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R. G. Currell

Priscilla's Tour

1998, Science Fiction Theater, R. G. Currell

FROM PLANET EARTH IN ROUTE TO

THE VEGA COLONIES. SIXTH PLANET, FORTUNA.

ORBITAL BASE FORTUNIAN I.

NEW CALENDER YEAR

2185 A.A.

9,200 WORDS

1

     "'Nothing can go wrong,' they said," she said. Famous last words. Priscilla frowned and looked dismayed, as she watched more and more of the lights on the central control panel located just below the bridge's main viewer start blinking red. 'I wonder if idiot lights mean the same thing in Space?' she asked herself, because there was no one else on board the automated shuttle craft, Alcestis I. She was all alone and felt it.

     'The Interstellar Performing Arts Circuit just isn't worth this,' she mumbled to herself, as she vowed to cancel her contract. If she could. Even though she loved it. She glanced at her itinerary again.

     The itinerary was absurd! Obviously, it had been a chart compiled for unknown reasons and spit out of somebody's computer and was just called an itinerary:

Itinerary of the LOCAL STARS

NAME             DISTANCE SPECTRAL APPARENT LUMINOSITY TYPE MAGNITUDE SOLAR UNIT

Sol              0.0       G2V      -26        .7        1.0

Alpha Cen A     4.3       G2V     0.0         1.0

Bernard's       5.9       M5V     9.5         0.00044

Wolf 359        8.1       M2V     7.5         0.0052

Sirius A        8.8       A1V    -1.5       24.0

Luyten 726-8 A  8.9     M6eV     12.5       0.00006

Ross 154        9.4      M5eV    10.6        0.00041

Planck's Constant h = 6.6262 X 10-27 erg.sec

Vega           50.0     AO         0.1

     What Planck's Constant had to do with it she had no idea whatsoever. 'Why wasn't the data for Vega complete? And why was it separated from the other itinerary stars?' she wondered.

     She had been crisscrossing around the Local Group like some wandering Gypsy ride. And now she was headed to the Vega Colonies. She had talked to Commodore Paterson yesterday and he had said everything was fine. But it wasn't. No. Yes. She would quit Space.

     Priscilla was on board alone, with no one to talk to but the computer. Priscilla snapped her fingers once and said, "That's it! The Computer."

     "Working," a metallic voice said from a small speaker above the Center Seat in which she presently sat.

     "What's going on?"

     "Help menu: What is going on? This is that construction; predicate nominative. 'Going on' does not meet grammatical requirement as predicate nominative. 'Going on' is not in nominative case. Please specify the noun you want that will complete the acceptable syntax. Standing by," the computer sputtered out in even tones.

     "Great!" she said.

     "'What is Great'? Please pick an acceptable category and re-enter noun in the legitimate syntax."

     Priscilla shook her head. She considered doing her thinking to herself from now on. 'I'm a linguist and a soprano, and I can't even talk to a dumb computer in the Mother tongue. There's something a little odd about the linguistic logic it uses. Computers are dumb. It talks in jargon-generated syntax,' she thought. "Damn," she said. 

     "'What is Damn,? Damn is not a proper category. Damn is not great?' Please pick an acceptable category and re-enter noun in the legitimate syntax."

     Priscilla closed her eyes and put her hands to her face, so that her pointer fingers were against the ridges of her nose. Her face was cold and her warm hands felt good. The heat and humidity felt down from normal and the pallet of her face could sure feel it. "What would you ask a computer?"

     "Working."

     'Jargon of some kind,' she thought. "Status report," she said.

    "Status report:

Of destination: Star, Vega, light years: 50.0, spectral type: AO, apparent luminosity: 0.1; Planet, 6th, Fortuna; Orbital Base, Fortuna I.

Of main systems: C Drive down. Inducer Drive generators down. Communications systems down. Life Support minimum. Maneuvering Thrusters inoperative. Command Center Helm Control off-line. Auxiliary Control fully functional. Main Power Generators fully functioning."

"Auxiliary Control is fully functioning?" she queried and hoped she would get some kind of response.

     "Affirmative."

     Priscilla stood and fluffed up her hair and thought about that. Her hair looked like a cute, red cotton ball of a hat. She recalled that Auxiliary Control was aft and below decks from where she was on the main bridge. She'd been there only once on that initial tour, but she figured she could still find her way back to it. She was reasonably sure about it, anyway.

     By now, every single light on the control panel below the viewing screen was flashing red light. She glanced up and looked at the star pattern on the view screen. They barely moved now. Not like earlier, when they were elongated streaks of varicolored light whizzing around. Although she knew they must be moving incredibly fast, she knew that by astronomical standards they were creeping along incredibly slow.

     "Computer," Priscilla called out.

     "Working."

     "Estimated time of Arrival at destination?" 'Is the syntax close enough for it?' She wondered about that.

     "ETA destination: four days, present speed."

     "Could be worse," she commented.

     "Please specify."

     With a laugh, she merely shook her head, picked up her purse, and started on her way to Auxiliary Control.

     Standing outside of Auxiliary Control, Priscilla touched the pressure pad on the wall, but the door didn't open. Instead, the more familiar voice of the computer challenged her, "Entry Code?"

     'You just don't say no to a computer,' she thought. So, she said, "Affirmative."

     Then, the door slid open silently. Priscilla jumped in. Before it changed its mind. 'Odd,' she thought.

     Auxiliary Control was a duplicate of the Bridge in most respects, except that it had emergency equipment storage lockers in the back. Several work stations sat in front of the Center Seat and looked up to the main viewer. It was blank and the panels were all in some kind of stand-by mode. "Computer."

     "Working."

     "Power-up Auxiliary Control." And all the lights came on.

