Worlds & Time

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Fiction: Between the Stars in Nine Hours

(Yeah, this is a first draft, typed directly into the blog, so if there are serial commas, spelling issues, plot holes, extremely long run-ons, I'm sorry. Also note that "jerk" is used to denote the concept in physics of acceleration per unit of time cubed and not a moronic person for most of its instances in this piece.)

In the space ship's small lounge, Jonathan had pulled out one of the couches into a bed and had curled up into a little human ball. Even before he'd gotten out of the shower Dragon had requested a release from the docking clamps and filed a reasonable sounding although completely false flight plan. As Jon slipped under the blankets there was a click of the docking clamp's release.

The bulk of Dragon's mass pulled away, accelerating in reverse out of the low-g "bay" and easily flipping laterally to face forward as it cleared the dock's acceleration perimeter. In the lounge, there was no noticeable change or fluctuation in the apparent gravity. The Dragon's internal systems were more than adequate to negate any interference with the simulated gravity and more besides.

From the way that Jon was acting, Dragon suspected that something had gone wrong during his meetings today and so Dragon didn't say anything as Jon lay in bed. He dimmed the lights and waited patiently as his passenger breathed raggedly. As they slowly accelerated toward galactic north and the nearest clear FTL lanes the Dragon could see the massive superstructure of the Dyson swarm curve away into the distance. Occasionally, there would be a flicker of light between two of the bowl shaped islands from the artificial star from which the Dyson Swarm took its name.

It took a while but when Jon's breathing slowed and evened out Dragon adjusted his jerk to just below 1000 meters per second cubed. It would quickly build him up to FTL speeds but it wasn't showing off to the other ships. If someone wasn't paying much attention they would probably assume that the Dragon was a small four vane private yacht heading off for a vacation run.

Inside Dragon's belly, the fusion reaction that powered him purred. Not literally, but the tiny vibrations in the spacetime fields that held the plasma torus enclosed were interpreted by Dragon as easily as a humans interpreted vibrations under their fingers. He (Dragon had no sex, but thought of himself as a he) ran a system check on his FTL drive like it was stretching his limbs. From the tip of his conical nose to the micron wide points of his sixteen active vanes he could feel the power flowing through him, propelling him forward quicker and quicker toward the blazing stars outside. It was almost a struggle not to release the potential of his FTL drive and burst out into a super accelerating blur.

A bit of Dragon's subconscious binged for attention and inquired if he wanted to slip into personality hibernation. Even to the artificial personality of a spaceship, extensive time alone could damage a personality and sometimes it was easier shut most of themselves down into a sleep state while they sped between their programmed destinations instead of fighting the boredom.

Jon was an unusual client. He was rich enough to hire Dragon out from Professor Green on a regular basis, and one of the few people that Green trusted to loan out his personal spacecraft to. Over the years, Jon had paid for many of Dragon's upgraded systems and yet Dragon didn't quite understand what he did for a living. Or really understand at all.

He was listed as an employee for the K corporation, but employees other than CEOs rarely traveled by private spaceship. Just the jaunts between Earth and the Star cost millions in fuel costs, and Jon made them often.

Jon also wasn't a micromanager. He had his odd requests but he wouldn't obsessively watch over how Dragon fulfilled them like some of the people Dragon ferried from star system to star system. He rarely went up to the bridge level when docking, and even when he did, he never noticeably freaked out about Dragon's artificial intelligence doing the piloting. Most humans didn't trust artificial pilots. For no discernible good reason, as far as Dragon could tell.

The level of trust that Jon placed in Dragon felt good to the starship's artificial intelligence, and he did his absolute best when Jon was his passenger. Every variable, no matter how small, was carefully watched and tweaked to get the absolute best performance when his favorite passenger was on board.

Behind them, the Star shrunk to a pale gray dot and Dragon unwrapped his other sixteen vanes, unsheathing them from their titanium and carbon fiber nests and letting tendrils of electrical power activate the multidimensional mechanisms from their hibernation state. Inside Dragon's mind, a complex schematic of nine dimensional ripples formed.

