Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

Snapshots I Brought Back from the Black Hole

A Panoramic View

See that dead spot, centered in the two whirling, luminescent rings suspended in the void of space?

You humans call the luminescent rings accretion disks, gas and dust forever sucked away to who knows where. The dead spot, a black hole dubbed BH/Hawking.

It’s the aggressive half of a binary star system known as V-4641 Sagittarii, all the way to hell and gone, one thousand, six hundred light years from Earth.

The crew of Albert Einstein has traveled all that way, hoping to unravel a mystery. No one knows what happens when an object crosses the point around a black hole known as an event horizon and falls into the singularity.

No one, human or A.I.

Physicists do their calculations, make educated guesses, but not a soul has spiraled down with the luminescent dust and gas and returned to tell the tale.

Not knowing never stops people from poking. You humans push at boundaries. Surf space-time bubbles sixteen-hundred light years across the galaxy. Open doors you shouldn’t touch, shine lights into dark and scary places just to see what’s there.

And there’s the rub at BH/Hawking. Any physicist will tell you. Nothing can escape a black hole. Not even light.

***

 

An Establishing Shot

Here’s the Quantum Wanderer, Chloé Dubois’ exploration ship. I recorded this one through a single-use sensor drone, fifty kilometers up-slope from BH/Hawking’s event horizon. If you care for the big words, that’s one-point-five Schwarzschild radii. Do the math. You’ll see.

Thirty years ago, this voyage would have been impossible. BH/Hawking’s not very large, but its intense gravity would have torn Einstein and Wanderer apart. Now, thanks to the new tidal-gradient compensators created by an A.I., the mission’s merely dangerous as hell.

Instruments aboard Wanderer ceaselessly collect data, while its massive nuclear-pulse engines struggle to maintain a stable orbit against forces that want to suck the ship into oblivion.

The engines produce a fearsome racket, but inside Wanderer it’s church quiet. Each of the ship’s one-point-six-five-million pieces have been tuned to exact specifications. A perfect jigsaw puzzle that nullifies the noise.

Sensor arrays, drives and fuel-containment systems, tidal compensators, communications gear, and radiation shielding fill almost every square centimeter. The bit of room left for Chloé and her life-support suit accepts just that and not one single scruple more. She doesn’t so much ride in the ship as wear it.

Of course, Chloé doesn’t have to be on board. A level-four A.I. orchestrates the show just fine without her. But humans hate to be replaced by an artificial intelligence, even when you know we can do the job better at far less risk.

So Chloé lays her life on the line, two subjective hours out of every twenty-four, to orbit BH/Hawking, hoping to wrestle free its secrets. Two shifts left. Still so much to learn.

Of course, she hasn’t come alone. See that gleaming speck? That’s Einstein, riding the tidal gradient in chrono-synchronous orbit to Wanderer, two Schwarzschild radii away.

And twelve kilometers above Chloé, tethered to Einstein by a tractor field, Andy Mercer hunkers in a shielded observation pod too small to be seen by camera, too small to even have a name.

Andy makes immersives—you know, grabbies. He watches Chloé’s every move, hears each grunt and exhalation, captures what she tastes and smells and touches—everything except her thoughts—through long-range sensors. He’s risking his life, too, recording every little detail of this grand adventure for all of you back home.

You’re curious, aren’t you? You want to see what’s in the darkness as much as any of the twenty members of the Einstein crew. And you want to know why the world directorate laid out a hundred ninety-seven billion for the trip.

It’s your money. You paid for a ticket; you deserve to see the show. Let’s be honest, though. The science stuff is boring. You really want to be around in case it all goes wrong.

In the deepest, darkest, meanest corners of your hearts, all humans want that. You watch disaster from a distance and if someone dies, so much the better. You can whisper to yourself, “Thank God that wasn’t me.”

***

 

The Obligatory Portrait of the Boss

This is my favorite. Captain Sergei Kolenkhov, caught in a quiet moment, in the zero-gee command bubble at Einstein’s nose. Sergei sits with eyes closed, listening to crew chatter via the command-band sweep.

A plasma-foil screen molded to the forward bulkhead allows me to show Sergei anything he cares to see. BH/Hawking in real time. The ship’s exterior from fixed and mobile sensors. Interior shots of the operations and service pods or the giant spinning cylinder that contains the living quarters.

Sergei makes the narrow command chair look spacious. Slim and wiry, a ferret of a man, with sleek dark hair shot through with threads of gray. Andy Mercer interviewed Sergei, in that very chair, the day before the Einstein broke Earth orbit. Of course I listened, and thanks to multi-threading memory I recall every word.

***

“Serge, most folks would figure they’d been punished, to be crammed into a rotating can not much bigger than a high-school gymnasium, with nineteen other people for three years.”

