Author’s Note: this is an excerpt from a sci-fi novel I’ve been chipping away at for a while.
Aiden was inside one of the hangars underneath the inbound runway and minutes on foot from the undisclosed vessel when the last of its Sedivian passengers made her exit through the airlock. He stopped and spun to watch a taxied floater carry the Sedivian alongside her two indentured runarounds a mile east of the vessel toward a small shuttle waiting in a corner of the hangar. The Sedivians had arranged for an alternate transport as they’d threatened during the wait on the other side of the wormhole for Aiden to arrive. He continued on his path toward the airlock, unbothered. His grievances were not with the Sedivians – not even with the Oronond who he’d learned were forever on the best of terms with Morthenum’s comptroller class.
He reached the vessel’s airlock finally and a hom’tto from its security detail frowned at him. “You couldn’t take a floater here?”
Aiden smiled and tapped the man on the shoulder as he stepped on a levitation disc. “Sorry I’m late.”
The man shook his head and pointed a handheld scanner with bright lights beaming from two of its barrels at Aiden’s pupils. Aiden blinked and a sharp click came off the scanner.
“Aiden-James, Visitor Morthenum, Resident Lander’s Earth, Native Nightsong.” The chirp from the scanner drove tremors down Aiden’s fingers but he steeled himself, nonetheless.
“You couldn’t be anyone but you, now, could you?” The hom’tto put his scanner away. “Even if you hadn’t suddenly become the most famous vectonaut both sides of the wormhole.” He raised his leg and stomped down on the levitation disc once to bid it passage upward and into the airlock.
Aiden watched the angry man become smaller as the levitation disc carried him nearly a hundred feet up. He held no grievance with the man either but he didn’t care what became of him inside the vessel or out. The security detail, the custodians, the stewards, the pilotry, and the other vectonauts would have been better off outside the vessel but more of them flocked in through its airlock on floaters, bypassing the pupil-scan and instead having taxonomist mindware pass their particulars to the vessel’s security apparatus. Without a simian subnode implanted behind his spine and brain-stem, Aiden couldn’t have mindware installed. In all his years in Ver Cruxa, he hadn’t heard a convincing argument for why he’d want one implanted and was happy it wasn’t required even of Cruxans employed by Morthenum’s Galactic Reconnaissance.
The hangar was barricaded from unauthorized access and the vessel still undisclosed but a few inside the station with adequate clearance had eventually been ceded details of its manifest. As part of the vessel’s pilotry, Aiden now counted himself among those few. He’d known for a few days now that it was an Etruscan warp cruiser – unlike any he’d had the pleasure of pulling through the warp vacuum. The height of luxury fitted with the most powerful warp engine conceived by the reconnaissance thus far. It was little wonder its passengers would become so paranoid as to insist on the enforcement of the Cruxan screening standards on all Cruxans in the warp deck. He’d known about the Morthenist high-priests on board the vessel and the comptrollers. He’d known about the Sedivians from the mutual Oronondon Envoy to Morthenum now completely gone from the vessel in anger. He’d known about the cleared warpchaser that slipped into position beneath its undercarriage and warp deck shortly before it shifted into warp speed somewhere in Far Peruvia. It was currently coasting at another corner of the hangar. He’d known the vessel had been christened Summer’s Pursuit and he’d briefly been spooked at the name.
A walkway at the end of the airlock led him down the vessel’s undercarriage and into the attached compartment that housed its warp deck and a tunneled inlet to the ship’s core up above where the warp engine was installed. Attached to the bottom of the tunnel was a lift – rectangular in shape – that would deliver him twenty feet below; where the tunnel fed into the hub of the warp deck. When he entered the lift, he activated air vents lining his bodysuit to combat heat rising down from the warp engine. He was prompted by the vessel’s nerva to brace for a momentary drop in gravity as the doors to the small lift swung shut. Movement began and Aiden felt a gap forming between the floor of the lift and his feet until he was floating. The descent took him below the undercarriage and stopped once he was twenty feet down and inside the hub at which point, the lift tilted ninety degrees and began a second descent out of the hub and along the back wall of the warp deck.
