Authors: James P. Hogan
Tags: #Science Fiction
They began moving toward the steps with Caldwell in the lead while the UNSA people opened up to let them pass through. Hunt was a couple of paces behind Caldwell as Caldwell was about to step onto the first stair. Caldwell emitted a startled exclamation and seemed to be lifted off the ground. As the others froze in their tracks, he was whisked upward over the stairway without any part of his body seeming to touch it, and deposited on his feet inside the doorway apparently none the worse for wear. He seemed a trifle shaken when he turned to look back down at them, but composed himself rapidly. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he growled. Hunt was obviously next in line. He drew a long, unsteady breath, shrugged, and stepped forward.
A strangely pleasant and warm sensation enveloped him, and a force of some kind drew him onward, carrying his weight off his legs. There was a blurred impression of the steps flowing by beneath his feet, and then he was standing beside Caldwell, who was watching him closely and not without a hint of amusement. Hunt was finally convinced—this was not a 1227.
They were in a fairly small, bare compartment whose walls were of a translucent amber material and glowed softly. It seemed to be an antechamber to whatever lay beyond another door leading aft, from which a stronger light was emanating. Before Hunt could take in any more of the details, Lyn sailed in through the doorway and landed lightly on the spot he had just vacated.
Then Danchekker's voice shouted in sudden alarm from outside. "What in God's name is happening? Do something with this infernal contraption!" They looked back down. He was hanging a foot or two above the stairway, flailing his arms in exasperation after having apparently come to a halt halfway through the process of joining them. "This is ridiculous! Get me down from here!"
"You're crowding the doorway," the voice that had spoken before advised from somewhere around them. "How about moving on through and making more room?" They moved toward the inner doorway, and Danchekker appeared behind somewhat huffily a few seconds later. While Heller and Packard were following, Hunt and Lyn followed Caldwell into the body of the craft.
They found themselves in a short corridor that ran twenty feet or so toward the tail before stopping at another door, which was closed. A series of partitions extending from floor to ceiling divided the space on either side into a half-dozen or so narrow cubicles facing inward from left and right. As they moved along the corridor, they found that all the cubicles were identical, each containing some kind of recliner, upholstered in red, facing inward toward the corridor and surrounded by a metal framework supporting panel inlays of a multicolored crystalline material and a bewildering layout of delicately constructed equipment whose purpose could have been anything. There was still no sign of life.
"Welcome aboard," the voice said. "If you'd each take a seat, we can begin."
"Who's doing the talking?" Caldwell demanded, looking around and overhead. "We'd appreciate the courtesy of your identifying yourself."
"My name is visar," the voice replied. "But I'm only the pilot and cabin crew. The people you're expecting will be here in a few minutes."
They were probably through the door at the far end, Hunt decided. It seemed odd. The voice reminded him of his first meeting with the Ganymeans, inside the
shortly after it had arrived in orbit over Ganymede. On that occasion, too, contact with the aliens had been through a voice functioning as interpreter, which turned out subsequently to belong to an entity called zorac—a supercomputer complex distributed through the ship and responsible for the operation of most of its systems and functions. "visar," he called out. "Are you a computer system built into this vehicle?"
"You could say that," visar answered. "It's about as near as we're likely to get. A small extension is there. The rest is scattered all over Thurien plus a whole list of other planets and places. You've got a link into the net."
"Are you saying this ship isn't operating autonomously?" Hunt asked. "You're interacting between here and Thurien in realtime?"
"Sure. How else could we have turned around the messages from Jupiter?"
Hunt was astounded. visar's statement implied a communications network distributed across star systems and operating with negligible delays. It meant that the point-to-point transfers, at least of energy, that he had often talked about with Paul Shelling at Navcomms were not only proved in principle, but up and running. No wonder Caldwell was looking stunned; it put Navcomms back in the Stone Age.
