The following novella, Pause & Effect, was originally published on Wattpad and has since been published here. It has received some corrections. David Davis wrote Pause & Effect with contributions by Deft Beck.
You can follow other short stories using the stories category. Successive novella segments will be linked in this header and at the bottom of each post.
Day One: Part Three
Mara’s Bunk: Hour 8
Sleep is elusive at the absolute worst times.
Mara found herself lying in her bunk, staring at the plasteel tiles that made up the ceiling. The plates were solid and safe, but they were aged regardless, and various impurities in the plastic and metal combination had asserted themselves over the course of decades. This made them absolutely fascinating at just the wrong time. Instead of drifting off, she now darted her eyes from tile to tile, monitoring them for any patterns or shapes — any indication of some greater purpose to them.
She turned over, but the blinking light on her computer terminal was slowly pulsing its way into her brain. Her room was hostile to any attempt at getting some sleep, so she resolved to become exhausted and let sleep overtake her. She rose out of bed, threw on some running shoes, and exited the bunk’s door to the cargo bay.
Nav Room: Hour 8
The “ships” in question turned out to be one ship, called the Sulany, a small tug transport that could drag unpowered cargo structures. The Sulany was one of a fleet of trans-factional courier vessels that would latch onto the massive cargo platforms and pull them along to the next stop in the system. This was a rapidly declining method of material transport, mostly for large, cumbersome cargo. But they were still a relatively stable economy of their own. As a kid, Kracker had seen one in orbit around Skyhaven, a virtual speck detaching from a massive refinery that had been brought to the planet to be disassembled and reassembled on the surface. He was too young to really understand the physics of it all.
He was just amazed that something so tiny was in charge of something huge. It was one of the few things that made him feel positive about anything since the previous summer accident where he broke his wings and radically altered the trajectory of his life.
Of course, now he knew the physics and understood how each space flight, in many ways a routine, was always a hedged bet against any number of catastrophes and disasters. Most assuredly the Sulany‘s jump was a bet that led to ruin.
Here is how he understood it: The Sulany was an old tug that was most definitely past its prime. More than likely adding to this grim situation was the fact that the ship was on a rushed schedule, and the large cargo containers were not secured at an appropriate level, causing one container to buckle off and hit the gate, triggering some form of catastrophic failure. Kracker was able to piece this together through direct observation of a loose cargo container, now secured by a jump-gate authority skiff, minor damage to a section of the jump-gate itself, and several oblique textual references in data referring to a “jostle” that he had hacked from a few different G.I.N. streams radiating from various ships and the jump-gate itself.
This was not public record at this point.
In his mind, whatever parts of his brain would have handled flight was eclipsed by the part of his brain interested in computer coding. Kracker had a knack for looking at the most basic expressions of data and pulling knowledge from it. Sometimes the data had to be coerced, and his nickname, “Kracker,” originated from that very tendency of hacking.
Take all the data you want, but never exploit it was his mantra; generally, he was pretty good about that. Of course, that was barring a couple of sneaky scheduling hacks at Gnarlruut which he would always argue were for the greater good of his fellow students. This, though, was on another level… It was solving a mystery for the greater good of spacer everywhere.
It made sense why the Jump-Gate Authority was silent about everything. Galactic travel revolved around hyperspace tunnels, so creating a panic would be bad for the galactic economy. Without jump-gate travel, most systems would be inaccessible, and travel between planets could sometimes take months or even years. All day so far, Kracker had been listening to the chatter, switching to the particularly juicy streams that arrived with scouts ships for the Federation, Empire, and Neutrality; little, clipped bursts of military terminology indicating some new discovery somewhere that would vanish in a burst of static as the communications scramble to other military G.I.N. streams. These small military ships could not generate their own jump-gates from this or that colony. Now too, those who were nominally in charge were forced to slum it with the normies.
The disdain and annoyance in Imperial and Federation requests for clearance and updates were palpable. To their credit, the Neutrality was somewhat less impatient, though they took the opportunity to blast surveys and propaganda to almost every ship in orbit around the gate. Why not apply for citizenship at one of three of the Neutrality’s luxury colonies? After all, who says brave explorers do not deserve the comforts of home?
What he needed now, though, was information about the Sulany itself, including the route it was taking and whatever dimensions and specifications were available. Every number mattered in hyperspace physics. Kracker opened a textdoc and threw it up on the digital map for running notes. He turned his attention back to his primary monitor, slowly switching G.I.N. streams to find the best route for an assault on the jump-gate’s servers. After a few minutes of letting his sniffer program find the right path, he received an alert and immediately sprang to action. The fact that the jump-gate was so easy to invade was, admittedly, a worrisome proposition, but he put that aside as he acquired the Sulany‘s G.I.N. profile.
