The Realms of Thor
A shaft of silver that gleamed in darkness, a javelin thrown across the black of space, the great ship hurtled down toward a hole in the sky.
The Dom Pedro IV, flying under a false name and false pretenses, dropped toward Hanson's Timeshaft, more formally known as TR-40.2, in the Thor's Realm Timeshaft Wormhole Farm. She was the DP-IV no more, so far as the outside universe was concerned. She flew now under the name "Merchanter's Dream." And if that was the third most common name for a ship in all of Settled Space, that could not be helped--and perhaps it would be very helpful indeed.
Norla Chandray sat in the copilot's seat. She had the very distinct feeling that she was not much help to anyone at the moment.
Captain Marquez sat next to her, in the pilot's seat, seemingly imperturbable, but with a hint of tension, excitement, hovering there beneath the surface. "Give me a final check on all externals," he said.
Norla ran her boards, blipped through all the telltales and camera ports. "All retractable external devices retracted and stowed."
"Close forward view shields," Marquez ordered.
Norla activated the proper controls. Overhead, the shutters swung to over the Dom Pedro IV's--no, pardon, the "Merchanter's Dream's"--forward observation dome. The massive shutters clamshelled shut, ready to protect the bow of the ship against the nothingness that loomed just ahead. The thud-clack thud-clack thud-clack of the shield latches locking down boomed out, transmitted through the hull of the ship.
"Forward view shields up and locked," Norla reported, quite unnecessarily. If Marquez couldn't tell for himself that the shields were up, he had very little business flying a timeshaft ship.
But Marquez knew his business, even if he hadn't flown a timeshaft transition in the last 128 years--no, longer than that. Add another forty-plus years since we boarded ship, Norla told herself, and shook her head. Even if the thought was precisely accurate, it still didn't make sense. But it didn't matter. Not now. Right now all that mattered was that she was the one who had never flown a timeshaft transition before this trip. But that was about to change.
"Very well," said Marquez. He pressed the general intercom button. "All hands, this is the captain. Final strap-in warning. All hands to timeshaft transition stations. We're going in." He turned toward Norla, and grinned at her, an expression of manic enthusiasm, tinged perhaps with a hint of worry. And even above and beyond the mere question of deliberately dropping a multimegaton ship through a black hole and back several decades into the past, there was plenty to worry about.
Marquez glanced over to the comm officer's station, where Admiral Koffield was sitting. There was distinctly very little for a comm officer to do at this point. They had sent and received the standard arrival signal and mirror reply to the Chronologic Patrol ship on station, here on the uptime end of the timeshaft. Any further communication at this point would almost certainly mean out-and-out disaster, with a volley of railgun fire about to slam down into them. Koffield sat where he was because it was a convenient place from which to watch the proceedings. If it became anything else, it could only mean the game was up, almost before it began.
"Ready for the timeshaft, Admiral?"
Admiral Anton Koffield smiled, as open and relaxed an expression as Norla had ever seen on the man. "Long past ready," he said. "We have to get through here before we can get where we're going. Let's do it."
There was an odd eagerness in his voice. Somehow, Norla found herself reminded of a restless child on a long trip, asking over and over again -- "Are we there yet?"
Well, they wouldn't be there for a while yet. They had a lot of hoops to jump through first. But she had no doubt whatsoever that what Anton Koffield was eager for was to get back in the fight, back in the hunt.
He had been waiting for a long time. In a sense, he had been waiting two hundred years, and showed no sign at all of tiring. Norla was glad that Anton Koffield was not in pursuit of her. She had no doubt that everyone else on the ship felt the same way. Koffield was not the sort of man one wanted to have as an enemy.
"All right, Officer Chandray. You heard the man. Let's do it!"
"Yes, sir," she said, feeling far less enthusiasm than she heard in the voice of the two men. Were they really that excited by the prospect of what lay ahead--or were they just doing good jobs of acting?
Besides all that, there wasn't much for her to do at the moment. They were already dead on course toward the timeshaft, falling like a stone--indeed, faster than any stone could fall on any respectable world--toward their rendezvous with a tiny hole in space and time.
