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Star Dragon

Star Dragon Chapter 2

by Mike Brotherton
Apr 02,2004

 

The Selling of Star Dragon

by Mike Brotherton

SDcover3thumbnail.jpg

Chapter 2

The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.
-- Alice Walker

Nothing can be more obvious than that all animals were created solely and exclusively for the use of man.
-- Thomas Love Peacock

The exchange between the two artificial brains took a few seconds of modulated, encrypted laser light.  Papa recast the data stream into a form more palatable to the organic portions of his brain and his human template personality:

Papa strides into the Floridita, his public headquarters on Earth, stopping to embrace a favorite waiter whom he has not seen in some time.  Inside, away from the Cuban heat, it is cool and he does not mind the embrace.  He then shambles to meet the tall man waiting in his corner.  He spares a moment to glance at the bronze bust the man stands beside and towers over, a bust of Papa himself with his chin up, looking outward, challenging the world.

"Hello, Papa," Biolathe says.  "How are you?"

"We're strong today."

"That's good."

The waiter comes and Papa orders two Papa Dobles.  A Negro band begins to play a song they have written for him, called Soy Como Soy --  "I am as I am."  It is about a lesbian who apologizes to Papa that she cannot be what he desires her to be.  The man with the maracas shakes them at the right places and several wrong ones, too.  The song is bittersweet to the "man" Papa is now, for he isn't what he would desire himself to be and could not take advantage of the lesbian should he now inspire the desired change.

He could simulate it, as he is doing now, but it would not be the same.  Not at all.

"You know the mission," Biolathe says.  His head is pink and fleshy, but with the flat-top of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster.  He hands Papa a folder.  "Now know the crew as well."

Papa leafs through the papers a hundred times.  He says, "I see."

"I know.  A motley bunch, children of a soft, over-privileged age.  Dilettantes, hedonists, even a neo-Skinnerian.  Give people the power to be anything they want to be,” he pauses for effect, "and they will use it.

"Don't get me wrong -- they're all competent -- we wouldn't send anyone who wasn't.  But uncertain five-hundred-year trips don't attract the most balanced personnel."

"We'll come through."

"How do you know?"

"This isn't the kind of trip you take to fail, balanced or not.  And we know Lena, don't we?"

"Do we?  This isn't a cattle drive."

Two large daiquiris arrive, and they drink them standing up, the way Papa writes.  The drinks are icy and strong and taste of grapefruit.

"This is an unusual expedition, Papa.  An unknown animal with unknown capabilities in a hazardous environment.  An unpredictable payoff.  We're making an appropriately sized investment.  We will not send another ship.  You'll be alone."

"Been there before.  We'll manage."

"I know your capabilities, Papa.  But you may not be able to do it alone."

"That's fine.  If we have to, we'll make them do it.  We'll find a way to do what must be done."  He means what he says and does not think it right to speak of such things out loud.

Even though there is five-sixths of his daiquiri left, Biolathe drains it through a straw in seconds.  Biolathe will not get a headache.  "Well then, I wish you a good trip.  Bring back something useful.  Even better, something profitable."

"We will."

Biolathe pauses at the door before stepping back into the heat.  "See you in a half millenia."

Papa nods and the big, flat-headed man vanishes into the sunlight.

A great expedition indeed.  He needs to get ready.

Papa finishes his daiquiri, then takes advantage of the Floridita's john.  It is a good old-fashioned john with a proper chain to pull, and he prefers it to the beasts people currently use in their bathrooms.  He takes a moment to spar with the Negro attendant.

The man blocks a left jab, chuckling.  "When you gonna grow old, Papa?"

Papa grins, and takes another jab.  "Never."

As far as he's come, there is much further to go.

#

Phil Stearn loved freefall.  He loved the way it made his stomach turn back flips, the way it made foods taste funny, but most of all he loved the way his ear wings -- purely ornamental on Earth -- permitted him to fly.  Not like a bird.  More like an elephant.  But he could get around.

Flapping around in the passenger cabin of the orbit-to-orbit shuttle taking them toward a rendezvous with the Karamojo, Stearn told Fisher, "You really ought to try some more radical bodmods.  I just don't understand why people like you stick with the basic model.  What do you have against them?"

"Hmm?" said Fisher, who had been gazing out a view port in an absent-minded way.  "Oh, I don't have anything against bodmods, per se.  I'm just too busy to think about it."

Ha!  Too busy to think?  That's all this guy did!  "Takes no time at all these days.  You're limited only by your imagination."

