Episode 219: Flying Bridge

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Somewhere in deep space, there was a point marked out only by its position relative to stars that were lightyears away. It was a dot on the star charts, a waypoint without a destination, a meeting of many roads, and a place where ships from all over the PARC stopped, only long enough to charge their jump batteries, move to the outbound traffic areas, and jump away again. The only ships that had ever stayed here for longer than a handful of hours were the destroyers assigned to guard the waypoint and those ships unlucky enough to have some sort of breakdown.

What a difference a war makes, thought Simon.

He could actually see the other ships crowding the relatively small space volume of the waypoint. This was disturbing for two reasons: first, it meant that those ships were frighteningly close by and thus definite navigation hazards, particularly as some of their captains appeared to be idiots; second, it meant that he was looking out windows in a starship, something that was about as normal to him as taking a stroll outside the hull without a pressure suit. Less messy, but no less disconcerting.

The flying bridge of Parthenon was like nothing Simon had ever seen before. Under the main hull, which formed a mammoth tapered and flattened cylinder above them, a prow-like structure jutted from the ship, somewhere aft of the ship’s center line. Stretching back towards the stern, this prow widened out, the slant of its walls flattening, then curving gently in the other direction until, at the stern itself, it was a broad, wedge shape, with a wide, flat top. At the forward end, however, leaping from the very tip of this architectural prow, was a horizontal spire like a bowsprit, tapering over two hundred meters until it was just a few meters across. At its tip, looking as improbable as a green star, was a thirty meter geodesic dome. With the exception of a ring of control stations around the spherical dome at roughly forty-five degrees south of the equator, the structure was made entirely of ceramaplast.

Simon was actually standing next to the Boss, whose ship this was, on a small platform suspended in the exact center of the dome. A command chair sat on this platform, able to rotate in three hundred and sixty degrees, as well as pivoting to allow its occupant to look downwards. Simon was more than glad that it wasn’t doing that at present, not just because he would have fallen off the platform, but because he’d then be able to see the view through the transparent ceramaplast below his feet, where the expanse of the universe stretched out beneath him. That was a view to drive people literally insane. He was having enough trouble looking at the behemoth main hull of this ship floating just a few hundred meters over his head.

“This is excellent,” said the Boss, whose name was Arthur Albert Anderson. He said to Simon that everyone called him Triple A, but Simon had yet to hear anyone do anything of the sort, so he stuck to calling him either Boss, or Mister Anderson. No one had suggested Arthur, much less Albert.

“We can’t get to Angstrom,” pointed out Simon, treading carefully. Anderson was many things, but stable was not among them.

“Don’t reckon those we’re after can get too far either,” replied the Boss with a slow, lizard-like smile. “They’re hereabouts, somewhere.” He raised an arm and pointed out into space. Simon didn’t take his eyes off Anderson and his chair. “All we have to do is find them. Shouldn’t be too hard, close as all these ships are.”

As though his words had set it off, a proximity alarm sounded its shrill cry in the flying bridge, making Simon wince. The alarm was mercifully short, however. Instead of a holo tank like other ships Simon had been on, Parthenon’s entire bridge was rigged with holo emitters, and they activated now, outlining the nearby hull of a smaller freighter in bright red. The other ship was less than a hundred kilometers away, and closing in on a converging course, angling right towards Parthenon’s ten-kilometer-long body.

“Attention vessel six-one-alpha-tango-four!” shouted Anderson’s captain, who was somewhere down below on the command ring. “Stand off! I repeat, stand off! We have the right of way in this corridor.”

The reply came in on an audio-only signal. “Like hell you do!” The captain of 61AT4 sounded mightily put out. Unfortunately for him, however, Parthenon outmassed his vessel by a four-to-one margin, which gave her the right of way in virtually all navigation situations worth mentioning.

“Be advised, six-one-alpha-tango-four,” said Captain Outo, his voice flat, “we are holding our course. I have no problem with ramming you, if necessary. Your call.” Outo severed the connection with a swipe of his big hand, and craned his neck to look up at Anderson and Simon. “Boss, this is a fucking mess. Do we need to stay here?”

Simon noted that 61AT4 was changing her course, moving now parallel to Parthenon, now away from her. It seemed like most people kept clear of the giant freighter, either because her reputation preceded her, or because of her strangeness. There were many things about her that would be unsettling to anyone who saw her, not just the flying bridge.

