“`ii `efoktleta warp drive?” Lesley heard herself ask. So, she said more slowly and carefully, “Wait. Stop. Let me try that again.”
Susan softly punched her in the shoulder with a smirk.
“I understood it just fine,” Manifold said.
Molly nodded in agreement.
“Well, the translator rendered it as ‘Shall we make a warp drive?’” Susan said. “Which I don’t think is what Lesley meant.”
“Ah,” Manifold acknowledged. “Yes. I figured she wanted to know how the warp drive works.”
Lesley felt put on the spot and embarrassed by this quick conversation about her words. She’d been spending the last several minutes before the meeting thinking about how to decorate her shared quarters with Susan, and that was still on her mind when she’d tried asking about the warp drive. But now she had three languages in her mind, too, and apparently had switched from Fenekere to her own mid sentence while asking what her mind felt was an off topic question..
They were on the Bridge, in the Network, so she had full access to her memories and didn’t feel the pleasant grogginess she was still suffering from post study. But, somehow, her thoughts were still quite jumbled.
“Please,” she said, then pointed at Manifold. “That.”
“Can I answer that?” Susan asked. “I just read up on it and want to check my understanding.”
Manifold shrugged affirmative.
It was still wearing the humanoid avatar it had created in the woods when they were running from military forces. It looked like a tall, abstracted, all metal android with no seams or creases, and had a face just detailed enough to create rudimentary expressions. And even though it had a traditionally feminine cast to its figure and features, it looked powerful and imposing. Which Lesley appreciated, honestly. It helped her to feel more comfortable in her own body when she was around it. The whole “femininity is soft and small” idea was an oppressive ideal her home culture had instilled in her, and she hated it and knew it was wrong, but it still plagued her and made her feel like she wasn’t even allowed to be a woman. Manifold wasn’t a woman, but its presence still helped her with that.
Susan, on the other hand, came up to her armpits and made her feel womanly in all sorts of other ways.
She realized that, aside from that stray thought about Manfiold’s stature, she was so much more relaxed on Anchor amongst this crew than she’d ever been anywhere on her home planet, even when camping. Weird.
Susan leaned forward and said, “OK, so, I’m going to skip the really technical details, because I know my girl, and you’re not asking about the names of doodads, right?”
Lesley shrugged, and said, “If you enjoy saying them, I don’t mind.”
“Well, basically, Anchor uses its warp engine to dump a whole bunch of energy into a toroid of space/time itself,” Susan explained. “And that toroid is then manipulated via the magnetic fields produced by the Bussard collectors into creating an envelope of differentiated space/time around Anchor. And by changing the direction, sort of, of the energy influx, that envelope slides through the rest of space/time at rates that can exceed light speed. Just as some scientists theorized back home. In a ridiculously simplified manner of speaking.”
That’s actually what Lesley had already imagined, since she’d watched the same science fiction movies with Susan and she’d explained it before, but it was nice to confirm it. But she then asked, “What is it like to use it?”
“Ah,” Molly said. “I don’t think words really capture the experience. But the rest of the universe sort of distorts, from our perspective. All the stars seem to collect in a ring around the ship, with darkness fore and aft. And then they kind of roll? The torus remains in place, but it looks like stars are moving from the front edge of the torus to the back, like it’s being rolled along a tube, slowly. And then when we reach our destination or stop, everything goes back to normal. Except all the stars are in new locations because we’ll be seeing them from a new perspective.”
So, not at all like how the special effects artists envisioned it. Fascinating.
Leslie realized that she was asking these questions because she was nervous. She was already further away from home than she’d ever been. But right now, in an emergency, she could count on getting back in just twelve days, or a possibly shorter time. However, when the Light of the Abyss had captured them, it had struck her finally that she might never see anything from her childhood ever again, and that the people she loved would most likely live and die without her.
This, of course, reminded her of when she lost her birth family and childhood friends to their bigotry they felt toward her when she came out as trans. Being reminded of that didn’t make it easier. It made it harder.
She and Susan knew this loss would be the scenario when they’d chosen to leave the planet with Molly the second time. But there’s the point at which you make a decision, and the point at which the consequences really sink in. And sometimes those points are really far apart. Especially if the decision making is made under duress.
But now that the Light had returned them to L4, it felt like they had the chance to change their minds.
They could still turn back to face the storm of terror and infamy they’d been shoved into the middle of back home, and have a chance to die on the planet where they had been born, amongst their loved ones and enemies alike.
And a core part of her insisted that that was the right thing to do. And she was also sure she was grieving the loss of all that she knew, even though she couldn’t feel those feelings. She wasn’t actually grieving yet. She was mostly numb with shock, but intellectually afraid of the grief to come.
