- Naught for Hire
- Manuscript Format
John E. Stith's REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS Excerpt
Redshift Rendezvous Copyright © 1990 by John E. Stith. All rights reserved.
WARNING: Read This Guide Before Boarding the Redshift.
The environment aboard a hyperspace craft is quite safe as long as you are careful. The management reminds you that the speed of light on board this craft is ten meters per second, or about 30 million times slower than what you are used to. This means you will frequently encounter relativistic effects and optical illusions.
NEVER TAMPER WITH YOUR LIFEBELT OR ATTEMPT TO UNFASTEN IT. THE FIELD IT GENERATES ALLOWS YOUR NEURAL TRANSMISSIONS TO OPERATE AT NORMAL SPEEDS AND IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL TO YOUR HEALTH.
1. Use only the ship's master clock displays. Do not rely on your personal timepiece; it will accurately record your personal subjective time, but it will never agree with any other timepieces until you reset it when you leave the ship.
2. Remember that everything you see and hear is at least slightly in the past, due to the time it takes sound and light to travel. The closest things to you are the most current.
3. Trust what your hands tell you rather than believing your eyes. Bending light can make you think a convex floor is concave. Colors may shift and shapes may distort.
4. Go slow. Limit your speed to a fast walk until you are familiar with the environment. Please heed the traffic rules. By running fast, it is possible to exceed the speed of sound, which is only 6.7 meters per second.
5. Never assume anything.
6. Have a nice trip.
Prelude to Hyperspace
Either she wanted to be found, or I simply had a stroke of luck in coming upon her at just the right moment. Since luck and I had never been on very good terms, I naturally assumed Jenni Sonders had been waiting for someone to show up.
I was down on level two of the Redshift, on my rounds, making sure my eyes told me the same story I got from the ship's status panels and the rest of the crew. Not that I distrusted either the indicators or the people--I just didn't like to rely entirely on reported observations, even if the optical illusions on the Redshift were enough to make my own eyes less trustworthy than sensors.
In the high-gee field of level two, my feet scuffed the floor as I walked along the equatorial corridor. Closely spaced ceiling lights lit the gray corridor walls and the charcoal deck floor. The cargo bays I'd surveyed so far had been packed with expensive machinery, containers of rare metals, exotic foods, unique fabrics...the staples of a typical hyperspace run; items not universally available, and expensive enough to justify passage. Nothing so far had been out of the ordinary, but ahead and on my right a cargo bay door was not entirely closed.
The door was open the width of a hand. I glanced through the gap and then slid the door all the way open. The bay was full of labeled crates, mostly rectangular, in a multitude of sizes. Near the center of the bay, a passenger sat atop a tall stack of crates, hugging her knees, looking forlorn and tired, like a lost child. The woman's hair nearly touched the deck overhead. She must have crawled up a staircase of crates to reach her resting place near the center aisle.
The woman was Jenni Sonders. I remembered seeing her boarding, and I had talked to her once briefly at dinner. She looked to be in her late twenties, about my age. She was a redhead, narrow-hipped, perpetually sad--at least I hadn't seen her smile since she boarded the Redshift at Megorath. Her red curls hung slightly lower than normal in the strong gravity down here. She wore off-white pants and a matching long-sleeved blouse. The cuffs of both the pants and blouse were circled with violet bands in a chic paramilitary style that looked good on her.
Jenni was far enough from me that I stood by the door and waited for indications of my arrival to reach her.
After a delay long enough for light to reach her and return, I saw her head turn toward me. Suddenly she was in motion, scrambling off her perch and behind a crate that nearly touched the overhead.
I frowned, trying to imagine what she might have been doing down here, wondering what was going on in her head right now. She wouldn't be trying to steal; every cargo crate was securely locked. And she was obviously ill at ease in the hyperspace environment; otherwise, she would have remembered that I'd had ample time to see her before she hid.
I waited a moment, saying nothing, partly because I didn't know what to say, partly because I was curious about what she would do next. She stayed hidden.
Finally, I called out, "I know you're there, Ms. Sonders. Why don't you come on out?"
There was a long delay, even longer than simple sound-transmission time, so she must have taken time to think about her response. Finally her head showed to one side of the crate. She said nothing.
