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Sunsail

by C.T. Devin

Copyright 2017 C.T. Devin

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Table of Contents


One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

About C.T. Devin

Other titles by C.T. Devin

One

Nika Lavrentiev reached forward and with quick, precise hands adjusted the ARP, steadying the old A98 flyer she was piloting; she then sat back and looked out at the asteroid belt. As always the sheer majesty of what she saw stunned her into silence: the great Olympian planetoids caught in their glacial, graceful gravitational dance around each other, continuing now as they had for billions of years, following simple physical laws that resulted in incredibly complex patterns. She let the flyer coast along on ARP for a time, making slight adjustments with the stick as needed.

Hey, honey,” came a disgruntled voice from behind her.

Nika immediately stiffened. She was no one’s honey.

Yes,” she said through gritted teeth, turning to look at the woman who had spoken.

We gonna get there before Christmas,” the woman said, “or am I gonna have to fly this thing myself?”

The woman looked at the two men sitting beside her, strapped to the seats. Like good lackeys they grinned in response.

I’m sorry, Ma’am,” Nika said. “Aren’t we going fast enough for you?”

Well,” said the woman, “I’m not saying you can’t fly, but could you fly a little faster at least.”

Is that a request, Ma’am?” she said. She could feel her anger increasing.

Calm, Nika, she told herself. Stay calm. Don’t do anything stupid.

Honey, we aren’t a bunch of old ladies back here.” The woman looked at her colleagues and whispered something that made the two lackeys snigger sycophantically.

Oh yeah, she thought, I’m going to do something stupid.

Just a joke, honey,” the woman said, perhaps noticing the dark look on Nika’s face. “But if you could just try your little heart out and get us there a bit quicker, I’d be most appreciative.”

Well, if you insist,” she said. “You might want to check your harnesses.”

She slid the flight seat forward, locked it into place, and turned off the Auto Response Pilot.

Disengaging ARP while in the asteroid belt is against recommended procedure,” her COMP informed her.

Yeah, yeah,” she said, and with a flick of her hand she switched over into rapid combat mode, took the stick and pushed the flyer into sheer vertical free fall, enjoying the sudden screams of pure terror.

***

Four hours later she was standing in front of her boss, Alan Ligotti.

Look, Nika,” he was saying, “you’re the best pilot we’ve got. Hell, you’re the best pilot I’ve ever seen. In an emergency, you’re the one I want in the flight seat, but you can’t keep doing this.”

Doing what, Alan?”

Losing your temper. You terrified your passengers. They thought you were trying to kill them.”

They wanted to get here faster. I just did as I was told.”

Alan gave her a scathing look. “Since when have you ever done what you’re told?”

Nika in turn assumed her most innocent expression, which he obviously didn’t believe for a minute.

Alan sighed and regarded at her with obvious regret. He liked her, she knew that; he didn’t want to do what he was about to do. Still, she wasn’t going to make it easy for him. If he were going to fire her, he would have to man up and say it out loud.

I have to let you go, Nika,” he said eventually. “There have been too many complaints. And this last woman, she runs the Tresk Corporation. Hell, Nika, she is the Tresk Corporation. She’s threatening to bring in her own pilots, put us out of business, just out of spite. And she’s got the money to do it too.”

She wasn’t surprised. She’d known, when she’d dropped the flyer down into the belt, exactly who was strapped to the passenger seats. It was just another way her self-destructive behavior undermined her.

Alan looked around, as if he believed someone might be listening. He leaned forward and said quietly, “I’ve heard she’s ordered a hit on you.”

She said nothing, but a ripple of fear ran through her body. A woman that powerful wouldn’t think twice about making someone disappear, and out here, in the asteroid belt, no one would investigate too hard. ‘Accidents’ happened all the time.

That’s why I’ve pulled some strings and managed to get you some taxi work back on Earth,” said Alan. “It’s boring, and you certainly won’t be able to pull those…”

Those taxis are COMP locked. Alan, I’m not flying one of them.”

Nika, there’s nothing else.”

What about the Jupiter run?”

Alexandra is in charge of that, and you know what she thinks of you, after what happened on the…”

He cut himself off in time, but in her head she couldn’t help but complete his sentence.

...after what happened on the moon.

She felt nausea settle across her soul. It always came back to that.

I’m sorry, Nika,” Alan said quickly. When she didn’t say anything he continued, “Should I contact Earth Admin, tell them to expect you?”

I’ll let you know.” Suddenly she just wanted to get out of the room. It was too close. She couldn’t breathe. She made for the door.

Did you really fly them directly through the Heart?” Alan said as she pulled the door open.

The Heart was a tunnel through Asteroid 3428B, a remnant from a mining mishap. It was wide enough for a flyer…just. Only the best pilots attempted it, and it was admittedly illegal to do so as the casualty rate was…high. But she wasn’t just among the best. She was the best. There was no chance she wouldn’t make it.

Well, almost no chance.

She looked back at him and grinned. “They said they wanted to get here quickly,” she said with a shrug. “I didn’t have time to go around.”

***

She woke the next day with a crashing hangover and no credits. She moaned softly and pulled herself to the edge of the bed, where she managed to sit. She stared at the tiny box she lived in. Even with her rather high paying job – well, previous rather high paying job – this had been the best she could afford. Back on Earth, flying a taxi, she’d be in a dorm. She couldn’t go back to that. She wouldn’t.

The red light above the doorway began to flash. A harsh female voice – probably meant to be soothing – began to inform her that she must pay her rent or be forcibly evicted. She had, apparently, one hour to comply. She’d paid up to the end of the week, so someone – she could guess who – had done this to her deliberately. Alan was right. She should get off this rock as soon as possible. She gathered her few possessions, making sure of the one possession that meant anything to her. A small photograph, all that remained to her of…

No, she would not give in to despair, not again; she slipped the photograph into her jacket pocket.

She climbed to her feet and left the tiny room, hoping the next occupant would fare better here than she had.

