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Even Dodge Hand, captain of the tramp ship The River of Stars, sighed and stared into the ventilation duct in the ceiling of his cabin. The pain now seemed a sometime and faraway thing, something not quite real, as if it were happening to someone else. His body was but a husk, a thing of no matter. He felt that he—the "he" that was himself—had begun to float above that very body, leaving it behind. "Mr. Gorgas," he said to the first officer, who sat a little apart engrossed in a 'puter. "Mr. Gorgas, I feel as if I were floating."
First Officer Stepan Gorgas barely glanced up from his laptop. "Of course, you're floating. The engines are shut down. We're not under acceleration." He wondered en passant why Corrigan had not yet reported on the reason.
"Note this in the log, Mr. Gorgas: As a man is dying, his soul floats off. The observation may be profound. See that it is posted."
Gorgas sighed. "So noted," he said as he moved his Austrian infantry closer to Austerlitz. The little regimental squares wriggled across the map board on his clipscreen. It had fallen to his lot to sit with the captain during the dog watch this night, but that did not mean he relished the duty or that it demanded his full attention. There was little enough to engage the mind in watching a man die. Gorgas had served with Hand for eight years, longer than anyone in the crew save Satterwaithe and Ratline, and he had detested Hand for ninety-five months of that.
The captain became absorbed in a study of the ventilator grill. There were a great many squares in the grill, Hand thought. Perhaps countlessly many. An absurd notion, of course. They were discrete and so must be countable. The tally seemed somehow an important thing to do, and so Hand began to enumerate them. It grew cold in the cabin and he wanted to draw the covers up, but his arm would not move. It was as if he no longer had an arm. "Now, this is a curious thing," he said.
Gorgas was not paying close attention, but he realized after a few more minutes had gone by that Hand had not explained what the curious thing was. Glancing across the room, he noted the relaxed features on the captain's face, the eyes staring into the void. Gorgas sighed in irritation. "Ship," he said, rather curtly, as if the artificial intelligence had neglected a duty.
"Waiting," replied Ship.
"Message. To: Dr. Wong. Text: Hand has died. Send."
Gorgas saved his screen with the French in mid-move and unbuckled from the seat so that he floated across the cabin. The Farnsworths boosted at just over four milligees, barely enough acceleration to give the room a vague notion of up and down, but Bhatterji had shut the engines down and Gorgas floated like an angel and hovered over the captain's bunk.
I have risen above the captain, he thought. So often true metaphorically and intellectually, the statement was now true literally. Gorgas did not touch the body or straighten its clothing or even close its eyes, but he did peer into the slack and peaceful face and note how those eyes seemed fixed on some distant sight. What was Hand looking at? he wondered. And why is he smiling?
At relinquishing command, probably. Consumed with the humor of sticking Gorgas with the gallimaufry that he had collected for crew at every port in the Middle System.
* * *
Fransziska Wong, M.D., the most recently-added component of that gallimaufry, seemed made all of sticks and twine, as if a good, hard shaking would be more g-force than her ligaments could withstand. Her forearms and lower legs were long and spindly, her breasts meager. Such was the curse of the spaceborn: That the flesh stretched out to extend the limbs was stolen from elsewhere in the body. At times, when she contemplated the images of beauty broadcast from Earth or Mars, this disturbed her.
Wong had taken her medical degree from Leo University in Goddard City, Low Earth Orbit, specializing (by necessity) in the maladies of microgravity. She had spent two years in Goddard's clinic, another two in High Nairobi, dreaming of adventure and the sight of far, exotic places. Then FS Ned DuBois had called into port shy a ship's doctor and she had seized the opportunity.
But the inside of a ship looked remarkably like the inside of an orbital habitat and, as she soon found, the insides of the warrens under Luna and Mars. Tight little rooms and tight little corridors; recycled air and recycled water and, after a time, recycled thoughts. Little by little over the years, she had given up the search for far exotic places, though she never did quite give up the hope that they existed.
The captain's body upbraided her. She had failed to save him; failed even to diagnose him. Carefully, she straightened the limbs, closed the eyes, covered the face. The dear man looked so fragile in death: smaller somehow, as if something inside were missing. Wherever else fancy might suppose he had gone, Evan Hand had departed The River of Stars.
