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The Compleat McAndrews
By Charles Sheffield
Baen BooksCopyright © 2000 Charles Sheffield
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFIRST CHRONICLE: Killing Vector
Everyone on the Control Stage found a reason to be working aft when Yifter came on board. There was maximum security, of course, so no one could get really close without a good reason. Even so, we all took the best look that we could manage-you don't often have a chance to see a man who has killed a billion people.
Bryson from the Planetary Coordinators' Office was at Yifter's elbow. The two men weren't shackled or anything melodramatic like that. Past a certain level of notoriety, criminals are treated with some deference and even respect. Bryson and Yifter were talking together in a friendly way, although they were in the middle of a group of top-rank security men, all heavily armed and watchful.
They were taking safety to extremes. When I stepped forward to greet Bryson and his prisoner, two guards carefully frisked me before I could get within hand-kill range, and they stood close beside me when the introductions were made. I haven't lived on Earth for a long time, and they must have known that I have no close relatives there; but they were taking no chances. Yifter was a prime target for personal revenge. A billion people leave a lot of friends and relatives.
From a distance of one meter, Yifter's appearance did not match his reputation. He was of medium height, slightly built, with bushy, prematurely white hair and mild, sad eyes. He smiled at me in a tired, tolerant way as Bryson introduced us.
"I am sorry, Jeanie Roker," he said. "Your ship will be filled with strangers on this trip. I'll do my best to keep out of your way and let you do your job."
I hoped he could live up to his words. Since I took over the runs to Titan, I've carried most things in the connected set of cargo spheres that make up the Assembly. Apart from the kernels, and we carry a few of those on the outbound leg of every trip, we've had livestock, mega-crystals, the gravity simulator, and the circus. That's right, the circus. They must have had a terrible agent, that's all I can say. I took them both ways, to Titan and back to L-5. Even with all that, Yifter was still a novelty item. After he had been caught and the rest of the Lucies had gone underground, nobody had known quite what to do with him. He was Earth's hottest property, the natural target for a billion guns and knives. Until they decided how and when he would come to trial, they wanted him a long way from Earth. It was my job to deliver him to the Titan penal colony, and return him when they got themselves sorted out on Earth.
"I'll arrange for you and your guards to travel in a separate part of the Assembly," I said. "I assume that you will prefer privacy."
Yifter nodded agreeably, but Bryson wasn't having any.
"Captain Roker," he said. "Let me remind you that Mr. Yifter has not been found guilty on any charge. On this journey, and until his trial, he will be treated with proper courtesy. I expect you to house both of us here in the Control Stage, and I expect that you will invite us to take our meals here with you."
In principle, I could have told him to go and take a walk outside. As captain, I said who would travel in the Control Stage, and who would eat with me-and innocent people were not usually sent to the Titan penal colony, even before their trial. On the other hand, Bryson was from the Planetary Coordinators' office, and even off-Earth that carried weight. I suppressed my first reaction and said quietly, "What about the guards?"
"They can travel in the Second Section, right behind the Control Stage," replied Bryson.
I shrugged. If he wanted to make nonsense of Earth's security efforts, that was his choice. Nothing had ever happened on any of my two-month runs from Earth to Titan, and Bryson was probably quite right; nothing would happen this time. On the other hand, it seemed like a damned silly charade, to ship twenty-five guards to keep an eye on Yifter, then house them in a separate part of the Assembly.
Yifter, with an uncanny empathy, had read through my shrug. "Don't worry about security, Jeanie Roker," he said. He smiled again, that tired, soothing smile that began deep in his sad, brown eyes. "You have my assurance, I will be a model prisoner."
He and Bryson walked on past me, into the main quarters. Was that really Yifter, the bogey-man, the notorious head of the Hallucinogenic Freedom League? It seemed hard to believe. Three months earlier, the Lucies-under Yifter's messianic direction-had planted hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply lines of most of Earth's major cities. An eighth of the world had died in the resulting chaos. Starvation, epidemic, exposure, and mindless combat had revisited the Earth and exacted their age-old tribute. The monster who had conceived, planned, and directed that horror was difficult to match with Yifter, the seemingly mild and placid man.
