Daniel yawned and waved vaguely at one of the operations room's cameras with his coffee.
"Good morning, Daniel. How are you?"
He rubbed his eye with his free thumb. "Still asleep I think," he said. "What have you got for me today?"
"One of the shuttles needs its electronics checked. The mechanical side was passed yesterday, so there should be no one to get in your way. The Deucalion, bay twelve."
Daniel sat down in front of a screen and balanced his coffee on the chair arm. The operations room was mostly unused, which was why he came here. It also had plenty of free computer terminals, arranged in banks in the classic space traffic control room design pioneered by NASA.
It was the control centre of the Noah, and theoretically, Daniel shouldn't be in there at all. Probably neither should the few others who were already working at other terminals around the room. No doubt Mother Brain had surreptitiously disabled the console's more interesting features to guard against accidents.
There was also one of the Wren androids, its military short hair, rigid square-jawed face and one of the two conical sensor clusters which framed the jaw just visible around the edge of the high backed chair it was sitting in. It was so still that it could've been a mannequin. Either it was waiting for something to do, or it was plugged into the computer directly. Probably the latter, Daniel supposed.
"Routine?" Daniel asked Mother Brain. "Or was a problem reported?"
"Do I get any help?" Routine meant that the whole ship needed checking over, and not just the problem areas. Shuttles had a lot of electronics.
"Ross Garfield is free if you like."
"Ask him please, but stress that it's not urgent. If he has something planned for today, that's fine."
"Very well. I am asking him now."
Daniel sipped his slightly-too-hot coffee. It was difficult to accept that when Mother Brain said something like that, she meant it literally. Artificial intelligences of her calibre could handle at least a couple of hundred conversations simultaneously. Mother Brain had probably started the question as soon as he had said the word 'ask' and picked up the details from him even as she was talking to Ross.
As such, it didn't take her very long to come back with an answer.
"Mr. Garfield will be free in an hour, but would like to finish at about three this afternoon."
"He didn't say."
And you're programmed not to pry, thought Daniel with a mental smile.
"Why in an hour? Did he only just get up?"
"No. I believe Mr. Garfield wishes to hear the new theory explained."
"Ha! What do they think they've worked out this time?"
Magic! That woke him up. There wasn't a human on board who had not dreamed about having the same 'magic' powers as the Natives.
"You're kidding! Someone actually has a theory on that one?" Daniel almost laughed. That would shut up the Restoration opponents! Daniel was quite happy with the relatively peaceful Natives having the advantage over them, but evening it up had a certain satisfaction attached. And to use magic, to be able to control elements on a whim...
Wait a minute. If Ross was going to be late because of this...
"It's on now?"
The great Arkship Noah had journeyed for a hundred and fifty seven years. Guided at superlight velocities by its controlling neural net computer, it had travelled the endless stars to find a new home for the orphaned remains of humanity.
The system that they had chosen had seemed perfect at first, a treasure box amongst the stars. It was so promising as a new home that it was named for it, with an ancient Greek word meaning 'all-gifted'.
According to the legend, when the box which also bore this name was opened all the evils escaped to beset the Earth, and have plagued the world ever since. Only hope remained in the box.
But now, it was thought, the evils had been left behind, on the planet they had helped destroy. Here, in the Pandora system, was new hope for mankind, their last hope.
All gifted, and where hope was found. Oh, yes, Pandora was a good name.
It hadn't really been considered that the system would be inhabited, and that the Natives would have their own name for the star. They had also forgotten one of the many connotations of the name and the myth it came from. Pandora was the world's first mystery box, and the star system had many mysteries to match it.
The star was circled by three planets, but no gas giants, asteroids or an Oord belt. Normally, the formation of a star system left a lot more detritus, but this system seemed to have formed very neatly into one sun and three planets.
And the planets were all within the doughnut shaped area around the sun which marked where human kind, and, indeed, most organic life, could live. A staggering coincidence, but admittedly not impossible. It was, after all, why the system had been chosen.
And the three planets were host to, at last count, five sentient species, three of which had culture and technology. Exactly how much of a coincidence this was is still being debated. Old Terra had, after all, arguably developed at least three intelligent races.
And there was the ghost planet. The scientists knew it was there, from the effect of its gravity on the orbits of the others, but they couldn't find it. The latest theory was that it was a piece of super-dense dark matter. After that suggestion, the search intensified. Even a small piece like this one could cause a system-wide collapse if it drifted into a planet.