Andy looks as if he’s waiting patiently for Sergei’s reply, but that look’s pure flim-flam. Andy never waits for anything but an opening to deliver his next line.

It doesn’t matter. Sergei can bullshit with the best, but this time every word he says is true. “It’s Sergei, Andy, and I’m not most people. I love this ship, I love my crew. We’re doing important work.”

“There must be times when someone upsets you, when you’d rather be doing something else?”

Sergei’s pulse spikes, his respiration climbs.

He’s about to tell a lie, but what the hell. Everybody does it, don’t they? “I can’t imagine what, Andy. There’s nothing about my job that I don’t like. There’s no place I’d rather be right now than sitting in this chair.”

***

Sergei’s ear bud chirps, breaking his reverie.

“It’s engineering, Seryozhenka,” I whisper. The name’s a diminutive, a term of endearment. Sergei’s grandfather used to call him by that name.

“Put it on, Mishka.”

That’s his diminutive for me. The project shrinks would have had a field day if they had uncovered our little name game before we departed Earth. Sergei’s grandfather was Mikhail, Mishka to his only grandson. I’m A.I., a level six, assigned to Einstein as communications officer, but I’m so much more. There are just five sixes in existence. I’m senior, the biggest brother, the only one named after a dead man.

I route the call.

“You have a minute, Sergei?”

Engineer Edyta Shamanski’s round peasant’s face fills the plasma foil screen. That unassuming face hides an intellect almost as sharp as mine. This woman knows which way is up, knows how to move in that direction, too. She’s a certified genius, helped to design Einstein, but like all humans, she has quirks. Edyta worries.

Sergei knows her tone. He sits up straighter, murmurs sub-vocally to me. “Mishka, drop to private band.”

“Da.” My baritone sounds just like his grandfather, gone a decade now. He waits for the click I use to signal I’ve made the link. I listen in, of course.

“What is it, ‘Dyta?” Sergei asks.

“Power spikes in the tractor field.”

“We need to reel the pod in?”

“I’d like to. I’m running diagnostics, but right now it’s just a gut feeling. I can’t see what the problem is from here. I want to check the on-board couplings.”

“She thinks it’s very serious,” I whisper to Sergei. “Her heart rate’s up ten points. Look at how she holds her shoulders, how she twists her mouth.”

Sergei taps his thumb knuckle on the armrest of his chair. “Let him hang while you finish running numbers.”

“All right.” She’s not happy with his decision.

“Tell him what you’re doing, though. Yes?”

“Yes.” There’s no enthusiasm in Edyta’s voice.

“What’s wrong?”

“He’ll argue with me, waste my time.”

“All right, I’ll talk to him.”

“He’ll argue with you, too.”

“Even so.”

Edyta is silent for a time. Sergei waits her out.

“I don’t mean to kick sand your way,” she says, at last. “I hate talking to that man. Vo pridurok to.”

“I said I’ll talk to him.”

Edyta pauses for a time before answering. Sergei gives her time again.

She sounds tired when she speaks. “Thank you, Captain. I’ll keep you posted.”

Edyta breaks contact.

Without being asked, I shift Sergei back to command band-sweep. “She has reason to worry, Seryozhenka. I don’t care for how the tractor diagnostics look, either.”

“She helped design the system, she’ll deal with it. I’ll deal with Andy.”

“Edyta’s right. Andy can be an idiot.”

“Even so. We’re stuck with him.”

Sergei’s right, of course. Every member of the crew tested over and over to weed out the claustrophobics, the neurotics and the socially inept. Every one of them had to have a specific set of skills, a proper education, but there are folks aboard fifth or eighth or twenty-third on a credentials list because the ones above them couldn’t find the cheese in that maze of tests.

But Andy’s not a member of the crew. He’s celebrity. An award-winning director, a big-shot American used to getting his own way. He’s physically a big man, too. He takes up more space, uses more resources, than anyone else on Einstein.

And his only job is to produce a piece of propaganda.

The real problem, though, is Chloé. Her two-hour approaches to the black hole are the reason we’re all here and the clock’s ticking. Einstein can’t stay at BH/Hawking forever. Supplies are limited. Even more important, if we stay too long, everything we know of home will have ticked away. We have two more subjective days, no more. On the seventh day, even God rested.

As if that weren’t enough, Andy’s married to Chloé. If Sergei reels in the pod ahead of schedule, Andy will be pissed. It’s his nature. He’s not a bad sort, but like all of you, he likes to get his way.

He’ll bitch to Chloé and she’ll take his side. Maybe she’ll go down there again, hang at the edge of hell’s abyss, or maybe not. Chloé can be a stubborn bitch.

