It is difficult to know at what moment love begins; it is less difficult to know that it has begun.
Solly’s analysts thought the Hunter logs were accurate to the point where the vessel experienced engine trouble. Allow approximately a day or so for Kane’s repair work, and that puts Tripley and his party at Alnitak roughly February 17 or 18. Those estimates also fit with the timing of the return to Greenway. “If all that’s correct,” said Kim, “then getting proof should be easy.”
It was now January 28 in Seabright. Assuming February 17 as the base date for the event, for the contact between the Hunter and the celestials, and assuming further that radio transmissions would certainly have been involved, she had calculated precisely where the radio waves would be at this moment, and had derived an intercept course for the Hammersmith. All very simple.
“There’s really only one feasible scenario,” she told Solly. “They ran into another ship out there. That means there would have been at least an attempt at radio communication.”
“You’re hanging an awful lot on the fact that the turtle-shell showed up in the mural. There could be other explanations. They might have found a ground-based civilization.
Maybe preindustrial, no lights, no radio, nada. Just torches and the local equivalent of horses. In that case—
“It couldn’t have happened that way,” she said. They were seated in the mission control center, chairs angled toward each other, drinking coffee.
“Alnitak’s too young, for one thing. It’s not ten million years old yet. So no local life. And it puts out too much UV. Millions of times what Helios does.”
“Right. It would fry everything in sight. Anybody they ran into out there would have had to be star-travelers.”
A survey ship had looked at Alnitak two centuries before. As planetary systems went, it didn’t have much: one world, a captured gas giant far out in the boondocks.
“It’s been a long time for a radio transmission,” Solly said. “You get a lot of spread over three decades. FAULS is a good system, but it might not be good enough to pick up a signal that weak. Or to sort it out from the general babble.”
But Kim had spent time with the specs for the flexible array. “If it’s there,” she said, “we’ll find it.”
They spent the first day housekeeping, arranging their quarters, exploring the ship. Solly was already familiar with it, of course, but he enjoyed showing it off to Kim. She wondered whether her initial failure to be impressed with the vehicle might have insulted him. But it did remind her of the Institute’s Special Quarters, where non-VIP visitors were housed.
They wandered from floor to floor, and he demonstrated the features of the recreational facilities and the VR section. They inspected the two sets of engines, the mains, which propelled the Hammersmith through realspace, and the Transdimensional Interface, the jump engines. The TDI was small enough to hold in her hands.
Kim was pleasantly surprised to discover that the transition into hyper had come with no side effects.
She’d never experienced transdimensional flight as an adult. She was aware, as she hadn’t been as a child, that some people got ill during the jump; that others experienced changes in perspective, that walls seemed less solid, that the grip of artificial gravity lessened or tightened, that people claimed to become aware of the thoughts of those around them. There were accounts of unearthly dreams and severe bouts of depression and of sheer exhilaration. Solly told her there was some truth to it. All interstellars, he said, carried a generous supply of antidepressants and sedatives. He had seen people stricken with severe headaches, stomach cramps, toothaches, all deriving from no discernible physical cause. “But it’s never been more than an irritant,” he said. “Like seasickness.”
“Some of the effects, though,” he added, “can be eerie. Dreams can be extraordinarily vivid. And I’ve seen other odd stuff. I remember a woman who thought she’d regressed to her childhood, and a man who claimed to have seen through to the end of his days. Alternate personalities show up sometimes. One elderly passenger swore she’d become possessed. Another insisted he’d been followed on board by a werewolf.”
Solly’s blue gaze locked on her. “You haven’t been seeing anything out of the ordinary, have you?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” She was quietly proud of herself.
“Tell me about Alnitak.”
Kim pushed back in her chair. “It’s a class O. Pretty hot, about thirty-five thousand times as bright as Helios.”
“Wear your sunglasses.”
“I’d say. It has two companion stars, both a long way out, but close enough to ensure that planets will probably never form. Or if they do, that they’ll be unstable.”
“But you said there is a planet.”
“Captured,” she reminded him.
“Alnitak.” He tasted the word.
“From the Arabic for ‘girdle.’”
They took over the briefing room for their first onboard dinner and put out a few candles. The windows, had they been real windows, could have revealed nothing other than the glow of the ship’s running lights, had Solly chosen to put them on. Instead he programmed a view of the Milky Way as it would have appeared to an approaching intergalactic vehicle.
