Cooling metal pinged as consciousness slowly returned. Struggling to sit up, Latimer felt his body bump against something in the blackness. Spinning, he struck a bulkhead. Weightless? Groggily, his mind fought with the idea. Why was he weightless? What happened to ship's gravity? Lifeboat? He reached out to steady himself, wincing from the sudden pain in his left shoulder.
Instrument lights from the control panel in the distance glowed blue-green-red, as he realized that he could only see with his right eye. Wiping at his face with his left hand, he felt wetness. Blood? His heart pounded. What had happened to his sight? Adrenalin shocked his body, bringing full consciousness to his befuddled mind, and with it, nausea and... memory.
Panic surged like an enraged beast tearing at its cage. Fighting to still his nerves, he forced himself to reason. He had to get to the controls, find out what had happened. He pushed from the bulkhead, correcting off the doorway into the pilot's cabin, using his good right arm to stop himself against the acceleration couch.
As he strapped in, his stomach rebelled, forcing him to snatch a puke bag and bring it to his mouth — nothing but dry heaves. That was the vile smell his dazed mind had refused to place; he must have vomited while he was out, and already emptied his stomach. Trying to dismiss the smell, he activated the scan and searched space around him; stars swam across the screen, one close by — no beacon. A chill went down his spine as he called up the boat's log, punched playback, and watched the scene. The chill changed to despair, gnawing at his soul. The pilot's cabin swam around him as his forehead throbbed, demanding attention.
He groped with shaking hand for the toggle that controlled cabin lights, and snapped it on, staring at his reflection formed by the blackness of deep space behind the wide front viewport. A haggard, blood-covered likeness stared back. While he had been unconscious in zero-gee, an eyebrow-level cut had disgorged an abundance of blood. Most had been sucked into the ventilator intakes, but some still floated in the air. The blood on his face had coagulated, but the gaping cut across his forehead still oozed.
As he watched, droplets broke away from the side of the wound to float about the cabin in small round balls. Pain seared across his forehead as he gently lifted the mass of mangled tissue that had once been an eyebrow, to inspect his left eye. He closed his right eye — blurred vision in the left, but vision, nevertheless. A sigh escaped his lips; the eye was intact, though swollen almost shut.
Touching his hand to the red first aid symbol on the cabin wall to his right caused a section of panel to fold out and the kit to open. He glanced again at his image in the glassite. The cut was bone-deep from just above his left eye to the center of his forehead, five or six centimeters in length, he guessed, causing the eyebrow to shift downward, leaving a gaping wound.
Some (sane?) part of his mind kept telling him that he couldn't have blood floating everywhere. He popped a can of antiseptic spray out of its recess, closed his eye and sprayed the wound. A sting followed by a blessed numbness touched his face; the pain eased off.
After choosing a bandage from the kit, he gently pushed the edges of the torn tissue back into place and sealed the dressing across the injury. That would have to do; he wasn't up to anything more involved just now. His left arm, bruised, throbbed from the exertion. Besides... he had to know for sure.
It was odd to think such a small instrument could hold one's future tucked, somehow, inside it. The blue symbol of an atom with circling electrons mocked him as he grasped the device, hesitated, turned it toward himself and activated its sensor.
Shouldn't the manufacturers have programmed in some type of delay, some double-check, before instantly announcing someone's doom with a blaring buzz and flashing blue read-out? Obviously, they hadn't thought so. He stared at the buzzing instrument before he reset it and turned it toward himself again. Same thing!
I'm dead. My body just hasn't realized it yet, he thought.
He shut the alarm off and stared at the reading again. Twenty percent beyond fatal dose. Possibly, no probably, he told himself, he would live — live, that is, if he could get to a full medical facility within a few hours. But with no medical facility within some hundred-plus light-years, and with only the anti-rad pills, twenty percent beyond fatal dose was just that — fatal. Period!
He grasped the vial, his hand trembling. Was there any use in prolonging the inevitable? These would only put off death a little longer. Through blurred vision, he read: Take two immediately after radiation exposure, then one every 12 hours. He didn't bother reading the rest. There wasn't any rest for him, anyway.
The anti-rad pills, however, with an anti-nausea capsule, went down dry a few minutes later. Maybe he just didn't have the guts to throw the things into the converter, but he had fought for life time after time, and had always felt contempt for people who committed suicide; not taking the pills when they would, at least, prolong his life, felt like a form of self-destruction.
