The Fenris Device [Hooded Swan, Book 5]
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by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction
Description: In a galactic culture that extends from quasi-Utopian worlds like New Alexandria to vermin-infested slums like Old Earth, the Star-Pilots that link the cosmos are the great heroes of the day, and Grainger has become a legend in his own lifetime. The atmosphere of Mormyr is so dense that the surface is unreachable, which made it the ideal place for the alien Gallacellans to hide an ancient spaceship. Now they want it back. Grainger refuses, but when the Hooded Swan answers a mayday call, Grainger and his crew are trapped by a madman, who forces them to pursue the salvage anyway. Success will mean Grainger's freedom from Titus Charlot, owner of the Hooded Swan; failure will mean the death of the inhabitants of an entire planet. And then the Gallacellans appear! Hooded Swan, Book Five.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1974 USA
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [219 KB]
Reading time: 142-199 min.
"The series is the story of star pilot Grainger, who is forced by circumstances, after his own ship is destroyed in a disastrous crash, to accept a job flying a new ship, the Hooded Swan, that is a fusion of human and alien technologies. She is faster and more manoeuvrable than any previous design, but despite the opportunity offered, Grainger resents the fact he is employed simply as a pilot but denied the position of Captain, and cannot resign at any time during his two-year contract without dire financial penalties that he regards as thoroughly unjust. In fact Grainger regards his terms of employment as making him little more than a slave, or at least an indentured servant. However, left little alternative by his financial situation, Grainger takes the job, and carries out a variety of assignments for his new masters, accompanied by the unwelcome alien symbiote sharing his brain." -- Wikipedia
I'm a spaceman. I like space. I like flying space, and I know every trick that makes it easier, every trick which enables me to cope with the eccentricities of space better than the next man. I feel at home in deep space and I can handle virtually anything which deep space is disposed to throw at me. Handling the Hooded Swan in deep space was a joy and a privilege.
But the Hooded Swan, so its architect declared, was a good deal more versatile than an honest spaceship. It was not his purpose, he said, to use the Swan merely as a means of transporting him from point A to point B--a job which could be done almost as well by any common-or-garden p-shifter. He had always intended that the Hooded Swan should do things which no other ship in existence was capable of doing. That was why he had hired me. Well, things hadn't worked out quite as he'd planned, because he was a very busy man, and he'd found other employment for both the Swan and myself which was (he said) not very demanding.
And so, he said, when the opportunity arose to further his fondest dreams and--at one and the same time--to use the Hooded Swan in an environment for which no other spaceship in the galaxy was fitted, he was highly delighted.
I was not. Quite the reverse, in fact.
I hate atmosphere. While recognizing that certain kinds of atmosphere are not only useful but highly desirable in that they are necessary to life--specifically my life--I feel that atmosphere is no place for a self-respecting spaceman to be piloting a self-respecting spacecraft.
And when "atmosphere" is a euphemism for a cloud-filled, storm-torn inferno such as one finds on a world like Leucifer V, then I feel absolutely justified in feeling nothing less than hatred for it.
I don't doubt that the Swan was equipped to deal with it. Charlot certainly didn't doubt it, because he was on board, peering over my shoulder, and he was presumably a better judge than I of theoretical capabilities. I'm a practical man, and I'm ready enough to admit that it was I, not the ship, who was inadequate to the task. But Charlot didn't accept excuses of that kind. Charlot was a man who believed in theoretical capabilities. He made no concessions to human weakness.
I dipped into the atmosphere feeling very much like the proverbial snowflake in hell. I was traveling at mere thousands of kph, and slowing still, preparing to use the wings to get lift. I would get the lift anyway, and I figured it was far better to try to use it--absorb it into my system--than to fight it with the cannons and the flux. I wished that I could screw my ship-body up into a tight sphere, fall like a cannonball through a couple of thousand kilometers of atmosphere, and then miraculously unfurl and take instant control of myself just above the ground. But the ground was a difficult thing to find on Leucifer V. It hid beneath a cloak of tidal, flying dust, whipped up by perpetual blizzards. Even if I were capable of masquerading as a falling stone, there could be no easy way down. I couldn't "unfurl" in conditions like that--I'd be ripped apart. No, I had to go down slowly, with my wings spread and my effective mass denatured as far as I dared, pretending to be an autumn leaf rather than a creature of steel and flesh.
