Jerry, Chapter Four

by Garon Whited

Jerry, still somewhat gingerly, seated himself in the Captain’s chair.  The ship’s damage control display showed a lot of battle damage still unrepaired, but the angry, flashing red, the dull, steady red, even the orange—those were gone entirely.  There was still a lot of yellow, but, as of the last hour, there was even more green.

It disturbed him in ways he found hard to explain.  Even the two black dots of the shot-away warp nodes were green.  They didn’t slowly move up the scale into green, either.  They couldn’t.  There was nothing left to repair!  Nevertheless, one had flashed straight to green while he watched!  It was though brand-new warp nodes simply appeared out of empty vacuum.

Jerry didn’t like it.  He was a gunnery sergeant, not an engineer, but he knew a little about artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.  They were outlawed, and outlawed for excellent reasons.  But what else could do this?

What if an AI misinterpreted its instructions?  What if something went wrong with the nanotech robots?  When an industrial accident can spread like a bioweapon, ramped up to machine speeds, it’s a problem.  When an industrial accident can self-replicate and manufacture its own interstellar ships, it quickly becomes everybody’s problem.

How do you get a nanobot infestation off a ship?  Answer: you don’t.  You violently fling the ship into any handy star and let nature take its course.

Even so, it was hard to argue with results.  The Birmingham was, if not ship-shape, at least combat ready.  Moreover, it was once again ship-shaped.

Phoebe sat at the navigation controls.  Kent was in Engineering.

Give the man credit, Jerry thought.  He said we’d be operational in a day or two, and he was right, the arrogant bastard.  I’m the one who insisted on a larger safety margin!  If I’d let him, he’d have sent us off Photons-know-where with red lights still on the DC board.  Him and his pet nanobots have put the ship back together in ways I wouldn’t have bet the Venus Station shipyards could.

Somehow, these thoughts were not comforting to Jerry.

“Engineering?” he called, pressing the intercom switch.

“Aye, Captain!” Kent replied.

Jerry had developed a low-key hatred for the word, at least when it came from Kent’s mouth.  The tone was precisely correct, containing all due respect for the master of a vessel.  Nonetheless, whenever Kent said it, Jerry had the impression of being mocked.  Maybe he was being oversensitive, or maybe it had something to do with the knowledge he was Captain of the Birmingham because Kent allowed it.

Jesus, Photons, and Klono.  He was Captain.  The thought kept coming back to him, haunting him like Banquo, rattling chains of responsibility worse than Marley’s.

“Status?”

“Ready.  Boards green.  Reactors at full.  Warp drive at your discretion.”

“Thank you.  Astrogation?”

“Aye, Captain!” piped up the girl.

Phoebe, now… Phoebe meant it when she called him “Captain.”  Somehow, that was even more disturbing.  It wasn’t from being called “Captain.”  It was being called “Captain” by someone who meant it.  In some ways, that made it worse.

“Since I don’t know where we are, can you tell me where we’re going?”

“I figured we’d aim for the nearest star and approach on a curve, updating the course as we get closer, to allow for the speed-of-light delay in our data.”

“Do we know which star it is?”

“That one,” she said, pointing at the holographic view.

“I mean, do we know what catalog number it is?”

“Huh?  Oh.  No, sorry.  We’ve got no idea where we are.”

“The computer didn’t recognize any astro phenomena?” Jerry asked, puzzled.

“Not yet,” Phoebe hedged.

Jerry wanted to ask how they were going to pick up escape pods if they were lost, but he kept his mouth shut.  A quick warp-speed run around the local systems and they should be done with the shakedown part of the exercise.  Maybe then he could insist on answers.  Especially since yet another yellow light blinked green while he watched.  There wasn’t much yellow left.

“All right.  Uh… computer, prepare to follow plotted course.”

The computer failed to answer.

“Still down?” Jerry asked.

“Not exactly,” Phoebe equivocated.  “It’s working, or mostly.  Don’t worry.  It’ll be in tip-top condition before we hand it all over to you.  Promise.”

“You’re sure?”