How long had he been in the boat, anyway? A glance at the elapse time clock produced the answer: three hours and sixteen minutes. He shouldn't be nauseated from the radiation sickness this soon; the dose he received wasn't that massive. The nausea must be shock from blood loss and the beating his body had taken, he decided. The boat, keyed to his ship's computer, had launched when he was (safely?) aboard, nearly killing him in the process. If it had waited until he had been strapped down, he would be dead, though — at least it would have been a clean death; now he would die a bit at a time, and in agony.
"Better get your mind off that. Whining won't do any good," he subvocalized.
He didn't know whether any of the other scouts — not that there were that many — talked to themselves, but he figured he was the best conversationalist within light-years, so why shouldn't he talk to himself. Of course, he was the only conversationalist within light-years... He almost giggled aloud.
Snap out of it.
Was it the drugs he had taken, or was he losing it completely? No, he decided, he wasn't crazy, just scared spitless.
Well... , not any crazier than usual. All scouts were a little crazy — had to be. There were dozens of jokes about scout-crazy pilots, and he guessed, there was some basis for the stigma. He had seen more than most though, lived life on the edge, traveled farther than any person alive.
What the crap had happened? Why did the pile suddenly have to blow? He hadn't been lax with safety, at least, not about his ship. A scout's idea of a reasonable risk would leave the average person appalled at the recklessness. But a scout had to poke his nose into things, had to explore. That's what he got paid for, though he would have done it for free, if need be, but he wouldn't have let anyone know that. Scouts generally griped about needing newer equipment, bitched about assignments, raised hell in port, then lifted, mission after mission, until, eventually, they quit or didn't come back from an assignment.
You knew this would happen. The odds had to catch up with you sooner or later.
A cacophony of wailing alarms, the strobe of warning lights, then momentary stillness until the computer announced, blaringly, throughout the slender scout-ship: ABANDON SHIP. THE REACTOR WILL SELF DESTRUCT. PILE DETONATION IN THIRTY SECONDS. ABANDON SHIP. ABANDON SHIP. Latimer hesitated and stood motionless, stunned. TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS. TWENTY-FOUR. TWENTY-THREE.
He snapped awake, heart pounding, body trembling. In the dream, he had again been walking down the short passage from the rec-room to the bridge when the computer let loose with its declaration. A couple of seconds had crept by before realization struck and training had taken over.
If he had been anywhere else, he wouldn't have made it to the lifeboat. He practically dived through the hatch, hit weightlessness, braced his foot against the bulkhead, and swung the heavy port with all his strength. He frantically spun the lock, heard the seal squeak closed, then turned and clawed his way through the inner hatch. As he was swinging it closed, the boat launched. Acceleration beyond the capabilities of the dampers smashed him against the hatch and pinned him while consciousness was snuffed out in a blinding flash of pain as the craft, trying to save its master, launched at emergency max.
A sun-bright ball of primal energy blossomed behind the escaping lifeboat as his ship reduced itself to atoms. Hard gamma radiation sleeted through the light shielding of the desperately fleeing craft — through his body. He had almost been far enough away for dispersal to have reduced the radiation to an acceptable level — almost.
What had happened? His last full-maintenance check, two days ago, had verified that the drive was in perfect condition, fine-tuned to four decimal places, and the fusion unit had every safety device that the Service could think of to keep it working safely, and at top efficiency, for years. It couldn't just blow — but it had.
The lifeboat had bolted like the hounds of hell were after it, but the tiny ship had to wait for him to close the outer lock — seconds that would ultimately cost him his life. After the explosion and the resulting radiation bombardment, the command computer had shut down all nonessential systems and awaited his instructions.
The Service wouldn't list him as missing yet; he hadn't even reached his assigned search area. He wasn't due back for two years, unless he hit upon a habitable planet. Eventually, if he didn't return, he would be posted as missing and a replacement sent out, but the new scout would only know that he had been assigned a search area where the primary scout had failed to return.
Chances of rescue were so close to nothing that the difference didn't matter. He had dropped out of jump space about two-thirds of the way to his zone; even if the Service did mount a search, they would be looking in the wrong place. He turned on the boat's beacon, anyway. Maybe sometime, someone would stumble onto his craft.
There was no base within range of its sublight drive; at least, nowhere that the craft could reach while its passenger was still alive, even if he had been healthy. The nearest outpost was over a hundred light-years away. The little boat was tough, all engines and life support, a closed environment, efficient — but, he would be long dead before it could carry him to safety.
