The Genome (Excerpt)

Five months after the horrific accident that left him near death and worried that he’d never fly again, master-pilot Alex Romanov lands a new job: captaining the sleek passenger vessel Mirror. Alex is a spesh—a human who has been genetically modified to perform particular tasks. As a captain and pilot, Alex has a genetic imperative to care for passengers and crew—no matter what the cost.

His first mission aboard Mirror is to ferry two representatives of the alien race Zzygou on a tour of human worlds. His task will not be an easy one, for aboard the craft are several speshes who have reason to hate the Others. Dark pasts, deadly secrets, and a stolen gel-crystal worth more than Alex’s entire ship combine to challenge him at every turn. And as the tension escalates, it becomes apparent that greater forces are at work to bring the captain’s world crashing down.

Sergei Lukyanenko is back with a sci-fi thriller, The Genome—available now from Open Road Media!

 

 

Chapter 3

According to the papers, his ship was waiting not in the hangar, but right out on the landing field. This probably meant it had not been on the planet very long. Alex stood on the platform, lightly holding on to the handrail—a part of his specialization, imprinted through repetition, was the habit of always having at least three balance points when on a moving object. The platform glided out into the main tunnel and went hurtling along at full speed underneath the landing field.

Alex suddenly realized what had been bothering him about his new contract.

The right to choose his own crew.

Things like that just weren’t done. Well, to be exact, they could be done, but only with the vessels built on this planet. But Mirror had been assembled on Earth.

Someone had to have been in charge of the ship on its way to Quicksilver Pit. Okay, so it may have not been a full crew, just the bare minimum—a pilot, a navigator, and a power engineer. But to hire people for a one-way trip and then to start looking for a whole new crew on another planet—that was absurd. Earth could offer a far better choice of specialists than a colony world, even a well-developed one.

There was also a useful tradition of keeping at least one member of the previous crew. Every ship had its own unique character, and an experienced person could often save not only time and money, but the very life of the vessel.

Weird…

The platform slowed down, stabilized under an exit shaft, and slowly started rising. Sixty five feet up, through layers of rock and then the concrete pad of the landing field Alex glanced at the Demon—it seemed thoughtful and wary.

The ship was an experimental model? Something dangerous, still being tested—trick a crew into it, and watch what happens? Not likely. Judging by the papers, it was a very good ship, and it had no unexpected novelties. All the equipment was standard. A dangerous route, perhaps? Also bull. People got lured into danger by money, insurance, discounts anything but lies. There would always be volunteers to stick their heads into a lion’s jaws, why make people do it against their will?

Something barely legal? The same objections applied.

So it wasn’t about the ship. Everything was always about people, not metal.

Alex shook his head and tried to toss his doubts away. Not for good… just to put them away into a far corner of his mind.

The platform slid out through the open aperture of a hatch, wobbled a little as it adjusted to the new bearing plain, and sailed on over the landing field. After a few seconds, Alex really did forget all his troubles.

He was home

Although it had lost its former prominence, the spaceport of Quicksilver Pit was still fully alive. Two shuttles were landing simultaneously, and at a distance Alex identified them as a couple of old Manta Rays, maybe the third, maybe the fourth model. He guessed what they were not so much by their shape as by the piloting trajectory and landing speed. In the middle of the field, spreading wide the three rings of its supports, stood a heavy Cachalot freighter, probably of maximum tonnage allowable in this spaceport. From it crawled a line of auto-loaders, clutching tanks and containers in their grippers. Working on a delicate pleasure ship, Otter, were small repair-robots that crawled along the ship’s surface, checking and repairing the skin.

Here was the only place worth living. Here and in flight.

Alex was smiling.

His mood was no longer affected by the dull grayness of the sky, where smog and rain-clouds blended into a foul-smelling cocktail. Above this sky was another, clear and boundless, created for the freedom of flight… for him personally.

