Chapter 11: Message in a Bottle

“All right, Felix, what’s this all about?” Anna asked as she entered Engineering Tool Room #2. To be sure, she’d been grateful for the distraction from the mountains of paperwork that threatened to overwhelm her command, but as long as it could hold atmosphere and the Lords of Admiralty deemed it, Winterkiss was her ship, and her responsibility, and so was the paperwork that went with it. A lot of paperwork.

“Well, Ma’am, it’s this.” He gestured at a cylinder, not much larger than a full-sized fire extinguisher. Wisps of white vapor fell away from it, signs of cryogenic cooling. “We found it during an inventory of Vesselton and… Well, I don’t believe it, but Flynn here thinks that the attack on Anchor wasn’t conducted by the Vessel at all. It came from the Vessel, but it originated elsewhere.”

“Okay. That’s certainly possible. How does this thing fit in?”

Flynn said, “What you’re looking at, Captain, is another of those technologies that those of us with gravitics abandoned centuries ago. This is a faster-than-light communications device.”

“You mean like our gravitic pulse units.”

“Oh, no, this thing is much more impressive than that. It can transmit at rates of megabytes a second. And its range is infinite.”

“Infinite?” Anna said. Manticore’s gravitic communications devices were slow, low-rate devices with a reach of a few light-hours. “But… How? Why don’t we use this?”

“Because we can’t,” Flynn said. “This is a quantum entanglement device. It’s actually fairly easy to create quantities of quantum-entangled particles, separate and store them, and then use one set to disentangle the other, sending a binary signal instantly across any distance. Any distance, Captain. Twelve grams of carbon contains absolutely zetabytes of potential signal. But for it to work, both containers have to stay inside a frame of reference that respects the other.” He waved a hand. “When one of our ships uses an impeller drive, we’re engaging in something called ‘frame dragging’, which disassociates our ship with the local frame of reference. A greater frame, one with respect to hyperspace, comes into play, and that’s why all the worlds of human space are associated in space and time.” He pointed at the container. “For something like this to matter, we would have to drop down to using only slower-than-light technologies. Which is where Arendelle is right now. There’s only one reason for this thing to exist. The attack on Queen Elsa was conducted and coordinated from somewhere other than the Vessel.”

Buzz inhaled deeply before adding. “Actually, we believe it’s more significant than that. We know that Vesselton has been in communication with someone on Corona. A lot of the cyborg crew went there. And the last three ships we sent to Corona, and the last two that came from Corona, contained cargo supplied by and delivered to the Vessel. I’m confident that–” he said, pointing to the cylinder– “was manufactured on Corona and shipped over here.”

Anna looked at the cylinder. “Then someone on Vesselton knows why. Someone had to install it. Someone had to maintain it, right?”

Felix said, “I don’t know about that, Ma’am. Vesselton was even more automated than we originally thought. For all we know, that was installed according to some coordinated, long-range plans that involved exploiting that automation. Those poor saps in the Vessel’s crew may not even have known it was there.”

“We have to find out,” Anna said. “Buzz might be confident, but I’m not. Can we know for sure?”

“We can,” Buzz said. “The stars of Gothel-A and Gothel-B are different, and their radiation can cause small but measurable differences in isotope formation. We may be separated by two light years, but the scientists of both worlds regularly exchange everything they know about their local astronomy, biology, and geology. We have data on isotope formation profiles. A few grams of metal off that cryobottle run through a particle analysis and we would know.”

“Do it,” Anna said. “Could there be more than one?”

“Easily,” Buzz said. “There would have to be a corresponding container jar at the far end for each one, but there could be one hiding anywhere on Agdar. It would be easier to hide one there than somewhere loose in the solar system. There or on the surface of Arendelle.”

“Hmm,” Anna said unhappily. “Is there any chance we can communicate through it?”

“I’m afraid not, Ma’am,” Felix said. “Once we took it on board and put up the wedge…” He looked miserably apologetic. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. We didn’t know what it was.”

“It’s not your fault, Felix. How would any of us recognize this for what it is, or was? My commendations to all of you for your fine work. But test it. Tell me where it came from. And I’ll talk to Calhoun about the Vessel’s crew? Passengers? Residents? What do we even call them?” She sighed. “We’ll find out what they knew.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Felix said.

Anna left the engineering room now more perplexed than before. Vesselton had seemed like a perfect foil for their problems, and now it seemed that the real enemy was further away. She had no intention of going to Corona anytime soon. Once her ship was fixed, they were heading back to Thorin, as the locals called the brown dwarf, and waiting for the relief ship from Lynx. This was a problem for Arendelle to solve, when Arendelle had the hyperspace resources necessary to get to Corona and pursue the matter.

