Nautilus: Sample

Nautilus - Starfarers Quartet 4 - by Vonda N. McIntyreThe Starfarers Quartet, Book 4
by Vonda N. McIntyre

Chapter One

J.D. Sauvage, the alien contact specialist, waited all alone in the airlock of the Chi.

Outside the airlock, the pressure crept upward from zero.

J.D.’s heart pounded. Her metabolic enhancer quivered on the edge of activity. Through J.D.’s link to the Chi, the other members of the alien contact department sent their reassurance: Victoria, cool and intense; Satoshi, reserved; Stephen Thomas, excited and uneasy. Zev, the diver, J.D.’s lover, spoke a buoyant word in true speech through her link.

Europa and Androgeos observed in silence. The composure of the alien humans was tinged with amusement.

The air pressure outside the hatch nearly matched the pressure in the lock.

J.D. took a deep breath, calmed the metabolic enhancer, calmed her heartbeat.

This isn’t the time for a fight-or-flight response, she said to herself. After all, this isn’t the first time I’ve met an alien being. Nemo was the first.

Sadness touched her. Her friend Nemo, the squidmoth, had died, leaving her the starship Nautilus.

This encounter was completely different from her meetings with Nemo.

It is a first time, J.D. thought. Every new encounter will always be a first time.

She brushed her fingertips across her hair.

You’d need a lot more than a finger-comb to be glamorous, especially in free-fall, she said to herself in a wry tone. Isn’t it strange, all the time I’ve spent thinking about how to meet an alien being, I never thought about how I should look or how I should dress.

She was wearing regular canvas pants from Starfarer’s stores, a pair of soft-soled shoes, and a blue cotton shirt. Her fair skin was free of makeup, her blue-gray eyes their natural color. She had done nothing to her short straight brown hair but comb it — she had never found much of anything that she could do with it without going through a lot of fuss.

The pressure equalized.

The Chi opened its hatch.

A cool, earthy scent wafted into the airlock from the connecting corridor of the Four Worlds’ ship. J.D. breathed deep, parting her lips, letting the damp and vital air flow over her tongue. The alien tang excited her. The back of her neck prickled.

Shadows moved in the darkness; the tunnel rippled between the two spacecraft. Light gleamed in the distance. It rolled toward her like a slow storm, carrying a sound of gentle thunder.

J.D. pushed off into the passageway. The tunnel around her began to glow. A cylinder of light surrounded her and moved with her.

Several recording devices, little tiny machines from the Chi, followed her into the tunnel. She scooped up one of the little tiny machines and let it cling to her shirt. The LTM would transmit her experiences back to the Chi, and through the Chi to Starfarer. All her colleagues could watch and listen.

The central darkness shrank swiftly.

Accompanied by light, a mass of multi-colored, multi-limbed fur floated toward her.

J.D. touched the warm, wrinkled tunnel wall and frictioned herself to a stop. The tunnel’s light shone between her fingers, outlining her fair skin in pink.

The multi-colored mass separated and resolved into four individuals.

Each of the beings had fur of a different color. One was silky black, with black-on-black longitudinal stripes visible only at certain angles. One was appaloosa-spotted, orange on rust-red. Another was parti-colored, a riot of hot fluorescent pink, chartreuse, yellow. The fourth, the upside-down one, had longer, cotton-candy fur of a soft mauve, but its lower legs and the end of its tail and the beard of fur on its chin were all cream-colored.

They made her want to smile — they made her want to laugh with joy. But she kept her expression neutral. Collapsing in ecstasy would give a poor impression of her to the mainstream of Civilization.

The representatives’ voices filled the passageway with a low, trilling hum. J.D. wished circumstances had allowed her the time, the opportunity, to study their language.

The alien people arched their necks. Their small round ears lifted and swiveled toward her. Their faces were long and pointed, like an otter’s, angling sharply up to wide brows over large, limpid eyes.

Like humans, the representatives were bilaterally symmetrical. They had long, graceful, muscular bodies, powerful, sinuous necks, long-faced heads, long mobile tails.

Prehensile, J.D. thought, or almost.

The representatives were as large as lions, as lithe as otters.

Each being had six limbs. In zero g, the beings flowed along the tunnel, using all six hands and feet to guide and propel them. The mauve one even used its tail: a serpentine movement touched the tail-tip against one side of the corridor, then the other.

The beings came toward her, each at a different orientation, the mauve one — the one who used its tail — upside down, from J.D.’s point of view. They traveled as if they were enjoying themselves, not only because of the free fall, not only because of the excitement of meeting an alien, but because they were altogether delighted, and delightful.

Silver threads lay in graceful arcs along the lines of the alien people’s bodies. Small polished stones and beads, vials and shells, bells and rattles, braided and tied in patterns into the beings’ fur, swung and clicked and rang.

The illumination that moved with J.D. and the illumination that paced the alien people touched and melded. J.D. brushed her hand against the tunnel wall. She stopped.

The representatives’ similarities to earthly creatures struck her as far stranger than the differences. She would have to remind herself, continually, that these were alien people. She would have to be even more careful than with Nemo about the assumptions that she made.

“Hello,” J.D. said softly.

“Hello,” said the mauve being.

J.D. opened her hands and held them before her.

“I represent the starship Starfarer, from Earth, and all the people on board. My name is J.D. Sauvage.” Her voice was trembling.