By the time she got down to the flight hanger she was feeling a little healthier. She’d been in this situation before; she could always find work on one of the cargo ships. They forever needed grunts, and they hadn’t built the ship yet she couldn’t find her way around. She’d just decided on a B-class freighter shipping out to Saturn when a man in a suit approached her. For a moment she feared the worst, but this guy was no common thug. He had an official look about him that immediately disturbed her more; he might as well have been wearing a sign that said Official Government Secret Asshole.

Nika Lavrentiev?” he said.

Who wants to know?”

Are you Nika Lavrentiev?”

She became aware then of others in the crowd, dressed in a similar fashion to the man, moving in her direction. She looked for a way out. There was none. She sighed. What was it her dad used to say, one of his Taoist things: If you can’t change the situation, you can change your reaction.

In other words, bend or break.

This time, she decided it better to bend.

Yes, I’m Nika Lavrentiev.”

ID card,” He held out his hand.

Reluctantly she handed over her ID card and waited while he scanned it. When he was satisfied he pocketed it, which meant she was going nowhere but where he said. Without ID no one would hire her.

Well, no one who was doing anything remotely legal, and even she drew a line somewhere.

You need to come with me,” said the man. When she didn’t make a move he continued, “It’s not a request, Ma’am.”

No,” she sighed. “I guess it isn’t.” She fell into step beside him; the other agents surrounded her.

What’s your name, big guy?” she said.

You don’t need to know that, Ms Lavrentiev,” he said, staring stoically ahead.

Yep, it was going to be a long flight to wherever they were going. And she guessed the destination wasn’t on any map.

Two

Tai Reynolds stared intently at the smart wall before him. Figures flashed across it, and he consumed them hungrily. His fingers twitched with nervous agitation as he caused the information to move rapidly.

Will you slow down,” said the man – what was his name again? Dr Mitchell? – beside him.

Tai ignored him.

Tai, slow the download,” Dr Mitchell said, exasperation plain in his voice. “I can’t read the figures. How can I help if I can’t read the figures?”

Tai felt that tension in him, that tension he always felt at the sluggishness of other people’s minds. Why couldn’t they find him an assistant who could keep up; didn’t this guy have a PhD?

He stopped the flow of figures on the screen, stopped the elegant beauty of the maths, the only thing he found beauty in, and turned to the man beside him.

I think it is becoming obvious you cannot help,” he said coldly.

Dr Mitchell looked hurt, which annoyed Tai. He had asked Tai a question and the question had been answered. Why would he ask the question when surely he must have at least suspected the answer he would be given.

Dr Reynolds,” he said. “I was added to this project to offer a new perspective.”

You were added to this project to assist me,” Tai said. “At this moment you are not assisting me at all. You are hindering me.”

He watched Dr Mitchell take a deep breath. He really would have to talk to Director McKay about the people the Company were hiring as assistants.

I’m not your assistant,” said Dr Mitchell. “I’m here to work with you on the project.”

Oh, I don’t think so,” he said, bored with the conversation and turning back to the wall.

I’m not stupid you know.”

Tai sighed, and turned back to Dr Mitchell.

Well, let’s see,” he said. “There is a way to prove that you are not stupid. I consider myself intelligent. I work at the speed at which I think intelligent people should work. Therefore, logically, if you are intelligent and, as you say, not stupid, you should be able to keep up with me. Prove it.”

With a movement of his fingers he resumed the data download. He selected a section and threw it into the air where the data morphed into 3D representational space. He studied the figure for a few seconds and then threw it back onto the wall.

Dr Reynolds.”

Are you keeping up,” he said, “or giving up?”

No.”

I didn’t ask you a question to which no is an appropriate response. An intelligent person would have noticed that.”

He smiled as Dr Mitchell stormed out of the room. At last, a little peace and quiet to get the work done. For only the work was important, the figures and equations so beautiful, so elegant. Why was it so few could see beauty in the numbers? He watched them dance, and was happy.

***

His happiness didn’t last long, which, he thought, as he waited outside Director McKay’s office, seemed so unfortunately central to the human condition. He smiled politely at the man who sat behind the desk. The man looked away coldly; so, he was angry with Tai too. Tai replayed the conversation they’d had last time he was here.

Nothing. He’d said nothing insulting at all. Some people were too sensitive. The man answered the intercom and said, “Yes Ma’am”, and looked at him. “You can go in now.”

Tai walked into Director McKay’s office and immediately said, “I know what this is about and I agree it’s not good enough. I need an assistant capable of assisting me, not slowing me down.”

Director McKay looked at him.

Have a seat, Tai.”

He sat, and refused the coffee she offered him.

Tai,” said Director McKay, “I’m only going to say this once. Dr Mitchell isn’t your assistant. We felt the project would benefit from a different perspective, and that’s why we brought him on board. He’s just as qualified as you. And he doesn’t appreciate being called stupid.”

I never called him stupid. I might have proved it, but I never said it. If he feels stupid then that seems to be his problem, not mine. I just want to work. He slows me down.”

He’s got a PhD from the best university on the moon. He’s written papers on your work. He understands it better than anyone. He actually wanted to work with you. Lord knows why.”

Really. Are they giving PhD’s in Stellar Physics away in cereal boxes now? In my day you actually had to understand high order mathematics to get one.”

Director McKay ignored that and said, “He’s worked in some of the best labs. His references are impeccable. From my conversations with him he’s one of the most brilliant scientists I’ve met.”

That doesn’t surprise me.”

Director McKay smiled sarcastically at him. “Yes, Tai, you’re the smartest person here, no one disputes that, but you’ve got to learn to work with people. And a great start would be trying to, I don’t know, at least act polite.”

Why?” He was genuinely surprised. He was faster by himself. He got more work done, he reached conclusions quicker. Other people were a hindrance. Why should he be polite about that? To make other people feel better? He didn’t have time to make them feel better. That wasn’t his job.

