1 The Void
We term sleep a death, and yet it is waking that kills us.
Something was stuck in her throat, hard and unyielding. Her gullet closed painfully around it. Her stomach convulsed. Hot puke welled up and sprayed from her mouth. It stuck to her face, running down her neck and breasts. Her teeth clamped around some kind of tube, but it was too tough to bite through and her hands seemed locked to her sides. She called for help in the darkness, an incoherent rasping that she hoped someone – anyone – would hear. She was fighting for breath.
A keening siren pierced her consciousness, and Cait knew where she was.
Flexing her fingers, she heard the gauntlet seals pop and thrashed her arms back and forth until they were loose. Her fingers felt weak as she wrapped them around the flexible pipe and pulled it free. She pushed her head through the webbing that supported her, vomiting again as soon as she was clear. Her abdomen cramped painfully with each sobbing retch.
‘Phillips!’ she screamed hoarsely and prised the rem-pads from her eye sockets. Darkness became a greyish blur. Tearing at the leg bags, she spat out the last of the bitter bile and slapped her calf and thigh muscles hard.
‘Come on, come on,’ she urged, rubbing until hot pins and needles spread from her toes. The catheters were still in place and she allowed herself a breath, willing her hands to stop shaking as she drew the tubes slowly from her body.
Her surroundings began to resolve.
The siren still wailed loud enough to wake the dead. The command port was only a few steps away, squeezed against the wall between her harness and Sharpe’s. But she knew better than to try to walk there.
‘Lights,’ she shouted above the din, but the dull illumination of the wall readouts persisted.
The harness webbing criss-crossed around and over her to the support strut above. She quickly shuffled along to the command port end and pushed her way through the straps, reaching up and hanging from the overhead webbing as she felt for the seat back. She didn’t dare fall now. Bones could become brittle in prolonged deepsleep, and she’d been under for … how long? Her fingers closed on the seat, and she eased herself down into it.
The cold plastic was a shock to her skin. Firing up the monitor, she killed the siren and brought up the lights, rubbing at the sudden pain in her eyes.
Sharpe lay wrapped in his webbing beside her, oblivious to her struggle. Onscreen, computer and life support were flagged in red. She punched for deepsleep and read the figures scrolling across the display, then focused on Sharpe once more.
She grabbed for his harness, pulling herself up and pushing through the wall of webbing. His body jiggled in the cradle like a marionette, and his eyes were open, staring through her. She would have fallen backwards if the straps hadn’t held her from both sides. As it was she let out a cry and black spots swam before her eyes, threatening to swallow her. She waited for the dizziness to pass before forcing herself to look again. He’d pulled his left hand free of the gauntlet. The clenched fist lay across his chest, the tip of the rem-pads poking out between his fingers. His pallid face shone in the light of the single overhead. He looked terrified and alone.
Tentatively, she reached out a finger to touch his cheek. His skin felt dry, but it was still soft and warm. She couldn’t tell how long he’d been this way. The harness had lubricated and massaged his body, fed him and siphoned his waste, monitored and scanned and adjusted his chemistry when it needed to. But it hadn’t stopped him dying.
Sluggishly, her mind recalled mission protocol. In the event of crew death, Phillips – the integrated ship-control persona – should have woken her. Where the hell was he; why wasn’t he responding?
The sound came from above, startling Cait. Pulling free of the webbing, she looked up towards the far side of the habitat ring.
Bren stood naked, clinging to her own harness webbing. Her gaze was locked on Sharpe’s body, ignoring Cait completely. Even from where she stood, Cait could see Bren’s every muscle was taut, as if her whole body was locked in some kind of epileptic spasm. And then the woman’s head rolled back and she slumped to the deck.
Cursing, Cait dropped into the port seat and scanned the display again. The sensor log was clear of proximity warnings. That would have to do for now. She keyed in the wake-up sequence and cut back the habitat ring’s spin, sliding from the chair onto her hands and knees as soon as she was done.
The deck curved up and away from her, and her wasted muscles protested as she crawled towards Bren’s body. Slowly, the strain eased as the ring’s spin rate decreased and the faux gravity reduced, so she covered the last few metres in a long, low bound. There was a whirring noise from above and she looked up to see her PAL, the tiny sphere recording every move with its single blue eye. At least some things still worked as they should.
Bren looked like a starved waif. Her flesh had an unhealthy yellow cast and her ribs poked out beneath her small breasts. Cait pressed an ear to her chest and heard a strong heartbeat and slow, steady breathing. Catheters still trailed between the younger woman’s legs, and Cait drew them out and pulled a shift from the floor locker to keep her warm. She grabbed a one-piece for herself, wiping at the sweat and puke still clinging to her body, then grabbed another and quickly dressed.
She still had no idea how long they’d been in deepsleep, and Phillips wasn’t around to tell her. She looked closely at Bren, trying to detect any signs of ageing. The mission was scheduled to take fifty-five years by Earth’s frame of reference, or slightly more than forty-five years’ ship time. On average, deepsleep slowed physical processes by a factor of seven so the whole journey should see them age by a little over six years. Bren’s bleached buzzcut had grown out to a shoulder-length, mouse-brown cloche with a wistful frizz of blonde at the tips. But apart from that and her sickly condition, she looked pretty much the same. Hell, they might be no more than a couple of years out from Earth for all Cait knew.
