IT WAS A DEAD-END CORRIDOR
No place to hide. No place to run.
Then there was a hissing of powerful hydraulic gears behind the reinforced walls of concrete and steel, and the heavy security door slid sideways.
They rushed and jostled inside the familiar lobby leading to their quarters. Mac was last, though, turning and stabbing a finger onto the red emergency button that closed the door. After a moment’s hesitation, it began to move shut, agonizingly slowly.
Jim stood near the shrinking gap, peering into the passage outside. He saw a flicker of movement and heard shouting.
A rough strident voice called out. “Hold it!”
A man appeared around the bend of the corridor, with a sawed-down scattergun cradled in his arms. “Hold the bastard door!”
The gun was leveled, barely fifty feet away.
Jim Hilton was frozen, aware that the gap was still five feet, and that an ominous grinding sound came from the door’s gearing.
#1 in the Eathblood series
The infinite cold and silence of the final frontier of deep space.
The exterior of the USSV Aquila had once been mirror smooth and diamond polished. Now it was scarred and pitted, the heat shields pocked by dust and radiation from the unknowable winds that blew between the dark stars.
The stillness beyond the locked observation shutters was continued inside the vessel.
A light film of the thinnest oil eased tumblers. On the control panels there was a dazzling array of changing colors. On the master console the micros selected from the thousands of pieces of input data.
A comp clock revealed the date and the time, the pulsing chron crystal accurate over a thousand years to one thousandth of a second.
The clock still registered Pacific coast time. It was fifteen minutes past three in the morning on the twenty-fourth day of September in the year of our Lord 2040.
A liquid-crystal display beneath was running in tandem, showing the total elapsed time of the Aquila’s mission.
Apart from the almost inaudible humming and whispering of the computers, the vessel was silent, the crew all sleeping.
AFTER the blast-off in the bright dawn at the rebuilt Stevenson Air Base in Nevada, the Aquila had been set on course for its exploratory mission. That was seven hundred and fifty days and nights ago, but the ship’s crew of ten men and two women had been locked into sleep for all but twenty-six days of that time.
A form of cryonic suspended animation enabled them to be maintained at a minimal level of life support during the months of darkness, with the on-board computers, linked to those back at Stevenson, making the occasional minimal correction.
They’d all been awake on six-hour rotating shifts for the first week of the mission. Then they each entered a capsule of clear armaglass engineered to their own body measurements. A mix of chemicals sent them sliding into something approximating sleep. Respiration and circulation both dipped to almost unbelievably low levels, levels that specialists would have interpreted as showing certain clinical death only a few years earlier.
Tubes connected to the inside of each crew member’s right arm carried regular doses of balanced nutrients, while the waste products were siphoned hygienically away.
They’d all been woken when the Aquila was close to the halfway point of its research mission. They remained awake and busy with their various tasks for a few weeks or so and then returned, with some reluctance, to their molded pods.
Aboard the Aquila there was almost no sense of time passing or of distance traversed. But the vessel was speeding inexorably back toward its home planet. Sling-shotting on its predestined orbit, back to Earth.
Eleven of the twelve crew were peacefully asleep.
One was not.
Suddenly an alarm began to shrill on board the Aquila.
Millions of dollars had been spent on researching the best sort of voice for the computer control on board Aquila.
It was found that people responded best to a voice that promised them security. The box most often ticked on the query-response documentation was the one that said, “A voice that promises nothing will ever happen to hurt me.”