Burnin' for You

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Joyeuse
(532) Herculina
20 Minutes After Ignition

It wasn't actually 20 minutes of perfect microgravity. Occasional jerks of acceleration ran through the ship every time the thrusters fired — intermittently, at first, to fine-tune their trajectory, but with increasing frequency as they approached the black hole. As they grew closer, so did the radiation pressure that was trying to push them in the opposite direction.

The end result was that any unsecured objects were sent drifting into the air whenever a thruster fired, only to slowly fall back towards the floor — unless another burst of thrust sent them flying across the room. Said unsecured objects included the members of Dr. Song Jin-ho's engineering department. The mix of esoteric containment technicians, applied physicists, and former fusion researchers who were responsible for overseeing the drive system kept getting launched away from their workstations and knocking into each other.

A shot of thrust sent Song's microgravity-safe sippy mug up off his panel and into the air. He caught it before it drifted too far out of reach, then took a gulp of coffee. Engineering had strapped down most of the loose objects in preparation for imminent acceleration; bundles of wires, stacks of writing implements, and numerous tablets and electronic paraphernalia had all been tightly bound and neatly secured to the battery of desks that ringed the cramped chamber. Of course, some things couldn't be secured, or simply weren't worth the effort — like the calendar on the wall, which flipped from October to November every time the ship jolted. Right now, the adorable cat photo paired with the month was instructing the engineering department to hang in there. They were certainly trying.

"We're getting power off the thermocouples," Dr. Phoebe Harlan reported. As the senior-most researcher in materials science and condensed matter physics, she had been appointed as the Second Engineer, responsible for overseeing the drive hemisphere, on the basis that it was largely constructed from anomalous materials. She didn't know how Prometheus Labs had stabilized electronium, but she knew how to handle it.

"How are they handling the heat?" Song asked. The primary power system was designed to generate electricity from the temperature gradient across the drive hemisphere — but it could only do that if it didn't melt.

"Green lights across the board. Same for the blades. I'm going to start charging the capacitor banks."

Song nodded and turned back to the main engineering display. They couldn't see the black hole, or measure any of its properties directly, but they could make inferences from the radiation it was emitting. That gave them the blackbody temperature, estimated mass, and approximate position relative to the Joyeuse — but not, critically, the magnitude of the electric charge. They wouldn't know that until they tried to apply magnetic fields to it.

He spoke into the line to the bridge. "Captain, our alignment looks good. Can you hold this heading?"

"That I can, Chief," Douglas replied. "How's our velocity?"

Song reassessed the display before answering. "I believe it's fine. We should zero out when it gets to the center of the drive. I'll let you know if that changes."

A minute ticked by in silence. Song idly fiddled with the molly-guard over the button to energize the superconducting blades, flipping the cover up and down as he watched the singularity approach.

It wasn't really a kugelblitz. Yes, the final bit of energy to push it over the Bekenstein bound came from the laser array, but photon energy alone could only create a black hole devoid of charge, which they had no way of containing — the magnetic fields generated by the superconducting blades would have no effect. If the photon pressure didn't send it caroming off into deep space, then it would bore through the drive and the ship without stopping.

It had been Song who had come up with the solution, adapted from the ignition design of the MICROSTAR fusion reactor project. Hundreds of balls of iron had been repeatedly run through SCP-786 until they were just below their Schwarzschild density, then arranged into a spherical array to create a hyperdense ignition target. That target had been placed at the center of the Dandelion, providing a source of charge for the future black hole, as well as significant additional mass-energy density to supplement the energy of the kugelblitz.

That was, if they had made the right assumptions about certain unsolved questions in quantum physics.

"Capacitors charged," Harlan announced.

"Good. Watch the accelerometer for me. Call it when we zero out." Song keyed on the line to the bridge again. "Captain, we're approaching the capture point. I recommend that you standby for sudden thrust."

"Acknowledged."

As the black hole grew closer, so did the force of deceleration. One-by-one, the formerly-weightless engineers fell to their feet, and then from their feet into their seats. After months in microgravity, no one was in a hurry to try standing up under what was soon to be a full gravity of acceleration.

On the display, the black hole came to a standstill at the center of the drive.

"Now!" Harlan called.

Song pressed the button. Several hundred megajoules of power surged from the capacitor banks into the superconducting coils that lined the edges of the blades. Miles of Mekonium wire, tightly wound into solenoids, were all energized at once, creating a massive magnetic bottle around the black hole.

The question was whether it would stay in the bottle. If they had gone with the wrong theory of quantum gravity, then this would be the point where the narration of the disaster report would start.

