Personal Space 1.1

Taiko 7 was a desert planet. I love desert planets, the hotter and drier, the better. I made a point of exiting Theseus with the morning sun in my face, as the last little critters disappeared with the night’s cold. I spat a mouthful of toothpaste on the landing platform and gazed into the wind, like a blow dryer in my face. Nothing made me feel more like a space trucker like hearing the dust sing on the metal of my ship. And I loved being a space trucker.

I rinsed and went into the service building for a shower, a real shower. My jet lag had woken me up before anyone else so I had all the time and I intended to take it. I had plenty to think about with everything that I knew, about to change.

There was nothing much to find on this tiny planet, which is probably why the scientists built their base of operations there. This large docking tower was part of it, with my pride and joy resting on one of the petal-shaped protrusions. From the platform, I could see Lisa’s new ship on a lower floor, a crew still adjusting it to her specifications.

Lisa was up when I returned, talking to someone in the shadow of my vessel. She pointed at me as I caught her eye, and gave me a lingering look. I decided to put my shirt on after all, in case this man was our next client. Like most of my clothes, it was a light fabric, a button-up shirt that I thought made me quite dapper-looking.

He turned out to be our latest contract, though this was the first time we spoke. His big blotch of black curls contrasted sharply against his spotless white shirt. A tall, calm man, but with little time for small talk. I decided that I liked him.

As we walked, he thanked me repeatedly for delivering the package undamaged. Apparently, my contribution to science had been of immeasurable importance.
"In fact…" He stopped and turned towards me. I gave him my undivided attention. Him and the supply ship landing some distance behind him, that I knew would carry fresh food.
"In fact," he repeated a little louder, "Once we are done degaussing the coils, we would like to hire your services again to transport our array to its final destination."

I sighed and shook my head, gesturing at the ship and my future employer. "I’m sorry, Professor. This was my last mission. My ship is ready for the scrapyard and I already found a job on another. I’m afraid taking more jobs is not possible."

He seemed to take my words into careful consideration, straightening his glasses.
"I see. Well that would be a shame. You see, we could help you with the first problem- We are well equipped here to add to the repairs already made." He gestured at my patch job. In space it seemed to qualify as ‘good enough’, but here the randomly welded plates appeared prone to blowing off with the wind.

He saw my hesitation. "I’ll be frank with you, James. We would like as few people aware of this operation as possible. You have proven yourself dependable, and w-" He startled a little when I waved widely at Lisa, gesturing her closer while he was trying to be subtle.

I looked him in the eye. "Lisa knows what I know, Professor. I’d like to keep it that way."

—–

From the way she stared at her ship, I could tell Lisa would grow to love it as much as I loved my rust bucket. It was a magnificent ship too: The Narwhal, the white edition, ready to take on the universe. It was about the size of my H-class but where my ship was mostly storage space, hers was crammed full of sensor technology, engine upgrades and weapons to match most military vessels of similar size.

It was made for exploration, the dream of many. In no time, she would end up hired by some university or research station, and roam the edges of space and knowledge.
And now she was telling me she was willing to put that dream on hold for this job I offered her.

I had told her I wouldn’t do it without her. That I would go where she would, as her captain or her pilot, I didn’t care.
But the truth was, we were both dying to find out what was going on. Whatever it was, it was big, and the science station wanted their sensors near it quickly enough to offer full repairs of my ship on top of a handsome fee.

To be honest, I was looking forward to working for her. If for no better reason, because I thought she’d make a better captain than me, and following orders is generally easier than issuing them. But if we were going to take my ship, I would be in charge. Those are the rules, and I had no reason to break them.

I wanted to ask if she was sure about her decision, but as I saw her touch the nose of her new toy, I knew she was saying goodbye. So in a few days, this was going to happen.

Very well.

As I turned on my heels, my mind was already on course.

—–

"So Professor, mind sharing the purpose of the equipment we’re hauling?"

We hadn’t even left the atmosphere, but this machine was figuratively burning a hole in the cargo bay. And since our client found it necessary to stay with it and hitch a ride with us, he was going to get all the questions that had built up on this trip.

Lisa stopped what she was doing and turned her chair towards our passenger, who was trying to figure out how to get her tea maker to work, and seemed too proud to ask for assistance on such a trivial task. He felt his eyes on us and set the cup down.

