by Sean Monaghan
Naomi clamped the capsule's hood into place and kicked
down on the launch relay. The capsule shuddered.
Stuffing her hands into loops by the emergency
controls, she pulled tight. Spray-webbing grabbed her
with a hiss.
"Did you get it?" Barry asked. "I can't see anything on
"It's done," she said. The capsule had gone still, but
she could hear the external servos winding it out.
"Just give it a minute." She could smell him just a
little. She remembered that odor, and in this cramped
space it felt intimate again.
"You think we've got a minute?" he said.
Naomi checked the time readout. Six minutes since
they'd gone off grid and entered the capsule. The ship
should be ignoring them. So should the crew. It had
been hasty, but she'd rigged a loop to suggest to the
remaining cortex that nothing had been interfered
with. "I think it's too late anyway. The launch
sequence is dialing." She could picture the little
momentum wheels on the side of the lifeboat winding up
so they wouldn't get mashed in a Barris-to-real-space
"They've got an alert," Barry said. "I wish you'd told
me what you were doing. I could have written a
lobotomy disguise for them."
Naomi squeezed up by him. The lifeboat was built for
two, but you wouldn't want to be putting two big
marines into one. It was tiny, designed to
automatically seal and blast the crew away from a
failing vessel. Once clear, the wheels would wind down
and drop the little vessel out of Barris space.
That was the theory.
Unscheduled exits from Barris space were not advised.
Not if you wanted to live. But if the choice was
between staying aboard a compromised vessel and taking
the lifeboat, your chances were better if you went
with the lifeboat.
"I see the alert. The loop has migrated itself to a
The Preston was not compromised -- unless
stealing half of its databank counted as
compromise. It wasn't like the hull was damaged.
"You programmed that? Programmed it to morph into a
"You bet." The loop was now flicking alarms from each
of the lifeboat stations. The ship's old cortex had no
way of telling the crew exactly which boat had been
"We're popping now," Barry said. Naomi saw that his
knuckles were white where he was clutching at the
"You didn't have...."
The lifeboat bucked, jarring through her legs.
"Ow," Barry said.
The little craft tumbled. Even through the spray-web
Naomi's knees banged against the sides. Somewhere
above her head the vessel whined. The gyros. Trying to
stabilize the spin. On the readout, she could see the
distance from the ship. Already eighty miles, Barris-relative.
"I hope we come out somewhere near your data spikes,"
"We will." Their tumble was fading. She could feel the
faint Coriolis of an inertia spin. Letting go of her
right-hand loop, Naomi wiped up the display. There was
debris. They were out of the regular Barris lines.
"Can you tell where we are?"
"Just about on top of it," she said. If she timed it
right, they would get very close.
"Can we get out?"
"Let me see." She manipulated the display to angle the
boat and steady the wheels. Barris space location was
mostly a guess. Transitions relied on the associations
of real matter samples and their counterparts in real
space. Tenuous and almost unexplainable. Every
lifeboat contained a microscopic sample of the
destination matter, installed at launch. Standard
"We're traveling deep?" Barry said.
"Oh, yeah. We'll come out days ahead of them."
"Unless they follow. But I guess that you're counting
on them not following."
Naomi sighed and looked over at him. "I hope with every
fiber that he'll just let it go, but I suspect you're
right. He'll be following -- every step of the way.
What I don't know is how long we'll have."
She had a feeling that Captain Morris wasn't going to
like someone stealing one of his lifeboats, let alone
the damage done when she prised out part of his ship's
cortex. But it was data she had to have if she had any
hope of making this all work. He'd been so nice to her
on the way out, too. She felt just a little guilty
deceiving him this way.
Still, what had to be done just had to be done.
"So you've set a hellhound on our trail?"
"He's a nice man," she said. "You had tea with me in
"Oh, yes. Very nice. Very formal. Absolutely military.
You go in there with a crowbar and rip apart his
ship's brain, you think he's going to be thinking
about inviting you to tea again? I think it'll be one
of those 'terminate with extreme prejudice' things."
"Maybe," she said with a shrug she knew Barry wouldn't
see. "Maybe we can sweet-talk him again."
"Ever the optimist." He dropped his hand down, brushing
Naomi shivered. Why did her body have to respond like
"Sorry," he said. "It's kind of a tight space in here."
"Yeah, don't worry." She wondered if it was wise to
have brought him into this. It was one thing to
exploit his skills, but their history was always going
to get in the way. Especially now that they were out
here looking for her current boyfriend. Didn't
think that through too well, did you Naomi, she
"Nah, I mean..." Barry stammered. "Well, of course I
still have feelings for you, but I get the situation
"Don't do this."
"I'm not coming on to you."
"No," she said. "You're not."
Barry sighed. "Maybe we should have just talked to him
a little more. Explained, rather than just making off
with one of their boats."
"It was either that or..." Naomi trailed off. She
wasn't going to talk about the 'or'. She looked back
at the display and triggered an early drop. The feel
of the inertia changed and right away she felt
weightlessness tingle through her. "Here we are."
The spray-web dissolved and air flushed through the
lifeboat, filtering the particles out. Naomi's display
changed from a Barris space status, to a much more
Barry began working on his panel, scrolling through
feeds. He pulled up a video feed. "Hey, look," he
said. "This thing has got external cameras." He
adjusted the picture as she looked over. "Well," he
said. "It's got one, anyway."