The meal itself was quiet. Solly usually carried more than his share of the conversation, but he had little to say that evening. The candles and the wine and the galactic disk provided an exquisite atmosphere. The food was good. Yet Kim felt the weight of her decision, and worried that she might be wrong, that she might have overlooked something, that she might have destroyed Solly’s career. And her own. They were probably swearing out warrants at this moment. “I wish,” she said, “that I could come up with any kind of explanation why they would have kept it quiet. I mean, contact would be the story of the age.”
“Don’t know,” said Solly.
She looked up from a piece of corn. “We’ve more or less assumed that everybody feels the same way about celestials that we do. That everybody wants to find them if they’re out there. Except maybe Canon Woodbridge and probably the Council. But there might be a lot of people who’d prefer the status quo. Who’d just as soon we not discover that we have company.”
Solly’s face was framed by the candles. “I’m one of them,” he said.
“I never kid. Look, Kim, life is pretty good right now. We have everything we could possibly want. Security. Prosperity. You want a career, it’s there. You prefer lying around the beach for a lifetime, you can do that. What can celestials give us that we don’t already have? Except things to worry about?”
“It might be a way to find out who we are.”
“That’s a clich'e. I know who I am. And I don’t real’y need philosophy from some thing that may in fact look on me as a potential pork chop. There’s a real downside with this, especially considering your experience in the Severin. And I’m sorry, but I can’t see much upside. For you and me, maybe, if this pays off. But I think the human race, in the long run, would not benefit.”
She pushed back from her food and stared at him. “Considering how you feel, I can’t understand why you came.”
“Kim, if they’re out there, then it’s just a matter of time before we meet them. I don’t like it, and I’d stop it if I could. But it has the feel of inevitability about it. If it happens, it’ll be a big moment. I’d just as soon be there. And we’re probably better off if we know it’s coming.”
“Hunter instinct,” said Kim.
“How do you mean?”
“Hide in the bushes. Kill or be killed. Are those the kind of conditions you really think would exist between interstellar civilizations?”
“Probably not. What I said was, it could happen. And since things are pretty good right now, I can’t see why we’d want to change anything. Why take chances? Leave well enough alone.”
“Solly, why do you think we went to Mars?”
He dipped a roll into his soup, bit off a piece, and chewed it thoughtfully. “We went to Mars,” he said, “because we recognized that exploitation of the solar system would have long-term economic benefits.”
“You really think that was the motivation? Long-term economic benefits?”
“It’s what the history books say.”
“The history books say Columbus headed out because he wanted to establish trade routes to India.”
“Last I heard, that was the explanation.”
“It was a cover story, Solly. It was intended to help Isabella make the right decision. To hock her jewels, have an argument ready for her councilors, and at the same time to follow the call of her DNA.”
“The call of her DNA?” He looked amused. “You always did have a talent for poetry, Kim.”
She waited patiently while he finished his wine.
“So,” he asked at last, patting his lips with his napkin, “what was the call of her DNA?”
“It wasn’t trade routes,” said Kim.
“So what was it?”
“Outward bound,” she said. “Exploration. To set foot, either in person or by proxy, in places that have never been seen before.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” said Solly. “But we’ve done that. We’ve set foot in a lot of places over the last few centuries. What’s that have to do with celestials?”
“We’ve accepted the notion we’re alone.”
“We probably are.” Solly reached for the decanter and refilled their glasses. “Maybe there’s somebody out there somewhere, but they’re probably so far away it’ll never make a difference. Yes: for practical purposes, I think we can proceed as if we’re alone.”
“The problem with that,” she said, “is that we’ve become complacent and selfsatisfied. Bored. We’re shutting down everything that made us worthwhile as a species.”
“Kim, I think you’re overstating things.”
“Maybe. But I think we need something to light a fire under us. The universe has become boring. We go to ten thousand star systems and they’re always the same. Always quiet. Always sterile.”
“Is that why Emily was on the Hunter? Is that the way she felt?”
“Yes,” said Kim. “She tried to explain herself to me when we used to go down to the beach.”
“You remember that!”
“She asked me if I knew why ships always traveled along the coast? Why they never put out to sea?”
“Oh,” said Solly. It was because there was nothing there. Just water for thousands of kilometers, until you’d rounded the planet and arrived at the western side of Equatoria. Back where you started.
