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00 : At First

Star Dancer, otherwise DSE 8-03, the third of its class, was fresh out of a major refit. The vessel had been passed into the care of Captain Beril Fregath after the previous captain had been promoted to greater things.
   Star Dancer was performing a series of five 'showing the flag' visits to outposts as a shake-down cruise before it began its first voyage of deep space exploration, a function indicated by its class designation.
   The vessel was a globe of diameter fifty meters, its layout determined by the use of a hyperspace drive which generated a spherical containment field. A deep space exploration vessel was not a warship, and although members of the class were capable of looking after themselves, that was why the design team had been allowed to deviate from the standard linear 'spaceship' layout. The spherical shape allowed the ship's detectors; its exploration eyes; to be deployed more effectively.
   Star Dancer carried a crew of 159 comprising 93 technicians, who were assigned to A, B and C watches for round-the-clock operations, fifteen security troopers (five per watch), who doubled as maintenance engineers, a command staff of twenty which included 12 brevetts, the most junior commissioned rank, and the thirty-one 'specialists' of the Medical, Catering and Science divisions.
   The new captain was a woman of around forty, who had severely trimmed black hair and luminous blue eyes, and who managed to look a little taller than her average height. Captain Fregath was known to many as the Dragon Lady because her features had a distinctly Oriental cast. She tried to live up to her nickname as far as the efficient running of her command was concerned. She also tried to show her human side but she chose to let the rules take their course most of the time.
   The captain led a command and tactical staff consisting of first and second officers, chief and second engineers, a navigator, a chief science officer and a weapons and tactical officer, who was usually known as 'Weps'. The twelve most junior officers, the brevetts, were all loosely attached to one of the three watches but their activities were concentrated to the ship's day, which reduced the frequency of their night watches.
   Star Dancer was primarily an exploration vessel. Its class of star traveller had the common mission of discovering what lay 'just over the horizon'. The captains had to answer the question, 'Is what we have found a potential benefit or a threat?' To take account of the threat aspect, the vessel was armed and armoured to military standards with deflectors and disruptors. It also had powerful engines so that running away from trouble was always an option.
   Each watch included five security troopers, who doubled as maintenance engineers when things were quiet. They fell under the command of the second officer, Sub-Commander Orcand, who had the image of being a dour, contemplative type, a man who always went by the book. He also had a reputation for extreme fairness.
   The medical and catering teams had sufficient numbers to provide a 24-hour presence. The rest of the specialists belonged to Sub-Commander Andersin's Science Division, which included biologists, communications specialists, cosmologists, linguists, mathematicians, physicists and two rover pilots, who were trained to assist with exploration duties such as data and specimen collection. The science staff made themselves available to the command staff according to demand and conducted pre-assigned research projects when they were not required to tackle an immediate problem.
   A new ship 'day' was beginning with the usual meetings. Star Dancer had completed its second 'showing the flag' visit two days earlier at an outpost on the planet Karfax, which offered orbital repair and resupply facilities. Having sent shore parties to visit all three towns of the small colonized area, Captain Fregath's vessel was now outbound to its next destination; but via an interesting fairly local phenomenon.
   In the upper section of the ship, Lieutenant Korolas Draxt joined a briefing group in the Science Division's territory. As usual, he headed for the vacant chair between Lt. Pevel Merrith, a fellow mathematician, and Sub-Lt. Rilla Frand, one of the physicists. Sub-Commander Donna Andersin, the chief science officer, and Lt. Brian Singh, a member of the cosmology team, completed the group. The vacant chair between them was the one which the captain usually occupied as it gave her a view of the door.
   Draxt was yawning, as usual, at 08:00 hours. He was better adapted to a cycle which ran from 10:00 hours on one day to 04:00 hours the next day. It was impossible to tell from the number and frequency of his yawns that he had been up since 03:30 hours, working on a problem which had refused to let him sleep. Draxt yawned at 08:00 hours no matter how much sleep he had taken. It was one of the few certainties of life aboard Star Dancer.
   "What are we doing today, anything exciting?" Draxt asked as he sat down, not expecting an affirmative answer.
