Rejection in writing is a fact of life. I have a short story that I worked on for the first few months of the year. It was originally written for a Writer’s Digest short story competition, but unfortunately, it didn’t win anything. Oh well, it was worth a shot. I revised (and expanded) the story, with a lot of feedback from Jim Bird, a friend who is also doesn’t pull punches when it comes to reviews. I submitted the story to Clarkesworld, but they didn’t accept it for publication. My latest submission was with Asimov, but unfortunately, they also said ‘no’. The next step is to submit it to another Writer’s Digest competition, and we’ll see how that goes.
I got my email today from Writer’s Digest, informing me that I was not among the finalists for the short story competition. I would have been pleasantly surprised if I had been. The story I wrote was put together pretty quickly, and I didn’t have time for an outside editor to look at it. There are changes I’m going to make to the story, and I will get someone else to look it over. I’m considering trying to submit it to Clarkesworld, but they’ve closed submissions for now. They were flooded with “stories” cranked out using things like ChatGPT. If nothing else, I’ll post the story here.
I’ve submitted a short story to the Writer’s Digest Annual Short Story Competition. It was something I wrote over the past week, and I probably rushed it. But all I have to lose is the entry fee, and it’s a start. The top 10 stories get published in Writer’s Digest, and that’s the main draw for me. Several of the top positions get prize money, and first overall gets a trip to their annual writer’s conference in New York and an opportunity to pitch work to editors and publishers.
Once I know the outcome, and if I’m not among those selected to be published, then I’ll post a copy of the story here. It’s a science fiction story, and set nominally in my Unimanse fictional universe. It was also an experiment: I chained together a series of drabbles (100-word microfiction stories) to form a larger story. It was fun trying to make it work, keep the plot focused, and make each 100-word section a story of its own.
I had to admit, I didn’t think we’d get this far. Granted, there was still a long way and many, many more years to go. But to even get far enough to allow this next meeting to happen was a pleasant surprise. I had fully expected us to fail, quite frankly. Not because me or my team aren’t smart, imaginative people. We are. But we were pushing the limits of physics, and when you take on physics, guess who usually wins? Here’s a hint: it isn’t the carbon-based lifeform trying to bend or break the rules.
But we had bent or broken those rules, at least on a relatively microscopic scale and in a lab. A new type of faster-than-light drive. On paper, it appeared possible. In the lab, we saw promise. The challenge, of course, is finding sufficient energy, and one of the best is some form of black hole. But people tend to be a bit squeamish about creating black holes on the surface of a planet, even incredibly small ones. For us to proceed requires an off-planet research lab and fabrication shop. And that means money, and sadly, the combined retirement savings of the entire team just isn’t enough to buy us our own asteroid, let alone build the facility we need.
Okay, okay, we didn’t actually bend or break any rules of physics. This is science, not fantasy after all. What we did was discover some new properties when it came to dark matter. More importantly, we found a way to use those properties to travel faster than the speed of light. Well, “found” in the sense that a series of small lab experiments confirmed some aspects of our new approach, but we couldn’t scale because of energy limitations.
We were tempted to just scale everything up to what we needed, but a few (including me) realized that blowing off a chunk of the crust of one of the home planets would be categorized as “bad”. Really bad. As in devastatingly, “you’ve probably killed us all” bad. It was thought best to avoid that possibility, if only because it wouldn’t look good on the old curriculum vitae. “Fifth Month, Year 1475 Local Reckoning, Planet Brother: managed to destroy a planet in a lab incident, which resulted from mishandling a small black hole while attempting to revolutionize faster than light propulsion”. Yeah, not exactly a brilliant way to advance your career.
So, here I am, catching my breath and collecting my thoughts before I have to walk through the door to the conference room. I know who is in there. The heads of the science and engineering departments at the university we had partnered with, and whose lab facilities we had borrowed early on. At least two deputy ministers of something. And the head of an investment group with billions to spend. Some of these people I know. The one I don’t know is the one with the money, and I need to convince them more than anyone else. But the others? Well, they can potentially end this project if I don’t have them on board as well.
Deep breath. And stride into the room with confidence. And for diety’s sake, don’t trip on anything. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Good afternoon everyone” I say as I approach the group. Try to sound confident. Try to sound confident. Stop repeating yourself in your head.
Everyone turns to face me. The star of the show. Hands are extended, greetings exchanged, introduction performed. I don’t do this often, but I do it often enough that I think, so far, I’m exuding confidence and competence. Just don’t exude anything else.