The view showed a star, flaring the video's balance all
out. There was one other speck of white on the panel,
the rest was black. Naomi shuffled around in the
cramped space. "Filter out the star. I mean, just
"Just a second," he said. He stroked up a line of
actions, put in a local virtual optical vortex on
Eltanin and immediately the star field shimmered in.
"We're still too far out," she said, turning back to
her own display. She was astonished at what he was
doing. The little units were really only for
emergencies, designed with limited capacity. They were
really meant simply to help clean-up crews locate and
dock with the boat. She was pushing the limits of
their simple cortexes.
But she had figures. They had come out seven-thousand
miles from the hoop. Far enough that the local forces
probably wouldn't notice them, but close enough to be
able to fly over in five or six hours.
"Ready for some acceleration?" she said.
"Say the word."
Naomi flicked the maneuvering rockets. The little ship
didn't have a lot of power, but it was able to
accelerate them at over a gee for a short period.
There was a kick, then they were moving. It was odd to
go from the sense of lying down, relaxed and
weightless, to having gravity. They were suddenly
standing up in a space like a narrow phone booth.
"They see us," Barry said.
"Them." He pointed at his own display. "Thirty ships
there, we've been located on the ping."
"We're too small to shoot at," she said. "They'd never
hit us." Would they? Surely their little boat was too
small to worry about.
"The Preston is coming out of Barris space. It's
a couple of hundred miles off." He turned his display
"Magnify," she said. It looked blotchy. She'd never
witnessed a ship exiting Barris space, and this might
be her only chance. It would have been nice to have
been able to launch in a bigger vessel – something
with a viewport.
On the display, she could see the ship rebuilding from
blotches of matter. It was like the old
color-by-numbers games, parts of it shimmering in and
gradually building into a whole.
"Freaky," Barry said.
"Yeah." They were already streaking past the ship. It
was nearly whole, the outer wheels slowly turning.
"Torpedo," Barry said. "Scratch that. Plural. Multiple
contacts, multiple headings."
"Target? Us?" She hoped it might be the Preston
in the firing line.
"Looks like. This is where I'd say something like
'evasive maneuvers', but I don't think we're doing
much evading in this crate."
"It was your idea."
"It was never my idea. Not to steal a lifeboat."
"Oh, that's right, you wanted to steal the whole ship."
Naomi glanced at his display. He'd switched to a
tracking program and she could see all his multiple
points heading their way. "Let's do this later," she
"Sure. I'm guessing that you've got an idea?"
She scrabbled around at her feet, trying to locate the
satchel with the cortex pieces in it. She managed to
hook the strap and pull the bag up. Slipping it open,
she pulled out the biggest piece. "It was part of the
"Excuse me?" Barry's eyes went wide. "Are you serious?"
"No," he said. "I'm not getting into a ship that that
thing 's plugged into. Not before months of tests and
trials. What are you doing?"
Naomi was uncoiling the display's SafeConnect cable.
"See," he said. "This is what I was talking about.
"But you thought my plan was too tame. Remember your
ideas about gassing the bridge and putting them all in
"At least we would have had a proper ship. And all
"See, this is the thing with you. Do you really think
that they have twenty-something crew members just for
the fun of it? It actually takes that many people to
run a ship that size."
"Yes, but how long were we going to have to run it for?
I wish you would stop that."
Naomi had the SafeConnect pressed in against the broken
edges of the cortex. "Give it a moment."
Barry's display pinged. "We've got ranging," he said.
"Torpedoes eight hundred klicks off, and decelerating.
They're maneuverables. They'll be slowing down to be
nice and accurate.
Naomi's display changed. The cortex was taking over,
running itself through the lifeboat's simple command
center – barely even a cortex itself – and analyzing
what it could do.
The word 'options' came up on the display. She tapped
and it brought up two. "Huh," she said.
"What's that?" Barry said.
"Okay, we could hyperaccelerate, reach the hoop in
"The spaceframe wouldn't take that, let alone us."
"Yeah. So I'm going with option number two.
"This thing has countermeasures?"
"Not this thing. The Preston. We're still close
enough to be able to take advantage of them. Watch."
Naomi tapped to accept, and the cortex fragment took
"What's happening?" Barry said.
"Look on your display. Can you bring up a feed of the
"Sure, here." He massaged the image out of it, and
Their acceleration stopped and weightlessness returned.
The Preston was beginning to wind up its
conventional engines. Naomi was sure that it had never
intended to drop out of Barris space so far from the
hoop, but they'd gone to emergency systems and tried
to follow the lifeboat out.
"There," Barry said.
A cloud of white flecks burst from the hull. The flecks
spun away quickly becoming almost invisible.
The lifeboat shifted, then accelerated again.
"Whoa," Barry said. "Are we going somewhere?"
"Plot our course," Naomi said, looking at the cortex.
It seemed as inert as ever, but she knew there were
billions of processes going on in there.
"We're heading back for the ship," Barry said. "Oh,
man. What a waste of time. That thing you stole has
got some kind of homing system. It's taking us right
back to where it came from. You left half of it
behind, right? That's what you said."
"Yes," she said. "But we only need half."
"Yes. And they needed their half so they didn't know
I'd taken any."
"I don't get it. But it's all moot, anyway."
"It's not taking us back. Track the torpedoes."
Barry adjusted his display. "Oh."
"We're flying though the countermeasures, right? It'll
adjust our course once we're through."
"How could you know that?"
