James Carter was no less worried than any of the other delegates who'd be arriving at Human-Centauri's embassy. Representing the entire star system of Sol was a monumental task in itself; the notorious contempt that Alpha Centauri and CN Leonis bore toward Sol's almost-entirely-human make-up didn't help. He narrowly avoided having a war break out at the last summit on Alpha Centauri A-III; the odds of succeeding again were even lower this time.
At least the trip there had gone smoothly so far. He'd made transit through the Sol/Sirius hyper hole without incident, and for the last five days had had a comprehensive tour across Sirius A space. Now, the orbit of Sirius A IV was behind him, and the Gate Guard for the Sirius/Human-Centauri hyper hole was at last visible as a tiny speck of starlight ahead. Or rather, Sirius A IV was above him and the Gate Guard was below — his limo was still decelerating at a full g to make ready for the next hyper hole transit, the engine at the bottom pointed toward their destination. Why did those bloody transits always have to be so mind-numbingly slow? Couldn't these boorish pilots just aim for the hole and charge on through, without having to spend half the trip braking? Think of the human lifetimes wasted, slogging through hyper holes at a few scant meters per second . . . or of how many years earlier he could retire if such a delay were cut out of the picture.
"How long before we reach the hole?" Carter asked his pilot impatiently.
"Less than a quarter hour," the pilot called down from the flight deck, "But we'll have to wait a little longer before we make transit. We're number three."
Carter shook his head in bewilderment. "Huh?"
"Number three in line for transit. There're two spacecraft ahead of us."
"Oh, great," Carter threw up his hands.
When they'd crossed the remaining distance, grinding to a halt right in front of the Gate Guard, Carter groaned in even deeper frustration. There was only one craft in line ahead of them now; the first had gone through before Carter had gotten there. In the intervening time, another craft had emerged from the other side of the hyper hole — the "arrival" side, as established by interstellar treaty — and had sped off for Sirius A IV. But the one remaining outbound craft was an immense freight train, a behemoth over two kilometers from nose to engines, bristling with so many cargo pallets that its slender hull was completely obscured — and it was just starting to pass through the hyper hole. It oozed through the hole like a garden slug climbing a tree; at that rate, the freighter would take nearly half an hour just to make transit. Carter buried his face in his hands; if iron and copper weren't still cheaper to mine than to synthesize, most of these noisome freighters would disappear. He resigned himself to this puragtory of inaction.
He looked out his window absently for something interesting to relieve the boredom. The window bulged outward, allowing him to wedge his head into it for a nearly dead-above or dead-below view if he wanted one. But it was the view directly to one side that caught his attention — there, completely dwarfing everything else within a full A.U., the surface of the Gate Guard seemed to stretch away to infinity in every direction. This artificial worldlet had once been an asteroid, towed here decades ago and reshaped until it now bristled with sensors, radio antennas, docking ports, generators, cabins, . . . and weapons. It was a full-blown military base, in addition to its more mundane roles as customs inspector and relay station. It had to be. Aside from the ludicrous notion of sending an attack force the long way between the stars, the only way for an enemy to get into or out of any star system in the Pentagon was through its two hyper holes. If a war did break out, there was no way to plug the holes up. The best you could do was saturate the hyper holes with weapons fire as the enemy attempted transit, then try to shoot down any that made it through your initial barrage as they thundered past. The Gate Guard had to be big enough, and stocked well enough, to defend against any size of assault force any number of times. It was large enough that transiting spacecraft had to take its gravity into account; its station-keeping verniers were whole QC&C fusion engines, each a dozen meters wide at their narrowest point, which doubled as electric generators when they weren't nudging trillions of tonnes of rock and metal back into place. Carter shuddered as he noticed one of the nearer kinetic guns on the Gate Guard surface — it was pointed directly at him. The Sirians manning that gun would blast him to fragments if he became a threat, or even if they thought he'd become a threat. He pulled his head back out of the window, shaking off the nerves. Perhaps he could listen to a Bach cantata instead. . . .
"Huh!" the pilot blurted just as cantata #78 reached its second movement, shaking Carter out of his reverie. "That freighter's got a hydrogen-deuterium hot-fusion engine!"
"Is . . . that dangerous?" Carter asked, more worried than interested. The "Wir Eilen mit Schwachen" wafting from the speakers was far more pleasant to listen to than his pilot.
"No more than any other kind of engine," the pilot shook his head, "Unless you're standing right next to it. But that's the first time I've seen a hot-fusion engine on anything other than a mini or a fighter. Sure, they're not as bulky or as complicated as the QC&C deuterium-fusion engine we've got on this limo; and a decent-sized one can put out enough thrust to turn living occupants into pancakes. But hot fusion's not very efficient, which means you need to carry a lot more fuel, and deuterium's pretty exp—"
The pilot cut himself off, then furrowed his brow. "Then again, deuterium has been getting cheaper lately. It's not like they have to go hunting for it or anything; if you just run a regular QC&C proton fuser without feeding the products to a second stage, you just get energy and deuterium. Well, and positrons."
