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Fear Is A Cold Black: The Early Science Fiction of Kate Wilhelm
by Kate Wilhelm

Category: Science Fiction
Description: If you are in a plague-ridden spaceship with no idea what is killing off your passengers and crew one by one, what do you do? How will you deal with the panic and the fear, and your own feelings of despair that you may not be able to save the people you love? The protagonist's sense of helplessness in this story--one of Kate Wilhelm's early science fiction work--leaps off the page, making it clear why Wilhelm is considered one of the great writers of her time. She provides psychological depth to her characters, and although the themes may be common, they are never trite. Most of the stories in this collection of her early work are about love. However these present a vastly different picture of love from the clichés of romance novels. It is forbidden love developing in a tense evacuation of a planet under threat of extinction, the ultimate sacrifice of love vis-à-vis a lifelong ambition to go into space, and the love taking roots in the heart of a solitary man for his robot wife. It is also the love of two people who have been shunned all their lives for their difference, and the love of monks for their God and their mission, willing to be together for hundreds of years with only a card game to stave off their boredom on their long space travels. More than just love stories, though, this collection talks about what it means to be fully human. Wilhelm deftly shows how, in the age of space travel and android beings, we can hold on to our humanity.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: July 2010


5 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [154 KB]
Words: 34350
Reading time: 98-137 min.


Fear is a thing. It starts small and sharp, a pinpoint of cold black that pierces the surrounding envelope of courage and eats at it until there is only the black. A sliver on one edge of the light--a ray--a wide band--a heavy, menacing mantle of black. That's fear, how it comes and stays and grows. Royle had watched it grow among the seventeen remaining passengers aboard the Criterion 111.

They were starting to crack here and there and it reminded him somewhat of a forest fire where sparks, wind driven bits of glowing destruction, would cross fire lines and threaten to become worse than the primary cause if not put down. Only in his case with the Criterion and her passengers, it was panic that could destroy them all. Of necessity he, Royle, was the fire spotter.

"Captain, sir...?" Custens peered at him anxiously and Royle shot a quick glance at the door. He hadn't heard it opening, or the man entering. "Are you all right, sir?" Custens asked hollowly, but rather as if sorrow, not fear, lengthened his naturally gloomy face.

"Shake it, Custens. I'm all right. What is it?"

"It's Maller, Captain. He's starting to...to.... Like the others, sir. He asks permission to blast off now."

Captain Royle swore bitterly and rose wearily to his feet. "Temperature?" he asked hopelessly.

"Seventy-four, sir, dropping one tenth every two hours."

"Hell! This will tear it. Anyone else know?"

"No sir," Custens said hesitantly, "least I don't think so. But they must all suspect that he's already dead."

"Yes, I know. All right, Custens, check the door and blast it off." Maller would die in open space, as had the last four of the victims of the disease, and with the doctored air supply it would be fast and painless. "And, Custens, you'd better lock yourself in one of the other staterooms. Give me a call when you're established."

Custens looked at his feet and mumbled, "l'll go to the lifeboat, sir. If that's okay. I figure I'll be the next one and Maller lasted two weeks in one."

Alone again Royle automatically dragged out the log book and wrote, "Maller's temperature dropping, approaching convulsion, hallucinatory stage. Like other twenty-four. Disposing of him in life boat. No lab test." No doctor, he added despairingly to himself and snapped the book closed. Nothing to show why the temperatures started dropping and continued until death took over. Next would be Custens and then who? Probably he would be it. He was the only one still leaving his cabin for any purpose whatever. The rest were sealed in tight, fear for company for those traveling singly, and fear as an unwelcome third for the two couples aboard.

His communicator flicked and he connected with the life ship where Custens' dour face attempted a grin. His left hand was encased in what looked like a large mitten, the medic bag that would automatically record his physiological changes on the mastercomputer.

"Okay, Custens, take it easy," Royle said.

"Yes sir. Sir?" Custens hitched the bag and rested it on the seat beside him, "I've been wondering if the automat could perhaps be transporting the disease. Like when it sends out the food to various compartments, the germs could go too."

"No germs," Royle corrected absently and asked curiously, "And what could we do about it if that were the case? We have to eat."

"Yes sir. Only the sick ones don't, do they? I mean, it's been one hundred percent fatal up to now and why keep a dead man alive with food?"

"Custens!" Royle shouted, "what's your temperature?"

"Ninety-four, sir. But I think it was still normal when I was with you. I had checked a very short time before that. And, sir...I've disconnected and sealed off the automat to the life boat."

"Custens, you can't just...." Royle started, but he stopped himself and very gently said instead, "Very well, Custens. I'll be in touch with you. If you want to talk, I'll be handy."

"Aye, aye, sir," Custens said properly.

You can't just give up, Royle finished bitterly at the empty screen. But what else can you do? You'll freeze to death, slowly, one degree at a time. You'll scream for death, for help, for sleep, for warmth. You'll convulse and pull muscles and maybe, like Tischner, you'll break your back or, like Malthaus, watch gangrene claim your feet and creep up your legs.... Why couldn't they just die?

Royle rubbed his burning eyes with the back of his hand and arose abruptly. He now had only three crew members and the seventeen passengers, but they were still his responsibility. He adjusted the message that would announce to a viewer who might call that he would be in the engine room and he walked solidly down the companionway, his footsteps setting up echoes in the semi-deserted ship that sounded like death stalking his next victim.

