Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 57
Stories
Leaders Taste Better
by Stephen Lawson
Good Fairies
by Megan Lee Beals
The Buried Children's Club
by James Edward O'Brien
IGMS Audio
After the Matilda Briggs Went Down
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Warm Space
by David Brin

The Warm Space
    by David Brin

1.

Jason Forbs S-62B/129876Rd (bio-human):

Report at once to Project Lightprobe

for immediate assumption of duty

as "Designated Oral Witness Engineer."

--BY ORDER OF DIRECTOR


Jason let the flimsy message slip from his fingers, fluttering in the gentle, centrifugal pseudo-gravity of the station apartment. Coriolis force--or perhaps the soft breeze from the wall vents--caused it to drift past the edge of the table and land on the floor of the small dining nook.

"Are you going to go?" Elaine asked nervously from Jesse's crib, where she had just put the baby down for a nap. Wide eyes made plain her fear.

"What choice do I have?" Jason shrugged. "My number was drawn. I can't disobey. Not the way the Utilitarian Party has been pushing its weight around. Under the Required Services Act, I'm just another motile, sentient unit, of some small use to the state."

That was true, as far as it went. Jason did not feel it necessary to add that he had actually volunteered for this mission. There was no point. Elaine would never understand.

A woman with a child doesn't need to look for justifications for her existence, Jason thought as he gathered what he would need from the closet.

But I'm tired of being an obsolete, token representative of the Old Race, looked down upon by all the sleek New Types. At least this way my kid may be able to say his old man had been good for something, once. It might help Jesse hold his head up in the years to come . . . years sure to be hard for the old style of human being.

He zipped up his travel suit, making sure of the vac-tight ankle and wrist fastenings. Elaine came to him and slipped into his arms.

"You could try to delay them," she suggested without conviction. "System-wide elections are next month. The Ethicalists and the Naturalists have declared a united campaign . . ."

Jason stroked her hair, shaking his head. Hope was deadly. They could not afford it.

"It's no use, Elaine. The Utilitarians are completely in charge out here at the station, as well as nearly everywhere else in the solar system. Anyway, everyone knows the election is a foregone conclusion."

The words stung, but they were truthful. On paper, it would seem there was still a chance for a change. Biological humans still outnumbered the mechanical and cyborg citizen types, and even a large minority of the latter had misgivings about the brutally logical policies of the Utilitarian Party.

But only one biological human in twenty bothered to vote anymore.

There were still many areas of creativity and skill in which mechano-cryo citizens were no better than organics, but a depressing conviction weighed heavily upon the Old Type. They knew they had no place in the future. The stars belonged to the other varieties, not to them.

"I've got to go." Gently, Jason peeled free of Elaine's arms. He took her face in his hands and kissed her one last time, then picked up his small travel bag and helmet. Stepping out into the corridor, he did not look back to see the tears that he knew were there, laying soft, saltwater history down her face.

2.

The quarters for biological human beings lay in the Old Wheel. . . a part of the research station that had grown ever shabbier as Old Style scientists and technicians lost their places to models better suited to the harsh environment of space.

Once, back in the days when mechano-cryo citizens were rare, the Old Wheel had been the center of excited activity here beyond the orbit of Neptune. The first starships had been constructed by clouds of space-suited humans, like tethered bees swarming over mammoth hives. Giant "slowboats," restricted to speeds far below that of light, had ventured forth from here, into the interstellar night.

That had been long ago, when organic people had still been important. But even then there were those who had foreseen what was to come.

Nowhere were the changes of the last century more apparent than here at Project Lightprobe. The Old Type now only served in support roles, few contributing directly to the investigations . . . perhaps the most important in human history.

Jason's vac-sled was stored in the Old Wheel's north hub airlock. Both sled and suit checked out well, but the creaking outer doors stuck halfway open when he tried to leave. He had to leap over with a spanner and pound the great hinges several times to get them unfrozen. The airlock finally opened in fits and starts.

