Quantum Stills of a Thin-Spun Life-Part 5
Zennor strode through the doorway into the Command Center and found Algon at the Astrogator’s post. He slowed his steps as he approached her. But his concern for her was momentarily startled away when he saw all the active screens; panels dancing with energy pulses. “What’s all this?”
Algon turned her head, smiled a brief welcome and sighed as she turned back to the screens. “Data. Lots of it.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “I came to check on you after I heard that you got a lashing from the Captain, which was hard to believe. I thought I knew him. I don’t know why he’d do something like that.”
She nodded, seeming distracted. “Yes, but it’s fine.” She looked up at him. “I don’t know where it came from, but he was right. Look at this!”
Zennor sat down in the chair next to hers, his hand sliding down from her shoulder to her hand, which he held as he gazed at her face. “Are you all right, Jeanne?”
She turned, her fingers returning his grip, and met his gaze directly. “I’m definitely not all right, Devid, but it’s not because my feelings or my pride were hurt.” She gestured widely at the screens. “Something’s going on.”
“That’s what the engineers are saying, that something is ‘up’ with the ship.”
She nodded. “Yes, there are problems, but this is something . . .” She paused. “We’re decelerating.”
“What?!” He looked at the screens, really looked at them. Shifted so that his chair slid back to the next station. His hands moved over the panels with some hesitation because, like Algon, he’d trained, but never used his bridge station skills. After some minutes he said: “We’re slowing down.” Shock rippled through him, left a cold wake. “God help us.”
“We’re decelerating because we’re supposed to,” Algon said rather bleakly.
“What do you mean?”
She indicated one of the screens at her post. “We’re approaching that star system and we’re slowing down to do it.”
Zennor frowned deeply, tried to swallow the cold lump in his chest, but it expanded with icy tendrils into his very bones. “Why?”
“I think it's because,” Algon said quietly, “it has a human-habitable planet.”
Kestors, with Fehed standing beside him, lifted a hand in greeting. “Allo, there.”
Shinichi smiled. “Allo.” He nodded to the boy as well, which made Fehed flush a little. He stopped beside the ag-tech and they all looked down at the ruined farm strip. On the sides and bottom could be seen the glint of metal and the dull gleam of worn plastic. The soil was littered with unrecognizable building debris as well as broken bits of trees and plants.
“I hope you’re not going to tell me that we should cover it up,” Kestors said in an amiable tone, although he wasn’t joking at all.
“No,” Shinichi said with a small shake of his head. “That would be a waste.” He waved a hand. “I don’t know if we can fill it in as much as it was before, but I think we can make it viable again. It’ll take some real labor, but I’m certain it can be done.”
“We’ll bring dirt from Mechanical.” Shinichi gestured toward the farm strip again. “As I said, I don’t think we can completely fill it, I’m sure we can’t make up that much volume, but if we shift soil from several of the ground strips, we can make up at least a third.”
Kestors’ eyebrows lifted and he looked at the engineer with greater respect. “I never thought about moving dirt like that!” He eyed the farm strip again. “I think you’re right.” He glanced sideways. “You’ll lose some trees.”
“Maybe some of that maple wood will show up in the Trader Village?” Kestors tried not to sound too hopeful.
Shinichi nodded, a small, rare smile on his mouth. “Undoubtedly it will.” He added: “We’ll do it conservatively. Cut down the mature trees.” He let out a breath. “It’ll be some work, as I said, but we need to make sure you have the crop land.”
“Isn’t that great?” said Fehed enthusiastically. He actually laughed and clapped his hands together. “All of us working together!”
Kestors laughed, too, and tousled the boy’s hair. “We’ll see how you feel about it after you’ve carried an acre of dirt on your back.”
How had he come to this? Camlen stared forlornly down at his damp boots that had cost him two T-years worth of luxury vouchers at the Trader Village. He hated to be unkept. God knew what his hair looked like! He sighed deeply, clenched his fists. It was all her fault! If only she’d died! He ignored the hissing voices in his head that said he should have planned better, made sure of her death, one way or another. He blamed her. He blamed his brother, too. And his parents. They should have planned better. It certainly wasn’t his fault!
