13 OCTOBER 2117
I killed Guillaume last night, but he’s alive again in time for breakfast. I find him smoking in the mess, talking in a low voice to Caroline. His ferret-like face shows none of the terror it wore several hours earlier, when I shoved him out of the Penumbra‘s airlock and into the vacuum of space.
“Bonjour, Commander,” he whispers as I sit down.
“Good morning, Guillaume.”
In the beginning, when we were still in contact with Earth, I would’ve passed the rest of the meal in silence, reading the morning briefing from Houston. But those days are long past.
“You look tired,” Caroline says. “What about the medicine I gave you? Substance B?”
She’d given me a thirty-day supply. That was nine months ago.
“Take it every night,” I say.
“And it works?”
“Like a charm.”
She nods happily. Math isn’t her strong suit.
“What works like a charm?” Hintersmith asks, flapping into the room.
“The doctor’s medicine.”
“Ah.” Hintersmith nods his pink, oblong head. “What I wouldn’t give for some digestive fluid from back home. I can hardly eat a thing.”
Last night he had three vacmeals and a cheesecake for dinner.
“Perhaps you will starve to death,” Guillaume says, fixing Hintersmith with a cold, Gallic stare. “Perhaps we will put your little corpse into a drawer.”
Hintersmith’s middle eye widens. “You really think so?”
“It was a joke,” I say wearily, and turn to Caroline to tell her that I wouldn’t be attending the evening’s checker tournament. “I want to take another stab at fixing the comm dish.”
“You are wasting your time, Commander,” Guillaume says, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “We will die out here, I think.”
“Maybe so, Lieutenant. But I’d like to give it a try all the same.”
I have no new theory to test out. I don’t even have a comm dish anymore: I jettisoned it fourteen months ago, along with the broken fuel cells and the faulty telescopes and all the other pieces of worthless equipment. I just need some time alone to consider the situation.
And the situation, from every angle, looks bleak. Earth is thousands of light-years away. The ship is locked in orbit around a dead rock. And Guillaume — despite his denials — is clearly trying to undermine my control over the crew. I see him talking for long hours with Hintersmith, who’s dangerously susceptible to suggestion, and he’s even cozied up to Caroline, whose demeanor toward me has been distinctly chilly lately, even in bed.
And meanwhile Silenus sits right outside my porthole, silently sucking the light and life from everything around it.
Breakfast in bed this morning. Can’t bear the thought of seeing the crew. Afterwards, I go to the Crazy Horse, a bar in Houston, Texas.
It’s cold outside when I arrive, hardly above forty degrees. The Crazy Horse is deep within the industrial park, a thirty-minute drive from Johnson Space Center. Manny and Bruce are already inside, huddled in the back corner with a pitcher between them. They look fatter than I remembered.
“What does that mean, ‘a low priority?'” Bruce asks, pouring another beer.
“Very low,” Manny says. “Bottom of the list.”
“But you’d think a rescue mission — ”
“Of course you would. But where’s the money going to come from? Penumbra was our last chance. Now that it’s failed…”
He doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t need to.
Bruce takes a long drink. “I just keep thinking about him. It’s got to be a horrible way to go — starving in space.”
“He’s not starving yet.”
“Not if he cuts back. If he eats like a monk, he could buy himself another year or two.”
“How about it, Wally?” Bruce asks, turning to me. (I’ve pulled up a chair and am listening attentively.) “Have you tried cutting back on food?”
I frown. “In the beginning, yes. But lately it’s been hard — especially with Hintersmith eating his weight in cheesecake.”
“Who’s Hintersmith?” Bruce asks.
“Here,” Manny says, pushing his beer over to me. “Drink up.”
“You don’t want it?”
He gives me a weak smile. Of all my friends back home, Manny has always been the most loyal. When the selection process opened, he was the one who volunteered to be my reference — who assured his bosses that I could handle the mission.
“You need it more than I do,” he says softly.
Caroline is half an hour late for lunch. I’ve already started packing away the food when she bursts through the hatchway, smelling of cigarettes and wearing one of Guillaume’s berets.
“I’m late, I know, I’m sorry. It was Hintersmith. He was showing me his planet.”
“You can’t see his planet from here, Doctor.”
The meal passes in silence. When the bowls are empty I take a beaker of liquid from the locker beside my workstation.
“Root beer?” Caroline says. “At lunch?”
