"But I don't know,"
Gdameric said, blowing nervously on his coffee, "I suppose
one of the neutrino coils could have been debried."
"And to think of it,
there was that comet last night, bright as the moon,"
the entropy specialist threw in, a match-stick of a man with
a protuberant nose and knees that stuck far out. He was dressed
in a motley assortment of shirts, suit clothes and blankets;
so were we all, for the ship was ice cold and chilling by
It was the Beauty of Lisbon,
a planet sounder, and there were five of us there in the parlor.
On board it was about two in the morning. We had allsave
Mrs. Rheingold, who wandered the ship at odd hourswoken
to some rather nasty vibrating from the direction of the fusion
emitters, and could not get to sleep for the sudden cold.
It was an ominous cold, prompting us to break open the high
cupboards and maid's closets in search of blankets and warmers.
Then we tried falling asleepa futile effort, as anyone
knows who has experienced one of these little knocks in a
small ship lighthours from any habitable body, in the abject
blackest patch of space imaginable (wherever you are out in
those regions always seems the blackest patch imaginable).
So we congregated in the parlor,
an eccentric little room you will find on most vintage planet
sounders. A coffee table, several chairs, a divan, and a dinette
against the wall with tea thingsthat about sums it up.
Most parlors have a decent port window, say six feet by nine,
with curtains of course, and this is the only element of those
tin-can ships with the least breath of luxury. There was Gdameric
and I, with medical transfers to Port Ibsen; Mr. Shady our
specialist in entropy; a luminous young womanMiss Curiewhose
eyes sparkled like quartz; and the old madame. I seem to remember
the girl was traveling with a lover, but the lover had mostly
kept to his room as the centrifuge upset his stomach; at any
rate the three of us men were absently trying to make a play
for her. Coffee all around, and a hand of cards which we could
not play for lack of concentration.
The entropy specialist and
the young woman were all for going to the captain, but it
was not quite time for that yet. "These things happen
rather frequently," I said, with the authority of a jaded
veteran of the void. "Not to worry. The microbots shall
have it all patched up by breakfast, whatever it is."
"Could be anything."
Gdameric was holding his coffee by the rim, staring out into
the Plead cluster. I was always fond of him, but he was a
Shady affirmed, with his quaint outer-rim accent. "There's
precedents. The Bluelake, the Lucretia... "
"The White Ship,"
my partner echoed. "The Titanic, the Hindenburg,
the Challenger. Ships go down, by sea or by air or
by void." Miss Curie's eyes were growing large.
It was then the old woman
coughed and, in a voice like rough-running water, began her
* * *
"You forgot to mention,
in your inventory of shipwrecks, the Finlander. That's
the ship I was on. I was eighteen, and traveling alone.
"My parents were sending
me to a special school on Earth. I wanted to be an architect,
you see. For the past year I had dreamed about it, the journey,
of having a shipboard romance with a handsome officer and
all that. But when I got there I found that people tend to
be tired and short-tempered out in space, and once you got
the hang of it it was incredibly boring. The three girls who
shared my room were all high society, so I spent much of my
time in the library or the large garden that had banana treesit
was a real starship, the Finlander, a great city of
a craft, and I came to know it well. I wandered around a lot,
even back then.
"But on the night it
happened, I was sound asleep. I woke because the other girls
were whisperingfor the engines had stopped. And also
that soft sucking sound that came from the fusion tanks. We
were far out from Fox Heath but would still be picking up
speed for another week before the jump. Yes, doctor, we were
right smack in the middle of the blackest patch of void imaginable.
And I lay there for some unknowable amount of time, we all
lay there, listening, just listening. The merest pip from
a wall sensor probably would have driven us out of our sensesyou
know how that is. I had that feeling, that you get in dreams
sometimes, when it seems something very important is wrong
and yet you can't imagine what.
"And then it camelike
being hit on the head with the blunt side of an axe. I flipped
off my bunk and onto the floor, on top of one of the other
girls, and we all lay there, on the cold metal, dazed. Then
the lights went out, all but the ghost lights in the hall.
