Time Warps and Jump Fever
He noticed that the tarp seemed rumpled, the folds of it an unlikely shape. It was the third watch of the night cycle. A completely made-up time, shipboard, but to one planet-born and raised, it was the witching hour, the ghost hour, the darkest hour before dawn.
Second Supply Officer Wolvon flipped on the lights and flipped off his torch, took a deep breath and a few quick steps and flung back the tarp.
Lying curled and sleeping on the supply crates was a young girl in a white dress. Looking at her, Wolvon recalled the summer nights of his school days, pretty girls with long hair and skimpy sun dresses, cold drinks and loud music. This girl could have been one of those girls, except her skin was too pale, too perfect. She was a wax model of a girl.
But then she stirred, and woke.
The conference room served as interrogation room. Wolvon had felt foolish, calling the Captain awake, trying to explain. The girl, he felt, did not call for an alert. Half of him wanted to hide her in his bunk, keep her a secret. But the Captain must be informed. Anyway, Wolvon had a bunkmate.
The Captain and the First Mate, Zalls, regarded the girl with red-rimmed eyes. They had both been wakened from a deep sleep. The Captain's jaw was dark with stubble. Zalls, who was a female Jhessasseur, just looked fierce, clacking her silver claws against the table in annoyance.
"How did you fool the scans?" asked Zalls, ever to the point.
"I didn't," said the girl, politely, with large, dark eyes. There was an innocence about her that invoked even more adolescent memories in Wolvon. Passing notes in class, drinking lemonade on the hood of his flyer...
"Then why didn't the scans pick you up?"
"They did. I just asked the ship's computer to keep it secret. I mean you no harm."
"You're a stowaway. Extra people put strain on the life support system."
"One more is well within parameters," she said. "And the computer knows I'm here."
Zalls showed fang. "You're a stowaway, in violation of the Guild Commandments, and, by your own admission, have hacked into our ship's computer. Captain--"
"No one can hack a ship's computer," interrupted the girl. "What a strange idea."
"It's a computer. All computers can be hacked."
"Brains can't be hacked, and the ship's computer is half brain."
Zalls was a reasoner and an arguer. The girl, Wolvon realized, was drawing her in on purpose.
Perhaps the Captain saw it too. He intervened.
"What's your name and Citizenship?"
"My name is Shadow, and I claim no Citizenship."
"Are you of the Independent Sector?"
It was obviously a fake name and a false claim. The Captain and Zalls glanced at each other, looking old and very adult standing above the sitting girl.
"You are aware that it is my duty to report you when we put in at Kelzarn. You will be subject to internment or at the very least public service hours."
"I wouldn't interfere with your duty, Captain," said the girl.
"Captain, we need to get the techs to check the ship's computer," said Zalls. "It may have been compromised."
"It's not and I would never," said the girl. "I want to get to Kelzarn alive. Only someone with a death wish would mess with a ship's computer set on a non-Spine course. You should leave the computer alone too. You might annoy it."
Zalls glared, the Captain fought back a yawn. He was a kindly man, who understood that life's circumstances often press us to do desperate things, but who had vowed to abide by the order of Spacers Guild law so long as he was able. In the chaotic freedom left in the Rift Wars' wake, Guild tradition was the compass he had chosen.
"I'm afraid you will have to spend the rest of the voyage in the brig. But at least you'll have regular meals."
"Thank you, sir."
"Wolvon, see to it."
The Tricelka, being a former Guild ship, had a brig according to Guild specs. But during all the time Wolvon had crewed on her, the brig had never once been used or even activated. Normally, it looked an empty space onto which a toilet and a sink and a blanket-less bunk had been arbitrarily placed. When the stasis shield was activated, it looked like a glass cage.
"Are you cold?" Wolvon couldn't help asking as the girl stepped obediently into her cage. She looked so undressed, arms and legs bare. His eyes wandered to the hollow of her throat, followed her breast bone, then flicked away, embarrassed to be thus tempted when she was obviously so young.
"I could use a blanket," she said.
He returned, with extra blankets from Supply, which she wrapped around herself. He stayed to talk.
"So you really didn't hack into the ship's computer?" he asked.
"No. I wouldn't do that."
"Then how did you get past the scanners?"
