"Are you sure it's safe back here?"
Mark was not sure that Miles was really the best person to ask; not only was his grasp of cutting edge theoretical five-space math shaky at best, Miles had an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the most alarming potential disasters where his own plans were concerned.
"Oh yes. If there's any kind of a gravitational event, it'll certainly travel back along the energy path of the Wormhole Deep Resonance Energy Extractor." Mark made a face, though Miles missed it, staring at the viewport despite the the fact that all the action was so distant as to render it nothing more than tiny spots of light.
"Can't we come up with a better name for it than that? WDREE isn't exactly an acronym that sits lightly on the tongue."
"That can be your department. Only physicists have had a chance at naming so far; I don't disagree that if the Imperium is to have any galactic commercial success with technology, a better name would not hurt."
Not so long ago, it would have been Kareen's department. The thought sent another wash of bleak despair over Mark. Again and still. His fingers flexed for a moment, but it had been nearly two years; his therapist was gentle about it being time to move on, but the message had sounded increasingly worried for him. And his stomach rumbled. Mark ignored Gorge and focused, instead, on the present problems, rather more solvable than non-cryonic resurrection. "Of course it won't be easy to sell anything to anyone with this level of security still wrapping the whole project."
Lord Mark and Count Miles Vorkosigan stood in what Miles had dubbed a governmental slow courier, as opposed to the fast kind. They were neither armed nor armored, making them a fast ship but not so hyperactively fast as a true courier ship. Luckily, they were also not nearly so cramped on board. They had jumped through an explored but fruitlessly dead-ended wormhole from Sergyar to a place that had nothing resembling a valuable resource anywhere near. Except one more wormhole to another useless dead end.
That was the WDREE's target, just to be safe. Not even a remote chance of causing disruption to the wormhole they needed to get home, though Lord Auditor Vorthys insisted that shouldn't really be a concern anyway. He was off on the actual test platform. Miles and Mark had identical, if slightly time delayed, telemetry readings on the large board beside the viewport, but they were still quiescent. Only the final checks were clicking away quietly, and the allure of the real view was far more enticing.
Mark looked sidelong at his progenitor-brother. Six years older, he was nonetheless considerably further advanced in the acquisition of grey hair. The responsibilities of his position and his family seemed to have turned him into a caricature of a wizened grandfather at a mere fifty years old. Granted, the congenital damage done before his birth that left him shrunken and twisted did him no favors, but his face was lined, hair almost as grey as their father's had been when Mark first met him, and his cane was now a permanent fixture.
From an angle, Mark could see a reflection of the pair of them, and while their similarities would never vanish, their differences were pronounced now. Their hair, of course, was significantly different in color, and their builds were not even vaguely similar any more. Some of Lily Durona's treatments were keeping the cosmetic portion of Mark's aging process in check as well, never mind the softening effect of his double chin on his facial features.
Those difference were as nothing, of course, to the internal differences. Miles' seizures, his hyper-activity, his strange metabolic responses and his incomprehensible adrenaline addiction were bad enough; the subtler differences of growing up with parents who loved him, knowing his place in the world, and having grown into his own family, those were the distinctions that still dug at Mark under the skin even now. Thirty years of chasing, and I never seem any closer to catching up. Except when he thought of Kareen, the thought was more resigned now than full of angry jealousy. When he thought instead of her aircar accident, it turned to despair.
"Well, when we go to galactic governments asking to put in minor military bases by their spare wormholes in exchange for supplying nearly free energy to every ship that cares to dock, we'd best be able to demonstrate the economic viability. Professor Vorthys can certainly back up the technical side, but when it comes to things like pricing the surplus of energy, we're going to need your analysis."
"Well, someone's analysis at least," Mark replied. "I'm surprised you didn't get the Minister of Trade off of Komarr for this."
"Well, I might have, if he hadn't been tied up in negotiations with the Cetagandans over the level of our tariffs and the fact that neither of us want armed ships from the other operating in our space." Miles glanced over at the readouts. "Looks like the smoke test ran up clear. Should be getting underway in a minute."
On cue, the console chimed and Miles tapped the accept code. Lord Auditor Vorthys appeared, looking rumpled but energized. Mark couldn't help comparing Miles and Vorthys and thinking that really, Miles looked closer in age to the Professor's healthy ninety than his own forty-four.
