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Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Between the Strokes of Night

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Between the Strokes of Night

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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Baen, 1985
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
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Synopsis

In the 277th century, Earth is dead, but mankind survives in colonies scattered across the galaxy. To these new worlds come the Immortals, beings with strange ties to ancient Earth who seem to live forever, who can travel light years in days - and who use their strange powers to control the existence of ordinary mortals. On the planet Pentecost, a small group sets out to find and challenge the Immortals. But in the search they themselves are changed: as Immortals, they discover a new threat, not just to themselves, but to the galaxy itself.


Excerpt

PART ONE: A.D. 2016
CHAPTER ONE
The Road to Armageddon

The snow was drifting down in tiny flakes. Its fall, slow and steady, had added almost four inches of new crystals to the frozen surface. Two feet below, torso curled and nose tucked into thick fur, the great she-bear lay motionless. Walls of translucent ice caverned about the shaggy, light-brown pelt.

The voice came through to the cave as a disembodied thread of sound. "Sodium level still dropping. Looks really bad. Jesus Christ. Try one more cycle."

On the periphery of the cave a flicker of colored light began to blink on and off. The walls shone red, clear blue, then sparkled with dazzling green. A stippling of pure colors rippled a pattern to the beast's closed eyelids.

The bear slept on at the brink of death. Its body temperature held steady, ten degrees above freezing point. The massive heart pumped at a sluggish two beats per minute, the metabolic rate down by a factor of fifty. Breathing was steadily weakening, betrayed now only by the thin layer of ice crystals in the fringe of white beard and around the blunt muzzle.

"No good." The voice held an added urgency. "Still dropping, and we're losing the pulse trace. We have to risk it. Give her a bigger jolt."

The light pattern altered. There was a stab of magenta, a rapid twinkle of sapphire and cyan, then a scattershot of moving saffron and ruby dots on the icy wall. As the rainbow modulated, the bear responded to the signal. Slate-gray eyes flickered in the long, smooth head. The massive chest shuddered.

"That's as far as I dare take it." The second voice was deeper. "We're beginning to get more heart fibrillation."

"Hold the level there. And keep an eye on that rectal temperature. Why is it happening now, of all times?"

The voice echoed anguished through the thick-walled cavern. The chamber where the bear lay was fifteen meters across, and through the outer wall ran a spidery filament of fiber optics. It passed beneath the ice to a squat box next to the beast's body. Faint electronic signals came from needles implanted deep in the tough skin, where sensors monitored the ebbing currents of life in the great body. Skin conductivity, heartbeat, blood pressure, saliva, temperature, chemical balances, ion concentrations, eye movements and brain waves were continuously monitored. Coded and amplified in the square box, the signals passed as pulses of light along the optic bundle to a panel of equipment set outside the chamber's wall.

The woman who leaned over the panel outside the chamber was about thirty years old. Her dark hair was cropped short over a high, smooth forehead that now creased with frown lines as she studied the monitors. She was watching one digital readout as it flickered rapidly through a repeated sequence of values. She was in her stockinged feet, and her toes and feet wriggled nervously as the digital readout values moved faster.

"It's no good. She's still getting worse. Can we reverse it?"

The man next to her shook his head. "Not without killing her faster. Her temperature's down too far already, and she's below our control on brain activity. I'm afraid we're going to lose her." His voice was calm and slow under rigid control. He turned to look at the woman, waiting for an instruction. She took a long, shuddering breath.

"We must not lose her. There must be something else to do. Oh my God." She stood up, revealing a supple, willowy build that emphasized the thinness of her stooped shoulders. "Jinx might be in the same condition. Did you check on his enclosure, see how he's doing?"

Wolfgang Gibbs snorted. "Give me credit for something, Charlene. I checked him a few minutes ago. Everything is stable there. I held him four hours behind Dolly here, because I didn't know if this move was a safe one." He shrugged. "I guess we know now. Look at Dolly's EEG. Better accept it, boss woman. We can't do one thing for her."

