Acceleration throws Faust back into the pilot's couch, then presses his chest like a giant's foot. His left-hand lands on his chest, and his right falls onto the armrest to his side. His ankles press back into the leg rests. The shock is a punch, an attack. His brain is the ongoing result of millions of years of evolution, and it conjures primitive defenses for a modern threat. It decides it's under attack, and then that he's falling, and then that he's in the middle of some fever dream.
The freighter is also the result of millions of years of evolution. It decides to set off alarms, then cycles power in the cabin, and then gives up on alarms altogether. The massive cargo runner wasn't rated for anything higher than three Gs. The digital readout was blinking four. Five. Six. It flickered at seven, wanting to go higher but not built for it. In the exterior camera feed, Io darts past, and then there's only a dark sea peppered with blinking stars.
It takes almost a full minute to understand what's happened, then he tries to grin. His laboring heart pumps a little harder with satisfaction.
Alexander Faust slips into his son's bedroom and gently sits at the edge of his rocket-shaped bed, only slightly groaning the mattress. His son rolls over, wide awake, and turns on the Luna-shaped lamp on his little nightstand. There was no way Erich would forgive Faust for leaving without a bedtime story, he knew. One story per night, before bed. That was their agreement. So Faust took out the tablet from the top drawer on the nightstand, scrolled to a story bookmarked somewhere near the middle of the collection, then scooted over closer so that Erich could rest his head on Faust's belly as he read.
"Is it a space one?" Erich asked.
"Nope. This one's about elves. Did you want a space one?"
He nodded, his green eyes blinking slowly like a cat's. It might not matter which one I read, Faust thought to himself. The little guy looks like three winks from nappy-town.
There was one he'd been saving for when Erich got a little older. It had a sad ending, unlike the adventure stories Faust usually read. But Erich was six now. Soon enough, he'd be reading his own stories before bed. Maybe it was best to experience this one together, Faust decided.
"Okay," he said. "Here's a special one. It's one of me and your mom's favorites."
Erich perked up a little, anticipation fighting sleepiness across his round little face. "What's it called?" he asked.
Faust smiled. "Beyond The Blinking Sea."
The interior of the freighter is green and tan. The control panel is a simple flip-switch model, old enough that the red switch covers were mostly half-broken or missing altogether. It's not pretty, but it's functional. Well-maintained. An alert pops up that the air scrubbers have gone offline. Faust is not surprised—he's way off design specs—and he starts guessing where the cargo hauler is failing precisely. His guess, given that all the power is being hot-routed to a custom engine installed inside the cargo bay, is the peripheral circuit breakers. He'll be able to route around them once the run was over. He tries to move his hand, but the weight of it shocks him. A human hand weighs something like three hundred grams. At seven g, that's still only a little over two thousand. He should still be able to move it. Unless he's going faster than seven g? He'll have to figure out exactly how much after the run. He reaches for the control panel, really pushing, and something wet and painful happens in his elbow.
Well, crap, he thinks. He wants to grit his teeth, but that's just as helpful as grinning. This was going to be embarrassing. If he can't shut off the drive, he'll have to wait for the fuel to run out and then call for help. Which could raise other issues; mainly, depending on how fast he was going, it may take hours or even days for a tow shuttle to get to him.
The fuel supply readout is a small number on the lower left side of the panel, green digits against black. It's hard to focus on it. Acceleration is pressing his eyeballs out of their right shape. High-velocity astigmatism. He squints. The freighter is built for long-haul burns, and he started with the fuel tanks at ninety-five percent. The readout shows the burn at ten minutes. The fuel supply ticks down to ninety-four point eight. That can't be right.
Five minutes later, it drops to point seven. Another five minutes later, point six. That puts the burn at over seventy-nine hours and the final velocity at something just under ten percent of c.
Faust starts getting nervous.
He'd met her five years before. The research center at Antioch Station was one of the largest in the inner system. Three generations after the first wave of colonists set out to build the first of the void cities, progress had pushed the envelope of human science, understanding, and culture so far that the oversized can of a ship could support three separate movie theaters, even if one of them strictly played Disney-only content. Faust and his posse of nerds met up once a week when their shift schedules aligned to watch a movie.
Usually, the group was the same four people. Today it was Lane and Klein from recycling, both of them notorious film critics. Scar, whose real name was Martha, loved fantasy stories. And Faust. Antioch was a fifteen-minute city, they said. It only took you a fifteen-minute shuttle ride to get anywhere. Hard not to know everyone after a while.
But someone new had joined their weekly ritual. She sat beside Klein and had red hair and a patient expression. Her face was a little too sharp to be classically beautiful. Faust didn't believe in love at first sight, but as soon as he sat in his seat, he was profoundly aware that he hadn't brushed his hair very well that morning and that there was a coffee stain under his left breast pocket on his coveralls.
The movie started, with a Space Opera, called Beyond Yesterday. The effects weren't anything to write home about. And the plot was fairly predictable after the halfway point of the movie. But watching the lead find his way back home to his family after getting hurled across the galaxy through a wormhole still jerked a tear or two from Faust's eyes. When he peeked a look past Klein's bored face, he caught her wiping tears from her cheeks.
After the movie, Lane and Klein argued the possible ways of cracking faster-than-light travel since the film refused to do so. The scar was furiously typing a review into her hand terminal, slowly walking away from the group as she muttered to herself—as was her custom. That left just Faust and the newcomer.
The main corridor's hallways had ceilings four meters high and LEDs that changed their warmth and intensity depending on the time of day, but Faust still caught himself imagining a wide open sky every once in a while. For a sense of openness and possibility, and maybe for not living his whole life like a sardine in a can.
Her voice came from behind him. "Hey."
She walked with a comfortable rolling gait. Her smile looked warm and maybe a little nervous. Outside the brightness of the movie marquee, he could see the freckles on her cheeks. "Oh, hello."
"We never really got to introducing ourselves," she said, holding out her hand. "Ophelia Duarte."
Faust took her wrist, shaking it like pirates checking each other for weapons. "Alexander Faust."
"Faust?" she said, walking forward. Somehow they were walking side by side now. Together. "Made any bargains lately?"
If he'd been even a little less tired, he'd just have laughed it off politely. Instead...
"The night is young," he said. "And I've only just met my daemon."
"Oh, is that me?"
"Red hair. It was a joke. Ah."
She chuckled. "It was better than your friend Klein finding reasons to touch my elbow. Always with the elbow that one. Anyway, I'm working logistics for Nestle-Kirkland. Just came in from Terra a month ago. So, are we going to pretend like we didn't catch each other crying at the end of the movie or what?"