“That’s where we are, Solly. On the beach, looking out at an ocean that doesn’t go anywhere. As far as we know.” Her eyes slid shut. “But if there’s really nowhere to go, I don’t think we have much of a future.”
After dinner they watched On the Run, an irreverent chase comedy in which several unlikely characters discover they’re clones of some of history’s arch criminals and find themselves the targets of a desperate manhunt. An interactive version was available, but they were both tired and satisfied just to sit and watch.
She fell asleep toward the end and woke after midnight, alone in the room. The projector had shut itself off, Solly had apparently gone to bed, and she sat for a time staring at the Milky Way.
For meals, they eventually took over the mission control center. It was small and consequently more intimate than the dining area. They spread a tablecloth over one of the consoles and discovered it worked very nicely.
Solly varied the views in the windows. Sometimes she looked out at star fields or at generated worlds, sometimes at waterfalls or a mountainscape or even downtown Seabright.
“What’s it really like outside?” she asked.
“Utterly black,” he said. “No stars, of course. Ship’s lights seem to lose some of their intensity.”
“Anybody ever actually been outside during hyperflight?”
“No,” Solly said. “Not that I know of.”
There was no sense of movement in this environment, which seemed more like a condition than a place. Seven weeks to Alnitak. It would be a long time to spend cooped up with a single person. Even Solly.
Vessels traveling in hyperspace were completely cut off from the outside world. They could receive no sensor information, no communications, no data of any kind. Nor could they transmit. Solly could have brought them out to satisfy their curiosity as to whether the Taratuba mission had got off okay. He thought they’d have used the Mac. And they were curious whether the theft of the Hammersmith had been made public, whether the Institute was trying to communicate with them. But it would have taken time, they’d have had to adjust the clocks, and Kim would have had to correct the program to get the calculations right for the intercept. So they let it pass.
One of the more curious aspects of hyperspace was that time seemed to run at an indifferent rate. Timekeeping devices on a transdimensional flight always had to be reset later. Sometimes forward, sometimes back. No one knew why this was so, but fortunately the differential was never more than a bare fraction of a percent, so that it did not unduly interfere with navigation. This was essential because TDI flights could navigate only by dead reckoning.
They fell quickly into a routine. They ate breakfast whenever they got up, and took their other meals at regular hours, ending with a late-night snack. Kim read through the mornings, a wide diet that included political and scientific biographies. She devoured two classics that she’d been meaning to get to since college: Blackman’s Beyond Pluto, an account of the cultural changes which flowed from the penetration of distant systems; and Runningwater’s Narrow Horizons, a history of the decline and eventual collapse of organized religion. She added some novels and some essays. And, of course, she read extensively in her specialty.
After lunch during the early days of the flight they often played chess, but Solly won all the time so they gave that up and substituted poker, with three or four virtual opponents. And they participated in virtual seminars with Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Mikel Kashvady, and other classic personalities. One of the highlights of the early weeks came from watching Henry Mencken and Martin Luther talking past one another.
On the sixth day out they tried a Veronica King interactive, “The Laughing Genie.” Kim’s taste ran to the King adventures because they were much more than whodunits. Rather, the emphasis was on solving puzzles in which crimes may or may not have occurred. When a victim died, she was inevitably in a locked room, or asleep under the watchful eye of a security system that detected no perpetrator. In “The Laughing Genie,” an archeologist has spent a lifetime looking for the tomb of Makarios Hunt, the second century Numian dictator and mass murderer; he finds it; but uses explosives to reseal it and refuses to tell anyone its location, or what he has seen.
They enjoyed it so much that the following night they tried “The Molecular God,” the story of a physicist who comes into possession of the lost diaries of Embry Sickel, whose work led to the development of the jump engine. The physicist, now in possession of an exceedingly valuable historical document, proceeds to burn it and apparently leaps from a seventh-floor office.
In each case, witnesses and documents are made available to the detectives, played, of course, by Kim and Solly. They switched the roles back and forth. Kim particularly enjoyed portraying the giant bodyguard Archimedes Smith.
They spent much of their time lounging in virtual environments. Kim preferred artscapes, settings that never existed and never would, where colors and images assumed impressionist designs, where fountains floated in midair and sprayed tactile light into azure skies. Solly was more conservative: he liked seascapes, mountains, and had a special taste for the Egyptians, favoring pyramids and the great temple from the Valley of the Kings. Sometimes the temple was portrayed as a rain; sometimes it was seen as it appeared during its glory days.
