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Sea of Chaos (sample)
Julia H. West
First Place winner, 1st Quarter 1994; Grand Prize winner, 1994, Writers of the Future contest. Originally printed in Writers of the Future, Vol. XI, Bridge Publications, June 1995.
Master Navigator Winin settled into the contoured couch of the starship Sally Ride's navigation tank. He closed his eyes and said, "VR, Puluwat." The splash of waves, mew of seabirds, and creak of his canoe's rigging replied. He raised his face, breathing deeply. Stale ship's air. "Damn cheap VR."
He opened his eyes and saw Puluwat, his home island, its white sand beaches lapped by the waves of Earth's Pacific Ocean. But though the sun shone in the tropical sky, no welcome rays warmed his face. He shifted his weight on the navigator's bench, evaluating how ripples rocked the canoe's hull beneath him. He looked behind, to the canoe house sheltered by palm trees, and ahead, to where the other islands of the atoll rose from the ocean. Palms on Allei's beaches swayed in a slight breeze, and he could hear children calling to each other from the breadfruit trees on tiny Elangelap, to his right. The virtual reality had what he needed to navigate a starship—but just barely.
"VR Off." The nav tank was small, only the main and an auxiliary couch, with a tiny lavatory built into the wall left of the main couch. But the equipment was clean and well-cared-for; someone knew the importance of a starship's nav tank. Winin pressed the door release and slid out of the couch, his bare feet slapping the deck. He tugged his red and yellow loincloth straight as he stepped through the irising door. "Awfully primitive equipment, Captain," he said to the short, round-faced woman fidgeting in the corridor outside the door.
"But will it do?" asked Akiko Teramoto, captain and owner of the Sally Ride.
"I haven't used equipment like this for twenty years, but I explored the Maelstrom in a ship very like this one, when I was young. It will do."
"Good. I'll have your things stowed in your room. The other navigators are waiting aft, in the galley."
Winin followed the captain through the door into the ship's common area. Around a corner, in the tiny galley, three people sat at the tables. A young couple, their hair and skin dark as Winin's, looked up expectantly when Winin and Captain Teramoto entered. The third man, slender and with silver-lined dark hair, didn't raise his eyes from the computer solitaire layout in the table before him.
"Pete, Amy, and Tevita, this is Master Navigator Winin Davis. Galaxy Starliners brought him out of retirement for this mission."
The couple stood hastily. "I'm Navigator Amy Lolohea and this is my husband, Junior Navigator Tevita Lolohea," the young woman said. "I'm—we're really glad to have the opportunity to work with you, Master Navigator Davis. We studied under Hipour."
Winin shook their hands. "Please, call me Winin." He was pleased; Hipour had been one of his better students twenty-five years ago.
The other navigator finally looked up from his solitaire game. He pushed himself from his chair and said, "Senior Navigator Pedro Sanchez." He neglected to put his hand out for Winin to shake.
Captain Teramoto waved them all into seats. "We need to get moving, so I'll brief you and let you work out the navigation details among yourselves.
"You should have heard by now that Galaxy Starliners discovered a safe route through the Maelstrom Overspace Hazard. All their small ships got through safely, so they arranged a special cruise, with one of their biggest liners, to advertise the new route.
"Old Earth's Pride left Tufar on a heading for Earth a week ago. Somehow—overspace interference, a 'storm,' nobody knows—the liner got lost in the Maelstrom."
Winin shrugged and nodded; he had guessed as much from things his various escorts said on the way from Puluwat. But Sanchez's face changed; an intense, excited look. His hands curled into fists, then relaxed as he looked down at them.
Teramoto continued, "A distress call came in from the Old Earth's Pride by overspace relay two days ago. They hit something, damaged the overspace drive, and haven't the power to exit overspace. There are eight hundred people on that liner, and they're trapped in the middle of the Maelstrom.
"Galaxy hired us to go into the Maelstrom, repair the Pride, and get the tourists out before overspace psychosis takes its toll. Winin, you're here to supervise the Maelstrom overspace navigation; you've traveled into—and out of—the Maelstrom more often than any other navigator."
