"You back in for evening, old man, or you gonna abandon the shop again to flit off to the ass-end of the system?"
Thus was the greeting that awaited the crew of the Taleweaver when it returned to its resting place in the Wyvern for Hire shop and the entry hatch deployed. Most of the Wyvern shop was gathered around the Taleweaver, awaiting with well-honed patience an explanation for the abrupt disappearance of their boss. It wasn't an unusual occurrence – Tommy Harkennian had developed a nasty habit of taking off for urgent jobs without notifying anyone, and his definition of "urgent" was much broader than most. Anna, who had greeted the returning explorer in her typical fashion, had less curiosity than the others and much more frustration, though this too was typical.
"Well gosh, I was only chasing down a lead for the biggest job we ever had!" Tommy adjusted his bomber jacket as he maneuvered through the knot of technicians. "Hey, think of it as a good thing! I trust all of you guys with my shop - and come to think of it, pretty soon I'll need an extra-trustworthy lady or fella to manage this place. I'll be gone for a good long while and gosh darn it, business doesn't stop for one man. Everyone's eligible, and we'll have a meeting later to work out the details. Sound good?"
"Cover your ass a little more, old man." Anna glared at Morgi as he exited the Taleweaver. "What are you looking at, squirrel?"
Morgi laughed to himself. "Nothing I won't miss when we're gone."
Jennifer and Yang Yizhen were the last off the ship. "We have located our quarry," said Yang Yizhen. "Does this mean that you are prepared to accept our quest?"
"I guess so," said Jennifer with a wily grin. "To be honest, I was ready to ditch this whole thing, but springing the Epochi really gave me a charge."
"You are an adventurer at heart, and we shall all celebrate your courage on our victorious return as galactic saviors," said Yang Yizhen.
"That reminds me..." Jennifer rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You mentioned earlier that this thing we're tracking is dangerous. Just how 'dangerous' is it? If nothing else, we'll need to quantify it for Tommy so we know how to transport it safely."
Yang Yizhen wrung his hands. "This...is not so easily done. Ah, but there is no risk as long as the thief does not open all three cases that secure the project, a staggeringly remote possibility. Absent that, the cases will offer ample protection against ordinary shocks."
"Uh huh." The bureaucrat was clearly holding back, but dollar signs and adventure were already numbing Jennifer to the perils. "Well, as long as it doesn't explode in my hand, I can live with that."
"Oh, you'll not handle the case directly," said Yang Yizhen. "Protocols dictate that only a member of the governing bureaucracy bear the-"
Jennifer waved a hand in Yang Yizhen's face. "Forget I asked. You'll carry it, and it'll be your responsibility if it activates and we all die."
Yang Yizhen halted in his tracks for a moment. "Your thoughts are most morbid, Shen Xiaojie."
Back in Tommy's sparse office, Morgi took a seat at Tommy's desk and fired up the holographic interface. "All right, let's see if I can remember how the human maps work..."
"I'd be glad to help you, buddy," said Tommy.
"Nah, I got it." Morgi made a gesture before the interface and the display turned into a stylized rendering of the known galaxy. "All right, the generation ships entered this territory at this trajectory..." Yellow lines flew across the display in time with Morgi's finger strokes, weaving and shifting as they wove through planetary systems and dodged stars. "...Now, we give it a minute and we'll have the coordinates."
"You make for a masterful navigator," said Yang Yizhen. "The Taiyang Empire will reward you no less than your colleagues."
Morgi waved Yang Yizhen away. "Forget the money, I don't need it. Frankly, you guys already paid me by getting me off that horrible planet. Make you a deal, though: I don't know how safe I am here since the cranks know where I am, so I'll go along with you on the first stretch. The first habitable planet we find with a decent climate and natives that are cool with me, you drop me off and we're square. The autonavigator can guide you the rest of the way, probably better than me."
Tommy threw out a thumb's up. "No sweat! Hey, after everything you've done to make my dreams come true, I hope the best for you."
"Thanks." Morgi turned back to the map. "Now, this isn't dead-on precise - like I said, you've got planetary gravity and unidentified black holes and all that crap - but these coordinates will at least land you in the right star system. I'm sure you can find a radio signal or radiation signature or whatever once you're close enough. Is this good?"