"Ah, Miles. We're all ready to go here. Everything within spec except for a short in one of the high amplitude transformers and we're getting powered up. Is all your telemetry backup clear?"
"No red blinking lights on our end, Professor. We're ready to see what this thing can do." The time lag was short but perceptible at their range.
"Excellent. Once we begin, we'll have to keep the beam active for at least one hundred hours to get the kind of resonance build up we're looking for."
"I thought we were just going to have a one day test," Miles put in, sounding surprised. "Before we plunged in any deeper, so to speak."
"Well, so we did, but with one of the transformers off line, we have to measurably walk back our input in case anything else fails." The Professor grimaced. "Best to play it safe. But if we scale down our gravitational pulses, the time it will take to build up the proportional level of resonance necessary to offset our initial power inputs increases geometrically."
"Ah. Well, soonest started, soonest completed. Good luck."
"Thank you, Miles. I'll check in again when we've got some initial data to analyze." The Professor punched off line.
Mark straightened his shoulders with an effort. He really wished that he didn't feel the need to curl like a turtle when his brother was talking and he didn't want or need to get involved. It was a deep seated defense mechanism, and it had gotten worse since Kareen's death. Everything had gotten worse. He wondered if Howl was responsible for that reaction; it certainly had the potential to give him a screaming tension headache if he didn't stay on top of it.
"Someone once told me that new physics only come along once in a lifetime," Miles told Mark over his shoulder as he stared first at the largely incomprehensible readouts, then out the viewport again. "Too bad that with these five-space gravitational events there's so little to see."
"Well, not yet. I suppose anything that makes terawatts of energy appear out of nowhere will also make millions of marks do the same. Too bad paper currency is so little in use, now; then you'd really see some mass effects."
Miles gave a little snort at this sally, which was all Mark really thought it deserved anyway. Miles went to the viewport again, which let Mark step in front of the computerized display. Power levels were being monitored with microscopic precision, apparently necessary to both tune the WDREE properly and allow Mark to make accurate economic predictions. Power flow was steady, the gravitic interference remained negligible and there did not seem to be any fluctuations or breakdowns that his instrumentation could reveal.
Then a readout beeped. It was not an angry alarm beep, but it caught his attention quickly anyway. It indicated that something was happening in the wormhole. A ship coming through? What ship could possibly be coming on this route? Something in the internal structure of the wormhole itself, destabilized enough to be measurable? That seemed unlikely, given the amount of math Mark had skimmed over proving that it should not be a problem.
The computer seemed unable to generate a theory as to what was happening. Whatever it was seemed to be happening slowly, anyway, so if it didn't pose a threat, they would certainly have to study it carefully.
Another beep on the screen, this time the link from the Professor. Mark tapped accept as Miles moved up to stand with him, not attempting to push him out of the way.
"Miles, are you getting these readings? Very peculiar. If this keeps up, we may ask you to move a little closer to get some more precise readings."
"Yes. You don't have a theory as to what's causing it, do you? Or, ah, what exactly the 'it' is?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Doctor Riva is suggesting that what we're seeing is the wormhole being wedged open a crack and perhaps crossing the usual laws of three space with the internal five-space nature of the wormhole. I'm not convinced that's what it is, but I can't say I have any better theory, either. Certainly, the energy flow is not what we expected, but nothing suggests cause for immediate alarm."
The Professor looked as unalarmed as his assurances suggested. In fact, Mark thought he looked stimulated, eyes bright as he kept glancing from the vid pickup off to the side, probably at some data output.
"New physics?" Mark suggested.
"Yes indeed. We may require new models to explain what we're seeing."
"Do you think it's doing what it's supposed to do, whatever else it's doing?" Miles put in.
"Oh, without question. The resonance effects are right on their predicted levels. We certainly want to continue the trial for its full duration unless something changes dramatically."
"All right, Professor. I guess we've got some time to wait, then. Let us know if anything new develops for you, or if you come up with any more compelling theories."
"Certainly. Miles, Mark." Lord Auditor Vorthys winked out again and Miles stepped back.
"Well. I suspect this is going to be interesting once they have sorted out what it is we're doing, but we're going to have to do rather a lot of sitting around here until it is."
