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Star Dragon

Chapter 3

by Mike Brotherton
Apr 09,2004

 

The Selling of Star Dragon

by Mike Brotherton

SDcover3thumbnail.jpg

Chapter 3

Love is a kind of warfare.
--Ovid

Two days later, Fisher sat before his workstation in his quarters on an ossified chairbeast (he didn't desire distracting massages while he worked).  He hardly needed it, but the Prospector movie played in miniature in the station's picture tank, now expanded to three dimensions using some creative mapping algorithms.  He was working on reverse engineering the star dragon's electromagnetic field given the observed motions and a model of the disk field Devereaux had provided.  That knowledge could potentially allow them to safely trap a dragon for study.

The door chimed, a sweet tone designed to attract attention without being too unsettling.  He thought he might change it if he could find a spare minute.  "Come in," he said absently, wondering how fast the dragon might be able to vary its field.  Maybe he could put an upper limit on that from the -- 

Someone cleared her throat.

Losing the thought, Fisher sighed and turned.

Fang stood in the doorway dressed in gray sweats, wearing some kind of blue padded helmet, and toying with what appeared to be a pair of small, connected blue pillows draped over her shoulder.  "You need a break, Sam."

It didn't sound like a question, but neither did it sound like an order.  Not that he would necessarily follow gratuitous orders per se in any event -- he wasn't precisely ship 'crew'.  He was more like a consultant.  But he liked her, and didn't want to alienate his most powerful ally, so he didn't respond to her as he would have to an ill-timed visit from a post-doc.  Smiling, he said, "Actually, I'm in the middle of something.  Perhaps later."

Fang leaned against the inside wall, tilted her head back, and smirked as if he were a comedian.  Was something funny?

She said, "Papa, how long has Dr. Fisher been working at his desk?"

"Six and three-quarter hours, continuously, and he has been damn serious about it."

Serious?  Why shouldn't he be serious?  He turned to straddle the hardened chair and faced her fully.  He wasn't accustomed to having his work interrupted.  She should understand that.  Work hard, play hard, a timeless statement he never understood.  Good work was play, and why not take play as seriously as someone takes work?  Play was work for one's own true self.  "And I'll work seven hours or seventy if it pleases me."

Fang frowned.  He realized that upset him.  He'd ruined her play, and even if he didn't need the break, her he did need.

Don't forget the people this time, wasn't that what Atsuko had said?  "What sort of break did you have in mind?"

She held up the blue pillows.  "You said you would box with me."

Box?  She had been serious after all.  Well, he had uploaded a number of tutorials into his biochip just in case she had been serious, so he was prepared.  Loading them into active memory, he stood up.  "Fine.  Let's box."

"I don't want to force you into anything."

"No problem.  You're right.  I need the break.  Let's do it."

"You'll take it seriously?"

"I do little in half measures."

"Good."

"I need to change?"

"You need to change."

Fisher looked around his room.  Did he have workout clothes somewhere?  He was sure he had brought some.  Maybe not.  Easy enough to grow, and cheap enough as well.  Why bring sweats across the galaxy?

"Try your closet."

Fisher found everything in his closet, including his own funny blue pillows:  boxing gloves, of course.  While he knew intellectually what they were thanks to the tutorials, he realized he'd never seen any, and the reality of them was suddenly strange.  He felt Fang's eyes on him.  "What are you waiting for, another strip show?"

"Yes," Fang said.  He wished she'd smiled when she had said this, but he didn't dislike the fact that she hadn't.

This was not of much importance, but he suddenly felt self-conscious with her watching.  It was odd that he should care.  He didn't have anything unusual like gills, or done anything ostentatious or embarrassing to his genitalia.  He kicked off his streakers, paused, then started deseaming his shirt.

"The default cabin."  Fang sniffed.  "Not even smells.  Papa has a whole library of quarters available.  We don't expect anyone to keep the default."

Happy to accept the change of focus while he changed his clothes, Fisher said, "I hadn't really thought about it.  Do I need smells?"

"Oh yes!  Cabin decorating is a fine art among deep spacers, and smells can be vital to establishing a compelling atmosphere.  In my time, I have seen jungles, throne rooms ranging from the court of the Sun King to a mock-up of the Oval office of the old American president.  One cabin was rigged out to match the heights of the twenty-fourth century sensualists, with every item in the room and every movement he made triggering a sound, smell, or sensation -- urination usually left the cabin-owner quivering on the floor for hours.  That guy, he had issues.  Most popular for balanced spacers seems to be nature scenes from home planets.  Makes you feel less disconnected."