Dr Mitchell is more than qualified. He is your equal in every way. You might find working with him beneficial. Even pleasurable.”

I doubt that. But that is an interesting proposition. If you found my equal to work with then I’d be prepared to give it a go.”

Director McKay sighed. She said, “Well, you’ve certainly made my decision easier.”

What decision?”

I’ve received a call,” she said. “Your…genius is needed elsewhere. I was prepared to challenge the request; I might have succeeded given the importance of this project, but now I’m feeling that a little time away from the Company would do us all the world of good.”

But my work…”

The Company’s work,” said Director McKay.

Whatever. My work…”

“…can be continued by Dr Mitchell.”

I doubt that.”

I don’t. It needs someone fresh.”

Since when?”

Since now. Since, apparently, you are the only one who can solve…their problem.”

Their?” When Director McKay said nothing he added, “I have no choice?”

She looked at the paperwork. “Well, of course you have a choice. It says here you can go, or you can spend an indeterminate period of time in a high security prison. That’s your choice. It’s not a very good one, but it’s still a choice.” She looked at him. “I suggest you go.”

Tai couldn’t argue with her. Her logic was impeccable.

Three

Nika sat in the small room, wondering what the hell was going on. This was looking more and more like a covert black ops mission. She’d been shepherded to a craft and flown God knows where, using interspace technology too, by the sick, slightly nauseous feeling she had. She’d only been on an interspace craft once, and that was after…well, she’d felt sick that time too, though that may have been due to what she’d done. But nausea after going interspace was a common enough feeling, a lot of people reported it. Something to do with tearing through the inter-dimensional fabric of space-time. No one was sure what that did to the human body long term – potentially nothing good – which was why she was so pissed at being taken interspace without her consent. Someone had better start talking and fast.

For the hundredth time she climbed to her feet and paced the small room in which she was being held – the door was locked, she had checked – from end to end. She stared up at the camera with its impassive gaze. How long had she been here? It was impossible to tell. She was considering smashing the camera – that ought to get their attention – when the door slid open. Two soldiers, a man and a woman, stood there.

You’re wanted, Ms Lavrentiev,” said the woman. They both had that soldier’s way about them; they looked relaxed, but Nika suspected that, were she to try anything, she’d quickly find herself with a broken arm. Or worse, depending on how valuable she was.

No choice then. Follow orders.

Until her moment came.

The soldiers led her down a long corridor. She passed a few view ports but the quick glances she managed revealed only empty space. When they reached their destination the soldiers stood to one side and let her enter the room. The walls glinted with the typical smart paint, allowing every surface to display hi-def 3D real time visuals: this was a tactical area. She felt a pang for days gone, when her and her team were often briefed in a room almost exactly the same as this one.

Three people were in the room. Two men and a woman. The woman had an air of command about her, as did one of the men. The Captain of this craft, one of them, and probably the First.

The other man did not fit. He was tall, broad shouldered, with a strong, severe face. He seemed wired with barely contained anger, and scowled at her when she entered. When he met her eyes she shivered. There was something there, she felt it immediately. But he barely acknowledged her, just sat with arms folded, his fierce gaze returning to the man and woman.

So, a prisoner like her. Well, not a prisoner exactly, more required guest.

Captain Lavrentiev,” said the woman with a nod. “Welcome on board the Havilland.”

Not any more.”

I’m sorry?”

I’m not a captain anymore.” She glanced around the room. She knew the Havilland; it was a long range intersystem craft. So, she was no longer in the solar system. What was going on here?

Your rank and full commission have been reinstated.”

She felt the shock right to her core. Reinstated. Just like that.

Okay, who were these people?

Captain Lavrentiev,” continued the woman, “I am Captain Colbeck and this is my First, Commander Paulson. Our other illustrious guest is Dr Tai Reynolds.”

The man barely acknowledged her.

Please,” said Captain Colbeck, “take a seat.”

She did so, and looked frankly at the two officers.

Would anyone care to tell me what the hell is going on?” she said.

We plan to Captain Lavrentiev, we plan to.”

Captain Colbeck looked at her First and nodded. Commander Paulson stood and with a gesture threw an image onto the wall.

It was a star.

This is Seren,” he began. “It’s an FV3 star and it is…”

I’m sorry,” said Nika. “FV3?”

She heard Dr Reynolds snort and ignored him.

A low mass star, about two times bigger than the sun,” explained Commander Paulson. “As I was saying, it is giving every indication that it will, at some time in the near future, go supernova.”

Dr Reynolds frowned; he had barely been paying attention, but at the word supernova he sat up. “Define near future,” he said.

Best guess, within the next ten years.”

Dr Reynolds made a derisive sound; she knew his type; she hated his type.

You should fire whoever made that prediction,” he said.

Nika looked from Reynolds to Commander Paulson and then said, “So? Why should we care? Don’t stars go supernova all the time?”

They do,” said Commander Paulson. “But most are too great a distance from the Earth to threaten us. Seren is approximately 12.2 light years away and will direct a gamma ray burst directly towards us.” His tone was calm and matter of fact. “Calculations suggest 90% of all life on the planet will go extinct. Human civilization would be all but destroyed under the conditions that would result.”

Nika felt dread run through her. This couldn’t be possible. As if he had heard her thought Dr Reynolds said, “Then there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Whoever has filled your bureaucratic heads with this nonsense is either playing a game or is stupid. Seren isn’t even a supernova candidate. It’s too small to start with.”

We know that,” said Commander Paulson patiently. “Nonetheless, it is about to go supernova. All our best people agree.”

Well, they’re wrong,” Dr Reynolds said dismissively, pushing his chair back and walking across to the smart wall displaying Seren.

They’re not,” Captain Colbeck said. “They have been over the data. Multiple times. Still, prove them wrong if you can. Here.”

