Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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Room Enough

by Robert Persons




Captain Trauck was actually prepared for the relief of knowing that her entire cargo of crew, and new-earth colonists, had perished, that the giant assemblage of machinery had been destroyed, that the burden of her leadership was finally over. Her ship had sunk and she, the captain, had gone down with it. The archaic nautical terminology didn't bother her, but a brief terrible thought arose, that all the years of planning would end up in a pile of debris lost in the ocean of space--perhaps thousands of years from now washing up as flotsam on an unknown planet.

An inexplicable bliss made her wonder if she had been wrong all along, that perhaps there really is an afterlife. But why was she thinking after?

Then the full blow of what was happening came down on her like a hammer. She awoke, dimly recalling the sudden explosions that should have propelled her and her crew, settlers, and cargo into the oblivion of empty space. Instead, she was still in the ship and there was pain, and the monstrous straining and wheezing of repair systems and atmosphere generators going full blast. The enormity of the near calamity the Mayflower had just weathered bore down on her. The weight of leadership returned, screaming above the din of the wounded, groaning machines and human beings.

Quickly dismissing her recall of the ship jolting and twisting like a worm in the bowels of deep space, she wondered briefly, Why am I alive? Then, with a sharp resolve, she pushed her many pains onto standby and lurched to her feet, assessing the situation. There seemed to be full gravity, so acceleration hadn't stopped or even altered noticeably. Propulsion and auxiliary power were operating, anyway. 

Her wrist comm was broken, so, launching herself in jerks and hops across dislodged machinery and groaning bodies, she reached the nearest wall unit. Well, she thought as the screen responded to her button-punching, another system go. 

“Rallin! Rallin!” she yelled at the screen, then shook the sudden pain from her eyes. Recovering, she saw the chief engineer's haggard face in the screen. “What's it look like, Rallin?”

“Don't know yet, Ma'am. Just dragged myself out of an air return duct. If I hadn't gotten wedged in...”

Rallin!

“Uh. I can't see that any major system is knocked out yet. Patches have been made, air back in, we're moving, we're talking, lights are on, converters seem to be working. Captain, there's a lot of damage, but nothing ominous. I'm checking ship analyzer, and it seems to be as puzzled as we are about what happened. I'll get hard data on all systems and then check orientation and...”

“Yes, but get to me when you've got something.” The racket coming from the ship's automatic adjustments was incredible. She could hardly hear Rallin's baritone. “What?”

“I said I've just got the first results from analyzer. Just a preliminary overview. It's concentrating on ship repair. We seem...” He paused reflectively, staring down at something off-screen. “…to still be sailing on-course along the original trajectory, although the upheaval--whatever it was--should have made a massive correction necessary. And that,” he said, looking puzzled, “would take time, and there is no record of it that I can find. Captain, in summary, I think we're basically okay, but I can't explain it.”

“We've stabilized?”

“It appears so, in all major systems.”

“Okay, keep checking it out and get back to me if there's anything major. Otherwise, give me a full report when you're finished. And get maintenance on non-automatic repairs. I am issuing Directive 8l, so you can draft colonists for the work if you have to. No telling yet how many lives we've lost."”

“Right.”

Trauck turned away from the cold screen and saw the limping, bleeding knot of human beings nearby shoving equipment back in place, checking out local systems, patching in temporary functions. Good crew, she thought, thanking the extensive phys/psych screening that preceded the Mayflower's exodus from Cento II. God, that was a long time ago. Then, having allowed herself that brief extraneous thought, she lurched into the midst of that aching activity, aware--very aware now--of the pain in her own body. She stopped at a console and wrote up and sent Directive 81. 

******

After seventeen hours of the most intense physical and mental efforts of her life, Trauck knew it would be only minutes before the drug obliterated the racking pain. She lay back on the couch. Dropping off, she saw the ghastly image of Mudred rise up before her, chiding her terribly from the ruins of Cento II. Hring and Jylla, did I leave you for this? To die in space at the hands of forces as enigmatic and capricious as your killer God? 

Hmph! She snorted out of her half-sleep. They weren't going to die. No, the forces may seem inexplicable now, but they couldn't be unknown. There was a definite cause for the near-catastrophe, and they would find it. No need to resort to misanthropic gods for "explanation," nor to barbarian sacrifices for appeasement. They had left all that behind, on Cento II. If they hadn't run, they would have been the next blood sacrifice in the population's increasingly fanatical zeal for appeasing the butcher God Mudred. 

