Jerry, Chapter Five

by Garon Whited

Kent was in Engineering, whistling some weird little tune as he worked.  Jerry watched him for a bit.  Kent was using a three-foot crescent wrench with a similarly-sized socket on the opposite side, bolting two pipes together.  Where did he get the pipes?  What were they even for?  Jerry was never overly familiar with the Engineering spaces, but a lot of it was both new and strange.  New parts were going places where there shouldn’t be open spaces.  What equipment was moved?  And moved where?  Engineering was packed as tight as girdle—or should have been.

Jerry deliberately chose not to ask any questions.  Kent looked right at home in Engineering.  The previous test runs convinced Jerry that Kent wasn’t an engineer. He was a Photon-fired wizard.  The warp field distortion readings were ridiculously high, beyond even the former equipment’s emergency maximum.  It skirted close to the edge of the limits of theory, never mind physical possibility.  Any further and they risked smashing against the Planck Barrier and turning into high-energy bits of spacetime.

It was a space navy joke about “walking the Planck,” but never where an engineer could hear.  They worked with those forces.  They knew what could happen.  They didn’t think it was funny.  Being reduced to a scattering of quarks and irrational particles probably wasn’t funny, but people will joke about anything that scares them.

Jerry left Engineering and went to find Phoebe.  She wasn’t helping her father.  Was she wandering around a military vessel without supervision?  Yeah, probably, Jerry reflected.

Then again, she wasn’t exactly what Jerry pictured when he thought of children.  She knew things.  And, despite that, she listened.  Kids would push buttons to see what they did.  Phoebe asked what the buttons did and took his word for it.  She pushed buttons only when told to or after he told her she was allowed.  Weirdly, there were a lot of things Jerry trusted her to do.

He did not trust Kent.  The difference being he didn’t have much choice about what the space pirate did.

After a trip to the Bridge and quick look through the Security station, he found Phoebe in a laser turret.  He ambled down and stuck his head in through the hatch.  Her feet were visible above the open access plate in the floor.

“Mind if I ask what you’re doing?” Jerry asked.  A metallic noise and a pained squeak emerged shortly before Phoebe backed out of the space, rubbing her head.

“What was that?” she asked.  “I didn’t hear you.”

“Mind if I ask what you’re doing?”

“Pop sent me to do an analysis on the laser weaponry—theory, engineering, principles, and so on.  He didn’t say why, but I’m pretty sure he’s considering upgrading them.”

“Upgrading them,” Jerry repeated, deadpan.

“Yeah.  Lasers aren’t efficient.  You pump a lot more energy into them than you get into the beam, so you have a massive waste heat problem.”

“And they never run out of ammunition,” Jerry answered, reasonably.  “They’re also speed-of-light weapons.”

“Yeah, but the Ziran projectiles have their advantages.”

“Don’t I know it.  But Ziran vessels’ armor is designed against projectiles, not high-energy beams.”

“While the Birmingham doesn’t carry a lot of armor, but it reflects most practical laser wavelengths.  There ought to be a third option.”

“Such as?” Jerry asked, folding his arms and leaning against the bulkhead.

“I still maintain it ought to be possible to use a gravity spacewarp projected at an enemy vessel to damage it.  Or, at the very least, rattle everything inside like dice in a cup.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Jerry assured her.

“Yeah, but what if you had a narrow beam?  What if you only affected something a meter wide?  Part of the ship would be sucked toward you.  Anything inside the ship would be, too!  And bulkheads would get in the way.  The Zirans would fall sideways while the ship didn’t.  Splat!  Bugs on a bulkhead!”

“You would have to generate gravity pulses millions of times more powerful than the generators can handle.  And you still have the distance factor diminishing your gravity pulse.  It would have to be used at extremely close range, and that’s not a good place to be when you’re fighting anyone who uses kinetic weapons.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah, it’s a puzzler.  Does this have anything to do with my lasers?”

