Seeds of Memory by J. Richard Jacobs

EXTRACT FOR
Seeds of Memory

(J. Richard Jacobs)


Chapter 1

"I'm not having second thoughts, Alex. I think I'd describe them as first thoughts. More accurate that way."
"Okay, Marta, then don't go having first thoughts on me. Not now, please. We're too close to launch, and that means you can't back out. Not now."
"What? You rewrote my contract? If I remember correctly, it specifically states I can drop out at any time. Right up until...you know."
"But you're the most experienced doctor in the bunch...and the best gene juggler we have. I... need you."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but my contract-"
"Will you forget the contract for a minute? What about the crew...the mission?"
"The devil with the mission, Alex. Oh, it's a grand idea, and it may even have some purpose to it...maybe, but I'm having a hard time finding it right now. It's the crew...they're the only reason I'm still here, otherwise I'd have been gone the first time I realized what I was actually doing."
"Well, I'm glad to hear you're still thinking about the crew."
"I imagine some might say it's my mother instinct at work."
Mother instinct? You?
"This instinct, whatever it is, is going to keep you in the flight?"
"It has...up until now."
"Wonderful. How about I buy you dinner? We can suck up some sweet yummy to finish it off. They have real fruits and stuff here."
"Why not? Besides, we should do it now or we won't be able to. Can't eat for thirty-six hours before going into stasis. That reminds me of a phrase I heard a long time ago...or maybe I read it. I don't remember which. It went something like, 'The condemned ate a hearty-'"
"Stop it, Marta."
"That an order, ma'am?"
"No."
"Good. 'Into the valley of death rode-'"
"Marta!"
The two of them, dressed in the bright yellow and rich brown uniform reserved for members of the Finder Flights, turned into a passage marked "OBS DK & OFF LOUNGE." A yellow bar below the sign warned, "High rad levels inside lounge shield-tags are available at the bar."
Working asteroid Medevac required an unflinching will to survive, coupled with the nerve to stare death in the infinite depth of its eyes-and a dedication tough to find anywhere in the SESC. Although she didn't look it, Dr. Marta Lavan had all that and much more. She'd served out there among the Belt mines for five years before signing up for the Finder mission and earned the Distinguished Service Stripe to prove it.
Anyone seeing those bright red bars stroked across her shoulder boards knew immediately that she was no virgin to the rigors of space, yet she had one weakness she couldn't shake. Moving scenes, like the one displayed in the huge ports lining the planet side of the lounge, caused her to respond with a severe reaction that demanded the entire contents of her stomach be expelled instantly and violently without regard to where she was, or in whose company.
Lead Officer Alexandra Guzman-Pax, well aware of the doctor's vertigo, took no offense when her junior officer charged in ahead of her. Lavan kept her eyes on the neutral gray carpet like a fastidious housemaid looking for lint. She wobbled a little as she went, and secured a chair with its back to half a Jupiter slowly turning in three directions at once-four if you counted the imperceptible lateral drift of the station.
JS9 was set in a polar orbit that revolved axially once in the Jovian year. The axial drift kept the station out of the shadow of the planet. The drift was so slow it had no effect on Lavan's churning gut, but the axis of the station was pointed directly at the planet's center and the rotation of JS9 caused the planet to tumble in slow motion. That movement, combined with the natural revolution of Jupiter about its axis and the orbital swing of the station shot straight into Lavan's vomit center.
Pax enjoyed the vista. There were times when she would sit in the lounge for hours, transfixed, fascinated with the beauty of it all. She slid out a chair and turned it so she could sit looking straight at the panorama and mused for a moment on how, from the station, Jupiter was always half planet, half ghost. The side in shadow glowed dully from its own energy, flashes of lightning giving it the look of deeply dark brown velvet with tiny diamonds sparkling on it. At JS9's tremendous distance from the planet the entire thing and most of its moons were visible, particularly the larger ones, which added greatly to Lavan's problem. Lavan, on the other side of the table, kept her eyes fixed firmly on the non-reflective surfaces of the bar.
The lighting in the lounge was diffused and cast almost no shadows on Lavan's girlish features. Pax could not help noticing that Lavan's turned-up nose was still not quite a nose; like a small child's it appeared to be developing into one but wasn't quite there. She had deeply dimpled cheeks, lightly dusted with soft freckles, and large eyes of watery blue, dotted loosely with purple flecks. Here and there a silver strand peeked from beneath her short-cropped golden red hair, doing little to lessen the baby-girl effect.
"Well, Marta, tomorrow we do it," Pax said, motioning to a waiter who had expertly ignored their entrance.
"Huh? Oh...right...tomorrow," Lavan said, while she traced little looping patterns with an unpainted fingernail on the glossy black table top.
She never uses cosmetics...adds to that just-out-of-puberty look. One of these days I'm going to have to talk to her about that. How does she ever get anyone to take her seriously-or to bed, for heaven's sake?
"Okay, what's troubling you, Marta?"
"Nothing...and everything. I'm thinking about what we're getting ready to do. How wonderfully exciting it all is...and how dreadfully permanent. You know, just sorting through things one last time...before you pull the trigger."
That's novel. Like I'm holding a gun to all our heads...and I'm the one who has the pleasure of deciding when to pull the trigger. Great, Marta.
"Mm-hmm, I understand."
Sorting through things one more time. Permanent.
"I'm going over a couple of hours early. You're welcome to accompany me, if you'd like. That way you can keep your eyes closed during the transfer. Where is that waiter?"
"He ducked into the kitchen a minute ago. He'll be back. Why?"
"Because I'm hungry, Marta."
"No, that's not what I meant. Why go over early?"
"Oh, that."
Were her jitters as obvious as Lavan's? Pax tacked a note to her mental bulletin board to be a little more guarded in the future.
"I need to check the Rammix set-up again, and I found some anomalous readings on the hydrogen injector section of the guide tube field generator yesterday. I also want to make a pre-launch rock...and I think it's going to be a long one."
"Where's the sense in that, Alex? The pre-launch crystal, I mean. We're not coming back...and no one is going to come get us. That's what I was trying to tell you. This is a one-way trip, Alex."
Pax fixed her iron gray eyes on Lavan and deep furrows traveled across her forehead. She felt the hint of a tic coming, looked back to the half a Jupiter hanging in the ports and ran the heel of her right hand across her right eye.
Lavan had a point and it struck at Pax's solar plexus like her mother's fist. There was no coming back for any of them...ever. Even the shorter Finder Flights were strictly a one-way proposition.
Dreadfully permanent.
And if anything went wrong? No rescue, no return.
Why do you have to talk about these things, Marta?
"I thought I'd make one for them," Pax said, and waved her hand in what she thought was the general direction of their destination. "Just in case."
Yeah, just in case. Just in case we all die in stasis and the Rammix takes us in on automatic like it was programmed to do.
"Uh-huh. That's a truly noble gesture, Alex, and I'm sure they'll appreciate it. That is, if anyone is home. Have you thought much about that? What if no one is there?"
No, she hadn't thought about it. At least, she hadn't thought about it very much at the conscious level. It was presented as one of the possible mission worst-case scenarios, and Whitaker had gone over all the various reasons it might be so in excruciatingly morbid detail...more than once. It just hadn't found a very high position on her list of concerns. Lavan had, with a simple statement, bounced it into the number one slot.
That is, if anyone is home.
The waiter finally came out of hiding and, to Pax's relief, headed for their table.
Their meal passed in a somber silence while half a Jupiter and its ghost partner peered through the ports at them.
