“That’s not how you do it,” Timothy laughed, and took the device away from Martha.
He punched a code into it, and slowly withdrew his hands so that it hung stationary in the air. The others looked on with vague anticipation. Except for Martha, who scowled and rubbed the burn spot on her hand.
“Go,” Timothy said.
The Thompson gauge shivered for a moment, and began to output a low whine, something like an angry cat. In normal use, that would be it finding the frequency at which the Impartial hummed (or, rather, a human-perceptible multiple of it). In the absence of any Impartial, the mere test created a dangerous stir of particles and energies that were not supposed to be able to move into traditional space.
After a few seconds, it sparked and shook, energies of some kind arced off it, feeling around for whatever extradimensional receptacle they could transfer into. Timothy cupped two shields in his hands and carefully but quickly moved them into the paths of two of those arcs. The shields took on a reddish hue as they absorbed the energy, but did not heat up. Something formed within the quadrilateral formed by Timothy’s hands, his chest, and the gauge. A rough, bubbling glob at first, but with concentration and minute manipulation of the shields, Timothy evened it to an almost perfect sphere. It held its shape for almost four seconds before dispersing.
Not quite the record, but impressive for an offhand try. Somebody clapped.
“Shut up,” Martha pushed off from the wall and snatched the Thompson gauge away before Timothy could grab it. “This is serious.”
She drifted across to the other side of the fuselage and turned to stick the Velcro back of her undershirt to the spot on the wall. The others chided her: everything’s serious with you.
“You’re just getting us more lost when you play with it like that,” she said.
She put the right code in, the one that would tell the gauge to work from their actual n-axis coordinates, and held on to it while it shivered and sparked. She had no interest in games. Just like nobody else seemed to have any interest in their predicament.
“Do you still think we’re ever getting home?” Timothy said. “We’re probably lightyears away from the closest Impartial. There isn’t even a turnhook out here.”
“Yeah, but maybe we can get lined back up.”
“What do you think I was just doing?”
True: in theory, if anybody got the sphere perfectly stabilized, you could just put your hands on it and turn it, and it would shift the entire vessel around in n-space, so that maybe they could tilt themselves into the three so-called historical dimensions, where maybe their distress signals could reach someone. That was how the infinite-axis engine worked, after all; it was an infamous lifehack that you could get some of the same effect out of such a cheap device. But it wasn’t humanly possible to be precise enough, and the engine was in the space station their vessel had detached from in the first place. And every time somebody tried to break the record, they twisted themselves up – the ship, the air in it, all their bodies, even if there was no way to tell – and made it harder and harder to eventually navigate back.
“You were just showing off,” Martha grumbled.
“Go to hell.”
“That’s where we all are. We’ve got four years of food and air, but there aren’t even planets and stars in this space. If I’m going to live that long then I have to see T-space again.”
“You don’t know a good damn thing when you see one,” Timothy growled.
After ten months, it was easy to get tired of everyone else’s company. There were only nine of them, the teenage children of astronauts, ambassadors, and n-space engineers aboard the space station to make and maintain meaningful contact with the Impartial closest to the earth. Something had knocked this arm of the station out of alignment while they were gathered for what was supposed to be board game night.
Some of them still teared up and pushed themselves away down to the end of the fuselage to weep alone when they thought of the incomprehensible space-but-not-space between them and their families. Some, like Timothy and a couple others, had embraced the neverending vacation and rejoiced that there was nothing left to do but waste their time. Some, like Martha, were remaining strong.
Timothy and his small posse separated themselves, kicked over to the other side of the slot that hid a canvas divider, the only way to divide the fuselage into multiple spaces. Let them, Martha thought. Boris didn’t go with them, nor Val. The two NBs watched what she was doing with idle but tense interest. Martha didn’t like the attention; yes, she had been interning with the engine crew, but that didn’t make her a real n-space navigator, or even troubleshooter. Just someone who preferred not to give up.
“Wait,” Boris said suddenly. “Go back.”
Martha furrowed her brow and backtracked through some of the motions she had performed with the shield in her free hand. The strange topography of the model between her and the device shifted back, and she saw what they had seen. Sixteen lumps in a roughly circular space. She bit back her breath and twisted the space again, trying to follow those lumps.
They were long, like tentacles. And they met in a bulbous shape, though too small and indistinct here to read clearly.
“That’s an Impartial,” Boris gasped. Their eyes were wide.
“What’s an Impartial doing out so far?” Val floated over to Martha’s side for a closer look.
The octopuslike being, unmistakeable though its shape was, showed no motion at all. Martha didn’t know if it should have. Nonetheless, she had just aligned the vessel in a set of dimensions that would let them intersect with an Impartial. But it might be dead.
Somehow, they had to reach it. An Impartial could simply take hold of them and position them along the axes they needed to travel in. If they could make contact. There were jets for fine repositioning while the fuselage was attached to the space station. Those would be the only way to move, and they weren’t intended for free piloting. Martha bit her lip.
“We might never find it again,” Martha whispered. She looked at the canvas divider and the shadows behind it, and pressed the gauge into Val’s hands. “We can’t let them know.”
Val nodded. There was nowhere to hide the gauge forever, but for now they secreted it down the neck of their space suit.
“If they get it and try to turn us again,” they said. “we destroy it.”
Martha didn’t like that. But she couldn’t disagree. The three of them had to make contact, if the thing was alive. But for now, they were on the other side of the canvas wall from the radio and the module’s computer. There wasn’t anything to be done until Timothy and friends went to sleep.
“Come on,” Val pushed back from the wall. They intercepted a case of assorted dice that had been left floating since the initial disaster. “It’s still technically game night.”