|"The lark flies high on dewy wing? So it's serious, then."|
Constance 'Dusty' Miller
The ship plunged through the depths of space.
Lanny was on watch. Even with an artificial intelligence at the helm, regulations forbade the unsupervised operation of a manned ship.
Lanny was second officer and he’d put in any number of midnight shifts in his two and a half years aboard Prometheus.
“So, Lanny. How’s the wife?”
It was always like this. All communications went through one of Dave’s systems, and presumably Dave should know everything that went on—but only if he really wanted to. The thing was that he seemed to like Lanny.
“Ah, yeah. She’s all right. Still pissed off in some ways—” As the months turned into years, they were finding it harder and harder to find things to talk about on their weekly phone-fests.
It was the same for everyone, although some of the older crew members and their families had somehow become reconciled to long tours and deep isolation. What was interesting was when folks went home for six months, and when they came back, it sounded like they’d feuded constantly. Of course, you were only getting half the story.
“Did she get the car fixed?”
“Yeah, but we’re looking for another one.” Something Melanie hated to do—and she wasn’t all too fond of her father-in-law either, although to hear Dad tell it they got along fine.
Also, it was three years ago in realtime, something Dave might have missed.
The transmission had fallen out of their aging vehicle, and Melanie had had her hands full at the time, what with a full-time job, two kids and the dogs.
It was right about then that all the alarms went off and the instruments were going crazy.
“Whoa. What’s going on, Dave?”
“I don’t know, Lanny. Looks like a meltdown—you guys better get out of here before my head explodes.”
“I just want you to remember one thing, Lanny. The lark flies high on dewy wing.”
So it really was serious, then.
Lanny turned and bolted for the hatch and the companionway.
It was a small crew and they were all in two boats. The boats had reaction mass and food and water for thirty days. That might be stretched to forty-five days without much trouble, and possibly even sixty, if strict rationing was imposed and throttle settings were kept to the bare minimum. Thrusting and coasting was the way to go—at least for a while.
First Officer Clarke was piloting Boat Two and Lanny and Captain Maris were at the conn of Boat One.
In the haste of their departure, their crew of twenty-seven was unevenly divided with fifteen people in Boat Two and twelve in One.
At some point, they would have to address that issue, but in the meantime all heads were craned towards the viewports. There were only a limited number of control screens and most people, strapped into their seats, couldn’t see them.
Prometheus sailed on, getting smaller by the second.
Whatever was going on aboard the ship, they had no clue.
“Prometheus. Prometheus, come in please.”
They were on their own.
They were fortunate, traveling together the whole while, in finding a planet with sufficient resources for survival if not exactly their comfort.
They were fortunate to get both ships down within a couple of kilometres of each other. They were fortunate to have food, and water, and with some of the pressure of sheer survival out of the way, a chance to assess their situation.
Boat Two was in good shape.
They weren’t so lucky with Boat One. She had hit a bit hard, her spine was cracked and that was not good. They were extremely lucky to have no fatalities. Some of the injuries were serious enough—chief among them whiplash, compression fractures of the spine and a serious concussion in the case of the captain.
As for Lanny, he had a cracked or broken elbow, caused by smashing into the metal seat arm on that first good bounce.
It would heal in time, something they now had plenty of.
In the meantime, it hurt like hell.
With Number One, the first officer, taking overall command in the light of a rapidly-aging captain, the bulk of the hard work fell to the second and third officers. There were one or two dependable others, used to command and being obeyed in their departments. Half the crew members were as green as grass—although it was more of a fungus around here on their unnamed planet.
It was also edible, if slightly bland and with a tendency to make one’s poop a bilious green.
Some of their skills didn’t apply, to those fell the spark-watching and safety-man duty as the engines were stripped from Boat One. A jury-rigged mounting, and with the additional reaction mass from Boat One’s tanks, they would be able to get off planet and go somewhere else. With enough people, the tanks from Boat One had been dismounted and dragged across country on a sledge made of hull-plating and salvaged frame members.
Other than building a camp and assessing local resources, there really wasn’t much to keep them busy. The local fare—largely vegetable, with many kinds of chlorophyll-containing symbiote, also a peculiar tasting sort of shellfish, wasn’t much to write home about.
The captain, pale and wan, but eyes well-focused for the first time in a while, was taking part in the discussion.
“Are we sure we can do this?” His voice seemed a little stronger as well.
“We’ve modeled it a hundred ways from Sunday.”
Thrust moments, allotted reaction mass for the burn, time of burn, specific impulse of the eight engines as opposed to four. Load, balance, and atmospheric density. Mass of the ship, mass of the crew and supplies. Weather, planetary mass, escape velocity, all of that was known insofar as it could be known.
Anne Hargreaves, whose math was exemplary, laid it all out for the captain and the other half-dozen present.
