Co'ra'na Ky'zel was not happy. For political reasons, Velorian backup was not coming.
Politics could go to hell. The Terran solar system was a battleground. After nearly six months of no Arions, the Terrans were getting complacent, and obviously Velor had never been anything but complacent. Don't you know there's a war on, she rhetorically asked the universe. She didn't expect a reply, standing on Admiral Yevgeni's pilothouse.
For some strange reason, though, the universe decided to answer, "Yes..."
In the Combat Information Center (CIC), a pimple-faced seaman cried out, "Radar contact! Jeez, it's way up on the doppler. Must be half a cee or something. Solid, very strong return, Chief. It's either very large, or very close, but either way, it's closing very fast."
"All right, yun man, I get the message." Seaman Yun frowned, annoyed, but kept his eye on the radar. It wasn't funny the first time the Chief called him that, and it wasn't funny now, but the Chief thought it was. Then again, the Chief only joked with people he trusted. Yun was only 16, yet had helped the ship avoid disaster once already. "Imaging radar, Yun, paint me a picture."
Yun switched to the directional antennas and lower frequency bands. As he rotated the antenna, a computer rendered the image.
"Asteroid," Chief Elkins called it. "Big one too. Course projection?"
A petty officer plotted it. "It's making a bee-line for Earth, Chief."
"Why am I not surprised." He lifted the phone and called the officer of the deck in the pilot house. That's how Co'ra'na found out.
Moments later, the squadron orbiting Earth was called to battle stations.
"...at point four two cee, estimated impact, two hours, nine minutes."
"Admiral on the bridge!"
"As you were," Yevgeni said quickly. Formalities could wait. He huddled over the display table as the officer of the deck briefed him, then scoffed. "Is that the best they can do? Throw rocks at us?" He snorted. "Hell, we train for this! We usually win, too." This last he directed at Co'ra'na, who was aboard simply keeping an eye on space around them. Things had gotten boring on Earth... too boring. Dangerously boring, in her opinion.
Apparently, she was right. Still, the officer of the deck raised the question, "Arions, sir?"
"Do you know anything else in this star system that moves at half-light? Anything that big?" Yevgeni asked gently in response. The OOD shook his head.
"Sir, the Lincoln reports a radiation stream coming from the far side of the asteroid," a communications officer reported.
Yevgeni's good cheer evaporated. "Confirm!" he barked.
The passive sensor team went to work, and a few moments later, "Confirmed, sir. Something hot."
"Get the Lincoln on the far side of that asteroid, now!"
A few seconds later, the Lincoln appeared in a different spot on their radar... and dodged something. "Message from the Lincoln, sir: enemy warship sighted!"
Yevgeni started to sweat a little. He looked Cory in the eye. "In our wargames, without opposition, we usually pull it off without a hitch. But our ships cannot maneuver during the evolution. If we try to move that asteroid now, we're sitting ducks."
Cory couldn't quite believe what she heard. "Move the asteroid? How?"
"Didn't the chief engineer explain that to you? About the jump?"
In truth, the engineer had tried. Cory remembered only part of it, remembered how the woman had just babbled on and on and on...
"Okay, we've got three dimensions of space, and one of time, right? They form the basis of what we call spacetime. There are more dimensions, really, but we concern ourselves with those four for the most part. Call them x, y, z, and t. Now what's position? It's three of those coordinates -- x, y, z -- and a particular moment of time, t. But you're always moving in time, even if you're not moving in space. Thus, we usually start thinking about dt, the differential of time.
Now, what's speed? It's distance over time. Distance is a change in position: dx, dy, dz. Speed is thus a combination of dx over dt, dy over dt, dz over dt. Simple vectors. Acceleration is change of speed over time. D squared x over dt squared, etc. Basic calculus. Stop me if I'm going too fast."
Cory hadn't dared.
"The laws of physics, particularly conservation of momentum, depend on calculus, and on continuity. And that's our secret: it depends on continuity. What is microfusion? We have some theories, nothing solid, but in essence, it is adiscontinuity. It starts with a fusion reaction in a space smaller than a fusion reaction can take place. Down there, on that scale, the laws of physics as we understand them start to break down. Planck be damned; it even happens so fast we can't measure it. Heisenberg's Hell."
"The remarkable thing is, through microfusion, we can manipulate on a subatomic level the values of dx, dy, dz, and dt. We manipulate them so as to create a moment further up t -- slightly in the future -- where x, y, and z as functions of t are not continuous. Say x equals one over t. As t approaches zero from one, x goes up, up, up to infinity. But at zero, x is undefined. It's a discontinuity. Just past zero, in t's negative numbers, x is hugely negative. Move further down t, and x increases from below to almost zero. What we do is we manipulate the fields so as to create a moment of discontinuity -- in this case, a jump discontinuity on at least three dimensions dependent on t -- and we make sure that discontinuity is predictable and lines up perfectly with our current location on the t-axis. The region we enclose in the jump discontinuity drops out of existence for zero time -- literally zero time -- and comes back at a completely different set of values and differentials. But we engineered it to jump to those values and differentials. It's a jump discontinuity, or what we call a jump."