Positrons, Carter whispered to himself. Unconsciously, he patted the inner pocket of his coat, which was at the top of the bundle strapped to the seat next to him. "Um . . . that's enough J.S. Bach," he changed the subject as quickly as he changed the recording. "How 'bout some Schumann."
When Frauenliebe und Leben reached the second song, his pilot announced "We're cleared for hyper hole entry, transit in two minutes," and his vessel finally started to move. Carter would get to watch the transit to the tune of "Er, Der Herrlichste von Allen." He stuck his head back in the window and glanced below; the limo's exhaust was nearly invisible, but if he looked carefully enough, he could see a few stars twinkling in the stream, blurred by the helium their QC&C engine jetted out the bottom at a tenth of the speed of light. Then, he returned his attention to the the encroaching hole through space above him. As slow as they were, hyper hole transits were fascinating to behold. From this distance, he could hardly even tell there was a hyper hole in his path. The tiny disc was filled with the background stars from Human-Centauri space, which hardly looked different from the background stars in Sirian space. But as the hole grew steadily larger in his field of view, the local stars at its edge winked out behind it, and stars from a vista four-and-a-half light-years distant popped into view to replace them. An antenna on the hull folded down, as if to let him see even more. Finally, he began to see the edges of objects on the far side as they grew ever closer and more and more was revealed: Human-Centauri's own Gate Guard, not as immense as Sirius's but still formidable; the first few rocky outposts of the awe-inspiring Habitat Ring that provided all the living space in the Human-Centauri system; and finally the dim red sun of Human-Centauri itself, ignited a mere 139 years ago and still showing the signs of its birth throes in its gently throbbing surface.
At last, as the invisible ringed edge of the hyper hole passed over his limo from nose to engine, the shifting view crept past Carter's eyes. He couldn't feel it, of course; there was nothing to notice. As far as every atom, every photon, every subatomic virtual particle inside the spacecraft was concerned, the distance between the two linked hyper holes simply didn't exist. But he still appreciated the grandeur. Beneath him lay the human-ruled yet Sol-wary empire of Sirius; above him, the far stranger quasi-religious democracy of Human-Centauri; and somewhere in the middle were four-and-a-half light-years of parallel space that neither man nor instrument could detect.
The hyper hole fell away slowly beneath his feet, and now the vista that greeted him a moment before had reversed. He was in Human-Centauri space, staring down through a hole at the Sirius A system, rather than the other way around. The limo's nose currently pointed out of the ecliptic, as that was the orientation the hyper hole on this side happened to be in, but they'd be accelerating away onto a new course very soon to rendezvous with their ultimate destination: the large asteroid known as the Human-Centauri "greeting area." It was where everyone who wasn't a Citizen of Human-Centauri was "quarantined" — not for germs or parasites or fruit flies, but for what Human-Centauri called the Emotional Plague. They were never really clear about what this "plague" was, but they were convinced that most outsiders had it. So, of course, their Embassies all had to be on that greeting area, rather than on the asteroid that served as their capital. He could only imagine how nightmarish the checkpoints at the docking stations for the "Citizens only" asteroids must be.
At last, Carter's pilot throttled up the main engine, and gravity returned. The Human-Centauri Habitat Ring was almost 20 times smaller than the orbit of Mercury, so any asteroid in it was never more than nine million kilometers from either of the system's two hyper holes. This last leg of their trip would be far briefer than their jaunt across Sirius A space. Carter wouldn't have much time to relax before the summit.
It hadn't just been his pilot's casual mention of positrons that had unnerved him. He knew more about proton-deuteron hot fusion engines than he'd let on. Due to their titanic thrust-to-weight ratios, hot fusion engines were essential to the massive unmanned assault platforms known as "fighters." Fighters and their carriers formed the bulk of every military's space fleet. For every ton of normal hydrogen a fighter's hot fusion engine burned, it burned two tons of deuterium — and it consumed both isotopes voraciously. A single fighter mission could burn through more deuterium than a freighter or liner would use in a month. And his pilot was right, deuterium was getting cheaper. A lot cheaper. The governments of every star system in the Pentagon had started stockpiling huge reserves of it, and the energy companies had ramped up production to meet the demand. The five nations were stockpiling deuterium because they expected to need it. Soon.
And Sol was to blame. Again.
Ever since hyper bomb technology arrived on the scene, the spectre of planet-wide annihilation had hung over every star-nation like a guillotine blade. For decades, the danger was minor; every hyper bomb produced had been used almost immediately to form a linked pair of hyper holes between stellar neighbors. But six years ago, Sirius built another hyper bomb and kept it. The next year, CN Leonis did the same. Now, the same instrument that had brought the stars so much closer together threatened to tear them apart. A hastily-written treaty named SALTY prohibited positron stockpiling for any purpose other than creating hyper hole links, but that treaty fell apart before the year was out. Then came SALTY II, which would have phased out all hyper bombs but died on the conference table; SALTY III, which limited hyper bomb stockpiles to one per nation but which Sol ultimately broke, on the flimsy basis that there might be other alien species out there who could attack us; SALTY IV, which unfairly favored Sol and was thus rejected outright; and SALTY V, which forced Sol to dismantle its extra hyper bomb but, in a loophole, allowed them to stockpile as many positrons as they wanted. They were currently on SALTY VI, whose only mandate was that all positron production and hyper bomb construction had to be disclosed.