"What are you doing down here?" I asked, and began walking toward her.
A panicked expression came over her face and her lips moved before I heard her words. "Don't come any closer." Her voice was scratchy, as though on the edge of tears.
I stopped where I was. This wasn't going at all the way I had expected. "I'm Jason Kraft, the first officer, Ms. Sonders. What's the problem?"
"Go away," was all she said. I got the feeling it took quite an effort for her to say even that much. She got back up on a high crate and scooted closer to the edge. She looked down at the floor from there, and turned back to me. "Go away."
"Look, I can't just go away. I'm responsible for--"
"Go away or I'll jump."
There was such pain in her voice that for an instant I considered honoring her request, but I couldn't. I finally realized what this was all about. For whatever reason, she was apparently near suicide. But I hadn't a clue what to do about it. I could call the ship's doctor, but by then she might have jumped off a pile of crates.
Maybe someone trained in how to deal with people like this would have done things differently. I did the only thing that came into my mind; I decided to try to distract her from whatever it was that was eating at her.
"I would have thought the beds in the passenger cabins were more comfortable than a stack of shipping crates." Impatient with the long delays of large rooms, I waited for her reply.
She remained silent, perched on the lip of the crate.
Calmly, softly, I said, "This delay between sentences makes it tough to talk. Would you mind if I come closer?"
"Stay away," she said through clenched teeth.
I backed up to the wall and made a point of not moving at all for a good part of a minute. At last I said, "You come here often? You don't look like one of the regulars."
Jenni sobbed once and was silent. Her lips opened and closed several times without speech, and finally she said, so softly that I could barely hear, "Not funny."
"Ms. Sonders, I know how to fire a crew member who's not making the required effort. I know how to tell the skipper when she's made a rare bad decision. I don't have the smallest notion of how to deal with someone who wants to commit suicide."
She tacitly confirmed her intentions by not correcting my statement, but she glared at me as though I should know exactly what to do with a suicider, as though this kind of problem had a solution as straightforward as artificial respiration. I felt suddenly inadequate, and at the same time a little like an intruder. Maybe someone else would have decided the fairest thing to do was to go away and quit meddling, but I couldn't do that.
As she sat there fidgeting, looking over the edge, I shifted my weight slightly so I'd be able to move quickly if I needed to. I tried again to think of a way to get her thoughts away from whatever pain had caused all this. "You know," I said finally, "a fall from that height might not be fatal. You might just put yourself in a lot of pain."
Some of her words were too soft to hear, or she wasn't able to speak clearly. "... be condescending ..."
"I wasn't being condescending," I said truthfully. "You probably read the brochure that says the gravity is two and a half gees on this level, but that's only at the floor. The gravity tapers off. Up where you are, it's probably only one point five to one point seven. That means the average from you to the floor is about two. And your terminal velocity will be greater than a fall in one gee by only a factor of the square root of that increase. Do you think hitting the floor at one point four times faster than normal will guarantee results?"
I hoped the overly clinical techtalk might jog her out of the rut she was in. Another way of looking at the numbers was that she would hit the floor from her current perch as though she had fallen from a point twice as high in one gee, but there was no point in giving her that encouragement.
While she appeared to think about what I'd said, I considered running toward her. With light traveling so slowly in this layer of hyperspace, I could run almost as fast as the speed of light. I could certainly run faster than the speed of sound. If I were to run as fast as possible, I probably could reach her before she had time to react. I hesitated, thinking a better plan would be to talk her out of it, or to keep her talking long enough for the mood to pass.
"Have you felt this way long?" I asked, changing the subject.
After a long silence she said, "What way?"
"I don't know what way you feel. I've never contemplated suicide. I've felt the urge to kill someone else, but I imagine that's not quite the same thing. Why are you up there?"
"I don't want to live."
I wasn't sure it was progress for her to say that out loud or not. "Why don't you want to live?"
"... none of your business."
Feeling less sure I was approaching this correctly, I went ahead anyway and said, "None of my business? How can you say that? Have you any idea how many forms I'll have to fill out if you do this on our ship? And with me as a witness?"