   "We're going to go close in to the black hole," Lt. Merrith said with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
   "What black hole?" said Draxt.
   Sub-Lieutenant Frand spun her chair to face him and gave Draxt a patient smile. "The recently formed one they were talking about at our last stop? Remember that?"
   "I don't think Draxt noticed our last stop, Rill," said Lt. Singh.
   "Some of us have better things to do than salute base officers and eat boring snacks at boring receptions," said Draxt.
   "If you'd been at the last reception, you'd know they detected some odd things happening close to where we are now," said Singh. "So the Captain has been ordered to take a look as it's more or less on our route to the next stop. To find out if it's a hazard to navigation. We've already confirmed there's an unusual type of recently formed black hole here."
   Star Dancer's detectors had located the modest black hole at the end of the previous ship day and science teams had spent the night studying its effects on the local environment; from a very cautious distance. Draxt, it seemed, had been too occupied with other matters to notice the general air of excitement.
   "Is that why certain people wouldn't shut up about singularities at breakfast this morning?" Draxt gave fellow mathematician Pevel Merrith a jaundiced glare and activated the data station in front of him. As usual, he tapped into the information held at Detector Control. Merrith did the same automatically. He and Draxt were in a permanent competition to be the first to extract meaning from raw data.
   "Certain people including you, Rol?" Frand tilted her head to one side and gave Draxt a mocking smile.
   "I thought that was a theoretical discussion," Draxt said defensively.
   "Not the real world about to intrude into your neat, Mathie realm?" laughed Singh.
   "Recently formed?" Draxt said with a frown. "Like last week?"
   "Yes, in cosmological terms," said Frand. "So we could be talking about when our ancestors were still painting pictures on cave walls."
   "Or within the last one to two hundred years," said Singh.
   "I don't like the sound of that." Draxt nudged Merrith's arm and drew his attention to the irregular pattern which was forming on his screen as he ran an analysis program.
   "And what's even worse," Merrith added to Draxt, "is we're going to be surfing the event horizon, in effect, later on this morning."
   "Who came up with that bonehead plan?" Draxt laughed, refusing to take Merrith seriously.
   As soon as he had spoken, Draxt knew that something was wrong. The others in the room were looking at him with alarm or amusement, depending on whether their faces could be seen from the room's doorway.
   "Insubordination, Mr. Draxt?" Captain Fregath said as everyone rose to their feet in the presence of a senior officer. "And so early in the day."
   "An accusation of insubordination suggests I knew the plan was devised by a senior officer, Captain," Draxt said in his own defence. "Senior to me, that is. But as I thought it was a joke, insubordination doesn't come into the equation."
   "That aside, why do you consider the plan boneheaded?" The captain sat down and put on a receptive expression.
   Draxt sat along with the other four specialists at the briefing. "Current thinking, Captain, is that the event horizon of a recently created black hole of this size and the space around it aren't as stable as this plan to approach it assumes. There could be violent tidal fluctuations as everything adjusts to a more stable state. Which should be predictable, in theory, given a proper period of study from a non-suicidal range, and ..."
   "Current thinking being what you and Mr. Merrith discussed over the breakfast table?" the captain interrupted.
   "Thinking doesn't get much more current than that, Captain. Unless you're talking about the weird readings I'm getting from Detector Control right now. I think you'd have a hell of a job fitting what I've got on my screen right now into any current theories."
   "If we're looking for unknown territory, this is definitely it," Merrith added.
   "We're talking unknown territory rather than actively dangerous territory, though?" said the captain.
   "The one doesn't exclude the other, Captain," Merrith pointed out. "All anyone can say for sure is that the environment around this black hole is right off the charts. And we can tell that after the first couple of minutes of looking at this data."
   "You don't mind if we proceed cautiously rather than not at all?" said the captain.
   "We'd be quite happy to sit here and watch for the next hundred years, Captain, and try to understand what's going on," said Draxt. "But I don't suppose that fits in with your orders."
   "In that case, if you have no solid objections, the mission goes ahead with extreme caution."
