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The Human Division #1
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
Ambassador Sara Bair knew that when the captain of the Polk had invited her to the bridge to view the skip to the Danavar system, protocol strongly suggested that she turn down the invitation. The captain would be busy, she would be in the way and in any event there was not that much to see. When the Polk skipped dozens of light-years across the local arm of the galaxy, the only way a human would register the fact would be that their view of the stars would change slightly. On the bridge, that view would be through display screens, not windows. Captain Basta had offered the invitation merely as a formality and was sure enough of its rejection that she had already made arrangements for the ambassador and her staff to have a small reception marking the skip in the Polk's tiny and normally unused observation desk, wedged above the cargo hold.
Ambassador Bair knew protocol suggested she turn down the invitation, but she didn't care. In her twenty-five years in the Colonial Union diplomatic corps she'd never once been on a starship bridge, didn't know when she'd be invited to one again, and regardless of protocol, she was of the opinion that if one was going to issue an invitation, one should be prepared to have it accepted. If her negotiations with the Utche went well, and at this point in the game there was no reason to suspect they would not, no one anywhere would care about this single breach of convention.
So screw it, she was going to the bridge.
If Captain Basta was annoyed by Bair accepting her invitation, she didn't show it. Lieutenant Evans produced the ambassador and her assistant Brad Roberts on the bridge, five minutes prior to skip; the captain disengaged from her duties and quickly but politely welcomed the pair to the bridge. Formalities fulfilled, she turned her attention back to her pre-skip duties. Lieutenant Evans, knowing his cue, nudged Bair and Roberts into a corner where they could observe without interfering.
"Do you know how a skip works, Ambassador?" Evans asked. For the duration of the mission, Lieutenant Evans was the Polk's protocol officer, acting as a liaison between the diplomatic mission and the ship's crew.
"My understanding of it is that we are in one place in space, and then the skip drive turns on, and we are magically someplace else," Bair said.
Evans smiled. "It's not magic, it's physics, ma'am," he said. "Although the high end sort of physics that looks like magic from the outside. It's to relativistic physics what relativistic physics is to Newtonian physics. So that's two steps beyond everyday human experience."
"So we're not really breaking the laws of physics here," Roberts said. "Because every time I think of starships skipping across the galaxy, I imagine Albert Einstein in a policeman's uniform, writing up a ticket."
"We're not breaking any laws. What we're doing is literally exploiting a loophole," Evans said, and then launched into a longer explanation of the physics behind skipping. Roberts nodded and never took his eyes off of Evans, but he had a small smile on his face that Bair knew was meant for her. It meant that Roberts was aware he was doing one of his primary tasks, which was to draw away from Bair people who wanted to make pointless small talk with her, so she could focus on what she was good at: paying attention to her surroundings.
Her surroundings were not in fact all that impressive. The Polk was a frigate — Bair was sure Evans would know what type specifically, but she didn't want to train his attention back on her at the moment — and its bridge was modest. Two rows of desks with monitors, with a slightly raised platform for the captain or officer of the watch to oversee operations, and two large monitors forward to display information and, when desired, an outside view. At the moment neither display was on; the bridge crew were instead focused on their individual monitors, with Captain Basta and her executive officer walking among them, murmuring.
It was about as exciting as watching paint dry. Or more accurately, as exciting as watching a crew of highly trained individuals do an action they have done hundreds of times before without drama or incident. Bair, who by dint of years in the diplomatic corps was aware that trained professionals doing their thing was not usually a gripping spectator sport, was nevertheless vaguely disappointed. Years of dramatic entertainments had prepared her for something more action oriented. She sighed without realizing it.
"Not what you were expecting, ma'am?" Evans asked, turning his attention back to the ambassador.
"I didn't know what to expect," Bair said, annoyed with herself at having sighed loudly enough to be heard, but hiding it. "The bridge is more quiet than I would have assumed."
"The bridge crew has worked together for a long time," Evans said. "And you have to remember that they pass a lot of information internally." Bair looked over to Evans with an arched eyebrow at this; Evans smiled and pointed a finger to his temple.
Oh, right, Bair thought. Captain Basta and the rest of the bridge crew were all members of the Colonial Defense Forces. This meant that aside from the obvious distinguishing genetically-engineered characteristics of green skin and a youthful appearance, each of them had a computer called a BrainPal nestled up inside their brains. CDF members could use their BrainPals to talk or share data with one another; they didn't have to use their mouths to do it. The murmuring indicated that they still did, however, at least part of the time. CDF members used to be normal people without green skin or computers in their heads. Old habits died hard.