She sobbed again. She was still awhile and then drew a deep breath. She said clearly, "I understand what you're doing. But I have to do this."
"Ms. Sonders, when I came down the corridor this door was open. I don't know if you consciously wanted to talk with someone, or whether the thought was just at the back of your mind. But somewhere in that brain of yours there's a voice saying you want to talk. I'm here. This may be your last opportunity. How about if you tell me about it?"
She was silent for a disturbing length of time, but finally she said, "It's everything. One thing after another. This was supposed to be my honeymoon trip." Her voice caught. Then she swallowed hard and went on. "Two days before we were supposed to leave, he told me he thought this was all a mistake. He had changed his mind. He's always changing his mind. He's still on Megorath." She drew a deep breath. "At first I thought going away and deliberately having a good time without him would help, but it was a mistake."
Being spurned had caused all her pain? I felt a guilty sting of comfort that I would never be hurt that way.
"So you're in such pain that you don't want to live?" I asked at last, trying hard to understand. "Or you want to get back at him?"
Her head jerked around when my words reached her. "How can you say that I'd be doing this to--" She broke off, staring at me for a long moment before she looked down. She clenched her fists and said, "This isn't just because of him. It isn't. It isn't." Her words were muffled since she didn't face me as she spoke.
"Say, I've got an idea," I said, deciding that moving to this topic had been one of my bad ideas. "I'm starved. Let's go up to the galley and get a late-night snack. Layne Koffer fixes a terrific sweet-java."
She shook her head just as I finished speaking. She edged closer to the drop to the deck.
"Wait just a minute," I said quickly. "I almost forgot. A message came in for you over the network. It was--" I never finished the lie I had started. Instead I ran.
I pushed against the wall behind me, and I accelerated as rapidly as I could move my body in the high gravity. If I could have reached the speed of light instantly, Jenni would have had no warning that I was on my way until I was already with her. As it was, I outdistanced a couple of my words but still gave her a little warning.
I ran straight along the row between crates, my view of Jenni shifting into blue and then violet as I ran fast enough for Doppler shift to tint the world ahead. The view of stacked crates to either side of me contracted.
Jenni must have seen my violet blur as I approached, because she pushed herself off the stack of crates, tilting backward so she would land on her head. I was nearly too late.
As I ran, I held my arms outstretched. Catching her was awkward, even though I tried to compensate for her extra weight on this level. Her body hit my arms at about the same instant that the sonic boom I had generated sounded loudly in my ears. I thought at first I had her, but a second later I dropped her after all. At least I had been able to slow her down and reorient her so her heels and buttocks hit the deck simultaneously. I fell heavily to one side.
She had been yelling from the moment I first touched her. "Get away from me. What are you---ouch!" Hitting the deck stopped the flow of words for only an instant; then the impact laced her words with pain. "You've got no right. Get away!"
Her remaining restraint broke and she began to pummel my chest with her fists. I grabbed for her wrists to force her to stop.
Even up close the speed-of-light delay made it hard to anticipate Jenni's moves. My first attempts to restrain her missed, but she knew what I was trying to do because she changed her tactics. She slapped my face and a moment later I felt the wet result of four fingernails scratching deeply into my cheek.
Finally I got good grips on both of her wrists, which left only the possibility of being kicked or kneed. She didn't waste any time. Fortunately she landed only two kicks before I was able to force her down against the deck, straddle her, and pin her fists to the deck.
She lay on her back, breathing heavily, looking up at me because she had no choice. As my adrenaline level began its descent to normal, I looked back at her. What had appeared from a distance to be a tan was instead closely spaced freckles. "Damn you," she said slowly, vehemently.
Jenni was unmoving for a long moment as anger put creases between her eyebrows and anger burned in her eyes. Suddenly she put on a burst of energy, moving her hips, twisting her body, trying to jerk her arms away from my grasp. I felt terribly like a rapist and I didn't know what to do next.
Jenni couldn't get free. It took her a while, but I could see her coming to the realization that she was trapped until I decided to let her up. She lay still, looking up at me, while tears formed in her eyes. She averted her gaze, clenched her jaw, and drew several deep breaths, staring blindly past my ear.
