Read an Excerpt
The Cold Equation
by Tom Godwin
He was not alone.
There was nothing to indicate the fact but the white hand of the tiny gauge on the board before him. The control room was empty but for himself; there was no sound other than the murmur of the drives -- but the white hand had moved. It had been on zero when the little ship was launched from the Stardust; now, an hour later, it had crept up. There was something in the supplies closet across the room, it was saying, some kind of a body that radiated heat.
It could be but one kind of a body -- a living, human body.
He leaned back in the pilot's chair and drew a deep, slow breath, considering what he would have to do. He was an EDS pilot, inured to the sight of death, long since accustomed to it and to viewing the dying of another man with an objective lack of emotion, and he had no choice in what he must do. There could be no alternative -- but it required a few moments of conditioning for even an EDS pilot to prepare himself to walk across the room and coldly, deliberately, take the life of a man he had yet to meet.
He would, of course, do it. It was the law, stated very bluntly and definitely in grim Paragraph L, Section 8, of Interstellar Regulations: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.
It was the law, and there could be no appeal.
It was a law not of men's choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier. Galactic expansion had followed the development of the hyperspace drive and as men scattered wide across the frontier there had come the problem of contact with the isolatedfirst-colonies and exploration parties. The huge hyperspace cruisers were the product of the combined genius and effort of Earth and were long and expensive in the building. They were not available in such numbers that small colonies could possess them. The cruisers carried the colonists to their new worlds and made periodic visits, running on tight schedules, but they could not stop and turn aside to visit colonies scheduled to be visited at another time; such a delay would destroy their schedule and produce a confusion and uncertainty that would wreck the complex interdependence between old Earth and new worlds of the frontier.
Some method of delivering supplies or assistance when an emergency occurred on a world not scheduled for a visit had been needed and the Emergency Dispatch Ships had been the answer. Small and collapsible, they occupied little room in the hold of the cruiser; made of light metal and plastics, they were driven by a small rocket drive that consumed relatively little fuel. Each cruiser carried four EDS's and when a call for aid was received the nearest cruiser would drop into normal space long enough to launch an EDS with the needed supplies or personnel, then vanish again as it continued on its course.
The cruisers, powered by nuclear converters, did not use the liquid rocket fuel but nuclear converters were far too large and complex to permit their installation in the EDS's. The cruisers were forced by necessity to carry a limited amount of the bulky rocket fuel and the fuel was rationed with care; the cruiser's computers determining the exact amount of fuel each EDS would require for its mission. The computers considered the course coordinates, the mass of the EDS, the mass of pilot and cargo; they were very precise and accurate and omitted nothing from their calculations. They could not, however, foresee, and allow for, the added mass of a stowaway.
The Stardust had received the request from one of the exploration parties stationed on Woden; the six men of the party already being stricken with the fever carried by the green kala midges and their own supply of serum destroyed by the tornado that had torn through their camp. The Stardust had gone through the usual procedure; dropping into normal space to launch the EDS with the fever serum, then vanishing again in hyperspace. Now, an hour later, the gauge was saying there was something more than the small carton of serum in the supplies closet.
He let his eyes rest on the narrow white door of the closet. There, just inside, another man lived and breathed and was beginning to feel assured that discovery of his presence would now be too late for the pilot to alter the situation. It was too late -- for the man behind the door it was far later than he thought and in a way he would find terrible to believe.
There could be no alternative. Additional fuel would be used during the hours of deceleration to compensate for the added mass of the stowaway; infinitesimal increments of fuel that would not be missed until the ship had almost reached its destination. Then, at some distance above the ground that might be as near as a thousand feet or as far as tens of thousands of feet, depending upon the mass of ship and cargo and the preceding period of deceleration, the unmissed increments of fuel would make their absence known; the EDS would expend its last drops of fuel with a sputter and go into whistling free fall. Ship and pilot and stowaway would merge together upon impact as a wreckage of metal and plastic, flesh and blood, driven deep into the soil. The stowaway had signed his own death warrant when he concealed himself on the ship; he could not be permitted to take seven others with him.
He looked again at the telltale white hand, then rose to his feet. What he must do would be unpleasant for both of them; the sooner it was over, the better. He stepped across the control room, to stand by the white door.
"Come out!" His command was harsh and abrupt above the murmur of the drive.
It seemed he could hear the whisper of a furtive movement inside the closet, then nothing. He visualized the stowaway cowering closer into one corner, suddenly worried by the possible consequences of his act and his self-assurance evaporating.
"I said out!"
He heard the stowaway move to obey and he waited with his eyes alert on the door and his hand near the blaster at his side.
The door opened and the stowaway stepped through it, smiling. "All right -- I give up. Now what?"
It was a girl.
• • •
He stared without speaking, his hand dropping away from the blaster and acceptance of what he saw coming like a heavy and unexpected physical blow. The stowaway was not a man -- she was a girl in her teens, standing before him in little white gypsy sandals with the top of her brown, curly head hardly higher than his shoulder, with a faint, sweet scent of perfume coming from her and her smiling face tilted up so her eyes could look unknowing and unafraid into his as she waited for his answer.
Now what? Had it been asked in the deep, defiant voice of a man he would have answered it with action, quick and efficient. He would have taken the stowaway's identification disk and ordered him into the air lock. Had the stowaway refused to obey, he would have used the blaster. It would not have taken long; within a minute the body would have been ejected into space -- had the stowaway been a man.
He returned to the pilot's chair and motioned her to seat herself on the boxlike bulk of the drive-control units that set against the wall beside him. She obeyed, his silence making the smile fade into the meek and guilty expression of a pup that has been caught in mischief and knows it must be punished.