The captain left them, and Winin turned to face the other navigators. "I've got Galaxy Starliners' calculations for Old Earth's Pride's position in the Maelstrom," he said. "We need to figure our quickest route to the ship, but keep our safety in mind as well." He turned to face Sanchez. "Sanchez, you were chosen for your Maelstrom experience, yes?"
"How about you two?" Winin turned to the Loloheas.
"No, sir," said Amy, shaking her short, dark curls. "We've always skirted the Maelstrom."
"You're in on this because you come with the ship?" Winin grinned to make his question less insulting.
"Yes, sir," said Tevita.
"Please, call me Winin." He shifted in the hard chair, settling his big body more comfortably. "Now, look here." He brought out a hand computer and enlarged the display projection above it for the other navigators. "I've got headings for the trips I took into the Maelstrom, and collected every other relevant scrap of data I could. I've talked to most of the other navigators who've explored the Maelstrom, and extracted data from the logs of the probe ships that found Galaxy's 'safe' route. We'll need all this to find our safe heading through overspace to rescue the Pride."
Half an hour later all three table-top displays were full, and the four navigators still had not chosen a route.
"The route to Delta Trianguli is shortest, and the Pride was heading toward Tri on the first leg of her journey to Earth. It's more likely she's in that narrow arm of the Maelstrom than off in the direction of Kappa Reticuli." Sanchez leaned his chin in the palm of his hand and spoke patiently, like an adult explaining to children.
"The message from the Pride gave their calculated position as galactic west of Tufar, almost too close to that big whirlpool I charted twenty years ago," Winin countered.
"Whirlpool?" asked Sanchez.
Winin said, "Shorter than calling it 'Maelstrom Overspace Sub-hazard 14AA.'"
The two younger navigators sat quietly, listening to the arguments and contributing little.
"I don't think they estimated their position correctly," Sanchez said. "How could they have strayed that many parsecs out of their path? No, don't show me that chart again. I've seen the 'safe' path through the Maelstrom. In fact I've been along part of it, from the Tufar side."
"We must take their data as a starting point," said Winin. "It's all we have. We'll take the Epsilon Eridani to Kappa Reticuli route. Tufar is east of Reticuli; the Pride's navigators could easily have missed their mark after entering the Maelstrom." Winin folded muscular arms across his chest and stared straight into Sanchez's eyes.
"I still say—"
"No more arguing," Winin countered. "We need to set a heading, agree on our landmarks, and set up watches."
"But time is important!" said Sanchez. "That liner is stranded in overspace; how long will it be before those soft tourists start going crazy? If we waste time coming in from Reticuli—"
"We head for Epsilon Eridani and on to Kappa Reticuli, then into the Maelstrom on this heading." Winin pointed one thick finger into the display projection above his pocket computer. "We will argue no longer."
Sanchez drew himself up, shaking with anger. But before he could speak Amy Lolohea pointed out quietly, "Winin is chief navigator on this trip.
"All you wayfinders stick up for one another," Sanchez said, his voice dripping scorn.
"You're not a wayfinder?" asked Tevita.
"I learned modern navigation."
"Enough," said Winin. "I need your help to chart the heading."
"Why not use the nav tank?" asked Sanchez. "Why ignore resources?"
"A good point. We should all fit—two in the couches, two standing behind." He stood immediately and strode toward the nav tank.
Once there, Winin climbed into the main couch and slipped his cartridge into the slot. "VR, open sea," he said, and the virtual reality came up around him. Pacific waves rocked and pitched his canoe beneath him, and the sun shone on the white sail above. He smiled and drew a deep breath … ship's air. He sighed. It would be a long trip.
"Twilight." The sky darkened as the sun disappeared below the horizon, and stars began to appear overhead, spreading down the sky to the horizon. Winin felt the other navigators behind him and pointed straight ahead, toward the east. "The Big Bird—Altair." He swung his arm around to the left. "The rising of the Big Dipper. This is the heading for Epsilon Eridani. Do you all know the route?"
"Yes," said the Loloheas, standing in the center of the canoe, grasping the handrails.