“Maybe.  Could you generate a coherent beam of gravity, like the coherent light in a laser?  Or, since it’s related to the warp drive, could you do something like cracking a whip—you know, to direct it?  You wouldn’t have to be so close and you wouldn’t need to overload the generators.”

“It doesn’t work that way—” Jerry began, and broke off.  Could it work that way?  Gravity wasn’t light, obviously, but could you do something similar to focus it and direct it?  If so, the intensity wouldn’t fall off so drastically with distance, which meant you could subject a very small area to a very high gravitic acceleration.

What does it feel like to have your stomach drop into your shoes?

A cold sensation rippled across the back of his neck and crawled down his spine.

How old was this kid?  What civilization did she come from?  Did she casually comment on a new weapon technology because it seemed obvious to her?  Or did they have this sort of weaponry where she came from?  Or was this an ancient, outmoded sort of weapon she’d read about in school and didn’t remember the details?

Sailors are reputed to be experts at profanity.  They are.  They encounter lots of reasons to practice.

“But,” she went on, “gravity beams might have the same waste heat problem as lasers.  You produce a megawatt, but only a kilowatt goes downrange.  The rest of it is wasted.”

“The lasers are more efficient than that.”

“I was only making a point.  Gravity lasers would have to be developed, then refined through a bunch of iterations before they became practical.”

“Assuming it can be done.”

“Huh?  Oh.  Right.  But it might take Pop months!  I’d say it’s simpler to make the lasers more efficient.  What if you put in a thousand Joules and you send nine hundred and ninety-nine Joules into the target?”

“That level of efficiency is impossible,” Jerry said, now on firm technological ground again.  He latched on to the technical issue with a vengeance, firmly ignoring Phoebe’s assertion about gravity lasers and her estimate of the development time.

Months?

No, no—he ignored it and stayed focused on the conversation about normal, humdrum, electromagnetic radiation laser weapons.  Phoebe helped.

“Don’t let Pop hear you say that!” Phoebe gasped.

“Huh?  Say what?”

“Impossible.  He gets cranky when people tell him things are impossible, or he can’t do something, or stuff like that.  He hates it.  Say you don’t think it can be done, not that it’s impossible.  Arbitrary absolutes make him mad.”

“Duly noted.  Are you telling me you think he can produce a laser with over ninety-nine percent efficiency?”

“Oh, no.  I don’t think he can.  I know he can.  But it may not be something he wants to do.  It depends on the lasers you’re using.  Modifying them all will be a big job and he doesn’t want to do each one by hand, so he’s got them upgrading into a better design, using more advanced principles.  It’ll probably only be about ninety percent.  I’m watching and learning about the differences.”

Jerry looked around the shining, state-of-the-art turret.  If he didn’t know better, he’d say it was fresh out of the orbital shipyards at Sol.  Venus orbital, maybe?  More likely the Titan orbitals.  Those guys were craftsmen.  The yardbirds at Venus orbital might be the better mechanics, but they didn’t give a rat’s ass about your brightwork.

“I see.  And where—if you don’t mind my asking—would we get these highly-advanced lasers of which you speak?”

“Right here.  They’re growing in place.”

Jerry had a terrible mental image of crawling nanobots everywhere in the ship, making components out of other components.  What did they already eat in Engineering, making all that open space?  Were they eating parts of the ship to repair it, then eating repaired parts to repair other things?  No, that wouldn’t work.  The DC board on the Bridge wouldn’t be so disturbingly green.

He gritted his teeth and said nothing.

“I’m still thinking about gravity guns, though,” Phoebe said.

“Are you, now?” Jerry asked, trying to sound encouraging instead of scared.  He didn’t succeed.  It was more of a neutral tone.  At least he tried.  He seated himself next to the track where the gunner’s combat cradle would enter.  Phoebe sat on the deck with her feet down inside the access hatch.

“Yes.  Even if a gravity gun won’t have much range, it would still be useful on anything coming close, right?”

“I suppose it would,” Jerry agreed, humoring her.