Of course, all five of the nation-systems claimed outwardly to be following SALTY VI's disclosure rule, but none of them did. There wasn't a single nation that didn't have some hyper bomb or positron program hidden in reserve, to give them a secret edge. The tough part was proving it. So long as no nation had conclusive evidence that any other nation was breaking the treaty, everyone could go on his merry way making as many secret hyper bombs as they wanted.
And that was why Sol was to blame this time. Sol had blundered first. Alpha Centauri now had incontrovertible proof that Sol had a third, undisclosed hyper bomb.
Negotiating Sol's way out of this was going to be tricky. Three of the five star systems weren't even being represented by a human being. How could you read the facial expressions of someone who didn't even have a face? He glanced down at his jacket bundled in the seat beside him. They'd received an encrypted transmission from Sol after their journey had started; at least, if worse came to worst, he had a diplomatic ace up his sleeve.
When they'd docked and his pilot had given the all clear, Carter grabbed the bundle from the seat beside him and pulled himself through his limo's main hatch, into the space station's reception antechamber. He held his breath while the automatic decontamination system doused him with foul-smelling surface disinfectants from all directions. It was all predictable, standard procedure. What he didn't expect was the transport to the surface. Were this any normal, decently-sized planet he was headed for, he'd have been herded into some kind of atmospheric descent craft — an Ascender, a landing bus; something with wings and, most of the time, a heatshield. But the Greeting Area asteroid was small enough, and its gravity low enough, that they'd built a space elevator. The space station was parked in a lazy synchronous orbit, 70 kilometers over the asteroid's equator, and a slender tether passed all the way down to the city below.
Carter pulled himself into the elevator, following the printed arrows. His aide followed dutifully behind; the pilot would be staying back in the station for the whole stay, refuelling their spacecraft and overseeing the usual between-flight maintenance. When Carter and his aide were both safely inside, an outside attendant sealed the airtight hatch behind them, and Carter could feel the slight shift as their descent began. Windows had been installed along the length of the cabin, letting him see the station dwindling away above, the distant cities below, and the grand, black horizon off to the side. The tiny bright points studding that blackness were either distant asteroids or nearby spacecraft; it was impossible to tell with just his bare eyes. But one of these bright points had a fine bright line tailing away from it, leading all the way down to the same equator he was headed toward. Another space elevator. He guessed it might be a high-volume freight elevator, designed to ferry the standard sealed pallets he always saw clinging to the outsides of freighters. He glanced through the upper window again, at the slender cable holding them on their course. It was whizzing by too fast now to see any detail, but Carter could tell a stranded-steel cable when he saw one. That narrow rope of twisted metal would have snapped under its own weight if they'd tried to build this space elevator on Earth — or even on Mars. Perhaps there were certain advantages to living out among asteroids.
Assuming your infrastructure didn't collapse, that is. On a worldlet too small to hold an atmosphere, your oxygen-making trees and planktons had to be sealed under little clear domes. One breach, or even a plain old crop failure, and you had to fall back on your mechanical airmakers and chemical CO2 scrubbers. And if they'd gone unused too long . . . he shuddered. A catastrophe on a planet like Earth, and the population might revert to savagery; but a catastrophe out here, and the population would die. Life on these asteroids must be one long series of disaster preparedness drills.
After some minutes in freefall, he felt himself pressed — gently — against the elevator's floor. Braking. Through the windows, the city rose up to greet him. There wasn't much to see on the surface, except a few observation windows and an access hatch here and there. Most likely, the real development was buried underground, safe from vacuum and radiation. Abruptly, the ground caught up with him, and the panoramic view instantly switched to the close-up whizzing rock-and-metal walls lining the bottom of the elevator shaft, punctuated by the occasional lamp. The car ground to a halt, leaving him with just the barest hint of gravity — it felt like only 1% of Earth's, maybe even less. Airlock doors drew shut above him and around the little cable that had guided the elevator in, and at last the muffled hiss of pressurization outside the the car let him know he'd arrived.
He expected a uniformed escort to greet him when the doors opened, but instead . . . he had to look down a little bit. Standing before him on four wheeled feet was a naked Centaurian, attempting to mimic a human military salute with a hand to its eye stalks.
"Welcome to Human-Centauri's Greeting Area, James Carter," it said with the mouth facing him.
The effect jarred him. He knew he'd have to talk to Centaurians, but he wasn't expecting it this early. That singular Centaurian eye pointing at him, while the other two eyes looked 120 degrees away to either side; it wasn't even an eyeball, it looked more like a camera lens mounted near the end of a telescoping tube. Out of the corner of Carter's eye, he glimpsed his aide nodding his head politely at their alien escort. That kid was making him look bad, being cooler than he was. He forced his composure. "Thank you," he pulled himself out of the elevator in the ultra-low gravity.
