Lighter Than Fast
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The Kessler's Gate Superluminal Testing Facility was vast. Built during the prototyping of the Lang Distortion Drive — humanity's first realistic method of extrasolar exploration — it was composed largely of two kilometre-wide circular gateways held a city's-width apart by a spidery network of struts and rail systems, with one end surrounded by a bulbous cluster of self-sustaining habitation and the other left looking out into empty space. In 20##, it had a permanent residence of almost 50,000, with over twice that many visiting regularly for research. By volume it was the largest non-containment facility the Foundation owned, and (in secret if not in public) their pride and joy.

The pride and joys of the Facility, of course, was the gate, designed by the eponymous late great Frances Kessler. A seamless rift-portal from the first ring to the second allowed the intervening space to act as a proving ground of functionally infinite length, a perfect place to test vehicles that would break the speed of light. A faulty module could run for days, weeks, or months, flitting through the tube faster than the eye could perceive, and it would still be able to be located and dismantled once its fuel ran down. Or, if the risk of collision was too great, the rift could be disabled and the offending vehicle would catapult itself out through the Kuiper belt, never to be seen again. It was an elegant system, a wonderful triumph of aspiration and dedication, and so — as with all great inventions — its obsolescence was preordained.

In ####, the Bifrost Superluminal Engine was devised, and was shortly followed by the rapid cessation of all LDD construction. The Engine, which pulled a sphere of space out of reality and skipped it wildly round the edges of the universe, was incompatible with Kessler's antiquated spatial loop — the Foundation, ever the pragmatists, quickly moved onto other methods of testing, and the "Superluminal" was struck from the facility's name. It shrank in stature and scope, retaining a reputation but little else. Accommodation was converted into laboratories, the algal protein tanks that fed its workforce emptied out and beaten into ship plating. Over less than a decade its population dwindled to around 200; most of them eminent scientists and technological researchers, making use of the now-deserted laboratories to solder, weld, warp, and push the boundaries of the impossible.


Miller ducked reflexively as an eight-foot-tall holographic penis spiralled across the room, colliding with the chamber wall and vanishing in a haze of pale blue light. Taking a deep breath and trying to control her anger, she crawled her way over to the control panel on the chamber walls, eyes shut tight against a torrent of luminous genitalia. Eventually she found it; a squat metal keyboard embedded at chest height. It took a moment to enter the override code, and finally…

Silence. Or as close as you can get in a space station.

She pulled herself to her feet and brushed herself down, assessing the carnage. The chamber was a cuboid space about the size of a football pitch, all bare walls and rusting pipes. One half was littered with desks and computers, a relic of a busier time, and the other was home to a large square rubber mat. And, currently, around four-thousand dollars-worth of broken equipment. She sighed.

"Alright, Jared. You can come out now."

A face poked out from under a desk.

"Yeah?", it said. "Alright, cool. I wasn't hiding, I was just-"

She rolled her eyes. "I know, I know. Help me check the debug and we'll run through the config again."

Jared pulled himself out from his hidey-hole and ran a hand through his hair. "Reckon it's a hardware error? Or are we going to need to build the next one from a new base?"

"With our luck," she said, gesturing around the room, "I'm fairly sure we'll have to build a new base at minimum. I'm just praying there's no deep-seated flaws."

Her accomplice sagged. "Mills, I can't go through the source again, I just can't. You've no idea how bad it is in there. It's like someone ran Fetch through a blender and seasoned it with a political manifesto. Half of it's not even valid syntax."

"It works, doesn't it?"

"It shouldn't. No law of man or god should let that sort of stuff function. I bet whoever typed it went catatonic as soon as they hit 'compile'."

She sighed, and gave him a friendly jab in the arm. "Come on, cheer up. We won't know until we look."

He muttered something vaguely affirmative, and then paused. He cocked his head to the side. "Hey," he said, "did you hear that?"

Miller, to her credit, didn't say 'hear what?'. Instead, she wordlessly shook her head and tried to keep her breathing to a minimum. If you live in space for long enough, you eventually learn to worry when people hear weird noises. Most of the people who say things like 'hear what?' or 'you're probably just imagining things' end up sprinkled haphazardly in orbit around one planet or another, and sometimes several at once. The folks who don't end up making a habit of watching the fireworks.

And, sure enough, there's a faint shudder. A kind of high-pitched bass note, deeply disconcerting, filled with a very subtle wrongness. Loud enough to send vibrations through a city-sized station, yet almost beyond the range of hearing. Miller's eyes widened.

"Well that's not good. Stay here, tidy up the tech. Don't worry about the test, we'll try again tomorrow."

