Earth and the Moon looked the same size from here. Catharin Gault hovered close to the glass in the middle of the long window that framed Earth in one end, the Moon in the other. The angular docks and cranes of the L5 shipyard slid into the scene. The blue planet slipped toward the edge of the frame. The new starship was yawing, window and all. She had to make her way to the fourth briefing so far today on as many urgent issues, but for a few stolen moments she marveled at the double planet half-lit by the Sun. Earth’s night side coruscated with the lights of vast cities. The Moon’s pale face was marked by faint spider-lines of settlement. Very soon, human civilization would reach toward a better world than the Moon, across a vastly greater, purifying, distance. And she would have a role in that. Her breath caught in her throat at the familiar but never comfortable thought.
As Earth touched the edge of the frame, movement in her peripheral vision attracted her attention. She recognized the stocky form of Bix—Captain Hubert Bixby—floating her way. His grizzled hair stuck out in the microgravity. “Cat, something’s come up. The Chicago Assessment office wants you to interview a last-minute prospect and tell them if we want him.”
“Why me? It’s their job.”
“Apparently, this guy’s got max qualifications of a sort you’re suited to judge, but he’s got one or two max disqualifications too. The assessor on duty kicked the problem to his higher-ups, and somebody routed it to you. The nearest telcon is the Test and Checkout chief’s. Let’s go borrow it.”
Taking the quickest cut, they cruised across the transport level bay. The bay bustled with activity. White-suited technicians dodged around them. Inspectors checked each shuttlecraft’s retaining rigs and braces. Other personnel darted in with replacement parts or revised checklists.
Catharin and Bix wore blue coveralls with red armbands that meant primary crew. The garb cleared a path for them. Even when they encountered five workers steering a heavy piece of equipment that outmassed the team, they managed to shove it out of the way for Bix and Catharin. “I’ve never felt so important,” Catharin murmured.
“Me either,” Bix said. “And I’ve never left on a mission knowing we wouldn’t come back.”
Catharin took a deep breath to damp down the dread and excitement that surged up at those words.
Bix made for the far wall of the open bay. gerald donovan, test and checkout supervisor transport level was lettered on a door that stood ajar. “Gerry?” Bix called. “Can you spare your telcon for a minor emergency?”
“Surely, and I’ll get out of the way,” said the white-haired man in the office.
“Chief Gerry Donovan. One of the best in the space construction business. Gerry, this is Catharin, our doctor. Her call won’t take long.”
“Take your time, Doctor. I’ve a pair of shuttles to see about. I don’t want them slipping as much as a centimeter when this ship decelerates at the end of the trip.” A pen floated in the corner of his office. Chief Donovan snared the pen with the bare toes of his right foot. With his left foot, he caught the jamb of the door to swing himself out of the office. His arms were shiny and artificial. Bilateral upper-limb deficiency, Catharin realized. Probably congenital. Trauma amputees never got that good using their feet as substitute hands.
Bix told Catharin, “Join the Transport briefing soon as you can.” He left with Donovan.
Catharin contacted the Chicago Assessment office. The back wall of the narrow office shimmered, then imaged a sparse Earthside room and a man slouching in a chair. The assessor was absent: this would be a private interview. The man wore expensive, stylish clothing. Dark hair curled over his suit collar and over the edges of a long, strong-boned face. The build matched the face, tall and lean, spilling out of the functional little chair.
Catharin said, “Good day. Let me apologize in advance for the fact that this will have to be quick. I’ve not much time. I’m Dr. Gault, the starship’s medical officer—”
He interrupted. “You’re the gatekeeper. So what do you need to know?”
“To begin with, who are you?”
She expected a verbal resume. But he just said, “Joseph Devreze.”
And that, she realized with a jolt, told her what she needed to know. “You recently won the Nobel Prize?”
“You’re not too busy to keep up with the news, eh?”
Catharin bit back a retort. She located Chief Donovan’s telcon touchpad below the surface of the desk and touched in a request for Devreze’s medical file. The file appeared in a window on the wall.
Devreze shifted in the chair. “I watch the news too, including coverage of the starship. I gather that alien conditions on some other world might call for organisms to be invented, tailor-made for whatever the strange environment is.” He had a clipped baritone voice with a clear timbre that Catharin would have liked in other circumstances. “I’m eminently qualified to do that.”
She had parked herself behind Chief Donovan’s desk with a leg hooked around the knee bar below the desk. Placing her elbows on the desk and folding her hands under her chin to make herself look grounded and secure, she said, “Yes, your qualifications do make you irresistible—almost.
“Almost?” He sounded startled. “Who do you want? God?”
“That would depend on His motives. Your participation in this mission depends on yours,” she said pleasantly.
“Why the hell do you care why I want to come?”
“Some people want to go to the stars to escape personal problems.” Glancing at the medical file, Catharin found the usual childhood illnesses, a high level of cardiovascular fitness, no present disorder, terminal or otherwise. “Do you have enemies?”
Devreze shrugged. “Only every scientist I ever trounced in professional journals.” He shifted in the chair.
Height six feet, four inches, said the medical file. Catharin preferred men at least as tall as she, and she was tall for a woman. Her sexual self, not aware of her fate in the near future, found this man interesting. She maintained a professional tone. “This trip will be final. Very final. The starship will not come back. Once the colony is founded, we hope to communicate with Earth, but it will take fifty years for such communication—one way.”
“I know. I told you I keep up with the news.”
“It’s my job today to make sure that you realize this is not just a concept. It’s your future. Do you have family?”
The file concurred: unmarried, no siblings or living parents. “I see. You have fewer reasons than many people to stay. But why do you want to go? You do have to answer that.”
He crossed his arms. “You could say I’ve done it all here.”
“Done it all?” she echoed, too floored for a more original remark.
“I’ve made it to the top in my field. Which happens to be one where people get rich and famous.”
“I’m aware of that. Novel organisms are very profitable. And people pay outrageous sums for cosmetic genetic alterations, such as calico hair.”
He looked directly at her for the first time in the interview. “Good thing you didn’t. You look better as a Nordic blonde.” Catharin restrained an inexplicable impulse to smile. Devreze rose and paced around the chair. He moved the way he talked, with abruptness, nervous energy. She scrolled to the top of the medical file to verify that he had blue eyes naturally, not courtesy of cosmetic alterations.
“The upshot is, what I’ve haven’t had, or done, or at least had offered to me, isn’t worth having,” Devreze concluded.
Catharin saw what the lower levels of Assessment had meant by, in Bix’s words, max disqualifications. Commitment to the starship mission—or close relatives so committed—constituted a believable, solid reason for people to leave Earth forever. Ennui was not a good reason. “Surely you could find another innovation to make.”
Catharin frowned. “Altering the human germ line is tightly regulated. Is that what you mean?”
“It’s the last biggest challenge I haven’t met,” he said.
“In other words, you find your playground too confining,” she said, her tone biting.
Devreze sat down. “I fear stagnation. When you’re a scientist and peak early, sometimes you never do anything wonderful ever again.” He steepled his hands and gazed into the space between them. He had long, sculpted fingers. His hands should have belonged to a surgeon. “Altering terrestrial animals for alien conditions—that’s a challenge I’ve not had. And won’t, unless I go with the starship. I could live for that.”
“Could you die for that? The journey will last almost three centuries. Colonists and crew will be in stasis, which is a cold suspended animation. It is not a kind of sleep. There is a small but significant chance of dying in stasis. Never coming out alive.”
“So, it’s a risk. So’s staying here and being put in the science hero’s trophy case.”
She had to be relentless at this point in the interview. But the job of making people realize what the mission entailed was easier for assessors who were not going themselves. She had to name the same truths that haunted her every night at 3 am. “Everyone you’ve ever known on Earth will be gone when you are revived. They won’t be just too far away to talk to. Died, buried, and disintegrated back into the molecules they were made of.” She paused, pressing her lips together.
He bowed his head, forefinger and thumb clamped to the bridge of his nose. “I’m not much of a social animal. But there are people who mean something to me. I understand you.”
“And every home you’ve ever known . . .” Her voice was rough; her own raw emotion showed. But all that mattered now was that he understand the enormity of what he wanted to do. “Everything will be gone.”