Miles sounded like he had caught some of the Professor's enthusiasm as he turned away. Mark permitted himself to be led away, but the prospect of an extra three days of interminable testing in which he had no real function was enough to make the whole black gang restless. It was just as well that Mark had thought to include some provisions other than military rations.
"There wouldn't be much purpose in heading back to Sergyar; we'd what, almost get there, then have to turn back?" Mark attempted to avoid sounding wistful.
"No, sorry to say. I'd better send a message to our courier so he can relay it home when he jumps again. After that, well, I should probably head down to the wardroom. Care to join me?" Miles did airy indifference well, but Mark could read his brother well by now. Even Miles was never quite sure he was being a brother correctly, though he was less innately awkward than Mark.
"Ah, I suppose I might as well. There's only so many business models I can run." And there would be food. Perhaps awkward social pleasantries might even provide Howl with a degree of satisfaction.
"How about the 'Free Energy Tap?' Or the 'Intergalactic Electrical Spigot?' Or the 'Zap-a-tronic?'"
Mark made a face. All Miles' suggestions had tended to the absurd. Mark had not yet come up with many that were better, though, he had to admit. They had the wardroom to themselves, it being the middle of the night by the shipboard clock to which they had not adjusted.
"It has to sound at least vaguely scientific. The market we're trying to reach is conservative planetary governments and shippers with astronomically high energy expenditures. Wormhole Deep Resonance Energy Extractor isn't really bad, it's just too long, and lacks a really usable acronym. If 'Deep Resonance Extractor of Wormhole Energy' made any sense, 'DREWE' would be fine. At least you can say it."
"Well, if we're not limiting ourselves to options that make sense, how about the 'Special Holistic Improvement Transformer?'"
Mark was just put together a rejoinder when the com chimed again. Miles leaned back in his chair far enough to hit the activation key. Lord Auditor Vorthys appeared once again, looking both excited and perplexed. He began without preamble.
"Miles, I wonder if we could move your ship to the wormhole for a time. We can't possibly get detailed readings from our present distance, and part of our essential test conditions require us to maintain our present position relative to the wormhole. There shouldn't be any danger, even at the moment we exceed the phase boundary, but that won't be for days yet anyway."
"Move to the wormhole?" Miles appeared rather startled at the suggestion. "Professor, you've been telling me that you have no real idea what is going on, and you really think the best way to investigate is to send a manned vessel straight into whatever it is?"
"None of our readings indicate anything the least dangerous. Energy discharges on the kilowatt level -- enough to give a person a nasty shock, but hardly a threat to your ship. No, the difficulty is that there appears to be a very small amount of matter leakage, and there's simply no way to identify all the trace elements from any kind of distance."
"Matter leakage?" The question burst out of Mark without bothering to ask his rational brain for permission. "You mean that there are seriously, what, molecules of some kind that are coming through the wormhole? In the middle of wide open, empty spot in the void of space, that only links up to another wide open, empty void?"
"Yes. It appears to be only trace amounts, but laser spectrometry is not particularly easy to apply to trace elements from a light second away. Please, Miles, go and talk to that captain of yours. Your mass shielding should more than protect you from what you've seen, and your readings will be enormously more accurate than anything we can take from here."
"I..." Miles hesitated. Mark could see the wild curiosity struggling with the responsible caution on Miles' face. "You're sure there's no sign of anything dangerous, Professor?"
"None whatsoever. I'd be doing it myself if I could move my ship." That sincerity seemed to sell it.
"All right. I'll get us moved; we're probably going to have to get very close to really get good readings, yes?"
"Oh, yes. I see no reason you can't make your approach a cautious one, but I think you'll need to be within a kilometer for at least a few hours to get an accurate sampling."
"I'll go speak to Captain Popov and see about getting a course laid in. I suppose we're also going to want to reverse our telemetry stream, so that you'll be able to see our data as we see hours."
"All right. Vorkosigan out."
Miles flicked off the com and rubbed at his chin. He picked up his cane, which was actually an elegant little sword stick, and tapped it meditatively on the floor. Mark stared at it. When Miles noticed, he stopped tapping.
"Well. To the Captain, it seems. You coming?"
"I suppose so. Seems like the best chance at entertainment we're likely to get out here."