Every ship had a public profile and served as a mobile G.I.N. relay. Any ship was required to be able to transmit data as a relay due to the requirements of an intergalactic network. Naturally, some ship manufacturers would create safeguards for maximizing bandwidth based on their needs and corporate relationships. Still, the fact remained that every ship would serve as a relay for data. Because of this, every ship needed to be accountable for scraps of data, and each ship’s profile served not only as an operational license but as a sort of home page and travel log. Buried into these logs, too, were records of data transmission in the form of packets.
Now Kracker found himself backtracking any packets he could that exist between the jump-gate and the remaining ships orbiting it. Any scrap of information was important to his next task; he would figure out where the Sulany was.
Bunk Room: Hour 7
No immediate crisis or stress on the ship made for very little to do in the engineering bay. Dash was a creature of habit and thrived on juggling several things at once, and at the moment, whatever balls there were in the air were now simply floating in the void, stalled and incredibly boring. Incredibly boring was not what Dash wanted after his entanglement with Mara.
He synced the ship status to his mobile, as always did whenever he left the engineering bay and made his way out into the Lucky Strike’s narrow corridors. He returned to the bunk he shared with Dorian, Guugel, and Kracker. He peered around every corner of the hallway, wary of encountering Mara again. He opened the door to the bunk and jumped, finding a rather frantic Dorian on the other side.
Dorian peered out the door and looked up at Dash.
“Mara’s not around, is she?” the Grey asked.
Dash squeezed around Dorian, who was still peeking out the door. “I’ve not seen her for a few minutes,” Dash said.
He continued to the desk at the other end of the room. Dorian sighed.
“She seemed really upset about something,” he said.
Dash froze. He looked back at Dorian, who looked at Dash with wide eyes.
“Any ideas?” Dorian asked.
Dash shrugged as he activated the terminal and slid into his desk chair. Dorian was now lying on his stomach across his bed, his arms hanging over the side and fingertips brushing the thin carpet.
“What are you working on, Dash? Besides the captain’s nerves.”
Dash turned around and gave Dorian a sharp look. He turned back to the terminal, rolling his eyes. “I’m working on something I started in college. It’s been coming along for a while now.”
“What is it?”
“The future, I hope. Did you ever read that paper I sent you? My thesis project?”
Dorian stared at him before sitting up. “To tell the truth, it was a bit dense. Plus, the writing was a little disjointed-“
“All the good parts were mine,” Dash said as he relaxed in his chair. “Professor Nova assigned me a horrible little troll of a partner named Aquin who couldn’t write his way out of a karrum sack.”
Dash turned back to his terminal and started sorting through his files. “Wanna see what I’ve been working on?”
With a couple of quick gestures, he dragged the files from the terminal screen to a hand-held holographic projector. He activated the device as he turned back to Dorian, and it flickered to life, showing two small rings projected into the air. Dorian tilted his head.
“It’s a bracelet,” Dorian said.
“Technically, it’s two bracelets, and that’s not the point. The bracelets are an interface.”
“Some sort of gesture-based computer system?”
“There are gestures and a computer system, yes, but-“
Static crackled in the ship’s recirculated air. They turned their heads toward the intercom near Dash’s desk. There was a click, followed by Marken’s gentle but firm voice.
“Dorian, I need you back up here!” Marken said. “I think I solved your taste problem! It’s an issue of subtlety-“
Dorian rolled his eyes as he walked towards the intercom and hit the comm button. “I’ll be right up,” he said.
Dorian began to leave but turned back to Dash. “I’ve gotta go, but I’d like to know more. What you have there sounds really interesting.”
Dash smiled and gave Dorian a little wave. He looked back to the terminal and began to think about Aquin. He felt a sour spot grow at the pit of his stomach. He sighed and closed out the project folder.
Dash leaned back in his desk chair. He was alone now, which was probably for the best.
Cargo Bay: Hour 8
Mara had always considered herself to be intensely physical. When she felt off in any capacity, she would move around. Even as a kid, she would deal with her annoyances by going for a run, climbing, or exploring Movari village with Dash. Back at Gnarlruut, there were many meetings of the strategy club that ended with her eager to leave and run a couple of laps around the quad of the history block. It was a distraction from whatever issues bothered her, but exercises served as a relatively healthy outlet as she saw it. Each lap felt good. It felt right to get the blood pumping and turn off her brain for a bit. The running would only do so much, though.