"I'll keep it in mind," Fisher said, snapping his shorts in place.  "Say, been meaning to ask you about the ship's name.  I would have looked it up myself, but --"

"But you've been busy.  The name is no great mystery.  Once upon a time there was an African district named Karamojo, and more importantly, a so-called great white hunter from the late colonial period who adopted the name.  Walter D. M. 'Karamojo' Bell hunted elephants, killed hundreds of them, each with a single shot on most occasions.  He was a good hunter, from Papa's era, and the name seemed to fit.  Done?"

"Done," he said, slinging his gloves over his shoulder like Fang carried hers.  "Thanks for telling me about the name.  And I'll think about the decor when I get the chance.  What does your cabin look like?"

"If you box well enough," Fang said, walking out of his room, "maybe you'll find out for yourself."

#

"Footwork," Fang grunted at Fisher through her mouthpiece as she hit him in the face again.  It felt good to her, as it usually did, to punch.  "If you just stand there, I'm going to tag you at will."

He lunged, swinging a wide, careless arc that she ducked underneath.

She hit him with an uppercut to his unprotected chin.  "You have weight on me."  She jabbed.  "But it means nothing."  A combination next, a jab and a hook.  "You need practice until the moves are so automatic they are instinctual.  Build some muscle memory."

He swung.

She ducked.  "Think of it as a dance."

He was doing much better than she had expected.  His metabolism was set at a high activity level, so he was in good shape, although still not what she would call fighting shape.  But he had shown some capability with the heavy bagbeast, crazy bagbeast, and speed bagbeast, and hadn't cracked a smile shadow boxing.  And now here they were, sparring, on the first day.  Fisher was giving her punches, a few anyway, and taking them as well.  Pleased, she gave him a small smile around her mouthpiece that probably looked ghoulish.  He appeared to be distracted by that, so she popped him in the face.

"Concentrate," she said, stepping back to egg him forward.  She reminded herself to take her time, get a workout, carry the poor exobiologist a few more rounds so he would not be too discouraged.

"I am!"  He stepped forward to her left and kept his legs bent this time.  "This...is...hard."

"Good."  She circled to her right, ready to bob under another wild swing, but Fisher was recovering his breath and not charging wildly any more.

The bell rang and Fisher collapsed, panting around his mouthpiece, to the blue canvas of the regulation spring-loaded floor.

Fang spat out her mouthpiece and lifted the straw of her water bottle, held between her gloves like a crucible, to her lips.  It was a fine sensation.  Nothing like cool water when hot.  Simple pleasures made life.  Exercise.  Satiating a thirst.  Winning.

She finished drinking and offered the bottle to Fisher.

After a moment, he said, "In a minute."

She said, "You're doing wonderfully, Sam.  Really.  How about two more rounds?"

"I can do two more rounds," he said without looking up.

"Good.  I like a man with endurance."

Fisher looked up at her, small curls plastered to his forehead, sweat staining his underarms.  He smelled musky, and not at all bad.  "What are you doing with me here?"

"Boxing," she said.

"I mean," and one eyebrow rose, "you're flirting with me, right?"

Of course she was, but he shouldn't come right out and say it.  Then it stopped being flirting and became negotiation.  Fisher lacked subtlety.  But Papa never shirked the direct approach, and encouraged directness in her, so she nodded.  "Its been a long time since my last lover.  You are my only romantic prospect for this very long trip, Sam, and I prefer human flesh in bed.  I figure no point waiting.  Anything wrong with that?"

"No.  It's just, this feels rather forced to me."  He bent his neck back as far as his headgear would allow, not looking at her.  "Look, Lena, in the past I've had problems with -- I mean -- we might not...Mmm."

She let him sweat.  He was cute.

"Let's box," he finally said, "And you'll see what kind of endurance I have."

They boxed.