Pax heard Jupiter whispering to her, "Hey, Pax, look at me. Take a good look. Aren't I enough evidence that you can't live just anywhere you want? If they had landed here...there would be no one home."
Dispassionate and cold...tumbling, the cloudy giant chided, mocked her with frigid indifference.
Their time together was friendly enough, even pleasant, but the two of them didn't have much to say. Both were immersed in their private, deep places sorting things through that one last time before she gave the Rammix the commit codes; before she pulled the trigger.
Pax's nerves were all standing at attention.
Suppose there isn't anyone there?
During times of high stress, and this was decidedly one of those, Pax had the nasty habit of dwelling on unhappy pasts. Her mind flew backward to the time when the relationship with her mother had gone from awful to unbearable. Her mother had been inexplicably abusive during her childhood, but her father had always been there to intercede before one of them turned up dead.
Eight days before her twelfth birthday, it all went to hell when a Sub caught her father at the entrance to one of the Undercities and, cease-fire or not, the Sub killed him with no more passion than if he had smashed a bug, such was their hatred of the Hifolk. There had been an uneasy peace for a few years, but the Subs routinely, gleefully murdered Hifolk whenever the opportunity presented itself. After that day, her mother transcended the boundary between mean and vicious.
Pax left Sydney Center at fifteen, because she could take no more. After contemplating a thousand ways to dispose of her mother she was unable to decide whether it was fear of incarceration and psyche adjustment or moral decency that stayed her hand. She made her way to the California Archipelago on money she had appropriated from her mother's account and, when she arrived, she joined the Surface Earth Space Corps. After that, contact with her mother had been rare but, when it occurred, it was never pleasant.
She felt guilty about taking the money she'd needed for her adventure. To atone for that sin, she assigned half her pay to her mother as a dependent. Although it eased Pax's conscience, it did absolutely nothing for their relationship; watering a dead tree would have been just as productive.
Then, when the SESC announced they were seeking volunteers for the Finder Flights, she was one of the first to sign on. The SESC set up a fund for the dependents of participants in the program. It was a fraction of what she had been sending her mother before but, in Pax's mind, it was something and something was more than nothing, certainly more than her mother deserved. She called home to tell her mother about the mission and the fund. She had no idea why.
"Fine. First, you steal from me, then you take away what little I get," her mother had said. "All those years of sacrificing what I could have had to raise you, and this is the payback. Well, go right ahead, you stupid, ungrateful little witch. Throw away a good career and leave me alone with nothing. I don't care. I'll...I'll insure you up to your cute, thieving little fanny and come out just fine-just fine. You're all going to die, you know. You're all going to...die." Then she had broken into one of her usual crying fits, and Pax had terminated the call before she could have made it any worse.
She should have known better than to call in the first place, but she thought maybe...maybe what? What was it she really wanted...? A chance at reconciliation? It was a shame to have to remember her mother like that. Venom. All venom and hatred. They'd had no contact since that night six years ago. Six years. She fought back the urge to send a message.
Forget it and don't pick at the scab. Why should I bleed without reason? She won't be able to reach me where I'm going...won't be able to hurt me after the trigger gets pulled. Not even with words. Never again. I just wish I could get rid of these lousy memories.
Knowing her mother, she'd probably followed through with the insurance thing and not bothered reading the conditions on the policy that anyone would write for members of the Finder Flights. What a shock she was going to get when she found out that the policy would not activate until the Rammix failure code reached Earth. For Pax's flight that would be a minimum of three hundred fifty years, if ever. An award to be paid out to the descendants of...
Insure me up to my what?
Pax chuckled quietly, took the last spoonful of a real strawberry parfait in her mouth and rolled it around while she wondered if she would make a good mother.
Forget that. I am not the mother type.
"What? What's so funny, Alex?"
"Bittersweet. You wouldn't understand."
"You never know. Try me?"
"Not this time, Marta. Someday we'll talk about it, maybe. Well, how about it? Are you going over with me in the morning, or do you want to chance it on your own?"
Lavan fired a glance over her shoulder. The silhouette of Hermes' long, needle-like particle impact shield cone pierced the planet's limb like a great, black lance and reflected sunlight gave the rest of the ship confusing form but no detail. Lavan gripped the edge of the table, her knuckles growing white, and snapped her gaze back to the solid security of the interior bulkheads. She was trembling and seconds passed before she spoke.
"With, of course. You think I'm nuts?"
A couple of gray-shirts from Station Security Control were staring...no, leering at them. It had started when Pax and Lavan had taken their table, and the gray-shirts were still doing it, saying a few words to one another and pointing frequently with their eating utensils. The distinctive uniforms of Finder Flight personnel had drawn a more than welcome amount of attention in the first couple of years. Mainly, it had been driven by curiosity about the mission, but it had waned quickly until it became a rarity. Occasionally someone would approach with a few stupid questions or an inane comment and that was all right, but the looks from these two were disturbing. There was something different about them, and Pax didn't like it. She could no longer ignore them.
"Excuse me, Marta. I'll be right back."
Lavan said nothing, just started tracing those little loops again as Pax stood and walked straight to the gray-shirts in the corner. They shriveled like cockroaches caught when the lights come on, but there was no place for them to scurry. They were trapped in a corner with nowhere to hide.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Pax said.
"Good evening, ma'am," they answered in unison.
"I couldn't help noticing your intense interest in us. Is there something in particular you'd like to know, something you'd like to say?"
"No, ma'am. We were just..." the senior of the two began.
"We were just wondering how-"
"Shut up, Mel."
"No, no, it's all right. Let him speak. You were wondering what, Mel?"
"Well, ma'am, we were wondering what sort of insane LO would take a crew of three hundred on a suicide run for nothing?"
He sneered at Pax as he spoke, and she wished he hadn't done that. It wasn't what he said, but how it was said. Her nostrils flared, and her temperature rose as fast as the hair at her nape. Her left hand, fingers rigid as concrete pillars, automatically shot into the nerve bundle at the base of Mel's neck. He dropped face down onto his plate of synthoysters.
The other man recoiled and moved up fast with a fist aimed for Pax's jaw, when a flash of yellow and brown came in from his right side. An injector expertly tapped his jugular. He crumpled like a ruptured p-suit, and the inertia of his intended sucker punch sent him sprawling to the deck a couple of meters beyond their table.
Other gray-shirts in the lounge rose but made no threatening moves. It was more as if they wanted a better view of the expected carnage. When they could see no blood being pumped into the carpet, they returned to whatever it was they'd been doing before the two ladies from Finder had taken out a pair of the station's huskier security officers without so much as a slight struggle.
"I'm sorry, Marta. I don't know why I did that...it just happened."
"I know exactly why, and, believe me, it was the best thing you could have done for yourself. As for him," Lavan said, pointing to the fellow with his face in fake oysters, "anyone who can eat those things deserves whatever happens." She stepped over the bag of rags spread out on the deck and looked down at him. "And this one is going to be one sick puppy when he wakes up. I think now is a good time for us to get out of here."
"Right. What was that stuff you used on him?"
"Two cc's of Tentanthocaine. Just short of enough to drop a stag in rut."

