NEXUS by ROBERT BOYCZUK

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NEXUS ROBERT BOYCZUKTo Karen, without whom I wouldn't be married, have a busy little toddler, and still have time to waste on my writing. Also, to those many people who labored through this hefty manuscript and made invaluable comments. Copyright © 2004 by Robert Boyczuk See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ for the licensing of this work. This license is also reproduced at the back of this work. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. First edition: August, 2004Prologue The Twins...............................................................................1 Report.....................................................................................7 Part I Home....................................................................................13 Day 0....................................................................................29 Day 1....................................................................................57 Day 2....................................................................................73 Day 3 to 6.............................................................................83 Day 7....................................................................................87 Day 8 to 17...........................................................................95 Day 18..................................................................................97 Day 19 to 31.......................................................................101 Day 32................................................................................105 Day 33................................................................................109 Day 39................................................................................113 Day 41................................................................................121 Day 42................................................................................131 Day 43 to 52.......................................................................133 Day 53................................................................................135 Day 65................................................................................139 Day 66 to 70.......................................................................149 Day 71................................................................................151 Day 72 to 75.......................................................................155 Day 76................................................................................157 Day 80 ...............................................................................165 Part II Departure............................................................................169 103 Days Left.....................................................................185 99 Days Left.......................................................................189 98 Days Left.......................................................................193 45 Days Left.......................................................................199 12 Days Left.......................................................................203 Part III SJH-1231-K, The Relay Station.........................................207 23 Days Left..................................................................211 22 Days Left..................................................................217 21 Days Left..................................................................229 19 Days Left..................................................................23317 Days Left..................................................................237 The Twins...........................................................................247 12 Days Left..................................................................251 11 Days Left..................................................................255 6 Days Left....................................................................259 SJH-1231-K, The Relay Station ........................................263 17 Days Left..................................................................263 16 Days Left..................................................................269 12 Days Left..................................................................273 6 Days Left....................................................................277 The Twins...........................................................................305 6 Days Left....................................................................305 5 Days Left....................................................................317 4 Days Left....................................................................339 SJH-1231-K, The Relay Station.........................................361 5 days Left.....................................................................361 4 Days Left....................................................................381 Epilogue: SJH1231-K, The Relay Station ...............................407 Epilogue: The Twins................................................................409Prologue The Twins The ship drove towards its hellish perihelion. On its cramped flight deck spun a simulacra of a binary system: two white dwarfs locked in an vicious gravitational embrace, a combined orbital period of two minutes, twenty-five seconds. An endless, futile pursuit. Their luminosity had been muted to make them bearable. Even so, the display cast double shadows throughout the cabin, a confusion of intersecting lines and hard shapes that slashed across walls and deck like whirling blades. Too late, he thought from the confines of his narrow cell. Too late to change anything. A bright green designator appeared at the periphery of the display. His ship. Then, before he could draw another breath, seven red indicators like flotsam in his wake. Drones. His ship had no weapons. A heavily armoured gravity-whip vessel, it was shielded against the temperatures and tidal stresses of the stars it skirted. Not against warheads. The drones had particle weapons too, but those would be useless, the fan of his exhaust consuming anything they might fire at him. But the warheads.... If he could lock into the gravity well before one detonated, then he could kill his telltale plasma-fusion drive and wink out of existence–at least as far as his pursuers were concerned. A millisecond power manoeuvre at perihelion, and he would be flung out of the system at twice his current velocity. 