HD 10180 SYSTEM
Domain Day 150, 2217
The star spoke to Elgin Woo.
He peered at it through the Starhawk’s forward viewport, smiled, and leaned forward as if to hear more clearly. Even at this distance, just under two billion kilometers away, the star shone impossibly bright, a tiny hard point of thermonuclear violence piercing the death-black emptiness of space. An unblinking eye peering into his soul.
The star was the first thing he’d seen after regaining consciousness from his improbable voidjump into this sector of space, into a region that should have been impossible to reach. But Elgin Woo—the ship’s sole occupant, its captain and creator—had indeed accomplished the impossible. He had jumped far beyond the 36-light-year boundary of the V-Limit and was now racing directly toward a star cataloged as HD 10180, the center of a planetary system 127 light-years from Earth. Woo smiled at the star, absently twirling one side of his long, braided moustache between finger and thumb. Among the many superlatives that could be applied to his life’s work, the 63-year-old Nobel Prize–decorated astrophysicist could add one more: he was the only human being ever known to have successfully jumped beyond Bound Space.
But known by whom? No one knew he was here. He hadn’t brought along a Holtzman device, so he had no way to communicate his whereabouts to anyone back in Bound Space. Yes, he had divulged his intentions to Aiden Macallan and Skye Landen back in the Chara system just before attempting the impossible. But now they had no way of knowing if he had succeeded.
Woo turned away from the viewport and set about brewing a cup of tea in the Starhawk’s small galley. He had stocked the vessel with only the bare essentials before he and Skye departed the Cauldron in great haste on their mission to Silvanus, and Woo considered his current favorite tea more than essential. He carefully coaxed the dark leaves of Keemun black tea into his antique silver brewing ball, feeling their dry but still pliant texture between his fingertips, a process that liberated a faint orchid-like fragrance. This particular variety of Keemun was still grown exclusively in Anhui province and had been a gift from his father. Woo smiled as he placed the ball into a ceramic mug of hot water. Rest in peace, Bàba.
It was not yet perfectly clear how he’d arrived here. Finding the gateway voidoid, of course, had been the key. His theories about its existence, and where to find it, had proven correct. But the exact mechanics of it—the quantum mechanics, to be more exact—still mystified him. Apparently, it had nothing to do with the Starhawk’s revolutionary zero-point drive. He’d made the jump using only the ship’s conventional matter/antimatter drive, proving that any standard voidship in Bound Space could do the same. But now that he was here, those questions were no longer of immediate interest to him. He was more fascinated by what came next.
Elgin Woo was a man consumed by the singular state of mind that had propelled his career into unparalleled scientific accomplishment: curiosity. The pure and simple curiosity of a child, combined with the will, courage, and intellectual gifts to pursue it wherever it led him. Hence his present location. The tight-beam microburst of neutrinos emitted by Chara’s voidoid and aimed directly at HD 10180 had compelled him to investigate, ignoring the very high probability of losing his life in the process. Now he was here, and the star had spoken to him upon his arrival. Curious . . .
Woo removed the brewing ball and took his mug of steaming Keemun back to the viewport, hypnotically drawn to the sight of the star. He sat on a narrow bench built into the bulkhead and took his first sip, feeling the hot liquid slide down his throat to warm his core. The tea’s smoky aroma filled his nostrils. He took a long moment to delight in its malty flavor, a nonastringent taste reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate.
Then, of course, there was the matter of the nine planets here in the HD 10180 system, or as his sensors had revealed upon arrival, 10 planets. The tenth one was a surprise. It had never revealed itself to astronomers back at Sol and therefore had never been cataloged. Plus, HD 10180 was a G1V-type star, similar to Earth’s sun but slightly larger and about half again as bright. That held intriguing possibilities for any of the planets orbiting within its habitable zone.
There appeared to be only two such planets. One was well documented—HD 10180g, a Neptune-sized gas giant sitting 1.4 AU from the star. The other, however, was none other than the previously undetected planet, the one that wasn’t supposed to be here but now showed up bold as daylight on the Starhawk’s optical screen. At a distance of 1.2 AU from the star, it lay smack in the middle of the system’s biohabitable zone. And unlike most of the other massive planets crowding the inner system, it appeared to be a terrestrial world with tantalizing hints of protective atmosphere. The moment it showed up on his sensors, Woo had named it Shénmì, a word meaning “mystery” in his native Mandarin. The planet was less than two billion kilometers away. His jump from the voidoid had already put the Starhawk on a heading straight toward it. Shénmì was his obvious next destination.
Woo turned away from the viewport, humming softly to himself some mindless little melody, set a course for Shénmì, and prepared to engage the Starhawk’s zero-point drive. If the inertia-altering device worked as well as it had up to this point, it would deliver him into Shénmì space in about two hours, no need for prolonged acceleration followed by deceleration. No G-forces. Virtually instantaneous transition to 92 percent light speed, a clever trickeration of the laws of physics.
He entered the command to engage the drive and sat back in the pilot’s chair, awaiting the next revelation in this most extraordinary excursion. The viewport flickered once, obscuring the view outside, then cleared again. And . . .
The ship did not change course or velocity. Woo tried again, adjusting the electromagnetic field generators to a slightly different set of resonant frequencies. Still nothing.
Uh-oh . . .
