The Pentagon War


Roger M. Wilcox

(Originally begun on November 1, 1980)

chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4
chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8
chapter 9 | chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12
chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16
chapter 17 | chapter 18 | epilog


230 years A.C.

The Human-Centauri Defense Force. Fighting a year-long war on two fronts.

Even in their shaky infancy, no Human-Centaurian ever thought they would get involved in a pathological shooting-match this deeply; and now, the war was a year old and still going strong.

Human-Centauri was the great experiment, dwarfing all the social experiments that had ever come before it. 159 years ago, a grassroots group of Sol citizens called the "Humans for Better Interspecies Relations" decided to buck their nation's stand-offishness and actually try living with Centaurians. They were idealists — one might even say utopianists — who believed that the paranoia and enmity keeping most folk from living in harmony with each other was a sickness, spread from generation to generation since history began. This "Emotional Plague" idea originated with a mid-20th-century figure widely regarded as a crackpot, but it resonated with their utopianism so well that they embraced it as their own. The plan was to colonize another star system, on their own without government support, and greet the worthy Centaurian comers with open arms. They broadcast their intent over XRCP to all three other system-nations, hoping for an enormous groundswell of support. Hardly anyone living in the Sirius or CN Leonis systems — human or Centaurian — were interested, but enough of the Centaurians living back home on Alpha Centauri A-III wanted in that the "Human-Centauri" project went ahead.

Their first problem was finding a suitable star system. Sirius and CN Leonis had declared their independence not too many years earlier, and while these events had brought interstellar colonization to a grinding halt, both Sol and Alpha Centauri had laid claim to nearly every star within ten light-years. The Humans for Better Interspecies Relations wanted their new star system to be left alone; but any star system far enough away that none of the four star-nations would lay claim on it would take a small eternity to reach. The choice was clear: they'd have to colonize a region of space that wasn't in any known star system. They selected Haberd's Brown Dwarf 629, a dense ball of gas 6.8 light-years from Sol, just barely too small to be a star. By coincidence, it lay almost exactly mid-way between CN Leonis and Sirius. The ring of asteroids closely orbiting the brown dwarf, along with the brown dwarf itself, would provide all the resources they'd need to sustain themselves; with their fusion furnaces at their side, they could get by without needing more. But they tried for, and got, more: Haberd's Brown Dwarf 629's core was right at the cusp of stellar ignition. It just needed a little push to get it started. One antimatter bomb encased in a thick, rocky shell survived the trip down through the layers of the brown dwarf's atmosphere, reached the core, and detonated. Overnight, the brown dwarf became a red dwarf. Human-Centauri would be a star system, with its own sun.

In theory, every citizen of Human-Centauri was supposed to live in harmony and togetherness with every other citizen, regardless of species. In practice, though, a fully integrated human and Centaurian society was nearly impossible. Just the basic physiological differences between the two taxa made living together a monumental challenge, to say nothing of their emotional differences. They ate different food, drank different water, used different toilets, required completely different means to change floors — ladders were easy for Centaurians to clamber up and down, but stairs were a real challenge. Oh, sure, one always heard of the of the man that lives with Centaurians or vice-versa, but they were like the ascetic monks of the middle ages: an ideal upheld in the eyes of their society, but something hardly anyone wanted to actually be. So, instead, you had centrifuges populated entirely by Centaurians and centrifuges peopled only by humans. And more often than not, these monoethnic neighborhoods consisted only of humans or Centaurians that hailed from a specific planet.

HCDF Lieutenant Torra Zorra, for instance, had grown up in a centrifuge filled entirely with immigrants from Alpha Centauri B II, tuned to rotate at that planet's one-half-gee surface gravity. It had never lived with humans, had only ever seen humans in videos before it joined the HCDF a few years ago, and in fact had only picked up the barest rudiments of the humans' simple monophonic language before it had to start obeying orders in that language. The learning curve had been steep. Whenever Torra touched a human, it felt jarringly warm, like a piece of equipment about to overheat. Half the time, they seemed to be complaining about this or that "smell," as though their ability to sense trace chemicals in the air were a curse. The other half of the time, they were obsessed with their mates, or with finding a mate, with the same fervency a Centaurian obsesses over its clan. And that didn't count the 8 hours out of every 24 those bipeds frittered their long lives away asleep. And they were so picky about pronouns, with this one demanding to be called "he" and that one screaming to be called "she". Their insistence on rank hierarchy within the HCDF was equally maddening at first; if your comrades were supposed to be your clan-away-from-clan, why did there have to be an individual who gave you orders about everything, even topics he-or-she wasn't an expert in? Torra had had to get used to wearing those arm bands everywhere, with the little Lieutenant's bar printed on them. They'd told Torra the bar was colored silver, to distinguish it from the gold bars used by the kind of Lieutenants that Torra outranked; not that Centaurian vision had any hope of distinguishing between the two colors. The HCDF was deadly serious about forcing the two species to serve together, almost as serious as it was about teaching history to its enlistees. Having the two species work side-by-side seemed like such a noble cause, but Torra Zorra sometimes found it so . . . artificial.

Still, to some degree, the Human-Centauri experiment had been a kind of success. Domestic conflict was almost unheard of, without the need for an iron-fisted government. How much of that was due to the weeding out of Emotional Plague elements, and how much was due to the simple fact that cooperation was a life-and-death necessity when living next to hard vacuum, no one could really say. Four-and-a-half light years of isolation meant that any idealistic outsiders who might second-guess and try to "fix" them simply had too long of a trip to make for it to be worth their while.

The hyper hole with Sirius changed all that.

Practically overnight, the tiny Greeting Area for non-citizen visitors bloomed into a sprawling tourist destination. Good old Human-Centaurian self sufficiency gave way to freighters that brought all the latest baubles, trinkets, exotic foodstuffs, and luxury goods like lumber from the other star systems. Centaurian clans, human families, and sometimes even single individuals travelled to other worlds in the Pentagon in great numbers, not to emigrate permanently but just to take short vacations.

Of course, that same loss of isolation had struck every system in the Pentagon. Given each nation's leeriness of its once-distant neighbors, the war they were fighting right now was inevitable.

Hyper hole travel also carried with it the potential for time-travel paradoxes, though these turned out to be much less threatening than early detractors had warned. Time dilation was a mutual thing; if you were travelling at 866 permil, and passed by some stationary observers, the observers would see your clock moving half as fast as theirs, but you would see their clocks moving half as fast as yours. This counterintuitive effect meant that some events that happened in your future would happen in the stationary observers' past. Thankfully, these events all happened far enough away that by the time the light from them reached either party, they'd be in both party's past. But if a signal from the event could travel faster than light, such as through a hyper hole, the stationary observer could know about the event, and tell you about it, while the event was still in your future. If you then took action to prevent the event, or to prevent the stationary observer from finding out about the event, the observer won't have told you about it — which would mean you wouldn't have taken action to prevent it, which would mean the observer will have told you about it, which would mean . . . ad infinitum.

