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When the estate of Ithuriel had been relocated to high orbit over Barbelo it needed a sexier name. Mastema settled on calling it the Imperial Observatory. Erel Barakiel, the navigator of Exiler, was ordered to take the greatest care during the approach. No ships were permitted to pass too close to the telescope. This was to prevent the instrument from being fouled by corrosive gas.

The associated space station was a 300-foot wide gray disk, like a giant hockey puck with a hole drilled in it. The telescope itself was a sphere, a great silver eyeball 300 feet across as well. Two giant precision-machined flywheels positioned at right angles to cancel each other’s reverse torque provided the firm anchor against which the telescope turned to orient itself at a target star.

The way to dock with a spinning object was to hover first over its north or south “pole” and match rotation. When Barakiel made gentle contact with the station the Exiler looked like a tall Coke bottle surrounded by six short beer bottles, sitting on top of a garbage can lid. The lander under the ship was with its head down facing straight into the station’s central axial core. A flexible tube came out from the inner wall, did a 90 degree bend, and made a tight seal with the lander. Now the Exiler‘s crew had their access way into the station.

On the station’s huge portico, which was really the innermost and “topmost” of the stations fifteen levels wrapped around the central core, Jabniel received her son with icy formality. With the exception of Ophan Lahatiel, who knew better, the crew of Exiler took Jabniel to be a class A bitch. But in her heart of hearts she was very glad to see Hadraniel after more than two years of absence. She simply did not find it appropriate to shower him with maternal affection in front of the Exiler‘s crew. Thus she had been trained. When Hadraniel hinted to his mother of the hardships he endured the previous two months at the hands of Iron Fist, it melted some of her self-maintained ice, but he refused to elaborate about his ordeal until he spoke to hyz father first.

The observatory’s support personnel, and the support personnel for those support personnel, totaled only twenty souls, including Ithuriel and his wife. Leaving three of his colleagues at work aboard the telescope, Hashmal Ithuriel crossed the silent five miles to the station alone in a “Buck Rogers” rocket pack, which was propelled only by inert compressed nitrogen.

Seeing one of the Emperor’s frigates parked over the station’s north pole, which was his customary way in, Ithuriel came in by way of the south pole instead. Hand grips lining the inner core permitted him to gently match his movement with the spinning disk, which revolved once a minute.

“The Hashmal is arriving,” his valet announced, and he was joined by two other servants after the airlock processed the Imperial Astronomer through. Together they unpacked Ithuriel like cargo from his frosty vac-suit and set him on his feet. Gravity here in the inner ring was very gentle, less than one percent that of Barbelo. It was just short of being free fall. Indeed, it was hardly gravity at all, more like a tendency to drift to one side.

Ithuriel paused for a moment to gather his wits about him. He was only about forty years old, but he was beat down by having just logged thirty hours of observation time uninterrupted by sleep. When his servants removed his inner gloves he smiled at his son and made a fatigued gesture of welcome to the group of officers standing around him on the inner ring. Then he whispered something to Jabniel and with an apologetic look he turned to stumble into the family chambers in that full quadrant of the station which was designated as his manor.

“My husband is quite exhausted,” Jabniel told them, “and begs leave to delay any further greetings until after he has drawn his bath, and after he has caught up a little on his sleep. I shall have you notified when he is ready to receive you. Please accept our hospitality in the meantime.”

Hadraniel retired to his own rooms, which had been kept in perfect order exactly as he left them two years prior. Rooms were also given to the Ophan and to each of the officers of his ship after Ithuriel’s valet had given them all a full tour of the facility. Exiler’s crew was grateful for the break. It meant a quiet night’s sleep away from the ship, off from the endless watch rotation, and separated from each other. The last was particularly refreshing.

The next morning Ithuriel received the travelers of Exiler in his elegant Sitting Room, where a metal shield slid up on a window revealing orange Rigilkent and a whirling sea of stars.

As everyone took a place on a seat around him, Ithuriel said, “So it is that my son has deigned to spend his Spring Break at home with us after all.”

“Far from a break, Papa. I’ve had quite an adventure.”

“I can well imagine, son. You seem to be prone to adventure. Do you remember what happened to you on Ceres, when you were kidnapped?”

“It was my first memory, Father, alas.”

“It was during the visit of a supply ship last month that I first learned you were being held hostage on Xanthos. Lord Asmodeus was diligently inquiring as to the status of one of my lines of research here, the one you know so very well. I passed a message back to him, through the agency of the supply ship, that I was on the cusp of a breakthrough, but I found it difficult to continue while worrying about your health and welfare on Xanthos.”

