Authors: Judith Reeves-Stevens,Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Space Opera, #Performing Arts, #Interplanetary Voyages, #Kirk; James T. (Fictitious character), #Spock (Fictitious character), #Star trek (Television program), #Television
Cochrane glanced at the viewscreen beneath Sir John’s cane.
The limo was approaching a checkpoint near the Thorsen Central Hub, once known as Victoria Station. The data agencies were reporting that some maglevs to Heathrow were still running.
From there, an orbital transfer plane to any platform would be enough to get Cochrane off planet.
But Cochrane wasn’t hopeful. On the viewscreen he saw the ominous gray hulks of zombies—the name the public had given to the Fourth World mercenaries the Optimum employed—lining civilians up against a wall. Some zombies stood with inhaler tubes from their self-medication kits pressed to one nostril, then the other. Cochrane had been told the drugs took away all fear, and all moral compunction.
And I wanted to take this species to the stars, he thought with repugnance. He was forty-eight years old but felt far older because of what he believed might be his complicity in what was happen-in2 on Earth—nothing less than its destruction.
‘hat sense of reason existed among the humans of this system in the late twenty-first century was exclusive to the burgeoning colonies on the moon and Mars, those orbiting Saturn, and those newly established in myriad other sites around the sun. Those colonies, Earth’s children, had rightly declined to become in-volred in their parent’s self-mutilation.
Cochrane wondered if that ready indifference would exist if the solar colonies were still dependent on Earth for critical supplies and technology. With the extrasolar colonies now, on average, no more than four months away from the home system— about the same time it took to travel across the system in the first decades of the century—the solar colonies for the first time could turn to other worlds. Already manufacturing specialties were emerging in many extrasolar communities: biochemical engineering in Bradbury’s Landing, molecular computer farms in Wolf 359’s Stapledon Center, and continuum-distortion generator design and manufacture on Cochrane’s own Centauri B II.
Brack had been right when he had told Cochrane that every airtight freighter in the system would become an interplanetary vessel when retrofitted superimpellors became readily and inexpensively available. But the en. suing grand, faster-than-light, second wave of human exploration had developed far more siftlv than even Brack had anticipated. Still, the result, also as Brack had intended, was undeniable: Earth was no longer critical to the survival of the human race. And all because of Zefram Cochrane.
Cochrane watched Optimum’s mercenaries on the screen with dismay. and wondered if it might be best if he didn’t escape tonight, if he could somehow find a way to atone for what he had caused to be.
But then he recalled Brack’s voice from so many years ago:
“The genie is out of the bottle and will never go back in.” True enough, once again more rapidly than the industrialist had predicted, there were now thirty-three self-sufficient human colonies on ten extrasolar, class-M planets, and the Optimum had been unable to influence them. It took so much time and effort to restrict the free flow of information and resources on Earth that its leaders could not extend their repressive reach the necessary dozens of light-years. Everything had unfolded exactly as Brack had said it would, because people remained people no matter what new technological advances came their way.
Micah Brack’s successful prediction and analysis of the consequences of the human condition, however, gave Cochrane no cause for happiness. He still couldn’t help but feel responsible.
Cochrane and Sir John shifted against the deep upholstery of the Rolls’s passenger compartment as it dropped gently from inertial-dampened, urban-flight mode to its wheeled configuration, slowing as it approached the checkpoint. On the viewscreen, one of the civilians against the wall they were passing turned to flail wildly at the mercenaries. One of the impassive brutes, bulky in radiation armor, swung up a fistgun. But its threat did nothing to halt the civilian’s outraged tirade.
Cochrane saw a stuttering blue pulse of plasma fire erupt from the fistgun and looked away as the civilian’s body crumpled to the ground, all protests at an end. Cochrane, miserable, wondered again why he had ever decided to return to Earth. The Multidimensional Physics Conference he had attended on the moon last week, the first he had ever attended off Centauri B II, was as close as he should have come.
But he, too, was only human. And just as the leaders of Earth had been unable to believe that the followers of the Optimum could be as dangerous and as destructive as the past two decades had proven, he, like most others of his species, had found it hard to believe that something bad could happen personally to him.