Back on Earth, I’d been allowed to bring eighty kilos of personal food items onto the ship. I divided my precious allotment right down the middle: forty kilos of frozen cheesecake and forty kilos of soda.
“Think of it as a special occasion,” I say. “A re-dedication of our friendship.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I smile. “We used to have some nice times together, didn’t we?”
“And we’ve always been honest with each other, haven’t we?”
“Good. Then you’ll tell me what Guillaume is planning.”
I expect her usual reaction: panic, denials, a wild attempt to change the subject by unbuttoning my pants.
But there’s none of that this time. This time her voice is steady and her gaze is firm, and I understand at that moment that the situation is far worse than I’d thought.
“There’s nothing going on, Commander.”
Problem: potential mutiny on the Penumbra.
– Gravelin, Walter T. Commander, probable victim of mutiny.
– Haas, Caroline L. Ship’s medic, possible love interest of head mutineer.
– Hintersmith. Sagittarian refugee picked up near Lagoon Nebula fourteen months ago, possibly controlled by hypnotic suggestion.
– Anjou, Guillaume. Lieutenant, chief architect of mutiny, French.
Possible Solution 1: Increase discipline, re-emphasize penalties for disobedience.
Possible Solution 2: Expose mutiny plot, humiliate Guillaume, win back hearts and minds of crew.
Possible Solution 3: Murder.
The Agency doesn’t allow crewmembers to bring mind-altering drugs on long-range missions (or on short-range missions, for that matter); but I’ve discovered, after much trial and error and vomiting, that you can concoct your own psychoactive substances using only the chemicals stored on board the ship.
This morning I eat four grams of Substance R with my powdered eggs and wash them down with coffee and an ounce of Substance L. Very high by the time I arrive in Houston to see my therapist.
“It’s a little early in the day for drug use, isn’t it, Walter?” Dr. Mahan says, looking up from his desk.
The curtains are drawn, but a long stripe of Texas sun runs along the edge of the carpet.
“It’s always dark in space, Paul.”
Dr. Mahan seems to consider this, then looks down at a pad on his desk. “We don’t have an appointment scheduled for today.”
“We haven’t had an appointment scheduled for four years.”
“The way I see it,” I say, flopping into my favorite chair, “you and I have a special bond. I saw you more often during mission prep than I saw anyone else.”
“Is that right?”
“Four times a week for two years.”
He shrugs, conceding the point. “Then what would you like to discuss?”
“Just the fact that my crew is plotting against me.”
“The mutiny fantasy?”
“It’s not a fantasy. If I don’t find a way to stop them I could lose my ship.”
He sighs and picks up a paperweight. “Well, I have no doubt you’ll find a way. You’re an excellent problem solver, Walter. Our tests showed conclusively that you could handle Penumbra. No need for companionship, no wife, no children, no family.”
I lean forward. “Trouble is, Paul, you never tested me for command decisions.”
“Of course not. It was irrelevant to the mission.”
“And you never thought the ship would fall apart on the way to Silenus.”
“Of course we did. Or at least we knew it was a possibility. But you have to understand, Walter, Penumbra was an act of desperation. The Agency had no money, no future. Not unless we could get the taxpayers interested in space again.”
“Which is why you sent me to a black hole.”
He shrugs. “The public likes danger. You were the only one stupid enough to volunteer.”
I pretend not to hear this last comment and stand up. “Well, I guess that’s that, then. You won’t help me; Manny and Bruce say there’s no chance of a rescue. I guess I’m on my own.”
Dr. Mahan looks at me for a long moment, as if I’m not a real person but just a patch of empty space, and then puts down the paperweight and turns back to his work.
The stripe of sun on the carpet is gone. Storm clouds are rolling over Houston.
Nasty hangover. I read in bed most of the morning, then take a brief jaunt around the ship after lunch. Eerie silence, crew nowhere to be seen. Just the smell of cigarette smoke and the sound of Caroline’s giggle.
It’s coming soon. I can feel it in the air.
I find Guillaume in the Navigation pod, a cigarette dried to his lip. He is crouched beside Hintersmith, whispering and jabbing a skeletal finger at the display screen. I enter stealthily, slipping off my shoes and gliding unseen into the shadows.
“But the solar reserves, mon ami. Do they have enough energy to power the engines?”
“For a short burst, yes,” Hintersmith says.
“One that could break us out of orbit?”
The Sagittarian punches some buttons and nods. “But to reach escape velocity we’d have to fire the thrusters for at least twenty-three seconds.”