"I don't." She shrugged. "This is guesswork, mostly."
They watched his display for tense minutes as the
lifeboat drew closer to the Preston. Naomi was
reasonably confident that the cortex had a plan and
that it wasn't just taking them back to re-dock. But
she couldn't know; she just had to wait and hope.
If everything Mitch had written about the cortex was
correct, and he really was out here, then she had
nothing to worry about except the business of finding
Eventually Barry said, "They're turning back."
"Recovery?" She looked at his display and saw the
missile tracks bending around, back towards the main
fleet stationed at the hoop.
"They're not going waste them if they don't have to."
"I guess that's half the point of countermeasures,
"Sure," he said with a roll of his eyes.
"I know, you're not military."
He didn't say anything. They traveled on in silence,
Naomi watching their track. She could feel little
shifts through the hull as the attitude jets fired. It
seemed that they were actually making a gradual change
toward the hoop again.
She watched her own display. The cortex was modifying
things. There were readouts she never would have
expected. The number of ships at the hoop, distance
readings to the Preston, even identification
features of the ship. "What do you make of this?" she
He looked over. "Oh."
"It's really amping up what the lifeboat can do. Not
"Well, that would be impossible,"
"Of course." They were a small boat in a vacuum. "But
look at these readings. How many external sensors has
the boat got?"
"Camera, docking ranger. Radio. She's pretty stripped
"I guess it could pull a lot of data through the radio,
Barry stared at the display. "If it was talking to the
other ships, it could pull up all their data."
Naomi nodded. Chances were it was capable of that kind
of thing. That's why the forces wanted it, and wanted
to keep it out of anyone else’s hands.
She felt the kick of acceleration again. They were
underway, heading for the hoop.
Barry was still looking at her display. "It's going to
thread us right through the anomaly."
"That's where we want to go."
"Yeah." He reached up to the side of his display and
pulled out the SafeConnect cables, joining them into
the side of her display.
"You think that's smart?" she said. "The two systems
are separate for a reason, no?"
"It think it's too late for that."
Moments after the connection was made, his display
changed too, darkening, and showing similar readings
"What's that?" he asked.
"What's what?" Naomi glanced at his display. It seemed
like he was getting a stern view as well as a forward
view. Ahead, it looked like they were approaching the
hoop very quickly.
"I've got another angle."
As he spoke she felt something move on her leg. Her
satchel, still hanging from her shoulder in the
acceleration. It was dissolving. A piece of the flap
flipped up, broke away and vanished as it drifted
towards the floor.
"Okay," Barry said, "this is getting creepy. Creepier
than the whole time-dilation thing with the anomaly
that you talked about."
"I know." She realized he hadn't looked down, hadn't
seen the satchel. He was staring at his display.
He swiped at his display. Multiple camera views.
"Surely it's not pulling this up from hijacked signals
from the other ships? Even with a lot of extrapolation
it's, well... improbable."
Naomi focused back on her own display. There were
dozens of layered options within it. She called up a
direct magnified view of the hoop and the anomaly. She
could see individual ships clustered around the
anomaly, hanging back to avoid the false gravity that
surged out of it. She could see where one of the ships
had latched onto the hoop's inner surface. The word
Algiers appeared near it, with a thin line linking
to the ship. The cortex was ID-ing everything. "It's
possible," she said. "There's a lot of data out there.
It could stream it all in through the radio and
convert it to imagery. That's the kind of thing you'd
make something like this for in the first place. If
you know what I mean."
"I'm trying to do the sums on data rates there. Look at
the acuity of these images." Barry enlarged one of the
sections. The Preston grew on the display,
getting ever bigger and bigger until the view zoomed
right in on their empty lifeboat rack. Naomi could
read the warning labels alongside the clamps.
There were other lifeboats missing too. She was sure
that the racks had been all green when they'd gotten
into theirs. Why would they be launching lifeboats?
"How far away are we now?" She hated to think. She
wanted to be far, far away, but resolution like that
suggested no more than a couple of kilometers.
"Two hundred eighty klicks," he said. "More or less."
"It's got to be extrapolation." She was scared now. Her
satchel had disappeared entirely. It was like it had
attracted one of those virulent recycling phages that
only ate one kind of material. What if the cortex had
an infection and something ate through the hull before
they managed to get to the anomaly.
"Something else," he said.
Naomi didn't like to admit it, but he was probably
right. The cortex had decided how the ship should run
and it was-
"LIFEBOAT THIRTEEN D," a speaker boomed, cutting off
her thought. "SHUT DOWN YOUR ENGINE AND PREPARE FOR
"Now why didn't they just say that before?" Barry said.
"Before they started shooting at us."
"That was from the Preston," she said. Captain
Morris. Useful that she'd gained his trust, but now
she felt a pang of guilt for deceiving him. "They
weren't the ones who were doing the shooting."
"Point taken. But perhaps... ah, forget it. We're not
shutting down anyway. Too much at stake."
"Exactly." She wasn't sure that they actually could
shut it down at this stage anyway. They were
accelerating for the anomaly at a steady rate. At
least that part of the plan was working. Hopefully the
warships weren't going to start shooting at her again.
At them again. "What's our velocity?" she said.
Barry licked his lips and peered at his display.
"Twelve. We're going to have to turn around and start
decelerating pretty soon."
Naomi tried to do the math in her head. Another five
minutes at acceleration would have them well past
halfway from their arrival point to the hoop.