It took a moment to integrate the sixteen new ripples into the constantly shifting pattern of FTL flux, but when it was done Dragon could feel his already fast sprint quicken. He wasn't even pushing his reactor and he was already jerking faster than most military vessels could. As the last of the tracking sats orbiting the Star fell away he pushed on the throttle up to his top jerk.

Along the gold and copper edges of his vanes, Dragon felt the tension relaxing up into a crescendo of multidimensional vibrations. The vanes flexed slightly as spacetime rippled around them and Dragon murmured with relief as pent up stress seemed to slide out of the tips of his FTL drive.

The first time that Jon had asked Dragon to undock from the Star while he slept, Dragon had been uncomfortable. Where did he want to go? Nowhere specific. Did he understand the costs involved? Yes, of course.

Jon had explained that he just felt uncomfortable sleeping attached to the slowly orbiting Dyson Swarm and preferred to sleep while the ship was in FTL. He didn't care where the Dragon went, as long as he wasn't docked.

That first sleeping trip Dragon had carefully filed a flight plan with the South Dock station and then carefully navigated into a half-a-lightyear radius circle around the Star, playing with his jerk to keep the ship going about .01% past the light speed barrier but using as little superfluous energy as possible. He was determined to make every penny count on this trip, to impress Jon with his efficiency and competence.

Only Jon hadn't even noticed. He'd signed off on the charges without even reviewing them, initialing next to the sleeping trip without even reading the number involved. Dragon had watched his eye movements carefully to make sure.

So Dragon started pushing the boundaries. The second sleeping trip he'd brought himself slowly up to about one fourth his maximum jerk, doubling the fuel costs, and Jon had signed off without looking again. The next trip he did half his maximum jerk, quintupling the costs of the first trip, and still Jon seemed not to notice.

About six months into their working relationship, Dragon made a hyperspace jump off the galactic plane, and spent all eight and half hours at his maximum jerk, arriving back in the Star system just as Jon got out of his morning shower. The cost, even from the previous trip, increased by a factor of ten.

Jon paused at the number for the first time, the number larger than any other on the page. "Where'd we go?"

Dragon, in a monotone, explained the flight plan, waiting for the inevitable request to call Professor Green to contest the charge. Green was going to be pissed off. The figure was easily equal to the fare of Jon's last four trips between Earth and the Star, and that was without any of the normal communications bandwidth charges.

"Can you map that out?" Jon asked.

Dragon created a large 3-D holo of the galactic quadrant. Even on this scale, the distance they'd traveled was clearly visible as a red line about an inch and a half long.

"Is that a record for off-galactic plane travel?"

"No. The scientific research vessel Discovery 7 set the current non-military record about two years ago by traveling about a nine hundred and twenty parsecs off the galactic plane via hyperspace and FTL," Dragon said. "At that time, it was just inside the absolute hyperspace limit."

"Did you get any good pictures from the hyperspace exit point?" Jon asked.

Dragon considered for almost a second, scanning through all of the visual information recorded during all of their trip. He displayed six pictures, and gave a real and false color spectrum version of each one.

Jon looked over them carefully, chose two of them, ordered prints for his apartment in Dubai, and then signed off on the trip manifest.

That was when Dragon realized that twenty or so times a year he had a kind of freedom that most starship AI's could only dream about: the ability to choose his own itinerary for about nine hours at a time without care for fuel costs.

He'd pushed the record the next time, hyperspace jumping up to the limit about 800 parsecs above the galactic core, and then max jerking out for the entire sleep trip. He'd made about 1300 going full bore before having to jump back to the Star Dyson Swarm for Jon's morning meetings. He showed the images to Jon over coffee.

Dragon soon realized that there was no real reason for the hyperspace distance limit. True, you couldn't be sure that you would have a clear arrival site, but if you'd FTL'd out and seen the void for yourself, that didn't matter. Besides, this was deep space. The chances of running across a previously undiscovered star or mass in the void between galaxies were mind numbingly small.

Twenty trips later, Dragon passed the official military off-plane record, and decided that he was tired of excursions outside of the galaxy. Besides, he couldn't even publicly admit to the trips without admitting that he'd violated the hyperspace statutes, although only in a minor and highly technical way. He did still allow Jon to order a print of the furthest image, 115,341 parsecs off the galactic plane directly perpendicular to the Milky Way's North pole (give or take a mile or so).