She heard movement from the next harness and hauled herself up, her arms shaking with the strain. Parting the webbing, she pulled the rem-pads from Lex’s eyes and helped him free the tube from his throat. He turned his head quickly and she moved awkwardly aside as a stream of bile surged from his mouth. It splashed onto the deck, globules breaking away and rising slowly only to fall to the floor again, trapped by surface tension.
Lex blinked rapidly and focused on her. ‘I feel like you look,’ he croaked.
‘You look like I look,’ she said. ‘Get up. I need some help here.’
She slid one arm under his shoulders and, leaning into the harness for support, lifted him to a sitting position. His muscled body was surprisingly light, even in the reduced gravity, and his pale skin felt cold and dry. She undogged the leg bags while he pulled out the catheters.
His brown hair hung lankly past his shoulders. He swept it back out of the way and asked, ‘What’s happened?’
‘Sharpe’s dead,’ she said, looking for some strength in him that she didn’t feel in herself, but seeing only sudden fear. ‘And Bren’s collapsed. I need you to look after her while I see to the others. Can you manage?’
Lex pushed his legs through the strapping to sit on the side of the harness and saw Bren. A retort froze on his lips and he nodded slowly.
The faux gravity was all but non-existent now as the ring continued to decelerate. Cait pushed off from Lex’s harness and flew across the deck, bringing her arms and legs forward to push away again as she came into contact with its surface. She sailed past the main control interface, covering fifteen metres in three strides, and bent her knees deep on the last to kill her forward momentum.
Harris was leaning over the webbing when she reached him. He pushed himself up and wiped at a trail of spit necklaced across his beard.
‘You okay?’ Cait asked.
The lines of his face pulled together to form a humourless smile. ‘Ask me in five. I just need a bit of time.’ He coughed, and reached over the side of the webbing to pull a shirt from the floor locker to wipe his face.
‘Harris,’ Cait said and hesitated.
‘Trouble?’ he asked, shifting his bulk to sit more upright.
‘There’s been some kind of malfunction. Phillips isn’t responding … and Sharpe’s dead.’
‘Sharpe? But –’
‘I don’t know any more than that,’ Cait said, waving a hand. The pressure to get to work on some answers was becoming unbearable. ‘Bren’s hurt too. Give Lex a hand when you can.’
She moved on shakily. Her body was beginning to betray her, but she pushed on through sheer willpower.
Nadira was already pulling on a one-piece when Cait got there. Winded from her exertions, Cait took a slow, deep breath before speaking. ‘You okay?’
Nadira’s eyes flicked towards hers for an instant then focused on her fastenings again. ‘Fine,’ she said, her tone decidedly unfriendly.
Cait felt like she’d been slapped. The petty bickering they’d endured before deepsleep came flooding back, along with a surge of anger. She wanted to shout at Nadira that Sharpe was dead and next to that nothing else mattered. But Nadira didn’t know what had happened, and Cait didn’t have the energy.
She’d checked Nadira was okay; that was all she had to do.
‘Help Harris and Lex when you’re dressed,’ she said.
She turned and kicked off, coming full circle to the command port and sinking gratefully in front of the display. She was hot, sweaty and smelt of vomit. Her body was one unrelenting ache. If not for the harnesses, she knew she’d barely be able to crawl so fresh out of deepsleep, but that wasn’t much consolation.
Sharpe lay beside her, almost mummified in the harness webbing, and she angled away from that side of the seat. Where was Phillips, and what the hell had happened to Bren?
Thinking about Sharpe brought her close to tears. Somewhere deep inside she recognised she was in shock. She just wanted to curl up and make everything go away. But she had a ship and crew to look after.
Her PAL latched onto the wall track above the port and lowered itself to a position just above the display.
‘Address intra-ship,’ she told it. ‘Briefing in ten.’ She could hear tiny echoes of her voice around the ring as her image was relayed to the other PAL screens. ‘Just as soon as I figure out what’s going on.’
The port still flagged computer and life support. She cleared the screen with a wave and began checking internal sensors, bringing up a schematic of their craft. Magellan’s familiar stubby cone flashed up in cross-section and she worked the sensors from stern to stem. First came the thickest portion, the massive hold containing the zero-point drive, partially open to the vacuum. Next the aft storage area, hard up against the revolving drum of the main habitat ring. Nothing. Hull integrity, atmosphere, ambient temperature, servos, relays, all okay. Ahead of them was the fore access tube and the six segmented bulkheads of the forward section tapering towards the nose: auxiliary command, clean room and lander lock, bot tubes and launcher, computer core, environment plant, and long- and short-range sensors and communications – each segment lined with additional storage bins wherever clearance allowed. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Which meant whatever had gone wrong was outside their ability to easily define.
