Stars, Hide Your Fires
by Ljubo Popovich
“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
— Macbeth, Act I, Scene iv
Back when the crows first left their footprints around the corners of my eyes and the stiff bristles of my mustache turned to ash, the fastest vehicle known to man was the Black Isinglass. Coated in Vantablack nanopolymers for deep-space cloaking, it was thought by some to be a mere fairy tale, but I saw it once with my own eyes, like a dense shadow weaving through stars, impenetrable and two-dimensional.
While aboard the Gothmother, an M-class hyperdirigible, we were on a routine scout assignment in the Megellanic Cloud Alpha. My first mate, Franz, was dangling across the display screen in a spacesuit to adjust a solar receptor and telling me about his latest conquest.
Just as he retracted his drill, a mechanical claw wrenched him from the hull and whipped him behind an impossibly black sheet twice the size of my own ship. I thought I saw artificial stars flicker on its hull but realized my eyes had lost it. And there was nothing on the warp scanners. The legends are true, I thought, the Black Isinglass took one of my crew.
Planetside, I made inquiries, filed reports, calling and intimidating scientists and eccentrics inside and out of the Bureau of Intergalactic Commerce and War. My status as Vice-Commander of the Fleet of the United Planets of the Nexus was enough to fetch me a pile of sightings and photographs of blotted-out moons. I sifted through it all under a hover-lamp as intense as my brow, contorted with concentration.
After selling the Gothmother and my lakeside ranch on Enceladus, I had enough assets to outright buy an S-class hypercruiser to investigate the regions of space the Black Isinglass was purported to frequent.
But how do you catch the fastest ship known? The only thing I knew was that I wouldn’t stop until I found it, whether Franz was dead or alive, I would discover that ship’s secret. I’d never looked forward to retirement anyway. I wasn’t the type to fritter away my remaining years on some tropical planet. Space had been my home ever since I’d enlisted. This went deeper than I’d ever imagined. I’d lost better men than Franz in the past. It was more about knowledge, and perhaps a bit about pride.
Leaving behind my few remaining acquaintances, I embarked with only one crewmate. Vo-Bun was an aged spacer who had basically modded himself into an android. I needed someone who wouldn’t ask questions, and Vo fit the bill.
All registered officers down to cadets are implanted with entanglements. Just one tiny particle is zapped into the center of the brain, and the Federation could locate you anywhere in the known universe.
The Outernet was already crowded with so many entanglement signals that the data couldn’t always be trusted. By the time local light-speed quantum computers translated the spin and direction sequences into Franz’s coordinates on my screen, the target had already jumped and skipped away with whimsical theatricality. For the first three months. Vo and I felt we were chasing a ghost. It soon became abundantly clear we would never catch up.
While Vo manned the controls, I used all the powers of my high clearance level to uncover a pattern of every astronaut ever abducted by the Black Isinglass.
The Universal database was full of contradictory accounts. The fact of the matter was, this ship went just about everywhere and answered to no known jurisdiction.
* * *
I should have known Vo would grow disenchanted with our wanderings. But I never expected him to ditch me for a sentient gas (Ununduotonium) on an out-of-the-way planet at the edge of a cigar galaxy. I got a hypertext one night citing “true love” as the reason why I was bereft of an escape pod.
Against all sense and without the slightest inkling of where to turn next, I found myself in a disreputable tavern on a junk-heap moon with no more than a pittance left to my First Universe Bank account. The barkeep took me for a conversationalist, and I told him how I’d ended up in his corner of the cosmos. As he polished the same spot on the mirrored counter for several minutes, he listened and then told me he’d heard tell of the Black Isinglass a few months prior. Apparently I wasn’t the only one searching for it.
“You have the exact same look in your eyes as that black hole Houdini,” he chuckled.
“Black hole Houdini?” I wasn’t privy to the term.
“A person with too much time on their hands. They get a kick out of surfing the event horizon. Apparently dipping into black holes and warping out is quite the thrill.”
“Where can I find this hot-shot?” I asked.
“The woman I was referring to lives on the other side of this moon. She’s more than just a pilot, I hear.”
The next day I was knocking on her cheap plastic door, which had a fortuneteller’s symbol painted on it. I was admitted into an underground warehouse where illegal aliens tore apart and fused together salvage and debris. She was an elegantly dressed woman, with an ageless grace and one of those youth-surgery faces that are impossible to read.
