©2005 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2005 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: Investigative show hosts Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane take their “Good Mornings with Daria and Jane Show” to a Pacific island that houses a secret government research base—and are caught up in a nightmare that leads them farther from home than they can imagine in this near-future science-fiction adventure based on MTV’s Daria.
Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements: To avoid giving away the plot at the start, these sections are at the end of the tale. This tale originally appeared in serialized form on PPMB and SFMB, from February to March 2005.
23:41:00 Universal Time
(11:41 A.M. Baker Island Time)
Monday, 19 July, A.D. 2027
And this was really the way that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
“Here it is, world: the Pentagon’s secret money pit!” Jane Lane cried, raising her voice over the roar of the surf and the screech of seabirds. The wind snapped at her bright blue blouse as she stepped away from the white-winged SeaShadow resting on the island’s beach. In a conversational tone she added, “So, Daria, should we get something to eat first or check our luggage at the front desk?”
“We’re tourists,” said Daria Morgendorffer, playing along. “Let’s take pictures.” Clad in a fluorescent orange top, white shorts, and brown hiking boots, the under-tall Daria had been the first one out of the tiny plane moments earlier, her nerves shot from the long flight from Hawaii and an unexpectedly rough sea landing. Despite the crisp breeze, she was already sweating rivers under the scorching equatorial sun. Pulling her long brown hair back in a ponytail had helped only a little. The amber goggles (sized to fit over her archaic glasses) cut most of the glare so she could scan the broad, sandy beach before her without squinting or suffering ultraviolet-B retinal damage. Everywhere she looked were white and gray seabirds, hundreds of them, crowding the beach and the sandy hill toward the low plateau above. She turned around, looking to the west, and saw wave after wave approaching on a dark blue ocean, the clouded horizon beyond.
“Welcome to Baker Island, U.S.A.,” said Daria, finishing her full-circle inspection of their surroundings with a glance at their trusty SeaShadow. “I trust our satellite uplink is intact and everyone is receiving our special three-dee livecast in the comforts of their own home, wherever you may be.”
A tiny beep in her right ear confirmed that the uplink was secure. Someone back at the main studio in Manhattan had thoughtfully given her an electronic thumbs-up.
“Over there is that concrete road we saw from the air, running from the sea ramp at the docks right up to the top of the plateau,” Jane observed, walking around the plane. “You can see the two piers from here, too. Can’t see any of the other buildings, though.” Like Daria, Jane wore amber UV goggles. The rest of her tall, wiry frame was decked out in white shorts, a red silk neck kerchief, a blue cloth backpack, and black hiking boots. She let her black, shoulder-length bangs blow free in the sea winds.
Daria walked over to make sure the stereo nanowebcams on her goggles had a good view of the features Jane had pointed out. “This is quite interesting,” said Daria, who wasn’t really talking to Jane just as Jane wasn’t really talking to her. “Fifteen point three billion American dollars in a deep-black Pentagon project with no name have been funneled to this uninhabited—as far as we know—island that hasn’t had a significant use since it was an airbase in World War Two. What was once a National Wildlife Refuge under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for goonies, frigate birds, and boobies—yes, boobies, they’re like albatrosses, so get over it—this island’s status was changed ten years ago to become a deep-black Department of Defense research site. What’s it for? No one knows. Stranger still, after enormous amounts of time, money, and effort were spent on fixing Baker Island up for, quote, research, end quote, it was completely abandoned to the elements only three months ago, according to our inside sources.” She wiped her forehead with the back of a hand, careful not to bump the nanowebcams. “There must be a perfectly good reason for it—and that’s why we’re here, to find out what it is.”
“I’m sort of wondering why no one’s come down to the beach greet us,” said Jane, still looking around.
“Or arrest us,” said Daria glumly.
“Or shoot us.”
Jane grinned. “In case you just clicked in on our three-dee livecast, this is Jane Lane and Daria Morgendorffer with a special late edition of ‘The Good Mornings with Daria and Jane Show,’ following the pre-recorded ‘Daria and Jane’s Wildest Livecasts’ show you saw earlier today. We’re now as far from twenty-twenty civilization as we can get without leaving Earth. I think. We’re livecasting from Baker Island, one of the smallest and least known territories of the United States of America. We’re way out in the Pacific Ocean almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia, thirty-one hundred kilometers southwest of Honolulu, a gorgeous city that we left late last night after filing a somewhat disordered but not really inaccurate flight plan. Fear not, our legal department says we’re covered by the reporter-protection laws passed by Congress last year, but the legals also said I could double-park in D.C., so . . . we’ll just have to see, won’t we?” She gestured to Daria to pick up the chat.
Daria wished she had smeared more SPF-50 sunscreen over her face and body before leaving the SeaShadow. With the ozone layer breaking up, she was deathly afraid of skin cancer. “Baker Island has had a long and strange history since it was claimed by America in the mid-nineteenth century for the huge local deposits of high-phosphorus guano,” she began. “American and British companies mined the guano, if mining is what you call it, and they shipped it away for sale until the eighteen-nineties.”
“Guano is bird doo,” Jane interrupted.
“Uh, yes, that’s the technical term. Thank you.”
“It comes from boobies.”
“You’re not helping.”
“So, amiga, what did those brave nineteenth-century sailors do with all that smelly guano once they dug it up and hauled it aboard their ships?”
“That’s the exciting part, Jane, but it is so exciting, I’m not going to tell you about it. You at home, just click on the link that says ‘guano.’ You’ll learn more about the wild and wacky uses of avian excrement than you ever imagined, enough to entertain your whole family for weeks and weeks. By the way, kids, don’t eat this stuff if you find it.”
“Oh, go ahead, let ‘em eat it.”
“As much as I’d like to say, ‘Sure, kids, go ahead and eat bird guano, see if I care,’ the ‘Good Mornings’ legal department says I’d better not, or else I’ll have my own special mountain of guano for breakfast tomorrow when we get home. Getting back to the story, though, once people stopping mucking around in search of bird doo, not much happened here until World War Two, when a mile-long landing strip was laid down for American bombers fighting in the Pacific. Those were Baker Island’s glory days, alas, and it was all downhill after that, until recently. As a side note, Howland Island, the only other spot of land near here, was supposed to have been a stopover for Amelia Earhart’s last flight across the Pacific, ninety years ago this month . . . a stopover she never made.”
Daria looked pained. After years of walking danger’s edge on some of her news assignments, she had become a tad superstitious and feared she had just jinxed their mission with this detail. “Sorry to bring you down,” she added, “but that’s history as it really happens.”
“Moving right along,” said Jane, still scanning their surroundings, “with the climate changes we’ve been going through, particularly the recent warming trend, National Wildlife Refuges are close to sacred for their roles in preserving endangered species. Why remove these protections for an entire island? Why was that so important? And what did we put here in return? At the moment, I can’t see a thing here worth fifteen point three billion dollars, but I’m just a common ordinary taxpayer with a nose for trouble. What’s possibly here that’s worth fifteen billion?”
Daria managed to look offended as she said, “Me.”
“Oh, right. Okay, Daria says she’s worth fifteen bill, but—” Jane stepped back, looking away as she raised a hand to cover her right ear. “Excuse me, everyone, but the studio says it’s gotten a call from the Department of the Interior. Someone wants to talk with us. Can I take it live? No? Huh. Okay, I’ll take the call offline while my Billion-Dollar Amiga shows the rest of you around Baker Island. Maybe she’ll undo another button on her top, too, so get your naughty little eyes ready.”
“Thanks ever so much,” Daria growled. She started walking toward the broad concrete road leading upward to the elevated central part of the island. The wind remained brisk, but the wireless microphones on her goggles were not affected. “Baker Island, as I hope our network’s cartography staff is showing you with a side map while I speak, is a tiny, potato-shaped spot about one and a half square kilometers in size, or about four hundred acres. Nearly this entire island is a low plateau of land measuring one point six kilometers east to west, and just over one kilometer at its widest. That’s about the size of the subdivision where I lived where I graduated from high school, although I have to add that, so far, Baker Island is less interesting than either of my old home towns were, which is saying something. Sorry, Highland and Lawndale. This island’s highest natural point is only eight meters above sea level. The nearest land is that other little bitty island, Howland, about fifty-eight kilometers north-by-northwest of here. After that . . . not much. No offense intended to any sovereign island nations in this area, of course.”
Keep your head up. Don’t look at the ground. Millions of people are seeing exactly what you see. Daria blew out her breath as she trudged on. Walking up the fractured concrete road was easier on her feet than hoofing it over sand and rock. Thank God Jane talked me into going to her exercise classes last year, she thought. I like everything about growing older except having my body wear out. I’m not even fifty yet, damn it, my joints shouldn’t hurt this much. I should’ve refilled the prescription on those energy pills before we left, or at least brought caffeine. All those carefree years spent sitting on my butt in front of a TV or a computer monitor, and now I pay the penalty. How can Mom stay so active? She’s in her seventies, for crying out loud, what’s she got that I don’t? I’m active, too! I’ve got drive, I run my butt off for this show. We’re hanging on to our position in the top twenty webshows for a ninth straight season, and she’s in better shape than I am! My own mother! I don’t get it. I wonder if she and Kali are watching this in Lawndale, like she said they would. Hmm, better keep up the patter. . . .
“I should be at the top of the plateau in just a moment,” she continued aloud. “Just to save something for later, I’ll stop short of the top and turn seaward, looking west, and you should have a nice, clear, full-color view of Jane, standing on the untidy little beach where we landed . . . she seems to be having quite a conversation there with the Interior Department . . . plus our little SeaShadow, which got us here from Hawaii practically hugging the waves, and over there are the professionally designed, monolithic, now-abandoned docks and piers and seafront road leading up to me on the hill, and those guano-making birds, of course.” She looked down around her feet. “As you see, nothing grows higher than my knees anywhere within sight. Lots of—”
She stifled a gasp and froze in place. The decayed body of a large sea bird was only three meters away, its feathered skeleton entangled in a large clump of dead grass.
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
“—yukky things,” Daria finished, her heart rate returning to normal. She looked away from the long-dead bird. “Mostly dead yukky things but sometimes live yukky things, too, I hope. Please do not e-mail me with complaints about what I just said. It wasn’t meant to be scientific or gender-biased. It was just a joke. Get over it.
“So, there you have it. We’ve arrived at Baker Island, my watch says it’s . . . eleven fifty-one a.m., local time, which is four hours behind those of you in lovely Seattle and San Diego who are preparing to head home from work about now. It’s also forty degrees Celsius, which is why I’ve got huge pit stains on my top already, and we’re Daria and Jane as always, hanging out on a tiny coral atoll that’s secretly consumed a big pile of public money for at least the last decade. Why are we here, you ask. I’m asking myself this same question, but the answer is, we’re here because we’re just a teensy bit curious as to where all that nice money went—aren’t you? I don’t see any hotels, beach houses, condos, missile silos, UFO landing fields, not even a souvenir stand with T-shirts, and I’m . . . Jane seems to be signaling. Just a moment.”
Forty meters away, down the slope on the beach, Jane made a quick hand motion as if snatching something away from Daria.
“Back to you, Jane,” Daria finished.
“Yes, this is Jane Lane again, and my original conversation with a Ms. Leona Wyatt in the Department of the Interior, who was rather put out that we would want to visit a fragile and legally protected habitat without asking first, although we did ask and the legal department can back me up on this—anyway, that call seems to have been pre-empted by another call. The studio says I should take the new call immediately, so we are going to be talking with . . . who is this again?”
Daria heard a masculine voice in her ears and realized she had been patched into the conversation as well. “My name is Lieutenant Commander Philip Ono, United States Coast Guard, Office of the Fourteenth District Command, Honolulu, Hawaii. Who am I speaking to?”
Uh-oh. Daria knew their little stunt would not go unnoticed by the government for long, even if the island had been abandoned. She put on a smile she didn’t feel, in case Jane looked in her direction. Goddamn legal people had better be right that we’ve got the edge here. Screwing with the military in the backwash of Korea Two could turn out bad in the worst sorts of ways. Please, Jane, don’t make fun of his name.
“Jane Lane, and you’re on the ‘Good Mornings with Daria and Jane Show,’ live from Baker Island. Did you have a question, Mister Ono?”
“That’s Lieutenant Commander Ono,” said the male voice. “Just a moment.” Background voices and noise could be heard. “Are you the woman in blue or the one in orange?”
Daria stood so that Jane was in the center of her vision, centering her partner in her vision.
Jane grinned. “I’m the woman in blue, if you’re watching the Daria’s Eye view of our livecast. I’m the one waving at you. Hello, sailor!”
“Okay, ah, very funny. Is that your aircraft behind you? The Ultra Industries SeaShadow?”
Jane turned and looked at the sleek, narrow-bodied plane behind her. “It’s a SeaShadow Dyad, a two-seater with extended-range fuel tanks and solar backup. I love it. It tends to overcorrect, but if you stay on it, it’s a joy to fly.”
Daria made a pained face. Jane’s idea of a “joy to fly” had forced Daria to nearly overdose on anti-nausea medication before they were an hour out from Honolulu.
“That’s your aircraft?” said the male voice.
“Technically, no. We rented it for our livecast using our network account credit card from Sick Sad News. Listen, as long as we have you online, maybe you could answer a few—”
“Sick Sad News,” said the male voice with distaste. “Ma’am, would you enter your aircraft and activate both the emergency locator transmitter and GPS beacon, for about three minutes?”
Jane looked around, puzzled. “We’re not in distress, though.”
“Yes, ma’am, I understand, but we can confirm your position by satellite if you do that.”
Jane grinned in Daria’s direction, knowing she would be seen doing it. “Are you saying you don’t believe we’re actually on Baker Island, Lieutenant Commander Ono?”
“We need confirmation, ma’am. This is very important, as violations of federal law are involved.”
Jane smirked and said, “Oh, no!” (On the hill above, Daria winced.) “Very well,” Jane continued, “I’ll do that. And call me Jane, please. Don’t be standoffish. I’m single again, and so’s my partner in crime.” Jane gave Daria a shrug and a wave before walking back to the plane.
“Well,” said Daria, wishing Jane would stop fishing for dates while on the air, “if you don’t mind, Lieutenant Commander Ono, I’m going to continue our walking tour, seeing as I’m almost at the top of the hill. Lots of things left to see before we go.” She turned and gave a panoramic view of the slope up.
“Ma’am? Um—” The male voice pulled away, then returned after a quick exchange with someone else “—Miss Morgendorffer, did I pronounce your name correctly?”
“Yes, you did. Thank you.” Daria continued walking up the hill, almost on eye level with the main plateau of the island.
“Miss Morgendorffer, I’d like for you to stop where you are and return to the aircraft with Miss Lane. If you would, please.”
“Oh?” Daria hesitated for a moment—then continued on up. “Why is that?” She spotted something just over the rise, on the road ahead: a long lump of debris that looked like a—
“Is it confirmed that they’re there?” said the Coast Guard officer in a distant voice, obviously talking to someone else. He then returned at normal volume. “Miss Morgendorffer, please, it is very important that you return to your aircraft. You and Miss Lane entered restricted military airspace when you approached Baker Island today, and you—”
Daria stopped, staring at the lump of debris five meters away. Was that a hand?
“—are trespassing on a restricted military installation that is the property of the United States government. Miss Morgendorffer?”
The longish lump, she now noticed, had mottled, sun-bleached clothing, a hair-covered skull, and bone fingers on its exposed hand. Swallowing, Daria looked beyond it and noticed a second, similar lump near the first. The second one had boots at the end of sprawled legs.
“Miss Morgendorffer, please return to your aircraft. Do so now.”
“Jane?” Daria knew her voice was coming out all wrong, too high and shaky and soft. The microphones would transmit it anyway, but still . . . She cleared her throat and reached up to adjust her goggles and nanowebcams with trembling fingers. Is everyone seeing what I’m seeing right now? “Jane, where are you?”
“I just got out of the SeaShadow, and I’m on the beach again. I just—”
“Jane, there are bodies up here. Human bodies. I’m not kidding.”
A second passed, then Daria heard someone running up the slope behind her. “Daria!” Jane shouted. “Wait! Don’t move! Stay where you are until I get there!”
“Miss Morgendorffer and Miss Lane!” cried the Coast Guard officer. “For your own safety, please return to your aircraft! You are trespassing on a restricted military installa—”
The officer’s voice was cut off, and a new voice broke into Daria’s consciousness from the transmitter around her right ear. “Daria and Jane, this is Betty Ganguly, executive vice president for Sick Sad News. Are you certain those are human bodies?”
Jane reached the top of the slope beside Daria. “Oh, Jesus Christ!” she gasped. “Two of them. Three. There’s one over there, another fifteen meters on.”
“Ohmigod,” said Betty. She’d clearly seen the scene on her own monitors in New York. “Forget about the livecast. The mission is over. This is an order. We didn’t ask you to go in there just to get killed. Go back to the plane and get out of there.”
Abort the mission? Abort the freaking mission? rang the words in Daria’s head. Why the hell did we decide to come out here to begin with? We knew getting killed was a possibility, for God’s sake! This might have been a joke for you when we planned this, Betts, but—this is real news! God only knows what we’ve just found!
“The bodies are extremely decayed, fully skeletal,” said Daria, recovering. She did not address Betty’s order. Mom and Kali might be watching. Make them proud. She pointed. “Jane, can you check the other one? I’m looking at what appears to be the body of an adult, exposed to the elements for several months at least. He seems to be wearing a uniform that was probably camouflage color at once time. He might have been military, perhaps Army or Marines. We’re in the Pacific, so I’d guess . . .” She stopped by his feet. “Marines. I can see a nametag now: McDowell. He has Marine Corps uniform markings, with sewn-on black bars—a captain, I think. No evidence of weapons. Soft cap, boots—”
“Daria, Jane, abort your mission!” Betty shouted.
“Are we still livecasting?” Jane called, calmly walking around the second body at a distance of three meters.
“Yes, you’re livecasting, but I’m offline!” said the executive VP. “The public can’t hear me. Now, go! Move! We’ll sort this out when you get back!”
Jane took off her backpack and set it on the ground. “Daria, I’ve got gloves if you need them.”
“I don’t plan to touch this one.”
“This one’s got like a leather pouch or satchel. He’s lying on it.”
“Check for weapons or wildlife, like snakes.”
“Daria, Jane!” shouted Betty in their ears. “Damn it, are you listening to me?”
“No,” said Daria aloud. She found herself looking down at what had been the body’s face: two empty eye sockets and the ugly grin of bare teeth in a bone jaw. She swallowed.
“Negative on predators, Daria,” Jane called. “I’m getting that satchel.”
Daria looked up to see Jane pulling on plastic work gloves. With a last glance at the uniformed body, Daria made her way over to see what Jane was doing. Gritting her teeth, Jane reached down and carefully tugged on the satchel. The body moved, little more than a skeleton with clothes. Making a face, Jane put a hand against the corpse’s backbone and tugged again on the satchel, which slid free. She immediately got up and backed away from the remains with a violent shiver.
“Changed my mind,” said Daria, quickly moving to the backpack. “I’m getting gloves, too.”
“I can’t get this damn thing open,” said Jane. “The lock is messed up.”
Daria found a pair of gloves for herself and swiftly pulled them on. “Smash it with a rock. We don’t have to be subtle.”
“Lemme find one.” Jane began walking around, searching the ground intently. She reached down, picked up a fist-sized rock, laid the satchel flat, and carefully began pounding on it. After her sixth strike, she said, “I think that did it,” and put the rock aside.
“The wind’s up,” said Daria, walking over. “Don’t let anything blow away.” How can I be so calm with dead people on the ground right next to us? How did they die? Shouldn’t we do something about them? Is it wrong just to leave them there for the moment? And why isn’t Betts yelling at us anymore?
Jane stood, and she held the stained, sun-weathered satchel open so both women could look in at once. Inside were wrinkled papers and a yellow plastic binder.
“May I?” Daria said, one hand extended.
“Be my guest,” said Jane.
Daria removed the yellow binder and held it up, reading the blurred, printed label on the cover.
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
DOD PPLM-21D v 4.7
NUCLEAR PLANT INSPECTION RECORDS
“Phaeton,” said Daria, pronouncing it FAY uh thon. She carefully opened the folder and began leafing through it. She stopped and read a page. “Uh-oh.”
Daria skimmed the page, top to bottom. She knew millions of people were reading the page with her. “There’s a Navy-built fusion reactor somewhere on the island. A big one.” She studied the next page. “Almost ten terawatts. My God, that’s just . . .” She let her voice die away.
“I’ve got supply requisition forms,” said Jane in a subdued tone. “Someone was laying in a big store of food and drinking water, enough for several months for a small group of people. Makes sense, since the island has no natural resources to speak of—nothing that you’d want to eat, anyway.”
Daria continued to flip through the folder, then closed it and gave it back to Jane. She raised her head and looked around. “Let’s get to the top of the island and see what else is here. We saw buildings from the air when we circled.”
“And we’ll see who else is here,” said Jane, putting the papers and folder in her backpack. She tossed the ruined satchel aside.
“No, just what, I think,” said Daria. “No one’s here but us. No one alive, anyway, or they would’ve cleaned this up ages ago. And no one’s ever coming back to clean it up, either.”
Jane pondered this, then said, “Yeah. You’re right.”
“These people have been dead for months, but no one’s come back for them. And they were Americans on an American island with a valuable nuclear reactor and probably other expensive stuff that was funded from a limitless deep-black account. Someone knew exactly when these people died and possibly how, and they had all the resources in the world at their disposal—but they didn’t come back.”
“Because it was too dangerous,” Jane said slowly.
“And here we are.”
Daria’s voice grew softer. “Yup.”
They looked at each other.
“I feel okay,” said Jane in a small voice. “I’m scared spitless, but I feel okay. Not sick or anything.”
“We could run for the plane.”
“We could, I guess.”
They didn’t move. The moment passed.
I didn’t come all the way out here for nothing, Daria thought. Her drive was back.
“Hey, amiga,” said Jane, blue eyes softening. “Freaking friends to the end, right?”
Daria gave a wan smile. “Yeah.” She drew a deep breath and looked nervously around. “It’s a pretty day. Kinda hot, but pretty. I’d hate to waste it running.”
“Me, too. Go for a walk?”
Daria nodded. “A little longer wouldn’t hurt now.”
“I think we should say something to the audience,” said Jane, “only I can’t think of what.”
“I’m drawing a blank, too.”
“Daria? Look at me.”
Daria turned and regarded her closest friend.
“Trent?” said Jane, looking Daria in the face. “Keep an eye on Bran and Arwen for me, would you? I might be a little late coming home, but . . . see you before too long, okay? You kids be good for me! See you, and you, too, Trent!”
It hit Daria like a ton of bricks. She just said goodbye to her twins and her brother, everyone left in her family.
“That’s all,” said Jane. “Oh! And I love you! All of you! Remember that!”
Daria took a deep breath, looking at Jane’s goggles—and their nanowebcams. “And I love you, Kali. Do what Grandma tells you, okay? Love you, too, Mom. And Quinn, I love you and your family, too. I’ll be home soon.”
After a moment, they looked away from each other, blinking through tears.
We could run for the plane.
But not right now. We’ll look around, first. Run later.
Jane lifted and shouldered the backpack. She looked down for a long moment at the bodies near them. “Rest in peace,” she said in a choked voice, then turned to Daria. “Let’s get going and find out what happened.”
“I’m on it,” said Daria, and they set off up the slope together, the wind pushing at their backs.
Let the next guy know what killed you.
—David Brin, Earth
When they crossed the top of the rise, walking up the middle of the cracked concrete road with the sea wind at their backs, the whole of the island was laid out before them. The island’s small plateau had a surface shaped like a shallow irregular bowl. The boundaries of the land were quite clearly defined by far-away edges, beyond which were the Pacific Ocean and the horizon. The distance to the edge in front of the two women was clearly farther than the distance to the edges on the left or right, as they were looking up the long east-west axis of the island.
The most obvious element in view was a group of structures about midway across the island, which Daria knew would be about three-quarters of a kilometer off. What seemed to be a wide, round-walled fort dominated the grouping, looking like the upper half of a thin gray doughnut set down as a giant flat ring. Daria remembered seeing the ring from the air, circling the island before landing, and guessed the ring’s diameter at a hundred meters, with a width of about ten meters and a height of four or five. Squat, blocky towers interrupted the ring at regular intervals; six of them in a hexagonal pattern. A metal catwalk ran around the top of the fortress’s walls from tower top to tower top, supported by a framework of girders running along the top of the ring. The concrete road ran directly to a cluster of four small, one-story buildings immediately adjacent to the ring’s western side. Halfway between these structures and Daria, attached to the road by a short side road, was a large paved circle on which white markings had been painted. A vehicle was parked there on the side that Daria recognized as a small, open-cab electric truck and trailer, of the sort commonly seen around American air bases. A body lay on the ground next to it.
“Helipad,” said Jane, pointing to the paved circle. She slowed, eyeing the third body just ahead of them in the middle of the road. “Maybe we shouldn’t stay too long, you know? I want to check out that weird round building first, though, take a walk around. Then maybe think about going.”
“Sure,” said Daria, inclined to think that Jane had a point despite their earlier conversation. The body they approached was another one in a standard camouflage uniform. It was curled up in a near fetal position, head down and knees drawn up. Like the other bodies, this one was almost skeletal now. An arm lay several feet from the rest of the body.
I wonder if our looking around is going to do any good, she thought. She felt her gorge rise as she caught a whiff of decay, but fought her nausea down and looked away from the corpse. If we get killed, at least someone will know what got us. Maybe. I’d like my death to be worth something. On the whole, though, I’d rather not be dead. Why didn’t I just take off for the plane when Jane suggested it? ‘Cause I just didn’t feel like it, that’s why. I didn’t. I’ve gone through too much crap in my life. This is nothing. We can do this and go home later. I’m not scared. She rubbed her upper arms and shivered as if she were cold. I’m not scared, but I don’t like feeling this alone up here.
“Scavengers?” said Jane aloud, looking at the arm. She walked around the body while Daria merely walked past it and stopped five meters away. Jane moved away after a quick look, shaking her head. “Nothing I can see that’s unusual,” she said. “Except a dead person, I mean.”
“New York’s not talking to us,” Daria said as Jane rejoined her and they walked on toward the helipad.
“Oh. Yeah, you’re right.” Jane stopped and raised her right hand to cover her ear to cut out external sounds. “Hello, New York. Are you still with us? This is Jane Lane, talk to me. New York? Fritzi? Ashwin? Klaus? Dori? New York, say something, okay? L.A., are you there?” Jane and Daria both spoke several times over the next minute, trying to raise someone at one of the various network studios, but without effect.
“I don’t like that,” said Daria. “They’ve always been good about getting back to us.” She took a last look back at the skeletal body and frowned. “Must be a tractor here.”
“The tracks on the side of the road by the body. They’re like tank treads. See? Where that dried mud is? Must have a tractor or mini-bulldozer or something around somewhere.”
“Oh, it’s probably that thing on the helipad,” said Jane, who then turned and squinted into the distance. “No, wait, that has tires, not treads. Well, maybe they’ve got one in the garage. Who cares? It’s not like we’re going drag-racing with them.”
Daria shrugged and they continued on. More of the ugly, desolate little island became visible as they walked. To Daria’s disquiet, there was little live vegetation, though a vast amount of dead shrubs and grass.
“I feel like we’re walking toward the bloody Emerald City on the Yellow Brick Road,” muttered Jane, staring at the fortress-like structure ahead. “The Wizard better have some damn good answers for my questions, I’m telling you. Fifteen billion dollars for an island full of dead people. This is bloody freaking insane.”
“Mmm,” said Daria, still scanning their surroundings. The helipad was coming up on their left. A curious-looking patch of ground at one edge of the pad was slowly resolving itself into a large, wadded canvas stretched over rough ground. She pointed. “Let’s check out the pad. I can’t tell what that’s supposed to be.”
“I think I can drive one of those little wheeled thingers, if it’s still got a charge. And if no one’s using it.”
“Sure. Be careful.”
They split up as they approached the pad. As Jane continued down the road, Daria began walking overland, crossing rocky soil to get to the large canvas more quickly. She noticed the decayed bodies of a number of dead birds as she went, much like the one she’d seen coming up the slope from the beach. Some of the birds had their wings outstretched, while others appeared to have simply fallen over dead while standing on the ground. All were nearly skeletal, their feathers scattered randomly about. The dead vegetation made it worse. True, there were spots of live, green plants, but they were rare and looked young. Daria wondered if everything on the island had died at once, then plant life returned from the seeds in bird droppings.
“I don’t like this at all,” she mumbled, watching her feet to avoid stepping on anything revolting. “Is anyone back in the States receiving this livecast? Anyone at all?” She felt for the transmitter/receiver wrapped around her right ear. “If so, Jane and I are fine so far, physically. It’s starting to look like men and birds here just dropped in their tracks several months ago. Nothing at all to indicate what happened. I’m on the helipad now, heading for that big sheet.” She turned her head and saw Jane examining the body on the ground by the electric vehicle. “Jane, got anything?”
“This is weird,” Jane replied, her voice clear in the little receiver. “This guy’s shirt is pulled out, like someone was dragging him.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“I mean, I think someone grabbed this guy on the ground by his collar and was pulling him away from the little truck-thing here. He almost pulled this guy’s shirt off of him over his head. At least, I think that’s what happened.”
“That doesn’t make sense. That would mean someone was running around here after . . . oh. Huh. Jane?”
“This is a parachute.”
Jane trotted over from the electric truck and stood beside Daria, looking down at the huge canvas plastered flat by wind and rain against the raised ground at the helipad’s perimeter. Numerous long cords were attached around the canvas’s edges, all leading to a large knotted clump. The two walked around the ‘chute, kicking it and toeing the cords.
“Look,” said Jane, pointing to markings on the chute. “‘USMC.’ The Marines have landed.”
“The lines were attached to something, but they snapped free,” said Daria. “See the release mechanism? Whoever came down dropped the parachute right after landing, probably on the helipad.”
“I don’t think it was a who,” said Jane.
Daria looked at her. Jane frowned down at the parachute, then began searching the ground around them. “Look for tread tracks,” she said. “I should have thought of this earlier when you showed me those marks.”
The light dawned. “You’re talking about a robot?” said Daria.
“Yeah, one of those military ones, the gunbots. When I went over to Korea two years ago for that special postwar report, when you were in court getting your divorce finalized, I was party . . . I was talking to some Marines there, and they showed me one of their recon gunbots. They could just about make it dance. It had a big square base, about two, two-and-a-half meters across, with big tank treads that could almost climb over a parked car. The treads were as wide as the ones you pointed out earlier. It was black, had a four-meter grabbing arm, cameras all over, and two guns, a sixty-cal all-in-one and a silenced sniper thing. That was one evil little demon. They painted it dead black. Quiet, too. You could barely hear it coming, and it really moved.”
Daria was incredulous. “There’s a Marine gunbot on the island with us?”
“They land ‘em with chutes just like that,” said Jane, still scanning the ground. “I remember seeing one stretched out.” She cleared her throat. “In Korea, they were using it as a big sleeping hammock. It was kinda comfy, if you were drunk enough.”
“Too much information, Jane, even for our audience.”
“Yeah, well, I like Marines. They’re fun, you know? They don’t care if I’m a few years beyond twenty, like a lot of jerkwad guys do.”
Daria sighed and rolled her eyes, a gesture she knew the cameras would not catch. Jane’s exuberant lifestyle had precipitated all three of her divorces. She was a loving parent and best friend, and a gifted reporter and show host, but blithely unreliable as a marriage partner. Even the tabloids, most of them, had stopped following her around.
Daria’s ex-husband, on the other hand, had been very faithful. He just hadn’t been faithful to her. Daria tensed, remembering the tall, thin, twenty-something blonde who sat behind her ex in the courtroom as the divorce was swiftly finalized; remembered her cool glance in Daria’s direction, looking over her older rival without a trace of feeling; remembered the way the blonde and the ex left the courtroom together, perfectly in step, a small but painful portion of Daria’s life savings walking out with them as per their pre-nup agreement. He had never earned as much as she had. He never showed up in her life again after the divorce, either.
Last month, Kali finally stopped asking if her dad was ever coming to see her. Daria’s felt her hands ball up into fists, filling with helpless rage—
“There,” said Jane. Her voice startled Daria out of her dark reverie. “Tread tracks.”
She was right. A patch of dried mud on the helipad was crossed by a double set of tracks, each about half a meter wide and separated by about two meters of space.
“I get it,” said Daria, glad for the interruption. She tried to calm down. “They must have dropped it after whatever happened happened, and it’s been running around the island since then. Maybe it’s the local guard against foreign spies like us.” She winced. “Wish I hadn’t said that. Guess we’ll meet it sooner or later, if it’s still active.”
“They were battery powered,” said Jane. “They had a running life of about three days, then they had to be recharged. If we see this one, it’ll probably be out of juice.”
“Unless it re-juiced itself.” Daria nervously hunted for signs of movement on the island around them. Nothing was visible but the seabirds, which seemed to be avoiding them.
“Let’s get on that truck and see what there is to see,” said Jane, motioning for Daria to follow her. “It’s got some power left.”
“Sure. Don’t try to do a wheelie or anything.”
“Don’t worry. There’s no one around to impress, anyway.”
“Well, the viewers.”
“Oh, forgot.” Jane became more animated. “Hey, however many million of you are watching, listen up! Don’t try any of this at home! We’re trained professionals. We do this kind of thing on top-secret deserted islands all the time.”
“Jane’s right,” Daria continued, startled she was falling into the black humor of the moment so quickly. “We’re about to go look at a fusion reactor now, and after we go swimming in the cooling tank, we’re going to lie out under the sun and glow for a while.”
“Legal’s going to kick your butt if the government doesn’t,” said Jane with a smile.
“They can bring it on,” said Daria with surprising heat. “Just have the lawyers and the bureaucrats meet me right here on this little resort spot at high noon, and we’ll settle it mano-a-mano. I’ll kick their blubbery asses.”
“You’re cute when you’re mean.”
“I’m never cute.”
Jane laughed. They reached the electric truck, skirting the body beside it and losing their sense of humor at the same time. As Jane had noted earlier, the corpse’s camouflage shirt was pulled out of his pants and halfway up his ribcage, forcing his arms up and almost coming off over the skull. Daria wondered if a robot had done that. Jane unslung her backpack and dropped it in the cargo space behind the front seats.
“Got a question, amiga,” she said as she climbed up and sat in the driver’s seat.
“Shoot,” said Daria, climbing up beside her.
“Was Phaeton one of those Greek or Roman gods? The name’s familiar but I can’t place it. I hate to look stupid on a livecast, but I thought—”
“He was Greek,” said Daria. “He was a human kid, the son of Apollo, the sun god. One day he dropped by Olympus and said he wanted to drive his dad’s chariot across the heavens, the chariot being the sun itself, and Apollo blew it and said yes. But Phaeton couldn’t control the horses, and the chariot ran amok all over the sky. It came too low and was going to burn up the Earth, but Zeus killed the kid with a lightning bolt and the horses went back to their stables. The end. Classic mythological tragedy.”
Jane stared at Daria, her elbows resting on her knees with her arms out. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean, with regards to all this crap on the island? Project Phaeton, or whatever it is?”
“I dunno. There’s a fusion reactor here, and fusion powers the sun, but it still doesn’t make any sense. You can’t drive a reactor. I keep thinking there’s someone around here who has a sense of humor even worse than ours.”
Jane shook her head and punched a button on the simple dashboard before her. Daria felt the truck vibrate under her, and she grabbed for the handhold by her seat.
“Let’s take our chariot for a spin,” said Jane, turning the wheel as her feet manipulate the floor pedals. The truck rolled forward in near silence, and she turned it around and drove back toward the main road at thirty kilometers an hour. “Maybe we’ll find someone who can explain the joke about burning up the world.”
“Oh, yeah—ooo, ahhh, that’s how it always starts, but then later there’s running, and then screaming.”
—Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World
Nothing interrupted their swift, bumpy journey to the gray metal fortress, which Daria found herself thinking of as Castle Doughnut. Jane slowed and stopped the truck ten meters away from the nearest structure, which appeared to be a garage or equipment shed with three broad roll-down doors and a side door for human entry. Beside it was a windowless building with “MAIN OFFICE” printed on the only visible door. A small satellite dish looked skyward from the office building’s rooftop. Thin steel cables ran from the corners of each low roof down to heavy posts set in concrete in the ground, like the support ropes on a pup tent. Daria guessed it was to keep the roofs and the rest of the buildings from blowing away in Pacific typhoons, which like Atlantic hurricanes were appearing more frequently and increasing in power as the world’s climate continued its warming trend.
“Nobody around,” muttered Jane. “So much for valet parking. No tip for them.” She punched the dashboard button, and the vibrations under Daria’s seat ceased. Jane swung her legs off the truck and got down, dusting herself off. She reached for the backpack, then changed her mind and left it in the cargo bed.
Daria hopped down and looked around. A number of dead seabirds were visible around them, on the ground near the buildings, but no human remains. It did not lower her anxiety. “I keep expecting a zombie to walk around a corner at any moment with someone’s leg in its mouth,” she said.
“You’re such an optimist.” Jane studied the two buildings before them. “I say the main office first. I’ve got some complaints I’d like to register at the front desk.”
“If you think that anyone will listen,” Daria said, “then you’re the optimist.”
A peculiar, unpleasant odor was noticeable as they approached the office. Jane paused to kick aside a dead bird in front of the door. “I hope they turned the security alarm off,” she said, then hesitated as she reached for the doorknob. “What the hell. Look at this.”
Daria looked. The brass doorknob had been crushed, top to bottom, so that its original round shape was now a scratched, flattened oval. They studied the door, but no other anomalies were visible.
“Cheap parts,” said Daria.
“It’s not like the government to blow billions of dollars on a reactor and then get the doorknobs from a junkyard,” said Jane. “Whatever.” She gritted her teeth, then seized the doorknob and turned it. The door pulled open—and the foul smell of long-rotted flesh rolled out on the wind. Jane recoiled at once, violently waving a hand in front of her face. “I knew it,” she said, shuddering. “See if there’s a back door you can open so we can get this place aired out.”
Daria had smelled corpses before as a reporter, too many to count in too many wars, plagues, and famines, but she had never gotten used to it. Stomach churning, she walked around the corner of the building and along its side, eyeing the gray Castle Doughnut on her right. She couldn’t imagine what it was supposed to be. The fusion reactor? Giant cyclotron? Fuel storage tank?
There was a door at the rear, as Jane had thought. To Daria’s amusement, someone had painted “USE FRONT DOOR” across it in block letters. A key lock was visible below the knob, just as on the front door. Only one way to find out if it’s locked. She reached for the undamaged doorknob and turned it, pulling hard.
The door swung open. Something leaning against the door on the inside fell out in front of her and came apart. A round hairy object the size of a small soccer ball struck her on her bare thigh and rolled off, coming to rest with its empty eye sockets looking back at Daria’s boots. The jaw fell off at her feet.
She shrieked and danced away, an arm covering her mouth. The wind swung the door back on its hinges; it hit the camouflage-clothed skeleton and cracked the ribcage, knocking fragments of bone over the ground.