“Cross my heart and hope to fly, a fiery needle through the sky,” she replied, sing-song.  It sounded like agreement, at least…

Jerry wanted to argue, but he still hadn’t quite worked out how to successfully argue with a little girl.  Sailors, sure.  He could even argue with an officer—respectfully, and up to a point.  Little girls were not part of his training.

He wanted to ask a lot more questions and get understandable answers.  There was one hell of a lot of uncertainty on his ship and all of it was his.  The two civilians seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

Nevertheless, he sat back in the Captain’s chair and took a slow breath.  Something about the ship seemed… strained.  No, not strained.  Straining.  It was as though the ship was on a leash, trying to spring into FTL.  It wasn’t anything displayed on the control boards.  It was something subtle.  It was a feeling.

“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered.  “Phoebe?  If you’d be so kind as to take the helm?”

“Oh, it’s… all programmed, Captain.”

“In that case, whenever you’re ready, Astrogator.  Hit it.”

The universe went squish and the stars shifted in the sky.  One point of light started to drift slightly to the left.  In half an hour, it had brightened significantly.  Jerry watched as it slid left and held its position, slightly off-center in the holographic display.  He glanced at Phoebe, who still manned the astrogator’s station.  The ship was correcting course to come close to the star without coming too close.

Jerry’s hands cramped.  He relaxed his grip on the arms of the Big Chair.  Everything was going smoothly and in accordance to plan.  The trouble was it wasn’t his plan, and he wasn’t fond of being kept in the dark.

 

Phoebe followed instructions to the letter.  They scanned for the planets and planetoids of the system, surveying it.  None of them harbored Earth-like life, not that they expected it to.  The inner planets were frozen rockballs and the outer planet was a small gas giant.  Nothing orbited in the habitable zone of liquid water.  Still, it was something to do while Kent did whatever magic he did in Engineering.

Then again, Jerry regarded everything in Engineering as magic.  Those guys were miracle-workers.  They bent space and chained suns.  Jerry was happy merely to fire guns.

Long before they finished their impromptu survey, the damage control board was solid green.  When they dropped out of warp, he sent out a probe to do a few orbits of the ship, scanning it from the outside.  To Jerry’s experienced eye, it looked new, factory fresh.

He couldn’t complain.  He wasn’t sure exactly what he would complain about.  But he desperately wanted to.

On the other hand, there was one thing about the whole situation Jerry didn’t mind at all.  Phoebe was a good girl, Jerry had to admit.  She was always happy to learn something, smiling delightedly at anything she didn’t understand—yet.  It was enough to make even a grizzled old veteran smile.

She worked hard at understanding everything about what she was doing.  Whether she was at the helm, astrogation, or sensors, she was paying attention, and damned if she wasn’t better than half the cadet crewmen they sent from the Academy.  Better than some regular watchstanders, for that matter.

She was a good girl in another way, too.  She occasionally looked longingly at the fire-control station, but there was nothing to fire on, so she stayed away from it.  Jerry knew what she wanted, though.  She’d told him so, some time ago, and he had not forgotten.

While she was down in the mess, he selected an asteroid from the astrogation station’s display and ordered the ship’s computer to plot a course.  Finally, the computer responded!  It placidly laid out the semi-parabolic line.

When Phoebe came back to the bridge, Jerry invited her to the fire-control station.

“In theory, you can control any of the turrets from this station,” he said, running through the menus.  “We’re not going to focus everything on one target.  We’re only going to fire the main gun.”

“Whee!” she replied, or something to that effect.

The targeting systems locked on to the nameless chunk of space debris.  Servos opened hatches and lowered the primary projector into firing position.

“Now, as a safety measure, confirm the power levels here—got it?  Check the coolant temperature—not really an issue on the first shot, but it’s a good habit to keep an eye on it.  Lasers pump out a lot of waste heat.  Check your sight picture.  Anything on an intercept course?  Anything beyond the target?  No?  Good.  This is not a popgun we’re firing, all right?  Take the firing grips in hand.  You’ve got fire control.  The targeting system is locked on.  When you’re ready, squeeze both triggers at the same time to signal the system to fire.  The computer does the actual firing, based on the calculations, but the triggers let it know you want to fire, are ordering it to fire on the target.  Got it?”

“Got it.”

