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Destination: Void: Prequel to the Pandora Sequence, Page 2

Frank Herbert

  It came to Flattery then that it had been too late to stop Bickel from the moment their ship left its moon orbit. This direct-authoritarian-violent man (or one of his backups in the hyb tanks) held the key to the Earthling’s real purpose. The rest of them were just along for the ride.

  At the sound of the relays snapping, Timberlake reached up to a handgrip, squeezed it fiercely in frustration. He knew he could not blame Bickel for feeling angry. The dirty job of killing their last Organic Mental Core should have fallen to the life-systems engineer. But surely Bickel must know the inhibitions that had been droned into the life-systems specialist.

  For just a moment, Timberlake allowed his mind to dwell on the sterile crèche and labs back on the moon—the only home any of the Earthling’s occupants had ever known.

  “Man’s greatest adventure: the jump to the stars!”

  They had lived with that awesome concept from their first moments of awareness. Aboard the Earthling, they were a hand-picked lot, 3,006 survivors of the toughest weeding out process the Project directors could devise for their Doppelganger charges. The final six had been the choicest of the choice—the umbilicus crew to monitor the ship until it left the solar system, then tie off the few manual controls and turn the 200-year crossing to Tau Ceti over to that one lonely consciousness, an Organic Mental Core.

  And while the 3,006 lay dormant behind the hyb tanks’ water shields in the heart of the ship, their lives were to remain subject to the servos and sensors surgically linked to the OMC.

  But now we’re 3,003, Timberlake thought with that sense of grief, of shame and defeat. And our last OMC is dead.

  Timberlake felt alone and vulnerable now, faced by their emergency controls. He had been reasonably confident while the brains existed and with one of them responsible for ultimate ship security. The existence of emergency controls had only added to his confidence … then.

  Now, staring at the banks of switches, the gauges and telltales and manuals, the auxiliary computer board with its paired vocoder and tape-code inputs and readouts—now, Timberlake realized how inadequate were his poor human reactions in the face of the millisecond demands for even ordinary emergencies out here.

  The ship’s moving too fast, he thought.

  Their speed was slow, he knew, compared to what they should have been doing at this point … but still it was too fast. He activated a small sensor screen on his left, permitted himself a brief look at the exterior cosmos, staring out at the hard spots of brilliance that were stars against the energy void of space.

  As usual, the sight reduced him to the feeling that he was a tiny spark at the mercy of unthinking chance. He blanked the screen.

  Movement at his elbow drew Timberlake’s attention. He turned to see Bickel come up to lean against a guidepole beside the control console. There was such a look of relief on his face that Timberlake had a sudden insight, realizing that Bickel had sent his guilt winging back to Moonbase with that message. Timberlake wondered then what it had felt like to kill—even if the killing had involved a creature whose humanity had become hidden behind an aura of mechanistics long years back when it was removed from a dying body.

  Bickel studied the drive board. They had disabled the drive-increment system when the second OMC had started going sour. But the Earthling still would be out of the solar system in ten months.

  Ten months, Bickel thought. Too fast and too slow.

  During those ten months, the computed possibility of a total ship emergency remained at its highest. The umbilicus crew had not been prepared for that kind of pressure.

  Bickel shot a covert glance at Flattery, noting how silent and withdrawn the psychiatrist-chaplain appeared. There were times when it rasped Bickel’s nerves to think how little could be hidden from Flattery, but this was not one of those times. Out here, Bickel realized, each of them had to become a specialist on his companions. Otherwise, ship pressures coupled to psychological pressures might destroy them.

  “How long do you suppose it’ll take Moonbase to answer?” Bickel asked, directing the question at Timberlake.

  Flattery stiffened, studied the back of Bickel’s head. The question … such a nice balance of camaraderie and apology in the voice … Bickel had done that deliberately, Flattery realized. Bickel went deeper than they had suspected, but perhaps they should have suspected. He was, after all, the Earthling’s pivotal figure.

  “It’ll take ’em a while to digest it,” Timberlake said. “I still think we should’ve waited.”

