Authors: Brian Stableford
Tags: #Space Opera, #science fiction, #series, #spaceship, #galactic empire
Copyright Â© 1974, 2011 by Brian Stableford
Published by Wildside Press LLC
For Crad and Wendy Owen
I'm a spaceman. I like space. I like flying space, and I know every trick that makes it easier, every trick which enables me to cope with the eccentricities of space better than the next man. I feel at home in deep space and I can handle virtually anything which deep space is disposed to throw at me. Handling the
in deep space was a joy and a privilege.
, so its architect declared, was a good deal more versatile than an honest spaceship. It was not his purpose, he said, to use the
merely as a means of transporting him from point A to point Bâa job which could be done almost as well by any common-or-garden p-shifter. He had always intended that the
should do things which no other ship in existence was capable of doing. That was why he had hired me. Well, things hadn't worked out quite as he'd planned, because he was a very busy man, and he'd found other employment for both the
and myself which was (he said) not very demanding.
And so, he said, when the opportunity arose to further his fondest dreams andâat one and the same timeâto use the
in an environment for which no other spaceship in the galaxy was fitted, he was highly delighted.
I was not. Quite the reverse, in fact.
I hate atmosphere. While recognizing that certain kinds of atmosphere are not only useful but highly desirable in that they are necessary to lifeâspecifically my lifeâI feel that atmosphere is no place for a self-respecting spaceman to be piloting a self-respecting spacecraft.
And when “atmosphere” is a euphemism for a cloud-filled, storm-torn inferno such as one finds on a world like Leucifer V, then I feel absolutely justified in feeling nothing less than hatred for it.
I don't doubt that the
was equipped to deal with it. Charlot certainly didn't doubt it, because he was on board, peering over my shoulder, and he was presumably a better judge than I of theoretical capabilities. I'm a practical man, and I'm ready enough to admit that it was I, not the ship, who was inadequate to the task. But Charlot didn't accept excuses of that kind. Charlot was a man who believed in theoretical capabilities. He made no concessions to human weakness.
I dipped into the atmosphere feeling very much like the proverbial snowflake in hell. I was traveling at mere thousands of kph, and slowing still, preparing to use the wings to get lift. I would get the lift anyway, and I figured it was far better to try to use itâabsorb it into my systemâthan to fight it with the cannons and the flux. I wished that I could screw my ship-body up into a tight sphere, fall like a cannonball through a couple of thousand kilometers of atmosphere, and then miraculously unfurl and take instant control of myself just above the ground. But the ground was a difficult thing to find on Leucifer V. It hid beneath a cloak of tidal, flying dust, whipped up by perpetual blizzards. Even if I were capable of masquerading as a falling stone, there could be no easy way down. I couldn't “unfurl” in conditions like thatâI'd be ripped apart. No, I had to go down slowly, with my wings spread and my effective mass denatured as far as I dared, pretending to be an autumn leaf rather than a creature of steel and flesh.
As the atmosphere closed in around me my ship-senses gave me a sudden, irrational claustrophobia, a sensation of drowning, of being smothered by soft cloth. I shook it off.
I drifted on a long decaying arc, just accepting the effects of the thickening air into the balanced flux-cycle. I filled the cortex of the driver with as much power as it would hold, knowing that I would need all I could get. Slowly, I began to drain the shields. At the kind of velocity I was making now they'd be far more of a hindrance than a help. No matter how streamlined a ship is, even a ship with a manipulable skin like the
, there is absolutely no way of evening out matter-scarring in the shields. And down below I'd have far too much on my plate to want to bother with eddy currents in the shields. If a seized shield immobilized one of my limbs for even a second it could be fatal. On the other hand, as I stripped the shields I became more and more aware of the atmosphere tearing at my skin, burning me, pecking and clawing at me. The farther I went down, the sharper the blades that would cut at me. I knew I was going to bleed, ship-body and cradle-body both, and I was going to hurt and hurt bad.
