The Grand Armada of Humanity

The setting has changed. The epoch and place and players are transformed. The time is now thousands of years after the era of the legendary Ranger, as measured in entropic time; the ordinary, forever-moving-forward time that you normally live in from cradle to grave. 

The place is the Nowhen; that is, anentropic time, which is not so much a place as it is a mathematical concept where time is as spacelike as it is inside a black hole, and you can roam between the past and future as easily as you might roam the familiar streets of your old neighborhood in your home town. 

The vastness of the Nowhen is cut through and circumnavigated by mighty time-ships; enormous military starships equipped not only with indescribably powerful armaments, but with time machines that can literally change the course of history. 

The setting has changed. And although the time and place are both fantastic and new, the ominous threat to the Ranger’s rebirth remains the same.

One hundred time-ships of the Grand Armada of Humanity were traveling through the Nowhen to fight a last, decisive battle with the Enemy. Although the Enemy looked like humans, and acted like humans, their boundless hatred of humanity was unquestionably inhuman. Their attacks on human worlds and colonies were savage, merciless, and beyond comprehension. Humanity did not know from when or where the Enemy had come; they only knew that the Enemy was hellbent on eradicating Humanity’s very existence from the pages of history.

The Enemy’s starships were equipped with weaponized time machines. If a battle was lost, the Enemy could learn from their mistakes, go back in time, fight the battle again, but this time act flawlessly and thereby win what was once lost. 

Humanity survived the Enemy’s onslaught only because it had previously discovered time-travel technology, but had wisely decided to not weaponize its discovery. However, to defend itself from the Enemy’s attacks, Humanity needed its own enormously powerful engines of war, and so it reluctantly built its own time warping starships; its own time-ships.

Take the most powerful, massive, and fearsome star-spanning warship you can imagine; equip it with a time machine powered by a singularity generator that safely enfolds a minuscule spinning black hole in exquisitely engineered artificial gravity and force fields; multiply the result by 10 raised to the power of your most desperate hopes and fears; then multiply that one time-ship by 100 and the result equals the Grand Armada of Humanity.

Humanity and the Enemy were well-matched: Histories were made and unmade; battles fought and refought; the quick and the dead appeared and disappeared like ghosts; paradoxes crashed into reality; and the flow of history became as disjointed as a needle on a record that jumps its track. Eventually, the damage to history became so severe that time-barriers had to be erected across the timeline between past and future to prevent one tampered segment of history from colliding into earlier and later segments. 

Humanity and the Enemy were fighting the time-war to the death, but it was obvious that the war could not go on forever. There had to be an end to it, there had to be a winner, there had to be a decisive battle to decide once and for all whether Humanity would survive. And that’s the battle the Grand Armada was heading to. The only problem was, the Enemy was as devious as it was vicious and merciless, and it didn’t give a damn if it committed a murderous deception.

The Fleet Admiral of the Grand Armada of Humanity grabbed a handrail on the bridge of her foundering flagship to anchor herself while the deck beneath her feet heaved and convulsed like a giant beast that was trapped in quicksand and inexorably sinking to its death. The comparison to a dying leviathan was apt because her enormous flagship was dying, just as was the rest of the Grand Armada of Humanity. 

Like a shipwrecked sailor struggling through the surf to wade to shore, the Admiral struggled through the artificial gravity system’s constantly changing definition of “down” to reach the aisle between the control consoles of her Executive Officer and her Command and Control officer. The Admiral wanted to speak to them directly, and out of earshot of the rest of the bridge crew. 

The bridge of a time-ship isn’t like that of a wooden sailing ship of old, where a steely-eyed mariner gritted his teeth against the wind and rain and stood four-square at the helm. Nor is it like the bridge of a modern steel-hulled aircraft carrier, where babyfaced sailors helm from behind boxy consoles with information displays like video games and controls like an aircraft cockpit. Instead, a time-ship is a mix of solid matter and ephemeral force fields, helmed by a crew fitted with cybernetic implants that make them and their ships function as one. 

