The Space Between – Chapter One

04/04/2016 


superconductor

A magnet levitates above a superconductor built at Ural University, Yekaterinburg, Russia

 
 Chapter One, from The Space Between, Vol. I

a science fiction novel by Cameron Murton

 

The trees in the streets of Alexandria would come to play an important role in the years of Ana’s childhood. Between her parents’ home and the Potomac River the changing colors always provided a measurement for growth, as well as the certain implication that everything always ended as it should. In spring the blossoms always sprouted, their petals pink and white; every summer the leaves grew full and green as green can be. It was summer that she remembered most, the heat and the sun as it fell through the foliage to wash over the wood and the paint of the townhouses that lined the streets. They were well kept, those townhouses, and for each there was at least one sycamore in front. In the paradise that was unscheduled time she had often wandered through park alley and brook, avoiding the requirements of the calendar and the responsibilities of her education. It pays to be self-absorbed, this lesson they had taught her young. Her parents’ friends were always interesting; their stories always entertaining; their personalities always more colorful yet somehow less attractive and established. At times she likened their oddness to her own, though guilt usually followed that assumption. Ana was ten when she began to notice how the faults in her parents’ vanities had shallowed them. She found solace in the fact that those who cared for her were truly great; their work important, their understanding of themselves complete.

So as the bough branches from the trunk it was with puberty that Ana came to immerse herself in school, as maturity gave her new eyes to see the way that knowledge works for purpose and the betterment of good. Always to her mother’s joy were the compliments she received, as it was her mother whose way of life most encouraged the shamelessness of pride. At times it angered her, the redundancy of those awards and rewards received solely as result of her parents’ dedication to aesthetic. It was always to her mother’s dismay that after Ana’s chest began to swell she chose to dress for occasion in unbounded modesty, though this rebellion was misperceived by most as reflective in likeness to her father’s humble charm. With time she also grew familiar to the impact of his fame, the melodrama of his art, and the calculations of his feigned humility – whereby Ana sought to focus on the truth that he was indeed a good father, as far as most fathers go. He died while she was still in university, the pain of the loss soon dulled by her coincident rededication to study.

The trees of Alexandria lost their colors then, in the spring of her twenty-second year. But that is not to say that Ana’s world lost its beauty. Rather the change was simply the announcement of another turn of season. Soon the branches of the blossom and sycamore were replaced by a network more colorful; its lattices more logical; its foliage more splendid. Following her attainment of unique skill and subsequent professional development, Ana’s ability to perform came to impress and garner significant enthusiasm from her teachers, and it was not long before her understanding of this new ever-evolving language began to open horizons beyond the ones that time had built so long ago. As it was for so many of her generation, the enigma of space soon called forth to beckon to ambition, her dreams soon omitting all else but the thrill of infinite abandon.

Come two more springs and in the summer of that year Ana left behind the realm of Earth. The victory was short lived however, as having successfully shed her anchor she found her schedule torn, her habits of tradition completely destroyed by a lack of planetary influence. For the first time since her childhood she found herself truly bored. With no alleys or corridors for adventure her mind soon found itself unable to manage properly, and as she learned anxiety and claustrophobia the freedoms awarded by zero-G did nothing to prevent distress and sometimes utter rage. Above the bow window where she passed most of the hours the viridescent clocks that lined the curving pane seemed almost humorous: the idea that one should pay attention to such a trivial quantity when the view beyond provided at all times the most insane representation of existence. In that first week as Ana stared through the looking glass she learned the brilliance of the stars and the darkness of the space between them.

On the eighth day Ana found herself staring through those numbers yet again, through the dark glass into nothing. Her mind drifting, the four digits continued unchanging for roughly sixty seconds, until an invisible blade cut down the final zero to leave a solitary one. Presently her eyes refocused on the new digit; this force of action soon proving a precipice to her temperament. In the week that had since passed the mystery of Levant Caeden had only grown, and not with favor. So whether her present isolation came now as punishment, or the man was simply a recluse: regardless of either she had decided that it was unfair for any person to force such lonely circumstance upon another.