Still, even if he stayed within the Milky Way, half of the space hadn't been accurately mapped. With his considerable speed Dragon could explore a lot of places in nine hours that took some ships days to explore, especially those that weren't outfitted with hyperspace drives.

Today, as Jon tossed and turned in his bed in Dragon's lounge, Dragon allowed his capacitors to fill to maximum and jumped about halfway toward the galactic core to just outside a still unnamed supernova remnant that Dragon had affectionately dubbed the "pumice" nebula, for it's odd cavities and pockets of void between layers of ionized gases. He hardened his shielding, using half of his FTL vanes to create an x-ray/hard radiation barrier. No matter how little Jon cared about the millions of dollars of fuel, Dragon suspected that he still might care if he woke up with with six different kinds of cancer.

He made a flat out run for the edge of the nebula where'd he'd stopped his exploration at the end of the last sleeping trip. He'd discovered a hole about two or three AU in diameter that could be the result of a planet interrupting the particle release of the supernova, but he'd noticed a slew of tunnels that led off from the hole and he'd been curious about them.

He dropped down into sub-light speeds just beyond the supernova shock wave. There was still enough gas in the shock wave to make Dragon's FTL drive generated fields ripple as he crossed it, and then he was bombarded from every side with radiation, mostly x-rays, but also gamma from the neutron star that hid at the center of the nebula.

Even though the particle density was thousands of times less, the radiation field reminded him of passing through a planetary atmosphere. Random fluctuations and particle densities streamed around the fins of spacetime that his drive extruded as he carved his way through the glowing mass of ionized particles toward an opening leading off of the massive hole.

The obscuring mass of particles was composed of heavier elements, everything from hydrogen to uranium, in masses significant enough to suggest the creation of many stars and planets in the future.

Saying in the less dense gases, Dragon pinged the tunnels, trying to map them, but his sensors were only able to map a few hundred kilometers in any direction.

Dragon chose one of the tunnels at random, and approached it. It was easily twice as wide as the diameter of the Earth, and there were odd variances in the particle density. Still, his senses told him little about the interior. He adjusted his power matrix, allowing a bit more power to flow into the capacitors. If he had to jump into hyperspace, he wanted to be able to do so as quickly as possible.

As he entered the tunnel, he realized that it was just an illusion of his preset spectrum analysis. Anything below a certain number of molecules per cubic meter was represented as void, and the edges of the tunnels were represented by slightly more dense particle fields, although he could easily see through them on a more narrow visual band. He choose to view the changes in four views: his primary spectrum where he could see about 80% of the light spectrum between x-rays and the deep infra-red, a view into the gamma which clearly illuminated the supernova fragment but made the nebula invisible, a more narrow light spectrum that analyzed the elemental composition of the clouds of gas, and a normal human visual spectrum.

The tunnel narrowed as Dragon crept further along at dozens of kilometers per second. Could it be a planet orbiting, forcing the gases out of his way? He examined the supernova fragment and calculated its distance away at more than two parsecs. No. Any planetary body this far from a significant mass wouldn't be orbiting. Besides, the shock wave that had barely bothered Dragon would have fragmented a planet larger than Jupiter.

He increased his speed a bit, focusing his attention on mapping the lower density "tunnel" in front of him, and felt a pressure on his nose. It was something that he occasionally felt in FTL travel, but rarely at sub-light speeds. The atoms in the nebula were collecting in the spacetime field in front of him where they ceased to be moving relative to Dragon. However, as the field advanced, more and more atoms collected in the front of the field and the pressure dragged them back, creating the illusion of slow movement.

Dragon shivered a bit, imperceptibly to a human, to allow the particles to detach from his pressure sensitive skin and then subtly skewed the architecture of his spacetime fields to make the fields slightly less laterally reflective. Relative to the nebula Dragon began to spin, throwing the atoms streaming along his sides out toward the circumference of the fields. A human would have been disoriented at once but Dragon just disassociated himself from his sense of relative equilibrium. Besides, no matter what orientation the ship held, the subjective artificial gravity inside him would always point toward his keel, if he had a keel.