A small catch of emotion suddenly swelled under the easy influence of the drug, and Trauck found she could not control the racking sobs that twisted her guts, bringing some of the pain back. Hring and Jylla! Hring and Jylla! Son and daughter, lost to the poison back there.  She had tried, she had tried so hard, but their minds had been stolen. Stolen by the bizarre promise of fulfillment through agony, their souls already sacrificed to Mudred, their bodies surely to follow. What had she failed to give them that they had found and embraced in that unholy madness? 

The drug finished its job.

******

In a maintenance pod locked on the hull outside, Jol Brantik adjusted the monitor port for scan, moving the image of the ragged access panel slowly out of the imaging bowl, while the landscape of the rest of the hull drifted endlessly by. His focus on the job was determined but a bit distracted. This glitch in the exodus had to be a sign.

As the port scanned toward the stern, the image became fainter, but parallax rectifier circuits made the hull appear as though his heavily-shielded maintenance pod were gliding about three feet above the skin. There was no purpose in scanning that far; he could see other pods locked to the hull, working outside his territory. But he hadn't been EVA in a long time, and the view never failed to fill him with a profound awe.

The pod's ports, unlike the Mayflower's, did not rectify the wavelengths and aberrations of their inputs, because crew needed clear vision for the inspection and repair of external ship functions. They did, when in scan mode, automatically adjust for parallax, allowing lengthy views that would otherwise be impossible. So that was the only impediment to Brantik's view of the naked universe as he would see it suspended in free space and using his bare eyeballs.

He flipped a switch, cutting out the parallax rectifiers, and immediately the image of the hull in the 3-D bowl became extremely foreshortened, dimming stern-ward until the hull effectively blended into the consuming blackness that was the very body of the universe. His breath gushed harshly, fogging his helmet glass.

With shaking hands he boosted the gain so that the image brightened, while at the same time scanning away from the hull. He adjusted all secondary ports in the same way and joined their imaging bowls so that they provided a panorama of that body that surrounded and swallowed him and the ship-world in a seeming nothingness that felt like falling in all directions at once. No one else ever dared to try this. Surrounded by imaging bowls, he was alone in that glory!

Quickly he adjusted the gain to provide maximum brightness with the least noise, and almost instantly the stars leaped into the bowls.

A nebulous rainbow of stars reached across the cosmos, sweeping a great circle about the ship's bow. Brightest and mostly white about halfway up the sky, it glittered like uncountable diamonds, yet cool and soft on his eyes.

There were more blue stars in the band closer to the ship's axis and more than he had expected dead ahead, duller and confused, distorted in the sweeper fields, dancing like iridescent flies about the steady brilliant blue dot burning directly ahead of the bow.

The whole band stretched around the ship's vector, circling that blue frictional bull's-eye focus. It was as though the Mayflower were aimed inexorably at some cosmic goal determined by forces vastly more competent than the puny wishes of humans.

Sweeping his eyes back across the band toward the slightly redder portion higher up, he found he had to struggle to stay oriented. The image seemed to swirl as though avoiding his attempts to focus on any part. Strange fingers of just-visible undulations suffused the entire band, increasing in intensity higher up.

The blackness increased overhead. Toward the stern the stars thinned out very rapidly. As he looked farther back, the intense dark sucked at his guts, the few scattered red dots providing the only relief from the terror of absolute nothingness. Except for the faint flickers, just on the edge of visibility, of dull red that seemed to lap across the parsecs like gigantic tongues.

As the vista shifted and undulated, defying his attempts to organize a total image, two things became clear to Brantik: The cosmos out there was beyond mere reason's attempts to nail it down; and yet the whole universe seemed to be crowding in on this tiny portion of humanity locked in their metal box, showing it the way with a heavenly sign the likes of which humankind had never seen before--the blue friction point brought into focus by the immense speed at which they were traveling.

Mudred!” escaped from his lips. The Holy Mother, the Body of the Universe.

******

“And then...” The shift of tone in Rallin's voice alerted Trauck, and a lump of ice seemed to settle on her brain. “...there's that lunatic Brantik.”

The ice started to melt, spreading its chill over the captain's cortex. The report had looked good. In general things were looking bright. Rallin had come to her with a half-baked notion of “resonance” as a possible cause. But now this... “Lunatic, Rallin? We have no lunatics on the Mayflower. Who is this Brantik?”

“A mechanic, Captain. Somewhat of a loner, it would seem. Tends to brooding occasionally, but screening said it was a creative brooding that would ultimately be valuable to the colony...”

