It should have been Schaeffer’s moment. He was on the bridge, before the gleaming instrument panel, and through the port he could see the revolving carousel and the stars. Nine years out from Earth the ship still looked like new. And she was his command.
Then his eyes dropped to the blank screen, and he swore. No telepath. So no comms.
The engineer in him rebelled against that linkage. It was magic, it was mumbo-jumbo. But the blank screen could not be denied. Comms across the distances of deep space required a telepath. And theirs was not performing.
“Ben’s trying,” came a woman’s voice. It was Jane, the first mate.
“Not bloody hard enough!” Schaeffer retorted.
Jane, walking up in her magnetic boots, looked at him sharply. She was forties, hard-bitten. “They’re temperamental. You have to nurture them.”
There was reproach in her voice. “I’ll nurture him!” Schaeffer growled. And who was she, for God’s sake? One deep space voyage didn’t make her superior.
Yet in his heart he knew it did. An interplanetary officer, he had been lucky to get starship command. He was really the junior of the two. And his final, “I’ll nurture the bastard,” lacked conviction.
Schaeffer didn’t confront Ben. The last time he had almost come to blows with the telepath, and it was Jane who pulled him back.
No, that wasn’t the way.
But a way had to be found. The colonists were restless. No news from Earth, no word from loved ones left behind — nothing to maintain the illusion of humanity in the indifferent darkness. Here, a light year out, where two years would elapse between signal and response, reality had hit hard. The telepath was the lifeline that kept them all sane.
Schaeffer had had no preparation for this. Days after launch he had gone into suspended animation with the rest of the roster. For nine years he had been out of it as the ship sped imperceptibly through the void. Now returned to waking life, he would have a year in command of the starship with a hundred active souls and nine hundred sleepers in the carousel. And the cycle would be repeated eleven more times on their journey to Tau Ceti.
“Don’t you think you should make an announcement?” It was Jane again, appearing out of nowhere on the bridge.
“What can I say?” Schaeffer shrugged. “‘Ben’s gone walkabout’?”
“That’s pretty unkind. Sir.” Jane pursed her lips.
In the glow of the instrument panel she looked softer, more human.
Confused, Schaeffer straightened, and momentarily lost touch with the deck. He had forgotten his boots. Catching a handle, he said, “You’re right. How to make Ben perform?”
“It’s not make,” Jane said gently. “You can’t force a capability like that.”
“Not even persuade.”
“What then, for Christssakes?” In his impatience, Schaeffer floated off again.
Jane caught him. “Let’s talk to the guy. He needs our support.”
Schaeffer followed Jane reluctantly to the carousel. There, weighted by the rotation, they walked past the sleepers’ pods to the cabins. A couple in the corridor were talking urgently. Schaeffer hailed them, but they did not look round.
Outside the cabin of Ben Goolagong the telepath, they heard a rhythmic chanting. The chants were punctuated with a smacking sound, as if from a hand slapping a table top.
Jane shook her head. And indeed the chant faltered and stopped.
“No accompaniment,” she said. “And being spun round in the carousel doesn’t help. We should give him the bridge.”
“It’s tough linking up with his aboriginal kin on Earth. At least give him our prime spot, help him focus.”
Schaeffer winced. “Give him command of the ship while we’re at it!”
“It’s not a joke, sir,” Jane said quietly.
Schaeffer saw suddenly how fragile the whole thing was. A bubble of steel, filled with squabbling colonists, a skeleton crew. No spare telepath. A computer-supported paramedic for a doctor. And the captain?
Jane was watching him with concern.
Ashamed, Schaeffer pulled himself together. “We need Ben to perform, to keep the colonists quiet,” he said slowly. “But the guy’s just a human antenna. We don’t have to go along with his Dreamtime stuff.”
“Oh, yes we do,” Jane said. “He doesn’t do it by himself. No, it’s the psychic energy of the group. He just channels that — like a carrier beam.”
Schaeffer’s discomfort must have shown in his face, for Jane continued, “On my last voyage we had to hold hands and sing. Someone played the flute, and we sang for the telepath. You get into it after a while.”
Jane did not reappear until Schaeffer’s shift was ending. No, she hadn’t spoken to Ben. But from behind her back she produced a length of piping, narrowed at one end.
“It’s for you,” Jane said simply. “Go and practise; let me take over.” She switched the console to her ID.
Surprising himself, Schaeffer took the pipe. He walked unsteadily in his boots towards the carousel. At the port he glanced back, and saw Jane still standing there, absorbed. It came to him then how slender was the strength that steered them through the vastness.
Weighted again in his cabin, seated on his bed, Schaeffer looked at the pipe. Had it really come to this? He put the thing down — it was ridiculous, he couldn’t do it. Then he recalled Jane’s slim form over the console. He felt, almost tenderly, the weight of responsibility she carried looking after the ship, looking after him.
Picking up the pipe, he took a breath and blew into the hole. From deep within the instrument sounded a low reverberating note. And later, when Jane came off the bridge, she found the colonists listening to a rhythm that filled the corridor of the carousel.
For almost the first time on the roster, Jane smiled. It was time to fetch Ben.