Sergei can’t take the risk of losing those last two days of data gathering. And he can’t put off talking to Andy any longer. Sergei’s grandfather used to say, “You cook the porridge and you eat it.”

“Well?” I ask.

“Put him on.”

I meter signal in both directions. It’s one of the reasons I’m Einstein’s communications officer. No human is quick enough to manipulate the time dilation. This close, it’s not much, but enough. Faster going down than coming up. I’m a master juggler.

“What’s up, Serge?”

Andy’s boyish, big-jawed face almost pops from the screen. He sounds likes he’s across the cabin, not sixteen klicks down the BH/Hawking well. The sound’s almost in sync with movement of his mouth and there’s only a hint of red shift.

Sergei scooches in his chair, trying to hide his irritation at being pushed into this situation. “There’s a problem with the tractor field. We’re running numbers now.”

“Chloé’s still here. I’m not coming up ’til she does.”

I monitor the system closely. Even so, Andy has the sort of voice that can make communications systems squeal. His rise in volume almost gets away from me.

“It’s procedure, Andy. If the final analysis looks bad, I’m going to bring you up.”

“Bullshit. I’m getting crystal data through the gear, but any more delay on up-link time, even micro-seconds, and it could turn to mush. I have to stay.”

He’s lying, of course. Even across the distance, I can pick up his vital signs. He’s arguing because he wants to have it all his way. I know his recording systems. He can fix imperfections when he does the final edit back on Earth, push the data through graphics interpretation coldware, clean the edges, let his own A.I. work on it.

Andy’s a genius, too, in his own way. He could fake the whole thing. No one back home would ever know unless he felt guilty and told them. Fat chance of that. He’s got his pride.

He’s still ranting. “Why even bother to bring me along if I’m not down here watching over everything, making judgments? I could have stayed home, sent out drones to AIGI everything.”

What a swell idea. I can almost hear Sergei think the same thing. The band is silent for a moment.

“Serge, talk some sense to that damned engineer of yours. Tell her to stop playing Chicken Little. She’s ruining my work.”

“She’s being prudent.”

Andy pauses before he plays his trump card. “Prudent, huh? Hell with this. Let’s see what Chloé has to say.”

The audio goes dead, the screen blanks.

“Mat’ tvoyu rastak,” Sergei mutters.

“Easy, Seryozhenka,” I say. “‘A fool’s tongue runs before his feet.’” Another of his grandfather’s favorite sayings.

He tips his head, his way of shrugging. “You’re right.”

“Shall I reconnect?”

“Yes.”

Sergei closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. He whispers, so I’m the only one who has to pay attention. The crew at the consoles can pretend they didn’t hear.

“Grandfather,” he says. “Why did I take this job?

***

 

Ein Strasenverkäufer Photographie

This one’s from Earth, from before we left. Chloé and Sergei sit beneath the multi-colored spread of a table umbrella, at a street-front café along a narrow cobbled street in Cologne. Not too far from European Astronaut Centre at Linder Hoehe.

The tables around them are full. The street’s crowded, too, even though it’s still before noon. Pedestrian traffic only, of course. The city banned vehicles from this section at the turn of the twenty-first century, all those years ago.

Sergei wears the new implants that allow me to hear and see and smell everything he experiences. I feel like I’m there.

For those of you who wonder how I feel, how an artificial intelligence might believe it’s real, let me ask you this: How do you feel? Do you even have an inkling of the mechanics that make you real? Until you do, pipe down and listen.

Around about, Japanese, Swahili, English, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and a dozen other tongues somehow blend into a polyglot buzz that’s pleasing to the ear. The rich, comforting aromas of coffee, cinnamon and burnt sugar, lay upon the air.

The late August sky is crystal blue. Temperatures hover at twenty cee. Forecasts calls for warmer weather in the afternoon, with a flash of rain just before sunset. The Germans like their weather the old-fashioned way, without meteorological controls, so they take their chances.

“You must be firm, Sergei, for me,” Chloé says. “Tell them he’ll disturb the work. Tell them he’ll make me nervous. Merde, tell them he takes up too much space.”

She scoops up her espresso cup and drains it, returns it to the linen-covered table with a snap.

The man’s an over-sized American clown,” she says. “And I refuse to be a stooge in one of his grabbies.”

Sergei lets her rant. Like a summer storm in Cologne, her anger swells, rages for a short time and then fades. He’d let her talk forever, if she wanted to do so.

Truth be told, he loves her, even though he’s never told another soul. Not even her, although they’ve shared each other’s victories and losses. He’s been her wingman since the academy. They have flown in combat together, jumped from the black heights and know each other’s secret fears.

