Fiction Page 23
SIX SECONDS TO STARFIRE
Lawrence R. Dagstine
The surroundings were luxurious. A ship of Victorian furnishings and theatrical posture within the confines of the Carina Nebula, furnishings which could not have been provided had it not been for the profits earned from Project Starfire.
And on this ship was a count, a man of considerable charm, who invited his friends to take part in the weekly activities of "our noble vessel", thirty or so artisans and aristocrats. This did not include the investors of course. "We need a new interior decorator," the count said, "and my sources say you are a scholar at it too." He was speaking from his decorative leather chair to the graduate school-aged man that stood before him. His name was Donatello. "I also need an astrophysicist. Think you could be of any help?"
"Possibly," said Donatello, who was very wise at bargaining. "What do I get in return?"
"You can live here with my menials and I in the lap of luxury…forever."
"And?" It was already an offer he could not refuse; yet Donatello wanted to see what else he could milk.
"Make a name for yourself in the galactic history books," said the count, rising from his chair to fix himself a drink. The bar was on the far end of the room. "Voyage through uncharted regions of space, bask in the earnings from Project Starfire. I will guarantee you a hefty sum."
"And just what is Project Starfire?" asked Donatello, most curious.
"Extracted gas from nebulae and cloud patches, used to power space cruisers like my own. Since the Carina Nebula can't¾and won't¾be populated in our lifetime, my partners are undergoing courses to use this profound resource to better supply the universe's mechanized demands. This Nebula has the finest gas out of any ever explored. A lot of money to be made, a lot of new discoveries. Why do you think my ship is so lavishly furnished?" He came and put his arm around Donatello's shoulder, bourbon jiggling in his left hand. "But let's continue our discussion on your future and the endless excitement of early retirement."
Moments later Donatello found himself being introduced to the rest of the crew, including the staff. For someone who studied science of matter and motion on the side and was a certified decorator of rooms and ship interiors, he never expected to be so warmly welcomed. He found it difficult to catch names in the hail of swiftly spoken introductions. When the count had moved on, he stood aside and contemplated the others. Their dress was nothing like that of space travelers. Their clothes were more somber than Victorian or Edwardian, their gestures quite grandiloquent, he was thinking, when a girl passed before him. She was a few inches shorter than he, her body lithe beneath her pink and white gown, her profile soft but forceful, with a long, delicately fashioned nose and figure. Above a high forehead rose a mass of blond hair held by a crisp white lace headdress. She turned to look up at him, her eyes blinding, wide and long as almonds, a clear gray-blue. Her self-possession was absolute; her generous mouth showed the beginning of a smile.
She paused, like the rest in a bar of gossip. Donatello was confused. What was the proper thing to do? He bowed. She curtsied with grace. He reached for her hand, raising it awkwardly to his lips. He saw a diamond ring on her right hand. She was married to someone aboard the ship, and rather young to be in wedlock.
"Madam," he said, "I am Donatello Giovanni, the finest interior decorator in the nine systems."
"But back home you're called The Maestro of Astrophysics," she said, smiling lightly. "I've heard much of you. You must be one of my husband's new hired hands."
"Husband? You mean¾" Donatello's mouth dropped.
"Yes," she said, "I am married to Herman. That would make me the countess."
"I would assume so." Her smile dazzled him, glistened with joy. "To have two noble individuals for friends is a good thing. To be a friend of both is ingenious." The count was a few feet behind him, mingling with other newcomers. The countess looked about twenty; the count was easily fifty. With such a large age gap, what would she see in him? Donatello bowed once more. "I am enchanted, my lady. In a single moment, you have made me happy. You're beautiful and you're pleasant."
She laughed. "Call me Delilah. Your tongue is earthy in its flattery, Mr Giovanni."
"Donatello, please. And I speak only the truth."
"You amuse yourself wherever you go?"
"This is my first moment of diversion since I arrived," said Donatello. "I'm making some changes in the décor for your husband. Perhaps when I'm done you can be my tour guide. The Carina Nebula seems like such a fascinating place. So colorful, and so bold."
