There was only one thing I could do. I had no choice. I kicked his face once and his grip loosened. Twice and he let go, snagging the hatch edge with his fingertips. On the third blow he dropped into the tiny details of the land far below. Maybe he landed safely, maybe on the stone stairs. I don’t know. I hope so.
'You idiot,' I said, as the line of light narrowed and disappeared with a pneumatic thump. I clambered up and brushed myself off. I heard, as I said, the rumbling mutter of far away engines. Condensation or lubricant dripped somewhere. The light fixtures popped and buzzed. The Doctor and the princess were discussing something in urgent whispers. But there was a missing sound, something I couldn’t quite identify.
In the dim light ahead I saw two figured kneeling by a third. 'Don’t move him, not an inch!' warned the Doctor. I was sickened by the realisation of what sound I’d been missing.
'It won’t stop singing until it makes a kill,' I thought.
The song was over and the spear was silent.
'Mr. Garron was dead,' stated Bob Sunny Day.
'Dead as a door knocker, Bob. Yes, he was dead.'
I found it interesting that the security robot did not refer to Garron as the Graff Vynda-K and chanced a glance at my fellow prisoners to see if they’d noticed. The princess raised a perfect eyebrow. The Doctor was deep in thought, eyes closed and fingers moving like he was operating an invisible calculator. Then his eyes popped open and he grinned. Yes, they’d noticed.
Bob Name Your Poison broke the intermission. 'Announcement. Announcement. Correlation of multiple verifier data and witness testimony confirms the individual known as Buckminster Garronis not the Graff Vynda-K. All charges of the detainees being associates of this individual are hereby dropped.'
'Also,' said Bob Sunny Day, 'We’re very sorry for the loss of your heterosexual life partner. Please accept our sincerest condolences.'
'The stated expression of regret is a courtesy expression only and in no way an admission of legal culpability on the part of the Parallax corporation or its partners and subsidiaries,' added Bob What A Deal.
I blinked, scratched an ear. The Doctor cleared his throat.
'That’s it, then? We aren’t under arrest?' he asked.
'Regretfully, Doctor, we must insist on your continued detention. We have yet to find the register, though we have ascertained an 87% probability that it is inside this tesseract device you spoke of, and therefore is with the body of the regrettably deceased Mr. Garron.'
The Doctor snapped his fingers. 'Of course! That explains why you’re so intent on tracing our path! It doesn’t explain why you don’t just dial up a map, though.'
'Regrettably, that function is inaccessible.'
Whose interrogation was it anyway? I broke in.'All right, all right. We’ll try to help you find the way back to Garron’s... body!'
'That is to be desired.'
'Agreed, Bobs. And after that, we fix everything, crisis averted, we all go home. Right?'
Bob Name Your Poison shook his head. 'There are additional charges of unauthorized entry into staff-only zones, multiple counts of willful destruction of corporation property, unauthorized operation of corporation systems, conspiring to create civil unrest, inciting civil unrest, theft and unauthorized operation of a company vehicle for nefarious purposes, resisting arrest and failing to use proper body disposal protocols.'
Bob Sunny Day asked, 'Do you understand the new charges?'
'Yes, I understand the new charges. And no, we aren’t guilty. I mean, we are, I suppose, but it wasn’t our intent to cause trouble. I can’t recall resisting arrest but I suppose we must have. We just wanted to find the Doctor’s ship and get out of here.'
'We shall consider all extenuating circumstances as we determine your degree of guilt. Now, please continue your story.'
'So, you really want to hear it all, huh? Well, all right.
There was an artifact from old Earth in the community centre at the Darwin colony. It was an old style game, just loose pieces, cards and a faded board in a plain box, but I spent hours with it. Wish I knew what it was called.
Anyway, if you hooked it up to a power slot it was endless fun. The board was a funny picture of an unhappy man on an operating table. Parts of the surface were cut out, with a sensitive metal rim. Under the cut-outs were holes in which you placed plastic joke organs, like a funny bone or a bucket signifying water on the knee. The goal was to earn money by pulling the plastic pieces out without touching the sides. You got a little pair of tweezers to do that. You had to be extremely careful not to touch the sides. If you did, a buzzer would sound and you didn’t earn your fee.
Sometimes we’d play for real money like the grown-ups. I did very well after I discovered that a sonic pulse temporarily disabled the conductivity of the rim. Here, Doctor, why don’t you play that pulse for our robotic friends here?'
'What is that device?' squawked Bob Name Your Poison.
'Don’t be alarmed, fellows, it’s only a screwdriver.'