The mauve being arched its neck gracefully forward. Fur rippled across its neck and shoulders and chest.

“I help represent the Four Worlds,” it said. “I am Quickercatcher. Welcome.”

“Thank you.”

Quickercatcher moved nearer. J.D. caught its scent, a fragrance of raspberry and citron. It reached toward her, open-handed, with its middle limbs.

J.D. suppressed surprise. Quickercatcher’s arms, rather than being the first set of limbs, were the second. Projecting from a second set of shoulder blades, halfway down the back, Quickercatcher’s arms reached past the front shoulders, dexterous and rather longer than the front legs and the hind legs.

J.D. placed her palms against Quickercatcher’s hands. Quickercatcher’s two opposable thumbs gently clasped her wrists. J.D. tried to replicate the gesture, first using a normal grasp, then, when that felt awkward, by using her thumb and her little finger as Quickercatcher used two thumbs.

“I feel your vitality,” Quickercatcher said.

“And I feel yours.” A vibrating rush surged against J.D.’s fingertips. “And… my hands are shaking. Human beings sometimes tremble when they’re excited and elated.”

Quickercatcher spoke, a low trill that dropped in pitch, and relaxed the grip on J.D.’s wrists.

J.D. drew her hands back. “What did you say?” she asked.

“I said…” Quickercatcher’s mauve fur caught the light, turning silver-gray and rose, as the being raised its chin then ducked its head, and repeated the trill. The silver strands glistened. “It is not a word, but a sound of understanding.”

J.D. tried to replicate it. To her ears, the noise she made sounded similar.

All four beings gazed at her with increased intensity, their small round ears aimed stiffly forward.

“I hope… I didn’t say something offensive,” J.D. said.

“You were understandable.” Quickercatcher’s purple eyes opened wide, then closed, the lids shutting in a wave from outside to inside. The lower lids and the upper lids each covered half the eye. Then Quickercatcher was looking at her again. “But you spoke with a very heavy accent.”

“Our brother will introduce us,” the black-on-black being said in a soft, low-pitched voice

Quickercatcher touched his chin to the back of the head of his black-furred companion and stroked down to the first shoulder blades.

“This is our sister Longestlooker,” Quickercatcher said.

Longestlooker was lithe, muscular, powerful. Her sinewy arms stretched forward. J.D. took her hands. Longestlooker’s grip was far stronger and tighter than Quickercatcher’s. Longestlooker extended sharp claws that dimpled J.D.’s skin. When Quickercatcher touched her, she had not even realized the beings possessed claws.

She gripped Longestlooker firmly but gently, neither retaliating against the strength nor trying to match it. She kept her expression calm. She gazed, straightforward, into Longestlooker’s silver eyes.

“Welcome,” Longestlooker said. She blinked slowly, from outside to inside corner, the same way Quickercatcher had.

“Thank you.”

“You have a starship of the other ones,” Longestlooker said.

“Yes. It was a gift.”

J.D. would have told them the story of Nemo, and Nautilus, if they had asked, but they did not. Better to say too little than too much, J.D. had decided long ago.

“This is our brother Fasterdigger,” Quickercatcher said, touching the Appaloosa-spotted being with the same chin-stroke as before.

Fasterdigger, the burliest of the four, unclasped his hands; they had been folded, fingers interlaced, on top of his back. J.D. steeled herself for the grip, but Fasterdigger’s touch was as gentle as a caress, as soft as his honey-gold eyes. J.D. noticed more about the beings’ hands: hairless palms, skin the color of the predominant fur, the fur narrowing to delicate tracings along the backs of the fingers.

“Welcome,” Fasterdigger said, giving the L a sharp, high trill.

“Thank you.”

“And this is our sister Sharphearer,” Quickercatcher said, stroking the back of the parti-colored being’s neck. Sharphearer quickly nuzzled Quickercatcher’s throat, and turned to J.D.

Sharphearer was delicate and sharp-boned beneath her raucous fur. She placed her frail hands in J.D.’s palms. She had blue eyes, not sapphire-blue like Stephen Thomas, nor gray-blue like J.D.’s, but a clear pure robin’s-egg blue, very calm and quiet.

“We will be friends,” Sharphearer said.

“I hope so,” J.D. said. “That’s my sincere wish.”

Sharphearer trilled and hummed. “I just said ‘hello and welcome,’” she said.

J.D. tried to mimic the sound. The quartet nudged each other and blinked their eyes.

J.D. laughed. “I’m grateful to you for learning one of our languages.”

“It would have been difficult for you to learn a language of ours,” Quickercatcher said, “since you didn’t know we existed.”

J.D. smiled. “That’s true. During the plans for the deep space expedition, one of the biggest questions was how to communicate, if — when — we met other people.”

Quickercatcher made a graceful movement of his head and neck, a shrug and ripple, a figure-eight tracing of his chin.

“Yes, that’s often hard,” he said. “Sometimes we have to build machines to translate.”

“I would have difficulties with a person who spoke by taste,” Sharphearer said.

“So would I.” J.D. provisionally assigned the figure-eight gesture as one of agreement. She wondered if she could do it herself; she could approximate it, but she would need six or eight more vertebrae to replicate it without a heavy accent.

The quartet all spoke excellent English, as Europa did, idiomatically, with a slight, stiff old-fashionedness. Though English had not even existed when Civilization rescued Europa and Androgeos from the destruction of Crete, the Minoans had observed Earth, from a distance, for a very long time. But they had retreated to Civilization during the past fifty years, when Earth’s technology might detect them.