Hunt realized that Danchekker was now immediately behind him, peering curiously around, with Heller and Packard just inside the door. Where was Lyn? As if to answer his unvoiced equation, her voice spoke from inside one of the cubicles. "Say, it feels great. I could stand this for a week or two, maybe." He turned and saw that she was already lying back in one of the recliners and apparently enjoying it. He looked at Caldwell, hesitated for a moment, then moved into the adjacent cubicle, turned, and sat down, allowing his body to sink back into the recliner's yielding contours. It felt right for human rather than Ganymean proportions, he noted with interest. Had they built the whole craft in a week specifically for the occasion? That would have been typical of Ganymeans too.
A warm, pleasant feeling swept over him again and made him feel drowsy, causing his head to drop back automatically into the concave rest provided. He felt more relaxed than he could ever remember and suddenly didn't care if he never had to get up again. There was a vague impression of the woman—he couldn't recall her name—and the Secretary of something-or-other from Washington floating in front of him as if in a dream and gazing down at him curiously. "Try it. You'll like it," he heard himself murmuring distantly.
Some part of his mind was aware that he had been thinking clearly only moments before, but he was unable to remember what or really to care why. His mind had stopped functioning as a coherent entity and seemed to have disassembled into separate functions that he could observe in a detached kind of way as they continued to operate as isolated units instead of in concert. It should be troubling him, part of himself told the rest casually, and the rest agreed . . . but it wasn't.
Something was happening to his vision. The view of the upper part of the cubicle collapsed suddenly into meaningless blurs and smears, and then almost as quickly reassembled itself into an image that swelled, shrank, then faded and finally brightened once again. When it stabilized all the colors were wrong, like those of a false-color, computer-generated display. The colors reversed into complementary tones for a few insane seconds, overcorrected, and then suddenly were normal.
"Excuse these preliminaries," visar's voice said from somewhere. At least Hunt thought it was visar's; it was barely comprehensible, with the pitch sliding from a shrill whine through several octaves to finish in an almost inaudible rumble. "This process . . ." something completely unintelligible followed, ". . . one time, and after that there will be no . . ." a confusion of telescoped syllables, ". . . will be explained shortly." The last part was free from distortion.
And then Hunt became acutely conscious of the pressure of the recliner against his body, of the touch of his clothes against his skin, and even of the sensation of air flowing through his nostrils as he breathed. His body started to convulse, and he felt a sudden spasm of alarm. Then he realized that he was not moving at all; the impression was due to rapid variations in sensitivity taking place all over his skin. He felt hot all over, then cold, itchy for a moment, prickly for a moment, and then completely numb—and then suddenly normal once more.
Everything was normal. His mind had reintegrated itself, and all his faculties were in order. He wriggled his fingers and found that the invisible gel that had been immersing him was gone. He tried moving an arm, then the other arm; everything was fine.
"Feel free to get up," visar said. Hunt climbed slowly to his feet and stepped back into the corridor to find the others emerging and looking as bewildered as he felt. He looked past them at the door blocking the far end, but it was still closed.
"What do you suppose may have been the object of that exercise?" Danchekker asked, for once looking at a loss. Hunt could only shake his head.
And then Lyn's voice sounded from behind him. "Vic." It was just one word, but its ominous tone of warning spun him around instantly. She was staring along the corridor toward the door through which they had entered. He turned his head farther to follow her gaze.
Filling the doorway was the huge frame of a Ganymean, clad in a silvery garment that was halfway between a short cape and a loose jacket, worn over a trousered tunic of dark green. The deep, liquid violet, alien eyes surveyed them for a few seconds from the elongated, protruding face while they watched silently, waiting for a first move. Then the Ganymean announced, "I am Bryom Calazar. You are the people we have been expecting, I see. Please step this way. It's a little too crowded in here for introductions." With that he moved out of sight toward the outer door. Danchekker thrust out his jaw, drew himself up to his full height, and went back into the antechamber after him. After a moment's hesitation Lyn followed.
