They'd called him out to tackle another Outsider ship. This one had a corrugation factor of around 150 000 and a local speed of about five percent of the speed of light. This meant an absolute speed of seventy five hundred times c; that was a good deal slower than normal, but he didn't stop to worry about it. He'd catch these trespassers easily.
As yet his club's tachyon radar, labelled Scan mode, hadn't picked up the Outsider. He was still following nav instructions from the station that had picked up the intruder. Scan mode was relatively short-ranged — particularly when part of the Artifact's attention was focused on corrugating space for him. That was one of the things about corrugation drive: it made a lot of gravitational interference.
Represent 3-dimensional space by a 2-dimensional sheet of paper. Nothing new in that concept, right? Gravity — from a planet or a star or an artificial gravity generator — warps space, as though you'd bent that piece of paper downward in the middle. If you continue to warp space enough — that is, if you keep on bending the paper more and more steeply — you find that the edges of your warp actually touch. Thus you could say that you have "folded away" the section of space underneath where the edges touch. Any object moving across that area of folded space would just skip from one edge of the fold to the other, without crossing the distance in between; and to any observer outside that folded-space zone it would seem as though the object had magically vanished from space at one point and reappeared, at the same time, some distance away. Which it had.
Folding a huge enough section of space out of the way to facilitate interstellar travel — say, by planting an artificial gravity generator between two neighboring stars a few light-years apart — would require more energy than a small star produces in its lifetime. Instead, what you want to do is build a portable gravity generator into a space craft and have it fold space out of the way along the length of the craft throughout its journey. If you had a hundred meter long spaceship, and you warped 100 meters of space out from the center of it in one big chunk, an outside observer would see fifty meters of spaceship, a hundred meters of nothing, and another fifty meters of spaceship. Say, instead, that you warped 100 meters out in two separate fifty-meter chunks along the ship's length; then the ship would appear in thirds, with two 50-meter bands of nothing breaking it apart. Of course, anyone on board this ship or staring along its length wouldn't see those separations and could step across them as though they didn't exist, because those people and the light reflecting off of them would be in the space-fold's path as well.
If you warped 100 meters of space out from under your 100-meter-long spaceship, and those hundred meters were distributed among an infinite number of infinitessimal space folds, then an outside observer would merely see a somewhat-transparent 200-meter-long space craft. And that was just about the only space-warping feat that artificial gravity generators could accomplish: warping space infinitessimally in an infinite number of places. If you looked at this space edge-on with an infinitely powerful microscope, then, you would see loops of space warped out of the way, connected by flat sections of space that hadn't been warped. It would look like a cross-section of corrugated cardboard; hence, the name "corrugation drive." That theoretical 100-meter-long spacecraft that appears 200 meters long would have a "corrugation factor" of two. If it appeared a thousand meters long, its corrugation factor would be ten; at 10 kilometers long, its corrugation factor would be a hundred.
But while it was possible for a ship to create such a field of infinitessimal corrugations, it wasn't possible to make them move. Those microfolds had to be anchored to something. Anchor them to the ship itself, and they'd be worthless; the ship would forever be stationary relative to the folds in space, and would move at the same sub-light speed it had attained before the corrugation drive was switched on. The great leap into the galaxy had occurred when someone figured out how to anchor the corrugations to a distant gravitational source, such as a star several light-years away. Then the corrugations could be "fixed" in space relative to the ship, and the ship's momentum, its "local speed," would carry it across the folds. The ship's "absolute speed" through space would be the product of its local speed and its corrugation factor; so a ship with a corrugation factor of 100, and a local speed of 2% of the speed of light, would have an absolute speed of 200% of the speed of light, or 2c.
Back when the separatists had first colonized Karthos, all those centuries ago, the highest corrugation factor a starship could achieve was maybe ten thousand. At this moment, the Starlane Destroyer was heading toward his adversary under a corrugation factor of five hundred thousand. Few vehicles in the known universe could outrun him.
But his target's corrugation factor of 150 000 was just plain weird. Either you were a passenger ship with a corrugator that had trouble exceeding 100 000, or you were a military vessel capable of corrugation factors of 300 000 or more. Or you were a racing vehicle whose corrugator was half your total mass, in which case you could corrugate space at a factor bigger than a million. No standard ship design used a corrugation factor of 150 000 — particularly if it had the option of going faster through the Karthosian blockade.
And this craft was going the wrong way, too.
Whatever its reasons, it wouldn't be around to explain them much longer. A blockade runner was a blockade runner, whether it was headed toward the terraformed Inner Worlds on one side of Karthos or the mineral-rich star colonies on the other side. As soon as he got within 207 kilometers of it, it would be doomed.