“But as you can see,” Lahatiel said, “Young Hadraniel is well, thanks in no small part to the talents of the crew of Exiler which were put to the test for the first time in the rescue of your son. Had I followed the Emperor’s orders to the letter, I believe things would have turned out otherwise. Asmodeus did not put much stock in my crew’s ability to retrieve young Hadraniel safe and alive. He seems to hold your research to be far more important than your son’s life in any event.”

“But the happy denouement of this whole affair, sir, is that you have delivered my son none the worse for wear, though perhaps a little wiser.”

Hadraniel then told his mother and father all that he knew from his two months of captivity, punctuated by rough treatment, followed by the brief flurry of activity when the ophan Lahatiel arrived.

“And what of your studies at Danae?”

“They are quite finished, Papa. I need only to recreate and transmit my dissertation on Europan iceworms back to the campus on Xanthos, and they cannot fail to award my degree. If the Dean has a problem with me completing my course in absentia I am confident that pressure from the mainstream media will prevail upon him. Otherwise, what would they say on Barbelo? Imagine, me, the very son of the Imperial Astronomer denied my degree in the aftermath of my abduction and rescue, all laid to the account of a technicality.”

“So you remain dead-set against taking over for me here?”

“Father, I love you dearly, and I have always respected your work, but my only interest in astronomy is its utility in identifying candidate worlds for my true life’s work, which I need not tell you again is exobiology. In fact, I should rather like to stay aboard the Exiler and get the first look at some of those candidate worlds.” Hadraniel glanced at Lahatiel hopefully.

Lahatiel shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid, master Hadraniel, that you are asking the impossible. Every one of my officers seated here has had your four years of college. Sar Adnarel has even had those four years of education compressed into only two years. But they have in addition to that some rather intense military training, and I myself hand-picked this crew. Their journey is about to begin in earnest.”

Hashmal Suriel said, “There is one thing you said just now, young master Hadraniel, that strikes me as a little odd. You said you wish to get the ‘first look’ at your candidate worlds for exobiological research. Surely there are no planets or large moons at Sol or Centauri which have not been visited by someone by now, many times over.”

Lahatiel said to Ithuriel and his son, “Allow me to introduce Hashmal Suriel, my ops boss.”

Hadraniel eyed Lahatiel then. “You didn’t tell her, sir? None of them know what my father has achieved?”

Lahatiel said, “I declined to tell them until they accepted their billet on my ship, and after that, there has been no time to explain why we have been so happily burning our bridges all along our way here. The discovery belongs entirely to Hashmal Ithuriel, so I will leave it to him to make the announcement.”

Ithuriel said, “I’m afraid the toothpaste is already out of the tube, sir. Jabniel and I both insist that Hadraniel never enter the armed forces, and it is not Hadraniel’s desire to serve Asmodeus in that capacity at any rate. Naturally, my son’s politics have gravitated to the Reformist side of the house, and his sympathies lie entirely with Talishi rather than Mastema. It was to Lilith that Hadraniel broke the news of my discovery here, and I suppose Lilith in turn told you, did she not?”

“In a way she did,” Lahatiel said, “through the intermediary of Yeshua.”

“Asmodeus knew I was very close to a breakthrough, but he did not realize how close, nor does he realize that I have already made an initial confirmation of the basic theory. I held that information back to see what he could do about freeing my son. Now I do have my son safely back home, but only in spite of his wishes, not as a direct result of them. Perhaps I can be forgiven if now I do not wish any part of my discovery to fall into the hands of Mastema or his Eyes. Don’t get me started on the Eyes! Filling the universe with endless replicas of Barbelo, all beholden to Mastema and subject to his twisted laws, suddenly seems distasteful to me.”

Ithuriel broke off then, frightened that he might have said too much too fast. Lahatiel gently prodded him to continue by saying, “Please tell my crew what you mean by distasteful, Hashmal Ithuriel.”

He stood up and turned away from them to stare outside the viewport into space for a short time, putting his thoughts in order. Then he turned back and said, “There are five great families on Barbelo, which can be equated in some ways to the notions of race which arose on Earth. Nephilim all have very fair complexions, of course,, because Barbelo is an ice world after all, but each family does have a distinguishing mark in the form of the color of their hair.

“Look, for example, at Hashmal Suriel. Her black hair tells me she is of the house of Larund of the East Lands. Yet there are streaks of white in her hair, which speak of a small contribution from the House of Gerash. That is how hair color is expressed in nephilim genetics. But if Suriel were human like myself, or even half-human like my son, the lightening Gerash factor would result in her whole head being somewhat less than jet black, perhaps only brown like my own hair.