"LIFEBOAT THIRTEEN D. YOU HAVE ONE MINUTE TO COMPLY.
DEADLY FORCE WILL BE USED."
"As opposed to some other kind of force they had in
mind before?" Barry said.
"Different faction, remember? And can you turn that
down? It nearly stops my heart every time it comes
"Yeah," he said. "Let me figure that out. Do you think
we can do evasive?"
"I'm counting on it."
"Maybe we should reply to them? You know, try to buy
Something folded out from the side of her display. It
was the size of her palm and it flashed like a display
clearing. It faded, then a row of digits appeared on
"What's that?" Barry said. "A sub-display? I didn't
think it would be sophisticated enough to have that."
"Or to even need it," she said. The figures were tied
into the names of ships. She recognized enough of them
to understand that. Velocities, position, distance.
Some other numbers she couldn't figure out. The list
scrolled up, kind of like a stock-ticker, refreshing
with each pass.
Something in the boat thumped.
"Are we hit?" Barry said.
If they'd been hit they wouldn't still be breathing.
Any impact at this velocity would demolish them
"TIME'S UP," the speaker said. "WE ARE SHUTTING DOWN
YOUR SYSTEMS. DIDN'T YOU KNOW WE HAVE A REMOTE ON YOUR
A pinprick spot on Naomi's display swelled up until it
looked like a kind of amoeba; solid with little
tendrils. It linked to another label. Preston--system
override. A little 'Y' flashed beside it.
"Better press it," Barry said.
The lifeboat shuddered.
Too late, she thought. They were already shutting
things down. She tapped the 'Y'. The amoeba faded
"What makes you think you can trust it?"
"I don't know that I do."
"CEASE YOUR ATTEMPTS AT OVERRIDE."
"But," she went on, "I trust it more than the captain
of the Preston."
They were still accelerating towards the anomaly,
angled just a little above the rim of the hoop.
A sound from the lifeboat again. This time a sharp,
metallic bang. Naomi felt it by her legs. She looked
"What's happened?" Barry looked down too. "Is that a...
There was a gap in the lifeboat, behind her calves.
They weren't bleeding any air. A hole that size--it
stretched from her feet to her knees--would have had
them decompress explosively.
"NAOMI," the radio said.
"Is that Captain Morris?" Barry said.
Naomi nodded. She could picture him in her head, the
moustache, the way he always wore his captain's cap.
"NAOMI, THIS ISN'T YOU. THERE ARE BETTER WAYS TO GO
"What's he mean?" Barry said.
"I'm sure I don't know." She did know. In all their
conversations, Morris had made it clear that the area
around the anomaly was currently considered a
battleground, and she'd convinced him that she was
simply coming to observe.
Barry stared at her. "Did you...?"
"No, I didn't." Though she had considered it. Seducing
a ship's captain was not below her standards. Close to
the line, but not quite below.
"Sheesh," Barry said, shaking his head.
"A hole, yes," she said, focusing back on the changing
lifeboat. She had a suspicion what it might be. "Let
me take a look." She wriggled down into the cramped
space, bending her legs out, and turning.
The hole was the size of an empty refrigerator. She
could feel the sides of it with her feet. It had grown
outside the hull of the lifeboat, like a bubble. Naomi
sighed. "It's modifying the ship."
"SHUT DOWN YOUR OVERRIDE. WE HAVE YOU TARGET-LOCKED."
Naomi shimmied back up to her display. There were two
of the little side displays now, and two on Barry's
display. Something had changed in the layout in their
headspace too. The foam cushioning had altered to be
more like the top of flight seats.
"What do you mean, 'modifying'?" Barry said.
"Give me a second." She wiped through layers on the
display and pulled up the Preston. With a
couple of taps she'd brought up a radio link. It was
almost like the cortex knew what she wanted.
"How can it modify the lifeboat? That doesn't make any
"It makes perfect sense. Preston? Are you
"RECEIVING. YOU'VE HEARD OUR TRANSMISSIONS?"
"This is freaking me out," Barry said. "Let's just let
them take us in." A curving rod assembled itself from
behind his display, bending around towards his belly.
"It's all right," Naomi said. "We need-"
"AND CHOSE TO IGNORE?" It wasn't really a question.
"Choosing the best path. Look just leave us alone and
you can come get us in twenty minutes."
"This thing's going to puncture me," Barry said.
"THIS IS A MILITARY ZONE. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST."
Something bumped Naomi's thigh. She looked down and saw
the vinyl-covered foam shifting out. With another
bang, a second refrigerator-sized hole appeared in
front of her knees.
"Seats," Barry said. The rod had stopped growing, but
was changing at the end. Expanding out into a 'T'. "Is
this what I think?"
"DID NOT RECEIVE YOUR RESPONSE."
"How is it doing this?"
"Listen," Naomi said to the mic. "Whatever military
squabble you've got going on, it doesn't concern us.
Mitch is somewhere in the anomaly, and he needs the
cortex. It's his and we're taking it to him."
Mitch had taken his version of the cortex, strapped
himself into a steel pressure casket inside a baked
ceramic shell three meters thick, and blasted straight
into the anomaly. He was going to discover the next
level of Barris space on the other side. So he said.
Naomi wasn't so sure.
"THIS IS A ZONE OF INCURSION. WE WILL NOT BE-"
Barry shut the radio off. "He talks way too much."
