Authors: Allen Steele
“That's okay.” I couldn't help but grin. “Anytime.”
Her face had been pale; then it became red, and she looked away in embarrassment. Hearing the sound of someone retching, I turned to see Ash blowing his cookies into a bag while Goldstein regarded him with disgust. Everyone else was shaken and sweaty, save perhaps for Jas, whose turtlelike visage remained invisible behind the opaque mirror of hisher suit helmet.
“Well, nowâ¦that wasn't so bad, was it?” Ted glanced around the deck. “Everyone all right? No casualties, I hope?” Satisfied that we were all in one piece, if perhaps a little worse for wear, he looked over at his wife. “Send a message back home. Tell them we've arrived in one piece.”
Emily pushed a damp lock of hair from her face as she opened a hyperlink channel to Starbridge Coyote. Ted turned back toward the helm. “A fix on our position, Ali, if you will.”
Our pilot seemed to shake himself awake, then hunched over the console. It took a minute for him to reactivate the holo and match it against the charts in the comp's stellar catalog. “We're in the HD 143761 system. Approximately one and a half AU's from the primary, one thousand miles fromâ¦”
His voice trailed off as he slowly raised his eyes to the nearest window. “Allah's blessings,” he muttered. “Will you look at that?”
I followed his gaze. Through the window, we could see a nearby planet, oddly Earth-like but with oceans larger than those of our own world. Hjarr, apparently, but this wasn't what got our attention. In orbit above the planet was something that appeared at first to be a small constellation, yet obviously wasn't of natural origin.
“Is that what I think it is?” Rain stared at it in astonishment. “I mean, I'd heard that it was big, butâ¦”
Emily put a 3-D image up on the holo, and we could see the object more clearly: a vast, snowflake-shaped structure, perhaps two hundred miles or more in diameter, like an elaborate toy cobbled together by some infant god. It slowly rotated upon a central axis, catching the light of a distant sun; all around it moved tiny specks that, I suddenly realized, were starships larger than the
A space colony, but much, much bigger than any built by humans. Even Highgate would have been dwarfed by this thing. I'd heard of it, of course, yet in real life it was more awesome than anything I'd imagined.
“There it isâ¦
.” Ted looked over at Jas. “Welcome home, Prime Emissary.”
“Thank you, Captain.” The
had already unfastened hisher harness and was floating free of hisher couch. “First Officer, will you please open a channel? The proper frequency has already been programmed into your system.”
“Sure.” Emily reached to her keyboard. “But what do you want me toâ¦?”
“There is no need for you to speak. I will communicate for you.” Jas pushed himherself over to the console. “If you willâ¦?”
“Skipper?” Ali continued to stare at the holo. “What do you want me to do?”
“Move us away from the starbridge, then hold position.” Ted watched as Emily entered commands into her keyboard. “Just wait.”
Emily raised an eyebrow, then looked up at Jas. Apparently the Prime Emissary had switched off hisher translator and activated an internal mike, for when heshe spoke again, it wasn't in Anglo but rather the unpronounceable rush of hisses, clicks, and croaks that I'd heard in hisher quarters. A few seconds passed, then from the speakers we heard a response in the same tongue. Jas gave a short reply, then turned toward Ted.
“Our arrival has been acknowledged, and we have been welcomed,” heshe said. “If you will kindly relinquish control of your ship, our traffic control system will guide it to the appropriate docking port.”
From across the compartment, I saw Ali trade a wary glance with Ted. The captain gave him a wordless nod, and Ali entered a command into his console. “Helm control free,” he said, not at all happy about it. “But I don't know howâ¦”
A second later, there was an abrupt sensation of lateral movement as the maneuvering thrusters fired on their own, bringing the
around a few degrees to starboard. “Do not worry,” Jas said as heshe returned to hisher couch. “Your ship is quite safe, so long as you do not interfere. All you need do is complete final docking procedures.”
“Thank you.” Ted looked over at Rain and me. “Right, thenâ¦you know the drill. Go below and prepare for arrival. We'll be using the primary docking port on Cargo Two.”
I unbuckled my harness and pushed myself out of my seat. “Do you want us to open the port hatch?”
Ted shook his head. “Not until we get there. Just pressurize the module and wait for us.”
“Wilco.” Grabbing hold of the ceiling rail, Rain pulled herself toward the deck hatch. “Let us know when you're about to come down.”
“Sure.” Ted was no longer paying attention to us. Once again, he was gazing out the windows, watching
as it steadily grew larger. One last glance behind us, then I followed Rain from the command center. She waited in the access shaft while I shut the hatch behind us.
“Is it just me,” I said once we were alone, “or does that thing scare the hell out of you, too?”
Rain thought about it for a moment. “No,” she said quietly as she pushed herself in the direction of the hub. “It's not just you.”
Although we were supposed to pressurize Cargo Two, standard operating procedure called for us to suit up first. So our first stop was the ready room.
Rain and I had made our peace, but she still wasn't inclined to share the compartment while she put on her hardsuit. I wasn't about to press the issue, so I let her have her privacy and instead pushed myself across the hub to Cargo Two and initiated pressurization. She didn't take as long to suit up as she had the day before, so by the time she was done and I traded places with her in the ready room to put on my own gear, Cargo Two was fully pressurized and we were ready to enter it without having to cycle through its airlock. We kept our helmet faceplates open, though, and left our pressure switches on standby.
Cargo Two was divided into four decks, with the marijuana bales securely lashed to gridlike floors. We floated past them as we made our way down the center shaft to the docking port, located at the far end of the module between the cargo hatches. We'd just reached the port hatch when Emily's voice came through the comlink.