A space corrugator didn't play well with other gravity sources. The plain old gravity well of a nearby planet was enough to screw up the drive's directional control. Even shipboard artificial gravity had to be carefully, constantly tuned and re-tuned under computer control so as not to interfere with a running corrugator. If two ships wanted to fly in formation together while corrugating space, and they were less than 207 kilometers apart, their corrugation drives had to be precisely synced so that they'd only produce constructive interference.
Which meant that if you wanted to intentionally shut down another ship's corrugation drive, it was really easy to do. If you could get close enough. Military craft usually fired high-speed self-corrugating missiles — "dampener drones" — at a corrugated target that was outrunning them. The Starlane Destroyer was fast enough that he didn't need them. A few more seconds and—
There! The stars just popped back out into their normal pattern. His club issued the familiar warning as well, a blinking "G+ C-," meaning that his corrugator had shut down due to another gravity source. That would be his prey, whose own control panel was probably barking out the same warning. He had crossed the 207-klick limit; everything from then on would be sub-light, and fast.
He switched the handle on the Artifact completely into Scan mode as he continued to accelerate. Plugging his right palm into the data prong at the handle's base, he read a click at 200 kilometers range, the maximum range at which Scan mode was reliable. Right where the ship was supposed to be. Nothing was ever any different.
He had made one little modification to the tachyon receiver in his head, which would have infuriated his builders had they known about it. They'd built his transceiver to operate on one frequency and one frequency only; he'd managed to get into his metal head and free up the tuning capacitor. Now he could receive and transmit at any tachyon wavelength used by humankind. He sometimes liked to switch to Outsider frequencies at this point and listen to them panic; not always, but sometimes. This was such a time. They doubtlessly knew he was there.
He listened to the Outsider's emergency frequency and heard only background hiss. That was puzzling, but not the first time it had happened. He scanned around that frequency and out into more distant ones, picking up a few snatches of local space traffic control, some extrastellar news stations, and of course K1010 — he did so love listening to music when he got the chance — but nothing even barely reminiscent of emergency transmissions or panic. Perhaps, he figured, this was an unmanned vessel.
That would explain its hunded-and-fifty thousand corrugation factor. If it was just a hastily constructed unmanned supply transport, its corrugator-to-total-mass ratio could be way off from standard. Maybe it was part of some foolish Outsider attempt to arm the worlds that Karthos had gone to the trouble of cutting off. Or maybe food to keep them from starv—
No. He'd better not follow that train of thought. That way lay madness.
So . . . a decoy, perhaps? Get the Starlane Destroyer to chase an empty, throwaway ship, and a real blockade runner might slip past. Should that be the case, he grumbled silently, he had every confidence in Karthos Space Control's ability to find the other ship and order him to murder everyone on it.
He watched the blip close with him. A hundred kilometers had already gone by; time to put those thrusters forward and start braking. He actually had to slow down to catch a ship retreating at full thrust. At fifty kilometers he caught the first ultraviolet glimpse of its engines. His curiosity aroused as to what strange design this new craft might be, he switched on his magnifiers and amplified the image tenfold.
The telescoped image became less fuzzy and larger even as he approached. The engine which had caught his attention was shielded by a hemisphere and pointed about thirty degrees away from him. It looked like little more than a fireball. Behind it, through a haze of both helium and hydrogen plasma, he could make out several spherical fuel tanks, and behind them a rather slender yet lumpy fuselage. No doubt about it, this craft was operating on bare fusion. He shook his metal head. Bare fusion was less than ten percent efficient; modern thrusters had nearly perfect efficiency and had been around for over half a century. They used only the helium fusion products for thrust, whereas bare fusion wasted about ninety percent of its deuterium simply because the reaction wasn't contained. Somebody was either very stupid, or stuck with a very old spacecraft.
Fifty kilometers dwindled to thirty, to twenty, to ten, to five, and finally to three. It was time for them to start firing and for him to turn on his shields and switch the Artifact to its Deflect mode. He waited for a few seconds, not turning his forcefield on just yet to conserve the "precious deuterium" his review board had warned him about. The ship didn't fire. This ship must have been smart enough to know to wait until the two-kilometer death zone.
He switched fully into Deflect mode and kicked in his shields five seconds later. Two point three kilometers . . . two point two kilometers . . . two point one . . .
Two kilometers. A ship's effective weapons range. The death zone. The hard part.
Still, the ship held its fire.
What were they up to?
One point five kilometers . . . still no enemy fire. One kilometer. Half a kilometer. He could see the shields illuminating the ship's surface now, even with his normal vision. They were weak shields at best. He could also make out the emergency airlock hatches you'd only see on a manned vessel. It couldn't have been rigged up to fly unmanned, not with all the systems that required a live crew to operate. Point two kilometers . . . point one kilometer . . .
