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Valkyrie protocol snippet #9

David's and Jacob Holo's newest alternate, cross history novel.
Valkyrie protocol snippet #9
Post by runsforcelery   » Sat Sep 28, 2019 11:46 pm

runsforcelery
First Space Lord

Posts: 2418
Joined: Sun Aug 09, 2009 10:39 am
Location: South Carolina

Guys, I am sorry that I am so far behind on this. Real Life has been a significant pain of late, and I had some deadline pressure I had to deal with.

Because I'm late, I'm giving you a little bit longer snippet this time.

____________________________________________________________


Chapter Six
Argus Station, SysGov, 2980 CE


Lamont glanced around to be certain he and Klaus-Wilhelm were alone as they headed down the corridor to their next meeting, then exhaled a long, weary sigh.

"I'm glad at least one of them can be reasoned with."

"I wouldn't be too sure, sir." Klaus-Wilhelm warned. "Honestly, I think he's the one we need to watch out for."

"You don't trust him?"

"I don't trust any of them."

"Of course." Lamont rubbed his brow. "You sure you're not letting personal history affect your judgement?"

Klaus-Wilhelm tensed up at the sudden remark, and flash of memory coursed through his soul:

A skeletal machine festooned with weapons, tearing through the mansion. Flames and gunfire on all sides. The revolver in his hands as he unloaded shot after shot into the infernal thing. Yulia, so strong and beautiful, her body broken and dying in his arms. And finally their three little girls, scorched to ciders in the storage cabinet they'd hid in.

His eyes moistened and he blinked it away.

"No, sir," he said flatly, marching on at Lamont's side.

The Chief of Police sighed and shook his head.

"You're allowed to be human, you know," he said gently.

"The attack on my family isn't something I can forget," Klaus-Wilhelm's voice was as flat as before. "No on e could forget it — or not anyone I'd care to know. But I've had a great deal of experience in working with people I may personally loathe. My feelings have nothing to do with my consideration of this Admin's positions or opinions."

"That's not what I'm saying. Just keep in mind that our two governments are stuck with each other whether we like it or not. We should all do what we can to ensure things don't . . . escalate."

"I'm well aware of that, sir."

"And the Admin has, at least outwardly, endorsed peace."

"Judge people by their actions. Not their words."

"Well," Lamont frowned. "Therein lies the problem, doesn't it?"

Prog-steel parted to reveal an intimate conference room with a small round table. Six chairs ringed the table, and there was one empty space where a chair should have been. The seven spots were for the Chief of Police and the commissioners in charge of SysPol's six divisions: Argo, Arete, Themis, Panoptics, Hephaestus, and now Gordian, though the latter was so small it only rated a vice-commissioner at the moment. The missing chair was because the Commissioner of Arete Division was an AC and didn't need one.

"Chief." Commissioner Hawke was the only occupant in the room when they arrived and rose from his seat to greet them. His muscular synthoid wore the black uniform of Argo, SysPol's patrol fleet division and the closest thing SysGov had to a standing army. Dark eyes stared out from a bald head, and the two gems of his heavily integrated ACs—one an oval ruby, the other a square emerald—glinted above each shoulder.

"Where's Peng?" Lamont asked, rounding the table.

"He sent word that he'd be late," Hawke said. "Some mess involving the Mercury Historical Preservation Society."

"Another protest?"

"He didn't say."

The Dyson Realization Project was the largest SysGov initiative ever, slated to convert the planet of Mercury into a solar collecting megastructure. The project had spent decades in legal purgatory due to its controversial scope to consume Mercury's mass. Tests of the proposed macrotechnology had only recently commenced as a result, and the Society, as its name implied, sought to maintain the status quo despite their long string of losses in the courts.

"Should we begin without him?" Klaus-Wilhelm asked.

"No," Lamont said, taking his seat. "We'll wait."

Klaus-Wilhelm loaded his presentation into the room's infosystem and sat down. Only the heads of divisions that regularly interacted with the Admin—or might be forced to "interact" with them if a shooting war broke out—were invited to this meeting. He opened his backlog of reports and began reading through them to pass the time.

Nineteen minutes later, Commissioner Peng Fa arrived, his avatar a slender man in the dark red of Arete Division, SysPol's First Responders. His skin was the black of midnight, and his eyes glowed electric blue.

"Sorry about that!" he smiled to his colleagues and took a seat in a virtual chair that materialized next to him. "Some people just can't stand progress, you know?"

