Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 01

Into The Maelstrom

By David Drake and John Lambshead

“To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,”

Gentlemen-Rankers, Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling

This book is dedicated to all the soldiers throughout history who fought and died in unremembered wars for causes long abandoned.

Chapter 1 – Magnetar

Tap – Tap – Tap went the claw on the window.

Commander Frisco pressed her eyelids together tighter than a virgin’s knees in the hope that the damn thing would go away.

Tap – Tap – Tap.

It didn’t – go away that is.

She opened her eyes slowly and very reluctantly. The goblin leered at her from the other side of the airtight screen from where it perched on the blunt shovel-nose of her ship. Triangular was a word that summed it up, triangular and blue. Its head was a downwards pointing triangle ending in a long pointed chin. Its mouth V-shaped with triangular teeth, its chest V-shaped, even its bloody ears were triangular.

Stroppy was another good descriptive word. The creature thrust vigorously upwards with two fingers topped with triangular claws. It made the time-honored Brasilian gesture indicating that she should indulge in sex and travel. She tried not to notice what it was doing with its other hand.

Most of the time the Continuum looked like a seething mass of multi-colored energy but every so often ship crews saw and heard illusions. The philosophical postulated that such phantasms were the product of some sort of arcane interaction between the human mind and energy leakage through the ship’s field. In truth, no one had a clue why the phenomenon occurred but the illusions were usually specific to each individual.

Such ghosts materialized when one was under stress causing fears to be dredged from deep within the mind. Helena Frisco was hard pressed to explain why her subconscious might harbor blue goblins with triangular body parts and obscene habits. It was probably Finkletop fault: most current problems in Helena’s universe originated with feckin’ Finkletop.

Satisfaction with her promotion to commander and the captaincy of the Brasilian Research and Exploration Ship Reggie Kray, nicknamed the Twin-Arsed Bastard by the other ranks, rapidly eroded when she shared her first cruise with Professor Obadiah Finkletop. The good professor held a Personal Chair in Cosmic Evolution at Blue Horizon University. No doubt his peers considered him a learned savant. Helena considered him a pain in the arse.

Finkletop alone she might have coped with but the old fool was completely under the spell of his research student, a curvaceous young lady who went by the name of ‘Flipper’ Wallace. What Flipper wanted Flipper got and her desires were entirely capricious when looked at from a naval perspective.

The catamaran hulled Reggie Kray, hence its nickname, had all the naval equipment including the engines and field generators in the “A” hull so that various “B” hulls stuffed with different scientific equipment could be added or detached as required by the current mission objective. The mission in this case was to convey Finkletop’s research group to a neutron star deep in the Hinterlands. The exercise involved gathering “stuff” to test some scientific hypothesis or other concerning nova chains. Finkletop failed to volunteer details and Helena felt no desire to enquire.

The Reggie Kray was about as large a ship as could usefully be navigated within the Hinterlands where the gravity shadows of star systems were tightly packed in the continuum. This stellar proximity channeled chasms, or streams, of boiling energy that made the passage of larger ships too slow and laborious to be viable. Speed equaled range in the Continuum because passage time was capped.

The Reggie Kray handled like a pig because of the asymmetric design. On the plus side Helena did not have so socialize too much with the bloody academics. They tended to keep to their own territory in the “B” hull.

A symbol flashed in the area by her command chair reserved for holographic controls. Finkletop desired communication. She sighed and keyed the comm symbol, ignoring a mischievous impulse to activate the B hull emergency detachment bolts instead. The goblin gave a final leer and disappeared. Helena did not recall that the detachment icon was a blue triangle. No doubt that was just as well.

“Ah, Frisco?” said Finkletop’s voice by her chair. She had switched out the video. It was bad enough having to listen to the man without looking at a caricature of personal grooming that would cause a Naval Academy drill instructor to self-immolate. She rearranged her features into a neutral expression because he could no doubt see her.

“Professor, what a pleasant surprise to talk to you again and so soon after our last conversation.”

“Flipper, Ms. Wallace, needs to be closer to the neutron star. You will move to point gamma-3-alpha-99.”

The two ratings on the bridge with Helena froze. They developed a deep fascination with their consoles. It was not normally considered good naval practice to give orders to a ship’s captain on her own bridge. Not unless you were an admiral at any rate. Even then an order was usually couched as a suggestion. As research team leader Finkletop had the authority to choose the survey sites but the bloody man could show some deference to her rank.

Helena gritted her teeth and keyed in the necessary course as she couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse.  She automatically checked storage heat levels as she did so. Ships’ fusion engines supplied effectively unlimited fuel but electromagnetic radiation could not pass out through the Continuum field reality bubble to any extent. Waste heat had to be “stored” in heat sinks made of frozen iron cores. Captains worried constantly about heat build-up. When levels got too high there was nothing for it but to find a suitable world with available water to dump heat and refreeze the cores.

Unfortunately the Reggie Kray still had an adequate reserve in the sinks. She hit the command key. Her staff would attend to the details of the course change.

“And could you part phase so we can observe the system.”

“Why not?” Helena asked, waving a hand to the appropriate minion to indicate that he should comply. “Anything else we can do for you? Brew up some tea and send it ’round to your hull, perhaps?”

“We are too busy for a tea break. Some of us have work to do,” Finkletop replied, killing the link.

The bloody man was impervious to sarcasm.

The pilot slowly part-dephased the ship on approaching the neutron star. With its fields at low power the reality bubble enclosing the Reggie Kray was subject to a degree of interaction with electromagnetic energy from realspace. That meant that the crew saw into the real universe, albeit in monochrome. In return, light-speed limitations slowed the ship to a crawl. Not an issue in this case as they had only a short distance to travel.

The neutron star was tiny despite its huge mass. It gave off only a dull glow in the visible spectrum. Helena had to look hard to find it against the background star-field but the body’s effects were out of all proportion to its size. It probably weighed about 1,000,000,000,000 kilograms per milliliter. That gave it a gravitational field so strong that escape velocity would be measured in significant fractions of light speed.

A large chaotic debris field rotated at high speed around the star. Helena found it unnerving to watch the lumps of ice, metal and rock tracked on the navigational hologram. No doubt similar junk hurtled through the ship’s realspace location at speeds too high to be visible to the naked eye. She could create a holographic representation of the bombardment for the crew’s edification but doubted they would enjoy the experience.

Deep space made sailors uneasy. Most voyages started and ended on the surface of habitable worlds, the ships phasing within the world’s air envelope. Fields enclosed air within the reality bubble so most commercial vessels and small frames omitted an air-tight hull as an unnecessary expense. The naval architects designed the Reggie Kray to sustain human life even with the fields off because of its unusual research function.

Massive tidal effects commonly produced swirling fields of junk around a neutron star but this one was positively frenzied. Helena ran an analysis using the limited electromagnetic radiation that penetrated the ship’s field.

The comm link lit up. Helena sighed and keyed it.

“We may’ve found it,” Finkletop’s voice shook slightly with excitement.

“Oh good,” Helena said, wondering what “it” was.

“You must dephase completely and turn off the shields so we can obtain samples.”