The Third Age of Sail

The First Age of Sail lasted for 400 years, marking a period when wind-powered ocean vessels were the principal means of human commerce before the rise of steam engines.

The Second Age of Sail was a reaction to rising average global temperatures. Wind propulsion, combined with the advent of electric battery technology, again dominated mercantile trade for another century before being supplanted by boom-abated hypersonic transit at scale.

The Third Age of Sail was of another kind entirely. The oceans traversed were darker, and the stars by which they were navigated never set. The distance between ports was forty-seven trillion three hundred and three billion kilometers. On average.

The Third Age of Sail has lasted 3,400 years.

It is still ongoing.

The Tianyi Express was spinning. It wasn’t supposed to spin. Ahead of the vessel, 10 square kilometers of superconducting lithium beryllide crumpled like tissue paper. The flaw was invisible to the human eye, the sail’s thickness only a couple dozen nanometers, but aboard the Express the effects were obvious enough.

“We’ve got to cut the tethers,” the bald man was saying. His scraggly red beard was made to look coppery by the severity of his bloodshot eyes. He was still shivering and his jowls continued to dance after he’d stopped speaking.

“No,” said Natalia. She braced herself against the bulkhead against the inertia of the ship’s uncontrolled tumbling. “Absolutely not.” Her own teeth chattered. “Remind me, what do you do here.”

Stasis-induced disorientation was a well-documented symptom of rapid thawing, but she found it embarrassing nonetheless. She’d probably known this man for years.

“I’m Waylon, your chief engineer. We don’t have much time.”

Not the chief engineer. Your chief engineer. Natalia was the pilot, she knew that. Second in command under normal circumstances.

“What happened to the captain?” she asked.

“She’s still in stasis. Rapid-thaw malfunction.” He narrowed his eyes and puffed his cheeks like he might be swallowing down something coming back up. “We just came from there. Are you…”

“Am I what?”

“Fit? Ma’am. To serve in your capacity as acting captain?”

“Ask me that again and I’ll cut you loose the way you’d have me cut the tethers. What about charge-assisted decrumpling?”

“The power drain wouldn’t leave enough left for all the pods.”

“How many?”

“You can’t seriously be suggesting—”

“How many?”

He wiped his sweaty forehead with a sweaty palm. The back of his hand was splotched with purple. Poor circulation. Another side effect. More severe than the confusion.

“Two pods,” he said. “We’d have to shut off two of the stasis pods. But it’s completely out of the question. If it was one, you could make that call for yourself, but two? How would you choose?”

“You would have me kill us all!” She held his stare for a long moment until he turned away. “Do it,” she said. “That’s an order. If it works, we’ll figure out the pods then. And if it doesn’t, we won’t have to.”

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