Hold On To The Light

Gail Z. Martin organized the #HoldOnToTheLight campaign, and I was honored when she asked me to participate. As my contribution, I’ve included my story “Light and Shadow,” a short work about Kelric Valdoria, one of the most popular characters in any of my books. “Light and Shadow” concerns his struggles with PTSD.

The following note from Gail describes the #HoldOnToTheLight initiative.
My story follows her comments.

“#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to

http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com

and join us on Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/WeHoldOnToTheLight

Thank you so much for being part of #HoldOnToTheLight!”

Light and Shadow

From the anthology Aurora in Four Voices
by Catherine Asaro
edited by Steven Silver

Introduction

The story “Light and Shadow” came to me at a time when I had no idea if I was any good as a writer or if I would ever be published. It was frustrating to write and write, sending out stories, going for that seemingly unattainable acceptance, always afraid I was stumbling over my metaphorical feet. When I submitted this story to Analog, I wrote the editor Stan Schmidt a too long cover letter explaining the theoretical physics behind the plot. I was so green back then, I didn’t know I was breaking rules, wasting an editor’s valuable time, that I should let the story speak for itself.

I was lucky. Stan had an interest in the subject. He answered my query with a gracious letter commenting on the physics, telling me about some of his work, and gently pointing out problems with my story. He finished the letter with that sentence unpublished writers have coveted since editors first began publishing us. He said if I could fix the problems, he would be interested in seeing the story again.

Nervous and excited, I did my best to make the fixes. I sent back the revised story, this time with a much shorter cover letter.

He accepted the story for publication.

Publication!

“Light and Shadow” was my first story in Analog, my first story in any magazine, the first published story about the Ruby Dynasty, and one of the first I ever wrote. It has always been special to me, also the first story about Kelric, a character who figures prominently in many of my novels. It began what is now called the Saga of the Skolian Empire. But for years, it has been one of my hardest stories to find. Analog sold out of the issue years ago and I have very few copies left myself.

In November of 2011, when I was the Author Guest of Honor at Windycon in Chicago, ISFiC Press brought out a hardcover anthology of my fiction for the convention. Titled Aurora in Four Voices, it included “Light and Shadow.” Before I sent this story to them, I went through the text, polishing the prose. I couldn’t help but notice that the story had a different feel than my other works in the Ruby Dynasty universe. Less modern. I considered updating it to match the character of the other works, with their glossier tech. But I decided against that change. The feel of “Light and Shadow” matches the time I wrote it, which was even before I finished my first novel, Primary Inversion. Also, it takes place at an earlier time in the chronology of the Ruby Dynasty series than most of the other stories. So it seemed fitting to leave the feel of the story as I originally wrote it over two decades ago.

I hope you enjoy reading “Light and Shadow” as much as I enjoyed writing the story.

I
A Flash of Starlight

Kelric spoke into the empty air of the cockpit. “Glint Control, I’m ready to give it another go.”

“Standby, Glint One Eight.” Lieutenant Tyrson’s voice came over the audiocom, sounding so clear he could have been right next to Kelric’s reclined seat instead of on the ground far below. “Glint One Eight, tracking and instrumentation are go. You’re cleared for test procedure four. Calculations indicate your wing stress will be within safe limits.”

Safe? An unwelcome thought rose from a hidden corner of Kelric’s mind. So what? You have nothing worth keeping safe.

He banished the thought back to its dark recess. Then he whipped his plane through a dizzying set of loops and rolls, uncaring of the g forces that pressed him into his seat. He lay more than sat in the tight cockpit, with the computer console and display panels in front of him. Data streamed across the visor of his faceplate, changing so fast to keep up with his maneuvers that it blurred. Holomaps of the planet Diesha turned on his screens, the deserts shaded like orange and red paint mixing on a palette. Isolated mountains broke the land’s flatness in convoluted spears, and no clouds showed in a sky so blue it seemed to vibrate.

Kelric pulled out of his last loop and grinned. “How does that read, Lieutenant?

Tyrson chuckled. “Like a dream.”

And what a dream, Kelric thought. He was the first pilot to test the Glint-18, a rocket fighter powered by nuclear fusion that made other planes he had flown seem like slugs.

Captain, the Glint’s computer thought. How can a dream read?

It’s just a figure of speech, Kelric answered, directing the reply with more intensity than when his thoughts were for himself only. He touched the valve in his survival suit where the prong on his pilot’s seat plugged into his spine. It connected the cyberware built into the plane with the network of fibers implanted in his body. The system created a direct link from his brain to the Glint’s onboard systems. His motion was reflexive, a reminder that he was linked to a computer and not a person. He forgot sometimes. The Glint’s efforts to learn idioms made it seem self-conscious, like a human being, someone new to a language.

Tyron’s voice interrupted his reverie. “Captain Valdoria, I can’t access mod four of your computer.”