They each levered up from the table and trundled out into the hall. Armsman Kozlov fell in behind them without comment. It was a little disturbing to Mark to be trailed by a retired twenty years man who was nonetheless his junior, but the armsmen of their father's generation had been retiring steadily. Miles had only taken a convenient three for this journey, pointing out that his personal security would not be a significant concern.
Captain Popov, a tall and burly middle aged man, was another retired member of the Barrayaran military service. His security clearance was high or he would never have been tapped for this duty. His understanding of cutting edge five-space manipulation technologies was limited, but his understanding of his duty to his ship and his crew was acute, which was inconvenient for Miles.
"Captain, I have the direct and personal assurance of Lord Auditor Vorthys that but for the need to keep his ship stationary to continue the test, he would be going in himself."
"That's well enough, Count Vorkosigan, but I have responsibility for my own ship. And no one is telling me what we are flying into!"
"It is a low intensity debris field of non-volatile elements broken down into a disperse gas. You've flown through worse a dozen times since we left Sergyar."
"It's not what we see that worries me, it's what we can't see! We have no idea where this field is coming from, except that it wasn't there before this experiment started, and no one predicted it!"
Miles frowned at Popov and Mark crossed his arms, leaning against a bulkhead and waiting to see how Miles would chose to ride roughshod over the man. It did, indeed, promise to be the best entertainment available in this node of the wormhole nexus.
"Captain, do I need to start giving orders in the Emperor's Voice?" Miles was actually disappointingly calm and quiet in the question; granted, his authority was so far above the Captain's, it was unfair to uncork any more than necessary. In this case, just the reminder seemed to be sufficient.
"I...no, my lord auditor. Gregovich! Plot us a course for a 1 kilometer intercept on that wormhole that'll bring us to rest before this test is over."
The navigator tossed off a quick "Aye, sir," and began plugging into his computers. Really, Mark thought this was likely to be the easiest piece of navigation the kid was ever likely to get. Out in deep space, with a well localized point for reference and without even any planetary gravitational effects, it seemed likely to just require them to accelerate and decelerate in the right direction.
"Now, my lord Auditor, I'll be getting down to engineering to see to those uplinks you wanted."
"Thank you, Captain," Miles replied with a dignified nod. He beat a retreat as Popov continued giving orders and Mark unpeeled from the wall to follow.
"You know, you used to spend a lot more effort working people around to your point of view," he couldn't help observing to his older brother, who shrugged.
"I think it would have wasted both our times on this one. He didn't want to do it because he doesn't want to run the risk of running into the field when we can't give him an answer as to what's happening, and we can't get an answer without better information. We're really the only option, so it's up to us. You heard him calling me 'count' instead of 'auditor'? Trying to convince me to stay in my Vorkosigan hat instead of my Imperial one."
Miles mimed removing a hat by its brim and tossing it over his shoulder before flourishing a new one into place. Mark rolled his eyes; this was taking theatricality a little far even by his standards. The gesture let him take in Armsman Kazlov, who was contriving to look more blank than could possibly be natural. Well trained, though Mark thought he would probably get more subtle about it with practice.
"I think you're getting too used to everyone just rolling over and doing what you say." As Miles opened his mouth to object, Mark quickly raised his hand. "Okay, everyone outside the family." Miles shut his mouth, so Mark continued. "I mean, the Council of Counts is one thing, but there's hardly anyone else you need to do more than say 'Gregor Vorbarra' to, and suddenly they're a quivering submissive puddle."
"I wouldn't exactly call Captain Popov either quivering or submissive," Miles finally objected, as Mark gave him the pause.
"Nor would I, in the ordinary course of events, but your guns are so big, by Barrayaran standards, that they annihilate what you would otherwise think sturdy force screens. So to speak."
Miles actually seemed to give this assertion serious consideration, eying Mark sidelong as they trooped back into the wardroom, which was no longer completely empty. They could sit at their own table, but a couple of off shift techs shifted uncomfortably at their own table.
"Are you saying I've lost my edge?"