But, the rest of her, especially the center of her conscious thoughts, saw all the opportunities to be free here on Anchor, to truly become the person she felt she was, amongst a small group of people who seemed eager to see her do that and to share the wonders of the cosmos with her.
And she was with Susan. Her closest partner. The one she’d shared the most experiences and dreams with. She’d always felt she could go anywhere if she at least had Susan with her, or followed Susan where she went.
But, for the sake of her worry and grief, she had to ask, “If we use warp drive to fly way out somewhere, and then decided to come back here, what would happen?”
Both Molly and Susan’s expressions became sad and they both looked at Phage.
“Yeah,” it said. “I can explain that best. So, you know how if you flew at near light speed out to some distance and then turned around and came back at the same speed, you’ll have aged less than the people here?”
Lesley nodded, furrowing her brow.
“The neat thing about warp travel is that the speed at which the warp envelope moves through the rest of space/time does not really affect your relativistic experience of time,” Phage explained. “Unfortunately, other things do. The speed at which you are moving conventionally before you activate it must be taken into account. As does the amount of time you spend matching velocities with objects at your destination. The longer you stay there, the greater the time differential. And what we usually try to do is get up to speed with our fusion drive first before warping to our destination, to make our arrival point more accurate. So, depending on the distance traveled, you might come home to find your world anywhere from months to hundreds of years older than when you left. But that’s not what has the most consistent effect on time dilation.”
“Oh,” Lesley said, her heart sinking. She expected that feeling, and was glad to be having it. It helped her feel more human than she felt while numb. But it sounded like Phage was going to share a detail that science fiction writers hadn’t yet imagined. And it did.
“The gravitational effects of the warp envelope will essentially freeze time for us, relative to the outside cosmos,” it said. “We will still perceive it to move normally within the confines of the habitat cylinder of Anchor. But, to the outside cosmos, mere minutes will pass for us while our envelope may seem to be active for thousands of years. It is, in fact, more of a stasis field than it is a way of traveling faster than light. And it would have this effect if we stayed here in your system.”
“Oh, shit,” Lesley heard herself say, as if she was a passenger inside her own body.
“The toroid that Susan spoke of is only part of the math and the initial process of activating it,” Phage said. “There are complex structures and patterns of space/time that will surround us as a result of making it possible without using negative energy. But the overall effect will be like surrounding the ship with an almond shaped shell made of the gravitational forces found near the event horizon of a black hole.”
Molly made a little noise and added, “This is why I cannot ever go back to the Sunspot physically. We’ve already done this several times, while the Sunspot is also moving ninety-nine point nine percent the speed of light in relation to me now. Finding the Sunspot to return to it physically would be difficult, even using the Tunnel Apparatus to get their telemetry. The Tunnel Apparatus connects me to the time that I left, that telemetry would be too old for where we would have to look to find it via warp drive, if we could match speeds with it in the first place. Phage might be able to help with that, but the time differential would be nearly unpredictable at this point, and devastating.”
“Wow,” Lesley said.
“I might return my mind through the Tunnel Apparatus someday, but it will have to be after the Crew of the Sunspot have allowed the culture there to become radically different,” Molly rambled. “And then it will be alien to me.”
“What is this Tunnel Apparatus you’ve all mentioned,” Susan asked. “You’ve explained it before, I think? But we were so harried by the threat of fighters and missiles, I don’t think I internalized it.”
“Think of it as a tiny wormhole between us and the Sunspot that only information can pass through,” Manifold said. “It has a physical box that is present here on Anchor, that looks like this.” And it manifested a model of it on the Bridge for them to see.
It looked almost exactly like a vintage stereo radio tuner to Lesley, with brushed metal, thick wooden panels on the sides, an amber lit display with a black backing, and what looked like black enamel and rubber trim and grips on the dials. Her parents had had something very much like it when she was a child, which they’d inherited from their parents.
“I guess evolution isn’t the only thing that sometimes imitates itself over great distances,” Susan observed.
“Correct,” said Phage. “Though, in a way, aesthetic design is really just an extension of what you call evolution. They are not separate things.”
Susan reached out to grab Lesley’s hand, and Lesley let her do so, thankful for it. She briefly wondered if their bodies were then holding hands in their bed simultaneously. She took a moment to divert her attention there to check, and they were. She smiled, but still felt a growing sadness.
“Could we somehow leave a Tunnel Apparatus here?” Susan asked. “Maybe, like, leave it here at L4 and have it hooked up to a transceiver that could communicate with home via radio? Maybe even connect it to the satellites you hacked so we could access the internet?”
