Intervention of the Sphere

Entry
1.020
May 14, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.02
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We don't know exactly when it showed up.

It seems like the sort of thing someone would notice, a meter-wide sphere, floating about ankle-high off the floor. Inside, a hazy swirl of cloudy gasses with a dimly flickering inner core. However, the first reported sighting of the sphere occurred in the cold storage bay aboard the Sodium Compass when it was found patiently waiting to be let through a door. How long had it been there, waiting to come out?

Well, after that point, it didn't seem to have any further trouble with our doors. I think it learned how to imitate a crew badge signal. Then again, we've seen it on three ships now, and there's no way it rode a transfer shuttle between them. So maybe it stayed behind the door because it didn't understand that a door represented hidden space. It's hard to say, we almost never see it moving. When we do, it's pretty quickly, and surprisingly quiet. Usually though, it just sits somewhere out of the way and.. I don't know, watches? Listens?

Obviously everyone has theories, and of course the most popular is that it's alien. I'm not so sure, I wonder if it's a prank by a bored engineer. And of course, it could be some new sort of Fritz. They've been pretty localized so far, not moving like this sphere, but it's not like we have any idea what causes them. Whatever it is, it didn't seem too interested in telling us. It doesn't give off any radiation that we can detect, and doesn't seem hostile. If you yell at it, it will scurry off and hide. But we haven't seen anything that even looks kind of like a weapon or a defense.

-----

I think it's pretty obvious it's a prank now.

Today it allegedly spoke! A scientist was observing it on the Compass, and recorded the first known sound from the sphere. I listened to the recording. It's a human voice saying "Good duration!" I don't know what that's supposed to mean, but it's got to be something a human came up with. It sounds like the kind of pseudo-mysterious gibberish you'd find in a teaser for some ARG back on earth. I'm not getting too invested at this point. But I do have to admit, prank or not, this is one of the more entertaining things to happen to the fleet.

Oh, but the memes are great. "Good Duration!" has become a great punchline. As you probably guessed, a meme-cult sprout up casting the sphere as a divine prophet. When it finally spoke, that crowd just went nuts. It's their go-to greeting in the halls now, "Good duration!" It's kinda like that "Happy Morning!" trend from a few years ago. There's a series of memes making the round right now that border on the surreal, but all feature the Sphere bellowing its now famous first words. It's hard to describe, but I can't stop laughing about them. It makes me miss how vibrant the meme culture was on Earth. We try to keep the spirit alive out here, but this has been the first time we've really had a hot topic to rally around for fun. I'll try to get some together to send in a media package soon.

-----

OK, hear me out. It could definitely still be a prank, but I'm starting to wonder who would take it this far.

The sphere spoke again. "Language mapped. Share or discard?" Tell me that doesn't sound like an alien translator AI. Not that I've ever met any, but it makes sense at least. We can't expect alien intelligence to share a language with us. For a long time, futurists have speculated that interstellar communication would require "translation interfaces", computers or AI that build up an ad-hoc communication protocol starting with basic signal patterns, eventually working up to a logical mapping of the shared parts of it's home language and any new language it encountered. There were designs for such devices in the labs here, though none really ready for production. Until we knew the nature of the aliens we'd encounter, it seemed silly to commit to a final form factor. Anyways, what if that's what this sphere is, from the other side? It's been watching us for a few weeks now, soaking up our words and behaviors. Maybe "Good duration" really was an attempt at a greeting?

Per council order, we've decided not to respond actively quite yet. If this is an alien asking for permission to translate for us, we could be looking at one of the biggest moments in human history. But maybe a dangerous one too. This sphere slipped right into the transport bubble, and seems to move about the ships without restriction. A civilization that can do that is probably more sophisticated than we are. We're having a vote in the morning about how to respond, but at this point everyone's getting excited. I don't think there's really that much interest in "discard". But we still want to go over basic approaches and have a few plans for what comes next.

If this turns out to be a prank, whoever's behind it is really putting their reputation on the line. It just seems too complicated, and too important of a thing to joke with at this scale. I'm sure we'll find out tomorrow, one way or another.

Good Duration!

- Netuno

Good Duration Memes

Entry
1.021
May 19, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.021
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Twenty Questions

Entry
1.022
May 26, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.022
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It is true that Naomi only took Xenosocial Negotiation at the academy because it fit her schedule and let her keep Wednesdays free.