First officer Gorgas, hunched so intently over his 'puter, had barely acknowledged her entrance, and Wong supposed him deeply involved in some administrative task required by the captain's death. She recorded the time in the ship's medical log and entered her confirmation. Legally, at that moment, the captain died; and it struck her that in some arcane, bureaucratic fashion she had just killed him.
"I suppose," she said as she tucked the sheets around the body to prevent it from drifting off while she fetched a body bag from stores, "that the ship will not be run in so ‘Evan Hand-ed' a fashion now."
The first officer looked up from his 'puter. "What's that?" he said. "What's that? You're making a joke? With our captain only now passed away, you'd make a mockery of his name?"
Wong bowed her head at the rebuke. The pun had been one of Evan's favorite lines. He had often used it himself, and she had repeated it as a way of maintaining something of his antic humor. She hadn't meant it as mockery; but Gorgas, who had flown with the captain for many years must be taking the death most cruel hard, keeping it inside, as men so often did, yet needing, nevertheless, some word of kindness. "The ship will miss him," she said.
Certainly, she did. Evan had been lighthearted, always with a smile, always ready with a joke or a courtesy. The first officer struck her as serious, but with all the vices and none of the virtues that seriousness implied. Yet, she had been aboard The River only a short time and Gorgas's solemn demeanor, his snappishness, might be only a mask for the grief he felt at the passing of his old friend.
Gorgas, for his part, focused once more on his simulation of Austerlitz. The game's intelligence had shifted the French forces in a most unexpected manner. A glitch in the neural net's training? A subtle move whose implications he failed to see? He tried to concentrate on the miniature counters, but the doctor's remark kept coming back to him. What had she meant by such a joke? Hidden contempt? He had puzzled over Wong's presence ever since Hand had brought her on board at Achilles. She had the face of a horse and the disposition of a sheep; but Hand had worn such a broad grin that Gorgas wondered if she had given him more than a set of credentials. The Acts required that any transit of more than three months carry a medical doctor on the ship's Articles, but Hand had not hunted very long to fill the berth. A stroke of luck, he had said. A doctor left behind by her previous ship when she'd overslept and missed the departure. Yet it seemed to Gorgas, Achilles being as small as it was, that the Krasnarov's crew could not have hunted all that diligently for their missing physician.
* * *
Down in the bowels of the lower decks, in the dim, red-lit confines of the engineering control room, surrounded by sharp, electric odors and bagpipe hums, Ramakrishnan Bhatterji considered the diagnostic display as another man might a longtime lover who has suddenly—and for no discernable reason—refused to come to bed; or more accurately, who has lain in his bed stiff and cold, making no response to his caress.
"No fusion," he said, half in shock and half in umbrage. "No power whatever."
"The timing might be off," his mate pointed out.
"Yes…" The engineer batted his palm with the test harness while he considered the point. "Timing is everything," he said, "in Farnsworth engines as in love. Everything must come together at the proper moment: the insertion, the clamping, the rapid pulsing, and the all-too-brief release of raw energy." He noted how his mate's smooth, young cheeks darkened. The flush ran to the scalp, so that the blond stubble there seemed to redden as well. Bhatterji smiled, but he did not allow his mind to stray to future delights. That such innocence existed was to be prized; that it must soon be lost, regretted; but that it would be lost to Ramakrishnan Bhatterji was to be anticipated and savored. He laid a hand on Miko's supple and graceful shoulder. "Engines must be coaxed," he said. "They must be teased into performing." He squeezed and felt how firm the flesh was under the concealing coveralls.
Mikoyan Hidei had signed the ship's Articles at Amalthea and had been aboard now for a little over a hundred days, and every one of those days had been exquisite agony for the engineer, for his mate was lithe and supple and beautiful—the most beautiful youth he had seen in many years, Rave Evermore not excluded. Figures far less graceful adorned the Majapour temple, where every posture known to love had been frozen in ageless stone. Miko's age on the Articles was seventeen, but that was surely hyperbole. A runaway, most likely—bored with farming or with oxygen mining or only with parental authority, and seeking now after far horizons.
