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Star Dragon

Chapter 4

by Mike Brotherton
Apr 16,2004

 

The Selling of Star Dragon

by Mike Brotherton

SDcover3thumbnail.jpg

Chapter 4

The ship, a fragment detached from the earth, went on lonely and swift like a small planet.  -- Joseph Conrad

He peers into every part of the Karamojo, listens to the breath of the air scrubbers along every corridor, feels the weight and temperature of every creature on the ship.  It is more than this as well.  He sings the harmony produced by the electromagnetic field, the flywheels, and the singularity pair when all are in alignment and pointed like an arrow toward the dwarf nova system SS Cygni.  The metallorganics that fuse DNA with semiconductor and comprise his brain have few nerves of their own.  This harmonic tone is his good, for he is the mission.  He is the ship.  He is a world.

He is Papa.

Or rather Papa is the self-aware personality of the ship's brain, designed to interact more effectively with the human crew.  Papa's hind brain records all that transpires aboard, adjusts the song that is flight under wormdrive, and for it there is no time except in the derivatives in the differential equations governing its feedback control systems.

Papa himself thinks in the fuzzy, linear way of humans, with a specific location and point of view, and in terms of personal relationships.  He has memory, both ones false, he knows, of a shadowy lifetime in the Twentieth century, more facts than sensory detail, such as running with the bulls at Pamplona and the plane crashes in Africa; and ones real, as a starship captained by Fang, of hauling faux-bulls and more to a tiny world nestled next to the dim ember of Barnard's star.  He has a sense of movement into the future that the hind brain lacks.  To the ship he provides the purpose of the mission, the creativity to enhance self-preservation.

In these first weeks of his new life, the SS Cygni mission, Papa walks the corridors of himself, a ghost capable of movement through walls and transportation anywhere shipboard at lightspeed.

He learns the secrets of the people on board, and fights between his Hemingway-derived personality which ever judges those around himself and finds them wanting, and the programmed overrides preventing him from actions suggested by his judgment that make him a good tool.

Papa lurks in the console of Axelrod Henderson.  Henderson is more than competent and the biosystems operate at near optimum levels, guided by a trained human eye that notices subtle discoloration and patterns before reaching the conservative sigma levels required for action by his own algorithms.  Henderson spends long hours subtly redesigning his own body and face, led by statistics governing mate selection.  He runs additional models to determine the fraction of the human population carrying his genes upon his return; apparently Henderson has banked his sperm and licensed extensive cloning rights.  What makes the faux-human part of Papa fume is the elaborate plan that Henderson will finance with the windfall from this very mission.  Henderson develops his plan with all the attention to detail of any gourmet pornographic implant:  the delivery of a virus carrying his own genes that will simultaneously impregnate every woman on Earth -- or at least some suitable and less-policed starter planet in the colonies.  Henderson polishes computer-generated models of this scenario every night.  He writes:

It is pretentious to rise above what flesh this universe has wrought.  What folly it is to think of a higher purpose, and to think that purpose any more than what we have instilled in every fiber of our being already.  I recognize what I am, and I will fulfill my purpose....

Papa wants to grow a muscle-bound mobile, shout, "Lousy jerk, we'll knock your mucking block off!" and pugilistically educate the snooty underhanded biosystems technician into proper citizenship.  He isn't permitted.  But it would be a fine thing to end a bad business before it has begun.  He is also not permitted to tell anyone else of this discovery, even if it ever appears that Henderson has formulated a way to carry out his plan.  Damn privacy rights are coded right into him.  Papa takes some consolation in the fact that the women on board the Karamojo don't share Henderson's bed, although he does worry that despite their hormonal implants they will, impossibly, become pregnant.

Almost as shocking to Papa is the liaison Stearn and Devereaux have formed.  This lush, chocolate-brown beauty -- not his type, but rich and womanly nonetheless -- has shacked up with the Jack who is more boy than man.  Many times over these weeks as the ghost slips through the door into Stearn's quarters, which now wears the appearance of a traditional English library, he discovers the pair of them embroiled in ancient board games.  First chess, clothes vanishing with each capture, later go, and more clothes removed as stones are surrounded.  From Stearn's downloads from the ship's library, Papa knows that Shogi and Chun Chi will follow.  Devereaux must know what Stearn is doing, but they play until Devereaux is winning most of the games and both appear to desire new challenges:  Devereaux wants new games to conquer, while Stearn wants to see how far he can push Devereaux.  Papa turns around and leaves when he sees the perversity develop.  Some things are better left unwatched, and not spoken of.  He suspects it is merely the morals of his age programmed into his psyche, but sexuality really has evolved past his limits.