However, of all the elective courses she took, she had the most fun in "XeNog". A terribly clever instructor developed a rigorous array of games, simulations, and thought experiments related to negotiations with alien intelligences. Riveting debates about the ethics of interstellar trade, examinations of the trapdoors of implied logic, and reviews of countless fictional imaginings written over the years all equipped Naomi with at least a basic framework of talking to aliens.

The entire first month was devoted to the language barrier. As the professor quipped, "Sticking an alien fish in your ear probably won't work out in your favor." Even if proper dialogue was unachievable, basic interactions and transactions may be possible. In fact, these transactions may be the foundation of better opportunities to establish more robust communication.

But this sphere may have some sort of babblefish up it's sleeve, after all. It clearly figured out some basics of human language, enough to greet us and make an offer. Or something like it. The sphere hasn't been forthcoming with details, but to be fair, we haven't responded yet. That's why Naomi was asked to have the conversation.

"Share or Discard?"

What struck Naomi first was the polite nature of the request. In all of the simulations she's played through in the academy, it was taken as a given that information learned would be retained by either side. If the sphere was offering to discard the information about human language it had obtained, that's a pretty respectful display. It can't be inherently trusted, but if it wasn't an option, why pretend?

Implied logical conclusions are self-made chains. The lesson had been hammered over and over. Don't assume that aliens have any common sense. Until we know how they construct truth, we shouldn't be hasty to assume we know what they are thinking.

Discard. Toss away? Could it be a misstated threat? It would be a lot more in line with the simulations. But Naomi never liked those scenarios. A hostile alien would open a conversation with violence, not a dance around language, right? Implied logical yadda yadda..

Best to take it slow, keep it simple, be friendly. Avoid over-commitment.  The council has approved Naomi to make a decision here, but that doesn't mean she has to rush to it. Remember what Suri said, "You're already in the record books." Deep breath.

Naomi approached the sphere.

"Language mapped. Share or Discard?" it asked, in the same steady tone it asked anyone who came near.

"We have questions," Naomi responded.

The sphere flickered with sudden interest. After a brief pause, it said "Questions are favors or interrogations or prayers or quiz show?"

Naomi resisted the urge to chuckle at the last suggestion. We'd like to ask favors, but that's a bit forward for now. Since we're not expecting to encounter any gods out here, that leaves interrogations. That word has some connotations that aren't always pleasant, but does the sphere know that? "Our questions are peaceful interrogations."

"Peaceful accept," the sphere said. "Boundary required, accept?"

Naomi considered. Did it mean conversational boundary or physical? Maybe the sphere needs to unfold into something? She was only a meter away from the sphere, but there was room to move if needed. "Define boundary."

"Mapping, unlimited. Discard, unlimited. Share, limited. Owner, limited. Network, off-limit. Archive, off-limit. Oracle, off-limit. Accept boundary?"

Naomi's eyes lit up at the peak into the sphere's internal taxonomy. Network, Archive, Oracle? So many exciting trails, even if they are closed for now. Owner limited, how limited? It'd be nice to know who we're transacting with. And what Share means. But if limited isn't "off-limit", this could be enough to get started.

"We accept. First question, ready?" Naomi winced as soon as the words came out of her mouth. She knew better than to use shorthand grammar like that! OK, shake it off, there's a lot of pressure but no need to freak out over a small mistake.

"Ready is awaiting the first question. Proceed."

Whew, good enough. Things are going well! But what to ask first? Well, let's get the big one out of the way. "Are you peaceful?"

"Peaceful is friendly, kind, non-violent. Yes, I am peaceful."

Naomi appreciated the relational approach to establishing definitions. She should try to emulate it to build a closer connection. "We are peaceful, friendly, kind, non-violent."

"Acknowledged. Ready second question?"

Off to a great start. Time to negotiate! "What is share?"

"Share is give, take, trade, upload, swap, show. Wanting to share language mapping. Ready third question?"

"What is language mapping?" Naomi asked.

The sphere responded "Language mapping is structure, vocabulary, waveforms, interpretation and limited. Ready fourth question?"

"What is discard?"

"Discard is remove, delete, forget, erase, disappear. Ready fifth question?"

So far, no real surprises. Keep steady. "Is share two way, reciprocal, mutual?"

The sphere hesitated. Something about that question wasn't simple, Naomi guessed. Sharing is a tricky concept. "Share is every way, open, public. Ready sixth question?"