"The Society again?" Lamont asked.

"More like its radical fringe," Peng said. "Gotta give 'em points for persistence."

"Trouble?" Lamont asked.

"Nothing we couldn't handle. Just some idiot's idea of civil disobedience with a dash of industrial, self-replicating graffiti. Granted, it was graffiti designed to eat kilometer-thick letters into the surface of Luna, but we put a stop to it. You can't even tell the first letter was supposed to be an F. We'll be handing the perp over to Panoptics shortly." He glanced around the room. "So, what did I miss?"

"Nothing," Hawke said. "We've been waiting for your sluggish ass to get over here."

"Hey, now." Peng flashed a crooked grin. "If I could increase the speed of light, I would, believe me."

An aura of comfortable camaraderie permeated the room. Klaus-Wilhelm was by far the youngest person present (despite the fact that he'd been born the better part of a thousand years before any of the others); all three of his colleagues had passed their centennial birthdays, and Lamont had recently celebrated his two hundredth. They were also longstanding fixtures in SysPol, though their roles shifted every few decades. Hawke had spent some time in charge of the First Responders, and Peng had once been a vice-commissioner for Hephaestus, SysPol's R&D division.

In comparison to his subordinates, Lamont was the bedrock of SysPol leadership. He'd worked his way up the ranks over the first half of the thirtieth century and had outlasted three presidential administrations in his current post as Chief of Police.

Klaus-Wilhelm deeply respected the amount of experience sitting in the room—how could he not?—but he also recognized the arrogance which permeated their discussions. They'd been so successful for so long against so many obstacles that none of them believed they could ever fail. Of course, there would be occasional setbacks, but SysPol would always come out on top in the end. That was the way the world was; it was as much a fact as physics or chemistry.

Maybe their level of arrogance was justified here. Their track records made for fascinating and impressive reading, but overconfidence could be a double-edged sword that cut deep at the worst possible moments.

"I believe we can get started now," Lamont said. "Klaus? Let's hear what you have on recent Admin activity."

"Yes, sir." He stood up. "On the surface, the Admin continues to cooperate with us to prevent another Gordian Knot. The DTI still monitors the near-present timeline in their universe, both for information gathering as well as counter-terrorism purposes, but their operational procedures have changed to minimize interactions with the past. In fact, they're enforcing the Gordian Protocol more strictly than we are. That's the good news."

He loaded the first image. A long, sleek, and solidly-built craft rotated above the table. Wide, flattened sections extended on either side of its bow and the unmistakable spike of an impeller protruded from the rear.

"The bad news is they're busy building bigger and nastier ships. This is the Hammerhead-class, which they refer to as a 'heavy assault chronoport.' At one hundred ninety meters long and eleven thousand tons, it's almost sixty percent larger than our standard TTVs."

"Weaponry?" Lamont asked.

"Primary weapons are two high-yield proton lasers and two two hundred and forty-millimeter railguns situated on the forward wings. A pair of dorsal and ventral seventy-five-millimeter railguns provide point defense, and this space here, along the dorsal midsection, comes with a complement of ten missiles."

"That's a rather low number compared to the Admin craft we've seen so far," Hawke noted.

"Correct. Which is why they may be secondary weapons intended for strikes against softer, civilian targets."

"I see," Lamont said darkly. "Nuclear?"

"We're not sure, but it seems likely."

"What about its speed and maneuverability?" Hawke asked.

"We haven't spotted one in flight yet, but we can make some educated guesses. It has a quad of fusion thrusters here where the hull meets the impeller, plus two more on the wing tips. The size of the impeller suggests a negative five hundred fifty-ton mass. Based on all that, we expect the craft to perform similarly to the Pioneer-class light chronoports we've encountered before. And speaking of which—"

He brought up his second image. The smaller chronoport resembled a manta ray in overall shape, the underside of its wide delta wing loaded with modular weapon pods.

"We don't know what the Admin calls these, so we're referring to them as Pioneer refits for now. The DTI has been going through its standing chronoport force, taking some back to their shipyards and upgrading them with heavier armor and more powerful engines. We've also seen some new weapon modules in circulation, especially lasers. And here."

He loaded the third image, which showed what looked like the rear halves of two bulky time machines spliced together so that one impeller faced forward and the other to the rear.

"What the heck is that thing?" Peng asked.