  Wrong tack, Flattery thought. An overture should be accepted. He brushed a finger along one of his heavy eyebrows, moved forward with a calculated clumsiness, forcing them to be aware of him.

  “Their first problem’s public relations,” Flattery said. “That’ll cause some delay.”

  “Their first question’ll be, why’d the OMCs fail?” Timberlake said.

  “There was no medical reason for it,” Flattery put in. He realized he had spoken too quickly, sensed his own defensiveness.

  “It’ll turn out to be something new, something nobody anticipated, wait and see,” Timberlake said.

  Something nobody anticipated? Bickel wondered. And he doubted that, but held his silence. For the first time since coming aboard, he felt the bulk of the Earthling around him and thought of all the hopes and energies that had launched this venture. It occurred to him then what a mountain of hard-headed planning had gone into the project.

  He sensed the sleepless nights, the skull sessions of engineers and scientists, the pragmatic dreamers tossing their ideas back and forth across coffee cups and butt-mounded ashtrays.

  Something nobody anticipated? Hardly.

  Still, six other ships had vanished into silence out here—six other ships much like their Earthling.

  He spoke then more to keep up his own courage than to argue: “This isn’t the kind of thing they’d let go by the board. Moonbase’ll have a plan. Somebody, somewhere along the line, thought of this possibility.”

  “Then why didn’t they prepare us for it?” Timberlake asked.

  Flattery watched Bickel carefully, aware of how that question had touched him. He will begin to have doubts now, Flattery thought. Now, he will start asking himself the really loaded questions.

  Chapter 2

  The holoscan you are watching at this moment is of our Bickel model, our most successful “Organ of Analysis.” He is charged to explore beyond the imprinted patterns of consciousness which humankind inherits with its genes.

  —Morgan Hempstead, Lectures at Moonbase

  Timberlake adjusted a dial on his console to correct a failure of automatic temperature adjustment in quad three ring nine of the ship’s second shell. “We should’ve been buttoned down in our hyb tanks and on our way over the solar hump to Tau Ceti long ago,” he muttered.

  “Tim, display the time log,” Flattery said.

  Timberlake hit the green key in the upper right corner of his board, glanced at the overhead master screen’s display from the laser-pulse time log.

  Ten months—plus.

  The indefinite answer made it seem the Earthling’s computer core shared their doubts.

  “How long to Tau Ceti?” Flattery asked.

  “At this rate?” Timberlake asked. He risked a long glance away from his board. The stare he aimed at Flattery betrayed the fact he had not thought of that possibility, making the trip the hard way—long and slow with a crew active all the way.

  “Say four hundred years, give or take a few,” Bickel said. “It’s the first question I fed into the computer after we disabled the drive increment.”

  He is too crystal sharp, Flattery thought. He bears watching lest he shatter. And Flattery chided himself then: But the job Bickel has to do requires a man who can shatter.

  “First thing we’d better do is bring up one replacement from the hyb tanks,” Bickel said.

  Flattery glanced to his left where Com-central’s other three action couches lay with their cocoon arms open
, empty and waiting.

  “Bring up only one replacement, eh?” Flattery asked. “Live in here?”

  “We may need occasional sleep-rest periods in the cubby lockers,” Bickel said and he nodded toward the side hatch into their spartan living quarters. “But Com-central is the safest spot on the ship.”

  “What if Project orders us to abort?” Timberlake asked.

  “That won’t be their first order,” Bickel said. “Seven nations invested one hell of a pile of money and effort and dreams in this business. They have a purpose which they won’t give up easily.”

  Too crystal sharp, Flattery thought. And he asked: “Who’re you nominating for dehyb?”

  “Prudence Weygand, M.D.,” Bickel said.

  “You think we need another doctor, eh?” Flattery asked.

  “I think we need Prudence Weygand. She’s a doctor, sure, but she can also function as a nurse to replace … Maida. She’s a woman and we may need female thinking. You have any objections to Weygand, Tim?”

  “What’s my opinion worth?” Timberlake muttered. “You two’ve decided it, haven’t you?”

