The aide in the reception area was impeccably respectful, but showed a bit of uncertainty in his eyes as he re-read his display screen and took another look at her face. He handed the identicard back and punched a button to open the inner door. “Down the hall to the left, Captain.”
“I know where to find Admiral Ramirez’s office, Lieutenant,” she replied.
As she walked away, she felt a bit rueful. There was no need to be so snippy. It was perfectly understandable to be surprised by the sight of an apparent eighteen-year-old wearing a starship captain’s uniform. It was perfectly reasonable to double-check when something looked out of place.
These past two weeks, she’d had her fill of perfectly understandable and reasonable reactions. She resolved again not to let it get to her. Maybe the physical therapy sessions for getting acclimated to this new body should have included a few lessons on how to project the proper air of authority without turning into a stick-up-the-ass martinet.
The door opened as she approached. She took one step into the room and stood at attention. “Captain Janice Fuchyda, reporting for duty as ordered.”
Ramirez looked a bit nonplussed. “At ease.”
“I’m doing it again. He’s wondering why the hell I’m being so formal about a simple mission briefing.”
As she relaxed a bit, he grinned. “I’m glad to see that you’ve come through so well. The doctors said it was touch-and-go for a while.”
That was an understatement. The body that had been retrieved from the wreckage of Actium’s bridge was so badly damaged that the doctors couldn’t stabilize one function before two others started to fail. Finally, they’d resorted to putting her in cryostasis for a few months while they quick-grew a clone body and captured the mental patterns of her brain for downloading. It was a chain of risky experimental procedures, but it had worked.
“So far, so good. The doctors certified me fit for shipboard duty.” She pulled a small black case out of her pocket. “They still won’t OK me for piloting, though. Something about my right eye muscles not working quite right.” She opened the case and held up an eyepatch. “I’m supposed to wear this over my left eye if I start getting eyestrain or double vision.”
“Left eye? You said the problem was the right one.”
She stuffed the eyepatch into the case and put it away. “The idea is to force the right eye muscles to shape up and do their job. Kind of like dealing with HQ staff officers.”
“Tell me about it.” The admiral’s expression and voice then turned serious. “But anyway, now that we’ve established that you’re fit for duty, it’s time to brief you on the situation.”
He sat still for a moment, as if unsure of where to begin. Fuchyda waited, a bit puzzled. It wasn’t like Ramirez to be at a loss for words.
Finally, he said, “Remember what happened on the Maklias 4 research station last year, about two months before...” He trailed off.
“Two months before the last battle I was in,” she finished the statement. “Yes—some kind of freak accident. I don’t think I ever heard the details.”
“Nobody but a very few people cleared for that information ever heard the details.” He took a breath. “The researchers on that station were studying an artifact we discovered.”
“Artifact? You mean an alien artifact?”
“Yes, Captain, I do. A bona fide, spacer-rumor, officially-doesn’t-exist alien artifact. And that’s not even the really weird part.”
Fuchyda thought about saying something, but wasn’t quite sure what. She gave up on trying to guess what was “really weird part” might be, and waited for the admiral to continue.
“Eventually, one of the scientists discovered that it sometimes generated signals in response to being touched. The signals turned out to be a fairly simple audiovisual output with a marker indicating a time and place.”
“Some kind of recording, then?”
“No. Not a recording. The images showed the Maklias 4 ops center in full emergency mode. The orders being given made it clear that the emergency was a main reactor breach.” The admiral leaned forward a bit. “And the time and space marker indicated that the location was the station... four days in the future.”
There was a long pause before either of them spoke.
“This... this thing is some kind of window into the future?”
“To an extent. It sometimes shows one or two scenes connected to the person using the artifact. Or it doesn’t. The only pattern we’ve been able to figure out is that the scenes are usually important events in the user’s near future. Typically, they’re a few days or weeks ahead, but we’ve gotten ones as far as six months out.”
He raised his hands in a don’t-ask-me gesture. “The scientist who discovered the signals says that she’s established a... well, she calls it a ‘rapport’ with the artifact.”
“It’s intelligent?” Fuchyda shook her head. “Alien artifacts... looking into the future... full-fledged artificial intelligence.... It’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland’—I’m literally being asked to believe three impossible things before breakfast.”