Exhausted, head throbbing, his body cried out for sleep, but if he were ever going to fix the cut on his forehead, he had better get to it. He gingerly pulled the bandage off and cleaned the area around the wound, respraying with the antiseptic. Holding the wound together a small section at a time, he sprayed each section with artificial skin until he had the entire injury closed.
The pain pills and the more potent hypo seemed to mock him from their recesses in the kit. One of those pills would ease his aches, but one now would be one less later when he would really need them.
Why wait for a slow, agonizing death? Why didn't he cycle through the lock and get it over with? Thinking of the airlock jarred his memory. He released the straps, kicked off, and floated aft. He never did get the inner lock dogged down properly. He touched the wheel, spun the lock closed, listing automatically for the squeak of its seal.
The boat's air system hadn't gotten rid of the odor. He had thrown up, from the looks of things, after the boat had quit accelerating. The whole aft section was a mess, but he wasn't up to cleaning after himself just now, nor did the challenges of a zero-gee shower seem worthwhile to his tired body. He settled for wetting a washcloth and wiping the clotted blood from his face.
A few minutes later, he strapped himself in and ran another scan. The last time he was interested only in his ship; it still didn't seem real to think that the vessel that had carried him so far no longer existed, that he was stranded, dying from an overdose of radiation. Such a short time ago, his mind was filled with mundane thoughts, his most critical decision was what to have for lunch — then this.
His head throbbed as he brought the scan routines on line. The star system he had seen earlier was in the center of his screen. The computer displayed information across the bottom of the picture as he touched his console automatically, bringing forth data as he had hundreds of times in the past from the more elaborate system in his ship. The boat's setup was slower, the computer far less sophisticated, but the lifeboat was designed to save him if he lost his ship, if at all possible — the minimum was here.
Five planets were graphically represented on the screen. He brought up data on the first. It circled close to the blue-white dwarf, its atmosphere, if it ever had one, burned away. He ignored it, brought up the second: arid, temperature ranging to two hundred degrees Celsius, atmosphere poisonous. The third was in essentially the same orbit as the first, but opposed, temperature basically the same as number two. He didn't bother with atmosphere readings. Four and five were both far out, both gas giants, unacceptable for human life. He had known there wouldn't be anything of use, not in a white-dwarf system — still, the news depressed him.
Tired, despondent, he reclined the seat, closed his eyes, trying to shut his mind off. No go. Why did my ship blow?
Bringing the seat back up, he turned it, snapping on the holo viewer. Tapping out a number at random, he tried to relax and watch the vid. After a quarter hour, he realized that he had no idea what was happening on the screen. What was wrong with him? A scout had to have patience, since he spent a large part of his time in hyperspace idling his time away between star systems. Scouts joked among themselves that their jobs were ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent chaos. He'd had his chaos for the day — now there was nothing to do. Nothing to do but wait for death.
That was it. A smile touched the corners of his mouth. His problem was simple, albeit had no solution. He just hadn't given in to the idea of dying — unfortunately that would make no difference in the end. Any rational person, he thought, would feel hopeless about now, would accept that death was inevitable, maybe take the pill that would induce a sleep that would never end.
His head throbbed with every pulse beat, and his shoulder ached. He shut the video off and opened the first aid compartment again. As he reached for the pain pills, the bright red vial in the top left corner, sealed, warnings written on it, reflected the cabin lights. His hand grasped the vial.
A few moments later, he secured the outer door to the converter feed, grinning as if he had achieved something. The red pill's mass would be of little use to equipment designed to convert heavy metals to energy for the engines, but its scarlet beacon wouldn't be there to mock him. He took a pain pill, let his chair back to the reclining position, and waited for the drug to take effect.
Hours later, he awakened groggy from the pain medication, but feeling better. After taking an anti-rad pill, he cleaned up the aft section. His shoulder was better, and some of the swelling had gone down around his eye. His vision was a little blurry, but far better than it had been.
He scanned his body once again, still unable to believe he was dying with radiation poisoning — same results. What was he going to do? Just sit here and wait to die? His database, called up a few minutes later, gave him page after page of information on radiation effects on the human body, treatments, prognosis, but there were too many variables.