“Even the grass and the trees. After several more centuries of ecological disaster on Earth, the planet will be different.”
“That’s not a reason to stay,” he said.
“I know.” After moments of silence, she went on, “As for the new world, astronomers have located a planet much like Earth, orbiting a star fifty light-years from here.” She found it easier to talk about the new world than the old one. “The chances that it has a large moon are more than ninety percent—so far so good—the chance of at least a primitive ecosphere, more than fifty percent. That means seasons, blue-green algae, and a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere are probable. It does not mean we can expect trees, birds, flowers—that kind of ecosystem has a very low probability.” But oh, how we hope for it! “The likelihood of intelligent life is less than a millionth of one percent.”
Devreze shrugged. “Fine. Nobody to argue with us about our right to invade them.”
“What I’m saying is, it won’t be paradise. Only after generations of terraforming will it be pretty. You won’t live long enough to see forests in the open air.”
“I can live without trees.” Then he gave her another direct blue gaze. “What about you? Are you tired of crowded cities and dying forests?”
“That’s one reason for people to leave Earth. But it’s not mine.”
“Then . . . ?” His smile was surprisingly winsome. “I told you the truth, even though it’s not what you wanted to hear.”
Catharin said, “Civilization is diseased, and the diseases are very advanced. War, pollution, and oppression are the kind of things I mean. Overpopulation is another.”
“I can’t help that,” he said offhandedly, “legally.”
“Nor I, nor anyone else. We can’t save the world. But if we start afresh on a new world—with the all of the lessons we’ve learned here, and science, but without the bloody history that keeps repeating itself—we can make a better civilization.”
Joseph Devreze laughed suddenly and sharply, an outburst of either scorn or pain. “I hope you have better medical judgment than philosophical, Doctor!”
“Civilization is the disease.”
Catharin felt her face heat with a flush. “I think not. I do not regard a patient with cancer as disease itself. And I don’t see the blight of cities as anything more—or less—than disease. It may not be curable at this stage. But it’s preventable in a different future.”
He tilted his head, listening with an intensity that gave her a quick thrill of satisfaction. Then he countered, “If you’d ever seen the black hearts of the big cities under the power towers, you’d know it’s not the moral equivalent of heartworm. It’s the heart of darkness.”
She wanted to retort, How do you know, you sheltered scientist? But she just held up her hand. “We’ll continue this discussion later. Much later.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re in. But you were almost too late, as today is the last day for colonists to report to the ship. Take the next shuttle up.” She shut the visuals off.
He’d drawn out of her the ideals that she usually kept to herself. And he’d attacked them. Fight-or-flight adrenaline coursed through her system. She would have preferred to fight. It was an act of will for her to assign Devreze to the appropriate place in the colonial force. Tier One.
According to the plans in the Mission Book, she would be revived as soon as the ship found its star. Only later, after the colony was founded, would the people in Tier One be revived. So Devreze would come out of cryostasis ten years later than she.
Catharin tried to remember when she had ever found a total stranger—much less an objectionably arrogant one—so attractive. She drew a blank. Maybe never. She shook her head, baffled by the coils of coincidence and necessity.
Catharin’s days had been getting longer and harder, and this was the worst yet. From 0600 until 1700 hours, Catharin worked in the hospital in the starship as most of the starship’s crew were initiated into stasis. All the while, the distinctive smell of a brand-new spacecraft—pristine plastic and fresh paint and sealants breezed by the circulating air system—reminded Catharin that this was no ordinary hospital, or day.
And then the hospital had been shut down, until it would be needed again to populate a colony on the other side of the stars. Catharin said good-bye to the team of medical personnel who had put all of the colonists and most of the crew into stasis. Most of the medics left on shuttles that would take them home to Earth.
As a primary crewmember, Catharin possessed the keys to the kingdom of the starship. In the lowest level of the deserted hospital, she let herself into the maintenance passageways. In a longitudinal passageway, she started to run.
The passageway seemed to curve upward, reflecting the curvature of the spherical starship. The ship was spinning now, which created artificial gravity, and Catharin quickly tired, but she kept running—toward something scheduled for twenty minutes from now, and into the exhaustion that would let her tolerate that event.
Smooth and well lighted, the passageway had system control panels at fifty-meter intervals, and the new-spaceship smell. This ship’s name was Aeon. A Greek word; a reminder of the bright beginning of civilization when frail sailing craft sailed on the Aegean Sea, in the light of an impossibly distant moon. Aeon was made of that very moon—most of the ship’s structural materials had been mined on the Moon and ferried to the shipyard here at L5. This was the greatest machine ever built. But not the most sophisticated. In the larger scheme of things, Aeon was nothing more than a sturdy packing crate, meant to carry the powers of terraforming—genetic and environmental engineering, nanoscale biological and material science, the seeds of ecosystem, and human beings—to the stars. It would be a very rough and perilous trip. Just get us there safe, Catharin repeated, like a mantra as she ran. Just get us there safe.
The gravity lessened as she ran out of the ship’s equatorial region, toward the north pole. Panting, Catharin checked her watch. She would not make it to the crew level in time. She was still breathing hard as she emerged from the chase network near a transport level window. Now that the ship had spin-gravity, she could not simply float close to the middle of the window to look out at a wide swath of space. There was down now. The transport level window reminded her of church architecture. A window that made you see out and up.
Visible upward was the enormous bulk of the star shield at the north end of the ship and a rectangle of space. The regular spin of the starship took the window past the gleaming, angular shipyards at L5. Catharin sat down. She bowed her head, not wanting to cross gazes with the personnel congregating near the window.
A cool, stiff hand touched her shoulder. “May I join you?” Chief Donovan asked. He settled down, cross-legged and still barefoot. “I hope your call the other day went well.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Look now, there’s the Moon in our window.” Luna arched across the view, its apparent speed reflecting the brisk rotation of the starship. “You expect to see one like it, I understand, when the journey’s done.”
Catharin nodded. “It’s vital that the new world have a moon.”
“Our own surely has an ugly face.” He spoke with a quiet intensity that was more than conversational. “Sometimes, Doctor, Nature throws problems at you, out of the blue—or out of the black, as the case may be, like the meteors that smashed into the Moon and the Earth, early on.” He waved toward the window with one artificial hand.
“Short-term exposure to environmental toxins, in utero?” she asked.
“Yes. It affected only my arms, not my legs or my brain. But I’ve found that doctors aren’t as uneasy about me as most other folks. A bit more likely to listen to what I have to say, rather than just stare at what they see.”
With white hair that gleamed in the starlight, he was too old to go to the stars. And so he was sending his thoughts instead. Catharin asked, “Is there something I should hear from you?”
He made a small satisfied movement. “My dear mother always told me, ÔYou must embrace what God gives you, even if you’re given no arms.’”
Catharin tilted her chin up. Even as a child, she’d always reacted with that gesture, silently objecting, at what sounded unreasonable. Today, adult, she said, “I don’t believe that.”
“Well and good, but in my own experience, Doctor, the Universe, or God, or Nature, name it what you will, does throw problems at you, and she doesn’t seem to care who you are, or how many she strikes down. But what happens after that, depends.”
He flexed his hairless hands, deliberately. “Attitude, Doctor. Looking for the blessing behind the curse. Feet as dexterous as hands are an asset in space, and I’ve had a long and fine career up here. Only, you must remember that you just can’t say to the meteor, begone. Or wish arms where there are none. I’ve decided that was what my mother really meant for me to hear. Some things will never be the way they might have been, so you must accept them the way they are. Plans are good, training better yet, but not if they blind you and bind you in the face of the unexpected.”
Numb, Catharin nodded.
A pleasant, androgynous voice resonated through the level. “Attention, please. The shutters will close in ten minutes.”
Most of the murmuring crowd here were Transport workers, wearing sturdy coveralls. Self-conscious in her thin blue shorts and shirt piped in telltale red, Catharin felt grateful for Chief Donovan’s company. The starship would have to leave the Donovans behind. And take an arrogant Devreze. It was grossly unfair. But stasis would have deleterious effects on the human body, worse with increased age of the subject. A strict age cutoff had been imposed on colonists and crew alike.
“The shutters are closing.”