"Yeah." There was another rod protruding from the back
of her display. They both had seats now. Naomi looked
behind and pulled the straps over her shoulders and
waist. The straps all joined at a buckle and she
clamped it together.
"You knew there was a harness?"
The lifeboat was beginning to look more like a cockpit
than a pod. A section of the hull behind displays
dilated, revealing a viewport.
"I'm getting a sense of what it's doing."
"I'm glad someone is." Barry slipped his own harness
on. The rod with the 'T' on the end shifted around a
little, growing curved spikes from the tips of the
cross-piece. "This looks like a yoke."
"It's turning itself into the vessel we wanted.
Something that can really cruise." The viewport was
bigger now, a half-meter high and angled back,
reaching around a hundred and eighty degrees. "It's
still linked outside real-space," she said.
"Excuse me? What are you talking about?"
Naomi leaned as far forward as the harness would let
her, looking around outside. The ship had wings. It
was atmosphere capable.
"It's a Sikorsky flitter," she said. "I think one of
the STK models. Maybe a nine or a ten."
"Okay, that's just plain impossible. Because, you know,
I'm sure that I remember squeezing into a lifeboat."
Naomi nodded. It was drawing material from Barris
space, or some other alternate realm, and making
physical matter, configuring it into the ship. A bit
of a clunker, to be sure, but far better than the
"Matter exchange," she said. "Or not." How to explain
it? "You know we came out here in Barris space. A
"Don't even try to explain a bit of that to me. Just
tell me where to point an ship and I'll fly it there
for you. That's why I'm along. That, and the money."
"Mitch, I'm not so much friends with."
"That's just because he's dating me, and you're
"Now, you make jokes. At my expense. I'm having
hallucinations and you just toy with my emotions."
She tried to smile at him. "I would never toy with you.
Right now we need to figure out why."
"Why? Why, or how, it's all really messing with my
head. How can anything change like this?"
She knew how, realizing as he said it. They were both
thinking in terms of the regular physical universe,
not with what might be possible. "Mitch designed and
constructed the cortex from his data builds out of the
anomaly, and Barris space."
"No one knows what the anomaly is."
"That why he went in there? Why he sent you that
It was beginning to make more sense to her. "Exactly."
Not so much a distress signal as a cached message left
in her own mini-cortex. A place and time window to
pick him up. Instructions on stealing the cortex
section from where it had been implanted in the
Preston's central system.
"So he's programmed it to do this? To make this
crusty old flitter? Why not ask for a Gulf-Fokker
Slipstream Three? Or one of the new Otter Z-LBs? Or
"He must have had his reasons."
"Oh, now you're suggesting that Mitch actually uses
"Don't start, Barry."
"I... yeah, okay." The yoke was still constructing
itself around him. "I think we might have some vector
control. Maybe thrust."
Naomi saw a heads-up display flash onto the viewport.
They were tracking in less than fifty kilometers from
the outer edge of the hoop, with the anomaly on the
far side, another three hundred kilometers off.
"We are not slowing down," Barry said.
"I can see that." The distance reading was clicking
down about at about ten kilometers a second. Not that
fast in terms of orbital speeds, but it gave them less
than two minutes before they reached the anomaly. "Can
you put the brakes on?" she said.
"I've got nothing." He jerked on the yoke. In the
middle now there was a bank of thrust controls and he
twisted them, putting up reverse thrust. "We're going
to fly right into it. I can't even get us turned
around to put the main rocket into it."
"It's not a lot of space to turn around in."
"I can see that."
Naomi's mind raced. What did Mitch have in mind here?
The cortex had radically reconfigured the lifeboat,
but to what end? Was this craft capable of transiting
through to the other side of the anomaly? He'd gone
through in a hardened ceramic sphere, but had he found
out since that a simple flitter like this could go
Had he hardened the flitter somehow? Is that what the
cortex was doing as they accelerated in?
"Focus," Barry said. "We've got a timeline here."
"I'm trying to think our way out of this."
"Out? You just got us into it."
"I just mean trying to think through what's going to
"We'll see in a moment."
Naomi looked at the HUD to find their velocity relative
to the hoop. She couldn't see it rotating, but she
knew its spin was so slow that it would always be
imperceptible. It was a bizarre structure, always next
to the anomaly, drifting a light month away from
Eltanin, and with a secondary alien construction on
the outside of the ring.
Something flashed up just below them, then vanished.
"We just crossed the hoop," Barry said.
The far side was almost invisible, but the anomaly was
swelling. She could see ships dotted around,
reflecting light from the anomaly's continuous burst.
It radiated photons and gravitons. The light wasn't
really any use--detectable this close, but not enough
to really warm anything -- but the gravity was a
different story. It formed a localized, directional
well. If you were directly in front of it you would
get pulled in, but a kilometer to the side and there
was no effect. Whatever civilization that had figured
out how to do that was far in advance of anything they
"Oh, my," Naomi said.
"No. He borrowed it," she said. He must have gotten it
out of the anomaly or from the hoop. Data
construction. "He didn't invent it at all. They never
stole it from him."
"You mean we've been on the wrong side the whole time?"
"Well, a fine moment to realize that."
The anomaly filled the viewport. They were only minutes
Naomi saw something within the anomaly. A dark speck.
Perhaps it was the event horizon, or whatever it was
that the anomaly had. No one had made any sense of the
thing yet. It just hung in space, feeding gravity out
of one side, unapproachable on the other, well,
undetectable except as a void. And it faced the hoop,
with the alien structure exploiting the time dilation
and gravity combination. It was some kind of giant
calculator, and everyone wanted a piece of it.
