Drive Like Lightning . . . Crash Like Thunder, part one
by B. Morris Allen
She was a flash of yellow when she dropped out of FTL, going .9 c in a sleek ship marred by a tracery of energy-weapon scars. She was a spray of actinic blue when she crashed through the Engsson barrier at the edge of Norbeq system. And she was a steady burn of fusion-red as she decelerated at tremendous G to allow Norbeqi fast cruisers to catch up and arrest her.
“Who are you?” they asked when the cruisers reached her. “Why have you come here?” And, most important, “How did you survive deceleration?”
“I am destiny and doom,” she answered when the soldiers let her go. “I am hope and hatred. I am trouble and terror.” When they called for doctors and drugs, she said. “I am Periphery Scout Anjica Zelnov. Tend my wounds, and I will tell you about future and fear.”
“We have an anomaly.”
Anjica flipped her seat vertical with a neat kick. Hours spent mapping the edge of Mechanic space had left her eager for any distraction. As the ship liked to say, the work was an exhausting mix of tedium and tension—annotating mineral analysis reports while waiting for the alarms that would signal Mechanic presence and a terrifying wait for the faster-than-light drive to charge. The fact that the scout was unarmed and unarmored only made it worse, though she knew that the Mechanic advantage in speed and maneuverability made weapons a pointless waste of mass. Scouts relied instead on two advantages—a highly sensitive array of sensors, and the FTL drive. The Mechanics might be effectively immune to the effects of acceleration, but they could still travel no faster than light—one reason why their rate of expansion could be mapped and predicted.
“Never tire of that joke, do you?” The ship’s voice was the epitome of long-suffering patience.
“It’s what made you what you are.” Anji’s first words to the ship when she had finished its programming, they had left it with a love for assonance that she had long since given up try to eradicate. By now, she even liked it. “What kind of anomaly? Boring or bastard?” Most anomalies fell in one of two categories: asteroids with an unusual mineral makeup or new varieties of Mechanic ships.
“Oh, definitely or.“
Anji chuckled. She had only herself to blame for the ship’s odd sense of humor.
“Okay, what kind of ‘or,’ Dodger?”
“Communications,” the ship answered. “We’re receiving long-wave radio communications on a human frequency, but they’re not in a current code. In fact, I’m not sure it’s a code at all.”
“Really? That is interesting. You’re sure it’s not a Mechanic transmission?” Mechanics seemed to eavesdrop on human radio, but rarely used it for their own communications.
“It’s unlikely. But it will take me some time to understand it. I may have to decompress the deep archives.” The ship, naturally, expressed no concern about the prospect of searching and sifting vast amounts of data for pattern matches.
“Do we know where it’s coming from?” Anjica glanced at the system schematic that had occupied her recent hours. It showed a few gas giants and a few mineral rich asteroids around an A-type star. “Surely not from this system.”
“Definitely not. I’ve been observing and recording the signal since we entered this system, and it clearly originates from further cross-galaxy. The system is too small to triangulate usefully, but I have a very rough fix.”
Anjica considered. Her mission was exploration, and this surely fit the bill.
“Right. Let’s wrap things up here, file the data, and do some proper investigation, beginning with a point of origin. Start charging the drive.”
The administrative work required was minimal. She finished her notes, packaged the file, and sat back in her couch. It would take several hours to charge the FTL drives for a jump to another system, and she needed the time to unwind.
“Hey, Dodger! Pick out a film for me, would you? Something exciting.”
“Drama and danger, coming right up.”
The neat fields of Frexi colony nestled evenly between low red hills. Small, shiny clusters of pre-fabricated white cottages overlooked lush crops from the shelter of newly planted evergreen windbreaks. Occasional robotic gardeners gleamed in the sunlight as they weeded and watered, while in other fields, stooping humans learned the practicalities of harvest and cursed the recalcitrance of even andergene cotton bolls. Overhead, the last shuttle awaited the skeleton crew closing down the good ship Promise. Only a small research hub remained open. Faces were happy and hopeful. Life was good.
The Captain of the Promise raised her glass in a final toast to the ship that had served the travelers so well for the last several centuries. As she opened her mouth to speak, alarms sounded, lights flashed, and confusion erupted. Moments later, the chamber exploded.