“What should I call you?” J.D. asked.

“You may use our names,” Quickercatcher said.

“Some people in Civilization use honorifics,” Longestlooker added, hard on the heels of Quickercatcher’s words.

“But we don’t bother,” Sharphearer said.

“I mean — a collective name. What do you call your species? For instance, I’m a human being. All the people on board Starfarer are human beings.” More or less, she thought, but did not try to complicate things by explaining further.

“We call ourselves…” Quickercatcher spoke a humming moan.

The sound made J.D. shiver. She tried to repeat it.

Quickercatcher and the others reacted with the slow close of eyes from outer to inner edge.

Amusement, J.D. thought.

“Not too good, huh?”

“Not too bad.”

“I appreciate your graciousness,” J.D. said. “Does the word for your people translate into English? Or should I think of you as ‘Citizens of the Four Worlds’?”

“It means… ‘people,’” Quickercatcher said.

“You will find, in Civilization,” Longestlooker said, “that the word most people use to name themselves is… ‘people.’”

“Which of you is from which world?” J.D. asked.

“We aren’t from all the Four Worlds,” Quickercatcher said. “Only from one.”

“Oh,” J.D. said, taken aback. “When you said you were the representatives, I thought you meant one from each world.”

They suddenly grabbed each other and clung together, rolling over and around in a riot of color, chattering in quick singing tones. J.D. watched them, bemused, but also wishing she were in the midst of the pack. When finally they separated, they all spoke in quick succession.

“We’re all from one —”

“— from one world —”

“— the Largerfarther —”

“How’s she to understand ‘largerfarther’?”

“— The larger of the outer pair of living worlds —”

“We’re from one world, one family —”

“— one world, one family, we’re —”

“— family, we’re identical.”

“Identical!” J.D. exclaimed.

They settled down as abruptly as they had burst into activity.

“Yes, identical,” Quickercatcher said.

“You don’t look identical!” J.D. said.

“No, of course not, not now. You wouldn’t want to go through life exactly the way you started out, would you? But when we were born, we were identical.”

“You’re a clone?”

“I suppose you could say that,” Fasterdigger said. “We’re identical quadruplets.”

“Oh, I see.” J.D. thought, Their genetics are different from ours, starting with sex determination.

“What about you?”

“I’m a singleton,” J.D. said. “Most humans are.” The quartet did not follow up with more questions, and J.D. thought, Of course not, why should they? They’ve had four thousand years to observe human beings.

But even the quartet might be surprised by J.D.’s parentage. Most people found the complexity confusing. It had not been confusing to J.D.

“Are multiple births unusual or common to your people?”

“Most Largerfarthings are twins.”

“Many triplets.”

“A few quadruplets, like us.”

“And you’re sisters and brothers. You have two genders, like humans, or more?”

“Two.”

“And you start out the same, but differentiate later — or choose which to be?”

“Choose, and change, too,” Quickercatcher said.

“Changing back and forth is hard,” Fasterdigger said.

Before J.D. could ask more about the Largerfarthings’ gender choices, a gentle motion on the tunnel wall caught her attention. She glanced — not up; in free fall it did not feel like “up” — toward it.

The quartet followed her gaze, their limber necks curving and bending, their ears springing alert.

A being like a giant, double-wide caterpillar crept toward them, flattening itself close to the tunnel surface. Green and gold and brown mottled its undercoat, giving it the look of sun-dappled leaves. Coarse brindled hair, or slender quills, formed a guard coat. As the being moved, clusters of long sharp emerald spines angled up through the fur, then disappeared beneath it.

“It’s Late!” Quickercatcher exclaimed.

“Late?” J.D. said. “Should we be somewhere — ?”

Quickercatcher touched his tail to the tunnel wall and pushed off toward the creature, pressing between Sharphearer and Fasterdigger, who turned and followed.

J.D. pushed off too, following them toward the new being. She longed to touch it, to brush her fingertips across the dappled hair or the tips of the dangerous spines, even at the risk of injury or poisoning. She held back; Europa had cautioned her not to touch anyone without permission or invitation.

Whether this was a person or a creature, a pet or a worker or a construct like the silver slugs back on Starfarer, or an entity for which she had no equivalent, she had no idea. She intended to take no chances.

The creature’s body was almost as long as J.D. was tall, wider than her armspan, and the span of her hand deep. Its feet remained concealed beneath the fringe of hair, but it left a faint glistening trail behind it, so J.D. guessed it used suction and moisture to hold fast.

Quickercatcher and Longestlooker hovered over it, pressing close but adroitly avoiding its spines.

“You’re late, Late!” Quickercatcher exclaimed.

“As usual,” said Longestlooker.

The creature’s leading edge lifted from the tunnel surface, arching upward, making small sharp snapping sounds. Its underside was covered with glistening black suckers. The spines bristled out, narrowly missing Quickercatcher, who undulated to stay out of their way.

A warm spot appeared at the back of J.D.’s mind. She opened her link.

“I serve as I’m able,” a new voice said inside her mind, traveling through her link. “You might have waited.”

An opening appeared, a vertical slit beneath the fur and running between the first few rows of feet. Within it lay rows of small sharp emerald teeth, arrayed on a band of flesh. The band flexed; the being flattened itself to the tunnel again, hiding its underside, its feet, its teeth.