To induce such a paradox, one party had to be flying past a hyper hole at relativistic speed while interacting with an event on the other side. Sending a radio signal through the hole to a relay station, and having it send a separate signal back, would suffice for an event. From the reference frame of the (stationary) relay, it received the radio signal a fraction of a second after the passing spacecraft sent it; but in the spacecraft's reference frame, the relay station received the radio signal a couple of seconds before it had been sent. The relay's return signal would arrive at the spacecraft, in the spacecraft's reference frame, before the spacecraft had sent the signal that triggered it in the first place.

Torra still remembered, fondly, watching the live news broadcast when Sol had attempted to deliberately create such a paradox. Getting a spacecraft up to relativistic speed within the solar system was no easy task — starships are designed for such speeds, but are built to accelerate in more-or-less a straight line. At 1g, it takes over a month to accelerate to a mere tenth of the speed of light, just barely fast enough for relativistic effects to be detectable at all. The craft had to accelerate out of the system, then brake to a stop all the way out at the Hills Cloud, then come barrelling back in on a trajectory that took it right past where the Sol/Alpha-Centauri hyper hole would be when it arrived. An old-fashioned magnetic solenoid had been set up on the spacecraft, which controlled the radio transmitter. If the spacecraft received a signal from the remote relay station, it would cut power to the solenoid and be unable to transmit; if not, the solenoid would stay on and they'd transmit to the relay station. Theoretically, their transmission would be received a few seconds before they sent it, triggering the relay station to transmit back, which they'd also receive before their original transmission had been sent; this would cut the solenoid and prevent the signal from being sent in the first place, thus preventing the relay station from transmitting, thus not cutting the solenoid, thus allowing their signal to be sent. Voilá, paradox!

What the video cameras onboard the spacecraft actually recorded, for the few seconds the paradox lasted, was the solenoid switch hovering right at the cusp of making contact. It was too close to tell whether the two switchplates touched or not. The ammeter measuring the current to the transmitter circuit likewise showed a current strength right at the level where the transmitter would be able to operate — or right below that level, it was also too close to tell. The radio relay station had also recorded the incoming signal, and showed a signal strength right at the threshold of the level necessary to trigger a response. It was impossible to tell whether it had responded or not. By all accounts, increasing the resolution of the video camera, or the sensitivity of the ammeters, wouldn't have made any difference. Like an unmeasured quantum state, the radio transceivers were in a netherworld for those few seconds, not transmitting, not not transmitting, but doing both — and neither.

But after the paradox was over, the radio equipment on both ends functioned normally as though nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Most folk now believed that at the much lower spacecraft speeds involved in normal hyper hole travel, little "microparadoxes" like this happened regularly — but with none lasting longer than a trillionth of a second. Time paradox states, like quantum uncertainty, simply happened at too fine a scale to intrude into the world of the macroscopic.

Meeting your past self, or killing your grandmother before you were born, were impossibilities — but the threat that the hyper holes now represented was just as scary. When those twin timed hyper bombs first punched the Human-Centauri/Sirius hyper hole into existence, detractors warned that their chance of infection from the Emotional Plague had now greatly increased. That was the only issue in the limelight, the only worry on the minds of the Human-Centauri minority that thought the hyper hole was a bad idea. No one raised the specter of what a hyper hole would mean if a war broke out. But the Defense Force, playing through all the worst-case scenarios of the new reality, figured it out pretty quickly. A fleet of invading scramjet-powered starships could be detected over a year away, giving ample time to plan, mount a defense, and even build new spacecraft to handle the threat. But against a fleet of combat spacecraft barreling single-file through a hyper hole, you'd have almost no warning. Intelligence from the far side of the hyper hole link was limited to the narrow corridor you could stare down from your own side. If you stuck your eye-turret through to get a better view, you'd probably get it chopped off. Practically overnight, the HCDF changed from lookouts and domestic peacekeepers to a full-blown space military, with a Gate Guard, orbiting logistics stations, and fleets of fighter deployers.

Of course, the other four nations all came to the same conclusion on their own. And when war came for real, the preparations often fell well short of reality.

The initial fiasco Sol had with Alpha Centauri, where a single enemy fighter not only managed to get by their Gate Guard but also crossed all the way to Jupiter and wrecked their biggest space station, had driven home just how vulnerable each side was to a fast intruder. The response was to place a second tier of protection at each hyper hole, a pair of "Second Guards" just as big and powerful as the Gate Guard already there, but positioned dead center along the paths leading out of either side of the hyper hole a few thousand kilometers away. If an intruder wanted to barrel past the Gate Guard fast enough to dodge its fire, it would need to get a serious running start on its own side of the hyper hole link and then dive through the hole almost perpendicular to its surface. This severely limited the courses it could pursue once it was on the other side. The Second Guard, plopped down right in the center of all those possible enemy courses, would be able to react while the intruders were still headed toward it, mopping up nearly every enemy spacecraft that the Gate Guard missed.

Actually getting a Gate-Guard-sized asteroid into such a position could take years, though. You couldn't put a multi-trillion-tonne asteroid on a powered least-time trajectory without bankrupting your civilization; it had to be nudged into a new orbit around the star that eventually brought it to the hyper hole, then nudged again so that its orbit matched the hole's. And even after you got it there, its gigantic station-keeping thrusters consumed a lot more fuel than a regular Gate Guard's, since it had to constantly reposition itself directly in front of one of the hyper hole's faces, and every hyper hole slowly rotated in lock-step with the hole it was linked to. CN Leonis had managed to put a Second Guard in place at both hyper holes already, but only because it was nearly as small a star system as Human-Centauri. A big star system like Sol or Sirius, whose larger asteroids orbited whole Astronomical Units away from their hyper holes, would have to wait. In the meanwhile, fighter deployers or hastily-erected weapons platforms would have to occupy the Second Guard's eventual resting place.

The Liquid Metal Gun, which Alpha Centauri was sure would win the war for them in a matter of weeks, had fizzled once the Leonians had discovered its weakness. A solid jolt with a charged particle beam would wreck the slug's homing fields, leaving it hurtling on whatever course it had last taken. Their initial edge having evaporated, all five nations had settled in for a long, mutual siege. The ease with which the hyper hole "choke points" could be defended by Gate Guards and fighter bases had turned space warfare into trench warfare.

