Faster, Closer, Farther

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24SE, October 16th

Shen found Mari and Sandy hanging together in the cafeteria, over cheesecake and coffee.

“Ladies”, he said. “Great to find the two of you together, I need your help.”

Sandy got up without thinking. “What happened?”

“There was an accident in the Great Plains high-energy lab. Nobody died, but the researcher we had signed up for our ship, as well as three of the reserves, are gravely hurt, so there's no way any of them are going to the Baiji in four months.”

“Ouch”, said Mari.

“So we have no researcher. The committee wanted us to do without, but I still think it's essential; for one, someone intimate with the theory will have the opportunity to do all sorts of observations in a three-month FTL flight… but I also think, when we reach the Baiji, we should have someone who can explain how the drive works.”

“I can”, Sandy said casually.

“Not in enough depth, sorry. I'm sure you could answer any question I'd have, but not if they bring their own scientists.”

“Fair enough.”

“So the three of us are flying to Great Plains right now.”

“Uh?”, Mari asked. “To the lab?”

“No, no. We're visiting another researcher who lives in that ship. He does work in that lab, but as luck would have it, the accident happened on his day off. Now he's our strongest remaining candidate… but he adamantly refuses to go, because he has family.”

“Hmm… isn't that a pretty good reason?”

“Maybe. I don't know. I'll know when I meet him. Either way, we need him… so I'm going through the list, top-down, from the best. We'll see if we can convince him, and if not, we try the next one. Let's go?”

Great Plains, or Aurochs 12, was a sparsely-populated ship, a collection of villages punctuating vast expanses of farmland and natural reserves. It was best known as the ship where the fold system had been invented, in a heretofore unremarkable scientific think tank in the middle of the buffalo reserve. It was named for the afterlife of some native-american peoples, and in an age of reason, many found that homage of dubious taste, and either avoided the place, or regarded it as a quaint relic. Now, some claimed it was that relative anonymity that gave its scientists the peace to figure out that one important mystery of physics.

Their train was all glass-walled, as part of Great Plains mostly-failed bid to become a tourist destination. For sure, the view was breathtaking, and Mari was enjoying it to the fullest, soaking in the beauty and the peace, charging herself for months in a small ship. She knew quite well she had spent most of her life in space, under artificial gravity and an artificial sun — one that wasn't even a round spot in the sky, but rather an enormous bar that ran each ship end to end, emitting just the right amounts and frequencies of light and radiant heat, dimming and going off in schedules calculated to satisfy everyone's biological cycles. But she knew that intellectually, for the ships had been carefully designed precisely to make their passengers comfortable. The journey would be something different, it would be, in a way, like really being in space. And even though she knew the green fields and forests before her eyes were painstakingly transported there in her own lifetime, they were still soothing, and something she'd miss.

Sandy, on the other hand, was bored, and had taken to messaging friends on her data pad. She'd have preferred to chat, but she was a little uncomfortable with the fourth person in their car — their escort, Lieutenant J. A very good looking man, in perfect shape, brown hair, blue eyes, a rather pale shade of white, round cheekbones and chin that made him look like he was about to smile all the time, but then looked just a litlle creepy when he did. He was their main military crew member, head of security for the ship, as well as crew security during the preparation months (which had already been proven necessary beyond any doubt).

The military were a somewhat delicate issue in the Aurochs, with its largely liberal political leaning. Nobody was expecting war, but at the same time nobody wanted to be unprepared if they did happen to run into hostile aliens or something. Some have argued for folding internal security and emergency response into the military's roles, since that was normally a secondary part of their mandate anyway, in cases when the normal police and emergency responders were not sufficient; but people coming from countries where the police was militarised strongly opposed the idea. In the end, it settled into what would have been called reserves in many pre-launch Earth countries; a force substantial in number, but which spent most of their time living as civilians, working on whatever they wanted. Full-time military were responsible for training, infrastructure, and the security of critical resources such as the spaceports, sunbars, and marine reserves. And then, after a few years, it just naturally happened that the majority of police and emergency responders were reserve military anyway, as it just made sense — until, ten years after the launch, it was made official, although in the case of the police, a complicated system of bounds and checks was put in place to avoid concentration of power (the term “police state” was nearly a swear word in the Aurochs fleet).