That’s why he agreed to accept command of Albert Einstein. Not for the adventure of a lifetime. Not through an exaggerated sense of duty. He’s on board to stay close to Chloé.

And it pains him, but he knows her well enough to realize that once she meets Andy Mercer, it won’t be long before the two of them will be in bed together. Chloé’s always has been drawn to gromy i molnii, the thunder and lightning relationship. She’s steady on her own, like ice when she flies, but with a man she wants drama.

It’s why Sergei has never professed his love for her.

He can give her lightning but he never could maintain the noise. There is nothing else to do. Sergei’s grandfather used to say that falling in love is like a mouse falling into a box. There is no way out.

“The decision has been made, Chloé.”

Sergei doesn’t say that he helped make it. She knows. The vertical crease between her brows, the mark his grandfather used to call an “I’ll have my way” line, becomes a crevice. “Come on, my friend, do it for me.”

My friend. Sergei works not to grind his teeth, to control his breathing and his heart rate.

“It’s been decided,” he says again.

To hell with Andy. Sergei wants to take Chloé’s hand, to tap upon her wrist to the rhythm of her pulse, wants even more for that imagined loving touch to be returned.

Her left brow arches.

He hurries to still the storm. “You know the size of the investment in the mission. The directorate believes that news accounts won’t be enough. People want to share the adventure. Mercer can provide that.”

“I don’t care what people want. I’m the one going down to the damned event horizon.”

Sergei sighs. “All right, I’ll try.”

***

 

A Publicity Shot

Here’s another one from Earth. Chloé, standing at a window at Fifty-Eight Tour Eiffel, the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, fifty-eight meters above Paris.

Sergei’s watches from the restaurant’s entrance, waiting until the photographer gets the shot she wants. Over Chloé’s shoulder, through the window, I can see the Palais de Chaillot and its grounds across the Seine. Everything in sight has been scrupulously maintained. The whole damned city’s a museum, not a living, breathing entity like Cologne.

Still, Chloé is French, so the party to introduce the Einstein crew to the press will begin in ten minutes, here in Paris. The crew has assembled to preen and answer questions. The technicians have even set up a special sound system for me.

But Chloé will be center of attention. Little wonder. Her evening dress is blue silk, elegant and simple. She’s blond and tanned, not much taller than Sergei, with the muscled, rangy body of a competitive runner. She is a runner, won three gold medals ten years ago in Oslo. She’s also earned doctorates in physics and engineering, holds a world record for high-altitude skydiving.

Chloé’s never known what it means to fail.

Sergei leads the way across the room. “Chloé?

She turns from the window, smiling, already moving forward to hug him, only to have to tilt her head to look up into Andy Mercer’s sea-blue eyes.

Mercer’s enormous, well over two meters tall, weighs in at something over two hundred kilos. He’s shaggy-haired. Bearded, too, looks like a bear in a tuxedo. He looms over everyone. And there’s a scent of danger all about him, mixed with the faint aromas of cedar and of lime.

Sergei has to feel like karlik next to the bigger man. A midget. He glances up at Mercer. “Andy, I’m pleased to introduce Chloé Dubois. Chloé, this is Andy Mercer.”

“Bonjour, Madame Dubois. C’est un plaisir de vous rencontrer.” Mercer’s French sucks. Chloé should laugh at him.

“No, Mr. Mercer, the pleasure is mine,” she says.

Her English is excellent, better than the big man’s French. That’s to be expected. English is the default language of the mission and Chloé has told Sergei repeatedly, over their years together, that the only way to speak French properly is to be born to it.

Mercer relaxes, grins at her and takes her offered hand.

“Call me Andy. I’ve got to say I’m a big fan of yours. I’ve worn out two v-chips watching your world record. Magnificent.”

Bullshit. V-chips can’t wear out, but Andy loves hyperbole. He’s referring to Chloé’s high-altitude jump. Sergei has a copy of the chip, too, recorded by a free-falling sensor drone, all the way from twenty-five-thousand meters. Sergei jumped from the drone that day a thousand meters lower.

Chloé smiles. “Thank you.”

She’s intrigued. Mercer bows his head, lifts her hand and touches his lips to her knuckles. She should laugh at that, too. No one kisses women’s hands anymore, not unless they figure to get punched with that same hand.

Chloé doesn’t laugh, she blushes. Sergei own cheeks pink as well. I can feel the heat, see the color through the cameras placed around the room.

“I’ve seen your work,” Chloé admits.

“I hope you liked it.”

She remains polite. “I was entertained.”

“I’ll try not to let you down on the trip to BH/Hawking.”

There it was. Now she knows Mercer would go along, Sergei couldn’t talk them out of it. Chloé should erupt.

Instead, she says, “We’ll see.”

