Sterlings: The Old Country Returns

Seren, Lothess 01, 6119

"I need to find you a girlfriend."

"You've spent too much time on Athena, Polly. I don't need a girlfriend," Rhiane said. "What I need is to start doing something useful for the war."

"No, really," Polly said. "I think you need to find someone who'll take your mind off your studies. Help you unwind. I've been living with you for three months now and I have no idea if you like Xs or Ys or don't care or what. You don't drink, you don't gamble, you don't do anything to left off steam. You've spent your entire trip with your head in one book after another. That can't be healthy. What are you reading there?" She stood up and leaned over Rhiane. "What language is that?"

"It's Quen. You know, the languages the Pendorians spoke. Or speak, if they're still around. It's just a romance story."

"You read too much. You're not a machine, Rhiane."

"Sure I am. 'A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.' I can't remember who said that. Erdos, maybe."

Polly said, "I heard it that a programmer was a device for turning coffee into source code. And a compiler is a device for turning source code into bugs. So a programmer with a compiler is..." She let the obvious consequences of that chain of logic trail off. "So, which is it?"

Rhiane glanced up at her roommate. "I don't care."

"You don't care as in you don't care if it's an X or a Y, or you don't care as in you don't care if I try and find you a lover?"

"I don't care if it's an X or a Y."

"Great. Any other preferences? Blond? Brunette? Any race? Can she be shorter or taller?"

"I don't care!" Rhiane said.

"We drop out of hyperspace tomorrow, which doesn't give me much time. Can I find someone who'll give you some action in the next few weeks?"

Rhiane lowered her glasses with the crook of a finger to stare at Polly. "Why don't you just drop it? I'm sure there'll be plenty of opportunity for me to find someone who'll 'give me some action,' as you so tactlessly put it, at Ariadne. I can't believe you talk like that. Aren't Spartans supposed to be moral, stiff-necked women of the community?"

Polly snorted. "Yeah, in the sticks, maybe. A century ago. Who've never seen the stars. Rhiane, you're not going to do anything at Ariadne. You'll be surrounded by like-minded eggheads who'll be too busy reviewing each other's theorems to even notice each other's boobs."

"You really are very crass, aren't you?"

"You're only now noticing?"

"No," Rhiane said. She grabbed a pillow and threw it at Polly. "It's what I should expect from a Y."

"Hey! None of that!" Polly said. She giggled, and Rhiane giggled along with her. Polly recovered the pillow and handed it back. "Really, Rhiane. You're pretty, you're smart, and it's just not right for you to be so completely into your studies that you ignore people who are making whirls at you."

"Like who?"

"I have watched you be clueless to some very beautiful women trying to get your attention. It goes right over your head."

Rhiane was sure that the other woman was correct. Others had told her the same thing over the years. "I'm hopeless."

"No you're not. You're-- "

"Ensign Rhiane Rho, please report to the bridge immediately. Ensign Rho, to the bridge immediately." The voice came over her room speaker clearly, and Rhiane recognized it as that of executive officer Scholace San Ketane.

"I'd better go."

Polly looked her over. "Take care of your hair first."

Rhiane ran a brush over what little hair she had. She kept Polly's comments in her thoughts until the lift deposited her on the bridge. "Ensign Rho, reporting."

"That seat over there, ensign," said XO San Ketane, indicating the sensor seat. "Ching, give it up. We detected something in hyperspace a few minutes before transition. It has our sensor techs worried because they've never seen anything like it. I was hoping you might have more insight into what it was they were seeing."

"I'll get right on it, Ma'am," Rhiane said cheerfully. Lieutenant Ching Chiweng stood to give her station over to Rhine. She wore a tiny diamond earring, pure white, in her right ear, and gave Rhiane a grin as they traded places. Rhiane wondered who she was signalling, and why. Rhiane knew that the earrings meant something, both your true sex and the sex you preferred, but she didn't know which was which. Such an earring was a violation of military dress code but here, so far from the war, such violations were also frequently overlooked. Chiweng's name said she was likely from Minerva, like the Captain, which was the most liberal of the three Free Worlds.

She read Chiweng's notes. All of the Corrane traps in the sensor array had registered at 19:20 hours. The event ran for sixteen minutes before it was indistinguishable from common background noise. It wasn't a hardware problem, and it had been localized to somewhere outside the ship. Ching's written comment about a 'trans-barrier echolocation' problem was not making any sense to her. Transbarrier detection was supposed to be impossible.

No, something else was happening. Something inside hyperspace. Something else that was supposed to be impossible. An encounter.

