Authors: Allen Steele
“I seeâ¦and we can't leave unless you insert your key and program it to take us home.”
“Correct.” Jas's eyes slowly blinked. “Once you agree to my terms and accomplish them, this ship will return to
, where you and I will report on the outcome of our mission. Once that is done, then you will be allowed to go home.”
“Sort of a roundabout way, isn't it?” I couldn't help it; at this point, sarcasm was my best response to his generous offer.
Hisher right eye flickered in my direction. “Mr. Truffaut, if you had not behaved in such a boorish manner, none of us would be here. Indeed, this is not my choice either. But the High Council has demanded atonement for your actions, and since I am the Prime Emissary to your race, it has fallen to me to carry out their wishes.”
Ted and I glanced at each other. If Jas was telling the truth, then this wasn't hisher idea. In fact, heshe was caught in the middle, forced by hisher diplomatic position to do the bidding of hisher masters.
“Right, then,” Ted said, “so let's hear it. But first”âhe nodded toward Jas's weaponâ“why don't you put that away? I give you my word; no one aboard will do you any harm.”
Jas hesitated, hisher throat sacs inflating for a moment. Then heshe visibly relaxed, and heshe slowly lowered hisher arm. “Thank you, Captain. I apologize for any offense I may have given.”
Ted didn't say anything, but instead folded his arms across his chest and waited for Jas to continue. Still keeping an eye on him, the Prime Emissary reached into a pocket of hisher environment suit and produced something that resembled a datapad.
“This is our objective.” Holding it out in hisher right hand, Jas flipped open its cover and touched a stud on its side. “Kasimasta, the Annihilatorâ¦”
A small shaft of light twinkled into being above the pad's surface, then resolved itself into something that I first thought to be a planetary nebula: a bright yellow nimbus, resembling a dust cloud, surrounded by a reddish orange disc. Yet plasma flares above and below the nucleus told me that it was no infant star but instead something much more menacing.
“Holy crap,” I murmured. “That's a black hole.”
Jas's right eye swiveled toward me. “You do not know of this thing?” Again, heshe cocked hisher head as heshe looked at Ted. “Captain Harker, you have not told your crew about this?”
“No, Prime Emissary, I have not.” Ted slowly let out his breath. “Most of my people are unaware of its existence. It has remained a secret, known to very few individuals within our government.”
“A black hole is classified?” I looked at him askance. “What for?”
Ted shrugged. “Who knows? Most likely it's becauseâ¦well, because governments like to keep secrets, that's all. Maybe they thought people would panic if they knew it was out there.” He nodded toward the holo. “Believe me, when Emcee and I first learned about this thing, it gave us the creeps.”
“Since you do not know, Mr. Truffaut, I will explain.” Jas increased the magnification of the holo, and it slowly swelled in size. “Kasimasta is a rogue black hole, possibly created by the collision of two stellar clusters or dwarf galaxies billions of years ago. When the collision occurred, the intermediate-mass black holes at their centers, which were rotating in different directions, repelled each other, causing the smaller of the two to be ejected from the coalescent mass. It spun away at a velocity of four hundred miles per second, and hence began to travel through intergalactic space.”
The holo image changed; we saw a miniature Milky Way, as viewed from some imaginary vantage point above galactic north. A red thread began to trace itself across the image, slowly moving toward the center of the galaxy. “At some time in the prehistoric past,” Jas continued, “Kasimasta entered our own galaxy. Since then, it has traveled on a spiral course toward the galactic core, one that has taken it through the outer rim and the Perseus Arm until, several million years ago, it entered the Orion Arm.”
“Damn,” I whispered. “That puts it right in our neighborhood.”
Ted said nothing, but only nodded as he listened to Jas. “During this time, Kasimasta has encountered several star systems. As it has done so, it has destroyed dozens of worlds. Most were uninhabited, but a few were the homes of intelligent races. The
, whose ark Captain Harker's expedition encountered, was one. The
, of whom the
was the spiritual leader, was another. The majority, though, did not survive the encounter.”
