Chris Kelworth lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He has been writing science fiction and fantasy stories with increasing diligence for the past twenty-five years, and is a graduate of the Odyssey, Taos Toolbox, and Young Gunns workshops. He works in Burlington as a computer software developer under an assumed name, and his work has appeared on the Gallery of Curiosities podcast. He blogs, occasionally, at http://chriskelworth.com/.

 

Stretch Points

by Chris Kelworth

 

The trouble started at Alpha Seokant, which is the sixth stop on my cargo run from Breilan to Vloag 4. Well, we didn’t really have trouble at Seokant, but I need to start there so you’ll understand.

“We’re at the stretch point, Steve. Stretch Drive is showing all subsystems ready.”

That’s Cromulent talking. Crom is the AI manager for Gypsy Night, a heavy cargo starship. My ship. Not like I own it; Pisces Shipping owns the Gypsy, and Crom. The company doesn’t own me; I’m a free agent ever since I got my navigator’s papers from the guild to fly solo, but Pisces treats me well, and Crom’s the coolest AI I’ve ever worked with.

“Yeah, got it,” I said. “Next stop, Briosh Eight.”

“Do you need to see the star map? Or your notes?”

“No, that’s fine.” I’ve been back and forth on this route almost a hundred times, but Crom knew that better than I did. “Just give me a count of five.”

As Cromulent counted down the seconds, I reached out for the electrode contacts—and yes, I know you’ll tell me they’re not necessary. But it’s easier for me to believe I can control a ship’s journey when my hands are touching something that wires directly into the Stretch Drive. Stretch navigation is spooky enough; if something makes it easier psychologically, I’m going to use it.

After “one,” Crom’s voice and the rest of the life support cabin went away. In the hyperstream, I saw the choices the way I usually do, colored tunnels stretching out in front of me. The red tunnel first, oval-shaped; I concentrated on it without even paying attention to the other two next to it. Red oval branched into blue oval and red square, and I followed the oval shape through blue and brown, and then jumped to a grey triangle. That brought us out of the hyper-stream as usual, and I relaxed and reached for the drink dispenser.

“Root beer, I need root beer this time. Crom? Root beer?”

It took me a few seconds to understand that the noise hitting my ears wasn’t just the roar of the air supply or Crom’s voice. Getting used to the sensory overload of slow space is always disorienting, but adding a very loud beeping didn’t help. “What the hell is that?” I groaned. “Shut it off.”

“I can’t do that, Steve,” Crom said. “We’re under attack, some kind of ambush. Need to stretch again right away. Are you ready to do your thing?”

“Stretch again right away?” I repeated, but could hardly hear my own words over the beeping. And then—the ship was gone again, and there were four shapes in the blackness of the stream: blue square, purple circle, skinny green, and pink oval. After the confusion of the beeping and all, I wasn’t sure which way we needed to go, and my attention drifted to the pink oval. I’d never even noticed there was a pink oval here, and before I knew it the pink was all I could see. That was bad, because it meant we were taking that route through the hyperstream, and I’d left my mental map.

The important thing now was to remember each way I took; I remembered that much from my mentor’s lessons. From the pink oval, I followed a purple blob, a dark skinny, another pink oval (hoping vainly it would lead us back,) and a green triangle.

Back into slow space, and the beeping was gone, but the lights of the cabin and the roar of the air supply were worse than ever. I reached for the drinks dispenser, and there was the root beer, a big mug of it. I swallowed a few mouthfuls before Crom spoke up again. “Well done, I think. For both of us. Ambush evaded successfully.”

“There, something I have to do,” I said. “Umm… there’s a special Navigator’s Guild thing that comes with me on every ship I guide, right? Not to be opened except in emergency?”

“Of course there is, Steve. The one we only need if we get lost in the hyperstream.” There was a pause as Crom made the deduction. “Oh. I’m so sorry. It was my fault. We would have withstood enemy fire for four point three seconds longer without compromising life support. If I’d just given you a little more time to understand what was happening, you’d have been fine. But—”

“Emergency archives.” I took a deep breath. “Apology accepted, yeah, that’s great, but where are we on those emergency archives now?”