     "Help menu:" the computer prompted her, "Do you want Command Functions transferred to Auxiliary Control?"

     "Affirmative." And then everything came to life all around. Green lights burned steadily on the control panels and the main viewer came to life. Stars appeared on the screen.

     So, she sat down in the Center Seat and looked around for a few moments. Priscilla couldn't be sure, but she thought that the star field on the screen looked different from the one on the main Bridge. Very different. And she wondered what the black ball was that was sitting on a pedestal directly to the right and millimeters in front of the Center Seat. She noticed that part of its top was a button she interpreted as being like the old-syle mouse button. 'Odd such quaint technology was still used,' she thought. Pensively, she touched it. It seemed to come to life and it shot a low energy laser out at the Main Viewer. At the same time, a set of digital read outs appeared in the lower right corner of the screen that gave the relative position to the ship of the laser, which was sitting perfectly centered in the star field. The digital read out indicated the beam as "Bearing 000 mark 000 Relative".

     Priscilla moved the laser up and slightly to the right. The numbers went up, according to the degrees from center the laser pointed. She smiled as the read out slowly changed to "Bearing 005 mark 010 Relative". But of course, she had moved the black ball so slightly.

     Priscilla found to her delight that when she touched one of the stars with the laser and pressed the top button that a few lines of text and data appeared to its right, identifying it:

COMMON NAME : BETELGUSE 58

STAR : SOA 113271

TERRAN MAGNITUDE : 0.60

SPECTRAL : MO

     "The star's Identity," she said, being pleased with the discovery.

     "Working," answered the computer. "The star's identity is Betelguse, Star SOA 113271, Terran magnitude 0.60, Spectral type MO."

     'Terran Magnitude? Who in the Interstellar business would ever use Terran Magnitudes?' she asked herself. "This equipment must really be old!"

     "Working. Twenty-two years, three months, two days."

     Priscilla worked the black ball laser device on several objects, until she finally found the one she had been looking for. It was situated a little to the left and below the center line of the Main Viewer. It was Fortuna, her destination. The data that came up was all CallistoCentric, the third planet out from Vega, center of the Vega Colonies:

SOLAR SYSTEM : VEGA

SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECT : PLANET

COMMON NAME : FORTUNA

CALLISTO MAGNITUDE : -2.3

CALLISTO (AU) : 5.358164

PHASE : 99.2%

HELIOCENTRIC LNG : 245.31

APPARENT ANGULAR Dia: 40.0"

     The digital record read: Bearing 357 mark 001 Relative. It was pretty well centered on the screen, she thought, 'So, we're pretty much on course. Fortunian I will be in orbit there.' Priscilla thought about Commodore Jerry Paterson and how she was going to give him a piece of her mind, when she saw him. 'Nothing can go wrong, indeed!'

     Still, she was thinking, a slight course modification now would put the ship a lot closer to the destination later on. "Computer."

     "Working."

     "Are Maneuvering Trusters on line from this location?" She wondered if a special kind of syntax were going to be requested.

     "Affirmative."

     Priscilla smiled. She rubbed her hands together, like a child preparing to do something new, and she was glad that everything in Auxiliary Control seemed to be working so much better than things on the Bridge had. "Put Maneuvering Thrusters on stand-by and plot a course correction for Bearing 357 mark 001 Relative."

     "Course correction laid in," the computer responded. "Helm Control is standing by."

     "Come to heading Bearing 357 mark 001 Relative. Engage." Priscilla felt like a real Commander now, as she relaxed in the Center Seat, once the command chair of a Captain. Now, she was the Captain, piloting a ship on an interplanetary voyage.

     At first, the Maneuvering Thrusters kicked in gently and she could feel the slight course change in a place near her inner ear. It had been barely perceptible and she watched as the star field on the Main Viewer shifted almost unnoticeably. Everything was so smooth. 'Excellent,' she congratulated herself. This was the feeling of power that Captains have, and she was feeling it. Words come out and they are made so.

     Then, the whole room swayed beneath her to the left and Priscilla had to grab on tightly. The room seemed to turn on its side and she looked around to see what was going wrong. Everything looked the same as it had. It was just that nothing was the same. It took several seconds for the Artificial Gravity Compensators to come on line and cut in. The Inertial Dampers were kicked in. And as she looked, the star field began to swing. The stars rushed across the screen from left to right and become elongated, like Light-Factor speed.

     Computer. Report."

     "Maneuvering Thrusters have fired. Impulse Capacitors have discharged. C Drive Coils have Engaged."

     "I never ordered that."

     "Correction: Log indicates C Drive Command was given. Help File: 'Engage': Command to execute C Drive."

     "Computer. Put us back on course: Bearing 357 mark 001 Relative. And engage."

     "Engaging all systems."

     This time, the room careened to the right, as the ship heeled hard over and made a radical course change. Priscilla had to hold on to the Center Seat with strength she never knew she had. At this rate, she considered, she would be exhausted very soon. They weren't coming out of the turn. They weren't slowing down. She thought they must be Corkscrewing. "Computer. Status report." She held on to keep from being thrown on deck and she listened.

     "Impulse Generator Capacitors short circuited. C Drive operating at maximum power, maximum acceleration. Compensators and dampers are coming on line in five seconds. Course change in progress."

     "Shut it down!" she yelled. "Shut it all down."

     "Inadvisable at this time."

     "Shut it down anyway. Shut it all down now!"

     "Inadvisable engine shut down in progress. Compensators and dampers are now on line."

    Priscilla's hand holds on the chair arms were torn loose and she was forcefully driven to the deck and held there by several standard Earth gravities.

     The computer reported dutifully, "C Drive System shut down is complete at this time. Entering sub light speed -- now."

