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Quantum Stills of a Thin-Spun Life - Part 6

Part 6

The once secret Augur Chamber echoed with many awed and exclamatory voices as the Masters, Elders and senior Journeymen looked about and studied the strange objects. It was the first time any of them had entered the room, but for this meeting of the Advisory Council, Naera thought it best to convene where she could offer answers to some of the questions she knew were coming. That she had her own misgivings about both the immediate and ongoing future was something she couldn’t allow them to see.

We breathe each other’s breath, the World and I.

The line from an old poem made her throat ache. Firmly repressing the feelings, she lifted her hands. “Respected Advisors, it’s time to begin.”

Quiet descended on the room, a not-quite-silent hush as they shuffled and made themselves ready to listen to whatever else might be revealed.

“Our lives are about to get a lot more interesting,” Naera said. She hesitated. “We thought we knew our world, but we are only a small part of a greater universe.” She made a wide, circling gesture with one arm. “We have been traveling on a ship in space for a very long time on our way to make a home on a new planet.”

This time there was real silence. A stunned, disbelieving silence with an explosive force beneath it.

“I know that it may be difficult to believe,” Naera continued into that tense, formidable silence, “but I have a demonstration that I think will help.” She turned her head to look at one of the wall screens. “Mu, begin series two, please.”

The indicated wall screen abruptly came to life with vivid images, so clear and multi-dimensional that the people in the room possibly felt they could have walked into the depicted scenes. The first setting showed the day of the Festival from a viewpoint slightly above the happy crowds and activities. The next scene showed first the initial reactions of the crowd to the explosion, switching to the dizzying interior view of the damaged sky strip. And from that viewpoint after a few moments could be seen the approach of the shuttle. The viewpoint shifted slowly, moving through the hole in the sky strip and turning so that the viewpoint was now looking down at the hole. As the two crew emerged from the shuttle in their exosuits, the viewpoint shifted so that it was as if looking from the shuttle’s lens itself. From that viewpoint, the curve of the Residential torus was abundantly clear, as was its attachment to a larger construction.

Doc Quy, awe in her eyes, lifted a hand as if to touch the deep dark sky beyond the ship.

“Now series three, Mu,” Naera said calmly.

The realistic images were replaced with visuals of the ship, slowly moving outward again until the entire structure could be seen. At times the view zoomed in, showing recognizable individuals moving in Mechanical or Residential. A series of images showed the interior of the habs and their current dwellers, which drew gasps and mutters from the watchers in the room.

“Series one, please,” Naera said very softly.

Now the images became starkly utilitarian; blueprints and detailed visuals of the entire ship, sometimes zooming in on the tiniest detail of the airlocks, sometimes zooming out to illustrate the precise motion of the toruses in relation to the central ship body and to each other.

“This,” Naera said as the images continued to change and move on the screen, “is the truth of our current lives.” Some of those present could not look away from the screen, but most turned their heads as they listened to their Governor. “Now I will tell you what is to come so you can pass along that information to the rest of our people.”

* *

Is this all there is? No, there is more. Much, much more.

* *

“Captain?” Zennor spoke respectfully, cautiously. He entered the Captain’s quarters uncertain of his welcome, although it was always his duty to enter to report, whatever the circumstances.

Parke rested his elbows on his desk, his face in his hands. For several uneasy moments, he didn’t respond, but he finally straightened up and leaned back in his chair. “What is it, Commander?” He looked and sounded tired. Zennor thought that the Captain looked at least ten T-years older than he had only days ago.

“I wanted to report that the clean-up is progressing well. We’ve got the middies all busy for once.” He paused, feeling awkward. “And I wanted to apologize for . . . breaking the rule . . .about Lt. Algon and tell you that I’m ready for any disciplinary action. . .”

“I don’t care,” Parke said.

Zennor stiffened with surprised offense.

