To Fear The Light: The sequel to 'To Save the Sun'by Ben Bova, A. J. Austin
Two hundred years ago, Adela de Montgarde, the brilliant astrophysicist, conceived the centuries-long plan to forestall the death of Earth's sun, thus preserving the original genetic material of the Empire of the Hundred Worlds-and of the Emperors who enabled her visionary plan.
Now Adela emerges from cold sleep to oversee the final stages of her great work./p>
Two hundred years ago, Adela de Montgarde, the brilliant astrophysicist, conceived the centuries-long plan to forestall the death of Earth's sun, thus preserving the original genetic material of the Empire of the Hundred Worlds-and of the Emperors who enabled her visionary plan.
Now Adela emerges from cold sleep to oversee the final stages of her great work. She awakens to an Empire transformed: her son Eric is Emporer, faster-than-light travel has finally been achieved, and humanity has spilled out to innumerable new planets, far beyond the Empire's Hundred Worlds.
In the twilight of the Empire, human and alien factions vie for advantage, while Adela's awesome feat of stellar engineering approaches its final fruition: the preservation and re-invigoration of the fearsome light at the heart of humanity's first solar system...the saving of Earth's Sun.
Read an Excerpt
The Civilian Transport Service passenger jumper L. H. Sylvan was in trouble.
All her life-support systems were intact and working properly. The tachyon dish that enabled near-instantaneous communication with any point in the Hundred Worlds was functioning as it should, as was the slower conventional broadcast transmitter. Artificial gravity was on and normal was in force everywhere on the ship except in certain areas of the cargo holds.
That, too, was normal CTS procedure.
Electrical systems, computer and file retrieval banks, communications--even the entertainment and personal library facilities--were performing properly.
The flight crew knew where they were, and where they were going: The Sylvan was still on course at a velocity-of point-seven-five c--a standard cruise speed for a passenger ship of its class--on a heading that would take them to Gate 87, the entrance to the transit wormhole nearest 40 Eridani system, where they had departed a bit more than two weeks earlier.
All but a handful of the 1,350 passengers aboard the jumper had elected to sleep through the three-week-long ride to Gate 87, and the cryosleep containers in which they silently, dreamlessly rode were all on-line and functioning flawlessly. The row upon row of steady green dots on the brightly glowing display behind Captain Partane gave testimony to that. The relatively few passengers not in cryo were either enjoying themselves in the Sylvan's lounges and recreational facilities, or were relaxing in their plush staterooms.
The captain paced before the holographic image at the head of the meeting room and recited the systems and their conditions as each graph, chart, report, summary and readout in the holographic display changed at his verbal order.
But even as the senior officer's demeanor remained steady during his description of system after system that was functioning as it should, Drew Hattan knew, felt, somehow sensed deep inside him, that the L. H. Sylvan was a ship in trouble.
"It doesn't fit," Captain Partane was saying in summation. He had stopped pacing and stood once more before a display that Drew had already seen a dozen times since this briefing began. Having made up his mind that there was nothing displayed there that could help them or improve, their immediate situation, he found himself paying less attention to the captain. Instead, he watched the reactions of those around him as they listened to what was being said.
"However," Partane went on, "it clearly shows there's a breakdown somewhere in the Structural Integrity Shield." He waved an arm again in frustration at the blinking red warning sensor in the display. "I don't think I have to tell you what that could mean in a worst-case scenario." He didn't. Everyone in the room knew that without the SIS operating properly, the structural stresses and radiation heat load caused by near-light speed on a ship this size would rip it to pieces in a matter of moments. Dead in space, the Sylvan might remain intact, but at the rate they were going there wasn't a chance they could slow the ship down in time. For that matter, if the SIS was damaged, the simple act of braking the ship to a stop might be fatal in itself.
There were twenty others besides Drew in the briefing room below the bridge deck, all seated around a long meeting table littered with empty cups, notepads, computer data sticks and remnants of hastily consumed snacks. The coffee urn in the center of the table had long ago been drained, but no one had bothered to order more. Drew listened halfheartedly to the address, and noted that each time the captain moved or paced or pointed to the display, all eyes in the room followed the man in a way that told the young chief steward that most of them, too, felt the ship had a serious problem. Everyone here, however, was a professional at what he or she did and had spent too many years in the CTS to even hint aloud at the growing panic they each were struggling to deny.
When he looked around at his companions at the table, Drew's eyes locked briefly with those of Vera Conté, one of the few crew members actually under his supervision. She allowed the slight curl of a smile to appear at the corners of her lips and, as her face softened at his glance, she gave a darting look ceilingward and an almost imperceptible shake of her head. She, too, must have felt that Partane was doing his best to put a good face on a bad situation. That, and the fact that she was no more fooled by the captain's oratory than was he. Or anyone else in the room, for that matter.
Because of their respective seats at the table, Vera's position allowed her to be a good deal more facially expressive to him than he was to her, and he had to be satisfied with a slight nod and a quick clearing of his throat as a signal to her that he understood. He allowed himself one last moment to gaze longingly at her before returning his attention to the captain.