His glance about the room was cursory and for the first time since he had been assigned to her, he didn't note whether or not the brass gleamed and the steel glistened. His look at the neatly printed message from Capella Four was just as brief and perfunctory. He had seen and answered it six days ago. "Isolate all new cases and maintain hyperbolic course. Will advise." Will advise, he grunted, when? By the time they sent the next message he might well be having the chills himself. They were as stumped as his own doctor had been, but they were investigating and would advise. They would send medics to the infected world and if they didn't all die, eventually they would solve it. Eventually. He sat down before the oversized screen and flicked a switch. Instantly he was outside the ship watching the unfolding panorama of speeding space. It was a sight that never failed to thrill him when the ship cruised along just under over-drive speed.

It wasn't the speed that was used to get anywhere in particular, it was used mainly in adjusting a course or scouting an unexplored area of the still fathomless reaches of space. Here it seemed the ship stood firmly anchored to an invisible support while the black curtain of the heavens rolled along carrying with it the incredible lights of the stars. Each stately movement, in its own speed, independent of all others, was a graceful but invincible predetermined flight to keep a rendezvous with its destiny somewhere in the infinity that was time and space. Now and again one of the never faltering points would gather into itself added glory and for a time would glow more brightly, then it too would be gone from view and in its place might come a pair, a cautiously circling couple, much like two diffident male dogs becoming acquainted, unwilling to close in, unable to draw apart. Ever changing, but really changeless, that was the space Royle knew and loved.

The dagger of Orion at our back, he thought musingly, on a course that will take us ever farther from the glowing Milky Way clouds. He shook himself and then became aware of another spectator standing ten feet behind him gazing in awe at the sight of space.

"Mr. Giroden, you were not to leave your quarters," Royle said, but not unkindly. He couldn't blame the passenger for leaving. The stateroom offered no protection.

"Sorry, Captain, but I thought you should know about Perez. I think he's gone mad." Giroden's eyes didn't leave the screen however and his voice was casual as if he had come mostly to pass the time. He was probably the highest paid popular writer of all times.

"What's with Perez?" Royle asked sharply, unable for a moment to recall the man. Then he had him. A little man. Fastidious to the point of phobic behavior. A semantics professor on a sabbatical gathering information for a forthcoming book.

Giroden drew in closer to the screen and watched it as he answered. It was the first time he had seen space outside the small monitor in the public lounge. "I called him a few minutes ago for his chess move and when he answered he was waving a knife around saying he would kill the devils himself. Quite gone, I should think."

Royle studied the younger man thoughtfully for a second. "You don't seem particularly affected by it. Why?"

"Perez? He's well out of it, Captain. I envy him really. Now he has an enemy to fight." Giroden grinned crookedly as he turned then to face Royle.

A faint frown cut the lines of Royle's face a bit deeper and he sighed heavily. "I suppose I'd better go see about him," he said flicking off the screen.

"Why? Let him alone and he'll end up cutting his throat. It's quick and merciful."

"Come on, Giroden, out," Royle said shortly, agreeing mentally, knowing he couldn't sit by and allow it however. "He might get loose and start playing with the paying customers." They left the engine room and he locked it as Giroden watched.

"Hmm. That reminds me," Giroden said. "Are those staterooms fireproof?"

"Yes, why?"

"Just wondering. This thing, whatever it is, takes heat from its victims and when my own temperature starts nosediving, I'll give it heat."

Royle stared at him hard, then turned abruptly and stalked away down the companionway. Perez's door was locked, as he had expected, and he quickly selected a key and used it. Perez was huddled against the far wall, never a great distance aboard a stellar ship, brandishing a knife obviously from the galley. Royle leaned against the door easily and asked in a pleasant voice, "How are you feeling, Mr. Perez?"

"I know who you are. You can't fool me. You brought him aboard ship, didn't you?" Perez didn't shift his position as his eyes darted from Royle to the communicator. "He'll be there again soon and this time I'll get him."

"Mind if I wait also, Perez? I'm tired of being alone."

"Aloneness, that is the curse of mankind. And men like him come with words. Words are the invention of the devil, and the devil is the invention of men like him. They want to frighten us and they use words. You can dissect them and they mean nothing. And in the end we have nothing but meaningless sounds." His eyes gleamed wildly but he was alert for a movement from the screen.

"I've always felt that way too, Perez," Royle said, keeping his voice quiet.

"You!" Perez screamed at him. "What are you? An empty shell! Go away emptiness! You brought him. You brought it. Life in death...eternity in an inkling...imagination proposes, reason disposes. I am reason. Life in death! What does it mean?" His eyes were burning holes as he raved shrilly. "Do you know what words are? Inventions of the devils he conjured to keep our souls in subjection! No words can break through the shell of emptiness that is man."

Royle nodded again and slid one foot out before the other one. As long as the man had the keen knife at waist height ready to slash out with it, he did not want to make any sudden movements.

"Truth is significant, but so is falsehood. Did you know that? It's arrangement that turns them to nonsense. Words are true and real. Beautiful words. He degrades them. There is something--ghost or disease or devils--that is killing all of us and he calls them forth. By incantations of nonsense he summons them and I'll kill him. They'll go with him because they are only projections of his dark mind."

He never even saw Royle leap at him and later, confined by the nylon webbing of his berth, he dropped into a deep sleep. Royle stood over him panting slightly, a pitying look on his face.

He locked Perez in and stomped back to the engine room brooding darkly on the future of the Criterion and her passengers: Giroden making plans for his funereal pyre, Perez creating an enemy to be destroyed, even poor Custens, the least imaginative man on the ship, theorizing that the thing traveled with the food, depriving himself of sustenance hoping to forestall further spread. Futile. All of it. Savagely he barked into the communicator that he wanted to talk to all of them. He manipulated the controls that automatically focused in all the staterooms bringing the occupants together, seemingly grouped in one large room.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you all know about the disease we have contacted and I'll not go into that right now. However, if any of you has any suggestion, regardless of how remote its possibilities might seem, now's the time to voice it."

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