“Checking,” Kelric said. To the Glint, he thought, Run a diagnostic on your fourth mod. It was a vital mod, one that controlled the extra shielding against heat, ultraviolet radiation, and cosmic rays that the craft needed to survive in orbit. Although this wasn’t the first plane Kelric had flown with orbital capability, it far surpassed the others. Today, however, his tests concerned only its performance in a planetary atmosphere.

Lights suddenly blazed across his controls, glowing like holiday decorations. Altimeter error, the Glint thought. Environment control error.

Tyrson’s voice snapped out of the audiocom. “Glint One Eight, your chase planes have lost contact with your—”

As Tyrson’s voice cut off, the Glint added, Audiocom failure.

Slow down, Kelric told the plane. The rockets fired, but the plane didn’t turn, so it sped up instead.

Cockpit pressure dropping, the Glint thought. I’ve sealed your survival suit.

What the hell? Glint, slow us down.

Neither the thrusters nor the attitude jets are responding, it answered.

Reboot their control mod, Kelric thought.

Reboot successful, Then: Captain Valdoria, we’re approaching escape velocity.

Kelric stared at the console. To escape the planet’s gravitational pull, he had to go over eleven kilometers a second, far faster than he had prepared for on this flight. This was nuts. He couldn’t go into space.

A thought stirred in the recesses of his mind: Why not? You have nothing to lose. Nothing worth keeping.

The Glint’s thought cut through his own: Do you want to try slowing down again?

Kelric sat motionless, watching his holomaps. They all showed images of the world below him as it receded in the sable backdrop of space.

If we don’t slow down within eight seconds, the Glint thought, we won’t have enough fuel to return to base. In fourteen seconds we won’t be able to reach any emergency landing site.

Kelric’s private thoughts whispered like a strain of discordant music playing under the computer’s voice: You can drift in space forever. With the stars as your lovers, you’ll never be alone.

Escape velocity achieved, the Glint thought. We are leaving the planet.

With a mental heave, Kelric snapped himself back to reality. Glint, return to base!

At first nothing happened. Then the thrusters rumbled in their bay and the rockets fired, flattening him in his seat.

Re-entry initiated, the Glint thought.

Kelric exhaled. Do we have enough fuel to get back?

Yes.

So I’m going to live after all. Kelric wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or to curse.

“We weren’t able to analyze much of your cyber log,” General Schuldman said. He was seated behind the darkwood desk in his office, a huge room as spare and as strong as the grey-haired man who used it. “Most of the log was garbled. Do you have any comments to add to our quick-look report?”

Kelric was sitting in front of the desk, uncomfortable in a leather-bound chair. Was Schuldman asking for more details about his hesitation during the flight? Kelric had none; he wasn’t certain himself what had happened in that moment when he had let the plane leave the planet. However, that hadn’t caused the system failures.

“There’s a flaw in the Glint’s computer, sir,” he said. “I think it’s the neural-hardware interface.”

Schuldman nodded. “Apparently the computer tried to break the lock that keeps it out of your private thoughts. When your mind blocked it, the system froze up.”

His private thoughts. Kelric had enough trouble himself dealing with those; it was no wonder it had confused a computer. “Can the problem be fixed?”

“Our techs repaired the damage,” the general said. “Jessa Zaubern checked their work herself. It shouldn’t try to break your lock again.” He considered Kelric. “Engineering also ran simulations using the higher velocity data you obtained. Their results suggest the Glint may indeed be able to withstand the huge accelerations Dr. Zaubern claimed in her first reports.”

So Jessa had been right. It didn’t surprise Kelric; she was one hell of an engineer. “Sir, the ship may be able to withstand those accelerations, but the engines can’t achieve them.”

Schuldman regarded him steadily. “That’s why we’re putting an inversion engine in it.”

What the hell? They wanted to put a starship engine in a plane? What a thought.

Schuldman was watching him with a scrutiny that made Kelric wonder if the general questioned his judgment in letting the Glint leave the planet. Probably not. Schuldman had specifically directed him to test the limits of the craft’s abilities. As for Kelric’s private thoughts during those moments, they were just that. Private.

In any case, putting a starship engine in a plane added a new dimension to the project. Intrigued, Kelric said, “Even data from my last flight can only give us a rough idea of what will happen at higher velocities. I wasn’t going fast enough to test the parameters that would affect a starship.”

Schuldman considered him. “That’s why I’m looking for a volunteer to test the modified aircraft.”

Kelric knew the general’s ability to get fast results made him one of the most valued officers in the Space Test Wing. The rumor mill also claimed Schuldman had earned his reputation by pushing his planes—and their pilots—to the limit.

What a ride it would be, though! The speed, the challenge, rushing on the edge—the idea exhilarated Kelric. Then he thought of the risks and sobered up. Neither the Glint nor any other plane he knew was ready to fly with a starship drive.

Unbidden, a thought crept out of the shadows in his mind: Go ahead. Do it. You have nothing to lose.

Kelric spoke. “I’d like to volunteer, sir.”