   "Permission to stand off in a rover and observe Star Dancer's fate if you hit one of these fluctuations we're seeing, Captain?" said Draxt. "I'm sure Spacefleet would appreciate some data on how the ship was lost."
   "Permission denied."
   "Permission to spend ten minutes getting my will up to date, Captain?" said Lt. Merrith, realizing that Draxt was serious.
   "You and Mr. Draxt have my permission to get on with your jobs," said the Captain, amused in spite of herself. "Which amounts to planning this observation and data-gathering mission. What do you want to look at first, Donna?" she added to Sub-Commander Andersin.

"Proposition," Lt. Merrith murmured to Lt. Draxt as the meeting was dispersing, having reached conclusions which were satisfactory from the points of view of the captain, the chief science officer and Cosmologist Singh. "There's a safest place to be on the ship if it hits a fluctuation near the event horizon."
   "I'd say the proposition is invalid as nowhere at all will be safe," Draxt replied when they were in the corridor and heading for Detector Control.
   "In that case, what's the probability of hitting a fluctuation?" said Lt. Singh.
   "At the one-level, it's got to be fifty-fifty. You do or you don't," said Draxt.
   "What, cross your fingers and hope?" laughed Singh.
   Draxt nodded. "Pretty much."
   "They're not paying me enough to do this job," Merrith added.
   "Your job can't be all that demanding if you've got time to make up horror stories to scare everyone with. Sir," physicist Rilla Frand added when she found two full lieutenants looking back at her. She was one of the taller female officers, which meant that she had to keep her distance from the captain to avoid towering over her, and she believed in keeping slim and fit.
   "Proposition," remarked Draxt, who rarely took exercise but who forgot meals often enough to keep himself slim, "it's better to keep your eyes shut and march blindly on than to see the big, black hole that you're about to fall into."
   "Proposition valid, as far as the non-mathematicians are concerned," Merrith said with a disapproving glare at Frand. He was the same height as his colleague but he forgot meals less often. His hair was a lighter shade of brown than Draxt's and his uniform tended to keep its creases better, even though both men wore the same standard issue garments.
   Lt. Singh blew out a brief, scornful breath. He was a keen sportsman, who regarded Mathies as weedy brain-boxes with no stamina. He believed that cosmology was the only worthwhile area of research aboard a deep space exploration craft and he secretly believed that everyone else aboard was there merely to help him to understand the universe.
   The quartet arrived at the detector control room, where technicians were making the usual pre-mission calibration runs and generally pushing buttons to make sure that everything was powered up and working. The new arrivals took their usual stations at monitoring posts and began their own checks. Soon, they began to hear the manoeuvring commands being relayed over the communications system. Star Dancer approached the region containing the black hole with admirable caution.
   "Here goes nothing," Lt. Merrith remarked.
   "I was just thinking," said Draxt, "maybe we could re-rig one of the detectors to give an alert for a possible fluctuation precursor in our vicinity."
   "Fine," said Merrith. "Except that we can't describe what the detectors should be looking for. The fluctuations aren't always described by the same property."
   "Anything unusual is too broad, I guess." Draxt nodded agreement.
   "Unusual is going to cover just about everything we'll be seeing."
   "Data overload." Draxt nodded again. "Although ..."
   "Temporal effects," Merrith and Draxt said simultaneously.
   "Can we detect pre-echoes of events which are inevitable?" said Draxt. "Things which will happen whether we avoid them or not?"
   "The tree will fall in the forest but we can chose not to be standing under it when it comes down?"
   "Exactly that."
   "We can't start making adjustments to the detectors now, sir," one of the technicians complained.
   "We're using everything to take readings from the region around the black hole, Draxt," Cosmologist Singh added.
   "Who's asking anyone to make any adjustments?" Draxt asked without looking up from his personal data logger, which was receiving most of his attention. Both mathematicians could operate the hand-held devices with almost blinding speed after years of practice.
   "Okay, we need to think of what will be influenced by the pre-echoes," said Merrith. "Proposition; there are things that we can measure."
   "Angularity, possibly?" said Draxt.