Norla checked her boards. "Four minutes to ship's rated redline," she announced. With every moment that passed, the DP-IV was falling faster, streaking closer to the timeshaft wormhole as its gravity field pulled them in toward itself. The thruster power that would be needed to break free of the wormhole was likewise growing, moment by moment. In less than four minutes, the variables of time, distance, velocity, and time available would all converge, producing an imaginary red line in the sky, drawn around the wormhole. Pass the redline, and it would be physically impossible to break free of the wormhole.
The ship's rated redline was the ragged edge, where if all systems worked perfectly, if nothing failed under maximum strain, if no strut snapped, if no power coupling blew out under emergency maximum, the ship could survive.
As the ship continued its headlong fall, the DP-IV would cross the theoretical redline, the point beyond which no ship, of any description, could possibly escape, where even infinite thrust applied in an infinitesimal amount of time would not be enough to let a ship break free.
Of course, merely getting as close as they were to the ship's rated redline meant any attempted approach abort would be close to suicidal. Only if the choice were between certain doom and a hundred-to-one chance for survival would the dangers of an abort be worth the risk. And though as yet the point was academic, it might not stay that way. There was the small matter of the Chronologic Patrol Ship on station, here on the uptime side of the timeshaft. If the CP ship decided, for whatever reason, that it didn't want the DP-IV boosting through the wormhole, it might order an abort, even now. In such a case, the CP ship might elect to eliminate the problem altogether, by simply blasting the DP-IV out of the sky . . .
"Three minutes to ship's rated redline," Norla announced. Three minutes for the uptime ship to notice there was something not quite right about the DP-IV and open fire, or send the DP-IV an autoabort order that she would ignore--or obey--at her peril.
The ship's external ports were all secured, but the DP-IV still had a few detectors active, microlenses that extended only a few molecules outside the hull, peeking through pinhole-sized ports in the hull and feeding visual, radio, and infrared-band data back into the ship through data cables thinner than a human hair. The microsensors had only limited sensitivity, but they were far better than nothing, enough to confirm the ship's course down toward the timeshaft-wormhole nexus--and also to keep an eye on the CP ship. If the CP ship moved against them, they might not be able to do anything, but at least they would know about it.
But the CP ship stood aloof, passive. No doubt the warship was watching them, probably using them for a gunnery tracking target, but it did not interfere with them.
"Two minutes to ship's rated redline," Norla announced.
Of course, the CP ship was only the first and least of the dangers they faced. There was the timeshaft wormhole itself to get through--and then a world, a universe, of danger on the other side of the wormhole, and eighty-three years in the past.
Nor were all the dangers outside the ship. Norla spared a glance away from her displays to look toward Yuri Sparten, seated there next to Koffield.
When Neshobe had authorized the refitting and upgrading of the DP-IV, Koffield had warned there would be strings attached. Sparten's presence was proof of that.
Planetary Executive Kalzant had asked to see the mission's deception plan--and had sent it back with one very large alteration. Yuri Sparten was to join the ship's company, and would pose as captain of the ship "Merchanter's Dream" in the presence of outsiders. This, Kalzant explained, would provide a certain amount of legal cover to the mission, in the event that the deception was uncovered. Sparten was a citizen of Solace, and was hurriedly commissioned into the planetary defense force. The commission provided at least a legal argument that the DP-IV/"Merchanter's Dream" had some sort of government authority for operating under a falsified name.
None of the ship's company were particularly impressed by the explanation, and no one was in the least grateful for Sparten's presence. Literally from the first moment Anton Koffield had set foot on SCO Station, the main orbital facility for Solace, Sparten had been watching him.
Whatever official duties he might supposedly have, it was plain enough to all involved that Sparten had been forced on the crew, for the sole purpose of continuing to watch Koffield. But for whom, and with what precise purpose, Norla could not say.
And then there was Hues Renblant, nominally the first officer of the DP-IV, seated at the nav station. Renblant was angry, but there was nothing new about that. Hues Renblant must have been born angry--and he refused to believe anyone but Koffield could be blamed for their predicament. He had spent the last months telling anyone who would listen--and was allowed to get close enough to listen--that it was all a fraud. Koffield had faked the whole show, had sabotaged the Dom Pedro IV, invented all his so-called evidence, tarnished DeSilvo's name--and had done it all just to rescue his own reputation after the Circum Central debacle.
