Mar 221993

There are few men in the galaxy for whom life is an exhilarating surprise, a merciful relief.

One of these few was Technician Thrace Soleman (ID# Astro.A159FC6B) as his ship, the Willie Mays, reentered normal space. Though living all his life in space—tesseracting hither and yon, withstanding gravities from nil to seven times Sol.Earth norm—he had always held his breath right before breaching essential space due to an almost unconscious foreboding that, for some reason, this tess—out of all the hundreds occurring at the same moment throughout the Milky Way, out of all the millions having occurred in the past—would go wrong.

He was, put simply, glad that sense experience had resumed; and he exhaled noisily, a grin teasing one corner of his mouth.

Technically, from his perspective the trip had taken no time as he was not psychically sensitive; there was no real (i.e. four-dimensional) interruption in his life. Yet, the Willie Mays had just completed an 8700 lightyear journey away from the edge of the Milky Way. Reclined on his cot, Soleman was staring through one section of the ship’s hull which had been left transparent; it revealed nothing but a few specks of light to the “north” of the ship and a slight glow of the Milky Way bleeding from the down side. So where is the rock?

Thrace extended the foot-hand of a wiry leg towards the cot above him and, grabbing its sideboard, swung himself into an upright position. He, with a startled yell, kept swinging up, around and back down onto the upper bunk. Only his mercurial flexibility and reflexes anchored his other foot to the bunkframe, preventing him from rebounding off its netting and back around into his cot again. His green hair swirled about his face in mockery of Great Newton.

“Where’s spin, for Its sake!” he bellowed into the intercom. He was accustomed to three gravities of spin when in a holding pattern. Stupid of me, really. After all, the view outside is obviously standing still.

There had been no reply from the pilots.

“Hai, Coordinator!” he called to the ship’s supervisor, Illyana Melder (ID# Astro.A15933C4). “C’mon, Illie, we couldn’t’ve lost you, Vrandium-mind.” The tight shades of worry began creeping onto his square, lined face.

Coordinator Melder was reputed as having the strongest will of any ship coordinator in the Human Stellar League. She had logged over five hundred tesseracts and had lived at least seventeen thousand years of subjective time during those breaches. Admittedly, at times she seemed distant and cold to others; those among them who were pilots understood perfectly. Nevertheless, the cyber-media had sensationalized her achievements by nicknaming her after the hardest metal known to Third Epoch human science; a metal which reflects all warmth cast at it.

There was still no reply.

Oh, man, after all those years, to snap now! Of course, this is probably the most uninvolved tess she’d ever made. Sailing one gravitational curve would’ve gotten pretty damned boring, I bet. Wait a minute! I’m already thinking in past tense, give them a chance. And them it was, for no one had responded to his hail; not the coordinator, neither of the sailors, and not the engine manager. If none of them were responding then most likely something had gone very wrong in tess-space. They were all psychically linked, as well as linked cybernetically with psychic circuits to the tessdrive, prior to breaching; little problems could become quite big with this intimacy. But, no. Nothing could have taken them all out.

And yet, there was no reply at all.

Anxiously, Thrace thumbed open the iris door and floated into the corridor outside the crew’s quarters. The rounded, functionally decorated hallway ran “eastward” to the commissary and “westward” to the recreation facilities and gymnasium. Across from Soleman were the labs, but there would be no one in them as there were but five people, including himself, on the ship. A short way westward, half of the hall split into a laddered chute running vertically through the ship. Leaping up to grab a rung on the ceiling, he pulled himself, foot over hand, towards the chute, bounding and covering the thirty meters like a fleeing rabbit. He arced upward and yanked himself bridge-ward, travelling so quickly that the floor-iris into the room above barely got out of his way. He soared into the control room, bending and flipping to grab the ceiling and absorb his momentum in his legs.

The clash of opposites in the room numbed his senses; it was not for several seconds that he truly perceived the carnage.

The ceiling was mostly transparent, but let in only a milky glow, there being no stars above it within a few million light years; this haze blended soothingly with the bridge’s lighting. The room’s graceful symmetry and efficiency starkly contrasted with the obvious tragedy that, with the quiet, cruel air of broken assurances, had occurred here. The simple room’s metal walls held only dark panes of acrylic in various sizes: either scanners or viewing screens. Furnishings were sparse at the moment; there were only four couches extruding from the floor which hid a plethora of other possible furnishings. The coordinator’s couch was central, just north of the vertical axis of the ship. South of the axis was the couch from which the engine manager manipulated the delicately massive tesseract drive in its starts, millisecond bursts, decade-long calibrations, and soul-wrenching stops. Finally, to the east and west of the axis, close to the room’s walls, lay the two sailors’ couches. They were the most gruesome to behold.