She handed a tablet to Dr Reynolds, who started to tap through data. At first the dismissive expression remained on his face, but then after a while he frowned, and then he sat down. For a long time no one spoke as he absorbed the information. Nika was considering asking for coffee when he said, “This is impossible.”

Yes, we agree,” said Captain Colbeck. “It is impossible. By the laws of physics as we understand them it shouldn’t be happening. Which is why we called you in.”

A star this size and age should not be behaving in this manner.”

Behaving in what manner,” snapped Nika, annoyed that she was largely being ignored. Science freaks, she hated them.

Reynolds turned and looked at her as if she were irrelevant. He looked back at Captain Colbeck. “Why is she here?” he said.

Good question, thought Nika. Why am I here?

That will become obvious later,” said Captain Colbeck. “For now, just assume she is essential and answer her questions.”

Dr Reynolds stared at Captain Colbeck long and hard; the captain in return just regarded him calmly. She was a woman used to getting her own way; but then, so was Dr Reynolds by the look of it. And Commander Paulson, who had waited with barely restrained patience while this exchange took place, was also used to getting his own way.

Well, great, thought Nika. A room full of powerful personalities.

In her experience that never went well. Except once. Her team. Her handpicked team. They had all been powerful personalities, and they had worked together like nothing else she had experienced since.

Fine,” said Dr Reynolds eventually, turning to look at her. “Stars range in size from very small, just a percentage of the mass of our sun, to supergiants, many times the mass of our sun. Only a supergiant can go supernova. Anything smaller than five or so solar masses just doesn’t have the fuel to maintain a supernova explosion. This star is far too small. It would collapse into a white dwarf at best.”

And yet…”

And yet, it is demonstrating all the signs that large mass stars do just before they go supernova.” He glanced at the star blazing balefully before them. “Speed of rotation has changed. Radiation output has decreased. All of which is impossible.”

Apparently not,” she said dryly.

Yes, but that’s the point really. At this stage in its life cycle it shouldn’t be emitting light on the spectrum it is. It shouldn’t be changing rotation speed, decreasing radiation output, it shouldn’t be doing any of these things.” He was excited, she realized. This aroused his scientific curiosity; he saw it as a problem to be solved. A star this close to Earth, about to go supernova, destroy all life and this Dr Reynolds was getting his rocks off.

Aren’t gamma ray bursts common,” she said, vaguely remembering the astrophysics class she’d once had to take.

Reynolds nodded. “But most of those happen in other galaxies. This one is happening in the Milky Way, just over ten light years from us, and it just happens to be aimed at Earth. It’s a one in a billion year event.” He glanced at her. “It does happen, has happened most likely. The Ordovician mass extinction event 450 million years ago may have been caused by a gamma ray burst. But that star was 6000 light years away. This…this,” he stopped speaking.

It would be very bad,” she said.

It would be, as you say, very bad,” he said.

Which brings us to Captain Lavrentiev’s presence here,” said Captain Colbeck. She looked at the two of them. “The Havilland is currently en route to Seren. Once we get there you two are going to fly down into the star and find out what the hell is going on in there.”

Dr Reynolds reacted with obvious excitement, almost like a child being told Christmas has been shifted forward this year, due tomorrow. It was obvious he didn’t understand. Fly into a star. This was a suicide mission. They weren’t expected to return. Did she really want to spend the end of her life with this bastard?

Four

Tai stared with frustration at Nika Lavrentiev, not for the first time today. What this woman was doing here, he did not know. Why was he constantly being encumbered with idiots?

All she had to do was pilot the vessel. She did not need to understand the complexities of the mission. In fact, she didn’t even need to pilot the vessel. The conditions of the star were moderately predictable. ARP reactions would be adequate, especially after he programmed all possible variables into the COMP. He’d trust the precision of a COMP over the errant uncertainty of human instinct any day of the week. He’d told her this more than a few times. He did so now.

I don’t care. I want to know what the conditions inside the star will be like,” she demanded again.

Look,” he said, “it’s very simple. You don’t need to do anything. You don’t need to understand stellar structure. You just need to sit there and watch my ARP program pilot the flyer.”

She looked like she wanted to kill him.

Why am I even here then? Why not just send a probe?”

They have. For some reason the probes were destroyed before they could transmit much data. We’ll send more once we arrive at Seren, but I suspect the results will be the same. We need eyes on the ground. My eyes. I need to see what is happening. Then I can report back.”

You really are stupid aren’t you,” she said. “You actually think they expect us to come out of this alive! This is a one-way mission. No flyer ever built can get us that deep into a star and out again. You’ll report back alright, and then they'll cut us loose.”

He smiled smugly. “Firstly,” he said, “they might risk a glorified ARP like you but they won’t risk me, I'm far too valuable. Besides, I’ve seen the specifications for the flyer. It will suffice.”

Oh, I’m a glorified ARP, am I,” she said, laughing. “Well, your ass is going to be in the hands of this glorified ARP, so you better make sure I know what kind of weather I can expect inside that star.”

Weather,” he spluttered.

But she just smiled sweetly and turned and walked away. And yes, okay, so he watched, and he was sure she knew it. But there really was something enticing about the sway of her hips; one might even say that sway was mathematically perfect.

He frowned. What was wrong with him? He must be suffering some kind of side effect from the constant interspace jumps. Still, there was no doubt about it. Nika Lavrentiev was, well, a fascinating woman. And for all he insulted her, for all she aggravated him more than any other person he had ever met, there was something about her. She was tough. And she gave as good as she got. And, if he were being honest, for someone who’d received no training in stellar structure she was picking up the intricacies remarkably quickly.

Yes, an intriguing woman. And the way she looked at him sometimes, her eyes sparkling...

And she was funny. Hmm, funny, yes, she was that.

He suddenly realized that he was staring absentmindedly out a view port, thinking about ways of making Nika Lavrentiev laugh. He shook himself with sudden anger and went back to the data from Seren that continued to pour in each time they returned to normal space.

