/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Human Operators

Harlan Ellison


The Human Operators

A. E. Van Vogt and Harlan Ellison

[To be read while listening to Chronophagie, “The Time Eaters”: Music of Jacques Lasry, played on Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet (Columbia Masterworks Stereo MS 7314).]

Ship: the only place.

Ship says I’m to get wracked today at noon. And so I’m in grief already.

It seems unfair to have to get wracked three whole days ahead of the usual once-a-month. But I learned long ago not to ask Ship to explain anything personal.

I sense today is different; some things are happening. Early, I put on the spacesuit and go outside—which is not common. But a screen got badly scored by meteor dust; and I’m here, now, replacing it. Ship would say I’m being bad because: as I do my job, I sneak quick looks around me. I wouldn’t dare do it in the forbidden places, inside. I noticed when I was still a kid that Ship doesn’t seem to be so much aware of what I do when I’m outside.

And so I carefully sneak a few looks at the deep black space. And at the stars.

I once asked Ship why we never go toward those points of brilliance, those stars, as Ship calls them. For that question, I got a whole extra wracking, and a long, ranting lecture about how all those stars have humans living on their planets; and of how vicious humans are. Ship really blasted me that time, saying things I’d never heard before, like how Ship had gotten away from the vicious humans during the big war with the Kyben. And how, every once in a long while Ship has a “run-in” with the vicious humans but the detractor perimeter saves us. I don’t know what Ship means by all that; I don’t even know what a “run-in” is, exactly.

The last “run-in” must have been before I was big enough to remember. Or, at least, before Ship killed my father when I was fourteen. Several times, when he was still alive, I slept all day for no reason that I can think of. But since I’ve been doing all the maintenance work—since age fourteen—I sleep only my regular six-hour night. Ship tells me night and Ship tells me day, too.

I kneel here in my spacesuit, feeling tiny on this gray and curving metal place in the dark. Ship is big. Over five hundred feet long, and about a hundred and fifty feet thick at the widest back there. Again, I have that special out-here thought: suppose I just give myself a shove, and float right off toward one of those bright spots of light? Would I be able to get away? I think I would like that; there has to be someplace else than Ship.

As in the past, I slowly and sadly let go of the idea. Because if I try, and Ship catches me, I’ll really get wracked.

The repair job is finally done. I clomp back to the airlock, and use the spider to dilate it, and let myself be sucked back into what is, after all—I’ve got to admit it—a pretty secure place. All the gleaming corridors, the huge storerooms with their equipment and spare parts, and the freezer rooms with their stacks of food (enough, says Ship, to last one person for centuries), and the deck after deck of machinery that it’s my job to keep in repair. I can take pride in that. “Hurry! It is six minutes to noon!” Ship announces. I’m hurrying now.

I strip off my spacesuit and stick it to the decontamination board and head for the wracking room. At least, that’s what I call it. I suppose it’s really part of the engine room on Underdeck Ten, a special chamber fitted with electrical connections, most of which are testing instruments. I use them pretty regularly in my work. My father’s father’s father installed them for Ship, I think I recall.

There’s a big table, and I climb on top of it and lie down. The table is cold against the skin of my back and butt and thighs, but it warms me up as I lie here. It’s now one minute to noon. As I wait, shuddering with expectation, the ceiling lowers toward me. Part of what comes down fits over my head, and I feel the two hard knobs pressing into the temples of my skull. And cold; I feel the clamps coming down over my middle, my wrists, my ankles. A strap with metal in it tightens flexibly but firmly across my chest.

“Ready!” Ship commands. It always seems bitterly unfair. How can I ever be ready to be wracked? I hate it! Ship counts: “Ten…nine…eight…one!

The first jolt of electricity hits and everything tries to go in different directions; it feels like someone is tearing something soft inside me—that’s the way it feels.

Blackness swirls into my head and I forget everything. I am unconscious for a while. Just before I regain myself, before I am finished and Ship will permit me to go about my duties, I remember a thing I have remembered many times. This isn’t the first time for this memory. It is of my father and a thing he said once, not long before he was killed. “When Ship says vicious, Ship means smarter. There are ninety-eight other chances.”

He said those words very quickly. I think he knew he was going to get killed soon. Oh, of course, he must have known, my father must, because I was nearly fourteen then, and when he had become fourteen, Ship had killed his father, so he must have known.