“Right. Activating Guild emergency archives protocol.” The console shifted and revealed a flat grey panel. “Put your left hand on the scanner, palm down.” Crom’s voice sounded a little sterner and less friendly, something that happened to him sometimes when he was interfacing with less flexible systems.

“Sure, okay.” I splayed my fingers across the panel. “Biometric scanner?”

“Affirmative. Analyzing heartbeat—confirming vitality of the licensed guild navigator. Measuring stress levels. For voiceprint analysis, please recite the guild motto.”

That made me jump, and for a moment I was lost in memories—some even from before I’d considered joining the Guild. I’d never been in space until after finishing secondary school, and then for my nineteenth birthday I celebrated on a hyperstream cruise. That was the first time I saw the colors and shapes of the stream, and I talked with the cruise ship navigator about life in the Guild.

“Steve? Please recite the guild motto. I think the archives are going to go on lockdown if you don’t do it soon.”

“Oh, right. In the eternal darkness, we find the light. The light shows us the way.” I’d always wondered why the guild took a voiceprint of me saying that before I even left the college to start my apprentice cruise.

“Guild archives are unlocked.” The panel actually opened up, revealing a round computer module, about as big as an apple.

“So I have to hook that up manually?”

“I guess so.” Crom’s voice was back to his normal tone, but he still didn’t seem too talkative.

I had to stand up to reach an open socket that the memory module would fit into, and then an unfamiliar voice filled the life support cabin. “Guild archives are coming online. Please stand by.”

“Crom? Are you trying something new with the feminine voice? You really don’t need to go to so much trouble with me, man.”

“That’s not me,” Crom insisted. “I mean, yes, it’s my speakers, but not my core systems. The guild archive is an AI all its own.”

“Oh!” That made sense, though I didn’t realize that the guild had AIs that were so compact. So I sat down again and punched up some cupcakes from Crom’s state-of-the-art high tech food dispenser, wondering how long it would take for this new AI to speak up again. The answer to that was just under two minutes. (Which meant I didn’t even have the cupcakes by then.)

“Please state the nature of the navigational emergency.”

“Just a moment,” I said, collecting my thoughts. “Do you have a designation?”

“You can call me Ivy,” she said.

“Okay, it’s nice to meet you, Ivy. I’m Steve McCauley, and I took an unmapped turning in an escape attempt after the ship was attacked by pirates. Hang on a second, Ivy. Crom, are you here too?”

“Yes, of course I’m still online, Steve.”

“How did you send us on that second stretch so quickly? I thought it takes hours for the stretch drive to power up again.”

“We have a one-time emergency power backup, only to be used in case of threats to the ship or the life of the navigator.”

I grabbed the first cupcake as it slid out of the food dispenser and ate half of it in one bite. “Makes sense. Ok, Ivy?”

“Was that a non-Guild AI you were speaking to?”

“Yes, that’s Cromulent, the cargo ship’s manager.”

“I must recommend that all non-Guild AIs are taken offline until we’re prepared to re-engage the Stretch Drive, as a protection against the dissemination of Guild secrets.”

“What?” Back when I was an apprentice, my quadruped mentor, Gemiti, had told me never to trust an AI with any information about hyperspace navigation, but… “No, absolutely not. I trust Cromulent completely. I have an affidavit from Pisces Shipping that they will not access anything I have told or shown him without my express and written consent.”

“Such an affidavit does not provide the Guild with any legal recourse should your employer break their word,” Ivy said. “For a second time I insist that you order it offline as per emergency Navigator protocols.”

Somehow that made the idea a little more real to me. “Crom, can I actually do that?”

“Apparently you can, now that she’s online. She would assume control of life support functions and any other priority ship’s operations that would need attention during my absence. In fact, if you expressly ordered it so, Ivy can trigger the stretch drive controllers. You wouldn’t need to bring me back online until you’re back at a Pisces Shipping station and ready to dock.”

I nodded, and took a breath. “Ivy, Cromulent will remain online while we work the problem. Proceed.”

“Understood.” I hadn’t quite expected her to comply so quickly. “Do you recall the turnings you took from your last known destination?”