Manifold nodded in a sagely fashion and said, “Easily done. You wouldn’t be able to return here through it, like Molly can do for the Sunspot. Not until there was a similarly powerful Network here. But, you could keep tabs on your loved ones and even communicate with them.”
“We have to do this,” Lesley said, almost eating Manifold’s words.
“There may come a day, probably sooner than you’d like, when it fails on this end,” Phage warned. “Or you may get news you do not want to hear.”
“I don’t care,” Lesley said. “We have to stay connected for as long as we can. Maybe something Susan and I experience out here can help our world weather what we’ve done to it by letting you prove to them that extraterrestrial life exists. Or maybe we’ll make things worse by continuing to poke at it. But at least our family will know what’s happening to us. And they’ll get to experience some of our wonder before they die.”
“Remembering our dream we had when we blacked out on liftoff,” Susan reminded her. “I think we’re obliged to.”
Lesley looked at her and then nodded at the others.
“Then, Captain Susan,” Manifold said to Lesley’s partner. “I move that we proceed with your suggestion for a new Tunnel Apparatus before we hear your proposal for a destination.”
“Seconded,” Lesley said.
Everyone said “aye” right after that, though Phage’s was slightly delayed from the rest.
“I have activated a ship bay to proceed with that, now,” Manifold reported.
“Thank you,” Susan said simultaneously with Lesley, and they smiled at each other.
So then they proceeded to plan out their trip, with Susan laying out her candidate locations on a slowly moving model of their galaxy. However, she realized then that the data the LIght of the Abyss had sent them would be incredibly out of date for nearly anywhere they went. Especially if they decided to go across to the other side of the galactic disc. Of course, the Light’s territory of experience only covered a tiny portion of that, really just part of the galactic arm that they were in. But it still ranged thousands of lightyears in each direction, and hundreds of thousands of years of history assuming its own warp drive worked they same way theirs did (though it didn’t appear to).
All of this narrowed Susan’s choices down to three places that were within fifty lightyears. They figured that any lifeforms that had settled down in those spots would probably still be there, or at least be the descendents of those encountered by the Light most recently, within a few generations, hopefully.
These candidates did not have planets with safe atmospheres or comfortable gravitational fields for either Molly or Susan and Lesley. All three of them, apparently involved what looked like generational starships that had been directed to meet each other around easy to mine resources. And even then, they had no idea what these lifeforms were actually like, just what their vessels appeared to be like.
They ended up choosing one that had had a portion of their vessel rotating at a rate that should provide centrifugal forces similar to their own. This felt like the best chance that they’d be able to meet with individuals and try to talk, at least. And, if not, it might be interesting to look at their vessel from a distance, in any case. Moving parts are usually kind of fun.
None of them felt confident about this choice, but Molly pointed out they were working with way more data than she had been using previously. She, at least, felt better about it than she did before she met Lesley and Susan.
And at each step of this process, the closer they got to starting their journey, Lesley felt as if the air around her got heavier and thicker.
After the navigational meeting, she went to her favorite pond in the Garden to sit and stare at the water for a while.
She’d voted “aye” to leave as soon as possible, but it had felt like someone else had cast that vote.
Susan had followed her to the pond, but Lesley was so wrapped up in her own thoughts she felt alone, too. And Susan respectfully let her be that way, not interrupting her with any comments, just holding her hand. But, then, Susan might have been feeling the same thing.
They sat there on the largest rock together, watching the fusion tube’s reflection ripple on the surface of the pond. Apparently, the Sunspot’s habitat cylinder was two hundred and some kilometers across, and would pass a “sun” and a “moon”, balls of plasma, down the magnetic tube in the center of it every day and night. Anchor had a cylinder that was only 400 meters across, and it didn’t bother making a ball of plasma, but sent a steady stream of it down the tube from collector to engine. That plasma provided all the light and other radiation the life of the Garden needed to grow. And it was faded down to a ghostly glow at night. The result was a color of light that was very much like living under a sun, but with reflections and shadows that reminded Lesley of those cast by the fluorescent bulbs of the schools she grew up in. Which gave her a really weird sense of nostalgia twisted into a distinctly alien experience.
Soon, the Tunnel Apparatus satellite would launch from its ship bay. Lesley had suggested naming it the Link Buoy, in keeping with the nautical theme of names that Molly had picked for her ships so far. But, in her head, she pronounced it “Link Boy”. Susan had then pronounced it Link Boy anyway, and that’s what stuck.
So, Link Boy would soon be ready to start relaying information for them. And while they could send messages home right now, through the internet even, they both decided they wanted to save their words for after Link Boy had been deployed, to test it.
It felt like the right order to do things.
