11,000 Years

When the research starship Hawking ventures too close to the event horizon of a black hole, it is cast 11,000 years into the future. Captain Morgan and the crew must now create a new life for themselves in a universe where humanity has divided into four different branches in a self-directed evolution.

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In 2169, the Terran Confederation research starship Hawking, under Captain Phelan Morgan, arrives at a black hole. After months of research, the companion star flares, and in a desperate effort to escape, the Hawking comes far closer than planned to the black hole’s event horizon. The ship is flung into the future as far from now as the first level of Jericho is from us. They have to deal with ultimate loss, and then look for people in this far future, only to find that humans have fractured into four very different branches in a self-directed evolution.

Hammad bn Hammerskld lives a settled life as an inquisitor in the capital city of one of hundreds of planets making up the Society of Humanity that nearly a third of all humans live under. Then he meets J’dith, who leads him on a trail to discover that most of what he thought of the Society was false. From that, their path leads to something neither could imagine.

When Phelan and the people of the Hawking meet Hammad and J’dith, the course of much of humanity will change.

Chapter 1: Arrival

Captain Phelan Morgan sat in his quietly-lit office contemplating the dark blue of the words he had just written, floating before him against a cream-colored background in the virtual display virtual display of the mesh when Ghadi Saeed, his first mate, called to him in the mesh. “Phelan, we’re about to start final braking.”

“Be right there,” Phelan replied. He leaned back and shook his head. The middle of the twenty-second century, and further from Terra than humans have ever gone, more than twenty-eight hundred light years, and I’m writing reports, rather than the AI doing it. He stared for a moment, then had Stephen, the ship’s mesh AI, add the boilerplate and save the report. Hoisting himself out of his chair, he walked out the door into the conference room, then through the other door and turned right into the bridge of the Terran Confederation research starship Hawking to sit in the captain’s chair. Around him in the round room were the bridge crew at their stations, with Guoli and his senior staff of researchers on guest chairs by the rail around him. Everyone was in blue shipsuits, with helmets on shelves by the door. Phelan’s headband was on, but he had only been in light mesh, so with a thought he irised it up to cover the top of his head with a metal net that gave him deep immersion in the mesh. Sinking in, he knew as the rest of the bridge crew, already in deep mesh, fell into alignment with him, providing the context and coordination that made them all as much a part of the Hawking as Stephen, or the clustered servers that ran the mesh, and the ship itself. Stephen suggested an increase in braking, and second mate Annette Nguyen at the helm directed it, while Vlad Strudowsky, the chief engineer, monitored the engines. In mesh, each of them knew what the other was doing, and together they managed the ship over the next hour until it dropped to sublight.

At last, after sixteen months, they were at their destination, and the view on the bridge monitor and in the VD left everyone stunned. Ahead was the black hole they’d come to study, the red-and-gold ring surrounding nothing, like an eye staring at them. Relatively above it was the white dwarf companion star, blazing flares rising high above its surface, all of this lying against a backdrop of uncountable stars.

For a time, the bridge mesh had an intensity that life out of deep mesh never reached. But they were still human, and after another two hours of braking, Steven, monitoring the bridge crew’s vital signs, warned them that they needed to come up. With everything looking nominal, Phelan came up into light mesh, and fell back to the physical world.

Which was when the ship shuddered, and the collision alarms went off. He dropped back into deep mesh, to see that a small rock, accelerated by the event horizon to a large fraction of the speed of light had come straight at them. Hitting their electromagnetic force field had slowed it and changed its course, but not enough. The close defense lasers had blown it apart, but some of the rubble had hit the ship.

Guoli Wang, Principle Investigator on the mission, and his senior staff were on the bridge to observe the arrival on the large monitor. They watched as view inverted, from the disturbing view of superlight, where the stars grew larger and faded as they fell behind, to a normal view, and the feel of the ship braking down from lightspeed. Then the five of them were jerked in their chairs as the ship shuddered. They swiveled their heads fearfully, looking at the Phelan and at Ghadi, and knew, through the mesh, that they were dealing with it.

In the bridge mesh, Phelan viewed with Ghadi the two sections of the ship that had been damaged. Small floater robots were already on the way to check on the compartments.

