“I don’t think we’re going to nail it down any closer, Harry,” Sean sighed from the captain’s couch. He rubbed his forehead in a futile effort to relieve the subliminal ache of hours of concentration on his neural feeds, then rose and stretched hugely.
“I’m afraid you’re right.” His sister sat up in the astrogator’s couch and twisted a lock of sable hair around a fingertip.
Sandy lay like a dead woman in the tactical officer’s couch, but Sean was used to her utter concentration on the task in hand. Besides, he could see her breathing. He flipped his feed into her net, nudging her gently, and felt her acknowledgment. She began to disengage from her painstaking computer diagnostics, and he fired another message off to Tamman and Brashan, summoning them from their examination of Engineering for a conference.
He clasped his hands behind him and watched the display while Harriet rose and worked through a few tension-relieving stretches. Israel drifted in interstellar space, drive down while her tiny crew examined her every system. Before they did anything else, they were going to be certain—or as close as was humanly (or Narhanily) possible—no more booby traps awaited them. But once they were certain they still had to decide what to do, and the display’s glittering stars offered few options.
He looked up as Tamman and Brashan entered the command deck. Tamman still looked drawn and pinched, but Brashan seemed almost calm. Which, Sean reflected, might owe something to the famed Narhani lack of imagination. Personally, he’d always thought of it more as pragmatism. Narhani were more concerned with the nuts and bolts of a problem than with its implications, and he was glad of it. Brashan’s levelheadedness was exactly what they all needed just now, for, to use the current Academy phrase, they were up to their eyebrows in shit.
Tamman perched on the assistant tactical officer’s couch beside Sandy while Brashan keyed a reconfiguration command into the exec’s couch. It twitched for a moment, then reformed itself into a Narhani-style pad, and he folded onto it just as Sandy shook her head and roused. She sat up with a wan smile that still held a ghost of her familiar humor, and Sean grinned back wryly. Then he cleared his throat.
“All right. I know our system checks are still a long way from finished, but I think it’s time to compare notes.”
Their nodded agreement was a relief. He was senior to all of them, yet his authority, while real and legal, rested solely on their class standings. He stood first in their Academy class, but less than five points separated him from Tamman, their most “junior” officer, and there was a bare quarter-point between him and Sandy. Which was due solely to his higher scores in Tactics and Phys-Ed, for she’d waxed him in Math and Physics.
“Okay. Harry and I have done our best to figure out where we are, but we can’t be as precise about it as we’d like. Or, rather, we know where we are; we just don’t have any idea what the neighborhood looks like. Harry?” He passed the discussion to her, and she propped a hip against the astrogator’s console.
“First of all, we’re nowhere near where we’re supposed to be. Israel’s astro data is limited—normally, sublight units don’t much need interstellar data—but we’ve got the old basic Fourth Empire cartography downloads. Working from them and allowing for forty-odd thousand years of stellar motion, we’re just about smack in the middle of the Tarik Sector.”
“The Tarik Sector?” Tamman sounded dubious, and Sean didn’t blame him.
“Exactly.” Harriet’s voice was calmer than Sean knew she was. “Whatever happened took Terra off her programmed course by something like plus seventy-two degrees declination and fifty degrees left ascension from Urahan, then brought her out of hyper three days early on top of it. At the moment, we’re five-point-four-six-seven light-centuries from Birhat, as near as Sean and I can figure it, on a bearing no one could possibly have predicted.”
Sean watched the implications sink home. It didn’t make much real difference—they’d known from the start that their battleship was a hopelessly tiny needle in a galactic haystack—but now they also knew no one had even the faintest idea where to start looking for them. Harriet gave them a few moments to consider it, then went on even more dispassionately.
“Unfortunately, Israel’s database was loaded for the Idan Sector, where we were supposed to be going. We’ve figured out where we are relative to Bia, but we don’t have any data on the Tarik Sector, so we don’t have the least idea what it contained forty thousand years ago, much less today. No Survey people have penetrated this far, and they probably won’t for at least fifty years or so. All of which means we’re not in real good shape for making informed guesses about where we ought to go next.”