"How long will we be enziggied?" demanded an intrusive basso voice. It was an angular voice, chopped fine by crisp consonants, each word delivered with such distinctness, the ending of one fully complete before the next dared raise its head, as to endow a simple greeting with the qualities of a pronouncement, and a simple query with those of a demand. Bhatterji, who did not much care for demands, placed a smile before his teeth and twisted to greet the intrusion.
Second Officer 'Abd al-Aziz Corrigan was a burnt cinder of a man, punk held too long in the fire. Partly, that was the endless sun of the skyless void; partly too that was the artifice of the melanic micromachines that guarded his flesh from the continual rain of cosmic radiation. His skin had a leathery feel to it: hard, yet supple and with a mild, pungent odor, as if he had been fashioned from uncured hides. Like the ship's doctor, he had the long, lanky body of the spaceborn, though he was a man of the 'Stroids, not of LEO. Bhatterji imagined him a snake, an image reinforced by his deep-set, reptilian eyes and by the way his tongue would dart out and wet his lips. The term snake was common enough in reference to the spaceborn, but polite folk avoided it; at least when any snakes were present.
"We haven't located the source of the malf," Bhatterji said. A grudging admission, pricked slowly off his teeth.
Corrigan's eyes darted from Bhatterji to Miko. He disliked the dirt and the grime of the engine room. Even when everything was in place, it seemed cluttered and disorderly. Bhatterji himself was a squat lump of a man: ugly, with blunt fingers and a nose once broken in a fight and only indifferently repaired. Corrigan considered him not far removed from the brute engines he served.
The same could not be said of his mate. Elfin-featured, sallow-skinned, Mikoyan Hidei lay at the aesthetic antipodes to the engineer: graceful and sweet-tempered, with a smile that Corrigan found disturbingly alluring, and all the more mysterious for being seldom seen outside duty hours. The second officer followed Miko with his eyes, even while he addressed the engineer. "Coasting will stretch out our transit time. We're drifting off course with the current, so the sooner you get it fixed, the better."
Bhatterji, who had entertained no notion that delay would be a good thing, resented the deck officer pointing out the obvious. If there was anything Bhatterji did not know about the ship, it was not a thing that Corrigan could tell him. "I'll fix it," he growled. He didn't like, either, the way the other man tossed antiquated magsail terms into his speech. No one called gravity "the current" any more. The old magsail hands never seemed to understand that history had passed them by.
"It might be a physical malf," Miko said. "What if something damaged the projectors outside? If a projector's out of alignment, wouldn't that wreck the timing?"
Bhatterji considered the suggestion. "Yes, it could be. There are a number of possibilities. Software. Hardware." He shook his head. "It's difficult to say."
"You're wasting time," Corrigan growled. "I don't care what the malf is. I want it fixed." It was not being "enziggied"—in zero g—that Corrigan minded. Being spaceborn, he found it more natural than weight. What he minded was anything out of order.
"I need more data," Bhatterji insisted.
"Then get it." Corrigan found the engineer's constant dithering a frustration. Moving him to action was like pushing cable.
"I could go Outside," Miko said to Bhatterji, "and check the hardware while you run the diagnostics inside…"
Bhatterji did not respond immediately, for the Void frightened him beyond measure. There was ionizing radiation from solar flares and, if not that, the endless cold or the endless vacuum or, quite simply, the endlessness itself. Lose contact with the ship, lose orientation, and a man would fall forever and ever—like Enver Koch tumbling into the dark. Sometimes, just before sleep took him, Bhatterji could hear his predecessor's voice ever fainter over the comm.
But if the thought of going Outside frightened, it also enticed. Bhatterji began to tremble.
"I'll check the cages myself," he heard his own far-away voice say at last.
Corrigan fishtailed to go, having gotten what he came for; but he paused for a moment in the accessway that led to the main deck and turned back. "I almost forgot. Captain Hand died a half hour ago; so you can scratch your turns off the death watch."
Bhatterji grunted as if punched in the belly. The news unsettled him, coming so soon after the engine malf. An ill omen, as if parts of the ship, human and mechanical, were shutting down one after the other. He dismissed the foreboding and turned to face the control panel. "Pull yourself together," he told Miko. "There's work to do."
Miko bit on a thumb knuckle and hugged both arms tight, looking dazed. "I can't help it. He was good to me. He took me in when I had nowhere to go."