Parke lifted a hand. “I mean that I don’t care about the rule. It’s a ridiculous rule. Maybe there was an important reason for it once.” He used his hand to gesture a dismissive wave. “Consider the rule erased. Be happy.”

“Thank you, sir.” After a slow blink, Zennor took another step forward. “I’ve been talking with the rest of the crew about what you told us; the colonization, the planet, all of it.”

Parke’s gaze focused. “Yes?”

“Well, to be honest, we’re not sure we’re ready for it,” Zennor said, “and it’s going to take some getting used to, being elsewhere rather than on the ship. This is all we’ve ever known. I still think we could figure out another way, a solution… ”

Parke shook his head. “Stop! And stop thinking there’s something else we can do. If you want to live, to survive, then you’ll help me help the colonists.”

After a long, uncomfortable moment, Zennor said tonelessly, “Yes, sir.”

* *

Light flickered in the recessed niche above Dre-jin’s head. It was the only light in this section of the habs. To his left and right the light grayed into a deepening darkness. He’d belted himself to a clutch handle, using his feet to adjust his position almost unconsciously. In his hands he held a two-dimensional map—a wondrous, fascinating map of the . . . ship. He stole the map from his father, Eedogan, who’d been using it to place bombs in his nihilistic zeal to end all things, especially his own bitter suffering.

But the lockdoors remained closed after a sudden roll-and-whirl and no amount of tinkering, shouted curses or brute displays of strength could get them to open again.

The scanty food supplies dwindled to nothing, especially for the hollow-eyed boys who fed only after the men had eaten as much as they wanted. All that was left was the thin, astringent vodgi that burned its way down the throat and settled into a nauseating molten lake on an empty stomach.

Dre-jin drank a mouthful when his father offered it to him with a rough crack of laughter, and promptly threw it up, always a messy thing in low-g. His father slapped him hard enough to send both of them revolving in opposite directions.

“Get out of here, you puny shig!” Eedogan yelled as he caught himself on a clutch handle. “I should have known you’d be useless. I’d be better off roasting you for dinner. Get out of here before I cut you into pieces and do it.”

Dre-jin had gone, but not far. He hid and waited. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for until he saw his father bring out the map from behind a loose panel and bent to study it, mumbling to himself the whole while. And drank the vodgi with bigger and bigger gulps until Eedogan and the vodgi bottle and the map all floated freely. The noise of Eedogan’s snores rattled the loose wiring and panels so hard that they wobbled against the wall.

Dre-jin eased along the curved hull centimeter by centimeter until he could reach out and snag the map with forefinger and thumb. Even then he drew it toward himself slowly, careful not to do anything that would catch his father’s drunken, dangerous attention.

When he had it slipped into his patched shirt, he moved away, faster than he had come, but still carefully, until he found himself in the darkness once more. Using the clutch handles, he maneuvered farther away from the main camp of the habbers until he found that single mote of illumination that he knew well.

He marked the area as his own with a bright, gold bit of cloth that his mother gave him more than five T-years ago. He’d worn it tied around his waist until he used it to tag this piece of hab as his home. Because he wouldn’t live with his father or any of the other stupid thugs. He should have known better. He should have gone with Fehed when he had the chance.

Brushing his forearm across his wet eyes, he bent over his new prize. It took him some time to figure out where he was according to the map. That it was weird was a thought he tucked away to consider later. Right now the important thing was to determine how to get out—there had to be a way.

Because, unlike his father and the rest of them in here, he wanted to live.

* *

The shuttle bay in the Command torus was a place that Noguerra and Zennor tended to think of as their own since they’d spent so much time in it one way or another. Keeping the shuttle able to fly had always been one of their primary duties and it had become even more important lately.

At the moment, both men sat on hard-placed chairs, the only occupants in the bay since everyone who might have been there was in the general mess having dinner. And so only two areas were illuminated; the reddish safety light above the shuttle itself and the single panel at the station where they sat.