"Yes, I can see how that would be a problem."

Stearn laughed.  "That's why I'm going, see?"

"Why you're going?  I don't follow."

The shuttle hold was absolutely boring, except for the freefall.  Stearn tried to start some sideways rotation, but his wings were too synchronized.  It was like trying to wiggle just one ear.  Exactly like that.  He stopped trying so he could answer Fisher as he glided past.  "Imagination is limited by the time and culture you're born into and raised in.  Can't help it, see?  For instance, we can imagine things the ancient Americans couldn't, like going for brunch on Mars just because rain is scheduled for Tucson.  You follow?  In five-hundred years, people will imagine things we can't.  I mean, I think we have it pretty good now, but once we got diseases and aging licked, everyone's thought they've had it pretty good. But really it's just gotten better and better.  The games, the stims, the sex, the bodmods.  And it'll be better still in the future.  I want to check it out and I don't want to wait."

"I see," said Fisher.

"Okay," Stearn said, winging himself a bit closer to the port.  "Why you going?"

"To look a star dragon eye to eye.  To find out if it even has an eye, for that matter," Fisher answered evenly and without hesitation.

Boring.  "It's just another weird alien critter, in a universe of weird alien critters.  It isn't going to be smart like us.  No aliens have been so far.  So what's the point?"

Fisher shrugged.  "Look there.  I see the ship."

Outside the port the ship hung in space, a silvery-white whale of a ship.  Blazing silvery white, with an almost perfect albedo that reflected all incoming radiation.  Stearn thought it looked big, even though sizes were difficult to judge in orbit.  He'd done plenty of training for his position as ship's Jack of All Trades, human back-up for the occasions when the ship's automatic systems couldn't get at something, but all his shipboard time had been on tiny scooters on in-system runs, and a few tours on short-haul freighters.  Nothing at all like this ship and its state-of-the-art biosystems.

Stearn always made a point of having fun, and although he rarely admitted it to his club-hopping buddies, high-tech spaceships were a lot of fun.  He had fun studying them, working on them, and he hadn't gotten this berth by chance.  This ship was just plain cool.

The front section of the Karamojo was an enormous torus, five kilometers in diameter, which would house the normal matter singularity, a black hole with more than a billionth the mass of Earth.  Wasn't that just huge?  The aft singularity, the white hole, would be housed in the tapered end, a smaller torus, some five kilometers behind.  The net creation energy of the pair was barely above zero.  Once created, separated, and aligned in the "Push Me Pull You" configuration, off they would shoot at 10g, starting a galaxy-spanning chase.  The ship would fall after the holes, oscillate actually, bouncing along with the pair in smooth freefall.  Almost.  Electric charges placed on the singularities gave the ship something to hold onto -- electromagnetic friction balanced against the freefall to provide some gravity near one g on most of the toroidal decks.  And they could spin the whole thing, too, for stability and gravity when not under the wormdrive.

Bouncing along like it did ahead of the hole pair made Stearn think of sex, the big white ship sliding back and forth along the holes' axis.  But he liked its cleverness as well: the charges also produced an electric field allowing active shielding from charged particles while in transit.  Funneled into the bowl of the fore bulb, the maw as it was called, the black hole would then feed, providing power through a miniature accretion disk similar to the one in SS Cygni.

"Pretty awesome, isn't it?" Stearn asked.

"I guess so," said Fisher.  "Where does the name 'Karamojo' come from?"

"I don't know.  Didn't give it much thought.  I mean, we're not called the U.S.S. Constipation, so I didn't worry about it.  Ask Captain."

Silence ensued, with no laugh to his joke, and dragged on.  This Fisher guy wasn't much fun.  Stearn decided to mess with him.  "So this is going to be a long trip, you know?"

"I know."

"I mean, bit more than a year out and more than a year back.  A person won't want to stick to stims, you know?  Sometimes a person wants that human contact, skin on skin.  Like that.  Now me, I'm pretty easy to get along with.  It's all just skin.  No big deal.  If it feels good, do it.  That's what I say."  

Fisher stared coldly at Stearn.  "I'm here to study the dragon, and that's what I'll worry about first."

Stearn smiled.  "Sure thing, Fish.  I respect that.  But I bet Captain Fang will probably want you to entertain her.  I saw the way she looked at you at the briefing."

Fisher raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything.

