I love to sail forbidden seas—
Matt met her at the boarding tube. She was carrying the Valiant in a Gene Teddy box, which was adorned with a picture of the popular children’s character. “Is that it?” he asked.
“That’s it.” She was surprised to see him there. But he looked like a man being led to execution. “Something wrong?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“No reason. It was good of you to come see us off.”
“‘See you off’? I’m going.”
It had never occurred to her that Matt would put himself at risk. “Good,” she said. “We can use all the help we can get. When are we leaving?”
“Two more people are on the way up. As soon as they get here, in about an hour—”
“Sooner the better,” she said. “I suggest we plan on leaving as soon as they’re in the door.”
He took the box and they started up the tube. “Something happen?”
She told him about Woodbridge. He listened with a deepening frown. “Do we have cover for this mission?” she asked.
“It’s listed as a return to Taratuba. Nothing unusual. But he knew you were coming to Terminal City.”
“I make a lot of trips out here. Nothing unusual about that. And I’ve booked a room at the Beachfront Hotel. We should have a few hours.” It was essential to be away before Woodbridge found out he had nothing more than an ornament and began looking for her. If there was a problem with the Patrol this time, she wouldn’t have Solly in the pilot’s room.
“All right,” he said. “We’ll try to get going as quickly as we can. But I don’t want to leave anybody behind. These people dropped everything for this—”
“They don’t know why, do they?”
“They’ve only been told they won’t be sorry.”
“I hope that’s true.”
If the Hammersmith had resembled a cheap hotel, the McCollum suggested a run-down office building with temporary quarters for people who’d got stranded during a blizzard. It was gray, dark, and oppressive. Usually, when Kim wanted to suggest how desperately the Institute needed contributions, she showed pictures of the Mac.
The ship itself was a box with rounded edges. The rooms were spartan, intended for dual occupancy, with sufficient space to house twenty-four passengers. Its facilities weren’t all that bad: the rec area was decent, it had an updated mission center, a good briefing room, and the pilots thought it was the most dependable vehicle in the Institute’s modest fleet. That probably wasn’t saying a great deal.
The utility deck was located on the top floor. And an 8.6-meter telescope was mounted on the roof.
“We picked up a robot bouncer!” Matt said.
“An automated system we can send outside to get rid of anything that attaches itself to the hull.”
Several of the team members were gathered in the passenger cabin. There was a mathematician, a biologist, a linguist, and several others. Matt introduced everyone. Kim knew a few. They shook hands and everybody started asking questions. What’s it about? Where are we going?
They’d come on faith. Trusted Agostino, God help them.
She explained that she needed some time in her quarters. There were two more coming, and they should be along any moment. When they got here, she’d come back and tell them what all the mystery was about.
Then she excused herself and retreated to her room, asking Matt to let her know as soon as everyone was on board. Ten minutes later there was a knock at her door. She opened it and found herself looking into the smiling features of Ali Kassem, the ship’s captain.
“Kim,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“Hello, Ali.” She made way, and closed the door behind him. “Nice to see you again.”
“You too. What’s all the secrecy?”
“How much do you know?”
“Only that we’re not going to Taratuba.”
“Sit down, Ali,” she said. “Are they giving you hazardous duty pay?”
“All right. So fill me in.”
She encapsulated everything into a three-minute narrative, omitting Woodbridge’s effort to seize the Valiant. When she finished he looked shaken. “Are you still willing to go?” she asked.
“What do you do if I decide it is not for me?”
“I’ll be in some difficulty.”
The rest of the team arrived in good order. Other than Kim, Matt, and Ali, there were eight persons on board. They gathered in the briefing room, where Matt explained he had wanted to invite others, and in fact had invited others. Some had wanted specifics, others said they couldn’t come on such short notice. Eight, he said, was inadequate to the task, but it would have to do. Then he turned the meeting over to Kim. “We have only a few minutes before departure,” she said.
“So I’ll try not to waste anyone’s time.” She stepped up onto a raised section of floor. “We’ve made contact,” she said.
The room went dead silent. Nobody moved.
“With celestials. It’s true. It happened. In fact, there’ve been two events.”
