Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fiction: Trinh's Void

This story, Trinh's Void, was my second sale, to Nebula Rift, published in Vol. 3 No. 1 -- at amazon.com in Kindle format and at fictionmagazines.com in pdf, mobi, or epub (Kindle) formats. 
The story has an interesting history. It sold to the 15th market I sent it to, but among the many stock rejections were some personal replies: 

  • Thank you for letting me see this. It's well written and it did get past the first reader, unfortunately it doesn't feel quite right for [magazine name]. Please do try me with your next.
  • Thank you for your submission "Trinh's Void" to [magazine name].  Unfortunately we're going to have to pass, but I do want to clarify that this submission was sent to our final round folder-- so was strongly considered.  Hopefully you will take that as an encouragement.
  • This was a strong story constructed within an interesting and plausible universe. It takes a lot to fill in a story with a comparatively small cast of characters (no offence to the AI’s), however Trinh felt like an interesting and practical protagonist, inhabiting a complex world, where what’s described felt like just the tip of the iceberg.
    It’s great to read a hard SF tale which resonates as unique yet familiar, and culturally and technically fascinating. I enjoyed this very much.
  • Good science, but no issues dealt with, no real point of the story.

The publication rights have now reverted to me. Let's see what you think!


by Benson Branch

It's not easy being a Wollater. People assume you're desperate for a job, and treat you accordingly. Trinh was fortunate to be employed by the Survey, although now, staring at his holographic display, he didn't feel lucky. The red spark representing his ship, the scout Been There, was shining at the edge of a dark void surrounded by a cloud of intermediate jump points, spots where the notoriously scattershot jump drive had deposited ships on their way to somewhere else. He ran one hand across the rough stubble of his black hair, wondering again whether that gap was a volume that ships never jumped into, or one that they never left. It was his job to find out.

Trinh downloaded the ship's log to a messenger drone, and the Been There twitched as the drone kicked away. It would need at least a dozen hops, but the drone would eventually deliver his jump path to Survey headquarters.

“BT,” he said to the executive computer, “it's time for us to investigate. Make it as short a jump as you can, not too far into that zone, OK?”

“Handing it over to Nav now.”

Trinh leaned back in his chair. The navigation computer would wait until a jump seemed likely to result in the desired direction and distance, but nothing was guaranteed. The chaotic nature of the jump drive meant that Nav's job was an exercise in probabilities. 

A sudden but familiar transition to blackness hit, followed a in few seconds by a flash so bright that it would have blinded Trinh if it had been real rather than an aftereffect. The ship had jumped.

“Tell me where we are, BT.”

“About a light-week from our previous position. But I'm already starting to pick up some faint emergency beacons.”

“Crap.” This was not good. Emergency beacons, broadcasting at merely the speed of light, are a poor substitute for messenger drones. It could take years or decades for a plea for help to reach anyone. Beacons are a desperation measure, for in-system use.

“What can you tell me?”

“Not much. So far I've heard a private yacht, two automated Survey probes, a passenger liner, and a cargo ship.”

A cargo ship? That was a novelty. Most systems worth inhabiting have plenty of resources of their own; there was no need to carry stuff in from elsewhere, except the technology needed to transform a first toehold into self-sufficiency. Wollat was such a toehold.

“Send a reply when you've pinned their locations. I don't hold out any hope for the people on board, but maybe their computers can tell us something.”

“It'll take a while,” BT said. “The closest beacon is about 18 light-hours away.”

“Hmm. Let's visit them in person. Which one has been here the shortest time?”

“The yacht.”

“We'll go there first. Get ready to jump.”

“Got it.”

In a few minutes the familiar dark curtain fell, followed by a weak, pale flash.

“BT?” asked Trinh. “What happened with the jump?”

“Nav says we went only a few light-minutes.”

Trinh took a deep breath to calm himself. “Try again.”

The wait before the jump was almost fifteen minutes. Nav must be trying very hard, he thought. But the same result came. He asked BT to run diagnostics, which came back clean. Then they jumped a third time, but same terribly short jump happened.

“It's like jumping through mud," Trinh said. "How many of these tiny hops to reach the yacht?”

“Depends on the jump accuracy, maybe ten thousand.”

“What about jumping back the way we came?”

“At least five thousand jumps.”

“What about the closest ship?”

“One thousand jumps.”

“We'll run out of power long before that." A sense of absolute isolation swept through Trinh like a cold wind. Inside this void, normally small distances had suddenly become journeys. The bright stars and their inhabitants, once just a few days away, were unreachable.

“What about using the in-system drive?”

“We could rendezvous with the cargo ship in two months.”

“I don't have many options, BT. Go to the cargo ship and we'll see what we find.”

“How fast?”

“Let's say one and a quarter gravities; maybe I can stand up to more later. But I'll need to go on half rations starting now. There may not be any food left on the cargo ship.

“What's its name, anyway?”

“The After Math.”

“My God!”

“It's important?”