   "Mathies," Frand and Singh muttered more or less in chorus as their colleagues raced away, mentally, from the business in hand.

The captain's manoeuvring commands became increasingly curt and tense. Some undefined force had taken Star Dancer in its grip and everything that the senior pilot, Max Sampar, did at helm control seemed to make matters worse and make the captain more and more irritated.
   In Detector Control, Lt. Merrith frowned at his colleague. "The lateral detectors should be showing us something by now," he complained.
   Lt. Draxt shrugged. "It's data overload. We just aren't filtering enough garbage out."
   "Conference mode, all officers," the first officer said as he claimed the major part of each data station's screen.
   "We seem to be stuck," the captain said when her face replace Commander Tarn-Verat's. "Even though we're still a considerable distance from the apparent event horizon of the singularity and our detectors seem to be telling us that we're still in free space. I'm looking for recommendations."
   The captain's request provoked a flood of questions, which established that Star Dancer had lost the capacity to manoeuvre and worse, it was being subjected to complex shearing forces, which the deflectors were combatting, with difficulty, at that moment.
   "Mathematics?" the captain said as a last resort when she had received no solutions.
   "Can we just get this clear, Captain?" said Draxt. "We can't predict the consequences of our actions any more because we can't see if our actions are having any effect?"
   "And your point is, Mr. Draxt?" the captain said impatiently.
   "It looks like there's no point in doing anything other than gather data at the moment, Captain. Because we can't predict whether an action will have an ultimately good or bad result. Or any sort of result, if it comes to that."
   "Can we lose the negative mental attitude, Mr. Draxt?"
   "It's not a question of attitudes, Captain. We can take actions based on what we know or suspect, like rational beings, or we can thrash around blindly and hope things get better. And at the moment, we know nothing and we suspect nothing, so there's no point in doing anything."
   "You have no suggestions to make, Maths?" the captain said coldly.
   "Going to full drive at the next apparent downswell of the shearing forces may have one of three effects, Captain," said Merrith. "One, it may throw us clear. Two it may kill us instantly. Or three, it may have no apparent effect. That's two chances in three of resolving our situation. If the proposition is valid."
   "Very well, let us consider that suggestion," said the captain. "Can you at least tell us when to go to full drive?"
   "Oh, yes, Captain," said Draxt. "We're getting a lot of good data on the up- and downswells."
   "What about our direction?" the navigation officer asked. "When we go to full drive. That might be useful to fix."
   "We appear to have no direction available other than the ship's orientation at the time," said the captain. "Our attempts at manoeuvring have been uniformly unsuccessful. Is that likely to be a problem, Maths? Mr. Draxt?" the captain added in response to silence.
   "I was just thinking, Captain," said Draxt, "it's theoretically possibly that the ship has already been destroyed but the time fluctuations mean that we're still on our way to that event."
   "I'd like more useful suggestions, Mr. Draxt," the captain said coldly.
   "Being objective about it, sir," said Draxt, "I don't think there's much we can do other than sit and watch what happens. Our power to influence events is insufficient to change anything significantly. Except at a downswell, of course. Possibly."
   "Except that doing nothing isn't an option, Korolas," the captain said patiently. "Because the shearing forces we're experiencing aren't giving us that option."
   "In that case, we have to do what Merrith said," said Draxt.
   "Anyone have a useful suggestion other than the one currently on the table?" the captain invited. "Or objections to our going to full drive as recommended?"
   The response was a general silence.
   "Very well, let us be ready when the time comes," said the captain. "Which will be when, Maths?"
   "Eighteen minutes from now, Captain," said Draxt.
   "Do you really have no idea what the problem is?" the captain added.
   "Well, it looks like a gravity lensing effect," said Draxt. "That's what we're using as our basic model. But I can't for the life of me see how it works."
   "Probably because we're missing something about the type of data we're getting," said Merrith.
   "Or we're putting what we've got into the wrong theory," said Draxt. "Perhaps because we've been treating it as a single-body problem."
   "Right!" said Merrith.