Her face plainly showed the effort it was costing her not to cry. The next minute she seemed to draw back from the brink and just when I thought maybe she wouldn't cry after all, her body abruptly relaxed, her eyelids closed, and tears began streaming out of the corners of her eyes.
I felt angry at myself because I'd thought I had an answer for every possible question, and here I was possibly causing more pain than I was preventing.
I loosened my grip on her wrists, and Jenni began to sob. I let go entirely of one wrist, and her arm stayed limp as her sobbing deepened and every muscle in her face seemed to tighten. I leaned back, letting both of her arms lie unrestrained over her head.
I retreated a little more, and after a short time she moved her hands to cover her eyes. As if she didn't want me to watch her cry, she raised her head and chest and put her arms around me, burying her face against my chest. Her sobbing was convulsive.
I put my arms around her and let her cry.
She cried for what seemed to be a long time, only occasionally stopping for a series of deep breaths, finally exhausting herself with dry sobs that gradually came farther and farther apart.
When she had been calm long enough that I didn't think she would start crying again, I said softly, "This deck is probably no better than those crates. I'd better get you back to your cabin so you can sleep."
She nodded her head against my chest.
I let Jenni dry her eyes on my shirt sleeve.
As I helped her stand up, my knees felt weak. I blamed it on the high gravity.
"What's your stateroom number?" I asked.
She didn't give any indication that she'd heard me.
I asked again and still got no response. Her thoughts seemed to be far away.
I walked her slowly from the center of the cargo bay to the door. In the corridor, I used a comm panel to call the skipper, Bella Fendel. The rate-of-time difference between the level-two cargo bay and the bridge up on level four pushed Bella's voice pitch high enough to make her sound almost girlish and excitable. Bella was neither.
"Is Doc available?" I said.
"What's the problem?" Bella asked.
"Minor incident. It's under control. I'll explain when I get back to the bridge, but would you please have him meet me at Jenni Sonders' cabin? I'm on my way there now."
"Will do. Anything else?"
"Yes. Which cabin is hers?"
There was a short delay as Bella looked it up. She did an outstanding job of keeping her curiosity in check.
In the elevator I pushed the button for five, the main passenger cabin level, farther out from the center of the onion-skinned Redshift. Jenni sagged against one wall. She looked away when I glanced at her. I didn't know whether I had made an enemy for life--however short her life might turn out to be--or if she was feeling a mixture of gratitude and embarrassment.
I looked instead at the elevator ceiling. The four corners had appeared to curve upward when we boarded on level two. As we rose out of the high-gee field, and light started traveling in a straighter path, the corners began to droop until the ceiling looked almost level. The less than one-half gee on level five made it seem the elevator was still slowing down when the doors opened onto a wide, gray corridor edged with black handrails.
The corridor dipped out of sight in the distance in both directions. The Redshift was a spherical ship with the gravitational warp at the center. Here we were far enough from the warp to be in a comfortable gravity. Jenni walked by my side, staring straight ahead, a reasonably attractive zombie with bloodshot eyes.
The heads and shoulders of a couple of passengers were visible in the distance, but we reached Jenni's cabin without getting close enough to have to greet anyone. She hesitated at the combination pad long enough that I was about to use the master, but then she opened her door. I took that to be a good sign.
Light from the hallway spilled into the cabin and bounced around the interior until it reached equilibrium. The phenomenon repeated itself when I switched on the overhead lamps. A glance around Jenni's cabin gave no obvious indication that she had settled in; all of her possessions must have been behind closed doors and in concealed compartments.
"Jenni, I want you to lie down on the bed," I told her with my best command voice. I went to the closest bedside table and opened the drawer. Besides a Wayfarer Word, there was nothing inside.
She moved listlessly to the large bed and fell slowly backward onto it. Her limp body bounced once before coming to rest. Her arms were flung over her head, and the violet rings on her sleeves looked for an instant like handcuffs.
I continued my search, my shadow on the wall lagging behind my motions. The second bedside table and the wall-mounted drawers were similarly devoid of drugs and weapons. I was about to check the bathroom when the visitor chime sounded.