He wanted to know how long he would live. Without treatment, ten to twenty days. With full treatment in a med-unit, he wouldn't die, might even be able to have children when the equipment was through with him, but with just the pills, the effects of the poisoning would be slowed, but not stopped. With blood transfusions, the process would be slowed more — he had blood, his blood, stored in the boat years ago. But was the hassle worth it? No matter what he did, with his limited medical facilities, he would die.
He had never given up on anything in his life; now, life was going to give up on him.
He sat drumming his fingers on the arm of his seat. He had gotten through life, mostly on pure cussedness. Tall, lanky, not particularly good looking, he still managed to date most of the girls he wanted to. He just wouldn't be told no; he always kept coming back with a new approach. Most everything in life, he tackled the same way. In school, there had been smarter people than he was, but they hadn't wanted the best grades as badly as he had. He supposed that school, both prep and college, had tended to make him more of a loner, since he inevitably spent so much of his time in study.
His father had been a drunk; his mother had died during his last year in prep school. Scholarships, part-time jobs, and a driving, almost overpowering ambition to get away from the squalor he was raised in, had gotten him through college.
The Service had been his goal since his earliest memories. First as a fantasy for the adventures he saw on the vids, then, later, as a way out of his mundane existence. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in rebellion to his self-enforced confinement while he studied, he became obsessed with wanting to be a scout, explore, get away from it all.
By the time he started college, he had called up every database he could access, researching details of scout requirements. As time went on, he found out all he could about the testing procedure for trainees, then stressed those areas, when possible, in his studies.
The last year, he applied his, by then, well-developed persistence toward being accepted into scout training. To be accepted for the entrance tests, grades had to be near-perfect, and the candidate had to have letters of recommendation. His grades were good enough, and thanks to his research, he had taken courses that would help him pass the tests; he had no problem with letters of recommendation from his professors — still, the program was so selective that he was afraid that he would not get a chance.
He hedged his bets by a letter campaign (both e-mail and hand-delivered) to remind the department head that he would be graduating soon and wanted to take the tests, assuming that proof of his deep, long-lived desire to be a scout would have some effect.
By the time he graduated, he had sent a dozen letters, had been screamed at when he kept showing up with new hand-delivered ones, had been thrown out of the building once, but finally, had been assured that he would be allowed to take the tests if he would just leave them alone.
On the day his tests were to begin at eight, he was waiting on the steps of the building at six with his duffle bag, computer, and every book chip he owned. He was the only candidate that got to talk with the department head. Painstakingly, she tried to explain the basic testing procedure to him — how, if he passed the preliminary tests, then, he would be expected to live on the premises while he took the more advanced physical tests — endurance, weightlessness, high-g, solitude. He told her again that he had lived his life to become a scout, that he had given up his room near the campus, had sold everything he possessed, save what was sitting beside him. If she would not let him stay, he would live on the steps. He had come to be a scout.
Frustrated, she called an aide in to take him to a bunk in a small barracks adjoining the office complex. He didn't see the grin on her face as he turned to follow his escort.
Six-month scout-trainees stared at him as he stored his gear and hurried to his first test.
He didn't make the best grades of any scout that had ever come through the academy, but he was close, easily number one in his class.
He had never quit before; he would not quit this time. He would not give up. But what good would it do — death was there, waiting. He ran the tutorials on blood transfusions. He had been taught the procedures at the academy, but he wanted to refresh his memory. Grimly, he set about the task, set the timer for his next dose of anti-rad. Death would have to take him, kicking and screaming, clawing for life the way he had fought for his dreams.
Days dragged on, faithfully recorded by the elapsed-time clock. He tired of watching vids and playing games with the computer. He brought the nearby star system back on the screen. He had been drifting in the general direction ever since his boat had shut off power shortly after launch. He could reach the outer planets in a little more than two weeks, but why bother?
Waiting for the inevitable was putting a mounting strain on his nerves; nerves already stretched to the breaking point by watching his body starting to die. His head showed patches of baldness where clumps of hair had fallen out. His gums bled when he brushed his teeth; his legs and back ached.
Had other scouts died like this, gradually losing control, while they desperately searched for some way to rescue themselves? He was sick of doing nothing. It had been fine on his ship. The idleness hadn't bothered him that much; he could always find something to keep his mind occupied. But somehow, watching vids from a duplicate library to his ship's, didn't have the same effect. He tried to work on his third book — he had sold two that he had written to occupy himself during his forced isolation — but writing no longer interested him. After all, who would read it?
