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Authors: Brian Stableford

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #sci-fi, #space travel, #arthur c. clarke

Balance of Power

BOOK: Balance of Power
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub






Copyright © 1979, 2012 by Brian Stableford

Published by Wildside Press LLC


Night fell swiftly, darkness consuming the sky as the sun’s vestigial halo faded in the west. One of the crewmen moved slowly around the deck, lighting the lamps which hung head-high on the masts and the roof of the fo’c’sle. Lamps were lit in the cabins, too, and they cast weak orange beams from the portholes to catch the sheen on the long trailers of weed that bobbed in the bow-waves of the ship.

It was four days now since we had come once again into weed-infested sea. We were more than a hundred days out, and should be very near now to the coast of the western continent. Our closeness seemed to exaggerate the slowness with which we made headway. Day by day we pushed laboriously forward into the wind, which seemed to be trying to drive us away. Even a Columbus might have lost patience with it and allowed himself to be carried home, with the wind making his retreat easy. But we had one advantage that Columbus hadn’t had: good maps. Slow though our progress was we could always measure it out, plotting our position with precision on a map that assured us that there was a destination to be reached, and that we were getting there.

With that exception laid aside, there was much in our situation that reminded me of Columbus. We were crossing a great ocean, from east to west. A new world—a continent untouched by what passed for civilization on Attica—was waiting for us. No one else had ever made the crossing and returned (though three previous ships had made the attempt). And the crew was restless...perhaps incipiently mutinous.

I stood in the bow of the ship looking down at the waves cut out from the water as we sliced our way through the loose weed. The waves were slow, and died quickly in the viscous water. The stars were out, and their reflected glow competed with a faint bluish bioluminescence. There was something slightly eerie about the impression it made. No doubt even that would be added to the crew’s catalogue of complaint and unease.

We had had difficulty recruiting for the voyage. The arrival of the
on Attica had assured the
New Hope
a better chance than any of her predecessors, if only because of the food concentrates we were able to manufacture for her supplies (immodestly, I also rated my own presence something of a plus, but I’ll not insist upon the point). Despite this, however, volunteers for the epic journey had been thin on the ground. The fishermen of the colony saw no real merit in exploration for the sake of exploration. They had work to do and families to keep, and that was as far as their personal horizons extended. The colony—which had taken its name, Lambda, from the continent on which it had been established (which took it, in turn, from the Greek letter which it vaguely resembled on the map)—was not an outstanding success. Life had been hard in the hundred-and-some years since the landing, and there was a very powerful ethic in force demanding hard work and the responsibility of each household to look after its own. There was little reward, in terms of social approval, for anyone willing to give up his work and home for a journey across the ocean that would take half a year at the least.

Nieland—the architect of the project and the designer of the ship—had ultimately managed to sign on a full complement of men, but they were not the men he (or any sane man) would have chosen. They had always worked with an ill grace, and found new excuses for grumbling day by day. They had come close to making the voyage intolerable, for themselves and for us

It would not have been a happy trip anyhow. For days after we set out I had been very sick thanks to the interminable rolling of the boat—and so had many of the sailors. They were used to small fishing smacks, for the most part—we had only half a dozen trawlermen—and found the
New Hope
almost as alien as I did. Mariel had suffered too—perhaps more than I, though the way I had felt at the time seemed to preclude such a possibility.

Nieland, too, had been troubled. On regaining our health we three, and Nieland’s companion Ling, had also recovered our good spirits. Not so the crew. The boredom of the long days had reinforced their sense of pointlessness. The further we drew away from Lambda the greater grew their superstitious fears. Three ships lost over the last hundred years...such ventures as this one condemned by fate....

And the prevailing wind in our face, all the way. We had had no more than seven good days, with fair winds assisting us, and those had been offset by more than the same number of days when storm and tempest made progress impossible. I had been frightened then, to hear the timbers groaning in apparent desperation. There could be no greater contrast than between the ship that had brought us through hyperspace to Attica and the primitive three-masted schooner that was now carrying us over its ocean. On stormy nights I spent a great deal of time cursing the parsimony of the colony’s administrators, who had refused the plan to build a steamship on the grounds that the energy-expenditure envisaged was too high.

Somewhere behind me, a bell rang four times. To the crew, that signaled that we were two hours into the watch. To me, it meant that it was time for the evening meal. I pulled myself away from hypnotic contemplation of the sea’s sparkling surface and made my way below.

As always, the table in Nieland’s cabin was set for five. I say “set,” though there was little enough setting. We had been on a diet of pure concentrates for some time, as the ship’s supplies of more substantial nourishment had dwindled away. We had a good deal in hand in terms of calorific values and essential vitamins, but our digestive tracts were misbehaving a little because of the absence of roughage. I was used to it, but for some it was merely one more excuse to be embittered. One of the some was our noble captain, whose name was Ogburn—a tall, big-boned man who suffered from a slight speech impediment and was angrily economical with his words. He contributed little to our post-prandial conversations, and cast something of a pall over the meals themselves, but his presence was necessary, for diplomatic reasons.

