Half a Life
by Kir Bulychev
translated by Bill Bowler
Nadezhda Sidorova has survived WWII, endured the death of her husband in a car crash, and is struggling to raise her little girl Olya while working as a nurse. Nadezhda has paid her dues, more than her share, and seems now finally on the verge of finding a better life with the kind and loving Timofei. Events suddenly jolt Nadezhda onto a new and unexpected course. She faces a greater struggle than any she has yet endured or could even have imagined.
Dag settled more comfortably into the worn seat, spread his checklist on the table and read it aloud, following along the lines with his fingernail. He squinted slightly. His vision had begun to weaken, though he himself wasn’t aware of it, or more exactly, he did not permit himself to be aware of it.
“Did you take a back-up radio?”
“Got it,” answered Pavlysh.
“Did you take a second tent?”
“Dag, read the list before you ask. Sato, do you have thick thread?”
“No. We’re out.”
“Then take a third tent,” said Dag.
“Don’t need it.”
“And take a second generator.”
“It’s there. Number 23.”
“Right. How many air tanks?”
“Dried milk? Toothbrush?”
“Are we packing for a holiday trip?”
“Take the dried fruit. We’ll get by.”
“I’ll come visit you when I want some fruit.”
“That won’t be so easy.”
“I’m joking,” said Pavlysh.
“If you say so,” said Dag.
He looked at his screen. The robots were crawling along the cables like aphids on a blade of grass.
“Are you transferring over today?” asked Dag.
Dag was in a hurry to get home. They had already lost two days preparing their find for transport, and two weeks for breaking and maneuvering.
Sato entered the bridge, and said the shuttle craft was ready and stocked.
“You followed the check list?” asked Dag.
“I did. Pavlysh gave me a copy.”
“Good,” said Dag. “Add a third tent.”
“Already done,” said Sato. “We have reserve tents here that we won’t use anyway.”
“If I was in your place,” said Dag to Pavlysh, “I’d transfer over without delay.”
“I’m ready,” Pavlysh answered.
Dag was right. It was better to go now. If anything was out of order, Pavlysh could return to the ship and retrieve what was forgotten. He would have to spend several weeks on the dead vessel abandoned by its owners, no one knew when or why.
It had lost its steering and was drifting aimlessly like a “Flying Dutchman” condemned, had they not encountered it, to fall for millions of years through the dark emptiness of space until the gravity of some star or planet attracted it or until it was struck by a meteor and shattered to pieces.
The sector of the galaxy through which they were returning was empty and not on any of the known routes. Ships rarely came this way. This was an extraordinary, almost unbelievable find: a ship with no steering, abandoned by its crew, but otherwise undamaged.
Dag calculated that if they took this trophy in tow, they would have enough fuel to reach the outlying bases. Of course, that was if they jettisoned their own cargo and dispatched into the emptiness almost everything for which they had gone twenty months without seeing a single human face other than their own.
And one of the three of them would have to board the dead ship, open a communications link, and make sure it behaved itself. Pavlysh would do it.
“I’m going now,” said Pavlysh. “I’ll set up the tent and test the radio.”
“Be careful,” said Dag, suddenly feeling sentimental. “If anything—”
“The main thing is, don’t lose me,” said Pavlysh.
Pavlysh took a quick look in his cabin to check if he had forgotten anything and at the same time to bid farewell to the cramped and uncomfortable quarters where he had spent so many months and which he was leaving earlier than expected. Because of that, he suddenly felt sentimental guilt before the empty walls, familiar to the last bolt.
* * *
Sato edged the shuttle up to the cargo hatch of the dead ship. It was not hard to guess that at one time the ship’s escape launch had been secured here. The launch was not here now, just some kind of mechanical structure dangling to the side.
Nudging the bale of tents and air tanks in front of him, Pavlysh went along a wide corridor to a cabin just off the steering deck. He decided to set up base there. Judging by the shape and dimensions of the space, the ship’s inhabitants had been shorter in height than humans and, possibly, more massive. In the cabin, it was true, there was no furniture of any kind by which one could judge what the owners of the ship looked like. This may not even have been a cabin but a store room. There had not been time yet to investigate the ship thoroughly. That would be Pavlysh’s task. The ship was huge, and the job looked to be quite interesting.
First thing was to set up camp. Sato helped pitch the tent. They set up the transition chamber near the door and checked that the tent was airtight. Everything was in order. Now Pavlysh had a home where he could live without his spacesuit, though the suit would be necessary for excursions. While Pavlysh unpacked his things in the cabin, Sato set up the lighting and checked the radio. He was so careful, one might have thought that he himself intended to live there.
They gathered momentum for six hours. Dag was concerned about the strength of the tow line. At the end of the acceleration period, Pavlysh emerged onto the dead ship’s steering deck and watched as the jettisoned cargo, silver cylinders flying alongside, gradually receded, like people remaining on a train platform. The tow line was holding, and Pavlysh decided to get down to work.
The control panel provided little information but presented a strange spectacle, as did the whole steering deck. A vandal had been here. Or more exactly, not just a vandal, but an immature radio buff, who had been given an expensive and complex piece of electronics that he abused and converted into a simple wireless receiver, using transistors for nails, and making the stand out of printed schematics. He had pasted the leftover platinum foil, useless in his view, on the walls of the deck, like wallpaper.
