Authors: Robert J Sawyer
Robert J. Sawyer
Are you tired of all those endless science fiction series and turgid science fiction pseudo-fantasies? Do you yearn for the days of E. Doc Smith, when sci fi stories swept across galaxies? Well, Starplex, written by one of today's finest science fiction authors, takes you back to those days. Enjoy -- and strap in for a slamb-bang ride across the Universe!
ACE BOOKS, NEW YORK
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. it was reported as "unsold and destroyed"
to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."
This book is an Ace original edition, and has never been previously published.
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author This novel was serialized in the July through October 1996 issues of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.
Ace edition / October 1996
All rights reserved.
Copyright 1996 by Robert J Sawyer.
Cover art by Doug Struthers.
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For Ariel Reich
Every SF writer should be lucky enough to have a good friend who is both a Ph.D. in physics and a lawyer specializing in intellectual property.
Thanks, Ari, for helping me launch the Argo on its relativistic flight, work out the Lagrange points for the Quintaglio system, design a chemical structure for a new form of matter, and prosecute an extraterrestrial defendant.
This novel coalesced from my primordial cloud of ideas with the help of editors Susan Allison at Ace and Dr. Stanley Schmidt at Analog; Richard Curtis; Dr. Ariel Reich; fellow writers J. Brian Clarke, James Alan Gardner, Mark A. Garland, and Jean-Louis Trudel; proofreader extraordinaire HOWard Miller; and my usual incisive manuscript readers: Ted Bleaney, David Livingstone Clink, Terence M. Green, Edo van Belkom, Andrew Weiner, and, most of all, my lovely wife, Carolyn Clink.
Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.
--MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
There would be hell to pay.
The gravity had already been bled off, and Keith Lansing was now floating in zero-g.
Normally he found that experience calming, but not today. Today, he exhaled wearily and shook his head. The damage to Starplex would cost billions to repair. And how many Commonwealth citizens were dead? Well, that would come out in the eventual inquest--something he wasn't looking forward to one bit.
All the amazing things they had discovered, including .first contact with the darmats, could still end up being overshadowed by politics—or even interstellar war.
Keith touched the green GO button on the console in front of him.
There was a banging sound, conducted through the glassteel of the hull, as his travel pod disengaged from the access ring on the rear wall of the docking bay. The entire run was preprogrammed into the pod's computer: exiting Starplex's docks, flying over to the shortcut, entering it, exiting at the periphery of the Tau Ceti system, and moving into one of the docking bays on Grand Central, the United Nations space station that controlled traffic through the shortcut closest to Earth.
And, because it was all preprogrammed, Keith had nothing to do during the journey but reflect on everything that had happened.
He didn't appreciate it at the time, but that, in itself, was a miracle.
Traveling halfway across the galaxy in the blink of an eye had become routine. It was a far cry from the excitement of eighteen years ago, when Keith had been on hand for the discovery of the shortcut network—a vast array of apparently artificial gateways that permeated the galaxy, allowing instantaneous point-to-point transfer.
Back then, Keith had called the whole thing magic. After all, it had taken all of Earth's resources twenty years earlier to establish the New Beijing colony on Tau Ceti 1, just 11.8 light-years from Sol, and New New York on Epsilon Indi III, only 11.2 light-years away. But now humans routinely popped from one side of the galaxy to the other.
And not just humans. Although the shortcut builders had never been found, there were other forms of intelligent life in the Milky Way, including the Waldahudin and the Ibs, who, together with Earth's humans and dolphins, had established the Commonwealth of Planets eleven years ago.
Keith 's pod reached the edge of docking bay twelve and moved out into space. The pod was a transparent bubble, designed to keep one person alive for a couple of hours.
Around its equator was a thick white band containing life-support equipment and maneuvering thrusters. Keith turned and looked back at the mothership he was leaving behind.
The docking bay was on the rim of Starplex's great central disk As the pod pulled farther away, Keith could see the interlocking triangular habitat modules, four on top and four more on the bottom.
Christ, thought Keith as he looked at his ship. Jesus Christ. The windows in the four lower habitat modules were all dark. The central disk was crisscrossed with hairline laser scorches.
As his pod moved downward, he saw stars through the gaping circular hole in the disk where a cylinder ten decks thick had been carved out of it.
Hell to pay, thought Keith again. Bloody hell to pay.
He turned around and looked forward, out the curving bubble. He'd long ago given up scanning the heavens for any sign of a shortcut. They were invisible, infinitesimal points until something touched them, --he glanced at his console--as his pod was going to do in forty seconds. Then they swelled up to swallow whatever was coming through.
He'd be on Grand Central for perhaps eight hours, long enough to report to Premier Petra Kenyatta about the attack on Starplex. Then he'd pop back here. Hopefully by that time, Jag and Longbottle would have news about the other big problem they were facing.
The pod's maneuvering thrusters fired in a complex pattern. To exit the network back at Tau Ceti, he'd have to enter the local shortcut from above and behind. The stars moved as the pod modified its course to the proper angle, and then---and then it touched the point. Through the transparent hull, Keith saw the fiery purple discontinuity between the two sectors of space pass over the pod, mismatched star-fields fore and aft. To the rear, the eerie green light of the region he was leaving, and up ahead, pink nebulosity--
That can't be right. Not at Tau Ceti.
