Flight-Mother Fayon was not happy, Veta thought with dismay. Neither was Ship-Mother Malen. The ill-starred Jump-Controller, its bubble eyed helmet under its arm, stood stiffly at attention in front of them and a double-eight of other senior mothers from the various ships in the Flight. Listening to others making reports on the extent of the disaster, she awaited her turn to speak. Mother Galeta! A Flight-Level Inquiry! Mother Falon was definitely upset, though she did not show it. Shame was attached to all involved in this event regardless of any actual blame assessed. This could black-mark her as unreliable under pressure. The flickering light on the screen had become a flickering disaster so fast. Veta in her mind again saw the warning green flash on the screen right at the moment of Emergence, thanks to Galeta Mother of the Universe. The green flash showed the ship’s warp-controls had failed.
Partially failed, according to the engineer that was talking now. “About two-thirds of ship Third-2-eighths-R managed to Emerge,” the current speaker said. “The remainder broke into several large pieces and is still traveling the Worm-hole. ‘May Galeta have mercy on those that fall into Singularity,’” came the ritual prayer.
“Galeta’s mercy knows no bounds,” responded several listeners automatically. There was a moment of silence. She wondered if they were thinking like her of the fate of those who may still yet be alive on the larger portions of ship. Better to be a messy random splattering of small bits than alive in a breached ship inside a Worm-hole. What had they done to be judged so unworthy by Galeta?
This was the first time she’d heard the name of the ship. She tried to remember what she could about the ship and its crew. The ship, Third-2-eighths-R, was the third-ship of the second-eighths reserve detachment, hence its number designation. She recalled someone in the crew telling her they had named their ship Wehrbroch after a particularly fierce predator bird on one of the subjugated worlds. She couldn’t remember which world.
The fact that the missing parts of the ship carried missing parts of crew did serve to vex the Senior-Mothers. Their major ire, however, was reserved to the explosion and oxy-chem-fire that had flared like a beacon for more than a crew shift. The losses had been high on the ship. She listened as other witnesses from Salvage and E-Ops, Emergency Operations, reported their experiences. The survivors’ descriptions were terse and sparing, but it could visualize clearly the demise of the crew. It felt the sickening dread every Warrior had for death by vacuum.
A large clone from E-Ops, she could tell by the yellow color of it’s suit, was saying, “When we arrived, the ship’s own E-Ops survivors had already extinguished most of the blaze by venting the adjoining compartments to vacuum, along with anyone trapped in them. Estimates are that two-eights and three were lost this way. They were using some of the smaller missiles and hand lasers to blast apart or cut off the remaining fuel and oxygen containers. Several supply lines that fed the fire were bent over on themselves and capped by laser welding until all that remained were a few flickers. The explosions caused four more breaches and another eight of casualties.”
Khree to the E-Ops crew, she thought admiringly. They were efficient and fast. And they took huge personal risks when something like this happened. The losses would grieve them all, but here deep in Enemy Space, their ruthlessness would be considered an excellent move. It extinguished the flaring beacon before the Senior-Mothers could decide to extinguish it all at once with a nucleonic. The bad Khree of the crew was surely wiped clean by their heroic action in extinguishing the fire.
“Veta! Sumarize!” Jumping, she almost dropped her helmet. Her Ship-Mother had barked her name out. She realized with a start that the E-Ops clone had finished. It was her turn. Control, Veta told herself. Swallowing she stepped forward smartly and gave the curt half bow proper honor required. Veta was pretty sure she could not be openly blamed as the recorders showed the events occurred too late to rectify. At least that was what she hoped.