“Ready,” I said to Eve. She was standing beside me, with the medical kit ready. We'd already worked out the sorts of shots I was liable to need, and a code by which I could call for them. She had to needle the first shot into meâI wasn't rigged for an intravenous feed because I didn't want equipment attached to me blurring the sensations I was getting from the outer skin. Painful those sensations might be, but on my correct reading of them and compensating for them would depend the life of the ship.
“Johnny,” I said, as we dropped deeper and deeper.
“Waiting,” he said. “Nothing yet.”
I had to keep the relaxation web over .9 in order to keep our effective mass as close to zero as was desirable, and when the web is so tight the deration system is at its most sensitive. An imbalance of any kind at the discharge points would cause the flux to bleed. Some bleeding would be virtually inevitable, but we would have to keep the loss under control. And “we” meant not just me, but Johnny too. This was going to be tough for himâby far and away his toughest yet.
How are you? I asked the wind.
All set, he told me.
There were long seconds of silence while nothing happened. I continued to thin out the shields with careful slowness, feeling like a striptease dancer at rehearsal. There was an awkward phase when the sensation of the air molecules flickering over my skin was like an itch or an insistent tickle, but I knew that of old, and it didn't bother me. We were through the phase quickly, and I began to feel the steady, prickling pressure build up. I've never worn a hair shirt, but I imagine it might be something like that. The deeper we went the heavier the pressure, but that wasn't the worst of it. As we plunged deeper and deeper, the turbulence began to build up around us. The
was designed to compensate for turbulence; she had wings like a bird, nerves and motors which could make all kinds of changes in her outer skin to give her total dynamic streamlining. But nothing's perfect, and there was always something I couldn't cancel. It was like groping fingers sliding over me,, sometimes light, sometimes clumsy.
Inside the control room, everything was steady as a rock. It all looked easy from the back seat, and the time that dragged by made things worse, not better, for the people watching me. They had no way of understanding, no way of feeling what I was feeling, no way of sensing the disaster that was lurking in the corners of my eyes. For them, it was just like grooving in total vacuum, save that I was radiating tension and concentration.
As the shields faded into gossamer, the whole subsurface came alive and alert.
“Give me the second now,” I said, amazed by the calmness of my voice.
I felt the anesthetic slide home into my arm, and almost automatically my brain began to count off the seconds to densensitivity.
The relief seemed to last for only a few seconds. The insistence of the atmosphere overrode the numbing effect and the subsurface still felt sore and reactive.
Don't take any more, warned the wind, or I'll lose my control.
OK, I said, soothing him.
I had no intention of knocking either of us out.
Within a couple of minutes more, we began to find clouds, and things were suddenly dramatically changed.
“Here we go,” I said, aiming the comment at Johnny.
The pain took me across the back, first, like a muscle cramp. We were slow nowâno more than a few hundred kph, but the slower we went the harder it was to balance the flux to the nth decimal. The web felt virtually nonexistent, and the whole drive-unit felt like putty inside me. I felt half dead, and yet I had to move with the grace of an eagle and the delicacy of a hummingbird. I felt the anesthetic that was calming my body begin to swim up around my brain.
“Stun,” I said.
The needle slid home again. I knewâand so did Eveâthat hyping up on the drugs at the rate I was doing could only have a bad effect in the end, but I had to buy all the temporary help I could, and of I suffered tomorrow...well, at least I was alive to suffer. I don't like being shot up any more than the next man, but I'm not proud. I don't court disaster. No doubt, in the final analysis, it would take years off my life, but when you weigh the odds....
“Watch it,” said Johnny.
He didn't need to. I could feel the flux slipping like sand between my fingers. I could feel the danger floating up around me, like a wave of nausea. I felt my face muscles contract as I wrestled with the controls. I could feel Johnny's hands somewhere inside me, working away at the driver, milking the cortex, using his hands and his delicate touch as he'd never been called upon to do in his life. The flux cycled. We didn't bleed. We had her under control.