“Is this any way to behave toward our client?” Quickercatcher’s voice echoed in J.D.’s ears and through her link as well.

“If we’d waited for you,” Fasterdigger said, “J.D. would have had to travel the whole passageway by herself.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” J.D. said, speaking aloud and sending the same message out over her link. She did not know if the new being could hear her, so she replied in the same medium as it had spoken.

“It would have been rude,” Quickercatcher said.

Sharphearer nosed Quickercatcher roughly. “As you are being to our colleague. Leave Late alone.”

“Would you introduce me?” J.D. asked. “And why do you call me your client?”

“This is Late, from the Smallerfarther,” Longestlooker said. “A Representative’s representative. Late, this is J.D. Sauvage from Earth.”

J.D. smiled. The quartet had made several jokes that she was in danger of not recognizing, of taking too seriously. “Late” was the quartet’s name for the dappled being. Late: the English word, the English meaning, not an alien homonym. They teased him about his tardiness; they teased him by calling him a representative’s representative. She hoped he had a good sense of humor.

“How do you do,” she said, again speaking through her link.

“I am as well as possible, after so much activity,” Late said. “Kind of you to ask. And you?”

“Exhilarated,” J.D. said. “The Smallerfarther — that’s the twin of the Largerfarther? You’re all from the outer companion worlds?”

Quickercatcher’s head traced a figure eight. “Exactly. Largerfarther is ours, Smallerfarther is Late’s.”

“Largernearer and Smallernearer are the inner twin worlds,” Sharphearer said.

“Their people never leave them,” Longestlooker said. “But they send greetings, and invite you to visit.”

“What are they like, the people from the worlds nearer your sun? Why don’t they ever leave? How did they join Civilization without star travel?”

“They have it,” Longestlooker said, “in a manner of speaking.”

“All living worlds are unique,” Quickercatcher said. “The nearer worlds… are more unusual than most.”

“You’ll see,” Longestlooker said. “There’s time. Come with us into the ship.”

“We just got here,” Late’s voice said inside J.D.’s mind.

You just got here,” Longestlooker replied.

“We came all the way out here just to turn around and go back? I need to rest. Let’s stay here and talk for a while.”

“What you need is a promotion,” Longestlooker said.

“Don’t tease,” Sharphearer said. “Come along, Late, I’ll help you.”

“Be careful!” Longestlooker said, sharply, aloud.

“I’ll not hurt you.” The tall thin emerald spines folded close along his back. He let himself loose with quick snapping pops of his sucker-feet.

“Are Late’s spines poisonous?” J.D. asked, glad she had restrained herself from touching the Smallerfarther inhabitant.

“Not to you,” Quickercatcher said.

Sharphearer edged close to the tunnel wall. Late undulated sideways and curled the front edge of his body over Sharphearer’s second shoulders. His body floated above her back like a thick, heavy cape.

“Late’s poison is like any chemical from a separate evolution,” Quickercatcher said. “You’re either immune to it, or it kills you.”

“Unless you’re allergic,” Fasterdigger said. “Another question entirely. Unusual but possible.”

“The spines are poisonous to us,” Longestlooker said.

Never mind the poison spines; J.D. wondered if she would have the nerve to let Late come quite that close to her skin with those wicked teeth.

J.D. glided through the tunnel, now and then pushing off, traveling in a series of long zigzags from one side to the other, now and then turning like a diver to see behind her.

The quartet followed, three grouped together, moving around and between each other in a dancing pattern. Heedless of the sharp spines and the poison, Sharphearer floated near them with Late flowing along afterward, covering all of Sharphearer’s long lithe body except the chartreuse tip of her tail.

The band of illumination traveled with them, following them to the Four Worlds ship.

o0o

In the center of the Chi’s observers’ circle, the holographic image of J.D.’s LTM transmission displayed her progress toward the Four Worlds’ spaceship.

Outside the transparent walls of the observers’ circle, the huge Four Worlds’ spaceship loomed close. The great alien spaceship filled Victoria Fraser MacKenzie’s view with a bright confusion of detail. The connecting tunnel stretched between the spaceship’s flank and the Chi’s hatch. Victoria had watched it grow, seeking its bearings by feel like the trunk of an elephant, until it reached the Chi.

Useful technology, Victoria thought. A sensible way to join different types of spacecraft. Europa’s boat fitted itself to Starfarer like this, and even Nemo’s web grew a tunnel. We’ll have to work on building something similar.

Glimmers of light reflected into the observer’s circle, flickering like sunshine through water.

The asymmetrical Four Worlds ship dwarfed Starfarer’s explorer craft. The Chi was designed for short trips, for landing on new planets, while the alien ship would never touch any world. It bristled with a concatenation of organic and mechanical elements.

“It looks like it’s been repaired and refitted and retrofitted,” Victoria said. “It looks old.”

“It is,” Europa said. “It isn’t as old as my starship, of course.”

Europa’s starship, like J.D.’s Nautilus, was a remnant of the unknown, extinct alien species known only as the other ones. Interstellar civilization could build starships. Ordinary starship, like Starfarer. But no one in Civilization could reproduce the starships of the other ones. No one knew how to build a starship around a singularity, a quantum black hole. The squidmoths had taken over the starships of the other ones long before Civilization existed. Civilization salvaged the rare ship abandoned by the squidmoths, and constantly sought the origin of the other ones.