Ten minutes later, the Magellan’s crew sat around the main control interface: a long, matt-black, waist-high slab inset with ports and relays that curved gently in parallel with the deck. They all looked like shit. Harris, normally stocky tending to fat, had lost a fair amount of weight. Even Nadira, whose skin colour hid the pallor evident in the others, showed black circles under her eyes. Cait didn’t feel much better, and smelled worse, despite her tightly shut one-piece.
She, Harris and Lex were at one end of the table, huddled together as if for mutual comfort, but Nadira chose to sit at the far end and eyed them all with cool reserve.
The implications were obvious. Nadira, the sole representative of the Compact of Asian Peoples, had done little to fit in with the predominantly Pax crew. But to be fair, there had been transgressions on both sides during the slow journey to the edge of Sol System. Harris was a dyed-in-the-wool Pax nationalist and set in his ways. Lex was from the European Union, which was supposedly neutral, but it hadn’t stopped him airing his opinions either. Cait and Sharpe had tried to keep a lid on things, but it had been a relief when they’d finally locked the systems down and entered the deepsleep harnesses.
Interpersonal problems were the least of her worries now. It seemed an effort just to think. She looked at the flimsy spat out by the command system. Time to get on with it.
‘There’s good news among the bad,’ she began. ‘We’re on course, and the drive appears operational. But we’re still a long way out from Iota Persei. Roughly six weeks from scheduled wake-up, which means five from the V-dump cascade. We’re lucky we woke up when we did. It gives us that long to get the AI up for the burn.’
‘So we’re close to Horizon,’ Lex said. ‘We made it.’
‘So far we’ve made it,’ Cait corrected. ‘We have to work out what happened during deepsleep before we can start patting each other on the back.’
‘If the Phillips persona was down and out, the fail-safes must have tripped your wake-up,’ Harris said.
‘That or Sharpe’s death. Or both depending on the timing. Something’s obviously gone incredibly wrong.’
‘Do you know what the time delay was?’ Harris asked.
‘No. I don’t have access to the log yet. Even though the back-ups are functioning, we don’t have integrated control.’
Harris took a sip of coffee and sat back in his seat, swirling the hot liquid in its bulb. ‘I wonder what things are like back on Earth.’
Lex glanced towards Nadira at the other end of the bench and folded his arms. ‘Why bother about them? We’ve been away for over half a century. I can’t see there’d be anybody left who’d care about five people blasted thirty-four light years into space.’
‘We’re not all like you,’ Cait said. She’d heard this before from Lex. It was a pet topic, but not a debate she wanted right now. ‘Some of us do care. And we’re looking forward to going home after the mission.’
Lex smiled. ‘All I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if all you find is a smoking cinder. Pax Americana might have tolerated the Compact when we left, but sooner or later they have to revert to type. Overfarming, rising salinity – I don’t care how good genetech gets, you can’t grow crops on salt pans. That means a growing pressure for fertile arable land. Sooner or later something’s got to give. It all comes down to Lebensraum.’
Harris scowled. ‘The Pax government is not Hitler.’
‘Hey, I’m not singling out the Pax,’ Lex said, raising his hands. ‘Any government’s going to feel the pinch and act on it. Even the EU, if we had the military muscle. Besides, how would you know what the Pax government is like these days?’
‘And how would you?’ Cait interrupted. ‘In those fifty years, progressive governments could have solved the problems of our time. Don’t forget one aim of our mission was to study the planetary environments we encounter to better understand our own. And that was only one of a raft of programs the UN sponsored with the full support of the Pax, the Compact, the EU and the UNS. There’s no reason to expect that progressive approach hasn’t survived for the past half century and prospered as a result, unless you have a pessimistic take on humanity.’
‘Yeah,’ Harris chipped in, ‘don’t judge others by your own low standards.’
At the other end of the bench, Nadira was ignoring them. She’d accessed a terminal on the tabletop and her fingers were moving across the inset keyboard.
‘What about you, Nadira?’ Lex asked. ‘What are your views?’
‘Lex,’ Cait warned.
The Compact scientist ceased her steady tapping and regarded them coolly. ‘My views I’ll keep to myself, until airing them serves some constructive purpose. I’m waiting for the briefing to continue.’
Harris gave a low whistle.
Lex just smiled. ‘That’s me told,’ he said, and sat back in his seat.
‘We’re looking at three main problems,’ Cait said, focusing on the job at hand. ‘First, we need Phillips up and running to integrate ship’s systems and operate the drive. Second, we have to find out what killed Sharpe – if it was the harness, that spells trouble for the V-dump. I don’t want to think about how long conventional braking and backtracking will take.’
‘Third is Bren, I take it,’ Lex said. ‘I’ve only managed a cursory examination. She’s got bruising from the fall. Nothing serious. There are some odd readings in the EEG though.’
‘It’ll be that bloody computer link,’ Harris said. ‘I told them it wasn’t a good idea having her on board.’
‘You’re jumping to conclusions,’ Cait said. This was another long-running argument from before deepsleep. ‘I’ll come take a look after we’re done here, Lex.’