Fang carried Fisher.  Clearly he had gone to the trouble of locating and downloading some boxing pointers; Fisher was a quick study and was trying to please her despite his reluctance to leave his cabin.  He was getting tired, but better as well.  At the start, when he had energy, he had spent it unwisely.  Now, without that energy and gaining practical familiarity with the skills, he started thinking.  A smart boxer was a good boxer.  All the great champions had been smart, extending their careers over their younger, faster competitors by thinking.  The stupid boxers just didn't win, even with superior bodmods in divisions that allowed them.

Fang bit down hard on her mouthpiece when she had the thought that boxing, which had gone through its dry spells, might not even exist when they returned to Earth.  It could become another forgotten sport destroyed by the culture's short attention span.  She blinked the thought away.  Somewhere in the human colonies it would survive, if not on Earth in a retrospective movement.  Diaspora not only protected the human species from extinction, it helped protect their cultures as well.  Somewhere boxing would survive.

Suddenly Fang realized something was wrong.  She had gone on autopilot, letting her body move without her brain.  She was being a stupid boxer, and Fisher was not stupid.

She jerked back, ducking simultaneously, backpedaling furiously to keep her feet under herself to avoid an ignominious dump onto her butt.

Fisher's roundhouse missed her face by scant centimeters.  Her cheek cooled with the wind from his punch evaporating her sweat.

Fisher barked with the effort in the swing as he tumbled over his right shoulder and down to the canvas in a tangle at her boots.

He lay there like washed-up seaweed.

"Sam?" she mumbled around her mouthpiece.  She spit it out.  "Sam?  You okay?"

Fisher wheezed, and didn't move.  "Is that two rounds yet?"

Fang laughed.  A long, low belly laugh that sprang up honestly from deep inside.  A knot loosened that she had held within her since the beginning of the voyage.  This trip was going to be fine.  Throwing away the present for the far future hadn't been a total mistake.  She had been right to give up the colony hops delivering swamp cattle for the chance of a real challenge.  With that laugh she fully accepted and engaged her current course.

Fisher pushed up to his elbows, but just turned himself over.  From his back he looked up at her, with the smile of someone being infected by a laugh.  He pursed his lips and his mouthpiece rose halfway out, then slipped to the side of his face, trailing saliva, as if were crawling out of his mouth.

Fang laughed harder, tears streaming down her face.

Fisher started laughing as well, weakly at first, then with some enthusiasm.

It pleased her.  He had been so, well, serious so far.  She said finally, "No, only one round."

"Damn," he said, smiling.

Now that he had that warm sparkle in his eyes, he was just so cute.  Be bold, she thought.  Show no fear.

Before Fang could stop herself, she said, "Come back to my cabin and shower.  Then we will begin the last round."

#

Fisher followed Fang back to her cabin.  Sweat plastered her pants against her tight butt.  He tried to ignore the instincts evolution had placed within him, keep some measure of control, but he realized that he was still mesmerized.  Too tired, he supposed.  What he liked best about her, he decided, was the way she strode so confidently, not looking back, knowing that he would follow.  She was certain.

He had seen that certainty in her while she boxed.  Competent grace.  It pleased him, intellectually at first; she was going to be a great aid in the upcoming dragon hunt.  She would be a diamond under pressure.  She would do the right thing at the right time.

Then, when he had been on the floor and she had been laughing, there had been no malice there.  Just a simple joy, the emotional reason for living he sometimes forgot.

Stearn came walking down the corridor.  "Captain," he said as he approached.

Fang nodded curtly, but didn't break stride.

"Hey, Fish," Stearn said, and winked at Fisher as soon as he had passed Fang.

Fisher didn't care, and the not caring pleased him, too.  The Jack and what he thought were simply not important.

They drew near Fang's cabin.  Fisher surreptitiously sniffed his armpits.  As bad as he thought -- there was another bodmod he should find the time for.  He hoped that she had been serious about showering first.

Fang stopped abruptly at her cabin door, but didn't open it.  She turned to face him instead, hands clasped in front of her waist, head down, looking at his chest.  Shyness now replaced confidence.  "Sam, I hadn't planned to do this so quickly."

He nodded, took her hands lightly in his.

"My cabin," she said, "It is a retreat from all my responsibility on the ship.  It reflects a side of me I don't show often and am not completely comfortable showing others.  I am being very serious now.  Can I trust you?"

"Yes," he said, squeezing her hands.  He was a little worried that he was committing to something he didn't understand but caught up in the moment and, like a man in the last stages of the chase, capable of saying anything.  And worse, believing it.  Even knowing this, he could not help himself from again saying, "Yes."