“So you could use it on kinetic weapons, right?  Missiles, too!”

“The last thing anyone wants is to be a gravity source when projectiles are headed your way.  It’s hard to miss a planet, and not just because they’re big.  Gravity literally pulls them in.”

“Yes, but you can reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and use your warp generators to produce a rise in the spacetime sheet instead of a dip.  You can create a zone of anti-gravity to repel anything!”

Jerry looked at the little girl.  His brows drew together.  The first thing he thought was, Surely, that wouldn’t work!  It was followed by, Yeah, but why won’t it work?  And, trailing behind, Wait, would that work?  No, it couldn’t work.  It would invoke imaginary numbers in the warp equations—wouldn’t it?  Regardless, it was an interesting theory and something closer to his technological comfort zone than gravity lasers

“Let me offer a refinement,” Jerry suggested.

“I’m listening.”

“Instead of—or in addition to—point-defense gravity guns, why not add a secondary warp field?  In this case, an anti-gravity field.  The warp field makes the ship harder to hit because it’s effectively a smaller target.  Space is bent in such a way that, from the outside, we look thinner, squished together, small.  We look farther away than we actually are because the spatial distortion effectively makes us more distant, regardless of the objective distance.”

“Yep!  I got that!”

“Follow me, now.  If we had an external anti-gravity field, it would inflict an additional vector on incoming projectiles, hopefully enough to make them miss.  But since the warp shield makes us, effectively, much farther away, the projectiles have more time for the anti-gravity shield to push them aside or slow them down.”

“If it slows them down while you’re moving,” Phoebe pointed out, “they have to miss.”

“They’re more likely, yes.  Missiles are more of a problem, but the point-defense guns have been adequate, so far.  But attackers would have to absolutely saturate the target to connect if the two different types of fields were used in tandem.”

“Ooo!  Yes!  That’s a much better idea!  We’ll have to put the anti-gravity shell out as far as the warp shield, though, to take full advantage of it.”

“You mean we would have to,” Jerry corrected.  “It’s all theory.”

“I’ll ask Pop.”

“He’s an expert on gravitational theory, too?”

“Probably.  If he isn’t, he’ll become one to answer my question.  Besides, he’ll need to be to design and build your new anti-gravity shield!”

Phoebe bounced up, landed on her feet, and went skipping off to find her father.  Jerry watched her go.  His expression was that of a man who uncorked a bottle and watched a genie run gleefully off to find an even bigger genie.

When they tested the new warp drive, the ship didn’t go squish.  Instead, it twang!  The vessel lengthened drastically, from bow to stern, until the bow reached the place where they wanted to be.  Then the rest of the ship snapped into place like a stretched elastic band suddenly released.

The ship moved through the warped space, appeared where it wanted to be, and the Bridge speakers blared several bars of The 1812 Overture, with emphasis on the cannons.

Jerry didn’t mind the fanfare.  He was more focused on retaining his breakfast.  It was a near thing.  Years of Navy training came to his rescue.  Throw up one time on an officer’s dress shoes—unthinkable, under normal circumstances, but if you spent the last night of shore leave drinking and carousing?— you realize there are lessons learned at a price dear in money, time, and stripes.

Phoebe was not so lucky.  The massive rearrangement of the universe—rather, a significant rearrangement of the part she occupied—did not do her any favors.  She recovered and sat up, looking simultaneously a bit green and apologetic about the mess on the Bridge deck.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jerry told her.  “New drive system.  Not your fault.  Clean it up and we’ll issue anti-nausea meds before we… what do we call it?  Warp?  Stretch?  Jump?  Snap?”

“I don’t think we should call it ‘snap’,” Phoebe offered.  “Not when it’s a ship.  You don’t want to snap a ship.  Maybe we could call it an ‘engage’?”

“No, when you engage something, it means you entered combat with it.  Generally.  Could be confusing.”

“Extend?”