***

Time on the Havilland was divided into three eight-hour periods, and each group of three periods was considered a day, for ease of transition. Eight subjective days after Tai had left the Company the Havilland burst out of interspace and fell into a geosynchronous orbit about Seren.

It was hard to ignore the baleful stare of the star looming in the view ports. It flared dramatically, and looking at it caused even Tai momentary discomfort. But always he put the fear aside as irrelevant. What would come would come and all he could do was prepare for it. Emotions would only serve to hinder him.

He had been summoned down to the hanger deck, where the highly experimental prototype flyer was kept. He knew the conditions they could expect in the star. Surface temperatures would approach 6000K. As they went deeper they would pass through a convective zone, where the probes had been destroyed. Deeper than that would take them into the radiative zone, where they would have to survive temperatures of 200 000K, as well as, possibly, degenerate matter. In theory the ablative shielding of the flyer would protect them to a temperature of about 150 000K. So if they were forced past the convective zone they would be destroyed.

He stepped through the sliding door. Nika was already there looking over the flyer, every curve of her body apparent in the skintight flight suit she had taken to wearing.

Commander Paulson, also on the hangar deck, looked up when Tai entered.“Ah, Dr Reynolds,” he said. “I believe this is the first time you have seen the Sunsail. She’s beautiful, don’t you think.”

He concentrated on the flyer, trying to ignore the sudden feelings coursing through his body. How was Nika doing this do him? For all his life he had been interested only in the life of the mind; flesh interests were beneath him. And so far it had been easy, until the advent of Nika Lavrentiev. And now, when he least had time to, he had to deal with something he did not understand.

Oh, he understood the biochemistry well enough. He knew what was happening to his body. But other people had a lifetime of feeling this. They learned how to manage it. He felt like a fifteen-year-old boy around her. He hated it.

Which is why he was nasty and condescending to her.

He hated that too.

Our figures are similar to yours,” Commander Paulson was saying. He focused on the commander’s voice. “The Sunsail should survive temperatures of up to 150 000K, and the pressures of the convective zone. If all goes to plan you will pass through the outer layers of the sun, gather the data we require and emerge safe and mostly sound. If not…well no one has ever done anything like this before. We’re kind of making it up as we go along.”

Amazing,” Tai said, running his hands along the curve of the flyer. Nika had disappeared inside the cockpit, thank God. “It’s made of…”

A tertranium alloy bombarded with exotic matter,” said Commander Paulson. “No other substance known to humans can withstand the heat of a star. And we’ll pump a fluid through it, similar to an old fashioned car’s radiator, which will draw further heat away from the surface; this superheated fluid helps power the fusion drives.”

You’re expecting us to pilot a flyer with a fusion drive inside a star.”

Yes. Ironic isn’t it.”

Insane is perhaps the more appropriate word.” He looked around. “I’m not sure why I need to be here.”

I need to run over the rudimentary elements of flying this gorgeous thing.”

Tai looked up. Nika was standing before him, watching him closely, a knowing smirk on her face.

She knows, he thought. She knows the agony seeing her in that flight suit is causing me. She’s doing it deliberately.

Do you know the symptoms of heat exposure?” Commander Paulson asked him.

No.”

I didn’t think so. We’re going to run you two through some simulations. You need to recognize the symptoms of heat exposure in Captain Lavrentiev. There’s an ARP function on your side of the cockpit. If Captain Lavrentiev becomes incapable of piloting the flyer you’ll need to activate it. You’ll also be responsible for communications, which will mostly consist of sending us data.”

I’ve already written algorithms to upgrade the ARP,” he said. “It will guide us through the star.”

I’ve decided to fly manual,” said Nika with a smile.

You will not...” he began.

Commander Paulson held up his hand. “I’ve reviewed Captain Lavrentiev’s flight plan,” he said, “and I approve. She will fly manual and you will activate the ARP only if she becomes incapacitated.”

He stared at the two of them, about to argue his point, and then realized it didn’t matter. As soon as they entered the star this annoying woman would realize she had bitten off more than she could chew and he would just activate the ARP anyway.

Well?” said Nika, standing there with her hands on her hips. How did she manage to be both annoying and sexy at the same time?

Well, what?”

She nodded to the confined space of the cockpit. “Get in.”

Five

Nika watched the images play across the smart surface and ran her hands through her hair. What she wouldn’t give for a bath. Sonic showers just didn’t cut it; sound waves never made you feel clean the way water made you feel clean. And she wanted to feel clean.

She knew why, and though she tried to dismiss the thought, it wiggled its way into her awareness regardless.

She wanted to feel clean for Tai.

Ridiculous. That stuck up brain!

Funny how, at first, she’d had this image of him in her head, the geeky scientist. But that was before she’d seen him in the small gym the ship was equipped with. She’d gone down to work off some of the frustration she’d been feeling only to find he’d beaten her to it and there he was wearing just running shorts, his body glistening with sweat as he pounded the treadmill. He was lean, but strong. She could see the muscles move freely under his smooth skin. And the look of fierce arrogance had fallen away from his face, leaving him purely in the moment; without his perpetual scowl he was handsome. Embarrassed, she had left before he’d seen her.

Maybe he was a man after all. And maybe she hadn’t imagined the way he’d looked at her when she’d first worn the flight suit, his eyes roaming appreciatively over her body. She’d taken to wearing it all the time. For no other reason, of course, than comfort; it had, after all, been made especially to measure, and was designed for the conditions of deep space flight. Wearing it was simply sensible.

Naturally she had suspected as they’d sat in the confined space of the cockpit together. He was interested in her; she knew men well enough to recognize the signs. But there was something hesitant about him; strange when he was in all other ways so arrogant. Could it be that he was inexperienced!

My God, she suddenly thought. He couldn’t be a virgin could he?

She turned to regard the proud visage of Dr Tai Reynolds. Yes, he could, and not because he was shy or nervous around women, but because he’d never noticed a woman as a woman before. He’d spent all his life inside his head.

