by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
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I remembered clearly Jube stating that he would go, but after
that it was a blur. My transitional state, the twilight zone in
which my existence was neither animal-like nor yet truly plant-like,
was marked by a mode of thought not entirely unlike that of inebriation
-- or so I'd concluded from my readings on the topic, inasmuch
as I had never been drunk in either my pre- or post-SCABS lives.
In the transitional state I wasn't in complete control, but I
also wasn't delusional. My mind wandered in odd ways, often clearer
ways, and it was, in fact, the transitional state that helped
the most in problem solving -- the vegetative state which followed
was usually just an extended meditation on the ideas that occurred
to me during the transitional state. I remembered Jubatus stating
he was going to get Dr. Miesel; the arrival of her and others;
and then the painful uprooting which thrust me back into the animalian
chaos of comparatively hyperactive life. My thoughts were clearer,
and my inner voice silent. Even though my inner voice hadn't obeyed
the rules that time, it had obviously been waiting for something,
obviously a tool to help me reach the right condition to get through
Jubatus' stubbornness and awaken pity.
Jube had stated that he believed that I was interested in his upshifting because I believed it would help me figure out how to manipulate gravity. That confirmed my suspicions that his particular form of SCABS allowed him to manipulate space/time directly, whether by some kind of either temporal shift, or else gravitic time distortion. In either case, it (and he himself) would serve my purposes. Once he was up I'd have lots of time for detailed study, and given the successful methodology used to convince him, I decided to adjust my customary speech patterns and talk to Jubatus with more-colloquial phraseology. It certainly seemed to have made him slightly more biddable. Nevertheless with the acceptance of the pheromone and the proven success of its effects, everything was go for a launch on schedule. The cheetah was handling the accelerated training; I was in my room all night under 'house arrest', which only meant that I could devote more time to making theoretical models of reality based on either possibility of what Jube did. It also enabled me to get that Shimura-Taniyama-Weil iteration resolved.
For the first time in years, the possibility of progressing in my understanding of gravity existed and it was more a drug to my senses than the broken vibrator ever was.
And it was all thanks to Jubatus.
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McGregor debriefed me to within an inch of my life; he spent
a couple hours behind closed doors with the dryad, too. The ultimate
outcome? Don't ask me. It was all Ad Astra proprietary information,
and I didn't have a need to know -- but the AA guards tailing
her ass every waking moment were probably a clue.
Anyway: What with the neo-Luddite assault, Carter's little brush with outlawry, the consequences of both, and Murphy's Law in general, the pre-planned schedule got shot to hell. The major bright spot was Carter's pheromone; now that I was clueful about it, I could tell that it was doing some good. I'd never actually realized how badly I clenched up when meeting new people -- never had anything to compare the experience to -- but now that I did know the score, I had more reason to hope that the stuff might work as advertised...
But I digress.
Things went into overdrive the last few days before liftoff -- even I had trouble keeping up. More training: safety systems, emergency procedures (Brin's got this untried system that theoretically allows somebody in a suit to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land safely), panic buttons, basic first aid, vacuum effects on a variety of biologicals (thank you, SCABS), everything else you can imagine, and a lot you can't. Hell, I barely even had a chance to look over the reason I was here -- Brin's hardware and software! The system was a chrome-plated bitch: Obviously designed by a genius, my only question was how sane the designer wasn't. Examining the code, I found it to be a Godawful mess of redundancies, workarounds, and layer upon layer of semi-compatible structures. The whole mess was documented to within an inch of its life, and every bit as deceptively comprehensible as a contract drawn up by the law firm of Coyote, Loki, and Crazy Eddie... Fixing it would be a bitch and seven-eighths, but then that's why they pay me the big bucks, right?
