I love that they trusted me blindly. So what if it was ship's night? For centuries, astronomers had labored while others slept, and even if there was no way to see outside during our long voyage, Diana Chandler still hadn't broken the habit of not starting work until after I had dimmed the lights in the corridors.
I'd suggested to Diana that she might be able to verify her startling findings by using some of the equipment stowed in the cargo holds. That no one had been down to the lower decks for almost two weeks didn't seem to bother her. That she was alone in the middle of my artificial night fazed her not in the least. After all, even with 10,034 people on board, I'm sure she felt safe as long as she was under my watchful eyes. Indeed, she seemed perfectly calm as she headed into a service corridor, its walls lined with blue-green algae behind acrylic sheets.
I'd already wiped the files that contained her calculationsand notes, so there was just one more loose end to tie up. I slid the door shut behind her. She was used to that soft pneumatic hiss, but her heart skipped a beat when it was followed by the snick-snick of spring-loaded locking bolts sliding into place.
Up ahead, a rectangle of red light spilled onto the sod from another open doorway. She walked toward it. Her paces were measured, but signs of nervousness were creeping into her medical telemetry. As soon as she passed through that door, I closed and locked it, too.
"JASON?" she said at last, her normally sunny voice reduced to a tremulous whisper. I made no reply, and eleven seconds later she spoke again. "Come on, JASON. What gives?" She started walking down the corridor. "Oh, be that way if you must. I don't want to talk to you, either." She continued to march forward, but the tappings of her heels concatenated into a rapid rhythm that matched her racing heartbeat. "I realize you're upset with me, but, well, you'll just have to trust my judgment on this." I quietly winked off the lighting panels behind her. She looked back, down the blackened corridor, then continued forward, her voice quavering even more. "I have to tell Gorlov what I've discovered." Wink. "The people on board have a right to know." Wink. "Besides, you couldn't have kept something like this secret forever." Wink. Wink. Wink. "Oh, shit, JASON! Say something!"
"I'm sorry, Diana," I said through speakers mounted on the crisscrossing pink metalwork of the ceiling. Those words were enough to tell Di that the crazy fears running through her head were not crazy, that she was very much in trouble.
Dilating the valve on the pipe made a pleasing reptilian sound. Diana laughed nervously, found the strength for a final attempt at humor. "Don't hiss at me, you rusty heap of--" She gagged as the chlorine hit her. Covering her mouth with her sleeve, she ran, pounding on door after door. Not that one. No, not yet. Just a few more. On your left, bitch. Ah--swoosh! Sheburst into the cargo hold and the door slid shut behind her. I snapped on the wall-mounted spotlights. The floor was a simple open grating: the pink metal of the artificial-gravity field generators, bare of any covering. Through the small triangular openings made by the metal intersections she could see level after level of storage compartments, each filled with aluminum crates.
She scrambled for one of the steel bars used to lever the lids off these crates and--"Damn you, JASON!"--smashed the splayed end into my wall-mounted camera unit. Shards of glass cascaded to the floor, falling on and on through the open gratings. Undaunted, I swiveled an overhead camera pair to look down on her. This angle foreshortened her appearance. From here she didn't look like an entirely adequate astrophysicist, a shrewd collector of antiques, a recently separated but passionate lover, or--by all accounts--a great cook. No, from here she looked like a little girl. A very frightened little girl.
Di's wrist medical implant told me that her heart was pounding loudly enough to thunder in her ears. Still, she must have heard the electric hum of my overhead camera swiveling to track her because she turned and hurled the metal bar at that unit. It fell short, bouncing with a whoomp on the lid of a crate. For a moment, she stared up into my camera eyes, horror and betrayal plain on her face. Such an attractive woman: her yellow hair separated so well from the shadows. Given the lighting in the hold, she could probably see her own reflection, a fun-house parody of her fear, spread wide over the curving surface of my twin lenses.
She ran on, but stopped again to evaluate her alternatives when she came to a four-way intersection between rows of crates. As she stood, she fingered the tiny pewter cross she wore on a chain around her neck. I knew it was her mannerism when she was nervous. I knew, too, that she wore the cross not for its religious significance--her Catholicism wasnothing but a field in a database--but because it was more than three-hundred years old.
She decided to run down the aisle to her left, which meant she had to squeeze past a squat robot forklift. I set it after her, the antigravity force from its pink metal base lifting it four centimeters off the floor. As it hummed along after her, I let loose a blast from its horn. I looked at her now from the forklift's point of view, seeing her from behind. Her hair bounced wildly as she ran.
Suddenly she pitched forward, tumbling onto her face. Her left foot had caught in the open floor grating. I cut power to the forklift's antigravs, and it immediately dropped back to the floor a few meters behind her. It wouldn't do to crush her here. She got up, epinephrine surging, and took off down the corridor with two-meter strides.
Ahead was the hatch I'd been shepherding her toward. Di made it through into the vast hangar deck. She looked up, desperate. Windows into the hangar control room, thick panes of glass, began ten meters above the floor and covered three sides of the bay. They were dark, of course: it would be six subjective years before we would arrive at Colchis, where the ships stored here would be used.
On either side of the hangar were twenty-four rows of silver boomerang-shaped landing craft, the nose of one ship tucked neatly into the angle of the next. Names mostly associated with the Argonauts of myth were painted on their hulls.
Ahead was the plated wall that separated the hangar from vacuum. Diana jumped at the sound of groaning metal. The wall jerked loose in its grooves, and air started hissing out.
Di's hair whipped in the breeze, a straw-colored storm about her head and shoulders. "No, JASON!" she shouted. "I won't say anything--I promise!" Foolish woman. Didn't she know I could tell when she was lying?
A thin stripe of deadly black appeared at the bottom of the hangar's outer wall. Di screamed something, but the risingroar drowned her words. I swung a spotlight onto the lander Orpheus, its outer air-lock door open. That's right, Diana: there's air inside. The wind fought her as she climbed the stepladder into the tiny, lighted cubicle, the growing vacuum sucking at her back. Her nose had begun to bleed from the sudden drop in pressure. Grabbing the manual wheel in both hands, she forced the lock to cycle. When she was safely within the body of the lander, I slid the hangar wall all the way up.
The view of the starbow was magnificent. At our near-light speed, stars ahead had blue-shifted beyond normal visibility. Likewise, those behind had red-shifted into darkness. But encircling us was a thin prismatic band of glowing points, a glorious rainbow of stars--violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.
I fired Orpheus's main engines, a silent roar in the vacuum, clouds of greenish gold exhaust billowing from the twin cones. The boomerang lifted from the deck and moved with gathering speed across the expanse of hangar and through the open space door.
My remote cameras inside Orpheus's cockpit focused on Diana's face, a mask of horror. The telecommunications link crackled with static--radio-frequency interference from the ramfield. As soon as the lander darted past the overhang of the ramscoop funnel, Diana's body would begin to convulse: the hard radiation pelting into it would scramble her own nervous system. Almost instantly she would undergo cardiac arrest and her brain, its neurons firing spasmodically for a few seconds, would cease to function.
The feed from my remote cameras flared brightly for an instant as the lander roared out into the sleet of hydrogen ions, and then the picture died. The communications link had given out before Diana's body had. A pity. It would have been an interesting death to watch.
Copyright © 1990 by Robert J. Sawyer.