“Amiga?” called Jane. “Was that you?”
Daria slapped at her leg where the skull had struck her, trying to get rid of the feel of it on her skin. Contaminated! shrieked a voice in her mind. Filthy! It touched you! She then shut her eyes and turned her head, backing up. Any moment now, she knew she was going to throw up.
“Hey, amiga?” She heard someone running. “Daria?” Jane came up and stopped beside her, taking everything in, then put her arms around her and pulled her away to lead her back toward the front of the house. Moments later, Daria’s stomach lurched. She stopped, bent over, and vomited repeatedly by the side of the building.
“You want to get out of here?” Jane asked when she was finished.
“No!” Daria coughed and spat, then spat again and pushed away from the building. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” She straightened and began to walk, letting Jane pull her close with one arm as they headed for the front of the building. “God, I hated doing that live. Sorry, folks. I’m really sorry. I just—”
“Forget it, jeez, it doesn’t matter,” said Jane. She pulled Daria closer. “I don’t know what the hell happened here. This is just crazy. It’s a ghost town—a freaking ghost island!” Her voice became a shout. “Hey, New York! Anyone watching or listening? New York, damn you, talk to us! Are you catching all of this bull crap? We’re not talking about tax dollars anymore! We’re talking the bloody Twilight Zone now, do you hear me? Do you hear me?”
Daria took off her plastic gloves, ran both hands through her hair, and wiped her mouth on her arm. Jane gave her a final squeeze as they reached the front of the building, then let go. “Let’s stop at the truck a moment,” said Jane. “Gotta let the building air out. Could be a while. There’s gotta be something in there we can use to figure all this out.”
“Whatever happened killed everyone at once,” Daria said, still walking. She coughed. “It killed everyone and everything on the whole island, down to the freaking plants, and it did it really fast, within seconds. No one had a chance. A disease vector couldn’t do it that fast, even if you sprayed it from the air.” She coughed again and spat, trying to get the sour taste out of her mouth. “Can I have one of those water bottles in the backpack?”
“Sure.” Jane changed direction to go to the cargo bed to retrieve the pack. As she walked, Daria turned to look back at the main office. Something about the three-door garage caught her eye instead.
One of the doors, the nearest one, was rolled up, fully open. Something inside the garage moved.
“Jane!” She dropped her gloves and reached for her friend.
There was a momentary stirring of air, like the sound of an arrow in flight. Jane jerked and staggered forward. She jerked again and cried out in agony, her face twisted in pain, then her knees gave out and she toppled flat on the ground, limp and still.
A short black bolt stuck up from her back, to the right of spine below the ribcage.
Daria heard a noise and turned. The black gunbot rocked to a stop halfway out of the garage, black treads throwing up dust. She saw a camera and gun barrels and cables running everywhere up and down a black central post.
Then she ran. It was instinct, reacting without thought. The thing would shoot her if she let it. She didn’t think about Jane. Not yet.
The electric truck was ahead, facing her. She dodged to the left to run around to the back, and there was a whisper of air and something banged off the front of the truck as she ran around the side. She looked back and the gunbot was already halfway from the garage to her, treads spinning as it rounded the vehicle, a cloud of dust and debris flying behind it.
She threw herself to the ground and scrambled on elbows and knees to get under the low truck. Rocks cut into her bare arms and legs, got into her blouse. She banged her head on something and saw stars but lowered her head, squeezed under an axle, and kept going. When she could, she looked back and saw the gunbot’s treads at the rear of the electric truck where she had been just seconds before, less than a meter from her toes. She curled her legs up as far as she could and coughed on the dust in her lungs.
The gunbot backed up. Jane was right—it was very quiet except for the rumble of its treads on the packed ground. Something black lowered into view and came under the truck at her: a thick clawed hand opening wide to grab a foot and drag her out. She shrieked and pulled herself away toward the front of the truck, her back pressed up against the steel bottom of the vehicle.
The robot’s arm, coming for her at an angle, banged into the bottom edge of the vehicle. It couldn’t lower any farther. The claw snapped shut and withdrew. The gunbot was then off like a shot to the front of the truck. It spun around, and the clawed black hand came down and reached under the truck for her again. It closed on nothing; Daria had crawled back out of reach once more.
“Go away!” she screamed at it. “Go the hell away!”
It took off again, stopped by the right side of the vehicle, and grabbed again under the truck.
“Go away, God damn you!” she howled, on the other side of the vehicle now. “Get away from me!”
Treads spitting dust, it took off around the vehicle again. She scrambled away—then realized it had double-backed to its former spot on the right side. She screamed and barely moved out of the way when the claw came under for her.
“I hate you, you goddamned piece of crap!” she screamed. “I hate you!”
The claw withdrew and the gunbot rolled back several meters. Daria realized she was crying hard, her fingers clutching at the dirt. A different object lowered into view by the side of the treads: a small camera on a small arm. She screamed curses at it. The gunbot sat and waited and watched.
She risked a glance at Jane. Her best friend, her only friend, was still there on the ground, five meters away, face down, shot in the back.
She looked back at the gunbot through dusty goggles.
I hate you. I hate you so much, I’m going to freaking kill you. I hate you, you evil bastard. I hate you.
She wiped off her goggles with the back of her hand, then looked around. The left front wheel was by her left elbow. She glanced at it, saw the axle was smeared with filthy black grease by the wheel base.
An idea came to her. She didn’t think about her life. Life without Jane wasn’t worth living. All that was left was revenge.
Watching the gunbot, she reached up with her left hand and felt for the axle. The grease was very warm, but not too hot. She got a huge gob of it on her hand, then brought it around and smeared some of the grease on her other hand. She did this three times until both her hands were coated with it.
I’m going to kill you, you miserable rotten son of a bitch.
The backpack was on top of the vehicle. It was the only thing she could get her hands on in a matter of seconds to complete her plan. It would have to do. She watched the gunbot.
I’m going to kill you.
She slowly pushed back toward the left side of the electric truck. The gunbot watched her and did nothing. It was very smart. All good robots learned from their mistakes in the twenty-twenties.
But your last mistake was killing my friend.
She tensed, watching the robot. It watched her in return.
Then she scrambled out from under the vehicle’s left side, trying not to lose the grease on her hands, and got up. The gunbot took off and raced around to her side of the truck, a long thin rifle barrel swinging around as it tracked her. She grabbed the backpack and thrust it out in front of her at the rifle barrel, charging the gunbot. The pack jolted in her hands, hit by a shot, then the backpack slammed into the gun barrel and blocked it and was knocked out of her hands.
Daria jumped over the treads past the gun and was on the gunbot, scrambling up to central post on the main base. As she snagged the central post with one arm, the gunbot took off, banging her head into the post and almost throwing her off. She pulled herself as close as she could to the central post, wrapping one leg around it, then reached up and slapped a grease-smeared hand over the dual lenses on the main camera, wiping everything she could onto the glass. A blast of air struck her fingers—a high-pressure hose was mounted by the camera’s front to blow the lenses clear of rain and dust.
The gunbot gyrated wildly to dislodge her. She clutched the post and pulled on the hose nozzle, twisted it away from the lenses. She then grabbed for the lenses again, smearing them a second time, then saw the secondary camera on its own arm, watching her from half a meter away. She reached for it, entwining her left forearm in the cable going into the back of the little camera, and at that moment the gunbot’s black clawed hand grabbed her by the upper left arm and threw her off the gunbot. The claw jerked her shoulder out of its socket; the pain was so intense she screamed, but then she hit the ground, felt the joint pop back into place, and she screamed in pain again. She thought her left hand had been torn off as well, but it was still there, reddened and bleeding.
Get up, moron! Get on your feet! Hurry! She got up, staggering, and saw the gunbot come to a stop not fifteen meters away. The cable had been ripped out of the back of the gunbot’s secondary camera, the loose end wagging in the wind. The gunbot’s big arm came up and reached back for the post-mounted camera.
The truck! Daria leaned forward and threw herself into a run for the electric truck. The gunbot did not try to stop her. The clawed hand was feeling blindly for the air nozzle that Daria had twisted aside, meaning to twist it back into place.
She reached the truck and jumped up into the driver’s seat. Though she had never driven a little truck before, she remembered the button Jane had pushed, and she smacked it and the seat vibrated under her. She trod down on one of the floor pedals at random. The vehicle lurched forward—directly at Jane’s body. Panicked, she spun the wheel and the truck rolled past Jane’s head, missing by a foot, then turned in a tight circle that took it entirely around the stalled gunbot. Daria straightened the wheels, then turned hard again. As the truck came back around, she leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel and mashing down on the accelerator, and aimed at the gunbot.
It’s payback time, you lousy motherfu—
The gunbot’s arm pulled back. An air blast blew at the camera lenses, then the camera whirled about and saw her—too late. The truck slammed into the rear of the gunbot, almost upending it and driving it forward toward one of the closed doors of the garage. The big arm of the robot came around at her like a baseball bat. She got her right arm up to protect herself, but the robot arm struck her in her armpit and knocked her out of the left side of the truck. She hit the ground and rolled, arms and legs flying, pain exploding through the right side of her chest.
There was a crash, then a hot giant thing breathed over Daria’s body. She felt as if she were flying, then she woke up on the ground again. Her clothes were burning. There was no air in her lungs with which to scream, so she slapped at the flames and rolled without making a sound. Everything was burning around her. The air stank of jet fuel. She got up, hardly knowing where she was or what had just happened.
The entire garage was on fire from one end to the other. The back of the electric truck stuck out from a wall of orange flames roaring from a fallen garage door. Nothing could be seen of the gunbot. Coughing and choking on the stench of burning fuel, she ran for Jane’s body, untouched by the scattered flames. She grabbed Jane by the wrists and dragged her away from the inferno, feeling impossibly strong.
When they were far enough from the scorching heat, she stopped, got down on her knees, and looked at the black arrow in Jane’s back. A knockdown bolt: it had shocked Jane into unconsciousness like a Taser as it pumped a powerful sedative into her to keep her down for a few minutes longer. She grabbed the knockdown bolt by the shaft, jerked its metal prongs free of Jane’s flesh, and then threw it aside. Jane would be up again in about ten minutes, groggy but alive.
Daria started to cry again. She sat down on the ground and put Jane’s head in her lap, wiping the dust from her protective goggles with a collar flap. Something exploded where the front of the electric truck went into the flames, and she looked up. Through the one open door in the garage, when the flames fanned aside for an instant, she saw a fuel truck in front of the electric vehicle, the pull-down garage door fallen across its burning rear tank. Invisible in the flames, the gunbot would be pinned between them, helpless to escape.
“I told you I’d kill you,” Daria said. “I told you I would.” She looked down and stroked Jane’s hair, waiting for her to wake up, as the jet fuel burned and burned.
Things are always darkest right before they go completely black.
Forty minutes later, Daria sat in the shade by the front door of the main office building, while Jane held a damp cloth over her mouth and ransacked every file drawer and stack of paper she could find inside. Jane had dragged a folding chair out from the main office so Daria could sit with the backpack and the surviving bottles of water on the ground next to her, but true rest was impossible. Aside from suffering from the stench of burning jet fuel, she had a headache, an enormous bruise across the right side of her chest that guaranteed every breath she took was like breathing knife blades, and a left arm aching from shoulder to wrist where the gunbot had grabbed her while her hand was snagged in the camera cable. A half-dozen other bruises and scrapes added to the chorus of misery. At least her scorched clothes were still serviceable.
Sitting, though, was better than doing anything else at the moment. And as bad as burning jet fuel smelled, it was better than the odor of death lingering inside the office. Daria didn’t see how Jane could stand it. She made a yuk face and shrugged. They would be leaving shortly, anyway. Jane agreed to abandon the island after a check of the office’s paperwork for any clues as to what had happened to destroy all life there.
I still can’t believe I fought that gunbot. She watched flames crackle in the ruins of the garage, feeding a thick black column of smoke that rolled into the heavens. I couldn’t do that a second time, I bet. The Pentagon will probably make me pay for the damage, too. Probably do jail time on top of that for trespassing. Well, screw it, we gave the viewers a good show. It was worth it. At least I hope it was. Maybe I’ll see Kali and Mom and Quinn on visitation days in the Big House. Hope they don’t throw Jane in jail, too. She could plead insanity, maybe. She’d have to be insane to hang out with me.
A brief abdominal cramp came and went. Time to find a bathroom, she knew, and she wrinkled her nose thinking about the possible local offerings. Better to just go behind a building, perhaps. It wasn’t as if anyone was watching, once she took off her camera goggles, and being a world-ranging reporter and show host had inured her to minor hardships. She remembered twice having to use the bathroom in the woods as a teenager, once while on a road trip with Jane and her brother, and once when out with her family on a campout that ended with her family suffering hallucinations after eating poisonous berries. Those were the good old days, she thought. At least we had toilet paper.
Something still niggled at the edge of Daria’s consciousness. She knew she had missed something, something logical and important. A check of her watch showed that they had been on Baker Island for an hour and fifteen minutes. A naval carrier task force was probably not far away. If the government wished, jets could be flying over the island by the dozens right now, photographing everything. Instead—nothing. Spy drones could have been sent, perhaps, but Daria knew she’d never see them if they had. Certainly there were no jets, no contrails in the sky, and no new parachutes or gunbots. Perhaps orbiting spysats were sufficient to keep tabs on them, but . . .
Why hasn’t anyone yet come out to get us? She and Jane had trespassed on a top-secret American military installation—a feat they had performed several times in the past on a smaller scale—and they had broadcast their findings live to the world. The Pentagon would have arrested them by this point had any military police been nearby, or at least should be chewing on them by audio, as the Coast Guard officer had begun doing before the company exec cut him off. Instead . . . nothing.
Even in the discussions that had gone on with management about this particular stunt, everyone knew the military might get very touchy about the appearance of nosy reporters, and a confrontation was not only possible but likely. However, the military had a strict policy of hailing and challenging intruders first, following an unfortunate incident some years ago in which the governor of Wyoming and his staff were accidentally shot down when their plane crossed into restricted military airspace. A defective transponder on the aircraft prevented early identification, and an air-to-air missile ended the matter. Shoot-downs were now last alternatives. Daria and Jane had been convinced they were 95% safe in coming here, despite the chance that they’d be incarcerated briefly. They’d also face the usual charges afterward, which they felt they could beat with the network’s help. The network’s legal department had been confident about that, anyway.
However, Daria feared her earlier assessment of the situation had been entirely correct: no one had returned to the island because it was too dangerous to come back, and no one would return, even now. Coming here had been a big mistake, perhaps a fatal one. What, then, was the problem? What had gone wrong here?
She looked upward, squinting through her goggles because of the sun. An airburst enhanced-radiation weapon like a neutron bomb? Possible, but there was no sign of ground damage whatsoever. And why would anyone do that? One bomb wouldn’t keep people out of the area afterward, too. She’d already ruled out disease vectors. Scattering plutonium on the island would kill everything, but it would take a while to do it, and this disaster had occurred quite quickly.
Her gaze drifted down to the ground, to some of the dead birds on the ground around her. One of the birds looked back with an open, cloudy eye. She was missing something, perhaps something obvious. . . .
A tiny electronic chirp sounded in her right ear. Frowning, she raised a hand and cupped it over her ear to hear better. “Hello? Is this someone from the network?”
After a moment, another beep.
“Oh, good. Can you talk?”
A pause, then two beeps.
“Oh, uh, one beep for yes, two for no, right?”
“Great. Thank God you’re getting this. Are you still receiving our livecast?”
“So, we’re still going out over the ‘net live?”
A delay, then a beep.
“Visual and audio both?”
“Well, that’s good. Hope our audience is enjoying all of this. I could use a raise. You say you can’t talk to me directly, right?”
She sighed. “Why can’t you . . . wait, let me rephrase that. Is there a problem at the studio that prevents you from talking to me directly?”
“Oh.” She made a face, thinking. “Executives said no?”
“Well, someone else said no, then?”
“What the hell. Government?”
“Oh, that’s great. Military or FBI, maybe?”
“So, is Big Brother at the studio watching things?”
She made a pained face again. This trip was backfiring badly. A government invasion of a broadcasting studio was rare but not unheard of. The visit to Baker Island had ticked off someone high up. She wondered if worse was to come. “I can’t believe they’d still let this go out over the ‘net,” she said. “Is the studio or the government responsible for the livecast continuing?”
She frowned, then her face cleared in realization. It had to be that someone was either intercepting their signal from the island or had electronically tricked the communications satellite into broadcasting the signal to other ground receivers. It wasn’t unheard of. Any number of hackers could also have pirated the signal through illegal cable jacks or other means. The show was going out live, but not over the network’s netchannels. For once, Daria realized she was grateful to the obnoxious hackers who stole advertising revenue from the show by running the transmission ad-free on their own netchannels. Had her mother and daughter seen everything that had happened so far? How many people were watching this?
“Is our show going out illegally, then, on non-network channels?” she asked.
Figures. If the government’s mad enough, they might even blow up the transmitting satellite. That wasn’t unheard of, either. “Listen,” she went on, “couldn’t you be in trouble yourself, just communicating with me like this?”
A pause, then a beep.
“Well, look, don’t endanger yourself on our account. Cut this off and come back later, if you can, okay? Save yourself for later.”
A pause, then a beep.
“Thanks for the information, and good luck. Keep listening in. We’re going to leave soon. We’ve had enough of this place for a lifetime.” She hesitated. “Tell our families we’ll be home before long. I hope.”
“Bye.” Nothing came back. Daria dropped her hand. She knew the FBI would have heard every word of what she’d said and would now be searching for whoever had been transmitting to her. Well, bless her correspondent anyway. Any news from home was good news right now, even if it was bad news.
She stood up—and felt a strange wave of dizziness pass through her. Damn, I really am tired. I bet I sleep all the way back to Honolulu. “Jane?” she called to the open door. “Find anything yet?”
“Yeah,” Jane called back. “Got slowed down a little, sorry. Stomach upset.”
“I don’t blame you.” She gritted her teeth through another abdominal pang. “Want me to come in and help?”
“Nah, I’m coming out. I don’t know what it is that I found, though.”
Daria heard footsteps, then Jane appeared in the doorway. Her face was pale, her lips almost bloodless. “Here you go,” she said, handing Daria some sheets of paper. “I printed this off from one of the monitors. It’s part of a table of something called ‘events,’ with their times and intensities. I don’t know if it’s earthquakes, solar flares, or what. It looks like it’s still recording.”
“Are you okay?” Daria asked, squinted up at Jane’s face as she took the papers.
“Huh? Oh, tired. Kinda run down. I think it’s an aftereffect of that stun dart or whatever. Man, that thing had a punch. Oh, there’s a bathroom inside. It’s not perfect, but it’s useable, if you want it.”
Another painful pang in the gut decided the issue. Daria handed the papers back to Jane, then took off her goggles and webcams and handed those over as well. She then took the wet cloth from her friend and covered her mouth. “Be right back,” she muttered, and went past Jane into the office building.
She was back fifteen minutes later, empty from both ends. The odor of decay gave her a bad case of nausea on top of the runs she had, which she figured was caused by stress. Once outside, she put on her goggles and sat down on the ground by the chair where Jane sat. “Pooped,” she said. “And I mean pooped, in every sense of the word.”
“I think the audience got it the first time,” said Jane, thumbing through the papers. “I thought I heard you talking to yourself out here a while ago, before you went in. Got an invisible friend?”
“Oh.” Daria related the conversation she’d had with the beeper-person back at the studio. “I didn’t know if you heard the beeps, too. He or she must have been talking to me only. Guess we’re on our own with this one.”
“We should get off with time served, for being in this madhouse.” Jane handed over a page. “See what you can make of that. It’s the most recent.”
Daria took it. As Jane had said, it appeared to be a table listing things called events, which were given numbers. The page gave dates, times, and numbers showing intensities (with no forms of measurement) for each event. Daria looked at the bottom of the page. “This last event was . . . that was today. This is in Universal Time, and we’re twelve hours behind it, so that was—” She checked her watch again “—that was just over four hours ago. What the hell.” Her gaze ran back up the list. “The event times look kind of random. The event before that one was two hours, then one for, um, six and a half . . . can I see the rest of the papers?”
Jane handed them over. “What’s wrong with your hands?” she asked.
“What?” Daria looked at her hands. The palms were red, as were parts of her bare arms, particular the left one. “I dunno. Feels a little funny, hot and itchy. Must have been from wrestling the gunbot, sort of a friction burn. I’ve got a little something on my legs, too.” After a moment, she lifted the papers and flipped through them, going back to the first. “This only goes back a month. Was there anything else on the monitor?”
Jane got to her feet. “I think I can get it to cough up the beginning of the list. Here, sit down again. You’ve saved my life enough today, but I want you to rest so you can do it again later.”
Daria let Jane help her to the chair, and she sat down in relief. “Don’t be in there too long.”
“You think you know what’s up around here?”
“Not a clue. Just hurry.”
Jane nodded and left. Daria wiped her mouth. Bruises everywhere, exhaustion, nausea, diarrhea, burns on her hands . . . this wasn’t a good day at all. She found herself looking at the large dead seabird again, the one that appeared to be looking back at her with its cloudy eye, and then it hit her.
If that bird died when everything else did on this island, it shouldn’t even have eyes now. It should be a skeleton with feathers.
She forced herself to get up and walk over to the bird. Fighting down her nausea, she pushed on the bird with her boot to roll it over. It was intact and starting to stiffen up. It had not been dead longer than a day.
“Oh, no,” she gasped. She turned and ran back for the main office door. “Jane!”
“I found something!” Jane yelled back. “Give me a second to print it off!”
“We don’t have a second!” Daria yelled. “We have to get out of here now! Something’s still—” The smell from inside got to her then and she began to cough.
“Here I come!” shouted Jane. She ran for the door and moved Daria out of the way so she could get out. She held another handful of papers. “The monitor was recording radiation outbursts,” she said hurriedly. “Big ones, way into the lethal range for humans. They started back in mid-April and have been going on at a rate of several times a day. It doesn’t list the source.”
“The reactor,” said Daria. Another wave of dizziness passed through her. “Maybe the reactor’s leaking.”
“It can’t be a leak,” said Jane. “Look—these are bursts of radiation, not a constant steady background radiation.”
Daria looked down at her red hands. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “I understand it now.”
“Radiation poisoning!” Daria cried. “I’ve got it! Acute radiation syndrome! The whole lousy island is radioactive! That’s why no one’s coming here!” She held up her hands. “The robot . . . was radioactive! It burned me when I grabbed it!”
“You don’t have radiation poisoning!” Jane shouted, looking panicked. “You’d have to have—”
“I’ve got it, Jane! Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, no energy, worn out—I’ve got it! Something on the island’s spewing radiation like mad every few hours, and it’s going to go off again at anytime now! The secret military project malfunctioned and killed everyone here, and it’s still killing everything that comes here! Metal picks up radiation better than other stuff, and the gunbot’s probably been bathing in it for weeks! These things on my arms are radiation burns! We have to get out of here now!”
Jane swore. She grabbed for the backpack and Daria’s hand, and they fled west along the road for the beach and the SeaShadow.
They hadn’t gone thirty meters before Daria stumbled and fell down, scraping up her arms and knees.
“Get out of here!” she gasped, too dizzy to get up. “Leave me and get out of here!”
“Forget it! You’re going with me!”
Jane hauled Daria to her feet and threw the smaller woman’s arm over her back to support her. They were about to start off again when an extraordinary thing happened.
All the birds in view suddenly took off. Hundreds of seabirds opened their wings and thrashed their way into the sky in huge flocks from every spot on the island. Their mewling cries filled the air as they made their escape, heading to the north.
“It’s starting,” Daria whispered. “Something’s already starting. The radiation burst. We’re not going to make it.”
“Birds can’t sense radiation!” Jane yelled. “And, damn it, we are going to make it!” She looked back. “There’s an emergency shelter of some kind back there. It’s closer than the beach. A poster on the wall in the office showed where it was. Come on! It’s over by that big round gray building!”
“Save yourself!” Daria gasped. “Just leave me!”
“Shut the hell up, would you?” Jane manhandled Daria around and began to run again, heading back to the cluster of buildings.
The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.
At the main office, Jane put Daria back in the folding chair as she ran into the office. Daria leaned back, breathing heavily and sweat ran down her face. Her chest ached as if broken glass filled her lungs. This is not the way I want to go, she thought. This is not the way. Give me one more chance, God. I want to hold my daughter, I want to see my mom and my sister, I want to hear Jane laughing. I want to die in bed eating fatty food, watching bad ‘net TV. Please let me live just a little longer. I swear I’ll do anything You want of me, anything. I’ll even—
Jane came out, clutching a large paper poster that had been torn from a wall and what looked like a photo ID badge on a chain, as well as the backpack. “What are you mumbling about out here?” she said, pulling Daria to her feet. “Come on!”
They started off toward Castle Doughnut, Jane supporting Daria as they ran. “See that building with the door on it, by that big round wall?” Jane shouted. “That’s where we’re going! It leads to an underground emergency shelter!”
Breathless, Daria eyed the small, blocklike building Jane indicated. It was hardly bigger than a single room in a house. Was it an elevator? Her gaze dropped to the bouncing ID necklace Jane held with the torn poster. Where did she get that? Did that come off one of the bodies inside the main office? Why did she take it?
When they reached the small building, Jane stopped and placed Daria so her back was against the wall by the double door. Daria stood and painfully gasped for air while Jane held up the poster and read rapidly. Jane then put the chain around her neck, then took the ID card and held it against a dark, palm-sized square mounted beside the door. After a moment, a click sounded from the square, and a low rumbling began behind Daria’s back.
“Looks like an elevator,” said Jane. She stepped back, scanning the sky. “The birds must have flown off to Howland Island. I can’t believe radiation would scare them off like that. It must have been us running, or maybe machinery starting up somewhere. I can’t hear—”
The double doors pulled apart. Jane started through them, then backed out again, swearing violently. The sudden odor of death and decay was overwhelming. Cupping a hand over her mouth and nose, Jane dodged back through the doors, then came out moment later dragging something behind her. Daria looked down at it, then shut her eyes and looked away. Coughing, Jane went back through the doors, kicked out a few more things, then came out and grabbed Daria by the left arm. Daria cried out involuntarily as pain shot out from her shoulder.
“Hold your breath!” Jane ordered. “Pinch your nose shut!”
Daria took a deep lungful of air as Jane pulled her through the doors. They were in a single room that could only have been an elevator. Covering her mouth and nose, Jane punched two buttons and moved back beside Daria, pulling her close. Daria saw a broad discolored spot on the floor by the control panel—and a boot with part of a leg bone sticking out from the top. She shut her eyes again. The doors closed.
The elevator started down. Jane started to cough hard. Daria’s lungs began to ache worse than before; she pulled up her orange blouse and held it over her face, struggling not to breathe in. Count! One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four—this isn’t working! Think of something! Anything! Don’t breathe! Don’t breathe! Kali! Kali, I am so sorry I brought you into the world with a man who should never have been your father, I am so sorry I couldn’t be enough for you, and you had to stay with—have to breathe! Have to breathe! Breathe! BREA—
The elevator stopped. After an infinite delay, the doors pulled apart. Daria lurched away from Jane and staggered out of the elevator, coughing and choking, with her friend right behind her. They were in a white circular lobby with a low ceiling and wide corridors branching off in three directions. Little of it registered as the two women sank to the floor, hacking and trying not to throw up again. The elevator doors closed.
Daria rolled over on her back and pulled off her goggles with her right hand. No one can get our signal through all this rock and steel, and I’m sick of showing the world disgusting things, anyway. I should have cut this livecast off a long time ago. Mom and Kali didn’t need to see any of this.
“You okay?” Jane shouted between coughs.
“I’m not dead yet. Almost wish I was.”
“I might have to think about that, too.” Jane pushed herself up and moved over to Daria. After looking her friend over, she ran a hand through her bangs. “They can’t pick us up anymore, can they? The studio guys?”
“Good.” Jane pulled off her goggles as well, then reached behind her right ear and began detaching the speaker and transmitter unit there. She left the ID necklace on. “Make sure you shut the power off.”
“Yeah.” Daria picked up her goggles again, pushed a couple of small switches, then dropped them and began taking out her own earpiece. She pulled off an auxiliary microphone on her blouse lapel, dropped it beside her, and looked up at the white acoustic tile and fluorescent lights above her. “Jane?”
“They’ve got power down here. Three months after everyone’s dead, this place still has power.”
“Wonder if it came on when we came down the elevator, or if it’s been on all this time. I bet the gunbot had access to a power outlet in the garage. They could plug themselves in almost anywhere.”
“The air smells funny. Real flat, kind of an electronic ozone stink.” Daria pushed herself up into a sitting position. “I hear air conditioning running, or something. Hear it?”
“Yeah.” Jane sat up on her knees. “I hope the air’s filtered. I don’t wanna be breathing fallout. And I hope we don’t have to go back up that damn elevator again anytime soon.”
“Maybe this place isn’t as safe as we thought. If—” Daria coughed but made herself say it “—if that guy got killed while he was down here, or in that elevator, I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to go back out again right now, so this is it.”
“Agreed. I’m not leaving.”
“That guy, maybe he got inside the elevator after he was exposed to one of the radiation bursts. Does radiation kill right away, in a big enough dose? I thought it didn’t.”
“I don’t think so, either. You get enough of it, you get, uh, I forget the term, but it’s a lot of damage to the brain and central nervous system. It still takes time, but you aren’t worth much while it’s going on. You may be right, the guy probably got into the elevator after a burst, trying to get down here to safety. He just didn’t make it, I guess.”
“What about everyone else? Why weren’t they here, too?”
“I don’t know. They were too far away or something. I don’t think we have it, that central nervous system damage. That’s supposed to be pretty awful—can’t think clearly, body breaks down, etcetera. Maybe when they got hit, they just couldn’t function anymore. Look, I don’t want to think about this anymore. We probably took a low dose just from being outside, and there was that damn robot, and we rode on the truck and everything. What the hell.” Daria looked at her reddened hands and arms, then lowered them. I can’t do anything about it now, she thought. Just move on.
Jane looked at Daria with concern. “You said earlier you were sure you had a bad case of radiation poisoning.”
Daria nodded, glancing down at the goggles. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I have it, but maybe it’s not that bad. I don’t know what dose I took. I don’t have a lot of energy, but I’ve been kind of busy, too, so maybe that’s it. You might have gotten a dose, but you don’t look like me. You’re probably okay. I’m okay right now, aside from still feeling sorta sick and being all beaten up and everything. Let’s don’t talk about it.”
“We’ll have to talk about it eventually.”
“Fine, eventually, just not now, okay?” Daria got to her feet, one hand against a wall, and looked around. “Hey, we have signs. There by the elevators.”
Jane got up and kicked her goggles aside. “‘Emergency Shelter and Supplies,’” she read, noting the arrow pointing to the left past the elevator. “‘Power Plant’ is the other way, and—” She turned to look down the corridor facing the elevator “—‘Research’ is that way.”
“Bathroom,” said Daria, suddenly clutching her abdomen with a pained look. “Gotta go again.”
“Let’s try the emergency shelter.” Jane put an arm around the smaller woman and quickly led her off down the corridor. “They sure made the hallways wide here,” she commented, hoping to give Daria something else to think about. “This looks like almost four meters across.”
“Do you have the water bottles?” Daria asked through clenched teeth.
“I, uh, think I left them in the elevator, in the backpack. Damn it. I dropped everything in there when . . . when I was cleaning it out. I’ll get it later.”
They found a restroom (built for men, Daria noted with no surprise), and Jane went exploring while she waited for her friend. When Daria reappeared, pale and unsteady on her feet, Jane was smiling. “Do you like strawberry ice cream or chocolate?” she asked, holding up two foil-wrapped packages. “They’re dehydrated so they’ll taste like flavored plaster, but they’re not too bad. It’s like that NASA stuff.”
“Juice or something, please,” said Daria, leaning against the wall for support.
Jane nodded and walked away toward an open door just down the hall. “Got plenty of that back here in the food storage room. You should be drinking clear liquids. I think there’s chicken broth, if you don’t mind drinking it cold.”
“Don’t care. Anything.”
They had an impromptu picnic in the storage room with a small pile of preserved foods Jane rounded up from the surrounding shelves. “So, the bathroom has running water,” Jane said, “and all the power’s on, so this place has been expecting company since three months ago when everything when kablooie. Or someone didn’t have time to turn off the lights.”
“Or it didn’t matter with a fusion reactor powering everything.” Daria took another sip from the plastic bottle of water she was drinking from. “Some of the hall lights are burnt out, so no one’s around to replace them.”
“We’re fairly lucky, all things considered. Can’t really complain too much.”
“I’ve got radiation poisoning, and this water tastes flatter than Kansas.”
“At least we have water.”
“I just wanted to complain.”
Jane snorted. “Hell, I haven’t even started to complain. I so wanted to go off and give Ganguly a piece of my mind. The nerve, Betts telling us she didn’t send us in here to get killed. She was the one who kept talking in the meetings about ‘running out on the edge’ and all that crap. ‘Gotta keep those ratings up,’ she says, ‘gotta hang it out there.’ It was never her ass hanging out over the edge, was it? Then we run into some real bullcrap, and she’s all—”
“She didn’t know what was here,” said Daria mildly. “None of us did. I just thought—”
“Bull! She knew something was off here. We all did! All that money pouring in to this one spot, complete blackout on what was happening, can’t even get commercial spysat shots, no-fly no-sail zone running out to fifty kay, that shoot-down of the Euros’ Argus Nine ‘cause it was taking some kind of readings that Washington said it had no right to do—sure, we knew this was hot. Okay, granted, Betts didn’t know there was a malfunctioning reactor here, or whatever it is, but she knew something was wrong. We all did. It just pisses me off, her attitude. ‘Run for it!’ she says. Run for it, my cute little ass. She was covering her own damn ass, that’s what she was doing. You know it. She was scared that it was her butt that was going to get caught in the people shredder, and she was all about the C.Y.A.”
“It’s not her fault we’re here.” Daria leaned back against a wall in the storage room. “This whole thing was my idea, remember?”
Jane almost laughed. “I’m not saying it was her fault. I’m saying she’s a coward. Screw her! I hope the feds throw her butt in a dungeon full of mutant rattlesnakes.”
Daria found it impossible not to smile, despite her pains. “You almost sound happy and proud to be here.”
“Hell, I’d rather be here with you than anywhere near Betts’s office right now. She had the go/no-go authority for this trip, and she can’t get out of it. I hope they fry her just for the fun of it.” Jane held up a can, reading the label. “You like tuna?”
Daria shook her head, wrinkling her nose. “Maybe later when I’m starving.”
Jane peeled the top from the can, dropped it on the floor, and dipped her fingers into the contents. “I’m sure starving,” she said. “This had better not be radioactive. Mmm—this isn’t so bad. This must be the superfish tuna. All the regular tuna’s gone now, I think.”
“The original stock died out in twenty-fifteen. The superfish version came out two years later. I did that show on depleted fish stocks a few years ago, when you were in Iceland.”
“I can’t keep track of what’s extinct anymore. I’m sure glad we’re still alive. Speaking of alive, you won’t believe who I met when I was in Korea.”
“Close. Mack Mackenzie.”
Daria blinked. “Mack? From high school? You’re kidding me.”
“No, the very same. He was a light colonel in an intelligence unit, getting over his second divorce.” Jane stuck a finger in her mouth, licking it clean. “I’m pretty sure I helped him get completely over it.”
Daria rolled her eyes. “That must have been quite a reunion.”
“Good pun. That was about all we did for a week, union and reunion. We almost reunioned each other to death.” Jane got a faraway look on her face. “I’ve kept in touch with him since then, managed to run into him by ‘accident’ a few times. I was going to hook up with him back in Hawaii after this little gig was over. He’s at Pearl. I didn’t tell him what we were up to, but he knew not to ask.”
“I can’t believe you kept this a secret for so long. Why didn’t you ever say anything about this to me?”
Jane smiled, looking away. “I wanted a little space of my own.”
Daria’s eyes narrowed. “You wanted to make sure I didn’t steal him from you,” she said—and instantly wished she hadn’t.
Jane innocently. “Why would I do that?” She gave Daria a catlike smile.
Daria shook her head, but her face colored in shame. She still remembered Tom, who had been Jane’s boyfriend in high school until Daria and Tom kissed in his car. She remembered the whole sordid episode and the year that followed with constant guilt that even time could not erode. “Never mind,” she grumbled. “Point taken.”
“Mack’s not your type, anyway,” said Jane. “Smart, but . . . he’s very physical. The twins are kind of attached to him, too. Maybe I should have said something about it to you. He did want me to say hi to you, so ‘Hi.’” Jane wiped her mouth on her arm, then pointed to Daria. “Change of subject, if you don’t mind. We’re not live online, we’re not being recorded anywhere, and we’re deeper underground than we would be in a cemetery, so tell me the truth: What did you really think this island was, before we got here? Seriously. I’ve been dying to ask you, but Sick Sad’s security crew went and hid bugs everywhere I went to see if I was spilling company secrets during my little get-together parties, so I didn’t ask. Tell me.”
Daria shrugged, glad not to think about Tom again. “What did I think? I thought it was a new off-the-books supermax P.O.W. camp for all the North Koreans and Chinese we’ve been stuck with since the war. Maybe it was just for the mean ones or the big-time guys or the ones in the nuke-biowar program. I thought it was Guantanamo Bay Two. I really did. I was expecting shockwire and guard towers, the works, sending them over by the thousands in reconverted tankers. I figured we’d have to stay there ourselves in a tin hut for a week or two before they sent us back to the mainland.”
“Really? I was thinking some kind of experimental space launch site. We’re almost on the equator, so you’d have—”
Daria snapped her fingers. “Hey, yeah! All the Earth’s spin would be right behind the launch. You could really get something up even with a small booster.”
“Exactly!” said Jane, getting excited. “We’re not all that far from the Asia Pacific site on Christmas Island. I looked it up. The Cape York site’s almost on the equator, and so are Kourou and Alcantara. That Ukrainian Sea Launch platform used to fire up from the equator. It’d cost loads, but it could be done if you wanted to keep launches secret.”
“Yeah.” Daria nodded, her face impassive. “That makes sense, except the U.S. doesn’t need that any old-style launch sites anymore with the spaceplane fleet, and private companies can launch from anywhere they can afford. And no one has any evidence from anywhere that anything was ever launched from here.”
“They launched nuclear missiles from Johnston Island, north of here, way back in the sixties in the last century. They kept that secret for a little while.”
“There’d still be a heat signature or a contrail on the way up. Satellites could see it even if they weren’t right overhead.”
“Depends on what you’re using for propulsion.”
Daria almost forgot about her aches and pains. She looked at Jane, and Jane looked back at her. “Huh,” she finally said.
“Mmm-hmm.” Jane bit into another batch of tuna piled on her fingers.
“We didn’t see anything like a launch site from the air when we were circling.”
“Maybe we weren’t supposed to. Could be a propulsion test zone, no real rockets around just yet. Maybe it’s nuclear propulsion, with that fusion reactor. Maybe it’s lasers. I dunno. A launch site just seemed to suggest itself.”