So, she let her long, black hair fall over her face as she turned her attention back to the images on the wall. She was aware of Tai across the table from her; Commander Paulson barely registered.

So,” she said, “what are we looking at?”

Telemetry from the latest probes,” Tai said, also watching the wall.

She recognized the vision as the outer layers of Seren. Bright red-yellow plasma licked at the probe. It shook now and then as solar winds buffeted it. She glanced at the data coming in at the bottom left of the wall. This showed the pressure and convective currents the probe was experiencing, and which she’d have to pilot the Sunsail through. Nothing too bad, certainly nothing that little beauty of a flyer couldn’t handle. She’d already taken it out on a few test flights and it was the most amazing flyer she’d ever piloted. Completely responsive, almost like an extension of her own body. It did call into question why she was here though. She would never admit it, but Tai was right when he said his ARP program could handle whatever conditions the star might throw at them.

The probe dropped deeper into the outer layers of the sun, rocking back and forth as it was buffeted by the solar winds in the star’s corona. The pressure increased, but still nothing that would worry the Sunsail. Even the probe had a ways to go before it would be troubled.

And then suddenly the data leaped all over the place.

What was that?” said Tai.

She returned her attention to the vision. All she could see was the whirling chaos of the plasma. And then suddenly a huge dark shape loomed up before the probe and struck it, causing it to shake violently.

Did you see that?” Tai said, turning to Nika.

Yes,” she said, leaning forward.

Commander Paulson watched on calmly. The dark shadow moved towards the probe again… struck it again.

Something was attacking the probe. Something alive. Inside the star. She watched as the probe was struck repeatedly, until finally the image flared and the screen faded to darkness.

Now she was beginning to understand why she was here.

You knew,” she said, turning to Commander Paulson. The tall severe man regarded her for a moment, and then nodded. He threw some images onto the wall. Visual footage, grainy, but similar to what they had just seen. Another probe, falling through the layers of Seren, and then the same dark blurred shadow, moving forward, attacking it.

This is footage we received about six months ago, when Seren first began to exhibit signs of going supernova.” Paulson looked at Tai. “Like you, our scientists thought the readings wrong, thought the suggested situations unlikely. So we sent another probe, and another. There are a dozen other recordings like that one. Something is alive in there. Something which, we believe, is causing the star to go supernova.” He turned to look at the baleful image of Seren. “We believe we might be under attack.”

Impossible,” Tai said, staring at the star. “That’s pure nuclear fusion. You don’t understand the conditions. Nothing could survive in there. Nothing.”

There are creatures on Earth that survive in thermal vents deep under the sea,” Paulson said. “They experience extreme temperatures and pressures. It’s a precedent.”

You’re talking about bacteria,” Tai said, “surviving at temperatures of 200K. This thing must be huge, and in that part of the star the temperatures must exceed 50 000K. And now you’re suggesting it’s intelligent. That it’s deliberately changing the conditions of a star in order to attack us. I cannot believe that.”

Agreed. It is impossible. Nevertheless, it is so. Seren is behaving as if it is about to go supernova. Something is targeting the probes. That’s why we need you both. You, Dr Reynolds, are an expert on stellar physics. No one knows more about that than you. And Captain Lavrentiev is the finest pilot alive. The probes are too slow to react. We’ve programmed them with the most complicated battle algorithms we have. No good. Not even your updated algorithms will suffice. This requires a human pilot. One who can think laterally. It needs the best. If something is targeting the probes, no one else has a chance of getting in and out. Telemetry is one thing. We want eyes-on data.”

Tai turned to look at Paulson. “And what are you going to do,” he said, “if that creature is intelligent? If this is an attack?”

The Havilland is powered by a Mark IV fusion interspace drive,” he said. “If it is decided that Earth is under attack we are ordered to fly the ship into Seren and activate the drive.”

That’s insane,” he said. “It will…”

It will cause an explosion unlike anything ever seen. All matter within three light years will be completely obliterated. But Earth will be safe, and if there are...others...out there it will send them a message.”

We’re bait,” said Nika. “A distraction, a diversion.”

Only if need be,” said Commander Paulson. “We hope not.”

I won’t do it,” said Tai.

Commander Paulson smiled. It was a cold smile that chilled Nika to the bone. “Yes, you will,” he said. “This is a first contact situation. You’ll do anything to experience that.” He turned to look at Nika. “And no other pilot has ever flown into a star. You won’t pass up this opportunity either. And we’ll reinstate your commission permanently of course.”

Nika regarded Paulson. The commander was right. She couldn’t pass this up. And by the hungry look on Tai’s face, neither could he.

I’ll leave you two to discuss it,” said Commander Paulson.

Nika and Tai watched him leave. The smart wall shifted and changed as the images were stored and replaced by a view of the external reality; reluctantly they looked upon the baleful radiance of Seren. Nika stood and walked right up to the star, and rested her hand against it.

It looks so beautiful,” she said, “from here.”

Yes,” said Tai softly, coming to her side. “It is. Right now, within that star, reactions are taking place that create the elements of which we are made. And if that star does go supernova, it will throw those elements across the wide expanses of space where, at some point they will coalesce and form planets, and on those planets the elements hydrogen and carbon, being created even as we watch, might join together to form hydrocarbon chains, which might link to form amino acids, and from there it’s but a step or two more to life, and perhaps even beings like us, capable of intelligent reflection. It’s amazing. I’ve always understood that intellectually, but never emotionally. I’m beginning to understand a lot about emotions on this trip,” he added softly.

She turned to look at him. He was just the type she had always hated. She and her team had mocked science geeks like him all the time back in the day. Idea guys, who sit around a table and dream but do nothing real. And yet, she was attracted to Tai, in a dissimilar way to the men she’d enjoyed before. That had just been physical. Her feelings for Tai were different, because he was different. There was no pretense about him. He played no games.

Of course,” she said, “if it does go supernova life on Earth will end.”

