The Spinning Wheel - Part Two
When I woke next, I felt much better. I couldn't remember why I had got so drunk, and swore never to drink again. Then I remembered, and swore to get drunk and stay drunk. I lay on my bed and wallowed in apathetic self-pitying depression. After a while, however, for some illogical reason, optimism raised its ugly head, and I decided to make my way to the bridge in order to see if there was any news. I knew that there wouldn't be any and I could then plunge back into melancholy with a clear conscience.
One disconcerting thing about a spinning spacecraft is the decrease in gravity as you move towards the centre. Earthship Pioneer was a spinning ship due to the length of the planned voyage. If we had done that voyage in zero gravity we would never have been able to adjust to gravity again to colonise the new planet. It would have been a pointless voyage, extremely expensive, and suicidal as we only had supplies for the journey itself plus the time it would take to cultivate more. After zero gravity we would not have been able to descend to the new planet's surface to plant crops. and neither would the animals we had brought with us. We would have been stuck in orbit around a planet that we could not reach, starving to death. So the ship was designed to spin, despite that meaning it had to be large as there would be definite floor, walls and ceiling. Items of furniture, system panels and the like could have been placed anywhere in zero gravity because it had no up or down.
The bridge of Pioneer was the hub of the ship. With the strange perspective of a curved floor, so that everybody seems to lean towards you, the more so the further away they are, it is, perhaps, inadvisable to visit the bridge of such a spacecraft with a hangover. The brain, that is already suffering from the effects of dehydration and methanol poisoning, is in no condition to make sense of such distorted input. At least I could not look up through the main engine reactor and see people appear to be standing upside down above my head. The bridge is no place to be with a hangover. I cursed myself for designing it so.
When I reached the bridge, I discovered a hive of activity. There was even an air of excitement. I groaned inwardly. The swift movement of people rushing about made my stomach churn and I groaned audibly. Someone, who was one of the minority standing still, turned to me and said, "We've made contact with the Russians."
"On Earth?" I asked with a flood of relief.
"In orbit. On the spacestation."
Then, up on the screen, drifting into view as the remote camera panned across the heavens, appeared Earth. It could be easily picked out from the surrounding star field. We were still five days away so all we saw was a silver crescent, and a smaller one, the Moon, but at least it was recognisably the Earth, not just a point of light seen through a telescope.
"Well, it's still there," someone said.
"It'll take another five hours for the message from the Russians to some through," my source of information continued. "It got quite exciting up here for a while. Now there's nothing to do but wait. You should have been here when we heard the Russians calling. We nearly forgot to send an acknowledgement ... Well, I'm going for a drink. Coming?"
My stomach curled up to die at the thought. "I think I've had enough for a while. I'd better get some food to kill off this hangover."
"If you change your mind ... "
I went off in search of food. I took a lift to the outer rim and was relieved at the return to normal gravity. It was quite a walk to the restaurant as the lifts moved only radially and the restaurant was far from any lift exit. Again I cursed myself for forgetting hangovers when I designed the layout. I felt quite weak and shaky by the time I reached my destination.
There was a number of people in the restaurant. They were eating meals ranging from breakfast to supper depending upon what time of their own day they had reached. I ordered myself a full English breakfast, and as I was eating it, who should wander up, but Allyn. He sat down with a cup of steaming black coffee and looked disdainfully at my food.
"Oh, how could you?" He asked in a small voice.
"Quite easily, I'm hungry," I said between mouthfuls. A good breakfast had always been my favourite cure for a hangover and it worked. I was feeling better. "You didn't last long on the drinking front."
"I don't drink often, and now I remember why," he admitted. Sipping his coffee, he thought for a moment before asking his next question. "I was wondering, what is someone like you doing on this ship? You don't seem like a colonist."
"No, I know, but it ... it takes all sorts ...." I paused. "I am partly crew, but I've sort of been made redundant now ... I wonder how much redundancy pay I'll get."
"How can you talk like that when we don't know what's happened on Earth?" I had offended him, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I tried to make it up.
"Well, we've made contact with the Russian spacestation, and no one could have nuked the planet with the laser defences. Besides, it's still there .... " Oops.
"Laser defences/ Nuke? But there aren't any nuclear missiles!" he cried, his face pale and horrified.
I'd made a big mistake. I was puzzled and thinking out loud. I often forgot how little the general public knew, I did not often talk to the general public. I was too used to conversing with others who had comparable security clearance. I thought fast. "I overheard, during my last job, that a couple of Middle Eastern countries had been making missiles secretly for years, and so America and Russian got together and laser defended the whole planet. It was all hearsay of course, but it sounded plausible at the time."