Doubt nipped at her heels, and the anger inside began to rise as she picked up her speed. By now, she was pushing herself faster and faster, hurdling the occasional crate that was secured to the floor by straps. Those hurdles eventually became leaps from crate to crate, pushing her agility as far as it could go. She had underestimated her sweating, though, and moisture from her legs rolled down onto the floor and under her shoe, causing her to slip and crash down to the cold, metallic surface of the cargo bay and collide with a crate.
She lay on her stomach and felt a slight twinge in her ankle. She lifted herself over onto her side and stared down at her leg. It hurt a bit but did not look serious.
Good, she thought, I deserved that.
She pulled herself toward the crate she slipped from and rested against it, pressing her bare arm against the metal and feeling the cold wash over her system. Once again, anger had risen up and backfired on her spectacularly.
“I’m a mess.”
Bunk Room: Hour 9
Dash searched through his GIN messages but found little of interest. His cousin Shippena was reaching out to him, but he wasn’t in the best frame of mind at the moment to convey much of anything to her. To his surprise, just one hate-filled diatribe was addressed to him, sent from some merc or another trying to flush him out in the most tactless way possible. A smile crept up on Dash’s face as he trashed the message and flagged the domain to his ever-expanding source list for threats on his life.
It was a long list at this point.
He closed out the messages and opened the game-drive Kracker had partitioned into the Strike‘s database. Most of the games were twitchy racers or overwhelming shoot-em-ups that Kracker favored. There was also the perennial Bandit’s Quest that everyone on the ship seemed to be into. For Dash, it all came down to one game series, and he was adamant about having his own sliver of the game drive set aside for the complete collection. Dash opened his personal game drive and booted up Romance of the Three Factions. He would get something done today, even if it was just conquering the known galaxy.
He poured over his suspended campaigns and realized it had been a while since he had played them. It was hard to remember what advancement paths and min-maxing he had been doing. He studied each save file a few times and then began anew. It would be better to have a fresh start.
The character select screen opened, and tiles flew from the sides of the interface and arranged themselves into organized rows. The characters themselves were not organized in any particular manner; Dash scrolled through the tiles, seeking a character he could get into. His cursor hovered on Empress Ragna for a brief second. At that moment, he decided he would be the queen mother of the Blassnaught people.
Dash recalled the stories of Ragna from an Imperial history course; She always fascinated him and reminded him of Mara in many ways. Of course, she had Ragna’s tenacity and strength, but her stubbornness, too. Would she take that as a compliment? He smirked at the idea.
He quickly parsed through menus and settings and went right into the lobby. Right away, he was bombarded by challenges from other players. He set his status to “away” and worked his way through the campaign mode.
Romance of the Three Factions was a crazed beast of a game. The game allowed players to play as historical figures across dozens of races, cultures, and eras and work with and against other players to win massive strategic battles. At a basic level, it took the biggest badasses of the galaxy, the biggest battles, and stories and mixed them all together, making a bloody, bewildering virtual battleground. He had yet to buy the Terra expansion, based on human lore, but it was on his wish list. The “Abe Lincoln” character with the ax-throwing skills looked very fun, as did “Peter the Great,” though he wondered if Peter would indeed live up to that reputation.
It took Dash almost no time to beat the first campaign. There was a simple introductory skirmish, and Ragna proved her worth. Her daggers, more like swords for a being half her size like Dash would have been, made short work of enemy forces. He smiled and continued to play. He felt comfortable in the dark, illuminated by the escape of a videogame.
Nav Room: Hour 9
Hyperspace calculations are tricky, even at their most straightforward. When it comes to folding space, at least in the most colloquial of terms, one has to calculate massive interstellar distances and pinpoint the openings of wormholes in different sets of space-time. Kracker had a head for numbers, but he had the Lucky Strike‘s computer for anything too complex. So far, though, the prospects for the Sulany were not looking good.
Kracker pulled a fingertip across the touch screen, scrawling an equation for the ship’s handwriting system to convert. Thankfully, his mathematical symbols translated perfectly, and he could arrange a whole series of simulations while checking up on the rest of the ship. He’d been trapped in the nav room for a while now. What had it been, hours? He had lost track, but he most definitely knew he needed to stretch his legs a bit.
Dorian was no longer in the common room, and there was no sign of Marken either. It was too early for dinner, so the Astro-mole was probably off in his office, running the business. Dorian was likely stewing in the med bay, and Kracker considered heading down there himself to talk music with the young medic, but he felt too distracted with the events surrounding the Sulany. Besides, he was only stretching his legs. He’d need to get right back into the thick of the calculations when the simulations finished.
