Lodovik, after five days alone, had lapsed into the robot equivalent of a coma. With nothing to do, no way to return to a position of usefulness, and no one to serve, he had no choice but to enter a time of stillness, or face serious damage to his circuits. In this robotic coma, his thoughts moved very slowly, and he conserved the few remaining mental explorations left to him; in this way he avoided shutting down completely. Complete shutdown could only be reversed by a human or a maintenance robot.
In the slowness of his thoughts, Lodovik tried to assess how he had changed. That he had changed was certain; he could sense the change in key patterns, in diagnostics. Part of the basic character of his positronic brain had been altered by the flux of radiation in the supernova shock front. And there was something else as well.
The hypership drifted light-days away from Sarossa, far from any communications that would pass through status geometry, unable to receive hyperwave radio; and yet Lodovik was certain that someone, something, had examined him, tinkered with his programs and processes.
From Daneel he had heard of the meme-entities, beings who encoded their thoughts not in matter, but in the fields and plasmas of the Galaxy itself, those intelligences who had occupied the data processors and networks of Trantor, who had taken revenge upon some of Daneel’s robots before Lodovik’s arrival on the Capital World of the Empire. They had fled Trantor over thirty years ago. Lodovik knew little more about them; Daneel had seemed reluctant to spell out details.
Perhaps one or more of the meme-entities had come to inspect the supernova, or to energize themselves in its violent brilliance. Perhaps they had come across the lost hypership and found only him, and had touched him.
Lodovik could no longer be certain he was functioning properly.
He slowed his thoughts even further, preparing for a long, cold century until extinction.
Tritch and her first mate, Trin, regarded Mors Planch’s activities with some concern. He had buried himself with several mobile diagnostic machines deep in the hyperdrive, far enough from the active coils of solid helium and the anti-queried, posi-tunneled meter-cubed crystals of sodium chloride, common table salt, to avoid injury, but still-
Tritch had never allowed any work on a hyperdrive while her ship was actually in transit. What Planch was doing fascinated and frightened her.
Tritch and Trin watched from the engine gallery, a small weighted balcony that looked down the fifteen-meter length of the drive core. The end of the core was darkness; Planch had suspended a light over the place he worked, surrounding him in a pale golden glow.
“You should tell us what you’re doing,” Tritch said nervously.
“Right now?” Planch asked, irritated.
“Yes, right now. It would ease my mind.”
“What do you know about hyperphysics?”
“Only that you pull up the deep roots of all atoms within a ship, twist them widdershins, and plant them in a direction we don’t normally go.”
Planch laughed. “Very impressionistic, dear Tritch. I like it. But it doesn’t butter any parsnips.”
“What are parsnips?” Trin asked Tritch. She shook her head.
“Every traveling hypership leaves a permanent track in an obscure realm called Mire Space, named after Konner Mire. He was my teacher, forty years ago. It’s not studied much anymore, because most hyperships get where they’re going, and the Empire’s actuaries believe it’s more trouble than it’s worth to track lost ships, since they’re so few.”
“One in a hundred million voyages,” Trin said, as if to reassure herself.
Planch poked up from between two long pipes and pushed a mobile diagnostic machine away from the engine, allowing it to float free. “Every engine has an extension into Mire Space while a ship is in transit, which helps the ship avoid becoming random particles. Old techniques which I won’t go into allow me to hook up a monitor to the engine and look at recent trails. With some luck, we can pick up a trail with a frayed end, like a sawed-off rope-and that will be our lost ship. Or rather, the track of its last Jump.”
“Frayed end?” Tritch asked
“An abrupt exit from hyperdrive status leaves a lot of ragged discontinuities, like a frayed end. A planned exit solves all those discontinuities, smoothes them over.”
“If it’s so simple, why doesn’t everybody do this?” Tritch asked.
“Because it’s a lost art, I said, remember?”
She huffed in disbelief.
“You asked,” Planch said, his voice muffled and hollow in the engine bay. “There’s a one-in-five chance of screwing it up and throwing us out of hyperspace, scattered over about a third of a light-year.”
“You didn’t mention that,” Tritch said tightly.
“Now you know why.”
Trin swore under her breath and glared accusingly at her captain.
He worked for several more minutes, then poked up again. Trin had left the balcony, but Tritch still stood there.
“Still good for a couple of bottles of Trillian?” he asked her.
“If you don’t get us killed,” she answered grimly.
He floated away from the cylinders and pushed the diagnostic machines toward the hatchway. “Good! Because I think I’ve found her.”