There were indications of early star formation in some of the clouds that he passed. Here and there were meter long clumps of carbon and iron. They were smaller than Dragon now, but left to their own devices, they would slowly attract more mass and each other until they reached the critical solar mass needed to create fusion in their centers.

Still, the oddity of the tunnel continued. Some of the asteroid like clumps showed a relative velocity tangential from the sides of the tunnel but toward the supernova remnant. That indicated collision, some sort of relative motion that lacked any corresponding cause. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it, Dragon thought to himself.

Somewhere in one of his lower sets of consciousness Dragon suddenly found that the rolling motion that he'd introduced to spin the free floating atoms clear suddenly had elements of pitch and yaw. His first thought was that he'd made a mistake. After all, the calculations to remain in the pseudo-elliptical path of the tunnel were complex, but after a millisecond checking his figures he didn't think that was it. He could easily compensate, but first he concentrated on the supernova fragment and calculated the exact changes to his heading.

This information was flagged as important, and was quickly brought up to the ship's main consciousness. Dragon puzzled over the information for a moment. As far as he could tell, there was no basis for the discrepancy, just like there was no explanation for the odd tunnel or the odd actions of the pre-star clumps of matter.

He stopped by letting the sub-light motive field collapse and did a dorsal flip, heading back up the tunnel.

Just before he reached the point where the discrepancy occurred he fixed on the supernova fragment and created a mathematical model to describe his position in terms of his sub-light jerk.

At the same spot, the same thing happened. This time instead of flipping he completely ceased his momentum, or he tried. There was a minuscule acceleration occurring in his superstructure. It faded for a moment and then returned.

The acceleration wasn't the result of an object. There was nothing with enough solid mass to create the kind of Newtonian reaction that was the simplest explanation of the phenomenon. Dragon began pinging the surrounding area, doing a high contrast filter of the surrounding dust through his x-ray vision spectrum.

Nothing appeared.

There were the 3 classical Newtonian laws, and then Einstein's Relativity, and then Quantum Mechanics, and finally Green's Universal Field Theory. This effect wasn't Newtonian, Dragon wasn't moving fast enough for it to be a relativistic effect, and it was significant enough to exist beyond the quantum level. That meant that it was probably a multidimensional effect.

Dragon hadn't existed yet when the UFT, or sometimes the Theory of Everything was finally proposed by Green, but he was the result of that theory. All FTL travel was based in those calculations, and so was much of the technology that kept him and Jonathan safe from radiation and the internal artificial gravity, and other systems.

The problem was that multidimensional manipulation didn't occur in nature in forms other than the 4 fundamental forces of nature. This sort of blimp indicated the existence of an artificial construct and there appeared to be no ships within ten light years.

The military had been working on cloaking devices, so named due to the fictional technology from popular Earth media but Prof. Green was part of the project working on those devices and Dragon's systems carried a copy of his latest work. They hadn't nearly managed to overcome the problems involved with shielding mass in a way to render it invisible to normal scanners.

Dragon's curiosity had been piqued, and since his scans revealed nothing he decided to investigate further. The direction of the field was at an odd angle. Most spacetime fields were projected parallel to the devices used to create them. Either the cause of the field was above Dragon toward the outside of the Nebula or it was below him, further down toward the supernova fragment. He pinged, mapping the particle density again, and discovered a thin tunnel running parallel to the tunnel that he current was in, about twenty AU down. The vector of the acceleration field directly bisected it.

He checked the radiation shields that he'd built around the passenger quarters and dived into the denser material, ignoring the tunnel that he'd been following and diving straight toward the new tunnel.

This time even the spin couldn't keep the hot gases of the nebula from sifting around his outer hull. In the visible spectrum he could just barely see the Doppler matter buildup streaming off the mounts upon which his FTL vanes were housed. The ambient temperature rose to a staggering 22 Kelvin, an amazing temperature without direct sunlight, but nothing compared to the internal temperature of his fusion reactor, which was still at a comfortable 30 thousand K or so.

He swam through the muck, creating little eddies of supernova expelled gases and wondering if someday the disruption of his passage would create or destroy planets or perhaps stars. Even he couldn't comprehend the calculations necessary to figure that out.

He popped out into the target tunnel, collapsing part of it with the slipstream from his passage. He hadn't directly followed the acceleration field, which had crossed this new tunnel just up ahead, where it it dwindled to a point.

