why isn’t everything slowing down then?”
Yili replaced the panel and reactivated the magnetic seal. “Because we established a drive field. We’re not in normal space. And that is the basis for what I hope is the thing that’s going to get us out of here. If these calculations work out, we’re going to be responsible for a whole lotta science back at headquarters. No human being has ever been here before.” She climbed up the short ladder and handed Zony one of the line connectors as a souvenir. It was built on a fiberoptic material and sparkled like jewelry. She moved on, shining her light above to try and locate the auxiliary processor interfaces for the emergency systems.
“Why can’t we just use our engines to escape? We can do a slingshot maneuver like we were talking about before!”
“Cantlon drive fields aren’t efficient enough.” Yili grabbed the gantry railing and hoisted herself up half a level to grab the lowest rung on the access ladder. “In normal space, if I just blast a bunch of matter out the back of the ship, I get forward thrust. As long as I have a fuel tank the size of the Gitairn Frontier, I can theoretically achieve high enough acceleration, with a kindly gravity assist from Omicron, to achieve escape velocity.” She opened another panel and yanked all the connectors out at once. She handed Zony the rats nest of wires and climbed halfway into the cramped space with her light. Her voice became muffled but Zony had no trouble hearing, naturally.
“Inside a drive field,” Yili continued, “I don’t get velocity from thrust. I get it from field calibration. The forward edge of my drive field is set to enhance the physical effects of motion, while the aft edge is set to dampen them. Inside the field, when I apply thrust, and ions are ejected from our engines, I move forward in my little universe. When that effect propagates through the drive field, it is amplified and creates acceleration in normal space. The problem is in order to get the kind of hyper-efficient power transfer we need, I have to distort that drive field to the point where it becomes unstable. Then when I try to move my ship under power, transfer amplification overcomes the physical limits of whatever I built my ship out of, and adios muchachos.”
“So if we make this other thing work, we go down in history as the first singularity explorers?”
“Assuming we don’t emerge from this thing a couple thousand years in the future. Every minute we stay at this location and get closer to Omicron, 47 days pass out there in the real universe. Theoretically.”
“Please don’t say things like that,” Zony was working intently, but it was clear from the tone in her voice she wasn’t prepared for that level of adventure quite yet. “I wish we hadn’t sent Hearts off to M-Ceti Four. We could use her right about now.”
A startling bang came from inside the reactor control and caused Zony to jump. Yili tossed a bent piece of framing out on to the deck. “The crew is in good hands, which is to say most of them are frozen in zero time. That means the captain is stabilized and should be back on his feet in a couple hundred years.”
“What did I just say about not saying things like that!” Zony squeaked. “Okay, all the numbers on the stasis simulation match your target values. Now what is this big idea of yours?”
The engineer climbed back out of the small space and took the rats nest of wires from Zony before exhaling heavily and re-attaching them one by one.
“Laser Induced Plasma Channel.”
“You lost me already.”
“You did one of these at CATS with your space ping experiment. Fire a laser through an atmosphere, create a momentary vacuum through which you can transmit your electromagnetic signal. Ground stations can then “ping” satellites with directional antennas at lower power levels and higher frequencies.”
“Yeah! It worked great! But how does that help us get out of the gravity well?”
Yili replaced the panel and reactivated the magnetics before hopping down to the gantry and moving on to reactor four. “We always thought of the Raleo Wormhole as a single phenomenon, but we were wrong. Everything happened in the proper order in a short enough time interval to create a shortcut: Bending space so an object can travel a ‘short’ distance through a higher dimension in order to arrive at a far distant location from where it started in four-dimensional space. I postulate the wormhole is a collection of effects, some of which are utilized by the jump gate network we discovered. Based on that theory, I propose we combine the Cantlon drive field with the key effect of the Raleo Wormhole and enhance our engines.”
Zony handed Yili her scanner. “You think we can sustain faster than light speeds by using the Raleo tech.”
The lights went out momentarily as Yili switched the power relays from auxiliary to emergency batteries. She needed every last bit of power Argent’s reactors could pump out for her experiment. “I do. The whole point of a Cantlon drive field is to isolate the principal from certain laws of physics in order to amplify them in normal space. The problem with the Cantlon drive field is the mind-boggling energy expense. That’s why we have to fly around with eight fusion reactors, powered hull armor and three layers of battle screens. A ship with a conventional drive field established can therefore navigate in normal space at speeds that would normally be either dangerous or impossible. It’s a good technology, provided you don’t have to go very far. I think I have an alternative, and those Kraken ships are the ones that gave me the idea.”
Zony took the scanner back from the engineer. “How does a laser channel help?”
“The Raleo wormhole creates a tunnel through a higher dimension from point to point in space. The Cantlon drive field isolates the ship from the effects of outside space. That doesn’t mean those effects don’t happen. They simply isolate us. The laser idea has to do with the shape of the drive field. Normally, our engines help us establish a field that is roughly the same size and shape as the vessel. But if I punch a hole in space instead and then establish a drive field that fits inside that tunnel and has roughly the same shape as that tunnel–”
“You can navigate through the tunnel while the drive field protects the ship!” The two officers proceeded to reactor three.