"I think Herman is more in need of your astrophysical skills than anything else right now," said Delilah. It was her first hint at something Donatello was unaware of. "So, are you from Terra?" She quickly changed the subject; she spoke so softly that Donatello had to lean forward to hear her.
"No, but I believe my great grandparents were. They were born in a sector called Europa."
The Count reappeared. He greeted his wife with a kiss and then said, "I must take Donatello, my dear. There are others he must meet."
The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly, but was pallid compared with the delicious moments with Delilah. In the weeks that followed, Donatello found it hard to work. Her tranquil, slightly mocking features clouded all other images. Decorating the ship's intertwining corridors was hard enough, but what if he did accept the invitation to stay aboard and travel through space for the rest of his days? How would he be able to keep himself from loving this woman and being loyal to his employer at the same time? It wasn't merely that he needed a woman; he needed her.
"Why is she married to him?" he asked the ship's cook one day, as he was penciling out a new kitchen layout. The cook was one of the people he had gotten to know real well. They had become very good friends.
"You admire her and want to talk with her again," said the cook.
"I do. Both. Unless she's ready for a divorce. Anyway, how did you know?"
"I can see the eagerness in your cheeks. The same way I can see expiration when chopping certain vegetables." He paused, wiping his hands on his apron. "Delilah has an uncertain past, Donatello. I'm sure she has diabolical plans for the future too."
"Which you propose to tell me?" asked Donatello, raising a brow.
The cook looked outside and then shut the door to the kitchen. "Well, not unless she declines to tell you herself," he whispered. "But almost everything about Delilah is in her favor. And I'm not only talking about the count's inheritance."
A few evenings later, Donatello accompanied the count to another one of his gatherings with his aristocrats for friends, expressly to see Delilah. He found her in a small waiting room he had redecorated only a few days earlier. Donatello kissed one hand as she sat on a velvet couch with a glass of port in the other. "Delilah, good evening."
"Donatello. And how are you?" she asked him, smiling.
"Sensational since I got to talk with you again." Donatello hoped he wasn't being too ostentatious.
"I love what you did with this room. The sofa matches the Venetian wall units and marble floor to a tee. I feel Venetian and other ancient décor of earth add a sparkle to an environment that is already extravagant. Still, I probably will never understand why my husband redecorates every three years. I sometimes think he loves this cruiser more than me." She was being heartfelt as she said it. "Forgive me as I drift off. Please, just ignore me."
"But why?" Donatello was confused.
"Your expression was so neutral for a minute there." She collected herself.
"You mean thunderstruck? Pay no mind. Maybe at seeing you again, Delilah. So often my hopes are beyond attainment."
"Are you saying it's unwise to hope for the impossible?"
"No. Yet a count and his wife have a reputation. Me on the other hand¾"
"Donatello," she interrupted, but then hesitated. "My reputation…"
Donatello coughed and looked away. "You need say nothing."
"No, Donatello, you have a right to know before…"
"Before we become friends?" he inquired gently.
"Yes…" She took a serious breath. "Or before we become lovers." Donatello's face suddenly lit up. "My story is a rags-to-riches one. My family is of poor nobility. Back in Andromeda my grandfather was deprived of his lands for rebelling against the system. So my father, his only son, was forced to become a soldier for that system. God rest his soul, he was killed in the battle of Sirius-5. Because of this my mother received a small pension which wasn't enough to support nine children, four girls and five boys. So when the chance came to give my family the life they deserved, I gave Herman my hand in marriage. He promised to support them if I married him. He was infatuated with my beauty, just as I'm sure you are today." She gave him an arousing look.
"Is it that obvious?" asked Donatello. He gave her a slight peck on the lips.
Delilah laughed. "Not that much, silly. But at least my family still has their pride. I lost mine some years ago." This time it was her who kissed first.
Donatello shifted uneasily. "I find myself to be rather desolate for you. Since you've been so frank, Delilah, I hope you won't think me impertinent if I ask you how you've been able to exist in such circumstances."