When I told her what I knew about the Black Isinglass, she asked to see my logbooks. Examining the endless list of coordinates with a shrewd eye, she circled several numbers.
After a prolonged silence, I watched her consult an electro-book, clicking her nails impatiently through the screens. Loading up a holographic star map, she traced a three-dimensional matrix and then swatted it into pixel dust in frustration.
Finally I said, “May I ask what the hell you’re doing?”
“Your calculations fail to take into consideration the higher dimensions.”
“I’ve already thought of multiple hyperspace dimensions.”
“No. That’s quasi-space. Here, let me show you my findings.”
While a hovering drone refilled two piping-hot beakers of tea, I poured over the vast archive she’d accumulated.
“What does O. O. stand for?” I asked.
“Outside Observable,” she said.
“You mean you can’t see it?”
“No. It’s just outside the bubble.”
Predictably, all experimental crafts that had passed beyond the 93-billion light-year sphere of the observable universe had never been heard of again. No manned voyages had ever been recorded.
“Our civilization broke through the light-speed barrier centuries ago,” she explained, “but we’re still a light-based culture.”
“So you’re saying these aliens, whoever owns the Black Isinglass, regularly travel outside the Observable Universe?”
“All their voyages take place inside our bubble. But they always dip out of it afterwards. They obviously know our limitations.”
“And how’d you arrive at this conclusion?” I indicated the O. O. coordinates.
“I worked backwards. When they enter the bubble, their trajectories vary wildly, but the origin point, if traced back, is generally the same.”
I was in awe. Months of squeezing my brain for all it was worth and I hadn’t arrived at the answer.
“You must be one of those Wanderlust Men,” she laughed.
“You know, the fools who spend their fortunes and their lives trying to beat records or see things forever hidden.”
Refraining from mentioning the bartender’s description of her, I said, “I just want to track down something no one seems to understand.”
“It doesn’t mean you have to become the next Ahab.”
“Nothing, just an old myth. To enter those coordinates in a ship’s computer would be madness. Suicide.”
“No one’s asking me to do it. Why haven’t you already tried it?”
“If I had a death wish, I could just as easily perish in charted ‘waters’.”
* * *
Perhaps it was foolish to trade in my valuable S-class hypercruiser for the one-man death-trap she had pieced together from scrap.
“She’s been my pet project for about twenty years,” she claimed. “Untested, but guaranteed to be faster than what you came in on.”
The ship was called The Hypocrisy for good reasons. It had four auxiliary warp drives and a retrofit jump drive. Jump drive or hyperdrive was the most generally used form of FTL travel, but one or two warp drives were more than enough to distort space and propel you to hundreds of times the speed of light. If you were crazy enough to jump into hyperspace and then engage four warp drives... The distorted hyperspace would cause exponential acceleration.
Even though I had enough credit with her to equip it with a gray-market stasis pod, I hoped I wouldn’t have to use, I found myself having second thoughts. What would I gain from this absurd enterprise? More than once she asked me if I knew what I was trying to prove.
There was a story about a fellow named Magellan, who sailed around planet Earth using only air currents. I couldn’t even imagine how long that must’ve taken.
I decided it wasn’t just about Franz. Sure, he’d been decent, but other first mates had been just as reliable. No, something else pulled me toward that ghostly ship. It was the memory of the thing that could only be seen when it wanted to be seen that haunted me day and night.
After finalizing our transaction and bidding her adieu, I stepped aboard my new ship. “You sure you don’t want to come with me?” I asked, a-tremble with emotion.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll find it more amusing to follow your coordinates.”
Disheartened by the bumpy ascent out of the moon’s gravity, I entered upon the ocean of stars. It had been a long time since I’d flown something so small. A walk around The Hypocrisy took no more than two minutes. After searching in vain for a waste disposal unit and uncovering a large bucket in a barren compartment, I shuddered violently.
Luckily, the transition into hyperspace was fairly smooth. After testing all four warp drives individually, I was convinced that she was indeed the fastest thing I’d ever been on. Not strictly legal or safe by any means, but undoubtedly fast. I cruised for a few hours and touched down on a remote station in Andromeda XII.