He shrugged. ‘Whatever.’
‘And I’ll need you to start an autopsy on Sharpe as soon as you can.’
‘What!’ Lex sat forward so quickly, he floated off his seat. He pushed against the benchtop to settle himself again. ‘I can have a poke around, but I’m not exactly qualified.’
‘You’re the most qualified person in thirty-four light years. It’s important we know what happened to Sharpe and when, if we can.’
‘I’d like to start a physical systems check, drive to nose,’ Harris said. ‘For peace of mind, if nothing else.’
‘I agree,’ Cait said, ‘but after we get cleaned up. There’s one thing that can’t wait, however. I think we should check out the core. That’s your job, Harris. And Nadira …’ Nadira looked directly at her for the first time. ‘I’d like you to help him. I know it’s not exactly your line, but with Bren –’
‘I’ll try to cope,’ Nadira said frostily.
Cait felt her tension levels rise in response. ‘Okay,’ she said, drawing the syllables out. She didn’t want to deal with Nadira’s attitude in front of the others, but it couldn’t wait much longer. ‘If there’s nothing else, we all know what we’re doing.’
They stood awkwardly, and Nadira and Harris made for the access ladder against the wall. Cait followed Lex, copying the rolling gait he’d adopted for the low-g in the ring.
‘I don’t know what I’m going to be able to tell from a post-mortem. It’ll be pure guesswork at best,’ he said as they bounded slowly past the resistance gym.
‘Humour me. It’s my job to keep you all busy.’
They entered the med lab, which wasn’t much more than a collection of lockers and wall screens clustered around a broad ledge built into the wall that served as a bed. Bren lay there now, her body plastered with sensor patches.
Lex perched on a stool, took a small penlight from his pocket and pulled back one of her eyelids, shining the light into her eye.
‘Is she going to be all right?’ Cait asked.
Lex took a deep breath and smiled unconvincingly. ‘I don’t know. I’m not much more than a glorified GP, you know. I didn’t think I’d have anything worse than a couple of broken limbs to treat on the whole trip.’
‘I know. We’ve all been caught by surprise. I can’t really believe Sharpe’s dead.’ She hooked a leg around a nearby stool and sat down. ‘I’ve tried to imagine how he felt in those last moments, coming so far and then dying alone. I feel responsible.’
Lex grunted. ‘Well, you’re not.’
‘I know that. But I’m also mission leader, which means I am responsible, just in a different way. My confidence has taken a beating in the last half-hour. All I see is questions and I haven’t any answers.’
She looked down at Bren. The woman’s chest was rising and falling steadily.
Lex reached for the pull-down screen overhead, pointing at each scrolling graph line and naming them for Cait’s benefit. ‘Heart, respiration, core temperature, lymphatic system – all fine. It’s this one, the neural readout that has me stumped. The electrochemical activity’s very low.’
He prodded the screen and Bren’s skull appeared in outline. Blood flow and tissue were clearly visible, tagged in a rainbow of colours.
‘Even when you’re asleep, the synapses are ticking over with a steady stream of neurotransmitters, but right now there’s next to nothing. I’ve run an MRI – there are no lesions, no tumours. I’ve seen something like this in coma cases, but there’s usually an obvious cause.’ He pushed the screen away. ‘It’s as if her brain’s on standby, not sending or receiving.’
Cait thought for a moment. ‘Can you access her implant?’
‘It’s not that easy. It responds to her thoughts directly, keyed in to a specific firing pattern. There is an access link close to the surface behind her left ear, but I’m not sure I can kickstart the built-in fault-finder.’
‘If you tried, would it harm her?’
‘It shouldn’t. These systems are triple redundant on fail-safes. They have to be. But then it shouldn’t let her stay in a coma either. I’d rather wait and see if she comes out of it herself.’
Cait shook her head. ‘We can’t afford to do that. Bren was the only other person awake when I found Sharpe. She may know something about what happened.’
‘It’s not worth risking her life for, is it? Sharpe’s dead. Whatever she may know can’t help him now.’
‘This isn’t for Sharpe.’ Cait tried to keep her voice level, but her frustration was starting to get the better of her. Was she the only one looking at the bigger picture here? ‘There’s five other people on board and we’re still alive. As long as we don’t have a cause for Sharpe’s death, we’re all in danger. Look, you said the risk is low. Hook her up. You can blame me later if anything goes wrong.’
‘I hope I won’t have to,’ Lex said, stony-faced.
He palmed a drawer open in the bench and scrabbled around for the right equipment. He pulled out a small cube and bent over Bren, sweeping the hair back from behind her ear.
‘I see a good sleep hasn’t improved Nadira’s mood.’ He looked up when Cait didn’t respond. ‘I mean, I can understand how she feels, but –’
‘You’ve got enough to do. Let me deal with her, okay?’
‘That’s just it.’ He stood and rested a hand on her shoulder. ‘You don’t have to. You’re not alone, Cait. There are others here willing to share the burden. Me, for one.’
She was sure he meant it, or thought he did. But his actions betrayed him – like trying to provoke Nadira at the briefing, and the run-ins he’d engineered in Sol System.