1Two of the furthest indicators shifted to orange, one immediately after the other. Out of range, their warheads useless. Even if detonated now, their expanding shells of radiation would be beaten back by the furious solar winds, what was left damped by the powerful shielding of his ship. Another indicator turned orange. Four drones left. The corner of his mouth twitched up in a crooked smile. But the smile collapsed almost immediately under the weight of a bilious memory: the face of his betrayer. Years of meticulous planning had been unravelled by one weak man. A man he had chosen for his political acumen as much as for his overweening ambition. He had thought the man strong, not weak. But he had been wrong. That man was still dying. A painful lingering death that would go on for days, perhaps weeks. It was far too small a consolation. Another indicator turned. The cabin temperature had risen sharply in the last few moments. Sweat sheathed him. His body had been enhanced in every conceivable way; yet, there were limits to what even he could bear. Soon he would have to seal his cell, order protective agents to pack around his body, turning off his metabolic processes, insulating him. He watched the display, unwilling to surrender to the oblivion of stasis just yet. As soon as he was out of range of the last drone– Where will you go? The words thrust themselves into his mind, a jagged edge of glass on which he caught himself. He sucked in a sharp breath, fought to block the intruder's thoughts. You cannot hope to survive. Cold this time, malevolent. What do you hope to achieve? He squeezed his eyes closed, concentrated on shutting out the other's words. Please. An abrupt change in tone, a whisper, a sad, niggling presence in the back of his mind. Do not abandon me. Surprised at this, he relented, an unconscious softening. Something exploded in his skull, like a pinpoint charge had been detonated in his medulla. He screamed, clutching his head. You see. The words tore through the sheets of his pain. I can still hurt you. Dizzy and nauseous, he clutched the sides of his cell. He sensed a rising wave of anger gather force, come crashing towards him. It hit. He gasped beneath its crushing weight–but it hadn't the strength of the first and he was prepared this time. It broke against his will like a wave against a solid breakwater, and receded quickly. He wiped sweat from his eyes and checked the display. A lone red indicator remained. And then it turned orange. 2Too late, he answered at last, triumphant. A howl of outrage filled his mind. The cabin temperature continued to climb. Magnetic inductance danced over the hull, his ship reciting a litany of distances, rising temperatures, and falling measures of structural integrity. He ordered the lid to his cell to coalesce. A prominence rose from the chromosphere of the sun and sent his instruments momentarily off-scale. His display wobbled, then refreshed, a new red blip ahead of him. Another ship. It had been hiding, its engines shut down. In seconds he would hurtle past it. But for the next few heartbeats, he would be exposed to its weapons. He cursed aloud, the sound of his voice odd in the cell. I can't let you go. This time the other was almost apologetic. You're too dangerous. His ship shuddered, pitched violently like it had been struck a tremendous blow, and he was thrown into the cell's transparent lid. He fell back onto his pallet, stunned. The ship rocked again. Through a fog he saw the forward bulwark buckle, vaporising in a fiery cloud. Smoke swirled madly, tore past him, rushing towards vacuum. Vaguely, he was aware of his ship intoning its warnings, shutting off a damaged engine and jettisoning its leaking deuterium/helium-3 reaction mass. His head spun and his ears rang; his cheek burnt like it had been splashed with acid. Tasting blood, he felt the sharp edges of tiny fragments of teeth swimming in his saliva. Darkness swirled around him, sucked at his consciousness, tried to pull him down. He fought against it; bringing his hand up to his face, he pressed his palm against his shattered cheek. He screamed in agony. Bright spurs of pain drove the darkness away. He was sealed in his cell, a red smear of blood on the underside of its lid. The cabin was dark, the display gone, most of the instruments off line. Debris tumbled listlessly through the vacuum, rebounded off walls and his cell with dull clicks and hollow thumps. Through the ragged tear forward he could see stars. The ship seemed to stagger. Two engines were down, it reported flatly, the third partially operational, its magnetic field fluctuating intermittently. A steady stream of figures detailed the imminent collapse of the field. The display flickered back to life. Incredibly, they were past the red indicator. But still well within range of its weapons. The last engine cut out altogether. And with it the protective plume of exhaust. He sucked in his breath, waiting for the final blow, the one that would transform him and his ship into an expanding cloud of radioactive debris. 