“Hmm.  ‘Prepare to extend for Alpha Centauri.’ ‘We extended to Mars.’  ‘What’s our maximum extend?’  ‘We’ll have to extend four times to reach Betelgeuse.’  Yeah, it sounds good.  I like it.  We’ll use that.  As Captain, I declare the formal nomenclature to be ‘extend.’  Computer!”

“The computer has already logged it,” Phoebe told him.

“Good.  And what the hell was the music?”

“Celebratory fanfare for a successful drive test?” Phoebe suggested.

“Well, we’ve succeeded.  We don’t need to play it again.”

“Roger wilco, Captain!”  Phoebe nudged the sidewall of the Helm station with her toe, as though to make sure the ship took notice of the order.

During their conversation, the hatch to the Bridge opened and a small, round device slid through, humming as it went.  It measured maybe thirty centimeters in diameter and ten centimeters tall.  It moved to the mess on the deck and vacuumed it up before washing and polishing the deckplate.  On the side, had painted on rank insignia, indicating it was a spaceman, third class.

“What’s that?” Jerry asked, once he noticed it.

“Roving cleaning robot,” Phoebe answered.  “Pop hates wasting manpower on routine tasks.”  More quietly, she added, “He says he’s lazy.  Don’t you believe him for a second.”

“I won’t.  Why does the thing have a knife taped to the top?  If it runs into someone, it could cause injury.  It’s a safety hazard.”

“Pop has a weird sense of humor.”

“Duly noted,” Jerry said, watching the robot slide back through the automatic hatch.  “Do we know where we are?”

“B—The computer has worked out some navigational points.  It looks as though we’ve traveled twelve light-years in one extend.  Extension?”

“I’d go with ‘extension.’  It sounds right.  But twelve light-years in—how long?  It felt darn near instantaneous!”

“It felt like an awful long time to me,” Phoebe observed.

“The aftereffects went away after several seconds, but I felt them, too.  I’m talking about the actual transit.”

Phoebe touched her astrogational controls and found the answers.

“Says here it took eleven-point-nine seconds.  Most of it was the ship’s warp fields aligning, powering up, and extending.  It takes all three reactors to get it twelve light-years!  And we didn’t move at all until eleven-point-seven seconds into the extend maneuver.  Then we spent approximately zero-point-two seconds, uh… un-extending into the new location.”

“So we need to sit still for over ten seconds while we use the warp coil.  Not a good way to leave combat.”

“If we’re gonna puke whenever we arrive, it’s not great for going into combat, either!”

“No, you’re right,” Jerry agreed.  “The drive does have some serious tactical limitations, but it’s fast as hell.”

“Feels like it, too.”

“Agreed.  So, can we reach Gamma Hydrae in one extend from here?”

Phoebe turned to the Astrogation panel and her fingers flew over the touch-screen interface.

“From our present position, we have fifty-three light-years to go, Captain!”

“Show me.”

Phoebe obligingly put Astrogation up on the main screen.  Jerry looked over the star chart and the projected course.  He nodded.

“We can do it in five, but let’s not push things,” Jerry decided.  “An extension might not be as bad if it’s shorter.  We’ll also see if we can extend in less than ten seconds if it’s a shorter hop.  And how far can we go—if we can at all—using only one reactor?  Plot me some test runs to figure all this out.  Think you can do it?”

“I’m all over it, Captain!”

“Stop us within a light-year of Gamma Hydrae,” Jerry added.  “We don’t want to drop directly into the system and find the Zirans have come back.  Not while we’re trying to keep lunch from escaping.”

“Roger, wilco, Captain, sir!  But there are no Zirans there.”

“Eh?”

“I’ll call up the astrogation chart.  See?  The stars with the red circles have Zirans.”

“And the red, pulsing circle?”

“That’s a really big cluster of the Jocasta-lovers.”

“The what?”

“Zirans.  Lots of Zirans.  The map shows where they are and kinda how many.  Sort of.  It’s not exact.”

“How do we know?”

“Huh?”