Jared opened his mouth to protest, realised he would rather be as far away as possible from whatever was making that noise, and shut it again. He nodded in compliance and gave a vague thumbs-up of well-wishing. Had a translator been present, they could've used his face as the international symbol for "better you than me".

Miller grabbed a comms unit from the desk, an emergency stunner from the rack, and sprinted off down the corridor. Above her, silence roared.


"I'd appreciate it if you took that thing off."

Ben Lwyllyn, spatiotemporal engineer, grinned. Without breaking eye-contact, he lifted a pen off the desk, pulled back his hand, and effortlessly tossed it into the air.

Within a quarter of a second, his shoulder-mounted railgun tore it into an ionised smear of miscellaneous gases. He leaned in close to the woman sitting opposite him, and whispered his response.

"No."

The woman sighed. "Mr. Llewellyn," she said, "I don't think you quite understand-"

Ben held up a fist. "Mrs. Boss lady", he said, "there are three things you don't understand. The first" — and here a finger was extended — "is that my name is not Llewellyn. It is Lwyllyn, with three Ls and no vowels, because my father, God rest his soul, couldn't spell worth a damn. I've borne that name all my life, and explained it at every turn, and have never once considered changing it. That in itself should give you some idea of what in the fuck kind of person I am."

"I'd thank you, Mr. Lwyllyn, not to swear. This will be going on record."

Ben grinned. "And I'd thank you to let me finish. My second point was going to be that you are currently in the process of dismissing me, through no fault of my own, from the greatest job I've ever held. And, while you're doing that, you're also discussing the exact process you're gonna to use to decommission the station I've spent half a career building. As far as I see it, I am in absolutely no obligation to take instructions from you." He paused. "Or, for that matter, anybody else. I'm a free man."

"And thirdly", he said, "anybody who knows me also knows that there is no force on this or any other natural or artificial astronomical body, or lack thereof, which could pry me from my gun without destroying me, my gun, or both."

The woman pinched the bridge of her nose. "Please," she said, "try to see this from my point of view. I don't want to fire you. But the place is getting unstable. The gates draw much too much power, and the reactors are needed for other stations. Colonies too — expansion's accelerating, and none of us can afford to be sentimental. And once we shut them down…" She made a motion with her hands, a ring exploding outwards with a bwoosh. "…The internal pressure won't support the EM field. You know this, Ben. There's millions of tonnes of steel fastened to the out-gate, we need to get rid of it safely. Controlled decommissioning. It's not up to me, but even if it were, I really can't tell you-"

"It's got a name, you know."

"…What?"

"My gun. It's got a name."

"…Right. Fine." There's the unmistakable pause of someone who's lost the thread of the conversation and is now trying to place where it all went wrong. "What?"

"It's called 'Friendly'. As in 'Friendly Fire'. Would ya like to know why it's got that name?"

"I really think-"

"Humour me. I'm armed and unstable, remember?"

"…Fine. Fine, I'll bite. Why, Ben, does your gun have that name?"

"Because in its casing there's both a highly sophisticated targeting computer and a detailed broadcast of its current whereabouts. It's got localised GPS, GalPS, sonar emission, EM signature, psychic broadcast… if you can name it, I've crammed it in Friendly. The thing's traceable down to the atom from kilometres away. Ask me why it's got all that."

"Why does it-"

"Because, my darling, over the course of my life I've had no fewer than one-hundred and sixty-six run-ins with clones. And duplicates, of course. And paradox feedback copies, and reality palimpsests, and various other dubiously xeroxed versions of my own sweet dear self. Of those, at least half have been out for blood. Half's generous, to be honest. More like two thirds. Loops and branches do something to the head; man's not designed to function in eternity. It's an occupational hazard — I am loops, missy, live and breathe 'em. And Friendly gives me the upper hand, 'cause if I can hit Friendly, I can hit them."

"But can't they also use it to hit you?"

"Of course. But I'm faster. I'm always faster, me, 'cause I'm good at this shit. I'm the fucking best. I've spent decades doing it, and if you can find a man who can match me at my own game you be sure to send him my way, because nine times out of ten he'll just be another version of me who fell through the cosmic drywall." Ben hauled himself out of his chair and turned to the door. "You can keep your station, missy," he said. "And your consolation prize. But you just tell your bosses that one day they're going to need someone to bend reality over a table and fuck it into shape again, and I'm gonna be busy."

The woman rolled her eyes. "Busy doing what, Mr. Lwyllyn?"

He paused for a while, and shrugged. "Anything", he said, "but this."

And then there was a half-second of wonderful, beautiful noise, as several electromagnetic actuators pumped the stacks of paperwork full of photonic slugs. Followed, of course, by the much longer sound of footsteps frantically disappearing down the corridor, pausing after a little while so as Ben could wipe the tears of laughter from his face.


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