During the first few hours, we struggled at the “I am a little red pencil box stage.” But gradually we got past basic syntax. Furthermore, Eric picked up some of their language, which we were able to reproduce on a synthesizer, and we actually started to talk to one another.
Kim had little opportunity to celebrate her victory. Within an hour of watching the Valiant float off into the darkness, off the scanners and scopes of the Mac and the fleet vessels, she was arrested by the captain of the Dauntless, charged with willful misuse of government property and, against the indignant protests of everyone involved, taken on board the banshee to be returned to Greenway.
That wasn’t the problem. At least not the major one. Matt used every argument he could think of to persuade the force commander to rescind his order that the McCollum depart immediately. Ali contrived to scramble a key navigational system, and thereby gained twelve hours during which the contact team worked frantically to establish a constructive relationship with the celestials.
Kim was treated well enough. Her movements were restricted, but her quarters were a step up from Mac’s accommodations. The crew were polite, if not especially convivial. They had been told, she suspected, that she was a major violator, so they maintained a respectful distance. The captain declined to interview her or to see her, explaining through an intermediary that he had no wish to be called into court to testify as to what she had said or not said about her activities.
The small task force of which the Dauntless was part did not leave until the Mac was safely on its way home. Then it too slipped into hyperspace and started the long flight back to Greenway.
Kim did little other than read, work out, and sleep. She twice forwarded requests to the captain, explaining that the scientific project of the age, perhaps of all time, was now going forward, and asking whether the Dauntless could perhaps pop out of hyperspace for an hour to allow her to file a report to her superiors.
“Quite redundant,” the captain replied politely through his representative. He’d be pleased to comply with her request, but he had already forwarded a report. As had the McCollum. He had a copy of the latter presented to her. It contained the electrifying news that the celestials had agreed to a future meeting, to be conducted during the five-hundredth revolution of the gas giant. Several months away.
So it happened that during the second week of August, the Dauntless jumped back into realspace and Kim arrived at Sky Harbor once again expecting to be arrested. And again she was surprised: She was greeted by the Premier himself while a band played, an audience cheered, and the media recorded everything for posterity.
I’ve told you, and I’ve told you, Matt had said, smiling at dockside, never underestimate the power of public relations. It was too big a story, the news too good. There was no way a politician could ignore it. If the celestials turned out later to be dangerous, well, with luck that would happen during somebody else’s watch.
On the way down in the lift, she watched a special report called “Meeting at Alnitak.” Agostino was prominently featured as the person who’d stayed on top of the Mount Hope puzzle when everybody else had given up, and who’d ultimately put the pieces together. Kim was barely mentioned.
The news had electrified the world. Kim learned later that the Council initially made an effort to keep everything quiet, but it simply had not been possible.
Preparations for the next meeting were already well underway. She received a message from Agostino congratulating her on a job well done and promising her that, if she were not incarcerated, she would be welcome to go.
Analysis of the scans she’d made of the Valiant indicated that Terri had been right, that the vessel had moved through realspace by manipulation of gravity. The method was much more efficient than anything available to the Nine Worlds, but unfortunately, without the original vessel, it would be impossible to determine how the system worked. There was some irritation about that, especially when the celestials, after subsequent meetings, showed a lack of enthusiasm for explaining their technologies. At about this time Kim’s role became more widely known, and she briefly became the target of reconstructive journalism. Someone even wrote a book exposing her as a traitor.
The design of the Valiant also revealed the need for the presence of something like the shroud: those parts that would require periodic maintenance or adjustment seemed to be in areas that could not be reached without major disassembly. These were accessible through a series of ducts, except that the ducts were far too narrow to accommodate even the minuscule crew. The approximate size of the individual crew members turned out to be roughly five centimeters, top to bottom, or wingtip to wingtip, however one chose to measure.
Information was still scarce regarding the nature of the shrouds. And in fact there was, early on, considerable debate as to which of the two races was in charge. The shrouds are now believed to be artificial lifeforms, biological AIs, designed for a wide range of purposes. The creatures piloted, maintained, and, if necessary, defended the starships.
Kim received invitations to appear on various HV shows, to write her memoirs, and even to run for office. Midnight Lace invited her to pose against the memorial at Cabry’s Beach.
The rendezvous mission went well. Kim went along, permanent stations were established by both races at Alnitak, and the first so-called face-to-face conversation was attempted. Eric Climer represented humanity and became a worldwide celebrity largely because of a picture showing him with a butterfly on his shoulder.