"This is perfect!" Yang Yizhen smiled like he was the birthday boy tearing the paper off the biggest gift. "Once our quest is done, I can deliver this information to my Empress as a gift! In her ecstasy, she will have to forget my errors!"
"That's swell! All right, we can start prepping the craft right away, and we'll be ready to head out in a couple days. Oh..." Tommy turned to Jennifer. "It just hit me - you brought this job to me, Ms. Shen, but I've been neglecting you something terrible. Is this all good with you?"
It was an impossible, damn near suicidal mission driven by a hunch. The wise move all along was to ignore it and hope that the strange boy from Taiyang was exaggerating when he spoke of dire consequences. The wise move was to stay home and pretend that it never happened.
"Let's go," said Jennifer. "I'm on board."
"Terrific!" Tommy vaulted from his chair and raced to the door of his office, poking his head through. "Anna, are you busy?"
"I'm tuning up your stupid ship," shouted Anna. "What the hell do you want?"
"You wanna run the shop while I'm gone?" said Tommy.
"Damn right I do!" said Anna. "Wait...there's a trick here, ain't there? You pulling something here, Harkennian? Skipping out on your debts or something?"
Tommy laughed and clapped his hands. "You're quite the live wire, Annelise. I'm sure you'll do a fine job."
Morgi crossed his arms. "Not to throw water on this little going away party, but I'm homeless right now. I can't exactly go back to Epocha while you fix up the ship."
"It seems that I, too, am temporarily without residence. It would not do at all to return to Taiyang without anything to report." Yang Yizhen's face lit up. "Of course, we can room with Shen Xiaojie! This way, we can grow acclimated to each other's presence in preparation for the long voyage!"
Jennifer pressed a thumb to her lips. "Uh...with me?"
Tommy knocked Yang Yizhen on the shoulder, just firm enough to knock him off balance. "Now, I thought you imperial boys had more sense than that - asking to room with a lady out of nowhere like that! Gosh, that's just rude. I'll tell you what - I have a little crash pad in the back of the shop for when I'm getting up early. Why, you fellas can stay there! It's not the most comfy place, but it'll keep you out of the rain."
Morgi shrugged and bobbed his head. "Hey, I spent the last four months secured to my bed by steel restraints. I can cope."
And with that, the crew of the Taleweaver had everything they needed except any real concept of what was at stake. The thief already had a trillion mile leap on them, and unbeknownst to anyone in Taiyang or Jennifer's team, there was someone else keeping an eye on the situation.
The surviving literature of the Cradle - particularly that branch known in generations past as "science fiction" - presented space exploration in a very romantic light, a fact reflected in the vessels sent into the great beyond. These starships were typically austere yet spacious and even elegant in their own way, perfect settings for exciting shipboard combat and interpersonal drama alike. But even a thousand years later, space remained a premium on such vessels, a fact amply showcased aboard the Taleweaver. Packed somewhere within its metal frame was a tiny bridge with a ring of seats facing displays that provided most of the illumination when the hatch was closed. Behind that was an even smaller sleeping area in which the crew would sleep in shifts and a yet smaller bathroom that represented the vehicle's main luxury. All other space was held over for backup power, primary and backup life support, fabricators and their base materials, storage space, and the linear-dimensional engine that made such travel a possibility.
"Whoa there, no one said anything about using a linear-dimensional engine," said Morgi.
Tommy shrugged and flashed a grin. "Well gosh, what else would we use? There are no gravitonic nodes and she's not big enough to carry a matter transmitter, even if I could afford one."
"Is there some concern with the ship?" Yang Yizhen took his assigned seat and removed the tiny travel parcel from his sleeve. "Perhaps I can put in an inquiry."
"There's nothing wrong with the ship," said Jennifer, sliding down into her own seat. "I've been on ships using linear-dimensional engines before. They're no different than other FTL engines."
"No different?" said Morgi. "Do you have any idea how these things work?"
"Well shucks, I do," said Tommy, continuing his engine checks as he spoke. "They temporarily modify the molecular spin of the ship, reducing it down to a single dimension and at that size, why, the laws of physics are just recommendations!"