And the psychic powers of the locals were impossible. It was powerful enough to be likened to old time magic, and flew in the face of centuries of established physics.
And on the third planet, Dezoris, there were veins of naturally occurring pseudomorphic silver. Pseudomorphic substances had unusual and normally impossible molecular structures, and had to be constructed atom by atom in a lab. The Dezoran silver had somehow acquired a crystalline structure like diamond that not even a lab could duplicate. Although the rigidity varied, a good vein with the right refining yielded a metal stronger than even the toughest ceramic composite.
And the sun was younger than Sol. Much younger. The evolution on the three planets must have been fast-tracked to have developed sentient life in that time. That was why they had been so surprised to find the planets here inhabited. They would have been surprised if the local Mother Nature had managed to coax her charges out of the ocean.
Well, the list went on.
"Lets take the Palmans, just as an example.
"Their brains are the product of a completely different evolution to ours, but we can understand them somewhat. One thing we definitely know is that the electrical power of their brains is roughly equivalent to our own. And yet, somehow, with the power of their minds, they can cast lightning bolts.
"Estimations from one batch of video footage suggests, in this one example, a bolt of about ten thousand volts. Human psychics have about enough electrical power in their brains to lift a feather, and even then they risk shutting their brains down if there isn't enough power left for the basic functions.
"Ten thousand volts?
"We know - we know - that their brains cannot produce that much power, so we've been working on the ah, assumption that they get the power from elsewhere.
"Their skins don't make good solar collectors, geothermal power is not particularly high on any planet, radiation is normal... and so on. We checked it all.
"Now, Mother Nature is extremely good at taking advantage of local conditions. Oxygen used to be a corrosive and deadly poison when plants first started producing it, but evolution turned it into an advantage.
"Mother Nature has never produced psychics of any worth on Earth. It's a dead end. There's no substantive advantage to being psychic, so they don't survive any better than anyone else.
"Here, there is some local condition which makes the psychics more powerful. Here, it is not a dead end. The whole psychic bit is so successful that even most of the animals use it in some form.
"Something here is unique. But what?
"Well, what isn't?"
The audience chuckled at that.
"We have so many mysteries around us, and it never occurred to us to try and connect a couple of them together. There is a local condition that we missed, because it's another mystery, and because it's impossible, and because we've dismissed it as malfunctioning instruments.
"I dug through the old archives. There are hundreds of scientific theories that have never been proven. Relativity still relied on the math to prove it was real fifty years ago."
He thought about that.
"Well, fifty of my personal years anyway. It's relative."
More chuckles, changing into laughter as the joke's double meaning sunk in. The speaker waited for it to finish, and then cleared his throat.
"Who here has heard about 'Black Energy'?"
The speaker took a sip of water, and then continued.
"Some of you may be familiar with the Horizon probe. Probably not, though. It's quite an old mission.
"The probe was sent to the Shiva black hole and put into a decaying - a slowly decaying orbit around it. It took ten years to fall in, and it sent back a lot of interesting data in that time. Most of it was expected, and confirmed a great deal of the theories surrounding singularities. There were a few oddities, though.
"For one, the surface of the probe seemed to become radioactive intermittently. Black holes don't emit radiation, they're famous for it, even named for it, and anyway, it wasn't. The probe was.
"About twenty years later a Professor Garret came up with the, ah, 'Quantum Theory of Black Energy' to explain it. He called it black energy, apparently because there is no way to detect it, except when it reacts with matter as it did with the Horizon probe. I suspect that the Shiva black hole also had a part in its naming.
"His theory is, of course, backed up by the usual math, but I won't bore you with it. At this time, it can't be proven anyway, but I did ask Mother Brain to check it over, and it seems okay."
The speaker paused for another drink.
"The black energy, as he called it, is just normal, everyday energy, which just happens to be travelling through dimensions.
"Yes, dimensions. I told you it was unprovable, but it does hold up, so bear with me. And I must make this clear: we are talking of quantum dimensions, not the lesser dimensions of length, height, width and time. Parallel worlds, if you like. Alternate universes.