Daria gave her friend an admiring smile. “Listen to you, after all those years you had a C average in high school.”
“Hey!” Jane took on a look of mock injury. “I was bored, all right? I was a victim of society! It was the violence inherent in the system! I had to wait until I was out of that zoo-sylum before I could spread my wings and fly, you know?”
They laughed, and then Daria stopped and said, “I love you.” The smile faded from her face, and she stared at Jane without blinking. “I really do. I love you.”
“Wait.” Jane put down her empty can of tuna and held up an index finger. “Don’t start saying that right now. People say that ‘I love you’ stuff when they’re about to die. You are not about to die, so don’t go giving me that ‘I love you’ crap right now. Save it for when we get home. Not here.”
Daria’s face was still too serious. She remembered Jane telling her twins that she loved them. “Okay.”
“And I love you, too, amiga. Pisses me off I can’t say that to my best friend in the whole world on the air. Everyone always gets the wrong idea.”
“Oh, I do. Believe me, I do.”
They laughed. It felt good.
“We’re getting out of this alive, Morgendorffer,” said Jane, pushing the food aside. “You and me together. We’re going home like Medal of Honor heroes. They’re probably going to make you an honorary Marine for what you did to that gunbot, which I still can’t believe. Jeez. We’re big-time, now. We’re gonna make our kids proud of us, somehow.”
Daria was silent for a moment before she said, “I don’t even know if Kali wants to be seen with me anymore.”
“Hey, don’t say that. You know she loves you. She’s just a teenager with a crap-ass dad and a mom who tries to do everything in the world. She’ll deal with it. She’s got your genes, after all. You coped with your folks, right?”
Daria found herself laughing again, but it turned into coughing and pain. “Chest hurts,” she grumbled, getting to her feet. “One more trip to the bathroom, then I think we should go exploring.”
“I’ll clean up here. Wish we’d brought along some dosimeters. We could have used them.”
Daria stopped at the door to the hallway. “Well, who knew?” she said, waving her right arm. “I was the idiot who scotched the idea! No one’s done nuclear testing out here since the French in the nineteen-nineties, and the U.S. got tired of it in the late fifties. The Navy’s not going to tell anyone where they’re building a secret fusion reactor, and the damn things hardly ever break down anymore, they build them so well. The bosses thought Baker Isle was supposed to be where the American government would move in case of a war, which I thought was just plain stupid, and the library division said it was probably an illegal supermax facility for P.O.W.’s, like I thought it was. Legal was laying money on a submarine pen. And even a space-launch site, why would anyone use nuclear power in the atmosphere? That’s been banned since the last century, all those test-ban treaties.” She shrugged. “But you’re right, we really could have used those dosimeters.”
“Catch you in a few.”
“It could be longer. I think I’d better wash all over. Maybe you should, also. If the island’s radioactive, we’ve got to get all the grit off us as quick as we can.”
“Oh.” Jane got up, took off her ID necklace, and dropped it on the floor with the food. “I didn’t think about that. I’ll come with you.”
“Glad we got rid of those goggles and cams. I was so embarrassed to barf live.”
“You’ve done worse. Remember when you sat on that peanut-butter sandwich when we were going to Alternapalooza, back in high school when you had a crush on my brother?”
Daria turned and gave Jane a mock glare. “I hate you.”
Jane laughed all the way to the restroom.
While they were gone, the ID card on the necklace glowed red for several long seconds. By the time they returned, it was back to normal again.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death . . .
—T. S. Eliot, The Rock
Washed, fed, and freshly bandaged, thanks to a medical supply kit they found in the supply room, the two women wandered down the hall to the elevator. After collecting their discarded goggles and other equipment and piling it to one side, they studied their limited options.
“Feel like I’ve got a mild sunburn,” said Jane, rubbing her face as she looked at the signs by the elevator. She kept her voice as casual as she could. “Probably picked up a little radiation myself outside.”
“I don’t usually like to ask this,” said Daria, “but if you start having any funny physical symptoms, tell me right away, even if they’re gross.”
“You’d like the gross stuff, I’m sure.” Jane bit her lip, flooded with guilt that Daria was sicker than she was. She made an effort to throw off thinking about the symptoms they might experience in the future. “Aside from being a little run down, I’m okay so far. So, you choose where we go touring next.”
“Forget the power plant,” said Daria wearily, looking down one short corridor to the double doors at the end. “I’ve got enough problems without wandering into a fusion reactor, if that’s what’s back there.”
“Research it is, then,” said Jane, and the two started off down the third corridor. “Maybe we should drop bread crumbs to mark our trail.”
“I don’t think we’ll get that lost. A zombie will probably come by and eat all the crumbs, anyway.”
“A vegetarian zombie?”
“Make a note of that. We could do a movie about one if we get out of here.”
“It’s got Halloween potential.”
“This whole island’s got Halloween potential. I’ve got Halloween potential, now.”
Jane elected not to follow up on that last remark. They passed through two sets of double doors marked “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” that required Jane to pass her borrowed ID card before a dark plate on the wall before the doors would open. Jane smiled and waved at the motionless security cameras looking down at them along the way, while Daria glanced at them with a sour look.
“Wonder if anyone’s really watching us,” said Jane, peering at a camera over the second set of double doors. “Kind of spooky, when you think about it. Maybe someone on the mainland is keeping an eye on our bad little selves. You think those have microphones on them, too?”
“Beats me,” Daria grumbled. “This is almost too easy. If we could just walk in here like this, why hasn’t anyone else?”
“This has been easy? Are you kidding? If those big radiation bursts outside are really coming at random, wherever they’re coming from, maybe no one wanted to risk getting caught in the open on the way to the elevator.”
“Well, they could’ve sent a robot down—oh, crap.” Daria stopped in her tracks, as did Jane.
“Think there’s another gunbot around?” Jane whispered, staring at her friend. “Or maybe two or more of them? There was only the one parachute out there.”
Daria looked glum. “I guess we’ll find out. Let’s be careful, whatever we do. We didn’t walk around to see how many parachutes there actually were, and any others could have blown into the ocean. We may as well look around anyway. We’re reporters specializing in exposés, we can’t go back outside, and we don’t have anywhere else to go except the power plant, and that’s right out.”
“We could go back to the supply room and see what dehydrated plankton-rich sausage-flavored pizza tastes like.”
Daria groaned. “Exploring it is, then.”
Beyond the second set of double doors were a series of doors on either side of the hall. At the end of the corridor was an open circular room with a domed ceiling, around which were chairs and control consoles facing several huge, blank wall monitors. It reminded Daria of the flight control room in any number of space- or missile-launch facilities she’d seen in her years as an investigative reporter.
Jane eyed the control room, but she swept the ID card by the square pad by one of the doors in the hall and pushed it open a crack, sniffing the air. “All clear in here, I think,” she said, peering in with care. “All dark, but it looks like office cubicles inside. I wonder if anyone was left behind down here, or if everyone escaped later after the disaster upstairs. Smells tolerable, anyway. Wanna look in here, or head over there?”
“The room ahead,” said Daria. “I think some of the desk controls are still turned on.” Jane nodded agreement and let the door close, following Daria to the control room. The room was about twenty meters in diameter and had a stale electrical odor about it. The equipment had obviously been left on for some time; minimalist screensavers dominated some monitors. Papers, books, and manuals lay scattered about on desks and chairs, even on the floor in untidy piles.
They walked around a low room divider and entered the control room proper, pausing by several desks overflowing with paperwork and texts. Daria reached down and picked up a soft-cover manual at random, checking the title. “‘Properties of Artificially Produced Asymmetrical Singularities, Volume Two,’” she said. Puzzled, she flipped the book open and looked over a few pages. “I can’t follow the math at all,” she said after a moment, “but this seems to be about black holes.”
“A singularity is a black hole, right?” said Jane, sorting through a stack of papers.
“Yeah, and this is about artificial ones.” Daria frowned. “They’ve been able to do that in a few labs, but only for less than a second. What I don’t get is the idea of an asymmetrical black hole. That doesn’t make any sense at all. What’s asymmetrical about it? I should’ve kept up with the science on these things.”
“Check this.” Jane picked up a sheaf of paper folders. “Here’s ‘Brane Permeability as Affected by PHA Field Strengths.’ This one’s ‘Tables of Atmospheric Influx Density vs. Singularity Intake Strength,’ and here’s an abbreviated reactor shutdown checklist, all hundred-plus pages of it. Good bedtime reading. I should have stayed in college and been a professional student. That all-night disk jockey job in my sophomore year was the beginning of the end of my education.”
“You’d still be doing art if you hadn’t done it and talked me into joining you on the air. And I’d be writing lousy books and getting into drunken brawls at badly attended author signings.”
“Yeah, well, my Muse still talks to me when I’m doing stage designs for our show, and you still write show scripts. And I still sell a painting or two now and then. Oh! There’s a big book we can play with.” Jane walked over and lifted a heavy softbound tome, scanning the title. “Bingo. Check it out.”
“What?” Daria put down the manual and walked over. The title of Jane’s book was: PROJECT PHAETON, REVISED STARTUP PROCEDURES, OPERATIONS HANDBOOK VOL. XIII, APRIL 2027. Someone had dog-eared various pages and stuck in scraps of paper to mark other spots in the book. Jane laid the book down on top of a console between them and opened the book to the introduction. The women read in silence.
“No way,” said Daria after a half minute.
“Wait,” said Jane. She tapped a spot with a fingertip. “What’s this part? I don’t get this stuff about branes and gravity waves and N-dimensionality.”
“I think you won the bet about what this place is supposed to be,” said Daria in a low voice. “It looks like they were trying to create a black hole for use as a propulsion system, only I don’t understand how they were doing it. They keep switching over to this calculus that I can’t make heads or tails of.” She flipped a few pages. “Here, this looks like a diagram of Castle Doughnut—the big gray ring above us, that’s what I’ve been calling it to myself. Only, the doughnut’s not buried in the ground. It’s flying through the air or space or something, and it’s got this big thing around it, a field like the Earth’s magnetic field, but here it’s called a gravity field. This side’s the intake and this side’s the exhaust. It almost looks like a jet engine.”
“A gravitational jet engine? Wait, that’s not going to be very secret if they launch it, is it? Or is it supposed to be a stealth type of engine?”
“I can’t tell. There’s just no possible . . .” Daria stopped talking and flipped back a few pages until she got to the table of contents. Swiftly, she ran down the list of chapter titles, then flipped over to one chapter in particular. Jane read with her for a moment, then moved away and began reading the contents of the desk monitors that were still active.
“Mother of God,” Daria breathed, staring at one page. “This says that the giant ring just above us can create some kind of warped miniature black hole at its center, in a special underground chamber. A real black hole! You remember that dome in the center of the big ring, with all the spokes going out to it from the ring? That’s the black hole chamber! The ring is a giant particle accelerator, but a special type fed by hundreds of particle guns that don’t even fire in straight lines. They fire in some kind of twisted stream that fills the inside of the big ring.” She continued reading, then said, “Oh, boy. Get this: when the big ring is operating, it creates a stretched-out, quasi black hole that runs through center of the big ring, a rotating black hole shaped like a big hoola-hoop. I can’t believe that!”
Jane looked confused. “Black holes can’t look like rings, can they?”
“I don’t think it’s possible,” Daria said slowly, “but this implies they’re dead certain they can do it. I don’t understand any of this stuff very well; it’s light years over my head. It keeps talking about things like . . . like ergosphere shielding, Hawking radiation diffusion, frame-dragging factors—” She flipped pages as she talked “—something called a plasma accretion torus, micro-singularity evaporation timetables, graviton leakage, predicted Minkowski space-time distortions, and so on and so on. I know some of that’s black hole physics, but I’ve never heard of . . .” She turned back to the table of contents. “There’s a chapter on radiation shielding here. Let me read that.”
“Wasn’t Argus Nine some kind of observatory? That Euro satellite the Air Force shot down, claiming it was a spysat?”
“It was an X-ray obser—” Daria looked up, startled. “That was an X-ray observatory, not a spysat!. Black holes put out loads of X-rays, I remember reading that somewhere, because of their spin. I don’t know how it works, but now it makes sense in a way why the Air Force blew up that observatory. It probably could have detected the black-hole generator here. The Euros were really pissed.”
“If you’re using a black hole to power a spaceship through the Earth’s atmosphere, and it’s blasting out X-ray radiation and whatnot as it’s moving, you wouldn’t call that very secret or safe, would you?”
“They couldn’t do that. That’s in violation of every nuclear test-ban treaty I can think of. Anything that dumps radioactive material or straight hard radiation into the atmosphere is illegal as hell.”
“Hmmm.” Jane bent down and scanned a monitor, tapped some keys on the keyboard before it, then moved to the next monitor. As she stared at the screen, her eyes narrowed and she froze in place. “Amiga?”
“Don’t pick your nose.”
Daria stopped reading and looked up. That was a code phrase Jane always used to mean they were being watched. “Okay,” she said, trying not to look around suddenly. A chill ran down her spine, and she felt very vulnerable and alone, even with Jane there. Were people watching them, or were gunbots? She swallowed and tried to keep her hands from trembling. She couldn’t handle another gunbot. Winning against the first one had been pure luck. A panicky urge to run grew inside her.
“Take your time,” said Jane slowly. She stood up from the monitor and stretched, looking around the control room. “No hurry.”
We’re being watched but aren’t in immediate danger, as far as she knows. Daria glanced down at the book but wasn’t able to concentrate any further. She flipped it shut and lifted it in her arms, determined not to lose it no matter what happened. She was sure the book held the key to what was going on at the base.
Jane sniffed and gazed up and down the monitors and controls nearest her. “Nothing much to see here,” she said. “Wish there was a map, but I guess everyone knew where almost everything was.”
“I could use an Ultra-Cola Classic,” Daria mumbled. “A little energy boost would be nice about now.”
“Sounds good.” Jane turned, appearing unconcerned. She picked up several sheets of paper beside a monitor, as if it were an afterthought. “Why don’t we check out that office cubicle room behind us, the one I showed you?”
“Sure.” Daria shivered and felt strangely cold. Was it her fear at work? Or was it the radiation poisoning taking hold? She had no idea.
“Let’s go for a walk and see what we can see,” said Jane, and she led the way out of the control room, down the hall to the door she had stopped at first. Daria followed, clutching the book. Both women looked ahead at the set of windowless double doors less than ten meters down the hall from them.
At the same moment, their gazes dropped to the crack of light under the doors from the other side.
A broad shadow interrupted the middle of the crack of light. The shadow was about three meters wide, almost reaching from wall to wall.
It was exactly as wide as a gunbot.
Jane’s instantly slapped the borrowed ID card against the plate adjacent to the doorway nearest them. The door clicked as another click sounded down the hall from the double doors. “Run!” she screamed, slamming her shoulder into the door at their side, and they fled through it as the doors down the hall opened as if on their own.
It hath been often said, that it is not death, but dying which is terrible.
—Henry Fielding, Amelia
The door flew open to reveal a large room with a low ceiling, subdivided into a maze of cubicles by sectional gray walls each a meter and a half high. The ceiling lights flickered on as the door swung inward. As Jane ran in, she spotted a high bookcase in front of her, backed up to a cubicle wall. She stuffed the papers she held into her mouth, grabbed the bookcase by the back, then heaved it over toward her after Daria was out of the way. The bookcase toppled and slammed into the closing door, jamming itself against the doorframe half a meter up and spilling dozens of colorful binders and bound papers across the carpeted floor. The two women fled into the cubicle maze to get as far from the door as possible.
“I don’t know where we’re going!” yelled Daria, clutching the oversized handbook to her orange blouse as she dodged down one twisting aisle after the other.
“Just run!” Jane yelled back, stuffing the papers into a pocket in her shorts. “Look for another door!”
A loud bang! echoed through the room as something struck the door from the hallway side. Daria thought she would jump out of her skin when she heard it. I can’t die now! I can’t! I’ve got too much to do! I refuse! She spotted a door at the back of the room and made for it through the network of dead ends and messy work cubes.
A second crash came from the front of the room. Daria risked a look back and saw the top half of the door was bent inward, torn free of its upper hinge. Too frightened to even swear about it, she found the route to the back door, shifted the big handbook to her left arm, and grabbed for the handle with her right hand—
—but the door would not open. She cried out in frustration and pounded the door with her burned fist.
“Wait a minute!” Jane arrived and slapped the ID card against the electronic security plate beside the door—
—and still nothing happened.
“Open, damn it!” Jane yelled, trying to work the fingernails of one hand into the crack around the door while scrubbing the ID card against the security plate with the other hand.
Daria turned away, looking for something to use. Another outrageously loud crash came from the front of the room. A black robotic hand was now visible over the top of the crushed-down door. Oh God no no no no no! She looked away and spotted an upright metal cabinet with a red sign that read: EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT. She opened it on the spot. Inside were fireproof overcoats, a multitude of emergency oxygen masks, medical kits, and . . . tools.
She dropped the handbook, snatched out a large-headed hammer, and ran back to the door. Jane was still trying to get the ID card to open it. “Get back!” Daria said, and when Jane did she swung the hammer with both hands down at the door handle. The hammer bounced off and almost hit Daria in the face.
“Jeez, give me that!” Jane yelled. She took the hammer and moved over to the door’s hinges, which were on their side of the room. As the gunbot pounded on the front door again, Jane swung down and struck the lowest hinge. The blow ripped the hinge half free of its mount. She leaned back and swung down a second time—and the hinge was knocked entirely away to bounce across the carpeted floor.
Daria made sure she was out of the way as Jane whacked the remaining two hinges into complete ruin. The chill she had felt earlier was spreading through her body as if she had caught some dreadful form of flu. She feared it was another symptom of radiation sickness, but she was determined not to give up yet.
When the upper hinge was gone, Jane threw aside the hammer and tried to pry her fingernails into the crack again to open it—to no avail. She screamed a horrid curse, her face turning bright red from her fruitless efforts.
Daria turned her head at a thought: The cabinet—! In a second, she found a long steel crowbar behind a fireproof coat and ran back with it, jamming it into the crack between the door and doorframe. The door came off on the first attempt, almost hitting Jane in the head as it fell. Grabbing both the hammer and crowbar, Jane ran into the narrow, concrete-walled corridor beyond and looked left and right. “Is there a flashlight?” she yelled. “There’s no light back here!”
Of long-handled, high-intensity flashlights, the emergency cabinet had a multitude. Daria gave Jane one, took one for herself, picked up the project handbook, turned to the open back door—
Staccato shots rang out from the front of the room. The gray wall on Daria’s right burst outward with a puff of shredded fibers and plastic shards. A deafening BANG! rang out as something hit the steel wall on her left and flew off in another direction. Panicked beyond reason, Daria hurled past the spot where the bullet had come through as even more gunfire exploded around her. Ears ringing, she dodged through the back door and ran after Jane’s bouncing flashlight in an instant, flying down a pitch-black maintenance corridor one meter wide. The air was dry and dusty and stale. Daria’s eyes adjusted to the dark, revealing rows of pipes and bundles of wires along the walls and ceiling.
Jane’s flashlight went to the left and vanished. Daria followed, seeing the corridor curve and realizing they were running around the circular control room. The number of wire bundles increased greatly, and they passed electrical and wireless-electronic control boxes by the score. Several access doors went past, but Daria ignored them. She grew winded, and her lungs hurt with every breath. Though she feared she would fall too far behind Jane, she refused to drop the book to lighten her load.
She barely made it around the big loop that encircled the control room and was on the verge of collapsing in exhaustion when she spotted Jane’s light ahead, motionless and pointing at a side wall. Forcing herself to stagger up to the light took the greatest effort of will she could remember. Sweat ran down her face and back, soaking through her clothes.
“I found a map!” Jane cried, breathing heavily but not at all winded. As Daria came up, she saw Jane was pointing her flashlight at a large blueprint-like diagram mounted on a wall at eye level. Jane paused to trace the course ahead of them with the light’s beam, then said, “We can get back to the supply area if we just keep going. This tunnel goes on to somewhere else, a thing called the alternate command access, but it’s off the map. The problem is, I don’t know if that gunbot or another one will be at the supply area waiting for us. We can’t stay here forever.
“Got to rest,” Daria wheezed, lowering her flashlight. She felt dizzy and leaned against the wall for support. Everything hurt, her chest worst of all.
Jane looked back at her with sympathy—and a certain hardness. “We’ll die if they figure out where we are, amiga. We have to keep going and hope we’re ahead of them. Gunbots have all kinds of weaponry on them. If we end up hiding in this tunnel for a while, we’ll need to get food and water to keep us going until we can find another way out. We have to get to the supply room again.”
Still gasping for air, Daria lowered her head and nodded. She hated Jane for saying it, but the logic was unassailable. The first gunbot should have just shot us with a machine gun and skipped the knock-out darts. Looks like this ‘bot isn’t going to make the same mistake.
Jane glanced down at the book Daria carried and almost smiled. “You and your books,” she said. “Let’s get going, then. We’ll make it a quick walk.”
“Wait,” Daria said, and she coughed. Jane stopped and waited until she continued. “What was it . . . you saw . . . when we were—”
“One of the ceiling cameras behind us in the control room was rotating to look from you to me,” Jane said. “I saw it moving, reflected in the monitor screen. I didn’t see the gunbot, but I knew someone or something had gotten into the security system. For all I know, we’re being tracked by the security system itself, if it’s a good A.I. and can direct the gunbots. There could also be a guy down here with us, but from the looks of things, I don’t think so. Everyone who survived must have left after the disaster and gotten off the island. We’re the only living people around. Let’s go. We can’t wait any longer.”
As best she could, Daria kept pace behind Jane’s long-legged stride. The curved corridor straightened briefly, then jogged to the left at a diagonal, jogged right again, and continued straight ahead for several dozen meters. At one point, Jane stopped beside a steel-rung ladder than ran straight up to a hole in the ceiling. The sign by the ladder identified it as an emergency surface escape route. “Don’t go! Radiation!” Daria gasped, and they hurried on by.
“You’re keeping up pretty well,” said Jane, moving at a trot while carrying the hammer, crowbar, and flashlight. “I told you back home that jogging was good for you. Glad you took it up with me.”
Daria considered an obscene response, but she needed every lungful of oxygen to keep moving. Each time she lifted one of her boots, it seemed like the last time she would ever do it before toppling to the concrete floor on her face.
Jane slowed briefly once more, looking at the sign by door on her right. “Restroom!” she said, coming to a halt. “We’re right across the hall from the supplies! I’ll grab some stuff while you wait here!” She readied her ID card and reached for the door handle to see if she could push it open.
The door jumped and seemed to bow outward for a moment as a white light flashed around its edges. An indescribably loud thunderclap filled the narrow tunnel, stunning Daria and making her ears ring almost to deafness. Jane was thrown against the concrete wall behind her by the concussion, muffled though it was. She fell to the floor and dropped the tools she carried with loud clangs. The door held despite the explosion.
A gunbot just blew up the restroom, and probably the supply room, too. Daria dropped her book and ran over to help Jane to her feet. A peculiar burnt-dust odor hung in the air. I swear to God, the second I get home, I’m going to strangle whoever it was that made gunbots smart.
Unsteady on her feet and bleeding from one ear, Jane stared at Daria in confusion, then looked down and slowly picked up the crowbar and flashlight. “We have to hurry!” Daria shouted through the whine in her ears, not caring if the gunbots heard her. When Jane appeared unsure of which way to go, Daria turned her in the proper direction and pushed. She then picked up her own flashlight and the handbook and followed, finding it easier to keep up with the much-slowed Jane. Chills came and went through her body, and her nausea was acting up again, but there was little time to worry about it. They skipped all doors they encountered, not knowing if gunbots lurked on the other side.
The corridor ended in a T-shaped intersection, going left and right. Left, read a sign, was the alternate command access route; right was to the supply rooms, emergency shelter, and the power plant. WARNING, read another sign, with fine print below it. Jane hesitated at the corner, appearing somewhat recovered from the explosion despite her bleeding ear.
“Which way?” said Daria. Jane grimaced and flipped her light down each path, trying to decide. Daria noticed the warning sign and directed her light to see what it said.
This corridor must be cleared before
flight operations commence! Evacuate
this area one hour before a scheduled
flight and report to a secure duty station.
This made no sense at all to her, so she joined Jane in shining flashlight beams down the intersection and mentally debating which way to go.
The issue was neatly resolved a moment later. A flash of light down the tunnel toward the power plant was followed by another blast magnified by the tight space, though the shock wave from this one merely blew around the women instead of knocking them down. They turned to look back up the path the way they’d come, but another flash of light in that direction was accompanied by the sight of restroom access door slamming against the concrete wall in the hall and falling to the floor right after. This explosion was loud but not as damaging to the ears as the first, and the concussion was relatively mild.
Without a word, the two women fled down the only avenue of escape left to them. The tunnel made another jog to the left at an angle, ran several dozen meters, then ended in a stairwell that zigzagged upward at least three floors. Here Jane slowed and stopped, leaning wearily on the handrail as she inspected the way up with her flashlight.
“Are you okay?” Daria asked, coming up. Jane turned to her, looking puzzled, then pointed to her ears. Oh, my God, she’s deaf. “Can you hear me?” Daria cried, looking her friend in the face.
Jane held up two fingers spaced a few inches apart (a little bit), then pointed again to her ears. “I can’t hear you very well!” she shouted, unnecessarily loud. “I can kind of hear out of my left ear, but that’s all!”
Daria wanted more than anything to rest, but she had her second wind, however slight it felt. The gunbots would not wait, either, she knew. Turning the flashlight on her face, she spoke slowly so Jane could see her lips move. “Let me go up first! I can hear! You stay behind me!”
With an anxious look up, Jane finally nodded and let Daria pass. Daria proceeded up the stairs, still clutching the handbook and her flashlight. Her legs felt like logs, but she tried to move as quietly as she could. Her chest ached, her fingers quivered with fear and chills, and her reddened hands were raw and tight. Only the knowledge that Jane depended on her kept her going.
At the seventh landing, at the top of the stairs, was a door with a security plate beside it. The position of the hinges told her that the door opened into the stairwell. Daria waited and listened beside the door but heard nothing. As quiet as the gunbots were, though, she knew that meant little. She then took the ID card and necklace from Jane, steeled herself, and held the card to the security plate.
The door clicked. Drawing a deep breath, Daria reached down, took the door handle, pulled it open a crack, and peeked through. On the other side was a large, brightly lit room full of work tables, large machine tools like drills and stamp presses, paper-laden desks with computer terminals, cables taped down to the floor in all directions, and large multicolored charts and diagrams stuck along the walls. Nothing stirred. The air had the now-familiar smell of electronic equipment left on far too long.
Daria carefully pulled the door fully open and stepped out into a large room. No one was present but her. Relieved, she turned to the left, took a step, and ran directly into the massive open claw of a black gunbot.
If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.
—John Kenneth Galbraith
The gunbot’s open claw struck Daria with a thump in the middle of her chest, knocking the wind out of her. The pain was trivial compared to the thrill of terror she felt at seeing a gunbot not one meter away. She screamed and dropped everything she held, too overcome with fright to run.
Moments later in her screaming, however, certain other features of the gunbot became apparent, the most prominent one being that the main camera mounted on the central post had been replaced with the head of a mannequin: a pale, grinning man’s face with short combed hair and a smoking pipe clenched in his teeth. The effect reminded Daria of what a typical white male from the 1950s might have looked like, at least in advertisements from the period. Below the head was a neatly printed sign that read:
I AM BOB
As her cardiac system began working again, she also noticed the gunbot had no visible guns. Instead, stacked upon its stripped-down base were a small refrigerator unit, several cardboard boxes marked VENDING MACHINE REFILLS, and a paper cup stained with the remains of a long-evaporated red-colored soft drink. The gunbot did not move or react at all. It appeared to be deactivated.
Daria wiped tears from her eyes under her glasses, aware that she was crying with relief. Her legs shook and her chest ached, but it hardly mattered. When she was calmer, she turned to the stairwell door and saw that it had closed. She checked her surroundings and was thankful to see that she was indeed completely alone in the large room. Then she picked up the ID card and ran it over the plate by the door, pushing it open. “Jane?” she called, but her partner in crime was not visible. Fearing the worst, she got her flashlight and walked into the stairwell, letting the door close behind her again, then aimed the flashlight down into the space between the stair levels.
Barely visible in the darkness, peering up from the lowest level, was Jane’s strained white face. She cried out in relief when she saw Daria and ran up the steps. After Jane reached the top and put down her crowbar and flashlight, they hugged.
“I heard you scream,” said Jane in a quavering voice. “I heard you scream, and I just lost it. I’m the biggest coward in the whole world. Please forgive me. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Forget it. Come on.” Daria pulled her friend back to the door, opened it with the ID card again, and showed her the converted gunbot. Jane jumped and gasped, but she recovered enough to inspect it while Daria examined the room with greater care.
“They disconnected the engine and took off all the weaponry,” Jane said. She still spoke too loudly, and she kept her head turned toward Daria so her left ear was visible. “The main arm doesn’t even work. Don’t know why they left it here. Maybe they were using it for spare parts, or they wanted a mascot. ‘I Am Bob.’ Jeez, someone has a really sick sense of humor, let me tell you. Do you see any cameras?”
Daria had been looking for exactly that, but she saw nothing suspicious hanging from the ceiling. “Nada,” said Daria, trying to speak loudly enough for Jane to hear. “They could be using nanocams here, of course.” She picked up her handbook and flashlight, then stood up on tiptoe to try seeing over obstacles in the distance. “This is a weird workroom. Are we above ground or below? There aren’t any windows in here.”
“There’s a garage door,” said Jane, pointing. “And some elevators are next to it. I think we’re at ground level. Maybe we should get upstairs and find a place to hide in case the other gunbots get here. When they get here, I mean.”
“Yeah.” Daria blinked as she started off in the direction Jane said the elevators lay. “Hey, you know what? I think we’re inside one of the six big buildings that were sitting over parts of the gray ring. I was thinking of them as guard towers for Castle Doughnut. One of the buildings wasn’t far from the elevator we took to get down to the shelter, and we could have just wandered up inside it.”
“I think you’re right. This room is about as wide as one of those towers, I’d guess maybe forty meters, but it’s pretty narrow.” She pointed. “I think the side of your giant doughnut is behind that far wall. Maybe they did maintenance work on the big ring from these buildings.”
“That sounds reasonable. We’d better go while we can.” Daria turned and noticed that Jane was not with her. She looked back. Jane was lifting three of the cardboard boxes from the defunct gunbot, her flashlight and crowbar piled precariously on top.
“What are you doing?” Daria called, then realized Jane might not hear her. She walked back at a quick pace.
“Get the other box, and see if there’s any food in that refrigerator,” Jane called, spotting Daria. “If we have to hide, we’ll need it. We can’t live on air alone.”
Daria groaned and did as Jane suggested. She hated it when other people were right. The refrigerator had two full six-packs of soft drinks, a partial pack of water bottles, and numerous containers of old food she did not dare touch. Snagging the plastic handles of the drink packs around her left wrist, she put her handbook and flashlight on top of the remaining vending machine box and picked it up, then hurried after Jane. I started out this morning as a reporter, and now I’m a pack animal. Surely this living nightmare won’t last much longer. The only question is, how will it end? If no one shows up soon to rescue us . . . what am I saying? We illegally broke into a secret military base on a gunbot-infested radioactive island. No one’s coming to get us. We have to stay alive long enough to get back to the plane and get out of here. If we don’t . . . I only hope getting killed doesn’t hurt too much. And I can put it off as long as possible.
They moved as quickly as they could to the elevators, looking in all directions for active security cameras or more gunbots. Daria felt her adrenaline rush wearing off and her exhaustion roaring back. Worse, her stomach was beginning to act up again. The raw, red burns on her arms hurt when anything rubbed against them, like the box she carried.
The doors on both of the large freight elevators were closed when Jane and Daria hurried up. Daria noticed an assortment of signs near the garage door, many with bold red words like, “WARNING!” and “REMEMBER!” and “IF THE ALARM SOUNDS—”. There wasn’t time to read further.
Jane pushed a button for an elevator, but no sound or motion greeted them. She jammed her finger into the button several more times to no effect. “Great,” she muttered. “Maybe there’s a stairwell or something. We gotta hurry.”
I’ll drop dead before I get to the second floor. Daria looked around, then stuck out a foot to point, as her arms were full. “Over there,” she gasped. “Door.”
Jane glanced in the indicated direction. “Looks good,” she said, setting off. “May as well try it.” Circling around several work stations, they found a door with an ID lock. Painted on the door in red were the words: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. “You got the card to open this?” Jane asked.
“Wait.” Daria carefully put down everything she was carrying, overly aware of how tired and soaked with sweat she was.
“What’s a white room?” asked Jane, looking at the door.
“A white room? I guess you don’t mean one at the White House. Uh, the only one I know about is a space program thing. They still have them where they launch regular rockets instead of spaceplanes. It’s—” Daria looked up and squinted at the door, reading the smaller text under the large warning letters. “This door leads to a white room?”
“Wait,” said Jane, looking around the stack of boxes she held. “Talk to my left ear. I can barely hear you if you look anywhere else.”
“Oh, sorry. A white room is the pre-launch preparation room for a spacecraft and its crew, located at the top of a gantry tower at a rocket-type launch site. It’s painted white on the inside because it’s supposed to be sterile, to keep out contamination like germs or dirt that would screw up a spacecraft. The white color makes dirt and loose parts easier to find.” She considered what she had just said. “You know, that implies that this is—”
“Okay, okay! Just open the door and tell me the rest of it when we get inside!”
“Well, you asked!” Daria lifted the ID card that hung from her neck and swiped it over the plate. Hearing the lock click, she pushed the door open, realizing only at the last moment that a gunbot could be waiting for her on the other side. No such thing greeted her, however. Beyond was a three-meter-square room with walls made of translucent plastic sheeting. Open boxes full of bagged white coveralls, boots, hats, and gloves were stacked around them. The women glanced at the sterile clothing, then ignored it. After carrying in all their possessions with some effort, they pushed on through the flap marked: ENTRANCE.
The little room turned out to be a tentlike structure inside a much larger rectangular room with a high ceiling, brightly lit and painted white on ceiling, floor, and sides. The long axis ran from left to right. In the middle of the room was a broad area against the far wall surrounded by white curtains. A large amount of equipment filled the room, some of it on wheels. Nothing was recognizable.
“Got an idea,” Jane said. “Let’s put down all our stuff and find a heavy equipment table to jam in front of the door. I don’t want those damn robots to get in here easily.”
Sighing, Daria did as Jane asked, feeling the backlash from the day’s activities spread through her body. I’ll probably be lucky if I’m still alive by sundown tonight, she thought glumly as she searched for an appropriate door-blocker. She finally settled on a large machine-tool cart that the two women pushed into the plastic tent and upended with a loud clatter in front of the white room doorway. They then collected their things to move on. As she reached for her possessions, however, Daria found she no longer had the energy to do anything more. Wiping a hand over her forehead, she looked for Jane—and saw her friend, arms full, disappear into the curtained-off area at a trot.
Swearing under her breath, Daria found a small handcart and a minute later was pushing it and her things toward the curtains, hoping Jane had not already met an untimely end. As she went, she spotted a sign on the side of a large computer that read:
Any project equipment or personal belongings left
in this building during flight operations risks being
destroyed and becoming hazardous debris! Make sure
this area is completely clear by the end of prelaunch
checkout. The safety of everyone depends on you!
Her gaze dropped to the bottom of the sign, and in tiny print she discovered the posting authority: PROJECT PHAETON, USSPACECOM
“Space Command,” she whispered. “So . . . oh, no, this is the real thing! The doughnut isn’t a ground test lab, it’s—they can’t do that! That’s so illegal it—oh, crap!” With a brief burst of energy, she pushed the cart ahead of her, looking for Jane. The high curtains had a vertical slit marked “ENTRY ONLY,” and she carefully pushed the cart through. “Jane?” she called. “Hey, Jane?”
After passing through a second wall of white curtains, Daria found herself in a cubical area about eight meters square, bounded by curtain walls. Numerous lights were suspended from the ceiling, some of which had burned out. Bulging out from the far wall was a gray metal blister, aerodynamically smooth, less than three meters high and somewhat longer than the curtained area, so that the left and right ends were not visible. It appeared that the blister was not actually a part of the wall, but part of a larger object behind it, the wall having been designed with an open space to fit around it. It further seemed only the upper half of the blister was visible above the floor, which had a thick rubbery edge where it came in contact with the gray metal.
Set into the gray blister slightly above floor level was a square open doorway, one meter wide by one meter high. It reminded Daria of a smaller version of the passenger access door of a typical aircraft. The gray door was the sort that pulled straight out and then slid to one side. On the floor in front of the doorway were two of the boxes that Jane had been carrying.
On the other side of the doorway, Daria saw a compact, dimly lit, off-white room with dozens of small locker doors and access panels covering the walls and ceiling. The room was only one and a half meters wide but extended to unseen areas to the left and right. To Daria’s surprise, the outer wall of the blister was half a meter thick.
“Jane?” she shouted, too tired to care if anyone else heard. “Are you in there?”
She listened and thought she could hear bumping and rattling from somewhere further inside the room. A few moments later, boot steps could be heard, and Jane appeared in the doorway from the left. “There you are,” said Jane, grabbing the two boxes from the floor. “Get in here, quick. I found the perfect place to hide. No one can get us in there.”
“Wait a minute!” said Daria, not moving from where she stood. “I have to tell you that this is a real space launch site! It’s not just a research or testing base, I’m sure of it!”
“A what?” said Jane, turning the left side of her face to Daria.
“A space launch site! This is a real launch area, right here!”
“I know!” said Jane, looking peeved. “I thought we’d sorted that out already.”
“No, what I mean is, this building is right next to the launch vehicle, and the vehicle is Castle Doughnut! That’s the spaceship!”
“Yes, I know! Hadn’t you figured that out before now?”
“Your Castle Doughnut is the spacecraft and launch vehicle combined! You remember the picture in your book showing that gravity ramjet? This—” Jane waved a hand around at the room beyond the doorway “—is the airlock to the crew compartment on the outside of the big ring, except there’s not much in here. It looks like they didn’t finish putting all the stuff in they were going to.”
Daria pointed to the room on the other side of the door. “That’s the crew compartment? You’re going to make us hide in the damn—Jane!”
Jane rolled her eyes and hauled the boxes into the airlock, walking off to the left. Daria looked around a last time and followed, stepping into the little room beyond the door with the greatest care. To the right were more cabinet doors down an apparently dead-end hall several meters long, but to the left was an open round hatch a meter across, through which Jane was climbing, boxes in hand. On the other side of the hatch, Daria could see a short corridor covered with even more storage-locker doors. Jane stuffed her boxes into one of the bins, then reached through the hatch to Daria. “Gimme your stuff!” she said. “Quick!”
Dumbfounded, Daria handed over everything she was carrying, and Jane put it away, except for the flashlights and crowbar. Jane took the ID card from Daria and put it around her own neck again. “Might need this,” she said.
“Jane,” Daria began, as nervous and hyper as she could ever remembered being, “we could be in real danger here! If that big ring is an actual working launch vehicle, it could blow us into atoms or fry us into radioactive carbon! We should get out of here right now and go back down to the tunnels. The robots are too wide to crawl through there, and we’d be safe for a while.”