"Now, I haven't shipped out with Fang before, but there's talk in the corporate fleets.  She's one of the real old-timers, three-hundred-years old or something they say.  Don't know what time-frame, but plenty old.  Still into chain of command and protocol, thinks sleeping with crew is inappropriate.  It's silly for her to be like that, don't you think?  What with super-fast autobrains running the ship for the most part.  The only real crew under her is Henderson and myself.  Devereaux's job description doesn't fall under ship operations, but from what I hear, Fang isn't a dyke.  Ergo, she'll grab you.  Be pretty discrete, maybe, but grab you she will.  What do you think of that?" 

"I think the captain's business is none of your business."

Stearn laughed.  "On a ship with an all-seeing intelligence and five people cooped up together for two years, no one's business is private."

"I don't really care," said Fisher, "as long as we get the dragon."

What a boring guy!  Well, it was a long trip.  Stearn was sure he'd loosen up eventually.  He had better, or it was going to be a very long trip.

"Do you think she will?" Fisher asked after a moment.  "I mean, wouldn't it be more reasonable for everyone to have their hormones adjusted for minimal libidos for the sake of maximum efficiency?"

Stearn stifled a grin.  "No one ever does that!  I thought you'd been on long trips before, Fish!"

"Don't call me Fish, please."

"Right.  I'll try to remember that," Stearn said, taking good note.  He looked forward to the challenge of having fun every possible minute of this mission.  The games were only beginning.

The shuttle fired briefly to shed velocity and they descended into the maw of the Karamojo.

#

Axelrod Henderson kept his tsk tsk to himself as the airlock sphincter irised open revealing two of the greatest fashion disasters he had ever had the misfortune to witness paired together.  The Jack, Stearn, mindlessly followed the latest bod trends, none of which had interested the biotech in at least a half century.  The exobiologist was marginally better, with the good looks of a Homo sapiens version 1.1, but he wore ghastly black duradenim from head to streakers.  The fabric was not supposed to wrinkle, but it had.

"Good morning, Dr. Fisher," Henderson said, pointedly ignoring Stearn whom he had already identified as an uninteresting boy.  "The captain requested I give you a tour upon your arrival."

The Jack floated through the lock slowly, propelling himself with those ridiculous ear paraphernalia; Henderson imagined tiny Greek slaves chained to tiny oars sitting inside Stearn's head, powering his body like a barge -- and probably thinking for him as well.  Behind him, Fisher nodded, and kicked forward in a manner showing some degree of competency in microgravity.  Neither appeared to be suffering ill effects from the freefall; Henderson hoped that indicated their internal biologicals were good enough they wouldn't harass him for repairs during the voyage.

"I have a lot of work to get started on.  I'm sure I'll have plenty of time to get acquainted with the Karamojo's features," said Fisher.

"The tour won't take long, I promise."

Fisher pressed his lips together, as if making a difficult decision, and said, "Okay."

"My biochip's loaded with the ship schematics," Stearn said.  "I could give the tour."

"I'm sure, but the captain asked me to give the tour."  Henderson spun and kicked off down the curving tunnel, trusting them to follow.  "The whole ship is made of stacked rings.  There's some flexibility built-in, and they can be made to rotate and twist individually to shift between gravitational modes."  Henderson turned into a tube and floated past four rings.  "These connect the rings.  Now you know how to get from anywhere to anywhere in the ship's front torus."

"What are these air fish we keep passing?" Fisher asked.

One of the blowfish-shaped creatures drifted by his head.  Swatting it away Henderson answered, "Mobile biorecyclers for our semi-closed system, effective in freefall or under gravity -- you should watch where you step.  The fish keep things clean.  Most dust is sloughed-off human skin, so that's their primary diet.  The old or malfunctioning fish are in turn eaten by the cats, so don't be disturbed if you catch sight of one of the sneaky creatures slinking about."

Henderson kicked off around another quarter of the ring, and stopped in front of a large fleshy portal.

"I know where we are," Stearn said.

"I'm sure you do."  Henderson tapped a panel and the portal irised, sphincter-like, onto a paradise.  In the distance loomed a snow-covered mountain casting a long shadow across a savanna, complete with grass rippling in a wind and the smell of herd animals.  Animals themselves were not apparent.  A relentless dry heat emanated from this miniature world within the ship.  Less than a kilometer across, it seemed to extend forever.

"What is this?" asked Fisher.

