Everyone on the Control Stage found a reason to be working aft when Yifter came on board. There was maximum security, of course, so no one could get really close without a good reason. Even so, we all took the best look that we could manage—you don't often have a chance to see a man who has killed a billion people.
Bryson from the Planetary Coordinators' Office was at Yifter's elbow. The two men weren't shackled or anything melodramatic like that. Past a certain level of notoriety, criminals are treated with some deference and even respect. Bryson and Yifter were talking together in a friendly way, although they were in the middle of a group of top-rank security men, all heavily armed and watchful.
They were taking safety to extremes. When I stepped forward to greet Bryson and his prisoner, two guards carefully frisked me before I could get within hand-kill range, and they stood close beside me when the introductions were made. I haven't lived on Earth for a long time, and they must have known that I have no close relatives there; but they were taking no chances. Yifter was a prime target for personal revenge. A billion people leave a lot of friends and relatives.
From a distance of one meter, Yifter's appearance did not match his reputation. He was of medium height, slightly built, with bushy, prematurely white hair and mild, sad eyes. He smiled at me in a tired, tolerant way as Bryson introduced us.
"I am sorry, Jeanie Roker," he said. "Your ship will be filled with strangers on this trip. I'll do my best to keep out of your way and let you do your job."
I hoped he could live up to his words. Since I took over the runs to Titan, I've carried most things in the connected set of cargo spheres that make up the Assembly. Apart from the kernels, and we carry a few of those on the outbound leg of every trip, we've had livestock, mega-crystals, the gravity simulator, and the circus. That's right, the circus. They must have had a terrible agent, that's all I can say. I took them both ways, to Titan and back to L-5. Even with all that, Yifter was still a novelty item. After he had been caught and the rest of the Lucies had gone underground, nobody had known quite what to do with him. He was Earth's hottest property, the natural target for a billion guns and knives. Until they decided how and when he would come to trial, they wanted him a long way from Earth. It was my job to deliver him to the Titan penal colony, and return him when they got themselves sorted out on Earth.
"I'll arrange for you and your guards to travel in a separate part of the Assembly," I said. "I assume that you will prefer privacy."
Yifter nodded agreeably, but Bryson wasn't having any.
"Captain Roker," he said. "Let me remind you that Mr. Yifter has not been found guilty on any charge. On this journey, and until his trial, he will be treated with proper courtesy. I expect you to house both of us here in the Control Stage, and I expect that you will invite us to take our meals here with you."
In principle, I could have told him to go and take a walk outside. As captain, I said who would travel in the Control Stage, and who would eat with me—and innocent people were not usually sent to the Titan penal colony, even before their trial. On the other hand, Bryson was from the Planetary Coordinators' office, and even off-Earth that carried weight. I suppressed my first reaction and said quietly, "What about the guards?"
"They can travel in the Second Section, right behind the Control Stage," replied Bryson.
I shrugged. If he wanted to make nonsense of Earth's security efforts, that was his choice. Nothing had ever happened on any of my two-month runs from Earth to Titan, and Bryson was probably quite right; nothing would happen this time. On the other hand, it seemed like a damned silly charade, to ship twenty-five guards to keep an eye on Yifter, then house them in a separate part of the Assembly.
Yifter, with an uncanny empathy, had read through my shrug. "Don't worry about security, Jeanie Roker," he said. He smiled again, that tired, soothing smile that began deep in his sad, brown eyes. "You have my assurance, I will be a model prisoner."
He and Bryson walked on past me, into the main quarters. Was that really Yifter, the bogey-man, the notorious head of the Hallucinogenic Freedom League? It seemed hard to believe. Three months earlier, the Lucies—under Yifter's messianic direction—had planted hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply lines of most of Earth's major cities. An eighth of the world had died in the resulting chaos. Starvation, epidemic, exposure, and mindless combat had revisited the Earth and exacted their age-old tribute. The monster who had conceived, planned, and directed that horror was difficult to match with Yifter, the seemingly mild and placid man.
