Tuesday, November 13, 2007

13. The Un-Engine

“And that, you see, is why you are fortunate to have been abducted by us,” Captain Corsair concluded, gazing out the cockpit viewport toward the distant stars. “Rather than sell you into lucrative slavery, or hire you out as test subjects for pharmaceuticals of uncertain origin, we merely intend to offer you — you and your friend, I should add! — a most exciting adventure, before safely returning you to the loving arms of your family. Also, we will become magnificently rich. A splendid plan, do you not agree?”

He turned back to find himself speaking to an empty cockpit. The ship rang with heavy, careless footfalls and children’s laughter, and somewhere in the background, occasional increasingly frantic warnings from Bosun Little.

“I see I should not have worried,” Corsair grinned.
He caught up with them in the corridor off the crew chambers, the Bosun chasing the two giddy, giggling children out of her room. “Just to be absolutely clear,” the Bosun shouted after them, as they dashed aft, “again, nothing in my room is in any way, shape, or form, a toy…!” She rubbed the back of her skull, which she’d banged on a low-hanging pipe while giving chase, and glowered at Corsair.

“What about that doll of yours?” the Captain asked innocently.

“That’s a collectible,” Bosun Little huffed.

Corsair shrugged. “It resembles a toy. Greatly.”

“I made them supper, square?” the Bosun sighed. “Either you watch them for a while so’s I can get us on course for the relay, or we all play a fun game called ‘Guess How Long You Have to Stay in the Airlock.’”

The Captain raised his hands, flesh and metal, in genial surrender, and headed aft, into the strange shifting light of the engine room.

Which did not, in the strictest accuracy, contain an engine.

Dent didn’t hear the captain enter at first. He sat crosslegged on the metal grid of the deck plating, hands on his chin, staring. Pebble sat next to him, posed in unconscious mimickry. The two watched the rainbows coalesce and coruscate off the beautiful, bone-white cluster growing from the floor.

“Ahhh,” he heard the Captain say, and turned to see him lit up ghostly in the glow. “I see Your Majesty has discovered our beautiful engine.”

Pebble turned to Dent and made lyric, emphatic gestures, her hands fluttering almost too fast to see. Dent nodded.

“She’s right — that’s not an engine,” he said to the Captain, squinting closer just to be sure. “Mechanic Doren showed me engines. This is just a ball of… white bumpy glowy stuff.”

“True, Your Majesty, but is the greatest and only ball of white bumpy glowy stuff in the universe,” Corsair said proudly, implying an ownership to which he was not even remotely entitled. “It can take us anywhere. Tell me — did you study pluslight engines as well?”

“Sure,” Dent shrugged. He took a deep breath and began to recite, dutifully and a little bored. “Pluslight engines shunt an ever-greater portion of the vessel’s mass into another dimension as it approaches the speed of light, allowing the vessel to surpass light speed without attaining infinite mass or suffering from relativistic effects.” He finished, and sucked in a breath, his face slightly red from the effort. “I’m still not sure what ‘relativistic’ means.”

“It has… something to do with time,” Corsair glossed, that portion of his own studies increasingly crowded out by vastly more exciting knowledge. “But as I am certain you know, pluslight engines have their limits, yes? Heavy and greedy things, and they tire quickly, like a fat man upon many stairs. Our beauty, she does not.”

Pebble stretched a hand out to touch the thing, spectral coronas beginning to dance around her fingertips. In a flash, the Captain had reached her, snatching her away. She shrieked from the sudden intrusion, flailing at him; fortunately, the Captain had considerable experience with this sort of behavior, especially from the fairer sex. He put her down quickly, backed away, and bowed in apology.

“Forgive me, young one,” Corsair said as Pebble crouched sulking, “but I wished you to keep all of those fingers as they are.”

Dent looked at him quizzically, scooting back a bit from the radiant mass. “This thing is dangerous?”

“The laws that govern our universe,” Corsair began, “it chooses to cavalierly ignore. I must confess a certain degree of respect for this approach, but had you touched it, your fingers might have become, say, a hippopotamus.” The Captain must have seen just how not-horrible and completely cunning this scenario sounded to Dent, for he swiftly added, “Or a bunch of roasted bubblesprouts. Or nothing at all.”

Pebble, still eyeing the Captain mistrustfully, made further signs with her hands.

“She wants to know what it runs on,” Dent translated. The Captain smiled.

“A most wonderful fuel indeed,” the Captain said, circling to the opposite side of the un-engine, to where the Bosun had stowed her xylophone. He reached up into a free space in the ceiling piping and retrieved his ninestring, slim and curving as the most beautiful maiden, and hand-built from the burnished twistwood of his home. Only one other thing in his life could make the Captain so happy and sad all at once; he saw it every time he shut his eyes.

As Dent and Pebble watched, the Captain flicked pick-protrusions from the tips of his metal fingers and thumb, settled the ninestring lovingly in the crook of his arm, and paused, deciding. “Yes,” he said at last, and began to play.

