tagNovels and NovellasBattle for the Known Unknown Ch. 20

Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 20

bybradley_stoke©

Chapter Twenty
Milton - 3751 C.E.



It was the couple's good fortune that the only space ship Lieutenant Korolyov could provide for Paul and Beatrice at short notice for their journey onto Earth was the Ambassadorial Cruise Ship, SS Milton. The luxury space ship was diverted from its journey from Jupiter orbit to the Asteroid Belt to carry the diplomatic baggage that was considered too great a risk for any commercial ship that travelled across the Solar System.

The few diplomats and ambassadors aboard the luxury ship couldn't complain about the delay to their flight when it was explained how critically important to the Interplanetary Union the diversion was. Even the Jovian Ambassador for Earth knew that there were things that took precedence over her prompt arrival at Jupiter's South American embassy.

Paul now knew what real luxury was. Even though the Milton wasn't an especially large ship—being less than a kilometre in length and most of that engine—the passengers' suites were roomy, opulent and marble-faced. Paul and his wife shared a generously appointed apartment whose windows looked onto a courtyard with a fountain, an array of marble statues and a small swimming pool. There were three spacious reception rooms and four bedrooms. The paintings on the walls were all originals and almost certainly priceless. Although it was a luxury of unimaginable waste in a climate controlled space ship, every room had a fireplace in which real logs smouldered on a real fire whose smoke wafted up to the level above.

Paul could have happily spent every moment of the journey from the Asteroid Belt to the Moon in the confines of the suite, but Beatrice was less easily satisfied. After just one day of making love in all four bedrooms and by the tinkling fountain in the marble courtyard, she was eager to explore the rest of the ship. As Paul could offer no objection, the couple wandered out from their apartment along a broad featureless corridor to the room-sized elevator that whisked them off to the many entertainment lounges and restaurants. Diplomats expected not only the highest quality accommodation but also plenty of social space.

Paul soon became aware of just how awkward he was in the company of diplomats, aristocrats and billionaires who, despite their politeness and firm handshakes, soon came to the conclusion that this was at least one Godwinian anarchist they needn't trouble themselves with in future. They were far more taken by Beatrice who adapted well to the dress and demeanour of a society princess. She was remarkably well-informed about the shakers and movers of High Society and Big Business, many of whom were the selfsame people.

Paul was more at ease when Beatrice and he visited the ship's bridge. This was probably the least opulent room on the Milton, but it was still well-appointed. While Beatrice remarked knowledgeably on the original paintings hanging from the wall, which to Paul's eyes appeared to be nothing more than splodge-like caricatures of fruit and vegetables, what interested him most was the ship's holographic view of outer space.

"What's that?" asked Paul as he pointed at what seemed to be a revolving pencil.

"We have a legal obligation to monitor all ships within a million kilometres of the ship, but we routinely keep track of almost every ship within the Inner Solar System," said the boatswain. "That ship is relatively close. It's perhaps less than a hundred thousand kilometres away."

"It's a ship, then?" said Paul, who immediately regretted asking such a question. It could scarcely be mistaken for a meteor or comet.

"It's a cruise ship, probably from Ceres," said the boatswain. "They carry several tens of thousands of passengers in very cramped conditions. They typically travel from one part of the Asteroid Belt to another, but this one appears to be travelling to Mars. That will take it a very long time. On average it will suffer from a death-rate of at least a one percent. It could be much higher."

Paul did the arithmetic in his head. "Do you mean that hundreds of passengers will die on that ship?"

"As I said, the conditions are extremely crowded and these old space ships frequently suffer from critical system failures. The ship's interior is composed of hundreds of interlocking sections that rotate to give a semblance of gravity. Entire sections may fail and this will inevitably result in the instant death of everyone in the vicinity. There might be hull-breaches from space debris. More commonly there might be an error in the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen in the atmosphere of one of the sections. Sometimes the temperature control system might stop working. When there is a failure in one section of the ship there is no possible way for the unfortunates to move to safety without compromising other sections. It's a very old design of ship that was never intended to be used for people transportation nor to remain in service very nearly one and a half thousand years after it was assembled."

"Why do people choose to travel that way?"

"They're probably refugees," said the boatswain. "Ceres has been at war for so long and with so many different nations that it's now one of the poorest space colonies in the Solar System. Not many other colonies welcome refugees except as cheap—dare I say expendable—labour."