My thoughts were quickly diverted to more immediate practical matters. We had the final masses of all the cargo, and it was time for the final balancing of the whole Assembly. One might assume that just means balancing the kernels correctly, since they out-mass everything else by a factor of a million. But each section containing a kernel has an independent drive unit, powered by the kernel itself. We leave those on Titan, and travel back light, but on the trip out the dynamic balancing is quite tricky.
I reviewed the final configuration, then looked around for McAndrew. I wanted him to review the balance calculations. It's my responsibility, but he was the kernel expert. I realized that he hadn't been present when Yifter came aboard. Presumably he was over on one of the other Sections, crooning over his beloved power sources.
I found him in Section Seven. The Assembly is made up of a variable number of Sections, and there would be twelve on this trip, plus the Control Stage. Until we accelerate away from the Libration Colony station, all the Sections are physically connected—with actual cables—to each other and to the Control Stage. In flight, the coupling is done electromagnetically, and the drives for the powered Sections are all controlled by a computer on the Control Stage. The Assembly looks like a small bunch of grapes, but the stalks are nonfunctional—there are no cables in the System that could take the strains, even at lowest acceleration. Moving among the spherical Sections when we're in flight isn't easy. It means we have to cut the drives, and turn off the coupling between the Sections. That's why I thought the idea of having Yifter's guards in a different Section was so dumb—from there, they couldn't even reach the Control Stage when the drives were on.
I wanted McAndrew to check the configuration that we would hold in flight, to see if he agreed that the stresses were decently balanced among the different Sections. We never run near the limit on any of them, but there's a certain pride of workmanship in getting them all approximately equal, and the stresses as low as possible.
He was standing on the ten-meter shield that surrounded the Section Seven kernel, peering through a long boresight pointed in towards the center. He was aware of my presence but did not move or speak until the observation was complete. Finally he nodded in satisfaction, closed the boresight cap, and turned to me.
"Just checking the optical scalars," he said. "Spun up nicely, this one. So, what can I do for you, Jeanie?"
I led him outside the second shield before I handed him the trim calculations. I know a kernel shield has never failed, but I'm still not comfortable when I get too close to one. I once asked McAndrew how he felt about working within ten meters of Hell, where you could actually feel the gravity gradient and the inertial dragging. He looked at me with his little, introspective smile, and made a sort of throat-clearing noise—the only trace of his ancestry that I could ever find in him.
"Och," he said. "The shields are triply protected. They won't fail."
That would have reassured me, but then he had rubbed his high, balding forehead and added, "And if they do, it won't make any difference if you are ten meters away, or five hundred. That kernel would radiate at about two gigawatts, most of it high-energy gammas."
The trouble was, he always had the facts right. When I first met McAndrew, many years ago, we were taking the first shipment of kernels out to Titan. He had showed up with them, and I assumed that he was just another engineer—a good one, maybe, but I expected that. Five minutes of conversation with him told me that he had probably forgotten more about Kerr-Newman black holes—kernels—than I was ever likely to learn. I have degrees in Electrical Engineering and Gravitational Engineering, in my job I have to, but I'm really no gravity specialist. I felt like an idiot after our first talk. I made a few inquiries, and found that McAndrew was a full professor at the Penrose Institute, and probably the System's leading expert on space-time structure.
When we got to know each other better, I asked him why he would give up his job for four months of the year, to ride herd on a bunch of kernels being shipped around the Solar System. It was a milk-run, with lots of time and very little to do. Most people would be bored silly.
"I need it," he said simply. "It's very nice to work with colleagues, but in my line of business the real stuff is mostly worked out alone. And I can do experiments here that wouldn't be allowed back home."
