Chapter 5 - The Face of God

Blaine made his way quickly to the bridge and strapped himself into the command chair. As soon as he was settled he reached for the intercom unit. A startled Midshipman Whitbread looked out of the screen from the Captain's cabin.
Blaine gambled. "Read it to me, Mister."
"You have the regs open to the standing orders on alien contact, don't you? Read them to me, please." Blaine remembered looking them up, long ago, for fun and curiosity. Most cadets did.
"Yes, sir." Visibly, Whitbread wondered if the Captain had been reading his mind, then decided that it was the Captain's prerogative. This incident would start legends. "'Section 4500: First contact with nonhuman sentient beings. Note: Sentient beings are defined as creatures which employ tools and communication in purposeful behavior. Subnote: Officers are cautioned to use judgment in applying this definition. The hive rat of Makassar, as an example, employs tools and communication to maintain its nest, but is not Sentient.
"'Section One: Upon encounter with sentient nonhuman beings, officers will communicate the existence of such aliens to nearest Fleet command. All other objectives will be considered secondary to this accomplishment.
Section Two: After the objective described in section one is assured, officers will attempt to establish communication with the aliens, provided however that in so doing they are not authorized to risk their command unless so ordered by higher authority. Although officers will not initiate hostilities it must be assumed that nonhuman sentient creatures may be hostile. Section Three-'"
Whitbread was cut off by the final acceleration warning.
Blaine nodded acknowledgment to the middle and settled back in his couch. The regulations weren't likely to be much use anyway. They mostly dealt with initial contact without prior warning, and here Fleet command pretty well knew MacArthur was going out to intercept an alien vessel.
Ship's gravity edged upward, slowly enough to give the crew time to adjust, a full minute to rise to three gravities.
Blaine felt two hundred sixty kilos settling into his acceleration couch. Throughout the ship men would be moving with the wary attention one gives to lifting weights, but it was not a crippling acceleration. Not for a young man. For Bury it would be rough, but the Trader would be all right if he stayed in his gee bed.
Blaine felt very much at ease in his contoured armchair. It had headrest and fingertip controls, lapboard, power swiveling so that the entire bridge was in view without effort, even a personal relief tube. Warships are designed for long periods of high gravity.
Blaine fiddled with his screen controls to produce a 3-d graph overhead. He cut in the privacy switch to hide his doodles from the rest of the crew. Around him the bridge officers attended to their duties, Cargill and Sailing Master Renner huddled together near the astrogation station, Midshipman Staley settled next to the helmsman ready to assist if needed but mostly there to learn how to handle the ship. Blaine's long fingers moved over the screen controls.
A long green velocity line, a short lavender vector pointing in the opposite direction-with a small white ball between. So. The intruder had come straight from the direction of the Mote and was decelerating directly into the New Cal system...and it was somewhat bigger than Earth's Moon. A ship-sized object would have been a dimensionless point.
A good thing Whitbread hadn't noticed that. There'd be gossip, tales to the crew, panic among the new hands...Blaine felt the metallic taste of fear himself. My God, it was big. "But they'd have to have something that big," Rod muttered. Thirty-five light years, through normal space!
There never had been a human civilization that could manage such a thing. Still-how did the Admiralty expect him to "investigate" it? Much less "intercept" it? Land on it with Marines?
What in Hannigan's Hell was a light sail?
"Course to Brigit, sir," Sailing Master Renner announced.
Blaine snapped up from his reverie and touched his screen controls again. The ship's course appeared on his screen as a pictorial diagram below tables of figures. Rod spoke with effort. "Approved." Then he went back to the impossibly large object on his view screen. Suddenly he took out his pocket computer and scribbled madly across its face. Words and numbers flowed across the surface, and he nodded.
Of course light pressure could be used for propulsion.
In fact MacArthur did exactly that, using hydrogen fusion to generate photons and emitting them in an enormous spreading cone of light. A reflecting mirror could use outside light as propulsion and get twice the efficiency. Naturally the mirror should be as large as possible, and as light, and ideally it should reflect all the light that fell on it.