"The other delegates have all arrived," the Centaurian told him. Its command of the language was impressive; it of course couldn't make "M" or "N" sounds, due to the species' lack of any nasal cavity, but aside from that its Centaurian accent was almost undetectable. "You'll be meeting in the Pentagon Peace room inside the Heap Memorial centrifuge."
"Centrifuge?" Carter worried.
"Of course," the Centaurian continued, motioning for Carter to follow it. "Gravity is so useful for so many things that everone wants to have it around. So, most of our living spaces spin. Their rates of rotation can be adjusted to produce one gee for humans, or zero-point-eight gee for Centaurians. Or at least, the settlers from Earth and Go'orla set them at those rates. Over in New Mars — that's our nickname for the Human-Centauri II asteroid — I see a lot of centrifuges that rotate at point-four gee to match the surface gravity of Mars." The Centaurian made some kind of gutteral snorting noise with two of its mouths; Carter remembered it was supposed to be the species' equivalent of a chuckle. "I always skid at least once when I wheel around in that zone; I'm too used to the the near-weightlessness of corridors like this, or the point-eight gee of my centrifuge at home. The Heap Memorial centrifuge always spins at point-eight gee, with the floor angled ever-so-slightly off the vertical to compensate for this asteroid's own weak gravity."
"Speaking of which," Carter said, "With the gravity here being so weak, why didn't they just build the spacedock directly onto the surface of the asteroid, instead of bothering with a synchronous station and a space elevator?"
"You know, I never thought about that," the Centaurian replied. It leaned away slightly, a Centaurian's way of shrugging. "I'm guessing some spacecraft exoskeletons are too fragile to support their own weight, even under a hundredth of a gee."
They maneuvered through the hallways by pulling themselves along on handholds, or rebounding gently off the ceiling when they took too big a step. Carter glanced around. Glitzy store displays greeted them from every acrylic glass door they passed. One sculpture, carved from a single piece of asteroid stone, looked like a model of the entire Human-Centauri system; a slogan on its pedestal read: "The plague shall pass." Carter guessed that the scrawling below this was the same phrase in printed Centaurian.
"Tourist shops," their Centaurian escort explained, speaking with the side mouth facing Carter while it continued to move forward. "You're better off avoiding them; they buy cheap knick-knacks and then re-sell them for triple or quadruple their normal price."
"Like every other spaceport in the Pentagon," Carter chuckled, trying to keep the tone light.
"There's a tube shuttle leaving for the diplomatic zone every three minutes," the Centaurian informed them, pointing its eye stalks at the end of the corridor for emphasis. "These hallways all start to look alike after a while, so there's signage posted everywhere to keep you from getting lost. Once we're in the diplo zone, there'll be a short hop past a guard station, and then you'll be right there at the elevator for the Heap centrifuge."
Carter puzzled. "Elevator?"
"Unless you to prefer to take the ladder," the Centaurian responded, "For the exercise. Oh! But you're new here, of course. You probably didn't get the whole picture when I mentioned centrifuges. You humans get dizzy in small, rapidly-spinning spaces, so a centrifuge has to be huge to compensate. The inner circumference of the Heap Memorial centrifuge is nearly half a kilometer."
Carter was impressed. An entire O'Neill colony inside an asteroid! And there were probably thousands like it strewn around this star system. Only . . . "On a centrifuge that big, just how fast will everything be moving?"
"Twenty-five meters per second," the Centaurian replied. It held up a hand to curtail Carter's next obvious question. "Accidents are very rare, but they do happen. The worst accidents have involved a centrifuge going off balance and grinding to a halt against its housing. Even in those cases, it takes enough time to brake that there's little real danger of serious injury. The property damage can be pretty exhorbitant, though."
"What about decompression, if the seals rupture?"
"This deep underground?" his guide looked at him quizzically. "You're kidding, right? The centrifuges aren't even airtight. The whole tunnel network is sealed in by close to a hundred meters of rock. It would take a monumental effort to deliberately drill a hole all the way out to vacuum, and keep it open for more than a split second."
They soon reached the end of the corridor amid a hastily-assembling crowd. The doors up ahead must mark the entrance to that "tube shuttle" the Centaurian mentioned a moment ago. There was a lot to see and learn here, if only he had more time.
Carter entered the conference room at the same time as the other four representatives, eyeing them as feverishly as they eyed him. Holsteader, the Alpha-Centauri-A-III born representative of that same triple-star system, rotated its eye turret until one of its three eyes stared right at him — and, Carter feared, through him. Krammer, representing CN Leonis, was new to him, and was pudgy even for a Centaurian. The four arms of this meter-and-a-third tall being betrayed its tension. Carter could almost hear what its thoughts must be: "Human scum, how dare your government even think of hiding your arsenal from us!"
