J.D. Sauvage, the alien contact specialist, drifted in zero g and waited for a message from an unknown civilization.
She floated alone in the observer’s circle. The circle’s transparent chamber, projecting from one edge of the explorer spacecraft Chi, offered a two-hundred-seventy degree view of the Milky Way, of the star Tau Ceti’s second planet, and of Tau Ceti II’s satellite. When J.D. oriented herself with Chi at her back, she could imagine herself to be completely surrounded by silent space. The galaxy extended from one edge of her peripheral vision to the other, a great dense spangled disk of light stretching before her, extending behind her.
She had too much to look at. She wanted to laugh and shout with excitement. She was an alien contact specialist: she had spent her life studying for a job that, until today, did not exist. Until today, she had no way of being sure her job ever would exist.
A computer-generated image formed in the center of the observer’s circle, drawing her attention from the sights outside. She watched, rapt, as a new shiver of shadow and light intensified the image and added to its density.
The alien message hovered, forming slowly between J.D. and the stars. Each bit of information strengthened the image as a whole. Tense with anticipation, J.D. urged it on, as if the force of her will could speed the transmission. As yet, she could not be sure of a pattern within it; she could extract no information.
Chi plunged toward the source of the message. J.D. felt tempted to accelerate, to expend fuel recklessly, to reach the destination a few minutes or a few hours sooner. She restrained the urge. It was unnecessary, unwise.
The on-board computer processed another block of data and added it to the message from alien beings. The image grew denser, but no more detailed.
J.D. kept thinking she could detect a pattern, but the pattern she thought she saw kept changing. Her mind was trying to impose organization on the iridescent gray blur.
Be patient, she told herself. It will have structure, like the first frame. Maybe the meaning of the second frame will be clearer.
She touched the on-board computer via her link, asking it to place the first frame of the alien communication side by side with the second.
A complex symbol formed before her. The first section of the alien message was as complicated as the second, so far, was simple. The maze looked like a curtain, a tapestry, intricately beautiful, beautifully complex. Paths led across its surface, disappeared within and beneath each other, widened and split like the streams of a river delta, narrowed and disappeared. Chi’s computer had traced a single unobstructed path leading from the design’s edge to its center. The path lay in gold light, a meander of fractal complexity. It touched every part of the surface. Yet it never crossed itself. It twisted and turned and backtracked, but never knotted or tangled.
Chi’s computer, and all four members of the alien contact department, and all the several hundred people back on board the starship Starfarer, had tried and failed to make sense of the pattern. Perhaps its esoteric form required more computer power that Starfarer’s crippled systems could offer right now, or more ingenuity than the members of the deep space expedition had been able to apply. Perhaps it was so alien that human minds and human machines could not comprehend it. Or perhaps, as J.D. preferred to believe, it possessed no inherent meaning except what its observer brought to it. J.D. believed it was art, an esthetic expression so important to the alien beings that they used it as an introduction.
J.D. wished that Arachne, Starfarer’s fundamental bioelectronic computer, would complete its healing. She wondered what Arachne would make of the alien message. Besides, she missed Arachne’s information web as much as she would have missed her hands or her eyes.
On Starfarer and on Chi, many machines were artificial intelligences, and most possessed at least the level of competence referred to as artificial stupidity. J.D. had access to the physical and analytical services of a myriad of auxiliary computers, ASes and AIs alike. Nevertheless, she preferred her connection to Arachne. Without it, she felt detached and lonely. She was impatient for the computer web to finish reconstructing itself. The backups were flavorless, boring, and nearly as involved with Arachne’s restoration as Arachne itself.
The second frame of the alien message shivered again, intensifying by another shade. Still J.D. could detect no structure.
She left the second image in the center of the observers’ circle, but pushed the labyrinth behind her. When it was in sight it distracted her, constantly pulling at her vision. Now she could look at it, if she liked, by glancing over her shoulder. The translucent pattern hovered, obscuring the entryway between the observer’s circle and Chi’s main body.
J.D. let her attention expand beyond the observers’ circle, into the alien star system. The most striking feature within her view was the system’s second planet. The Earthlike world revolved around Tau Ceti, the G8-type star that lay out of J.D.’s sight, obscured by the flank of Chi. Around the planet revolved a large satellite, airless and dead as Earth’s moon.
But Tau Ceti II was alive, clearly and lushly alive. Weather and seas and continents patterned its surface. Already the alien contact team, and their colleagues on the starship, had mapped forests and plains, deserts and tundra and icecaps, river systems and ocean currents, great herds of beasts.
The third planet of Tau Ceti also possessed life, and an environment habitable by human beings. But Tau Ceti III was on the far side of its star, in relation to Tau Ceti II, so far away that from Chi’s vantage point it was no more than a tiny disk of light.
J.D. considered the implications of finding, in the first star system human beings had ever visited, two worlds possessing life. Her excitement rose toward exultation. Life was not unique to Earth. It was not even rare.
She suspected it was ubiquitous.
Strangely enough — for someone had arranged to broadcast the alien message — neither living planet showed any obvious marks of civilization.
The alien message, still increasing in density, yet still incomprehensible, emanated from a structure on Tau Ceti II’s large satellite.
Directly ahead, the satellite expanded perceptibly as Chi sped toward it.
Like its planet, it was three-quarters full. It was bigger than Earth’s moon, younger, rougher, wilder. It spun on its axis, rather than rotating with one face locked toward its world. It was too small to retain any atmosphere. It had craters and plains, maria, like Earth’s moon, but it also had active volcanoes and great canyons where faults had cracked and opened. At the top of the satellite’s dark limb, a pinpoint of light marked an expanse of glowing molten rock. J.D. recalled a line of poetry, written by Coleridge, disdained by astronomers for describing an impossible astronomic arrangement.
“‘The hornèd Moon, with one bright star/Within —’”
“‘ — the nether tip…’”
Victoria Fraser MacKenzie completed the line of poetry. Entering from Chi’s main body, the director of alien contact for the deep space expedition dived through the holographic image of the maze and joined the observers’ circle.
J.D. grinned at her colleague. Victoria grabbed the top of her couch and spun around into it, graceful and comfortable in weightlessness. The most intense of J.D.’s teammates, the physicist moved with economy and precision. Her presence was so powerful that people were always surprised, when they met her, to discover that she was quite small. J.D. was a head taller than she.
Planet-light sparkled in her very curly short black hair, and created delicate highlights on her dark skin. She fastened one of the safety straps and smiled across the circle at J.D.
“Coleridge, vindicated,” J.D. said.