On the screen in front of them, the pattern of electrical signals from the bear's brain was beginning to flatten. All evidence of spindles was gone, and the residual sinusoid was dropping in amplitude.

The woman shivered, then sighed. "Damn, damn, damn." She ran her hand through her dark hair. "So what now? I can't stay here much longer--JN's meeting starts in less than half an hour. What the hell am I going to tell her? She had such hopes for this one."

She straightened under the other's direct gaze. There was a speculative element to his look that always made her uneasy.

He shrugged again and laughed harshly. "Tell her we never promised miracles." His voice had a flat edge to the vowels that hinted at English as a late-learned second language. "Bears don't hibernate in the same way as other animals do. Even JN will admit that. They sleep a lot, and the body temperature drops, but it's a different metabolic process." There was a beep from the monitor console. "Look out now--she's going."

On the screen in front of them the trace of brain activity was reduced to a single horizontal line. They watched in silence for a full minute, until there was a final, faint shiver from the heart monitor.

The man leaned forward and turned the gain as high as it would go. He grunted. "Nothing. She's gone. Poor old Dolly."

"And what do I tell JN?"

"The truth. She already knows most of it. We've gone farther with Jinx and Dolly than JN had any reason to hope we could. I told you we were into a risky area with the bears, but we kept pushing on."

"I was hoping to keep Jinx under at least another four days. Now, we can't risk it. I'll have to tell JN we're going to wake him up now."

"It's that, or kill him. You saw the monitors." As he spoke, he had already switched to the injection control system for the second experimental chamber, and was carefully increasing the hormonal levels through Jinx's half-ton body mass. "But you're the boss. If you insist on it, I'll hold him under a bit longer."

"No." She was chewing her lip, rocking backwards and forwards in front of the screen. "We can't take the risk. Go ahead, Wolfgang, bring him up all the way. Full consciousness. How long had Dolly been under, total time?"

"One hundred and ninety one hours and fourteen minutes."

She laughed nervously and wriggled her feet back into her shoes. "Well, it's a record for the species. We have that much to comfort us. I have to go. Can you finish all right without me?"

"I'll have to, won't I? Don't worry, this is my fourth hour of overtime already today." He smiled sourly, but more to himself than to Charlene. "You know what I think? If JN ever does find a way for a human to stay awake and sane for twenty-four hours a day, first thing she'll do is work people like us triple shifts."

Charlene Bloom smiled at him and nodded, but her mind was already moving on to the dreaded meeting. Head down, she set off through the hangarlike building, her footsteps echoing to the high, corrugated-steel roof. Behind her, Wolfgang watched her departure. His look was a combination of rage and sorrow.

"That's right, Charlene," he grunted under his breath. "You're the boss, so you go off and take the heat. Fair enough. We both deserve it after what we did to poor old Dolly. But you ought to stop kissing JN's ass and tell her she's pushing us too fast. She'd probably put you in charge of paperclips, but serve you right--you should have put your foot down before we lost one."

A hundred yards away along the length of the open floor, Charlene Bloom abruptly turned to stare back at him. He looked startled, raised his hand, and gave an awkward half-wave.

"Reading my thoughts?" He sniffed and turned back to his control console. "Nah. She's just chicken. She'd rather stay here than tell JN what's happened in the last half-hour."

He switched to Jinx's displays. The big brown bear had to be eased back up to consciousness, a fraction of a degree at a time. They couldn't afford to lose another one.

He rubbed at his unshaven chin, scratched absentmindedly at his crotch, and pored over the telemetry signals. What was the best way? Nobody had real experience at this, not even JN herself.

"Come on, Jinx. Let's do this right. We don't want you in pain when the circulation comes back. Blood sugar first, shall we, then serotonin and potassium balance? That sounds pretty good."

Wolfgang Gibbs wasn't really angry at Charlene--he liked her too well. It was worry about Dolly and Jinx that upset him. He had little patience or respect for many of his superiors; but for the Kodiak bears and the other animal charges, he had a good deal of affection and concern.

Copyright © 1985 by Charles Sheffield


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