As the view zoomed out, clouds of air vented from hull ruptures across the entire ship, and fires flared briefly. In the orange light, squat black ships became visible as their energy weapons and missiles broke the defenseless ship into bits of flotsam.
The impossibly fast black ships turned their attention to the colony below. Heroic attempts with inadequate, jury-rigged bore-lasers and lumbering tracticles took many black ships down. From some crawled creatures in artificial bodies with long, spidery legs and glistening mandibles, to be beset by brave colonists with farm tools.
In the end, however, even the most valiant humans could hold no longer, and were overcome by a tidal wave of dark mechanical forces. Frexi colony, humanity’s last, best attempt at sleepship colonization, was no more.
With a sigh, Anji turned off the vid. It was a dramatic rendition, no doubt, and she was as much affected by the tragic story of Frexi colony as anyone else. But the fact remained that most of the vid was conjecture, based on the few remnants found centuries later by early FTL explorers. It was known that Frexi had been destroyed by the Mechanics. Why they had done it remained one of the galaxy’s great mysteries.
“I liked that one,” offered the ship. “Balanced and brainy.”
“Sure you did,” said Anji. She had programmed sarcasm into the ship herself.
“I especially liked the child looking out through the port as her cabin fell out of orbit. Remind me, which were the bad guys? The vid was so evenhanded that I couldn’t be sure.”
“I agree, it was subtle. But I think it was the Mechanics. Because they accelerate and decelerate at such high G. It’s not fair.”
“All should be fair in love and war, they say. Something like that.”
“Next time we meet a Mechanic, I’ll be sure to tell it.” If she did ever meet a Mechanic, she would be dead. Their weapons and tactics were primitive, but Mechanic speed and maneuverability trumped human martial experience every time. It was for this reason that Mechanic-contacted systems were instantly given up as lost. Humanity relied instead on secrecy and distance for protection, a habit derived from centuries of painful experience.
A millennium ago, humans had been adventurous and aggressive, even arrogant, she knew. After expanding slowly to several nearby but inhospitable star systems, the race had ached for more dramatic expansion. When Vann Esmith had presented his equations allowing for an ‘intertialess’ drive that offered safe, rapid acceleration and practical near-light speed travel, the species had grabbed the idea with both hands and run. It had not gotten far. Several centuries later, no one had succeeded in building a functioning drive. Scientists and engineers had managed to create the extremely powerful and efficient engines needed for near-light travel; they had learned a great deal about ship design, but very little about implementing an actual drive system. Research fell off, and the Esmith drive entered the pie-in-the-sky realm of anti-gravity (which it closely resembled), and perpetual motion (which it did not).
Instead, Earth had invested heavily in the construction of several generation ships, bound for distant but habitable systems. When costs had far outrun budget estimates, even these efforts had fallen off, and humans settled, dissatisfied, into a period of gradual Distancing—the dissolution of the stellar empire into manageable pieces—kept roughly current by light-speed communications.
With hope largely gone, Violet Duncaster had been hailed as a hero when she announced her design for an FTL drive from her workshops in Centauri system. Soon, the Duncaster drive had spread across humanity’s few, scattered interstellar colonies. Centauri was the center of a Reconnected human empire, and Duncaster was richer than any three planets combined. They had even renamed the moon of Centauri II “Violet” in her honor.
Unfortunately, FTL had also brought two severe shocks—encounters with virulently hostile Mechanics, and the sad news that at least one generation ship, the Promise, had succeeded in establishing a colony, only to be destroyed by those same Mechanics.
“The transmission source is within what is known to be Mechanic territory,” said the ship after the last triangulation jump. “While the specific system has not been scouted, it is virtually certain that the Mechanics’ light-speed ships have reached it.” The ship paused. “It should go without saying that it would be extremely difficult to reach the source.”
Anjica frowned. Entering the system would not be difficult in itself—a carefully calculated FTL jump would put her in easy reach of the transmission source. Surviving the ensuing Mechanic attack, however, would be a very different question, and probably a questionable risk. While eager for a longer break from tedious resource mapping, she had no intention of risking her life for what might be just the malfunctioning beacon of a robot probe gone astray.
“Have you made any progress in decoding the signal?”
“Just about to. . .” the ship paused. “Done.”