Victoria chuckled ruefully. “And revenged — he sent his albatross along with us.”
J.D. laughed, too. She could laugh, now that the danger was over. Laughter might be the only sane reaction to what had happened.
“I did sort of feel like that missile was an albatross around my neck,” she said. “Especially when Kolya said not to let it go.” Her arms still ached from wrestling the nuclear warhead out of Starfarer’s thick, rocky skin, from holding on to it until she could safely let it go.
If it had exploded a few minutes sooner… she thought. If I’d slipped, and it crashed into the wild cylinder…
She shivered, remembering.
The missile’s strike and detonation had left Starfarer alive, damaged but repairable. Now, the starship followed Chi at several hundred thousand kilometers’ distance, escaping a cloud of nuclear debris.
“I wonder,” J.D. said, “how the alien beings feel about albatrosses.” It worried her, what they must be thinking. A nuclear bomb was a lousy calling card.
“I wonder what they think about our simple-minded signal. Their first one is so complicated, and this one—” Victoria shrugged with perplexity. She turned her attention to the half-formed pattern, gazing at it hungrily, as if she were starving and it was nourishment.
The alien contact team had speculated about the proper first message to send to alien beings. They had tried to create a Rosetta stone, a key to human language and science and culture that could be translated and comprehended by an alien intelligence. But they had to do it without the other half of the stone, the idiom into which the knowledge must be translated. They used universal constants, the table of elements, representations of electron orbitals: all the resources of a technological culture.
Soon they would know if their attempts had succeeded. Chi heralded its approach with a broadcast: a high-speed, compressed, multi-copy burst of information in laser light. But compared to the alien labyrinth, their message was simple, graphic, straightforward.
J.D.’s pulse beat through her body, and excitement sparkled in the corners of her vision. She ran her hands through her short straight brown hair and made herself relax, pressing the tension out of her heavyset body, letting it flow away through her fingers and toes. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was swimming in Puget Sound with the orcas and the divers. Zero g had a similar, freeing effect.
A breeze brushed her cheek as Satoshi Lono dove through the labyrinth and passed on her left. The team’s geographer touched the transparent far wall, pushed off and somersaulted, and came to rest against his zero-g couch. He loosely fastened a safety strap, his athletic body curving forward against the restraint as he scrutinized the alien message.
“God, it’s slow,” he said impatiently. “You have to wonder if they think we can read.”
“Maybe we can’t, as far as they’re concerned,” J.D. said.
“You’re so calm about this,” he said.
J.D. did not feel calm. She glanced over at Satoshi, wondering if she should have heard irony in his voice. But he smiled at her with genuine regard.
It was too complicated to try to describe the truth of what she felt.
Zev, the young diver, floated into the observer’s circle backward, slipping through the labyrinthine hologram as if it were the surface of the sea.
“Come on, Stephen Thomas,” he said. “Just swim.”
“Swim, huh? Swimming in air is a pain in the ass.”
Stephen Thomas Gregory broke through the curtain, paddling awkwardly from the main body of Chi. His awkwardness in zero g was a shock, for under ordinary conditions he moved with assurance, poise, and self-confidence. If Satoshi was the most resolute athlete of the team, Stephen Thomas was the most gifted.
“Are we there yet?” Stephen Thomas asked, putting on a cheerful voice.
“Almost,” Victoria said, smiling at her other partner.
The geneticist grabbed the headrest of the couch in the quadrant to J.D.’s right, dragged himself into position, and fastened both restraints. His body language contradicted his tone, his joke. He lay within his couch, looking uncomfortable. He hated zero gravity. The alien contact department balanced on the brink of snatching success from dispute and failure; even that could not erase Stephen Thomas’s tension and apprehension.
His long blond hair drifted loose across his face, hiding the cut on his forehead. Both his eyes had blackened remarkably since the accident. The livid bruising of his pale skin almost made it possible for J.D. to forget how strikingly beautiful he was. He tucked his hair behind his ears, absently, impatiently, muttering an offhand curse.
Zev let himself drift near J.D. She reached out and touched his hand. He clasped her fingers. If they had been in the sea, their touching would have been more intimate. Zev had just begun to learn land manners, and sometimes J.D. had to remind herself of hers.
“Please strap in, Zev,” Victoria said.
J.D. gave Zev’s hand an encouraging squeeze and let go. Obediently, but reluctantly, he took the auxiliary couch to her left and strapped himself in.
Victoria, Satoshi, Stephen Thomas, and J.D. occupied the couches at the cardinal points of the observer’s circle. That was as it should be. But Zev’s presence was quite contrary to plan.
Zev is so young, J.D. thought. He’s too young to be on board Chi, too young even to have joined the expedition. Still, I’m glad he’s here, I’m glad he’s with me.
Fascinated yet dispassionate, Zev gazed around, as interested in the reactions of the four ordinary human beings as he was in the slowly changing alien image, or in the stars beyond the transparent shell of the observation chamber.
Zev lounged between his couch and the loose safety straps, as easy in zero g as any twenty-year veteran. He let his arms hang relaxed before him, with the palms of his unusually large hands turned toward him and his long, strong fingers gently curved, gently spread. The swimming webs between his fingers looked like delicate sheets of amber. His skin was a deep mahogany color, several shades lighter and redder than Victoria’s. His hair was very blond, lighter than Stephen Thomas’s.
The message shivered again. It was now almost solid to the eye, yet still it contained no perceptible information. J.D. did not understand why the alien source transmitted with such excruciating slowness. The message arrived at a slow, unchanging rate, without any acknowledgement of the message the team broadcast in response.
Maybe it’s just a beacon, J.D. thought. Or — maybe the alien message is acknowledging us, and we just don’t understand. Maybe they’re slow, deliberate, dignified. Maybe the constancy of the message means, to alien consciousness, that we’re noted and anticipated.
“Victoria,” J.D. said, “what if we pull out one copy of our message and slow it down? Broadcast it at the same rate this one is arriving?”
“Couldn’t hurt to try,” Victoria said.
Tentatively, warily, J.D. let her eyelids flicker.
“Be careful!” Victoria said, her voice tense and apprehensive.
J.D. glanced toward her. Victoria grimaced and shook herself all over.
“Sorry,” she said.
“That’s all right,” J.D. said. “Don’t worry. I don’t want to get caught in another web crash, either.” She closed her eyes and reached through her link to check the information and communication computer that formed the nerves and brains of Starfarer. She had not been deeply involved with Arachne during the crash; when the web fell apart she had not been emotionally and intellectually bruised, as had Victoria, as had Iphigenie DuPre, the master of Starfarer’s solar sail. Nevertheless, J.D. approached the web cautiously. Since the crash remained unexplained, its cause undiscovered and unrepaired, it might happen again, at any time, for any reason. Or no reason.