The next day, I input the coordinates and, as expected, the computer spat back an error. After fiddling with a few overrides and hacking the AI, I got it to stick. Within a few seconds it plotted a course and displayed an ETA. My jaw dropped. How could I have been so stupid?
The computer estimated that with maximum acceleration of all four warp drives within hyperspace without stops or deceleration, taking into account time dilation and the expansion of the universe, the travel time came out to 5,151 years. Such a journey had never been undertaken since the beginning of mankind, because mankind hadn’t even had automobiles that long ago.
I glanced at the stasis pod. There’d been some forward-thinking people in the twenty-first century who had frozen themselves in stasis and then had their brains recreated successfully four hundred years later. But several hundred, let alone thousands of years in stasis would turn me into a permanent icicle. The stasis pod I’d bought had a maximum suspension of 150 years. But that could be hacked.
There was no guarantee that by the time I got there, the Black Isinglass would still be using my destination as a waypoint. Not only that but, where would human civilization be?
I realized that if I was going to stand a chance, I’d need a better stasis pod. More importantly, a black-market one. Stopping at a notorious space station about ten parsecs distant, I found what I was looking for. Sure, I had to take out a rather aggressive loan and empty my bank account, but I wasn’t exactly considering long-term consequences.
The use of pharaoh pods was strictly discouraged and highly illegal. Their name came from one or two incidental cases of mummification. Essentially, once you stepped into one, you could never be sure you would be the same person when you stepped out. All it did was record and store the arrangement of your atoms and synapses in solid-state quantum drives, ensuring that a clone body could be grown at an appropriate time with memories intact. It was the only way to prevent total tissue decay.
It would take blind luck and more than a few miracles, but unless the Black Isinglass decided to show up, there was no other way to confront it except on its own ground.
This is what space travel used to be about, I reminisced. Pushing frontiers, ignoring the warning lights, and leaving it all behind.
* * *
I awoke in the soft haze of a hyperspace tunnel. As far as I was concerned, I’d only just engaged the pharaoh pod. But once my eyes lingered over the control board, I could tell almost everything had malfunctioned. The pod had done its job. There was an only slightly disconcerting nausea, as if whatever lunch I’d eaten had downloaded into my new stomach sort of hot and congealed.
First I checked the warp drives. Two had exploded and two were running strong. The ship AI had been looping an error and sounding a warning alarm for who-knows-how-long. Deceleration failed, it warned. Deceleration should have begun before the midpoint. I kicked a loose bolt. The velocity was stable, but wait: velocity read 50,000C.
According to the readings, I was now traveling at fifty thousand times the speed of light in relation to the physical universe. And since hyperspace turned light-years into light-days... It couldn’t be possible. But how long had I been traveling? The autonomous universal wristwatch I’d stashed in a drawer was the only device I could trust.
In keeping with the other improbabilities of the situation, the watch recorded an Earth-date of 7997. I must have run out of light-year bridges thousands of years ago, which meant if I got trapped, no one would be able to reach me. Then again, who knew what people of the future were capable of?
The odometer had stopped at 9,999,999,999 parsecs. I stared at it with dumb admiration.
The first order of business was deceleration. I couldn’t just reverse drives. That would mean hopping back in the pod and hope nothing else malfunctioned. Getting out of hyperspace was no trouble, but returning to sub-light speeds was another matter.
After considering the situation thoroughly, I flipped open the User’s Manual which, incredibly, was hand-written.
Emergency Deceleration: Page 865
I carefully flipped the synthetic pages, squinting in the flickering overhead lights.
The Hypocrisy is equipped with a patented quantum black hole generator. (Only to be used when other methods of deceleration are impossible.) By reversing the hyperdrive, create a trail of black holes in the wake of the ramjets as the warp drives direct the accumulated particle shield into the compounding black hole. The massive reduction in mass will cause the ship to be vulnerable to radiation and bombardments. Also the hyperdrive must be re-engaged as soon as sub-light speeds have been achieved to avoid being swallowed by the black hole.
My hollow laugh was stifled in the small engineering compartment. I might’ve pulled trickier stunts in my youth, I thought, but never anything quite so destructive.
What other option was there? Wait another five thousand years?
Before I cannibalized enough computer parts to initiate the insane deceleration sequence, I read the manual cover to cover, just to be sure there weren’t any other surprise functions I should be aware of.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Ljubo Popovich