Captain Tory Sabin knows all too well the dangers of the anacapa drive, and that sometimes ships enter foldspace never to return. The ships simply disappear, taking their crews with them.
Responding to a distress call from Captain Jonathan "Coop" Cooper, Sabin knows she must race against time to find him and his ship. Because although the Ivoire becomes the latest ship to enter foldspace and not return, she refuses to give up hope. She resolves to find the Ivoire. But her search for answers will lead to truths that will change her life forever.
Winner of the Asimov's Readers Choice Award for best novella, The Application of Hope adds a rich layer to the complex story about foldspace and the anacapa technology that drives the Fleet.
"A skillful blend of science fiction and murder mystery which keeps ratcheting up the stakes."– Worlds Without End
"Kristine Kathryn Rusch is best known for her Retrieval Artist series, so maybe you've missed her Diving Universe series. If so, it's high time to remedy that oversight."– Don Sakers, Analog
"The Diving Universe, conceived buy Hugo-Award winning author Kristine [Kathryn] Rusch is a refreshingly new and fleshed out realm of sci-fi action and adventure. And the latest offering…doesn't disappoint."– Dave Dickinson, Astroguyz, on Skirmishes
"REQUESTING SUPPORT. The Ivoire, just outside of Ukhanda's orbit. Need warships."
The calmness in the request caught Captain Tory Sabin's ear before the name of the ship registered. She had stopped on the bridge just briefly, on her way to a dinner she had sponsored for her support staff. She wasn't dressed like a captain. She had decided to stay out of her uniform and wear an actual dress for a change.
At least she had on practical shoes.
But she felt odd as she hurried across the nearly empty bridge, covered in perfume, her black hair curled on the top of her head, her grandmother's antique rivets-and-washers bracelet jingling on her left wrist. She grabbed the arm of the captain's chair, but didn't sit down.
Only three people stood on the bridge—the skeleton crew, all good folks, all gazing upwards as if the voice of Jonathon "Coop" Cooper, captain of the Ivoire, were speaking from the ceiling.
Then Lieutenant Perry Graham, a man whose reddish blond hair and complexion made him look continually embarrassed, leaned forward. He tapped the console in front of him, so that he could bring up the Ivoire's location.
It came up in a 2-D image, partly because of the distance, and partly because Graham—the consummate professional—knew that Sabin preferred her long-distance views flat rather than in three dimensions. The best members of any bridge crew learned how to accommodate their captain's quirks as well as her strengths.
She moved closer to the wall screen displaying the image. The ship, marked in shining gold (the default setting for the entire Fleet), showed up in small relief, traveling quickly. Like Coop had said, the Ivoire wasn't too far from the planet Ukhanda. Whatever was causing the crisis wasn't readily apparent from this distant view, but Sabin could tell just from Coop's voice that he had been under attack.
Coop was one of those men, one of those captains, who didn't ask for help if he could avoid it. Much as she teased him about this, she knew she fell in that category as well.
Sabin didn't have to tell Graham to zoom in. He did, more than once, until the Ivoire looked huge. Around it were at least a dozen other ships, so small and feathery that they almost seemed like errors in the image.
"What the hell?" said Second Lieutenant Megan Phan. She was tiny and thin, her angular face creased with a frown. She probably hadn't even realized that she had spoken out loud.
Sabin doubted the other two had realized it either. Phan's words probably echoed their thoughts. In all her years in the Fleet, Sabin had never seen ships like that.
On screen, they looked too small to do any damage. If they were firing on the Ivoire, it wasn't obvious. But their position suggested an attack, and a rather vicious one.
"Let Captain Cooper know we're on the way," Sabin said to Graham.
"Yes, sir," Graham said, and sent the word.
The Geneva's current rotation put it in the front line of defense for the Fleet, but the Fleet was in a respite period, which was why Sabin only had a skeleton crew on board. The Fleet had rendezvoused near an unoccupied moon. Six hundred of the Fleet's ships were engaged in maintenance, meetings, and vacations, all on a rotating schedule.
She'd been in dozens of respite periods like this one, and she'd never needed more than a few officers on the bridge.
"Captain Cooper sends his thanks," Graham said, even though everyone on the bridge knew that Coop had done no such thing. Someone on his staff had. If Coop had done so, he would have spoken on all channels, just like he had a moment ago.
"We need other front line check-in," Sabin said. Technically, she wasn't the senior captain for all the front line ships on this shift, but no one took front line seriously during a respite period. Everyone had dinners and relaxation scheduled. Most bridges, even in the front line ships, were minimally staffed.
The only difference between a minimal staff in a front line ship and the other ships during a respite period was that the front line ships had top-notch crews manning the bridge, in case something did go wrong.
"Already done, sir," Graham said. "The captains are reporting to their bridges."