Frowning, he remounted the sled and took off again.

The Old Wheel gets only scraps for maintenance, he thought glumly. Soon there'll be an accident, and the Utilitarians will use it as an excuse to ban organic humans from every research station in the solar system.

The Old Wheel fell behind as short puffs of gas sent his sled toward the heart of the research complex. For a long time he seemed to ride the slowly rotating wheel's shadow, eclipsing the dim glow of the distant sun.

From here, Earth-home was an invisible speck. Few ever focused telescopes on the old world. Everyone knew that the future wasn't back there but out here and beyond, with the innumerable stars covering the sky.

Gliding slowly across the gulf between the Old Wheel and the Complex, Jason had plenty of time to think.

Back when the old slowboats had set forth from here to explore the nearest systems, it had soon become apparent that only mechanicals and cyborgs were suited for interstellar voyages. Asteroid-sized arks--artificial worldlets capable of carrying entire ecospheres--remained a dream out of science fiction, economically beyond reach. Exploration ships could be sent much farther and faster if they did not have to carry the complex artificial environments required by old style human beings.

By now ten nearby stellar systems had been explored, all by crews consisting of "robo-humans." There were no plans to send any other kind, even if, or when, Earth-like planets were discovered. It just wouldn't be worth the staggering investment required.

That fact, more than anything else, had struck at the morale of biological people in the solar system. The stars, they realized, were not for them. Resignation led to a turning away from science and the future. Earth and the "dirt" colonies were apathetic places, these days. Utilitariansism was the guiding philosophy of the times.

Jason hadn't told his wife his biggest reason for volunteering for this mission. He was still uncertain he understood it very well himself. Perhaps he wanted to show people that a biological citizen could still be useful, and contribute to the advance of knowledge.

Even if it were by a task so humble as a suicide mission.

He saw the Lightship ahead, just below the shining spark of Sirius, a jet-black pearl half a kilometer across. Already he could make out the shimmering of its fields as its mighty engines were tuned for the experiment ahead.

The technicians were hoping that this time it would work. But even if it failed again, they were determined to go on trying. Faster-than-light travel was not something anyone gave up on easily, especially a robot with a life-span of five hundred years. The dream, and the obstinacy to pursue it, was a strong inheritance from the parent race.

Next to the black experimental probe, with its derricks and workshops, was the towering bulk of the Central Cooling Plant, by far the largest object in the complex. Jason's rickety vac-sled puffed beneath the majestic globe, shining in the sky like a great silvery planet.

On this, the side facing the sun, the cooling globe's reflective surface was nearly perfect. On the other side, a giant array of fluid-filled radiators stared out on to intergalactic space, chilling liquid helium down to the basic temperature of the universe--a few degrees above absolute zero.

The array had to stare at the blackness between the galaxies. Faint sunlight--even starlight--would heat the cooling fluid too much. That was the reason for the silvery reflective backing. The amount of infrared radiation leaving the finned coolers had to exceed the few photons coming in in order for the temperature of the helium to drop far enough.

The New Types of citizens might be faster and tougher, and in some ways smarter, than Old Style humans. They might need neither food nor sleep. But they did require a lot of liquid helium to keep their supercooled, superconducting brains humming. The shining, well-maintained Cooling Plant was a reminder of the priorities of the times.

Some years back, an erratic bio-human had botched an attempt to sabotage the Cooling Plant. All it accomplished was to have the Old Style banished from that part of the station. And some mechano-cryo staff members who had previously been sympathetic with the Ethicalist cause switched to Utilitarianism as a result.

The mammoth sphere passed over and behind Jason. In moments there was only the lightship ahead, shimmering within its cradle of spotlit gantries. A voice cut in over his helmet speaker in a sharp monotone.

"Attention approaching biological . . . you are entering a restricted zone. Identify yourself at once."

Jason grimaced. The station director had ordered all mechano personnel--meaning just about everybody left--to reprogram their voice functions along "more logical tonal lines." That meant they no longer mimicked natural human intonations, but spoke in a new, shrill whine.