Human-Centauri had long ago decided never to be the aggressor in any inter-system war, but for more than just ethical reasons. The HCDF was the weakest of the five nations' militaries, nearly an order of magnitude behind the terrifying might that was Alpha Centauri or Sol. Its fighter-deployer fleets were few, its pool of volunteers tiny. If the HCDF put all of its effort into defending Human-Centauri's borders, while the other nations tried to kill each other, they might stand a chance of weathering this war. To that end, they did something no other star system had yet attempted: they tried to plug up their two hyper holes.

Actually collapsing a hyper hole was impossible, of course, but placing objects right in front of either side wasn't. In a nation built entirely out of asteroids, a couple million tonnes of rubble was easy enough to come by. No invader could cross into Human-Centauri space without pushing those rocks aside, and any spacecraft bold enough to try would be a sitting duck for the Gate Guard's weapons.

Nevertheless, the enemy did try. Both Sirius and CN Leonis had hammered relentlessly at their defenses, shooting at the automated tugs that kept the rock piles intact, sending their own unmanned tugs through the holes to push a boulder or two out of place, trying to slip their fighters past the rock piles, the Gate Guards, and the fighters stationed nearby, all in an attempt to make inroads into what they hoped would be a lightly-defended, easily conquered interior. And once in a while, they succeeded.

Now was one such time.

The fighter deployer Marsidor, whose name was a cross between the Roman god of war and a similar personification from Centaurian mythology, stood as part of the HCDF's second line of defense. Unlike the deployers stationed near the hyper holes, who didn't bother carrying more than a minimal fuel supply, Marsidor was mobile. Its fighters could intercept intruders coming out of either hyper hole long before they reached a valuable target. As with all deployers, its fighters were its main means of attack; but should an enemy get past its fighter screen and assault the deployer itself, Marsidor sported its own short-ranged weaponry for self defense.

Torra Zorra was in charge of those defensive weapons. It wasn't the most prestigious station in Marsidor's Command Center, but it was safer than being on the fighter maintenance crew. Torra stood in one of the only two stations in the Command Center built for a Centaurian, surrounded on all sides by displays and keys. "Stood" was the right word for it at the moment, because Marsidor's engine was on, driving everyone and everything in the deployer forward at 1g. The wheels in the Centaurian's feet rested in concave slots, gently nudging the input-controls the way a human's hand might work a scroll wheel. Most of the time, the displays would show Marsidor's weapon systems at varying states of unreadiness, and Torra would be paying attention to the long-range tactical readout. Any potential threat could be detected and tracked long before the deployer's weapons would be an issue. But right now, each particle beam, slug launcher, kinetic point-defense cannon, and missile launcher stood powered-up and ready to fire. Half an hour ago, a behemoth wave of fighters had erupted out of the Sirius hyper hole, focusing fire on the HCDF fighters stationed at that hole's Second Guard point. The Gate Guard managed to disable about half of them, and the second-guard fighters killed five more of the intruders before falling to massed kinetic-weapons fire themselves. One Sirian fighter deployer, the Santa Maria, managed to slip past the Gate Guard on its fighters' tails. Such manned incursions were rare, particularly from Sirius, who sported no "fanatic brigade" like their Leonian counterparts did. Reports from the observers at the incursion couldn't reach a consensus on how many Sirian fighters there were total, and how many had made it past the Gate Guard and second-guard. One thing they all agreed on, though, was that none of the spacecraft were headed for the CN Leonis hyper hole. Every intruder that had made it through was diving sunward toward the Habitat Ring, with all the danger that implied.

Long-range tactical currently showed four live enemy fighters, with Santa Maria lumbering along far behind them. Marsidor's six fighters had undocked, lunging toward the quicker targets at 100g, almost as soon as the news had arrived. Defending a small star system like Human-Centauri was dicier than defending a big system like Sol or Alpha Centauri or Sirius. The Habitat Ring was only some three million kilometers in radius — most of Jupiter's smaller moons orbited farther away than the Habitat Ring orbited Human-Centauri's sun — and both hyper holes orbited the star a scant three million kilometers farther out than the Ring itself. That left precious little distance between the holes and the valuable targets, which meant less time to mobilize a defense. At ten permil, a fast intruder would cross that three-million-kilometer gap in just fifteen minutes. The current wave of intruders, thankfully, had made transit through the hyper hole while it happend to point tangent to its orbit; they'd started with no inward velocity and had had to accelerate sunward, buying time for Marsidor's fighters to intercept them.

Torra would have loved to have watched the fighter duel play itself out, but that was the Remote Ops officer's job, not the Senior Weapons officer's. Torra had statuses to monitor. One of the proton cannons was a bit hotter than its idling temperature should be, and the hand nearest the keyboard just had to choose this moment to have an invountary spasm. The Commander, J. Doe, was a human, and the natural Centaurian instinct was to hide such maladies from potential predators. Thinking of the casual acquaintances on your team as your clan-away-from-clan was one thing, but including those two-meter heat-producing bipeds in your mental "clan" — and actually deferring to one as the space combat expert — took some real emotional gymnastics. Torra was glad humans only had eyes on one side; Commander Doe was looking the other way.

Commander was a title, not a rank. Short for Battle Commander, it went into force when your spacecraft went into combat, and evaporated when the crisis ended. For as long as the Commander was the Commander, everyone onboard the spacecraft, regardless of rank, had to follow the Commander's orders. Even if a fleet General was on board, he'd be subordinate to a Colonel or Major while the latter was Commander; the General's orders would be treated like fleet orders received from a separate higher-ranking spacecraft, nothing more. The convention owed much to the Centaurian clan instinct of deferring to a situational expert rather than following an overall leader. And right now, while Marsidor's fighters engaged an uncomfortably close invasion force and a combat condition existed, the Commander title rested firmly on the shoulders of Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Doe.

"Keep your eyes open for course changes," Jennifer warned. "They're a safe distance from us so far, but —"

The frantic clack of keys from Torra Zorra's station interrupted her.

"Proton cannon 2 fired, ma'am!" Sergeant Moha reported in alarm from the tactical station.

"Torra!" Jennifer barked. "What the hell are you doing?!"

Torra Zorra's breathing was quick and panicked. "I don't know! I wasn't even thinking about it — it's like my hands started typing on their own!"

"Ma'am!" Moha broke in in amazement. "The particle burst scored a direct hit on a Sirian fighter fifty thousand klicks away! It was coming at us right out of the sun, and didn't show up in our radar sweeps!"

