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Asimov’s Future History Volume 8, Page 2

Isaac Asimov

  And what did I give you, my son? Avery didn’t need to ask; he knew he’d given Derec the traits that didn’t show. I gave you my temper, I’m sorry to say. I gave you my coldness, and my fear of being vulnerable. Not for the first time, Avery felt a sudden need to hug his son.

  The moment passed. I’m sorry, Derec. I can’t open up either. Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t build just a little bridge, did it? Avery decided to take a chance.

  “So what do you think, Derec? Would you like to give me a hand? The ship can cough up another robotics terminal in a couple of minutes, and I could use the help.”

  Well, son? Please?

  Derec said nothing, but his face turned tight and thoughtful. Avery watched closely; Derec’s body language said that he was trying to say yes. The word was working its way up to his lips, but it was a fight every inch of the way. It had started in his gut, clawed its way up his esophagus, and traversed his soft palate. It was on his tongue now; at any moment it would break through to his lips. Derec started to open his mouth

  The intercom buzzed. It was Wolruf.

  “Derec? We got somethin’ ‘ere. ‘u better come ‘ave a look at it.”

  Derec broke concentration, swallowed hard, and turned to the intercom panel. “Can it wait? I’m a little tied up at the moment.”

  Wolruf growled something in her native tongue. “Think ‘u better come look at this now.”

  “Oh, okay.” Derec turned to his father, cracked a weak smile, and shrugged. “Sorry, I have to, you know.” He gestured toward the intercom and left the sentence hanging.

  “That’s okay. We can continue this another time.” Avery offered Derec a smile.

  Derec just looked at his feet and shrugged again. “Sure. If you want.” Another hesitation, and then he turned and darted through a pair of open lift doors that had appeared in the cabin wall.

  The lift doors hissed open, and Derec stepped out onto the bridge. Mandelbrot stood in one corner, staring intently at the external visual display and conversing with a data terminal. Wolruf was crouched over the main control console, her thick, sausage-like fingers flying over the controls like a multisynth player performing Mothersbaugh’s “Toccata and Fugue in. 25 Kilohertz.” As she punched keys and adjusted sliders, she kept up a steady stream of short, guttural commands in both broken English and her native language. The console seemed to be accepting both with equal ease.

  The lift doors slid shut. Derec cleared his throat and said, “Okay, Wolruf. Where’s all the excitement?”

  Wolruf neither turned around nor took her hands off the controls. Instead, she simply lifted her head a little and pointed her nose at the visual display. “’ere.”

  Derec looked at the display. It was the view astern, he guessed; the exceptionally bright star off to the right side looked about the right color to be the Ceremyon’s sun. Aside from that star, though, he saw nothing that appeared out of place on the usual visiplate starfield.

  “So? I don’t see anything.”

  Wolruf growled something untranslatable and started pounding on a different section of the control console. “Sorry. Keep forgettin’ ‘u ‘umans eyes are almos’ as weak as ‘ur nose.” The visual display shifted, blurred, and came into focus again.

  More starfield. Only this time there was a tiny, smudgy gray blob in the middle of the screen.

  “Okay, I see it now,” Derec said. “What is it?” He moved to stand next to Wolruf, but the blob wasn’t any more meaningful when viewed close-up.

  Wolruf glared at the little blob and bared her teeth. “Ast’roid,” she said with a growl.

  Derec looked at her. “All this fuss over an asteroid?”

  “This ‘uns been gainin’ on us for eight hours.”

  “What!” Derec spun around and looked at the visual display. The blob still wasn’t any more meaningful than it was before.

  Wolruf punched in a few more commands, and the display went back to its original image. This time, though, a graceful blue curve was superimposed over the starfield. “Allowing f’r mass, and all known gravitational vectors includin’ th’ cavitation effect of ‘ur drives, here’s th’ projected orbit for th’ ast’roid.” She punched two more keys, and a jagged red line twined around the blue.

  “And ‘ere’s its actual course.”

  Cautiously, Derec touched the visiplate. He traced the red line with a finger, stopping on one particularly sharp bend. “Any known phenomena that could cause this?”

  Wolruf shook her head.

  “‘At bend ‘u got ‘ur finger on iss a manual course correction I made ten minutes ago.” Wolruf continued. “Five minutes later, the ast’roid changed course to match.”