3But there was nothing. What happened? he asked his ship urgently. Why hasn't the drone fired? When I jettisoned the reaction mass, his ship replied, I directed it at the other vessel. You're alive. The other voice was astonished. For a moment he felt astonished too. Then despair supplanted relief. Alive, dead. It made no difference. Before, he hoped to reach those sympathetic to his cause. But he had been knocked off course, his injection into the gravity well irrevocably altered; his engines were severely damaged, perhaps beyond the capabilities of his ship to repair. Though he might escape, it would be to his own death among distant, unfamiliar stars. His stasis cell would become his coffin. No matter, the other said, understanding too. No, he replied. It doesn't. A brief pause. Then, one word: Goodbye. Goodbye, brother. Silence, as broad as the millions of kilometers separating them, opened up. The other presence fled. His ship plummeted pointlessly towards the gravity well. Briefly, he considered ordering the ship to break the seal on his cell, to let the vacuum rush in and finish the job. But it was only a momentary lapse. He was still alive. Somehow, he would survive. He ordered the biostasis process begun. A grey mist spilled into the cell, enveloping him. Tiny molecular machines swarmed into his lungs and bloodstream, spread throughout his body, diffusing into his cells, binding to proteins and other reactive molecules. The machinery of his body slowed. A soothing warmth crept into his limbs, filled his chest, slowed his heart. His anger ebbed. Peace, as warm as the balmy equatorial seas in which he and his twin brother had played as children, washed over him. His extremities tingled; the pain in his cheek faded. Trying to sort out the information from his ship became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible. He ignored it. An amber liquid rose and covered him. Cryoprotectants packed around the molecules of his cells as vitrification began. His thoughts, already torpid, became muddy and disconnected. He didn't understand when his ship announced that they passed perihelion. A series of disconnected images, fragments of memories, crawled through his mind as neurons fired one last time. Then, for him, time stopped altogether. 41398 Years Later 56Report Special Transmission to Bendl My-Fenoillet, Nexus Assumption Committee, Third Senior Deputy, Representative of the Greater Systems Council, Locutor- Nota of the world Nalitman, etc. –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Re: Background Material on the Assumption of Bh'Haret; Related Issues of Placement of Bh'Haret in the Nexus Polyarchy Ascension Program; Concerns Pertaining to the Effects on Local Systems. –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Located at the tip of the Right Leg Cluster, twenty-one point one two light years from The Twins, Bh'Haret is one of the most distant seeded worlds, in close proximity to twenty-three other planetary systems, fourteen of which are non- affiliated. Of the fourteen, seven have reached the technological threshold but have not yet committed to the Polyarchy's Ascension Program–in part, we believe, due to the influence of Bh'Haret. A resource rich world, Bh'Haret has extensive tracts of arable land and huge 71 reserves of oil and common metals . Only 0.031 percent of the world's surface area is currently in use. Politically, the planet is divided into forty-one city-states that govern the surrounding regions. An Upper Congress with a representative of each city-state oversees planetary and off-world concerns. The population is estimated to be nearly one hundred million and is growing rapidly. Government incentives have helped spur birth rates as high as five percent in several protectorates. Few regions have experienced population decline in the last twenty 2 local years . Little attention has been given to this world because of its previous ranking (in the lower tenth percentile of Level II) and its relatively small population. Threshold was estimated to be more than five hundred years off. This was clearly a miscalculation. Our Instrument there reports a disturbing admixture of cultural and technological touchstones whose statistical variance falls well outside acceptable ranges established for the Ascension Program. Below are excerpts from her transmissions: Walking down almost any street, one finds recent buildings constructed from crude, almost pre-technological, materials, stone and mortar being the most common. Remnants of ornate oil lamps line the boulevards, yet arclamps actually light the thoroughfares. It is not unusual to see a cobble-stone street being excavated to lay fibre-optic cable. Work on the infrastructure has become so common it has faded into the back of inhabitants' consciousness. Public trolleys, governed by AIs, are routinely re-routed to bypass construction crews working with pick-axes and shovels.... Several orbiting manufactories have been established. Colonies has been installed on Dayside and Night, the two cold worlds in the system. Regular missions are run to the outermost reaches of the system, and already two dozen manned interstellar missions have been completed to proximate worlds. Suspension techniques requisite to these missions 1 Including vast amounts of fissionable materials. 2 Local days are twenty-one standard hours. One local year consists of 392 local days. Although their calendar uses the standard designations for the six months, the number of days in each had been reduced to 65 (from the 72 of the New Polyarchy calendar) to accommodate the shorter year. The extra days (two normally, three every seventh year) are not designated as part of any month, but stand alone after the month of Amn and are referred to as the 'Middle Days.' 8have already been developed or acquired. Representatives from other non-affiliated worlds have visited, and part of the impetus for growth has no doubt been spurred by the bartering of technologies.... Most disturbing, however, is that antimatter trigger systems for De-He3 drive systems are now being tested that are, ultimately, expected to achieve specific impulses in the millions of seconds–or more than 10% of c When applied to the Standard Ascension Model, this development, given