J.D. reached out, but Arachne remained self-involved, intent on the repair of its web.
J.D. opened her eyes. “Arachne’s still out,” she said.
“Never mind, eh?” Victoria bent over the hard link that extended from the arm of her couch. “I’ve got Chi working on it, it’s almost done.”
Touching Starfarer’s auxiliary computer systems did give J.D. some feel for the status of the starship. The parallel spinning cylinders sailed into the Tau Ceti system. The solar sails reoriented the starship, pressing it into a course that led to the second planet, decelerating it.
Back in the solar system, Starfarer had approached its transition point at dangerously high velocity, fleeing the military carrier sent to stop it. Without Iphigenie DuPre’s experience with solar sails, without her preparations and Victoria’s backup, the starship would have failed to connect properly with the cosmic string. It would have failed to reach transition energy; it would have lost its path to Tau Ceti. The expedition was lucky to have Iphigenie along. Whether she was lucky to have joined it was another, more difficult, question.
J.D. felt a great relief, observing the course changes.
Iphigenie must be all right, she thought. She must have recovered from the shock if she’s in control of the solar sail.
I should start thinking of it as the stellar sail, J.D. thought, now that we’ve left our own system.
“One copy of our message,” Victoria said, touching a key on the hard link. “Now, a control program…”
“Be sure you tell them we didn’t bring the bomb along on purpose,” Stephen Thomas said.
“Any suggestions on just how I should do that?” Victoria said.
“I wish,” Stephen Thomas said. He glanced across at the labyrinth. “I wish I could translate that, too.”
Their schematic, simple greeting was hardly designed to convey complicated explanations, such as “We didn’t mean to explode a nuclear warhead inside your system. Some people back home didn’t want us to leave Earth orbit. The missile we dragged through transition was an attempt to stop us.”
“Maybe they’re waiting for a message from our leader,” Satoshi said. His pleasant low voice turned uncharacteristically bitter. “Our silent leader.”
“Oh, come on,” Stephen Thomas said. “Chancellor Blades is okay.”
Satoshi made an inarticulate sound of distaste. J.D. had observed, even on short acquaintance, that Satoshi got along with everybody. He even got along with the assistant chancellor, Gerald Hemminge, though most people found Gerald abrasive. It startled J.D., as it startled Stephen Thomas, for Satoshi to take an instant dislike to anyone. But he did not like Starfarer’s new chancellor.
“He is,” Stephen Thomas said. He glanced around, as if for confirmation.
“I’m sure he is,” J.D. said. “But I’ve never met Chancellor Blades.” Though he had put in an appearance at her welcome party, he had left before she arrived.
“He’s a little shy,” Stephen Thomas said. “Reserved. He comes off looking aloof. And I’ll bet he felt off balance, coming on board and knowing everybody suspects his motives.”
“You can hardly blame us,” Victoria said, glancing up from the link. The United States had put tremendous pressure on EarthSpace to appoint Blades as chancellor. Everyone assumed his real task had been to oversee the dismantling of the deep space expedition, and of Starfarer.
“He stayed with the expedition,” Stephen Thomas said stubbornly. “He didn’t get on the transport to go home. That says something for him. And it’s more than you can say for Gerald,” he said to Satoshi. “You ought to at least give him a chance.”
“I shall,” Victoria said. “As soon as he gives me a chance. As he never troubled to return my call, I have no way of judging him.”
Victoria set back to work, every so often glancing at the alien transmission.
J.D. watched it, too. Any pattern it might be forming continued to elude her. Her mind kept trying to make sense of the speckled image, but so far all its structure remained in her imagination.
I think I see something the way people used to think they saw faces and buildings on Mars, J.D. realized. The way Stephen Thomas thinks he sees auras. But I’m making it all up.
“That’s it,” Victoria said. “One copy of our greeting, transmitted at the same rate as the alien message.” She touched the keyboard. “Sent. Sending, anyway.”
“It sure is slow,” Satoshi said again.
“Maybe its batteries are running down,” Stephen Thomas said dryly, “and there’s nobody to replace them.”
“Oh, don’t say that!” J.D. said, distressed.
“Our luck has been ridiculously good,” Stephen Thomas said. “It’s too much to hope that nothing will go wrong.”
J.D. started to laugh. When she heard the high note of hysteria in her voice, she struggled to control herself.
“J.D., what’s so funny?”
After a moment, J.D. stopped laughing long enough to wipe the tears from her eyes.
“Nothing’s funny! Stephen Thomas, how much bad luck do we have to have, to balance out any good? Half the faculty is back on Earth while their governments sulk, Arachne’s operating on the level of an artificial stupid, you and Satoshi nearly got squashed, and we had to steal Starfarer to get out here at all—”
“We didn’t steal it!” Victoria exclaimed. “We just… kept going as if nothing had changed.”
“That isn’t how they’re looking at it back on Earth,” Stephen Thomas said. “It isn’t how the folks on the transport who are stuck here are looking at it.”
Victoria’s gaze caught his, then broke away.
“We had no choice,” she said.
J.D. wished she had not brought up the subject of stealing the starship, at least not in those terms. She knew perfectly well that Victoria felt sensitive and defensive about their means for continuing the expedition. It had been Victoria’s proposal to defy their instructions to drop into a low Earth orbit, where the starship would become a military watching post. At Victoria’s instigation, Starfarer had continued on course to transition.
J.D. wiped her eyes again, trying to think of something to say to ease the tension.
“There’s definitely some structure forming in this thing.” Satoshi kept his attention on the transmission; he kept his voice quiet and low and calming.
J.D. forgot her embarrassment; she forgot Victoria’s aggravation with her and Stephen Thomas.
J.D. searched for the structure, the evidence of sense, that Satoshi claimed to see.
“I’m not getting anything out of it,” Stephen Thomas said.
“Me, either, I’m afraid,” J.D. said.
“No, look, there, it’s a very fine pattern, a kind of filmy configuration…”
“Maybe,” Victoria said doubtfully, hopefully.
“Why has it stopped?” Zev said. “It isn’t changing anymore.”
“What? It—” J.D. protested, then fell silent, fearing that what Zev said was true.
Victoria grabbed for the hard link again.
“He’s right,” Victoria said. “It’s the message. The antenna’s okay. So’s the receiver, and the hologram imager. The message has stopped.”