From where he stood, Simon could look up and into the ship’s cargo holds, which were maintained in zero gee, and had ceramaplast exposures on both the dorsal and ventral sides of the hull. Half the ship seemed to be made of some sort of transparent material, some of it considerably more exotic—and a lot stronger—than ceramaplast. It was like Parthenon was in the middle of being dissected, or torn apart. It was unnatural to any veteran spacer. Thankfully, all those windows went opaque whenever the ship entered a wormhole!

“We’ll be leaving, soon’s our target shows herself,” said the Boss. Outo muttered a selection of curses. Anderson turned to Simon, totally unfazed. “Understand this, Mister Tamil. That frustration that Captain Outo is feeling ain’t half as bad as what your Commodore’s thinking about. She wants your Maccabee bad, friend, and she’ll do about anything to get him. So, in a little while, she’s going to give up on this whole shebang and jump outta here. And we’re going to be ready for her, and follow her wherever she’s going.”

Simon glanced back at the Boss. “Follow her?” he asked. “Do you know where she’s going?”

“No,” answered Anderson with another grin. He reached down to a small compartment on the side of his articulated seat and fished out a bottle of some brown alcohol. Simon had caught a whiff earlier, and now he surreptitiously shuffled a bit further from the chair so he didn’t smell it again. Anderson took a big swig.

“Once she jumps,” pointed out Simon, letting Anderson play his little game, “we won’t be able to track her.”

“Ah, won’t we now.” Anderson looked beside himself with pleasure, bordering almost on a manic sort of glee. He actually giggled, then got himself under control, took another swig of whatever rotgut he was swilling, and tossed the little bottle, now empty, over his shoulder. Simon tried not to wince as it plummeted fifteen meters and smashed on the ceramaplast dome floor.

“Do you know I trade with the Second Sphere?” Anderson asked, catching Simon off guard.

“In Parthenon?” he asked. Big as she was, this ship was too small to make a two-year round trip to the Second Colonial Sphere worthwhile, or even feasible.

“Are you kidding?” Anderson retorted. “I live on this ship, Tamil. I don’t want to spend two fucking years running out to fucking New China and back.” He shook his head. “No, I send another ship, something just a little smaller.”

“Smaller?” echoed Simon. “If you’ve just got a few goods to send, wouldn’t it be cheaper to use the Intersphere Transport?”

Anderson shook his head again, and said, “Simon, you’re not following here. Tell me, what’s the most valuable commodity of all? What is it that the Intersphere Transports bring back that’s more valuable than any other bit of cargo?”

Simon squinted and then shrugged. “I don’t know the manifests off hand,” he said. “I mean, there’s thousands of things on those ships, each way. Maybe some of the rarer metals, or some sort of manufactured goods, something that’s only available from the Second Sphere.”

“No!” barked Anderson, making Simon jump and momentarily totter on the edge of the narrow platform. The Boss grabbed his shirt and hauled him back in before saying again, less loudly, “No, Tamil. You, like so many, fail to understand. Yes, I can buy tequila from the Abbass Star Collective, at twenty thousand dollars a glass, and think I’m getting something that’s worth the piss I’m turning my money into. But, frankly, I’d rather drink that fucking swill I tossed on the deck, because it’s cheap and it’s local and I spend my money on important things.”

“Like what?” asked Simon, starting to lose his temper.

Information! Information, Tamil, the stuff of dreams!” Anderson smiled. “That’s what I’m after. That’s what I’ve got.”

“What’s so damned important in the Second Sphere?” asked Simon, not sure if he was being deliberately obtuse or not.

Anderson sighed. “There are twenty billion people in the Second Sphere, Tamil. Not a lot by our standards, true, but that’s a hell of a lot of people. Out of all those people, how many are studying, researching, thinking up new solutions to old problems? A hundred million? Two hundred? Do you think that innovation is something that only happens in the PARC, or in New fucking Alba?”

“OK, I’m not stupid,” muttered Simon. “So, you’re looking for new ideas that are developing in the Second Sphere, inventions, or tactics, or whatever, ideas that you can use here.” Anderson nodded. “Only, those ideas come back on the Intersphere Transports, too. They carry as much information as they can, whenever they go. And there’s one arriving every month or so, so how can you get the drop on them with a two year round trip?”

“Now,” said Anderson with a smile, “you’re asking the questions a smart man would ask. That one’s a bit of a gimme, though: information is dangerous, especially certain information. Those Intersphere Transports you’re so hot on are run by the government, by several, actually, but through a general understanding, an agreement of sorts. Part of that understanding is that no classified information can be sent through the Transport system. Actually, it’s more like any information that is sent, is free to all who want to access it. That’s why it’s all shit.”

“So you’re talking about secret research, secret information,” supposed Simon. “Why should you be able to get it, when others can’t?”

