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Chapter 6

Every symbol has hidden premises behind it. Every word carries unspoken assumptions buried in the his-tory of the language and the conditioning experiences of the speakers. If you snatch those buried meanings out of your words, you spill a whole stream of new under-standing into your awareness.

—Raja Lon Flattery, The Book of Ship

Almost half of Prudence Weygand’s recuperation time had passed and it had been marked by recurrent uncom-fortable silences in Com-central.

Flattery did not like those silences. He felt that every one of them carried his companions farther away—perhaps beyond control. And he had to maintain that delicate contact, that means of control.

One of those silences gripped them now. It seemed to reach into them from the space beyond the ship’s hull. Flatery knew he had to say something but he felt oppressed by the silence. He cleared his throat before speaking.

“I wish to say something about anger. I’ve seen several shows of anger since our emergency—my own anger included.”

The formal tone, the set of his face—all signaled that Flattery was speaking officially as their chaplain. “Anger could destroy us,” he said. “The Proverbs warn us: ‘He that is soon angry dealeth foolishly: and a man of wicked devices is hated. He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.’ Let us practice the soft answer and not stir up wrath.”

Bickel took a deep breath. Flattery was right, he knew, but Bickel resented the way the man retreated into religion to make his point. How much simpler just to say they were clouding their reason with excess emotion. That was the thing he resented about religion, Bickel thought—the way it appealed to emotion rather than intelligence.

“We’ve been floundering around, trying to do too much,” Bickel said. “That master board is a jury-rigged monstrosity. We need a consistent, organized plan to meet our problems. When Moonbase answers, I want to be able to say we have—”

Sharp, heavy X3 force pressed him against the side of his couch cocoon. It struck without klaxon warning or alarm light. Cocoon safety locks sealed home. Now, red alarm lights flashed with the yellow in long webs across the master board.

Flattery slammed the gravity disconnect with the heel of his left hand. G force ebbed. Yellow alarm lights winked off as their pressure switches released. A line of red alarm lights remained.

“Damage to hull three, section six/fourteen,” Flattery said. He began activating remote sensors to inspect the area.

Without conscious thought or discussion, Bickel took over ship command: “Tim, take the G repeaters. Leave gravity disconnected while you trace the relays and get the system back in balance.”

Timberlake pulled his board close to obey.

Bickel swung the AAT board to his side, keyed for ship systems/computer control, began feeding coded demands into the core recorders. What had the ship encountered that might explain that brutal deflection? What had the auto-matic sensors recorded?

The responders began kicking out tape almost immediately—much too fast.

“Data error,” Flattery said, reading the output over Bickel’s shoulder.

In abrupt fury, Bickel pulled the master override stop from his core switch, jammed a set of jumper jacks across the AAT controls, opened the core system for standard reference comparison.

“You are into the core!” Flattery said, his voice sharp with fear. “You have no guide fuse or master reference. You could louse up the command routines.”

“Unhook that!” Timberlake shouted, lifting his head from the cocoon clamps to glare across at Bickel.

“Shut up, both of you. Sure, the core is delicate, but something in there is already loused up—bad enough to kill us.”

“You think you have time to check some eight hundred thousand routines?” Timberlake demanded. “Don’t talk nuts!”

“There are specific injunctions against what you are doing,” Flattery said, fighting to keep his voice reasonable. “And you know why.”

“Don’t try to tell me my job,” Bickel said.

While he spoke, Bickel rolled over core memory responders, direct contact, doing it gently to avoid current backlash.

“You make one mistake,” Timberlake said, “and it would take six or seven thousand technicians with a second master system and several thousand imprint relays to repair the damage. Are you ready to—”

“Stop distracting me!”

“What are you looking for?” Flattery asked, interested in spite of his fear. He had realized that Bickel, conditioned to deep inhibitions against turning back, was incapable of doing anything to deprive them of one of their basic tools.

“I’m checking availability of peripherals from the core memory,” Bickel said. “There’s got to be a bypass or pileup somewhere. It’ll show in the acquisition and phase-control loops of the input.” He nodded toward a diagnostic meter on his board. “And here we are!” The meter’s needle slammed against its pin, fell back to zero, stayed there.

Slowly, Bickel ordered a master diagnostic routine into direct contact, put the core standard back on fused auxiliary, began rolling the troublesome core-memory section. Wor-king with only occasional references to the core standard, he forced the routine through the data-reference channels as modified by new sensor input.

Error branchings began clicking from his responders. Bickel translated aloud as the code figures appeared on the screen above his board.

“Core memory/prediction region rendered inactive. Pro-ton mass and scatter relative to ship course/mass/speed did not agree with prediction.”

Aside, Bickel said, “We’re hitting something other than hydrogen and hitting it in unexpected concentrations—partly because of our speed/mass figure.”

“Solar winds,” Timberlake whispered. “They said we—”

“Solar winds, hell!” Bickel said. “Look at that.” He nodded at a code grouping as it worked its way across the screen.

“Twenty-six protons in the mass,” Timberlake said.

“Iron,” Bickel said. “Free atoms of iron out here. We’re getting a plain old-fashioned magnetic deflection of the grav field.”

“We’ll have to slow the ship,” Timberlake said.

“Nuts!” Bickel was emphatic. “We’ll put a fused overload breaker in the G system. I don’t see why the devil the designers didn’t do that in the first place.”

“Perhaps they couldn’t conceive of any force large enough to deflect the system,” Flattery said.

“No doubt,” Bickel’s voice was heavy with disgust. “But when I think a simple cage switch with a weight in it could have prevented Maida’s death …”

“They depended on the OMCs’ reflexes, too,” Flattery said. “You know that.”

“What I know is they thought in straight lines when they should’ve been thinking in the round,” Bickel said.

He unlocked his safety cocoon, shifted his suit to por-table, launched himself diagonally across Com-central to the Tool & Repair hatch. The weightless drifting reminded him they had a time limit on returning to gravity conditions. Too long without gravity and the crew would suffer permanent physical damage.

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