In a forward compartment, crew members Yusef and Davida had been in their seats for the drop to sublight, the blue of their shipsuits the only color in the gray and white compartment with the ceiling black. They were in light mesh when there was a tremendous crash, and a brief stream of incandescent dust shot through from the hull side to the wall opposite, gouging a hole though the wall. The stream stopped, and air began to scream out of the hole. Both were in shipsuits, but their helmets were by the door. Automatically, they fell deeper into mesh as they yanked the releases on their safety harnesses and leapt from their seats, Yusef let Ghadi know what had happened, then, as if rehearsed, the AI released a large cover plate that Yusef grabbed and guided to place against the hole, while Davida yanked open the tool kit that was almost always with her and pulled out her laser spotwelder. He moved aside as she started firing bursts with the mesh guiding her aim, first the corners, then the middle of each side, then at lower power sealing the seams. As she did, the air stream slowed to a stop, and then there was only the hum of the ventilators.

In the next compartment there was a crash, and a stream of blazing dust shot through the compartment where Jessup, an astrochemistry grad student, had been sitting with Donovan, one of the senior astrochemists. Donovan screamed as the edge of the stream hit his ankle. Jessup released his harness and leapt to help Donovan out of his, and hopped him through the door which closed behind them. Laying Donovan on the deck, the younger man saw blood starting to spurt out of Donovan’s ankle through the holed ship-suit. Jessup pulled down the top of his ship-suit and yanked off his undershirt, unfastened and pulled off the boot of Donovan’s shipsuit, and bent to tie it around the wound as tight as he could to staunch the flow of blood. Just then Davida and Yusef looked out of their compartment, and seeing what was happening, Davida meshed Ken, the ship’s doctor.

While Phelan heard Yusef’s report on the status of the compartment and that medical was on their way for Donovan, he had Ghadi turn up the defense field to max, and they waited. “How severe was the damage?”

“Not too bad. Without the extra metallo-ceramic armor that they added onto the ship in preparation for this mission, this would have been a lot more serious.”

When no new surprises appeared, he finally dropped down from deep mesh again and announced on the general mesh, “Crew and researchers of the Hawking, this is your captain. We’ve arrived. We hit a small fast-moving asteroid, but there was only minor damage. There’s been one injury, but nothing serious, and it’s being dealt with. It will be several days before we achieve a stable initial orbit, so other than those professor Wang has designated to begin observations of the black hole and the companion star, you may stand down. Please, however, stay in your shipsuits until we have a better feel for the safety of the neighborhood.”

Opening his eyes, Phelan had the usual slight muzzyness and disorientation after he had been in deep mesh for a while, especially when he had bounced in and out in a short time. Looking around, he saw Guoli and his senior people still clutching their seats and looking at him.

Guoli saw the mesh net irising down from over Phelan’s head into his headband and asked, “Who’s been hurt?”

“Donovan, one of Ruth’s chemists, has an injured ankle, but otherwise everyone’s okay,” Phelan answered.

“How is he?” asked Ruth Alvarez, the astrochemistry chief.

“The med scanner on the gurney reports that he’s lost some skin and some muscle, maybe some bone, but he’ll be all right, though he won’t be moving that ankle for a while. I’ve got a question, though.”

Ruth looked at the tall, slender dark-haired captain, “Yes?”

“The call for assistance was from one of my crew members who came out of the next compartment. Why didn’t,” he looked aside into mesh for a second, “Jessup call?”

“He doesn’t have meshecytes in his bloodstream. He refused them for religious reasons, if I remember,” she said. Phelan nodded at her. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Guoli,” she said, brushing her short auburn hair back with her fingers. “I should go see him.”

The captain held up a finger. “You’d better wait until they’ve stabilized him, and set him up.”

“He’s right, Ruth. Let them take care of him first,” Guoli said. Turning back to the captain, he said, “Our thanks to you and your crew, Phelan. It will be good to finally get to work.” Looking at the monitor, he slowly shook his head. “We’re a long way from home.”

“That we are.” Phelan looked aside for a minute to the mesh. “We’re beginning the reconfiguration, so you and your people should have access to all your instruments and probes soon.” He paused for a moment, then added, “I think I need some coffee. Ruth, care to join me?” Her face still showed concern for Donovan, but she nodded. He turned and said, in his high baritone, “Ghadi, you have the bridge. I am going to have coffee.”