“It's the reason I'm here. Wollat went deep into debt to finance a cargo of bootstrap tech, that never arrived. Now most Wollaters are like me, working light-years away from home to pay off the debt, and Wollat is barely hanging on.

“The ship that was lost was the After Math.” Being brought to the After Math would have seemed like serendipity, except that both ships were mired in the void. It was another case of Wollater's luck.

* * *

The Been There was matching velocities with the After Math and continued to transmit, but there was no answer. The huge sphere of the cargo ship loomed larger and larger, barely illuminated by the distant red dwarf. In the infrared the After Math was glowing brightly, so she was powered up, but Trinh could uncover no further clues about her condition.

Trinh stepped into his vacuum suit as the Been There edged closer. With his first step the tool belt almost fell off, tools slapping against his thighs. He cinched the waist as far as it would go, and his stomach growled in answer.

The deceleration stopped, and in a minute there was a small bump; whirring noises emanated from the docking mechanism. “The far airlock isn't responding,” BT said. “You'll have to try manual access.”

Trinh fastened his helmet and floated into the scout's airlock, closing the hatch behind him. The air hissed out and then there was silence. After opening the outside hatch he flicked on his helmet light and coasted through a short junction over to the cargo ship's skin. Pulling an airlock tool from the belt, he sprang the manual latches, and the hatch gave way at Trinh's push.

He entered the After Math, closed the hatch, and found the control panel in the beam of his light. He punched the buttons for air and interior lights.

Then his suit radio came alive.

“Who's that?” a voice demanded.

“I'm Ensign Trinh, with the Survey. Who are you?”

“The executive computer, call me AM, and I hope you're here with good news.”

“No, I'm not. I was sent to investigate this zone and I'm stuck here, same as you.”

“That's a shame. It's incredibly boring here. In fact, I put my higher functions to sleep several years ago. You woke me up.”

“What happened to the crew?”

“Both deceased. They had an argument over who was dining and who was dinner.”

“Oh.” Trinh's empty gut twinged again.

“After the humans died I started the in-system drive in the hopes of getting out of here in less than a thousand years. Then I started my hibernation.”

“Is the cargo all here?”

“I am not authorized to tamper with it, Ensign Trinh. It is in good shape.”

The safety light on the airlock panel turned green. “Air OK inside?” Trinh asked.

“Just fine, just fine. Nobody's using it.”

Trinh pulled back his helmet's faceplate and sniffed the air, dry and stale, but breathable. He floated into the corridor of the After Math.

“Which way to the cargo area?”

“That deck is nothing but cargo. Just keep going.”

The first cargo bay was close by, and its lights came on as soon as Trinh drifted in. He paused and gaped at a huge expanse that could hold many ships the size of the Been There, filled with containers strapped to the deck and clipped to each other. He hovered next to the nearest one and inspected its label. It was equipment for generating one of the many parts with which to construct factories that would in turn create robots, mining tools, DNA analyzers, anything a new settlement would need.

“How many decks?”

“Thirty-seven. The outer twenty are the cargo decks.”

Trinh let out a slow whistle. So much of the After Math was cargo. He shivered as he realized that his only chance of escaping the void, of surviving, required abandoning all of it.

“We've got to ditch the cargo.”

“I was made to deliver the cargo.”

“I know. But delivery in a thousand years is as good as never.”

AM didn't respond, and Trinh continued. “It's on my authority. Abandon all of it. We're reducing the mass and size of the After Math as far as we can.”

“You're the boss.”

The ship's repair and cargo-handling robots began congregating in the bay. Wheeled carts appeared; a few robots activated electromagnets on each to stabilize them in zero-g, while others began unbuckling containers and shifting them to the carts. Yet other robots rolled the laden carts towards the cargo airlocks and the black emptiness beyond.

Clearing all the bays on all the decks was clearly going to take a while. It was time to tackle another task.

“Where is the crew?”

“Deck ten.”

Trinh began to make his way down twenty-seven decks. On reaching deck ten he saw the two gaunt bodies, drifting in the corridor. The low humidity had dried their wounds and desiccated the corpses.

The sight took him aback. Trinh had grown up with the customs of his Wollater childhood, and the silent remains demanded a burial, even though it was long past the one week window for doing so. He didn't want to touch them because of that delay, and also because they had died violently. But it must be done.

Noting the name on the jacket of the first body, he went on down the corridor to the crew cabins. Inside that crewman's cabin was a hold-it board with notes, displays, and mementos, of which he took a few. Also there was a sleeping sack, for zero-g times, and an ordinary bed. Trinh stripped the bed of a sheet and returned to the dead crewman.

He grasped the body while holding the white sheet, wielding it like a glove, and wrapped the cloth around and around, stuffing the keepsakes inside, until the corpse disappeared underneath the cloth. Trinh fastened the ends with tape from his tool belt. He pushed the shrouded form back to an airlock, twenty-seven decks away, thankful for zero-g. After repeating the process with the second crew member he cycled the airlock.