I opened the door to Rory Willett. He stood there with his case in his hand. His long sideburns together with his growing bald spot gave the first impression that his hair was migrating. Prominent laugh lines showed at the corners of his eyes. His white jacket seemed a little too small on his beefy frame. He looked more like a seasoned gambler than a competent doctor.
"Come on in, Doc," I said.
"What happened to you?" he asked. He blinked a couple of times; probably he'd been asleep when he was called.
For an instant I didn't know what he was talking about, but his gaze at my cheek reminded me how sharp Jenni's fingernails were. "I'm fine," I said. "The resident here is the one who needs help."
I explained briefly what had happened in the cargo bay. Rory nodded a couple of times, glancing past me once to look at Jenni Sonders lying on the bed.
Rory was either a good acquaintance or what some people might call a casual friend. When no tension was present, his good humor was always ready; when rapid action and the right decision were required, he was cool without being distant.
When I finished explaining, I said, "I'm not sure what you can do for her, but I thought your bedside manner would be better than mine."
"I certainly don't doubt that." Rory nudged me from time to time about what he and others considered my standoffishness, but he knew I liked him. He moved past me toward Jenni, and I went to the bathroom to complete my search.
In front of the mirror, I realized the scratches on my cheek looked nastier than they felt. I used Jenni's sink to clean off the dried blood.
As I had expected, nothing in her cabin seemed to be usable as a weapon, unless she chose to strangle herself with her clothes. If she wanted that badly to die, I wouldn't stand in her way.
Rory was sitting on the bed next to her, talking softly, when I joined them. Jenni's gaze moved from Rory's face, over his shoulder, and into my eyes. Her eyes didn't seem to be focusing very well, and she looked puzzled.
"Whatever he's saying is bound to be right," I told her. "The doc knows all about this kind of thing."
Rory reached into his case and retrieved a puffer of what I guessed to be a tranquilizer. He said something to Jenni that I couldn't hear, and she looked back at him. She moved her arm closer to him, and he puffed the medication into the skin near the crook of her elbow.
She still looked puzzled as she gazed back up at me. She didn't look away until the drug destroyed her ability to keep her eyes open. After another moment, the faint lines on her face vanished.
Rory removed the cover from a small vial. He brushed Jenni's hair aside and swabbed medication near her ear. Once finished, he looked up at me. "Some night, huh, Jason?"
"Women will just die to get near me."
Rory nodded as though that was the type of comment he expected. He rummaged in his case for a moment and handed me a small tube. "Put some of this on your cheek twice a day. Three times a day if you spend a lot of time on level seven. It will heal faster."
"What have you got for her?"
"I'll talk to her when she's had a chance to rest. I don't know if she's a chronic or if this is her first time. I'll keep a close check on her." His eyebrows rose and he looked at me questioningly. "Unless you'd rather do that. She might hate you for interfering, or she might actually be grateful if this was more to get attention than to finish her life."
"Don't try to get me involved. I don't know anything about medicine."
"You know that's not the issue. It would probably do you as much good as her if you did get involved. Getting close to someone wouldn't hurt you."
I didn't want to talk about it, so I forced the thoughts away. I grinned at him and deepened my voice. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."
"You're wrong, Jason. A man does what he chooses to do."
I took my time on the way to the bridge. I hadn't been officially on duty anyway.
I found Bella Fendell leaning back in a comfortable chair she had long ago moved from her cabin to the bridge. Her feet were propped up on the console, and before her were multiple circular status panels showing the current condition of systems all over the Redshift. We were cruising in hyperspace layer ten at nine meters per second, nine-tenths of the speed of light in this layer. Measured by the corresponding locations in layer zero, we were effectively traveling at about 1000 times the normal speed of light. And the wind didn't even ruffle my hair.
"You're looking really nice tonight," she said, noting my fresh scratches. "I assume your opponent came out second best." She didn't ask me outright what had happened, pretending that she wasn't intensely curious. I refrained from volunteering information so she'd have, to ask me. It was one of our rituals.
Bella Fendell was a large woman, described by some as maternal. Since I had never known my mother, the expression was hard to evaluate, but Bella was rarely afraid to ask personal questions, whether they were intrusive and prying or not. Not only was she obviously curious about my scratches, she was probably even more interested in my having been down on level two in a cargo bay with a woman.
