by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
The Clan Hath engineer-scientists had moved the scrubjet to a huge, airy dome on the western outskirts of the city. As soon as they arrived, Raerquel turned the entire laboratory over to Eril and Kithri. They spent the better part of a day planning the modifications. At first, Brianna hung over Eril=s shoulder, scribbling notes on the seaweed-gelatin sheets the gastropoids supplied. By the time they were ready to begin, she=d gone off on her own to explore the rest of the Clan Hath enclave. Once it became apparent Lennart would be of little use, he too disappeared. Eril was too busy to wonder what he was up to.
What Kithri suggested, the adaptation of the duoapparatus for gastropoid usage, proved to be far from trivial. The shipbrain and its sophisticated connections to the guidance systems were not designed for easy access. Rather the reverse, they=d been shielded from both the insidious Cerrano dust and the prying of incompetent, perhaps drunken, fingers. Spacebound installations were scarcely better protected
In order to expose the connections between shipbrain and the headsets, as well as the sensors and flight control, they=d have to cut through Brushwacker=s ceramometallic hull. They both knew, without having to say it aloud, that without elaborate re-sealing, it would no longer be safe at duo speeds.
Eril squelched an irrational desire to maintain the flightworthiness of the tiny ship. If the planet=s blown to powder, where could a scrubjet take us that would be safe? Besides, we=re not doing this to save our own skins.
The jaydium cutter was cool and light in Eril=s hands. He paused before slicing through the smooth patina of Brushwacker=s skin. He glanced at Kithri, standing behind the stubby wings and holding several of the sculpted therine tools. She=d always acted so possessive about the 'jet, as if it were everything she owned. Skies, it was everything she owned. Yet now she said nothing, only watched with her mouth so tight it looked white. Without a word, she slid beneath the ship and began to work through the rear panel.
Breaching the ship=s seals without destroying the complex machinery inside turned out to be even more tedious and demanding than Eril had imagined. If he=d had any inclination to become a mechanic, it quickly vanished. Burned fingertips, creaking knuckles, aching neck muscles and red, watering eyes seemed to be an intrinsic part of the job. He groaned inwardly at the prospect of the hours of work before they could begin recalibrating the circuitry for the gastropoid nervous system.
Finally his eyes refused to focus on anything closer than his foot. His fingers on the jaydium cutter felt as if they=d been fused into permanent claws. He shoved himself out from under the scrubjet=s nose and clambered to his feet. Kithri swore as she banged her elbow against the cut-away wall.
"We both need a break," he said, rubbing his fingers. To his surprise, they straightened, although with protest. He shook his shoulders, trying to loosen them.
Kithri rolled out from under the ship and sat up. She muttered, "You can if you want to. I=ll just check--"
"You=ll do no such thing," he said irritably. "We=re so tired neither of us can see straight. Do you want to risk frying Raerquel=s brain because you were too stubborn to rest when you needed it?"
Kithri=s chin shot upward but after a moment, she shook her head. Eril decided that was about the best response he could hope for. She=d clung to her decision to modify the >jet, resisting any distraction or delay. In her place, he=d want it over with as soon as possible, too. He left her sitting in the shadow of the scrubjet. There was no use asking if she=d walk with him.
He found Lennart squatting on the marble-like slab that served as their doorstep.
"How goes it, captain?
"It=ll take a few days yet, assuming everything keeps going this well. It=s all got to be checked and triple checked."
"I was wrong about you," Lennart said slowly. "What I said before the hearing..."
"We were all swiping at each other. You were just--"
"Shut up and let me apologize! I can=t hold you accountable for the crazy things your Federation did, any more than I can blame Kithri--or Raerquel. Even Bri, with all her academic bullshit, she=d stand on her head to save these folks. Protesting all the while that her only interest was as a scientist. Maybe in my time, it was people like you that kept us from destroying it all."
"Hey, don=t go making me into a hero," Eril said with an embarrassed laugh. "I=m just your everyday fly-boy. I followed orders, I didn=t make policy."
"Maybe things would=ve been better if you had... Like they say, the time to stop a war is before it starts. Meanwhile, how about a stroll?"
"Such as, where?"
"We-all..." Lennart drawled as he started down the wide avenue. "I was down at the spaceport earlier, having a look inside those glass ships..."
"They let you in, feeling the way they do about us lowly mammals?"
Lennart grinned. "That was the easy part. I convinced the technicians it was on Raerquel=s orders. Clan Hath carries a whole lot of clout here in the city, even if it doesn=t with the Council."