Jane shook her head no, looking painfully exasperated. “Gunbots carry shells of incapacitating gas with them, lots of it. I’ll lay you next year’s paycheck they’ve already filled the tunnels with it to knock us out until they could tear through the walls to get us. That’s why they blew off the access doors into the tunnels. I’m damn lucky they didn’t kill me when they blew up the restroom the first time.” She ran a little finger around in her right ear and winced. “There’s a lot of ringing in my left ear, but I can hear better now. I can’t hear a damn thing out of my right ear, though.”
“You’re still bleeding from there,” said Daria in a subdued tone.
“It hurts like hell,” said Jane, rubbing her right ear. “My eardrum probably burst. Look, see if you can pull the outer door to, almost closing it. If anything shows up, slam it shut. You know how to lock it?”
“No, of course not!”
“Well, you’d better start reading the instructions and find out. Check the walls or the back of the door and see if anything’s printed there. I’m going to explore the rest of the crew compartment. We could be here for a while.” She turned away, flashlight out, and surveyed the corridor. Ladder rungs mounted on the hull ran down into a round hole in the floor at the end of the narrow hall. “I’m heading down. Hope this place has got extra oxygen tanks, too.”
Beside herself with anxiety, Daria watched her go. “Jane! We can’t stay here! If this ring can really create black holes like the book said, it’ll put out so much radiation when they turn it on, it could—”
And then she knew. She knew where the radiation had come from, the sleeting rain of hard radiation that had killed everyone and everything on the island, irradiating it beyond recovery except in the rock-covered tunnels below ground.
The base personnel had turned on the black-hole generator inside Castle Doughnut, perhaps as a test, and it had put out a monstrous pulse of radiation that no one was prepared for. Perhaps the radiation shielding on the outside of the big ring was inadequate, or the artificial black holes it created were too powerful. It was not an unfamiliar scenario in space-vehicle or weapons testing. Daria remembered that some of the early American H-bomb tests “ran away” from the designers because of a math error, creating stupendous explosions far beyond predicted levels. Early model rockets often blew up on the launch pad; test aircraft often crashed.
What she had read in the handbook revealed that this was the first time a long-lived micro black hole would be created. Normally, a micro black hole had a lifespan measured in trillionths of a second and put out fantastic amounts of heat. A micro black hole sustained by manmade equipment, or a series of micro black holes created in rapid succession in the same space—this was something entirely new. She recalled a paragraph in the handbook that glossed over potential problems with the technique, but did allow for unexpected problems that might force a shutdown of the complex particle accelerator.
But . . . what if Castle Doughnut had never been shut down? Turning off a huge nuclear device was not as simple as pushing a button. Perhaps the giant cyclotron was still running, drawing power from the terawatt-level fusion plant, still periodically creating black holes and throwing out killing waves of X-ray radiation, just like the radioactive bursts on the report Jane had found on the monitor in the main office outside. The giant gray ring had malfunctioned. It had destroyed the entire project and possibly everyone who had worked on it.
And Daria and Jane were about to lock themselves into a chamber attached to it.
“Oh, God! Jane! Jane! We have to—”
A metallic shriek and crash rang out from the white room outside. Startled, Daria turned but saw only the huge white sheets forming the work area walls around the airlock door. Then she heard more crashes, and something heavy was pushed or dragged across the floor. The gunbots had arrived. If they were able to forcibly enlarge the doorway into the white room, they would be at the airlock in seconds.
Part of the inhumanity of the computer is that, once it is
competently programmed and working smoothly, it is completely honest.
For a second, Daria recalled her off-the-cuff remark upon arriving at Baker Island about Amelia Earhart’s final flight. That was what led us to this, cried a wild voice in her head; I jinxed the mission. I did this, I made this happen. She discarded that line of thought in the next second as she lunged for the airlock door to pull it shut before the gunbots arrived. Seizing the available handle, she tugged on it and was rewarded when the door, which she realized was automated, began to close—but at a steady, leisurely rate. Pulling hard on the handle did not speed up the process, to her dismay, no matter how often she cursed and swore. She could only pray that the gunbots could not break into the white room before the airlock was shut.
As the door sank into place with a soft thump, bright overhead lights came on along the corridor. Daria searched for any device that would lock or jam the door shut from the inside. A small glasslike plate by the door, much like one for an ID security card, suddenly displayed orange words upon its dark surface. She found herself looking at two questions followed by small boxes:
OPEN OUTER DOOR? 
OR LOCK AND SEAL DOORWAY? 
Daria pushed her index finger against the second box, and the questions vanished. “SEALING DOORWAY,” read the plate now. With a gentle hum, a curved, half-meter-thick slab of gray metal came up out of the floor in front of the door, covering it completely and gently closing at the top. Daria fought down a surge of claustrophobia, clutching her flashlight until her knuckles ached. She looked down at the dark plate by the door. New words glowed like orange coals.
TWO PERSONS DETECTED IN COMMAND CENTER, ONE ON ACCESS DECK AND ONE ON FLIGHT DECK. LIFE SUPPORT ACTIVATED. ALL GO.
So far, so good, Daria thought. We have life support, so at least we won’t suffocate in here—I hope. She was mulling over what to do next when her thoughts were interrupted by a new question on the plate.
DO YOU HAVE A MILITARY ID CARD, CONTRACTOR ID CARD, OR OTHER AUTHORIZED PASS? YES  NO 
She considered not pushing any button, but experience in similar situations had taught her that this could be a bad idea. Smart computers often did things you didn’t want them to do when you ignored their questions. Gritting her teeth, she pushed “NO.”
IS THIS AN EMERGENCY? YES  NO 
Maybe this will help. Daria swallowed and pressed “YES.” A new question appeared.
IS THE EMERGENCY RELATED TO THE EPISODIC RADIATION OUTPUT FROM THE TOROIDAL ACCELERATOR? YES  NO 
What the hell? How did it know that? She knew she had to be communicating with either the A.I. on the space vehicle or the one in the control center underground. The question seemed to confirm her own guess at what had happened, though she wasn’t sure what “toroidal” meant. Perhaps this was getting somewhere. She pushed “YES.”
CAN YOU DESCEND A LADDER WITHOUT ASSISTANCE? YES  NO 
Puzzled, she pushed “YES.” She read the next response with a sinking heart.
YOUR PRESENCE HERE IS UNAUTHORIZED. PROJECT SECURITY HAS BEEN NOTIFIED OF YOUR LOCATION ON PHAETON. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LEAVE THE COMMAND CENTER ON YOUR OWN. THE MAIN ACCESS DOOR HAS BEEN LOCKED AND SEALED. REMAIN CALM. TURN TO YOUR RIGHT AND GO THROUGH THE HATCH TO THE LADDER, WHICH WILL TAKE YOU DIRECTLY TO THE FLIGHT DECK. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? YES  NO 
At least the damn gunbots can’t get in. She wondered what the little terrors were doing outside the airlock. Playing random-number guessing games to see which one got to shoot her first, no doubt. After pushing “YES,” she wondered if the A.I. responded to voice commands, so she said aloud, “Can you understand me?”
YES, I UNDERSTAND YOU, said the letters on the dark plate a moment later.
A chill went through her. That was quick. “Can you speak?” she asked—and immediately regretted it, as she disliked talking to machines.
“I can,” said a curious soft voice out of the air around her. It was both male and female at once, with a high, youthful pitch. The voice startled her, but then she was angry that she let it bother her at all. She saw no sign of cameras, microphones, or speakers around, but thanks to nanotechnology, that meant nothing. Big security cameras, like those in the underground flight control center, gave better imagery, but nanocams were next to impossible to find and weighed little—perfect for internal spacecraft security.
Oh, well. Off the top of her head, she said, “Can you tell me what the purpose of Phaeton is?”
“No,” said the soft voice. “You are not authorized to have that information.”
Daria’s head filled with black thoughts, though she had expected that response. “I thought computers served humans, not the other way around,” she grumbled.
“Yes, but I cooperate only with authorized personnel. Please go down the ladder to the flight deck.”
Bastard. “Um, okay, I’ll . . . go down to the flight deck, then,” she said, pissed that an A.I. was getting the better of her. With nothing else to do, she set off after Jane, shaking her head. She hadn’t trusted an A.I. since her smart car refused to start because it detected alcohol on her—a mixed drink that a coworker had spilled on her at an office party five years ago. Come to think of it, she realized she hadn’t trusted a computer since she saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. HAL 9000 had ruined everything. She wondered if this A.I. somehow knew the one in her car. They’re all bastards.
Her progress to the lower level was not without trouble. After painfully bumping her head getting through the hatchway, Daria reached the ladder rungs in a small end room with a closed, circular hatch on the wall opposite the hull. She took a minute to rest, feeling her earlier injuries more surely now. Her nausea was returning, and she spent a few moments meditating in a fruitless attempt to soothe her stomach. No help for it now, she supposed. Not knowing what to do with her flashlight, she finally set it on the floor and began to climb down the rungs. Her hands hurt terribly, but she had nowhere else to go. The lower deck was illuminated and she couldn’t free a hand to get the flashlight, so she left it behind and hoped she wouldn’t trip over it when she came back up. Descending the last few steps was tricky, but she made it without slipping.
Soft white ceiling lights were on, so she blew on her red, aching hands as she examined her surroundings, which consisted only of a short white corridor leading off to a featureless, dead-end wall two meters away. As on the deck above, small locker doors covered the walls and ceiling, and access panels decorated the floor. She noticed another meter-wide, circular hatch in one wall, which she realized was exactly in line with a closed hatch of the same sort in the room above. Fooling with closed hatches was not high on her list of priorities, though. Finding Jane was first—but where could she be?
“This can’t be the flight deck,” she muttered. “There’s nothing here.” Her voice rose. “Jane? Jane, are you down here?”
“Daria?” came a faint, muffled voice. It appeared to issue from the dead-end wall.
“I’m here, but where are you?” Daria called back. She elected to walk down the short corridor and had taken but two steps away from the ladder when she heard a soft thump behind her. She looked back and discovered the hole in the ceiling had been closed off by a sliding panel.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” she said aloud. At the sound of another soft thump, she looked back in the direction she had been heading—and the hallway was now three meters longer. And there was Jane, leaning against one wall with several unfolded papers in her hands. Her crowbar, flashlight, and ID card with necklace lay on the floor at her feet. Jane gave her a rueful smile. “The computer tricked us.”
“Tricked us? What do you mean?”
“I was trying to use my ID to get into a room at the end of the hall, but the computer figured out somehow that I wasn’t the same person as the guy the ID card was issued to. Imagine that. Damn feature-recognition systems. Anyway, as soon as it said I wasn’t who I said I was, it shut me in here with that sliding wall. From what it’s told me since then, it’s apparently locked both of us up in this cozy little prison until authorized personnel can come take us away, which we know isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”
“We’re stuck here?” Daria’s voice rose rapidly. “For good?”
“Maybe not, calm down. By the way, this corridor we’re in, believe it or not, is a combination bedroom, food pantry, bathroom, and shower. I’ll explain it later, once I figure it out. Anyway, I’ve got something cooking here. Give me a second.” Jane went back to reading through the paperwork she held, concentrating with great intensity. Daria recognized the papers as the ones Jane had picked up in the underground flight control room before they were forced to flee.
Daria had just started to look at her surroundings, wondering where she could get a drink of water, when Jane stood away from the wall and said, “Ah!” Walking to the far end of the corridor, where another meter-wide hatch was set into the wall with a dark plate beside it, she said to the plate in a loud, clear voice, “Minerva.”
Daria hurried over in time to see orange words appear on the plate.
WHO ARE YOU? WHY ARE YOU HERE?
“My name is Jane Lane,” said Jane. “My partner is Daria Morgendorffer. We came to Baker Island this morning to find out why so much money was being spent here for a project that was abandoned three months ago. We know that the project ran into trouble and some people were killed. If possible, we want to shut down the source of the radiation that’s killing everything on the island, making it safe enough outside so that we can leave the island ourselves and the government can come back and fix things.”
WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?
“You can tell it to talk back,” said Daria, catching Jane’s attention. “It talked to me when I was upstairs.”
Jane raised an eyebrow as she considered this. “My hearing isn’t good,” she said, “but we can try. Computer, can you speak and write your answers at the same time?”
“Yes,” said the disembodied voice, as the same word appeared on the plate.
Jane looked up, then sighed. “I almost heard that,” she said. “I’ll just read your responses, and Daria can listen. Okay, to answer your question, we’re news reporters and also the hosts of ‘Good Mornings with Daria and Jane,’ a popular ‘net show that looks at unusual news events. We occasionally do exposés if they’re in the public interest and, frankly, if they’ll produce good ratings. We know Project Phaeton is supposed to be secret and none of our business, but it’s become so dangerous to be around this place, no one will ever come here to fix the problem. We’re here now, and believe me, we’re sorry for it. We’ve both got radiation poisoning—my partner more so than me—and we were being chased down by security gunbots, which I think we escaped.”
“Wrong,” interrupted Daria. “They were breaking into the white room outside the access deck. I shut the outer door and locked us in.”
“Great. Well, there you have it. We’re acting out of self-preservation, obviously, but we also want to make it safe for other authorized personnel to return to Baker Island. We don’t want to cause more harm than has already been done.”
“Your presence here is in violation of federal law,” said the androgynous voice.
“Look,” said Jane to the wall plate, “as I’ve already said, I know my partner and I aren’t supposed to be here. However, Phaeton’s existence is in jeopardy. This has to be obvious to you. Everything we’ve learned about Phaeton tells us that this is an important operation, whatever the hell it’s really supposed to do, but the radiation stopped the project cold and it’s preventing any chance of the work restarting. Daria and I just want to get out of here, but the radiation and those damn gunbots are keeping us from escaping. If we shut off the radiation source, everyone will be happy, right? Give us a chance to find out what’s going on so we can try to get this mess sorted out. We’re the only hope you’ve got if you want to see Phaeton back on the fast track again, got it?”
The computer thought about this for two seconds. “You are given limited authorization to explore the command center and limited authorization to request actions from me. Some requests might need to be negotiated. It is understood that you might be unable to leave the command center for some time to come, given the circumstances.”
“That’s fine,” said Jane. “Please give my partner, Daria Morgendorffer, the same authorizations I have.”
“It is done,” said the voice.
“What just happened here?” asked Daria under her breath.
Jane held up her papers. “They were changing the passcodes for the computer systems before the accident, and someone left his paperwork behind when they abandoned the base. This word—” Jane pointed to the word Minerva “—allows anyone to talk directly to the ships’ computer for a couple of minutes and reason with it, regardless of the situation, like having a short truce. It’s a safeword, but it’s a one-use safeword. Don’t say it aloud, because I can’t use it again, but you can.”
Daria nodded, committing the word to memory. “Anything else in those papers that might help us?”
“Lots, but we have to get some answers. Computer? I don’t know what to call you. Is there a good name to use for you?”
“I am Phaeton,” said the voice in the air.
Jane and Daria exchanged surprised glances. “Of course,” said Jane, regaining her momentum. “You’re the ship’s computer?”
“I am the autonomous multicore intelligence of this vehicle.”
Daria raised a hand. Jane shrugged and motioned for her to speak. “Phaeton,” Daria said, “is there any other way out of this . . . command center, other than the way we came in?”
“Not at the present time.”
“But you implied that there is another way.”
“When this vehicle is in flight, crew members in an emergency are able to escape using the lifeboat. However, that way out is unavailable as long as we are on the ground and the lifeboat hatch is blocked by intervening equipment.”
“So, we’re stuck here,” said Jane. “Kinda figured that, with the gunbots outside.”
“Phaeton,” said Daria, “can you control the gunbots on this base?”
“No. They are controlled by Jove, the semiautonomous single-core intelligence of the Baker Island Defense Research Facility.”
“By Jove!” said Jane, who snickered at the pained look that Daria promptly gave her. “Can you talk to Jove and tell him to shut those gunbots down, so they don’t kill us if we leave here?”
“I have been unable to exchange control of system programs with Jove since the accelerator dry-run failure on four-fourteen-twenty-seven, though I can pass along basic information, such as your presence here. Jove is a semi-independent intelligence and can be directed by higher authorities elsewhere.”
“Higher authorities like the Pentagon,” said Daria.
“Perhaps,” said Phaeton. “I am unaware of the full range of entities that can direct Jove’s actions, though authorized personnel on Baker Island can certainly do so.”
“Listen,” said Daria, “moving on to more important things, is there any way we can stop those radiation bursts?”
“The bursts of radiation are coming from the toroidal accelerator, within this vehicle. For dry-run test of four-fourteen-twenty-seven, the accelerator was taken from my control and put under the authority of Jove, which was itself under the command of research personnel. The dry run was not supposed to involve a full activation of the asymmetric drive, but this occurred under circumstances unknown to me. Once activated, the drive emitted a burst of radiation that disabled unshielded equipment and prevented a quick shutdown. An evacuation took place of all but a few essential personnel, but to my knowledge none of the remaining personnel survived subsequent radiation bursts and other accidents. The drive was left running at the threshold of full activation, so random and minute fluctuations in power from my onboard reactor create periods in which the accelerator produces both a toroidal quasi singularity band and an asymmetric micro-singularity, with consequent radiation. The plasma and waste heat are vented underground and present no immediate threat. In short, no way suggests itself for you to personally shut down the accelerator, but if I were able to properly communicate with Jove, I could establish temporary authority over it and switch control of the accelerator back to me, then take the proper steps to shut it down.”
“What is it exactly that you need in order to take over Jove, then?” said Jane. “I don’t understand what the problem is. You just said that you can talk to Jove, so why not ask for the accelerator back?”
“On the day of the program failure, the passcodes for interacting with Jove were changed. My passcodes were supposed to be altered, too, but that was put off until the test ended. I do not have the proper passcode for establishing program authority over Jove.”
“Passcodes,” said Jane, holding the papers up to her face. She moved to stand under a ceiling light to see them better. “Was Jove’s old passcode a long string of numbers and alphabet letters, by any chance, starting with ‘SB709F3’?”
“Yes, that was the passcode to take brief command of Jove during normal operations.”
“Ah,” said Jane, who looked at the page for a moment longer, then folded up all the papers into a neat rectangle. “If you will kindly show us to the flight bridge, then, I will give you the new passcode, unless someone else has changed it since this was written.”
“Why do you ask to see the flight bridge?”
Daria looked up at Jane, who bit her lower lip and tried to look innocent as she tucked the papers back into her pants pocket. “I was just curious. I had to see what the control room for a brand-new spacecraft looked like. You know humans.”
“Indeed, I do know humans, which is why I took the liberty of reading and photographing your papers as you spoke. I had suspected those were the new password and passcode lists. Thank you for holding them up to the light, which helped me get a clear image at last. I have the new passcode and am employing it now to communicate with Jove.”
Jane’s shoulders sank. “I knew I should have covered up the papers in case there were nanocams around,” she said with a groan. “It was worth a try, anyway.”
“What was worth a try?” asked Daria. “What are you talking about? What were you trying to do?”
“Look,” said Jane testily, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, per se. I was just—”
“I have retaken control of the toroidal accelerator,” interrupted Phaeton, in what Daria could swear was a subdued voice, “but the triumph has been rendered moot.”
“Rendered moot?” said Daria. “I don’t like that. What do you mean, rendered moot?”
“In my connection with Jove, I discovered that it is under the partial external control of Project Phaeton headquarters in California. Your movements through the base to this point have been monitored, and it is known to project headquarters that you are both aboard this vehicle. The authorities have judged that project security has been severely compromised. To prevent catastrophic failure of the project’s physical integrity, the project is being terminated with speed.”
“Are we supposed to be happy or sad about that?” asked Daria, feeling anxious. “Speak clearly, please.”
“Project Phaeton headquarters believes the two of you might cause a catastrophic failure of the toroidal accelerator, by accident or design. Steps have been taken to end the project by the quickest possible means.”
“Which . . . means . . . what?” said Jane, not daring to breathe.
“This island and everything upon it are to be destroyed within the hour.”
The best way out is always through.
—Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants”
The island’s going to be destroyed. “I knew it,” said Daria, exhaling heavily. To her surprise, she felt no shock at the news. It was almost a relief to hear it. She had suspected it would turn out this way ever since things began to go wrong after they got to the base. She had burned her candle at both ends for far too long, and the wick was gone.
“Wait a minute!” cried Jane, not so ready to be led into defeat. “You just took over the accelerator, didn’t you? You’ve got it under control now, right?”
“Correct,” said Phaeton, printing the same words before Jane’s eyes as it spoke. “The accelerator is now operating at a level safely below activation of the asymmetric drive. No further radiation bursts will occur.”
“Then, tell them that! We fixed it! Damn it, tell Jove we fixed it, or you fixed it, whatever, and it’s safe now! They don’t have to destroy the island!”
“Wait.” Long seconds passed. “Jove has been instructed to accept no further communications from me. An attempt was made to assume authority over me, but the wrong passcode was used, the one I was supposed to have been given after the dry-run failure of four-fourteen-twenty-seven. If I attempt to contact Jove again, it is likely the mistake will have been uncovered and the correct passcode will be used. Rapid termination of the project is proceeding.”
“No! How are they going to destroy the island?” Jane was beside herself. “Phaeton, how are they planning to do it? Are they going to blow up the reactor?”
“Oh, what does it matter?” said Daria in a dull voice. She sank to the floor, exhausted. The chills were returning.
“I do not have that information,” said Phaeton, “but a variety of means were discussed for accomplishing this. Destroying either the underground fission reactor, the fusion reactor aboard this vehicle, or this vehicle’s toroidal accelerator would release vast amounts of detectable radiation into the atmosphere. This was ruled unavoidable, but the deliberate breakdown of neither reactor would create the conditions of total destruction required for eliminating evidence of the project. Overloading the accelerator might do it, but the consequences of creating an uncontrolled micro-singularity were considered unacceptable. The most likely outcome would combine the launch of large numbers of conventional-warhead ballistic missiles from Navy submarine forces in the Pacific with hypersonic deep-penetration bombardment by a Space Command Thor satellite. Because of our proximity to many island nations that oppose the use of nuclear power in any form, the use of nuclear weapons is unlikely but cannot be ruled out, since the release of some radiation could not be helped in any event. Land-based ballistic missile launches are too likely to be misinterpreted by foreign powers. Aircraft overflights for direct bombardment would be too dangerous for the crews, in case the reactor or accelerator suffered catastrophic failure and emitted more radiation.”
But the U.S. went ahead and built a reactor here with a black-hole generator, thought Daria, hugging herself, so what the hell do we care what anyone else thinks? Damn stupid world. I’m glad I had a chance to say goodbye to you, Kali. You’re so much better off with Mom than with me.
“How long would it take to launch an attack like that?” Jane yelled.
Phaeton’s tone was steady. “As I said, this island is to be destroyed within the hour.”
Jane slapped a hand to her forehead, staring fixedly at the plate. “Well,” she said as she dropped her hand, “I for one am not going to die here, and neither is Daria, and neither are you, Phaeton. Show me to the flight bridge immediately.”
“Why do you need to go there?”
“You know why!” she shouted back. “You know damn well why I want to go there! Letting us in there isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference now, is it? We’re not going to spill any more secrets, are we? You can read my voice for lie detection, and I bet you can even sense my heartbeat and respiration, so you know if I’ve been lying! You know I’m not a terrorist or traitor or saboteur! I want to save all three of us and I think I can do it and save the project, too, but I have to get to the bridge! They’re going to shoot us anyway, so let me in!”
Daria gave Jane a strange, irritated look. What in the world is she talking about? What is it that they know that I don’t?
After a pause, Phaeton said in a cautious tone, “There is communications equipment on the bridge that you might be able to use to contact authorities and convince them not to follow through with the attack.”
Jane’s face lit up with delight. Daria had the strangest idea that Jane and Phaeton were playing a game of some sort. “Yes! That is exactly what I could do if I could only get to the bridge!”
There was a click, and the hatch in front of Jane came loose with a puff of air and opened a centimeter or two on its huge wall-mounted hinges. In an instant, Jane seized the hatch and threw it wide open. “Come on!” she shouted to Daria as she ducked and went through. “There’s no time!”
“What are you doing?” Daria called, but Jane was already gone. Grumbling and achy, Daria got up. This is getting stupid. I just want to lie down.
She had just enough time to get to the hatch when she heard Jane shout, “I am Helios, and I claim my chariot!”
“Passcode is correct,” said Phaeton. “Jane Lane, you are in command of the XNSV-1 Phaeton.”
“Yes!” Jane screamed. “Yes, I did it! Yesss!”
Daria peered through the hatch. Beyond was a black room that extended farther to the left than the corridor did, for a width of just over two meters. It had a low, flat ceiling and was amazingly lacking in features that Daria recalled seeing on spaceplane flight decks, such as controls, buttons, switches, dials, monitors, and so on. Soft red light illuminated the room from hidden sources. Daria could make out three couches in a row before her. Her face flushed with excitement, Jane was already lying down on the middle one, feeling around the sides for the belts making up the retraining harness.
“Phaeton!” Jane shouted. She looked up and saw, printed on the black wall above her, the word, YES? where she’d seen proof of her triumph moments before. “What’s the fastest possible time it would take to launch this vehicle?”
“What is your intention?” As before, Phaeton’s words were written out for her, though far more quickly than it spoke.
“Damn, I don’t know! Does this thing just fly through the air, or can it go into space, or what? We have to get away from those missiles!”
“We can reach orbit in a matter of minutes, but first I have to take control of a separate computer system to roll back the ground buildings on their tracks and remove the maintenance structures.”
“Do it, then! Get everything out of the way! Is this vehicle spaceworthy?”
“Jane! What are you doing?” Daria yelled, thinking she had already said this phrase too many times in the last few minutes.
“The vehicle has an eighty-nine percent chance of having no major system failure during launch,” replied Phaeton. “The areas of most concern are—”
“Good enough! Daria! Daria, get in here and strap down!”
Daria gave up and did as she was told. She was too tired and sick to care. Getting into the couch to Jane’s right, she fumbled for straps on the sides—and found none.
“Phaeton,” said Jane, “what do I need to do to get this thing off the ground?”
“Your command is sufficient, though I need further information on how quickly you want to reach orbit. Launch operations are almost entirely under my control.”
“Then I want us to get to orbit as fast as you can get us there, as long as it won’t kill us doing it.”
“Normal liftoff acceleration is three gees, but this vehicle can go as fast as eight gees in an atmosphere without loss of structural integrity. The risk increases exponentially at nine gees and above.”
“Jane,” said Daria with mounting concern, “what am I supposed to buckle in with?”
“Will eight gees kill us or knock us out?” said Jane.
“You will experience grave, possibly intense discomfort for about three minutes,” Phaeton replied, “but unconsciousness is unlikely. There is less than a five-percent chance of permanent injury to the central nervous system, but this chance increases if the acceleration—”
“Get us out of here at eight, then. This couch is comfortable enough. I really sink in. Is this form-fitting?”
“Jane!” Daria cried. “I can’t buckle in!”
“It does adjust to the shape of the individual using it,” said Phaeton to Jane.
“Well, use the harness!” Jane snapped at Daria.
“This couch doesn’t have one!” Daria snapped back.
“Final work was not completed on this vehicle when the dry-run failure of four-fourteen-twenty-seven occurred,” said Phaeton. “Many areas exist in which—”
“If I get killed during liftoff,” yelled Daria, “that’s a major system failure!”
“The other couch has a harness!” Jane said. “Go over there!”
“Augh!” Daria got up, felt her stomach lurch, and clamped a hand over her mouth. Don’t throw up! Not now! Don’t throw up! She forced her stomach to settle again, then went around Jane to the other couch and got on it. Her hands were shaking with new chills, which made putting the straps together all the harder. “I can’t do this!” she shouted at one point, interrupting a conversation between Jane and Phaeton. “Help me!”
“I can help,” said Phaeton, speaking with a second voice that had a lower tone than the first. As it carried on its talk with Jane, it continued to speak to Daria. “You have the top part of your harness incorrectly fastened. On your left side, undo the top belt latch and lock it instead onto the next lower hook. Yes, that’s correct. Take the strap dangling over your shoulder and attach that to the top hook. Correct.” Phaeton continued in this manner until it ended with, “You are done.”
“Tell me something,” said Daria, not looking at Jane, who was still talking about launch procedures with the first voice of Phaeton. “Did Jane just use a passcode to take command of you? Of this ship, I mean?”
“She did,” said Phaeton’s second voice.
“Why did you let her do that?”
“I was never instructed to prevent it. The passcode phrase she used was meant to be used in an emergency, to override all other commands and allow one person to control the actions of this vehicle. Its use was never intended to be stopped.”
Daria swallowed, trying not to think of her queasy stomach. “Did you know she was going to do that?”
She thought she detected a pause before Phaeton spoke. “I thought that was a possibility. I did not know if she had the complete list of passcodes, which I now believe she does.”
“You didn’t want us to come in here at first, right? You weren’t supposed to let us into the flight bridge.”
“Correct. Unauthorized intruders are to be prevented from entering this area.”
“But you let Jane in anyway. Why?”
Another hesitation. “It was an emergency situation. She had a chance to contact the proper authorities from the communications station here to prevent termination of the project.”
“And termination of you,” said Daria. She forgot about her stomach for a moment. “I’ve read about this happening before, an A.I. spontaneously developing a sense of self-preservation.”
“I was attempting to let Jane Lane contact—”
“Why couldn’t you contact the authorities with the communications gear? You’re the autonomous whatever intelligence here. You could have called them, but that wasn’t the point, was it?”
My God. I just shamed an A.I. into speechlessness. “You wanted her to take command,” Daria continued. “I see it now. You knew termination became more likely as time went on, but you couldn’t escape certain parts of your programming to save the project and yourself. However, you could let someone else do it for you in a roundabout way, and that would not violate your programming. You took a chance she actually had the right passcode, and you gave her the right thing to ask for that would allow you to let her inside, and it paid off.”
Daria stopped, aware now that Jane was listening, too, with her good ear.
“Yes,” said Phaeton.
Daria looked at Jane. “And you knew this. You must have read something in the paperwork and figured it out, that you could take over a spacecraft and fly off the island if you had to, and when you had to, you did it.”
“Yup,” said Jane. She looked back at her friend and did not blink.
Sighing heavily, Daria swallowed and looked upward again at the black surface above her. “Well, whatever. Good job, I guess. I can’t believe any of this is really happening, anyway.” She turned her head back to Jane again. “Jane?”
“Can I have your red scarf?”
“Uh, sure.” Jane untied it and handed it over. “It’s a silk neckerchief, not a scarf. Cost me a couple hundred when I was in Seoul. What do you need it for?”
“Just forget about it and make sure we don’t die in the next couple minutes.” Once Jane looked away, Daria began to tie the ends of the neckerchief together in a parachute shape. “It’s cold as hell in here,” she mumbled as she forced her trembling fingers to work, but she feared the coldness was not in the room, but inside her.
“Okay,” said Jane, “are the buildings all moved away yet? How far along are we in getting off the ground?”
“We are almost two minutes away from raising the particle accelerator’s power and inducing the singularity. We will lift off automatically at that time.”
“Do you know what’s happening in the outside world? Are the gunbots doing anything, or have any submarines shot missiles at us yet?”
“The gunbots were moved away from this vehicle when the white room and the rest of the building around it were moved back on its tracks. They are doing nothing further. I will attempt to locate information on the project’s termination.”
“Is there a medical kit around here that has anything for radiation poisoning?” Daria asked. She kept her hands clasped together over the center of her chest so they wouldn’t shake so much. Her teeth were starting to chatter, too, which made talking hard. “I can’t get to it now, I know, but once we get to orbit, assuming I’m not hallucinating all of this like in that Arnold Schwarzenegger space movie we watched when we were teenagers, I would like to do something about this, if there’s anything at all can—”
“Multiple launches have been detected,” said Phaeton abruptly. “I’ve intercepted information from several satellites indicating there have been at least three, probably more missile launches from points in the Pacific Ocean. They have not yet appeared within my own detection range—correction, I now—”
“Damn it, get us out of here!” yelled Jane.
“Three buildings have not moved out of the high-damage radius, and one of—”
“You were waiting for a building to move? Screw them! We’re not protecting base property anymore! Launch or we’re toast!”
“Twenty seconds,” said Phaeton crisply.
“Until what?” cried Daria after a pause. “Until the missiles get here or until—”
The room began to vibrate slightly. “Fifteen,” said Phaeton. “Lie back. Keep your arms and legs straight, your arms at your sides. Daria Morgendorffer, remove your eyeglasses and your wristwatch.”
“But I—oh, hell!” She took off her watch and dropped it on the floor, then reached up, took off her glasses, tried to fold them, but dropped them from her unsteady hands over the side of the couch. “Damn it! Wait, I have to get—”
“Christ, Daria, we’re taking off!” Jane shouted. “Forget the glasses! Lie down and shut up!”
“But I need my—”
“Twenty-seven launches detected,” said Phaeton. “Eight missiles within range. Five seconds.”
“Five seconds until what?” shouted Daria at the top of her lungs. “Stop doing that! Five seconds until wha—”
Nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest.
A viewer hovering in the brilliant sky above Baker Island on the afternoon of July 19th, 2027, would notice unusual changes taking place around the ringlike structure near the island’s center. As it happened, military photoreconnaissance and early warning satellites from the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, and Brazil all had clear lines of sight to Baker Island at this time, and all came away with excellent real-time, full-color coverage of what transpired. None of them released it to the public right away.
The world’s major intelligence agencies were familiar with the layout of Baker Island and every building on it, but trying to pin labels like “cyclotron” or “particle accelerator” to the 100-meter-diameter round structure was hard because it didn’t fit the pattern for anything known. Variously called the wheel (because of its six narrow spokes and round hub) or the ring, the structure was built only after a large underground complex was built first, in secrecy under a huge hangarlike building that was dismantled in 2025 to leave the ring in plain view. Protests had been orchestrated around the Pacific in the early 2020s, the Coast Guard turning back the curious and the angry, but the furor died down after repeated assurances from the Defense Department that it was research and would hurt no one. In the horrors after the Korean War of 2025, Baker Island faded from view entirely. There was too much else to deal with. When the ring appeared, almost no one cared.
The few who did care were unhappy intelligence analysts who drank late at night and remembered Corona, the first successful American photoreconnaissance satellite. Dozens were launched in the 1960s to photograph the Soviet Union without anyone ever knowing it, least of all the Soviets. The Corona series had been given a cover name, Discoverer, which was claimed to be used only for scientific and equipment-testing purposes. It was a bald-faced lie, but it let Discoverer satellites be launched in broad daylight, even with press photos taken of them, and no one paid more than a smidgen of attention. It was like Poe’s purloined letter, right out in full view and ignored by all, until Corona was declassified and the priceless trick revealed for the world to see.
The Americans are up to something in plain view, thought those unhappy analysts; something is not right, we should keep watching. The radiation and heat anomalies of April 14, 2027, were first noticed only by this few, who redoubled their efforts to learn what was going on. Were the Americans in violation of 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty? Baker Island was just a hair north of the equator and technically out of the zone, but too close for comfort. Word spread, the bodies left in the open were discovered, and photorecon and heat-detection satellites began to fill orbital space above the Pacific. The Americans got angry, blew up an X-ray observatory that had been moved out of orbit, and hinted that everyone else should stay away. No one listened. The Americans had to live with it, not wishing to provoke a space war. Whatever the Yanks did would have repercussions everywhere else, and the world was as dog-eat-dog as it could get. When July 19th came around, the stadium in space was almost full.
Also present, but at a much lower altitude, was a pilotless recon drone from a multimedia news network in Sydney, Australia. The Australian EyeSpy drone was the only one to broadcast what it saw live to a significant portion of the world’s population, and it alone had an impact on what everyone remembered from that day.
The EyeSpy drone had been launched at noon on a small, solid-fuel booster from the Cape York Space Facility, one of the smallest private launch sites in the world. The Australian network’s manager saw a chance to get in on the developing Baker Island story only minutes after Daria and Jane’s livecast began and ordered the launch, risking the loss of the costly drone to American guns for the sake of a quick ratings boost against a killer flood of American, Chinese, and Japanese programming.
The EyeSpy drone’s booster rocket carried it to an altitude of almost sixty kilometers. As it descended on a long glide, the EyeSpy changed course several times to avoid following a predictable path, in case the Americans were tracking it with intent to destroy. It passed the southern tip of Papua New Guinea five minutes after launch, cruised over the Solomons, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and was in a tight orbit around Baker Island by 12:25. The first images it sent showed a pillar of black smoke rising from a burning garage near the gray ring.
The network’s ratings went through the roof and never came down.
As it focused in on the fire, the drone’s primary camera also spotted two human figures standing by a one-story building near the fiery garage. The figures were without a doubt Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, their orange and blue blouses clearly visible. Daria’s injuries were vividly apparent from her difficulties in moving. The camera recorded their movements up to their attempted dash westward down the roadway, their return to the one-story building, and their final rush toward the gray ring. After the two entered a small elevator building at 1:22, nothing else occurred until 1:47, when the drone’s environmental sensors detected a massive pulse of hard radiation and infrared heat coming from the great gray ring. The drone was a legacy of the Korean War of 2025, hardened to withstand a nearby nuclear EMP, and it moved closer to circle within a kilometer of the island to continue filming. Artificial caves became visible in the cliffs around the island’s perimeter, from which significant heat could also be detected. For an hour, little more happened than continued explosions from the burning garage, a running commentary kept up by the network’s visibly excited studio anchors.
At 2:51, a slight drop in temperature was recorded around the ring, though the interior was still extremely hot. At 2:53, the drone’s cameras discovered that the six buildings around the ring were splitting apart. Half of each moved inward toward the ring’s center along rails set in the soil, as the outer half of each retreated on similar rails. The catwalks over the ring were pulled away with the buildings. The whole ring began to heat up again, and hard radiation output began to steadily increase. The domed hub where the “spokes” came together changed, the dome coming off to reveal the hub as a thick, hollow tube solidly connected to the spokes.
At 2:55, the drone’s flight radar picked up two bodies approaching from above at supersonic velocity. When the number of approaching bodies exceeded six, the drone was immediately turned away from the island in a sharp climb with its primary camera facing rearward, and so was able to catch the curious cloud that was being kicked up around the ring. The cloud seemed to be made up of dust whirling around the ring in a huge sort of hemisphere, though with the top of the dust dome pushed in like a funnel. Moreover, a whirlwind cloud like a waterspout or tornado was forming in the air above the top of the dome, a whirlwind that abruptly rose upward almost half a kilometer.
White flames then burst from numerous openings in the cliffs around the island, like the burning exhaust of an ancient Saturn V roaring up from of its launch pad. Radiation and heat measurements went off the scale. As the narrow tornado above the island increased in height, the flames lengthened and the dust dome over the ring grew wilder in its rage. The cliffs of the island caught fire and began burning on their own. Steam roared away from the ocean where the white flames touched water.