'This sound has invasive sonic properties! We demand it be stopped now or we will call the guards!'
'Relax, Bobs. It’s not going to hurt you. Doctor, that should be enough. See? All done!'
'I must protest! Again your diversions seem irrelevant!'
'All right, all right. Don’t pop a breaker. No harm done.'
I looked at my communicator, yawned and stretched.
'Say, Bobs, I’m getting tired. Why don’t we take a break? If I don’t sleep I’m liable to forget the story, maybe miss an important clue you need.'
'Very well. We will recommence the interrogation in twenty-four cycles.'
On the way back to the interrogation room the next day I heard something. 'Was that a shot?' I asked the guard.
He did not respond.
'I’m sure I heard a shot. Is there something happening?'
'It is none of your concern. There has been an incursion from below. It has happened before and will be dealt with. Here is the interrogation room. Have a fun day!'
The Doctor and princess were in their seats. I smiled at them and took mine.
'Good morning, Bobs. Shall we begin? We’re about to discover your certain doom.'
'We left Garron in Intercell Maintenance Corridor 12,675H. It was stencilled on the wall.
The Doctor said that it looked deserted for hundreds of years. He really seemed fascinated, like he was in his element. He tapped gauges and fiddled with control panels, scanned conduit junctions and yodelled down air shafts.
At one point, not far along, we skirted a small hole in the deck. The Doctor peered down, whistled softly, then pointed up. There was a corresponding hole in the ceiling. It wasn’t natural; something had smashed through.
'A meteorite?' suggested the princess. The Doctor shook his head.
'No, see the edges? This was something very heavy, not something moving fast.' He looked worried.
I peered down the hole. Far below I saw a tiny pinprick of light, and another far above.
'Let’s keep moving. Andele, andele!'
Then the corridor split. Up a ramp, down a ramp, straight ahead.
'Which way?' asked the princess.
'Feel that?' asked the Doctor, 'there’s a breeze. Ariba, ariba.'
‘Up’. An hour ago we’d climbed through the sky. 'Doctor,' I said as we trudged upwards, 'where are we, really? Rallax is supposed to be a planet, but this is a spaceship, isn’t it?'
'It’s a planet-sized spaceship.'
'That control panel... it said ‘wild adventure’, like for tourists...'
'Then why haven’t I ever heard about it? Something this big, you’d think they’d advertise.' He stopped at a panel. 'Look. Mind the wasp’s nest there.'
(Incidentally, you Bobs need an exterminator. The tunnels are infested with vermin.)
He unscrewed the panel and set the lid aside. 'Lots of big, standard industrial metal out here, right?' he said, gesturing to the corridor. 'Now take a gander in there.'
'What on Earth?' Under the panel the circuitry was totally unfamiliar, a dense assemblage of tiny geometric shapes in a glowing lattice.
'That, Unstoffe and Verne-Burroughs, is one of the most dangerously silly engineering designs I’ve seen. And believe me, I’ve seen my share. This is a hypersolid gravity circuit. Instead of manipulating energy, it uses gravity to manipulate matter. Now, see how the circuit doesn’t touch the sides? It’s held suspended by a mass nullifying inner cell. Can you tell me why that’s necessary? Of course you can’t! It’s because those little doodas are dwarf star alloy and the connecting framework is plasmatic antimatter.'
'I follow what you’re saying, but I keep up with new tech and this is all unfamiliar to me. Is it alien?' I asked.
'No, not at all. See the nameplate there? “Made in Oslo”.'
'Peter, don’t strain yourself,' said the princess, calling me “Peter”. 'I have an insane notion. Doctor, those numbers there: One-nine-zero-eight-four-eight... is that a serial number or a date?'
'Oh, very good!' He beamed at her (she seemed pleased), then cleared his throat and continued. 'It all fits. The language, the robots, the staggering hubris. Hypersolids! Hypersolids! Those idiots!'
He replaced the lid. 'Let’s keep moving.'
He hurried off. I trotted to keep up.
'Doctor, you didn’t answer her question.'
Ignoring me, he said, 'Remember the hole back there? What happens to dwarf star alloy when its mass nullification field collapses?' Correctly interpreting our silence as understanding, he continued, 'In fact, what happens to a mass nullification field when its environmental parameters change and there’s no-one to adjust the frequency?'
He skirted a second hole in the deck without a pause. I stopped and peered down. I saw sunlight far below. With a shudder, I pictured what had happened. With the decay of the null field, each tiny bit of circuitry regained its weight. And a mere grain of dwarf alloy weighs tons. Before the field failed totally it would rip loose and crash down through endless layers until reaching the centre. And if this was happening all over Rallax, that meant that a solid mass of hypergrav material was accumulating at the core. And that was affecting the remaining, functioning null fields in turn... I studied the ceiling, thought of all that weight overhead and cringed when it creaked.
