A Long Awaited Encounter
by John R. Plunkett


Ooh, this is bad, Zarya commented.

Star, what should be do? Strelka put in.

What the devil makes you think I know? Star wanted to scream. Instead, her hands clenched tightly at four of many large, metal staples attached to Star Home's outer hull, placed specifically to give Star and her siblings convenient places to perch while outside.

The rungs were not original equipment; they'd been installed because, when the Stariionae used the molebind projectors in their palms, they tended to claw at the surface being gripped. The rungs, by contrast, could suffer a great deal of abuse without damaging the underlying structure.

Star felt the metal deform under her fingers. Expendable or not, that would earn her a stern talking to when the next hull integrity audit came around. (Which happened much more frequently than on a typical space habitat. The engineers were fond of saying they'd thought they were designing a space habitat, not a piece of playground equipment. Visitors often thought they were joking, since they generally smiled when they said it.)

At the moment Star didn't give a damn. Strelka was afraid; fear radiated from her like neutrons from a barely subcritical mass of Plutonium. Zarya was scared also, despite his studied nonchalance. His and Strelka's fear affected Star a lot more than she cared to admit. All of that raised the emotional K factor to a dangerous level, where any small thing could easily push it into the super-critical range. But the parents, sitters, and friends who would normally seek to moderate the situation by offering comfort and reassurance were in no better shape themselves. Which left Star in the unenviable position of being the one to whom her younger siblings turned, but having no one to turn to herself. Before now, despite the ups and downs, Star would never have believed she might truly, honestly wish she wasn't the eldest. Still in all something has to be done, if only because Star felt herself slipping, and she knew with absolute certainty that if she lost it than everyone would suffer, not just her.

In biological creatures, Star had been told, stress caused one's thought process to accelerate, so that time appeared to slow. A similar thing happened with Stariionae, except that the speed increase was much larger: about a factor of a hundred, compared to organic creatures. In a clearer state of mind Star could easily have followed the progression as her brain ratcheted itself up to increasingly higher alert levels. For example, the people flooding out of Wardroom Three seemed to slow down in stages until they appeared to stop completely, some of them hanging in midair. At present neither the deceleration phenomena nor the tableau itself held Star's attention; it flicked restlessly through the stations interior, then moved on to objects nearby. There wasn't any particular pattern to the search; it was simply a way of venting nervous energy, the same way a Softie might start pacing or gesticulating when in a highly agitated state.

Star Home's main superstructure consisted of a rectangular box with the corners shaved off, thus forming something more like a cylinder with an octagonal cross-section. The decks ran lengthwise instead of crosswise, so the cylinder could be described as laying on its side instead of standing upright. Given that orientation, from the top of the superstructure jutted a long, low structure that some observers described as resembling the sail of a submarine. (Star had never actually seen a submarine, so she didn't know.) Two short, thick masts, one at each end of the "sail," contained tractor/pressor mounts that were part of the automated landing system. A taller, thinner mast contained sensors and communication equipment so the station could observe its surroundings and communicate with the world at large. Inside the "sail" were the transfer locks leading to the hangar bay. (The actual Operations, Communications, and Traffic Control centers were located in the station's core, as far as possible from the outer hull.)

Sticking from the bottom of the superstructure was a third tractor/pressor mast, also part of the ALS. To one side of it was the EVA center, a small, boxy structure everyone called the Marina. Suit maneuvering units, scooters (maneuvering units with more range), and pogo sticks (spring-loaded poles with claws on the end) were all stored there, along with any other equipment or tools that people operating outside the station in space suits might reasonably require. The Marina wasn't pressurized; that way all the gear didn't have to be cycled through the lock along with the people. Star had been told that the Marina was a rather unusual feature for a space station, because for the most part Softies didn't go out in space unless they absolutely had to. At Star Home, though, someone generally came out every time the kids went for walkies. Following the kids with shuttles or other spacecraft had proven unsatisfactory; it was too easy for the kids to ditch their chaperones. But if the chaperone happened to be on one's person, "accidentally" getting rid of them was a lot more difficult. Since Stariionae weren't ships, and lacked any interior accommodation, the chaperones had to ride on the outside and thus wear space suits.