“Bingo. In other words, I have the ability to navigate at extreme velocities or space-normal velocities without altering any of this ship’s circuitry, energy systems or structures.” Yili spoke as she played her light across the overhead circuits for the emergency power transfer bus. One of the components was out of phase with the others. Commander Curtiss grabbed the handholds and clambered up to the super-gantry next to the dampener framing and retrieved her universal ratchet from her belt. She climbed the framing and sat on one of the polymer components while she worked.
“How extreme?” By now Zony’s face was blank with wide-eyed imaginative shock. The implications of Yili’s idea were just beginning to dawn on her.
“We could cruise at an effective velocity more than 40 times the speed of light.”
“Now you’re just being silly.” Zony was busy scrolling through technical specs while she sipped tea from her cold bottle.
“The numbers are right there,” Yili said before hammering a bent connector out of its seating. “You’re just as qualified in multi-dimensional physics as I am.” Yili took a sip of sparkling water from her own bottle. “If Atwell and that gang of weirdos hadn’t tinkered around with those machines, the missing piece of this puzzle might have eluded us forever. But once you can show me how to create a free-standing wormhole from point to point in Euclidean space and at the same time show me how to isolate an object from the laws of Newtonian space, the results are so obvious a seventh grader could demonstrate it for their science fair project. We could transport people from place to place with this thing too.”
Zony almost spat her tea all over the handheld. “Do what!?”
“Remember those reports from Perseus about attackers suddenly appearing on Jayce’s ships? Remember those little zapper devices you and I used to get to Barker’s Asteroid? If they can do it, so can we. The good news is a Cantlon drive field becomes really economical at small scales. I bet we could establish a man-sized field with a battery pack.”
“When you get like this it drives me crazy. You start sounding more and more like Jason. And the rest of the time all you do is play with your little electronic gizmos!”
Yili climbed down from the dampener frame. “No reason to talk if I don’t have anything to say,” Yili replied. She looked over her bottle as she took another sip. “Anything wrong with my numbers?”
“I can’t find anything. I still can’t get over the fact establishing the wormhole takes so little energy. I would have tried the opposite theory.”
“General relativity says once you cross the event horizon, you have to go faster than light to escape. But you can apparently reach infinite velocities approaching the singularity. The problem solves itself.”
“Presuming you ever actually reach the singularity. If the laws of normal space-time apply beyond an event horizon, then as velocity approaches infinity, time approaches zero. Then everything freezes. From normal space, you appear to be falling forever at infinite speeds, but you never actually get anywhere because time stops.”
“Except for one thing.”
“We’re not in normal space,” Zony grinned.
“Exactly.” Yili nodded as she started towards reactor two. “That’s why we can have this peaceful moment while the war rages outside our window. Now there’s the other big problem. Power.”
“I was beginning to wonder if today was going to start easy or hard.”
“The Von-Mansfried fusion actuator has never been efficient enough, and the reason is because it doesn’t do a good job of prediction.”
“You change subjects too fast. I’m still in the theoretical physics building on campus.”
Yili opened another panel, looked inside for a few moments, then closed it again. “You shoot a laser at a deuterium pellet and you make it go boom. When it goes boom, the particles inside it smash into each other and hopefully you get fusion instead of a cloud of deuterium smoke. The thing that keeps a multi-axis reactor going is that the pellet never gets to go boom all at once. You keep shooting at it from all directions to keep it in one piece while you herd those booms to keep the particles fusing properly at its center.”
“Obviously.” Zony made a face.
“But you only get a four percent yield,” Yili said as she swung herself up to another ladder. “That’s pretty good for garden-variety fusion. But I want battleship fusion. What we started with isn’t good enough for what we’re planning to do with the new drive field. I think we can make it more efficient if we can properly map and predict what kinds of booms we create in the reaction chamber.”
“Better targeting equals more fusion efficiency.”
“Exactly.” Yili opened the fire control governor for reactor two’s axis laser. “Now that we have an excuse, I think we can kick things up to six percent and create a situation where we can achieve faster than light communications, faster than light travel and about a 300% increase in battle screen strength for Argent, her corvettes and her gunships, and while we’re at it, we’re going to make it possible to transport people from point to point using exactly the same scientific principles.” Yili activated her commlink. “Engineering to bridge. Get me the officer of the watch.”
Zony stared at Yili as the channel remained silent.
“Pretty much what we expected,” Yili said as she closed the panel. “Looks like we’re it. Do you think Jason would approve of our plan?”
“I hope so.”
“Well, there is one bit of good news in all this.”
“And what’s that?”
Yili held up her bottle as if inviting a toast. “If this doesn’t work we’re not going to be around to get demoted.” The two officers saluted each other and took a drink.