"This is absurd." Danchekker's voice reached Hunt just as he was stepping through behind Lyn. The statement was uttered in the tone of somebody clinging obstinately to reason and flatly denying that what his senses were reporting could be real. A split second later Lyn gasped, and an instant after that Hunt could see why. He had assumed that Calazar had come from another compartment leading forward from the antechamber, but there was no such compartment. There didn't need to be. The other Ganymeans were outside.
For McClusky Air Force Base, Alaska, and the Arctic had all gone. Instead he was looking out at a completely different world.
The plane, starship, or whatever the vessel was no longer stood in the open at all. Hunt found himself staring out at the interior of an enormous enclosed concourse formed by a mind-defying interpenetration of angled planes and flowing surfaces of glowing amber and shades of green. It seemed to be the hub of an intricate, three-dimensional dovetailing of thoroughfares, galleries, and shafts extending away up, down, and at all angles through a conjunction of variously oriented spaces that baffled the senses. He felt as if he had stepped into an Escher drawing as he fought to extract some shred of sense from the contradictions of the same surfaces serving as floors here, walls there, and transforming into roofs overhead elsewhere, while all over the scene dozens of Ganymean figures went unconcernedly about their business, some in inverted subsets of the whole, others perpendicular, with one merging somehow into the other until it was impossible to tell which direction was what. His brain balked and gave up. He couldn't take in any more of it.
A group of about a dozen Ganymeans was standing a short distance back from the doorway, with the one who had introduced himself as Calazar positioned a few feet ahead. They seemed to be waiting. After a few seconds Calazar beckoned. In a complete daze and with his mind only barely able to register what was happening, Hunt felt himself being pulled almost hypnotically through the door and was aware only vaguely that he was stepping out at floor level.
Everything exploded around him. The whole scene burst into a spinning vortex of color that whirled around him on every side to destroy even the sense of orientation of his immediate surroundings that he had retained. The noise of a thousand banshees was crushing him. He was trapped inside a shrieking avalanche of light.
The vortex became a spinning tunnel into which he was hurtling helplessly at increasing speed. Shapes of light hurled themselves out of the formlessness ahead and exploded away into fragments only inches from his face. Never in his life had he known true panic, but it was there, clawing and tearing, paralyzing any ability to think. He was in a nightmare that he could neither control nor wake up from.
A black void opened up at the tunnel end and rushed at him. Suddenly it was calm. The blackness was . . . space. Black, infinite, star-studded space. He was out in space, looking at stars.
No. He was inside somewhere, looking at stars on a large screen. His surroundings were shadowy and indistinct—some kind of control room with vague suggestions of figures around him . . . human figures. He could feel himself shaking and perspiration drenching his clothes, but part of the panic had let go and was allowing his mind to function.
On the screen a bright object was enlarging steadily as it appeared to be approaching from the background of stars. There was something familiar about it. He felt as if he were reliving something he had experienced a long time ago. Part of a large metallic structure loomed in the foreground to one side of the view, highlighted by an eerie reddish glow coming from offscreen. It suggested part of whatever place the view was being captured from—a spacecraft of some kind. He was aboard a spacecraft watching something approaching on a screen, and he had been there before.
The object continued to enlarge, but even before it became recognizable he knew what it was: It was the
He had gone back almost a year in time and was back inside the command center of
watching the arrival of the
as he had been when it first appeared over Ganymede. He had watched this sequence replayed from UNSA's archives many times since then and knew every detail of what was coming next. The ship slowed gradually and maneuvered to come to relative rest standing five miles off in parallel orbit, swinging around to present a side view of the graceful curves of its half-mile length of astronautic engineering.
And then something happened that he was completely unprepared for. Another object, moving fast and blazing white at the tail curved into the screen from one side, passed close by the
's nose, and exploded in a huge flash a short distance beyond. Hunt stared at it, stunned. That wasn't the way it had happened.