“Shit,” Stephen Thomas said.
“No kidding, Stephen Thomas,” Victoria said. “You had to wish for more bad luck.”
Feral Korzybski felt like an old-fashioned serial computer trying to solve a parallel problem. The free-lance journalist was drawn in so many directions that he could easily spend most of his time moving from one story to the next, instead of with the stories themselves.
Intellectually, he could handle several lines of thought at once. That was not the problem. The problem was that without Arachne’s web, the only place he could be was wherever he was physically. One place at a time. The place he most wanted to be, the place that drew his heart and his wishes, he could not reach. He would have given anything to be on board the Chi with Stephen Thomas and the rest of the alien contact team. The best story in his lifetime, in the lifetime of human beings, and he had to cover it from a distance.
The limitations were driving him crazy. He could not go with the team. Nor could he participate by way of virtual reality, immersed in a holographic broadcast of the alien contact team’s experience, an unseen colleague observing everything from the point of view of a camera. The ship’s computer was not yet up to it. Feral could only participate through a hard link, wishing he were in the observers’ circle beside Stephen Thomas, in one of the empty auxiliary couches.
Feral tried again, as he did every few minutes, to hook in with Arachne. It rebuffed him, but he could feel the increase in its awareness and complexity. It was healing. But it would not, or could not, give him enough of its capabilities to be of any use to him. He would be last in line to get Arachne’s attention and a place in the web; since he was not a member of the expedition, he had only the limited access of a guest.
He had his suspicions about who had crashed the web. Almost everyone on board Starfarer believed it must have been someone on the carrier that had chased Starfarer to transition. Feral understood wanting to believe no expedition member could be responsible for the malevolent attack. He wanted to believe it himself. But he thought the desire led to easy answers. Easy, wrong answers.
He had some ideas about finding the right answer.
Since he could not be on board Chi, he was in his favorite spot, so far, in Starfarer. The sailhouse was a small, completely transparent cylinder suspended between the starship and the stellar sail, attached to Starfarer only by an access tunnel. In the sailhouse, in zero g, Feral had experienced transition.
At the far curve of the sailhouse, Iphigenie DuPre hunched quiet and concentrated over a hard link.
She would have direct access to Arachne if anyone did. In normal space, Iphigenie and the computer navigated the starship. Even if she could not yet connect with Arachne, Iphigenie could link directly with any number of auxiliary computers. Nevertheless, she was using the relatively slow and awkward hard link to control the stellar sail. The ship had come barreling out of transition, faster than they ever intended, arriving blind in the Tau Ceti system. Iphigenie had to put Starfarer on the proper path.
The musical readouts of the sensors whispered and sang. They spoke a language Feral did not know, and without Arachne neither could he translate it. The notes created chords, harmonies, melodies. Every so often he heard a sour note, a minor triad. He knew that was not right. But there was nothing he could do but watch and remember, and keep trying to talk to Arachne to record his words and insights.
From the sailhouse, Feral could see the enormous sail stretched out across space like a flat silver parachute, slowing the starship’s headlong plunge through the system. In the other direction lay the two huge cylinders that made up Starfarer: the campus and the wild side. He could see the mirrors that conveyed sunlight or starlight to the interior. Beyond it all hung Tau Ceti II and its satellite: a blue-green three-quarter disk, and a smaller, beaten-silver oval.
He could not see Tau Ceti, the star, itself. No nearby star would ever be visible from inside the sailhouse. Starfarer, in its present orientation, shadowed the sailhouse. Had it not, the transparent wall would have darkened to hide the blazing disk of the sun. In shadow, the whole sailhouse remained transparent. It responded to radiation, visible or otherwise, by darkening and shielding the inhabitants. Feral was extremely grateful for the shielding properties of the sailhouse, and glad they were much more powerful than they needed to be to protect him from sunlight. If they had not been, he and Iphigenie would both have been fried by the radiation of the nuclear explosion.
Feral pushed off gently and floated toward Iphigenie.
Strange that the sailhouse had remained transparent all during transition. Feral recalled that brief experience.
Disorientation overtook him, unexpectedly, powerfully. Without thinking, he reached for any handhold. Instead, he sent himself tumbling. He brushed past Iphigenie, bumping her with enough force to push her away from the hard link.
“What — ?”
Feral bounced off the side of the sailhouse. He managed to damp some of his spin, then had to wait, tumbling foolishly, until the air slowed and stopped him. Iphigenie had already brought herself back to stillness. She watched him, puzzled.
“Are you still here? What is the matter?”
“I was trying to think of a way to describe… what we experienced during transition.”
“Oh,” she said. She hesitated. “I think that isn’t a good idea.”
“You can’t do it, either?”
“I was very busy,” she said defensively.
“No, you weren’t,” Feral said. “The sail was furled. Your work was finished. You drifted here right beside me and stared out at —”
“Stop it,” she said.
“You have to understand,” Iphigenie said. “When Arachne crashed, I went from complete sensory load to nothing, to emptiness. What we saw, felt, experienced, what I felt during transition… That was like being hooked in deep to Arachne, but a hundred times over, and with my body as well as my mind. Now that’s gone, too. I’m isolated. Disconnected from reality. And I don’t know if…”
Her voice trailed off.
Feral drifted closer, reached out tentatively, touched Iphigenie’s hand. She was shivering. He put his arms around her and held her, hoping he was doing the right thing, hoping that human contact was what she needed to repair her connections to reality. He stroked the smooth tight braids of her hair and rubbed the back of her neck, the sensitive concavities where the skull joins the spine, till she stopped trembling.
“Maybe once through transition was enough?” Feral asked gently.
“May be,” Iphigenie said. “It may be.” She drew away from him, patting his hand.
“I understand,” Feral said. And he did, though he did not agree. He looked forward to experiencing transition again.
But he could not think of words to describe it. This troubled and annoyed him. It was his job to think of words to describe it.
Feral was the only reporter on board Starfarer. Other writers with more experience and better connections might have gone out with the expedition, if it had departed on schedule. It had not: it had departed early and in confusion, to keep the military from taking over the ship.
Feral was supposed to have gone back to Earth, but he had never even boarded the transport. He felt embarrassed for his selfishness, but he was glad things had gone wrong. If they had gone right, he would never have been able to stay.
For a journalist three years out of school, he had decent connections. But it took better than decent connections to pull EarthSpace strings. He was free-lance, surviving on royalties from the global communications web. When people read his work, he got paid. The money had increased, this past year, as his stories gained more notice. Enough money to live on and enough money to travel freely off Earth were two very different things. He had no sponsors; “sponsored independence” was, as far as Feral was concerned, an oxymoron. He had bought his own ticket into space, like any tourist, and he had pulled in nearly all the obligations anyone had ever owed him to get on board the starship.
