IF ONLY I knew then what I know now.
There was a time when I wanted to start my memoirs with those words. “My Journey: The Life and Times of a Spaceslipper.” Then I realized I was making myself sound like an interstellar foot warmer, so I decided to go with something less flashy. Something more like “How I Learned to Chill Out and Love My Copilot.”
He was good guy, you know. You’ll say hindsight is twenty-twenty, and you might be right, but it doesn’t apply in this case. I knew what I had. I just didn’t want to admit it. It was much easier to hate the man and resent his talent than to admit I might actually admire him. And he was good. Really, really good. Not that kind of good. Well…. But that wasn’t what I was getting at. He was a good pilot.
He used to say he could close his eyes and feel the stream and know where to put the ship to get us where we wanted to go. Maybe he was shitting me. I only know we never went wrong. The ship never went wrong. He and I, on the other hand… well, most of the crew would argue we never went right.
But we had some good times. We also had some really horrific times. I will never get those times back. I just wish I’d known I would feel this way after he was dead before he’d actually died. So, like I said, if only I’d known then what I know now. Some who know me would say my timing’s never been great, and some would say I bring this shit on myself. They’re probably all right. I know one thing with absolute certainty: if I could go back, I would. And I’d do a few things differently.
So that’s the plan. I learned that the stream flows both ways. Briak used to say the stream flows in both directions. I assumed he meant you could get from one place to the other and back again, but if that’s true, why wouldn’t you be able to move from one point in time and back again? Well, that’s my theory, anyway, and I’m about ready to do whatever I have to, because I can’t keep this up. Two weeks ago, Briak slipped away from me, and all I could do was watch it happen. Whatever it takes, I’m going to fix that. So I followed the theory and found the Time Renegades. Apparently, they can turn me around and get me back to where I need to be. For a price. No idea what that price might be but, unless they want a small moon or a live Martian, there isn’t a lot they can ask for that I can’t beg, borrow, or steal.
If, that is, I can figure out why space seems to be shifting around my ship and making my new copilot nearly trash her. During the last shift into the slippery streams that let us mere mortals slide from one place in the galaxy to another, a stream convergence made him drop out and back off his original calculations. I mean, he literally backed the entire ship about eighty light years, almost into Tran47’s—better known as Dogpatch’s—third moon. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad he managed to avoid the convergence of the stream and backspace. It would have torn even my sturdy little ship to space dust, but it took way too long to get back on track, around the converge, and inside the stream again. He screwed up our schedule, and late deliveries don’t get paid for. Late pickups get loaded onto jackal ships just waiting for no-shows to scoop their cargo. I couldn’t afford another screwup from him.
Asshole. Briak would have never made such a dumbass mistake. Or, knowing him, he’d have jumped the converge and skipped three stops. He’s reckless—was reckless—like that.
Point is, he’d have seen the damn muddle coming and avoided it. What bugs me is, I don’t remember there ever being a converge near Dogpatch. It’s been a while since we last took this route, but you’d think I’d remember something like that. They aren’t that common, and they make a mess of the entire stream for light years in every direction. Hard to miss. So if it hadn’t been there the last time I took the route with Briak, where was it then? And why is it there now?
This isn’t the first time I’ve run into something so freakishly odd since he died. Just the first time it almost cost me my ship. It did lose me a few good crew members. They ditched at the first landing after that, and I can’t say I blame them. Nothing’s been the same. I haven’t been the same—completely off my game. And this new guy, Jazz, (which he thinks is some cool-ass name), is an idiot.
I can do the math in my head faster than him, and that ain’t saying much. Every slip requires constant adjustments to the ship’s shields, engines, grav units, life support, and a dozen other systems to keep it riding that slippery wave. It’s like surfing the Big One on a water ski. You need to be tapped into the ship’s computer and be able to “feel” the stream and what it’s doing. Theory said the ship’s sensors monitored the stream for you, but something happens once you connect to the stream through the ship’s computer network. You’re immersed in the stream yourself, like the ship doesn’t exist, and nothing else feels that good.
But one wrong move, one miscalculation in speed or trajectory and you’re toast. If the ship goes under, gets caught in the flow of the stream without guidance, the pilot steering her is never going to get her back. In fact, the stream seems to have a malicious side, sucking you in with promises of a better ride than you can have in the ship, bound to the neural net that controls it. If you give in to the stream’s siren call, the next thing you know your neural connection to the ship is bypassed, and you’re one with the wave. It’s heaven.
It kills you.