Still, it was the first time I'd ever seen a flowchart with 5-dimensional connectivity, and I got a non-trivial initial shock. I even asked Carter how in Vulcan's name they could have let the system get a state like this. Her answer was instructive:
"Academic niceties like bug fixing tend to be left by the wayside when a situation deteriorates to the point where failure to find a solution means that everyone will die within 30 seconds. And given that we have a working system which does pump the oxygen, run the filters, and generally keep everyone on Brin alive, is it any wonder that we prefer not to disturb it unnecessarily?"
She had a point.
Still, in spite of everything, I managed to get half a grasp of Brin's systems. Okay, a quarter of a grasp. And on the last day before liftoff, we got the full Alice's Restaurant treatment: We were inspected, injected, infected, neglected and selected. When they were through with us, there was zero chance that either of us would carry any trace of contamination, fungus, or contraband up to Brin.
And then it was Zero Hour.
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The day of the launch proper began at 7:30 AM, with trumpets
blaring from loudspeakers -- it was Also Sprach Zarathustra, the tune made famous by Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I hadn't... ah. No, I hadn't specified any musical accompaniment for the duration of
the launch and preparations thereto -- but my co-pilot, Jubatus,
obviously had. Just as Angelo had sometimes...
It soon became apparent that Jube's program was far more extensive than anything my former partner had ever dreamed up. Another tune filled the air as we left the cafeteria after finishing our breakfast; it began with a kind of metallic-sounding percussion, quickly accompanied by a mellow horn of some sort. Jubatus, having observed my momentary puzzlement, spoke: "The theme to Earthstar Voyager -- pretty good, for a third-rate Disney made-for-TV movie. Like it?"
Later on, just as we entered the decontamination facility, a new piece of music burst forth from the loudspeakers -- synthesized brass of some sort. I looked at my companion, the expression on whose face was cheerful and satisfied with a hint of smugness. "And what tune is this?"
"You can't guess? She Blinded Me With Science -- Thomas Dolby." Whoever that was; something else to add to the list of items I'd have to research. "Very appropriate, no?" Mr. Dolby's presumedvoice sang "She's poetry in motion!" before we reached the chamber in which we'd disrobe -- well, that explained why my companion had thought this an appropriate tune for this stage of the process. If it wasn't for the cameras, and Jubatus, I would have been shaking, but I refused to let anybody know my fear. Thus, with an effort of will I began removing my clothing in preparation for the decontamination showers and final suiting up. I'd had my hair trimmed yesterday -- it grows quite fast as it is primarily a repository for starch. As I washed I noticed Jubatus stop and stare. "Mr. Jubatus, you must have seen a naked female form, if you haven't I can give you a tour if you want."
Jubatus blinked. "Oh -- right," he said with a hesitant smile. "Sorry about that. Won't happen again."
Damn him! I wanted him to react, Angelo had, but... No, he was a stranger to the psychs and I couldn't afford to miss this trip at this point -- I didn't think I could go through this again. Instead I just ignored him -- I didn't have the mental strength to worry about him in addition to keeping myself controlled. And my worm would be grabbing images of him for storage and later insertion into Wanderer's camera, along with edited pictures for the punchline, so there was no need. I only had to worry about the showers, and my nakedness.
Nakedness. I remembered prancing and teasing Angelo, all part of the game I unknowingly played. Part of me wanted to do the same for Jubatus, but there were too many watching, but it might distract me. No. I am a sentient being, my body is subservient to my mind. With a sudden violence I pulled off the shirt and then the blouse and tossed them into the labelled box. Then on to the gloves. There is air, lots of air, there is no danger. One, then the other, sensing the air on my skin cool and clean. Concentrate on the pressure. It is there, it is safe. Next was the bodysuit, my final defense. I had never worn one before the accident, but now I slept in it; taking it off for a shower was a major act of will. I couldn't even do that in privacy with the shared washrooms; that was one of my greatest pleasures when travelling -- a private bath and the secret release of control and fear. Swallowing, I pulled the lycra off of my arms and chest, and pushed it down to my waist. My body quivered, its pores opened wide, sniffing at the sterile air. Then a stretch, a shake of the head to free the static entanglement with my hair. There was Jubatus, already done, pointedly looking at the wall, shivering a little in the cool air. Enough waffling, this has to be done or I'll never soar again. There had to be a solution to this but what? Flying was a joy, but drifting, working, it was a horror, the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares. You're waffling again. A memory flashed into my sensorium of when I first awoke with my new body, of the intellectual detachment as I looked down at my replaced and hidden reproductive organs and the thought that at least they'd never get caught on anything. I had to do it. Biting my lip I quickly wiggled out of the rest and threw it into the box.