"Look, it's probably nothing," the officer went on, sitting wearily at the far end of the meeting table. He leaned back in the cushioned seat, slowly rubbing his eyes and face with his hands, and Drew noted for the first time just how exhausted the man was. He obviously hadn't slept since the potential problem with the SIS had been discovered, more than thirty hours earlier. He hadn't shaved, either, and Drew could hear the faint scratching sound the palms of his hands made as they passed haltingly over his cheeks.
"It's most likely nothing at all," Partane continued finally, his voice hoarse from speaking. He reached for the cup before him, sipped at what was left in it, and furrowed his brow at the bitter taste of the chilled remnants. "But I've decided to take a number of steps. Since we can find nothing on our own…" He paused and regarded Flight Systems Engineer John Rentil, seated at his immediate right at the head of the table. The man frowned in resignation and shook his head, wordlessly confirming everything that had just been said. "Since there's nothing we can do here, I've decided to network the Sylvan's diagnostic and engineering systems to the techs back on Copenhaver with the dish. Johnny and I have been in contact with them for the last several hours and this is their recommendation."
A hand raised, then another, but Partane waved them off.
"Please, I know what you're thinking. I don't like cutting off our real-time communications any better than the rest of you do right now, but those techs have got to have at least some semblance of a hands-on look at the systems. I've already sent everything we have back to Copenhaver over the dish, with a set of duplicate transmissions to the people at Gate Eighty-seven." He paused again, and took a moment to scan the faces of everyone seated at the table. When the captain's eyes fell on him in turn, Drew saw behind them just how uncertain he was about what was happening. He finished his visual sweep around the table, then nodded to Co-Captain Edward Milliron, who stood and addressed them.
"Uh…the people at Eighty-seven are sending someone out to meet us; it's the, uh…" He glanced at the handheld display in his left hand, while he wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his right. "…the Glisten, but they won't be here for another forty-five hours," he said. He wiped absently at his forehead again. The temperature in the room was quite comfortable, but Milliron was sweating profusely anyway, as he always did. Drew had served with Milliron before, both on the Sylvan and on a smaller jumper a few years earlier as an apprentice steward. The man was an extremely competent co-captain, the CTS equivalent of an Imperial first officer, but he was openly nervous and uneasy about his lack of the skills for public speaking and management that were required for a situation like this. It was probably that very lack of confidence, Drew thought, that had kept the man out of Imperial service. "When they arrive, they'll match velocity with us and lend any assistance they can, including a cruise-speed shuttling of engineering personnel and equipment from them to us; that way, we won't have to drop velocity and put any more strain on the SIS than we have to." He smiled weakly at them, the attempt aimed at putting them--or perhaps himself--at ease.
"Until such time as we rendezvous with them, velocity and all ship's systems will remain at current status unless otherwise cleared through Captain Partane." Milliron sat, relieved that his part in the briefing was over.
"Thanks, Ned," Partane said simply, then lowered his head. "There's one other thing," He rubbed his hands together on the tabletop and sighed, then faced them all once more. His voice had taken a new and, for him, unusual tone. Drew regarded the man as he continued, and decided that what he was relating to them now was with a mixture of apology and desperation. He looked to Milliron, and saw the same uneasiness reflected in his features. Drew looked quickly around him, and noted that most everyone else in the room, only moments before numb at what seemed an endless repetition of reports, had raised their own eyes in anticipation of what the captain might say next.
"We've been in communication with a Sarpan ship." He paused, allowing the new information to sink in. The room, already quiet but for the steady, ever-present hum common to the Sylvan, grew even more hushed. "They are only a few hours away at their present speed and are already on an intercept course. Their captain, uh…" He stumbled with the pronunciation of the name, trying to read the handheld Milliron had just slid across the tabletop to him. He shook his head feebly, giving up on what he saw in the display. "Anyway, the ship is called the--thank goodness it's a single syllable at least--the Hinsth."
There was nervous laughter around him at the slur against the aliens, and Drew noted the tension had lifted slightly from some of his companions. Vera, however, sat ramrod straight in her chair, her face unreadable.
"They're a full scientific research and exploration vessel. Their authorization checks out with no problem. They're out of Eighty-seven, five months ago, with license to do a complete diagnostic and evaluation survey of the fourth planet in Forty Eridani system. They've been in constant contact with Copenhaver and have followed all required protocol."
"Has their shipboard armament been verified?" asked Conté.
"Excuse me?" Partane turned to her, obviously not anxious to begin a confrontation with her. No one really liked the Sarpan, but it was well understood by anyone who knew Vera at all that she possessed nothing but pure hatred for the aliens. "It's a research vessel. That's been confirmed."
"Have you scanned for armament?"
Partane took a deep breath and let it out in frustration. "The Hinsth is a legitimate survey vessel," he repeated. "It's been cleared by Imperial investigators and given the go-ahead--months ago, mind you--to do an extensive survey of number four here. All of their outgoing communications have been monitored." He took another deep breath, forcing down the frustration he felt at his ship's situation and his rising anger at her reaction to the news that an alien ship was in proximity. "Look, the Hinsth is clean. Don't you think I've had it checked out?"
Vera stared at him, silent for several moments. All attention was on her.
"Is it armed?" she asked again, slowly and deliberately. Each word seemed a sentence in itself as her eyes bore unblinking into his.