Phoebe took a deep breath, held it, and squeezed.  Was there a tiny little feeling, a miniscule sensation of a jolt, perhaps?  Lasers have, in most cases, no recoil, so surely it was all in her imagination.

The asteroid, a little over one light-second away, blazed brightly as a sizable amount of it turned to superheated plasma and expanded enormously.  What was left disintegrated under the stresses and flashed away in many directions, glowing slightly in the vacuum.

“There you go,” Jerry told her.  “That’s how you do it.”

“Is there another one nearby?” Phoebe asked, hopefully.

“What’s the coolant temperature look like?”

“Only about a quarter of the way through the green and falling.”

“You can see it falling?” he asked, puzzled.  Sure enough, the digital indicator was dropping rapidly.  Well, none of the other weapons were firing, so maybe that had something to do with it.  It still seemed strangely quick to Jerry, but he’d never test-fired the main gun.  Usually, it was the opener to a pitched battle.

“Huh.  All right.  Let’s see what we can find.”

 

They were all in the messhall.  Phoebe and Jerry were chowing down on what Kent had assembled in the kitchen.  Much of the rest of the ship was still not clean, merely orderly and functional.  The mess, by contrast, belied its name.  Jerry wasn’t sure a white-gloved officer would be able to find honest fault.  Steel was mirror-bright.  Rubber was spotless.  Even the smell of old food—ever-present in the mess, since particles could get literally anywhere during zero-gravity periods—was gone.

It was a cool, smooth, soulless place.  It needed to smell like a messhall.  It needed a few stains here and there, where no amount of scrubbing would ever get them out.  It needed the sounds of people laughing or griping or shoveling food in as quickly as possible before some large, ugly man took it away from them and ordered them to turn to.

“You’re sure there’s no life in the system?” Kent asked, laying another zero-gee tray in front of a hungry Phoebe.  The gravity was on, but the messhall only had  zero-gee trays.  Regulations.

“We did a complete survey,” Jerry assured him.  “We warped to each planet, did an orbit, and went on to the next.”

“No Vittorian space-monkeys?”

“No what?

“Vittorian space-monkeys.  Dangerous little nippers.  They look all cute and fuzzy, but they’re masters of cloaking technology and have pretentions to galactic domination.”

“Are you serious?” Jerry demanded.

“Aren’t those the little guys with the big heads and all the teeth?” Phoebe asked.

“Yes, to both of you.  They cloaked their whole planet when they found out about other technological societies.  They’ve been spying on their galaxy for years, working out how to take over.  I think they’re experimenting with mind-control rays, but I don’t feel like sticking my nose that far up their business.”

Jerry started to answer, but too many things wanted to get said at once, so the traffic jam at his mouth backed up all the way down his throat.

“On the upside,” Kent went on, “We’ve got a good feel for how this warp drive works.  It doesn’t cause any time-dilation effects I’ve noticed.”

“Of course not,” Jerry answered.

“Good, good.  Then we don’t have any serious temporal problems with the escape pods.  I was worried about that during the initial stages, but we’re only somewhat distant and should be able to jump back into proximity without any relativistic problems.”

“Pop?  I thought we jumped, uh… farther than that?”

“Are you kidding?” Kent asked, looking surprised.  “I had a hard enough time getting the whole ship to move, never mind moving sideways through—”  He broke off and glanced at Jerry.  “We’ve moved your ship through a wormhole,” he clarified.  “We’re still in the same galaxy,” he emphasized, turning to fix Phoebe with a Look, “so we’ll probably jump back into proximity before we go back to warp and close in on your crew.”

“Oh, that’s comforting,” Jerry lied.  “When do we get under way?”

“We’ll do a couple of wormhole experiments with the shield-warp and then see how much warp we can squeeze out of the drive, see how fast she goes.  That should finish things up here.”

“Wormhole experiments?”

“Do you really want to know?” Kent asked.

“I’ve been careful not to ask too many questions,” Jerry admitted.  “Given my situation, I don’t think it’s healthy for me to know too much.”

“He’s smarter than he looks,” Kent said.

“Pop!”

“Well, he is.”

“Thank you so much,” Jerry sneered.  “But the escape pods have my shipmates aboard.  We should pick them up as soon as possible.”