"I already said."
He looked skeptical. "So you actually talked to the computer?"
"You can ask the Astrogators. They talk to the ship's computer all the time."
The Astrogators were a weird bunch, but he'd always assumed it was because of all that math warping their personalities.
"Are you an Astrogator?"
"You just talk to computers?"
"Ship's computers. They're interesting. They have lots to say, if you just listen."
"They mostly talk about the things they see out there, in jump space."
He shuddered. Jump space was a void, dark and bare, with no sensation of movement, or acceleration, or anything but occasional flashes of unexplained light. "There's nothing to see."
"Nothing that we can see," she corrected. "But it's quite crowded out there. Otherwise, why would we need ship's computers to guide us when we wander outside the Spines?"
She looked at him with dark, expressionless eyes.
"I'm sleepy. I'll tell you tomorrow."
"Did you hear the news from Dagoola V?"
"Huh? No. Where the hell is that anyway?"
"It's an Independent world. The pub was buzzing before we left--"
"Ah, yeah, I was on last watch."
"So anyway, Dagoola's president was assassinated, while eating breakfast."
"You really don't follow the news do you. Well I'm from Pectan, which neighbors Dagoola, and Dagoola's president was all kinds of war-mongering. So you know the Independent Sectors rules, right--no interfering with neighbors, total sovereignty. So even though Dagoola was war-mongering no one else was going to do anything, unless they did something bad enough to call a council of worlds, which hasn't happened since the Rift Wars, and that was just to seal the sector borders."
"So?" The listener was from a Combine world, so he was loathe to show too much interest over the Independent Sector, which he had heard didn't even use the universal currency, or require Vernacular be taught in school.
"So there's rumors that instead of calling council, someone hired the assassin. Only it wasn't a normal Guild assassin." The Assassins Guild was the only Guild that had survived the market crash at the onset of the Rift Wars.
"So it was an independent contractor? Guild's slipping." He shook his head. These were strange times indeed if the Assassins Guild couldn't even protect their monopoly.
"His throat was slit. At the breakfast table. With nine bodyguards and his chef and a news reporter and God all around to see. But no one saw it."
"Then it was a projectile. Or some kind of hidden device."
"No, it was all over the news. His throat was slit by someone coming up behind him, holding a knife to his throat and--" The teller demonstrated this enthusiastically with his spoon, splashing gravy.
"And no one saw anything?"
"Not a thing. Not even the camera."
"So, what? A ghost did it?"
"Not necessarily--but whoever did it was invisible. Yeah," the teller grinned at his companion's stare. "You know what I'm talking about."
There was a pause, then a reply. "But the Wilders don't go over the borders anymore. They've withdrawn. They've been politically and martially inert since the War. That was the cease-fire agreement."
"Looks like they've changed their minds."
Wolvon heard this through one ear, as he was eating at mess. He didn't know what to make of it. He was from one of the Temetha Combine planets himself, an agricultural world where the hot topic of conversation was soil acidity, not fairy-tale assassins. Come to mention it, Space had never been a hot topic either. Growing up, he'd thought it as far and unreachable as a fairy-tale--his dream of being a Spacer. What use was Space to a farmer, save the monolithic grain carriers that came at harvest to ferry the surplus to market? Even his parents had thought him strange.
He returned, next third watch. He was supposed to be making rounds, but the girl preyed on his mind. Anyway, the third watch was the witching hour, the slowest time of the night.
The girl was awake and waiting for him, or so it seemed. She smiled.
"Yes. The computer told me about them. There are three kinds."
"What do they do?"
She shrugged. "Not even the computer knows for sure. It has theories though. Maybe if you fly into one you will emerge into real space in a time far removed from your own. Of course, doing so might create a new branch universe."
"What do the other two do?"
"The computer divides them into three kinds based on looks, not function."
"Then what do they look like?"
She closed her eyes. "The computer put the images into my mind. But they're hard to describe. One looks like mercury...or the surface of a rippled lake, ever in motion. Then there are dragons..."
"That's what I call them. They're like a long chain of crystals...or square lightning, but they move of their own volition...as if they have a will... Those are the hardest to visualize. The third kind are simpler. They look like salt crystals."