"Goddamn it, yes!" He pounded a fist on the tabletop, inadvertently catching the corner of Milliron's handheld and sending it flipping end-over-end to the floor. "Yes, it's armed! All Sarpan ships carry armament of some kind, but what the hell do you expect me to do?" He stopped short and leaned back in his seat, composing himself as best he could. He rubbed his face again and took several deep breaths, the exhaustion he must have felt fighting with his frustration at the situation in which he found himself.
"Vera, I'm sorry. But what the hell else can I do? I've got a red light on perhaps the single most important system on board, and an offer of help that'll be here--here, mind you! Not over some damned tachyon link!--two days sooner than anyone else can bring it! You tell me: What would you do?"
She sat, her face resolute, and Drew thought he saw the skin of her face quiver as it tightened over her jaw. Was she literally gritting her teeth? He almost expected her to lash out at the captain as strongly as the officer had with her, but an incongruous look of calm spread slowly, steadily over her features.
"You do anything, anything" she said intensely, "except trust the fucking frogs." Her eyes continued glaring at him, her hands folded rigidly before her on the table. The gesture was meant, Drew could tell, to indicate a sense of calmness; but he could see a slight twitching in her fingers and knew she was exerting every bit of control she could to hide her feelings. Was she sorry for what she'd just said? He couldn't tell. Maybe later, when they could find a moment alone, he'd ask. Or, depending on how she felt about the rendezvous with the aliens a few hours from now, maybe not.
Captain Partane opened his mouth to reprimand her for the remark, then apparently thought better of it. "Cancel display," he said instead, and the holographic projection behind him disappeared, "That's the extent of my report." He stood, indicating that the briefing was over. There was some light, nervous chatter as the rest of them began to rise uneasily from the table and filed out one by one, anxious to get out of the room and go about their duties. Drew waited for several others to walk past before leaving the table to join Vera on her way to the door.
"Chief Steward, would you stay for a moment to discuss the passengers, please?"
She turned to him briefly as she exited, her face still unfathomable. He smiled weakly at her, shrugging his shoulders in resignation that he couldn't accompany her. At last, just before passing through the doorframe, she allowed a tiny smile and nodded: a signal that told him she'd wait for him outside.
Partane and Milliron were still speaking quietly to each other when he returned his attention to the head of the table. He remained standing, waiting patiently until the captain finished with Milliron. He noted that Milliron had retrieved his handheld from the floor and, with his arms folded as he listened to the captain, was tapping the edge of the casing absently against the elbow of his other arm. The two spoke only a few minutes longer before the other man left and the captain addressed Drew from the opposite side of the room.
"I've just told Ned to order all passengers not in cryo to return to their staterooms for the duration of our meeting with the aliens' ship. I anticipate your staff will be getting requests for explanations from them just about any time now." He paused and walked around the big table to stand before him. Partane was not a tall man, but somehow, with the weight of the last day and a half pressing on him, the captain seemed smaller still.
"Drew, most of the passengers would probably be more curious about the Sarpan ship than frightened by it, but I'd just as soon play it safe and keep it quiet. I think it'll go smoother if they don't even know it's there, all right?"
He nodded, and pulled his own handheld from his shirt pocket. "Do we know what orientation their ship'll have at rendezvous?"
"On their present heading they'll come up from behind and under us."
He tapped a few commands into the tiny unit, muttering softly to himself, then said aloud, "System."
It took only a split second for the room system to recognize his voice code and open the appropriate data paths for his area of the Sylvan's computer net. "Yes, Mr. Hattan?" it said in a friendly, but bland, voice.
"Please take external monitors nine through fifteen off nine.
There was a confirming chirp from the room system, then, "Ready."
"That's all for now." Again, a high-pitched chirp from the system as it reset. He slipped the handheld back into his shirt pocket and regarded the captain once more. "That'll keep the stateroom holoscreens from being able to orient on the Sarpan ship's approach angle. Let me know if their approach changes and I can feed in new values."
"Thanks, Drew." Partane walked with him the few steps it took to reach the door, but before they came within the pickup range of the opening mechanism he hesitated. "I know you've done this kind of thing before, so I'm sure you'll be able to handle any questions they may have. But I have some other serious concerns."
"I don't think there'll be a problem with the passengers. If anyone asks about the holoscreen blackouts for those angles, I can explain it away easily enough as a temporary--"
Partane held up a hand apologetically to cut him off. "I know, I know; but it's not you I'm worried about, Drew. It's Conté." Partane sighed heavily and stared briefly at the ceiling. "They're only offering to help us out a little bit here, and why shouldn't we let them? They've been cleared by every Imperial higher-up we were able to reach before linking the dish back to the techs at Copenhaver. Hell, the SIS was derived from their shield technology in the first place, so why shouldn't we let them have a look at it? They may be our best shot at figuring out what the problem is." He paused again. "If there really is anything wrong with it."
"What does Vera have to do with it?"
Partane looked at him and sighed heavily again. His breath was sour after too much coffee and too little sleep. "Look, nobody's comfortable with them when they're around, including me. But I'll be damned if I can understand this…this hatred she has for them. I can't have her talking to the passengers."