From one end of the superstructure- the right, from Star's current position on the hull- projected a long, skinny strut, longer than the superstructure itself, at the far end of which was the main reactor. This positioning, Star had been assured, was not a safety issue; rather, it was to move the reactor as far as practicably possible from a lot of delicate instrumentation within the station itself. A number of large in attached to the strut in pairs, like insect wings. In the normal course of events the fins dumped or collected heat in order to regulate the station's interior temperature. In an emergency they could also provide backup power for life support.

At the opposite end of the superstructure- to Star's left, from her current position- were the hangars. Star had heard them described as looking like a bureau with the drawers removed; on the outside the hangar assembly was a large box (with the corners intact, unlike the superstructure) with three horizontal partitions dividing the interior into four bays. At the inner end of each bay, where the hangar assembly joined the superstructure, was a windowed visitor's gallery. At the outer end of each bay was a pair of clamshell doors, hinged at the top and bottom and opening outward. The #1 bay, on top, belonged to Star; #2 belonged to Strelka, #4 on the bottom belonged to Zarya, and #3 was officially empty but commonly used for storage. (Krita, Strelka and Zarya's mother, would have lived there if she'd survived giving birth.)

Star Home sat at the L2 point of Ka'turna, Chakona's outer, larger moon. Which meant, broadly speaking, that the station resided on a line connecting the two centers of mass, at the point where the opposing forces of gravity exactly balanced. Since Chakona weighed much more than Ka'turna, that point was close to the moon and far from the planet. Though it would be more technically accurate to say that Star Home orbited the L2 point, in a plane perpendicular to the aforementioned line, following a Lissajous curve. The general shape of the curve could be imagined by drawing a sine wave on a strip of clear material, then attaching the ends together to form a cylinder, and looking at it from the side. In any case Star hadn't paid much attention during the lecture; in her opinion the scientists had made an exceedingly tedious and complicated explanation for something that was, to her, intuitively obvious.

Practically speaking, the positioning put Star Home relatively close to Chakona but away from most of the commercial space activity, which mostly took place in near orbit or around Cha'turna, the smaller, inner moon. With no particular effort Star noted and plotted the orbits of starships arriving from or departing to Terra, Voxxa, Cait, and various points within the Terran Colonial Expansion Zone. Intra-system vessels shuttled back and forth between Chakona, Cha'turna, and Ka'turna, not to mention assorted factory stations that orbited one of the aforementioned bodies or clustered at Cha'turna's L4 and L5 points. Longer range shuttles journeyed to or from mining stations in the asteroid belt and gas mining facilities around Harpagornis. Ordinarily Star enjoyed watching it, like a vast, fantastically complex ballet, apparently chaotic but in fact masterfully choreographed. Now, she hardly noticed. She could see so much- do so much- and it didn't amount to a hill of beans. None of it did Alaula the slightest good-

Quite abruptly, Star's attention ceased wandering and focused intently upon one particular location. That place happened to be Ka'turna's L4 point, 60 degrees ahead of the moon along its orbital path. In that location Star observed an object which was clearly a starship; a space station might have been that big but wouldn't be so solidly built, nor equipped with such a large warp reactor. (A space station could have a warp reactor, especially if it needed transporters or supra-lumiunal communications. The unit would typically be much smaller than what a ship would require, though.) Moreover, there were no other ships in the area: only various unmanned satellites, mostly serving various communication or scientific purposes.

Despite how interesting all that might be on its own, what commanded Star's undivided attention was that she'd caught it looking at her. Not the observing itself- during her time with the project she'd grown accustomed to having sensors of every concivable variety focused upon her- but how it was done. The ship did its looking the way a Stariionae did. It was a way of looking which, in Star's experience, the Softie scientists had never managed to duplicate, despite spending a great deal of time and effort on the subject. But these Softies- for it was unquestionably a Softie ship- had figured it out.

For a brief instant Star wondered if it really mattered. It did, she decided. For one, if these Softies had figured this out, what other clever things might they be capable of? More importantly, investigating the matter meant she'd be doing something instead of merely sitting on her thumbs.