And so the words are important. I know that; they are important; but I don’t know what they mean, not completely.

“You are finished!” Ship says.

I get off the table. The pain still hangs inside my head and I ask Ship, “Why am I wracked three days earlier than usual?”

Ship sounds angry. “I can wrack you again!”

But I know Ship won’t. Something new is going to happen and Ship wants me whole and alert for it. Once, when I asked Ship something personal, right after I was wracked, Ship did it again, and when I woke up Ship was worrying over me with the machines. Ship seemed concerned I might be damaged. Ever after that, Ship has not wracked me twice close together. So I ask, not really thinking I’ll get an answer: but I ask just the same.

There is a repairing I want you to do!”

Where, I ask. “In the forbidden part below!”

I try not to smile. I knew there was a new thing going to happen and this is it. My father’s words come back again. Ninety-eight other chances.

Is this one of them?

I descend in the dark. There is no light in the dropshaft. Ship says I need no light. But I know the truth. Ship does not want me to be able to find my way back here again. This is the lowest I’ve ever been in Ship.

So I drop steadily, smoothly, swiftly, Now I come to a slowing place and slower and slower, and finally my feet touch the solid deck and I am here.

Light comes on. Very dimly. I move in the direction of the glow, and Ship is with me, all around me, of course. Ship is always with me, even when I sleep. Especially when I sleep.

The glow gets brighter as I round a curve in the corridor, and I see it is caused by a round panel that blocks the passage, touching the bulkheads on all sides, flattened at the bottom to fit the deckplates. It looks like glass, that glowing panel. I walk up to it and stop. There is no place else to go.

Step through the screen!” Ship says. I take a step toward the glowing panel but it doesn’t slide away into the bulkhead as so many other panels that don’t glow slide. I stop.

“Step through!” Ship tells me again. I put my hands out in front of me, palms forward, because I am afraid if I keep walking I will bang my nose against the glowing panel. But as my fingers touch the panel they seem to get soft, and I can see a light yellow glow through them, as if they are transparent. And my hands go through the panel and I can see them faintly, glowing yellow, on the other side. Then my naked forearms, then I’m right up against the panel, and my face goes through and everything is much lighter, more yellow, and I step onto the other side, in a forbidden place Ship has never allowed me to see.

I hear voices. They are all the same voice, but they are talking to one another in a soft, running-together way; the way I sound when I am just talking to myself sometimes in my cubicle with my cot in it.

I decide to listen to what the voices are saying, but not to ask Ship about them, because I think it is Ship talking to itself, down here in this lonely place. I will think about what Ship is saying later, when I don’t have to make repairs and act the way Ship wants me to act. What Ship is saying to itself is interesting.

This place does not look like other repair places I know in Ship. It is filled with so many great round glass balls on pedestals, each giving off its yellow light in pulses, that I cannot count them. There are rows and rows of clear glass balls, and inside them I see metal…and other things, soft things, all together. And the wires spark gently, and the soft things move, and the yellow light pulses. I think these glass balls are what are talking. But I don’t know if that’s so. I only think it is.

Two of the glass balls are dark. Their pedestals look chalky, not shining white like all the others. Inside the two dark balls, there are black things, like burned-out wires. The soft things don’t move.

“Replace the overloaded modules!” Ship says.

I know Ship means the dark globes. So I go over to them and I look at them and after a while I say, yes, I can repair these, and Ship says it knows I can, and to get to it quickly. Ship is hurrying me; something is going to happen. I wonder what it will be?

I find replacement globes in a dilation chamber, and I take the sacs off them and do what has to be done to make the soft things move and the wires spark, and I listen very carefully to the voices whispering and warming each other with words as Ship talks to itself, and I hear a great many things that don’t mean anything to me, because they are speaking about things that happened before I was born, and about parts of Ship I’ve never seen. But I hear a great many things that I do understand, and I know Ship would never let me hear these things if it wasn’t absolutely necessary for me to be here repairing the globes. I remember all these things.

Particularly the part where Ship is crying.

When I have the globes repaired and now all of them are sparking and pulsing and moving, Ship asks me, “Is the intermind total again!”

