Authors: Timothy Zahn
WO HOURS EARLIER, THE
had killed its rotation, moving for the first time in fifteen days back to zero-gee. An hour earlier, the last course change had been implemented, bringing the ship into as close a direct vector with the target planet of Arachne as possible. And now, with five minutes remaining on the clock, the bright red mass-line had finally appeared at the center of the helmtank and was beginning its leisurely stretch toward the edge.
They were almost there. Almost to Arachneâ¦and the Tampies who would be waiting for them.
Captain Haml Roman gazed at the mass-line a moment longer, wishing one last time that someone else's ship could have been tapped for this mission. Appearances and assurances apart, the outcome was about as much in doubt as Arachne's orbit, and it soured his stomach to have to be part of the charade. But neither the Senate nor the Admiralty had ever been in the habit of asking his opinion on such matters. Probably just as well.
Four minutes to go. Reaching over to his intercom board, Roman keyed for his passenger's cabin; but even as he did so the door to Roman's right slid open and Ambassador Pankau floated onto the bridge. “Captain,” he nodded, giving himself a push that sent him gliding across the bridge in Roman's direction. “We have an ETA yet?”
“I was just about to call you, Mr. Ambassador,” Roman nodded back, wondering distantly how Pankau managed to maintain that stiff dignity of his even while floating like a child's balloon across the room. “We'll be making breakout in just under four minutes.”
Pankau caught the back of Roman's chair to stop his momentum and set his feet firmly into one of the velgrip patches in the deck. “How long to Arachne from there?”
“Shouldn't be more than a few hours. Maybe less, depending on how close in we get before breakout.”
Pankau snorted gently, but he was clearly experienced enough to know the uncertainties were beyond Roman's control. At thirty hours per light-year, the Mitsuushi StarDrive chewed up an astronomical unit every 1.7 seconds, and even with computer control a ship was lucky to make breakout within a half-million kilometers of its projected target. “Do your best,” the ambassador said, almost grudgingly. “And then I want a minimum-time course to Arachne. No point dragging this out any longer than absolutely necessary.”
At the exec's station Lieutenant Commander Trent threw Pankau a sour look, one which the other fortunately missed. “Understood, Mr. Ambassador,” Roman said, keeping his own voice and features firmly in polite/neutral mode.
Pankau nodded curtly and fell silent, and together they watched the steady lengthening of the mass-line. It was almost to the edge of the helmtank when, abruptly, the bridge lights dimmed and half of the main status board went from green to red and then to dark blue.
“Lieutenant Nussmeyer?” Roman invited, keying on the main display. The screen came to life, blazing with stars and, off center to the left, the red-orange globe of Arachne's sun.
“Dead on target, sir,” Nussmeyer reported, peering at his helm display. “We're just over seventy thousand kilometers upslope of Arachne.”
Upslope; which meant that the sun's gravity would be helping, instead of hindering, their approach. “Very good, Lieutenant. Plot in a minimum-time course atâ” he glanced at Pankau. “Keep it under 1.5 gees.”
“Aye, sir. Approximately ninety minutes to orbit, then.”
“Very good. Execute.”
The acceleration alert began its warbling, and Roman listened to the clicks and creaks as the bridge began swiveling into position for forward linear acceleration. The number and decibel level of the squeaks had been on the rise lately, and he sent up a quick prayer that the equipment would hold out at least until they could make port again. Trying to handle even a relatively small warship like the
from a misaligned bridge could get nasty very quickly. “Will you be sending any messages before we make orbit?” he asked, looking again at Pankau.
The other was squinting at the main screen, which now held the small crescent shape of a planet dead center. “Probably depends on whether the Tampy delegation's still topside or whether they've gone down and sent their ship home,” he said. “Can you get any more magnification on that thing?”
Roman turned back to his console, feeling an odd stirring of anticipation as he keyed the screen for full mags. If the Tampy ship was indeed still standing byâ¦
The small crescent jumped in size to fill the entire screen; stabilized and enlarged again to become a flat strip of mottled planetary edge. The camera started a slow scan.â¦
And there it was, silhouetted against the lighted section: a small, dark rectangular/cylindrical shape, trailing behind a similar but much larger cylinder. The Tampy shipâ¦and its accompanying space horse.
The screen's scale came on, locked and stabilized, and someone on the bridge gave a low whistle. “Nine hundred twenty meters long,” Pankau read, a touch of awe seeping through the professional coolness in his voice. “I don't think I've ever seen a space horse quite that big before.”
“The average is supposed to be eight hundred,” Roman agreed. Even preoccupied, he could hear the underlevel of schoolboy excitement in his voice.
Pankau obviously heard it too, and Roman could feel the ambassador's gaze shift from the screen to him. “Your first space horse, Captain?”