Come on, Star called, releasing her grip on the station. She didn't have engines in the usual sense of the word; instead, transporters within her body beamed material into space while force fields focused, compressed, and accelerated it. The result was like an engine with almost infinintely variable geometry but no moving parts, no mass, and requiring only energy to operate.

**********************

But not now. Not with so much on her mind-

Star's attention focused suddenly on a particular object. It resided at Ka'turna's L4 The object had a proportionally large warp reactor, so it had to be a starship. (Star Home had a warp reactor in order to power its transporters and FTL comm gear; the unit didn't generate anywhere near enough power to move the station into hyper-space.) On the whole it seemed just like all the other ships which came and went all the time, but from experience Star knew this one to be different. On various occasions in the recent past she'd felt it looking at her. Not like the typical Softie instruments she'd had turned upon her, but more in the manner that Stariionae looked at one another. Which Star found very interesting, because she'd never encountered a Softie machine that could do that. That this ship could do so, when it was otherwise so ordinary, struck Star as particularly remarkable.

Come on, Star said, releasing her grip on the station's hull and retracting her limbs. If a Softie observer had happened to be watching, it would have seemed as if the soft, shifting colors of her skin suddenly blazed with dazzling brilliance and lifted out of the surface, forming a scintillating corona that blazed with light like that of an actual star. But only for a fraction of an instant would this breathtaking sight have been visible; in less than the blink of an eye it wound dwindle to a flickering spark in the sky as Star accelerated at somewhere around seventy times the force of gravity. The theoretical observer would also have been bombarded with a blast of high-intensity radiation and ionized particles that would have sorely tested, and probably overcome, the radiation shielding of any space suit a person could actually wear, though it sleeted harmlessly off Star Home's well-shielded hull.

Stariionae did not have engines in any conventional sense of the word but they weren't immune to the laws of physics, either. Transporters inside Star's body beamed matter into space, which materialized as gas. Force fields compressed and expelled the gas, just the way a conventional rocket engine would, but the force fields could easily produce pressures and temperatures that no physical structure could ever hope to withstand. The pressure was so high that some of the gas converted to plasma, producing the dazzling light show. Also, the force fields could continue harvesting energy from the expanding gas even when it was hundreds of kilometers away; as a result, Star's "virtual thruster" approached one hundred percent efficiency at nearly any conceivable flight regimen. It was like having an engine with infinitely variable geometry that could develop thrust in any direction and had no weight. Star didn't necessarily even have to use her own onboard reaction mass; those same force fields could just as easily react against any matter that happened to be handy, like stars, planets, moons, or other objects all the way down to random space dust. (One object conspicuously absent from the list was Star Home, as a result of Star, Strelka, and Zarya getting read the riot act about "rocking the boat" on more occasions than any of them could count, nor even wanted to remember.)

Technicalities aside, flying was fun. As Star accelerated she rolled, pitched, and yawed, deliberately throwing herself into a tumble, but nevertheless maintaining just the right thrust angle to keep her dead on course. Not for any reason, just because she could. The sheer joy of it almost made her forget why she'd gone in the first place. Almost.

Where are we going? Zarya asked. Though Star hadn't bothered announcing her destination Zarya had managed to match her maneuver pretty closely; Star knew she'd have to work hard to say ahead of him as he grew. Strelka, on the other hand, had gotten off to a slow star and fallen behind. She'd catch up, though, by using a somewhat less efficient orbit profile. Star could easily beat both her siblings in total delta-V and peak acceleration, but she hadn't bothered going flat out in this case.

To see the ambassador, Star replied.


Tri'lathe's sitting room contained a large, deeply padded chair that leaned back almost horizontal, like a recliner. It faced a bank of gallery windows, which at the moment gave a view of Chakona, Cha'turna, and Ka'turna, gleaming like jewels in velvet from the light of their star, Chakastra. Tri'lathe didn't see any of that, though; she slumped bonelessly in the chair, hir head flopped to one side, her eyes open but glassy and empty. She looked like a person in a coma, and in a certain sense she was: her mind had withdrawn from her body and become one with the Mind's Eye. Through it, she saw... everything. Hundreds of spacecraft, bustling about on their various duties. Dozens of space habitats. Several moonbases on both Cha'turna and Ka'turna. And Chakona itself, teeming with life. Tri'lathe felt as if she could see each and every one, all at once.