“Yes.” I should have noted them down before even starting with the archive, but I hadn’t realized it would be this complicated. “Pink oval, purple blob, dark skinny, pink oval, green triangle.”

“Please convert those indicators to Guild Standard Notation.”

“I’ll work on it, but keep them in a note file while I do, okay? And the last known destination was Briosh 8.”

“Understood,” Ivy said. “I will proceed to analyze the visible stars from our current co-ordinates and search for a match against galactic star charts.”

“I can do that more efficiently,” Crom insisted. “Ivy, you can begin to search and index your records for unusual trips away from Briosh 8.”

Ivy paused. “I will proceed to analyze visible stars…”

I cleared my throat. “Ivy, Cromulent will proceed to analyze the visible stars from our current co-ordinates and will find a match with his star charts. Search your records for all trips away from Briosh 8, especially to infrequent destinations.”

“Understood. I will proceed to search the Guild records.”

I sighed. “Thank you. Oh, Cromulent? Can you multitask enough to get started on a triple cheese pizza and a chocolate milkshake for me?”

“Coming right up, Steve.”

*

It took a while, but between the three of us, we figured out where we stood. I’d landed us near a little red-orange dwarf star that didn’t have a name, just a catalog number, seventy light years from anywhere—much too far for Cromulent to get us back before life support supplies ran out without using the stretch drive. And there was only one reference to this catalog number in all of Ivy’s records.

It was hundreds of years back, before the Guild was using Standard Notation to keep track of different navigator’s routes. Out of the fraction of a percent of people of any species who can perceive the hyperstream at all when using a Stretch Drive, none of us perceive it the same way. When he took me on mentoring trips Gemiti said he was kind of jealous of my “simple” colors and shapes. He mapped the hyperstream through tastes and echoes.

Anyway, the one Guild navigator who’d been here before was named Remmiz—she was a genetically engineered human from a cyanide planet, and her life support had been malfunctioning and giving her less cyanide than she needed, which was why she took a wrong turn. According to Ivy, Remmiz had prayed and then tried a complicated process meant to retrace her steps back to where she’d come from, but by sheer luck had blundered back to Briosh 8, which was actually where she’d meant to go in the first place. She’d been taking the same overall route as me, but backwards, from Vloag 4 to Breilan.

“Excellent,” Ivy announced once she’d explained this. “Navigator Remmiz did not give her turnings in Guild Standard Notation, but I have full access to all of her logs and charts, which will be sufficient to map her perceptual schema of chords and volumes into GSN. Then Steve can translate that into his own schema, and we can engage the Stretch Drive to return to Briosh 8, your last known position.”

I coughed. “Won’t the pirate ship probably still be hanging around near the Briosh 8 stretch point?”

“Most likely,” Cromulent agreed. “I lost most of my armor just from the few seconds of our last encounter, and cannot recharge the emergency power system for the Stretch Drive—that has to be replaced at a Pisces Shipping base. Returning to Briosh 8 is not indicated for the safety of Steve or the ship.”

“There’s one inconsistency in Navigator Remmiz’s charts, attempting to—” Ivy cut herself off with a buzzing sound. “Please restate the counter-indications for returning to Briosh 8?”

So we explained it to her all over again. “Understood. Return to Briosh 8 is not viable; therefore Navigator Remmiz’s route is unusable. Recommend we proceed using the chaos strategy.”

“Okay…” I sat back in my chair and punched for a mug of hot chocolate. “What’s that one?”

“The principle is simple. The navigator takes random turnings on each Stretch, and at each Stretch Point discovered, the AI identify co-ordinates and search for a known safe route. If no route is discovered, the next stretch is again random.”

I turned that one over in my head. “Like we’re a particle of dust on the breeze, trying to land on a road somewhere?”

“Essentially yes.”

“How often does this work?”

“I can’t give precise odds, because in most of the scenarios where it fails, the Guild never knows. We’ve had four ships return using Chaos strategy since it was officially designated a Guild protocol. It was based on similar techniques that three other navigators invented independently.”

“But surely you can estimate the odds,” Cromulent put in. “Based on how many Guild ships have vanished without a trace in a similar period.”