Wolvon was fascinated, though he didn't think he believed her. "What else did the computer tell you about?"
"Phantoms and albatrosses."
"Phantoms? I think I've heard of those. They're hallucinations people get from jump fever."
"What's jump fever?"
"You know." He nodded vaguely in the direction of outside. "The void. It's disturbing. Makes some people go mad."
She didn't look like she knew what he meant. "Phantoms aren't hallucinations. The computer sees them too. They're not so much ghosts as echoes."
"Of ships that passed on this route before, or will pass through in the future. Sometimes they leave impressions."
"How can the future leave impressions on the past?"
"I'm speaking relatively," she said, a little condescendingly. "From our own points of view. Of course there's no such thing as 'past' and 'future,' except as constructs we use to limit 'time' into something we can comprehend."
Wolvon tried to wrap his mind around the concept, but gave up quickly. He had flunked multi-dimensional math.
"...What about albatrosses?"
"They're phantoms that appear to warn travelers of dangers ahead. The computer thinks they might be avatars of intelligences that live in the void, manifested into forms that we can understand. They take the form of Humans, or whatever species are onboard the ship. The computer says that often the crew cannot tell that they are not real."
Wolvon shivered when he heard this description. "So you heard this all from the ship's computer?"
"How do you get the computer to talk to you?"
"By talking to it first."
The watch bell rang. Wolvon rose, half regretfully, half gratefully, to report for the watch change.
Wolvon's dreams were filled with waves of rippling mercury, asteroid fields populated with strange, too-square asteroids, moving in the void where, mathematically, there was no motion. The girl in the glass cage leaned over him as he slept and whispered things that made him shudder with desire and fear, and within it all was that feeling he'd felt during his fifteenth summer, when he'd lost his virginity to a long-haired girl in the back of a flyer under the moon.
The Captain gave Wolvon the duty of bringing the stowaway her meals, swore him to secrecy on pain of pay-dock and punishment. No one went down to the brig anyway. It was an empty, forgotten space on-ship. The Captain didn't want the prisoner molested. The easiest way to ensure this was to limit the knowledge of her to himself, Zalls, and Wolvon. Zalls split the meal duty with Wolvon, and interrogated the prisoner thoroughly on Wolvon's behavior. She had a low opinion of men in general and Human men in particular, but Wolvon dared not try anything, even when the girl smiled at him in a way that made his heart thump and his libido stir.
"Have a seat," the personnel officer said to Wolvon, with what was supposedly a smile. The personnel officer was a beastoid, and her 'smile' was full of sharp fangs that made Wolvon's blood-pressure spike and prompted his flight-or-fight reflex. It would never do to say so, though. Just an old evolutionary echo, like the appendix or the pinky-toe. The personnel officer was only being considerate, mimicking a Human expression to make him feel at ease.
"I'm sure you got the pamphlet and heard the announcement," she said, "but we wanted to have an individual counseling session which each of our employees."
Look, it's the poster girl for the 'Drey Shipping Cares About You!' campaign, Wolvon thought, uncharitably.
"Tell me, how do you think the new policy will affect you, personally?"
Wolvon shifted in his seat. There had been much ire and many tasteless jokes made at mess over the new policy. Someone had created a graphic of a depressurized corpse, floating in vacuum, with the 'Drey Cares' logo flashing cheerily overhead, and set it as the computer display-saver. It had taken the techies an entire day to take it down...on purpose, most believed. Probably, the perpetrator was the techies themselves.
"Well, I don't have any dependents."
The personnel officer made a little note, gave him a bright smile that expected him to continue.
"So I guess it doesn't matter, whether or not Drey Shipping takes financial liability in the case of my death by..." The list was so long he couldn't remember it.
And they don't negotiate for hostages, so in the case of capture you're as good as dead! That was one of the jokes he'd heard, except it wasn't that funny. Pirate raids were rising, even here, which in the Guild days had been solidly within the bounds of civilized, Guild-policed Space.
"But you do understand that Drey cares and will do everything possible to protect you, as a valued employee?"
We don't even have an armed escort. And they're making us travel off the Spines because it isn't safe to revert to real space at the Eridani Nexus anymore. Since the Eridani Dynasty fell no one patrols it anymore.
"Did you know the computer studies history?"
