Читать онлайн «Alien Earth»
Raef remembered one man well because of his trembling paranoia. James, his name had been. And they had sat at a table during the recreation hour, aimlessly playing at checkers on a magnetic board. Raef had beaten him the last six times in a row. During the last Wakeup, Raef had beaten him every time they played. It was a new experience for Raef, who had seldom won at games before. He had just decided that it was boring when James skittered a checker across two squares and then declared hoarsely, “Know what, kid? I don’t think we’re ever going to get there.”
“What?” Raef had said, jarred out of both game and boredom.
“I don’t think we’re really going anywhere. I mean, think about it. These Arthroplana things, they come to Earth in their Beastships, but they never land. They tell us Earth is going to hell in a handcart, no one’s gonna survive, and we only have two, maybe three hundred years to get off the planet. If any Humans are gonna survive, we gotta start leaving now. But no one ever gets to see an Arthroplana, and no one knows where the hell these two planets are they’re offering to take us to. But they go, in our grandparents’ time, and in our parents’ childhood. And then they’re back for another load, and this time we, you and I, we get on. But how do we know they ever got there, the ones that went ahead of us? How do we know they aren’t just taking us out in space and dumping us, killing us off so they can have our planet for themselves? How do we know that?”
People at other tables had turned to look at them. They had listened to James rave with faces either full of pity or disbelief. Perhaps a few showed signs of alarm, but surely it was only at James’s distress, not at a sudden suspicion his words might be true. Now the gazes shifted to Raef at James’s questions, waited for his answer, as if he knew something, as if he were supposed to speak for all those who had faith in the evacuation, who believed that a tomorrow awaited them on distant twin planets spinning around a different sun.
“Well,” he had said, and faltered, wondering. How did they know? Maybe the Arthroplana had picked out the best and strongest to take into space and kill, leaving the weak and sick and elderly to die out on their own on a planet that no longer cherished life. “Well,” he had groped, “there’s the videos we have to watch. About living harmoniously with our new ecology. Someone had to make those. And, well, if they were going to kill us, why aren’t we already dead? Why bring us so far before doing it?”
“So far?” James laughed again, a laugh that cracked suddenly. “How do you know we’re far at all? No one can see out. We’re in the belly of the Beast. How do you know it’s been so long? They say we’ve slept for years, for decades. Maybe it’s only been a single night of drugged sleep. How can we tell anything for ourselves?” James lowered his voice suddenly, and those not already clustered around the table drew closer to hear. “How do we know we aren’t dead already? How do we know this isn’t hell?”
“Well … because …” Raef groped, and then the omnipresent voice of Tug, the Arthroplana that controlled their Beastship and announced all their hours for them, proclaimed, “Wakeup Period Twenty-seven is now drawing to a close. Please void your bladders and empty your bowels before returning to your wombs. If assistance is needed with your umbilical coupler, inform the monitor in your womb chamber. Thank you.”
Raef was glad to unclip his safety harness and kick free of the table, leaving James to put the checkers and board away. He followed the stream of people leaving the rec chamber, to merge in the hallway with other people en route to the lavatories and then on to their womb chambers, to crawl inside and couple up to their life-support tubes and then to drift back into sleep. Now that Raef considered it, he didn’t remember ever seeing James at any of the subsequent Wakeups. What had ever happened to James?
“Get out of there. Get out of there. Get out of there.” Raef ground out the words, trying to feel his teeth grit, his lips move as he begged his dream self to escape from the examining room. It was like an out-of-body experience as he looked down on himself, naked and vulnerable on the table, and yet was himself, waiting anxiously for the screening team’s return.
He had to use a bathroom. After all the urine samples and blood he’d given to them, it seemed incredible that there were any liquids left in his body, but he had to piss soon or he was going to explode. The more he tried to lie still and ignore it, the more threatening the pressure in his bladder became. Had to go. Well, maybe if he was quick about it, he could be back in the examination cubicle before they came back.
He rolled off the table, caught at a rung to still himself, and then tried to grip his paper gown closed behind him. It turned out he had a choice; holding the gown closed, or coping with low-G movement.
“Get out of there, damn it all, get out of there,” Raef whimpered in his sleep. The small comfort of telling himself it was just a dream-remembrance was fast slipping away. If he was caught, it was all over.