She reached her cabin, sat back down at her desk and regarded the queue of reports and requisitions. She sighed. She loved being a starship captain. It validated her own self-image, she was not just a pretty bauble to be had by some noble son, she was someone Her Majesty had entrusted as mistress before God, with the moral authority to risk the lives of others to ensure the integrity and honor of her Queen and Country. It still came with paperwork. She picked up a stylus and leaned forward.

The communications buzzer went off. Not the emergency buzzer, either. She scowled at the unseeing camera. She had work to do, darnit. She pressed the button. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

“Communication for you, Captain. It’s Queen Elsa.”

“Oh!” Anna said, quickly checking to make sure her uniform didn’t look a complete shambles. “Put her through.”

That beautiful, pale face even more magnified than usual came on the camera and screen. Anna felt her heart beat faster. “Your Majesty, this is a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?”

“Captain DuVar, I have received a bit of news that, I’m sure, you’ll be receiving soon, but it’s important enough that I wanted to deliver it myself. Doctor Thatch and Engineer Fiksit agree that we have both the materials and the capability to manufacture a new hyperspace coil for your ship, and it’ll only take two weeks.”

“Really?” Anna said, stunned. Coils were finicky things, although Manticore did seem to build them in bulk. “That’s amazing.” And while it may have been amazing, it didn’t justify the queen of an entire world calling her. Felix or Doctor Thatch could have delivered the news.

Anna paused. The economic ramifications of what Elsa had just told her started seeping past her elation. Arendelle would soon be manufacturing hyperdrives, and their prototypes would be rolling off the assembly line in weeks. Not years, not even months, weeks. She shook her head. Alpha and beta nodes were public domain technologies. If Arendelle could manufacture them, it should. “Thank you, your Majesty. I think I understand.”

“I thought you would. But that isn’t the only reason I chose to call you. Captain, when your ship first arrived I told you I wished to make a public announcement from the Anchor regarding your arrival. It was important that everyone see just how significant contact with Manticore– and with Earth– really is. The very idea that I could get to Anchor in less than a day would be a sign of that significance. The attack took that away from me.” Elsa shrugged in that wing-like gesture Anna had seen before. “The official period of mourning for those killed in the attack ends next Monday. While we bury our dead, we have you and your ship to thank for keeping the damage to a minimum.”

Anna swallowed. Only a narrow belt at Arendelle’s equator was warm enough to grow food year-round; that same narrow belt was the only smart place to put the space elevator. The crash of the elevator’s base had destroyed almost a fifth of Arendelle’s agricultural output. Anna had saved the space-based resources, but over two thousand farmers and maintenance people working within and around agrobelt had been killed or injured. Clean-up was still ongoing.

But she had saved the solettas, so the individual duchies of Arendelle were still warm enough to be comfortable and human-habitable. If she hadn’t saved those, the death toll could have been much, much higher.

Elsa continued, “At the end of that mourning period I would like to host a dinner and reception for you and, at your discretion, select members of your crew. While it would be a much more somber occasion than I’d originally hoped, please say you will come, please, do bring Olaf with you.”

“Of course, your Majesty. I’ll have to leave Kristoff behind again. Someone has to take care of my ship. But I’ll be there. May I bring a civilian as well? Doctor Flynn has been very helpful.”

Elsa smiled. Why did her smiles never seem completely happy? She always had a pall of sadness around her eyes. “Of course! Commander Buzz has had nothing but good to say of him and all of your engineering staff.”

Anna nodded and said, “Of course I agree! Please have your secretary contact my steward with details. I can’t wait to finally meet everyone.”

“I will. And Anna? Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” The screen went dark. Anna reached out and stroked it gently with her fingertips. “She called me ‘Anna.’ What did she mean by that?”

Olaf, who’d spent the entire conversation draped over his fuzzy perch, cocked his head and bleeked at her. “No, Olaf, I don’t think I do.” He murred at her. “That’s crazy. Just because I have hormones doesn’t mean she does. I mean, sure, she has hormones, she’s only human, everyone has hormones. But not like that. Not like girl hormones or whatever they are. I’m so bad with metaphor. You know what I mean.” He tilted his head. “God, I’m talking to you like Kristoff talks to Sven.” She tossed her stylus into the cup on her desk. It spun and rattled. “I don’t have enough brain cells left for this. I’m going to sleep.” She got up and walked over to him, leaning over until they butted heads gently. “Coming?”

Olaf stretched himself upwards, then clambered onto the offered shoulder. She scratched at his chin as she carried him off to bed.