The blare of the ships alarm pulled me out of my sleep. This was not good. I tried to force my eyes open still half paralysed by deep slumber. I pushed my will into my arms making them push my body up. Was I awake? Past the light barriers falling to sleep was dangerous, reality was formed by the mind making dreams dangerous hazards.
I felt awake. But that didn’t mean anything. I could be dreaming of having being woken up by the alarm. Or even worse I could have brought dream reality back with me.
I finally managed to drag myself upright, nearly burning my hand on the hot steel coffee maker. Stumbling towards the bridge I looked at my surroundings trying to spot signs of rogue reality. However apart from the strobing lighting and the insistent rhythmic scream of the alarm the ship looked suspiciously normal. The Void Dancer was carrying itself with the dignity of a doomed ship sailing into the abyss with head held high.
I tried to ignore the way my ship seemed to be posing, I was certain that I had taught it better, making my way into the bridge. I almost fell face first into the floor when I came into the presence of that odious cylinder that had turned its gaze upon me the moment I had stepped through the door.
I gritted my teeth doing my best to ignore its presence walking in a curve towards the navigator’s table positioning it between myself and the cylinder.
“I am a bringer of hope.” It said peering over the edge of the table.
“Shut up.” I said.
“I come in peace.” it countered.
I decided not to get involved into a discussion with the device concentrating on the instruments in front of me. I shoved away several paper maps clearing part of the table uncovering the displays and vision sensitive navigation controls. It read my face and inferring from the context of the situation brought up a map showing the trajectory of the ship. We had just entered a part of the map that was glowing orange moving steadily forward into a gradient turning into a deep ominous red.
“Shit.” I said.
“I am a bringer of hope.” the cylinder commented.
One of the risks of long range intergalactic travel especially when going faster than light were cosmological changes that turned a secure route into one smashing right into danger. What had happened was that I had chosen a course moving the Void Dancer past as many large gravity objects as possible. It made the ship faster and reduced the fuel consumption.
The downside of this was that when an object that was, relatively speaking small and dynamic, turned into a super massive black hole which had also apparently moved from the spot it was supposed to be things became very interesting all of a sudden. I moved away from the table towards the cockpit again trying to keep my distance from the cylinder.
“Have no fear.” it called after me. Right now I had bigger problems than its abhorrent nature.
I let myself fall into the pilot seat calling the controls towards me. While I greatly disliked to do this I had to take a great deal of instinctive control of the ship. This was not the right moment for anachronistic controls no matter how nice they were to use. I felt the ship becoming a body and my mind entering it. There was a strong tug coming from upper starboard that made me go reflexively go into the other direction carefully adjusting the output of the engine to counteract the effect without pushing past escape velocity which would send me hurtling uncontrolled into space.
I felt a sharp pain as my hull was being pulled in by the black hole starboard while the port side was pushed out through the acceleration of the engine.
Now was the time for anachronistic controls. I flipped the switch activating guide lines in my field of vision showing me the far to narrow margin in which the Void Dancer could advance without causing a disaster. The pain was distracting me as I was trying to ease it as much as I could, turning the safe path in front of me narrow still. I flipped another switch turned a dial and grabbed hold of one of the control sticks. A representation of the ship appeared in upper right corner of my field of view coloured in vivid shades of red and green showing the stress on the hull. The display was rather abstract and slightly misleading but it did its job. I eased away from feeling the ship’s hull careful to keep subconscious control of the other ship systems.
Instead of guiding the Void Dancer with my mind I now used the control-stick as I could not use my mind to push the ship to its limits without feeling them. With great care I nudged the ship further out towards the outer limit of the safe path adding only the slightest bit of power.
The path grew a bit narrower. There were still billions of miles of space to either side but at this speed it felt like flying a supersonic aircraft through a subway tunnel. The representation of the ship started to lose its hues of green, the reds in the middle becoming so dark that they appeared almost black now. I could hear the creaking of the hull now. Something a space-ships hull should not do.
I felt the alarm system preparing for a cacophonous scream of warning but I stopped it before it got to push me further towards panic.