Then the platform skirted the Otter, and Alex saw his own ship. Mirror stood in the launch-ready position. It looked like a giant discus hurled by a titan, stopped in midair and hovering above the ground, in no hurry to soar into the sky. A bioceramic disc of ninety-eight point four feet in diameter, six supports, three main engines in a slightly unusual arrangement, clustered in the stern… Well, that might even be a good thing. The bulge of the bridge deck was slightly larger than average for this size vessel. It looked like co-piloting was possible. Although a lot depended on who that co-pilot turned out to be….

Alex swallowed to get rid of a lump in his throat.

Mirror was blindingly beautiful. The perfect ship, with its enlarged bridge, its unusual engine configuration, the tender green of its armor

It was love at first sight. Just the ship’s appearance was enough.

The same feeling as when a person capable of love is shaken at the sight of a face in a crowd. There might be dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other faces around, but they all are no longer important.

Sometimes Alex regretted not being able to love other humans. But only till he fell in love with a ship.

“Hello…” he whispered, gazing at Mirror.

The platform slowed down. Alex jumped down onto the concrete and walked up to the ship. Reached over, touching the armor carefully with just his fingertips. The bio-ceramic surface was warm and resilient. Alive.

“You know who I am…” said Alex quietly. “Right? You can see me… Hello…”

He went around the ship, touching the armor with his hand as far up as he could reach. The ship was silent. It was studying him, too.

“Do you like me?”

Now he was glad that there was no one aboard. This was his moment. Or, rather, he shared this moment with the ship.

“Receive your captain.”

The identity chip below his collarbone remained motionless. There had to have been a request signal. But not a full identity check. And that was nice. It was a sign of reciprocity. Of trust.

A hatch opened overhead, and down slid a ladder with a small platform on the bottom end. Alex stepped onto it and let the ship take him up inside.

 

“Sushi, sir?”

A waitress stopped next to his table with a small aquarium cart hovering near her shoulder. Alex stretched his neck a bit to take a look at the cart.

“Yes, please.”

“Traditional-style or roasted?”

“Roasted.” Alex did not bother mentioning to her that it was not his mistrust of the local cuisine, but a habit, well established from his school days, of cooking, if only slightly, any protein that was not from Earth. “I’d like a large serving, please. From the right corner, at the very bottom.”

“At the bottom the krill’s already asleep,” said the girl uneasily. She lifted up a glass colander. The cart obligingly lowered itself and drew out little panels with cooking forms, an oven, and a small press. “I could make a few runs at the top…”

“No, no. Right from the very bottom,” said Alex, looking at the iridescent dots inside the aquarium. “When krill is slightly drowsy, the flavor is better. Oh, and double the spices, please.”

“All right.” The waitress seemed to like the order. Alex watched her, as she gingerly scooped out the slumbering krill from the bottom of the aquarium, skillfully poured it into a bowl, stirred in the seven-spice mixture, squeezed the krill mass with a small hand-press, then sliced it into thin strips and tossed it onto a burning-hot stone plate.

“Please don’t fry it all the way through,” hastily added Alex. “Just a little, to make the chitin a bit crunchy.”

In a moment, he had a serving of sushi on his plate. It was wonderfully fresh, with a lot of spicy, fragrant steam rising from it. Amazingly enough, Quicksilver Pit’s oceans remained practically unpolluted, and all the seafood was natural. Alex knew that artificial protein was much cheaper, more nutritious, and less dangerous than the natural stuff. But a marked preference for natural foods was a tradition among pilots.

Besides, Alex rather liked it. He was grateful to his parents for not including a modernized digestive system into the parameters of his specialization. Of course, it took up extra space, and extra time for eating, and extra energy was expended on digestion. But the alternative—forever eating artificial protein at McRobbins—no, thanks!

By the time a waiter changed his plate, Alex was already full and quite content with life. He surprised the waiter by asking him for a telephone. He had changed out of his motley outfit and into a standard captain’s uniform with master-pilot badges, but had simply forgotten to bring a communicator from the ship.

He dialed the number of the hotel-room computer. Kim answered almost immediately. The display screen of the borrowed telephone was tiny, and the hotel equipment was also far from perfect. Still, he could tell that the girl’s expression was calm.

“Everything’s okay?”

“Uh-huh,” she sniffed, “I’m practicing.”

