Hubpoint of No Return
by Christopher L. Bennett
Illustrated by Josh Meehan
David LaMacchia strode with purpose through the bustling communications center. To either side of him was a long row of cryogenic tanks containing quantelopes, the engineered creatures whose unique entanglement properties made them a vital lifeline for the thousands of worlds of the Hub Network. Each tank had its own interface station, and the diverse sophonts who operated these were vital in their own right, for quantelopes would only reproduce the speech of living beings. And David had earned the right to count himself among their number.
With a thrill of pride and wonder, David took his station, donned his headset, and initiated his first communication of the day. As always, he marveled at the thought that he was about to interact with a being thousands of parsecs away, perhaps even in another galaxy. When the purple, short-antlered rodent in the cryotank spoke in the voice of that sophont, confirming receipt of his signal, the young human stiffened with excitement as he delivered his message:
“How do you do? This is David on behalf of the Milky Way Research Council. You’ve been selected to participate in a brief survey of voter opinion. We know your time is valuable, so for your participation, you’ll be awarded a free eighty-two-hour vacation to the Ipqo Rosette—some local taxes and Hub processing fees may apply. If you’d like to begin the survey, please—”
The quantelope interrupted, relaying the speech heard by its entanglemate at the far end of the connection. “Survey?! How did you mate your quantelope to this bloodline? And just when I was settling down to devour my prey! Call me again and I’ll hunt you down and devour you!”
The quantelope let out a brief, bloodcurdling squeal and then fell silent, the connection broken. “Okay,” David muttered. “One more for the hard refusal list.” He signaled his quantelope to focus its attention upon a different entanglemate. “How do you do? This is David on behalf of the Milky Way Research Council—”
* * *
“You know it’s all a scam, right?” Nashira Wing asked David as they carried their lunch trays through Hubstation 3742’s food court. “You’re using this ‘miracle of communication’ to cheat gullible people out of their money.”
David clumsily attempted to handle his tray and a large shopping bag at the same time. “Most of them aren’t that gullible. Mainly they just yell at me.”
“Ah. My favorite pastime.” Nashira used one hand to steady his tray, her pilot’s reflexes letting her deftly balance her own in the other.
“Exactly. You’ve given me a thicker skin.” He smiled, and Nashira’s own tray started to wobble in response. She hastened to set it down on a vacant table, then helped David guide his to a safe landing.
“I don’t know why you needed a third job,” she went on once they were seated. “Quantelope maintenance and the day care thing pay well enough. Hell, you don’t even need to stay at the Hubcomplex to do your studies.” In most of the greater galaxy, a universal basic income was guaranteed, the fruit of the Hub Network’s endless wealth. But space in the Hubcomplex itself—the collection of ring habitats surrounding the unique dimensional warp through which all interstellar traffic passed—was at a premium, so it had to be earned.
“If I’d wanted to study the Hub from a distance, I would’ve stayed on Earth. This is where the action is. Besides, you hate your job, but you stay here.”
“It’s not like I have much choice. The Network needs all the scouts it can get, so they don’t make it easy to leave.” When Nashira had arrived illegally in the Hubcomplex nine years ago, she’d been too broke to book passage to anywhere else—and she’d burned all her bridges back on Earth. She could have applied for refugee status and possibly made her way to some Network planet where she could live in modest comfort. But one stint as a refugee, when her family had fled the inundated Hong Kong for Australia, had been quite enough for her. Hub scouting had been the only available job that she hadn’t found demeaning, but it was a relentlessly tedious chore—testing the vast number of untried Hub vectors one by one, never knowing where they would lead, all in the vanishingly slim hope of discovering something more profitable than empty space and less deadly than the inside of a star.
“At least there are things I’m actually good at,” she went on. “Which is more that you can say.”
“Well, that has to change. I tried depending on charity, and it didn’t work out.”
There was no arguing with that. When David had first arrived in pursuit of what the college dropout laughably considered a scientific study of the Hub, Nashira had warned him that his sponsor Rynyan was a dilettante interested only in boosting his status within the decadent and charity-obsessed Sosyryn civilization, and that trusting him would inevitably get David hurt. Two months ago, she’d been proven right—which was less satisfying than she’d expected. But at least the young American had finally started to develop the cynicism he would need to survive as a member of one of the newest, least important species in the Hub Network.
Although the fact that Nashira cared at all was, perhaps, a sign that a little of David’s idealism had infected her as well. This was a source of ongoing concern to Nashira, and she was monitoring the infection closely for signs of spreading.