The ship's viewer again attracted his attention; the system displayed on it beckoned the explorer within him. More burned out planets, or gas giants strung either too near, or too far, from the little blue-white star. Nothing in the star's solar system would do him any good, but he might as well be orbiting a gas giant as adrift in deep space.
At least he would have something to do from time to time, and something to see other than the blackness of space. Normally, he would conserve fuel, and at this distance, boost at half power for a few hours, then coast until time to decelerate, but why bother? He picked one of the gas giants, had the computer compute a full-boost vector, and hit initiate. The ten second warning sounded, then acceleration.
The aft section was suddenly down, the dampers reducing the one-hundred-gee acceleration to e-normal inside the boat, requiring him to use the ladder to get back to the fresher. At least he would be able to take a standard shower again. Unstrapping, he brought himself to his feet. Surroundings seem to spin about him as he rested an arm on the nearest bulkhead for support. Had the radiation progressed that far already, or was he just weak from being in zero-gee for a while.
His equipment confirmed that he was feeling one gravity. He had the option of adjusting the acceleration dampers to zero-gee inside the craft, but their version of zero-gee wasn't the same as the real thing. There were minute and very rapid shifts, barely discernible to his conscious mind, but something about him knew they were there and it made him feel uneasy, a little like he was falling. He didn't notice the shifts at one-gee.
A week later, the little craft had acquired an appreciable percentage of the speed of light. After a brief shutdown while the boat reoriented itself, it began deceleration as it slowed to match orbits with the gas giant.
Another week later, orbit achieved, he had grown tired of watching the swirling mass below him. He was about to wash his face in the fresher when the alarm blared. His flinch from the sudden sound set him adrift. Time crawled by until he could touch another bulkhead and push off toward the pilot's cabin.
His shaken mind clutched at straws, insisting that his ship had been detected, that it hadn't been destroyed after all. Frantically, he seated himself at the controls, quieted the audio and scanned his surroundings. Hope ebbed when the scanner still showed nothing, but the neutrino source his instruments had detected was strong. What could it be? The mass detector registered nothing of consequence except the planet below. Another ship? He stilled the hope unborn. No, a sublight drive would emit a whole slew of subatomic particles, and register as an almost infinite mass on his instruments, if the drive were anywhere near.
Hyperdrive, on the other hand, was undetectable with anything he had on board. He scanned his surroundings visually, increasing magnification to the maximum his equipment possessed. Nothing. The neutrino source continued emitting, but he had no way to determine distance. The passive neutrino detector was the only instrument registering; all his active systems that could conceivably bounce a signal off the object and give him a distance reading, refused to detect anything.
Switching to manual scan, he searched the area for long minutes before he was rewarded with the barest flicker of light that danced across the screen and was gone. Try as he might, he couldn't get it back. Had he imagined it? Perhaps he had picked up a distant star, but no, a wide-angle view in the direction he was scanning didn't encompass any stars. The area he was searching registered void of anything for light-years. The light must have been a stray chunk of rock, a meteor tumbling through the area, too small and distant to register, and he happened to briefly focus on it. If it were not for the neutrino detector continuing to register, he would have given up.
He eyed the offending device. He had problems enough without his instruments packing up. He called up the self-diagnostic program, activated it for a full systems check. Ten seconds later, the screen filled with: ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
He sat drumming his fingers on the seat arm. At length, he oriented the boat with the large front glassite port giving him a view of the area that his instruments insisted was the direction of the neutrino source. If the instruments couldn't pick up the object, he wasn't going to be able to see it with his naked eye, but it fulfilled his urge to look. Nothing but blackness greeted him. His equipment said there was something out there, but it could be fifty light-years away or a few hundred kilometers, there was no way to tell until he could bounce a signal off the object.
He should be able to detect a ship the size of his scout out to about one-hundred thousand kilometers. There you go again, boy. That's no ship. Even a cruiser wouldn't put out that much racket and still be too far away to detect.
Alien? Pipe dreams. Man had explored, settled worlds for a thousand light-years from Earth. He had met life, myriad forms of it, but sentience; not once. Earth was unique — the human race seemed to be, also. Men and women went out, checked out star systems that looked promising. About one in ten had planets. One out of a thousand planets had environments suitable for habitation by human beings, and that was just suitable, meaning that man could exist there without outside intervention. Most of these worlds were marginally habitable — better as far as the colonists were concerned than Earth with its giant megacities, food riots and astronomical crime rate, but survival on the colony worlds, in general, was less certain than on Earth.