She tried to model the encounter but the standard math failed her. The event was divergent, the signal smeared across the horizon of potentialities. Her fingers danced above another screen until she came across an older reference paper. It suggested a way to model a unitary hyperspace: the power needs were staggering but the math could then fit the sensor logs into a three-dimensional representation of two points. If she wanted to model the encounter it would take two hours. As she entered her job into the queue, she became aware of someone hovering over her. She expected San Ketane, but turned to see Captain Elaine Kaburi. "Find anything, ensign?"

"I think we were being followed. Ma'am."

Kaburi looked at her, looked at the screen. "You're sure?"

"I've only fit the data points to about a third of a simulation. You'll have to wait for the whole thing. But at 19:21 we registered this phenomenon on the edge of our hyperspace sensor net." Anomalies were nothing new in hyperspace but attempts to track them down, to give them meaning, had never been successful. On the other hand an alarming number of Free World vessels had disappeared into the darkness of hyperspace without a trace, never mind those attacked by the Dark. "I tracked down this old paper by Arnolese that makes the math work but if it's right hyperspace is unitarian in nature, these people came in here, following us on a track that came in about this close-- I don't know if there's any such thing as meaningful lengths, as far as I know, I can't even tell you the beam of our ship in hyperspace relative to anything else-- and tracked up for ten minutes or so before pulling away. Where they went is what I'm trying to find now."

"Goddess," Captain Kaburi breathed. "How long did you say that simulation would take to run?"

"Another two hours or so," Rhaine replied. "Give or take other demands."

"In another three hours or so," Kaburi said, then smiled. "At ten-hundred hours I want you to have a report ready for my bridge staff. Conference room one."

Rhiane looked at her and blanched. "Are you sure? I mean, it could be-- "

"It could be two breakthroughs, Ensign. First, you may have evidence of a hyperspace encounter. If you do then it's something we all need to know more about. For all we know, the Dark make our ships disappear in hyperspace and this is how they do it. And, if you do have evidence of the encounter, then you may be one step closer to knowing which of the competing theories of hyperspace is the one closest to the truth. This may give us a weapon we need to confront them on their own terms."

Rhiane swallowed hard and said, "Yes, Ma'am. Ten-hundred hours it is."

Rhiane arrived at the conference room early to get her thoughts, and her notes, in order. The room was empty except for a tall blonde orderly who was arranging coffee on a side table. "Would you like a cup, ma'am?" she asked as Rhiane tried to get by her.

Rhiane nodded. "Sure, I'll take some." The orderly put the cup down next to her. She tasted it. "This is good!"

"It's the same stuff you get down in the mess," the orderly said. "It's just pressed rather than perked, which burns the coffee." She smiled and said, "Being an orderly may sound dull but at least we get better food."

"I'll say. Thanks, um..."

"Ilonca. Ilonca Thavas." Her pips on the collar of her uniform identified her as an ensign. Her name said she was Minervan, neither a Greek nor a Saint.

"Ilonca." Rhiane hoisted her mug in a gentle salute, gathered her notes and took the podium.

A minute later the Chief Engineer walked in, followed by the Chief of Security. Both could intimidate a mere ensign like Rhiane. Despite the almost complete uniformity of uniforms there was a crispness, a hand-crafted completeness, to their black, skin-tight blouses and perfectly ironed skirts, and the white, loose service vestments decorated strictly with name, rank, and serial number that made Rhiane glance down at her own regulation service uniform with frustration.

Others filed in until Rhiane saw a sea of serious women. These weren't the hard faces of military muscle Rhiane had seen at the academy. These were the weariness of years in space, the dedication to a job all of them had once hoped would never come. These faces, long-careered and serious, treating the broken bones of training and the occasional broken heart had become the face of the modern military. Dutiful, helpful, nuturing.

Then the Dark had come.

The captain leaned forward and said, "You may begin, ensign."

Rhiane repeated, almost verbatim, what she had said to the captain four hours previous. She showed the chart, rotating it so the crew could clearly see the rendered wave effect she had added to the diagram, showing how the intercepting object-- whatever it had been-- had been generating second-order field affects. It showed up in the stop-motion segments of the diagram as a wavy distortion like a trick of refraction in air.

The chief of engineering raised her hand. "And you derived this simulation from the Standard Model?"

"No, Ma'am, the Arnolese Model." She paused to set the simulation back. "If we use the Standard Model, the data collected by the sensors doesn't work at all. For example, if I start at two minutes into the event, the Arnolese Model gives me this picture here. But if I use the Standard Model and this moment as my starting point--" She let the simulation proceed forward. The two point-sources began to grow, smearing across the screen until they became indistinguishable with the background. "And that's only after six seconds."

"So you believe Arnolese's Model of second order Corrane effects is more accurate?"

