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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 monthsplus.

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?

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