He paused, any illusion of humor draining from his face, and looked eastward, toward the glittering heart of the city. "My next question was how similar they were to our own. Everything else in their technology involves sculpting therine."
"Which we can=t do," Eril said unnecessarily. Raerquel=s assistants complained about having to manufacture 'non-changeable= therine tools for him and Kithri.
"So I tuned my new friend Araf=ex to the idea of creating a gizmo that would do the 'fixing= for us. After all, they seem to understand the chemistry well enough." Lennart shrugged. "So far no luck, but I keep hoping."
"A thing like that might open all sorts of doors," Eril said. He thought a moment. "How much of the ship has to be sculpted?"
"Nothing that has to do with power or navigation or life support." Lennart added, with deceptive quietness, "It=s my guess we could learn to fly the thing."
Eril felt a sudden rush of adrenalin, as if he=d slammed into an invisible wall. To have a ship again, a ship that could take them all to the stars...and safety. He could...
Let the slugs blow themselves up? When he could do something to stop it?
I=m starting to sound just like Kithri.
Lennart hadn=t meant skipping out while there was still hope, either. He=d only taken the initiative to do what he could, instead of sitting around like a useless lump. And he=d done more than Eril would have guessed, getting them into the spaceport, on friendly terms with an engineer, inside a ship. Even if the 'fixing= tool wasn=t forthcoming, they could still see the ships, touch them. There might be all manner of possibilities.
The ship rose above the cream colored pavement like a crystalline teardrop, tapering gracefully from a narrow nose to rounded body. Although the skin appeared to be clear and layers of structure could be easily visualized, the walls distorted so much light that the interior was completely obscured.
Lennart climbed the ramp like a man in a dream. Eril, watching him obliquely, felt uneasy with the way he kept glancing up at the hazy blue skies. When Lennart touched the ship=s gleaming surfaces, it was with the intensity of a man approaching some revered object. Or the way a drowning man might cling to a lifeline.
Eril found himself studying Lennart and thinking, in a manner so calculating it disturbed him, How can I use this passion as a strength instead of a weakness?
They were met at the top of the ramp by Araf=ex Hath-si=in, a combination maintenance technician and engineer. Lennart greeted it warmly, like an old friend. They followed it inside.
Instead of the usual human arrangement of ladders and catwalks, the ship was built around a system of tunnels connecting the various compartments. Shallow ledges permitted the molluscan crew to leverage themselves along in any direction, even vertically.
The silvery bulk of the engineer filled the tunnel as it undulated upwards. Slowly, feeling for each hand and toe grip, Eril climbed after it.
If it slips, it=ll sweep both of us along with it and squash our pitouchees flatter than a scalebug. Hell, it=s probably wondering how we manage to get around with all those bones in our bodies.
They reached the control room. The gastropoid chatted volubly with them as it modified the support structures to comfortably seat their human bodies. As he listened, Eril scanned the instrument panels. He saw nothing he could recognize or even guess the function of. Behind them lay a broad sweep of window overlooking the spaceport. Eril could make out only the larger features, so badly did the thick, spaceworthy glass distort the images. All he saw were masses of muted shades of gray and white beneath a swathe of blue.
"Raw therine, such as used in buildings, is possessing relatively unspecialized optical and tensile properties," Araf=ex said. It sounded very much like Eril=s chemistry instructor at the Academy. The man had a tendency to lapse into professorial oration in the middle of an ordinary conversation, but there were such gems to be gleaned from it--such as the contents of the next examination--that Eril had never minded. He did not mind now.
"Sculpted therine, on the other aspect, is modified by the physiological signature of the individual secretor, resulting in reduced sensitivity to any other person, unless the object is 'fixed=. Fixture is thus a process of removing personal biochemical differences. Precision tools are usually 'fixed= to prevent individual variations."
"That=s the process we call standardization." Eril hoped that what he=d understood was indeed what the gastropoid engineer intended. "You=d want to sculpt your own crash seats because they=re more closely attuned to your own personal physiology. But tools that others use would need to be 'fixed= for less variability."
"That is a peculiarly mammalian interpretation, but essentially correct," said Araf=ex.
"This sculpting business is much more advanced than anything my civilization has," Eril said with a perfectly straight face. "I wonder if there=s some way I could experience it first-hand. Could you make a device that would let me do it?"
The gastropoid=s hide rippled in something like a shrug. "I have considered the possibility. It is an interesting technical challenge, but one I myself am inadequate to. It is simple enough to design an instrument to deliver biochemical catalyst agents to the therine. But the manipulation of the device itself by solely mechanical means--I cannot see how that can be done."
"But it=s theoretically possible?"
