Albert stared at one of the holographic screens hovering above his desk. It showed Talie standing on the surface of some shattered and broken world.
“The colonists spent their lives searching for little rocks like these,” she said, holding up a small, orange stone. “Now the colonists are rocks themselves, the result of a vicious and unprovoked attack,” she added, stepping toward what appeared to be a statue but was, in fact, a man turned to stone, as Albert soon learned from the rest of her report.
“What is that weird garment she wears?” Albert mumbled.
“It’s called a skirt.”
Albert spun around in his chair and saw Father near the door, one of his top data analysts standing beside him.
“Women used to wear them on ancient Earth,” Father said, “but they went out of fashion long, long ago.”
“Oh,” Albert said, glancing again at Talie’s legs.
“Don’t feel embarrassed,” Father said. “Everyone knows Ms. Tappler is a physically attractive woman. She seems to take excessive pride in her appearance. Perhaps if she worried less about her vanity and more about the victims of her stories, the universe would be a better place.”
“If Talie went around telling people their own futures,” Albert replied, “she’d alter the variables in her own time travel equations. In essence, to change someone’s future she must also change her own past, making it impossible for her to be there in the first place. That’s basic chronotheory. It’s one of Lightner’s laws.”
“Albert,” Father said sternly, “are you defending Ms. Tappler.”
“No,” Albert said, sinking into his chair.
Father chuckled and turned to his data analyst. “Make a note in the Einstein Project files: subject has developed a crush on Talie Tappler.”
“I have not,” Albert grumbled, averting his gaze from the holograms.
With a subtle hand gesture, Father enlarged one of the holographic screens. It showed only static.
“The Tomorrow News Network,” Father said, “censors their broadcasts so that anyone with the ability to change the future won’t be able to see their reports. Most people can’t bear the uncertainty, the fear that something horrific is about to happen to them or someone they know, but for me the static gives me hope. It means that somewhere in the universe there’s a battle I can help win.
“Of course it’s a mystery how the Tomorrow News Network identifies those who can or cannot change the future, or how they censor their broadcasts for some and not others.”
“It’s not a mystery,” Albert said. “It’s another of Lightner’s laws. You need energy to transmit information backward through time. The more likely it is for that information to change history, the more energy is required to transmit it. So long as the broadcast’s energy is low, the news censors itself.”
Father turned to the analyst. “Note that in the database as well. It may prove useful.”
“Yes, Dr. Sero.”
Albert turned back to the holographic screens. He noticed an image of Talie—a remarkably pretty one—staring back at him. She winked at Albert then turned on her heel and sauntered off with her usual bouncy walk. As soon as Father wasn’t looking, Albert tapped a key on his desk, bookmarking that clip for future study.
* * *
Father claimed to know exactly why the Tomorrow News Network had gone to static. He said Albert knew the reason too, though Albert couldn’t imagine how that was possible.
Father led Albert to another of the space station’s cold, steel rooms, this one smaller and darker than most, lit only by a few display screens and a holographic grid of crisscrossed white lines in three dimensions. The grid showed a planet, the lines around it bowed by gravity, with a vast armada of disk-shaped starships in orbit. Albert didn’t recognize these ships. They weren’t Space Force vessels.
Admiral Pravic sat at a command station, her eyes dull and bored. Several officers and technicians moved about her, monitoring the computers. Albert recognized his math homework flashing on one of the screens.
Hesitantly, Albert glanced at his father. “I only finished those equations last night.”
“Yes,” Father said, “and we must act swiftly before our opportunity is lost.”
Another fleet entered the field, speeding along a curved trajectory. Digital flags identified the lead ships: the Armitage, the Thunderhead, and the Supremacy—all Behemoth-class warships. A contingent of smaller frigates followed, along with multiple squadrons of gunships, starfighters, and combat interceptors. Yet, sizable as this assault force seemed, the defenders outnumbered them five to one.
As the Earth fleet advanced on the aliens, the straight, white lines of the hologrid bent, representing distortions in space-time. Albert knew what those distortions meant: the Earth vessels were accelerating along a four-dimensional axis, a motion invisible to the naked eye yet accounted for in the solution to Albert’s homework. “No…” Albert muttered as the aliens rushed into battle, oblivious to the danger.