"I… can’t tell you much more, James. It’s a sensor array, but you already knew that."  I didn’t answer. "It was designed to identify… certain particles… that have undergone a process of supersymmetry linking."

I turned back to flying. At no point had it occurred to me that I simply might not be able to understand what I was getting into. With the Professor’s hackled explanation still going on, I still wasn’t getting any wiser. It just made me feel like an idiot.

It was a 2 week journey, taken into account a few detours to ensure the safety of our passenger and cargo. There were no hiccups but I had to admit, the Professor’s presence was annoying me a little.

We gave him the spare room in the belly of the ship, but he had insisted on full clearance and spent much of his time dissecting Theseus. I knew my ship inside and out, I had built and rebuilt much of it with my own hands. The more he figured out, the more I was made obsolete. Mentally, I begun preparing witty comebacks in case he ever wanted to fly the damn thing.

The repair crew had only had a small window of time, but I was forever grateful for the impressive work they had put in. Not only did they fix the hull properly, but they had replaced any broken circuitry inside. The engineers even gave the thrusters a full once-over.

I wasn’t used to not seeing red highlights in the systems menu, and enjoyed playing with the options I had forgotten about. I found it particularly hilarious to shut down the power to any system the Professor was nosing into, making him wonder. He had even given up on the tea maker after it died randomly for the second time.

I realized that this trip was bringing us close to uncharted territory. The universe was being explored in a more or less spherical shape, with extensions towards particularly interesting areas. But there was one dent in the sphere, one meaningless place that was still officially uncharted. It would never had caught my eye if we weren’t headed right for it.

I set the maps to rotate, and leaned back, staring into the cluster of galaxies with a resolution far beyond any holographic projector. Too many stars to count, most with planets. Our exploration of them had happened exponentially.

My father, a mathematician whom I spoke a lot but only saw half a dozen times in my life, loved riddles. He told me that, as his reward, the inventor of the chess board asked for 1 grain of rice for the first square on the board. It was just a start, a base. Our Terra, our earth.

He asked 2 grains for the next: Our moon. Then 4, our solar system. 8, the star cluster. Every square, double the amount of the one before.

128, our galactic neighborhood.

2,097,152, a quarter of the galaxy.

Such vast distances, and it all felt so small. It had happened so fast.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were poorly prepared. There was still so much to learn that we hadn’t. How it all came to exist, what kept entropy stagnant, and why the human race was alone.

The story went that by the final square of the chess board, the emperor of China needed enough rice to cover the surface of planet many times over, to pay off the debt he had agreed on. So when it would be time for humanity to pay its due, there would be no way we ever could.

No way in the universe.

I found Lisa in my bedroom that night. She had been waiting for me but eventually fell asleep; a chaos of sheets, underwear and pale skin in fetal position. I dimmed the lights just enough so I could still see her, and knelt down at her feet.

That night, she was my universe. She was my debt, as I kissed her feet for permission and forgiveness. She stretched her legs luxuriously and after shedding my clothes, I joined her in bed.

"What kept you so long?" She asked with a little smile as she turned and I began peppering her cheek with kisses.

-"I got distracted."

—–

We were instructed to detour the space station in a wide arc, before approaching it. They hadn’t bothered with an explanation, but as we neared the site, we saw why:
What had seemed like a distant sun, was actually a small point perfectly still in space, yellowish in color and with an aura that made it painful to look at. It was smack in our trajectory and a lazy pilot flying blind, might run right into it.

I tried a scan but the sensors couldn’t penetrate the event horizon. It almost seemed like we could crash into the field surrounding the particle if we ventured too close, even though we couldn’t make out much more than a light mist.

The event horizon of for example, a black hole, is the place where even light can no longer escape its gravitational pull. When moving towards it, it’s the border where your imminent death transitions from "very plausible" to "certain". Not a single molecule would survive once you were inevitably pulled in.

This… thing wasn’t absorbing radiation though, but emitting it. For all intents and purposes, it shouldn’t have a horizon at all.

"We’re here," the professor declared, as the space station entered sensor range and flickered into existence above the target indicator. As I straightened us from our diagonal orientation, Lisa plotted a course. While I had the chance, I learned the lay-out of the base, noting that more than half of it was off limits.