J was career military, from a military family. That brought up all kinds of imagery on people's minds… which he didn't really necessarily fit, coming from a country with a history of exceptionally unaggressive military. In the end, he was just a young man who took his job extremely seriously, and who cared greatly for the safety of others. And yet, he was an Aurochian through and through, ever so conscious of the delicate boundary between keeping people safe and stepping on their freedom or privacy. In particular, he knew by necessity the real names, places of birth, hobbies, and detailed backgrounds of all crewmembers, as well as their support team; but he made a point of never bringing any of that up, unless and until the person had personally told him, calling everyone what they preferred to be called, and insisting on being called just Lieutenant J. At 28, and while still a lieutenant, he had such impressive assignments in his CV as leading the security force in the spaceport of one of the lesser ships, and a medal of bravery for saving a number of lives in an accident in the Urusburg marine reserve a few years earlier.

Basically, Sandy didn't have any reason to dislike him, other than the fact that he was full-time military, and knew more about her than she did about him. But for her, that was enough. Sandy was not a trusting person.

The train came to a stop in Büffeldorf, a two-hundred-families village and home of the researcher they were visiting. The architecture, and indeed most of the population, was central-european; like much of Great Plains, it attempted half-heartedly to be a tourist destination, and the occasional visitor, as they found, met a warm, friendly welcome; but in reality, it was clear that most lived there because they cherished the small, closely-knit community and the quiet, rural environment, even if most had not at all rural jobs. Apart from a good chunk of the researchers from the nearby Great Plains high-energy lab (45 minutes by train), Büffeldorf boasted one of Aurochs' hottest novelists, more than one popular fashion designer, and the architect responsible for the village, frequently commissioned by clients all over the fleet. And while complete retirement was rare in Aurochs, almost ¼ of the villagers were over 60 and had reduced their work to a more leisurely pace.

For a much greater number of people, though, it was only a station they passed by on their commute, one among many such islands of humanity in a ship designed to be large enough that you forget you were in a ship. And accordingly, the station was just a double platform, with a roof on one side only.

And standing there in the middle, looking miserable in the cold afternoon, was one short, dark-haired man, slightly overweight, dressed all in muted tones of brown and grey, thick-rimmed spectacles, hands in his pockets. He looked straight at them as they disembarked — the only people to do so, Mari noted — and walked straight to them.

“Mister Shen”, he said, extending a hand. “I'm called Tek. I learn you were coming.”

“Ah yes”, said Shen, slightly surprised. He sent word, of course; it would be rude to appear unannounced on someone's holidays. But… “You didn't have to come pick us up.”

“Incorrect”, said Tek. “Just I don't want this meeting in my house. I don't want my children involving in this.”

Mari noticed with a hint of amusement that he spoke with an accent. No way it could still be his native accent, right? Not after twenty-plus years, even if he still used the language at home… but what else could… ah yes. It's a Renlan accent, she realised. Designed around formal logic and using lessons learned from programming language design, it allowed for very compact communication, and avoided ambiguity. For that reason, even though the fleet as a whole had voted to adopt Reformed English, some professional communities preferred Renlan; including, notably, science research. (Titles like “Physicist” had faded from usage in the last two decades, as at the same time the number of possible specialisations continued to grow relentlessly, and people tended to blur the lines and collect three, four of them in average. Aurochian scientists preferred to be called only “Theoretical Researcher”, “Applied Researcher”, or “Research Engineer”, and when the distinction didn't matter, just “Researcher” or even “Scientist”. They argued it was better than aberrations like “Quantum Biochemist” or “Astrophysicist”.) A Renlan accent told her curator mind he spent most of his time around, and had most of his conversations with, fellow researchers; perhaps his wife was a researcher too? And did that mean his children also spoke Renlan at home? Interesting.

“I see”, said Shen. “So you have an idea why I'm here.”

“Correct. Propose we sit down and have coffee?”