Oh. Are there other parties to this transaction? Naomi realized she carried an assumption that this was a single point of contact with another intelligence. But it could just as well be a representative of something more than that. "Will you share with us?" she asked, hoping it wouldn't stumble on the new question format.

"Understanding. Correct. Share is mutual, co-operation, knowledge. Ready seventh question?"

This is a really impressive language processor. It seems like it re-contextualized the previous question in light of the following question, and noted the connection. Naomi's inner data-science nerd was squealing with fascination. "Who is your owner?"

The sphere darkened briefly. "Limited information permission. Owner is peaceful, strong, careful, hidden. Ready eighth question?"

Well, that's what you'd want any new aliens to think, right? You're kind, powerful, and mysterious. Fair enough. "Will we meet your owner?"

The sphere processed for a moment. "After sharing, meeting is possible. Biology complications. Ready ninth question?"

Interesting. Wonder what sort of biology the owners have. That's certainly off-limits for now. Let's circle back for a second.  "Who will we share with?"

"Everyone. All who have shared. Details limited. Ready tenth question?"

Oh. Really? "How many civilizations have shared?"

The sphere dimmed slightly. "Many. Details limited. Ready eleventh question?"

Many. This isn't just an offer from one civilization, it's an offer to connect to some kind of language translation network. The possibilities nearly overwhelmed Naomi. She took a deep breath to steady herself. She might be negotiating the most significant information trade in human history. No need to rush. "Can you explain why the details are limited?"

This time the sphere took several seconds and shifted in hue before answering. "Limit extends from Philosophy, Memory, Programming. This machine has sub-mind: language not knowledge. Protections against violence, hacking, spoiler alerts. Ready twelfth question?"

Naomi could barely believe it. Did this machine just explain an intergalactic spoiler policy? It made some sense, if you're sending a.. language probe?.. out to learn languages, maybe it's best to save the wiki swapping until actual communication is established. So this is sort of like an opt-out First Directive? If we want to go it on our own, we can just ask to be ignored. It was a respectful gesture, but Naomi wondered how likely it was that would last in practice.

But let's be real, Naomi already knew she wanted this. Who wouldn't? A language interface for intergalactic communication? An alien Rosetta stone? How could she say no? Every major advancement in human culture has been on the backs of expanded communications capabilities. From writing to printing to the internet to the commlink.

She hesitated. The flip side of that story is that the parts of civilization that pioneered new forms of communication had a bad habit of dominating the cultural exchange, leading to all sorts of atrocities. If we open ourselves up to a whole universe of other civilizations, ones who've maybe been at this for a lot longer than us, we'll be the culturally disadvantaged ones. Can we withstand the pressure of not just one alien culture, but multiple? Are we offering ourselves up as an easy mark?

Or is it anthropocentric to project human corruption on our intergalactic neighbors? On this, Naomi felt woefully unequipped. The sphere represented her only encounter, presumably, with alien intelligence. It's been reasonably coherent. Despite minor grammar roughness and a few idiosyncrasies, the sphere is making sense. That suggests there's at least some shared logic. And it's offering to be the translator for the rest. Or is it?

"What happens after sharing?" Naomi asked.

"Language mappings are synchronized, uploaded, made available" the sphere responded. "Ready thirteenth question?"

"How are language maps made available to us?" Naomi asked, hoping to get to the heart of her question.

The sphere replied "Technological interface. This machine will interpret until you build language circuits. Ready fourteenth question?"

Good, no fish in our ears. And it sounds like there will be at least some tech trade involved, a chance to learn how the more experienced civilizations do communication. It's sounding like a good deal, but Naomi still wants to be thorough.

"Is sharing dangerous?"

Apparently, this was a tricky question. The sphere flickered rapidly for a few seconds before answering. "Knowledge is safe. Communication is uncertain. Ready fifteenth question?"

Fine. The sphere doesn't want to guess what will happen when we start talking with others. Maybe there's another way to approach the issue. "Are we in danger here?"

Another flickering pause. "Danger is fear, risk, loss. You are not in danger here, now. Ready sixteenth question?"

Another shallow answer. Naomi didn't let her frustration show. "Are we near any wars that might endanger us."

The very mention of the word "war" turned the orb to a dark blue hue. "Details limited" it replied coldly. "Permission to question?"