The Joyeuse started to move again — and the black hole came with it.

Douglas' voice came through the radio. "Chief, we're holding steady at about 9.7 meters per second per second. Am I right in thinking that means we have our singularity?"

"You are, Captain. I can confirm positive acquisition of Component Marie."

A cheer rang out from the engineering department, muted somewhat by a sense of professionalism and the restored weight of formerly absent gravity.

"Good. How long before you bring the feed system online?"

"We're starting now. We'll need to bleed off a little mass first, but we should be in equilibrium at our designed thrust within a few hours."

Song wobbled unsteadily as he stood and stretched. He had done his best to keep up with his microgravity exercises, but even still, eight months in space had cost him some of his balance and bone density. At least he wouldn't have to worry about microgravity ever again.

He pointed at three of the junior engineers who didn't look busy enough. "Go grab the cakes out of safe storage. Take the first two instances down to the Machine room, and bring the third one here. I'll be down in a bit to supervise the unboxing and loading, and then we'll eat the other."

That last part was already starting to get old. If left uneaten for more than 24 hours, each Keter cake would spawn a copy of itself with the same properties. So they had to be eaten. But it also took 24 hours for an eaten cake to respawn, so to keep the flow of cakes into the black hole from being interrupted, the remass system was designed to cycle through three different sets of SCP-871 at 16 hour intervals.

The end result was that the engineering department had to eat cakes three times a day, every day, for the rest of their lives. Song and Harlan were already conspiring to foist that duty off onto the rest of the crew.

Capturing the black hole was tense. Activating the Antoinette Machine was different, though no less dangerous in the grand scheme of things. The engineers had taken every possible measure to make the Rube Goldbergian machine more resilient to variation and unexpected changes, to automate as much as they possibly could. Once the cakes had been unboxed and loaded into the machine, all Song had to do was dial in the desired feed rate and press another button.

A chute opened up beneath the first instance — really actually a collection of instances with the same timing, but that was functionally equivalent to one very large cake — dropping it through SCP-786 and recirculating it back through the funnel until it was compressed enough to fall into the event horizon. As it entered the singularity, it was atomized by the intense radiation and spatial distortions, causing a replacement cake to instantly reappear inside the machine to start the process again. A complex and redundancy-filled system of scales and timers was used to monitor and control the feed rate, ensuring that exactly 4.8 kilograms of confection were funneled into the black hole every second. This level of flexibility was necessary, because the cakes tended to vary in subtle ways upon each reappearance. If the system was ever malfunctioning, blocked, or unattended for a prolonged period of time, the consequences would be dire: while a black hole malfunction could kill the entire crew, a runaway cake replication could potentially destroy a whole star system.

Once the machine was running, the third instance, the one scheduled to be eaten, was brought up to the main engineering deck. While Song supervised the distribution of plates and utensils, Harlan took charge of cutting the cake, which she did with more stabbing than was strictly necessary.

"Well everyone," Song said, "here's to our first meal under normal gravity."

If only it had been something other than fruitcake.


Joyeuse
Outer Solar System
11 Days After Ignition

The starship screamed silently through the void, hurtling away from the Sun at over 9300 kilometers per second and still rapidly gaining speed. Every hundred seconds or so, it added another kilometer per second to its velocity. At that speed, if it hit something, the collision would have the force of a million fusion bombs going off all at once.

Ahead of it, in the rapidly closing distance, was a pale brown dot. It had been visible for almost five hours, but in the last five minutes it had stopped being a dot and had become a small but growing circle. Right now, it had an angular diameter only a tenth of the Moon as seen from Earth, but in just another five minutes, the Joyeuse would pass by within a hundred kilometers of the surface of the former planet Pluto.

For the lonely souls stationed at the GOC's forwardmost operating base, the Joyeuse would appear, just for an instant, as a shooting star crossing the entire length of the sky in a heartbeat. And then it would be gone, vanishing into the distance, tinged noticeably red.

In the moment of their closest approach, the thaumaturges of Farpoint Station would apportate a final shipment of supplies, technology, and a few frozen parathreats that the Coalition wanted to keep as far away from Earth as possible, along with the last few additions to the ship's crew.

Before that could happen, the Joyeuse needed to prepare. Down in the ship's cargo hold, the Russian and the Frenchman watched the wizards at work.

"Apportation is a fickle science at the best of times," Pierre Duval explained. "But this… you have heard the expression about trying to find a needle in a haystack?"

Anton Orlov nodded.