***

Pax drifted through the command module iris and slipped into her seat as smoothly as her shell would permit. In front of her was a console crammed with rows of glowing switches and monitors, displaying the myriad bits of information required to run a ship as complicated as the Hermes.
It required a little effort, but Pax managed to get the pressure shell pushed into the depressions designed to accept the bulky suit of armor. She connected the loose hoses protruding from the seat's broad arms to the proper receptors on her shell. Valves chattered uncertainly, then clicked. A soft hiss followed while ship's breathing gas began to replace the stale smell of the shell's internal air supply.
Pax paused to take a few deep breaths of the cool, sweet mix before shoving the shell's main umbilical into the receiver at the base of the console in front of her. The reflection of the iris on the inside of her faceplate contracted, sealing her off from the others, away from...everything. She was part of the Hermes now, and it was a part of her. So it would remain until they, Pax and the Rammix, were satisfied that all was functioning properly. Then she would meet with Lavan, and they would join the crew in cryogenic limbo.
"Good morning, Alex," the Rammix said. "Bio and neuro scans indicate a reasonable level of pre-launch dynamics. All readings are within SESC tolerance."
It sounded to her as if the Rammix enjoyed telling her it knew she was nervous. She checked her biomonitor before answering. All her markers were creeping up into the yellow.
Calm down, Alex. Get a grip on yourself.
"Good morning to you, Rammix. Thank you for belaboring the obvious. How are we doing? Is everything on schedule?"
"Making adequate allowance for the human element, yes. Dr. Lavan has not connected to me, but that is an expected delay. Cryo sections D-9 and F-15 did not power up correctly, and she is in the process of making manual adjustments. I offered to do it for her, but she declined. I do not think she trusts me, Alex. The remainder of the crew is now forty percent into the long-term stasis cycle, and all readings are within the proper range."
"Good, Rammix. I guess we're about ready to go then."
"Yes, Alex. I will begin the start-up sequence when you are ready. Will you be making a pre-launch personal?"
"Yes, Rammix, I will. Load my crystal and clear from me for...oh, say two hours. I'll dictate the commit codes when I have finished."
To say what she wanted would take an hour or less, but it wouldn't hurt to have the additional time available. Her throat felt dry. Tight.
Is that nerves or the onboard gas mix? Probably both.
She called extra fluid to the affected area. Pax cleared her throat and sat motionless, watching a soft blue light winking hypnotically on the panel over her head. The light told her it was all right to begin...but the words wouldn't come. She'd had them, but they had escaped to...somewhere. She coughed softly, reduced the fluid flow to her throat, and fidgeted.
Well, let's get started here.
Pax squirmed as much as the shell would permit until she found a position more to her liking. The shell felt uncomfortable, hot and tight fitting...but that was impossible.
It's not the suit...I'm the one who's out of whack. I'm scared to death.
She concentrated on her breathing first.
Get it under control. Breathe in slow and deep. Use your nasal passages. Out through the mouth...nice and easy. I have to be careful not to get too much oxygen.
Her respiration moderated to a short-of-panic rate, and she went to work on opening up her constricted veins and capillaries for more blood flow near the surface to carry away the excess heat.
She couldn't will away the adrenaline. But by getting her heart slowed and keeping everything else in check, it would be absorbed soon enough. If she had less experience in these techniques, it would have been an exercise in self-defeat as frustration mounted with the effort. Slowly, steadily, her concentration began to produce the desired effects. The satisfaction she felt knowing that the Rammix wasn't going to come charging in to take over when her readings bumped up against some predetermined SESC threshold helped to move the process along. Pax took another look at the biomonitor. The bright dots representing her condition were all backing down out of the yellow. A crooked little half smile formed on her tightly pursed lips.
The full, naked realization of what she was about to do finally sank in. Until the very second she'd felt that first flush and tasted the faintly metallic tang of panic on her tongue-knew her heart and lungs were out of synch-none of this had been real. The whole program had been a sort of romantic, self-indulgent adventure and final escape for her. She-Alexandra Guzman-Pax, wonder woman-was going to be one of the first. One of the first people from Earth to meet with them-out there-an idyllic dream of reunification with the lost ones.
Let's go into deep, deep space and put old Humpty Dumpty together again.
What could she have been thinking to keep her from confronting the reality of the Finder Flight program? Through six years of study, genetic therapy, and grueling training the true nature of the program hadn't presented itself to her. Even through Lavan's remarks and those jerks from SSC.
Stupid slobs.
She didn't have the dedication of a Lavan. She knew that. If the reality of the project had occurred to her any time before this moment, she probably would have dropped out of the program. Lavan's threats to drop out were tempered by dedication and a sense of responsibility for the crew-and by her unrelenting, dark and mischievous sense of humor. Pax, although she had a feeling of responsibility for them, too, just didn't have Lavan's strength of character. Now...now it was too late.
I'll be...we'll be okay. It will only be suicide if we allow it to happen. There has to be an acceptable way out if no one is home. What if no one is home?
She began to talk.

Seeds of Memory by J. Richard Jacobs

EXTRACT FOR
Seeds of Memory

(J. Richard Jacobs)


