Diana Santee # 1: Mind Guest

Chapter One

Waking up began as a struggle, the sort you strain against with all your strength and get absolutely nowhere with. I strained and struggled and found nothing but fog to fight, but by the time I reached the groaning stage the fog was beginning to lift. I became aware of what "I" entailed, then felt the hum that touched deeply but lightly in my bones. I knew the hum should mean something, but I was still too deep in the fog to know what.

It took a lot of effort to turn to my left side and open my eyes, and I couldn't remember why the effort was necessary. All I saw was a small room, plain metal walls, built-in drawers, and nothing else. All behind a thin but unbreakable mesh of monostrand, the sort used in spaceships to protect sleepers from the sudden loss of gravity.

Spaceship. I had to be on a ship, but where was I going? Was the assignment finished already? Assignment. What assignment? What the hell was going on? I put a hand to my head as if that would stop the spasms going on inside it, but there was still too much fog. Raising my arm seemed to be a signal for the fog to close in again, and that turned the switch off on my struggling.

The next time my eyes opened, the fog was all gone. I saw the top of the bunk section, the monostrand safety net closing the only open side, felt the throb that meant live but unfiring engines. I was in a ship, all right, but this time I knew all about it. The assignment I'd been so worried over even when I didn't remember anything about it hadn't been finished, not unless you count getting grabbed as finishing it.

I'd walked right into Radman's waiting arms, just as if I were responding to an invitation he'd sent out. I sat up carefully on the bunk, trying not to bash my thick head on the metal above, disgusted with myself and impatient with the dizziness the last of the drug caused. Radman had used cryosol, and there was no knowing how long it had kept me under.

I ran my hands through my tangled hair as I sat cross-legged, giving myself a couple of minutes to take inventory before pressing on to the harder job of getting out of the bunk. My entire body felt heavy and without strength, probably a combination reaction from the drug and the length of time I'd been unconscious, but I didn't hurt any more. My clothes were long gone, cut away at Radman's direction while he stood and grinned and drooled, and naturally hadn't been replaced.

Radman had pretended to be delighted that it was a female Special Agent who had been sent after him, but his delight had switched to panic when one of his men had gotten careless enough to let me almost get one leg free. There were only five of them there besides Radman himself, and those aren't very comfortable odds against a hyper-A. The nickname means High Percentage Risk Agent, and isn't handed out to every male with big muscles or every female with a pretty smile. Radman had never heard the nickname, but he didn't have to. He'd heard about Special Agents, and believed enough of what he'd heard to be very, very careful.

I unhooked the monostrand mesh and swung my legs over the side of the bunk, then stood up. I felt steadier than I thought I would, but a couple of twinges flashed here and there, an unpleasant tail-end reminder of Radman's reaction to my "attempted escape."

After I'd been chained with no more than a single link's space between wrists and ankles, Radman had spent some time kicking me around - literally. Experience had probably taught him how much pain he could give without actually breaking anything important, and he'd put that knowledge to work. By the time he'd worked off the heavy sweat he'd felt at the thought of my getting loose I was sure he'd cracked a couple of my ribs at the very least, but I'd been wrong.

Nothing had scraped together inside when a couple of Radman's men had carried me to a metal-framed cot and had shifted the chains on me to create the ever-popular spread-eagled look. Radman had gotten hot from the fun he'd had knocking me around, and wanted to spend some time working that off. I have a high pain threshold, but happily not that high; it didn't take long before his second-stage battering put me out. Which was a damned good thing. If I'd still been conscious when it came time for him to let rip I would have spit in his face, and I'd been in no shape to stand what would have come from that little gesture.

The small cabin opened onto a somewhat larger common room, from which it was possible to reach the rest of the ship. All the lights were set at daylight normal, but I ignored the brightness in the common room the way I had in the cabin and made my way to the tiny galley. I took a long drink of water while the ship thawed and heated a synth-egg sandwich for me, then sat and ate the sandwich while a second was being done.

Cryosol slows your bodily processes while it keeps you unconscious, but that just means you won't starve to death before you wake up. It doesn't mean you can afford to forget to grab at least a quick bite once you're up and around again, despite the fact that you're not feeling hungry. People have been known to die from the oversight, and it would have been rude of me to die so quickly and thereby spoil all of Radman's carefully laid plans.

When the second sandwich was ready I took it with me to the control room. Radman had had a lot of fun telling me all about what he intended to do, but even knowing what to expect didn't stop the flutter of panic I felt at sight of all that red on the pilot's console. Most pilots equate blinking red with the pumping of lifeblood out of a major artery, and I was no different. It took an effort to keep from running closer and quickly slapping switches, but since I knew how useless slapping switches would be I could walk forward slowly until I stood behind the pilot's chair.

The acceleration and deceleration switches had been cut off flush with the console, giving the check-off computer hysterics, and the emergency rocket toggle was also gone. The life-support system, meteor deflectors, view screens and communicator were still on the green, but that meant nothing. Radman had preset the view from the forward view screen, and the location computer was running a continuous "no information" blank tape, showing that I'd left human-inhabited space long behind me. Just for the hell of it I checked the number Of inches of blank tape, multiplied by the standard rounded figure supplied in the front of every ephemeris, then took a long, slow bite of my sandwich.