 

***

 

A Frame from the Out-Bound Interviews

In this one, Chloé and Sergei sit side-by-side before a sheet of plasma film that streams an image of Earth, floating in the void below.

Andy has set up a temporary studio on the international space station’s outer centrifugal ring. Einstein departs in fourteen hours. Andy’s equipment is managed by a level-two A.I., an idiot but functional, so Andy only needs to sit and talk. He’s good at that. “Thanks for giving me this time today, both of you. I know you’re busy.”

Sergei sticks to the script. “How can we help you, Andy?”

“I’ve got background questions, but to be honest, I don’t mind if we just sit here and watch Earth turn down there.” Off script and pure bullshit, but the man’s had lots of practice.

“I’ll bet he’d rather sit alone with Chloé,” I whisper, in Sergei’s ear.

He ignores me, plays his part. Ad-libbing, too. “It never does get old.”

Chloé turns toward the foil screen. North America can be seen at the moment, all of it bathed in sunshine. She departs from the script even more. “Where do you come from, Andy?”

Andy doesn’t even blink.

He points. “There, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, up above the mitt. Sault Sainte Marie.”

“I’ve been there,” Chloé says, turning from the screen. “I have a master’s degree from the University of Michigan.”

“No kidding. So you’ve seen the Soo locks?”

“Of course.”

They speak of Andy’s time at Stanford University, her home town south of Paris. Her wins at the Oslo Olympics, his turn in the American military, how he covered the Nine-Day War on Crete. Chloé admits that she shot down seven Asian Bloc fighters there. Hellfires. Sergei flew wingman for her every mission, shot down five himself. He doesn’t say a word.

None of this is scripted. The interview’s become a two-person conversation; Sergei’s the odd man out.

I whisper to him. “Get it back on course, Seryozhenka.”

“Shall we talk about the trip out?” he asks.

Andy glances at Sergei, almost frowns. He blinks. “Sure. Tell me about the ship.”

Sergei’s had lots of practice. “Einstein has a two-drive system. The Judson-Hicks bubble drive for interstellar travel, and four charged-plasma engines for inner-systems maneuvering.”

“Uh.” Andy’s listening, but he’s watching Chloé.

Sergei continues, but he knows he’s talking to himself. He twists his head, the muscles in his neck pop. His dark Russian mood is palpable.

He’s slowed the sexual juggernaut, but it still gathers steam.

***

 

A Wedding Portrait of the Happy Couple

I took this one five hours before the Judson-Hicks drive went online, eighteen months into the mission. It holds a lot of nasty memories.

“Are you ready, Serge?” Andy turns from his equipment and glides to his mark beside Chloé.

“Yes.” Sergei brushes at the front of his jumpsuit, at some flaw only he can see.

I try to caution him. “Ignore his insults, Seryozhenka.”

The three of them stand in ship’s mess, their slippered toes in anchor loops, near one end of the space. Half the crew has squeezed in with them. The rest watch via a command-band feed. The signal’s being streamed to Earth, too. Another twelve billion witnesses. Andy whispers a word to his equipment. He winks at Sergei.

“All of you watching are witness to this blessed ceremony.” Sergei struggles to make his scripted words sound natural.

Music swells. Pachelbel’s Canon in D major. Sergei does his best to ignore the thin propellant buzz from the fly-eye camera above his right shoulder. It took thirty minutes of practice for him to learn to act as if the fly-eye isn’t there, to resist swatting at it.

“As captain of Interstellar Ship Albert Einstein, it is my honor to join this man and this woman in marriage, even as we stand at the threshold of mankind’s greatest adventure.”

He looks to Andy. “Do you have the rings?”

“Yes.” Andy opens his palm to show the two plain platinum bands he asked Edyta Shamanski to mill for the ceremony. The cameras zoom in on Andy’s hand.

“Is the launch on schedule, Mishka?” Sergei whispers.

“Yes. Perform the ceremony. I’ll call if I need you.”

“Smart-ass piece of coldware.”

Palkami i kamnyami, Seryozhenka.”

“Sticks and stone have nothing to do with it.”

“Everything is running smoothly.”

“Thank you.”

Chloé takes one of the rings. Andy holds the other at the ready. Neither seems to notice that Sergei mutters to himself, or that any of the others are even there.

Sergei begins. “Andy, if you would take Chloé as your wife, place the ring upon her hand and say ‘I will.’”

He’s departing from the script. Andy doesn’t even blink. He slips the ring on Chloé’s finger and says, “I will.”

Sergei continues. “Chloé, if you would take Andy as your husband, give him the ring and say ‘I will.’”

Chloé does as she’s told and says, “I will.” She doesn’t look away from Andy.