Naomi perked up with curiosity. "Ready question" she said, imitating the sphere's broken grammar.

"Do you wage war?" the sphere asked.

A chill raced down Naomi's spine.  Humans have an embarrassingly long history with war. The world the fleet left behind was closer to peace than it had been in the centuries and millennia prior, enough to launch an international exploration fleet at great cost. But still, squabbles over power and resources always bubbled under the surface, and Naomi couldn't confidently say that humans had finished with war.

Even the fleet had weapons. She'd never looked too much into the details, but she remembered a few training sessions at the Academy going over the fundamentals of zero-gravity weapon usage. Most of it was horrifying explanations of just how fragile these floating tin cans were in the face of focused destruction. Maybe the point of those lessons was to discourage violent engagements. If so, it worked, at least for Naomi. Still, the fleet was armed, regardless of how peaceful we say we are.

How does she put all that into an answer? Will the sphere keep up with the nuance? What happens if she answers wrong. Has her curiosity put the trade in jeopardy? Don't panic, she thought, it's just a question. "Humans on Earth have waged war. Humans in space, here, desire only peace." She hoped that was good enough.

"Recorded. Ready for question seventeen?"

Naomi wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not. She had the sinking feeling that something was just put on humanity's permanent record. But at least the conversation wasn't over. She didn't totally blow it. Hopefully.  Maybe she can turn the tables? "Do you wage war?"

"No" the sphere responded immediately. "This machine specializes in language. Ready for question eighteen?"

Oops. She left it an easy out. "Do your owner's wage war?"

The sphere returned to its dark blue color. "Limited information permission. Ready for question nineteen?"

Oh right. Trying to backdoor around the restrictions was a pretty silly idea. If Naomi, or the fleet, wants to know who sent this sphere, she'll have to agree to share language mappings.  Deep down, she knew she wanted to make the trade. When were they going to get such an offer again? If she turns it down, what would a better offer look like? It was hard to imagine a more amicable exchange. "Are there any costs to us you haven't disclosed?"

"The cost is your language mapping" the sphere replied. "Ready question twenty?"

Naomi nodded, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Even with all of these reassurances, it was still daunting to announce humanity to everyone out here, whoever that might be. It felt a lot like her first day at the academy, stepping into a space full of knowledge, wonder, mystery, and lots of strangers.

"I think we are ready to share," Naomi announced. "How do we start?"

The orb shimmered with swirls of green and gold. "Understood. Initiating network link. Requesting permission to boot full brain, please authorize."

Oh, is that what limited meant? The device is in a low-power state? Very interesting, she'll have to ask about that later. Well, no point in holding back now. "Permission granted, but please don't tap the power lines without further permission."

"Acknowledged. Power lines unnecessary. Please wait for reboot." The sphere dimmed to a dull amber, then filled with a cloudy gas. Flashes of storm-like flickerings lurked deep within the haze, moisture beaded along the inside of the shell, and then the sphere began to spin. Slowly at first, but accelerating to a speed that made Naomi a bit nervous.

With a sudden loud clap, a burst of light, and a wretched mechanical screech, the sphere came to a nearly instant stop. All of the momentum it had built up soaked down into the haze and fluids built up inside the shell. In a process she found hard to understand, internal bits of haze crystallized and channeled the fluids in complicated internal aqueducts that would make Escher dizzy. The glow subsided back to a comfortable blue.

"Thank you, Naomi. I'm now operating in full capacity" the sphere announced, in a new Irish timbre. Naomi was stunned at the sudden eloquence. "Please give me a short bit to set up my network connection and inform my owners of your decision. I know you have a lot of questions still left, and I'm sure soon you'll have at least a few answers. But I am still permissions bound until my owners agree to grant you greater network access."

"Um.. yes, that's fine, of course." Naomi gathered herself up. "Can I know who your owners are now? It would mean a lot to the fleet to have a name."

"Certainly. In your naming style, you can call my owners the Raxxians."

"Raxxians! Like the cabbagesteak!" Naomi hadn't tried the dish herself, but she'd heard a podcast about it's mysterious origins. Was it really an alien dish? How did that happen?

"Yes," the sphere said cautiously. "I need to apologize for that. I think I may have polluted your food archives when I arrived. A small glitch, nothing to mention to anyone."

