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FOUR

The hardest part about living in a simulated reality had always been watching his son try to come to grips with it. The worst of it had come when he was about 6 years old. Somehow, Sascha had managed to avoid the topic with his only child until then. As was often the case, the bubble burst when someone brought it up at school, and he’d come home with deep anxiety. When Sascha finally admitted the truth to him and full comprehension had set in, the look on his first grader’s face had essentially been profound terror, mixed with lesser quantities of abject horror. That terror mirrored Sascha’s own. And, unsurprisingly, Sascha’s father had once admitted to him that it was a terror he shared as well.

As was the case for his son, the terror never really left Sascha’s mind. It was always there, a faint knot in the back of your throat. An elephant in the back of the conference room. So silent you often forgot it was there. But there was no escaping it, no matter how high you flew, how far into the wilderness you hiked, how deep of a sleep he descended into. There was always that traumatic knowledge. And trauma had a way of manifesting in peculiar ways, sometimes ways that only a trained professional could recognize. But as you got older, you learned to cope, largely by thinking about something else, or, often-times choosing to make the surreal powerlessness of humanity an element in your spiritual life.

His son was now eight and Sascha could still see palpable grim understanding on his face. His child would adapt, but he would have a difficult rest of his youth. Sascha wondered if this universal fear was what it was like in ancient times when men still deeply feared God and what his displeasure might cause him to visit upon the mortals he oversaw. Somehow, Sascha didn’t think so. This terror was more abstract, and yet, more readily defined. Any day now, the Programmer might get bored and switch them all off. The flowers, his son, every thinking, feeling being in creation.

Right now more than ever before Sascha, felt deeply guilty and selfish for bringing a child into the world. Granted, parents had likely always grappled with the conflicting desire to procreate and create another lifeform to care for and form a lifelong bond with, and the seeming irresponsibility of subjecting an innocent human to the shitty world their parents lived in. Whether it was Nazi Germany, Uruguay in World War IV, colonialism in the Congo under the Belgians, slavery in the United States, Stalinist Russia, or two hundred thousand years prior to civilization, human history held many periods of great suffering, and yet men and women had still made babies.

He thought about an idea that popped up now and then when he thought along these lines. What if he was only fretting like this because he had a privileged evolutionary vantage point? What the hell did that mean? Well, the idea could be summed up thusly: in the animal kingdom, humans had long been very unusual. They were apex predators, capable of running unusually long distances, inventing tools, adapting to climatic changes by wearing clothing, communicating abstract concepts, organizing societies and domesticating other apex predators. Life had always been dangerous for humans, but that wasn’t the same kind of danger a rabbit experienced, a species that was virtually guaranteed a terror filled, violent death. Or a deer in a forest inhabited by wolves. A small mouse in a world with birds of prey and snakes and larger mammals. Compared to them, to his knowledge, humans had had a much more moderate ride. If all those prey species could keep making babies, weaning them, and sending their unfinished juvenile forms into the dark wilderness with a clean conscience, maybe humans could gain a little perspective and stop agonizing about bringing children into the world who might suddenly vanish from existence. It was a Zen thought and he decided to think about it more when he returned to his son in a few days time.

The captain had asked him to sit in Conference Room 1 during the jump so that he could monitor things on the wall screen and communicate with the bridge without taking up limited floor space at a time of crisis. Dressed in his form fitting orange space suit with his helmet on, Sascha reclined in his mag glide chair, the base clinging to the floor. Half of the wall screen showed the bridge with audio and the other half showed the view from a camera mounted on the hull. At the moment of the jump, this camera would be retracted so as to not interfere with the hull’s vacuum energy voodoo magic. The crew on the bridge was going down a last minute go, no go checklist. Hull superconductors at optimal temperature for jump, check. Capacitor banks fully charged, check. Gravity system auto-deactivation ready so as to not interfere with external the space-time curvature, check. Fire suppression system armed, check. Air tight compartments isolated in case of decompression, check. Valve and backup valve to the pneumatic gas gun that fired the fusion warheads that drove the FTL pressurized, check. Neutrino detector arrays set to high gain mode, check. Radio emissions secured, check. Railguns one and two armed with capacitors fully charged. Auto-obstacle avoidance set to stand-bye, check. Etc.

Sascha listened intently. He wished they’d never finish. He wished they just jump already. Seated at the table with him were Alexander Curie and Scott Gomez, along with ten other high ranking members of the analytical team. Scott was looking at a photograph of his children. Alexander was tapping a pen on the clear table. Scott’s helmet was on so the tapping wasn’t audible, but he could hear each of them breathing because all of their mics were on vox.

“Flight Officer, initiate jump.”

“Initiating jump, Sir… Jump systems engaged and set to automatic. Jump in 20 seconds. Jump in fifteen seconds. Jump in ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five.” Sascha couldn’t get the nuclear explosive that was about to be fired out their ass out of his mind. He knew for a fact that there was no conceivable way it would detonate prematurely. But that damn beam targeting system…

That would be bad. Fifty terawatts bad. No more Mockingbird or crew bad. At least it would be quick… “Two. One. Jump.”

BOOM! A deafening thunderclap blasted through the hull. It was terrifying for sure. But the fact that he had heard it meant that the beam had fired true, and the sound he’d heard was highly dense vacuum fluctuations smacking into the hull like a collapsing bubble in water. He closed his eyes until the sound stopped reverberating. Then he heard a disconcerting high voltage hum. But then after that, all he heard was the hiss of air in his helmet and the voices of the crew on the bridge as they verified that they had jumped to the correct location.”