  Bickel already had turned toward his own action couch. He hesitated at the petulance in Timberlake’s voice, then went on to the couch, pulled the full-vacuum suit from the rack beneath the couch, and began suiting up. He spoke without turning: “I’ll take over here while you and Raj bring her out of hyb. You’d both better suit up, too, and stay suited. Without an OMC at the controls—” He shrugged, finished sealing the suit, and stretched out in his action couch. “I’ll take the red switch on the count.”

  Timberlake was caught up then in the changeover. The master board swung across on its travelers, stopped as it made junction with Bickel’s console.

  “What if Moonbase answers while we’re in the tanks?” Flattery asked. “We won’t be able to stop the dehyb and come up for a—”

  “What’s to do except record the message?” Bickel asked.

  He began adjusting hull-integrity sensors, finished that, checked the Accept-And-Translate system, swung the AAT board close beside him where he could see its telltale when Moonbase replied.

  Flattery shrugged, got out his own full-vacuum suit. He noted that Timberlake already was suiting up—but with a fumbling reluctance.

  Tim senses Bickel taking absolute command, Flattery thought, but he doesn’t know the necessity for it … and he cannot bring himself to like it. He will, though.

  Bickel satisfied himself the ship was functioning as well as it could without the homeostatic control of an OMC. He sank back to watch the board as the others left Com-central. The hatch seals hissed and there came the metallic slap of the magnetic locks as the hatch closed and resealed itself.

  Now, Bickel felt the ship around him as though he had neural connections to every sensor revealed on his board. The Earthling lay spread out for him—a monstrous juggernaut … yet fragile as an egg—a tin egg.

  Against his will, Bickel’s attention drifted toward that dead light on the lower left corner of his board—the light that should have been glowing a live yellow to denote that all was well with the OMC.

  But all was not well with the OMC; the unsleeping brains had failed.

  They were stress-tested for every conceivable situation, Bickel told himself. Something inconceivable happened. Or did it?

  Timberlake’s question nagged at him. “Why didn’t they prepare us for it?”

  The master board above him grew a line of yellow lights that told him the ship’s gravity center had shifted. A wild shift in the gravity field had torn colony cargo from its holdowns and killed Maida. Gently, to avoid oscillations, Bickel began adjusting controls to bring the field back into line.

  How much simpler it would have been to get along without gravity, he thought. But medical science had never really solved the problem of the human physical deterioration that resulted from existence in prolonged null gravity. The balance mechanism of the inner ear still was the most susceptible. Four to five weeks without gravity brought permanent damage for some subjects. So they lived with the minimal field system—the gravity-field mechanism that had developed an unexpected deadly bug out here.

  The telltale lights began to wink out.

  Bickel followed the balance readjustment carefully. They had only the most tenuous theory on what caused that field to shift this way! They suspected local anomalies as they moved through the solar system’s own gravitational field.

  The last telltale went dark.

  Bickel sank back onto the couch, drew a deep, ragged breath. Perspiration covered his body and he felt his suit system laboring to compensate.

  This watch on Com-central could become a particular kind of hell, Bickel realized. The suspenseful responsibility, duel with an unknown death, wore you down. You controlled only the most essential ship functions from here. Monitor instruments had never been intended for this work. Fine adjustments and delicate repairs had to be ignored until they reached that point of gross demand where a crewman had to be sent out to direct the servos in their work.

  An increment of damage could be computed—the kind of damage, one thing added to another, where the ship itself would cease operating. There was a death point for the ship out ahead of them and it could be computed as a function of damage.

  Bickel avoided feeding the problem into the computer. He knew his own limits. Precise knowledge of that unknown moment would hamper him unless it became a matter of immediacy. They had months yet—perhaps the full ten. And ten months was forever, the way things now stood. The ship was far more likely to meet disaster in some other form; he could feel it.

  Something about the Tin Egg was sour—Big Sour. It did not make sense to Bickel that a man had to sit here in Com-central, the strain of responsibility increasing with each heartbeat, waiting and knowing some mechanism or balancing function of the ship was headed for trouble—yet unable to meet the problem with more than a gross, clumsy makeshift.