But no, on second thought that image is too abstract. You need something more concrete. 

Alright, imagine a circus midway sprawled on the edge of town beneath a starless night sky, and where each neatly arranged, gaudy sideshow booth glows like neon. Now imagine that a time-ship’s command deck—its bridge—is a shadowy, domed auditorium where each bridge officer’s station is a control console that glows like a booth on the midway; and where all the consoles are neatly arranged in concentric circles around the captain’s central station. The information display for each console is like a borderless, miniature thundercloud that is lit from within with all manner of data in the form of symbols, numbers, and pictures. And in the blink of an eye, a bridge officer can telepathically exchange encyclopedias of data and calculations with the community of silvermind artificial intelligences that inhabit the consoles. 

The bridge of a time-ship is like that. 

The Admiral’s XO had reconfigured her console for engineering, and was trying to stabilize the artificial gravity aboard the flagship. This would normally be the Chief Engineer’s job, but he had disappeared out of existence shortly after the time-barriers shielding the flagship abruptly extinguished and the singularity generator on the engineering deck started going critical. 

“I’d appreciate being able to stand upright on the deck of my own ship anytime you can manage it,” the Admiral said. The Admiral had the greatest respect for her executive officer’s skills and did not intend to demean her efforts. But the Admiral could see that the XO’s midnight black face was glistening with toil, and the Admiral knew that a little humor would help her XO relax and do her job more efficiently. 

“Working on it,” said the XO, as a crescent moon-smile rose on her dark-as-night face. She was laying on her back, on the deck beneath her console, pulling cloudy gray cubes of silvermind from their niches; tinkering with them using an incomprehensible tool until their proper color was restored to luminous blue-white pearl; then shoved the cubes back into their niches. Each cube was a component of a modular computer and communal artificial intelligence that was connected telepathically, instead of electronically or optically, to other nearby cubes. “I’m doing what I can,” said the XO, “but whatever cyberattack hit the silverminds keeps trying to reinfect the modules.” The XO grunted as she struggled back to her seat behind the console, and said, “We should be good for the time being.” With those words, the artificial gravity steadied and the deck ceased bucking, but only rocked and twitched now and then.

The Admiral straightened her stance and turned toward the CC officer’s console, but the face that greeted her was unfamiliar. She knew him, just as she knew all the personnel on her flagship, but she didn’t know him personally and he wasn’t part of her regular bridge crew. Every crewman had cybernetic implants of various types installed in their body since birth. As soon as the Admiral wondered about the young man with bright, intelligent eyes and a decisive demeanor sitting at the console, her cybernetic implants informed her that he was deeply religious and philosophical, which was appropriate for his speciality, and that he had a promising service record. “Aren’t you Chaplain Lt. Francis?” the Admiral said. “This isn’t your usual pulpit.”

“No ma’am, it isn’t,” said Chaplain Francis, appreciating the Admiral’s light tone in the midst of a disastrous emergency, but he wasn’t stupid enough to presume informality and crack a smile. “I was on the bridge in my support capacity when the assigned CC officer was injured by turbulence. No one was nearby to take her place, so I stepped up.” In other military organizations, a chaplain might be a noncombatant, but in the Armada, everyone was cross trained to assume numerous positions. And for the sake of Humanity’s survival, no one could afford to be a noncombatant during an emergency. “I assume you want a report on the rest of the fleet?” Francis asked, and the Admiral nodded yes.

Lt. Francis flicked his hand over his console’s glowing surface. Suddenly, a tiny spark appeared and quickly grew into a ragged, roiling, miniature thundercloud. Then, instead of minuscule lightning bolts crackling back and forth within and backlighting the dark cloud, torrents of num­bers, diagrams, text and other strategic data crackled within the console’s vaporous display.