Blaine grinned to himself. He had been nerving himself to attack a space going planet with his half-repaired battle cruiser! Naturally the computer had pictured an object that size as a globe. In reality it was probably a sheet of silvered fabric thousands of kilometers across, attached by adjustable shrouds to the mass that would be the ship proper.
In fact, with an albedo of one- Blaine sketched rapidly.
The light sail would need about eight million square kilometers of area. If circular, it would be about three thousand klicks across.
It was using light for thrust, so...Blaine called up the intruder's deceleration, matched it to the total reflected light, Sail and payload together massed about 450 thousand kilograms.
That didn't sound dangerous.
In fact, it didn't sound like a working spacecraft, not one that could cross thirty-five light years in normal space. The alien pilots would go mad with so little room-unless they were tiny, or liked enclosed spaces, or had spent the past several hundred years living in inflated balloons with filmy, lightweight There was too little known and too much room for speculation. Still, there was nothing better to do. He fingered the knot on his nose.
Blaine was about to clear the screens, then thought again and increased the magnification. He stared at the result for a long time, then swore softly.
The intruder was heading straight into the sun.

MacArthur decelerated at nearly three gravities directly into orbit around Brigit; then she descended into the protective Langston Field of the base on the moonlet, a small black dart sinking toward a tremendous black pillow, the two joined by a thread of intense white. Without the Field to absorb the energy of thrust, the main drive would have burned enormous craters into the snowball moon.
The fueling station crew rushed to theft tasks. Liquid hydrogen, electrolized from the mushy ice of Brigit and distilled after liquefaction, poured into MacArthur's tankage complexes. At the same time Sinclair drove his men outside. Crewmen swarmed across the ship to take advantage of low gravity with the ship dirtside. Boatswains screamed at supply masters as Brigit was stripped of spare parts.
"Commander Frenzi requests permission to come aboard, sir," the watch officer called. Rod grimaced. "Send him up." He turned back to Sally Fowler, seated demurely in the watch midshipman's seat.
"But don't you understand, we'll be accelerating at high gees all the way to intercept. You know what that feels like now. Besides, it's a dangerous mission!"
"Pooh. Your orders were to take me to New Scotland," she huffed. "They said nothing about stranding me on a snowball."
"Those were general orders. If Cziller's known we'd have to fight, he'd never have let you aboard. As captain of this ship, it's my decision, and I say I'm not about to take Senator Fowler's niece out to a possible battle."
"Oh." She thought for a moment. The direct approach hadn't worked. "Rod. Listen. Please. You see this as a tremendous adventure, don't you? How do you think I feel? Whether those are aliens or just lost colonists trying to find the Empire again, this is my field. It's what I was trained for, and I'm the only anthropologist aboard. You need me."
"We can do without. It's too dangerous."
"You're letting Mr. Bury stay aboard."
"Not letting. The Admiralty specifically ordered me to keep him in my ship. I don't have discretion about him, but I do about you and your servants -- "
"If it's Adam and Annie you're worried about, we'll leave them here. They couldn't take the acceleration anyway. But I can take anything you can, Captain My Lord Roderick Blaine. I've seen you after a hyperspace Jump, dazed, staring around, not knowing what to do, and I was able to leave my cabin and walk up here to the bridge! So don't tell me how helpless I am! Now, are you going to let me stay here, or...
"Or what?"
"Or nothing, of course. I know I can't threaten you. Please, Rod?" She tried everything, including batting her eyes, and that was too much, because Rod burst out laughing.
"Commander Frenzi, sir," the Marine sentry outside the bridge companionway announced.
"Come in, Romeo, come in," Rod said more heartily than he felt. Frenzi was thirty-five, a good ten years older than Blaine, and Rod had served under him for three months of the most miserable duty he could ever recall. The man was a good administrator but a horrible ship's officer.
Frenzi peered around the bridge, his jaw thrust forward. "Ah. Blaine. Where's Captain Cziller?"
"On New Chicago," Rod said pleasantly. "I'm master of MacArthur now." He swiveled so that Frenzi could see the four rings on each sleeve.
Frenzi's face became more craggy. His lips drooped.
"Congratulations." Long pause. "Sir." "Thanks, Romeo. Still takes getting used to myself."