After a few confirmations back and forth, traffic control gave us permission and we landed in the hangar. I noticed several other ships in the bay, many H-class like my own. Apparently, there had been more people coming than going lately, and the station seemed stretched to the limits regarding capacity.

—–

"You okay?" I tried to catch Lisa’s gaze. While waiting for further instructions after the Professor had left, she had gotten comfortable on my lap and I was biding my time worshipping her shoulders. She nodded thoughtfully.

-"I think so. This is just… weird. These guys seem so well equipped, and at the same time it shows that they don’t know what they’re doing."

Downstairs, we heard several people enter the ship and begin work on the package.

-"I was thinking the same thing. All this secrecy is making me not trust them."

Lisa leaned in and pressed a soft kiss on my lips. "We’ll look out for each other, hmm?" Unaware of the deep impression she left, she got up and climbed down to the cargo bay.
We were stopped at the first door as we were helping the crew transport the device, and got asked, gently but urgently, to find our living quarters inside the station.

The next day, while I was killing time exploring the halls, the intercom came on and repeated that request. We were allowed to go nowhere unsupervised. The staff didn’t seem very willing to help us out, and the other freelancers in the cantina, frankly a lazy bunch, usually knew less than we did.

I did a full sweep of the station when I was allowed to visit the Theseus, after having lied about needing some personal things. From what little information I could gather, I was able to tell that the whole place was put together in a rush. Constructional decisions boggled the mind, and it seemed like the different modules had arrived in the wrong order, but were put together anyway.

If a fire were to break out in the cantina, we would most likely all die. And for most escape routes, we’d have to pass areas with doors that wouldn’t open for us.
I rolled my eyes and made peace with the fact that I would probably leave here without ever knowing the details of what it was all for.

Frankly, my cup of care was now empty. I was ready to ditch this place at the first opportunity, and get back to Taiko 7 where Lisa’s ship was literally collecting dust. With the money we made doing this, we could probably take it easy for a while as we learned the ropes of our new vessel.

—–

"You’re not serious."

Both my earlier passenger and the woman across the desk nodded. She was an elderly, bald scientist with a stereotypical white coat and a conspicuous ocular implant not unlike permanent reading glasses, and she seemed in charge here.

I examined the room. I assumed I was in her office, with children grinning widely at me from a picture screen. The rest of the room was sparsely decorated, with no luxury beyond the essential.

"To you, it’s just one more job, James. Of course, we’ll make it worth your while," the woman spoke up.

I looked to my side, at the professor. "What kind of operation is this, really? You can’t expect me to believe that I am the most competent for a job like this."

-"James…" He straightened his glasses. "You have to understand, humanity was… poorly prepared, for a finding like this." Goose bumps ran up my arms as he spoke.

"Never before have we found an object with such a sharply defined event horizon, you see. We have never had the need to install our sensors with such surgical precision, and in such short notice, we feel like your skills and heavily modified ship would be best up to the task."

I looked between the both of them, checking for signs of a bad joke. I had plenty of experience with space walks, but this was a whole new ball game. If anything, at least I now knew why the professor had been so interested in my ship when he was aboard.
We were over half an hour into this discussion, and the woman was starting to lose her patience. "You need to realize what’s at stake, young man." I quirked an eyebrow.

"So tell me. I think I have a right to know what I’m getting into."

Hm. Yes. Well. Papers were moved, options considered. The scientist leaned back and put her fingers together as she thought. Everything about her was clichéd.

"We’ve had very little success penetrating the entity’s event horizon. But from what we can tell, this entity is creating matter from nothing within it, breaking Newton’s laws. The cloud and the particle are actually interdimensional projections. One is… a ghost, of the other, and there is no way to tell which is which." She gesticulated wildly.

"The particles inside then link up and communicate with the outside through a process of supersymmetry, and disappear again, fast enough to say they never existed at all. For all intents and purposes, this entity should not exist or, at the very least, disappear instantly after rupturing the fabric of space." She stared at me over the rim of her implant, expecting me to understand completely.

"Alright," I said. "So what do these… particles link to?" Part of me wanted to know more, but mostly I was trying to be a smart-ass. She didn’t catch on.