“Rallin, get on with it. I can get a psych profile later.” Her irritation brought to mind her friendly local psychologist Formell's suggestion that she longed for Rallin sexually but, feeling a distance necessitated by the sober task of guiding the exodus, reacted to her frustrations by feigning dislike. Hah! Well, regardless of motive, until she had that relationship sorted out she would go on feeling irritated by him. 

“Well, Ma'am, Maintenance sent him EVA to report on possible damage to the sweeper monitor ports. You remember when utility power was reduced to supply the external protective shielding two days ago.”

“Yes. Twice, wasn't it? Why twice? I forget.”

“Well, we had to send someone else out, after Brantik came in with a report that was pure garbage. So, we had a brief interlude with all the lights on between the two EVAs.”

“And Brantik said...” Rallin needed another nudge.

“Well, he said he had seen the Promised Land, and it was to be ours, but only if we worship the Mother as the one who led us out of the oppression of Cento II.”

Trauck rocked back, staring at Rallin, who was rigidly sitting in her room, silent now but grinning like he had just set a trap for someone--her? 

“Mother?”

“Yes. Unfortunately, Captain, by 'Mother' he means, specifically, Mudred.”

A stab of betrayal cut through her abdomen straight to the spine so that it felt hot and cold at the same time. All the pain she had felt, all the privation and cold sacrifice of her lifetime for the colony was attributable to that name. It rolled over her. Mudred, for God's sake! The name glorified by those who were destroying the one human colony that had survived the Holocaust on Earth and the subsequent search for suitable habitation elsewhere. The name that had poisoned her children's minds. Reaching her ghastly arm across parsecs of space to shake her to her bones when she had thought she was free. 

She saw Rallin coolly gauging her reaction. A thought jerked her from the horror. “Nothing wrong with the particle sweepers, was there? He didn't...”

“Sabotage? No, Ma'am.”

“Where is the lunatic now?”

Rallin smiled. “I sent him to B.A.”

******

Behavior Analysis was a small division in the colony, not often consulted officially because important behavioral problems were rare, thanks to exhaustive pre-launch screenings of potential crew and colonists. At least, that's what Formell told her. After a very brief briefing of the psychologist's examination of Brantik, Trauck smiled mischievously. "Maybe you'll be earning your keep from now on."  

Formell's expression remained cool. “Maybe.” She turned and started to leave.

Trauck sighed. “Please.” She had meant a joke but apparently botched it. “I'm sorry, but I'm extremely uneasy right now. Too many enigmas.” Formell stopped leaving.

“First, the ship is jolted as though it had run into a stone wall. Then, it repairs and re-orients itself, resuming the journey with unexpectedly small loss and damage. The whole thing is still unexplained after two weeks. And then the ugly head of religious fanaticism rears up to 'explain' the unexplained as a warning from the gods! Formell, none of these things should have happened. We were careful enough to consider the probabilities and plan for them. Now, with less than five percent of travel time past, the best-laid plans are starting to unravel.”

“Do you blame Brantik for that?”

Trauck paused to gather some thoughts. "The accident may be unexplained, but at least it's under control. This Mudred thing, though... You know there isn't much room for variation from plan, either physical or behavioral, in this glorified tin can. We made a not-quite-sufficient world in here. Introducing Mudred threatens the very fiber of our precarious existence.”

“Do you blame Brantik for that?”

The repetition irritated Trauck even more, but she went on. “This Brantik has actually made converts from the supposedly rational people on board. In the continuing presence of the enigma, unexplained as yet by known laws, people seeking an answer find one in Brantik's preaching. Like some archaic prophet with a white beard, he's mounted a crusade for subservience to Mudred, and people have fallen for it. Rallin said his screening called it 'creative broodiness.'” Formell nodded.

“Well, that's the trouble with creativity, isn't it? By its nature you can't command loyalty from it.”

Formell paused, actually looking considerate. “So, you don't have loyalty. What else could you command?”

“I need two answers: Is Brantik obsessed with power? And could he have sabotaged the ship to make his Mudred scenario seem plausible?” She let her hands fall into her lap. She knew the answer to the first would not come from Formell, or anyone else. And she most certainly would have to go to Brantik for the answer to the second.

******

Brantik's room was small and spare, just what Trauck expected based on this "creative broodiness" that haunted her. Despite the paucity of objects, what was there was in disorder. Clothes had been thrown over the furniture. Plates, some empty, some with half-eaten food on them, were on the cluttered table and the rumpled bed, even on the floor alongside a strangely immaculate pair of slippers. Funny, those slippers... 