Prior to their departure Ana had spent time with Caeden only twice. The first time their introduction had come in the form of an interview whose sole purpose lay in gaining his approval. There she had expected to receive some sort of challenge – or test of her abilities – and been surprised to find neither. It struck her now that this challenge had not been absent, but rather postponed. She remembered the interview.

“Miss Wojźech, welcome, please take your seat. This is Doctor Caeden, he will ask you a few questions.”

Ana followed the woman’s instructions, seating her body down carefully into the well-formed chair. She remembered remarking that Caeden looked older in person, his skin darker in reality than the vibrant whiteness of projected video.

“Thank you for having me.”

The sixty-seven-year-old finished a long passage in black ink on a pad of yellowed paper. Marking a final period he then tore the page to place it in a folder to his left, which Ana noticed held other pages alike. Levant’s eyes shot a momentary glance at her before looking down again, to write at the top of a new page in rough cursive two words that she could not make out. She abstained from speculating on the fact that their shape bore an uncanny resemblance to the pattern of her own name.

“Are you a peetee?” Caeden looked back up to ask.

“No, not at all. Do I look like one?”

“Natural?”

“My parents used in vitro selection. For caution.”

“No aesthetic modifiers?”

“Skin only… My father had acne as a child, my mother insisted.”

“Their professions?

Ana noticed that he spoke with a perfect Delaware Valley accent. His forehead was high and hair not entirely white, but almost.

“Dad was a painter, the traditional kind, oil and canvas. Mum is a professor at the University of Maryland. She teaches linguistics.”

Caeden closed his eyes. “And your father died recently?”

“Two years ago. He was a smoker, two packs a day.” She scratched at an itch on the back of her neck. “To be honest I don’t know why they couldn’t save him.”

“Bit rare these days. But don’t hold it against him.” Caeden smiled to himself. The agent shifted in her seat.

Ana looked away and remained silent while he made more notes. When the old man looked back up she sensed his gaze and returned it steadily. So he put down the pen to lean back, in a gesture that spoke of wisdom and unbridled arrogance.

“So why did you apply?”

“For this position?”

“To be my assistant.” His eyes provoked her blatantly.

“Besides the amazing opportunity?” She hesitated before gambling with the truth. “Mostly because I’m tired of being stuck on this tiny planet.”

Caeden again smiled, again nodding as he picked up the pen. He flashed a glance at the agent beside him.

“And how would you describe your feelings about Faran E~M?”

Ana found herself questioning the question’s relevance before considering the well-known history of Caeden’s formal involvement with Cavendish’s European rival. That had been decades ago – before she was born. According to most accounts the relationship between the two parties had not ended amicably. The idea that Cavendish was finally attempting to capitalize on the dispute seemed of interesting notice.

“What feelings? I have no opinion. I can’t really say I know much about the company, other than the stuff I hear about in the news. I know you used to be a partner though, once upon a time.”

When Levant did not respond the agent did instead, first apologizing for her interruption in accordance with present duty. She continued, “Miss Wojźech I must state that all aspects of any possible employment under Dr. Caeden are be held under the strictest confidence; any and all patents rendered by you or Dr. Caeden in the next five years will be owned exclusively by Cavendish Space Systems, and these rights are safeguarded under the strictest measures of contractual law. Please confirm your acknowledgment.”

Ana nodded, unphased then righteous.

“You can trust me, don’t worry.”

Levant Caeden was back to writing notes and he did not look up to dismiss her, “I’m done Jean, she can go now.”

So Ana took her exit and the next time she saw Levant was two months later, at the platform for the rail. Together they were strapped in, at which point the drugs began to take effect; her memory of the subsequent minutes and launch itself now nothing but extremely vague. Looking back the event seemed only the expectation of intensity.

Since boarding the yacht Ana had spend the week alone, locked in her small but ample compartment with only the ship’s constant hum and Levant’s sporadic audiofeed of classical music for company. In that time her thoughts had come to insist on the fact that she was owed some company, if not an explanation and sincere apology.

The time had come to give Caeden a piece of her mind.