“What?”

“Trying out my muscles. Is it normal that I don’t get tired?”

“Probably. But don’t overdo it, ok?”

They were both silent for a few moments.

“You coming back?” she said at last.

“Yes. Will you be there?”

Her smile was barely discernible, or maybe Alex was just imagining it.

“We’ll see. Probably.”

“Get some rest. Don’t wear yourself out,” said Alex. Hung up and handed the phone back to the waiter, who had tactfully stepped aside to give Alex a bit of privacy.

Too bad the long sleeves of his new uniform hid the Demon. He toyed with the idea of cutting out a little ’window’ in the sleeve’s deep-blue cloth and covering it with a piece of see-through plastic…

His crew would die laughing… that is, when he got a crew.

Actually, the crew was the very reason he was still at the spaceport. In the rare instances when the hiring was left to the captain’s discretion, there were two ways to do it. You could consult the official search on the infonet. Hardly anyone did that. Or you could hold a series of personal interviews—the method preferred by anyone with any common sense. The spaceports’ watering holes were the places to conduct such interviews.

Alex wondered how many people had been already watching him from afar, curious, anxious, waiting for him to finish his lunch?

He ordered some sake and an expensive Earth-made cigar. He liked sake, but didn’t care for cigars. But it was a signal well understood by every astronaut, so he had to forget about cigarettes for now.

The waiter stood nearby with a tray, upon which were a box of cigars, a guillotine cigar cutter, and a massive crystal lighter. Alex took his time lighting up.

“Happy hiring, sir,” said the waiter and left.

Of course, everyone who worked at a spaceport for at least a week would know exactly what it meant if a captain smoked a cigar.

“May I?”

Alex threw an appraising glance at the first candidate.

He was a young, or recently rejuvenated man. Dark-haired, with features that revealed a predominantly Asian genetic heritage. He was dressed in civilian clothes. The outward traces of his specialization were very faint—his pupils were too narrow in the dim cafe light, his forehead was high, and his posture unnaturally straight, as though he was a well-drilled soldier. This was a pilot. A master-pilot.

“Please…” Alex gently pushed the bowl of hot water holding the bottle of sake towards him. This, too, was a sign.

They had a drink in silence, openly evaluating each other. At this point the interview could be cut short. The pilot could simply get up, thank Alex for the sake, and leave. Or Alex could put down his cigar and look away. That would mean ’no.’ They would not work together well.

“You’re also a pilot.” The man broke the silence first.

“Yes, I am.”

“A master-pilot,” he was thinking aloud, “and you’re looking for another master-pilot? You must have a large ship.”

“Does that bother you?”

“No.”

“Good. But what I have is a small, multi-functional vessel.”

The pilot winced. Asked with a hint of hope, “Are there a lot of duties besides piloting?”

“Not really.”

“Then what you need is a regular pilot,” said the man firmly. “Two master-pilots on the same ship is kind of odd.”

“You’re right. But I have orders from the ship’s owner. The co-pilot has to be a master.”

There was a spark of curiosity in the man’s eyes. He hesitated for a second, but then shook his head.

“No… it won’t do. Good luck to you, Captain.”

“Not interested in the terms of the contract?” Alex asked him. He liked the stranger, and the man did not look as though he’d been riding high lately.

“No, thank you,” the pilot smiled dryly. “Don’t want to be tempted.”

He gave a quick nod and got up. That was it. And everyone saw that it was he who had refused the offer, and not the captain who rejected his candidacy.

Alex drew in the cigar’s thick, heavy smoke. No, cigars weren’t his thing, after all.

He understood the pilot’s position perfectly. For a master to agree to co-pilot, he would have to be really desperate. He would rather drag a clumsy Hamster full of pig iron around the orbit than play second fiddle on the most interesting routes. But the owner’s instructions were perfectly clear.

A six-member crew.

A captain with the specialization of master-pilot. Another master-pilot. A navigator. An engineer. A fighter. And a doctor.