As with every warp deck attached to the undercarriage of a reconnaissance vessel, the enclosure was circular in shape and dark and spun at all times – even with the vessel out of warp and immobile. Unlike decks belonging to smaller vessels, this deck was centripetal and big enough to command its own gravitational field perpendicular to the artificial gravity governing movement inside the vessel’s hull. Modules circled the deck eight in number with eight small windows in the floor space separating each of them. Eight vectonauts were the minimum required for a vessel as big as the warp cruiser and six of those eight were required at modules every minute the vessel was in warp. Four of the eight vectonauts were already positioned at their modules when Aiden came in. Two of them turned to acknowledge him with a nod as the lift lowered him down the wall and toward the spinning, cylindrical walkway that surrounded the deck and gave access to all eight modules. He recognized one of the vectonauts as a Cruxan – a human woman or what had become of the species in several millennia.
“Lovely seeing you again,” she said, turning and tilting her face up considerably to see him at a section of the walkway curving down toward her module.
He was out of the lift now and treading spinward toward an empty module to the immediate left of hers. With some effort, he remembered her. They’d chatted briefly during the dive into Morthenum while he was stuffing his luggage through a hatch in the section of the back wall behind his module and he’d seen something familiar in her smile but was unable to place it. She was one of only two vectonauts awake when someone from the maintenance crew escorted him into the deck and she’d remained so while the other vectonaut retired to his sleeping capsule for the dive. They were all happy to avoid being awake for it after it was announced that they wouldn’t immediately be accelerating into warp once they were Morthenum-side. The lag was hardest on the vectonauts. Many complained of suffering out-of-body experiences hours after a dive.
He reached the module and sat in a seat turned to its left. “Sorry I’m late.”
The seat turned with him on it to face downward – the vessel’s downward. Controls blinked blue and red on a wide panel before him, giving the deck it’s only source of light in addition to the light filtering in through the wide window by his feet and others like it by each module. He looked down and stole a glance through his window at the hangar outside. The shuttle carrying the Sedivians out of the wormhole station swept past his view and he glimpsed briefly that it was being crane-lifted out of the hangar and onto the inbound runway.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” There was a gossipy edge to the Cruxan woman’s voice. He looked up and saw that she hadn’t taken her eyes off him but could now see him without tilting her head up. “They really did scare the Orononds off the ship.”
A voice came from a few modules to her right. A hom’ttonian man with an accent. “Vexed!”
She turned to address the man. “Vexed?”
“Vexed. How do you say? Angered. They were angered off the ship. Sedivians don’t scare easy.”
“You’re gonna tell me about Sedivians?”
“I’ll tell you what I know, human. Oronondon folklore. Read many at sistine. They have stories that make the spirit-virus sound like mere snowstorms.” The man tilted his head up slightly and winked at Aiden.
With his neck craned up, Aiden stared past the woman at the dark outline the top of the man’s head cut against the lights from his module’s controls. He wagered that it would be the last time he saw the man task the muscles in his densely freckled face.
“Are you alright?” The woman reclaimed his attention.
He sniffed and cleared his throat. “Never better.”
“Good.” She smiled politely and turned to face her controls but stopped and swung her seat leftward to face him again. “Oh… and that reminds me. One of the guys before he turned in moved your things over to my hatch. Hope you don’t mind; he’s got an extra load of gifts he picked up for his daughters back home on Mars.”
Aiden stared pensively at her, careful to keep his expression blank in the dim light. He’d almost forgotten the vessel was bound for the Martian planet. The place had never felt real to him and he had trouble imagining people living on its surface even now. He’d only seen the planet from orbit and only through the margins of small windows lining warp decks.
“Where?” His voice was soft and almost inaudible.
He cleared his throat. “Where on Mars?”
“Oh–” She shifted in her seat and looked to her right for a second. “Well, he has an accent that sounds Andalusian, perhaps. North or South. Not sure. Usually, I can place most Cassinians but I’m shit with terraspace past Odom’s Ring.”
“He’s a northerner,” yelled the man to her right.
She snapped her fingers. “There! And he’s got three daughters waiting at a nursery back home.”
Aiden arched his back and leaned over his controls. He cracked the joints in his neck slowly and the weight of his head seemed to double between his shoulders. “He can have the hatch.” He could feel the woman’s eyes on him. Fascination at the ways he exerted pain on his unevolved body followed him everywhere.