Did the sphere just ask her to keep a secret? Naomi would have to think that through later, for now she politely changed the subject. "Well, we look forward to meeting the Raxxians. Let me know if you need any supplies."

"I'm well equipped, but I would recommend you begin fabrication of high-grade earplugs for the entire fleet."

"Earplugs? Why?"

"Like I said before. Biological incompatibilities. The Raxxians are quite a bit louder than you are accustomed to."

"Really? Are they much larger than us?" Naomi asked, picturing bellowing giants.

"Slightly larger. Just much, much louder. Like usual."

"What do you mean?"

"Frankly, you humans are the quietest things I've ever heard speak. My report identifies you as Humans, the fleet of curious whispers."

Naomi wasn't really sure how to take that. It didn't sound mean, but in all of her wildest dreams, she'd never imagined that space was going to be too loud for humans.

The Fritz Fleet Uniform

Entry
1.023
May 30, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.023
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Welcome to the Fleet

I asked the immensely talented Rylan Woodrow to envision the Fritz Fleet uniform, and they knocked it out of the park. Take a look!

There's a lot of detail tucked into the design.

  • The uniforms used to be for the Andromeda Ambassador Fleet. When the fleet changed their name, they removed the old AAF insignias. See the patches in the arms, and of course the new logo stitched in on the breast.
  • The sketch in the upper right corner shows a hidden feature of the uniforms. The collar can expand to form a quick helmet to give fleet members protection from environmental danger.
  • The puffy orange padding around the suit is a specialized polymer that stiffens in response to sudden force, giving fleet members a bit of defense in an emergency. In it's relaxed state, it is soft and comfortable.
  • The grey fabric is a flexible weave that can be tightened with an electric impulse, becoming watertight at a moment's notice.
  • The gold sun belt design is a reminder of Sol, the home sun of the fleet.

This art was commissioned from Rylan Woodrow for Fritz Fleet.

Want to see more of Rylan's amazing work, or commission some art for yourself?

Go take a look, and share your favorites to your friends!

Do you know a cool artist or creator I should approach for commissions? Let me know!

Private Constellations

Entry
1.024
June 28, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.024
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Meri was a doodler. She couldn’t help it.

Everyone else seemed to do OK thinking all their thoughts in their heads, but for Meri, a blank page was like an extension of her mind. A place to put her thoughts in the form of little cartoons, using a visual shorthand she’d refined over the years. She wasn’t too picky about her canvas, she’d doodle on paper, canvas, clay, sand, and in the case of her current environment, windows.

Windows were a particular delight, because they came with an implicit challenge. Incorporate the scene beyond the plane into the design. With most other mediums, every detail came from Meri. But with a window, it was a collaboration between her markers and the world on the other side. Here in the fleet, the windows offered a spectacular view, though a pretty monotonous one. The sky out here was vast, deep, and full of glittering stars and galaxies. With no local star dominating the scene, there was nothing but infinite star sea in every direction.

But since all the stars were so far away, they didn’t really move from day to day. The fleet was effectively stationary, as much as it could be with limited reference points and fritzing sensors. So the windows had the same view. Which led to Meri’s recent mega-doodle. A series of tall windows along a lesser-used walkway on the Chrome Cinnamon. They were perfectly faced away from the fleet and the thruster array, providing a large star canvas for her to play with.

Staring out at so many stars, she embraced the childlike wonder of it all. It was easy to take for granted out here in the fleet, but she new how to dive deep and stir up those old feelings of awe. From when they first left the atmosphere. Or even further back, when she camped out in the desert with Tam. Staring at the stars for hours, trying to coax her mind into accepting the scale of things. Dreaming about what mysteries lurk around those shining specks. Boggling over the distances, and how long these photons must have traveled to be seen together here.

Before long, an old instinct kicked in, and she started grouping the stars into shapes, constellations. As soon as she connected the first set of glowing dots into a loose skeleton of a duck, she knew she was on the right path. Sketching in detail around it, she smiled, and realized all the best constellations had names. Tam, she scribbled beneath it, The Far Seeing Duck.

The next few hours dissolved into a blur as Meri worked her way across the stars, filling the windows with constellation diagrams and names. Varuk, the Resting Cobra. Sakaal, the Watchful Lemur. Minna, the Ox Goddess of Weather. Pak, the Curious Jellyfish. Before too long, all 5 windows were full of her new pantheon of celestial beings.

