ON TRACK AND ON SPEED AT INDEX LOCATION 53

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Submitted Date 09/18/2022
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The whine from the three Centis swimming around and around in their loop tank is what finally woke Griffin up; he'd turned the alarm off more than an hour ago, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But now he was awake; he sat up in the bunk, cracked his eyes open, and blinked against the pale green light shining through the porthole; at this point in the spacecraft's 'day,' the porthole in his bunk chamber was pointed right at Beta Centauri. He coughed, and then mumbled "Dim porthole."

The ship chimed, and then the pale green glow was reduced to a tolerable intensity.

As was his habit, Griffin's first concern was navigation. He bunched the pillow up and lay back down against it. "Report location."

Another chime, and then the ship's voice came out of the overhead speaker. "Ship is on track and on speed at index location 53."

"What's the next turn?" Griffin asked.

Chime. "Next turn is forty-five days away."

Griffin rose off the pillow, swung his legs off the edge of the bunk, and stood up. He went into the ship's latrine, wincing at the noise from the loop tank as he passed. "Why are they so loud this morning?"

Chime. "It's past their feeding time," the ship responded.

"Hmm," Griffin grunted.

Finishing in the latrine, he stepped into the main chamber and opened a locker along the wall. The locker was filled with identical canisters, unlabeled, with tops that could be opened by the leverage of a human finger. He took one of the canisters off the shelf and turned to the loop tank, sliding open a panel on its top. Peering down into the tank, he could see the churning liquid and the muscular bodies of the Centis swimming in their endless circles around and around. He popped the top of the canister, dumped the contents into the tank, and flipped the empty can into a nearby container as he turned away from the tank.

Chime. "The door is still open on the tank."

Griffin ignored the ship and stepped over to the galley, flipping open a compartment and retrieving a foil package. He tore off the end, picked up a fork from the counter, and started forking the contents of the package into his mouth. He was facing the galley porthole—not really paying attention to it, or to what was outside the ship on that side—when a glint of light out there caught his attention.

He peered through the porthole and saw that something was occluding the stars on that side. Hurriedly, he swallowed, and then: "What is that on the port side?"

Chime. "Sensors show no object to port."

Griffin was looking more carefully now. "There's something out there that's blocking starlight, and it's moving."

Chime. "No objects within one full parsec."

"Hmm." Griffin put down the foil pack and stepped over to the control console on the other side of the main chamber. This area constituted the bridge of the ship; there were two side-by-side stations and two chairs. The left was navigation, steering, and offensive systems; the right was life support, defensive operations, and engineering. Griffin sat down in the chair on the right, activated the sensor displays, and studied the screen. "Okay, so how is it that I can see it out there but the sensors don't show anything?"

Chime. "Hard to say. It may be too far away."

"You can't see the occlusion out there to the port side?"

Chime. "No." There was a pause, and the "Sensors detect a ship at distant range."

"Ah," Griffin. "Yeah, I see it here." He watched the new detect on the screen, noting its distance, direction, and speed. "Hey, what's it doing?"

Chime. "Contact is turning to an intercept and accelerating."

"Can you give me a visual?" Griffin looked up at the main screen, which flickered to life. The image it presented cause his stomach to sink. "Oh, crap," he muttered. It was a Centi ship, one of the big ones, shaped like a torus, extension rooms and antennae sticking out randomly here and there.

Chime. "Continuing to accelerate. Contact will intercept our course in 41 minutes at its present speed. I recommend closing the panel on the Centi tank."

"Oh, right." Griffin sprang up and was at the tank in just a moment. He closed the hatch. "Will this keep them from knowing they're here?"

Chime. "No. But it may slow the rate a little."

"Speed us up to half of whatever speed they're coming at," Griffin said. The ship knew exactly what he was trying to do—wander away from the Centi without triggering their chase reflexes. "Bring us to half speed, then start speeding up from there, a few percent per minute. You understand?"

Chime. "Yes. Half speed established now, and we can match the contact's speed in twenty-two minutes at 2 percent per minute."

"Yeah, that might work. What will be the ending distance?"

Chime. "Four AU minimum distance."

"Hmm. Pretty close, but okay." Griffin went back to the Centi tank. "Is there nothing we can do to block their telepathic whatever it is?"

Chime. "No." Griffin went over to the lockers, closing the food locker that he'd left open when he fed the Centis. He opened the locker next to it, pulled out a heavy grey blanket, and hefted it over to the tank. He lifted one end up and over one side of the torus, and then draped the other end over the other side. Chime. "That won't help."

"Well, it won't hurt, will it?"

Chime. "No."

Griffin went back to the bridge, sat back down at the sensors station, and studied the display there, which was changing as he looked. "What do they want, do you think?"

Chime: "Besides their infants, you mean?"

"Yeah."

Chime. "Probably very little else," the ship said. "They've resisted most of the interactions we've tried to have with them."

"What if we jettison them?" Griffin said. "The tank is space worthy, isn't it?"

Chime: "Yes. We could jettison the tank and just wander off."

"Wander at full speed," Griffin responded.

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