Lesley reached over and grabbed Susan around her shoulders and pulled her into her armpit, so they could lean on each other. And Susan put her hand on Lesley’s thigh, palm up, for Lesley to hold it. Which she did with her free hand.
Trying to get her mind off of things, after some time, Lesley asked Susan, “How did your talk with Phage go?”
“Badly?” Lesley asked.
“No,” Susan replied, her voice low and growly. “It apologized, fully, again, for how it was treating me. And when I drew my boundaries for it verbally, it promised to follow them. Then I asked once again if the bomb that our country had set to hit us had been a nuclear one.”
“And?” Lesley asked.
“It was,” Susan whispered.
“Holy…” Lesley couldn’t even finish the epithet. Her voice gave out.
“We really can’t go back,” Susan was almost inaudible.
Lesley wanted to say that she was amazed they escaped, but her throat and mouth wouldn’t work. All she could do was stare into the water as her eyes steadily lost focus. The numbness had returned, with a cold terror at the center of it.
Susan started to shake with sobs, while Lesley kept trying to will her own eyes to shed tears. They wouldn’t. So, she tried to let Susan cry for the both of them.
Susan eventually was able to say, “If our family is still OK, then we know someone is looking after them for sure.”
Lesley was able to gasp and let out a shuddering sigh at the sound of those words. Yeah. She’d felt that, too. They’d shared the same dream that day they’d left. The dream of their family, Berg, Tallis, and Fuckwind speaking to them about their future. But it hadn’t felt quite like their family, but more like… Their ancestors, maybe? Part of Lesley’s ethnicity had ancestral power as part of its culture, but she’d been removed from that by a couple of generations, growing up in the country where she’d been born. Some people had called it “ancestor worship”, but it didn’t seem like it was that when her grandma had talked about it. But if it was anything like what she’d felt in that dream, power was definitely a good word.
Phage had speculated that they had been its own counterparts, beings similar to it that grew in the psyches of the living beings who’d evolved on that planet. And maybe that was true. Or maybe it was something that could simultaneously be true with them also being Lesley and Susan’s ancestors.
Who really knew? But Susan’s statement felt like the truth.
After all, Berg had spoken some very strange words in the last minutes before their departure.
And now she felt an intense hope that their household was still alive and well. And a hunch that they were. And the need to confirm it. Even at the risk of learning that they weren’t.
Lesley felt like she couldn’t wait for Link Boy to be deployed to send her messages, anymore.
But Manifold sent them the words, “It’s ready.”
“Let’s do it right here,” Susan said.
Lesley still couldn’t talk, so she just nodded. Then she squeezed Susan and closed her eyes to focus on the Network to bring up her phone’s apps as they were now emulated on Anchor.
Susan sent her an invitation to a shared Network space, so she moved with her phone apps there, so they were able to talk via the Network, propping each other up on the rock while they worked.
Lesley could still feel her body, and wasn’t doing anything super engaging in the Network, so it was pretty easy to keep her balance, especially with feedback from Susan’s body also making micro adjustments in posture under her arm and against her side.
It was a little bit like closing her eyes to daydream in class, but more vivid and consistent and with real people sharing that dream.
First they checked their in-boxes, and found mostly junk, which they filtered out. There were some new messages from distant friends, and they replied to them with words like, “We are no longer in town, and won’t be for some time. Please connect with the household if you can, they’ll help you keep in touch with us.”
Then they glanced at their social media accounts to see if there was any general news they could gather.
Over all, it seemed as if the city was still standing, and people were still living relatively normal lives, if now under the auspices of the world knowing interstellar space travel was possible and that aliens had visited. It was weird. Their escapades were dominating the news cycles, but there was so little information that was accurate, and it had been getting less accurate by the day.
None of the photos they’d given their family had been leaked, yet.
Fuckwind was still doing his work. He’d scheduled a stream for a few hours from now, and had been telling his subscribers about it. Proof of life!
“Should we post selfies to our accounts?” Susan asked.
It was much easier to talk in the Network, since muscles weren’t involved, so Lesley was able to ask, “You mean, from here in the Network, or in the Garden?”
“The Garden, I think!” Susan grinned. “It will look weirdly familiar and alien at the same time, and the least faked. And it will just really tweak everyone’s minds.”
“I wonder if the government might try to get our accounts frozen or something,” Lesley wondered.
“Their loss,” Susan replied. “But, as long as we have those secure channels Wind set up for us, we can get word back through our family, maybe let them decide how to spread it around. But public selfies of us in Anchor’s garden would definitely get the world’s attention.”
“I feel like this is a little contrary to our ‘tread lightly’ philosophy,” Lesley said, not really feeling it.