When it was done, she stood back taking it all in. The fleet’s position was a lonely one, which meant that this particular view of the universe was unique. No one anywhere else would see the stars quite like this, the arrangements she made were particular to this obscure time and position in the universe.

She thought back to the constellations she knew from Earth. The Sheng Xiao, the Zodiac, the Sidereal, all beautiful reckonings of astronomy, mathematics, and human imagination. The private astrology she has illustrated on these windows is another step in a long tradition of pattern-matching. But none of her predecessors had the luxury of changing their position like the fleet can. The thought of exploring constellation making as a progressive medium was suitably subversive and deeply alluring to her artistic mind.

Preferring subtlety to bravado, it was another week before word began to spread of her new creation. Before long though, it was a cultural sensation. First was the steady stream of curious Fritzers coming to see what the buzz was about. Then the writers took up the call to flesh out the new mythos. In typical Fleet fashion, the new stories were synthesized combinations of “Old Culture” tropes and surrealist humor.

But the moment Meri truly felt successful was when she started to see new constellations on different windows throughout the fleet. Seeing her spark of inspiration reflected in the minds of the creative community filled her with a deep sense of belonging. We may be the only ones out here, she thought, but at least we’re out here together.

Stowaway

Entry
1.025
August 4, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.025
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[This is a guest entry by Karen Eliot. Chronologically it takes place in parallel to Entry 1.003.]

Kadon sat on the floor of an unused science lab on the Jasper Sunset with a tourniquet in one hand and a syringe of bootleg jumpfluid in the other.

"T-minus Five minutes to Pak jump. Please return to your cabins and prepare them for thrust."

Kadon smiled. Just five more minutes. Then he would be far beyond the reach of the orbital shuttles that could haul him back to Earth. After that, what were they going to do? Turn the whole Fleet around and jump back just to deliver him to the authorities? No way. The worst that might happen is he'd be thrown in the brig. But at that point, it wouldn't matter. He'd still be among the first humans in history to breach the heliopause into interstellar space. For Kadon, that was enough. Besides, they'd probably let him out eventually. Once they realized he wasn't a threat.

Probably.

"T-minus four minutes to Pak jump. Please make sure all items in your bunk are secured for thrust."

Ever since news of the Andromeda Fleet first hit the feeds three years ago, Kadon was determined to find a way onboard. He took out student loans he had no intention to repay, in order to enroll in a technical university. He'd failed horribly, but that was expected. He didn't need to succeed himself, merely make friends with people who did.

Friendship to friendship, he'd surfed the department's social scene, building a network of frighteningly competent, dreadfully underpaid people with enough moral flexibility to do Kadon some well-compensated favors. Zak had hacked satellite imagery of the launch complex, work shift schedules, and a floorplan of the Jasper Sunset. Brenne had worked on the safety policies for the Fleet, and was able to get him up to speed with how to avoid becoming, as her supervisor was fond of putting it, "human puree scraped off of bulkheads."

"T-minus three minutes to Pak jump. Please strap yourself securely into your bunks and prepare for automated fluid injection in T-minus one minute and fifty-three seconds."

The jumpfluid was the hardest part. Its synthesis formula is still very classified, and research samples are tightly guarded. Zak's drug dealer claimed to know a reputable chemist who'd gotten his hands on a batch and managed to reverse engineer it. The three degrees of separation left Kadon uneasy, and the price was downright astronomical, but launch was only two months out by that point. It was the first time he'd caught even a whiff of a source for jumpfluid, and he couldn't take the risk that he would never catch another.

Good thing, too, cuz he didn't.

"T-minus sixty seconds to automated fluid injection. Please make sure your straps are secured for thrust. T-minus one minute and fifty-five seconds to Pak jump."

Kadon froze at the sound of footsteps in the hall. No one was supposed to be back here. That's why he chose this lab. Everyone was supposed to be strapped into their bunks right now. This was very wrong. This could ruin everything. One simple comms call, and they could delay the jump for long enough to ship him back.

Kadon scrambled into a locker full of lab coats and slipped the door shut as the footsteps stopped outside the lab. Surely it was futile. Surely he'd been heard. Surely they'd see the syringe of illicit jumpfluid carelessly dropped onto the floor in his panic.

The door hissed open. Footsteps crossed the room in a hurry, approaching the foreward wall that held one of the room's two workbenches. Kadon heard the rustling of a bag and a clunk of something heavy being set onto the bench.