"You still haven't told me," she said. "I'm guilty, so what happens to me now? Do I pay a fine, or what?"
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "Why did you stow away on this EDS?"
"I wanted to see my brother. He's with the government survey crew on Woden and I haven't seen him for ten years, not since he left Earth to go into government survey work."
"What was your destination on the Stardust?"
"Mimir. I have a position waiting for me there. My brother has been sending money home all the time to us -- my father and mother and I -- and he paid for a special course in linguistics I was taking. I graduated sooner than expected and I was offered this job on Mimir. I knew it would be almost a year before Gerry's job was done on Woden so he could come on to Mimir and that's why I hid in the closet, there. There was plenty of room for me and I was willing to pay the fine. There were only the two of us kids -- Gerry and I -- and I haven't seen him for so long, and I didn't want to wait another year when I could see him now, even though I knew I would be breaking some kind of a regulation when I did it."
I knew I would be breaking some kind of a regulation -- in a way, she could not be blamed for her ignorance of the law; she was of Earth and had not realized that the laws of the space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless as the environment that gave them birth. Yet, to protect such as her from the results of their own ignorance of the frontier, there had been a sign over the door that led to the section of the Stardust that housed EDS's; a sign that was plain for all to see and heed:
"Does your brother know that you took passage on the Stardust for Mimir?"
"Oh, yes. I sent him a spacegram telling him about my graduation and about going to Mimir on the Stardust a month before I left Earth. I already knew Mimir was where he would be stationed in a little over a year. He gets a promotion then and he'll be based on Mimir and not have to stay out a year at a time on field trips, like he does now."
There were two different survey groups on Woden, and he asked, "What is his name?"
"Cross -- Gerry Cross. He's in Group Two -- that was the way his address read. Do you know him?"
Group One had requested the serum; Group Two was eight thousand miles away, across the Western Sea.
"No, I've never met him," he said, then turned to the control board and cut the deceleration to a fraction of a gravity; knowing as he did so that it could not avert the ultimate end, yet doing the only thing he could do to prolong that ultimate end. The sensation was like that of the ship suddenly dropping and the girl's involuntary movement of surprise half lifted her from the seat.
"We're going faster now, aren't we?" she asked. "Why are we doing that?"
He told her the truth. "To save fuel for a little while."
"You mean, we don't have very much?"
He delayed the answer he must give her so soon to ask: "How did you manage to stow away?"
"I just sort of walked in when no one was looking my way," she said. "I was practicing my Gelanese on the native girl who does the cleaning in the Ship's Supply office when someone came in with an order for supplies for the survey crew on Woden. I slipped into the closet there after the ship was ready to go and just before you came in. It was an impulse of the moment to stow away, so I could get to see Gerry -- and from the way you keep looking at me so grim, I'm not sure it was a very wise impulse.
"But I'll be a model criminal -- or do I mean prisoner?" She smiled at him again. "I intended to pay for my keep on top of paying the fine. I can cook and I can patch clothes for everyone and I know how to do all kinds of useful things, even a little bit about nursing."
There was one more question to ask:
"Did you know what the supplies were that the survey crew ordered?"
"Why, no. Equipment they needed in their work, I supposed."
Why couldn't she have been a man with some ulterior motive? A fugitive from justice, hoping to lose himself on a raw new world; an opportunist, seeking transportation to the new colonies where he might find golden fleece for the taking; a crackpot, with a mission --
Perhaps once in his lifetime an EDS pilot would find such a stowaway on his ship; warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men -- but never, before, a smiling, blue-eyed girl who was willing to pay her fine and work for her keep that she might see her brother.
He turned to the board and turned the switch that would signal the Stardust. The call would be futile but he could not, until he had exhausted that one vain hope, seize her and thrust her into the air lock as he would an animal -- or a man. The delay, in the meantime, would not be dangerous with the EDS decelerating at fractional gravity.
A voice spoke from the communicator. "Stardust. Identify yourself and proceed."
"Barton, EDS 34G11. Emergency. Give me Commander Delhart."
There was a faint confusion of noises as the request went through the proper channels. The girl was watching him, no longer smiling.
"Are you going to order them to come back after me?" she asked.
The communicator clicked and there was the sound of a distant voice saying, "Commander, the EDS requests--"
"Are they coming back after me?" she asked again. "Won't I get to see my brother, after all?"
"Barton?" The blunt, gruff voice of Commander Delhart came from the communicator. "What's this about an emergency?"
"A stowaway," he answered.
"A stowaway?" There was a slight surprise to the question. "That's rather unusual -- but why the 'emergency' call? You discovered him in time so there should be no appreciable danger and I presume you've informed Ship's Records so his nearest relatives can be notified."
"That's why I had to call you, first. The stowaway is still aboard and the circumstances are so different--"
"Different?" the commander interrupted, impatience in his voice. "How can they be different? You know you have a limited supply of fuel; you also know the law, as well as I do: 'Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.' "
There was the sound of a sharply indrawn breath from the girl. "What does he mean?"
"The stowaway is a girl."
"She wanted to see her brother. She's only a kid and she didn't know what she was really doing."
"I see." All the curtness was gone from the commander's voice. "So you called me in the hope I could do something?" Without waiting for an answer he went on. "I'm sorry -- I can do nothing. This cruiser must maintain its schedule; the life of not one person but the lives of many depend on it. I know how you feel but I'm powerless to help you. You'll have to go through with it. I'll have you connected with Ship's Records."
Copyright © 2000 by Thomas A. Easton