“Money,” Anderson shrugged. “Believe it or not, Mister Tamil, I’m one of the wealthiest individuals in the PARC.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Simon flatly. There was no way this guy, this crime boss with his wacky starship and his stinking liquor was anything like that rich.

“Whatever you believe, Tamil, it’s damned hard to send a ship that distance,” said Anderson, unfazed by Simon’s statement. “Not many who can do it, fewer still who bother. Not everyone has vision, Mister Tamil. Those who lack it are forever doomed to stumble about, and, uh . . . run into things, I suppose.” Anderson scowled. “Never much good with metaphors. The point, however, is that I have access to certain information that has not yet found its way into the population at large.”

“And that’s how we’re going to track the Commodore’s ship?” asked Simon.

“Exactly,” replied the Boss.

“Newsie just jumped in, Boss,” growled Outo from the deck below. “Would you like to see the broadcast?”

“Not particularly,” said Anderson with a scowl. He’d turned down all such attempts by Outo to watch the news, after they’d seen the first broadcast, and the images of a nuke going off on Angstrom. Simon wasn’t sure what was happening on that planet, didn’t want to know, and hoped to hell that Maccabee wasn’t there any longer. Maccabee. For a moment, Simon thought about what would happen when he told his captain that Yakazuma was dead, and brought her body to him. It was stored in one of those holds. He might have spotted it, if he’d had some sort of telescope. Not that he had a desire to see that plain, matte-black box ever again.

“How will you know you’ve got her, and not some other frustrated captain?” asked Simon, just to keep his mind busy on matters other than Yakazuma’s corpse.

Anderson gave him an appraising look, as though trying to figure out why Simon was asking questions the answers to which were painfully obvious. Then he nodded, apparently deciding that, whatever Simon’s reasons, he’d play along. “She left before us at the Gatehouse,” he pointed out. “Easy matter to track her jump signature. If there weren’t so damn much junk floating around out here, we’d probably get a fix on her reactor sig, but as it is. . . .” He raised both hands, palms up. “Parthenon has many hidden talents, but snooping around ain’t one of ‘em.”

Simon nodded. “So, what is it, exactly, that’s going to track her when she jumps?” he asked.

“Wait and see, Mister Tamil,” said Anderson. “Wait and see.”

So they waited. An hour dragged by; any ship that tried to enter the outbound lanes to Angstrom was promptly pounced upon by the station destroyer, which was now being reinforced by a handful of gunboats launched from a fleet ship on its way to another destination. Not many ships bothered to even try. The all-bands signal from the destroyer warning vessels away from Angstrom played on a continuous loop. Of course, any ship could make a jump to some other point in deep space, where there were no warships, and track back to Angstrom from there. They’d get a friendly greeting, no doubt.

As the minutes wore on, Anderson started to look worried. He tapped a finger on the armrest of his command chair, and shifted position once a minute or so. His smile slid away and was slowly replaced by a frown that deepened as more time passed.

Finally, Outo called from below them: “I’ve got her!”

“Where?” snapped Anderson, leaning forward in his chair to see the captain. Outo pointed off to the other side of the dome, and Anderson spun his chair so fast that Simon had to grab on to it to keep from being thrown clear. There she was indeed, outlined in orange against the black night of space, the holo image zooming in to get a better look and confirm the identification.

“She’s at twenty thousand klicks, bearing three-zero-nine, mark eight,” reported a crewman who was hunched over a workstation. “Reactors are nominal, based on our earlier readings, Boss. Looks like she’s just waiting like the rest of us.”

“Outo,” said Anderson, his manner still all sharp edges and sudden movement, “we need to get closer. But slowly.”

“Slow’s the only way it’s going to be, Boss,” replied Outo, moving around the control ring to the nav station. “We’ve got to traverse six different traffic corridors, and we need clearance for each one.”

“Is she in an outbound lane?” asked Anderson. Simon could now see Infinite Justice on the holo, clearly visible at this short range, and the view gave him chills.

“She is, Boss,” answered the crewman. “That lane is for unassigned destinations, galactic east.” He looked over his shoulder at Outo. “Could be headed anywhere from here, in that lane.”

“No reason she has to follow any lane designation, either, Boss,” said Outo. Though each of the outbound lanes in the waypoint area were designated for travel to certain, specific destinations, no one could track where a ship went through a wormhole. Or rather, no one but Anderson, apparently, and his magic new technology. As far as the authorities were concerned, a ship in a particular traffic lane was making a general statement about its destination, not a contract.