Ghadi, darkly bearded and tall, not as tall as his captain but a bit heavier, turned at his station to look at Phelan. “I have the bridge.”

The two walked into the refectory. Other than some of the cargo bays, it was the largest room in the ship, twenty meters by ten, tables down the long way, with seats on slides on the deck, yellow walls and gray floors and the ceiling black to partly mask the pipes and cabling. The far wall was lined with food printers and dispensers, and since arrival had been planned for mid-day, everyone who could take a break was at lunch. The aromas were an agglomeration of Terra: spices from India and China, savory from Europe, breads from the Middle East, and lighter flavors from the Americas. They got their coffee, then walking towards a couple of free seats passed Chen Hsu, Vlad’s Second in engineering, talking to Iziegbe Oyegun, one of the Nigerians, about how much he wished that his wife and son could have come.

Iziegbe smiled, bright teeth in her dark face. “I do not think your son would ‘ave really understood, since ‘e is only two. It must have been hard, leaving them behind for a voyage this long,” she said in her pleasant French-African lilt.

“Very much so, but an opportunity like this is rare,” Chen answered, “And working on a research vessel is a wonderful learning experience.”

Phelan and Ruth tuned that conversation out, having heard Chen talk about his family enough times on the voyage out. “Shall we have dinner together tonight?” he asked.

“Not tonight, I think. I’ll probably be eating at my workstation, meshing with the probes.”

“Well, let’s find time for it.”

“I promise, just as soon as it’s down to a dull roar, or at least after the prelims are done and we start the intensive scans.”

He drank the last of his coffee and stared into the empty cup. “Speaking of work, I should probably get back to the bridge.”

“And by now, I should go to sick bay.” They said their goodbyes, and headed off.

✽✽✽

A week later, Phelan was standing at Ruth’s door, asking in mesh for her attention. He felt her come down from deep mesh, and smiled as the slender woman opened the door. “Eaten lately?” he said, looking down at the warmer container of food he held.

She looked aside for a second, and realized that she hadn’t eaten all day. Shamefacedly, she asked “How did you know?”

He smiled warmly. “I am the captain. I see all, I know all.” She swept her hand by his face with a mock slap. “And Ken was checking the med scans, and complained to me that he didn’t like you in deep mesh so long.”

She led him into her cabin, and cleared her work table. “I’m not comfortable with the ship’s med sensors recording everyone at that level.”

He shrugged. “We all agreed to it, given the length of this trip, and that it is a research vessel,” he said, opening the container and bringing out the food, tortillas in a keeper, carne guisada and refried beans. “Hope you like my choices.”

She sighed, sitting and looking at the food. “Looks good. How are things going for you?”

“Other than scanning for infalling rocks and radiation flares, it’s just stationkeeping, but the research staff…. I had to ask the Nigerians to calm down yesterday.”

“Oh? The five of them usually hang around together when they’re off shift.”

“Yeah, and it wasn’t an issue on the voyage out, but maybe the intensity and the hours everyone’s putting in now is bringing it out. Seems one’s a religious Muslim, and another a devout Catholic, while the other three are pretty secular, and they keep getting into arguments over religion. The odd thing to me is that it seems to be the Catholic and the Muslim against the rest.”

Ruth nodded as she ate. “My grandmother was the last one in my family who was a practicing Catholic.” She paused, and Phelan could see she was drawing up old memories. “I remember her apartment, with the candles and incense. She was an art historian, whose specialty was religious iconography.”

“My family hasn’t been very religious for a long time, though one side was Pagan.”

“Any particular kind?”

“Gaean, I think. Very pro-ecology, and for the shrinking of the population of Terra. They were very politically active during the formation of the Terran Confederation and after, hoping it would mean fewer wars, better education, and population decrease.”

“I certainly won’t say that they were wrong. The population’s slowly going down, and not through war and disasters. Of course, the development of the grav drive helped, too.”

As they ate, he looked at her strong, lived-in face, eyes that could smile. A century before, she might have been in her very late thirties, now, he knew she was perhaps ten years younger than his late sixties. Again, though, he found himself with the same internal conflict he always had when he was with Ruth. He was the captain of the mission, and personally responsible for all on board, including her. At the end of the day, this meant to him that she was effectively under his command, and something more than friendship was not acceptable, ethically or morally. Yet at the same time, he enjoyed being with her. As usual, he decided it was too much to worry about, and wound up the conversation by asking, “Will we see you in the refectory more often, or will I have to sic Guoli on you?”