Renblant had no desire to stay behind in the Solacian system, and had no desire to stay aboard the Dom Pedro IV so long as Koffield was there, and Marquez was very definitely unwilling to let him deadhead all the way to Earth--which left one unpalatable option. His contract allowed him to be put down at a way station--and Asgard Five was it.
He plainly resented Norla being where she was, there in the copilot's station, but Renblant had dug himself into that hole. Let him not like it. That was where Marquez had wanted her, and Marquez, after all, was the captain. Still and all, having Renblant staring daggers into her back until they reached Asgard Five was not exactly going to put Norla at ease. She was glad they were to be rid of him soon.
"One minute to redline."
But there was no point to calling out the rest of the countdown. They could all read a clock display, and besides, the CP wouldn't cut it that close. If the CP ship was going to do anything, they would have done it already. They were going in. Either through the timeshaft, or crash-landing onto the black hole that underlay the wormhole. And she was going to see it. That was the breathtaking part. Back in her world, in her time, no one but the captain ever got to see a timeshaft drop.
Norla had never flown a timeshaft drop, awake or frozen. She should have done one drop in a cryocan, on the way to Solace--except something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, with the ship's systems. Sabotage. And the DP-IV had done the full run in normal space, without dropping back through time. The ship, and all aboard her, had been marooned in the future. They had all stayed in cryo too long.
Ever since she had nearly died as she came out of cryo, some small part of Norla had been whispering to her larger self, telling her that she would never again have the courage to lay herself down in the coffinlike confines of a cryocan. And that would have meant that she could never again cross between the stars. She would have been a stay-behind, marooned not only in time, but in space.
But then had come the Solacian offer to refit the DP-IV, and the news that they were installing a temporal-confinement system big enough for the entire ship's company. Back in the previous century, when the DP-IV had first boosted for Solace, temporal confinement had been ruinously expensive. It took too much power, and the equipment was too big and heavy. The standard operating procedure for timeshaft ships had been that all crew members and officers had to fly in cryocans. Only the captain traveled in temporal confinement, so he or she could be revived quickly in case of emergency.
But the DP-IV had gotten herself stranded in time, thrown into the future. Surprisingly little had changed in the intervening decades, but sometime during the 128 years after the DP-IV had departed for Solace, the power costs for temporal confinement had dropped, and the equipment had gotten smaller.
It still wasn't cost-effective to use temporal confinement on all the colonists on a five-thousand-person transport ark. On a monster ship like that, the colonists still had to fly in cryocans. But then, there weren't that many colony ships going out anymore, anyway. On a smaller craft like the DP-IV, with ten or twenty aboard, these days, everyone flew in temporal confinement.
Beyond question, temporal confinement was vastly superior to getting stuffed into a cryocan. However, the temporal-confinement fields interfered with the timeshaft wormhole's portal nexus and the timeshaft wormhole itself. In fact, a TC field would "interfere" so energetically that the resulting energy release would tear the ship apart, down to the subatomic level.
Therefore, the ship's temporal-confinement system was powered down during the transit of a timeshaft wormhole. The entire ship's party could witness the run through a timeshaft wormhole, an event heretofore witnessed only by the captain.
"Redline," Norla announced. Their way was forward, and no choice.
The ship was battened down, all hardware retracted, all shields up, exposing as little as possible to the violent stresses of a drop into and through a black hole. They fell toward it, faster and faster.
Norla flipped her screens to exterior visual. The little peek-out cameras, their lenses still extending out of the hull, if only by micromillimeters, gave a reasonably clear view, but there was surprisingly little to see. The black hole itself was, of course, invisible. The portal nexus they were to pass through, in essence the door backward through time, was likewise too small--and orbiting the wormhole too fast--to be visible. There had even been two other ships that made the run just ahead of the DP-IV, an hour or so before, but even on extreme magnification, there had been precious little to see of their passages.
Excerpted from The Ocean of Years by Roger MacBride Allen. Copyright © 2002 by Roger MacBride Allen. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.