Schuldman nodded with approval. “Very well, Captain. The flight will be in three days.”

The only light in the sunken living room came from the clock on a table, its violet glow coaxing gleams from the glassy furniture and paneling. Moonlight poured through the big window in the north wall. Outside, the city of Arosa lay under the desert sky, its scattered lights glittering like moonlight trapped in a diamond. It was the only town within a day’s hovercar drive of Arosa Space Force Base, an installation isolated so far out in the desert that nothing but an occasional corkscrew cricket lived near enough to see the aircraft tests.

Kelric sat in his dark glossy penthouse, sprawled on the couch, holding a glass of desert honey. He had no idea where the whisky got the name honey. It tasted like cleaning fluid. He grimaced and poured his drink back in the bottle, then clunked the tumbler down on the glass table.

“So,” he muttered. “You like sitting here in the dark or what?”

“That’s a good question,” a woman said.

Kelric jumped to his feet so fast he knocked over his glass. The lights in the room came on, blinding him. As his vision cleared he saw a statuesque woman by the door, a golden figure with an angel’s face and masses of radiant curls that floated around her face and spilled down her back.

“For flaming sake, Mother,” he growled. “What are you doing here?”

She gave him a wry smile. “I’m glad to see you too.”

“You surprised me.” She rarely showed up with letting him know first. “How did you get in?”

“You left the door unlocked.” She walked over to him. “I thought something was wrong. Then I heard you talking to yourself.”

“I wasn’t expecting visitors.”

Her smile smoothed away the worried furrow that had creased her forehead. “I decided to come after I saw you on the news tonight.”

Kelric reddened. He was trying to forget that broadcast. News of his last flight had leaked to the press and a local reporter had called the base to ask if she could interview him. Schuldman gave the go-ahead, unaware that Kelric avoided public speaking like he avoided jumping into hot tar pits. The project information officer had told him to satisfy the press with a good story. Apparently it helped garner public support for the base. So Kelric had tried to prepare for the interview. But when he had walked into the broadcast studio with its bright lights and buzzing crews, it had rattled him so much, he couldn’t do much more than mumble yes and no to the reporter’s questions.

“That was quite a story,” his mother said. “How did they put it? ‘The handsome hero of Space Command.’”

“I looked like an idiot.”

“Actually, I thought you fit the role of hero well,”

He couldn’t help but smile. “You would think I was heroic if I fell on my face in the mud.”

“You looked every bit the valiant flyer they made you out to be.” Her smile faded. “But I know you, Kelric. Something was wrong.”

“I hate speaking in public. You know that, too.”

“It was more than that,”

“I don’t know what you’re looking for.” He picked up the whiskey glass. “Listen, I’m glad to see you. I don’t mean to be rude. But I’m tired. I just don’t feel like company tonight.”

She spoke quietly. “Sitting here alone in the dark won’t bring Cory back to life. And committing suicide in your fancy plane won’t bring you any closer to her.”

He went rigid. “Good night, Mother.”

“It’s been two months since her funeral.” She watched him with eyes that saw far too much. “In that entire time, I’ve never seen you shed a single tear or heard you say one word about it. You sit up here surrounded by her things and brood. It’s not healthy.”

His voice tightened. “This is where I live.”

“You can change where you live. Find a place that isn’t full of memories.”

Memories? He didn’t even have those. His wife’s death had left a void with nothing but his grief to fill it. Why had he married another officer? Losing a friend in battle was hard enough. When the news had come, two months and an eternity ago, that the battlecruiser Cory commanded had been destroyed—and she with it—a part of him had died as well.

Kelric pushed down the memory. He didn’t want pity. What could he do to make his well-meaning mother go away before her solicitude started him unraveling?

“I’ll look at apartments next week,” he said.

Her luminous face lit with a smile. “There’s a nice place on Arroyo Cliffs. You could see it Tillsday evening.”

“All right.” That would be after his test flight of Schuldman’s mutant plane with its starship engine.

II
Beyond the Desert

Dawn’s ruddy light stretched long shadows across the red sands. Sunrise turned the airfield crimson and reflected off the Glint’s hull like sparks of fire. Out in the desert, nothing but rock spires showed as far as the horizon. Only the rare boom of a snare-drum cactus interrupted the dawn’s silent splendor.

Kelric walked around the Glint. The only visible changes were the photon thrusters mounted behind the rocket exhaust. He knew what waited inside that plane, though—a marvel ready to shoot him into the heavens.

Inversion. The word had fascinated him since childhood. At the Academy he had earned his degree in inversion theory, the physics of faster-than-light travel. His people had once believed reaching supraluminal speeds was impossible. It meant going through the speed of light, where slower travelers would see his mass become infinite and his ship rotated until it pointed perpendicular to its true direction. Time for him would stop relative to the rest of the universe. Which of course could never happen. So how could he go faster-than-light?

The answer turned out to be simple.

