La Chasse Galerie
(extract from The Forever Man by Gordon R. Dickson)
She stepped back from the open port of La Chasse Gallerie, and gestured to the interior, “Want to come in?”
“I don’t have a Secret clearance for this project – “ he began.
“Don’t worry about it”, interrupted Mary. “That’s just to keep the news people off our necks until we decide how to handle this. Come on”.
She led the way inside. Jim followed her. Within, the ancient metal corridor leading to the pilot’s compartments seemed swept clean and dusted shiny, like some exhibit in a museum. The interior had been hung with magnetic lights, but the gaps and tears made by Laagi weapons let almost as much light in. The pilot’s compartment was a shambles that had been tidied and cleaned. The instruments and control panel were all but obliterated and the pilot’s com-chair half gone. A black box stood in the center of the floor, an incongruous piece of modern equipment, connected by a thick, gray cable to a bulkhead behind it.
“I wasn’t wrong, then”, said Jim, looking around him. “No human body could have lived through this. It was the semianimate control center that was running the ship as Penard’s alter ago, then, wasn’t it? The man isn’t really alive?
“Yes,” said Mary, “and no”. You were right about the control center somehow absorbing the living personality of Penard. – But look again. Could a control center like that, centered in living issue floating and growing in a nutrient solution with no human hands to care for it – could something like that have survived this, either?”
Jim looked around at the slashed and ruined interior. A coldness crept into him and he thought once more of the legend of a great ghost cargo canoe sailing through the snow-filled skies with its dead crew, home to the New Year’s feast of the living.
“No…” he said slowly, through stiff lips. “Then… where is he?”
“Here!” said Mary, reaching out with her fist to strike the metal bulkhead to which the gray cable was attached. The dull boom of the struck metal reverberated in Jim’s ears. Mary looked penetratingly at Jim.
“You were right,” said Mary, “when you said that the control center had become Penard – that it was Penard, after the man died. Not just a record full of memories, but something holding the vital, decision-making spark of the living man himself. – But that was only half the miracle. Because the tissue living in the heart of the control center had to die, too, and just as the original Penard knew he would die, long before he could get home, the tissue Penard knew it, too. But their determination, Penard’s determination, to do something, solved the problem”.
She stopped and stood staring at Jim, as if waiting for some sign that she had been understood.
“Go on,” said Jim.
“The control system,” said Mary, “was connected to the controls of the ship itself through an intermediate solid state element which was the grandfather of the wholly inanimate solid-state computing centers in the ships you drive nowadays. The link was from living tissue through the area of solid-state physics to gross electronic and mechanical controls”.
“I know that,” said Jim. “Part of our training…”
“The living spark of Raoul Penard, driven by his absolute determination to get home, passed from him into the living tissue of the semianimate control system” went on Mary, as if Jim had not spoken. “From there it bridged the gap by a sort of neurobiotaxis into the flow of impulse taking place in the solid-state elements.
Once there, below all gross levels, there was nothing to stop it infusing every connected solid part of the ship.”
Mary swept her hand around the ruined pilot’s compartment.
“This,” she said, “is Raoul Penard. And this!” Once more she struck the bulkhead above the black box. “The human body died. The tissue activating the control center died. But Raoul came home just as he had been determined to do!”
Mary stopped talking. Her voice seemed to echo away into the silence of the compartment.
“And doing it,” said Mary more quietly, “he brought home the key we’ve been hunting for in the Bureau all this time. We pulled the plug on a dam behind which there’s been piling up a flood of theory and research. What we needed to know was that the living human essence could exist independently of the normal human biochemical machinery. Now, we know it. It’ll take time, but someday it won’t be necessary for the vital element of anyone to admit extinction, unless whoever it is wants to”.
You want to go out and fight the dragons, but life is too short… Image: © Megan Jorgensen