  Wolruf paused to lay her ears back and look Derec straight in the eye.

  “Derec, ‘at ast’roid iss under power.”

  Derec studied the visual display a bit more and then looked back to Wolruf. “Recommended action?”

  Wolruf gritted her teeth and crouched low over the controls. “Recommend we find out ‘00’s behind it. Also recommend ‘u find ‘urself a seat. ‘iss could get a littl’ rough.” She shot a fierce grin at Mandelbrot, then slapped a finger down on the intercom button. “Arr’el? Dr. Av’ry? ‘old on tight, we’re makin’ an unprogrammed course correction. Now.”

  An acceleration couch popped up out of the cabin deck; Derec just barely had time to dive into it before Wolruf slammed the ship into a violent roll. The starfield in the viewplate spun dizzily.

  The ship was still rolling when Wolruf hit the main thrusters.

  In all, the experience wasn’t as jarring as Derec had expected. The ship’s gravity fields did an exceptionally good job of compensating for the changing gravity and thrust vectors. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a thing for Coriolis force. Within instants, Derec was feeling thoroughly dizzy and a little nauseated. He wondered how Ariel was taking it.

  Then he wondered about something else; about a story he’d once read. “Wait a minute, Wolruf. This won’t work.”

  Wolruf cocked an ear at Derec, but kept flying.

  “It can’t work. The angles of incidence are all wrong. If someone’s behind that asteroid, all he has to do is use his maneuvering thrusters to keep the rock between him and us. The asteroid’s too small for us to enter a gravitational orbit; at this range, there’s no other way we can fly around it faster than he can maneuver around it.”

  Wolruf kept flying. Mandelbrot, back in the corner, spoke up. “Mistress Wolruf has already thought of that. I have all ship’s sensors locked on the asteroid. If the unknown vessel emits any form of radiation or hot gasses during maneuvering, we will detect it.”

  “‘sides,” Wolruf growled, “‘aven’t ‘u ever ‘eard of spookin’ ‘im out? If ‘e’s got some kind of remote sensor watching us, ‘e now knows we know ‘e’s there. No point in ‘im staying ‘idden any more.”

  As if in confirmation of Wolruf’s statement, Mandelbrot said, “Contact. A stream of superheated boron-11 has just been emitted by a source behind the asteroid.”

  Wolruf’s mouth opened in a toothy grin, and her tongue lolled out. “We got ‘im.’, She fired a last round of maneuvering thrusters and stabilized the ship’s course. “Now let’s see —”

  “More contacts,” Mandelbrot said. “Additional thruster exhaust; I am projecting

  “Cancel. Visual contact. I am putting it on the main viewer.” The stars swam, blurred again, and resolved into a much closer look at the asteroid than Derec had had before.

  A ship was creeping out from behind the right edge of the asteroid. At first glance it looked like a fairly conventional Settler design. Then Derec realized that he was just looking at the foremost piece of it.

  The ship came out from behind the asteroid, and kept coming. It wasn’t just large, it was enormous. And yet the design had a curiously improvised look about it, as if someone had decided to build a supervessel by simply welding together a dozen randomly selected hulls. Sleek trans-atmospheric hulls nestle
d in with ungainly cargo pods, and a hodgepodge of angular bracing and spaghetti-like tubing connected the whole lot. Bits of it looked like standard Spacer equipment, or Auroran pleasure yachts, while other segments looked utterly alien, like nothing Derec had ever seen before.

  Then he felt the touch of an icy ghost finger on his shoulder, and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood straight up. He had seen a ship like that before.

  Derec glanced quickly at Wolruf. Her hackles were standing up, and she’d bared her teeth. Derec suddenly knew he didn’t need to ask what she was thinking.

  “The approaching vessel has opened fire,” Mandelbrot announced. “Primary armament appears to be phased microwave lasers.”

  As one, Derec and Wolruf looked at each other. “Aranimas!”

  Wolruf became a flurry of action. She slammed her fists down on controls, jabbed buttons, and barked terse, almost hysterical commands at the ship. In response, the ship yawed hard and pitched wildly as the main drives erupted into life.

  “This is impossible,” Derec said. “We destroyed Aranimas in Sol system. I saw his ship explode.”