"And what's this ship?" asked Paul as he pointed at a space craft that was very nearly spherical but bristled with so many spines that it resembled a rolled-up hedgehog.

"That's something we have to be very careful to avoid," said the boatswain. "That's a military warship, also probably travelling to Mars. One consequence of the Martian War is that any space craft that doesn't promptly identify itself is likely to be immediately exterminated."

"Could that happen to us?"

"Very unlikely," said the boatswain with a reassuring smile. "We are strictly adhering to agreed international routes. And, in any case, Mars isn't on our itinerary. The planet's present location in its orbit is currently nowhere between us and Earth. However, there have been occasions when ships have been blasted to nothing for having strayed dangerously close to a warship and not having identified itself convincingly enough. I'm afraid the most usual victims are these ancient Cerean cruisers. Their communications and navigations systems are as much prone to failure as their life-support systems."

Paul was then shown other screens that included some that were directed towards the Moon and, of course, Earth. These were the ones that fascinated him the most. The Terran system was no longer the wealthiest in the Solar System, but no one could deny that it had a history that no other part of the Solar System could match. Paul squinted at the Moon, which was to be the next stop on his itinerary. Even including the Earth, the Moon was the most highly populated part of the Solar System. Almost nothing on the satellite wasn't either under glass or lit up by huge arc-lights. The dark side of the moon was brightly illuminated by countless dots of light emanating from the Moon's many densely inhabited towns and cities.

The Moon was also where the Interplanetary Union had its Parliament and other Head Offices, although this was more for sentimental rather than practical reasons. Given that the majority of the Solar System's population lived beyond the further side of the Asteroid Belt, the Moon's position was no longer even remotely central to the Solar System's distribution of population or power. This had the consequence that international video conferences were perpetually beset by communication lapses of several hours between question and answer.

Such delays in communications didn't affect only political debate, of course. Lieutenant Korolyov had been obliged to request passage for his two high-profile wards and extra military staff from Hygiea without being able to clear this first with Saturn, but he didn't need to have worried. This episode of Paul's voyage from Godwin to the Moon was quite simply the least troubled of them all.

The biggest challenge to confront the lieutenant was how to ensure that the newly-wed couple didn't divulge the purpose of their journey. It would be extremely easy for subtle interrogation to extract such information.

Lieutenant Korolyov could leave nothing to chance. Ever since the couple had arrived in the Saturn system, sophisticated nanoprobes tracked their every movement and their every word. For unknown reasons, the probes that followed Beatrice were the ones most likely to freeze-frame or malfunction, but this didn't cause the lieutenant much concern as it was obvious that Paul was the greater security risk. Beatrice was tracked only because she was his wife. Paul was not only the one best briefed, but also the most tactless. It was a relief that the Godwinian wasn't especially sociable.

Most of the data gathered about the couple was of no value whatsoever. The visits to the lavatory, the time spent sitting still, the hours of sleep and, of course, the many hours—far too many for a man like Lieutenant Korolyov who struggled to understand the attraction men had for women—where the couple were engaged in sexual congress.

After he checked that the couple had safely returned to their suite after their tour of the bridge, the lieutenant desultorily reviewed the highlights of the couple's activities as recorded and analysed by the nanoprobes. A high proportion of Paul's conversation with other passengers strayed dangerously close to being a potential security risk. Why couldn't he be more discreet? But then, Paul came from an anarchist colony so respect for class and rank was evidently well beyond him. Why else would he ask such blunt questions as to what other passengers did for a living? Many of them were ambassadors or trillionaires and had never been confronted by questions like that even once before in their lives. Furthermore, although Beatrice was much more circumspect and tactful, she exercised absolutely no restraint on her husband.

"So," Paul asked the President of Parthenope, "why don't you just end the war between your asteroid and Ceres? It's not as if there's anything you really want from them."

President Abdullah maintained a supercilious and amused smile on his face. "It's not as simple as that."

"Aren't you just sacrificing Parthenopeian lives for nothing?"

"Politics is a subtle business, my friend," said the President. "Now, if you could excuse me..."

Lieutenant Korolyov scoffed at Paul's anarchist naïveté, though he suspected that Paul would be considered tactless even on Godwin. Why was the man so drawn towards metaphysical debates that took his conversation dangerously close to the secret object of his mission?

"Do you think these apparitions are a kind of transdimensional rupture in the brane?" Paul asked Xiao Lewis, the billionaire head of a coffee shop and catering empire. "Perhaps it's a form of dark energy. Or perhaps it's a gravitational flux."