A fifth fighter! "Dammit, they're using A.R.A.," Jennifer squawked. "It damn near pounced on us. Nav, go to evasive" — she turned to face Torra Zorra — "Weps, concentrate fire on that report, full force! They're radar-invisible, so we won't have any hard-locks." She braced in her seatcouch, her harnesses straining to hold her in place, as Marsidor's deuteron-fusion QC&C engine whirred into action at 2g. A deployer was over twice as long from nose-to-tail as a fighter, with a much more moderate thrust-to-mass ratio; it didn't fishtail during its evasive maneuvers, it instead routed its engine exhaust through the length of its hull, ducting it out of thrust ports that faced sideways or even forward. Everyone on board felt a 2g sledgehammer pound them to one side, then to another, then another, as the S.I. randomly selected a new thrust port every second or two. Commander Doe's sandy blond hair, which a moment ago had hung in gentle waves behind her shoulders, now pointed sharply in one direction after another. "Torra, how the hell did you know where that target was?!"

"I didn't!" Torra protested in bewilderment, while relaxing its torso — just for a moment — to let it squish down in the instant when their random acceleration happened to drive it into the floor. In those fleeting seconds, its bottom side pressed into the soft floorpad like a lover's embrace during foreplay. Even during the most pitched battles, Torra usually allowed itself to enjoy this sensation — its three eyes could easily scan the status of each firing weapon from the encircling display at the same time — but that bout of involuntary typing had shaken its calm. One burst from a proton cannon wouldn't be enough to overwhelm the enemy fighter's magnetic field, but the resulting bremsstrahlung had lit it up like a flashbulb, and you couldn't hide that in the stellar glare. Now, each gun and launcher in Marsidor's arsenal saturated the likely flight-paths the enemy fighter might pursue in hopes of scoring a lucky hit.

Sergeant Moha shook his head. Like everyone else on the crew, the Sergeant had done exercise after exercise under the herky-jerky onus of 2g evasive maneuvering, until the random bucking had become expected, even welcome. It would have felt out-of-place not to lurch from side to side. "No impacts so far. And we're losing thermal tracking of the target in the sun again."

"Now that it knows we've spotted it, it'll probably try to ram," Jennifer noted. "Keep trying. We need that figher killed."

An unexpected thud accompanied the cacophony of weapons fire noise. "We're hit!" barked Sergeant Stych.

"Damage?" Jennifer's query was cool and intense.

"Looks like a low-speed physical impact," Stych scanned her displays, "Didn't even breach armor layer one."

Jennifer was suspicious. A low velocity impact? The Sirians wouldn't be stupid enough to use some kind of exploding ordnance that had just failed to go off, would they? You didn't need explosives when you had mass drivers, and —

Stych spoke up again more urgently: "Observer reports the impactor was a white blob, and the armor at the impact site is smoking! It might be some kind of chemical weapon, like a strong acid."

Jennifer growled. "That'll strip the laser-reflective surface off in no time. Can we stop it from eating all the way through?"

"Ka!" Torra yelped with three of its mouths. Its hands were flying into action of their own accord again.

Sergeant Moha puzzled at his display. "You've turned on the starboard cleaning jets?"

Stych broke in, "Observer reports massive outgassing from the impact site . . . just a moment . . . now they're saying the site's gone completely inert. The armor seems to have stabilized."

Jennifer snapped her fingers. "Of course. The hull cleaning system uses ammonia vapor. It must have neutralized the acid in their weapon! That was brilliant, Lieutenant," she addressed Torra Zorra.

"But I didn't —" Torra began, but its hands interrupted. They flickered wildly over the weapon controls, commanding one of Marsidor's few mass drivers to aim nearly five degrees off from the target's last known location. The Centaurian tentacle-fingers hovered motionless over the keys for a fraction of a second, then abruptly sent the command to fire. The whole deployer lurched slightly from the momentum of the launched slug.

Jennifer and Torra both glared nervously at Sergeant Moha for the report.

Moha's eyes bugged out. "Direct hit! We're getting radar echoes now; there's a debris cloud around the main mass — looks like a kinetic kill!"

The Commander stared at her senior weapons officer with newfound awe. "Damn!" Then, to the rest of her crew: "Cease fire, but keep us on evasive. Scan the stellar disc with UV lasers, in case there's another Sirian fighter or two running Active Radar Absorption. And keep an eye on that hulk to make sure it's not playing possum."

Torra Zorra flipped on the direct videocomm circuit to the Commander, saluting with one arm per human custom. "Ma'am, I don't know what happened back there. It scared the living daylights out of me all three times. It's like something was taking over my limbs and doing the typing for me."

Jennifer sighed ever-so-slightly. "Normally, I'd send you to the infirmary for a psych eval, but the accuracy of those two shots was incredible. You knew exactly where the enemy was each time, with no radar data or detectable emissions to guide you. I'd almost be tempted to say, I hope you get more episodes like that!"

One of Torra's arms jerked toward its console. "I think I'm getting one now."

Jennifer zoomed her videocomm's viewpoint outward until Torra's hands were visible. Out of morbid curiosity, two other personnel who weren't involved in the laser-scan craned their heads in the high, random gravity to see.

This time, though, Torra's hands didn't move to any of the weapon controls. "You're using the note pad?" Jennifer scratched her head. Torra's self-driven hands brought up a blank white display, and typed: "Help."

"That's it?" Jennifer quipped, "Just 'help'?"

"Maybe it's a voice from beyond the grave," one crewwoman opined, "And Torra's a medium."

Torra craned its eye stalks at her, glaring. "There's no such thing as ghosts."

Then, the urge struck its hands again: "Galaxy."

"Help the galaxy?" Jennifer shrugged.

And again: "End."

"What does —"

"I don't think they're done," Torra interrupted, and its hands darted out again: "UV Ceti IV."

Torra waited, but its hands had returned to their own recognizance. "Help . . . galaxy . . . end . . . UV Ceti IV. That's it." Torra took in the bewildered faces around it, reading the human expressions as best as its experience would allow. "I don't know what it means any more than y'all do."

"No laser echoes from the stellar direction," Sergeant Moha broke in.

"All right, cancel evasive," Jennifer called out, unbuckling her harness and grabbing a handhold as their thrust subsided and weightlessness returned. She drifted across the Command Center, her hair now a Medusa-like floating crown without gravity to guide it, until she reached the only other Centaurian surround-station in the room besides Torra Zorra's. "How's the main engagement going?"

"Latest report just came in from Marsidor 4," Second Lieutenant Bire answered with the mouth closest to the Commander. "We lost one, but they lost all of 'em. Our fighters say they're swarming in on the Sirian deployer's position."

Jennifer nodded. Radio lag at this distance was only a few seconds, but that was still far too long a delay to micromanage the fighters in a battle — not that one sluggish Sirian deployer stood a chance against five fighters. Santa Maria would be dead momentarily. "Let's move in to pick up our survivors, one gee."