"That, gentlemen, is a mobile suppression tower. Portcullis-class. The impeller-like mechanism on the bow is actually the suppression antenna. It's a support craft that interferes with the impellers of enemy time machines, locking them down for other craft to destroy. Weapons are mostly defensive, with two seventy-five-millimeter railguns and two point defense lasers. The hull is heavily armored."

He shrank the mobile suppressor and pulled the other two images into a triangle over the table.

"Other than that, we've seen numerous signs the Admin is expanding its exotic matter production, which will in turn allow it to construct chronoport impellers at a faster rate in the future, though I don't have much in the way of details yet. We've focused our efforts toward keeping an eye on DTI activities, and I only have so many TTVs."

"That's quite all right, Klaus," Lamont said. "You've given us plenty to think about already."

"If you ask me, the Admin's bark is worse than its bite," Hawke dismissed. "They can't build transdimensional drives, and their suppression technology, while great at stopping regular time travel, is useless against our transdimensional tech. These ships are impressive, but they're stuck in their universe."

"That may be so," Klaus-Wilhelm cautioned. "But we know the DTI is researching how to build transdimensional drives. It's hard to say for certain, but we think they'll crack the problem within the year. And they're building a fleet capable of using it. Modifying a standard impeller for transdimensional flight is neither difficult nor time-consuming, once you know how it's done. We know. We've gone through the exercise with our entire fleet. It took us about six weeks, and I have no reason to believe the Admin would prove any less competent."

"What about their suppressors?" Lamont asked.

"We're less sure there because it's tech we don't have," Klaus-Wilhelm replied. "That said, we think the same rule will apply. Once they know how to build a transdimensional drive, they're one step away from figuring out how to shut it down with a suppressor."

"And let's not forget who we're dealing with here," Peng added. "The Admin doesn't consider ACs to be citizens. Under their laws, I wouldn't get to vote because I'm not a real person. And even worse, they enslave synthetic ACs! Can you believe that?! They'd imprison President Byakko in a heartbeat just for the crime of existing! We're not dealing with a civilized culture, and we shouldn't assume our way of thinking applies over there."

"But we absolutely creamed them at the Gordian Knot," Hawke pointed out. "One ART TTV versus eight of their Pioneer-class chronoports, and Kleio shot down every last one of them."

"I'd like to caution everyone here," Klaus-Wilhelm warned. "We shouldn't draw too many conclusions from that battle. That was the first time in both universes where multiple time machines engaged each other in combat while time travelling. Neither side had a clue what it was doing, and so far as we know none of the pilots on the other side had a tenth of the combat experience our pilot possessed."

"A fair point, Klaus," Hawke said, "but we're the ones with the lessons learned. In contrast, they're still in the dark about how to fight us."

"The Admin knows that as well as we do, and they're working to correct that deficiency. We know their chronoport squadrons have engaged in wargames. Don't assume for a moment they won't figure out the best way to take down our TTVs in battle. In fact, the Hammerhead-class shows they're already considering this."

"How so?" Lamont asked.

"The chronoports we faced were primarily missile platforms, which Kleio 's defensive cannons and greater realspace maneuverability were able to counter over and over again. But these new Hammerheads show a swing to heavy energy and kinetic loadouts, which will prove much more effective in a time machine battle."

"I see." Lamont swept his gaze across his three commissioners. "And our emergency plans in the event the worst happens?"

"Argo has both counterattack and first strike missions in the works," Hawke said. "Our plan involves using Gordian's TTVs to transport some of my cruisers to the Admin. However, there are certain material preparations that need to come first."

"What sort of preparations?" Lamont asked.

"We're up against the limits of what a TTV's phase field can do. They're not designed to expand over a craft that large, so we're constructing exotic matter scaffolds to bracket the cruisers and allow the field lines to conduct better. We've built the first three scaffolds, but we're still working out the kinks."

"Gordian is assisting Argo in adapting the scaffolds," Klaus-Wilhelm said, eyeing Hawke. "But I have significant reservations about the Argo proposal. Any realspace craft, no matter how powerful, is at a disadvantage against time machines."

Hawke leaned in with a smile that might have been a little condescending.

"But they have to phase-lock with us to do any damage," he pointed out. "And when they do, they're dead. Those chronoports may be a danger to your TTVs, but against my cruisers they're nothing but toys."

"You're underestimating the DTI."

"And you underestimate my cruisers. Their chronoports can flit about in the past all they want. The fight will be in the True Present, and that's where we'll dominate."