Chapter 1

"I'm not having second thoughts, Alex. I think I'd describe them as first thoughts. More accurate that way."
"Okay, Marta, then don't go having first thoughts on me. Not now, please. We're too close to launch, and that means you can't back out. Not now."
"What? You rewrote my contract? If I remember correctly, it specifically states I can drop out at any time. Right up until...you know."
"But you're the most experienced doctor in the bunch...and the best gene juggler we have. I... need you."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but my contract-"
"Will you forget the contract for a minute? What about the crew...the mission?"
"The devil with the mission, Alex. Oh, it's a grand idea, and it may even have some purpose to it...maybe, but I'm having a hard time finding it right now. It's the crew...they're the only reason I'm still here, otherwise I'd have been gone the first time I realized what I was actually doing."
"Well, I'm glad to hear you're still thinking about the crew."
"I imagine some might say it's my mother instinct at work."
Mother instinct? You?
"This instinct, whatever it is, is going to keep you in the flight?"
"It has...up until now."
"Wonderful. How about I buy you dinner? We can suck up some sweet yummy to finish it off. They have real fruits and stuff here."
"Why not? Besides, we should do it now or we won't be able to. Can't eat for thirty-six hours before going into stasis. That reminds me of a phrase I heard a long time ago...or maybe I read it. I don't remember which. It went something like, 'The condemned ate a hearty-'"
"Stop it, Marta."
"That an order, ma'am?"
"No."
"Good. 'Into the valley of death rode-'"
"Marta!"
The two of them, dressed in the bright yellow and rich brown uniform reserved for members of the Finder Flights, turned into a passage marked "OBS DK & OFF LOUNGE." A yellow bar below the sign warned, "High rad levels inside lounge shield-tags are available at the bar."
Working asteroid Medevac required an unflinching will to survive, coupled with the nerve to stare death in the infinite depth of its eyes-and a dedication tough to find anywhere in the SESC. Although she didn't look it, Dr. Marta Lavan had all that and much more. She'd served out there among the Belt mines for five years before signing up for the Finder mission and earned the Distinguished Service Stripe to prove it.
Anyone seeing those bright red bars stroked across her shoulder boards knew immediately that she was no virgin to the rigors of space, yet she had one weakness she couldn't shake. Moving scenes, like the one displayed in the huge ports lining the planet side of the lounge, caused her to respond with a severe reaction that demanded the entire contents of her stomach be expelled instantly and violently without regard to where she was, or in whose company.
Lead Officer Alexandra Guzman-Pax, well aware of the doctor's vertigo, took no offense when her junior officer charged in ahead of her. Lavan kept her eyes on the neutral gray carpet like a fastidious housemaid looking for lint. She wobbled a little as she went, and secured a chair with its back to half a Jupiter slowly turning in three directions at once-four if you counted the imperceptible lateral drift of the station.
JS9 was set in a polar orbit that revolved axially once in the Jovian year. The axial drift kept the station out of the shadow of the planet. The drift was so slow it had no effect on Lavan's churning gut, but the axis of the station was pointed directly at the planet's center and the rotation of JS9 caused the planet to tumble in slow motion. That movement, combined with the natural revolution of Jupiter about its axis and the orbital swing of the station shot straight into Lavan's vomit center.
Pax enjoyed the vista. There were times when she would sit in the lounge for hours, transfixed, fascinated with the beauty of it all. She slid out a chair and turned it so she could sit looking straight at the panorama and mused for a moment on how, from the station, Jupiter was always half planet, half ghost. The side in shadow glowed dully from its own energy, flashes of lightning giving it the look of deeply dark brown velvet with tiny diamonds sparkling on it. At JS9's tremendous distance from the planet the entire thing and most of its moons were visible, particularly the larger ones, which added greatly to Lavan's problem. Lavan, on the other side of the table, kept her eyes fixed firmly on the non-reflective surfaces of the bar.
The lighting in the lounge was diffused and cast almost no shadows on Lavan's girlish features. Pax could not help noticing that Lavan's turned-up nose was still not quite a nose; like a small child's it appeared to be developing into one but wasn't quite there. She had deeply dimpled cheeks, lightly dusted with soft freckles, and large eyes of watery blue, dotted loosely with purple flecks. Here and there a silver strand peeked from beneath her short-cropped golden red hair, doing little to lessen the baby-girl effect.
"Well, Marta, tomorrow we do it," Pax said, motioning to a waiter who had expertly ignored their entrance.
"Huh? Oh...right...tomorrow," Lavan said, while she traced little looping patterns with an unpainted fingernail on the glossy black table top.
She never uses cosmetics...adds to that just-out-of-puberty look. One of these days I'm going to have to talk to her about that. How does she ever get anyone to take her seriously-or to bed, for heaven's sake?
"Okay, what's troubling you, Marta?"
"Nothing...and everything. I'm thinking about what we're getting ready to do. How wonderfully exciting it all is...and how dreadfully permanent. You know, just sorting through things one last time...before you pull the trigger."
That's novel. Like I'm holding a gun to all our heads...and I'm the one who has the pleasure of deciding when to pull the trigger. Great, Marta.
"Mm-hmm, I understand."
Sorting through things one more time. Permanent.
"I'm going over a couple of hours early. You're welcome to accompany me, if you'd like. That way you can keep your eyes closed during the transfer. Where is that waiter?"
"He ducked into the kitchen a minute ago. He'll be back. Why?"
"Because I'm hungry, Marta."
"No, that's not what I meant. Why go over early?"
"Oh, that."
Were her jitters as obvious as Lavan's? Pax tacked a note to her mental bulletin board to be a little more guarded in the future.
"I need to check the Rammix set-up again, and I found some anomalous readings on the hydrogen injector section of the guide tube field generator yesterday. I also want to make a pre-launch rock...and I think it's going to be a long one."
"Where's the sense in that, Alex? The pre-launch crystal, I mean. We're not coming back...and no one is going to come get us. That's what I was trying to tell you. This is a one-way trip, Alex."
Pax fixed her iron gray eyes on Lavan and deep furrows traveled across her forehead. She felt the hint of a tic coming, looked back to the half a Jupiter hanging in the ports and ran the heel of her right hand across her right eye.
Lavan had a point and it struck at Pax's solar plexus like her mother's fist. There was no coming back for any of them...ever. Even the shorter Finder Flights were strictly a one-way proposition.
Dreadfully permanent.
And if anything went wrong? No rescue, no return.
Why do you have to talk about these things, Marta?
"I thought I'd make one for them," Pax said, and waved her hand in what she thought was the general direction of their destination. "Just in case."
Yeah, just in case. Just in case we all die in stasis and the Rammix takes us in on automatic like it was programmed to do.
"Uh-huh. That's a truly noble gesture, Alex, and I'm sure they'll appreciate it. That is, if anyone is home. Have you thought much about that? What if no one is there?"
No, she hadn't thought about it. At least, she hadn't thought about it very much at the conscious level. It was presented as one of the possible mission worst-case scenarios, and Whitaker had gone over all the various reasons it might be so in excruciatingly morbid detail...more than once. It just hadn't found a very high position on her list of concerns. Lavan had, with a simple statement, bounced it into the number one slot.
That is, if anyone is home.
The waiter finally came out of hiding and, to Pax's relief, headed for their table.
Their meal passed in a somber silence while half a Jupiter and its ghost partner peered through the ports at them.
Pax heard Jupiter whispering to her, "Hey, Pax, look at me. Take a good look. Aren't I enough evidence that you can't live just anywhere you want? If they had landed here...there would be no one home."
Dispassionate and cold...tumbling, the cloudy giant chided, mocked her with frigid indifference.
Their time together was friendly enough, even pleasant, but the two of them didn't have much to say. Both were immersed in their private, deep places sorting things through that one last time before she gave the Rammix the commit codes; before she pulled the trigger.
Pax's nerves were all standing at attention.
Suppose there isn't anyone there?
During times of high stress, and this was decidedly one of those, Pax had the nasty habit of dwelling on unhappy pasts. Her mind flew backward to the time when the relationship with her mother had gone from awful to unbearable. Her mother had been inexplicably abusive during her childhood, but her father had always been there to intercede before one of them turned up dead.
Eight days before her twelfth birthday, it all went to hell when a Sub caught her father at the entrance to one of the Undercities and, cease-fire or not, the Sub killed him with no more passion than if he had smashed a bug, such was their hatred of the Hifolk. There had been an uneasy peace for a few years, but the Subs routinely, gleefully murdered Hifolk whenever the opportunity presented itself. After that day, her mother transcended the boundary between mean and vicious.
Pax left Sydney Center at fifteen, because she could take no more. After contemplating a thousand ways to dispose of her mother she was unable to decide whether it was fear of incarceration and psyche adjustment or moral decency that stayed her hand. She made her way to the California Archipelago on money she had appropriated from her mother's account and, when she arrived, she joined the Surface Earth Space Corps. After that, contact with her mother had been rare but, when it occurred, it was never pleasant.
She felt guilty about taking the money she'd needed for her adventure. To atone for that sin, she assigned half her pay to her mother as a dependent. Although it eased Pax's conscience, it did absolutely nothing for their relationship; watering a dead tree would have been just as productive.
Then, when the SESC announced they were seeking volunteers for the Finder Flights, she was one of the first to sign on. The SESC set up a fund for the dependents of participants in the program. It was a fraction of what she had been sending her mother before but, in Pax's mind, it was something and something was more than nothing, certainly more than her mother deserved. She called home to tell her mother about the mission and the fund. She had no idea why.
"Fine. First, you steal from me, then you take away what little I get," her mother had said. "All those years of sacrificing what I could have had to raise you, and this is the payback. Well, go right ahead, you stupid, ungrateful little witch. Throw away a good career and leave me alone with nothing. I don't care. I'll...I'll insure you up to your cute, thieving little fanny and come out just fine-just fine. You're all going to die, you know. You're all going to...die." Then she had broken into one of her usual crying fits, and Pax had terminated the call before she could have made it any worse.
She should have known better than to call in the first place, but she thought maybe...maybe what? What was it she really wanted...? A chance at reconciliation? It was a shame to have to remember her mother like that. Venom. All venom and hatred. They'd had no contact since that night six years ago. Six years. She fought back the urge to send a message.
Forget it and don't pick at the scab. Why should I bleed without reason? She won't be able to reach me where I'm going...won't be able to hurt me after the trigger gets pulled. Not even with words. Never again. I just wish I could get rid of these lousy memories.
Knowing her mother, she'd probably followed through with the insurance thing and not bothered reading the conditions on the policy that anyone would write for members of the Finder Flights. What a shock she was going to get when she found out that the policy would not activate until the Rammix failure code reached Earth. For Pax's flight that would be a minimum of three hundred fifty years, if ever. An award to be paid out to the descendants of...
Insure me up to my what?
Pax chuckled quietly, took the last spoonful of a real strawberry parfait in her mouth and rolled it around while she wondered if she would make a good mother.
Forget that. I am not the mother type.
"What? What's so funny, Alex?"
"Bittersweet. You wouldn't understand."
"You never know. Try me?"
"Not this time, Marta. Someday we'll talk about it, maybe. Well, how about it? Are you going over with me in the morning, or do you want to chance it on your own?"
Lavan fired a glance over her shoulder. The silhouette of Hermes' long, needle-like particle impact shield cone pierced the planet's limb like a great, black lance and reflected sunlight gave the rest of the ship confusing form but no detail. Lavan gripped the edge of the table, her knuckles growing white, and snapped her gaze back to the solid security of the interior bulkheads. She was trembling and seconds passed before she spoke.
"With, of course. You think I'm nuts?"
A couple of gray-shirts from Station Security Control were staring...no, leering at them. It had started when Pax and Lavan had taken their table, and the gray-shirts were still doing it, saying a few words to one another and pointing frequently with their eating utensils. The distinctive uniforms of Finder Flight personnel had drawn a more than welcome amount of attention in the first couple of years. Mainly, it had been driven by curiosity about the mission, but it had waned quickly until it became a rarity. Occasionally someone would approach with a few stupid questions or an inane comment and that was all right, but the looks from these two were disturbing. There was something different about them, and Pax didn't like it. She could no longer ignore them.
"Excuse me, Marta. I'll be right back."
Lavan said nothing, just started tracing those little loops again as Pax stood and walked straight to the gray-shirts in the corner. They shriveled like cockroaches caught when the lights come on, but there was no place for them to scurry. They were trapped in a corner with nowhere to hide.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Pax said.
"Good evening, ma'am," they answered in unison.
"I couldn't help noticing your intense interest in us. Is there something in particular you'd like to know, something you'd like to say?"
"No, ma'am. We were just..." the senior of the two began.
"We were just wondering how-"
"Shut up, Mel."
"No, no, it's all right. Let him speak. You were wondering what, Mel?"
"Well, ma'am, we were wondering what sort of insane LO would take a crew of three hundred on a suicide run for nothing?"
He sneered at Pax as he spoke, and she wished he hadn't done that. It wasn't what he said, but how it was said. Her nostrils flared, and her temperature rose as fast as the hair at her nape. Her left hand, fingers rigid as concrete pillars, automatically shot into the nerve bundle at the base of Mel's neck. He dropped face down onto his plate of synthoysters.
The other man recoiled and moved up fast with a fist aimed for Pax's jaw, when a flash of yellow and brown came in from his right side. An injector expertly tapped his jugular. He crumpled like a ruptured p-suit, and the inertia of his intended sucker punch sent him sprawling to the deck a couple of meters beyond their table.
Other gray-shirts in the lounge rose but made no threatening moves. It was more as if they wanted a better view of the expected carnage. When they could see no blood being pumped into the carpet, they returned to whatever it was they'd been doing before the two ladies from Finder had taken out a pair of the station's huskier security officers without so much as a slight struggle.
"I'm sorry, Marta. I don't know why I did that...it just happened."
"I know exactly why, and, believe me, it was the best thing you could have done for yourself. As for him," Lavan said, pointing to the fellow with his face in fake oysters, "anyone who can eat those things deserves whatever happens." She stepped over the bag of rags spread out on the deck and looked down at him. "And this one is going to be one sick puppy when he wakes up. I think now is a good time for us to get out of here."
"Right. What was that stuff you used on him?"
"Two cc's of Tentanthocaine. Just short of enough to drop a stag in rut."