After that, I accepted his way of working, and took vicarious pride in the stream of papers that appeared from McAndrew at the end of each Titan run. He was no trouble on the trips. He spent most of his time in the Sections carrying the kernels, only appearing in the Control Stage for his meals—and frequently missing them. He was a tinkerer as well as a theorist. Isaac Newton was his idol. His work had paid off in higher shielding efficiencies, better energy extraction methods, and more sensitive manipulation of the charged kernels. Each trip, we had something new.
I left the trim calculations with him, and he promised to check them over and give me his comments in an hour or two. I had to move along and check the rest of the cargo.
"By the way," I said, elaborately casual as I turned to go. "We'll be having company for dinner on this trip. Bryson insists that Yifter should eat with us."
He stood quietly for a moment, head slightly bowed. Then he nodded and ran his hand over his sandy, receding hair-line.
"That sounds like Bryson," he said. "Well, I doubt if Yifter will eat any of us for breakfast. I'm not sure he'll be any worse than the rest of you. I'll be there, Jeanie."
I breathed a small sigh of relief, and left him. McAndrew, as I knew from experience, was the Compleat Pacifist. I had wanted to be sure that he could stand the idea of meals with Yifter.
Four hours later, all our checks were complete. I switched on the fields. The dull grey exterior of each Section turned to silver, shattering the sunlight and turning the Assembly to a cluster of brilliants. The cables linking the Sections were still in position, but now they were hanging loose. All stresses had been picked up by the balancing fields. In the Control Stage, I gradually turned on the propulsion units of each powered Section. Plasma was fed through the ergosphere of each kernel, picked up energy, and streamed aft. The relative positions of the Sections, Mossbauer-controlled to within fractions of a micrometer, held steady. We accelerated slowly away from L-5, and began the long spiral of a continuous-impulse orbit to Titan.
My work was just about finished until crossover time. The computers monitored the drive feeds, the accelerations, and all the balance of the Sections. On this trip, we had three units without operating drive units: Section Two, where Yifter's guards were housed, just behind the Control Stage; Section Seven, where McAndrew had taken the kernel out of commission for his usual endless and mysterious experiments; and of course, the Control Stage itself. I had made the mistake of asking McAndrew what experiments he was planning for this trip. He looked at me with his innocent blue eyes and scribbled an answer full of twistor diagrams and spinor notation—knowing damn well that I wouldn't be able to follow it. He didn't like to talk about his work "halfcooked," as he put it.
* * *
I had been more worried than I wanted to admit about dinner on that first ship-evening. I knew we would all be itching to ask Yifter about the Lucies, but there was no easy way to introduce the subject into the conversation. How could we do it? "By the way, I hear that you killed a billion people a few months ago. I wonder if you would like to say a few words on the subject? It would liven up the table-talk at dinner." I could foresee that our conversation might be a little strained.
As it turned out, my worries were unnecessary. The first impression that I'd had of Yifter, of a mild and amiable man, strengthened on longer exposure. It was Bryson, during dinner, who caused the first tricky moment.
"Most of Earth's problems are caused by the United Space Federation's influence," he said as the robo-server, always on best form at the beginning of the trip, rolled in the courses. "If it weren't for the U.S.F., there wouldn't be as much discontent and rioting on Earth. It's all relative, living space and living standards, and the U.S.F. sets a bad example. We can't compete."
According to Bryson, three million people were causing all the problems for ten billion—eleven, before Yifter's handiwork. It was sheer nonsense, and as a U.S.F. citizen, I should have been the one to bridle; but it was McAndrew who made a growling noise of disapproval, down in his throat; and it was Yifter, of all people, who sensed the atmosphere quickest, and deftly steered the conversation to another subject.
"I think Earth's worst problems are caused by the power shortage," he said. "That affects everything else. Why doesn't Earth use the kernels for power, the way that the U.S.F. does?"