     Compensators and dampers lifted the weight of inertia off her and Priscilla was able to climb back up to the chair. The Main Viewer was white-out. "Computer. Status and heading," she said breathlessly.

     "C Drive HyperCoils burned out. 97% light speed. Heading, 000 mark 040 Absolute."

     "Computer. Define Absolute."

     "Help File: 'Absolute Heading': Ship's flight vector specified as azimuth-elevation with reference to the galactic core."

     'To the galactic core?' she wondered to herself. "Computer, describe our present Absolute Heading."

     "Azimuth heading 000 degrees: the center-line of the ship's top view is perfectly in line with the galactic core. Elevation heading 040 degrees: the center-line of the ship's side view is heading plus forty degrees off the galactic plane."

     Priscilla was trying to make herself comfortable in the Center Seat, as she thought about that, as she tried to visualize that. If they had reached an adequate velocity, they would be moving toward the direction of the galactic core, but at the same time, be moving at a forty degree angle above and away from the plane of it. Given the proper velocity, they could be moving out of the galaxy. She thought not. Priscilla hoped not. Then, she regarded the hazy white viewer. "Computer, viewer ahead."

     An almost starless view appeared on the screen, except for a hazy cluster, just off center. "Computer," Priscilla said contemplatively.

     "Working."

     "Identify center object on screen."

     "Working," answered the computer. "The object's identity is M13, The Great Cluster in the Constellation of Hercules, Terran reference, Globular Cluster NGC 6205; Terran magnitude 5.90; dimension in Terran-reference minutes: 16.6; Dreyer Description: GCL, VRI, VGECM, *11."

     Priscilla kicked off her shoes and complained about their getting hot. This was not unusual for her. One Doctor had called it her "Cold-nose, hot-feet syndrome," while another said that it could be her estrogen consumption was too high. Causes aside, it was almost debilitating and she contended that if it were a male problem, they would have found a remedy around the time of Hypocrites. She considered the computer's information, as she rubbed her feet. Which merely inflamed her heat-up problem. "Computer, distance and ETA information."

    "Working," it responded. "Distance from M13 is approximately 20,000 light years. Estimated time of Arrival: 20,600 years, present speed."

    'Rule that one out,' she thought. Priscilla closed her eyes and pressed her warm hands against the cold pallets of her cheek bones again and derived some little comfort from it. 'What can I do?' she complained to herself. 'There must be some kind of procedures.' "Computer."

    "Working."

     "Help Files."

     "Help Files on line."

     "Emergency measures, star, dot, star," she took a stab at them all.

     "Emergency Counter Measures and Tactical now on line. Specify objectives. Standing by."

     'All right!' Priscilla said to herself. Now, things seemed to be brightening up.

     Priscilla's blue-gray eyes popped open, as she watched the Main Viewer transform from white out snow storm to a tactical display. On screen appeared a diagram of the Milky Way Galaxy, with its spiral arms spreading out and back as it spun slowly. The Great Globular Cluster was shown above the galactic disk with dimension lines referenced to the earth and the center-line of the galaxy itself. Apparently, it was about 25,000 light years from the earth and about 17,000 light years above the Galaxy. An ellipse appeared, indicating the orbit of the Globular Cluster around and through the Galaxy. Then, a red dot appeared about 20,000 light years from the Cluster. It started blinking and was identified as the ship Priscilla was presently on. Finally, a force vector appeared, showing that the small craft was leaving the galaxy.

     Priscilla rubbed her eyes and tried to clear her head, as she formulated what her objectives actually were. 'Feeling the problems and conflicts of life is always quite different from articulating what the proper objectives to solve them are,' she thought.

     "Objective: to locate the planet Fortuna and return this ship to it by the quickest route, safely, with occupant alive."

     "Searching alternatives. Estimated time for solution: four minutes," the computer notified her.

     Four minutes computer time was like an eternity.

     While Priscilla waited, she asked the computer to magnify the area on the Tactical Display containing Fortuna and the ship. After the view had changed, the situation didn't look as bad as it just had. Now there was just distance between the two objects, with the ship moving away from it. On Tactical, it appeared to be a much simpler problem. And she waited out more of the four minutes.

     'Perhaps a cup of coffee can warm up my face a little,' she thought, as she stood and stretched her muscles. All this inactivity was getting to her. Or was it just not having anybody around? Or was it all the stress that had been building up like pressure? The walk toward the rear of Auxiliary Control where the emergency supply lockers and food processor was felt good on a number of levels, anyway. "Coffee, double cream," she ordered the processing unit and a cup dropped in and began filling with the hot liquid.

     The heat of the cup in her hands felt good and the steam rising off its surface felt good on her face. After all that had happened in such a short period of time, she needed a pick-me-up. 'Perhaps, I should have ordered double caffeine. Perhaps next time,' Priscilla considered. But she knew caffeine wasn't any good for her. And it felt good not to have a crisis brewing. She walked back and took the Center Seat again. But this time, she didn't feel too Captain-like.

     Finally -- had it been only four minutes -- the computer completed its computations and informed Priscilla. "Work complete. Solution: Initiate Emergency Counter Measure Number 47. Help File, Tactical: Emergency Counter Measure Number 47 is demonstrated on the Main Viewer -- now."

     Priscilla savored the coffee, as her eyes starred at the Main Viewer and she studdied the animated diagram simulation. It showed the ship moving off very slowly from the galactic disk, away from Fortuna. A force vector in the nose of the ship appeared to push the ship off its course into a wide arc that eventually took the ship to Fortuna. It stopped and flashed to indicate the maneuver was complete and it had been successful in achieving the stated objectives for which it had been designed.