Neither was inclined to be alone, but since Solly tended to lose his color among Kim’s abstractions, she gave in and settled for the more mundane surroundings.
She had plenty of time to think, and she spent much of it trying to persuade herself that she’d done the right thing. She fretted over Solly, and came to realize that she desperately wanted him not to come to grief because of her.
She owed him a considerable debt. He’d helped her through some bumpy times, including the loss of the only man she’d ever thought she loved. He’d gone off with an accountant, leaving her a note wishing her a good life. Kim understood now that the relationship would never have worked, but the experience, even after several years, still gnawed at her. Solly and his then-wife Ann had almost adopted her during that period.
Later, when Ann chose not to renew, Kim had been there when he needed to talk, and had even fixed him up with friends.
They had a lot of good memories and prided themselves in thinking they were closer, in many ways, than most lovers. They’d celebrated together, supported each other, and enjoyed one another’s victories. When Kim’s wildeye team had won an amateur championship two years earlier, Solly, who was bored silly by team sports, had been in the stands.
They’d grown closer after Ann left. But there was a line between them, and they both respected it.
But Kim had begun to fantasize about Solly. And one evening, midway through the third week, she decided the time had come to make an offer.
It was her turn to choose the evening’s entertainment. She selected Raven, a historical romance set in Equatoria’s second century, when law, order, and civilization had all broken down. The Raven was a dark jewel, supposedly a relic from an unknown and possibly nonhuman technology, which falls into the hands of Clea, a young woman who must transport it through a host of perils to present it finally to its rightful owner. She is pursued by all manner of pirates, scavengers, corrupt government officials and, most feared of all, the bandit chief Aranka.
The program incorporated a nudity selector, which Kim set at a modest level. When they were ready, when the drinks had been poured and the snacks set out, she started the entertainment.
Clea of course wore Kim’s appearance. Was Kim.
She has just rented a flyer and is preparing to cross a rain forest on the last leg of a trip home when a wounded man staggers out of the trees barely ahead of a mob of pursuers.
The pursuers have guns and are blazing away. The fugitive sees her and turns in her direction. Clea is his only chance.
She hesitates and throws open the hatch. He leaps on board in a hail of lasers. The flyer bucks but lifts off and they are away.
But the man is bleeding profusely.
Clea examines him and sees quickly that he’s dying. She does what she can. In the meantime, another flyer takes off in pursuit. In a spectacular sequence, she leads it into a tunnel where an oncoming train takes it out. But the aircraft has also suffered damage and is forced to land.
“What happened?” she asks her passenger when they are on the ground. “What did they want?”
He produces the Raven. Minutes later he is dead and she detects movement in the trees around her. She hides the artifact under a seat. Nomads emerge from the woods and take her prisoner.
They talk of selling her into slavery. Clea tries to win the favor of her captors by performing a torrid torchlight dance. It is this sequence which had prompted Kim to select Raven. The viewer never quite gets a good look at the dancer: everything is firelight and shadow, tempo and drum. Passion and temptation.
While her doppelganger writhed and spun, Kim sat back with a mix of satisfaction and nervousness. It was, after all, not very subtle. If Isabella’s DNA had opened the way for Columbus, hers was now performing a similar service for Solly. A smile formed on her lips: the eternal female, real or virtual, civilized or barbarian. The game never changes.
Solly watched the shadow play, but kept his eyes averted from her.
He knew of course what was happening and it was evident he was trying to play his own game, pretending to be objectively amused by the scenario. But she saw the tension in his face.
She lost track of the narrative at this point. The entire world—curious that she would think in that term, given that the entire world, in this reality, consisted exclusively of the interior of the Hammersmith–the entire world squeezed down to Solly’s eyes, narrowed, looking straight ahead, aware of her all the same.
“I don’t think,” he said finally, still avoiding her glance, “this is a good idea.”
She let almost a minute pass. They might have been frozen in place, illuminated only by the flickering glow of the VR. “Okay,” she said at last. “Whatever you think.”
Solly touched the remote and shut down the projector. The room went dark save for the soft glow of security lights along the base of the wall.
“Kim.” His voice was low and seemed to come from far away. “I think I love you.”
And there it was: finally out in the open.
She got up and stood before him, entwined her arms around his neck and drew him to her.
“I’ve always loved you,” he said.
“I know.” It was what made the moment particularly frightening. And particularly joyful.
He pulled her down beside him. Their lips brushed lightly, withdrew, came back. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said.