“Dodge, you show-off, you timed that just to have an excuse to grandstand.” The ship’s brain (technically a series of processing units spread throughout the ship) was not technically an AI, but scouts tended to program for a maximum of human-like interaction in order to maintain a pretense of social interaction. Along with humour, Anjica had included a certain amount of preening and self-satisfaction.
“It worked.” The ship sounded smug. “At any rate, what we have here is the telemetry from an Esmith trial.”
“Telemetry.” Anjica was disappointed. Test data from one of the thousands of failed Esmith prototypes was unlikely to be worthy of further investigation. And certainly not entry into a Mechanic zone.
“Okay.” She sighed heavily. “Do we have a full record of the transmission? Might as well put it in the file, for what it’s worth. Then plot a return to system surveys.”
An hour or so later, mopping up the last of a very tasty hot and sour soup while waiting once again for the drive to charge, Anjica asked the ship to put the captured Esmith telemetry on a screen.
“Pretty it up for me, would you? Throw in some graphs. Might as well take a look at it. I’ve always wondered how close those last ships came to success.”
Ten minutes later, her soup was forgotten, as was any thought of returning to survey work.
“Ship!” her voice trembled slightly. “Graph tables four and seventeen, and show the results side by side.” The graphs, one a sharply descending line, and the other a moderately bumpy horizontal, appeared as requested. “Tell me I’m not seeing what I think I am.” Anjica’s voice was tight and high with stress.
“Graph four, on the left, shows the velocity in meters per second steadily declining, from approximately 250 million to zero meters per second over a period of ten minutes. Graph seventeen, on the right, shows an accelerometer reading ranging from about ten to forty meters per second squared, and averaging about twenty.” The ship paused. “Is that what you were seeing? The data for the second table is coded ‘Internal G,’” it added helpfully.
There was a long silence.
“Are you telling me that this ship decelerated from the speed of light to a full stop in ten minutes, and that the inside of the ship experienced no more than 4G?”
“That’s bullshit, is what it is!” Anjica pounded the control panel, voice shading towards anger. “You’ve misread the data. No Esmith drive ever worked. If it had, we wouldn’t have had the Distancing, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be hiding from the Mechanics now!” Both hands and voice had risen as she spoke, until by now she was yelling, fists held before her. “If this is a joke, I swear I’ll re-program you right now. In fact, I’ll wipe you completely and start with a generic model.” She yanked at a keyboard, already planning the wipe sequence.
“Anjica, I’m not joking. I’ve re-checked the data several times, and this is what they say. The data we received in all the systems we visited match precisely. I can’t guarantee their accuracy, of course, but this is what’s in the transmission.”
She lowered the keyboard slowly. “But that means. . . It means that the Esmith drive does work. It does exist!” She sagged slowly back in the chair. “How can that be? How did we not know?” She frowned. “Wait, why did this ship not return? Is it damaged? And how did it end up in Mechanic territory?”
“I don’t know.”
“And you’re sure there’s no chance of data corruption?”
“It’s extremely unlikely. I can’t confirm the accuracy of the original data, of course, but I am confident that we received the data as transmitted.”
“Ah.” Comprehension slowly dawned. “That’s the answer—the Mechanics faked the transmission. It’s a trap.” She relaxed slowly back into the command chair.
“Possible,” the ship confirmed. Anjica considered the possibility silently. It explained a great deal—why the transmission came from Mechanic space, and why no word of a successful Esmith drive had gotten out—there had been none. And yet. . .
“Could this transmission have reached human space yet?”
“Deep archives indicate that light-speed telemetry was always a last-ditch backup for Esmith ships. This transmission has not reached inhabited human space.”
Anjica shuddered. “Mechanics might be able to backtrack a ship. We have to report back!”
“I’m preparing an FTL pod now.”
Anji opened her mouth to respond, but closed it with a frown. “Wait a minute. If the telemetry could not have reached us yet, then the ship could not have been from us. Light speed is light speed. What are they playing at? Or is it just a shot in the dark?” After all, she mused, humanity’s best defense was the Mechanics’ ignorance of their location.
“I can’t say, Anjica. No one knows how the Mechanics think.” The ship paused. “Or maybe the transmission is real.”