"Time for the showers Mr. Jubatus."
I quickly stepped across the cold cement, forcing myself not to shake, forcing my voice to remain steady. Somehow I kept from running so that I could feel the sensation of water on my skin, to know that I wasn't... Don't think. Just act. Then I was there. Finally. A bit too quickly, I wrenched the tap on and then leaned into the glorious warm falling liquid as it caressed me. I was alive, I was safe.
"Why all this?" Jubatus waved at the showers as he shied away from the sensation of the liquid on his naked skin.
"Remember the Russian Mir station? They had all kinds of problems with fungi and molds, and we'd greatly prefer that Brin be kept free of such. Don't forget the soles of your feet." As I said that I twisted around and balanced on one foot and then the other, facing down, allowing the liquid to caress my crotch. There were things to be said for the extra flexibility SCABS had given me. "Mr. Jubatus, we're all adults here -- lean down and hold up your tail so the liquid can get everything. You're being watched anyway, and they won't let you stop until they're satisfied." I turned away from Jubatus and looked up into the showerhead, enjoying the pressure of liquid on my face, the rolls and drips down my back. Hopefully Jubatus would take a while... but my hopes failed and with a click the showers stopped. I shivered, not from the cold, and then the showers switched back on, this time with water. "Mr. Jubatus, make sure to thoroughly soap and clean your entire body. The antiseptic liquid they switched off itches horribly when it's dry." I had learned that through experience -- the one and only time I'd failed to rinse adequately, the residue had made me miserable all the way up. The fact that it allowed me to thoroughly scrub my entire body and provided a continual reminder that I was safe and in atmosphere was an added bonus. It took me 10 minutes to finish, Jubatus was already done -- either he'd upshifted or he'd pay the penalty. After a last rinse the showers clicked off and I clenched my fists to keep control. I walked slowly forward and pulled open the airtight door, then walked into the slight positive pressure. They'd been venting the room with the showers the whole time we'd been there washing; the air smelled cool, stale, empty. After Jubatus entered I closed and sealed the door. A few quick steps and I was at my suit, clean, white, sterile.
"Mr. Jubatus, please check the rear seal, when I'm in I'll check yours."
"Not a problem. If you need instructions or the manual, look in pocket 11, upper left quadrant on the torso."
"Unnecessary; I read the specs a month ago."
He nodded, and his next words were completely unremarkable in tone: "Their security was pretty easy to crack, huh?"
"Yes. Most security is."
"Didn't even think to make a request through normal channels, did you?"
His disappointment was clearly evident -- and why did I feel hurt? "That would have taken too long and been an inefficient use of my time."
I climbed in through my suit's open back underneath the life support unit behind the head, wiggled into the layers of cloth and rubber tubing for cooling, and felt around back for the wire which I then pulled and secured to the front of the suit, making sure to pull my ass in and out of the way. "Mr. Jubatus, please check that I am correctly sealed." My voice was muffled through the suit, but at last I was safe, secure, protected.
I couldn't hear him walk, but after a second I felt a pressure on my lower back. "Looks fine."
"Thank you." Then I reached down and pulled the lever which locked it in place. A final check to make sure all the onboard systems were working, a test of the air, and then the final step was to plug in the external air conditioning/supply unit to the side so as to preserve the onboard supplies. "Your turn Mr. Jubatus."
