As soon as Ellipse translated Max’s note for Tejal, he whooped so loud that Focci jerked on the ship’s controls, and the Conics dipped down, brushing a little too close to a massive Un barge. Mouthbot attempted to convert the long glissando into English from Focci’s home language, which did not work well, because apparently long glissandos were used primarily in old-timey courting songs, and the whole situation had Focci clicking in embarrassment.
Ellipse just crossed her arms and sighed, waiting for the noise to end and for Focci to stop fussing over stupid earthlings and stupid ships.
“So, Tejal,” she said, once the cockpit was quiet again. “What exactly did you learn from Max, and why did I have to chase them through a jungle to learn it?”
Tejal looked up, blinked in surprise, and then returned to poking at the metal cube in his hand. “I think folds repel each other,” he said. “Max said that they had a hard time pulling the second fold through the larger one, but you would think that the folds would just float through each other, right?”
“I suppose, yes,” Ellipse said, frowning. “But so what if the folds repel each other? Is that not why they exploded upon contact?”
“Mm, it probably is, yeah,” Tejal replied. He tucked his screwdriver behind his ear and picked a flashlight from the air. “But see, I did a lot of readings on the generators before I started building mine, and apparently one of the biggest problems the specifus faced while building the first prototypes was that folds have a natural flicker rate.”
Ellipse squinted, not sure what that meant. “I do not follow.”
“Uh. So your watch has a crystal in it that vibrates whenever there is a small electrical current running through it. The watch counts those vibrations in order to keep track of time.” Tejal let the flashlight hang mid-air and tried to grab a pair of tweezers. “Folds have a natural kind of vibration too, except that manifests as a flicker, where the fold opens and closes very rapidly.”
“But when we travel through the fold between stations,” Ellipse pointed out. “There is no flicker. Otherwise the ship would be cut, right?”
Tejal nodded. “The specifus design is to put so much energy into forcing the time-space connection that the flicker disappears, which is why we can travel through the fold. And for them, that’s how all folds, regardless of size or purpose, should be, because that’s how they designed the generator.”
“But what can you do with a fold that turns on and off all the time?” Ellipse asked.
This time, Focci answered. He gave a lazy swish of his tail and steered the ship under the belly of an angular ship from Nestor. “Signals travel much faster than people and ships,” he sang, tone clear with disinterest. “It is not hard to program a device to break data so it will only send when the fold flickers open, and just as easy to program the receiving device to put everything back together. In fact, the whole process is similar to encryption and transmission processes already in existence.”
Sometimes Ellipse forgot that Focci was some kind of mastermind programmer. Feeling rather inadequate, she uncrossed her arms and tried to turn a somersault. “So the repulsion between folds means that most likely, whenever a mini-fold nears the big fold, it will only pass through when it flickers off?”
“That’s the hope,” Tejal said.
Wow, that sure sounded like confidence. Quirking an eyebrow, Ellipse reached for the captain’s chair and pulled herself closer to Focci. “I hope you are not planning on testing this anywhere near civilization. If you blow up a fold monitor, there will be serious consequences.”
“Well obviously,” Focci said, snorting. He finally pulled away from the mass of ships gathered around Un Station, and the Conics accelerated into empty space. “Neither Tejal or I really fits the obsessed scientist trope.”
Ellipse thought for a moment. If these two wanted their invention to get off the ground, they would have to test its ability to harmlessly pass through another fold, test its reliability in every cranny of the known universe, test software and hardware, and build the facilities to do those tests. That would be an insane amount of money; no ship hand or bounty hunter could amass so much wealth on their own.
Well, with Elliott Bei on the loose, a bounty hunter could probably get a solid start. Good thing she had Tejal under control for the time being.
“You would need some very extensive investment in order to get everything running,” Ellipse said carefully, watching as Tejal prodded around the inside of the miniature generator box.
Neither boy responded.
“And you would have a hard time getting help. Spec Corp has been discouraging tech investment for decades.”
“What Spec Corp does is blackmail,” Focci said. “I am sure there is a way to work around it.”
Yes, threatening to dismantle a fold monitor was blackmail, but it was pretty powerful blackmail. “I just think you would both be better suited giving this up. How far can you really get?”
With a swoosh of his free hand, Tejal gathered his tools and shoved them into a pocket of his new cargo shorts. He tossed his magnet at Focci’s chair and reeled himself in. “I like how you discourage me and Focci but still help us find the Impending survivors.”
Focci twisted around and shot Ellipse a sharp-toothed smirk.