Francis queried his information display, and in response his mind was flooded with wide-ranging status reports about the fleet. His heart felt heavy as lead with sorrow about the disaster happening all around them, but he suppressed his grief, summarized the reports, and then matter-of-factly, profession­ally, gave his account to the Admiral. “The singularity generators on two of the time-ships in the Armada malfunctioned catastrophically after the cyberattack, losing both ships and all hands on board. The other 98 ships and their support vessels report varying degrees of ongoing systems failures and random explosions as ships’ systems seem to be trying to commit suicide and scuttle each vessel. All human crew, silvermind computers, and engineering robots are attempting to restore systems,” he said. The engineering robots he referred to were machines that looked like scarecrows made of glossy black wires and cables, that helped the human crew perform the physical tasks required to operate a time-ship.

Francis paused to listen to something only he could hear. “The armada is scattered, and without steady power from their singularity generators, each ship is sinking fast down the timeline toward the past. We’ve sunk several centuries already.” Francis paused momentarily, not being anxious to report the next part. “The fleet’s fall rate is small, but still a negative exponential,” which meant the fleet was falling slowly at the moment, but would soon fall faster and faster until it was tumbling at a runaway pace. 

“However, crews are maintaining discipline and performing well in spite of the pandemonium,” Francis said optimistically. Then he paused again while his expression melted. “Casualty reports are coming in, but they’re sketchy and add little beyond the obvious: Losses are bad, very bad.”

“Good job, Chaplain,” said the Admiral. She made a gesture in the air above Francis’ console, making the panel glow brighter, and suddenly Francis could feel an electric tingle throughout his body as his cybernetic implants were updated with new skills and abilities. “By the way, Lieutenant,” the Admiral said, glancing toward her XO to be a witness, “consider this a field promotion to Chaplain Lieutenant Commander.” 

The Admiral took a moment to evaluate all she had heard, then signaled her Com­muni­cations officer to open a channel to the fleet. With grim determination, the Admiral did the only reasonable thing she could, and announced on every telepathic channel, to every one of the 98 remaining time-warships in the Grand Armada, “All hands, this is your fleet commander, ordering you to abandon ship! This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill! All hands, report to your assigned evacuation station and bail out into anentropic time. Follow your emergency training, leap to entropic time when you’re able, rendezvous when you can, and help each other survive.” Then, after glancing at the newly promoted Ch. LCdr. Francis, added, “And may whatever deity you might believe in keep and protect you. I repeat, all hands, abandon ship!” 

The Admiral gestured for her Comm officer to close the telepathic channel, then grimly studied a halo of observation displays around the bridge’s ceiling. Anentropic time was represented as a black backdrop to a perfectly clear constellation of 98 time-ships tumbling, burning, and crumbling apart in the Nowhen. Random debris and gouts of fire from the most damaged time-ships rained down the timeline from the future toward the past like glowing embers. And amidst the embers, individual evacuees and entire lifeboats mingled together like autumn leaves slowly falling, forever falling, through the blackness toward the distant past. 

A look of unfathomable regret marred the Admiral’s eyes as she turned away from the displays, scanned the bridge crew, settled on her XO, and finally said, “It’s time for you to go too. Lead the bridge crew to the command evacuation station and bail out. LCdr. Francis, go with her, you’re part of the bridge cohort now.”

The XO looked stunned, as if she had nodded off and then been awakened by a sudden loud noise. “Ma’am?” said the XO incredulously, as she began to realize what the Admiral was really saying. “Wouldn’t… you… prefer to lead the crew?”

The Admiral looked aside for a moment, composed herself, and then turned back to her XO. “Someone at command level has to monitor the evacuation, correct any malfunctions, and maybe even minimize the damage to the fleet. So, no, you have to do it. Now get moving… and save my people.” Then she turned her back, strode to her console, and began working.

“XO—?” prompted Francis, after noticing the executive officer seemed frozen in place.