Veta crisply began to recite her much-practiced speech on the course of events preceding the accident. “Ship Third-2-eights-R had trouble several times in the early sister-to-sister ship link-up. Their field repulsars were phasing above and below optimums. They managed to stabilize the fluxuations and they were holding steady up to the commencement of Emergence. As you all know, the field repulsors manipulate the Worm-hole plasma, protecting the ship and controlling ship during Emergence. The modifications made by Ship Third-2-eights-R appeared to be holding through its last few crew shifts. However, we had one preliminary warning during the last decalon of the countdown. Their field repulsor units had again drifted out of sync briefly, but Ship Third-2-eights-R stabilized them and recovered sync. It looked like they would hold, but just as the Act of Emergence was being consummated, they lost their syncrosity and their plasma wavelength oscillated well beyond tolerance.” Too technical Veta, she warned herself. Keep it simple and stick to the facts. “They lost repulsor control completely. Without repulsor control the shear-forces generated by Emergence ripped the ship apart. It is surprising that so much of the ship Emerged.” Veta glanced at the Senior-Mothers to see how this was being received. The dark looks did not bode well.
Feeling the pressure, Veta went on defensively, “I am compelled to say, Ship-Mothers, that even given enough warning to abort emergence, Ship Third-2-eights-R had little choice, as you know. Once the Flight starts final count, all ships have to Emerge together. The Flight cannot cease the count in the last decalon without causing a separation of the ships and scattering the entire Flight across Galeta-knows how great a distance. Had the ship chose to not Emerge, they would have had to repair the repulsors while still traveling in the Worm-hole. And the repulsors would have to be on during the repair. Both situations present a great risk to the crew. Too much time would have passed in the Worm-hole before they could repair the defective equipment.”
Veta carefully watched the Mothers’ reactions to make sure this basic information, that they all surely knew, was not offending one of them. “As we all know,” she continued, trying to show she did not consider them incompetent, “time in the Worm-hole means distance in real-space. Huge distances in just decalons. To Emerge in blind, unscanned space, basically at random, would risk finding oneself inside a planet or other mass. Granted, that is a small risk, as ‘Space is large and the Jumper small’,” she risked that elementary quote with them. “But then, since the math is indeterminate for both them and us, our respective Emergence locations can only be approximated. They would have to guess the Flight’s Emergence location and jump again, and somehow manage to Emerge close enough to make a rendezvous with us. Essentially, an impossibility if they were not given the mission’s target coordinates.” Veta didn’t say it, but they all knew that no one had the target coordinates except the Flight-Mother and a very few back-up replacements for her. Most ships would have no idea where the Flight was headed. A good practice in Enemy space. A couple of the Mothers were beginning to shift in their chairs. Veta took that to be a sign of their unease with the elementary explanations in her speech.
She hurried on, “If they could have repaired the repulsors and Emerged within a few decalons, they may have, at best, entered real-space within an eight-and-a-half light-cycle sphere of the Flight. The Flight, of course, will not answer a distress call or give directions to lost ships in Enemy Space.” One of the Mothers snorted. She was stating things too obvious. But Veta hastened to conclude, “Every decalon in the Worm-hole out-bound, and then the return Jump without being linked to the other ships, brings a still greater risk of separation and loss. Separated ships are effectively lost. They are expected to attempt their own route home to the Hive, alone through Enemy-space. The wonder of Galeta is that some occasionally make it. Ship Third-2-eights-R, with its repulsars failing attempted the only thing possible or reasonable under the circumstances.” There, she had said it. Had she gone too far this time? She was somewhat famous for her outspoken mouth she knew. Hopefully this would not be the time she said too much.
After she stopped, the Senior-Mothers began to debate. Veta could see that the Ship-Mothers and the Flight-Mother were still far from happy. Her lecture on the most rudimentary of basic knowledge of Insertion/Emergence policies and practices hadn’t made her any friends. She half thought the Bridge Crew and Ship-Mother of Ship Third-2-eighths-R lucky. They were a part of the ship that was still plummeting through Worm-space and safe from the shame of the event. The Senior-Mothers were unhappy with no one to blame, but had to content themselves with most of the ship’s support crews and approximately half the warriors alive. Besides, almost two-thirds of the hardware was salvageable. The lost fuel was easily recovered from a methane-ice asteroid with just an investment of time to scoop it into the holds with the mining equipment.
