[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Opening Chapters

STARPLEX

Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


Paperback: Berkley/Ace, October 1996, ISBN 0-441-00372-9

Reprint Trade Paperback: Red Deer Press, March 2010, ISBN 978-0-88995-444-1

Chinese edition: Science Fiction World
Japanese edition: Hayakawa Publishing Company
Spanish edition: Libros del Atril


Hugo Award Finalist!

Nebula Award Finalist!

Serialized in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in four parts from the July 1996 through October 1996 issues.

Science Fiction Book Club selection number 14361 (December 1996).


Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.


Alpha Draconis

       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 IV, 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, as — he glanced at his console — 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 be 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 starfields fore and aft. To the rear, the eerie green light of the region he was leaving, and up ahead, pink nebulosity —

       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 Boötes, 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 re-enter 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 — only forty-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 realization.

       The horrible realization.

       Time to pay the toll.

      


      

Chapter 1

      

       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.

       Scans made by hyperspace telescopes suggested that there were four billion separate shortcut exits in our galaxy, or roughly one for every hundred stars. The shortcuts were easy to spot in hyperspace: each one was surrounded by a distinctive sphere of orbiting tachyons. But of all those shortcuts, only two dozen appeared to be active. The others clearly existed, but there seemed to be no way to move to them.

       The closest shortcut to Earth was in the Oort cloud of Tau Ceti. Through it, ships could jump seventy thousand light-years to Rehbollo, the Waldahud homeworld. Or they could jump fifty-three thousand light-years to Flatland, home of the bizarre Ib race. But the shortcut exit that existed near Polaris, for instance, just eight hundred light-years away, was inaccessible. It, like almost all the others, was dormant.

       A particular shortcut would not work as an exit for ships arriving from other shortcuts until it had first been used locally as an entrance. Thus, the Tau Ceti shortcut had not been a valid exit choice for other races until the UN sent a probe through it, eighteen years ago, back in 2076. Three weeks later, a Waldahud starship popped out of that same shortcut — and suddenly humans and dolphins were not alone.

       Many speculated that this was how the shortcut network had been designed to work: sectors of the galaxy were quarantined until at least one race within them had reached technological maturity. Given how few shortcuts were active, some argued that Earth's two sentient species, Homo sapiens and Tursiops truncatus, were therefore among the first races in the galaxy to reach that level.

       The next year, ships from the Ib homeworld popped through at Tau Ceti and near Rehbollo — and soon the four races agreed to an experimental alliance, dubbed the Commonwealth of Planets.

       In order to expand the usable shortcut network, seventeen years ago each homeworld launched thirty boomerangs. Each of these probes flew at their maximum hyperdrive velocity — twenty-two times the speed of light — toward dormant shortcuts that had been detected by their tachyon coronas. Upon arrival, each boomerang would dive through and return home, thus activating the shortcut as a valid exit.

       So far, boomerangs had reached twenty-one additional shortcuts within a radius of 375 light-years from one or another of the three homeworlds. Originally, these sectors were explored by small ships. But the Commonwealth had realized a more comprehensive solution was needed: a giant mothership from which exploration surveys could be launched, a ship that could serve not only as a research base during the crucial initial exploration of a new sector, but also could function as embassy for the Commonwealth, if need be. A vast starship capable of not just astronomical research, but of undertaking first-contact missions as well.

       And so, a year ago, in 2093, Starplex was launched. Funded by all three homeworlds and constructed at the Rehbollo orbital shipyards, it was the largest vessel ever built by any of the Commonwealth races: 290 meters at its widest point, seventy decks thick, a total enclosed volume of 3.1 million cubic meters, outfitted with a crew of a thousand beings and fifty-four small auxiliary ships of various designs.

       Starplex was currently 368 light-years due galactic south of Flatland, exploring the vicinity of a recently activated shortcut. The closest star was an F-class subgiant a quarter-light-year away. It was surrounded by four asteroid belts, but no planets. An uneventful mission so far — nothing remarkable astronomically, and no alien radio signals detected. Starplex's staff was busy winding down its explorations. In seven days, another boomerang was due to reach its designated shortcut target, this one 376 light-years away from Rehbollo. Starplex's next scheduled assignment was to investigate that sector.

       Everything seemed so peaceful, until —

      


       "Lansing, you will hear me out."

       Keith Lansing stopped walking down the cold corridor, sighed, and rubbed his temples. Jag's untranslated voice sounded like a dog barking, with occasional hisses and snarls thrown in for good measure. His translated voice — rendered in an old-fashioned Brooklyn accent — wasn't much better: harsh, sharp, nasty.

