Schedule Slip

1

The office launched into a powerslide round one ninety-degree bend to the left, charged down a straight, empty corridor, and deftly yet aggressively negotiated a chicane, crashing over the kerbs and flinging itself into a pair of airborne dives. Mere millimetres from colliding with the following wall, the back-end snapped into position, and the machine jinked to the left in preparation for a right-handed sweep towards a longer straight. All the while, the unfixed contents of the office flew over, under and around the bowl-screen, clattered across the teleport pad and the assembler, and prompted flashes and flares from the forcefields that kept them from skittling off into the O.C. Unit’s myriad corridors.

Pensay was late for work. Lateness wasn’t exactly punished, but it was heavily discouraged – enough to feel a modicum of shame at it, at any rate.

The office roared onwards, hurtled down the straight towards a fixed office complex, swept gently rightward and then braked sharply. A twitch under braking betrayed a lack of grip, despite the tracks underneath the vehicle; as it squirmed to a stop, Pensay looked behind her, and saw a pair of parallel smears of something red and gel-like.

#What the fuck, everyone?#

A worker that Pensay didn’t recognise stepped back and looked at the scene.

#Someone making a visual pun, by the looks of it.#

#[comprehension=0]#

#Look up “jam” in the human database.#

Pensay turned to the screen, brought up the human database, and typed in the relevant word. A series of images, along with pictograms for where convenient imagery couldn’t appear, surrounded her. She spun in the direction of her right peripheral vision, where she found a labelled jar of something red.

#What’s this got to do with anything?#

#It’s a play on the idea of signal jamming. And the idea of what goes on here. We track signals, and the Dharans jam our tracks. And so the prankster is pretending metaphorically to be a Dharan.#

#Not funny.#

#Agreed.#

#Well, I’m late already, so…thanks, but I’ve got to go.#

#No problem, miss#, he said, and stepped back again.

Pensay turned back to the bowl-screen, cleared the information from it, and set her hands to the controls. “Computer, how near am I to the destination department?”

“Approximately 01.00.00 assuming top speed,” the machine flatly intoned.

“I can assume that,” she replied, and gunned the accelerator. The office shot off from its position, accelerating to that top speed as she whipped past the office she had stopped at and scraping the last meaningful residue of that jam off the tracks as it skidded around the next corner. Another left, right, right, another chicane, an s-bend, a widening, a tightening, and she was nearly there. The office skimmed walls and clipped kerbs, and – well, those whiners with their fixed offices would have to appreciate the effort she was making in this too-big-to-fit-on-the-teleport-pad thing.

With a final swerve, she nailed the final corner at exactly the right line.

But more or less the wrong speed.

And the force-field fizzed as an entire office clouted the wall with a loud bang, throwing its contents and its occupant into it too.

2

Pensay threw herself at the rolling serve, and her racquet-bat smacked the ball away from its straight and rapid course. A point conceded, another to the alarmingly large deficit that the NeoFight coalition was on the wrong end of, but she could live with that. For one, the game was a friendly, and essentially had no repercussions outside of itself. For two, the sole chance of ending the main game had been on their side, an hour ago, and naturally the catcher, Zellia6, barely came within an arm’s reach of the ball at the time.

She looked up at the scoreboard nonetheless. 235 points was the gap, one that had slowly and irregularly come down after a high of around six hundred. Kaizener could often reward an underdog, especially when said underdog steadied their resolve, steadied their hand, and responded – as Pensay subsequently did – with five hits in the NeoFights’ Favoured Zone; effectively half a point, although that was off the scoreboard until the judges said otherwise. A final passive drop shot allowed the ball to reach the wall mere centimetres above the ground, causing it not so much to bounce as roll away; the gap was now 234.

Taking the serve, she aimed as low as she could, but no roll serve was forthcoming; a quick double-bounce off the wall and carpeted floor caused the ball to reach her opponent at too ideal a time. Aiming high, he prompted a relatively safe, close-range rally near to the wall. Trapped into a central column of possible moves, she swung the racquet-bat and aimed as far right as she could get in her position. The ball subsequently angled right, and her opponent simply left it, allowing it to bounce down the corridor of the T-shaped court.