The XO cut him off, saying, “Grab the emergency ditty bag beneath your console chair and fall in at the exit hatch.” In short order, she assembled the Helmsman, Chief Weapons Officer, Navigator, Chief Oracle, LCdr. Francis, and the rest of the bridge crew just beyond the exit hatch bulkhead. 

The Admiral stood alone on the bridge as she watched her people prepare to leave. The XO turned and snapped her a salute, and the Admiral subtly returned the honor. Then the Admiral activated the hatch closure; locked it in case there were any ill-advised notions about trying to change the fleet commander’s mind; and then began analyzing data on her console. However, she had to pause momentarily to blink away the sudden blurriness obscuring her sight. 

The Admiral thought a supervisory control command while making a magical pass over her console. In response, her console took control of all 98 time-ship bridges in the remainder of her fleet. She sat down at her console and scrutinized what was left of the fleet with her mind’s eye. Managing all that information was a strain, but she ignored the discomfort so she could evaluate her overall situation: Nearly all the human crews had bailed out of their time-ships—Good. 

The Admiral noted with great interest, however, that a few time-ships had also jettison­ed several auxiliary time-spacecraft and engineering robots, each of which contained a small but massive singularity generator. That jetsam lowered the mass of the time-ships by a fraction, and therefore their net energy. As a result, those time-ships’ fall rate down the timeline slowed slightly. The Admiral whistled in surprise and then said to herself, “Maybe my staying on board won’t be a noble—but meaning­less—gesture after all.” 

The fleet was already falling slowly toward the past—there was nothing she could do to stop that; their negative exponential fall rate predetermined their fate—and soon they would helplessly accelerate toward the Big Bang. But the time-ships would never get that far; their maximum crush depth was about 14,000,000 years. Once they sank that far down into the Nowhen, they would lose their coherence; that is, their connection with the normal, entropic time they were in before they entered the Nowhen, and then cease to exist. 

The silvermind on the Admiral’s flagship was functioning properly now, and would reliably answer her questions. Now that she had remote control of the ships in her fleet, she could force their silverminds to do a command-level reboot. Hopefully that would cure the artificial intelligences of the cyberattack that had made them suicidal, and once they were sane and in control again, the Admiral could task them with trying to save the armada. Taking a breath, she glided her hand over her console and asked how far down the timeline would the fleet fall before all the silverminds in the fleet finished rebooting. When her flagship’s silvermind answered that the armada would fall approximately 16,000,000 years, the Admiral’s heart sank. The armada would be two million years past its crush depth before its silverminds could come to their senses. 

The Admiral rubbed a crick in her neck that suddenly started aching. But then she cocked her head to one side, and remembering the peculiar thing that happened when a few time-ships jettisoned their excess mass, she asked her flagship to calculate what would happen if the fleet jettisoned all its small auxiliary time-ships. Each of them was powered by a singularity generator that contained a massive black hole, and although clever force and gravitic fields prevented the black hole from destroying its host, the singularity’s enormous mass still affected how fast its host fell down the timeline. Perhaps if superfluous mass was jettisoned, she reason­ed, the fleet’s fall rate would slow enough to make a difference. 

The Admiral metaphorically crossed her fingers and waited for her silvermind to perform its calculations. When the silvermind replied, the Admiral finally smiled: Ejecting unnecessary mass would reduce the fleet’s fall rate enough for the armada’s silverminds to reboot before a depth of approximately 12,000,000 years. If she was lucky, given the calculation’s degree of uncertainty, she might be able to save a few ships in her armada before they ceased to exist.

Then what? The Admiral’s fleet of “ghost ships”—her 98 time-traveling starships bereft of any crew or sign of life—would jump out of the Nowhen and back into ordinary, entropic time 12 million years in the past. During the meantime, the humans and robots needed to operate the fleet would be out of reach, 12 million years in the fleet’s future, when the crew jumped back into ordinary time after evacuating their burning time-ships. There was no way, she feared, of reuniting her people with her ghost fleet.