He walked them to a cozy-looking café just outside the station, richly decorated with pictures of the town and vicinity — probably meant to be the welcome station for the hypothetical tourists, and in reality serving as meeting point for workers before or after their commute. Shen ordered a latte, Sandy a cappuccino, Mari a tea with a dash of milk, Lieutenant J opted for a juice, and Tek asked for a double-shot espresso macchiato.

“I like it here”, said Tek, bluntly. “I'm happy. And I have two young ones.”

“I understand”, Shen said, with a nod. “But you also have your career. Tell me, Tek, why did you go into research to begin with?”

“It was something I was good at”, he said promptly. “I like numbers. I like looking at the hidden logic behind the universe.”

“And you're not moved by seeing the fold system in use firsthand?”

He struggled for English words for a moment, then: “Not very. I'm a theoretical researcher. I make numbers work.”

Sandy had a question. “What led you to the fold project?”

“I love quantum physics since high school. Published much. They recruited me, needed help with some fine points.”

“Oh. So you didn't specifically want…”

“No, no. It's nice, and that helped when they recruit me, good thing that we can build better ships, make better future for my children. But I'm no applied researcher. My world is leptons and bosons and suchlike. And equations, many.”

“What about going to a different fleet, seeing different people, different cities?”, Mari asked.

“Lady”, he said, “I haven't been to all ships in our fleet. Sorry, not really my thing. I'm sorry, people, you're wasting time; I am, how you say, not the droid you're looking for. Also, there are others more qualified.”

“I don't think so”, said Shen. “Not for us. I've seen one of your presentations; you have a deep, yet holistic understanding of the mechanics involved, and you're so good at explaining it, even I understood, more or less. You're used to zero-G and you're fluent in Renlan. You are precisely the droid we need.”

“Even if… I am not interested. What is there for me? I'm no diplomat. I'm no traveller. I'm no adventurer. I don't even care so much to see the drive in operation. As I say, I'm a theoretical researcher. Numbers, equations. That is it.”

“And do you know everybody in your field?”

“Oh yes. It's not a very large number.”

“But then, wouldn't it be interesting to meet your peers in the Baiji fleet? It would be like going to a conference in old pre-launch days, wouldn't it? Except you don't even have the slightest idea who they are and what they've been researching, since we have no access to their journals.”

Tek was taken aback by that suggestion; clearly, he hadn't considered it before. Mari could almost see the wheels turning inside the man's head. Yes; bounce his ideas against some new minds, see what their perspectives would be on the whole thing, and even on the topics that were stumping his team. And who knows what other research they might have? And what tools they might have developed?

“I hear you are the devil”, he told Shen. “I thought, exaggeration. But seems that reputation is deserved.”

“Does that mean you're coming?”

“I must discuss with my wife. But I think so. Yes.”

24SE, November 28th

Lieutenant J entered the small bathroom and found Tek already there, relieving himself on one of the three urinals. Much had been said about urinating in zero G, but both men were used to it; J spent much of his adult life working in spaceports or marine reserves, and Tek could say the same about flying laboratories (where certain experiments have to be conducted to avoid interference from the ship's spin) and more recently, prototype ships.

“Nervous?”, he asked the scientist.

“No. Very no. You?”

“A little bit, actually.”

Tek shrugged. “Am nervous about the project itself. Three months in deep space. Maybe year away from family. That, yes. A test cruise of one week, no. For me that is just work. How do they say in English, business as usual.” He moved to clean his hands.

“But we'll be farther from the fleet than anyone has ever been.”

“Incorrect. Majority of humanity is farther than we will be.”

“You know what I mean. What if something does go wrong?”

“We have two other fold ships ready for rescue.” He patted the soldier on the shoulder — an odd gesture, as the younger man was more than a full head taller, but not particularly hard without gravity in the way. “Relax. Worst can happen is engine blows, or hull doesn't hold.”

“And then?”

“We all die very fast. No pain.”

J wondered if the scientist was messing with him, but in the time it took him to ponder that, Tek left. He sighed, and proceeded to clean his own hands.

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