Now she had them. They blurted out questions but Kim waved them aside. She described the Hunter and Hammersmith discoveries, and told them what had really occurred at the Culbertson Tunnel. She told them that the Council was determined to maintain secrecy for the time being, and that was why no one had been able to explain anything in advance. She showed them the Valiant but would not allow them to inspect it. “You can do all that later,” she said. “What you need to know now is that we hope to reestablish communication, that we hope to compensate for the mistakes made twenty-seven years ago, and that we know almost nothing about what we face. We’re pretty sure they are now hostile, and we can assume they will not hesitate to destroy the McCollum. We’ll be out there alone. Consequently you might want to reconsider whether you want to come.” She turned to Ali. “Anyone who wishes to leave has an opportunity now to do so. Once we get underway, you’re committed.”
“How dangerous?” asked their anthropologist, Maurie Penn.
“You know as much as I do now. I’d say substantially.”
“Count me in,” said the mathematician. “A chance to talk to another species? Hell, yes.”
There was no real debate. For one thing, they were out of time. For another, the prize was simply too bright. Those who might ordinarily have been reluctant to put their lives in jeopardy for any reason, like the AI specialist Gil Chase, were overwhelmed by the possibilities of the situation. They would all stay. Certainly, they were saying, what else would you expect?
The formal meeting broke up. The seats swung back to acceleration positions, and Ali made for the pilot’s room.
Maurie Penn sat down beside her. “This is not the way I’d have wanted to do this,” he said. “A mission like this. There should have been some preparation.”
“Conditions don’t permit it,” she said.
Ali’s voice alerted them that departure was imminent. The cabin lights dimmed.
The seats in the briefing room had individual monitors that could be keyed into any of the visual inputs from the external imagers. She switched over to a view of Greenway and looked down at Equatoria. The northern snows had given way and the entire continent was now green. The Mandan archipelago trailed off to the west, over the rim of the world.
The skyhook, long and arcing as if a heavy wind were blowing against it, dropped down and down into the cloud banks where it faded from sight.
Kim felt a slight push.
“Underway,” said Ali.
Forty-some minutes later, without a word from the Patrol, they slipped into hyperspace and Kim breathed more easily.
The Valiant came under immediate scrutiny. After the initial wave of euphoria, some members concluded that Kim had dragged them along on a frivolous—and deranged—mission. But Flexner’s reputation held the day. Matt was solid, down-to-earth, not one to be swept off his feet. There might therefore be something to the story.
Eventually, after everyone had had a chance to look at the microship, she cautioned them against attempting to take it apart, and secured it inside a glass case in one of the unused rooms on the top floor. Reluctantly, she activated an alarm system.
“Not a good idea,” Matt told her, “to signal that you don’t trust your people.”
She knew that. She apologized to them but explained that she knew they were scientists and that the temptation might be overwhelming. “We need it intact,” she said. And then she explained the real purpose of the mission. “We’re going to give it back to them.”
Eyes widened and people started to argue. Tesla Duchard, the biologist, looked as if she were going into shock.
But Kim defended her view, and to his credit, Matt supported her. “The Hunter mission did a lot of damage,” he said. “If we can rectify that, and establish a constructive relationship, we’ll come away with far more than a busted ship.”
There was some grumbling, but in the end they bought it.
Sandra Leasing, who designed and built star drives, concluded that the Valiant used a transdimensional entry system that was in no way different from their own. “Probably,” she said, “there is no other way to manage things.”
“The real question for me,” said Mona Vasquez, a psychologist, “is the missing propulsion tubes. How does it travel in normal space?”
“Only one way I can think of,” said Terri Taranaka, a physicist, “if you’re not throwing something out the rear, you have to throw something out the front, something to pull you along.”
“And what would that be?” asked Maurie.
“A gravity field. You create a gravity field along the intended course, just as we create one in here. And you fall forward into it.”
“Do we have that kind of capability?” asked Tesla.
“We do,” said Matt. “But we couldn’t generate a strong enough field to make it practical. In time, though, it’d be a good way to go. If only because you wouldn’t have to take along a load of reaction mass.”
Kim ran the Hunter logs for the team and enjoyed hearing them gasp when the celestial pilot appeared. “Cho-cho-san,” said Terri. “Butterfly.”
