Read The Voices of Heaven Online

Authors: Frederik Pohl

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Colonies, #General, #Fiction

The Voices of Heaven

 

 

 

 

THE VOICES OF HEAVEN

 

 

 

 

Frederik Pohl

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

 

THE VOICES OF HEAVEN

 

Copyright © 1994 by Frederik Pohl

 

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

1

 

 

ARE you ready, Barrydihoa? Good. Do not be nervous.

I'm not nervous. I'm concerned. I have a right to be; this is pretty important to us.

That is understood. Simply commence; we wish you to begin by describing the circumstances of your first meeting with Garoldtscharka.

Please.

Yes, of course, Barrydihoa. The correction is noted. Please.

The first time I met Captain Garold Tscharka was on his ship,
Corsair
. He was in a bad mood. The ship had just come back from the Pava colony, and it was parked in Low Lunar Orbit. The way things looked, it was going to be staying there for a while, because of the brouhaha about the interstellar colonies that was going on in the Congresses.

The reason I was there was that it was my job. I was employed by the Lederman factory as ships' fuelmaster, which meant I was in charge of the crews that defueled and refueled spaceships. It was a good job, too. I'd held it for four years at that time, having taken nearly eight years to work up to it after I left the Belt. Since the fuel was antimatter the job carried a heavy load of responsibility.

(I know you don't have any real idea of what antimatter is, but you don't really need to. Take my word for it, it's dangerous stuff. One little pod of antimatter can do more damage than any volcano you ever saw.)

Refueling spaceships was the kind of work where you really had to keep your mind on what you're doing, but it paid well. Actually, the hours were easy. Eight or ten times a lunar day—say about every four weeks of Earth time—I hopped a shuttle from the lunar surface to go up to a ship in a parking orbit. Sometimes I took a crew along with me to do the actual work. Sometimes I just made the trip by myself so I could inspect the fuel storage and make sure everything was kosher for the crew to get to work.

Naturally, nearly all the ships we serviced were interplanetary vessels, all kinds of them, everything from the little fifty-ton Space Service scouts to twelve- or fifteen-thousand-ton transports. Those were pretty routine—at least, as much as anything involving antimatter is routine. Once the ships were defueled they were safe enough to be worked on, so any repairs they needed could be done right there in lunar orbit. Then we'd fuel them up again and they'd be gone.

Captain Tscharka's ship, though, was a different kind of thing entirely.
Corsair
wasn't a short-ranger. It was a full-fledged interstellar colony-support ship, with a cruising radius of well over a dozen light-years. It was one of the very few I'd ever even seen of that long-ranging kind, much less worked on.
Corsair
was one of the half dozen dedicated transports that ferried people and goods back and forth to the colony on the planet called Pava.

At that particular moment, however, it looked as though
Corsair
might not be doing that much longer. That was what had put Tscharka in such a lousy mood. He was almost alone on the ship when I got there, with only a standby crew of two or three people left on board to keep the life-support systems going. Actually, I hadn't expected to find the captain there at all. Very few captains bother to stay on a ship in parking orbit—which was fine with me. I preferred it that way, because captains get real possessive about their ships and then they can be a major nuisance.

Which Captain Tscharka definitely was. As soon as I was aboard he came rocketing along a corridor, hand over hand, to see what I was doing. "Who're you?" he demanded.

"I'm Barry di Hoa, fuelmaster."

"What, have they changed the system again?"

"I don't know what it was last time you were here," I said, as patiently as I could. "This is the way we do it now. I'll be cleaning out your fuel supply."

He took offense at that. "It's clean already. I checked it myself."

"That's good. It'll make it easier when I check it again," I told him. He still looked as though he'd have much preferred if I wasn't there, but was quiet.

Supervising the removal of a ship's empty antimatter fuel pods is about the meanest of my jobs. You can't afford to take any shortcuts, because you don't want some tiny chunk of residual antimatter in a fuel pod when you refill it. So you want to make absolutely sure that the pods are empty before you bring them back down to the Moon for refill. That's just common sense, because everybody knows what a speck of antimatter can do if it ever touches ordinary matter, so you'd think every ship's captain would be conscientious about it. They aren't, though. So when a fuelmaster boards a returning ship he takes his life in his hands, and that was why my pay was so high.

Tscharka was still suspicious. "Are you going to do it by yourself?" he called from behind me as I started toward the main fuel store.

"I'm not going to do it at all. This is just preliminary inspection. I'll bring a crew up if I find any fuel that needs to be removed."

"You won't."

I didn't answer that.

I don't know how many of these little quirks of mammalian behavior you want me to explain to you, but, hey, you can always tell me to shut up and get on with it. The thing is, under some circumstances I think I would have liked Captain Tscharka. He was a short, dark fellow, quick and smart; a likeable person in general, you would have to say, but there was something about him that graveled me. He was one of the captains who follow you every minute of the time you're on his ship. He wasn't very courteous about it, either.

On the other hand, give the devil his due, Tscharka had left
Corsair
spotlessly clean. I appreciated that not an atom of antimatter remained in the expended pods. Every emptied pod was stripped, demagnetized, and open to prove it. "Nice job," I said, meaning it. He didn't acknowledge the compliment. There was a scowl on his face. "Captain Tscharka," I said, "am I doing something you don't like?"

The scowl stayed on his face, but his eyes were on something a long way away, and I wasn't it. A moment later he shook his head as though waking up. "What did you say?"

"I said, 'Am I doing something you don't like?'"