Oh, it won’t end,” he said. “Life will find a way, like it always has after every previous mass extinction event. Life is like that. The dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago. But that made room for mammals. Those mammals evolved into us. Life will go on, even if humans don’t.” He looked at her. “Do you want to see Earth?”

Can we?”

Well, we can see the sun.” He swiped at the smart surface and a view of stars filled the wall. He studied it and then pointed. “There,” he said.

There?” She pointed at a pinprick of light.

He took her hand and moved it slightly.

There,” he said, and maintained the contact a little longer than necessary. “Only, because we’ve moved through interspace we’ve traveled ahead of the light from the sun. What we’re seeing is from about ten years ago.”

Ten years ago, she thought. Then I haven’t done it yet. I haven’t made the mistake. They are still alive. Maybe this is my chance. My chance to make up for what I did. Maybe this time I can actually save people.

She suddenly became aware that she had fallen back to rest against Tai, and that he had let her. For a long time they stood there together and stared at the star they called home.

Six

From the co-pilot’s seat of the Sunsail Tai studied the data flow. The flyer rocked back and forth and not for the first time he wondered at the wisdom of sitting in a small human-made vehicle about to descend into one of the most violent places in the known universe.

We’re on the edge of the corona,” he said. “We’re now officially closer to a star than any human has ever been.”

Good to know,” Nika said, and grinned at him.

He smiled back. Something had changed between them. A trust had developed. His feelings for her, and yes, he admitted to himself that he had feelings for her, had changed after he’d found out about her past; she’d become more…human, strangely. Still, he wondered how to tell her.

Of course, he thought as the Sunsail shuddered, if this keeps up I might not have the opportunity.

For how could he tell her that he had hacked into her sealed military records; that he knew what she had done. It was an invasion of her privacy she might not easily forgive.

He checked the condition of the ablative shielding. It was standing up admirably. Temperatures would need to be much greater before it started to burn off. Once that happened they had a choice. Go deeper and die quickly, or try and bounce off the interior radiative currents and use the force generated to propel them beyond the star’s gravity well. He glanced at Nika. From her records she was an astounding pilot, but he doubted anyone could pull that off.

Tai,” said Nika.

Yes.” He tried to still the small shiver of pleasure that rippled through him at the sound of his name on her lips.

Talk to me.”

Sorry?”

She was focused entirely on what she was doing, her expression one of grim determination.

I like it when my co-pilot chats. It’s a stupid thing.”

No, no I get it. What should I talk about?”

Well, anything. Tell me about what we’re flying through.”

This is the corona, which consists of superheated plasma. Once through this we’ll enter the chromosphere and then the photosphere. Temperatures will reach 6000K there. Beyond that is the convective zone.”

And that is where the creatures live?”

He looked at the screen showing them what it was like outside the flyer.

Yes,” he said. “Though I still don’t know how. The energized particles alone should rip through, well, anything organic. Much deeper though and we’ll enter the radiative zone. Even the Sunsail won’t last long in there.” He glanced at the data that were coming in and being sent back to the orbiting ship. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. “I used to look up at the stars when I was a kid. We lived in the country, far from the city lights. And my parents they…they drank, and sometimes they fought. Yelling, screaming. When it got too bad I would go out into the trees until I could no longer hear them. There was a clearing, on a high spot. I would lie on my back and watch the stars.” He grunted softly. “Most times I stayed out there all night. They didn’t even notice. Later, I taught myself the names and constellations. I learned about the science behind these bright specks of light. I found comfort in the reality of the data. Losing myself in the numbers gave me peace.”

What happened to your parents?”

I don’t know. I left. I haven’t been in contact with them since.”

He felt her hand on his, and she gave his fingers a quick squeeze, before returning both hands to the stick.

He frowned, and reran some of the data.

What is it?” Nika said, strangely attuned to his moods.

These latest readings,” he answered, “they’re odd.”

How so?”

Well, we should be passing beyond the photosphere, into the area of convective heating. It should be hotter than what the instruments indicate.”

It isn’t? That’s good, surely?”

Maybe.”

Nika’s attention was distracted for a moment as she compensated for a particularly rough pocket.

We’re in the convective zone,” he confirmed. “This is where the probes were attacked.”

I can’t see anything. You?”

No.”

What do we do?”

We continue, I guess.”

Any sign the star is going supernova?”

That’s what’s so strange. If anything, I would think the opposite. There isn’t even enough energy being produced for a star this size to maintain its form, much less go supernova. It should be an order of magnitude hotter.”

And that was when they were attacked.

The Sunsail swung harshly to the side as it was struck and Nika fought to right the flyer.

Can you see it?” he said, studying the screens.

No. Wait, there.” Nika reacted with a speed he would have thought impossible, sending the flyer into a dizzying plunge; the creature flashed harmlessly past but they saw it clearly for the first time. It was massive, and they barely had time to register its presence before it struck them again. Tai caught glimpses of a dense orange cloud, emerging out of the star’s atmosphere as if made of it. It enveloped them and the Sunsail shook violently as it was repeatedly struck with super charged plasma bolts.

Tai hung on then, as Nika put the Sunsail through a rapid series of evasive maneuvers, bursting free of the creature and into normal atmosphere. The Sunsail continued to gather data on the creature, sending it back to the Havilland, but Tai had no chance to study it himself.

He shot a look at Nika; her face was pale, sweat ran down her skin, her hair wet with it, her expression one of profound, almost rapturous concentration as she caused the Sunsail to duck and weave about the creature who moved through the superheated plasma like a fish in water.

What was it?

And then suddenly the flyer was struck such a violent blow that Nika was flung forward, and though she was strapped to the flight chair her head rebounded off the forward panel and hit the back of the chair hard. She passed out and her hands slipped from the controls.

Immediately an alarm sounded, and the flyer plummeted down through the star’s atmosphere.