Of course, she’d seen Lex in a very different light then. He’d been self-assured naturally, but also attentive, supportive, willing to listen to her worries – let’s face it, her fears – about the mission. Sharpe was a good 2IC and a solid friend, but Cait had never been physically attracted to him. Lex was intelligent, funny, different. He’d filled a need. Then the friction began between the team and he’d waded in with both feet. That’s when she saw how childish and self-centred he could be, and things had cooled between them, at least from her side.
He squeezed the tense muscles of her neck. ‘You need to relax. I can handle Nadira for you.’
She shrugged off his touch. ‘When it comes to pouring oil on troubled waters you have a tendency to fuck things up.’
He stared at her for a second, the muscles along his jawline flexing. ‘And what about you and me?’
‘I don’t know. Things are different out here.’
Lex flushed, but he didn’t get the opportunity to respond. Harris’s voice sounded from above. Cait looked to where her PAL nestled beside Lex’s on the wall track. Harris’s face, ruddy and slightly bloated from the freefall near the core, stared at her from the screen.
‘Cait? We’re at the computer core now. I think you’ll want to have a look at what we’ve found.’
‘On my way,’ she said, grateful for an excuse to leave Lex to his work.
She pushed off the floor and sailed towards the wall, grabbing a rung on the access ladder and pulling herself up towards the hub.
‘Let me know if you find anything,’ she called back.
Lex didn’t reply, but she could feel his eyes on her as she climbed.
The negligible pull on Cait’s body fell away as she reached the access tube into the forward part of the ship. Her PAL followed her ascent. Drifting free of the wall track on its tiny fans, it hovered above her, watching with its single cheery blue eye. She clung tight to the top of the ladder and the scene around her seemed to flip one-eighty degrees. Unlike her PAL, she hated freefall. It always took too long for her to adjust to the loss of ‘up’.
She pulled herself over the lip of the access tube and glided towards the lazily revolving spider’s web at the other end, reminding herself as she went that she was the one revolving. Grabbing a thick strand of web, she lost her own spin and the tube continued to turn around her. She pulled herself closer to the wall until she could swing her feet free of the tube. She was hanging dead centre in a small, disc-shaped chamber. Web strands offered hand and foot holds to six separate openings into different segments of the hull.
Cait started to climb towards what she continued to think of as ‘down’ by virtue of the fact that her feet were in that direction. She passed through the opening and into a large, shadowy chamber. A ladder extended beneath her. The shape of the outer hull was clearly visible below in the way the floor raked steeply towards the front of the ship.
Harris and Nadira were tethered to the core itself – a huge pylon hanging from the central spine of the hold and extending well forward, tapering off into darkness. Their PALs orbited around them like tiny satellites.
Running out of ladder, Cait took a line from the bottom rung, attached it to the hip ring on her one-piece, and kicked off towards them. Harris was braced against the access hatch and he caught her by the elbows, absorbing her forward momentum. She reached towards the hatch and pulled herself down to the computer interior.
The outer skin was only a few centimetres deep, encasing the clear perspex core, which was separately pressurised in case of hull breach. A maddening network of wires ran through the interior, linking at junctions in a seemingly random pattern. She couldn’t have picked any damage in all that jumble even if she knew what to look for. Nadira watched her, perched on the outer casing, her face unreadable.
‘So what am I seeing?’ Cait asked Harris.
He grunted. ‘There’s no damage as far as I can tell. But I can’t get anything sensible out of the thing – at least not through the on-site interface.’ He indicated the scat board set into the hatch. ‘If Bren were here …’
‘Just tell me what you’ve found.’
‘Not much. None of the nodes are damaged, and all the connections seem to be up, but there’s no contact between them. You know how the system works: the nodes are hardwired but the firing between them’s modified by a gas algorithm program –’
‘Mimicking the action of neurotransmitters in the brain,’ Cait said. ‘I feel like I’ve just had this conversation.’
Harris looked at her quizzically, but she didn’t feel like elaborating.
‘I thought that if the hardware was fine, the fault must be in the software, but I can’t find anything there either,’ he said. ‘As far as I can tell, the whole system’s inwardly directed. It might know we’re here. It might know what’s happening. But it’s not doing anything about it.’
‘Another marvel of Pax technology,’ Nadira said. ‘If I’d known there would be so many problems, I wouldn’t have agreed to come.’
Cait ignored the remark, but she saw Harris beginning to bristle. ‘If we tried to re-initialise, would that kickstart a response?’ she asked, distracting him.
‘It wouldn’t leave us any worse off than we are now,’ he said. ‘A dead system’s a dead system.’
‘Wait till I get back to the ring. I want to monitor things from the command port.’ She glanced at Nadira, still sitting hunkered on the core. One thing Cait didn’t need was Harris distracted during the restart. ‘Do you need Nadira to help?’
Harris hid a smile as he scratched at his beard. ‘I think I’ll be able to manage.’
Cait hauled on the line and floated off towards the ladder again. Nadira had no choice but to follow.