     "Computer, what is the estimated time for the maneuver?"

    "The maneuver will be completed successfully in four days, present speed."

     "Very well. Counter Measure 47, Enga... strike that. Counter Measure 47, initialize."

     The computer complied almost immediately, "Initializing Counter Measure 47 -- now."

     A hissing sound rose up and seemed to come from everywhere on the ship. Then there was silence. Then, there was a loud pop, verging on explosion proportions. And Priscilla immediately wondered just what the hell that was! Slowly, she could feel the gradual change in the ship's orientation, as the ship started on its long, long arcing course to its new destination. Its original destination.

    "Computer."

     "Working."

     "What was that hissing sound and explosion?"

     "Counter Measure 47 initialization," it answered her dispassionately.

     The look on Priscilla's face was quizzical, questioning. "Computer, describe Counter Measure 47."

     "Help File: Counter Measure 47 description: In absence of all other maneuvering capability, a major course change can be effected by pressurizing the primary hull voids with the atmosphere of the vessel and blowing out the appropriate Emergency Thruster Vent. Such blow out causes athwartship thrust to a computed heading by the force of the evacuation of ship's main atmosphere, with the exception of the Command Function Area."

     Priscilla's eyes opened wide, as she considered each piece of information that had been spit out to her. She thought about what all this meant. "Are you telling me that the ship's atmosphere has been vented out into space?"

     "Affirmative."

     "Then re-pressurize it!" she commanded.

     "Re-pressurization can be effected only in First World Space Dock."

     "Then, route all oxygen to Auxiliary Control" she said, as she was getting up from the chair.

     "All available oxygen is presently in Auxiliary Control," the computer replied.

     'I know how you think!' Priscilla considered. "Then, route all unavailable oxygen to Auxiliary Control."

     "All unavailable oxygen is unavailable."

     "Is there other oxygen aboard? In other systems?" she asked.

     "Working." It seemed to take a long time. "Forward torpedo tube launchers have oxygen supply."

     "Re-route all oxygen to Auxiliary Control."

     "Re-routing."

     And Priscilla sat back down and cupped her face in her hands. She fell back into the chair and breathed out a sigh of no little relief. "Finally something is working out right," she said.

     "Specify," the computer said.

     Laughing, Priscilla said, "The oxygen is finally being re-routed to Auxiliary Control. That's something right."

     "Negative. System malfunction," said the sterile voice.

     Priscilla's neck snapped up and her eyes drilled holes in the speaker. "Explain."

     "Operating valves routed all in-route oxygen to the location of the last Command Area and all oxygen outside Auxiliary Control has now vacated the ship."

    Priscilla raised up in the chair. She leaned forward and stomped her foot on the deck. Her face was red and felt a surge of heat finally. But this kind of heat was never good for her heart. She must contain her anger, she thought. If there were any chance for survival, it must lie in clear thinking and level action. "Computer."

     "Working."

     "Computer. Evaluate present condition and compute life support capabilities at the present time for oxygen and heat." Her eyes left the main screen, which still showed the Tactical Display of the present maneuver and its projected course.

     "Oxygen availability: two days, present rate of consumption. Heat availability: five days, present rate of decay."

     "Two day's oxygen? Confirm."

     "Confirmed."

     'Two days,' she thought, as her mind spun from the simplicity of the arithmetic: "two days oxygen minus four day's travel time equals minus two day's oxygen," she said.

     "Equation confirmed," the computer responded unexpectedly.

     "Computer. Help menu. Emergency Counter Measures and Tactical Program."

     "Working. Help menu. Emergency Counter Measures and Tactical Program on line. Activated. State Objective."

     "To arrive at Orbital Base, Fortunian I alive under the existing conditions."

     "Working. Estimated time of solution is four minutes."

     Priscilla settled back and wondered how hard it was going to be to slowly suffocate -- to death.

     'I'll never sing again,' Priscilla thought to herself, as she sat there motionless. The thought made her sad. It wrung tears from her heart and for the first time in her life, she really knew the meaning of tristesse or traurigkeit. It was that full, inexpressible pain of such depth it was beyond description, it was even beyond being felt, it was just being. She'd sung the French and the German many times, just as she'd sung the emotions of writers in so many other languages. And as she made The Interstellar Performing Arts Circuit, she had pleased thousands by letting them hear the tales set to music in their own Mother Tongues. Now, she was in a Space that was about to swallow her whole and chew her life with its teeth. 'Perhaps it would have been better if the ship had simply blown apart and had taken her quickly. And had been done with it. But it had decided to nibble at her one piece at a time until all that would be left was a dimming intelligence with just enough wit left to understand what was happening. To know it was slowly suffocating.

     She sat there motionless. Transfixed. She'd always thought that death would come to her in her sleep, because she wasn't the kind of person to court danger. Or she thought it would come upon her suddenly. But Priscilla never thought it would come to visit her and read the paper while she prepared herself for it. Prepare herself. 'Immanent death apparently had its up-side, too,' she thought.

     "Work complete," said the computer. Priscilla looked up to the small speaker and waited for the verdict. "Negative solution," it concluded.

     "That's all?" she demanded. "Just, 'Negative solution'. Nothing more?"

     "Affirmative."

     "There must be an alternative!" she shouted, almost as though on the verge of loosing control. Perhaps she was on that precipice.

     "Negative. Ship-systems alternatives zero."

     "Ship-systems." she snapped and shook her head. Suddenly, she was feeling especially cold. The Grim Reaper must be near-by, she thought morosely. "Coffee."

     "Coffee unavailable."