She paused again, then returned the floor to Sean with a small nod.
“Thanks, Harry.” He looked at the others and shrugged. “As Harry says, we don’t have much guidance about possible destinations, but then, we don’t have much choice, either.” He flipped his neural feed into the display computers, and a red sighting ring circled a bright star.
“That,” he said, “is an F5 star at about one-point-three light-years. We don’t know which one it is, so we don’t know if it had any habitable planets even before the bio-weapon hit, but the next nearest candidate for a life-bearing world is this G6—” a second sighting ring blossomed “—over eleven light-years away. It’s going to take us a while to reach either of them at our best sustained sublight speed, but it’d take something like nine hundred years to get back to Bia—assuming Israel’s systems would hold up for a voyage that long. On the other hand, we can get to the F5 in just under two-point-two years. At point-six cee, we’ll have a tau of about point-eight, so the subjective time will be about twenty-one months. That’s a long time, and we’ve only got two stasis pods, so we’ll have to put up with each other awake the whole way, but I don’t see that we have any other option. Comments?”
“I have one, Sean,” Brashan said after a moment, and Sean nodded for him to go on. “It’s more of an observation, really. It occurs to me that, given such a long voyage time, it may be a fortunate thing we Narhani still think of ourselves as having only one sex.”
The other three stared at Brashan, but Sean astonished himself with a chuckle. After a moment the others began to grin, too, though Harriet was a little pink. Sean coughed into his fist, smothering the last of his chuckles, and regarded the Narhani sternly.
“Contrary to what you poor, benighted aliens may believe, Brashan, not all humans are helpless slaves to their hormones.”
“Indeed?” Brashan cocked his head and looked down his long snout at him, raising his crest in an expression of polite disbelief. “I would never dispute your veracity, Sean, but I must say my personal observation of human mating behavior invalidates your basic premise. And while we Narhani are quite different from humans, it seems to me that a disinterested perspective is less prone to self-deception. As you know, my people have given this matter of sex a great deal of thought in the last few years, and—”
“All right, Brashan Brashieel-nahr!” Sandy hurled a boot at the centauroid. Sean hadn’t seen her take it off, but a six-fingered hand darted up and caught it in mid-flight, and Brashan made the bubbling noise that always reminded Sean of a clogged drain trying—vainly—to clear itself.
The laughing Narhani returned Sandy’s boot without rising, inclining his saurian-looking head in a gallant bow, and Sean shook his head. Like most Narhani clone-children, Brashan had spent so much time with humans his elders found his sense of humor quite incomprehensible, but he was also a far shrewder student of human psychology than he cared to pretend. He understood humans needed to laugh in order not to weep. And, Sean thought with heightened respect, perhaps he also understood how his teasing could help set his human friends at ease with a topic which was certainly going to rear its head.
“If we can turn to a less prurient subject?” he said loudly. The others turned back towards him, and their faces, he was pleased to see, were much more relaxed.
“Thank you. Now, Harry and I have already plotted our course, but before we head out I want to know we can rely on our systems.” Heads nodded more soberly, and he turned to Tamman. “How does Engineering look, Tam?”
“Brash and I haven’t quite finished our inspection, but as far as we’ve been everything looks a hundred percent. The power plant’s nominal, anyway, and the catcher field shows a green board. Once we get up above about point-three cee we’ll be sucking in more hydrogen than we’re burning. And the drive looks fine, despite that crash launch.”
“First thing we checked. No problems with the plant, but we may have one with rations.” Sean raised an eyebrow, and Tamman shrugged. “There were only five Narhani in Terra’s entire complement, Sean. I haven’t had a chance to run a Logistics inventory yet, but we could be low on supplementals.”