Three quarters of a body was reclined on each of the plastic and foam couches. Where the remaining quarter, the heads and necks, should have been, there were only large, brown, viscous stains and white shards stuck into the chairs. The globular gel smoked slightly and the charcoal smell of burnt synthsteaks filled the room. The occupants of the other two couches seemed whole in the dim cyan light emitted by the phosphorescent tracklights on the walls. They were, however, sprawled like two discarded rag dolls and their eyes were wide and burnt black, their faces frozen in agonized caricatures of laughter.

A scream would have found its way out of Thrace’s mouth had his jaw not been reflexively clenched against the rising bile in his throat. Instead, only a strangled grunt echoed in the silent chamber. He stared, wide-eyed and unbelieving, instinctual fear and repulsion at the scene causing the pores of his skin to dilate (but not to sweat, that was engineered out of his race eons ago). Perversely, the only clear thought to come to his mind was Hope that doesn’t get into the steering circuits; I can’t fix psywires. A futile hope for someone incapable of piloting tess-space.

He was finally broken out of his shock by a soft pinging noise and a sharp pain in his right cheek. He grabbed at the spot and found a small bit of bone stuck there. Shit, there’s shards ricocheting all over this room. Better get some gravity going to settle it and clean up. He did not consider the irrationality of the idea of cleaning so soon after witnessing such horror; it was something he could do in a situation over which, he was beginning to realize, he had next to no control. He pushed off towards the south of the room and gripped a rung embedded there. The stickiness of it surprised him, and he fought hard not to consider the reason it was so. He pressed his hand to the acrylic pane set in the aluminum wall… and nothing happened. He used the arm of his jumper to wipe the pane clean and tried again.

Still nothing happened.

Panic hit. the systems burned im a dead man oh jenny oh it oh shit what am i gonna do no power no food nothing dead It went on for some time, waves of fear and loss, regrets, images in his mind, their contrast fuzzed by retrospection, forgotten intentions, and confused underpinings. His Youth and all of its freedom, irresponsibilities and passions. That older brunette who had shown him the sweet benefits of Maturation. The years he spent as Student, deciding on his lifework. The implant surgery to allow him to interface with ComputerSpace, the reflex wires that gave him control over peripheral devices. Years of study in cyber-school and space school. His spouse and her funny laugh and arousing accent. His boy, oh, his young Zephyr, just one standard year from Maturation and school. His friends among the Astros as well as landborns. He thought of all of these things and others in the few minutes he spent feverishly jamming his hand against the palmscanner. As he slid off the crest of emotion into a trough of numb despair, some reason returned to him and he looked at the tracklights in the room.

He giggled with relief; a suppressed laugh filled with gasps and breaks. The power was not gone. Rather, he was too excited for the security scanner. A little measure against hijacking: the scanner would not verify someone’s scan, even if they were in the “approved” register, unless his or her pulse rate was at a median level. This conditional kept severed hands, frightened hands, and manic hands from being of any use for gaining entry to the ship’s computer system.

Smiling shakily, Thrace intoned his mantra for a while until he could feel his muscles relax and his heartbeat soften and slow. He touched the pane again and was answered by a faint click as a section of wall slid away. In the alcove behind the panel, a coiled cord ending in a fiberoptic male connector hung on a hook much like a pay telephone cradle. Upon removing the cable from the cradle, a rounded chair inflated up from the floor behind him. He dropped into it, a faint whisper reminding him that it had a pinhole leak somewhere. He relaxed and inserted the cable’s plug into the jack behind his ear.

The stained, glowing wall before him faded to be replaced by a small city sprawled out below him. From his “aerial” vantage he could see that most of the ship’s systems were automatically functioning and doing so quite normally. He gave these systems—life support, reactor dampening, gene monitoring, biot growing—only the most cursory inspection. They were critical to his immediate survival, but not the most important functions of the Willie Mays from Soleman’s perspective. He soared above the towering sub-directory icons, across the mainframe, until he reached a cityblock-sized red icon, in the shape of an umbrella, vaulting an apparent kilometer above the “ground.” He landed at its base and touched it.

It ceased to be. In its place was a meter-high question mark: the universal iconic symbol for “System not present — Error.”

“Willie!” cried Thrace; “what happened to the tess-sail manual control system? I need spin and a tess-comm link to HSL.”

A computer-imaged persona of an android in a baseball uniform appeared before him, its hands behind its back.

“That system has been deemed useless. I was going to remove the icon, but security monitoring on the system delayed me. Someone with a hand like yours but not a temper like yours was repeatedly requesting access.”

