“This obsession of yours with Doctor Wu is unbecoming, unprofessional and utterly pathetic,” said Edison calmly, quietly and with far too much contempt in his voice than River would have been able to digest at the best of times. But nevertheless, here he sat, inside Edison’s office, all his glory surrounding his big achievement gone; dried up just like the first rains on the saltpans back in his homeland on Earth. “Do you think you are the first person to think you landed the big prize? You got drunk, passed out and dreamed up a fantasy that wasn’t real. Get over it, move on and stop pestering the good doctor.”
“I know what I saw, Professor.”
“Professor Goldstein, persist in this and I will have you removed from this facility.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Oh no, I’m not threatening.” The irritating man seemed vastly amused by the statement. “I’m not threatening you at all. I’m telling you. River, I’m going to be as frank as I possibly can.” The old scientist did not wait for any kind of acknowledgement or permission, he simply continued. “You are talented and intelligent, there is no doubt about that, but you are not wise. You are so very far from wise, it’s painful to observe. There is a very large part of me that is tempted to let you continue on this self-destructive path you seem to have chosen for yourself. In the competitive world of scientific discovery, it would be the strategic move on my part. But with the small part of compassion I have for you, through respect of your abilities as peer, perhaps at a push, as a comrade, I recognise that would be a waste. You have too much still to give to the scientific community, don’t spoil it all now because of a fantasy induced by too much drink and a snubbing.”
“But, sir...” River stopped, knowing that he had lost the argument long ago. “It all felt so real,” he finished quietly. “And Shiori has not been herself since that morning. I know what I saw. The life form has disappeared, none of us can find it. Even the bio- scanners are turning up nil. I saw it burrowing into her back. She has changed. I’m not the only one who has noticed. People speak about her changes, only none will put it to the test. I’m telling you, Professor, if you check her back you’ll see a scar, wound, scab, something...”
“All of what you say is based purely on your word. As a man, you have no weight to throw at this. She is a woman who has done nothing wrong and is entitled to her privacy. At your insistence, I have asked her if we could check her back. She refused, entirely in her right.”
River could only nod; everything the Professor was saying was true.
“River, please, just let it be, or face the full consequences of a harassment charge. And have no false pretences, she will level one against you.”
“Sir, in that case, I must ask for a transfer from the Saucer.”
Edison nodded. He has been expecting this request, the realisation hit River. Can I really blame him for expecting that? Most people wouldn’t be able to face the humiliation.
“Where will you transfer to?”
“I was thinking I might switch to a less scientific role. I wish to work on the highway deployment project.”
“Ah, yes, see your brainchild deployed. I will write to the committee requesting your reassignment.”
River rose from his chair opposite the Professor’s desk. The Professor stood in accompaniment shortly afterward. The handshake was completed, extended across the desk. “Thank you for your accommodation during my tenure here at Research Facility Six Oh One.”
“Good luck in your future endeavours,” said the Professor, turning his head away as he dug into his pockets to find his handkerchief. He hurriedly blew his nose, wiping away what seemed like a greenish slime.
“Professor, I’m not a medical doctor, but mucus of that colour cannot be healthy. You should have that looked at.”
“It’s nothing, just a small cold.” He waved River’s suggestion away irritably. “You have things to address, let me not keep you any longer.”
Casting one last look over the two-room quarters he had inhabited for almost six full years, River ran his key card over the reader and let the door slide shut. The room held few happy memories for him, he had spent very little time in the austere chambers and the time he had spent in there had been lonely. The one time he did spend time with company had turned out to be a vivid figment of his imagination.
He handed the key card over the HEC security officer. “Here you go, the last slice of RF601 property in my possession. I think I’ve lingered here long enough.”
The security officer only nodded and turned so that he would be walking just a step behind River. From scientific delight to legal liability, he thought cynically.