The occasional world that was Earth-like would make the scout that found it wealthy on bonuses alone, plus he was given a hundred square kilometers of land, with all mineral rights, anywhere he chose on the planet. Even so, qualified people to man the scout ships were always in demand — a hundred square kilometer tract on most colony worlds was practically worthless, and bonuses weren't given until fifty thousand people settled the planet.
Forty-three percent of the new scouts quit after their first trip; ninety percent of the remainder either quit during the next five years — or didn't come back from an assignment. If a scout didn't come back, another was sent on the same mission. Sometimes the second scout figured out what happened to the first, most times not. If two were lost on the same mission, that area was marked on the maps and the next scout sent elsewhere.
Human life was far less valuable than equipment, especially starships. Fusion reactors produced the necessary power from almost anything that could be shoved into the converter, but metals and the sophisticated electronics necessary to cross space did not come cheaply.
Earth's starving billions wanted food, not technology. Space exploration and the resulting technological advances had been responsible for the increase in food production that had maintained the ever-expanding human tidal wave at the present level. Without continuing advances, along with the minerals and rare metals brought back from deep space, Earth's populations were doomed.
Politicians had found it more productive in the past, vote-wise, to belittle space exploration, cite money "thrown away" into space when that money could have been given to the poor. But those poor produced more poor at an alarming rate. Finally, even the politicians realized the folly of not planning ahead. If the population explosion continued, there would soon be standing room only, but before then starvation and the resulting diseases from millions of dead might wipe most, if not all, life from the planet.
Eventually, those in authority set programs in motion to promote colonization. Ads were designed to enhance the romanticism and flare of the new worlds. Ships were built, lifted off untried, full of volunteers in null-sleep, stacked like cord-wood, bound for planets that Survey said could support human life. Thanks to technology and robotics, a good percentage of the ships functioned reasonablely well, and most made it to their destinations.
Latimer drifted into a sleep of exhaustion, was awakened hours later by the insistent chiming of the scanner. He sat up, brought the seat up from its reclining position, and stared at the holo image in front of him. He tore his eyes away to check readings. Still over a million kilometers away and heading right for him was something... His mind balked at calling it a ship, but it was the source of the neutrino emissions, evidenced both by the detector and the telltale blue-white shimmer of the drive that shone on the scanner.
From his angle, the ship appeared to be a giant sphere, possibly flattened on the bottom to accommodate the drive and propulsion units. Latimer's sleek scout ship, and the less elegant lifeboat, both designed for space and high-speed entry into a planet's atmosphere envelope, were a medley of flowing aerodynamic surfaces, mirror-bright. In contrast, the approaching ship had never been meant for atmosphere, its outer surface a dull black, broken with locks and what must be weapon mounts — the aggregate presenting a daunting and sinister appearance.
A flicker on one of his screens caught his eye. Acceleration data from the oncoming ship showed dramatic shifts. Its steady acceleration of two hundred and twenty gravities had shifted to eight, then zero. After a few seconds hesitation, acceleration came back up again, then remained steady for a couple of minutes before starting to oscillate up and down the spectrum. The ship wobbled in space.
The drive shut off as the colossus rotated far enough around for him to see its flat bottom. If that thing turned square onto him and its drive fired within a thousand kilometers, his lifeboat would be history. He didn't like its business end pointing anywhere near his direction, even at this distance.
The largest Earth ship wasn't a hundredth of this ship's size. Alien. So much for man's confidence that he was alone in the galaxy. If the ship decided to swat him, he had no defense other than flight, and that wouldn't do any good if it could accelerate at two hundred gravities. His scout had been able to push three hundred, and with an internal gravity field to compensate, he would scarcely notice, but the lifeboat's acceleration damper would handle a maximum of one hundred. If the larger ship decided to run him down — provided its drive worked, which didn't seem to be the case just now — he wouldn't stand a chance.
What was going on? Should he try to flee while he still could? There were two energy rifles and a sidearm in the gun locker, defense against beasts should the lifeboat ground on a planet — worse than nothing against this monster. The lifeboat itself didn't have any weapons at all.
Instead, he sent a signal to the ship, full video and audio. Time passed with no response as the ship continued to bear down on him. He shifted the signal to automatic, setting it to replay on every frequency he could transmit on. Almost instinctively, he locked the flight computer onto the oncoming ship, calculated rendezvous trajectories and triggered the drive. He wasn't going to sit dead in space and wait for them to come to him — better to meet them halfway. Of course, they could take his maneuver as a sign of aggression, but better that than for them to think he was waiting, whimpering, while their colossus bore down on him.