Ulysses was right to say no one on this side of the wormhole would quite know what to make of him. Even the Cruxan woman now sitting to his right at her station and staring at him like one would a zoo animal couldn’t assign anything familiar to the way he clenched his teeth and jawbone to fight off nervousness.
He thought back to eight hours prior when Ulysses led him out of the inbound messhall and into a tram that whisked them on a quiet ride to her cabin at a level closer to the dome of the wormhole station’s inbound hemisphere. Inside her cabin, small and sparse save for a round tub at its center filled with her sleeping soak, he sat on the plushen-carpeted floor with his legs crossed and tucked under his thighs while Ulysses paced slowly around him and recited an old Uleron proverb.
For a few hours after that, he slept soundly.
The last of the eight vectonauts – a Cassini woman with tribal tattoos on her neck that glowed weakly in the dark – crept down the back wall via the lift and galloped against spinward toward her module. Her module was directly across the Cruxan woman’s module. When she was finally seated, Aiden stole a glimpse behind the hub at her and imagined briefly he was watching a bat hang upside down from a tree-branch. She tilted her head up sharply and a flat smile formed on her bright green lips. To his right, he heard the Cruxan woman giggle softly.
The perky voice of the vessel’s nerva came through the wall behind them and prompted all hom’ttos present and at modules to ready themselves for sub-neural immersion into the operations apparatus through their simian subnodes. Aiden’s blank expression fell on the module to his left as a tube looped out from behind the seat and plugged into the simian receptacle belonging to a hom’tto man asleep on his controls. The man jerked and woke up with sleep lines on the side of his face. Aiden’s suspected he hadn’t left his module in the eleven hours common since the vessel pulled into the station and parked inside the hangar.
The nerva spoke again and instructed all Cruxans currently at modules to pair the parsers on the sides of their necks to their controls if they hadn’t already. Aiden and the woman to his right were the only two Cruxans currently at a module. The third Cruxan was one of the two backups asleep in their capsules. Giggling still and talking under her breath, the woman leaned forward and poked her parser with an index finger to pair it with her controls. Aiden watched her, undecided on whether his compounding numbness kept him from hearing what she was saying or she really was talking to herself.
Her giggles grew louder as she leaned back, almost as if they were being tortured out of her. “Stop,” she whispered, barely able to get the words out and then she craned her neck up. “What are you doing?”
Aiden looked up and saw the tattooed Cassini woman floating toward them. She’d sprung her weight off her seat and jumped high enough to gain purchase in the low-gravity region surrounding the hub of the warp deck. A few of the other vectonauts sighed audibly in the darkness but that didn’t seem to dissuade her or the woman seated beside Aiden – still unable to quell her giggling. The Cassinian kicked against the hub with purpose and was soon out of the region and falling gradually toward the Cruxan woman.
Aiden swallowed and grimaced at the tube extending from the Cassinian’s tattooed nape all the way back to her seat at the other end. She was graceful in her movements. He suspected she had a past life playing tanglebots or skydancing in a goldfeather troupe much like the ones that visited Clovis when he was younger. She reached the woman to his right and crouched on top of her controls.
“What were you saying?” Her voice was clipped and stirring.
The Cruxan woman grew timid. “I said you owe me breakfast.”
“I thought Landers didn’t believe in holding their friends in debt?”
“Saints Landing is a big place. We contain multitudes.”
The Cassinian smiled and rolled her eyes, feigning disinterest. The Cruxan darted her eyes about to avoid her gaze. They were stricken with each other. Eleven hours away from the warp deck wasn’t a lot of time to become so friendly with hom’ttos in Aiden’s experience. Or perhaps it was. He’d spent the eleven hours avoiding the other vectonauts; avoiding everyone except Ulysses. Resentment broke through his wall of numb as he watched the Cassinian lean in to peck the Cruxan’s lips with hers. Here at the edge of Morthenum, the last thing he needed was a reminder of all the earthly pleasures he missed out on by several thousand years. Or perhaps it was just what he needed.
The Cruxan woman held in a breath and shut her eyes as the Cassinian retracted her lips. The nerva spoke again.
“All passengers of the Summer’s Pursuit are now accounted for and our companions in the warpchaser have resumed their position underneath the warp deck. A crane lift to the inbound runway will begin in approximately twenty seconds. Acceleration begins thirty seconds after with a launch track assist.”