At least Håkan Brezhnev, the figurehead Ayatollah of Sirius, was a human — albeit an enigmatic one. But of all the system leaders gathered there, it was Yukariah Heap, the decades-long Chairholder of Human-Centauri, that frightened him the most. Human-Centaurians — particularly Human-Centaurian politicians — had a reputation for sincerity that just didn't make sense from the standpoint of diplomacy. How could you expect to get along with another star system if you told them everything? Yukariah Heap had been at every interstellar summit since Carter had been born, and that gentle Alpha-Centaurian still shook him to his core whenever he was in its presence.
"Holsteader," "Krammer," and "Yukariah Heap." Centaurians always did have weird names, Carter figured. Probably because those four mouths of theirs made their real names impossible for humans to pronounce. It was also noteworthy that, while Yukariah used two names, Holsteader and Krammer did not. The second name was supposed to be the Centaurian's clan. From what Carter recalled from his cultural briefings, only two kinds of Centaurians didn't use their clan name: the clanless, those forgotten dregs of Centaurian society at the bottom of the social ladder; and the members of each nation's one-and-only ruling clan, at the very very top.
In slow, wary steps, the five approached their respective places around the pentagonal conference table. They placed themselves, as usual, at the corners of the table which represented the actual positions of their star systems relative to each other in space. Carter sat to the right of Holsteader, who stood (a sitting human reached about the same height as a standing Centaurian, who can remain standing without tiring) to the right of Krammer, who stood on Yukariah Heap's right, who stood right of Brezhnev, who sat to Carter's right. Carter wished that this "round table" arrangement had been thrown out of the planning office years ago; he could barely keep an eye on any two of the other delegates at once, much less all four. He felt it grossly unfair, at such times, that Centaurians had omnidirectional vision.
"All right," Holsteader began, "We all know why we're here." It rotated its eye turret until one eye pointed directly at Carter. "Sol has not only built a third Phased Antimatter bomb, making their hyper bomb stockpile the largest of any nation, they have also blatantly violated the terms of SALTY VI by keeping this third bomb a secret from the rest of us."
"I've seen your pictures," Carter replied, "The thermal images that show our . . . facility on Mercury. The surface detail of Caloris Basin in those shots is phenomenal. Almost as though they were taken close up."
"How we got those images is irrelevant," Holsteader countered.
"On the contrary," Carter retorted, "There are more treaties at stake here than just SALTY VI. If there are Alpha-Centaurian spysats orbiting a planet in Sol space, I think I speak for everyone at this table when I say that you've gone too far."
"I disagree," Ayatollah Brezhnev spoke up. "Both Sol and Alpha Centauri are notorious for their espionage operations —" he silenced the sudden restlessness of Carter and Holsteader with a wave of his hand "— but such trivialities pale in comparison with a secret hyper bomb. We Sirians are only one hyper-hole hop away from you. How do we know you don't have two secret hyper bombs? Or three?"
Because that much positron production would bankrupt us, you dolt, Carter thought.
Holsteader continued, "Alpha Centauri insists that your third phased antimatter device be disassembled, and its positrons disposed of or recycled into other forms of energy."
"You know what a huge investment you're asking Sol to throw away," Carter replied. "Look," he made his voice as soothing as he could, "Sol is willing to make amends. We'll disclose the location of the facility that furnished the positrons for our third bomb. We'll even let an international inspection coalition have free run of the place."
"You're too late, James," Holsteader said. "We've already decided. Until Sol dismantles its third hyper bomb, Alpha Centauri is closing off all traffic. No spacecraft, other than specially authorized diplomatic transports, will be allowed in or out of the Alpha Centauri system through our hyper hole with Sol."
"You're talking about a blockade," Carter balked.
"If you want to call it that," the Alpha-Centaurian replied. Then, with another mouth aimed at another seat around the table: "I would strongly enourage your neighbors in Sirius to do the same."
Carter turned to stare at Brezhnev. The Russo-Scandinavian nodded, slowly, as though he'd already come to the same conclusion the Centaurian had. They were going to do it, they were going to lock Sol in from both sides. All of the interstellar commerce that had kept Sol so prosperous in recent decades would come crashing to a halt. This couldn't be allowed to stand.
Time to pull out that ace, Carter thought.
"You realize, Holsteader," he turned back to the Alpha-Centaurian, "That you're not the only one with an Intelligence program." He pulled a packet from his inner coat pocket, and let a couple of photos spill out onto the table and unfurl themselves. "These are close-up shots of Alpha Centauri B, about 45 degrees north of its Ecliptic." He glimpsed the desired flinch in Holsteader's mien. "You have an enormous network of antimatter production satellites girding this region."
"Of course we do," Holsteader interjected, forcing nonchalance. "You know the dangers of antimatter containment failure as well as I do. We keep all of our antimatter factories as far away from inhabited areas as is practical."
The corner of Carter's mouth twitched upward ever-so-slightly. "Our image analysts have confirmed that the silhouettes in these photos match the shape of the few positron factories orbiting Alpha Centauri A-III. These kinds of facilites lack the necessary hardware to make antiprotons; their only known use is for producing positrons."
"Are you accusing Alpha Centauri," Holsteader asked sternly, "Of stockpiling positrons for the purpose of creating a Phased Antimatter device outside of the terms of SALTY VI?"