Then the man Brantik was there in the midst of it, though he had of course always been there, as though she had avoided looking at him for as long as possible. Then she almost laughed out loud in relief, for he was small--smaller than she, in fact, and rather elfish with his large ears jutting straight out from the sides of his head. His uniform was ill-fitting (he had the kind of body that would make any clothes look shabby), his short hair was tousled like a six-year-old's, and his nose was unbelievably red and moist.

But his eyes checked her laugh. What she saw in those pale blue, but diamond-hard irises, negated everything else she had seen in his appearance and manner. They bored into her and, holding her, effused a hot zeal that radiated rapidly in her body as though it had been injected into her blood stream.

“Hello, Captain.” The voice came, not from those eyes, but from the frail, disheveled body. A bit nervous and small, it was unsure of even a mere greeting. It took the edge off Trauck's intended approach. She had wanted to be the antithesis of his manner, to set up a conflict situation from the start, to make it clear that he was seen as a problem. It wasn't authoritarian, except from the standpoint that the one recognized authority was the success of the journey.

 All aboard--including Brantik--had been selected with this clearly in mind. So, the conflict she had intended Brantik to feel was supposed to be between his action and the goal of the exodus. Almost any approach that manifested a firm foundation, that implied the power of reason behind it, would do. She struggled to add firmness to her voice.

“You know, Brantik, that your action during the crisis was detrimental to efficient restoration of the ship's functions?” Somehow, it sounded officious, lecturing, even ludicrous.

Brantik looked down and twitched a foot, then said, “Yes, I understand that I did not complete the job outside. I should have, even though it turned out that I would have found nothing imminently dangerous.”

He was rattling on as though intending to ward off any interruptions to his confession. The uneasiness in Trauck grew.

“It took extra time to equip another man and send him out, utility power had to be cut and restored at large cost. I know all this, and I regret letting the vision keep me from getting my job done. But...”

“Vision, Brantik? What...”

Brantik continued uninterrupted, but with rising voice. “I do not... regret... the vision.” The pauses punctuating his last sentence seemed to jack him up in stages until his eyes shone at hers from almost the same level.

Trauck was almost happy to see the fire starting to burn in him. This was what she had planned for, not the runny-nosed bohemian that she had to start with. She looked hard, right back at those eyes. “Did you use the ports to look at the sky?”

“The Mother--yes.”

“Your vision, then, was optical aberration and Doppler shift due to the near-light speed we're traveling at.” Trauck ticked off her points on her fingers. “The stars bunching forward and thinning out behind. Infrared stars blue-shifting into the visible spectrum fore. Ultraviolet red-shifting aft. The distortion of the constellations. There is no mystery in any of that. Everybody was briefed planet side, as to what it would look like out there. Scary, yes; that's why you were cautioned about looking. But we predicted it, Brantik. All of it. Rationally.”

“Those were pictures and diagrams and mathematical equations we saw, Captain. They help us to pilot the ship, that's all. The Mother is out there. You can't deny that. Anyone who has not looked out there can deny what I have seen. Have you ever looked at the port bowls, Captain? Even with the rectifiers on? Has anybody deliberately looked?”

“The psychological disorientation...”

“Yes. Excuse me, Captain, but because you have not looked, you can't know what I have seen.”

Trauck put a hand to her mouth, cradling her elbow in the other hand. A mystic! It would be difficult. But mystics, though the core of responsibility often appeared quite muddy to a rationalist, did have some sense of responsibility to which they clung tenaciously--if they weren't loony to begin with. Now, if Brantik's sense included a social responsibility...

“Do you see that your... vision, aside from hampering your EVA duties, now begins to threaten the Mayflower and the colonization of the new Earth? Will you regret that, too, and get on with your work and let the rest of us get on with ours?” It wasn't a Behavior Analysis approach, but B.A. was already working on him. No need for duplication. She would hit him with straight pragmatics.

“Can you see, Captain,” he replied evenly, his voice firming up now, “that the exodus depends on something more than reaction mass and pinpoint guidance and analyzer programs? Can you understand that the exodus itself is more, much more, than transporting people across space to live on a tiny planet orbiting a nondescript sun in an inconspicuous corner of the Galaxy?”

“Brantik,” the captain said firmly, raising her arms to interrupt, “there is room for spirit on the Mayflower. We have not programmed everything. We all recognize that humans need more than the products supplied by the recyclers. We have art galleries. We have music. We have literature, poetry readings, crafts, meditation classes. What you are talking about has definitely been allowed for in all the planning.”

“But one thing has been left out, Captain.”

