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Fleet 4

Curtis refilled my glass and took a couple steps in my direction, studying me silently. My brain had slipped into automatic. I get like that sometimes during stressful situations. None of the things whirling through my thoughts were necessary for my immediate survival so they were simply shunted to the back. It had helped a lot during my time as a soldier and came in useful during exams. Since, I wasn’t thinking anything useful I simply watched Curtis.

He was taller than he looked at first impression and his eyes held a strange gleam, intelligence and sorrow mixed. They were the eyes of someone who had seen more than most people. A lot of cops and veteran soldiers get eyes like that. I didn’t know long-haulers counted, but in a way it made sense. They had seen whole other star systems that most people would never even know about and the distances and times were so great they couldn’t even share. No amount of talking would ever settle it, and now I was part of that world too. Twenty five years.

Curtis seemed to read my thoughts and held the glass out toward me with a weary grin, like an animal who didn’t know if I was friend or foe. He shrugged, still offering me the glass. “And it’ll be at least another twenty five before you get back,” he said. “So,you can take a drink, or see if you really can gut a man with chopsticks.” He paused. “Probably wouldn’t blame you either way.”

I’d forgotten I was still holding them. For some reason seeing them again made me smile. “Guess I won’t need to pay on those student loans, huh?” I took the glass and drained it as Curtis led the way back to the table. “I’m still pissed, you know.”

Curtis beamed. “I know.” He slid a remote access terminal across to me. “I can’t show you the full ship yet,” he said. “But this is networked to the ship’s system so it should be able to give you most of the information you might want.”

I picked through the terminal files and scarfed Chinese food. Even with the firewall set at highest security to limit my access I still had a lot more information than I had expected to get. When I mention it Curtis shrugged in the middle of his egg roll. “Who you gonna tell?”

He had a point. I flipped through a few more programs until I found an interactive view of the ship. Someone had labeled and highlighted the parts they had deemed important. I blinked at the display. “Why are the escape pods highlighted?”

“Cord set that up.” Curtis said. “He wanted people to know how to leave if they can’t adjust.”

An escape pod wasn’t a ship. It was a pressurized, temperature controlled radio beacon; no engines, just basic maneuvering thrusters. The good ones came with parachutes and had enough juice to make planet fall if you happened to be in range, but absolutely none of them had enough force to slow down from relativistic speed. They had supplies for a few days, maybe weeks, but the people who heard your beacon may not even be able to match your speed for months. Anyone who jumped in an escape pod at this speed was committing a very slow kind of suicide.
“The guy’s a prick,” I said. Curtis just nodded.

I dropped the pad to the table top. My mind was coming out of automatic and too many thoughts were pinning through my head.

Curtis knocked the pad aside with a plate of food. “Have a dumpling, man,” he said. “Give it time to sink in.”

The dumpling was good; not twenty five years good, but good. “Tasty,” I mumbled.

“That’s Gramma Washington’s secret recipe.”

“Grandma who?”

He hook a thumb toward his chest. “My Grandmother was born in Beijing. Best cook I ever knew.”

I blinked at the table. “You cooked all this?”

“Everybody on the long haul cooks,” he said. “If you don’t know how when you sign on, you learn. There’s always that one dish your mother made, or that one restaurant you knew back home. Chances are you’ll never see it again.”

His words carried an extra weight and hit me right in the gut. This was the real deal; twenty five years in the blackness of space. We finished eating and Curtis walked me back to my cell. They wanted me to stay behind bars until I proved I wasn’t going to go crazy and start killing people. Which honestly seemed pretty fair.

When I finally slept I dreamed of the war, I sometimes do when things go to shit. I watched the same scene again and again. I was seventeen and sitting in a high school civics class, scribbling notes on the growing discord raging through the Eastern provinces when two men in military uniforms came to the door. That was my last day of high school.  They drafted people like me first. Orphans had no one to speak for us and as wards of the state, the state could make decisions on our behalf, or so they claimed. Eight weeks later they put a gun in my hand and put me on a line. The war was far worse than anything we’d heard about in class.

I woke slowly the next morning and spent more than an hour in that relaxed half-doze state that’s really conducive to thought. I was still extraordinarily pissed, but that wasn’t going to change my situation. After a while I gave up and swung myself into a sitting position. Being in space wasn’t really that bad, but I’d need to keep my eyes open.

The remote terminal was still where I’d laid it last night and I swept it into my lap to study the ship and her layout. The ‘Mercy’ was massive, but far below the Orion class cities in space that had become popular for longer cruises. I was blocked from crew stats or passenger lists, but my guess was a minimum crew of 30 and a max around 100. Her main drive was powered by linked fusion reactors and a screened hydrogen scoop. It was a brute force solution, but efficient enough. She could hold 98 percent or even 98.5 without redlining the system.