Nieland and Ling, representatives of Lambda’s civil service (parasites, as some of the crew described them), provided an odd contrast. Nieland was short but very stocky, and had a tendency to the lugubrious. Ling was tall, slender and quick to smile, though his smile seemed to be quite synthetic and meaningless. It appeared like magic, and disappeared with rapid discretion, as I came into the cabin. Nieland merely nodded. Ogburn, whose back was to the door (in case he had to make a hasty exit) didn’t look round.

I took my place beside Mariel, and began peeling the foil back from the pack of concentrates without further ceremony.

“We should reach land tomorrow or the day after,” announced Nieland. He kept an overscrupulous check on our progress, measuring our position three or four times a day with the instruments that were his pride and joy.

“We’ve had no trouble with the weed so far,” added Ling. “It doesn’t seem likely that it will provide any significant hazard.”

“Wind won’t change,” contributed Ogburn.

I took up my mug of Lambda’s answer to instant coffee, and swilled down the first lumpy mouthfuls of concentrate.

“Why not station a couple of men with fishing lines tonight?” I said. “It’s been four days now since we hit the weed—there ought to be plenty of fish about and we aren’t making such headway that the lines would get torn or tangled.”

Nieland shook his head. “It isn’t a good idea to advertise the fact that we aren’t making enough headway to lose a fishing line. And we’ll hit solid weed soon, now. We can fish to our heart’s content when we reach the shore.”

I shrugged. Mariel ate silently, her eyes fixed on a knot of wood that stood up from the grain of the table about eight centimeters in from the edge. She was disturbed by the mood of the crew. She was also impatient—this was, basically, her trip. We had expected to find, on landing, that the Lambda colony had already established some kind of base. on the western continent (named Delta for an even vaguer resemblance of shape), or at least that they had a sufficiency of ships capable of making the journey. But we had found a colony in bad trouble, with the New Hope under construction and generating much ill-will as Nieland and his supporters were charged with misusing resources. Mariel had been disappointed, in that the indigenous inhabitants of Attica, who lived only on Delta, were the most nearly human and the most “advanced” of the three alien races with whom she was supposed to make contact during the mission. She had enjoyed a modest success with respect to the Salamen of Wildeblood—but they, as an amphibious species, had been somewhat remote from humanity. The Atticans were better approximations of primates, though slightly catlike in appearance. There had seemed to be much better prospects for establishing amicable relations between man and alien on Attica—mutually beneficial relations, too. But Mariel arrived to find that no avenues of communication had been opened up, and that there was no intercontinental traffic of any kind. Not only would she have to work from scratch, but there was hardly time for anything more than a brief expedition to Delta which might not even result in a fruitful contact being made. So far, she had found Attica a sad disappointment.

“There are birds sleeping in the rigging tonight,” said Ling, changing the subject. “They’re relying on us to carry them back to shore. That’s a good sign.”

Privately, I thought:
Yes, but if anything should happen, they still have their wings.
I did not, of course, voice any such thought. Nor did anyone else. But I didn’t need Mariel’s talent for reading minds to know that there were certain disturbing thoughts lurking furtively in the minds of my companions. We were two days from shore, and it had not been too difficult so far. But three other ships had made this journey, and not one had returned. They had been designed as well as the
New Hope
, built as strong. One, or even two, might have found exceptionally bad weather and gone down...but three was a number that preyed on the mind. It suggested that something more than coincidence was at work. Even to
it suggested that more than coincidence was at work

Thirty-seven years had passed since a man named Verheyden had taken a ship named
out of Lambda’s main harbor and headed west across the ocean. That span of time—a generation and a half—was testimony to just how seriously the colony took its loss. A colony that has to fight hard against starvation through every winter can’t afford to put men and money into projects which come to less than nothing, no matter what kind of principle is at stake. If Nieland didn’t return, it would be thirty-seven years more before another man like him managed to win approval for a similar expedition.

“What of your experiments?” Nieland asked me. “Have you found anything of interest?”

“I’ve only a light microscope,” I told him. “All I’m able to do is look at the plankton samples and the weed. I can’t possibly find anything that the survey team didn’t...and there’s hardly likely to have been any significant change in the marine population here in two hundred years. Really, this fetish for taking samples is a little absurd. But it’s routine—there’s a formularized pantomime we have to go through on every world, so that we can present the UN with a computer printout that weighs three tons, and thus justify our work here. There are always people who will ask what we’ve done to justify the colossal expense of sending us here. It’s not enough that we can say that we helped one or two colonies out of grave difficulties, showed them the way to success. You can’t measure things like that. The people who sent us need something with
something they can literally
and say,
is a contribution to human knowledge and the welfare of our colonies on other worlds. It’s the political mind, you know...can’t deal with abstracts at all.”

He looked at me as if he thought I was sending him up. Essentially, he was a politician himself.

Ling smiled. Briefly.

“It’s not what we achieve that counts back home,” said Mariel, in a gentler tone. “It’s what we can be seen to have achieved. The UN can’t see the worlds themselves. All they can see is our reports, our measurements, our records. They have to be complete. Every moment of our time has to be accounted for, because every moment is costing the taxpayers of Earth real money.”

BOOK: Balance of Power
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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