"Energy has always been a bit strange around dimensions. We already know - in fact, we've known for a couple of hundred years, that energy in our own dimension reacts with energy in others. That's more quantum theory, by the way. Black energy just extends the idea a little.
"If we shine a torch across this room, then the light is travelling through the three physical dimensions we are most familiar with - length, height and width. What, though, if we could shine it towards another parallel world, which is a direction we cannot envisage as it lies outside our perceptions, but just say we could. What if we could direct a beam of light towards a parallel world where the dinosaurs were not wiped out? What would happen?
"Remember, we are not shining it on to this other dimension, but towards. It is a direction, not a target. I could shine a torch towards a pane of glass, but the light would pass straight through and continue on.
"Well, what would happen is that some light would be reflected or absorbed by solid matter, as with dirt on the glass, but the rest would pass through that dimension and out the other side, continuing on through other dimensions. As if the glass was in a stack of similar panes. Eventually the light would peter out, as it all would have reacted with matter, but over a whole infinity of dimensions.
"And if it did react? Hit a boulder, for example, and you saw it happen? You would not see the source, but you'd see the result: a spot of light without any apparent origin.
"That is what we have here with our unexplained radiation readings, both on the Horizon probe and here in Algol. Energy, interrupted on its passage through the dimensions by matter in our own, because the energy just happens to be close enough to be reflected, or absorbed, just like ordinary energy.
"That nice little glass pane analogy doesn't cover one point, though. Black energy can't get through, unless something is wrong with the local area on a... from a dimensional standpoint. That's why we never had it in Sol.
"The Horizon probe, for example, was sitting outside what amounts to a tear in space and time. I can't be sure of the dynamics of that situation, but obviously some energy was passing through dimensions at what would be an acute angle. That means that when it passed through the tear, it was dimensionally far enough away from the actual singularity not to be sucked in, but when it reached the probe, it was then close enough to react with it almost as if it was just ordinary energy. That, by the way, is very, very close indeed.
"Okay, so, when the black energy is passing through dimensions, we obviously can't detect it. Quantum theory hasn't got quite that far yet on the practical side. But if it is interrupted by a solid object in that crucial instant when it is in our own dimension, then we will get some form of radioactive reaction. Theoretically, a full range of energy types are possible, but the higher forms, alpha and gamma rays, for example, seem to be predominant."
Daniel sat up in his chair.
"Now, not only does this give us a possible convenient energy source for our psychics, but it handily explains away the space auroras, the strange readings we sometimes get at the satellites, and maybe even the ghost planet. Frankly, if you look over these theories, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this whole system is awash with black energy and therefore that the dimensions around here are a mess. Which, of course, begs the question: why?
"Any titanic release of energies could theoretically cause some dimensional... ah, fraying, if you will. However, in lieu of a supernova or two in the vicinity, we must go with gravity as our most likely candidate. Perhaps a string of dark matter drifted through here a few million years ago..."
Daniel turned the screen off.
"Mother," he started, slowly, thinking as he went. "Do you remember those... strange readings from sub-level B I had to check out?"
Daniel felt a flash of irritation. He had little patience for anything that got between him and a problem, and this problem had stumped him good at the time, making it personal. "When?" was not what he wanted to hear.
"You're the one with the files! Maybe... ten shifts ago? You woke me up early to check it out - and some power systems guy from the other shift."
"I have them on file, yes."
"Could it be down to this black energy he was talking about?"
"It is possible."
"Give me another look," Daniel said impatiently, as Mother Brain would normally bring them up automatically.
Daniel's monitor changed to show a list of numbers, brightly white on the black screen. Daniel frowned at them. Mother Brain should really know better than that, but she was often a bit slow on busy days.
Daniel's screen changed. Better. His impatience vanished now he had the problem before him. He studied it, not really knowing what he might find. How would he know if it was black energy anyway?
Sub-level B was in the murky guts of the ship, one level above Mother Brain's neural core. He had been worried about that at the time, and even more so when he couldn't find anything wrong with the sensors and the other guy (Jake? Jack?) couldn't find a radiation leak. Unknowns were generally dangerous in Daniel's experience.
Mother Brain had drawn the area in white wireframe and the radiation levels in a 3D rainbow pattern on the floor and up one wall. The higher levels, the red, were towards the centre of the affected area, but there was another interesting thing. The colours continued on some pipes further away, almost as if...
Yes, the shape was even elliptical.