My thoughts were quickly diverted to more immediate practical matters. We had the final masses of all the cargo, and it was time for the final balancing of the whole Assembly. One might assume that just means balancing the kernels correctly, since they out-mass everything else by a factor of a million. But each section containing a kernel has an independent drive unit, powered by the kernel itself. We leave those on Titan, and travel back light, but on the trip out the dynamic balancing is quite tricky.
I reviewed the final configuration, then looked around for McAndrew. I wanted him to review the balance calculations. It's my responsibility, but he was the kernel expert. I realized that he hadn't been present when Yifter came aboard. Presumably he was over on one of the other Sections, crooning over his beloved power sources.
I found him in Section Seven. The Assembly is made up of a variable number of Sections, and there would be twelve on this trip, plus the Control Stage. Until we accelerate away from the Libration Colony station, all the Sections are physically connected-with actual cables-to each other and to the Control Stage. In flight, the coupling is done electromagnetically, and the drives for the powered Sections are all controlled by a computer on the Control Stage. The Assembly looks like a small bunch of grapes, but the stalks are nonfunctional-there are no cables in the System that could take the strains, even at lowest acceleration. Moving among the spherical Sections when we're in flight isn't easy. It means we have to cut the drives, and turn off the coupling between the Sections. That's why I thought the idea of having Yifter's guards in a different Section was so dumb-from there, they couldn't even reach the Control Stage when the drives were on.
I wanted McAndrew to check the configuration that we would hold in flight, to see if he agreed that the stresses were decently balanced among the different Sections. We never run near the limit on any of them, but there's a certain pride of workmanship in getting them all approximately equal, and the stresses as low as possible.
He was standing on the ten-meter shield that surrounded the Section Seven kernel, peering through a long boresight pointed in towards the center. He was aware of my presence but did not move or speak until the observation was complete. Finally he nodded in satisfaction, closed the boresight cap, and turned to me.
"Just checking the optical scalars," he said. "Spun up nicely, this one. So, what can I do for you, Jeanie?"
I led him outside the second shield before I handed him the trim calculations. I know a kernel shield has never failed, but I'm still not comfortable when I get too close to one. I once asked McAndrew how he felt about working within ten meters of Hell, where you could actually feel the gravity gradient and the inertial dragging. He looked at me with his little, introspective smile, and made a sort of throat-clearing noise-the only trace of his ancestry that I could ever find in him.
"Och," he said. "The shields are triply protected. They won't fail."
That would have reassured me, but then he had rubbed his high, balding forehead and added, "And if they do, it won't make any difference if you are ten meters away, or five hundred. That kernel would radiate at about two gigawatts, most of it high-energy gammas."
The trouble was, he always had the facts right. When I first met McAndrew, many years ago, we were taking the first shipment of kernels out to Titan. He had showed up with them, and I assumed that he was just another engineer-a good one, maybe, but I expected that. Five minutes of conversation with him told me that he had probably forgotten more about Kerr-Newman black holes-kernels-than I was ever likely to learn. I have degrees in Electrical Engineering and Gravitational Engineering, in my job I have to, but I'm really no gravity specialist. I felt like an idiot after our first talk. I made a few inquiries, and found that McAndrew was a full professor at the Penrose Institute, and probably the System's leading expert on space-time structure.
When we got to know each other better, I asked him why he would give up his job for four months of the year, to ride herd on a bunch of kernels being shipped around the Solar System. It was a milk-run, with lots of time and very little to do. Most people would be bored silly.
"I need it," he said simply. "It's very nice to work with colleagues, but in my line of business the real stuff is mostly worked out alone. And I can do experiments here that wouldn't be allowed back home."
After that, I accepted his way of working, and took vicarious pride in the stream of papers that appeared from McAndrew at the end of each Titan run. He was no trouble on the trips. He spent most of his time in the Sections carrying the kernels, only appearing in the Control Stage for his meals-and frequently missing them. He was a tinkerer as well as a theorist. Isaac Newton was his idol. His work had paid off in higher shielding efficiencies, better energy extraction methods, and more sensitive manipulation of the charged kernels. Each trip, we had something new.