Before Tai could activate the ARP Nika roused herself and grabbed hold of the controls, but by then they were caught in some kind of convective current. The Sunsail fell into a dizzying spin. Nika fought the stick but it was torn violently out of her hands. The metal of the flyer strained and moaned as it began to warp under the pressure building around them.

122 000K and rising,” Tai shouted over the screaming metal. “We can’t take much more. The ablative shielding is burning up.”

The temperature inside the flyer was increasing rapidly, and he felt the first symptoms of heat exposure. He shook his head, but he couldn’t clear his mind. And then suddenly the flyer moved violently to the right. Despite everything Nika was still wrestling to regain control of the Sunsail. But the sudden increase in their velocity was causing the ablative shielding to disintegrate, and no matter how good a pilot she was there was nothing she could do about that.

We’re caught in a magnetic field loop,” he screamed.

Nika fought the controls.

Down,” he screamed, “go down.”

He thought he saw her nod as she shoved the stick forward with the last of her strength.

Nika,” he cried. And then the pressure and heat pounding down on him caused Tai to black out.

Seven

She dreamed of water. Cool water, running over her, washing the sweat from her body. Hearing a noise she turned, only to see Tai standing before her, naked. He stepped into the shower with her, ran his hands over her skin. She looked up at him and he pulled her into a kiss…

but the alarms woke her, screaming for her attention. She opened her eyes. Tai was unconscious beside her; a quick check of his flight suit indicated his vital signs to be good. She ran her eyes over the flight panel and frowned.

That couldn’t be right.

Tai moaned softly as he regained consciousness.

Nika?”

Here,” she said, leaning across and touching his face. He opened his eyes.

Where…”

My COMP Tai, look at it.”

He shook his head and glanced at her flight panel; he frowned and turned his attention to his own instruments. His fingers played out across the smart surface, and seconds later his COMP came online; he pulled up a display of the exterior.

They were floating through a calm orange atmosphere, surrounded by thick gaseous clouds. Eddies of gentle currents merged the clouds together, washing the interior of the Sunsail with shades of orange and red and yellow.

Where are we?” she breathed.

Tai was busy studying his COMP, pulling up screen after screen.

Can’t be,” he said. He looked at her. “According to this we are deep inside the star. Beneath the convective zone. We should be in a violent radiative atmosphere.” He shook his head. “The temperature out there should be over 150 000K.” He tapped a few buttons. “But it’s not. It’s barely 500K. Something must be wrong. We can’t be where the COMP indicates we are. But if this information is accurate, if we are still descending, towards the center of the star, towards the core, eventually…” He didn’t need to finish; she understood. The gravity at the core of a star would be immense. They would be crushed like a tin can; the Sunsail wasn’t designed to descend that deep, no human designed vessel could survive at those pressures. He tapped a few more buttons. “I’m rebooting the uplink to the ship.”

Her own hands were dancing over the controls of the flyer.

Damn it,” she said, hitting the control panel in frustration.

Nothing?”

Thrusters only,” she said. “We can move laterally but we don’t have the power to stop our descent.” She sat back in her chair. “The probes never made it this far, did they?”

No, whatever was up there destroyed them. Would have destroyed us too if it wasn’t for your flying. I wonder why it, the creature, was so violent?”

She said, softly, pointing at her COMP, “I think I know. Look.”

On the screen the clouds had parted and there, floating through the atmosphere, almost as if they were made of it, were hundreds, no thousands of the creatures, only these were much, much smaller. They were like tiny clouds themselves, blue-white instead of orange, shot through with sharp jagged sparks of energy. They moved in a manner no cloud ever would, dancing sharply in one direction, only to suddenly change and move in a different direction. They were playing, she realized. They were chasing each other.

What are they?”

My God,” he breathed. “Oh my God. Gaseous creatures.” He stared at the screen, his expression one of rapture.

What?”

Gaseous creatures. Their existence has been posited a few times, though nothing like them has ever been seen. They are theoretical only. Life forms composed purely of gas. The energy currents you can see, the white lightning jagging through them, that’s the electrical current of their thought processes. This is amazing.”

Does that mean,” she said, “that Commander Paulson is right? These creatures are intelligent. They are planning an attack on Earth?”

I don’t know. Certainly not these ones. These look like young. Do you think…”

That they’re playing. Yes, I do.”

The one in the outer atmosphere, that was an adult, it was aware of us. These aren’t. They have that total focus that children, human children that is, often have.”

It was protecting its young,” she said.

She looked around at the peaceful beauty of the place they were in. And then, as if to make mockery of her thought, a jagged bolt of dark coruscate energy seared the atmosphere, causing seismic ripples that violently rocked the Sunsail. The creatures immediately gathered around the dark stain spreading through the atmosphere, and danced through it.

This pocket of the star,” Tai said, “it’s like a nest, constructed by that creature above us, a place of safety where its young can feed and grow.”

Sudden horror flushed through her body. “Do you think we’re food?”

No, I suspect they eat that,” he said, pointing at the jagged bolt of energy that continued to rock their flyer. “Plasma. Pure fusion. Astounding.”

Suddenly a light on the instrument panel started to flash.

What is it?”

Tai tapped a few buttons. “It’s the communication link,” he said. “It’s not getting through the star’s outer layers.”

With a sinking feeling Nika said, “The last communication we had with the Havilland was when we were under attack.”

They don’t know,” Tai answered, understanding immediately. “They will think the attack was deliberate. They’ll fly the Havilland into the star.”

Tai, we have to warn them,” Nika said.

He looked at her helplessly. “How? We have no power. We can’t maneuver beyond lateral thrusters. We’re being pulled towards the core. I don’t know how large this ‘nest’ is, but eventually we’ll pass through it. Once we re-enter the normal region of the star we’ll be torn to pieces. Of course, the Havilland will probably enter the star and activate their interspace drive before that.”

We have to do something.” She looked at him and said, “Come on. I thought you were the smartest man in the universe.”


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