"And if they take advantage of their ability to time shift while you're shooting at them?" Klaus-Wilhelm's tone was acerbic. "That's precisely what Elzbietá and Klieo did whenever the Admin tried to phase lock with them. Is there a reason their chronoports can't do that while engaging your cruisers that are stuck in one time frame?"

"Avoiding lethargic cannon fire is one thing," Hawke countered, his confidence unshaken. "Dodging the capital lasers from my cruisers is something else entirely."

"Maybe so," Klaus-Wilhelm's tone made it perfectly clear he disagreed, but arguing the point would be less than productive. "However that may be, I'd also like to point out the secondary effects of that engagement." his expression was grim. "It's what created the knot, as well as what resolved it. What do you think would happen if we had scores of chronports and TTVs phasing in and out on both sides?"

"Gentlemen, thank you," Lamont interrupted, then let out a faint sigh. "And what about the First Responders?"

"Gotta admit, this one's really outside the box for us," Peng said. "For one, there's no existing infrastructure for us to transmit into. A ground war in the Admin would be completely different from anything we've ever experienced. Or ever run simulations on, for that matter. We have made tentative plans based on Agent Philo's experiences in the Admin infostructure, but I think it's a safe bet the Admin is busy taking a hard look at its network security.

"One option we've considered is a 'suicide' infiltration into their systems where our officers do as much damage as possible before they self-delete. It would be volunteers only, and their connectome backups would be activated afterwards, of course." Peng held up a hand. "I know, I know. It's far from ideal. Call it a work in progress."

"All planning aside, we have the advantage," Hawke said. "Our industry is bigger, and our tech is better. If a shooting war breaks out, we're the ones who'll come out on top."

"Don't take this so casually." Klaus-Wilhelm fixed Hawke with a fierce glare. "The best thing any of us can do is make sure these plans never have to be used. Because if a true transdimensional war breaks out—with time-shattering weapons going off on both sides—the resulting catastrophe could make the Gordian Knot look benign by comparison."



Chapter Seven
Department of Temporal Investigation, Admin, 2980 CE


"Those blighted idiots proposed what?!" Csaba Shigeki shouted.

Dahvid Kloss, DTI Under-Director of Espionage, and Katja Hinnerkopf, DTI Under-Director of Technology, both winced in unison at their boss's outburst. Special Agent James "Nox" Noxon stood a few paces from the group, his gray skin and yellow eyes as unexpressive as ever.

"Immunizing the entire sixth century populace against the Black Death," Jonas Shigeki repeated matter-of-factly.

"We're dealing with lunatics. I swear." The senior Shigeki put a hand to his forehead and turned away, his long black braid, streaked with silver, swinging out behind him. He took a deep breath, clasped his hands tightly behind his back, and gazed out the monitoring room's wide, wall-height window.

The interior of Hangar Three, deep underneath the DTI tower, was a flurry of activity as drones danced around the partially dissected Hammerhead chronoport. The long main body and flared head remained mostly intact, but the impeller spike had been pulled out and raised high above the craft.

Kloss took off his peaked cap and ran fingers through dark hair that looked like it had been grazed on by a field animal.

He fitted the cap back on.

"Did their request gain any traction?"

"No," Jonas said. "It looks like that one won't even come to a vote."

"I should hope not!" Shigeki spat. "Good grief! SysGov must be full of people who prance through the rain thinking they won't get wet. The Gordian Protocol is their law!"

"How's Muntero been working out?" Kloss asked.

"About as well as can be expected." Jonas stepped up next to his father. "She's a firecracker all right."

"There's nothing I can do about her," Shigeki said. "The Chief Executor insisted on a hardline Restrictionist for the post."

"Well, he got one." Jonas gave him a lopsided smile. "Still strikes me as an odd choice. Wasn't his campaign all about ushering in a 'kinder and gentler' Admin?"

"True, but the fast and loose way SysGov plays with AIs has a lot of people scared, him included." Shigeki shook his head. "The elected head of their government is an AI for God's sake! That alone makes Muntero almost seem like a good choice."

"Well, for all the fire and brimstone she brings to the room, she knows which one of us is the expert. She'll defer to me if I want to jump in."

"That's something, at least."

"You said there were two proposals," Hinnerkopf noted. The short, compact woman stepped up to the window. "What about the second one?"