None of the Saucer’s inhabitants were on-hand to see him off, as they had all been in a frenzy about something. The HEC-SEC representatives had arrived on a larger interdictor-class capital ship, the Agamemnon, one of the largest capital ships in the HEC fleet. The interdictor was capable of operating for long periods of time away from any kind of space platform or base. It carried many thousands of personnel, from scientists to engineers, from cooks to combatants. Agamemnon had been a long distance out from Sol and was finally returning from Gliese, and had been nominated by HEC-HQ to begin setting up the Highway from Saturn to Earth. There were two primary reasons for this: firstly, the Agamemnon was one of the fastest capital ships in the fleet, secondly, due to its size it was able to produce and keep an inventory of the actual components needed, as the ship travelled between the locations where the Highway junctions would be placed.
The path to the long docking column was deserted, almost as if his former colleagues had taken pains to avoid him. And before long he was heading towards the massive airlock. Parts of the Agamemnon’s hull were visible from the docking collar, since it was actually larger than the entry portal. Not that any ships were larger than the Agamemnon, but River supposed it had to do with the fact that the designers were constantly looking forward to possible changes and tried to build things to accommodate as much change as possible. A large docking column could easily be modified to fit something smaller, but large scale changes would be needed to accommodate something of a larger nature.
In the entry stood two officers, one of them clearly the Admiral, the other looking to be his First Officer. The Admiral was a man of large build, stocky and old. His face was marked with stress lines. The man had clearly experienced much in his time. The First Officer looked middle aged at first glance. He was well groomed and showed little sign of ageing. A closer look revealed the man to be far older, his true age betrayed in his eyes, which revealed even greater experience than the Admiral’s.
River stepped over the threshold into the Agamemnon and was greeted by the Admiral. “Admiral R. Bennett; and this is Flight Commander S. Bamford, my second-in-command on ship. We have heard much about you, Professor Goldstein.”
“Hopefully the better things, Admiral.”
“Of course.” The Admiral inclined his head, betraying that the information imparted had been primarily negative. “We wish to be off as soon as possible to commence our work. We have the benefit of the first two junctions to get us as far as the outer moons of Jupiter, but thereafter many light minutes of normal flight await us.”
“Certainly, the quicker I can get settled and begin with my new work the better.” They began to walk down the corridor into the deeper sections of the capital ship. Just beyond where they had been speaking stood three crewmen who snapped to attention as they passed. The Flight Commander waved them into action as they passed. River could only presume that the process of closing up the airlock would begin and that the capital ship would be pulling from dock soon.
“Bamford will show you to your quarters, he will be your effective CO since you don’t fit into the martial ranks, per se. I saw from your file you are classified a lieutenant with regards to on-deck authority and general benefits or recognition?”
“I believe so, sir, though I haven’t specifically paid any attention to that due to my time on the Saucer being highly secluded.”
“Well, on board the Agamemnon that rank will be 51
highly important, and you will find it coming into play frequently. I trust you will act as your rank dictates and how decorum demands.”
The real crunch of the rank inquiry, my experience with Shiori, will not be so easily forgotten, it seems, thought River bitterly. “Of course not, sir. I intend to be the model of decorum and complete my new tasks dutifully.”
The old man nodded as if he expected no less than what he had just heard. By that time they had just made it to a crossing of corridors. “Bamford will take you the rest of the way to the sleeping quarters. You will be sharing a cabin with another lieutenant. You will at least not be in the general quarters with hundreds of junior enlisted crewmen. I have things to attend to on the bridge. Good day, Lieutenant Goldstein.”
“Thank you, Admiral.”
“This way,” said Flight Commander Bamford as he strode down the opposite direction to which the Admiral had headed. River had to hurry to keep step with his new direct superior.
Another cold and detached boss, he sighed inwardly.
After a brief tour of his section and introduction to a whole sea of new faces, River found himself in a cramped chamber. A single bunk, a tiny little desk a mere two feet from the edge of it, with a narrow locker beside the desk. The walls of his chamber were no more than five feet apart. The whole ceiling was a source of light, which could be dimmed or brightened as desired.
A claustrophobic place this is, compared with my old quarters, he thought to himself. Time to move on, River.
He stowed his belongings away and tried to recall
the names of the faces he had been introduced to, but couldn’t recall anything. A voice croaked from a speaker, somewhere hidden away. He suspected it to be the voice of the First Mate, or the Admiral.
“All crew, please secure yourself for full acceleration in thirty minutes.”
“And the new chapter starts now,” he said loudly to no one in particular, a smile etched across his face.
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