       "What is it, Jag?"

       "The apportioning of resources aboard Starplex," barked the being, "is all wrong — and you are to blame for that. Before we move to the next shortcut, I demand you rectify this. You consistently shortchange the physics division and give preferential treatment to life sciences."

       Jag was a Waldahud, a shaggy piglike creature with six limbs. After the last ice age ended on Rehbollo, the polar caps had melted, flooding much of the land and crisscrossing what remained with rivers. The Waldahudin's ancestors adapted to a semiaquatic lifestyle, their bodies becoming well insulated with fat overlain by brown fur to keep out the chill of the river waters they lived in. Keith took a deep breath and looked at Jag. He's an alien, remember. Different ways, different manners. He tried to keep his tone even. "I don't think that's quite fair."

       More dog barks. "You give special treatment to life sciences because your spouse heads that division."

       Keith forced a small laugh, although his heart was pounding with repressed anger. "Rissa sometimes says the opposite — that I don't give her enough resources, that I'm bending over backward to appease you."

       "She manipulates you, Lansing. She — what is the human metaphor? She has you wrapped around her little finger."

       Keith thought about showing Jag a different finger. They're all like this, he thought. An entire planet of quarrelsome, bickering, argumentative pigs. He tried not to sound weary. "What exactly is it that you want, Jag?"

       The Waldahud raised his upper left hand, and ticked off stubby, hairy fingers with his upper right. "Two more probeships assigned exclusively to physical-sciences missions. An additional Central Computer bank dedicated to astrophysics. Twenty more staff members."

       "The staff additions are impossible," said Keith. "We don't have apartments to house them. I'll see what I can do about your other requests, though." He paused for a second, and then: "But in future, Jag, I think you'll find that I'm easier to convince when you don't bring my private life into the discussion."

       Jag barked harshly. "I knew it!" said the translated voice. "You make your decisions based on personal feelings, not on the merit of the argument. You are truly unfit to hold the post of director."

       Keith felt his anger about to boil over. He tried to calm himself, and closed his eyes, hoping to summon a tranquil image. He expected to see his wife's face, but the picture that came to him was of an Asian beauty two decades younger than Rissa — and that just made Keith madder at himself. He opened his eyes. "Look," he said, a quaver in his voice, "I don't give a damn whether you approve of the choice of me as Starplex director or not. The fact is that I am director, and will be for another three years. Even if you could somehow get me replaced before my term is over, the agreed-to rotation calls for a human to hold this post at this time. If you get rid of me — or if I quit because I'm fed the hell up with you — you're still going to be reporting to a human. And some of us don't like you" — he stopped himself before he said "you pigs" — "at all."

       "Your posturing does you no credit, Lansing. The resources I am demanding are for the good of our mission."

       Keith sighed again. He was getting too old for this. "I'm not going to argue anymore, Jag. You've made your request; I'll give it all the consideration it is due."

       The Waldahud's four square nostrils flared. "I am amazed," said Jag, "that Queen Trath ever thought we could work with humans." He rotated on his black hooves, and headed down the corridor without another word. Keith stood there for two minutes, doing calming breathing exercises, then headed along the chilly corridor toward the elevator station.

      


       Keith Lansing and his wife, Rissa Cervantes, shared a standard human apartment aboard Starplex: L-shaped living room, a bedroom, a small office with two desks, one bathroom with human fixtures, and a second with multispecies fixtures. There was no kitchen, but Keith, who liked to cook, had rigged up a small oven so that he could indulge his hobby.

       The main door to the apartment slid open, and Keith stormed in. Rissa must have arrived a few minutes earlier; she came out of the bedroom naked, obviously preparing for her midday shower.

       "Hi, Chesterton," she said, smiling. But the smile faded away, and Keith imagined that she could see the tension in his face, his forehead creased, his mouth downturned. "What's wrong?"

       Keith flopped himself onto the couch. From this angle, he was facing the dartboard Rissa had mounted on one wall. The three darts were clustered in the tiny sixty-point part of the triple-scoring band — Rissa was shipboard champion. "Another run-in with Jag," said Keith.

       Rissa nodded. "It's his way," she said. "It's their way."

       "I know. I know. But, Christ, it's hard to take sometimes."

       They had a large real window on one wall, showing the starfield outside the ship, dominated by the bright F-class star nearby. Two other walls were capable of displaying holograms. Keith was from Calgary, Alberta; Rissa had been born in Spain. One wall showed glacier-fed Lake Louise, with the glorious Canadian Rockies rising up behind it; the other a long view of downtown Madrid, with its appealing mixture of sixteenth- and twenty-first-century architecture.

