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by Robert R. Chase

The mission of the Percival Lowell was supposed to be purely astronomical. There was a star in the Centaurus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, Cent 3355Kdev, hidden from Terrestrial astronomers by interstellar dust clouds and bright clusters of other stars. When the Wu-Alcubiere drive made possible a more complete mapping of the Galaxy from above the spiral arms, observations disclosed the existence of a star with an odd composition traveling at an odd angle to the movement of the surrounding stars. A basic research mission was proposed and approved by the Institute of Interstellar Exploration.

The nature of the mission drove the selection of personnel. There was a captain, of course, because having a captain was traditional, and tradition was one of the guardrails the Stability had rediscovered after humanity’s technical expertise disastrously exceeded its combined stores of wisdom and prudence. Captain Ludma Ednahmay commanded a First Officer, Nald Cullow, and a Second Officer, Dea Gay, both because that was also traditional and it allowed someone to be in command at all times without requiring duty shifts to exceed eight standard hours. For similar reasons, Chief Engineer Jon-Nathan Parser was assisted by Austina Vallejo and Niyi Akande. The astronomy team did not have to staff a twenty-four-hour rotation but, perhaps coincidentally, had the same number of members as command and engineering. Fred Vanelton held a civilian rank of Prime Astronomer. His assistants were Wayland Smyte, Astrophysicist, and Cokie Tuscarora, Observational Astronomer. And, of course, there was Ship, the AI that did most of the detail work in transporting everyone from point A to point B.

Finally there was myself, Riviere Chaz, the Dispensable Man. My official position on the crew listing was Nonhuman Contact Specialist. Captain Ednahmay’s lips quirked in a sour smile when I presented myself to her.

“This is going to be a boring trip for you,” she said.

“Likely enough,” I agreed, “but all exploratory vessels are—”

“—required to carry at least one specialist in a field that has only hypothetical existence,” Ednahmay said, finishing my sentence. “I am well aware of the regulatory obligations placed up me by the Stability. Just keep out of the way of those with actual work to do.”

“I am also Ship’s doctor of physical and mental health,” I said.

The captain grimaced. “That will do nothing to enhance your popularity.”

This was a harsh but honest assessment. Test pilots and astronauts have never liked psychologists, an enmity that goes back to the first steps the human race took into space. In their eyes, the purpose of psychologists is to keep astronauts from flying. If the pilot brims with gung-ho confidence, he may be branded as reckless and possibly suicidal. If he triple checks all systems and expresses doubts about the safety of a vessel, they murmur he has lost his nerve.

There was another reason for my unpopularity, though Ednahmay was too prudent to mention it. Doctors of physical and mental health were sometimes said to have a second, never officially admitted function, one for which rumor had to reach back in time to an obsolete language for a term. The term was political officer.

*   *   *

Ednahmay’s prediction was borne out the morning I brought my belongings aboard the Percival Lowell. Spacecraft, much like naval vessels before them, have always put a premium on space. This cramped condition was somewhat ameliorated by free fall. Two grab bars extended the length of the passageway. Per custom, the bar arbitrarily designated the upper bar was used by crew members propelling themselves toward the fore part of the ship; one used the bottom bar to move aft. I had come aboard and was pulling myself forward to my assigned quarters, towing my duffel behind me, when a sudden blow knocked me off the grab bar. My head hit a cluster of pipes that writhed their way along the length of the ship. I was dazed for a few seconds. When I was able to focus my eyes, I saw a man staring at me from the aft bar. Even without the nametag sewn onto his shirt, I would have recognized First Officer Nald Cullow from the time I had spent studying his file. His left arm and foot were wrapped around the bar. His right foot rested against the wall and his right hand was extended in my direction. He was well anchored to withstand an attack and could push off quickly in almost any direction.

Nobody could have hit me that hard by accident.

“You okay?” I asked, as if I had been the one to run into him. No reply. “Well, that’s good. Captain wouldn’t like it if I hurt her first officer my first day on board.”

I was drifting under the influence of the air handlers. I nodded to Cullow, grabbed the bar with one hand and my duffel with the other, and continued on my way.

From the far end of the passageway, Niyi Akande regarded both of us with a look of horrified fascination.

*   *   *

“You know why Cullow hit you, don’t you?” Niyi asked. She had just tethered herself across from me in the galley of the Percival Lowell. I had come from sickbay where I had self-administered pain killers and cold sprays designed to reduce swelling.

“Because he thinks you’re a Stability political officer,” she continued, not waiting for my reply. “The idea was to make you so angry that you would pull rank and reveal yourself. That way, we would all be on notice not to share any politically unacceptable sentiments in your presence. If we had any. The captain, however, was not pleased. Unspecified disciplinary actions are rumored.”

Rumors fly quickly on a small ship. The assault had occurred barely twenty minutes earlier.

“You think this was his own idea?” I asked.

“What else could it be?” she said, her eyes widening. A fair question as well as a fair way of not giving a straight answer.

“Let me ask another question,” I said. “Do you think he is a good first officer?”

“This will be the third time I have crewed with him,” she said. “He is hot-tempered on occasion but extremely competent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t captain of his own vessel soon.”