“Well, let’s get started.” More confidence. Too many would ask if everyone would please take their seats, or say ‘shall we get started?’. Ug. Weak. Be assertive. Take command. Never let them see you sweat. I sure hope I’m not sweating now.
For the next half an hour, I present our work. What we’ve done, what we know, the questions to be answered. I finish with a brief outline of the next steps: build a research facility on an asteroid the System Managers have said is suitable for our work. Far enough away from anything they care about, particularly the home worlds of Brother and Sister. Close enough that we don’t spend years getting people and material to and from the place. The rock itself is solid, stable, and is of limited value for its minerals. The last item in my presentation: the bill. Money we don’t have right now. And now, questions. Here we go.
There is a pause. A long one. Everyone is thinking apparently. Some scan the handouts and the notes they made. Mister Harace, the man with the money, speaks first.
“So, Doctor Fuhojaz, this new drive system. Why exactly do we need it? We already have two different technologies we use today. What’s special about this one?”
It was in the presentation. Oh well, probably just testing us.
“A good question, Mister Harace. The two drive systems we have now are either expensive and complex to build, or expensive and complicated to operate. The transit drive system isn’t even a drive system, in the sense that it’s a ship-mounted device. The energy requirements to fold space-time to allow the transit make it prohibitively expensive and large to carry around. That limits us to fixed transit points in space. That works to get a ship from one place to another. But without a corresponding transit point at the other location, now you’re stuck.”
I pause for effect. Everyone around the table is nodding slightly in agreement.
“The foldwarp system is what we use to get back from new locations, and we generally install it on military and exploration ships to allow flexibility and freedom of movement. But it’s a rather nasty drive system, and requires a lot of fuel to feed the nano-blackhole that powers it. The technology works, but it isn’t ideal for some applications” I explain. I’m trying really hard to not sound condescending, since this should be obvious in the materials I presented. Oh well.
Mister Harace sits forward. I guess I got his attention. He presses on. “So, this new system you’re proposing? Does it replace any of these existing drive technologies?”
Ug. Again, it’s in the handouts. But I need his money. “It won’t replace the transit drive network. That works well for established travel lanes. But what this could replace is the foldwarp. The slightly larger micro-blackhole still needs the same shielding, but the fuel consumption is far, far less, and we can use fuel that’s less, um, unsavoury to the passengers, crew, and cargo, meaning we can cut back on the shielding we need for fuel storage.”
I pause again, to let that sink it. Then I continue. “The only downside, at least in the early versions, is that we are limited in terms of the physical size of the ship. Basically, it has to fit inside the bubble we create that we then push through the gaps in the dark matter that holds the universe together. Over time, we think we can increase the bubble size, allowing for bigger ships.”
Another pause. Let them think about it.
“How small?” Mr. Harace asks.
“About the size of the most commonly-used exporation ships. They usually have a crew of up to six, plus room for another six or so passengers, plus their food, spare parts, and whatnot. Militarily, all of the corvettes and some of the smaller destroyer classes will work. And the drive system should be small enough, physically, that we can give heavy fighters FTL, something they lack today.”
That got his attention. Military applications still ring a special chord with some investors. And I know this going in. Momma didn’t raise no dummies, and I did my homework. These guys have some business interests involving military procurement. But the academics in the room apparently are feeling left out. Doctor Gyka, the head of the engineering department, is asserting himself.
“Jivor, er, Doctor Fuhojaz, what about safety? What are the failure modes of this technology?”
I felt myself starting to bristle at this question, but realize that is unfair. He probably wouldn’t know because we haven’t worked with the engineering guys. Most of our time has been with the physics group, since this is a physics problem, at least to start. But, an answer is required.
“Another great question, and certainly one we’ve considered. Any time you’re working with singularities, even small ones, there are risks. Controlling and limiting the fuel flow to ‘feed’ the object is critical. Too much, and you get more energy than can be contained. More than a few foldwarp drives have exploded because of fuel regulator issues” I respond.
“Yes, but you’re using a much larger black hole here” he pressed.
“True, but that means we need considerably less fuel, making it easier for us to monitor and control it. I won’t pretend there aren’t risks, here. Any system where you’re basically controlling energy is inherently dangerous. Even a wood fire comes with risk. But the benefits, I believe, outweigh the risks. And we take steps to minimize or contain the risk as much as we can.”
This back and forth continues for another hour or so. The physics head throws a few softballs, since they stand to benefit from this, but want to appear somewhat neutral. The engineering head presses a little, but backs off. They know that they will get some goodies from this as well. The deputy assistant ministers of whatever lob a few questions, nothing that can’t be handled.
