Pattern of Infinity - Part X - The Meaning of the WorldBy J. Kel
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The Meaning of the World
THE PATTERN OF INFINITY
by J. Kel
The meaning of the World is the separation of wish and fact.
"I wish . . ." Dayna said as she let the phrase hang in the air. There was almost a wistful quality to her voice as she stood on the bridge of the Liberator, studying the main monitor, but Tarrant was too intent at the console instruments to comment. She thought: It was like looking into the deep well of eternity, and so why not pitch a wish into it? She accepted, like everyone else on the Liberator, that the danger this time was far in excess of anything they had ever faced. And the strain was showing on all of them, each dealing with it in their own particular way. Cally, having almost completely withdrawn prior to her departure, was on her mission to the Lindor Defense Forces; Vila was consumed by his reading to what end no one could guess, though the only obvious affect was that he had become so solicitous and caring that it had started to get on their nerves. Couldn't the man take a hint and stay out of the way? And Tarrant, the leader of the raid, had thrown himself totally into its planning. He had become almost invisible as a result: neither seeing or being seen, absorbed fully into the last mission. And for herself?
After a few seconds he glanced over to her, obviously not sure what to say if in fact anything was called for. At the moment, he was intent on the task of piloting the Liberator. He had insisted on doing it himself. The ship was beginning another reconnaissance maneuver around the mine-layer, an ugly kind of space-going barge, ungainly and from the looks of it well-used. This particular ship had a delta configuration, typical actually, and its design owned nothing to esthetics. Mid-sized by the standards of such vessels, the instruments informed them it was about 500 meters in length, capacity of ten anti-matter mines. But there would be no mines, of course. No crew, either. And no mission for it other than to return to the Earth-Luna weapons complex where the mines were originally manufactured.
So it should have been, as logic would dictate, on a return course for Earth. And said logic would have ensured it being empty. There would be no escort, unlike when the ships departed the Earth-Luna system for the Black Shield where the mines were dispersed. A mine-layer outward bound, fully loaded, would be accompanied by an escort, a mini-armada actually. But on the return, it would be empty, robot-piloted, a useless shell of a ship.
There was no record of an empty mine-layer ever being hijacked.
But Tarrant, obsessed with every detail, was not about to take chances even on a sure bet. He wanted this ship. He had to have this ship, and that he told himself was a dangerous state of mind to be in. It might be booby trapped. Or all manner of silent alarms might go off alerting Federation warships waiting in the depths of space to pounce on the unwary. He was not going to risk tangling with the Federation at this time under any circumstances. So once the ship had been located, very close to where his informants had said he would find one, he moved in with great caution. On this pass, he swung the Liberator in a long sweeping arch that took them from their present location, a point several hundred kilometers from the vessel, to a point a few hundred meters behind it and then on a return arc to the starting location. During the pass the instruments surveyed every aspect of the ship from different perspective. Only after several such passes would the decision to board be made.
So Dayna's comment was a pointless distraction. He needed for her to be focused on the task at hand. But he also did not want to cut her off. He wanted her to be open to him. She was his one true ally. Alone among the four, she had even shown some enthusiasm in her acceptance of his leadership. He was grateful.
So far as the ship drew closer again (this was the third pass), almost everything checked out. The engines of the mine-layer were cold, however, and that was an anomaly for which he had no ready answer. It must have been drifting for some time under the gravitational pull of the enormous blue-giant star that dominated this part of space, a vast, hugely wasteful cauldron of energy, terrifying in its immensity. It should have just stopped here briefly for an astrogation check, and then been on its way.
He almost sweated looking a the star. Even here, billions of kilometers distant from it, the force of the thing was overwhelming.
So why were the engines cold? It wasn't adding up. He was worried and he wanted very much to interrupt Dayna to voice his concern. Yet he did not want to show alarm either. The instruments might be mistaken. Perhaps it was as he feared, a decoy for a nasty trap. The endless hours he was putting into the planning could have lead to an embarrassing error.
The Liberator moved in, gaining velocity. They were running "silent". Everything was turned off except the bare minimum life support. This pass would be the closest approach yet. He felt like telling Dayna she should be whispering, but that seemed foolish.
He noted the vessel's name -- Bucephalas.
It had been Dayna's idea to seize one of these ships as the transport vehicle for the Auron children and whoever else they could stuff onto the thing. It was, he admitted, a good one. The others, once they realized how valuable such a ship could be, had agreed as well. If only the Federation did not miss the vessel.
He turned the scan on full, watched the flood of data pouring in. Finally, after they were on the outward leg, still with no sign of any unusual response from the thing, he managed to come across with a fair approximation of the unperturbed casualness he was practicing: "What is it you wish?"
"Well, I wish there were some other way to pull this off. The more I think about, it is likely they will miss this thing." She pointed to the monitor before them. Despite its mid-sized classification, it still was huge. Ships that large don't normally disappear with absolutely no one caring about them.