Brief pain, and briefer humor, crossed Ram's heart. "That's a common enough story on this ship. I remember when—" But that was a private memory, not for sharing. The captain had made a habit of picking up the discards and left behinds of other ships, Ramakrishnan Bhatterji not least among them.
The engineer could not help but think that, in dying, Captain Hand had made a grave mistake.
* * *
With the ship enziggied, "Moth" Ratline gathered up his wranglers and herded them into the cargo hold above the main deck for a bit of opportunistic straightening. The wrangler berth was used to his continual fussing. "A place for everything," he liked to say, "and everything in its place." Except, the wranglers noted, nothing ever seemed quite in its proper place." Rave Evermore had tracked the progress of one particular container from bin to bin within the hold and declared that it had accumulated several thousand kilometers of additional travel beyond its nominal interplanetary journey.
"But, the captain's funeral," said Nkieruke Okoye, the First Wrangler. "Should we not be there, to show respect?" The others had urged her forward, less from a great love for the late captain Hand, than from a great loathing for hard work.
But Ratline was unmoved. He knew from experience that a wrangler's first goal in life was to avoid work; just as his own was to protect his young charges from the temptations of idleness. He grinned in what he thought was a friendly fashion—though the effort fell short in the minds of the wranglers—and said, "I've seen a captain."
And indeed, captains in his world were two-a-penny. He'd seen all of them, from Coltraine to Hand. He'd seen them promoted, retired, resigned, and fired. Now he'd seen one die. There were no other ways he could think of to leave the bridge, so a milestone of sorts had been achieved.
Ratline was the oldest of the crew, and the only one to have been on the ship's Articles from the very beginning. He'd been a cabin boy back then, proud in his elaborate uniform. Now he was all sinew and scar tissue and if his worn and dingy coveralls constituted a uniform it was only through careless nomenclature. Evermore and the other wranglers would never have believed it—their world was bounded entirely by the present—but Ratline had been a handsome lad. Half his prettiness had come from his uniform—red trim and epaulettes, gleaming brass buttons, MEMS fabric that rippled with changing patterns at a whispered command—but the rest had lain in his features and in his voice and in his carriage, which could (and often did) excite admiration with every stitch of uniform removed.
A tough life, the wranglers would tell each other when they thought about it at all, which was seldom, or when they contemplated their master's youth, which was never. Yet, it had been tough, and in ways that wrangling cargo could never be. Cargo pods and strap cables had taken a finger off Ratline's left hand and a hoist had once left a small depression in his skull—mass persists when even weight has fled—but other duties left other scars. There had been tasks for pretty, young cabin boys in the decadent years of the Fifties that the more Apollonian Zeds would never countenance. Ratline never spoke of it. Society then may have winked and nudged and leered, but little Timmy Ratline had been on the butt end, and his smiles had been only for the tips.
"He never looks happy," Ivar Akhaturian said after the wranglers had returned exhausted to their quarters. He hoped that his comment did not sound critical of the cargo master (in case the berth held him in reverence) nor too sympathetic (in case the berth despised him). Ivar was the newest of the wranglers, anxious to make a good impression, uncertain how that might be done. He was a cade boy. His mother had sold him to the ship "for a few years of seasoning" when The River had called at Callisto. He received room and board and an education; his mother received his wages.
Okoye lashed herself to a clip-chair in the wranglers' common room and listened to the other three chatter. As First Wrangler, she had spent the better part of three years shifting cargo under Ratline's eye, and possessed a broader perspective on such matters. Indeed, she often thought of herself as acting cargo master, since Ratline was six years older than Satan and given to long, solitary retreats into his cabin. No, he never does look happy, she thought, and wondered if there might be some long-buried wound festering beneath his skin, waiting to burst like a pustule and poison them all.
* * *
What distressed acting captain Stepan Gorgas most about Hand's funeral was how few of the crew attended. Beside himself, there was only the engineer and his mate and the third officer, the four of them arrayed in various approximations of mourning around Central Hall. Bhatterji appeared properly grave, but his mate seemed to be in a trance, like a cow just after the knacking hammer. Eugenie Satterwaithe, the Third Officer, appeared just before the ceremonies were to begin and positioned herself near one of the entries, as if situated for a quick escape. Barely a corporal's guard! Not that Gorgas had thought so well of Hand, but the office deserved respect.