“Uh.” Sean tugged at an earlobe and frowned. Narhani body chemistry incorporated a level of heavy metals lethal to humans; Brashan could eat anything his friends could, but he couldn’t metabolize all of it, nor would it provide everything he needed.
“Don’t worry,” Sandy said. Sean looked at her and saw the absent expression of someone plugged into her computers. “Logistics shows a heap of Narhani supplementals. In fact, we’ve got six or seven times our normal food supplies in all categories, and the hydroponic section’s way overstocked. Which—” her eyes refocused and she grimaced “—isn’t too surprising, really.”
“No?” Sean was relieved to hear food wouldn’t become a problem, but Sandy’s last comment required explanation.
“Nope. While I was checking out the tactical net I found out why we couldn’t get into Terra’s internal com net, and I’ll be very surprised if we find anything at all wrong with Israel’s systems.”
“Because this—” she waved at the command deck “—is basically a lifeboat, specifically selected for the five of us.” Sean frowned, and she shrugged. “I’m not sure what zapped Terra, but I’m pretty sure I know why it didn’t zap us. Unless I miss my guess, we’ve got a guardian angel named—”
“Dahak,” Harriet interrupted, and Sandy nodded.
“You got it. While I was running through the test cycles I hit an override in the core command programs. It went down the instant I challenged it, but that’s because it was supposed to. Before Terra decided to blow her core tap, she shanghaied the five of us and ordered Israel’s computers to ignore us until after we’d launched.”
“But why?” Tamman sounded confused.
” ‘Why’ which?” Harriet asked. “Why did Terra blow? Or why did she shove us out the tube first?”
” ‘Why’ both,” he replied, and she shrugged.
“I’d have to guess to answer either of them, but from what Sandy’s saying I think I can come pretty close to guessing right.” She glanced at Sean, and he nodded for her to continue.
“Okay. First, it’s obvious someone sabotaged Terra. Planetoids don’t just casually change their own headings, drop out of hyper early, and then blow their core taps. Theoretically, I suppose, any one of those actions could have been a malfunction, but all of them?” She shook her head. “Somebody got to her core programming, and it seems pretty likely we were the targets.”
“Us? You mean someone waxed Terra just to get at us?” Tamman clearly disliked that thought as much as Sean did.
“Harry’s right,” Sandy said. “I wouldn’t want us to get swelled heads, but it’s the only answer that makes sense. Although,” she added more thoughtfully, “I doubt they were after all of us. More likely they were out to get Sean and Harry.”
“Oh, shit,” Tamman breathed. He scratched an eyebrow, frowning at the deck, then sighed. “Yeah, it makes sense. But, Jesus, Sean, if they could do that, who knows what else they can do? And nobody back home knows what happened. If these creeps—whoever they are—try something else, nobody’ll be expecting a thing!”
“I fear Tam has a point,” Brashan murmured, and Sean shrugged.
“So do I, but I don’t see what we can do about it. We don’t have a hypercom, and there’s no way we can build one.” A hypercom massed five times as much as Israel’s entire hull and required synthetic elements they couldn’t possibly fabricate from shipboard resources. “All we can hope for is that the star system we head for was, in fact, inhabited. If it was, we may find an orbital yard we can kick back into operation, and then we can build one.”
All five of them shuddered at the thought. With only five sets of hands, the gargantuan task of reactivating even one of the Fourth Empire’s heavily automated fabrication centers, while not exactly impossible, would take years. On the other hand, Sean reflected mordantly, it wasn’t like they’d have anything else to waste their time on.
“But getting back to what happened,” Harriet went on, “Terra was set up to destroy herself and make sure no evidence ever turned up. That has to be why she took herself way out here first. But I’ll bet you that was her idea. Whoever programmed her expected her to scuttle herself while she was still in hyper, in which case there wouldn’t have been any n-space debris at all. That’s how I would’ve handled it.”
“Me, too,” Sean agreed. “And the reason she didn’t do it?”