I left the trim calculations with him, and he promised to check them over and give me his comments in an hour or two. I had to move along and check the rest of the cargo.
"By the way," I said, elaborately casual as I turned to go. "We'll be having company for dinner on this trip. Bryson insists that Yifter should eat with us."
He stood quietly for a moment, head slightly bowed. Then he nodded and ran his hand over his sandy, receding hair-line.
"That sounds like Bryson," he said. "Well, I doubt if Yifter will eat any of us for breakfast. I'm not sure he'll be any worse than the rest of you. I'll be there, Jeanie."
I breathed a small sigh of relief, and left him. McAndrew, as I knew from experience, was the Compleat Pacifist. I had wanted to be sure that he could stand the idea of meals with Yifter.
Four hours later, all our checks were complete. I switched on the fields. The dull grey exterior of each Section turned to silver, shattering the sunlight and turning the Assembly to a cluster of brilliants. The cables linking the Sections were still in position, but now they were hanging loose. All stresses had been picked up by the balancing fields. In the Control Stage, I gradually turned on the propulsion units of each powered Section. Plasma was fed through the ergosphere of each kernel, picked up energy, and streamed aft. The relative positions of the Sections, Mossbauer-controlled to within fractions of a micrometer, held steady. We accelerated slowly away from L-5, and began the long spiral of a continuous-impulse orbit to Titan.
My work was just about finished until crossover time. The computers monitored the drive feeds, the accelerations, and all the balance of the Sections. On this trip, we had three units without operating drive units: Section Two, where Yifter's guards were housed, just behind the Control Stage; Section Seven, where McAndrew had taken the kernel out of commission for his usual endless and mysterious experiments; and of course, the Control Stage itself. I had made the mistake of asking McAndrew what experiments he was planning for this trip. He looked at me with his innocent blue eyes and scribbled an answer full of twistor diagrams and spinor notation-knowing damn well that I wouldn't be able to follow it. He didn't like to talk about his work "halfcooked," as he put it.
* * *
I had been more worried than I wanted to admit about dinner on that first ship-evening. I knew we would all be itching to ask Yifter about the Lucies, but there was no easy way to introduce the subject into the conversation. How could we do it? "By the way, I hear that you killed a billion people a few months ago. I wonder if you would like to say a few words on the subject? It would liven up the table-talk at dinner." I could foresee that our conversation might be a little strained.
As it turned out, my worries were unnecessary. The first impression that I'd had of Yifter, of a mild and amiable man, strengthened on longer exposure. It was Bryson, during dinner, who caused the first tricky moment.
"Most of Earth's problems are caused by the United Space Federation's influence," he said as the robo-server, always on best form at the beginning of the trip, rolled in the courses. "If it weren't for the U.S.F., there wouldn't be as much discontent and rioting on Earth. It's all relative, living space and living standards, and the U.S.F. sets a bad example. We can't compete."
According to Bryson, three million people were causing all the problems for ten billion-eleven, before Yifter's handiwork. It was sheer nonsense, and as a U.S.F. citizen, I should have been the one to bridle; but it was McAndrew who made a growling noise of disapproval, down in his throat; and it was Yifter, of all people, who sensed the atmosphere quickest, and deftly steered the conversation to another subject.
"I think Earth's worst problems are caused by the power shortage," he said. "That affects everything else. Why doesn't Earth use the kernels for power, the way that the U.S.F. does?"
"Too afraid of an accident," replied McAndrew. His irritation evaporated immediately at the mention of his specialty. "If the shields ever failed, you would have a Kerr-Newman black hole sitting there, pumping out a thousand megawatts-mostly as high-energy radiation and fast particles. Worse than that, it would pull in free charge and become electrically neutral. As soon as that happened, there'd be no way to hold it electromagnetically. It would sink down and orbit inside the Earth. We couldn't afford to have that happen."
Excerpted from The Compleat McAndrews by Charles Sheffield Copyright © 2000 by Charles Sheffield. Excerpted by permission.
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