The monads cut him. To mark him as one of them, they said. But it hurt so much. He put up his hand to his face. It took him several tries because he wasn’t used to moving in low gravity and his initial efforts still tended to go awry, shifting him and making him flail. Finally his trembling fingertips touched the edge of the knife wound cut from his left brow all the way to his jaw. He actually shivered.
Why had he lost control? Why now when he had worked so hard to restrain himself? He had no answers and there were none to be found in his current environment. This was the very last place he wanted to be! But here he was and not likely to be anywhere else. He wanted to weep, but he wasn’t that lost to his dignity yet . . .
No one cared. No one watched him. They were all going about their monad business, whatever that was. Trying to destroy something else, no doubt. He could weep all he wanted and no one would see. No one would ever know. Only him.
And with bitter tears running down his face, he thought again: How did I come to this?
Lanh looked up from his playing with a stick in The Lake’s muddy edge and slowly straightened up, a little surprised and a lot curious as he saw the two people walking toward him from anspin.
Well, not adult people, even if one was a physician-apprentice.
Xie, the shortest of the three children, nevertheless managed an air of authority as she and her companion stopped less than two meters from Lanh. “Allo,” she said.
“Allo,” Lanh said.
Xie gestured toward the boy at her side. “This is Fehed. He’s an apprentice ag-tech to Journeyman Kestors, but he’s from the habs originally.”
Lanh nodded to the boy. “Allo. I’ve seen you a few times, right?”
Fehed smiled crookedly. “I like to have my feet on the ground a lot.”
As Lanh laughed, Xie smiled in a professional manner. “And that’s good, but you need to build up your muscles.” She looked directly at Lanh. “He needs regular exercise. Running. Playing c-ball. That sort of thing. Can you help?”
“Ai!” Lanh laughed again.
“Consider it a prescription,” Xie said with another, warmer smile, “or an order.”
“Yes, Doctor!” Both boys said it at once and this time all three of them laughed.
The door to the Captain’s quarters barely managed to open far enough before Zennor rushed into the room and stood in front of Parke’s desk, visibly trying to control his fury.
“Commander,” Parke said without looking up from the data pad in his hand.
“No,” Zennor said tightly, “this isn’t a conversation between officers. This is a conversation between men.”
Parke set the data pad down and leaned back in his chair as he looked up at his executive officer and friend, someone who had been an older brother in spite of the respective inheritances waiting for them. There was no one’s opinion who mattered more to him.
“I’m listening,” he said mildly.
“What is going on? And why haven’t you talked to me about it?”
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk to you,” Parke said, “and everyone else.” He lifted his hands to his face, scrubbed at his eyes and let out a deep breath. “I can hardly believe what I’ve learned, Devid.”
“But you’re sure enough to jump all over Algon and—“
Parke waved the remark away. “It’s not about her!”
“The hell it isn’t!”
“It’s not about her specifically,” Parke said with thinning patience. “It’s about all of us on this ship.”
Zennor bent and slammed a fist on the desk. “You’re worried about the farmers. Great. Good. I appreciate that. Let’s get friendly with them. Mix things up. It’s healthy. I agree we should do that. I never did think we should isolate ourselves the way we have, but that doesn’t mean you beat up your own people, Dion! That won’t work!”
Parke didn’t blink or flinch at his Exec’s outburst. He let him speak and waited a few moments. “Do you know how long we’ve been on this ship?”
Taken aback, Zennor straightened up. “What?”
“Over five hundred T-years.”
A tense silence settled on the room.
Parke stood up and passed a hand over the panel to activate the data screen on the wall. It showed the Outbound from an overhead angle. “When we left Earth, our journey was supposed to take two hundred and eleven T-years.” He pointed a finger at the aft end of the ship. “Sometime around T-seventy-eight there was an accident that caused engine damage and radiation release in Mechanical. The bulkheads secured the radiation in the poisoned sections, but some people were frightened and hid in the storage habitats, from which many of them never emerged.” He turned around and faced his dazed friend. “And the ship was knocked off course.” He shook his head. “We lost access to the starboard hydrogen ion scoop but we had to wait for more than a t-year to even try to fix it. We had to deal with the social consequences and never made a course correction. We dealt with the crisis then and managed to go on. And the longer we went on, the harder it was to imagine anything else but going on. Just going.”
