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The Rectifier Dismissal of Belief sparkled in the blackness like a single raindrop that had escaped the blue sky that curved, convex, above Etshuzju’s head. With her right hand, she clung to a handhold on the outside of the cylindrical Messenger Metastatic Self-Importance, waiting for the moment to leap. In her left, she held a gyroscopic sphere the size of her fist. If she made the 32000 meters with no propellant, unable to make any course correction, she would find herself with an Academic record.
She commanded her nanosystems to seek the balance she’d designed for her limbic system. She had been flushing errant hormones for ten days now, and with the tweaks she was now doing, she felt the calm and focus that she expected. Self-doubt diminished to the status of a problem she could solve later. The shaking in her legs evaporated like a shiver in front of a fire.
Her eyes narrowed and she counted her breaths while she watched the twinkle of light that called itself the Dismissal of Belief continue its slow, relative descent for a few moments. She released her handhold, adjusted her spine and hips to line up her body and
straight toward the planet surface.
Her arms and legs stretched out over gaping emptiness. Below her lay only the distant, cold, and ancient light of stars. Above loomed the planet Tsusj, its blue limbs lit by the sun behind her, its millions of dark, green-rimmed lakes connected by networks of rivers. Ahead of her, nothing but a glittering speck. Her tiny, insulated world was silent. She felt the heat of the daystar warming her from behind, the bulk of the radiation reflecting straight back whence it had started just nine minutes ago. None of the moons were in the sky. She felt lonely. Beautifully, peacefully lonely.
Of course, people were watching her. Of course, she had thousands of fans. Maybe a million, who would be tracking the broad-spectrum retroreflective surface of her skinsuit. Of course, someone would come to save her if she missed — the Dismissal of Belief needed her, even if they’d asked her to take the Messenger straight to the Rectifier and not do this “stupid stunt”. If she missed, it might take days to effect an orbital rescue, during which she would get dangerously hungry, thirsty, hot, and cold. She stopped herself from considering the possibility that she had miscalculated (or wouldn’t leap within her calculated parameters), and would wind up re-entering at orbital velocity. But that was the point: to make the leap unaided, to genuinely risk death in an environment that her ancestors would find completely hostile and alien.
She twisted against the gyroscope and she watched the transparent, warmly-lit cylinder of Metastatic Self-Importance diminish rapidly behind her. She could see Rfetsho’s face, her trainer showing the grim, stony resolve that had made her such a good partner for this attempt. As they’d prepared two hours ago, Rfetsho had braided her hair. They’d had nothing to say at that moment, and the simple, phatic act had communicated more about Rfetsho’s confidence and concern than words ever could have.
To catch up with the Rectifier, she had leapt toward the planet below, away from her objective. The lower orbit would increase her orbital velocity, making it possible for her to intercept the Dismissal of Belief by shortening the distance. That had been a half hour ago now, with no sound to keep her company but that from her own heart.
She twisted the gyroscope again until she faced her direction of travel. As she’d hoped, the Rectifier sat in the black of the sky, relatively below her feet. She twisted again to put it above her head. Now, if she squinted she could see its controversial shape. Its designers had built it for speed and violence. She could see its enormous ice sphere that functioned as reaction mass, matter for the anti/matter reactor, heat sink, and of course spare water for the humans onboard. Unlike in the design of any Contactor, its designers had foregone its habitat ring, designed to simulate the gravity of the Contactor’s destination. Instead, they opted to wrap a spartan, low-mass living area and hibernation systems around the engine module.
What she couldn’t see were its arrays of lasers, racks of thousands of tiny missiles, and hair-fine communications arrays.
This craft’s tiny compliment of ten would have no time for the pleasantries of learning languages, of making polite first contact, of watching alien soap opera, talking with gushing radio astronomers, and endlessly debating whether it would most benefit the Academy and the colony’s culture if they lit the torch and came in as fast as they could to say hi. All that debate hadn’t helped the Evidence of Absence or its perhaps sole survivor, Rn-Krtsheme.
But Etshuzju considered that a secondary concern. Her interest was in the craft itself. Its engineers had designed its engine module to propel the Rectifier faster than any ever built. She would be going faster than anyone had ever gone: 34 percent of the speed of light.