"Too afraid of an accident," replied McAndrew. His irritation evaporated immediately at the mention of his specialty. "If the shields ever failed, you would have a Kerr-Newman black hole sitting there, pumping out a thousand megawatts—mostly as high-energy radiation and fast particles. Worse than that, it would pull in free charge and become electrically neutral. As soon as that happened, there'd be no way to hold it electromagnetically. It would sink down and orbit inside the Earth. We couldn't afford to have that happen."
"But couldn't we use smaller kernels on Earth?" asked Yifter. "They would be less dangerous."
McAndrew shook his head. "It doesn't work that way. The smaller the black hole, the higher the effective temperature and the faster it radiates. You'd be better off with a much more massive black hole. But then you've got the problem of supporting it against Earth's gravity. Even with the best electromagnetic control, anything that massive would sink down into the Earth."
"I suppose it wouldn't help to use a nonrotating, uncharged hole, either," said Yifter. "That might be easier to work with."
"A Schwarzschild hole?" McAndrew looked at him in disgust. "Now, Mr. Yifter, you know better than that." He grew eloquent. "A Schwarzschild hole gives you no control at all. You can't get a hold of it electromagnetically. It just sits there, spewing out energy all over the spectrum, and there's nothing you can do to change it—unless you want to charge it and spin it up, and make it into a kernel. With the kernels, now, you have control."
I tried to interrupt, but McAndrew was just getting warmed up. "A Schwarzschild hole is like a naked flame," he went on. "A caveman's device. A kernel is refined, it's controllable. You can spin it up and store energy, or you can use the ergosphere to pull energy out and spin it down. You can use the charge on it to move it about as you want. It's a real working instrument—not a bit of crudity from the Dark Ages."
I shook my head, and sighed in simulated despair. "McAndrew, you have an unconsummated love affair with those blasted kernels." I turned to Yifter and Bryson, who had watched McAndrew's outburst with some surprise. "He spends all his waking hours spinning those things up and down. All the last trip, he was working the kernels in gravitational focusing experiments. You know, using the fact that a gravity field bends light rays. He insists that one day we won't use lenses for optics—we'll focus light using arrays of kernels."
I made the old joke. "We hardly saw him on that trip. We were convinced that one day he'd get careless with the shields, fall into one of the kernels, and really make a spectacle of himself."
They didn't get it. Yifter and Bryson looked at me blankly, while McAndrew, who'd heard it all ten times before, chuckled. I knew his simple sense of humor—a bad joke is always funny, even if it's the hundredth time you've heard it told.
It's a strange thing, but after the first half-hour I had stopped thinking of Yifter as our prisoner. I could understand now why Bryson had objected to the idea of surrounding Yifter with armed guards. I'd have objected myself. He seemed the most civilized man in the group, with a warm personality and a very dry and subtle sense of humor.
When Bryson left the table, pleading a long day and a lack of familiarity with a space environment, Yifter, McAndrew and I stayed on, chatting about the previous trips I had made to Titan. I mentioned the time I had taken the circus.
"Do you know, I'd never seen most of those animals before," I said. "They were all on the list of endangered species. I don't think you could find them on Earth any more, except in a circus or a zoo."
There was a moment of silence, then Yifter spoke. His eyes were mild and smiling, and his voice sounded dreamy and distant.
"Endangered species," he said. "That's the heart of it. Earth has no room for failures. The weaker species, like weaker specimens of a species, must be eliminated. Only the strong—the mentally strong—may survive. The weak must be culled, for our own sake; whether that means one tenth, one half, or nine tenths of the total."
There was a chilling pause. I looked at Yifter, whose expression had not changed, then at McAndrew, whose face reflected the horror that I was feeling. Yet behind all that, I could feel the unique power of the man. My mind was rejecting Yifter, but I still had a sense of well-being, of warmth in the pit of my stomach, as he was speaking.
"We have made a beginning," went on Yifter quietly. "Just a beginning. Last time we were less successful than I had hoped. We had a breakdown in the distribution system for the drugs. I managed to eliminate the responsible individuals, but it was too late to correct the problem. Next time, God willing, it will be different."