***

Pax drifted through the command module iris and slipped into her seat as smoothly as her shell would permit. In front of her was a console crammed with rows of glowing switches and monitors, displaying the myriad bits of information required to run a ship as complicated as the Hermes.
It required a little effort, but Pax managed to get the pressure shell pushed into the depressions designed to accept the bulky suit of armor. She connected the loose hoses protruding from the seat's broad arms to the proper receptors on her shell. Valves chattered uncertainly, then clicked. A soft hiss followed while ship's breathing gas began to replace the stale smell of the shell's internal air supply.
Pax paused to take a few deep breaths of the cool, sweet mix before shoving the shell's main umbilical into the receiver at the base of the console in front of her. The reflection of the iris on the inside of her faceplate contracted, sealing her off from the others, away from...everything. She was part of the Hermes now, and it was a part of her. So it would remain until they, Pax and the Rammix, were satisfied that all was functioning properly. Then she would meet with Lavan, and they would join the crew in cryogenic limbo.
"Good morning, Alex," the Rammix said. "Bio and neuro scans indicate a reasonable level of pre-launch dynamics. All readings are within SESC tolerance."
It sounded to her as if the Rammix enjoyed telling her it knew she was nervous. She checked her biomonitor before answering. All her markers were creeping up into the yellow.
Calm down, Alex. Get a grip on yourself.
"Good morning to you, Rammix. Thank you for belaboring the obvious. How are we doing? Is everything on schedule?"
"Making adequate allowance for the human element, yes. Dr. Lavan has not connected to me, but that is an expected delay. Cryo sections D-9 and F-15 did not power up correctly, and she is in the process of making manual adjustments. I offered to do it for her, but she declined. I do not think she trusts me, Alex. The remainder of the crew is now forty percent into the long-term stasis cycle, and all readings are within the proper range."
"Good, Rammix. I guess we're about ready to go then."
"Yes, Alex. I will begin the start-up sequence when you are ready. Will you be making a pre-launch personal?"
"Yes, Rammix, I will. Load my crystal and clear from me for...oh, say two hours. I'll dictate the commit codes when I have finished."
To say what she wanted would take an hour or less, but it wouldn't hurt to have the additional time available. Her throat felt dry. Tight.
Is that nerves or the onboard gas mix? Probably both.
She called extra fluid to the affected area. Pax cleared her throat and sat motionless, watching a soft blue light winking hypnotically on the panel over her head. The light told her it was all right to begin...but the words wouldn't come. She'd had them, but they had escaped to...somewhere. She coughed softly, reduced the fluid flow to her throat, and fidgeted.
Well, let's get started here.
Pax squirmed as much as the shell would permit until she found a position more to her liking. The shell felt uncomfortable, hot and tight fitting...but that was impossible.
It's not the suit...I'm the one who's out of whack. I'm scared to death.
She concentrated on her breathing first.
Get it under control. Breathe in slow and deep. Use your nasal passages. Out through the mouth...nice and easy. I have to be careful not to get too much oxygen.
Her respiration moderated to a short-of-panic rate, and she went to work on opening up her constricted veins and capillaries for more blood flow near the surface to carry away the excess heat.
She couldn't will away the adrenaline. But by getting her heart slowed and keeping everything else in check, it would be absorbed soon enough. If she had less experience in these techniques, it would have been an exercise in self-defeat as frustration mounted with the effort. Slowly, steadily, her concentration began to produce the desired effects. The satisfaction she felt knowing that the Rammix wasn't going to come charging in to take over when her readings bumped up against some predetermined SESC threshold helped to move the process along. Pax took another look at the biomonitor. The bright dots representing her condition were all backing down out of the yellow. A crooked little half smile formed on her tightly pursed lips.
The full, naked realization of what she was about to do finally sank in. Until the very second she'd felt that first flush and tasted the faintly metallic tang of panic on her tongue-knew her heart and lungs were out of synch-none of this had been real. The whole program had been a sort of romantic, self-indulgent adventure and final escape for her. She-Alexandra Guzman-Pax, wonder woman-was going to be one of the first. One of the first people from Earth to meet with them-out there-an idyllic dream of reunification with the lost ones.
Let's go into deep, deep space and put old Humpty Dumpty together again.
What could she have been thinking to keep her from confronting the reality of the Finder Flight program? Through six years of study, genetic therapy, and grueling training the true nature of the program hadn't presented itself to her. Even through Lavan's remarks and those jerks from SSC.
Stupid slobs.
She didn't have the dedication of a Lavan. She knew that. If the reality of the project had occurred to her any time before this moment, she probably would have dropped out of the program. Lavan's threats to drop out were tempered by dedication and a sense of responsibility for the crew-and by her unrelenting, dark and mischievous sense of humor. Pax, although she had a feeling of responsibility for them, too, just didn't have Lavan's strength of character. Now...now it was too late.
I'll be...we'll be okay. It will only be suicide if we allow it to happen. There has to be an acceptable way out if no one is home. What if no one is home?
She began to talk.

EXTRACT FOR
Seeds of Memory

(J. Richard Jacobs)