At the time of calculation I'd already been in an area of space that would not be explored for a minimum of two hundred standard years, with each second passing sending me farther and farther away. I'd be able to watch where I was going, Radman had said, live comfortably and eat well while I thought about ways of coming back, but there'd be no coming back. By going after him I'd earned a free, unending vacation trip, and he was going to see that I got what I'd earned. I could still hear his heavy, brutal laughter as the cryosol was hypo-sprayed into my bloodstream, and I looked down to see that I'd unconsciously crushed the sandwich to slop in one hand. I turned and left the control room then, and went to get a cup of coffee and another sandwich.

I set up a loose schedule for living in the days that followed, but still spent a lot of time reviewing and re-reviewing the moves I'd made in going after Radman. I'd expected to see what I'd done wrong rather quickly, but time passed and as far as I could see I hadn't done anything wrong. Nothing I'd done would have told Radman I was coming after him, but I'd still found him waiting for me. I usually had to go heavy on the exercising after coming to that conclusion, even though I knew intense rage was a waste of time and energy. The position I'd been forced into wasn't conducive to sane calm and logical thinking.

I must have been about two months on my way to nowhere when I finally decided I'd had enough of sitting around and doing nothing. Aside from the fact that there wasn't much I could do, most of my hesitation had come from that terrible human disease called wishful thinking. Being fully adult and more realistic than most hadn't stopped me from hoping that Starman Courageous and his loyal crew would somehow stumble across me, save me from the fate worse than death that had been imposed on me, and quickly return me to hearth and home.

It took me that two months to admit that I was the proud possessor of a fate worse than death, and that Starman Courageous, every broad-shouldered and wide-chested inch of him, was too busy saving slender helpless-female types on tri-v to show up. If anything was going to be done, I was the one who would have to do it.

I took one last cigarette with my feet propped up, grabbed a quick shower, then found an adjusting tool and headed for the control room. I knew almost nothing about transbar electronics, but I was faced with the choice of tinkering and possibly killing myself fast, or leaving it alone and continuing on until I went crazy. Being a loner I hadn't found the two months totally unbearable, but two months wasn't two years or twenty. If I didn't do something I was sealed into what would eventually become my tomb, and sitting around waiting for the inevitable wasn't my usual style.

The controls had been damaged at the pilot's console, which is usually a pretty permanent way of damaging them, but there was one remote chance. The transbar leads were tucked away in a box of their own, and if I could figure out which leads controlled what, I might be able to bypass the console. The only problem with that was that I'm not an electrical engineer. My talents lie in other directions, and I've piloted enough ships, but never had to fix any of them. I opened the panel that covered the leads, groaned at the nine million different colored wires, then took a deep breath and got started.

I'd found the leads that controlled the shower, the lights, and a dozen and a half unknown functions before it happened. I was tightening the last lead I'd loosened when the adjusting tool slipped, knocking out a lead in the unexplored section. The loose lead swung down and to the left, toward the bottom contact, but fouled on another lead instead. There was a spray of pretty blue sparks for about three seconds, then silence. I wondered if I'd done anything serious, then looked up to notice the new flashing red light on the control console. I closed my eyes for a minute then went to see what the new red light was. It turned out to be nothing much; the new blinking red light was for the life support system.

After carefully tossing the adjusting tool away, I sat down in the pilot's seat. I would have done better using spit and baling wire on the control console, the way Starman Courageous would have, but it might have taken me another two standard months to kill myself with spit and baling wire. Why waste the time?

Then my eyes fell on the forward viewscreen, and I stared hard. I hadn't bothered checking the screen for weeks, but I should have taken a peek before starting on the transbar leads - it would have saved some trouble. The ship had blundered into the middle of a star system, cutting across the orbital path of at least one of the planets. I could tell this easily by the sight of the good-sized moon I was heading for, but I couldn't tell by eye whether or not I'd hit it.

My hand went toward the computer outlet automatically, but I pulled back before asking for the data. If the ship was going to hit, it would hit. There was nothing I could do about it one way or the other, and if the ship hit that moon I wouldn't have to worry about the new ringing in my ears. My tinkering with the transbar leads had done something to the air pressure, and I hadn't the faintest idea of how to undo it. I sat back in the seat and simply watched the moon.

Six hours later, I was a lot closer to the moon and a lot closer to upchucking. The on-again, off-again ringing in my ears was making me dizzy and nauseated, but I stayed near the viewscreen to see what was happening.

Then, suddenly, the proximity alarm went off, almost sending me straight up through the hull. Where the hell would another ship be coming from way out here? Nothing showed in the forward viewscreen, and I was about to activate the others when the ringing got deeper and closer to my head. I hesitated a minute, trying to fight the lowering air pressure, but it was no good. I didn't touch the transbar leads, but the lights went out anyway.