It depended on imaginary numbers, the square roots of negative numbers. Relativistic physics said his mass and energy became imaginary at supraluminal speeds. If he also added an imaginary part to his speed, the equations no longer blew up at light speed. By venturing into a universe where speed had both real and imaginary parts, he could go around light speed like a hovercar leaving the road could go around a tree. But for a starship, “leaving the road” meant leaving the real universe.

Kelric pressed his hand against the plane’s hatch. “What do you say, Glint? Want to go faster than a photon?” The plane couldn’t of course. It wasn’t designed for interstellar travel. But the inversion engine could accelerate it far better than the rockets. Engineering thought he might reach one hundredth the speed of light. It would make his last flight a snail’s pace in comparison.

“I just hope they fixed the computer,” Kelric said.

“Fixed it, double-checked it, triple-checked it,” a woman’s gravelly voice said behind him. “Can’t have you blowing up out there. You and me got a debt to settle.”

Kelric turned to see Jessa Zaubern, a gaunt figure in the blue jumpsuit worn by the engineers assigned to the Glint project. Her close cut cap of fiery hair glistened in the dawn’s light.

He snorted. “You’re the one who owes me money, Zaub.”

Her grin animated her face, chasing away her usual stoicism. “Next game, I’m going to wipe your bank account clean.”

Kelric smiled. He and Jessa got along well. He was one of the few people she let see the sentimental streak under her gruffness. They understood each other, both of them plagued by the same awkwardness with words. He was also the only person who had ever beat her at Dieshan choker slam, a game invented by the base’s notorious circle of card players. And she was a better engineer than card player. If she had triple-checked his plane, it was in good shape.

Jessa surveyed the Glint. “The fusion rockets will get you off planet.” She slanted a gaze at him. “You can use the inversion engine once you’re in orbit. You got positron fuel.”

“I don’t know, Zaub. Positrons for a plane?” He grinned his challenge. “It’ll never work.”

“Like hell, Kelly boy.” She banged her palm on the Glint’s hull. “We used EM fields to suspend the fuel in a canister. You fire the thrusters, a defect in the fields leak positrons into the beambox, same as in a starship.”

Even after his briefing, Kelric had trouble imagining the plane carrying an inversion selector and beambox. The wheel-shaped selector culled electrons out of the cosmic ray flux in space, letting only those with highest energies enter the mirrored beambox. Once inside, the electrons annihilated with positrons, creating ultra high energy photons that reflected out the thrusters.

“Just as long as it does what it’s supposed to do,” he said.

Jessa peered at him. “You really think it has a problem?”

Did he? “I’ll only be carrying a hundred kilograms of positrons.”

“That’s more than you need. It’s not like you’re going anywhere.” She shrugged. “Hell, one gram of positrons makes a million billion billion annihilations. That’s a lot of push.”

“I suppose.” He tilted his head towards the Glint. “So you really think she can reach one percent of light speed?”

“Should,” Jessa said. “We don’t have enough data at higher velocities to know for sure.”

Interesting. “You mean you don’t know its top speed?”

Jessa scowled at him. “Don’t even think it.”

He regarded her innocently. “Think what?”

“You be careful with my plane.”

He laughed amiably. “I’m going to wreak havoc on it.”

“Very funny.” Her voice quieted. “You be careful with Kelric, too.”

“Hell, he’ll be fine. He’s only an idiot when reporters interview him.”

“I’m not joking.” Jessa shook her head. “People look at you, they see big and quiet. They don’t think you feel. They don’t think you think.”

He shifted his weight. “It doesn’t bother me.”

“Kelric, listen.” She came over to him. “You’re smarter than all of them put together. And you feel. Too much. You keep thinking and feeling and locking it up. It will eat holes in your heart.”

Where the hell had that come from? “I’m fine.”

Jessa put her hands on her hips. “Only one dumb thing I’ve ever seen you do. And that’s agreeing to take up this plane. Schuldman had no right to push you into this mission.”

“He didn’t push me. I volunteered.”

“Yeah, right.” She poked her finger at his chest. “I want my plane back in one piece.”

“It’s not your plane, Zaub.”

“Just remember what I said.”

He did his best to look reassuring. “All right.”

“Good.” She paused awkwardly. “Good luck.”

Kelric smiled. “Thanks.”

After Jessa left, Kelric climbed into the cockpit and ran more tests. He put the computer through every one of its routines and it answered without a glitch.

Although the Glint could take off vertically, today Kelric tested it on the runway. After Tyrson gave him clearance, he sped down the asphalt and soared into the air, exulting in acceleration pushing him against his seat. He loved that sensation of speed.

As he shot higher into the sky, the world of Diesha spread out on his screens in a desolate landscape of sunrise colors. He accelerated steadily and the Glint answered like an extension of his own body. The wings folded back against the fuselage, cutting drag and preparing for the supersonic shock wave. Mach 1, Mach 2, Mach 4. Finally he hit the speed where the computer had developed jitters during his last flight.

“Glint One Eight to Control,” Kelric said. “Systems look good here.”