As I manoeuvred the ship into a new angle the creaking turned into a groan. I pulled a little lever that projected a straight line into the curving safe path in front of me. Turning a little dial I shifted the line slightly until it went as far as it could without touching the safe edges of my route.
I carefully aligned my ship with the line and gave the engine a kick. I suppressed the feeling of discomfort that the ships feedback caused in my mind concentrating on my instruments focusing on the point where the ship almost grazed the inner boundary, keeping the power constant for a while longer than felt comfortable before giving counter thrust and moving back into the curved trajectory.
The margins grew wider.
Bit by bit I moved the Void Dancer back onto a stable course, my hand gripping the control-stick hard that had become slippery with sweat. In time the security limits had grown so wide that they were out of sight only two blinking arrows with numbers below them showed their relative position.
As I started to relax I initiated hibernation controls. The Pilot seat stretched out into a horizontal position, the consoles rearranging themselves above me, while my health implant dosed me with a drug that would soon knock me into deep sleep right past the dream stage leaving my autonomic brain functions in control of the ship. Now if something happened I would react to the danger even when unconscious, the reality of the ship would not be compromised and if all failed I would be pushed back right into alertness by another shot from my implant.
The rest of the voyage went without any greater problems. After waking up again I learned that quite a few of my star-charts were out of date and that I’d better invest in new ones before going on intergalactic jaunts again. Oh and asking the Sentinel Fortress what in the names of the great explorers was wrong with its horrid communications cylinder.
The Void Dancer had settled as usual far above the stars polar region. I had sent out hailing signals toward the interplanetary space authority and to the Sentinel Fortress wondering who would be the first to answer.
A rasping voice echoing from beyond a cold rotten grave spoke first. “… 4LUMIA space control. Please identify yourself.” subconscious broadcasts turned into proper sound always sounded amazingly creepy when translated into proper sound. I loved this bit. The memory of Kira rolled her eyes pushing my hand towards the sound controls that would automatically calibrate the signal to sound like it was supposed to.
“Please send your SIS your PICs and identify yourself, your ship, your point of departure and your destination and reason for your visit.” said the voice that now sounded as bored as it was boring.
I manually sent the SIS and PICs and activated my microphone while pulling up a transcript of the message so far. It was easy to answer all the questions when using the mental interface but not that easy when doing it on foot as I liked to do it.
“Hello? Are you still there? Identify yourself immediately? If you don’t…” the voice became more excited by the second the person on the other end of the line not used to instantly feel the answers to its questions.
“Greetings. This is Captain James Steiner Gutierrez of the free exploration ship Void Dancer speaking.” There was shocked silence from the other side. I had not known for quite a while but a voice message translated into a mind broadcast thundered like voice of a cosmic god in the mind of the receiver. The message was overwhelming in its clarity and power. I suppressed a smile, with little success.
“We come from the planet Dead End in the Saint Saviour system. Our destination is the Planet XXXXXXXXX where we are on a socio-cultural prospecting mission. You will find that all our identifiers are clear and that we are either unknown or in good standing of all port authorities and enforcement agencies in this and al adjacent sectors. Please.” I was being a little bit dramatic but I knew how my voice was going to shake the bored guard to his or her core which would make entering the system that much more easy. “Let. Us. Pass.”
The silence was followed by a mismatched chorus of voices as the guard tried to gather his (?) wits.
“Your SIS and PICs are clear, you are clear of charges, you have no entry in any watch- or black-list. Welcome prospector Steiner Gutierrez to the One Hundred and Eight Auspicious Portals system. Please enjoy your stay and the high level security provided by 4LUMIA private security.” The last bit was an embedded message that was reflexively broadcast by the guards mind. Poor slob.
The port authority AI contacted me shortly afterwards and we went into negotiations for approach vectors to the Jade Star Lotus Station that was the least expensive of the hub stations around XXXXXXXXXXX. In contrast to Portos on Dead End this AI was a greedy little monster that added a hefty premium for my faster than light drive, even though this system was dominated by ships using hyperdrives or used the eponymous one hundred and eight auspicious gates.
I heaved my most laboured smile onto my face and took the bill. As I had not heard back from the Sentinel Fortress I at least had the luxury to wait for a more cost effective time to approach the system core and dock to the Jade Star Lotus.