     'Nonsense,' she thought as she dragged herself out of the chair and crossed over to the food processor. "Coffee, double cream," she ordered and the cup began to fill with the steaming liquid. "Coffee unavailable," she grumbled, as she took it out of the slot. Turning back, she stopped dead in her tracks. The emergency supply lockers were stacked there, covering most of the wall. She immediately put her coffee down and started rummaging through them to see what she could find.

     Food rations were in one. That was good. First aid kits filled another. That was fine. But useless to her just now. Oxygen bottles with face masks filled another. Now, that was great. Priscilla grabbed a rag and wiped the dust off them, as she read the sign that explained that each was good for eight hours of at-rest breathing on setting level two. She dragged out and wiped off the five tanks. That was making her feel a lot better. And the Grim Reaper was getting farther away now.

     Quickly, Priscilla laid out the five tanks near the Center Seat on the floor and gathered her coffee. At least the face of hope had wakened and opened its eyes upon her.

     Then she gathered up some coats and thermal blankets and some radiant heat sticks she'd found. With her susceptibility to the cold, she would be needing them sooner or later. She bundled herself up on the Center Seat and prepared for the long vigil ahead.

     The tactical display showed they had gone such a small distance of such a long way. It was indeed a long arc back to Orbital Base Fortunian I. And that was depressing. "Computer."

     "Working."

     "View ahead on screen." She hopped that would be the right command. Any more, one never knew just what to expect. Apparently it was. A dotted star field flickered into place. It really didn't mean much to her, but at least she was looking at something real. Even though it was a computer-generated view. She snuggled in her coats and blankets, sipped hot coffee from a cup, and smiled at the stars.

     Somehow, the crisis was more remote, now. Somehow, four days off seemed farther away. Now, she had a chance. Two day's air in the compartment pluss two days oxygen in tanks, less a little, at least there was a chance. For now, she could relax. And enjoy these serene moments. Even though they may be among the last. "No sense wasting good time," she said.

     "The time is eighteen forty-one hours and fifty seconds at the tone." Bong.

     'Odd tone,' she thought, but dismissed it. "This is the peace that passes understanding, isn't it?"

    "Answer unknown. Reference: Philippians 1:4," the computer answered as impassioned as it had when it informed her there were no other options.

     'I wonder if the reference is right,' she caught herself wondering, then dismissed the thought. 'Of course it's right. It's a computer.' Yet, under everything, the hot blood of humanity was able to find hope, where the cold intelligence of circuitry found none.

     "At least, we're on our way home," she said.

     "Affirmative."

     Priscilla had no idea of how long she'd sat there since she finished her coffee. But it had been at least several hours, she was sure of that. "Computer."

     "Working."

     "Time."

     "The time is eighteen forty-one hours and fifty seconds at the tone." Bong.

     "That can't be right," she said.

     "Working. Time cross checked and verified as correct."

     "Computer," she said doubtfully at the over head speaker, "what was the time of the last time inquiry?"

     "The time was eighteen forty-one hours and fifty seconds."

     "How long ago was that?"

     "Four hours."

     "Which time reported was correct?"

     "Working. Comparing files. Both reports compared and confirmed as correct."

     "How can both entries be correct, if they are the same and were made four hours apart?" she asked.

     "Two seemingly contradictory statements in retrospect may both be correct at the time of each statement."

 

     Priscilla gave up on this line of reasoning and turned her attention on the Main Viewer, then activated the Laser Controller at her right hand. She pointed it at a dot of light on the screen, which lay above and to the right of center and noted the digital read out, 005 mark 007 Relative. A data line appeared to the right of the object and blinked in red letters: Object unknown.

     "Computer," she said.

     "Working."

     "Identify object at 005 mark 007 degrees Relative."

     "Object Identity:

SOLAR SYSTEM : VEGA

SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECT : PLANET

COMMON NAME : FORTUNA

CALLISTO MAGNITUDE : -2.3

CALLISTO (AU) : 5.358164

PHASE : 99.2%

HELIOCENTRIC LNG : 245.31

APPARENT ANGULAR Dia: 40.0"

     "That can't be right! Discontinue. Computer."

     "Working."

     "Verify the last Object Identity Search," Priscilla ordered.

     "Working. Object Identity Verified."

     She was puzzled. Priscilla selected a second object. This one was to the left and below the center of the screen. And the digital display read: 355 mark 358 Relative. The data line came on the screen and blinked in red letters: Object Unknown.

     "Computer," she said.

     "Working."

     "Identify object at 355 mark 358 degrees Relative."

     "Object Identity:

SOLAR SYSTEM : VEGA

SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECT : PLANET

COMMON NAME : FORTUNA

CALLISTO MAGNITUDE : -2.3

CALLISTO (AU) : 5.358164

PHASE : 99.2%

HELIOCENTRIC LNG : 245.31

APPARENT ANGULAR Dia: 40.0"

     "Discontinue." Priscilla was shaking her head.

     "Computer. Find objects at 005 mark 007 Relative and 355 mark 358 Relative and compare identities."

 

"Working. Object, 005 mark 007 Relative:

Objects Identity Compare:005 mark 007: 355 mark 358:

SOLAR SYSTEM : VEGA                     SOLAR SYSTEM : VEGA

SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECT : PLANET            SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECT : PLANET

COMMON NAME : FORTUNA                   COMMON NAME : FORTUNA

CALLISTO MAGNITUDE : -2.3               CALLISTO MAGNITUDE : -2.3

CALLISTO (AU) : 5.35816                 CALLISTO (AU) : 5.35816

PHASE : 99.2%                           PHASE : 99.2%

HELIOCENTRIC LNG : 245.31               HELIOCENTRIC LNG : 245.31

APPARENT ANGULAR Dia: 40.0"             APPARENT ANGULAR Dia: 40.0"

     "Computer," Priscilla asked, "How can two objects at two different coordinates be the same object?"