“Ye-e-es,” Trauck answered slowly, sighing. “The Holy Mother, the Body of the Universe...”

“Mudred.”

“Brantik, why? When planning the exodus, we were sure that the immensity of the project would provide all the spiritual life we would ever need in space.” Again, she ticked off points on her fingers, adding appropriate arm waving. “We had the quite dramatic impetus of oppression at our backs, and the long, cold, hard voyage through space ahead of us. We expected to die old for the sake of the next generations, who would carry out our dream of living free and building a world of beauty and knowledge. That is spirit, Brantik--the spirit that suffuses our tiny society, subtly but undeniably. It's that spiritual thrust that keeps us struggling--from a specific tyranny through a specific plan to a specific goal. Now why, Brantik, do you want to take that all-encompassing spirituality and squeeze it into the rigid structure of God worship, the very thing that we attempted to escape? Brantik, why Mudred, for God's sake?”

Lord, she thought, we both sound like preachers.

“I think, Captain, that it is because we--all of us--were mistaken in the beginning about the goal of this venture. That is why you see me only offering a vague alternative. You see, we can't escape the Mother. We are only running from a false form of her worship. And our escape wasn't affected by our hands. We are only the instruments that have been picked up and used, to further the goal set by something--someone--far greater than we. And that goal, and the trivial goal we had supposed, became clear to me when I gazed for the first time on the full body of the Mother. You see, we could not properly view that holy body from Cento II, or from old Earth, either, because her name had become so polluted with abominations and total misunderstanding of her essence that we were blind. We needed to escape the incapacitating influence of Cento II so that our sight could be restored, and we could see her in her true glory and appreciate our position in her and... and worship her. Mudred is, and always was, the Mother, and the universe is her body. And we in space are in her womb, to be born again at her wish. We must not profane her womb. It is sacred; it must not be profaned.”

“And if we do profane, you would abort the fetus?” Trauck glared a challenge at this suddenly vibrant man, hoping for a clue to possible sabotage. That he was sincere, she was fairly certain. He was no calculating power grabber. But if Rallin's resonance hypothesis was correct, they could be in danger from another blowout, and she needed to know if it was only the haste of launch that had caused some oversight in the propulsion system checkout.

Brantik turned away, removing the cold fire of his eyes from hers. “We have reached a place of power, Captain. This is a time of testing, and we must pass through the fire.” He looked back at her, “We must. If we are found to be impure, then we must not be allowed to pollute the holy womb. Our cancer must not spread into space--the body of our Mother. We have been warned. It is as simple as that.”

“Stop talking in gibberish, Brantik!” She shouted, in part to calm the churning in her own breast. “The point is, that you are setting up an authority in a situation that was meant to be non-authoritarian. My position as captain is not to be one of power, but of management. Populating a planet and freely choosing our philosophies was to be the one guiding principle for all our efforts.” She hugged her arms tightly to her body. She could feel the cold sweat on her forearms. “It was...”

“Captain, we will have all that. It is not a matter of falling to your knees or drawing blood, to worship Mudred. It is inevitable. Pure or impure, we worship her, for she is here, in everything we do, as well as out there, in everything we see. If we are found to be pure, we need not fear fuel losses and re-tracking and all the other details of space travel. We will reach the new Earth and live there to worship her in truth. It is inevitable.”

Her hands opened, pleading. “Then why must you preach?”

“Because it is inevitable. I can't help myself.” Brantik in turn spread his hands, looking very much like a little boy protesting a charge of cookie-stealing. She thought of her Hring before his mind had been stolen by Mudred. What molded a person? How far back into childhood could you trace the line that would lead to religious fanaticism? The loss of her son--and Jylla, her daughter--was totally inexplicable to her. How much less of a handle could she have on the roots of this man Brantik's conversion?

She turned enough to look at him sideways. “Can you tell me--in straight terms that a layman can understand--what caused the crisis?”

Without pause he answered, “Why, Mudred, of course.”

“Of course.” She turned away.

“I'm sorry, Captain. I apologize. I know you need to know the physical events that were employed by the Mother. No, I'm afraid I have no more explanation than you do. I only saw some of the damage, and... I wish I could help.”

She looked back at him. His body seemed to shrink a bit as he spread his hands again.

“I really do,” he said. The fire, quenched in his body, still burned cold in his eyes.

“Yes,” the captain said, “Yes, I believe you do.”