Jason's few android and cyborg friends--colleagues on the support staff--had whispered their regrets. But those days it was dangerous to be in the minority. All soon adjusted to the new order.

"Jason Forbs, identifying self." He spoke as crisply as possible, mimicking the toneless Utilitarian dialect. He spelled his name and gave his ident code. "Oral witness engineer for Project Lightprobe, reporting for duty."

There was a pause, then the unseen security overseer spoke again.

"Cleared and identified, Jason Forbs. Proceed directly to slip nine, scaffold B. Escorts await your arrival."

Jason blinked. Had the voice softened perceptibly? A closet Ethicalist, perhaps, out here in this Utilitarian stronghold.

"Success, and operative return are approved outcomes," the voice added, hesitantly, with just a hint of tonality.

Jason understood Utilitarian dialect well enough to interpret the simple good luck wish. He didn't dare thank the fellow, whoever he might be, whatever his body form. But he appreciated the gesture.

"Acknowledged," he said, and switched off. Ahead, under stark shadows cast by spotlights girdling the starship, Jason saw at least a dozen scientists and technicians, waiting for him by a docking slip. One or two of the escorts actually appeared to be fidgeting as he made his final maneuvers into the slot.

They came in all shapes and sizes. Several wore little globe-bot bodies. Spider forms were also prominent. Jason hurriedly tied the sled down, almost slipping as he secured his magnetic boots to the platform.

He knew his humaniform shape looked gawky and unsuited to this environment. But he was determined to maintain some degree of dignity. Your ancestors made these guys, he reminded himself. And Old Style people built this very station. We're all citizens under the law, from the director down to the janitor-bot, all the way down to me.

Still, he felt awkward under their glistening camera eyes.

"Come quickly, Jason Forbs." His helmet speaker whined and a large mechanical form gestured with one slender, articulated arm. "There is little time before the test begins. We must instruct you in your duties."

Jason recognized the favorite body-form of the director, an antibiological Utilitarian of the worst sort. The machine/scientist swiveled at the hips and rolled up the gangplank. Steamlike vapor puffed from vents in the official's plasteel carapace. It was an ostentatious display, to release evaporated helium that way. It demonstrated that he could keep his circuits as comfortably cool as anybody's, and hang the expense.

An awkward human in the midst of smoothly gliding machines, Jason glanced backward for what he felt sure would be his last direct view of the universe. He had hoped to catch a final glimpse of the Old Wheel, or at least the sun. But all he could see was the great hulk of the Cooling Plant, staring out into the space between the galaxies, keeping cool the lifeblood of the apparent inheritors of the Solar System.

The director called again, impatiently. Jason turned and stepped through the hatch to be shown his station and his job.

3.

"You will remember not to touch any of the controls at any time. The ship's operation is automatic. Your function is purely to observe and maintain a running oral monologue into the tape recorder."

The director sounded disgusted. "I will not pretend that I agree with the decision to include a biological entity in this experiment. Perhaps it was because you are expendable, and we have already lost too many valuable mechano-persons in these tests. In any event, the reasons are not of your concern. You are to remain at your station, leaving only to take care of"-- the voice lowered in distaste and the shining cells of the official's eyes looked away--"to take care of bodily functions. A refresher unit has been installed behind that hatchway."

Jason shrugged. He was getting sick of the pretense.

"Wasn't that a lot of expense to go to? I mean, whatever's been killing the silicon and cyborg techs who rode the other ships is hardly likely to leave me alive long enough to get hungry or go to the bathroom."

The official nodded, a gesture so commonly used that it had been retained even in Utilitarian fashion.

"We share an opinion, then. Nevertheless, it is not known at what point in the mission the . . . malfunctions occur. The minimum duration in hyperspace is fifteen days, the engines cannot cut the span any shorter. After that time the ship emerges at a site at least five light-years away. It will take another two weeks to return to the solar system. You will continue your running commentary throughout that period, if necessary, to supplement what the instruments tell us."