Torra Zorra grunted inwardly as its weight returned. Most Human-Centauri spacecraft C.O.s cruised at 0.8g so that their Centaurian crewmembers wouldn't have to endure more than their homeworld's natural gravity. Jennifer Doe, though, seemed less concerned with crew comfort than with keeping a brisk schedule. Even when her fighter repair crews were outside between engagements, clinging to the sides of the fighters as though they were vertical cliff faces, she wouldn't throttle down to 0.8g. Funny, though — even when she was running late, she never exceeded 1g except in combat. It seemed human crew comfort was a bit more important to her.

That was the least of Torra's concerns right now, though. It spoke softly to its environs, all four mouths speaking the same words in chorus, as though the room could hear it: "Okay, whoever or whatever you are," it flexed its recently-posessed fingers, "I have no idea what 'help galaxy end UV Ceti IV' means, and neither does anyone else here. Frankly, you're scaring us. Can you at least identify yourself?"


Torra tried speaking more emphatically, still without raising its voice. "Who. Are. You?"

Torra's arms and fingers jerked into action again. This time, they typed on the note pad: "I was Arnold Hasselberg."

The eye stalk facing the note pad blinked. Arnold Hasselberg. The name did sound vaguely familiar. Where had Torra heard it before? It scrolled through the common apps with a foot wheel to select the system's encyclopedia, and searched for the name. Oh yes, that was it! Hasselberg had been Jerry Redlands' partner at the first Phased Antimatter Bomb test 68 years ago. He'd wandered into the rogue hyper hole and disap—

No. No, that was ludicrous. A flesh-and-blood human wouldn't become a ghost, who could haunt a Centaurian's hands, just by vanishing into parallel space!

Would he?


The sound jolted Torra out of its musings. Centaurians lacked stereophonic hearing, but there could be no doubt about whence the sound had originated. It was the rasping, gutteral howl of a Centaurian's involuntary mating call. Torra focused on Lt. Bire, its senses coming alive. The lack of any other Centaurians in the room made the moment that much more urgent.

"Groooooonk!" This time, the sound came from the mouth of Bire most closely facing toward Torra.

Jennifer rolled her eyes. "It's that time of the month again."

Torra breathed nervously. "Um . . ."

Jennifer glared at Torra as though it were a disobedient puppy. "Would you two like to get a room?"

"Yes," Torra said matter-of-factly.

"Okay, but hurry it up, both of you," Jennifer turned to the other Centaurian. "Our fighters are inbound and I'll need you for link-up, Lieutenant Bire. Dismissed!"

Torra and Bire swung their station doors open and wheeled across the deck for the same hall door. It wasn't just the urge to mate that drove Torra to that mating call, it was the urge to have a baby of its own. If Torra hadn't been so far from finishing this tour of duty . . . damn. The senior weapons officer couldn't be pulling 2g evasives while pregnant. Contraception again.

There wasn't much room in the side hall to lie down, but it was enough. A full gee was a tad uncomfortable for Centaurians to mate in, but it beat the logistics of trying to cling bottom-to-bottom in freefall.

Scant moments later, when they were through, Torra and Bire rolled back to their Command Center stations as though nothing had happened — and, for them, nothing much had. Mating between Centaurians was fleeting and inconsequential; they didn't suffer the sanity-stealing pair bonding that humans did with their mates. If either of them got pregnant, neither they, nor their offspring, nor their clan would care who the biological father was. In the ancient past, before contraception changed the professional landscape forever, pregnancy was just an uncontrollable wild card in a Centaurian's life. Now, thanks to contraception, the universal urge to mate — particularly when in heat — no longer determined who would bear the next generation. Evolution now selected for a more specific urge to actually have children, an urge that Torra Zorra now had to fight if it wanted to stay on active duty. Eventually it would come Torra's turn to be in heat, maybe even while still aboard Marsidor, and Torra could only hope that its partner would have the strength to insist on contraception if Torra's courage failed.

And as soon as Torra had swung its station door shut, its hands leapt onto the keyboard of their own accord again. They typed on the note pad: "Lieutenant, you must come to UV Ceti IV within the next ten years. Otherwise, everything will end. I may not be able to get another message to you until then."

Torra blinked the eye facing the display. The message was short and ominous. Commander Doe — now just Lieutenant Colonel Doe again since the battle ended — had taken notice. Torra twitched and shuddered. She was walking over, her shoes clattering on the floor in the full 1g, wanting a close look at the typed words. There was no point hiding now. All the plans Torra had made for its future were about to derail.

She squinted as she read Torra's monitor. "'I was Arnold Hasselberg'? UV Ceti, in a decade?" She studied the Centaurian with a furrowed glare. "You'd better not be pulling my leg, Lieutenant."

Her leg? Oh, yes, that expression. Torra replied, "I wish I were, ma'am."

She sighed. "That warning's awfully vague." She clicked her tongue. "But if it's genuine, and it's as dire as it claims to be, I'd better report it to the top brass."

Torra tensed. "The Strategic Center? The top Generals?"

"UV Ceti isn't exactly part of the Pentagon," Jennifer replied. "We're talking about an old-fashioned interstellar mission here." She pointed at the deck. "Marsidor here couldn't make the trip in under a century, even if I were allowed to take it off of front-line duty."

"Coming up on fighter rendezvous," Sergeant Moha announced. The engine throttled back to idle and weightlessness returned. He keyed his intercom mike: "Marsidor 1 docking in two minutes. Reloading crews to your positions."

Lt. Colonel Doe grabbed one of the handholds protruding from the deck and started to push herself back toward her seatcouch station. "Of course, there's no guarantee the Strategic Center will even believe your message, Lieutenant — much less act on it. We'll have to show them the videologs of you shooting blind; that might at least convince them that something's up."

Somebody did believe Torra Zorra's message — or at least took the situation seriously enough to launch an inquiry. A limo arrived less than a standard day later to take Torra to Human-Centauri I. Torra waited by the docking port while the clamps took hold and the hatch slid aside, and puzzled as the man on the opposite side pulled himself aboard Marsidor without ceremony.

"Lieutenant Colonel Doe," he saluted Jennifer, ignoring Torra as though it were a piece of furniture, "I'm Colonel MacKira, taking command of this deployer."

Jennifer returned the salute with a smirk, saying "Marsidor is all yours, Colonel."

Bewildered, Torra followed the replacement C.O. down the corridor with one eye and asked Jennifer, "They want you too?"

"I should hope so," she replied. "I requested they take me along with you."