She smiled, licked her lips coyly, and squeezed his hands back.  "Then welcome to my parlor, said the spider to the fly."

She dropped his hands, opened the door, and went in.

He remembered what she had said about decorating quarters, and a whole new crop of worries sprang up, fertilized by her spider comment.  If her room were another living spider web like the freefall gym, only maybe filled with billions of real spiders, or giant spiders, or something else, something worse that Biolathe had patented....

Fisher shook away the images, took a deep breath, and followed.

Inside, he tried not to laugh.  She had been so serious outside, and he had been more afraid than he realized.  Relief made him grin, and he hoped she would interpret the expression as anticipation of what was to come.

Fang's cabin was soft and pink, timelessly girlish.  Pretty.  A king-size bed filled one side of the large chamber, a real waterbed not at all alive, covered in pink satin sheets and littered with stuffed animals, all sea life:  plush sharks, crabs, dolphins, sea horses, starfish, and the like.  French doors opening on a placid ocean, presumably virtual, dominated the opposite side of the room.  The doors were open and a warm breeze carried a beach smell.  A vanity with an half-shell mirror sat against the far wall, with jewelry, brushes, and a conch shell sitting on the mahogany top.  Plush carpeting -- no ruglings -- swathed the floor with pastel swirls of coral pink and eggshell blue.  The only incongruous element was a pale wooden desk in the corner, faced by a simple chair of the same wood, that was covered with scrolls -- charts, perhaps -- but no computer console or picture tank; an oasis of old-fashioned work amidst old-fashioned luxury.

The pink waterbed, warmth, and the gentle susurration of waves spelled 'womb' to Fisher.

"I fear the bathroom is similar," Fang said nervously, her arms twisting down and then stripping off her soaked T-shirt in a single fluid motion.

"I can hardly wait," Fisher said honestly, stripping off his own smelly shirt.

Fang smiled.

Fisher smiled back.

Fang stripped in an instant and climbed onto the bed.  Bobbing up and down, she said, "I am afraid I chose the bed with sleeping in mind.  It may be difficult to --"

"The problem isn't insurmountable."

#

Devereaux inspected the observatory packages one last time. The high-resolution STJ cameras, which recorded photon arrivals and energies from X-rays through the infrared, showed intermittent sawtooth bias patterns.  They seemed fine now, but would they go bad again once in the fields along the ship's axis?  Only one way to find out.

Devereaux stepped away from the observatory module and said, "Let's do it, Stearn."

"You can call me Phil, if you want."  Stearn grabbed the module with a magnetic lift and manhandled it into the airlock, bumping the edge.

"Careful," called Devereaux.

"Okay, I'll be careful, but isn't this thing redundant?  We know what's there, right?"

"Sort of, but the details could matter to us.  Quite a lot."

"It's just one star, eating another star.  Every few weeks its mouth gets full and it swallows a little fast, right?  When it swallows fast, it burns hot.  When it swallows slowly, it isn't so hot.  I read the encyclopedia articles.  You don't have to be a genius."

Stearn was going make himself an annoying boy on this trip, Devereaux thought.  "The behavior of a dwarf nova isn't predictable very long in advance.  The thermal disk instability that brings on the outbursts is tied to the accretion rate, which depends on the secondary donating the mass.  That secondary has a magnetic field that interacts with the disk, and the whole thing is a mess of feedback loops, some of which behave chaotically.  The outburst -- "

He cut her off.  "Right.  How fast it swallows.  Like I said.  You don't need a genius vocabulary either.  And those are cheap to buy anyway."  Stearn finished getting the observatory inside and sealed the airlock.

"We get caught in a dwarf nova outburst close to the disk photosphere, and our nano-skin cannot process the energy fast enough well, we'll cook.  That's bad.  Got it?"

"Bad.  Got it.  But can't we just monitor the transfer rate while we're there?"

"Of course we will, but these data won't hurt, will they?"

Stearn flapped his wings at her and turned his attention to the magnetic grapple that would insert the observatory into the central axis between the singularities.  "Don't these systems go nova and super nova, too?"