“The Hykonians have opened fire,” one of the technicians reported.
But the Space Force ships seemed to wink out of existence. The white lines snapped back into place, wobbling like rubber, and the Hykonian weapons detonated in an empty void.
Albert felt sick. His clammy hands gripped the railing encircling the hologrid.
“Who are the Hykonians?” Albert asked.
Father didn’t answer.
The Space Force vessels reappeared, now surrounding the Hykonian fleet. They opened fire, peppering the Hykonians with lasers and kinetic shells. Two disk-shaped starships exploded in the first volley. Dozens more took heavy damage, but before the Hykonians could respond, the gridlines warped, and the entire Earth armada vanished again. Bewildered, the Hykonians scrambled to find new defensive positions before the next onslaught.
“I thought you were using my homework to fight the Swarm!” Albert said.
“The Earth Empire has many enemies,” Father replied, watching the battle progress. “Our quarrel with the Hykonians far predates the Swarm Invasion.”
“You lied to me!” Albert shouted.
“I did not lie,” Father said, unmoved. “The Empire requires a fresh source of helium-3 fuel. That planet can provide us the fuel we need, allowing us to continue military operations in other sectors, including operations in Swarm-controlled territory.”
Seething with rage, Albert turned back to the hologrid. While human forces hopped effortlessly from one point in space to another, the Hykonians performed a frantic dance to defend their planet. They wheeled about in circles, shooting in every direction, hitting each other more often than they hit their intended targets.
Six gunships materialized, strafing the Hykonians with lasers. Six more followed. Then the Supremacy appeared, its triumphant bow overshadowing the Hykonian flagship. The Supremacy unleashed a barrage of missiles, blasting the flagship until its hull shattered and its interior compartments erupted in flames.
Meanwhile, each step of Albert’s homework blinked across the computer screens. Solve for x. Solve for t. Integrate the beta factors, adjust for relativistic effects, and calculate beta prime.
Albert noticed Admiral Pravic, still seated at her command station, the wrinkles of her face more evident as she frowned. Another Hykonian ship exploded and their defensive formation crumbled, but Pravic’s expression didn’t change. In her hand, she held a glass of some greenish-brown liquid.
A Space Force lieutenant with battle scars covering half his face whispered in Pravic’s ear. The admiral grunted and took a swig of her drink.
“This is no way to wage war,” Pravic commented. “Our pilots are just plugging numbers into their computers. Most of them don’t even know what the numbers mean.”
Father stared at the hologrid. The Hykonians were struggling to regroup.
“Trust my son’s work, Admiral,” Father said. “He will bring us victory whether your pilots understand it or not.”
Pravic scowled and downed the rest of her drink.
Last night, when Albert finally finished the equations, he’d marveled at their inner perfection, at their simple, mathematical harmony. His solution gave him a deep sense of satisfaction. Now Albert looked at his homework again. The equations appeared in their completion, every variable accounted for, and yet the full repercussions of what Albert had done—of the atrocity those numbers and symbols had enabled—could not be quantified.
The white lines bent and straightened, separating and converging like ripples in a pond.
“The enemy is retreating,” one of the officers announced.
“Interceptor Sqaudron One is in pursuit,” another added.
“The Supremacy and the Thunderhead have begun orbital bombardment of the Hykonian colony,” said a third.
More reports came in, but the details faded into a sound like buzzing insects. All Albert could hear was the quickening thump of his heart and the uneven sound of his breathing. In all his education, Albert had never learned about these Hykonians. He couldn’t even guess what they looked like. Were they a race of tall, savage warriors with hides of black scales and mouths full of cruel fangs, or might they be meek, fragile creatures prone to the same virtues and vices as any human?
Albert caught Admiral Pravic staring at him. The scar-faced lieutenant had returned, whispering again in her ear. Pravic grinned. She stood up and followed the lieutenant out of the room.
* * *
Unnoticed, Albert escaped into the hallway. Fully matured brain or not, he felt like a child, helpless and afraid, manipulated in ways only grown-ups could understand. He stumbled down the corridor, searching for a hiding place. The space station’s sleek, metal walls provided no safe nooks or recesses. Albert couldn’t even find an open maintenance hatch to crawl into.