He knew the layout of the ship well from his unauthorized explorations. Lavatory was just three chambers from here, once he left the row of curtained alcoves they’d set up in the rec chamber for these final screenings. He was just leaving the chamber when he heard the screening team returning by the other entrance. He would never know what made him pause instead of immediately hastening back to his table, nor what trick of the acoustics carried the incredulous whisper to his ears.
“You’re shitting me! Cancer? How the hell could they have missed that at boarding?”
“Very small tumor, I guess. But it’s been growing while he was in Waitsleep. Big enough to detect now. Shut the hell up.”
“Okay, okay. Which one was it?”
“Raefferty, Terrence. He’s …”
But Raef was moving down the corridor, running breathlessly along before even they could finish speaking his name. He felt shock, not at hearing it, but at finding that he was not surprised by it. There had been a chance, he had always known there had been a chance. His mom had died of it, and his grandfather. He hadn’t told them that at the preboarding exam. He’d know they’d say it constituted a genetic tendency toward the disease. They’d have refused him.
It wasn’t fair, it was never fair to him. This shit was always happening to him, and he never deserved any of it. But he’d be punished for it just the same, just as always. Someday he’d make them all see how unfair it was, how none of it had been his fault.
But for now, he fled, mindlessly, brachiating down the corridor rungs faster than Tarzan of the Apes could have gone. His paper gown fluttered in the wind of his passage, marking him as strange, and he deliberately took every turning that would carry him away from the normally trafficked areas of the ship. There would be a search, he knew. Eventually, they’d find him. So why not stop now, go back, get it over with?
It was all too familiar, this sensation of fleeing, and the hasty reconstruction of himself as someone else, as Tarzan or Peter Pan or Mega Man or Long John Silver. It used to be the big boys on the playground, chasing him with ready fists and boots. Now it was a lab team in white coats. It was all the same. If he was caught, they would hurt him. And there’d be no one to make them stop.
He fled on, leaving the bright corridors for dimmer ones that branched out into areas of the ship already emptied of sleeping passengers. Womb chamber after womb chamber he passed, until their multitude almost dizzied him. And then ahead of him, the unused corridors were dark, and he fled into them, relying on the consistent spacing of the rungs to let him proceed. On he fled, heart hammering and his mouth so dry he thought his throat would crack. On, until a sudden cramp in his side made him miss his grip and sent him flying into the resilient corridor wall. He rebounded into dark emptiness and settled very slowly to the floor. Raef lay still, half stunned, clutching at the cramp in his side. Little by little the pain receded and even his breathing steadied. He caught his breath, swallowed in a dry throat, and sat up cautiously. He looked back the way he thought he had come. Blackness. Ahead was the same.
He tried to keep calm, tried to assess his situation. What would they do? He wasn’t sure. But he knew what they wouldn’t do. They wouldn’t let him leave the Beastship and become a colonists on a new planet. It didn’t seem likely to him that they’d send him back to Earth. A stray phrase from the Conservancy lectures came back to him. “Pity for the deformed and diseased swiftly devolves into a form of cruelty. Extending the lives of the unfit is not a worthwhile pursuit for Humanity. The strengthening of our species is.” The lecture had been explaining the need for rigorous controls on breeding once the planets were reached, but he didn’t doubt that the same policy would extend to him.
Raef gathered himself to this feet. For a few moments he felt about in the darkness for a rung, before his arm muscles cramped and he realized he couldn’t rung any farther. He stood a moment longer, darkness and silence pressing him as heavily as the knowledge of his disease, the imperfection that would let them kill him.
“Help me!” He spoke it aloud to the darkness, hopelessly. “God, help me!”
“What do you require?”
It was either the voice of God, or the voice of Tug himself, the one that had dictated all their awakenings and sleepings all this long way. It didn’t seem to Raef that it mattered which. It asked him what he needed as if it could grant it.
“Sanctuary,” he begged.
“They’ll kill me if they find me. Because I have …”
“I know. But you still want to live?”
“It won’t be much of a life.”
“It will be better than death.”
“Interesting.” The voice sounded intrigued. “This way.”
The corridor lit dimly before him. He followed the light, glancing back once to see it fading behind him. It led him far, winding deeper and deeper into the ship, and finally to a womb chamber, where wombs hung slackly grey, waiting.