"You . . . want to go?" Torra asked.

As she turned to board the limo, she muttered, "This might be the opportunity of a lifetime."

They pulled themselves through the docking port — a limo couldn't stay docked with another spacecraft if either of them was under thrust — and Jennifer strapped herself into a seat on the passenger deck. There was one place for a Centaurian on the deck, but it looked like it had been hastily swapped in. Legerdemain Spaceframe, the company that built this limo, was Sol-based, and had designed it years ago with just humans in mind. The surround straps in the Centaurian station looked like the old, rough type long ago discontinued. Torra brachiated to its place and buckled the straps around its torso; even though the limo couldn't pull much more than 1g, Torra had a feeling it'd get uncomfortable in a hurry.

Fortunately, Human-Centauri I was less than two million klicks from Marsidor's current position. At 1g, the trip was a mercifully brief eight hours.

They docked, debarked, rode the space elevator down, and made their way toward the centrifuge where the Generals were waiting. A face-to-face meeting seemed excessive to Torra, what with the logistics and cost of rotating in new personnel to Marsidor while it was still in the field. Sure, at 2 million kilometers distant there would've been a 13-second round-trip delay on all communications, but what questions could the Generals possibly ask that needed an instant response?

Torra figured it'd better take out some insurance. It ducked into a shop along the way and came out a moment later bearing two small boxes.

"What're those, Lieutenant?" Jennifer puzzled.

"Oood(v)(r)uut(l) and chocolate," the Centaurian replied, pronouncing each of the three o's and two u's in the first word with a different mouth. "You humans like chocolate, don't you?"

"Well . . . yeah," Jennifer winced, looking more closely at the second box, "Although that's kinda . . . cheap chocolate. But come on, this is an HCDF inquiry board, not a first date! You're not going to impress them with candy." She resumed pulling herself along the low-gravity corridor.

"It's to put 'em at ease," Torra explained as it followed. "We Centaurians treat the platoon we belong to like a clan-away-from-clan, and the Centaurian Generals just might do the same among themselves. Rolling into their room is a little like entering the homestead of another clan, a clan that in ancient times would've owned my clan. If you see non-clan-members coming toward your clan's homestead, you might view them as a threat unless they're bearing food offerings."

Jennifer snorted, then pulled herself into the rotating elevator drum at the end of the corridor. She and Torra positioned themselves inside the railings and initiated the descent. Slowly, the floor lowered — or rather, moved outward — toward the vast rotating rim of the centrifuge, their weight steadily increasing as they descended. When they finally reached the centrifuge floor, they stood at a full 0.8g. The inquiry board waited just a short walk, or roll, ahead of them.

A higher-up's schedule was always more important than your own, in the HCDF as in any military; thus, Jennifer had taken the "hurry up and wait" approach, and made absolutely sure that she and Torra arrived early. Seeing the Generals already seated and standing in the room, waiting for them, came as quite a shock. Torra set both boxes down uncomfortably.

"We've reviewed the videologs from your mission," Major General Kalitruj Rlaklilri said without introduction. Kalitruj was tall for a Centaurian, nearly 140 centimeters, attesting to its clan's southeast Go'orla ancestry. "And we double-checked Marsidor's recorded instrument data, just to be sure. Lieutenant Colonel Doe, your assessment is correct. There is no way that Lieutenant Torra Zorra, or any other individual on board Marsidor, could have known where the Sirian fighter was at the moment the Lieutenant opened fire."

"There is one way," Major General Rudolph Eckersley interjected, smoothing the barest hint of brown hair off his ear. There wasn't a gray hair anywhere on his head, or a wrinkle anywhere on his skin; but more subtle hints of advanced age were there, if one knew where to look for them. For all the hacks and cheats humanity had come up with to combat the symptoms of aging, no means of curbing the actual aging process itself had yet been developed — at least, none whose side effects weren't even worse than what they were trying to cure. Suppressing the aging genes found in nematodes? Humans didn't have those genes to begin with. Antioxidants? While a lack of sufficient antioxidants would accelerate aging, adding extra antioxidants beyond the normal dose didn't have the opposite effect — in fact, it had almost no effect at all. Getting rid of the telomeres? That only let the cells divide with reckless abandon, a condition more commonly known as cancer. A useful lifetime still only lasted an average of eighty-odd years, and when that relentless countdown ended, all of your incalculably precious experience and wisdom still went down in flames along with you. In Jennifer's estimation, Eckersley probably had less than a decade left in him before his health would catch up with him and he'd have to retire. "You would have known where to fire your weapons," Eckersley explained, "If the Sirians had tipped you off ahead of time."

"What?!" Torra stammered. "The fighter was attacking us. Why would our enemies tell us where to point our weapons?"

"To divert national attention," Eckersly answered, "To trigger exactly the kind of inquiry we're having right now. You put on a little act about channeling a semi-famous person from beyond the grave, we get interested, then we waste all sorts of expert attention investigating the 'paranormal.' Maybe the word gets out and the public starts hiding under their beds, afraid of ghosts and goblins. We might even squander precious wartime resources to send a starship to UV Ceti."

"Oh, come on," Jennifer retorted. "That Sirian fighter had a golden opportunity to destroy Marsidor. Do you know how hard it is to sneak up on someone out of the sun, even with active radar absorption? You're telling me that the Sirians would sacrifice an entire fighter — no, four entire deployers' contingent of fighters, and one of the deployers itself, since that's what they sent through the Sirius hyper hole — all on the off chance that we'd suddenly come down with mass phasmophobia?"

"General Eckersly is in the minority," Lieutenant General Margrét Njálsdóttir replied, her hazel eyes firm but reassuring. "The rest of us are convinced that the recorded events are genuine, and merit further attention."

"Still," Kalitruj added, "Several of my clanmates have security clearances, and two of the ones with clearances have strong science backgrounds. I described your incident to both of them and asked if it were possible for a human in parallel space to take over two of your arms. Fao'od(r)ei(k)i, Clan Rlaklilri's biology expert, has advanced degrees in both Earth and Go'orla biology. It figured the most likely explanation, if we discounted outright fraud, was electric currents getting induced in your nerve fibers or brain. But Aaz(l)eo, the clan's mechanical engineering expert, studies hyperspace physics as a hobby and says it can't imagine a way for any object in parallel space, living or otherwise, to interact with real space whatsoever."

Jennifer shrugged. "What about when a spacecraft transits through a linked hyper hole? It's crossing parallel space, and it's sure as hell interacting with real space on either end."

Two of Kalitruj's eyes closed in concern. "I don't know if Aaz(l)eo considered that angle."