"I don't know what to believe, Ma'am. I'm just telling you that I surveyed the possible modeling equations available and this one gave me the most comprehensible answer. It may be that the Standard Model is the most accurate, in terms of describing what really happens in hyperspace, and the Arnolese Model has shortcomings that don't detract from its value as a modeling tool. I mean, how often do we need to invoke Einsteinian mathematics for orbital mechanics, despite the fact that her equations are definitely more correct than Newton's?"

"You are a mathematician, aren't you?"

Rhiane knew they weren't laughing at her. If she was right this might become a significant event. They would remember her. She was comfortable with this laughter.

Kaburi raised her hand. "Okay, that's enough teasing my ensign. She's blushing." Rhiane put a hand to her face as the captain turned toward her. "The question becomes now, what do we do about this event?"

"The only thing we can do, Captain, is reprogram our sensors to detect the event and then tell our other ships to watch out for it. It's the only reasonable thing to do."

"Nothing else to be done?"

Rhiane spread her hands helplessly. "We don't know enough about the nature of hyperspace to do anything else. Both models depict hyperspace objects as classical point-objects. In theory, they could pass through each other without notice or harm. Now, the Arnolese model does predict field events associated with the object that probably interferes with the other ship-- that's how we picked it up on the sensors. We're like sixteenth century travellers trying to decide what sea monsters we should defend ourselves against without having any idea what goes on beneath the waves."

"I don't believe I've ever heard that analogy before," the Chief of Security said with soft sarcasm. More laughter. Rhiane bore it proudly. "But what if this encounter, if that's what it is, represents The Dark at work?"

"We have no way of defending ourselves in hyperspace," Captain Kaburi said. "Would we even knew what to shoot at, if we could shoot at anything?"

The Chief of Engineering said, "Any missile leaving the hyperspace fold would likely be destroyed. It couldn't smooth-transition down to normal space, nor could it persist in hyperspace. And its destruction would probably release enough energy to threaten any vessel nearby."

"What if The Dark have such capabilities?"

"Then, we're doomed." Kaburi shrugged. "Until we can do what they're doing, we do what we're capable of doing. We may try to evade, but even that is an unlikely possibility. We have no idea where we would be maneuvering to. In the meantime, we proceed on to Ariadne Station, where we will be dropping off our enterprising young ensign to a lifetime of new discoveries, take on our two medical charges, and proceed to Sparta Orbital for refit." She stood. The others followed her example. The meeting was over.

Rhiane spent the rest of the afternoon in the ship's library looking for other ways that her discovery could be made useful to the ship. It wasn't until she looked at the clock and realized that she had missed dinner that she finally decided it was time to grab something from the mess and go back to her room.

Cold sandwich in hand, she made her way down the stairs to the ensign's quarters, chewing thoughtfully. She tried to imagine the scenario as it had played out, considering the different possibilities that the ship might have had in evading any interception. She couldn't come up with any. As she approached the door to her quarters, she saw a yellow note on the door and she sighed. It read, "Rhiane, if you come down before 22:00, please don't come in." Banned again from her own room, she debated going back to the library, which was where she had gone the last time Polly had done this to her.

She pressed her ear to the door instead. It had surprised her the first time she'd been on a starship to learn that the doors inside were just that, ordinary doors, but she had become used to it over time. Now the wood transmitted the voices inside clearly enough. She heard breathing. She heard Polly say, "Just a little bit, oh Goddess, yes..." Another girl's voice gasped, "I'm gonna be first." Polly's response: "No, I'm right... now!" A moan. A second moan in the other girl's voice. Gasps. A groan. "You made a lot," Polly said. "You did too," giggled the other girl. "It's all over my fingers. You made so much."

Rhiane closed her eyes and tried to imagine it, shivered with the thought. She knew what Ys looked like without clothing, of course. Athenian hygiene classes made sure of that. She knew Polly was a Y. With Polly, that was hard to miss. From the sounds she guessed the other was too. She could just see them, face to face, hands between their legs, doing something. She had intruded on their privacy and she felt ashamed of herself. She also envied Polly and whoever else was in there. She envied anyone who had someone.

She sighed and slipped away. She hoped Polly and her friend would be done soon. She glanced at her watch. Ten minutes until ten. She let fifteen minutes slip by, reading a book on her personal until its alarm went off, and then walked back to her room. She knocked. "Come in!"

"All done?" The words slipped out of her before she could stop them, and she snarled silently at herself.

Polly looked over at her. "I'm sorry, Rhiane. I didn't know when you'd be back."

"I know. It's okay."