Whether that was a result of self-delusional blindness or transcendent optimism, Cochrane didn’t know. But it was a weakness of all humans, and Cochrane felt sickeningly certain he was about to pay for his naivete.
The compartment speaker clicked on and Cochrane heard the chauffeur’s clear young voice, calm and composed. “Checkpoint ahead, gentlemen. You’ll need your cards.” Sir John grumbled as he reached inside his jacket and removed his identification card. Cochrane had never put his away since it had been given to him back at Sir John’s town house and its forged contents described to him. The slender strip of flexible glass, sparkling with quantum-interference inscriptions, falsely identified him as an American businessman from one of the Optimum-controlled states. Sir John’s network had further established an elaborate scenario to preserve Cochrane’s real identity.
In the trunk were two suitcases with American-made clothes in Cochrane’s size, as well as suitable business records and doctored family photos.
The need for such subterfuge had been prompted by the leader of this region’s Optimum Movement, Colonel Adrik Thorsen himself. Acting as the provisional governor of the British Republic, Thorsen had appeared on data-agency uploads, proclaiming Cochrane to be an enemy of the Greater Good. At first, Cochrane had hoped ThorseWs motivation had only been the result of the long-ago insult to his pride when he had arrived at Titan to meet Cochrane and found only Brack. At Brack’s urging, Cochrane had
led Thorsen then and wished he could do so again, right now.p>
Especially since Sir John’s network of contacts in the lower echelons of’ the movement’s headquarters, in what used to be the Parliament Buildings, had revealed that Thorsen’s continued obsession with Cochrane appeared to go far beyond any simple redress for personal insult. The Optimum had apparently concluded that Cochrane’s superimpellor did have military uses, and that Cochrane alone held the key to unleashing that potentially unconquerable power.
It was a mad hypothesis, Cochrane knew, derived from an incomplete understanding of his work. But despite all that Brack and he had done to spread his work to the broadest possible audience, the Optimum still clung to the belief that Cochrane had held back certain aspects of his research—aspects they obviously now thought they could extract from Cochrane’s mind by the most optimal methods.
Fortunately, when Sir John had learned of Thorsen’s true intent, he had immediately arranged the cancellation of the informal private sessions scheduled between Cochrane and Europe’s independent scientific community. Three days after arriving on Earth, two days after visiting his parents’ graves and walking past the home where he had grown up, Cochrane was bundled off to a safe house as preparations were made to return him to the stars.
There was a harsh tapping on the window next to Sir John. The elderly astronomer touched the control that cleared the window.
A mercenary leaned down, her features swollen by the chemicals flooding her system and distorted by the encircling elastic of her radiation headgear. Her bizarre countenance flashed red then yellow in the harsh glare of the spinning warning lights of the checkpoint barricade. She tapped again, harder, using the upper barrel of her fistgun. From her expression, if she had to tap a third time she’d use that upper barrel to launch an imploder into the Rolls.
Sir John touched another control and the window slid into the doorframe.
“Cards,” the zombie said. She slurred the word. Through the open window, Cochrane could smell a sudden onslaught of smoke and other burning things he did not want to think about. A few hundred meters off, a thin voice wailed, inconsolable. He passed his card to Sir John, who gave both to the trooper.
The trooper slid each into the scanner on her shoulder, then read the output on the status screen on her fistgun. She snorted to herself, and without apparent conscious thought pulled the delivery tube from her medication kit and absently inhaled a dose of whatever concoction her duty roster called for. Cochrane watched with distaste as the mercenary’s eyelids fluttered.
The zombie threw Sir John’s card back at him. “You’re old,” she mumbled. “Not optimum. “Sir John didn’t meet her gaze. He looked down at the floor of the compartment. His lips involuntar-ily trembled out of the mercenary’s line of sight.
The trooper leaned forward, her radiation armor scraping against the edge of the window. She stared at Cochrane, then at the status screen. “Yank, huh?”
“That’s right,” Cochrane said.
“Passport?” Cochrane nodded at the fistgun. “It’s encoded on the card.” The trooper looked back at her status screen with a disbelieving expression. She tapped a control, blearily strained to focus on the screen, then snorted again. She pointed her fistgun at Cochrane.
The preignition light on the lower plasma barrel glowed ready.