It’s Mister Harace. He’s clearly interested, but it’s a lot of money we’re asking for. And we know that most budgets are, in reality, an educated guess. Even allowing for over-runs, we’ll probably need more than we initially asked for. Thank the overlords for the sunk cost fallacy.
Eventually, the questions slow and then stop. I’m asked to give them the room, so they can talk amongst themselves. I thank them for their time, gather my materials, and walk out to the hallway, closing the door behind me. And the rest of my team has decided to show up, and congregate near the conference room.
Dowor, the lone engineer on the team (for now), looks nervous. They always look nervous. “So, did we get it?”
“They’re talking about it now” I reply, grasping their upper arm trying to be reassuring.
Jymu is seated on one of the benches in the hall, staring sullenly at the floor. This is one of her ‘down’ months. The ‘up’ months are better, but we’ve all learned to live with what we get.
The team and I chat nervously, glancing toward the conference room door from time to time. A half an hour passes, and Loqos’ partner, Cirobi, joins us. She then leaves briefly, returning with drinks and snacks for all of us while we wait. Another half an hour passes with nothing but murmurs behind the conference room door. Now even I’m getting nervous, although nothing compared to Dowor. They seem to be getting more and more anxious, but I can’t think of any way to calm them down. Cirobi, though, seems to have some skill. She manages to get them to rein in their emotions.
The door eventually opens, and the head of the physics department beckons me back in. A deep breath, exhale, and stride in with confidence again. Always look confident.
“Jivor, please, take a seat” the physics lead asks, gesturing toward the empty chair at the head of the table.
Mister Harace clears his throat. I can’t read his facial expression. I bet he’s really good at daria.
“Doctor Fuhojaz. Jivor. Might as well get used to some familiarity.” Mister Harace begins. “I have decided that we will provide the funding you have asked for. The university will also contribute a portion, and we’ll be releasing the funds in tranches based on milestones. We’ll meet in a few days to determine what those milestones are. But this looks promising, and I want to make it happen.”
I can barely contain myself. I want to dance and prance and yell and whoop and laugh all at once. Well, there will be time for that later. For now, control. Stay cool. Look pleased, but try not to grin like a complete idiot.
“That is excellent, excellent news. My team is actually waiting in the hall. Let me bring them in and you can meet the minds that are helping us make this happen.” I stand, and head to the door, hoping the rest of the team can show some restraint. I suspect they won’t.
The New Research Station
It has been a long five years. I think I see a few gray hairs hiding in amongst my otherwise jet black mop. It was hard, there were setbacks, we went over budget (twice), and they nearly killed the whole deal (twice). We continued to experiment in the lab planetside, refining, exploring, and getting ready for the day we could use proper energy sources, and have the necessary power levels to make this work.
The new engineering team has been busy during that time, too. Their first job was to help design the lab and test facilities for our new home, located on an asteroid with out a name, just a string of letters and numbers. We’ve named it Dexi, in honour of Mister Hirace, more completely Dexiloniq Hirace, who sadly died a year ago. It was his support that helped us through the rougher patches with the funding groups, and without him and the money he was able to obtain, this wouldn’t have happened.
He was the first person we lost as a group, and he truly became part of the team. Sure, he had other projects he had to pay attention to. But we got a lot of his time, and he made the effort to come out to the asteroid, Dexi, and stayed with us in the temporary, and less than savoury, living quarters we had. Jymu took Dexiloniq’s death hard. But then, she takes a lot of losses hard, particularly since it happened during one of her ‘down’ phases, when her emotional and mental rollercoaster was at its nadir.
Mister Harace had become part of what the newer people on the project called The Founders. That group included me, Dower, Jymu, and Loqos to start. Mister Harace was added very early on. Cirobi was eventually included by the others in the monicker as it was clear she was an important reason why some of the more entertaining and enriching elements of work existed. Plus she had this incredible ability to source lab equipment that was hard to get. It wasn’t just because she found the latest vidgame console to add to the common spaces.
The first four of us, and later six, got closer as the project proceeded and construction at the asteroid got underway. We all spent a lot of time out on that rock. The rest of the team held us in awe, although frankly that seemed silly. There was some impressive talent in the people we recruited, some far more skilled than any of us. But we were The Founders, and you could hear those capital letters somehow. We weren’t just ‘the founders’. We were ‘The Founders’. It was awesome and intimidating at the same time.