"My companions immediately
commenced with hysterics, of course. Thank god they bolted,
went to their mother or father or councilor or whoever it
was looking after them, and I never saw them again. I stayed
in my room, like we had been taught in orientation. I forced
myself to sit down in the chair and take a deep breath; I
found a bit of wire and kept winding and unwinding it from
my fingers. And then I was all right. My mind became clear
again, and I somehow slowed my pulse down. I stood in the
doorway looking down into the darkened hall. At first many
people rushed by me, all the population of our wing it seemed,
for then there was nobody. After they left the ship seemed
haunted, in that weird blue glow. I'm not sure they do now,
but back then space mariners had superstitions about chamblins,
tortured deamons that haunted deep space and were drawn to
ships, which they would destroy with squeals of joy reminiscent
of small girls at play. I used to know a mariner who swore
it really did happen to him oncethat just before he
had to abandon a ship he could feel and hear phantom like
things flying about, and this girlish squeaking all around
the ship. That never happened on the Finlander, though
I felt at the time a certain dark presence had crept on board...
"So I stood there for
maybe a quarter of an hour and finally a manan officerappeared
at the end of the corridor.
"'Girl, come on! What
the hell you doing back there? We've gotta jump ship!' He
said something like that, and I replied, quite reasonably,
that they hadn't announced it yet. And then he ran past me
without answering. Yes, doctor, an officer, I'm sure he was.
The lights had come back on by then, but now from the engine
deck we could hear the sounds of moaning metal, and the air
was being pumped in at full force.
"No one ever discovered
what happened to the Finlander. When the rescue ships
arrived, they found her with a hole the size of a house ripped
in her central hull. She was carrying wheat, wheat and avocados.
The avocados were strung along the voidrescue ships
had to dodge them as they pulled up even with the wreck. But
there was no debris of any other sort, such as a comet or
asteroid fragment would make. And there was very little in
the hold, more wheat and unescaped avocados, and some glass.
And a body, the exploded body of a man who must have been
a stowaway, for all the others were accounted for. Where the
glass came from they never knew. Or the man. And no one has
ever explained how a man with a few pieces of glass was able
destroy a ship. And yet the universe is full of such thingsghosts,
chamblins, ships that go down for no cause in perfect
"So there I was, eighteen
years old, alone on a ship that was breathing her last. There
was a great wind in the corridors now, with the air pumps
slowly being mastered by the enormous breach. One found it
hard to move at all against such a wind, but I somehow made
it to the shuttle ports. Most of the senior crew was huddled
there, and the last of the passengers, and of the twelve shuttles
only one was left in the bay. I could see through the windows
beyond the shuttle, and there were bodies floating thereI
learned later that some hysterical passengers had, in the
first moments of panic, unwittingly opened an emergency access
door, and so had been sucked out into the void. And you know
at first I didn't even recognize them as bodies, I thought
they were rocks. Nothing seems even remotely human out in
space, not even humans themselves.
"The captain and the
navigator and the engine chief were all there. They were yelling
things above the wind and gesturing, and the passengers and
other crew members clustered around them, sheep-like, and
so they hardly noticed me when I came up. The captain, she
didn't want to abandon ship, but the engineer was adamant.
He kept gesturing to the shuttle, and looking at his watch,
and shaking his head. A few crew members were towing out the
last shuttle, working furiously, and yet in their space suits
in the vacuum of the bay they seemed hardly working at all,
it was more like they were children playing a game. A giddy,
surreal feeling began overcoming me, and I realized that I
was starting to lose my mind. That's when I felt someone touch
my hand, quite gently, from behind.
"She was a passenger,
a woman in her early thirties traveling with two small children.
They were all suited up, and she was pointing me towards the
wall where emergency suits were hung, and it was only then
I realized everyone there was wearing a space suit, except
me. She helped me on with it, this clear-headed woman with
curly dark hair, a large, rather comely nose and large eyes.