"Oh," he said, focusing on me. "No, I don't think so. Sorry. I was thinking of something else. Do you know they're talking about terminating Pava?"

"Well, yes," I said, because of course I did know. The debate in the Tax & Budget Congress had been going on for years. Not just about Pava, either. Delta Pavonis wasn't the only star with a planet that somebody once had thought was worth colonizing, and with the budget-cutters riding high in the Congress, all four of the extrasolar colonies were on shaky ground. Pava, as the farthest away, had just been the last to hear about it.

Evidently Tscharka had taken the news hard. He was still mad. "They say they want to use the funds to build more habitats here. That's insanity!"

I pulled myself a little farther away. "Don't blame me," I said. "Look, let me get on with the inspection. I have to get back to the surface."

 

Well, what I said was true, I did have to get back because I had something I wanted to do that day—that Earth day. But I had plenty of time to get my call to Earth through. Mostly I just didn't want to argue the subject of colony funding with somebody as touchy as Captain Garold Tscharka.

I've known too many people like Tscharka. Whatever their registered religious orientation may be, they all have one secular belief that they hold with great passion: that it is a sin to waste tax money on frills, except when the frill in question is one of their own.

I should concede that at that time I did personally consider the extrasolar colonies a particularly useless and ill-considered frill. I'd never seen any real reason for trying to colonize planets of other stars. I mean, why bother?

People had given all sorts of reasons for it when they started the programs, but the reasons were silly. Some said we had to have these extrasolar outposts as a matter of security, to give us some kind of Distant Early Warning in case some twelve-armed, big-brained, high-tech alien space invaders came charging out of the core of the galaxy to destroy our cities and carry off our women—or whatever. That might have seemed to be a persuasive kind of lunacy once, I mean, considering the way Colonial Americans, for instance, used to build forts all over to protect against Indian raids. But no such bloodthirsty alien invaders have ever turned up, and we've kind of got out of the habit of wars anyway, haven't we?

Then some said we'd need the colonies to give us a home for our surplus huddled masses, yearning to be free—the way Australia and the Americas were for Europe. That doesn't make any sense either. You can't make much of a dent in ten billion huddled masses when you have to cart them away fifty or a hundred at a time.

It didn't matter what they said; I thought the project made no sense at all. There was only one real reason for planting human beings in places so far away—Pava's Delta Pavonis is nearly nineteen light-years from Earth, and even the planet around Alpha Centauri B is over four—and that was just to be doing something humongous. Showing off, that is. My old chief headshrinker, Dr. Helmut Schneyman, used to say that the interstellar colonies were our Pyramids. You know? Like the old Pharaohs of Egypt. (Well, no, you don't know, but what that means is that they were showy, enormously expensive, and with no known sensible reason for existence.)

Of course, the colonists on those planets didn't agree. Not the ones who stayed there, anyway, but those weren't the ones who were heard on Earth. The colonists who stuck it out were way out
there
, and the rejects, the ones who gave up and came back home, they were
here
. You'd see a few of the returnees every time a colony-support ship came in, the people who had taken the long, slow, frozen sleep to another star, and when they got there decided it wasn't what they had really wanted at all. They almost always got interviewed on the news programs. They all said how hard life was out there and how little fun. So they were the ones the voters at home heard from . . . except when some consecrated zealot like Captain Tscharka showed up.

(You know, it's funny that I should have thought of the word "consecrated" in connection with him even then—I mean, even before I knew just how consecrated Captain Garold Tscharka really was.)

 

Tscharka stuck to me like a hangnail all around his ship. I do mean all around it, too, because that's where I went. A good fuelmaster doesn't stop with inspecting the fuel chambers. I looked for radioactivity everywhere, but all I found was quaintness.
Corsair
was a pretty quaint old ship. All interstellar ships are, more or less, but this one had made two round-trips to Pava—eighteen-plus light-years away. That came to a trip-time of over twenty Earth years each way. So
Corsair
had to have been built the better part of a hundred years ago. It was definitely the oldest ship I'd ever been on.

The crew quarters were particularly ancient. I'd seen flatscreen vids and optical-chip computers as a boy, back on Earth, but not in the last twenty years or more. "So this is where you live en route," I said, making the mistake of making conversation as I poked the radiation scanners around.

"It's where we
work
."

I didn't argue that, though I could have—crews of interstellar ships don't impress me, because they have damn-all work to do. Once you've programmed the machines, they fly the ships. (There was a little bit of snobbishness there too, I admit. When I flew a spotter ship in the Belt, I flew it.) I offered, "It'd be easier if you had some new equipment. I guess all this stuff is due for refit?"

"What for? It all works." And of course it did; the ship might have been built a hundred years ago, but it wasn't a hundred years old. Most of that time had never passed for the fittings, or for the ship, or for Tscharka himself. "No," he said, "I'll not ask an extra penny for things that are not needed. Pava colony is only asking for what it needs. The Congress can't refuse us."

I nodded—not to agree, because I didn't, but only to show that I had understood what he said. "All clean here," I reported, and we went on to the corpsicle store. That was truly ancient. I'd never seen one like it before, hexagonal coffins the length of a tall man, clustered like pencils held with a rubber band. All those colonist pods were empty now, of course, open and waiting for the poor suckers who would volunteer to get into them, and all were radiation-clean.

And then we went to the cargo holds, and one of those was a real surprise. It was as radiation-clean and empty as the freezers, but antimatter warning signs were plastered all over it.

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