"I struggle with depression, anxiety, and fear. I live in fear. I need someone to help me through these niches. Sometimes I'm even in need of a favor."
"What sort of favor?" asked Donatello.
"An astrophysical one," said Delilah, sharing with him those heartfelt eyes.
"I can help you with a few equations or problem solvers, but I promised myself that I would never sit down at a computer again. My profession is interior design¾for three years now, and I'm happy at it."
"Decorating spaceships can be rewarding, Donatello…but what I need of you can be much more beneficial. It has to do with us."
Donatello thought he'd never hear those words. But this was the count's wife who was saying this! He'd even kissed her! He had to come to his senses. "I¾I don't know," he said. "To be honest, this is kind of awkward. And what about your husband?"
"I do not love him," said Delilah truthfully; her voice sounded forlorn. "I sometimes wish he was dead." She looked up at Donatello with tear-filled eyes, and that was where a second favor came in. "I want somebody to kill him. Someone who knows the pain I'm going through. Someone who really loves me."
Donatello didn't quite know what to say, but he did remember the cook's words about the countess having diabolical plans for the future. And yes, she did come from an uncertain past too. "Other than having me commit murder," he said, "what else will you have me do?"
"Once Herman is out of the way, I will take over his share of the Carina Empire. I'll marry you and we'll be partners. I will then need you to devise and calculate an astronomical course to get us through the Nebula."
Donatello started thinking to himself, devising figures inside his head. "I don't really approve of murder," he said, "but pushing a titanium cruiser through the Nebula at full speed is a dangerous maneuver. There are a lot of risks involved, especially with all the gas pockets about."
"What sort of risks?"
"Getting sucked up like milk through a straw. Those kind of risks."
"How long would we have?" asked Delilah, as if it were of the utmost urgency.
"About six seconds," said Donatello, "perhaps seven. But why are you so interested in passing through it?"
The Countess began to smile wickedly. "To see what's on the other side, silly."
"But didn't your husband require the skills of an astrophysicist when he planned on hiring me? So what gives? Are you both following the same goal, to get to the other side? Is it some kind of race between you two? You know I don't like to be used, my lady."
"It has to do with Starfire," said Delilah, who was suddenly at a loss for words. She seemed upset. "It's a game of control! Listen, I have to go." She rose from the couch and headed for the door when Donatello grabbed her by the arm, swung her around and kissed her passionately.
"Not getting your way?" Donatello whispered in her ear. "I will not murder a man for anyone. But I will help you when your husband isn't around. I'm sorry, you were too direct before."
Delilah grinned. "My husband is very direct, too, and he is an ass. I am just a young woman. I enjoy the company of young men. I enjoy their company still." She placed her fair-skinned hands on Donatello's chest, sliding them down across his pectoral muscles.
It was almost unbearable not to reach out and touch back; Donatello was beginning to think twice about flirting with the countess. He was sorry for even kissing her. Or was he?
"And as you must feel," he said, "you are attractive to me. If you weren't married, I'd ask you to be my bride. Would you accept me?"
"I might, maestro. But I'm not free." She tickled his chin. "So, in a way, you and I are in the same position as before." She paused. "It is only right that I become the wife of someone intelligent and influential, and the widow of someone rich and disgusting. You know there are few men who'd be interested in a woman of twenty, especially when they are already the mistress of someone else."
"I'm interested, Delilah," Donatello said quietly.
"You'd think of becoming my protector?"
"Your lover, like you mentioned."
Her smile was grave. "I think that's the nicest thing that's ever been said to me." She was acting rather seductive. "But consider it carefully, discuss it with your conscience."
"But you yourself, Delilah? Can you love?"
The responding smile was soft. "I think so. You're confusing love with passion now, aren't you?"
"No," said Donatello. "Not at all. I don't presume that you'll return my love."
"I might surprise you, maestro," she said. "I might surprise you."
"So what of your husband then?"