"Well, my taciturn comrade, what those frozen sons of dogs on Pluto are about to attempt is like hitting that needle with another needle, while the haystack is on fire. In the middle of a hurricane. While flying in a Concorde. It must all go perfectly, or else they shall die in space."

"Sooner, you mean."

Duval laughed. "True true, we are all doomed to die in space. But hopefully not today. Which is why the distinguished Professor and her colleagues are painting the target, to give them an easier shot."

The distinguished professor in question, Dr. Lilith Thornton, chalked a few final sigils onto the floor and stood.

"It is a Luciano-Grimaldi probabilistic flux concentration matrix," she said as she stepped gingerly outside the chalked lines. "Or, ah, a ‘luck beacon’. Certain events are much more likely to transpire within the circle than without. On a smaller scale you can use it to cheat at dice games."

Orlov nodded. "On this scale?"

"It compensates for the random error of apportation. Magic is much more likely to occur inside. I have a medium-size one in my laboratory to help with backlash. Keeps the showers of sparks and white doves away from sensitive equipment."

"Useful. Does Coalition use these for troop insertion, logistics?"

"Mmm. Non." Duval shook his head. "Too much trouble."

"Ah," Orlov said, "if operational on Earth, it will attract… background noise. Ambient oddities."

"Indeed. And, of course, your enemies can use it too," Thornton said. "The Allies tried it out for a bit during the War. Stopped after the Obskuracorps ‘ported a chlorine elemental into the middle of a forward operating base. Bad news." She took one more look at the ritual circle, and smiled. "Now, gentlemen, I am going to have to ask you to step back beyond the yellow line. It is time to catch that needle."

The Joyeuse sent the signal to Farpoint Station. Nothing seemed to happen. In the span of thirty seconds, Pluto grew from the size of the Moon to fill the entire sky with mottled beige and black. Duval opened his mouth, forming the start of a question; he was interrupted by a crackle of static electricity, a sustained tone around middle C, and a flash of light that momentarily blinded them all.

When the afterimage faded, the circle was no longer empty. Inside it now sat a few crates, a handful of heavily-reinforced storage containers, and one cylindrical capsule. No people had materialized. Thornton walked over to the roughly person-sized cylinder, and examined a hatch on the side.

"An apportation this complex has to be steered manually. There should be… ah. Here."

She yanked on the heavy handle set into the hatch. There was a hiss of escaping pressure as the door swung open. The air smelled like feet.

A voice from the darkness. "Ah, my saviors." The accent was vaguely European, though not clearly of any specific country. There was something aristocratic about the tone. "One moment, I must extricate myself from this infernal seat."

The man who emerged from the capsule was dressed in a shapeless jumpsuit, but carried himself like he was in full formal dress. He looked to be in late middle age, with shoulder-length grey hair pulled back into a ponytail and a neatly-trimmed mustache. He smiled toothily at Thornton.

"Ah! Lilith! Lovely to see you, my dear, it has been far too long."

"I’m glad you could join us, Doctor. I hope your trip from Pluto wasn’t too unpleasant?"

"Not at all, not at all. Would you mind introducing me to these gentlemen?" The man peered out of his capsule at them, but had not yet taken a single step outside.

"Of course not. Laszlo, this is Pierre Duval, of the Church of Satan Scientist, and Anton Orlov of the Foundation. They’re in charge of our tactical operations. Pierre, Anton, this is Dr. Laszlo Sarkany, Archmagus Emeritus of the Scholomance, Dean Emeritus of ICSUT Zurich, and my doctoral thesis advisor. He'll be my deputy chief of thaumatology."

"And a pleasure it is." Sarkany spoke slowly, as if he was savoring the words. "As heads of security, might I respectfully request your permission to come aboard? It is a bit belated, I know, but etiquette demands I ask."

Duval smiled. "I would be delighted."

Sarkany took a step outside, then glanced at Orlov, who looked like he'd just tasted something bitter.

Orlov squinted at him. "I recognize your name. You sit on Council of 108."

"Not anymore. Like Dr. Dahl, I am now retired."

"I was not told you were coming. Neither was Director Fordyce, or she would be greeting you herself. We were expecting minor personnel from Pluto." Orlov approached the man, dark eyes flickering between Sarkany, Thornton, and Duval. "What is this? Some power play from Coalition?"