"Yes," said Mother Brain. "The ellipse suggests a cross-section of an angled beam."
"And the pipes near the back. Could you model the beam for me, assuming it was circular before it was projected on to the floor?"
The display changed, and a hollow cylinder stretched from the pattern on the floor, intersecting with the pipes before disappearing through the ceiling.
"Was there any strange reading on any other floor?"
"No, just this one. You're biting your nails, Daniel."
It was a habit Daniel had when he was thinking, and he had asked Mother Brain to tell him when he was doing it. Her reminders became very irritating very quickly, but ultimately Daniel knew he was more frustrated with himself.
Actually, no, that wasn't right. He was sick of being interrupted when he was thinking.
He had finished his coffee during the lecture, too. Suddenly Daniel was self-conscious about his hands, and had nothing to do with them. Half way through brushing his hair out of his face, he decided to tap the screen instead, trying to find his train of thought again. Was there any strange reading on any other floor? No, just this one. Oh, yes...
"That doesn't make sense. It must have passed through them too."
"Black energy is only a theory. If this is such a phenomenon, then the physics behind it are not well understood. For one, it is possible that the beam was only close to our local dimensions when it passed through sub-level B."
"Good point." Daniel picked up his empty cup, and put it back down without looking at it, mentally cursing his wandering hand. "Can you trace a point of origin? Spatially, I mean."
"A spatial point of origin may be useless, if this is, indeed black energy."
"Do it anyway."
The screen changed to a map of the Algol system, the Noah marked by a white circle. A pale blue line stretched away from it in both directions to disappear into the void. It didn't seem to intersect with anything.
"Is there anything along that line?"
"No, nothing. Daniel, this may be futile. You have little or no understanding of how black energy works. This might not be a beam, and might be how it naturally occurs. Or it might be the beam of an extra-dimensional pulsar or similar phenomenon."
"Call me curious. I'm going to chase this up. Could you make me an appointment with..." Daniel suddenly realised he didn't know the lecturer's name.
"Thanks. Tomorrow would be best. I'll let you work out my schedule for me." Daniel pushed himself up, leaving his cup for a droid to collect later.
"I'd better get to that shuttle."
The Professor was quite young by Daniel's standards for Professors. He looked about thirty, but it was possible he was lucky enough to look younger than he was. The shirt he wore was grey, but his trousers and jacket were black. His hair, too, was very black, and very short, and he had a forehead that furrowed deeply when he was thinking.
Right now, he was frowning, but that worked just as well.
His quarters were as utilitarian as Daniel's own. That was the one problem with the Noah. It was never meant to support its entire population being awake at one time, only shifts of personnel, and even they had to share between the shifts. As such, you couldn't add many personal touches to the quarters, as they would only be moved out later. Daniel's first comment had been "Nice place," which got a snort from his host.
The Professor shook his head slowly, his forehead still furrowed.
"No, there's nothing to suggest that black energy occurs in beams. What I've been working with is purely background radiation. This is new, and I'm not sure I like it."
Daniel was sipping a mug of tea he had been offered. He lowered it, and rested it in his other hand.
"Why not?" he asked. "You said yourself that the stuff's all over the place around here."
"Radiation radiates. It goes in all directions, so it's perfectly reasonable that some would pass through here if the dimensions are as strained as I think they are." He gestured at the holographic display that floated above his desk, showing Mother Brain's graphic of sub-level B.
"This is... completely unrelated to that. It's still crossing dimensions, so it's still black energy, but this is not random. This is a beam, and therefore directed. Directed not only at our local set of dimensions, but at the Noah itself. You see my problem? It's aimed too perfectly, and not just in three-dimensional space. It's... It's the difference between walking in the sunlight and someone shinning a torch in your face."
He thought for a while.
"It's too thin to be a pulsar. Still, we don't know what it's like in the next dimension over. The power levels worry me, too."
"They're not so high," Daniel said. "I was only woken as a precaution because it was so close to Mother Brain's neural core."
The Professor shook his head.
"These are by far the highest black energy radiation readings we've had. You must remember that not much energy is actually in phase enough to react with solid matter in our dimension. Most of it passes right through. Hang on..."
Daniel was quiet while Chrison thought, his finger tapping his lip.
"You said you traced its vector?"