"It has a lot of spare time, when it's not in jump. Operating the ship's systems in real space only take up a small percentage of its intelligence. When in real space it has access to the NET, so it sends some of its consciousness out into the NET and explores. That's why it knows words like 'phantom' and 'albatross.' Do you know what an 'albatross' originally was?"
"It was a bird that lived on the seas of an ancient Human-Wilder planet. It would appear before storms, crying out warning, so it became known as a harbinger of disaster."
"Did the computer tell you that too?"
"Yes. I never studied ancient Human history."
The journey to Kelzarn was so far taking seventeen hours longer than expected. Of course, they were traveling off the Spines. Journeys along the Spines could be counted on to take a regular amount of time, as could be calculated mathematically, and the same amount of time inside jump-space as out of it. Meaning, if you were in jump-space for ten hours, when you emerged, ten hours would have passed in real time as well. But off the Spines...one could make the exact same journey twice, and make completely different times. Sometimes, the ship's clock and the rest of the Galaxy didn't match up when you emerged back into real space. There was a Spacer's tale, told often and drunkenly, of a ship that made a routine thirty-two hour jump between Planet X and Planet Y, and emerged in real space to find that two-hundred years and thirty-two hours had passed from the moment they'd jumped.
So though irregularities in non-Spine jumps were routine, the seventeen-hour delay put everyone on edge. Wolvon more than anyone. His dreams were strange, his waking moments in the company of the stowaway even stranger.
"There's an obstacle," the girl explained, when he brought her meal down.
"Yes. A strange blankness in the void."
A blankness in the void. "Isn't that an oxymoron?"
"No, an oxymoron is a contradiction in terms."
"So what would a 'blankness in the void' be?"
The girl, for once, seemed stumped. "I don't know. Seems like there should be a word for it, though. Now it's going to bother me."
"But what is this 'blankness' that the computer mentioned?"
"A puzzling object. The computer is probing it, trying to define it, and trying to find a way around it."
"What do you mean 'trying' to find a way around it? Why can't it?"
"It's really big, in various ways. I can't really explain."
Wolvon tried to imagine something that was 'big in various ways.' He even worked up the courage to ask one of the Astrogators in the mess, but she only looked at him with fog-filled eyes and said, "Probably expands into multiple dimensions," before walking off in search of dessert.
Math was not his forte. He turned his attention to expanding his vocabulary instead. After half an hour scrolling through the ship's dictionary and thesaurus he found it.
"Pleonasm--a redundancy of words," he read with satisfaction.
What is it? This object?
The answer that came was not expressed in words. It came as images, as feelings, as a node whose possibilities brushed as feathers, tremulous on her other senses.
I serve the Gods through the depravity of man. You are not man. Do you know what you are asking?
There was a flash of some future, of crowds high on murder and ecstasy. There was a man at their head. There was the destruction of a world and, on the other branch, there was a different man, and a quieter salvation of the same. There was a butterfly batting its wings.
Enough! I don't wish to see. I don't care know. I will do as you request. You are, after all, closer than I to Divinity.
The ship's computer was satisfied. The stasis field flickered off and the brig's video began to loop.
Third watch again. Wolvon wanted to see the girl, so he was hurrying through his rounds in a perfunctory manner. The dark cargo bay failed to frighten him for once. He swung his torch around, creating shadows which he did not look into.
One of the shadows moved, gathered as if to strike him, then fell limp.
Wolvon, belatedly, whirled around and into the beam of his torch fell the form of an unconscious man.
Somewhere in the deeps of the cargo bay, a scream rang out in the darkness, then was cut short.
Wolvon was on his com in a second, and the twenty seconds before help arrived were the longest of his life. He dared not stir from his spot, and there was nothing to back up against--just stacks of boxed and tarped cargo providing ample opportunity for ambush. So he turned in a circle, flicking his tiny beam of light to and fro.
But help arrived, and he was safe. One of the officers patted him on the back.
"Good job, man," he said.
The officer was referring to the unconscious man. "He had the jump on you, but you got him. Good reflexes."
"It wasn't me--" said Wolvon weakly, but no one heard him. The lights came on, flooding the bay with brightness, transforming it from a shadowed cavern to a normal hangar. A cry went up as the source of the scream was found.