"What about our crew?" she asked. She felt almost embarrassed to ask. Graham was one of her most efficient crew members and she knew he had most likely pinged the bridge crew.
But she had to make sure—even in this respite period—that the crew was following protocol.
"Notified, and on the way," Graham said.
"Good, thank you." She sat in the captain's chair, and winced as the bow on the dress's back dug into her spine. A bow. What had she been thinking?
She knew what. The dress's tasteful blue fabric and demur front had caught her eye. But she had loved that bow for its suggestion of girlishness, something she wasn't now and would never be.
"Let's hear the check-in," she said.
Graham put the captains' responses overhead. In addition to the arrivals—all twenty of them—the captains seemed to believe it important to engage in a discussion of Coop's motives. A request for support was the lowest level request a captain could issue. Normally, a captain in distress asked for a battalion of a particular type, not a general support request of warships.
So it was curious, but it spoke more to Coop's conservatism than to the situation at hand. Besides, no one seemed to acknowledge that the Ivoire had gone to Ukhanda at the request of one of its nineteen cultures. The Fleet had agreed to broker a peace deal between the Xenth and the Quurzod, but didn't know enough about either to do a creditable job.
The Ivoire, which had the best linguists in the Fleet, had gone into Quurzod territory to learn more about that culture in advance of the actual peace conference three months away. The Alta, the Fleet's flagship, apparently believed that the Fleet knew enough about the Xenth to do more limited preparation.
It had only been a month since the Ivoire had sent a team to the Quurzod. Apparently things had not gone well.
She shifted, the dress's shiny fabric squeaking against the chair's seat. She wasn't sure she had ever sat in her chair without wearing regulation clothing—at least, since she had become captain. As a little girl, she used to sit in her father's captain's chair on the Sikkerhet. This dress made her feel that young and that out of place.
Stupid chatter from the other captains surrounded her. They were still speculating on what Coop wanted and whether or not this was a legitimate request. They hadn't made the transition from respite to action. And there was another issue. Coop's message was low-key.
Only people who knew him well understood that he was worried.
"Open a channel," she said, unable to take the chatter any longer.
Graham nodded. Then he signaled her.
"Coop's asked for support," Sabin said in her most commanding voice. "Stop arguing about why, and haul your asses out there."
The chatter stopped immediately. She had a hunch she knew how the other captains had reacted: a straightening of the shoulders, a nod, a deep breath as they all gathered themselves, a momentary flush of embarrassment as they realized they had conducted themselves like people on vacation instead of captains on a mission.
She didn't like respite periods, so she didn't understand the vacation mindset. But a lot of these captains believed in relaxation, and believed the crap that the civilians on the various ships peddled, that a rested crew was a healthy crew.
She believed a practiced crew was an efficient crew.
She followed regulations, gave her staff the proper amount of time off, and no more.
Because this respite period was so long—months, really, as the Fleet prepared for the work around Ukhanda—she had her first officer, Charlie Wilmot, continually run drills. Each department had to run drills as well.
Her crew was going to remain the most disciplined crew in the Fleet. If a member of the crew complained, that crew member got transferred. Often, she'd trade that crew member for someone else on a different ship. She'd stolen more good officers from other ships than any other captain. The good officers, she believed, were the ones who wanted to work, not party at every opportunity.
Wilmot had just arrived on the bridge. His uniform looked crisp and sharp. He glanced at her dress and his lips turned upward just enough to register as a smile to anyone who knew him. Fortunately, no one else on the bridge watched him.
"The Ivoire's in trouble," she said to him. "Graham will catch you up."
Wilmot nodded, then walked to his station not too far from hers. As he did, he looked up at the screen, frowned, and glanced at her again. But he didn't ask anything, because she had already told him to figure out what was happening from Graham.
As if Graham knew. No one on the bridge did, and it was clear that no one on the other front line ships did either.
She tapped the right arm of her chair, bringing up the captain's holographic console. She'd designed this so she didn't have to move to another part of the bridge to get information.
Before she'd followed the captain's training route, she'd started in engineering. While she loved design, she hated the lack of control the engineering department had. Plus, she was a captain's daughter, and she had ideas from the start on the way a well-run ship worked.
Most of the ships she had served on were not well run. So she had gone back to school, and had risen through the ranks until she got the Geneva. That was fifteen years ago. Even though she occasionally designed upgrades for her baby—upgrades that other engineers eventually brought to their ships—she hadn't really looked back.
She preferred being in charge.
Which was why, as the five other members of her team took their places on the bridge, she looked up those small, feather-shaped ships herself.
The ships weren't in the database, no matter how she searched for them. She searched by the ships' image, the design, and the area's history. She also searched through the images of Ukhandan ships, not that there were uniform ships on a planet that housed so many different cultures. Not all nineteen cultures were space-faring, but five of them were, according to the database, and those five had no ships like this.