"It's an ecosystem delivery unit, of course," Stearn answered.  "That's what this ship was used for previously: colonization.  Ecosystem delivery of Biolathe-developed life forms.  No losing the design to gene pirates via a broadcast, or to unscrupulous colonists.  Deliver the wetware directly, grown en route and delivered in prime shape.  Colonists loathe to wait for anything to grow from scratch.  Screw it up when they do, too.  I expect we can use this chamber to cage the dragon."

Fisher snorted.  "Unlikely," he said, but didn't explain further.

Henderson said, "Captain Fang wanted to take a piece of Earth with us.  The current projection is what Tanzania looked like long ago, before the space port.  This is where we came from, started to walk upright, and became men.  No real animals here, but Papa can provide virtual game, or grow the real thing by request."

"I like games," Stearn said, jumping into the space before them and releasing an ululating holler that he must have been saving up.  "Hey, show me some wildebeest, Papa!"

A gravely male voice boomed, "Will you please let me alone?  I'm trying to work."

"Papa's the ship's brain?" Fisher asked.

Henderson nodded.  "And something of a grouch when there's work to do, at least with me.  The captain has him dancing on the head of a pin, some exquisite priority code that even Stearn wouldn't dare override on a lark if he knows what's good for him.  Ready for the next stop?"

"Lead on, Mr. Henderson."

Henderson closed the portal, cutting off Stearn's resumed yelling.

"Thank you," said Fisher.

"You're welcome.  Now, this way," he said, kicking off.  Henderson showed him the galley, a drab utilitarian place sporting little more than a mahogany bartree and standard-issue chairbeasts.  "Can you guess the number one menu item?"

Fisher said, "Fish sticks?"

"All the time, but in a wide variety of scrumptious flavors, I assure you.  Taste like anything you want.  I have supplemented the menu with a gourmet selection."

Henderson stopped at a viewing port along the inside curve of the ring they were in.  "You can see the hollow interior of the Karamojo from here."

Fisher drifted over and pushed his face against the window's diamond to have a peek.  Henderson floated up behind him and peered over his shoulder.  Along the central axis ran a tube of diamond girders that held the superconducting electromagnets that constituted the inner rail.  They generated a portion of the ship's field that shielded them from cosmic rays and could be used as a linear particle accelerator for on-axis propulsion.  More importantly, the rail controlled their relationship to the charged singularity pair when they were under wormdrive.  The far side of the ring was some four kilometers away, almost lost in the glare off the Pacific Ocean, which shone through the ship's open end.  Hydroponic farms grew inside the diamond girders like fungus, engineered and positioned to take advantage of the high-energy light that would spew from the fore singularity under wormdrive.  "Impressive," Fisher said.

"I suppose," Henderson said, nonchalantly.  Biologicals were his area, and he decided to impress Fisher with his own work next.  He led Fisher to the Hall of Trophies.

The Hall was situated within one of the ring-transiting tunnels and sheltered between closed doors.  This meant that Fisher had no real warning before he was floating into the heads.

"Be careful -- they sometimes bite!" Henderson managed at the last moment as Fisher drifted past him.

Fisher lost some of his microgravity skills as he twisted his body about, but he was on an inevitable collision course with a big, black rhinoceros head.  He did have enough composure to twist back into control and take grasp of the creature's horn.  The rhino had the good grace to accept the rough handling as Fisher arrested his forward momentum, settling for a blink and a snort.

"It's alive." Fisher said, holding the horn like a swimmer holding a ladder in the deep end of a pool.

"Of course it's alive.  This is a Biolathe ship.  The majority of systems are biological, and we have the ability to shift our bioresources around to meet our needs.  No clunky robots, subject to mechanical breakdown or electromagnetic scrambling.  On this epic voyage, we lean on our strengths."  Henderson smiled broadly.  "I constructed this for the captain in less than a week."

The curved corridor represented some of Henderson's best work.  Dozens of trophy heads sprouted along the path:  the rhino for starters with its mate on the opposite side, then impalas, gazelles, kudus, water buffaloes, elephants (all three extinct varieties, Woolly, African, and Asian), giraffes, zebras, several types of big cat, dire wolves, gorillas, sasquatch, and a multitude of antlered deer. At the next bulwark, where the Hall ended, writhed a massive blue marlin in what would be the 'above' position under flight.  Henderson smiled.  "Let me know if you have any particular favorites to add."

The heads realized they had an audience, and most began to snarl, howl, low, growl, trumpet, or simply to twist frantically, as if eager for attention.

"Yes, it is impressive," Fisher said after a moment.