“Enter one,” said the voice. “You’ll be safe here.”
Raef didn’t hesitate, but crawled into a womb, discarding his paper gown on the way. He groped and found the umbilical cord, coupled it to the fitting still implanted in his belly. He curled himself for Waitsleep.
“What will you have?” the voice asked, muffled by the walls of the womb. “Without the companionship of other Humans, without a hope of a home, with no future save what you have this minute? What will you have worth living for?”
“The only things I’ve ever had,” Raef muttered. “My dreams.”
He could feel his heart beating, beating too fast, dammit, Tug, don’t you notice my heart is going too fast? The dreams merged, touching until he couldn’t tell them from now, that curling into Waitsleep from this sinking away from the too-vivid dream memory. Finally, he escaped the old nightmare the only way he could, by retreating into a deeper dream.
Long John Silver stands on the deck of his ship, the wind is in his face. Above his head, the sails crack and the crew bustles up the lines to carry out his orders. For on this ship, he is no stowaway, but is the captain, and one word from him can set a lash to a man’s back, or gift him an extra ration of grog….
“I HATE THESE DAMN SCREENS.”
Tug didn’t reply to John’s complaint. Neither did Connie, but at least John had the satisfaction of seeing her hunch a little tighter into her own station, nervously aware of the captain’s frustration and displeasure. He glared at the bank of monitors. Runny images. Another one of the Conservancy’s negative improvements. He rubbed again at the biotrol strip that was supposed to stimulate the screens to greater brightness. Nothing happened.
“What’s the matter with the monitor bank?” he demanded, and when he got no reply, he raised his voice in sarcastic incredulity. “Is it biodegrading right before my very eyes?”
Still no answer. Connie’s solution to any problem was to shut up and make herself small until someone else handled it. This was the deckhand’s second ship-out on Evangeline, and John still hadn’t figured out how to get her to react in a constructive way. In her own way, she was as frustrating to him as the dimming monitors. He didn’t understand it. Her papers were good, her scores for her ratings exemplary. Even John’s personal sources had given good reports of her. Or had they? He frowned, remembering Andrew’s words.
“Quiet.” First Mate Andrew on the Beastship Trotter had characterized Connie when John had requested a very unauthorized personal opinion of Andrew’s former shipmate. “Not unfriendly, but quiet. I didn’t know her that well. But from what everyone says, she’s supposed to be very bright. Very competent. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in her. I know you like your privacy, John. Well, so does she. Should work out well, you two hermits rattling around in a scow that size. You can come out of Waitsleep, grunt at each other, and go back in without bothering each other at all.”
So John had hired her, more on Andrew’s word than on her high ratings on the standardized tests. And found her not competent or bright, but only quiet. Very quiet. And passive to the point where it was driving him crazy. Needling her only seemed to make the crewwoman more reclusive, and yet there were times he could not resist doing it, just for the sake of getting some kind of reaction from her. She seemed to have all the personality and social skills of an algae vat. Thanks a lot, Andrew. I owe you one.
As for Tug’s silence, well, the Arthroplana was playing at protocol again. Speak when spoken to. John hated it, but gave in and addressed him by name. “Tug. Can you boost the monitor screen from your side or something? Something’s got to be malfunctioning; nothing this fuzzy could have met standards. I don’t remember the monitor images being this bad last time we used them.” That, of course, had been a number of years and several Wakeups ago. Still, the ship’s equipment wasn’t supposed to biodegrade that fast.
The picture improved minimally as Tug made whatever adjustments he could from his separate living quarters within Evangeline’s body. Tug’s synthetic voice thrummed softly through the command chamber. “My readings indicate that the picture is within the parameters for acceptable vision. It has, as you noted, biodegraded somewhat since our last use of the equipment. The bacterial action that triggers the luminors may be slowing. If you are so dissatisfied with it, I suggest you might have the unit recolonized while we’re docked at Delta. Still, according to all my references, the image is within safe and acceptable parameters.”
“Safe and acceptable parameters? Tug, don’t try to tell me that this image is as good as the one we got on the old equipment that they made us turn in for this.”
Tug considered a moment. “While the image may not be as sharp nor as adjustable, the equipment is much more harmonious with the environment. All components are completely recyclable with a waste factor of less than point two percent.”
