—Part II Where in the universe is Captain Sugar’s father?—
A series of tinkling notes like wind chimes sounded on the bridge.
“Computer! What’s that noise?” Jeff said.
“An audible alert, Sugar, and you’re running out of grace period for failing to use my name. You know what to say.”
“An alert for what?”
“We’re approaching suitable space for engaging the Alcubierre drive. This is where you did it before, and I concur.”
“Belay that action. Set a course for Ingens.”
“The gas giant a standard month away? Its rings don’t have the commercial value or easier choices of the asteroid field. Why go there?”
“You’re supposed to be smart. Figure it out.”
A full second passed before the soft feminine voice of Honey, the ship’s computer, replied.
“Oh. You’re testing my navigational capabilities. The asteroids are minutes away with Alcubierre drive. A slight miscalculation would be disastrous. Ingens has lots of space around it. Even though it’s huge, if I’m off a little, no big deal. Right?”
“Gee, detective,” Jeff said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic and hurt my feelings, Sugar. I’ll put us exactly where you say.”
“You don’t have feelings. You’re just a mess of circuits firing photons in a logical order built by an illogical female.” Jeff winked at the wimple sprawled in an overhead compartment. “And if you can handle another little chore, send an amended flight plan to Fortuna and a side note to your maker. Tell her it’s possible to be allergic to honey.”
“Messages sent, Sugar, and from one mess of synapses to another, buckle up for FTL.”
Jeff reached for his second cup of follee and inhaled the rich aroma before taking a swallow. “I’ve gotta admit, Honey, the trip to Ingens was worth it. I enjoyed reading my dad’s paper, and the time was well spent getting acquainted with you. Despite your origin, you’re one savvy computer.”
“We have made progress, Sugar. Based on Tug’s data, I expected you to be a semi-literate space pirate. I now trust your decisions.”
“Why do I get the feeling your programmer, and not research, corrupted your data?”
“Are you still angry at Emlyn Dagget?”
Jeff waved the question away. “Forget it, Honey. Since we’re here, do you have the memory to take us where I want to go in the asteroid belt?”
“A vector normal to, and ahead of, Fortuna’s orbit by 14 standard months.”
“That’s it. Settle us there and scan for targets.”
Honey maneuvered the ship smoother and faster than Tug had. She matched the rare-earth, nickel-iron space rock’s rotation and tumble. The tug and asteroid danced as one.
“Target areas identified, Sugar.”
Two harpoons sped into space to impale the rock near each end.
“Test for capture and stabilize in the orbital plane.”
“I’m aware, Sugar.”
“Don’t turn sassy now, Honey, just when I’m beginning to like you.”
“Roger. We’ll have it ready to tow in… it’s ready now.”
“You’re doing fine. Next step?”
“Ah, another test. OK. I place a beacon on the rock to broadcast the asteroid’s metals, date launched, and your name, so Fortuna will know it’s for mining and not a rogue coming at them.”
“Right so far.”
“We accelerate the rock to 0.5C, release it, and 14 months later, it enters Fortuna’s orbit ready for mining, and you receive a big paycheck.”
“Congratulations on your first capture, Honey. Now, let’s—”
“Incoming call from Laurella Ellis, Sugar. Priority One.”
The hologram of an elegant woman appeared on the bridge. Honey twisted the image to face Jeff in the captain’s chair.
“Mom, what’s going on?”
His mother, Laurie, had her hands clasped. “Your father’s missing, Jeff. I had our security team search everywhere on Fortuna, but they’ve found no trace of him.” She held up a hand, forestalling the next question. “They can find no signs of foul play. Do you know anything about this?”
“Oh, man.” Jeff groaned and slammed a fist on the armrest. “Maybe. His latest paper hinted at a method for entangled teleportation. You don’t think he’d try it out on himself, do you?”
Laurie chewed her bottom lip. “Possibly.”
Part of Jeff’s mind noted the hologram was clearer and steadier than previous messages with the old computer. He could see the concern in his mother’s eyes.
“It’s even likely,” she said. “I don’t suppose he’s told you about our special communication chambers?”
“Your father—that is, we—have stations, closets, really. They have one-sided tactile capabilities. I sit in my chamber, and a hologram of Bob appears with me. When I stroke his cheek, the chamber excites the electrons in my fingertips and makes me feel his skin. He can’t sense it, of course. He’s in his chamber on Fortuna, but he can hold my hologram’s hand, and it seems real to him.” She ducked her head, and the sunrise hue of a blush lightened her visage. “We spend a lot of time in the chambers.”
“OK, mom. I don’t need to hear that. But Dad’s further along than I thought. His last paper hinted at a connection across the galaxy. I didn’t think too much about it because that’s what entanglement’s supposed to do. But sending corporeal matter is decades away.” Jeff held up his hands. “At least I thought so.”
“I’ve alerted the authorities, Jeff. They’ll comb through Bob’s house and lab, and they may—”
“Oh, no. The agencies may confiscate his equipment. I’ve gotta study it before anyone moves the settings.”