Catharin shivered. She had been dreading this moment for days. Of all final preparations, this one bespoke finality most clearly for her.
Massive shutters crept from each side toward the middle to mesh together, to shield the window from the hazards of the interstellar medium. There was a subaudible sound, or vibration, that propagated through the superstructure. Catharin felt light-headed, caught herself hyperventilating. No, she thought, I can’t afford claustrophobia. Not now. It’s not being trapped. She stared at the black window that now had only a jagged thread of stars running down the middle of it. It’s protection against what the universe might throw at us. She fought for calm and for some kind of proactive stance, not just sitting here being afraid. She heard herself say, “Thank you for your advice. I’m going to take it right away.”
“I beg your pardon? I thought it was the sort of advice to keep on hand for a rainy day.”
“We’ve been doing simulations of different planetfall scenarios. But we haven’t had one where the universe throws such a curve at us that we can’t save the mission in its nominal form. And we need that kind of attitude check. The Sim Supervisor is a friend of mine. I’m going to ask him to arrange something.” Catharin added, “Talk about rainy days—the Sim Supe can make it pour.”
As often as she sat at the Life Systems station, and as intently as she played her part in the simulations, Catharin had never felt jaded in the control center, never failed to be awed. The control center of Aeon was a vast, vaulted room with massively scaled elements. The primary crew stations rimmed a large, elevated platform, behind which one high wall was taken up by a visual screen. Nicknamed the Big Picture, the main screen showed pictures and diagrams of the ship and its situation in vast scope and detail. Subsidiary stations were serried in rows along the length of the center, and screens filled the walls beside them with floor-to-ceiling information visuals.
A window in the Big Picture showed a small pair of points of light, blue and white, representing a new planet with its moon. What dominated the Big Picture was the Sun—close up, brilliant, with turbulent chromosphere and several sunspots.
Not the Sun, Catharin corrected her thinking. A strange star that looks and behaves like the Sun, so far. In simulation, Aeon at perihelion was swinging around the new sun on its way to rendezvous with the new world. Primary and secondary crew were on station. In the gallery, a dozen or so observers took copious notes for the debriefing later. Catharin noticed the white hair of Gerry Donovan in the top row of the gallery.
Captain Bixby paced between the Command and Flight stations. He called to Catharin, “Medical, how’s stasis?”
“Stasis systems are solidly cold, no hot spots,” Catharin reported. Her workstation screen was crammed with simulated reports from the stasis vaults in the bowels of the ship.
Miguel Torres-Mendoza, who shared the Life Systems station with Catharin, said calmly, “All is well.”
“Not for long,” came a whisper over the medical link. Catharin recognized the voice of the Sim Supervisor, audible only in her headset. “Ready for the show, Dr. Gault?”
She double-clicked her microphone back and looked up at the image of the sun in the Big Picture as the Sim Supervisor altered it. On the limb of the sun, the edge of the lake of fire, sunspots multiplied in number. An incalescent ribbon—brilliantly hot—wound among the dark, cool spots like a snake.
The ship had autonomous, watchful instruments and an Intelligence to run them. But the ship did not sound an alarm. No one in the control center remarked on the altered sun either. The Sim Supe’s whisper told her, “Oh, thank you. You’ve helped me catch everybody off guard.”
Bix turned toward the Engineering station. “Any heat and tidal effects registering on the ship, Orlov?”
“Nominal,” said the chief engineer, a square-jawed man with thick eyebrows and hair going gray around the edges.
Behind the spots and the bright ribbon, a spike of sun-stuff stood out against the edge of black space. The Sim Supe morphed the rim of the sun into a solar prominence. As the ship hurtled around the sun, the prominence grew more conspicuous. The flare ribbon didn’t get your attention, so look at me, it said.
Bix turned on his heels, casually glanced up at the Big Picture, and did a double take. “Omigod!” Other people made puzzled noises, but the gears in Bix’s head were ratcheting to high, Catharin thought, observing his body language. “All stations! Power down all systems down to minimum. Shut whatever you can all the way off! Pilot! Turn us so the star shield is facing the far limb of the sun!”
“Uh, Roger!” replied Joel Foster at Flight station. A window materialized in the Big Picture to show Aeon superimposed on a coordinate grid. “Twenty-six point five minutes.” Aeon was not a nimble spacecraft. You might as readily turn a small mountain.
Bix growled, “Make it under twenty.”
“Captain? That solar prominence is only a hundred thousand kilometers high, or so,” someone on a subsidiary station said. “We won’t run into it.”
“It’s not just a prominence. It’s a solar flare,” Bix retorted. “Dead ahead.”
A murmur of consternation swept through the control center. The observers in the gallery leaned closer, intent.
“The guardian code didn’t know to look out for this kind of event either!” Bix bent over the Command station interface—a rugged but failsafe keyboard. He hammered it with his fingers, overriding the ship’s programming. Alarm lights and signals sounded all over the control center.
The image of the sun crescendoed into false-color mappings of radio, ultraviolet, gamma ray, particle, and magnetic field emissions. A storm of color boiled off the surface of the sun. Aeon would be a mote caught in the maelstrom.
“Shielding sufficient to protect us from cosmic radiation is sufficient to protect us from solar events,” said a woman at the Astro/Survey station, quoting the Mission Book word for word. But she sounded worried.
“Yeah, but does it say that holds true when we’re this close to a sun? Look it up,” Bix snapped.
Bix paced toward Life Support. He covered the mike of his headset to address Catharin only. “Is this what you meant when you said we should run an attitude check?”
“Good idea, damn it. Life Support, how fluid is the water?”
Miguel answered, “It was not supposed to freeze in starflight, and with the exception of some incidental ice, it—”
Bix cut him off. “Good. Dump the reservoirs into circulation.”
“That’s a good call,” Miguel remarked to Catharin as he keyed in commands to move the water. “Water is a radiation buffer. Circulating it in the pipes will help protect us.”
“Program the ship announcer for an evacuation order,” Bix ordered.
“Where?” asked Miguel.
Bix stalked back toward the Flight station. “Joel, can we keep the star shield turned into the brunt of the storm all the way through it?”
“The attitude thrusters’ll go haywire in the storm unless they’re shut down,” Joel answered. “It’s an electromagnetic pulse situation—right, Orlov?”
The chief engineer spoke slowly. “Expect voltage surges in circuits throughout the ship as a result of the sunstorm, and incident gamma radiation causing random bit errors in the control circuits.”
“Random bit errors?” echoed somebody at a subsidiary station. “There are always those.”
“Not like this,” Bix answered. Catharin had never seen him so galvanized. “Hordes of errors. Some’ll do mischief. Remember, this ship is a distributed computer with machinery stuck on the ends.”
Orlov said, “Under these circumstances, attitude thruster malfunction is probable. I recommend against using them.”
“Then I can’t guarantee our backside won’t catch hell from the sunstorm,” Joel said.
“The stasis vaults, in the very middle of the ship, are the best place for people to be,” Catharin said. “The deeper into the stasis vaults the better.”
Bix said, “Life Support, announce a general evacuation to the central ranks of the stasis vaults.”
Joel looked over at Catharin with a lifted eyebrow. “The more frozen people between us and radiation, the more cover?”
“They’ve got stasis containers around them. We don’t,” she said.
Bix said, “Also announce that the ship’s elevators are not to be used. It’s ladders all the way. In a sunstorm the ‘vators might stop working—or go the wrong way.”
Joel groaned. “Exercise, here we come!”
Bix turned toward Engineering. “Orlov, we’ve got to have the engine on to keep up the ship’s magnetic field. That field will shield us from ionized particle radiation. But it’ll also get a helluva twang. What do you advise? Turn off the engine and the field and let the material shielding handle the radiation—or keep the engine on and put up with massive induced voltages in the engines?”
Orlov protested. “Main engine damage would leave us unable to make planetfall!”
“Dead in the water,” Bix agreed.
Joel said tersely, “We’ve started running into radiation effects. I’ve got static in the thruster control circuits.”
The control center hummed with the signal lights and chimes of dozens of ship systems being shut down. Catharin took the stasis control substations on every level offline, so that no concatenation of random bit errors in computer chips would accidentally revive someone from stasis. Beside her, Miguel muttered in Spanish. On the Big Picture, the sunstorm lifted into the chromosphere like an ominous, gaudy banner.