Mother Brain had no cameras or microphones in people's quarters, but there was a general-purpose intercom, and the Professor's had been turned on for the meeting.
Daniel paused. Mother Brain was usually pretty good at working out what you wanted from context. She must be pretty busy today in order to have missed that one. Daniel wondered what it was she was working on.
"We'd like to see the beam's path," he said, with just a touch of reproach.
The map of Algol's system appeared above the desk, and the Professor studied it, finger still tapping, but now against his own tea, which he had picked up.
"No, that doesn't tell me anything, except by omission. Mother Brain, does that line extend to any stellar body? Even outside this system?"
"No, Professor Chrison."
The Professor took a large drink of his tea and then set it down on his desk.
"Could you map the gravity of the system, Mother?"
"The ghost planet had only just arrived at that time. The only gravity readings I have are from the relay stations and Noah. Hardly a comprehensive picture, Professor Chrison."
"Doesn't matter. Extrapolate it."
The map filled with graded greens, brighter around the planets and white on Algol itself. The rest of the system was messier as the gravity of the planets overlapped, merged and fought. There were also a number of black patches and Mother Brain's projection of the beam passed through one of them.
The Professor leant back.
"A Lagrangian point. That is interesting."
Daniel sipped while he waited for him to explain it, and then gave up.
"I'll bite. What is it?"
"Oh?" The Professor sounded surprised. "I'm sorry. Uh, a Lagrange point is... an area where the gravity is equivalent to zero. Basically, the planets cancel each other's gravity out."
"They can do that?"
"Oh, yes. Um, what is it you do? As a job, I mean."
"I'm a technician. Electronic and computer."
"Hmm, one of the practical sciences. I'm afraid I can't think of any overlap, so I'll use a basic analogy. If you pull on a rope, the force will move it, yes?" He picked up his tea again, and took a drink.
"Yeah." Of course.
Chrison swallowed. "Right, but if there is someone else pulling on the other end, and he's as strong as you are, you cancel each other out and the rope doesn't move, correct?"
"Okay..." Daniel could almost see it coming.
"The centre of the rope is more-or-less a Lagrange point. The forces acting on it exactly cancel each other out, so the net force is actually zero."
"I see," and Daniel lengthened the word thoughtfully, "and the black patches are the same thing, only with gravity."
"Exactly, except it's more complicated here. We have four stellar bodies, four forces, all cancelling each other to various degrees. Oh, and the ghost planet, of course, and to confuse matters, everything is also moving around. But, yes, the black patches have effectively zero gravity and if you were to, say, park a shuttle in one, it would just sit there."
Daniel drank some of his own tea while he thought about that. It sounded like something Chris would know about, but he was pretty sure he understood enough not to have to ask his friend.
"Okay," he said, "but what is the relation between the Lagrange point and the beam? Why does it cross through there?"
"Gravity distorts dimensions. All of them, not just time and space. It takes something like a sun or a black hole for it to be noticeable, but any gravity will do it, even that of a pebble. Not that we could ever measure that."
"I'm not sure, but... it has to be connected. It's not passing through there on chance." The Professor drummed his fingers, thinking hard.
"Okay, look," he said, putting his hands together. "Gravity distorts dimensions, so a gravitational Lagrange point would be the most stable place possible from a dimensional standpoint."
Daniel turned that last statement around, trying to fit it in.
"What do you mean?"
"At a Lagrange point, the dimensions are not distorted in any way. It's stable, clear, flat, whatever."
Daniel shook his head. "How's that relevant?"
The Professor made a sort of frustrated shrug. "I don't know, I don't..." His hands waved around for a second, trying to seize some elusive point. "Okay, look, this is speculation, but consider. Black holes tear holes in dimensions, but twist the dimensions up so much you could never actually cross through one. If you did want to cross in any sort of cohesive form, you'd need a more subtle approach." He tapped the Lagrange point on the screen, and continued on as if he, himself was only just realising what he was saying. "And somewhere more stable."
"So that's the source? It's a sort of hole?"
"No, no, no! Yes! It is where the beam comes from - I think - but no, it's not a hole. It's... what is it? It's... It's a place where you could cross dimensions. Not a hole, as such, but a... a weak point where you might drill one."
He paused, and his brow furrowed again.
"I really don't like the sound of what I just said."
"You mean it's wrong?"
