It surprises me that courage and valor have not been bred out of the human race. These are qualities that traditionally lead to an early demise. They are therefore not conducive to passing one's genes along. Rather it is the people who faint under pressure who tend to father the next generation.
Hutch was not looking forward to spending the next few weeks locked up inside Wendy with Randall Nightingale. He took his meals with the other passengers, and occasionally wandered into the common room. But he had little to say, and he inevitably looked ill at ease. He was small in stature, thin, gray, only a couple of centimeters taller than the diminutive Hutch.
It was an unfortunate circumstance for a reclusive man. The run between Quraqua and Earth usually carried upward of twenty passengers. Had that been the present situation, he could have retreated easily into his cabin and no one would have noticed. But they only had four. Five, counting the pilot. And so he'd felt pressure and was doing his best to participate.
But his best served only to create an atmosphere that was both tentative and cautious. Laughter flowed out of the room when he appeared and everyone struggled to find things to talk about.
The biosystem on Pinnacle was, after six billion years, far and away the oldest one known. Nightingale had been there for the better part of a decade, reconstructing its history. Most of the theoretical work was said to be done, and therefore she understood why Nightinghale would be going home. But nevertheless it seemed coincidental that he should choose just this moment.
In an effort to satisfy her curiosity, she'd looked for an opportunity to speak with him alone. When it arose, she casually wondered whether someone in his family had taken ill.
"No," he'd said. "Everyone's doing fine." But hevolunteered nothing more. Didn't even ask why she'd inquired.
Hutch smiled and suggested she'd been concerned because his name had appeared unexpectedly on the passenger manifest. She hadn't realized he was coming until just a few hours before departure.
He replied with a shrug. "It was a last minute decision."
"Well, I'm glad everybody's okay."
After the conversation, if one could call it that, she'd gone to the bridge and pulled up the files on the Nightingale mission.
The Maleiva system had been initially surveyed by the James P. Taliaferro twenty-one years ago. Its results had excited the scientific community for two reasons: Maleiva III was a living world, and it was going to collide with a rogue gas giant. The expedition under Nightingale had been assembled and dispatched with fanfare and some controversy.
Others, seemingly better qualified, had competed for the opportunity to lead the mission. Nightingale was chosen because he was energetic, the Academy said. A man of exquisite judgment. If he had no experience in exploring a biosystem whose outlines were only vaguely understood, neither had any of the other candidates. And if he was younger than some that the establishment would have preferred to see nominated, he was also, as it happened, married to the Commissioner's daughter.
But the mission had been a disaster, and the responsibility had been laid directly on Nightingale's shoulders.
It was possible that what happened to him at Maleiva III might have happened to anyone. But as she read some of the attacks made on his judgment and on his leadership, on thinly-veiled suggestions that he was a coward, she wondered that he hadn't retreated to a mountaintop and dropped out of sight.
No one ever got used to the gray mists of the hyper lanes, where superluminals seemed only to drift forward at a remarkably casual rate. Travelers watching from the scopes felt as if they were moving through heavy fog at a few kilometers per hour.
Wildside slid quietly through the haze, and Hutch could easily imagine that she was somewhere northeast of, say, Newfoundland, gliding over the Atlantic, waiting for foghorns to sound. She'd set the ship's screens, which masqueraded as windows, to display a series of mountain vistas, urban views, or whatever the passengers thought they'd like. Seated in the common room, she was looking out over London, as if from an airship cabin. It was broad daylight, early afternoon, midwinter. Snow was falling.
They were in the sixth day of passage.
"What's really out there?" asked Scolari, who had joined her for lunch.
"Nothing," she said.
He canted his head. "Must be something."
"Not a thing. Other than the fog."
"Where's the fog come from?"
"Hydrogen and helium. A few assorted gases. It's our universe in a disorganized, and cold, state."
"How'd it happen?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Nothing big ever formed. It has something to do with the gravity differential. Physicists will tell you the real question is why we have planets and stars."
"Gravity's different here?"
They were both eating fruit dishes. Hutch's was pineapple and banana with a slice of cheese on rye. She munched at it, took a moment to contemplate the taste, and nodded. "The setting's lower, much weaker, than in our universe. So nothing forms. You want to see what it looks like?"
Hutch directed Bill to put the outside view from the forward scope on the screen.
London blinked off and was replaced by the mist.
Scolari watched it for a minute or so and shook his head. "It almost looks as if you could get out and walk faster than this."
"If you had something to walk on."
"Hutch," he said, "I understand sensors don't work here either."