But it’s finished. The Advanced High Energy Research Centre (yeah, boring name, not my call) was officially opened last week. There were dignitaries, and lots of speeches, one of which I had to give. I’ve been named the Facility Director along with being Lead Scientist, so that means less time in the lab for me. But we’ve built up a much larger team, and amazingly, I still know all their names. I even know some of their spouses or partners names, and (a true miracle) the names of some of their children. It has been a bit of a blow to the ego that none of the newest were named Jivor. Oh well. Immortality will have to take another form.
Here I sit, at my new desk in my new office with an expansive view of space. Rank has its privileges I suppose. The team, and our new arrivals, are hard at work on the final touches for their lab spaces. Oh yeah, the engineers. I got side-tracked. Well, after the design effort for the facility, we put them work designing and building the test drones. These small spaceships would carry the new darkspace drive prototypes and test articles. They will be remotely piloted, so we can test the drives on a small scale without risking people’s lives. The engineers really wanted to get started on the phase two test drones, which would be a lot larger, but those needed to wait until we had our facility in place. It was a logistics problem that, fortunately, Cirobi helped me solve.
We’ve found jobs for virtually all the spouses and partners that wanted one. We need a lot of non-science people to help support the work. As a result, we have several new chefs, a couple of medical doctors and nurses, and at least two project managers. That’s were Cirobi comes in. She’s proven adept at managing all the “other stuff”. Making sure there’s food to eat, and that holes are patched, and broken switches replaced, and we have new videos to watch. She has a real knack for keeping people and projects organized, a genius at what I call “herding qars and soothing teenage egos”. Loqos, her partner, got his doctorate (well deserved), and I hope he understands how lucky he is to have Cirobi in his life. I’m hoping he steps up and proposes they formally pairbond.
The focus is now to shift from theory to application. One of our toys includes the new particle manipulator. These things are expensive, but necessary, since they, among other functions, are used to create the tiny blackholes that power things like transit and foldwarp drives. And now ours will make the singularities we need for our own drive, the darkspace drive. These machines, of course, come with some risk, as does the work we’ll do with the resulting products they create. And if it goes horribly bad, we’ve blown up Dexi. And ourselves, I suppose. At least the planets are safe.
Ah, and here comes Cirobi now. She says she has to discuss some logistical thing or somesuch, I don’t remember. And I watch as she enters my office. She is so captivating. But, focus. We have work to do.
The hour we spend discussing the supply issue is both too long and too short. Too long, because it’s dull, dull, dull. But too short because it’s so nice to spend some time with someone who isn’t another science geek like myself. And I know that there won’t be a vast dating pool available out here on our rock. But, she’s already committed to Loqos, and they are a happy couple. I will absolutely not interfere in that. Loqos is an important part of the team, and a good friend.
The Happy Accident
A result of the lab explosion two years ago was an incredible discovery. Wait, I should probably say that in a way that doesn’t trivialize the event. A fire and explosion in High Energy Laboratory Number Two, which put five in hospital and killed three, resulted in a fortuitous discovery that will change sublight travel. Yes, we’re still working on a new faster than light drive. But this was a happy accident. Damn, trivializing again. It was a serendipitous invention.
The accident actually claimed four lives. Three in the explosion, which included the life of our close friend and collaborator (and Founder) Loqos. But the loss of Loqos also resulted in Jymu ending her own life, her grief tearing her very soul to shreds. The accident happened during one of Jymu’s emotional low-points, a time when she was most vulnerable.
The five that were hospitalized stayed for varying lengths of time. The last just got out a few months ago, and moved back to Sister. As did three of the other survivors. That left one who decided to soldier on.
We’ve had people come and go over the past six years. Some because they had done what they wanted, and were ready for a new challenge. A few because living on an isolated rock in space wasn’t nearly as interesting or exciting as they thought. Still others because that isolation was just too much to take. A few we had to terminate, they just didn’t work out. Then the accident two years ago, which ground everything to a halt while the investigators asked their questions and poked at the ruins for the first year. The next year was spent writing their report. We were able to restart some work, but most of it had to wait to see what would come next.
We had the funding to keep everyone paid, but we lost easily ten percent or so simply because they weren’t interested in waiting around. I don’t know, getting paid to not work isn’t an entirely horrible proposition, even if it was because we lost some good friends. But many were worried about what they perceived as a gap in their experience. Others were afraid of being associated with a project that appeared likely to end in failure, not because the technology didn’t work, but because the facility was too dangerous. And if the facility was too dangerous, maybe the technology was, too, and shouldn’t be developed further.
Personally, the loss of Loqos was hard. Very hard. He and Cirobi had just been formally pairbonded a few months ago and were talking about having their first child. Loqos had worked very hard, not just for us, but for himself, Cirobi, and his family, first to attain his doctorate, then on the project. His team was working on a key part of the drive system when the accident happened. I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong, and it didn’t take me two years to figure it out.