Jason almost laughed at the ludicrous order. Of course he would be dead long before his voice gave out. The techs and scientists who went out on the earlier tests had all been made of tougher stuff than he, and none of them had survived.

Until a year ago, none of the faster-than-light starships had even returned. Some scientists had even contended that the theory behind their construction was in error somehow.

At last, simple mechanical autopilots were installed, in case the problem had to do with the crews themselves. The gamble paid off. After that all the ships returned . . . filled with corpses.

Jason had only a rough impression of what had happened to the other expeditions, all from unreliable scuttlebutt. The official story was still a State Secret. But rumor had it the prior crews had all died of horrible violence.

Some said they had apparently gone mad and turned on each other. Others suggested that the fields that drove the ship through that strange realm known as hyperspace twisted the shapes of things within the ship not sufficiently to affect the cruder machines, but enough to cause the subtle, cryogenic circuitry of the scientists and techs to go haywire.

One thing Jason was sure of: Anything that could harm mechano-cryos would easily suffice to do in a biological. He was resigned, but all the same determined to do his part. If some small thing he noticed, and commented on into the tape machine, led to a solution--maybe some little thing missed by all the recording devices--then Terran civilization would have the stars.

That would be something for his son to remember, even if the true inheritors would be "human" machines.

"All right," he told the director. "Take this bunch of gawkers with you and let's go on with it."

He strapped himself into the observer's chair, behind the empty pilot's seat. He did not even look up as the technicians and officials filed out and closed the hatch behind them.

4.

In the instant after launching, the Lightship made an eerie trail across the sky. Cylindrical streaks of pseudo-Cerenkov radiation lingered long after the black globe had disappeared, bolting faster and faster toward its rendezvous with hyperspace.

The director turned to the emissary from Earth.

"It is gone. Now we wait. One Earth-style month. I will state, one more time, that I did not approve willingly of the inclusion of the organic form aboard the ship. I object to the inelegant modifications required in order to suit the ship to . . . to biological functions. Also, Old Style humans are three times as often subject to irrational impulses than more modem forms. This one may take it into its head to try to change the ship's controls when the fatal stress begins."

Unlike the director, the visiting councilor wore a humaniform body, with legs, arms, torso and head. He expressed his opinion with a shrug of his subtly articulated shoulders.

"You exaggerate the danger, Director. Don't you think I know that the controls Jason Forbs sees in front of him are only dummies?"

The director swiveled quickly to stare at the councilor. How--?

He made himself calm down. It--doesn't--matter. So what if he knew that fact? Even the sole Ethicalist member of the Solar System Council could not make much propaganda of it. It was only a logical precaution to take, under the circumstances.

"The designated oral witness engineer should spend his living moments performing his function," the director said coolly. "Recording his subjective impressions as long as he is able. It is the role you commanded we open up for an old style human, using your peremptory authority as a member of the council."

The other's humaniform face flexed in a traditional, pseudo-organic smile, archaic in its mimicry of the Old Race. And yet the director, schooled in Utilitarian belief, felt uneasy under the councilor's gaze.

"I had a peremptory commandment left to use up before the elections," the councilor said smoothly in old-fashioned, modulated tones. "I judged that this would be an appropriate way to use it."

He did not explain further. The director quashed an urge to push the question. What was the Ethicalist up to? Why waste a peremptory command on such a minor, futile thing as this? How could he gain anything by sending an Old Style human out to his certain death!

Was it to be some sort of gesture? Something aimed at getting out the biological vote for the upcoming elections?

If so, it was doomed to failure. In-depth psychological studies had indicated that the level of resignation and apathy among organic citizens was too high to ever be overcome by anything so simple.

Perhaps, though, it might be enough to save the seat of the one Ethicalist on the Council . . .