"So you really don't know that there's nothing out there. Nothing in front of us."
"It's not supposed to be possible," she said. "Solid objects don't form here."
"What about other ships?"
She could see he wasn't worried. Scolari didn't seem to worry much about anything. But everyone was mystified by hyper travel. Especially by the perceived slowness. And by the illusion of shadows in the mist. Those came from the ship's own lights. "According to theory," she said, delivering the answer she'd given many times before, "we have our own unique route. We create a fold when we enter, and the fold goes away when we leave. A collision with another ship, or even a meeting with one, isn't supposed to be possible."
Nightingale came in, ordered something from the autoserver, and sat down with them. "Interesting view," he said.
"We can change it."
"No, please." He looked fascinated. "It's fine."
She glanced at Scolari, who bit into an apple. "I love gothic stuff," he said.
But the conversation more or less died right there.
"Do you plan to return to Pinnacle, Randy?" Hutch eventually asked, intending the question for Nightingale. "Or will you be going on another assignment?"
"I'm retiring," he said, in a tone that suggested it should have been obvious.
They both congratulated him.
"I've bought a seaside place in Scotland," he continued.
"Scotland." Hutch was impressed. "What will you be doing there?"
"It's tucked away on a remote coastline," he said. "I like remote."
"What will you do with your time?" persisted Scolari.He poured himself a cup of coffee. "I think, for the first year, absolutely nothing."
Scolari nodded. "Must be nice." He commented that he'd lined up a teaching post at the University of Texas, went on for a bit about how good it would be to see his folks again after all these years. And then asked a question that made Hutch wince: "Randy, do you have any plans to write your memoirs?"
It was of course a minefield. Scolari undoubtedly knew that Nightingale was a celebrity of sorts, but probably didn't have the details.
"No." Nightingale stiffened. "I don't think many people would find my life very exciting."
Hutch knew from experience that she and her passengers would form a tight bond. Or they'd come to dislike one another intensely. Small groups in long flights always developed one of those two behavior patterns. Some years ago, a sociologist had been aboard to study the phenomenon and had given his name to it. The Cable Effect. She expected to see this one divide in two, with Nightingale on one side and everyone else bonded on the other.
The voyage so far had been short on entertainment and long on conversation. They'd foregone the games and VR's with which passengers usually entertained themselves, and instead had simply talked a lot.
There'd already been some personal admissions. That was always an indication that passengers were coming together, but it usually took several weeks. Embry confessed the third night out that she was seriously considering giving up medicine. Couldn't stand people constantly complaining to her about how they felt. "The world is full of hypochondriacs," she'd said. "Being a doctor isn't at all the way most people think it is."
"My mother was a hypochondriac," said Toni.
"So was mine. So I should have known before I went to medical school."
"Why'd you go?" asked Hutch.
"My father was a doctor. And my grandmother. It was sort of expected."
"So what'll you do if you give it up?"
"There's always research," suggested Scolari.
"No. Truth is, I'm just not interested. I'm bored with it."
Toni Hamner, despite Hutch's initial impressions, turned out to be a romantic. "I went to Pinnacle because it was so different. I wanted to travel--."
"You did that--," said Embry.
"And I loved it. Walking through places built by something that wasn't human. Built hundreds of thousands of years ago. That's archeology."
"So why are you going home?" asked Scolari.
"My tour was up."
"You could have renewed," said Hutch. "They're paying bonuses to have people stay on."
"I know. I'd already done a one-year extension. I'm ready to do something else."
"Uh-huh," said Embry. "That sounds like a family."
Toni laughed. "At least checking out the prospects."
Scolari nodded. "None on Pinnacle?"
She thought it over. "It isn't that there aren't some interesting men out there. In fact, there were a lot of guys. But they tend to be married to the business. Women are more or less perceived as strictly entertainment value."
She never mentioned her ex.
Only Nightingale had not revealed himself, and now they sat, gazing at the eternal fog while he said, yes, he wished his life was interesting enough that people would want to read about it. And he said it with such conviction that she wondered whether he actually believed it.
Scolari went back to the foggy outdoors. "Does anyone," he asked, "have any idea about the architecture of this place? How big is it out there?"
"As I understand it," Hutch said, "that question has no--."
Bill's message light began to blink.
"--no relevance," she finished. "Go ahead, Bill."
"Hutch," he said, "we have a transmission from the Academy."