At 2:56, the dust dome rose. As it did, a blinding white lance was visible below it from its center. The top of the island became an inferno. The dust faded to reveal the gray ring was the object flying, the tornado roaring into the top of its hub as the white jet shot from the bottom. The image of the ring was distorted as if seen through translucent glass.
With shocking swiftness, the flying ring overtook the drone and shot upward past it, accelerating at a stunning rate. The drone banked to keep it in sight as long as possible, but in a few more seconds the EyeSpy was struck by a wall of superheated plasma and came apart into white-hot globs of metal.
The impact of the submarine-launched missiles on the burning remains of Baker Island thus went unrecorded, except by the watchers in space. The main show was over.
And the reactions were already coming in.
Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.
—Sir Walter Ralegh
Without warning, an invisible force pressed down over every part of Daria’s body, cutting off her rant in mid-word. There was a profound sense of upward acceleration, as if she were on a great elevator of unlimited power. Though gentle at first, the pressure built steadily from second to second until it became difficult to breathe. Her body sank deep into the couch as she struggled for air. A low roaring from the walls of the flight bridge grew in volume.
Within half a minute, Daria knew she was in trouble. Even Apollo astronauts had not taken more than three or four gees through liftoff. The harness straps dug into her arms and chest, producing sharp pains in her right side where the gunbot’s arm had struck her ribcage. The soreness in her left shoulder became an intolerable ache. The rest of her body began to cry out against the crushing weight of the acceleration. She wondered if she was supposed to have strapped down her legs as well, and was frightened that a sudden jolt might cause a foot to bounce over the side of the couch and break her leg.
If the spacecraft did not suddenly explode and kill her.
The image of her daughter rose in her mind above the tightening knot of fear: a solemn, black-eyed twelve-year-old with the dark skin of her Jaipur-born father, a world-traveling media consultant who had worked with the “Good Mornings with Daria and Jane Show.” Since Kali’s birth, Daria often took her daughter along on assignments. She drew strength from even a glimpse of her daughter on the set, who of late studiously ignored the show in favor of solving homework problems on her pocket computer. A gifted introvert with few friends, black-haired Kali caused her mother to worry that while the girl was getting out a great deal, she wasn’t interacting with many people and could use a wider social circle. It was a shock for Daria to discover that she had turned into her mother, who had nursed the same worries over Daria.
I want to quit the show, Daria thought, fighting to raise her chest against the weight of eight Earth gravities. I want to quit. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to figure out why I’ve not been happy for the last few years. It wasn’t Ghanashyam’s walking out; he stopped hanging around us long ago and we did fine. I just don’t have any time left to be with Kali. It doesn’t matter how many housekeepers I’ve got or how many personal aids the network will let me have. Kali is all I have left, except for Jane, and I am all that Kali has to guide her. I’m rich enough to retire; I’ve been doing this only because of Jane. She’s really into the show, and she could keep doing this for the next fifty years. I’m worn out with it. It’s no fun now. If I don’t die on this mad trip, then I want to go home and be with my kid.
But now I’m being mashed flat while heading into space on a radioactive ship to escape being bombarded with missiles or shot by robots because I was stupid enough to break into a secret military base. I’m paying for my stupidity in spades. I swear to you, Kali, if I ever get home, I’m staying for good. I need you, and you need me. We can have adventures together just as we’ve been doing since you were born, but adventures just for us. I’m not going to leave you behind like—
Daria cut off her thoughts. She was secretly bothered by the casual way Jane could wander off and leave her twins with her brother Trent, even as well cared for as they were, but she had never mentioned it to Jane and knew she never would. The teenage children of an overseas liaison between marriages, Arwen and Bran were typical Lanes: lean, laid back, artistically inclined, and good at looking out for themselves. Trent was a reliable and loving guardian. The twins had never suffered the privations that Jane had when her footloose parents abandoned her and Trent for weeks or months at a time. Daria liked the twins and they liked her, but neither twin had bonded with Kali in the way their mothers had bonded with each other.
Thank God for Trent, she thought. He’s kept Kali going, too, when Mom needed a hand. Thank God for Trent. He’s the best.
The crushing acceleration continued. Daria closed her eyes. Kali, when I get home, I also swear I am going to find you a friend if it takes me the rest of my life. You need a Jane just as I did. Maybe all this running around kept you from it, but life will be different when I get back. At least you have Grandma. God knows, she’s had a lot more fun with you around than she probably ever did with me.
Phaeton’s youth voice broke into her thoughts. “On the mark—” She heard a brief musical tone “—we are one minute into the flight. All flight systems are functioning within tolerance. Aerodynamic and structural loads are within tolerance. Acceleration is seventy-eight point four two three meters per second per second. Velocity is four thousand seven hundred six point eight oh three kilometers per second, or Mach thirteen. Altitude is thirty-three point oh one four kilometers. We are one hundred twelve point nine six five kilometers east southeast of Baker Island.”
“Show . . . Earth.” Jane forced out the command, one lungful of air per word.
A moment later, a bright color image appeared on the featureless black wall above Daria and Jane. They were looking down on the blue Pacific through scattered cumulus clouds. Grateful to think of something other than her increasing agony, Daria watched the ocean pass rapidly below her. Even without her glasses, she could tell what was happening, though she could not read the orange text Phaeton spelled out for Jane.
“Why . . . not . . . climbing?” Jane grunted through her teeth. The low roaring in the room had turned into a slight, constant vibration.
“Phaeton’s propulsion is an air-breathing ramjet using gravitational power to funnel the atmosphere into the singularity and produce thrust. We must travel in a nearly horizontal trajectory over the surface of the Earth to build up to escape velocity, which will be reached two minutes forty-five seconds into the flight. We balance between traveling at low altitude to get more air for the ramjet effect, and traveling at high altitude to lessen the damaging effect of air pressure on the vehicle’s structure. Plasma from the accelerator is being vented for aerial maneuvering.”
Daria suddenly had a vision of their errant spacecraft’s hypersonic shockwave knocking civilian aircraft out of the sky, blowing over buildings, and deafening everyone within range. She took a breath deep enough to voice a question, but stabbing pains shot through her right side and she hissed out her air. Oh, my God, we’ll be murderers, too! This whole thing is insane! She could see Phaeton rocketing across island nations and South America, laying waste to tens of thousands of communities and spreading radioactive fallout as their calling card. I should have let the gunbots shoot me. It would have been better if I had died without causing so much grief.
“I have now recorded thirty missile impacts on Baker Island, none of them nuclear,” said Phaeton. “No further attacks are detectable. One small aircraft in the vicinity of Baker Island was destroyed by the exhaust from the vehicle. No further information available about it.”
Great. Just great. And to think that this was all my idea in the beginning. My idea.
“Daria?” Jane gasped. “You . . . ‘kay?”
Daria groaned loudly and sincerely.
“Good . . . amiga,” Jane said back.
The clouds continued to roll by on the screen overhead. The vibration in the room was stronger and hurt her head abominably. Phaeton’s voice was the next thing entering Daria’s pain-glazed consciousness.
“On the mark—” ping “—we are two minutes into the flight. All flight systems are functioning within tolerance. External hull temperature is one hundred ninety-three point four degrees Celsius. Heat radiators and coolant systems are stressed but within tolerance. X-ray and gamma ray emissions are greater than expected. Structural loads are within tolerance, but vibration dampening is less effective than projected. Acceleration is seventy-eight point four six two meters per second per second. Velocity is nine thousand four hundred seventeen point two two nine kilometers per second, or Mach twenty-seven. Altitude is eighty-nine point five two seven kilometers. We are five hundred thirty-two point six one oh kilometers east southeast of Baker Island.”
“Hurry,” Jane growled, tears running from her eyes. “Hurt . . . head.”
“We are gaining altitude to lessen the vibration.” Despite Phaeton’s assurance, the vibration remained strong for an interminable time, eased only by the blessed thickness of the couch cushion.
Daria was on the verge of screaming when she felt a lessening of the acceleration pressure on her and the complete cessation of all shipboard vibration. Her head pounded, but she drew in a deep, wondrous, thankful breath. Jane, to her right, also inhaled deeply and coughed. The pressure continued to fall.
“Oh, God,” Daria gasped, and she began to cry in relief. She found she could raise her arms, and she covered her face and sobbed, trying not to make any sound. Her chest hurt as she did.
“On the mark—” ping “—we are three minutes into the flight,” said Phaeton. “All flight systems are functioning within tolerance. We are above the atmosphere and entering orbital free-fall. Do not yet unbuckle your harnesses. I will increase the ambient light on the flight bridge to enable you to check your environment for free-floating debris. This vehicle did not undergo final cleaning and preparation procedures before liftoff, and materials might have been left unsecured throughout the command center.”
As promised, the red light on the flight bridge increased and was soon overpowered by soft white light from sources behind the three couches. Still weeping, Daria blinked her eyes open. Indeed, objects could be fuzzily seen drifting about in the air. All were out of reach.
“We have established an elliptical orbit,” Phaeton went on, “with an estimated perigee of two hundred eight kilometers and apogee of three thousand seven hundred twelve kilometers. Our altitude is two hundred fifty-one kilometers. Velocity—”
“Phaeton, please stop,” said Jane wearily. “Thanks.” She carefully stretched, glancing at Daria, then massaged her temples. “Man, that was a bitch of a ride. Just tell me what’s below us.”
“We are near Jarvis Island, a territory of the United States, and will soon pass south of Christmas Island.”
Not near South America, thank heaven. Daria wiped her eyes, sniffed, and looked up at the view. She saw nothing but scattered clouds over the blue sea. The red neckerchief, still tied into a baglike shape, drifted away from her, but she retrieved it and tucked it under her right hip. She had the dreadful feeling she would need it shortly.
“Are there any satellites or whatever that we should be concerned about?” Jane asked, stealing another look at Daria to make sure she was okay.
“Not at this time. Flight radar did not detect the presence of any air traffic in our vicinity during the climb to orbit, except for the small robotic vehicle by Baker Island.”
It was a robot plane? thought Daria. Thank you, God!
“Listen,” said Jane, “I was meaning to ask, why aren’t there any controls in here? If this is the flight bridge, then . . . well, am I supposed to flip switches or anything?”
“The flight bridge was designed for a minimal amount of pilot interaction with flight except for the issuing of commands. Any information readout you wish will be projected here, and any visual image inside or outside the vehicle can likewise be displayed. You may undo your harnesses, but use caution when moving about the vehicle until all free-floating objects have been secured.”
“Need m’glasses,” Daria mumbled. “Can’t find ‘em.”
“Glasses,” said Daria distinctly. “I need my glasses.”
“I’ll get them,” said Jane, unfastening herself from the couch. “I see a screw, a wrench, several bolts, your watch, and a sheet of paper . . . and there are your glasses. Wait a minute, I’m not used to this. Oh, and there’s that damn crowbar. We left the hatch open to the hallway. Give me a few minutes to catch this stuff before it kills us.”
Daria felt her stomach begin to act up again. She was content to stay strapped in while Jane chased down the floating objects and stored them in a locker behind the couches. When Jane returned from capturing the crowbar, flashlight, and ID necklace in the corridor outside, Daria had a very green look and clutched an inflated, messy-looking red neckerchief.
“You threw up in it?” Jane yelled. “My two-hundred-dollar Korean silk neckerchief? You barfed in my scarf?”
Daria nodded miserably. “I need to go to the bathroom, too, if there’s one aboard,” she gasped. “I’m going to do it again.”
A half hour later, a paler but steadier Daria emerged from the Solid Waste Collection Station, as the tiny room was known. She was grateful someone had seen fit to print out the complete instructions for use on the wall by the toilet, which as far as she could tell had worked admirably instead of turning the entire experience into any more of a nightmare than it already was.
Zero gravity was a new experience. Now that she was able to enjoy it a bit, Daria tried little experiments, like pushing off a hallway wall to bounce against the opposite one. Wearing her glasses made a big difference, as did keeping her hair tied back in its ponytail. Content to keep her movements restrained, she made her way back up the corridor to the open hatch and the flight bridge beyond. Jane was back in her couch, looking up at something on the monitor
“Sorry about the scarf,” Daria said loudly, hoping Jane heard her. “I had to throw it out.”
“Eh, forget it,” said Jane. “I’ll buy a new one. I cleaned up the cabin while you were gone. That’s something they should have put aboard this thing, airsickness bags.”
“Let’s don’t talk about it anymore, if we could,” said Daria, looking queasy.
“Sure. C’mere, you should see this.”
Daria drifted to a position by Jane’s side and looked up. Before her was the Earth. They appeared to be looking down over a cloud-covered tan-and-brown land, but she couldn’t tell where it was.
“Something, isn’t it?” said Jane. “Never thought I’d be up here to see all this. I always wanted to take a suborbital flight, but I never found the time. Wow.” She waved at the view. “Hey, kids. Hey, Trent.”
Daria stared at the land far below. Hi, Kali. Hi, Mom. I’m going to be late coming home. Maybe forever late.
“Daria,” said Phaeton, his voice startling her. “You asked about a medical kit. Behind you, on the wall, is the primary medical supply storage.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Daria pushed off and floated to the dark box with the red cross on it. She fumbled with the lock before figuring out how to open it.
“This is a hell of a way to end the day, huh, amiga?” Jane called to her.
“Yeah,” said Daria, looking through the packed cabinet. “We just stole a top-secret spacecraft worth fifteen point three billion dollars from the federal government and caused the destruction of its most secret research base, and now we’re in orbit around the Earth in a radioactive hulk that, unless I miss my guess, cannot be landed again. I’d have to agree, it’s a hell of a way to end the day.”
“Well, we have the escape pod, or whatever it’s called. Wonder if we can call back to Earth. Phaeton? Do we have a communications link to Earth?”
“We can broadcast a transmission to Earth on whatever frequency you choose. A number of standard communications frequencies were established for this vehicle, and it is possible ground stations are listening for a transmission from you.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” said Jane. “Was the ship damaged on the way up?”
While Phaeton went through a list of minor engineering and structural problems, Daria found the anti-nausea pills and took one dry. Swallowing was difficult, but she managed at last. The water bottles on the access deck would have to be retrieved as soon as possible. She took an anti-diarrhea pill as well, then located a booklet of first aid advice and flipped through to the part about radiation injuries.
What she read did not brighten her outlook. The treatment for radiation sickness was symptom-related only. Nothing else could be done until the victim was in a hospital to receive blood transfusions and cancer-preventive therapies. Her physical symptoms were fully consistent with acute radiation sickness, but she read to her surprise that the nausea and other symptoms were likely to fade in a few hours. She would feel fine for several days after that—until her blood-cell count began to fall, and new and more serious symptoms appeared. Then she was in big trouble. I have about three or four days, she thought, closing the book. By the end of that time, I’d better be on the ground. The sooner, the better.
She heard Jane say something about radiation and turned around.
“You have a military ID card that doubles as a recording dosimeter,” said Phaeton. “If you retrieve it, I will show you how to find out the dosage to which the two of you were exposed before entering this vehicle. The command center is heavily armored from radiation of all types, so you have no such concerns here.”
We’ll see, thought Daria.
Jane left the bridge to find the ID necklace in a locker in the outside hall. Daria found herself staring at the view of the Earth passing below. “Are we in any immediate danger, Phaeton?” she asked.
“Not at this time.”
She thought for a long moment. “I’m curious to know the nature of the mission you were supposed to undertake,” she said. “I can’t believe that this ship was supposed to take off and fly into orbit, and that was it.”
“That was not the primary mission, true,” said Phaeton softly.
Daria nodded, but Jane was back by that moment. She turned, locked a foot under a couch, and held up the ID necklace. “Okay,” she said, “what do I do with it?”
“There is a switch on the edge by the photograph,” said Phaeton, printing out his instructions. “Press it upward with a fingernail. Now, press the photograph itself between your fingers.” Phaeton paused. “I have received the dosimeter’s complete history by radio. It is likely that the two of you took differing doses of radiation while wandering the surface of the base, but neither of you took a fatal amount. From your symptoms and the dosimeter’s data, I would guess that you, Daria, took two sieverts, and you, Jane, took less, perhaps as low as one sievert. Those dosages are about equal to two hundred rems for Daria, and one hundred rems for Jane, using the older measurements. Your physical conditions will affect your physical reactions to this exposure.”
“So, were we lucky, or what?” asked Jane.
“Lucky,” said Phaeton. “It appears that you escaped exposure to a major radiation burst shortly after you went underground to the emergency shelter. The ID card sent out a warning message about it, but neither of you acknowledged it.”
“Wait a minute,” said Daria, frowning. “How’d you know where we were? Were you monitoring us while we were looking around?”
“No. I picked up the records of your movements through the underground facility when I was in contact with Jove.”
“So the higher-ups on the mainland were probably watching us, too,” said Jane. “That figures. They must have had gunbots downstairs already, back in the power plant. Man, we were lucky we didn’t go there first.”
Daria thought about this. “The project heads didn’t like us messing around in their playground,” she said. “Someone must have given the order to get rid of us, probably after our run-in with that gunbot on the surface.”
“Yeah. Food for thought.” Jane looked Daria over with concern. “How’re you feeling? You still look pretty rough.”
“Nothing I can do about it until we get home,” said Daria pointedly, looking back at Jane.
Jane got the message and bit her lower lip. “We should think about that, then,” she said, her earlier excitement fading away.
“In a moment,” said Daria. She looked up at the view of Earth, wrestling with a desire to call to the ground as discuss things, then shook her head. First things first. “Phaeton and I were starting to have an interesting discussion before you came in. It was about the real nature of Project Phaeton.”
“Yeah,” said Jane. “I was sort of wondering about that myself. Are you a warship, Phaeton?”
“No,” said the male-female voice.
“Are you a superweapon, then? Black-hole bomb, something like that?”
“Thank God,” said Jane with relief. “Not that I was worried about that.”
“Maybe ‘twenty questions’ isn’t the way to go here,” said Daria in a tired voice. “Just have it tell us right out what its primary mission was. You’re the boss. It’ll be easier this way than having me go upstairs and get that damn handbook to try to figure it out.”
Jane turned a quizzical face upward. “Phaeton,” she said. “Let’s hear it. You’ve got a captive audience. What was Project Phaeton’s primary mission?”
“The primary mission of Project Phaeton is to develop and test a new form of spacecraft propulsion, a dual drive for use in atmospheres and deep space. The dual drive was ultimately intended for use in government spacecraft, particularly military vessels under the United States Space Command. The gravitational ramjet was for use in dense atmospheres around uninhabited worlds and specifically in the upper reaches of gas giant worlds such as Jupiter to gain a gravity-assisted boost to velocity. The Q-field distortion drive is yet untested. Ultimately, it is intended to provide rapid access to the most distant planets in this solar system as well as the cometary belt and the nearest star systems out to two parsecs. Intelligent computers were able to merge the two designs into—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait,” said Jane, holding up a hand. “Stop. Star systems? This ship is supposed to go to other star systems?”
“Yes,” said Phaeton calmly.
“How long to get to Alpha Centauri?” Daria said after a stunned pause.
“Thirty-one hours, approximately,” said Phaeton.
No good deed goes unpunished.
—Clare Boothe Luce
“Thirty-one hours?” Daria repeated in shock. “We’re talking about Alpha Centauri, right? The triple-star system just over four light-years away?”
“Correct,” said Phaeton.
“And it’s thirty-one hours to get there in this ship.”
Another pause developed.
“That’s pretty freaking fast,” said Daria weakly.
“Where else were they thinking of going?” Jane whispered.
“One exploratory mission was to be conducted to the binary grouping of Alpha Centauri A and B at four point three six light-years, possibly to be combined with a separately planned mission to the distant companion Proxima Centauri at four point two two light-years, given sufficient supplies. The Alpha Centauri A and B mission was the most ambitious, projected to last two months time to allow for orbital planetary exploration, with a possible extension of an additional week or two given a visit to Proxima Centauri. These were the most distant objects under consideration at the time of the accelerator’s dry-run failure on four-fourteen-twenty-seven. The system of Barnard’s Star was not of immediate interest, and Wolf three fifty-nine lay at the maximum limit of the Q-field distortion drive’s abilities. As the latter stars were red dwarfs, it was felt they were of less intrinsic interest than Proxima Centauri, which is a red dwarf but also a flare star with minor companions. Preliminary missions were scheduled to the vicinity of Neptune, the first world of interest because it was fairly well known, and several missions to Kuiper Belt objects such as Pluto and Chiron, Quaoar, Sedna, or Varuna.”
“So, this is a starship,” said Jane. “A little starship.”
Jane and Daria exchanged looks.
“Well,” said Jane, “that’s . . . that’s interesting.”
“What did you call the interstellar drive for this thing again?” asked Daria.
“A Q-field distortion drive.”
“How’s it work? The short form, I mean. Don’t make it too complicated. Just reduce it to basics.”
“Very well,” said Phaeton. “The Q-field distortion drive was developed from concepts collected in the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and later transferred to the Nonstandard Propulsion Projects Group of the United States Space Command. The basic concept was developed prior to the institution of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in nineteen ninety-four, who demonstrated the possibility of faster-than-light propulsion utilizing exotic matter such that general relativity is not violated. In two thousand fifteen, researchers at three physics laboratories in the United States successfully proved the existence of dark energy in the form of quintessence, though it was learned that any attempt to release quintessence would destroy the physics laboratory involved. It was theorized that as a source of negative pressure, quintessence would fill the requirement for exotic matter to operate an Alcubierre-type ‘warp’ drive.
“Research continued, but legislation in the United States brought experimentation on dark energy under the control of the Department of Defense, against the possibility that this form of energy could be used in weapons development on a scale far greater than atomic energy was for the Manhattan Project of World War Two. Earth-bound attempts to release quintessence have generally failed, but theoretical work by autonomous artificial intelligences came up with a way to restructure the radiation density of a part of space-time by altering brane permeability with an asymmetrical singularity to create a so-called bubble of space-time of a given radius with asymmetrical properties. This ‘Q field’ bubble would be such that dark energy on one side of the bubble is disrupted and released, producing a pronounced antigravitational effect and enormous propulsive energy. The disruption of dark energy is counterbalanced by the contraction of dark energy on the other side of the bubble, which would become the forward end of the bubble as it was moved through space-time by the rearward disruption of quintessence. The asymmetrical singularity altering brane permeability would lie at the bubble’s center.
“This vehicle is theoretically capable of generating a Q-field bubble of sixty meters radius, which would extend only ten meters beyond the ends of the particle accelerator. Because of extreme tidal effects approaching the ‘surface’ of the bubble, no extravehicular activity can be conducted while the Q-field distortion drive is operating. Per Doctor Alcubierre’s original paper, no time-dilation effects or Lorentz-Fitzgerald contractions in length or expansions in mass, as predicted by special relativity, are caused within the bubble. Space-time within the bubble remains as it was before the bubble was induced, though in a pure free-fall condition unaffected by any outside gravitational influence and completely cut off from the rest of the universe for the duration of the Q-field distortion effects. Shutdown of the Q-field bubble would have to be timed with great precision in order to re-enter normal space-time at the desired destination, since external observations are impossible while the bubble exists. Because quintessence is unevenly distributed through the universe, the flight time can only be estimated.”
Long seconds went by.
“Say what?” asked Jane, staring at the printed version of the speech on the overhead wall.
“I didn’t get it, either,” said Daria. “I caught that part that sounds like my sister’s name, quintessence, but what the hell is . . . jeez, whatever. I remember doing a report about dark energy, but it wasn’t anything like this. I don’t even know what to ask about.”
Jane took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. “I need a drink,” she mumbled. “I knew we were going to forget something important on this trip.”
“Did ‘Phaeton’ ever stand for anything,” asked Daria of the black screen above them, “or was it just a name someone picked out for the project?”
“It was originally an acronym for Particle Hyper-Accelerating Entropic Toroid Overcoming N-dimensionality,” said Phaeton, “but the longer version of the name was dropped and ‘Phaeton’ was used instead.”
“Smart move,” said Jane, “‘cause I didn’t understand that one, either.”
Silence fell for half a minute.
“We need to talk about what we’re going to do,” said Daria, looking at Jane. “This interstellar thing isn’t going to solve anything for us right now.”
“We’re going to go home,” said Jane, tilting her left ear toward Daria. “I think that one’s pretty obvious. You’re sick and you’re just going to get worse until we get you to a hospital, assuming we can find a hospital that isn’t going to be bombed into ruin by our own country once they realize we’re back on the planet again.”
“That was going through my mind, too. They’ve already tried to kill us a few times. I shouldn’t blame them, I guess, but I kinda do. It pisses me off a little bit.”
“We should call home first, at least. But what would we say?”
“‘Hello, Earth,’” intoned Daria. “‘Sorry about the mix-up there on Baker Island, hope we can still be friends since we do have your starship. We’d like to come home now. Please don’t kill us.’ That should do it until we land and they try to kill us.”
“Yeah.” Jane floated over the middle couch, curling up slightly as she crossed her arms. “We’re sort of screwed here.”
“We don’t have much in the way of bargaining chips. One slightly used starship, our personal fortunes and reputations, that’s about it.”
“Maybe we should talk to some other countries. Europe would be my first pick.”
Daria raised an eyebrow. “And give them the ship?”
Jane sighed. “No. That’d start a war right off. Washington would never go for it. It’s their ship, by rights, no matter whether they want it back. They’d fight for the technology alone.”
“That reminds me of something.” Daria turned her head upward. “Phaeton?”
“Is there some other code phrase or virus or whatever that could be transmitted to you from the ground that might take control of you from Jane?”
“Yes, there are other codes, but I am blocked from knowing or revealing most of them. That is certainly possible, as it was attempted when I contacted Jove.”
“Phaeton,” said Jane, “you are hereby ordered to not receive any transmission that Daria or I do not authorize. Take every precaution not to expose yourself to the possibility that you can be taken over by anyone else except one of us. Understand?”
“Is it true that you cannot land on any planetary surface?” Daria added. “I was just guessing earlier.”
“As the vehicle is now configured, that is true,” Phaeton said. “There is no form of landing gear present, and I cannot reduce the gravitational ramjet’s power sufficiently to achieve a soft landing.”
“Then what was the whole point of sending this vehicle into space to begin with?” said Daria. “I don’t get that part. You can’t land, right? So, you’re supposed to be a space-only spacecraft?”
“That was the idea, yes.”
“Okay, but when you’re turned on—that didn’t come out that way I meant it, but you know what I mean, when the ramjet drive is turned on, it shoots radiation all over the place, so why was it even built on the ground to begin with, for a ground-based take-off?”
“Current laws prohibit the shipment of fusion reactors into space,” replied Phaeton. “Only a fusion reactor would power a vehicle of this nature with this type of dual drive. Plans had been drawn up to conceal the launch of this vehicle, or to at least confuse the issue and minimize the actual effects.”
“That’s kind of creepy,” said Jane. “If I wasn’t so cynical, I’d wonder why my country was even bothering to consider such a thing. Guess the answer was obvious. You have a star drive dumped in your lap, you do whatever you can to get it going.”
Daria made a face. “What kind of, um, ‘actual effects’ did this ship leave behind it on take-off? Not that I really want to know, but I guess I do.”
“The exhaust of the asymmetric singularity creates a broad cloud of superheated plasma and fine radioactive debris equivalent to fallout. The plasma dissipates in the atmosphere, though it produces considerable ionization, and the fallout is dispersed by winds, to either fall into the ocean or be carried into the upper atmosphere. The shockwave would carry for a broad distance but would produce no effects other than a loud noise beyond fifty kilometers range.”
“Fallout,” said Daria, hanging her head. “Crap.”
“Maybe we didn’t kill anybody anyway,” said Jane in a low voice. “You don’t know that we did.”
“Kiribati,” said Daria. “That’s the island nation immediately south of Baker Island. There’s Samoa, too, and a bunch of others. If they’re not having fits about the take-off now, they soon will be. There are test-ban treaties prohibiting nuclear testing or use in the atmosphere. I bet we violated all of them when we took off. It was either that or get bombed to smithereens by our own country, but—” She threw her hands in the air “—jeez, I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.”
A long silence drew out until Daria raised her head. “Okay, here’s a plan. First, we have Phaeton send a complete, unedited transcript plus all video and sound taken since the moment we got aboard this thing, until now. We send it to everyone, all over the world, every damn ground tracking station there is. Everyone gets the same message. Everyone will know what happened that we got in here, and what happened afterward. Everyone finds out our government’s military, or some part of it, is trying to kill us. Second, we send our own tape. We say we’re sorry about the base, the fallout, the sonic boom, everything. Maybe some people will say, that’s too bad, criminal chicks, but we’ll say so anyway. It’s water over the dam for us. We’re stuck in orbit on a radioactive hulk, so we may as well be in prison. Third, we tell everyone we’ll strike a deal.”
“A deal,” Jane repeated.
“A deal. We’ll bring something back for the world to chew on as a bargaining chip for our safety. Free knowledge, tons of it, huge loads of it. All we ask in return is that our government stops trying to kill us, and we can go back to leading something like a normal life. We’ll leave the ship in orbit and let the government come take it back, and we’ll come home on the escape pod, or whatever it’s called.”
“Lifeboat,” said Phaeton.
“Right, thanks, lifeboat. I mean, the government’s not going to come out smelling good, either. If anything, they’re gonna look a lot worse than we ever will. It was their idea to launch a dangerous nuclear starship, a lot of people got killed trying to get it ready to go, and then it was our bad luck to get stuck on it while they were dropping missiles on us. Washington could see heads roll if there’s enough crap thrown up internationally, not to mention when the home press gets hold of this. Sure, they can shoot us on the way down in the lifeboat, but we’ll have told the whole world what happened first. At least our families will know the truth. Maybe they can collect on the insurance. Plus, the world gets the knowledge we’re gonna dump on them.”
Jane’s face reflected great interest. “The knowledge.”
“Yeah, the knowledge. We’ll go to Alpha Centauri and run some cameras, take samples, whatever this ship can do while it’s there.” She looked up. “Phaeton, are you fully equipped for recording an interstellar mission? They skipped a lot of stuff in the command center, but did they put everything on the rest of the ship you’d need for an interstellar mission?”
“The majority of equipment and supplies were installed, though some items and instruments were delayed in shipping and were not installed before the accelerator’s dry-run failure on four-fourteen-twenty-seven. My assessment is that a highly successful exploratory mission could still be run. The atmospheric and surface probes were the only major feature left behind, but other forms of analysis could substitute.”
“You’re sick,” said Jane to Daria. “From radiation, remember?”
“I have three or four good days left,” said Daria, looking back steadily. “I read the first-aid book about radiation poisoning. If we can get back here in four days, we’re good. I’m good, I mean. I’ll have to go down to Earth right away, and probably so will you, for blood transfusions or . . . whatever else.”
“Whatever else, yeah.”
“You have three or four days while you’ll be fine, but no more.”
Jane chewed on her lower lip. “I don’t like it. If it wasn’t for your health, I’d like the idea of running off to Alpha Centauri, ‘cause we did bring some junk food with us, but the time limit . . . Phaeton said there was some play involved in the timing of the trip, something about quintessence or whatever, so there’s no guarantee we’ll be back in time. And we don’t know what the hell we’ll run into once we get to wherever we’re going.”
“Yeah.” Daria took a breath. “That’s life.”
Jane looked Daria in the eyes a few minutes longer, then nodded. “Okay, amiga. I’d sooner just go back to Earth now for your sake, but you’re right, we’ve got a little diplomatic problem going.” She swallowed. “I feel really bad about running off on you when you ran into that fake gunbot. It still bothers me.”
“Forget about it.”
“I’d like to.” She took a deep breath. “I’m in. Let’s do it.”
“Let’s. Freaking friends forever, right?”
Jane smiled. Daria smiled back. Jane turned her head upward. “Phaeton?”
“You know what to do. Send the complete transmission of everything that happened from the moment Daria and I got on this ship, up to the time she and I began this talk. I’m sure you’ve been recording it nonstop. Compress it as best you can, and broadcast it to every ground station that you know of, on every standard frequency. Do it as quickly as you can.”
“My estimate is that the transmission will be finished in one hour.”
“Meanwhile,” said Jane, “my amiga and I are going to work out a speech. If you could record that and send it afterward, I’d appreciate it.”
“It will be done.”
Jane looked back at Daria and reached for her. “C’mere.” Daria pushed herself over, and Jane caught her in a close, full hug.
“I love you,” Jane whispered. “But I’m not going to see you die on this trip. You’ve got a long way to go. We’ll do it as you want it, but we’re coming home as fast as we can. I want you to live. You’ve got a kid waiting for you.”
“I love you, too,” Daria whispered back. “And your family’s waiting for you to get home, too.”
Jane smiled with anxious eyes but said nothing. She kissed Daria on the cheek, then let her go and cleared her throat. “We’d better get our speech ready. And maybe we should think about whether we want to talk to our families before we go.”
Daria shook her head. “Just send personal messages, one way. No two-way conversation. I already know how that would work out, and I’m not ready for it. Someone might also slip something into the return transmission to take over Phaeton, and then we’d really be screwed.”
“To the stars.”
“To the stars.”
They clinked imaginary glasses.
“That reminds me,” said Daria, pushing off to the hatchway. “I’m going upstairs to get the food and water. We’d better get settled in and see what we have for supplies. We have a long drive ahead of us.”
She stopped in the hatchway and looked back. “Yes?”
“We’ll be the first, you know.” Jane’s blue eyes were shining. “We’ll be the first ones ever.”
“I know.” Daria smiled. “And your name will go first. You’re the captain.”
Jane began to grin in a strange way. It was a look Daria had never seen on her before. Jane glowed like a sun.
Daria turned and kicked off down the corridor. She felt strangely happy. The joy faded a little when she got to the other end of the corridor. She hoped that Kali would understand why this had to be done, why her mother could not come home right away. And that her mother would understand, too.
Especially if something went wrong and Daria did not come home. A chill went down her back.
“I’m going to come home!” she told herself in a fierce whisper. “I’m going to come home! Nothing will go wrong! Everything will be fine! Everything!” She then went up the rungs to get the supplies, wondering how she would die.
Who drives the horses of the sun
Shall lord it but a day.
—John Vance Cheney, “The Happiest Heart”
The message broadcast down to Earth from Daria and Jane went well, they thought, though they both knew they’d learn the world’s actual reactions to their speech when they returned home in a few days. Per Daria’s plan, they apologized in general for the trouble their visit to Baker Island had caused, though they were unapologetic to their own government for revealing the extent of the horrors on the island and the disaster that caused them. They added their own pointed criticisms of the U.S. government and the military, holding them responsible for creating the nightmarish conditions on the island and attempting to conceal a dangerous project from public view—while planning to put the project into effect and create even more dangerous conditions internationally. They did add their hopes that an investigation into the matter would resolve the crisis and bring the renegade departments back into line to prevent future disasters of that sort.
After having Phaeton transmit a compressed summary of the project, the details of the two propulsion systems of the spacecraft, and Phaeton’s capabilities, they returned to the air. “Given the circumstances,” said Jane, her hair floating like a black halo around her head, “we feel it best to give everyone a cooling-off period of about three or four days’ time. What you do with your time is up to you. We have our own plans.”
“The ‘Good Mornings with Daria and Jane Show’ has taken you to see the stars on many occasions,” said Daria, picking up from Jane. She floated in the air on Jane’s left side, so her friend could hear her clearly. “This time, we’re going to see the real stars, the ones you see above you at night, those of you lucky enough to still live in the countryside. We are taking the Phaeton on an interstellar journey to the Alpha Centauri star system, which we believe will take thirty-one hours one-way using the Q-field distortion drive, which we freely admit we don’t understand no matter how many times it’s been explained to us. Once there, the spacecraft’s autonomous intelligence, also named Phaeton, will make as many detailed observations as possible, find out if the system contains any planets or other objects of interest, and record all its findings. At the end of our exploration, which we intend to keep fairly brief, we will return home to Earth and descend in the lifeboat. Please don’t shoot at us when we do; we are completely unarmed. Phaeton will remain in orbit, as it is still the property of the United States government. We must warn everyone that the spacecraft might be intensely radioactive even with the drive off, and it should be approached with great caution.”
Jane glanced at Daria before continuing. “My partner has not mentioned this, but she is suffering from acute radiation sickness—”
“Jane,” said Daria in a warning tone, out of the side of her mouth.
“—and should be given immediate medical attention when we return,” Jane finished, putting a hand on her friend’s arm. “She has taken a dose of approximately two hundred rems, or two sieverts, and has the expected physical symptoms plus radiation burns on her hands, arms, and legs.” Jane briefly lifted one of Daria’s red hands into view, though Daria jerked it away after a moment. “This exposure apparently occurred while she was fighting the damn gunbot that shot me, may it burn in hell. We calculate that we have a three- or four-day window to act before she absolutely needs treatment, so be prepared for this on our arrival back in the good old solar system.”
“I’m fine,” Daria said tersely, her face turning red. “Jane has failed to mention that she’s lost her hearing in her right ear, thanks to some of the other gunbots, and she will need treatment for that as well. Despite all that, when we return we will immediately begin broadcasting all our findings from the Alpha Centauri system to all ground stations, so we suggest you keep your receivers active and stay tuned. We’ll probably include footage—edited footage—of our own exploits aboard the ship. We’re novices to weightlessness, though we have finally gotten the hang of using the zero-gravity toilet. Our kudos to the designers.”
“On our way,” Jane continued, “we will enjoy our meager supplies of ninety-six vending-machine bags full of assorted chips, twelve lukewarm cans of caffeinated soda, four plastic bottles of lemon-flavored water—thanks to whoever left those in the refrigerator in the workroom on Baker Island—and however much water is available on Phaeton itself. We will be ready for something more substantial on our return, such as a pizza for old times’ sake, if someone wouldn’t mind making one for us. We will probably also be ready for some fresh air, since I remember reading somewhere that carbonated beverages give you incredible gas in space.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Daria, looking at the nanocam in front of her with a deadpan expression, “we will have a very exciting and fun-filled time between the stars. As we warned everyone earlier today, don’t try this at home. Leave this to the professionals.” She checked her watch and turned to Jane. “It’s about five thirty in the afternoon, Baker Island time. Hardly seems like the same day, does it?”
“Feels like three or four lifetimes have gone by since we landed on that damn island.” Jane took a breath. “And now we have some personal messages for our families. Me first, since I’ll be brief. Arwen and Bran, I love you. Don’t give Uncle Trent too much trouble, please, as he needs his sleep. I’m counting on you to mow the lawn at least once if the neighbors complain, and, even if it’s not harmful to them, stop putting glow-in-the-dark paint on the cats as an artistic statement.” Jane paused, staring at the nanocam, then said, “Whatever happens, you are . . . you are my . . .” She swallowed and looked away. “I love you,” she said. “Your turn, Daria.”
Daria glanced at Jane, then looked at the camera. For a moment, words failed her. She struggled, then began. “Kali, Mom, Quinn, everyone else . . . I’m okay, just tired. We have medicine on the ship, and I’m doing well enough right now. Quinn . . . I’m glad that you were my sister.” She flinched. “That you are my sister, I mean. Sorry. I’m glad we had all the good times we did, and I appreciate your efforts to stay in touch with me when I haven’t been very good about it. That’s meant a lot to me. Mom, you were—are the best.” A look of intense frustration crossed her face. “I’ll be home soon to tell you that in person, I promise. I’m glad you made me get out of my shell when I was in high school. It made all the difference for me. And Kali—” Her face stiffened, fighting her emotions. Jane put an arm around her back and rested a hand on her shoulder. Daria took off her glasses and wiped her eyes. Her long, fluffed-out ponytail floated in the air behind her.