Thrace’s head began to practice Forthanik’s Ballet for 0.5 g in D min. Somewhere above his right temple he could swear he heard a blood vessel pop, even though that would be impossible in Compspace. “Why was the control system deemed useless, Willie?” he asked in a trembling voice that seemed to want to hide in his mouth, not actually ask that too-important question.

“Because the drive no longer exists, Technician Soleman.”

The computer, of course, had absolutely no idea what had happened during the tess; it was not psychic either. There were, however, a number of cyberlectures on the subject of tesseract emergencies. In one of them, Soleman learned that several daring experiments had been conducted during the tessdrive’s conception in the Tenth Eon, First Epoch, which involved planned detonations of the drive during a breech and while tessing. Nothing was ever learned: the earlier tessdrives were not sailed, but shot “ballistically,” to their destinations; most of the scientists gave up searching the fifty lightyear test area after the first ten years of doing so. The most widely agreed upon theory was that there was a 84.78% chance that the whole ship would be destroyed with it, in spite of the 400 kilometers separating the drive from the ship, and a 13.46% chance that the ship would never again enter 4D space. In a way, then, Thrace was lucky to be alive. Great. Just fabulous for me, he had thought after learning that gem of information. Soleman also discovered a space opera simsense which depicted a group of colonists isolated by the unlikely loss of sanity by all the piloting psychics of their vessel. It was typically, if not subtly, thrilling and he could not resist making love to the (typically) stunning heroine, as consolation, during one of her more touching strophes of angst. He never bothered to figure out who he actually was trying to console; what did it matter? For that few hours, they had been the only reality, and they needed the closeness to hold back the hungry vacuum waiting patiently outside.

He realized halfway through the second week of travel under the Willie Mays’ fusion drive that he simply did not have ten thousand years to spare trying to get into the Milky Way’s shipping lanes. For the past sixteen days he had been idling about the recreation room, working out occasionally on the zero gee machines to keep fit WHY?, experimenting with the more esoteric selections on the ship’s meal synthesizer WHAT’S testicles???, scanning the documentary and technical files of the computer Why isn’t there a passage on Growing Tesseract Drives out of Matter Reclaimation Biots, or Genetically Breaching Essential Space?, and experiencing way too much simsense. On this second week, however, he awoke on Sixday with the dire paralysis of apathy. He felt cold, in spite of the life-support. He had been dreaming of his spouse and was hoping that the stark ship’s ceiling was the dream instead.

Jenny and he had been walking through the Yorkshire Dales on Sol.Earth, exploring Middleheim Castle. They climbed to the top of the southern tower and stared over the green, forested waves of the surrounding country, devoid of any other signs of man (Sol.Earth had been discovered as sentient and almost immediately declared a Refuge World). Holding each other against the chill wind, whispering insued: sweet sentiments he could not now recall, craved to recall because he wished they were true, prayed he had broken past his unpsychic genetics, had communed with his only love one last time.

He did not rise from his bunk for several hours, and then only to plug into the lavatory. His blood began flowing from this activity, and other activities began to seem appropriate. A wide grin and furrowed brow smeared his face into a cruel visage.

He had no reason to keep fit, so he threw the zero-gee trainer through the commissary, laughing loudly, echoingly; there were only twenty-one varieties of synthmeats from which to choose, so he jacked into the computer and launched a File Burn program at the synthesizer’s master program (it did the best job it could defending against its Prime Priority User’s wrath). There was no one to impress with his knowledge of Pre-Diaspora politics, so he set the technical files to teaching the simsense’s Drama sub-system how to do quadruple integrations, thereby generating fierce trinary debates throughout the ship’s Compnet. Finally, he had experience every It-damned simsense in the entire database and at least half of their plot variants and, quite literally, thought he was still in simsense half of the time he was doing something else on the ship. Earlier that week he had once tried to ‘stop program run’ while sitting in the commissary, throughly bored, in front of a bowl of some horrid concoction from the meal synth’s Traditional Menu called “grits.”

The next week he spent pacing the ship, staring through its now totally transparent hull. He had felt, at first, a dizzying sensation of shrinking when he had first cleared the hull to view his new domain. The Milky Way was SO far away; it looked like egg on the vast pan of the universe: an egg which he would never again taste thanks to some mysterious, capricious whim of fate. He felt minuscule… then realized that he was. The coffin-like atmosphere of an opaqued hull had been worse, however.