So here I sit, on one of the benches outside our main conference room while I wait with Cirobi, Dowor, and a group of various government officials, and representatives from our backers. At last we are all called into the room, and there are little signs on the table with our names. Cirobi, Dowor, and myself are to sit around the head of the table, me at the apex. None of the outsiders there have spoken to us beyond a few perfunctory greetings and introductions.
At the far end sat someone whose name I didn’t bother to remember, and they were clearly the one guiding the meeting.
“Very well, shall we get started?” Ug. That weak phrase. This was going to go well. They continued. “Thank you. As you know, we are here to review the results of the investigation into the explosion in High Energy Laboratory Number Two. The lead investigator, Master Tyha, will be presenting their findings. Master?”
The Master cleared their throat. “Thank you, Administrator. I’ll spare everyone the suspense, as well as leave off recounting the outcome. We all know what happened, no need for some present to relive that.” They paused. “The explosion occurred in Test Reactor Three as a result of an unexpected overload due to irregular fuel delivery.” I was about to speak, but the Master cut me off. “Yes, I know, it shouldn’t be possible. There are failsafes in place. But those failsafes had been disabled. A review of the device logs show they had been disabled several times over the course of the previous three years.”
That started about the time a new person, Fypex, had joined the team. And he had been warned the first two times he disabled the failsafe mechanisms, since it threw off an alarm. But…
“The code that would normally trigger the alarms had been altered to disable the alarm. Ordinarily, this can’t happen, as there are security protocols in place to prevent unauthorized changes. But those, too, had been overridden. Clearly the individual who did this had experience.”
Okay, time for a question, and I won’t be ignored. “So, how was this possible? The person who normally worked that station wasn’t noted for any coding skills.”
“Very good, we thought the same thing. A review of their work and training experience didn’t include any of that. But, it turns out, they didn’t disclose everything.”
For the next hour, the Master explained who Fypex really was, and it turns out they weren’t just a physicist, they had a past that involved breaking into secure digital facilities, some just for fun, some for profit. Fypex wasn’t even their real name, and while they did have formal training in physics, the transcripts and references we got were fake, from a different institution.
We were asked, and spent an hour explaining, why the failsafes might have disabled. From the notes we had, Fypex/not-Fypex was working on some idea he had concocted, although possibly at the direction of Loqos. They were apparently working on something, but no one outside of those two and possibly the other dead scientist knew what it was.
With that out of the way, we then discussed the need for changes, more rigorous screening of all personnel, including all existing staff, and implementation of further safety protocols. That we were even talking about that was encouraging, since it meant we could keep going. If they were going to shut us down, there was no point in talking about any of it.
It was the last change that was a bit of a bombshell. A new position would be created, Chief of Operations. They would oversee all of the personnel screening, and review safety procedures and make sure they were followed. For a moment, it looked like Cirobi might get the job, because frankly, she would be good at it. Instead, they introduced the new person. They had sat through the entire meeting silently, watching, observing, like an ambush predator waiting for their time to strike. Idza Novyvaq was not to be toyed with.
Their voice had a smooth fluid quality, almost sensuous. But their words were spoken in a way that grated on the nerves. It was an odd sensation. “Jivor, you are still in charge.” Okay, an acknowledgement that I’m nominally the boss. I had a feeling that wasn’t entirely true.
The meeting appeared about to end when Dowor spoke up. “Aren’t we going to talk about the discovery Loqos made? What motivated the experiment that caused the explosion?”
Okay, that was a surprise. Normally Dowor was silent. If they could have hidden under the table, they would have.
“What discovery?” I asked.
“I was reviewing his notes. Including his private notes. Cirobi let me see them. Fypex was pushing the edges for a reason. Loqos had discovered something useful for sublight drives.”
“What, a new sublight drive?” one of the political drones asked.
“Nope, something new that can be added to our current sublight engines. Doesn’t even require a new power source. We can retrofit.” Dowor replied.
“Okay, out with it. You’re not normally one for suspense.”
Dowor cleared their throat. “He found a way to create a weaker bubble, similar to the darkbubble for FTL, that eliminates the relativistic effects of sublight travel. His whole team had been pressing at the edges. They had a series of small mishaps. Fypex was the pushing their equipment the hardest, but it was possible the other work they were trying could have ended in the same result. Loqos knew it, but if his idea worked, it would remove an irritant with sublight travel. Sorry Cirobi” Dowor felt bad having to out their friend as also being a rule-breaker.