But it was worth it. It was certainly worth it.
Nikolai Petrovich Cherenkov lay on the floor in the main room of his house, stretched out on a small threadbare rug in a patch of alien sunlight. He watched the hard link, focusing on the image of the alien transmission.
On board the starship, arguments, confusion, and perplexity all hung suspended while the faculty and staff and even the transport passengers watched the communication. Like the members of the alien contact team, they, too, tried to make sense of it.
It disturbed Kolya. Why should it arrive at such a leisurely pace? Perhaps the aliens lived at a rate entirely different from that of human beings. Or perhaps they thought travelers to their system might function very slowly.
The cosmonaut tried to persuade himself that one of those possibilities was true, but he found that he believed neither.
You’re just feeling more paranoid that usual, he told himself. Exhaustion and pain will do that to you. You are much too old to wrestle with nuclear warheads.
He wondered how J.D. was, whether she ached, as he did, from their struggle with the nuclear missile.
I should be grateful I’m not a handful of radioactive dust, Kolya thought, rather than bemoaning my aged muscles. Still, I ache.
He found that he badly wanted to talk to J.D. Sauvage about the alien message.
He put his cigarette to his lips and drew hard on it before he remembered he had not lit it. He never lit a cigarette inside; the smoke detector was too sensitive.
He spat out a shred of tobacco. He was trying to quit. He had been trying to quit for decades. He was probably the only human being left alive who still smoked.
And he was, finally, running out of the cigarettes he had begged, borrowed, and bribed people to smuggle into space for him. It was years since he had even found a source, and the few remaining packages had acquired a strange off taste. Freezing in liquid nitrogen was supposed to preserve things indefinitely, but as far as Nikolai Petrovich was concerned, liquid nitrogen imparted its own unpleasant flavor.
Kolya was not a scientist. He had been a test pilot, a cosmonaut, a guerrilla fighter. Now he was a man under sentence of death in what had been his homeland. Only off Earth could he be safe.
Safe. His smile was ironic. Not for the first time, he thought: I’m probably the only person in the universe who’s safer on board Starfarer than I would be back on Earth.
He put the unlit cigarette back in his cigarette case and slipped the case into his pocket.
I must quit, he told himself. I am witness to the first message from alien beings, and I am thinking about nicotine.
The hard link’s focus changed from the alien message to Victoria Fraser MacKenzie.
“The transmission has stopped,” she said.
Kolya forgot about nicotine. Staring into the frozen image on the hard link in his parlor, he rose, fumbling for the audio controls. Tangled voices spilled out as people on Starfarer reacted to her announcement.
Kolya listened, but no one suggested a good reason for the termination of the message. His unease increased.
“It must be Arachne.” Kolya recognized the voice of Gerald Hemminge, the upper-class British administrator who was assistant chancellor of Starfarer. The duties of Gerald’s position included acting as liaison between the starship and the Chi. He must be feeling ambivalent about the job, for he had been among those who argued for allowing the United States military to recommission Starfarer. He had opposed the decision to keep going. He had tried to go home.
Gerald had been on the transport that Starfarer dragged along with it to the Tau Ceti system.
“It must be the crash of the web,” Gerald said. “The message could still be coming, but…”
Arachne had taken months to create itself and its communications web. It had begun to evolve with the superstructure of the starship, and had taken as long to form as the starship had to build. Perhaps it would take months to reform, after its inexplicable crash. No doubt the accident would change it. But, then, it grew and evolved and changed all the time.
“Could be, but I don’t think we’re getting anything at the antenna. What about you, Victoria?”
Kolya did not recognize the second voice. Though he had been living on board the starship since it was barely habitable, he had not gone out of his way to make friends here. He had lived the life of a hermit, letting his fame, or infamy, form a wall between him and the other people on board. He wished he had not isolated himself quite so efficiently.
Victoria MacKenzie’s voice reached Starfarer after a second or two of transmission delay.
“But our image is the one that’s frozen,” she said. “It has nothing to do with Arachne. The antenna is working fine. I don’t have any more ideas, Avvaiyar. We’ll continue to broadcast our own message, and we’ll keep on going toward the alien source.”
Kolya reached out to Arachne, wanting to send a message to J.D. But Arachne still was not ready to reply to a human being. Though the web had begun to restore its most important function, its control over the starship, it still lacked the attention to spare to handle trivial things like personal messages.
Who crashed the web? Kolya wondered, for the thousandth time since the shocking failure of the starship’s control systems. Who would do such a thing?
People remained in the health center, recovering from the effects of being involved with the system when it failed. Other people had gone back to work who probably should still be recovering. Deliberately crashing the system was a criminal act. It could have been murder. Only by sheer good luck had no one been killed.
Kolya hoped the deed had been done by someone outside Starfarer, someone on board the warship that had chased them to the point of transition.
Crashing the web from outside should not have been possible. Crashing it from inside should not have been possible, either. Yet the system had crashed.
Kolya did not belong to the support group backing the alien contact team; he held no claim to the ship’s strained communications resources. If he wanted to talk to J.D. about the transmission, he would have to go to the liaison office and ask to call her directly.
He wanted to talk to her; he wished he were on board the Chi, but he was not a member of the alien contact team.
On the other hand, neither was Zev.
Kolya tried to suppress his resentment of the young diver. He failed. The diver had no space experience, no training: he had no right to be on the explorer. Kolya envied him bitterly.
But perhaps he belongs there, Kolya thought. Alone among us, he has lived with a non-human sentient species. Perhaps he does deserve to be there, after all.
The image of the alien transmission remained unchanged.
Victoria reached out a query to the Chi’s computer and tested it again. It responded properly, innocent of locking up. Nor had the antenna drifted.
“The moon’s rotating, isn’t it?” Stephen Thomas said hopefully. “Maybe the transmitter’s gone over the horizon.”
“It’s got relays,” Victoria said. “The signal didn’t waver from the time we picked it up to the time we lost it. It didn’t drift. It didn’t fade. It just stopped.” Stephen Thomas could look at the same information and see the abrupt blink from full signal to nothing.
“I still think it’s saving battery power,” Stephen Thomas said. “Or maybe—”
“What’s the point in speculating?” Satoshi said. “If you make up reasons all day, we’ll be no closer to knowing the answer than we were when you started.”