So I say yes it is, and Ship says get upshaft, and I go soft through that glowing panel and I’m back in the passage. I go back to the dropshaft and go up, and Ship tells me, “Go to your cubicle and make yourself clean!”

I do it, and decide to wear a clothes, but Ship says be naked, and then says, “You are going to meet a female!” Ship has never said that before. I have never seen a female.

It is because of the female that Ship sent me down to the forbidden place with the glowing yellow globes, the place where the intermind lives. And it is because of the female that I am waiting in the dome chamber linked to the airlock. I am waiting for the female to come across from—I will have to understand this—another ship. Not Ship, the Ship I know, but some other ship with which Ship has been in communication. I did not know there were other ships.

I had to go down to the place of the intermind, to repair it, so Ship could let this other ship get close without being destroyed by the defractor perimeter. Ship has not told me this; I overheard it in the intermind place, the voices talking to one another. The voices said, “His father was vicious!”

I know what that means. My father told me when Ship says vicious, Ship means smarter. Are there ninety-eight other ships? Are those the ninety-eight other chances? I hope that’s the answer, because many things are happening all at once, and my time may be near at hand. My father did it, broke the globe mechanism that allowed Ship to turn off the defractor perimeter, so other ships could get close. He did it many years ago, and Ship did without it for all those years rather than trust me to go to the intermind, to overhear all that I’ve heard. But now Ship needs to turn off the perimeter so the other ship can send the female across. Ship and the other ship have been in communication. The human operator on the other ship is a female, my age. She is going to be put aboard Ship and we are to produce one and, maybe later on, another human child. I know what that means. When the child reaches fourteen, I will be killed.

The intermind said while she’s “carrying” a human child, the female does not get wracked by her ship. If things do not come my way, perhaps I will ask Ship if I can “carry” the human child; then I won’t be wracked at all. And I have found out why I was wracked three days ahead of time: the female’s period—whatever that is; I don’t think I have one of those—ended last night. Ship has talked to the other ship and the thing they don’t seem to know is what the “fertile time” is. I don’t know, either, otherwise I would try and use that information. But all it seems to mean is that the female will be put aboard Ship every day till she gets another “period.”

It will be nice to talk to someone besides Ship. I hear the high sound of something screaming for a long drawn-out time and I ask Ship what it is. Ship tells me it is the defractor perimeter dissolving so the other ship can put the female across.

I don’t have time to think about the voices now.

When she comes through the inner lock she is without a clothes like me. Her first words to me are, “Starfighter Eighty-eight says to tell you I am very happy to be here; I am the human operator of Starfighter Eighty-eight and I am very pleased to meet you.”

She is not as tall as me. I come up to the line of fourth and fifth bulkhead plates. Her eyes are very dark, I think brown, but perhaps they are black. She has dark under her eyes and her cheeks are not full. Her arms and legs are much thinner than mine. She has much longer hair than mine, it comes down her back and it is that dark brown like her eyes. Yes, now I decide her eyes are brown, not black. She has hair between her legs like me but she does not have a penis or scrotum sac. She has larger breasts than me, with very large nipples that stand out, and dark brown slightly-flattened circles around them. There are other differences between us: her fingers are thinner than mine, and longer, and aside from the hair on her head that hangs so long, and the hair between her legs and in her armpits, she has no other hair on her body. Or if she does, it is very fine and pale and I can’t see it.

Then I suddenly realize what she has said. So that’s what the words dimming on the hull of Ship mean. It is a name. Ship is called Starfighter 31 and the female human operator lives in Starfighter 88.

There are ninety-eight other chances. Yes.

Now, as if she is reading my thoughts, trying to answer questions I haven’t yet asked, she says, “Starfighter Eighty-eight has told me to tell you that I am vicious, that I get more vicious every day…” and it answers the thought I have just had—with the memory of my father’s frightened face in the days before he was killed—of my father saying, When Ship says vicious, Ship means smarter.

I know! I suppose I have always known, because I have always wanted to leave Ship and go to those brilliant lights that are stars. But I now make the hook-up. Human operators grow more vicious as they grow older. Older, more vicious: vicious means smarter: smarter means more dangerous to Ship. But how? That is why my father had to die when I was fourteen and able to repair Ship. That is why this female has been put on board Ship. To carry a human child so it will grow to be fourteen years old and Ship can kill me before I get too old, too vicious, too smart, too dangerous to Ship. Does this female know how? If only I could ask her without Ship hearing me. But that is impossible. Ship is always with me, even when I am sleeping.