"It's dangerous. I'll have to think about this."
Daniel didn't really think about the beam for the next week. It was peculiar, but it wasn't a problem. He had noticed it and had handed it over to the experts. As the Professor had said, Daniel's training had been rooted in practical physics, and he was sufficiently out of his league to be happy leaving it to others.
He also had a great deal of work to do. He always did, of course. The Noah was a long-range ship, but five hundred plus years was pushing it. She was still in fine shape, but there were dozens of small, niggling problems to fix on every shift. Nothing serious, for if it were serious he would have been woken early, and possibly the entire shift would be brought forward. It had happened before, but only in regards to the planetary systems: Nurvus, the terraforming net, and the relay stations. They had all had their teething problems.
Chrison had obviously kept Daniel in mind, though. Daniel returned to his quarters one afternoon to find a contact request from the Professor. Once Daniel had called back, Chrison got right to the point.
"I went over the Noah's sensor logs and found out a couple more things about your beam."
Daniel was tempted to say, "Fine, how're you?" in a slightly sarcastic tone, but only for an instant. Chrison was all right, and although he had pretty much forgotten about the beam, Daniel suddenly found he was grateful that Chrison had thought to keep him informed. It was probably something to do with Chrison saying it was 'his' beam. He hadn't considered it 'his', but now it was he had a sort of paternal curiosity about it.
"Anything useful?" he asked instead.
"Hmm, no. Just interesting. The beam appeared just as the Lagrange point passed over a specific point in space, and when the Lagrange point moved away, the beam cut off."
"Meaning whatever caused the beam is at that point in space, or terminates there, but is not actually in our dimension. I think it also supports what I said about Lagrange points and dimensions. The beam might still be there for all we know, but it can't get through without the Lagrange point."
"Wait a minute. What about the rest of the black energy? The radiation? That can get through fine."
Chrison seemed to have been expecting that point.
"Ah, but only because the dimensions are damaged in Algol, and even then the radiation is not in any cohesive form. It gets scattered, dispersed, like a torch on fogged glass. A beam would not be able to come through anywhere else but a Lagrange point. That probably applies to matter as well, and may well be why the Australasian Alliance failed with their hyperspace technology."
"They needed a Lagrange point?"
"Maybe, but maybe they needed a Lagrange point in a system which is a big dimensional mess like this one. I don't know. This all needs a lot more work. Right now, all I can do is guess."
"Is this going to happen again? The beam, I mean?"
"Ah, no. Not for a while. With less planets than Sol, we have exponentially less Lagrange points here. Only about twenty, in fact, but they're larger on average."
Daniel's mind flashed over that. Yes, it would make sense. Each planet would have a Lagrange point with every other planet, so it would be a factorial of the number of gravitational bodies. That would only be a rough figure, though...
"How many in Sol?" he asked.
"Somewhere over three hundred thousand," Chrison said dismissively. "Anyway, I had Mother Brain check it out. A Lagrange point passes through that area once every one thousand years, three months, fourteen days, and some hours and minutes and seconds. You know what Mother Brain is like for precision."
Daniel smiled. "Yeah."
"The area from where the beam originates might move around, though. There really isn't enough information here."
"What was the other thing?"
"Oh, yes. The beam never moved. It stayed focused on us right up until it was cut off."
"Definitely. We're in orbit, remember. In all of space, hitting something as small as Noah is pushing coincidence a little too much. To have it following us around is... it's scary. You said it hit Mother Brain's neural core?"
"It came close, but no. Even assuming the beam went on beyond sub-level B, the core would have had to have been one floor down for it to have hit."
There was a pause whilst Chrison thought about this.
"So it hit right under Mother Brain's neural core?" he asked carefully.
Daniel blinked. He hadn't thought of it like that.
"I see what you mean," he said thoughtfully. "But there weren't any readings from any other floor."
"It's extra-dimensional, remember. There doesn't have to be. The Natives can access the background black energy without getting radioactive."
"Well, I can check it out, but I think we would have noticed any problems by now."
"I think you should. I'm liking this less and less."
The gloomy darkness of the sub-levels always reminded Daniel of a cave. Not from any real similarity, but from the subtle things that create the same feel. The sensation of hugeness, the silence, the steady dripping of condensation, the echoes...
