We have had these periods of silence before. There is nothing you can do about it; you just have to wait. On Andros III the moons are so arranged that the orbiter is out of contact with the ground station for a little under 24 earth-hours every nineteen weeks. Captain Newman could explain the physics of it if he were here, but I am a mere physician and everyone knows that we become doctors because we can’t do the math.
How I got to be alone on a small shuttle at the back end of the Galaxy is a long story. For now, let’s just say that I happened to be in the shuttle bay loading medical equipment when the main ship exploded and my orbiter was flung clear. If I knew how to fly the thing I might try to go somewhere, but not having the navigation skills I know neither where I would be coming from or where I would be going to. I just have to wait until I get into radio contact again.
That’s if there is anyone to get in contact with. The honey virus epidemic has affected three quarters of the colonists and although I now have the vaccine ready I’m reliant on the radio beam to guide me down to the survivors. If that were all, I would be happy to sit it out. In just under twenty-four hours I would be able to lock on to the beam and the computer would fly the thing down to them. The thing is, I don’t understand why the ship exploded. And if I don’t know that then I’m not sure it’s safe to go down there at all.
It’s been six hours now. I’ve tried to sleep but sleep won’t come. For some reason the only books on the computer are what they used to call ‘chick lit’ – historical classics by Jane Austen and Helen Fielding. Don’t they realize that there are still some male doctors? Another eighteen hours to go. The computer has beaten me at 3D chess seventeen times and I’m tired of Suicide Sudoku. I keep coming back to the explosion.
All I can remember is absolute panic. People were screaming over the radio. The whole ship was shaking. I jumped into the orbiter and slammed the hatch. Then everything went black and I passed out. When I awoke, twenty minutes had passed. I was alone and everything was silent. Through the upper port I could see Iskios, the largest moon, but through the other ports, nothing but stars.
Was the explosion some sort of accident? Or was it the result of enemy action? We’ve been fighting against the Kathgoros for centuries now. They seldom reach this far out in the Galaxy, but Captain Newman is an important person. It would be a fine coup for them to take him down if they could locate him. There have been rumors that the Kathgoros are behind the honey virus; certainly there have been signs of their activity wherever it has turned up throughout the Empire, but there has never been any conclusive evidence that they engineered it. They are like that, though. Elusive. If only they would stand and fight, I’m sure that we could defeat them. There used to be a term for it – asymmetric warfare.
We don’t even know what they look like. They’re shape-shifters, of course. They seem to be able to take on the shape of any human for a limited time – usually for less than an hour, but they seldom need more to spread their chaos. People are deceived by them and once they have their hooks into us, we seem to swallow all sorts of poison as if it were true.
I must have dozed off. Another three hours have gone by. I was playing “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” from La clemenza di Tito on the audio and I drifted into sleep. It’s six centuries since Mozart wrote it and it still has the power to calm the anxious heart. It was supposed to goad Sesto into starting the revolution, but Mozart is a soother not a goader.
We are no longer in the shadow of Iskios, but now Jragma shields us from the planet. After Jragma it will be Aspia and so on. Nearly fifteen hours of it.
I was always suspicious of Judy. That’s Judy Skaros, Newman’s PA. She gave herself airs, that one. Newman is a great man, no doubt about it. He was the brains behind the new vaccine, I just followed his instructions. But what is Judy? Just a glorified secretary. She organized his appointments, kept him on schedule; but she controlled who could see him. He was always accessible if you could get past her, always welcoming. He always had something interesting to say; a new way of looking at your problem. I thought she was taking bribes. Some of the people who got to se him latterly were really the dregs. Oh, they were rich enough, but how did they get their money? And she seemed dress more sharply every time I saw her. You don’t get that rich as a captain’s PA.
Not that I had much time for any of his unit. He seemed to attract losers. That Peter Ceffus was about the best of them, but he was always shooting his mouth off. He was going to do this; he was going to beat that; I reckon he’d be nowhere without Newman.
Anyway that’s one explanation. If the Kathgoros did get to Newman I suspect Judy had a hand in it.