“I’ll try to be good, but no promises.”

“I suppose that’ll have to do.” He collected the warmer and the plates, and said “Good night, and try to get some sleep.”

She smiled at him. “I said I’d try, but there’s so much work. Besides, I got plenty of sleep on the voyage out.”

After he left, Ruth stared at the closed door, muttering to herself, “That was amazingly frustrating. If he wasn’t so tight in mesh that I had a clue how he felt about me….” She finally shook her head, and went back to work.

Chapter 2: Intimations of Trouble

Several days after the incident, Lassiter came up to where Jessup was sitting in the lounge, drinking coffee, and wearing mesh glasses. “Hi, Jessup,” he said, looking at the sandy-haired man.

The Texan looked up, pushing the glasses up on his forehead and looked at the slender, dark haired younger man. “Hey, Lassiter. What’s up?”

“Well… mind if I join you?” Jessup waved his hand, and Lassiter sat. “I heard about the argument you had the other day. Was he really that anti-religious?”

Jessup looked at him with a look of mild disdain. “Didn’t know you were a believer.”

“I’m not, really, but my folks died in a fishing accident, and I grew up with my aunt and uncle, and they were. My uncle was a deacon in the local Methodist church.”

“Given how you carry yourself, and the babe you room with, I’m a little surprised.”

“It’s not like it’s a choice I made, how I lean. And Saixa thinks I’m her big brother.” He paused. “What about the woman you’re rooming with?”

“My girl?” He shrugged. “She’s okay. Thinks well of herself, though.”

Lassiter was slightly put off by the stocky Texan’s comment. Then he took in the mesh eyewear – virtual displays with mesh connection – that Jessup had taken off, thought of his annoyance that he hadn’t been able to mesh Jessup, looked him up and down, and put it all together. “Are you from Old Conservative people?”

“Why, because of my build? And me using mesh glasses? Yeah, we don’t hold with gene tweaking for looks, or artificial crap in my blood, just for fixing medical problems.”

“You’re lucky you’ve got good genes. My folks got me tweaked, or I’d be heavy, and my hair would be thin.”

Jessup shook his head. “Back home, they argue about whether some people should be fat. Lotta folks at A&M like me.”

Lassiter rolled his eyes. “Hey Aggie, I’m went to Rice, and we beat you a bunch of times.”

“Yeah, not in American football.”

“Did too….”

“What, about twenty-eight years ago? I heard about that – we’d just had the best of the team graduate, and some gene tweaks had just been allowed.” He smiled fiercely. “Bashed you since then, when we get to play.”

“Yeah, well, we do it because it’s not easy….” They both chuckled.

“Hey, we’re in break mode, while the intensive probes are making their orbits. Why don’t you and…Sasha?”

“Saixa.”

“Come on over after dinner. Janey’s taking a break, too, and I’ve got some ‘shine I made.” At Lassiter’s look, he added, “Vacuum still.”

“I’ll see if she’d like to.” He looked aside for a minute, into the mesh. “Oops, I need to get back. Maybe see you later.” He jumped up and walked off, quickly.

Watching him go, Jessup shook his head, muttering, “Damn meshheads.”

That evening Lassiter and Saixa came to Jessup’s cabin. She was wearing a traditional white and gold Chinese jacket over her blue shipsuit, while he had an oversize t-shirt over his. Walking in, it was like theirs: a common area, with a couple of desks that could double as a table, some chairs, a small couch, and a door to a bathroom, with doors to small sleeping rooms on either side. Though it smelled as though cleanerbots had been through, it seemed full of Jessup’s things, with little space for Jane. She was an attractive, well-built blond woman, in tight pants and a t-shirt, draped over a chair, and sounding as though she’d already had some drinks. “Hey, y’all all, find you’self a seat.” She waved at another chair and the couch.

Lassiter glanced at Jessup, and did a double-take. “Those actual blue jeans you’re wearing?”

“Yeah. Old Believers’ have our own clothing suppliers, like the Amish.”