“Ship, alert me when simulations have run their course.”
A soft chime echoed in the common room to confirm the request. The ship’s A.I. was rather old at this point and lacking in personality. However, the required usage of “ship” and the conformational tones gave it sort of a servile personality.
Kracker made his way to the nose of the common room and stood at the window that looked out at the tumbling spiral of ships surrounding the jump gate. Soon enough, he’d have all the facts. He’ll have done a good deed. Not a bad accomplishment during a little downtime.
Bunk Room: Hour 9
It had been another two hours of cooking carnage between Dorian and Marken. Marken had attempted to make peace in his usual way, which involved little diplomacy and a lot of sweetness dumped on top of the problem. Dorian wondered, who was he kidding with that friendly older guy act? Anyone who spent over five minutes shaking his hand and agreeing to ship cargo through his dinky little company could see that he was three feet of fur and indecision. At least the experience had been wearing. Dorian had experienced just the right amount of stress to force his body into shutdown mode.
And he slept. If a regular spacer’s dreams were like blobs of events, thoughts, and memories that congealed and separated, faded and reinforced, like a cheap bubble lamp you’d buy at a space station fuel stop, a Grey’s dreams were different. Squares formed themselves into rectangles and rectangles into neat tetrominoes stacked to the top of a grey’s headspace until they made a line. The short-term memories were filed into long-term memory, and the process began again. It was elegant, simple, and easy to control with a fraction of sleeping lucidity. At least, that’s what the studies suggested.
But Dorian’s dreams were collapsing. Every square that dropped onto each other fragmented, glitched, or didn’t line up as intended. They piled up onto one another, getting faster and faster. Dorian thrashed in his disturbed sleep. The grey background of his dreamscape flashed with images of fighting, running, and hiding. The silent dreamscape was filled with unintelligible, distorted yelling and static sounds. The tower of memory squares piled higher and higher and more grotesque, like a spire of bad dreams. And when the last block touched upon the tower, it collapsed.
Dorian woke up with a start. He breathed heavily as he glanced around the bunk room. Dash was absorbed in a game. Dorian might as well have been alone. It was just him again. It was him and the sudden silence that surrounded him. He reached out to get up from his bed, but his fatigue forced his body back to the bed to repeat his fitful sleeping and waking pattern. He couldn’t even reach his headphones.
Nav Room: Hour 10
Kracker combed over the projections again.
There was no indication that the ship’s onboard computers were wrong. If they were, he and his friends would have been long dead due to some miscalculation in the trajectory adjustments in even the most humble star systems. When spacers tap into any ship’s computer to calculate, accuracy is expected, no matter if the results are good or bad. Even with these straightforward facts, there is always a stage of bargaining when the results of the calculations are bad, particularly when they were very, very bad.
Based on the calculations, the Sulany was no longer on the galactic map. Nor was it present in any of the galaxies of the local group. According to the ship’s computer calculations, the Sulany was dumped nearly 14 kiloparsecs away from the Silver Spiral… nearly a seventh of the diameter of the Silver Spiral Galaxy.
Kracker fell into his chair, stunned by the possibility. Assuming the jump-gate malfunction had not destroyed the Sulany, of which there was no evidence to indicate it had, the ship at some point had destabilized in the wormhole linking it to its destination. With that being the case, the Sulany would have drifted out of the hyperspace tunnel and spiraled off into an uncharted region of the galaxy only ever observed by a telescope.
Kracker sat there, alarmed. He reviewed his notes, comparing his results to the few official statements. There had been little said by the jump-gate authority. Still, there were rumors now, sourced back to the Neutrality, who were heavily invested in jump-gate manufacturing, that the Sulany had tumbled out into a system in the far edge of wild space and was otherwise unharmed. The sourcing was a particularly tricky job to undertake, but clarity was what was most important here.
This report was about as close to official as they needed for the average spacer. As long as the ship was fine, there was no risk to life and limb, and then the gate should be repaired immediately to let the engines of commerce continue uninterrupted. They had shipments to run, after all. They’d been delayed, and now, with that planted report, the pressure would build, and a mandate would be forged. Why was the investigation taking so long if the ship was fine? The public outcry would push everyone to move on, the truth would be swept under the rug, and the Jump-Gate Authority would happily repair the gate to ensure the galactic economy continued with as few fractures as possible.
Kracker ruffled the feathers on his head and felt a headache coming on. Maybe he was leaping to conclusions. Maybe his bored mind was crafting a conspiracy to entertain him.