"I'll take care of him. You just concentrate on the astrophysical part of my plan."
Donatello put down his drink. "I didn't know I was part of a plan."
Delilah turned around to face him. "Do you have feelings for me?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then you've become a part of it…" She then exited the room, the hatch closing behind her. Donatello was left thinking.
Donatello stayed in his room the next morning until he heard the outside door to his level slam and the cook's footsteps on the floor plates. From the peephole he watched him drop breakfast off at the other rooms; there was eagerness in his step, a youthful impatience to be on the way. Well, the way was his now since he had only one more plate to deliver; for the rest of the morning he worked for no one but himself.
Harry's knock sounded on the door. Donatello couldn't understand why everyone called him Harry, including the count. After all, his real name was Albert Spencer. He came in balancing a tray. "I thought you'd be likin' a wee bite¾" His eyes fell on the open suitcase on the bed. "You're leaving?" It was almost a cry of protest. "Whatever will the count do without you? Now I have no friends again¾no one to talk to."
"There will be others to talk to," Donatello said gently.
"Ah, it won't be the same. Eat your breakfast and reconsider. Breakfast makes the man you know, starts his day right."
"No, Harry." Then Donatello looked right at him with a serious face. "Do you think the countess purposely got me involved in some scheme to murder her husband?"
Harry started away from the question. "You have me utterly confused with this topic, Donatello. But to be honest, I don't know…I don't know at all. If it wasn't the countess's idea, then it had to be one of his aristocrat friends, and that I'll never believe.
"So what do you think¾in your opinion? What should I do now?"
Harry shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe you should pack your bags and leave before something does happen. No woman is worth the blame, or a long prison sentence."
Donatello poured coffee, and said slowly, "Harry, I'm curious. Why did you stay for so long¾coping with all these nasty rumors when you could have retired ages ago?"
"The count and his wife were good to me," he answered evasively.
"You took a fearful risk for the countess. You might have gone to jail for knowing too much or withholding information which would have led to a possible murder plot."
"I know it, right enough. But it was the count who I owed my services too."
Donatello waited. Then he began to talk and he would finish, explaining in detail what he and the countess had discussed; Harry stood shivering, not really wanting to hear what he had to say.
"It's best you know what she told me, just in case I need a witness." Donatello put on a freakish grin.
"In case you need a witness?" Harry was confused. Scared and confused.
"Yes, what if she kills him, blames it on me, and there is a whole big trial? She might have our little chat on tape, change it around to fool the jury. And who would they believe anyway? A countess¾who could buy her way out of anything¾or a lousy middle class interior decorator from the nine systems?"
"You?" Harry's throat was pit dry, his face suddenly pale.
Donatello didn't reply. Instead he walked over to his suitcase, unzipped one of the inside storage sections and pulled out a laptop. He walked across the room and put it on the desk, plugging it in and flipping the on switch. "What's that?" Harry asked him.
"My laptop," he replied simply. "I told myself that I would never sit down at a computer again. I keep this around for design patterns or artistic purposes only. But then I was curious when I came in last night, so I sat down and did a little name searching."
"What sort of name searching?"
"Well, of staff and crew members…people aboard this ship. Possible conspirators."
"Including me?" Harry looked worried now.
"Including you." Donatello smiled. "It seems you prefer to be called Harry for more than one reason. No wonder you dislike Albert Spencer, the name that's on your cooking license and birth documents. Harry would be more suitable for a man who died fighting a fierce commodity war in the Sirius system. And according to my research, good ol' Albie had a daughter. Her name was Dea. Now Dea comes from Greek…and out in these parts Dea is considered a spatial pronoun…and when you take that spatial pronoun and replace letters with numbers, breaking the term down mathematically, you get a different name which is slightly similar. Delilah."
Harry laughed, but most unsoundly. "That doesn't prove a thing."
"It proves much, Albert. It proves that you and Delilah are nothing but a father and daughter team, long term thieves out to make it big. Along the way you hope to find a poor sap you can bullshit and carry out your dirty work. Then you can blame your crime on that person, use him or her as a scapegoat in case of an emergency. But you won't strike it rich this time, Albert."