“Hold on.” I raised a hand. “Look, I'm no scientist, but I know a few things about black holes, and one of them is that their singularities are actually quite small. Even if this”âI stumbled over the
word, and settled instead for the Anglo translationâ“Annihilator is moving from system to system, wouldn't it have to make direct contact with a planet in order to destroy it?”
Jas's head rose upon hisher long neck. “Under normal circumstances, this might be true. However, since Kasimasta is a rotating black hole that doesn't remain in one place, every planet, moon, and even asteroid it has consumed during its long history has contributed to its mass, with a proportionate increase of its event horizon. At the present, we estimate Kasimasta to be nearly ten thousand solar masses in size, with an event horizon more than one hundred fifteen thousand miles in circumference and over eighteen thousand miles in radius.”
I let out a low whistle. A monster that big could swallow Earth without so much as a burp. Hell, even Uranus or Neptune could fit into its maw. And I didn't have to ask Jas to know that even a near miss could be deadly; the accretion disc spinning around the ergosphere of its outer event horizon could exterminate all life upon a planet, while the intense gravitational pull of the hole itself would cause massive solar flares to erupt from any star it passed. No question about it, Kasimasta was a killer.
“Please don't tell me it's on its way toward Earth,” I murmured.
Heavy-lidded eyes regarded me with contempt, as if I'd asked a selfish question. “That is no concern to you,” Jas replied. “The Annihilator passed your home system long before your race became civilized.” I breathed a little easier, and the Prime Emissary went on. “Nonetheless, it poses a real and present danger to this part of the galaxy. Even as we speak, it is approaching another inhabited system.”
Again, the holo image changed. This time we saw a schematic diagram of a star system, with a large gas giant in its outer reaches and a couple of terrestrial-size planets orbiting closer to its sun. “This is the star you know as HD 70642,” Jas continued. “It is located one hundred thirty-six-point-six light-years from our present position. Its second planet, Nordash, is home to a starfaring race known as the
As heshe spoke, a thin red line appeared within the system's outer edge, slowly moving toward the superjovian. “Kasimasta has recently entered this system,” Jas continued. “In four days, its course will bring it very close to the gas giant, Aerik, where it will consume Kha-Zann, a large moon in orbit around it. Although the Annihilator will not encounter Nordash, nonetheless the
are evacuating as many of their people as possible, in expectation that its passage will precipitate a planetary catastrophe.”
“Smart thinking.” I nodded. “I wouldn't want toâ¦”
“Be quiet.” Once more, the holo changed, and now we saw a close-up of Aerik's satellite system. “The Talus has decided that this event, as unfortunate as it may be, represents an opportunity for us to gather precise information about Kasimasta. For this purpose, the
have designed and built a robotic probe that can be deployed upon a planetary surface. This probe, once activated, will relay scientific data via hyperlink until the moment of its destruction.”
“Rightâ¦” Ted hesitated. “Let me guess. You want this probe deployed on the moon that the Annihilator will consume.”
“This is correct.”
“And, of course, you've found the perfect candidate for the job of putting it there.”
“You have made the correct assumption.”
“Uh-huh. And this probeâ¦it wouldn't already be aboard, would it?”
Jas's head weaved back and forth. “It was placed within the cargo hold of your shuttle earlier today, while Mr. Youssef was still asleep.” When heshe said this, I shook my head. Doc wasn't going to like that one bit. “We did so in the belief that you would undertake this mission voluntarily,” Jas went on. “Unfortunately, since you refused to do soâ¦”
“You didn't bother to tell us until now.” I sighed. “Great. And I get to be the guy who carries it down there.”
“Julesâ¦” Ted shot me a look, and I clammed up. “You realize, of course, that this makes the job even more hazardous. Why can't we simply drop it to the surface from orbit?”
“Some of its instruments are intended to register and record seismic activity leading up to Kha-Zann's disintegration. Because of this, the probe is designed to be carefully placed on the surface. Otherwise, it is a very simple procedure. All Mr. Truffaut will need to do is unload the probe, carry it a short distance from his craft, and activate it. This should take only a few minutes.”
Ted didn't respond. He seemed to think about it for a few seconds, then he looked at me. “Your call,” he said quietly. “I can't make you do this, you know.”