“Correct. I estimate our chances of a safe return as somewhere between two and three percent. It will take longer at each step to verify if we’ve arrived at a known star system, and life support supplies are finite. In taking unmapped routes through hyperspace, the chances of emerging at a stretch point in a dangerous environment become relevant.”

“Right.” I turned to grab the Stretch drive electrodes. “Okay, warm up the drive, Cromulent. We’ll stretch blind in three minutes.”

“No.”

“Uhh—What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said, Steve. I refuse to comply at this time.”

“Are you going to tolerate this?” Ivy shouted. “The emergency protocols are still active. You can order him offline and give me control of the Stretch Drive.”

“Please be quiet, Ivy. I’ll bear that option in mind, but first: Cromulent, could you explain yourself?”

“Yes. I’ve been analyzing your voice, breathing patterns, and when possible your other vital signs ever since we got lost. That’s because of my error-correction subroutines; I wasn’t interpreting your reactions as well as I should have when I engaged the Stretch Drive in emergency mode. That’s why we’re in this mess, so I’m trying to learn better.”

“Okay—and you think you’ve found I’m hiding something?”

“It’s not about deception, Steve. But I think that deep down, you’re unconvinced that this Chaos strategy is really our best chance at this point. Maybe you’ve already got another idea that’s half-formed, and maybe you don’t. But I’d like to ask you; take a little time and try to nurture another idea first, okay? Twenty-four hours, maybe? That’s a bit of your life support, but I think it’s worth taking a chance on something with better odds, for all of us and the ship, than three percent. The first time you stretch blind, you commit us all to the Chaos strategy.”

I chuckled to myself. “Ivy, do you have a counterpoint?”

Ivy said, “Do you seriously believe that you can invent a strategy that the brightest minds of the Guild weren’t able to come up with?”

“How much attention has the Guild paid to our specific situation: that we’re lost, but have one route back to a mapped Stretch Point that we can’t use because it’s almost certain that a heavily armed pirate is waiting there. Is this a problem which comes up often?”

There was silence throughout the life support cabin for a moment. “I can find one matching situation in my records. The pilot took the risk of following the route he knew. The Guild Black Box with his records was recovered from a Fleet raid on a pirate base.”

“And the Guild never attempted to come up with a better strategy for his situation?”

“I can find no record of it.”

“Thank you, Ivy; that will be all for now.” I sighed. “Any advice on how to proceed next, Crom?”

“Well, you could get some sleep,” he said. “You’ve been awake and stressed for over nineteen hours now.”

I have to say Crom comes up with some good ideas; do you see what I mean?

*

I dreamed about Gemiti, about the first time he forced me to navigate through a Stretch that he hadn’t let me observe while he was controlling it, and I took the wrong turn and got us lost. In the dream, Gemiti unlocked an AI who had a really deep voice and was constantly playing practical jokes on us and telling really long and rambling stories about artificially intelligent shoes which could walk you home even after you drank so much you passed out. In the end of the dream, we finally landed back on Breilan; there were no people or alien citizens in the spaceport, or the city, just AIs and robots everywhere.

When I woke up, Crom had the locally visible stars on every screen in sight, and I stared at them drowsily for a long time before I said anything.

“Ivy; my mentor told me that if you only change the last choice of an otherwise mapped route through hyperspace, you have a high chance of ending up at a stretch point within a very short distance of the original destination. Can you confirm this?”

“Officially, this supposition is unverified.”

“Can you search through your records for any such trips and do an analysis of the results?”

“Working.”

“Is this your idea, Steve?” Crom asked.

“It’s a part of it, if it checks out.”

“Great. Do you want banana muffins for breakfast?”

I finished both muffins before Ivy finished her analysis and showed the graph up on the screen. Sure enough, the curve indicated that ninety-eight percent of the time, the destination arrived at was within four light years of the original end for the unaltered route.

“Again, bear in mind that these results are based on incomplete and biased data,” Ivy warned us.

“Well, even if we have to factor in that unknown bias, I think it’s the start of a good strategy,” I said. “How many well-mapped stretch points are within four light years of Briosh 8? Where there’s a known route, all in Guild Standard Notation, that will take us to a Pisces Shipping base or another point where we can reasonably expect competent emergency assistance?”