“Man, look at all those sunspots. This star is sick!” Joel said.
Bix said, “Ours gets that way. I rode out the solar storm of seventy-three on the Regina. We turned around at Venus and limped home. Almost didn’t make it.” He scowled at the memory. “Aeon’s closer to the event than we were then, but better shielded against cosmic rays, and this is just a solar flare, so—”
“Captain?” said the woman at Astro/Survey. “It’s bigger. If this were our sun, it’d be a ten-thousand-year event.”
Joel whistled. “Sounds like Sim Supe ran out of likely possibilities and started in on unlikely ones.”
Miguel spoke up. “Without the ship’s magnetic field to deflect ions around the ship, many more particles from the sun will stream through the ship. There will be secondary radiation when those particles strike the hull and the corridor walls and—” he shot Catharin a dark, serious glance “—the stasis container walls. The people in the containers will experience damaging secondary radiation.”
“Damn,” Catharin whispered. “We have to save them from that.”
“Right. We keep up the magnetic field and risk damaging the engines,” Bix said, grim and terse. “I figure one hour to max trouble. Then two or three hours of transit through the storm and what can go wrong, will,” he said.
Orlov said, “Does that mean we’ve got four or more hours of this charade left?”
“Damn right.” Sweat beaded across Bix’s forehead. “And it may turn out to be Judgment Day.”
“I object!” Orlov’s words sounded so out of place that Catharin broke off what she was doing to stare at the engineer. Other faces turned toward Orlov in equal surprise. He slammed his hand on the console and continued, “We need to practice doing this part of the mission right. Instead, what we have here is so unrealistic that it’s absurd!”
“No,” said the voice of the Sim Supervisor, on the common link, audible to everyone. “Not unrealistic. Merely unlikely. There’s a big difference. Proceed, ladies and gentlemen.”
The narrow pallet extended out from an opening in the wall in the small, barren white room. The pallet’s medical chart bore only a name: catharin firenze gault. The chart was blank because it hadn’t been activated yet, Catharin reminded herself. Not because she was dead. At least not yet.
Catharin gingerly seated herself on the pallet to wait. It was cold in here. Her clothing was no help. The close-fitting underwear, patterned with small tubes woven throughout like lace, would cool her body in stasis, and the tubing already felt chilly to her skin.
She stared at the square opening in the wall. When she reached the first unconscious stage of stasis, the pallet would slide into the wall—carrying her into the stasis container, which stood open, waiting like a crypt.
Two more containers in this vault waited for Bix and Joel. Their time would come a few days from now.
Shivering, Catharin felt vulnerable, anticipating the arrival of the medic who would put her into stasis. Would the medic be aloof? Skittish? Or absurdly reverent, as though embalming her for the hero’s grave? She had seen all of those attitudes in medics putting people into stasis.
The chamber door swung open. A silver-haired old woman entered the room, moving with the hesitancy of somebody unaccustomed to anything but Earth gravity. Astounded, Catharin said, “Miranda?”
Miranda Blum, the chief assessor, and long before that, Catharin’s favorite professor from medical school, and now the last face Catharin would see before the stars, hugged her. Catharin felt Miranda’s embrace through the stiff lacy tubes of the cryogenic underwear. Then Miranda attached an intravenous line to Catharin’s arm. Stasis chemicals began trickling through the tube into Catharin’s body.
“Are you frightened?” Miranda asked.
“Very,” Catharin said in a low voice.
“Good. Otherwise I’d assess you abnormal. Think of it as death.”
“That’s what I’m trying not to think.”
“Give up. Relax.” Miranda sounded calm. “We all leave this world sooner or later.”
“You took a chance, Miranda, coming into space. Your time could have come sooner.”
Miranda shrugged. “Not much sooner.” She was 112 years old, nearing the longest life span that modern medicine had enabled people to attain. “I wanted to apologize to you.”
“For preparing me for this?” Catharin remembered hours of lectures and grueling tests in the medical field of cryostasis. At dinners and teas in Miranda’s home, the professor had shared her fears about the future of civilization on Earth and her dreams about the stars, and helped Catharin form her own.
“For your career choice, I congratulate myself. The apology is a different matter. Do you remember Joseph Devreze? I reviewed your interview with him, afterwards.”
“He’s not easy to forget. Miranda, did I make the right decision about him?”
“Quite. It was the decision I’d have made, had I wanted to live with the consequences. Which I most definitely did not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Devreze lied to you, my dear. He had antagonized someone with inordinate political influence. Never mind the details—the matter will be of no relevance on the other end of your trip. To put it briefly, it was made clear to me that if I let Devreze escape to the stars, both my reputation and my finances would be ruined in retaliation. I must say, Devreze picked no ordinary enemy.”
Catharin felt her face flush with anger. “That bastard.”
Miranda chuckled. “Yes, but an invaluable bastard. Officially, I left the office on urgent business, and a resourceful staffer passed the case on to you. I orchestrated it so that the person accountable for admitting Devreze into the starship—you—won’t be coming back either.”
Catharin vented her consternation in a long sharp breath. “And he lied through his teeth. It’s a good thing I’ll have ten years awake to cool off before I see him again.”
Miranda checked her watch. “What do you think of my choices, especially the rest of the crew?”
There was a taste on Catharin’s tongue now, like a laboratory chemical or bad white wine. Catharin heard herself say, “Since you ask, I’m not sure that Orlov is the right chief engineer.”
Miranda’s elegantly thin eyebrows arched up. “He was the best qualified inside the age limits. Credentials, psychological stability, motivation—Orlov has it all.”
“He’s barely inside the age limits. Just like Bix,” Catharin said. “But unlike Bix, he can be too rigid. We had one simulation that was the kind called Judgment Day, where everything goes wrong. It was grueling. And he was uncooperative. He demanded that things go right, not wrong. I think his stability can manifest itself as rigidity under certain kinds of stress.”
“Oh, I don’t think you should worry about him.”
“I’m not worried.” That was true. The beginning of stasis involved anesthesia that felt somewhat like inebriation. Catharin felt her worries trickling away.
“Remember that the gate has two sides. It’s more of an airlock, really.”
“When the ship reaches the new world, someone will have to decide who to let out of stasis, and when. For a while, you will be the gatekeeper. If Orlov really is unsuitable, revive his backup.”
“That’s tempting,” Catharin murmured. She felt relaxed, almost woozy. “His backup is a good friend of mine.”
“Do you have a personal-effects locker?”
Catharin twisted around to reach a latch beside the vault. A small locker door hinged down.
Miranda took something out of her pocket and showed it to Catharin: a man’s heavy, plain wedding band. “I would have given this to my own child, if I had children. It’s an heirloom from my husband’s family. May I give it to you, instead?”
Feeling light-headed, Catharin lay back on the pallet. “That would mean so much to me that I don’t know what to say, except thank you.”
Miranda Blum added the ring to Catharin’s jewelry bag and snapped the locker door shut. “It belonged to my husband’s great-grandfather, who fled from Europe to America in the mid-twentieth century as a refugee. He left behind his house, his homeland, wearing the clothes on his back and the ring on his finger. But he took his violin, of all things to drag around the world when his life was in danger! He was a classical violinist, you see. Culture was as important to him as life itself.”
“We have music. To help wake up, we’ve prerecorded instructions to ourselves with music.” The white ceiling swam in Catharin’s sight. She closed her eyes.
“You have everything,” Miranda said. “Never before have people been able to take everything at once, to a truly new world.”
Dark light swirled behind her eyelids as Catharin murmured, “Books. Music. Science. Medicine . . .”
She felt Miranda’s hand pressing hers, and heard Miranda say in a voice choked with feeling, “And all my love.”
Catharin sank into a brightly dark oblivion.
She dreamed of herself as a pane of glass, a window fixed between a winter night and a dimly lit dining room with table and china place settings, empty. Congealed motionless, colder than cold, she did not freeze. Frozen water crystallizes into ice or snow. Glass does not.