“How do we know?” Jerry repeated.  “Even if we had sensor probes there, the signals couldn’t reach us here for years.  How do we know where the Zirans are?  Or is this the latest information we have?”

“I’m sure it’s accurate and up-to-date.  Pop did it.  He said he didn’t want to appear in some star system without knowing if there were giant bugs in it.  He doesn’t like big bugs.  Which is weird, because he likes spiders just fine.”

“Everyone is different,” Jerry hedged.  “How does this sensor thing work?”

“Beats me.  If I had to guess, there’s something characteristic about your bugs and he’s got a way to track it.  I have no idea what it is, though.”

“I know the feeling.  Where is he?”

“Engineering.  I think he’s finishing up something with the heat exchange system.  Last time I spoke to him, he was muttering about using hypercouple coatings for surface-effect turbine blades to harvest mechanical energy for… something requiring mechanical energy?  I’m positive it’s an efficiency thing.  I know him.”

“Mm.  All right.  Phoebe.”

“Yes?”

“You have the Bridge.”

Phoebe sat up straight and beamed like a lighthouse.

“Aye aye, Captain!”

Jerry headed down to Engineering.  Once the hatch shut, Phoebe bolted for the Captain’s chair.  To her delight, she found the Captain’s chair could spin completely around.

Kent wasn’t in Engineering.  He was in the forward sensor section, half-hidden inside what was supposed to be a passive electromagnetic array.  Jerry paused and tried to peer in through the mostly-blocked accessway.  Kent had squeezed himself between two coils of a supercooled sensor and was stretching hard to plug in a new module.

When he succeeded—albeit with some muttered swearing—Kent pulled himself out, scraping a little on the cryogenic surfaces.  He brushed at his black shirtfront and flakes of frozen, condensed atmosphere sublimated away.  Jerry noted Kent was in what appeared to be a standard maintenance jumpsuit, although solid black.  Whatever it was made of, it had to be one hell of an insulator.

“Hello, Captain.”

“Hi.  What are you doing to my sensor array?”

Kent closed the access hatch and the pump started evacuating the air from the sensor bay.

“Adding some functionality.  Kind of like the warp coil’s additional space-crunching function.”

“We’re calling it an ‘extend’.”

“That’s weird,” he said, frowning.  “It squeezes space together so you can cross it in a single step.  It doesn’t ‘extend’ anything.”

“Phoebe came up with it.”

“Oh.  Hmm.  From inside, I suppose it does look as though the ship is extending.  I’ll have to make sure she’s clear on the actual mechanism, though.”

“Education is important.  But, about the sensors?”

“Sure.  What’s on your mind?”

“Astrogation has Ziran systems listed on the charts.”

“Did you not want it to?”

“Oh, I do, I do!”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“What gets me is the way it seems to have an extensive database on Ziran deployments.”

“You’re welcome.”

“And thank you very much,” Jerry agreed.  “I had more in mind the question of how.”

“The bugs are a hive-mind.  Fortunately, it’s a pretty narrow-band hive mind, so they don’t have the capacity to interact with human brains.  It makes them a group of six creatures with billions of bodies, not billions of individual creatures.”

“Hold on.  Did you know this when you came aboard?  Because we discussed the idea of blowing up suns and you said it would be a bad idea.”

“It generally is.  But no, I didn’t know then.  I’ve been looking into the matter.”  He slapped the outer shell of the sensor module.  “I’ve been upgrading this baby specifically to detect their telepathy.  Interpreting their telepathy is a huge job and I’m not going to bother with it.  But you don’t have to decipher a radio signal to figure out where it’s coming from.  Same basic principle.”

“I need a minute,” Jerry said, sitting down.  “You’re telling me there’s something like a hive queen bug.  This bug has a billion other bugs it controls through telepathy.”

“Six hive queens,” Kent corrected.  “Otherwise, yes.”

“What happens if you kill a hive queen?”