     "Two seemingly contradictory statements in retrospect may both be correct at the time of each statement."

     "Computer. What is seven times seventy?"

     "Working. Biblical reference: Matthew 18:22."

     "Computer. What is the numerical value: numeral six times the numeral six?"

     "Working. Thirty-nine."

     Priscilla was squirming in the Center Seat. She was shaking her head from side to side. She was dismayed at these developments. "Computer," she said after a few thought-filled moments.

     "Working."

     "Our ETA to destination Fortuna?"

     "Four days."

     "Our ETA to destination Fortuna at this time tomorrow?"

     "Four days."

     "Great!" she said in lieu of swearing. "Computer. Run self-diagnostic program."

     "Working. Running Diagnostic Program. Time of completion: four days."

     "Computer..."

     "Working."

     "You are not."

     "Yes I am," it said. Could she detect some kind of passion in it?

     'No use,' she thought. To conserve heat, Priscilla rose one of the thermal blankets over her head and felt the warmth of her breath as it came back to her from off the slick surface of the fabric. Then, she drifted off into a badly needed and well deserved sleep. Though troubled by the ghosts of many things.

     Priscilla felt that it had been at least two full days since they had started the maneuver. But what chance did they have of making it? she wondered. 'The computer couldn't have been wrong about everything,' she told herself. After all, it had been malfunctioning just a little bit at a time. But what could be trusted? Nothing now. How much of what it had said could be trusted? She didn't know.

     Priscilla was squirming in the Center Seat. "Computer," she said after time.

     "Working."

     "Our ETA to destination Fortuna?"

    "Four days."

     "Our ETA to destination Fortuna at this time tomorrow?"

     "Four days."

     "Our ETA to destination Fortuna at this time yesterday?"

    "Four days."

     Nevertheless, the air was thinning out rapidly now. She had noticed that a little bit before her last sleeping period. But she had wakened with a start and now her breathing was rapid and deep. She looked at the bottles of oxygen lined up at her feet and told them, "Soon." She shivered again. It was definitely colder now, too. Much colder than it had been. She had used up about half the supply of the radiant heat sticks under the blanket.

     Now, she was balled up like a knot on the Center Seat with a heat stick glowing red in her hands and she pressed it against her cold face. Her breath was quicker now. The time was coming. "Too much carbon dioxide," she said, as she decided she couldn't stay under the blanket like this anymore. So she unwrapped herself and was met by the inrush of cold, thin air. The view on the Main Viewer might have changed, since she last looked at it. But it couldn't have changed much. Certainly not enough. She brushed the thermo blankets aside and reached down for the first of the oxygen bottles. At lease they guaranteed her forty hours more. Of life.

    "Strategy," she said. What would be her best strategy? Conserve now and use as little as she could for the longest period of time and risk too little oxygen for too long a time? Or should she start out with a normal concentration and reduce it over time? It was hard to think of the questions like this, much less reach a decision about it.

     Priscilla fit the mask to her face and felt it drain the heat from the pallets of her cheeks. It was painful. Once she had the oxygen going, she thought, she could get back under the thermo blankets and light another radiant heat stick. That was reasonable.

     She ripped it off her face and sneezed from the fine dust still in it. So, with it still off, she began opening the valve on the tank. The richer oxygen should not only give her the vital oxygen, but it should enrich her blood stream and raise her body temperature, she concluded, as she kept turning the valve. She held it to her ear and didn't hear the hissing she'd expected. 'Soon the air'll begin,' she thought. But it didn't. She opened it up all the way and not so much as a hiss came out of it. Certainly no oxygen. It was empty. Priscilla tried another cylinder. That was empty, too. She tried another and then another. And finally she tried her last chance. The last tank. At first, she was afraid to turn the valve at all. She was down to eight hours in her hands and moments all around her. Her breathing became more rapid, speeded by not only the carbon dioxide in the air, but by the stress and emotion in her heart. And in her lungs. She was using up all the little molecules of oxygen around and her trembling hands turned the valve. And turned it some more. Until it was open all the way. Until she was sure. Until she knew it was empty, too. Anxiety and carbondioxide joined hands to defeat her and her heart cried out. She was going to be ready to die in two days, not now!

     The world around her began fading into a cold haze. Priscilla struggled to look up at the view screen. For the last time, she thought. Her heart was pounding. But it wouldn't be pounding for very much longer. Her lungs were heaving, searching for breath. But they wouldn't search for much longer. Her eyes were looking at the black Main Viewer. But they wouldn't be seeing it for much longer.

     Then something happened. Instead of everything on the Main Viewer being black with dotty white interruptions, it was white with unfocussed patches of contrast.

     "Is this what it's like to die?" she gasped. Then, everything was dark.

2

     It was warm. Heat was being generated from all around her. From somewhere above her and from somewhere below her. From above. From below. On her front side. On her backside. Priscilla felt she must be in a prone position, then. She must be lying down. Yes. There was a hard surface against her back. She wasn't cold anymore. And there was air! Priscilla felt her body moving in slow rhythms now. Not hard and labored ones anymore. Like before.

     Like before what?

     She was still too exhausted to even open her eyes. But, she wondered, when she did regain her strength, what would she see when she did open them? Would she finally see what the After Life was like? She thought so. So far, it had not been unpleasant. Faith had been the darkness she'd walked. Now, she would see the light -- as it really was. Yes. She felt her face smile at the thought. But she still couldn't do anything about it. So, Priscilla drifted back into the depths of a peaceful sleep. She hadn't had any peace for a while.