Stephen Thomas fell silent, his expression hurt.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Satoshi said. “I just—”
“Never mind. You’re right. You don’t have to apologize when you’re right.”
“Aren’t we,” J.D. said hesitantly, “transmitting to Starfarer?” Her voice was soft, as if the microphones might not pick up her words if she spoke quietly enough.
Stephen Thomas muttered a curse. Victoria hoped the microphones could not pick up what he had said.
“You are transmitting, you know.”
Gerald Hemminge must have spoken at the same moment as J.D., but his voice had taken a couple of seconds to cross the distance from Starfarer.
“I’ve interrupted the relay to public address,” he said. His tone was not nearly so mild as J.D.’s. “You may tell me when you’re finished arguing… unless you have some particular purpose in doing it in public.”
Satoshi’s rueful chuckle earned him a glare from Stephen Thomas.
“Immortalized forever,” Satoshi said. “A historic moment. Warts and all.”
“Thank you, Gerald,” Victoria said. Though Satoshi got along with the assistant chancellor, Victoria did not, and Stephen Thomas disliked him intensely. Gerald had no obligation to protect them from themselves. “We’re exhausted, and this new development has thrown us all. But we’re finished arguing, I think.”
She glanced at Stephen Thomas, who glowered back as if to say, “Who, me? I never argue.”
“The day hasn’t been easy for me, either, you know,” Gerald said. “I have no computer support and several eminent passengers demanding to go home. A demand with which I concur, not that you are likely to listen to me now any more than you did before we left.”
Victoria did not rise to the argument. “If you’ll put me back on public address,” she said, “I’ll sign us off and shut down the voice transmission for a while.”
Several seconds passed.
“Very well,” Gerald said.
“I’m locking Channel One onto the image of the alien message,” Victoria said for the benefit of the observers on board the starship. “Unless the broadcast starts up again, there’s not much we can do till we arrive at the point of origin. At least I can’t think of anything else to do. I’m open to suggestions. Channel Two is the view in our direction of travel. We’ll begin transmitting as we approach orbital insertion. Victoria Fraser MacKenzie out.”
“The public audio’s off,” Gerald said a moment later.
“Thank you, Gerald,” Victoria said. “Avvaiyar, don’t hesitate to call me if you learn anything new.”
“Victoria, my friend,” the astronomer said, “I couldn’t tell you everything new I was learning in less than three days. But if anything new comes up that relates to the alien message, I’ll call immediately.”
Avvaiyar’s interests focused at the rarefied point where physics and cosmology intersected. When it came to their professional disciplines, only when she and Victoria discussed cosmic string did either have any idea what the other was talking about.
“Good,” Victoria said. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
She shut down all the audio channels and rubbed her eyes. She could not remember when she had felt so tired.
Victoria glanced at her teammates. J.D. was still embarrassed, her fair skin flushed. Satoshi was amused. Stephen Thomas hated to look silly; he was sulking, but his natural good humor would reassert itself soon.
She could probably tease him out of his mood. Victoria tried to summon up enough energy to tease him. She failed.
Dammit, she thought, we ought to be out here fresh and rested and ready, with everyone behind us. Instead, we’re physically and emotionally exhausted, Stephen Thomas looks like the loser in a barroom fight, and the ship is behind us, all right: limping along with a crater in its side, trailing a cloud of nuclear debris. And then there are the transport passengers.
She was glad she had been able to divert Gerald from telling her more about how the passengers felt, because right now she did not want to know.
And even so, it could be much worse. Stephen Thomas could have been killed, not just banged around: the genetics building could have fallen on top of him and Satoshi instead of falling down around them. The missile could have detonated sooner.
I suppose we ought to consider ourselves lucky, she thought. We’re renegades. We’re fugitives.
But we’re alive.
She stared at the frozen transmission, wondering what to do.
She shook off her distress. After all, being a fugitive was a tradition in her family. Her several-times-great grandparents had escaped from the United States to Canada on the underground railroad. She smiled to herself: she was only following their lead.
The image from Channel Two faded in beside the alien transmission. Satoshi leaned closer to study Tau Ceti’s second planet, a pretty blue-green world with a single airless satellite, a world nearly a twin of Earth. Victoria wondered where its people were, and she knew Satoshi wondered the same thing. Now that the transmission had ceased, the system remained silent all across the useful broadcast frequencies. Where were the system’s inhabitants?
Victoria realized that some of her exhaustion was due to hunger. She released her safety straps.
“I’m going to make a sandwich,” she said. “Anyone else want something?”
“That would be great,” J.D. said.
“Filet and baby French carrots for me,” Stephen Thomas said. He smiled, back to his usual self already.
Victoria returned his smile. “I might be able to fill the order for the carrots.” Starfarer grew no beef, and the starship had left precipitously and lacking a large proportion of its backup supplies. Victoria doubted the starship had any red meat in storage, even for special occasions.
Victoria floated out of the observation room. “Cordon bleu all around,” she said.
“I’ll help,” Satoshi said, and followed her.
Nikolai Petrovich limped along the edge of a low, wide, grass-covered hill. At its peak the hill dipped down to form an open amphitheater, where Kolya had spoken in defense of the deep space expedition. That was the first time he had ever gone to one of Starfarer’s meetings, the first time he had ever spoken in a public forum on board the starship, the first time since his days as a cosmonaut that he had spoken in front of an audience of living people.
Many years ago, after he escaped from his invaded homeland, he had spoken for the public record, for cameras. He recalled it as if it were another lifetime. Someone else’s lifetime. He had believed—he still believed—that his recounting would have made a difference if the world had heard what he saw and experienced under the authority of the Mideast Sweep. But the world had never been allowed to know what he had to say, and now it was too late.
He continued down the trail, favoring his body. He ached all over. He hoped he had only strained his muscles. A muscle strain would heal fairly rapidly, more rapidly at any rate than a torn ligament or tendon. Nothing healed the way it had when he was younger.
There were times in Kolya’s life when his body had been badly abused. Some of those injuries he never got over, and some of them were to his soul.
Griffith, who pretended to be from the Government Accountability Office of the United States of America, walked fast down a path, his gaze on the ground and his thoughts light-years away.
He needed to walk. He needed the freedom, the motion. During Starfarer’s crisis, he had been trapped inside a survival sphere for over an hour. It had seemed like days. He still found it difficult to believe that General Cherenkov had overpowered him, immobilized him. He felt embarrassed, upset, and, above all confused. He was not used to feeling confused.
He did not like it.
He never would have taken me, Griffith thought, not if I hadn’t begun trusting him. That was a mistake. I let my admiration for him get in the way. If I hadn’t started trusting him, he never would have taken me.