“Why can’t we just do that?” Zennor made a wide gesture. “Most of us are living comfortable lives. We have enough to eat.” He smiled ruefully. “This is our home.”
“It wasn’t meant to remain our home forever,” Parke said.
“Maybe,” Zennor admitted, “but it can be, can’t it?”
“No,” Parke said.
“Because we’ll die.”
Zennor shook his head. “No, we—“
“We will die.” Parke took a step toward the other man. “The ship wasn’t built to go on and on. Systems are failing.” He gestured toward his own body. “Our bionanos are failing. We’re not supposed to develop arthritis or cancer!” He let his voice drop. “Don’t you want a real future? Children? What kind of legacy do we pass on to them if we don’t follow through on our real mission?”
“What is that? What is our mission?”
“To establish a viable human colony.”
Zennor laughed harshly. “On that planet we’re heading toward? Fine. What happens to us after we deliver the farmers?”
“We adapt or we become superfluous,” Parke said. “We’ve been living a lie for a long time, that we were the important ones, the superior ones, but this has always been about them.”
The silence that fell then possessed a different quality, both poignant and grieving.
“I’m sorry,” Zennor said finally, “but you were right. I don’t think I’m ready to hear this.”
“You have to be.” Parke felt the frustration welling up within him. If he couldn’t get Zennor to understand—which he’d been counting on—how could he hope to convince the others?
Naera touched a fingertip to the edge of the map screen, marveling at the details provided. Overlays could be utilized that showed crop growth, where buildings were located in the past and present, even recommended crop rotations and population moves. Very useful for the Governor.
She turned her head and regarded the seat from which she plugged in to create a personal interface between her and the world . . .no, ship’s mind. So much information! And she thought the Library cubes were amazing. She laughed at herself now and did a little whirling dance at the wonder of it, her healing wound and aches slowing her only marginally.
But then she felt the shift beneath her feet. Not small, this one. She nearly fell to her knees. Managing to regain her balance as the violent shifting continued, she struggled to the massive door, palmed the panel to open it so she could go outside.
It remained closed.
Surprised, she repeated the process.
She said aloud: “Mu, please open the door.”
It is not safe.
Naera resisted turning. There was no one to face, no one into whose eyes she could look for clues and answers. “My people need me. Please open the door.”
It is not safe.
“That’s why I need to be out there!” She slapped her palms on the door. “Open it!”
It is not safe . . . for you.
"Wait," Noguerra said, "we're supposed to do what?"
Parke had no opportunity to reply The violent shift surprised and shocked them. Early training asserted itself and all of them who could get to their respective seats did so while others grabbed clutch bars and straps. Parke felt the webbing secure him so tightly that it caught at his breath. He strained to look around to ascertain that his crew were safe.
They were not.
As convulsive shudders continued to rock the ship, only those in secured seats were relatively safe. Holding onto the clutch handles proved fruitless for many of the non-bridge crew. Parke cursed himself inwardly for gathering everyone here, although he felt it was necessary to let everyone know what he’d discovered. The weight of the knowledge and what it meant to all of them felt heavier by the minute. As he watched his people being thrown about, heard the audible crunch of bones and the cries of alarm, he wanted to help them.
He could not.
The webbing wouldn’t release him. He struggled with it as someone screamed, the edges biting into his skin.
“Zennor, do you have your knife?”
“Yes.” The Exec wriggled in his own webbing, left hand straining. “Can’t get to it.” Their eyes met. “Are we stuck?”
They both winced as someone else screamed. Droplets of blood spattered the forward screen.
“Yes,” Parke said. “Dammit.”
Shinichi walked without thinking into the tool closet when the door opened as he was about to pass by on his way to meet with Fosdyke. Somewhat surprised when the door closed behind him, he turned and placed his palm on the panel.