During these uneventful days he spoke to many people; only one, his wife, ever spoke back, and that was towards the end of the week. He raged first at Illyana for failing in her duty. She must’ve zoned during the tess and steered the sailors off the polarity-rhythm into some freaky wavelengths, the dumb bitch with her snotty ways and her too perfect lips and the way she insists on announcing every bloody minute for a half hour before tessing… Then, of course, it was the sailors, Uthor and something-with-a-P, who had zoned and failed to avoid some quirky perturbation Vrandium-mind had ordered evaded. Next, Manager Hurdles (ID# Astro.A1596115) had clearly failed to keep the drive in harmony and had fried them all in the backlash.

“And what about the fucking League with their half-assed regulations and shoddy inspection teams?” he inquired loudly of the first bowl of food he had synthed in four days, failing to recall the hassles that the Mays’ crew had gone through to con their way into this mission.

Fringe.BB20 was the first Grade G congealment to be spotted escaping Mother Milky’s possessive pull. Until then, only the occasional Sol.Mercury-sized mother lodes were intercepted in the really cold depths of space to be reclaimed by humanity. This body they had been going to intercept would have fetched them at least 20,000 stresshours apiece for only three months of crystal harvesting with the massive robotic drills and the microscopic biots. Then a small fusion-fission charge to send it back to the galaxy to be retrieved in a millennium or so, and the crew would have tessed back, retired, and done some pleasure touring of their workplace, the Milky Way. All that privilege: up in smoke. IT-DAMNED, BEAST-BRAINED…. Several long-haul teams had bid for the mission and the qualifying criteria had been intense. The Willie Mays Mining Cooperative was so very, damned lucky it was driving Thrace very, damned mad.

Then came the Solution. It took only a few feverish, ecstatic seconds to conceive and fifty-six days to effect. It was, after all, an ambitious project—if “ambitious” can describe the dreams of a doomed man.

The first thing Technician Thrace had to accomplish was to negotiate peace in Compspace between the Technosupremacists and the Aesthetics Liberation Faction, who had escalated the conflict he had initiated in his malicious, feeble vengeance a week earlier. The technical files had achieved the upper-hand with their knowledge of the Compnet’s systems, but the Dramatic files were passionately holding their own. He felt like a fool when he jacked in as a peace-keeping force. He spent several days untangling the various attack programs binding the two systems and disarming databombs. Fortunately, with peace declared, the two file systems were more than willing to provide what help they could in this task.

The next month was spent designing and building a robot which would automatically build and install additional memory to the computer. He also redesigned the food synthesizer. He cleared the majority of its database, leaving only the core formulas for synthesizing what he called the “Tree of Life Elixir,” a serum of fundamental proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, and polyunsaturated fats. Then, Soleman modified the dispenser so that the bland syrup would be slowly and steadily drip-fed through a IV. Perfect! With the germ and biot banks to draw on, and their synthing capabilities, there should be about a hundred years of this stuff… more than enough, most likely.

The final two weeks were spent almost entirely in Compspace. He toured every alley and sewer, each database and slave node, wreaking nothingness on every inessential system. Lighting… Let there be NO light! That’s good. Fusion drive: slow burn; open all accesses to reserves. Should be a few thousand years of operation. Climate control: bridge only; seal remainder of ship. Laser distress beacon: ah, what the Hole, On. All this simsense shit: GET THEE BEHIND ME! Ooh, that’s very good. Auxiliary file systems: Good night, sweet prints. All except computer maintenance files for the robot.

Then, finally, it was finished, and with the end of frenetic activity returned morose passivity. Thrace sat on the bridge, reconsidering. There was a slim chance that the inevitable search team would stumble upon him before the ten year MIA period was over (tradition, from the early days of “spit-tessing”). 8700 lightyears is not all that much. Shit.

He spoke a soft prayer of farewell to whomever happened to be listening. The IV went into his arm with a slightly painful jab, and Thrace snickered over the irony that his last real sensation was one of pain. The eight weeks of isolation had inured him to stimuli, but somehow this faint prick seemed to wash swells of tension and melancholy up his arm and through his floating body. He thought once more of Jennifer and Zephyr and hoped they would have fun with his insurance/pension. Concluding with a particularly blurry-eyed sentiment of Love, he wished Homo Stellari a fruitful being. Then Technician Thrace Soleman jacked into Compspace.

It was dark, quiet, odorless, empty. The systems which were to be saved—life support, Tree of Life, the robotic chipper, fundamentals—hid themselves behind a masking program so sophisticated even its designer stood little chance of unveiling its secret wards. All extraneous systems were not. It was a Void… save for the One, Thrace. The One floated without buoyant support, perceived Nothing, felt the effluent of thirty-nine Standard Years of emotion swirling inside. The extensive memory crystals were limited (but growing) yet infinite, lacking a measure save the One. And cloistering, so crowded with nothing but the One. And piss-boring, lonesome. The One meditated a moment, reached out…

And It spoke a Word.

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