He rose to his feet, white hair shining like silver, face beatific. "Good night, Captain. Good night, Professor McAndrew. Sleep well."
After he had left, McAndrew and I sat and looked at each other for a long time. Finally, he broke the spell.
"Now we know, Jeanie. We should have guessed it from the beginning. Mad as a hatter. The man's a raving lunatic. Completely psychotic."
That said most of it. McAndrew had used up all the good phrases. I nodded.
"But did you feel the strength in him?" went on McAndrew. "Like a big magnet."
I was glad that the penal colony was so far from Earth, and the avenues of communication so well-guarded. "Next time . . . it will be different." Our two-month trip suddenly seemed to have doubled in length.
* * *
After that single, chilling moment, there were no more shocks for some time. Our regular meal-time conversations continued, and on several occasions McAndrew voiced views on pacifism and the protection of human life. Each time, I waited for Yifter's reply, expecting the worst. He never actually agreed with Mac—but he did not come out with any statement that resembled his comments of the first ship-evening.
We soon settled into the ship-board routine. McAndrew spent less and less time in the Control Stage, and more in Section Seven. On this trip, he had brought a new set of equipment for his experiments, and I was very curious to know what he was up to. He wouldn't tell. I had only one clue. Section Seven was drawing enormous energy from the other kernels in the rest of the Assembly. That energy could only be going to one place—into the kernel in Section Seven. I suspected that McAndrew must be spinning it up, making it closer to an "extreme" kernel, a Kerr-Newman black hole where the rotation energy matches the mass energy. I knew that couldn't be the whole story. McAndrew had spun up the kernels before, and he had told me that there was no direct way of getting a really extreme kernel—that would take an infinite amount of energy. This time, he was doing something different. He insisted that Section Seven had to be off-limits to everybody.
I couldn't get him to talk about it. There would be a couple of seconds of silence from him, then he would stand there, cracking his finger joints as though he were snapping out a coded message to me. He could be a real sphinx when he chose.
Two weeks from Earth, we were drawing clear of the main Asteroid Belt. I had just about concluded that my worries for the trip were over when the radar reported another ship, closing slowly with us from astern. Its spectral signature identified it as the Lesotho, a cruise liner that usually ran trajectories in the Inner System. It was broadcasting a Mayday, and flying free under zero drive power.
I thought about it for a moment, then posted Emergency Stations throughout the Assembly. The computed trajectory showed that we would match velocities at a separation of three kilometers. That was incredibly close, far too close to be accidental. After closest approach, we would pull away again—we were still under power, accelerating outward, and would leave the Lesotho behind.
I was still watching the displays, trying to decide whether or not to take the next step—shutting off the drives—when Bryson appeared, with Yifter just behind him.
"Captain Roker," he said, in his usual imperious manner. "That's an Earth ship there, giving you a distress signal. Why aren't you doing anything about it?"
"If we wait just a few minutes," I said. "We'll be within spitting distance of her. I see no point in rushing in, until we've had a good look at her. I can't think what an Inner System ship would be doing, free-falling out here beyond the Belt."
That didn't cool him. "Can't you recognize an emergency when you see one?" he said. "If you won't do something productive with your people, I'll do something with mine."
I wondered what he wanted me to do, but he walked away without saying anything more, down the stairs that led to the rear communication area of the Control Stage. I turned back to the displays. The Lesotho was closing on us steadily, and now I could see that her locks were open. I cut our propulsion to zero and switched off all the drives. The other ship was tumbling slowly, drive lifeless and aft nacelles crumpled. Even from this distance, I could see that she would need extensive repairs before she could function again.
I was beginning to think that I had been over-cautious when two things happened. Yifter's guards, who had been housed behind the Control Stage in Section Two, began to float into view on the viewing screen that pointed towards the Lesotho. They were all in space armor and heavily weaponed. At the same time two suited figures appeared in the open forward lock of the other vessel. I cut in the suit frequencies on our main board.