“I read the same,” Tyrson said over the audiocom.

“Good.” Kelric grinned. “I’m going to give it a kick.”

Captain, the Glint thought. I don’t think kicking me will serve any purpose.

Kelric chuckled. Don’t worry. It’s just another idiom. He fired the rockets, breathing in grunts to keep from blacking out from the g-forces. Mach 8, 16, 32. He hit escape velocity and kept going. On his screens, Diesha changed from a flat landscape to curved globe studded with ruby deserts.

“She’s beautiful,” he murmured.

Tyrson chuckled. “Is that someone you see up there or are you thinking about your last date?”

“Lady Diesha,” Kelric said. Beautiful sorceress, he thought. Hold me in your arms until the pain stops.

We’ve cleared the planet, the Glint announced. Do you want to start the inversion engine?

Let’s give it a go. Kelric fired the photon thrusters—and went into quasis.

Without quantum stasis, more commonly known as quasis, he would have died. A starship engine could accelerate a craft up to thousands of times the force of gravity, which would have smeared him all over his seat if he hadn’t had protection. The waveform modulators in the quasis coil worked on an atomic level, keeping the quantum wavefunction of the ship from changing state. During quasis, nothing could alter the configuration of particles in the plane or anything it carried, including him; on a macroscopic level, the craft became a rigid solid that no force could deform. Only the atomic clock that limited their quasis time was unaffected. Kelric felt nothing; the only way he knew he hadn’t been conscious the entire time was by the sudden jump in speed on his display.

Tyrson’s voice burst out of the audiocom. “Captain, she’s working like a dream!”

“You bet,” Kelric said. Thanks, Zaub, he thought. He fired the thrusters again and his speed suddenly read three thousand kilometers per second.

“Glint Control,” Kelric said. “I’m at one percent of light speed,”

“We read you smooth as silk,” Tyrson said. “It’s beautiful.”

An unwelcome thought came to his mind. No, it’s empty. Everything is empty. He pushed the thought away and spoke into the audiocom. “I’m going to crank it up again.”

Another voice came on the com. “Captain, this is General Schuldman. Your systems are operating well, better than predicted. The decision to exceed this speed is yours, but if you do so you will be going against the advice of the team that installed your engine. Do you understand?”

Kelric knew Schuldman wanted him to push the Glint’s limit. He also knew the general meant to make sure he knew the risks. “Understood, sir.”

He fired the photon thrusters. A vibration shook through the ship, a gentle shaking but one that didn’t feel right.

“Captain!” Static crackled in Tyrson’s voice. “I’m reading you at ten percent of light speed.”

“Captain Valdoria.” Schuldman’s voice came through the static. “That’s fast enou—”

Kelric fired the thrusters before the general finished; that way, he wasn’t disobeying orders. The display jumped to one hundred thousand kilometers per second. He hit the thrusters again and the number doubled. He was going at two-thirds the speed of light.

A voice on his audiocom drawled. “Are you recei…return to base…” The words faded away.

For a moment Kelric had no idea who had spoken. Then he realized it was Schuldman. Glint, he thought. What’s wrong with the audiocom?

It can’t cope with the time dilation.

Interesting. Starship audiocoms easily compensated for the effect of relativistic speeds on radio waves, but the Glint had no reason to carry one. He wasn’t supposed to be going anywhere near this fast.

How long does Control think we’ve been gone? Kelric asked.

Thirty-three minutes, the Glint answered. My clock says thirty minutes have passed for us.

How about that? We jumped three minutes into the future. When he went this fast, Control recorded his clock as running slow. However, he recorded the clocks on Diesha as running slow. It was like when he sat in a magtrain and it looked like the train next to him was going backward when in fact his train was the one that had started to move forward. Relative to him, the other train was going backward. Similarly, relative to this plane, Diesha was shooting off in the other direction. Only when he turned the Glint around did it break the symmetry of their relative motion. What it meant was that when he returned home, he would be several minutes younger than everyone at the base.

Captain. The Glint’s urgency cut through his mind. The strain on this craft exceeds advised safety limits.

No one ever claimed this job was safe, Kelric thought. How fast can you go, sweet Glint? Fast enough to the blow the grief out of his heart? Could anything take him that fast, that high, that far?

I also register a strain in your mind greater than advisable safety limits, the Glint said.

Who programmed you to tell me that? Jessa Zaubern?

Captain, I advise that we return to base.

Kelric watched his visored reflection in the console. Can we invert?

You mean go faster than the speed of light?

That’s right.

Captain, this flight wasn’t set up for such a maneuver.

Just answer the question.

I don’t know if we can invert, the Glint thought. But if we do, we won’t have enough fuel to get home.

Raise the beambox threshold. By scooping up only higher energy electrons, he could get more bang out of each annihilation and extend the range of his positron fuel.

If I raise it, the Glint answered, you will run out of air before we find enough electrons with an energy that high. You will die.

So invert the fuel first.