As the atmosphere closed in around me my ship-senses gave me a sudden, irrational claustrophobia, a sensation of drowning, of being smothered by soft cloth. I shook it off.
I drifted on a long decaying arc, just accepting the effects of the thickening air into the balanced flux-cycle. I filled the cortex of the driver with as much power as it would hold, knowing that I would need all I could get. Slowly, I began to drain the shields. At the kind of velocity I was making now they'd be far more of a hindrance than a help. No matter how streamlined a ship is, even a ship with a manipulable skin like the Swan, there is absolutely no way of evening out matter-scarring in the shields. And down below I'd have far too much on my plate to want to bother with eddy currents in the shields. If a seized shield immobilized one of my limbs for even a second it could be fatal. On the other hand, as I stripped the shields I became more and more aware of the atmosphere tearing at my skin, burning me, pecking and clawing at me. The farther I went down, the sharper the blades that would cut at me. I knew I was going to bleed, ship-body and cradle-body both, and I was going to hurt and hurt bad.
"Ready," I said to Eve. She was standing beside me, with the medical kit ready. We'd already worked out the sorts of shots I was liable to need, and a code by which I could call for them. She had to needle the first shot into me--I wasn't rigged for an intravenous feed because I didn't want equipment attached to me blurring the sensations I was getting from the outer skin. Painful those sensations might be, but on my correct reading of them and compensating for them would depend the life of the ship.
"Johnny," I said, as we dropped deeper and deeper.
"Waiting," he said. "Nothing yet."
I had to keep the relaxation web over .9 in order to keep our effective mass as close to zero as was desirable, and when the web is so tight the deration system is at its most sensitive. An imbalance of any kind at the discharge points would cause the flux to bleed. Some bleeding would be virtually inevitable, but we would have to keep the loss under control. And "we" meant not just me, but Johnny too. This was going to be tough for him--by far and away his toughest yet.
How are you? I asked the wind.
All set, he told me.
There were long seconds of silence while nothing happened. I continued to thin out the shields with careful slowness, feeling like a striptease dancer at rehearsal. There was an awkward phase when the sensation of the air molecules flickering over my skin was like an itch or an insistent tickle, but I knew that of old, and it didn't bother me. We were through the phase quickly, and I began to feel the steady, prickling pressure build up. I've never worn a hair shirt, but I imagine it might be something like that. The deeper we went the heavier the pressure, but that wasn't the worst of it. As we plunged deeper and deeper, the turbulence began to build up around us. The Swan was designed to compensate for turbulence; she had wings like a bird, nerves and motors which could make all kinds of changes in her outer skin to give her total dynamic streamlining. But nothing's perfect, and there was always something I couldn't cancel. It was like groping fingers sliding over me,, sometimes light, sometimes clumsy.
Inside the control room, everything was steady as a rock. It all looked easy from the back seat, and the time that dragged by made things worse, not better, for the people watching me. They had no way of understanding, no way of feeling what I was feeling, no way of sensing the disaster that was lurking in the corners of my eyes. For them, it was just like grooving in total vacuum, save that I was radiating tension and concentration.
As the shields faded into gossamer, the whole subsurface came alive and alert.
"Give me the second now," I said, amazed by the calmness of my voice.
I felt the anesthetic slide home into my arm, and almost automatically my brain began to count off the seconds to densensitivity.
The relief seemed to last for only a few seconds. The insistence of the atmosphere overrode the numbing effect and the subsurface still felt sore and reactive.
Don't take any more, warned the wind, or I'll lose my control.
OK, I said, soothing him.
I had no intention of knocking either of us out.