She waited a moment longer for my reply and then shook her head, amused. She grinned, her round cheeks puffing out farther, and said, "So tell me. What was the minor incident?"
"One of the passengers, Jenni Sonders, wanted to kill herself." I gave her the whole story.
When I finished, Bella asked, "Do you think she'll keep trying?"
"Ask Rory. I'm no judge. How far is she traveling with us?"
"She's paid through Far Star." Bella knew that without having to look it up. When I had called for Jenni's cabin number, Bella would have found out all there was to know about Jenni.
I glanced at the schedule on a wall screen. "Ten more days. I suppose Rory would get in trouble if he kept her sedated that long."
Bella gave me a wry grin. "She is a paying passenger. We can't treat her like a sick pet."
"But she is sick, right? I mean she did try to kill herself."
"Who's to say what's sick and what's not? Even you might do the same thing if you ever let someone get that close to you and then dump you. Of course with you that's one awful big 'if.'"
"That's Rory and you both, tonight. And I'm not even on duty."
Bella looked up at me speculatively. "That's your trouble, Jason. You're always on duty."
The next day the Redshift was scheduled to dock near Vestry. I was on the bridge to supervise the maneuver. The layer-ten velocity readout had switched from percent of c down to micrometers per second now that we were closing in on the dock. The corresponding layer-zero readout showing the normal-space equivalent, was down in the kilometers-per-second range.
Razzi Luxon, the second officer, was there, too, her blonde hair held by a clasp at the back of her neck. At least she wasn't giving me a difficult time about my lifestyle. Aside from the immediate preoccupation of being engaged in docking, she rarely seemed inclined to offer me advice.
Razzi sat in her chair, leaning forward in anticipation, even though her command goggles eliminated speed-of-light delays. I shouldn't have been, but I was occasionally surprised that Razzi was so thorough and competent, not that she looked unprofessional, but because she viewed her duties on ship as simply a means to an end: travel. She loved to visit star systems wherever our route took us, and whenever we had a long enough layover to get off the ship.
The central display showed Vestry's orbital dock as we approached. A scanner constantly translated back and forth between the Redshift in layer ten and normal space, layer zero. Beacons on the dock guided our craft slowly into position.
Vestry's dock consisted of a long, narrow hallway in an orbital station.
Hatches and doors were seldom used on the Redshift. When you could translate a passenger or piece of freight directly from a layer-zero loading platform into the correct corridor aboard the ship, all you really needed to do is make absolutely certain that the source and destination were perfectly lined up. Having an unprotected passenger step from a comfortable loading dock into the hard vacuum of layer ten was bad for repeat business.
Actually, passengers did have some protection, as did the crew. We all wore lifebelts that generated a field allowing our bodies to function at regular speed. Put a human body in layer ten with synapse speeds limited by our speed of light, and you had just a dead body. The master clock lines and selected equipment aboard were aided by the same fields, but protecting the entire Redshift would have cost more than the ship was worth.
Razzi pressed a switch, leaned back in her chair, pushed her goggles onto her forehead, and turned toward me. "Everything looks smooth."
The Redshift glided slowly into position, matching the dock's motion with propulsion since the ship in layer ten couldn't take advantage of Vestry's layer-zero planetary mass to force the ship into a natural orbit.
"We're in sync," Razzi said, once the status panel showed a perfect overlap. The ship's control system would keep maneuvering the Redshift to keep us superimposed with the dock as it orbited Vestry.
"Thanks," I said. "I'll be watching the loading if you need me."
Razzi nodded, her attention again on the status panel showing the portal, currently lined up with level seven of the Redshift, opening for outbound traffic.
I left the bridge, wondering how one person could be driven to consider killing herself, while another person was apparently content with temporary liaisons on whatever worlds she found herself.
I considered skipping the level-seven activity since most of the cargo up there was staying aboard, but I went anyway. The unloading progressed smoothly, so it was soon time to go down to level six. Level six's ceiling was more than fifty percent higher than the ceilings on any other level, and this far from the center of the ship the gravity was only about a third of a gee, so most of the cargo here normally was contained in large, bulky crates.