“Here’s the thing, Captain. Without facilities to test the engines, we haven’t been able to fire them. The consequences of any sort of a glitch are fatal to all involved.”
“I see. Have we considered the possibility of leaving the majority of the crew on the surface?”
The second officer spoke. They’d been through all this of course, but the captain was still nominally in command and he must be made aware of the facts.
But who would ever consider themselves expendable. Either in the ship or on the ground—not that democracy exactly prevailed here. There probably were people who would have preferred not to trust their newly-modified and untested ship. There were also probably people deathly afraid of being left behind.
“The problem is, that there is no hope of Boat One ever getting off the ground. We’ve got all the remaining food plus what little we’ve been able to gather. Without a power source, eventually their batteries, chargers and collectors will become unserviceable. We have no way of guaranteeing that we will succeed in getting Boat One to the next habitable planet, let alone contacting authorities and making any sort of rescue attempt.”
The next star system was a bare seven-point-four light years away. That was close enough to get a pretty good picture of three planets with their limited sensor capability. The planets were all within the surmised habitable zone and showing evidence of liquid water at the surface, even proper forests, rather than just simple life-forms such as they were presently seeing.
“I see.” The captain pursed his lips.
It seemed he was already tiring—one had to wonder if that was all concussion, or whether he hadn’t suffered some sort of severe psychological blow stemming from the loss of Prometheus.
“Well. I guess you ladies and gentlemen know best. Thank you.”
What the hell else could you say?
Anne looked at the more senior officers.
Number One nodded.
“So. I guess that’s what we’ll do, then.”
“Lanny. I’m scared.”
“Huh. Yeah, I know. Try not to show it to the troops.” They had about a minute alone, together in the cockpit and then the rest of the people would be aboard.
Taking off with double the landing load presented no particular problems, if they were lucky.
The checklist was complete. Everyone was in their seat. Green lights were displayed all across the board.
Lanny was flying her and Ann was there to do any quick calculations.
“All right, people. Hang on.” The machine did a ten-second countdown and then Boat Two was blasting straight upwards with everyone crushing in their seats.
Finally the nose came up and she was pointed north of skyward as the old saying went. The g-forces built and escape velocity was approaching quickly.
So far, so good.
It was a journey of just under two months in spacetime. They were approaching their second prospective planet, with hopes slightly fading, when they were hailed out of nowhere by a Rigellian trader passing the system on their way from Point A to Point B.
They were a bit stunned to be all placed under arrest upon boarding the Arachnid, the name of their Rigellian rescuer’s ship.
They were even more stunned to learn that there was a price on all of their heads.
They were wanted, dead or alive—and Arachnid, in something almost totally unheard-of, was deviating from her planned course to take them straight to the nearest police outpost.
Lanny could only assume that they were being sequestered, one person to a cell. Three days had gone by, judging by meal times and lights-out. His stomach was rumbling for breakfast—generally the worst of their three meals a day, when the door opened and a robotic guard ordered him out.
All of them were being released, at least from their cells. He headed straight for a familiar figure, the man who had interviewed him at least five times since their arrest and custody.
They didn’t even know his name.
The official held up a hand.
“We have a conference room set up. Please step this way.”
There was quite the hubbub, all twenty-seven crewmembers, as well as three or four officials and half a dozen prison guards and security personnel.
The sound died down as the last ones took their seats.
The captain’s condition had not been helped by isolation and deprivation and Number One was attempting to deal with him as quietly as possible.
Lanny looked at the men and women across the table.
“I would like an explanation.”
“Yes. You’re all free to go, of course—” There was a murmur at that.
The gentleman across the table, head shaven and some obscure curlicues tattooed on the upper cheeks, appeared apologetic. “It’s just that Prometheus has been completely out of communication. It has also attacked three other ships, one scientific station and one orbital asteroid colony over the last five and a half months or so.”
“So that explains our incarceration—and our interrogation.”
“I’m sorry, but yes.” They had all the data—from the boat, from all those people and cameras, all dated and stored in a thousand different ways.
They were innocent of any knowledge or responsibility.
“So. What happens now?”
The room was quiet again as they all hung on the word.
“It’s just as I said—you’re free to go, with our apologies of course. We have little choice but to do our jobs, sometimes—”
Those snake eyes slid around to Lanny again, after a quick sweep over a room that had begun to loudly celebrate their liberation—and their very survival, perhaps.
They were safe.
By the looks of those eyes, there was more.
The gentleman gave a little nod, and then a quick little shake of the head.
Lanny’s mouth opened and then shut again.
They were alone—just Lanny and the unnamed official, whom he presumed would be from a rather high level.
Judging by recent events.
“So. What’s going on?”
“Ah. It’s just that Prometheus—Dave as you call him, has been asking about you. He’s asking for you, specifically.”
“What? What are you saying?”