And still we went down, angling deep into the atmosphere of Leucifer V, the world the Gallacellans called Mormyr, and still the drop seemed limitless, and the sensors could pick up nothing down below but an abyss filled with storms. I took thrust out of the drivers, feeding it through the flux and into the cortex, restoring the reserve and reducing our forward impulse so that we fell steeper and steeper. Still I felt sore, but the pain was under control. The drugs and the wind between them were keeping me up to the job. So far, so good.
But it could only get worse.
The double sensation began to trouble me. I could feel the ghosts of Eve and Titus Charlot hovering over me in the atmosphere of the planet, like demons following the ship on its descent, watching her like hawks, urging her on faster...to her doom?
I felt the flux struggling. It really was trying to stay with me, to help me, but it was being scourged by the winds and the vapors that were howling around the ship. I could feel the
giving me all she could, trying her level best to do it on her own, without the pilot inheriting her suffering and her peril. I poured myself into the bird's synapses, we merged totally, and I was embodied in the flux that held strong against the torture, sheltered neither by the shields nor by the relaxation web to any degree. It was like a spider walking through the chambers of my heart, like centipedes moving in my bloodstream, like a great fireworm writhing slowly in my gut. I felt myself begin to open up inside, ever so slowly, ever so gently, without pain, without the raggedness of tearing, and I felt myself begin to spill out within myself.
And lower and lower we came, into the clouds of black dust and ice, into the rage of the storm which whirled and stabbed at us. I was bleeding. I was losing flux. I could feel Johnny working away, with all the speed he could muster, all the fineness of feeling. He had the touch, there was no doubt. He was good, but he wasn't good enough. I opened up wider and wider inside myself, and I bled.
The sensors told me at last that there was a down to go to, that there was a bottom to the gravity pit, that there was a haven if only I could reach it, but it was too late. Johnny was losing and Johnny was panicking. I could feel it rising inside him as it flooded into the movements of his fingers that were inside me. I could feel the flux giving way to his hysteria and the mad insistency of the storm.
I could feel myselfâand it was almost with surprise that I did soâbeing racked with hideous, squeezing pain, and I knew that there was nothing I could do but run. I tried to cry out, hoping that even a wordless cry might stabilize Johnny, might tell Eve that I needed another boost, might even tell Charlot that what he wanted me to do simply could not be done. But I could manage no cry. My jaw was locked, and the only one who knew was the wind, locked inside with me, in rigid agony.
The last vestiges of power were flooding from the cortex into the deration system. The flux was jammed. I discharged the cannons to shock the whole unit into some imitation of life, and I blasted power through the nervenet of the ship. With a single convulsive maneuver something no bird, no spaceship, no other thing in the galaxy except the
and I could have doneâI began to throw a surge of strength into the web.
The flux stirred, and with it Johnny. We fought, all of usâ
, Johnny, the wind, and Iâand we found enough to turn us, enough to give us the power to jump. Just enough to run away. Full flight, in full terror. From somewhere, we managed to make some kind of a syndrome, and we were up and away as the flux fed on herself.
The pain really took me then as we went up. No shield at all, nothing to protect me. I felt as though I were burning alive, my skin blistering and bubbling and turning to black, cold dust on my bones.
was equal even to that. Johnny built the syndromeâJohnny and the windâand they found power for the driver, power for the cannons, and at last power for the shields. Up and up we soared, and I realized that we were all of us alive, and would stay that way.
I managed sound...I think it was the word “Go.”
And go we did. We climbed in seconds what it had taken us long minutes to fall. We cleared, we found space again. Still I was rigid in the cradle, my body and my agony dissipated throughout the ship, still fighting for every last vestige of power the syndrome could provide. All of us, we were united in those dragging seconds, all in a single purpose.
And we made it.
By the time we found space, I was absolutely helpless in the cradle, with no more involvement with my tiny, human self than an unborn child. Even as we headed deep into the system-vacuum, I had only one sensation that I could relate to my bodily self alone, rather than to my total, participant ship-self, and that was a sensation of leakage. My bladder had emptied, and there was blood running from both corners of my mouth to mingle with my tears.