"I'm somewhat concerned about an organ bank failing behind the wall.  Not the easiest place to reach," Henderson offered.  "The automatic systems would clean things up, but not fast enough to fully keep away the stench I fear."

Fisher moved one hand from the horn and reached to touch other parts of it.  The big head, showing no signs of antagonism, let him caress its expansive forehead.  "Do you think we'll need such a large biomass reserve?"

The rhino grunted, as if echoing the question.

Henderson hadn't thought about it that carefully.  The Karamojo was a larger ship with a larger fraction of biologicals than he'd served on before.  He'd just followed the specs on the mass and used the captain's creative suggestion for where to put it.  "I would certainly think not.  This is an R and D mission to an uncolonized part of the distant galaxy.  We shouldn't encounter pirates or rogue political bodies, so what could go wrong?  We're safe, doubly so with this redunancy."

"No need to get excited," Fisher said.  "I was just curious.  I've been too busy preparing for this trip to load the ship's systems into my biochip and study them.  Yet."

Henderson relaxed.  Of course there was no need to get excited.  Maybe his endorphin precursors were low -- he'd check later.  No doubt by the time they returned to Earth the human brain would be well enough understood to permit an adequate assortment of mindmods rather than the slow but safe drugs in common use.  Then he could be in control all the time, just as he was in control of the trophies here.  He was benevolent god.  These creatures did have minor mindmods and were healthier and happier than they ever could have been on Earth, thanks to his skills.

"Right.  Well, let's move on." Henderson said.

As they proceeded to their next stop, the observatory, Fisher asked Henderson, "What's your opinion on the star dragon?"

Henderson had been snubbed before by such as Fisher when dropping by the receptions of some biological conferences.  "Does an exobiologist really care what an Earth-based biosystems tech thinks?"

"Absolutely," Fisher replied promptly, eyes open and unblinking.

Maybe this Fisher fellow would be an ally, on this voyage and when they returned.  Why not give it a chance?  "I've thought about it, of course.  I mean, it isn't likely for the dragon to be carbon-based at disk temperatures is it?  But I know more than a little about life and the origins of complexity and self-organization.  The entropy is too high for a life form to arise naturally in a hot plasma, and, biologically speaking, the accretion disk is a recent phenomenon in SS Cygni.  You're not going to reach any level of complexity so fast.  Now, I might change my mind with more data, of course."  Best to appear open-minded, and not step on any of Fisher's pet ideas too hard until he knew what they might be.

"Mmm hmm.  Like what?"

"Well, like evidence of a complete ecosystem.  There's ample energy to provide high metabolisms and fast generational turnover.  I'd want to identify the range of niches available and their populations."

"I was thinking along those lines myself," Fisher said.

Henderson smiled.  He was about to go on, but he caught sight of orange-covered buttocks sticking out of an equipment dewar that reminded him that their physical scientist was quite callipigious.

"Hello gentlemen," Sylvia Devereaux greeted them after extracting herself.  "Grand tour?"

"Yes," Fisher answered.  "I imagine Captain Fang wants to tire me out so I won't cause any trouble before launch.  So, what do have we here?"

Sylvia, dressed in a burnt-orange wrap that complimented her brown skin, spun around, pointing at an adjacent chamber filled with chunks of odd-shaped metal boxes, cylinders, and exposed electro-optics and quantum circuitry.  "Your basic full-spectrum assortment of spectrographs, cameras, waveplates, bolometers, heterodyne receivers, or at least fiber-feeds and waveguides to such."

Fisher squinted at her.  "You're going to do astronomy?  Don't the relativistic effects make observing difficult?"

Henderson couldn't help but notice Sylvia's clothing.  The wrap was modest, economical, and much more seductive than the fancifully augmented bare breasts that were seemingly always in style.  She also had broad, child-bearing hips -- completely unfashionable for the past half century.  She hit many of the subconscious cues programmed by natural selection, just as he tried to do.  Despite the fact that she was a specialist in physical sciences, he wondered if her motives for making this voyage were similar to his own.

Sylvia answered Fisher's question.  "You're correct that astronomy in general would be compromised by our velocity, but this is all for SS Cygni, Dr. Fisher.  The relativistic effects enhance the intensity of the light in the direction we're traveling, making the binary system easier to make out.  We drop the package right into the interior vacuum, look by the fore singularity and pick up a gravitational lensing boost.  We know the parameters perfectly and can correct for all the effects."