It was, fortunately, difficult to blush in zero-gee. “It's the first one I'll have a chance to see close up, yes,” Roman conceded. “I
seen them from a distance, of course.”
Pankau grunted. “It would be rather difficult for the commander of a bordership to totally avoid them.” His eyes shifted back to the main screen and his lips puckered. “I suppose I ought to go ahead and talk to them. At least let them know we're here.”
Roman nodded. He reached for the comm laser control; remembered just in time and keyed the radio instead. The Tampies had never developed the laser themselves, and had shown complete disinterest in acquiring the necessary technology from the Cordonale. “It's all yours, Ambassador,” Roman said.
Pankau cleared his throat. “This is Ambassador Pankau, aboard the Cordonale Star Ship
,” he called. “Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
The response was immediate; clearly, the Tampies had already noted the
's arrival. “I hear,” the alien voice replied.
The whiny, grating, set-the-teeth-on-edge alien voice. Roman clamped his teeth together hard, trying to remember that the Tampies didn't do this on purpose.
“I am Ccist-paa; I speak for the Tamplissta,” the other continued. “I greet you.”
“And I you,” Pankau said, his tone and manner showing none of the reflex irritation Roman felt. But then, Pankau was far more used to putting up with Tampy voices. “I come with open hands and goodwill, and bring the Supreme Senate's desire that our differences here be resolved as quickly as possible.” He hesitated, just the barest fraction of a second. “Can you tell me if there's been any change in the situation in the past fifteen days?”
There was a hint of resentment in Pankau's voice, a feeling Roman could well understand. Irritating voices and mannerisms were something professional diplomats learned to live with; lack of adequate and timely information was something else entirely. Running on the Mitsuushi for fifteen days, cut off from access to the Cordonale's network of planet-based tachyon transceivers, everything the
knew about the trouble on Arachne was two weeks out of date. The Tampy mission, in contrast, would have been in contact with their own colony here up until the time they'd had to leave their home portâ¦which had probably been no more than a few hours ago.
And in this case, the time-lag turned out to be significant indeed. “There has been change,” Ccist-paa said with what sounded like a wheezing sigh. “Some of the humans of the Arachne settlement have attacked the Tamplissta of the Tyari.”
Pankau clucked his tongue gently. “Any fatalities?”
“No humans were injured. Two Tamplissta have died.”
Roman grimaced. It was a pattern that was repeating itself more and more frequently these days on the half-dozen worlds that the Cordonale shared with the Tampies: simmering confrontations boiling over into sharp episodes of violenceâ¦and always the Tampies who got the short end.
“I'm sorry,” Pankau said. “We'll reach your ship in approximately ninety minutes. I'd be honored if you would allow me to transport you to the surface.”
“The honor is mine,” Ccist-paa said. “However, there is no need. My lander is capable of providing me with transport.”
“Ah,” Pankau murmured. “In that eventâ¦perhaps you'd be kind enough to give
There was a short silence from the Tampy end. “We have no filter masks aboard,” Ccist-paa said.
“I have one of my own.” Pankau hesitated, glanced down at Roman. “It seems to me that, in the light of recent events, it might be good for us to discuss this matter in private before we talk to the settlers themselves.”
Another pause. “You are welcome to ride in my lander,” Ccist-paa said, without any trace of emotion Roman could detect. “If you will come alongside, my lander will join with your ship.”
“Thank you, “Pankau said. “I'll look forward to seeing you.”
“Farewell,” Ccist-paa said, and a moment later the aliens' radio carrier cut off.
Roman keyed off the
's own radio. Behind him, the rising drone of the ship's main fusion drive became a dull roar, and weight began to return. “Drive activated, Captain,” Nussmeyer confirmed unnecessarily.
“Very good,” Roman nodded. “Start calculating the intercept vector to the Tampy ship whenever we're close enough.” He looked up at Pankau. The other's face suddenly looked older; but then, it might have been merely the effect of returning weight. “I hope you were prepared to deal with an outbreak of violence,” he commented quietly.
Pankau made a face, his eyes still on the main display. “What else
there when humans and Tampies get together?” he said sourly. He looked down at Roman, his gaze intensely thoughtful. “It doesn't bother you to be moving your ship in close to a space horse?” he asked, his tone oddly challenging.
Roman cocked an eyebrow up at him. “Not really. Should it?”
The searchlight gaze continued for a moment, then seemed to flicker out. “There's a lot of misinformation floating around concerning space horses,” Pankau said obliquely. “False and embellished stories, general paranoiaâthat sort of thing.” Straightening his shoulders, he stepped off the velgrip. “I'll be down in my quarters, preparing my pack. Let me know when we reach the Tampy ship.” He hesitated. “Or if anythingâ¦unexpectedâ¦happens.”
Roman glanced at Trent, saw the exec looking steadily back at him. “I'll do that, Mr. Ambassador.”