Right now, Nautilus formed the gravitational center of a small and complicated constellation of spacecraft. Starfarer orbited Nautilus; the Chi had travelled from Starfarer to the approaching Four Worlds ship. Europa’s terraformed starship, a living planetoid with islands and oceans, paced Nautilus and Starfarer. Europa had left it at a distance so its mass would not perturb Starfarer’s orbit too severely.

“The Four Worlds ship is several generations old,” Europa said. “No need to build a new ship for an advance in design or an improved function.”

“Some worlds change their ships with the fashion — but that requires great wealth,” Androgeos said.

The rounded surfaces of the Four World’s ship bristled with transceivers, antennas, sensors. Unlike the Chi, it had no windows and no ports.

“I wish you’d gone with J.D.,” Victoria said to Europa. “To introduce her.”

“That would be bad manners,” Europa said. “It would be insulting to my friends.”

“What if something goes wrong?” Satoshi said.

“Four Worlds people are sophisticated. J.D. cannot offend them.”

Europa’s voice was aristocratic, her tone cool. The elegant Minoan had no reason to be nervous; she had been living among alien people for nearly four thousand years.

“Your job is to help us,” Victoria said. “Or so you told us.”

“I am helping you,” Europa replied. “I know how things are done, and the job of alien contact specialist belongs to J.D.”

“She isn’t going to act like a bumpkin!” Zev said, springing to his friend’s defense.

“Good,” Europa replied drily.

“She was the first ordinary human to live with my family,” Zev said. “She was wonderful. Even my cousins like her, and they’re hard to please.”

The cousins of divers were orcas. Killer whales.

“She’d be safer in a spacesuit,” Stephen Thomas Gregory said.

“Then she would look a bumpkin,” Europa said. “She would insult the representatives, and embarrass me. Humans and the Four Worlds cannot exchange pathogens —”

“We know that,” Victoria said mildly.

“— and the representatives would think you feared they might wage deliberate biological warfare.”

“We might fear that they’d brought us another bacterial gift,” Stephen Thomas said with asperity. “The way you did.”

Europa remained composed as she replied to the geneticist’s accusation.

“You must get over being angry at me for — what was the word you used? Supercharging, I do like that — for supercharging Starfarer’s bacteria. After all, you aren’t mad at Zev for turning you into a diver.”

“That was an accident,” Zev said.

“I know it, Zev, young ichthyocentaur,” Europa said.

“Just understand,” Satoshi Lono said. “It’s hard for us to trust you now.”

“I did what I did deliberately —” Europa said.

“Without asking us,” Stephen Thomas said. “Without telling us.”

“— so you’re angry. You shouldn’t be. You’re too clever. You shouldn’t have figured out what I did so quickly.”

“J.D.’s almost at the end of the tunnel,” Zev said, his attention on the LTM transmission.

“Everything would have been all right,” Androgeos said impatiently, “if you’d all gone back to Earth without knowing about the changed bacteria.”

If we get back to Earth,” Satoshi said, “they probably won’t let us land!”

“They must,” Europa said. “You cannot join Civilization without the protection I gave you. If I hadn’t immunized your ecosystem, the Four Worlds wouldn’t be meeting you now. They wouldn’t take the risk of their free-living bacteria taking up residence in Starfarer’s —”

“She’s there!” Zev said.

o0o

As the tunnel’s end approached, J.D. quickly touched the Chi’s computer through her link.

Victoria waited, her link wide open.

“Are the LTMs coming through okay?” J.D. asked.

“Sound and pictures, all there.”

“Great. Thanks, Victoria.” Like most people, Victoria did not often use her link for direct communication. J.D. was getting used to the sensation of having voices in her mind, but she understood why other people preferred to avoid the experience.

I think I’d better learn to like it, she said to herself.

Zev sent a wordless message of support and love. J.D. reciprocated. Smiling, she thought, I do like that.

While her link was wide open, the alien knowledge surface of Nautilus beckoned her toward the starship’s heart. It tempted her, as it always did. But she could not give it time or attention now. She touched it just long enough to be sure it was as she left it, to be sure Esther Klein and Nikolai Cherenkov were safe there.

Kolya replied through Arachne, Starfarer’s control computer, but Esther opened her own link and spoke directly to J.D.

“We’re fine,” she said. “Let us housesit, don’t worry.”

J.D. could feel the smile behind the young pilot’s words.

“Thanks,” she said. She let the connection fade. It had existed for all of three or four seconds.

The passageway opened out into the Four Worlds’ ship, into soft light and bright color. J.D. took up her momentum against the wall by using her arms and legs as springs. She hovered in a floating stop, uncertain.

The quartet gathered behind her. Late slipped free of Sharphearer’s back and glided along with them, undulating slowly, looking in profile like a giant furry inchworm.

J.D. entered a wide, circular chamber. Four Worlds people filled it, waiting for her, dozens of them, an anarchy of colors, their speech a shower of trills and hums. The quartet pushed forward around J.D. The room was full of Largerfarthings like the quartet; Smallerfarthings, people like Late, carpeted its inner surface. Small bright creatures flitted through the chambers, like sparrows. Each had two sets of wings, one set of central feet.

Among the Largerfarthings, a larger, darker shape moved and flowed.