"No, ambassador," Carter raised a smirking eyebrow, "I don't have to accuse you. We've already confirmed that you've created said device." He tossed one more photograph onto the table, the crown-jewel of his evidentiary arsenal. "This," he tapped the photo, "Is less than four terrestrial days old. It's an orbital view of your construction yards near the north pole on Alpha Centauri A-II. Recognize this shadow? 'Cause we did. That . . . is a Hyper-Bomb."
Holsteader leaned its torso forward and arched all three of its eye stalks to glare at the photo. "We always suspected," it said slowly but intensely as it settled back into its place around the table, "That Sol had some kind of espionage operation watching us from our back yard, but we had no idea you'd gotten your surveillance equipment this close without our spotting it."
"You'd be amazed," Carter said coolly, "How easy it is to sneak a probe into your traffic patterns." Carter grinned slightly. That would likely get them so paranoid they'd choke off their own interplanetary trade out of security fears. The xorns would be begging for Sol's assistance in just a few years.
"If Alpha Centauri has a secret hyper bomb too," Krammer piped in, "That means CN Leonis is no more safe than Sirius is. We can't allow any spacecraft from Alpha Centauri into our space until this mess is straightened out."
"You want to blockade us?" Holsteader asked Krammer, flabbergasted.
"The Leonians' fears are entirely grounded," Brezhnev intervened. "We cannot allow traffic through the Sol/Sirius hyper hole for the time being either. It's just too risky."
Dammit, Carter thought. His ploy was backfiring. Instead of making Alpha Centauri back down from their blockade, he'd put everyone on the defensive. "Now see here!" he raised his voice at the Ayatollah slightly. "Do you think we're such monsters that we'll just waltz in and blow up Sirius A IV? We wanted to avoid a hyper bomb gap, because we had reason to suspect that every one of you here has a secret hyper bomb program!"
"How dare you!" Krammer snapped from the other side of the table. "CN Leonis would never break a treaty."
"You've done it before," Yukariah Heap said to Krammer. "After you requested that Human-Centauri establish a hyper hole link with you, and you so eagerly donated the lions' share of the positrons we needed to make that link, our Defense Force got worried that you had some ulterior motive. So, you publically promised only to use the CN Leonis/Human-Centauri hyper hole for legal commerce. Sure enough, we found nearly fifteen Leonian spy satellites dropped here from your freighters within the first year."
"You —" Krammer began, but Yukariah cut it off with surprising abruptness.
"It was a minor transgression," Yukariah continued, "One that any of us would have committed against our neighbors — including myself. The point is, we're on the sixth SALTY treaty, and Carter is right. We all have some motivation for breaking it. Just because we only have conclusive proof that Sol and Alpha Centauri did so doesn't mean that CN Leonis and Sirius don't have secret positron stockpiles or even secret fully-assembled hyper bombs as well."
"But we all know Sol's real motivation here," Brezhnev tried to deflect the unwanted attention. "They don't want to blow up planets; the real reason they're secretly building hyper bombs is to start colonizing other star systems again!"
Not this old rumor again! Carter thought. No, Mister Brezhnev, blowing up planets was exactly the reason Sol was secretly building hyper bombs.
The Ayatollah pointed at Carter. "You're dusting off your old plans to colonize Lalande 21185. You want to send a craft there carrying a hyper bomb, then coordinate its detonation with another bomb in Sol space to form a new linked pair of hyper holes. You figure that if this new colony is only a hyper-hole transit away, you won't lose control of it . . . the way you did with us 185 years ago."
"Don't change the subject, Håkan," Carter scolded him, "Do you have a secret Phased Antimatter Bomb program?"
The man just stared at him, his face turning red from rage or embarrassment or trapped indecision or all three.
"I'm no expert at reading human facial expressions," Krammer offered, "But I'd call that a 'yes.'"
"And you?" Carter turned to the Leonian Centaurian. "Are you going to try and convince me that CN Leonis doesn't have a secret hyper bomb program too?"
"Of course we don't," Krammer stood on its dignity, "And I take umbrage at that accusation!"
Carter suppressed a snort. If that fat xorn told me space was a vacuum, he thought, I'd go outside and check.
Krammer rotated its eye turret so that one was pointing directly at Yukariah Heap. "If anything, you should be more worried about our Human-Centauri neighbors."
"Us?" Yukariah countered. "The Human-Centauri Defense Force is the smallest military in the Pentagon."
"All the more reason for you to build a secret hyper bomb," Krammer replied.
Sirius's Ayatollah spoke up from the other side of the table. "We've all seen the pictures of UV Ceti IV," the Russo-Scandanavian steepled his fingers. "The planet will eventually weld itself back together; Namu might even have a stable surface again in only a few hundred thousand years."
Your scare tactics won't work, Carter thought. That Heap-clan Centaurian doesn't have any beans to spill.