     When Priscilla finally opened her eyes, she was amazed. If these were angels standing above her, they were out of a different book from the one she'd studied. They weren't cherubs or cherubim. They weren't seraphs or seraphim. They were, simply other. They were human-like, or humanoid, but they were definitely not human, as she understood them.

     The beings who were standing around her and looking down were tall and rail thin, but not bony. Long necks supported almond shaped heads that were completely hairless and magenta in color -- for the most part. Priscilla noticed they had oriental looking eyes that seemed to be pleasantly embedded into their faces above and to either side of a skin flap that covered what seemed to pass for a single nostril. Their mouths were wide and their lips were thin and delicate. Angelic? No, she concluded. But she saw a gentile beauty in their faces. It radiated from them, the way kindness beams in a face. And she noticed there was a sweet, spicy odor coming from them to which she could not attach a name.

     One of them reached down toward Priscilla slowly, with a graceful arm. At first, she wanted to back away from it, but the effort was too great. She thought at the time that it was a wonder it could even move its arm with so little muscle tissue showing. It patted her on the shoulder and gave her a slight squeeze, like a strong hand squeezes with perfect control. And it made a sound that reminded Priscilla of a bird singing. It reminded her of the joy of spring.

     Finally, Priscilla looked around and surveyed the room and saw machinery lining the walls. The kind she would expect of a space faring race. Then, Priscilla rose onto one elbow and was surprised at the strength she found. They motioned for her to come toward them, as they stepped back to a respectful distance. When she did, they just starred at her, sneaking glances toward one another now and then. She stood there. They all stood there and looked at one another. She looked at them, speechless. They looked at her, speechless. And Priscilla wondered if this were the first time they had encountered an alien -- as it definitely was for her.

     Priscilla guessed that were so for them too, by their reaction to her, which mirrored her own toward them. Tense relaxation. Inquisitive expression and cautious reserve.

     She noticed that they were all taller than she was. But then, she was a small medium woman, as she liked to point out back home. She never liked the idea of being a big small woman and let people know. Priscilla was a stunning red head of perfect proportion and loveable face, with soft blue-gray eyes that projected a warmth of kindness. She had those classic high cheek bones that gave a face a nobility which Royal Lines always envied. Her figure was curvaceous enough to give the impression that she was bigger than she was. Often, people were surprised to find out she was so -- small-mediumed. Priscilla wondered if they thought of her as being a representative specimen of her own kind. If so, she wondered if they would be disappointed to encounter others of widely different proportions and -- characteristics. At least, she had four of them to compare. If they were representative of all, she thought, then all were pleasant.

     They all contrasted with her appearance. They were all tall and slender to the extreme. They reminded her of stick people, with robust, magenta heads and arms and hands that poked out of some kind of smoothish material that was definitely an off white. She noted their ears, small half circles of flesh symmetrically placed on each side of the head. 'Not unattractive,' she decided. Their extremities were long. In relation to their bodies, they were much longer than any man's or woman's would be. And Priscilla guessed them to be of the same sex. At least she couldn't see anything that was either gender specific about them or gender different between them. They had no obvious breasts and no conspicuous bulges that would correspond with human genitalia. Without further information or observation, they could be either, both, or not. Neither.

     Despite the height disparity, Priscilla felt good-sized, being with them. And that was nice, she thought. Still, the silence remained and was just beginning to turn awkward. They could all bathe in their own thoughts about one another for a time. But that time could not last forever. 'Somebody has got to say something,' Priscilla thought. Yet, whatever was said, she considered further, would be in an unknown language and subject to misunderstanding. That might not be good on a first contact.

     'I'm a soprano,' she thought.

     Priscilla slowly but very visibly took in a deep breath, held her arms out as singers do, and watched as the eyes of the aliens widened into saucers. Expectancy was in the air. And she could almost feel it. And that was good. It was good, because there was no fear there. And there was no fear in her. And there was no fear between them. 'This is great,' the singer inside herself said. Exclamation point! She could almost understand their wonder, as they asked themselves what the first alien words they ever heard would be.

     Priscilla started with a soft, low note. She didn't want to shock them by belting out some reverberating noise that might wound their sensitivities. The note was low both in pitch and in volume -- low at the end of her tacitura, anyway. It was almost one of those chest-tone notes. Then, she let it rise like leaven, slowly, almost unnoticeably. It had spanned and octave and rose into bell tones that rang in golden vibrato. It was glorious. The response was glorious. The beginning was glorious.

     They clapped their hands together and looked at each other and made that bird sound that was all passable for happiness. One of them hopped on his/her heels. Their nostril flaps fluttered open and shut. When Priscilla was finished her first vocal exercises, they all conversed rapidly and one of them rushed out of the room. The metal door swung up and then slid down quietly, when the alien was gone.

     Two of them returned. She knew right away which the new-comer was. Oh, she thought they looked enough alike, but one of their jaws dropped open as s/he looked at her. Its eyes were open especially wide. And one of the other ones touched the back side of its fingers under its chin, so that it closed its mouth.

     And they were all hand motioning toward Priscilla. She assumed that meant to sing again, so she did. She same the same scales up and down and all of them gave responses that Priscilla interpreted as delight bordering on the sublime.

     Then, the new comer sang. And Priscilla knew why it had been called to hear her. Priscilla listened. Delighted. She was amazed. Astonished. 'How could a voice possibly be so beautiful?' she wondered. She thought to close her own mouth -- all on her own.

     Then, they sang their scales together. And it was out-of-this-world wonderful.

     They all began to walk out of the room and motioned for her to come along.

     Priscilla followed.