“Well, either all the attendant bugs keep doing whatever they were doing, because nobody is telling them to stop, or they all stop what they’re doing and slowly starve to death.  I suppose,” he added, thoughtfully, “it might be possible they get taken over by another hive queen, unless there’s some direct genetic link.  I’m not sure what the limits are for a hive queen’s control, though.  I’d think it’s one of the reasons to spawn another queen—having too many bugs in your hive.  If you’re prosperous enough to have all the bugs you can control, you can afford to spawn a potential competitor.  But it’s only a guess.”

“When you say they might keep doing what they were last told to do—how much thinking do they do?”

“The non-queens?  I’m not sure, but, judging from the size of their brains, not a lot.  Like I said, it’s a guess, but I think they would keep on doing their jobs by rote.  Why do you ask?”

“If they were told to attack all human ships they see, would they be able to do it?”

“Attack?  Yes.  They could operate a ship well enough to fight it, I’m sure.  They wouldn’t stop, though, until they were destroyed or ran out of fuel.  They wouldn’t attack intelligently, just charge in, blasting.  Groups of ships couldn’t coordinate.  But individual bugs would operate guns, operate the other machines, fly the ship, navigate, and so on.  Each one does a specialized thing, kind of like individuals on a human vessel.  The difference is, each human can perform lots of different jobs.  The Ziran workers each do one specific job.  They would also die at their posts from dehydration or starvation with no one to tell them otherwise.”

“They wouldn’t be very good at fighting, then.”

“No, probably not.  They couldn’t adapt to changing circumstances.  If a human loses power in a laser turret, you work to fix it.  You don’t mindlessly aim and fire even when it doesn’t do anything.  Most of the individual workers aren’t really sapient beings.  The queens—for lack of a better descriptor—are the ones who provide the whole collective with motivation, goals, and plans for how to achieve them.”

“And their goals are to eat us?”

“Nah,” Kent said, waving a black-gloved hand.  “I think eating you is secondary.  A bonus.  I think the problem is real estate.  You both breathe oxygen and drink water.  You can comfortably survive a wider range of temperatures than they can, but they tolerate higher gravity.  There’s a massive amount of overlap, so they want your worlds.  A planet can only support so many Zirans.  They need planets where they can settle down comfortably, and you guys are hogging all the good ones.”

Jerry thought back to the reports on the first Ziran ship encountered.  It paid no attention to any of the signals from the Earth vessels.  It ignored them utterly.  Like any scout, it went straight for the only habitable world in the system and began surveying it.  Earth kept trying to contact it, but nothing worked.  Then a quartet of Ziran battleships arrived and the fight started.

How did the ships know to send combat vessels to Earth?  Because the bugs were psychic.  Most of Earth’s Intelligence branch was quietly tearing out its hair trying to analyze bits and pieces in destroyed Ziran vessels, hoping to discover the secret to tachyon communications or some other faster-than-light method.  They never would, because it was built into the bugs, not into their ships.

“Great,” Jerry sighed.  “Just great.”

“Isn’t it, just?  But, on a happier note, Phoebe’s field trip is about over.  She can stay for the docking and recovery operation, if you’ll let her, but then we need to be getting back home.”

“Where is your home, anyway?”

“In a galaxy far, far away.  We’re not from around here.”

“So I gathered.”

“Astrogation.”

“At the ready, Captain!” Phoebe answered.

“Prepare to extend.”

“Extension plotted and laid in, sir!”

“Helm.”

“Yes, sir!” Phoebe chirped, shifting from the Astrogator’s station to the Helmsman’s.  Jerry paused to let her move and belt in.

“Extend when ready.”

“Extending, Captain.”  She manipulated the controls.  “Warp extension forming.  Movement in… three… two… one…”

The whiplash was as bad as before.  This time, however, Jerry had applied an anti-nausea patch to his upper arm and provided one to Phoebe, as well.  Phoebe looked a little ill as she was poured down a spacewarp funnel, but she held on to her breakfast.

“Extension completed, Captain!”