Like the exterior of the ship, the interior was a mix of organic and mechanical elements, the surface soft and rumpled, light shining from round, precise fixtures. Where Smallerfarthings did not cover the wall, the surface held clusters and patterns of small objects tucked into its folds.

The room smelled of damp earth, and electricity, and perfume. The tantalizing sweet sharp fragrance of the quartet concentrated in the meeting room.

Bright-furred Largerfarthings floated in small groups. Now and then groups exchanged members, or an individual switched from one group to another. They watched J.D. with their great shining eyes, their hands folded atop their backs or their arms stretched forward and crossed just above the forelimbs. Some held hands with each other; some stroked each other with their chins and throats. They gave the impression of serenity and joy, amusement and anticipation.

Longestlooker trilled to the waiting group.

“This is J.D. Sauvage, from Earth,” Quickercatcher said in English.

Quickercatcher’s people responded with a quavering murmur, a few attempts at English that were at least as far from the mark as J.D.’s attempts at their language, and several exclamations of “Welcome!” The people from Smallerfarther raised their front edges from the inner surface of the room, each exposing a glistening radula of rows of sharp teeth. Late crept along the wall and joined the soft patchwork of the other Smallerfarthings. When J.D. glanced back a moment later she could not tell which of the beings was their representative. The Smallerfarthings’ dappled patterns all differed, but much more subtly than the fur of Quickercatcher’s kind. Silver threads glimmered among the dapples and the spines.

A fashion? J.D. wondered.

“We all welcome you,” Quickercatcher said.

“Thank you,” J.D. said. Her voice shook slightly with excitement and eager apprehension. She drew a deep breath and steadied herself. “I’m glad to meet you all. I’m glad to meet Earth’s neighbors.”

A massive Largerfarthing floated forward. If the Largerfarthings had been horses, this one would be a Percheron — a Percheron with long bright yellow fur.

“This is Carefulspeaker,” Quickercatcher said. “We all chose him to represent our community, and he accepted.”

Carefulspeaker balanced a stoppered amphora between his hands. He kept up a deliberate motion by swimming with his front and rear limbs, and stopped by back-paddling.

“The inhabitants of Largerfarther and Smallerfarther offer you a gift.” Carefulspeaker gazed steadily at her. His eyes were brilliant gold, like molten precious metal. He drew his hands away from the gift.

The amphora drifted between them. Graceful, delicate handles arched out from its shoulders, like fan-shaped wings.

J.D. hesitated. You may accept one gift, Europa had said. I do not know what it will be, but my friends will not harm you. You may show good manners by sharing the gift with them.

Europa and Androgeos had objectives that did not entirely coincide with the goals of the deep space expedition. But Europa had every reason to hope J.D. would make a good impression with the Four Worlds.

J.D. put her hands around the amphora, accepting the gift. The cool, damp earthenware fit her hands strangely. It was wide in one dimension and narrow in the other. It curved abruptly in at the bottom to form a cutback ridge. J.D. imagined herself with two central fingers and a thumb on each side of her palm. The top thumb and the fingers would pinch rather than grab; the lower thumb would support. She slid her little finger around the bulge and pressed it against the ridge. It still felt strange, but steadier.

The Largerfarther inhabitants watched her expectantly.

J.D. moved the jar. Liquid shifted inside it, not splashing as it would in a gravity field, but rolling from side to side. She held the jar still with her left hand and removed the stopper with her right. Like the amphora, the stopper and the opening were wider in one direction than the other. The opening came to an edge rather than a lip. Inside, the liquid continued to move.

A transparent, colorless globule protruded from the neck of the amphora, then burst free and hung quivering in the air. J.D. stoppered the bottle. Beside her, Quickercatcher made the figure-eight head motion of agreement and approval.

The liquid globule might be perfume. It might be an alien artform. For all J.D. knew for certain, it might be rocket fuel.

J.D. bent toward the globule. It had no smell, no color.

She touched it with her lips, kissed it, drank it.

Cool, pure water flowed into her mouth. She swallowed it.

A few drops floated free. One of the four-winged creatures flitted past, scooping water into its mouth.

Carefulspeaker motioned his approval, and so did the rest of the Largerfarthings. The Smallerfarthings did not perceptibly change the way they moved. If they had expressions, J.D. could not yet distinguish them.

J.D.’s link made her aware of the apprehension of her colleagues back on board the Chi, but they were less frightened than when Nemo offered her decorative food.

They must be getting used to my taking risks, she thought. Getting used to seeing me do my job.

With Nemo, she had known the offering was food. Here, she had been guessing. Thanks to Nemo, it was an educated guess.

“Thank you,” she said to the representatives. “Will you share the gift with me?”

“Yes,” Quickercatcher said. “Welcome to the Four Worlds.”

She opened the amphora and drew it toward her. The water flowed out of the amphora’s mouth, kept behind by its inertia. A swirling stream of water broke into vibrating, rotating bubbles.

Several of the Smallerfarthings loosed their hold on the wall and undulated into the group, swimming like rectangular manta rays. J.D. thought the one who came nearest to her was Late. To drink, he approached a globule, curled back the front edge of his body, revealed open mouth, radula, and sharp teeth, then reversed the curve and bent around the water.

A few droplets splashed free when his sharp teeth burst the bubble into his mouth. Another of the bat-birds swooped by for its share.

In a moment, the water was gone and the representatives clustered around J.D. Again, she glimpsed the unfamiliar, elusive shape. It appeared and disappeared between the other people. J.D. could not get a clear idea what it looked like.