No cargo specialist, no trade expert… Or, to be more precise, these positions were optional, in case they were an additional specialization for one of the crewmembers. So they were not being hired for trading missions. There would be no linguists or xenopsychologists. That would mean no contacts with the Others were expected. All the work would be taking place within the Human Empire.

And yet

The requirement for two master-pilots could only mean lengthy and difficult routes.

A fighter on board meant possible visits to troubled planets.

A doctor meant very long trips.

All this was hard to reconcile. Even more disquieting were the possible reasons for giving Alex such easy access to the rank of captain and carte blanche in hiring the crew, when its odd composition could only mean unusual and difficult trips.

“May I?”

Alex looked up.

A very serious and intelligent face. A light-haired Europeoid of a rare, unmixed genotype. Judging by the badges on his uniform and the visible signs of specialization, he was an engineer. A Star of Valor on his lapel meant he was a retired military man. And if an honor ever had to be really earned, it was the Star of Valor. He was an ideal candidate But… But Alex did not like him for some reason.

They studied each other for a few seconds.

“You are probably right, captain,” said his would-be engineer politely. “We won’t get along. Too bad. I’ve been out of work for a while.”

“Would you care for a drink?”

“No, thank you. You obviously have a long day ahead of you. I wouldn’t want to waste your time.” He walked away. Alex followed him with a gloomy stare.

A professional. A good spesh, and a good man. But they wouldn’t work well together. When you spend half your life in a hermetically sealed tin can, you learn to see that at first glance.

His hiring spree had started out badly. And in some places they believed that if a captain rejected the first three candidates right off the bat, you shouldn’t bother approaching him. You wouldn’t have any luck. Astronauts were the most superstitious people in the universe.

“Captain?”

The woman hadn’t even observed the customary interval. Leaned on the table with both hands, inclining slightly towards Alex.

“Looking for a crew?”

She was not young. Tall, almost as tall as Alex. Black. Beautiful. But not a natural kind of beauty. It was the work of plastic surgeons who make a transformed body look more attractive. Her face had a kind of geometrically precise diamond shape. Her eyes were too large, almost like Kim’s. Her hands and nails were oddly shaped… She had the pin of a cargo specialist on her blouse. The expression on his face had probably given something away.

“Don’t need a cargo tech?” asked the woman bluntly.

“Unfortunately not. My ship is small. Not a freighter.”

“Excuse my intrusion then, Captain…”

“Wait!”

“Yes?” The lady slightly raised her eyebrows.

“Your specialization is not cargo technician.”

“You’re right. But a small ship won’t need a doctor, either.”

“Actually, we do.”

“Curious…” After a few seconds’ hesitation, she sat down. “Will you offer me a drink?”

“Yes, of course.”

Alex hastily filled up a small cup, handed it to the woman. They clinked their cups.

“What kind of ship do you have?”

Mirror is an unclassified vessel assembled on Earth. Most parameters are of a modernized discus yacht of moderate tonnage. A six-member crew, myself included.” Alex caught himself cajoling the woman, almost trying to ingratiate himself to her.

“Curious,” she said again. “Does it at least have a sick bay? Or is that combined with the galley?”

“A fully equipped sick bay. Must have been stripped from a destroyer.”

“Hell.” She laughed a bit uneasily. “Must have been? Have you been the captain for long?”

“A couple hours.”

“Right. Who else is in the crew?”

“Just me.”

“Okay, I get it.”

She twirled the sake cup in her fingers, still not in any hurry to drink.

“Details?”

“Union base pay for unclassified ships, plus a twenty percent bonus. A two-year contract.”

“And where are we flying?”

“Don’t know.”

“Purpose?”

“Don’t know that, either.”

“Sounds marvelous, Captain…”

“I know how it sounds. But I have already accepted the offer.”

“Perhaps you just didn’t have a choice?”

She had guessed right, so Alex decided it would be better to say nothing.

“All right… I’m Janet Ruello, forty-six years of age, doctor-spesh, cargo technician…” She hesitated a split second and continued, “…gunner-spesh, linguist-spesh, junior pilot-spesh, ready to consider your offer.”

Alex pushed away his sake cup. Looked hard at Ruello. She was absolutely serious.

“Four specializations?”