“Good work.  Secure from General Quarters.  Get me a report on the power usage and timing as soon as possible.”

“Aye aye, Captain!”

Jerry leaned back in the Big Chair and regarded the astrogation chart on the main viewer.  They were exactly halfway to Gamma Hydrae.  The leap didn’t feel any different to him, so the length of the journey might not have anything to do with the effects on biology.  On the plus side, it was subject to medication.  Was it something a crewman could get used to?  After a thousand extensions, did you stop noticing?  Or did it get worse with time?  Well, there was only one way to find out.  It would take a while.

“Astrogation report, sir!”

“Go ahead, Astrogator.”

“We’re spot-on, sir.  Power readings and timing on your chair display.”

Jerry touched a control and a clear plate slid up next to him, displaying the data.

“Not much of a chart,” he observed.

“Yes, sir.  Permission to take smaller extensions?  We can get more data points on the drive, time requirements, and power curves.”

“How much will that add to our transit time?”

“We’ll still be weeks ahead of the old-fashioned warp-and-rockets, sir.”

“Then we’ll do it.  What’s the Ziran situation look like?”

The main viewer flickered and steadied into a star-chart.  Gamma Hydrae had a thin, crimson circle around it.

“Belay that test run idea,” Jerry said.  “Zirans are in the system.  We need to get there and get those escape pods as soon as possible.”

“Understood, sir.  Sir?”

“Go ahead.”

“The sensors are working out a more detailed scan of the place.  May I suggest approaching to someplace outside the practical sensor zone thingy?”

“You mean, pop in outside the system, get a good look, and be ready to run?”

“Yeah, pretty much.  I mean, aye aye, sir.  Captain.”

“An excellent idea, Astrogator.  Maybe we can figure out why there’s a Ziran presence there, too.”

“Oh, that’s easy.”

“Is it?” Jerry asked, turning the chair to look at Phoebe.  “Do go on.”

“There are no habitable worlds, but the inner planets have a surprising amount of mineral deposits.  Lots of metal.  Pop says it’s a good strategic base, too.”

Jerry touched the clear screen beside the Captain’s chair and pulled up a chart of Gamma Hydrae.  He zoomed out until he could include all of Earth’s star systems.  Compared to the known Ziran systems, Gamma Hydrae wasn’t exactly in the middle, but it was within one-jump hyperdrive range of most of the Terran Confederation.

Nobody consulted Jerry on why the Birmingham and her task force went to Gamma Hydrae.  Resources and position were good reasons, though.  They still were, especially if the Zirans had them instead of Earth.

He glanced at the damage control station.  All the lights were green.

“Astrogator.”

“Sir!”

“I know the previous astrogator and helmsman had headaches when using warp-space drive near intense gravity wells.  How close do you think you can get us to the gas giant?  Gamma Hydrae Six?”

Phoebe got a faraway look in her eyes.  She shook her head and turned to the computer.  Jerry watched her work and waited in silence.  It doesn’t do to joggle someone’s elbow when they’re working, especially if you’re the one who set them to the task.

“The extension is pretty sensitive, Captain,” she said, finally.  “I wouldn’t want to try and put us in orbit.  But we can park the ship in the outer system and move in on the warp-crawler drive.  You know, the one where it grabs space and pulls us along?”

“Hold up.  We have that?”

“Well, yeah.  It replaces the old rocket-drive system?  Pop took the rockets out so you could zip around on warp.  He says even the best rockets are inefficient.”

Took the rockets out.

How many tons did those engines mass?  They utilized plasma from the fusion plants, enhanced by magnetic and gravitic rings, to accelerate reaction mass to relativistic velocities.  They were the most powerful thrusters ever put in space.

Took the rockets out.

The mountings for the main engines had to support enormous forces.  The engines were going to go thataway.  Hanging the rest of the ship on them was one of the occult mysteries of the engineers—those miracle-working lunatics who thought fusion was routine and a five-gravity acceleration was “challenging” rather than “impossible.”