It can’t be a representative of the Nearer worlds, J.D. thought, because Quickercatcher said no one from the Nearers ever left the surface. Is it another sentient being? Does one of the Four World have several sentient species? Is this another form of the kind of people I’ve already met?

Or maybe it’s a pet, J.D. thought, and smiled to herself.

“I brought you a guest gift, too,” she said. “It’s a copy of a performance by a talented artist. It’s called ‘Discovering the Fossils.”

The LTM on J.D.’s shoulder projected a hologram in response to her request. It appeared and expanded. The Four Worlds people moved aside to make a space for it.

In the image, a river ran through a canyon on the inner surface of Starfarer’s, on the living surface. Crimson Ng, the sculptor and performance artist, walked along the river’s edge. She strode along the beach, her gaze intent on the canyon wall.

An anomalous line of stone appeared, pale against the dark volcanic gray. It thickened, widening to one handsbreadth, two. The paleness took on a definite color, a rosy, sandy pink.

Crimson looked across the river. The rosy streak cut across the far side of the black volcanic riverbank. The river’s creation had carved away volcanic moon rock, and part of the unexpected sedimentary layer within it.

Crimson touched the pale streak of rock on her side of the river. Her fingers with their dirty broken nails were as gentle as a caress. An analysis appeared at the edge of the hologram. Ancient moonrock, a lava flow a billion years old, lay below the strange pink layer. Another lava flow lay above it, the second flow older than the first. More confusion of the provenance: the rock lay upside-down compared to its orientation on the moon.

The two ancient flows sandwiched the anomalous, impossible layer of sandstone.

More information appeared at the edge of the display: Tests, analyses, sonar tracings, potassium-argon dating of the volcanic flows: all evidence that the anomalous layer could not have originated naturally on the moon.

Crimson slid her rock hammer out of the loop on the leg of her pants. She stuck its claw into a crack and pried gently. A chunk of stone fell away into her hand.

A dark sharp shape thrust from it, the shape of a tooth, a fang.

The hologram faded.

“Very moving,” Carefulspeaker said, “to observe discovery.”

“Crimson is a talented performer,” J.D. replied. “A talented artist.”

A buzz of amusement — J.D. chose to perceive the reaction as amusement, and hoped she was right — passed through the crowd.

“Thank you,” Longestlooker said. “Will it be possible to view the site in person?”

“I’m sure Crimson would be pleased to have a live audience,” J.D. said.

One of the Smallerfarthings — Late, J.D. wondered? — magic-carpeted its way to Quickercatcher. J.D. caught part of the transmission with her link, but it was not in English.

“I will finish the introductions here,” Quickercatcher said to Late, “and then we’ll take J.D. to meet Smallerfarther’s Representative.”

“But isn’t Late —” J.D. had misunderstood. She had taken the quartet’s description of Late, “a representative’s representative,” as teasing. But they meant it literally.

Relieved that she had not made a visible misstep, she concentrated on the introductions. She had trouble keeping everyone straight. Yet she began to detect differences in the Smallerfarthings’ brindled pelts. She tried to remember everyone’s name, but as backup she kept the information at the other end of her link. If she needed a reminder she could get it quickly, without going into a noticeable fugue.

“This is Swiftseer,” Quickercatcher said, introducing J.D. to a Largerfarthing with a silky grey coat. “She’s been interested in human beings for a long time.”

J.D. clasped hands with Swiftseer. A fringe of beads, threaded into the Largerfarthing’s long grey wrist fur, brushed softly against J.D.’s fingers.

In the background, the mysterious shape darted forward. It accelerated faster than one could easily swim in air. It must have pushed off from something… except that it was in the middle of the circular room.

“I’m very happy to meet you — oh!”

The shape pressed through Swiftseer’s gray-dappled shoulder. Halfway out, it stopped. Swiftseer cocked her head but took no offense at being swum through.

An image! J.D. thought. Just like something Arachne would project.

“And here is the representative of Largernearer,” Quickercatcher said, indicating the image.

“How do you do?” J.D. said. The image had startled her badly, and the sight of it sticking halfway out of another person’s body made her uncomfortable, but no one else reacted to this odd sight.

I guess it isn’t rude to overlap image and reality, here, the way it is back on Starfarer, J.D. thought. On the other hand, the images Arachne projects usually stay in one place. They’re easier to avoid.

The being flipped its heavy, sinuous body, came free, and brought itself to the level of J.D.’s nose. It was dark and sleek and striped with four fins that stretched the length of its body. Eyes surrounded its central toothed mouth in an irregular circle.

The image swelled.

Its head expanded. Its body moved back and away. The air thickened, darkened; most of the being’s body disappeared into murky depths. J.D. started and caught her breath. The effect was of falling at a terrifying speed till a small, distant shape became a close, enormous one.

The perception of motion stopped; the being stopped expanding.

J.D. found herself floating among insubstantial shadows, drifting in the dimness of deep turbid water. Largernearer’s representative loomed before her; the illusion concealed the meeting room and all the other people in it.

J.D. could not accurately estimate the representative’s size, but it was larger than the one blue whale she had ever met. Its iridescent blue-black body stretched back, turning to shadow the color of the water.