It was a sturdy design, but had a few obvious flaws. The hydrogen scoop collected stray hydrogen for reactor fuel, but it functioned best near nebula or stellar systems rather than the dark between. And the ionized particles it used for propulsion at that speed came out so hot that the main drive couldn’t be used in system. Anything, ship or planet, directly behind ‘The Mercy’ would be instantly irradiated to a level that would disintegrate any organic life.

The last big flaw in the system was a standard one. The main drive was mono-directional. It was a very common budget cut, but it meant the main drive could only push aft. So in order to slow the ship enough to stop in system it would have to perform a somersault in mid-travel, flipping over to present it’s aft drive toward it’s destination.

Under normal conditions flipping a spacecraft in flight was a simple maneuver. You fired one half the engines just enough to spin the ship and cut in the other half gradually to bring the ship to a halt. It required precision and attention, but any minor mistakes could be corrected with minor thruster bursts. But at relativistic speeds there were no such things as minor mistakes, even the slightest miscalculation could be deadly. It would either send the ship spinning into the void of space with little hope of regaining the proper course, or it could destroy the ship so violently that no one on board would even realize it was happening.

Relativistic maneuvering is even more difficult to perform than it is to describe. At the speeds we were going the ship wasn’t even the -same size- it had started out as. We were going fast enough to warp space around us. Our ship was now longer, wider, and far more massive than it was when standing still. And to make matters worse, these changes couldn’t be directly measured by anyone on board. We could only guess at them by math and eye. It made computer navigation sketchy at best.

Computers can only work with the frame of reference given them and traveling at this speed the navigator had to keep in mind at least three: Earth, the ship, and our destination. All changes in orientation and direction could only be seen by surrounding stars. All of which, of course, would also appear to shift with our speed.

Curtis had said the ship was approaching break-down. The point where the ship would flip end for end and begin to slow. With weeks to go it would be the beginning of the process. Every switch and circuit would be tested and retested. Every systems triple-checked.

All of which made perfect sense, but what didn’t make sense was why I was here. Break-down was a time for all hands on deck, but it was not the time for kidnapped and potentially psychotic people to be wandering the ship. Why the hell was I awake?

The computer code wall around the stasis information was absolute. I couldn’t even determine from the computer if there were stasis chambers on board.

There had been no sign of Curtis all morning or of anyone else, for that matter. My research had taken more than an hour and I was starting to get hungry. I sighed and rubbed my eyes, reaching out to test the door. It was still locked. Just as I started to get really annoyed I heard footsteps, light and precise. They didn’t belong to Curtis.

The woman who came into view wore her light brown hair in an easy ponytail but walked with military precision. She wore green coveralls the same style Isabella had on the day before. I assumed that meant she worked medical. I watched her for a moment. She was cute and my gut said she’d be stunning if she smiled.

Why do half the medical personnel in the world look at you like you’re some kind of bug? “I suppose you’d like to be let out of your cage?” she asked.

Ugh, so much for stunning. “Do you really have to be a bitch?”

Her eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”

I stood. “Look lady,” I said. “You don’t know me. You have no reason to be a bitch beyond your own ego. I don’t know you. You weren’t at the party they snatched me from so we can fight all day if you really want to, but I don’t much see the point.”

She studied me for a moment and shrugged, flipping a wall contact. “Fair enough. I like people who stand their ground.”

The door to my cell swung open. “It’s often the only thing you can do until you find out the details.”

“Ahh, yes.” she said. “The details. You’ll learn those after we prove you’re not psychotic.”

“And when will that be?” I asked.

“Right now,” she said. “I’m here to test you.” She smiled. It was a gorgeous smile in a pretty face, but it held just a hair more mischief than I was comfortable with at the moment. “Oh, and the name’s Janet.”

If you’ve never been tested to see if you’re a hidden violent sleep psycho I don’t recommend it. Janet put me through every neuro-function test I could imagine and half a dozen more I’m still trying to figure out. It took 7 hours and ended with a very comprehensive physical examine. So comprehensive that I was starting to wonder if it was her way of hitting on me.

I guess I passed at least most of them because when she was finally finished she jerked her thumb at the door. “Head to the mess and grab some food,” she said. She didn’t assign me an escort.

My head ached with something more than fatigue. My brain was tired. It was a truly bizarre feeling. My monitor pad showed me the way back toward the mess hall, though I was torn between food and just getting some sleep. I was still arguing with myself over which to do first when I stumbled over Isabel’s body.