“Five. But the fifth one is irrelevant.”

“I’d like to know what it is anyway.”

An angry irony appeared in the woman’s dark eyes.

“Executioner-spesh. Officially, it has another name, but that’s what it is. Actually, that is my main specialization.”

“You’re from Eben!” exclaimed Alex, finally catching on. “Damn…”

“Yes, I am,” the woman glared back at him. “The planet Eben is quarantined. I was born there. I served in the Mutual Understanding Corps until the age of thirty. Was taken prisoner of war during the battle of Pokryvalo. Five years of psychotherapy. Temporary citizenship of the Empire, with a permit to work and reproduce.”

Now it was clear to Alex why this woman with five—well, let it be four—specializations was wearing the pin of a cargo technician, a profession she had acquired on her own.

“What is your decision?” she asked dryly.

“May I ask you something, off the record?”

“Yes.. I think that would be fine…” She looked suddenly embarrassed.

“Do you have any experience with determining specialization?”

Janet shrugged.

“Well, I’m not an expert, of course, but I have some experience. It’s standard procedure in our fleet to determine which specialization will turn out to be the dominant one, and whether there are any physiological conflicts in the body. For example, the work of a doctor and a detective cannot be combined for psychological reasons, and the jobs of a navigator and a pilot because of physiology. Everybody knows that, but there are many situations which are much more complicated.”

Janet, it seemed, was happy to talk. Alex nodded, satisfied with her answer, and then asked, “And why did you lose the war so quickly? Ten years ago, Eben’s fleet almost matched the firepower of the Imperial forces. And you had all that training… each person had a least three specializations, right? I mean, what happened?”

“You really don’t know?” A slight note of surprise flashed in Janet’s voice. “We had not been trained to fight against humans! Quite the opposite… We believed that the human race had to rule the universe. Another six months, or a year, and nothing could have stopped us, believe me. Oh, Deus Irae! Our Liturgy-class space cruisers could have blasted off a star’s photosphere, turning it into a supernova! The cleansing fire that would have burned away all the planets of the Others!”

“Good thing you didn’t have the time to build those cruisers!” said Alex, closely watching Janet’s reaction.

“Not so. Two cruisers were ready. They couldn’t have broken through to the sectors of the Others, but to blow away the Sun or Sirius—child’s play!” She laughed without mirth. “My dear captain, we could not fight against humans! It was a shortcoming of our own propaganda. We could cajole, or beg, or explain… take prisoners and brainwash them… but to kill our own kind

“The Empire also suffered losses…”

“Mostly by accident. Sometimes as a result of nervous breakdowns. Some officers shot to kill and then sent a ray into their own heads as soon as they realized that they had killed their blood brothers. You didn’t have such problems.”

“Last question, Janet. Forgive me, but I have to ask.”

“Go ahead. I understand.”

“What is your present attitude toward Eben’s ideology? Put yourself in my shoes… to have a person aboard who was born to exterminate any non-human intelligence…”

“I still hold firm to my view that the human race is the ideal one in the universe. Chosen by the Creator.” Janet was silent for a moment, and then added rather dryly, “Alex, you do understand that the consequences of a specialization are irreversible. Absolutely irreversible.”

“But how do you manage to lead a normal life, if you still believe that so strongly?” Alex looked around, to see if he could find at least one of the Others. Quicksilver Pit was far from the frontier, but some trading vessels of the Others did fly here. Too bad, there were no non-humans in the cafe. Not a single bulky, clumsy Fenhuan, wrapped into folds of pseudo-feathers, nor a small and agile Bronin, nor a Zzygou… not that those “fragrant” creatures would be allowed to come in to a restaurant…

“Now I am convinced, ” said Janet very firmly, “that the xenocidal methods of our ruling church were a disastrous mistake. They are unacceptable for moral and ethical reasons, because by killing the Others without any threat to our own lives, we would be dropping down to their level. The human race must conquer the galaxy by peaceful methods, by perfecting our technology and biotechnology, expanding to other planets, creating beauty, and multiplying vigorously. That is the way to drive the defective races to extinction, clearing the galactic space for us humans. I am even inclined to think that we would then have a duty to preserve their cultural monuments, establish museums and memorials, and use every opportunity to keep the remnants of their worlds’ biodiversity in zoos and on reservations.”