the current technological base on Bh'Haret, is so unlikely as to be of vanishing probability.... The general population has embraced these rapid advances without the hesitation normally seen in developing worlds. New technologies have been incorporated into the daily round of things with a matter-of-fact acceptance that is surprising. There is scant evidence of the social upheavals and displacements one would expect to slow the process of technological development.... There is strong anti-affiliation sentiment on Bh'Haret. Although the government has not openly condemned the Nexus Polyarchy, they have adroitly used the media to colour public perception. Nexus has been portrayed not as a vehicle for disseminating new technologies in an orderly, controlled fashion, but as a monolithic organisation designed to suppress technological advancements, doling out minimal information to its members, hoarding the best for itself. Persistent rumours call into question the ability of Speakers to communicate over interstellar distances, suggesting their powers have been feigned in an elaborate hoax designed to keep the Polyarchy in control of the affiliated worlds. Affiliation is now generally considered to be tantamount to a surrender of individual freedoms. No referenda have ever been conducted, but were one to be held, its outcome would not be in doubt. Coercion on our part, real or perceived, would almost certainly have disastrous results. Indeed, were the authorities to discover my activities as an Instrument of Nexus, I believe they would use this information to further incite public sentiment against the Polyarchy and discredit the Ascension program.... Clearly, these are all signs of an immature culture with a technological 9ascent dangerously out of control. In my opinion, Bh'Haret is on the cusp of further dramatic changes for which the standard Ascension Models are of little use. It would be foolish not to treat this world as a special case. I cannot recommend too strongly that additional Instruments and a Speaker be sent immediately to monitor the situation.... 'It would be foolish,' the Instrument says. Strong words, but ones with which I must agree. We may have already witnessed the effects of Bh'Haret's recalcitrance: Ohan, half a light year from Bh'Haret, was scheduled to be assumed in three local years (a Speaker was en route); now, however, Ohan has requested an indefinite stay. Though they have not stated so, I am convinced they are reluctant to sever trading ties with Bh'Haret (and the seven other non-affiliated worlds clustered in a 1.3 light year radius) as required by assumption into the Polyarchy. It is my belief that the administrators of Bh'Haret have convinced their counterparts on Ohan that the acquisition of technology will occur more rapidly through trade with non-affiliated worlds than through the Nexus Ascension program. If so, this constitutes a major setback. Had Ohan been assumed, Bh'Haret would have been further isolated. Instead, we now find ourselves facing an extremely delicate situation on Ohan. Other local non-affiliated worlds are waiting to see the outcome of Ohan's vacillation. Because of the distances involved, I urge you to act expeditiously. The current Instrument installed on Bh'Haret is not a Speaker; her communications, therefore, are time-lagged two years (the nearest Speaker is on Doelavin, 2.1 light years distant), an unacceptable delay in this situation. The rate of change on Bh'Haret demands, as our current Instrument has suggested, the presence of a Speaker. Yours Humbly, H. R. Ptiga, Local Ascension Administrator, Right Leg Cluster 10105 Years Later 1112Part I Home "I need you" Sweat filmed Liis' naked body; cold air blew over her from the right and she shivered, pulling herself tighter. Her mouth was gummy and her lips had gone numb. A thin, high-pitched wail sounded in the distance, ululating in melancholy cycles. Warm fingers closed on Liis' shoulder, shook her insistently. "Get up" Leave me alone, she thought and curled into a fetal ball. The ululation continued unabated, making it difficult for her to think. The wail rose and fell, and Liis winced. The alarm klaxon. She opened his eyes, felt the lurch of nausea and vertigo that accompanied revival from biostasis. Bright bands of light dazzled her, reflected off the silvered interior of the cell; a blurred figure hovered over her. "Come on," a voice shouted over the alarm. "Snap out of it" Sav's voice. Liis blinked rapidly and her vision cleared. She lay on her side, 13staring into the cramped, circular cabin. The door to her stasis cell had been retracted into the wall overhead; all traces of liquid nitrogen had vanished. Sav, a small, swarthy man, dropped his hand from her shoulder and took a quick, nervous step back. His face, normally soft-featured, was drawn into a grimace. On his right cheek was a white service scar, a long jagged line that ran the length of his jaw and ended in a six-pointed star. Like most officers, he'd removed all but his most current qualification. Liis, on the other hand, had kept everything, including the elaborate swirls and garish colours on her left cheek where non-com rankings were made. The style of the earliest ones dated a hundred years before Sav had been born. It gave her a fierce look that intimidated most people. And it served as a reminder that, in hard time, she'd been around interstellar missions longer than anyone else–including Sav. He stared intently at her, and the corners of his mouth tightened. Goddamn Sav. He'd run only half as many longhaul mission as Liis, but still bounced up from stasis as if he'd just had a refreshing nap. For her, it never got easier. And now, being pulled out like this, before she was ready...he should have left her to work her way back gradually, over the course of several hours. "We've got a...problem, Liis." Liis swallowed back her nausea and clutched the edge of her berth. She tried to pull herself into a sitting position, but fell