I’ve had a Star Trek-themed story rattling around for years, and today I came up with what might make a pretty good start:
Not Close Enough
The starship’s four mighty engine tubes — two above, two below — were never precisely synchronized. Their massive space-bending artificial gravity output pulled everything in the main disc between them up, then down, sixty times a second, in a vibration that space sailors soon accepted, then learned to ignore, then missed when the drives were silent. Only when the drives increased or decreased the rate at which they warped space around the ship did the crew experience acceleration, generally sternward, because the tubes were mounted just aft of center.
Downward acceleration, sufficient to hold them in their chairs, was achieved by mounting the lower drive pods slightly closer to the disc than the upper, so that they pulled slightly downward. In a badly synched ship, the crew could feel feather-light, so that standing up sent them drifting away like a balloon, or heavy as lead, making any effort in the vertical plane a Sisyphean task.
A smaller ship with only two engines was easier to balance, and generally delivered a smoother ride. The big battlewagons with three or even four engines on a side did their best, at the cost of ceaseless vigilance and tinkering, but even their best was never quite good enough to keep the crew from shaking slightly, like peas in a can, every hour and every week of plain sailing.
There was no weather to disrupt the smooth progress of men and machines, as there would be on an ocean or in an atmosphere. But space, especially near a star, was not flat in the dimension through which the stardrive warped it. Any object with mass bent space towards itself; a ship doing a flyby would be dragged toward the planet unless it compensated. This was familiar, of course, as another word for the curvature of four-dimensional space is “gravity.” Man grows up used to gravity, unless he is growing up in an orbital or deep-space hab, in which case he learns of it first in school, rather than shortly after he is born.
But men, either planetbound or space-living, does not normally have to deal with the local disturbances of four-space known as gravity waves. These, created by the motion of massive bodies, are a result of the fact that gravity does not move at infinite speed. The distortion of space radiating outward from a moving body, say an orbiting planet, ripples its local space, moving outward at a speed much greater than that of light, but slow enough that a ship can be slowed, speeded, or deflected by the gravity of a planet which is no longer where it was when it first bent the medium through which that ship moves. Gravity waves, unlike planets, are invisible, though sometimes they can be inferred by their effect on the thin interplanetary or interstellar gas present in some parts of the galaxy.
As a result, a ship moving at speed through a region dotted with stars, each in motion in a different direction, will find itself breasting invisible three-dimensional waves of gravity, the combination of all the proper motions of those stars, attenuated only by the distance between them and the ship. These waves affect the whole ship at once, or rather, the enveloped of stressed space within which the ship hangs. For although no material object can move faster than light relative to its local space, that space can itself move, or rather bend, at the speed of gravity, carrying everything within it along at that same sheerly, starkly inconceiveable pseudo-velocity.
Thus, as the Earth starship Atlantic bore through space at many times the velocity of light, her hull, fittings, equipment, stores, cargo, and every soul aboard her buzzed back and forth, up and down, sixty times a second, moving a perceptible fraction of a millimeter each time, while also rising and falling on a skew curve somewhat more slowly, four or five seconds of “rise” followed by a pause, and then four or five seconds of “fall.” Like the vibration of the nearly-but-not-quite-perfectly synched drives, this motion was so familiar to the sailors aboard that it occasioned no comment, not even internally and subverbally.
To the non-spacemen aboard, however, it was a constant surprise. In some, it was an irritant, the source of the dreaded “space-sickness” common to first-voyagers. To others, it was a source of delight, as their material bodies rode the very shape of space, outward bound at the speed of thought itself, vouchsafed a sensation previously available only to the angels.
Not all angels, however, are benevolent.
Matthew Costello, Commander in the Skyfleet and currently in command of UES Atlantic, fell upward and forward at the same time. His posture remained the same at first, but since he had been sitting in his chair at the center of the bridge, the tension in his muscles which the chair had resisted now bent him into a crouching, almost upright, position.