“And you live your life based on these convictions?”

“Yes, of course. In the ten years since my liberation, I have given birth to four healthy and intelligent children, and specialized them in socially useful, peaceful professions.” She thought for a moment, and then added, “Well, nominally peaceful… You don’t have to worry, Captain. When I see one of the Others, I won’t remember any methods to exterminate it. Unless there is imminent danger.”

“All right, then. If the contract and the ship suit you…”

Janet nodded. A slight smile appeared on her face.

“I think they will suit me. I would prefer a job in cargo, but being a doctor won’t be bad. All my other specializations are much more unpleasant. You need recommendations from previous employers?”

“Yes, please. I have no doubt that your qualifications are excellent, but that’s the procedure.”

Alex handed her one of the copies of the contract he had brought with him, and they had another drink to seal the preliminary agreement. Then Janet left.

Alex’s cigar had long smoldered to ashes. In any case, he was supposed to order another one, and so he did.

A medical doctor from Eben… that was a great irony of Fate. Well, Fate was a master of irony.

He had absolutely no doubts about Janet’s professional qualities. All of her other specializations were a definite plus, even if she never got to use them. She was practically incapable of aggression towards humans because of the shortcoming of Eben’s propaganda machine, the shortcoming which had enabled the Empire to quarantine the planet, to seal it off from the rest of the galaxy.

But would Janet lose it at the sight of a non-human? Would she remember her specialization of executioner-spesh? No, that was hardly possible. She had, after all, been released by the military psychologists, free to interact with society, even have contacts with the Others. The psychologists must have been sure of their tactics. Come to think of it, that was a very clever solution to the problem. They did not touch the main postulate of the Ebenian worldview, namely, the idea that humanity was the master race. All they did was convince the POWs of the necessity of using peaceful means to achieve galactic domination. So out of a hundred thousand raging prisoners, who would never again see their unfortunate home world, they got a hundred thousand well-qualified speshes who were also fanatically loyal to humanity. Although the military was forbidden to recruit them, as far as Alex knew. In the military, their faith might acquire thousands of new believers, and the psychological blocks could be dashed to pieces.

“Captain?”

This fellow was very young, barely twenty. Obviously right out of the academy.

“Yes?”

“Do you have a vacancy for an engineer-spesh?”

For some reason, people were all so impatient today! Alex had had occasion to witness a hiring ritual conducted by his former captain, Richard Klein, or Roaring Richard, as others used to call him behind his back. During the hiring, Richard seemed to be a completely different person—thorough, patient, even somewhat drowsy. And those who approached his table behaved the same way…

“Yes, I do.”

“Will I suit you?”

The guy was also a typical Europeoid, and, of course, a spesh—otherwise, he could not be an engineer. His skin was really pink, ruddy. He had a bit of a baby face, with sparkling, slightly bulging eyes. His long, dark gray hair lay heavy on his shoulders, like a lead screen, which was its function, after all. Making a person practically resistant to radiation was no easy task. To give just one example—while at work, his testicles had to be retracted inside the pelvic cavity.

“Take a look at the contract,” said Alex, handing the fellow a copy. “Gluon reactors, have you had any experience with them?”

“No real work experience,” replied the youth absently, reading through the contract. “But I know them well. My last year of school, that’s all we studied. And I got here on a ship with gluon engines.”

“Did you get your training on the Earth?”

“Yes, of course.” He paused to think about one of the contract stipulations, and it occurred to Alex that the young fellow might not be as naive as he looked.

A sudden thought made Alex ask, “And what was the name of the ship that brought you here?”

The Intrepid. It was a yacht, with a name like a military cruiser.” The fellow looked up from the contract, then nodded. “I like your offer. I don’t really want to fly large ships just yet. If you agree to take an engineer with only two weeks’ work experience, I’ll be on my way to pack.”