Eckersly added his two cents again, "Even if we assume your message from the dead is genuine, you have to admit it's decidedly lacking in detail. 'Everything will end'? Doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world, or the known universe, since written history began."

"Human doomsayers," Kalitruj corrected him.

"Why the lack of specifics?" Eckersly continued unabated. "If the ghost of Arnold Hasselberg has special knowledge about an impending catastrophe, why didn't he say 'Human-Centauri's sun is going to explode' or 'A heretofore unknown alien species is massing an enormous fleet of armed starships at UV Ceti' or something definite?"

"It does kind of sound suspicious," Torra acknowledged. "But I think . . . damn. Personally, I'd rather finish out my tour of duty, go back to the Clan Zorra homestead, be a mother; you know, have a normal life. But if the warning's as dire as Arnold's ghost made it out to be, it's a threat I can't ignore. If I were in your place, much as it pains me, I'd . . . I'd order me to at least investigate."

"This board has already decided to do just that," Njálsdóttir concluded. "We've reported the incident up our chain of command." She leaned forward for emphasis. "Between the time we summoned you here and the time you arrived, Chairholder Yukariah Heap took an interest this incident. You'll be meeting with it in this very asteroid's Chairholder Centrifuge, at 1800 UTC." She let that sink in, then: "That's in less than two hours. Get a move on to the tube shuttle, both of you. Dismissed!"

"The plague shall pass," Jennifer saluted, and turned to go.

The Chairholder! Torra shook with nervous anticipation as the tube shuttle neared the Capital terminus. They were going to be eye-to-eye with the most powerful individual in all of Human-Centauri! Sure, the human touches to the post took a little getting used to when it was occupied by a Centaurian — a single individual in charge of everything, rather than a clan; the title "Chairholder" when Centaurians were physiologically incapable of sitting on anything — but it could have been standing on its eye stalks juggling with its feet, and Torra would still have been awed by the prospect of meeting it.

As the shuttle braked to a halt and they pulled themselves out into the terminus, the corridor buzzed with activity. This one-and-only path to the Chairholder Centrifuge's elevator sported a lot more guards — but, strikingly, no guard robots. Apparently, Chairholder security was paranoid enough that they didn't even want to risk a software attack, as unlikely as that was to succeed. There were also numerous redundant checkpoints, and more than a few yellow-and-black-striped slots in the walls. These last housed emergency security doors that would slam into place at the utterance of a command word. No one was going to pay a "surprise visit" to the Chairholder.

The elevator ride down to the centrifuge rim, likewise, had more guards than passengers. They stepped off in the 0.8g and marched/rolled to the tall, flawlessly-white building at the end of the lane. It was an imposing edifice, with classical Doric columns supporting a flat, ornately-carved roof of Centaurian design. More guards stood to either side of the 4-meter-high double-doors that served as the main entrance. Torra had seen pictures of the Chairholder House, but until this moment it had never gotten a sense for the sheer . . . scale of it. Three spires jutted out of the top, each finally tapering to a point forty meters above eye level, half way to the centrifuge's hub. Such a tall structure wouldn't have raised an eye stalk on the surface of this asteroid, or even on the surface of a high-gee planet, but inside a centrifuge . . . ! Just the differential gravity between the base and the tips was dizzying to ponder.

The hallway indoors was even more opulent, paved in perfectly interlocking slabs carved from the rock of the asteroid itself and polished to a mirrorlike shine. Statuary stood at attention along one wall, showing every previous man, woman, or Centaurian to hold the Office of Chairholder in Human-Centauri's 142-year history. Most had been painstakingly painted to look as real as if these individuals were still alive and standing right there; but the first and earliest statue stuck out from the rest, not because it was more ornate but because it was so simple and understated. This lifesize sculpture of Gail Hernandez Piujuq, the Inuit woman who'd chaired Human-Centauri even before its sun had started to shine, had been cast from plain acrylic polymer that had never been painted.

In modern Human-Centauri, a plastic statue might seem like the height of tackiness; but at the time of its construction, the economic reality was very different. A star system devoid of native life was a star system devoid of petroleum, so the hydrocarbons needed to make plastic had to be manufactured by reducing carbonaceous asteroid material to pure carbon, then steam-converting it into water gas, then using the Fischer–Tropsch process to convert that into ethylene. It was slow and costly, though less so than using nanoassemblers to build the plastics a molecule at a time from their base elements. In the early days, when the building of centrifuges and power plants and farms had been the top priority — indeed, the only priority — there was barely enough effort to spare in-system to build a scant handful of ethylene factories. Plastic had been more precious than iron or gold. Like the aluminum apex atop the Washington Monument on Earth, built at a time when aluminum was more precious than silver, that statue had been molded out of plastic as a deliberate display of extravagance.

Chandeliers hung from the ceiling at regular intervals, studded with high-efficiency minilamps tuned to a yellow-white indistinguishable from old-fashioned incandescents, with thousands of lab-grown diamond beads draped in front that refracted the light into a dazzling rainbow sparkle. Past the last and most recent ex-Chairholder statue stood the hallway's final crown jewel: a corner display stand with its own internal lighting. The knick-knacks on display inside it were fascinating enough to behold, but then Torra noticed what made it truly precious. The stand itself wasn't made of metal or stone or plastic or glass, but wood. Real wood. From a real tree.

At length, they arrived at the Chairholder's main office. The plain steel door stood in sharp contrast to the extravagance surrounding it. Beyond the door lay a simple, white-walled room with a single metal desk the right height for a Centaurian, a couple of padded armchairs for human visitors, and Yukariah Heap itself, pointing one eye at both of them.

"Come in," the Chairholder said with the mouth facing the doorway.

Jennifer stepped purposefully through the door, with Torra rolling in right behind her. When they were through, the Chairholder pressed a stud under its desk, and the steel door rolled shut behind them. Torra felt vulnerable without a token food offering in hand, but the guards would have confiscated any such trinkets long before they reached the Chairholder's office.

"Won't you sit down?" the Chairholder gestured for Jennifer to take one of the armchairs. It was an automatic response, honed from years of meeting with humans and attending mixed-species gatherings. Jennifer wanted to stand, but this high up the chain of command she had no desire to break with custom, and sat.

"As the inquiry board may have told you, I've read your report and watched the logs from Marsidor's command center," Yukariah Heap began. "I concur with the majority finding of the board. Frankly, ignoring this warning sounds riskier than investigating it."

"You realize," Jennifer tried to keep her voice calm, "The only way to investigate is to actually go there. To UV Ceti. I'd be remiss if I didn't say I'd jump at the opportunity. Would you like my assistance in staffing such a mission?"