Veta wondered to herself if she shouldn't volunteer for ground assault on the coming landing. It might get her killed, but it would wash her and her Ship-Mother of any stain of lingering embarrassment. It would gain her some badly needed Khree at this point to propose such an honorable response. And, most important, it would assuage any wrath Ship-Mother Malen may have over the incident. It was obvious that although not at fault, it was her position as Flight Jump-Controller that was causing Malen embarrassment. “Embarrassment in the Swarm often proves fatal.” There was a saying for every situation, she assumed. Also, other Warriors could use that as an opening to Challenge. There were several who would like to see her out of the way by any means.
The Flight-Mother turned back to her. “Do you have anything else to add?” Typically, now was the time to finish with a contrite, lament of regret as she had planned. Instead Veta made a decision and boldly chose a different tact. “I am shamed before Galeta for this misfortune. My khree and my ship’s khree are stained with shame. My worthiness to Galeta must be reattained that such misfortune may not afflict my honor again. I request to volunteer for Forward Surface Assault that I may wash my grief in the life-fluid of The Enemy and erase my shame with Khree beyond the count of eights.”
Veta bowed her head to show her contrition, and looking through her brows noted that the Flight-Mother and her own Ship-Mother, as well as several others, nodded at the correctness of her choice. By volunteering for Ground Assault, she would show her Ship-Mother her rightful willingness to shoulder any embarrassment for the losses. Also, a show of her tendency to violence would hopefully dissuade any but a serious Challenge. Hopefully, she though ruefully, I will survive the coming assault.
She carefully noted which Senior-Mothers her move had impressed. Should she survive, this could prove to her benefit and aid her career. It was clear that her Ship-Mother was relieved at this offer. Ship-Mother Malen would now not have any fear of lingering resentment within the Flight, or from the Flight-Mother, at having to defend one of her own troops. Veta was certain that Malen would remember this extra sacrifice, should she survive the landing. Showing sufficient violence during the Landing would also help her reputation and build up her Khree. She vowed to herself to be especially aggressive.
As she left the meeting assembly, Veta worried about her partner. Swallowing, Veta remembered Enet could become extremely emotional. She hoped Enet would take this turn of events well. Enet had not seemed to be as close lately. Veta knew Enet tended to jealousy, and that it was mostly Enet's own ambitions that kept them together. Enet wanted an attachment to a rising star. Veta’s position meant perks on-ship. Larger quarters, extra-credit to ships-stores, Veta took much of it for granted, but Enet didn’t. These things were very important to Enet. This turn of events could endanger Enet's attachment. Veta was certain she herself felt a strong attachment with Enet in spite of her tendencies. She knew she'd have to diplomatically break this to Enet. She had to convince Enet that it had been the right choice. Not that there was a choice involved really in a matter of Khree. Embarrassment or loss of Khree meant demotion and revilement. It meant Challenges. Any Challenge could result in a death or, worse, an injury that would prevent her from serving the Hive as a Warrior. There was no way to avoid the consequences once Bad Khree was attached to you. And, anyway, Veta reasoned, “The only way out of the Flight for a Warrior is death”, was as true as ever. And another motto, “Better to blaze brightly and fiercely for a short time, than to die an aged cripple without Khree.”
Garret grinned in satisfaction. By God, the damn thing actually worked. It had been pretty tricky, but using the small uniquely shaped piece of spring steel in place of that awkward shaped plastic piece had fixed everything. And the clincher? He chuckled with glee, the spring steel part could be bent from standard stock at the same cost as the complicated plastic part, but it’ll last ten times longer. He deserved to be proud of himself.
Let that dick, Jeremy, give him a bad time now. His change in design made the whole thing not just workable, but a beauty of simplicity and a work of art. Most of the parts were changed, and the layout of the mechanism was opposite of the way they had started. This would stand out as his own work. That would show them that he was really worth keeping around. He yawned. God! Look at the time! It was 8:30 in the morning already! He’d have barely enough time to get home, shower and shave and get back here for the meeting later this morning at 10. Grabbing his jacket he headed out the door, and ran straight into a figure whose arms were full of files in the hallway. Files scattered everywhere.
“Oh, darn!” Exclaimed Linda McBride as she grabbed hopelessly for the escaping files.
“Gee, Linda. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” Garret knelt down to help her recover the scattered papers.