Of course he could. He was the captain, after all. And even though Morgan had already fired me, I was still a member of his crew. Besides, there were two other people aboard qualified to fly
; if I chickened out, either Emily or Ali could handle the assignment. So he was offering me a way out of what could well become a suicide mission.
Yet that was out of the question. I had gotten us into this mess; I had the moral obligation to get us out of it. Ted knew that, as did Iâ¦and so did Jas, come to think of it, because there was no other reason why heshe would've summoned me to hisher quarters in the first place.
“Sureâ¦why not?” I shrugged, feigning a casualness that I didn't feel. “Sounds like fun.”
“Very good.” Jas switched off the pad; the holo vanished, and heshe turned to retrieve hisher helmet from where heshe had slung it in a bulkhead net. “Let us then return to the command center, so that I may set course for Nordash.”
Heshe paused, then stopped to look back at us. “I am very happy that you have agreed to do this, Captain Harker. I did not wish to die in this place.”
“Yeah, wellâ¦” Ted seemed to be at loss for words. “I'm not sure you gave us any options.”
“On the contrary, I did.” A stuttering hiss that sounded like a snake's laughter. “It is only that none of them were acceptable.”
Firemen in a burning houseâ¦
who bells the cat?â¦
the trouble with womenâ¦
words for the blues.
We came through the starbridge at HD 70642 to find ourselves in a traffic jam.
That's the only way to describe what I saw through the portholes. Emily had raised the shutters just before the
made the jump from 51 Pegasi, and it was fortunate that she'd taken that precautionâotherwise, we might have struck the nearest starship waiting to enter the ring. As it was, the first thing we heard upon coming out of hyperspace was the shriek of the collision alarm, followed by a string of Arabic blasphemies from Ali as he hastened to switch off the autopilot and take control of the helm.
Jas hadn't been kidding when heshe told us that the
were evacuating their homeworld. All around us, as far as the eye could see, was a vast swarm of what appeared to be titanic jellyfish, their umbrella-like membranes several miles in diameter. It wasn't until the
passed the one with which we'd nearly collided that we saw that its translucent hood was, in fact, a solar sail. Tethered behind it was a streamlined cylinder a little smaller than our own ship, its hull ringed with dozens of portholes.
A high-pitched voice like that of an irate turkey gobbled at us from the speakers, its language indecipherable but the meaning nonetheless obvious:
watch where you're going, jackass!
Jas patched into the comlink and responded in hisher own tongue. Apparently the
captain had his own translator, because after a brief bit of back-and-forth between them, the com went silent.
It's been said that a fireman is someone crazy enough to run into a burning house while everyone else is running out. That's what I felt like just then. As the
slowly glided between the scores of
vessels waiting their turns to collapse their sails and enter the starbridge, I saw a civilization in full rout. Several hundred thousand miles away, Nordash was a blue-green marble that bore an unsettling similarity to Earth; it was all too easy to imagine multitudes of
âwhatever they looked likeâclamoring to board the shuttles that would ferry them to starships in orbit above their doomed world. How many of their kind would be left behind, though, and where the survivors intended to go, we did not know. Nonetheless, we were witnessing an interstellar diaspora.
No one said much of anything as the
carefully picked its way through the evacuation fleet. Save for a few subdued words between Ted and Ali, a dark silence fell over the command center, and it wasn't until our ship had eased past the outermost ships of the
armada that anyone was able to breathe easy again. But we were far from safe. The
were leavingâ¦and we'd just arrived. Like firemen in a burning house.
Ted instructed Ali to get a fix on Aerik and start plotting a trajectory, then he unfastened his harness and pushed himself out of his seat. “Right, then,” he said quietly, grabbing hold of the ceiling rail. “Everyone who doesn't have business here just now is relievedâ¦at least for the time being. Take a nap, get a bite to eat, whatever. We'll call you back when we need you.”
Good idea. I got up from my seat, arched my back to get rid of the kinks, then looked over at Rain. She didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave the bridge; there was a pensive look on her face as she gazed out the nearest window. I hesitated, then decided to let her be. All I wanted to do was follow Ted's advice: change out of my sweaty clothes, grab a sandwich, and maybe catch a few winks in my hammock.
