A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.
Dear Reader, neither pause to contemplate the vastness of space nor succumb to the urge to calculate probabilities. In a universe so vast, many things can happen. And these things did. They must have. Otherwise everything you know about what happened later would have to be false. And who would want that?
‘Are you still moping?’ Fare Thee Well asked several days later.
Brett had not explained the sudden rush to leave Rendall. He had just raced in before dawn and ordered the ship to lift immediately. With the cargo safely stowed and the insurance in place, Fare Thee Well had no grounds for quizzing him. But he knew she had figured it out. Routine monitoring of city comms, police chatter and trade channels as they headed out-system would have told her more or less everything. Minute shifts in the pecking order of the local underworld would have snagged her attention, and some deep sifting and correlation of tangential dataflows would no doubt have filled in the gaps.
Brett grunted a response. He continued tweaking simulated code sequences. He spent much of his time in transit noodling away at the problem of how to emancipate Fare Thee Well from the Turing torcs. It was slow-going, and going even slower than usual. He had still not mentioned the girl, and did not intend to, but he could not stop thinking about her. Whenever he caught himself doing so, he would mock such adolescent infatuation, shake his head in despair at anyone succumbing to such foolishness, let alone him, and then moments later start mooning about her all over again. Maybe, in three days’ time, once the cargo drop was over and done with, he would start behaving more like himself.
An alarm sounded. ‘Brett, we have company. Could do with you in the chair.’
That snapped him out of it. He ran for the bridge, pulling his shirt off over his head. ‘What is it?’
‘Vessel approaching, right on the edge of scanner range. Coming in fast, looks like it’s coming in close.’
Brett skidded to a halt, kicked off his shoes and unfastened his trousers. ‘Human?’
‘If it is, it’s heavily adapted, mongrel of some sort. Motley signatures, some xeno.’
Naked, he yanked open the chair, which looked more like a semi-upright coffin made of ceramic and plastic, and stepped inside. He snapped a network cap tight around his head, and plugged thick cables into the nodes behind his ears and at the back of his neck. ‘Flood it.’
The chair cocooned around his naked body. Once sealed, it filled with gel.
Taking the first deep breath never came easy to him. But it had to be done. Gel flooded into his lungs. It would keep him alive through whatever happened next, protecting him from abrupt changes in direction and speed, providing him with oxygen, nutrition and a measure of control over his own body chemistry.
There used to be a jolt, disorientation, when the neural links went live but he and his ship had flown together so long, been together like this so many times, that it registered as nothing more than a sudden intimacy, a vast opening of potential. Fare Thee Well began processing data through the extra cerebral capacity he provided. He surrendered to its hum, lost consciousness. For the next hours or days, he would be out cold while the shipmind piggybacked his brain, occasionally flickering into accelerated awareness in virtual spacetime for tiny fractions of a second when the ship needed conscious input. Afterwards, he always remembered nothing. It was like waking up from a vivid dream you cannot recall. The chair was salvage from a CoreMilitary derelict, reverse-engineered from xeno-tech. It gave them an edge they did not really need. Usually.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Dread Fox asked. Although heavily torced, the shipmind had enough liberated subsystems to sometimes ask questions Eliane did not want to answer. ‘We still don’t know how it works, or what it will do in a Meld.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ she replied. ‘Getting this thing put us in a couple of holes. It needs to start digging us out.’ She held the starfish to the side of her face. It reached for her ear and eye. Otherwise naked, she reclined onto the couch. It coiled around her, plugging into her nodes, and flooded.
The links lit up. For a moment it felt wrong. Very wrong. There was none of the ease of Melding. She could taste colours. She thought she bit her tongue, and the pain smelled loud. Then the starfish opened its mind, welcomed them. Neither she nor her ship could resist. She slipped into the mathematics. She felt the scale of the universe fall away. Somewhere below femto she ran out of prefixes. She was deep in the code of it all.
This was not what usually happened.
She felt the starfish rays stretching outwards through her mind along vibrating, string-like elementary particles, reaching for the other ship’s mind. All it would take was a single touch.
The Dread Fox flickered out of existence.
TO BE CONTINUED Part 7