Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Scene 2

Nilanjana Dasgupta tried to mask her dislike for Holger Kurtz, but feared that she wasn't succeeding. It was not uncommon for a ship's crew, and especially the captain, to dislike the Custodian; in fact, Dasgupta couldn't think of a single fellow captain who didn't share her feelings.

Jolene was accelerating out of the Solar system, on course for the Bevilacqua system, and the time had come for the crew to enter Shimizu. One by one they had entered the main capsule and medical officer Yuri Petrenko had made them disappear, until only he, Dasgupta and Kurtz had remained. Then, by longstanding tradition, Petrenko had entered and Dasgupta had operated the controls, and it was just her and the Custodian.

At first, Dasgupta knew, some shipping lines hadn't bothered with Custodians. They counted on automated machinery to deShimizu the crew after the journey, and usually they did, but sometimes they didn't, and sometimes the ship didn't bother decelerating or never turned up at all. It wasn't long before the ICC had made Custodians mandatory, but it was cheaper to use two Custodians than four, and cheaper still to use just one, and that was how it was on most ships these days.

It took a special kind of person to live and work alone for the five or ten or twenty years that went by during interstellar journeys. Specifically, it took a person who didn't like other people. Custodians were a breed apart, and they liked it that way. Dasgupta couldn't help worrying that a Custodian would decide he liked being alone too much to end the voyage and bring the rest of the crew back. As far as she knew, it had never happened, but she worried anyway.

She didn't like the name, either, which legend said had been decided by a Czech bureaucrat with a fondness for Juvenal whose Latin was better than his English. Watcher or Guardian would have been more reassuring, she felt; Custodian sounded like someone whose main job was unclogging plumbing.

"Keep an eye on her, Mr. Kurtz," she had said to him as she entered the main capsule. A typical Custodian, he hadn't answered her, and his eyes had a tendency to wander away from her face. As she always did when she entered a Shimizu capsule, she wondered whether she would ever leave it.

There was a kind of whiteness that seemed to last no longer than an eyeblink and also seemed to last longer than the universe itself, and Nilanjana Dasgupta found herself looking once more at the walls inside the Shimizu capsule. The door opened and she stepped out and one look at Kurtz told her something was wrong. He was visibly older than he had been when she stepped in, but not by enough. If they were in the Bevilacqua system he ought to be over a decade older, but she guessed no more than three years had passed for him.

"What's wrong, Mr. Kurtz?" she said.

Just as before, his eyes refused to remain on her face. They wandered around her general vicinity as he said, "Located an object, Captain, and its on a collision course for Calypso III. Come up to the bridge and have a look." He didn't bother to wait for a reply before turning and walking away. Dasgupta sighed and followed.

The ship smelled different. It always did when you came out of Shimizu. The smells of the crew faded over time, until finally the only smell left was the Custodian. Each one was different, and Kurtz, she was surprised to note, smelled like cinnamon.

Dasgupta had captained Jolene through four (now four-and-a-half) crossings, but she had never walked through the ship while it was in mid-journey with just the Custodian for company, and she was unnerved by the haunted house feel of it. That wasn't so bad in itself, but Dasgupta had seen too many works of fiction set in haunted houses, so she was subconsciously expecting some hell creature to jump out at her from the shadows. For the first time in her life Dasgupta found herself wishing she had developed a taste for Jane Austen adaptations.

She felt relief when they entered the bridge. She was still uneasy enough to order the lights brought up. Kurtz squinted at the bright light and scowled, and Dasgupta almost apologized before she remembered that she was the Captain, dammit, and Kurtz was just a glorified night watchman with a severe personality defect.

Kurtz gestured toward the instrument panel, then retreated to the other side of the bridge. Dasgupta kept control by reminding herself that his condition actually made Kurtz indispensible.

She quickly located the object, and noted with amusement Kurtz's name for it. It was appropriate enough, so she decided to adopt it herself. Just as Kurtz had stated, Manhattan was due to enter the Calypso system, and there was a nontrivial chance that it could impact Calypso III.

"We'll have to alter course," she said out loud, not specifically to Kurtz but to the bridge in general. "Rendezvous with the object and change its trajectory until it's no longer a threat."

The only acknowledgement from Kurtz was a soft sigh.

Not without a certain amount of sadistic pleasure, she added, "We'll have to deShimizu the rest of the crew, of course."

She heard Kurtz sigh again.

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