   "Mr. Draxt, before you get too involved," said the Captain, "would you give the helm station an automatic count-down to the next downswell. And keep me informed if you come up with anything in the meantime."
   Draxt looked as if he were about to say something. He contented himself with a simple, "Yes, Captain," instead.
   "I know what you were going to say," Merrith laughed when the conference had broken up. "You were going to tell her we probably need data from what happens during the downswell to know whether or not going to full drive is a good idea."
   "The truth is not always what people want to hear," Draxt quoted. "Did you get your will up to date, by the way?"
   "Oh, no, I forgot all about it," Merrith realized.
   "You've got about sixteen minutes left."
   "On the other hand, if it all goes horribly wrong, me and my will are likely to end up as separate parts of a cloud of well-dispersed atoms."
   "So we might as well waste the time looking for answers no one else will know about?" laughed Draxt. "It's a great life if you don't weaken."

01 : Elsewhere

There was no drama about the approach to the moment of action, no dramatic count-down to a fixed point in time over the ship-wide address system. Once the mathematicians had supplied details of the parameters associated with a downswell in the shear forces affecting Star Dancer, Lt. Sampar at the helm station was able to link the drive activation system to the detectors.
   When the moment came, the action would occur automatically.
   When the moment did come, no one was left in any doubt that it had arrived. There was a period of unsettling nothingness, which lasted for either an infinitely long time or for four point three microseconds, depending on which recording system was consulted.
   "Where are we now?" Captain Fregath said to the navigator, who was sitting at a console to her left.
   "We're in free space, location unknown, Captain," reported Lt. Berthold Webber, a stocky man with a habit of sucking at the gap between his front teeth, but reasonably silently, when he was thinking. "I mean, genuine free space. No objects nearby, no significant gravitational fields detected."
   "I'd like a location as soon as possible," said the captain. "Ship's status, Number One?"
   "No damage reports, Captain. No reports of injuries," said Commander Tarn-Verat, the first officer, who was in his mid-thirties and waiting eagerly for his first command. "Internal and external detector sweeps in are progress but we appear not to be under stress from external forces."
   "Engineering, what about the drive?" The Captain turned her chair to face another monitoring station.
   "The drive is currently disengaged, Captain, but all systems seem to be operating within normal parameters. As far as we can tell," added Lt. Arcol Corbin, the second engineer. "We're standing by for your orders."
   "I was expecting something more interesting," Lt. Merrith said to Lt. Draxt. "A feeling of being squashed or infinitely stretched, at the very least. That just felt like my body had been removed for a few minutes leaving just my consciousness behind."
   A selection of the ship's specialists had been parked at spare consoles on the bridge in the hope that they would be able to tackle any problems which arose as a result of the 'desperation manoeuvre', as the captain had labelled it.
   "It was certainly curious," said Draxt. "That nothing happened, apart from that blackout, instead of something violent and lethal. That's not what we've come to expect from this particular universe."
   "Don't know when they're well off, some people," Sub-Lt. Frand remarked from an adjacent console.
   "First order sweeps report no damage, Captain," said the first officer. "All systems functioning within normal parameters."
   "A first order sweep of the major stars around us gives us no position, Captain," said the navigation officer.
   "Which means what?" the captain asked with a frown.
   "Probably, that we're a long way from charted regions, Captain. Or possibly that we're in an uncharted region not too distant from our point of departure."
   "Maths, can you contribute?" said the Captain.
   "No, sir," said Lt. Draxt. "We have no data. The possibilities are that we've moved away from the black hole in space or time, or both, plus or minus."
   "Which means what?" The Dragon Lady frown deepened.
   "We could be at the same point in space at a time before the black hole came into existence, sir," said Lt. Merrith. "Or in the future, after it decayed. Or we could have experienced a worm-hole effect and travelled an unknown distance. Possibly also with a time vector applied. Plus or minus."
   "Not seeing any stars we recognize right away shades things toward the worm-hole idea, Captain," Draxt added.
   "If that's so, how do we get home?" said the captain.