“You wait here. Go anywhere, an’ you’ll be contained.” The trooper pushed herself back from the car, then lurched a~vay, heavy boots scraping the old asphalt street.
“Contained?” Cochrane asked.
Sir John frowned. “The movement’s polite term for murder. As in containing the spread of contagion.” He tapped his cane against the privacy shield between the driver and the passenger compartment. “Not optimum,” he hissed. “Bloody monsters.” The shield cleared. The chauffeur, a distractingly attractive young woman in a traditional black uniform, looked back at Sir John.
What’s the holdup?” the old astronomer asked.
“They appear to be running your guest’s card through an uplink,” the chauffeur replied lightly, as if commenting on the weather.
‘I see.” Sir John slumped heavily back in his section of the passenger bench. Cochrane heard the adjustment motors in the upholstery change their support characteristics to account for his change in position.
“To be candid, Mr. Cochrane, it doesn’t look good. Not by a long shot.” Cochrane inhaled slowly. In his all-too-brief forty-eight years, he had already had a life no other human before him could have imagined. He had walked the lands of alien worlds so distant that Earth’s sun was only a twinkling point of light. He had seen healthy, happy babies born beneath alien suns, their very existence a promise for a future without limits. He had glimpsed the stars at superluminal velocities through some trick of physics that even he could not yet fully explain. Perhaps that was enough for any one person. Perhaps he had reached the end. He put his finger on the door control.
“I should go,” he told Sir John. If he ran, the zombies would use their fistguns on him. He doubted he would feel a thing. “You can say I lied to you. The network will be safe.” “Monica!” Sir John said quickly. “Override!” Cochrane heard the door lock click beside him. He pressed the control, but nothing happened. “Sir John, I appreciate all you’ve done for me. But your network is worth more than my life.” The astronomer gazed at Cochrane, then gave him a wink.
Once again Cochrane thought how impossible it was to tell what an English person ever really felt. There was no hint in Sir John that he thought he might be facing death, or optimal interrogation, within minutes.
“This isn’t the end of the ride, young fellow.” He sat up straighter and squared his shoulders. “You forget you’re dealing with a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.” “With respect, sir. That’s not quite the same as dealing with an agent of UN Intelligence.” Two of those dedicated professionals had met with Cochrane between sessions on the moon. They had strongly suggested he avoid traveling to Earth, and had sought his advice about whom to contact in order to make arrangements for the transfer of provisional New United Nations headquarters to Alpha Centauri. Cochrane had not taken that as an encouraging sign. Nor, however, had he listened to their warnings.
Sir John leaned forward. “I shall take your comment as a challenge, sir.” He tapped on the privacy shield. “Plan B, if you please, Monica. Drive on.” “Done,” the chauffeur replied.
An instant later, Cochrane felt himself slammed down into the passenger bench as the Rolls seemed to explode beneath him. His first thought was that an imploder had hit the car. But a moment later he saw city lights and the fires of Buckingham Palace through the window beside him as the limousine banked sharply, leaving the checkpoint far behind.
“Inertial control!” Sir John boomed out delightedly, tapping his cane on the floor. “I still say it’s impossible, but, by God, it’s exceedingly useful.” Another moment passed, and any sense of acceleration vanished as the internal inertial compensators caught up with the fields propelling the car. The fanjets, which had been designed to make a one-tonne vehicle hover a meter off the ground, were now being used to control a car with an inertially adjusted mass of no more than ten kilos. The city flew by.
“We’ll never make it past the coastal defenses,” Cochrane said, marveling at the abrupt change in their situation. However, the rest of Europe might as well be light-years away. Even with inertial damping, he doubted the Rolls had enough fuel to reach North America. The Rolls was a sleek-looking vehicle, but its aerodynamics were designed for surface travel, not atmospheric Ilight.
“Give us credit for having half a brain between us,” Sir John said. “We brought you to Earth under the Optimum’s nose and we’ll bloody well see to it that you get back where you belong.” Cochrane judged their progress by watching the city pass by below. Whole grids of London were blacked out, small fires from the riots flickering like stars in oceans of darkness. For all their vaunted efficiency, the Optimum couldn’t even keep the country’s Fusion reactors on-line. Then, it seemed to Cochrane, after less than a minute’s flight time, the limousine began to descend into one of those pits of blackness.