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16

So grab up your pack and come on with me. And we’ll hop a fast freight to the stars…

—BUD WEBSTER, “The Ballad of Kansas McGriff,” 1998 C.E.

“Do you know,” asked Solly, “how long it would take to get out into the area where the Hunter was?”

“It’s forty days, seventeen hours, and twenty-six minutes to the target site.”

“I’m impressed. You’ve done your homework.”

“Thank you.”

“Now all you need is a means of transportation.” His gaze turned inward. “If we do this, we’re putting everything on the line. Career, freedom, reputation, you name it. So my question to you is, are you sure?”

“Solly,” she said. “It’ll work. I know it’ll work.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“Am I sure I want to do whatever’s necessary to get at the truth? Yes. Absolutely. Am I sure we’re on the right track?” She had to think about that one. But the cold mad gaze of the thing in the water had imprinted itself in her soul, where it exercised a dual effect: something had happened out there, and part of it has infected the Severin Valley; but she wasn’t sure she wanted to get any closer to it. This was a truth that she’d just as soon avoid.

And yet.

“Yes,” she said.

“Okay then. We’ll do it. Fortunately the Hammersmith is prepped, groceries on board, water tanks full, and ready to leave for Taratuba.”

She watched him breathe. “Solly,” she said, “it’ll be okay. We do this, they’ll get upset for a while. But we’ll bring back evidence of a contact. They’ll meet us with a brass band.”

Taking the Hammersmith should have been childishly easy. The Institute was meticulous about having its maintenance routines performed early. Solly, who’d been assisting with logistics for the mission, had already seen to stocking the vessel, so it should just have been a matter of walking on board, powering up, passing a satisfactory story to operations, and launching. But Worldwide Interiors had offered to redesign the living and working quarters on the Hammersmith, gratis, and several of their people were still on the ship when Kim and Solly arrived, twenty-two hours prior to scheduled departure for Taratuba.

Kim had never before been on the Hammersmith. After a quick inspection, Solly admitted that Worldwide had indeed improved the interior. “Although there was plenty of room for improvement,” he added.

Four workers were laying carpet, installing furniture, and redesigning cosmetics throughout the ship. Even the cargo hold had acquired a fresh coat of mahogany paint.

The Institute’s fleet, which consisted of five vessels, was maintained at the Marlin Orbital Dock. They’d ridden over from Sky Harbor in a shuttle, picked up their bags at the service desk, and walked them on board, past the Marlin crew chief and a couple of operations people. As Solly had assured her would happen, no one asked any questions.

She’d gotten a look at the Hammersmith from the approach shuttle. It was a reconverted yacht, a boxy vehicle with three levels. Living quarters, including the pilot’s room, were located on the top floor; labs, more living quarters and recreational areas were in the middle section; the utility deck, housing cargo, life support, and storage were below.

Engineering occupied the lower two levels at the rear of the craft.

Whatever ambiance might have existed in its luxury days had later been sacrificed to the gods of utility. Despite the new paint and the new carpets, Hammersmith felt like a small hotel that had been let go and was now being refurbished for a new buyer. There was something essentially threadbare about it that no amount of restoration could hide.

The hull was crowded with antennas, sensor dishes, and a host of other devices of whose use Kim had no idea. Its name and designator were imprinted forward, and SEABRIGHT INSTITUTE, in large black letters, ran the length of the ship.

Solly told her to choose any compartment she liked. There were eight dedicated to passengers, each designed for two people. The middle units on either side of the hall comprised the pilot’s room and a mission control center. A conference room occupied the rear of the top floor.

She said hello to a man installing stained panels, and saw several others working in the rec room. She picked her quarters, just aft of the pilot’s room, and stowed her gear.

Solly was in the hallway, munching toast. “How are we doing?” she asked.

He held out his hands in a helpless gesture. “Ready to go, as soon as Worldwide gets off.”

“When’s that going to happen?”

“Hard to tell. They don’t seem to be sure themselves.”

“Can’t we ask them to leave?”

“Not without raising some eyebrows.”

She punched in a request for cheese and coffee. “How many are there, Solly? Workers?”