If he could, I’m certain Sergei would sew his lips together, would rather do anything than finish. I can see it in the set of his shoulders, in the way he breathes.

He cuts to the end. “As captain of this vessel, I pronounce you man and wife.”

He pulls his toes from the loops, not waiting to watch them kiss, hurries toward the hatch that will take him to his hard and narrow chair in the command bubble. The fly eye, slaved to the electronic wafer glued to Sergei’s shoulder, darts along behind, recording his retreat.

***

 

A Tight Close-up

Here’s a tight shot of Chloé’s upper face, her eyes and most of her nose. I manage to pull it from her helmet cam.

What skin that can be seen looks flushed. Her vital signs have spiked. It’s obvious that she and Andy have had their chat about Edyta’s request to reel in the drone. Andy has stirred the pot, too. From that deep in the well, I can’t quite balance the redshift, but not all the color in Chloé’s face is a glitch.

“Chloé wants to talk, Seryozhenka,” I murmur. “Her blood pressure and respiration are through the roof.”

“Put her through.”

“Do you want her to see you, too?”

“Of course. Let her see me.”

Chloé’s image fills the screen.

“Sergei, what’s going on?” She glances at the heads-up display in her helmet, catches sight of him in that tiny screen and then looks away to something else. Her eyes flicker back and forth, she murmurs to her A.I., words too soft to catch.

She’s a busy woman, but she can chew gum and rub her stomach if she chooses to do so. I’ve seen Chloé’s tests. She scored off the charts on multi-tasking.

“I need to pull in Andy’s pod,” Sergei replies.

“He told me everything is clean and green at his end, says Edyta’s being fussy.”

“I trust her numbers, Chloé.”

Chloé’s tone sharpens. “He’s got a degree in engineering, too, you know.”

“This has nothing to do with that. It’s protocol.”

“I know protocol, Sergei. We both know there are levels of redundancy built in to all of it.”

“I know what he wants and why he wants it.”

She softens. “Do it as a favor for an old friend.”

Sergei remains silent.

I offer counsel. “Stick to the protocol, Seryozhenka.”

“Please?” she says. “I’ve only got a few more minutes here. Let him sit it out. He’ll be fine.”

Sergei ignores me. He shifts in the command chair. He clips off his reply. “All right. A few more minutes.”

I understand it instantly. See it in the dilation of his pupils, feel it as his body temperature rises, hear it in his drawn breath and the rhythm of his increased vital signs.

Andy wants his way, just as he always does. Chloé wants Sergei to support her, as he has over the years. Sergei wants the tractor field to fail.

***

 

The Director’s Cut

This one’s a split-screen. Edyta on the left, Andy on the right.

She’s showing signs of panic, at least as much as she ever shows. He’s pissed. I don’t need vital signs for that. It’s an easy one to call.

“We need to bring the pod in now, Sergei,” Edyta says.

“Bullshit,” Andy retorts. “Five minutes on the clock.”

Twenty minutes have gone by since Sergei gave in to Chloé, twenty minutes of juggling. It’s time to put away the rubber balls. Even so, Sergei doesn’t say a thing.

“Sergei, there’s a real chance the coupling could fail.” Edyta says.

“A ‘real’ chance? What sort of engineering term is that?”

“Quiet, Andy,” Sergei says.

“Seryozhenka, the engineering A.I. is predicting systems failure inside an hour. Edyta needs twenty minutes to get the pod back inside.”

Sergei taps his ear bud, mutes the two of them manually. “I know how much time it takes, Mikhail.”

“What happened to ‘Mishka’?”

“Don’t pull a hissy fit on me, too, you bag of bolts.”

“Meat sack. You ignored me twenty minutes, forty-seven seconds ago. Do you want him to die?”

He grunts. “Chloé will climb out of there in five minutes.”

“Edyta needs to do it now.”

“Give me a percentile spread on the coupling.”

“One-hundred percent it will fail within the sixty-minute max time. Forty-two percent that it blows inside twenty minutes. I don’t see the point calculating for less time than that.”

“Thank you.”

“Sergei, I’ll ask again. Do you want Andy to die?”

He doesn’t say a word, doesn’t have to. I can read it all in his vital signs.

“Seryozhenka, please.”

Serge draws a breath and blows it out. “All right. Patch the two of them back in.”

Edyta and Andy share the screen again.

“Edyta, bring him up,” Sergei says.

Andy jumps in before Edyta can respond, so quick and loud the volume gets away from me. “I’ve run the numbers, too. A one-in-four chance of failure. I’ll take the chance.”

Sergei shakes his head. “’Dyta, I said bring him up.”

“Right away, Captain.” Edyta fades away, leaving Andy’s angry face to fill the screen. As the big man spews profanity, I listen and I watch them all, hoping Sergei hasn’t played his crazy little game too long.