He saved his data and pages of calculations. He opened a new file and began anew. The computer may have calculated flawlessly, but it could have just as easily been an error on his part.
He had to be sure.
Bunk Room: Hour 11
Dash’s mobile rattled on the desk’s surface, and he scrambled to pick it up. He flipped it open to find a text from Kracker.
Time for dinner! We’re having some kind of weird stew Marken wants us to try. Well, time to clear out my sinuses!
Dash checked the time. It’d been a few hours, and he had already unlocked the lunatic campaign; few features were left to discover. He suspended his current game. Dash made his way up the narrow spiral staircase that linked the primary two decks of the Strike.
Dining Table: Hour 14
Mara’s knife practically melted through the cabbage roll. She stuck the slice with her fork and raised it up, noticing the layers of meat, sauce, and vegetables before putting the whole slice into her mouth. Unsurprisingly, it was deliciously composed, with a sweet and spicy sauce that seemed to give her some pleasure today. She had a weakness for food, but thankfully running kept that in check.
Kracker smiled as he was munching on his nuts and berries, and he motioned toward Dorian and Marken, who were still consumed with whatever asinine conflict they had been on all day. Kracker sniggered slightly, and Mara gave a halfhearted shrug in response. Dash had wandered in by now, and though he seemed more relaxed now, he didn’t meet her eyes. He took his seat next to Kracker.
Dash could smell the food already. With one whiff, he felt like he was back home on Ocia until he heard the din of conversation and utensils at the table. He heard Dorian annoyed at something, probably Marken, from earlier. Dash sat on one of the outer stools next to Kracker. Mara sat on the edge of the booth to Kracker’s left. She didn’t acknowledge Dash. It seemed like she was still upset. He didn’t blame her. He took a deep breath. He felt cooler now – calmer. His time alone brought clarity.
Mara continued to take small slices from the roll and began to take amusement from the heated conversation between Marken and Dorian, despite herself. Of all the problems revolving around the ship, theirs were the most minimal yet, ironically, the loudest.
Dash looked at the small bowl before him, filled to the brim with a piping hot stew of noodles. Three planks of rosy pink fatfish flesh were resting on the noodles that had started to cook from the hot water. There was also a garnish of dried, crushed fennem leaves. Dash took in the aroma of the bowl, letting the scent of the spicy broth, cooking fish flesh, and the fennem waft into his nostrils. He grabbed his chopsticks from the side of the bowl and picked up one of the planks. He took a small bite from it and let the fish melt on his tongue before eating the remaining plank in one bite. He shivered with pleasure and pointed his chopsticks at Marken.
“That is some of the best fish you’ve ever made, Marken. And the broth is amazing.”
Marken took a moment from glaring at Dorian. “Thank you, Dash; I know that you appreciate bold flavors.”
Dorian looked indignant. He turned to Mara, eyes wide, gesturing for her, asking if she would contribute anything. Mara took another bite from her roll.
Marken took a bite out of a pungent pepper that could be smelled from across the table. He wiped his mouth afterward.
“There are three more planks on the coldplate in the kitchen,” Marken said. “I’m hoping we can hold onto them since we’re running low on some stuff.”
Dash slurped up a couple of noodles and licked some of the broth from the side of his mouth.
“No promises,” he said.
Guugel stood on the booth’s seat, leaning over the table with his fingers drifting across the surface of a clay bowl of water. He shifted a bit to catch more of the light filtering down from the ceiling tiles onto the top of his body. The Wot’s psychic voice drifted through Dash’s mind.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a digestive system, you know?
Dash nodded and raised a glass to Guugel, who in turn raised his bowl.
Dash slurped a few more noodles but noticed Kracker was far too quiet. At the moment, he was leaning over his bowl of berries and nuts. Dash leaned over. “Hey man, you okay?”
Kracker picked up a berry between two feathered fingers, crushed it, and then wiped the juice on the table. “I don’t know. It’s this shutdown… I’ve been poking around-“
Dash’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you hacked the transit authority,” Dash said.
“Not at first.”
Mara stood up and excused herself from the table, thanking Marken and Dorian for the food. She intended to run more laps despite the slight throb in her ankle.
Dash continued, “So, what did you find?”
“Well…” Kracker took a nut from his bowl, popped it into his beak, and crunched down hard. He chewed a few times before continuing. “Local chatter says this is just a minor phasing error with hyperspace sync, and the lost ship got warped back out somewhere in the local area. But, I crunched the numbers…”
Dash leaned closer.
“According to my calculations, they’re somewhere on the other side of the galaxy. Better than my first calculations, at least… I originally had them somewhere outside of the galaxy.”