“Four Worldwide people, plus one technician from Marlin.” He looked at the time. “They’ll probably all shut down in a little while for lunch. If they do that, we’ll clear out.”

She looked doubtfully at the food dispenser. “What happens if this thing breaks down?”

Solly went into mission control and opened a panel in the back wall, exposing the automated kitchen. “We can do it manually if we have to.” He smiled at her. “How about some toast to go with your cheese?”

“No, thanks,” she said.

“We can make twenty pieces at a time,” he observed.

“We have enough food for four months or so?”

“Have no fear. We’ll eat well. Ham is stocked for seventeen people for a half-year.” His expression turned serious. “But there is something we should talk about.”

“Yes?”

“I know we’re assuming your idea’s going to work, and that coming back here with big news is going to get us off the hook for stealing this little buggy.”

“It’ll happen, Solly.” She picked up her coffee and cheese.

“Maybe. But my experience is that nothing ever goes according to plan. Especially something like this.” They crossed the corridor and looked into the pilot’s room. Three chairs, some consoles, an overhead screen, two auxiliaries each left and right. Two big screens which would act as windows in the left-hand wall. “To be honest, I’m not optimistic. I suspect we’re not seeing something clearly, and I just can’t believe we’re going to go out there and accomplish what you think we will.”

“Okay.” Kim would have liked to have his confidence, but she’d known all along that he was skeptical. No surprise there. Still, hearing it like this: Had he come simply because she needed him? “It’ll be there,” she insisted.

“Okay. Maybe it will. I hope so. But in the meantime we’d be smart to develop an alternative plan.”

“For what happens if we come back with nothing?”

“For what happens if we discover it would be a good idea not to come back.” He took a deep breath. “Look, Kim, neither of us is going to want to face a court.”

“Solly,” she said, “you can still back out if you want.”

“If I did, what would you do?”

She stared silently at her coffee cup.

“Right,” he said. “So I’ll do it—”

“Thanks.”

“No. Not for you. I’m not that crazy. But there’s enough of a chance that you’re right to make it worthwhile. I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering. So I’m willing to gamble. But if it doesn’t work, Kim, I have friends on Tigris.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve made arrangements with them. Just in case.”

She nodded.

“If things don’t go the way we want, we’ll retire to a mountaintop on Tigris. They have an extradition treaty with Greenway but it only covers capital crimes. So we’d be safe.”

The Marlin technician went to lunch, but the Worldwide people broke into shifts and the noon hour came and went with no opportunity to leave.

In midafternoon a young beefy man showed up with his luggage. “Uh-oh,” Solly said.

“Who is it?” asked Kim.

“Webley. He’s a cosmologist assigned to the Taratuba team.” They heard him talking in the passageway and Solly went out to greet him. Kim followed.

One of the technicians was pointing Webley in the direction of the living quarters. He wore a self-important smile and when he saw Kim his gaze swept past her as if she were of no consequence. “Solly,” he said, “good to see you. Are the others here yet?”

Solly did the introductions first, and then informed Webley that no one else had yet arrived.

Webley wore a jacket of the type favored in the Kalipik Islands, white shirt with fluffy collar, dark slacks, and a red neckerchief. His voice seemed set quite low so that one had to strain to hear him, but his manner implied it was well worth the effort. He had an unkempt red beard, of a slightly different shade from the neckerchief. “Is everything on schedule?” he asked.

“Yes,” Solly said briskly. “To the minute.”

“Good.” He adjusted his sleeves and checked the time. “May I ask which room is mine?”

“Unit eight,” said Kim. End of the passageway.

When he was gone, Solly turned a worried gaze on her. “This isn’t going so well,” he said. “We may have to cancel.”

Kim shook her head. “Let’s not give up too easily.” She walked down the corridor and passed Webley’s door. Music had begun to play within. Heavy classical stuff. Vorwerk, probably. Or Benado.

She needed to get rid of the workmen first.

The Worldwide crew were still mounting trim, touching up window frames, hanging curtains in the conference room, bolting down a table in the rec area, and installing cabinets on the bottom level. The one who seemed to be in charge was an older man, a candidate for membership with the Mariners.