“But, it’s our planet,” Susan said. “Our home. And Wind is alive! They’re protected. Let’s give them all something to look forward to and work toward. Let’s let our family and whomever it is that’s watching them decide how to disseminate it all. But let’s let the whole world know we’re still here first! Oh my god, we could watch Wind’s stream.”
“Mm,” Lesley pursed her Network lips together. “I actually haven’t done that yet. I think I owe it to him.”
“Oh, you do. And you owe it to yourself. He’s really good,” Susan told her. “We might be leaving the solar system by then, but if this Tunnel Apparatus works like how Manifold says it does, that shouldn’t matter. Let’s watch it together.”
“And we can send him some reactions and comments. Though, we’ll be anonymous, it’ll be fun!”
“OK, yeah, let’s do that.”
They took their selfies using nanite constructed hovering drones. Two pictures, each from a slightly different angle, of the both of them holding each other and smiling, with purple trees in the background in the strange light of the Garden. They made sure a doorway to the lower decks was visible in one of the selfies. And they posted one photo to each account, making them public, with personalized captions.
Susan typed in, “L4 vacay with my love! Wish some of you were here!”
Lesley wracked her mind for something witty or detailed to say, but settled for, “Still gay! Still trans! Still alive!” Her photo was the one with the obvious alien architecture in the background.
A few moments afterward, with consultation with Susan, she added a comment, “And engaged to a starship captain.”
So, then, their next action was to contact their family through Wind’s encrypted channels. On a whim, Susan asked Manifold if it could provide an even better encryption algorithm that would run on their family’s computers, that they could set up through their current connection, and it said it could. So part of their initial messages included talking about that. It’d be even harder for anyone to crack using brute force methods, but there were still chinks in the security in other ways they couldn’t fully account for. Such as all the problems that might arise between the chair and the keyboard, as Wind had put it once. But, every little thing they did would help them stay connected for longer.
They told their family exactly what they were planning on doing, where they were going, how they were getting there, and how they were staying in contact. And then they gave them permission to share any of it in any way they deemed fit, with anyone. And they wished them to stay safe.
They didn’t ask about their protectors. That didn’t seem right, for some reason. Or necessary. Maybe it would be more secure not to talk about them, too.
Then all they could do was wait for a reply.
This was a text only channel, but with Manifold’s protocols they could set up secure voice and video, but there’d still be a notable delay. Between the encryption software running slowly on their family’s computers and light taking several minutes to travel from Link Boy to their planet and back, they wouldn’t really have a real time conversation. It could easily be half an hour before they got any sort of reply via video. More like fifteen to twenty minutes with text only. It would make more sense to send a full video message with several questions and demonstrations in it, like a whole letter, and wait for one back. So, that was also why their text messages had been lengthy.
With that done, they got up and hugged in the Garden. And then sent messages to everyone aboard that they were ready for takeoff, whenever everyone else was.
“Let’s start working on our quarters,” Lesley suggested. “Make them more like a new home for us.”
“Okidoke,” Susan said.
And they walked back in that direction.
At 0.01 gravities of constant acceleration, it would only take them two days to match the relative velocity of their destination. Then they’d activate the warp drive and jump to it.
Well, it would feel like jumping to them.
Observers from home would see them streak away with a measurable velocity, if their instruments could catch movement at that speed. It might look like a meteor burning up in the atmosphere, in some ways, only deep in space. A line of light caught on film or in the sensors of a digital telescope, starting from within the heliopause of their system, arching out toward some distant star.
At least, that’s what Susan guessed.
They were half way through discussing how they wanted to redesign their bed, while standing at the foot of it, when Susan mentioned she’d noticed the change in acceleration. To her, the room felt like it had tilted ever so slightly aftward. And to demonstrate, she had a maker produce a marble that she then placed on the floor. And sure enough, it started rolling ever so slowly.
“I wonder if the floors will adjust to be level under this acceleration,” Susan pondered.
Lesley shrugged, and said, “All I know is that we’re leaving for real, now.”
“I think,” Susan said, “that we’ll be leaving for real in some way or another for the rest of our lives.”
“But, maybe not from Anchor or our new family,” Lesley suggested.
“As long as we can stand to be around each other,” Susan said with a lopsided smile. “Anyway, let’s go ahead and be their family now. What do you think about putting a tapestry on that wall over there?”
“I think you’re stalling on our bed decision,” Lesley replied.
“Yes, but a tapestry would be good!”
The Networked dinged at them.
Lesley felt a chill go down her back and spread out through her limbs, arm hair standing on end.
“Oh, shit. Now we have to read their replies,” Susan said.