Read Back From the Dead Online

Authors: Rolf Nelson

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Military

Back From the Dead (3 page)

BOOK: Back From the Dead
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Helton glances at the young woman seated next to him and finds she is looking back. She’s wearing a lovely, brightly patterned dress, fine jewelry, has nice hair, and is very attractive. She nods in greeting.

“Helton. Hope I’m not taking anyone’s seat here?”

“Bipasha. No, it’s free,” she says. “I’m headed for Niven. You?”

“Yes. Visiting family.” He looks inquiringly at her.

“I just finished school, and my uncle has an import/export business there.”

“You don’t sound too thrilled about that.”

“I had kind of hoped that I could travel more and find a job on my own before my family talked me into anything, but… He’s an honest man with a good business, so I’ll work for a few years while I look for something with more excitement and possibilities. You? Any business, or just the family?”

“Well…” Helton says awkwardly.

“Running from the draft?”

“No! I served my time, but … it just got a bit complicated.” He takes a sip of water.

Bipasha’s skeptical. “Being a soldier is a perfectly respectable profession, if you are a good one.”

“Agreed, I just didn’t like the guys giving the orders. I’m a teacher now. Well … was. My sister is on Niven. Her husband needs some help. I was headed that way and things went off the rails.”

“Yes, lots of plans getting changed these days.”

“Isn’t
that
the truth.”

They’re interrupted by a waiter with a tray. The plate he sets before Helton has only the barest resemblance to the “Lamb & Rice Pilaf, Vegetables*” he had ordered. Bipasha eyes her plate uncertainly. “This is vindaloo?”

“Hmmm,” says Helton, eying his own plate. “I’m sure it’s edible, even if it isn’t quite what you had in mind.” Tentatively, they each take bites of their respective dishes, look at each other, make faces, then shrug and keep chewing.

The starliner’s dining room is still full, but most of the food has been eaten, and most of the diners are leaning back comfortably around the tables, chatting, getting to know one another a little on the first night out. The obvious exception is the Liner Engineer, who sits tiredly in his seat, ignored by the others, ignoring most of his food.

A man in his mid-forties approaches Helton’s table. He looks like a well-to-do businessman: short hair, no whiskers, broad shoulders and powerfully built. He’s wearing a dark, conservative, almost Edwardian suit with brass buttons, a high collared shirt, jacket, and vest. He indicates the chair between Bipasha and the Doc’s Wife and introduces himself in a pleasant tone, “Lag. Is this taken?” The table responds in a chorus of “Oh, not at all/Please be my guest/Have a seat/Welcome.”

“Ah, thank you. Sorry I’m late. Always more details.” The others return to their conversations while Lag looks over the menu, makes a couple of rapid selections, and sets it down. He turns to speak to Bipasha, but the ship’s announcement system chimes, and the familiar calm female voice sounds.

“May I have your attention, please. Navigation has informed the Captain that due to a change in the regional subspace conditions and forecast our schedule will be somewhat altered.” A collective groan rises from the around the dining room. The passengers listen attentively and exchange looks.

“We still expect to arrive in Niven on the scheduled date. We will be detouring through a swirl headed our way, stopping briefly at a transfer station point outside of Eldari to exchange passengers, then continuing to Balltic and Niven. Ship time will be approximately five days, universal time about seventy-two hours plus a short time at Eldari for transfers. We will be arriving at the Eldari transfer point in about ninety hours. That is all.” The dining room erupts in murmurs of excitement, confusion, and relief.

Senator Snol thumps the table with his beefy hand. “I don’t understand; we’ll be on the ship for five days, but we will arrive at Niven in only three? And we won’t get to the transfer for ninety hours? That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Yes, that’s impossible,” his wife agrees. “How can we get there before we leave?”

“No, we won’t,” Helton responds politely.

Liner Engineer looks at him acutely. The others look at Helton curiously, surprised at his plain contradiction of a powerful man.