Unlike a blue whale, a peaceful baleen filter-feeder of plankton and krill, this being possessed a circle of huge shiny black teeth. The being floated before J.D., very still, its mouth expanding, contracting. The teeth unfolded from their closed position, opening like jackknives, like snake fangs, to line the mouth. Each tooth was a sharp spike half J.D.’s height.

The irregular scattering of eyes focused on J.D.

J.D. shivered. The illusion of being underwater was so real that she could imagine herself swimming, buoyed against gravity yet aware of “up” and “down.” Far overhead, the surface of the sea rippled and sparkled in the light of 61 Cygni.

Pull yourself together! J.D. said to herself. It’s an image. It might be any size, in reality, the size of a dolphin rather than a blue whale… or an island. Maybe it’s just trying to impress me — or scare me — rather than showing me its true size.

J.D. spoke, greeting the representative in true speech, the language she had learned from Zev and his family of orcas and divers.

The illusion of being underwater shattered: sound in air felt altogether different from sound in water. Whatever the visual image, J.D. was still surrounded by air.

The huge whale-eel lay before her, still as a coiled spring, eyes wide, its mouth partly open. It sucked in water, tasting the scents around it. Silt and tiny swimming creatures and large many-eyed fishes moved with the water, into the whale-eel’s mouth. The teeth sliced the fishes into pieces. With the next inhalation of water, the fishes disappeared, leaving only shreds of flesh.

The whale-eel responded to J.D.’s true speech greeting. Its voice surrounded her, reaching through her to her bones.

“Quickercatcher!” J.D. said.

Quickercatcher moved closer, at first ghostly in the image of murky water, then clearer. He hovered at J.D.’s side.

“Tell me what I’m hearing, please,” J.D. said.

Quickercatcher repeated part of the trill that had surrounded her.

“That’s a name-sound,” Quickercatcher said. “It means… music with many sources. ‘Orchestra.’ She welcomes you.”

“Is this her real size?”

“No. She’s much bigger.”

“No wonder Orchestra’s people never leave their world. It would need some spaceship, to take them. Please tell her I’m… impressed to meet her.”

Another song surrounded J.D. She glanced at Quickercatcher, questioning.

“Orchestra asks if she may communicate with you directly.”

“Of course.”

“Welcome, Sauvage Earth,” Orchestra said through J.D.’s link.

I guess that’s better than Earth Sauvage, J.D. thought.

“Thank you, Orchestra Largernearer,” she said.

“We could build a starship, if we wished,” Orchestra said. “We joined Civilization by proving it.”

“By building it?”

“By proving we could if we chose.” Orchestra emitted a high, skirling hum. A narrow column of water spun into existence before J.D. The column dragged a swarm of many-eyed guppies into its bottom end, twirled them around, and ejected them from its top. The hum faded; the water-devil dissipated.

“We have the capacity to manipulate matter,” Orchestra said. “And we have auxiliary animals.”

“And the hands of friends.” Quickercatcher stretched his hands out and flexed his fingers, his double opposable thumbs. “We came to know Orchestra’s people by the messages they wrote across the surface of their world. Now, they grow antennas and radiotelescopes on their seas. Their astronomy was always far in advance of ours.”

Several of Orchestra’s huge slate-gray eyes turned completely black for an instant. The gray eyes, with their long horizontal pupil, returned. A blink? J.D. wondered. Orchestra had no eyelids. Her eyes had rolled backwards, vanishing into the eye socket, then forward into view again.

“We joined Civilization by helping each other,” Orchestra said. “By sharing our knowledge and our abilities. Civilization accepted us all by accepting one of us. Even though my people prefer to remain in the sea.”

J.D. wished she were really swimming with Orchestra, in Largernearer’s sea.

She thought: Wait a second! Wait several seconds! Orchestra can’t be talking to me in real time. If she were, there’d be a perceptible delay in her replies.

“Are you an AI?” J.D. asked the image. “An artificial intelligence?”

“Yes, of course,” Orchestra said. “I represent the real person, Orchestra, on Largernearer. She reviews our conversation as it reaches her. She will make corrections to my statements, if she sees fit.”

Several of Orchestra’s eyes — different eyes than before — rolled back, then reappeared.

“She does not often correct me,” Orchestra said, in a voice J.D. perceived as being tinged with pride.

“You represent her admirably,” J.D. said.

“Thank you.”

Orchestra’s image shrank suddenly. The underwater illusion vanished. J.D. sank back in the air, startled by the abrupt change. Orchestra’s smaller self swam forward till she was nose to nose with J.D. All the Largerfarthings in the meeting room drifted in an open sphere around them, making soft trilling sounds and motions of amusement and agreement; the Smallerfarthings, on the other hand, clung to the walls and moved with unusual agitation, curling their leading edges outward.

“We’ve been waiting for Earth’s people for a long time,” Orchestra said. “You’ve had a difficult journey. We thank you for persevering, and we welcome you.”

A dappled Smallerfarthing gradually detached itself from the wall, undulated slowly toward J.D. and Orchestra and Quickercatcher, and came to a stop at J.D.’s elbow.

“Quickercatcher,” Late said, “the Representative is waking up. We should… hurry.”

The last word came into J.D.’s mind as a frightened whisper.

_______________

Cover art courtesy R.Brandt

Copyright © 1994 Vonda N. McIntyre


Nautilus - Starfarers Quartet 4 - by Vonda N. McIntyreThe Starfarers Quartet, Book 4
by Vonda N. McIntyre
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-094-1

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