Saixa looked around, and came to sit by Jane. “I brought some Chinese wine that I’ve had in my things, to celebrate our arrival,” she said, putting a bottle on the table.

“Oh, nice, thank’ou.” She looked over at Jessup. “’Ey, Jessie, you gotta have a corkscrew.”

“Yeah, lemme get my knife.” He’d clearly been drinking, too. “Here we go, wow, fancy wine, a bottle with a cork….” He opened it and took a swig from the bottle, not seeing Saixa’s face at this. He made a face. “Sour.”

Jane took the bottle from him, and took a sniff. “Hey, that smells nice. S’cuse him, he ain’t got no manners. Lemme get some glasses….” She brought out three clean glasses, pushing aside the used glass in front of her, saying to Jessup, “Y’don’ want none anyway.” He made a face, and took a drink from the glass he’d been holding, looked at it, and reached over to refill it from a lab flask.

Lassiter took a sniff of the flask, and got a harsh smell of alcohol. “Whooeee, reminds me of the garbage punch we used to make in the dorms.”

“We did the same. Good stuff, good times.”

Jane looked up and said, “Hey, ain’t these good times? Lookit where we are!”

“Yeah, too many folks full of ’emselves. An’ too many meshheads.”

Jane looked over. “You just say that ’cause your folks keep you from getting the whatsitcytes.” Jessup made a face at that, and took another drink. “So,” she said, turning to Saixa, “how’sh your work goin’?” Listening to herself, she made a face. “Gotta slow down on the booze.”

“Very well. The gravity maps we’re building are giving us a fascinating picture of spacetime right outside the event horizon, and we may be getting hints, by implication, of just inside.”

“Wow. We been seein’ whole ionized molecules being created out of nothing, just outsh… outside” Jane said, with an effort. “Where the particles and photons are created in that area, and just outside of it.”

The two women got into a technical discussion of the implications of gravity and zero point energy. Jessup looked at them for a minute or two, then turned to Lassiter. “You’re on the astronomy team. Did that Nigerian get grief from your chief?”

“Guy’s not that kind of manager, to jump down someone’s throat. I did hear he gave Ehi a talking to, though.” Lassiter saw an unpleasant, pleased look on Jessup’s face, and mentally shook his head.

Later, after he and Saixa got back to their quarters, she turned to him. “Jessup doesn’t seem like a very nice person. He’s rude, and I don’t think he treats Jane respectfully.”

“He was just lit,” seeing her look of incomprehension, “Drunk. I come from his home state, and I know people like him, my grandparents would call him a ‘good ol’ boy.’ He’s probably got real nice manners, when he wants to put them on.”

She shook her head. “There are things about him that disturb me.”

“Me, too, but we’re all so busy, I figure he’s just blowing off steam.” He said good night, and went to his room.

✽✽✽

Several weeks later, Lassiter and Saixa had finished eating dinner in their quarters and were talking shop, when they heard loud voices outside their door, and then a heavy thump. The door opened for them as they ran through, to see Jessup and Jane a few steps down the corridor, in an argument. Jane, facing away from them, was wearing pants and a top, both disarranged, the top looking slightly torn. Jessup was in front of her, red-faced, cursing her out. She started to answer him rudely, and he took a swung with his fist and hit her. She fell backwards to the deck, a hand over her face, and bleeding from her nose.

Leaving Saixa at the door, hand to her mouth in shock, Lassiter ran to stand between Jessup and Jane. “What the hell you doin’, man? That what your folks teach you, to hit a woman?” Lassiter yelled, his language falling into the back country speech of his older relatives.

“This ain’t none of your business,” Jessup snarled. They stood there for a minute, facing each other, when Winslow and another crew member came running around the corner into the side corridor where they stood.

“What’s going on here?” Winslow asked in a loud voice.

“Jus’ a disagreement with my woman, and he’s sticking his nose in,” Jessup said harshly, nodding at Lassiter.

Winslow looked at the scene, then down at Jane. “Are you all right? Is that what happened?”

By now, Saixa had come up with a towel, and had given it to Jane, who looked up at Winslow. “This bastard had some ideas that I didn’t care for at the time, and the next thing he chases me out of our compartment, then curses and hits me.” She looked straight at Jessup. “I ain’t your woman, and never will be.”

