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For almost a thousand years humanity has been tied together by the Kearny-Fuchida Drive. We thought we we knew everything there was to know about it. I’m not so sure of that now.” ~ Elric von Steffelbus IV (3028)

We know how the baseline KF drive works. If the books are right there are minor improvements to be made, compact core and the like. Our job is to go beyond those and see what’s on the other side.” ~ Jade Hasegawa, supervisor Project MARATHON (3021)

~***~

Sol Zenith Point
29 March 3021

Once upon a time there was a jumpship. Its original name was lost in the mists of time, and the damned thing had changed owners and been refit so many times that even the engineers weren’t sure what was original and what was replacement. This jumpship drifted into the Periphery where, under the name Rogue Elephant, it ferried various unsavory persons to and from unsavory places on unsavory jobs. Then one bright day it jumped into a solar system unlike any other in the galaxy to that date and everything got a great deal more complicated.

The good ship Event Horizon (previously Rogue Elephant) had undergone the most exhaustive overhaul ever during its stay in Fenspace. The life support and heatsinks had been swapped out for handwavium-based technology that provided ten times the capacity for only a quarter of the volume. Every component that needed repairing had been repaired, and the ship had even gotten a new paint job out of the deal: where Rogue Elephant had a name-appropriate flat gray thermocoat, Event Horizon was painted brilliant white with blue pinstripes. The air was fresher, the circulation fans quieter and the corridors even looked shipyard-clean for the first time in years.

Which was perhaps why Hannah Cho, jumpship captain by default, the previous skipper currently cooling his heels around a brown dwarf for criminal jackassery, felt so apprehensive coming onto the bridge. Hannah had grown up ethnic Chinese on the Federated Suns’ Capellan border, so she had very firm opinions that terrible things were always around the corner and thinking otherwise was for idiots. Case in point: her command of Event Horizon came because Matt Benson turned out to be too greedy, too stupid and too cowardly, and as a result had left her effectively alone to face a horde of technological mutant locusts.

Hannah’s ire focused on the wireframe graphic on the main holotank. In the year and a half since the ship had changed ownership the Fenspacers had done some radical overhauls to the heart of the ship, the KF drive. They’d ripped the jump engine completely apart and reassembled it as a network of non-Euclidian pipes and cables surrounding a germanium core that was far too small to push something the mass of an Invader-class jumpship through hyperspace. Hannah had spent most of her life in one engine room or another, and she only recognized half of the components. Attempts to get more information from the Fenspacers resulted in a brush-off or a torrent of unintelligible jargon.

Obviously these madmen expected it to work, but as far as she could tell they also expected Buddha and Jesus to deliver the stars to them on a silver platter. With all the untested changes Hannah fully expected the drive to explode, to misjump and send them god-knows-where or turn them inside-out. Maybe all three at once.

“Hey there, cap’n!” A cheerful soprano called through the accessway. Hannah scowled as her current bete noire drifted onto the bridge. Jade Hasegawa was the leader of the team responsible for mutilating Hannah’s beloved jumpship. Hasegawa’s thick black hair swirled in the microgravity as she booted up the engineering console with practiced efficiency. The display readouts spun up and rattled off long streams of data. “Core’s charged and ready to fire, cap’n,” she reported. “We can jump at your discretion.”

Hannah sighed. I never wanted this, all I wanted was to keep the ship running, maybe hand her off to an apprentice in another couple decades. Damn you, Matthew. “Understood,” she said. “When do our paymasters want us to jump?”

Hasegawa shrugged. “When you’re ready.”

“Very well, sound the one-hour alarm and start the clock.” Jade pressed a control and the jump alarm sounded through the ship. Hannah looked down at her command console for a second, and when she looked back up Hasegawa had managed to float right into her face without her noticing. “Gah!”

Hasegawa looked concerned. “Is something wrong, captain?” Hannah’s scowl deepened.

“You mean aside from where your people tore half my ship apart and replaced it with a temple to the Great Old Ones?”

“Well, yeah,” Hasegawa replied with a shrug.

“Then how about this test? You’re doing an all-up test of this equipment with barely any practical work. It took us centuries to take the Kearny-Fuchida equations from something funny in a physics paper to an actual jump drive, and you’re trying to do better in a year?”

“Closer to two and a half,” Hasegawa said. “We’ve been working on this since you guys first showed up.”

“Not the point.” Hannah shook her head. “Even back during the Star League they didn’t try to completely rewrite the book on KF theory. You know why? Because it works! You’re turning everything on its head for no good reason, and you’re probably going to get us all killed in the process.”

“We’re not going to get killed,” Hasegawa said. “I mean, it all works in the sims.”

“Sims aren’t real life.” Hannah snapped.

Hasegawa chuckled. “You ought to talk to my grandmother sometime. She might change your mind on that.” She shook her head and leaned in close. “Look, cap’n, seriously. This is going to work. We’ve done all the math, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. And in an hour, you, me, your boys, my boys and this rickety old bucket of bolts are gonna make history. Five hundred years from now they’re gonna name ships and schools after us because today is the day that everything changes.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Hannah asked. Hasegawa shrugged.

“If I’m wrong, then when we get to Valhalla you can say I-told-you-so.”

~***~

As jumps went, this one was actually pretty smooth. The disorientation that went with getting shoved out of the sidereal universe and then back into it hit Hannah like always, but faded faster and more smoothly than previous jumps in the old Elephant. Shaking her head to clear it, Hannah lit up her console and started the post-jump checklist. “Okay people, we’re not dead yet. Let’s get the sails and the greenhouses deployed and start stationkeeping. Hasegawa, how’s the core look?” When the Fen engineer didn’t reply she turned to look directly at her. “Hasegawa?”

Hasegawa’s eyes were clenched shut, one hand rubbing her temple. “Sack it up, newbie!” Hannah said. “Core status!” Slowly Hasegawa pulled her hand away and cracked an eyelid open to look at the engineering console.

“All systems nominal, cap’n,” she reported. “Cooling looks fine, charge cycle’s already started.” She closed her eyes and shook her head, wincing. “So that’s hyperspace travel. Woof! That wasn’t much fun.”

“Jump sickness,” Hannah shrugged. “You get used to it eventually.” Or not, and wouldn’t that be a shame?

“Do you guys hear that music when you jump?”

Hannah looked blank. “Music?”

“Yeah, sounds like, oh I don’t know, like a big pipe organ.” Hasegawa said. “Starts right down in your soul and sort of expands outward.” She frowned, remembering the experience. “It wasn’t bad really, but it was just so loud...”

“That’s... a new one on me,” Hannah replied. “I’ve never heard of anybody hearing music in hyperspace before.” She tapped her console thoughtfully. “Maybe it has something to do with your handwavium stuff?”

“Could be. Anyway, we ought to get back to—”

“Captain Cho, we’re being hailed!” The comms officer called from his post. “Caer Sidi Station wants to know our situation.”

“Tell them we’re in good order and we’ll talk to them in ten minutes,” Hannah ordered.

“You know,” Hasegawa said with the faintest hint of a grin. “I hear the Caer’s rec deck has a really nice bar. How about I stand us the first couple rounds. For history?”

Hannah returned the smile with a hint of her own. She wasn’t sure if it was a thank-god-we’re-still-alive smile or a holy-shit-we-just-did-the-impossible smile, but whichever it was it felt right for the first time since she’d set foot in the Gernsback Expanse.