If the Kathgoros blew up the ship it probably isn’t safe to go own to the surface. They would only risk the ship if they wanted to wipe out the colonists. They are probably down there waiting right now.
On the other hand it could all have been an accident. I’m assuming the ship was totally destroyed, but perhaps the damage was limited to my part and I was launched automatically in the orbiter. In which case perhaps the rest are fine and they think that I am the only lost one. But if that is the case why haven’t they come looking for me? Perhaps the ship was disabled but not damaged. Why then not send a shuttle to find me? But I was in the shuttle bay, perhaps that’s where the damage occurred and they can’t launch another shuttle. Yes, perhaps that’s it. In another 12 hours I come out of radio silence and everyone will know where I am. I’ll be rescued.
This waiting is killing me. Time seems flexible. When you are enjoying yourself it travels at light speed but waiting stretches it. I keep looking at my chronometer. I can’t believe that only two minutes has passed. If I only knew what I was waiting for. The longer the radio silence persists the more I expect disaster. Should I attempt to fly this thing? It can’t be that difficult. If only I had worked harder at the math. Molecular engineering is no pushover; it can’t be that difficult to work out co-ordinate geometry. But where to start?
Of course, the computer does most of the flying; all I have to do is punch in the co-ordinates of the start and finish, but that’s what I don’t know. Without a solid reference point I’m helpless. I’d just be wasting fuel and I need the fuel to re-generate the oxygen. I can certainly survive longer if I don’t go anywhere, but what’s the point of surviving if I don’t go anywhere?
Kathgoros means ‘accuser’ in English. The accuse us of contaminating the Galaxy. They were here before us, of course, but I can’t see how that gives them squatters’ rights. Surely there is room in the Universe for both of us? They seem to think that the presence of humans spoils things for everyone else. Their ambition seems to be to confine us to ‘Prisonship Earth’.
Captain Newman isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. A lot of the corporations don’t like him. They say his ways diminish profits. But then, the government isn’t that keen on him either. They appreciate his general law-abiding principles, but they don’t like his being free of their control. They see him as loose canon. They certainly didn’t approve of his coming to Andros III. They have problems much closer to home and they want him there. They though this was a foolhardy mission – they’d cast the colonists adrift.
Newman couldn’t resist a lost sheep. So he came. We worked on the vaccine together and by now we should be down on the planet inoculating everyone. Instead, I’m stuck in this stupid orbit and he’s been blown to smithereens. I would certainly carry on the vaccinations if it were possible, but somehow I think it’s a lost cause. What a waste of a brilliant potential: to perish on a mercy mission to a few thousand backwoodsmen. It won’t even merit a footnote in galactic history. I doubt if more than one person in a million on Earth has even heard of Andros III.
It won’t be long now. In half an hour I shall come out of the shadow of Sabano and be able to see the planet. This has been the longest 24 hours in my life. I’ve imagined every scenario. I think it’s most likely that the radio silence will continue. The ship will be completely gone and all its crew killed. I expect that the colony will be destroyed and if anyone is waiting for me it will be the Kathgoros. More likely, no-one will be there. I, only I, will be left. I have enough oxygen to last 3 days, or three hours if I attempt to fly the thing down to the planet. If I try that, most likely I will crash. I have a small chance of making it, but I suppose even a 1% chance is better than the certain death of staying up here. On the other hand, if I do survive the flight I shall be alone on an unpopulated. planet. Why wait forty years for death if there is no prospect of company? This far out in the Galaxy the prospect of further colonists is remote. What a choice!
Ten minute ago Captain Newman ‘beamed’ aboard. I thought that technology was impossible, a figment of the imagination of sci-fi writers of the twentieth century. Don’t ask me for an explanation. He suddenly appeared in the co-pilot’s seat, smiled at me, set the co-ordinates, fired up the engine and set us going. The he said, “I’ll see you later,” and disappeared again.
The orbiter seems to be approaching the planet on an orderly course. No doubt in time I will get an explanation.