“Well, we’ll risk it, son,” said Alex, unsuccessfully trying to give his tone of voice a dash of Richard Klein’s haughtiness. “We all had to start somewhere, right?”

Of course, he wouldn’t tell the youth that the post of engineer was the only one where a young recent graduate would actually be preferred. The reason was that any experience working with one type of reactor did nothing to prepare you to work with another type. The behavior of the gluon stream was not really statistically predictable, and taking aboard a young novice, who was not overloaded with habits, would be better than working with an experienced veteran.

“Thank you,” said the youngster candidly. “You won’t regret it, sir! I, Paul Lourier, nineteen years of age, engineer-spesh, accept your contract.”

Unlike all the others interviewed so far, he did not even wait to see the ship. He just signed the contract. Alex promised himself that he’d fight to get the fellow a bonus at the first opportunity. Such acts of trust should be rewarded.

“May I?”

The next candidate was wearing a plaid kilt and a loose-fitting, bright blue shirt. He was sturdy, red-headed, but with his almond-shaped eyes, looked positively Asian. He had an earring in his left ear and a clip player in his right. His long hair was tightened into a braid. His cheeks bore iridescent spiral drawings—maybe tattoos, maybe just cosmetics. For a few seconds, Alex unsuccessfully tried to determine the man’s specialization, then gave it up and nodded. Poured a cup of sake.

This candidate also chose to take the bull by the horns.

“Do you need a navigator?”

“Yes.”

“Then take a look at this.”

From somewhere, he produced a pack of recommendation letters. Put them down before Alex.

The collection was impressive. Five years of service in the Imperial Forces on a great variety of vessels, from torpedo boats to battle cruisers. He had changed ships suspiciously often, but at the same time, his recommendations were stellar. “Energy conservation” … “Calculation of hyper-jump in a battle situation” … “During an instrument failure, accomplished ship orientation manually’”… “Successfully repaired equipment… guided solely by intuition, despite a complete lack of experience in the area…”

“Puck Generalov, you’ve changed your place of employment rather frequently…” noted Alex. And something else bothered him about the stellar recommendations. But what was it?

“That’s just my personality.” The navigator straightened a fold on his kilt, threw one leg over the other, and took a tiny sip of sake. “Just personality. But no one has ever had any complaints about me as a professional.”

“Are you conflict-prone?”

“That would also be reflected in the documents, Captain.”

“That’s right. Still… I have a small ship. Will a job as a navigator on a yacht suit you?”

“Absolutely. I like small and fast ships.”

Generalov took out a crumpled pack of cigarettes, took one out, struck a match on the tabletop, and lit up. Then inquired, “By the way, I’m gay. Does that bother you?”

“Should it?” said Alex, confused.

“Well, you know, there are many different approaches to ethics…”

“I’m from Earth. You don’t have to worry about me being prejudiced,” answered Alex dryly. Something was still bothering him, but what was it? “I guess you’d want to see the ship? I expect all the crew members to show up for a meeting tomorrow morning.”

The navigator nodded again. And mentioned casually, “Oh, and by the way, I am also a natural. Would that be a problem?”

Alex was stunned, speechless.

Of course, not all astronauts were necessarily speshes. Only a few occupations absolutely required a modified body and mind—engineers, tactical commanders, linguists, and a few other rare professions. All the rest were theoretically open to the naturals. Alex knew some among ship doctors, among gunners… he even met one natural who had been a pilot, though the guy was very old. But to become a navigator! To hold in your mind the five-dimensional picture of the universe, fifteen hundred main hyper-channels, a minimum of thirty thousand known routes, and at least three hundred thousand gravitational peaks

A navigator did not just have to have increased intuition and a sense of space just like a pilot’s. First and foremost, he had to have a mind that worked like a computer, a transformed nervous system with strengthened logical capacity and reduced emotional reactions This was what had roused Alex’s suspicions. In all the recommendations, however stellar and laudatory, there was no mention of the word “spesh.”

“I don’t have to worry about your being prejudiced, right?” asked Generalov politely. Alex forced himself to nod.

“No. You don’t have to worry. I’m taking you aboard… that is, if the ship and the contract suit you.”