A voice told her to wake up. The star flight is over, wake up, urged the voice, contralto—Catharin’s own. She willed her eyelids to open, and saw a blurred whiteness, a ceiling above her. I am in the starship, and the journey is over, said the voice. Music percolated into Catharin’s mind with the voice, and the bright notes helped Catharin comprehend the words.
The starship had left Earth centuries ago. Never to return to the home world. The ship had crossed star space to terraform a new planet: still nothing but the future’s plan. For her, now, reality was only a sliver of possibility, so narrow that it constricted her heart, which could find no space to make a beat. Her blood stagnated. The edges of the ceiling frayed to blackness.
The music—a simple, strong, lilting melody—moved her out of paralysis. She bent her arms. That hurt but gave sudden depth and breadth to her reality. Her heart pounded; her blood coursed, free fluid. She sobbed in relief.
Catharin felt cold from the inside out. A draft felt warm on her face and blew strands of hair into her eyes. The draft came from the wall behind, from her niche in the stasis vault. The stasis machinery had extended her pallet out of the vault and into the room. For another minute she just listened to Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The voice speaking over the music in her ears said, “This is all about people building a new life in a new world, and that’s exactly what I’m here for, and it’s time to get up now.”
Flexing her hands felt like finding shards of glass in every joint. But she knew what had to be done. She had practiced often enough. Methodically she disconnected the stasis tubes from her body. She took out the earplug, still playing her prerecorded voice and music. Pushing back the stasis shroud, she sat up. She gasped as pain flared through her torso like a firecracker burst.
She looked around for Bix and Joel. They lay on their own pallets, all but motionless. Despite the ministrations of the stasis machinery, which for nine hours had slowly warmed and detoxified the blood and given patterned electrical stimulation to their muscles, the male astronauts had not completely revived.
Everyone you’ve ever known on Earth will be gone. She remembered explaining that to someone else. Now it hit her. Faces swam in her mind’s eye. People she’d loved, liked, hated. All of them were dead.
Miranda Blum had stood beside her before stasis.
Miranda had been dead for centuries.
Alive, awake, utterly alone, Catharin swayed on the brink of panic. Friends and colleagues and thousands of colonists lay in the vaults. Cryostasis was an unnatural condition closer to death than to life. At worst something went wrong and it destroyed its subjects. Had everything gone wrong? she wondered frantically.
Then she remembered the Book. Mission rules, the Book, specified what the first crewmember revived from stasis had to do with total concentration. Help the other two up.
Standing, Catharin found her flight coveralls where she had left them, folded and clamped in a rack on the wall, but a strange silver dust rimed them now. She shook off the dust and painfully climbed in. A weird tang coated her tongue, the aftertaste of stasis chemicals in her bloodstream.
As she fumbled with the coveralls, the bold shoulder patch caught her eye. Over the letters AEON 2093, it depicted something like a Christmas tree ornament, a ball with a tapering spike on one end and a knob on the other. Catharin traced the edges of the shiny silver design with her finger. Like an ornament onto a tree, the starship had to be hooked onto a new planet. It was up to the crew to do it. She managed to zip up her coveralls, then turned to her colleagues.
She switched on the medical chart labeled hubert “bix” bixby. Bix was very much alive, vital signs excellent, hovering just below the threshold of consciousness. Catharin expelled a shaky sigh, disconnected his tubes, and removed his earplug. The voice-and-music cue had not been enough to wake him. Taking his hand, she talked about the ship having made its voyage, and work needing to be done, until his eyes snapped open. “Ship okay?” His voice was a sandpapery rasp.
“If you’ll get up, we can find out,” she answered. He moved, giving an explosive groan.
The other medical chart said joel john atlanta. His color was good—the rich, chocolate skin color of the healthy Joel. His shroud looked ruffled, so he had stirred without rousing. “Joel. Good morning. Time to rise and shine.” As she disconnected him from the stasis machines, he moaned. Catharin touched his hand. Her pale fingers contrasted with his dark skin. “Joel, we’re here. Wake up—” with deliberate significance, she added, “—star voyager,” and gently moved his arm back and forth.
He smiled faintly. “Cat. Hi. Ouch.”
The men donned their flights coveralls with pained groans and expletives. Then Joel laughed. “We’re here!”
“We hope,” Catharin said.
“Let’s go find out,” Bix grunted. The three of them stumbled out of the stasis room. “What’s this gravity?” Bix asked.
“A sixth g or so,” said Joel. “Which means we’re still accelerating.”
The starship had slowly, steadily accelerated ever since it left Earth, and must have reached a velocity of—the numbers slipped from the grasp of Catharin’s mind. What mattered was to start the countdown to braking, when the Ship would let the new sun claim it.
They staggered around the Axis, the huge column that ran down into the heart of the Ship. Bix led the way through the hatch into the flight deck. He and Joel began activating the flight control stations. Hundreds of informative little lights came on.
“Wanna view, Cat?” Joel flipped a switch.
Bix growled, “I want coffee.”
“The first thing you’ll get is destasis medicine,” Catharin said.
On the far wall, a string of stars appeared. The string broadened as the shield-shutter rolled back. Catharin approached the window, a deep-walled slit in the Ship’s hull.
The starship Aeon was a sphere with a great spike of an engine driving it. Opposite the engine, Aeon had a wide, convex shield that the hurtling ship presented to the hazards of deep space. The crew level lay in the valley between the star shield and the orb where ten thousand colonists lay in stasis. Catharin itched to know how the colonists had fared. But it was too early to check. The Book said: first, ascertain that the Starship has reached its destination. Joel and Bix were tasked with that.
At present, up—toward the star shield and the Ship’s north pole—was the direction of the Ship’s ongoing acceleration. Looking down through the flight deck window, Catharin saw Aeon’s bulk as a wide horizon against the drifting stars. Aeon did not shine like its depiction on the coverall shoulder patches. It looked tarnished, not new anymore.
“Chronometer on,” Bix said.
“Twenty-three seventy-two,” Joel said. “About right.” Nearly three centuries of star flight had aged the skin of Aeon.
A chill clung to the window’s glass and made the nearby air feel cold. The Ship’s hull had cold-soaked in the sunless spaces between the stars. Three days ago, the machinery had automatically begun warming up only the crew level. Pumping livable heat into all of the environs of Aeon would take a full year and a sun.
“Time for the auto-observatory’s report,” Bix said. The three of them exchanged tense glances.
A new sun flooded into the window with light that flashed across the flight deck. Eyes watering from the glare, Catharin dimly saw Bix switch on the auto-observatory interface.
Then Bix swore. The silence cracked like shattered glass. “It isn’t here.”
“What! It is the wrong star?!” Joel demanded.
Catharin asked, “The planet isn’t here?”
“Right star. Planet, too. It’s the moon,” Bix said. “The goddamned moon’s not here.”
Catharin’s mind skidded on slick, hard incomprehension. There won’t be any music here—No. Music had nothing to do with it. Without a moon, there would never be seasons here. There would be no Spring.
“We better defrost reinforcements,” Joel said. He sounded shaken.
The galley smelled of coffee. The two mission specialists did not partake; they had to drink their destasis medicine first. Joel summarized the situation for them. “Repeat. No moon, much less a good-sized one,” he concluded, and glowered into his coffee.
The planetologist’s name was Lary Siroky-Scheidt. Lary’s sour face showed that he found the destasis medicine, the situation, or both, unpalatable.
Nguyen El Ae, the other specialist, said weakly, “That is very bad.”
Bix said, “Remember, the Book does not assume that we have no choice but to stay here. It has several fallback options. We can select from those if we have to, and go back into stasis while the Ship goes on.”
Joel relaxed a bit. “Yeah.”
Catharin almost objected immediately. Instead, she glanced around the small group. Nguyen had youth in his favor. So did Catharin herself. Not so Joel with his salt-and-pepper hair. Lary had salt-and-cayenne, and Bix’s years had made his hair solidly gray. The dangers of stasis increased with the subject’s age.
“The options are why we thawed you out, Nguyen,” Bix said. “You’re the right man to evaluate three centuries of auto-astronomy, and tell us which direction looks the best these days.”
PhD in astrophysics, PhD in computer science, genuine genius: Nguyen was the right man for that job. At that moment he looked more like a boy: young, slight, rumpled, and plainly feeling ill.