"We all know what a hyper bomb can do," Yukariah Heap briefly pointed a finger upward, the Centaurian equivalent of a nod. "That's one reason why Human-Centauri has so little invested in positron collection. We have one positron factory on its own small asteroid, and it'll be years before we've stockpiled enough to make a single Phased Antimatter Bomb."
"Oh really?" Krammer interjected. "In addition to the positron factory you just mentioned, one side of the big, heavily populated asteroid you call Human-Centauri III gives off a rather suspicious level of gamma rays. You knew you couldn't hide an antimatter factory forever, didn't you?"
Yukariah breathed a deep sigh. "So you know about that. All right, then. The underground installation you speak of is an antiproton factory. We intended to keep a low profile on that operation."
Secretly stockpiling antiprotons? Carter mused in thought. The "harmonious, peace loving" Human-Centaurians have been covertly beefing up their conventional war arsenal all this time? The Bureau's gonna love this.
"And you'd certainly have no objections," the Leonian Centaurian asked the Human-Centaurian Centaurian, "To allowing our inspectors in, to verify that your facility really is, in fact, producing only antiprotons?"
"Out of the question," Yukariah dismissed the demand. "We cannot permit outsiders into our Citizen areas. There's too much danger of infection from the Emotional Plague."
"Again with your 'emotional plague' nonsense!" Krammer barked, being careful not to revert to the Centaurian language so that all present heard its outburst. "What on Go'orla is this plague of yours?!"
Yukariah levelled its gaze, and recited from memory: "The emotional plague is the root cause of all neuroses. It is memetic neurotic behavior. A plauge-infected person cannot stand to see the natural expression of someone else's emotion, so the plague-carrier lashes out and clamps down upon the victim. If the plague-carrier's personality is strong enough, or the victim is too young, the victim eventually becomes neurotic. And often enough, the victim's neuroses are such that the victim becomes a new carrier, lashing out at others who express the emotions he once enjoyed but can no longer tolerate."
"So," Ayatollah Brezhnev offered, "It's kind of like emotional brainwashing, then?"
"Perhaps," Yukariah noted, "Except that it's self-sustaining. It needs no ulterior motive. Plague-carriers act the way thay do simply due to the nature of the plague itself. This is Human-Centauri's greatest contribution to both our species. By keeping the emotional plague out, and weeding out plague outbreaks that occur within our own population, we prevent all neuroses from occurring."
Impossible, Carter thought. Even if such a plague really existed, it couldn't explain where the first neuroses came from. Whether that Centaurian admitted it to itself or not, it was living in a religious fantasy world. And even the most benevolent religious leaders in history had their every move, their every decision, clouded by dogma.
"How convenient for you," Krammer countered, "That your 'greatest contribution to both our species' also prevents the very inspections necessary to ensure that you're still following SALTY VI."
"All right," Yukariah acquiesced. "Look. We can't let your inspectors into our asteroid tunnels to mingle with our citizens, but there's no limit to how close we can let them get from above. Human-Centauri III is less than seven hundred kilometers across. Your inspectors could easily land on the surface and take all the readings they want."
"No one can spot positron collection from the outside," Krammer countered. "You could easily disguise your operation by tacking on antiproton stages to the facility, and never using them. You need to let us inside to make sure!"
Krammer's really pressing the issue, Carter thought. Ten to one, it's just an excuse to take an action they've already decided on.
"You know I can't do that," Yukariah answered.
"Then we have no choice," Krammer declared. "CN Leonis hereby revokes all transit privileges through our hyper hole with Human-Centauri. We will do to you what these other nations have done to each other," it gestured at the other three representatives with its eye stalks, "Until you allow our inspectors to verify your story."
"I'm afraid we must concur," Brezhnev added. The other four delegates turned their attention to him in surprise. "A secret hyper bomb could be intended for Sirius A IV just as much as CN Leonis II — and any spacecraft large enough to carry passengers or cargo is also large enough to carry a hyper bomb. For our safety's sake, we must prohibit transit through the Sirius/Human-Centauri hyper hole until any and all rogue hyper bombs are found and dismantled."
Carter's head reeled. If everyone at the table made good on their threats — and there was no reason to think they wouldn't — each of the five hyper hole links would have someone, on one side or the other, denying its use. Aside from radio messages and a few diplomatic trips, every star system in the entire Pentagon would be as isolated from its neighbors as they were before the hyper holes existed.
"Hold on," Holsteader tried to raise the voice of reason. "All we're doing is blockading each other."
"And what's wrong with that?" Krammer said slowly and emphatically.
Holsteader's eye stalks all craned to focus on the Leonian next to it. "What's wrong with that?!" Complete isolation. Market collapse. Holsteader could have given a million examples, but those two Centaurians must have locked horns on some level that Carter couldn't grasp. "Oh, never mind," the Alpha-Centaurian blurted out, "You're hopeless! I declare war on you!"
The air in the room came alive. Even the aides standing watch by the doors couldn't contain their shock.
"War?!?" Yukariah Heap bellowed. "I brought you together here to broker an agreement, not to be party to a shooting match!"