The music poured from the ninestring, full of pepper and hoofbeats and the clash of steel upon steel. And as he played, the Captain sang, in a deep, lovely, liquid voice, in the tongue of his distant ancestors.

Pebble turned to Dent, baffled; she had only ever heard Imperian, and even he had only caught a few snatches of other languages when eavesdropping on the arrivals of visiting diplomats. (Primarily to make off with some of the arriving-diplomat snacks Cook always excelled at.)

But if the words were unclear, the meaning of the song was not. It washed over the children like a warm breeze, full of longing and hope and occasional more or less justified stabbings. But mostly the first two.

And as the Captain played and sang, the un-engine glowed brighter and brighter, the rainbows dancing off its surface in sudden, joyous arcs. At last the song ended, the Captain laying his metal hand flat upon the strings to still them, and looked up as if recalled from some distant place.

“You see?” he smiled. “The music, it makes our beauty happy. And when she is happy, we need only ask, and pop! She zips us across the stars and back, faster than pluslight. Faster than anything.”

Had they been present to witness this dramatically simplified explanation, the dozen or so of the FLAW’s scientific minds responsible for the Quantum Coral Drive would have stood up in protest, opened their mouths, shut them again out of sheer consternation, and finally sputtered out some sort of strident protest. They would have talked about atomically engineered microorganisms with the capability to manipulate the universe at the quantum level, nourished by certain mathematically pleasing patterns of sound.

Higgins, who had worked out the physics to begin with and was far too pleased about this, would have definitely mentioned how the coral could be coaxed to expand the fabric of space behind the ship, and compress it in front, sending the craft zipping through the stars far faster than light — even though it essentially sat still, safely cocooned in a bubble of “normal” space around which everything else flowed harmlessly.

Alas, none of those scientists were around to correct the Captain’s gross generalizations. But in the distant reaches of FLAW Science Command, in the expensive, scribble-strewn room where they gathered to mourn the theft of six years’ worth of top-secret research, all of them nonetheless felt briefly even more troubled than they already were. Had they known the origin of this feeling, they would doubtlessly have rushed to write papers on its quantum underpinnings, which would have cheered them up at least a little.

“Would you like to try, Your Majesty?” the Captain offered, returning his ninestring to its storage niche. “Go on. Sing our beauty something.”

Dent frowned, racking his brain. The only thing that surfaced on the spur of the moment was an old nursery-song Story had taught him, so he went with that.

“Old Jack jumped in a pile of cheese,

Jumped in all the way up to his knees—”

Dent was a bright and resourceful boy with many commendable skills, none of which were singing. Even Pebble grimaced, flattening her palms emphatically over her ears. The rainbow coronas around the Quantum Coral Drive flattened out instantly, and the mass’s radiance flickered ominously.

“Your Majesty, Your Majesty!” Captain Corsair cut in hastily, noting this. “I have been in error, it seems. Do pardon me. The acoustics here, they are inferior — deeply unsuited for the proper presentation of a voice such as yours. Perhaps we can reschedule your performance for a different venue?”

Dent, somewhat baffled, shrugged and nodded. Inwardly, Corsair breathed a sigh of relief. After a few bewildered sputters, the Quantum Coral Drive shook off its recent trauma and resumed its usual radiance. Pebble sensed the danger had passed, and unsealed her ears.

The bells grew late, and the Captain diplomatically explained that as their kidnapper, he felt it important for his hostages to get their proper rest. Dent would have complained, more out of habit than anything else, but he did find that being a kidnapee was very tiring. Already Pebble’s eyelids had begun to droop.

The Captain prepared a hammock in one of the two unoccupied crew quarters, swaddling his young keys to unimaginable wealth (well, one plus, really) in slightly scratchy blankets stamped PROPERTY OF FLAW COMMAND.

Bosun Little was enlisted, reluctantly, for the telling of a bedtime story. It turned out to be about two overly curious children who go poking around in other people’s things, mistaking valuable collectibles for common playthings, and end up wandering out an airlock to freeze, explode, and die in the pitiless vacuum of space. It was a far bigger hit than she had expected.

The Bosun left a light on over the privy, and shut the door, locking the children in for the night. Pebble promptly took a blanket and curled up on the floor, ear pressed to the deck, drifting off to sleep to the pulse of the ship’s power systems.

It took Dent longer to find his way to sleep. He lay in the mostly-dark, listening to strange muffled adult voices outside. Exciting as this was, and as kind (if disappointingly un-ferocious) as the Captain and Bosun had been, he missed Story a lot, and the rest of his family somewhat less but still a little bit.

He took out the four treasures from his belt pouch — the silver spoon, the pink vial, the ball of psuedosilk, and the little soldier man — and lined them up in a row on the low metal shelf next to the hammock. He looked at them in the dim half-light for a long time, mixed-up emotions tumbling around in the pit of stomach, and did not remember the closing of his eyes.

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