Art Pact 71


In the grey drift of the unterstoff the ship's boat flew silently and with no sensation of motion. In the engine room the two crew members who could not see through a window or viewscreen might have been forgiven for thinking that the whole craft was stationary, and even those with a better view of the unterstoff were rarely reminded of their speed - they were in a sparse zone, and minutes might go by without a sighting of another particle by which they might judge their relative velocities.

Captain Zobek watched the main screen intently, hoping to pick out a clue from rare blip as it passed them that might give him a clue as to their macro-identity. Here in the deepest layers a boat, a ship, an entire planet was reduced to a single point, a particle whose true form could only be deduced by the speed and direction of its travel, and the way that its fields interacted with the fields of the ship. He knew that they too would appear, to the people encapsulated in these dots and sprites, as just another infinitesimal point. But the computers of battleship, or of a whole world, might be better able to distinguish their true nature, and they had the further disadvantage of not knowing their true velocity.

"Any sign of it?" he asked irritably.

"No sir," his science officer buzzed. Her hands danced over her control console and a complicated three-dimensional path appeared on the main screen, overlaying the view from the external sensors. "The computer is giving us this trace to look for, but nothing's showing up. If they've changed speed..."

"They were already running close to the engine's limits," he said. "Run it again, assume they've slowed... uh, say twenty percent."

"Yes sir."

Of course, if they've changed direction... He knew that she was tactful enough not to mention that, but smart enough to have thought of it. If the ship had changed direction there was no chance of them finding it again, not before they ran out of fuel and fell out of the unterstoff in some random place or time.


300 Kiloseconds earlier they had left the hangar, nosing through the six smaller shuttles that bumped and jostled in their bays, held loose in their impact fields so as to have no physical attachment to their carrier. Like kittens in a basket the little ships nudged at the boat's own field as it crept forward, until finally it could tumble out of the hangar door directly into the unterstoff. For a second they were part of the same macro-particle as the ship, then the great hull of the Queen Milly's Vengeance shivered and folded down into a single point that began to move away from them.

Messiter, the Morale Lieutenant, stood at the front of the bridge and watched the particle that represented their mothership dissolve into the fluctuating background. Zobek in turn stared at Messiter, until his science officer touched him gently on the arm with her forward hands and buzzed a low warning.

"Captain, our course," she reminded him.

"Yes, indeed. Ten degrees ahead of the last reported sighting," he ordered. "Stay out of any flows."

"Captain?" his navigator queried, turning from his console.

"You heard me."

The navigator stared at him for a brief second, then Zobek saw the man's eyes flick over to Messiter. She was still watching the main screen, and after an instant the navigator looked down again and began to enter the parameters into the boat's computer. He was barely halfway through the process when Messiter spoke without turning.

"Would it not be faster," she said, pausing there for a second, "to use the flows to catch up with them?" She turned around, and smiled. "The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can get back to the Vengeance."

"Faster," Zobek said coldly, "but more dangerous."

Messiter shrugged, and turned back to the screen.

"I'm only thinking of the crew," she said. "But so be it."

Zobek frowned at her back, but his science officer gave him another stern look, and her ear feelers rippled and flicked upwards, the sign they'd agreed on the first time they'd controlled the ship together: Remember who might be listening. Literally, of course, no-one would be listening. But there were undoubtedly Morale Office eyes scattered undetectably around the bridge, and when they returned to the ship the recordings would be scrutinised by Messiter's superiors. Her suggestion had been a show for their benefit.

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