"Well, I'll go out and tell the troops not to hurry about the fueling, shall I?" Frenzi said. He turned to go.
"What the hell do you mean, not to hurry? I've got a double-A-one priority. Want to see the message?"
"I've seen it. They relayed a copy through my station, Blaine-uh, Captain. But the message makes it clear that Admiral Cranston thinks Cziller is still in command of MacArthur. I respectfully suggest, sir, that he would not have sent this ship to intercept a possible alien if he knew that her master was-was a young officer with his first command. Sir."
Before Blaine could answer, Sally spoke. "I've seen the message, Commander, and it was addressed to MacArthur, not Cziller. And it gives the ship refueling priority...
Frenzi regarded her coldly. "Lermontov will be quite adequate for this intercept, I think. If you'll excuse me, Captain, I must get back to my station." He glared at Sally again. "I didn't know they were taking females out of uniform as midshipmen."
"I happen to be Senator Fowler's niece and aboard this ship under Admiralty orders, Commander," she told him sternly. "I am astonished at your lack of manners. My family is not accustomed to such treatment, and I am certain my friends at Court will be shocked to find that an Imperial officer could be so rude."
Frenzi blushed and looked around wildly. "My apologies, my lady. No insult intended, I assure you...I was merely surprised we don't very often see girls aboard warships certainly not young lathes as attractive as you I beg your pardon..." His voice trailed off, still without punctuation, as he withdrew from the bridge.
"Now why couldn't you react like that?" Sally wondered aloud.
Rod grinned at her, then jumped from his seat. "He'll signal Cranston that I'm in command here! We have what, about an hour for a message to get to New Scotland, another for it to get back." Rod stabbed at the intercom controls. "ALL HANDS. THIS IS THE CAPTAIN. LIFT-OFF IN ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES. LIFT-OFF IN ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES. IF YOU'RE NOT ABOARD WE'LL LEAVE YOU BEHIND."
"That's the way," Sally shouted as encouragement. "Let him send his messages." While Blaine turned to hurry his crew along, she left the bridge to go hide in her cabin.
Rod made another call. "Commander Sinclair. Let me know if there's any delay out there." If Frenzi slowed him down, Blaine just might be able to get him shot. He'd certainly try...long ago he'd daydreamed of having Frenzi shot.
The reports came in. Cargill came onto the bridge with a sheaf of transfer orders and a satisfied look. MacArthur's boatswains, copies of the priority message in hand, had gone looking for the best men on Brigit.
New crew and old hands swarmed around the ship, yanking out damaged equipment and hurriedly thrusting in spares from Brigit's supply depot, running checkout procedures and rushing to the next job. Other replacement parts were stored as they arrived. Later they could be used to replace Sinclair's melted-looking jury rigs...if anyone could figure out how. It was difficult enough telling what was inside one of those standardized black boxes. Rod spotted a microwave heater and routed it to the wardroom; Cargill would like that.
When the fueling was nearly finished, Rod donned his pressure suit and went outside. His inspection wasn't needed, but it helped crew morale to know that the Old Man was looking over everyone's shoulder. While he was out there, Rod looked for the intruder.
The Face of God stared at him across space.
The Coal Sack was a nebular mass of dust and gas, small as such things go-twenty-four to thirty light years thick-but dense, and close enough to New Caledonia to block off a quarter of the sky. Earth and the Imperial Capital, Sparta, were forever invisible on its other side. The spreading blackness hid most of the Empire, but it made a fine velvet backdrop for two close, brilliant stars.
Even without that backdrop, Murcheson's Eye was the brightest star in the sky-a great red giant thirty-five light years distant. The white fleck at one edge was a yellow dwarf companion star, smaller and dimmer and less interesting: the Mote. Here the Coal Sack had the shape of a hooded man, head and shoulders; and the off-centered red supergiant became a watchful, malevolent eye.
The Face of God. It was a famous sight throughout the Empire, this extraordinary view of the Coal Sack from New Cal. But standing here in the cold of space it was different. In a picture it looked like the Coal Sack. Here it was real.
And something he couldn't see was coming at him out of the Mote in God's Eye.