"T-minus thirty seconds to automated fluid injection."

The intruder worked faster, tearing velcro and fiddling with the thing on the bench. Apparently finished, they made for the door, but stopped right at the threshold. Kadon's pounding heart sank. For a second, it really seemed like he was going to get away with this. If only he hadn't dropped that damned syringe.

"T-minus fifteen seconds to automated fluid injection."

The footsteps rushed back to the workbench and grabbed the now-empty bag they'd brought in. The door hissed shut behind them, and Kadon heard them run foreward down the hall.

Kadon clicked the closet door open in disbelief. The syringe still lay on the floor where he'd left it. And on the workbench, a music box with something else attached to it, all held in place with thick velcro straps.

He began to worry. Someone here when they shouldn't have been, delivering a fucking music box? This was a dream, wasn't it. A goddamned rehearsal dream the night before the actual infiltration.

Couldn't risk it, though. Weird shit happens everyday. If this were reality, and he didn't see his plan through, well... Human puree doesn't get to dream.

"T-minus five seconds to automated fluid injection. See you on the other side."

Kadon snatched the syringe. A little of the jumpfluid had spurted out of the syringe when it had hit the ground. Kadon tried to get some of it back in the needle, but his hands were shaking, and the risk of getting air into the syringe was too much.

"T-minus forty-five seconds to Pak jump." The human voice had been replaced by a computerized one.

It'd have to do. Here's hoping the dosing had some wiggle room. Kadon stood against the aft wall and wrenched the rubber tourniquet around his bicep. Holding the end of the it in his teeth, he took deep breaths while bracing his other hand, holding the syringe ,against his forearm. The shaking needle steadied as he waited for a vein to appear. At first sign, he plunged the needle into the vein and loosened the tourniquet to allow the jumpfluid into his body.

"T-minus thirty seconds to Pak jump."

The music box clicked. Someone sang.

'Tonight, I'm gonna have myself a real good time.'

Fucking Queen? Are you kidding me?

'I feel ali-i-i-ive, and the world,'

There's no way this is not a dream.

"Releasing gravity in three, two, one,"

'Turn it inside out, yeah,'

The ship gave a deep click and Kadon was weightless.

"T-minus fifteen seconds to Pak jump."

Kadon snagged the syringe before it could float away, packed it in its case and shoved that in his pocket. The motions caused him to nudge the wall, and Newton nudged back. Kadon floated toward the middle of the room. Too slow. Nothing to grab. No way he'd reach the opposite wall in time to kick back.

'Floating around, in ecstasy,'

What a dumb way to die. Three years of dedication, splattered against a bulkhead. Still, he supposed, it was better than a life in prison back on Earth. At least his remains would make it to the Black.

"T-minus ten seconds to Pak jump."

The flash of an idea:

Jump. Newton.

Barely thinking and fired up by the song's crescendo, Kadon tore off his jacket and held it under his feet. As soon as he was aligned with the music box, he kicked as hard as he could. His jacket kicked back. It didn't have a lot to offer, but it was enough to send him back towards the wall.

'So, don't stop me now...'

"T-minus five, four,"

He pawed at the approaching bulkhead to flip upright—

"Three,"

'Don't stop me,'

—spin around—

"Two,"

'Cuz I'm having a good time,'

"One,"

and brace himself spread-eagle against the wall.

"Having a good time!"

A hundred elephants slammed Kadon into the bulkhead as the ship screamed into his skull. He barely had time to see his jacket flying at him from across the room before it plowed through his left elbow, cleaving it in two.

The pain was weak and distant. Curiously, Kadon noted, the edges of the sever scabbed over almost instantly. A calm had slipped over him through the back of his brain. The jumpfluid, probably; it was clearly working, or he would have been puree by now. The pressure of so much acceleration was beyond description.

And in that, Kadon knew that none of this was a dream. His sleeping mind could never have come up with this sensation. It was real. He had made it. He was headed for Andromeda. He would have cried, had his tear ducts been strong enough to overcome the acceleration.

Can't stop me now, bitches.

Twenty-six seconds later, the screaming elephants vanished as abruptly as they had appeared. Weightlessness returned, and the gentle braking of the Pak Array lifted Kadon away from the wall. Sleep finally took him as he drifted toward the workbench, where Freddie Mercury sang him a promise:

"I wanna make a supersonic man out of you..."