“Not taking them back with us?” AM asked.

“All the extra mass has to go.”

“They're insignificant compared to the mass of the ship.”

Trinh shook his head. “I can't say when we've gotten rid of enough mass, so it all goes.”

Then he wandered around the After Math, hoping some morsel of food might be found. None was, so Trinh cut his rations to one-quarter.

The robots would need days to clear out all the cargo. Meanwhile Trinh worked with two robots to secure the Been There to the After Math, and to transfer as much in-system fuel to the scout as possible. Even with only the fraction of that fuel that remained, the gargantuan After Math carried much more than Trinh's ship could hold.

“Now light the torch.” Trinh instructed AM once the transfer was complete. “Run it dry. But slow enough that the robots can continue ditching the cargo.”

“This will get me out of here faster,” AM said, “but you'll still die centuries before we arrive.”

“That's not the point. I'm lightening the ship even more. And when all that fuel is gone, we'll cut loose the in-system drive.”


“The jump drives aren't broken, they're muted, making only tiny jumps. I'm going to slash our volume and mass to compensate, and I'm strapping myself to a much bigger engine.”

Trinh felt the gentle tug of acceleration, and his sense of up and down reasserted itself. It would take a long, hungry week to burn the remaining fuel. He was tired.

Trinh slept a lot, dreaming of fishing, hunting in the woods ... food dreams. Then it was time to shrink the ship by ripping it apart. The repair robots worked around the clock to peel off the airtight decks. Each successive skin could easily be cut and tossed away, but care was needed in dismantling the in-system drive and the channels that were the arteries and veins of the After Math, carrying power, air, and other essential elements throughout the ship.

Trinh stopped them at deck ten, the crew deck. While the diameter of the ship had been reduced by a factor of not quite four, its volume was reduced by a factor of fifty, and for the jump drive, always located in the center, volume mattered as well as mass. The Been There nestled against a diminished After Math, a pea against a basketball.

At his console in the scout, Trinh called AM.

“It's time to jump. Whenever you're ready.”

"Say again? Your voice is slurred."

Trinh cleared his throat. "Jump."

In a moment the familiar darkness came, and the flash of blinding light. The immense jump drive of the cargo ship had fired.

“BT?” he asked, eyes closed.

“A short but promising jump. But, Ensign Trinh, I'm worried about your condition. The medical readouts are almost in the red zone.”

“Just jump. I'll celebrate and eat my last nutrition bar.”

Jump and evaluate, jump and evaluate, the trek continued. Trinh retreated to his sleep sack and let BT run the ship.

“Trinh? Trinh!”

“Um, yeah?”

“The jumps are getting better, but After Math is getting low on power.”



“I mean, getting near the edge. Of the void.” Trinh had difficulty pushing the words out. “Have After Math jump one more time. Then cast off and jump on our own. AM wanted to sleep anyway.” 

Jump and evaluate, darkness and then the burst of light, the cycle continued. It no longer bothered Trinh, who spent most of the time in a haze, disinterested in the monotonous show behind his eyes.

“Trinh?” BT asked. “Trinh? We've broken out. We're on our way home. Trinh?”

Trinh stirred, but did not answer.

* * *

“You did a remarkable job, Lieutenant Trinh, quite a job, I'd say. Congratulations on your promotion.” Trinh's boss, Eldon, shook his hand and gestured to a chair. “I'm glad to see that you've gotten your weight back during your medical leave.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Eldon sat behind his desk and folded his hands. “The physicists have slapped a theory together from the data you collected. It was clever to use a gaunt cargo ship as a booster. If they're right, that's the only way you could have gotten out of that dead zone.”

“It wasn't enjoyable, sir, throwing out the entire cargo and dismantling most of the ship.”

“Of course. The new theory -- quantum foam enervation, they call it -- indicates you might have been able to keep about a quarter of the cargo. But,” Eldon added hastily, “there's no way you could have known that.”

“And if it had taken much longer I would have starved to death.”

“Yes.” Eldon looked intently at Trinh. “The Survey was able to reach the After Math and bring her in. We see from her log that you took care of the crew member remains as well.”

Trinh shifted in his seat. “As best I could, sir, in those conditions.”

“That raises the question of your next assignment.” Eldon cleared his throat. “The owner of the yacht that you spotted back there is very keen on recovering the bodies on that yacht, family members of hers, and she's accustomed to getting her way.

“She's asked for you, personally, to retrieve them.”

“They're too far in.”

“Not so. We've taken the lessons we've learned from you, Trinh, and we're building the first of a new class of ship, a void tug, with a much higher engine-to-volume ratio, and plenty of food stores.”

“It'll still take a couple of years to do what you're asking. The yacht is nowhere near the edge of the void.”

“It's a long assignment, yes. But the tug will have the capacity to bring back at least a third of the Wollater cargo, if you can corral it on your way in or out.

“If you go, whatever cargo comes back will find its way to Wollat. The Survey will see to that. How about it, Lieutenant.

“Will you fly back?”