Cait waited until both of them were climbing before she spoke. ‘We need to start observations on Horizon’s system and make a comparison with our baseline data from Earth. Sharpe would have done it normally, so it falls to you as second stringer for that function.’
‘Fine,’ Nadira said without enthusiasm.
The clearance reduced sharply as they entered the accessway to the hub tube. Cait stopped when they were both inside and out of earshot. Nadira made to push past her, climb up the webbing and head into the tube, but Cait placed a restraining hand on her shoulder.
‘Give me a minute. We have to talk.’
The woman floated back, keeping one hand on the webbing. Her eyes focused on Cait’s boots.
Cait marshalled her thoughts. ‘Look, I know you’re not happy. And I know why.’ Nadira’s expression when she finally looked up indicated Cait didn’t know anything of the sort, but she pressed on. ‘Earth, the Pax and the Compact are light years away now. There’s only us, and we need to depend on one another, because at any instant our lives can turn on what each individual does.’
‘Spare me the pep talk. I don’t need you to tell me how important I am.’
Cait felt her cheeks flush. ‘We’re all important. So long as we’re all putting in. But you should know I won’t allow anyone or anything to jeopardise the team or the mission. If you’re not one hundred percent behind that, then we all have a problem and it’s not one I’m going to ignore. That’s my job, Nadira, and there’s nothing I take more seriously.’
For an instant, Cait felt she saw something behind Nadira’s aloofness. A hint of vulnerability perhaps, but it was gone as soon as it showed itself.
‘I’ll do my job,’ Nadira said simply.
‘Okay. I know.’ Cait relaxed a notch. ‘And I’m here to help. We can talk any time you want. About anything.’
‘Can I go now?’ Nadira’s voice was as cold as before. Then she added in what Cait took to be a more conciliatory tone, ‘I need to make a start on the observations.’
Cait nodded and stepped aside, watching as Nadira climbed the webbing and sailed through the accessway.
Cait waited a moment, then launched herself into the tube, reaching out as she moved along to acquire some spin. Nadira disappeared from sight, tumbling over the lip at the far end in one graceful move.
It had been obvious from the start that Nadira’s last-minute inclusion on the mission was going to be problematic. The nukes that took out targets in the Middle East and Asia, and prompted the Compact’s formation, had been followed by fifty years of bitter and protracted Pax-led sanctions. Nadira’s presence on board was meant to herald a new era of détente between the Compact and the Pax Americana. But while politicians made and broke alliances almost without thinking, the wounds history inflicted on individuals took longer to heal.
Cait swung herself over the lip of the tube, feeling her internal organs settle as she descended the ladder and stopped halfway. On the floor below it was easy to forget where you were, but from this vantage point the curvature of the drum was more obvious. The layout inside clustered the harnesses, med lab, gym, ship controls and so on against the fore and aft walls, leaving a broad walkway running around the midpoint. Lighting and colouring were muted and shadows minimal, giving an illusion of space, but it was still just the inside of a large can. An odd place to spend the best part of a century.
She took a breath, feeling oddly separated from the others below. She realised that up until now things had been easy, despite the bickering. Lex’s attentions too had been part of a game they’d played on the out-system leg. But now it was very different. Out here they could be sure their bodies would never be found if disaster struck. There would be no one to mourn them, no marker to show how far out they’d come. Sure, this had been the case when they were mere light days from Earth. But it felt more true out here, in the space between the stars. The hard, uncaring void, as Sharpe would say before pulling some stupid terror-stricken face and doubling up with laughter. Cait just wasn’t sure how far she should go in adapting herself to that difference. She couldn’t quieten the nagging feeling that she was pushing too hard just to keep up the illusion of moving towards a solution – forcing Lex to wake Bren early, ordering the reboot without a more considered study of the situation. Her head hurt, and she wanted to sleep. How could that be when she’d only just woken after forty-five years?
People reacted differently to emergency situations – herself included. Under the circumstances, perhaps Nadira’s continued aloofness was understandable. Cait wondered what reaction was the right one for her?
She felt dizzy again and clung to the ladder, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. The drum servos hummed through the wall, maintaining the spin. Inside there was light, air, everything was quiet. It was hard to believe they were in the midst of an emergency, hard to keep focusing on that. But the emergency was real. And that was why she had to keep going.
Holding onto that thought, she finished her descent and made her way back to Lex. He looked up from his monitor as she came close and shook his head.
‘No change. The implant’s hooked up but I haven’t been able to influence it. I don’t even know if it’s functioning.’
‘Keep a close eye on her,’ Cait said. ‘We’re going to reboot the main computer.’
‘What difference will that make?’
Cait frowned. ‘I don’t know. Just watch her, okay?’
She glided over to the command port again. Her PAL was settled above the port, already linked to Harris’s.
‘I’m in position, Harris. Ready when you are.’
‘It’ll just take a moment,’ Harris said over the link.
Cait began setting up her screen to monitor the key systems simultaneously.
‘You have to stop her! Don’t let her do it!’