Embry walked in as the fog blinked off and the message appeared:
TO: NCA HAROLD WILDSIDE
FROM: DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS
SUBJECT: COURSE CHANGE
HUTCHINS, WENDY HAS FOUND RUINS ON DEEPSIX. DIVERT IMMEDIATELY. GET PICTURES, ARTIFACTS, WHATEVER YOU CAN. ESSENTIAL WE HAVE DETAILS ON ORIGINAL INHABITANTS. NO ONE ELSE WITHIN RANGE. YOU ARE APPOINTED ARCHEOLOGIST FOR THE DURATION. COLLISION WITH MORGAN IMMINENT, AS YOU KNOW. TAKE NO CHANCES.
It had been a mistake. Hutch should have taken the transmission privately. She stole a glance at Nightingale but could read nothing in his face.
"Uh--," said Scolari, "how far out of the way is that?"
"About five days, Tom. One way."
The chime sounded for Nightingale's meal. "I don't think I'm anxious to go," Nightingale said.
Hell. She didn't really have a choice. They'd sent her a directive. She couldn't argue it, if only because a round-trip transmission would take several days. She'd been around long enough to know that ruins on a world thought uninhabited was a major find. And they were handing it to her. Had she been alone she'd have been delighted. "I'm going to have to do this," she said, finally. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience. In the past, when something like this has happened, the Academy has compensated passengers for lost time."
Nightingale closed his eyes and she heard him exhale. "I assume they'll charter another ship for us."
"I don't think there'd be much point unless there's something near by. If they have to send one from home, it'll take almost five weeks to arrive. By then, the project will be long over and we'll be on our way back anyway."
"I'm tempted to sue," Nightingale persisted.
That was an empty threat. Potential travel diversions and inconveniences were written into everyone's contract. "Do whatever you think best," she said quietly. "My best estimate for the total delay is about three weeks."
Nightingale put down his knife and fork with great deliberation. "Outstanding." He got up and left the room.
Embry wasn't happy either. "It's ridiculous," she said.
"I'm sorry." Hutch tried a smile. "These things happen."
Scolari rolled his eyes and slumped back in his chair. "Hutch," he said, "you can't do this to me. I've got a week booked in the Swiss Alps. With old friends."
"Tom." She allowed herself to look uncomfortable. "I'm sorry but I think you're going to have to reschedule."
He stared right through her.
Hutch was by now striving to control her own temper. "Look," she said, "you've both been around the organization long enough. You know what this kind of discovery means. And you also know that they haven't given me an option. Please complain where it'll do some good. Write it and I'll be happy to send it."
Toni, when she was told, sighed. "Not my idea of a fun time," she said. "But I can live with it."
Within an hour Hutch had realigned their flight path and they were bound for Maleiva.
She kept out of the way for the balance of the day. If it couldn't be said that the congenial mood of the first few days returned, it was also true that the anger and resentment dissipated quickly. By morning, everyone had more or less made peace with the new situation. Embry admitted that the opportunity to watch a planetary collision might be worth the inconvenience. As to Scolari, he may have begun to realize that he was after all the lone young male with two attractive passengers.
Hutch judged the time was right to take the next step.
All except Nightingale were in the common room during the late morning. Toni and Embry were playing chess while Scolari and Hutch debated ethical problems served to them by Bill. The immediate issue was whether it was proper to pass on to others as certain a doubtful religious stance on the grounds that belief made for a more secure psychological existence. Hutch watched for the chess game to finish and then called for everyone's attention.
"Usually," she told her passengers, "there's a boatload of people on these flights, and half of them are archeologists. Does anyone have an archeological background?"
"When we get to Deepsix," she said, "I'll be going down to the surface. Just to look around, see what can be seen, and maybe collect some artifacts. If anyone else would like to go, I could use some volunteers. The work's easy enough." She drew herself up to her full height. They looked at one another, then gazed at the ceiling or the walls.
Embry shook her head no. "Thanks anyhow," she said. "I'll watch from here. Hutch, that's the place where they lost a landing party back near the turn of the century. Eaten, as I recall." She picked up her queen and studied it. "I'm sorry. I really am. But I have no stake in this. If there was something here they wanted to look at, they had twenty years to do it. Now at the last minute they want us to go down and take care of their business. Typical."
"I'm sorry, Hutch," said Scolari, "but I feel the same way. Bureaucratic screw-up, and they expect us to run out there and put our lives on the line." He looked past her, not wanting to meet her eyes. "It's just not reasonable."
"Okay," she said. "I understand. I'd probably feel the same way."
"You're supposed to take pictures," Toni said. "Do you have a scan?"