She hesitated, then faced him squarely. “But, Brantik, what I don't understand is what appears to be the arrogance of your position, why you cling zealously to your belief as though all other beliefs were void of any merit. After all, I know what it means to suffer for my beliefs. We all do, here; to sacrifice pleasures, even needs, to gain clarity of insight; to discover a truth so vital that one must engage all one's energies to retain that clear light for as long as possible before the necessities of day-to-day living dilute it away. Yet, you Mudred worshipers think you have found the one answer that has evaded all others before you.”

Brantik shifted from foot to foot, staring at the floor, but she bored on. “You're like children, with your sudden fickle turns of devotion. And how you actually pride yourselves on blind devotion, as though, having once seen the one true light you would poke out your eyes so that you would never see an inferior light. Brantik, we can't afford your kind of mindless devotion on the Mayflower.”

The elfin shoulders shrugged pitifully. “I only believe what I must believe, Captain. What you believe--and I think you do truly believe in your logic and your machines--that belief holds no answers for me. We talk to each other across an immovable wall.”

Trauck shuddered. “Then one of us must cross the wall. For the sake of the exodus, for the sake of our survival.”

“Or,” Brantik said, appealing with his eyes, “we must both climb to the top of the wall... So we can see each other.”

She stared at those stone-blue eyes until her own eyes watered. There was the wall, standing rough and tall between them. She turned hard on her heel and left the room.

******

“All right, Rallin, let's go with the resonance. As long as you're certain Brantik wasn't behind it.”

“Reasonably certain, Captain.” Rallin looked comfortable in the chair--too comfortable, Trauck thought. Take that, Formell, and your analysis! “Ship analyzer comes up with nothing that points definitively to sabotage of any sort. No anomalies in the log, no bookkeeping discrepancies, no work schedule oddities--nothing. The chain of events is clearly defined given the Initial Activating Event, unexplained as of yet.”

He leaned forward in the chair. “Now, about that I.A.E.... The resonance thing is far and away the most probable, based on after-the-fact evidence, pre-accident records, and the probabilities of oversight in the pre-launch compressed schedule.

“There are plenty of opportunities for resonance, many of which we could not adequately anticipate in our rush to escape. The calculated trajectory, the magnetic sweepers, the slightest deviation in orientation. When you're running at ninety-four percent of the speed of light, the massive-body blasters and particle sweepers had better work, or a small-probability meeting with even a minuscule particle involves enough energy to blow our ship to dust. Add resonance, and you're smaller than dust. Because we're pretty green at near light-speed navigation, we may have missed some possibilities. As far as we can tell...”

Rallin loved to refer to ship analyzer as "we." Trauck saw an irony in Brantik and Rallin both being screened through and accepted for the exodus--the poet and the machine.

“...there is no way the resonance effect could have been built in intentionally, without the analyzer discovering it. And any other conceivable I.A.E.--down to a probability less than one-tenth of one percent--would have required access that Brantik could never have had. I think, regardless of the actual I.A.E., that little nut is clear.”

“All right,” Trauck said, “I'm convinced. But we have to do something about the... the... the tide of... irrational zeal that is... swelling with every sermon from that... little nut.” Rallin grinned. “If we could just chuck them overboard, before the cancer spreads...” Instantly, she regretted letting Rallin hear that. She looked up. Rallin looked mildly surprised, but his face quickly went neutral.

“So,” she backtracked, waving her hands, “let me see if I have this straight. The Initial Activating Event, to use your interesting terminology, was some kind of resonance effect which rapidly built-up strain in the propulsion system when velocity ninety-four point eight was reached. Enhanced by the higher effective molecular density of the H II plasma we're plowing through, this strain was suddenly released in an instantaneous spasm of destructive energy. Because the other systems hardly had time to react, they merely paused and then quickly cut back in at full capacity, so far as they had not been damaged, so that stability was never really lost.”

“That's it in summary, Ma'am, our best guess. Though Occam's razor is pretty dull here.”

“Where did all that energy go? Surely there wasn't enough physical damage...”

Rallin shrugged. “Like I said, Occam's razor... We need more data on ship-wide energy flow patterns. We need more time.”

“Well, we'll have to tell that to everybody.” She waited for Rallin to nod curtly and then she went on. “There are a lot more unanswered questions than I would like to settle with, and, damn it, Brantik's calling that discrepancy a test by Mudred of our faithfulness. It will do for now. But it's got to sound convincing. I don't suppose you could test it...”

“Only directly. We would have to decelerate back to under ninety-four point eight and resume original acceleration, and then there's the matter of controlling it with inadequate information. How can we be sure we won't blow up this time? We will, of course, hit ninety-four point eight again in the deceleration phase, and we will have to have it figured out by then. But that's forty years away.”