“Subgame R 1,403 initiated; 17th Establishment Coalition serve,” the wall’s embedded screen blankly stated. This had to be about the three hundredth subgame she had conceded, but then again, a subgame was not a point, and the point that hung over one could always be claimed.

She served again, aiming for a perfectly standard, middle-of-the-wall serve, and somehow, this almost stumped the man charging from the serve line, who fumbled a weak return. Waiting for the bounce, Pensay smashed a hard response, and once again, had him on the back foot; he slashed an attempt response, cutting an edge on the ball. He didn’t have to look behind him to know that, once again, the catcher would drop it – although this time, said catcher faked a spectacular dive that almost made it look like he had it – until, of course, the ball emerged rolling slowly from his tumbling body.

Still, it was another point scored, and the gap was now 233 – probably less, with two more Favoured Zone hits.

Two hundred and thirty-three, with thousands of subgames to be played. Maybe, now Pensay thought about it, that ball should have been caught.

3

“Well, Jarn, you are just the unluckiest bastard imaginable,” Haron opened, “I don’t suppose anyone got anything out of the incident two days ago?”

He was met with a collective shrug and murmur. Indeed, the ship had most likely taken more from the Damocles than they had from the ship.

“I did manage to get some data from the moments either side of the incident,” Jarn admitted, “but it’ll take tens of days to go through it all. If another one turned up tomorrow I wouldn’t be able to give you anything.”

“Well,” Haron said, “this is an interesting development in any event. Needless to say, within an hour of our system restoration, I sent an open message to the Dharan Republic. They have no replied yet. If and when they do, it will be highly revealing, because our existing assumptions have been shattered. The Dharans are not, it would appear, a universally homogenised group.”

“And it took this long to find out,” Kallank3 said.

“I know this is a completely mad suggestion,” Pensay said, “but, supposing we were to…”

#No, go ahead#, Jarn prodded. She decided she would. But only because she liked his smile.

“Suppose we were to somehow get a spy onboard a Dharan ship, we would move forward at a hundred times the pace. We must have, I don’t know, enough knowledge to pass off a cheap imitation of a small spacecraft and a single person looking like a Dharan.”

Haron frowned throughout this, and Pensay suspected that this was something that had slipped through the training.

“The thing is,” she continued, “if we can be 90% convincing on appearance, then the 10% gap is rhetoric and narrative. It’s about having the right story. We know the Dharan language-”

#It’s about all we do know, much of the time#, Kallank added.

“- but if we work within that – explain missing technology by saying that the ship’s damaged, and that there was an anomaly, and that something has gone wrong with the logs.”

Haron nodded, then swung in his chair to face Jarn. “Your data, please. If there’s anything that’s processed already.”

Jarn brought up a set of graphics on the table, skipped his fingers over them, and brought up a projection of the ship.

“It’s the usual Dharan design, very spiky, angular. Also almost the usual size, although I’ll admit it’s on the small side – it’s about one per cent of the Damocles in each dimension. Pensay’s plan would take quite some effort nonetheless.”

“But it’s workable, right?”

Jarn grinned. “It’s a… long-term project, I’d have thought. Unless something comes up.”

“That’s very diplomatic of you, sir.”

“OK,” Haron said, “by all means let’s add that to the pile. But first priority has to be decoding that data. If we can find out why that ship broke the schedule, then that’s another large piece of the puzzle put together.”

4

The Damocles‘ main cargo bay started about four decks above the Outergalactic Combat Unit’s decks, and its exit gates – either side of the craft – were still some four kilometres in height vertically, despite their curved shape making them much longer as components. Overall, it was several thousand square kilometres in floorspace and had enough room for hundreds of full-sized warships and civilian craft, which made it particularly ironic that Pensay and Jarn were heading towards the smallest craft they could find.

Logically enough, said craft was to be found in amongst similar types in a centrally positioned pit near the front exit gate. After going through many, many others, they eventually found what they were looking for, and what was listed in the directory; a tiny, two-person shuttlecraft that couldn’t have been more than three metres in height and width and six metres long.

“If we get lost anywhere, we’ll be spending at least a whole day in that,” Pensay said.

“What, you scared about that?”

“No, no… I’m just wondering if you’re cool with this plan. Y’know, one small, cramped ship, drifting along for days, only the two of us on board.”