“This simple fact has informed all of history on Barbelo, much as skin color was the factor behind much suffering on Earth. Family Gerash for instance, with the white beards, the white hair, obviously a symbol of purity that attracted Mastema long ago, so they are the ruling House. And within each family, the noble ones are the ones who have only black hair, or only red, which only reinforces the mutation. Not even very old nephilim experience a change of hair color or loss of hair as we humans do. Each one of you officers is the product of thousands of years of racial warfare!

“Now imagine that stupid eternal race war carried to every star in the galaxy and beyond. That is the issue at stake here before us. That is what I mean by distasteful, ophan Lahatiel!”

“Hashmal Ithuriel, you will find that very mucgh like your son, none of your guests seated before you today love Asmodeus. I have taken the utmost care in recruiting them to serve aboard my ship.”

Before he would continue, Ithuriel invited all of the officers to take the morning meal with him in an adjoining dining room, where servants had set out a hearty breakfast at nine places around a large table, with Ithuriel at one end, with wife Jabniel and son Hadraniel to his left and right, and Lahatiel at the other end of the table with Suriel and Barakiel to his left and Adnarel and Kushiel to his right.

The crew of Exiler was slightly disappointed in the meal. It was prepared from standard Navy rations, which was fine enough in its own way, but the officers were tired of it after long overexposure. Asmodeus kept his pets fed, it seemed, but not necessarily happy.

When everyone had finished about half of their breakfast and there was a lull in the small talk between them, Ithuriel began to reveal the thing that Hadraniel and Lahatiel knew, but the rest of them did not.

He said, “All of you have from time-to-time traveled more than four light-years from Rigilkent and Sol in no elapsed time at all, using the agency of a wormhole, what Mastema calls a fold-gate. What would you say if I told you it was possible to travel from here to Sol in no time at all but without using a wormhole?”

“I would say that was absolutely impossible, sir,” Kushiel offered.

Lahatiel said, “Field-Marshal Ithuriel, please allow me the pleasure of introducing Ravmalak Kushiel Bellon, my engineer, possibly the finest our Navy has ever produced, which belies his modest rank.”

“Oh, excellent, Kushiel, then just like Erel Barakiel you and I will have very much to talk about later as well! But why do you say reaching Sol from here without a wormhole is impossible?”

“Sir, we have known for more than a century that the speed of light in a vacuum represents a hard limit as well as a hard constant. Suppose we were in Exiler going almost the speed of light, such that with only the gain of one more mile per hour we would be traveling precisely at the speed of light. And suppose that our weapons officer fired a pulse from the big lase straight ahead. If you were watching us from the side, you would see the wavefront of her laser walking ahead of our ship at the leisurely relative pace of one mile per hour, just slightly over and above our already enormous speed. But to us aboard the ship, the beam of light would seem to rush ahead of us at the same velocity it always must, c, the speed of light. To maintain that illusion, our own ship’s clock and heartbeats and even our very thoughts would be slowed by a factor of 670 million. Because in our universe, sir, the rate of the passage of time is negotiable, but the rate of the passage of light is not negotiable. This has been firmly established by experiment beyond any doubt for many decades. And so, Hashmal Ithuriel, sir, no matter how hard one tries to surpass the speed of light, time itself works against you, and if by some strange miracle you actually reached the speed of light, time would stop for you, you turn into a sunbeam, and no further change would be possible.”

“I agree with all that you just stated, Ravmalak Kushiel,” Ithuriel said, “and indeed there is no possible argument against the basic fact of relativity as you so concisely laid out, but would you agree that for nearly as long as relativity has been understood, we have also known that the universe is expanding, based on observations of the doppler-based red shift in the starlight of distant galaxies?”

“Yes sir, that is correct, we have known that for nearly as long as we’ve known about the speed of light as an upper limit. And as a general rule, the more distant a galaxy is from us, the faster it is receding due to the general expansion of the universe, in the same basic way a larger sum of money in a bank grows faster than a smaller sum, even with the same rate of interest applied to both.”

“Then, Ravmalak, perhaps you will also agree with me that as our telescopes gradually improved over the years, both at Centauri and at Sol, we were able to see galaxies which were more and more distant, until we penetrated to billions of galaxies whose red-shift corresponded to a recessional velocity that was greater than the speed of light. Yet we are still able to see them!”