  “‘u saw ‘im jettison second’ry ‘ulls.” Wolruf punched up some kind of intersecting curve display, peered at it anxiously, and resumed hitting controls. “On my world there’s a small liz’rd called a skerk. ‘u grab its tail, th’ tail breaks off. Skerk gets away, ‘u get its tail.” She glanced up at the screen again; the flying junkyard was still closing. “‘u must ‘ave got a piece of Aranimas’s tail.”

  Derec just stared at the viewscreen and shook his head. “But how in the universe did he find us again?”

  “Don’t know,” Wolruf growled. “Matter of fact, don’t care. Just know we need to get away now.” She leaned back to survey the control board settings and then thumbed the intercom button. “Arr’el! Dr. Av’ry! Stand by for jump!”

  “Jump?” Derec shouted. “We can’t jump! We’re too far away from the programmed jump point.”

  “Direct hit on the stem,” Mandelbrot announced.

  “Wolruf! You didn’t have time to calculate and enter a new course!”

  Wolruf punched more buttons. “‘u care about details at a time like thiss?”

  “Another hit,” Mandelbrot said. “Hull breached in Section 17D.”

  “But where will we go?” Derec wailed.

  “Someplace Aranimas issn’t!” Wolruf took one last glance at the control settings, and then grabbed the jump control handle and yanked it down hard.

  A shift, a spin, Derec felt a rolling disorientation in his inner ear: Enormous energies were expended, and the Wild Goose Chase squeezed through a hole in the space/time continuum. A moment later, it was somewhere else.

  Wolruf engaged the autopilot. With’ careful and precise thruster bursts, the ship stabilized its tumble. The viewscreen blanked, cleared, and displayed a binary star consisting of a yellow giant and its white dwarf companion.

  With obvious effort, Wolruf relaxed her grip on the jump handle and sagged back into the acceleration couch.

  “Where are we?” Derec asked softly.

  Mandelbrot spoke up. “I am working on that. We will have a rough navigational fix within six hours, and coordinates precise enough to begin programming another jump in twenty-three.”

  “Twenty-three hours? But what if Aranimas follows us?’

  “Then we are caught.” Mandelbrot exchanged a stream of bits with the data terminal. “Given the availability of free hydrogen in this system, it will be a minimum of ninety-one point five hours before we have accumulated enough hydrogen to fuel another hyperspace jump.”

  Derec frowned. “Well, if that’s it, then, it’ll have to do. Deploy the ramscoops, Mandelbrot.”

  “I have already done so.”

  “Thanks. Wolruf?”

  The small alien rolled over and looked at Derec with eyes that had gone past fright and were now simply exhausted.

  “Wolruf? You were his navigator once. How did Aranimas find us again?”

  Wolruf brought a foot up and scratched her ear thoughtfully. “Don’t know.”

  “But his sensor technology —”

  “Iss whatev’r ‘e can steal. No tellin’ what ‘e’s got now.’;

  Derec frowned again. Then his face brightened. “Well, there’s no point in worrying about it. As Mandelbrot pointed out, if he can follow us, the Goose is cooked.” He turned to Wolruf and smiled. “But I don’t think that’s a real issue. We got away clean. I mean, every schoolboy knows that it’s physically impossible to track a ship through hyperspace, right?”

  Wolruf got up on one elbow, reached across the couch, and rested a furry hand on Derec’s shoulder.

  “Derec,” she whispered, “I don’t think Aranimas went to ‘ur school.”

  Chapter 9


  OLD LIFECRIER, SPIRITUAL leader of the kin of PackHome and self proclaimed First Believer in SilverSides, sat at the mouth of the cave, watching the milling throng in the clearing below. “Do you hear that, daughter?” he said proudly, using the informal words of KinSpeech. “They’re all speaking my name.”

  From somewhere inside the cave, WhiteTail answered, “That’s sweet, Father.”

  He ignored the humoring tone in her voice and looked back out over the crowd. “‘LifeCrier,’ that’s what they’re saying. ‘We’ve traveled for days to hear LifeCrier.’ “He let his tongue loll out and smiled clear back to his fourth bicuspids. “You never thought your old father would be heard beyond the pack.”

