Nancy Kress - Crossfire 02 (3 page)

BOOK: Nancy Kress - Crossfire 02
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He fumbled with his left ear. Alex remembered suddenly, irrelevantly, that David had done that even when they’d been children. “Shurong said—”

“Shurong?”

“My assistant. Shurong Ou. She said the message was short, just, ’This is the ship
Crucible,
from Earth, commanded by Julian Cabot Martin, Third Life Alliance. We—’”

“What did you just say?” Jake demanded in his quavery old voice. “Who?”

“Uh, ’Third Life Alliance.’”

“That was the organization in control of the Earth-Greentrees quee the last time we heard from Earth. Nearly fifty years ago. I remember the name. Gail and I had just—”

“Jake, it doesn’t matter now,” Alex said impatiently, and immediately regretted it. She should be more patient with the old man.

Lau-Wah said, “Go on, Dr. Parker.”

David pulled at his ear. “Yes, ah, ’This is the ship
Crucible,
from Earth, commanded by Julian Cabot Martin, Third Life Alliance. We are a scientific and factfinding mission, launched in response to your last quee informing Earth that sentient aliens have been discovered on Greentrees. Request permission to land.’ Shurong said that the message was repeated in Chinese and then in what she presumed was Arabic.”

“So they know the colony’s history,” Ashraf Shanti said, which struck Alex as silly. Why wouldn’t they know it?

“David,” she said, “I thought you told me once that if a ship had left Earth the same day that Mira City queed Earth about finding Furs, it would still be seventy years before anyone got here. It’s only been forty-nine.”

“I
told you that,” Jake said irritably, “and I said if a ship
like ours
left Earth the same day. We don’t know what advances Earth has made in stellar drives. Anyway, they’re here.”

“Yes, they are,” Ashraf said. “What do we want to tell them to do?”

Alex stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Ashraf was not, had never been, a strong leader. Well, you didn’t want too strong a leader in Mira, you wanted someone who could shape consensus. Even so, Ashraf sometimes struck her as overly swayed by the last person who happened to speak forcefully. He was intelligent, certainly, but not… individual enough. She sometimes suspected that Lau-Wah, who was individual and who would probably be the next mayor, thought the same, although they had never discussed it.

Lau-Wah said quietly, “I see several choices. We can tell them to land near Mira City and prepare a welcome. We can ask them to land a few thousand miles away and meet them there, until we see for ourselves just who they are and what they want. We can send the shuttle up with a delegation to dock at their ship, either in orbit or farther out, and do an inspection before letting them land.”

David, looking genuinely surprised, blurted, “But why would you distrust a scientific expedition?”

“I do not,” Lau-Wah said. “But I wish to be sure they are a scientific expedition. Or at least, that they have no ideas of conquest. Conquest and war were the dominant themes on Earth, you know, when we received that last quee message, the one Jake mentioned about the Third Life Alliance having taken over the quee sender at Geneva.”

Jake had fallen asleep, the sudden light sleep of the old. Alex nudged his foot with hers and he jerked awake. He would hate himself, and her, if he missed this.

She said, deliberately recapping, “Yes, I think you’re right, Lau-Mah. We can tell them to land near Mira City, ask them to land a few thousand miles away and meet them there, or send the shuttle up with a delegation to dock at their ship in orbit or even farther out.”

Jake said instantly, “Meet them as far out as you can.”

Ashraf said hesitantly, “Won’t that look belligerent?”

“Who cares?” Jake said with sudden and unexpected force. His old eyes darted across their faces. “Safety comes first!”

Lau-Mah said, “I’m not sure it matters where we meet them. If they’re belligerent, a shuttle party won’t stop them. And I don’t think we want to risk the
Beta Vine.
We may need it later.”

This made sense to Alex. Mira City had possessed only two starships, both fitted with the rapid-acceleration McAndrew Drive, both captured thirty-nine years ago from the enemy Furs. The
Beta Vine
orbited Greentrees with a skeleton crew of what passed for military, actually just some of the city’s security force, plus a changing roster of scientists carrying out various experiments. The last time Alex had been upstairs on the
Beta Vine,
it had been overrun by a party of touring schoolchildren whose class had won some sort of all-city competition. The Fur ship was equipped with formidable weapons that humans had learned to use. Nothing in Mira could match the firepower on the
Beta Vine
—although of course any attacking Fur ship would presumably have at least as good weaponry. Those weapons, in fact, were one of the primary reasons Mira had become so slack on downstairs defense.

The other reason was that the second ship, the
Franz Mueller,
had left thirty-nine years ago to destroy the Fur empire from within. That had been the plan, anyway, launched the year after Alex was born. The Vines, those half-mythic aliens seen only by a handful of people still alive, had also been at war with the Furs. Out of their advanced biotech and a few thousand years of experimentation on their enemy, the Vines had created an infectious organism that was supposed to attack the Fur brain and render the I entire species passive and harmless.

It had done just that, Jake insisted, on the small group of Furs Mira City encountered fifty years ago. Two of Jake’s contemporaries, Karim Mahjoub and Lucy Lasky, had set out in the
Franz Mueller
with a load of infected Furs, to arrange for them to be picked up by space-faring Furs and so begin the systematic infection of the entire species. Aboard McAndrew Drive ships, which could reach nearly light speed at amazing accelerations, Karim and Lucy would age only a few years for the thirty-nine they’d been gone so far, just as Jake had aged only a few months for the eleven years he’d been gone on an alien ship the first time around.

That was the story, anyway.