In some places, anyway. Other places reminded him of a turbine power plant. Such areas were heavily shielded. Even faint vibrations could cause problems over the hundreds of years the Noah had been operational.
Daniel liked the quiet areas. In these sections he could lie back, eyes closed, and remember, with a vividness which belied the years, childhood trips to the great southern caves. The golden and red shawls, brilliant with mineral colour, the plastic perfect whiteness of the limestone formations, the eerie and silent pools of water...
Daniel had always loved the caves, now as dead as the rest of Earth. He had visited the Palman caves, but they didn't really compare. So much had been lost. Mostly, Daniel tried not to think about it, but when he was alone down here, the ache and the loss was hard to ignore.
Daniel never came down here with company anymore if he could avoid it. The melancholy was his own personal punishment, his own reminder.
Daniel walked on, watching his shadow flip as he passed under each light.
The sub-levels of the Noah were a confusing system of raw mechanics. All of the basic functionality of the Noah was down here: the air processors, recyclers, engines, the power core, fuel systems, the thousand and one carefully engineered mechanical systems which nevertheless, continually went wrong.
Much of the sub-levels was a series of gantries suspended around the huge machines. Some areas had passages into the machines. Where Daniel was right now was the more ordinary type of access corridor, but even here he was on a gantry. The metal mesh let him see to the next level down, and rang with every step.
The sub-levels also had less surveillance coverage than the rest of the Noah, and it certainly wasn't necessary to have intercoms every few meters like upstairs. Daniel had a headset on to communicate with Mother Brain, and also a ten by fifteen centimetre touch screen strapped to his wrist. Currently it was displaying a scrolling map. He was pretty familiar with the sub-levels, but he checked it every now and then, anyway.
After walking a little while longer, Daniel became aware of someone else's steps, somewhere ahead.
They were heavy and measured, so it was probably some maintenance droid. Daniel continued on his way. It was difficult to tell, but it sounded like he would be meeting the droid up ahead.
Except, Daniel suddenly realised, all of the maintenance droids were either wheeled or arachnid in design. There was no advantage to having a bipedal set up for units that only had to travel over metal floors or had to clamber up the machinery.
But it certainly didn't sound human. It was far too heavy.
Daniel found himself detouring when he passed a side passage from where the sound seemed to be coming. It was a curiosity, and Daniel was a curious person, but more than that, it was a break from the monotony of his trip. He really should have checked out a trike for this.
Daniel turned the next corner, and saw something dark and hard-edged turned red-lit eyes on him.
Daniel's heart jumped, but his brain categorised the shape, and Daniel laughed to himself, ashamed of his own nerves.
It was a Browren, a security droid. Daniel didn't know why one had been activated and put on patrol down here, but it wasn't anything to do with him. He had the required clearance, and Mother Brain knew he was here.
He turned away from it.
A spray of red mist erupted from somewhere close to his right, and suddenly Daniel realised he was turning too fast. His balance was out, his feet twisted around each other. There was a dull ache in his shoulder, and it felt like someone had punched him there, spinning him out of control. He was moving too slowly, though. Gravity seemed lazy, toppling him like a tree. He put out an arm to steady himself, but that was slow too, and pain lanced from his shoulder into his chest as he tried.
There was no decision, no thought involved, but one of Daniel's feet pushed against the floor, spinning him harder. Now untangled, his other foot moved to stop his fall, and Daniel staggered for balance. The added momentum took him behind the corner, and he heard a hollow report and a metal ringing from behind him.
The metal floor cracked his chin as he landed. His arm hadn't moved to stop his fall, and it stung with a fury. Daniel's chest felt warm and sticky.
Through the shock, Daniel realised. He had been shot. The Browren had shot him.
Daniel pushed himself up with his left arm, his breathing quick and gasping. Why was he out of breath? He had hardly moved.
Daniel staggered forward, bent double with his right arm cradled to his chest. He could feel the beat of the blood pumping from his ruined shoulder. It seemed too heavy, like huge gobs of blood were being pumped out, but his arm only dribbled. Too much, but it felt like more.
Daniel reached a corner, and reached out with his left hand to steady himself on an exposed pipe, then pushing off down the new passage.
Had he called? The voice was his, but harsh and raw. The blood on his arm and chest was warm and comfortable. The rest of him was shivering, but the blood kept him warm.
Another corner. Push. Run.
