Jason Agamid looks down at the sky and sees a big square chunk fall out of one voluminous puffy cumulonimbus monster cloud. There’s a hole in the cloud now, about one and a half times the size of the S.S. Clocktick, a perfectly square hole, with eddies of vapor that drift toward the its edges swirling down along the sides as though bumping up against an invisible conveyor belt ever-moving toward the ground. Agamid hobbles away from the window, tall thick wizardly cane in either hand, which canes he thinks make him look like an elder statesman but in actuality make him look like a rheumatic cross-country skiier. He has gravitas, though. Never let this be denied: Jason Agamid has gravitas coming out his ass.
“Make it so,” he mumbles to himself, giggling hoarsely, slightly. He is old and wattle-chinned and maintains with wax a handlebar moustache now so outrageously outdated that it is actually on the cusp of becoming stylish during the next few months, which period of time Agamid will mostly spend dead. The deck of the S.S. Clocktick feels, as it always feels, like is is built on solid and reassuring ground, though the ship is rushing toward a small bay that has been cleared for it on 12th Avenue between 45th and 46th, where it used to sit, a rusting and decommissioned battleship used occasionally as a museum by children and a toilet by derelicts. It moves at 9.8 meters per second per second, which is to say the velocity of gravity. There is no turbulence, no bump of any kind, no lurch at all with the bias drive (unless something really bad happens and then you should pray a very short prayer).
The big square-cutting beam projected by the bias drive, invisible to everyone who is not in its way, occasionally nauseates a passing bird or sends a bug into a death spiral, but the birds right themselves and the bugs have large families anyway and the only sign that anything even remotely interesting is about to happen is that it rains briefly and in a perfect square at 45th and 12th. That, and there’s crowd of spectators looking up at the sky like disciples watching Jesus’ feet vanish into the wooly white.
At three inches above the ground, the Clocktick, formerly the USS Intrepid, will stop without slowing as the bias drive is turned off. There will be a slight jerk, maybe, and a satisfying whomp but not really much of a noise considering a 36-ton battleship has literally fallen out of the sky on a sizable part of midtown New York City. Everyone on the ship will feel like they’ve fallen exactly three inches (enthusiastic engineers can actually place the ship on the ground to within a few microns but were told to knock it the hell off. Seafaring vessels that fall safely out of the sky and make no noise scare the bejesus out of everyone, man, woman, child and dog). Anything that wanders into the way at this point will be smooshed like a nickel on a railroad track, but the bias beam, as mentioned, weirds out the local fauna, which is a big plus. One of the less pleasant jobs given to NASA interns of decades past was to roam the fields around Cape Canaveral looking for the animals who hadn’t maintained a safe distance from the roaring/hot/sonic booming explosive engines of antique spacefaring vessels and had had their heads stove clean in. The bias drive, as Jason Agamid likes to say with what his assistant privately considers an irritating regularity, is a blessing in a birthday suit.
Agamid is not a nuclear chemist or a fringe physicist who finally made good or even a terribly astute engineer. He is a Texan by birth, raised so poor it hurts your heart to hear about it in a little town with one stoplight alongside three older sisters and nine older brothers (one of whom was his elder by only four minutes, being his twin), and he is a dead shot with handgun, shotgun, 30-30, variable-pulse fingerbeam, crossbow and any other line-of-sight distance weapon you’d care to place in his hand. He has eaten squirrel more times than you’ve gone to the bathroom and what’s better, he remembers it. He knows exactly what it’s like to be poor. He’s not fancy, by God. He’s Jason Agamid, man of the people. A bias-drive ambulance will take him to the hospital this evening, as it and others like it have taken millions of others who would have died in traffic. Jason Agamid has saved lives.
The bias drive has to be toggled a little during spaceflight to keep the vessel from surpassing lightspeed. When the damn thing first achieved a measurable percentage of C, the previously unflappable five-tour Marine of a head engineer, whose name was David Doyle of the Knoxville, Tennessee Doyles (which is how he introduces himself), screamed at his crew to shut it all down but after a few more trial runs it turned out nothing much happened and Doyle was fired for losing his nerve (Agamid actually wrote “lack of balls” in the letter of termination and signed it, which was a great help to Doyle in finding a new job). Doyle now lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he teaches English at Owen High School, does not travel anywhere unreachable by bicycle, and collects stamps.