Cory didn't understand much of it at all, and she did understand physics very well. It sounded like a bunch of mathematical mumbo-jumbo, dubious at best and unprovable. And yet... Hesitantly, Cory nodded to the Admiral, who went on, "I need that warship disabled. I don't have any way to do it myself without a nuclear warhead, and that I can't risk with the asteroid only two hours from impact. A warhead could do nothing more than to create a bunch of little rocks aimed at Earth."
Cory looked him in the eye. "Not a chance. If I could match speed and direction with it, sure, I could do something. But it takes a lot more than two hours for me to get to half-lightspeed..."
At that, Yevgeni laughed. "Not anymore. Navigator, have you plotted our jump yet?"
"Aye, sir, waiting for the captain's order." At that, Yevgeni gave Cory a reassuring smile and waited. He wasn't reassured in the least, but Nav had responded properly. Yevgeni was the admiral, but not the ship's captain. Cory, for her part, saw right through the smile. She said nothing. Another officer -- presumably the captain -- simply nodded.
Co'ra'na felt her hair stand on end, and she tasted metal in her mouth... she also itched all over, and instinctively reached her right arm over to scratch her left. Half a second later, all this faded, so quickly she wasn't even sure it had happened. Just as quickly, however, the asteroid leapt in front of them, filling the whole viewscreen... and didn't smash into them.
Cory yelped in alarm and took a fast and long step backward, before she realized what she was seeing: the asteroid keeping its distance, roughly two kilometers.
Impossible. She couldn't believe it. It was a unique feeling for her to be on the receiving side of the bizarre, not the sending side...
The reaction of Yevgeni and the others? None. They expected it. "Good jump, sir. We're drifting to port at oh point seven KPH, and sternward at oh point oh four KPH, relative to the asteroid."
Cory looked at the navigator's console, and the board confirmed what simple arithmetic told her: they were moving at 0.42c... without any acceleration between now and then.
Impossible. Despite the engineer's little chit-chat, Cory found the explanation of the unreal a little hard to deal with in reality. Hearing about jumps and discontinuities was one thing. Seeing it in person was another.
"The Arion warship?" Yevgeni asked the tactical officer. Cory was still shell-shocked, but this prompted her out of it. The display table lit up with a new picture. On one side of the asteroid, the Reagan as a blue dot, Cory still on board. On the other, a red dot attached to the asteroid. Off to the side, the Lincoln. Other blue dots appeared around the asteroid, two "on top" of it -- actually also around it, but above and below the asteroid. A secondary diagram inset into the larger image showed that.
Cory pulled herself together. "Time to go," she said, almost calmly. And so, she went.
After the door closed, Yevgeni whispered, "Godspeed." His squadron would now take up their positions, except for Lincoln. Lincoln had to wait for that blasted Arion warship to... well, to be blasted.
Two hours, seven minutes to impact. Damn.
Cory was over 350 Terran years old, and had seen just about everything. The asteroid only a hundred meters below her as she circled it was certainly included... As she came over one particular ridge, about halfway around, she expected to see the Arion warship. She didn't see it. It was a shadow compared to what it was putting out.
A very bright, almost blinding light. As bright as Sol and shaped like a candle, a torch... or the thrust from a rocket engine.
A hellishly powerful one, too. It was overengined, Cory realized. Betans couldn't withstand that much acceleration. Primes could, but they wouldn't need a ship in-system for that. The only reason for that big an engine was to move something with a lot of mass, like an asteroid.
Cory saw she was right, as she got closer. It was a cargo transport, really a tugboat, which normally moved asteroids in the Sol Asteroid Belt to the Titan ore processing plant. It was one of many things the Arions had done right. The raw materials from that plant and the Belt had helped rebuild Asia, North America, and other areas for decades. The transport was very lightly armed, not a warship at all. It had no offensive weapons, and its defenses consisted of little rocks fired from ram accelerator cannons. Harmless, really, but the Terrans didn't know that. About all those cannons were good for were breaking up bigger rocks, because the bigger rocks wouldn't -- couldn't -- change course or speed.
Then Cory remembered what the Admiral had said. Sitting ducks. She had to shut that ship down.