I see no reason to—

The cosmic ray flux is higher in supraluminal space, Kelric thought. We’ll find electrons a lot faster there.

They will be there and we will be here, the Glint said. Photons produced by annihilations in imaginary space do us no good in real space.

Sure they will, Kelric thought. If I release a flock of birds by an open window, some are bound to fly through it. As long as the engine operates here, some photons will invert back here.

That violates energy conservation.

For flaming sake. His computer was arguing with him. No, it doesn’t. What we gain, imaginary space loses.

Photons are not birds. Now the Glint sounded like Jessa. Inversion engines are not windows.

Just do it, Kelric thought.

Captain, you may not survive this procedure.

Are you refusing to accept my commands?

Yes.

Kelric frowned. You can’t do that.

What you suggest could be fatal. It amounts to throwing away your fuel.

The hell it does.

The only way for imaginary photons to become real, the Glint thought, is for their existence quantum number to change from zero to one. That doesn’t happen spontaneously.

So what? Kelric answered. Nothing spontaneously inverts. If starship engines can force starships to do it, they ought to work on photons, too.

There was a long pause. Then the Glint said, A finite probability exists that you are correct and that this either brilliant or insane idea of yours may actually work. If it works, it will revolutionize star travel.

I’m a test pilot, Kelric thought. I’m supposed to test things.

You are putting yourself in too much danger.

Yes, I have a dangerous job. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.

I still advise against the procedure. The Glint’s thought came with what felt like genuine reluctance. However, it appears I am unable to refuse your command.

Good. Kelric glanced over his displays. Reset the engine to invert its fuel in increments of point one percent.

Engine reset.

Kelric fired the photon thrusters—and his speed jumped to 98 percent of light. The stars leapt on his holomap, converging towards a point in front of the plane. Data flashed on his displays: if Control could still track him, they would read his length as shrunk by 80 percent and his mass increased by 500 percent.

Why didn’t we invert? Kelric asked,

We need to get closer to light speed, the Glint told him.

Starships manage from a lot slower speeds than this.

Starships have entire systems dedicated to optimizing their inversion capability, the Glint thought. I don’t.

Kelric knew he should return to the base before time dilation jumped him any farther into the future. He had already gained more than half an hour. But he couldn’t make himself turn around. Up here he could speed away from the grief, the loneliness, the huge emptiness.

This time when he fired the thrusters, his display leapt to 99.999999 percent of light speed. His mass increased by a factor of seven thousand. The starlight turned into x-rays. In one minute, five days passed on Diesha.

We still can’t invert, the Glint thought.

Kelric fired the thrusters again. Centuries passed on Diesha. Now they were all dead. All of them. Everyone he had ever loved.

Cory, I can’t do it, he thought. I can’t live in a universe where the people I love are gone.

No inversion achieved, the Glint thought.

Kelric gritted his teeth and fired the thrusters—

—and the universe turned inside out, yanking him with it, his body and mind twisting like a tortured Möbius strip—

III
Beyond the Night

The agonizing sensation stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The stars reappeared, their colors returned to normal but their positions inverted through a point that appeared to be infinitely far in front of the plane. Kelric recognized none of the eerily distorted constellations.

We inverted, the Glint thought. But it definitely wasn’t as smooth as silk.

Kelric drew in a deep breath. You’re learning your idioms. That was like no inversion he had ever experienced. He didn’t know if he could survive it a second time.

I need you to specify a path in spacetime, the Glint said. We’re supraluminal.

He struggled to clear his mind. Time and space switched character at faster than light speeds. Now he couldn’t back up in space but he could back up in time. The relativistic equations allowed him to go into the past. A sublight observer would see an anti-matter Glint flying backwards from its destination to its origin. If he worked it right, he could compensate for his time-dilated leap into the future by leaping into the past here.

If only he could go back to before Cory died.

Unfortunately, no matter how much he wanted it, the final result of his trip couldn’t violate reality. A thousand pilots before him had verified that law of physics. The best he could do with a starship was come home with the same amount of time passing there as for him. With the Glint, he would be lucky to come out anywhere near the day when he had left Diesha. This morning. Except now it was centuries, even millennia in the past.

His displays weren’t telling him anything. The inversion had scrambled them. Glint, how fast are we going?

One trillion times the speed of light.

WHAT?

One trillion ti-

Slow down!

Silence.

Kelric blinked at the gibberish on his displays. Did anything happen?

We slowed to 132 percent light speed.

How did we get going so fast before?

When we passed light speed, our mass decreased, the Glint thought. So we sped up, which made our mass decrease, which sped us up, which—

I get the idea. To himself only, shutting the Glint out of his mind, Kelric thought, Can you imagine a more spectacular way to die? Hurtle along at infinite speed with zero mass and infinite length, your body turning to dust while time stops for the rest of the Universe?

And then what? he asked himself. You think Cory will be waiting? You think she’ll open her arms wide, welcoming you for the stupidity of killing yourself? He could see her glaring at him, her dark hair whipping in an imaginary wind.