“Damn straight,” he barked back.

“That will be enough,” said Winslow. He paused for a minute in mesh, then looked at Jessup. “Captain says you go back to your quarters, and he’ll see you first thing in the morning.” Jessup snarled again, stood for a minute, then turned and stalked away. Turning to Jane, Winslow said, “You don’t want to go back there tonight.”

“Hell, no…” Jane started to say, when Saixa spoke up.

“Please, you stay with us this evening. We will make room for you,” Saixa said, looking at Jane.

Jane and Saixa both looked at Lassiter, who had watched Jessup leave. He was turning when he heard Saixa, and looked at them. “Damn straight we want you to stay with us.” He offered Jane a hand up, seeing that she was unsteady, and the three of them started back to their quarters, when the other, younger crew member spoke up.

“Will you need to go to medbay?”

“Nah, I’ve run into trees harder than that, but thanks,” Jane said, and the three went through the door, leaving the two crew members shaking their heads.

In the morning, Ruth was standing next to Phelan in his office, by the conference room off the bridge. The room’s lighting was brighter than Phelan normally had it, and Jessup was standing in front of them. “M. Jessup, you’ve been warned several times about loud arguments. A physical fight is unacceptable on this ship.”

Jessup looked at Phelan’s intense, cold face, and replied, “Yessir.”

“The worst of it is that you chased your roommate, with whom you had a relationship, out of your cabin and hit her hard enough to knock her down.” His baritone grew forceful and deep. “That will not happen again. I will find you another roommate. If I hear of you with any liquor, and I am going to turn up the sensors in your quarters to tell me about it, or if you are in a fight again, I will find a storage compartment, and you will bunk there. I do not want to take a resource away from M. Alvarez, but if I have to, you will be locked in that storage compartment.” He stepped close, almost in Jessup’s face, and his voice grew lower still. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yessir.”

“I know where you went to school. What was that, again?”

Jessup, surprised, automatically responded, “Sir, yes sir!”

“That’s better.” He turned to Ruth. “I’m sorry, Ruth, but it’s got to be this way.”

Ruth nodded. “I completely agree.” She waved a hand at Jessup. “M. Jessup, you will go to the lab and get back to work, and you will be respectful to the rest of the team.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Looking at Phelan, he added, “Am I excused, sir?” At Phelan’s nod, Jessup executed a military turn and left.

Phelan walked around his desk and dropped into his chair with a sigh, waving Ruth to the chair by the desk. She gratefully sat down. “Ruth, I’m not sure what else I can do. This isn’t a Naval ship, so I can’t put him in a brig we don’t have.” She saw a devious smile grow on his face that had been so severe a moment before. “I just realized I have one more card to play.” She looked quizzically at him. “From the reports of what happened, Lassiter stood up to Jessup, and stopped him, and they seem to understand each other.” He snorted. “Both of them are from Texas. We seem to have a surfeit of Texans.” Seeing Ruth’s look, he added, “My grandmother was from there. Anyway, I’ll put the two of them together, and we’ll see how that works.”

“Thanks so much, Phelan.” She shook her head, “This is appalling. This is not how he was presented, nor presented himself to me during the interview process, nor was it in the background checks. It’s not what I would have expected from the kind of people on board.”

He shrugged. “People are people, not black or white, just lighter or darker shades of gray.” Somber for a moment, he shrugged. “Care to have lunch together?”

“I’d like to, but I’ve got a working lunch with my team. Maybe dinner tomorrow?”

“Sounds good to me, see you then.” He went back deeper into the mesh as she left.

Chapter 3: Problems and Connections

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything…” Charles meshed Phelan. In response, he could feel the captain shaking his head.

“I was writing reports,” Phelan sent, and visualized his brain melting out of his ears. “What’s up?”

“Well… I was finishing up the last reports from home, when I found a large dump from mission control.”

“Really? With all the missions they’re running….”

“This was to all missions, but with special attention to missions that had the more dangerous destinations. It’s a major enhancement to the mesh, with recommendations that implementation be strongly considered by mission specialists. I’m setting up a test environment, and it’s not trivial.”

“Given that they ask that those of us in dangerous locations look at it…. I wonder if we could have avoided that collision when we arrived.” Phelan could feel Charles’ shrug in mesh. “Set up a model of the bridge mesh, and let me know when it’s ready. I’d like all of us to try it out.”