Awkwardly I turned around and went through the same procedure with him, although I had to manually push his tail in before he could seal up. His suit differed from mine only in trivial details. I double checked his systems through the external status at the back and made sure they confirmed with his before letting him lock it up and connect the external supply.
And suddenly, before we could begin our final approach to our vehicle, the music was rhythmic brass, not unlike a march. "The theme from one of those movies you can't stand -- The Right Stuff," he said, dismissing it with a wave of one hand. "You go first?"
"The pilot does, yes, followed by the co-pilot, and then any ancillary personnel. On this flight, however, than means you and I alone." With those words, I stepped out on the marked pathway to Babylon, the cheetah three steps behind me, ignoring the light taps of our footsteps.
Suddenly he stopped -- my heightened sensory acuity applies to tactile sensations, including minor variances in air pressure from moving objects -- so I followed suit and turned to face him. His countenance, far from displaying the anticipation and/or joy one might expect in a person about to achieve a lifelong dream, actually bore an expression of mingled fear and worry. "Is something wrong, Mr. Jubatus?"
"Maybe," was his quiet response.
I stepped towards him -- the closer his proximity, the greater his exposure to my pheromone -- and said, "Is there any specific matter that concerns you?"
"I don't know. That's the problem. What if I build up a tolerance to the pheromone? What if it just stops working? What if there's side effects, like it drops my IQ to animal level?"
"I hardly think that --"
The speed and pitch of his words were both rising, and he was beginning to quiver with fear-induced adrenaline: "And I got a lot of freefall experience, but no more than a few minutes at a time. Suppose I have some kind of bad reaction from hours or days --"
We hadn't the time for his paranoid fantasies. "Mr. Jubatus!"
He stopped talking and looked, distraught, at me.
"You are going up to Brin because there is at least one technical glitch that needs to be identified and corrected. In your absence, the worst-case scenario is that this unknown glitch or glitches causes the complete destruction of Brin and all life on board. Do you understand?"
His only reply was a second or so of upshifting. When his 'aura' began to fade away, he said, "Good point. Okay. Let's do it."
After that I led the way to Babylon. More horn music accompanied us -- this one I remembered, Fanfare for the Common Man -- as I helped Jubatus climb up and into the co-pilot's seat and connect his systems to the shuttles life support before climbing in myself and carefully seating myself so that the backpack fit into the space in the seat behind my head. Then I connected myself and handed the external pack to Alex and waved as he climbed down the ladder and the canopy closed.
Once we were sealed in and ready, the comm unit's LED flashed -- that was apparently the cue for the next piece in Mr. Jubatus' program to begin, with strings in the bass register. "What would this be, please?"
"Canon in D. Oh, what a difference Pachelbel makes."
Then I answered the call from Ground Control. The officer in charge said, "Sorry Sue, NASA's got another hold."I rolled my eyes. Didn't they know anything about keeping to a schedule? At least Jubatus and I were still connected to the ground equipment so we weren't using up Babylon's supply of stored oxygen. I flicked the radio to local, "Sorry Mr. Jubatus, but NASA has its hand up its arse again," and then back to ground, "Andrew, you get Drew to call Mr. Kennedy and tell him that we have schedules and commitments too. If they don't get that archaic rust bucket up in the next five minutes, we're going up anyway, and we'll take back our payment for the tank."
"Do you think it'll work any better than last time?"
"You never know, there might be a hint of sanity with them still. We did charge them late fees last time."
I heard Andrew chuckle. "I'll get him on it."
"Thanks, I think we should launch in five minutes regardless -- in the worse case I'll sling from Brin and grab it."
"And bill them for the fuel like last time?" I could hear his grin.
"Yes. Let me know if Drew talks some sense into them, I've got to start the final checklist. Prepare for launch in five."
Jubatus interrupted the circuit: "What was all that about?"
"You know that we build Brin out of the liquid fuel tanks from the NASA shuttle?"