The kilt-wearing man watched him, picking at his ear clip. Maybe he was trying to tune it to another station, or maybe he was simply nervous.

“There’s the answer to your question,” he said all of a sudden.

“What question?”

“Why I change ships so frequently. You fell into the usual trap… it’s hard to admit to being prejudiced, but working alongside a natural is unpleasant. You’ll take me aboard and then try to get rid of me at the first opportunity. With the best of references, of course, because pilots can’t lie.”

“Yes, we can.”

“Don’t make me laugh, Captain. We haven’t signed the contract yet—I can ignore seniority for the moment. So let me just say…” Generalov puffed his cigarette and smiled, “…this would, by the way, be another chance for you to back out. Who needs a troublemaker for a navigator? And no, Captain, you are not capable of lying. The capacity for love is removed in all pilots, and that’s very useful. Those who love are not inclined to take risks, except, of course, for the sake of those they love, and a pilot must be ready to die at any moment. But to balance it out, all your other moral qualities are enhanced—integrity, kindness, loyalty, generosity. I bet you’re the kind of guy who would jump out on the road to save a lousy mutt, and rescue kittens from a tree, and contribute to charity funds, and give alms to every beggar you pass. So for you, lying is an agonizing process, extremely unpleasant and almost impossible. Pilots prefer to keep things back, or to dodge the question rather than lie. You do resent me, don’t you?”

“No,” Alex forced himself to say.

Respect lit up Generalov’s eyes for a moment.

“You are a strong man, Captain. What’s your sign?”

“Aries.”

“And I’m a Virgol” Generalov smiled. “It’s a good combination, you know. We’ll get along. Give me that contract of yours!”

Alex silently handed him the form.

Puck looked through the standard lines, shrugged at the numbers.

“Not bad…”

He licked his finger and pressed it down to the identification point. Then he separated the sheet in half, gave one part of it back to Alex, and stuck the other into a pocket on his kilt.

“You are now a crew member of the spaceship Mirror,” Alex told him.

At this Generalov straightened up, as though he had been pierced through with a stiff pole, and his face lost the smirk he’d been wearing.

“Your orders, Captain.”

Only his eyes still retained a tiny spark of irony.

“To change into a standard navigator uniform. Get rid of facial paint. Be at the ship tomorrow at 9 a.m.”

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

“That will be all.”

“Permission to spend the evening in the bar, Captain.”

“That is your business,” said Alex after a moment’s contemplation. “But I need you to be in top working shape in the morning.”

“Of course.” Puck seemed to be waiting for other orders.

“Have you been job hunting a while?”

“A month.”

“Okay. Are there any master-pilots here in the hall?”

Generalov did not even look around.

“Only one. The one who approached you first.”

“All right… see you tomorrow.”

After the navigator left, Alex threw back his sake in one gulp. Found the waiter with a glance, made a light gesture in the air, as if signing his check. That sly natural really put one over on him! One should never underestimate the genetically unaltered, never! First that absurd question about his attitude toward gays, as if it were any of the captain’s business who his crewmembers slept with. And then, after Alex had declared that he wasn’t biased, came the real blow.

A navigator who was a natural… impossible!

And what would be the reaction of the other crewmembers? Janet, who had five specializations? The young engineer, just out of college?

Well, if any of them protested, that would be another reason to back out… no, unfortunately, Janet had not signed the contract yet. Unless Paul Lourier refused to trust his life to a natural…

For a second, a crazy thought flashed through Alex’s mind—what if he were to ask, or even to order the engineer to oppose Generalov’s candidacy? Paul had signed the contract earlier, and, from a formal point of view, Alex had a duty to consider his opinion.

The thought came and passed, leaving an unpleasant trace. On one point Generalov was absolutely right. Lying was hard for pilots. This was part of the price they paid for the stars—along with their inability to love other humans.

A waiter came. Alex paid his bill and quickly left the dining hall. Two vacancies remained unfilled, but he had an idea about one of them. It was a crazy idea, but it was worth a try.

 

Excerpted from The Genome © Sergei Lukyanenko, 2014

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