“I was going to say they may want to talk with you, but if you’re heading back, two birds, as the saying goes.”
“Bye, Mom. I’ll keep in touch. Honey, take us to Fortuna the fastest possible way.”
“Who’s Honey?” the hologram echoed, before blinking out.
“The fastest way, Sugar, is to emerge within the Space Authority’s restricted zone.”
“Can you put us in there safely?”
“Sure, but there’ll be a penalty for bursting out of hyperspace closer to the planet than they allow. May even cost you your captain’s license.”
“Bring us in as close to the space elevator as you can without landing on top of someone else.”
The outside view normalized, and the space elevator appeared on the short-range scanner. “Wow, Honey! I didn’t think it was possible. You’ve shaved days off our arrival.”
Incoming message lights blinked urgent red, accompanying raspy beeps from the communications panel.
“Here they come, Sugar. Space Authority, Port Authority, the Space Elevator, and probably the one you should answer first, Fortuna’s Fleet Navy, since they’re ready to blast us into atoms.”
“Put ’em all on broadcast, so I only have to say it once.”
“This is Jeffery Ellis in the tug that came in too close. I apologize for the approach, but I’m in a hurry and have a new computer. I must have input the coordinates wrong.”
“I’ve been thinking we need to name this ship,” Honey said. “It’d be a lot classier than ‘the tug.’”
A woman identifying herself as a representative of the Port Authority responded, “New or not, your computer should have been able to avoid entering the safety zone. Who installed the software?”
“That would be a mechanic from R.W.’s,” Jeff said.
A stern-faced naval officer came into view in the upper-right quadrant of the viewscreen. “Drop your shields for scanning and stand by to be boarded.”
Jeff nodded. “Done. I’ll be at the elevator momentarily. Welcome aboard.” He waved an open hand across the air in front of the others. “I’ll make myself available to each of you.”
One by one, the callers dropped out.
“Deliver me to that elevator, Honey. I want to be on my way before the kangaroo court arrives.”
“You told them you’d make yourself available.”
“And that’s the truth—but not until after I go to Dad’s lab.”
“A small one for the greater cause. Take care of C.B. Make sure he has water and food. I may be gone a day or two.”
“Or a year or two with time off for good behavior. Be careful, Sugar.”
Jeff’s communicator pinged an incoming call. He spoke low, so only the device on his collar would hear. “Who is it?”
“Open a channel—Hi, Mom.”
“I called to say you needn’t be on the run, Jeff. Take your time going over Bob’s equipment.”
“What’s going on?”
“I heard about your reckless entry and that you slipped away from the authorities. I’ve paid a fine and donated a few political favors, but no one will bother you or enter the lab unless we give them permission.”
“Man, this instant communication is something! You couldn’t have found out faster if you were here. Thanks, Mom.”
“What have you learned, Son?”
“There is a transponder here, and—”
The silence between them stretched for seconds.
“It’s aligned toward the galaxy core.”
The sob in Laurie’s voice came through. “He did it. He tried it out on himself.”
“I can’t understand why he’d do it without a connection on the other end,” Jeff said. “I have to go after him.”
“No! I forbid it! That’s too dangerous.”
“OK, Mom. Relax. I’ll call you when I have something better.”
Jeff closed the hatch and made for the bridge. “Did you receive the coordinates I sent, Honey?”
“I did, and the vectors plotted. Are you sure you want to do this, Sugar?”
“I most definitely don’t want to take this trip. I’m scared, but it’s my dad—a flesh and blood thing you wouldn’t understand.”
“Perhaps not on a gut level, since I don’t have viscera, but I can extrapolate—”
“Fine, fine.” Jeff scratched his head, thinking. “What happened to the asteroid we captured?”
“I detached it at the appropriate point as we accelerated home, Sugar. The payroll should arrive on schedule.”
“Thanks, Honey. I’d forgotten about it.” He claimed his captain’s chair and ordered a cup of follee. “The Port says we’re free to leave. Take us to flat space and hit the Alcubierre drive on the coordinates I gave you.”
“Your mother won’t like it.”
“Well, that’s the thing about cause and effect. She won’t know we’ve left until afterward.”
An automated cart rolled up with a cup and a carafe of follee. Jeff leaned back in the comfortable chair, scanned the consoles, and poked several command buttons on the broad armrests. “This isn’t our usual planetary egress, Honey. What’re you doing?”
“I assumed you were in a hurry, Sugar. I’m leaving in a hyperbolic curve to bring the fusion engines up to full power without the exhaust pointing at Fortuna. You wouldn’t want to cook the Port Authority after your mother made peace with them. A welcome mat would be nice to see if you don’t kill us, and we’re able to return.”
“Continue. You’re doing fine… Honey.”
“Here we go, leaving the hyperbola for hyper-drive. Yes, I had to say it.”
“You’ll pay for this, Ellis! I don’t care how many shyster lawyers you have!”
Jeff jumped and spilled follee in his lap at the angry shout. He spun the captain’s chair to see Emlyn Dagget, her face flushed, forehead and neck veins visible. “What? Why are you here—how?”