“Dahak,” Harriet said with utter certainty. “You know how he looks out for us. Whoever sabotaged Terra had to be working inside her Alpha programming, and that means whatever caused her not to kill us was also buried in her Alpha priorities. And who do we know who worries about us and has the capability to get in and out of any computer ever built?”
“Dahak.” It was Sean’s turn to nod.
“Exactly. We’ll probably never know, but I’ll bet anything you like whoever set up the sabotage program ordered Terra to make sure there was no evidence but never specifically told her to actually kill her crew. Lord,” Harriet turned to Sandy and rolled her eyes, “can you imagine what would’ve happened if they’d tried? They’d have hit so many Alpha overrides against harming humans Comp Cent would’ve burned to a crisp!”
She crossed her arms and pursed her lips.
“Whoever did this was slick, Sean,” Harriet said soberly. “Real slick. Even a simple self-destruct command would’ve hit—I don’t know. Nine overrides, Sandy? Ten?”
“Something like that.” Sandy frowned as she ran over a mental checklist. “At least that. So they had to cut and paste around them. And those’re hardwired.” She frowned harder. “I couldn’t have done it even if you gave me a couple of years to work on it. It would’ve taken somebody pretty darn senior over at BuShips to get away with it.”
“Well, of course,” Tamman said. Sandy looked at him, and he shrugged. “Doesn’t matter how sneaky he had to be, Sandy. He had to have access.”
“Oh, sure. Well,” Sandy’s sudden, unpleasant smile reminded Sean very forcefully of her mother, “that’s nice to know. Whenever we do get back in touch with Bia, Mom’ll be able to narrow it down mighty quick. Can’t be more than twenty or thirty people. Probably more like ten or fifteen.”
“So we’ve got an order to blow herself up and hide the evidence,” Sean mused, “but not an actual order to kill her crew.”
“Yep,” Harriet said, “and that’s why we’re still alive, ‘cause Dahak parked his own Alpha command somewhere in Comp Cent and instructed Terra to keep an eye on us. On us, specifically—the five of us. Mom and Dad’d probably have killed him if they’d known, but thank God he did it! Terra couldn’t blow herself without getting us out first without violating his commands, and whoever set her up never guessed what he might do, so there was no way they could counter it. That, people, is the only reason she came out of hyper at all. And, now that I think about it, it’s probably why we wound up way out here. She couldn’t hide the evidence in hyper without killing us, but she could sure put us somewhere no one would think to look!”
“Makes sense,” Sean agreed after a moment, then shivered. It hadn’t felt nice to realize how close they’d come to dying, but it felt even less nice to know eighty thousand people had died as a casual by-product of an effort to murder him and his sister. The hatred—or, even worse, the cold calculation—of such an act was appalling. He shook himself free of the thought and hoped it wouldn’t return to haunt his nightmares.
“All right. If that’s what happened—and I think you and Sandy are probably right, Harry—then we shouldn’t run into any more ‘programs from hell’ in Israel’s software. On the other hand, the trip’s going to take long enough I don’t mind spending a few days making certain. Do any of you?”
Three human heads shook emphatically and Brashan curled his crest in an equally definite expression of disagreement. Sean grinned crookedly.
“I’m glad you agree. But in the meantime, it’s been over six hours since everything went to hell. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved.”
The others looked momentarily taken aback by his prosaic remark, but all of them had young, healthy appetites. Surprise turned quickly into agreement, and he smiled more naturally.
“Who wants to cook?”
“Anyone but you.” Sandy’s shudder elicited a chorus of agreement. Sean MacIntyre was one of the very few people in the universe who could burn boiling water.
“All right, Ms. Smartass, I hereby put you in charge of the galley.”
“Suits me. Lasagna, I think, and a special side dish delicately spiced with arsenic for Brashan.” She eyed Israel’s youthful commander. “And maybe we can convince him to share it with you, Captain Bligh,” she added sweetly.