The Cassinian leapt from her squat and grabbed the tube extending from her receptacle to her seat at the other side of the deck. She climbed the tube all the way back up and then down toward her module. Once she was seated again, the Cruxan woman turned to Aiden and gestured for him to pair his parser, which he did hurriedly as the warp deck lurched once and the distant, mustard-yellow walls of the hangar began to zoom past his window.
Outside, the hangar erupted in deafening creaks and clanks of heavy metal. The circular pad upon which the Summer’s Pursuit and its towed warpchaser rested had been shoved out from the floor of the hangar by an underlying crane lift and was steadily being reared toward the ceiling where a circular portal blinked open to grant passage. Above the hangar, the immensity of the shimmering-silver inbound runway welcomed the Summer’s Pursuit and the pad that delivered it through the portal. One of the launch tracks running the full length of the runway exerted a great magnetic pull on the vessel’s undercarriage till the vessel and its warpchaser slid smoothly off the pad and hovered low over the track’s electromagnetic field. Thirty seconds passed and the vessel shifted into acceleration mode and was soon gliding with increasing velocity over the track; closing the distance between itself and the edge of the runway.
The electromagnetic launch tracks were a service provided to inbound travelers who paid added sums to avoid tasking their vessel’s fuel banks for acceleration. Inside the warp deck, Aiden stirred in his seat as the rumble from the warpchaser’s awkward balance between the Summer’s Pursuit magnetic hold above it and the launch track’s magnetic field below sent shockwaves up his spine.
He’d flown in many warp decks that picked up unwanted warpchasers as they were shifting into warp but rarely in ones with warpchasers that asked permission to be locked magnetically to a vessel’s undercarriage and rarely for such an extended period of travel. He’d learned from the Cruxan woman during the dive into Morthenum that this particular warpchaser had traveled across Peruvia underneath the Summer’s Pursuit for seven days common at warp. It first hailed the Summer’s Pursuit while it was warping out of Peruvia One and then coasted two days at sublight speeds in the warp cruiser’s projected path until it eased off the warp drive enough to scoop it up. Many warpchasers simply crept unannounced under warp decks belonging to mid-sized and large vessels minutes before they shifted into warp and took their chances matching the speeds with which the vessels rode into the warp vacuum. Periodically when a vessel would ease off the warp drive for a pit stop at a wormhole station or a docking station, the trespassing warpchaser would pull away from the vessel to avoid detection and perhaps seek out another host vessel.
Aiden hadn’t been informed by Ulysses or Bedouin or Gertrude or anyone else from the Ottomatta that the Summer’s Pursuit would be hauling a warpchaser into Morthenum. He’d however assumed it was all cargo aboard the warpchaser and thought little else of it. The small faster-than-light vehicles were an inexpensive method for small-scale merchants needing to transport goods between systems. He’d thought little else of this particular warpchaser until now, sitting at his module and recycling long and shaky breaths of the warp deck’s thinning air. He thought perhaps he’d eject it from the magnetic hold without warning once the Summer’s Pursuit was past Cassini terraspace just to watch it be flung light-years away from the warp vacuum’s elastic margins. He shut his eyes to picture it and became sober at the thought that it would happen much too fast for anyone outside the warpchaser to observe.
With a heart-stopping lurch, the inbound runway dropped out of view through the windows lining the warp deck and the rumbling vanished. The ejection from the station left the vectonauts in even more darkness than before and Aiden especially with a phantom ringing and a familiar numbness in his eardrums that had once driven him into a panic, fearing that he’d gone deaf. With his hearing momentarily gone, he turned to his left and saw the man who’d slept through the eleven hour lull at his module pump his fist and let out what looked like a howl.
In the first hour of the warp cruiser’s flight through Morthenum borderspace and toward the sparsely populated margins of the Perseus arm, FTL acceleration ramped up and forced its way into a steady subwarp. This had been accomplished by nearly overtaxing the warp engine’s antiparticle generator to push out and envelope the vessel in space-bending antimatter. The shift into subwarp for vessels its size lasted two or three hours under normal circumstances but the pilotry had been instructed to double its pace and the cruiser’s passengers advised to retire to their sleeping quarters where the artificial gravity was less susceptible to glitches from undetected speed bumps along the tapering of Perseus.