"Fancy words." Morgi leaned over his seat, clawing and gesturing in the air. "Here's how it works, kids. They'll compress this bastard down to a one-dimensional speck and then shoot it through the fabric of space at a speed orders of magnitude faster than anything else in the known universe. You can't turn the damn thing, you can't stop...it's like being strapped to a superluminal bullet. And if that bullet hits something you didn't see in advance, then BOOM! Your atoms are scattered over a quadrillion cubic miles."
Jennifer ducked away from Morgi's mad gestures. "Calm down, Morgi. It's totally safe in open space, and you gave us the trajectory of the generation ships. We know for sure that they didn't hit anything, right?"
"Yeah, I...uh...I suppose you're right." Morgi returned to his seat, peering over Tommy's shoulder. "What else do you have on this loopy ship? Armaments...Lancet phase penetration torpedoes? Are you taking this thing to war?"
"Those are for destroying asteroids," said Tommy.
"Asteroids with seventy-centimeter titanium plating?" said Morgi.
Yang Yizhen slid out of his seat and sidled up next to Jennifer. "I must admit, Shen Xiaojie, I am growing tense over this quest," he whispered. "Yes, it is my responsibility, and I must undertake it at all costs, but I have never truly faced such dangers."
"Then stay behind," said Jennifer. "It's like I told you earlier, there's no reason you have to come along."
Yang Yizhen bowed his head. "Yes, in truth, there is no need for me to travel with you. Certainly, the Celestial Empress did not mandate this."
"What about the mandate that you carry the case?" said Jennifer.
"Oh, perhaps I exaggerated the importance of my role in transporting the parcel," said Yang Yizhen.
"Then why are you really here?" said Jennifer.
"Because I fear that you may not return, and if you are to die on this mission, then it is only right..." Yang Yizhen drew in a heavy breath. "...that I, the one responsible, perish as well."
"You imperial types...they really do brainwash you, don't they?" With a weary sigh, Jennifer turned to face the bureaucrat. "Look, I don't care how you messed up, you don't go chasing death. If you want to come along because you believe in this mission, or you want to maintain some control, or hell - if you just want to see something outside of Taiyang, then you're welcome. If you're trying to die, then get off now. I don't need your bad karma."
"I fear that I cannot shed my guilt so easily," said Yang Yizhen.
"Then do something about it. Become a hero. Save the universe if you have to." Jennifer turned back to her display. "You may well be a fine thinker, Yang, but it'll do you some good to be a man of action for a change."
"Your words wound, but they bear much truth," said Yang Yizhen, returning to his seat. "I thank you for your candor."
It was all platitudes and Jennifer knew it. I just don't want you to get me killed, she wanted to say. It's what she should have said, as the right remarks could have sent the bureaucrat back to his offices. She couldn't bring herself to be so honest though. In some sense, she admired that cloistered innocence, even as it annoyed her terribly on another level. He was like a lost little boy in need of protection and, on some level, she wanted to offer that. She'd never wanted a little brother but fate had just given her one.
"All right, we're just about ready." Tommy flicked a switch on the display. "Hey Anna, is everyone clear?"
"No, we're linking arms in front of you," came the voice. "We want you to stay so bad, old man."
"She is a character. And don't you love the nickname? Hey, I'm only thirty-four." Tommy rested both hands on the joystick. "All right, up and away, off to gather up all the stars within our grasp."
Morgi shot Tommy an odd look. "What?"
"I heard once that that's what they said before the Exodus," said Tommy. "I always wanted to say it too. Keen line, isn't it?"
The initial takeoff was no different than any of the hundreds of short-range flights Jennifer had taken as she pursued criminals around the Federation, but there was a different sensation as the Taleweaver rumbled to life, almost as though the engines themselves knew that they were doing something special. In that moment, she was both terrified and thankful.
"Okay, there goes the stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and...exosphere." Tommy ran his fingers across a panel and a new hum emerged from the bowels of the ship. "All right, the FTL engine is warming up, we've got all clocks synced to Federation common galactic time, I've fed the coordinates into the automatic navigator...and how is everyone doing?" He glanced back at the crew with the usual glowing expression. "Everyone all cinched in and secured?"
"Tommy, please..." Jennifer clapped a hand to her face. "Do me a favor and don't treat this like a pleasure trip, huh?"
"Gee, I think of every mission as a pleasure trip. At least up until the part that the shooting starts." Tommy chuckled at his own whimsy.
Yang Yizhen stiffened up. "Shooting?"