  WhiteTail carried a few old dry bones up from the darkness and deposited them in the rubbish heap near the opening. “Of course I did, Father.” She turned to head back into the darkness, but he reached out a paw and gently stopped her.

  “Look at them, WhiteTail. Just took at them. What do you see?”

  WhiteTail stood up on her hind legs and surveyed the crowd. Then, with a disgusted snort, she dropped back down to all fours. “I see about two hundred extra mouths to feed. We’re running low on food as it is.”

  The old kin smiled sadly and shook his head. “Oh, ye of little vision. That’s the beginnings of the Great Pack out there.”

  WhiteTail sniffed disdainfully. “It’s a hungry mob of outcasts, younglings, and losers, that’s what it is. Not ten decent hunters in the lot of them. And certainly no hunt leader.”

  LifeCrier ignored her. “Think of it, daughter. We have the privilege to be a part of the greatest thing that’s ever happened to the kin. First SilverSides came down from the OldMother. Now the Great Pack is forming. Soon all the packs will be united, and the sharpfangs will be driven away forever. We’re seeing untold generations of prophecy fulfilled right before our very eyes!”

  WhiteTail sighed heavily and cast a distempered look at her father. “Do the prophecies say anything at all about how we’re supposed to feed them?”

  “Oh, my short-sighted daughter.” He tried to wrap his tail around her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. “Still thinking about mere physical needs when we have the spiritual sustenance of SilverSides?”

  WhiteTail jumped to her feet and impatiently twitched her long, whip-like tail. “All I’m saying is that somebody better do some hunting around here, or SilverSides is going to be short a few followers if she comes again.”

  “When, daughter.” LifeCrier slowly roused to his feet and stretched out in an easy yawn. “When SilverSides comes again, she will lead us to all we could ever hope for. Good knives. Warm furs. More food than, than —”

  WhiteTail’s eyes narrowed. “Yes? I’m listening.”

  “Well, more food than you can imagine, anyway. We won’t want for anything.”

  “And in the meantime we’re just supposed to sit and wait patiently?”

  “Don’t worry, daughter. SilverSides will lead and protect us. She promised she would. Just as she promised that she would return.”

  WhiteTail turned around in a tight, nervous circle, glared at her father, and turned around again. Whatever was l
eft of her patience finally gave up the ghost.

  “You addled old fool! For twelve days and nights now you’ve kept the hunt here in PackHome and filled their heads with stories of SilverSides! In the meantime, the bellies of the younglings growl with hunger and the pups are crying because their mothers have no milk!”

  LifeCrier turned to face her; involuntarily, WhiteTail’s hackles went up and her lips drew back in a snarl, exposing double rows of needle-sharp teeth

  “Father, I don’t care if SilverSides is coming back someday. Your pack is starving now! You call yourself the leader of PackHome; when will you get your head out of the sky and lead the hunt?”

  LifeCrier sagged back on his haunches and let his ears fall flat. With a sudden start, WhiteTail noticed the pain and confusion in the old kin’s eyes. “My own daughter,” LifeCrier whispered. “My own daughter challenges me.”

  Seeing the pain in her father’s eyes, WhiteTail felt a sudden stab of remorse. Fighting for control over her emotions, she lowered her hackles, crouched down on her belly, and laid her head on her forepaws. “I’m sorry, Father.” She looked up at him with big, sad, puppy-dog eyes. “I spoke without thinking. I said things I didn’t mean.”

  LifeCrier stood up, trotted over, and gave her a friendly little nuzzle behind the ears, as he used to when she was just a pup. “That’s all right, WhiteTail. Every now and then the FirstBeast gets into all of us and makes us say things we didn’t mean.” She relaxed, and gave him an apologetic lick on the muzzle. LifeCrier returned a paternal smile. “I’m sure SilverSides forgives you for your momentary lapse of faith.”

  With great effort, WhiteTail kept her hackles down.

  LifeCrier gave her one more nuzzle behind the ears, and then started poking around in the sleeping furs that lay piled in one corner of the cave. “Now, where did I leave that amulet? Ah, here it is.” LifeCrier pulled out the badge of his office — a broken circuit board suspended from a braided necklace made of robotic nerve wire — and slipped it over his head. “Well, it’s time to address the faithful. Coming, Daughter?”