“Damn.” Guillaume chews his cigarette. “That is too long, I think. He would hear the noise and try to stop us.”
“What if we did it at night?” Hintersmith asks. “When he was asleep?”
“But he only sleeps when he takes the pills. And if — ”
A third voice speaks. “Whose shoes are these?”
It’s Caroline. She’s only three feet to my left, standing in the hatchway.
I duck down, squeeze myself into the aux tube, and crawl frantically to the next pod.
I’m forced to abandon my shoes.
After lunch I go to Santa Bonita, a resort community ten minutes by bullet train from Cape Canaveral. Kathy’s house is at the end of a cul-de-sac: a stucco villa shaded by palm trees.
I find her in the back, stretched out beside the pool, her belly supporting a bottle of suntan lotion and a margarita. A handsome young man is in the chair next to her.
“Hey there, Kath,” I say.
She turns and squints at me through her sunglasses. “Well I’ll be damned…”
“I see you’re hard at work, as usual.”
She laughs and grabs my arm. “Well I’ll be damned. Honey,” she says to the young guy, “you know who this is?”
He doesn’t move his head. “Mmm.”
“This is the bastard I used to live with when the Earth was young. We had an apartment with Manny. You remember Manny, honey?”
“Aaron doesn’t give a damn about anybody but himself,” Kath explains good-naturedly. “And don’t think I don’t know why you’re here, Wall-Eye. I recognize that look. You got a problem for me.”
“A nasty one.”
“To some extent.”
“All right.” She refills her glass from a pitcher and sits back. “Let’s have it.”
“Suppose,” I say, “that I’m on a dead ship stuck in orbit around an asteroid. No fuel cells, no comm dish, nothing. And suppose somebody uses the solar reserves to activate the engines. Not for very long — just long enough to break us out of orbit.”
“How much juice you got in the solar reserves?”
“Not much, but enough to do the job and leave a little left over. Now suppose there’s a stellar-mass black hole sitting directly in my path — Silenus, for example. How much time do I have until I drift past the event horizon and get sucked in?”
Kath frowns. “Well, that depends on all sorts of things. I’d have to know — ”
I hand her a cocktail napkin covered in my own scribbles: the mass and radius of Silenus, the probable speed of the ship after a twenty-three-second burst, the probable course that Guillaume would plot. She glances at it, does a few calculations in what is universally regarded as the finest brain of her generation, and takes a drink.
“Four minutes,” she says, wiping her mouth. “Give or take a few seconds. If you don’t reverse engines before those four minutes are up, Wall-Eye, things’ll get real tight real fast.”
I nod and sit back. It’s the same estimate the computer gave me, but hearing it from Kath somehow makes the prospect more daunting.
“Then I won’t have much time to stop them,” I murmur.
“Your crew? Since when do you have a crew? And why the hell are you flying into Silenus, anyway? You were supposed to study the damn thing, not take a swim in it.”
I shield my eyes against the sun. “It’s a long story.”
This is the day I’ve been expecting.
Woke early: an ominous sign. Breakfast alone. No calls from the crew, no activity on the log. Visit from Caroline at 13:00.
She enters casually, whistling, as if to set me at ease. I study her face: tension around the eyes, nervous smile. She carries a med kit in her left hand.
“Hi there,” she says, shouting.
“Hello, Doctor. Have a seat.”
I steer her to the dining table.
“I’ve brought something for you, Wally. Substance B.”
“I already have a full supply.”
“Yes, I know, but this is…this is a special formula. Twice as strong. You wouldn’t understand — it’s technical.”
“Why wouldn’t I understand? I’m the one who taught you how to make Substance B.”
“Well, yes, but…”
She swallows hard, starts to speak, changes her mind, and abruptly stands up.
“I have to go, Wally. I’m sorry. I just remembered.”
“Of course. Illnesses to heal, lives to save.”
“Right.” She hands me the bottle of crudely formed pills. “You’ll take them, won’t you? Now?”
“Of course. Anything for you, Caroline.”
I wait a few hours, then creep out of my cabin. The pills Caroline tried to give me were strong enough to paralyze a horse, but Guillaume won’t want to make his move until he’s certain I’m unconscious.
His plan, so far as I can make out, is to put the ship on a collision course with Silenus, wake me up from my drug-induced sleep, and refuse to change course until I hand over command.