“What are you implying?”

“Nothing.”

The pair of them walked in and looked around. The craft was seemingly smaller than the exterior suggested; inside, some semblance of a cargo bay took up most of the space, along with a cockpit, two teleporter booths that doubled as escape pods, and an assembler.

“It’ll do,” Jarn said. “When can we go?”

“We’re booked indefinitely from now,” Pensay replied, “so, anytime, really.”

“OK, let’s go.”

Jarn was already in one of the seats as he said it, and Pensay could only shrug and take the other seat.

“Right,” he began, and tapped the consoles above and below the front screen, which turn switched on and showed the somewhat sterile vista of a section of exit gate. “Let’s go the quick route-”

“No, Jarn, let’s-”

“Computer, can I have a hundred metre ascent, obstruction check, teleport request and detachment from ship’s inertia, in that order?”

“All four affirmed and ready. Enter?”

“Enter.”

Pensay dug her fingers even harder into the armrest as the front exit gate shrank to a pinprick, her vision blacked out and then the vast disc-shaped Damocles shot into the void too. The craft tumbled and the view panned through the interstellar sky, a consequence of the rapid teleportation and its mildly botched momentum data. She got her breath back, and felt her heart pump back up to normal speed again.

“Don’t do that again,” she said, “ever.”

“Fine.”

For what felt like at least a tenth of a day, Jarn piloted the ship at its ever-so-slow sublight pace. The only things Pensay could do was place a pile of what appeared to be grey dust in each of the teleport booths, and make a poor attempt at Kaizener practice, before sitting back down and sighing.

“So what does a guy like you do outside of work?”

“Eh?” he said, not looking away from the screen.

“I mean, do you ever get time to explore outside interests at all? Or, I mean, what’s this job like in the long run, with starting a family and the like?”

Jarn gave an arch look and idly tapped the console. He stopped and turned to her.

“Well for one, I would never attach myself to a lady who talks about starting a family before the first date.”

“Who said I was asking you out?”

“Oooh, touche,” he said, pointing a finger, “but you know, and I know, that-”

On the main screen, a dot had appeared, and Jarn’s arm swung towards it.

“Computer, I’m gonna need your assistance on this teleport,” Pensay said, and pulled up a graphic from a list on the left of the console. She locked onto the approaching dot, the subject indicated by the dot, and the machine calculated the limits of the teleport. The small size of each component meant a one trillion kilometre radius was possible, and with it, a window of-

“0.054795 seconds,” Pensay said, “too little time for a conventional pass, Jarn, I hope you’re ready.”

“OK.”

She looked at the console, where it indicated around 00.04.00 remaining.

“OK, computer, I want all possible power to the teleport booths, excepting only life support, and the managing programs for the aforementioned. Everything else can go for now.”

The shuttle was plunged into darkness as every system not specified switched off. With even the screen switched off, they were truly in a sightless yet cramped void.

“Ow.”

She could feel Jarn’s knee brushing her cheek. “You didn’t strap yourself in?”

“I used a forcefield. Like normal people.”

“I was very specific. Anyway – I make it about 00.01.00 Confed before the drop.”

They waited in silence, a silence that the darkness and Jarn’s silent counting only emphasised.

#00.00.05, 00.00.03, 00.00.01…#

She was expecting something dramatic, a feeling that the Dharan ship would hack the screen and throw on all the lights and ruin their plan and then thunder past, quite possibly shaking the cockpit as they did so, even if there was no air outside; the Dharans would probably assemble air for whole AUs around their shuttle just to pull that off.

But none of that happened. Instead, the lights merely came on again, and the console beeped into life, as if a power cut had ended. Which, in a way, it had. Pensay span round and checked the teleport booths; on each of them, a graphic appeared, stating “100% transfer complete” in radial pictograms. The job had been difficult, but it had been done.

She checked the console, and noted that the Dharan ship was some two hundred parsecs away and climbing.

“Do you really think they’ll overlook them? The picobots?”

“Well,” Jarn replied, nursing an injury to his lower back, “they passed over us, right? All indications suggest that they didn’t even slow down.”

“Suckers.”

“Who, us or them?”

“Them. I hope, anyway.”

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