"Not dwarf novae, at least not in general.  Their mass transfer rate isn't high enough.  Eventually other types of novae may occur.  A classical nova will occur if a non-burning hydrogen mass builds on the white dwarf and fusion ignites all at once when it reaches its critical temperature, but that's a hundred thousand year timescale for SS Cygni.  A supernova will occur if the white dwarf mass hits 1.44 solar masses, Chandrasekhar's limit, when degenerate electron pressure can't resist the self-gravity, and a runaway collapse follows.  If that happens, the disk and everything in it will get smeared all over this part of the galaxy.  But don't worry about it.  The SS Cygni primary is far from 1.44 solar masses, and the accretion is usually matched by the winds and novae mass loss.  No supernova for you this trip."

"It would be a fantastic thing to see though," Stearn said, chewing on his long forked tongue as he watched the insertion.  "But I know another supernova I prefer.  Ever cross wire your pleasure center to a popcorn bag?  That's a real blast!"

"You're hopeless, Stearn."

"Not at all.  I know the ship well.  I'm good at my job.  And I enjoy myself more than anyone else on this crazy trip.  Anything wrong with that?"

"No.  I suppose not."  She started thinking about Phil Stearn.  He came across as a complete screw-up, but Biolathe was a smart company, and its brain would never put an incompetent on a ship like this, let alone hire one in the first place.  So what was with Stearn?  There had to be something deeper below his shallow surface.  Didn't there?

"So what tweaks you?  Why you throw away the present?  Lover toss you aside for a better drug?  Lose a bet with another stuck-up scientist?"

"Nothing like that."  She might as well tell him.  It was not a secret.  "I liked the puzzle."

"You liked the puzzle?  You're more flighty than me."  He tilted his head and flapped to emphasize his point.

"I mean, we've discovered a plethora of alien species in all sorts of environments, but no sentient races like ours.  These star dragons could be it, or at least evidence for one.  I mean, it's such an odd place to find anything alive.  Maybe it didn't happen all by itself."

"So?"

"Well I think that's a puzzle of our age, whether or not anything else is thinking out there.  Not working on it and just enjoying the fruits of our technology, sponging off Earth, that's the mental equivalent of masturbation."

"And what's wrong with that?  I'm rather fond of it myself."

Why was she even arguing with him?  He was just as shallow as he seemed.  "Nothing is wrong with it, I suppose, in moderation.  But don't you believe there are still important things for humans to do?  Things that could matter, someday?"

Stearn shrugged.

"I do have another motive for taking fast, high-gamma voyages.  I intend to be there, at the end."

"The end?"

"Or at least as long as I can go riding these relativistic time machines into the future.  See what happens in the end.  See who is still around, what they're doing, and what they've figured out about the nature of existence."

Stearn hit pause on the observatory insertion and stared at her.

She continued.  "These long, fast trips help.  I'd go to another galaxy if I could.  Someday I probably will.  But I'll find a way to be there, at the end, this body or another, until my protons decay -- if I'm still even made of baryonic matter at that point -- and I'll understand the big why."

"That," he said, "is the biggest fucking masturbation fantasy I've ever heard.  And I've heard some big ones.  Heck, I've carried out some big ones."

"Fine.  You don't understand.  Just do your job, and help me do mine."

Stearn turned back to the observatory and finished overseeing its insertion and alignment.  "I understand better than you think.  We have a lot in common."

"Unlikely."

"I can prove it."

"How?"

"In my hedonistic searches, scouring Earth and its colonies, I have experienced things you cannot dream of, mental states most profoundly satisfying, physical states most exhilarating. Rest assured that I pursue my goals with passion."

Devereaux smirked at him, bragging like a boy.  She lowered her gaze into what she thought would convey skepticism, but didn't tell him to stop.

Stearn held up a finger before his face and with wide eyes said, "In my cabin, I have the means of achieving the most engaging intellectual pleasure in the known universe."

"What is it?"

Stearn lowered his finger and turned and walked away from her.  "I suppose you'll have to drop by sometime if you want to find out."

"Unlikely," she said, but already as he walked away the puzzle of Stearn was working in her mind and she was afraid that she would wind up accepting his invitation/dare.  She could not stand to let a puzzle go unsolved, even one so trivial as Stearn.