Araf=ex answered, "If Scientist Raerquel authorizes further research, we can investigate."
Eril pointed to the collection of levers and switches spread across the broad pilot=s panel. "What about these? They=re the controls for the ship, aren=t they?"
Araf=ex rippled to the side of his seat and caressed the nearest lever with a supple lower appendage. "All internal connections are >fixed= to ensure reliability. These levers are for the control of forward propulsion, these are lateral stabilizers. Power for internal usage is generated from controlled-fusion engines and transferred as light energy along these channels. The technique permits direct monitoring of functions by this internal sensor panel."
Eril watched the gastropoid manipulate the lever switches below the bank of circular panels to the right of the main controls. There were few identifying features other than the location and shape of the levers and buttons, and no guidebook to refer to. He could only watch and memorize to the best of his ability, knowing that no one but a fool--or a glory-boy thrill addict--would try to pilot so alien a ship.
But if Raerquel=s scheme failed, if war came and this was the only chance to get them out alive...
"A small change in directional vectors here," Araf=ex demonstrated the navigation system, "creates a large change in the projected final position here."
"Don=t you use star charts or something?" Lennart asked. "Or a even basic altimeter?"
"Altitude is most accurately measured by changes in the light-transmitting qualities of different atmospheric densities," Araf=ex replied in its professorial mode. "This simulation shows our current planetside location," the flick of a delicate appendage, "now a progression through stratosphere...and finally, to space vacuum. From this point, sensors shift to a solar orientation, using the same scale for attenuation of sun=s ultraviolet radiation, coupled with the astronomical location displayed in simple wavelength coordinates."
Simple, huh? Eril had already realized from Raerquel=s earlier comments that human vision was not sensitive to the spectral variations that were so vivid to the gastropoid optic discs. He wasn=t sure it was even possible for a human to pilot the ship. Not using their instruments, anyway. But he still had his own eyes. "Do you have direct visual access to the outside?"
"Please to be observing behind you."
Eril turned to the window opposite the control banks. As before, the spacefield below was so badly distorted, both in shape and color tone, as to be virtually unrecognizable. He was able to identify sky and pavement and the distant green of the parkland only because he knew they were there. He could tell he was planetside instead of spacebound, but not a whole lot more.
"What good does it do to have an image that=s so badly warped? If the instrumentation failed, you=d never be able to fly this thing on visual."
"These images are not enhanced to mammalian eyes?" Araf=ex inquired.
The damned window makes things clearer for them. "Does it require special training to interpret the sensors?"
"Hardly! All postadolescent gastropoids possess adequate visual capability. The interpretation of extra-orbital position requires a screening grid, which is internal to the navigational controls. This ship is so elegantly simple, any untranslatable can fly it."
Eril restrained himself from retorting that certainly wasn=t so in his own world. He said instead, "Does that mean any of you could pilot this ship?"
"With ease. Engineering, however, requires sophisticated training. Under normal conditions, civilians as well as military are having equal access to space. Now..." its voice trailed off, "all of Planet-of-Home is on war alert. Perhaps soon, the whole issue will become meaningless."
Araf=ex ran one gracefully tapering tendril along the ship=s wall in unmistakable affection.
"Suppose some civilian wanted to pilot this ship. To NewHome, for instance, or Tomorrow," Eril said. "Aren=t there diagrams of their locations, something you can look at?"
"You are meaning astrotopographic matrices. Naturally we have those." Araf=ex pressed a series of buttons and a star chart appeared on the screen, precise and clear. Lennart let out a soft whistle of appreciation.
Eril leaned forward to study the chart. He recognized Stayman as the viewpoint locus, then its nearest neighbors. New Paris and Pandora appeared at the extreme range of the diagram. Araf=ex pointed out the two colony planets, and Eril noted their locations among previously unexplored star groups.
I could navigate to either of them, but what good would it do, hopping from one war zone to another?
"It won=t get you in trouble to have taken us aboard your ship--shown us all this?" Eril asked.
"What can it be mattering? You are not the enemy, you who are unable even to sculpt therine, you who have nothing at stake in current argument. Scientist Raerquel is desiring cooperation with humans, and I am merely complying."
"What if war does come? Don=t you ever think of taking your loved ones into space and saving them, preserving what=s decent about your civilization?"
Araf=ex swung its head around towards him, the four discs reflecting the pure light of the control chamber. They gleamed like highly polished silver with no trace of gold or copper overtones.
There was something so committed and so fatalistic, so utterly alien, in Araf=ex=s silence, it made Eril shiver. If he had any hope of enlisting it to help them get off-planet, it was gone.
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