No gunships in escort. Hardly surprising. At 0.42c, with a big fat rock you're docked to, nobody could possibly imagine the Colonies could stop them. (Well, maybe they could, Cory thought, given what she'd just seen, but...) A Protector or Virago couldn't nudge it off course, from the looks of it, without a good day's push. A Scribe, two days -- and that's of course assuming the crew of that ship didn't do something about it, like aim the thrust in a different direction to compensate.
Cory thought while she continued to close the distance. The asteroid was half the ship's raison d'etre. The engine, that massive fusion reactor, was the other half. A huge donut-shaped cylinder, with one end of the hole docked to the asteroid. The ship's crew mined from the inside of the asteroid, and whatever they couldn't use, they shoveled (or more likely, bulldozed) onto the top of a shaft leading into that donut's hole. Often, what they could use -- light elements such as hydrogen and helium-3 -- became fuel for the fusion reactor.
The reactor was basically a furnace, designed to superheat the rocks, turning solid matter into gas, or preferably plasma. The converted matter became propellant, roaring out the stern of the ship and pushing the ship forwards. It was a simple, elegant design: part of the asteroid became fuel for the engine that moved the asteroid. In this case, a great part of the asteroid, to get it up to half lightspeed...
Though the furnace ran the length of the ship, no one aboard wanted to get near it. It was understandable. The thing created radiation as a by-product, in quantities not many people liked. As a result, the crew usually lived inside the asteroid they were mining, and drove their ship remotely from inside until disconnect. Before disconnect, they would power down, switch to a lower operating level, and the crew would move back inside.
All this went through Co'ra'na's mind as she tried to figure out how to disable the ship... and then she figured it out. She grinned mischievously. Xara would never have thought of it, nor would Kara Xor'El, her late mother. Sharon might have, but probably wouldn't do it. Cory... well, Cory figured she was crazy anyway.
Cory flew straight for the engine's exhaust. The moment she entered the plasma stream, her hands, hair, eyelids were blasted away from the ship, and she nearly lost her control.
Too close, you idiot, too close. The radioactive exhaust, moving at a fair portion of lightspeed itself, buffeted her like a man standing in the path of a hurricane. It hadn't dispersed enough yet to allow her a gradual entry into the stream, and she paid the price for it. The little bit of clothing she wore from the Colony -- a loose set of coveralls -- was reduced to vapor, and she was naked again. She didn't notice.
Still, she turned around, after losing several hundred meters (she didn't know how much), and slowly fought to stand against the nuclear hurricane.
Then she fought to get to the hurricane's eye. She slowly, inexorably pushed herself forward into the exhaust stream, closer to the reactor itself. She never quite noticed when she actually cleared the exhaust nozzle and was inside the reactor.
She was blind. The fires raged all around her, singing her face. She kept her eyes closed, and still the light, the heat, poured through her eyelids. It was unbearable, but she had to go on.
She couldn't feel her breath, any moisture on her tongue. The wind was too much, too strong, burning, scorching. She had nothing to hold onto, nothing but her own legs and her own flying power which kept her here. Here, when the fires of Hell were trying to throw her out.
Angered, she pushed on. I'm not going down in flames. Not today!
She slowly felt the cauldron of fire lessen around her. It was several minutes before she could open her eyes. She didn't dare look back or to the sides; it was blinding in all directions except one: straight ahead.
She had reached the eye of the hurricane. The place where the fuel -- dirt, rocks, garbage, what-have-you -- entered the furnace was a few meters ahead of her. Already she could see it was bubbling, the heat of the reactor having already parts of it to nearly-boiling liquid.
She reached out to touch the dirt... and it exploded in her face.
Surprised, she blinked the dust out of her eyes. She'd managed to clear a huge mound of dirt with just a touch? How?
She blinked, looked at her suddenly magical hand, and was astounded. She was as hot as the reactor itself! All she had to do was to touch the fuel, and it boiled. She was literally a couple million degrees, by any temperature scale.
No doubt about it, I'm one hot babe. Not even four hundred years old yet...
The shaft was twice as wide as she was tall. Laughing, she flew straight up it, and the dirt melted before her. She didn't feel a thing. It was only a few seconds before she traversed the whole length of the shaft, and popped out of a huge dirt pile that became an explosion of gas, and especially heat.
Four Betans died instantly from the explosion and from burns. Floating there in the hollowed-out asteroid, Co'ra'na Ky'zel looked around in pure joy. She had done it! She breathed in some rather frigid air, and spoke.
Cory wasn't supposed to kill Arions, not even Betans, under anything but the most dire of conditions. She certainly didn't mean to. As a Scribe, she was supposed to avoid combat. But with that breath of fresh air coming out of her lungs, a heat wave flared all the way to the far wall. All the far walls, everywhere around her. The wave enveloped first her face, then her body and shoulders, her entire body, and finally the entire room. It felt like someone had just blew a dandelion at her -- to her. To the Betans, it was a huge burst of dragon's breath, from one dragon lady who had just gone through Hell to see them. And she was happy to see them.