"Just a joke, didn't mean to put you on edge," said Tommy. "I haven't been shot at but three times in my whole career. Wait...five times. Six, technically, depending on how you count it."
"Now would be a good time to shut up." Morgi fished a soft, dun-colored cube out of his pocket and crammed it into his mouth, wedging between tongue and cheek. "I hope you don't mind, I'm hoping to pass out soon."
"Golly, you didn't bring any narcotics onto the Taleweaver, did you?" said Tommy.
"Hey, I bought them in your neighborhood." Morgi produced another of the sickly-toned cubes. "I got plenty, if anyone wants one. And you will, believe me."
"I never consume that which constitutes an assault on the sanctity of the mind," said Yang Yizhen.
Stifling a groan, Morgi glanced at Jennifer. "You gonna get all self-righteous on me, too?"
"Self-righteous? Not at all." Jennifer smirked back at Morgi. "But I do question the wisdom in taking a homemade drug you bought around the Wyvern shop. You know that they use the waste chemicals from escape rocket fuel as a base for some of that garbage, right?"
"You're all delightful." Morgi slouched over, burying his face in the side of his seat. "Remember, the first decent planet we find, you drop me off."
The main console emitted a merry tone. "Hey, engine's ready," said Tommy as he reached for an illuminated switch. "Everyone take a deep breath."
Jennifer was about to respond to the comment when the Taleweaver absorbed itself and erupted into the blackness.
The scientists of the Cradle established a few basic rules about the universe that they termed "the laws of physics." These rules, devised and confirmed over hundreds of years of painstaking observation and systematic research, constituted the only true limitations on man's ability to manipulate nature. Perhaps the most important of these laws - at least from the perspective of would-be space explorers like Tommy Harkennian and his passengers - concerned the speed of light. No matter can travel faster than light, the Cradle physicists said, as such an object would no longer have the properties of matter at all. It seemed that light was a special beast that jealously guarded its secrets. This knowledge was a terrible burden to everyone from the physicists themselves to politicians to authors of what they termed "hard" science fiction, as even a ship traveling at 99.99% of light speed would still move entirely too slowly to reach anything of interest in the supermassive void of the universe.
There was, however, another group of physicists who refused to accept this limitation. They concluded that if the laws of physics wouldn't allow faster-than-light travel, then they would have to find a way to write new laws of physics. Needless to say, their brethren mocked them for their conceit, and a fierce rivalry broke out between both camps. It was the renegades that had the last laugh, though, and in the years before the Exodus, in that perilous time on the brink of Armageddon, they developed the first models for a series of FTL engines, though the power of these devices would not be fully realized for several generations. These devices did no less than their developers imagined - changing, if only temporarily, the laws of the physical universe relative to the ship in which they were installed.
The first practical prototype was the nodeline gravitonics engine, originally conceived by a group of renegade Cradle physicists and eventually used to colonize the planets of what would become the Exterran Federation. This engine uses local sources of gravity to warp the fabric of space-time and contract space around the vessel, allowing for quick travel between known points. This is, of course, impossible, but it worked.
A few generations later, Federation scientists developed the matter transmitter. Based on the discovery of naturally FTL information lines, this device can - given enough power and enough bandwidth - tear a vessel apart and transmit the molecules through space where they can be quickly reassembled. This is even more impossible than the nodeline engine, and it brought up some serious philosophical debates regarding the people aboard those vessels, but it also worked.
The most radical of the FTL engines is the linear-dimensional engine, a device so absolutely impossible that most scientists argue that even the original developers don't understand how it works. It is even faster than the other engines and requires no existing physical infrastructure - only a set of coordinates, a computer capable of crunching the numbers, and a pilot with tremendous nerve.
It was the faster-than-light vessels that made the solar empires possible. Whereas, once upon a time, a trip across the Taiyuan Empire would take the better part of a human lifespan, it could now be done within a matter of weeks, allowing that empire (and its rivals) to push its borders ever farther into open space. It also made shorter trips more practical, shortening the length of planet-to-planet jaunts from weeks to hours or even minutes.
Those renegade physicists of the Cradle changed the future of the species in ways that even they couldn't have foreseen. Simply by changing their perspective on the universe, they made voyages across the galaxy not just possible, but practical. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do to make these impossible voyages pleasant.