Catharin protested, “But we came so far, to this one place, because we thought there’d be a moon. It took us so long to get here!”
“Not in astronomical time,” Joel said, and asked Lary, “What could happen to a moon in just a few centuries?”
“Well. Something could. Happen, I mean.” Clutching his drink, Lary took a swig. “Yech! Collision with something big. Or close encounter with a stray black hole, tidal forces breaking up the moon. Or tearing it out of its orbit. That sort of thing’s not likely, but possible.”
But unfair! Catharin had to bite back an outburst of protest. They had come so far, so successfully; they had known what to expect as no explorers ever before. How dare the universe do this to us?
Lary said, “No moon means the planet has an unstable axis of rotation. And that in turn means no regular, predictable seasons in the temperate zones, plus a catastrophically erratic climate across time.” He sounded alert and coherent. But too chipper, as though he were talking about a hypothetical world, and not their lost future.
Joel drained his coffee cup and hurled it toward the used-dish receptacle. “It was here.”
Bix nodded. “But the moon was right at the resolution limit of the visual interferometry.”
“Before we left, the astronomers observed this planet and said the orbital perturbations verified the planet had a moon. They were sure the moon was here. Instead, we get nothing!”
“Not nothing,” Bix corrected him. “The planet is in the habitable zone, though toward the outer edge of it. Bigger than Mars and warmer too.”
“That’s hopeful,” Lary said.
Joel shook his head. “We can’t come this far and settle on something not much better than Mars.”
“Apart from Earth, Mars was more habitable than any other body in the Solar System,” Lary said testily. “I should know. I was born and raised there.”
“Not good enough,” Joel said. “We’ve got to push on.”
Nguyen drained his glass, put it down, and closed his eyes, evidently fighting queasiness. Catharin watched him with concern. Then the empty glass distracted her. It crept across the table on its own, like a snail, on a trail of condensation.
Joel noticed her consternation. He pushed the glass back. “Ship spins—gyroscopic stabilization.” That was right, Catharin remembered now, and loose objects would migrate outward. She wondered if other knowledge that should have been immediate and obvious was no longer so, in her mind, or in the minds of her colleagues, after the long stasis.
Bix said, “All right. Given that none of us have gotten our hands dirty with the up-to-the-minute facts in our areas—how do we feel about what to do? Cat?”
“The bottom line in my field is, first, do no harm,” she replied. “I’ve got to be sure that more time in stasis won’t damage everyone.”
“Joel, I take it you’d want to go on.”
Lary burst out at Joel, “Be realistic! The best we can expect to find is a barren world that won’t be greened up until long after we’re deceased.”
“Maybe, but I want my great-grandkids to have woods,” Joel said. “And seasons. Not just altiplano grass and twenty kinds of sand.”
Lary snapped, “People on Mars don’t feel deprived!”
“I wonder . . . ,” Nguyen ventured. “Was it meant to happen this way?”
“How so?” asked Bix.
“They sent us here, but there’s nothing but further possibilities. But the auto-observatory is very good. Maybe the Aeon Foundation meant for us to look at the stars here and figure out the next move for ourselves—”
Lary snorted. “This is not a guessing game!”
“Okay, Lary wants to stay. I take it you’re inclined to go on, Nguyen,” Bix said.
Nguyen nodded with stiff dignity.
Catharin said, “Bix?”
He sighed. “I’d like to keep going. But we’ve got ten thousand passengers down there. Your point about the stasis doing harm is well taken.” Then he said, “Two to go and two to stay.”
According to the Book, the primary crew, Bix and Joel and Catharin, could revive any or all of the mission specialists, if necessary. But they were obligated to keep the total number of voices, besides that of the Captain, even. In the event that the crew found itself evenly split on a crucial decision, the Captain would cast the deciding vote. Catharin did not envy Bix if it came to that.
“When’s our best window for braking?” Bix asked Joel.
Joel relocated to the galley’s workstation. “Fifth day from today.”
“All right, that’s our deadline. We’ve got to decide what to do by then. Cat, have we been up long enough to tackle the stasis status report? Five days could be a tight deadline, and the sooner we get moving the better,” he added.
“Yes, I think we can handle it now—or a least, I think we must,” she replied.
Joel pulled the report up and scanned the workstation screen. He said, “Damn. Cat—”
The hair on the back of Catharin’s neck prickled with dread.
“We may have a problem. If this report is true—I mean, if there’s not a data error—there’s a hot spot in the passenger decks.”
The Axis contained an elevator shaft. After centuries unused, its door opened and closed with a fine whisper. “Level Eighteen—about a third of the way to the south pole,” Catharin murmured, and punched a button. The ‘vator shivered. It started downward. “Brr.”
“Crank up to medium-high,” Bix suggested.
Catharin adjusted her coldsuit’s temperature control upward. The ‘vator was dimly lit. Bars of light marched up the wall, indicating vertical motion. Reflections fluttered on Bix’s faceplate.
“I hope the hot spot isn’t real,” Catharin said.
“One way to find out.” Bix leaned at ease against the ‘vator wall. “Anything you need to tell me that you didn’t in the galley?”
“No, Bix. I am worried about the consequences of the stasis. Any physician would be. It’s never been done for this long before. In observing us, though,” she added, “I haven’t seen signs of deterioration, physical or psychological.”
He gave a short laugh. “Since I may be the canary in the mine shaft, I’m glad to hear it.” Older than the rest of them by a decade, he knew all too well that ill effects of stasis would probably show up in him first.
Catharin felt mild queasiness in her stomach, and it had been there since she woke up, but it did not qualify as a serious symptom. She stopped the ‘vator at Stasis Level 11. “This is well removed from the hot spot. Let’s see how things are going here.”
The sensors said that the air on the other side of the ‘vator door was good—pressure and composition normal, no contaminants. The door opened into a long dim corridor. Near the door, a medical station waited for them. She turned it on. Hundreds of pinpoint lights appeared, nearly all of them green. “This agrees with what the status report said about this level.”
“Nominal isn’t news,” Bix grunted.
“There’s a casualty.” A point of red glinted among the green. She displayed the dead passenger’s stasis history in detail. “We expected a very low, but real, casualty rate, because of unforeseeable problems in how some people’s bodies are affected by stasis. It’s much like the risk of someone dying under general anesthesia—a very low risk but a certain one.”
Catharin bit her lip to hold in her anger at the implacable odds. She remembered her hospital internship in Baltimore. She had hated losing patients, no matter how normal, or inevitable, the processes that led to death. No matter how negligible the death toll in the greater scheme of things.
“Think the rest of ‘em are good for the whole millennium?”
“I can’t answer that yet. Besides, the whole hypothesis that stasis should be good for a thousand years before deterioration gets serious—may be wrong. It’s never been tested. And it may be colored by romantic millennialism. I don’t trust it.” She ran her hand over the board with its emerald points of light and the single, accusatory red one.
“They all knew the risk. And for it they expect something better than a bigger, warmer edition of Mars.” Bix sighed.
They reentered the ‘vator to go deeper into the Ship. The ‘vator coasted into Stasis Level 17. This time they hesitated when the door opened for them.
Catharin became aware of something different in the air, a frigid foul odor of decay. She caught herself stepping not out, but closer to Bix. “Do you smell it?”
“Something stinks.” He strode out of the ‘vator to confront the med station. The problem indicator had come on. Bix activated the board. It lit up green with an awful red wound. Red pinpoints, a mass of them, haloed with amber, glared on the green field.
Shocked, Catharin blurted, “Almost all of Wedge T!” Her voice shook.
“Outside of T?”
“Showing green.” Swiftly she read the status of some of the green points. “I can’t be sure the rest are okay until I check more closely.”
Bix glared at the board. “If this icebox is faulty, then that’s it,” he said abruptly. “We stay.”
Feeling sick and cold, Catharin nodded.
Compared to the depths of the Ship, the flight deck looked brilliantly busy. Catharin and Bix took off their helmets, unsealed and unzipped their coldsuits. “Seventeen Wedge T’s dead, more or less,” Bix announced.
Lary and Nguyen dropped what they were doing, stunned. Catharin groaned privately. Too harsh, Bix! Somebody might have had a relative there.