#

The sound of ruffling paper and tiny scratches woke Fisher.  Lying on Lena Fang's bed, he propped his head up with his arm so he could better watch her at work.  She bent over the desk in a position that would cause his lower back to throb if he were to assume it regularly.  Her face hovered centimeters from the surface of an unrolled paper, and her arms and legs extruded from her red silk robe like the multiply-articulated legs of a graceful arthropod.  Waves of concentration emanated from her with a palpable force and he became exhausted watching her.  He rolled onto his back.  He studied the aquamarine and turquoise sea mosaic on her ceiling -- an octopus's tentacle reminded him of the dragon's twisted body -- while he listened to the scratching of her pencil.  His unceasing internal voice that urged him to rise and resume his own work was present, but nearly as quiet as the pencil.

He smiled.

His first weeks aboard the Karamojo had smeared into a pleasant blur.  He was working as hard as ever, but for the first time in many years, hints of contentment emerged in quiet moments while not at work.  He continued to work every day on developing his hypotheses about the star dragon, on reliable theories of its energy budget and metabolism, locomotion and its limits, reproduction and selection pressures, and other areas.  He also worked out every day.  He skipped rope to help his footwork and coordination, punched the bagbeasts, and sparred with Fang.  He managed to keep up with her, mostly, and the residual muscle aches his system failed to purge pleased him, a memento of his advancement in this strange new phase of his life.  And then there were moments of no work, like this one.

He had even permitted his hormonal levels, normally suppressed while on a big project, to creep back up to those of a seventeen-year-old boy.

"Why are you smiling?" Fang suddenly asked.

He remained on his back, turning only his head to regard her.  Why was he smiling?  Why not?  But that was trite, and he applied some of his much promoted brain power to the question, trying to peer past the shimmering veil of contentment she had engendered in him.  Why was he content?  Because Fang was beautiful and tough and a captain he could count on.  Because he had a quest to occupy his mind and love (maybe!) to fill his heart.  Because of the way she bent over the table and the way the dragon swirled around a magnetic field line.  Because the equation of his life balanced.  Because a hundred 'becauses' filtered into his consciousness with her single question of why.  Because there were a hundred more 'whys' to be asked, and he was filled with the certainty that the answers would fall to him as easily given an infinite future.  Because everything was perfect for once.

"Why not?" he finally answered, resisting the urge to name his happiness, to over explain it, and thus in capturing the elusive thing to kill it.

Fang smiled back at him before resuming her work.

Everything was so perfect that Fisher finally asked himself a question better left unasked:  what was going to ruin it?

#

On the twenty-third day since launch, ship's time, Henderson was watching the micromachines construct the tiny dormitory inside the terrarium when his signal chimed through his music.  He waved down Beetleburt 2.1.6's Theme for the Common Machine and said, "Yes, Papa?"

"It's time for Fisher's first show, the 'dragon meeting' as he's calling it.  He wants everyone there."

"Oh, right," Henderson replied, rising from his chairbeast.  This promised to be a dreary, tiresome affair, but he supposed there'd be some duties on this little jaunt.  It seemed unfair to him to have to work hard in addition to the sacrifice this trip already represented.  Still, he supposed the time requested was not burdensome, and he might even contribute some ideas if it wasn't too boring.  He would have felt better about it Fisher had come around to consult him more, but after their initial discussion they had not talked of the star dragon again.  Well, this was the time for more discussion, was it not?  The construction of his pet project was fully automated at this stage and would proceed well without his supervision.

Hmm, he thought, Sylvia would be there.

He paused in the yawning orifice leading to the biological laboratory, turned, and went back inside.  He checked his face in a mirror, slicking down his eyebrows with a wetted fingertip, donned his scaled jacket, and poured himself a glass of wine.  No telling how long Fisher might drone on.

Henderson was the last to arrive at the conference room, fashionably late.  Everyone else, arrayed haphazardly around the polished cherrywood tabletree, glanced at him.  He paused in the entryway to flash them a perfect smile.  The remaining empty chairbeast unfortunately was not next to Sylvia, but at least it was across from her.  Too bad she looked as if she'd just rushed in from a nap without freshening up.

"Now that we're finally all here," Fisher began.  "The Biolathe corporate brain provided us with a mission prospectus, with prioritized goals and guidelines for reaching those goals.  Given the scanty information available, it was understood that much additional planning would have to be done en route and at SS Cygni as data became available.  I trust that everyone has downloaded the Biolathe document."