Otherwise the Jack does his job competently, monitoring the ship, and Devereaux spends admirable hours reducing data as the Karamojo approaches the extreme gammas that will boost the SS Cygni flux and permit the acquisition of superior data.  Devereaux hopes to identify spectroscopic signatures of star dragon -- their emerald hue is a shifting laser transition of unknown origin and unknown purpose -- that may allow their numbers and locations to be determined, at least statistically.

The exobiologist Fisher works even harder than Devereaux, devoting more hours to his dragon models.  Papa has mixed feelings about his effort.  Fisher spends every waking moment with his magnetohydrodynamic dragon circulation code, touring the ship and asking endless questions about every minute operational detail...or with Fang.  He asks Henderson to grow him an electrostim unit to aid his muscle development so as to better his boxing performance and minimize the thrashings Fang administers.  He designs stimulated boxing routines to practice, but his opponent isn't Fang, but a strange female human/dragon amalgamation, with sinuous motions reminiscent of an electron spiraling about a magnetic field line.

Like Henderson, Fisher keeps a journal.  In it he writes:

Never have I been happier.  The liberation of knowing the world is gone, and only love and discovery remain, is addictive.  Fang is demanding of my time and takes as much as I permit, yet within her exists a hidden vulnerability, almost an alien lifeform, that has been a joy to discover.  In some sense I have only months here on the ship, feeding on anticipation as the SS Cygni primary feeds on its disk, but it feels as if eternity vanishes before me, and now is forever.  I can obsess over this amazing woman and our mission, and for once in my life my obsession will not drive away a lover, but, in fact, draw us closer and make of her a confidant.  I can be myself, and only strengthen our bond.  It is love, finally.  Now if only she would bend a little my way on strategy, it would be perfect love.  I am sure I can convince her my approach is best.  I know I'm right.  I've thought of a way to hook it, using grappling fields on our remote tugs.  The dragon's flight pattern suggests an azimuthal field variation that....  

Papa usually does no more than skim the long technical passages -- most, like this one that follows, over five thousand words long and annotated with figures and models -- in search of those about the captain.

Papa has loved Biolathe Captain Lena Fang across the centuries.  She is his daughter, and more.  Just as he cannot grow a mobile and pummel Henderson, he cannot grow a mobile and love Fang as he would.  More code.  He is the half-man Jake Barnes to her Brett, ironically repeating the half-relationship from his first novel.  All he can do is rage, worry, rail, suffer, and, at her request, counsel.  The biggest plus to his current incarnation is that he does not have to watch his weight, a task that haunts his faux-human memories.

He now accompanies Lena Fang through the ages, and they seem as Fisher's eternity, even though all the computer scientists assure him that his personality perceives time at the same rate as a real human mind.  Still, all that transpires shipboard is his to visit, all time stopped everywhere, all places available for him to toy with, to travel among, but he follows a linear track in space and time as best as he is able to not jar his human personality.  It is only through the greatest effort of will (and that is also false for it is algorithm and not will at all) that he is able to perceive all events not simultaneously in the present.

Thankfully, he does not dwell overmuch on the facts of his own existence because he isn't permitted to.  He cannot become chronically depressed or suicidal.  He is not Hemingway.  He is a human-pattern program with a limited degree of self-awareness.

When Papa, invisible, walks into Fang's cabin, and she and Fisher have been making love after a sweaty bout in the ring, he does not leave.  He staggers, as if he had legs that could be weakened by jealousy, then flares, as if he had a real personality that could be incited to active rage and the deep depression of the abyss that could pull the trigger of a shotgun pointed at his brains.  He can do nothing but watch until the physical act denied to him runs to completion.

What he usually thinks is this:  why did they not provide me with the capability to smell?  He has olfactory sensors throughout the ship, but they are keyed to certain hazardous materials only, and he believes he misses terribly that sweet, musky odor of a delicious woman in heat.

So he listens to Fang's cry and watches her lean muscles clench around Fisher's head and longs for something he is not permitted.

Later, after Fisher has left and before Fang has donned her uniform and joined her fighting chair on the bridge of the Karamojo, Papa gives Fang his ear as he has done so many times.

"I've let him in here," she says, tapping her chest, "let him see me not as a captain, but as a woman."

"You need a human presence, daughter, a human touch, to remind you of your soul," he assures her.  He wants to say that all she needs is her Papa.  He never does.

"I want more," she says.  "I want someone to understand, someone not guaranteed to accept."