“Wonderful. We can’t see a damn thing on the screen, but we can be content knowing that the whole thing can be remanufactured into something even less useful with a minimum of waste.”
Tug either couldn’t think of a reply or chose not to. John crossed his arms on his chest and settled back into his couch. Despite his resolutions, the true source of his frustration pushed itself to the front of his mind again. It had been the first message up on his screen when he’d come out of Waitsleep. Norwich Shipping thanked John, Tug, crew, and the Evangeline herself for their years of service, but were regretful to inform him that such services were no longer required. References would be furnished, of course. Brief and to the point. And totally maddening in that John could think of no reason why they would want to terminate their contract with the Evangeline. She was the only Beastship around that was still unmodified from the old Lifeboat days. No one else had their cargo capacity. They’d never missed a deadline or screwed up a delivery. It made no sense at all, and it promised to turn what should have been a relaxing shore time into a maze of negotiations as John hunted down new clients for the Evangeline. Dammit, it made no sense.
He wanted to stew on Norwich Shipping’s sudden refusal to renew their contract, but was distracted by one monitor’s image. It was a station relay of Evangeline approaching the dock. Not even the fuzziness of the degrading biologics could totally obscure the beauty of the Beast that powered his ship. He ignored the functional cell-meld structure of the gondola fastened to Evangeline; that was but the container that housed the Human crew and provided cargo space. It had no intrinsic beauty, only functional practicality. No, it was Evangeline herself—the organic Beast portion of his Beastship—that captivated him. He realized abruptly that he had been staring silently at the screen for several minutes. After all these years, she could still entrance him like that. He snorted at his own sentiment, and shifted his gaze to another monitor.
It showed him Delta Station. He’d grown up on Beta Station, which was identical to Delta and the other two dirty-tech stations that orbited Castor. It made for maximum efficiency in manufacturing components and maintaining the stations. Maximum boredom, too. He knew every seam and span in the construction of the stations from his days as a maintenance shuttle pilot. It had been thirty-seven years for the station dwellers since he had last been here, but it looked to him as if only his subjective three months had passed; if the Conservancy had made any changes in Delta, they weren’t readily apparent. Just looking at the unimaginative functionality of the station crumpled the moment of peace he’d felt in watching Evangeline’s organic opulence and renewed his earlier discontentment. The exterior of the station mirrored too accurately the blandly efficient interior of the station, of all the stations, even of his own ship.
Well, in a short time he’d be plunged into that grindingly efficient and correct place. It had been bad enough when all that meant was off-loading a cargo and picking up a new consignment. At least then he’d been free to follow his own interests, which usually meant spending the bulk of his pay on information and entertainments for his library. But this time it meant work, and real work, lining up a new client for Evangeline’s services. Reflecting that this type of task was one of the major reasons a Human captain was required at all on Evangeline didn’t cheer him. Tug was too fond of reminding him, “You are the captain of the ship, John, but I control the Beast.”
He glanced once more at the monitor that showed Evangeline’s approach. John fought it for an instant, then let his heart swell as it always did when confronted with the wonder of his ship. Dammit, she was his ship, just as much as Tug’s. She was more than that, she was his world. He’d spent the vast majority of his many years within her, and that, as much as anything, made her his. And he was glad. The Beastship Evangeline moved as lightly as he imagined thistledown had in Terra’s winds. He sometimes thought that perhaps his ship looked like thistledown, on a cosmic scale. The immensity of the cell-meld-constructed gondola fastened to her body was negated to insignificance by the delicacy of her lacy sails and fans and the angel-hair finery of her lines and filaments. The precise angles and functionality of the gondola that hugged Evangeline’s lower body and provided quarters for her Human crew was like a rectangular scar in that forest of delicacy. John jockeyed the monitor controls and shifted to a camera view that didn’t include the gondola. Now she was all Beast, all living creature moving herself easily toward the station. Evangeline was lifting and rotating her filaments and fans in the graceful lazing movement that all Beastships made, no matter what speed they were traveling at. Not for the first time, John stared at that seemingly idle shifting, at the play of the station’s reflected lights on her translucent body, and wondered how the hell the Beasts moved through space so effortlessly. One hank of filaments moved suddenly and coordinatedly in what could have been a venting of gases, a steerage correction, or simply a stretching of tissue as Evangeline brought them closer to docking.
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