Krammer barked something in Centaurian back to Yukariah Heap. Its four arms tensed, its torso went rigid; it looked ready to pounce. So this is how Centaurians lose their cool, Carter thought. He expected them to come to blows, but what Krammer said next was far worse: "Holsteader had the right idea, but the wrong target." All three of its eye stalks pointed squarely at the Human-Centauri Chairholder. "I declare war on you!"
Had CN Leonis really just committed itself to a war on two fronts? Maybe this was was Sol's opportunity to smooth things over with Alpha Centauri. Carter addressed Holsteader: "Since CN Leonis is taking an aggressor stance against Human-Centauri, Sol is willing to lend its assistance in any military actions Alpha Centauri chooses to take against them."
"Oh no you don't!" Holsteader snapped, glaring at Carter. "Your war machines are not going to transit our space!"
"I'm sorry," Carter gasped, "I didn't mean t—"
"You're the ones who started this whole mess," the Alpha-Centaurian rasped. Then, craning its eye stalks at the Solar representative so as to point as much attention at him as possible: "We should never have made that truce with you 214 years ago. If I'd been there at Second Contact, I would have taken the surviving starship and gone ahead with the asteroid bombardment."
Carter felt a lump in his stomach. Holsteader had just hinted at a Centaurian version of the Henderson Doctrine. This was bad.
"You humans have done nothing but threaten us with destruction ever since. I declare war on you!"
"Sirius joins you in your war against Sol," Ayatollah Brezhnev interjected.
Carter glared at the Russo-Scandanavian, stunned. You have got to be kidding me!
"What makes you think we'd want your help?" Holsteader hissed with the mouth facing Brezhnev.
"You're fighting a war on two fronts," Brezhnev stated matter-of-factly.
"And I suppose when we win that war, you'll expect us to divide the spoils?" Holsteader countered. "Sol has more terraformed living space than any other system in the Pentagon, suitable for human and Centaurian settlement. We're not sharing any of it."
You'll never get any of it, Carter thought. Sol also has a bigger military than any other system in the Pentagon.
"And when we roll over the home system of humanity," Holsteader continued, "You Sirians will be our new human next-door neighbors. We know how you treat Centaurians in your own midst!"
"Those Centaurians arrived as would-be conquerors!" the Ayatollah retorted.
"They wanted to establish colonies, separate and distinct from yours!" Holsteader decried.
"That's your story," countered Brezhnev.
"And besides, that was 179 years ago. What's that human expression? Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the sons unto the fourth generation?"
Close enough, Carter thought.
"You're making your intentions perfectly clear," Brezhnev replied. "You want to roll in as 'liberators' of the Centaurians living among us. Well, you will find we're not so easily conquered! We won our independence by fighting for it, and we will keep it by fighting for it! Alpha Centauri is just as much our enemy as Sol."
And in chorus, as though the two had practiced it, both Brezhnev and Holsteader blurted, "I declare war on you!"
Exasperation gripped Yukariah Heap. If Centaurians wept, this one would have been bawling. "Have you all gone insane?"
"No more insane than your Leonian enemies," Brezhnev glared at Krammer.
"What?" the Leonian Centaurian seemed genuinely confused.
"Human-Centauri's military is considerably weaker than CN Leonis's," the Ayatollah explained. "You'd be able to move in and take over rather rapidly — then, you'd be our neighbor. You, and your Fanatic Brigade of brainwashed humans!"
Holsteader lowered its voice and said to Krammer in Centaurian, "He has a point. Sirius's mistreatment of Centaurians is a minor annoyance compared with how badly CN Leonis treats humans."
"But they're just humans!" Krammer countered, staying in Centaurian.
Brezhnev pressed a stud to his ear for a few seconds, then his eyes opened wide. "Xorns!" he cursed. His gaze pierced Krammer like a kinetic slug. "I declare war on you!"
Carter shook his head. Did that loudmouthed Leonian really think the humans wouldn't have translators listening in?
"And if we're at war with CN Leonis," Brezhnev pressed on, "Then those xenophobic Human-Centaurians are in our way."
"We are not xenophobes," Yukariah Heap said flatly.
"You're so afraid of outsiders that you only allow them to visit one asteroid in your entire Habitat Ring!" stated the Ayatollah. "And if you're afraid of us, you must want to be rid of us!"
Yukariah made a pushing gesture with the hand toward Brezhnev, the Centaurian equivalent of shaking its head. "That's not—"
"I declare war on you!", Brezhev interrupted.
Carter had already started losing track of who'd declared war on whom. The only thing he could be sure of was that Sol wasn't at war with Human-Centauri.
By the end of the conference, they were.
He'd come here to prevent a war, and instead he got the worst of all possible outcomes. Not just a war with Alpha Centauri; not just a war with Sirius; not just a war with both of them; but a war engulfing the entire Pentagon of civilization! Five star systems — seven suns! Eight, if you counted Proxima — two homeworlds plus every planet, asteroid, and outpost that humans and Centaurians had ever colonized, would all very soon be fighting and killing each other.
Now Carter had to get home . . . across two hyper holes and half a billion kilometers of now-hostile Sirian space.
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 5.
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