       "I thought you'd show up here around now," said Rissa. "I was waiting to shower with you." Keith was pleasantly surprised. They'd showered together a lot when they'd first gotten married, almost twenty years ago, but had gotten out of the habit as the years wore on. The necessity of showering twice a day to minimize the human body odor Waldahudin found so offensive had turned the cleansing ritual into an irritating bore, but maybe their impending anniversary had Rissa feeling more romantic than usual.

       Keith smiled at her and began to undress. Rissa headed into the main bathroom and began running the water. Starplex was such a contrast to the ships of Keith's youth, like the Lester B. Pearson he'd traveled on back when first contact with the Waldahudin had been made. In those days, he'd had to be content with sonic showers. There was something to be said for carrying a miniature ocean around as part of your ship.

       He followed her into the bathroom. She was already in the shower, soaking down her long, black hair. Once she'd moved out from under the shower head, Keith jockeyed into position, enjoying the sensation of her wet body sliding past his. He'd lost half his hair over the years, and what was left he kept short. Still, he massaged his scalp vigorously, trying to work out his anger with Jag in doing so.

       He scrubbed Rissa's back for her, and she scrubbed his in turn. They rinsed, then he turned off the water. If he hadn't been so angry, perhaps they'd have made love, but . . .

       Dammit. He began to towel off.

       "I hate this," Keith said.

       Rissa nodded. "I know."

       "It's not that I hate Jag — not really. I hate . . . hate myself. Hate feeling like a bigot." He ran the towel up and down his back. "I mean, I know the Waldahudin have different ways. I know that, and I try to accept it. But — Christ, I hate myself for even thinking this — they're all the same. Obnoxious, argumentative, pushy. I've never met one who wasn't." He sprayed deodorant under each arm. "The whole idea of thinking I know all about somebody just because I know what race they belong to is abhorrent — it's everything I was brought up to fight against. And now I find myself doing it day in and day out." He sighed. "Waldahud. Pig. The terms are interchangeable in my mind."

       Rissa had finished drying herself. She pulled on a beige long-sleeve shirt and fresh panties. "They think the same way about us, you know. All humans are weak, indecisive. They don't have any korbaydin."

       Keith managed a small laugh at the use of the Waldahudar word. "I do too," he said pointing down. "Of course, I only have two instead of four, but they do the job." He got a fresh pair of boxer shorts and a pair of brown denim pants out of the closet, and put them on. The pants constricted to fit around his waist. "Still," he said, "the fact that they also generalize doesn't make it any better." He sighed. "It wasn't like this with the dolphins."

       "Dolphins are different," said Rissa, pulling on a pair of red pants. "In fact, maybe that's the key. They're so different from us that we can bask in those differences. The biggest problem with the Waldahudin is that we have too much in common with them."

       She moved over to her dresser. She didn't put on any make-up; the natural look was the current style for both men and women. But she did insert two diamond earrings, each the size of a small grape. Cheap diamond imports from Rehbollo had destroyed any remaining value natural gemstones had, but their innate beauty was unsurpassed.

       Keith had finished dressing, too. He'd put on a synthetic shirt with a dark brown herringbone pattern, and a beige cardigan sweater. Thankfully, as humanity moved out into the universe, one of the first bits of needless mass to be ejected had been the jacket and tie for men; even formal wear did not demand them anymore. With the advent of the four-day, and then the three-day, workweek on Earth, the distinction between office clothes and leisure clothes had disappeared.

       He looked over at Rissa. She was beautiful — at forty-four, she was still beautiful. Maybe they should make love. So what if they just got dressed? Besides, these crazy thoughts about —

       Bleep. "Karendaughter to Lansing."

       Speak of the devil. Keith lifted his head, spoke into the air. "Open. Yes?"

       Lianne Karendaughter's rich voice came out of the wall speaker. "Keith — fantastic news! A watson just came through from CHAT with word that a new shortcut has come on-line!"

       Keith raised his eyebrows. "Did the boomerang reach Rehbollo 376A ahead of schedule?" That sometimes happened; judging interstellar distances was a tricky game.

       "No. This is a different shortcut, and it came on-line because something — or, if we're lucky, someone — moved through it locally."

       "Has anything unexpected come through any of the homeworld shortcuts?"

       "Not yet," said Lianne, her voice still bubbling with excitement. "We only discovered this one was now on-line because a cargo module accidentally got misdirected to it."

       Keith was on his feet at once. "Recall all probeships," he said. "Summon Jag to the bridge, and alert all stations for a possible first-contact situation." He hurried out the apartment door, Rissa right behind him.

      


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An excerpt from Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.


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