The Rectifier’s compliment knew Etshuzju’s reputation. They had asked her repeatedly to join the expedition. She had made them promise not to interfere with her. Her reputation, she pointed out, made clear that she would act on her best intelligence until she succeeded. If they wanted her help, they would get the help she had to give. It still took five days for the other nine to get back to her.
For an hour, she coasted, feeling no motion at all. She ran her tongue over the incisor she’d broken three weeks ago in Rn-Mazjafe practice. Its replacement was growing in from behind. It itched.
Three quarters the way through the trip, night abruptly overtook both her and the Rectifier. The suddenness of the shadow made her feel cold and her suit scrambled to return some of the heat it had absorbed while she sweated into the coldness of absolute shadow. Below, over the Great Ocean, she saw an equatorial storm’s flashes of lightning. A string of lights that she couldn’t identify. A sprawling splash of light that she guessed must be the ocean arcology of Tezjn Kuo.
Now, the Dismissal of Belief orbited ready, awaiting the remainder of its compliment — Etshuzju — and its launch window. It continued to grow and now moved lower in her field of view. She could see it and the scintillating cities below in one eyeful now. She was getting close.
She could just barely see the beacons on the Dismissal of Belief. She had timed this leap so the Rectifier would be facing her engine-on. Normally, no sane individual would come close to the apocalyptic energies of an interstellar craft exhaust, but the engineers had not fired the engine since testing it 2 deciyears ago and she had gotten their assurances that the temperatures were quite safe.
Now she could see the individual lights at the tips of the radiator spikes. They would vaporize as soon as the radiators began doing their job, but in orbit, they made sure that anything capable of guiding itself could avoid them. Her plan was the opposite: She headed toward them, like an insect into the heart of a flower. She removed the rope spool from her hip to feel its mass in her hand. The ring of lights grew faster and faster with her approach and she narrowed her eyes once more. Braced against the gyroscope, she flicked her wrist and the fine, weighted line swung away from her.
The rope wrapped around the radiator and adhered to itself, forming a loop and the rope thrower in her hand vibrated to tell her it was firmly attached. Etshuzju recoiled the rope as fast as she could to reduce the shock, but the jolt still surprised her after the hour of silence, and she dropped her gyro ball, which rebounded on its tether.
She grinned. She’d done it. 32 kilometers with nothing but brain, muscle, and bone.
She gently floated back toward the radiator that had caught her and looked at the rope. It had wrapped around the meter-wide section of the tapered radiator spike, then fused to itself. To get it to release, she would have to open up her communication again.
She sighed into the silence, then reconnected to the network. It cheerfully gave her an aggregate view of the messages of congratulation and adoration from her fans, told her it counted six articles of reproach for her reckless behavior including one that demanded that her fellow Rectifier constituents eject her from the expedition, and a message from her mother asking her to let her know she was all right.
She took hold of the edge of the radiator with her toes. It felt warm to the touch. She said, “Rope, let go now.”
It did. She recoiled the rope into the thrower, then looked up the kilometer-long body of the engine upon which she held herself, spotting a handhold a hundred meters away. She casually jumped for it, reviewing her incoming messages for anything important. None of it mattered. She used the handhold to catapult herself another kilometer to the habitat module, where she pulled herself into an open airlock door. Its transparent door slid silently closed behind her, only the caution circle in its center making itself apparent. The door matched the one in front of her that led to the habitat itself, through which she could see the floating, grinning form of Rn Tshutezje, who patiently waited until there was a medium through which they could speak.
She felt the invisibly fine hood that had provided her with air pressure for the last hour or so begin to lose its tension as the chamber filled. When it began to tickle her hair, she said, “Retract my hood.”
The transparent door before her opened and Tshutezje yanked himself in to give her a hug. She returned it, surprised. “You amaze me!” he gushed.
“Yeah, it worked!” she said, not sure of how to put it other than to state the fact of the matter. Obviously it would amaze him. No one had done it before.
In her mind, she configured her network to give her only locally relevant information. She could deal with the interview requests later. Right now, they had to prepare to go faster than anyone had ever gone before. Arm in arm, the two launched themselves down the curved hallway.