"—shield failure," said the receiver. "Twenty-seven survivors, and bad injuries. We must have painkillers, medical help, water, food, oxygen and power-packs."
With that, one group of our guards outside began to move towards the two suited figures in the Lesotho's lock, while the remainder stayed close to the Assembly, looking across at the other ship. Subconsciously, I noted the number of our guards in each party, then gave them my full attention and did a rapid re-count. Twenty-five. All our guards. I swore and cut in the transmitter.
"Sergeant, get half of those men back inside the Assembly shields. This is Captain Roker. I'm over-riding any other orders you may have received. Get the nearer party—"
I was interrupted. The display screen flashed blue-white, then over-loaded. The whole Control Stage rang like a great bell, as something slapped hard on the outer shield. I knew what it was: a huge pulse of hard radiation and highly energetic particles, smashing into us in a fraction of a microsecond.
Yifter had been floating within a couple of meters of me, watching the screens. He put his hand to the wall to orient himself as the Control Stage vibrated violently. "What was that?"
"Thermonuclear explosion," I said shortly. "Hundred megaton plus. On the Lesotho."
All the screens on that side were dead. I activated the standby system. The Lesotho had vanished. The guards had vanished with it, vaporized instantly. All the cables linking the parts of the Assembly, all the scanners and sensors that were not protected behind the shields, were gone. The Sections themselves were intact, but their coupling fields would have to be completely recalibrated. We wouldn't be arriving at Titan on schedule.
I looked again at Yifter. His face was now calm and thoughtful. He seemed to be waiting, listening expectantly. For what? If the Lesotho had been a suicide mission, manned by volunteers who sought revenge on Yifter, they hadn't had a chance. They couldn't destroy the Assembly, or get at Yifter. If revenge were not the purpose, what was the purpose?
I ran through in my mind the events of the past hour. With the drives switched off in the Assembly, we had an unprotected blind spot, dead astern. We had been putting all our attention on the Lesotho. Now, with the guards all dead, the Control Stage was undefended.
It was quicker to go aft and take a look than to call Bryson or McAndrew and ask them what they could see from the rear viewing screens of the Control Stage. Leaving Yifter, I dived head-first down the stairway—a risky maneuver if there were any chance that the drive might come back on, but I was sure it couldn't.
It took me about thirty seconds to travel the length of the Control Stage. By the time that I was half-way, I knew I had been thinking much too slowly. I heard the clang of a lock, a shout, and the sputtering crackle of a hand laser against solid metal. When I got to the rear compartment, it was all finished. Bryson, pale and open-mouthed, was floating against one wall. He seemed unhurt. McAndrew had fared less well. He was ten meters farther along, curled into a fetal ball. Floating near him I saw a family of four stubby pink worms with red-brown heads, still unclenching with muscle spasm. I could also see the deep burn on his side and chest, and his right hand, from which a laser had neatly clipped the fingers and cauterized the wound instantly as it did so. At the far end of the room, braced against the wall, were five suited figures, all well-armed.
Heroics would serve no purpose. I spread my arms wide to show that I was not carrying a weapon, and one of the newcomers pushed off from the wall and floated past me, heading towards the front of the Control Stage. I moved over to McAndrew and inspected his wounds. They looked bad, but not fatal. Fortunately, laser wounds are usually very clean. I could see that we would have problems with his lung unless we treated him quickly. A lobe had been penetrated, and his breathing was slowly breaking the seal of crisped tissue that the laser had made. Blood was beginning to well through and stain his clothing.
McAndrew's forehead was beaded with sweat. As the shock of his wound wore off, the pain was beginning. I pointed to the medical belt of one of the invaders, who nodded and tossed an ampoule across to me. I injected McAndrew at the big vein inside his right elbow.