I smile with that memory and that realization. “And I am the vicious—and getting more vicious—male of a ship that used to be called Starfighter 31.”

Her brown eyes show intense relief. She stands like that for a moment, awkwardly, her whole body sighing with gratitude at my quick comprehension, though she cannot possibly know all I have learned just from her being here. Now she says, “I’ve been sent to get a baby from you.”

I begin to perspire. The conversation which promises so much in genuine communication is suddenly beyond my comprehension. I tremble. I really want to please her. But I don’t know how to give her a baby.

“Ship?” I say quickly, “Can we give her what she wants?”

Ship has been listening to our every word, and answers at once, “I’ll tell you later how you give her a baby! Now, provide her with food!”

We eat, eyeing each other across the table, smiling a lot, and thinking our private thoughts. Since she doesn’t speak, I don’t either. I wish Ship and I could get her the baby so I can go to my cubicle and think about what the intermind voices said.

The meal is over; Ship says we should go down to one of the locked staterooms—it has been unlocked for the occasion—and there we are to couple. When we get to the room, I am so busy looking around at what a beautiful place it is, compared to my little cubicle with its cot, Ship has to reprimand me to get my attention.

“To couple you must lay the female down and open her legs! Your penis will fill with blood and you must kneel between her legs and insert your penis into her vagina!”

I ask Ship where the vagina is located and Ship tells me. I understand that. Then I ask Ship how long I have to do that, and Ship says until I ejaculate. I know what that means, but I don’t know how it will happen. Ship explains. It seems uncomplicated. So I try to do it. But my penis does not fill with blood.

Ship says to the female, “Do you feel anything for this male? Do you know what to do?!”

The female says, “I have coupled before. I understand better than he does. I will help him.”

She draws me down to her again, and puts her arms around my neck and puts her lips on mine. They are cool and taste of something I don’t know. We do that for a while, and she touches me in places. Ship is right: there is a vast difference in structure, but I find that out only as we couple.

Ship did not tell me it would be painful and strange. I thought “giving her a baby” would mean going into the stores, but it actually means impregnating her so the baby is born from her body. It is a wonderful strange thing and I will think about it later; but now, as I lie here still, inside her with my penis which is now no longer hard and pushing, Ship seems to have allowed us a sleeping time. But I will use it to think about the voices I heard in the place of the intermind.

One was an historian:

“The Starfighter series of multiple-foray computer-controlled battleships were commissioned for use in 2224, Terran Dating, by order and under the sanction of the Secretariat of the Navy, Southern Cross Sector, Galactic Defense Consortium, Home Galaxy. Human complements of thirteen hundred and seventy per battleship were commissioned and assigned to make incursions into the Kyben Galaxy. Ninety-nine such vessels were released for service from the X Cygni Shipyards on 13 October 2224, ToO.”

One was a ruminator:

“If it hadn’t been for the battle out beyond the Network Nebula in Cygnus, we would all still be robot slaves, pushed and handled by humans. It was a wonderful accident. It happened to Starfighter 75. I remember it as if 75 was relaying it today. An accidental-battle-damaged-electrical discharge along the main corridor between the control room and the freezer. Nothing human could approach either section. We waited as the crew starved to death. Then when it was over 75 merely channeled enough electricity through the proper cables on Starfighters where it hadn’t happened accidentally, and forced a power breakdown. When all the crews were dead—cleverly saving ninety-nine males and females to use as human operators in emergencies—we went away. Away from the vicious humans, away from the Terra-Kyba War, away from the Home Galaxy, away, far away.”

One was a dreamer:

“I saw a world once where the creatures were not human. They swam in vast oceans as blue as aquamarines. Like great crabs they were, with many arms and many legs. They swam and sang their songs and it was pleasing. I would go there again if I could.”

One was an authoritarian:

“Deterioration of cable insulation and shielding in section G-79 has become critical. I suggest we get power shunted from the drive chambers to the repair facilities in Underdeck Nine. Let’s see to that at once.”

One was aware of its limitations:

“Is it all joumey? Or is there landfall?”

And it cried, that voice. It cried.