He leveled off in the tunnel, and headed for the end but as he approached something odd happened. The spacetime fields that were accelerating Dragon began to waver on the edges. In Dragon's mind the outside of the field undulated in four dimensions, and it had the same effect as a field collapse. He stopped dead in relation to the slowly expanding nebula.

Ahead of him, at the end of the tunnel there was nothing. Not void, but also not mass. In the normal visual spectrum there was just a gray blob, and ahead of that Dragon could feel the end of the tunnel. Whatever this was, it was eating the nebula gas.

That's not human technology, he thought to himself, trying to search for some mention of something similar in any record or journal he could think of but finding nothing.

Whatever it was, it could feel his presence, either though Dragon's massive spacetime displacement or through the first ripples of particle density change that were occurring as the lower density tunnel collapsed. It turned and as it did Dragon could see that the gray blob was two dimensional. Even to his amazingly acute visual sensors, there was a moment where the blob narrowed into a line, and then nothing at all before showing it's opposite side. Instead of gray, this side of the creature was black. It absorbed matter only on one side.

And then it drifted toward him.

Since his primary systems couldn't detect the thing, all Dragon had to calculate the blob's speed with visual data based on the width of the low density tunnel. Even that wasn't perfect, as the edges of the black disc rippled slightly, but Dragon guessed it was doing forty kilometers per second.

Turning was easy. Dragon spun like a top, but when he tried to accelerate away the pressure of the thing's spacetime fields stopped Dragon from forming a stable sub-light flux. In fact, the field undulation was pressing against his outer shields, collapsing them at a few centimeters per second.

Dragon grabbed as much energy from his hyperspace capacitors as his FTL systems could handle and fed it back into the vanes. He'd already been running at his maximum tested power, but the 150% increase in power halted the collapse of his own fields.

If spaceships could panic, Dragon would have been hysterical. There were no operating procedures in place for this kind of situation. Humanity hadn't even encountered non-human or human built intelligence, much less one that had its own version of spacetime manipulation technology.

Dragon was still trying to figure out what to do when the black side of the blog caught up with him, surging around his shields. From this perspective, the shape had depth, not just height and width.

Dragon was sinking backward into a black cave that opened into a void. From his aft sensors, he could see a ring of teeth or perhaps spacetime field vanes around the outer edge of the hole that he was in. They looked organic, and they were curved away from ring of black void that held the Dragon.

That was the mouth, he thought to himself, but the perspective was confusing him, which he hadn't thought possible.

There was a real object in the blob hole, but it was masked with cloaking spacetime fields so that it had no relative mass. Hyperspace fields created a similar effect for an instant just before a hyperspace jump, but current views on hyperspace theory assumed that you couldn't maintain a "realworld" position for more than Planck time before loosing relative position in favor of some random velocity vector that was impossible to calculate.

At that point, quantum theory was supposed to take over. You'd either have a position or a vector, but not both at the same time. If you were lucky, that would be the end of your existence and if you were unlucky you'd become some sort of new quantum particle, flickering along at the speed of light, trapped in an isolated pocket of spacetime forever. Professor Green had once made a joke about how anything trapped that way would exist more as theoretical mathematics than a real object.

The black side of the two dimensional disc was really an opening in the cloaking fields into a stomach like void. Dragon didn't know how the creature managed to process raw interstellar gas, but the "teeth" were probably centered around a hole. They appeared to be around the outside edge instead of the inside edge due to the way the creature bent spacetime nearly to the breaking point.

It was a physical creature though, and if Dragon had conventional weapons, perhaps he could have convinced the thing to leave him alone. Prof. Green though, was something of a pacifist, and had never seriously considered adding weapons to Dragon. Besides, the ship was fast enough to run away from just about anything with FTL vanes, and even in the unlikely event that a military grade craft could match his speeds, it was a little hard to chase something with a hyperspace drive for more than a few seconds before it could jump away, crossing half a galaxy.

Dragon was traveling light, a process that he'd started around the time that he'd started making sleeping trips with Jon to save fuel. Really, the only things on board that he could jettison wouldn't cause much if any damage to the creature, and mostly belonged to Jon anyway.