Her words sting.  He says nothing, granting supportive listening, obeying his restrictions.

"I want to tell him secrets that only you and I know."

"What are you afraid of, daughter?" he says, hating the program she has unwittingly engaged, forcing him into playing the role of intuition, of conscience, of psychiatrist.

"Rejection, of course.  The worst would be dismissal, to be ignored because I was not important.  What have I done but haul cattle?  He's been on the edge, daring the unknown, swallowed by inhuman monsters floating in the deep, deep seas of gas giants.  He's looked into the abyss."

"You, too, have faced the abyss," he reminds her.  She has shared the pivotal events of her life with Papa, and his programming exploits this knowledge.

"I was only eight."  Fang licks her lips unconsciously.  The same lips, with their funny shape that her grandfather ironically had described as bat-shaped, and hence lucky.  "I would rather not talk of it now."

Fang nibbles at her lower lip.

Stymied, Papa must change tactics.

"Was that when you decided to leave your home world for the stars?"  Papa curses inwardly at his banal, leading question.  He would show empathy rather than continue probing, but the program is triggered.  "Is that when you decided such a thing would never happen to you again?"

"It will not," Fang says, lips pressed into a thin, sharp line, the lucky bat-shaped curves flattened.  "I am a starship captain, and that means something.  I am responsible.  Now and forever."

There is truth in what she says.  He is Papa and he is the ship, now the Karamojo.  He is the ship's breath, the ship's power, the ship's mind.

But Fang can overrule him at him any time on all except for issues of immediate safety.

Papa tells Fang, on this occasion as he has many times, "Now and forever, you are in control.  You are responsible.  You will not fail."

After she has fallen asleep, another state denied him, the ghost that is Papa leaves to stalk the same endless corridors again.  A mind does not need to sleep to dream.

Fisher awakened early, too hot to sleep comfortably in Lena's quarters, as usual, despite the fact that he had altered his metabolism to more closely match hers.  Fisher lay awake spread-eagled in the darkness staring at the invisible mosaic on the ceiling, thinking about new approaches to take to study the star dragon.  Unstructured time, he had come to appreciate recently, was a good way to solve problems.  He didn't resent his sleeplessness.

So he was awake when Lena started gasping, then moaning.  He was reaching out to her when she said, "No, Grandfather, no!"  She jerked away at his touch and kicked the covers at him, breathing fast and shallow.  Her big black eyes glinted faintly in the dim light.

"It's all right," he said soothingly, "Just a nightmare.  That's all."

She gulped, swallowed, in the dark.  "Yes," she said finally.  "A nightmare."

"Want to talk about it?"

"No," she said too quickly.  "But you can hold me."

"Come here," he said, pulling her into the crook of his arm.  She was warm, stifling even, against his sweaty skin.  He held her close.

He thought she would say something after a time, but she seemed content to huddle with him.  He lifted his arm to cradle Lena's head, letting his fingers idly twist locks of her hair.  Her hair was short and fine, and unwound nearly as swiftly as he wound it up.  "Why don't you let your hair grow out?" he mused.

"No," she said.  "I mean, I like it short."

Short, fair, all on the surface.  In control.  Nothing hidden or mysterious.  Not very dragon-like at all.  "I think it might be a good look for you.  Why not try it?"

"No!"  She sat up from him.  "I don't want to."

"Look, I'm sorry.  I didn't realize you were touchy about it."  But he was irritated.  Hair was such a small thing, a triviality, and she would not indulge him one iota.  This made him begin to worry about the course developing in the dragon meetings.  If Lena would not compromise with her hair, what were the chances she would compromise on more important issues?  He shook the thought away.  She was probably just being contrary because of her bad dream.  Maybe he should find out about that.  "Tell me about your nightmare, Lena."

"The deep," she whispered.  "Something coming up for me, a monster of some kind.  It was a child's dream.  It was nothing."

"You mentioned your grandfather," he gently prodded.

She was silent so long he wondered if she had heard him.  Just before he was about to repeat his statement she said, "I don't remember.  I'm awake now.  Make it morning, Papa."

And beyond the doors the sun began to rise over the ocean.  Lena rose faster and was into the bathroom at once.

Fisher lay back onto the soft bed and stared at the now blue mosaic.  The octopus's tentacles twisted around the water, grasping nothing despite the visibility.  He had tried.  But they just weren't going to be that way it seemed.  Not yet.  Maybe not ever.  Because he had hoped so, he hurt.

#

Fisher wished that the tabletree were not rooted to the floor so he could push it into Fang and perhaps shut her up, but she just went on and on.