Later, he initiated the maneuvers that put him alongside the ship. Why didn't they acknowledge him? They had to know he was within rock throwing distance. Still, nothing. With caution thrown to the winds, he nudged his craft toward what had to be a docking bay.
Meters away, he stopped his forward motion and waited. The ship loomed immense, a towering wall at this distance. The docking bay could have taken his whole scout ship through the portal with plenty of room to spare; his lifeboat was insignificant. And this was one of several bays he had seen. The lock didn't open, though — minutes dragged by.
The rations he had eaten earlier refused to stay down. This time the bag was of use. He wiped his mouth and face, and dropped the bag in the converter. As if on cue, the kit chimed — time for another pill, but if his nausea was any indication, they weren't doing much good. He added a second anti-nausea pill for good measure, wiping sweat from his face.
He was losing patience waiting for the ship to do something. He didn't know how much longer he had. He had first thought that he might live several months with the drugs — maybe he still would, but why was he so nauseated? It would be his luck to be the first human to encounter an alien spacecraft, then die before they let him inside.
His temper started to boil. Delirious from the radiation poisoning and the medication, in a position where those aspects of his personality that Survey had picked him for came to the fore, he shifted to docking thrusters. Barely moving forward, his tiny craft crept toward the giant lock.
When all else fails, knock, he thought. His craft was small, but it was durable. Made of the strongest metal man had ever devised, it would take the shock, and if there was air on the other side of the portal, there would be a whale of a noise inside the bay. He cinched the shock webbing tight about himself and waited.
As the little craft bounced away, he nudged the thrusters again. A second resounding crash sounded in his boat. Grinning, he held the thrusters down for a couple of seconds while metal groaned and squealed as the not-quite aligned craft slid several meters down the side of the giant door. The noise transmitted through the metal of his craft made a racket. If that lock was pressurized, they should have been able to hear his knock all right. Hovering two meters away, he waited.
A crack of white light lanced from the side of the port, widening. The port was opening. As soon as the lock was open enough, he nudged his craft cautiously inside, feeling gravity tug at him. A hundred meters in he set the boat down. His rear screen showed that the portal had already closed; atmospheric pressure built to near Earth normal — oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere in the right percentages. He secured his controls, forcing himself to stand in what his instruments claimed to be e-normal gravity. He walked to the lock, cycled through, and waited for pressures to equalize. With confidence, he pushed the hatch open. This had to be of Earth manufacturer, though he had never heard of such an undertaking. The short ladder extended, and only then did he realize how weak he was.
If they weren't alien, a ship this size might have the medical facility he needed to survive. He tried to march jauntily down the steps, but his knees didn't want to cooperate and he stumbled on the last step, sprawling ignominiously on the deck. It seemed to take forever to get back up, and even then, he had to brace his feet widespread to maintain his balance.
His nose must be bleeding. As he wiped it and looked back up from his hand, he noticed the couple approaching him across the deck, already halfway to where he stood. He tried to wave, be nonchalant, but somehow, he was lying on the deck staring at the overhead lights. His vision tunneled, then failed altogether...
Voices, indistinguishable, faded in and out, then, half-conscious, his eyes slitted open. Subdued lighting, rose-colored, swam before unfocused eyes while he tried to blink sight back. What happened? Why had the ship blown? No. That wasn't right, wasn't all of it. His mind seemed sluggish, but he realized that he was in a room with apparatus surrounding the bed he occupied. One of the instruments emitted a faint beeping noise. A moment later, someone entered through a doorway he hadn't noticed. She touched something on her arm (some type of communications device) and said, "He's awake."
English. These people speak English! he though.
His insane idea about this ship being alien was laughable now. How had this giant machine been constructed without him hearing even a hint of it? How had they (whoever they were) managed to keep such a project secret? He tried to sit up, felt an intense burning where something was attached to his left arm, and an abrupt tightening of something across his chest.
"Just relax now. You're still very weak."
"The rad poisoning," he croaked, trying to moisten his dry mouth. "I got a dose when my ship blew.'
Her hand touched his chest, urging him to lie back. "We know. Your body is mending nicely. You'll be up and around before you know it."
"How long have I been out?"
"Ten jarrin," she answered lightly as she tucked something under his head.
Science Fiction /