Technically, it wasn't combat -- but they died all the same.
Reveling in her sudden immunity, all she had to do was pass by them within a few meters and touch their equipment. Their machinery melted, and they screamed in agony. Meanwhile, the nuclear furnace was no longer receiving any dirt to push the ship forward, so propulsion dropped dramatically. So did the pressure, as the air scrambled to replace the dirt in the void of space, through the furnace. The decompression pushed six more Betans into the shaft...
"Message from the Lincoln, sir, the warship's thrust is falling off!"
A loud cheer went up in the Reagan's pilothouse.
Moments later, she burst out of the front side of the asteroid, getting clear. But not before...
"Lincoln is in position, sir... alignment matches up."
"Checking... solution is good, sir, she's within the millimeter!"
"On my mark plus five, ten, nine..."
"...eight, seven, six..."
"All ships acknowledge jump at mark plus five!"
"... five, four, three..."
"All hands, brace yourselves!"
"... two, one... mark!"
"Plus one, plus two, plus three, plus four, plus fi..."
Space shifted around them. Reagan shuddered sharply, and more than one thing crashed loudly to the deck...
Silenced voices, keys tapping, beeps, bells, whistles.
"On target, sir, two hundred light-years from Sol, outbound to Sol, starcharts show relative speed is four k.p.h.! Jump is good!"
"The other ships?"
"All ships reporting in via local radio intranet, sir."
"Damage control teams report minor damage to the infirmary, galley. Microfusion Plant Six is down."
Yevgeni slapped his thighs, exuberant. "Have the Three Rivers get Cory Ky'zel out of there! Weps... what should we do with that rock there?"
Of course, he knew precisely the answer he wanted, which is why he asked his weapons officer. Weps waited, however, for Three Rivers to depart with Cory alongside (not inside, though). A flash cast powerful shadows seconds after.
On Aria, Edgar, Crown Prince of Aria, found a most inopportune time to retch, at a state dinner hosting a trade delegation from Ghrio. Around the rest of the table, the other Arions had great difficulty holding down their own meals, several of them turning green almost simultaneously. The Ghrior rose in alarm and fled the chamber, fearing poison.
Emperor D'ra'yan, after swallowing several glasses of water, uttered weakly, "Oh, no. Not again..."
It was a thought echoed across Aria, Velor, and wherever Homo Sapiens Supremis lived. Only the youngest -- those under 120 years old -- didn't know what it was. Sharon and Xara weren't immune, either. Xara held her head in her hands to prevent dizziness at her computer terminal. Sharon was awakened quite nastily from a rather pleasant dream; she bolted upright and broke into a cold sweat instantly. Her skin felt clammy to her own touch.
Somewhere in deep space, Skietra looked up, alarmed, and then resigned. She shook her head; they never seemed to remember the lessons, only the toys... at least the explosion had come from a region bereft of any planets or life, so presumably no one was hurt. If anyone was, there'd be no evidence of it anyway.
On Aria, D'ra'yan reminded himself of the Admiral's transcript.
I'm not scared to use it!
No, Admiral, you are not...
The captain shouted out, "Secure from general quarters!"
Around the bridge, crew members hooted and hollered, and even the combat officer of the deck, going off the bridge, could barely get himself to say, "Belay that!" It wasn't loud, it wasn't serious, and Yevgeni landed a hand on the OOD's shoulder. The OOD turned, and Yevgeni held one finger over his mouth. Ssshh.
The navigator and quartermaster spent the next few minutes plotting a new jump that would take them back to Earth, almost to orbit. (Orbital insertions never relied on the jump.) As for the rest of the crew, What the hell, Yevgeni thought. They were all giddy. They'd done it in training and in simulations dozens of times. But they'd never done it for real. Until now. Let them party.
It was a party Cory wasn't invited to, though. She waited outside the airlock, impatiently, while a wide-eyed crewman in a spacesuit waved her off from inside the Colony. She was furious; she'd done her part! Then he raised up a little instrument, with a needle pegged all the way to the right, where she could see it.
She couldn't understand every word on it, but two words were very clear: Geiger counter.
Cory was crestfallen. She'd forgotten about the radiation. It had given her a beautiful tan, but she wouldn't be setting foot on Earth for a few weeks; the tan would have worn off by then. She wondered how she was going to clean all this off, even as Sharon and Xara flew up to congratulate her in the vacuum of space, where words couldn't travel.
But she cracked one last joke in her head, one she swore to write down for her report to Velor. Even if the Ministry wouldn't understand.
Thanks for the betas, Betas.