David’s own idealism seemed incurable, though, for he quickly brightened. “Anyway, there’s a reason I needed the extra work. And here it is!” David removed the item from his shopping bag and placed it on the table.
Nashira stared. “You got a third job to buy a fish?”
That was putting it generously. The baseball-sized, bulging-eyed creature swimming languidly in the cylindrical tank resembled a fish about as much as a landfill resembled Victoria Peak. “It’s not a fish,” David replied. “It’s an engineered aquatic biocomputer.”
“Okay, but why aquatic?”
He shrugged. “All I could afford. It’s refurbished.”
Even as he spoke, the off-center third eye on the thing’s forehead irised open and blinked sideways. The creature emitted a succession of burbly noises, then spoke in a watery, piping voice. “Language settings accepted. Earth English. Input owner information.”
David cleared his throat. “Hi. David LaMacchia. I’m your owner.”
“David LaMacchia.” The hideous construct looked him over. “B
iometrics accepted.” It swung around to gaze at Nashira. “Secondary user?”
“No, thanks,” Nashira said, grimacing and waving her hands. “That monstrosity’s all yours. What the hell do you need a computer fish for anyway?”
“You’re always saying I don’t have the brains to crack the Hub’s secrets,” David said without rancor. “So I got an extra brain. I’ve had Art here bioprogrammed with all available data on Hub physics and related sciences.”
Nashira gave him a wary look. “Art? No, don’t tell me—”
Grinning, David held up his hands as though framing a sign. “Art, a Fishy Intelligence.”
“Ohh, you’re dead to me, LaMacchia.” He simply grinned wider.
Something warm and furry brushed Nashira’s leg. Startled, she looked down to see a mammal-like creature the size of a five-year-old human but with six limbs, brown and orange striped fur, and an almost feline aspect suggested by its large eyes, the four earlike flaps atop its head, and the slim, whiskery tentacles hanging from the corners of its muzzle.
“Mrwadj,” she growled in recognition as the creature brushed against David’s legs, making him chuckle. “What do you want?”
“Hello, little human ones,” the tiny Mrwadj said, climbing up into David’s lap and peering over the table edge. “What do you have for me?”
“Get away, you,” Nashira warned.
“Hey, don’t be rude,” David said, absently stroking the Mrwadj’s head. “This guy—gal—whoever is one of the first people I’ve met here who was friendly to a human.”
“Yeah, after Rynyan,” Nashira reminded him.
“I am a gal whoever,” the Mrwadj said. “Tsshar Murieff, captain of the freighter Miifu. Who is your fish? How does it crack Hub secrets?”
“It doesn’t! It won’t. David, watch out. Mrwadj are infamous thieves.”
“Nashira! You know better than to make racial generalizations.”
“It’s how they evolved. As scavengers. They pride themselves on sneakiness.”
David chuckled as Tsshar clambered onto the table to peer at Art. “She’s not exactly being sneaky.”
“That’s what worries me. What do you want, Captain?”
“Cracking Hub secrets sounds valuable. You need a ship? My ship takes you through the Hub. We share the secrets?”
“Thanks, but that’s not necessary,” David said. “Nashira’s a Hub scout. We already have a ship.”
“And we won’t be cracking any secrets,” Nashira added. “He bought this piece of second-hand flotsam with his babysitting money. There are far better things to steal around here, so go bother someone else.”
“Hungry anyway,” Tsshar said, leaping away over the edge of the booth. Nashira reflexively checked her pockets, her watch, and her necklace.
“Nashira, that was rude,” David said. “She was just curious. I can identify with that.”
“Oh, you have plenty in common,” Nashira noted. “She’s even eating your lunch.”
Indeed, David’s tray was now bereft of all but napkins and condiments. Nashira took pity and gave him half her sandwich. “Seriously, how useful can a low-end biocomp be? Does it actually know what it’s talking about?”
“Let’s find out.” David leaned over the tank. “Art? Explain, in layperson’s terms, the physics behind the Hub.”
Art swam in a tight circle for a moment. “The Hub is the collective center of mass of the greater galaxy, including the dark-matter halo and all embedded stellar associations. All particles within a correlated ensemble will tend to decohere toward their most probable paths. The most probable position within an ensemble is the center of its distribution. Therefore, all particles in an ensemble tend toward its center of mass as their states mutually correlate, a tendency that manifests as gravitational attraction. The center of mass is therefore correlated with every particle within the ensemble. Normally this correlation is swamped by other particle interactions, but in an ensemble as massive as the greater galaxy, the correlation is robust enough to permit quantum tunneling between the center of mass and any other point within the ensemble.”