Drew nodded. He knew Vera intimately, knew only too well her feelings for the aliens. Partane was right. "I'll take care of it."
"Good." He took a step closer to the door and it slid obediently aside for them.
Vera Conté was outside, leaning on the opposite wall of the corridor. Her face beamed the moment her eyes met his, but the smile disappeared as soon as she saw the two men together. She crossed her arms before her, then moved wordlessly several paces down the hallway and leaned once more against the corridor wall, waiting. She didn't look their way.
"Anyway," Partane said, taking his hand in a firm grasp. "If you run into anything you can't handle, refer them directly to Ned. I'll be on the bridge if you need me." He turned away and walked briskly in the other direction toward the lift that would take him to the upper portion of the command deck of the jumper.
"That was nice," he said sarcastically once the captain had disappeared down the corridor. He tried to make himself sound angry as he confronted her, and remained standing just outside the briefing-room door. "What're you trying to do, get yourself busted out of the CTS?"
"He won't do anything about it," she snapped back defiantly, turning away from him and staring at the opposite wall, refusing to look at him directly. "He's on edge, everyone is. He'll dismiss it as a bad overreaction on my part."
"Yeah, you'd better hope so."
She said nothing for a moment, then suddenly seemed to let loose with what had been boiling up inside her since Partane had mentioned the aliens. "I can't believe he's going to allow one of those…those things on board!" she went on, and as she spoke Drew saw that this outburst made it possible for the genuine rage she felt at the captain's decision to begin to drain from her. He realized this was just what she needed to vent her feelings, and listened in silence as she paced the narrow width of the corridor, listing what seemed an endless string of complaints with the just-concluded briefing.
Where before he had actually tried to be angry with her, he now felt himself soften as he watched her. She wore the same steward's uniform as he, but the light blue shirt and matching shorts looked strikingly attractive on her, despite their unisex design, and he suspected she had altered them herself to give them a more alluring fit. Her pacing slowed, and each time she reversed direction he admired the way she turned. He found himself paying less attention to what she was saying than to the athletic curves of her body and the way her dark hair tumbled over her shoulders at every sharp movement she made. He wondered idly if the captain knew about the two of them, or was even suspicious. A few of the other stewards were in on the secret, and he thought Rentil might have some idea, but if the captain suspected anything he'd never even hinted at--
"Helloooo…? Anybody in there?" She was smiling at him now, all traces of anger spent. "Did we numb out there for a moment? Maybe I was ranting a little bit, but to shut me off entirely! Really!"
He felt his face flush as he realized she had stopped pacing and was now standing before him, staring, hands on her hips. He started chuckling in embarrassment and noted how good the sound of his own laughter made him feel. Vera allowed his embarrassment to continue as she coyly raised a hand to her lips, trying--without much success--to hide her own amusement.
The sound of her laughter--the first hint of humor he'd heard aboard the Sylvan in hours-felt good to his ears. If she was frightened by the SIS problem, she didn't show it. Then again, maybe her mind was just so occupied by the approaching alien ship…
He glanced around and, afraid that they might be spotted, said, "Come on, let's get off the command deck." He took her by the hand and led her to the lift at the end of the corridor.
There was another steward already on the lift, so Drew hit one of the passenger-level buttons at random. The man's name was Ternez and he knew that Drew and Vera were "involved." Vera didn't know he'd told the other man, of course, and Ternez made no overt comment as to the two of them being together at a time when each should have been doing separate chores in different parts of the ship. The man teased Drew incessantly about his ongoing affair with her, but with the SIS problem hanging over the ship like a dark cloud he probably didn't even notice they weren't where they should be.
The three of them chatted as they rode. Ternez told them that, just as the captain had predicted, there had been a number of inquiries regarding Milliron's order for passengers to return to their staterooms, but they hadn't posed any problems that couldn't be handled without his direct attention.
"That's good," Drew offered. "Has anyone asked to talk to Partane?"
Ternez shook his head. "No, none at all. I think Ned made it all sound fairly routine. Most of the walkers are new to jump travel and probably assume it's all normal procedure." He stopped and eyed the readout panel absently. "So, where are you two headed?"
"Partane wants me to be sure the walkers are all right in case they have any questions, but it sounds like everything's fine. Listen, could you handle any last-minute stuff that comes up with them? You can page me if you need me."
"Sure. No problem."
The lift stopped on five and he got out, and after the doors had closed Drew touched one of the buttons on the control panel. The lighted button indicating the deck he'd originally selected went dark, and he punched in a new destination. Vera noted his actions, but said nothing.
The lift opened after a few moments onto one of the stateroom decks and the two of them stepped out into the dim corridor. This level was filled with staterooms, and on a shorter flight would have been occupied, the halls filled with passengers eager to utilize the ship's many recreational and entertainment facilities. But on a longer jump like the one to 87 and then, through it, to Gate 21 at Barnard's, most of the passengers where in the cryotanks and had no need for the frills of the luxury cabins that made up this level.
He looked quickly down one way, then the other, and, satisfied the corridors were empty, reached out and pulled her to him. As he kissed her, she let her hands hang limply at her sides for several seconds in mock annoyance of his maneuvering her into a secluded area, then slowly put her arms around his neck and returned the kiss.