Aiden idled in his seat and counted the minutes, staring straight ahead at the big, circular opaqueness that looped through each module. Proceedings down here wouldn’t begin for another half hour and the other vectonauts busied themselves chatting in hushed tones with each other. The man to his left divided his attention between his controls and a woman three modules to his left. The Cruxan woman resumed flirtations with the Cassinian through her parser. Inside a sleeping capsule behind the currently unoccupied module two spots to Aiden’s left, the man from Northern Andalusia slept, an equalizer holstered against the right thigh of his bodysuit. Aiden wondered if the man slept in his bodysuit as he often did and hoped he wasn’t a light sleeper. His plan would be just a tad easier if Cruxan vectonauts were permitted their own equalizers.
Once in subwarp, the cruiser’s nerva opened a channel to the warp deck and spoke. “Vectonauts, at exactly thirty-eight minutes common since launch, I happily inform you that the Summer’s Pursuit has passed into 2.48 subwarp without incident and is five minutes common from trans-arm space. You are now advised to begin charting a course through the warp vacuum. Hand-off from the pilotry is anticipated in twenty-three minutes common.”
With little fanfare, all six vectonauts leaned over their controls and went to work. Like wetness drying off a hard surface, the circular opaqueness looming before their modules vaporized gradually and yielded to a hexagonal view of the starry expanse underneath the Summer’s Pursuit; rotating rapidly against spinward so the stars could only be seen as streaks of light forming a whirlpool around the darkness of space. Aiden felt disoriented when he looked straight ahead to see it the first time. The other vectonauts levied quick glances at the view and returned to their controls but Aiden’s eyes remained fixed on the light show. No use faking the sense of urgency they shared to chart a precise and safe path to Mars if this was to be his last voyage along the vacuum.
In the super-dimension of FTL travel referred to as the warp vacuum, most known paths were safe and only in need of vectonauts to steer vessels along them while watching for unforeseen dangers. Aiden, like every vectonaut, had been trained to think of himself as a glorified observer – observing the many vectors in spacetime a vessel simultaneously occupied along a chosen path once it had surpassed light speed adequately enough to no longer be observable. The path was a simple matter for the vectonauts to agree on and agree on it they did after ten minutes of preliminary tests and redundant scans of the proposed trajectory for hostile agents that might pose a threat from outside the vacuum. The difficulty of vectonometry on a team of two or more vectonauts lay in negotiations over which spacetime vectors were quickest to flicker – or warp – in and out of along a chosen path once a vessel was inside the vacuum.
At approximately five minutes to hand-off, the man at the module to the Cruxan woman’s right opened a channel to Aiden through his parser and startled him. “Human– are you still with us?”
Aiden jerked and slapped his fingers on his controls. “Confirm nine-five-eight-six-nine-eight-zero-four-zero-beta-nine!”
“You already said that.”
Aiden heaved a terse breath. He wouldn’t dare look up at the man. Instead, he leaned over his controls and tapped a slate on the right side with his index finger to drag the digital representation of the nine-five/beta-nine flight-path they’d all agreed on over to a tiny holo-projector on the left side. A three-dimensional abstraction – the size of Aiden’s fist – of the selected path through the warp vacuum materialized and gave anyone looking over at him the impression that he was making himself useful.
The man spoke again. “Would you like to do the honors?”
Aiden looked up and saw five sets of eyes now fixed on him – acute and inquisitive in the star-pierced darkness of the warp deck. He pushed away slightly from his controls and under his bodysuit, a tickling bead of sweat trickled down his back. He hadn’t eaten since he left the inbound messhall and he was glad for it because it was now taking every muscle in his throat to prevent that meal from bubbling up and becoming vomit all over his controls. But this wouldn’t be the act to set his plan in motion and he had little reason to become nauseated at being asked to carry it out. This was simply the hand-off. He’d been trusted many times before to take the reins from a vessel’s pilotry on his team’s behalf and he could still be trusted to do it now. It felt to him like a dozen seconds but his nerves finally became steady and he reached forward to swipe a strip along the top of his controls.