She could feel his heart beat. Or maybe it was hers. It was getting hard to tell.
His cheek was hot against hers and she clung to him, reveling in the passion of the moment. She felt him shudder. But he still seemed tentative.
“It’s okay, Solly,” she said.
Inhibited by the behavior pattern of more than a decade, he drew just far enough away to look at her. “I’m not sure about this,” he said.
“Be sure.” She took his hand and placed it against her breast.
The bunks were not portable, nor were they big enough to accommodate two people, so after the first couple of nights, which were spent in a tangle on the floor of the rec room, they retreated to their individual quarters after their passions had been satisfied. Ham, Solly remarked, had not been designed for lovemaking.
Kim found the arrangement eminently unsatisfactory. Solly agreed and removed the mattresses from two of the beds, added some cushions, took over a third compartment, and turned it into their sleeping room. It worked quite well.
As one might expect, morale on the spacecraft soared. Solly revealed to her, under prodding after an offhand remark, that in his view she’d spent much of the first week in a general funk. Reviewing her moods, she realized it was probably true. Despite his presence, she’d felt alone because it was she who had pushed the project, she who had insisted it was worthwhile to hang their careers out to dry. She who would bear the responsibility if they found nothing. And then she had learned that Solly thought it would be better if the mission failed.
Well, now at least Solly had come on board. So to speak.
Kim began to think of those days as the happiest of her life. By the end of the fourth week, she was wondering how she could possibly have waited so long to take him.
At midnight on the thirty-second day of the voyage, February 30, the second nova would be triggered. “If we get lucky,” she said, “Beacon will be obsolete before they’ve blown Ozma.” Ozma was scheduled to be the last star in the series.
Despite the exhilaration that came with giving herself free rein with Solly, she had begun to develop an irritation at being cut off from the outside world. “It isn’t just the newscasts,” she explained. “It’s like being in a cocoon.”
“You need more candlelight and music,” Solly said. “It’s probably the same effect that causes hallucinations in the liners. There, it’s less pressing because there are a thousand or so people on board. They run casinos and gossip shows and all kinds of things like that, but even then the sense of extreme solitude affects people. Here there are only the two of us.”
“I recall,” Kim said, “reading an account once about a woman stranded on a world for three months before help came. She had all she could do to stay sane, knowing she was the only person on the planet.”
“Do you feel it?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “The ship has echoes. It’s like an old house. But look, if it’s getting to you, we can jump back into realspace and at least talk to somebody. You could ask Phil Agostino how he’s doing.”
“How long would that take? To talk to somebody at the Institute?”
“Several days for the transmission to make the round-trip.”
“Not really worth it, is it?”
“It is if you need to do it.”
“No,” she said. “Let’s keep moving.”
That night, at midnight, they toasted the Beacon Project. They did it with mixed drinks and crystal glasses that Kim had brought aboard, and Solly expressed his fervent hope that, when the light from the novas reached Greenway in several centuries, people would still remember Kim Brandywine.
She blushed. “Why me?”
“It would be a reminder of a time when the human race thought it was alone. Before Brandywine opened the door.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Kim, refilling both glasses.
“I’ve something more important for you to drink to.”
She laughed and put down her glass and kissed him and rubbed her breasts against him, warming to see the light come into his eyes. “What could be more important?”
“Kim,” he said, “I know this is a special circumstance, and I don’t want to read more into it than what’s there. But I want you to know that, when we go home, wherever we go from here, I’m not going to want things to go back to being the way they were.”
It was the moment she’d both feared and hoped for. “I don’t think we ought to make any decisions like that out here,” she said.
“Why not? Or is that a no?
They were sitting on their impromptu bed, both in underclothes. A Nelson adventure was running, full-masted naval warships blazing away at one another. They’d turned off the sound and reduced the images so that the vessels simply floated in the middle of the room.
“No, it isn’t. I just don’t think we should rush into this.” She wondered why she was saying something so at odds with what she was feeling.
“Okay,” he said.
“Solly, let’s let it go for now. Enjoy what we have.”
“Okay.” He looked unhappy.
“I mean, hey, how long’s Ann been gone?”
“That’s how long you waited to make your move.” She was surprised at her own sudden anger. Where the hell had that come from?
Solly said nothing for several moments. Then he excused himself and left the room.
Goddamn it. A lover’s quarrel.
It hadn’t taken long.