Noguerra stared at the hard plastic mug in his hand. It was scratched and worn from generations of use, passed down in his family since the beginning. A single word on its surface was almost obliterated by time: Godspeed.

“We can’t do it,” he said.

“Can’t do what?” Zennor had been staring off vacantly into the depths of the shadowed bay, his inner thoughts incoherent.

“We can’t leave the ship. This is our home.” Noguerra gently set the mug on the flat arm of his chair. “You know it. You’ve got to tell the Captain.”

“I tried. He won’t listen.” Zennor’s gaze focused as he looked toward his long-time friend. He was the superior officer, but they had worked together for too long for that to matter when they were alone. “His mind is made up.”

“Because of the malfunctions,” Noguerra said. “We can fix them! We’ve done all right so far.”

“But this is different,” Zennor said. “We’re slowing down.”

“So?”

“So we have no control over how fast we go or where we go. We never have. It’s all been programmed.” He shrugged in a helpless bafflement. “It’s strange that we never realized we didn’t know how to actually pilot this ship.”

“Algon can’t change course?”

Zennor shook his head. “No.”

Noguerra let out a heavy sigh. After a few moments he said, “Can the Captain order the ship to do something? Or not do something? Through his personal interface?”

“Maybe,” Zennor said.

“That’s Captain’s prerogative,” Noguerra said. “Or at least that’s what we’ve always been told.”

Zennor visibly flinched. “Nothing is going to happen to the Captain! Don’t even think about that!”

“I wasn’t suggesting that,” Noguerra said, leaning forward slightly. “I was suggesting that maybe somebody in addition to the Captain can interface with the ship.”

The two men met each other’s eyes in troubled comprehension.

*

Fehed emerged from the lockdoor into Mechanical and blinked in surprise. He’d never been there, never even thought about it since all habbers feared Mechanical more than anything else because it was the source of the poison that had driven them into the habs in the first place. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but this wasn’t it.

Trees. As far as he could see, trees grew, to the closer curved horizon, green and blue and golden in the light. He’d already learned their descriptions and names in his training with Kestors. Pine and maple and mighty oaks. Teak and walnut and silvery birches. And the amazing smell of it! Clean and crisp and heady.

A lot of the trees on the edges of the forest were down, broken into a jumble of branches and splintered trunks. People moved among the fractured bits, clearing and gathering. It hurt his heart a little to see the wreckage.

Fehed walked toward them, proudly fingering his ag-tech apprentice tie.

“Allo,” he said to the dark woman with an Engineer Journeyman tie.

Eissell-May glanced at him, looked him up-and-down. “Allo, young farmer boy.” Her gaze flickered toward the lockdoor. “Came through the habs, did you? Brave of you because that was a risk. Do you have something terribly important to tell us?”

He shrugged off the remark about being brave and handed her a folded note written on precious vellum. “Yes, ma’am.” Then he smiled broadly. “And I’m supposed to help, too.”

“Help? How?” She looked patently dubious. Several of the others nearby glanced over curiously, clearing wondering the same thing.

He spread his arms wide in an expansive gesture that included the clean-up work. “With all this.” Then he shrugged, still smiling. “Whatever you need. I learn very fast.”

*

Naera entered the medical offices respectfully. The various apprentices all gave way to her presence with quick bows before they continued their duties. The Governor paid them little heed because she was focused on her own task.

Doc Quy looked up as Naera approached. The Physician Master was actually sitting down, unusual for her at any time, but she’d wrenched her own ankle trying to help during the late crisis, and succumbed to the universal fussing that she take some rest periods or they were going to lovingly but forcibly tie her down somewhere. She would have, in fact, stood up for the Governor, but one of the self-appointed guardians put a hand on her shoulder to keep her in her chair.

“Impertinence!” Doc Quy complained with a sidelong glance that the apprentice absorbed with unmoved amiability.