“Jas tells us we're about to enter a gravity field,”
“You're going to need to find something to hang on to.”
“We copy.” There were hand-rungs on either side of the hatch. I grabbed a pair on one side, and Rain held on to two more on the other side. “All right, we're ready.”
“On final approach now. We'll be docking in a couple of minutes.”
I was about to respond when Rain gasped. “Holyâ¦get a load of that!”
She was peering through the small porthole in the center of the hatch. Moving beside her, I gazed out the window, and felt my breath catch. Past the flanges of the docking collar, several hundred yards away and getting closer with each passing second, we could see a giant, saucerlike construct, just one of the countless subsections that made up
. As the
drew near, a dome at the bottom of the saucer opened like a clamshell. Beyond it lay an enormous bay, so vast that the
Robert E. Lee
could have been hangared inside.
“I think we're expected,” I murmured. An obvious remark, yet Rain's face was grim as she silently nodded. She was just as intimidated as I was.
Coasting in on little more than its thrusters, the
slowly entered the bay. Through the porthole, Rain and I watched as the ship glided into the center of a latticelike cradle, its arms swinging aside to make room for our vessel. There was a hard thump as the freighter came to rest, then a tubular arm telescoped forward to mate with the port hatch.
It had just connected with the docking collar when we felt the abrupt tug of gravity, and the airlock suddenly went vertical. Rain and I both swore as we scrambled to find footholds. Fortunately, there was a narrow ledge running around the inside of the hatch that we were able to stand upon.
“All right, we're here,”
“How are you guys doing down there?”
Behind us, I could heard the bales shifting against their restraints; now they hung from the decks, which had become bulkheads. “We're okay,” Rain said, “but I hope they're able to fine-tune their gravity field. Otherwise, unloading is going to be a bitch.”
A short pause, then Emily's voice returned.
“Jas assures us this won't be a problem. All they have to do is shut down the field for the hangar. How's the pressure on your end?”
I turned my head so that I could read the panel next to the hatch. All the lights were green. “Copacetic,” I replied, then I glanced through the porthole. An empty tunnel lay before us, an enclosed gangway illuminated by the
's external lights. “Waiting for you.”
Another pause, then Ted came over the comlink.
“It's going to take us a bit to get things settled here. Go ahead and pop the hatch. We'll be down in a few minutes.”
“Roger that.” The lockwheel was located on my side of the hatch. Hanging on with my left hand, I twisted the wheel clockwise, then put my shoulder against the hatch. There was a faint hiss as it swung open, and I looked at Rain. “Ladies first.”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head within her helmet. “I insistâ¦”
I tried not to laugh. If the
had a death ray waiting for us, we would've known already. But I wasn't about to make fun of her for being nervous, so I ducked my head and climbed through the hatch.
The tunnel was octagonal, with each surface capable of serving as a floor. For a few seconds, all I could clearly see was the first dozen feet or soâ¦then the walls glowed to life with a soft radiance of their own, and I saw that the gangway extended about forty yards until it ended at a circular door.
“Now what?” Rain entered the tunnel behind me. “Keep going, or wait for the others?”
“We wait.” There was no need for my helmet, and I felt foolish wearing it, so I took a moment to remove it, careful to keep my headset in place. “Always let the captainâ¦”
Before I could finish, though, the door at the end of the tunnel split in half and slid open. Warm light spilled out into the passageway.
“On the other handâ¦” I murmured.
Rain had removed her own helmet. “You just said we should wait,” she said, regarding the door with suspicion. “Now you're sayingâ¦”
“Hold on a sec.” I prodded my headset. “Ted, are you there?”
“Copy. What's going on?”
“We've left the
, and now we're in some sort of gangway. Look like it leads to the station, and a door at the far end just opened. I think someone want us to come aboard.” I paused. “Do we stay, or do we go?”
Several seconds passed, then Morgan's voice came over the comlink.
“Jas says that you should continue. An invitation has been made, and it would be considered rude if you declined.”
Ted's voice returned.
“I concur. We're still in the command center. Go ahead, both of you. We'll catch up.”
“Roger that.” I looked at Rain; she'd heard everything over her own headset. “Well, there it is. Ready to meet the neighbors?”
She still didn't look happy about the thought of doing this alone. We hadn't been given much choice in the matter, though, so we tucked our helmets beneath our arms and headed down the tunnel. I deliberately walked slowly, in order to give Ted and the others more time to join us; nonetheless, it didn't take long for us to reach the end of the gangway.
We entered a circular room about twenty feet in diameter, with another round door on the other side. Its walls were featureless save for a set of floor-to-ceiling glass panels that emitted a dull blue glow. Above us was a transparent dome; through it, we could see the
, resting in a vertical position within its docking cradle. We were still gazing up at our ship when, very quietly, the door slid shut behind us.
“Oh, hell,” Rain muttered. “I don't like the looks ofâ¦”
At that instant, the wall panels lit up, each displaying a different image. A north polar projection of the Milky Way galaxy, overlaid with a halo grid upon which a star near the center of the Orion Arm was circled: Rho Coronae Borealis, if my guess was right. A schematic view of
, with a tiny saucer near its outer edge highlighted;
script appeared next to it, apparently meaning
YOU ARE HERE
. A wide-angle shot of the
, looking like a bug snared within a spiderweb. Vertical bars of
script slowly scrolled upward, significant in some way yet meaningless to our eyes.