They discussed the Hunter’s reaction to its unexpected find and began considering what might await them, and how best to respond.
She decided also that it would be necessary to tell them about Woodbridge’s effort to seize the Valiant. When they reemerged into realspace in the vicinity of Alnitak, they’d undoubtedly receive an official message demanding return of the artifact. And she had to inoculate them against that. Especially, she had to win Ali over.
But she waited for the right time. They passed the midway point of the journey on a Thursday, and marked the event by throwing a party. This group turned out to be big on parties, and Kim liked that. The atmosphere in the ship remained festive and there was a lot of talk about being at the intersection of epochs. That was Gil’s terminology. Gil was aloof and formal, and quickly earned a reputation for being cooler than the AIs he created and serviced. Kim had known him for years, and he seemed to her to be a particularly selfish man, dedicated exclusively to advancing his own priorities. But it happened, on this occasion, that his priorities were in sync with hers.
Toward the end of the party, Paul McKeep commented that it was a good thing the Institute had kept the existence of the ship quiet. “The government’s too conservative,” he said. “They’d never have allowed us away from the dock.” Paul was their mathematician.
Kim threw a sidelong glance at Ali to make sure he was listening. Then she raised her voice slightly: “There’s something you folks ought to know.”
“Something else?” laughed Mona.
“Yes,” she said. “We didn’t quite succeed in keeping a lid on the Valiant. Woodbridge found out about it and tried to take it from me.”
“How’d you manage to keep it out of his hands?” asked Ali.
“I gave him a duplicate.”
That brought a round of laughter.
But Ali never cracked a smile. “You know what that means,” he said.
“Yes.” Kim looked directly into his dark eyes. “When we make the jump, we’ll find a recall waiting for us.”
He frowned, turned, and left the room. The others fell silent. Kim looked at Matt, intending to follow him, and make sure he would resist pressure from home.
But Matt shook his head. No, he was saying. This is not the time.
There was an echo to the voyage. Kim could not repress memories of the flight with Solly. The distances tended to collapse, as if she were on a train running through dark but familiar countryside, and the landmarks were all abstract, temporal, racing by. Places she’d been before. Here we were playing chess and Solly kept winning so I got annoyed. And there was where we finally beat Veronica King to the solution, in the case of “The Haunted Balcony.”
She knew when they arrived at the place where Kim’s image, as Clea, had performed the torchlight dance.
Stupid. Somewhere she had been incredibly stupid and had let it all slip through her fingers.
They spent most of their time devising their contact strategy. They intended to begin broadcasting as soon as they arrived, to ensure they couldn’t be missed. A new kind of Beacon Project, Kim thought.
They debated endlessly how best to establish a syntax and vocabulary. “We don’t want to play more number games,” Gil Chase reminded them.
They knew the two technologies had a common system for exchanging audio and visual signals. “We can use pictures in the beginning,” Eric Climer said. He was a linguist. “But it would have been helpful,” he complained to Kim, “if I had known in advance what this was about. I could have brought the proper software.”
They formulated lists of questions to ask once a common language had been devised. How far back can you trace your history? To even begin to phrase that question they’d have to work out a joint system for measuring time.
Where are you from?
“No,” said Maurie, “don’t ask that. It sounds too much like intelligence-gathering.”
“What do we do,” asked Sandra, “if they put that kind of question to us?”
“Considering what’s already happened,” said Paul, “we’d better avoid giving them any information of that nature.”
Kim nodded. “I agree.” She didn’t want to be responsible for the arrival of an invasion fleet if they encountered a worst-case scenario.
“But if they get the idea we don’t trust them,” said Matt, “how can we expect them to trust us?”
“We can’t,” said Mona. “But we don’t need a great deal of mutual trust. At least not in the beginning. They’ll certainly understand our reluctance to divulge that kind of information. I think our best approach to this is to be honest.”
“So what other questions,” asked Terri, “do we want answered?”
“Is there anyone else?” said Ali. “Have they found anybody else out there?”
“Your ships seem to have armaments. Why?”
“What’s your explanation for order in the universe? For the existence of the universe itself? Why isn’t there nothing?”