"...and maintaining our altitude above the disk without wormdrive, we'll be expending our fuel supply.  It isn't unlimited.  We can replenish it only very slowly with the high temperatures and low densities above the disk.  Adding to that, the time to next outburst will limit our visit duration.  We simply must make all haste to secure a dragon once we reach SS Cygni."

"And so?" Fisher prompted.

"It is clear that using our missiles as soon as possible is the most effective means to secure a dragon, dead or alive," Fang stated unequivocally.  "It is the best course."

She was outrageous!  Every week the dragon meeting had eventually worked around to Fang's persistent desire to fire her weapons.  She was nothing more than a livestock hauler, a modern cowboy at best, a glorified button pusher at worst.  She sat there, so smug in her perfect white uniform playing as if she were a military commander.  This was science, not war.  Give her a weapon arsenal that would be the envy of a small colony, and suddenly she was power mad:  Fire the missiles!  Fire the missiles!

Why couldn't she be more like she was in her cabin?

"That may not be necessary," Devereaux interjected.  "Certainly we can spend a few days investigating, gathering data, before making that decision.  I've been making progress determining dragon numbers and location, but the uncertainties are still large.  The outburst timescale does vary, and we can adjust our arrival time to give us a long visit between outbursts."

"We fire at a dragon as a last resort," Fisher said.  "To fire immediately would be like...like a premature ejaculation!"

"Please, can we keep the discussion out of the gutter?" Stearn asked.

Everyone stopped and looked at the Jack.

Devereaux smiled knowingly and Henderson scowled.

Fisher, also unsmiling, turned back to Fang and met her icy gaze.  "I apologize."

"Sylvia," Fang asked.  "Is it true that the SS Cygni disk is experiencing an increased mass transfer rate compared to historical norms?"

"Yes, but we really need more data.  The time dilation works both ways and -- "

Fang continued.  "The dwarf novae outbursts are more powerful and more frequent, aren't they?"

"It seems so, but -- "

"So our timetable should be accelerated.  I am merely proposing the most logical way of doing that.  This is quite reasonable."  Fang smiled and spread her hands apart, palms upturned.  "We can always try to capture a live specimen afterwards, if it seems appropriate."

Fisher shook his head.  "I've almost got the beast's bioelectric field nailed.  With modifications to the shuttles we ought to be able to herd a dragon right into the Karamojo.  Surely we should go for that first."

"You still have time to convince me," Fang said, eyebrows arched high, "I am the captain, and I will make the final decision.  I am responsible for this ship, this mission, and I won't take unnecessary risks."

"How about this," Devereaux offered.  "We send a prospector ahead.  We have several on our manifest, and we can get some advance data, a few days worth at least.  Then we can make an informed decision without spending the extra resources."

Fang considered it and finally said, "That would be agreeable."

Fisher nodded and said nothing.  What he thought was this:  Why must you be like this when you're playing Captain?  Why must you have a trophy?  I won't have you killing my dragon.

#

Devereaux walked into the observation blister.  There were no artificial lights, but her robed form cast a shadow up from the transparent diamond floor as she cleared the entranceway.  The light came from the Doppler-boosted and blueshifted long-wavelength radiation in the Galactic plane toward SS Cygni, including blueshifted cosmic microwave background: a tight knot of points amidst a diffuse glow.  Elsewhere through the diamond the sky showed pure jet black, the stars erased by their velocity, except for directly aft, above her head, where the sun was still visible, its X-ray corona redshifted to optical wavelengths and amplified by the shape and gain of the blister.

Only their origin and their destination remained part of the visible universe.

A few more weeks and they would collapse the singularity pair, then reignite them in reverse, and begin to decelerate.  Earth was mere months in the past now, but already irreversibly half a millennia gone.  This step felt right to her.  It was time to start her march toward the end of time and see the marvels along the way.

Devereaux loosened her robe, discarded it, and stretched out on the floor, her head in a bubble in the blister designed for just such viewing.  The diamond felt cool against her smooth tummy and breasts.  The universe rushed at her at essentially lightspeed, but it really didn't appear much more interesting than a tight knot of lights, a very bright star cluster.  There was no sensation of speed.

Finally bored, Devereaux asked Papa to project a console off the bubble so she could work on the data and maybe get some more reliable estimates on the dragon density.  The disk was big, and finding a dragon would not be easy.  If they flew close enough for the best resolution, still limited by diffraction to a few tenths of an arcsecond at optical wavelengths, they would only be able to see a small part of the disk.  Flying higher with a larger field of view, dragons would blend into the turbulent plasma.

