“You got a problem with relativity, son?”
“Sir! The ring has become destabilized! She’s dipped 50 km down!”
“Already? Get me Morgenstross!”
The functionary fiddles clumsily with his communicator, then slams it onto the desk, where it squawks, as if in protest. Over the radio, Morgenstross is shouting something. Slowly. Very slowly.
“I couldn’t pick it up directly, sir. I had to go through four relays around the ring. Four!”
“From a certain perspective, we’re racing into the future.”
“Quiet! I can’t hear!”
“. . .”
“Morgenstross! Enable emergency RCS in your segments! I can’t do it from here. Everything’s shot!”
Morgenstross continues shouting, his voice audibly lower and slower.
“Morgenstross, listen to me!”
“. . . I don’t think he can hear you, commander.”
“Then patch me through!”
“No; I mean, I think he cannot, because the time slip between here and lower is so high. Relative to us, he’s so far down the gravity well by now that our sectors are, from his perspective, racing into the future.”
“Speak English, cadet.”
“Time slows down for objects falling into black holes. The Niven ring is lost. We must get to the pods. We must also warn the people behind us in the ring before it’s too late.”
“. . .”
“And sir, we should hurry. Morgenstross was probably trying to do just that.”
I guess there’s time for sightseeing.
“No Visitors”, reads the scrawled lettering on the thin, corrugated metal. Beth grimaces remorselessly and turns the handle.
Inside is static chaos. Everything bolted down bent. Everything stacked or hanging fallen. The table, the lamp, the picture frame with the occupant’s daughter, all lie in a broken heap. Chaos.
And covered with dust.
The thin, fine, dangerous dust that you get from manufacturing defects, from micrometeorite punctures in your ventilation system, leaking precious, life-giving air into the clutches of nothingness. From monopropellant from ruptured tanks coating the suffocated interior of a small freighter, one of thousands spinning lonely in the dark.
Beth plays her flashlight over the rubble. Nothing here. No Tellurium on the engine deck either. Already picked over.
On a whim Beth reaches for the picture frame. Then smiles. The girl would be about 230 now. Still, she’s a pretty echo of the long dead.
Advantages of tumbling pigeons.
“Tell me straight, skipper. What’s wrong?”
“We’re dead. That’s what’s wrong.”
“Even as we stand here, we’re dead men. That last bomb pumped us full of a whole soup of radiation. I’m surprised the hull hasn’t shattered from neutron embrittlement. But the gamma rays are what did us in.”
In the background, someone clutches his abdomen in sudden pain.
“Well, do something!”
“Detonate this warhead in the null-G section amidships.”
“I will be, unless you get on it. I’ve already notified engineering.”
The young lieutenant stands for a moment, petrified.
“Oh fine. Since understanding might make you more obedient. We spin end-over-end for gravity, and right now our plane of rotation is lined up with their vessel. They’re about 15 klicks away, so if we break in half at the right moment, we might get the tail end flung close enough to detonate our atomic drive right next to them before they notice.”
“But! We’ll all die!”
“We’re already dead. Now move it.”
“Lemme get this straight—at the bottom of that mineshaft is a thermonuclear warhead. And at the top of that mineshaft is a steel plate. In 41 seconds, their warship is going to pass by in orbit overhead and we light it off?”
“That’s about the size of it. Any questions?”
“. . .”
“. . .”
“Well, I mean, isn’t the plate kindof . . . you know . . . not aerodynamic?”
“That turns out not to matter. At the speed it will be going, it will be in the atmosphere, oh, only about 130 milliseconds.”
Peter’s mind boggled.
“That’s like a hundred kilometers per second!”
“Yeah. Through their hull. Neat, huh?”
Somewhere in the distance . . .
The princess threw up.
“I didn’t think you had it in you, what with how you’ve eaten recently. Or haven’t.”
“You do well by respecting my countenance. But another quip about my zero-G nausea, and you’ll be breathing vacuum. Or won’t.”
Casey smiled. It was good to poke the boss. The regent didn’t care enough for interplanetary shipping; it was Her Highness’s influence that made it happen. Someday, the orphan would be Queen of the Federation, and they’d get some proper ships . . .
“Best get used to it, ‘red-top’. The Hohmann transfer to Mars takes months. Your next birthday will be in zero-G.”
“By the end of this trip, I’m sure I’ll be a first-class spacer. And a Martian! I feel a little better. Let’s go see the control deck.”
But the next day, the princess threw up again.
“Don’t tell me you’re busy?”
“No. I’ll be back later.”
The U.F.P. Justice hung in null-G, poised, as its burdened commander labored over the ship’s supercomputer terminal. Two hours ago, the call had come in: “Unauthorized asteroid deflection burn, Dec. -5.419°, R.A. 41.17°, class ξ asteroid 1999 RQ36 ‘Bennu’. Deflection Δv = 0.26±0.03 m/s.”
Small deflections make big changes. Even the emission of absorbed heat makes asteroids move unpredictably, unless their surfaces are mapped in detail. But with literally millions of asteroids, the Yarkovsky effect is not worth the bother.
But now someone has gone and moved one of them. A pretty big one, maybe half a kilometer on edge. That would probably utterly destroy one of Earth’s megacities, should it hit one.
Which means someone landed on it, did a thermographic survey, plotted its orbit to high precision, and then nudged it deliberately, in a particular direction, an exact amount.
So, the question—was it some unhinged terrorist bent on the obliteration of Los Angeles? Or a miner secretly moving a motherlode of priceless volatiles back to base?
In 51 years, he’d know for sure. For now, there’d be only guessing.
Because really, how long is “short” for a galaxy?
“Ran a sim. It’s really obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. See these green dots?”
The visualization in front of her swam with millions—probably billions—of green fireflies.
“Each is a planet in the sim. 1011-ish. Let’s say there are 103 civilizations, starting within 108 years of each other, technologically. Once a civilization attains spaceflight, each of their planets colonizes a vacant one every 500 years.”
“So how long does it take?”
“12 500 years for half the galaxy, and no one else has even started. See where I’m going?”
“Exponential growth is a bitch?”
“Ha. Try again.”
“It seems to me that if you pick a random point in time, chances are, either the galaxy will be empty, or else full. 20 000 years should be enough to colonize the whole thing, and that’s a very short time in galactic terms.”
“Exactly. So the fact we still haven’t heard from anyone?”
“It means either we’re alone, or we’re the first.”