Which matched my assessment of his file. “That being the case, do you think it likely he would assault a new member of the crew, a potentially politically powerful new crew member, without the captain’s okay?”

“You think she gave him permission?” Niyi’s face had a shocked expression. READ MORE


The Quality of Mercy

by Catherine Wells

One look at Graham Logan, and Jezzaida knew she should have communicated with the man by videolink rather than just voice and text, but it was too late now. She had contracted him to fly her to Epona Three and set up her research base, and she was stuck with him. But the facial tattoos beneath a short, brushy Mohawk made her deeply suspicious, and it didn’t take long to spot the tat she dreaded on his right cheekbone: two ornate wheels joined by concave lines. The mark of the Warrior Caste.

“Dr. Rath?”

Her gaze snapped from the damning mark to his eyes, a vivid blue amid the swirls of black ink decorating his space-pale face. She drew herself up to her full six feet—nearly as tall as he—and gave the slightest toss of her head, setting her twisting black braids to bobbing. “Yes, I’m Dr. Rath. Graham Logan, I presume?”

He nodded curtly, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the compact cargo ship being loaded with her supplies and equipment. “This won’t take long to load. You may as well come aboard.” It was the same deep, resonant voice with a faint Scottish burr she remembered from their calls. But that mark—his resume had listed “postings” on several planets and asteroids, which was a word mining companies and other multiplanetary enterprises used, as well as the military. And she’d told herself she didn’t mind if he was ex-military—lots of men and women were. They had good tech skills, good discipline, practical experience. Warrior Caste, though—

She forced a smile. “Thank you, but I’ll wait. I want to make sure nothing gets left behind.” Under the terms of her anthropology grant, it would be six months before a supply ship—contracted with someone else, thank goodness—brought her anything more. The seeds for her garden were as precious as the video equipment meant to record zohr culture.

Logan eyed her up and down, taking in her practical khaki skin suit and jacket—several shades lighter than her café au laite skin—her sturdy black boots, and the canvas haversack slung from her shoulder. He grunted, presumably in approval, and said, “Your choice.” Then he disappeared inside his ship.

It took all of twenty minutes for the bots to load her cargo. As the crates disappeared into the hold, Jezzaida’s thoughts drifted again to the mark on Logan’s cheekbone. She had noted a certain arrogance in him as they negotiated, but that was common among pilots and space jockeys. It hadn’t occurred to her he might be Warrior Caste. The group dated back to the Western Insurgencies of the late twenty-first century, when a cadre of special forces veterans from several nations chose the ancient mark to signify their dedication to physical strength and military skill. Meant as a bond of kinship and shared experience, it became a warning not to trifle with the bearer. These men and women had martial expertise, lightning reflexes, and—in her experience—fractious tempers.

As the cargo hatch whined shut, Jezzaida took one last look around the loading dock to make sure nothing had been missed. At least she wouldn’t be stuck with him for long. The trip to Epona Three should only take a couple of jumps, and with the top-notch equipment he boasted, the setup of her base no more than three days. Surely she could endure Graham Logan for that long.

*   *   *

Though Jezzaida sat in the cabin with him for the next six hours, Logan seemed uninclined to talk. Seated at the controls in his gray skin shirt and black utility kilt, he focused on the intricacies of liftoff, taking his ship out of Earth’s gravitational field and on to the jumpgate, then navigating the jumps to the Epona system. Epona had only been accessible by jumpgate for a dozen years, trafficked by mining companies interested in the many rocky moons of Epona Three and Five. Epona Three itself was off-limits pending research and classification of its flora and fauna, most specifically the zohr.

Large bipedal creatures covered in gorgeous white fur, the zohr had captured the imagination of ethologists and anthropologists, many of whom—like Jezzaida—were convinced these communal vegetarians were of the highest order of intelligence, evolving into the intellectual equivalent of humans. Three other scientists had submitted grant proposals to study them, but only Jezzaida had been willing to live on Epona Three for years on end to gather data either to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Upon reaching Epona, Logan contacted the Interglobal Security base on one of its outlying moons, identifying himself and his ship by name and registration. “I’m taking a passenger and cargo to Epona Three, as arranged by the University of New Brandenhurst.”

“Would that be Dr. Jezzaida Rath?”

Jezzaida straightened in her seat. “Yes, this is Dr. Rath. You have my admin filing, I believe?”

“Roger, Dr. Rath. Pilot Logan, please dock at Bay six for onboard inspection and clearance.”

The delay to clear Security chafed, but it gave Jezzaida a chance to observe Logan interacting with the inspectors. He had an easy manner with the two men, relaxed and confident as someone sure his papers are in order. He even traded a few jesting remarks with them. But the woman inspector obviously made him uncomfortable. His body language became stiff and formal, and she could swear his sandy brown Mohawk actually bristled.

After a brief but thorough inspection of the cargo and verification of identity, the woman turned to Jezzaida. “You want us to monitor your biochip while you’re down there?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “If something happens to me, I don’t want to lie dead for six months before someone notices.”

Thus cleared for landing, they reboarded for the short trip to the planet.

“That was simple,” Jezzaida remarked.