Henderson had, although he hadn't done more than skim the abstract.  Aside from the section on biological speculation, it had been utterly boring.  At least he was paying attention now, however, which was the polite thing to do.  He sipped his wine.  The heathen Stearn was building a pyramid from drug ampoules filled with some sparkly amber liquid.  Fisher and Fang were letting it slide, and Henderson would not permit himself to notice such behavior.

"I consider some of the ideas very good," Fisher continued, "I don't consider all the ideas so good.  It isn't surprising given the relatively short time the brain had to assemble the document, coupled with our great ignorance.  First, we should see if we can agree on our prioritized goals."

Fisher stood up and activated his right hand's computer interface.  Words appeared on the pads on the tabletree in front of everyone:

PHYSICAL GOALS

1.  Return Living Specimen to Earth.

2.  Return Dead Specimen to Earth.

3.  Return Specimen Samples to Earth.

4.  Return Specimen Data to Earth.

"This appears self-evident," Fang said.

"Of course it does, but there are underlying assumptions regarding the prioritization that I'd like to question.  But these are all questions of 'what,' rather than the more important goals of 'why.'  Let me address this by writing down some the scientific goals."

Henderson swirled his wine around in its glass before looking at the next set:

SCIENTIFIC GOALS

1.  Physics of Specimen -- Biological fusion?  How does it survive in the hot disk?

2.  Origin of Specimen -- natural or artificial?

3.  Purpose of Specimen -- natural or ???

"That last one was not in the prospectus, but I think it is important," Fisher said.

"What do you mean by 'Purpose?'" Devereaux asked.

"Based on the previous goal, it's obvious," said Henderson, trying to catch her eye.  He had given his brief conversation with Fisher some idle thought and didn't mind showing off for the available female.  "If the dragon isn't of a natural origin, but of artificial, it was created.  Created for a purpose."

Fang said, "I will agree that determining the dragon origin is important.  This must be a question of how to achieve self-organization in an extreme high-energy environment.  Does anyone here truly think that someone, perhaps the infamous little gray men, made star dragons and put them in SS Cygni?"

"It is hard to believe that we would not have already discovered physical artifacts of alien intelligence before these star dragons if such exists locally in the Milky Way," Devereaux said.

"Not at all," Henderson said, engaging her.  "Biological systems are self-renewing, and can evolve in response to cataclysm -- and this is a cataclysmic variable, after all.  A biological remnant is more durable than a physical remnant."

"What I'm getting at," said Fisher, thumping a fist into his palm several times, "is that if someone showed up and kidnapped one of our drone ships, just out of curiosity mind you, we would probably consider it an act of aggression, if not outright war."

"You make an interesting point," said Devereaux, squinting at Fisher and wrinkling her face in a disagreeable way.  "After all, the official Biolathe agenda is to use these dragons, or at least biology based on the dragons, to design machines for stellar engineering.  If they are an alien construction team, and we show up and disrupt their production schedule, then someone might get upset."

"Someone," chimed in Stearn, grinning, "Or something."

"I cannot believe we are starting with this remote possibility," Fang said.  "This dragon is an animal that happens to live in an exotic environment.  An animal for us to hunt and use, if we can catch it.  That's a fundamental rule of nature."  Her face remained passive, but Fang's knuckles whitened where she gripped the edge of the tabletree.  

"You're probably correct, Captain," Henderson said, trying to ingratiate himself with Fang.  She would evaluate him, after all, for bonuses.  "We can test the notion that it is simply, as you put it, an animal that lives in an exotic environment.  As I was telling Dr. Fisher earlier, evidence for an ecosystem would support a natural origin for the star dragon.  Certainly transitional forms are necessary in an evolutionary scenario and would lead to the exploitation of a variety of niches."

"I agree," Fisher said, holding his palm out toward Henderson.  "But only to a point.  I know of two places where that does not hold strictly true, but only in a locality.  One is an island on Terenga where there is a creature called Grizzle's Omnivore, sort of a superpredator, which has eaten everything else, and I mean everything.  Got poor old Grizzle, too, before they'd figured out he wasn't digestible and gave them all the runs.  The current breed on the island soak up the sun during the day in perfect harmony.  By night they prey on each other in loose packs."

