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I understand

The string of night-lights burned with a serene calm, inundating the decks with a watery blue shimmer. He swam up to a rope dangling from the ceiling; the moment he let go of the end, it coiled itself up lazily, snakelike, as if suddenly animated by his touch. His head snapped back. A clunking noise, similar to a hammering on metal, sounded nearby. He swam in the direction of the echoes, their volume now rising, now falling; along the way spotted a set of rusty tracks embedded in the deck-once used for wheeling dollies to and from the holds, he guessed - and soon was sailing along so fast he could feel the air buffeting his face.

The clanging kept getting louder. He sighted a pipe angling around the corner from the next passageway and running along the ceiling. A section of old, one-inch pipeline. He touched it with his hand; it jiggled. The resonances now came in clusters of twos and threes. That's when it hit him. The banging was in Morse.

"A-t-t-e-n-t-i-o-n . . ." The series came again: "A-t-t-e-n-t-i-o-n . . ."

And again:

"A-t-t-e-n-t-i-o-n . . ."

Then the pipe chimed, "A-m-b-e-h-i-n-d-b-u-l-k-h-e-a-d." By force of habit, he spliced the letters together, syllable by syllable.

"I-c-e-e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e . . ."

Ice? he wondered, caught completely off guard. What in . . . ? Ice? What ice?

"R-e-a-c-t-o-r-v-e-s-s-e-l-c-r-a-c-k-e-d," the pipe resonated. He wrapped his hand around it. Who was signaling? And where was it coming from? He tried to figure out which way the pipe ran - from the bow or back aft. It looked like one of those emergency pipelines, obsolete, with branches on every deck. Maybe someone was practicing his Morse ... ? That's crazy. The pilot up in the control room, maybe?

"C-o-m-e-i-n-p-r-a-t-t-c-o-m-e-i-n . . ."

A pause.

Pirx was breathless. The mention of that name was like a blow to the gut. For a second he stared wide-eyed at the pipe, then suddenly lurched forward. That's it - the name of that second pilot, he thought as he hit the bend, bounced off, and made for the control room, gathering speed as he went, the pipe all the while reverberating overhead.

"W-a-y-n-e-h-e-r-e-s-i-m-o-n . . ."

The echoes receded. Pirx momentarily lost sight of the pipe, picked it up again where it swerved into the next passageway, lunged after it, was bounced off the wall by his own momentum, and saw something through the dust cloud: a gnarled stump of metal, fixed with a rusty cap. A pipe bend. Severed. So it came from the tail section, not the cockpit ... Huh? There was nobody back aft ...

"P-r-a-t-t-i-n-s-i-x-t-h-t-o-l-a-s-t-h-o-1-d . . . ," the pipe chimed.

He hung like a bat under the ceiling, clutching the pipe with his fingers, and felt the vibrations throbbing in his head. The banging resumed after a short intermission.

"H-i-s-b-o-t-t-l-e-d-o-w-n-t-o-t-h-i-r-t-y-m-i-n-u-s . . ." Another series of three.

"C-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n . . ." A pause.

He looked around. Dead silence except for a faint whirring noise in one of the fan outlets. The incoming fresh air sent particles of dirt swirling up to the ceiling, where under the light they took on the aspect of misshapen moths. Then came a torrent of clanging, rapid and staccatolike:

"P-r-a-t-t-p-r-a-t-t-p-r-a-t-t-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-d-o-e-s-n-ta-n-s-w-e-r-o-x-y-g-e-n-i-n-n-u-m-b-e-r-s-e-v-e-n-c-a-n-y-o-u-t-r-a-n-s-f-e-r-o-v-e-r . . ."

A pause. The lighting remained constant; the dust and waste particles continued their pirouette in slow motion. Pirx felt like letting go of the pipe, but something prevented him. He waited. Then it started up again.

"S-i-m-o-n-t-o-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-p-r-a-t-t-i-n-n-u-m-b-e-r- s-i-x-b-e-h-i-n-d-b-u-l-k-h-e-a-d-t-o-l-a-s-t-b-o-t-t-l-e-m-o-m-s- s-e-n-c-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n . . ."

This last sequence, hard and intense; the pipe went on vibrating long after it was over.

A pause. A dozen or so unintelligible taps, followed by a brisk series:

"R-e-c-e-p-t-i-o-n-w-e-a-k-r-e-c-e-p-t-i-o-n-w-e-a-k ..."

"C-o-m-e-i-n-p-r-a-t-t-c-o-m-e-i-n-p-r-a-t-t-o-v-e-r . . ."

Silence.

The pipe barely palpitated. The next series came at faint intervals, as though from far off: three dots, three dashes, three dots. SOS. There was a gradual tapering off. Two more dashes ... one ... then a long drawn-out screeching noise, similar to a scraping or scratching against metal, amplified only by the aura of total silence. He thrust himself away and swam headfirst along the pipe, veering where it veered, now climbing, now dipping, while the parting air brushed his face. An open shaft. A ramp. Narrowing walls. The cargo holds. Number one, number two, number three ... He could barely see, it was so dark. He ran his fingertips along the pipe in order not to lose it, the brittle dust coating his hands charcoal-black, and found himself in another part of the ship, one not enclosed by any decks or ceilings, in the space between the armored hull and the holds. The bloated carcasses of the reserve tanks loomed up darkly between the crossframes, with only an occasional dust-speckled light beam knifing through the darkness. At one point he looked up and spotted a double row of lights in a black shaft, the bulbs encrusted with the same reddish-brown dust that kept trailing him like a cloud, like smoke from an undetected fire. The air was stuffy, stale, permeated with the smell of treated metal. He was sailing among the vaguely adumbrated shadows of the trusses when the clanking reverberations started up again:

"C-o-m-e-i-n-p-r-a-t-t-c-o-m-e-i-n . . ."