"I've never seen anything like it. It looked like a projectile wound, but there was no cauterization, so it couldn't have been plasma--"
"Could have been a gun--"
"No, the surgeon ruled that out in the autopsy. He didn't know what caused it, but he said it looked like something hooked him and dragged him. There was blood everywhere..."
The whispers trailed off as Wolvon, the Captain behind him, walked into the briefing room. The general staff--first officers all, plus their aides--looked crisp and ready despite the hour. The Captain made him sit in the hotseat at the foot of the table, and Wolvon felt the heat of all that brass focused on him. He resisted the urge to tug his collar.
"Mr. Wolvon," said the Captain. "Can you tell us what you saw?"
Wolvon did his best, but he hadn't seen much of anything. At least he was able to explain that it hadn't been him who had knocked the one man unconscious, and caused the other man's scream.
"So we have another stowaway." The Captain looked meaningfully at Wolvon, at Zalls.
"We've scoured the ship," said one of the mates, "and found no one."
"You didn't find the two in the cargo bay before either."
"Begging your pardon, Captain," said the security officer. "But we had found them. They were two of ours--hired on two ports ago at Ignaf. We've interrogated the one...left alive. They were attempting to sabotage the ship, to make us drop into real space before Kelzarn. Then they were going to call their ships to take us."
"Pirates," said the Captain.
"Pirates," confirmed the officer. "Whoever killed the one did us a favor. He was loaded with TF-9 and was headed for the consignment we picked up on Cals IV."
There was a collective shudder. If the plan had succeeded, the cargo bay would have been blasted open to vaccuum. If the ship's computer managed to make the emergency transition to real space in time, then the ship's safeties would have switched on and sealed the area. But if the computer hadn't managed...and the cargo bay was blown out while they were in jump-space...
Sometimes ships jumped and never made it home. There was never any explanation, because when a ship was in jump it was incommunicado, and when a jumped ship was lost there was never any debris, never any evidence. It simply winked into non-existence.
Wolvon had never heard of a ship that had survived a hull-breach in jump-space. Because they didn't exist.
"I checked," said Zalls, when the three conspirators were alone. "I checked the brig myself and had the search detour around it. She was there. If she was a pirate, her fellows didn't let her out."
"We'll have to interrogate her anyway," said the Captain with a sigh.
Wolvon half-expected her to be gone when they reached the bridge, and he was strangely relieved to see her sleeping peacefully on her bunk. The Captain had to clear his throat several times to get her up.
Zalls related what had happened.
"Do you know anything about it?" she asked.
"Why would I know anything?" the girl answered back.
"So you were in here the whole time?"
"Have you ever heard of anyone escaping a stasis cell?"
The girl sleepily rubbed her eye with a fist and the motion was so child-like that the Captain and Zalls simultaneously felt foolish for the interrogation. Wolvon lingered for a moment as they walked off to discuss it.
"So you were fine?" asked Wolvon. "No one bothered you?"
"No one bothers me," she answered cryptically. "But you should be more careful. Inspecting the dark corners of the ship, all alone."
He laughed, because it seemed like she was teasing him. "I haven't been afraid of the dark since I was a little kid."
"Sometimes there are things in the dark worth being afraid of."
"Will you be afraid, alone here?" He was genuinely worried.
"No. There is nothing in the dark for me to fear."
The Captain called him, and he had to go. But later in his silent bunk--for his roommate and his snores were gone on watch--her words came back to him and he remembered.
Something had killed the killers. And whatever that something was, it was still lurking in the shadows.
"So they wanted to blow a reactor bomb in the cargo bay?"
For the first time in his memory, Wolvon was the center of attention. His table at mess was full, and everyone was watching him so intently that he couldn't eat.
"Yes. That's what the security officer said," said Wolvon.
"But why would they blow the cargo bay?" asked someone. "They're pirates, right? So what's the point of blowing the cargo you're trying to steal?"
"What are you, stupid?" someone, not Wolvon, replied. "They weren't after the cargo. They were after the ship."
"A ship with a great gaping hole in the side?"