"You really make me crazy when you do things like that back in the briefing room," he said softly when their lips parted. "You know that, don't you?"
He held her at arm's length and looked into her eyes. "Sometimes I don't know why I put up with you."
"Because you love me," she whispered, taking one of his hands in both of hers. "The same reason I put up with you."
He released her reluctantly. "Listen, Partane doesn't want you to interact with any of the walkers. He's afraid you'll say something that might panic them."
She pulled away suddenly. "Well, he can go to hell if he thinks I'm--"
"Wait a minute! Wait! It's all right. Just listen to me for a minute, would you?" He reached out for her again, putting his hands firmly on her shoulders and pulling her closer. "He asked me," he said, his voice becoming soft and suggestive, "to personally see to it that you didn't talk to them."
"Oh, is that so?" She softened instantly, and allowed him to pull her closer still. As he held her, he could feel whatever traces of anger left within her melt away. "And just how do you intend to do that?"
He leaned close and kissed her briefly, then took her by the hand, leading her to the nearest of the stateroom doors lining the opposite wall. Without a word he pressed his thumb on the entrance plate mounted in the doorframe. The system recognized the chief steward's print immediately, and the door slid aside to admit them.
The room was cold and dark. This level and the staterooms it contained had not been needed for this jump, so most systems--including heat and lighting--had been set to standby levels. The door slid closed behind them and he faced her, pressing her back to the wall. Again, they embraced tightly and he kissed her passionately.
"System," he said, pulling momentarily away. Vera continued to kiss his cheek and moved her lips slowly down his neck.
A high-pitched chirp. "Ready."
"Bring room temperature to normal; set lighting at fifty percent."
"Cancel!" Vera smiled at him, then said softly, "Bring room temperature to normal, but set lighting to twenty percent." Again, the confirming chirp. "I like it darker," she whispered into his ear.
"Then darker it is." He kissed her again, and moved the palms of his hands from her shoulders, slowly guiding them down the front of her shirt. Her breasts were soft but firm, and through the thin fabric of the shirt he could tell she was wearing nothing underneath. He slid his right hand inside the open collar of the shirt, softly caressing one of her breasts.
She smiled again and wordlessly unfastened the buttons one at a time, then pulled the shirttail out of her shorts and slipped it off her shoulders, letting it drop to the floor.
He used both hands now, rubbing them slowly up to her shoulders, massaging her neck, and back down the front of her again. The room had not yet reached normal temperature, and her nipples were hard and erect beneath his fingertips in the chilly air.
"I like when you touch me," she whispered, and took one of his hands in hers and kissed it, then pressed it to her chest again.
His heart pounded as he kissed her neck, and he felt himself wanting her more than ever. Without looking around, he tried to remember the layout of the stateroom, wondering where the bed was so as not to appear too clumsy as he maneuvered her in that direction. He leaned down, running the tip of his tongue down the center of her chest. Vera's breath came in short gasps as he did. It had been a long time since they had last made love, much too long, and it felt so good, being with her like this.
So why did he feel a mysterious queasiness come over him that he couldn't quite place? The unexplained feeling went away as suddenly as it had appeared and he put it out of his mind. He started to kiss her, but the feeling came back almost immediately, and with no more warning than it had the first time.
He straightened cautiously, his stomach turning. He looked at her and noticed that her breasts seemed to rise slightly, and that her hair was becoming fuller. When his eyes met hers, he saw an expression that was half confusion, half panic.
"Drew, I don't think I feel very--oh!"
And instantly, they were falling. The room seemed normal. There was no sound that hadn't been there a moment earlier. There had been no indication that anything was wrong, but they were unexpectedly without gravity.
The sudden involuntary movements each had made when the gravity field died now sent them tumbling, with both of them scrambling to grab on to anything close enough that offered solid support. Vera managed to snag hold of the doorframe leading into the stateroom lavatory and, gripping the frame as tightly as possible, twisted herself around to find him.
Drew had not been so lucky, and floated through the center of the room several armlengths away from any solid object. He made a futile, almost comical effort to "swim" to the ceiling fixture, but his frantic gyrations served only to keep him tumbling wildly. He had never spent much time in zero g, and the constant falling sensation was making him sicker. As he spun, he caught sight of Vera dangling from the doorframe. She was clearly terrified by what was happening, and he forced himself to calm down.
His arm brushed something, the edge of a wall, and as his feet swung around he managed to push away toward the opposite side of the stateroom, the effort sending him thudding much more forcefully than he'd intended into a low table mounted firmly to the wall. He caught the edges in both hands as he slammed into it and stopped himself at the same instant he heard a grisly pop! from his left shoulder. He cried out as an intense wave of pain shot through him.
He gripped the table, holding himself down flat on the top as best he could with his good arm, and tried to ignore the pain in his shoulder. "I'm all right," he said, forcing his rapid breathing to slow. "I think I dislocated something when I hit. It hurts like hell, but I'm all right."
She started to say something, but he cut her off. "Hold on. Stay put and don't say anything for a minute." He surveyed the room, trying to figure out just what was going on.