"It's Mitch," Barry said.
Impossible, she thought, squinting at the speck. At
their velocity it would be impossible to see... It
was Mitch. In a suit.
"We're slowing down," Barry said.
She could feel it, but not like regular inertia. More
like something was slipping through her, like a rope
through a belay, and she was the belay.
The speck was growing. Now it was clearly a man. In a
He was slowing too, as he approached them. Their
relative velocity couldn't be more than a few tens of
kilometers an hour now.
"Our velocity is way off," Barry said. "I've still got
us up at thirty thousand meters a second, but..." he
trailed off, pointing out the viewscreen.
"Yeah," Naomi said. "Way slower."
The little ship shuddered. Naomi heard a clank from
below. "Did something just open up on us?"
Barry swiped at his display. "Well," he said. "Look at
that. We've got an underside cargo hold. With an
airlock and a hatch."
"We're even bigger?" she asked.
"Twice the size of when I last looked."
"What's Mitch's trajectory?" She was assuming it was
Mitch. Who else could it be, this close to the
Naomi blinked and looked out through the forward
viewport again. The anomaly. They weren't closing on
it in the way they had been moments ago. It seemed to
hover right in front of them. At the bottom of her
view, she could see the hoop. They were only a few
dozen kilometers from it now. It was unnerving.
"He's heading right for us." Barry did something on the
display. "Right for the open hatch. I mean the hatch
on the cargo hold."
Which was the clank she'd heard and felt.
"He's right on target?"
"He's come out of the anomaly. We're the rescue party."
"You knew this all along?" Barry slapped her arm. "You
get me tangled up in all your nonsense and leave me
out of the loop." He paused. "If you know what I
"Not really. I didn't know this was his plan, but it's
obvious now." She could see him drawing in on them.
This had to be his plan from when he'd left the
message and told her how to get the cortex. When and
how. How could his timing be so exact? She glanced
down at the cortex itself. Even it seemed bigger now.
It had grown a kind of a shell.
She would have the answers soon.
"We have incoming missiles again," Barry said. "Real
slow, but definitely targeted on us."
Naomi pulled up the tracks on her display. Multiple
warheads. "Why are they so slow?"
"Time dilation. In the anomaly's sphere. Gravity and
time dilation. They're still outside the sphere,
coming in at regular velocity, but-"
"That doesn't make sense. How come we're getting
readings on them?" She'd lost sight of Mitch. She
tried pulling up tracking data from him on the
"They're outside the sphere, but the track seems slower
because of it."
"Can you figure when they'll reach us?"
"Two minutes?" Barry asked. "Fifteen?"
"Closest is a hundred and fifty kilometers out. I can't
figure its velocity."
"Let's get Mitch aboard. I'm suiting up."
"Suiting up?" Barry said. "You think there are suits?"
"Look behind you."
Barry glanced over his shoulder into the lengthened
The ship had extended back to create a double-cockpit,
with another row of engineers' seats behind, and on
the back wall, beyond that, were two vacuum suits in a
glass case. Naomi unbuckled and pulled herself around.
"You're going to trust those?" he said.
"We're trusting this, aren't we? Even though it
constructed itself around us."
"Too true. I don't even think the Sikorskies were this
big. A double-cockpit."
"Maybe it's just extrapolating now. Try not to let it
get hit while I'm out there. And don't fall into the
"What do you think I've been doing the last fifteen
"I just thought... never mind." Barry took the yoke.
Naomi opened up one of the cases and unhooked the suit.
It was a chunky old Russian model, probably from their
Jovian missions, from the size and weight of it. The
Cyrillic lettering on the helmet was a giveaway. It
felt perfect, as if it had been stitched and
heat-welded by hand in a Vladivostok cleanroom, not
built up from stolen atoms.
Then she realized what had happened to the missing
lifeboats. Not the crew coming after them--which was
ridiculous anyway. No, it was the cortex stealing the
raw material, siphoning it through something like
Barris space, and reconstructing it here. There were
levels of processing power and manufacturing precision
she couldn't imagine. The process was scary. What if
the cortex decided to disassemble something vital?
What if it decided to cannibalize the hull?
She wondered if that was how the hoop itself had been
constructed. Three hundred kilometers across, it was
one of the biggest structures yet discovered.
"Okay," Barry said. "Some of the torpedoes are speeding
"Speeding up?" Of course. They'd entered the time
dilation sphere. "You have a timeline?"
"Six... five minutes. Make sure you have a tether."
Naomi sighed. It was going to take almost that long to
get into the suit.
"Better move," Barry said. He looked over his shoulder.
"Plus, we've got our own countermeasures now. I'm
starting to like this cortex."
"Good," Naomi said, pulling up the suit's torso. "You
can have it."
Naomi got her arms up through the suit, wriggling into
the sleeves. The suit settled around her shoulders and
her head came up through the neck ring. As she was
slipping into the legs, the ship shuddered.
"What was that?" she said.
"Countermeasures launch. I told you."
"You said we had them, you didn't say when you were
going to launch them." Her feet slipped down into the
"Let me concentrate."
Naomi didn't reply. The torso ring self-docked to the
waist ring on the legs and she felt the magnetic hiss
as they bonded. Reaching back, she took the helmet
from the rack and settled it over her head. Another
hiss and she was sealed. She smiled to herself. Much
quicker than five minutes. "Comms active," she said.