"Right. That's where the real problem lies," Jonas said. "They want to take one of their abducted indigenes and return him to the central cord variant they plucked him from. A man by the name of Samuel Pepys, in this case."

Shigeki blinked.

"Who?"

"A prominent British official from the seventeenth century."

"Never heard of him."

"Me neither until now," Jonas admitted with a shrug.

"I have," Hinnerkopf chimed in. "I read excerpts from his diary a while back."

The three men turned to her.

"What?" she asked. "Why the surprised faces?"

"Sorry," Shigeki said. "It just doesn't sound like something you'd be interested in."

"His diary provides a vivid window into the day-to-day of that period. Definitely worth your time if you're interested. Plus it's where I learned fun new slang for female body parts. Pepys had trouble keeping his hands to himself."

"And they want to put this guy back?" Kloss asked.

"That's what ART's proposing," Jonas said.

"Why?"

"Mostly as an experiment to study what will happen."

"Which way do you think Lamont will swing?" Shigeki asked.

"In favor," Jonas said.

"Yanluo's burning hells," Shigeki swore under his breath.

"The Living Legend is approaching it more cautiously."

"Well, of course he would."

"Though, I suspect he'll come out on ART's side. He's uncomfortable with how in-the-dark we all are when it comes to the underlying sciences."

"That not unreasonable," Hinnerkopf said. "If we can better quantify the danger, we can more easily avoid it in the future."

"Which is why I think the Legend will support it."

"Living Legend" was Jonas' nickname for Vice-Commissioner Schröder, and Shigeki could see why he'd chosen it. Schröder might be a man out of history, but he was from the Admin's history, not SysGov's, and he had indeed left his mark upon the twentieth century.

First time I ever had to open a history book while researching an opponent, Shigeki mused. Though, I suppose being the head of the Department of Temporal Investigation requires a certain openness to the unusual and unexpected.

Besides historical literature and documentaries, Shigeki had viewed three old movies featuring the man's life, two decent and one terrible. All three had been so overly dramatized they proved useless, though the battle scenes in Operation Oz possessed real grit.

"I meet with the Chief Executor in two hours," he said. "Hinnerkopf? Any progress to report?"

"Nothing substantial."

"What's taking so long?" Kloss pressed. "I thought you'd have this problem beat in under a week."

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Hinnerkopf shook her head. "Unfortunately, the trick to modifying our impellers for transdimensional flight has proven . . . elusive. I have nine boxed AIs crunching through different models as we speak."

"You're taking the necessary precautions?" Nox asked, speaking up for the first time since he and Jonas had entered the monitoring room.

"Of course," Hinnerkopf assured him. "We carefully review any data we provide the AIs, especially anything we're transferring from one to the other."

"I'm sure you do," Shigeki said confidently. "So what's the thrust of the problem?"

"Our current impellers work along a simple principle of selective chronoton permeation. By adjusting the permeability, we allow temporal pressure to build up, pushing the craft forward or backward in time. On its surface, transdimensional flight works on a similar principle, however it's on a new axis upon which we have no empirical data, so we're having to discover the correct vector approach from scratch."

Shigeki bowed his head and pressed both palms against his temples.

"We do know there's, for lack of a better phrase, a side-to-side wiggle that chronotons exhibit. This is a known, measurable phenomenon, and our impeller stabilizers are designed to cancel out that wiggle because it's hazardous. You may recall that one of our earliest prototypes was lost to exactly that right-angle pressure. Transdimensional flight appears to use this pressure to impart motion lateral to the main temporal axis, but it's even worse than that. It's like going from one axis of motion all the way to three. All while blindfolded."

Shigeki exhaled a low, almost inaudible groan.

"Director?" Hinnerkopf furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "Are you all right?"

"Katja?"

"Yes, Director?"

"For the moment, please imagine I'm nothing more than a dumb bureaucrat."

"Sir, I would never think of you that way."

"Just humor me. Please. For the sake of my sanity."

Hinnerkopf sighed.

"All right. If you say so."

"And keep in mind that I need to explain why we're not making progress to the Chief Executor. So the dumber the better."

"Okay." She lowered her head, paused for a moment, then looked up. "Imagine a line."

"A line. Got it."

"The line is our universe."

"Our universe. Got it."

"This is the path of travel our impellers are restricted to. Now imagine a second line that runs parallel to the first. That's SysGov."

"Second line is SysGov. Got it."