Dash leaned back, resting a hooked finger below his chin. “Huh. Your math tends to be spot on. That’s… troublesome.”
“Yeah, man. I don’t know what to think.”
Dash took a long, loud slurp of his noodles. Kracker leaned towards him. “Can you check my equation?” he asked.
Dash nodded. “Let’s take our food.”
Dining Table: Hour 15
Dorian finished the uncomfortable dinner as fast as he could. Despite the tension between him and Marken, Dorian found the food they had prepared deliciously. The vegetables might have been cut too thick in places, and some pieces of fish seemed a bit over or undercooked, but it was pleasurable overall. The broth was savory and mild, and there was plenty of nutrition offered in the variety of vegetables involved. Instant noodles could never match up to homemade food.
“Home,” though, was a bit of a stretch. The Lucky Strike was only Dorian’s home for the remainder of his internship. When the assigned residency was up, he would return to Oonoo, where everything and everybody was cold and predictable. He’d return to class, raise his hand to contribute thoughtful analysis to the other students, and leave his classes a more respected authority on the subjects. And years from then, he’d even teach a class. That was the dream of any Grey, to be respected as an authority of knowledge and to advance their field of choice to better all of their planet and the Federation.
But Dorian could hear something else at the corner of his ear. He wasn’t sure where the pulsing was coming from until he realized he had left his music on his mobile. Great. His battery was drained, and so was he. The only thing that had ever been able to recharge Dorian was his music. He spent hours fine-tuning playlists for every occasion; relaxation, focusing, studying, all-important modes for a grey. And he had tried to apply this method to the rest of the crew’s benefit; though he was here to mend their bodies, he might as well try to mend their souls, too.
Kracker got more of the dance-pop and indie rock he trended towards, Mara got kem house and club music, Dash got ambient and soft electronic music, and Guugel got hard-driving techno and blass-metal music. There was one person who was missing, though.
Marken had no playlist; somehow, he slipped Dorian’s audio craftsmanship. Dorian thought hard to determine what he would listen to. He probably liked older rock music and indie bands, though that was a very loose guess. Dorian rolled to his side and plugged in his mobile to the charger. He began to page through artist profiles and ‘you might like this’ playlists. He heard crooning vocals, string instruments, and spacer blues. As he explored these soundscapes, he began to create the foundations of Marken’s first playlist.
Dorian opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out his mixing station. It had been long since he had any time to use it. It got the most use in college, where he got the chance to mix playlists during a couple of house parties before finals. There weren’t many parties to be had aboard the Strike; it was mostly work, work, work, punctuated by danger and adventure. He missed it when he could make the whole room flow and when he felt like he was one with something that he shared with the whole room.
Dorian set up his mixing equipment. Though they might not share the same tastes in food, perhaps he and Marken could find common ground in music.
Nav Room: Hour 15
Kracker stood at the large galactic map in the back of the nav room. The vibrant display was overlaid by a drawing app that allowed spacers to chart routes. At the moment, it served as a makeshift whiteboard with hours of scrawls and calculations covering the galaxy. Dash approached the map, slurping the last of his noodles. As he observed Kracker’s handiwork, Kracker stood there, checking his calculations under his breath. At last, he turned his head to Dash.
“So, do you need a refresher on jump-gate physics?” Kracker said.
Dash drank some broth and set the bowl on a console. “You know, I am kind of a physicist,” Dash said.
“I know, but when did you last do something like this? I mean, this is a day-to-day thing for me, but—”
“I’m fine,” Dash interjected. “So far, everything checks out. Is there a second page?”
Kracker placed his feathered fingertips on the giant screen and flicked upward. A geyser of numbers and symbols rose from the bottom of the screen. There were many more than two pages. Dash whistled.
“Hm, let’s do the equation from scratch,” he said. “Together.”
Kracker nodded and placed his palm on the screen, swiping right. The interface flickered and generated a new blank page. Dash rolled up his sleeves. Kracker slicked back his crest.
It was time to wrangle some numbers.
After a couple of hours, the two found themselves again in front of the nav screen, which now served as a makeshift whiteboard.
The Terrekin checked off a pair of variables, stepped back, and spoke. “As far as I can tell, everything seems right. I still feel it might be worth factoring in ionic feedback when the wormhole malfunctions.”
Kracker considered for a moment. “Considering how pronounced movement is in hyperspace would be even a slight hiccup in ionic thrust would result in several A.U.s-worth of variation.”
“Exactly.” Dash began to draw two spheres on the whiteboard and wrote a variable in each. The leftmost had the variable “I,” while the rightmost had “non-I.”