Within a couple of minutes more, we began to find clouds, and things were suddenly dramatically changed.
"Here we go," I said, aiming the comment at Johnny.
The pain took me across the back, first, like a muscle cramp. We were slow now--no more than a few hundred kph, but the slower we went the harder it was to balance the flux to the nth decimal. The web felt virtually nonexistent, and the whole drive-unit felt like putty inside me. I felt half dead, and yet I had to move with the grace of an eagle and the delicacy of a hummingbird. I felt the anesthetic that was calming my body begin to swim up around my brain.
"Stun," I said.
The needle slid home again. I knew--and so did Eve--that hyping up on the drugs at the rate I was doing could only have a bad effect in the end, but I had to buy all the temporary help I could, and of I suffered tomorrow...well, at least I was alive to suffer. I don't like being shot up any more than the next man, but I'm not proud. I don't court disaster. No doubt, in the final analysis, it would take years off my life, but when you weigh the odds....
"Watch it," said Johnny.
He didn't need to. I could feel the flux slipping like sand between my fingers. I could feel the danger floating up around me, like a wave of nausea. I felt my face muscles contract as I wrestled with the controls. I could feel Johnny's hands somewhere inside me, working away at the driver, milking the cortex, using his hands and his delicate touch as he'd never been called upon to do in his life. The flux cycled. We didn't bleed. We had her under control.
And still we went down, angling deep into the atmosphere of Leucifer V, the world the Gallacellans called Mormyr, and still the drop seemed limitless, and the sensors could pick up nothing down below but an abyss filled with storms. I took thrust out of the drivers, feeding it through the flux and into the cortex, restoring the reserve and reducing our forward impulse so that we fell steeper and steeper. Still I felt sore, but the pain was under control. The drugs and the wind between them were keeping me up to the job. So far, so good.
But it could only get worse.
The double sensation began to trouble me. I could feel the ghosts of Eve and Titus Charlot hovering over me in the atmosphere of the planet, like demons following the ship on its descent, watching her like hawks, urging her on faster...to her doom?
I felt the flux struggling. It really was trying to stay with me, to help me, but it was being scourged by the winds and the vapors that were howling around the ship. I could feel the Swan giving me all she could, trying her level best to do it on her own, without the pilot inheriting her suffering and her peril. I poured myself into the bird's synapses, we merged totally, and I was embodied in the flux that held strong against the torture, sheltered neither by the shields nor by the relaxation web to any degree. It was like a spider walking through the chambers of my heart, like centipedes moving in my bloodstream, like a great fireworm writhing slowly in my gut. I felt myself begin to open up inside, ever so slowly, ever so gently, without pain, without the raggedness of tearing, and I felt myself begin to spill out within myself.
And lower and lower we came, into the clouds of black dust and ice, into the rage of the storm which whirled and stabbed at us. I was bleeding. I was losing flux. I could feel Johnny working away, with all the speed he could muster, all the fineness of feeling. He had the touch, there was no doubt. He was good, but he wasn't good enough. I opened up wider and wider inside myself, and I bled.
The sensors told me at last that there was a down to go to, that there was a bottom to the gravity pit, that there was a haven if only I could reach it, but it was too late. Johnny was losing and Johnny was panicking. I could feel it rising inside him as it flooded into the movements of his fingers that were inside me. I could feel the flux giving way to his hysteria and the mad insistency of the storm.
I could feel myself--and it was almost with surprise that I did so--being racked with hideous, squeezing pain, and I knew that there was nothing I could do but run. I tried to cry out, hoping that even a wordless cry might stabilize Johnny, might tell Eve that I needed another boost, might even tell Charlot that what he wanted me to do simply could not be done. But I could manage no cry. My jaw was locked, and the only one who knew was the wind, locked inside with me, in rigid agony.
The last vestiges of power were flooding from the cortex into the deration system. The flux was jammed. I discharged the cannons to shock the whole unit into some imitation of life, and I blasted power through the nervenet of the ship. With a single convulsive maneuver something no bird, no spaceship, no other thing in the galaxy except the Hooded Swan and I could have done--I began to throw a surge of strength into the web.