To prepare she redressed herself in the same uniform that she had worn on the day of their departure. Then, aligning her body in opposition to the mirror at a forty-five-degree angle, she let her gaze drop and come to rest on the circular crest emblazoned on the shoulder of her jacket. There the CavSS trademark lay printed in italic outline, with a rough sketch of Jupiter and three small moons in orbit. Like so many times before it was in the depths of the famous logo that she had found her motivation, in the stitching and the fibrous texture of the patch itself. As she pushed back away from the mirror a duet of violin and piano echoed through the synthesized air; somewhere in another time and place two veterans had traded long notes, before quick short ones to glorify sentiment. From a drawer in the closet she pulled the systems-manager device, to hook it to the utility belt around her waist, before pushing her body back out into her own tiny quarters and on into the tunnel, then up into the kitchen, over to the mess hall, and on down the other hallway to the sealed door – which marked the boundary that she had come to cross. Ana remarked as she floated there that the silence of space had come and gone again, first the hum and then the music returning with its original melody now severely dampened by the metal hold.

She knocked loudly as the song came to an end. Waiting cautiously with one arm wrapped around the nearest brace Ana held her breath until it could be sure that there would be no response. It seemed likely that Levant had simply not heard, though that likelihood did not help as she proceeded to imagine the old man watching from a secret videofeed. So she pushed off from the brace and over to the door toggle, to press down sharply on the large orange button.

Nothing.

After all, the door was locked; the ship’s computer had told her that already. She considered then how little she knew of what to expect on the other side. On the third day she had found a way to download a rough schematic from the central computer, in the blueprint there discovering the differences in ship-space allocated to each of their respective accommodations. She had not been pleased to find that his was five times hers in volume.

From its spot on her belt she pulled the SMD. Many like it would be available at their destination, but that was still a month away. Better safe than sorry she presumed, and so smuggled the calculator-shaped object it in with her personal luggage. Inserting the male connector into the door’s female was all it took to order a manual override and the bulkhead slid away quietly. She smiled at the irony that Caeden was boss but she had ultimate control, as the overture to a new melody surged out from within the confines to wash over her and the surrounding passages.

Beyond lay a hallway wider than both the ones in Ana’s section, and six more metal doors, all closed. She found it disconcerting that the bulkhead here looked thinner, more ornate, aesthetic rather than compartmental. There was something odd about the navy and brown coloring, which she soon realized to be polished wood. Five of the doorframes stretched down the bottom of the long chamber, while one single circle waited at the far end. That was where the music came from, so that was where she went.

When Ana caught herself against the next brace she could feel the reverberation of a cello sextet, their unified chords ushering steady tones through her racing heart. She issued the manager to make its order and again the bulkhead slid open. Nausea hit her then, for an instant, as looking down through the open doorway it seemed to gape into nothing, empty space, pure blackness, until she found the insight to look up.

There she found that the floor lay on the ceiling, its surface passing by slowly like an over-sized conveyor belt. She reoriented herself upside down to face the portal properly, though still remained floating in the zero-G of the frame. Most distracting was the lack of wall or ceiling, which she supposed must be an optical illusion. From the new vantage the curvature of the floor spread up and around to each side, each passing portion adorned with luxurious amenities, which united to construct something on par with her parent’s upper class residential apartment. She wondered if her mother would approve as she poked her head around the corner to get a better look, and there felt on her senses the weak tug of gravity.

A prompt showed up on Ana’s hololens asking for permission to sync with the local broadcast. She accepted with the twitch of a finger. In that moment the blackness of the walls gave way to outer space: bright stars and galaxies, arbitrary constellations and the indomitable Milky Way. The floor became the inner surface of a glowing halo, oriented so as not to disturb a viewer resting on its path. In the fake distance of reproduced stars a very real simulation of the Jupiter system confused in Ana the possibility of impending arrival: though the impossibility of their approach vector, and Saturn’s presence further on soon reminded her of the truth. Quite unlike the infinite detachment of the stars through the windowpane in the window room, Levant had fine-tuned the settings here in such a way that the entire solar system seemed open to her touch. She took a moment to give silent kudos to whoever had designed the environment.