“In this case,” he tapped on I-sphere, “within the jump-gate, any ionic discharge would have an amplified effect within the wormhole, so any variation in standard propulsion in the jump-gate could potentially cover kiloparsecs of distance.” He tapped on the non-I-sphere, “this case is what we run with if the ionic drive did not have an error.”
Kracker smoothed the feathers on his cheeks against the side of his head. “So the key is to figure out what the status of the ionic drive was during the travel through the jump-gate.”
Dash yawned, covering his mouth with the back of his hand, which held the pen. “… and with that, I think I need to get some sleep,” he said as he put a reassuring hand on Kracker’s shoulder. “Let’s put a pin in this and return to it in the morning.”
Kracker studied the two spheres as though each eye focused on an individual sphere.
“I’m just going to stay up just a little bit longer.”
Nav Room: Hour 18
No matter the variable, the result was the same; Those people were doomed. Kracker, at this point, had narrowed out the range that the Sulany potentially occupied on the other side of the galaxy, somewhere, roughly, between the Celestia and Markala regions, which of course, were completely unexplored. Based on the calculations, he had narrowed the “landing” of the Sulany, this, of course, being a relative term, to an area of three by three kiloparsecs. Potentially even to a one by one if he had access to a supercomputer, which he regrettably, did not.
Compiling his data into a succinct report with copious footnotes featuring the calculations, Kracker felt a surge of energy even though his body and mind ached. He packeted the data through an anonymous connection and delivered it directly to the JGA. He left the AnoniBox open. His connection cycling from stream to stream to maintain an open status without being trackable. The AnoniBox was, technically, highly illegal, but it was pretty much untraceable. Rather than receiving direct responses, the AnoniBox would search several dummy data repositories for messages addressed to the source and slowly tease them out in smaller packets to the box itself. The process was a little slower but safe, particularly in Kracker’s practiced hands.
Kracker took a sip from his flask and began to worry slightly that the reply was slow to arrive. Slower than it should have been. He took a large swig and felt the ale burn down his throat and settle hard into his gut.
Suddenly the piece-by-piece response began. The random letters flashed like a slot machine, settling once in a while to a locked-in letter in the overall message, but they did not come in sentence order, rather, random words and pieces of words would cycle in. It was slightly maddening, and Kracker threw himself out of the nav chair to wait for the message to finish.
When the console finally beeped, Kracker returned to his seat, eager to see what the results of his number-crunching had brought. Maybe there could be a rescue operation? Maybe they could replicate the jump-gate error in an attempt to send through a probe with plans for a jump-gate. Then they could send an AI-driven construction system to construct the gate for the Sulany.
The response of the JGA was short and direct:
THE JUMP GATE AUTHORITY IMMEDIATELY DEMANDS IDENTIFICATION AND ALL DATA INVOLVED WITH THIS ILLEGAL DATA BREACH. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN INVESTIGATION AND IMPRISONMENT AS DICTATED BY THE INTERFACTIONAL TRANSIT TREATY. COMPLYING WITH THIS ORDER WILL RESULT IN MINIMAL REHABILITATION TIME.
Kracker polished off his flask in one long gulp and disabled the AnoniBox. He verified that his digital footprints were untraceable. Tears began to well up in his eyes. His mind began to spin wildly, calculating the sheer interstellar distances. He began to have trouble breathing, his breath growing shallow and rapid, and his vision began to blur. He grabbed one of his reserve ale bottles he had brought in earlier and began to down it, cup after cup, out of his favorite mug.
Cargo Bay: Hour 19
Mara was exhausted but continually stretched. Her legs ached, her arms felt heavy, and her ankle practically throbbed from the earlier incident with the crate. It wasn’t broken or even sprained, or at least it didn’t feel like either case… but it was a reminder of how she let her temper get the better of her and that she needed to work on that.
It didn’t help that the ship was still stuck in traffic. As far as she had gathered, there had been no movement with the jump-gate, and in turn, there was nothing for her to really work on. Kracker had remained curiously silent about it, and she hadn’t really seen anyone else since dinner, barring Blu, who showed up just long enough to try to snag one of her towels and abscond with it into the ship’s array of vents. She stopped that, snatching the towel from the robot, who then scampered off into a nearby vent.
The halls that connected all the bunks were curiously quiet. By now, some of the crew had likely headed to bed, which seemed fine to her. She went into her bunk just long enough to grab a towel, a change of clothes, and a music chip. It was a mixtape she had been curating since she was in college, though lately, it had changed quite a bit with Dorian’s recommendations of what he thought she would like. More often than not, though, he was right about these sorts of things. Maybe he had missed his true calling as a producer. She laughed about the potential club life of the kid who was fussing about spices in his foods.