“Med log, Cat,” said the Captain.
She took a seat at her station. Her fingers trembled, uncooperative, as she opened the automatic medical log.
“Lary. How’s it look?” Bix sounded gruff.
“The planet’s orbit is quite elliptical, and that means we’d have seasons of a sort, a range from something like summer on Mars to winter in Anchorage.”
“Nguyen?” Bix meant to nail them all to their jobs to keep them from dwelling on thoughts about a dead Wedge. Catharin would rather have talked about the loss, openly and now.
Nguyen answered, “The auto-observatory shows a binary star very nearby.”
“So?” said Joel, entering the flight deck. With a little salute, he acknowledged the return of Catharin and Bix from their expedition to the passenger decks.
Nguyen explained, “It is a tightly bound pair of white dwarfs—very dense, very faint stars. They were observed from Earth, just under a light-year away from this star at that time, but no one bothered to measure their velocity vector. And no one noticed that they were Population Two stars, not in a planar orbit like most other stars here, but in a halo orbit. They were moving almost perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way’s disk. Toward this solar system.”
A frown carved deep furrows on Bix’s forehead.
“In fact, they were diving toward this system with a velocity of seven hundred and fifty kilometers per second, and the relative velocity was closer to one thousand kilometers per second. That’s fast enough to cover a light-year in three hundred years. While Aeon was on its journey from Earth, these stars moved through this system and caused the moon to be kicked out of its orbit. That was less than fifty years ago. The binary dwarf is not far away. It is leaving very rapidly.”
Catharin sat back, pressing her lips together. So. That was what Nature had thrown at them. That and the hot spot in Wedge T.
For a long moment, there was a thick, brittle silence on the flight deck. Bix rubbed the frown furrows on his forehead as if physically erasing them. “Anything to report?” he asked Joel.
“Main engine works fine. Feel it?” The Ship shivered slightly, steadily. The engine had been designed to operate when the Ship found dust and gas for fuel. Now, having come to a planetary system, it fed and burned vigorously, and would do so until Bix ordered engine shutdown. “The one-sixth g of acceleration right now is the most we’ve had since we left our solar system.” Joel flopped into a seat at the Command station, loose-limbed in the low gravity. “The flight deck WC works fine, too.”
Seeing a good opening, Catharin spoke quickly. “Do you have anyone in Seventeen Wedge T?”
“That was our hot spot. There are casualties.”
“Whew! Just there?”
“They didn’t feel anything, did they?”
“I very much doubt it.”
Shaking his head, Joel turned his attention to the screen at his station. “Before I stepped out I was looking at the attitude thrusters, Bix. We may have a problem. Looks like their thrust has been more or less erratic over the years. The Z-pos and X-pos arrays less erratic. Y-neg more so. Nothing that the Ship hasn’t been able to compensate for—so far.”
All attention, Bix leaned over Joel’s shoulder. Joel pointed to information on the screen. “Look. About fifty years ago the Ship shut down the most of the Y-neg thruster array. Been making do without ever since.”
“Don’t we need those thrusters before we brake?” Lary said edgily.
“Need ‘em for everything,” Joel replied.
“Just great!” Lary sounded upset. “What’ll go wrong next? At this rate—”
Bix interrupted him. “Nothing about the Ship is wrong. Not yet. Some casualties were expected. So were a few mechanical problems. Let’s all get on with the job.”
They were skirting panic like a basketball rimming the hoop. Years of training and simulations, the ingrained reflexes of space work, kept them from falling into that panic.
The med log chronicled thousands of fluctuations in the temperature of the stasis vaults over the years. As with the attitude thrusters, however, the Ship corrected most temperature problems before they got out of hand. No dangerous hot spots cropped up in the first century of star flight. For that Catharin thanked the Ship and the designers who had made it to be self-regulating, self-repairing, intelligent.
Nguyen spoke. “Captain, I’ve made a preliminary evaluation of our choices for going on. One of the options specified in the Book looks very good.”
“The Eta Sagittarii option?” Joel said
“What makes that star so good?” Lary asked.
“Nothing by itself. But from the vantage point of Eta Sagittarii we can take a good look at three more stars, each of which is known to have a planetary system, probably with large moons at the habitable planets. That is, the auto-observatory can look for us. Then the Ship can choose the best of those three and use Eta Sagittarii to change our course in that direction.”
Joel stepped over to look at Nguyen’s screen. “Piece of cake to change course here and head for Eta Sagittarii! Just swing toward this sun and back out again.” He added, “It’d be a pity to waste the speed we’ve built up so far. Remember, until we brake the Ship, we’re still accelerating. That’s why our feet are on the floor.”
“Sounds like you want to play rocket jockey,” Lary said.
“Damn right!” Joel shot back. “It means getting to someplace worth going to.”
Catharin listened intently. Lary sounded nervous and irritable, which was normal for him, stasis or not. Nguyen had been acting quiet and serious—again, in character. And Bix and Joel sounded like their old selves. But if Bix felt ill, he would conceal it and carry on.
She had to ask the most vital question. “What’s the time frame for a planet search?”
“A few decades to Eta Sagittarii,” said Nguyen, “thanks to our present speed. Then, depending on which tangent the Ship takes, as much as a century more.”
Joel said, “We won’t know the difference. We’ll be asleep.”
“Don’t ever call stasis sleep!” Catharin said sharply. “It isn’t sleep. It isn’t natural. If it goes on too long it will destroy you, cell by cell.” The med logs told Catharin that the real trouble had begun in the second century of travel, when the global cooling system developed a slight but definite imbalance. The fatal hot spot made a brief appearance, but the stasis program corrected it. Had the journey ended before the third century began, Seventeen Wedge T would have lived. At worst, thirty or forty individuals might have suffered frostbite.
“We don’t know if the Eta Sagittarii tangents will pan out,” said Lary.
“Eta Sagittarii is the prime option in the Book,” Bix said.
“Quoth the Captain,” Lary muttered with a trace of insolence.
Catharin fretted. Bix was a man of action, not words. He said what a commanding officer was expected to say whether it sounded wooden or not. Frequently it did. Which would cost Bix some respect on the part of cynical, articulate Lary Siroky-Scheidt.
Catharin resumed reading the med log. The fatal hot spot reappeared in the third century, this time persistent. It took an unacceptable fraction of the Ship’s energy reserves to counter that intractable entropy. So, with the same remorseless reasoning that led it to shut down the Y-neg thruster, the Ship’s Intelligence abandoned the hot spot. It confined the stasis system’s temperature problems in one place. But the triumph came at a high price: 107 human lives.
“Bix. That hot spot . . .” There was no point in sharing this, knowledge as useless as it was horrid. But Catharin could not stand being the only one to know. “It persisted over the last eighty years. The whole wedge. Off and on. I’m sure the people didn’t feel anything. But everyone in there is goo by now. There aren’t any bones or organs any more. Just—”
Struggling to hold back tears, she felt Joel’s comforting hand on her shoulder.
Night fell with automatic dimming of the lights in Aeon’s crew level. The Axis illuminated the core of the level with a thin ring of red light.
Six wedge-shaped rooms surrounded the Axis. The day had begun in the recovery room, the galley, and the flight deck. It ended in the break room and the bunk room. The sixth wedge was the flight lab, which Catharin had not yet opened up. It could wait until the morning.
Another of the tall slit windows loomed in the break room. Leaving the lights off, she stretched out on a couch to watch the stars spin by. Her head spun too, with the events of the first day, facts, and discoveries too recent and uncomfortable to sleep on. She sighed and took down her hair, stowing the clips in a pocket. The bedtime ritual might make her feel sleepier. She kept her long blonde hair braided and clipped up, except at night. The single braid fell down on her shoulder. Stroking it, she wondered about herself. The others seemed to have come through in decent emotional shape. And she? She had always had abundant emotions, braided: woven together to stay under control, but never repressed, never cut off, passions flexible enough to be intelligently shaped. But today she felt brittle as never before. She remembered waking up and the desolation of being alone, and the cold glass dream before that. Undoing the braid, she combed her hair with her fingers, then buried her face in it.
Someone else came in. He was darker than the rest of the break room. “Cat?”