“Cory, I miss you,” Kelric murmured.

I don’t understand ‘Cory,’ the Glint thought.

I never did either, Kelric admitted. But gods, I loved her. To the image of Cory in his mind, he thought, Good-bye, my love. Then he took a deep breath and directed his thoughts outward, focusing them enough so they would reach the computer. Glint, figure out a course that will get us home as near to when we left as possible. He gave voice to the realization lifting above his grief like a bird in flight. If there’s away to get back alive, I want to do it.

I’ll do my best, Captain. After a pause, the Glint thought, I’m ready.

Kelric fired the thrusters. The stars shifted position, but nothing else changed. He fired the again, trying not to dwell on how little fuel he had left. The stars collapsed into a point, their sluggish photons lumbering towards him as he leapt farther and farther into the past. He fired the thrusters—

And ripped in two.

Kelric snapped like a rubber band pulled too far too fast, its torn edges writhing in space, screaming, screaming…

Suddenly he was whole again. He felt ill, dizzy, disoriented, as if his body had reset.

“We inverted,” the Glint said.

Kelric swallowed. Why did it feel so strange? After a moment he realized the Glint had used the com instead of their neural link. He spoke out loud. “What happened?”

“The top of the plane, including the top of your body, inverted two picoseconds before the rest of the craft.”

Good gods. “Am I normal now?”

“Essentially.”

“What do you mean, ‘essentially’?”

“Only 99.99 percent of your mass reinverted.”

“What didn’t come back?”

“The missing molecules are distributed throughout the lower half of your body.” Then the Glint added, “We gave it a go and most of us went.”

Kelric managed a wan laugh, trying to ignore his bizarre mental image of 0.01 percent of his body doomed to forever hurtle into the past. “What happened to my cyber link with you?”

“The reinversion scrambled it.”

“Can we still get home?”

“Yes. However, we no longer have enough fuel to slow down.”

“Raise the beambox threshold again,” Kelric said. “Then do the bit with inverting the fuel.”

“We still won’t collect enough before you run out of air and suffocate.”

That was it? He had almost made it back only to find he couldn’t stop? He couldn’t accept that. “There has to be a way to get home.”

“Getting home is easy,” the Glint said, “But when we arrive you will be dead.”

Kelric grimaced. “You’re encouraging.”

“What do you want me to do?”

He touched the spare tank on his survival suit. “Can you tap my emergency air reserve?”

“I already have.”

Kelric sat absorbing his situation. Then he snapped his fingers. “I don’t breathe in quasis.”

“This is true.”

“So crank up the beambox threshold and put me in quasis until we reach Diesha.”

“It is inadvisable to your survival to remain in quasis that long.”

“Dying isn’t advisable to my survival either,” Kelric said. “What’s the problem with quasis?”

“It prevents the arrangement of molecules in your body from adapting as your environment changes. If you stay in too long, your environment will change too much. When you come out, your molecular wave function may not be able to readjust without catastrophic fluctuations.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Every atom in your body is hit with a force when you come out of quasis,” the Glint said. “It’s because your environment has changed. And those forces aren’t necessarily in the same directions. The more your environment changes, the bigger the discrepancies. Go too long, and it could tear you apart atom by atom.”

Not exactly how he had planned to end the day. “You’re my environment,” he pointed out. “And you go into stasis, too. That means you can’t change. So neither does my environment. In theory.” Of course, theories usually described an ideal case, which was far from what they had here.

“That might protect you,” the Glint said. “However, it doesn’t protect me.”

“Your environment can’t change that much. We’re in interstellar space.”

“Space is far from a true vacuum,” the Glint said. “And it won’t take much to make the plane collapse. Its structure is already strained past its safety limits.”

A solution had to exist. Every problem had an answer. He just needed to think of it. “Can you set the timer to bring us out at periodic intervals? Do it before our time in stasis becomes too long. We’d only need an instant to readjust. I probably wouldn’t even be conscious.”

The Glint went silent, and Kelric could almost feet it calculating. Finally it said, “A great deal of uncertainty is associated with this procedure.”

Kelric thought of the shadows in his mind. Damn it, he wanted to get better. “I’ll take uncertain life over certain death.”

“I understand, Captain.”

“So let’s do it.”

After a pause, the Glint said, “Ready.”

Kelric fired the photon thrusters…

Nausea surged over Kelric and he almost lost the breakfast he had eaten a few hours and who knew how long ago. His forward screen showed Diesha swelling into view like a ruby and turquoise jewel. They weren’t close enough to land, however.

He struggled to clear his thoughts. “Glint? Why did you wake me up?”

“We’re going to disintegrate. I thought you would want to know.”

Hell and damnation! “Get us down as far as you can before the plane falls apart.”

“Re-entry initiated. I’ve activated my emergency beacon.”

Kelric wondered if they had returned to a time when anyone existed to pick up that beacon. “Can the reactor’s shielding survive the crash?”