The edges of the bed covering seemed to float, and Vera's shirt drifted between them. Hanging tightly with one hand, she snagged it with the other and pulled it to her, but made no attempt to put it back on. There were a few other small objects tumbling through the air that he couldn't make out in the dim light, but otherwise everything else seemed, tike the table to which he clung, to be securely fastened to either floor, wall or ceiling. There was a small closet about halfway between the stateroom entrance and the doorframe where Vera floated, its outline glowing steadily in the dim light. The thumblatch blinked an ominous red, but he doubted that, from her awkward angle, she could see the first confirmation he'd been able to find that something was dreadfully wrong.
"Drew, what happened?"
"I don't know. System!"
There was the familiar faint chirp of the system acknowledging his query, but nothing further,
"System!" Vera tried. Again, a confirming chirp but no access. "System! System!"
"Listen, we have to get back up to the command deck; or at least to a working comm terminal. I…I'm going to need a hand."
She nodded and tucked her shirt into the waistband of her shorts, then oriented herself carefully in his direction and pushed gently off the doorframe to sail gracefully across the room. That she had spent more time in the zero-g recreation area than he had was immediately obvious as she landed smoothly at the edge of the table. Her long hair, a floating mass of brown without g, tumbled forward around her face as she stopped and cursed softly under her breath. Satisfied she was steady for the moment, she carefully pressed her fingers through the tangled mess and drew it behind her, then deftly tied it into a knot that left a short ponytail bobbing at the back of her head. Holding on with one hand, she helped him wrap his legs around the edge of the table and coaxed him into a sitting position.
"This may hurt," she said in warning, then took his dislocated arm and placed his hand against his chest. He winced, and sweat beaded on his face as she worked to tie her shirt around him to keep his arm firmly in place against his chest. "How's that? Can you move?"
"Yeah, if I don't pass out," he joked weakly, realizing as he heard the words that there was a good deal more truth in them than he would have liked to admit. "Let's go."
"All right. Follow my lead, but don't thrash around. Let me guide you over." He should have felt embarrassed at being carried along like an invalid or, worse, like a small child needing constant attention on a family outing. But the manner in which Vera viewed the situation in her matter-of-fact way told him she was just doing what needed to be done at the moment. There was no judging on her part. It was one of the things he liked best about her.
They made it to the stateroom's entrance door, stopping smoothly, if abruptly, against the smooth plastic surface. She reached for the opening plate.
"Hold it," he warned, stopping her. "Not yet." Using his free hand, he thumbed the closet switch and felt a momentary panic as the door hesitated, then opened to reveal its contents. A red emergency light had come on inside; it was the interior light that had caused the outline to be so easily visible in the darkened room. There were four life vests inside, and Drew could see that the status plate over the left breast of each garment blinked red in unison with the light on the closet door.
"You're right," Vera said, following his lead. As he steadied himself with one hand on the edge of the closet, she fished out one of the bulky vests and slipped it on. The status plate changed from red to green when she pressed it closed down the front, indicating that the garment's internal life-support unit was on automatic standby. Once it was sealed, the light continued to blink in time with the light on the door.
Good, he thought. At least the emergency systems are online and working.
She grabbed one of the other vests and gingerly helped him into it, then pressed the front closed with his injured arm tucked securely inside. Once it was sealed, his status indicator blinked green in unison with hers.
"Let's get out of here." Vera slapped the opening plate with the palm of her hand and the door slid aside to reveal a hallway that looked, at first glance, as if nothing had happened. A red warning light blinked over each stateroom door, but otherwise the overhead lighting was normal; no warning klaxon sounded.
However, any hope that the gravity failure was limited to the staterooms vanished when they carefully peeked out and saw that a series of handholds--rigid plastic loops that looked like nothing so much as pieces from a child's ring-toss game--had emerged automatically from their recesses in the previously smooth walls on each side of the corridor. Each handhold glowed softly, with a pulse of brightness moving along the row of loops as they extended down the hallway, and Drew noted that the pulses led away from the lift. A quick glance at the panel next to the lift doors showed it to be dark and lifeless, save the ever-present blinking red light: With artificial gravity shut down, the lift system was inoperative. The pulses, designed to direct confused passengers caught out of their staterooms during an emergency, would undoubtedly lead to the nearest control station on this level.
"That way," he said, indicating aft. "There'll be a personnel comm terminal at the station I should be able to access."
They moved into the corridor in the direction of the pulses, Vera towing him along with one hand while grabbing an occasional handhold with the other to keep them propelled in the right direction. There was a bend in the corridor a few meters ahead of them, and they could hear the excited voices of several people, indicating that a comm terminal was located in the next corridor.
"Brace yourself," Vera said, deftly swinging around to stop them feet-first on the wall where the corridor changed direction. There was a moment of pain when she braked against the wall, but once again he was quietly grateful for her zero-g experience. "Are you all right?" She was breathing heavily now, he noticed, and he realized it wasn't from the exertion of getting them both this far--she was frightened. She had responded to the emergency so automatically that she had not taken time to be afraid; but now that the adrenaline was fading, fright was beginning to well up inside her.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, hooking his good arm into a loop next to hers, allowing Vera to steady herself with both hands on separate loops. He forced himself to smile. "Everything's going to be fine. Look, we made it to the terminal." Pushing his thoughts away from his own rising concerns, he indicated the comm just a short distance down the corridor.