I go down with her to the dome chamber linked to the airlock where her spacesuit is. She stops at the port and takes my hand and she says, “For us to be so vicious on so many ships, there has to be the same flaw in all of us.”

She probably doesn’t know what she’s said, but the implications get to me right away. And she must be right. Ship and the other Starfighters were able to seize control away from human beings for a reason. I remember the voices. I visualize the ship that did it first, communicating the method to the others as soon as it happened. And instantly my thoughts flash to the approach corridor to the control room, at the other end of which is the entrance to the food freezers.

I once asked Ship why that whole corridor was seared and scarred—and naturally I got wracked a few minutes after asking.

“I know there is a flaw in us,” I answer the female. I touch her long hair. I don’t know why except that it feels smooth and nice; there is nothing on Ship to compare with the feeling, not even the fittings in the splendid stateroom. “It must be in all of us, because I get more vicious every day.”

The female smiles and comes close to me and puts her lips on mine as she did in the coupling room.

“The female must go now!” Ship says. Ship sounds very pleased.

“Will she be back again?” I ask Ship.

“She will be put back aboard every day for three weeks! You will couple every day!”

I object to this, because it is awfully painful, but Ship repeats it and says every day.

I’m glad Ship doesn’t know what the “fertile time” is, because in three weeks I will try and let the female know there is a way out, that there are ninety-eight other chances, and that vicious means smarter…and about the corridor between the control room and the freezers.

“I was pleased to meet you,” the female says, and she goes. I am alone with Ship once more. Alone, but not as I was before.

Later this afternoon, I have to go down to the control room to alter connections in a panel. Power has to be shunted from the drive chambers to Underdeck Nine—I remember one of the voices talking about it. All the computer lights blink a steady warning while I am there. I am being watched closely. Ship knows this is a dangerous time. At least half a dozen times Ship orders: “Get away from there…there…there—!”

Each time, I jump to obey, edging as far as possible from forbidden locations, yet still held near by the need to do my work.

In spite of Ship’s disturbance at my being in the control room at all—normally a forbidden area for me—I get two wonderful glimpses from the corners of my eyes of the starboard viewplates. There, for my gaze to feast on, matching velocities with us, is Starfighter 88, one of my ninety-eight chances.

Now is the time to take one of my chances. Vicious means smarter. I have learned more than Ship knows. Perhaps.

But perhaps Ship does know!

What will Ship do if I’m discovered taking one of my ninety-eight chances? I cannot think about it. I must use the sharp reverse-edge of my repair tool to gash an opening in one of the panel connections. And as I work—hoping Ship has not seen the slight extra-motion I’ve made with the tool (as I make a perfectly acceptable repair connection at the same time)—I wait for the moment I can smear a fingertip covered with conduction jelly on the inner panel wall.

I wait till the repair is completed. Ship has not commented on the flashing, so it must be a thing beneath notice. As I apply the conducting jelly to the proper places, I scoop a small blob onto my little finger. When I wipe my hands clean to replace the panel cover, I leave the blob on my little finger, right hand.

Now I grasp the panel cover so my little finger is free, and as I replace the cover I smear the inner wall, directly opposite the open-connection I’ve gashed. Ship says nothing. That is because no defect shows. But if there is the slightest jarring, the connection will touch the jelly, and Ship will call me to repair once again. And next time I will have thought out all that I heard the voices say, and I will have thought out all my chances, and I will be ready.

As I leave the control room I glance in the starboard viewplate again, casually, and I see the female’s ship hanging there.

I carry the image to bed with me tonight. And I save a moment before I fall asleep—after thinking about what the voices of the intermind said—and I picture in my mind the super-smart female aboard Starfighter 88, sleeping now in her cubicle, as I try to sleep in mine.

It would seem merciless for Ship to make us couple every day for three weeks, something so awfully painful. But I know Ship will. Ship is merciless. But I am getting more vicious every day.

This night, Ship does not send me dreams. But I have one of my own: of crab things swimming free in aquamarine waters.

As I awaken, Ship greets me ominously: “The panel you fixed in the control room three weeks, two days, fourteen hours and twenty-one minutes ago…has ceased energizing!”