“Yes, sir, I agree that we have done exactly that, but you are engaging in a bit of slight-of-hand here now, if you will forgive me for being so bold. You know perfectly well, sir, that space is dynamically created between the galaxies on a continous basis. So it is the matrix the galaxies are embedded in which is flying apart, but the galaxies themselves, in real terms, move only very slowly. They might even approach one another, as the Milky Way and Andromeda are observed to do.”

“So Ravmalak, you’re saying the matrix might be expanding, but the galaxies and spaceships and people forced to exist in that matrix must follow the rules, including the rule about never going faster than light.”

“Yes sir.”

Ithuriel took a salt shaker and set it on the tabletop in front of his wife. “This salt shaker is the Exiler, Ravmalak. The table is the matrix you spoke of. Jabs is Rigilkent and I am Sol. How did you get all the way from Jabs to me and back without crossing four light-years of real space each way? Because that is a voyage that would take four hundred years through your matrix at the best speed a fusion motor could deliver.”

He lifted the salt shaker off the table in an arc. “You left the matrix of real space where speed rules apply and traveled up here, through the trackless Void where time and distance have no meaning, using a wormhole that connected the two points.”

And he set the salt-shaker down once more in front of him.

“Now we want to get our salt-shaker from Sol to Proxima Centauri, which is where Hadraniel is sitting, but we can’t use a wormhole. How do we do it? First we need to get our salt-shaker up off the table of only two dimensions into the space over the table, which means traveling through a third dimension. This is a simplified analogy for Exiler. We want to get your ship up out of our matrix of three dimensions into the Void ‘over’ the universe, which means traveling through a fourth dimension. We need a special thruster, then, which produces an exhaust that travels into the Void below the table, but at the same time produces an opposite reaction that kicks the Exiler into the Void above the table. So the particles produced by our special thruster need to have elements of the three dimensions we know, but also elements of the four dimensions of the Void.

“Fortunately we have an answer from mathematics. You know a simple line is one dimensional. It has only length. A unique point on the line can be identified by a single real number. But how long is a coastline? It depends on what scale you use when you look at it. Look at a globe of Earth. How long is the west coast of America? Fifteen hundred miles? Now look at a detailed map showing every fjord and every bay, and you’re talking ten thousand miles. Walk the coast yourself, following up every stream until you can jump across it, and you are up to a hundred thousand miles. Now trace out the coastline around every grain of sand, and it’s a million miles.

“Mathematically, a coastline is somewhere between a line and a plane. It’s between one dimension and two. It has a fractional dimension, in other words. And this has been shortened to the word ‘fractal’. California has a relatively simple coastline, with only one major bay, so it might be a fractal of only 1.2. Washington State to the north is far more complex, so it might be closer to 1.7.

“Now as we set about to develop the technology for our Void thruster, we needed to find single particles which expressed a fractional dimensionality somewhere between three and four. We needed fractal particles. For various arcane reasons, the particles which can be most easily produced have a fractional dimension equal to 3.14159, etc. Equal to the number pi.

“That gets the salt-shaker off the table, but now what? How do we move through the Void? Simple motion won’t do it. As far as the Void is concerned, a spaceship coasting at just under the speed of light is exactly the same as a ship perfectly at rest. It is only with acceleration that our ship can establish a unique direction in the Void. Once we’ve done that, and once we’re in the Void, then speed has no meaning at all. It takes just as long to go from Sol to Proxima as it does to go from Proxima to another galaxy.

“And it follows that we should enter the Void far from the gravitational influence of any planets or stars, because gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration, except it is not self-acceleration but acceleration imposed from the outside, and instead of defining your vector it will simply knock you out of the Void back into real space. That gives us something we call the forty-four percent rule. We have found by experiment that any attempt to enter the Void closer than 0.44 times the square root of the mass of the nearby object, in AU, with the mass of the Earth’s sun Sol set to unity, simply fails.

“The big upside to that rule is that it provides a handy way of getting out of the Void once you enter it. You simply travel in a straight line until you hit an abstract surface which is about point four four AU from the center of Sol, and there space curves to such a degree that it bounces you right out of the Void into real space again. The big downside to that rule is that if you miss the bubble around Sol, you just keep sailing in a straight line until you hit the bubble of another star, possibly in this same galaxy, but much more likely in a very distant one. And nothing in this universe is more certain than the fact that you will never return anywhere near your starting point if you miss your target. You might not even be able to see the Milky Way galaxy from where you end up, it could be well beyond your original observable horizon.”

Lahatiel said, “Brrrr! And now all of you know why I insisted on a mixed-gender crew, with our wives along for the ride, and representation from each of the Five Families of Gorpai. All it will take is a single miss of our target star and we will become involuntary colonists somewhere far across the universe.”

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