Cait turned at the noise. Bren was trying to get up; Lex was struggling against her.
Bren stared at Cait, eyes wild, as she forced Lex’s hands away.
‘Don’t reboot Phillips, Cait! You’ll kill us all!’
Cait turned back to the port. ‘Halt the reboot, Harris. Do not proceed. I repeat, do not proceed. I need you back in the ring. Now!’
The mission’s systems specialist perched like some flightless bird on a med-lab stool, a foil blanket draped across her shoulders. Lex fussed around Bren, removing sensor patches and checking readings, and Harris leaned against the bulkhead in half-shadow, watching the proceedings with a grim look on his face. Nadira was off somewhere, preferring to ‘get on with some real work’.
The Magellan fell steadily towards Iota Persei and its retinue of planets. Its hull was coated in a thick mantle of water-ice. Cait knew the interplanetary ‘vacuum’ was anything but empty. At 0.6 light speed, even a tiny fragment of rock crossing their path could cause major damage. So far, statistical probability had been on their side. But serious collision was only one of a million things that could kill them without warning. She’d been appalled at first and then finally bored by the seemingly endless catalogue of hazards laid out in the mission pack. Looking at Bren now though, she couldn’t shake the feeling the list may not have been as exhaustive as she’d thought.
‘I think you’re going to be all right,’ Lex said, offering Bren a bulb of coffee. ‘Your scans are back to normal, but I’ll want to run some more tests just to make sure.’
He moved the bulb closer when she didn’t respond, and she finally took it from him. Bren didn’t look so okay to Cait. She seemed distracted, worried.
‘Can you remember what happened?’ Cait asked her. The question was a simple one, but so much rested on the answer.
Bren’s eyes darted around the ring as if cataloguing their world would make it somehow more real for her. ‘I had a bad dream … I think. Sharpe was dead.’
‘I found him that way, yes,’ Cait said. ‘You were out of the harness. You collapsed.’
‘I don’t remember anything. Just images, thoughts. Until I went online.’
Harris grunted from the shadows. Cait knew what he thought about transhumans, and Bren in particular.
‘When was that exactly?’ Cait asked.
Bren blinked rapidly and looked directly at Cait for the first time. ‘What?’
‘Cait, she’s tired,’ Lex said. ‘She needs some rest.’
‘I’m just trying to get the run of events straight in my head. When did the link start functioning?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Bren said, hesitantly. ‘After I dreamed about Sharpe, I guess. The first real memory I have is being in the ring with Phillips. I knew that wasn’t a dream. The texture was too vivid. I tried to talk to him but he wasn’t answering. He was floating in the hub. Kind of staring at his hands, rubbing them together over and over, like he was washing them.’
Her words drifted off and she was silent for a few seconds.
‘Usually he’s juggling the subsystems,’ she said, more animated now. ‘But the icons were just floating around his head. So I grabbed for comms and dived in. I thought I could get him to respond through the dedicated line. But when I got inside, his mailbox was gone.’ Her sudden smile looked out of place. ‘I guess you’d have to see the environment to understand it. I call it the sorting office. I templated it from an old picture I used to have. It usually works pretty well, but where his box should have been there was nothing – a blank wall. Then I saw the parcel sitting on the floor, right in front of where his box should have been. It was large, wrapped in brown paper, with thick string around it, sealed with blobs of that red, shiny wax they used to use. It had Phillips’s name on the top.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know why really, but I didn’t like the look of it. Maybe I was feeling jumpy from the dreams.’
Cait could see that Bren was totally immersed in the memory now, seeing the virtual environment as she spoke. Her hands reached out and downwards.
‘I went to pick it up. Then something made me bend down instead and listen. It was ticking,’ she said, almost laughing at the absurdity. ‘Just like in the old flat-vids. I touched it very lightly, and it felt like cold death, like we didn’t want any part of it. I knew I had to tell someone. I had to wake up.’ She focused on the others again, hands still outstretched. ‘And then I was here, in med lab.’
‘You said rebooting Phillips would kill us all,’ Cait told her.
The corners of Bren’s mouth turned down. ‘If Phillips went online, his postbox would open and the parcel would go through. Whatever it was, I didn’t want it getting into our system.’
‘It wouldn’t get through the protocols, no matter how damaged Phillips was on reboot,’ Harris said.
‘I didn’t want to take that chance. You don’t know what it felt like, Harris.’
‘Yeah, right,’ he said, folding his arms.
‘What do you know about Phillips’s condition?’ Cait asked.
‘What?’ Bren pulled the blanket tighter around her and shifted on her stool.
‘Why wasn’t he reacting?’
‘I don’t know,’ Bren said, hesitating. Her eyes focused on Cait then darted away again. ‘I was too distracted by the package to register much else.’
‘You didn’t get anything from him over your link?’ Cait asked.
‘No,’ Bren said emphatically. ‘I was worried about the parcel, okay? I didn’t want to waste any time.’
‘Okay,’ Cait said. ‘It pays to be circumspect. Can you go back in and isolate it before we reboot?’