The landscape looked familiar. He recognized the topography of a small clear stream, a clump of budding white lilacs. He had walked completely around the circumference of Starfarer’s campus cylinder. He was, of course, walking in circles.
Griffith swore aloud. When he first came aboard Starfarer, he had envied its inhabitants. They lived in a place of beauty, a place that represented limitless freedom. But to Griffith it had come to represent entrapment and isolation and his own failure.
He reached out to the starship’s computer web and received a null response. This was the worst system crash he had ever observed. He wondered who could have engineered the collapse of the web and its backups. Whoever did it, however they did it, they had achieved a spectacular success. A few days ago, Griffith would have applauded it. Now he regretted it.
He looked up. A few paces farther on, General Cherenkov rounded a turn in the path. Griffith stopped.
Cherenkov hurried past him.
Cherenkov spun around, looming angrily over him.
“I told you not to call me that!”
Griffith stepped back involuntarily, poised for a fight. He did not intend to let Cherenkov make a fool of him again.
Griffith was an unremarkable-looking man; this was one of his strengths. When people described him, they talked in terms of mediums: medium brown hair and eyes, medium complexion, medium build, medium height. Cherenkov was quite tall, especially for an astronaut. A cosmonaut. His height intensified his intimidating presence.
Cherenkov eased back. “I have no wish for a rematch,” he said. “We may take it as a given, Marion, that you would win a second round.”
“I don’t like being called Marion any more than you like being called ‘general.’ Can we call a truce on this?”
Cherenkov turned and strode down the trail. Feeling like a supplicant, Griffith followed. He caught up after a few paces, but he had to lengthen his stride uncomfortably, or trot, to stay level with Cherenkov.
“You never said you did not like being called Marion,” Cherenkov said.
“The hell I didn’t.”
“You said you did not ordinarily use your given name.”
“We’re arguing semantics! Will you wait a minute? Where are you going?”
Cherenkov stopped again. “When are you going to keep your promise and leave me alone?”
The tone in the cosmonaut’s voice hurt Griffith far more than the physical pain of the fight.
“I risked everything I had,” Griffith said. “Everything. And I lost it. To help this expedition continue.”
“No one asked you to! No one asked you to help it, and no one asked you to sabotage it in the first place. No one here.”
“You have no proof of your accusations.”
“Do I need any?”
“To turn me in?”
Cherenkov smiled. Griffith had never noticed before that his front teeth were crooked, one slightly overlapping the other. The flaw startled him.
“Who would I turn you in to, Marion?”
Griffith hesitated. Starfarer possessed no security force, a fact that had leapt out at him with startling prominence when he researched the expedition. As far as he knew, these disorganized anarchists had never even discussed what to do with a criminal, much less set up any mechanism to deal with one. The alternative was mob rule, vigilante justice. When he first came on board the starship, Griffith had felt contempt of the personnel. But he had seen enough of their hotheadedness in the last few days. He could be in serious danger if Cherenkov denounced him in public or in private.
“You think that if I tell my colleagues who you really are, they will deteriorate into a mob.”
“I think they already did that,” Griffith said.
“Perhaps I should tell them what you’ve done. You hurt any number of people by crashing the web —”
“I did not!”
“They are still in the health center. Many are in shock.”
“I know people were hurt. But I didn’t crash the system.”
Cherenkov started walking down the trail again, this time at a more reasonable pace. Griffith followed him.
“Who did, then?”
“I don’t know.” Griffith said, both surprised and grateful that Cherenkov trusted his word. “I figured it was someone in the carrier.”
“I’m not a systems expert. But I would have thought that to be difficult, if possible at all.”
Griffith walked beside him in silence for a few minutes.
“I hope it’s possible,” he said. “Because otherwise I’m the most likely suspect.”
“But you are innocent?”
“Of crashing the system, yes, I’m innocent.”
“But guilty of other things.”
“They don’t concern anyone on board Starfarer. Only me, if I get back alive. If any of us does.”
“Why did you change your mind about the expedition?”
“Because you wanted it—”
Griffith stopped. Not because his words were a lie, but because they were so true. They made him even more vulnerable. First he had begun to trust Cherenkov, and now he was telling him the truth.
“I see,” Cherenkov said. “I asked you to think and act for yourself. Instead, you tried to divine my thoughts and you tried to act for me. I don’t understand you. If you have to obey someone, what possesses you to choose me?”
“I saw the tapes you made…”
Griffith expected Cherenkov to tell him to shut up, but the cosmonaut continued in silence along the rock-foam trail, where banks of pink and white camellia bushes rose on either side. The two men walked parallel to the long axis of the starship’s main cylinder, along a cool, green path. The air smelled of damp grass, for a shower had passed a few minutes ago. The cloud lay a quarter of the way farther along the cylinder’s circumference, sweeping its course with raindrops.
“You saw the tapes?” Cherenkov said. “I thought they were destroyed. Long ago.”
“No. They exist.”
Cherenkov shrugged. “Too late, by years, for them to do any good.”
“What you said in those interviews moved me,” Griffith said. “Deeply. I could see you fighting to control your pain and your outrage, but I could feel it all anyway. Your words, your feelings, were like a sword…”
“I felt nothing.”
Marion Griffith looked up at him, uncomprehending. “No. What?”
“I felt nothing when I made those recordings. I knew that I should feel something. I knew it was important to tell what I saw, no matter how terrible it was. But I could feel nothing. I turned all that off, months before, just to survive.”
“If it wasn’t real, you’re a damned good actor!” Griffith said.
“Yes,” Cherenkov replied, matter of fact.
“You’re lying. No. I don’t mean that. You’re making it up to protect yourself from the truth. I know how to do that — to keep it from hurting anymore.”
“Don’t rewrite my life for me! I remember how it was. I almost refused the interviews, that’s how difficult it was.”
“You see!” Griffith heard his own voice, urgent, desperate. “It was too painful —”
“It was difficult,” Kolya said softly, “because I no longer wanted to care. I had to force myself…”
Griffith could think of no reply. He felt stunned and numb, as Kolya had claimed to feel.
“Perhaps if they had ever used those tapes as I expected them to be used, if I had seen them again, things might have been different. But I told what I had seen, and no one paid attention. No one believed.”
“That isn’t true either,” Griffith said. “I know what happened.”
Kolya chuckled. “Marion Griffith, child spy.”
“I was a teenager when you escaped. Then, I only knew what was public. The news stories, and the movie—”
Kolya made a piteous sound of agony.
“What’s the matter? Are you all right?”