Bair, who had been born on the planet Erie and had spent the last twenty years stationed out of the Colonial Union home planet of Phoenix, had neither green skin nor a computer in her head. But she had spent enough time around CDF members during her diplomatic travels that they no longer seemed particularly notable among the variety of humans she worked with. She sometimes forgot that they were, in fact, a genetically-engineered breed apart.
"One minute to skip," said the Polk's executive officer. Bair's brain popped up a name: Everett Roman. Aside from Commander Roman's notation of the time, nothing else on the bridge had changed; Bair suspected the announcement was for her and Roberts's benefit. Bair's eyes flicked over to the large monitors to the fore of the room. They were still dark.
"Commander Roman," Evans said, and then motioned his head toward the monitors when he had gotten the executive officer's attention. The XO nodded. The monitors sprang to life, one with an image of a star field, the other with a simple schematic of the Polk.
"Thank you, Lieutenant Evans," Bair said, quietly. Evans smiled.
Commander Roman counted off the last ten seconds of the skip. Bair trained her eyes on the monitor showing the star field. When Roman counted zero, the stars in the field seemed to shift at random. Bair knew that the stars hadn't actually shifted. These were entirely new stars. The Polk had, without fuss or noise, instantly traveled light-years.
Bair blinked, unsatisfied. If you thought about what just happened in terms of what was physically accomplished, it was a staggering event. As a personal human experience, however ...
"So that's it?" Roberts asked, to no one in particular.
"That's it," Evans said.
"Not very exciting," Roberts said.
"Not exciting means we did it right," Evans said.
"Well, where's the fun in that?" Roberts joked.
"Other people can do fun," Evans said. "We do precise. We get you where you need to go, on time. Or ahead of time, in this case. We were asked to get you here three days ahead of the Utche arrival. We delivered you three days, six hours early. Here you are, ahead of time twice."
"About that," Bair said. Evans turned his head to the ambassador to give her his full attention.
The deck of the bridge leaped up at the trio, with violence.
Voices on the bridge suddenly became very loud, detailing damage to the ship. Hull breaches, loss of power, casualties. Something had gone very wrong with the skip.
Bair looked up from the deck and saw that the images on the monitors had changed. The schematic of the ship now featured sections blinking in red. The star field had been replaced with a representation of the Polk in three-dimensional space. It was at the center of the representation. At the periphery of the representation was an object, heading toward the Polk.
"What is that?" Bair asked Evans, who was picking himself up off the deck.
Evans looked at the screen and was quiet for a second. Bair knew he was accessing his BrainPal for more information. "A ship," he said.
"Is it the Utche?" Roberts asked. "We can signal them for help."
Evans shook his head. "They're not the Utche."
"Who are they?" Bair asked.
"We don't know," Evans said.
The monitors chirped, and then there were multiple additional objects on the screen, heading quickly toward the Polk.
"Oh, God," Bair said, and stood as the bridge crew reported missiles en route.
Captain Basta ordered the missiles lanced out of the sky and then turned toward Bair — or, more directly, to Evans. "Those two," she said. "Escape pod. Now."
"Wait —," Bair began.
"No time, Ambassador," Basta said, cutting her off. "Too many missiles. My next two minutes are about getting you off the ship alive. Don't waste them." She turned back to her bridge crew, telling them to prep the black box.
Evans grabbed Bair. "Come on, Ambassador," he said, and pulled her off the bridge, Roberts following.
Forty seconds later, Bair and Roberts were shoved by Evans into a cramped box with two small seats. "Strap in," Evan said, yelling to make himself heard. He pointed below one of the seats. "Emergency rations and hydration there." He pointed below the other. "Waste recycler there. You have a week of air. You'll be fine."
"The rest of my team —," Bair said again.
"Is being shoved into escape pods right now," Evans said. "The captain will launch a skip drone to let the CDF know what happened. They keep rescue ships at skip distance for things just like this. Don't worry. Now strap in. These things launch rough." He backed out of the pod.
"Good luck, Evans," Roberts said. Evans grimaced as the pod sealed itself. Five seconds later, the pod punched itself off the Polk. Bair felt as if she had been kicked in the spine and then felt weightless. The pod was too small and basic for artificial gravity.
"What the hell just happened back there?" Roberts said, after a minute. "The Polk was hit the instant it skipped."
"Someone knew we were on our way," Bair said.
"This mission was confidential," Roberts said.
"Use your head, Brad," Bair said, testily. "The mission was confidential on our end. It could have leaked. It could have leaked on the Utche side."
"You think the Utche set us up?" Roberts asked.
"I don't know," Bair said. "They're in the same situation as we are. They need this alliance as much as we do. It doesn't make any sense for them to string the Colonial Union along just to pull a stupid stunt like this. Attacking the Polk doesn't gain them anything. Destroying a CDF ship is a flat-out enemy action."