Contact. He braked over a shield generator port and Smashed his way inside.
The interior lights were too dim, and what few light sources there were were blocked by plastic crates. He must have hit a cargo hold. The room was also evacuated — there hadn't been any air in there even before he breached the hull. Either this cargo required vacuum storage, or someone was piloting a very old starship. Not bothering to wait and see if a damage control door would come down to cover his entrance, he switched the Artifact's handle into Sense mode and looked for the door.
The door was all too easy to find. It was an airlock, and less than ten meters away from him. How big this cargo bay was he could only guess, since the crates obscured his vision so thoroughly, but it had to be enormous. Was this ship only carrying cargo, instead of passengers? It still had to have crew, somewhere. He thought about ripping both airlock doors off of their mounts and just letting all the air in the ship rush out into space. He thought about that; but he also thought about how easy it had been to get this far. Perhaps this was the trap they were planning. He engaged his forcefield at a tenth of its full power, stood to one side of the door, and pulled the handle.
The door burst open from the overpressure inside the airlock chamber, but did precious little else.
He stepped into the antechamber and closed the outer airlock door behind him, nervously raising his shields to half strength as he did. Perhaps their booby traps wouldn't go off if he worked the airlock like everyone was supposed to. He counted the seconds before the light over the door changed from red to green — indicating full repressurization — then stepped to one side, reached over, and turned the inner door's handle.
The door opened. Nothing blew up.
He was in a dull gray hallway devoid of markings. The only sources of illumination were three widely-spaced fluorescents, two of which were either turned off or dead and the third of which flickered only dimly. No matter; it gave off more than enough UV for him to see by. This corridor, too, was devoid of crew. It branched off in two directions. One passageway pointed more-or-less toward the ship's corrugator, according to his club's Sense mode. The other was only a couple meters long, and ended at a thick metal door clearly marked "Flight deck." Was that a trap? If so, it was a pretty elaborate one. Those markings looked like they'd been etched into the door at the factory, and the door's mountings weren't of the quick-change variety. In all likelihood it really was the door to the flight deck.
And if this setup was a trap, they'd know he'd be headed to the corrugator, not to the flight deck. His curiosity got the better of him. He had to see the pilots for himself, whatever they were up to.
Shields still firmly engaged, Strangen pulled the door open.
He had to sweep his gaze across the entire expanse of the room before he spotted its sole inhabitant. There was only one guy. The little man was clearly an Outsider, barely two meters tall if that, and his scraggly hair and beard looked like they hadn't been groomed in weeks. But most remarkably, this lone soul was neither cowering in fear nor desperately attacking him. He just sat there in the command pilot's chair, facing the Starlane Destroyer in the doorway with an expression of utter calm.
The Outsider's mouth moved. He was probably speaking. He didn't realize that the cyborg facing him was completely deaf. Strangen broadcast an audio signal on all the standard radio frequencies at once: "I can't hear sounds. Transmit your voice to me over radio."
The Outsider jerked in surprise, and looked at a speaker on his console. Good, Strangen thought, he can hear my transmission. The little man flipped a switch next to the speaker and said, in a voice clearly audible from one of the mid-range aerospace carrier frequencies, "Sound check. Do you read?"
"Yes," Strangen transmitted.
The man said, "I'm guessing you're here to destroy this ship."
It was such a flat, matter-of-fact thing to hear in the middle of an operation. "Yes," Strangen transmitted.
"Well," the Outsider said, "There's obviously nothing I can do to stop you. No bulkhead in this ship could keep you away from the corrugator, and no weapon any human could carry would put so much as a dent in those shields of yours. But if you're going to carry out your mission, you should probably know what I'm trying to do, and why I've risked running the Karthosian blocade."
Strangen nodded, almost imperceptibly.
"You may have noticed that there's no other crew aboard. You may have also noticed that I was running at a corrugation factor of 150 thousand. That's partly because this ship was built last century, as you may have noticed from its bare-fusion engine. The corrugation unit has never been upgraded. But that odd corrugation factor is also because this is a cargo ship — not a passenger ship, not a military ship, just a cargo ship. Until you boarded, I was the only living creature here. And," he leaned forward slightly, "If you open any of the crates, you'll find that all of this cargo is food, medical gear, agricultural stock, and air system parts. No weapons, no fuel, no pricy commodities — just basic survival supplies."
The little man indicated a photograph resting on his console. "That's Hali, my sister, with her husband and the first of their kids. They transmitted that picture to me a few years ago from Shanaya Reyansh c. It's one of the colonies on the far side of your blockade." He paused for emphasis. "One of the resource mining colonies."
Strangen turned this over in his mind. Resource mining usually meant smaller, airless worlds, with living spaces either small enough for their pieces to fit in the colony ship's cargo holds, or tunneled out underground.