"The fewer people who know about this 'message,' the better," the Chairholder told them. "Still, if you're proposing an interstellar mission, you're going to need at least a skeleton crew. You'll want to have a navig—"

"Ken," Jennifer Doe answered.

"Huh?" Yukariah asked.

"Ken Tractor," Jennifer explained. "That's who I want for my navigator. He was a First Lieutenant when he was on my crew; he might be a Captain or even a Major by now."

Torra Zorra pointed an eye at its C.O.. "Didn't . . . didn't he transfer to another Deployer because he said you were 'stalking' him?"

Jennifer shot her senior weapons officer an icy glare. "Nothing of the sort. He was a good navigator, and I wanted him to get even better. He just thought I was pushing too hard. That's all."

Yukariah popped open a wrist phone and held it at arm's length. "Frodla," it addressed the aide on the other end in Centaurian, "I need a Ken Tractor brought here on the double. He's an HCDF officer, probably a navigator on a Deployer crew. If he's in the field, send a limo to pick him up, least-time trajectory. If he's on furlough, cancel it. The sooner he's here, the better. Just make sure to tell him that he may be reassigned for a very long time." As many as three of Yukariah's mouths sounded its words into the wrist phone at once.

"Will do," the Centaurian quartet-voice on the other end replied, and signed off.

"I've just sent out the request," Yukariah explained for Jennifer's benefit, closing the wrist phone. "Sorry for the language barrier there, but Frodla sometimes misunderstands me when I don't speak Centaurian."

The Chairholder's wrist phone buzzed almost immediately. Yukariah flipped it open again; Frodla was calling back. "Chairholder," again the chorus of remote mouths speaking Centaurian, "They tell me Ken Tractor is on furlough right here in the Capital with a civilian companion. They've got him on the phone now. He can be in your office inside of half an hour."

"Excellent!" Yukariah exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "Put him in touch with Lieutenant General Njálsdóttir when he's en route. She can brief him on the details of why we're bringing him here." It shut its phone again, then repeated the conversation so Jennifer could understand it. As Centaurians, neither Yukariah nor Torra noticed Jennifer's slight flinch when Yukariah translated "companion."

Captain Ken Tractor stumbled into the Chariholder's office with a stomach tied in knots. On the one hand, he'd just been ordered to give up two decades of his life; and since last year's Defense Force War Act, quitting the HCDF before your Tour of Duty was over had turned from a minor embarrassment into the crime of Desertion. On the other hand, he had the opportunity to embark on an interstellar voyage, something he'd dreamed of since childhood.

And on the other other hand, he was now face-to-eye-stalk with Yukariah Heap itself.

The Chairholder pressed a stud under its desk and the door rolled shut, giving a fleeting glimpse of the glow from the "Do not disturb" sign above it just before it sealed the four of them inside.

Jennifer, Ken, and Torra glanced from the Chairholder to each other, nervously.

Yukariah Heap leaned closer. "In order to get to where you're proposing to go, you're going to need a starship."

"Yes," Jennifer nodded. "A fast one."

"That's just it," Yukariah replied. "Every starship that hasn't been scrapped comes from immigrants who had to make the trip the long way. The last of those arrived 14 years ago, a year before the Human-Centauri/Sirius hyper hole rendered them obsolete. None of them have been maintained since. It would take weeks to get one starworthy again. And even then, I remind you that UV Ceti is 12.2 light-years away, and you've been given a ten-year deadline."

Ken sighed. "I'm afraid you're right. Nothing ever built can travel faster than light."

Torra Zorra countered, "We travel faster than light every time we go through a linked hyper hole."

"Point taken," Ken said, "Though I don't know if I'd call that 'travelling.'"

"We don't exactly have a pair of linked hyper holes joining us with UV Ceti," Jennifer chided, "In case you haven't noticed."

"No," Yukariah interjected, "But we do have pairs of linked hyper holes joining us with Sirius and CN Leonis. You'd shave two light-years off the trip to UV Ceti, if you took off from Sirius."

Jennifer's eye twinkled. "We can shave nearly four light years off, if we take off from Sol."

Torra yelped. "And cross all the way from one end of Sirian space to the other to get there?! Braving not one, but three hostile Gate Guards in the process?!"

"You saw the message yourself," Jennifer said. "Hell, you're the one who 'channeled' it. We only have ten years to get there. UV Ceti is a hair over ten light-years from both Sirius and Alpha Centauri, and more than fifteen light-years from CN Leonis. Sol is, quite frankly, the only star system in the Pentagon close enough to get us there in time, even in theory."

"There's another problem," Ken noted. "A starship won't fit through a hyper hole. The collection grid's got to be huge. You need to generate a scoop field thousands of klicks in radius just to gather enough interstellar hydrogen."

"Maybe we can barge into Sol space and ask real nicely to borrow one of theirs," Jennifer offered sardonically.

Yukariah Heap leaned toward them. "The scoop field generator needs to be that big if the gathered hydrogen is going to be used for fusion."

Jennifer furrowed her brow. "Just what are you getting at?"

"Every nation has its secrets," the Chairholder explained. "What I'm about to tell you is classified, and is not to leave this room. Understood?"

Ken and Jennifer swallowed uncomfortably, and nodded. Torra Zorra visibly twitched, then reluctantly raised one finger in a Centaurian "yes."

"When that first hyper hole opened up," Yukariah continued, "There were a few citizens who didn't like losing the solitude that four-and-a-half light-years of empty space provided. With the Sirius system right next door, and the rest of the Pentagon only an extra hop or two away, some feared that the very reason we'd left Sol and Alpha Centauri to begin with was eroding away. They wanted to pack up and move on, to try the Human-Centauri project all over again at a more distant brown dwarf. These isolationists were few in number and not very public, and they wanted to stay that way. So, keeping as low a profile as possible, some of us in the Human-Centauri government decided to help them. Remember the antiproton factory we'd hidden in plain sight in Human-Centauri III? The one that CN Leonis still thinks is for positron production? It's not for making hyper bombs or conventional antimatter weapons. True, a little of the antiprotons produced do make their way into weaponry, but it's main use is to make fuel for —"

"A starship!" Ken cut the Chairholder off. "An antimatter-powered starship!"

"Exactly," Yukariah Heap concluded. "With the war on, placating the isolationists is on hold. I can't think of a better use for this little experimental vessel than your investigation. It's over in Human-Centauri III, as close to the antiproton factory as we could build it without drawing attention. It's designed to sustain 2g of acceleration, if needed, so when it came time to name the spacecraft we wanted to call it something speedy. We ended up with a portmanteau of Mercury, the Roman messenger of the gods, and Gellimand, the Centaurian personification of light. We call it . . . Mercurand."

The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 8.
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