Leaders are leaders partly because they’ve learned to solve apparently insoluble problems one step at a time. The Admiral’s first step, she reasoned, was to determine what environment she and her ghost fleet would be in when they jumped back into ordinary time. She flicked her hand in a nonchalant come-hither gesture, and in response her console projected up from its glossy surface a three-dimensional, chronological star-chart for her current location in ordinary space as it was 12 million years ago. The star-chart showed a sector of the Hydra constellation where there was nothing except stellar dust, rocks, ice, and gas orbiting an unremarkable M-class star.

The Admiral sighed. There wasn’t much to work with, she thought. But she was encouraged by the belief each obstacle to solving a problem is usually another step towards its solution. Her next step was to figure out how to get the ghost fleet 12 millions years into the future without a crew to operate the fleet’s time-travel engines. Surprisingly, she thought that problem wouldn’t be too hard to solve. In fact, the wild and chaotic nature of the Hydra sector 12 million years ago was crucial to her solution.

The Admiral’s plan was to put the ghost fleet into “hibernation” mode, which meant the time-ships could power down their singularity generators to nearly nothing and sit quietly for millions of years. The generators would have to produce enough power to properly configure their gravitic fields, otherwise their singularities would devour the generator, the ship, and anything within a radius of tens of thousands of kilometers. And they would have to produce enough additional power to configure each time-ships’ protective force field armor so the ship could survive the normal wear and tear of existing for 12 million years. But once the fields were established, they would be essentially static and could persist for millions of years—or until a crewman cracked them open.

The Admiral imagined her armada superimposed on the star-chart, and in response, 98 ephemeral images of dreadnoughts appeared amongst the star-chart’s celestial bodies. If each ghost ship’s artificial gravity field extended beyond their force field armor, the Admiral reasoned, nearby stellar debris would be drawn to the ship and coat its armor in a thick layer of rock, air, and water like a protective cocoon. For lack of a better choice, she imagined the strength of the artificial gravity to be one gee. 

In the display above the Admiral’s console, points of dust and starlight spun in whirling ara­besques around each time-ship until they coalesced into 98 unique, but otherwise mundane worlds with atmospheres, oceans, and continents. Each ghost ship evolved into a minor planet where it could remain safely buried for 12 million years until the ship’s crew reappeared. 

Now what? The Admiral knew she could assemble her fleet and their crew at roughly the same place and time, but the time-warships and various assorted auxiliary equipment would be hidden in 98 minor planets. Somehow she had to make those 98 worlds scream “Look at me!” to any knowledgeable person from the future. It would be unremarkable if 98 worlds revolved around the local sun like a string of beads, she thought. But what if they were…eye-catching? What if the worlds orbited around each other like a swarm of bees, and the entire cluster as a unit revolved around sun? Two worlds in binary orbit might be remarkable; three trinary worlds would raise eyebrows; but 98 n-tary worlds zipping around each other would make anyone sit up and take notice. 

As the Admiral let her imagination run free, the star-charts made the necessary calculations to insure that the images of the 98 minor planets obeyed the appropriate laws of physics. In such an unnatural planetary system, some worlds would inevitably head toward a collision every few hundreds or thousands of years. But the Admiral reckoned that if each time-ship’s silvermind periodically woke up from hibernation to look around and make sure all was well, it could briefly adjust the planet’s gravity, and thus its trajectory, to prevent a collision. 

The Admiral smiled like the cat that swallowed the cream. Her crazy plan might work. 

The Grand Armada of Humanity was falling faster and faster toward oblivion when the crews bailed out. The evacuees would still be falling, but they could jump to ordinary, forward moving, entropic time to survive. If they timed their jump correctly, they could appear in ordinary time within a few centuries of each other. 

The time-ships in the armada, on the other hand, would continue to fall, thought the Admiral. If she jettisoned enough massive auxiliary time-vessels, she could slow the fleet’s rate of fall until the Armada’s silverminds had time to reboot, realize how dire their situation was, and in response jump the fleet back into ordinary time. 