'Doctor!' I called as I rushed after them, 'How long? How long until it all goes?'
Back in the interrogation room, all three robots turned to the Doctor. He pretended to study the ceiling until their steady gaze became too much. 'Oh, all right! But I’ve already told you once.'
'Nevertheless, we are keenly interested in our long term prospects.'
He formed a pyramid with his fingers. 'I’d say –and this is just an educated guess –you’ve got about, oh, two Earth years. You’ll be glued to the deck by then. Anything living will long since have died except for the cockroaches. Cheeky little buggers. Things will accelerate after that –in about six months the whole lot will implode and this will become a small star. Or a black hole; I’m not sure. Something bad at any rate.'
'A star, Doctor? How is this possible?'
'It’s possible because your foolish architects built this world using quadrillions of tons of dwarf star matter held suspended in unstable NG grids. Where on Earth did they find that much dwarf alloy? Well, not on Earth, obviously, but where? That’s what I’d like to know.'
'But what do we do?'
He peered at them. A shadow of a sneer crossed his lips.
'Do? What do you do? Unless you lot suddenly become engineers instead of re-purposed cruise directors, you do nothing. There are millions of circuits to be calibrated. Unless there are more of you than we’ve seen, it would take you decades. Assuming you had the proper tools and knew how to use them.'
He slumped in his chair. 'You’re doomed. I’m so sorry.'
The interrogation room was silent, but I heard syncopated running in the corridor. A distant boom sent mild vibrations through my shoes. Somewhere people were shouting. Our captors ignored it all, intent on the Doctor’s next words.
'If I had the registry, I could stop the warps. That will buy you some time. And maybe, just maybe, I can use its control circuits to jump start your self-repair systems. So let’s take care of finding Garron, shall we? Unstoffe, it’s time to continue.'
'At the top of the ramp we found a larger passage and continued down it. After an hour or so we began to hear a distant, steady roar and a breeze began to push at our backs. This intensified as we advanced until it became a struggle to keep our feet. The Doctor hardly seemed to notice; the princess had to clutch my arm to stay upright. I didn’t mind.
'Follow me!' cried the Doctor over the howling wind. 'It won’t be bad after we pass the intake!'
He pointed to another ramp that terminated at a huge baffled grill. We could easily walk upright through the vanes. Well, that is, if they weren’t crashing open and shut in unison with each variance in the airflow.
'Are you mad, Doctor?' I shouted. Here atop the ramp the roar and crashing was deafening.
The wind snatched away his response. I asked again and he indicated his ear –'I can’t hear you’ or ‘Look! Mine are smaller than yours.’
We resorted to shouting, mime and charades. The result was something like this-
'We’ll be crushed!'
'Nonsense! It’s all in the timing! Watch!'
At that, he stood at the vent, inches from the snapping vanes. I got the sense he was counting, then he casually stepped through. I hated him a little for that.
'Our turn!' yelled the princess, tugging my arm.
I dared not show cowardice, so I let her pull me forward. This close, I could feel each resounding bang in my bones. The random motion of the huge objects and the intermittent glimpses of a huge, bright gulf on the other side made me light-headed. The princess thought she saw an opening but I wouldn’t be moved. She frowned up at me, irritated. 'Any time now!'
At that moment the concert of disconcert reached a climax in my poor brain. My cowardice and my burning desire to appear brave reached some harmonic resonance and suddenly a deep calm seeped into me. The wind faded to a whisper and the vanes moved very slow and without thinking I knew I could anticipate their movement. I wish I could claim credit for what happened next, I really do. But I don’t remember. Did I begin to faint and merely stumble forward? Did the princess pull me? Did a gust of wind push me? Did I achieve harmony with the universe of time and movement? I don’t know... but suddenly I was on the other side and jogging easily out of the current into a steady and not unpleasant breeze.
And then I saw our surroundings and was struck awestruck. Awe stricken.
It’s funny how our minds comprehend scale, isn’t it? The jungle below was a single huge room but it was so well disguised its proportions didn’t really register. But this! The princess and I simply stood and tried to drink it in. In sips.
We looked out from the lower curve of a tunnel that spanned the horizons. No, “tunnel” doesn’t do. It was an expanse, an extent, a gulf. It was easily an orbital mile in diameter. An endless artificial sun sent dancing shafts of gold through the misty clouds that scuttled along the ceiling.