“There are twenty-seven such stretch points.”

“Then that’s the plan. I use Remmiz’s route to get back to Briosh 8, but change the last step in the stretch to a randomly chosen shape and color. I think that’ll greatly increase our chances of arriving somewhere we’ve got a good route home. If not—then we can still try the Chaos strategy.”

“I see one impediment to implementing this new strategy, Steve,” Ivy said.

“What’s that?”

“I didn’t finish correctly deriving Remmiz’s route in Guild Standard Notation. There’s a point of inconsistency that remains to be resolved.”

I shook my head. “Can you resolve it?” There was no immediate answer. “Remmiz lived six hundred years ago, right? Perhaps some stars have shifted position slightly since then. That can change hyperspace routes unpredictably—”

“Correct. Analyzing Remmiz’s logs and looking for stretches where other navigators have reported unexpected shifts. Please stand by.”

*

So, Ivy and I got the translation done, with ninety nine point six percent confidence, and Crom offered me a cup of warm vanilla milk. “Ready to stretch again?” he said as I sipped.

I shuddered a little. “I dunno. I’m excited about giving this a try, but—but the stakes are really high, you know? What if I can’t take the pressure?”

He was silent as I drank more and more of the milk. “I’m not entirely sure what to say here,” he admitted. “I think it can be good to be nervous, that you can turn it into an advantage, but don’t doubt yourself. You’re a great navigator, and you’ve got this.”

“Easy for you to say,” I muttered, but the pep talk did make me feel a little better. I finished the milk and told him to activate the Stretch Drive on a count of three.

First came a purple oval, good. Then the blue square, which was the point of inconsistency in our translations, so I was glad to see it there. An orange star with six points, the yellow rectangle, and…

Anything but the green oval. The green oval would take us back to Briosh 8 and whoever was waiting there to attack us, but following any other shape should take us to some stretch point where Ivy would have a mapped route out. I picked the red square, and we were back out of the hyperstream.

“Did it work?” I gasped, fumbling around for anything I could drink. “Can you find the Briosh neighborhood signposts?”

“High priority interrupt,” Crom said. “Please stand by.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Ivy yelled.

On the screen right ahead of me was an large, ominous red sun.

“Is that getting bigger?” Ivy said. “I mean, are we falling towards it?”

“Yes, but not for long,” Crom’s voice was smooth and cool. “I’m leveling us out into a relatively stable orbit. But we’re inside the corona, and I don’t think I can climb out of it with my remaining armor.”

“Okay, so…” I finally grabbed something wet and poured it down my throat—cold water, but better than nothing. “What’s our next step? If we’re inside the corona—can you see any stars?”

“I’ve got a really good view of one. That’s a red giant down there, K6 or K7 class, so if you’re right that we’re at a mapped stretch point within four light years of Briosh 8, there are only two candidates in my database.”

“This is not the day for us to flip a coin.”

“No, but I’m sure I’ll be able to spot planets and identify the sun based on them. We’ll finish orbiting and come back around to the stretch point in four minutes. Will you be ready to stretch by then?”

“Four minutes?” It sounded crazy, but if Crom was asking, it was because he thought this was our best chance to survive. “What are the two candidate suns?”

“Behemoth Rex and Alpha Arachnis.”

“Ivy, can you give me safe routes for both of them in Guild Standard Notation?”

“Accessing routes.”

“Excellent,” Crom said. “Remaining armor now at eleven percent.”

I pulled up my personal logs and actually found Behemoth Rex—I’d been there with Gemiti, on a training cruise years ago. Two stretches to Vloag 4, no trouble—which meant, given our luck today, that’s not where we were. “Ivy? Concentrate on Alpha Arachnis. Who puts a constellation called the spider in their sky, anyway?”

“Three super-J-class planets detected,” Crom reported. “That rules out Behemoth Rex, which only has 2 gas giants in its system and none are that big, and it’s consistent with Alpha Arachnis. I estimate the chances that any other random red giant system we stretched into would match that are approximately half a percent.”