"That was not quite what I meant." Though Mark did not attempt to entirely deny the question. "I think what I mean is that you only deal with problems on an entirely different scale from most men. You aren't worried about finding your depilatory or packing for a trip or being obeyed. You're worried about the subtle wranglings of the Council and the ministries, the most lethal vectors for disaster to the Imperium and the best chances for development. Captain Popov just isn't up to your weight class; if he made the mistake of trying to give you trouble, you wouldn't even have any choice about squashing him like a bug, and he knows it."
"I suppose that's all true, but I have to say, Mark, that I think wrestling the Council around to accepting something that's not traditional but good for Barrayar ought to count as enough practice in personnel management to outweigh, oh, for example, managing a minor financial empire."
Mark flipped up a hand in surrender at that. "And it's probably nothing compared to keeping Helen from turning Vorbarr Sultana upside down, though at least you've got Ekaterin on your side there."
"And Gregor and his merry men with the Council, it's true." Mark grinned.
"Does that cast Duv Galeni in the role of Little John, then, as his chief enforcer of Impsec order?" Miles laughed at that.
"What am I, then, Extremely Little John?"
"I was thinking of Alan-a-Dale, but you can be Little John's occasional sidekick and sometime superior."
"Shall we cast Ivan as Will Scarlet?"
They went through as much of the rest of the cast of characters in the Robin Hood legend as they could agree upon. Having cast Gregor as Robin Hood, the problem of whom to peg as King Richard, Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham became tricky, ending up with Baron Fell of Jackson's Whole as Guy of Gisborne somehow. Eventually, they switched over to Arthurian legend, but they hung up quickly on the horrifying thought of inflicteing a Lancelot on Gregor. Even if it did mean they could unilaterally (or at least bilaterally) elect Count Vormoncrief to the role of Percival. They snickered over that.
All the political power in the world, Mark reflected, couldn't turn Vormoncrief into a genuine coward, but a moment's effort of the imagination will do it for anyone.
"So, does this list of elements mean anything to you, Professor?"
They had been in the matter emission field, as Lord Auditor Vorthys dubbed it, for the better part of a day. It was coming up on the end of the testing period, and the wormhole still seemed to exist, and it still seemed to be spewing a lot of gaseous elements. Well, technically, they were frozen, but they were spaced as individual molecules of frozen elements rather than larger crystals.
"Well, the obvious parallel is to a breathable atmosphere. The proportions of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon are certainly with the parameters one would expect. Also, they seem to be frozen as individual atoms, which suggests they were not concentrated when frozen, but they are certainly concentrated now. At least, by deep space vacuum standards."
"That's so very odd," Miles replied, scratching at his chin. "I mean, it's been proven mathematically that you can't have a wormhole end remotely close to any interfering gravitational source. What it looks like is a planet's atmosphere venting into space. But that's outright ridiculous."
"No, indeed. And I can't see how a wormhole would somehow fixate inside a ship, nor a station, without having destroyed it and its source for additional atmosphere to vent."
Mark found himself sitting to one side again, though he realized he was not puling in his shoulders this time. Perhaps he felt engaged with the issue for the first time. He spoke up at last.
"Could it be the wormhole itself that's actually creating them? If energy and matter are possible to transmute, one into the other, I can't say it's impossible."
"That seems...unlikely," Vorthys replied. It sounded like diplomatic courtesy to Mark, but then he shrugged. "Then again, everything else sounds impossible. It might actually be the simplest theory." That was a rather daunting thought to Mark.
"You mean," Miles put in, "that we might be producing so much excess energy, we could be producing matter? Good lord, and this might just be a byproduct?"
"Either that, or all our theorized excess energy will in fact return fairly trivial elemental resources and this entire project will turn out to be a colossal waste of time, energy and brainpower," Mark put in with his trademark cheer. Miles grimaced at the thought.
"Actually, I was wondering if it might have had an impact on the atmospheric compositions of a large number of our Earth-like planets. Not, perhaps, a very practical application, but if it were more than a flight of my fancy, it could offer considerable insights into the early development of the universe."
There was a thought that brought Miles and Mark both up short. It was quite a bit further along the chain of reasoning than they had yet moved. Before they could get deeply diverted, however, the professor started poking amiable holes in his own theory.
"Of course, to assume that this phenomena, which has never been observed in nature, would occur with sufficient regularity and scope to significantly impact anything close to the size of a planet is a bit of a stretch. I think that we shall have to be satisfied if it simply fails to interfere with our originally intended economic application."