“The details of FTL are complicated of course, but the basic idea isn’t. Universal time, how time passes in the conventional universe where we usually live, passes as a pretty constant rate everywhere. According to the clocks on Niven and where we just left, we’ll arrive in-system in three days. But time moves differently in subspace, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always forward, depending on a lot of things: what kind of drives you have, what sort of gravity wells you pass, which way subspace is blowing, and–”

The doctor’s wife is confused. “Subspace blows?”

“Yes,” Helton explains, rearranging a few things on the table, removing items from the centerpiece, putting a carafe at one end and a bauble from the centerpiece near the other. “There are twenty-two dimensions, as you may have heard. Three in space that we can normally perceive, plus time. The physics are similar, but different, in the other dimensions, and by transitioning into them we can do things like going faster than light can here in
our
universe. But, just like space bends from gravity and solar winds blow here, things are neither smooth nor static in the other dimension. It’s kind of like wind. A little bit of wind and you can walk or fly normally and mostly ignore it. If there is a strong tailwind blowing, you get there faster; if you are bucking a strong headwind it takes longer, but the distance is the same. If a hurricane is passing through, then you can’t go anywhere–”

“Ah, the ‘Deep Black’,” Bipasha interjects.

“Yes, that is where the subspace is simply much too turbulent to transition into and fly.” The others look at him with expressions of interest or incomprehension.

“Pretend this,” he indicates the centerpiece on the table, “is an island. That,” pointing to the bauble, “is your ship, and that,” points to carafe, “is your destination. In a light tailwind blowing from you,” pointing to the Flight Engineer on the end, “the ship could sail down either side of the island at the same speed, but going back would be slower. But if a strong wind was blowing from
you
,” points to another, “at an angle
across
the island, then sailing on that side would be fast, but the other side would be slow and difficult because of all the wind eddies and swirls there. If a hurricane comes through, then no one sails anywhere, they just hide in the harbors and hope for the best.”

He puts the bauble in among the details of the centerpiece. “That is what happened when Eta Carinae blew. The Dark came in because subspace was not navigable. The local effects of the stars and planets swamped it close-in, so a-grav and accelacomps worked in-system, but not FTL. It sounds like right now we’ll be able to catch a wind that blows us, very quickly, past you,” he tosses the bauble to Bipasha, “then to you,” indicating she should toss it to Penger Trask, which she does, “then on to Niven,” represented by the Engineer. “Because we are going further
in subspace,
against a wind as it were, it’ll take longer
ship time
, but Niven hasn’t moved, so our
real
time hasn’t changed much.”

Lucretia, Trask’s wife, sounds dubious, “Okay, I guess that
sort of
makes sense.”

“Like I said, the details are complicated. If you are not interested in math and physics it’ll make your head hurt, but just remember time always goes forward, just at different rates depending on your path. Kind of like how time
seems
to go fast when you are having fun, and
seems
to drag when you are bored. Sometimes weird things happen, like being able to go a lot further and faster in universal time, but taking much longer ship time while using less fuel. Or more time on ship but less in universal time. Just imagine different weather and winds and currents and islands and mountains with the sailing ship, and it’ll be easier to visualize, even if it’s not entirely accurate.”

“One of the better descriptions I’ve heard,” Lag says.

“Thanks. I’ve had to explain it more than a few times.”

The Engineer looks at him closely. “Oh?”

“I’m a teacher. Between classes and a passel of nephews and nieces–”

A sudden burst of cheers and laughter from the far side of the room interrupts him, where a group of young men and women (mid-teens to early twenties) seems to be having a very good time. This is not the group’s first outburst. Several people glare at them, annoyed by the interruption.

The Doctor’s wife speaks disdainfully. “I wonder where the parents are? Children without manners should not be abandoned in public like that.”

Lag sighs, leans back, and ruefully rises from his chair. “No rest for the wicked. Excuse me, please.” To the surprise of his tablemates, he takes his glass and strides purposefully toward the rambunctious group of young adults on the far side of dining room. Sitting there are four young men and three young women, celebrating loudly. They’re dressed in dark clothing, almost uniforms, similar in style and color to Lag’s. He sits smoothly, helping himself to the one empty seat at the table. It takes a moment before they notice him, then they fall silent and watch him warily.