Afterward, when she got home, she received a call from Canon Woodbridge. It was their first conversation since he’d attempted to seize the Valiant.
“You’ve done well,” he told her. It was a late evening in early fall, sixteen months after the flight of the McCollum. It had rained much of the day and the sky was devoid of stars.
“It’s kind of you to say so, Canon.”
He was seated at a table, his piercing eyes illuminated by a small lamp which cast its glow into her living room. “You took a gamble, for all of us, but it appears you were right.”
“You sound sorry it turned out that way.”
“No. I’m glad we’re not being threatened.” He leaned toward her and laid a finger alongside his jaw. “Kim, I don’t want you to misunderstand what I have to say. I’m grateful this Orion species is benign. Apparently benign. The fact is we really don’t know yet what the long-range effects will be on the way we live. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for you. So I don’t say this lightly, but I want you to know that what you did was the most arrogant and irresponsible act I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Eventually, Mike Plymouth showed up. Guardian of the Archives.
He was waiting for her one wintry afternoon when she came out of the Institute. It had by then been almost three years since the break-in.
“Mike,” she said. Embarrassed. Flustered.
He smiled. “Hi, Kay.”
“My name’s Kim.”
He nodded. “I know. You went to a lot of trouble to get my DNA.”
She detected no rancor in his voice. “I’m sorry.” They stood looking at each other. “We needed a sample. How’d you find me?”
“It wasn’t hard. You’re one of the most famous people in the Republic.”
“Well,” she stumbled, “I apologize. I—”
“I know,” he said. “No need. It’s all right.”
Snowbanks were piled high around them and another storm was on the way. “I’m glad you came. I’d have contacted you, but I was embarrassed.”
“I understand.” He looked hesitant. “I was wondering. We still have an outstanding dinner engagement. I’d be pleased—”
She hesitated, started to explain that she had a commitment that evening, wondered why she was begging off, and decided what the hell. “Of course, Mike,” she said. “I’d love to.”
They went to the Ocean View and ordered a couple of glasses of white wine to dawdle over in the candlelight. It was still early, the restaurant was almost empty, and soft music was being piped in.
They talked about her voyages to Orion and when she tried to change the subject, to ask him how things were going at the Archives, he laughed and brushed it aside. “Same as always,” he said. “Nothing exciting since the big break-in.”
He asked how she’d felt when that first message had come through, Where are they?, and what had run through her mind when the shroud approached while she stood atop the McCollum, and what it had been like being in the same room with one of the Cho-Choi, as the celestials were now known. Tern’s name for them had stuck.
In sequence, she said, exhilarated, terrified, and the last event had never happened. “Only Eric got to share space with one. They’re so small, and there are so many complications that the physical meetings are difficult to bring off. It was intended to be purely symbolic. We and they will probably never spend much time hanging out together.”
He asked why their ships were armed.
“That’s a misunderstanding,” Kim said. “The device that killed Emily isn’t a weapon. It’s used to project a gravity field in front of the vessel. It rearranges space. Or matter and energy, if they happen to get in the way.”
There was also a widely held view that the new species wasn’t as bright as humans. Their civilization was, after all, almost thirty thousand years older than ours, and yet their technology did not seem greatly advanced.
“Cyclic development,” Kim explained. Dark ages. Up and down. “It looks as if we can’t rely on automatic progress. We’ve had a couple of dark ages ourselves. The big one, after Rome, and a smaller one, here. The road doesn’t always move forward.” She looked at him in the candlelight. “These periodic downturns may not be simply aberrations. And that knowledge alone might be worth the price we paid.”
“So what are you going to do now?” he asked.
What indeed? She had offers from facilities throughout the Nine Worlds, positions that would allow her to unload the fund-raising job and become a serious astrophysicist. “Pick and choose,” she said. “Do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. “I never forgot you,” he said.
She smiled. “I can see that.”
“Will you be leaving the area?”
“Anything I can do to persuade you to stay?”
She moved closer to him and touched his cheek. “We do always seem to be moving in opposite directions, don’t we, Mike?”
Later, he rode out with her to the island, and she invited him in. It had begun to snow.
“No,” he said. “I’ll pass for now. I’d rather have you owing me an invitation. That way I can be sure I’ll see you again.”