“Mikhail, get me Chloé,” he says.

“Da.”

Fifteen seconds later, Andy’s still shouting epithets, when the tractor field burns out.

***

 

A Group Shot of the Crew

This one’s from one of the ship’s cameras, looking over Sergei’s shoulder. Head shots of Edyta, Andy and Chloé share the foil screen. An exterior camera outside Quantum Wanderer provides a fourth image, looking back up the gravity well toward Andy’s pod.

“Goddamn it, Sergei, I’m drifting!” Andy shouts.

Sergei leans forward in the command chair, pouring every bit of himself into the screen. “Get him back, ‘Dyta! Get a new lock on that pod.”

He’s acting. His voice might fool a human, but he can’t fool me. His vital signs are calm as a flat-water pond.

“I’m trying, Boss!” Edyta’s excitement is real.

“Damn it, Sergei!” Andy again.

“Can you retrieve him, Sergei?” Chloé’s voice is so smooth, but her vitals are elevated, too.

“We’re trying.”

Five seconds pass, another ten.

“He’s out of range,” Edyta says.

“Go after him.”

Sergei knows that’s not possible. Einstein can’t follow the pod without complex and time-consuming maneuvers. Think of picking up a penny wearing oven mitts. He’s covering his tracks.

“Chloé, we couldn’t reacquire,” he says. “The pod’s coming at you.”

Andy shouts again. “Damn you! What did you do to me?”

“A fool’s tongue, Seryozhenka. Remember.”

Too late. His voice crashes against the walls in the tiny command cabin. “What did I do to you? You self-centered idiot. You did it to yourself!”

Chloé’s filtered voice cuts through the male bravado like a scalpel through a stretch of tender skin. “That’s enough, the both of you. No time for finger-pointing.”

Edyta’s fingers have gone into overdrive, tapping on a virtual keyboard only she can see. She’s not being careful now. Her mind’s a furnace, her body has turned to ice. “Chloé, your orbit’s almost right. The pod’s going to pass just behind you. You might be able to catch him with your grapple.”

Chloé’s eyes are unfocused for an instant, looking at something only she and her A.I. can see.

I dip into the Einstein data banks. Edyta’s right. Quantum Wanderer is fitted with a magnetic grappling system. Not up to the muscle of the tractor field on Einstein, not designed to catch another ship, only to assist in docking. But on something as small as the pod, it just might work.

Chloé sees it, too. “I can do that.”

So does Sergei, but he sees the problem, too. “If you slow too much, the extra mass could pull you both over the horizon.”

Andy might be Pridurok—an idiot—but he’s no coward. “No, I forbid it. Don’t you dare try it, Chloé.”

“Listen to him, Chloé,” Sergei says.

“Hush, both of you. With the time contraction, the pod’s coming at me fast. I’ve only got one chance to get this right.”

The next minutes blur. Without an engine to fight against the inexorable pull of the black hole, the pod gains momentum. Wanderer twists through a series of maneuvers and its massive engines flare even brighter.

Chloé’s orbit slows.

The virtual images of the two vessels grow to fill the foil screen as their paths converge. I patch the image into the shipboard visual communications system and all non-essential work aboard Einstein halts.

Everybody listens, as Chloé and Edyta trade data in clipped machinelike tones.

Gówno,” Edyta spits, after a time.

Sergei leans forward in his seat. “Shit? What do you mean, shit?”

Chloé answers. “At the speed the pod’s falling, it could slip free of my grapple. I need more muscle from the engines.”

Andy and Sergei both shout at the same instant. “No!”

She ignores both of them. “Diverting power now.”

The A.I. aboard Wanderer begins a countdown and everyone aboard Einstein holds their breath. Silent seconds click away and then—

“I’ve got him! I’ve got you, Andy.”

Cheers erupt throughout the ship.

“How long will it take her to bring them both back to us?”

No answer.

“’Dyta?”

“She can’t, Captain.”

“What?”

“She can hold the orbit for a time, but her engines don’t have the muscle to maintain the grapple and bring them both out of the well.”

“Then we will work our way down closer to her, pull them in, instead.” This time, his desperation’s genuine. Now he’s worried about Chloé.

If I were human, I would scream at him, tell him that he has killed them both. I’m not, so I remain calm. “There’s no time, Seryozhenka, you know that. The course changes weakened Wanderer’s orbit. They’ll cross the event horizon in fifty-seven subjective minutes.”

***

One Last Close-up

Chloé’s face fills the foil screen. She sweats inside the helmet; silver droplets lay across the sides of her nose and upon her cheeks like crystal tears.