I thought for a moment while the rest of the room murmured and mumbled in surprise. “Okay, okay. Calm down. Dowor, let’s review those notes and see what we have. And see if we can indeed create the effect described.” Dowor nodded in agreement.
Our backer representative was all smiles. “And if it works…” they started.
“Then we’ve just gained even more commercially from this work.”
We’ve spent the last year doing less on faster than light, but more on other important things. We built a new lab to replace the old one. Sadly, we had to use a new location, and the crater that was the Lab Two is still there. The wreckage was removed at least. And our facility now has a graveyard. Cirobi insisted that Loqos’ ashes be interred on Dexi, as did the families of the other victims.
But we put together one team and, after implementing the new safety protocols, and a lot of arguing with Idza (that guy is lucky to still have his teeth), we began to explore what we called “the Loqos Effect”. Using his notes, we were able to reconstruct the experiments he was conducting. This time, though, we were able to avoid going over some limits, because while Loqos was a physicist, there were engineering elements that he didn’t quite understand. Dowor did, now that he knew what the goal was.
Here we are, a year later, and we now have the Loqos Generator, an add-on to existing sublight drive systems. It creates a weaker form of the darkbubble (a lot weaker), but it isolates the ship from relativistic effects. The bubble, though, is small, so how do we shield larger vessels? We create multiple, overlapping Loqos Effect bubbles. They do draw some power, and some ships will have to upgrade their fusion reactors. But it uses far less power than the FTL version of the same effect.
Of course, in that year we didn’t just work on this new technology, as I mentioned. I spent a lot of time arguing with Idza. Oddly, he didn’t fight often with Cirobi, and I almost got the impression he was trying to woo her. That was grating, to say the least. It seemed to me, though, that she was rebuffing his advances. Good. I mean, good for her.
The time I spend with Cirobi is welcome. Sure, we have to work together a lot during the day, but we also spend more and more time together after hours, usually with Dowor as well. Is it inappropriate to have feelings for your dead friend’s spouse? And did I mention that dating opportunities on an asteroid filled largely with asocial scientists is limited? Adding to the challenge of “a normal life” was being months away from any place worth visiting, and anywhere from forty to three hundred light minutes from any kind of contact with friends and family on Brother or Sister.
The frustration of Idza is wearing, and everything he does makes us slow down. I get the need for safety. There’s a crater outside that reminds all of us of that every day. There’s prudent, and there’s overly cautious. We can’t spend our lives motionless, wrapped in bubblepaper, while nutrients are pumped directly into our systems. To make a rezaxal, you have to crack a few feps. We just have to make sure those feps aren’t people.
It’s been four more years. Idza is gone. He kept imposing more and more restrictions, and it got to the point where, three years ago, all of the senior staff, me included, were boarding shuttles to return to Brother to confront the financial backers. That mutiny was short-lived, though, as the backers came to their senses, informed by Cirobi about what was going to happen. They terminated Idza’s contract, and expanded Cirobi’s duties to include personnel and safety reviews. She hired a small staff that still could irritate, but they were willing to find a way to work together. Idza was “no” without exceptions, and that was harming our ability to hire people (apparently everyone was now a security risk) as well as get work done.
While all this drama unfolded, we were still able to get some work done. The biggest advancement was fitting the first prototype drive systems in the smaller drones created all those years ago. They had been languishing in their hangars, waiting patiently for the day they could perform their duties. Yeah, of course they were patient. They were machines. They had nothing better to do, and no way of knowing what was happening anyways.
We blew up a few of them in the first tests. It was disappointing and spectacular to watch, all at the same time. It also means we had to send out other, newly fabricated drones, to clean up the debris. It seems obvious in retrospect, but all those blown up bits of metal and plasmeld were going to present a hazard to navigation. That was one of those “smack my head” kind of moments, because the second drone that exploded was destroyed, not by the drive system, but by an impact from debris of the first drone. Duh!
It was the fifth try where the test ship blinked out of conventional space-time, and a few seconds later emerged where it was supposed to. It had just travelled five times the speed of light. It used less fuel that a foldwarp engine would have used, and far less energy than the large fixed transit points. We didn’t need to fold space-time, we could just slip through the cracks. Cirobi and I celebrated that test, just us, later that day. It just was drinks and dancing. Don’t get pervy about it.
The engineers fabricated a new series of drone ships, larger than the first generation. But they could hold a larger drive and power unit. And we kept testing. We lost a few, but each time, we learned something. The generation two drones each completed dozens of trips at varying speeds and durations. We knew, while testing, that using a real ship was the next step.