The wealthy oligarch raised his eyebrows. "I really have no idea what these things might be," he said. "I'm not a scientist. Now, if you were to ask me about the new markets for coffee in the Neptune system or whether the Oort Cloud is a good prospect for a new Needle Noodles franchise, then I might be of more assistance."

"I just love Needle Noodles!" said Beatrice with enthusiasm. "It's the tastiest Oriental food beyond Uranus."

"Some might say anywhere in the outer Solar System," agreed the billionaire.

"...Or perhaps these apparitions are an alien invasion of an oddly cryptic kind," said Paul, still blissfully ignorant of just how boring and tactless he was.

Xiao Lewis made a show of checking the time. "Maybe they are, but I have a call to make. It's been enchanting to meet the two of you." This last was clearly directed at Beatrice, who smiled graciously as the billionaire kissed the upraised wrist of her exaggeratedly limp hand.

Before too long, all the other passengers began to take extraordinary measures to avoid any interaction with Paul, but this didn't trouble him at all. He remained supremely indifferent.

The lieutenant focused his attention on occasions when Paul might present a security risk, so he wasn't bothered by the amount of time Paul spent on-line engaged in games, entertainment, trivia and pornography. None of these were likely to result in a security breach. The sophisticated pattern searching software at the lieutenant's disposal could find nothing even potentially risky about the fantasy worlds the Godwinian visited. Paul was remarkably undisciplined for a research scientist. It was difficult to discern anything in his activities that was remotely related to his supposed discipline.

As the Milton made its two-month journey across the Solar System—its progress hampered only by the regulations that restricted the maximum speed of space craft in the relatively crowded neighbourhood of the inner planets—Paul interest in Earth and the terrestrial system steadily increased. He'd always been fascinated by Ancient History: especially relating to the early days of data storage and information technology. This was an age when it was still theoretically possible for a single person to understand everything about a computer: from its operating system to its circuitry, from its architecture to its interaction with peripheral devices. Those were exciting times in an age when humans had hardly ventured at all from the planet's surface, when there were no extraterrestrial settlements, even on the Moon, and when computers relied on the semi-conductive elements such as silicon and graphene.

Paul pored over references to and visited virtual universes that represented not so much the modern-day Earth or Moon, which hardly interested him at all, but those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nonetheless, he was somewhat hazy about the actual details of the period. He wasn't sure whether Hitler was a contemporary of either President Obama or President Beck. He wasn't even sure whether America was an ally or an enemy of Germany in either or both of the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. Was Stalin a Nazi or a fascist or something else? And just when did English cease to be the default language of computing? There was even something called the British Empire which Paul confused with the Roman Empire, although he was sure there was at least a thousand years between them. He was surprised to discover that the Romans hadn't discovered the American continent despite the Atlantic Ocean being such a narrow strip of water. Wasn't there someone called Bill Gates who at one point, some time after Einstein and probably even Turing, was the richest man in the world? Now, those were glory days! Computers were the most profitable and dominant industry in the world, like Coal, Oil and Steel had been before.

Paul wasn't invited to the bridge again, but he could monitor the transplanetary progress of the Milton just as easily from his luxury suite. Beatrice and he would lie on their matrimonial bed, either before or after making love, and scan the interplanetary heavens. There was Mars, now quite a long way around its orbit from Earth. There was the receding orbit of Jupiter. There was a fleet of warships circling the Asteroid Belt behind them, sometimes enlivened by colourful explosions near or on the surface of the various disputed chunks of rock. Ahead were the bright lights of the Moon and the strange blue presence of Earth itself.

"We can't see the Anomaly from here, can we?" asked Beatrice.

"There's nothing to see," said Paul. "It's like an absence of something."

"Like a black hole?"

"There's not even a gravitational presence. I've been told it's like there's nothing at all. Not even space."

"What does that mean?"

"Space exists even in a vacuum," Paul tried to explain. "Photons and Neutrons pass through it. Dark Energy and Dark Matter interact with it. It is seamlessly joined with the rest of space. The Anomaly isn't like that. Light doesn't pass through it nor does any other kind of matter, whether baryonic or strange. There's no interaction with the fundamental forces. It's like it isn't there, but neither is anything else at its location."

"It doesn't sound natural, does it?"

"No, it doesn't" Paul agreed. "It doesn't sound very natural at all. So, in a sense, where we'll be going to after we depart from Earth is nowhere at all!"

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