“Upright” relative to his feet, that is. His head was pointed at the deck, his boots at the overhead, and his face at the position-plot indicator which dominated one quarter of the bridge’s circumference. Overhead and PPI screen were approaching his boots and face, respectively, at a frightening rate.
Frightening, but not unfamiliar. Starships bounced like the free end of a diving board rather often in an eventful cruise, flinging their inhabitants about like so many flipped poker chips. Usually the cause was collision with interstellar dust clouds, which slowed the front of the ship sharply, or with material objects such as meteors and missiles, which kicked the ship in whichever direction they happened to impinge.
Costello raised his forearm to protect his face while holding his other hand downward, in case gravity resumed its usual direction before he hit the screen.
It did. He fell stomach-first across the railing which divided the central conn, containing captain, helmsman and navigator, from the outer bridge ring of workstations. The upper surface was thick plastic, foamed and soft, which didn’t make the collision pleasant but wouldn’t leave bruises, either.
The rail was to stop officers from being thrown the width of the bridge by a transverse acceleration, and unofficially, to discourage officers from getting in the captain’s face when he was working. His stomach didn’t appreciate it, but it was, on balance, a good thing.
Costello couldn’t seem to fill his lungs, no matter how hard he breathed. He knew that would pass before long, but he wanted to speak right now.
What hit us? was one of the things he wanted to say, but he also wanted to say, How’s my ship? at the same time. By the time his breath returned, he’d decided that whatever had hit the Atlantic, no one aboard her was going to live very long at all without their trusty starship. Therefore,
“What’s our condition?” was the first thing out of his mouth after the crash.
“Power’s good,” reported the watchstander at Engineering. “No damage.”
“Weps up,” said Domingo Kassock from his left, right on top of “Sensors up,” from Hannah Westin at Sciences. “Grav readings coming in …”
She would update him when he needed to know more. If something were shooting at the Atlantic, that would be later.
“Pressure’s down in some starboard compartments,” said executive officer Riva Tavor. Born of expat Kashkin parents, she had the upswept ears, pointed nails, and unnervingly intense gaze common to that feline-descended species. Just now, her eyes swept dozens of reports as though they were escaping prey, capturing the important facts and leaving the rest to snack on at leisure. “Damage control parties away.”
She pressed a stud. The General Quarters alarm rang throughout the ship, though not on the bridge, where anyone who was unaware of the emergency would qualify as a casualty.
Speaking of which …
“Casualties?” Costello asked Riva.
“Dr. Mitchell is in communication, but not sending. Presume assessment is under way … yes, Nurse M is assembling summary now. No red tags.”
Red tags on casualty reports indicated deaths or critical injuries. Costello felt some of his tension drain away.
That wasn’t good – he had an infinity of things to do!
He had just regained the center of the bridge; his abdominal muscles protested, strenuously, as he sat, but he commanded them to be as quiet as every other thing whose opinion was not needed immediately.
“All engines stop,” he said, pressing the stud that relayed his words to Engineering. Then another stud, this one colored blue.
“Continuous sensor sweep of immediate area.”
Hannah acknowledged, causing the stud to light up. She also flicked text to his chair arm.
Grav shear equivalent to 300 kc, the text read. Like we sideswiped something moving 700 light-years per day.
That was not much less than the Atlantic’s cruising speed. Collision between starships was always a chancy thing, since their space-warp bubbles tended to merge with each other, even at considerable distances. A “sideswipe,” as Hannah called it, was vanishingly rare. Much more often, starships colliding in warp tried to occupy the same dimensionless point simultaneously, forming a very small black hole which became a permanent menace to navigation.
Well, at least that hadn’t happened. Had it?
“Mr. Rakizidek reports blowout patched on Deck Three, Frame 115,” Riva said. “Repressurizing. Seams strained across the aft starboard quadrant, but no appreciable leakage at this time.”
“Any sign of what hit us, or nearly hit us?” Costello asked the world at large.
Riva either had nothing useful to say, or deferred to Sciences. Hannah spun around in her chair to face Costello, bouncing in her seat with excitement.