"Ah, my incredulous acquaintance, your suspicions are well-intentioned, but ill-informed." Sarkany spoke to the larger man like he was addressing an excitable child. "I have walked the Earth for centuries. I have no care at all for petty institutional rivalries, least of all when I have my own grand, personal rivalries to address. I have accrued a number of enemies on Earth, even among the 108. I did not wish to alert my foes of my departure, for fear that they might do something drastic. Sadly, this practical requirement of secrecy stood in the way of polite pleasantries and informed entrances."

Orlov grumbled. "I see."

Sarkany nodded, then flashed another aristocratic grin at Orlov. "You do raise an excellent point, though. I should go introduce myself to the control council of this vessel. Given that I am the final passenger on the manifest, am I right to assume that our departure from the solar system will be commemorated with some manner of formal gathering?"

"The captain has an address planned, yes," Duval said, evidently pleased with the new addition to the crew.

"Perfect!" Sarkany rubbed his hands together. "I must say, while I enjoyed my stay on Farpoint Station far more than most — sunlight has never quite agreed with me — I have sorely missed dressing up and making an impression on others."

Duval smiled. "An excellent opportunity to acquaint yourself with the ship's stores of wine, as well."

"Ah, wine… it is not my refreshment of choice." Sarkany flicked his tongue along his teeth. "But I suppose in space, we all must make do."


Joyeuse
Deep Space
11 Days After Ignition

Captain Hiram Douglas stood on a modular stage overlooking the crowded canteen. It wasn't an especially elaborate setup — the stage was collapsible and largely bare, save for Douglas, Directors Dahl and Fordyce, and a projector screen. They were assembled here, rather than one of the Joyeuse's small theaters, because this was the only gathering space capable of hosting the entire crew at once.

He looked out across the crowd — several hundred people, nearly everyone onboard who wasn't maintaining an essential system, many dressed up and with drinks in hand. Young and hopeful eyes, gazing up at the old man, past him, through the ship, into the corridors of unknown space.

"Welcome," he said. "I know that many of you have important duties, so I won't keep you for long. Before we reached Farpoint Station, I sent them a personal request, which they fulfilled along with the supplies we were sent. I'd like to show you the result."

The projector whirred to life, and an image appeared on the screen. Almost entirely blank, save for a tiny, blurry disk, faint blue and hanging in the darkness. Faint murmurs echoed through the room.

"This photograph was taken only minutes before we passed Pluto. Whatever may happen to Earth after this picture was taken, from now into eternity, we will never know. This is the most current image we will ever see."

The room was silent, mournful.

"Though we hail from Earth, our allegiance is not to the planet, but to humanity. Our duty is to protect our species. To ensure that when we venture into the universe, it is an expression of our curiosity and respect for other life, not our worst superstitious and warlike tendencies."

Douglas' face hardened with resolve. "To stop Hector Canvera and his cultists is to declare that he does not represent us. Humanity is what it chooses to be. And our first contact will not be our last."

"Today, we say goodbye to our birthplace. There will be time in the coming years to miss Earth. Time to reminisce and reflect on what we've left behind."

Douglas cracked a wry smile. "But that is not why we're gathered here. Right now is a time for new beginnings, for fresh starts, for looking towards the uncharted future. So I invite you all to think about what you've gained, what you're hoping to find, and what you are glad to leave behind. What won't you miss about Earth? Come on. Let's hear it."

Murmurs throughout the crowd resolve into voices, hesitant at first, then louder and louder.

"Taxes."

"Lying about my job every Thanksgiving."

"Twitter!"


"Overused Christmas music."

"Pollen and allergens and cat hair-

"Drunk texts from my ex!"


"Seasonal affective disorder."

"Sleet and hail and-"

"Remakes!"


"Late buses!"

"Earthquakes!"

"Adverts!"

Douglas turned to Michelle and Jess.

"Freemasons," Michelle said without hesitation.

"Unexpected emails from Overseers," Jess said.

At the foot of the stage, Vice Captain Tiffany sighed. "Atlantean politics."

Across the room, some technicians from the engineering department stretched their legs alongside medical workers.

"Global warming," said Dr. Song.

"Fuckin' telemarketers," spat Dr. Harlan.

Dr. Wikström took a sip of punch. "Poor cell reception."

In another corner of the room, a few personnel were fresh from the apportation ritual in the cargo bay.

"Misaligned ley lines ruining my rituals!" shouted Dr. Thornton.

"Midnight raids," said Duval.

"Poor firearm safety," muttered Orlov.

"Realtors," said the freshly-overdressed Dr. Sarkany.

Tiffany passed a glass to Douglas, and he held it high. The crew followed suit.

"To Earth!" he said. "Goodbye and good riddance."

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