But the standard answer he formulated had been that by the time their enemies got around to missing the thing, it would be a moot item. The raid would either be taking place or long over or given up as impossible -- the latter being the least likely, for things were in fact starting to move. Intelligence relayed from many sources indicated numerous elements of the Combined Fleet were streaming away from the Center, away from guarding Earth and its close-in allies, to some vast operation across the Galaxy, the intent presumably to expunge resistance once and for all. So, while the idea of a missing mine-layer was very much on their minds, it seemed more likely that Federation attention would continue to be directed elsewhere.
The Liberator safely at a distance, Tarrant reviewed what he had learned over the past several weeks that had made him decide to take this risk. A rumor had been passed to them about a place where mine-layers dropped out of twistor drive into N- or "normal" space for an astrogation check. Only a rumor, but a plausible one from a reliable source. The ships were machine controlled, and as such operation was standard procedure before they ignited the twistor drive and went supra-luminal for the last part of the journey. This star was so large and conspicuous, a giant blue lighthouse in space, it went without saying that it made for an excellent beacon.
Tarrant began compiling the data. The Liberator engines were coming back on with the faintest of power to bring the ship to a halt. The problem was the readings. They deeply troubled him. They showed radiation of a pattern and spectrum that could only come from anti-matter mines. He checked and rechecked. The amount, type, signature of radiation was consistent. He triangulated. The location of the source was constant. If it was a trap, a lot of time and effort had gone into making it a good one. This ship had been chosen at random, so how . .
There were ten mines on that ship where by all rights there should be none.
Dayna was now beside him, observing him. He looked worried and was making no pretense to hide it. But she would not second guess him. The admission of whatever it was that was worrying him would have to come from him alone. "Everything nominal?"
"No," he whispered. "Mine-layers drop off their cargo at the Black Shield, not return them. The mines cannot be defective, not in this number. And anti-matter mines are the simplest weapons ever conceived. There are ten mines ready to go on that ship. And it is not returning to Earth as far as I can tell. It is staying here, entering an orbit that will take," he pointed to the 3-D monitor where an orange image of a planet was in the corner, "it to there. That planet. It's as big as Jupiter. I believe the mines will be dropped there." He looked at her.
"You are certain?" she asked.
"The mines are functional, of that alone I am certain. Our task is to understand why they are being removed."
He turned off the scans, pointing the Liberator away from the star. The ship continuing its slow rotation to maintain an even temperature. Even at this distance the heat radiating out from the stellar blast furnace was affecting the life support.
He wanted to think out loud, to share his thoughts, but did not want Dayna to know how concerned he was. He was grateful, not for the first time, that Vila continued to recover in his cabin from the ordeal on Kerrill's world and that Cally was off on her diplomatic mission. He preferred Dayna to any of them. She would understand.
"I am thinking of making one final pass before we board her." There, I have made the decision. "Go right over the containment spheres. Get as close as we can. We have to do it."
"You don't believe someone is going to take a shot at us, do you?" she smiled weakly at him, but his look of concern did not ease.
Suddenly, he felt himself getting angry. "No, that is not what worries me!"
And in truth it was not. This was not a Federation trap. It was just a routine operation, but with terrifying implications once one worked the logic. He reprogrammed the flight computer to take the Liberator directly over the vessel and there to hover. Probably closer than necessary, but he wanted to see it visually, without instruments. To see with his own eyes what they would be boarding. The two watched the main monitor as the triangular vessel swelled slowly before them once more.
"I wish it were a trap," he told Dayna. "That I could deal with."
She nodded, not understanding, but wanting to show she was with him. She was watching him closely. He was anxious and angry and had been working far too hard. Part of her was thinking, as the expert weapons maker she was, what if there were mines on that ship? So much the better. There would be a weapon for the Federation to reckon with! A bargaining chip for both enemies and allies to contend with.
Tarrant had resumed reviewing the data. For the moment Dayna paid no mind, taking over guidance of the ship as it came to a stop over the mine-layer. The scans for anything unusual and presumably hostile remained blank. The blue giant star blazed menacingly against the black sky.
"A ghost ship?" she asked, trying to keep the mood light.
"Yes, I think it is. Though admittedly," he said, continuing to study the panel, "the instruments are rather flawed when it comes to detecting ghosts."
After several minutes, finally satisfied, the Liberator arrived just above the mine-layer.
Shortly thereafter, the last pass complete, they went to the teleport room. They donned radiation suits, though Dayna wondered silently what would be the need. There was no danger, unless one were to actually enter the spheres. She came over to him to check the settings. It was then, peering into his visor that she saw an expression as close to terror as she had every seen on him. "Tarrant, please tell me what is wrong!"
He spoke carefully, putting his visor against hers. "The radiation suits are just a precaution. It's a habit I don't like to break. Try to understand, as I am," they looked at the large monitor in the teleport room. "There are ten anti-matter mines on that ship. It's fully loaded. That can only mean the Federation is stripping mines from the Black shield. We have to find out why."
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