Mark and Miles were in nav and com today. The expanded requirements of the two way links between their ship and Lord Auditor Vorthys' test platform added onto the constant, finely calibrated sensor sweeps had apparently left the ship's engineer no choice but to shunt all the information onto the abundantly wired and already data-rich brain center of the ship. This meant that Popov was sitting not far away, drumming his fingers on the arm of his command chair and Armsman Kozlov was parked in a corner with excellent vantage and stunner angles. It was not intended for the extra bodies.
"Well, I'm certainly interested to see what --"
"Sir, reading a large mass that just emerged from the wormhole, heading out at slow speed. Looks like seventy-nine kilos of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Strong traces of calcium and phosphorous. Large enough that our visual scans will -- shit!"
The tech operating the scanning station recoiled from his screen to the limit allowed by the fact that his chair was bolted into place. He did not contrive to fall out of it, but Mark had the sense that he almost wished he had. Despite his limp, Miles beat Mark to look over the man's shoulder. What was his name? Bogdanovich? Bagdanovig? Unfortunately, all that Mark could remember for sure was the pilot officer grumbling about a tech called "Bag o' nuts" which really didn't help him.
The tech -- Mark tried hard not to think of his inaccurate name -- had managed to bring up the visual scan and lock it onto the object. And it was hideously recognizable as human. There was no space suit. And suddenly, it spasmed.
"Oh God. He's still alive."
Mark realized that he was the one who had spoken. Bag o' nuts -- it had to be Bogdanovich -- suddenly fell out of his chair and vomited messily on the friction matting. Miles' walking stick clattered to the floor as he flung himself into the man's seat and started slapping controls with frantic speed.
"What are you doing?" Popov surged out of his command chair and started furiously over toward Miles, looking like he would pull the Lord Auditor bodily out of the chair. Mark turned toward him and tilted his head to the side. His breathing steadied as the Other balanced on his toes, prepared for action the ship captain could not possibly expect. Fortunately, Armsman Kozlov stepped out of his little alcove with his stunner drawn and his eyes dead level, between Popov and Miles. The captain, looking considerably shocked, stopped in his tracks. Miles didn't even look up.
"We got that poor bastard as soon as he came through the wormhole or whatever the hell that thing is," Miles explained without for a minute slowing his frantic tattoo on the computer's control panel. "He's dying of explosive decompression as we sit here watching. I'm bring him in by the tractors as fast as I can without tearing the poor bastard in half. Not that he'd feel it by now." His tone was almost absent, so intent was he on his task.
Popov opened his mouth, closed it, and looked at Kazlov. The armsman was silent. Mark decided he admired the approach, and so when Popov looked at him, he likewise stared back silently, giving not an inch. The man looked as if he wasn't sure if he should thank them, try to brig them, run away, or possibly crawl out of his own skin. Then he looked down at Bogdanovich, who was sitting up, but looking a little dazed.
"Bogdanovich," Ha! "get down to sickbay. Take the shift, and give them a warning what's coming in. You gonna make it on your own?" The tech nodding and pushed to his feet, though he glanced guiltily at the puddle on the floor. "Get going," Popov reiterated, and Bogdanovich took himself off.
Meanwhile, Miles was still hammering commands. "I'm getting him into airlock five. It's clear."
This news seemed to kick Popov into whatever gear it was that Miles was operating in. He stepped to his chair and started slapping internal com buttons, bellowing at the medical staff to get a party to airlock five in fifteen seconds. Seconds, dammit! It was probably more helpful in letting Popov blow off some steam than in getting the medtechs moving, Mark reflected. Or than in saving the life of that man, whoever he was. What was it, ninety seconds between the beginning of explosive decompression and death? Perhaps the man could be thrown into cryo-freeze if there was enough of his brain left to save, but despite Miles' heroics, it was extremely unlikely that --
What is this place?
It was a thought, Mark was sure of it, for there was no sound that accompanied the words, but he couldn't figure out which of the black gang could possibly have said it. They were all quite passive about the wormhole, though Killer's interest had been piqued by the body and the potential for confrontation. But the question did not taste black. It tasted somehow purple, and that was all wrong for the black gang.
Then Mark's eyes rolled back in his head, and he fainted.