One could surmise — and Dag had already expressed the thought when they first arrived — that control of the ship had previously been completely automatic. But then someone had unceremoniously ripped off the lids and housing, hastily connected circuits that were not meant to be connected and, in general, had taken all measures necessary to convert a chronometer into a simple alarm clock. After such vivisection, a great number of excess parts were left over, some of impressive dimensions. The prankster had scattered them on the floor, as if hurrying to complete the destruction and hide before his parents returned.
Remarkably, not a single chair, seat, or anything resembling such objects was to be found anywhere. It was possible that the ship’s owners did not know what a chair was, that they sat, let’s say, on the floor, or generally rolled around, like tumbleweed. Pavlysh carried a camera with him and tried to shoot everything he could. Just in case. If misfortune befell him, the images would be preserved.
Pavlysh’s helmet lamp hummed quietly and made the silence seem more absolute. It was so quiet on board that Pavlysh began to imagine soft footsteps and rustling. He wanted to walk on tiptoe, as if he might wake someone up, though he knew there was no one to waken. He had the urge to turn off his helmet phones to stop the hum but then thought better of it. If suddenly in the soundless ship there were some noise, sound, voice — better that he hear it.
And this unlikely possibility began to make him feel uncomfortable. Pavlysh caught himself in an absurd gesture: he had laid his hand on the grip of his blaster. “Atavism,” he said.
It turned out, he had spoken out loud. In his helmet phones, he heard Dag’s voice.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’d gotten used to our being together,” said Pavlysh. “It’s a bit lonely here.”
Pavlysh saw himself as if from outside: a small person in a shiny spacesuit, a little beetle in a huge jar, filled with trash.
The corridor that led past his cabin ended in an empty, circular hall. Pavlysh pushed off from the hatch and in two jumps crossed the space. On the other side, another corridor began. The walls and floor everywhere were of the same blue color, slightly whitened, as if bleached by the sun. The light of the helmet lamp spread in a wide beam and reflected off the walls.
The corridor turned down ahead. Pavlysh marked it on his sketch of the ship’s floor plan. So far, he had drawn an ellipse, in the front part of which were marked the cargo hatch and the berth for the departed launch or emergency escape pod. He had also sketched in the steering deck, the corridor connecting the deck to the circular hall, and another three corridors branching from the deck. He knew where to find the engines, but had not indicated them on the plan for the time being. There was plenty of time to inspect everything without hurrying.
One hundred paces down, the corridor terminated at a half-open hatch. Near the hatch lay something white and flat. Pavlysh slowly approached the white object. He tilted his head to illuminate the object more brightly. It turned out to be only a rag, a white rag, brittle in the vacuum. Pavlysh raised his foot to step over it but, apparently, accidentally touched it. The rag crumbled into dust.
“A pity,” he said.
“What happened?” asked Dag.
“Mind your own business,” said Pavlysh, “or I’ll sign off.”
“Just try it. I’ll come over and get you. Don’t forget the floor plan.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” said Pavlysh, marking the hatch on the diagram.
Beyond the hatch, the corridor widened and branched off to the sides. But Pavlysh even then did not note them on the sketch. He followed the central, widest path. It led to still another hatch, closed shut.
“That’s all for today,” said Pavlysh.
Dag was silent.
“Why are you quiet?” asked Pavlysh.
“I don’t want to interrupt you when you’re talking to yourself.”
“Thank you. I’ve come to a closed hatch.”
“No hurry to open it,” said Dag.
Pavlysh illuminated the wall around the hatch. He noticed a cube sticking out and passed his glove over it.
The hatch slid lightly aside. Pavlysh took cover against the wall, but nothing happened.
Suddenly it seemed to him that someone was standing behind him. Pavlysh spun around and aimed the beam of light along the corridor. Empty. His nerves were acting up. He didn’t say anything to Dag, and stepped through the hatch.
Pavlysh found himself in a vast chamber. Along the walls ran shelves, on some of which stood cases. He glanced into one of them. It was one third full of dust. It was impossible to guess what had been in the case.
The helmet lamp shone on another white rag in the far corner of the chamber. Pavlysh decided not to approach it. Better to get the preservative later. Back on Earth, it would be interesting to find out what materials it was made of. But when Pavlysh had already turned the lamp beam to the side, it suddenly seemed to him that something was drawn on the rag. Maybe it only seemed that way? He took a step in that direction. A black inscription was distinctly visible. Pavlysh leaned over and squatted down.
“My name is Nadezhda” was written on the rag. In Russian.
Pavlysh lost his balance and his hand touched the rag. The rag disintegrated. Disappeared. The writing disappeared.
“My name is Nadezhda,” he repeated.
“What?” asked Dag.
“It was written here,” said Pavylsh. “’My name is Nadezhda.’”
“It’s not here any more,” said Pavlysh. “I touched it and it disappeared.”
“Slava,” said Dag quietly, “try to calm down.”
“I’m completely calm,” said Pavlysh.
To be continued...