Grey. To this moment I still remember how grey they were,
those eyes, with a soft yellowish edge to them. One would
think a civilian, a young woman with two children, would be
incoherent with terror, but she was very calm, courteous even.
I still remember the touch of her hands as she zipped me into
the suit, calm, reflective, making sure each tie and valve
was as it should be. And we never exchanged a single word,
for it was too windy for anything but shouting.
"They opened the door
to the last shuttle just before I clamped my boots. The crew
who had readied the shuttle did not come outthey stayed
inside the shuttle and would not listen to orders; some of
the rest of the crew ran in and joined themone couldn't
really blame them, most of them were so young, and dying in
a uniform is no different than dying in any other clothing...
So of course there was not enough room for all the passengers;
five or six of us were left behind with perhaps twelve of
the crew. I remember these passengersone of them was
a fattish business man who had accosted me in the canteen
(he seemed a brute at the time), and another a small silver-haired
old man stooping, as best he could in his over large space
suit, over a white cane. And also there was this woman who
had helped me with my suit. She had gotten her children on
board the shuttle, but had not gone aboard herself. How she
did thatwhat force within her could command such mad
bravery or power of self-sacrificeI cannot imagine.
And the other three passengers were all younger, athletic
looking men. Strangely I had never even seen them until that
moment. Hell, you never meet them, I thought, unless you're
in some jam and can't possibly sleep around or do anything
else about it. And I burst out laughinga sound that
was painfully enormous in the small area of my helmetand
found it hard to stop.
"We stood watching the
last shuttle drift off and put on engines, and then the chief
engineer turned the air off, and we could all hear the captain's
voice in our suit speakers.
"'Okay, folks, I guess
this is our lucky day.' She had a soft, lispy voice, which
you would not expect from a ship's captain. 'So listen up.
Mike here tells me the Finlander is going explosive
in ten minutes, so we'll be dancing the void. That's right,
free fall. Your suit warmers and the insulation should protect
you for twenty-four hours. Your oxygen should last eight.
Hopefully an emergency jump ship will be here by then to pick
us up. You see this?' The navigator had brought out a large
stick with several handholds angling out from one end. The
stick was glowing a vibrant blue. 'This is what's known as
a drift candle. Six of us will hold on to it, and the rest
will hold on to them, and so we drift together, with the light.
So grab someone and don't let go; get close and snuggle up
to someone. Because it's going to be a long, dark night out
there, if you (heh) get my drift.' Oh yes, she was a tough
bird, our captain. Thank the stars she was, or it would have
turned horrible much earlier on.
"The exhaust from the
last shuttle had burnt outwe could see several of them
now, flitting about the open void with their glowing tails,
like fireflies. I had never heard of these drift candlesthey
were really designed for robots, not humans; for there was
plenty of space for all humans in the shuttles, only the first
few had left in a panic, with only a few frightened passengers
on board. But nothing could be done about it now. We gathered
around our little candle, and as it happened I was gripping
one of the bars. And the young woman whose children were now
safely away put her arms around my waist and I looked again
at her grey eyes and comfortable little smile. Then her lips
moved; I couldn't understand and shook my head, and so she
moved them again and then I understood: 'Don't let go.'
"And then the captain
burst in on the speakers again telling us to get into position.
They turned on the last of the air and unsealed the magnetic
doorways, and a great gust of wind literally swept us off
our feet and out of the shuttle port. And the next thing I
saw looking down was the Finlander far below us, whirling
still, like some monstrous Ferris wheel gone awry. And then
I was almost blinded, for they had lit our candle, and it
seemed to be giving off as much light as a small star.
"How can I explain it,
doctor? This feeling of complete weightlessness and freedom,
and at the same time the prison-like grip in my hands and
in my mind and over my whole spirit. Do you know how it is
to be choked by fear? Literally, choked by it so you could
hardly breathe? I must have eaten up a fifth of my oxygen
in the first ten minutes, and when the Finlander did
explodestrange, watching an explosion in total silenceI
almost let go. I could see the helmets of the others around
me, but not their faces, because of the glare. We almost collided
with one of the exploded bodies, a woman dressed only in her
bra and panties, and I began laughing hysterically again.