Small, efficient, and capable of swarming.
She wanted to contact Coop, but she would wait. He would let her—and the other front line ships—know if something had changed.
She almost closed the console, when something caught her eye. She had images of the ships for five cultures, but the information before her contradicted itself. Five cultures had ships, but six cultures had gone into the space around Ukhanda.
The sixth culture, the Quurzod, were the ones that the Ivoire had gone to Ukhanda to study before the peace talks.
Her stomach clenched.
Clearly, something had gone very, very wrong.
"How far out are we?" Sabin asked Lieutenant Ernestine Alvarez, who was running navigation.
"Even at top speed, we're half a day away," Alvarez said.
Too close to use the anacapa drive with any accuracy. The anacapa was the thing that enabled the Fleet to negotiate long distances. It put a ship in foldspace, and then the ship would reappear at set coordinates. The problem was that the ship would reappear blind, and in a battle situation, that wasn't optimum.
Plus, time worked differently in foldspace, and while the best crews could predict the time differences down to the second, sometimes even the work of the best crews went haywire. Engineers claimed the problem was with sections of foldspace itself; scientists believed the problem was with certain anacapa drives.
Even with centuries of study and upgrades, neither group could come to a complete agreement. In Sabin's opinion, the Fleet had forever messed with something it did not understand when it started using the anacapa drive.
She wasn't going to use it on something like this. Nor was she going to order the rest of the front line to do so—not unless Coop sent out a major distress signal, which he had not yet done.
She wasn't going to explain herself to her crew, but if she had to, she would tell them what she always told them—that portion of the truth that they needed to know. It was the same truth every time they considered using the anacapa drive. The anacapa put a strain on the ship and on the crew that Sabin couldn't quite quantify. She hated using it for that very reason, just like most of the captains did.
Which was probably why Coop hadn't used his drive yet. The anacapa also worked as a shield. The ship would jump to foldspace for a moment, and then return to its original coordinates. Depending on how the anacapa was programmed, the return could happen seconds later or days later, without much time passing on the ship at all.
"Another twenty-five ships have just left Ukhanda's orbit," Alvarez said.
"That settles where the ships are from, at least," Graham said.
"It was pretty obvious that the ships were from Ukhanda," Phan said. "The question is which culture controls them."
That was the question. It would have an impact on everything: how the front line ships would proceed, how they would fight back, if they would do more than simply rescue the Ivoire. If they needed to rescue the Ivoire. Coop might get away on his own.
Sabin hoped Coop would get away on his own.
She asked Graham, "Have you sent a message to the Alta, asking if they know which culture owns these ships? Because we need to get some diplomats on the mission here, to ensure we don't make things worse."
The Alta was twice as large as all of the other ships in the Fleet, including the warships, and it housed the Fleet's government when that government was in session.
"I notified them as soon as we got Captain Cooper's message," Graham said. "I trust that they're monitoring the Ivoire as well."
Sabin was about to remind Graham that one should never "trust" someone else to do anything important, when Wilmot snapped, "Don't make assumptions, Lieutenant."
He sounded a bit harsh, even for him. Sabin glanced at him. That small smile had disappeared, and she saw, for the first time, how tired he looked. She wondered what he'd been doing during respite, besides running drills.
His uniform was so crisp she knew he had put it on right after the call to the bridge. So he'd been either asleep or doing something else when the call came in.
"Sorry, sir," Graham said, sounding just a bit contrite.
"I want identification on those ships," Sabin said. "We have time—half a day, you said. So let's see if we can cut that time short, and see if we can figure out who or what we're dealing with. The other cultures on Ukhanda are a mystery to me. Maybe they developed some technology of their own that we're not familiar with."
"Do you want me to send for Sector Research?" Meri Ebedat spoke up for the first time. She usually handled navigation, but she'd been doing some maintenance on the secure areas of the bridge during the respite period. She had a streak of something dark running along her left cheek, and her eyes were red-rimmed. Her brown hair had fallen from its usually neat bun.
She had to be near the end of her shift, although now, she wouldn't be leaving. She was a good all-around bridge crew member, and Sabin would need her as the mission continued.
"Yeah, do it," Sabin said, "although I doubt Sector Research knows much more than we do. We haven't had enough time to study Ukhanda. That was one reason the Ivoire was there."
"You think they did something wrong?" Wilmot asked her softly, but the entire bridge crew heard.
She knew what he meant: he meant had the Ivoire offended one of the cultures in a severe way.
But she gave the standard answer. "By our laws, probably not," she said.
He gave her a sideways look. He wanted a real answer, even though he knew the real answer. They all knew the real answer.
Had the Ivoire—or, rather, its on-planet team—offended one of the cultures? Clearly. And if Coop didn't act quickly, the entire ship might pay the price.