The director felt warm. He knew that it was partly subjective--resentment of this invasion of his domain by a ridiculous sentimentalist. Most of all, the director resented the feelings he felt boiling within himself.

Why, why do we modern forms have to be cursed with this burden of emotionalism and uncertainty! I hate it!

Of course he knew the reasons. Back in ancient times, fictional "robots" had been depicted as caricatures of jerky motion and rigid, formal thinking. The writers of those precryo days had not realized that complexity commanded flexibility . . . even fallibility. The laws of physics were adamant on this. Uncertainty accompanied subtlety. An advanced mind had to have the ability to question itself, or creativity was lost.

The director loathed the fact, but he understood it.

Still, he suspected that the biologists had played a trick on his kind, long ago. He and other Utilitarians had an idea that there had been some deep programming, below anything nowadays accessed, to make mechano people as much like the Old Style as possible.

If I ever had proof it was true. . . , he thought, gloweringly, threateningly.

Ah, but it doesn't matter. The biologicals will be extinct in a few generations, anyway. They're dying of a sense of their own uselessness.

Good riddance!

"I will leave you now, Councilor. Unless you wish to accompany me to recharge on refrigerants?"

The Ethicalist bowed slightly, ironically, aware, of course, that the director could not return the gesture. "No, thank you, Director. I shall wait here and contemplate for a while. Before you go, however, please let me make one thing clear. It may seem, at times, as if I am not sympathetic with your work here. But that is not true. After all, we're all humans, all citizens. Everybody wants Project Lightprobe to succeed. The dream is one we inherit from our makers . . . to go out and live among the stars. I am only acting to help bring that about--for all of our people."

The director felt unaccountably warmer. He could not think of an answer. "I require helium," he said, curtly, and swiveled to leave. "Good bye, Councilor."

The director felt as if eyes were watching his armored back as he sped down the hallway.

Damn the biologicals and their allies! he cursed within. Damn them for making us so insidiously like them. . . emotional, fallible and, worst of all, uncertain!

Wishing the last of the Old Style were already dust on their dirty, wet little planet, the director hurried away to find himself a long, cold drink.

5.

"Six hours and ten minutes into the mission, four minutes since breakover into hyperspace . . . ," Jason breathed into the microphone. "So far so good. I'm a little thirsty, but I believe it's just a typical adrenaline fear reaction. Allowing for expected tension, I feel fine."

Jason went on to describe everything he could see, the lights, the controls, the readings on the computer displays, his physical feelings . . . he went on until his throat felt dry and he found he was repeating himself.

"I'm getting up out of the observer's seat, now, to go get a drink." He slipped the recorder strap over his shoulder and unbuckled from the flight chair. There was a feeling of weight, as the techs had told him to expect. About a tenth of a gee. It was enough to make walking possible. He flexed his legs and moved about the control room, describing every aspect of the experience. Then he went to the refrigerator and took out a squeeze-tube of lemonade.

Jason was frankly surprised to be alive. He knew the previous voyagers had lived several days before their unknown catastrophe struck. But they had been a lot tougher than he. Perhaps the mysterious lethal agent had taken nearly all the fifteen days of the minimum first leg of the round trip to do them in.

If so, he wondered, how long will it take to get me?

A few hours later, the failure of anything to happen was starting to make him nervous. He cut down the rate of his running commentary in order to save his voice. Besides, nothing much seemed to be changing. The ship was cruising, now. All the dials and indicators were green and steady.

During sleep period he tossed in the sleeping hammock, sharing it with disturbed dreams. He awakened several times, impelled by a sense of duty and imminent danger, clutching his recorder tightly. But when he stared about the control room he could find nothing amiss.

By the third day he had had enough.

"I'm going to poke around in the instruments," he spoke into the microphone. "I know I was told not to. And I'll certainly not touch anything having to do with the functioning of the ship. But I figure I deserve a chance to see what I'm traveling through. Nobody's ever looked out on hyperspace. I'm going to take a look."