"It can be repaired. So long as the ship's computer and the infinity drive are intact." The speaker looked around incredulously. "Come on, you don't know? Ship's are hot commodities. You know how many new ships are being produced and put on the market right now? Zilch. Nada. None. That's because our cease-fire with the Wilders didn't include a clause that says 'send us jump-capable ships.'"
"Oh stop being over-dramatic," said someone else. "I know a guy who knows where you can get new ships. There are always blackmarket channels for that kind of thing. And yeah, the Wilders are advanced. But if they can make it, we can make it. The White Company or someone will figure it out."
"It's been twenty years since the cease fire. If someone was going to figure it out they would have done it by now. You know what I think--"
"No one gives a damn what you think, Henessy."
"I think that the cease fire is temporary. Because right now we're not feeling it, but in twenty more years, or fifty, people are going to start to feel the pinch. People are going to want those ships, that technology. And when that time comes even if the Wilders retreat behind their borders, we're going to take the war to them."
Henessy was shouted down. Wolvon, forgotten, was able to eat his meal. But he couldn't help calculating in his head. In twenty years, he'd be a bit over forty, still young enough to fight, if the Combines entered the fight. They had kept out of the last one, which was the main reason for their economic supremacy now. But still, he hoped the war was in fifty years, not twenty.
It did not occur to him to wish the war would never come. Times were crumbling slowly into darkness. The time before the Rift Wars was already being referred to as the Golden Age, but no reference was ever made about a Golden Age to come. The Golden Age had passed and gone away. What was left to hope for?
Wolvon focused on his stew, which had grown cold but was still edible.
The ship made the transition to real space, twenty-nine hours late, and though it was disturbing to find that the ship's clock was forty-three minutes fast, according to Kelzarn Orbital's standard clock, everyone was relieved to know that they had in fact reached their target planet and year. Everyone was just relieved. The mystery of the thwarted saboteurs hung in the air, but there was an unspoken belief that once they put into the port, the mystery would lose its power and life would return to its routine.
Wolvon had the unenviable duty of escorting the prisoner from the brig to Kelzarn Orbital's Security Office. He liked the girl, hoped that she would get off with the minimum, and took with him the new word 'neoplasm' as a conciliation, since he had forgotten to give it to her earlier, in all the confusion. He was transient, going wherever he got a berth, and he didn't know when he would next be on Kelzarn, or when next their paths might intersect. But he wondered if she had a NET account. He had one, and if she had as well then they could keep in touch.
The lights seemed dim in the brig. He blinked for a moment, stared at the glass cage, blinked again. It seemed strangely filled with shadows.
And the girl was gone.
He switched off the field and searched hastily. Ran his hands over the bunk, the toilet facilities, the floor. But of course there was nowhere she could have gone, no private nook or cranny in the cell in which she could conceal herself.
He called the Captain on the com. He had no choice. But in his heart he was glad that she was free.
Slightly glad. The emotion was tempered by another.
"Captain," he asked as the Captain and Zalls regarded the empty brig. "She was real, wasn't she? You saw her, right?"
"Of course we saw her," snapped Zalls, and though her tone could shatter glass it gave him infinite relief. If he had imagined her, at least it was a group hallucination.
Hallucination. Phantom. Fairy tales.
"The question is," Zalls continued, "who saw her last."
They both glared accusingly at Wolvon, who could only state his innocence, not very convincingly. But a look at the ship's computer's logs cleared his name, though not the mystery. It showed the girl lying on her bunk. In one blink she was there and in the next blink she was not. The camera visual seemed slightly dim, as if the lighting had changed. It showed Wolvon going in, searching frantically. When he deactivated the cage the lights became normal again.
"Wait," said Wolvon. "Can you rewind to the moment she disappeared?" He peered at the clock at the bottom right of the image. "What time did we revert to real space?"
Zalls gave him an annoyed look, but at a nod from the Captain she asked the computer for the time.
The computer told them. All three paled, though only Wolvon had a solid idea why. The time was the same, down to the second.
© 2009 T. N. Dockrey
Bio: T.N. studies law, language, history, and contemplates the strange relationship between the ways Human societies define the world and the actual state of the world, the power of belief, and whether peanut butter exists in Heaven (surely it would be incomplete without it, even if ghosts do not need to eat). For more information, visit: Stories of Dust and Moonlight.
E-mail: T. N. Dockrey
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