So every slide is done with two pilots, in case one gets sucked under, and every calculation has to be exactly right. You have to be able to trust the math, and Briak had a gift. Jazz… does not. He needs the ’puter and refuses to use it. He screws up once more he’s out the lock, as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t give a Martian’s headstone what the committee has to say about it.
“I don’t need a PADCom babysitter, and I sure as hell don’t need a half-assed copilot.” I was talking to myself again but didn’t realize it until Conee replied to my comment.
“The Planetary Alliance Delegates’ Committee wants a delegate on every ship, Tom,” she informed me. “It is regulation.”
“They can stuff their regulations, and their delegates, right up their tight asses, Conee.”
“The regulation handbook is thirty-seven volumes, Tom. I do not think it would fit. And that is Console/Neural Energy Enhancement to you, Tom.”
“Right, Conee.” I pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger and reminded myself there was nothing malevolent behind that monotone remark. She was a computer, after all. Not a complete bitch. Somewhere on my list of things to do, I had to find out who was mucking with her speech program and have a chat. “Can I have that star chart back up, please? I really need to find out where that convergence came from.”
“Only if you promise to stop talking to yourself, Tom. It makes the crew nervous.”
“You’re a computer. What would you know about nerves?”
“It is a well-known fact that when space men begin to lose their nerve, they begin talking to themselves. Many of the crew mutter under their breath, Tom. It is worrisome.”
“Well, don’t worry about me, little darlin’. I’ve got nerves of steel, and never had much sense to lose, so you’re in good hands, as always.”
“Briak never came within light years of backing me into a planet, Tom.”
Can’t blame her—it—for pointing out the truth. Briak didn’t make mistakes that often, and when he did, I caught them. Usually.
This guy, I couldn’t follow his dips and dives through the stream like I could Briak’s smooth slide. I knew where Briak would take my ship before it moved. I could predict him, catch his wave and hold her steady while he rested, make a smooth handoff when he was ready to change course.
“Here is the star chart, Tom.” The smooth computer voice shouldn’t have made me jump like that. I moved my coffee cup a safe distance from my elbow and dragged my gaze to the screen as it lit up with myriad points of light.
“This is the fifth time you have asked for it. It is the same as it always was. The convergence has been in that sector for millennia.”
“No, Conee, it hasn’t.”
I’d been arguing with the damn computer about it since it happened. I know my routes, even the ones I don’t take that often. The thing that saved my ass when my math sucked was that I knew my star charts like I knew my own name, and that convergence was not there before. Briak and I took the route on our off-hours more than a few times to an exclusive and private vacation spot. I remembered convergences in that sector of space, but that particular kind of meeting of heavenly bodies doesn’t show up on star charts. And anyway, this was not the only thing my computer seemed confused about. Convergences didn’t appear out of nowhere. Whatever had created it, we should have heard. There should be a record, a new report. Something. But Conee seemed to think it had always been there. It hadn’t. I was not the crazy one.
“Huh? What?” I glanced at my holoscreen.
“There is an incoming message. Encrypted. Shall I decrypt?”
“No. Drop it in the stick, Conee.” I plugged my personal handheld into the onboard memory bank, more interested in the charts hovering in front of me than the message. My current client was more than a little anal about schedules and arrival times. He wanted his delivery picked up on time, and his constant check-ins were getting on my nerves.
“Use of personal equipment in conjunction with—”
“PAD equipment is prohibited. I know, Conee. You’ll have to get over it. This isn’t a PAD ship, dear. It’s a freighter, and I’m not a PAD pilot.”
PADcom regulated all use of the slipstreams. Well, they liked to think they did. They had a monopoly on shipbuilding and the neural technology that let people and ships interact on the minute level it took to get safely from one end of a stream to the other. It had been that way for almost a hundred years, but nothing lasts forever. The only way they could have kept their stranglehold was through brute force, and that was never going to be allowed to happen. There were just enough other races out in the stars to make their monopoly untenable.
So ten years ago, they began to decommission a few ships at a time. Their only stipulation was that every human ship in space had a PADcom computer and a PADcom officer aboard. I was first in line for one of those decommissioned ships, and I got the Dancer, my baby. Marlin, my engineer, was my first crew member, and the mods he made to Conee were first on my to-do list. Briak had been the PAD officer assigned to the Dancer, but it was clear from the start he and I had the same opinion of his employers. His lax application of PAD regulations suited me just fine. Since the beginning, I’d made it clear I was not a PADcom drone, and my crew knew it. We weren’t outside the law. Exactly. Just at the liberal end of it.