And there ahead, on an approaching sofa couch, lay Levant Caeden.

She found him in a sort of lounge area, reclined across an array of opulent oriental cushions, one foot still on the ground. Above his chest his hands moved in time to the symphony as if directing the vibrant cloud of particles that there danced in the air above in simulated displays of experiment. As the luminance grew closer she took notice to the movement of Levant’s fingers as they flexed and waved, reminiscent to passions of a seasoned conduttore. The choreography soon became intoxicating, as though the view and complimentary projection had each become instruments vital to some kind of transcendental opera.

This was indeed Levant’s orchestra, caught up in the performance of a spatial requiem, the arrival of the chorus soon bringing in time the softness of a solemn flute, followed by heavy strokes on leather and silvered steel, whose deep tones reflected in earnest the ominous chants of a German tenor. At the whim of his fingers the particles regrouped along reciprocal orbits, their points of energy now speeding into lines of blur – still gaining in velocity. Then at the sound of a deafening crescendo she watched these seeds of color collide, their constitutions shattering in a violent, short-lived cosmatomic rainbow.

After the crash Levant spread all the fingers of both his hands and the simulation froze. He pulled back, reclaiming both his wrists and the particles reversed, before a quick stop and again all continued forward: the same collision but at a slower speed, yet somehow all still in time to the music. She surmised that some secret of infinity my hide within the cloud of light.

As Caeden’s particular portion of the floor passed by directly in front of the open portal his head turned quickly to notice her presence, his eyes connecting with hers in a look of shock and incredulity.

“You!” He cried.

“Me?” She responded, stumbling, though without consequence.

Caeden waved his arm and the projection disappeared. His couch was moving away from her now, his body hidden behind its frame. As he sat up she watched the back of his head, his hair cut short around a shiny bald spot. All around the orchestra continued in anticlimax until his other arm waved elsewhere and the room went dead quiet. To compensate she pushed herself from the portal onto the moving floor. It was not difficult to catch her balance; the simulated gravity was indeed very weak.

He came around the couch to face her, and there leaned on the suede with both arms crossed.

“I was wondering when I’d see you again.”

“I broke in, sorry. Or maybe not.”

“You’re not sorry? Or you didn’t break in?”

“I’m not sorry!”

“For what?”

“What, for breaking in!

“Well I suppose that’s good at least.” His steady calmness confused her, and as result she lowered her guard, though only slightly.

“Seriously though, I was going crazy. No contact for a week… What was that all about, huh?”

He looked around. “What did you think I was hiding someone else back here?”

She pointed to a bonsai with ripe mangoes, “Okay, maybe not, but fresh mangos? You have all this amazing shit to distract you. All I have is a bunch of cold sterile plastic.”

He nodded graciously. “True… But I’m curious, why was it exactly that you thought I left you to yourself?”

She looked again to Jupiter, noticing then that only four of its moons were simulated. “I don’t know, out of spite? I saw you see me laugh at you when we moved in here, after the adjunction.”

He laughed again and to some extent the expression seemed timid. “That is also true. I forgot how clumsy I was. But no I’m not that delicate. Besides you only really smiled anyway. I didn’t hold it against you.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to one that so didn’t. Instead she took the opportunity to practice her strides in the delicate gravity. It was quite enjoyable, the act of balancing; not easy, but not too difficult either. The sensation left her feeling like a ballerina. When she looked back to Levant the composition of his posture and something in the nature of the silenced music suggested to her the impression that this man might very well be Arabic. The notion surprised her, though she knew not why. If his beard had been more than stubble she might probably have noticed sooner…

She let her weight come to rest on the soles of her feet before resuming where they’d left off. “I bet you probably thought the solitude would be good for me.”

“Oh, and why might that be?”

She rolled her eyes to express hostility. “Cause I’m just a girl who doesn’t know the first thing about space or the way of the world, because in your infinite wisdom you decided I was in need of some contemplation, pondering the vastness of the universe and whatnot, and maybe you hoped I would use the time to get familiar with the computer system.”