“How we doing?” she asked casually.

“We’re getting there. We’re a man short on this job,” he said, wiping his sleeve against his mouth. He looked overheated. “Happens every time. They let something go to the last minute and then somebody decides to take time off.”

“Why’d they wait until the last minute?” asked Kim.

He made a face. “Uh, well, you know, these things happen.” His eyes never met hers and she understood he was lying. The truth, she guessed, was that no money was passing hands. This was a tax write-off job, not high on Worldwide’s priority list.

“Will you be finished by five?” she asked.

“Hard to say.” His expression took her into his confidence. “If we don’t make it, it’s overtime, you know?”

Across the room, the Marlin technician closed a panel and began gathering his gear together.

“Done?” she asked.

“That’s it.” He asked her to initial his work order. He’d updated the VR equipment. She signed; he thanked her and left.

She turned back to the Mariner and asked what his name was.

“Leo Eastley,” he said.

She put on her best executive demeanor. “Leo, you and your crew have done a good job, but we’re going to have to proceed as is. Leave things where they are. We’ll finish up.”

He looked at her. His silver hair was hanging in his eyes.

“No time left,” she explained.

“Why’s that?” he asked. “I thought we had all day. We’re not finished.”

“We have to run some tests.”

“Go ahead. We won’t get in the way.”

“No, you don’t understand. These are precision mass-acceleration tests. The presence of extra people will skew the results.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry, but we don’t have any choice.”

“We won’t be coming back. Job’s supposed to be finished today.”

“It’s okay.”

He produced a notepad. “You’ll have to sign that everything’s done and you’re satisfied. “

“Sure. I can do that.”

“I’ll make a notation here about what happened. Warranties may be affected.”

She smiled at him. “It’s okay. We can live with it.”

She signed and initialed the notation. Leo rounded up his crew, and Kim watched them exit through the air lock and start up the tunnel. As the last of them vanished, a luggage cart approached. “This the Hammersmith?” it asked.

“It is,” said Kim.

The cart scanned the bags. “Where would you like me to put them?

“Where are the owners?”

My last information is, they were headed for Happy Harry’s.

“Happy Harry’s?”

A cocktail lounge.

“On Sky Harbor?”

Yes.

“Thanks,” she said. “You can leave it right here.”

In the tunnel?

“Yes. It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” When she was alone she called Solly. “More coming,” she said, looking at the name tags. “Wentworth, Little Deer, Moritami, Henderson. They stopped at a bar.”

“They could be here any time,” Solly said. “We have to get rolling, or forget it.”

“Webley’s still back there. You want to take him along?”

“Do you think he’d want to come?”

“Not likely.”

“Then do something.”

“I was about to.” Webley was a familiar type. He belonged to the relatively small subgroup of researchers who believed with all their hearts that no one had ever seen more clearly into the interior of the atom, or whatever, than they had. That nothing in life was of more importance than their corner of scientific knowledge and the recognition by others of their place in it. Like children, they believed that they were the center of the cosmos. That fact outweighed everything else, and also constituted their prime weakness.

He opened to her knock and gazed at her as if trying to remember who she was and what she was doing in his doorway.

“Professor Webley,” she said. “We’re scheduled to run some engineering tests during the next hour or so. It’s going to get loud, and there’ll be a fair amount of vibration.”

“Oh? They never had to do that before.”

“You probably never arrived this early before.”

“Oh yes, madame, as a matter of fact, I have.”

“Whatever. We’re going to have to go through the basic engine shakedown, and it makes a terrible racket. I was going to head up to the Domino to get away from it.” She inhaled slightly, tilted her head, and summoned the most captivating smile she could manage. “I’d enjoy your company if you’d care to come.”

“Really, Dr. Brandywine, I don’t think—”

“I’d like very much to hear what you’re currently working on.”

Webley’s brow creased. “I thank you for your interest, but I really am a bit pressed just now.” He gazed at her as if she were a recalcitrant child, and then he wished her good day and closed the door.

She bowed slightly, turned, and left. “So much for my charm,” she told Solly a minute later.

He grinned. “The temptress strikes out, huh?”