Hutch had a case of them, stocked in the supply compartment. That at least wouldn't be a problem.
Toni pushed back in her chair. She was watching Hutch carefully, but keeping her expression blank. Finally, she smiled. "I'll go," she said.
Hutch suspected that, had one of the others volunteered, she would have found a reason to stay behind. "There's no pressure, Toni."
"Doesn't matter. My grandkids'll ask me about this one day. I wouldn't want to have to say I stayed up here and watched it from the dining room."
The remark earned her a pointed glance from Embry.
As was his custom, Nightingale retired early to his quarters. He knew that the others were more comfortable in his absence, and he was sorry about that. But the truth was that the small talk bored him. He spent his days working on the book that he hoped would one day be perceived as his magnum opus: Quraqua and Earth: The Evolution of Intelligence. It was one of the supreme ironies that humans had traced the forces that had produced extraterrestrial intelligence in the known instances, but had not yet satisfactorily applied the lessons to their own species. At least until he had appeared on the scene.
He was content to spend his evenings with Harcourt and DiAlva, his great predecessors, rather than listen to the endless chatter that passed for conversation in the common room.
The people he was traveling with were simply not bright, and time was precious. He was coming to a fuller appreciation of that melancholy reality as the years slipped by. One doesn't live forever.
Tonight, though, he was too distracted to think of anything other than Deepsix. Maleiva III. The world with no future. Do you have any plans to write your memoirs? Scolari's intent had been uncertain. Had he been laughing at Nightingale? It was the sort of question asked of him again and again, with increasing regularity, as the Event approached, and people remembered. Aren't you the Nightingale who lost six people?
He would have liked some rum. But he knew from hard experience that when he got like this, he'd drink too much.
Soon it would be over. Once back on solid ground, he'd retire to the villa his agent had bought for him. It was situated on a promontory, out of the way, off a private road. No visitors. No neighbors. No one left to answer to.
If he'd been smart, he'd have gotten off Pinnacle years ago, before it all came front and center again. But he'd let it go, thinking that since he was no longer involved, people would have forgotten him. Forgotten he was ever there.
Aren't you the Nightingale who botched the first mission so thoroughly that we never went back?
He had no close friends, but he was not sure why that was. Consequently, there'd never been anyone with whom to share his considerable professional success. And now, in this increasingly sterile environment, he found himself reflecting more intensely on his life, and sensing that if indeed it was a journey he hadn't gone anywhere.
Now, with the return of Maleiva III to the news, with the increase of public interest in everything that had to do with the doomed world, his situation was proceeding rapidly downhill. He had even considered changing his name when he got home. But there were serious complications to doing that. The paperwork involved was daunting. No, it should be sufficient just to keep himself out of the directories. He'd already made one mistake, telling these people where he was going, that he was headed for Scotland. He'd established a code. Any money due him, any formal transactions, anyone trying to reach him for any reason, would get filed in the code box. Then he could respond, or not, as he pleased. No one would know where he was. And if he was careful, no one near Banff, where he proposed to settle, would know who he was.
Aren't you the Nightingale who fainted?
On that terrible day, the creatures had ripped into him. The e-suit had been of limited protection, had not stopped the attack, but had prevented the little sons of bitches from injecting their poison. Nevertheless the beaks had gone into soft flesh. His neck, though physically all right, had never really healed. Some psychic scar that wouldn't go away and the doctors couldn't cure.
Anyone would have done the same thing he did.
Well, maybe not anyone. But he hadn't been afraid, any more than anybody else. And he hadn't run, hadn't abandoned anyone. He had tried.
The luxury liner Evening Star was carrying fifteen hundred passengers who expected to party through the collision. One of these was the internationally famous Gregory MacAllister, editor, commentator, observer of the human condition. MacAllister prided himself on maintaining a sense of proper humility. On off-world hunting expeditions, he carried his own weapons. He always made it a point with his associates to behave as if they were equals. He was unfailingly polite to the waves of ordinary persons with whom he came in contact, the waiters and physicians and ship captains of the world. Occasionally he made joking references to peasants, but everyone understood they were indeed only jokes.
He was a major political force, and the discoverer of a dozen of the brightest lights on the literary scene. He was ex-officio director of the Chicago Society, a political and literary think tank. He was also on the board of governors of the Baltimore Lexicography Institute, and the editor emeritus of Premier. He was an influential member of several philanthropic societies, although he persisted in describing poor people publicly as incompetent and lazy. He had played a major role in hiring the lawyers who'd taken the Brantley School Board to court in the Genesis Trial. He liked to think of himself as the world's only practicing destroyer of mountebanks, frauds, college professors, and bishops.
