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straight toward them. Follingston-Heath gallantly tried to shield Gelmann,
while Hawkins dove for the cover of a nearby monolith and the others variously
crouched or dropped to the floor.
The platform halted a meter from Shimoda, who had bent and covered his face
with his arms. Now he straightened and approached tentatively. As he did so
the smooth upper surface of the golden-hued device retracted. He flinched
momentarily.
Set in recesses within were quantities of foodstuffs, both cold and hot. A
pool of oily sludge occupied a depression next to a cluster of steaming,
bright red vegetables. At least they looked like vegetables. There were
cylinders of room-temperature water, and chilled slices of pseudomeat, and
more. The Autothor apologized for this initial effort and assured them that
while it might not measure up to their usual standards, there was nothing on
the platform their bodies would reject.
"Never mind my body." Hawkins hesitantly prodded a hillock of yellow
puffiness. It exuded a faint perfume of mothballs. "What about my sense of
decency? Folks have been known to upchuck chocolate mousse too."
"Then don't try anything." Shimoda was salivating. "It'll leave more for me."
Follingston-Heath was next in line, followed by Gelmann, Iranaputra, and
eventually Hawkins. They compared flavors and consistencies as they ate.
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Gelmann made periodic cooking suggestions to the platform, which after a while
found itself shuddering with anticipatory apprehension.
After the meal, which was as instructive as it was filling, they explained
the need to sleep. Understanding, the Autothor dimmed the lights in the vast
chamber, including its own, and stole away to silence, leaving the five
travelers sated and warm, if not entirely at ease.
True to Follingston-Heath's prediction, by the time the sun began to swing up
over the Atlantic the following morning, a considerable portion of the east
coast of North America found itself embroiled in tumultuous debate.
I.
IX
MUCH of the activity was centered around Air Traffic Control in Albany, some
distance to the east. Instead of going home to bed, the assistant controller
(night shift) had stayed at her station, bleary-eyed but alert, to confer with
her morning relief.
Together and in the company of others equally dumbfounded they stared at the
motionless three-dimensional representation of the airspace above northeastern
North America, which it was their responsibility to look after. The holomag
displayed meteorological as well as topographical features all the way out to
one planetary diameter. Approaching orbital shuttles could be picked up and
guided in, and purely atmospheric craft appropriately monitored and assisted.
In the midst of this perfectly normal outplotting a large oblong mass had
appeared. Within the projection, shuttles and aircraft were represented as
pinpoints of fast-moving light. Not as large blobs, oblong or otherwise. It
should not have been there. Itcould not be there. Wishing otherwise, however,
had thus far failed to make it go away. Most emphatically not a projection or
computation malfunction, it was largely responsible for the flow of
perspiration which was presently staining the chief controller's shirt in the
vicinity of his underarms.
He reached past a duty spacer to tap several controls, frowned, and as a last
resort reached into the projection itself to waggle a forefinger through the
denser light that was the oblong. It didn't go away. Stepping back, he shoved
his hands into his pants pockets, aware that everyone was waiting for him to
say something.
The matronly, middle-aged woman who was the assistant controller (night
shift) materialized at his side in possession of two cups of coffee, one of
which she offered to her superior. He took it gratefully.
"Any ideas, Mary?"
She looked at the holo. "Got to be a misread. Showed up just before you
clocked in. Haven't had much time to study it yet. Dead air?"
Dead air was an air controller's euphemism for any meteorological phenomenon
that caused the equipment to malfunction. Yet the weather in the area was, if [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]




 

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