"Yes, I've heard of those," Henderson said, "but surely they're dying out.  Solar energy would not be a sufficient input to keep them going, would it?"

"You'd think that, but they have a truly ingenious -- "

"Back to the subject at hand," Fang said, sitting back on her chairbeast and crossing her arms.  She looked cool, perfect, and dangerous in her crisp white uniform.  Henderson had kept tabs on Fisher and Fang, and knew they were already sleeping together.  He considered Fisher a brave man to bed the captain.  She continued, "If you think this is such an issue, Sam, how do you propose to modify our approach?"

"As I said at the outset, there are some very good ideas in the prospectus.  I agree that the dragon appears to use electromagnetic fields to move through the disk, and I expect to have a working model of those fields before we arrive.  That gives us an advantage.  Just as a pinched magnetic field like Earth's magnetosphere can trap an electron, forcing it to spiral back and forth until dumped down into the aurora, we can use the Karamojo's field to trap a dragon.  Stearn, what do you think about the plasma pen Biolathe proposed?"

Stearn's wings perked up as he looked up from transforming his amber pyramid into some kind of fractal pattern to which Devereaux, sitting next to him, was paying too much attention.  The Jack said, "Geometry is a little problematic, but I think we can do it.  Can't we Papa?"

"We can rig a good strong cage," said Papa.

"But what of the reprioritization you spoke of," Fang persisted.

"Right," Fisher said, holding up a finger.  "Let's make data gathering first priority, and let's get it gathered before we move on to any other goals.  It can make a difference."

Henderson said, "Yes, we do a detailed analysis of the system, look for evidence for an ecosystem.  Upon finding it, we proceed to procure specimens of all the niches.  If there is no ecosystem, we should have a fall-back plan, and not the one currently outlined."

"And what is wrong with the Biolathe plan?" Fang wanted to know.

"You don't know what's wrong with nuclear 'depth charges'?" Sylvia asked, an attractive throaty indignation in her voice.

"If we cannot coerce a dragon into Papa's cage voluntarily, such a shock wave will likely be the safest course to neutralize one from a distance," Fang said.  "We cannot fly into the disk.  We will be fishermen with no knowledge of lures in a very big sea."

Stearn asked, "Those bomb buggers really affect the disk?  I mean, it's a giant disk of fire!  Hmm, okay, I can figure it out.  Plasma temperature in outer disk is like the solar photosphere right?"

"Yes, the plasma in the outer disk in quiescence is like that in the sun's photosphere, several thousand degrees Kelvin, not all that hot and not all that dense," Devereaux offered. "For the nuclears we get temperatures of tens of millions of Kelvins and an energy density many orders of magnitude higher.  They'll make a splash all right.  Hundreds of kilometers at least."

"Still seems to me like a star or an accretion disk ought to swallow man-made bombs without a burp," Stearn said, ruffling his feathers.

"Globally yes, locally, no," said Devereaux.

"Yes, well," Fisher said, "I suggest we employ heroic measures to secure a live specimen before resorting to such a thing."

"Yes, heroic measures," Fang said, apparently mollified.  "In my opinion, bombing is the practical approach.  A few dead dragons are worth a live one, are they not?  A live one will probably be a hundred times more difficult to capture, and would perhaps require additional heroic measures to keep alive for the trip home.  We should maximize our chances for success, and minimize our risks.  Yes?"

Opposite Fang, Fisher frowned back.  Trouble in paradise?  "Kill one of those magnificent creatures, just because it would be easier?  We're not doing this, traveling two hundred and fifty light years, because it is practical.  We're going to do this right.  We should invest some effort in developing methods of luring a dragon to us.  Agreed?"

Fang stared at Fisher, finally saying, "Agreed."  The word came out quickly, like a fencing thrust.  

Then Fisher let the discussion devolve into the details.  Apparently this first meeting was supposed to be more of a free-form brainstorming, a chance to see where everyone stood in terms of their philosophical approach to what Biolathe had suggested.  Henderson didn't really see the point.  Fisher and Fang were the players here, and before this meeting he had thought they were getting along famously.

As Henderson watched the dichotomy of Fisher's animated hands versus Fang's unreadable glare, he became concerned about the fortunes of the mission.  But then there came an even worse omen as the meeting broke up and Devereaux left with Stearn.  What could she possibly see in him?

 

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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