“If you tell me that appalling piece of adventure fiction affected your life, I’ll surely throttle you. It had nothing to do with me, and I had nothing to do with it.”
Griffith skipped over the subject of his own teenage years and the things that had affected him when he was a dumb, romantic kid.
“When I was in a position to, I made it my business to find out what really happened. That’s how I found your tapes. I talked to people who were involved. It wasn’t that no one believed what you said. They did. They knew others would, too. They were afraid of the public reaction. That’s why they never released your interviews.”
“A political decision,” Kolya said.
“Yes. They thought if they didn’t do anything, things would ease up with the Sweep. Unfortunately, they were wrong.”
Kolya reached the foot of the slope that led up the end of the cylinder. He began to climb.
“At the meeting,” Griffith said, “you told me that no one outside the Sweep could do anything that would help anyone inside. Why did you give those interviews? You were trying to affect the Sweep from outside!”
“That was years ago!” Kolya said angrily. “Things change! Different actions are appropriate for different conditions.” He glanced over at Griffith. “I think you want everything to be stable, and predictable. But the world isn’t like that.”
Griffith could think of no reply.
They were halfway up the hill to the axis of Starfarer, moving along the switchbacks easily while the gravity decreased with every step. Though the physical angle of the slope increased, the perception was of a progressively easier climb.
“Kolya, where are we going?”
“I’m going to the liaison office. I don’t know where you’re going.”
Griffith stopped. He watched Kolya continue up the path and disappear into the access tunnel near the axis of the starship. He hoped Kolya would turn around and laugh, or ask why Griffith had fallen behind. But he glided up the hill and out of sight without another word.
Just follow him, Griffith said to himself. What can he do, if you follow him? It’s what you’ve been doing all along, and he never did anything to keep you from doing whatever you want.
Except, of course, Griffith was no longer following Kolya Cherenkov.
J.D. relaxed, relieved that the audio channels back to Starfarer had closed for a while. She never felt comfortable within the view of a camera or the range of a microphone, never grew indifferent to their observation. The public argument had embarrassed her, for herself and for the sake of her teammates. Relieved at the return of her privacy, she pushed herself against her couch, tensing and stretching her muscles.
Until Victoria mentioned it, J.D. had not realized how hungry she was. They would all probably feel better as soon as Victoria and Satoshi returned with sandwiches.
To her right, Stephen Thomas stared at the double image, the pretty planet hovering around and through the solid dark shape of the interrupted transmission.
“Maybe we’re supposed to—” he said. He stopped, and glanced over at J.D. sheepishly. “I can’t help it,” he said. “I keep trying to make up reasons why the transmission stopped. But I can’t think of anything that makes sense except by invoking too much coincidence to believe in.”
“That could be what’s happened,” J.D. said. “We wouldn’t notice coincidences, we wouldn’t even have a word for them, if things didn’t happen that were too strange to believe.”
“True,” he said. He sounded more cheerful. Then he sighed. “But Satoshi’s right, too.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to snap at you,” J.D. said. “We’ve been through an awful lot in the last few hours. He looks exhausted. So do you.”
“You aren’t saying I have dark circles under my eyes, are you?” Stephen Thomas said.
He smiled. J.D. chuckled. He had dark circles, all right. At least the bruises had stopped spreading. The cut on his forehead showed livid under a transparent bandage.
Stephen Thomas gestured toward the holographic display. “I imagined this so often. Before you joined the team, we practiced in here. Just like the Apollo astronauts before the first moon landing. This was supposed to be another giant leap…”
“It still is!” J.D. said.
“I hope so. I hope it’s not just a small misstep. But I wish I knew why the message stopped.”
As they gazed in silence at the half-completed display, the hard link chimed with a message. It was Kolya Cherenkov.
“Hello, Kolya,” J.D. said, surprised that he had called her. Like everyone else on board Starfarer, she held him in considerable awe.
“Do you have a moment to speak with me?” he asked.
“This alien transmission,” he said, then hesitated. “It makes me suspicious of its creators.”
“Why?” J.D. found the behavior of the alien message confusing. She knew she did not understand the motives behind it. But it had not occurred to her to suspect that the motives were sinister.
“I wish I could say for sure. Perhaps I’m only being paranoid, perhaps these are the fears of an old man who has seen too much evil in his lifetime…”
“The message is strange,” J.D. said. “But… it’s alien, after all. Not evil.”
“The message feels to me like a trap. Or — bait for a trap.”
“If the message were bait, why would it stop?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s just…”
J.D. waited. The silence felt very long, much longer than the transmission delay.
“Just what, Kolya?” she asked gently.
“I…” He stopped again, then said, with intensity, “This is a mission of exploration. As I keep reminding myself. I agree with the idea that starfaring civilizations will have given up war. Intellectually, I agree.”
“‘Intellectually,’” J.D. said. One of the most difficult questions for the starship’s planners had been whether Starfarer should or should not be armed.
“The truth is, it frightens me that we’re unarmed. That you’re unarmed.” He laughed, but the tone was self-deprecating. “I’m sorry. I’ve called you to tell you my fears. To worry you, at best. To tell you to be careful.”
She was genuinely touched. “Thank you, Kolya,” she said. “I will be careful.”
After Kolya Cherenkov had signed off, Stephen Thomas whistled softly.
“He’s been through experiences none of us will ever come close to. We ought to listen to his perceptions.”
J.D. glanced at the labyrinth and at the half-completed message. Despite Kolya’s fears, she could find nothing ominous within the maze. Within the second message, she could find nothing at all.
“Can you see anything there, Zev?” she asked. “Any pattern?”
“Only waves,” Zev said.
“Yes.” It was like seeing animals and faces in clouds. The mind looked for familiar patterns. What more familiar pattern could Zev see, than waves?
J.D. yawned. She glanced over at Zev. He was wide awake, interested, alert. She envied him his energy and his youth.
“When will we get there?” he said. “Will we be able to swim?”
“We probably aren’t going to the planet,” J.D. said. “Not this trip. Maybe when Starfarer arrives with more support. For now we’re just going to the planet’s moon.”
“Oh,” Zev said, disappointed.
J.D. glanced back at the transmission. For a moment she thought it had resumed, but like the patterns in the clouds, in the waves, the perception was a trick of her mind. The image remained steady, unchanging.
“Zev…” J.D. said. “If you were swimming with your family, and somebody you didn’t know came toward you making a lot of unpleasant noise, what would the divers do? What would the orcas do?”
Zev looked at her curiously. “We would all swim away,” he said. “Of course.”