"Shanaya Reyansh c had started working toward self-sufficiency, but they didn't make it before Karthos cut them off. You must know how hard it is to grow food without open fields. The neighboring colonies can't help, they're barely able to handle their own privation problems. My sister and her whole colony are literally starving to death."
Strangen didn't move. You must know how hard it is to grow food without open fields. Actually, no. He didn't. He'd never had to think about it before. He knew the whole point of the Karthosian blockade was a siege, a war of deprivation, to make it easy to control all the resource-rich worlds on the far side. But the depths of what that meant . . . he'd always managed to push those thoughts out of his head before. He'd always avoided thinking it through.
Now here, faced with this lone Outsider, he had to face those thoughts head-on.
And it was breaking what was left of his heart.
"I had to do this," the Outsider said. "I couldn't sit by and let Hali die."
"What's your name?" Strangen transmitted.
"Samuel Withers," the little man said.
A two-word name, Strangen thought. He'd heard that such names among Outsiders weren't arbitrary. One of the names was a family name, often passed down through a dozen or more generations. The closest thing to a family name Karthosians had was the smug "of Karthos" title that belonged to every citizen.
"Samuel," the three-meter-tall cyborg said. He gazed straight at the Outsider. "I'm Strangen." His mission of destruction was barely an echo in his mind right now. "It's so strange, looking at an Outsider and thinking of him as a person instead of a target. Normally, after I swoop in under max corrugation, I'm just smashing my way through my objective, and the few Outsiders I run into along the way are either shooting at me or running in terror."
"Under max corruga. . ." Samuel's voice trailed off. "I'd always assumed you were carried inside a ship with its own corrugator, and then deployed against blockade runners as a kind of short-range weapon. I had no idea they could build a corrugator small enough to fit inside you."
Strangen tapped his torso. "My corrugator isn't inside my body." He brandished his club, showing off the twinkling cylinder atop it. "It's in here."
Samuel's eyes opened wide. "That . . . that club can corrugate space?"
"At what factor?"
"Five hundred thousand."
Five hundred thousand?, Samuel mouthed. "I knew Karthos had invented some pretty impressive things, but—"
"Karthos didn't invent this. They found it."
"You mean . . . that's —"
"An alien artifact. Humans weren't the first ones on the planet. There's a lot you Outsiders don't know about Karthos. Like the fact that two hundred thousand standard years ago, the planet was inhabited by a completely inhuman high-tech species. Like the fact that there's an entire continent-sized island where they put the folks who aren't sufficiently patriotic. Like the fact that every pregnancy has to be approved by the state, and those that aren't are subject to immediate abortion."
"Do you . . ." Samuel began. "Do you have children of your own?"
"I would've," Strangen transmitted. "Dorsa and I had gotten authorization through the standard channels. She was two months along when they did . . . this to me." He gestured at his metal body. "Then they took a closer look at my genome and de-authorized her pregnancy."
"Oh my god," Samuel whispered.
"My genetic profile had always been marginal," Strangen went on. "At least, according to official Karthosian standards. That's why they 'volunteered' me for the cyborg program. Don't want to waste good breeding stock if your test subjects might never breed again."
The Starlane Destroyer glared right at the Outsider. His metal face could show no expression, but it didn't need to. The directness of that gaze spoke of fury and coldness and sheer, uncaring lethality. "I've killed more Outsiders than I can remember. Soldiers or civilian passengers, it didn't matter. I made myself stop caring a long time ago." He looked away. "Except that I had to keep making myself stop caring, over and over. Each time the greater glory of Karthos called on me to kill again. They call you Outsiders to try to make you sound less than human. And with your small stature, that's an easy sell — at least, to most of the Karthosian public. They cheer me back home, like a hero. And it makes me feel sick to my gut each time. I don't even know if I have any guts left inside of here" — he thudded his metal abdomen — "and yet it still makes me feel sick there."
Strangen turned back to face Samuel again. "I can't do it any more. Not to you. Not to this shipment." Samuel's face seemed to shift, to change color at these words. "I'll accompany you to Shanaya Reyansh c. I know how the Karthosian blockade is deployed. They mostly rely on a wall of picket ships at the edge of far-side space, but there aren't enough of them to be everywhere at once. They have to follow standard patrol patterns to hunt for blockade runners. I can point you to the thinnest spots, where this ship might be able to slip through undetected."
Samuel blinked. "That's the best news I think I've ever heard."
Strangen sank to the floor. "I've shut off my antigrav. Get your ship back under corrugation at your original heading. We'll be changing course slightly after about an hour."
"Right," Samuel said, then inhaled and stopped himself. "Um . . . one thing first. Can . . . can I change my underpants now?"