David beamed. “There, you see? I’m already learning stuff I didn’t know!”
“Assuming any of that rubbish makes sense.”
“Well, ask him something yourself.”
Gazing pointedly at David, Nashira leaned forward. “Hey, Fishface. Tell David here why the relationship between Hub vectors and destinations is impossible to predict.”
Art’s third eye blinked at her. “Identify ‘David.’”
“Him!” Nashira pointed. “David LaMacchia.”
It glared at her. “Biometric mismatch. You are not David LaMacchia.”
“No, he is! Behind you!”
Art swum around, spotting David. “Biometrics accepted. Data mismatch. You are not behind me. Please clarify instructions.”
“Just answer Nashira’s question,” David told him.
“Me! Behind you!” she cried.
Art swung around again. “Secondary user?”
“Rrr, just answer the question, you severed testicle of Cthulhu!”
“Please restate question.”
She restated it through clenched teeth. Mercifully, Art replied without further obstruction. “The exit coordinates associated with a given entry vector could theoretically be predicted—”
“Aha!” said David.
“—if the quantum state of every particle constituting the greater galactic system could be measured precisely. As this is effectively impossible, the degree of uncertainty remains too great to allow prediction.”
David’s face fell. “Oh.”
“I hate to say I told you so,” Nashira said, sounding a bit more apologetic than she’d intended.
“Still,” David went on, rallying, “Art’s just repeating what the Network already believes. I’m trying to come at it from a whole new direction, remember?”
“Then why bother with the fish?”
“So he can check my theories when I come up with them.” He shrugged. “I need somebody to do the math.”
Nashira scoffed. “I wouldn’t trust this blob to add two and two.” She tapped Art’s bowl. “How about it, you stupid blowfish? What do you make of that?”
Art stared up at her. “And you are?”
* * *
Despite Nashira’s urgings to get his money back, David had already grown attached to Art, insisting that only his short-term memory was at fault. After all, there was nothing David LaMacchia loved more than a lost cause. He continued to play with the piscine processor for the rest of the lunch hour, finally returning Art’s tank to his shopping bag beneath the table.
“Thank you!” cried a newly familiar voice. A brown-orange streak erupted from beneath the table, carrying the bag away with it.
“David! It’s Tsshar, she’s stealing your stupid fish!”
“Oh, no. No, come back!” David dashed off after the thief.
“Stop! You don’t know who else she’s working with!”
“Art! I’m coming, Artie!”
She ran after him into Hubstation 3742’s main concourse. “David, wait! Forget the damn fish!”
“He’s my responsibility!” was the last thing she heard from him before he disappeared into the crowd. Nashira pushed through the crush of travelers from dozens of species, driven by much the same sentiment. She’d never considered herself the nurturing kind, but it wasn’t like anyone else was going to take care of David—and he’d just decisively demonstrated that he was not yet ready to take care of himself.
Besides, she could anticipate the thief’s destination. Tsshar had called herself the captain of a freighter—more likely a smuggler’s ship—and Nashira knew where such a vessel would probably be docked. Taking a shortcut, she reached the docking bay just in time to see David still pursuing the tiger-striped Mrwadj as she dashed into the freighter. He was gasping for breath and staggering, but still he ran onto the gangway, oblivious to his plight. “David! Stop!” Nashira wheezed, but he vanished into the ship without hearing her—and the hatch clanged shut in his wake.
Nashira ran for the dock control station to summon help. But the ship’s moorings promptly detached and it began to taxi. By the time she reached the control station, Miifu was already on the magnetic launch rails, decelerating against the habitat ring’s rotation so that it could fall in toward the Hub. And from there, it and David could end up anywhere in nine galaxies.
She was tempted to leave the dumb kid to his fate. It would serve him right, dashing off over a useless piece of biotech. But there was no way that Nashira going to let herself be beaten by a misbegotten cross between a tabby cat and a spider monkey.
If there was any consolation, she thought, at least David would have little to fear physically from the crew aboard that ship.
* * *
David yelped in pain as the handfoot of an enormous Hijjeg crushed him against the deck. “No stowaways!” it roared.