Logan grunted noncommittally.


The Slipway

by Greg Egan

Brian couldn’t sleep, so as midnight approached he rose quietly and dressed in the dark. He did his best not to disturb Carol, but he knew that even if he woke her she’d pretend that he hadn’t.

His binoculars were sitting on the table in the hall, and his boots were by the door. He put them on, wincing at the pain in his right knee, then he closed the door gently behind him and strode away from the farmhouse.

It was a perfect night, with no moon and no clouds. Scorpius had just risen in the east, Antares glinting as red as Mars, and from there the whole glorious band of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon.

Brian stopped and sat on an old fencepost, a lone stump of wood that had been there since he was a child, though he had no memory of the larger structure it must once have belonged to. He raised the binoculars and swept them slowly across the dark dust clouds and bright clusters.

Three years before, on a night just like this, he’d spotted a comet no one else had yet seen. When the astronomers calculated its orbit, it had turned out to have a period of ninety thousand years. But no one could be sure that it wasn’t making its one and only appearance; if it had been sent inward by a disturbance in the Oort cloud, it might well suffer another course change, robbing it of a second dalliance with the sun. Even his cosmic namesake might not outlive him as anything more than a frozen corpse.

One of the old dogs, Hera, came limping toward him, whining softly. Brian held out a hand to her, and she nuzzled it. It seemed obvious now that Hera had smelled the cancer in him before he was diagnosed, before he’d even noticed the symptoms. But at the time, he’d assumed that the dog’s melancholy was a symptom of her own declining health.

Hera settled at his feet. Brian turned back to the sky, tracking the binoculars along the ecliptic. Every star and nebula seemed familiar, though he wondered how much detail he really did hold in his memory. The comet had been diffuse enough that there’d been no mistaking it for a star, but he might not have noticed an asteroid in exactly the same place.

He lowered the binoculars and stretched his shoulders. It was cold, and he had to drive to the hospital in the morning.

He stood and looked around, wanting to savor the whole glorious sky one more time before retreating to the warmth of his bed. The Southern Cross was high, a dagger hanging over the celestial pole, while the Small Magellanic Cloud was clipped by the trees along the farm’s boundary.

Some way left of the pole, a pale, steady dot hung in the sky, right above Nu Octantis, about level with Eta Pavonis, and a little brighter than both. Which was not to say much, except that Brian could not recall seeing a star in that position before.

He waited half a minute, expecting the thing to move, but it stayed put, so he lifted the binoculars. What he saw was not a satellite or an aircraft, but a small, tight cluster of stars: dozens at least, all contained within a neat, circular region.

He could have sworn there was no cluster like this in Octans. He’d have to check his Norton’s once he was back in the house, but if this was new . . . what could it be? Dozens of supernovae, all in the same galaxy? All exploding within days of each other—or rather, in some even less likely sequence that brought their light-bursts to Earth in near-perfect synch?

Brian laughed, bemused. He spent a few minutes checking that he hadn’t made some foolish error and ended up disoriented, but he wasn’t mistaken about the location. Then he turned the binoculars on the cluster once more, just in case he’d missed some vital clue that might explain the stars’ shared fate. But if anything, they only seemed more disparate than he’d realized, with none of the sibling resemblance that stars born together sometimes shared.

It was baffling. But he wasn’t going to solve this himself, standing in a paddock getting chilled to the bone. “Come on girl,” he said. “Time to spread the word and get some fresh eyes on this.”

Hera rose, and they set off together for the farmhouse.

*   *   *


Fatima woke on the second ring and reacted in time to smother the third as she picked up the phone from her bedside table.

“Yes?” she whispered hoarsely, not waiting to check the caller on the screen. Salif hadn’t stirred, but she turned away from him, sandwiching the phone between her ear and the pillow.

“Sorry to wake you, Dr. Benga.” It was Gabrielle, one of her postdocs.

“No problem. What’s happening?” Fatima didn’t think Gabrielle was observing tonight, but she was on the roster for external alerts.

“There’s some kind of transient,” Gabrielle explained. “We really need to check it out. If we could get some time on the AAT—”

“Hang on, where’s this coming from?”

“A farmer in New Zealand. He emailed the department.”

“A farmer saw a light in the sky?”

Gabrielle said, “His name’s Brian Farley. He discovered a comet a few years ago. He’s not some crackpot who saw Venus in his rearview mirror and decided it was a UFO.”

“Okay.” Fatima remembered the comet. “So what’s this transient?”

Gabrielle hesitated. “Multiple stellar-like sources, all in close angular proximity. I’ve taken a look myself through a thirty-centimeter instrument, but I have no idea what to make of it.”

Salif rolled over, muttering incoherently.

“Hang on a sec.” Fatima slipped out of bed and grabbed a robe, then walked into the hallway and headed for her study. “Have you put something on the Astronomer’s Telegram?”

“Not yet. I don’t know how I should describe it.”

“Multiple sources?” Fatima was fully awake now, but that wasn’t making any of this clearer.

“At least sixty. Across about eight arc-minutes. But there’s no structure they could belong to in the catalogs, or on past plates.” READ MORE

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