The helmet had a little HUD itself, with scrolling
Cyrillic. How much use was that, really? She had to
just count on the green check marks.
"Comms active," Barry echoed.
"I'm going through the lock." She wondered if the
cortex could translate the characters. Why would it
make a suit from a Russian blueprints?
Then, as she slid into the airlock chamber, the
Now it was reading her thoughts?
"I was thinking," Barry said as the airlock door slid
closed. "If it can alter a lifeboat like this, then
maybe it can alter us. You know, tinker with our
Or minds, she thought.
"Or our minds."
"Okay, Barry," she said, her spine crinkling with a
shiver. "Stop talking and focus on the torpedoes. Let
me get Mitch inside." A green light flashed on next to
the airlock door and she felt the suit shifting around
her as the lock was evacuated.
"Torpedoes, gotcha. Don't think about the cortex
reading our minds."
Sheesh she thought, wondering
how much else Mitch hadn't told her.
"A whole lot I'm betting," Barry whispered. The radio
went dead, but she could hear his voice saying just
about everything and I let myself get mixed up in it
and she wasn't sure if it was just because she knew
him well and imagined it, or if it really was his
Above her head the outer door shuttered open and she
pulled herself up on loops. "Can you feed me tracking
data on him?" she said.
Sure, whatever. "Sure," Barry
said. "No problem."
A chart appeared on her HUD just as her head came up
past the outer hull.
The anomaly flared in her vision, wavering like a
fountain. It spread its funnel shape towards her as if
about to suck her in. It would: gravity operated out
of it. It seemed as large as a planet would from low
orbit. They must only be a few kilometers away.
The ship banked, jerking her to the edge of the
hatchway. A torpedo sped silently by, barely a blur.
Barry's evasion was working.
Naomi blinked and concentrated on the HUD. Her location
and two lines: Mitch's track, and a line between his
current location and hers. The lines diverged and she
had to get them overlapping.
"Mitch?" she said. Who knew which channel he might be
Holding the hull's edge, she clipped on a tether. "How
"We've evaded two torpedoes," Barry said. "You've got
about three minutes before our next maneuver." Move
fast. "You'd better move fast."
"I hear you." Naomi kicked off from the internal step.
The tether unreeled. On the HUD the two paths began to
converge. She adjusted the suit's jets, getting a
quick feel for the unusual configuration. The Russians
always did know how to build a suit.
"That's why the cortex made it Russian," Barry said.
"Oh," he said. The radio speaker slipped into quiet
background static for a moment. "You didn't say that
"Creeping me out."
"Yeah, I can feel you creeping out. Try to concentrate,
it's putting me off."
"You've got one hundred seconds."
"Roger that." The two paths had converged, but she
couldn't make Mitch out in the void. He had to be
close. The ranging count on the visor said he was less
than a kilometer away.
Ninety seconds Barry thought.
I'm moving, she thought right back,
gunning the jets. Eight hundred meters.
Now she saw him. A black spot in the vast rippling
ether of the anomaly.
"We're in the field," Barry said. "I'm compensating for
gravity, but it's all out of whack."
"Just keep up."
"We're going to have to maneuver like crazy to get
ourselves out of this."
"I know you can do that." Mitch was coming up fast.
Mitch was less than two hundred meters away. She could
distinguish his shape. He seemed to have wings.
"Barry," Naomi said. "Can you see if he's transmitting
on any frequency."
"Kind of concentrating here." Three missiles
incoming. Less than one minute to impact.
She wasn't going to make it to Mitch in time.
Flipping up the jet controls, she checked the fuel
level. Full. She should have known it would be -- the
cortex was thorough.
She tapped the ignition.
"Naomi?" Barry said. "What are you doing?"
"Figuring out as I go." She unclipped the tether.
"Not a good idea."
"The missiles won't see me. Just avoid them then pick
me up. Pick us up."
"'Avoid them', she says."
Naomi focused on the converging trajectory lines. She
was moving free from the little ship now and she
almost had them lined up.
She sensed the Sikorsky moving off and glanced down.
Just a glimpse of it accelerating, and then it was
gone, sprinting off in a blur.
"Aligned," a female voice said in her ear. The lines on
the HUD flashed, perfectly lined up. "Impact in
fifteen seconds." The voice was very calm, almost
perfect. Artificial. The cortex was still building
things. Now the suit had an AI -- of sorts.
"Ten seconds," the voice said.
Naomi couldn't even see Mitch now. How could she trust
him to this thing?
There he was. Coming in like one of the missiles.
The tracking was right, but his velocity was off.
"Adjusting," the voice said.
The jets came on with a blast. They yanked Naomi
backward. Her head bumped the visor. Instinctively she
raised her hand and the glove scraped the outside of
the glass. She'd bumped something on the way up.
Turning her head, she looked through the little side
slot on the helmet. She didn't have little attitude
jets anymore. She was wearing a full rocket pack.
"Eight seconds," the voice said.
"Thank you," Naomi said.
"You're welcome. Nine seconds."
Naomi looked back at the HUD. The lines were still
overlaid, but the point representing Mitch was moving
Grabbing the control deck at her left hand, Naomi felt
the joystick, and the lumps of the button controls
through the gloves. She shut off the reverse exhaust
and gave a burst forward.
Now Mitch was easy to pick up against the background
glare from the anomaly.