"Put up the star chart," Sanchez said. "This doesn't show me the heading."
Winin turned on the navigator's bench. Sanchez perched on the lee platform, staring at the star-filled night skies of Earth with his mouth pinched into a dissatisfied line. "How do you take your headings?" asked Winin.
"With the star chart, of course. Don't you feed all this data into the AI?"
"I do that as well. Computer—star map up. Limit—Sol to Epsilon Eridani."
A three-dimensional star map filled the nav tank; the canoe sailed through a mist of stars. Winin pointed to a star swimming below the constellation of the Big Dipper. "Epsilon Eridani."
"You can tell that without the labels?" Tevita asked.
Sanchez said, "Computer, label the stars." Even with the illusion of the Pacific Ocean all around, four occupants crowded the nav tank. The stars and their labels, like a swarm of insects, added to the stifling atmosphere. But Winin had a heading to teach. "Add known hazards." Multicolored wisps and spirals appeared among the stars.
"Oh, for God's sake, turn off your canoe. It's too crowded in here."
"I need to construct a heading; we can do it with a drawing out in the galley, or the constellations in here, but I require my canoe. I believe Amy and Tevita will learn the heading this way."
Amy nodded. Tevita moved his gaze from star to star, reciting something under his breath, apparently unaware of the conversation.
"Go on, then, we're wasting time." Sanchez pushed his cartridge into the slot by the auxiliary couch. It seemed to disappear into one of the timbers of the lee platform.
Star by star, Winin recited the entire overspace heading from Sol to the entrance of the Maelstrom. "Under the rising of the Big Dipper to Beck's Star, follow the Eridani reef, keeping to the west side, under the rising of Cassiopeia to Epsilon Eridani. Then, still under the rising of Cassiopeia, keep to the east of Elliot's Pool…."
The Loloheas paid strict attention, reciting the heading along with Winin. But once Sanchez had it recorded in his nav cartridge he leaned back against the lashings of the lee platform and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples.
"Have you got it?" Winin asked finally.
"Yes, sir," the other three said. Sanchez stepped off the platform into the bottom of the canoe, crowding Amy and Tevita.
"Before you go, Sanchez, we'll set watches. Since there are four of us, and we need to conserve strength for the Maelstrom passage, we'll rotate through six hour watches. Six in twenty-four's not bad—I'm sure Amy and Tevita usually run eight-on, eight-off."
When the other three navigators had left the nav tank Winin killed the star chart and leaned into the handrail behind the navigator's bench. Since Sanchez had earned the rank of Senior Navigator, he must be skilled at his craft, although a navigator of his age had usually made Master. And since Galaxy had asked him to come on this mission, he must have Maelstrom experience. But Winin needed cooperation on a tricky Maelstrom passage. And this man balked at every command. Winin could not work with him. "VR off." He popped his nav cartridge out, slipped it into the waistband of his loincloth, and set out to see if a Galaxy rep was available.
"I'm sorry. There's no time. I didn't realize there'd be a problem." The Galaxy rep's flat black-and-white image on the tiny screen didn't seem very sorry.
"But I tell you, I can't work with this man. He's insolent and sullen, and our styles of navigation clash. This Maelstrom crossing is dangerous. Defiance on his part could cause problems."
"There's no one else on-station. Other Maelstrom-qualified navigators are out on ships or planetside. Your ship needs to leave immediately. We can't wait. You're good with people, Mr. Davis. I'm sure you can handle the situation." The blurry picture blanked.
Winin expelled an angry breath through his teeth. He'd come out of retirement for this?
Cover design by Danica B. West, all rights reserved. Cover composited from: canoe by JSilver, http://www.flickr.com/photos/33495997@N00/402955417/ photo used under Creative Commons license; space shot from HubbleSite, http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/galaxy/pr1999012a/ which is public domain.
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Other stories by Julia H. West from Callihoo Publishing:
The Peachwood Flute (collaboration with Brook West)
Weeds (collaboration with Brook West)
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This page created 4 September 2011
Last update 20 March 2014