Star Dancer
by John R. Plunkett

"Toxic waste," Dr. Janek declared.

"Toxic waste?" Valjean's face twisted into a grimace of disgust, mirrored perfectly by Javert's.

"Toxic waste." Darkstar spoke slowly, with exaggerated movements of the mouth, as tasting the words.

"And..." Captain Walker cleared his throat. "How, may I ask, did you reach that conclusion?"

Ito and Goldstrype glanced at one another. "It's your show," shi conceeded.

"Even with the able assistance of Lt. Goldstrype and the facilities of the Asimov at my disposal, I was unable to duplicate the structure of the alien nanites," Ito declared. "We approached the problem from a dozen different angles and came up empty. The task was simply beyond the capabilities of our current technology." He shrugged helplessly. "Then, one eveing, I was sitting in the lab racking my brain when Lt. Goldstrype found me. I had skipped dinner- again- and shi presented me with a nutirent bar." He drew one from his pocket and held it up for all to see. "I begged off, but shi would not leave me alone until I had at least opened it and taken a couple bites. I complied, mainly to get hir off my case. In the process I happened to glance at the list of ingredients on the back of the wrapper." He turned the bar over. "Then it hit me." His face lit up with a positively maniacal grin. "What are nutrient bars? They are food, for organic people like us."

"That's debatable," Javert muttered.

"Which?" Kit asked.

"About nutrient bars being food," Valjean clarified.

"What is a nutrient bar made of?" Ito continued. "In a nutshell, processed protiens and carbohydrates. Where do those materials come from? For the most part, what's left over as the result of processing other types of foodstuff. Industrial by-products, if you will."

"Oog." Javert clasped his hands over the abdomen of his humanoid torso. "I swear, I'm never going to touch another nutrient bar for as long as I live."

"If I understand correctly, you're saying, in effect, that you don't need to know how to make a cow in order to make hamburger," Nova put in. "On the other hand, you do need a cow."

"Actually, that's exactly the point," Ito replied. "To make a hamburger- so we can eat- we need a cow. The cow needs grass. The grass needs soil. The soil needs worms, beetles, and assorted other creepy crawly things. They, in turn, rely on a host of fungi and microbes. At the very bottom you have lichen growing on a rock, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. All these organisms are interliked into a complex ecology. But the ecology as a whole can be thought of as a single system. What does the entire system require? Nothing but rock, air, water, and sunlight. I realize I'm over-simplifying, but I'm sure you can see what I'm getting at. So why aren't we creatures that just absorb sunlight and eat rocks? There are many reasons, related to evolution and economies of scale, but a critical factor in all of them is energy. Walking around and doing stuff takes power. More importantly, though, processing our food takes power. A great deal, as a matter of fact. Herbivores have to spend all their time eating because of the amount of effort required to process their food- and that's after the plants have concentrated it for them. Plants- except microscopic ones- don't move at all, because all their energy is expended processing nutrients."

"What does all this have to do with Star Baby?" Dawnfire wanted to know.

"Everything," Ito pronounced with great confidence. "Our bodies liberate energy through chemical reactions. The purpose of the entire ecosystem is to concentrate that chemical energy in a useable form. Star Baby, on the other hand, produces energy through nuclear fusion. Even if shi were the same size as us, hir life processes would produce a billion times more energy. Of course shi needs it, flying through space and all. It also means that shi has enough left over to support an entire ecosystem. Hir digestive system is fantastically complex- and closed. Every gram shi eats gets turned into energy or body mass. I was trying to duplicate that process and I can't. I'm not sure we could do it in a hundred years.