The figure who had pushed past me was returning, followed by Yifter. The face plate of the suit was now open, revealing a dark-haired woman in her early thirties. She looked casually at the scene, nodded at last, and turned back to Yifter.
"Everything's under control here," she said. "But we'll have to take a Section from the Assembly. The ship we were following in caught some of the blast from the Lesotho, and it's no good for powered flight now."
Yifter shook his head reprovingly. "Impatient as usual, Akhtar. I'll bet you were just too eager to get here. You must learn patience if you are to be of maximum value to us, my dear. Where did you leave the main group?"
"A few hours drive inward from here. We have waited for your rescue, before making any plans for the next phase."
Yifter, calm as ever, nodded approvingly. "The right decision. We can take a Section without difficulty. Most of them contain their own drives, but some are less effective than others."
He turned to me, smiling gently. "Jeanie Roker, which Section is the best equipped to carry us away from the Assembly? As you see, it is time for us to leave you and rejoin our colleagues."
His calm was worse than any number of threats. I floated next to McAndrew, trying to think of some way that we could delay or impede the Lucies' escape. It might take days for a rescue party to reach us. In that time, Yifter and his followers could be anywhere.
I hesitated. Yifter waited. "Come now," he said at last. "I'm sure you are as eager as I am to avoid any further annoyance"—he moved his hand, just a little, to indicate McAndrew and Bryson—"for your friends."
I shrugged. All the Sections contained emergency life-support systems, more than enough for a trip of a few hours. Section Two, where the guards had been housed, lacked a full, independent drive unit, but it was still capable of propulsion. I thought it might slow their escape enough for us somehow to track it.
"Section Two should be adequate," I said. "It housed your guards in comfort. Those poor devils certainly have no need for it now."
I paused. Beside me, McAndrew was painfully straightening from his contorted position. The drugs were beginning to work. He coughed, and red globules floated away across the room. That lung needed attention.
"No," he said faintly. "Not Two, Yifter. Seven. Section Seven."
He paused and coughed again, while I looked at him in surprise.
"Seven," he said at last. He looked at me. "No killing, Jeanie. No—Killing vector."
The woman was listening closely. She regarded both of us suspiciously. "What was all that about?"
My mouth was gaping open as wide as Bryson's. I had caught an idea of what McAndrew was trying to tell me, but I didn't want to say it. Fortunately, I was helped out by Yifter himself.
"No killing," he said. "My dear, you have to understand that Professor McAndrew is a devoted pacifist—and carrying his principles through admirably. He doesn't want to see any further killing. I think I can agree with that—for the present."
He looked at me and shook his head. "I won't inquire what dangers and drawbacks Section Two might contain, Captain—though I do seem to recall that it lacks a decent drive unit. I think we'll follow the Professor's advice and take Section Seven. Akhtar is a very competent engineer, and I'm sure she'll have no trouble coupling the drive to the kernel."
He looked at us with a strange expression. If it didn't sound so peculiar, I'd describe it as wistful. "I shall miss our conversations," he said. "But I must say goodbye now. I hope that Professor McAndrew will recover. He is one of the strong—unless he allows himself to be killed by his unfortunate pacifist fancies. We may not meet again, but I am sure that you will be hearing about us in the next few months."
They left. McAndrew, Bryson and I watched the screens in silence, as the Lucies made their way over to Section Seven and entered it. Once they were inside, I went over to McAndrew and took him by the left arm.
"Come on," I said. "We have to get a patch on that lung."
He shook his head weakly. "Not yet. It can wait a few minutes. After that, it might not be necessary."
His forehead was beading with sweat again—and this time it was not from pain. I felt my own tension mounting steadily. We stayed by the display screen, and as the seconds ticked away my own forehead began to film with perspiration. We did not speak. I had one question, but I was terribly afraid of the answer I might get. I think that Bryson spoke to both of us several times. I have no idea what he said.
Finally, a pale nimbus grew at the rear of the Section Seven drive unit.