“Could it happen again, at some higher resonance point, say? Or some kind of after-effect during the coast?”

Rallin looked irritated. “We just don't know, Captain, whether it follows a power function, a log, or what. Forty years of constant point nine four c velocity should be no problem, except for longer travel time; we know a little more there. But the uncertainties will remain until we assimilate the data in all possible permutations...”

“Okay, keep at it.” Rallin had a marvelous knack for ending conversations when he wanted to. “And remember, we may not be absolutely convinced, but we must convince the rest of the ship.”

“Yes, Ma'am.” Rallin rose and nodded, not in agreement so much as bowing to authority.

Damn! Trauck mouthed. She didn't want that. But she saw no other way to stop the poison.

******

Captain Trauck strode briskly along the corridor to her room. She hadn't felt so cheerful since three weeks ago, before the crisis. The ship had settled down to almost normal again, and she felt she could finally take a break from the pressure. She had made only one compromise with irrationality. The worship of Mudred continued, but it was much subdued, after the announcement that the "cause" of the crisis was known.

Rational processes once again were seen as adequate. Mudred, reborn in a relatively innocuous body, had not been rejected outright as Trauck had hoped, but sermons had recast her as the author of those rational processes. Apparently she was here to stay, but nicely cooperative. Better the quiet madness of Brantik's dogma, than the vile, murderous version of Cento II. Still...

“Hello, Captain.”

The shy voice startled her as she turned a corner.

“Oh, hello, Brantik.” He smiled as he passed her. He looked happy, too. Everybody seemed happy. Events had meshed well. It could so easily have gone terribly bad. “Oh, Brantik,” she called after him.

He turned easily and stood heavily on one leg, emphasizing the asymmetry he seemed to epitomize outside his philosophy. “Jol,” he said timidly.

“How do you feel… Jol… now that a physical event has been established as the rational cause of our troubles?”

“I feel fine, Captain.” Brantik looked puzzled. “The Mother engineered our testing in a place of power--you call it a point of resonance--and she decided we were fit to carry her name into the universe. That makes me very happy.”

“You really believe that, do you?”

“I do... And you don't. You should look at her, Captain, and you would see, I'm sure. Just cut the optical rectifiers and look in a port bowl sometime. She's there, waiting to touch you.”

“Well, looking out that port at near-light speed, even with all tourist rectifiers on, just scares the breath out of me.” She stared at him, so childlike even in his physical size. Her own children...

She saw Rallin emerge from a door and, with a nod to Brantik, she hurried to meet him. “I'd like a word with my chief engineer.”

Rallin halted and turned slowly, tapping a stack of papers against the palm of one hand. “Ship's engineer, Ma'am,” he said coldly, nodding deferentially.

“Come to my apartment for a quick chat,” she said, equally coldly. They walked the short distance down the corridor in silence.

Inside the room, she made a show of unbuttoning her uniform tunic. “Relax, Rallin. I don't want to talk shop.” She pointed to the chair he had sat in the other day. He sat down but remained stiffly attentive.

Why is it so hard for me to move people lately? she wondered. “Can I get you a drink?” The engineer shook his head slightly. “A smoke? Any of the multitude of little poisons available?”

“Why don't you sit down, Captain? You look nervous.”

“Well, do I?” She sat on the couch. “You know, Rallin, I feel quite happy with the way things have turned out. We got through our problem as planned, and Brantik and crew have acquiesced to our 'solution.'” Yes, she was nervous, rattling on this way.

“A solution,” Rallin said, “which is not quite a solution, I remind you. We haven't gotten through our problem yet. At least until we have figured out a lot more than we have up to now.”

“Yes, yes, I didn't mean to say that we can put all this behind us. I know there are a host of subsidiary problems to deal with. I only meant...”

She rose and turned to fiddle with the light control. It seemed terribly bright in her room. “I have...” She gripped the back of a chair, then turned to face Rallin.

“I have this image of...” She raised her hand like a claw. “...of spores.” Rallin's eyebrows perked up. “Well, let me start this way. We solved a puzzle, crucial to our survival.” She pushed her hand forward as Rallin started to say something. “And we did it rationally. Incompletely, yes, but rationally. And now, given that one major success, I don't feel so burdened by the weight of the little mysteries that remain.”

Rallin looked a question at her.