“I guess so. He looked annoyed.”

“Ham,” he told the AI, “start the mains. Prepare for departure.”

Confirm,” said Ham, in a female voice.

Kim frowned. They did not want to kidnap this guy.

“The six o’clock shuttle is in,” Solly said, responding to her unasked question. “If Moritami and the others are on it, they’ll be here any—” He stopped and pointed at one of the displays. Three men and a woman had appeared at the far end of the approach tunnel. “Speak of the devil—”

“Solly, what do we do?”

“We need something that’ll burn,” he said.

“Burn? Why?”

“Ask questions later. What have we got that’s flammable?”

Starships weren’t good places to look for combustibles. Clothes, panels, furniture. Everything was fireproof.

“Hold on a second,” he said. He got up and went into the mission control center. She heard him open the panel to the kitchen. Two minutes later she smelled smoke.

“Toast,” he grinned. “Twenty pieces. Now, go down and stand outside Webley’s room. When things start to happen, help him leave.”

God, this was going to be one of Solly’s finest moments. She started back down the passageway as a Klaxon began to sound. The intercom switched on. “This is the captain. There’s no reason to panic, but we have a fire in the forward compartments. All passengers please leave the ship immediately. This is the captain. I say again, we are not in immediate danger. Do not panic—”

Webley’s door opened and he put his head into the corridor, looked both ways, saw Kim and scowled. He was about to say something when he spotted wisps of smoke leaking into the passageway behind her. The smell of burnt toast had become pretty strong.

“We’re on fire,” Kim said.

“For God’s sake, young woman,” he complained, “how could that happen?”

“Let’s talk about it later, Professor. This way out.” But he turned back into the room, threw open a suitcase and started scooping his clothes into it.

“You haven’t time for that,” Kim said, letting her voice rise. And then, inspired: “This whole place could blow at any time.”

That was enough for Webley. He threw the lid down, hefted the bag under one arm, grabbed some clothes, and banged out of the room. “Incompetent,” he snarled. “Everywhere I go, people are so goddamn incompetent!”

“This way, sir.” Kim pointed him to the boarding tunnel. He disappeared into it.

Outside, an alarm had begun to sound.

“All clear,” she told Solly.

“Good. Close the hatch.”

“How?”

“Let it go. I’ll do it from here. Come on up and strap in. We’ll be leaving in a minute.”

“But Webley hasn’t had a chance to get clear.”

“Is he in the tunnel?”

“Yes.”

“He’ll be fine. The tunnel seals automatically when we button up. Don’t worry about it.”

Moments later she slipped into the pilot’s room and sat down beside Solly. “It strikes me,” she said, “that when this is over, I’m going to owe apologies to a lot of people.”

“Including me,” he said.

Kim got up again and looked at the seat. “See.” She pointed. “You can see an imprint.”

“Control,” Solly told the mike, “This is Hammersmith. We have an emergency departure. Request instructions, please.”

Hammersmith, Control. State the nature of your emergency. We just got a report of a fire.”

“Negative that, Control. The report resulted from a communication problem at this end.”

“What is your emergency?”

Kim reclaimed her seat and the harness came down around her shoulders.

“Taratuba’s false vacuum has gone premature.”

Kim looked at him, surprised, and mouthed What?

“Wait one, Hammersmith

“Solly,” she said, “do they even know what Taratuba is?”

“I doubt it. It’s better that way. Fewer questions.”

She scanned the bank of screens, which provided a 360-degree view. They were free of encumbrance save for a forward utility line. All Solly had to do was make the disconnect up front and there was nothing to stop their leaving. “Why don’t we just go?” she asked.

“We could hit something,” he said. “And anyway somebody would immediately call the Patrol. Moreover, if we somehow escaped being jailed for theft, it would guarantee my loss of license.”

Hammersmith, Control. Departure is authorized. Data is being fed now.”

Solly acknowledged, watched his array of lamps flicker with the download, and then spoke to the ship’s AI. “Ham, disconnect mooring and let’s go.”

Complying,” said the ship.

“‘Let’s go?’ That’s all there is to it? ‘Let’s go?’”