Of course it wasn't really like that. The Mind's Eye expanded a person's perceptions but didn't make one a god. A person could only focus on one thing at a time, even though the rest of it remained present, in the periphery. Presently, Tri'lathe focused on the Chakonan Defense Force's base on the far side of Ka'turna. In the context of the local civilization it was a large and very sophisticated facility. So it seemed that the Chakats, for all their stated commitments to peace and brotherhood, weren't entirely willing to trust in the goodwill of others. An opinion the coming of the Ra'thiri- whom they called the Stariionae- had shown to prudent, though ultimately futile. Though it had happened more than a year ago, there was still evidence of the attack of one knew where to look. And the Ra'thiri had only done as much damage as they deemed necessary to rescue their child. Tri'lathe had seen what happened when the Ra'thiri were really serious about a fight. The Chakats had no idea how lucky they were.

And yet... when the old female had elected to stay behind, the Chakats welcomed her. They'd taken care of her as best they could, her and her two children whom she'd died giving birth to. And the original child, the one the Ra'thiri had come to rescue but, in the end, left behind. Now they all seemed to be getting along, though various Federation member worlds had sent scientific delegations to study the children, and there was a great deal of friction between some of the factions. Even so, the Chakats made sure the infighting didn't adversely affect the children, the welfare of whom the Chakats really did seem to have placed first. This in spite of the fact that a more aggressive and less considerate program of research was sure to yield a wealth of scientific knowledge. A curious situation; very curious indeed.

A movement caught Tri'lathe's attention. In normal circumstances she would have called it a flicker in the corner of her eye, though within the Mind's Eye perceptions really didn't work that way. Even as she turned her attention toward it, though, everything went dark. The great, wonderful world of the Eye seemed to rush away, as if she were falling. Falling and shrinking, down into a point, a singularity-

With a shuddering gasp, Tri'lathe awoke. The Mind's Eye's probes detached from her scalp, the wires drawing back and wrapping around their individual facets, which collapsed together into a single mass. At the end it was nothing but a sphere about 20cm in diameter which appeared to be made of brightly colored glass or crystal shards, each segment bordered by gold wire, like a leaded glass window made of gold and wrapped into a ball. It hung from a hand-wrought metal stand, which flexed slightly, moving the ball so it hung over the end table next to the chair instead of directly above it. From that position the ball turned slowly, casting beams of colored light from a soft, diffuse source somewhere inside it. Tri'lathe enjoyed watching it; she found it soothing. When visitors came aboard, that's what she told them it was for.

The intercom chimed. "Ambassador, the Ra'thiri children are on their way here."

"Thank you," Tri'lathe croaked. Coming out of the Mind's Eye was a strain even under the best of circumstances; getting yanked out unexpectedly made it much worse. She wasn't surprised, though; she'd programmed the Mind's Eye to shut down automatically if the Ra'thiri might notice it. Tri'lathe wasn't worried about the kids themselves, but they might tell their friends. A great deal of effort had been expended to insure that her ship didn't exhibit any technology not already known to the Federation; the Mind's Eye was a glaring exception. A necessary one, to be sure, if only so that Tri'lathe could stay in touch with Homeworld. If she'd known the Ra'thiri would be here she'd have left the Eye behind and taken something else in its place. But she hadn't; she'd brought it, the Ra'thiri were here, and since they were she'd been directed to watch them along with her other duties. The Eye made that a lot easier, if also somewhat riskier.

Light blazed in the view ports, which darkened automatically to cut the glare. When the light faded the three children were right there, not more than a hundred meters away. The biggest- Star- unshipped her manipulator limbs.

HELLO AMBASSADOR, Star said, gesture-speech. WE'D LIKE TO ASK YOU A QUESTION.

Tri'lathe touched a switch; a pair of translucent blue hands appeared in the air before her. When she inserted her own hands into the images


To Be Continued

 


 

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