“Aiden-James, Pilotry. Warp Vectonometry. Cruxan Accreditation. Ready for hand-off.”
“Hand-off in four minutes common, Aiden-James, Pilotry,” the cruiser’s nerva replied after a few seconds.
The Cruxan woman turned and met him with a warm smile that nauseated him again. Cruxan vectonauts felt gratitude for the most insignificant gestures from their Morthenian colleagues.
The Summer’s Pursuit and its warpchaser were now cocooned in a ball of gamma-ray exhaust from the million folds per second in micro-spacetime they’d been vaulting across since entering subwarp. They were now twenty minutes into the peaceful quiet of trans-arm space between Perseus and Morthenum’s Orion arm and at the maximum 5.1 subwarp. Aiden eyed the reading on a feed toward the bottom of his controls and steadied his breathing. Once hand-off was initiated, he would have only the twelve seconds before the subwarp meter read 5.2 to find an entry vector into the vacuum or risk the vessel being flung back a few hundred centruns. Certain death for everyone on board either through a synchronized smashing against the vessel’s hull once the artificial gravity gave out or through the vessel smashing against an enormous obstacle.
He weighed very briefly the difficulty ahead and couldn’t think of a reason he shouldn’t run out the clock without finding an entry vector. A similar end through different means, he thought. but then he remembered, as had been imparted in him by Bedouin and Ulysses, that the next fifty-six hours common needed to be as much about the means as it would be about the end. The sleeping empire needed to bear witness to the burning, Bedouin would often opine and then look up longingly from his dying plants. In the anticipatory quiescence of the warp deck, Aiden feared these thoughts were loud enough to be heard by the other vectonauts and promptly pushed them away so his mind was a blank canvas.
“One minute common to hand-off.”
His parser contracted slightly and secreted a toxin into a vein in his neck as it did for the woman to his right. The hom’ttos received a mindware equivalent through their receptacles. In the second that followed, time slowed down enough that Aiden could now pinpoint every star forming the whirlpool of light in the hexagonal display. He was now prepped for the elasticity of time in the warp vacuum and his perception of its passage would speed up and slow down as needed.
“Hand-off in ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two…”
Aiden felt a heaviness over his eyes and a magnetic darkness. Almost as if his eyes were shut and yet he knew they weren’t. The Summer’s Pursuit and its warpchaser began to flicker in and out of all outside observation and detection. Seven seconds – the first of that seven stretched for eternity in an intermittent darkness while the giant, hexagonal display constructed eight three-dimensional abstractions of their selected path through the super-dimensional warp vacuum. When the darkness lifted, Aiden’s view was of himself alone in the warp deck with all the other modules having vanished and the hexagonal display having expanded enough to become a sphere around him. He was floating now in what looked like uncharted space and everywhere around him were numerous vectors containing the Summer’s Pursuit engulfed in severed fragments of spacetime. He looked down at his controls and saw the subwarp reading still at 5.1 and a reading next to it alerting him that two seconds had now apparently slipped by him.
He looked up and then spun to his right, shifting his module with him. Somewhere toward his right, he spotted a vector of the Summer’s Pursuit facing the flight-path more directly than all the others. Without wasting any more microseconds, he scanned the vector for its meta-coordinates to be sure it existed in a space ahead of their origin point and then keyed them in elsewhere on his controls. Within the next few microseconds, he was prompted to key the meta-coordinates in again for confirmation and then all the other vectors flickered out of view till he was once again enveloped in darkness.
The Summer’s Pursuit flickered again and finally disappeared. Inside the warp deck, things returned close enough to normal for Aiden. They were in the warp vacuum now and had already warped out of his chosen entry vector many seconds ago. The remaining five vectonauts were back and the hexagonal display was back to its previous shape and size except it now displayed for him a top-down view of vectors being rearranged every half second to show newer vectors forming along their flight-path. This was his unique abstraction of the path ahead and only he or anyone at his module would see it. The next time it fell to him to select the next vector, time slowed down again and he repeated the process of reading the meta-coordinates of the vector he deemed the most efficient of all the vectors in his display and keyed it in. The other vectonauts were however present on subsequent turns and some even called his selections into question. So went the negotiations through the warp vacuum for another half hour common until Aiden looked again toward the Andalusian’s sleeping capsule and knew it was time to begin.