"We pay them a residual for the tank manufacture cost, and for the loss in payload getting it up to where we can grab it easier. It's why we call the station 'Brin', after the author/physicist David Brin who wrote about the idea."
Now it was the turn of the cheetah's eyes to roll. "Fine, but what's with the delays and threats?"
"For fuel efficiency it works best to grab the tank on the way from ground to Brin, but that means we need to link our launches with NASA's. Occassionally they run into problems and the last time I had our lawyers dock our extra fuel costs from their fee."
Then Andrew kicked in, "Guess what, the hold just ended. NASA's go for launch in 15."
"Acknowledged. Beginning final checklist for launch in five..."
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I wanted to ask for details of Ad Astra's arrangement with NASA
-- anything to help squelch the impulse to run which simply would not stay buried -- but Carter was busy with final checks. Me, I just
sat there, strapped firmly into my seat, keeping as far away as
physically possible from the dashboard's thousands of controls.
One touch of that big red one, for instance, would send my chair
shooting up through the cockpit ceiling... I was acutely aware
of the 73% death rate I'd earned in the simulator runs.
"Disengaging from ground umbilicals."
Something thumped at a rate of 13 Hertz -- No, that's my pulse, ignore it. I felt a minor jerk-and-click, then a blue idiot light glowed -- the oxygen I was now breathing came straight from Babylon's internal systems. Point of no return; from here on out, I couldn't escape The Dream if I wanted to. Then my leg started to itch. I reached to scratch... no. No point; my gloves had the claw-guards I'd designed for Hallan's gauntlets, and if I did manage to scratch anyway...
Forget it -- not worth the risk. Cold Equations.
Dry throat. I swallowed.
"Launch in one minute. Final engine startup test."
Time and again, Apollo reruns played uncontrollably inside my skull. Time and again, the Saturn 5 rose from its launchpad -- no color survived the glare of the rocket's flame -- tinny thunder rolled from the speaker of a beat-up 10-inch RCA television set -- three men rode a fire in the sky.
Now it was my turn...
More idiot lights. More noise, a faint rumble and whine. I knew the bare technical facts, which components were responsible for what part of the noise -- and I knew the real meaning of that sound:
Babylon was purring. She knew. And she wanted to fly.
"Engine test good. Taxiing to launch start."
She jerked again. The hangar roof slid smoothly backwards.
"Sue, NASA's put on another hold."
"Bastards! Well, we've got a schedule, if it's short we'll circle a bit before engaging the SCRAM."
"Understood Sue. Just keep an eye on your fuel -- the board doesn't like it when you glide in."
Her laugh was a Benny Goodman clarinet solo. She was in her element now; the dryad had become a Phoenix, reborn in the tamed fires of technology... 'My wings are made of tungsten / My flesh is glass and steel / I am the joy of Terra / For the power that I wield --'
"Mr. Jubatus, I'll try for a proper countdown to liftoff, but I might be slightly off."
"Thanks." I must have enunciated the word clearly, otherwise Carter wouldn't've nodded her acknowledgement. Another old song mixed itself into the sound track of my internal reruns: 'Prometheus, they say, brought the fire down to Man...'
"Beginning full thrust in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Ignition."
At this point, Babylon really started to move. Lateral acceleration well over 1 G -- compared to this, the commercial jet was a Piper Cub. I braced myself for the crushing pressure to come.
'And we've touched it, tamed it, claimed it, since our history began...'
" Lift-off in 5 seconds..."
Babylon wasn't a smooth ride; with jerks and bumps, she expressed her displeasure at being enslaved to impertinent sacks of impure water like us. Her engines roared, a basso profundo howl that shook the bones. Riding the fire...
'Now we're going back to heaven, just to look Him in the eye...'
"4... 3... 2... 1... Lift-off."
Babylon quit trying to shake us off. She arced sharply upward, screaming through the clouds. I was finally on my way.
'And there's a thunder 'cross the land --'
Next stop: Low orbit.
'-- and a Fire In The Sky...'
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