Smiling, Naera stopped in front of the physician. Bowed her head. “Allo.”

“Allo, Governor,” Doc Quy said, suppressing a sigh and an explanation for why she remained sitting when the reason was clearly understood. “What can I do for you?” She almost added ‘dear’ but felt it was inappropriate and yet the endearment seemed to voice itself.

“I’m going to Command,” Naera said, aware that everyone could hear her. “Mu told me how to get there through the habs and. . .wells.”

“Wells,” Doc Quy said, filing the word away since it was new to the people of Residential. Her intelligent eyes gazed thoughtfully at the younger woman in front of her. “Is that safe?”

“Not completely, no,” Naera admitted. “And that’s why I’m going to take a few people with me, for protection and assistance.” She paused. “I’d also like to take one of your people with me, just in case. I thought Xie might be a good choice.”

“Yes,” Doc Quy said with enthusiasm. She laughed a little. “In fact, I think she’ll be thrilled.” Her humor fell away as she regarded Naera again for several silent moments. “You think this is important enough to risk yourself? You know we can’t afford to lose you. We never could, but especially not now.”

Her question produced an attentive, listening silence around them. Naera paused, formulating her thoughts. “I’m learning as quickly as I can all that needs to be learned before we do what needs to be done.” She spread her arms wide, lifting her hands up. “There is so much!” Dropping her arms, she paused again. “I need to discuss what accommodations to make for all of the others who will join us, how that will be done, what to take and what to leave behind and all sorts of things. The Captain and I are the ones who have to make decisions and choices about all of these issues. I have to talk to him.”

“I understand that,” Doc Quy said as she reached to put a hand on Naera’s arm. “I really do understand all of that, but it can’t wait? Don’t you think they’re working on getting the Passages open again? That they will come to us?”

“I’m not sure they will,” Naera said in an odd tone, “because I’m not sure Mu will allow it at this point.”

Doc Quy opened her mouth, then closed it. She removed her hand from Naera’s arm and rubbed it almost absently on her own leg. “I see.” After a long moment, she smiled and said: “Then clearly you must go.”

* *

Shinichi stood almost a meter away from one of the ready-made beds in the crowded medic bay, gazing at his mentor and Master, Fosdyke. The older man had not yet awakened after the fall in which he’d taken a hard blow to his head. His wasn’t the only concussion, but he was the only one in Mechanical still unconscious. The white tape showing through the fall of graying hair on Fosdyke’s forehead seemed too small a bandage for such a great wound, for such a great man.

They said it was unlikely that the Master Engineer would wake up.

Medicine wasn’t Shinichi’s field, so he couldn’t question the medics with his scant knowledge, but he felt that they were wrong. He couldn’t base his surety on anything tangible, there were no facts to back it up, only an instinct, perhaps simply a hope. It was a rare place for him to stand, outside of science, but standing he was, aware that he was being irrational and emotional and not caring one bit.

He walked closer to Fosdyke’s bed. After a moment he put his hand down and touched the blanket where it covered the Master Engineer’s right foot. All he could think of at that moment was that he’d never thanked the man, not really, not beyond being courteous as a student to a teacher. “When you wake up,” he said softly, “I will do it. But now I must go.”

When he turned, he nearly ran into another man. Kim. A boy, really, all elbows and knees, awkward and earnest, he was one of the apprentices. Just behind him stood Paisley, another apprentice. He’d taught classes to both of them through recent instructional cycles and knew they were ready to take their next level exams.

“Sir,” Kim said. Both he and Paisley glanced at Fosdyke with mournful gazes.

Shinichi nodded and made to go past, thinking they had come to visit the Master.

But Paisley said, “We want to help, sir! There’s so much to do!”

“Yes, please let us, sir! We can do whatever you want!” Kim gestured inclusively at the girl and himself. She nodded agreement.