Lag’s expression is cheerful, and his demeanor friendly. He speaks quietly and sincerely. “I understand that congratulations are in order. To adulthood!” He raises his glass to them, saluting around the table, and takes a sip. They return the salute with their glasses, some of them just sipping, some tossing back the rest of their drinks.

They cheer loudly, but unevenly: “To Rights!”

“So! Who took the biggest risk?” Lag asks.

A small young lady at the table smiles shyly and timidly raises a hand. Lag smiles in surprise and nods to her, again raising his glass, but not drinking. “And?”

“I tried a 4.5 … but I only scored a–”

Lag cheerily cuts her off, “Ah-ah. Don’t dwell on the mistakes;
learn
from them. Even
trying
for a 4.5 is a daunting task. Quite commendable to take on a serious challenge. You aimed high and passed. Learn from it and move on.” He looks around the table. “High score?”

An obviously tipsy young man of nineteen leans forward to brag. “
I
got a sixty-seven! With THREE extra points!”

Lag is impressed. “Oh, outstanding! Well done!
Three
extra points isn’t easy. That is an excellent way to start the résumé!” Scanning the others at the table he sees one young man who looks slightly sullen, downcast, not quite as celebratory as the others. Something is not right about one of his sleeves. “And how did you do?” Lag asks.

The young man speaks slowly at first, then faster as he explains. “Only an 8. I went for a star-drive apprenticeship. Would have earned a 4 on performance, but on my last shift a power conduit I should have checked blew and took this.” He holds up the stump of his arm, gone about halfway between shoulder and elbow. “They docked it down to a 1. I’m good at math, so it was supposed to be an easy assignment for me. If I hadn’t got the conduit properly shut down and a tourniquet on my arm in time it would have been worse, though.”

The first girl interrupts, “He earned an extra two points by shutting it down correctly
after
he lost the arm, and saving another guy injured in the blowup, and it really wasn’t his fault. He was just on duty at the time.”

He looks at her appreciatively before continuing, bitterly. “Trying to get a drive tech job after scoring an eight? Not going to happen.”

“You followed procedure and got things shut down safely,
after
losing an arm, hmmm?” Lag says. “That’s not nothing.”

“And getting the senior drive tech out of the room,” another of the young men adds, “He was knocked out by the blast. And
he
was really the one responsible.”

“Well. The situation isn’t always as bad as you might think,” says Lag. “An eight is passing, if only just. I know someone who scored an 8 and is doing quite well. Good friend of mine, in fact. You still earned full rights of adulthood, and that’s worthy.

“But,” he says, with lowered voice, leaning forward, “I do have to tell you…” As they all lean in, he speaks almost apologetically, “Now that you are adults, you represent Plataea and can be held fully accountable for your actions. Some of the people at my table have the ear of the Captain, and they don’t want to be bothered by your honestly deserved celebration. A more private place might be better. You should keep it down a bit.”

Lag looks pointedly at one of the young men. “If word of any brig time gets back to your aunt Elen, Argo, she would not be amused.” He holds up his hands in mock surrender to forestall argument. “
I
won’t tell. Komenagen deserves celebration. Just a word to the wise.” Argo sits back a little, wide-eyed at the implications. The group at the table remains silent as Lag pushes his chair back, stands, and raises his glass in salute. “Again, congratulations!” He turns and walks away.

On his way back to his table, he passes another young lady in Plataean clothing. She stops short, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, watches him return to his seat, then hurries over to her table to join her friends. There follows a rapid chatter of energetic whispers and gesturing, with some louder voices, which quickly dies down.

Back at his own table, Lag smoothly takes his seat. He looks around and smiles cheerily. “They did well, and deserve a good celebration. I think they understand things now and will be quieting down soon.”

The Senator isn’t convinced. “I should hope so, the rowdies. Kids today, no respect. What in a kid’s life is worth that kind of noise?”

“Komenagen. They are now legally adults. By the way, Senator, did you know that the Plataean way to reply to an apology you accept is to say ‘proper,’ meaning it was a proper apology, and no further action is needed?”

“Huh? I don’t get your point.”

At the same time, the Doctor blurts out, “Them? Adults? But they look like kids!”

BOOK: Back From the Dead
6.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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