“We need to signalize that intersection,” She quipped. Then, forlornly, “Ohhh man! Half these have come out of the folders. Look at this. They’re all mixed up. This is gonna take me an hour to sort out.”
Garret hesitated. God, he wanted to go home and get a shower at least. But . . . “Let me help. Together we ought to just take maybe fifteen minutes.” He began to gather up papers and peer at them. Picking out which files they belonged in.
“Thanks, Garret”, she said gratefully. “But, it is your fault you know,” she added with a coy smile. He was a nice guy she admitted to herself. He didn’t smile much and was always pretty stressed under some new tight schedule. But he was always polite and rarely complained. He was one of the workhorses in the office. She didn’t know many who worked as hard as he did. From the look of him, he’d been here all night.
Garret looked over at Linda as he gathered up another handful of forms. Her dress was pulled up to mid-thigh on one leg as she knelt. Not bad legs, and she was kinda cute. Single mom, early thirties, a teenage kid at home. A girl if he remembered right, he thought. She always had a smile, or a kind word, for everyone. In fact, she really brightened up the office. He had always meant to get around to talking to her, maybe asking her out. He had meant to do that since his divorce a year and a half ago. There never seemed to be a good time, or a place to invite her to. Or, sometimes, it just seemed like too much trouble to try and make another relationship. Maybe he’d offer to buy her a cup of coffee? Yeah. Maybe he would. Tomorrow, after he sees how the meeting with the Big Boss goes today. He can use the excuse with her that he is celebrating the success of his brain child. Yeah. He smiled at her as he helped get the rest of the papers.
" Mr. President?" Bob gently called him to wake him up.
The President opened his eyes and sat up on the couch. For a minute he seemed disoriented. "Oh. Hi, Bob. What’s up?"
"Sir, we’ve accelerated our disbursement of astronomy funds, and we have increased staffing at almost every significant observatory we have a tie with. Plus we have bought most all of the available time slots in the international observatories."
“Is anybody starting to ask questions?”
“Nothing officially yet. There has been some curiosity, but the astronomers are too excited at our sudden funding to rock the boat by asking questions.”
“Do they know what they are supposed to be looking for?”
"One or two persons at each observatory have been instructed in our needs, along with the need for secrecy. If anything unusual occurs, we’ll get a communiqué right away.”
“Well, if we’ve tied up all the air time at these telescopes, we should at least delay any other nation from discovering that something is up."
"Yes sir. That is a side benefit, I suppose.” Bob replied sounding distracted.
“You have more info for me?”
“Yessir. I have a report that the French have gotten word of our visitors from a Norwegian source.”
“Hmmmm. The Norwegians know?”
“No sir. A minor attaché at an embassy had a friend at a Norwegian observatory who apparently put two and two together. They were making side money by selling it to the EU.”
“So the EU knows? It’ll be everywhere in no time then.”
“Not likely sir. They sold it to the French, not directly to the European Union, and we picked up the two Danish entrepreneurs before they could make more money. The French are pretty likely to sit on it as long as they can perceive some gain from it.”
“The French, huh? So does their president know?”
“Maybe. But you can bet that the Minister of Intelligence, Pierre Lamour, knows. I’d say if he hasn’t shared that already with his president, he is probably intending to use it for his personal advantage.”
“What about the Russians?”
“The Russians are sure to know. They have an intelligence network as good as our own. It’s a wonder they didn’t collect the Norwegian and his friend before us. And, before you ask, the Chinese seem to be a bit slower on the uptake on this one, but they’ll find out before long too.”
“Well,” sighed the President with resignation. “At least we have a short list of those in the know.”
“Uh… We think there is at least one more, sir. I think the Israelis have the info already, Mossad at least. It may not have filtered up yet, but they are less bureaucratic, so it won’t be long before their Prime Minister knows.” Bob shook his head, “You know, it has always pissed me off that our friendly Israeli allies spend more time spying on us than they do on their Arab neighbors.”
“It’s mostly just economic spying with them,” the President chided. “Plus, surrounded with countries that would be happy to see them burn up, they really need all the 'intell' they can get, anywhere they can get it. You know how fickle Congress can be. Look what happened to the last peace initiative over there when it became a political football over here!”