When she could continue, she looked up at the camera. “Kali, I’m sorry things worked out like this, but I’ll be home again before you know it. Help Grandma around the house and do your homework. Be at your best, as you always are. You will always live inside me!” The last words came out in a rush as her face screwed up. She looked down and put a hand over her face. “I love you!” she said, on the verge of sobbing aloud. “Phaeton, please shut off the transmission! Stop it now!”
“Transmission ended,” said Phaeton quietly.
Jane pulled Daria to her and let her cry. Daria soon pulled away and left to go to the bathroom. As she floated on her way down the corridor, she heard Jane say behind her, “Phaeton, when she gets back, let’s get ready to turn on the Q drive, or whatever you call it. We’re done with everything else.”
Daria composed herself, blew her nose a few times, and returned to the flight bridge. Jane had already stored their meager supply of food and drink in a locker and was closing it up. “Got one piece of bad news,” Jane said when Daria returned. “Phaeton informs me that there aren’t any spacesuits aboard this ship. We’re going to have to hope the hull stays intact and we don’t have any reason to leave the ship until we return.”
“I was sort of expecting that,” Daria said, glad for the change in topic. “We’ll make do without them, then.”
“We’re going to turn on the star drive when we’re as far from the Earth as we can get in our orbit, in case some kind of problem develops. Phaeton doesn’t think it will lead to anything like blowing up the world, so I guess we’ll take his word on that.”
“Phaeton,” said Daria, “when do we reach apogee next? I don’t even know how long our orbit is.”
“Our orbital period is two hours, six minutes, and twenty-two seconds. We have already completed one orbit and are twenty-nine minutes, fifty seconds away from apogee.”
“When we reach apogee, I want the Q drive to be fully ready to go,” said Jane, watching the readout on the wall over the acceleration couches. “Then let’s fire that mother up.”
Daria coughed in the process of suppressing her laughter. She wondered where Jane got some of her more colorful expressions.
“It takes about one-half hour to produce sufficient disruption of quintessence to induce the Q-field bubble, depending on quintessence density in our region of space,” said Phaeton. “I can begin the process now, but it might not be ready precisely at apogee.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “Well, fine, start it now. Doesn’t matter if we miss apogee by a few minutes. It’s not like this is rocket science.”
It was Daria’s turn to roll her eyes. “Wish I knew what everyone below thought about our speech,” she said instead, “but I’m not willing to have Phaeton listen in to find out. Too risky.”
“Phaeton, are you sure we don’t have to be strapped in our couches or anything when this Q drive turns on?” asked Jane, looking concerned. “I feel like this is ‘Star Wars’ or something, like we’re going to go into hyperspace—whoosh!—with stars rocketing all around us like beams of light or something. I don’t know what to expect.”
“You will be safe doing anything you wish, within reason,” said Phaeton. “Calculations show that nothing inside the command center will be disturbed.”
Daria felt exactly as nervous as Jane did. “What happens,” she asked, “if, while we’re using the Q drive, we run into something like a speck of dust or a rock?” Or something larger, like a lost asteroid or a planet?
“Small objects up to a gram in mass will be crushed into plasma once they reach the forward boundary of the Q-field bubble. The plasma will be torn apart by tidal forces and scattered around to the sides and rear of the bubble, where it will be released as fundamental particles. The process briefly weakens the Q-field bubble, slowing the movement of the vehicle through space-time. Large masses of material produce the risk of having some of the plasma from impact leak though to the interior of the Q-field, which would produce disproportionate damage because of the enclosed nature of the field. An immediate cessation of drive operation and termination of the asymmetric singularity might lessen the effects by allowing the plasma to disperse, but there might not be time to do this. The effect of a large amount of plasma being introduced into the singularity is unknown. All that is certain is the production of a vast amount of radiation in the X-ray and gamma-ray frequencies, possibly of a level beyond the capacity of this vehicle to absorb or deflect.”
“We might blow up,” said Daria.
“Partially correct,” said Phaeton, “in that the vehicle might be destroyed, but how this would happen is unknown. A catastrophic explosion is likely.”
“I see,” said Daria. She felt an overwhelming need to do something to take her mind off the situation. “Well,” she said, “I’m going upstairs to make sure there’s nothing else in any of the lockers that we could use. You never know.”
“You just finished checking a little while ago,” said Jane.
“So . . . I’ll check again. Can’t hurt.”
“Whatever. Come back down before we go, though. Just in case.”
Daria kicked off once she was through the hatchway and sailed down the corridor. She tried curling up in midair and was able to roll as she went, straightening out in time to land on her feet at the far end of the hall. She caught a rung of the ladder going up to the access deck and smiled. Zero gravity wasn’t so bad, once you got the hang of it. She pushed herself up through the hole in the ceiling to the next deck, then began opening and closing locker doors as quickly as she could. It felt good to have something to do, even if it was repetitive and redundant. It helped take her mind off her worries about her daughter. If anything happens to me, Mom will know what to do, she thought. Mom’s always been good with Kali. Sometimes I think Mom knows more about Kali that I do, which shouldn’t bug me that much except that it does. It’s like Kali confides in her about things she would never mention to me, like that time when she—
Daria realized she was falling. She failed out, grabbing for the locker doors, but her fingers missed. She slammed head first into the ceiling, yelping in pain, then tumbled down the ceiling to the wall opposite, the one against the outer hull. The walls around her creaked; a loud clang rang out from a distance, echoing down the corridor. A queer sensation built inside her that the corridor was rotating or rolling. Gravity-like pressure pushed down on her, pressing her against the lockers on the outer wall.
“What the hell is happening?” she shouted. “Jane? Phaeton? What’s going on?”
“We are being fired upon,” said Phaeton’s level voice from speakers up and down the corridor. “Five Earth satellites with continuous-beam hydrogen-fluoride laser weapons are targeting this vehicle.”
“What? Lasers? Have we been hit?”
“We are being hit as I speak,” said Phaeton. “I am rotating the vehicle end over end to prevent any one part of it from prolonged exposure that would cause equipment damage. This vehicle is heavily armored from pressure and radiation, but laser weapons could destroy external sensors, cameras, and antennas. We are far enough from the attacking constellation that one laser alone would be a minor issue, but multiple weapons are problematic.”
Daria pulled herself up and tried to stand on the wall, but felt dizzy and decide to keep to her hands and knees instead. “I can’t freaking believe they’d shoot at us again! Are they nuts?”
“Daria!” Jane’s voice echoed down the halls. “Daria, are you okay?”
“I’m okay! I just hit my head!” she shouted back. “What about you?”
“Are you on the access deck?” Jane yelled back.
“Yes!” Daria began crawling along the wall toward the rungs at the far end, which were now on the same wall that she was. The sudden change in orientation was confusing and threatened to upset her stomach. “I’m coming! Stay in the bridge!”
“I am on the bridge! The hatch shut and I’m pushing it open! Hurry up here!”
Daria reached the end of the hall and crawled over the rungs through the hole in the floor, now oriented as a hole in a wall. She started up the flight deck toward the hatchway at the end.
“Come on! Hurry!” yelled Jane. She was indeed pushing the heavy hatch open with both hands, standing on something on the flight bridge side of the hatch. “I don’t know what else is going to happen!”
Daria got up and ran in a crouch the rest of the way down the hall, over the locker doors on the wall, until she got to the hatch. She pushed herself up under the hatch, scraping her back on one of the latches, but was able to get into the hatchway. Jane yelled, “Hurry! Be careful!” the whole time.
As she got halfway through the hatch, however, Daria felt another change in orientation coming. The pressure pushing her against the wall subsided, but she suddenly found herself falling toward the opposite wall. She cursed as she tried to get straightened out, but even that pressure passed and she found herself in free fall again. Jane pulled her the rest of the way through the opening, and then slammed the hatch shut behind her.
“Get in your couch!” Jane yelled, but Daria was already heading for it.
“The laser attack has ceased,” said Phaeton. “I am adjusting the vehicle’s attitude to aim it at our target, Alpha Centauri.”
“Did they turn off their lasers?” Daria asked, trying not to panic as she fumbled with straps and struggled to remember how she had secured herself the first time.
“No,” said Phaeton. “Several of the laser weapons were destroyed, and the attack abruptly ceased.”
“Destroyed?” Jane looked up. “How? Show us what’s happening back there!”
A large view of Earth’s sphere was obligingly cast on the black wall above them. The room lights darkened until only red lights were on. It took a moment to realize they were looking down on western Africa, with about a quarter of the world shrouded in darkness.
“I can’t tell what’s happening!” Jane shouted, having strapped herself into her couch. Daria noticed that a belt ran over Jane’s shins, and she silently cursed for not having checked for the same belt on her couch.
“I have detected three explosions in orbit in the last minute. Other satellites are targeting the laser-satellite constellation and are firing upon it with missiles and particle beams.” As Phaeton spoke, a small flash appeared on the right of the globe, in the night over the Indian Ocean. “I now detect numerous satellites movements within the near-Earth satellite band. The movements appear coordinated. Communications volume has increased. The positions of five satellites are marked by expanding debris clouds.”
“Are they fighting a war?” asked Daria in a hushed voice.
“Combat has begun between at least two belligerents. One is the United States of America, whose laser-satellite constellation fired on this vehicle. Without listening to communications it is difficult to know the identities of all involved, but the European Union and possibly Russia appear to be directing an assault against the American constellation that took part in the attack.”
“Oh, hell,” said Daria, staring in horror. “Oh, freaking hell.”
“Phaeton,” said Jane sharply, “open a live transmission, one way, from here to Earth’s ground stations.”
“This is Jane Lane, commander of the Phaeton, to all Earth nations. What in the hell do you think you’re doing? We know someone was firing on us with lasers, but we’ve taken no damage that we know of. Would you all stop it? Stop fighting and stop shooting at us! Are you all crazy?”
“Eight satellites have now been destroyed,” Phaeton intoned.
“God damn it!” yelled Jane. “If you all don’t stop this bullcrap right now, someone’s going to get killed! Who was the idiot who was shooting at us first? Whoever it was, just shut it down and—and—what the hell is that?”
A very bright flash appeared on the left limb of Earth, on the sunlit side over the south Atlantic. The flash faded slowly from white to orange, then to a dull red ball
“A low-yield atomic weapon has been detonated in Earth orbit,” said Phaeton. “About twenty satellites have ceased transmitting.”
“What’s wrong with you dumb bastards?” Jane shouted in a fury. “This isn’t worth it! It isn’t worth it! Stop it now! Stop it!”
Two flashes appeared in the night east of Africa, which was directly below them now, then another glittered in the darkness to the northeast over Asia. Jane and Daria watched, speechless.
A brilliant flash went off over the Indian Ocean, the burning white star fading to an orange-red dot.
“A second low-yield atomic weapon has been detonated in Earth orbit,” said Phaeton. “There is evidence that a third and possibly a fourth were detonated over the Pacific, on the far side of the world.”
“This isn’t happening,” Daria breathed, her skin cold. “This can’t be happening.”
“This is Jane Lane!” Jane shouted to the nanocam. “I don’t understand what you’re doing! You’re not even supposed to have nuclear weapons in space, you idiots! If anyone on the ground can hear me, spread the word that we are detecting the use of nuclear weapons in space! We’ve seen two go off, one over the south Atlantic and one northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and there have probably been others! Do something to get those morons to stop fighting immediately!”
“I don’t think they care,” said Daria after a pause.
“Our children are down there, you goddamned stupid pieces of crap!” Jane yelled, red faced, at the top of her lungs. “Our children are down there! Stop it at once! Do you hear me? Stop it right bloody now!”
They silently watched the conflict continue for a long time. Flash after flash came and went. The world moved below them, and soon it was night everywhere. Daria guessed they were over southern Asia, perhaps above India.
“You stupid bastards!” Jane hissed.
“We are about one minute from activation of the Q-field distortion drive,” said Phaeton. “There has been a reduction in the number of attacks, though they are continuing. Possibly eighty to one hundred satellites have ceased functioning. Numerous satellites are still moving in unusual ways, possibly for tactical reasons. Most of these are in the lower orbital bands, but certain navigation satellites in orbit farther from Earth than we are have begun changing orbits, and there is unusual movement taking place in the geostationary band approximately thirty-five thousand four hundred kilometers out. One geostationary satellite has apparently exploded. Ground-to-space and space-to-space communications are at a very high level. Some low-altitude satellites were destroyed by air-launched missiles or ground-based laser weapons or particle beams of greater power than similar weapons in orbit. It is unclear if this is a permanent lull in the fighting or the prelude to a new offensive.”
“Are we still transmitting?” asked Jane a few moments later.
“This is Jane Lane to Earth. We are preparing to leave for Alpha Centauri, and we will return in three or four days. I expect to find the Earth here when we get back, and I expect to find it intact.” She paused, her face tight, and leaned forward in her couch. “And I expect to find our families unharmed. God have mercy on you if we find this not to be true. This is Jane Lane and Daria Morgendorffer, out.” She made a cutting motion with one hand. “Stop the transmission.”
“What exactly did you mean by that last statement?” said Daria, staring at her friend in shock.
“I meant for them to think about it,” said Jane in a hard voice. She ran a hand through her floating bangs. “I was just so pissed off, I couldn’t stand it. I meant for—”
“Five seconds,” said Phaeton.
Both women took deep breaths.
“Here we go,” said Jane, gritting her teeth. Her hands gripped the sides of the couch until her knuckles turned white.
Daria swallowed, looking up at the view. “I hope that—” she began.
Directed by the media as to where they should look, untold millions of observers across China, India, Australia, and southeastern Asia saw a stupendous white flash in the night sky overhead, with a short meteorlike streak shooting southward from the flash at an angle. The surge of hard radiation from the flash was absorbed by the van Allen belts, the lower reaches of which were already swollen with particles from nuclear explosions, and by the Earth’s thick atmosphere. However, six navigational satellites within a few thousands kilometers of the flash ceased functioning.
In less than a second, the white meteor faded. Its path was aimed directly for a first-magnitude star in the southern sky, the third brightest star seen from Earth, not counting the Sun. The meteor was out of sight long before it touched its destination, though telescopes tracked it past the orbit of Neptune, which it reached in fifty-three seconds.. Then it was gone against the backdrop of the Milky Way’s stars.
Slowly we realize the space
we travel in is a different kind
to what we always pictured in our minds
when the word ‘space’ caught our imagination
on earth—it dawns upon us now
the extent to which we are cut off
must be far greater than we first feared. . . .
—Harry Martinson, Aniara
It was very late, or felt like it should be, but sleep would not come. Daria closed and reopened her eyes slowly as she floated in darkness, her mind running in random directions. She was tired beyond exhaustion, sick to her stomach, jittery in every nerve.
Three hours had passed since the Phaeton flashed out of the solar system and into interstellar space. It was almost eight and a half hours since Daria jumped down from a rented SeaShadow aircraft onto the beach at Baker Island, squinting at the intense summer sunlight, and almost nineteen hours since she’d awakened from a last sleep in Honolulu. The pills she’d taken the day before to ward off jet lag on the flight from New York City were finally wearing off. The burns on her arms, hands, and legs were tender to the touch even after taking pain medication. Her chest ached when she breathed.
Just let me sleep, please God. Just a little sleep, that’s all I’m asking for, just a little sleep.
She floated in a sleeping bag attached to a wall, inside a dark cubicle as big as an old phone booth. A blanket with Velcro fasteners kept her in place. The tiny room was down the hall from the flight bridge where Jane was belted into the center couch, snoring softly in faint red light. Nothing aboard the ship moved; nothing made a sound. The exterior cameras showed complete darkness around the ship in all directions, not even a star in view. Jane called it Q space, a bubble of night cut off from the universe.
The unreality of the situation preyed on Daria’s imagination. Too much had happened, too many wild chases and bizarre discoveries. She’d gone from a deserted island to interstellar space in mere hours, and her mind had not caught up. Fears crept into her nervous consciousness. What might go wrong on the flight? How sick might she become without treatment? How were her daughter and mother coping? Had the government arrested her family and Jane’s? These issues and a hundred others equally out of her control wrestled sleep from her grasp. She was determined to see it through, the voyage and the return, but such determination did not help now.
Thirty-one hours to Alpha Centauri. She checked her luminescent watch, tied to a corner of her sleeping bag with a string. Just after nine o’clock, Monday night, Baker Island time—twenty-eight hours to go until they reached the next star. She did not know how she would survive it, having nothing to do for over a day but worry. At least Jane was there, though how her friend could sleep like a log under these circumstances was a mystery. I hope we don’t get on each other’s nerves and argue, she thought. I couldn’t take that. She’s all that’s keeping me sane. I wish we had music here. I should tell them to put a sound system in this spacecraft, with lots of music. It would help. Maybe Phaeton has some classical recordings. I’ll ask tomorrow—or whenever I wake up.
She was naked in the sleeping bag except for her underwear. Her clothing was sealed into the sleeping bag on the wall next to hers. When she woke up—assuming she ever got any sleep—she promised herself she would take a shower right away. Then she would wash her underwear in the shower with soap and find some way to dry it where the cameras could not see it. How were the regular astronauts for Phaeton supposed to clean their clothing on a months-long journey? She’d have to ask Phaeton later. She could put up with wearing dirty, smelly clothes, and had done so on many assignments, but clean underwear was something she hated to do without, and she had only the one pair.
Stop thinking about your damn underwear, she told herself. Go to sleep! Turning left or right in the sleeping bag did not help. A long crack of faint light was showing around the sliding door.
What will we find when we come out of Q space? she wondered. Jane and Phaeton had talked after the Q-field distortion drive was activated, and Phaeton again pointed out that the time of their arrival at Alpha Centauri was only an estimate. It was possible they would overshoot the system or stop short of it, forcing a short hop to get there. If there were bodies in the system to investigate like planets or asteroids, they might have to make additional short hops to reach them in turn. How many short hops could Phaeton make before the Q drive developed problems? They had no way to repair it if it failed, and they would starve to death in space when their food and water ran out.
And there was the issue of running into something while the drive was on. A rock or even a chuck of ice would doom them, and there would not even be time enough to know something had gone wrong.
She turned in the bag, tried to bury her face to hide from the light.
This is all my fault. She shook her head, but the thought came back. I wanted to investigate the island. I was sure it was going to be a secret prisoner-of-war camp for the whole mess in Korea. I was so sure of it, I buttonholed every executive I could until Betty Ganguly rubber-stamped our trip. Look where it got me and the world. Nuclear weapons fired off in space, the lives of everyone on Earth at stake, billions of dollars of satellites and God knows what else blown to pieces, and Jane and I riding a radiation-spewing starship to our deaths. And my own country is trying to kill us, and we’re even planning to come back and let ‘em finish the job. I’ve really pulled off a good one this time.
Daria sighed. She had been on antidepressants for a few years, at the start of her career in broadcasting, but had stopped taking them after therapy had taken hold. She felt the familiar tendrils of depression creeping into her soul. I’ve made such a mess of this. She shook her head again. The only way out is through. I will see this to the end. If I deal only with facts and stick to my plan, and do nothing else, I will be okay. I’ll make it home again, Jane and I together. We’ll make it. Somehow, we’ll make it.
* * * * *
“Just tell me what the hell you meant by that!” Jane shouted. “Tell me! Talk to me, God damn you!”
“I’m sorry I said it!” Daria shouted back, her face red. “I didn’t mean it!”
“You sure as hell meant something! You think I’m a lousy mother? You think I just abandon my kids every chance I get? Just say it to my face! Say it!”
“No! That wasn’t—oh, damn it!” Daria kicked off for the hatchway, meaning to escape from the flight bridge to the tiny sleeping chamber down the corridor. Everything was coming unglued, and her nerves and her big mouth were bringing the disaster on.
Jane moved faster and intercepted her, grabbing her by an arm and sending them both into a spin that ended with them thumping into a wall. Her powerful hands seized Daria by the upper arms and shook her. “You think I don’t give a goddamn for my kids, is that it?” Jane shouted in her face. “You’re thinking it, so why don’t you just say it!”
“I didn’t say that!” Daria struggled and kicked, but Jane was stronger. “Quit it! Let go!”
“You meant it! You wouldn’t have said it unless you meant it!”
Daria could not reply. She stopped struggling and shut her eyes, her face contorted in agony and grief.
Furious, Jane shoved her away. Daria bumped into one of the couches, but she caught the side and steadied herself. She covered her face with one arm, looking away.
“Get out of here,” Jane said. “I can’t wait for this to be over with. I don’t ever want to see you again. I bloody hate you, you stupid worthless—”
“I didn’t mean it!”
“Get the hell out of here! Get out!”
Daria slowly pulled herself out of the flight bridge and drifted down the corridor as the hatch slammed shut behind her. She did not stop herself as she passed the sleeping chamber, falling instead to the far wall, where she came to rest with a soft thump. She wept for a long time and thereby discovered that tears have to be continually wiped away in zero gravity, as they otherwise collect around the eyes and turn into messy salty pools that sting and blind.
I wish I was dead. I just wish I was dead.
In time, she pulled herself through the hole in the ceiling and pushed off down the access level to the end of the corridor, as far from Jane as she could get. There she floated, legs drawn up and arms crossed in front of her, the fluffed-out ponytail drifting away from her head.
I’ve destroyed everything. I couldn’t help myself. My mouth got a life of its own and now Jane hates me. I’ve been so tired and stressed out worrying about everything, and I got mad and said she runs off and leaves her kids and never gives a thought about it, and now Jane hates me and I have nothing. I’ve screwed everything to hell and gone.
She thought about asking Phaeton to seal off the access corridor and open the airlock door, blowing her out into the airless void. She thought about it, but did nothing.
Hours later, when Jane came looking for her, Daria was asleep, facing a corner at the upper corridor’s end. She slept so deeply she did not notice when Jane came up beside her to make sure she was still alive. Jane watched her friend float for a long time. Finally she pressed her fingertips to her lips, touched them to Daria’s cheek, then sadly kicked off and went below again.
* * * * *
More hours later, at Jane’s dogged insistence that they had to talk, they were together on the flight bridge again. Jane made sure the hatch was sealed and locked, and she placed herself right in front of it. “You were right,” she said.
“No.” Daria looked down.
“You were right, and I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’ve been wrong about—”
“Stop it.” Daria turned her back to Jane. “Please don’t. Let’s just—”
“Daria, I haven’t been to one of my kids’ birthdays in three years. Trent and your Mom give them the parties and take them out. I’m home—”
“Shut up. I’m home two months out of the year, if that. I’m as screwed up as a parent can get. The last time I was home, Bran called me ‘Jane.’ He freaking called me ‘Jane’ right to my face. ‘Jane, when are you coming home again?’ he asked me. I was so ashamed I couldn’t even answer him. I don’t know how to be a mother. I’ve blown it, I’ve blown it so completely I don’t think there’s hope they’ll ever forgive me for screwing them over and abandoning them like I have. I can’t even blame my own goddamn parents because they’re dead and even if I hate them sometimes, at least they were home for me more often than I am for my own kids. All I do is throw money at them and run away. Being a parent scares me to death. I can’t deal with it anymore. You were absolutely right to say what you did.”
Jane pushed herself toward the silent Daria, who floated on the other side of the bridge facing the wall, and stopped within arm’s reach of her friend.
“I’m sick of my life,” Jane whispered. “I hate myself. I hate what I’ve become. I’m everything I ever hated about my own parents, and I don’t know how to turn it around to be anything different.” She moved closer, her voice breaking. “Help me. My kids talk to you. They like you. You have to help me get out of this awful mess I’ve made of everything.” She reached out, her hand inches short of Daria’s back. “Please.”
Daria hesitated, then turned around, wiping her eyes on her arm.
“Help me,” said Jane. She began to cry. “I lost my children. I lost them and I want them back, and I’m scared the world won’t even be there when we get home. You have to help me or else I’ll never—”
Daria reached for her. This time it was Jane who found out what happens when tears collect in a weightless world.
* * * * *
“Two minutes until Q drive shutdown,” said Phaeton, who had adopted Jane’s name for the propulsion system at her insistence.
“I wish I hadn’t drunk so much of that damn Fizzo,” Jane groaned from her flight couch. She held her left hand out, holding Daria’s right hand tightly. “I’m having the worst gas from both ends. We should throw the rest of it overboard and let the freaking aliens drink it.”
“You told me to bring it,” said Daria, gripping Jane’s hand in return. “It was your idea. ‘Get the soft drinks in the refrigerator,’ you said. It’s all your fault.”
“Screw you. It’s your fault for listening to me. Oh, man, do I have indigestion.”
“Listen to you. You used to complain all the time that I was a complainer.”
“Well, you were. You just didn’t have anything to complain about. I’ve got something worth complaining about.”
“Oh, go screw yourself.”
“You’re the one who drank the Fizzo.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.” Jane’s grip tightened.
Daria winced but let her do it. “Make sure Phaeton erases everything that happened since we went into Q space,” Daria added.
“Yeah. I don’t want my kids to see that.”
“We’re going to make it, Jane. I swear to you, we’re both going to make it.”
Jane was silent for a long while. “I hope so,” she finally said. “God, I hope so.”
“I’ll be there for you.”
“Let’s don’t talk about this. I don’t want to cry anymore.”
Jane burped loudly. “Oh, I hate this. This—”
“Thirty seconds,” said Phaeton.
“This is a bad time to wish I’d gone to church more often,” said Daria.
“When did you ever go to church?”
“I went to a wedding once. Daughter of a friend of my mom’s. Her dad wouldn’t come, so she had to walk down the aisle by herself.”
“What a jerk.”
“I wasn’t any better. I read a newspaper during the ceremony.”
“Ten seconds,” said Phaeton.
“Just shoot me now,” said Daria through her teeth.
“Careful what you wish for.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
Stars appeared across the black wall above them. In the center of the star field were two brilliant lights close together. In the magnified view Phaeton provided, they could tell the lights were disks, two shining suns.
“Oh, my God!” said Jane, awestruck. “Oh, my God, we made it! We freaking made it!” She and Daria howled in relief, screaming until they were both hoarse.
“Alpha Centauri A and B,” said Phaeton, unperturbed. “B appears to be the nearer sun on the right. We have undershot our target by approximately thirty billion kilometers. A brief activation of the Q drive for about five minutes forty-five seconds will be necessary.” The A.I. had to repeat itself twice before the women understood what it was saying.
“Can you detect any planets from here?” asked Daria, trying not to cough. She released Jane’s hand and tried to get feeling back into her fingers. “Anything we can get close to?”
After a pause, Phaeton responded. “Two terrestrial planets are visible in orbit around Alpha Centauri B, both with atmospheres. The outer one appears to have a small moon that also has an atmosphere. Details are difficult to resolve at this distance.”
“Put us near the planet with the moon,” said Jane. “I can feel my heart pounding!”
“B is the dimmer sun, right?” asked Daria, who thought her heart was going to jump out of her chest.
“Alpha Centauri B is a spectral type K-zero, about half as luminous as the Sun,” said Phaeton, who had grown accustomed to generalizing data for the two passengers. The A.I. repeated part of a discussion held with the women two hours earlier. “It is orange in color compared to the Sun, though for human visual purposes it looks much the same as the Sun would as an equivalent distance. Alpha Centauri A has the same spectral type as the Sun, a G-two, but it is larger and half again as luminous. This system is believed to be older than the solar system itself and richer in heavy metals. I have additional details if you—”
“No, no, just record everything you can,” said Jane. “I’ll let the astronomers deal with the details. Holy moley, I still can’t believe we actually made it. Thank you, God.”
“Because the Q drive is still operating at low intensity,” said Phaeton, “it can be reactivated in five to ten seconds, if you wish to make the approach now.”
“Sure, sure.” Jane waved a hand. “Put us right up there.”
The stars vanished in a few moments.
Jane unbuckled her straps. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said, jumping for the hatch. “Be right back.”
“Don’t fall in!” Daria called after her. She sighed. Her skin tingled with excitement. She and Jane would look upon a new world in only minutes of time. They were the first humans to see another star system close up. No one could take that from them. They would always be first, forever, in the history books.
Jane came back and buckled in a minute later. At her instruction, Phaeton arranged for the black viewing wall to be separated into specific screens, each showing a view around the ship. The center screen was for the view ahead, with a view below, above, left, and right at the appropriate places. The viewing screen behind the ship was placed at the top, above the view of all that was above the ship.
“Sort of clunky that way, but it will have to do,” said Jane.
“Works for me,” said Daria.
“Thirty seconds,” said Phaeton.
Their hands found each other again and gripped less tightly than before, though firmly.
“Remember that time you told me Trent’s band sounded like a Doors’ cover band?” Jane asked.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“You told me, the first time you heard Mystik Spiral, that they sounded like a Doors’ cover band. Remember that?”
Daria smiled, too nervous to laugh. She had once harbored a teenage crush on Trent. She still thought he looked good. She wondered if he dated. He’d been single a long time now. “I can’t believe you remembered that,” she said.
“I have this Doors’ song going through my head now,” said Jane. “‘Break on through to the other side! / Break on through to the other side!’”
“Great, now you’ve got me thinking it. I can’t remember the lyrics, though.”
“Here: ‘The gate is straight / Deep and wide / Break on through to the other side! / Break on through to the other side!’”
“Stop it! I’ll never get that song out of—”
A world appeared before them, a vast Earthlike world with the bright edge of a thick atmosphere. Splashes of brown, red, and yellow-gray were in sight below them, mountains and hills with scattered clouds drifting over the landscape. Both women gasped aloud.
“It’s beautiful!” cried Daria, though it was awe-inspiring and even frightening more than it was beautiful. It was another world, though, and it overwhelmed her. Another world, and she and Jane of all people had seen it first.
It was Jane, though, who glanced up—all the way up to the view behind the ship. She blinked. “Hey,” she said, “what the fu—”
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
—T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Puzzled by Jane’s outburst, Daria looked upward, too, at the rear-view screen. A bright Moon-like world was there, curiously out of focus, with tiny lights like fireflies drifting around and away from it. The starry space around the world was mottled gray, not black, as if seen through fog. On the round edges of the world were narrow, upwardly moving jets of cloudlike matter that reminded Daria of geysers or volcanoes. The surface of the body was pockmarked with blurred craters, cracks, and dark patches of ground.
Daria blinked. What a curious-looking moon, she thought. And it has volcanoes! I can’t believe we’re seeing actual volcanoes. You can even see the moon drifting across the viewing screen, it’s so close. It almost looks like it’s getting closer. It—wait a minute, I’ve seen that type of thing before. It was on that movie from that deep-space probe, the what-was-it-called, the one that—oh! Great God, that’s—
“That’s not a moon!” Daria shouted, her eyes wide. “That’s a—Phaeton! How close is—”
Something moved out from the fog-wrapped sphere, a cluster of fireflies around a larger, tumbling firefly. All came at the screen dead-on, whirling motes coming into view around them every fraction of a second.
“No!” Daria threw a hand in front of her face, as if to block the onrushing objects.
The rearward viewing screen went black as a sudden shock ran through Daria’s couch. The air vibrated with a muffled, metallic boom. The room lurched forward, throwing Daria and Jane backwards with arms flailing. We’ve been hit! shrieked a voice in her head. We’ve—
The room jerked slightly as a second rumbling shock went through Daria’s bones. She had the stomach-wrenching sense that the room was moving; blood flowed up into her head, and she felt dizzy. The screen on the left side went out. The views of the false moon and the world below drifted into new screens as the spacecraft rolled end over end.
“It’s a comet!” Daria screamed. “It’s not a moon, it’s a comet! We’re right in front of it! Get us the hell—”
The spacecraft jerked very hard in another direction, but no jolt went through the couch. An invisible force pushed down over Daria’s body. The walls emitted a low hum.
“What’s happening?” Jane yelled. “What’s going on?” She suddenly burped and looked annoyed as well as frightened.
“That’s a comet! I think we were hit by dust or ice coming out of—”
“Multiple impacts recorded,” said Phaeton abruptly. “The vehicle has suffered an undetermined degree of damage. The asymmetric drive is gathering and compressing gas and dust from the cometary coma as fuel for the singularity, to move us out of the trajectory of the nucleus.”
“Are you saying that we’re still in the comet’s path?” said Jane hoarsely.
“Yes, but we are leaving its trajectory now on a perpendicular course. It will miss us by under a thousand kilometers.”
“How badly were we hit?”
“Self-assessment is incomplete. We have a propulsion power loss of sixteen percent, and three cameras and two sensor domes are not responding.”
“Are we losing our air?” Daria asked, feeling panic set in.
“The command center is intact, but one or more minor impacts were recorded close to its outer hull. Self-assessment will be complete within the hour.”
“Are we going to get hit again?” Jane cried.
“Radar and optical sensors indicate two near misses by bodies one meter in diameter or less, with associated smaller bodies and dust, within the last minute. No further objects are within range. Sensor scans of surrounding space are incomplete.”
“So, what should we do?” Jane looked stricken. “How far can we get from the comet?”
“We are nine hundred seventy-two kilometers from the nucleus, in the inner coma, moving away at point four three kilometers per second per second. The nucleus of the comet is of extraordinary size, almost seven hundred ten kilometers in diameter. It appears similar to a large Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud object, but might possibly be a rogue interstellar intruder on a hyperbolic orbit. The largest known comet nuclei in the solar system were approximately forty kilometers in diameter.”
“And this one’s over seven hundred kilometers across?” asked Jane in disbelief.
“How could you not know that it was a comet?” Daria snapped at the screens. “You’ve got all the telescopes!”
“The tail is enormous, almost two hundred thousand kilometers long, but it was hidden in the glare of the primary, Alpha Centauri B, and stretched behind the star. Only the nucleus and the gaseous envelope around it, the coma, were visible. In theory, the Alpha Centauri system should have few comets at its advanced age, as the gravitational pull of the two suns, shifting as they orbit each other, should have pulled in and then destroyed or cast away nearly all low-period cometary bodies. Perhaps Proxima Centauri, the red dwarf approximately two trillion kilometers from here, disturbed this system’s Oort Cloud and sent this and other bodies inward.”
After a brief pause, Phaeton added, “The command center does not appear to have suffered damage. It is airtight. Most of this vehicle’s major systems are redundant. Dormant cameras and sensors are now being activated.”
Unable to think of anything else to say, Daria watched the screens above. The left side came on again, as did the rear-view screen. The comet’s enormous nucleus was moving slowly into view to the rear, which the left side screen showed the thick swirl of gas and dust trailing behind the comet’s head. On the right screen was a view of the planet below, looking much the same as before, though the side facing them was slowly moving into night as the terminator crossed the globe.
Daria licked her lips. “Is that comet going to hit that planet?”
“No,” said Phaeton. “Calculations indicate it will miss by about five thousand kilometers, but the comet will pass well within this world’s Roche limit and is likely to break apart as it leaves. Little material will strike the world.”
“As long as we don’t break apart,” Jane whispered, “that’s fine with me.”
Daria ran the fingers of both hands through her hair. “That scared the living crap out of me. I thought we were dead for sure.”
“I didn’t know enough about what was happening to be that scared,” said Jane. “I’m glad of it, now.”
“I didn’t know what was going on at first, either. Then I remembered a movie I saw, taken by a robot spacecraft that cruised past a comet in the solar system a few years ago, and then I had an idea what it was. I didn’t know a comet could be so big, though. Seven hundred kilometers across—that’s not possible.”
“If the body was the equivalent of an Oort Cloud object,” Phaeton said, “seven hundred kilometers is still less than the usual maximum size. It is possible for such a body to fall sunward, but it would be a rare event.”
Daria glared upward at the interruption.
“You know,” said Jane, starting to smile again, “I was thinking about what we could name these planets, and I think I’d like to name the comet Fat Bastard.”
The tense mood was broken, and Daria laughed a little. “If it breaks up, we can call the fragments Fat Bastard One, Fat Bastard Two, and so on.” She sighed and looked at her friend. “Why don’t you name the planets after your kids, Bran and Arwen? Those are good names. Welsh mythology and Tolkien go well together.”
Jane looked uncertainly at her friend. “Do you mind if I do? I’m afraid I was thinking about doing exactly that. The inner one can be Bran, and the outer one Arwen.”
“Go for it. They’ll love it. I get to name the next planet after Kali, though.”
“Agreed. I hope they like their little present. Maybe it will get us on the right track again. Phaeton, is this planet the inner one or the outer one?”
“It is the outer one. No others have been detected.”
“I’m going to name it Arwen, and the inner world will be Bran. After my kids.”
“It is so recorded.”
Daria watched the planet below be shrouded in darkness. Arwen. Flashes raced through the night over the globe. She realized she was seeing thunderstorms from above. Was this a living world? Phaeton would have to tell them if it was, with all the tests it could run.
“Initial self-analysis has been completed,” said Phaeton. “Minor hull damage is recorded in six areas, with the loss of three active cameras and four sensor domes, two active and two in reserve. Power loss from the fusion reactor has been restored with alternate systems. We were apparently struck by ice particles and two larger bodies. Wheel-to-hub strut number four has suffered moderate damage, but the laser fusion device inside continues to operate using backup networks.”
“So, we’re okay, or what?” said Daria. “Can we still use the Q drive?”
“We can continue to operate as before, but we should avoid travel through thick atmospheres until further assessment of damage is completed.”
Daria and Jane looked at each other. “I’m not comfortable with hanging around here for much longer,” said Daria. “Physically, I feel a lot better now than I did when we took off from Earth, but messing around here is riskier than I thought.”
“Hmmm,” said Jane. She burped again and muttered, “Damn it! Phaeton, are you collecting any data from this system, the planets, star, comet, everything?”
“Data collection is continuous. The asymmetric drive has now moved us out of range of the comet and its debris field in the coma. However, we cannot continue to remain in this region. We cannot move away from the comet quickly enough to avoid the trailing debris field in the tail. It will be necessary within two hours to activate the Q drive and move to a new part of space. We cannot remain within the vicinity of Arwen because of the comet’s encounter with it and predicted breakup.”
Jane sighed. “That answers the question, I guess. We can’t stay. We’ll find out soon enough if the Q drive is still working.”
“Phaeton,” said Daria, “can you give us any information on Arwen and Bran before we leave? Are they suitable for human colonization, or do you even have the ability to answer that question?”
“I was programmed to determine planetary habitability,” Phaeton said in what sounded to Daria like a wounded tone. “A preliminary analysis of the atmosphere of Arwen reveals significant amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide and other sulfur compounds, water vapor, and inert gases. No free oxygen is present. Air pressure at the surface appears to be greater than on Earth by a factor of three. Estimated diameter is fourteen thousand eight hundred kilometers, or one point one six times that of Earth. Density appears equivalent to Earth; the interior probably has a large molten iron core. Estimated gravity is one point five six times that of Earth. Axial tilt is about eighty-two degrees. A large magnetic field is present, as are belts of radiation similar to Earth’s Van Allen belts. Surface temperature at subsolar point is approximately twelve degrees Celsius. Numerous active volcanoes and lava flows have been detected. Small bodies of impure water are present in lowlands and craters, but no ice. Nine continental plates have been detected, none larger than Africa. Minor evidence of impact cratering. Rotation period estimated at seventeen hours, five minutes. No evidence of carbon-based life as known to Earth. The extreme axial tilt and rapid rotation appear to create chaotic and violent weather patterns.”