“That’s an open question at this point. Doctor Layden—she’s the scientist I’m referring to—says that she’s tried and failed to communicate with it. But the artifact seems more likely to respond if she’s handling it along with the user, for whatever reason. It’s never given her any personal predictions, though.”
An incongruous image of a lab-coated scientist rubbing her hands over a fortuneteller’s crystal ball flashed across Fuchyda’s mind. She suppressed a grin and focused her attention on the business at hand. “Anyway, let’s get back to the story. This ‘window into the future’ showed that they’d have a reactor breach in four days. Couldn’t they do something to stop it from happening?”
“They tried. They inspected the reactor, the reactor safety systems, and everything connected to them. They didn’t find anything that could possibly cause that kind of major malfunction. But just in case, they replaced one of the reactors completely. At T minus one hour, they started the new reactor, with three teams of engineers monitoring everything. At T minus fifteen minutes, they shut down the other units.”
Ramirez sighed. “And then the meteor hit.”
“What about their early warning sensors? Even if they weren’t expecting a meteor strike, that shouldn’t have happened.”
“That’s another place this story gets weird. The rock came in too fast for them to shoot down. When we pulled the sensor logs and backtraced its path, it turned out that it moving at well over system escape velocity.”
“...but that’s impossible. I know. Projecting its orbit backward showed that it had gone through a triple gravitational slingshot, from Maklias 3 to 6 to 5 and then straight into the station orbiting Maklias 4.”
“A natural object on a triple slingshot?” Fuchyda scowled. “It’s as if fate somehow conspired to make it happen.”
The admiral nodded. “And the same pattern emerged in at least three other incidents since then.”
“Since then? Meaning, we still have this artifact?”
“Of course. The artifact and research team were on the first lifeboat. They are now located on this station.”
Fuchyda kept her face carefully neutral, but her mouth tightened a bit. Ramirez nodded. “It creeps me out a bit, too, Captain. So far, we haven’t had any predictions of any sort of disaster here. If it does... well, we’ll just have to deal with it as best we can.”
“’Deal with it’, meaning that you aren’t going to attempt to avoid it?”
“That’s correct. The bottom line seems to be that when someone sees a prediction, it will come true, somehow. Minor details might vary from what shows up in the images, but the basic events can’t be changed. Trying to do so seems to make matters worse. For instance, remember what I said about installing a brand new reactor and extra engineering teams to monitor it? Well, that meant thirty-two additional officers and crew were in the reactor bay, and none of them made it out.”
There was another pause, interrupted when Admiral Ramirez reached into his desk drawer and took out a secure reader unit. “Now, Captain, here are your orders. The Lepanto will be arriving at 1500 hours tomorrow. At that time, you will assume command and proceed to Volyani 3, accompanied by the light cruisers Gdansk and Detroit. This will be a hot jump; Intelligence thinks that Secessionist forces may be assembling there preparing to launch an assault. You have full discretion to retreat or engage based on your judgment of the situation.”
He handed the reader unit to the captain. “For now, read this report, describing what we know about the artifact. At 1600 hours today, you will report to the security office for inhibitor conditioning.”
She gave him a quizzical look. “Sir? If Command considers it necessary to protect this information with a psych lock, shouldn’t that have been done before you told me all this?”
“Strictly speaking, yes. However, protecting this information is actually incidental to the primary purpose. As I was about to say, immediately afterwards you will pay a call on Dr. Layden and her magic oracle, and hopefully learn something useful about what will happen at Volyani 3.”
He looked her in the eye. “The primary purpose of the psych lock is to make absolutely sure that you don’t try to change the events you see. As I said, that doesn’t work, and has bad side effects. What’s worse, some of the researchers think that it just might be possible to create a paradox... and, in theory, that could do anything from destroying the artifact to destroying the entire universe.”
Fuchyda thought about that for a long moment. “Permission to speak freely?”
“If this thing is potentially that dangerous, shouldn’t we drop it into the sun?”
Ramirez nodded. “Speaking freely, and off the record, I agree. But speaking as a flag officer fighting a war that we are, quite frankly, losing... we have to take some calculated risks. We can’t change the specific incidents, but with advance notice we can better exploit the good ones and mitigate the damage from the bad ones.”
“I see.” She tightened her grip on the reader unit. “Is that all, sir?”
“Yes, that is all. Dismissed... and good luck.”