A week later, Anjica was deep in the transmission’s source system, biting her lip and hiding from Mechanics in an asteroid belt. She had obediently sent off her findings and surmises by FTL drone. But instead of reporting back in person, she had chosen to check out the transmission personally. Scouts expected risk, after all. She had not, she admitted ruefully, expected to be quite so frightened. Yet she had started, and so far appeared to be undetected. Time to shake off the fear and get something done. A working Esmith drive, she reminded herself, would be the find of the century and make her as famous as Violet Duncaster. More important, it would allow human ships to match Mechanic speed and agility, and perhaps allow humans to finally stop hiding in corners and fight back.
“Have you tracked down the source of the transmission yet?” she asked the ship.
“Not yet. We’re definitely in the right system, but the transmission itself is no longer being broadcast. It may be that the transmitting ship finally ran out of power. The closest transmission we received was from about twenty light years away.”
“Still,” continued the ship, “I have completed a passive survey of the system.” A schematic flashed up on the main screen. “The main concentrations of Mechanics are here.” Splotches of blue appeared on the schematic, including in a swathe of the asteroid belt.
“Well, heck,” said Anjica. “We can’t just go poking around in all that!”
“Never fear, fair maiden,” the ship said with mock gallantry. “No poking and prodding for us. We have enough information that I’ve been able to make some predictions. In fact,” it added more seriously, “we may now have more information about a developed Mechanic system than anyone has ever gathered before. Well worth taking back to base, which I highly recommend.”
“Right.” Anjica nodded absent-mindedly. “So what are your predictions?”
The ship sighed. “These places appear to be mining sites.” As it spoke, colored symbols appeared on the screen. “These appear to be refining, while these appear to be construction, mostly of ships.” More symbols appeared, until most of the blue was overlaid with other colors. “That’s about all I can tell from a passive scan. But look here.” A circle appeared on the schematic above an isolated area of untouched blue. “This appears to be the only large concentration of inactive ships.”
“As if they’re guarding something,” breathed Anjica.
“Maybe,” replied the ship. “At any rate, it’s the one grouping that I cannot readily account for.”
“Right. Let’s go, then.”
The asteroid rose up before her like a dark, foreboding wall. Small by the scale of planetary bodies, it dwarfed Anjica’s tiny scout ship, for which she was grateful. Scoutcraft were designed to be overlooked, but no human had ever come this close to a Mechanic stronghold and come back to tell about it. And she might not either, Anjica thought grimly. She had been tasked with mapping Mechanic territory, not invading it.
“Is the drive ready to charge?” Anjica’s voice came out high and tight. The drive required a charging period of several hours, the charge didn’t hold for long, and the ship’s engines could only muster such a charge once a day.
“Of course it is, Anji,” the ship chided. “Wired and waiting. Just like the last time you asked.”
They had drifted in slowly and from below the ecliptic, with as many internal systems shut down as possible. Their target, this asteroid, appeared to be the center of a conglomeration of Mechanic structures. On closer examination, they appeared to be, not ships, but structures permanently fixed to the surface of the asteroid. They showed no signs of even the cold life of Mechanics. Two even appeared to be severely damaged, perhaps by collision with other elements of the belt.
“I’ll need to fire landing rockets soon,” warned the ship.
Anji licked her lips. “Fine, but as brief and late as possible.” They had calculated the trajectory so as to ensure that the asteroid would be between the ship and the bulk of the system’s Mechanic presence. They would be in full view of the asteroid’s surface structures, however. “Head for that central declivity.”
As the ship fell toward the dark gash in the asteroid’s surface, she clenched her jaw. This was the moment of truth—their maximum exposure to any watchers.
“Hang on,” warned the ship. “This will be rough.”
Anji, already well strapped in, simply nodded.
As the ship entered the declivity, its engines fired hard. The acceleration forced the air out of Anji’s lungs, and left her gasping when, moments later, it suddenly ceased. The ship fired pitons to grip the surface. They were down.
And now what? Work as hard and fast as possible, or lie low waiting to find out if she had been spotted? Neither made much difference. If she had been seen, the Mechanics would be here in hours or even minutes, long before she could charge the FTL engines.
“Anji,” the ship interrupted her musings, “I took advantage of the flare from the exhaust to scan and record the interior of the declivity. I think you should see this.”
— End of Part I —
B. Morris Allen grew up in a house full of books that moved around the world. He’s still moving, and the books are multiplying like mad.