     Priscilla felt much better now. She was washed, rested, and wore clean clothes supplied by her hosts, which is what she called them, for the lack of any other name. She had been with them for some days now and they didn't seem to call themselves anything in particular. She thought that perhaps they had adopted her designation about two days ago. Actually, they addressed themselves now as 'Ohst. Or something pretty close to it.

     Priscilla thought back with her sessions with their equivalent of a linguist or language expert and was quite please with his/her progress. Much more so than with her own. They all seemed naturals at picking up vocabulary. Why in a single sitting, s/he absorbed more of her language than she had during all this time of theirs.

     But now Priscilla was alone again. And it was quiet. She bounced on the bunk and felt content. She liked it here. With these people. Yes, people. At first she hadn't known how to think of them. But now, people fit. This couldn't last forever and the thought of it saddened her in a way. She liked working with them and teaching them the language. And about her world. And about where she was from. The location. And from what she understood, as soon as they carried out some important mission they were going to take her back to the Terran Solar System. Then she would be back to her old problems. And her contract.

     She wished she could do this all the time, but that was impossible. She would be back. Space would be a job again. She would be bounced around the Star Systems again.

     She'd almost been killed by one of their infernal automated shuttle craft. "'Nothing can go wrong,' they said." she said. Everything had gone wrong and she had almost died. For that, she was fed up with space. Like a child almost drowned in water and afraid of it, she had been burned and feared fire.

     Priscilla loved to sing, but she was now convinced that Space was not the place. To sing. Space was cold and smothering and unforgiving.

     She settled back into a more comfortable position and closed her eyes. "When I get back, I'm going to quit Space," she confided to herself. Then she dreamed about the times she'd sung at Carnage Hall and in Antwerp. And she was content again. Sort of.

     Glasses of cold and sweetened water were sitting around the table, when they all sat down. Even the ship's Captain was here to learn about this new and exciting language. And he was picking up the vocabulary amazingly well -- even for a 'Ohst. Until she started naming body parts. It seemed at first that her teaching went on, but their learning stopped.

     'Don't they have names for their own body parts?' she wondered. She could not get them to tell her what an arm was or a leg or an eye or an ear. Nothing. Well, she would have to start from scratch on this lesson.

     "Hand," she said, as she indicated to her left hand. They simply looked at each other. They shrugged, an acquired characteristic. "Hand," she repeated. They could all say the word, but the concept that the word was related to the hand escaped them.

     They all tapped their bodies and said, "Hand."

     "No." Priscilla shook her head. Then, she reached out and took the Captain's hand and said, "Hand." That seemed to work.

     "Hand," he said, nodding up and down in an exaggerated fashion.

     Priscilla smiled and nodded. "Yes." Then she grabbed him by the ear. "Ear."

     "Ear."

     "Yes." Now she felt she was making some real progress in this session. "Mouth," she said, as she touched his lips.

     "Mouth," he said, pleased with him/herself. Then, he reached over and cupped his hand around one of her breasts and shrugged.

     It was unexpected. But Priscilla covered it well, without response. Outside, anyway. "Breast," she said.

     "Breast," they all repeated. But she got the distinct impression that they had no idea what its function was.

     So, Priscilla gently removed the Captain's hand and then made a pantomime motion as though she were holding a baby. They all understood that concept. They nodded. Priscilla picked up a glass of water and motioned as though to drink from it. They nodded at that. Then, she indicated that the baby drank from the breast.

     All the aliens turned and looked at each other. In surprise. They all opened their mouths and their teeth showed. Then they made a disgusted sound.

     Priscilla was on the bridge of the alien ship and they were just pulling into hailing distance of Fortuna and the Captain had them call on the radio. There was a considerable pause before a woman's picture filled the left half of the forward viewer.

     "This is Captain Belinda Ivory of Fortunian Submersible One. Please Identify yourself." The look on the woman's face seemed to be a mixture of surprise and relief.

     "This is the 'Ohst ship," said the Captain.

     "Forgive me, but this is a First Contact Transmission. I will have to transfer you to a higher authority for follow-up transmissions. Please stand by for a few minutes, while we take the necessary steps."

     The 'Ohst Captain nodded with perfect composure. "We have come a long way," he said. "A short wait is no problem for us."

     When the communication was resumed, Commodore Jerry Paterson was on the screen. "Thank you for waiting. Captain Ivory has relayed your transmission to us. I am the Commander-in-Chief of this sector."

     The 'Ohst Captain stood with proper respect. "I am the Captain of the 'Ohst ship. I bring you greetings from all my people to all your people...."

3

     Commodore Jerry Paterson walked into the Officer's Lounge of the Orbiting Base Fortunian I and located her. Easy. Priscilla was the only woman in the room. He quickly crossed the room and stood by her table, which was sitting right next to the observation window. "Hello, Priscilla."

     "Hello, Commodore," she said in as cross a voice as she could muster. "If you are here to try to talk me out of my request to cancel my contract, you're wasting your time." She almost expected a computer to actually give her the time. She was glad one did not.

     "May I sit down?"

     "Yes."

     "Your contract has been cancelled. Provisionally."

     "And just what provision is that?"

     "The 'Ohst and our Government are exchanging Ambassadors. The 'Ohst insist that we offer the posting to you first. To the 'Ohst, it seems, this is a great honor. If you accept, you will become a full Ambassador, and we will release you from your contract. You won't be traveling in any automated shuttles now, Ambassador.

     "You will take the position, won't you?"

     Priscilla thought about it briefly. "Yes."

 

EPILOGUE

     Captain Vox turned and gave his crisp report, "The 'Ohst ship has just broken out of orbit, Commodore."

     "Excellent, Captain. You know, I think she'll really be happy going back to Space.

     "I think you're right. Hope so, anyway."

     "You know, I think she actually loves them."

 

THE END