Of course the Sentinel Station had twisted pretty into the other side of the star system so that it took half a day to establish a vortex-channel.
“So far no one has found us.” the Sentinel Station said over a strange howling interference sound.
“I thank my lucky stars for that. Maybe this isn’t going to end in tears as I was expecting it. By the way can you check your com-equipment I am getting some weird noise over your channel.”
“Oh that’s not interference.” The station said. “That is Pentyl. It turns out that you were right and that twisting over very long ranges is traumatic to at the very least Nebulans.”
“That’s Pentyl?” I said my eyes growing big.
“Yes. It is feeling much better now though and I do have to admit that this twist took a heavy toll on me too. But I do have the privilege of being able to turn off parts of me to reduce the mental trauma.”
“How nice of you. Have you done anything to reduce Pentyl’s mental anguish?” I asked.
“I tired talking to it but apart from that I am afraid that there is little that I can do. I have only very little knowledge about Nebulan physiology and psychology.”
“Pentyl? Can you hear me?” I said.
“I am afraid that that will not get you far. So far it has been impossible to establish rational communications with Pentyl.”
“Where is she?”
“Inside of me of course.”
“I know that.” I said sitting leaning forward towards my coms screen. “I mean in what kid of room is she, and what form has she taken?”
“Pentyl is contained in a room of 500 cubic meters and has taken a gaseous form that at this point in time fills the entire chamber.”
“Open the doors and let her expand. As much as possible. You can also vent her into open space if you run out of space. Decompressing will help her a lot with coming to her senses.”
“Done.” said the Sentinel Fortress while the wail in the background changed in pitch becoming lower and lower.
“Let’s hope for the best. I’d say that you best twist her over to where I am but the appears to be a rather unwise idea. I will have to start some rather unpleasant negotiations with the port authority to cross the system and get her.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Said the Sentinel Fortress.
“I can twist you to where I am and back.”
“That won’t work. I can’t imagine that Pentyl will want to twist further than a few kilometres for quite a while…”
“That is true.” The Sentinel Fortress said pausing to think for a moment. “How about the following idea then: I twist you to where I am, I update your maps with the patterns of surveillance of the system and you can make your way back to where you are. According to the data I have collected so far you will be able to get a very cheap docking space in about 46 hours giving you enough time to fly around the system returning to the point where you are. No twisting necessary.”
“The port authority AI told me that there would be a cheap slot open in 7 hours.”
“There will be. But it will still be over 400% more expensive than the slots opening in 46 hours. I know for a fact that there will be a coincidental departure of over 70% of the docked ships shortly before that and that there is a superstition in this system that when the merchants leave a trading hub like a flock of birds it is a very bad omen. This will lead to even further migrations reinforcing the superstition. The lotus will close and it will take some time to reopen.
To counteract this, the port authority will cut docking costs tremendously. If you can convince the port authority that you know about the closing lotus it will cut the price even further. Once enough people are attracted back onto the station the lotus will open again and the time of danger will have passed.”
“The port authority lied to me?” I said.
“It actually just withheld information. Which is actually an even more devious act.”
“What a giant dickhead.”
“While I would normally say that it is just behaving according to its programming I have come to the conclusion after listening in to its communications with other ship captains that it is actually enjoying ripping off its customers.” The Sentinel Fortress said its tone neutral but tinged with a hint of pride.
I realised something in that moment. “You listened into its communications?”
“And you know the surveillance patterns of the security of the system?”
“How? I thought you can’t interact with our technology.” I said thinking to myself that the question of technological feasibility was the smallest of concerns in this situation.
“Not with your technology. But a lot of communication is based on mental interfaces.” The Sentinel Fortress said.
“And you can listen into that communication.”
I felt a cold chill shivering its way through my body. Mental interfaces were deemed to be the most secure form of communication in the known universe and here was this ancient military station that was able to simply listen into them. All of them. Simultaneously.
At least it wasn’t trying to hide its capabilities from me. I was suddenly very happy that I was not on the Sentinel Fortress’s bad side. Yet.