The common barriers, the ones she had been taught to have, the ones that you needed to have when you bunked with someone else, were there, as hard to push through as a solid sheet of acrylic. Sometimes they broke. Not often. Not damn near enough often.

She retreated into the bath and changed into her Naval pyjamas before getting into bed. "Who was she?"

"Who? Oh. Khrystine. Khrystyne Chi." Polly gave the information out so casually that Rhiane wondered if there was something else she needed to know to understand. "She doesn't care either."

Rhiane had met Khrystyne Chi once, she thought. Medical technician. Like Polly. With a subspeciality in-- she couldn't remember. Something obscure. Respiratory, she thought. Heavy breathing.

The whooping shout of battle stations woke her from a loneliness-tinged dream of beautiful, well-equipped women to her own cream-walled cabin. Polly was already awake and not bothering to use the bathroom to change. Rhiane took just one breath to watch her, blinked her leaden eyelids, and then she was up herself. She rolled out of her pyjamas and pulled on her combat uniform as fast as she could. "Ensign Rhiane Rho, report to the bridge. Ensign Rho to the bridge immediately."

"Sensor seat," Commander San Ketane growled at her when she reached the bridge. "It happened just as we dropped out of hyperspace. Tell us what you see. Replay the last--" She glanced at her wrist chrono. "Eight minutes or so."

Rhiane was fascinated. There were the predicted signs of a starship performing a second-order transition out of hyperspace, but there was more to it than that. The gravitic disruption signal was rich with even more, as if these people had even higher-order engines. It took her three more minutes to track them down. As engineer in the sensor seat she was authorized to take over anything she felt necessary as long as she could justify it later. She glanced around the bridge. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the long-range viewscreen, which was currently using the best telescope they had for its image. She appropriated the telescope.

Four minutes later she had them. She had the ship on long-range optics and she could see them. It was almost head-on to them and its fusion drives were so well focused that they had barely any leakage, but she found some. They were four light-hours away, and coming it on a curve that would intersect in less than 24 hours. That's why she could see their drive.

"Captain," she said, barely able to raise her voice. "We have incoming unknowns."

"Are you sure, ensign?" Kaburi asked, rising from her chair in a smooth motion to stand behind Rhiane.

"Yes, ma'am." She pointed at the screen, split now between an optical view of the ship and a graph of its engine output. "We don't have anything like that. They're coming for us." She examined the graph closely. "That's a very big ship."

"How long until intersect, ensign?"

"Provided that's their expected sustained output, about 24 hours."

"Commander San Ketane, take us down to standby alert. Tell the sleepers to go back to sleep. We'll let them know if anything changes. Start sending telemetry to Sparta, let them know that we're up against something. If it's the Dark, at least CentCom will have the clearest picture yet."


Captain Kaburi said, "Well, Ensign Rho, it looks as if you math was accurate. Could we hit them with a Corrane Fracture from here?"


"Then do it. Start with a warning."

Rhiane's fingers tapped out commands on the keyboard, and a moment later she was on the microphone. "Unknown vessel, this is the FW Military Frigate Bones. You are entering a controlled space. Hostile action will be met with military force. Please identify yourselves and your purpose." She repeated the message twice, and then followed up with a less dire collection of messages, mostly written by first contact experts. She watched the signal repeat four times when a bar on one screen twitched, gently, at 2.4Hz. She stared at it, then flipped a switch and pulled her station headphones over her ears.

Rhiane listened, barely willing to move. The recorders were running. She ran the audio back in eight-second intervals until she found the one she was looking for, then said, "Captain, you should hear this." When the captain nodded, she played it. A clear voice, feminine, in a lilting tongue filled the room.

"I don't understand it," the Captain said. "I thought I heard our name in there. Do you?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Rhiane said. She said, "TFW Military Frigate Bones, this is the Pendorian Private Exploration Vessel Einstein's Canvas, requesting guidance to the position you feel is most-- adequate? No, most appropriate."

Kaburi stared at Rhiane. "You're sure?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I took Quen for my language requirement in finishing school. I still read it."

Kaburi glanced back at Commander Ketane. Rhiane watched the exchange, the shocked looks, the indescribable emotions. She felt them herself. The Pendorians had found them. Finally.

"Message as follows, then," Kaburi said. "Let's assume they can still translate Francaise. "PEV Einstein's Canvas, your message has been received and understood. Your current course suggests an intercept within twenty four hours. For our comfort, do not come within less than 10,000 kilometers of any TFW vessel for the time being. We shall be consulting with our government as to what to do next. Message ends." Rhiane sent it.

"Now, then," Kaburi said softly, "We have to consult with our government."

Sterlings: The Old Country Returns
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is copyright © April 22, 2007 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.