“Have you been able to establish the existence of alternate universes? If so, have you been able to learn anything about them?”
“Do you believe life has a spiritual dimension?”
“How are you going to define ‘spiritual?’” asked Mona. No one had any idea.
“What do you do with your leisure time?”
“Do we really care about that?” asked Terri. “Why would we want to know whether they play bridge?”
Maurie, who’d proposed the question, shook his head in dismay. “What people do with their leisure tells us a great deal about the nature of a society, what its values really are, for example, as opposed to what its members say its values are.”
“What if they ask us that question?” said Mona. “Are we going to admit that ninety-nine percent of our population sit around indulging in electronic fantasies?”
“Best not do that,” said Gil. “If these things are hostile, that would only invite attack.”
“So we lie,” said Matt.
“Sure.” Gil looked frustrated. “We don’t want to create problems down the line. Maybe we should be thinking more about what they’re going to ask us than vice-versa. Because they may think the same way we do. So what do we say when they ask questions designed, for example, to test our technological knowledge?”
“I don’t think we need to worry too much about that,” said Paul. “All they have to do is shoot at us and see how quickly it takes us to leave town.”
Nobody seriously believed there’d be a biological presence at Alnitak, but everyone was convinced the Mac would find an automated outpost of some sort, a scanner watching for one of the giant ships to reappear. There was no way humans would not have established one, and nobody could imagine an intelligent species simply abandoning interest in a place in which two encounters had occurred in recent decades. Although it occurred to Kim that Woodbridge would have forced just such an abandonment had he been able. What did that say about human governments?
They agreed, by a vote of seven to three, that any effort by the celestials to attach an object to the hull would be deemed hostile, and the contact attempt would be terminated at that point. Ali explained to Kim later that he didn’t care much about the outcome of that particular vote since the safety of the ship was his responsibility, and she should not doubt for a minute that he would not require anybody’s authorization to clear out if he didn’t like any aspect of the behavior of their prospective clients.
If an object actually arrived despite their best efforts, and secured itself to the Mac, they would send the robot out to break it loose. To ensure it didn’t circle back, the robot would burn it with a few thousand volts before tossing it aside. No hatch would be opened at any time after the operation commenced. The robot was dispensable and would be left behind.
If nothing appeared to either challenge or welcome them, they would broadcast a greeting and wait things out. The Mac carried enough supplies for a ten-week stay in the region. If there were no developments during that time, they’d leave an automated scanner and broadcasting station of their own and return home.
As could be expected, a few shipboard romances developed. Paul and Terri paired off; Eric created a bit of tension by running dalliances with both Mona and Tesla. Matt, who was married, either refused to take advantage of Sandra Leasing’s obvious interest or he did it with sufficient discretion that Kim saw no evidence of it.
Ali remained professionally courteous to everyone, but he maintained a discreet distance from the women. During the course of a wandering discussion one night in the rec room, he commented casually that emotional attachments between captains and passengers were not conducive to good order.
Kim was well below everybody else’s age, and she knew her companions perceived her as little more than a child. It was just as well; she was still too close to Solly to think about any kind of relationship. And considering the cramped conditions on board the Mac, everything became public within a few hours anyhow.
During the final days prior to arrival at Alnitak, tension began to build.
The renowned twenty-fourth-century psychologist Edmund Trimble had argued that extended life spans were detrimental to human progress. For one thing, he said, life tended for most people to consist of a series of missed opportunities. Consequently, after seventy or eighty years, people became not only inflexible, but increasingly cynical. As it had turned out, Trimble’s fears were exaggerated but not altogether groundless. The average age for the members of the contact team, not counting Kim or Ali (who was only 41) was 126. The general conviction, based on all these years of experience, was that something would go wrong. What they expected to go wrong was that no one would be waiting at Alnitak: that the opportunity had been missed and that all they would have to show in the end would be the Valiant, the Hunter logs, and maybe another intruder chasing them around.
On the last night before arrival, they celebrated Kim’s thirty-sixth birthday. They broke out a few bottles and toasted her. Gil provided a cake, they put up ribbon, and enjoyed a celebration whose level of festivity, it seemed to her, far exceeded the significance of the event.