It isn’t just reckless: it’s insane. Fourteen months with no hope of rescue have driven the poor bastard out of his mind. I can almost sympathize.
Moving stealthily, I make my way to the engines pod, where Guillaume is no doubt in the process of re-routing power from the solar reserves to the engines. I kneel down by the hatch and listen for the sounds of whispered conversation.
Strangely, there aren’t any.
I frown and push open the hatch: the pod is empty. There’s no sign that Guillaume has been inside.
And that isn’t all. Fourteen months ago, after I jettisoned the comm dish and the rest of the useless equipment, I turned the empty space into cabins for Guillaume and Hintersmith and Caroline.
But now the cabins are empty. As are the pods, and the mess, and the lab, and the storage tanks. The ship — inexplicably — is deserted. The crew has disappeared.
With a strange feeling of numbness in my legs, I walk back to my cabin and sit down at the workstation.
Perplexity. Mystification. The Penumbra carries no life boats, no escape capsules. Have they gone out the airlock? Possibly — if Hintersmith finally managed to contact his fellow Sagittarians and summon a rescue ship. But then why bother to plan a mutiny?
As if in answer, the deck plates under the bed start to hum. Stars begin to move more quickly outside the porthole.
An auto-program, I realize.
Guillaume has left an auto-program in place — has told the computer when to fire the engines and where to fly the ship. And then he and the others slipped out the airlock and into the arms of the waiting Sagittarians.
It’s murder, not mutiny.
“Honestly, Walter, flying a ship into a black hole strikes me as a little melodramatic. Even for you.”
I swivel in my chair. Dr. Mahan is sitting on the bed, his legs crossed, a notepad on his knee.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
He glances at his watch. “Three minutes to the horizon. If I were you, I’d fire the engines and change course.”
Excellent idea, I say, but unfortunately an insane Frenchman has taken control of the ship with an auto-program, and he’s the only one who can shut it down.
He waves a hand impatiently. “Let’s not waste time with that. We both know who wrote the auto-program, and we both know how to override it.”
I study his face. It’s set hard, all the softness vanished beneath the folds of his skin.
“Don’t misunderstand me, Walter,” he says, “I have no moral objection to suicide, particularly for a man in your predicament. But I don’t like waste.”
I snort. “You really think my life is worth that much?”
“I was referring to the ship. Despite its flaws it’s a valuable piece of hardware. It’d be nice if it were here to be salvaged when someone comes this way again.”
“I’m just being practical.”
“If you want to kill yourself, there are easier ways to do it. The pills Caroline gave you, for instance.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“But I don’t think you’re ready to kill yourself,” he says. “Not yet, at least. Not while there are still things worth living for.” He leans forward. “Because there are things, aren’t there? People you just can’t bear to say goodbye to?”
Time has evidently improved his therapeutic skills. He was never this clever back on Earth.
“Two or three, maybe,” I say grudgingly.
He smiles, and his body seems to flicker between existence and non-existence. “Well, then this trip of yours hasn’t been a complete waste, Walter. It’s proven one thing, at least.”
“That I never should’ve left Houston?”
He stands up. “That you do need companionship after all.”
And with that, he disappears.
I swivel in my chair. Caroline is slumped in the hatchway, an ugly bruise and a stream of blood on her cheek.
I help her to the chair. “What happened? Who hit you?”
“Guillaume.” She’s sobbing. “I told him I couldn’t go through with it, and he got angry. Oh, Wally, I’m so sorry.”
I wipe the blood from her cheek and make comforting noises. “It’s okay, Caroline. I understand.”
“You’re not angry with me?”
“Of course not.”
I glance back at the bed. Dr. Mahan has left his notepad behind. Scribbled on the top page, in familiar handwriting, is the code for the auto-program override.
Somehow I’d forgotten all about it.
Burned my toast at breakfast this morning. The grav generator and electrical circuits are still screwy — solar reserves are only partly charged.
Lunch in my cabin with Caroline. Her bruise is gone, as is all memory of the mutiny. We help ourselves to the root beer, which I believe has improved in the reduced gravity. Sleep, however, is still difficult.
Later that night is the monthly chess tournament: six rounds, no time limit. Hintersmith accuses Guillaume of cheating, and a fight ensues. Guillaume sets fire to Hintersmith’s feathers.
Ridiculous people to have to live with, but I guess it’s better than being alone.
|Andrew Miller lives in Los Angeles. He has a story forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction.|