Henderson was of two minds about her dreadlocks.  Finally he decided they were a plus that fit her basic, raw Earth-mother image, a fertility goddess.  Maybe this look was even her original one, and already naturally selected.

"Call me Sam," Fisher said.  "Didn't the probe fully characterize the system?"

Ingratiating, or was he perhaps playing her?  Maybe he should model the social dynamics; Biolathe already had, certainly, but that was private information.  Maybe he could trick it out of Papa?  Maybe Fisher was not an ally, but an opponent.  Too many maybes he should have already considered if he was going to make the most of the next three years.

"Not by a long shot," Sylvia replied.  "Those data are hundreds of years old, and poor in many respects.  Don't forget that this is a time-variable, evolving system.  I'll never make out dragons at this distance, but I'll tell you everything else you could want to know about SS Cygni by the time we arrive."

"Yes, that may be of use."

"Absolutely it will!" she said.  "This ship is going to be pushing its safety limits over the accretion disk when it's quiescent.  When the disk goes into a dwarf nova outburst, which it does two weeks out of every seven, we'll have to back off.  Shortest interval between outbursts could be as little as a week, which we must plan for.  The outbursts are chaotic in nature, depending on how the secondary spills mass across the Lagrangian point, like a faucet dripping.  The outbursts occur when the mass build-up in the disk causes a thermal instability, and the angular momentum transfer picks up -- "

"Yes, well, we'll have to discuss it en route," Fisher said, smiling, holding his hands up to stop her flood of words.

"Of course," Sylvia said.

Had she said something about safety limits?  He shrugged it off and stopped staring at Sylvia.  Best now to disrupt the party.  "Ready for the next stop, Dr. Fisher?"

"Sure," he said.

They moved on to the Higgs generators that teased the singularities from the quantum foam, the fly bridge where the human control interfaces of the ship were located, the shuttle bay, the supplies hold (incidental), the supplies hold (primary), supplies hold (industrial), and then, at Fisher's prompting, they skipped the rest of the supply holds.  That was fine with Henderson, as some, like the missile bay, made him somewhat uncomfortable.  Fissionables were dangerous.  He accepted their presence as potentially invaluable tools for a lone ship over two hundred light years from home.  Who knew what they might have to blow up in the distant reaches of the galaxy?

"Can't Papa teach me where things are?" Fisher asked.

"of course."  Henderson shrugged.  "The captain said to give you the tour."

"Where is Fang?"

Papa answered, "In the gym."

"Thank you," Henderson said.

"Which way?" asked Fisher.

"This way," said Henderson.

They heard the grunting from the open portal before they reached the freefall gym. Heat emanated from the opening, but unlike the savanna, this was a moist heat, full with the sourness of flesh pushed beyond comfortable limits.  Henderson tilted his head at Fisher and extended an arm to invite the exobiologist to enter first.

Henderson knew what to expect -- he'd grown the gym, again according to the captain's guidelines -- but it was nevertheless unsettling to see it in operation.

The form of Captain Lena Fang, wearing only a white one-piece, was held, suspended, in a net of fleshy pink tendrils.  The sight made Henderson think of pumpkin innards.  Bioelectric shocks ran through the tendrils, stimulating the captain's muscle groups, sending her into rhythmic spasms like a fly trapped in a web.  The stink of sweat permeated the warm air; the smell seemed genuine, unlike the sweet cloying sweat most people modified themselves to secrete.  Grunts issued from the captain as she fought through an optimum set of exercises designed to give her the most effective workout.

Fisher plucked at a moist, pink muscle strand that was one fiber of the gym.  It barely budged.  "Strong," he said.

"Get your butt in here, Sam," Fang called.  "I want you in shape for this voyage.  A human sparring partner beats the heck out of vat-grown."

Fisher looked at Henderson.

He smiled, and tilted his head toward the center of the room.  "The captain issued an order.  Strip and climb in, Doctor."

He stood there for a moment, considering.  "Now?"

Henderson shrugged.  "Your things will find your quarters.  Go ahead."

"Well, okay."  Fisher stripped off his heavy denim, down to briefs, and stuck his clothes to the wall.  Plush, rippling ruglings lined all the surfaces of the ship.  They were useful things, acting as airbags when under rapid acceleration -- for instance falling down in a high gravity environment like they would find above the SS Cygni disk.  In the current circumstance they would grab onto a pile of clothes like cockle burrs, taste them, and after a time pass them to their mates until back in the owner's quarters.