But so what happens after you surpass lightspeed no one really knows. The bias drive isn’t an accelerator pedal; either it’s on and you’re moving or it’s off and you’re sitting there just fine and perfectly still, no matter how fast you were going. Aim it like a flashlight in whatever direction you want to go, and you fall along the beam. Traveling across unknown patches of space has to be done in short leaps or else you whack into the previously unknown extraterrestrial object you were trying to explore in the first place, and then it’s all explosive decompression and catching on fire while freezing to death and spending five days in deteriorating orbit around the closest star drinking your own emergency recycled waste and deeply regretting some of your recent decisions. The whole mess everybody was trying to avoid, in other words.
The engineers linked the drive to earth’s gravity because anything with a higher or lower rate of acceleration really does fuck with the wildlife in some unexpected ways, including attracting everything for miles around to the bias field, which also causes a surprisingly high incidence of fatal aneurysms in anything that happens to stroll through it (see also USAirways Flight 6629 to SFO, which crashed during the top-secret research phase of the drive’s approval process in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park under such bizarro circumstances that President Wallace practically had to tell reporters that he hadn’t actually considered the possibility of aliens invading, no, but he would certainly look into it) thus making a tinkered-with drive pretty useless for travel that originates or terminates on earth.
Which is not to say that no one actually has surpassed lightspeed in a ship with an Agamid bias drive. Two vessels have done just that, in fact. One was the S. S. Hangman, a ship stolen (and subsequently rechristened with a big glass pitcher of strawberry Kool-Aid in what one can only hope was not an ironic gesture) by a Nevada-based doomsday cult that had sprung up around the time of the USA6629 disaster and saw its goal as “abandonment of this blue glass marble called the Earth.” Their head engineer, a Seattleite single Dad named, seriously now, Terry Cloth, wasn’t exactly as dab a hand at the controls as he had implied and ended up making an ass out of himself at the worst possible time, shooting the Hangman into Jupiter while his son Dryden sobbed into Daddy’s shoulder. The police astronomer figured the Hangman had achieved lightspeed when he saw – and he was the only one looking, so we have to take his word for it – the little ship, not much larger than a schoolbus, vanish into the gas giant’s orange bulk, tomato seeds, farm animal twosomes and all, whereupon the whole monstrous sphere convulsed and puckered like a giant upside-down cyclopian face that has accidentally bitten into a giant space lemon, and then returned to its normal, relatively tranquil visage.
The other lightspeed-achiever was a very weird guy named Van Lint, a little researcher at UNC who destroyed a perfectly good antique two-man helicopter to make a capsule for himself and several notebooks and cameras, which, denuded of its propellers and fuel tanks and so forth he personally in the dead of night fitted with a drive borrowed by his fellow-nutty-physicist girlfriend from a high-security office in Ft. Bragg by which means either no one knew or no one would admit, so that when the MPs busted down the couple’s lab door the next day they were just in time to see Van Lint shoot through the roof of the little building and vanish forever. The girlfriend – again, no one knows how or no one will say – apparently walked right out the door with her equipment, which she then used to publish a totally vital and thus societally redeeming and legally handy series of articles discussing the relativistic effects of the drive, especially on the human body, which reproduceable research is is how we know Van Lint actually surpassed lightspeed in the first place.
Besides eating squirrel, Jason Agamid distinctly remembers being nine years old and attending a friend’s birthday party across town at a house that was about five times the size of his own (literally five times – the kid being feted lived in, no shit, a wing of this incredible house and while he wasn’t exactly spoiled, had room to play and few enough toys that he had a favorite bear and parents who loved him and was generally a well-adjusted and genial little guy, even on his tenth birthday which is more than can be said for most people, rich or poor). At said party, the kid whose birthday it was let the newcomers take turns on his little video game system – Jason distinctly remembers that the game played involved a green robot critter in running shoes who zipped around a racetrack at high speeds and could loop the loop. Anyway, the other kids wanted to kick Jason off the thing and make him give someone else a turn because he was so godawful bad at it, ran into open pits of spikes and got bitten by malevolent turtles at even the most avoidable of turns and couldn’t even beat the Bandsaw boss, for gosh sakes! The Bandsaw’s the easiest boss in the game!
But the birthday boy was having none of it, made the other kids let Jason play, and Agamid remembers not the kindness of the child but the game itself, which was Fun. More Fun, in fact, than Jason had though possible. It stimulated him on a primal, previously unreachable level. This, Jason understood, was what happened to rich children – they were allowed Fun of a size and variety that beggared the imaginations of their less fortunate neighbors and Jason Agamid wanted it, still wants it, still maintains the undiluted greed of a nine-year-old boy in front of a large television watching a green robot do a triple backflip and pick up a ruby as big as his little third-grade fist every time he presses the B button.
Jason Agamid feels a bump at about the height of the Empire State Building, but it doesn’t register for a few moments. His crewman, a young guy named Dennis who’s never flown on a conventional aircraft, starts screaming much more quickly.