  With the OMCs, this ship balance had been a finely tuned neuro-servo reflex, almost automatic—as homeostatic in response as that of a healthy human body.

  Bickel added his own corollary question now to the one Timberlake had posed: Why were all the eggs put in one basket?

  Chapter 3

  What matters most is the search itself. This is more important than the searchers. Consciousness must dream, it must have a dreaming ground—and, dreaming, must invoke ever-new dreams.

  —Morgan Hempstead, Lectures at Moonbase

  As she awoke, Prudence thought: We made it!

  Excitement filled her at the thought of stepping out onto a virgin world with all its strange newness and never-before problems. Six failures were worth it. The seventh try was a charm. We have succeeded. Otherwise … otherwise …

  Her mind bogged down in sluggishness. Otherwise was a concept with several pathways out of it.

  The tingle-ache of dehyb ran along the muscles of her arms and legs, produced transient knots of pain. She knew as a doctor the reasons for the pain, could rationalize the fact of it: human hybernation was a far different process from animal hibernation. Not a drop of water could remain in the body—and you went so close to the borders of death that some contended you were suspended within death.

  She tried to sit up.

  It was then she saw Timberlake and Flattery looking down at her where she lay on the lab shuttle. Their expressions brought otherwise to full focus. For a moment, she looked beyond them to the tubes and stimulant plugs that had been removed from functional contact with her body.

  Flattery restrained her. “Easy now, Dr. Weygand,” he said.

  Dr. Weygand, she thought. Not Prudence. Not Prue. Dr. Weygand. Cold formality.

  She began losing that first elation.

  Then Flattery began explaining in his soft, soothing voice and she knew her elation had to be put away. The contingency problem had arisen. She had been awakened for that.

  “Just tell me who we lost,” she said, and her throat hu
rt from its months of disuse.

  Timberlake told her.

  “Three dead?” she said. She didn’t ask how they had died. The other problem, the contingency for which she had been prepared, took precedence over mere curiosity.

  “Bickel requested you be brought out of hyb,” Flattery said.

  “Does he know why?” she asked, ignoring the strange look Timberlake shifted from her to Flattery.

  “He rationalized it,” Flattery said, and he wished she’d withheld these questions until they were alone.

  “Of course he did,” she said. “But has—”

  “He hasn’t posed the problem yet,” Flattery said.

  “Don’t push him,” she said, and glanced at Timberlake. “Forget what you just heard here, Tim.”

  Timberlake scowled, suddenly withdrawn and wary.

  Flattery bent over her right arm with a slapshot hypo in his hand.

  “Must you?” she asked. Then: “Yes, of course.”

  “There’s nothing for you to do right now except recuperate,” he said, and pressed the slapshot against her arm.

  She felt the mechanism’s kick and, presently, the soft spread of narcosis. Flattery and Timberlake became wavering figures haloed in light.

  At least Bickel is still alive, she thought. We do not have to replace him with a backup—take second best.

  And just before sinking into the downy cloud of sleep, she wondered: How did Maida die? Lovely Maida who …

  Timberlake watched the film of withdrawal wash over her light blue eyes. Her breathing took on soft regularity.

  As life-systems specialist, Timberlake had checked the computer-filed tape flag for every person on the Tin Egg. He recalled now that Prudence Lon Weygand was classed superb as a surgeon—“Superior 9 in tool facility.” And the scale went only to 10. He reflected now on her strange conversation with Flattery and realized the tape had not told the full story. She obviously had ship functions beyond surgeon-ecologist … and at least one of these functions concerned Bickel.

  “Forget what you just heard here, Tim.”

  Timberlake could still hear that cold-voiced command and he knew it did not square with the emotional index on Prudence Lon Weygand’s tapes. There, she was listed as “Place nine-d green” on the compassionate vector. In the close-quarters living of this umbilicus crew, that emotional index posed problems because of its tightly linked sex drive. With a sense of shock, Timberlake took a closer look at her feed-tube spectrum on the hyb chart, saw that she had been fed the sex-suppressant anti-S drugs even under hyb. She had been kept ready.