“She’s heading for home,” said Anderson with evident satisfaction. “Not sure where to go, are you pretty? Run for home, get the lay of the land, track down Maccabee. If he’s in Angstrom, he ain’t going nowhere. If he’s already gone, he’ll be making waves wherever he is. Sounds like a good plan. Only you ain’t thought it through all the way, ain’t worked all the angles.”

Simon stayed silent during this soliloquy; it was better, he’d learned in the last two days, to let Anderson speak his peace, without interruption or questions. Much better.

Parthenon was now shifting her ponderous bulk to port, casually ignoring the protests of other traffic. The waypoint was currently burdened with far too many ships for its destroyer picket to handle, and the fleet ship was content at the moment to warn people off Angstrom and ignore the traffic snarls, so long as ships weren’t actually running into each other. Complicated A.I. navigational backups made that an infinitely unlikely probability, barring any deliberate action on the part of some trigger-happy captain. Thus, despite the calls to traffic control about Parthenon’s sudden movement, the ships scattering out of the big freighter’s path had little choice but to vacate that course or suffer the consequences.

Simon guessed that this activity would not go unnoticed on board Infinite Justice, however. No matter what else she was, the Commodore was no fool. Parthenon was moving towards her, gathering speed, and though she was obviously just a freighter, she carried a certain menace merely through the fact of her oddness. Who know what was happening on board? Simon surely didn’t.

“She’s increasing her speed, Boss,” muttered Outo. “Looks like she’s seen us coming.”

“Range?” growled Anderson through bared teeth, his hands clenched in fists on the chair’s armrests.

“Fifteen thousand klicks,” reported the crewman who was tracking Infinite Justice.

“How close do we need to be for this to work?” asked Simon, keeping his voice low. He wasn’t sure just what Anderson’s crew knew or didn’t know.

“For a good read, no further than five thousand, six at the outside.” Anderson shook his head. “We’re too far. She’ll jump any second.”

“Increase to flank,” suggested Simon. He shrugged when the Boss looked his way. “Angle out of the main traffic plane for a second, then dead towards her. She’ll run, but it’ll take her a while to respond.” Smiling, he added, “She won’t see a freighter as a threat, not a real one.”

“What the hell,” muttered Anderson. “Outo!” he barked. “Go to flank! Take us out of this mess, seventy degrees vertical, then maximum for our target. I want to see right up her skirt when she jumps!”

“Aye!” replied Captain Outo with obvious relish. He barked a string of orders, and suddenly Parthenon was moving up, streaking at maximum acceleration within just a bare ten kilometers of another megaton freighter, whose captain probably needed a new pair of pants, and then clear of the traffic grid. A moment later, the big freighter was making her best-possible acceleration right at Infinite Justice. Ten seconds passed, then fifteen, and still the other ship did not respond. Then, finally, the Commodore issued the order, and Infinite Justice went to maximum acceleration as well, on a flat-out run away from Parthenon.

“She’s outrunning us, Boss!” warned Outo. “She’ll start to open the range in another minute.”

“Range?” barked Anderson.

“Four-six-two-two kilometers and still closing, Boss!” called out the tracking crewman. “Assuming she doesn’t jump immediately, closest approach will be four-oh-five-five kilometers.”

“Close enough,” said Anderson. “Good nose, Tamil.” He opened a cover plate on one of his chair’s arms and activated some hidden control, then let the plate slide shut again. “Go ahead, baby,” he whispered. “Show me where you’re going.”

“I have a building gravity wave,” called out the tracking officer. “She’s getting ready for transition!”

“Gotcha!” cried out Anderson. He pounded a fist on his chair. “Ha!”

“Transition!” shouted Outo. “She is through, Boss. And gone.”

“Sir,” called out another voice from the command ring, the woman at the communications station. She was talking to Outo. “Picket ship is requesting we cease acceleration immediately and return to station for boarding.”

“Negative, captain!” barked Anderson. “Maintain course and speed, kill all acceleration.” He glanced up at Simon. “They can’t send anyone after us, nor are they likely to care about it. More a formality, a warning like that.”

“Won’t you get in trouble?” asked Simon. “Somebody’s going to file some paperwork on this, I bet.”

“Yeah,” said Anderson, that quiet, lizard smile on his lips again. “I know those people.”

Twenty minutes later, Parthenon prepared to jump through the wormhole that would, if all things worked correctly, take her to the same place Infinite Justice had just gone. Simon took a deep breath, crossed his fingers, and hoped for the best. Then, the many windows around him went mercifully opaque, and a moment later the ship dropped through the wormhole and into nothingness.