“Quasar lock confirms jump of thirty-thousand light years was successful to within an accuracy of two hundred million kilometers.” Someone gave a whoop. Captain Reeves didn’t miss a beat. “Neutrino, Conn, no contacts?”

“Negative contacts, Captain.”

“Any celestial sources of interference?”

“No, Sir. The skies are clear.”

“Engineer, discharge hull. Radio, prepare to engage passive synthetic aperture radar.”

“Aye, Sir. Discharge complete in five seconds. Hull discharged.”

“Synthetic aperture scanning environment in high gain mode. One moment, Sir.”

Another EM officer said, “Conn, Radio Two. Nothing on infrared. Increasing sensitivity to extremely high.”

“Conn, Radio One, no contacts. Going to maximum gain.” Twenty seconds passed. “No non-celestial radio sources, Sir.”

“Likewise for infrared sources, Conn.”

“Shit, Radio, activate planetary radar.”

“Aye, Captain, going active.”

The problem with using the ship’s planetary radar was that it would more accurately give away their position following the FTL jump’s initial loud radio and gravity chirp. At the expected maximum range of the system, it would take less than seven microseconds for the radio waves to reach out to the hull of the Orisha if it was out there and come back.

Seven microseconds later, nothing had changed on the radar console. Captain Reeves let out a long sigh. “Begin preparations for FTL jump back to the Sol system,” he said. “Rapid turnaround.” Sascha knew this would take an hour to accomplish and that it was risky. They were supposed to take six hours to check the integrity of the hull with drones and verify the high energy FTL components hadn’t been damaged by gradually increasing their state of energization. If an issue was found, there were redundant components available. Rapid turnaround employed those redundant components by default but overlooked common components that still offered failure modes.

A return to intergalactic space would still warrant six hours of system checks, putting them seven hours behind the Orisha, wherever she was. Sascha found the sliver of Alexandrite he kept in his pocket, a birthday present from his son when he was seven. Depending on the spectrum of light that struck it, it would appear to change color.

“Conn, Neutrino, object port-aft bearing 252 by minus 038.” Range, two thousand five klicks.

“Source type?”

“Spectrum consistent with Akagi QG-7 operating at nominal power.” The Akagi QG-7 was the 200 megawatt fusion plant the Orisha used.

“We landed right on top of them!” Reeves exclaimed. “Condition Zero!” A klaxon erupted around Sascha though no one moved. Combat had already been anticipated when they’d jumped. Orisha must have been lying in wait with her reactor off. How it had eluded their radar was a mystery to resolve at a more convenient time. This situation was dangerous. If the Orisha was concealed when they arrived, that meant it had had ample to time to aim its guns at the Mockingbird. To their knowledge, she was unarmed, as that would have complicated the engineering of the FTL, but internally stored missiles deployed from the cargo bay remained a possibility. Defensive laser turrets could take care of those, but any momentum left over in the debris might turn one projectile into buckshot at this close range.

“Ahead emergency speed!”

“Emergency speed, aye!” Sascha felt a wave of nausea as the gravity systems compensated for the sudden acceleration from the Emdrives. They could kick the Mockingbird in the ass at five g. “Rotate out of the blindspot!” Reeves yelled. In other words, turn the ship so the railguns that were flush with the hull had line of sight to the Orisha.

“Line of sight!”

“Fire one and two!”

There was a shudder.

“Away! Warheads guiding on neutrino.” Railgun rounds couldn’t make a U-turn, but at this range, only a fraction of a degree was needed to make terminal intercept corrections if necessary. “Impact three… two… one….”

“Radio!”

“No passive chirp…”

“We missed! Warheads, receding from neutrino source!”

“Fire again!” Another shudder.

“Away! Good lock, both! Five seconds! Four… Three…” He paused.

“Weapons officer!”

“Lock lost! Source is gone! No other source radiation to guide on!” Warheads have passed interception point!”

“She went cold!” Reeves exclaimed. In other words, they’d turned off their reactor rapidly and were running on capacitors and nuclear isomers. Lower power but no radiation signature. They would run out of burst speed maneuvering energy quickly though. “Come right, random bearing, emergency speed!”

“Aye, coming right, bearing 077 by 045! Realigning for line of sight!”

“Gravity! Radio! Gimme something!” Three duty officers responded that they had no signal.

“Conn, Neutrino, signal dead ahead, range ten klicks!”

“Evasive maneuvers! Lasers to Auto Defense!”

“Signal loss!”

“Conn, no radio emissions! Laser missed!”

“Drones!” Reeves growled. AI driven, highly maneuverable cloaked decoys.

“A drone can’t mimic a neutrino signal…” Sascha mused aloud in the conference room, bewildered. He glanced at the other people strapped in around the table.

“Neutrino!”

“No signal, Conn!” A minute passed.

Sascha looked down at the engineering assessment of the Orisha that was in a folder in front of him and was in the process of reaching for it when he heard, “INTRUDER!” By the time his eyes had focused on the view of the control room again, he saw the blinding discharges of plasma weapons, accompanied by ear-piercing shrieks. These continued for several seconds and then ceased. When the camera had readjusted for contrast, Sascha saw the rear aspect of a figure in a long, knitted black sweater and black slacks. The control room was silent. Then a distinctly German voice said, “I am sorry to have alarmed you. I mean you no harm.” Sascha’s eyes widened and an electric chill froze him in place. The voice belonged to Sascha's teenage son.

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