"Where is Delilah?" Spencer gave Donatello a dirty look.
The door to Donatello's room swung open. The count was standing in the threshold with two armed guards by his side. "Delilah will be joining you soon enough," he said.
"What? This is preposterous!" Spencer backed himself up, but there was nowhere to go. The guards came inside and cuffed him. Donatello had all the evidence needed to prove there was a motive to Delilah's murder plot and prosecute with the information recorded on his laptop.
The count nodded to the first guard. "Secure him in cargo bay twelve, along with my wife." He stopped short and looked at Donatello. "Excuse me, my ex-wife. Harry or Albert here will have plenty of time for a family reunion before the authorities arrive."
The guards escorted the prisoner out. Donatello made a copy of the information on his laptop. Then he handed it over to the count. They both shook hands. "Excellent work," the count said. "Not only are you one of the finest interior decorators I have ever met, but a worthy detective as well. This still leaves us with unfinished business though, something you have yet to accomplish."
"Oh no." Donatello shook his head. "Don't tell me another favor."
"First let me say that I owe you my life, as well as a percentage of my earnings when old age starts to wither this body of mine; perish the thought of course. Thank you for being up front and truthful."
Donatello cracked a smile. "I guess the idea of early retirement was too irresistible to pass up. What would you have me do now since the ship is done?"
"Will you help my navigation team plot a course through the Carina Nebula?" asked the count politely.
"Create a logical scientific pathway totally for the purpose of Starfire. Could that be what you want?" Donatello was showing off his genius.
"Yes, exactly. I heard you can make the jump in six seconds."
"Actually twelve and a half minutes," said Donatello. "It only feels like six seconds once you're on the other side, because that will be the time that's gone by on all the timepieces aboard this ship. You see, astrophysics is a branch of astronomy and mathematics that deals with the psychical properties of celestial bodies, and with the interaction between matter and radiation in the interior of celestial bodies and in interstellar space. Now, as you can see we're already in interstellar space, and the gas from the nebulae causes the perfect interaction of matter and radiation. Then it's up to me to use the most advanced equations to create a logical and non-destructive path through a gap in those clouds out there. In other words, astronomical travel made easy with the help of a few numbers and someone smart like me." Donatello blinked.
"Why the time difference though?"
"A theory of Yukoshimus'¾over 300 years old. It's called a light year bounce. We wouldn't have warp speed if it wasn't for his ideologies."
But down to work.
As soon as the count escorted Donatello out of the ship's housing facility, the interior decorator-turned astrophysicist had made straight for the control station. He was now standing in the corridor outside the firmly sealed glass doors, watching the pale and tight-lipped navigation supervisor he would be working with. The man was a grunt; he could see it instantly. The man wore a red uniform and was supervising a navigation team and maintenance crew, as they were attempting to use magnetic polarity to double seal all the air locks. The panel beside the heavy doors had been shut and a thick bundle of tangled circuitry was hanging out of the wall, which was not good. The chief technicians were scratching their heads, and they were trained for this sort of repair work.
The supervisor had been deep in thought. "The locks still appear to be secured from inside. It doesn't make sense," he muttered at last.
The head navigator looked up from the botched-up circuitry he had been examining. "I can't see any fault at all, sir," he told his supervisor. There's no way of bypassing the system. If you want to get in there, we'll have to burn our way in."
"Burn our way in?" The supervisor was confused.
"Yes, use fuel reserves and sacrifice an engine or two."
Donatello began laughing hysterically, and this was when he made his entrance. "Oh please! You don't have to sacrifice anything. Just leave the whole ride to me, and put an electromagnetic forcefield around the hull." A member of the maintenance crew shook his head and did just that.
"So you must be that Giovanni fellow," said the supervisor, showing a stiff upper lip.
"Yes, the count sent me." He took a seat at the head of the control deck, strapping himself in.