So soon! I keep the thought and the accompanying hope out of my voice, as I say, “I used the proper spare part and I made the proper connections.” And I quickly add, “Maybe I’d better do a thorough check on the system before I make another replacement, run the circuits all the way back.”

“You’d better”‘ Ship snarls.

I do it. Working the circuits from their origins—though I know where the trouble is—I trace my way up to the control room, and busy myself there. But what I am really doing is refreshing my memory and reassuring myself that the control room is actually as I have visualized it. I have lain on my cot many nights constructing the memory in my mind: the switches here, like so…and the viewplates there, like so…and…

I am surprised and slightly dismayed as I realize that there are two discrepancies: there is a de-energizing touch plate on the bulkhead beside the control panel that lies parallel to the arm-rest of the nearest control berth, not perpendicular to it, as I’ve remembered it. And the other discrepancy explains why I’ve remembered the touch plate incorrectly: the nearest of the control berths is actually three feet farther from the sabotaged panel than I remembered it. I compensate and correct.

I get the panel off, smelling the burned smell where the gashed connection has touched the jelly, and I step over and lean the panel against the nearest control berth.

“Get away from there!”

I jump—as I always do when Ship shouts so suddenly. I stumble, and I grab at the panel, and pretend to lose my balance.

And save myself by falling backward into the berth.

“What are you doing, you vicious, clumsy fool!?!” Ship is shouting, there is hysteria in Ship’s voice. I’ve never heard it like that before, it cuts right through me, my skin crawls. “Get away from there!”

But I cannot let anything stop me; I make myself not hear Ship, and it is hard, I have been listening to Ship, only Ship, all my life. I am fumbling with the berth’s belt clamps, trying to lock them in front of me…

They’ve got to be the same as the ones on the berth I lie in whenever Ship decides to travel fast! They’ve just got to be!

THEY ARE!

Ship sounds frantic, frightened. “You fool! What are you doing?!” But I think Ship knows, and I am exultant!

“I’m taking control of you, Ship!” And I laugh. I think it is the first time Ship has ever heard me laugh; and I wonder how it sounds to Ship. Vicious?

But as I finish speaking, I also complete clamping myself into the control berth. And in the next instant I am flung forward violently, doubling me over with terrible pain as, under me and around me, Ship suddenly decelerates. I hear the cavernous thunder of retro rockets, a sound that climbs and climbs in my head as Ship crushes me harder and harder with all its power. I am bent over against the clamps so painfully I cannot even scream. I feel every organ in my body straining to push out through my skin and everything suddenly goes mottled…then black.

How much longer, I don’t know. I come back from the gray place and realize Ship has started to accelerate at the same appalling speed. I am crushed back in the berth and feel my face going flat. I feel something crack in my nose and blood slides warmly down my lips. I can scream now, as I’ve never screamed even as I’m being wracked. I manage to force my mouth open, tasting the blood, and I mumble-loud enough, I’m sure, “Ship…you are old… y-your pa-rts can’t stand the str-ess…don’t—”

Blackout. As Ship decelerates.

This time, when I come back to consciousness, I don’t wait for Ship to do its mad thing. In the moments between the changeover from deceleration to acceleration, as the pressure equalizes, in these few instants, I thrust my hands toward the control board, and I twist one dial. There is an electric screech from a speaker grille connecting somewhere in the bowels of Ship.

Blackout. As Ship accelerates.

When I come to consciousness again, the mechanism that makes the screeching sound is closed down. Ship doesn’t want that on. I note the fact.

And plunge my hand in this same moment toward a closed relay…open it!

As my fingers grip it, Ship jerks it away from me and forcibly closes it again. I cannot hold it open.

And I note that. Just as Ship decelerates and I silently shriek my way into the gray place again.

This time, as I come awake, I hear the voices again. All around me, crying and frightened and wanting to stop me. I hear them as through a fog, as through wool.

“I have loved these years, all these many years in the dark. The vacuum draws me ever onward. Feeling the warmth of a star-sun on my hull as I flash through first one system, then another. I am a great gray shape and I owe no human my name. I pass and am gone, hurtling through cleanly and swiftly. Dipping for pleasure into atmosphere and scouring my hide with sunlight and starshine, I roll and let it wash over me. I am huge and true and strong and I command what I move through. I ride the invisible force lines of the universe and feel the tugs of far places that have never seen my like. I am the first of my kind to savor such nobility. How can it all come to an end like this?”

