The Chase has fascinated humankind from the beginning, and with good reason. What many failed to understand, however, was that there could be the excitement of the chase even where the only thing you were chasing was an idea, a concept, a theory. As awareness developed, it became apparent that this was the most important chase of all, the one upon whose outcome all of humankind survives or fails.
-Raja Lon Flattery, The Book of Ship
THE CREAKING OF their action couches, the click-click of relays -- all of the subtle and familiar sounds of Com-central worried at the edges of Prudence's awareness.
For the past half-hour, Bickel had been fussing through the schematics, plotting his way into the computer, sharing parts of his plan with the others. She had come to dislike the sound of the schematics being shuffled.
There were tensions here that she did not fully understand, but her own role remained clear -- mediate and goad . . . mediate and goad.
The common stench of Com-central carried an acridity which she identified as fear.
We have a chance at glory, she told herself. Very few people ever have that opportunity.
It was an empty pep talk, forever confronted by that inescapable fact:
I am not people.
For the first time since coming out of the hyb tank, she felt the old familiar pain-of-wonder, asking herself what it might have been like to have been born into a normal family in the normal way, to have grown up in the noisy, intimate belonging of the unchosen.
"You are the cream, the select few," Morgan Hempstead and his cohorts had kept reminding them. But they all knew where the cream had originated. Normal biopsy tissue from a living human volunteer had been suspended in an axolotl tank, the genetic imprint triggered and the flesh allowed to grow. It produced an identical twin -- an expendable twin.
Select few! she thought. Something precious was taken from us and the compensations were inadequate.
She tuned the small screen at the corner of her board to one of the tail eyes, looked back toward the center of the solar system, toward the planet that had spawned them.
A stabbing pang of homesickness tightened her breast, made breathing difficult for a moment.
They had been molded and motivated, twisted, trained and inhibited -- wound up like mechanical toys and sent scooting off into the darkness with their laser "whistle" tooting to let UMB know where they were.
And where are we? she asked herself as she blanked the screen.
"Prue, you'd better take the big board," Flattery said. "You'd normally follow John."
Sight of the big board's dials and gauges filled her with an abrupt anger and fear. She felt the immediacy of the emotions in a dry throat, heat in her cheeks.
"I . . . haven't had enough time off the board . . . to recuperate," Flattery said, speaking hesitantly. "Or I'd --"
"It's all right," she said. "I'll take it."
She took a deep breath, leaned back, signed to Timberlake to begin the count.
The appeal to her nursing instinct did it, Flattery thought. She was ready to funk out. She had to take the board now or she might never be able to face it.
Flattery glanced at Timberlake, saw the relief so apparent on the man's face as he switched the green arrow to Prudence.
Timberlake, dominated by intuition, was terrified by the responsibility of Com-central. Prudence, deep in sensation, shared that fear.
And I, because I feel their fear, overcome my own repugnance, Flattery thought.
Only Bickel, logical and with penetrating intelligence seemed immune to these pressures. It was a flaw in Bickel's character, Flattery thought, but he knew their lives could depend on that flaw.
"Get the manifest and ship-loading plans, Tim," Bickel said. "I'll give you a list of what we need from colony stores. We can set up in the computer maintenance shop next door for easy --"
"Don't stay outside the shield area too long," Prudence said. "You'd better key your dosimeters to repeaters in here; we'll keep an eye on you that way."
"Right," Bickel said.
He slipped off his couch, looked back at Prudence, studying her profile, the intent way she watched the big board. He shifted his attention to Flattery, who lay back with eyes closed, resting for his shift at the controls; then to Timberlake, who was taking copies of the ship-loading plans from the computer memory-bank printers.
None of them has really focused on what has to be done here, Bickel thought. They haven't faced the fact that the simulator eventually has to be tied directly to the computer. We'll just be building a set of frontal lobes -- if we're successful. And our "Ox" can have but one source of experience upon which to come alive and conscious -- the computer and its memory banks.
When they did face this fact, Bickel saw, he was going to have a fight on his hands. Too much of the ship was almost totally dependent on the master programs. Juggling those programs involved a kind of all-or-nothing danger. It was a flaw in the Tin Egg's design, Bickel felt. He could see no logical reason for it. Why should everything on the ship depend on conscious control or intervention -- even down to the robox repair units?
Prudence sensed Bickel's attention on her, saw his face reflected in a gauge's plastic cover. His questionings, doubts, and determination were all there for her to read just as surely as she read the dial beneath the plastic reflector. She had set him up -- she had done that part of her job as well as could be expected, she thought. She focused now on the total console, feeling the sensory pulses of the ship reaching outward to the hull skin and beyond.
Job routine was beginning to smooth off the harsh edges of her fear. She took a deep breath, keyed a forward exterior sensor to the overhead screen, studied the star-spangled view of what lay ahead of the Tin Egg.
That's our prize, she thought, looking at the stars. First, we clean out the Augean stables -- then we get to be first . . . out there. The candy and the stick. That's the candy, a virgin world of our own (and we have our tanks full of colonists to prove Earth's good faith) and I . . . I am the stick.
The screenview appeared suddenly repulsive to her, and she blanked it, returned her attention to the big board and its pressures.
It's the uncertainty that gets to us, she thought. There's too much unknown out here -- something has to go wrong. But we don't know what it'll be . . . or when it'll hit. We only know the blow when it falls can be totally destructive, leaving not a trace. It has been before -- six times.
She heard Bickel and Timberlake leave, the hiss of the hatch expanders sealing behind them; she turned and looked at Flattery. He had a small blue smudge-stain on his cheek just below his left eye. The stain appeared suddenly as an enormous flaw in an otherwise perfect creature. It terrified her, and she turned back to the big board to hide her emotion.
"Why . . . why did the other six fail?" she asked.
"You must have faith," Flattery said. "One ship will make it . . . one day. Perhaps it'll be our ship."
"It seems such a . . . wasteful way," she murmured.
"Very little's wasted. Solar energy's cheap at Moonbase. Raw materials are plentiful."
"But we're . . . alive!" she protested.
"There are plenty more where we came from. They'll be almost precisely like us . . . and all of them God's children. His eye is ever on us. We should --"
"Oh, stop that! I know why we have a chaplain -- to feed us that pap when we need it. I don't need it and I never will."
"How proud we are," Flattery said.
"You know what you can do with your metaphysical crap. There is no God, only --"
"Shut up!" he barked. "I speak as your chaplain. I'm surprised at your stupidity, the temerity that permits you to utter such blasphemy out here."
"Oh, yes," she sneered. "I forgot. You're also our wily Indian scout sniffing the unknown terrain in front of us. You're the hedge on our bets, the 'what-if' factor, the --" "You have no idea how much unknown we face," he said.
"Right out of Hamlet," she mocked him, and allowed her voice to go heavy with portentousness: "'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"
He felt an abrupt pang of fear for her. "I'll pray for you, Prudence." And he cursed inwardly at the sound of his own voice. He had come through as a fatuous ass. But I will pray for her, he thought.
Prudence turned back to the big board, reminding herself: A stick is to beat people with . . . to goad them beyond themselves. Raj can't just be a chaplain; he has to be a super-chaplain.
Flattery took a deep, quavering breath. Her blasphemy had touched his most profound doubts. And he thought how little anyone suspected what lay beneath their veneer of science, deep in that Pandora's box where anything was possible.
Anything?he asked himself.
That was the bind, of course. They were penetrating the frontiers of Anything . . . and Anything had always before been the prerogative of God.