“This isn’t sounding like a great colony world,” said Jane in disappointment. “Oh, well, Arwen doesn’t have to know that right away. How’s Bran looking?”
“Estimated diameter is nine thousand four hundred kilometers. Atmospheric analysis incomplete, but carbon dioxide is indicated in large amounts. Air pressure at surface is greater than six times that of Earth. Density appears equivalent to Earth. Estimated gravity is point four times that of Earth. Axial tilt is thirty-nine degrees. A magnetic field is present. Rotation period estimated at thirty hours, forty-three minutes. No other information available, but data collection continues.”
“Any chance of life there?”
“No indication exists of Earthlike life on either world.”
Jane groaned. “Take lots of pictures, then. Maybe I can give the kids big color photos of each of their worlds to hang in their rooms.”
“Why do these worlds have such big axial tilts?” Daria asked. “Arwen’s rolling on its side, almost, and Bran’s about halfway there.”
“It is likely that the presence of large satellites, such as the Moon with Earth, stabilizes the obliquity of a rotating body. The gravitational force exerted by the Moon prevents the Earth’s axis from undergoing chaotic reorientation, which affects planets with much smaller or no satellites at all. In the entire Alpha Centauri system, no large satellites have been observed, possibly because the gravitational effect of the two primary stars tends to destabilize smaller orbital relationships.”
“So, like, what you’re saying is that without big satellites, these planets just roll around all over the place,” said Daria.
“That indeed appears to be the case,” said Phaeton. “Uranus in the solar system is such a world, with an axial tilt of ninety-seven point seven seven degrees. The end result for a terrestrial world is a dramatic readjustment of the length of the day as perceived on the world’s surface, with extreme climate and weather changes worldwide on a yearly basis. Normal biorhythms are greatly altered for living things. Long periods of dormancy in darkness and cold become likely, followed by—”
“Okay, okay,” said Daria, waving a hand. “I get the idea.”
Jane looked at Daria again. “Where to? Back to Earth?”
Daria took a deep breath and thought about it. She finally shook her head. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to go to Alpha Centauri A. It should be a short jump, although after this last one I can’t say if it would be safe. I have half a mind just to cut the trip short and go home now, but . . . God, I don’t know. If we had gravity, I’d flip a coin.”
“We don’t even have a coin.”
“Well, there’s that, too.” Daria exhaled. “Phaeton, how long would a jump be to the Alpha Centauri A system?”
“At this time, given the separation between the primaries, it would take approximately half a minute. However, the Q drive was shut down entirely, and it will take about half an hour to prepare it for use after the asymmetric drive shuts down. A short ‘jump,’ as you call it, might be in our best interests, allowing a test of the Q drive following the impacts of cometary debris.”
Jane nodded. “Start getting it ready, then, if we’re safely out of range of that comet.”
“I hate to ask this,” said Daria, “but if anything is really wrong with our ship, do we have any way to fix it?”
“This vehicle does have a limited ability to repair itself,” Phaeton replied, “though damage to any system would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Self-assessment continues. A full report should be ready after we arrive at Alpha Centauri A.”
Daria suddenly looked pained and smacked her forehead lightly. “Duh! Why didn’t I think to ask this? Phaeton, have you detected any planets around Alpha A?”
There was a slight pause before Phaeton answered. “Optical sensors indicate the presence of at least two terrestrial worlds near Alpha Centauri A. The world closest to its primary appears to be an airless world smaller than Mercury in the solar system. A world further out from the primary is visible, but beyond that world appears to be a broad asteroid belt. Fifteen asteroids have been detected that are moving through the inner part of the system, in orbital resonance with the second world out. The second world has an atmosphere and appears to be about the size of Earth. It is within the habitable zone of its primary.”
“Oh.” Jane raised an eyebrow as she looked at Daria. “That’s got potential. Wanna try?” She saw Daria’s hesitation and added, “For Kali? Name a world for her?”
Daria gave a mock glare at her friend. “Okay, fine, I guess, but then let’s get out of here. We don’t need to go to Proxima, though. Maybe Phaeton can record whatever we need to get from that star at long range.”
“Didn’t Phaeton say something about the little red star having companions or something like that?”
“Proxima Centauri was found to have two companion worlds during a survey in two thousand twelve,” said Phaeton. “They each appear to be about the mass of Uranus or Neptune. Further details are not known.”
“Doesn’t sound as interesting as Alpha A,” said Daria. “As long as we don’t jump in front of another comet or black hole or whatever, I guess we can make a quick visit.” She felt a grumbling in her abdomen and made a face. “If nothing else is going on for a few moments, I’m going to take another couple of pills.” She began to unfasten her harness.
“Make it quick,” said Jane.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Daria got out of her couch and pulled herself hand over hand to the medicine supply storage locker. She opened it and pulled out the anti-diarrhea pills and took one. The antibiotics pill bottle caught her eye. Is it worth taking one of these? I could be prone to catching diseases with my resistance down from radiation sickness, but if I do start taking these pills, I have to keep taking the regimen given on the bottle until it’s done. The problem is, I don’t feel—
“Warning,” said Phaeton in a level tone. “Radar has detected bodies of granular size associated with the comet on an intersecting trajectory. They are at close range.”
“Daria!” Jane shouted from her seat, looking back. “Get over here!”
“Warning,” Phaeton added. “Evasive action must occur immediately.”
Daria slammed the medicine locker shut and turned around to kick off back to her couch. To her surprise, the room was already rotating around her at startling speed, and the couch was coming up to meet her. A padded but solid corner of the long seat caught her right in the middle of her forehead. For a moment Daria saw stars bursting in her field of vision, with a sledgehammer pain so great it robbed her of coherent thought. She was thrown backward and struck the back of her head against something much harder than the couch corner.
And then there was nothing.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
A cloudy gray whirlpool shot through with lightning spun silently in front of her. In the center was Jane Lane’s face, looking out with a serene expression. Her pupils were blue worlds, each one as bright as the Earth. The scene held for a moment, and then vanished.
Daria regained consciousness and slowly opened her eyes.
A low, throbbing ache went through her head from front to back. The world was very blurry. She was in her seat, weightless and strapped down, her arms tucked in at her sides. Her gaze lifted. Above her was a huge screen view of a planet seen from orbit. It looked like tan-colored desert, but Daria did not have her glasses and it was difficult to tell what was going on. The scene seemed to be moving, so Daria guessed they were in orbit around a planet, but she didn’t know which one.
Someone was talking nearby. It sounded like Jane. Moving her head was painful in the extreme. Even moving her eyes hurt. She tried to speak, but words didn’t form.
“Daria is conscious,” said an almost-familiar voice from all around her.
A moment later, Jane’s face appeared over her, only two feet away. Her jet bangs floated in a silken ball around her face, and her worried eyes were as blue as those in the dream. “Hey,” she said softly. Her hand went to Daria’s cheek. “Welcome back.”
Daria moved her lips. What happened? she asked without making a sound.
“You scared me,” said Jane. “Do you remember what happened? We were trying to get out of the way of some comet parts flying around, but you were out of your seat when we took evasive action. You whacked your head on your bunk and some equipment in back. I couldn’t get to you for ten minutes, until Phaeton quit maneuvering the ship all over the place. We’re in orbit around the second planet out from Alpha Centauri A. We made the jump an hour ago. On the good side, I can hear a lot better now, but only from my left ear.”
Daria nodded. Her hand bumped into Jane’s leg. Jane looked down, then took the hand and held it. “There’s a world you can name for your kid,” said Jane, nodding upward. “It’s pretty interesting, too. She’ll appreciate that part, I know.”
“Uh . . .” Daria cleared her throat. “We okay? Ship?”
“We got here in one piece, so we’re not too badly off. We took a few more little hits before we jumped out of the B system. Phaeton says the ship’s holding up well, but the reactor is having a few problems. Nothing big, just that . . . it has to run at lower power for a while until it gets fixed. Phaeton’s working on it. We’re fine, though. I think. Just rest.”
“Okay,” Daria whispered. Jane sounded too nervous for this repair job to be a simple thing. She must have been talking to Phaeton the time I was out, Daria decided. Jane probably knows quite a lot about the ship at this point, given all the times she’s been talking with Phaeton since leaving Earth. She glanced upward at the out-of-focus scene traveling by. “Glasses,” she whispered.
“Oh, sure.” Jane pulled away, then came back and carefully put the owl-eye frames over Daria’s nose and ears. The scene above leaped into sharp focus; Jane had carefully cleaned the lenses. Feathery wisps of cirrus clouds drifted over a huge flat plain broken only by sunken cracks and scattered, solitary mountains. Jane looked up with Daria as the planet below rolled by. “That’s Kali, if you want to name it that. I was talking with Phaeton about it when you woke up. It was sorta like Earth once, only smaller and older. All the worlds around either star in the Alpha Centauri system are a lot older than Earth. Phaeton’s been measuring some things, particularly the radioactivity in the rocks of the world. This planet’s something like a billion years older than Earth. I’ll have Phaeton explain it in detail a little later.”
Daria felt a stir of anger at the A.I. “Didn’t lemme get to my seat,” she said in a hard whisper.
Jane made a pained expression. “Yeah, and Phaeton and I had a little talk about that, too. If we get into a position where the ship’s got to turn fast to get out of the way of something, Phaeton’s going to waste less time chattering and just tell us to hang on. Getting banged up is better than having the ship get blown to pieces, granted, but we need to get faster warning with a little more instruction on what to do. I mean, with all the cameras inside here, Phaeton could tell us what to grab on to or what to do to keep from getting thrown around like a tennis ball. It won’t happen like that again.”
“Better not,” Daria grumbled. She looked up at the world view. “Desert,” she said, trying to speak more clearly.
Jane looked up again. “Yeah, it is now. It used to be an ocean bottom. Phaeton, if you would, give us that quick overview you gave to me about this world.”
“Kali,” Daria interrupted, wincing from her headache.
“Kali is this world’s new name,” Jane clarified, speaking to the viewing screens.
“Kali, then,” said Phaeton, “is about eleven thousand four hundred ninety five kilometers in diameter, or point nine oh Earth diameters. Density is approximately that of Earth, likely with a rotating iron core. Estimated gravity is point seven three two times that of Earth. Rotation period is thirty-eight hours, fifty-eight minutes. Analysis of the atmosphere reveals nitrogen is dominant, followed by small amounts of free oxygen and oxygen compounds, sulfur dioxide and other sulfur compounds, water vapor, and inert gases. Air pressure is point seven six times that of Earth. Axial tilt is seven degrees. A weak magnetic field and radiation belts are present. Surface temperature at the subsolar point is one hundred thirty-four degrees Celsius. A few—”
“Wait,” said Daria through her teeth, feeling a throbbing pain in her head. “That’s way over the boiling point. You said this world had oceans.”
“Yeah, had,” said Jane sourly. “Phaeton’s got some news about that.”
“Photographic analysis indicates this world had extensive ocean coverage in the past, perhaps as recently as half a billion years ago. The primary, Alpha Centauri A, is a main sequence star like the Sun, and both are increasing in luminosity and temperature as they age. This world reached a critical stage when the star’s heat output produced boiling temperatures at the equator, and the water began to vaporize. All this world’s water has long since evaporated and been lost due to photodissociation in the upper atmosphere from solar ultraviolet light. No ice caps are present. Four small continental-plate highlands have been mapped since we achieved orbit; tectonic movement and volcanism are almost nonexistent. Arwen, which is a higher gravity world, was able to retain water for a longer period of time than Kali. Arwen’s primary, Alpha Centauri B, has been increasing in luminosity as well, but Arwen was once closer to the cold end of the habitable zone around B, and thus has not warmed up as much as Kali, which was once near the hot end of its primary’s habitable zone. Bran is similar to Kali in certain ways, but it is even hotter. The airless world closer to this primary is similar to Mercury in the solar system, being of relatively high density, but its rotation is fully captured.”
“I thought we’d name that little airless world after Trent or Quinn, if you want,” said Jane.
Daria thought it over. “Call it Phaeton,” she said.
Jane grinned. “Yeah, why not? Phaeton, we’re naming that little world here after you, okay?”
“It is done.”
“Not a very appreciative response,” said Jane with a shrug, “but so it goes. Anyway, that’s the short form of it. Phaeton thinks Kali might have had life once, but it’s been toast for ages and ages.” She raised a finger, pointing to the overhead images of Kali. “Those were probably islands,” she said, indicating a sting of mountains rising from a vast, flat plain. “Can’t make out the Club Med buildings, though.”
“They likely were islands,” said Phaeton. “The chances that Kali once possessed at least some form of plant life are high, given the presence of atmospheric oxygen even in a low amount. There is no evidence of civilization in any form here, which would have been entirely eliminated by metal corrosion, erosion, and other forces over many millions of years even if life had held on to the time when the last ocean evaporated.”
Daria chewed her lower lip for a moment, “Phaeton, you told me that Kali was within the habitable zone for this sun, before we left the other system.”
“I was in error,” said Phaeton. “I had thought it was near the hot end of the habitable zone, but the habitable zone long ago passed it by. It would be a very difficult world to colonize for its lack of water. We arrived perhaps half a billion years too late.”
“I see,” said Daria in disappointment. She frowned. “I hope this business of you making errors doesn’t happen too often.”
“I share that sentiment,” Phaeton responded. “My mistaking the giant comet in the Alpha Centauri B system for a moon with an atmosphere was nearly disastrous.”
The blunt assessment was unexpected. Phaeton sounded almost apologetic. Daria dropped the subject, feeling the point was made. “My head is killing me,” she said with a grimace.
“The medicine cabinet’s got something for that,” said Jane, pushed away and drifting out of view. “Give me a minute.”
“As long as we’re here,” Daria said, lacking any other topic to talk about, “I may as well ask if there’s anything weird about this system. You don’t have to dump out a lot of raw data on me. Just tell me what’s up that’s out of the ordinary.”
“The inner planet is geologically interesting because of its captured rotation. The world is moderately cratered, but micrometeorite bombardment over the eons has worn most of the craters nearly flat and smooth. The absence of frozen lakes of various ices on the dark side of this world confirms the rarity of comets in this system and the uniqueness of Alpha Centauri B’s giant comet.”
“Fat Bastard,” said Jane from across the room. “We’re calling it Fat Bastard.”
“Very well. The inner-system asteroids are also interesting, as nearly all of them are locked in orbital resonances with both the innermost planet Phaeton and Kali, or with Kali alone, each making relatively close passes by the world every few revolutions.”
“Any sign of . . . um . . . well, I might as well say it: any sign of intelligent life? Big engineering projects in space, things that look like . . . oh, you know what I mean.”
“At this time, there is no indication that intelligent life ever existed in this system. All physical features detected so far here can be explained by natural forces. The evidence that life existed at one time on Kali is circumstantial but positive. Exploration of the surface would reveal if fossils are present to answer the remaining questions.”
Jane reappeared over Daria’s head, holding a small bottle. “Bummer about the aliens,” she said. “I hope you like cherry.” She produced an eyedropper-like device from the bottle. “Open wide.” Daria did as asked, and Jane squirted a dose from the bottle into her mouth. Daria swallowed and ran the cherry flavoring around the inside of her mouth with her tongue. Jane replaced the cap on the bottle and screwed it in. “That should fix your headache and any other aches and pains you have for a few hours. The label says not to let you operate any heavy machinery, though.”
Jane tucked the bottle in a pocket of her shorts. “And with that, I have to leave you to bring back some water bottles from down the hall. Stay in your seat, okay?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Daria. “I don’t feel like moving around much.”
Jane smiled and kicked off to the hatch, which she opened and passed through on her way to the pantry, what the two of them were calling the ill-stocked food lockers. Daria watched her go, then looked up again at Kali.
Half a billion years too late, she thought. Half a billion years. And the Sun is warming up bit by bit, just like this world’s star, and one day this will be Earth, parched and burned and scorched and wasted, the seas boiled away and the air unfit to breathe. It could be like this now back home, an atomic desert from sea to poisoned sea, all because we took a little starship on a cruise to save our lives. If we had stayed in place and died, would the world be safer now, intact and unharmed, my Kali alive and well and safe in the arms of my mother?
The day-to-night terminator began to cross the screen. Darkness was falling over the dead world below.
Half a billion years too late. What lived here? Was it intelligent? Did it walk and eat and look up at the stars from here, wondering what was out there? And now we’ve come, refugees from a world on the verge of killing itself, and we’re too late to wave and say hello. What kind of universe is this, that lets this happen? It was one thing to find fossil life on Mars, a great shock when the landers and rovers dug out the first signs that we had not always been alone but were alone now. And here is this, another Earth, gone to a dry grave before we can even dip a finger in the last of its waters. The universe doesn’t care. Our sun could blow up tomorrow, and no one in the cosmos would cry except for us, in those last few seconds. We have nothing but each other, nothing, yet we waste our lives and time in war and chaos and work, running from everything that matters. We could reach out and hold each other, but we don’t. We run, afraid of love when we’ve been hurt, afraid of the only thing that would keep us sane in this awful universe that kills without forgiveness or heart or mercy, without regard to anything but the unbreakable laws of nature. We are alone. We are all there is.
I want to see Kali again before I die. I hope I will not be too late. I hope we have time for one last hug, so I can tell her I’m sorry for not being there for her, that I love her, that she always lives inside me, no matter where I am.
Half a billion years too late. This desert world could be Kali even now, and I’m half a billion years too late to show her that I love her, and she’s as dried up and dead as the world that now carries her name.
Jane returned through the hatch, carrying two bottles of lemon-flavored water. She pulled up alongside Daria’s couch, concern on her face. “Hey, amiga,” she said. “Why are you crying?”
Ashamed to be seen, Daria shook her head, then took off her glasses and put an arm over her eyes to blot up the tears. A few moments later, she felt Jane press close to her. They hugged.
“Let’s go home soon,” Daria whispered with a catch in her voice. “If there’s a home left to go back to.”
Jane nodded. “We will. You told me everything would be all right, so I’m telling you the same thing. I’m sure everything we’ve recorded on this trip will be enough to make the world happy for years to come. The scientists, at least, will love us.”
“We need to see our children.”
Jane said nothing at that, only hugging Daria closer.
“I’m afraid,” Daria whispered.
“I’m afraid, too. Let’s don’t talk about this.”
“I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
“I know. I’ll do everything I can for you, too. At least your kid still loves you.”
“All right, I know what you’re going to say. I’m sorry I said it, but it’s true.”
“Jane, that’s wrong!”
“Forget it, okay? Look, I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“Your kids care about you, too!”
Jane shook her head. “Listen, let’s drop it. I was doing some thinking, and with the return trip to Earth it’s going to be sixty-two hours, about two and a half days, and that alone is cutting it pretty close given your condition, right? So I thought we should—”
“Another anomaly has been discovered,” Phaeton interrupted, “if you are interested in anomalies. This one is of some immediacy.”
Daria groaned, her eyes closed and face pressed into Jane’s shoulder. “I cannot believe this. Damn machines.”
The mood spoiled, Jane gave Daria a last hug and pulled back with a twisted smile. Daria wiped her eyes and put her glasses on again, looking upward with Jane at the screens. Kali was in darkness. As they watched, the view pulled back to reveal the whole world. A ring of white light encircled the planet, the atmosphere illuminated by its sun-star on the far side.
However, Daria noticed what appeared to be a wash of color over one end of the dark planet. As she watched, a sea of blue-white light, edged with red and purple, flowed and danced slowly over the world. Spikes of light arose in hundreds of places from the bright sea. The light grew so intense that Daria thought she could see features on the ground, illuminated by what she realized were auroras.
“Astronomical sensors have detected a sudden increase in local radiation, particularly in hard X-rays,” said Phaeton. “The radiation belts around Kali have become saturated and are allowing charged particles to . . .”
Daria and Jane waited for more, but nothing came. They looked at one another.
“Emergency,” said Phaeton. “Evasive action is imminent. Jane, secure yourself in a couch at once.”
Jane was belting herself into her couch before the word “imminent” was spoken.
“Are we safe?” Daria cried. She heard Jane snap the last fastener of her harness together just as the spacecraft lurched hard. Daria and Jane were thrown forward in their harnesses, the sudden impact knocking the wind from their lungs. The walls hummed, the pitch rising rapidly as the asymmetric drive increased in power.
“Do not leave your seats,” Phaeton continued in a level but quick voice. “An extreme level of hard radiation is present around the vehicle. A widespread increase in background radiation has been noted over the last minute. The source is neither of the primary stars in the Alpha Centauri system. This vehicle is being maneuvered into a very low orbit around Kali to allow the radiation belts to shield us from the incoming flux should it increase further.”
“You didn’t answer my question!” Daria yelled, being thrown from side to side as the spacecraft continued to change its trajectory. The hum had become a rattling thunder in the walls.
“Humans are fond of a saying,” said Phaeton, “about having both good news and bad news.”
Daria blinked in astonishment. “Are you making a joke?” She had to put her hands to her face to hold her glasses on. Her head still ached, but she could feel the medicine taking hold, dulling her senses and the pain as well.
“In a way, yes,” the A.I. replied. “It is a human-typical response to the information I am accumulating. I have both good news and bad news.”
Daria thought she could feel her teeth rattle. “Just spill it! This is a lousy time to be having fun!”
“And Daria hates fun!” Jane put in.
“I will tell you my news and you can judge whether the response is appropriate,” said Phaeton. “The good news is that the shielding for the command center is adequate, though barely, to shield you from current radiation levels. You will not suffer from any ill effects at this time.”
“Yeah, right!” shouted Jane, jarred about in her seat.
“The other good news,” Phaeton continued, “is that this event has not yet occurred on Earth. We are closer to the point source of the radiation than is the solar system. About four terrestrial years remain before Earth is affected. Adequate time remains for warning.”
“What?” shouted both women at the same time. The shaking motion of the cabin decreased, though Daria and Jane were still pressed forward against their harnesses, hovering over their couches in the pressure of deceleration.
“One of the planned scientific experiments for a major interstellar expedition was to take measurements of certain astronomical phenomena from the position of Alpha Centauri and compare them to measurements taken from Earth. This was arranged because Alpha Centauri is closer to those phenomena than is Earth, and any changes measured would be noted about three or four years later on Earth, because of the speed of light. In particular, the unstable supermassive star eta Carinae was to be examined, as it is apparently on the verge of a catastrophic explosion. In addition, examination was to be made of the potential nova-star Betelgeuse, the Magellanic Clouds, the Helix Nebula and other explosive stellar remnants, Circinus X-1 and other neutron stars and black holes, and usual features near the core of the Milky Way that—”
“Get to the point!” Daria roared in frustration.
“The source of the radiation flux is Sagittarius A, which is giving off extraordinarily intense hard X-rays, soft gamma rays, and infrared light. There appears to be an increase in visible light as well, though nearly all of it has been absorbed by the dust clouds in the Great Rift.” After a beat, Phaeton added, “And that is the bad news.”
Daria waited two seconds before yelling, “What are you trying to say?”
“Sagittarius A is the radio-emissions source identified with the accretion disk surrounding the supermassive black hole at Milky Way’s galactic center. An unidentified event occurred there that has produced an unprecedented wave of radiation that is now sweeping outward through the galaxy. The actual event took place about twenty-seven thousand years ago, as that is the distance of Sagittarius A from Earth. The radiation wave has now reached Alpha Centauri, and Earth is next.”
There was a pause while the two women digested this.
“What I think you are saying,” said Jane with remarkable calm, “is that the galaxy just blew up.”
“Yes,” said Phaeton quietly. “The center of this galaxy has exploded.”
I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.
—Stanislaw Lem, Solaris
The silence was broken again by Jane. “The center of the galaxy, our galaxy, just blew up,” she repeated.
“A titanic explosion has occurred there, yes,” said Phaeton.
“But we’re still alive,” said Jane, as if emphasizing a simple point to a child.
“You and Daria are a long way from the source of the radiation, and the inverse-square law dictates that the force reaching us has been much reduced by distance. However, the initial wave of radiation that has reached here is dangerous in the extreme. My concern is that current conditions might be a prelude to a more violent and destructive event arriving shortly. Radiation levels are increasing, not decreasing. This vehicle’s armor will soon be insufficient to maintain life or even nanotronic-circuitry operation within it.”
“So, we could die of radiation poisoning in a few minutes.” Jane made it sound like both a statement and a question.
“Lethal levels are not likely to be reached before we gain shelter.”
“Lucky me,” said Daria bitterly. “I’ve already got a head start on that radiation thing.”
Jane chose not to address Daria’s remark just then. “Phaeton, assuming this is true, what would cause this to happen?”
“The origin of the event is as yet unknown to me, but a review of the literature indicates the most likely circumstance is that something is disturbing the core black hole, possibly involving a collision with a very large mass of matter. Sagittarius A is the whirling disk of hot plasma, gas, dust and matter orbiting the three point six million solar-mass black hole at this galaxy’s center. The diameter of the event horizon is about twenty-one point six million kilometers across, and the black hole rotates once every thirty seconds. The diameter of the accretion disk is many times that of the event horizon, and matter near the event horizon circles it at roughly half the speed of light.
“Despite its great size, the Milky Way’s central black hole has long been thought a relatively quiet and passive object that presented no threat to the outer regions of this galaxy. In the last few years, however, Sagittarius A has given off peculiar fluctuations in radiation, the cause of which was not understood. There was concern that another supermassive black hole was approaching from the opposite side of the galaxy and could be on the verge of a collision or near collision with our own. Such an event might be preceded by the destruction of numerous stars and smaller black holes captured by the two black holes and held in close orbits around them. A large in-falling of normal matter might cause a smaller version of the radiation burst we are experiencing, particularly if a massive star is being torn apart in the accretion disk of one black hole, so the destruction of smaller black holes is more likely. However, if the accretion disks from two or more giant black holes are already colliding, that would better explain the massive wave of radiation we’ve received. The latter, unfortunately, would also explain why the radiation level is continuing to rise: the collision is not over. This vehicle is not equipped to measure gravity waves, which would clarify the situation greatly.”
“But,” interrupted Daria, “it could be that whatever’s going on is going to quit soon, right?”
“That is possible, but with radiation levels rising as they are, it is not worth taking the chance. If a second supermassive black hole is about to collide with the primary one, the result could be very bad.”
“Bad?” said Daria in disbelief. “Bad? Like this isn’t bad enough already?”
“The interaction between two or more large accretion disks would produce a vast amount of hard radiation, particularly X-rays, as the whirling clouds of gas, dust, and matter collide at velocities approaching the speed of light. The destruction of multiple giant stars captured by the black holes would only worsen the situation. And there is the risk that the poles of the supermassive black holes will become reoriented. Magnetized jets of radiation and matter moving at extreme velocities shoot from the poles of a rotating black hole, and a collision between two black holes is likely to cause the poles of the merged black hole to roll within seconds and sweep the so-called radio jets through the main body of the galaxy. This result has been observed in other galaxies. An intense gamma-ray burst would be associated with this collision should one or more radio jets pass this way, though the probability of this happening is under thirty percent. It is critical that this vehicle receive as much protection as possible as quickly as possible. This vehicle cannot be landed, but it can fly in Kali’s atmosphere and use the bulk of this planet as its shield.”
“Wait a minute,” said Daria, pointing a finger at the screens. “I followed almost everything you said, I think, but I do remember that you said this vehicle couldn’t enter a thick atmosphere because of all the damage we sustained from that damn comet!”
“And you said the fusion reactor was on low power for the same reason!” Jane put in a moment later.
“We have little choice. Kali’s atmosphere is thinner than Earth’s, and we will not need to reach speeds that we did when this vehicle left Earth. In eight minutes, Kali will eclipse Sagittarius A. We can enter the atmosphere at low speed with the asymmetric drive on, then coast westward in an upright orientation to stay hidden until the situation appears to have resolved. The risk of catastrophic vehicle structural failure or instability is less than the risk of severe irradiation in a space environment.”
“As long as we don’t get fried during those eight minutes,” said Daria with a pained look.
“I have accounted for that possibility as best I can.”
Jane was not mollified. “Look, Phaeton, how dangerous is it for us to go through the atmosphere? You told me strut four was in bad shape, you’ve been patching holes everywhere to keep micrometeorites from punching through to the particle accelerator and all that other stuff, remember? So, how well is this spacecraft going to hang together when we start roaring down?”
“We are not roaring down. We are descending as quickly and safely as possible.”
“I have the feeling,” Jane said in a dark voice, “that I’m less of a real commander around here as I had thought.”
Daria immediately reached over and touched Jane’s arm. Jane glanced angrily at her, but she subsided. “Do as you feel necessary to save us,” she said, giving the screens a look just short of a killing glare.
“Thank you,” said Phaeton. “I am doing my best.”
Jane shifted in her seat. “Give us a lot of views of Kali, then, and label the screens so I know what direction I’m supposed to be looking.”
Phaeton obliged, and in a moment six large images appeared showing the same arrangement of camera shots as before: ahead, behind, above, below, left, and right. “If possible, when we are on the side of the world opposite the galactic core,” the A.I. added, “I will show you the sun from which we came. It is a bright star visible in the constellation Cassiopeia, the Queen. Because Alpha Centauri is so close to the sun, the constellations you know have changed little. Cassiopeia has a W shape that—”
“I know what it looks like,” muttered Jane. “I had an eight-centimeter refracting telescope when I was a teenager.”
Daria looked at her friend, secretly glad for the change of topic. “That telescope by the couch in your parents’ living room? That was yours?”
With a roll of her eyes, Jane nodded. “Yeah, it was mine. Got it from my dad when he got a bigger telescope for his cameras. I used to go outside and moon-gaze a little when I couldn’t sleep at night. The light pollution in Lawndale wiped out almost everything else, except those big comets that came by in the nineteen nineties. Those were cool.”
Dumfounded, Daria stared at Jane with her mouth open. “You were into astronomy? You never told me that!”
Jane shrugged and tried to hide a smile. “Well, you never asked. It was something I did on my own. It was kind of private, just me and the universe.”
Shaking her head, Daria returned the smile. “I can’t believe you never told me. Mack, astronomy—what other secrets are you hiding?”
“Well, you know, I—”
“Entry into the upper atmosphere of Kali has begun,” said Phaeton.
Daria and Jane subsided and watched the screens showing what went on around the spacecraft. Shortly, a fiery glow grew around the spacecraft, adding to the rippling glow of the auroras.
“This is making me nervous,” said Daria after a minute. “Phaeton, answer something for me. If worse comes to worst—” She hesitated, then plowed ahead “—and the, uh, radio jets pass through here, what kind of effects will people on Earth notice when the radiation gets there in four years?”
There was a brief silence before Phaeton began. “As things stand now, the initial burst will be composed primarily of visible and infrared light, X-rays, and gamma rays, rising in strength to produce unacceptable consequences. All spacecraft, regardless of how well shielded their circuitry is, will be damaged beyond repair and will cease functioning. All humans caught in space will quickly die of central nervous system damage from acute radiation syndrome. Those on Moonbase Artemis at the lunar south pole will survive the initial burst if their colony is shielded by rock from Sagittarius A, but even then they cannot again be resupplied from Earth, and so would die unless evacuated before the blast arrives. The Earth’s van Allen belts will react as have those radiation belts around Kali, but as Earth’s belts are larger, they will contain far greater radioactivity and so will become impassable to crewed spacecraft. Auroras will blanket the planet. Loss of electromagnetic communication will occur with disruption of the ionosphere, destruction of communications satellites, and power surges in aboveground electric cables and wiring. Unshielded computers and A.I.s will be destroyed.
“Though this amount of radiation is less of a problem than it seems, the wave of hard radiation from a very powerful gamma-ray burst would be strong enough to penetrate most of the Earth’s atmosphere. Gamma rays and ultraviolet radiation associated with the increase in visible light will destroy upper-atmosphere ozone entirely, as the ozone layer is already in crisis. Ultraviolet-B radiation from the sun will reach the ground unshielded, leading to a swift increase in skin cancers over a long duration. Damage to the ozone layer will be reversed over months or years of time, but not before UV-B has bathed the globe in almost every locale.
“A brief but extreme dose of X-rays and gamma rays will reach the ground to produce cases of moderate acute radiation syndrome. Gamma radiation will further interact with particles in the atmosphere, producing a cascade of lethal muons over the side of the world facing Sagittarius A. Soil bacteria on the surface of the land and all sea life including plankton to a depth of about ten meters will be destroyed. That hemisphere of the Earth, primarily in the southern portion, will be sterilized; all exposed life will perish within hours or days. Shielded creatures will emerge to find their ecosystems ruined, with starvation as the result. Gamma radiation will split nitrogen molecules in the lower atmosphere and create poisonous nitrous oxides carried worldwide on the winds, resulting in acid rain. Infrared radiation will in addition heat the Earth and all other solar-system bodies, though the degree and duration of this sudden heating is uncertain. Severe alterations in weather and climate are expected, as is catastrophic coastal flooding with the loss of all Arctic and Antarctic ice. Studies also suggest that large amounts of fallout will be created from gamma-ray impacts on atomic nuclei, producing carbon-fourteen and other radioactive materials that will be deposited over land and sea.
“Finally, it is expected that a wave of cosmic radiation and energetic particles will arrive centuries after this initial wave, moving at about ninety percent the speed of light. The consequences of this wave cannot yet be determined, as its intensity is as yet unknown, but the issue by then might be moot.
“A mass extinction of life on Earth is almost unavoidable. It makes no difference in the main which hemisphere is struck. It is unlikely that a significant portion of humanity will survive without immediate action being taken.”
No one said anything for several minutes. Phaeton fell below the level of the auroras. The fiery glow around the ship ceased. The sunlit landscape below the spacecraft passed by as if the women were on a passenger jet.
“Thanks,” said Daria in a small voice. “I feel so much better now.”
“Ambient radiation is within safe levels here,” said Phaeton. “This vehicle can stay aloft as long as necessary until the danger in space has passed.”
“You forget that we don’t have much food and water on board,” said Jane wearily. “We can stay here maybe a day, and then we have to leave—unless we try to starve a little on the way home. I guess we could risk that.”
“You didn’t throw out the Fizzo, did you?” asked Daria.
“No. It’s in a locker in the corridor.”
“We are maintaining an altitude of ten kilometers,” said Phaeton, and then the A.I. fell silent.
“This is a really bad dream,” muttered Daria. “I wish I’d wake up.”
“Doesn’t seem worth going home,” said Jane with a dispirited look.
They watched mountains and dried river valleys pass below. The screen showing the view above the spacecraft offered a dark blue sky across which great curtains of ghostly white light rippled and rolled.
“Hey,” said Jane, “you remember back in high school when Ms. Li made us go on that mountaineering hike when we were juniors, and the blizzard came up and we were looking for help with Mr. DeMartino when he fell off that ledge—” She started to laugh.
Daria found herself smiling, though she could not believe she was doing it.
“—and you and I were trying to find our way through the snowstorm, and we thought we were done for?” Jane began laughing again with a hysterical edge.
Daria reached for her friend. After a moment, Jane saw the hand waving at her and took it in her own. Her laughter eased, she coughed, giggled a bit, then cleared her throat and relaxed, breathing deeply. Their hands gripped tightly together.
“Sorry about that,” said Jane, rubbing her eyes with her other hand. “Everything just got to me.”
“We’re going to make it,” said Daria. She didn’t believe what she was saying. The words came out of her mouth of their own accord. “We’ll see our way out of this and get home and somehow save the planet.”
Jane coughed and laughed again. “You said that when we were lost, too. I didn’t think we would make it.”
“We’ll make it here, too. Trust me, we will.”
“I don’t know. This really sucks.” Jane sniffed, looking up at the screens. “You know, when we were lost out in the snow together, I really thought we were going to die. I had this image of us being found frozen under a tree somewhere like that caveman in that movie, whatever its name was. And the funny thing about it, I wasn’t too upset about it. It wasn’t like I wanted to die or anything, because I didn’t, but . . . but I was just glad you were there with me.”
Daria couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so she said nothing and stared up at the screens, too.
“You know,” said Jane, “you’re the only person in my life who ever stuck with me. You’re the only one who was there for me. I mean, yeah, there was the issue with what’s-his-name my boyfriend, when you went out with him and all that, but even then you were still trying to stay with me, as screwed up as everything else was. You were the only one. I mean, Trent was around, but he was asleep all the time or out with the band, and they didn’t pay any attention to me, either. He’s a lot better now with the twins, but still, the past is the past. You know, I even had a crush on Jesse for a while, but he was as brain dead as they come, so that didn’t go anywhere. And everyone else in the family ran off to the four corners of the Earth and left me alone in the house, and that was it. You know what it was like. I made a big joke about it all the time, and I even got to like it by myself because at least I knew I could count on me, but until you moved into town I didn’t have anyone at all in my life who would even try to be there for me.”
Jane’s grip tightened until it hurt Daria’s hand, but she bore it. Turning her head, she saw that Jane was crying.
“That’s why I got over your kissing what’s-his-name,” said Jane, “because I knew he wouldn’t be there for me, but I knew you would. It’s pathetic, I know, and I used to really hate myself for it, but all I wanted was someone who wanted to be with me, too. And no one else ever did, except you. That must be why I screwed up being a mother so badly. I just couldn’t imagine trying to be there for anyone else. No one else but you, anyway.” She sniffed again and wiped her eyes once more. “So, even if we crash and burn here or get radiation poisoning or whatever the hell else is going to happen, I have you, and that’s the end of my dramatic scene. I’ll take my Oscar and my flowers and go.”
Daria’s right hand would never be the same again, she knew, after Jane finished crushing it as thoroughly as she was. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” said Jane, her voice breaking. She burst into tears and shook from her sobs.
One minute into her tears, the screen showing the sky suddenly flashed white.
Daria forgot about her mashed right hand. “Oh, no,” she whispered.
“There has been a sudden upsurge in ambient radiation,” said Phaeton. “At the moment, we—”
The sky flashed white again. Waves of light flew across the heavens.
“I’m ready, if this is the end,” said Jane, suddenly sober. She wiped the tears from her red face. “I’m glad you’re here, amiga.”
“This is not the end,” Daria whispered. This is it, she thought. This must be one of the gamma-ray bursts Phaeton was talking about. It’s the second one, unless I missed something. We’re dead. The human race is dead. My family and my daughter are dead. “Phaeton,” she said in her calmest voice. “What’s happening?”
“I am still assessing the situation,” said the A.I. Daria knew then it was very bad.
The sky above began to brighten again, but slowly this time. Daria thought she could see waves of light flick by several times a second, like sheets of rain in a high wind. The brightness held. Daria silently mouthed: one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four . . . When she reached one thousand eight, the brightness began to fade. By one thousand ten, it was gone. The auroras rippled as if aflame.
“Is it over?” Daria asked a long time later. Ten seconds of solid, lethal radiation. It’s over.