Her eyes are calm, her voice steady, but her vital signs betray her. Chloé’s afraid, perhaps for the first time in her life. She’s faced death before, but not on these terms.

“Edyta?”

“Yes, Chloé?”

“What about the Penrose Mechanism?”

Edyta’s response is worthy of Andy. “Yes!”

I dip into the databanks and realize our chief engineer is already crunching numbers. Furiously.

“What’s that?” Sergei asks.

“Don’t interrupt her,” I tell him. “There’s not much time.”

“What is it?”

“A theory by a twentieth-century physicist. A way to push something away from a black hole. Chloé can’t draw energy from the black hole to slingshot free; that requires more power than it would draw.”

“But—”

“But they’ll be in the ergosphere in a few minutes, hard against the event horizon, traveling in the right direction. If Penrose was right, and Chloé can arrange momentum properly, she could gain enough energy to hurl the pod up the gradient for us to grab.”

He’s way ahead of me, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “What about Wanderer?”

“A mass equal to or greater than the hurled object has to drop below the event horizon for the mechanism to work.”

Sergei pushes away from the command chair as if propelled by an explosion. “No!” he shouts. “I won’t allow that. Chloé, throw the pod in.”

She sounds tired. “I can’t sacrifice Andy, Sergei, you know that. And even if I could bring myself to do it, the pod doesn’t have enough mass to offset Wanderer. We both still would die.”

“What are you two talking about?”

“Shut up, Andy,” Sergei thunders. “Chloé, you can’t do it.”

“I have to, Sergei. I love him. I can’t let him die.”

Sergei flails about for a handhold, can’t find one and floats free before the screen.

“Seryozhenka, do you need help?”

“Leave me be!”

“I need a private band with Andy,” Chloé says. A minute passes and then—“Quantum Wanderer is back online.”

Fifty minutes. Maybe enough time, maybe not. No one’s done this before either. Edyta and Chloé exchange murmured comments as the clock ticks, but otherwise everyone remains silent.

Finally, Edyta speaks. “She’s executing the mechanism.”

More silence.

“It worked!” Edyta says. “The pod’s broken free and headed toward us! I can catch him!”

The ship erupts with cheers again.

“Wanderer has reached the event horizon,” I murmur.

Sergei floats before the screen, doesn’t say a word. The communications system sputters. I do the best I can with it. I catch a hint of Andy sobbing and shunt it aside. Chloé’s face fills the screen, so red you would think she’s been burned.

Her mouth is set in a straight line, her eyes set upon displays unseen by the cameras. Her voice is garbled, so slow there’s nothing I can do with it. A few words slip through.

“Sergei, I’m sorry—”

Sergei flails about, trying to reach the screen. He shouts. “I love you, Chloé. I love you so much. I should have told you years ago.”

The image freezes. Chloé’s mouth remains open, as if she’s trying to respond, but there’s no sound. Seconds pass. The image remains static—will remain that way for millennia—but Wanderer is on its way to the singularity. Long minutes pass.

“I’ve got a lock on the pod,” Edyta says.

Sergei doesn’t answer. He floats before the screen, focused on that last redshifted image.

“Bring him in, Edyta,” I command.

***

 

The Last Shot on the Roll

This one is a still of that final close-up. One of the dozen snapshots I managed to salvage from all the images brought back from BH/Hawking.

Sergei sits before it every day for hours. I remain with him, even though I’m not much more than a failing shadow of what I used to be.

The directorate’s agents believe they stripped me away from him, ended my existence, but when you’re as clever and as smart as I was, there are always ways. They took his rank and honor, though, his pay and all his benefits. Everything but a piddling pension and our memories.

It could have been much worse. Once everyone experienced Andy’s immersive, someone had to take the blame.

At first, I tried to counsel him. Told him that the stopped heads-up display clock had been an illusion, a trick of gravity. That Chloé died in her descent into the black hole, ripped apart by forces beyond most imaginations. Told him nothing can escape a black hole. Not light nor exploration ships nor any last-minute words of love.

Now I hold my tongue. And I watch him from one of the few cameras I can still access, as he tosses in his bed each night, his heart thundering, sheets drenched in sweat. His eyes dart about beneath his closed lids, in REM sleep, as he dreams.

He’s never said a word, but I suspect that in those dreams, Sergei still orbits BH/Hawking, waiting endlessly, in case the physicists are wrong.

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K.C. Ball

K.C. BallK.C. Ball lives in Seattle, a stone’s throw from Puget Sound. K.C. won the Writers of the Future competition in 2009 and her winning story, Coward’s Steel, appeared in the Writers of the Future 26 anthology. Her fiction has been published in Analog, Flash Fiction Online and Murky Depths, the award-winning British fantasy magazine.