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Start with a death; seems appropriate somehow. Death's usually an ending; the terminal stop in any journey. But not that time.
I’d floated beside a dead man, looking at the shocked expression fixed in his eyes. It wasn't directly my fault. I've done some questionable things in my colourful past, but the gun that did the killing wasn't in my hand; it was pointed at my chest. Its owner, a systems tech named Banks, looked from the corpse to me. “Can you fly a ship?” I’d nodded, seeing no profit in lying. And then I found myself at a derelict shipyard, on a moon orbiting Espírito Santo, strapped into the Chair of a hidden ship I never knew existed.
Fifth generation starships are almost completely AI; the crew are just there to service the systems. All except the pilot: through a hind-brain shunt we interpret machine data, guide them through the dark. We add depth perception.
As soon as the interface unfolded I knew Banks was wrong about Knife. The fusion of technologies hadn't created a warship, for all the matriarchy's design flair when it came to weapons. Knife had a different purpose.
Banks' ego made him talk. Incessantly. He had stumbled over the initial designs of the ship while exploiting weaknesses in an off-line human datastore. Following the logistics trail of the materials used in construction led him to Espirito Santo and the mineral transport I'd been co-piloting. His mistaken belief was that Knife had been intended for use against the matriarchy. But I don't believe we stole alien technology, I think it was a gift. We know they view mankind as an adolescent species; I think the ship is a teaching aid. If mankind is to have a future, a period of introspection is called for; we need to reassess our place in the universe.
Fifteen years ago we leapt at the throat of another sentient species, trying to wrest from them the few worlds they’d settled; those planets that most suited them also suited us. But we came from a position of cultural and technological inferiority; a fragmented people pulled apart by internecine squabbles. Our guns and ships were effective against our own people; we thought they’d subdue the aliens. We were wrong.
I believe the matriarchy was offering us a glimpse of something so much greater than ourselves; a thing so vast we're unable to grasp its scope and beauty. We reduce it to a shallow thing of physics and fear. Even our imagination and language stifle us. A nebulae we call the Dark Drift was their Rainbow Shores; our Mćlstrom their Cradle.
Experienced through the all encompassing senses of the Chair, fed through the synaesthesia of the shunt, I was offered a small fraction of the universe as a playground. We'd never understood how matriarchy ships always surprised our own during that brief conflict. Now I could comprehend the simple and elegant reason, only an impression of the true picture, but I saw and felt something so majestic and so beautiful that my eyes filled with tears. When the shame subsided the wonder returned and I knew I needed to fly.
I fed power to the drives, unleashed the energy with a scream of primal pleasure. Knife stood upon a pillar of bright fire, leapt free of the confines of the old shipyard. Acceleration pinned Banks in his couch as it held me in mine; but I was free of his feeble threats and grandiose schemes. This wasn't the mundane commuting of an in-system hauler, the stunted sensations from a half-blind sensory array; I was truly flying. Even the precision sight offered by military tech in deep field fighters couldn't compare to the clarity of the Knife. She carried no weapons; we wouldn't be blasting the matriarchy from the stars. She was built to explore, to carry us into those dark places we'd stared at with trepidation and longing. Maybe we'd find new worlds to walk upon. And maybe, if I gave her back, someone would still pervert her into Banks' bloody dream.
If so we'd be missing out; the matriarchy must believe we've matured enough to be trusted with so wonderful a machine. It'd be a shame to prove them wrong. Interfaced, I perceived possibilities; I sensed wonders. She wasn't finished, that much I realised, but it was cosmetic. The Chair cocooned me; fed me, cleansed me. Banks had only a flight couch.
When I slowed to a standstill on the outer fringes of the Bright Shoals, we'd travelled half way across the galaxy and Banks was long dead. I mourned on the return journey, my grief tempered with elation.
Emerging from shift I passed through helioshock and described a graceful intercept with Home. And when at last I flared the drives to touch lightly upon matriarchy soil, they were waiting. I remained in the Chair. Though Knife had sustained me, I lacked the strength to leave her. Truth be told, I didn't want to.
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