He had reluctantly agreed to travel on the Evening Star. Not that he wasn't excited by the prospect of watching entire worlds collide, but that the whole activity seemed somehow a trifle proletarian. It was the sort of thing done by people who lacked a set of substantive values. Like going to a public beach. Or a football game.
But he had consented, admitting finally to his own curiosity and to an opportunity to be able to say that he'd been there when this particular piece of history was made. Furthermore it allowed him to demonstrate his solidarity with ordinary folks. Even if these ordinary folks tended to own large tracts of real estate along the Cape and inshore on the Hudson.
After all, a little planet-smashing might be fun, and might even provide material for a few rambles about the transience of life and the uncertainty of material advantage. Not that he was against material advantage. The only people he knew of who would have leveled material advantage so that no one had any were of course those who had none to start with.
His decision to attend had also been influenced by the passenger list, which included many of the political and industrial leaders of the period.
Although he would never have admitted it, MacAllister was impressed by the amenities of the giant ship. His stateroom was more cramped than he would have preferred. But that was to be expected. It was nonetheless comfortable, and the decor suggested a restrained good taste rather than the polished superficial luxury one usually found aboard the big superluminal liners.
He enjoyed wandering through the maze of dining rooms, bars, and lounges. Several areas had been converted into virtual verandas, from which when the time came, the passengers would be able to watch the Event.
Although MacAllister had originally planned to spend much of his time working, he took instead to holding court in a bistro called The Navigator on the starboard side, upper deck. It overflowed each evening with notables and admirers, usually second-level political types, their advisers, journalists, a few CEO's, and some writers. All were anxious to be associated with him, to be seen as his friends. On his first night out, he'd been invited to dine at the captain's table. Not quite settled in yet, he'd declined.
If MacAllister had enemies who would not have been sad to see him left somewhere in the Maleiva system, preferably on the doomed planet, he knew that the world at large perceived him as a knight-errant, righting wrongs, puncturing buffooneries, and generally enlisted in the front rank of those who were striving to keep the planet safe for common sense.
He enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant analyst and, even more important, as a model of integrity. He sided neither with progressive nor conservative. He could not be bought. And he could not be fooled.
Women offered themselves to him. He took some, although he acted with discretion, assuring himself first that there was no possibility of an enraged husband turning up. He harbored a great affection for the opposite sex, although he understood, during an age of weak males, that women belonged in kitchens and in beds. That they were happiest in those locations, and that once everyone got around to recognizing that simple truth, life would become better for all.
Midway through the voyage, he heard the report that artificial structures had been found on Deepsix and commented on it in the journal he'd kept all his life:
We've known about Maleiva III and the coming collision for twenty-odd years, he wrote, and suddenly with a few weeks left they discover that unfortunate world has had a history. Now, of course, there will be some advanced finger-pointing to determine which rascals are responsible for having overlooked the detail. It will of course turn out to be the fault of the pilot of the Taliaferro, who is safely dead. And they'll find that the failure to check the satellite data at home can be laid to a grade three clerk. It'll be an entertaining show to watch.
There is now no time to inspect this culture, which is about to be lost. An entire species will be wiped out, and there will be no one alive who knows anything about them other than that several meters of stone once stuck out of a snowbank.
Maybe in the end it's all any of us can expect.
TO: NCA HAROLD WILDSIDE
FROM: DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS
SUBJECT: DEEPSIX PROJECT
HUTCHINS, BE ADVISED PRESENCE OF PREDATORS ON DEEPSIX. ORIGINAL PROJECT RECORDS SUGGESTS EXTREME CAUTION. I AM INFORMED THAT THE REIGNING EXPERT ON THE SUBJECT, RANDALL NIGHTINGALE, IS ON BOARD YOUR SHIP. TAKE HIM WITH YOU WHEN YOU GO DOWN.
TO: NCA WENDY JAY
FROM: DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS
SUBJECT: ARCHEOLOGICAL SITES
ATTN: GUNTHER BEEKMAN. WE HAVE DIVERTED WILDSIDE TO ESTABLISH ARCHEOLOGICAL INSPECTION TEAM ON DEEPSIX. PRISCILLA HUTCHINS WILL LEAD EFFORT. REQUEST YOU AND CAPT. CLAIRVEAU RENDER EVERY ASSISTANCE.
Copyright © 2001 by Cryptic, Inc.