There were three people there. One of them, the one actually using the terminal, he immediately recognized as Ronatti, an apprentice steward who had signed on aboard the Sylvan when they left Copenhaver. Ronatti was holding, white-knuckled, on to a handhold loop while he talked animatedly into the terminal. The other two were obviously passengers, and from their disheveled attire he assumed they had sneaked onto the deserted level for much the same purpose Vera and he had. Neither wore life vests, and both were terrified and whimpering as they clung to each other, and constantly pleaded with the steward to tell them what was happening, even though he was doing his best to ignore them.
"Ronatti! What the hell is going on?"
"Hold on," he barked into the comm when he saw the two of them at the bend in the corridor. "Drew's here now." Still anchored firmly to the loop, he turned to them and called down the corridor, "Drew! This level's sealed, but I've got Captain Partane right here. All gravity is off and the SIS--"
A horrendous wrenching sound exploded suddenly all around him, and he watched in terror as the entire corridor began to come apart.
A huge rent appeared in both ceiling and floor about halfway between them and the terminal, and as the panels separated, the rest of the corridor actually fell away, exposing the midsection between this level and the one above.
He felt his ears pop at the same time the wall to which he clung jerked suddenly backward. Another tear appeared in the wall between the two of them as the panels pulled apart, and as he felt himself being snapped in one direction he saw that Vera, still clinging to her loops, was being tugged in the other.
The tear completed itself around the circumference of the corridor, and the two sections pulled completely apart amid a jumble of jagged metal and plastic thrusting itself through what had been--only a few moments earlier--solid walls and floors. And as the corridor disintegrated around them, he felt a sudden hurricane of swirling wind and debris.
The abrupt loss of pressure sent the life vest into active mode, and a skin-shield snapped into place translucently around him. He heard a tiny voice from the wafer speaker in the lapel of the vest. "Emergency mode one enabled," it repeated at regular intervals. There was a soft hiss from the vest fabric itself, and he felt the pain in his ears ease as the pressure returned to normal.
Dizzy and disoriented, it took him a second to recognize that he was floating free, and he stared stupidly at the detached loop that remained uselessly on his arm. The corridor was still in convulsions as he tried to locate Vera, but the grinding debris and panel sections moved against each other in strange silence now with the lack of an atmosphere to carry the sound to him. A large section of metal paneling sandwiched him against another, but the skin-shield generated by the vest held firm and kept the jagged pieces away from him until he could wriggle free again. Once clear of the mess, he called out to her, but knew she couldn't hear him even if she was all right.
The hurricane receded and the motion of the debris that had once been luxury passenger staterooms subsided. Had he not known where he was, he would not have been able to recognize it. But the important thing was that whatever had happened was over, and he had a moment to think.
Internal pressure was gone on this level, he knew, but the fact that the life vest was only in emergency mode one indicated that the Sylvan's hull must still be intact. He might yet find Vera, and if her life vest was functioning she should have been able to avoid injury just as he had.
He picked his way gingerly through the mess using his good arm and both legs, the frictionless skin-shield allowing him to slip deftly through the weightless chunks of metal and plastic. He found only one body, that of a man he recognized as one of the new engineers. He wore a life vest, but had apparently been killed before it had activated. There was an ugly purple bruise on the man's temple that extended up under his hairline, but other than that he appeared uninjured. Drew wondered how many others would have had time to don vests, and how effective they might have been. He made his way slowly, and once or twice he felt a shuddering in the debris or a disconcerting press of a large chunk against some part of his body as the damage settled itself, but he ignored it as he tried to determine which direction her portion of the corridor had shifted.
The skin-suit suddenly cast a soft glow and he felt a rapid, sharp stinging feeling in his chest just behind the status plate of the life vest. He tilted his head in confusion at the sensation; it felt like the bite of some tiny insect that might have crawled down the front of his shirt.
"Emergency mode two enabled," came the tiny voice from the vest, and the numbness now spreading through his body told him a stasis drug was being injected into his system. He sighed heavily as the drug began taking effect, and knew beyond doubt that the ship's computer must have sent the signal to the vest that the hull had breached, He heard the beeping of the vest's locator, which had also just become active. That, along with the soft glow the shield now emitted, were designed to make him easier to find by rescuers, but he paid little attention to it just now.
Everything started drifting apart, and he tried to watch the slow-motion ballet of the Sylvan breaking up around him. Somehow, although he knew the vest was maintaining his temperature, his first view of empty space made him feel colder as he dumbly watched the destruction complete itself. The pieces and chunks of the ship were spreading farther apart, and as the distance between himself and what was left of the corridor increased, he was able to see things better and recognize whole sections and subsystems of the ship.
There was an entire wall, tumbling serenely to his left. He looked closely and concentrated on something attached to it: Were those the two passengers he'd seen a few minutes earlier? Their arms still looped into the handholds, their bodies waved in a lifeless dance as the section rotated. A table, still attached to its own section of flooring, spun close. A mass of linens from some suddenly decompressed storage locker floated away from him, the sheets and blankets coming untangled from each other, giving the impression of an impossibly huge flower blossoming. He smiled stupidly at the beauty of it and waited for the stasis drug to put him to sleep.