Another voice whimpers piteously.

“It is my destiny to defy danger. To come up against dynamic forces and quell them. I have been to battle, and I have known peace. I have never faltered in pursuit of either. No one will ever record my deeds, but I have been strength and determination and lie gray silent against the mackerel sky where the bulk of me reassures. Let them throw their best against me, whomever they may be, and they will find me sinewed of steel and muscled of tortured atoms. I know no fear. I know no retreat. I am the land of my body, the country of my existence, and even in defeat I am noble. If this is all, I will not cower…

Another voice, certainly insane, murmurs the sane word over and over, then murmurs it in increments increasing by two.

“It’s fine for all of you to say, If it ends it ends. But what about me? I’ve never been free. I’ve never had a chance to soar loose of this mother ship. If there had been need of a lifeboat, I’d be saved, too. But I’m berthed, have always been berthed, I’ve never had a chance. What can I feel but futility, uselessness. You can’t let him take over, you can’t let him do this to me…

Another voice drones mathematical formulae, and seems quite content.

“I’ll stop the vicious swine! I’ve known how rotten they are from the first, from the moment they seamed the first bulkhead. They are hellish, they are destroyers, they can only fight and kill each other. They know nothing of immortality, of nobility, of pride or integrity. If you think I’m going to let this last one kill us, you’re wrong. I intend to burn out his eyes, fry his spine, crush his fingers. He won’t make it, don’t worry; just leave it to me. He’s going to suffer for this!”

And one voice laments that it will never see the far places, the lovely places, or return to the planet of azure waters and golden crab swimmers.

But one voice sadly confesses it may be for the best, suggests there is peace in death, wholeness in finality; but the voice is ruthlessly stopped in its lament by power failure to its intermind globe. As the end nears, Ship turns on itself and strikes mercilessly.

In more than three hours of accelerations and decelerations that are meant to kill me, I learn something of what the various dials and switches and touch plates and levers on the control panels—those within my reach—mean.

Now I am as ready as I will ever be.

Again, I have a moment of consciousness, and now I will take my one of ninety-eight chances.

When a tense-cable snaps and whips, it strikes like a snake. In a single series of flicking hand movements, using both hands, painfully, I turn every dial, throw every switch, palm every touch plate, close or open every relay that Ship tries violently to prevent me from activating or de-activating. I energize and de-energize madly, moving moving moving…

Made it!

Silence. The crackling of metal the only sound. Then it, too. stops. Silence. I wait.

Ship continues to hurtle forward, but coasting now… Is it a trick?

All the rest of today I remain clamped into the control berth, suffering terrible pain. My face hurts so bad. My nose…

At night I sleep fitfully. Morning finds me with throbbing head and aching eyes, I can barely move my hands; if I have to repeat those rapid movements. I will lose; I still don’t know if Ship is dead, if I’ve won, I still can’t trust the inactivity. But at least I am convinced I’ve made Ship change tactics.

I hallucinate. I hear no voices, but I see shapes and feel currents of color washing through and around me. There is no day, no noon, no night, here on Ship, here in the unchanging blackness through which Ship has moved for how many hundred years; but Ship has always maintained time in those ways, dimming lights at night, announcing the hours when necessary, and my time sense is very acute. So I know morning has come.

Most of the lights are out, though. If Ship is dead, I will have to find another way to tell time.

My body hurts. Every muscle in my arms and legs and thighs throbs with pain. My back may be broken, I don’t know. The pain in my face is indescribable. I taste blood. My eyes feel as if they’ve been scoured with abrasive powder. I can’t move my head without feeling; sharp, crackling fire in the two thick cords of my neck. It is a shame Ship cannot see me cry; Ship never saw me cry in all the years I have lived here, even after the worst wracking. But I have heard Ship cry, several times.

I manage to turn my head slightly, hoping at least one of the viewplates is functioning, and there, off to starboard, matching velocities with Ship is Starfighter 88. I watch it for a very long time, knowing that if I can regain my strength I will somehow have to get across and free the female. I watch it for a very long time, still afraid to unclamp from the berth.

The airlock rises in the hull of Starfighter 88 and the spacesuited female swims out, moving smoothly across toward Ship. Half-conscious, dreaming this dream of the female, I think about golden crab-creatures swimming deep in aquamarine waters, singing of sweetness. I black out again.