As I floated over toward the manhole, Ash rose to join me. Morgan didn't pay any attention to himâindeed, it seemed as if Goldstein was deliberately ignoring himâand Jas remained strapped into hisher couch. Ash didn't say anything as we entered the access shaft, but as soon as we were alone, he took hold of my arm.
“Keep an eye on Youssef,” he whispered. Before I could ask why, he beat me to it. “I caught something from him just before we went into hyperspace. The only reason Jas is still alive is because Ali knows we still need himher.”
“Yeah, wellâ¦” I was too tired to deal with it just then. “I figured that already. But Ali's not dumb enough toâ¦”
“All I'm saying is, keep an eye on him. Okay?” Ash let go of my arm and pushed past me. “We have enough problems as is.”
I went down to my cabin and put on some fresh clothes, then floated down the corridor to the wardroom. I was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when three bells rang, giving me just enough time to stow everything away and plant my toes within a foot restraint before main engine ignition. I could tell from the way the ship trembled that it was no maneuvering burn; the
was slowly building up thrust, and it wouldn't be long before its acceleration reached one g. The captain wasn't sparing the horsies. At least we'd be able to move around the ship without having to use handrails.
Just about the time I was finishing lunch, Ted's voice came over my headset, asking me if I'd return to the bridge. So much for my nap. When I got to the command deck, I found that everyone had left except for him, Doc, and Ali. Ted's face was grim as he waved me toward Emily's seat.
“We've set course for Aerik,” he began, “and Ali and I have come up with a tentative mission profile. Sorry to bother you, but we thought that you needed to be in on this stage of the planning.”
“Sure. No problem.” I gazed at the holotank. A model of the local system was suspended above the console, with the orbits of Nordash and Aerik depicted as elliptical circles surrounding HD 70642. A curved red line was traced between the two planets. “Is that our course?”
“Uh-huh.” Ted entered a command in his keyboard that overlaid a three-dimensional graph upon the holo. “We're pretty lucky, actually. They're presently in conjunction, with both at perihelion on the same side of the sun. So instead of being three AUs apart, their average distance at almost any other time, they're only about one and a half AUs away from each otherâ¦approximately two and a quarter million kilometers.”
I nodded. The Nordash system wasn't nearly as large as Earth's, which was fortunate for us. The
would've disagreed, of course. Just then, they would have preferred that their world was at aphelion on the far side of the sunâ¦or, in fact, anywhere Kasimasta wasn't.
“Anyway,” Ted continued, “this means we should be able to reach Aerik before Kasimasta doesâ¦provided, of course, that we don't do any sightseeing along the way. I've given the order to run the main engine at its rated capacity, two hundred and fifty thousand impulses per second. Once we reach cruise velocity, that'll mean we'll be doing about twenty-five hundred kilometers per second.”
My heart skipped a beat. Maybe it wasn't light-speed, but it was a sizable fraction nonetheless. “Good grief, skipperâ¦do we have enough fuel for that?”
Ted glanced over at Doc. “The
has sufficient reserves for four and a quarter AUs,” he said, “enough to get from Earth to Jupiter and back again. We barely put a dent in that on the way to Hjarr, thanks to the starbridges, and the
were kind enough to top off our tank before we left.”
“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but”âTed grimacedâ“well, we now know that they didn't exactly do this out of the kindness of their hearts. From what Jas told us, the Talus High Council never intended to take no for an answer.”
“Of course,” Doc continued, “we may need a tow by the time we return to
, and I can tell you right now that Mr. Goldstein is going to have to pay for a major overhaulâ¦but, yeah, I think we'll make it.”
“At any rate,” Ted went on, “this means that our ETA will be approximately thirty hours from now. That should give you enough time to prepare for your part of the mission.” He hesitated. “And here's where things become a bit dicey.”
He magnified the image within the holotank so that Aerik and its satellites increased in size. “There's Kha-Zann,” he said, pointing to a large moon at the periphery of the system. “Approximately the same mass and diameter as Europa, with much the same surface gravity. Carbon dioxide atmosphere, but not very denseâ¦about a hundred and fifty millibars at the equatorâ¦but enough to give you some measure of protection.”