“If they’ve survived the attack, they’re inconvenienced by the delay.  If they haven’t survived it, they won’t mind.  Or did I misunderstand you about their duration?”

Jerry wanted to argue.  He suspected the real reason for the delay was the possible number of survivors.  At the moment, Kent could do what he liked with an entire battleship.  If there were a dozen more people—or a hundred!—Kent would have a hard time keeping the vessel under his thumb.1

Of course, he was also right about how long the pods would support the survivors, which annoyed the de jure Captain something awful.

Before they went on their high-speed run, Kent asked for a close solar orbit.

“How close can we get without frying?”

“Pretty close, especially to a quiet little star like this.  Why?”

“I want to try something.  A personal experiment.  It won’t affect the ship.  I need to toss something overboard and into the star.”

“Can we strap it to a sensor torpedo?”

“I don’t know what a sensor torpedo is.”

“They’re autonomous probes.  You launch them at planets or satellites or into dangerous places you don’t want to take your ship, but where you do want to scan.  They send back telemetry until the enemy blows them up, you recall them, or they crash.”

“I like it.  Show me, please.”

So Kent spent several hours with a sensor torpedo.  They did not need a close solar orbit.  Instead, they fired the thing into the star from a much more reasonable distance.  Jerry watched the numbers crawl by on the display.

“Heating up, now.  Still on course.  Temperature passing one thousand Kelvin.  Radiation typical for a red dwarf.  Gravity acceleration on the curve.  Drive still on-line.  Temperature passing twelve hundred.  Passing through the corona.  Approaching chromosphere… temperature at two thousand Kelvin and nearing failure point.  Contact with photosphere… temperature still rising… coming up on the convection zone… temperature spiking to—nope, there it goes.”

Jerry swung around in the Big Chair and regarded Kent.

“Did you get what you were after?”

“Just about.  The payload is delivered, or close enough.  We’ll see if it works.”

“What, exactly, did we deliver?”

“A stabilized matrix of energy fields.  Now the matrix is inside the star and converting energy into other functions.  Right now, it’s using power both to move through the star and to improve its ability to do so.  The destination is the point of gravitational equilibrium.”

“You sent something into the center of the star.”

“Yes.  Once it gets there, it’ll stop trying to go anywhere and use all its energy for replication.  At least, it should.  I’m pretty sure I programmed it correctly, but I always think I programmed it correctly until it screws up.”

“Logical.  Then what happens?”

“The sphere of forces will thicken, becoming more efficient at grabbing whatever energy is presented to it.  Then it will start expanding, presenting a larger surface area.  Eventually, it should englobe the entire star.”

“I’m not sure I understand.  You’re putting some sort of warp field around the star, somehow?”

“Not exactly.  It’s more a power converter, turning solar energies into other energies.”

“And what will that do?”

“I’m hoping it will work, for one thing.  I tried it once from the other direction, starting at the surface of the star and spreading over it, like… like… like pouring paint on a sphere and letting it spread.  The energy flux per square meter is impressive, but it still takes quite a while to cover an entire star.  But if I start inside the star, in the core, the energy density is much greater, so the expansion should happen faster and surround the star more quickly.  I think.”

“So, it’s a science project?”

“Pretty much.”

“How will we know if it works?”

“Hmm.  Well, we should see the star get dim.  All the radiation—visible light included—should be absorbed by the shell.  Most of it, anyway.  It has to form multiple layers to black out the star, and it won’t do that until it’s expanded to englobe the whole thing.”

Phoebe piped up from the sensor panel.

“Pop!  Something’s going on.”

“On screen,” Jerry commanded.  For once, the ship obeyed, displaying the star in a false-color view.  “It looks okay.”

“Yeah,” Phoebe agreed, “but the diameter is decreasing.”

“It’s what?” Jerry and Kent demanded.

“It’s shrinking.”

Kent thought furiously.  Jerry frowned at the glowing ball on the screen.  The sensor display echoed numbers and graphics onto it, showing the original diameter, the new, decreasing diameter, the total change and the rate of change.

“That’s weird,” Jerry mused.  “It’s not a lot—it’s meters, not miles.  It’s right on the edge of the margin of error.”