"Now picture a third line drawn between the two. This is the transdimensional path their TTVs use."

"Is the third line perpendicular to the other two?" Shigeki asked.

"Not quite. You see the difference in True Present coordinates from departure to arrival makes the . . ."

Shigeki glared at her.

"Yes, Director," she corrected herself with a frown. "It's perpendicular."

"Third line is perpendicular. Got it."

"Figuring out how to travel down that third line is . . . difficult."

"Okay." Shigeki nodded. "So in summary, our impellers can go back and forth, but not side to side, and we're still trying to establish how to make them do that."

"It's . . ." Hinnerkopf sighed and put on a brave face. "Yes, Director. That's a perfectly good way to describe the situation."

"You sound a little doubtful."

"It's all right. I'll get over it."

"The problem isn't just technical," Kloss pointed out. "Not by a long shot. This technology allows SysGov to come and go whenever they please. I don't think I need to remind everyone of the intelligence gathering advantage they have right now."

"Militarily too," Jonas added. "They can pop in anywhere without warning, fire Restricted weapons with abandon, and then blip away before we get out of bed."

"It's chilling when you think about it," Hinnerkopf said.

"All the more reason to push forward with development as aggressively as possible," Shigeki said. "I want to avoid a war as much as everyone else, but if a fight breaks out, we need to be able to hold our own." He faced Hinnerkopf. "Do you want any additional resources? If you do, now's the time to ask, given who I'm meeting with."

"I believe my team's appropriately staffed. Time is what I need most right now, not more people or equipment."

"Time . . ." Shigeki mused. "It slips by so fast. You'd think we of all people would have enough of it."

"Actually," Jonas offered, "there may be a way to make SysGov feel safer around us."

"Oh? What's on your mind?"

"Just thinking out loud here, but perhaps a change in tactics would benefit us. We know we don't have any real voice on the committee. If SysGov wants to override us, they will. Given that foregone conclusion, what if we were to approach the matter a little differently?"

"How do you mean?" Shigeki asked.

"We need time to develop the drive, right?" Jonas grinned. "And we need to avoid antagonizing SysGov, at least until we've closed the tech gap. So, what if we give them exactly what they want from us?"

* * * * * * * * * *

The Kleio shook, and its bulkheads groaned.

"This is as close I can get us!" Elzbietá shouted. "Phasing in!"

The shuddering subsided, and a view of their surroundings appeared above the command table.

"Oh, dear God," Raibert breathed.

"Is that . . . T3's Earth?" Benjamin asked.

The remains of the planet lay spread out before them, stretched, thinned, and ripped apart by tidal forces drawing it toward a massive spherical void, black both visually and chronometrically.

"I don't know," Raibert said. "But what else could it be? Philo?"

"It's Earth." His avatar appeared at Raibert's side, his face grim. "There're enough recognizable landmasses left to confirm it. Look, you can see the boot of Italy right there. And that piece has what's left of New Zealand."

"Then this is T3's Earth," Benjamin said. "You're right. It can't be anything else."

"What do you make of that black sphere?" Raibert asked.

"Not sure yet," Philo said. "Whatever it is, that's where all the chronotons are going. Other than that, our array is coming back blank."

"Is it a black hole?" Benjamin asked.

"No. We'd see the gravitons coming off it. Besides, black holes can't suck one universe into another. This is something else entirely."

Raibert brought up a detailed view from the Kleio 's array. A raging torrent of chronotons poured into the sphere, but inside their instruments detected nothing.

No space.

No time.

Just an inconceivable, all-consuming emptiness. An eater of realities.

Raibert gulped.

"Can we say anything about that sphere?"

"Well, I can say that it's a good thing I stopped when I did," Elzbietá said. "If I'd kept going, we'd be inside that thing. The sphere's transdimensional coordinates overlap part of T3's outer wall. As far as what that means?" She shrugged.

"Hmm," Philo murmured. "It aligns with the outer wall and chronotons are flowing toward it."

"Thoughts on what that means?" Raibert asked.

"Maybe. Could be a breach in the outer wall, allowing chronotons to flow out of this universe."

"Wait a second," Benjamin said. "You mean to tell me that sphere is a hole in T3's outer wall?"

"That's one possibility."

"But it's a sphere. Spheres can't be holes."

"Think of it this way," Philo offered. "Is the universe flat like a sheet of paper?"

"No, of course not."

"Then a hole in it isn't going to be flat either."