Chapter 1

"I'm not having second thoughts, Alex. I think I'd describe them as first thoughts. More accurate that way."
"Okay, Marta, then don't go having first thoughts on me. Not now, please. We're too close to launch, and that means you can't back out. Not now."
"What? You rewrote my contract? If I remember correctly, it specifically states I can drop out at any time. Right up until...you know."
"But you're the most experienced doctor in the bunch...and the best gene juggler we have. I... need you."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but my contract-"
"Will you forget the contract for a minute? What about the crew...the mission?"
"The devil with the mission, Alex. Oh, it's a grand idea, and it may even have some purpose to it...maybe, but I'm having a hard time finding it right now. It's the crew...they're the only reason I'm still here, otherwise I'd have been gone the first time I realized what I was actually doing."
"Well, I'm glad to hear you're still thinking about the crew."
"I imagine some might say it's my mother instinct at work."
Mother instinct? You?
"This instinct, whatever it is, is going to keep you in the flight?"
"It has...up until now."
"Wonderful. How about I buy you dinner? We can suck up some sweet yummy to finish it off. They have real fruits and stuff here."
"Why not? Besides, we should do it now or we won't be able to. Can't eat for thirty-six hours before going into stasis. That reminds me of a phrase I heard a long time ago...or maybe I read it. I don't remember which. It went something like, 'The condemned ate a hearty-'"
"Stop it, Marta."
"That an order, ma'am?"
"No."
"Good. 'Into the valley of death rode-'"
"Marta!"
The two of them, dressed in the bright yellow and rich brown uniform reserved for members of the Finder Flights, turned into a passage marked "OBS DK & OFF LOUNGE." A yellow bar below the sign warned, "High rad levels inside lounge shield-tags are available at the bar."
Working asteroid Medevac required an unflinching will to survive, coupled with the nerve to stare death in the infinite depth of its eyes-and a dedication tough to find anywhere in the SESC. Although she didn't look it, Dr. Marta Lavan had all that and much more. She'd served out there among the Belt mines for five years before signing up for the Finder mission and earned the Distinguished Service Stripe to prove it.
Anyone seeing those bright red bars stroked across her shoulder boards knew immediately that she was no virgin to the rigors of space, yet she had one weakness she couldn't shake. Moving scenes, like the one displayed in the huge ports lining the planet side of the lounge, caused her to respond with a severe reaction that demanded the entire contents of her stomach be expelled instantly and violently without regard to where she was, or in whose company.
Lead Officer Alexandra Guzman-Pax, well aware of the doctor's vertigo, took no offense when her junior officer charged in ahead of her. Lavan kept her eyes on the neutral gray carpet like a fastidious housemaid looking for lint. She wobbled a little as she went, and secured a chair with its back to half a Jupiter slowly turning in three directions at once-four if you counted the imperceptible lateral drift of the station.
JS9 was set in a polar orbit that revolved axially once in the Jovian year. The axial drift kept the station out of the shadow of the planet. The drift was so slow it had no effect on Lavan's churning gut, but the axis of the station was pointed directly at the planet's center and the rotation of JS9 caused the planet to tumble in slow motion. That movement, combined with the natural revolution of Jupiter about its axis and the orbital swing of the station shot straight into Lavan's vomit center.
Pax enjoyed the vista. There were times when she would sit in the lounge for hours, transfixed, fascinated with the beauty of it all. She slid out a chair and turned it so she could sit looking straight at the panorama and mused for a moment on how, from the station, Jupiter was always half planet, half ghost. The side in shadow glowed dully from its own energy, flashes of lightning giving it the look of deeply dark brown velvet with tiny diamonds sparkling on it. At JS9's tremendous distance from the planet the entire thing and most of its moons were visible, particularly the larger ones, which added greatly to Lavan's problem. Lavan, on the other side of the table, kept her eyes fixed firmly on the non-reflective surfaces of the bar.
The lighting in the lounge was diffused and cast almost no shadows on Lavan's girlish features. Pax could not help noticing that Lavan's turned-up nose was still not quite a nose; like a small child's it appeared to be developing into one but wasn't quite there. She had deeply dimpled cheeks, lightly dusted with soft freckles, and large eyes of watery blue, dotted loosely with purple flecks. Here and there a silver strand peeked from beneath her short-cropped golden red hair, doing little to lessen the baby-girl effect.
"Well, Marta, tomorrow we do it," Pax said, motioning to a waiter who had expertly ignored their entrance.
"Huh? Oh...right...tomorrow," Lavan said, while she traced little looping patterns with an unpainted fingernail on the glossy black table top.
She never uses cosmetics...adds to that just-out-of-puberty look. One of these days I'm going to have to talk to her about that. How does she ever get anyone to take her seriously-or to bed, for heaven's sake?
"Okay, what's troubling you, Marta?"
"Nothing...and everything. I'm thinking about what we're getting ready to do. How wonderfully exciting it all is...and how dreadfully permanent. You know, just sorting through things one last time...before you pull the trigger."
That's novel. Like I'm holding a gun to all our heads...and I'm the one who has the pleasure of deciding when to pull the trigger. Great, Marta.
"Mm-hmm, I understand."
Sorting through things one more time. Permanent.
"I'm going over a couple of hours early. You're welcome to accompany me, if you'd like. That way you can keep your eyes closed during the transfer. Where is that waiter?"
"He ducked into the kitchen a minute ago. He'll be back. Why?"
"Because I'm hungry, Marta."
"No, that's not what I meant. Why go over early?"
"Oh, that."
Were her jitters as obvious as Lavan's? Pax tacked a note to her mental bulletin board to be a little more guarded in the future.
"I need to check the Rammix set-up again, and I found some anomalous readings on the hydrogen injector section of the guide tube field generator yesterday. I also want to make a pre-launch rock...and I think it's going to be a long one."
"Where's the sense in that, Alex? The pre-launch crystal, I mean. We're not coming back...and no one is going to come get us. That's what I was trying to tell you. This is a one-way trip, Alex."
Pax fixed her iron gray eyes on Lavan and deep furrows traveled across her forehead. She felt the hint of a tic coming, looked back to the half a Jupiter hanging in the ports and ran the heel of her right hand across her right eye.
Lavan had a point and it struck at Pax's solar plexus like her mother's fist. There was no coming back for any of them...ever. Even the shorter Finder Flights were strictly a one-way proposition.
Dreadfully permanent.
And if anything went wrong? No rescue, no return.
Why do you have to talk about these things, Marta?
"I thought I'd make one for them," Pax said, and waved her hand in what she thought was the general direction of their destination. "Just in case."
Yeah, just in case. Just in case we all die in stasis and the Rammix takes us in on automatic like it was programmed to do.
"Uh-huh. That's a truly noble gesture, Alex, and I'm sure they'll appreciate it. That is, if anyone is home. Have you thought much about that? What if no one is there?"
No, she hadn't thought about it. At least, she hadn't thought about it very much at the conscious level. It was presented as one of the possible mission worst-case scenarios, and Whitaker had gone over all the various reasons it might be so in excruciatingly morbid detail...more than once. It just hadn't found a very high position on her list of concerns. Lavan had, with a simple statement, bounced it into the number one slot.
That is, if anyone is home.
The waiter finally came out of hiding and, to Pax's relief, headed for their table.
Their meal passed in a somber silence while half a Jupiter and its ghost partner peered through the ports at them.
Pax heard Jupiter whispering to her, "Hey, Pax, look at me. Take a good look. Aren't I enough evidence that you can't live just anywhere you want? If they had landed here...there would be no one home."