“Yes sir. I guess I do remember that.” But there was something in the tone of his voice.
The President turned to look at Bob. “You sound like you have something new to tell me that you aren’t sure of yet, Bob.”
“Yes sir. I’m afraid so. We’re getting feedback from a new source of research stating that they believe that the object we are looking for is non-reflective.”
“Yes. In fact, the source is suggesting that the ship is a black body. That is something that doesn’t emit any radiation, reflective light, or other distinguishable characteristic. "
"Black body? Sort of like our stealth fighters?”
“Well, in a way, except that the most perfect black body would be a black hole. Our stealth planes have worked by redirecting radar wavelengths so they don’t bounce back. No one has ever developed true black body technology. Well, not by us humans anyway. Some say it isn’t possible.”
“That could just mean we have a lot to gain by making contact.”
“Yes sir. It also means that the ship we’re looking for is going to be very hard to detect.”
“Come.” Vadik looked up tiredly from his pile of forms. It was his old comrade, Fyodar Gorbachev, his only co-worker in their branch of Astronomical Advances in the Office of Information. Information of course meant security. The two of them were the doing the work of the whole office since Glastnost had made security a non-essential government function. They were both too old to change jobs and Vadik’s past connections in the KGB had provided them both a place to keep working after all these years. It was something.
Mostly they processed a bottomless flow of papers. There were not many new discoveries to evaluate for national security. They were mostly papers from astronomers and research facilities begging for more financial support, and not getting any. Every field of astronomy had been cut to the bone since the economy had gone bad. Oil finds in Siberia and in the south, Georgia and Uzbek, promised a better economy, but until the oil in the new pipelines could flow to the West for a year or two, the budgets were still bare bones. Fyodar looked as if he was going to be sick. Vadik was suddenly concerned.
“What is it Fyodar? Are you ill, my friend?”
“No. Not sick.” Fyodar twisted his furred cap in his hands. Vadik noticed that he had his overcoat on. He had been out somewhere.
“What is it? Something has disturbed you.”
“You remember Sakharov and his young assistant?” His old friend seemed desperate that he remember this person.
“Da. Of course,” Vadik returned soothingly. Not THE Sakharov, of course. The old man had died long ago. No, this was his nephew Demitri, if he remembered rightly. Youngest sister’s third son. Or was it second? Not that it mattered. His normally excellent memory was badly stretched these days. Too much to remember and too much vodka to help him forget. Fyodar just stood there staring at him. He had something he wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to figure out how to get it out. “So . . . What, Fyo? What? You stand there like the Bolsheviks were back at the door about to take us out and shoot us both. What is this, my friend? You must spit it out.”
Fyodar looked behind him nervously. What was this? Vadik suddenly felt a cold chill run down his spine. The “KBG shoulder-glance”. He’d seen other fearful men do this in the past, but Fyodar? Here in the New Russia? Today? What could Fyodar be involved in that would make him afraid of being heard? Standing slowly, Vadic stalked around the elegant old wooden desk that pretended importance for him. He went past Fyo, directly to the open door and closed it. “Come, my friend. The winter is cold. I have a new supplier who gave me a good deal. You must tell me if it was worth the extra 500 rubles.”
Fyodar’s gratitude showed on his face as he followed Vadik to the small cabinet where Vadik always kept a bottle. He hesitated only a second at the half empty bottle, before passing it and taking down the only other bottle there. An unopened bottle of Crown Royal whiskey. It was a treasure from America. His friend needed a show of support and generosity. That the bottle was a week’s pay, only meant to Vadik that his old comrade deserved the best he could offer right now instead of the rot-gut Russian-made contraband he’d passed over. He would make up for the extravagance by drinking the rot-gut himself more often for a time. Fyo’s eyes widened as he saw what Vadik had opened for them. Eagerly he took the small glass Vadik offered. Fyodar started to speak, but Vetri waved him to silence. “Let us get some air.” He said, too loudly. Fyodar nodded gratefully, understanding that Vadik was going to take no chance of being overheard in what needed to be said.