“It’s the average.  It’s statistics.  It’s not a direct measurement,” Phoebe confirmed.

“Yeah.  It wouldn’t be detectable, but it’s still going on.”

“Get us out of here,” Kent ordered.  “Get us at least to the orbit of the gas giant.”

“Aye aye, Pop.”

“Belay that,” Jerry snapped.  “This is still my ship, Kent.”

“So it is, and I apologize,” he said, with every evidence of sincerity.  “Captain, the star may be in the process of going nova.  I recommend we get some distance.”

“It’s what!?

“It might be about to go nova.  Do you want me to give you the reasons for my suspicion now, or would you rather wait and see if the star explodes?”

“Helm!”

“Helm is on-line,” Phoebe said.  “Plotting course for gas giant orbit.”

“When you’re ready,” Jerry said, “hit it.”

Phoebe worked quickly.  She laid in the course and pushed the button.  The computer engaged the engines and warped space.  Everything went squish, the engines made roaring sounds, and the universe un-squished.  The gas giant filled the forward view.

“Entering standard orbit, Captain.”

“As long as we’re here, plot me a scoop course to top off our reaction mass, please.”  He swung around to regard the man at the sensor station.  “Okay, Kent.  What just happened?”

“I think I miscalculated.”

Jerry drummed his fingers on the arm of the Big Chair.  After a moment, he noticed the smoothness, a worn place on the arm of the chair, just under where his fingertips struck.  It was as though someone else had polished that little patch for years, much as Jerry was doing now.  Somehow, it was comforting.

“I think we’re far enough away we can risk an explanation,” he observed, calmly.

“What I think is happening is the sphere of absorption is sucking up energy.  As it expands outward around the core, the core keeps burning, which was fine.  Heat from the outer layers, outside the field, is also absorbed, which is not fine.  Because of the pressure, the core continues to produce heat, but less heat gets to the outer layers.  They are radiating away their heat in both directions—to space, and into the field.  As everything outside the sphere of forces cools, it shrinks back into the star, increasing the pressure inside and therefore increasing the rate of fusion.  As the whole outer layer of the star collapses inward, it’s like an old fusion bomb where you compress all the fuel at once to make it explode.”

“Has the star exploded?” Jerry asked, eyeing the main screen.  Phoebe obligingly changed the view from the gas giant to long-range sensors.

“Not yet,” Kent replied.  “I’m not totally certain it will.  The fields can only expand so fast and the collapse of the outer layers is limited by the gravity of the star.  Both of these things take time.  The sphere only has one layer in the matrix right now, and it’s expanding on a surface-area basis, so it’s pretty consistent versus the energy density of the medium—fastest inside the core, slowing somewhat as it gets into higher, cooler layers.  The stellar material, on the other hand, is trying to fall inward.  There’s stuff in the way.  Even if it was falling through a vacuum, from the outer limit of the star to the core, it’s got an enormous distance to go…”  Kent’s expression went blank as he stared off into space, thinking.

“Don’t worry me with numbers.  It’ll take hours or days or weeks before anything on the surface hits the core.  Fine.  What does this mean?”

“Oh.  If I don’t stop it… well, stars are huge.  It takes quite a while to do anything on a stellar scale, but I think the process has started.  When enough of the stellar material cools and collapses, it’ll be a lot like a implosion bomb.  At least… hmm.  No, I don’t think so.  It’s only one layer…”

“Kent.  Boil this down for me.  Are you blowing up a star or not?”

“No… I don’t think so.  It’s a wave of coolness expanding from the core, not a massive, sudden cooling of all the outer layers.  It’s a ripple, expanding outward.  It should cause fluctuations—barely detectable fluctuations—until it reaches the surface.  Then it will just darken the star.  Now, if I could cool the entire outer layer of the star, it would collapse inward.  All the hydrogen in the star would be super-compressed and then the thing would explode.”

“I’m glad you’ve sorted that out.  I guess our work here is done.”

“I’d like to stay and watch the process, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh?  What’s in it for me?” Jerry asked.

“Are we negotiating?”

“I hope so, space pirate.”

“Ha!  Fair point!”  Kent thought for a moment.  “When I leave, I won’t take the upgrades with me.”