The ship began to back away from the Marlin facility.

“I guess I’ve just revealed a trade secret, Kim. And when we get where we’re going, I’ll tell it ‘okay.’”

“Seriously—?”

“Seriously, human pilots are only on board to deal with problems. Emergencies. And probably to soothe the concerns of passengers, who’ve never been happy with the idea of purely-automated vehicles.”

“Taxis are pure automation,” she said. “Nobody minds those.”

“You know how to fly the damned thing yourself if you have to.”

They were easing away from the orbiter, lining up with their marker stars. “Acceleration will commence in one minute,” said the AI.

Hammersmith, Control.” It was a new voice, deeper, with authority.

“Go ahead, Control.”

“This is the supervisor. You are directed to return to the dock.”

“Solly.” Kim pointed at one of the displays, on which a long ominous greyhound of a ship was moving in close.

“I see it.”

“They know.”

“Sure they know. Our passenger has been talking to them.” He opened the mike: “Control, we are unable to comply.”

“Solly—”

“Ham,” he said, “proceed with programmed acceleration.”

Proceeding.

Kim felt a gentle push into her seat as the ship swung around to its heading and began to move forward.

“We’ll be okay, Kim,” he said.

The push became more pronounced and the station slid off the screens.

Another new voice, female, irritated: “Hammersmith, this is Orbital Patrol. You are directed to return to port immediately.”

“Hang on,” said Solly. Acceleration was increasing.

“We better make our jump, right?”

“The jump engines feed off the mains. We need to build more reaction before they’ll kick in.”

“How much? How long are we talking?”

“About twenty-five minutes.”

Twenty-five minutes?” That was ridiculous. “Damn Worldwide and its paneling. Solly, we don’t have twenty-five minutes.”

Hammersmith, return to the station or we will take appropriate action.”

“Do they have any way of actually stopping us?”

“Short of blowing us up?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Only a Tursi field.”

“The damper.”

“Right. It would shut down our mains. But it’s a bluff.”

“How do you know?”

“Rev up an engine and then turn it off, just like that, you risk an explosion. Damn near a fifty-fifty chance. They won’t use it without getting permission first from the Institute. And that’ll take time. Anyway Agostino would never agree to it. He doesn’t want to lose a ship.”

The comm system was crowded with incoming voices: the Patrol warning them again to stand down; the supervisor at Marlin insisting they return; and, oddly, Webley, demanding what in God’s name did they think they were doing?

“Just relax,” Solly said, “and enjoy the ride. In the meantime, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tell me precisely where we’re going.”

“Zeta Orionus. Alnitak. Or rather, I want you to pick a spot twenty-seven and a fraction light-years from Alnitak.” She dug in her pockets and pulled out a data disk. “Here,” she said. “Put us anywhere on the bubble.”

“Alnitak,” he said. The easternmost star in the belt of Orion. “Why? A guess? Or do you know something you haven’t told me?”

“You remember asking if I knew how long the trip would take?”

“Sure. You gave me a fairly specific answer.”

“Forty days, seventeen hours, twenty-six minutes. It’s the total elapsed return-trip time on the Hunter logs.”

“The bogus ones?”

“Yes. But I couldn’t imagine any reason why they’d change the elapsed time from the originals. The time frame, if it’s correct, gives us Alnitak. And there’s something else.”

She showed him a blowup of Kane’s mural. “See this?” She pointed at the Horsehead.

“Yep.”

“It’s visible from Alnitak.”

The Patrol moved into a parallel course on their starboard side, at a distance of only a few hundred meters.

Solly shut down the comm system and the voices died. “Makes me nervous,” he said.

“You think that’s a good idea, right now?”

“Depends on whether you want to listen to the threats.”

He set the timer to count down to jump status. Kim stared at it, willing the numbers to hurry along.

They were still several minutes out when the AI announced an incoming transmission from a new source. From one of the satellites. “From the Institute.

“It’ll be Agostino,” said Kim.

“You want to talk to him?”

“No,” she said. “We’ll talk when we come back. When we have something to negotiate with.”

The patrol vessel was still there when power began to flow to the jump engines, and Solly took them out of their range.


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