"Stop it!" he screamed at her.
"What would you like me to stop, Daniel?"
It was a long passage. The Browren would catch him here. If it was chasing. Was it chasing? Daniel turned his head, overbalancing. His left arm caught a pipe just as his legs sagged. He hung there for a moment.
Ringing footsteps, military perfect, unhurried, came from around the corner.
"The 'wren!" He coughed, fought for some more breath. "Stop it!"
"There are no Wrens on your level, Daniel."
Daniel pushed off and staggered further from the corner, falling with each step on to the other leg, gravity taking him forward. His arm pulsed and screamed with every step.
"The Browren!" Daniel yelled hoarsely, and then he started coughing again, spraying blood. He had bitten his cheek. He could feel its raggedness, could taste the blood.
The footsteps behind him took the corner.
"Help me! Get help!"
Another bullet hit Daniel from behind, knocking him down. His side, this time, throbbing to his heart's beat. He landed on top of his arm, and plasma hot pain flared in his shoulder. He felt his throat lock around a rising scream, and it turned into a hoarse, choked thing.
Somewhere, a voice said, "Very well, Daniel."
Daniel left the world for the darkness.
A square jaw under a head of astonishingly blond hair appeared around the door.
"I'm sorry. This must be the hydroponics. I was looking for the hospital...?"
It wasn't very funny, but Daniel smiled. It was worth smiling just because he was alive.
"And no doubt you are hiding yet more flowers behind your back?"
Chris Tyler looked sheepish and stepped into Daniel's hospital room. His hand came from behind his back.
"Grapes," he said, holding the bunch by its stalk. He looked around the floral display. "I never thought you were so popular."
Chris was Daniel's best friend. Daniel actually spent more time with Ross and the other technicians, but they were workmates. If they were back on Earth and their company closed down, it would be doubtful that they would keep in touch with each other. Chris was different. For a start, Daniel had already been good friends with him back on Earth. It was wonderful luck that they were both skilled enough at their jobs - and psychologically suitable - to have been selected to survive Earth's final hours.
A serious injury was a rarity on board the Noah. One caused by an error of this magnitude was unheard of. Naturally it, and he, got a lot of attention. Seed must have done a rush job on Terran flowers. And come to think of it...
"You shipped these all in, didn't you?"
Chris tried to look innocent, and then laughed. "You got me. Commander Simonson suggested I took a few days off up here to give you a friendly face to look at. These were all I shipped. Not much for a bulk shuttle, huh?"
"More mulch for the hydroponics."
"Ah, yes. The romantic at work." Chris sat down on the bedside chair, laying the grapes on the set of drawers next to it. "I'm sure you're sick of answering this by now, but how are you?"
"Oh, I'll be fine." Daniel paused for effect. "In twenty years."
"Yeah, I thought you might."
Daniel would have shrugged but for the cast which immobilised his shoulder and arm. "Well, we've only got two weeks left of the shift, and I can't do anything like this. I might as well do my healing in cryo'. Basically I'm okay. Nothing permanent. See?" Daniel wiggled his fingers where they stuck out. There was a nerve cluster in each shoulder, missed by the Browren bullet by about a centimetre and a half. If it had been hit, his arm probably wouldn't even have that much movement and he would be shipped down to Seed for a cloned replacement.
"So what happened? I mean, I know what happened, but what happened?"
Daniel sighed. "I don't really know. I was checking something out in sub-level D, and I guess Mother Brain sent the Browren down to do the same. Except she was expecting trouble for some reason, and managed to send a defective droid."
"So why didn't you override it? I thought you techs knew the codes."
It was Daniel's turn to look sheepish. "I forgot. Hey, don't laugh! The first I knew of it was a bullet in the shoulder. I wasn't exactly thinking straight after that. Oh, stop it," he said to Chris' amused expression. Daniel knew that it wasn't often he could admit a fault, and no doubt Chris would remind him of this one many a time.
"Anyway," he said, pointedly ignoring Chris, "I'll leave a couple of notes for the other shift. See if they can find out what went wrong with the Browren and see if they can find anything in the sub-levels."
"Hope it's not urgent, then. That'll be ten years, Danny."
Daniel yawned. "Oh," he said, stifling the last of it, "I'm sorry. No, I don't think there's any rush. It's already a hundred and thirty years old anyway."