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Story 3

Sean Monaghan

Sean Monaghan works as an educator in a busy public library in New Zealand. His science fiction stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Perihelion and Ad Astra, among others.


Big Catch is one of a series of stories set in the Barris Space Universe, though this is perhaps the strangest of them all. The novella The Wreck of the Emerald Sky appeared in The Colored Lens in 2012 and Turtles in Encounters in 2013. Other stories include Barris Debris, Eltanin Hoop Anomaly Rescue and Wake Vortex.
-- Sean Monaghan

Two outlaws pit themselves and their lifeboat against determined pursuit and a mind-bending universe in this hard science fiction story.




Big Catch

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 the readout."

"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 transition collision.

"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 distraction."

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 distraction?"

"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 compromised.

"We're popping now," Barry said. Naomi saw that his knuckles were white where he was clutching at the loops.

"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," Barry said.

"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 procedure.

"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 his cabin."

"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 her thigh.

Naomi shivered. Why did her body have to respond like that?

"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 thought.

"Nah, I mean..." Barry stammered. "Well, of course I still have feelings for you, but I get the situation with Mitch."

"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 familiar schematic.

The hoop.

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 block it."

"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 a little.

"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 said.

"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 point, no?"

"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. You're reckless."

"But you thought my plan was too tame. Remember your ideas about gassing the bridge and putting them all in the brig?"

"At least we would have had a proper ship. And all their equipment."

"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 minutes."

"The spaceframe wouldn't take that, let alone us."

"Yeah. So I'm going with option number two. Countermeasures."

"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 over.

"What's happening?" Barry said.

"Look on your display. Can you bring up a feed of the ship?"

"Sure, here." He massaged the image out of it, and magnified again.

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."

"Holo-freaking-graphic, right?"

"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 him.

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, huh?"

"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 asked Barry.

He looked over. "Oh."

"It's really amping up what the lifeboat can do. Not physically."

"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 back."

"I guess it could pull a lot of data through the radio, maybe."

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 to hers

"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. "What?"

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.

"Which is?"

"It's reconfiguring."

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 RECOVERY."

"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.


"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 on."

"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 some time."

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 it.

"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 instantly.


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 away.

"What makes you think you can trust it?"

"I don't know that I do."


"But," she went on, "I trust it more than the captain of the Preston."

"Fair enough."

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 down.


"What's happened?" Barry looked down too. "Is that a... a hole?"

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.


"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."



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 sense."

"It makes perfect sense. Preston? Are you receiving?"



"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.


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?"


"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.


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 lifeboat.

"Matter exchange," she said. "Or not." How to explain it? "You know we came out here in Barris space. A non-physics realm."

"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."

"And friendship."

"Mitch, I'm not so much friends with."

"That's just because he's dating me, and you're jealous."

"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."

"Mitch does."

"That why he went in there? Why he sent you that distress signal?"

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 a-"

"He must have had his reasons."

"Oh, now you're suggesting that Mitch actually uses reason."

"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 through?

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 happen."

"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 could do.

"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 away.

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 vacuum suit.

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 anomaly?

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 mean."

"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 display.

"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 cockpit. "Oh."

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 anomaly."

"I'm piloting?"

"What do you think I've been doing the last fifteen minutes?"

"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 up."

"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."

Barry laughed.

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 boots.

"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 characters changed.


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 bodies."

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 thoughts transferring.

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 on?

Holding the hull's edge, she clipped on a tether. "How are-"

"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 did you?"


"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.

Seventy seconds.

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?

"Five seconds."

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 in slower.

"Fifteen seconds."

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."

"Nine seconds."

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.

"Say again."

"Six seconds."

"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 lifeboat."

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."

"Three seconds."

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.

"Two seconds."

"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.

"One second."

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'.

No 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.

"Five seconds."

Naomi shoved the joystick forward.

Nothing happened.

"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. Still nothing.

"Four seconds."

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?"

"Three seconds."

"The cortex built a SafeConnect cable. I just plugged it in."

"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."

"One second."

It didn't seem like there was going to be plenty of time.

Gone she felt Barry think. The missile's gone.

"What's that?"

"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," she said.

"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 her.

"You didn't need rescuing at all, did you?" she whispered.

"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."



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