✽✽✽

Annette was looking for somewhere to sit in the lounge, which was down the main hall from the refectory. The views on the outside monitors were spectacular, but she saw one of the research assistants who she had thought quite attractive pounding the arm of a couch, and leaking anger into the mesh. Walking over, she asked, “What is wrong, Shoson, is it?”

“It is Shoshone,” looking up at Annette, “Do not worry, I have heard that all the time.” She motioned for the other woman to sit down. “I am really very frustrated. I have got some sensors scanning the edge of the event horizon, and every so often, I get noise, and I cannot figure out from where it is coming.”

“Why do you not show me where the sensors are, and the timing of the noise?” Annette did not have her headband on, but, like all the bridge crew, had more capable meshecytes in her bloodstream that gave her more than merely a lightweight access.

The two went into mesh. Seeing the placement and timing of Shoshone’s sensors in the shared virtual display, she ran a query beyond the young woman’s view. When the results came back, she smiled. “I see the problem. You have got several of your sensors aimed right across where there is a docking bay for smaller probes. You can either move the sensors, or we can see if we can set up shielding for a tighter beam.”

“Oh, a tighter beam would be otlichno, great!” Shoshone said.

Annette thought for a minute, checked schedules, and called in mesh. She and Shoshone continued to look at possibilities until Davida, who was about Shoshone’s age, came into the lounge. She was slightly slimmer than Shoshone, and had warm brown eyes. “Davida, this is Shoshone. She could use some help with signal isolation of her sensors.” Smiling at Shoshone, she added, “Take a look….” The two women showed Davida what they were looking at in the shared virtual display. “Why do you not work with Shoshone, figure out what is best, and make that happen.”

“Sure, Annette. Sounds like fun.” Davida sat down. Annette, with a backward glance at Shoshone’s shoulder-length curly brown hair next to Davida’s black hair, sighed to herself, and moved away and sat to return to reviewing reports.

The two younger women began to work out a plan. As they were bringing up the layouts, Davida said, “I shouldn’t say this….” Shoshone’s eyebrows went up. Davida went on, “I mean, she is one of my bosses… but I think she likes you.”

“Oh. So it was not a fantasy in my head?”

“Nope.” The two let that sit for a minute, then went on working on the scanners.

✽✽✽

It had been an intense two months of work for the researchers since they had arrived. Guoli, taking a break, walked into the refectory to get some tea. With a cup in his hand, he looked around, and saw his secretary Guillermo, with a long face and a short beard, unsmiling, hunched over a mug. He sat down and took a sip, then asked, “You look unhappy, my friend. What’s wrong?”

Guillermo shook his head. “Nothing new. Chen was sitting here just before you came in, and going on about his wife and son.”

“And you were thinking of your family? Anything new?”

The other man shook his head.

Guillermo took another sip of his tea. “You should remember you can always talk to me. It hasn’t been that many years since I called you to talk, when the trouble between my wife and I were leading to our breakup, so I know how it helps to have someone who’s been there to talk to, who will understand.”

“Indeed.” Guoli smiled. “It’s not like the AI can sit and have tea with you, other than in mesh.” He decided it was time to change the subject. “How’s the summary of the work progressing?”

Guillermo sat there, then looked up. “From the reports I’m getting from the chiefs, I think we’re ahead of schedule on most of the work….”

“It’s time, though, to start asking for estimates as to how soon the originally scheduled work will be done, what can be completed by the time we need to leave, and what will need to be wrapped up and written up for future work.” Guillermo nodded. “By the way, have you tried out this new enhancement of the mesh?”

“I have. I find it… intense. In some ways disturbing, especially since the leakage of side thoughts and emotions can be embarrassing.”

Guoli nodded. “There is that, but the speed and the ability to integrate more varied data is fascinating.”

“That it is.”

✽✽✽

Another month had gone by, and the senior crew and staff were in the weekly meeting held in the small conference room by the captain’s office. Guy Gandolfo, the astronomy chief, was usually calm and relaxed, but looked worried throughout the meeting. When his turn came, he shook his head. “I’m afraid I have some unpleasant news to report. Our observations show what’s likely to be a massive flare developing, with a coronal mass ejection, on the companion star. If it’s as big as we’re afraid it will be, we could be in serious danger.”