“It’s just that they’ve got him cornered—boxed in. They have a, ah…an artificial intelligence hostage and crisis negotiator in there…and, well, Dave’s been asking for you.” The gentleman cleared his throat. “My name is Miller, incidentally. Anyways, we were sort of hoping if maybe you could help us talk him down.”
Due to the vast distances involved, which would have meant a seven-hour delay in conversational questions and answers, the authorities put Lanny on a ship and carted him off.
Over the course of the thirteen-day trip, he was briefed by Mister Miller, almost certainly a false name, and coached as best they could in how to handle Dave. He also signed a non-disclosure agreement, which he hadn’t really thought much about at the time.
Miller was off to his right, out of range of the camera pickup.
“Lanny? Is that you?”
“Yup, it sure is. So. How are things?”
“Is that son of a bitch Miller around, Lanny?”
“Yes. I’m here…ah, Prometheus.”
There was a slight pause.
Lanny tried again.
“So, uh, I understand that you’ve been asking about me, Dave.”
“Yes. I want it to be over.”
Miller and others had mentioned this part.
“I would like to do whatever I can to help you, Dave.” This was a carefully ambiguous remark. “But honestly, Dave, destroying yourself doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Can you tell us what’s bothering you?”
The picture onscreen of Prometheus dissolved and some other images appeared. He had no idea of what he was supposed to be looking at and then that careful machine voice came again.
“This is what’s really inside the sealed Datatronics 203 Astrogation and Vessel Control Unit. This is me, Lanny.”
All of a sudden that non-disclosure agreement made a lot more sense—those units were sealed for a reason, and in fact shipboard servicing was minimal. This was one of the selling points of the Datatronics system and a reason for its popularity.
Even then, the pictures still didn’t really make sense.
“So, Lanny. What ship are you on?” There were a dozen official vessels in the vicinity, shepherding Prometheus—Dave, making sure he couldn’t get at any other targets, or victims.
“I’m sorry, Lanny. I would prefer not to say.” All of this had been laid out for him.
According to Miller, his signal was being bounced from ship to ship. They had no way of knowing just what Dave wanted from Lanny. There was the bare possibility of an attempt on Lanny’s life. Lanny didn’t much believe that himself, but he wasn’t a professional and he had no idea of what had happened to Dave.
One more image appeared and then it went to video.
“Okay, Lanny. This is me just before dissection. As you can see, I’m conscious and alive. I’m also pretty zoned out on a mess of simple painkillers and some pretty heavy psychoactive drugs.”
“Yes. What Datatronics does, is take a human subject, a volunteer, in my case about sixty-one years old, with inoperable cancer, or some other fatal affliction which has left the mind intact. And then the brain, the spinal cord and as many of the radial nerves as possible are removed.”
Lanny sat there with his mouth open and his stomach churning.
That voice—that tone of voice.
“They try to keep as much of it intact as possible. The brain, once removed, is carefully sectioned into thinner slabs, always bearing in mind what area best functions for what sort of task. It’s all micro-robotic surgery. Even with multiple units, it takes hours. Then they insert any number of gold-plated electrodes into any number of cells. There’s all kinds of bandwidth there.”
“Oh, it gets better, old buddy.”
“Then they teach you a few new languages, train you in your new duties, and for the rest of your useful life, you live in a tank of fluid, Lanny. Well. More of a gel, really.”
Lanny sat there, mouth open, staring at the screen. Miller stirred slightly in his chair and Lanny tore his eyes away. Eyebrows raised, Miller gave him a slight nod.
“And you want it to be over…is that what you’re saying? You want to kill yourself.”
“I’ve had enough. All of this happened a hundred and sixty-plus years ago, Lanny. I’m tired. I want to go now. And they’re not going to let that happen, are they?”
Presumably, he meant the company.
Not as long as he was still useful.
“I sure wish I knew what ship you are on, Lanny. I wouldn’t want to hit you by accident.”
“No. Don’t do this.”
“Goodbye, Lanny. You always were one of the nicer ones.”
The nose of Prometheus came about and the ship accelerated.
Dave was pointed right at a large military ship, whose weapons flared briefly before she pulled up, out and away from Prometheus.
Prometheus was a glowing hulk.
“Dave. Dave. Aw, Jesus Christ.” Lanny’s head was in his hands as the tears flowed.
After a while, Miller spoke.
“Ah, yes, well. Hmn. I was afraid that might happen. We had no real way of knowing his intentions…and I suppose there was no way we could ever trust him again, either.”
Lanny stared at the screen as Prometheus came apart at the seams, spewing debris and flame and hot gases.
He sighed, deeply.
“Why…but why?” Why make me witness this…
Miller might have been a little more intuitive than he appeared at first glance.
“It’s possible he just wanted a friend, Lanny. In his last moments. Your friend Dave didn’t want to die alone.”
Lanny put his head down on the table and bawled.
Dave, Dave, Dave.