“Protection?” Although I'd had experience with landing on atmospheric planets, I would have preferred to set down on an airless moon. “Against what?”
Ted took a deep breath. “By the time you get there, Kasimasta will only be about eight hundred thousand kilometers awayâ¦”
“I told you this was the dicey part.” A humorless smile played across his face. “At least the atmosphere will provide you with some radiation protection while you're down there. And Kasimasta will be coming in hotâ¦mainly X-rays from its accretion disc. So the less time you spend on the surface, the better. In fact, I'd recommend landing close to the daylight terminator, if at all possible.”
“Uh-huh. And how long will I have toâ¦?”
“Let's not get ahead of ourselves. First things first.” Ted pointed to the red thread of the
's trajectory. “Here's the game plan. Once we're on primary approach to Aerik and the
has initiated its braking maneuver, you'll take
away. Our trajectory will bring us within a hundred and thirty thousand kilometers of Kha-Zann, so you shouldn't have to consume much fuel getting there.”
The holo image zoomed in again, this time to display
's departure from the
and its rendezvous with Kha-Zann. “In the meantime,” Ted went on, “the
will continue toward Aerik and swing around it, initiating a periapsis burn at closest approach to the far side of the planet. That'll put us on a return heading that'll bring us back toward Kha-Zann, where we'll pick you up.”
“Why not go into orbit around Kha-Zann itself?”
“We thought of that,” Ali said, “but when we ran a simulation, we discovered that it would take too much time to establish orbit around Kha-Zann. Not only that, but once we broke orbit, we'd have to build up enough thrust again to achieve escape velocity, and by then Kasimasta would catch up with us. This way, we use a slingshot maneuver around Aerik to keep from shedding too much velocity. Once we fire the main engine, we blow out of there before Kasimasta reaches Kha-Zann.”
“If all goes well, that is,” Ted added.
I didn't like the sound of that. “What could go wrong?”
“Wellâ¦” Doc began, then shook his head. “All this means you're going to have a very tight window. No more than an hour on the surfaceâ¦and believe me, that's stretching it.”
I stared at him. “An hour? You've got to beâ¦”
“No, he's not.” Ted's face was serious. “And neither am I. You land, you drop off the probe, you take off again. If everything works according to plan, you should be able to reach the rendezvous point just in time to dock with the
as we swing by again. Otherwiseâ¦”
His voice trailed off. Not that he had to spell it out. If I failed to reach the
, then the captain would have no choice but to leave me behind. By then, the ship would be racing just ahead of the Annihilator, with no time left to make orbit around Kha-Zann and wait for me to show up.
“Yeah. Got it.” I let out my breath. “So I'm the poor mouse who gets to put the bell around the cat's neck.”
“Mouse? Cat?” Ali's expression was quizzical. “What are you talking about?”
“Old fable, courtesy of Aesop,” I said, and Ali shook his head. Chalk it up to cultural differences. “Never mind. Just do me a favor and download everything into
's comp. I'll run a simulation from the cockpit, make sure that everythingâ¦”
“Just one more thing.” Ted looked at the others, then back at me again. “You're not going to be able to do this alone. Someone's going to have to help you unload the probe and place it on the surface, so you're going to have to take another person with you.”
That hadn't occurred to me, but now that he mentioned it, I knew he was right. I'd have to use the cargo elevator to remove the probe from
's hold and put it on the ground. I could conceivably do it by myself, but not within the short amount of time I'd have on Kha-Zann. Like it or not, someone else would have to ride down with me.
“Yeah, okay.” I glanced at Doc. “You up for this, chief? I know it's a lot to ask, butâ¦”
“Sorry. Not me.” Doc shook his head. “I've got to stay aboard, try to keep the ship from rattling apart at the seams.”
“And don't ask for Emily, either,” Ted said. “I know she's qualified, but there's no way I'm putting my wife at risk.” He hesitated. “Besides, we already have someoneâ¦Rain.”