“Nothing for parsecs in any direction, Costello!” she said. “Even the interstellar gas density is way down. It’s like something swept a broom through here and gave empty space a good dusting!”
“Like a … magnetic sweep, or something?”
“Like it, yes. But it, no. Magnetics leave ions in their wake, H-two, all sorts of signs. Remember how we found that Kashkin ship that was using that invisibility field?”
He did indeed.
“Well, that was electromagnetic in nature. And once we started looking for H-two versus H-one densities, it was like they painted themselves in data. This is nothing like that.”
Good. The Kashkin, never quite at war with humanity but never very close to peace, either, had used their invisibility to get lethally close to a pair of Earth vessels, where their torpedoes could scarcely miss. The Atlantic had come within seconds of being the third kill on that Kashkin’s scoreboard. If Riva hadn’t been able to get the grav tubes back on-line, although the compartment was venting into space, they would have been.
Any human, even a colonial-variant phenotype like Hannah, would have passed out before jury-rigging the plasma line back together. Without oxygenation of the blood, your brain doesn’t care how strong your willpower is. But Kashkin blood vessels prioritize under stress, even more than ours do. It was Kashkin physiology which defeated Kashkin technology and tactics, an irony of which Riva seemed supremely unaware.
“Could whatever almost hit us be out of sight by now?” he said.
“Seriously? Parsecs, Costello. Fifteen light-years easy. Even at 300 kc, they couldn’t be out of range yet.”
“And there’s never been any way to camouflage a grav signature …” Costello mused.
“You mean ‘mass’? No. There isn’t.”
“So if it wasn’t a ship, it has to be a gravity wave, doesn’t it? From where?”
He had a notion, but he was unwilling to expose himself to further scientific ridicule. On the other hand, if it was for the good of the ship …
“How about a ripple? Just one gravity pulse, which rolled over us and moved on.”
“Could be, if gravity worked like that. But mass doesn’t just appear, make a wave, and disappear again. Even if you blew a planet to atoms, those atoms have just the same mass as they did before. Their center of gravity might shift a little, but nothing as sudden as what hit us.”
“Matter can be converted into energy, though,” Riva said suddenly. “Turn a planet into massless gamma rays, and there would be a massive – no pun intended — gravity spike. All that mass suddenly stops pulling on everything.”
Riva was speaking into a dead silence.
“I study weapons,” she said. “Planetbuster bombs are bad enough, but planet-annihilators are still science fiction … or they ought to be. The delta-ray pulse would sterilize a whole system. We know the Hundr don’t have anything like that, because they would have used it by now if they did.”
That didn’t help.
Costello spoke first, after a moment:
“An entire planet – annihilated into energy? Wouldn’t that take a, well, a planet-sized mass of antimatter?”
“More like a Sun-sized piece of antimatter,” said Hannah. “312 kc-equivalent, according to my readings. And it would have to be within … wait, that can’t be right. One parsec? There isn’t even one star that close to us right now.”
“Black sun?” Costello suggested.
“Not on any of my charts, sir,” said O’Neill, the duty navigator. At General Quarters, the senior navigator, Ontiir, was billeted to replace him, but he evidently hadn’t made his way to the bridge yet. “I know we don’t get out this way every day, but the Survey people are pretty careful about those things.”
The ship wasn’t in immediate danger; indeed, it was completely alone in space.
“Would we detect another such wave heading toward us, in time to evade?” he asked Hannah.
“A little. But Costello, that thing was fast. We’d have seconds to act, if that.”
“And we don’t know what direction it came from?”
“Well, sure we do. 355 mark one.”
“Just about directly out of the Galactic Core,” Costello said. The Atlantic was operating in unclaimed space, roughly equidistant from the Earth colonies, the Kashkins, and the Hundr Empire. One reason it was unclaimed was that it was right on the fringe of the core of the galaxy, whose gravity currents were deadly and whose radiation made a swath of space 5000 light-years wide utterly uninhabitable by anything not sealed into a starship.