"Eleven seconds," the voice said.
"Coming around to pick you up now," Barry said.
"I haven't got him yet."
"Well get him. We don't have long."
She was moving in tandem with Mitch. He looked like he
was in the slim suit he'd favored: nothing bulky or
extraneous on him. His visor was dark.
"You've got incoming," Barry said.
"You've got an incoming missile."
"It's homing on you, Barry. Move away." There was
nothing on the HUD. Naomi shuttled the view back. She
was going to be able to eyeball Mitch in anyway.
"It's got a lock on you," Barry said. Not me. I'm
out of its trajectory. "You got bigger. Like the
She saw it on the display. It was coming in fast. She
only had moments.
"Four seconds," the AI said.
"Get out of there," Barry said. "You've got a nacelle
the size of a car."
Mitch was swelling to fill her whole view.
"You've got maybe ten seconds until it hits you," Barry
said. If only this thing was armed.
"It will be close," Naomi said. Nice knowing you
Barry. Thanks for your help.
She opened her arms wide to grab Mitch as he came in.
At least she would die with him.
Mitch collided with her. His hand grabbed hers, their
gloves' fingers intertwining. She could see his
grinning face inside the helmet. His mouth moved, and
it looked like he said 'radio'.
"New count," the AI said. "Six seconds."
The HUD shifted of its own account, pulling the
missile's trajectory in.
"Gotta go," Naomi said. Reaching up, she pushed Mitch's
dark helmet against her own. "Hold on," she yelled,
hoping the volume would be enough for him to hear
through direct contact.
"Gotcha." His mouth moved like a shout, but the sound
was the barest whisper.
Naomi shoved the joystick forward.
"Aw, come on." She mashed the buttons and tried pulling
the joystick to the side. Still nothing. Calling up
the HUD controls, she tried to work them with gesture.
Mitch reached up to the side of her helmet and pulled
out a SafeConnect cable. He was smiling, and he
pressed the cable into the side of his own helmet.
Her speaker crackled, then she heard his voice.
"Hey. Thanks for coming out. Glad you found me."
"The cortex found you." She wished she could just strip
away the suits and hold him against her. "How can I
talk to you?"
"The cortex built a SafeConnect cable. I just plugged
"You knew it would build one?"
"That's what it's meant to do. Kind of. Really it's
just a calculator."
"Two seconds." The voice was so calm.
"Mitch. We're about to be..."
"It's all right. The cortex knows what it's doing."
"Mitch? I lo-"
"Shh, now. There'll be plenty of time for that later."
It didn't seem like there was going to be plenty of
Gone she felt Barry think.
The missile's gone.
"There will be plenty of time for us."
"The missile vanished," Barry said. "I just vanished."
"What now?" Naomi said. Over Mitch's shoulder, she saw
something move. A piece of metal. Growing the way the
yoke had in front of Barry's waist. "It used the
missile?" she said.
"Must have," Mitch said. "It will keep building until a
structure is completed."
"It steals the material?"
"Channels it though a Barris space analogue. Assembles
it and then spits it out here."
"I'm coming up on you two," Barry said.
Naomi looked out and saw him approaching. She hadn't
had a good look at the ship, but now she saw it was
even bigger than she'd thought.
"This is why they want it, right?"
"Exactly," Mitch said. "And me."
"I left half the cortex behind in the Preston,"
"That's why you were hiding out?" Barry said. "Hold on,
I'm docking with you."
Docking? Naomi thought. She pushed
back from Mitch a little. Her rocket pack had grown
even more. She and Mitch were enclosed in a sphere.
"We have multiple incoming missiles," Barry said. "I'm
not going to be able to... oh, that's right. We just
let them get close, right?"
"Atmosphere," Naomi's AI said. "Pressure equalized."
"That mean what I think?" Naomi said. She heard a clank
and felt movement through the suit. She was still
attached to the rocket pack.
"You got real big," Barry said. "Real big indeed."
"We can go through the anomaly," Mitch said. "If you
want to come too." He reached up and unlocked his
helmet. A green button flashed and he gave the visor a
twist. The whole helmet drifted away into the volume.
"Through the anomaly?" Naomi said. She unclipped her
own helmet and pulled it off.
"It doesn't matter," Mitch said. "I'm just glad you
came." He swung forward and wrapped his arms around
"You didn't need rescuing at all, did you?" she
"I needed you," he said. "It was too risky to come and
get you so-"
"Risky?" Barry said. Naomi looked across and saw a
hatch opening. Barry's head came through. "As opposed
to what we did?" He spun around, looked at them
holding each other and rolled his eyes.
"Very much so," Mitch said. "Remember, they think I
invented it. They wanted me as much as anything."
"Didn't you invent it?" Barry said as he pulled through
to the sphere. "What is this thing?"
"I didn't invent it," Mitch said. "I found it. In the
data from the hoop and the anomaly."
"It's just a big calculator," Naomi said.
"Exactly. And this thing is something that will let us
transit through the anomaly."
"I thought you'd already been through?" Barry said.
"Not yet. I tried, but my ship didn't work. Not through
the anomaly. I've been hiding out. And I needed the
cortex to build something to get through. This."
"It worked," Naomi said. "We got the cortex, got the
ship. We can go through the anomaly."
"And let them keep fighting out here."
"What about me?" Barry said.
Naomi smiled. "Ready for the next adventure?"
Naomi grinned. "You bet."