And then the world turned upside-down. He tumbled inside the room, glad that the tools were secured and wouldn’t turn into flying missiles. He tried to grab the clutch handle, but kept missing. Finally he managed to wrap his arms through the open edges of a shelf and once he’d done that, wrapped his legs through the lower part of the shelf. And held on with all of his strength as the world continued to shake and roll.
He heard the faint thunder of security bulkheads slamming shut.
That was bad. Very bad.
Camlen put his palm to the door panel over and over, but it was of no use. The door remained shut. And now he was shut off from the rest of the habs as well because all of the emergency doors had closed off every section. He had tethered himself when everything began quaking, but he couldn’t get out. He couldn’t get into anything else. He watched things floating in their tiny, skewed orbits from him and felt hysteria bubbling up in his throat.
But it was only his meager meal from less than an hour previously.
The vomit spread out and away from him in the low gravity. The acrid taste of it remained in his mouth.
He pulled himself by his tether closer to the wall, curled up in a ball, tossed in a dizzying series of movements that had no rhyme or rhythm to them. Kind of like the world itself for him these dark days.
It was the bird that saved the children. The midday bell rang and they were about to leave their desks in the Library. But the bird appeared, diving at them, so that they ducked and shrieked. And when the world lurched around them, their chairs automatically webbed them into their seats.
Lanh was one of the few who hadn’t ducked, although he’d remained in his chair as he watched the bird fly about the room. His fingers involuntarily clutched at the edges of his desk as the world itself rumbled and growled. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that at the moment he was right where he was supposed to be.
“It’s helping us,” breathed Fehed.
Lanh turned his head. His fingers hurt with the strain of holding on so tightly. “It wouldn’t hurt us.”
“I believe you,” Fehed said. He jerked his head as a gesture for everything outside the Library. “What about everyone else?”
Lanh shook his head sadly.
The Infirmary activated its own fail-safe security to keep patients in their beds and doctors from flying about everywhichway. Straps webbed the patients onto their beds. The special boots that all medical personnel wore since the monad bomb magnetized at the first major physical shift, anchoring the doctors, nurses and medical apprentices where they stood. Training that had been pounded into them during childhood had them all hunkering down and grabbing onto anything to help keep them from weaving wildly and possibly injuring themselves.
Conscious patients moaned and wailed, frightened. Medical people tried to soothe them as best they could from where they were anchored.
Xie, stuck near the supply station, hugged a column and watched Doc Quy try to make her boots move so she could see to the patients. And seeing it made her smile and not be afraid.
One crew member was dead because of a broken neck. Twenty-seven were injured. They lined up outside of the tiny medic bay, waiting for the harassed and overworked medic to tend to them.
Parke and Zennor, two of those who had escaped serious injury, stood at the Port Passage. The security doors remained shut. They stared at it.
“Well,” Zennor said, “we can handle ourselves in here.”
Parke, his lips thinned in frustration, said, “No.”
“I know you want to be all friendly, but—“
“We have eighty-three Command crew,” Parke said evenly. “There are five hundred and sixty-four in Mechanical.” He paused. “And over twenty-five thousand in Residential.”
“I know,” Zennor said again, swallowing.
“And if that math doesn’t quite add up for you in a significant way, go ask your girlfriend how many days of fresh food we have,” Parke said, no longer trying to hide his anger as he turned.
Zennor opened his mouth, shut it, hesitated. He turned and raised his voice to carry to his Captain. “We can synthesize nutritional meals if we have to.”
Parke spread his arms wide as he turned around. “With what organic materials, Commander? Peaches? And then what?” He strode back until he stood within arms’ reach of the other man. He pointed a finger at Zennor’s chest. “Our clothes, our furniture, and all of our food come from Residential. Think about it. They’ll be fine without us, but we’re going to have a hell of a time without them.” He tapped the finger on Zennor’s insignia that some T-twelve colonist girl had sown on by hand. “Think about it,” he repeated. And this time when he turned, he kept on walking.