The flux stirred, and with it Johnny. We fought, all of us--Swan, Johnny, the wind, and I--and we found enough to turn us, enough to give us the power to jump. Just enough to run away. Full flight, in full terror. From somewhere, we managed to make some kind of a syndrome, and we were up and away as the flux fed on herself.
The pain really took me then as we went up. No shield at all, nothing to protect me. I felt as though I were burning alive, my skin blistering and bubbling and turning to black, cold dust on my bones.
But the Swan was equal even to that. Johnny built the syndrome--Johnny and the wind--and they found power for the driver, power for the cannons, and at last power for the shields. Up and up we soared, and I realized that we were all of us alive, and would stay that way.
I managed sound...I think it was the word "Go."
And go we did. We climbed in seconds what it had taken us long minutes to fall. We cleared, we found space again. Still I was rigid in the cradle, my body and my agony dissipated throughout the ship, still fighting for every last vestige of power the syndrome could provide. All of us, we were united in those dragging seconds, all in a single purpose.
And we made it.
By the time we found space, I was absolutely helpless in the cradle, with no more involvement with my tiny, human self than an unborn child. Even as we headed deep into the system-vacuum, I had only one sensation that I could relate to my bodily self alone, rather than to my total, participant ship-self, and that was a sensation of leakage. My bladder had emptied, and there was blood running from both corners of my mouth to mingle with my tears.
Eve was mopping me up. As consciousness returned to its habitual mode of residence, I could feel her wet cloth stroking back and forth across my face. I could hear Charlot breathing.
There were long minutes of waiting, when nobody dared say a word. Not to anyone, about anything. The two Gallacellans who waited in the rear of the control room were absolutely impassive, waiting. Nick delArco had nothing to say.
Inevitably, it was Charlot who broke the silence.
"Less than a hundred meters," he said. That was all. Just: Less than a hundred meters. No sympathy, no understanding. All he was interested in was how close we had come before we had failed. He knew that if we could get down to the last kilometer--to one-tenth of the last kilometer--then it was theoretically possible for us to have gone the whole way. He just didn't see the blood that was coming out of me. All he saw was that we had come within seconds of victory, and had failed.
"It's impossible," I said. "It can't be done."
"You were there," he said. "You were there but for a matter of meters."
"It makes no difference," I said. "A meter or a parsec. Those last hundred meters were the worst of all. Nothing could live in that. Nothing. There's no way down through those last hundred meters. No way."
"You had power left," he said. "Power to run away."
"And if I'd used that power to go down?" I said, my voice hoarse as the flow of the argument matched the flow of feeling coming back into my body--and with the feeling, renewed pain. "What would I have used to come away?" I finished.
"Once we were down...," he began.
"And what if we ran out with ten meters still to go?" I interrupted. "Or ten centimeters? All we had to do was roll over...and we'd be down forever."
"It was my fault," Johnny's voice came over the circuit. "It was my fault. If I could have held the flux just a few seconds...I lost her. It wasn't Grainger's fault...."
Of all the help I'd never needed....
"Is that true?" said Charlot.
"Nobody could have held it," I said. "Nobody. Johnny was brilliant. Nobody could have done more. Not Rothgar, not Jesus Christ. Nobody human can land a ship on that world. It just cannot be done."
"I could have done it," said Johnny, his voice sounding like the knell of doom. "If only...."
"Will you shut your bloody mouth!" I howled at him. "You want to go down there again? Don't be a fool. You did your best. Your ultimate best. There's no more that could be done. It's impossible. There's no point in whining, now or ever. You have to realize that there are some things that just can't be done."
It can be done, said the wind, and you know it.
I didn't need him. Yes, it could be done, with a perfect engineer and a perfect pilot. The ship could do it. But Johnny was only Johnny, and I wasn't making any claims for myself. Yes, it could be done. But only by a lunatic. And only a lunatic would suggest to Charlot that there was any point at all in making another attempt. He was only human. He couldn't send us down again. Not if there was no way.