“I’m not a stowaway,” David explained reasonably. “I’m just here to retrieve my stolen property.” Due to the intense pressure on his chest, however, it came out more like “Aahhmmnnnstooowheee! Aahhmmstrrtee-heee . . . mha . . . hhheeee!”
“Let him up, Jojjimok,” came a voice he recognized as Tsshar’s. “He makes it this far. He earns a chance.”
The pressure mercifully relented—but the Hijjeg’s idea of letting him up entailed hauling him off the deck and dangling him upside-down by his ankles. At least David could now somewhat see the ship’s crew, including several Mrwadj and what looked like a human. “But we must make security,” Tsshar went on. “Search him!”
The “search” consisted of several small, fuzzy, adorable Mrwadj crawling all over his inverted form, their lightning-fast limbs unfastening his clothes and emptying his pockets. David might have been able to muster more of a protest if he hadn’t been so ticklish. By the time the Hijjeg dropped him none too gently to the deck, he’d been stripped of all his possessions and clothing—although the Mrwadj crew had rejected most of the latter as “too sweaty” and tossed it aside.
As the Mrwadj scurried off to examine their prizes, David realized a strong hand was being extended to him. He looked up to see the human crewmember he’d glimpsed before—a tall, handsome, dark-skinned fellow with a thick mane of dreadlocks and a muscular torso covered only by an open, sleeveless vest. He smiled down at David. “Don’t mind them,” he said in a light Caribbean accent. “That’s just their way of welcoming you aboard.”
David accepted the offered hand and was pulled to his feet with impressive strength. “Thanks. I’m David.”
“Julio Rodriguez,” the man said, turning his supportive grip into a warm handshake.
“My friend tried to warn me they were thieves.”
The man grinned. “So ethnocentric. Mrwadj see ownership as something to be earned. If they take something from you, it’s theirs. You want it to be yours again, you take it back. All part of the game.”
“I’ll remember that,” David said, finally releasing Julio’s hand so he could retrieve his clothes. “Is that why you don’t wear a shirt? Since they’d just take it anyway?”
Julio laughed. “Partly that. Partly because I’m the engineer around here and it’s hot work. But mostly I just look better without one.”
David couldn’t argue. He’d thought Nashira Wing was the sexiest human he’d met in the Hubcomplex—though he respected her friendship and feared her wrath too much to act on it without her overt invitation—but Julio was just as stunning in his own way, and much more brazen about showing it off. David hastened to rectify his state of undress before it gave away something embarrassing.
“Listen, Julio, I’m all for cultural diversity, but I really need the biocomputer your captain took. If I can just talk to her, explain why I need—”
Rodriguez laughed and gave his shoulder a hearty clap that almost knocked him over. “There are two problems with that plan. One, Mrwadj are creatures of impulse. Notice how they only speak in present tense? Not much sense of time, even less of consequences. To her, that computer is hers now. It won’t be yours until you steal it back. And from the look of you, no offense, you couldn’t steal candy from a baby.”
That wasn’t something David found offensive. “You said there were two problems.”
“Oh, yes. We’re already on our way to the Hub.”
“What? You gotta turn back!”
“And wait hours or more for a new launch window? Mrwadj live in a perpetual ‘now’—they hate waiting for anything. Tsshar paid handsome bribes to get a slot in the express queue. I’m sorry, David, but Tsshar’s run off with more than your biocomp and your credit rod. She’s stealing you as we speak.”
* * *
Nashira got no help from the dock supervisors; most likely Captain Murieff paid handsomely for their cooperation. So she hastened to the Hubstation’s central office. With the station manager’s permission, she could use her scout clearance to cut through the gridlock and possibly beat Miifu to the Hub.
“Zilior, I need to talk to—” Nashira pulled up short at the sight of the sophont behind the office desk. Rather than the gaunt, four-armed figure of a Jiodeyn female, she beheld a tall, leonine-featured biped with tawny skin and a mane of golden feathers cascading down his back. That mane was perhaps a bit less lush and well-groomed than she remembered, but the shock of recognition was undiminished. “Rynyan?!”
Rynyan Zynara ad Surynyyyyyy’a shot to his feet and spread his arms effusively as he strode toward her. “Nashira! Oh, what a welcome sight you are after so long apart! Come, let me embrace you!”
“Fat chance!” Reflexes honed over years of fending off drunks in bars kicked in, and Rynyan ended up slammed into the wall. Damn, that felt good, thought Nashira. Why didn’t I do that ages ago?