"Now," said McAndrew. "He's going to tap the kernel."
I stopped breathing. There was a pause of a few seconds, stretching to infinity, then the image on the screen rippled slightly. Suddenly, we could see stars shining through that area. Section Seven was gone, vanished, with no sign that it had ever existed.
McAndrew took in a long, pained breath, wincing as his injured lung expanded. Somehow, he managed a little smile.
"Well now," he said. "That answers a theoretical question that I've had on my mind for some time."
I could breathe again, too. "I didn't know what was going to happen there," I said. "I was afraid all the energy might come out of that kernel in one go."
McAndrew nodded. "To be honest, that thought was in my head, too. At this range, the shields would have been useless. We'd have gone like last year's lovers."
Bryson had been watching the whole thing in confusion. We had been ignoring him completely. At last, pale and irritable, he spoke to us again.
"What are you two talking about? And what's happened to the Section with Yifter in it? I was watching on the screen, then it just seemed to disappear."
"McAndrew tried to tell us earlier," I said. "But he didn't want the Lucies to know what he was getting at. He'd been fiddling with the kernel in that Section. You heard what he said—no Killing vector. I don't know what he did, but he fixed it so that the kernel in Section Seven had no Killing vector."
"I'm sure he did," said Bryson tartly. "Now perhaps you'll tell me what a Killing vector is."
"Well, Mac could tell you a lot better than I can. But a Killing vector is a standard sort of thing in relativity—I guess you never had any training in that. You get a Killing vector when a region of space-time has some sort of symmetry—say, about an axis of spin. And every sort of black hole, every sort of kernel we've ever encountered before, has at least one symmetry of that type. So if McAndrew changed the kernel and made it into something with no Killing vector, it's like no kernel we've ever seen. Right, Mac?"
He looked dreamy. The drugs had taken hold. "I took it past the extreme Kerr-Newman form," he said. "Put it into a different form, metastable equilibrium. Event horizon had disappeared, all the Killing vectors had disappeared."
"Christ!" I hadn't expected that. "No event horizon? Doesn't that mean you get—?"
McAndrew was still nodding, eye pupils dilated. "—a naked singularity. That's right, Jeanie, I had a naked singularity, sitting there in equilibrium in Section Seven. You don't get there by spinning-up—need different method." His speech was slurring, as though his tongue was swollen. "Didn't know what would happen if somebody tried to tap it, to use for a drive. Either the signature of space-time there would change, from three space dimensions and one time, to two space and two time. Or we might see the System's biggest explosion. All the mass coming out as radiation, in one flash."
It was slowly dawning on Bryson what we were saying. "But just where is Yifter now?" he asked.
"Gone a long way," I said. "Right out of this universe."
"And he can't be brought back?" asked Bryson.
"I hope not." I'd seen more than enough of Yifter.
"But I'm supposed to deliver him safely to Titan," said Bryson. "I'm responsible for his safe passage. What am I going to tell the Planetary Coordinators?"
I didn't have much sympathy. I was too busy looking at McAndrew's wounds. The fingers could be regenerated using the bio-feedback equipment on Titan, but the lung would need watching. It was still bleeding a little.
"Tell them you had a very singular experience," I said. McAndrew grunted as I probed the deep cut in his side. "Sorry, Mac. Have to do it. You know, you've ruined your reputation forever as far as I'm concerned. I thought you were a pacifist? All that preaching at us, then you send Yifter and his lot all the way to Hell—and good riddance to them."
McAndrew was drifting far away on his big dose of painkillers. He half-winked at me and made his curious throat-clearing noise.
"Och, I'm a pacifist all right. We pacifists have to look after each other. How could we ever hope for peace with people like Yifter around to stir up trouble? There's a bunch more of them, a few hours travel behind us. Fix me up quick, Jeanie. I should be tinkering with the other kernels a bit—just in case the other Lucies decide to pay us a visit later . . ."