   "One good way would be to pick a direction you feel totally confident about and steer in exactly the opposite direction," said Draxt. "Knowing that the first direction you pick will be wrong. There's a sound mathematical basis for assuming that would be the best way to get pointed in a not-totally-wrong direction."
   "In line with the proposition 'The universe is not ordered for our convenience'," added Merrith.
   "I think what our mathematicians are trying to say is we should do nothing until we've scanned and identified enough stars to work out where we are, Captain," said the navigation officer. "The further away we are from home, the greater the chance any random direction of travel we choose will take us further from home."
   "Also," said Draxt, "it might be a bad idea to move away from this point as it could still have a connection with the black hole which chucked us here. If that's what happened."
   "You mean, we may be able to return the way we came?" the captain said doubtfully.
   "I was thinking more of sending a message back with news of what happened to us, Captain," said Draxt. "If there is a residual worm hole, it won't be very big."
   "Very well," said the captain. "Our priorities are a full check of our equipment to be sure it's all still working, determining our position to make sure we're safe and exploring the possibility of sending a message back. Conference again when we have some hard data."
   "Proposition," Merrith said to Draxt as the captain retired to her ready room with the first officer for a private discussion, leaving the second officer in charge of the bridge, "the trouble with Spacefleet types is they're always wanting to charge off somewhere, anywhere, no matter how pointless or premature it is."
   "Valid," said Draxt.
   "What do you mean about a connection?" physicist Rilla Frand asked.
   "If there is a residual link back where we came from," said Draxt, "it may have the properties of a guidewire. We may be able to steer a message pod back to the area of the black hole."
   "Because that's where they'll come looking for us?" said Frand.
   "That's where we were told to go and that's where our last reports came from," said Merrith. "So that's where Spacefleet will send someone to look for us. Right, let's start thinking about what sort of detector settings would show up a residual link."

In the late evening, ship time, a message pod travelled out from Star Dancer on a looping course. It just disappeared from the viewscreens and the detector arrays at the spot predicted by the mathematicians.
   "One up to the Mathies," the captain remarked to the bridge crew.
   "I hope no one ends up parked next to us through trying to retrieve the pod at the other end," said First Officer Tarn-Verat.
   "Next to us is probably the last place they'd end up," said Second Officer Orcand. "If our Mathies are correct, no two experiences of what happened to us will be the same."
   "Berthold, how close are we to a position?" the captain asked the navigation officer.
   "I can give you a rough course now, Captain," said Lt. Webber. "Which we can refine en route."
   "Dare I ask how long it will take to get home?" the captain added.
   "A good six months at our best speed to return to communications range with a Spacefleet base, Captain," said Webber.
   "That's rather pushing the concept of 'deep space exploration'," laughed the captain. "But given reasonable re-supply opportunities, well within our capabilities. Do we have anything on how or what happened yet, Clivv?" she added to the first officer.
   "Our Mathies are still arguing about it, Captain," he replied. "But not with any great conviction. Their working proposition is that we may have a small understanding of 'what' by the time we get home again. 'How' will take a lot longer."
   "In other words, we can forget a great leap forward in the methodology of interstellar travel?" said the Captain.
   "We can certainly forget any short cuts on the way back," said the first officer.
   "Helm, do you have our course laid in?" said the captain.
   "Course plotted, Captain," said Lt. Sampar. "We're standing by to engage the drive."
   "Take us home, Max," said the captain.

Once they had recovered from the shock of being six months from home in a matter of moments, the crew of Star Dancer began to wonder if their sudden displacement had involved a time effect as well as a space effect. The identifiable stars showed no visible changes but that did not rule out a trip through time of several years, plus or minus, for Star Dancer.
   After much private discussion, the mathematicians reached the conclusion that if the ship had been displaced in time, then it was more likely to have travelled forward as the future may be fluid but the past is probably fixed. The captain ordered them to keep their speculation to themselves for the sake of morale but it had already entered the public domain.
   Captain Fregath raised the time issue herself at the end of a routine meeting with her command staff when Star Dancer had been heading for home for one week.
   "The crew are supposed to be mature individuals, Captain," said First Officer Tarn-Verat. "They should be mature enough to handle this idea."