Alex knew she wasn’t the only one to doubt it. Not the actual events—she believed those (although other, younger Mirites who did not know Jake personally thought the entire history so much junk DNA). No, what Alex doubted was some of the interpretations of events. Were the “Vines” really so powerful, peaceful, and manipulative as all that? Had they really created a superinfectious microorganism, or whatever it had been, to declaw their enemy, raher than just wiping them out? What made Karim and Lucy think they could cajole a superadvanced enemy into picking up their own disgraced fellow soldiers, or that the enemy would be naive enough not to realize that the rescued Furs might be contagious? After all, the Furs supposedly knew that the Vines were master microbiologists. And if it did happen that way, why should Furs revenge themselves on humans rather than on Vines?

“You don’t understand,” Jake had said to her the one time she’d voiced these concerns to him. He’d clutched her arm with such desperate urgency, had become so wild-eyed in his broken powerchair. “I was there!”

“I know, I know,” she’d soothed the old man, and hadn’t brought up the subject again. But as tray-o, she had made her resource-allocation decisions with strong skepticism about the likelihood of invading aliens.

And it looked as if she’d been right. The
Crucible
held humans, not Furs.

She said, “We need to balance any danger from this new ship with creating a reasonable welcome. If we treat them too unfriendly, we run the risk of creating unpleasantness where there doesn’t need to be any.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Lau-Wah said. “Let me suggest this: We allow the
Crucible
to take a geosynchronous high orbit, and we send up the shuttle. Meanwhile, the
Beta Vine
orbits on the opposite side of the planet, safe from attack. We don’t try to hide our ship, just keep it away. If the
Crucible
tries to get nearer either to Mira or to the
Beta Vine
after being warned not to, we’ve gained a valuable piece of information.”

“And maybe gained it too late!” Jake said. His left hand began to tremble.

“That sounds right to me,” Alex said. Gently she put her right hand over Jake’s left. “Ashraf?”

The mayor looked uncertainly from Jake to Lau-Wah. Finally he said, “Yes… that sounds all right. David?”

The physicist, who didn’t have a vote, looked startled to be asked, “Ah, yes, certainly… we have a second message coming in. It’s .. I no, wait… it’s a repeat of the first. ’This is the ship
Crucible,
from Earth, commanded by Julian Cabot Martin, Third Life Alliance. We are a scientific and fact-finding mission, launched in response toa your last quee informing Earth that sentient aliens have been discovered on Greentrees. Request permission to land.’”

“Radio to Commander Martin,” said Lau-Wah, “that Mira Cityi welcomes his expedition, and that the
Crucible
has permission to advance to a high-orbit position for which we will give them the coordinates.”

Jake shook his head, but so feebly that not even Alex could be sure it wasn’t just another tremor. She squeezed his cold fingers, but even as she offered this wan comfort, a thrill ran through her. Mira was about to learn, finally, what had happened during the last fifty years on Earth. Alex, like everyone else she knew, was not particularly interested in Earth; there was enough on Greentrees to hold both mind and imagination. Still, Earth
was
humanity’s home planet, and anyway the people from it would be excitingly different, with different ideas and technology…

“Oh!” she said suddenly, “I wonder what replacement parts they might have for some of our machinery. Or new machinery we can barter for!”

Lau-Wah smiled. “Spoken like a true tray-o, Alex.” But Jake only gazed at her bleakly, rheum in the corners of his sunken eyes.

3

DEEP SPACE

K
arim and Lucy stared at the floor beneath the ship’s bridge. The Fur vessel had no way to directly view outside space when the ship was in motion; the only transparent wall was the bridge floor and during full acceleration it sat directly against the massplate. Of course, during acceleration the plasma cloud generated by the drive would have made it impossible to see anything, anyway. But now they had stopped. The living quarters had slid along the pole to their maximum distance from the massplate, and between the heavy struts crisscrossing the floor was an actual, if partial, view of space.

It was a view of a Vine colony world.

The Vines had been at war with the Furs for thousands of years, each battle isolated by centuries from any retaliation by the temporal mechanics of moving at nearly c. The Furs had developed their technology using physics. The Vines had developed theirs using biology. In fact, according to the biologist George Fox, whom Lucy and Karim had left behind on Greentrees, the Vines were more plants than animals, although they were also partly highly organized biofilms. “Even on Terra,” George had said, “bacteria swap genes all the time. Essentially, all of Earth is one single bacterial gene pool with amazing mutability, and a single organism can change up to fifteen percent of its DNA
daily.
Vines might just have taken that to the ultimate degree.”

The Vines had created the virus infecting the imprisoned Furs. Or, rather, the “virus analogue”; George had said it wasn’t really a virus even as he had declined to say what it
was.
He didn’t know. None of the humans did. They were flying blind, trusting the Vines because there was no alternative.

“ ’The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” Karim said suddenly.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just something Jake once told me. We need to move fast now.”

“I know that,” Lucy said curtly. She didn’t like any mention of Jake. “Karim… I think that’s the shield around the planet. The one George posited, made of genetically engineered spores.”

“Yes,” Karim said slowly, “I think you’re right.”

They both fell silent

The planet was a featureless, mottled brown-green, partially under grayish cloud cover. There were no large patches of blue ocean. Surrounding the globe, far above it and far more arresting than anything on it, billowed a huge glittering cloud of… something … that caught the sunlight. Karim estimated the shield as extending more than a 150,000 kilometers. Its density he couldn’t estimate at all; the tiny individual points of whatever-they-were seemed individually invisible until hit just so by sunlight. Individually, but not collectively. It was as if the planet had been loosely wrapped in floating golden dust.

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