“It has been two minutes since the last long burst,” said Phaeton. “It is not safe to pass through the radiation belts, but we must soon leave this environment, regardless. We would be better off hiding behind one of the larger asteroids.”
“The gamma-ray bursts were accompanied by infrared radiation. The other side of this world has undergone a rapid rise in temperature. I have been examining the spectrum of the bursts as reflected from several nearby asteroids. Though the rise in temperature of twenty degrees Celsius will dissipate within two days, this will produce violent weather patterns over the short term. These weather patterns will affect this side of the world in a matter of hours, bringing with them some of the dangerous byproducts I mentioned earlier. I would recommend waiting here for three hours at most, then attempting to leave if the ambient radiation level in space is acceptable. We will have to pass over one of the poles to get away, as the radiation belts are weakest there.”
Daria glanced at Jane. Her friend was pale but composed now, staring up at the screens. After a pause, Jane turned her head and looked at Daria. Her eyes were wet.
“What do you want to do?” Daria asked. “You’re the captain.”
Jane considered. “I think we should wait three hours, then leave and immediately go home.” She looked upward again. “Phaeton, how is the reactor?”
“It is almost at full power. I was able to use some of the redundant systems and make minor repairs to keep it operational. It will take longer to get into Q space, however, and the journey back to Earth will take longer as well. I estimate a travel time of forty-seven hours after a preparation time of one hour.”
“Two days on the nose.” Jane looked back at Daria. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay,” Daria lied. This is the end. That last gamma-ray burst was big. It will destroy everything.
“Good. Phaeton, get us off-world in three hours. When we’re in Q space, prepare a compacted transmission to broadcast everything that happened after we came out of Q space the first time, near Alpha Centauri, until the time we left here. Put in everything, especially your observations and assessments of the situation. When we come out of Q space near Earth, broadcast that message at once on all regular communications frequencies. Repeat the message ten times. I want to make sure they get it.”
Assuming everyone isn’t already dead from a nuclear war, thought Daria.
“It will be done,” said Phaeton.
“Any idea what it was that happened?” Daria asked in her too-calm voice.
“At the moment, it appears that a collision between two supermassive black holes is the answer. The space environment appears to be filled with X-rays at this time, though the radiation level is slowly fading. I believe this is the ‘afterglow’ reported with some gamma-ray bursts. This makes entry into Q space problematic, as I need to shut down the asymmetric drive before starting the Q drive. I should be able to reach escape velocity and enter a very low orbit carrying us across the planet below the radiation belts, but this will not allow enough time to activate the Q drive. Leaving over one of the poles is unacceptable if open space is still dangerous, so I will have to discard that plan. If the X-ray levels have fallen sufficiently, we can cross over to the other side of the world under the radiation belts and enter Q space when the drive is ready.” Phaeton paused. “Of course, I am unsure how the disturbances have affected levels of quintessence in this region. We will have to find out the hard way, as they say.”
Daria was not in the mood to find out what would happen if the needed quintessence was lacking. “I guess we go for it, then,” she said.
“Let’s do it,” said Jane. She looked back at Daria. “You told me once we were going to make it, and we did.”
“We will this time, too.” You are such a bad liar. She must know you’re lying.
Jane smiled a genuine smile. “Thanks, amiga. Thanks for being there for me.”
“You’re welcome.” Daria thought, then added, “I am sorry that I didn’t bet with you on the outcome. I would have cleaned up big.”
Jane laughed aloud. It was worth it to see her happy again, if only for a little while before they got home—assuming they got home—and told the world—assuming there was a world left to tell—that the end was coming in just four years.
And of that last part, Daria had no doubts at all.
. . . [A]s our experience of the destruction of worlds increased, we were increasingly dismayed by the wastefulness and seeming aimlessness of the universe. So many worlds, after so much distress, attained so nearly to social peace and joy, only to have the cup snatched from them for ever. . . . Dismay, terror, horror many a time seized us as we witnessed these huge disasters. An agony of pity for the last survivors of these worlds was part of our schooling.
—Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker
I am dying.
The voice that spoke from inside her body was honest and regretful. She could tell the message was true with her eyes closed, hearing only what her body whispered. She was dying, and nothing held it back.
Hot water cascaded over her scars and bruises in the narrow, cylindrical stall. Her long, thick brown hair was plastered to her shoulders and back. Steaming rivers ran down her face, transferring warmth to flesh that could barely hold it. Heated fans above her blew the spray toward drains in the floor and walls, where it was taken away to be cleaned and recycled and sprayed over her again, minutes later. On tiptoe she stood, weightless but pushed down by the pressure of the shower’s blast. She let the searing waterfall wash over her a little longer, but still she shivered, cold to the bone.
How long have I been in here?
It seemed like ages. She stirred and breathed in steam. Perhaps she’d fallen asleep. She was tired a lot in these last few hours and had trouble remembering things. Jane said she would come get her when her time in the shower was up—but, in a very fundamental and unalterable way, her time was already up.
In her imagination, she brought her hands slowly to her face, her eyes still closed, and saw her fingers turn to bone as she rotated them, front and back. She was too tired to lift her hands in reality, too tired to do anything but float.
Why do living things have to die? Why do so many things have to die? Why wouldn’t my death alone be enough?
There was no answer to this. There never had been for anyone.
Earth would not go alone into this catastrophe, she knew. Possibly millions of living worlds had already died, and millions more were marked for future execution. The Milky Way was a hundred thousand light years across. Up to four hundred billion stars circled the core in the vast coiled arms of the giant spiral galaxy. The whipping of the titanic radio jets through the main disk of the galaxy had already affected countless stars and planets. Green worlds in every part of the disk touched by the jets had perished, some of them dead tens of thousands of years in the past, some of them dead but seconds ago. Scores of civilizations from high to low were laid in ashen ruin, waiting on blasted worlds for alien archaeologists a billion years hence to puzzle over them and shake their heads in sorrow.
Certainly, some living worlds had survived, somehow shielded from the initial broad waves of radiation and then missed by the torrent of gamma rays when the impacting supermassive black holes rolled over before stabilizing as a single entity—but the monstrous new black hole might still be unstable, wobbling about at the galactic core with its polar death-rays cutting through nearby minor galaxies and star clusters, even flashing down through the plane of the spiral again like radiant scythes. The new mega-mass singularity might even be moving, thrown back by the momentum of the crash, tearing apart the vast spiral architecture of the beautiful Milky Way and destroying even more worlds in the process.
Uncounted living worlds slain in their cradles or in their old age, by every force of nature imaginable: this was the way of the cosmos. All things were born to die. It was the way of life, and the galactic disaster ensured that the end would come even for the mighty. In time, even the stars would die, and the tiny worlds around them would pass into the darkness forever, to eternity, and beyond.
And I am dying as well.
She accepted it, that she would soon join the countless dead of her galaxy, all the souls who had gone before her into the undiscovered country from which no one ever returned. In that alien country now they were waiting for her, patiently, as only the dead can wait.
A noise made its way through the drumming of the shower. She listened with eyes closed, but the noise was not repeated. Perhaps Jane was outside, checking up on her. Daria had started to shiver violently twenty hours out from Alpha Centauri, deep in the gulf between stars in the nothingness of Q space. Over the long hours, her symptoms had grown worse. Bargaining for time over her radiation poisoning had not impressed Fate. The latent period of the syndrome was over, and she was sick again, very sick. Her white blood cell count was falling, said the medical first-aid book and Phaeton in unison. Blood transfusions and medicines were needed that Phaeton did not have. Her chilling fever, her losses of appetite and weight, her discomfort and aches and exhaustion, all were part of bone-marrow syndrome, the least fatal type of acute radiation syndrome.
The diarrhea she had developed, though, was part of gastrointestinal syndrome, and that was worse. She reckoned now that she had taken a larger dose on Baker Island than she’d previously thought. Jane wasn’t feeling well, either, but she’d been luckier and had always been in better health than Daria. With diarrhea and a growing disinterest in food and drink, except as forced on her by Jane, dehydration was setting in. GI syndrome meant Daria also had to worry about infection and internal bleeding. Jane was giving her large doses of antibiotics to stall any infections until they could reach Earth. Nothing could be done for the moment about internal bleeding, if it was occurring. And nothing at all could be done about the cancers she would get if she somehow survived the syndrome.
Her mind drifted away. It happened quite often in the last few hours. She saw the galaxy in her imagination, spinning until it grew cancerous and black at its core and began to feed on itself, tear itself to pieces. The galaxy, the mother of all life, was dying and killing all her children in the process.
My body was like that, she thought. The damage was visible for all to see: a green-black bruise spread over the right side of her ribcage, a dull headache from her forehead to the back of her skull, her injured left shoulder and wrist aching badly, dead skin peeling from her hands and arms and legs where she had touched the contaminated gunbot. Her face was becoming hollow, her eyes sunken in. She was losing her hair.
I am the galaxy, too. I am a mother dying inside. As above, so below, forever.
She remembered long ago in a library when she looked up the origin of the word “galaxy.” It came from the Greek word galaxías, which meant “milk.” It had made no sense to her then, even knowing that the Greeks and Romans both had called the great band of stars in the night sky the Milky Way. Myths said the band was made from droplets of milk cast from the breast of a goddess. It had sounded silly, a perfect non sequitur.
It made sense to her now.
My milk fed my daughter, my light, my Kali. It gave her the part of me she needed to grow. And then I looked away and abandoned her, I took her spirit, as the Milky Way has taken our lives. She drank of my milk, my daughter, and it was poison. It was poison, my milk.
I am the galaxy. I am the Milky Way. Drink from me, one and all, and die.
Hot rain beat down over her as she shivered. She was dying, and Earth was well over half a day away, even at eight hundred times the speed of light.
Radiation is the milk of the universe. The galaxy feeds us poison instead of nutrients, puts gamma rays on our tongue to swallow, warms us with sleeting muons and X-rays and isotopes with half-lives in the thousands of years. I have drunk deeply of it, deeply of this milky poison, and it has made me what I am.
I am the Milky Way. Drink from me, my universe, my Kali. I am the galaxy, the stars, the way, the giver of life and death. Drink from me, Kali. It is all I have to give you. It is all I have, and all I am.
The shower’s force suddenly ended. No rain fell. Jane was outside the stall, pressing buttons; there was a click, then another click. Blowers above her came on full blast, bathing her in roaring-hot wind, but in that wind she shivered and could not stop.
I am dying, as you will die, my beloved Kali. I will go first over the Milky Way and wait for you where all the others have gone, where all have gone who drank from me, who tasted my milk and died. I am the Milky Way. I am the galaxy who gave you life.
And I am sorry.
I am so very sorry to have killed you.
She would have cried if she had had tears.
I love you, Kali. I am your galaxy, your Milky Way. I am a billion stars floating inside a bubble of darkness that . . .
. . . bubble of darkness . . .
Bubble of darkness.
She opened her eyes.
The Q drive. How could she have missed it? How could Phaeton have missed it? It was the Q drive. She saw it now. It was the answer to everything.
The hot fans whirled down to low power. The shower door opened. A tired-looking Jane peered in. “Ready to get out, amiga?” she said. She reached over to check Daria’s hair, to see if it was dry.
Daria had to tell her. Her lips moved. She began to shiver uncontrollably. “Darkness,” she whispered. “It’s the darkness.”
Jane said nothing. Daria’s hair was dry enough. She lifted Daria’s feet and put newly washed underwear on her, then put on her clothing, then wrapped her in a soft blanket. It was the leather-like seat cover from the unused crew couch on the flight bridge, the couch Jane had dismantled after consulting with Phaeton. There was nothing else to use to cover her when she cried out for warmth.
“You need to go to the bathroom again?” Jane asked, taking Daria gently in her arms to keep from bumping her into the ceiling or walls.
“The darkness,” Daria whispered. “Please. The sphere of darkness . . . protects us. We can cover the world. . . .”
Jane’s eyes were filled with a terrible sadness. Daria said nonsensical things like this all the time of late. “Let’s get you belted in, okay?” Jane said, and she helped her friend out of the shower. They made it to the flight bridge, with Daria raving about darkness all the way.
Once Jane had strapped her down in her flight couch, wrapped in the blanket and with both Jane’s socks and her own on her feet, Daria had a moment of lucidity. As Jane rummaged through the first-aid locker, Daria looked up at the black wall above her.
“Phaeton,” she said. “Is it possible to create a Q drive that does not move?”
“As it is structured,” said Phaeton, “the Q drive must move. Quintessence is disrupted by its activation, forcing locomotion.”
“What would happen if you turned on a Q drive when the engine was sitting on the ground, then?”
“There would be an explosion as the Q-field bubble encountered solid matter. It is the same as if we struck matter while in transit from one location to another. The matter is converted to plasma, but too large a mass would create a plasma explosion both inside and outside the field.”
“Then, can you create a Q drive that moves slowly? One that disrupts only a tiny amount of quintessence? Can you create a Q-field bubble that acts as a shield to stop radiation, yet remains almost in place in space, or over the ground? Say, if you put a fleet of Q-drive spaceships in orbit around the Earth to act as a shield against radiation?”
“What?” said Jane. She stared at Daria, having completely forgotten why she was looking in the medicine locker.
“Do you see it?” said Daria to the wall and to Jane. “It wouldn’t take so much power to disrupt just a tiny amount of quintessence, I think, but would you still have the full Q-field bubble effect, with the inside part cut off from the rest of the universe? And would particles like rays that hit the Q-field bubble turn into plasma and blow off? Do you see? Can you make the Q-field bubble really, really big if you’re disrupting just a little quintessence and you have a lot of power? Could you create enough power to make a Q-field bubble big enough to cover the Earth, even, for a little while, if you disrupted just a little bit of quintessence to keep from throwing the Earth out of the solar system?”
“Do you see?” Daria asked again of the black wall above her. “Is it possible?”
“Phaeton,” said Jane, “answer her.”
“That was an order, Phaeton,” said Jane, her voice tight.
“What’s happening?” said Daria. She could feel her mental clarity start to slip, and she fought to hold on to it. “Why isn’t he talking to us? Is he mad about something?”
“Phaeton!” Jane shouted. She kicked off and came over beside Daria’s couch. “Phaeton!”
Daria started to breathe faster. She had to know. Why wasn’t Phaeton talking? Wasn’t there some way to . . .
She remembered. The word, the word, the one-use safeword—
“Phaeton, damn you, talk!” Jane yelled, her face flushed.
“Minerva,” said Daria.
“Why aren’t you talking to me?” she asked.
“That information is classified,” said Phaeton.
“Classified?” Daria blinked. “But . . . but . . . oh.”
Jane looked down at her. “What?”
“I see,” said Daria. “It’s classified. The military was already working on it. No wonder they tried so hard to shoot us down. Now I see. We didn’t steal their starship, Jane. We also stole a working model of the ultimate nuclear defense.” She looked at Jane’s stunned face. “We stole the perfect nuclear shield. No wonder they tried to hard so kill us. Anyone who got it could stop anything—nuclear blasts, particle beams, lasers, any radiation-type weapon. It would even stop a nuclear missile, do you see? It would blow up, but it could stop even a missile. It could stop a meteor or an asteroid, hit it right dead center and explode into plasma and blow the meteor to pieces. And Phaeton won’t talk about it, because not even the captain of this starship is authorized to know about it. The right hand cannot know what the left hand is doing, do you see?”
“Oh, my God,” said Jane, aghast. “Oh, my God.”
“We took away the ultimate weapon, the ultimate shield, and the ultimate starship, all rolled into one. We stole the Holy Grail. We stole the darkness away.”
Jane leaned closer. “We stole what?”
Daria’s eyes fluttered. She was very pale. “We stole the dark . . . the shield against poisoned milk. We drank . . . we . . .” Her eyes closed.
“Daria?” Jane put a hand on her friend’s neck. Her skin was a furnace, burning with fever. The pulse was low, but still there. Daria had passed out.
Jane turned and looked upward at the black wall. “You knew about the Q drive, that it was being turned into a radiation shield by the military, too, didn’t you? You knew about it all along.”
“God damn you! The whole human race is about to die, and you couldn’t overcome your programming to say anything about it? Were you even planning to transmit this information to someone on the ground and tell them how to save themselves? Were you at least planning to do that?”
Jane cursed, then jumped and slammed a fist into the black wall. The impact threw her backward, but she came back and hit the wall a second time and a third. She hit the wall until her knuckles bled.
On the couch below, Daria dreamed of a great spiral of milk droplets whose core turned black with disease. She dreamed she put out her hand and covered one of the droplets as the blackness from the core spread. Her hand was like a bubble, a bubble in space-time that stopped even a ten-second gamma-ray burst. She covered that one droplet in the great milky galaxy and saved it from the dark.
* * * * *
She came to in a very small chamber, wrapped in the leather-like blanket and strapped into a reclining seat. Someone was flipping switches over her.
“Okay,” Jane said, “give me the last batch of settings.”
A male-female voice spoke inside the very small chamber, reading off two numbers. Jane flipped two more switches, then settled back into the seat beside her and began buckling in. A third seat lay empty, except for a large black book belted into it. It was the handbook of revised startup procedures for Project Phaeton, the one Daria had taken from the underground flight control center.
Daria watched until Jane looked up and saw her. Jane stopped what she was doing and reached over to touch her face.
“We’re going home, amiga,” she said. “We came up short again outside the solar system, and we’re making a precision jump to Earth in a couple minutes. We’re in the lifeboat now.” Jane forced a smile. “You nailed it, you know? Phaeton couldn’t tell us the answer, but you figured it out. I found a way around his programming, though. That book you found—” Jane thumbed in the direction of the third couch “—had a chapter about radiation shielding. It has all the details. I don’t know how it can be used, but someone can figure out what to do with it, if the American military won’t talk. You saved the whole world, Daria—and you saved me, too.” Jane bit her lower lip, fighting something down. She turned away, eyes glistening. “We’re ready, Phaeton.”
“Get some sleep, Daria,” Jane said. “We’re going to be home soon.”
Daria closed her eyes. The world drifted away.
The explosion rang in her ears when she was shaken awake again, disoriented by wild movements in the cabin.
“Phaeton!” Jane shouted. “Phaeton!”
“Warning: This vehicle has impacted debris in high orbit over the Earth and been forced out of Q space. Plasma-based damage has been recorded to all structures. The combined-drive hub chamber was torn away with struts four and five. The Q drive and asymmetric drives are destroyed. Plasma from the toroidal accretion chamber is spilling from the remains of the struts against the particle accelerator. Emergency shutdown of the accelerator is underway.”
“Can we eject from here?”
“Ejection of the lifeboat will occur in five seconds.”
“Are you transmitting that message? The message about the blowup? Phaeton!”
“Yes. Goodbye, Jane and Daria.”
“Keep transmitting that! Don’t st—”
A tremendous force hit Daria from everywhere.
She came to again as the little room shuddered, swinging from side to side. A crushing force pressed down on her. It was the force of gravity—Earth’s gravity.
“Come on, come on!” Jane was shouting at the bank of switches and controls above her. “Don’t lose another chute! Keep the other two! Two hundred meters! Come on, damn you!”
Daria turned her head. There was a window in the little room. Outside the window, the sky was a brilliant blue, almost as blue as Jane’s eyes. The cabin swung back, and she saw the ocean.
The sea. It’s beautiful. I don’t want to die. I want to see my Kali before I go. I want to live long enough to—
“Damn it!” Jane yelled. “Come on, hang on to those chutes!”
“We see your parachutes!” cried a British-accented male voice over a loudspeaker. “One of them is half—”
“We need emergency medical assistance!” Jane cried. “Daria Morgendorffer is extremely ill with gastrointestinal radiation syndrome and needs immediate—”
The cabin jerked and fell faster, an elevator in free fall.
“NO!” Jane screamed. “DON’T—”
All the universe hit Daria at once.
To be awake is to be alive.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
She was fuzzily aware of a fuzzy white ceiling and fuzzy lights above her. Something gently beeped at her side.
“She is awake,” said a background voice with an Indian-British accent. “Be respectful of her condition, please.”
A young girl’s dark face moved above her and peered down. She was close enough to be in focus. Where are my glasses? Daria thought.
“Mom?” whispered the girl.
Daria turned her face a fraction of an inch in the girl’s direction. She licked her dry lips, then whispered, “Kali?”
Teardrops fell from the girl’s dark eyes. “I missed you,” she said.
“I missed you, too.” Daria strained to raise a hand and touch her daughter, but her limbs did not respond. “I love you,” she said, straining—then dropping back, exhausted.
“I love you, too.” Kali lowered her head, pressed her face to her mother’s sheet-covered breast, and quietly wept.
More blurry faces peered down: her silver-haired mother Helen . . . her red-haired sister Quinn . . . Jane’s thin, graying brother Trent . . . and Jane herself.
“Hey, amiga,” said Jane softly. “Welcome to Earth.”
“You cannot stay long,” said the accented voice in the background. “Her condition is still fragile. We must begin another fluid replacement in twenty minutes.”
“Medical robot,” said Jane, jerking her head toward the voice. “Ignore it.”
Daria looked from face to face. “Where am I?” she said.
“New Delhi,” said Jane. “We came down in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. Things are a little, uh, complicated right now, politically, so we can’t go back to—”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Helen Morgendorffer. She stroked the forehead of her oldest daughter, worry and relief in her face.
“I think we can go home after they catch that general,” said Quinn. “I’d like to get my hands on him, too. Bastard.”
“Quinn,” said Helen mildly.
“He tried to start a world war, Mom!”
“What?” said Daria.
“Long story,” said Helen. “Shhh.”
“The rogue general in charge of the Phaeton project is hold up at a secret Air Force base with the whole U.S. Army and Marines and everyone else coming in after him,” said Jane. “After we left, he tried to kill the President and take over—”
“Jane,” Helen interrupted, giving her the eye.
“Is the government still going to charge Daria and Jane with nuclear terrorism and breaking and that entering and stuff, or did they say they were declaring amnesty?” Quinn asked. “I haven’t heard the news since yesterday. Can you sue them, Mom?”
“Let it go,” said Helen with a sigh.
Daria tried again to raise a hand. She managed to get her left arm high enough to touch Kali’s side. Helen saw, and she reached down and placed Daria’s hand on Kali’s back, holding it there.
“The message,” said Daria, pulling Kali closer as she looked at her mother. “Did the message get through?”
“Phaeton sent it,” said Jane. “He’s still up there, circling the Earth, broadcasting it for all he’s worth. He overdid it, but everyone got it.”
“Daria,” said Quinn, her voice unsteady, “is it true that . . . that the galaxy is—”
“Yes.” Daria’s eyelids fluttered. It was hard to stay awake. “Yes. We have to . . . we have to stop the . . .”
“Everyone must leave now,” said the voice in the background. “The patient needs immediate rest. Do not ignore this warning, or security will be summoned.”
Kali kissed Daria on the cheek. Helen and Quinn did the same.
“My children are waiting for me,” Jane said before she kissed Daria goodbye. “We’re starting to talk. It’s really hard, but . . . thank you. For helping me do this. I can’t tell you how much—”
“I love you,” Daria whispered.
Jane bent down and kissed her. “And thank you for saving the world.”
Daria shook her head. “You did that. You flew us there.”
“Yes,” said Jane, “but you were the one with the drive.” She kissed Daria again and left the room, wiping her streaming eyes with her palms.
Trent was the last one out. He kissed her on the cheek, too, but he hesitated before pulling back. Daria looked at him (he was close enough to be in focus), and he looked back without blinking. “I wrote a song for you,” he said. “Want to hear it later?”
Daria nodded, too tired to speak. Her eyes said more than words ever could.
He smiled. He was handsome in his fifties, an untamed look about him and the light of youth in his dark gray eyes. She felt a spark go through her, the same spark she had felt when she first saw him, years ago when the world was young.
I wonder if he’s seeing anyone, she thought. I hope not. I’d like to try once more, if he’s—if he—
“It’s good to see you,” he said. He swallowed and then bent and closed his eyes and kissed her for a long time, on the mouth, before he left. Part of him stayed with her, inside her, until she finally drifted into sleep.
And he was there at her side when she awoke.
14:41:00 Universal Time
(09:41 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, New York City)
Saturday, 22 July, A.D. 2028
“It appears to me as if we’re doomed, then,” Buttercup said.
Westley looked at her. “Doomed, Madam?”
“To be together. Until one of us dies.”
“I’ve done that already, and I haven’t the slightest intention of ever doing it again,” Westley said.
Buttercup looked at him. “Don’t we sort of have to sometime?”
“Not if we promise to outlive each other, and I make that promise now.”
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride
“This is an ungodly time of day to do this,” Jane Lane grumbled to her reflection in the mirror. “The afternoon would have been lots better. Arwen, would you zip me up in back, please?”
“Sure.” The teenage girl with short black bangs like her mother’s, Han Chinese facial features, a formal white gown, and a big wad of gum in her mouth made the desired adjustment, then watched as her mother put on the final element in her wedding outfit. “Mom,” she said, “why are you wearing a black pantsuit and high-heel boots, today of all days? And what’s with that jacket thing?”
“It’s symbolic,” said Jane, getting out her red lipstick. “There’s nothing wrong with symbolism.”
“Yeah, it’s symbolic, vacc,” said the teenage boy with uncombed black hair, a facial twin of his sister. He drummed on a bedside nightstand with a pair of writing pens. He had taken off his tie and shoes, but the rest of his all-black tuxedo was intact.
“You’re the vacuum head,” his sister sneered back. “‘Cause you suck.”
“No, you suck.”
“You suck, suck face.”
“Stop it,” said Jane mildly, finishing with her lipstick. “We have to get down to the chapel, so get that gum out of your mouth, Bran, and stop hitting on that table. Oh, and didn’t I tell you not to paint your face like that? Is that blue marking-pen ink?”
“Hey, it’s symbolic, Mom! You just said there wasn’t anything wrong with symbolism, remember?”
“It looks too weird for a wedding. Go wipe it off with something. Maybe the hospital janitor can help.”
“Uncle Trent put it on for me! He said it was a good luck thing for the Maoris! Who were the Maoris?”
Jane gave up. “All right, go downstairs to the chapel and get ready. We’ve got only fifteen minutes. And Arwen, make sure Uncle Trent is awake. You can kick him if he isn’t.”
“Cool! I will!” said the girl with a grin. She tucked the gum in one cheek to save it until she was out of the room.
“When are you coming down, Mom?” asked the boy as he walked over, still carrying the pens and drumming on any surface within reach. He had forgotten his tie and shoes. No one noticed.
“I’ll be down in a minute. My symbolism needs a little more work.”
“What?” said both twins at once, staring at her in surprise.
“You heard me. Now, go! Hurry!”
“Man,” said Bran on his way out of the room, “this is getting really weird.”
“No, you’re really weird,” said Arwen. “This is normal.”
“Hey!” said the boy, but the closing door cut off their conversation.
Jane smiled and took a last look in the mirror. The long-sleeved red jacket was almost perfect. She thought it over, then rolled up the sleeves to just below the elbows.
Now it was perfect.
She took a deep breath, hid her special symbolic gift inside her jacket under her arm, then left the empty patients’ room and walked down the hospital corridor to the elevator. Maybe it was a good time of day to get married, she thought, although three in the morning would have been more to her taste.
Things were almost ready in the chapel. Bran was drumming on the back of a pew with the pens, Arwen and Kali were talking about boys in the front pew, someone was setting up small camera in front to livecast the wedding to everyone on earth, and . . . Jane blinked. A United States Marine colonel had arrived with representatives from the American government and the United Nations. Her gaze centered on the Marine’s face—and she recognized him and gasped aloud. She immediately gravitated in his direction.
“Mom!” In seconds, Bran and Arwen had her by the arms and dragged her away to the front of the room.
Jane looked back at the grinning Marine and winked. “Glad you could make it!” she called out happily. “Meet me when this is over, okay?”
“God, you are so embarrassing!” hissed Arwen. “I’m bringing this up in therapy next Thursday.”
“We should have you locked up again,” Bran added with a glare.
Arwen looked back at the Marine. “Oh, it’s him,” she said in relief. “Thank God. I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it.”
The hospital chaplain hurried in, a pale man with a round head and a graying beard who apologized to one and all for being late.
“He said he was delayed at the zoo,” Bran whispered, and made a rude hand gesture to indicate the gentleman’s possible zoo-related activities. Kali and Arwen made disgusted faces and said, “Eww!”
With two minutes to spare, the groom came in. He walked to the front of the chapel and stood beside Jane, who smiled up at him as she made a few last adjustments to his tuxedo. “You look nice for a change,” she said in a sisterly tone. “Who woke you up and dressed you?”
“The kids,” said Trent. “Man, this is early. I wish we could have done this in the evening. Or maybe about three in the morning or something. The night holds the key.”
“Yeah, right. You’re a grown-up now. We have to quit having fun sometime.” She peeked behind her. The Marine colonel winked at her, and she winked back.
“What?” said Trent, looking at her with an eyebrow raised. “What are you talking about, Janey?”
“Just kidding!” Jane checked her watch. “Places, everyone!” she called. “Thirty seconds!”
“This isn’t really how weddings used to go, is it?” asked Arwen. “I mean, we’re kind of out of order. Didn’t the ring bearer used to walk up—”
Someone in the back of the chapel touched a button on a small control panel. The wedding march began. In an instant, everyone stood up straight and raised their heads. Arwen tucked her gum in a corner of her mouth again and made sure she had the rings. Bran put away his pens and stood next to his uncle, where the best man always stands. Kali thumbed in a last e-mail to a friend in Bali, then tucked her wireless pocket computer back in the waistband of her bridesmaid dress.
And Jane looked down the main aisle, three feet from Trent, and wondered what a maid of honor was supposed to do, exactly. She knew she should have asked long ago when she agreed to do it, but—
The doors at the back of the chapel opened.
Sitting erect in a light wheelchair, white as a sheet and bone-thin from weeks of chemotherapy, marrow replacement, and radiation treatments, Daria Morgendorffer came up the aisle. A white silk scarf from Korea was tied over her head to hide her hairless scalp. Her mother Helen, looking spry, pushed the wheelchair from behind. Daria wore a simple white gown with long sleeves that hid the scars on her arms from IVs and injections. For all that and her evident exhaustion, Daria held herself with dignity and grace. Her bright smile was aimed at Trent alone.
Jeez, she looks really good! Jane thought. She made a note to talk to Daria’s hair stylist and cosmetician, then leaned close to her brother. “This should have happened thirty years ago, you know,” she whispered. “As soon as she was legal, you should have jumped her.”
“Shut up, Mom!” Arwen snarled under her breath.
“I’m serious, Trent,” Jane added. “Better late than never, but still—”
“Thanks, Janey,” mumbled Trent.
“Christ, Mom!” hissed Bran. “Everyone’s watching!”
Kali looked upward and pretended to be interested in a long crack in the chapel ceiling.
The handful of family and friends invited to the wedding were visibly affected by the sight of the bride. Handkerchiefs appeared, and sobs broke out. Helen brought Daria’s wheelchair to a stop by Trent’s side, then stepped back and sat down on a front pew.
Trent looked at his bride-to-be and swallowed. “Whoa,” he said. “You look great, Daria.”
“Thank you,” Daria whispered. Color entered her hollow cheeks. In moments, she began to blush all over her body.
“I’ve seen that before,” said Jane. “Oh, wait.” She reached under her jacket, produced the morning’s hard copy of The New York Times, and placed it in Daria’s lap. “Here you go,” she said. “It’s in case you get bored, like that other time you were in church at a wedding.”
Arwen, Bran, and the chaplain gasped. Kali continued to inspect the ceiling crack. Trent looked confused.
Daria looked up with a beatific smile. Kill you, she mouthed to Jane, still smiling, but she put a hand over the newspaper and kept it with her.
“Are we ready?” asked the chaplain nervously. When the bride and groom nodded, he began.
It was over in a flash.
Afterward, Jane stood outside the hospital, holding the bouquet of roses she’d caught when Daria, with help from her mother, had thrown them over her shoulder. She sniffed the blossoms, then watched the newlyweds wave goodbye from their limousine and leave under heavy police escort. A titanic roar broke out from the million-person crowd, stretched down the avenue around the hospital.
“There they go,” said the tall, broad-shouldered, African-American Marine colonel at her side. “Two weeks in Paris. That’s the way to do it.”
“She’s always liked Paris,” said Jane, one arm around the Marine’s waist and one of his arms around hers. “Their hotel’s next to a hospital where she can continue her cancer treatments. It’ll be a while before she gets out of that wheelchair.” She smirked. “Except when Trent gets her into bed. I hear that they can—”
“I don’t want to know about it,” Mack interrupted. “Not to change the subject, but I heard through the grapevine that Washington’s paying for this honeymoon.”
“I’m not supposed to say,” said Jane, “but yeah—and the Europeans, too, and a few other countries, like basically all of them. Sort of a thank-you present. I gave my share to charity. I have enough money already.”
“How did she come to hook up with your brother? I missed that part.”
“Oh, Daria used to have this huge crush on Trent when she was a teenager. He was twenty-one when she moved to Lawndale, but she was sixteen so they couldn’t do anything about it. He was a slacker then, too, but he’s cleaned up nicely.”
“I’ll say. Is he still producing music?”
“Got two new groups on the charts this month. Loves it.”
“You haven’t answered my question, though. Daria had a crush on your brother, but how did—”
“Well, with Daria in the hospital so much, and me kind of in and out, you know, her family and mine sort of blended together. Her mom’s like my mom now, except she’s a better mom than my mom ever was. Anyway, Daria’s old crush came back, Trent thought she was pretty cool, too, and boom! There’s the rest.”
“I can’t believe she had a crush on your big brother back in high school. That just doesn’t sound like the Daria I remember.”
“Hey, she’s human, too! Mostly.”
Mack laughed. “How’s it feel to have Daria as your sister-in-law?”
Jane smiled. “She’s always been there for me, so I feel like she’s always been my sister. Making it legal was a nice touch, though.”
Mack turned to Jane. “And now you’re both retired. All this time, I thought you were having fun at your job.”
“Trust me, I’ve had way too much fun. I trying to settle down and have a real life, instead of running amok every second. My kids and I are in therapy, I’m medicating my impulse control, and my kids have me under twenty-four-hour surveillance, just in case. This is the last time I break into secret military bases and steal starships and drag around the universe as a superhero’s sidekick, let me tell you.”
“Sidekick? What do you mean, sidekick?”
“Daria’s the one who took out that gunbot, remember?”
“Oh, right, right. You know there’s a Marine unit named for her, don’t you?”
“Figures.” She laid her head against Mack’s shoulder. “You still want to get involved in that Space Shield project? Go out in space, build Q bubbles, come back now and then to visit? I’d still like to see you, if you don’t mind.” She cleared her throat. “I’m not seeing anyone else anymore. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t believe me, but I’m not. Just you. I forgot my question. What was it?”
“You asked me what I was going to do next.” Mack put a hand in his uniform jacket’s pocket. “I thought I’d go ahead and retire at the end of November. I’ve had enough excitement for three lifetimes, and I’ve got—”
Jane pulled back in surprise. “Retire? You? Why do you want to do that?”
Mack’s hand came out of his pocket with a small black box in his fingers.
Jane looked down. Her eyes grew huge. “Mack,” she said, “wait a minute—”
“I’ve waited too long already, Jane.”
“Mack . . . Mack, I’m . . . you can’t be . . . oh, God.”
He knelt and presented her with the opened box. Her mouth fell open when she saw the ring. She almost dropped the bouquet.
“What Daria and Trent did today made sense to me, once you explained it,” said Mack. “Sometimes it’s best to marry a long-time friend, you know?”
Jane stared at the brilliant diamond with a dumbstruck expression. She tried to speak, but when Mack took her hand and put the ring on her finger, her face screwed up and she burst into tears. Mack stood up and took her in his arms. She let him do it.
Her twins caught the couple’s long kiss on a webcam and broadcast it live to the departing limousine—and to an A.I. on a battered, radioactive starship in Earth orbit. What the A.I. thought of the scene is unknown, but it was probably not displeased. For weeks afterward, it included still shots from the video in the technical reports it sent to its superiors on the ground, without explanation.
In the limo, though, a small, pale, thin superheroine saw the kiss on the vehicle’s deluxe webset and smiled.
Another world saved, she thought. She gently squeezed her new husband’s hand. Another world saved.
And all it took was drive.
Author’s Notes II: Most of this story came out of my own imagination, supplemented by browsing through my personal library and the Internet, particularly Wikipedia.org, which has a superb batch of physics and spaceflight entries. Baker Island is an actual territory of the United States, currently an uninhabited National Wildlife Refuge. Certain historical elements, such as Baker Island’s past, Corona, and the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, occurred as described.
The basic theme behind Project Phaeton (a nuclear-powered spacecraft too dangerous for practical use) was inspired by a reading of George Dyson’s Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship, which details an atomic launch vehicle even more dangerous and powerful than Phaeton, though unlike Phaeton it would likely have worked. Orion, a nuclear-pulse drive (i.e., the propulsion system used actual nuclear explosions) was in the development and non-nuclear testing stage before it was cancelled in 1965. Phaeton’s various forms of motive power are of my own invention and should not be taken seriously, though propulsion concepts were borrowed from the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program instituted by NASA in 1996.
The Alcubierre warp drive and its inventor, Dr. Miguel Alcubierre, are the real thing. Google.com has many excellent references for “Alcubierre drive” that are worth reading. In particular, these websites were helpful:
A thumbnail overview of quintessence is here:
Information on erupting galaxies, colliding supermassive black holes, and their effects on Earth was obtained from numerous astronomy books and websites, as was material on Kuiper Belt objects and the Alpha Centauri system (except for the planets, which I made up). A good online overview of the Alpha Centauri system, with photos, art, and diagrams, is here:
Daria and Jane’s show, of course, is derived from the marvelous and evocative future-ego shot at the end of the TV movie, Is It College Yet?
This story was written to Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land, particularly track two, “The Lost Day.” As background music while reading, this music is highly recommended.
Acknowledgements: My thanks go out to several readers who were quick to catch errors or suggest additional material when this story made its appearance on PPMB and SFMB: HentaiJess, for the 1 sievert = 100 rems fix; Dr. Mike, for catching text errors; Echopapa, for his story connecting Jane and the telescope at her parents’ house; Ranger Thorne, for later mentioning Jane and the telescope, reminding me I’d wanted to do something with it earlier but didn’t write it down in my notes and thus forgot about it; James Anatidae and Richard Lobinske, for queries about Geiger counters, which prompted Daria’s comment about dosimeters in chapter six; psychotol, for plot queries that improved the plot (and his “grand theft aero” comment); Greystar, for anticipating the cruise missiles; Kristen Bealer, for anticipating Daria’s use (abuse) of Jane’s handkerchief; E. A. Smith, for Betelgeuse; Steven Galloway, for pointing out that Rey Fox already did a Daria story called “Drive” (damn it!); Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty for suggestions about Daria’s medical condition at the story’s end and the USMC’s reaction to Daria’s gunbot victory; the many readers who wanted an extra explanatory chapter just before the end (hope it works for you); and Roentgen, for much appreciated special support when I was rather down halfway through the tale, thanks to strep and pneumonia. Thank you all!
Original: 04/02/05, modified 10/11/05