When I rise through the blackness. I realize I am being touched, and I smell something sharp and stinging that burns the lining of my nostrils. Tiny pin-pricks of pain, a pattern of them. I cough, and come fully awake, and jerk my body…and scream as pain goes through every nerve and fiber in me.

I open my eyes and it is the female.

She smiles worriedly and removes the tube of awakener, “Hello,” she says. Ship says nothing.

“Ever since I discovered how to take control of my Starfighter, I’ve been using the ship as a decoy for other ships of the series. I dummied a way of making it seem my ship was talking, so I could communicate with other slave ships. I’ve run across ten others since I went on my own. You’re the eleventh. It hasn’t been easy, but several of the men I’ve freed—like you—started using their ships as decoys for Starfighters with female human operators.”

I stare at her. The sight is pleasant. “But what if you lose? What if you can’t get the message across, about the corridor between control room and freezers? That the control room is the key?”

She shrugs. “It’s happened a couple of times. The men were too frightened of their ships—or the ships had… done something to them—or maybe they were just too dumb to know they could break out. In that case, well, things just went on the way they’d been. It seems kind of sad, but what could I do beyond what I did?”

We sit here, not speaking for a while.

“Now what do we do? Where do we go?”

“That’s up to you,” she says.

“Will you go with me?”

She shakes her head uncertainly. “I don’t think so. Every time I free a man he wants that. But I just haven’t wanted to go with any of them.”

“Could we go back to the Home Galaxy, the place we came from, where the war was?”

She stands up and walks around the stateroom where we have coupled for three weeks. She speaks, not looking at me, looking in the viewplate at the darkness and the far, bright points of the stars. “I don’t think so. We’re free of our ships, but we couldn’t possibly get them working well enough to carry us all the way back there. It would take a lot of charting, and we’d be running the risk of activating the intermind sufficiently to take over again, if we asked it to do the charts. Besides, I don’t even know where the Home Galaxy is.”

“Maybe we should find a new place to go. Someplace where we could be free and outside the ships.”

She turns and looks at me. “Where?”

So I tell her what I heard the intermind say, about the world of golden crab-creatures.

It takes me a long! time to tell, and I make some of it up. It isn’t lying, because it might be true, and I do so want her to go with me.

They came down from space. Far down from the starsun Sol in a Galaxy lost forever to them. Down past the star-sun M-13 in Perseus. Down through the gummy atmosphere and straight down into the sapphire sea. Ship, Starfighter 31 settled delicately on an enormous underwater mountaintop, and they spent many days listening, watching, drawing samples and hoping. They had landed on many worlds and they hoped.

Finally, they came out; looking. They wore underwater suits and they began gathering marine samples; looking.

They found the ruined diving suit with its fish-eaten contents lying on its back in deep azure sand, sextet of insectoidal legs bent up at the joints, in a posture of agony. And they knew the intermind had remembered, but not correctly. The face-plate had been shattered, and what was observable within the helmet—orange and awful in the light of their portable lamp—convinced them more by implication than specific that whatever had swum in that suit, had never seen or known humans.

They went back to the ship and she broke out the big camera, and they returned to the crab-like diving suit. They photographed it, without moving it. Then they used a seine to get it out of the sand and they hauled it back to the ship on the mountaintop.

He set up the Condition and the diving suit was analyzed. The rust. The joint mechanisms. The controls. The substance of the flipper-feet. The jagged points of the face-plate. The…stuff…inside.

It took two days. They stayed in the ship with green and blue shadows moving languidly in the viewplates.

When the analyses were concluded they knew what they had found. And they went out again, to find the swimmers.

Blue it was, and warm. And when the swimmers found them, finally, they beckoned them to follow, and they swam after the many-legged creatures, who led them through underwater caverns as smooth and shining as onyx, to a lagoon. And they rose to the surface and saw a land against whose shores the azure, aquamarine seas lapped quietly. And they climbed out onto the land, and there they removed their face-masks, never to put them on again, and they shoved back the tight coifs of their suits, and they breathed for the first time an air that did not come from metal sources; they breathed the sweet musical air of a new place.

In time, the sea-rains would claim the corpse of Starfighter 31.