"Well, understand this¾I'm in charge of this station. No orders from you, and no foul-ups. Understand?"
"Loud and clear."
"But if you ask me, I think you should be picking out upholstery for a sofa bed," said the supervisor smugly. Some of the others in the background started laughing.
"Well, the count's orders is that I take over for the first half-hour," said Donatello. "So please be so good as to fetch me a math chart with stars and constellations. I have to start formulating astronomical and scientific coordinates, otherwise we'll never see the other side of that Nebula." The supervisor had never been so insulted in his life.
At first the ship didn't move. Then one of the technicians operated the docking bay hatch mechanism and retreated quickly to join the crowd of shocked and fascinated onlookers. The tangled circuitry on the wall had been repaired, and the rest was going to be history in the making. This would be the first time a human used astrophysics to help navigate a giant spacecraft through a Nebula.
The ship floated out of the docking bay and slowly hovered towards its destination¾ the center of The Carina Nebula. As the ship began to pick up speed someone gave a shout of angry recognition.
"You're going to get us all killed! There are too many gas pockets about!" Naturally, it was the supervisor who made this observation.
"Keep her steady," said Donatello coolly. "I need complete concentration. You try typing in these figures yourself."
Then the count came up on deck and took a seat. "Don't worry, the lad knows what he's doing." The count blinked at Donatello, and a positive nod was returned.
"Good to know someone around here has faith," the supervisor mumbled to himself angrily.
"We can all learn a lot from the history of this Nebula," said Donatello, smoothing the ride out some. "The bright structure contains filaments of hot fluorescing gas, and dark silhouetted clouds of cold molecules and dust, all of which are in constant chaotic motion. We're looking for a hole or gap in-between those clouds or filaments of gas, a place where we can gain access. Often nicknamed The Keyhole Nebula, your so-called Carina Empire is at least 8000 light years from earth. It's another 4500 light years from the vicinity of the nine systems. Project Starfire holds some pretty distant profits."
Suddenly, during the course of the lesson, there was a loud explosion. In the control station those who were not properly strapped in were thrown violently about as the force of the blast created small fires that roared up different sections of the capsule and engine shafts. Donatello's console erupted in a spectacular fireworks display of blazing circuitry and the emergency exit doors were released. "Out of here before the whole wing goes up in smoke!" the supervisor shouted. Technicians were beginning to scurry.
"No, don't you dare!" Donatello yelled out. "Everyone sit down and stay put. My computer might be toasted but yours isn't." He was talking to the supervisor. "Put everything on manual. We're in the Nebula right now." The view outside was awe-inspiring, but everyone's face was one of shocking fear; no, better yet, dread.
Dribbling streams of blood and shivering feverishly from being knocked about, the supervisor hit the manual switch. It was on. Then he fumbled for his own security bypass key and inserted it into the panel to keep it on manual drive until a repair crew could get at the main system. When it was done, the angry supervisor picked up an extinguisher and started putting out the fires around the control station. The count, who was sitting in the back row, was holding his chest so tight it was almost as if his pacemaker popped out through his mouth.
The supervisor was standing at the head of the control deck now, watching Donatello with cynical amusement. "I told you there was no way, amigo,'" he sneered.
But then there was the most wonderful thing in sight. A view…a view of something different: stars and constellations and uncharted regions of space. "We're in control of the ship again, sir," the head navigator reported. "We're coming out now. Strange, but no human has ever maneuvered this before."
The supervisor returned his man's disbelieving look. Then his face went very, very pale. There was even a moment where he exchanged despairing glances with his officer. But then he gave in and nodded with approval. He knew when he was wrong; the man was just too stubborn to admit it.
"How long till we reach the last cloud pass?" asked the head navigator. "I think all the nebulae is behind us and I see some strange clusters or formations in the distance."
The supervisor patted Donatello on the shoulder. "Yes, Mr Giovanni, how long?"
Donatello looked behind him. The count was breathing out of a bag. He looked at his watch and sighed. "Oh…about six seconds."