Fisher tentatively climbed into the flesh web, not looking very much like a spider.  "I already have standard muscle enhancer mods."

"You'll need them," Henderson said.

Fang continued to grunt and sweat and spasm.

Fisher crawled toward her.

Henderson closed the portal, glad the captain hadn't asked him to work out, and went back to his lab.  Sitting back on his deluxe chairbeast, he wondered if Sylvia Devereaux might be a worthy partner for him on this voyage.

#

Following the green line Papa provided, Fisher floated along the corridor like the proverbial zombie, or more like a wraith; zombies walked, but he coasted in freefall.  Bone weary, he raised his hand to slap the lock to his quarters.  The door irised open and the lights rose.  Inside smelled musty as if the room had been sealed for years, but inside there bobbed his four meager pieces of luggage, tangled in a storage net.

How was he supposed to work in this shape?

Fisher glided into his room, released his clothes, and looked around.  Spartan barracks:  unimprinted bedbeast, chairbeast, desktree, workstation.  Someone had thoughtfully left a freefall shower sack unstowed from its closet, but he was in no mood to fight with the gelatinous bag even though it seemed alert and helpful, opening like a flower at his smelly presence.  Showering could wait until they were underway, or at least until he got some sleep.

The bedbeast, slumbering in its niche in a wall that would become the floor, was useless until they were underway -- he didn't care to be hugged by the mindless bed.  Fisher bounced off the far wall and to the side, opening all the closets and lockers until he found a silk mummy cocoon.

"Door," he said, and the portal to the ring irised closed.  He peeled off his briefs.  "Lights."  The lights dimmed.  He wiggled into the smooth, soft, and warm sack, ignoring his odor, sloughing sweat balls off to float around the cabin.  The air fish would not go hungry tonight.

He closed his eyes and became acutely aware of his bladder and bowels.  "Damn," he said, wiggling out of the sack.  He banged his elbow getting into the bathroom, and the cushioning of the ruglings seem very thin.

"Lights," he said, a little uncertainty igniting over what he might find here.  But it was a standard organic potty mouth with saccharine breath so strong he could taste it, but nothing as trendy as Stearn probably preferred.  Then again, the Jack might not use a toilet if he'd given himself a brickmaker bodmod.  Those sometimes seemed like a good idea, but who had the time to compare brands?

Fisher plastered his bottom against the toilet, letting its mouth seal and suction to hold his bottom in place as siphoning tongues licked him clean.  In less than a minute he was wiggling back into his mummy sack, eyes closed, mind just barely holding out against body.  He figured the captain exercised this vigorously on a regular basis.  How did she do it?

Fang had drive.  It showed in those finely honed muscles that worked like an efficient machine.  He admired that kind of drive.  He had the same drive, in his own arena.  Their arenas were the same on this mission.  He could keep up if he had to.

"I can do anything I have to," he mumbled as his muscles silently screamed.  Somehow, despite the aches, in less than a minute he fell asleep.

He dreamt of casting vast nets in which to snare a star dragon, casting five hundred times and ignoring the aches in his arms as he prepared to cast five hundred and one.

#

Captain Lena Fang floated onto the flying bridge.  She wore her dress uniform, complete with black patent leather boots, despite their inappropriateness in freefall.  She was grateful for the freefall as it prevented the trembling that her muscles would have otherwise shown under gravity.  It had never seemed fair to her that muscles so assiduously trained could also betray so easily.  The start of a trip always made her nervous, and that worried her for it sometimes seemed a false responsibility; Papa ran the Karamojo like a well-fed nanoforge.  Out of tradition she orchestrated the launch, but the whole ritual bordered on the superfluous.  It wasn't what it had meant to be the captain of a ship when she had broken into the corporate fleets.

Yet she still shook with excitement, and would not let it show.  Every assignment held the potential to test her mettle.  Maybe this was the one.

She had to believe it was the one, in case it was.

There was no telling what could go wrong that might require her to make an immediate decision, or perform some rapid action.  If it had been anticipated, there was already a failsafe in place.  Her job was to be there in case of the unanticipated.

She made her way to her fighting chair situated in the aft center of the room, rooted to what would soon become the floor.  She pressed her fingers into the yielding, vermilion hide, releasing its comforting aroma.  The custom chairbeast moaned softly.  Finally she let the chair's arms envelop her.