I remember thinking: this is really something. I'm really
living through something here. But I had no idea what it was,
really, even now I don't. It is too much for the human mind
to comprehend, I think, this complete freedom, this lack of
any boundary. Because we were nowhere. It is a strange place,
that nowhere, clinging to our candle as it waded through the
utter and absolute abyss. But all that time I felt those arms
of hers. I felt the pulse in them, and the touch of her helmet
as she leaned into my thigh. Lucky kids, I thought, with a
mother like that.
"And yet, and yet...
I let go... somehow. She died, that lovely woman. How it happened
I couldn't really saylater they told me that some random
placement of the bodies clinging to it must have jerked the
lamp. All I know is that suddenly my hands were empty, empty
and grasping into the void and that bright light of the sun
was receding away from usme and that womanand
there was nothing there in front of me, nothing at all, because
I could close my eyes and open them and nothing, save for
a few dim stars, would change. Have you ever had that feeling,
doctor, that you do not even exist?"
The old lady, thrown out of
her reverie by the disturbing thought, looked over at me in
the darkened, candle-lit parlor that was colder than ice.
"Well, have you, doctor?" she repeated.
Realizing at last that it
was not a rhetorical question, I fumbled to take control of
my voice, which seemed to have gotten locked up in the general
freeze. "Well I... I suppose when I was a child, yes.
Before... well, before the realities of life sunk in finally.
You know, all the accoutrements familiar to the waking worldcoffee
and taxes and showering, and things that..."
"Yes, things like that.
But what if there were no things, doctor? What if everything
were taken away? Not only coffee and taxes and showering and
sexyes, I know you were counting that in your 'familiar
accoutrements', doctorbut earth and air and sky, truth
and love and knowledge, everything."
"Save for a few dim stars,"
"They say I was out there
close to eight hours, in freefall through the void. It's hard
to even conceive of it now, much less remember. She was holding
on to me and I must have panicked, thrown her off. Because
when they picked me up I was alone. It was a miracle really,
them finding me like that. They never found her. I made inquiries
afterwards, about her children, but they told me the father
would be coming out to get them. I never saw them, or any
of the others. They sent me home, you see, on a slow and lumbering
old ship that did not have banana trees. It took me years
to get over it, of course, and still on certain nights I get
the bad feelings again, the feelings of being lost and weightless,
as if they had not found me after all, and I was still hurtling
through that timeless voidquite a common reaction, you
know. But anyway, that was the wreck of the Finlander,
over fifty years ago in fair conditions, cause unknown."
* * *
Mrs. Rheingold had got up
and wandered about the parlor in the course of her tale, but
now she sat down again. I felt Gdameric shuddering in his
blankets next to me and, looking beyond the cold expressionless
face of the old woman, I saw Miss Curie, in the corner, winding
her delicate gilt necklace furiously through her thumb and
forefinger. Then the five of us seemed to notice, all at once,
the faint hum that had commenced sometime in the last quarter
of an hourthe ship's heating system had come back on
And now one of the officers
ducked his head through the imitation wood doors. "Ah,
thought I heard voices. Well, nought's to worrywe took
a knock in the magnetic array. 'S all right now, folks, get
some rest." He did not wait for replies; we heard the
click of his boots echoing down the spotless corridor, crisp
and rapid; and the whole ship seemed to stir to life, the
fans and circuits and instruments and the happy and relieved
voices that echoed back and forth along the corridors. But
in the parlor no one rose. Not the entropy specialist, wiping
cold beads of dew from his forehead, nor Mrs. Rheingold, with
the vacant stare of memory upon her, nor Gdameric, who coughed,
nor even the girl, with her siren eyes and trembling lips
that giggled now unbelievingly, nor I. We all sat silent and
stiff as death, until the old woman rose with an effort and,
going over to the port window, pulled the little curtains