“You mean I’ll save you some additional work when you pack to leave?”

“Hmm.  When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound like much, does it?”

“What would you have to pack up?” Jerry asked.

“Oh, the enhancements on the fusion plants and your hyper-thermocouple equipment.  It wouldn’t really be that much effort to remove them.”

“Are those the only upgrades?”

“No, there’s also the heat-salvaging from the coolant system.  Although…” Kent added, trailing off.  “You know, that whole reaction-mass thing annoys me something dreadful.  Your warp drive should move you through a region of compressed space instead of relying on fusion rockets!”

“Pop?  I don’t think a warp-ship should use rockets, either.”

“I agree, Phoebe.  Tell you what, Captain.  How about I upgrade your central warp system with a warp coil?”

“What’s a warp coil?”

“You know how a coilgun works?”

“A series of circular electromagnets, switching on in sequence, to accelerate a projectile.”

“Now, imagine the electromagnets are along a central shaft.  The projectile is a hollow cylinder around the shaft.  The magnets still move it along, right?”

“Sure.  You’ve got a ring moving down a rod instead of a slug moving down a tube.”

“Imagine using warp technology on the coils, distorting space instead of generating magnetic fields.  That’s how a warp-coil-based system would shove your ship along without pesky reaction mass.”

“That’s—no, wait.  That can’t work.  I mean, warp field theory says… or does it?” Jerry frowned thunderously, trying to picture it.

“Are you a warp field specialist?”

“Are you?” Jerry shot back.

“I have a lot of experience with space warp engineering.  Take my word for it.  Let’s do the experiments.  Afterward, you can take the Birmingham back to Earth and watch engineers tear their hair out trying to figure out how it all works.”

“One question.  You mentioned something about the coolant system.”

“Yes?”

“Will the lasers still overheat?”

“I’m sure you can overheat them, but their cooling systems are part of the primary cooling array, yes?”

“Their systems are linked to it, yes.”

“They should cool down faster than the power systems will charge them.  Or, no—dang it, the power system is upgraded, too, and it’s salvaging waste heat from the lasers… You would need more extensive heat exchange hardware for each laser.  I’ll see what I can do.  Although, now I think on it, I suppose I could enhance laser efficiency directly, cutting down on the waste heat and increasing the beam intensity, but that would require personal work on each and every laser turret…”

“Kent!”

“Hmm?  Oh.  Sorry.  As it stands, I honestly don’t know which will be the limiting factor, power or cooling.”

“But they’ll fire more frequently?”

“Oh, hell yes.”

“I’ll take it.  You’ve got a deal, space pirate.  Astrogator!”

“Aye aye, Captain!” Phoebe piped up.

“Put us in a polar orbit around the gas giant so we have a good view of the sun.  Full sensor scan.  Launch a sensor torpedo into a close solar orbit—orbit based on the original diameter of the star, please.”

“Right away, Captain!”

Jerry sat back in the Big Chair and watched.  The star fluctuated over time, larger and smaller, but only barely enough to observe.  You couldn’t see it with the naked eye.  The computer couldn’t detect it in real time.  Even with the sensors on full scan and knowing what to look for, the computer had to take readings several seconds apart and average the results.  It was only mildly reassuring to know the fluctuations were a sign the star would survive the experiment.

It pays to humor a man who can make a sun go nova.  It also pays to keep a close eye on him, especially if he’s dumb enough to do it by accident.

 

The sun—nicknamed by Phoebe as “Wobbly” and duly entered into the ship’s log—rippled steadily over the next several days.

“Well?  Got your readings?” Jerry asked, turning to address Kent.

“Yes, Captain.  It’s been most instructive.”

“Is it going to explode or not?”

“No, it’s definitely not going to explode,” Kent answered, still fiddling with the science station.

“Now that you know you’re not going to accidentally blow up a star, how would you go about doing it deliberately?”

Kent got a faraway look in his eyes as he did some mental calculations.

“It’s really not hard to—”

“Pop!” Phoebe chided.  Kent looked guilty.  He started again.