Central Hall was a circular room set (happily enough) in the center of the lowermost deck. In more exalted days it had been a reception area and the Grand Staircase had spiraled up from the luxury modules below. Now the old stairwell was sealed off and only a narrow gangway led below to the maintenance tunnels and the external midship airlock through which Hand, vaporized, would shortly make his sublimed exit.
Satterwaithe had known Hand from the day the captain had been piped aboard, so Gorgas thought it fitting that she now be present when he was piped off. The symmetry pleased him in some indefinable fashion. Yet, Ratline, the other longtimer, did not appear. Nor even the doctor, which Gorgas found more than astonishing. It seemed a slap in the face, as if Wong had no further use for the man. Of all the sins in Gorgas's book (and there were many) the worst was ingratitude.
When the announced time for the funeral arrived, Gorgas opened his link. "Ship," he said solemnly, drawing the attention of the other mourners. "Funeral service. Evan Dodge Hand. Begin."
"Dearly beloved," said the Ship's AI in appropriately doleful tones, "we are gathered today to pay a final farewell to our beloved captain, Evan Dodge Hand, Sixteenth Captain of the Magnetic Sail, The River of Stars."
Startled, Gorgas pulled his 'puter from the pocket of his formal tunic and jotted some quick, urgent notes. In one short sentence the AI had made three errors.
First, despite its official designation and the supercargo coiled uselessly in the top-deck locker, The River of Stars was no longer a magnetic sail.
Second, to judge by the quantity of tears being shed, Hand had hardly been "beloved," unless by Miko Hidei, who at least seemed on the verge of them.
And third, "we" were not gathered, since most of the crew had absented themselves.
He was not even entirely certain of the "sixteenth." It depended on how one counted the post captains who had supervised the ship during its Jovian service.
Such gaffes might betoken a lurking malf in the neural net. Gorgas downloaded the list to the attention of The Lotus Jewel.
He glanced around the hall to see if the sysop had entered while he had been occupied with his 'puter. Of all the crew, The Lotus Jewel was the most pleasant to the eyes. Cheerful, intense, a good team player in Gorgas's judgment. He was disappointed, though not surprised, to note her continued absence. Like so many of her unworldly kind, she was undoubtedly floating in her room with her head up her ass.
* * *
Gorgas was not quite correct about The Lotus Jewel, at least about which was up what. She was in the communications center just off the bridge. The main panel of the transmitter was open and fasteners and random objects floated about, so that the console seemed to have been frozen somehow in the midst of an explosion. Her hands were deep within the unit, like a surgeon fumbling for a spleen; and if her head was not entirely up inside as well, her face was close to it and bore a look of profound concentration.
Passing by (and passing by no coincidence), Corrigan glanced into the comm center and saw the disorder. Corrigan did not approve of clutter. Yet, his rebuke remained unspoken, because he did approve of The Lotus Jewel. He approved of her face (it was fine and broad, with high cheekbones, and eyes of a most peculiar blue) and he approved of her poise, which always seemed to him graceful, as if she were acutely aware of where each and every part of her body was in relation to the rest. He approved of her ass, which at the moment faced in his direction and so demanded his attention. And he certainly approved of her generous and loving nature, since he was the immediate and primary beneficiary of it.
It pleased him that the most exquisite creature on the ship was lover to 'Abd al-Aziz Corrigan, a man whose visage blanched the faces of so many wellsprung humans. That the carnal pickings on board The River might be slim he knew intellectually. Gorgas was too pompous, Grubb too virginal, Ratline too old, the wranglers too young, and Bhatterji too whatever Bhatterji was, so The Lotus Jewel had few options. Corrigan was not so naive as to suppose that no other pairings were possible, or that in the close confines of a ship most of those combinations would not eventually be tried. Yet it was to him that this delicate, golden-skinned wanton came.
Now, the spaceborn could be as graceful and (in their way) as beautiful as any wellsprung. They were filigrees; they were the intricate, twisting vines of medieval illuminations. Those raised deep within the gravity wells of Earth or Mars—or even of Luna—could seem lumpish by comparison. By rights, it ought to have been the doctor who enchanted the Second. They were two of a kind. But Corrigan found his own kind ungainly and ugly and lusted after the standard of beauty of another time and place.