Vetri took his own glass and the bottle in his other hand. He waved Fyodar towards the double doors that led out onto one of the hundreds of balconies in this old pre-communist building. They went out onto the snow swept balcony and stared out across Old Moscow. The wind was light but carried a deep bitter chill on this gray winter day. The changes of the various regimes and administrations had pretty much passed this part of the city by. To the north he could see the tip of the Kremlin itself where it lay past the Moskva River. No one else was on any of the other balconies. The weather was too bleak and cold for any but the brave or foolish to be out. Which was he, he wondered? Talking secrets at his age!
Setting the bottle on the thick concrete railing, Vadik took a swallow from his glass. Switching to English he said, “Let us practice our English my old friend. Da?” Fyodar stared at him for a minute as if confused. Then, Vadik saw comprehension dawn. Less apt for others to understand what they spoke of.
Fyodar couldn’t help looking over his shoulder back into the room though, before saying, “Da, Vadik. Da. English. Is good to practice.”
“Now, Fyo, tell me. What is this dire information you possess?”
Fyodar drank his entire glass in one swallow before answering. Vadik tried not to wince at the waste of such expensive whiskey. “There is a new directive that has come from the Kremlin itself. Demitri Sakharov has received an enormous amount of new funding. And his new accountants, within days have directed part of that new funding to Bogaevskaia and his mafia.”
Vadik scowled. “Fyodar. Even in English. Some things are not to be said. But, new funding? So, how much is this? Not enough to fund Sakharov’s request to search for his gamma ray sources, is it?”
“It is more than that, Vadik. Much, much more. And it is not for gamma rays.” Fyodar burst out.
“What then?” Vadik was puzzled. He poured his friend another glass. At this rate, he was going to have made a major investment in this conversation.
“To search the sky for something that is coming to earth.” Fyodar’s glass was shaking in his hands.
“What? A meteor? Is it big?”
“No, no. Not a meteor. A space ship.” He hesitated a second, then, “Maybe more than one.” Fyodar swallowed his second whisky in another gulp.
“Fyo. Are you crazy? Where did you hear this?” Vadik stopped sipping his whiskey.
“Sakharov. He says the Americans have seen ships coming from deep space. Sakharov says half the world is looking through every telescope they own. He says there is an extraterrestrial source to these ships.” Sweating, even out on the balcony in the cold, Fyodar did the shoulder-glance again. Then, in a hoarse whisper, not entirely due to the whiskey, he said, “The Americans are sending signals into space.”
Vadik was aghast. Either his friend had truly gone mad, or there were serious events unfolding. Pretending to misunderstand, he said, “The Americans are always sending signals into space. SETI, remember? Carl Sagan started it long ago.” He said cautiously, groping for one of his cherished American cigarettes. Oh, he was really splurging now.
“No, no.” Fyodar insisted. “This is new messages. In only one new direction. And it is in every wavelength they can put a signal on. They are sending with so much power, they are causing static on MSNBC and BBC and blaming it on sunspots.”
Vadik gave up searching for cigarettes as he remembered his last pack was inside his top desk drawer. “So then, my friend. Much money is going to Bogaevskaia, eh? He is not just connected to the underworld, you know. He hopes to bring Russia back to its former glory.” Fyodar stood there, hat in hand, anxiety written on his features, waiting. Vadik began to see a way to tap into this money. “Let us look into this, my friend. Sakharov and Bogaevskaia will need the proper paperwork, I’m sure.” He winked at Fyo. “To process this paper in less than a month we will need . . . hmmm . . .” He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought for a moment, “New staff, new computers, . . .” He trailed off staring out into the snow.
“Come, Fyo.” He said at last. “If Ivan Bogaevskaia wants his funding to be processed, he will understand our need for funds of our own for these things. And perhaps a raise, eh, Fyo? And an expense account?” Fyodar’s face creased into a large smile. “Oh,” Vadik went on, warming to the idea, “And some funds must be spread to other projects so that the Americans do not realize we are on to them. I know Popov needs equipment.” Vadik began to rub his hands. Popov was going to owe him for this one. The expensive bottle of whiskey seemed very affordable now.