Everyone else was already there.  Directly in front of her sat the ship's Jack, Stearn, in front of the wormdrive console that displayed the status of the interior rail superconductors, the Higgs generators, and the e-m-g field everywhere on board.  Stearn turned, gave her a lopsided grin, and flapped his ear wings.  To her left, Henderson sat before a pulsing bank of display membranes that monitored the ship biosystems, including the organic parts of Papa.  To her right, on a couchbeast were Devereaux and Fisher -- Sam, looking sleepy -- she released a cool smile.  Projected on the opposite wall (her brain had already oriented itself with the familiar act of sitting in the fighting chair), etched in silver vectors, shimmered several views of the Karamojo.  Everything appeared nominal.

Sweating, her hand worked the fighting chair's hide.  "Are we ready to go, Papa?"

"We're raring to go!" Papa said, loud enough that everyone could hear.  Papa was the Karamojo.  They were ready.

"Confirm the flight plan with the LEO controller."  Low Earth orbit was more crowded than ever, but no accidents for the last seventy-three years local time.

"Done," Papa announced.

"Point us at the Swan."  The constellation of Cygnus the Swan, the direction of SS Cygni.  The bridge shifted as fly wheels around the ship varied their rotation rates, reorienting the Karamojo.

"Done," Papa announced.

"Initialize singularity biseed," Fang ordered.

Around the silver schematic of the Karamojo, a scarlet grid materialized, representing the Reimann curvature of local space-time.  The grid tilted down in the direction of Earth's deep potential well, but was otherwise flat.  "Done!"

"Power up the superconductors, launch configuration."

"Done."

Fang took a deep breath and rubbed her hands onto her white pants, leaving marks.  "Power up the Higgs generators."

"Done."

"Fire and stabilize inflation beams."

The ship's display grid expanded to show detail.  Four equidistant beams of scintillating green precisely a hundred and nine point five degrees apart intersected in the maw of the Karamojo.

"Break symmetries."

The green lines shimmered as they shifted positions at high frequency.  The scarlet grid began to dimple as the technology teased a bi-singularity from the quantum foam, growing exponentially from the Planck length.  The grid now resembled an elliptical funnel, but even as Fang watched the opposite electric charges responded to the fields generated in the rail's superconductors, stretching the funnel into a double-dimpled wedge.  Electromagnetic forces overpowered gravity, allowing the white hole to be separated from the black hole and preventing recollapse.  The singularities' fields deepened as the holes moved apart.  The Karamojo jerked as the hole pair accelerated toward the Swan, dragging the ship along with rapidly smoothing oscillations.

The wormdrive was not only named for the type-2 wormhole created, but early versions operated almost entirely under freefall conditions with a toroidal ship oscillating around the singularities, first pulled out in front then pulled back, moving like an inch worm.  Electromagnetic control not only resulted in more stability, it permitted a semblance of gravity on-board by damping the oscillations at the right frequencies.

On her first few trips, nearly three hundred years earlier, gravity under wormdrives had still been jerky and unpleasant.  Without the correct drugs or glands, most became sick and stayed sick.  No more.  Only smooth sailing at the dawn of the fourth millennium.

While Fang sank into her fighting chair with a familiar one gee as the rail pushed against the instantaneous freefall vector, the ship's acceleration asymptotically approached the singularity pair's ten gees from both sides.  The effective gravity inside, generated by the modulated electromagnetic friction, approached one gee.  Several air fish scavengers fell to what was now the floor, with a quick patter.

"Wormdrive engaged.  All systems nominal."

Nothing had gone wrong, nothing had challenged her.  As usual.  Now they just had to go, and go, and go.  And stay in fighting trim, just in case.  "Thank you, Papa."

"Thank you, daughter."

Fang looked around the bridge, at her crew.  She met Fisher's eyes.  He stared back with an intensity that surprised her.  He didn't seem sleepy now.  What was he thinking?

Stearn popped up from his seat, released a ridiculously loud whoop, stumbled in the gravity, and sat back down.  "Where's the champagne?"

They had taken the first step of their very long journey.  SS Cygni, and all its secrets, awaited.  Maybe she would get the chance to be a real captain in the course of discovering those secrets, get the chance to show that she was a cut above other people and deserved her position of authority.

Lena Fang desperately hoped so.

 

A teaser from the dust jacket of Star Dragon appears on amazon.com. More information about me and the novel, including sample chapters, is available at www.sff.net/people/mbrother/.

 

Copyright 2003, Michael Brotherton
Reprinted on RPG.net with permission

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