James Gunn

The Geoffrey accelerated as soon as the passengers in the elevator car had been retrieved and the car had been jettisoned to resume its interrupted journey into deep space. As he was directed down the narrow passageway into the decontamination chamber and the isolation of the passenger quarters, Riley asked a crew member what had happened to the carbon-fiber cable on which the car had climbed.

The crew member shook his head. “That stuff don’t wear out, and you can’t cut it.”

Riley was too tired to ask the crew member about it, and he had no more opportunity to talk to the captain before getting to the decon. Passengers’ quarantine was standard: exotic bacteria, viruses, and fungi lurked inside bodies for weeks, and some alien physiologies were always deadly to the unprepared. And passengers offered nothing to a voyage but trouble: the less the crew saw of them the better for the welfare of the crew and the vessel.

Riley was desperate for sleep, but he knew that was something he couldn’t do at least until he got to his quarters and had a chance to check his pack for a certain item. In the meantime, he’d simply have to stay vertical and alert through the decon process … and once he and the other passengers were in the passengers’ lounge, the joys of acceleration.

Acceleration was jerky, which spoke of old engines, the maintenance of which had been sketchy at best, or perhaps of a crew that was still learning its ship. Maybe both. There would be no JumpingOff nexus this close to a system, so acceleration, at a constant one-earthgravity, would last at least one hundred hours and give planet-acclimated passengers a chance to adjust to the environment of space and the fragile tubes that flung themselves through it.

Riley endured acceleration, with its unexpected moments of free fall, as he always had, with grim contemplation. He took his mind off the unsettling sensations by reviewing the past seventy-two hours. His pedia helped him recall the waiting room on Terminal, and he identified an alien or two he had overlooked: a caterpillar-like creature that lifted its forward section cautiously to look around, and in the far corner an aquatic alien in a cloudy tank bubbling with gas.

He reviewed the events in the climber, adding details to his picture of events: who was where and when and what they were doing. He could not tie any movements to the point at which the climber had accelerated, or the point at which the cable had been severed, although the coffin-shaped alien had been closest to the wall that housed the controls.

“Insufficient information,” his pedia said. Riley sometimes hated his pedia, but he hated even more its confessions of imperfection.

Until he found some privacy, he would have no opportunity to explore his pack and see what the weasel had left or planted on him. First he had to keep track of his fellow passengers … the pilgrims. The passenger compartment was divided into living zones adaptable to the requirements of the various kinds of creatures who sought passage. Some required special atmospheres or special diets, or special configurations of accommodations; the steward had to be a person of many parts.

The crew was no problem. Providing similar amenities for the crew who had to work the entire ship would have been impossible. Human vessels were manned by humans, or by humanoid species that could tolerate human environment. And the Geoffrey was a human vessel.

The aquatic alien, its writhing tentacles breaking the murk of its aquarium, disappeared shortly after boarding. Other exotic aliens followed. The rest, including the coffin-shaped alien, were gathered in the passengers’ lounge. His contemplation was interrupted by a familiar grunting.

“Saved by higher power,” Tordor said, leaning back on his tail to brace himself against acceleration.

“At least one closer to the controls,” Riley replied.

“And for greater purpose,” Tordor said.

The enigmatic woman looked scornful. Riley turned to her. “Where do you think we’re heading?”

“Toward transcendence,” she said.

“Where is that?” he continued.

“Wherever you find it,” she said.

“Better question,” Tordor said, “what direction?”

“Only the captain knows that,” Riley said.

“You speak like man who understands.”

“You, too. You know your way around a ship.”

Tordor waved his proboscis in a movement that Riley’s pedia interpreted as “of course.” “We leave Terminal,” he said.

Riley nodded, hoping that nods were part of Dorian gesture vocabulary. To gather at Terminal for a journey inward made no sense. They were headed farther out along this arm of the galaxy, and there were few stars farther out.