But Rynyan recovered easily, both body and spirit unbroken. “Ohh, my dear friend, you misunderstand my intentions. I was merely pleased to see a friendly face once again!”
She grudgingly admitted to herself that she may have overreacted. His frequent sexual advances had never gone beyond the verbal, or she would have tossed him into a wall long before now.
“Oh, Nashira, you don’t know how it’s been for me.” Rynyan flopped melodramatically onto the office couch. “Ever since the . . . complications with that charity scandal, my reputation has taken a terrible blow.”
“Yeah, right. I saw the news afterward. You took all the credit for exposing the conspiracy and came out smelling like a rose.”
“I tried to give you the credit, truly. It’s just that the press loves me so much that they wouldn’t believe me. But you know how celebrity is.”
“Yeah, absolutely, that’s something I would know,” she deadpanned.
“Well, reality is a different matter, you understand. Once the initial flush of fame and praise wore off, people began to question my judgment regarding how I donated my wealth. They didn’t want people to suspect their intentions as well. So I’ve become a pariah, Nashira. No one will accept my charity! The past few weeks have been so . . . so . . .”
“Boring! I’ve simply had nothing to do with my time! Well, plenty of sex, of course, but even that can get boring when there’s nothing else to do. I needed to be useful somehow! Giving of myself to others is my purpose in life. But nobody will accept my services as charity, so I’ve had no choice but to . . .” He shuddered. “To sell them. Can you imagine? Being paid money instead of giving it away! It’s so demeaning. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“Oh, cue the violins.”
“No, I think you’ve shown me quite enough violence, Nashira. But you’re right—I shouldn’t complain. I deserve it all.” He lowered his head. “I let myself be tricked into facilitating the smuggling of a bioweapon. My mistakes made many people suffer. It’s only fitting that I should suffer in return. Why, it’s positively noble. How can I do less?”
Oh, hell, Nashira thought. Even when he’s guilt-ridden, he’s full of himself.
Rynyan rose and clasped his tapered fingers before him. “And as part of my penance, my journey through humility, I’ve reexamined my past behavior. And I realize that it was inappropriate to continue my sexual invitations after you’d made your refusal clear. If, for whatever incomprehensible reason, you insist on denying yourself the supreme pleasures I could bestow upon you . . . why, then I must respect your choice. However much I pity you for what you’re missing, it is not about me.”
Was there genuine contrition beneath that morass of self-congratulatory bombast? He was still deeply clueless, but if there was a chance he’d actually halt his advances, then that was a non-consummation devoutly to be wished. “Well. That’s . . . very mature of you, Rynyan. And it’s . . . it’s the one thing I’ve ever truly wanted you to give me. It’s not easy for a human in the Network to have her choices respected—even by people who think they’re doing her favors by telling her she’s wrong.”
Rynyan, to his credit, seemed to make a genuine effort to parse that. “My. I hadn’t realized . . . Well. Yes. Definitely, then. You neither want nor need my assistance in the erotic arena, and so I will no longer offer it.” He extended his hand.
“Deal,” she said, accepting the handshake.
“I need your assistance.”
“Yes! What a relief! Let’s see, the couch seems a bit small. . . .”
She slapped his hand away. “No, not for that!”
“Oh. Oh, dear. Sorry, I still need to work on this, obviously. . . .”
“Rynyan! David’s in trouble!”
“David?! My David? He needs my help again?” He tilted his head back and shook his fists in the air. “Yes! I knew this day would come!”
“Right. Not about my needs. I’m trying, I am. Now, what can I do to help dear David?”
Nashira hastily explained the situation. “So if I can just get clearance to launch the Entropy and go after them—”
“Of course. You are more than welcome to take out your Hubdiver any time you want.”
“Great.” She turned for the door.
“A-a-a-s soon as its overhaul is complete.”
She spun back. “Overhaul?”
Rynyan fidgeted with his mane. “Well, I wanted to do something really generous for you. You were always complaining about how, well, entropic the Starship Entropy was, so I ordered a full overhaul. You’ll love it, really, I’m putting in all the newest upgrades—”
“How . . . long?”
“It shouldn’t be more than another, oh, four days.”
Nashira threw up her hands. Within an hour, David could be anywhere in the greater galaxy. In one afternoon, she’d lost David and regained Rynyan. What else could go wrong today?
Copyright © 2018. Hubpoint of No Return by Christopher L. Bennett