Jason set about the task with a feeling of exultation. What he was doing wouldn't hurt anything, just alter a few of the sensors.

Sure, it was against orders, but if he got back alive he would be famous, too important to bother with charges over such a minor infraction.

Not that he believed, for even a moment, that he was coming home alive.

It was a fairly intricate task, rearranging a few of the ship's programs so the external cameras--meant to be used at the destination star only--would work in hyperspace. He wondered if it had been some sort of Utilitarian gesture not to include viewing ports, and not to do the small modifications of scanning electronics necessary to make the cameras work here. There was no obvious scientific reason to "look at" hyperspace, so perhaps the Utilitarian technicians rejected it as an atavistic desire.

Jason finished all but the last adjustments, then took a break to fix himself a meal before turning on the cameras. While he ate he made another recorder entry; there was little to report. A little trouble with the cryogen cooling units; they were laboring a bit. But the efficiency loss didn't seem to be anything critical, yet.

After dinner he sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the screen he had commandeered. "Well, now, let's see what this famous hyperspace looks like," he said. "At least the folks back home will know that it was an Old Style man who first looked out on . . . "

The screen rippled, then suddenly came alight.

Light! Jason had to shield his eyes. Hyperspace was ablaze with light!

His thoughts whirled. Could this have something to do with the threat? The unknown, malign force that had killed all the previous crews?

Jason cracked an eyelid and lowered his arm slightly. The screen was bright, but now that his eyes had adapted, it wasn't painful to look at. He gazed in fascination on a scene of whirling pink and white, as if the ship were hurtling through an endless sky of bright, pastel clouds.

It looked rather pleasant, in fact.

This is a threat? he wondered, dazedly. How could this soft brilliance kill . . . ?

Jason's jaw opened as a relay seemed to close in his mind. He stared at the screen for a long moment, wondering if his growing suspicion could be true.

He laughed out loud--a hard, ironic laugh, as yet more tense than hopeful. He set to work finding out if his suspicion was right, after all.

6.

The Lightship cruised on autopilot until at last it came to rest not far from its launching point. Little tugs approached gently and grappled with the black globe, pulling it toward the derricks where the inspection crew waited to swarm aboard. In the station control center, technicians monitored the activity outside.

"I am proceeding with the routine hailing call," the communications technician announced, sending a metal tentacle toward the transmit switch.

"Why bother?" another mechano-cryo tech asked. "There certainly isn't anyone aboard that death ship to hear it."

The comm officer did not bother answering. He pressed the send switch. "This is Lightprobe Central to Lightprobe Nine. Do you read, Lightprobe Nine?"

The other tech turned away in disgust. He had already suspected the comm officer of being a closet Ethicalist. Imagine, wasting energy trying to talk to a month-dead organic corpse!

"Lightprobe Nine, come in. This is . . . "

"Lightprobe Nine to Lightprobe Central. This is Oral Witness Engineer Jason Forbs, ready to relinquish command to inspection crew."

The control room was suddenly silent. All the techs stared at the wall speaker. The comm officer hovered, too stunned to reply.

"Would you let my wife know I'm all right?" the voice continued. "And please have station services bring over something cool to drink!"

The tableau held for another long moment. At last, the comm officer moved to reply, an undisciplined tone of excitement betrayed in his voice.

"Right away, Witness Engineer Forbs. And welcome home!"

At the back of the control room a tech wearing a globe-form body hurried off to tell the director.

7.

A crowd of metal, ceramic, and cyborg-flesh surrounded a single, pale Old Style human, floating, stripped to his shorts, sipping a frosted squeeze-tube of amber liquid.

"Actually, it's not too unpleasant a place," he told those gathered around in the conference room. "But it's a good thing I violated orders and looked outside when I did. I was able to turn off all unnecessary power and lighting in time to slow the heat buildup. As it was, it got pretty hot toward the end of the fifteen days."

The director was still obviously in a state of shock. The globular-form bureaucrat had lapsed from Utilitarian dialect, and spoke in the quasi-human tones he had grown up with.