And looking at them, Shinichi felt something stir inside of him, something undefined, yet as palpable as his faith for his Master’s healing. He understood their need because it reflected his own. He should send them out with the other apprentices he’d set to help clean up the uprooted and broken trees, carefully preserving the wood and any saplings. But instead he said: “I’m going to traverse the distance from the Mechanical torus to the Command torus outside the ship in an exosuit. I’ll need at least one companion.”

“We’ll both go!” Kim smiled and once again Paisley nodded agreement. “We can do it.”

He didn’t tell them it would possibly be tedious and definitely dangerous. “I want to examine the Passage junctures from the exterior points, to see if I can discover the reason for what happened and why they aren’t resetting.”

“There’s probably a lot we can learn just by eyeballing things,” Paisley said with a thoughtful crinkle of her brow.

“Yes,” Shinichi said. He gestured for them to follow him out of the medic bay into the corridor. “Meet me at airlock CM-2.” It didn’t occur to him to question their skills any more than their sincere desire to go, just as it didn’t occur to them to question the entire venture.

*

The colonists’ group floated together in the low-g, about to leave the habs and enter the narrower section of the wells that would lead them to the Command torus. Naera placed her hand on the panel in its niche, (noting the accumulated grime and grit with an involuntary grimace), and the heavy circular door slid aside. It was one of the things that she hadn’t revealed to anyone, that only two people possessed inherent permission to unlock any door on the ship.

“Governor,” whispered Wen urgently.

Naera looked back over her shoulder at the youth who had been one of Camlen’s apprentices. The boy, ashamed and embarrassed by Camlen’s actions, had revoked his religious apprenticeship and begged for the Governor’s forgiveness. Without believing it necessary, she’d given it and taken the boy under her wing. He carefully gestured toward Xie, who had stopped several meters back from the group.

The physician-apprentice was looking toward the three children hovering against the curved hull, one holding a clutch handle and the other two smaller ones holding onto her. They were all dressed in stitched-together rags, thin and barefoot, with dirty faces and haunted eyes.

Xie maneuvered her arms so that she gracefully turned around until she faced her own group. She met the Governor’s eyes steadily. “We have to help them.”

“We will,” Naera said, admiring Xie’s low-g moving skills while hoping she never had more reason to learn or emulate them. “But later because now we have something else we have to do.”

Lowering her gaze, Xie finally nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

The hungry habber children watched them go without so much as a flicker of rancor or surprise.

*

Shinichi hovered there at the very end of the combined tethers, the young apprentices watching and waiting with wary respect and a certain trepidation. He’d maneuvered himself out there so he could get a better angle on the visual of the ship, which he managed, but not in the way he expected. Seeing the three toruses revolving around the long central body of the ship with all its various maintenance, water and power pipes and conduits, the interior lights glowing, he saw the amazing thing that the Outbound represented: Life. The various components of the ship itself, for which he was responsible, were all adjuncts to the human population within. It had never been so clear to him. He’d also never experienced an epiphany before. It disturbed something deep within him that he was having one now because it felt so much outside of his comfort zone of knowledge and facts and empirical data. It was, nevertheless, a Truth.

He knew the data, of course, but now he also saw how the move from the ship to the planet would be accomplished; both beautifully complex and simple. The Residential torus itself would separate into six individual life ships, each under their own power. It would be a matter of precise astrodynamics and calculated trajectories until the pieces made it into the atmosphere and could utilize thrust power. The engineering behind the design impressed him immensely. His job would be to help make it work as it was supposed to and he was determined that it would go as planned.

He tugged on the tether, the signal for the apprentices to pull him in. They did so with rather more enthusiasm than expertise, so that Shinichi nearly bounced off the edge of a strut. He managed to hook himself safely as he listened to their profuse apologies with scant attention because he was focused on what would come next.

*

In the airless void, without water or air or ground, hope burns. And cannot be extinguished with a mere puff of breath or spill of blood. There is no surrender—it is unthinkable to give up.

So we go.

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