The pipe suddenly forked. He wrapped one hand around each of the forking branches, but he failed to tell from which direction the sound was being transmitted. He gambled on the left. A hatch tunnel, pitch-dark, constricting to a bright disk at the other end, brought him out into a well-lighted room. The entrance to the reactor chamber.

"W-a-y-n-e-h-e-r-e-p-r-a-t t-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r . . ." the pipe went on resonating while he unbolted the door. A blast of hot air hit him flush in the face. He climbed up onto the catwalk. The compressors were humming away. A warm wind ruffled his hair. From the catwalk he saw, in foreshortened perspective, the reactor's concrete wall, the luminous gauges, the warning lights shimmering like red drops.

"S-i-m-o-n-t-o-w-a-y-n-e-i-h-e-a-r-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-b-e-l-o-wm-e . . ." the pipe reverberated, hammerlike, only a short distance away. At the point where it looped down out of the wall to join up with the main pipe inlet, standing with legs astride in front of the reactor shielding, was the robot; with quick jablike movements, as in some imaginary sparring match, he was applying cement filler by the fistful, slapping it around, smoothing it, molding it, before moving on to the next section. Pirx concentrated his ear on the rhythm of his movements, on the cadence produced by his pistonlike arms:

"M-o-m-s-s-e-n-c-u-t-o-f-f-p-r-a-t-t-l-o-s-i-n-g-o-x-y-g-e-n.. ."

Terminus stopped, with both arms uplifted, and poised opposite his deceptively human shadow. First to the left and then to the right he pivoted his box-shaped head in search of the next seam. He bent down, scooped up the sealant with his trowellike claws, and again the driving rhythm of his arms pulsated through the pipe:

"D-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r . . ."

Pirx side-vaulted over the railing and floated down. "Terminus!" he yelled before his feet had even touched down.

"I hear and obey," came the robot's instantaneous reply. One eye remained fixed on the man while the other rotated in its orbit, oblivious of the hands, which went on plastering to a steady beat:

"C-o-m-e-i-n-p-r-a-t-t-c-o-m-e-i-n-o-v-e-r . . ."

"Terminus! What are you doing?" hollered Pirx.

"Reactor leak. Four-tenths of roentgen per hour. Repair leak," the robot replied in a hollow bass while his hands kept drumming away:

"W-a-y-n-e-h-e-r-e-c-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-c-o-m-e-i-n..."

"Terminus!" Pirx yelled a third time, now glancing up at the metal face staring cross-eyed at him, now down at the blinding flurry of metal claws.

"I hear and obey," answered the robot in the same singsong lilt.

"What are you signaling in Morse?"

"Repair leak," the deep voice intoned.

"S-i-m-o-n-w-a-y-n-e-p-o-t-t-e-r-p-r-a-t-t-d-o-w-n-t-o-z-e-r-o-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r . . ." the tube reverberated in response to the pelting, swishing jabs of steel. When the viscous paste began to run, the metal claws were immediately there to scrape it back up, pack it, and mold it to the cylindrical surface. For an instant the upraised arms remained poised in midair; then the robot bent down, scooped up another batch of cement, and let loose with a barrage of lightning-quick jabs:

"M-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-c-o-m-e-i-nm-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n . . ." The cadence reached a frenzied pitch; the piping shook and wailed from the unrelenting shower of blows-at times verging on a prolonged human cry.

"Terminus! Stop it!" He made a stab for the robot's oily wrists, but they slipped out of his grasp. Terminus suddenly went stiff; not a sound was heard except for the whining, whimpering pumps behind the concrete containment wall. Before him loomed a metal hulk, bathed in the oil that oozed down his stiltlike legs. He stepped back.

"Terminus . . ." he said, his voice lowering to a whisper. "What are you ... ?"

He broke off at the sound of metal grinding against metal; the robot was rubbing his claws together, trying to peel away the leftover scabs of dry cement. Instead of dropping to the floor, the flakes spiralled up and scattered like wisps of smoke. "What ... have you been up to?" asked Pirx.

"Repair leak. Four tenths of roentgen per hour. May I proceed?"

"What were you signalling in Morse?"

"In Morse," the robot repeated after him, mimicking his exact tone, and then added, "Not understand. May I proceed?"

"You may," muttered Pirx, watching as the powerful arms straightened. "Yes, you may . . ."

Pirx waited. Terminus, seemingly unmindful of him now, ladled up some cement with his left hand, slung it against the shielding, and in three brisk strokes packed it, flattened it, smoothed it. Then the right hand came up and the pipe responded with a rat-a-tat-tat:

"P-r-a-t-t-t-r-a-p-p-e-d-i-n-s-i-x-t-h ... m-o-m-s-s-e-n ... c-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n . . . "

"Where is Pratt?" Pirx burst out in a shrill voice. Terminus, his arms converted by the light into luminous bolts, replied at once, "Don't know," at the same time thumping away with such speed that Pirx had trouble deciphering the Morse.

"P-r-a-t-t-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r . . ."

(...)

 

 

Translated by Louis Irbarne, Harcourt Brace 1982