“I’m awake, Joel. Unfortunately.”
“I can’t sleep either.”
“What about Bix?”
“Out like a light.”
“That man could sleep through the end of a world.” She smiled in the darkness.
“Lary, however, is pacing in the bunk room, and Nguyen’s in there meditating, which seems to be how they deal with insomnia.”
“What do you do?” she asked him.
“Find somebody to talk to.”
Talking would do both of them good. “Insomnia doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “In the stasis experiments on Earth, it affected one person out of three. On top of that, we’re under terrible stress. We’re the only people awake in this gigantic icebox, which for some is already a morgue, and we’re responsible for the whole damned thing.”
“Yeah—stressful setup!” He settled down on a chair, rubbing his neck. “You know, while I should have been sleeping and was wide awake instead, I started to dream.”
She had been reclining on the couch. She sat up straight. “Hallucinations?”
“No, Doc,” he laughed. “Dreams, like in my namesake’s book, the book of Joel in the Bible. There’s a verse that says ÔYour old men shall dream dreams.’”
She collapsed back. “Oh.”
His teeth flashed in a grin. “More than three hundred years qualifies as old.”
“Do you feel old?”
“No. Hell, for a starship pilot, I’m young. For a starship’s physician, you are very young.”
“The Foundation wanted us that way as a hedge against the effects of stasis.”
“But Bix is fine. Stasis works great in practice, just like the Ship,” he said with confidence that Catharin could not share.
“Tell me about your dream.”
“Ever heard of the Ramamirtham Maneuver?”
She shook her head.
“It’s the Apocrypha in the Mission Book,” he said mysteriously.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Aeon scoops up interstellar matter for fuel to burn by hydrogen fusion and mass to expel. We spent most of the three centuries coasting, and the rest of the time accelerating by degrees as the Ship found hydrogen and dust between the stars to burn. Slow way to go—but we’ve been at it for a while. We’re up to a fair fraction of the speed of light.” He had an expressive baritone voice that sounded like a storyteller’s, Catharin thought. “But the Ram Maneuver is a way to get a lot more speed in a hurry. And we’ve got what it would take. A good strong ship and lots—” He broke off, struck by a flood of golden light that lasted for a minute or two as the new sun crossed the window. It gilded his dark-skinned, handsome face. He resumed, “Lots of initial speed, and a handy binary star.”
“No, the A star is an orange giant, a huge bag of hot gas. It would fry us if we tried to loop around at Ram distance. But Nguyen’s Vandals, that’s a different story. That’s an ideal binary star for the Ram Maneuver.”
“The Vandals are two white dwarf stars whirling around a common center. Basically the Ship does figure eights around them. The Ship loops around one star, accelerated by the star’s gravity. Comes around and shifts course to fall around the second star. Back and forth. Ten or a hundred times or more. Faster and faster. Relativistic effects lead to diminishing returns, though, because the faster the Ship goes, the more massive it is, and harder to speed up. At some point you declare victory and the Ship breaks away and shoots out of the binary dwarf system going more than half the speed of light, maybe a lot more.”
“Without having been fried?”
“No. They built Aeon’s hull like a thermos, with one helluva a layer of insulation between the outer and inner hulls, both of which are incredibly hard and strong. Aeon could take the Ram Maneuver.”
Interested, she curled up on her side and propped her head on a hand. “Are you suggesting we go to Nguyen’s Vandals and accelerate like that? That would cut down our travel time to a new destination, so we could be there in only a few decades, wouldn’t it?”
“Aeon could loop around the Vandals in only a few years, since they’re small and close together, and repeat the Maneuver as many times as it took to build up enough speed.”
“To go to where there are lots of stars, stars and planets like a grains of sand in a sand bar in a river.”
“Look out the window and wait. . . . There.” Through the window the stars were thick as diamond dust. “We’re looking at a spiral arm of the galaxy, the next one inward from the Sun’s. On Earth it was known as the Milky Way in Sagittarius. Look at the stars and the dust. Planet stuff.”
“It is beautiful.”
“Between the galactic arm where we are now and that one, space is relatively empty. So why not go ahead and cross the desert? And go toward the heart of the Milky Way!”
“It’s far, isn’t it?”
“Two thousand light-years.”
“How soon could we get there?”
“Earth year 5000.”
“Then you are making up a story to tell me. It’s a wonderful one, though. Thank you.”
He looked at her, his expression intense, then said, “I’m talking relativistic speed, Cat. For the Ship and us, the trip would be more like seven hundred. We’ve only gone three centuries so far. Seven more is still inside the stasis limit.”
Catharin sat bolt upright. “One thousand years is the hypothetical maximum for stasis before irreversible organic damage occurs. We can’t commit to pushing the limit like that!”
“Yes we can. The stasis is just as good as it was cracked up to be.”
She retorted, “I’m the physician. I’ll decide that.”
“We could look for planets as we go. Modify the Moonseeker code to account for a lot more speed. A planet with a big moon might turn up between here and there.”
“Forget the Book’s options? Just like that?”
“It’s in the back of the Book,” he answered. “Just not the prime option, not one of the easy, incremental options. I don’t think the Foundation meant us to be slaves to the Book. They meant us to go find a future.”
The Book had been written by the Aeon Foundation. Behind it there had been wealthy and powerful men and women—mostly old people. Too old to go to the stars: stasis would have killed them outright. But they had been convinced that a starship and a new world meant the future of human civilization. “The Book is all that we have to go by.”
He shook his head. “No. We’ve got ourselves—education and dreams and all.”
Amazed by him, she replied, “To say the least, we’ve got to correct the stasis. There can’t be any more hot spots. And I have to determine just what the stasis has done to us so far.”
“So put that education of yours to work,” he said, and smiled.
“Besides, it can’t be that easy to do your maneuver. Can it?”
“It’s like a billiard ball shot. The Ship has to roll in on the perfect course at the perfect speed. But we’ve got Nguyen to figure it out for us.” He gazed at the stars beyond the window. “The other problem is the interstellar medium. It’ll help that the space between the spiral arms is emptier than most. Still, at most of the speed of light, the wind from the stars is nothing less than violent. But we’re shielded, insulated and otherwise protected far more than we had to be just for the little trip here. The Ship’s magnetosphere is our friend. Instead of the Ship colliding with all of the interstellar matter, it deflects ions and channels ‘em around to the matter scoop for fuel. And the magnetic field gets stronger the faster we go.
“We could do it, Cat. All the way to the Sagittarius arm. We’d find lots of planets there, maybe even green ones. Planets with moons. With rivers and seas. Maybe even trees.”
Catharin said slowly, “I believe you. But I’m not ready to agree to go anywhere.”
He crossed his arms. “Remember Starlink? And how they were going to transmit messages to us, and news?”
“Of course I remember Starlink.” The huge radio telescope stood on the far side, the star side, of Earth’s Moon. It could send radio signals as well as receive them. In all of the Solar System, only Starlink had the power to send messages to Aeon as the starship journeyed farther and farther away; only Starlink had the sensitivity to detect the ever fainter whispers of reply.
“Well, maybe they listened to the automatic reports from Aeon the whole time. We only got sixty-nine years’ worth of messages from them. Then the signal stopped coming.”
“Stopped?” she repeated, incredulous. “Why? Did something happen to the machine, or to the Moon?”
Joel shrugged. “The last twenty or so years of messages was just media news. Hard for me to understand. Words I wasn’t sure about the meaning of. But I get the idea bad things happened—greenhouse floods, religious wars. The colonies on the Moon and Mars may not have fared too well either. I think the Aeon Foundation was right. Earth was going to hell in a handbasket. And we just got out in time. Anyway, the signal stopped, and I didn’t find a good-bye, either.”
“But Starlink—,” she began, and broke off, unable to say her thoughts.
The Starlink telescope had been constructed on the Moon six decades before Aeon left Earth. The hardworking radio astronomer who supervised the project happened to have been Catharin’s great-grandfather. That coincidence had encouraged her profoundly. She knew that the ephemeral train of radio signals between Aeon and Earth would also be hers, a slight but very real link to her own origin.
The link was shattered on the end that had been home.
Hurricane Moon © Alexis Glynn Latner