“Your Initial Activating Event, for instance. There are enough unknowns yet, to keep that a mystery.” Again, she raised a hand to hold off his comment. “But there are others. The loss of our families and friends to religion gone wild.” (She would not mention Hring and Jylla specifically, to this cold man.) “On the other hand, the ease with which Brantik and others can embrace dogma now, having just barely escaped the murderous dogmas of Cento II. And, most strange of all...” She stared at Rallin, feeling a giddy wonder buoy her up.

“I find myself accepting peaceful coexistence with a principle I really feel is ruinous to life. And I am content. I feel a threshold has been crossed--or a wall has been scaled, and looking out I can encompass many more mysteries, now that my door has been opened.” She was standing with her arms slightly spread.

Rallin stared at her, sifting through the metaphors. He frowned. “And there's nothing about all that, that bothers you?” he said.

The glow that had expanded warmly in her suddenly shrank, and her arms dropped to her sides. “Well, yes. I said I was content. I didn't say things were the way I would have wished them.” She turned away. “I thought we had escaped the madness back on that planet. I thought, out here in space for forty-some years, we would be clean.”

“Spores, Ma'am. Is that what you meant by spores?”

She turned back to face him. The glow was gone. “Yes. We seem to carry the spores of madness wherever we go. They are the seeds of death, Rallin. No matter how careful we were, sifting the population for suitable colonists and crew, the seeds of self-destruction came with us. Our ancestors brought them from old Earth to Cento II, and now we are bringing them back.”

“Perhaps,” Rallin said softly. Was he actually feeling some compassion? “Perhaps those seeds are as much a part of humankind as your wishful selecting of philosophies in an atmosphere of free choice. Most people don't want to be free, Captain. They want to be told what to do. They want to surrender. Perhaps you fight too hard. Religion is--to use Brantik's famous word--'inevitable.' You are fighting the wrong enemy, Captain.”

“But we planned so thoroughly. What was wrong with our approach? I told Brantik that there was room enough for spirit on the Mayflower. In fact, it was encouraged. There was no need for him to manufacture spirit, bottle it, and sell it like an aphrodisiac.”

Rallin rose and stretched an arm to her. When his hand touched her arm, she felt her spine go limp. She grasped the chair back tightly for support and summoned her strength before looking up at him.

“Room for spirit?” he said, “Is that the way you saw it, Captain?” His hand tightened on her arm. “Or was it to be plenty of room for acceptable spirit--your version of spirit? You couldn't have really thought that any group of human beings--any group--living together would allow any spiritual elbow room to remain wide open, could you? So, at the beginning, before Brantik, we had it closed down to this glorious venture, the immensity of space, and blah blah. Who was it, selling spirit in a bottle then, hmm?”

Trauck glared into his eyes, despite the watering in her own. When her words came, it was as though they had to burst through a plug in her throat. “But I was able to accept his version of the spiritual. Why couldn't he...”

“Compromise?” Rallin finished her thought, “He couldn't. It's not part of his version.” He pulled her closer to him. His breath was warm on her face. “Room for spirit. It's an interesting concept, though. For Brantik, you could say it was too much room. He shrank from it and curled into a corner with his tight little dogma. For you, it's not enough. You can open yourself to many new mysteries. Too many, perhaps.”

“I am happy with the compromise.”

“Are you?”

She pulled her head back, questioning him with her eyes.

“You won, of course, in having your atmosphere of free choice. You lost in having to lie in order to bolster the illusion of rational control when only you felt certain about it.”

She pulled her arm free and stepped back. “Don't you?”

“My point is, that you are not really that happy with what we did.”

Trauck felt an invisible but palpably cold wall erected again between her and Rallin. Could she ever climb that wall? Could he? Yet another compromise at the top? “I am satisfied,” she said grimly, rubbing her arms.

“No,” Rallin said, “You are still fighting.” He stared at her for several hard seconds, then turned and left the room.

Trauck remained standing, rubbing her arms mechanically for several minutes, trying to piece back together the empire of rationalization she had built. But a quick review of the uncertainty about the physics, coupled with the certainty of her gross deception, was looking to be more horrifying than the Event itself. Slowly she sat down on the couch, eased her body onto its side, and raised her legs. She had lost. Stretching out, she felt the peristaltic waves rush from her stomach to her head. She wept blessedly uncontrolled for ten long minutes.


THE END


2022 Robert Persons

Bio: "Over the years I have had many jobs, including letter carrier, lathe operator, farmer, and IT support and programming. Alongside that I have continuously written poems, short stories, and essays, several of which have been published, including one science fiction short, "The Roots of Martian Civilization" at Jupiter SF."--Robert Persons

E-mail: Robert Persons

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