Inside the fresher, she placed the chip into the computer system, queued the music, and undressed. Immediately steam began to blow into the chamber, and she placed her soiled clothes into a drawer to be laundered. All the while, one of Dorian’s selections began to echo in the fresher. After a good quarter-hour, she began to cycle down the system. She dressed in her evening clothes, pulled the newly laundered workout clothes from the drawer, and moved to the built-in sink to brush her teeth.
She made her way out of the fresher and down the hall to her bunk, stepping past Guugel, who was headed the opposite direction. He waved his small purple hand and gave a heavy blink across his huge torso eye. She nodded, arrived at her door, and turned back to see Guugel at the other end of the hall. He stared at her for a second and shook his body, almost in a show of pity or disappointment. She shrugged and stepped into her room.
Inside she took her clothes, gave them a vigorous flap, and then rolled them tightly, slotting them into her drawers mounted just near the door. Her storage habits were very military, and though she never was a member of the Federation Forces, like she had wanted to be since childhood; really, she appreciated the discipline and applied it to her life when she could. In this case, rolled clothes are stored better than the typical civilian fold.
She pulled the music chip from her pajama pocket and tossed it in front of her terminal, which clattered on the desk’s surface. She found herself staring at the computer, which had currently idled. It had been hours around this jump-gate, so perhaps something was new in her inbox for her. She hesitantly took a seat, tapped at the projected keys on the desk surface, and started combing through the data.
Unsurprisingly there was nothing. Mara fell asleep soon afterward but was restless.
Upper Common Room: Hour 23
At this hour, the common room was empty. She was sure everyone had gone to bed and that she was the only one unable to get any rest. Odd how the most boring of days often became the most exhausting, she thought to herself. She went to the viewing window and stared out toward the gate. Her ankle ached with each step. The ship’s tumbling orbit around the gate made for a curious, if not slightly nauseating, sight. She quickly turned her view toward many Federation, Neutrality, and Imperial scout vessels that floated around near the gate’s management hub. It was a flurry of activity that had yet to stop since the lockdown, and she wondered… she really couldn’t help but wonder… what the deal actually was.
She wasn’t expecting an incident to occur, but there was always a kind of nervousness that sprouted from seeing the Federation and Empire in the same section of space. This was a neutral gate, of course, and it had been decades since the Soltan Skirmish, but the unease crept in regardless. The sooner the gate was fixed, the sooner the two factions could be on their way, drifting far away from one another.
She was lost in her thoughts until she heard a curious crash coming from the nav room. Then, of course, the series of Parrakini curses came, and she knew that Kracker was still up. She made her way to the nav room and knocked on the frame.
“You okay there, Senn?”
She looked inside and saw the Parrack on her rolling chair at the nav computer. He was hunched over, his forehead down and resting in his two broad, feathered palms. A shattered mug was on the floor near the door, and a splash of what smelled like an alcoholic slurry oozed down the giant screen used for charting routes.
“They’re lying about the whole thing.”
Mara stepped in and crouched in front of her friend. His breathing was hoarse, like he had just been in a fight, and he smelled positively drunk. She took his hands and pulled them from his face. He stared at her, his eyes red, and tears in small drops on his feathered face. His nostrils were slightly runny as well, but from crying or from drinking, she could not tell.
“Who is lying?” she asked.
Kracker pulled his hands away, rubbed at his face, slicked back his crest, and puffed out the growths of feathers just behind the beak that had begun to droop from exhaustion. He licked the edges of his beak a bit and stared at the array of calculations on the wall.
“All of ’em. Feds, Imps, Cycs… the farkin’ jump-gate people. The Sulany is long gone. Dead.”
Mara wasn’t sure what he was on about. She helped him stand up. He was hammered and almost collapsed twice in place, but she managed to support him enough to get him to walk out to the couch in front of the viewing window. He flopped into it, his body limp. She stepped away, hustled to the kitchen, and poured a quick caf of instant koba from the brewer. She brought it back, holding it out to him. He stared at it momentarily and then grabbed the cup for a tentative sip.
Mara sat down next to him. Kracker stared out the window, his eyes almost dead. She reached her fingers out to just behind his head and smoothed down the feathers that had been ruffled at the back of his skull. He shuddered slightly but began to grow a little more at ease.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” she murmured.
To be continued… The next section of the novella will be linked here when it goes up.