“There are a number of ways to do it,” he tried.  “If I restrict myself to using the cooling side-effect, though…” he trailed off, looking at Phoebe.  She sighed, but shrugged.  “Yeah, well, if I’m going to partially cool a star to get it to—hang on.  Do I have to blow up the whole star, or just get it to nova?”

“Whichever is easier,” Jerry suggested, and wondered if he would regret it.

“In that case, I’d do pretty much what’s going on now, only with more layers of energy-conversion matrix.  If we can suck up everything the core region puts out—it’ll require multiple shells at that level, but they self-replicate.  Anyway, if we can suck up everything the core puts out, we can use that energy to start cooling the outer levels of the star.

“With the core shell in place, maybe have some expanding shells move through the hot regions to do an initial temperature reduction, then have them come back just ahead of the outermost level as it begins to fall inward, making sure it continues to pick up more cold material on the way.

“When the cold front falls far enough, it’ll hit the inner core.  All the shells then turn off.  With the sudden influx of high-velocity, falling material, the core’s pressure will surge, making it incredibly hot, even for a star.  It should be a pretty display, but the star should still be there.  Probably as a white dwarf, but it depends on what sort of star we start with and the number of shells involved.  That’ll take some experimentation.  Why?”

“It occurs to me we’re at war,” Jerry pointed out.

“And?”

“And if we blow up the Ziran suns, the war will end pretty quick.”

“Oh.  Hmm.  Well, yes and no.”

“What do you mean?”

“Yes, it’s pretty quick.  It’s surprising, really, but when you consider how much acceleration is involved with stellar masses, something the size of Earth’s Sun wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to go bang once you activated—”

“I was asking about the downsides,” Jerry pointed out.

“Oh, yes.  When it becomes apparent you have a sun-crushing weapon—”

“Some sort of a death star device?” Phoebe interrupted.

“No, more like the thing from the books, not the movies.”

“I never liked the books.”

“I can’t say I was overwhelmingly pleased at the expanded universe, myself.”

“Ahem,” Jerry interjected.  Kent focused on the question again.

“Once they catch on how you’re responsible and it’s not some fluke of stellar mechanics, they may well decide to go all-out and blast your civilization into rubble.  I don’t know if they have the technology to get their ships to relativistic velocities, but an armored brick anywhere near lightspeed is bad for an inhabited planet.  Failing that, just crashing with their fusion plant on overload—or with an antimatter pod, or whatever—could be pretty devastating, too.  Then you have to ask how many ships they have versus how many cities you have and how good your skywatch is and how many ships you need to defend each world and do you want to fight a defensive war against an enemy with nothing left to defend and nothing left to lose…”

“You act like you know a lot about how the Zirans think,” Jerry observed.

“Nope.  I’m thinking in terms of what desperate, vengeful losers would do.  I’ve some experience with that sort of person, so I know how far they’ll go.”

“Ah.  Well, I guess I can’t argue with you there.  It would be nice, though, to be able to blow up their homeworld’s sun.  If we can gut their primary industrial base, we can win a war of attrition.”

“Is that what you’ve got going on?”

“I think so, yes.  And there are a lot of Zirans.”

“Mmm.  I take it you’re losing the war?”

“I wouldn’t say we’re losing, exactly.  I know it isn’t going well.”

“I don’t suppose you have any details?”

“No.  I’m not in the Intelligence branch and I don’t have a need to know.”

Kent looked vaguely troubled.  He traded looks with Phoebe.  Phoebe grinned at him and rubbed her hands together.

“Captain, if you’d care to set a course, we’ll attempt a speed run to see just how fast we can go.  After that, if you’re interested in a purely warp-drive system, we can talk about how long it will take.  I’ll definitely need some test runs to make sure its calibrated properly.  After that, if it pleases you, perhaps we can go pick up your crew.”

“Would it help to have crew for the warp drive modifications?”

“Are there likely to be officers who will need to be brought up to speed?”

“Yes.”

“Can I persuade you to retain command so I don’t have to?”

“You just did.  Helm?”

“Yes, Captain!” Phoebe chirped.

“Prepare to break orbit,” Jerry ordered.  Kent headed for the bridge access.

“If anybody needs me, I’ll be in the main computer core.”

 

  1. No, he wouldn’t.

     

     

     

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