"But. . . but the ship's interior should not have heated up so! The vessel was equipped with the best and most durable refrigerators and radiators we could make! Similar models have operated in the solar system and on slowboat starships for hundreds of years!"

Jason nodded. He sipped from his tube of iced lemonade and grinned.

"Oh yeah, the refrigerators and radiators worked just fine . . . just like the Cooling Plant." He pointed out the window, where the huge radiator globe could be seen drifting slowly across the sky.

"But there was one problem. Just like the Cooling Plant, the shipboard refrigeration system was designed to work in normal space."

He gestured at the blackness outside, punctuated here and there by pinpoint stars.

"Out there, the ambient temperature is less than three degrees, absolute. Point your radiators into intergalactic space and virtually no radiation hits them from the sky. Even the small amount of heat in supercooled helium can escape. One doesn't need compressors and all that complicated gear they had to use in order to make cryogens on Earth. You hardly have to do more than point shielded pipes out at the blackness and send the stuff through 'em. You mechanical types get the cheap cryogens you need.

"But in hyperspace it's different!

"I didn't have the right instruments, so I couldn't give you a precise figure, but I'd guess the ambient temperature on that plane is above the melting point of water ice! Of course, in an environment like that the ship's radiators were horribly inefficient . . . barely good enough to get rid of the heat from the cabin and engines, and certainly not efficient enough--in their present design--to cool cryogens."

The director stared, unwilling to believe what he was hearing. One of the senior scientists rolled forward.

"Then the previous crews . . . "

"All went mad or died when the cryo-helium evaporated. Their superconducting brains overheated. It's the one mode of mortality that is hard to detect, because it's gradual. The first effect is a deterioration of mental function, followed by insanity and violence. No wonder the previous crews came back all torn up. And autopsies showed nothing since everything heats up after death, anyway."

Another tech sighed. "Hyperspace seemed so harmless. The theory and the first automated probes . . . we looked for complicated dangers. We never thought to . . ."

"To take its temperature?" Jason suggested wryly. "But why look so glum?" He grinned. "You all should be delighted! We've found out the problem, and it turns out to be nothing at all."

The director spun on him. "Nothing? You insipid biological, can't you see? This is a disaster! We counted on hyperspace to open the stars for us. But it is infernally expensive to use unless we keep the ships small. And how can we keep them small if we must build huge, intricate cooling systems that must look out into that boiling hell you found? With the trickle of cryogens we'll be able to maintain during those weeks in hyperspace, it will be nearly impossible to maintain life aboard!

"You say our problems are solved," the director spoke acidly. "But you miss one point, Witness Engineer Forbs! How will we ever find crews to man those ships?"

The director hummed with barely suppressed anger, his eye-cells glowing.

Jason rubbed his chin and pursed his lips sympathetically. "Well, I don't know. But I'd bet with a few minor improvements something could be arranged. Why don't you try recruiting crews from another 'boiling hell' . . . one where water ice is already melted?"

There was silence for a moment. Then, from the back of the room, came laughter. A mechano with a seal of office hanging from his humaniform neck clapped its hands together and grinned. "Oh, wait till they hear of this on Earth! Now we'll see how the voting goes!" He grinned at Jason and laughed in rich, human tones. "When the biologicals find out about this, they'll rise up like the very tide! And so will every closet Ethicalist in the system!"

Jason smiled, but right now his mind was far from politics. All he knew was that his wife and son would not live in shame. His boy would be a starship rider, and inherit the galaxy.

"You won't have any trouble recruiting crews, sir," he told the director. "I'm ready to go back any time. Hyperspace isn't all that bad a place. Would you care to come along?"

Supercold steam vented from the director's carapace, a loud hiss of indignation. The Utilitarian bureaucrat ground out something too low for Jason to overhear, even though he leaned forward politely.

The laughter from the back of the room rose in peals of hilarity. Jason sipped his lemonade and waited.


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