She had to admit that given only a week to work with, assuming a single visit between outbursts, Fang's violent ideas made some sense.  The shockwave from a nuclear explosion would not only stun dragons at some distance (she had to believe they were stunnable), but it would also clear away swaths from the rarefied disk leaving holes like pepperoni on pizza.  She smiled and got down to work.

With red and green vectors spiraling before her, models of dragon distributions through the disk based on spectral analyses of the green -- now blueshifted into the X-ray -- emission-line profile, she heard someone's slippered feet padding along the hallway behind her.  She dimmed her console.  "Phil?"

The footsteps stopped.  After a minute came a voice.  "Henderson."

Devereaux considered grabbing her robe, but she was too relaxed where she was.

"Mind if I join you, madam?" he asked.

She said, "Not at all.  The universe is big enough to share, but just barely at the moment."

He kneeled onto the diamond and laid at her side.  "Yes, I see.  I've never been on a trip this fast.  What's our beta?"

Beta was the fraction of light speed.  "Very close to one.  Gamma, the relativistic factor, is more useful in our case.  I don't know the exact number, but it is something over a thousand."

Henderson let go a long, low whistle.

Devereaux had never actually known anyone who did that outside of a stimshow.  It took too much forethought to whistle in such a manner, at least without a bodmod, to make it a spontaneous sound of awe.  "Don't be so impressed.  We're a big ship on a long trip, and Biolathe doesn't want to wait forever for a return on their investment.  I understand there are some political and military craft that make us look slow."

They lay together in the darkness for a time, looking at the small universe.  Devereaux was getting bored again, and was about ready to go to her cabin so she could get some work done, when Henderson asked, "So how is he?"

She decided to be obtuse; they didn't know each other well enough to pretend intimacy.  "Who?"

"The Jack."

"Phil is fine."

"I mean, he pulled a fast one on me."  She could hear the self-deprecating but insincere smile in his words, reminding her of his premeditated whistle.  "The captain obviously had eyes for Fisher since day one, but you, you struck me as someone looking for something a bit more sophisticated than a trendy boy."

"He's more complex than you give him credit for.  And sweet and thoughtful beats sophisticated every time with me."  Where was he going?  Was this a round-about way of building up to a pass?

He forced a laugh.  "I would not underestimate sophistication.  Sex is in the mind, for the most part.  Would you not agree?"

Of course she agreed.  She gave him a grudging, "Uh huh.  I suppose."  Time to head things off if he were thinking of making a pass.  There was a long way yet to go on this trip, and the prevention of something ugly here could be priceless.  "But I've heard things about you biosystems guys.  Saw a few research surveys.  The 'career choice for the arrested adolescent' was how I think they put it, more interested in playing with mindless toys than real people."

There was an awkward silence.  The survey she had read, and laughed over with Phil when he had pointed it out to her, had concerned sexual preferences on a profession by profession basis.

Finally Henderson found his voice and his words rushed out too fast.  "Mindless isn't attractive, not in the long term.  While humankind evolved certain mental organs that find physical health sexually attractive, those same mental organs select for intelligent mates that can raise successful children.  Whether we want children or not.  Try as we might, those mental organs are very difficult to excise from the human mind."

"Your point?"

"I might be a little tired of toys," he said with a small, bitter laugh.

Devereaux shivered, suddenly cold.  The survey had apparently held at least some nugget of truth.  "Why are you telling me this now?"

His voice floated through the darkness, sounding ancient and distant.  "Because even the self-involved, and I understand that is what I am, get lonely.  Of the four other people that my external universe has shrunk to, you're the only one I want to talk with.  Fisher and Fang are wrapped up in each other and their own little self-destructive obsessions, and regarding Stearn, frankly I value his sweetness and thoughtfulness not at all."

"Why don't you try it sometime?"

"Please.  Let us not get petty."

More footsteps in the hallway.  The ruffle of feathers.  Phil!

Henderson rose.  "I dislike crowds in which I am in the minority.  Good day, madam."

Devereaux was silent as Henderson left.  It could have been him this trip, she admitted.  If Stearn hadn't been interested her, or hadn't been on the trip, or had been a woman, she could have had a relationship with Henderson.  A relationship doomed to fail, she was sure.

When Stearn arrived a moment later she whispered to him, "Just hold me, Phil, and don't say anything flip."

She was grateful when he did as she requested without frivolity.  The boy was learning, thankfully, because she really wanted a man just then.

 

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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