   "And it's not worth worrying about something we can't control, Captain," said Lt. Draxt, who was deputizing for the chief science officer.
   "It's all right for you Mathies," said the captain. "If you get something wrong, you just say, 'invalid proposition' and move on to your next theory. In a command situation, we can end up with a traumatized crew, or even the dead bodies of people we know, rather than just a bent reputation."
   "Which is probably why people like you are in command, Captain," said Draxt, "and people like me are taking orders from people like you."
   "The semi-detached status of the officer-scientist, Mr. Draxt?"
   "Just think civilians in uniform, Captain," Draxt said. "We're not here to be admiral of the fleet. Or even to be the captain of our own ship some day. We signed on with Spacefleet because the pay looked good and they promised us lots of time to think. And lots of data to think about. And as space is where it comes in great, steaming, ra w chunks, and we get first bite, that's why we're here. And thinking all the time keeps us too busy to spread gossip," he added, shedding the blame for the speculation.
   "A trait shared by few of the other members of the crew," said the second officer. "I gather some are even laying bets on how much extra pay we'll be entitled to collect if we have gone forward in time."
   "That's something positive, at least," laughed the navigator.
   "Do they blame me for what happened?" said the Captain. "I'd like an objective opinion, not what you think I want to hear."
   "Not with any conviction," said the first officer. "You were under orders to investigate the black hole, Captain. And it's not as if you did anything even remotely reckless. Quite the reverse, in fact."
   "An interesting proposition, Captain," said Draxt. "Someone can be blamed for looking at something interesting because you're told to do it and then straying into the path of an unsuspected danger."
   "I suppose it all depends on how anticipatable the danger was," said Lt. Webber. "Probably not at all at the time of the disaster."
   "But if we'd waited another week before going in that close to where things were happening ...," said Draxt.
   "You're saying your breakfast discussion on our day of disaster should have warned us off, Mr. Draxt?" the Captain asked in a sceptical tone.
   "Someone would have spotted the risk from the fluctuations sometime or other during the next few days, Captain," said Draxt. "It was too interesting a theoretical line not to pursue. But we probably wouldn't have got enough data to be able to say anything sensible for several days. On the other hand, if you wait around till you can predict exactly what will happen next, you'll never leave home."
   "Someone had to fall into the hole," said the navigator. "And it was our turn to cop it from a generally unforgiving universe."
   "And we did get a lot of useful data out of it," said Draxt.
   "How's the job of processing that data going?" said the Captain.
   Draxt shrugged. "At its own speed, Captain. There's scads of it. Giga-scads, even. Just making a catalogue will take ages. The pessimists among us are expecting to get the first really useful result about ten minutes before we're back in communication range with Spacefleet."
   "So it would be hoping for too much to expect a quick way home to come out of your work?"
   Draxt shrugged again. "The more we review the data, the more surprised we are to be still alive. The odds against surviving that trip look pretty considerable from this end."
   "That seems to be more in line with what the pessimists among us seem to expect. That the universe isn't arranged for our convenience," the captain quoted.
   "I think we were swept along at the fringes of a mighty event over a time period brief enough to let us survive," said Draxt. "I doubt the next ship to get too close to a recent black hole will be as lucky."
   "So we're not on the threshold of a transportation revolution?"
   "Hardly, Captain. I think people should be steering clear of recently formed black holes rather than leaping in to them."
   "We didn't exactly leap, Korolas," the captain said frostily.
   "A bad choice of words, Captain," Draxt admitted with an apologetic smile. "But thinking about it, exploration of areas around that type of black hole is going have to continue. But with remotely controlled probes. Because there's a lot of good stuff to be learnt from them. And robots are a lot cheaper than fully crewed deep-space explorers."
   "Proposition valid," said the captain. "Perhaps we can take a watching brief on the morale aspect of a time displacement. And see if the gamblers and the people watching them will have a positive effect. Meeting adjourned if no one has anything more to discuss."
 

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10/12 SK6 4EG, Romiley, GB.
The original story Merik Katuryan, 2002. This version Merik Katuryan, 2005