But as the pod completed its passage, there could be no doubt: he'd come out at the wrong place. A beautiful rose-colored nebula, like a splayed six-fingered hand, covered four degrees of sky. Keith wheeled around, looking out in all directions. He knew well the constellations visible from Tau Ceti --slightly skewed versions of the same ones seen from Earth, including Boetes, which contained bright Arcturus and Sol itself.
But these were unfamiliar stars.
Keith felt adrenaline pumping. New sectors of space were being opened at a great rate, as new exits became valid choices on the shortcut network. Clearly, this was a shortcut that had only just come on-line, making more narrow the acceptable angles of approach to reach Tau Ceti.
No need to panic, thought Keith. He could get to his intended destination easily enough.
He'd just have to reenter the shortcut on a slightly different path, making sure he didn't vary at all from the mathematical center of the cone of acceptable angles for Grand Central Station.
Still--another new sector. That made five in the last year. God, he thought, it was too bad they'd had to cannibalize half of Starplex's planned sister ship for parts; they could use another exploration mothership immediately if things kept on like this.
Keith checked his flight recorder, making sure he'd be able to return to this place. The instruments seemed to be operating perfectly. His first instinct was to explore, discovering whatever this new sector had to offer, but a travel pod was designed only for quick journeys through shortcuts.
Besides, Keith had a meeting to get to and--he glanced at his watch implant --onlyforty-five minutes before it would begin. He looked down at his control panel and keyed in instructions for another pass through the shortcut network.
He then checked the settings that had brought him here--and frowned.
Why, he had come through at precisely the right angle for Tau Ceti.
He'd never heard of a shortcut transfer going wrong before, but . ..
When he looked up, the starship was there.
It was shaped like a dragon, with a long, serpentine central hull and vast swept-back extensions that looked like wings. The entire thing consisted of curves and smooth edges, and there was no detailing on its robin's-egg-blue surface, no sign of seams or windows or vents, no obvious engines. The whole thing must have been glowing, since there were no stars nearby to illuminate it, and no shadows fell across any part of its surface. Keith had thought Starplex beautiful before its recent battle scars, but it had still always seemed manufactured and functional. This alien ship, though, was art.
The dragon ship was moving directly toward Keith's pod.
The readout on his console said it was almost a kilometer long. Keith grabbed the pod's joystick, wanting to get out of the approaching ship's path, but suddenly the dragon came to a dead stop relative to the pod, fifty meters ahead.
Keith's heart was pounding. Whenever a new shortcut came on-line, Starplex's first job was to look for any signs of whatever intelligence had activated the shortcut by passing through it for the first time.
But here, in a one-person travel pod, he lacked the signaling equipment and computing power needed to even attempt communications.
Besides, there had been no sign of the ship when he'd surveyed the sky moments ago.
Any vessel that could move that quickly then stop dead in space had to be the product of very advanced technology. Keith was in over his head. He needed if not all of Starplex, at least one of the diplomatic craft it carried in its docking bays. He tapped the key that should have started his pod back toward the shortcut.
But nothing happened. No--that wasn't quite right.
Craning his neck, Keith could see his pod's maneuvering thrusters firing on the outside of the ring around the habitat bubble. And yet the pod wasn't moving at all; the background stars were rock steady.
Something had to be holding him in place, but if it was a tractor beam, it was the gentlest one he'd ever encountered. A travel pod was fragile; a conventional tractor would have made its glassteel hull groan at the seams.
Keith looked again at the beautiful ship, and as he watched a--a docking bay, it must have been--appeared in its side, beneath one of the curving wings. There had been no sign of a space door moving away to reveal it.
The opening simply wasn't there one instant, and the next instant, it was --a cube-shaped hollow in the belly of the dragon.
Keith found his pod moving now in the opposite direction he was telling it to go, moving toward the alien vessel.
Despite himself, he was starting to panic. He was all in favor of first contact, but preferred it on more equal terms.
Besides, he had a wife to get back to, a son away at university, a life he very much wanted to continue living.
The pod floated into the bay, and Keith saw a wall. wink into existence behind him, closing the cube off from space.
The interior was lit from all six sides. The pod was presumably still being held by the tractor beam--no one would pull an object inside just to let it crash into the far wall under its own inertia. But nowhere could Keith see a beam emitter.
As the pod continued its journey, Keith tried to think rationally. He had entered the shortcut at the right angle to come out at Tau Ceti; no mistake had been made. And yet, somehow, he had been--been diverted here . . .
Which meant that whoever controlled this interstellar dragon knew more about the shortcuts than the Commonwealth races did.
And then it hit him.
The horrible realization.
Time to pay the toll.
It had been like a gift from the gods: the discovery that the Milky Way galaxy was permeated by a vast network of artificial shortcuts that allowed for instantaneous journeys between star systems. No one knew who had built the shortcuts, or what their exact purpose was. Whatever hugely advanced race created them had left no other trace of its existence.