-"Supersymmetry is a process where a particle’s information is copied to another, right?" I nodded slowly.

"Distance is not a factor so as far as we know, the entity’s influence reaches to all corners of this dimension," she said, shocked with her own words. "This entity is re-writing the universe as we speak. We don’t know how or why and this new sensor array is designed to tell us."

—-

Thomas came to join me under the belly of my ship as we were preparing. He stroked his chiseled jaw as he appraised my work, and accepted my explanation with little comment. He asked to see how I would mount the sensor array, and suggested a few small changes. After Lisa had gone inside the ship to program the computer, the professor began speaking in a lowered voice.

"Is she… okay with you approaching the entity?"

I stopped working and gave him, hopefully, a very cynical look. "No, she’s not. She’s worried sick and frankly, so am I. Thanks for telling her though, it saved me the effort of breaching contract."

-"Of course, of course." He continued to watch me work, but before long, resumed talking as if to himself. "What you are about to try, no one has done before, James. Bringing this array in an orbit like this will be a tricky endeavor. And yet… I can’t help but be a little jealous. This opportunity is… unique."

I had to admit, on a certain level I agreed. Despite all the hesitation, the one thing that pushed me over the edge was the chance to be part of something unprecedented in human history. In a sense, considering the rarity of such discoveries, I had hit the jackpot.

"This entity is in the process of influencing everything we know, James. Even you and me, we are being rewritten in the image of the radiation inside that event horizon. No matter how you look at it, no one will ever come as close to God as you will be in a few days. We can only guess as to what His reaction will be when you place this huge magnet next to it."

The thought hit me like a train. I sat down on the foot of a landing strut as I let it sink in.

"I am not a religious man but this… there is something at work here, far beyond you and me. This single point may hold all the information we need to transcend what we are today."

I stared at Thomas’ feet as he spoke. I knew he was trying to emphasize how important this mission was, but my mind was preoccupied with the consequences of making contact with something that influenced our existence so strongly. I was afraid of what I might do wrong, but mostly I was afraid that those nutjobs on those countless fundamental religious planets, were right.

But I needed to know.

I stood. "You’ll get your data, Professor," I told him. "Just make sure you don’t forget to share it when you do."

—–

In the blasts of the steam shower, I felt Lisa’s arms creep around me. "There you are," I said, looking over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard the screen open.

She laid her head in my neck. "Hey. You seemed so lost in thought? Why so moody, my captain?"

I reached for her, happy with whatever curve I got my in palm. I had indeed been thinking, but it was hard to put into words. Then, I remembered a question I had been meaning to ask.

"Why did you decide on joining my ship, Lisa? You knew I was doing mostly red runs, right?" I felt her nod.

-"I needed the money. For my ship. Besides… I had little to lose."

Same as me, then. But that was starting to change. "Do you ever feel like we’re tempting fate, though? We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t gotten lucky a few times."

She laughed a little. "Tempting fate, James? I knew you were a geek, but a philosopher?"

She hugged me a little tighter and we swayed in the warmth of the shower. I was content to stay like this for a few more hours, to be honest. But the scientists had asked not to waste energy. I turned down the blast to where it would just keep us warm and turned towards Lisa and kissed her.

"I do. I do think we’re tempting fate. On many levels."

I blinked. I wasn’t expecting a response.

"Perhaps you"… The prodded my chest. "And I… should take it easy for a while. I know a few organizations that need planets charted. Sounds boring, I know, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to keep it interesting. But that still won’t stop these so-called scientists from meddling with things they don’t understand. So yes, I think we are tempting fate."

I considered her words. She was right, as usual, and in all honesty, taking it easy didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. Those high-risk red runs were addictive but now that I had something to lose, they didn’t seem so appealing, anymore.

"I know it’s something you have to do James, but promise me this is the last thing we do before going back to Taiko Seven."

Against my better judgment, I promised her. I knew they would keep asking, and I would not be able to refuse if I didn’t promise her today that I’d be going back with her.
Feeling her between my fingers, I wondered if I had run into my guardian angel when I first met her. My trust in her was absolute.

A sharp smack across the ass pulled me back to reality, where my co-pilot was getting ready to leave the shower.
"We’ll find a way to keep things interesting," she said sassily, before I chased her out.

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