He smiled, gesturing behind himself to where the projection of particles had lived moments earlier. “Come on, I’m not so bad.”

“Yeah that was pretty, but I’m pretty sure the rimager in here is standard model, and you probably just uploaded some program. Let me tell you one thing, the computer on this ship is definitely not standard model. I’m supposed to be helping you with Cavendish-built systems, of which there are obviously zero present. Seeing as this piece of junk is one-hundred-percent Faran.”

“Piece of junk eh?” He snickered then shrugged again with the same feigned indifference. “Can’t hurt to get familiar with the competition.”

“Speaking of which nobody’s told me why the hell this ship is Faran in the first place. Are you trying to pull off a coup?” By the way he shifted his discomfort she could tell those words had gotten through to him.

He spoke earnestly. “No coup yet. But the explanation for that question at least is perfectly simple.” He kicked the floor, “this brand-new ‘piece of junk’ is the fastest human vehicle ever built. Our job is to build Cavendish their competition, naturally they want us getting started as soon as possible.”

She took a moment to process. “So you do want me to learn the Faran system.”

“In an ideal world, yes – as thoroughly as possible.”

“Isn’t Faran concerned we’ll take this opportunity to copy them?”

“Easier said than done, but also yes, to some extent. You said you were locked out from my quarters?”

“You didn’t lock me out?”

“No, I did not. Was it hard for you to get in?”

She raised the manager from its place on her belt. “Easy, with this. I can open any door; examine any instrument that has an input socket. But the locus of control is extremely shallow.”

“You found that thing in here, on board the ship?”

“No, I packed it with my luggage. These are standard issue for running diagnostics. We use them in school almost every day.”

“A major oversight, no doubt, but absolutely wonderful. Good job. To be perfectly honest it hadn’t occurred to me before now that we’d been locked in. I actually thought you locked me out… Women like their privacy, or so I’ve been told.”

“Pshh, right. So what you’re telling me is Faran programmed the ship to lock us into our respective compartments, after we boarded?”

“Seems prudent, no?”

“I guess…”

Caeden stood up from the back the couch and his steps slowly inched towards her as he began a revelatory monologue. “I’m not sure how much you know about me, but Faran knows a lot more than I’d like to admit. As it stands their top brass are more than completely aware of my lack of competence when it comes to the language of computers. That’s why you’re here – remember? I’m just a humble theorist, and there’s gray area everywhere, but Faran agreed to arrange our trip under the stipulation that I go alone. No threat and they get a fat paycheck equals ideal. Of course I had to insist that Cavendish negotiate for an assistant, and of course Faran had to insist that my assistant not be someone capable of breaking into their core systems, so that’s why you’re so young, and not a software engineer or graduate.”

“But they went for a computer science student…”

“Like I said a major oversight.” He stopped his advance a body’s length from hers and in response she took one step to the side.

“Well, yeah, I seriously doubt I’ll be any help in breaking into their core systems, whatever those may be, but thank you so-so much for throwing me in the deep end.”

“Oh you can thank me later. We’re picking up three more passengers near the halfway mark.” The old man seemed thrilled about the fact, dangerously so.

“What? Where the hell are we picking them up from?”

“A caravan barge that left Earth five months ago. It’s going to be tricky ‘cause we’re going a hell of a lot faster than they are, but there are some important people that want to hitch a ride.”

“Cavendish people?”

“One of them is the new director of operations, and then there’s also a Faran rep, and last one is guy from LXC who I think is going to be in charge of that resort they’ve just set up on Ganymede. That’s our official destination by the way: the new resort.”

“How is there room for them? I only counted two beds in my section, and there’s only that one in here.”

“Yeah, that’s why they put you in the crew quarters. There are three more apartments like this one, two on each wheel. You weren’t aware?”

Ana saw the mistake in her assumption that his accommodations were five times the size of hers. It was simply with regards to luxury that they had dwarfed her. “Nobody tells me anything; I’m just your assistant, remember?”

“Well one more thing then, about our soon-to-be neighbors.”

“What’s that?”

He grinned. “They’re all peetees.”