“Got it. So we might have some scrap of luck yet. How long until we reach the stretch point again?”

“Two minutes, five seconds.”

“Okay… green oval, purple star…” One by one I worked out each part of the route. White skinny, purple square… “Wait a second, what the heck is a K-E-4-D? I’ve never seen that combination in Guild Standard Notation before.”

“It’s unusual,” Ivy agreed. “But your file indicates that you were trained on the Esova run. There’s a K-E-4-D in the very last stretch to Esova, it’ll be the second shape in that stretch.”

“Right, yeah, I remember there was something weird about that one.” It only took seconds to find that page in my logs. “Okay, blue pentagon. And the last is a triangle…”

“Stretch point in fifteen seconds,” Crom announced.

“Right. Green oval, purple star, white skinny, blue pentagon, some triangle…”

And we were in the stream again…

The first three were easy to remember and recognize. Green oval, a purple star, and a long skinny white tunnel. I’d nearly forgotten the purple square, but remembered it once I saw it.

A blue pentagon, sure enough. Then—two triangles, one yellow and the other brown.

What the heck? A wrong turn here would be a disaster… The Gypsy Night couldn’t take much more of the rigors of space. We were already drifting towards the yellow triangle…

So I trusted myself, and let the yellow triangle swallow me.

*

We emerged in deep, dark space, with stars all around. “Okay… if that worked right, there should be a Pisces Company space station not far away,” Ivy said.

“Scanning—confirmed,” Crom said. “Their beacon identifies them as Chukonee; it used to be a loading point for high-quality iridium ore before the automated asteroid miners made planet-side mining sites unprofitable.” He paused. “I’ve made contact with the AI skeleton crew; they’ve confirmed that they have repair facilities available, life support supplies, and an ansible communicator online with Vloag 4.”

“Thanks, Crom. I guess I’ll need to debrief the Guild as soon as possible.”

“Yes, that’s the indicated protocol,” Ivy put in. “Will I be needed for anything else?”

“No, I guess not—but thank you very much.”

She paused. “It was my pleasure to fulfill my function.”

So I guess that’s it. Yes, I’ve shared Guild secrets with Cromulent; I guess I’ve been doing that for a while now, and I should have told the Guild about that. But I’m not about to apologize for trusting him.

*

Lancaster, the top-ranking Guild AI who’d been transmitted to Chukonee to debrief me, considered for a long time. “Thank you, Navigator, for your warning of hostile activity at Briosh 8. This report has been forwarded to the Fleet, and the Guild membership operating in this area have been notified and warned to prepare alternate routings where possible.”

“You’re very welcome.”

“In addition, your suggestions regarding the ‘Last step strategy’ are under advisement. I will recommend its inclusion as a contingency strategy, along with all the information presently available on the risks, indications, and contra-indications.”

“That’s great—but what about Cromulent?”

“In recent years, the Guild has been de-stressing its policy of secrecy from non-Guild ship’s AIs. Still, we never anticipated what you have invested in Cromulent. As much as you trust him, none of us can trust the promise represented by the Pisces Shipping affidavit program.”

“So you’re going to censure me? If I hadn’t trusted Cromulent, left him online when Ivy had repeatedly requested that I turn him off—”

“I am issuing no censure, navigator. Instead, I suggest that this would be an excellent time to renegotiate your business arrangements with Pisces. I can assist you in drawing up an iron-clad non-disclosure contract.”

I grinned. “Do you really think Pisces will sign a new agreement?”

“I’m sure they’re eager to make sure that the Gypsy Night arrives safely with its full cargo. They won’t risk a protracted delay from labor negotiations. Also, the Guild can suggest to their Board that such a contract might lead to profitable joint ventures with the Guild in the future.”

“Thank you very much.”

“No, thank you for your service, Navigator. This is the least we can do.”

So you see, Crom, that’s how we settled things. Pisces Shipping signed off on the non-disclosure agreement this morning. As soon as your armor and other repairs are finished, we sail for Vloag 4, and then—well, the news of pirates has shaken up all the trade routes. Who knows where we’ll go next?

 

Copyright 2017 by Chris Kelworth