"The Polk might be able to fight it out," Roberts said.
"You heard Captain Basta as well as I did," Bair said. "Too many missiles. And the Polk is already damaged."
"Let's hope the rest of our people made it to their escape pods, then," Roberts said.
"I don't think they were sent to the other escape pods," Bair said.
"But Evans said —"
"Evans said what he needed to shut us up and get us off the Polk," Bair said.
Roberts was quiet at this.
Several minutes later, he said, "If the Polk sent a skip drone, it will need, what, a day to reach skip distance?"
"Something like that," Bair said.
"A day for the news to arrive, a few hours to gear up, a few hours after that to find us," Roberts said. "So two days in this tin can. Best-case scenario."
"Sure," Bair said.
"And then we'll be debriefed," Roberts said. "Not that we can tell them anything about who attacked us or why."
"When they look for us, they'll also be looking for the Polk's black box," Bair said. "That will have all the data from the ship right up until the moment it was destroyed. If they were able to identify the attacking ships at any point, it'll be in there."
"If it survived the destruction of the Polk," Roberts said.
"I heard Captain Basta tell her bridge crew to prep the box," Bair said. "I'm guessing that means that they had time to do whatever they needed to to make sure it survived the ship."
"So you, me and a black box are all that survived the Polk," Roberts said.
"I think so. Yes," Bair said.
"Jesus," Roberts said. "Has anything like this ever happened to you before?"
"I've had missions go badly before," Bair said, and looked around the confines of the escape pod. "But, no. This is a first."
"Let's hope the best-case scenario is what we get here," Roberts said. "If it's not, then in about a week things are going to get bad."
"After the fourth day we'll take turns breathing," Bair said.
Roberts laughed weakly and then stopped himself. "Don't want to do that," he said. "Waste of oxygen."
Bair began to laugh herself and then was surprised as the air from her lungs rushed the other way, pulled out by the vacuum of space invading the escape pod as it tore apart. Bair had an instant to register the look on her assistant's face before the shrapnel from the explosion that was shredding the escape pod tore into them as well, killing them. She had no final thoughts, other than registering the feel of the air sliding past her lips and the brief, painless pushing feeling the shrapnel made as it went through and then out of her. There was a final, distant sensation of cold, then heat, and then nothing at all.CHAPTER 2
Sixty-two light-years away from the Polk, Lieutenant Harry Wilson stood stiffly near the edge of a seaside cliff on the planet Farnut, along with several other members of the Colonial Union diplomatic courier ship Clarke. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, warm without being so hot that the humans would sweat in their formal attire. The Colonial diplomats formed a line; parallel to that line was a line of Farnutian diplomats, their limbs resplendent in formal jewelry. Each human diplomat held a baroquely decorated flagon, filled with water brought specially from the Clarke. At the head of each line was the chief diplomat for each race at the negotiation: Ckar Cnutdin for the Farnutians and Ode Abumwe for the Colonials. Cnutdin was currently at a podium, speaking in the glottal Farnutian language. Ambassador Abumwe, to the side, appeared to listen intently, nodding from time to time.
"What is he saying?" Hart Schmidt, standing next to Wilson, asked as quietly as possible.
"Standard boilerplate about friendship between nations and species," Wilson said. As the sole member of the Colonial Defense Forces in the diplomatic mission, he was the only one in the line able to translate Farnutian on the fly, via his BrainPal; the rest of them had relied on translators provided by the Farnutians. The only one of those present at the ceremony was now standing behind Ambassador Abumwe, whispering discreetly into her ear.
"Does it sound like he's wrapping up?" Schmidt asked.
"Why, Hart?" Wilson glanced over to his friend. "You in a rush to get to the next part?"
Schmidt flicked his eyes toward his opposite number on the Farnutian line and said nothing.
As it turned out, Cnutdin was indeed just finishing. He did a thing with his limbs that was the Farnutian equivalent of bowing and stepped back from the podium. Ambassador Abumwe bowed and stepped toward the podium for her speech. Behind her, the translator shifted over to stand behind Cnutdin.
"I want to thank Trade Delegate Cnutdin for his stirring words about the growing friendship between our two great nations," Abumwe began, and then launched into boilerplate of her own, her words delivered with an accent that betrayed her status as a first-generation Colonial. Her parents had emigrated from Nigeria to the Colonial planet of New Albion when Abumwe was an infant; traces of that country's speech overlaid the New Albion rasp that reminded Wilson of the American Midwest that he had grown up in.
Excerpted from The Human Division #1 by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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