“Can it, Fishy,” she sang.
“Well,” Tejal said, continuing their earlier line of conversation, “if you know all these roadblocks, then maybe you know a way to counter them. How would Focci and I get the money for our generators?”
The answer came too easily. Watching as the stars passed slowly out of view, Ellipse considered how much knowledge she ought to demonstrate. “Start by proving that you can communicate between galaxies, and create an add-on device to attach your generator to existing technology.”
Tejal nodded, and Focci gave a pointed flick of his tailfin to show he was listening.
“Those will be enough to entice more adventurous investors. If you want the big money, try to line up a coalition of investors from groups around the universe interested in breaking Spec Corp’s stranglehold on the fold generation industry.”
The boys were quiet, for once, and when Ellipse glanced at them, she found Focci wearing a stern frown and Tejal with an awed, open face.
“Finally, I suggest you rebrand your invention. The Impending never blew up the press, but people interested in tech investment will have heard of it. You should try a name other than miniature fold generator.” Ellipse let go of the captain’s chair and floated, cupping her chin with one hand. “Distance yourself from Spec Corp.”
“Oh.” Tejal said, sounding very intelligent.
Focci steered the ship above a large hunk of metal, likely leftover from an old gas mining operation. “Can we manage that before we return to earth to pick up our crews?” His gills fluttered, betraying nervousness.
Oh, probably not. Biting her lip, Ellipse debated with herself on how to answer.
Before she could open her mouth again, Tejal cut her off. “Hey, can you check the date on that email you received while we were on Un Station?”
“Sure?” She raised her watch and tapped on the screen a few times until her inbox popped up. Covertly, she glanced at Tejal to make sure he was not reading over her shoulder, and then tapped the email.
It was from a Randi Abe, sent almost exactly five hours ago, about when she had noticed the ‘new email’ notification. Ellipse blinked a few times and squinted at the tiny watch screen. She must have misread. “It says five hours ago?” she told Tejal. “That is impossible. The send and receive dates are the same, and it takes at least a day for messages to hop from station to-”
Tejal grabbed Ellipse’s wrist and looked for himself, eyes wide in wonder. “From Randi Abe to Ellie Tibot,” he read, voice low, as if he could not believe what he was seeing. “Sent at thirteen-oh-seven today and received at thirteen-oh-eight. You said your private email is on a Titan server?”
“Uh, yeah, what-
Suddenly Tejal was shaking Focci’s shoulders, a sun-bright smile on his face, cheeks glowing red with excitement. “Focci!” he cried. “We did it! It works! Ellipse got an email from Titan while we were in Un! Isn’t that super awesome?”
A few moments later, after Mouthbot finished translating, the Conics burst forward, and Focci let loose a joyous arpeggio of victory calls. He burst from the captain’s chair, tumbling over to squeeze Tejal and Ellipse in an uncomfortably tight hug, and then shoved Ellipse into the pilot’s seat. “You fly,” he sang, notes shrill with giddiness. “Tejal and I are going to work.”
“I still can’t believe it works!” Tejal shouted, and he hugged Focci again. “Now we just have to make sure it’s consistent, right?”
“Yes,” Focci sang. “We should make some final adjustments to the coding and hardware. We might be able to prove the generator works before we part ways.”
“Yeah!” Tejal agreed, nodding so quickly that his hair looked like a headbanging rock star's. “And then we could still talk to investors separately. I wonder how much more efficient I can get the setup to be.”
“I will start on another round of debugging.”
Tejal let out another whoop, and Ellipse felt him push off the back of her chair to head out of the cockpit. “Maybe I’ll start on a wiring system to hook the device directly to my tablet,” he muttered, voice fading as he drew farther away.
Focci followed after, trilling a happy siren poem, and suddenly Ellipse was alone in the dark cockpit, with only the stars and dashboard lights to keep her company. She scanned the space ahead for debri, decided the path was safe, and looked down at her watch again.
This Randi Abe wanted to know what had happened to her job on the earthling fold monitor. They had bought someone off in order for that position to open up at exactly the right time, so why, exactly, had she shown her face on Hub Titan, all too close to the life she needed to avoid?
Ellipse was not sure where the feeling came from, but she wanted to punch something. She knew what her role was, and she had not compromised it, and anyone who complained about her popping up at different spots around the universe could go jump into a black hole. Gritting her teeth, she closed her inbox and returned her watch to the default Titan time setting. She gunned the engines and glared at the passing stars, wishing the boys had stayed in the cockpit to work.