"Journalism." Oh what did it matter now? What did National Security mean if there were no nation? But we did not know if there were a nation or no. Secrets would have to remain until I knew for certain. "Anyhow, we'll probably get the whole story from the Russians on the spacestation, if no one else gives us a call beforehand."
"Yeah, I suppose so." He seemed to be satisfied.
I finished my breakfast and felt almost human again. Now I even felt that there was some hope for Earth, but I put that down to a sugar rush. I looked at my watch. There were still four hours to go until the message was due if the Russians responded immediately to our communique. It was about time to talk to the Commander, I decided. I got up to go.
"What did you do in journalism?" Allyn asked suddenly.
"Made a living. Science correspondent, but they wouldn't let me in on the juicy stories, so I left." It was as good as anything I could think of at the time. I had opther things on my mind.
As I wandered along the Restricted corridors, I wondered how much more the Commander knew than he was letting on. It was unlikely that he knew any more than the rest of us. However, he certainly could make an well-informed guess.
He was just having his morning tea when I arrived at his door. I was admitted immediately, of course. He looked haggard and tired. His worries were apparent in the new lines etched into the flesh of his face and neck. I joined him in a cup of tea, talking trivialities.
"What's your guess then?" I asked after a while.
"I'm not entirely sure," he replied, shaking his head. "The continents blanked out one by one, in sequence, over the space of four hours."
"Nuclear war?" It should not have been possible, but I suggested it all the same.
"It would appear so, but you know better that I do it isn't." He searched my face carefully as if he expected to find the answer there.
"Then what else? I've had no information." I was stating the obvious, but he knew that I meant at a time before Pioneer had left Earth.
"Germ warfare?" The Commander suggested, and an icy chill ran down my back.
"The whole planet?" I asked, an appalling suspicion was beginning to form, and I did not like it, it made me responsible, made me guilty.
"America had some nasty species of virus that would kill only people some thirty years back. They were going to put it in low-level satellites." It was as if he had read my mind.
"It was destroyed, wasn't it?" I said, knowing that it had not been. "That's what the records say." I felt sweat beginning to form. Cold sweat.
"I hope so," he said, and left the matter there.
When the Russian communication arrived, my worst fears were confirmed. The thirty year old satellites, hurriedly built, and orbiting in the upper atmosphere, had deteriorated so badly they had malfunctioned. They had released their cargo of air-to-ground missiles that were too small to be detected by the laser defences. Once one satellite had been triggered, the rest had followed, raining their deadly warheads down onto the defenceless surface. They did not even need to reach the surface. Exploding in the atmosphere was enough to release the Apocalypse virus which then spread through the air to the ground. This was precisely why they had not been neutralised, they were too well booby-trapped. The virus would only have lived for twenty-four hours, but that was enough. So now we had a planet, just as it had been before, only minus the people. But, of course, there was still us. It seemed a good prospect for a good start, I thought.
For a while, people just stood motionless in shock. Then there were tears, and grief. It was a false kind of grief, almost forced. Like infinity is too big to comprehend and is screened from the mind, so the loss of the human race was too many people, too unreal. Eight billion was simply an abstract number, like infinity.
"We now don't have to go far to find a planet to colonise," said the Commander over the ship's public address system, echoing exactly my own thoughts, but it still seemed somehow wrong to voice them.
It seemed almost perverted to me that we should be contemplating the colonisation of the mother planet. Only two weeks ago there had been too many people, which was why we had left. Now there were none.
For some alien reason, I was almost relieved at the death of practically the entire human race. Maybe it was because I had seen too much destruction. Now there would be no more rainforests destroyed, no more seal culls, no more pollution of the environment .... But unless we got to Earth in time to shut down the numerous nuclear reactors, there would be massive pollution.
By this time I was hungry, it was dinnertime. What a time to be hungry, I thought, what with all the grief and mourning, shock and hysteria around me. But I suppose that when your brain does not quite know how to react, when everything that has happened is too overwhelming, if it does not break it just shifts into 'everything is normal' mode until it can sort it all out. So I went to the restaurant and ate lunch.
My own grief started when I began to think of all the animals in cages with no one to free them. Of the rabbits and guinea-pigs, and mice and hamsters. Of the dogs and cats trapped in houses, and the horses and ponies shut in stables. Of the battery hens and pigs; the zoo animals; circus animals; experimented-upon research animals. I couldn't cope with this kind of grief. I had always had more sympathy for the unassuming animals than for destructive human beings. I took some valium and wiped out for two days.