It took us a year to acquire three smaller ships, and convert two of them for automated operation. The time had come to try the drive on a bigger ship, but we still weren’t ready to put a crew on board. Cirobi’s negotiation to acquire three personal yachts, ships that were no longer economically viable because they weren’t “good enough” (translation: they were out of fashion) for rich folk, and they weren’t suitable for commercial operations. They were big enough to hold the larger prototype drives, but still small enough to fit within the darkbubble that we could create.
The first ship died in a fiery explosion that became a meme on the newsmesh. The image of the ship shattering into a billion sparkling pieces (which took about a month for the cleanup drones to deal with) replayed over and over. It was funny and embarrassing, all at the same time. Cirobi and I shed some tears together after that one. She had become attached to what she saw as “her ships”.
The second ship, though, worked. And it worked again. And again. It made a dozen trips through darkspace at varying speeds, going anywhere from just past the speed of light to five hundred times. A trip that would take a foldwarp ship a month to cover, our new drive could do in a week with no problem. Some systems would now be days, instead of weeks or months, away. And unlike the transit drives, which required weeks of travel to reach them (since they had to be far enough away from the system), these drive systems could be engaged almost anywhere.
It was the thirteenth trip for Ship Two that was the problem. There was concern about drive lining degradation, but we weren’t sure it was all that much of a problem. Apparently it was. The ship entered darkspace, but didn’t appear where it was supposed to. It was several minutes after the expected arrival that something did appear: a cloud of debris. Some of the data collection pods had survived, and yup, it was the degradation we had feared. Now we knew, and now we could fix it.
Today is the day. All that work. All those blown up machines. Ship Three was ready for a trial run with a real crew. It was one thing to send small animals and single-celled lifeforms through darkspace. They all survived with no apparent issues. It was time for a person do it. The crew of four boarded an hour ago, maneuvered away from Dexi, and was arriving at the departure point. Everything was looking good. We were confident. This was going to be a historic moment.
The crew began to spin up the drive, increasing the energy levels to where a darkbubble could be created. Three. Two. One. And the ship disappeared, leaving conventional space-time. The plan was a short hop, at twice lightspeed, for one minute. One minute goes by. Nothing. Two minutes. The ship emerges, intact, further than planned. All seems good.
“This is Ship Two. We’ve had…” and the transmission is cut off as the ship turns into a cloud of energy and debris. Another accident. Four more deaths. What would that do to our program now?
The Final Test
It has been another trying three years. Another accident investigation. An admission that, no, corners were not cut, safety rules were not violated, and nothing obvious was overlooked. This was experimental work. These were experimental drive systems. There were losses and accidents when the original work on foldwarp was conducted. There were losses and accidents when the transit drive was developed.
Of course, they had fewer losses than us, but not all that many fewer. The team that invented foldwarp lost five people in total, two of them test pilots. The transit drive team lost six, although none due to the transit system itself. We’ve lost seven, eight if you include Jymu’s suicide after the lab explosion. If there were other self-inflicted deaths as a result of our program, we never heard about them.
Cirobi had acquired another ship. While out and about finding that ship, she had also met someone. That someone wasn’t me. But even though we still socialized, and obviously still worked together, she wasn’t forthcoming about this new person. I have no clue where that relationship is going. If it’s still there at all. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. She doesn’t talk much about it now.
Ship Four (we reeaallly needed to find someone with some creative skill) took a year to prep. We think we have a better handle on what happened with Ship Three. The team has made improvements, found some smaller issues we hadn’t really noticed before, and was able to test a lot of the new features on the drones we had remaining. We were confident that this test would work.
Our backers, and the System Government, made it clear that a successful test was necessary for continued funding and continued approval to work on the drive system. They understood more work would still be needed. A single successful test wasn’t a green light to roll this out across The Compact. But without one, and given the number of drones that have been lost, as well as the three ships plus one crew, our leash wasn’t infinite in length.
The crew had boarded, and preflight checks were underway when the pilot noticed a problem. A small one, but enough to scrub the mission for that day. It wasn’t related to the drive system (thankfully). It was an unresponsive maneuvering thruster. Sure, they could work around it. But it would better if they all functioned properly. It was an older ship, and while everything critical had been checked, this kind of problem wasn’t entirely a surprise.
That delayed us for a month. It was decided to replace all the thrusters, not just the problematic one. They were all older units anyways, of varying ages, some dating back to the original construction of the ship. We took advantage of that time to upgrade or refurbish a few other secondary ship systems. They weren’t critical for the mission, but would prove useful in the longer term. We also ran another few drive tests on the last pair of generation two drones remaining. And we still have them. No more exploding drones here. Our plan is to donate them to a museum dedicated to spaceflight on Sister.