“As if you didn’t know. The juvenile practice is called payback, and you went to a lot of trouble to claim yours.”
Jeff stood and brushed at his pants. “Honey, send me a towel and,” he extended an open hand to Emlyn, “whatever our guest wants.”
Emlyn stood in a boxer’s stance; her fists curled tight. “Not guest—kidnapped victim.”
He took in her rabid expression, made the more fierce by the smudge. The greasy mark was on her chin this time. She would have appeared funny, even endearing in her baggy overalls, if she weren’t making serious accusations.
A droid rolled up with a towel and a fresh carafe of follee. On a tray were an extra cup and a plate of pastries.
Jeff indicated the navigator’s position. “Please have a seat and explain why you’re on my tug.”
“We’ve really got to name this ship,” the computer said again.
“Not now, Honey.”
Emlyn pointed to the overhead speaker. “That’s why. You made a reckless, even dangerous, approach so you could blame the computer. You knew the Port Authority would hold me responsible.” She plopped down and reached for a cup.
The light clicked on for Jeff. “And R.W. sent you to fix it, didn’t he?”
“Yes. The ship was open, so I came in to make sure it wasn’t the computer’s fault and to change the voice back to male. You wouldn’t have to call it Honey anymore.”
“No way! Honey’s the best thing that ever happened to this ship. I’m keeping her.”
“Aw, thanks, Sugar.”
Confusion washed over Emlyn’s face. “Sugar? I never put that in.”
“Oh, he’s so cute, I had to add it,” Honey said.
Heat rose on Jeff’s cheeks. He wiped a hand across his mouth and said, “So, why didn’t you change things?”
Emlyn chewed what had to be half a sweet roll. She shoved it to one side of her mouth to talk. “The computer and your wimple sabotaged me.”
“That sounds a little far-fetched. How so?”
“The computer I built wouldn’t allow entry even after I punched in my authorized mechanic’s code. It kept saying, ‘Denied. Captain’s privilege only.’”
She washed down the rest of the bite and reached for another pastry. “I still had the omnibus access card you gave me. I sat it on a corner of the console while I put away an ultrasonic wrench. Your wimple grabbed it and took off down the hall. I chased him into the spare quarters but couldn’t find him. Then the door locked. I just now got out.”
“What spare quarters?”
“That room you’ve been throwing stuff in helter-skelter, Sugar. Schematics list it as a stateroom.”
“No wonder you couldn’t find C.B.,” Jeff said. “It’s a labyrinth top to bottom and side to side.”
Emlyn waved a finger no-no. “Clean as a first-class cabin. I should have spotted him in an instant.”
“What’s going on, Honey?”
“The maintenance and steward droids did a wonderful job, Sugar. You’d be proud. The bunk has clean sheets.”
“So you planned on kidnapping, Emlyn?”
“Just a deception, Sugar. A small one for the greater cause, as you say.”
“I’m not really sure, Sugar. It was C.B.’s idea.”
“You can talk to a wimple? Impossible!”
“Not talk so much as his presence shows up in my memory banks.”
“Enough of this.” Emlyn brushed crumbs from her overalls. “Take me home.”
“Can’t, Mechanic,” Honey said. “If we drop out of the bent spacetime of Alcubierre’s function without a reference point, we’d be lost in the cosmos. Navigation 101.”
Emlyn gritted her teeth. “When will we reach the next reference stop?”
“The first of five planned triangulation points is in 2 months, 28 days, 16 hours, and 3—no, 2 minutes.”
“I’m gonna throw you out an airlock, Ellis,” Emlyn said.
Jeff didn’t doubt she’d try it. “I’m sorry, Emlyn. I am. Why don’t you go to the stateroom and relax? It’ll give us time to think.”
“There’s a shower in there, Mechanic,” Honey said.
Emlyn left the bridge with a finger in the air.
Jeff caught sight of C.B. sprawled in an overhead rack. That darn wimple was smiling.
“Link established, Sugar. Audio only.”
“Jeff, are you there?” Laurie’s voice filled the bridge.
“Yes, Mom. We can hear you.”
“Turn the ship around, you goofball. Your father’s right here beside me.”
“He transported himself to Earth?”
“Yes, just as everyone else does. He had a chance to catch a ride with a friend and left without telling anyone.”
“Hello, Son,” Bob said. “I’m sorry to cause you so much worry. We don’t talk that often, so I thought a little forced communication blackout from hyperspace travel wouldn’t affect anything. I know better now that we’ve waited three months to reach you.”
“I guess we’re both at fault, Dad. Perhaps something good will come of this experience, though. There’s someone I want you to meet when we get back.”
“Yes. Emlyn Rose Dagget, Roy Wingate Dagget’s daughter and chief mechanic. She’s given me the best computer anyone could and a favorable answer to an important question. I’ll tell you more about it when we arrive in three months. Look for a ship called Utopia to dock. But I’ll have to talk later. Right now, Emlyn has to call her father.”