Woo sat back in his chair, looking out at the emptiness of space he knew was not empty at all. What made the zero-point drive work, basically, was the elimination of inertia. Without inertia, acceleration to relativistic velocities could be attained almost instantly, free from the forces of acceleration and requiring only modest initial thrust. He and his colleagues at the Cauldron had found a way to manipulate zero-point fields with tuned EM generators to control the phenomenon of inertia itself. The trick was finding the right combination of interacting EM resonances to produce the effect on any given scale. But the frequency settings that worked perfectly well in Bound Space were apparently not working out here in this sector of space. He thought he knew why—a slight variance in the cosmological constant predicted by his own nascent theory of living voidoids. The same theory that also predicted the problem would be virtually impossible to correct in his current situation.
Woo took another sip of tea and stood up. At least he could keep trying. With the aid of his Omicron-3 AI, who he addressed as Mari, he spent the next two hours testing different settings on the EM generators. None of them worked. There were too many variables, and he didn’t have the necessary equipment to narrow them down, instruments that existed only at the Cauldron. And even if he did have them, the ship needed to be at complete standstill to accurately recalibrate the field generators. Right now, he was zipping along at 2 percent light speed.
He sat back down and sipped the last of his tea, now cold but still delicious. The drive was, after all, an experimental prototype. He couldn’t expect perfection this early in the trial period, but the timing of the malfunction was so . . . unfortunate. He could almost hear Skye Landen’s admonitions. She had warned him of the folly of his little jaunt into the unknown, for reasons exactly like this one. She had, of course, been right.
He took a deep breath and reviewed his situation. The Starhawk was currently on a straight-line trajectory toward the star’s inner system at a velocity of around 6,250 km/sec, the same velocity with which he’d entered the voidoid. He could not use the zero-point drive, but the vessel’s conventional matter/antimatter drive still worked perfectly well and could deliver up to 1 G constant acceleration. At least until he ran out of antimatter fuel, which would happen sooner than later. The good news was that the Starhawk had a virtually inexhaustible life-support system operating on superbly designed recycling technologies developed at the Cauldron. The bad news was that it couldn’t churn out all the bulk nutrients his body needed to survive for an extended period of time, and his stored food supply had dwindled.
Given all of that, and his inability to communicate with Bound Space, it would appear he had only two options now. He could either turn around, head back to the voidoid, and attempt to jump back into Bound Space. Or he could continue onward into the system to investigate whatever secrets it held, including Shénmì. If he wanted to head back to the voidoid, he couldn’t just stop where he was and turn around. Conventional rocket science didn’t work that way. Given his current velocity of 6,250 km/sec, he’d have to decelerate and come to a full stop before turning around. That would require seven and a half days at 1 G thrust. From there, getting back to the system’s voidoid nearly two billion kilometers away and to approach it at a sane velocity—highly recommended when attempting a voidjump without a Licensed Pilot—would take another 10 days at 1 G. Total: 17.5 days continuous thrust before he could even attempt a jump back into Bound Space.
The problem was he had only enough antimatter fuel reserves for about 11 days of 1 G thrust. Technically, it would still be possible for the Starhawk to reach the voidoid after turnaround. But without continuous acceleration throughout, the new calculations would add over two months to the trip. He would surely starve to death well before then.
Option number two, however, required only the first part of option one—start decelerating now at 1 G, and in seven and a half days when he came to a standstill, he would find himself close enough to the planet Shénmì to slip easily into orbit around her. His food supply, if strictly rationed, would be sufficient. So, it was a no-brainer. Option number two, setting course for Shénmì, was the only one that made sense.
He gave Mari instructions and felt the Starhawk’s engine shut down just long enough to turn the ship 180 degrees about-face and begin deceleration toward Shénmì. Satisfied, he moved to the viewport again and sat, admiring the beautiful star, its brilliant point of light ruling over the cold emptiness of space. He felt content, even happy, that the decision he’d wanted to make in his heart was now backed up by cold, hard facts. Shénmì called to him like a siren from the deep. He would go to her, and even if he ended up starving to death in orbit around her, he would die in peace.
It all made perfect sense to him now. If he was going to die here anyway, why not have some fun first? Why not continue the quest that brought him here in the first place? So many intriguing questions had emerged during his mission to Silvanus. Why had the Chara voidoid emitted that microburst of neutrinos aimed directly at this very star system, HD 10180? And why had it happened at exactly the same time that Silvanus, the only other living planet known to exist in Bound Space, became sealed within a protective energy field? And why had both phenomena occurred right after the planet had been threatened by destruction from outside agents? It couldn’t be a coincidence. The neutrino emission was clearly not some sort of signal intended for this star; it would take over 150 years to get here from the Chara system. No. It made more sense that it was a beacon pointing the way here. Intended for him. An invitation?
To Woo, an undeniable element of purpose—of intelligence—was apparent in these phenomena. It supported his hunch that the voidoids themselves were alive and were in fact integral parts of a larger web of life in a vast galactic ecosystem. The obvious best place to look for answers was right here, in the HD 10180 system, and he was determined to start looking.
Woo smiled, feeling unusually lighthearted, and instructed Mari to set a course for Shénmì. Seeking knowledge was far superior to seeking safety. But there was another reason he felt at ease with his decision to go onward toward Shénmì. The planet’s sun, the star, had spoken to him. He heard it even now. Not words, and not heard through his ears. More like music or a subtle little melody running through his head that he couldn’t shake. A message both simple and deep with meaning, yet profoundly enigmatic. Not words, but the translation was just as clear: Welcome. You are always here.