Took the rockets out.

Later, when Jerry had some time to look back and reflect, what bothered him the most was the matter-of-course way she said it.  She could have said her Pop made breakfast, or fetched in the groceries, or he replaced a busted light.

Took the rockets out.

Compared to Phoebe’s calm acceptance of this as a routine matter, the idea that Kent replaced a thousand tons of engines with something entirely different…

No, compared to the leaking, drifting hulk the ship had been when Kent boarded.  Why was it the loss of the rocket engines hit harder than the nigh-miraculous repair work?  Was it because the ship was always the ship, no matter how damaged?  Some plating here, a couple of bulkheads there, no problem.  Missing a warp node?  It’s just a light on a panel.  Maybe a loose connection made the DC panel mistake the status.  Who knows?  And what about the new sensors?  Or a different application for the warp field?  Upgrades are to be expected.

But this crossed Jerry’s mental line.  No more reaction mass?  No more sudden surge?  No more being pressed into your duty station by the bellowing thunder of the engines?  What kind of spaceship doesn’t have rockets?

A highly-advanced one, apparently.  Did people feel the same way when the electric cars came out, way back when?  Or when the semiballistic shuttles replaced the international aircraft?  Was this what came next?

But a spaceship without rockets?  It tore hard against Jerry’s grain.

And Kent took the rockets out.  Not maliciously.  Only to put in something better.  Always something better, from the warp coil to the fusion plants, from the lasers to the sensors, from the hull plating to the rocket engines.

If it was all so much of an improvement, why did he hate it so?  Because it was new and different?  Because it made him feel… what?  Unfamiliar?  Uncertain?  Ignorant?

Jerry rubbed his temples.

“So we now have a space-crossing warp-extending drive system to cross interstellar distances in a series of long steps.  Got that.  What you’re telling me is we also have a constant-travel, whoosh sort of drive, too?”

“Yes.  It should still let you go FTL, but it’s slower than an extension.  It won’t mind nearby gravity wells nearly as much!  It can also put you in an orbit pretty easy.  You have to fall toward the planet until you have the velocity you want, then warp-crawl to someplace where your vector is correct for orbit—unless Pop has done something to the new gravity shield to let you generate your own acceleration through an imbalance in the—Captain?  Are you okay?”

“No, but don’t let that stop you.  You were saying something about gravity bubble shielding stuff?”

“I saw Pop at breakfast and mentioned it.  He said it was a good idea and he’d take care of it.  He’s probably done with it.  Of course, you can’t use all this stuff at the same time.  They all rely on the same space-bending warp equipment.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Unless he’s added more,” Phoebe added, with the same attitude one might use for, Unless he ordered extra cheese on the pizza.

Jerry sat back in the Big Chair and closed his eyes, taking long, slow breaths.  He wanted a crew.  He wanted Kent off the ship.  He wanted the Captain—the real Captain—back aboard to take over.  Hell, any officer would do, right now.  He was a gunnery sergeant, not a starship captain!  This wasn’t something for his pay-grade.  It might not be something for any military rank.  This might be something for the Federated Assembly to vote on.  But Jerry was all there was aboard.

Would he get a commendation, a medal, or a court-martial?  Would whoever relieved him look over the logs and give him a field promotion or summarily flush him out an airlock?

“Are you sure you’re okay, Captain?  Can I get you something?”

“No, no.  You go ahead and plot our next extension.  Plan our eventual arrival to park us well outside the system.  I’m going down to sickbay for something for this headache.  We’ll extend when I get back.”

“Maybe we should go to lunch, first?  It might help you feel better.”

“Not with more extensions coming up.”

“Oh!  Good thinking, Captain!”

Jerry nodded and headed down to sickbay.  The headache was probably a tension headache.  He’d been getting a lot of them, recently.

How did Captain Reynolds cope?  Was it something they learned in Officers’ Command Training?

But what really worried him was the red ring about Gamma Hydrae.

       

       

       

       

       

       

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