Dispassionate and cold...tumbling, the cloudy giant chided, mocked her with frigid indifference.
Their time together was friendly enough, even pleasant, but the two of them didn't have much to say. Both were immersed in their private, deep places sorting things through that one last time before she gave the Rammix the commit codes; before she pulled the trigger.
Pax's nerves were all standing at attention.
Suppose there isn't anyone there?
During times of high stress, and this was decidedly one of those, Pax had the nasty habit of dwelling on unhappy pasts. Her mind flew backward to the time when the relationship with her mother had gone from awful to unbearable. Her mother had been inexplicably abusive during her childhood, but her father had always been there to intercede before one of them turned up dead.
Eight days before her twelfth birthday, it all went to hell when a Sub caught her father at the entrance to one of the Undercities and, cease-fire or not, the Sub killed him with no more passion than if he had smashed a bug, such was their hatred of the Hifolk. There had been an uneasy peace for a few years, but the Subs routinely, gleefully murdered Hifolk whenever the opportunity presented itself. After that day, her mother transcended the boundary between mean and vicious.
Pax left Sydney Center at fifteen, because she could take no more. After contemplating a thousand ways to dispose of her mother she was unable to decide whether it was fear of incarceration and psyche adjustment or moral decency that stayed her hand. She made her way to the California Archipelago on money she had appropriated from her mother's account and, when she arrived, she joined the Surface Earth Space Corps. After that, contact with her mother had been rare but, when it occurred, it was never pleasant.
She felt guilty about taking the money she'd needed for her adventure. To atone for that sin, she assigned half her pay to her mother as a dependent. Although it eased Pax's conscience, it did absolutely nothing for their relationship; watering a dead tree would have been just as productive.
Then, when the SESC announced they were seeking volunteers for the Finder Flights, she was one of the first to sign on. The SESC set up a fund for the dependents of participants in the program. It was a fraction of what she had been sending her mother before but, in Pax's mind, it was something and something was more than nothing, certainly more than her mother deserved. She called home to tell her mother about the mission and the fund. She had no idea why.
"Fine. First, you steal from me, then you take away what little I get," her mother had said. "All those years of sacrificing what I could have had to raise you, and this is the payback. Well, go right ahead, you stupid, ungrateful little witch. Throw away a good career and leave me alone with nothing. I don't care. I'll...I'll insure you up to your cute, thieving little fanny and come out just fine-just fine. You're all going to die, you know. You're all going to...die." Then she had broken into one of her usual crying fits, and Pax had terminated the call before she could have made it any worse.
She should have known better than to call in the first place, but she thought maybe...maybe what? What was it she really wanted...? A chance at reconciliation? It was a shame to have to remember her mother like that. Venom. All venom and hatred. They'd had no contact since that night six years ago. Six years. She fought back the urge to send a message.
Forget it and don't pick at the scab. Why should I bleed without reason? She won't be able to reach me where I'm going...won't be able to hurt me after the trigger gets pulled. Not even with words. Never again. I just wish I could get rid of these lousy memories.
Knowing her mother, she'd probably followed through with the insurance thing and not bothered reading the conditions on the policy that anyone would write for members of the Finder Flights. What a shock she was going to get when she found out that the policy would not activate until the Rammix failure code reached Earth. For Pax's flight that would be a minimum of three hundred fifty years, if ever. An award to be paid out to the descendants of...
Insure me up to my what?
Pax chuckled quietly, took the last spoonful of a real strawberry parfait in her mouth and rolled it around while she wondered if she would make a good mother.
Forget that. I am not the mother type.
"What? What's so funny, Alex?"
"Bittersweet. You wouldn't understand."
"You never know. Try me?"
"Not this time, Marta. Someday we'll talk about it, maybe. Well, how about it? Are you going over with me in the morning, or do you want to chance it on your own?"
Lavan fired a glance over her shoulder. The silhouette of Hermes' long, needle-like particle impact shield cone pierced the planet's limb like a great, black lance and reflected sunlight gave the rest of the ship confusing form but no detail. Lavan gripped the edge of the table, her knuckles growing white, and snapped her gaze back to the solid security of the interior bulkheads. She was trembling and seconds passed before she spoke.
"With, of course. You think I'm nuts?"
A couple of gray-shirts from Station Security Control were staring...no, leering at them. It had started when Pax and Lavan had taken their table, and the gray-shirts were still doing it, saying a few words to one another and pointing frequently with their eating utensils. The distinctive uniforms of Finder Flight personnel had drawn a more than welcome amount of attention in the first couple of years. Mainly, it had been driven by curiosity about the mission, but it had waned quickly until it became a rarity. Occasionally someone would approach with a few stupid questions or an inane comment and that was all right, but the looks from these two were disturbing. There was something different about them, and Pax didn't like it. She could no longer ignore them.
"Excuse me, Marta. I'll be right back."
Lavan said nothing, just started tracing those little loops again as Pax stood and walked straight to the gray-shirts in the corner. They shriveled like cockroaches caught when the lights come on, but there was no place for them to scurry. They were trapped in a corner with nowhere to hide.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Pax said.
"Good evening, ma'am," they answered in unison.
"I couldn't help noticing your intense interest in us. Is there something in particular you'd like to know, something you'd like to say?"
"No, ma'am. We were just..." the senior of the two began.
"We were just wondering how-"
"Shut up, Mel."
"No, no, it's all right. Let him speak. You were wondering what, Mel?"
"Well, ma'am, we were wondering what sort of insane LO would take a crew of three hundred on a suicide run for nothing?"
He sneered at Pax as he spoke, and she wished he hadn't done that. It wasn't what he said, but how it was said. Her nostrils flared, and her temperature rose as fast as the hair at her nape. Her left hand, fingers rigid as concrete pillars, automatically shot into the nerve bundle at the base of Mel's neck. He dropped face down onto his plate of synthoysters.
The other man recoiled and moved up fast with a fist aimed for Pax's jaw, when a flash of yellow and brown came in from his right side. An injector expertly tapped his jugular. He crumpled like a ruptured p-suit, and the inertia of his intended sucker punch sent him sprawling to the deck a couple of meters beyond their table.
Other gray-shirts in the lounge rose but made no threatening moves. It was more as if they wanted a better view of the expected carnage. When they could see no blood being pumped into the carpet, they returned to whatever it was they'd been doing before the two ladies from Finder had taken out a pair of the station's huskier security officers without so much as a slight struggle.
"I'm sorry, Marta. I don't know why I did that...it just happened."
"I know exactly why, and, believe me, it was the best thing you could have done for yourself. As for him," Lavan said, pointing to the fellow with his face in fake oysters, "anyone who can eat those things deserves whatever happens." She stepped over the bag of rags spread out on the deck and looked down at him. "And this one is going to be one sick puppy when he wakes up. I think now is a good time for us to get out of here."
"Right. What was that stuff you used on him?"
"Two cc's of Tentanthocaine. Just short of enough to drop a stag in rut."