“Yes.”

So at least they wouldn’t splatter a nuclear reactor all over the landscape. He hoped the same was true for him. The Glint, designed to be as light as possible, didn’t carry an escape capsule to protect him when he ejected. “Will you be able to slow down enough for me to eject?”

“I calculate a fifty-three percent probability that you will survive ejection.”

Well, that was better than zero. Even if he didn’t make it, at least the Glint’s mind would survive. The computer was better shielded even than the reactor.

Kelric touched the console. “Jessa and her team will have you fixed up in no time.”

“I don’t think that will be possible,” The Glint sounded subdued.

“Why not?”

“When we reinverted, I created a cybershell for your mind. It damaged my systems.”

“A what shell?”

“Cybershell. I ran your brain as a subprocess of my own. Your mind wouldn’t have survived reinversion otherwise,”

Kelric whistled. “That’s impossible.”

“Not completely. However, it did leave me unprotected during reinversion. It corrupted my systems. By the time we crash, my functions and memory will be degraded past recovery.”

No, Kelric thought. “You killed yourself so I could live.”

“I’m only a computer.”

“A computer, yes.” He spoke quietly. “But ‘only’? I would never use that word for you.”

“Captain, thank you.” Then it said, “We’re disintegrating.”

“I won’t forget what you did for me,” Kelric said.

“Take care.” With just the barest pause, the Glint added, “Let yourself heal, Kelric.”

The plane ejected him.

Kelric went out the top, shooting upwards as the Glint fell away from him in pieces. Windblast buffeted him so roughly that he almost blacked out.

He began to fall. Tucking his chin to his chest, he held his legs together and crossed his arms while he tumbled through the air. Silence surrounded him and clouds covered the landscape. He tried to look at the altimeter on his arm, but the numbers blurred. It took his groggy brain a moment to comprehend that he had used up the air in his emergency tank. He clawed at his helmet, his fingers scraping across the face plate. Darkness closed around him, warm, inviting…

A blast of cold air slapped Kelric awake. His helmet had opened and his suit timer was going off, triggering the release of a parachute. It jerked him so hard, it felt as if his arms would rip off his shoulders.

Mercifully, the buffeting soon eased. His survival kit deployed, its life raft dangling from his suit like seaweed waving in an ocean of air. Clouds closed around him and he fell through a wet mist that ate away at his sense of up and down, right and left.

Gradually Kelric realized the world wasn’t silent. A rumble throbbed below him. As he fell through the fog, the growl swelled into the roar of waves hitting land. Even when he sealed his helmet, he heard the thundering voice.

He had no warning before he hit water. He plunged into it, his limbs tangling in the parachute’s suspension lines. As he struggled to free himself, he plowed into sand. With a huge kick he shot out of the water, breathing the few moments of borrowed air in his suit.

Kelric pulled free of the parachute and grabbed the life raft. He had run out of air, but when he opened his face plate, a wave smashed into him. Another wave came, another, and another. The breakers tore away the life raft and rolled him over and over, his lungs straining while he struggled not to gulp in water. If he didn’t get air soon, he would pass out.

His feet scraped the bottom for only an instant, but it was enough. He shoved against the sand and shot upwards, clearing the breakers long enough to gasp in a breath. Then he was back in the water, fighting the waves. He touched sand again, again, and again, and then he was stumbling up a sandy slope, waves crashing around him in frothy turbulence.

Kelric staggered onto the beach, wading out of the mist into watery sunlight. Ahead of him, a hill slanted up to a road—where a hovervan with flashing red lights was braking to a stop. As people jumped out of the vehicle, engines rumbled overhead. He looked up to see a flyer circling, its military insignia gleaming in the sunlight.

A woman in a blue jumpsuit ran toward him, her shoulder-length hair glinting like copper. As Kelric sunk to his knees in the sand, people surrounded him. The woman knelt in front of him, tears on her face. “You crazy man.”

Kelric barely managed to croak out an answer. “Zaub? How did your hair grow so fast?”

“Six months you been gone.” Her voice shook. “Six months we been thinking your damn ornery hide was finished.”

“I came back to get the money you owed me.”

She pulled him into her arms. “Welcome home.”

Kelric hugged her back, unable to respond as silent tears ran down his face.

The broadcasts that aired following his return made him out to be a bigger-than-life hero. Over and over they showed the scene of his parents embracing him, the son they thought they had lost, his breathtakingly beautiful mother with tears streaming down her golden face. Space Command took advantage of the good public relations and paraded him around in his uniform, keeping quiet about that fact that they also took him off flight status and sent him to a therapist. Kelric went where they told him to go, stood where they told him to stand, and endeavored not to look like an idiot.

All the reports went on with great enthusiasm about the dramatic moment when he wept on the beach for the joy of seeing home. Kelric let them say what they wanted. He knew the truth, deep inside where suppressed grief had once crippled his heart.

Those healing tears had been for Cory.

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2 thoughts on “Hold On To The Light

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