The fleet would materialize in an unformed solar system in the Hydra sector containing nothing but dust, ice, and gas. But the time-ships could encase themselves in force and gravitic fields, orbit around each other in a multi-planetary configuration, and hibernate eons until the stellar debris aggregated around them to form a complex of 98 inter-orbiting worlds.

Late in the creation of the 98 worlds, the jettisoned auxiliary time-spacecrafts and engineering robots would appear. The jettisoned equipment was valuable, and each piece of jetsam contained a built-in loss recovery unit that would jump the equipment back into entropic time as close as possible to a habitable world, activate a tracking beacon, and enclose the robots in a single-use force field or activate the auxiliary time-ships’ force field armor. Each force field should be powerful enough to protect the equipment as it crash landed and buried itself in one of the 98 planets. Unlike the auxiliary time-vessels, the robots were too light to auger deeply into a planet. But until a crew member found them and gave them purpose, the robots would wander aimlessly, indefinitely, awaiting orders. The Admiral regretted that would happen, but there was only so much she could do.

Shortly thereafter, the crew would begin to appear over the span of a few centuries. Although their cybernetic implants will enable them to survive in space for a while, they would soon need to land on a habitable world. The Admiral was particularly proud of that last part. She wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of creating 98 minor planets with her two bare hands if it wasn’t to give her crew a better chance of survival.

The crews of the time-ships were trained to rendezvous and work in concert. Their task would be difficult if they landed centuries apart, but in that case they would make long-term plans and leave enduring messages for those who came after them. With time and good fortune on their side, they would unearth at least one working time-warship, and then perhaps others. With even a few crewed ships, they might be able to learn from their disastrous defeat in the Hydra constellation, erect time-barriers to prevent the Enemy from rewriting history and destroying them again; and then, if at all possible, return once and for all to the future, refight the battle they lost, and save Humanity. This plan was their only hope.

The Admiral’s flagship was falling faster and faster down the timeline, and she knew she would have to put her plan into effect soon before her window of opportunity closed. She knew all that, and yet… she paused. 

Had she forgotten anything? No, not really. She could always tweak her plan, of course. But she had thought of everything important except… perhaps… herself. The falling time-ships were beginning to noticeably accelerate, she observed, but it was already too late for her to safely bail out. Her only option was to ride the fleet all the way down the next 12 million years until the silverminds rebooted and she could regain full control of the armada; and in the meantime pray her flagship didn’t prematurely disappear from existence beneath her feet.

If she survived the 12 million year trip to the past, then what would she do? She could use her ship’s time machine to slow down the passage of time until the fleet hibernated back up to the future and rendezvoused with their crew. Slowing down time was a good idea; it would help preserve the time-ships during their 12 million year hibernation. And the silverminds wouldn’t care; they already warped time to think as fast as they did. 

So, she could gamble and stay with her flagship in slowed-down time, but that bet was uncertain. She cringed. She realized that one uncertainty times the countless others she faced made her odds of success nearly zero. Admittedly, the odds being nearly zero was not the same as being zero, but why take the chance? Even 12 million years ago the universe would have been a strange and wondrous place well worth exploring. And her flagship had an auxiliary time-cruiser aboard that she could probably spare if she adjusted her calculations.

With a fleeting thought, the Admiral ordered her flagship’s silvermind to write a program that would implement her imagined plan, distribute the program throughout her wounded armada, and then standby. As she wished it to be, so it was done. All she had to do now was issue the command to start.

One thing that makes great leaders great is that they break down a problem into solvable steps, put their solution in place, and then—despite their doubts—screw up their courage and act. The Admiral stood calmly in the uplight of her command console, waved her hand over its glowing surface, and ordered the Grand Armada of Humanity to jettison the only things holding it back from meeting its destiny.

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