The day is here. The crew is aboard, preflight checks are underway. We’re all nervous. At least half are engaged in some kind of superstition-avoidance or superstition-confirmation activity. There are more than a few people who absolutely need to launder their socks. Or other clothing. Really? Cleaning your clothes will cause the mission to fail? I mention this quietly to Cirobi, who is standing next to me in the observation lounge as we watch the control room monitoring the flight. “Um, you haven’t shaved in well over a year, and you know how much I dislike beards” she whispered quietly to me. Yeah, okay, I get it. Guilty. It comes off after this test, successful or not.
The room is full. Me, Dowor, and Cirobi have pride of place at the front of the crowd. Those at the back have to watch on the overhead monitors placed around the room. I say out loud, to no one in particular “This is for Loqos and all the others we’ve lost. And it’s for all of us, too. Everyone. This will work, and will validate our effort and our sacrifices.” I really, really hope I’m right. If not, I’m going to look rather foolish. Not that it will matter. My looking like a buffoon will be the least of our problems if this doesn’t go as planned.
“Control, Ship Four. Preflight check complete. We are go for undocking.”
“Roger Four. We are green across the board. Go for undocking.”
The ship, sitting in its docking cradle on the surface of the asteroid, wobbles ever so slightly as the docking clamps are released. We never did get them to unlock in perfect unison. Oh well, a project for another day.
“Control, Four. We’re loose.”
“We see you free and clear to navigate Four. Go for departure.”
“Four, roger. Maneuvering thrusters. Pushing away.”
A few small jets fired briefly, and the ship pulled away from the cradle and the asteroid, slowly turning as it drifted free and away. After a few moments, the ship stopped turning, and continued to pull away and into open space.
“Engaging sublight. Point one.” The engine nozzles on the tail of the ship glowed for a few moments and the ship picked up speed. At the same time, it shimmered slightly as the Loqos Field was activated. No more ‘time travel’ for the crew because of time dilation.
“Four, control, we see you approaching point one.”
The ship continued to diminish into the distance. A small group of four sensor drones pulled away with the ship, some trailing, some alongside. New video feeds appeared on the overhead monitors, as well as the wall of screens inside the control room. Some showed the cockpit with the four crew members at their stations. Some showed various views of the outside of the ship as the stars shifted slowly in the background.
“Control, at point one. Holding course and speed.”
Through the windows, the ship had shrunk to a small bright speck on a black backdrop, a star moving across the sky.
“Control, estimate five minutes to departure point. Beginning drive warmup sequence.”
“Four, we concur. Five minutes.”
Another glow appeared at the back of the ship, a ring of deep red, almost crimson, around the tail where the darkbubble would begin to be formed. It took about three minutes to get the drive to its operating state. There is no one talking. The crowd in the observation lounge is holding their collective breath, at least metaphorically. I have to remember to breath myself as I realize I am slightly dizzy. As I watch the images on the screens, part of my mind focuses on breathing. Just breath. Relax. This is going to work.
“Control, drive system shows green. Two minutes to departure.”
“Four, we see your drive as green. Two minutes.”
I keep glancing out the window in the direction I know the ship should be travelling. I also know there was little point in doing so. The small bright speck that was Ship Four can barely be seen. But I want to see it anyways. I shift my view from the screens to space and back.
“Control, one minute to departure. Increasing drive power.”
“Four, one minute. We see your drive power increase.”
“Control, thirty seconds, drive at eighty percent and rising.”
The ring on the aft end of the ship glows brighter and brighter, turning from red to orange to yellow to blue to white.
“Control, ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Full Power. Two. One.”
The ship disappears in a flash of light on the video coming from the accompanying drones. The dot that was the ship on the tracking plot also disappears. The video from the interior of the ship goes black.
Now we wait.
Sensor drones are pre-positioned at the point where the ship should emerge back into conventional space-time. The trip should take one minute. Thirty seconds pass. Forty. Fifty. This is taking forever. Something must be wrong! My mind just won’t settle down.
The videos showing empty space now show a ship. There was a brief flash, and the ship emerged from darkspace right where it was supposed to, and right on time.
“Control, Four. We are in conventional space again. That was quite the ride.”
The observation and control rooms explode into a cacophony of cheering, yelling, crying, singing, laughing. I can feel myself yelling, I’m jumping up and down. I grab the first person near me and hug them, hard. It’s Cirobi, tears streaming down her face.