Phelan looked at him. “If it happens, how soon, and how long might it last?”

Guy rubbed his chin, covered with a closely-trimmed beard. “It could be in the next few weeks, and we could be looking at a massive stellar storm that would result in it lasting longer than usual.” He looked around the table. “It could last a month or more.”

Guoli sat back. “What you’re saying is that we might have to cut the mission short by a month and a half.”

“I’m afraid so. With that massive a storm, the companion star’s radiation alone will be bad, and what the black hole radiates….”

Phelan rubbed the short beard he’d grown. “How much warning could you give us of the flare?”

Guy rubbed his chin again. “We’ve been really cautious about using them, but we do have a few probes with a low-power ansible. Using those, we could hopefully have a day, maybe more.”

Phelan looked around the table, then said to Guy, “Please send out those probes soonest. You can have my team help you program them to come running home as soon as they see something. Also, put them in orbits of two, eight, and sixteen radii, so we have a chance of picking up one or two as we leave.” He looked over at Charles, and said, “I’ll assign Winslow to help you. He’s worked well with you before.” The senior systems man nodded.

Phelan added, “Also, I want you to move the enhanced mesh to the live bridge mesh. This is exactly the situation that it could give us a critical edge.” He looked around. “Is everyone okay with this?” What he saw was a lot of thoughtful maybes. “I think all of us need to put in some serious practice time in the upgraded mesh.” There was general agreement with that.

Guoli spoke up. “I’ve had Guillermo getting work schedules, and I’ll have everyone give him revised schedules, based on this. Charles, I think it would be good to move the senior staff to the enhanced mesh as well.” Charles nodded, and the meeting wrapped up with everyone having a lot to think about, planning for an early departure.

A few days later, Ruth joined Phelan for some tea in the refectory. As they sat down, she looked at him. “I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but that new mesh is… intense. Sometimes it’s almost overwhelming. Guillermo commented to me that if you can’t get used to holding it very tight, the sidecurrents can be, well, embarrassing, or disturbing.”

He nodded. “More than you want gets out. Afterwards, when you drop down, you feel… a bit exposed.” She nodded an agreement. “I haven’t…” he began.

“No, not at all. You’re always very controlled in mesh. It’s more with the senior mesh, one or two people have commented to me later, and I’ve said something to several people. It’s harder still on the younger people who’ve tried it.”

He nodded. “I’ve noticed that as well, which was why I only wanted it moved in for the bridge crew’s use. Everyone on that has a lot of experience working closely together in deep mesh.”

“As most of the senior staff, but we don’t use it in the way you do.”

Phelan bit his lip, relieved that his ongoing internal conflict over Ruth and his job had not leaked. Maybe when they got back…. They had started to talk about the people under them when one of Guy’s astronomy assistants came over to them.

“Excuse me, Captain.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, sir. Guy asked me to let you know that we think the flare’s starting to develop, and that he wanted to brief you on it.”

“Thank you.” Turning to Ruth, “Excuse me…” he began, when she cut him off.

“Go. You need to go right now. We can talk more, later.” He nodded, and left with the assistant.

They came into the observatory, to see Guy and three of his researchers running simulations. He looked up, and held up a finger. After he’d finished, he turned to Phelan. “Our best estimates are that we have a day, but maybe less.” He frowned. “Worse, it looks like it will destabilize some of the orbiting rocks, and they could be coming in fast.” Seeing Phelan’s look, he added, “Not anything near lightspeed, but still fast.”

Phelan sucked his lips in, and called on Stephen to assist in going through what had to come next. After a few minutes with the AI, he turned back to Guy. “Okay. Do what you need to, or at least what you can complete.” Then he meshed his senior crew, and to Guoli and his senior researchers. “Folks, we need to wrap up, now. Guy’s latest predictions are that the flare’s begun, and we need to be out of here in less than two days.”

“Very well. People, let’s go to senior staff, and let Phelan begin his preparations.” Guoli said, and closed off the senior mesh connection.

Phelan worked with his crew to prepare the ship for travel, beginning with closing up some of the holds and their reconfiguration, the alignment of the masts for the protection field, and starting the system checks that had to run before they accelerated.