They weren’t into the radiation zone yet. And the gravity currents, while they could shred a ship down to its component molecules if they hit it the right way, were at least predictable.
Or had been, up to now.
“Is there any measure we can take to avoid this hazard that we aren’t already taking?” he said to the bridge at large.
No one spoke. Hannah shook her head, as did O’Neill in a minor key.
“Then we proceed on mission,” he said firmly. “Mr. O’Neill, plot us a course to the rendezvous that keeps us as far from the Core as possible, consistent with arriving at the appointed time. I believe we had nearly a day of leeway built up, owing to our excellent sailing thus far?”
“Twenty-five hours and a bit at best speed, sir.”
“Outstanding. Use every bit of it to increase our southing.”
North was toward the Core, the center of the galaxy; south, therefore, was toward the Rim. The United Earth Alliance had been dominated since its beginning by nations in the Northern Hemisphere, to whom the center of the map was the North Pole. The nomenclature had followed man into space, even though humans from Earth’s North now made up a tiny fraction of the Alliance’s population, if not its leadership in both civilian and military spheres.
The less Terrocentric terms were “coreward” and “rimward”, which had the virtue of being impossible to misconstrue. Indeed, official reports and documents used them exclusively. But just as no one in conversation said “a miss is as good as a kilometer,” so, too, did the old terms persist in the less verbally formal settings which most sailors inhabited most of the time.
The arm of his chair whistled; Dr. Mitchell had never mastered the automated report-reply equipment, for the simple reason that she had never attempted to do so. She was calling in on voice.
“Costello here,” he said by way of acknowledgement.
“Matt, I’ve got sixteen wounded, none life-threatening. What the devil are you playing at up there? Did we hit something in space? How hard is that to do, anyway? Space is mostly empty, or that’s what I’ve been led to believe.”
“Is one of them Ontiir?” He still hadn’t shown up.
“Yes; broken arm. He fell onto a table in the wardroom; caught it at an angle. I’ve got him splinted and immobilized, but regeneration will have to wait until his blood pressure comes down. Do you want to hear about the fifteen others, or is it just Ontiir you called about?”
“You called me, Doctor.”
“So I did! To report my casualties, which I’ve done. Now, what did we run into?”
“We’re working that out now. But we’re also leaving the scene at a bit over our usual cruising speed, so whatever it was, we should be leaving it far behind.”
“Good. Should I strap my patients in?”
“I don’t know why you would. We don’t expect any more shocks of that kind.”
“You didn’t expect this one, either! I’ll keep you posted as they return to duty. Sickbay out.”
Radio procedure had also followed man to the stars. It didn’t require the sending station to request permission to sign off, no matter how lofty the rank of the receiving station was. Perhaps that was why Dr. Mitchell preferred voice, Costello thought.
“Mr. O’Neill, Mr. Ontiir will not be relieving you until further notice. Will you require relief at the end of your watch?”
“No, sir. If I could get fifteen minutes for a sandwich and a cup of coffee, I can stand the next watch as well.”
“Mr. Tavor, are you at liberty to relieve Mr. O’Neill?”
Riva pressed a few last buttons and stood up, pulling down the hem of her black shipboard jacket.
“I relieve you, sir,” she said formally to O’Neill, staring at him as though he were about to try and escape.
“I stand relieved,” he replied. “And how!”
O’Neill showed Riva the plot, current location and local spatial conditions. She had no questions, sliding into his seat with an elegant stretch.
“Captain, I can stand Mr. O’Neill’s second watch when it begins,” she told Costello. “I am well rested.”
Kashkin were good at focus, intensity and quick thinking. They were not ideal for routine tasks, in which nothing changing for hours was considered a success.
“Thank you, Mr. Tavor, that won’t be necessary,” he said. “We have several officers qualified to navigate, and I want you fresh when we arrive at the rendezvous. With luck, neither the Coffman nor the Magellan will have had the same difficulty getting there that we have. But just in case …”
Neither the Coffman nor the Magellan had made it to the rendezvous at all.