***

Pax drifted through the command module iris and slipped into her seat as smoothly as her shell would permit. In front of her was a console crammed with rows of glowing switches and monitors, displaying the myriad bits of information required to run a ship as complicated as the Hermes.
It required a little effort, but Pax managed to get the pressure shell pushed into the depressions designed to accept the bulky suit of armor. She connected the loose hoses protruding from the seat's broad arms to the proper receptors on her shell. Valves chattered uncertainly, then clicked. A soft hiss followed while ship's breathing gas began to replace the stale smell of the shell's internal air supply.
Pax paused to take a few deep breaths of the cool, sweet mix before shoving the shell's main umbilical into the receiver at the base of the console in front of her. The reflection of the iris on the inside of her faceplate contracted, sealing her off from the others, away from...everything. She was part of the Hermes now, and it was a part of her. So it would remain until they, Pax and the Rammix, were satisfied that all was functioning properly. Then she would meet with Lavan, and they would join the crew in cryogenic limbo.
"Good morning, Alex," the Rammix said. "Bio and neuro scans indicate a reasonable level of pre-launch dynamics. All readings are within SESC tolerance."
It sounded to her as if the Rammix enjoyed telling her it knew she was nervous. She checked her biomonitor before answering. All her markers were creeping up into the yellow.
Calm down, Alex. Get a grip on yourself.
"Good morning to you, Rammix. Thank you for belaboring the obvious. How are we doing? Is everything on schedule?"
"Making adequate allowance for the human element, yes. Dr. Lavan has not connected to me, but that is an expected delay. Cryo sections D-9 and F-15 did not power up correctly, and she is in the process of making manual adjustments. I offered to do it for her, but she declined. I do not think she trusts me, Alex. The remainder of the crew is now forty percent into the long-term stasis cycle, and all readings are within the proper range."
"Good, Rammix. I guess we're about ready to go then."
"Yes, Alex. I will begin the start-up sequence when you are ready. Will you be making a pre-launch personal?"
"Yes, Rammix, I will. Load my crystal and clear from me for...oh, say two hours. I'll dictate the commit codes when I have finished."
To say what she wanted would take an hour or less, but it wouldn't hurt to have the additional time available. Her throat felt dry. Tight.
Is that nerves or the onboard gas mix? Probably both.
She called extra fluid to the affected area. Pax cleared her throat and sat motionless, watching a soft blue light winking hypnotically on the panel over her head. The light told her it was all right to begin...but the words wouldn't come. She'd had them, but they had escaped to...somewhere. She coughed softly, reduced the fluid flow to her throat, and fidgeted.
Well, let's get started here.
Pax squirmed as much as the shell would permit until she found a position more to her liking. The shell felt uncomfortable, hot and tight fitting...but that was impossible.
It's not the suit...I'm the one who's out of whack. I'm scared to death.
She concentrated on her breathing first.
Get it under control. Breathe in slow and deep. Use your nasal passages. Out through the mouth...nice and easy. I have to be careful not to get too much oxygen.
Her respiration moderated to a short-of-panic rate, and she went to work on opening up her constricted veins and capillaries for more blood flow near the surface to carry away the excess heat.
She couldn't will away the adrenaline. But by getting her heart slowed and keeping everything else in check, it would be absorbed soon enough. If she had less experience in these techniques, it would have been an exercise in self-defeat as frustration mounted with the effort. Slowly, steadily, her concentration began to produce the desired effects. The satisfaction she felt knowing that the Rammix wasn't going to come charging in to take over when her readings bumped up against some predetermined SESC threshold helped to move the process along. Pax took another look at the biomonitor. The bright dots representing her condition were all backing down out of the yellow. A crooked little half smile formed on her tightly pursed lips.
The full, naked realization of what she was about to do finally sank in. Until the very second she'd felt that first flush and tasted the faintly metallic tang of panic on her tongue-knew her heart and lungs were out of synch-none of this had been real. The whole program had been a sort of romantic, self-indulgent adventure and final escape for her. She-Alexandra Guzman-Pax, wonder woman-was going to be one of the first. One of the first people from Earth to meet with them-out there-an idyllic dream of reunification with the lost ones.
Let's go into deep, deep space and put old Humpty Dumpty together again.
What could she have been thinking to keep her from confronting the reality of the Finder Flight program? Through six years of study, genetic therapy, and grueling training the true nature of the program hadn't presented itself to her. Even through Lavan's remarks and those jerks from SSC.
Stupid slobs.
She didn't have the dedication of a Lavan. She knew that. If the reality of the project had occurred to her any time before this moment, she probably would have dropped out of the program. Lavan's threats to drop out were tempered by dedication and a sense of responsibility for the crew-and by her unrelenting, dark and mischievous sense of humor. Pax, although she had a feeling of responsibility for them, too, just didn't have Lavan's strength of character. Now...now it was too late.
I'll be...we'll be okay. It will only be suicide if we allow it to happen. There has to be an acceptable way out if no one is home. What if no one is home?
She began to talk.