back onto the mat, exhausted. "Help me up," she tried to say, but only a croak came from between her parched lips. The effort twisted her stomach into a knot. Her eyes teared up. "Wait The tubes." Liis let herself go limp while Sav detached the snaking tubes from the ends of the catheters. Half a dozen questions buzzed around in Liis' head, but her throat was too raw and the klaxon too loud for her to give them voice. The nipple of a plastic bottle was forced between her lips. Lukewarm liquid trickled from the spout into her mouth. Swallowing was like having sandpaper rubbed in her throat. She coughed, spit most of the liquid back up along with a long, ropy strand of phlegm. But it seemed to have helped lubricate her throat; the next sip she managed to keep down. Between breaths, Liis took bigger pulls on the bottle. A comforting warmth spread into her chest and limbs; her skin began to tingle. "That's enough" Sav pushed the stopper back down in the bottle. He dropped it into a large pocket in his coveralls. Reaching over, Sav lifted and turned Liis so that her legs dangled over the edge of the berth. Liis sagged forward, tried to double over to stop her head from spinning, but something tugged at the back of her scalp. 14"Wait" Fingers worked at the back of her neck, detaching leads. Liis felt Sav lifting the patches from her scalp, brushing away the dried flakes of conducting gel from the puckered flesh on the base of her skull. "Okay." "Thanks," Liis managed this time, her voice still hoarse, probably inaudible in the din. But Sav seemed to understand anyway; he nodded grimly. Though Liis' nausea had passed, it hovered in the background like threatening storm clouds. Her own weight pressed down on her, made her feel like her muscles sagged from her bones. Gravity, she thought stupidly. We're still decelerating. But she shouldn't have been woken until the Ea assumed orbit around Bh'Haret, the ship back in zero-gee. She looked at Sav. "Wh...what...happened?" Her words disappeared in the noise. Sav leaned in close, his ear in front of her lips. "Are...are we...off-course?" Sav pulled back and shook his head; his jowls moved with the motion. He turned to speak into Liis' ear. "No. Not exactly. We're home. Or almost. A little more than a day out." He's afraid, Liis realised. But of what? "There's nothing–" Sav stopped abruptly. "The others," he said cryptically. "You'd better come to see it for yourself." Across the cabin were three cells identical to her own. One for Sav and two for their passengers. The closest was still sealed, its pump humming as it drew the liquid nitrogen back into the reservoir beneath the deck. Another had already been drained, and behind its translucent port she could see a figure shifting restlessly, like a grub turning in black earth. "Let's get you to your feet before our cargo wakes up." Sav reached around Liis shoulders and eased her forward until the soles of her feet touched the cold plates of the deck. "Ok?" Liis nodded, and together they pushed away from the cell. The room began to spin. Liis, her legs stiff and uncertain, stumbled into Sav, who staggered under the taller woman's weight. Sav managed to catch her beneath the arms. "We'll take it slowly," Liis heard him say as the room whirled. "Clothes first." They began weaving across the cabin to the storage lockers, Liis moving her tingling limbs in what she hoped was a helpful manner. Sav cut the alarm. But Liis' ears still buzzed. And a dull ache had seemed to have lodged permanently in the back of her skull. With Sav's help she had 15managed to pull on a pair of coveralls and, despite the knots in her muscles, clamber up the ladder to the bridge. Now she stood beside the navigator's couch on the bridge of the Ea, clutching the thick straps of the floor-to-ceiling webbing behind it. The flight deck was dark, and a three-dimensional projection filled the small, circular space. Hovering above the comm panel was their home, Bh'Haret. "Status?" Sav asked the display. "Still unable to initiate contact." The Ea replied to his question tonelessly. "No response on any of the specified frequencies. Continue scanning?" "Yes." The planet was a ball of shocking colours: sharp blues for its oceans and seas, long dark brown sweeps and emerald swaths marking its continents and forests. Banding the whole world was the brilliant white of clouds. In many places, where the cloud cover broke, unaccountable black smudges marred the land, like blemishes. Across the bottom of the display, two words in dozens of languages, some of which were familiar to Liis, circled the room endlessly. All, she knew, conveyed the same message: ....hazard plague hazard plague hazard plague.... Sav shifted nervously, cleared his throat. "You heard. I ordered the Ea to signal on all the standard frequencies. No answer. Nothing but this warning." A dozen small, bright pinpricks of light girded the planet; Sav pointed at one which had just risen over the upper edge of the world. "Someone's set up a network of screamers to pump this message out over and over...." Liis stared numbly, saying nothing. "The navigation beacons are gone. I've instructed comm ops to cycle through all the different frequencies sending out emergency calls. But I haven't received a response yet." ....hazard plague hazard plague hazard plague.... What am I supposed to feel? Liis wondered. "If there's anyone left in the mining colonies or the orbitals, they're not transmitting," Sav was saying. "Even if there is anything out there, there's not a hope in hell of picking it up with these screamers jamming all the channels." ....hazard plague hazard plague hazard plague.... "I don't get readings on anything down there at any wavelength. No EMF spikes from power grids, no hot spots on infrared where cities should be. Nothing except what you'd expect from...an unpopulated world. I think...I mean it looks like–" "Bh'Haret's dead." "Yeah." 16

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