Stylaster--the Gallacellan for whose benefit all this pantomime had been staged--said something in his native tongue. No human knew the language--the Gallacellans guarded their privacy--so we all had to wait for the interpreter. His name was Ecdyon.
"Stylaster says that your pilot has been damaged," said Ecdyon, addressing Charlot. "Will he have to be replaced for the second attempt?"
I gave him the filthiest look I could conjure up. It was wasted. What can a filthy look mean to an alien? Ecdyon knew the score, and I was willing to bet that Stylaster knew as well. They were playing a tough game. This was a real test for Charlot's famed diplomatic talents.
"The pilot cannot be replaced," said Charlot, speaking to Ecdyon but keeping one eye on me. "He will have to be rested until he is well. Then we will talk about a second attempt."
"You can talk all you bloody well like," I said. "But I'm not going back down there again."
"We'll talk about it later," said Charlot, ominously, and quietly, because Ecdyon was busy clicking away at Stylaster in Gallacellan.
"It's impossible," I said.
"That's for me to decide."
"Like hell it is," I said. "You only own this ship. I fly it and Nick is the captain. The only man who can order me to fly back into that hell is Captain delArco. Now, he knows I'm serious when I say it can't be done, and he's not going to order me to do it. So legally, Mr. Charlot, you can't touch me."
He looked at me with pure poison in his gaze. All the politeness and the helpfulness and the almost-friendship that we'd built up on Pharos was gone. He was an old man. He was a sick man. If there was one thing he wanted to do more than any other before he died it was to make meaningful contact with the Gallacellans. In the five centuries since the Gallacellans met the human race on Leucifer IV there had been exactly one opportunity to make that contact, and this was it. Only Grainger and the bounds of possibility stood between Charlot and Stylaster, and Charlot was not the man to respect the bounds of possibility. So what chance had Grainger?
"Captain delArco will follow my instructions," said Charlot coldly, getting angrier by the minute because he knew that every word would get back to Stylaster, now or later.
"Captain delArco had better think long and hard about that," I said. "And so had you. Because between you and me and anyone else who can hear me, I won't take this ship back down into the atmosphere of that planet. You can have me thrown in jail till I rot, between you, if you have a mind to. But any other attempt at landing on Mormyr is an attempt at suicide and murder, and I won't do it.
I had to put my case across in the strongest possible terms. It was no good at all saying "It's too dangerous" or "I'm scared" or "It hurts." Nothing short of impossibility was going to stop Charlot, so impossibility was what he was going to get. I'd gone in once, because I had no way to refuse. But I wasn't going back. In my humble opinion, no one had the right to ask that of me. And privately, I had every confidence that when it came to the crunch, Nick delArco wasn't going to be Charlot's puppet.
"You have to try again," said Charlot.
"No," said Eve, who was still waiting for the blood to stop oozing from my mouth. "He can't. He's right. It would kill him."
I was really and truly thankful to have that support just then. Johnny had the sense to keep his mouth shut, and Nick delArco had absolutely nothing to say--yet.
I reached out to take the controls in my hands again, and Eve slipped the hood back down over my eyes. We were just drifting in a loose orbit around Leucifer, heading away from Mormyr.
"Shall we go home?" I asked.
"We'll go back to Iniomi," said Charlot. "We'll get you back into shape. Then we can discuss what to do next."
I began to set us on a course for the fourth world.
Stylaster clicked for a moment or two, like a demented typewriter.
"Stylaster says," Ecdyon translated, "that your ship was most impressive. He is very confident that we will be successful."
"Bastard," I muttered, not loudly enough for the interpreter to hear. A moment later, I regretted not saying it louder, so that Ecdyon could have passed it on. But it was too late to repeat it.
I still think..., began the wind.
I know, I said. Shut up.
Then I slipped the Swan into the groove.