"I guess that makes some sense," Benjamin said slowly, his brow furrowed as he stared at the virtual display.

"Any sign of the Aion ?" Raibert asked.

"No sign so far," Elzbietá said quietly. "I'll keep looking."

"All right." Raibert let out a long, slow sigh. "Let's recap what we do know. For one, this is no Gordian Knot."

"Right," Philo agreed. "Everything we see here is consistent with what we witnessed in T4. T3 is undergoing a chronometric implosion, and if I'm going to guess, that implosive force is what wreaked havoc in T4, too."

"But how?" Raibert asked. "T4's own outer wall should have protected it."

"True. But if T4 was really a child universe of T3, then it's conceivable their outer walls were still touching. That would make T4 very susceptible to anything happening in T3. Let's assume for the moment this sphere is a breach in the outer wall. The chronotons leaking out will create what could be considered an extreme low-pressure zone in T3. And if the decompression is powerful enough, it's going to suck in anything nearby."

"Including T4," Raibert said. "Hence, all the suckage we saw there."

"Exactly."

"Then there really is a second way to kill a universe." Benjamin's eyes were haunted.

"That seems to be the case, Doctor," Philo said.

"Do we have any idea what causes it?"

Raibert glanced expectantly at Philo, but the AC merely shook his head, and Raibert slouched back in his chair.

"Well, shit," he groaned.

"We need to let SysGov know about this." Benjamin said.

"No kidding, Doc!"

"Guys!" Elzbietá said. "Hey guys! I found the Aion !"

"Where?!" Raibert asked, sitting up.

"Right there!"

A beacon pulsed halfway down the tortured remains of Earth-T3.

"The chronoton flow creates a lot of interference, but I'm certain that's an SOS from their telegraph."

"Can you contact them?" Raibert asked.

"I've been broadcasting a basic greeting since we got here," Elzbietá said. "If they could hear us, they'd have responded by now."

"It's an SOS," Philo said. "They may be unable to respond."

"In that case, can we pull them out?" Raibert asked.

"That's the tricky part." Elzbietá rubbed her hands together. "It's rough in there. A lot of debris phasing in and out, and they're in deep."

"Can you do it?" Raibert pressed.

Elzbietá expanded the section with the Aion 's beacon. Two continent-sized fragments grated against each other, and rubble spewed outward from the slow collision. Smaller boulders the size of mountains phased into being, smashed into each other, then disappeared.

"I can do it," she declared.

"Are you sure?" Raibert asked. "We're not doing this unless you're confident you can pull this off. And not just because I'm worried about our hides. We've got to get home to tell SysPol about this."

"I know." Elzbietá nodded, then looked straight into his eyes. "I can navigate that mess. I'll get them out."

"That's all I needed to hear." Raibert strapped in. "Take us in whenever you're ready."

Elzbietá and Benjamin strapped in as well.

"Philo, you have the secondary systems." She brought up her virtual controls. "Here goes!"

The Kleio surged forward.

"Reinforcing forward armor," Philo said.

"Hang on!" Elzbietá warned. "Things are going to get bumpy!"

Tiny pebbles pattered against the hull as a mountain loomed ahead. The Kleio dipped underneath, and the patter turned into a torrential rain. Rocks phased in and out ahead of them, and Elzbietá adjusted their own phase, finding gaps of safety in the ever-shifting environment.

A series of loud thunks echoed through the ship, and Raibert looked up at the ceiling urgently.

"Hull holding," Philo said. "Damage negligible."

"We'll get through!" Elzbietá said.

A viscous blob of magma came into view ahead, stretching and breaking apart. The Kleio splashed through a thin section, globules splattering against the bow, and sped toward a city tumbling lazily end over end.

"The Aion should be just beyond that city-fragment," Philo said.

"Almost there!"

The city had been built around a lake at its center, and that space now formed a path through the rounded debris fragment. Elzbietá flew them straight through the eye, then slowed on the far side.

"We're almost on top of the signal," Elzbietá said. "Where is it?"

"Found them," Philo said. "It's . . ."

He didn't finish, but instead brought up a visual of the Aion .

Or rather, what was left of it.

A broken section of gunmetal hull spun amidst a smear of twinkling particulate matter. The smashed and ruined piece of debris was just barely large enough to house one of the chronoton telegraphs.

There was no sign of the rest of the ship.


"Oh, bother!" said Pooh, as Piglet came back from the dead.
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