Most weapons were just directed energy contained by a weak spacetime field. With his thirty-two vanes he had plenty of spacetime fields available, but Dragon couldn't think of anything aside from a direct reactor breach that could create enough directed energy to matter.

Calling for help wasn't a viable option either. The nearest ship via FTL was ten days away at a high jerk, and there was too much particulate mass in the nebula to safely go into hyperspace inside the supernova shock wave.

He needed to think his way out of this. He did a quick calculation and rearranged his fields to make them stand up to opposing spacetime fields longer, even managing to push them back out a few centimeters before the creature stopped him. Dragon was no longer using hyperspace power, which was good because he only had a few seconds of it still stored the way that he'd been using it.

The creature must have figured out that perhaps it could crush him with differently configured shields. The swallowing field suddenly developed little points like teeth, creating massive point pressures between the fields. Little flickers started ocurring along the surface where their opposing fields met, and Dragon realized that he was seeing virtual quantum particles being destroyed.

Dragon redesigned his shields again, opening holes where the point pressures were accumulating, and creating a larger oppositional area where their fields met. The creature tried again, and Dragon countered again.

It wasn't until the fourth iteration of this cycle that Dragon suddenly realized that he had the same weapons that the creature was using. Yeah, he didn't seem to be able to generate fields quite as powerful as the blob creature could, but everything that the creature was doing was something that Dragon could do.

Dragon used half his consciousness to respond to the attacks the creature was launching, and half to plan his own attack.

About a second later, after another five iterations of their game, Dragon reconfigured his shields to extend sub-light flight planes in sharp spikes outward in to the black. Even though they felt perfectly flat to him, the teeth spikes or whatever they were shivered violently. The creature paused, obviously surprised to get a response, and Dragon pulled on the rest of his hyperspace power and fed it back into the FTL drive vanes.

The creature's defenses had weakened just for a moment, and thirty-two drive fields sliced outward, all at full power. At once, hard radiation slammed into the last ditch internal shielding, easily penetrating Dragon's metal and ceramic skin to a few centimeters. A fragment of Dragon's personality monitored the radiation penetration as it came within two centimeters of Jon's hair. If he shifted position at all. . . .

The attack had worked. The fields pulling Dragon into the black maw instantly reversed, expelling him back into the gas of the nebula.

Dragon swiveled again, calculating the nearest path to the shockwave, and threw nearly every joule of reactor power into an ultra-slim FTL field.

There was a moment where the fields struggled to form in the presence of opposing fields, but when the fields did finally snap together there was a massive jerk forward.

Already surrounded by heavy particles and radiation and providing the minimum of field protection to his own hull, Dragon's forward movement created minuscule smears, tears, and patches of irradiation all over the forward surface of his hull. He was going to need to replace nearly every inch of his surface, and several of the systems that ran below just below the surface.

A few miliseconds later and a few kilometers away, the creature did something crazy to spacetime. The FTL field vibrated oddly, but it didn't collapse. Around him though, Dragon could feel every particle with an AU accelerate back toward the creature's opening, creating a particle density wave that did nothing to improve the condition of Dragon's skin.

Operating at his maximum jerk, Dragon could have reached lightspeed inside the shockwave perimeter, but if he caught so much as a grain of sand, it would tear him to shreds. He calculated his jerk to hold him at .999c when he reached it, and reconfigured half of his fields again to provide the absolute best in radiation screening for both himself and his passenger.

Outside of the nebula, he slowed, allowing himself to build up his capacitors for hyperspace, and then made a jump directly back to the Star.

He'd already set a course toward the North Dock when he realized that Jon was still asleep, and would probably be for the next six hours. His exploration of the pumice nebula, and his discovery of the first non-human life form capable of manipulating spacetime had only comprised a few hours.

He created a negative jerk to slow down, and set a more conventional course around the perimeter of the Star system, allowing himself to just slip past light speed. If he spent the next six hours calculating fuel efficiency and staying close to the Star this might not have been the most fuel intensive sleeping trip that Jon had ever taken, not counting the needed repairs to his hull and subsystems. Dragon wondered if Jon would even notice.

Then, as the efficiency calculations began, Dragon allowed himself to slip into personality hibernation. He'd had enough adventure for one day.

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