(Besides, Corrigan was a man of the asteroids while Wong had grown up in Low Earth Orbit and they might not even reckon each other as "a kind." Safe within the embrace of Earth's magnetic field, Wong had never found the need for skin enhancers. Yet, such fine distinctions were lost on the likes of Bhatterji or Gorgas or even the otherwise perceptive Lotus Jewel. A snake was a snake. Not that there was anything wrong with that.)
Finally, when he had drunk in the sight of her almost more than his heart could bear, Corrigan checked the drape of his coverall, brushed at imagined detritus, and pulled himself inside the comm center.
The Communications Department comprised several rooms and had once been a suite reserved for special friends of the original owners. It had since been stripped, and utilitarianism had replaced luxury. Computer panels now gleamed where clever art had hung. Electric hums had replaced the fashionable music. This might actually have been an improvement.
The ship's processors were physically dispersed, of course. No designer was such a fool as to place a ship's entire neurosystem in one place—sub-units could be found scattered like Easter eggs here and there about the ship—but the comm center (and its slave station on the bridge itself) was a primary nexus. The Lotus Jewel could talk to any avatar of the ship's AI. Teeping, she could see through the ship's eyes, hear with its ears, speak with its lips. If she was not the ship's brains—an image risible to more than one of her crewmates—she was at least its spinal cord.
"What seems to be the problem here?" Corrigan said.
The Lotus Jewel concentrated a moment longer on her handheld and downloaded the data into the core with a whispered command. She had been aware of Corrigan's regard for several minutes and had, while not losing focus on her work, displayed herself for his delight. The Lotus Jewel enjoyed life more fully than her own life could hold, and so some of it always spilled over into others'. She delighted in making people happy. Sometimes that meant nothing more than laughing at a joke or doing a small favor. Sometimes it meant a pleasant word or a pleasant glimpse. Sometimes, as with Corrigan, it meant a pleasant night.
"The superloop is still giving power," The Lotus Jewel told him, "but I'm not transmitting." Tonight, she told Corrigan with a posture.
The infatuation was not all on the second officer's part. The Lotus Jewel enjoyed his company and his literate discourse and the strange, erotic frisson of the touch of his leathery skin. It was like the touch of an object: A thing that lived rather than a living thing.
"Is the malf serious?" he asked.
She shook her head. (And it was only through imagination that Corrigan saw long, golden locks waving in the air. Her skull was smooth-shaven and contained sockets for the interface cap, an exoticism that Corrigan found strangely alluring.) "Not until we raise Dinwoody Poke," she said, "to drop off the passenger. Radars and sensors, all in working order. Receiving is intermittent. I'll have transmission back before we need to talk to the port master."
Corrigan drew a long face. "Any connection with the engine malf?"
"I don't see how. The systems are distinct. Comm, power, navigation…There's no crosstalk, except through Ship."
"And the externals…? Bhatterji's mate suggested a hardware fault."
"My equipment is mounted on a different quadrant of the rim. It's just coincidence, 'Zizzy. The ship's old. When was the last transit when we had no repairs to make?"
Corrigan grimaced. "The family still has my great-grandfather's tent. We only replaced the ropes three times, the poles twice, and patched every square inch of fabric.…"
"But it's still the original," she finished for him. There was a subtext there. It lay not only in the glint of her eye or the promise of her lips, but in that she could finish his jokes for him.
"Well," said Corrigan, "keep me informed."
A request that the engineer would have found insulting The Lotus Jewel took as supertext to Corrigan's real needs. "I'll give you a personal report," was all she answered, but it sent Corrigan from the room with a glow. He would anticipate her visit the entire evening and—as she was chronically late for appointments—the pleasure of that anticipation would be all the more prolonged.
It was only as Corrigan was leaving that The Lotus Jewel noticed the chronometer. "Oh, no! The captain's funeral! It's almost over!"
"No one will be there," Corrigan predicted. "Just Doctor Wong. No one else really liked the captain."
"I did," said The Lotus Jewel. "He helped me when I needed it most."
"That's hardly a reason for liking."
Corrigan's insensitivity went beyond that of his obdurate skin. The Lotus Jewel's did not. She watched him go with an uneasy feeling in her heart, as if for just a moment she had glimpsed a stranger.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Flynn