Shipping crates vanished one after another through the portal leading to the dock in layer zero. Once offloading on every level was complete, the portal would be reversed to accommodate loading cargo originating on Vestry. We could have activated a portal for each direction simultaneously, but we had only so many of the crew available for loading, and completing the process one step at a time was less confusing.
With activity on level six doing fine, I went down to level five, the main passenger cabin level.
Bensode, the third officer, was in charge. I was sure he enjoyed his job, but he never looked very happy. His large, dark eyes made him appear perpetually apologetic. He reminded me of a night person who'd had to get up early in the morning after too little sleep. His salt-and-pepper hair made him look years older than me, but he wasn't.
"Only two passengers got off," he said when he saw me. "We're just about to reverse the portal."
"Carry on." My timing was good. I always felt more comfortable when I was able to see the new passengers as they arrived.
The first passenger on Bensode's list was a Marj Lendelson. I looked toward the portal just in time to see a pointed toe enter layer ten. The portal surface, as always, turned shiny when it was penetrated. Iridescent ripples spread rapidly out from the toe as the passenger moved forward. More ripples moved outward from the outline of Marj's body as she completed her transition and then stumbled.
Conrad Delingo, one of the newest of our crew members, caught her arm, gave her a broad smile, and said, "Welcome to the Redshift, Ms. Lendelson. I can give you directions to your cabin." Conrad wasn't normally assigned to this duty, but he was so energetic and interested in everything that happened on board I was sure Bensode had let him volunteer. Bensode and Conrad together gave the impression of an invalid with a new puppy on a leash. Conrad must have spent a fair amount of the shift on level seven, because his cheeks were already showing dark stubble.
Marj Lendelson said nothing for a moment, no doubt coping with the brief disorientation that sometimes came with using the portal. She looked to be about forty-five years old---forty-five good years if her appearance was an accurate indicator. She wore a dress cut in simple lines but obviously made of expensive material. Her eyes were alert and watchful. She held her chin high in an almost regal posture.
Absently, she scratched at her waist. Almost everyone did that at first, unaccustomed as they were to wearing lifebelts next to their skin. Finally she nodded to Conrad and he led her away from the portal, the puppy escorting the queen to her chambers.
Next through was a short, dark man named Daniel Haffalt. He came through the portal smoothly, showing no signs of disorientation. His closely cropped black hair lay flat, spreading over the top of his head like short, trampled grass. His piercing dark eyes gave me the feeling he could see a coin at a hundred meters. When a crew member offered directions to his cabin, he said, "I'm fine," and began walking along the corridor toward the downward-dipping horizon. He was easy to peg as a frequent traveler.
The boarding list showed a married couple following Haffalt. The man, Wade Pesek Midsel, came through first. A broad-shouldered fellow, he blinked his heavy-lidded eyes a couple of times and then he turned to face the portal he had just come through. He moved with an easy grace, as though he, too, might be a frequent traveler, but the expression on his face was more open, more inquisitive than Haffalt's. He wasn't actually smiling, but a submerged smile seemed to be ready to surface, as though he was thinking pleasant thoughts.
Midsel's wife, Tara Pesek Cline, followed. Her hand showed first, as rippling shimmers spread across the portal. She came through grinning unabashedly, and pushing strands of her long, black hair away from her blue eyes. Tara took her husband's outstretched hand even though she obviously didn't need support. She wore a short-sleeved pullover and pants. She was the only passenger so far to look at anything except the nearest crew member and the corridor ahead. As her gaze swung past me, she nodded, still smiling. Her smile was somehow mischievous, making her look younger than she probably was.
Almost against my volition, I smiled back, but she moved the focus of her inspection fast enough that the speed-of-light delay meant my gesture was lost on her.
"Come on, darling," Wade Midsel said to her, waving away an offer of assistance from the crew. He put his arm around Tara's waist. As they walked away, Wade's head swung tightly from side to side, and Tara's head bobbed as she looked first one direction and then another. She seemed to have even more enthusiasm than Conrad Delingo had on his very first day.
I watched them disappear down the corridor, my complete attention absorbed. Even later I couldn't say whether I was simply captivated by the energy Tara Cline exuded or that something about her made me think my routine was to be unsettled.
End of Excerpt
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