‘I think so. I –’
Lex broke in. ‘I can’t tell what interfacing again’s going to do to her. She might end up in another coma.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ Bren said, shrugging off the foil blanket. ‘I’m sure that package is dangerous.’
‘You can monitor Bren while she’s linked, can’t you?’ Cait asked Lex.
‘Yeah, but I can’t reach in and snap her out of it if she starts going under. It’s –’
‘Lex,’ Cait said and nodded towards Bren, who was sitting very still with her eyes closed. Her head jerked to the side and Lex reached out to catch her.
‘I’ve got it,’ she said, coming round. ‘It’s in my vault.’ She looked at Lex, still crouched ready to support her. ‘Back off, will you? There’s nothing wrong with me. Or the link.’
Lex took a step back as Bren slid from the stool and pushed past him and Nadira and out of med lab.
‘Bloody hell.’ Harris rolled his eyes. ‘I’m off to reboot Phillips, if that’s okay with everyone. Call me when she’s making sense.’
Cait followed after Bren, past Nadira’s harness and into one of the two shower stalls in the ring. The door was locked and she hesitated to disturb her, but she couldn’t let this wait.
‘When can you tell me what’s inside?’ she asked.
‘I’m in the vault now,’ Bren called over the running water. ‘It’s totally partitioned. There’s no way anything can get out. The package is open. There’s just one box inside. I’m going to try and access it. Uh –’
‘What is it?’ Cait asked, expecting the walls to crumble around her.
‘No encryption. Whoever sent it wasn’t expecting it to be intercepted. Standard codes, file protocols. It’s Pax Space Admin, or a very good copy. Seems to be course data and – shit!’
‘What’s wrong? Bren, are you okay?’ Cait pulled at the door handle.
The water stopped running and Bren opened the stall door and stepped out, ashen-faced.
Before she could speak, Harris’s voice called over Cait’s PAL. ‘Computer’s on restart. All readings nominal.’
There was a shimmering on the deck in front of them and a holo-image began to scan in layer by layer, building shoes, legs, a torso, until an older man stood before them dressed in smart Space Admin fatigues. His skin had a healthy tan that contrasted with the shock of white hair swept back from high temples. His eyes were deep-set and gleamed with cold fire as he registered their presence.
His left hand stretched palm upwards towards Bren, still standing naked in a puddle of water. ‘You have something that belongs to me, Thurgood. For everyone’s sake, I suggest you give it up.’
Logically, Cait knew Phillips couldn’t and wouldn’t harm them, but something about him made her uneasy all the same. She moved to stand in front of Bren.
‘Harris!’ she called to her PAL. ‘What are you reading?’
‘Nothing unusual here. It’s a clean restart.’
Bren was unfazed. ‘Relax, Phillips. What I’ve got, you don’t want. Believe me.’
Phillips turned his attention to Cait. ‘Mission Leader Dyson, Systems Specialist Thurgood is withholding a communication from launch control. This message may hold mission-critical data. I must be allowed to access it immediately or I cannot guarantee the safety of this ship and crew.’
‘This is about the safety of the ship and crew,’ Bren told Cait. ‘Believe me, we can’t release these files. Not yet anyway.’
Cait was torn. Phillips was adamant but weird, and she needed to understand why the package had worried Bren so.
‘Phillips,’ she said as calmly as she could manage, ‘the communication will be withheld until we can be sure it’s safe. On my authority.’
‘As you wish,’ Phillips said, nodding curtly. ‘But in so doing you may be compounding the danger to this vessel.’
‘That’s my responsibility. I’m more concerned right now about what made you shut down.’
Phillips’s image seemed to stutter, slowing and freezing in mid-motion, then stabilised as he cocked his head to one side. His teeth bared in a predatory grin. ‘Why nothing … and something.’
Cait shivered despite herself. It was Phillips, no question, but somehow not Phillips. Something had changed.
‘I don’t like this,’ she said. ‘Harris, suspend integrated control.’
The image of Phillips froze again then vanished.
Cait crossed to her command port, Bren following behind. She pulled herself into the chair and activated the scat board. Her fingers flew across the pads.
‘Let’s get to the bottom of this,’ she muttered and hit the send key.
The cursor flashed a line and a new set of characters appeared, confirming her query.
<query integrated control>
<integrated control> the cursor complied, the commands progressively tunnelling through the system linkages to the main core diagnostics now back online.
<query shutdown> Cait typed, and pressed send.
<nil shutdown> the cursor stated.
‘Bullshit there wasn’t,’ Cait hissed, biting her lip for a second before typing again.
<query internal clock>
<internal clock> the cursor replied.
The cursor blinked at her for a few seconds as if pondering how to break the news. It finally settled on a direct response.
Cait slapped the keyboard in disgust. ‘This is getting us nowhere.’ She looked up at her PAL. ‘Address intra-ship. Attention, everyone: take some time out to get cleaned up. The computer’s going to take longer to fix than we thought. We’ll meet in the mess in one hour. End.
‘And now,’ Cait said to Bren, ‘why don’t you get dressed and then you can tell me exactly what you’ve found.’