Everywhere, there were bodies. Some had been badly mangled in the breakup, others looked deceptively uninjured. Some were in uniforms, but many more wore civilian attire. None of them wore vests.
And then, tumbling slowly a dozen meters away, another body. Vera's body.
She was dead, the lower half of her body cut cleanly away. Her skin-shield was intact and Drew could see the blood that had pooled within after it activated, probably mere seconds too late to save her.
He turned his head away in slow motion at the sight, wishing he could turn his own vest off, and even pawed clumsily at his chest for a moment in a useless attempt to reach the status plate.
The motion set him rotating slowly, and as his body turned he saw that he was floating away from the Sylvan. Through blurred eyes he saw that the entire rear third of the ship was gone, destroyed by explosive decompression. What was left of it was dark, lifeless. There were no other skin-shields to be seen.
His rotation brought him around again and he could see that the debris was spreading out rapidly. Vera's body was gone, drifting mercifully away to become lost in the jumble of grisly flotsam. After a moment of trying to locate her body through increasingly sleepy eyes, he forgot what it was he was looking for. His eyes grew heavier still and he felt his breathing become more shallow, and he knew that he was almost in stasis.
And as his rotation brought him around to face in the direction of the Sylvan one last time, he saw the huge wasp shape of the Sarpan ship outlined hazily against the backdrop of stars. What was it called? he asked himself through a stasis-clouded mind. Hin-something. Something funny.
His last conscious thought was of the Sarpan craft as it turned deftly away from the dead ship and disappeared.
* * *
"…and it is just as I have told you before, my friends. But this time the loss of life is overwhelming, and not only because of the high number of casualties, but because of the profound innocence of the passengers. No, please--don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to insinuate that the many Imperial or military personnel who have died at the aliens' hands over the years are somehow less innocent than the passengers and CTS personnel aboard the H. L. Sylvan. No one knows better than I that those in service to the Empire of the Hundred Worlds have families--husbands and wives, children and parents. I meant only that those in Imperial service know the risks inherent in service, that's all. But those unsuspecting passengers, most of whom rode in cryosleep blissfully unaware of the danger presented to them, were attempting only to exercise one of their most basic rights--the right to travel from one human world to another.
"The sad thing is that this is already being called 'an accident.'
"Of course, Imperial authorities are citing the lack of evidence that this was a hostile attack. They show records indicating the Sylvan's Structural Integrity Shielding had displayed problems long before their rendezvous with the Sarpan ship. But think a moment: Do you know what the SIS is? Let me tell you. It is a variation on shield technology that acts as a reinforcing superstructure for large spacecraft. Just as the strength and rigidity of a shield can stop weapons fire or keep an atmosphere intact, it can also be designed to mesh with the actual structure of a spaceship, allowing construction of much larger, faster ships--with far less materials and energy cost--than ever before.
"And do you know where the technology for this type of shield utilization came from? Yes, that's right. It came from the aliens. At best, who can say that their designs are not flawed? At worst, who can say that they have no ulterior motives? In either case, I am saddened to offer you proof once again that relying on anyone other than our human brothers and sisters has led to the death of innocents. That is what comes from dealing with the aliens.
"The same aliens your Emperor wishes to embrace as friends…"
Copyright © 1994 by Ben Bova and A. J. Austin
Meet the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Ben Bova worked as a newspaper reporter, a technical editor for Project Vanguard (the first American satellite program), and a science writer and marketing manager for Avco Everett Research Laboratory, before being appointed editor of Analog, one of the leading science fiction magazines, in 1971. After leaving Analog in 1978, he continued his editorial work in science fiction, serving as fiction editor of Omni for several years and editing a number of anthologies and lines of books, including the "Ben Bova Presents" series for Tor. He has won science fiction's Hugo Award for Best Editor six times.
A published SF author from the late 1950s onward, Bova is one of the field's leading writers of "hard SF," science fiction based on plausible science and engineering. Among his dozens of novels are Millennium, The Kinsman Saga, Colony, Orion, Peacekeepers, Privateers, and the Voyagers series. Much of his recent work, including Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, The Precipice, and The Rock Rats, falls into the continuity he calls "The Grand Tour," a large-scale saga of the near-future exploration and development of our solar system.
A President Emeritus of the National Space Society and a past president of Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in 2001 Dr. Bova was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He lives in Naples, Florida, with his wife, the well-known literary agent Barbara Bova.
Ben Bova is the author of more than a hundred works of science fact and fiction, including Able One, Leviathans of Jupiter and the Grand Tour novels, including Titan, winner of John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation in 2005, and in 2008 he won the Robert A. Heinlein Award "for his outstanding body of work in the field of literature." He is President Emeritus of the National Space Society and a past president of Science Fiction Writers of America, and a former editor of Analog and former fiction editor of Omni. As an editor, he won science fiction’s Hugo Award six times. Dr. Bova’s writings have predicted the Space Race of the 1960s, virtual reality, human cloning, the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), electronic book publishing, and much more. He lives in Florida.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >