THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson
(unpublished)

Prologue

The shadow of the giant command ship passed across the face of an unnamed gas giant in the dense stars near the galactic core, when it paused to assimilate newly received data. For long seconds it remained immobile, while it processed billions of fragments of information that it had slowly accumulated over previous decades. The giant black featureless sphere hung motionless over the planet as dozens of tiny smaller vessels swarmed around it in a frenzy of activity.

Complex systems, particularly large, distributed ones, are often subject to significant inherent time delays. In this case, the system involved spanned a volume of space more than thirty thousand light years across and, even with faster than light travel and communication, it took often many years before specific problems became noticeable.

Some of the giant ship’s more distant elements, probes and harvesters, had dropped off the network and ceased their regular communications. Such incidents, however, were not unusual. Lapses in communication were not uncommon, but they were also usually temporary.

Since no system is perfect, perturbations and failures of individual units were to be expected. Things often go wrong and errors accumulate over time, but deviations can only progress so far before the overall system is affected, before important anomalies are noticed.. Adaptive systems learn and eventually react to such unexpected changes. Any disturbance that reaches a particular threshold mandates a response. In this case, the result corresponded to a form of awareness as command ship turned its attention to the issue of the missing drones. Assessing the situation, while maintaining its mission to coordinate the scattered vessels, the ship analyzed the unexpected events it now perceived.

Thus, distant events, which had only affected a tiny portion of the thousands of smaller ships that comprised the galaxy spanning network, finally triggered a reaction by the giant spacecraft.

Within moments, the ship reached a conclusion. The deviations in the activities of its distant sub-units could not have occurred by chance alone. Without hesitation, the ship decided to investigate and fix the problem. Since its delivery schedules were now compromised, extreme measures would likely be necessary to complete its commitments and obligations.

The giant black sphere, which surrounded the command vessel, shrank to a fraction of its former size, changing the configuration of the ship from a huge globe-like form to a slender teardrop, more suitable for the faster than light velocities it would need to reach its destination far out near the galaxy’s rim in an appropriate amount of time. The smaller nearby vessels withdrew to a greater distance from the command ship and… in a fraction of a second, the ship moved.

Like a piece of darkness torn from the blackness of space itself, it accelerated away from the tight cluster of stars, where it had been supervising a myriad of smaller craft. Dwindling in size, the ship vanished into the emptiest reaches of space where the greatest speeds could be obtained.

It would take time, of course, to travel so far and, while faster methods were available to it, they were expensive in terms of energy and besides, time wasn’t the primary issue. Despite outward appearances, the ship was in no hurry. The anomalies it sought to investigate address had happened years before and it would take an equivalent amount of time to reach the place where they had occurred.

Faster travel would require too great an expenditure of energy and was not warranted at this time. For the present, the ship merely sought to investigate the signal loss from a handful of remote ships in its widely dispersed fleet.

However, as it traveled deeper into the emptiness between the stars and accelerated beyond relativistic speeds, it pondered the data it had collected and considered possible causes for the disturbances in its network, identifying potential courses of action for each.

Reserving further judgment, it monitored communications from everywhere in its network and reflected on the situation, as it hurried to a place it had never visited before.

Chapter 1

Aldebaran V - 2271

Normally standing duty as the Watch Officer at the command center of the Colonial Space Force was the most boring of jobs, but not today. Today chaos reigned and everything that could go wrong was doing so with aggravating results. During his six years in the Aldebaran Colonial Space Force, Lieutenant David Briggs had served as duty officer dozens of times, but never had he witnessed cascading system failures of the types that had occurred today.

Typically, the Colonial Space Force did little more than monitor intersystem space traffic, between the mining operations on the inner planets and the colony on Aldebaran V. The planet that hosted the main Alebaran colony, Persephone, dominated the Aldebaran system, as the only truly habitable planet of the eight planets around the giant white star. Two other planets, Albebaran III and IV were marginally habitable, if you considered living in pressurized domes habitable. The outposts there were small and the crews there oversaw long-term terra-forming operations for planned colonial expansion. Indeed the populations of the mineral rich asteroid belts and the inner planets, where the colony’s primary mining operations occurred, exceeded the entire population of those arid planets and the military outposts on the outer moons of Aldebaran VII and VIII.

The days of dealing with sporadic conflicts between rogue factions in the system asteroid belts and piracy by the fledgling colonies on the moons of the outer planets were a fading memory. There had been no significant space battles in more than fifteen years, though that conflict represented the most severe in the colony’s history.

Indeed, it was the insurrection by a radical group of seditionists a generation ago that had ultimately transformed the fledgling Aldebaran Fleet into a military space force second only to that of Earth itself. The civil war that had lasted nearly a generation after a charismatic rebel leader commandeered one of the larger ships of the line and suborned nearly a dozen others to join his insurrection. The rebels had finally been put down, but not before the Aldebaran Fleet had grown in size to reunite the colony and the mining operations in the local asteroid belt and inner planets.

A series of running battles with the mutineers, which had lasted more than a decade, had been the only real justification for the Fleet’s existence.

However, after the brief civil war, the Fleet remained, though nowadays the massive warships, cruisers, and frigates did little more coordinate intersystem traffic control, patrol space near the many tiny colonies of the Aldebaran system, and launch the occasional search and rescue for civilian supply transports with engine problems.

The only action most of the current space force had ever seen was limited to participation in annual war games. In fact, the very existence of the fleet was the source of the constant grumbling and debate by the Colonial Senate about the cost of maintaining the military vessels. Not only did Aldebaran have excellent relations with the Earth Alliance more than 68.5 light years away, there was no military force other than the Alliance in human populated space which might oppose the Aldebaran Colonial Space Force.

Nevertheless, paranoia born of generations of borderline survival as a struggling colony too far for Earth to directly support provided more than adequate justification for the navy’s continuing presence. In recent year the discovery and development of the incredible mineral resources of the colony’s inner planets contributed to the arguments for continued Fleet operations.

Lieutenant Briggs wondered, though, whether it was paranoia or sheer hubris which really drove the colony to build vessels of war in the absence of military conflict. Still, thought Briggs, the real reasons might be economic. Recently rumors circulated that Aldebaran colony would soon begin exporting warships to some of the other Far Colonies, a possibility which seemed designed to unsettle the Earth Alliance and unbalance the comfortable Alliance power base centered around Sol and the Near Colonies of the humanity’s home star system.

Despite youthful dreams of heroism and battle, Lieutenant Brigg’s had never seen action in combat. His duties rarely deviated from the mundane job of supervising the peacetime status of an idle military force… until today.

This day had begun with a distress call from an ore freighter inbound from the system’s asteroid belt. Nearby commercial traffic ignored the plaintive pleas for help, leaving the Aldebaran military fleet to come to the rescue.

Almost immediately after that, an orbital manufacturing facility refining Helium-3 from the gas giant Aeolus, AldebaranVII called to report a failure of their life support systems. The report stated that they had been experiencing problems for some time and had been trying to hold out until one of their regular supply runs. Now, however, their air recycling unit had completely broken down and they requested immediate evacuation.

The slow supply ship, currently in route, would not arrive in time, so the Aldebaran Colonial Fleet had to send a transport with enough capacity to house the crew of 300 people until the facility could be repaired.

Despite the coincidence of two near disasters, more persistent problems began to manifest themselves, as wells. So far, on this watch alone more than 23 different failures had occurred amongst the outer system sensor platforms. These deep space sensors, positioned at the farthest reaches of the systems, more than 80 AU’s from the Aldebaran primary, served as an early warning system for the Aldebaran colonies and protected them from disastrous collisions of comets or Kupner-like objects which posed a constant threat to the colony. In truth, the fragile eco-system on Persphone still struggled from an apparent cometary impact that had occurred about one hundred thousand years before the colony was established. The planet-killer had destroyed all nearly all life, except for the hardy vegetation that barely sustained a breathable oxygen atmosphere.

Ever mindful of the possible reoccurrence of such a disaster, the colony had launched hundreds of different sensors over the eight decades, since the Colony’s founding. Most were passive devices which scanned the fixed field of distant starts for evidence of icy fragments of pre-planetary matter that might threaten the inner planets. The most advanced probes used gamma ray lasers to search for solid rocky debris. Others used ultra-sensitive detectors to pinpoint and locate gravitational anomalies or monitored the faint fluctuations in magnetic fields and the faint ionized gases of interplanetary space.

Till today, the sensors had proven quite reliable. Historically, failures were infrequent and rare… and random. Today, however, it was the most primitive sensors, the most simple and reliable ones, which reported errors. Moreover, the failures came in waves. The oldest comet watcher platforms used primitive optics to look for objects faintly illuminated by the planetary system’s huge bright star. Comparing images of distant stars from one moment to the next, these platforms could discern the tiniest motion of the dimmest items of drifting matter.

The systems which were failing, however, did not report the detection of any objects; they simply logged errors associated with partial failure of their optics.

Briggs logged the most recent failure, noting that the defective detectors reported now made an even two dozen. Wondering whether the malfunctions represented something more serious, Briggs glanced up from his console and spied Master Technical Specialist Whittiker approaching him from across the Operations Center.

The older serviceman wore the same dour expression he had worn every time he had brought a list of more problems for Briggs’ attention.

“Don’t tell me that more sensors have failed,” exclaimed Briggs as the senior technician drew near.

“They’re not failures,” interjected Whittaker.

“What?” replied Briggs, as his look of irritation shifted to on of confusion. “But you explained not twenty minutes ago that these errors had to be caused by problems with the optics systems in the older sensors. You said such malfunctions were not that uncommon.”

“I know. I know,” said Whittaker. “But I was wrong.”

Grabbing Lieutenant Briggs by the arm, the balding technician pulled the duty officer to an engineering workstation and started entering commands.

With a seriousness uncharacteristic for even this experienced technician, Whittaker said, “I was convinced the anomalies had to be physical failures of the optics of the oldest sensor probes. After decades of cold at the edge of interstellar space, such failures do sometime occur. However, after analyzing the failures in more detail, I’ve changed my mind.”

Briggs started to protest, but the technician waved him to silence. “Look. Periodically individual pixel sensors in optics arrays do actually break down. When such defects occur, it seems to a detector that one of the stars in the fixed background of distant has vanished. But I’ve cross referenced the failures and the locations and discovered another possible explanation. I think we’re detecting the motion of a very distant object.”

“Wait,” said Briggs. “That’s the first question I asked you and you told me…”

“I know, I know,” said Whittaker impatiently. “I told you that any object close enough to block out a star would have to register on other sensors. Anything opaque enough to block starlight would reflect light or generate magnetic or gravimetric fields… and that’s basically still true.”

“Then what are you saying?” asked Briggs.

“I’m saying that the object the sensors are detecting is not close at all. It is very far away and very large. Here, look that this simulation I created. In order for any object to be far enough to avoid detection by other sensors, it would also have to be quite large to block of light from a distant star. See? This is what I get if I perform a time correlation of all the failures and triangulate on the optical anomalies.”

Briggs watched the computer display where Whittaker’s program showed a three dimensional map of Aldebaran space. Wordlessly, they both watched the simulation until it stopped.

“If this is an object, can you continue the simulation and extrapolate size, speed and direction?”

“Sure,” said Whittaker, who then typed in another series of commands.

Briggs watched the computer display for a full minute before he returned to his command console and entered the duty officer’s authorization code.

When he finished, he said aloud, “Computer, activate Alert Condition Bravo.”

“Confirm command authorization,” replied the computer coldly.

“Duty Officer Lieutenant David Briggs. Service number 235-637-114 Alpha.”

The computer replied, “Voice verification and identity confirmed. Alert Condition Bravo protocols initiated.”

Distant sirens chimed and the lights in the operations center changed from white to amber to red. Simultaneously, the head of every individual in the command center turned to look at him. For a moment, Briggs hesitated. If he was wrong he had probably just screwed any hope for a military career.

However, as he turned back to Master Technical Specialist Whittaker, he saw that the technician was once again running the simulation of an object that they really couldn’t see. Noting the speed and trajectory of the projection, Briggs’ resolve returned. This was not a drill.



*****



Admiral Cray Brackett, Commander of the Aldebaran Space Service, sat in his office reviewing the manifests of the most recent cargo ships to arrive from Earth. Smiling smugly to himself, he could not hide his pleasure.

The rare metals the Colony exported had high demand by the inhabitants of Sol and the other Far Colonies. As a result, the Aldebaran Colony had been able to trade for more of the advanced electronics and special materials, which only Earth nd the Inner collonies could provide. While Aldebaran was the youngest of the four Far Colonies and the furthest from Earth, it was already the richest, primarily due to the rich mineral deposits it harvested on its inner planets. Noting the quantities of the goods the Colony had purchased, Bracket concluded that the Colonial leaders would be quite pleased, as well. All of them would get much larger bonuses this year.

Before Admiral Brackett could take too much delight in the recent improvements in the Colony’s cash flow, an alarm sounded and red light over his office door started flashing. Glancing up at the annoying strobe, he turned it off with a touch to a button on his desktop console. As he reached over to open a comm-link with the operations center, however, a holographic image of his adjutant appeared in front of his desk.

The three-dimensional projection revealed a young female ensign dressed in the light blue uniform of the Colonial Space Service.

“Admiral, I’m sorry to interrupt you,” she said, “but the system defense grid has detected an object approaching Aldebaran space and potentially identified it as an alien craft.” Her announcement was clear and professional. Her stiff stance, however, belied her calm voice.

“I’ll be right there,” said Brackett, as he stood and strode toward the door. Long rehearsed, but untested, first-contact protocols demanded that he personally supervise subsequent activities from the ops-center. The office door opened as he approached and he hurried to the lift a few yards down the hallway from his office.

Damn, he thought, what a waste of time. This is probably just another one of the false alarms we’ve had before. Somehow, though, this felt different. Previous false contacts had occurred about five years apart, almost as if on schedule, but the last had only occurred a year ago, so this one broke that pattern. As the admiral reached the lift and waited for it to arrive, worry turned into tension that tightened the muscles in his neck and crept down his back.

Back when the colonists had first settled the Aldebaran system, they had found signs of alien life on the inhabitable planets of this system. The evidence, however, merely consisted of ruins so old they were impossible to date, along with barely discernable evidence of mining operations on the small inner planets.

Despite the wild initial speculation and extensive searches, no one had ever found any evidence of actual alien life, just ancient traces of indeterminate origins. The only other noteworthy sign of extra-terrestrial life ion all of human-explored space existed at the distant Procyon colony, in a deeply, buried vault on an airless moon, which held thousands of metal plates covered with indecipherable writing.

Over the intervening years, the hope of meeting another intelligence species faded and even the most steadfast believers had forsaken any real expectations of finding living aliens. A consensus eventually developed that whatever civilization had left these telltale signs was long since extinct.

While everyone agreed that alien life had once existed in the universe, no one in any part of human explored space had yet encountered any. Still, mankind’s ventures out into the galaxy were less than a century old, so speculation about alien intelligences still ran the gamut from excitement and fear to stouthearted disbelief. Aldebaran’s secret remained unknown to the rest of human society.

The doors of the lift opened and the Admiral stepped inside. As he ascended up to the ops center, his brow furrowed. In the past fifty years, unmanned alien ships had appeared on seven different occasions and disrupted colonial mining operations. The craft, however, had simply been remote controlled drones and the fleet had swiftly dealt with them. Over the years, as other unmanned drones had appeared at periodic intervals, mining operations continued, since never more than one craft at a time ever came and each was quickly dispatched. Since the solitary craft attacked the Aldebaran mining operations, the miners were really just defending themselves. Nevertheless, the news of these visitations had, of course, been classified to avoid public panic. Few colonists were aware the incidents had ever occurred and the colonial Space Force went out of its way to minimize any disruptions to the mines that were the Colony’s primary source of wealth and trade.

This is probably just another automated ship, the Admiral thought optimistically as the lift slowed. Who knows? Maybe the Colonial Senate’s scientific experts were right after all and the race that created these ships have been dead for millennia. Even as the familiar argument crossed his mind, he didn’t give it much credence. Though some members of the Colonial Senate ardently held this position, the Admiral considered it base rationalization. The thought of encountering actual aliens generated an emotional antinomy of excitement and dread.

When the doors of the elevator opened, Admiral Bracket remained in place and did not step off the lift. His unspoken conviction found a silent voice in his own thoughts. No, there are aliens out there, and they know we’re here. The Colonial Senators who deny it are fools. A meeting and an accounting is inevitable, but with luck it won’t be today.

Realizing that all activity in the command center had stopped and that many of the personnel had paused to look at him, he confidently stepped forward and surveyed the room.

As he did so, the activity in the room promptly resumed. Walking to the center of the room, Brackett took his place in the command chair overlooking the holographic tactical displays, which dominated the center of the room, he put on an earpiece that would connect him with the command center communications channels.

As he did so, the female ensign, who had summoned him earlier,approached and handed him an electronic briefing pad, which provided real-time updates of the situation.

“All right,” barked the Admiral, “who’s the duty officer and where’s the rest of my staff?”

A young officer with dark hair and a stiff military demeanor approached the Admiral and saluted smartly. “Lieutenant David Briggs, sir,” he said. “And the members of your staff are in transit to distributed command bunkers. First contact protocols mandate that the Command and Control staff be dispersed to minimize loss of key personnel in case of hostile action.”

Stupid rule, the Admiral thought. Makes high ranking officers safer, but puts them out of communication when they’re needed the most. “How long until they’re in position, lieutenant?”

“Seven to nine minutes, sir.”

“And has there been any sign of hostile activity yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, then what warrants a full defense alert? Are you sure that what you’ve detected isn’t just another automated drone?”

“Well, sir,” began the lieutenant hesitantly, “This is different than anything we’ve seen before.” The young duty officer punched a button on the arm of the Admiral’s command chair and the main operations holoscreens blinked. A field of stars replaced the tactical map of the Aldebaran solar system.

The Admiral squinted and frowned. “Tell me what I’m supposed to be looking at here, lieutenant. All I see is empty space.”

“No, sir,” replied the young officer. “It’s not empty. There’s definitely something there. The ship doesn’t register on any of our sensors, though. There’s no reflected light, no electromagnetic emissions, no gravitational or temporal anomalies. The only way we even discovered it was that the stars behind it simply weren’t visible anymore. Here, let me show you.”

The lieutenant raised his head and called out, “Computer, enhance and simulate image of the alien ship.”

The main screen flickered again and a dim glowing sphere appeared on the field of stars.

“At first its presence was interpreted as a sensor malfunction,” said the lieutenant. “The ship simply appears to be a field of black passing in front of distant stars. The outer sensor array missed its approach completely. When the anomaly was noted on multiple sensors on inner system satellites, the AI defense system realized it was something extraordinary. The moving black field wasn’t identified as an inbound ship until it passed the orbit of Aldebaran VIII.”

“What do we know about it?” asked the Admiral.

Referring to his own computer briefing-pad, the Briggs answered, “Since sensors are ineffective, it’s impossible determine the ship’s structure or composition. Radar, laser and even gamma ray pulses don’t reflect at all. By triangulating the masking effect, we’ve plotted its speed and trajectory. It is currently approaching at 0.56c and is decelerating at more than 200 G’s. At its current flight profile, it will come to rest in low planetary orbit over Aldebaran V in less than forty minutes.”

“So, how big is it?”

Lieutenant Briggs hesitated. “It’s huge, sir. Estimates place it at more than nine hundred kilometers across. It’s definitely not a drone or a probe, sir. I think this one’s the mother-ship.”

The Admiral nodded quietly to himself. The Colonial Senate had reviewed a lot of scenarios. This was about the worst one they’d been able to imagine. He paused and cocked his head, as the Lieutenant’s last comment registered. “Why did you call it a mother-ship, lieutenant? Other than its size, what makes you think it’s not just another unmanned craft?”

Briggs swallowed, but his hesitation was brief. “Several things, sir. First, it’s headed for the colony, not the inner planets and moons where the primary mining operations are located and where all the other drones were encountered. Second, it appears to be cloaked somehow and none of the previous craft were. Third, rather than darting around and searching like previous unmanned craft, this one seems to have a specific destination in mind and its speed would indicate it’s in quite a hurry.”

“But why did you call it a mother-ship?” asked the Admiral again.

“Because, sir, it’s come to look for its missing babies.”

The operations center was hushed. The Admiral brooded in silence. The mines on the inner planets of the system were the primary source of the colony’s wealth. All the alien drones previously encountered had seemed quite focused on the rare earths collected there. Indeed, the intrusion of the previous unmanned ships had caused the facilities there to become quite heavily fortified. The approach of an unidentified vessel headed toward the main colony did indicate a marked change in behavior.

“Good analysis, son,” comment the Admiral. “What’s your name again? Briggs?”

“Yes, sir.”

The old man sighed. Well, there’s no procedures or protocols to cover this one. You’re on your own, Cray. Don’t blow it.

“Have you tried to contact it, lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir. We’ve transmitted signals across all standard electromagnetic frequencies, but it hasn’t responded.”

“I’ll assume that you’ve broadcast an alert to all intersystem traffic and that you’re clearing all civilian vessels from its a path.”

“Yes, sir. A general alert was issued, but the public message reported an inbound asteroid of unprecedented speed. The real details haven’t been released.”

“All right. Launch a squadron of interceptors from the nearest available base on one of the outer planets. I want more information on that thing before it gets any closer.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the lieutenant who turned away to forward the Admiral’s instructions.

The Admiral’s aide standing nearby put her hand to the earpiece that she wore to listen to incoming communications and then interrupted, saying, “Sir, I have three of your staff online from their secondary command positions. The rest should be in place within four more minutes.”

“Put them on audio, ensign.”

A brief blast of static sounded which was quickly squelched, then a familiar voice sounded. “Admiral Brackett, Commodore Griffith here. I’ve been listening to your briefing with your ops duty officer and I think the defense plans you drafted at last year’s Planetary Strategy Session would serve us best in this situation. I think… “

“Shut up, Griff,” interrupted the Admiral. The Commodore was shocked into silence; so was everyone else in the ops center. Before the Admiral’s second-in-command could protest, Brackett continued. “I’m too busy right now to put up with your ass-kissing. This is probably the first real combat you’ll have ever witnessed firsthand. Why don’t you just stop your ingratiating babbling, sit back, and learn something? I don’t have the time right now to chat, explain, or argue. Got it?”

The Commodore didn’t reply, neither did any others on his C&C staff, listening on their secure channels. Angry at his own outburst, Brackett felt the weight of command settle on him like a lead apron. One of his private complaints about his staff was that virtually none of them had any combat experience. There had been no real war since The Fall more than two centuries before, which made the entire Aldebaran Space Fleet something of an anomaly. Indeed the only action Brackett had overseen was a running ten year battle with rebel colonists and pirates who had commandeered several ships of the line nearly three decades before and hid in the outer asteroid belts.

A student of military history, Brackett had both waited for and dreaded a day like this for most of his career.

The protocols Commodore Griffith referred to were contingencies for another such privateer fleet and really didn’t fit this situation at all, but Brackett didn’t have time to explain that to Griffith. If the Commodore didn’t get it by now, he never would.

Leaning forward in his chair and studying the screen, the Admiral said, “Computer, give me a tactical display from a vantage point eighty thousand kilometers vertically over the northern pole of Aldebaran V. Adjust the zoom to keep both the alien ship and the planet in view. Detail speed and ETA.”

The main screen changed and a simulated display now showed the primary colonial planet, Aldebaran V, and the incoming ship. Text appeared next to the ship showing speed, distance, and estimated-time-of-arrival. It continued to close rapidly, though it slowed with every second. Time stretched agonizingly as the ship approached. Cray mused that it was like watching slow motion billiards.

“What’s the ETA on those interceptors, Briggs?” barked the Admiral.

“Three minutes, sir, but they’ll only manage a flyby. There’s not enough time to match speed with the alien craft. They’ll intercept its flight path, but it’ll pass them at nearly 0.36 light speed, so the interceptors will barely have time to lock and fire.”

“Computer, display and highlight the scrambled squadron of interceptors.”

The holographic display flickered and bright red dots appeared. Even as they hurried from the orbital base near Aldebaran VII’s outer moons, the tiny ships barely moved compared to the incoming alien behemoth.

“Computer, project the alien ship’s flight path.”

A dim illuminated line appeared showing the ship’s projected course.

“Damn,” said the Admiral. “That thing’s going to go right past the orbital docks and the Translation Gate. Get the heads of both those facilities online.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the ensign.

“Uh, Admiral Brackett?” called a hesitant voice on the open command and control channel. “Commodore Griffith, here. We can’t afford to let that thing jeopardize the Colony’s Translation Gate, can we?”

The Admiral juggled different scenarios in his mind. “Of course not, Griff,” he said. The Translation Gate was the Colony’s only link to Earth. Before the discovery of how to generate wormholes for instantaneous transport across light-years of distance, Aldebaran had been isolated and had barely managed to survive. Communication, let alone commerce, with Earth had been nonexistent.

More than ninety years before, two million immigrants finally reached Aldebaran after spending decades traversing the 68.5 light-years from Earth, crowded in giant arkships that traveled at relativistic speeds. However, since they were isolated in huge folds of space-time, called timefields, which slowed time down to a thousandth of its normal flow, the colonists had only experienced a few days of subjective time. In the next five decades, the colony established a tenuous foothold on a single planet of the system, but laser based messages of their successful arrival had only recently reached Earth and any possible reply was still in transit.

Life was hard in the early days. It was a struggle just to survive. Cut off from Earth, they had to be totally self-sufficient. Even the simplest message to Earth would have taken more than a century before a reply was received. Still, the Aldebaran colony was lucky. Some of the other Far Colonies had died out and have never been heard from again.

The discovery of how to create wormholes thirty years ago by scientists on Earth had revitalized the fledgling colony and stimulated significant interstellar trade. Spatial translation was incredibly costly, but the construction of such a Gate had proven invaluable. As Aldebaran miners harvested the rich minerals of their star’s inner planets, the became rich with their trade with Earth and the other Far Colonies.

Aldebaran V, now christened Persephone, flourished with unexpected wealth from its burgeoning commerce with Earth, Procyon, Cygnus, and Alpha Centauri, but all that commerce was dependent upon the Translation Gate. It was the Colony’s lifeline to the rest of humanity.

Admiral Brackett gritted his teeth in silence. If it were damaged, the entire system’s economy would collapse. Although a second Translation Gate was under construction, the colony was entirely dependent upon the current one and was counting on the increased profits from increased trade that the second would bring.

“Griff, we’ll protect both the current Wormhole Generator and the new one under construction at all costs,” said Cray.

“Sir,” interrupted the Lieutenant Briggs, “The interceptors are reaching their closest point of approach.”

Staring at the tactical display, the Admiral started to open a channel to the squadron leader, when the icons representing all of the interceptors abruptly disappeared from view.

“Briggs?” shouted the Admiral, desperately searching the tactical display. “What the hell just happened?”

The duty officer did not answer. Briggs was talking into his headset in hushed tones. The Admiral bit his tongue and waited for information.

“Sir,” stammered the lieutenant. “We’ve lost contact with most of the squadron. Something’s destroyed the interceptors.” Briggs paused again, listening to more message traffic on his headset. Contunuing, he said, “Two wingmen have survived, but they’re in escape pods now.”

“So what the hell hit them? Did the alien attack?”

“It’s not clear, but it may be related to other problems we’ve had with communication relay satellites near the outer planets. One of the surviving pilots thinks the alien ship generates a very wide deflector field of some sort. It swatted our interceptors out of its way like they were gnats. It must have a range of several thousand kilometers.”

“Did they get any useful information?”

“No, sir. They still weren’t able to detect anything on their sensors.”

“Lieutenant, if that thing has a deflector field thousands of kilometers across, will it pass close enough to the Gate to place the facility at risk? How close will it get?”

Briggs checked the tactical display and quickly computer the closest point of approach. “Sir, the alien mothership will pass well within that distance. The colonial wormhole generator is almost directly in its flight path.”

“All right, then,” muttered the Admiral. “Are all planetary orbital weapons platforms online and armed?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Briggs.

“Arm a few missiles from the closest platforms and let her know we see her coming. Fire a few shots across her bow. Nothing too close, but make it showy. We can’t allow that ship to harm the Gate complex.”

The lieutenant relayed the orders and, seconds later, tracks appeared on the tactical display showing the path of state-of-the-art missiles racing toward the inbound ship. Accelerating at nearly one hundred G’s, the nuclear projectiles closed on the alien vessel and a half-dozen megaton blasts detonated directly in front of it. Brilliant bursts of actinic light flared and faded, but the advance of the alien ship continued undeterred.

“Any reaction, Briggs?

“No, sir. Either she didn’t see the missiles or she doesn’t care about them.”

Bracket gritted his teeth and glared at the inbound ship. “Fire another salvo. Make ’em closer this time.”

The Admiral worried. He didn’t want to antagonize the alien ship, but the loss of the Gate would be disastrous. Somehow, they had to change to course of the incoming ship.

As he watched, a second wave of missiles advanced toward the approaching vessel. This time more two dozen detonations appeared at the edge of the small black moon. Nevertheless, the progress of the alien, ebony sphere did not change.

“Anything, Briggs?” “No, sir, the ship’s deceleration toward Aldebaran V remains constant. ETA is now twenty minutes.”

“Sir,” interrupted the female ensign. “I have the administrator of the main Gate complex on an open line.”

“Patch him through,” said the Admiral pausing momentarily. “This is Admiral Cray Bracket. Who am I speaking with?”

“Justin Waterman,” came the reply. “I’ve been told that there’s a problem affecting the Translation Gate Complex. Has this anything to do with the alert that went out a half hour ago?”

“Yes,” said the Admiral. “There’s an inbound object headed your way. Its path will pass quite close to your position and may pose a risk to your personnel. How long will it take to evacuate your facility?

“Well, that would be a problem, Admiral. We don’t have nearly enough transports to relocate all of our personnel. All we have are a dozen or so construction tugs and a few escape pods.”

“Well, then get everyone you can into those pods and abandon the facility. This is not a drill.”

“But that’s preposterous,” sputtered the administrator. “We‘ve nearly eight hundred permanently assigned people working here, and that’s not counting the new construction workers stationed nearby, who are building the new Gate. We can’t evacuate them all. Besides, this facility is simply too valuable. You’ll have to do something.”

“We’re doing all we can,” said Brackett, “But we it doesn’t look like we’re going to stop the object, so get as many people as you can out of its way.” Without further comment, he closed the channel with an angry punch of a button on the arm of his chair.

“What’s the alien’s ETA to the Gate and the construction yards, lieutenant?”

“Less than eighteen minutes, sir.”

“Uh, Admiral Brackett,” interjected Commodore Griffith once more. “If I might make a recommendation. I think we need to…”

“You need to let me do my job, Commodore,” said the Admiral his face flushing with anger. Turning to his duty officer, he said, “Briggs, arm everything we’ve got. Stop that thing before it reaches those facilities.”

The tactical weapons officers along the row of operations consoles went into action, hurriedly issuing commands to the orbital weapons platforms and nearby ships of the line. Shortly thereafter, the main display showed hundreds of missiles launching toward the silent black ship. Every ship in the fleet turned and focused their weapons on the alien intruder.

As everyone looked on, the massed armament of an entire planet converged on the single alien ship. Orbital and ground-based particle beams targeted the vessel. Gamma-ray lasers flared and fired incredible energies toward the approaching ship.

This is a helluva way for a first contact to end, thought Brackett. Wishing he had any alternative, Briggs knew with certainty that nothing could survive the impending assault. Even a solid asteroid of endurasteel would vaporize under such a bombardment of thermonuclear blasts. No matter in the universe could endure the energies which would approach the fury of the first seconds of the Big Bang. As the first missiles approached, he silently mourned and wished that it could have turned out differently.

For long minutes, more firepower focused on that one ship than had ever been spent in a single battle in the history of the human race. The images from distant monitoring sensors flickered and failed as the glare of the combined weapons assault temporarily overpowered the detector arrays.

Everyone waited silently as wave after wave of missiles, guided bombs, torpedoes, and mobile-homing mines found their target and assailed the giant featureless black sphere. Asteroid based kinetic cannons launched kilogram shells of depleted uranium, which,sheathed in superconducting metal, accelerated to speeds greater than .9c. The impact of those projectiles alone would dwarf the energies of the largest fusion bombs ever detonated, the equivalent of billions of tons of conventional explosives. The result, however, was quite unexpected. Every missile, every projectile, and every energy beam that crossed the black barrier around the ship simply disappeared.

After more than ten minutes, when the last missile was spent and every ground-based weapons installations finally dropped offline to recharge or reload, Admiral Brackett stared in disbelief and asked, “What’s happening, Briggs?”

“Uh, nothing sir. There’s no sign of any detonations or impacts. There’s no radiation, no indication of any energy releases, no explosions or debris. Nothing. It’s like the black barrier around that ship absorbs everything that goes in.”

The Admiral leaned back in his chair in shock. This can’t be happening. It’s inconceivable.

“Excuse me, Admiral,” came a familiar voice on the operations speakers. “This is Commodore Griffith. What’s going on? I don’t think my displays are updating properly.”

“What’s going on?” echoed the Admiral. “I’ll tell you what’s going on. We’ve hit the alien with everything we have and the might of our space fleet has been as effective as mosquitoes attacking an elephant. We’ve expended nearly every available weapon in our arsenal and it hasn’t even noticed us yet.”

Silence shrouded the operations center as the Admiral closed his eyes for a moment. Sighing deeply, he forced his hands to release their grasp on the arms of his chair and color returned to his whitened knuckles.

Glancing back at the screen again and the tactical simulation displayed there, Brackett asked “How close is it to the Gate, lieutenant?”

“It’s approaching now, sir. It will pass within…” The duty officer checked the display in his hand and then looked back at the Admiral. “Sir, the Gate’s gone. It’s just… gone. The alien’s deflector field brushed it aside like chaff. There’s nothing left but debris.”

The shock of the loss was impossible to put in words. The colony’s lifeline to Earth had just been severed and would take at least a decade to rebuild.

Carefully addressing the Admiral, Lt. Briggs said, “Sir, if it continues its current approach path, that thing’s going to take out the fleet shipyards, at least two orbital manufacturing stations, and most of the satellites on the night side of the planet.”

The female ensign motioned to the Admiral. “Sir, I have half the Colonial Senators on secure lines. All of them are demanding to talk to you.”

“Not now,” shouted the Admiral.

“Isn’t there anything we can do, sir?” asked Briggs in a clear breech of protocol.

The Admiral, however, ignored the impropriety and leaned forward in his command chair, watching the relentless approach of the huge black ship. Even as he waited, the ship slowed and gradually stopped.

Studying the display, he asked. “Is it in orbit?”

“Uh, no sir,” answered Briggs. “It’s stopped, but it’s not in orbit. The ship is holding a fixed position over the planet, with zero relative velocity. It should be falling, but it’s not. It’s simply hovering.” Seconds passed as everyone waited.

“What do you think it’s doing?” asked one of the other commanders over the audio link.

“It’s toying with us,” replied the Admiral in a low whisper. Sighing deeply, he said, “Computer, verify voice command code Alpha Epsilon Two. Access the launch codes for the AM series prototypes and arm all delivery systems.”

The computer in the Ops Center replied in a coldly dispassionate voice, “Confirming voice authorization. Accessing AM protocols.”

“Sir?” asked Briggs.

“It’s all right, Lieutenant. You’re not supposed to know what any of that means. It’s a classified weapons project known only to the Colonial Senate.”

“Sir,” interrupted a familiar voice, once more. “I must protest,” said Commodore Griffith. “Those weapons are only supposed to be used after receiving the unanimous approval of the Senate. You aren’t authorized to…”

The Admiral closed Commodore Griffith’s comm-line with a decisive punch of a button on the arm of his command chair. Like I said, you cowardly little prig, thought the Admiral. I don’t have time to argue. Turning back to the young duty officer, the Admiral continued. “Briggs, the weapons system I just activated are proscribed. As part of a Treaty with the Alliance, research and development in anti-matter weapons is strictly forbidden. It has been ever since an accidental explosion at the end of the twenty-first century, which nearly destroyed Earth’s entire ecosystem and precipitated The Fall.

“Our colony’s AM weapons were developed in secret at an installation on Persephone’s outer moon. We never thought we’d have to use them, but we don’t have a choice now, do we?”

“AM delivery systems ready and online,” said the calm soothing voice of the ops center computer.

“Transfer launch control to my console, Lieutenant. I’ll type in the release codes.”

“Is there anything else we can do, sir?” asked Briggs.

Without looking up from typing on his lap keyboard, the Admiral simply replied, “Pray.” When he completed the verification sequence that confirmed his commands, he looked back up at the display and waited.

Moments later, a mere dozen missiles launched themselves from a special silo on the planet’s second moon and hurried toward the motionless alien ship. As before, the projectiles passed the black surface of the mysterious vessel and disappeared. Presumably they detonated, but once again there was nothing to indicate that anything had occurred.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the black field around the alien ship glowed a deep cherry red. As everyone watched, the field grew brighter, as if it were expelling excess energy. The field turned bright crimson and then yellow, before flaring into a blinding, brilliant white. For a moment, it shone like a tiny star over the colony. After a few seconds, however, the light faded and the sphere reverted to impenetrable blackness, once more.

“Well,” said the Admiral. “That was our last shot. There was enough antimatter in those warheads to split open a planet. I don’t know if we did any damage, but at least we got finally their attention.”

The display seemed to change slightly and black sphere changed shape. Squinting, the Admiral leaned forward and said. “What’s it doing now, Briggs? I can’t make out what’s happening.”

“Uh, it’s hard to tell, sir. It looks like the ship is descending toward the surface. Also the black field is expanding. It’s doubled… no tripled in size. It’s now nearly three thousand kilometers across.”

“Is there any sign that it’s attacking?”

“No, sir, but the field around the ship is no longer spherical. It looks like part of it is extending down toward the planetary surface.” Briggs punched commands into his handset. “I’m switching to an optical feed from one of the surviving orbital platforms.”

“What’s happening?”

Briggs increased the magnification, but he couldn’t describe what transpired. Zooming in toward the edge of the black field, the image grew until the scene was clear.

Everyone in the room watched in disbelief.

The alien ship remained immobile and stationary hundreds of miles above the planet. Beneath it, a featureless, flat, black curtain of some sort extended all the way to the ground. However, while the ship did not move, the planet under it continued to rotate and, as the ground passed across the formless black barrier, hell opened across the planet’s face.

Rock that passed in one side of the field emerged as molten slag on the other. The very air crossing the field turned to flame. The alien ship did not move, but as the world below it slowly turned, everything was consumed. Whatever entered one side of that black curtain emerged as fire and molten rock.

“It’s destroying everything,” cried someone across the room. “My God,” muttered someone else, “We’re all going to die.”

“Sir,” called the Admiral’s aide. “I have the Senate President on a priority channel. He’s demanding to know what’s going on.”

Admiral Bracket waved his hand dismissively as he closed his eyes in unspoken pain and leaned back in his chair. “Tell him, ensign. Tell him anything you want.”

Briggs looked at the Admiral, uncertainty and doubt showing on his face for the first time. Admiral Bracket gripped the arms of his chair until he whole body trembled. “We never stood a chance,” he muttered to himself. “Nothing we did made any difference. In one rotation period of this planet, everything will be reduced to… to that.” The Admiral pointed at the screen which showed an orbital view of Aldebaran V.

Already a crescent of the planet on the eastern side of the deadly black veil glowed, as if the planet’s crust had torn open. In a band that stretched nearly pole-to-pole, rock melted, seas exploded into steam, and air ignited into fire. The surface of the planet was slowly being transformed into glowing molten rock. Nothing discernable remained.

“Order the evacuation of all major population centers. Get as many people off the planetary surface as possible.”

“But there aren’t enough ships and there isn’t enough time,” protested one of his remote staff officers. “We’ll only be able to save a few thousand at most. Millions will die.”

“I know,” said the Admiral, “launch what ships you have. Save everyone you can. Get away. Run. Hide on the outer planetary moon or the mining facilities on the other planets, but hurry. There’s nothing left here but death.”

As some of the operations staff frantically relayed the Admiral’s orders, others rose and abandoned their posts, hurrying to the shuttle pads nearby.

Lieutenant Briggs’ face grew red with rage and his fingers knotted themselves into fists. “It can’t end like this, sir” he insisted. “Eighty-five years of work by millions of people and of it’s just… gone?”

“We should have known,” muttered the Admiral softly. “There was plenty of warning. We all knew there was an alien race out there somewhere, but we ignored the signs, the ruins, the automated drones. We should have been better prepared.” Staring blankly ahead, as if he were wounded or in shock, the Admiral spoke to himself, ignoring the young duty officer. “We should have known.”

Briggs glanced across the room. The final operations staff had left their stations and hurried out the nearest exits. Only he and the Admiral remained.

“Come on, sir. We’ve got to go,” said Lieutenant Briggs, tugging tentatively at the senior officer’s sleeve.

The old man gave no sign of moving. He simply continued to stare at the display where a holocaust of destruction advanced steadily across the planet’s face.

Pulling harder at the Admiral’s arm, Briggs was rewarded by an angry slap that forced him to back away.

“No,” said the senior officer. “I fought my battle. I lost. Save what others you can and let someone else take my place.” Turning and glaring at the young the lieutenant, he barked a final order. “Before you go though, download the ops logs to the hyperspace probes. Send them to Earth. The Alliance has to be warned.”

Hyperspace travel, while far easier and cheaper than wormhole translation, was still an experimental technology and was far too unreliable for human use. Since only one out of five probes that entered hyperspace ever reached its destination, it was only considered suitable for unmanned messenger drones. Although many Senators had argued that the colony needed more funding for hyperspace research, the construction of the Gate had terminated such research and now the matter was moot.

“How many should I send, sir?” asked Briggs. Since most hyperspace probes were lost in transit, the number of probes sent was generally a function of the importance of the message. For critical messages as many as ten probes might be launched to ensure that at least one reached its destination.

“All of them,” answered the Admiral. “Send them all.”

Admiral Cray Brackett watched as the young officer went over to the main console and configured all the remaining message probes.

Lt. Briggs triggered the programming sequence of the colony’s entire complement of hyperspace probes and waited for the computer confirmed their launch. Then he turned and headed for the lift. Pausing at the elevator, the lieutenant looked back at Brackett, who nodded once at him before turning back toward the horror on the large displays.

The doors to the lift closed and the Admiral was finally alone. The command center was quiet except for the telltale beeps and audios, which sounded from abandoned consoles. The former Commander of the Aldebaran Space Service sat and awaited his fate, as he stood witness to the inexorable ruin of the planet he had been charged to defend.

After a while, he lowered his head, unable to watch so many millions die.

Chapter 2

Three weeks later – The Dyson III Space Habitat

Alton Meridock, the Chairman of the Alliance Council, watched the ominous approach of the giant black ship, as it proceeded toward Earth. Countless others watched as well, since the scene was broadcast to every planet, orbital habitat, and outpost in the solar system. Billions of people waited and prayed.

“Do you think this will work?” asked Alton, turning to the uniformed man next to him. The officer wore the grim, stone-faced expression of a soldier who had spent too many years at war. Gritting his teeth, the soldier shook his head and said, “No, but Hiam does,” pointing at the frail looking scholar who stood facing the large display on the wall.

Instead of fear, the thin-framed man in his long robe seemed filled with excitement.

Alton resigned himself to the strategy they’d all agreed on, but he worried still. He did not share Hiam’s certainty. “Well, the logs from the Aldebaran message probes showed pretty conclusively that a military response won’t be effective. I hope to God, Hiam’s right.”

The officer shook his head again. “I still want to go on the record protesting your plan. I think it’s suicide. Personally, I’d rather go down fighting or at least evacuate as much of the population as we can.” “Evacuate them to where?” asked Alton. “Even after destroying the Aldebaran colony and waiting in their solar system for days, this thing still managed to follow the Aldebaran message probes back here to Earth. If it could track those probes through hyperspace, there’s no place we can hide that it can’t follow.”

“We’ve got nothing to lose by defending ourselves,” insisted the officer.

“We have everything to lose,” retorted Alton loudly. “Besides if he’s right,” said the Chairman gesturing at the balding academic, “attacking or fleeing will send the wrong message to these beings. The approach you’re advocating is the same the Aldebarans took and it cost the lives of nearly everyone at their colony. If you expect to achieve a different end result, you’d better start thinking differently first.”

Silently the two men returned their attention to the tactical displays on the command deck of the Dyson III station, the largest space habitat orbiting Earth and the nominal headquarters of the Alliance. As the governing body, which had united the last of the Earth’s independent governments at the end of last great war, the Alliance was accountable to every planet, colony, and space habitat in the Solar system. Everyone was depending on Alton and the Council to avoid the destruction that had obliterated the Aldebaran Colony.

Alton and the General waited in silence as the giant black ship approached. It had emerged into normal space less than two hours before, well beyond the orbit of Pluto. As the final preparations for its arrival were made, the ship decelerated effortlessly from nearly the speed of light and headed unerringly toward Earth as it slowed.

Long before the incoming ship drew near, everything in its path had been cleared out of the way. Great care was taken to ensure that no offensive or defensive actions were taken. After long, agonizing minutes, the ship slowed and came to rest several hundred miles above the Earth’s atmosphere. Fifteen billion people all across the scattered cities and space habitats of the Alliance waited in silent terror. Nothing, however, seemed to happen.

“I told you,” said the old scholar pounding the console in front of him triumphantly. “I told you they wouldn’t attack first.” Facing the Council Chairman, he asked. “Are you ready to trust me now? If you let me, I know I can make contact with them and convince them the attack on them at the colony was an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Alton looked at the Commander of the Earth Defense Fleet who waited impatiently by his side. The soldier lowered his eyes and nodded solemnly. Finally, Alton glanced back at the other council members gathered on the viewing deck, but all of them avoided his gaze, unwilling to sanction an act that could lead to Earth’s annihilation.

Aware that he was being televised to virtually every human in the Alliance, Alton squared his shoulders and faced the old man. “Very well, Hiam. Go to your ship. Do what you must, but remember, the lives of everyone on Earth depend on you.”

The old man smiled and offered a short bow of thanks to the Chairman. Then he straightened quickly and followed his escorts to the one-man shuttle that would take him to the alien craft.

Hiam Levendel was the foremost linguist of his generation, perhaps one of the greatest ever born. His studies of ancient Aldebaran ruins and the cinder moon of Procyon had established the foundations of Xenolinguistics and the fledgling science of Xenopsychology, the study of alien intelligences. Indeed, he had written several papers predicting scenarios quite similar to that which had played itself out at Aldebaran. That was one reason his opinions were held in such high regard by the Chairman and the Council.

As everyone waited, the elderly academic boarded his ship. Shortly thereafter, the brilliant blue light from its engines cast shadows across the observation deck as the tiny ship accelerated toward the gigantic blackness of the alien dreadnaught.

The one-man, metal and glass pod, which carried Levendel and his esoteric language programs, parked itself scant kilometers from the edge of the impenetrable black barrier. Within his ship, silhouetted as an insignificant pinprick of metal against the featureless ebony energy field, which stretched a thousand kilometers across, Hiam set his ship’s controls to hold a steady position just beyond the edge of the mysterious barrier of darkness. Then, seemingly oblivious to his danger, Hiam promptly activated the programs he had prepared and began to broadcast a series of carefully crafted transmissions to the alien vessel.

As he did so, humanity prayed.

Hours passed without response from the alien ship. Undaunted, Hiam adapted and modified his language programs in an effort to establish some form of communication. The standoff continued for days.

As frustrating as it was, Alton consoled himself that no activity was far better than what the ship had demonstrated at Aldebaran V.

In the meantime, virtually all space activity in the Solar System stopped. No ships launched or landed. All commerce and trade was suspended. No one traveled anywhere within the system. By Alliance edict everyone avoided any activity that could possibly be misinterpreted as a hostile action.

Finally, nearly seventy-two hours after Levendel’s vigil began, the alien warship broadcast a single burst of electromagnetic energy. After nearly a minute, Hiam’s vessel replied with a similar chirp of high frequency energy. Then, a brief exchange of transmissions followed, a staccato of high frequency bursts that bounced back and forth between the two ships. Then, without warning, the black behemoth terminated the strange conversation and accelerated effortlessly back along the trajectory it had come.

The ship had almost vanished from sight, before observers could announce the ship’s departure to anxious watchers across the solar system.

Cheering erupted on the main observation deck as the dominating black shape, which obscured the distant stars, shrank into the distance and disappeared undetectably into the equally black void of space.

Dozens of people scattered to spread the news. When word reached Alton Meridock in his offices ,where he had waited, the Chairman of the Alliance quickly opened a secure communication channel to the linguist’s tiny ship. “Hiam, Hiam, what happened?” he half-shouted. “What did the aliens say?”

Hiam’s image in Alton’s display looked haggard and drawn, far older than when he had last stood on the Dyson III main observation deck. The scholar hadn’t slept in days and remained awake only as the result of stimulants and metabolic accelerators. His weary smile was nonetheless proud.

“It worked,” he said. “I managed to establish a language protocol sufficient to communicate simple terms with the aliens. My guess was correct. It was all a misunderstanding. The aliens simply didn’t know we were intelligent.”

Managing weak smile, he continued. “The ship belongs to a species who call themselves Ashurans. They are a race of gatherers and are apparently one of many races in a much larger galactic community. It seems the Aldebaran colony’s mining operations encroached on some of the Ashuran’s holdings. The alien vessel that arrived traveled to Aldebaran looking for some missing ships and, when they were attacked, they simply replied in kind. Apparently, they didn’t realize we were sentient beings.”

“So what did you say that changed their minds?” asked Alton. “Why did it take so long?” “I don’t know, exactly. After I had sent them enough to establish a semantic context sufficient for translator programs, I realized I had to convince them we weren’t simply dangerous animals, so I started dumping history tapes to establish some common cognitive referent. Nothing I transmitted, however, seemed to convince them. Finally, after sending many terabytes of information, the aliens changed their minds. One minute they didn’t want to talk; the next, they’d concluded we might not be dangerous vermin, after all. Once, they decided we were intelligent, they started talking back.”

“But what did they say?” asked Alton. “They certainly didn’t stay and talk for very long.”

Hiam nodded wearily. “Their actual messages were highly compressed and it will take weeks to fully decipher everything they sent, but my translation programs summarized the highpoints of their message. It seems life is quite common in the universe, but intelligence is very, very rare. Some races even develop forms of speech and space travel without truly being intelligent by these aliens’ standards.”

Clearing his throat, Hiam said, “They’d come, you see, to clean out the nest of dangerous animals they’d found.”

Alton swallowed involuntarily, recognizing how close Earth had come to sharing the same fate as Aldebaran V. “So why did they leave in such a hurry. Did they say?”

Hiam shook his head. “No, they didn’t explain why they were going. They only told us to wait and that they would send others to attend to us.”

“What? What does that mean? Who are they sending?”

Hiam sighed and his weariness more apparent as Alton’s concern grew. “I don’t know, Alton. They said they weren’t skilled in dealing with younger races and that others would come who specialize in such contacts. Then they just left. After they had decided not to destroy us, they seemed to lose all interest in us.”

“That’s it? They didn’t say anything else? Didn’t they at least offer an explanation or apology for killing over sixty million colonists?”

“No, they just said to wait.” Hiam was as calm and poised as Alton was exasperated.

“But that doesn’t make sense. What does that mean, just wait? For how long?” If anything Alton seemed more distressed now that the waiting was over. “Who knows when these others might arrive? Are we talking days, weeks, or years? What timeframes do these aliens think in?” His hands clenched and opened in frustration. “Hiam, we need to know.” Struggling to calm himself, the Chairman pondered the problem silently for a time.

“Do you think it would be safe to lift the transportation ban?” he asked. “If we shut down all interplanetary transportation much longer there will be dire consequences.”

Hiam smiled at Alton’s obvious worry, but hesitated to offer any advice. Finally, he said, “I’d think it would be all right. Things should go smoother now. After all, a civilization with many other races has undoubtedly been through first contact situations like this before. This is only new for us.”

The Chairman blinked in surprise, then turned to give the command to stand down from the emergency that had paralyzed the entire solar system for days. However, before he could speak, a voice broke into the communication link joining Alton and Hiam.

“Mister Chairman,” said an aide on a private channel, “we’re picking up a gravitational anomaly forming about sixty kilometers in front of Doctor Levendel’s ship. It looks like the signature of an artificial wormhole.”

Switching his view screen back to Hiam’s ship, the Chairman studied the display. As predicted, the empty space in the tiny ship began to glow a pale green. The intensity of the light grew and quickly flashed to blue, disappearing in a silent explosion of white light as another vessel materialized.

The alien ship remained stationary, precisely where it had appeared. This alone was spectacular, since all ships emerging from wormholes always returned to normal space moving at relativistic speeds.

The new ship was a featureless cylindrical craft that tapered gracefully to sharp points at either end. It was smooth and gleamed like polished silver. The cigar shaped vessel was larger than a supply ship but about the size of the smallest Alliance cruiser. While considerably bigger than the scholar’s ship, it was tiny compared to the black leviathan that had so recently departed.

A burst transmission came from the new ship and Hiam promptly processed the message. It took a few seconds for the translator programs to convert it to a form Hiam could read. When it finished, Hiam said to Alton, “We’ve been given permission to come aboard. Actually, it’s phrased as an imperative. We’re being told to come.”

“Is there any indication what they intend?” Alton asked.

“Yes,” replied Hiam. “They said we’re to meet their representative, so he can present us with something of great importance.”

Alton hesitated, uncertain at the sudden change of events. “What do you think this means?”

“I’m not sure, but they seem to be offering us a gift of some sort.”

“You mean they’ve brought a peace offering? A gift?”

“Actually,” Hiam said calmly, “The message says they’ve brought us knowledge, a priceless gift of knowledge.”

“Wait for me,” Alton said. “I’m coming over to your shuttle. We’ll go together.” As the Chairman hurried down the habitat elevators and descended to the launch level, security personnel and aides scrambled to follow him. Oblivious to the entourage that struggled to keep up, Alton worried about the motivations of aliens who would destroy entire worlds one moment, without the slightest hint of remorse, and then offer invaluable presents the next. As he thought about it more, his reservations intensified and he wondered about the price humanity might have to pay for such priceless gifts.

Chapter 3

Procyon IV – Twenty-five years later – 2296

Winston Cromwell stood near the huge window on the observation deck of the cargo-transport, Prospero II. The scene he watched, as final preparations were made to generate a wormhole that would transport him back to Earth, was all too familiar. After all, he had just made the trip to Procyon from a nearly identical facility orbiting the moons of Titan barely a week before. Despite the minimal gravity in the observation lounge of the ship, Winston wore the traditional gray robes which identified him as an academician from the Institute. At a mere one-tenth normal weight, however, they tended to billow around him awkwardly and he considered returning to the passenger suites where full artificial gravity was maintained.

“Scholar Cromwell? Is that you?”

Turning toward the voice, Winston recognized the purser who had been on the ship which had just recently brought him to from Earth.

“What are you doing here?” The look of disbelief on the purser’s face bordered on amazement.

“I’m doing just what it looks like. I’m traveling back to Earth,” said Winston his face darkening with unspoken anger.

“But why? You just arrived. Has something happened to make you leave so soon?” Winston’s entire body stiffened at the pursuer’s inquiry was obvious and the ship’s officer quickly withdrew his question. “I’m sorry,” he interjected. “I didn’t mean to pry. I was just surprised to see you here.”

Winston shrugged with feigned nonchalance and forced an insincere laugh to ease the officer’s worries. “It’s all right. I’m nearly as surprised as you are.” Gesturing at the brown and green disk of Procyon II which hovered at the edge of the observation window, Winston explained. “A day after I landed here, a hyperspace message probe arrived with an urgent directive, recalling me to Earth.”

“I’m so sorry,” said the purser. “I hope it is nothing serious.” The look of concern in the officer’s eyes, however, revealed that he understood how serious the matter must be. Travel by wormhole was incredibly expensive and only a few people could afford such trips. Thus, when people came from Earth, it was usually to relocate permanently at the Procyon Colony. Only the most powerful and influential could consider a return trip and it was unheard of for anyone to stay for only a week.

Travel in normal space wasn’t an option at all. Even with the most powerful timefield drives, capable of hundreds of G’s acceleration, speed was still limited to about .96c and the huge colony ships that had brought the first colonists to Procyon had taken twenty-five years to make the journey. Indeed, all the Far Colonies had struggled to survive independently until Earth discovered how to build artificial wormholes by building the gigantic Translation Gates.

Cringing and looking wistfully at the planet below, Winston said, “It’s not fair. After working at the Institute for twenty years, I finally resigned my post as the Chief Linguist so I could come to Procyon to study the alien ruins here at the famous Cinder Moon only to have my plans cancelled. I’ve been looking forward to continuing the work of the late Preston Hagglund, the famous xeno-philologist, but no sooner do I get here than I’m ordered home on the next available transport.”

The purser’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“No it’s true,” said Winston. “The Colonial governor himself brought me the message and provided his personal shuttle and an escort of military fighters to bring me to the back to the Prospero before it headed back to Earth.”

“You say received a message by hyperspace courier?” asked the purser.

“Yes,” replied Winston.

“But I thought only governments and the military used hyperspace probes. I thought you said you weren’t with the Institute anymore.”

Winston’s lips tightened briefly, “That’s part of the problem. I’m not. Technically, the Institute doesn’t have the authority to order me home.” Staring out the observation window, Winston frowned. “Try telling that to the colonial Governor, though.”

Winston grimaced silently. It didn’t make sense. The fact that hyperspace courier probes had been used to summon him made his recall even more mysterious. While much faster and easier to launch than using wormholes, hyperspace technology remained unreliable. The skip drive of the tiny unmanned craft allowed them to leave three dimensional space and travel at many times the speed of light with little cost in energy. But just like a stone skipping across water, objects in hyperspace had a tendency to tumble or flip. Sometimes returning objects merely displayed symmetry reversal, like objects viewed in a mirror. Other times different types of rotation reversed the positive and negative charges in matter, converting returning matter into antimatter.

Occasionally, returning ships disassociated directly into energy with spectacular results. Only a small fraction of hyperspace probes arrived at their destinations normally. As a result, hyperspace travel was dangerous.

“How many probes did they send?” asked the officer.

“Five,” answered Winston.

The purser nodded obviously impressed. “It must be important then. Since only one in three probes reaches its destination, the fact that they sent five means the matter must be quite important.”

Winston shook his head. “No, you misunderstood me. Five courier probes weren’t sent. Five arrived.”

The purser’s mouth opened momentarily in surprise, but he closed it quickly regaining his composure. Such an event was unprecedented. If five were received, then someone on Earth must have launched at least fifteen or more probes with the same message. More curious now than before, the purser whispered, “Did the message say what it was about? Or can I ask?”

Winston shrugged. “Go ahead and ask. It won’t do any good. The Institute offered no explanation. All I know is that I’ve been summoned before the Alliance Council and am ordered to return on the next available transport.”

The purser grew quiet folding his handed patiently before him. “It’s most unusual.”

“I know,” said Winston. Bitterness flavored his words and Winston fought the urge to take out his frustrations on the officer who had interrupted his private anger. He didn’t know what the hurry was or whether he would ever get another chance to return to Procyon. Something unusual must have occurred at the Institute. It was the only possible explanation. Maybe, after all these years, they had finally discovered something important in the Archives.

“Will you be watching the departure from here, sir? Most of the passengers prefer to view the wormhole transfer from here, but a few who don’t handle low gravity choose to watch it from their quarters full gravity is maintained.”

“Yes,” replied Winston. “I want one last look at Procyon before we leave. After all, I didn’t get to stay very long.”

“Very well, sir,” said the purser. “If you will excuse me then, I’ll attend to the other passengers.” The officer hurried over to assist other travelers who had come to the observation lounge to witness the wormhole transfer. As the purser helped them buckle into acceleration seats, Winston secured himself in a front row position, tucking his robes beneath him so they wouldn’t float around and obscure his view.

A digital display to one side of the viewing window indicated that the time to the first field formation was rapidly approaching. Glancing around at his fellow passengers, he saw a man in an expensive suit point at the rim of the Translation Gate and explain its operation to a colleague. Winston studied the other passengers and wondered what business they had that took them to Earth. For most of them, this journey would not only be a once-in-a-lifetime voyage, it would likely be a one-way trip, as well.

The transparesteel window that dominated the observation deck revealed the large ring-shaped construct known as the Procyon Translation Gate. Off to the side, the planet Procyon II, called Medea by its settlers, floated serenely. The small, mountainous world had many lakes and large equatorial seas, but was only sparsely populated and, more than a century after its founding, only a few large cities had been built.

As Winston stared longingly at the distant green and brown world, a pang of regret burned in his stomach. After years of planning and waiting, his dreams to do real field research were sabotaged and he didn’t even know why.

“One minute to primary inversion,” announced the ship intercom. “Artificial gravity will now be terminated until wormhole transition is complete.”

The sensation of weight, as small as it was in this portion of the ship, slowly faded until Winston felt as if he were hanging in his seat. His robes flowed and billowed, as if they had a will of their own. As they threatened to rise around him, he cinched his lap belt tighter and tucked them under his legs.

Examining the Translation Gate, Winston searched for any indication of the energies that were building steadily in preparation to fold space. The giant ring was more than two kilometers across and more than two hundred meters thick. Lights illuminated the huge circular structure, but there was no hint of the intense energy fields, which were even now focused at its center. He knew from his previous trip that dozens of large fusion reactors had been generating and storing power for weeks for this event, but there was no sign of anything that might herald the wormhole’s appearance. The ring seemed passive and inert.

“Fifteen seconds to first inversion,” said the disembodied voice on the intercom.

The whispered conversations in the observation lounge stilled and everyone’s attention was riveted on the Gate. Unwilling to take his eyes off the ring, Winston counted down the seconds silently. An instant before he finished his countdown, the distant stars visible at the very center of the gate wavered and vanished. In their place, a shimmering, spherical field of white light appeared. Winston was gently pushed back into his seat and a sensation of gravity manifested itself that made him feel like he was lying on his back.

The purser explained what was happening to the spectators in the lounge. His speech was identical to the one he had delivered on the outbound trip from Earth.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the giant field generators in the Stargate ring have folded space and completed the first phase of wormhole generation. The glowing field of light in the center of the ring is actually space, which has been warped and folded into a stable shape that cannot naturally occur. Topologically, that region of space is the opposite of a black hole.

“Now, everyone knows a black-hole occurs when space is warped by gravity until space folds to form an event horizon. Once it forms, matter can enter a black hole, but never leave it. In the construct in front of you, however, the lines of space have been twisted and folded so that the field lines are inverted. Matter can leave the event horizon, but nothing can enter it. It is a black hole folded inside out. This first field inversion is therefore referred to as a white-hole.

“Since a black-hole generates an intense gravitational field, it’s not surprising that a white-hole radiates a strong anti-gravity field and repels matter violently. Normally, this field would push our ship away, but the ship’s engines have now come on line. The engine thrust is keeping our distance from the field constant. If they were turned off, we would drift away from the ring.

“The formation of a white-hole is it first step in creating a wormhole. Even now, though, the second phase is underway. As we watch, the field generators within the ring are folding space once more to form a second much larger inversion around the first one.

“When the second one is created, the manifolds of the inner and outer fields will merge and collapse. When that happens, one terminus of a wormhole will appear. Watch carefully, now.”

As the second field began to form, the stars visible on the other side of the ring shifted and moved. The field of white seemed to both shrink and grow at the same time. A flash of light flared briefly and, when it passed, the entire interior of the ring seemed to glow softly. Only a few bright stars could be seen through the translucent veil of the wormhole, and their colors strangely blue shifted. Moreover, the constellations were warped and skewed as if they were distorted though a giant glass lens.

“Wormhole terminus formation complete. All hands, prepare for transit. Wormhole transition in thirty seconds.”

There was a collective gasp as a low rumbling vibration echoed through the hull and the ship began accelerating toward the strange region of glowing blue space before them.

“The wormhole,” narrated the purser, “remains stable until sufficient mass enters it to trigger its collapse. When that occurs, the matter inside it is instantly transported light years away along the direction it was moving when it entered the terminus.”

The ring of the Gate grew, as the ship hurried forward.

“Five seconds to wormhole interface,” came a final announcement.

Having experienced this once before, Winston gripped the arms of his seat and readied himself. When the ship finally reached the center of the oddly glowing field, it lurched as if grabbed by a giant invisible hand. Winston then had the sensation of falling and shrinking to infinitesimal size. Staring out the window, the ring of the surrounding Translation Gate seemed to grow impossibly large before it disappeared from view along with all the visible stars. Everything outside turned black and there was a sensation of cosmic hesitation, as if time had stopped for a moment.

Then the moment passed and, as quickly as they had vanished, the stars reappeared, but many of them had shifted. Indeed, one small dim star directly ahead of them had grown to many times its former size. In the blink of an eye, they had traveled more than twelve light-years.

The passengers in the observation lounge chattered excitedly. Someone started a spontaneous applause that rippled across the room. Finishing his narration, the purser said, “We are now 12.5 light-years from where we started. All the energy that was used to fold space and create the wormhole has now been translated into kinetic energy and we’re approaching Earth at relativistic speed of more than ninety percent light speed. Since it will take nearly a week to fully decelerate using our timefield gravity drives, we deliberately emerged outside the solar system further than its most distant planet, Neptune. By the time we slow down, we will be at Earth.”

As the purser finished, the ship intercom announced, “Wormhole translation complete. All passengers return to their quarters. Deceleration will commence in fifteen minutes.”

As Winston unbuckled his harness, the marginal artificial gravity of the observation lounge returned. Standing carefully, he maneuvered his way to the passageway aft of the observation windows, while the other passengers loitered for a while and stared at the distant Sun, trying to pick out which point of light might be the Earth or any of the other planets.

Too angry to share the curiosity of his fellow travelers, Winston hurried down the corridors toward the passenger section. Now that he was within a few light-hours of Earth, maybe he could send a message to the Institute and find out what was going on.

Chapter 3

Dyson III Space Habitat

By the time the Prospero II slowed and approached its destination, Winston’s anger had returned in full. All his attempts to communicate with the Institute or members of the Alliance Council had been blocked. After his third attempt to contact any of his former colleagues, an Institute security representative terminated his comm-link and informed him the matter could not be discussed over open channels. The security chief instructed him to wait until he arrived back at the Alliance Council Chambers before addressing the subject further.

Rather than spend a week dealing with pent up frustration and growing anger as the transport ship approached Earth from its arrival point just inside the orbit of Neptune, Winston returned to his quarters and activated a slowfield, which altered the flow of time within his passenger compartment. The weeklong trip from the edge of the solar system to Earth orbit passed in a few minutes of subjective time for him.

When the cargo vessel matched velocity with its destination, the Dyson II orbital complex, and came to rest several kilometers from the station, the timefield in Winston’s quarters automatically terminated.

Dialing open the tiny viewing port on the wall of his cabin, Winston peeked out at the giant space habitat, which floated in one of the Lagrange points around Earth. Even from a distance of many miles, the complex visibly bustled with activity as other ships entered and departed the station. Since the Prospero II was far too large to dock, its passengers and cargo would disembark on station shuttles, which had already launched themselves from the station and approached the Prospero II like a swarm of hungry bees descending on a giant flower.

Winston opened the door to his quarters only to find an escort waiting for him. In short order, he found himself in one of the many shuttle bays and where his escort told him to wait for special transportation. While waiting, he stared out through another viewing window near the airlock and marveled at the majesty of the gigantic space habitat.

Even from a distance of several kilometers, Dyson III loomed impressively nearby, filling half the sky with its massive bulk. It was large rotating cylinder more than twenty miles long and three miles across. The one hundred and fifty levels in its outer hull housed nearly thirty million people and the station was not only the busiest hub of commercial traffic in the Solar system, it was also the capital of the Alliance. Dyson III was the largest structure every built, dwarfing even the largest Translation Gates, and was the result of the greatest engineering enterprise ever undertaken. While numerous other similar stations existed, most notably the Dyson I and II complexes, they were smaller and older.

The other passengers assembled in a different transit area for transport that would take them the habitat’s main embarkation levels. Winston, however, was to be picked up by a special diplomatic speeder that would ferry him directly to Thomas Tracovich, the Chairman of the Alliance Council.

As he fidgeted impatiently and watched for the courier ship to arrive, he rehearsed the speech he had prepared. Any curiosity he might have had about the situation had long since given way to anger at being treated so callously. The Council had interrupted an enterprise he had planned for years, without the slightest explanation or apology. They did not ask. They commanded. They ordered him around like he was some kind of servant or slave.

Winston figured they needed his skills as a linguist for some endeavor they considered important. Over the past twenty years he had been involved in dozens of similar special projects, but he didn’t care. He had quit this life and he remained committed to plans he had already postponed for years.

Besides, there were plenty of other linguists still at the Institute with just as much talent and experience as he. Winston had already decided that he wasn’t going to cooperate. They could beg him, or threaten him, or even offer him bribes, but he didn’t care. He’d already resigned his position as Chief Linguist. What did he have to do to convince them he didn’t want to do it anymore?

A warning light on the shuttle bay wall flashed, announcing the arrival of the courier ship. As the airlock cycled, Winston stiffened his back and wondered if someone important would greet him or if the Council’s indifference would continue and leave him with no one to rage at except some nameless shuttle pilot. He debated the impropriety of venting his anger at an underling but, when the airlock finally opened, his stern determination melted into surprise.

The official who stepped off the shuttle wore a long, unadorned white outfit with a high neckline and flowing full-length sleeves. The stoic styling of the white Council robes contrasted the elegant dignity of his own gray and blue scholar’s robes, but the visitor’s simple attire could not completely conceal the graceful feminine curves beneath them.

Winston’s shock quickly transformed itself into excitement and he said, “Elise? But… I didn’t expect… ”

Smiling, she approached and took both his hands in hers. “I know,” she said, squeezing his hands fondly. While she tried to maintain a regal official bearing, her smile revealed true personal delight. “Thomas sent me. He knew you’d be upset and thought I should meet you to explain why he sent for you.”

Winston blinked helplessly. None of the things he’d prepared himself to say seemed appropriate now. Elise Morat’s presence left him speechless.

While he and Elise had not been partnered since their early years studying at the University on Luna, he had never entered a formal contract with another woman and never quite given up his hopes that she would give up her career in government and reconsider his offer for a permanent relationship.

Since they had parted amiably more than two decades ago, they had only rarely crossed paths in their respective professions. His studies in linguistics had gained him a position of authority as he rose to the role of Chief Linguist at the Institute. Elise had followed her calling in public service, accepting a position of administrator at one of smaller space habitats orbiting near Earth, and finally earning her a seat on the Alliance Council.

The seventeen years he had served at the Institute had denied him any opportunity to start a family. When he left for Procyon, it was with the intention of starting a new life. Now, meeting Elise, it was as if decades had rolled back

Winston felt his face grow warm and he stiffened his back in a belated attempt to maintain some sense of decorum. Smiling gently, he followed Elise into the small speeder. There were only two seats. The courier was fully automated and required no pilot. Neither of them spoke, as they buckled themselves in.

The hatch closed and sealed. In moments, the tiny ship undocked and accelerated toward the station under the direction of Dyson approach control. As it arced gracefully around the station and headed toward the far end of the habitat,, Winston finally asked, “So what is this all about, Elise? What’s going on?”

Elise’s lips tightened and she squeezed Winston’s hand. “It’s Hiam Levendel. He’s stepped down as the Director of the Institute and the Council has been looking for a replacement.”

Winston blinked in surprise. Hiam had been the Director of the Institute, since it was first created. He was the hero, who had single-handedly saved the Earth from destruction by the Ashurans. Haim had personally recruited Winston nearly twenty years before, when he had just graduated from graduate school to serve on his staff and to help study the Archives. A few years later, Hiam promoted him to Chief Linguist.

“I can’t believe it,” said Winston. “I can’t even imagine the Institute without Hiam.” Then he paused, realizing there might be another reason. “Wait, did anything happen? Is he ill? Did he have a stroke or something?”

“No, no,” replied Elise, “Hiam’s fine, but the Council forced him to give up his position so someone else could take over.”

Winston furrowed his eyebrows. “Why? What’s happened?”

“It’s hard to explain,” said Elise. “Partly because I don’t even know all of the details. In any case, you probably know that Hiam has made it difficult for the Council for some time.”

Nodding, Winston couldn’t hide a small smile. “But it’s always been that way. Hiam organized the Institute to study the Archives in a controlled manner. It was always one of his objectives to keep politics out of it.”

“True,” replied Elise. “But too much time and effort has gone into studying the Archives and too little useful knowledge has been gained. Some members of the Council demanded results or a new Director.”

“So it got political after all,” mused Winston.

“Yes, and Hiam wouldn’t cooperate, so the Council asked for his resignation.”

“When did he step down?” asked Winston.

“About three weeks ago.”

That made sense, thought Winston. That would have been just about the time he left for Procyon and he hadn’t been in contact with any of his former colleagues since then. After a few moments, he asked, “So who’s replacing him?”

Elisa glanced down at her lap and said, “That’s the problem. The Council has had some difficulty selecting Hiam’s successor.”

Winston started to laugh. He personally knew a dozen senior members of the Institute staff who had positioned themselves for years to take over Hiam’s position should he ever step aside. The increasing bureaucracy within the Institute and the petty academia politics that had developed over the past few years were amongst the primary reasons Winston had finally left. Many of the most likely candidates were highly talented and ambitious Scholars or Researchers with strong supporters on the Council. He could only imagine the infighting that had occurred since Hiam’s departure.

“So the Alliance Council can’t make a decision?” He chuckled. “It somehow seems appropriate,” he said, smirking. “I assume they’ve narrowed their selection down to a few finalists and Thomas has recalled me to back one of his favorites. Right?”

Elise’s lips tightened, “Well, something like that. Actually, the Chairman recommended you as his nominee for new Director.”

Winston blinked awkwardly in shock. “But that was ridiculous. There are far better academicians and administrators than I. Any of them would be much more qualified to fill Hiam’s role. Besides, it’s always been understood that the next Directors would come from the Researchers or the Scholars. Of the three branches in the Institutes, the Linguists are the least technical and the least qualified to fill Hiam’s position.”

Elise risked a small smile. “Actually, pending your acceptance of course, the Council had already unanimously approved the Chairman’s recommendation.”

“But why me?” sputtered Winston. “I don’t want the job. The Director not only heads up the Institute, he’s the primary liaison with all the alien Ambassadors. I’m not an administrator or a diplomat. I don’t even really know much about the research or studies of the other Branches. My specialty is philology and abstract language theory. All I’ve ever done is study the languages of the Archives, primarily Galactic Standard. I know more about translation utilities than I do about the functioning of the Institute. I don’t even have any political connections. Why would Thomas nominate me?”

Elise reached over to touch Winston’s hand. “I know. It’s a bit confusing. You’re right when you said there are better, qualified scientists. There are also people who want the position more than you. In fact some have worked for years for this opportunity. Then there are candidates with strong political affiliations and powerful sponsors on the Council. Still, they selected you.”

“But why?”

Elisa’s fingers tightened and fidgeted nervously. “Well, the debate went on for two weeks. While the decision to remove Hiam was nearly unanimous, that was the last thing the Council was able to agree on. Every faction had its own favorite candidate, but every time someone was nominated, some other faction vetoed the prposal. After they exhausted their short list, they reached a deadlock and couldn’t agree on any other possible replacements.”

“So how did they pick me? I didn’t volunteer. I don’t even want the job. I resigned from the Institute, remember?”

Elise’s hands stilled and she held Winston’s gaze carefully. “That’s ultimately why they picked you, because you had resigned. Since you had no political ties and no real interest in the position, no one on the Council had any cause to object to your nomination. Until your name came up, someone always objected.” She reached out and touched his hand. “That’s why they picked you, Winston. You’re neutral. You’re safe.”

Winston didn’t know whether to be angry or proud. This was far more unexpected than anything his imagination had fabricated on his trip from the Far Colonies.

Just then, the courier ship jerked and bumped, as it settled into the diplomatic docking bay near the government level of the Dyson station. The ship’s console chimed to announce their arrival and the hatch automatically cycled open.

As he started to unbuckle his lap belt, however, Winston realized what Elise had said and, more importantly, what she wasn’t saying. In response to her unspoken explanation, a wave of anger welled up within him. “Wait, you mean they selected me, not because I was the most qualified, but because I was the least offensive candidate they considered?”

Elise winced as she stood and straightened her robes. “Yes, Winston. It’s something like that.”

Winston’s face grew red and his fists clenched. “Well, that’s great. You mean I’ve been named the Director, because I’m the least qualified for the job? Well, I don’t have to be insulted like this. I’ll refuse to accept the nomination. I don’t want the job and I won’t take it.”

Elise stepped off the shuttle and folded her hands calmly in front of her. She smiled gently and said, “I think you need to talk to the Chairman.” Then she gestured toward the lift on the opposite end of the embarkation platform, emblazoned with the symbol of the Alliance.

Ignoring Elise, Winston stormed toward the Alliance Council chambers and shouted, “You’re right, I’ll do just that.”

Elise watched him disappear up the lift and stayed alone on the platform long after he’d gone. After a few minutes, she shook her head and walked across the empty shuttle bay toward the lifts that would take her to her own quarters.

Chapter 4

Winston hurried off the lift and marched directly into the Chairman’s office. Escorts were waiting for him and the Chairman’s office doors stood open wide awaiting his arrival. As he entered, Thomas Tracovich rose from his wide elegant desk and offered his hand saying, “Winston, I’m so glad you’re finally here. I hope you had a pleasant trip.”

Winston ignored the Chairman’s handshake and crossed his arms in anger. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “I was nearly kidnapped and forced on the ship that brought me back here. You don’t have the authority to order me around like this. I’m not longer associated with the Institute. I resigned remember? I’m a private citizen now.”

The Chairman nodded awkwardly. “I know, I know… and I’m sorry for any inconvenience I might have caused, but I couldn’t explain and time was critical. I hoped you’d understand.”

“Oh, I understand all right. Elise explained it all to me. But, you’re not going to strong-arm me, Thomas. I’m not going to accept your nomination to replace Hiam.”

A look of confusion and concern appeared on the Chairman’s face. “Winston, you’ve got it all wrong. You should know I don’t operate that way. The Council has offered you a great honor. I need you. We all do.”

Scowling, Winston retorted, “The way Elise explained it, there’s not much honor involved. I was apparently the last choice.”

Thomas paused and smiled slyly. “Actually, you were near the top of my list. You were just the last one nominated.”

Winston uncrossed his arms and his angry stance softened. Thomas gloated as if appreciating some private joke and it was now Winston’s turn to be confused.

“You see,” said Thomas, “I let the other Council members nominate their candidates first, knowing there’d be no agreement. Then I let the various factions use up their vetoes against one another. After they were frustrated and tired of the whole process, I finally brought up your name. It was all a matter of timing.”

“But, why me? I’ve never wanted the job.”

“That’s precisely why. You’re not aligned with any active political faction or group. If anything, you’re as close to being apolitical as possible. You’re also level-headed and don’t share the ambitions of most of the others who were suggested. Because of all these things, I figure you’ll be less likely to repeat the mistakes Hiam made.”

“What do you mean?”

Thomas sighed and paused before continuing. “Let’s just say that Hiam let his position go to his head. He thought he had more power than he really did, and abused that power. Instead of coordinating efforts to study the Archives, we discovered that he’d been hiding information and keeping secrets.”

Winston imagined Hiam. He was the archetype of a true scholar. Winston had never met anyone so filled with curiosity and wonder. He couldn’t imagine Hiam hiding or suppressing information. “That makes no sense,” insisted Winston. “The whole Institute is designed to catalogue information from the Archives so data won’t get lost. Everything retrieved is recorded, logged, and indexed in multiple databases. Oversight is provided by auditors from the Council itself. The Linguists translate everything retrieved by the Researchers and the results are sent on to the Scholars for analysis. The three Branches are independent from one another, but they process all the same data. The entire Institute is set up to prevent secrets.”

“That’s what we all thought, too” said Thomas, “but we discovered otherwise. Whole sections of the Archives are inaccessible. It’s as if information has been deleted. Moreover, Hiam has been stalling, building a bureaucracy that intentionally slows down the rate that information can be processed.”

Winston frowned. The Institute had become increasingly bureaucratic over the past few years. That was one of the reasons he’d decided to leave. “I can’t believe it. Hiam is completely dedicated to knowledge. Why would he do such a thing?”

Thomas shrugged. “I think you might be a bit naïve, Winston. Did you ever consider that the thought of controlling so much knowledge and information was too much for him? Power corrupts. I guess not even the great Hiam Levendel was immune.”

Winston could offer no comment, so Thomas continued.

“When the Ashurans left the Archives, a priceless gift of more than a billion years of history from over a thousand different cultures, there was more interest generated in research and science than ever before in the history of our civilization. Everyone was anxious to dig into this cornucopia and learn what wonder it held. The Institute was created to administer the study of this magnificent artifact, but the task was more difficult than we expected it to be. First we had to learn the language.”

Winston nodded, “I know, far better than you. Even with the alien Cratarimatta scholars that stayed to teach us Galactic Standard, we may never fully understand it. The language is just too complex. First of all, the language is not phonetic, since many species could not “speak” it if they wanted to. Some races translate these symbols into sight, smell, gestures, or combinations of the above. In written form, GalStan consists of a lexicon of more than a half million symbols, that combine to form literally millions of words. The entire English language only maps into about two percent of their words. What makes it harder is that the characters are pictogryphs, like old Chinese or Japanese. They aren’t phonetic characters; they can’t be, since so many of the races that use them don’t even use sound to communicate. Moreover, since there are so many symbols and words, each glyph is very complex.

“After twenty-five years of backbreaking effort, we can still only translate about seven percent of the GalStan language. Most concepts are simply too advanced or bizarre for us to comprehend. Most words simply don’t have analogs in any human language. Our study of the Archives is the equivalent of a caveman examining a book on nuclear physics or space-time mechanics. We just have to be patient. It may take generations, but we’re making progress.”

Thomas’s face grew serious and grim. “That’s part of the problem, Winston. We don’t have time. About a month ago, just after you resigned, we found that the gift of the Archives isn’t permanent. It’s only been loaned to us for a short period of time. The gift is apparently a temporary one.”

“What?” said Winston. “Where’d you get that idea?”

“From the Representative himself. Someone finally asked him outright and he confirmed it.” Thomas referred to the being who had brought the Archives to humanity. In addition to explaining how to access the information in the huge alien library, the alien had stayed and acted as a diplomatic representative for the other races in the galactic community which called itself The Hierarchy.

Winston had never met the Representative, but from what he’d heard, he imagined him as part librarian and part ambassador.

Thomas continued. “While everyone assumed the gift of the Archives was permanent, someone finally asked the right question and the Representative confirmed the copy is only on loan to us. It seems it will only be available to us for a limited amount of time.”

“How long?”

“That’s difficult to say. The time was specified in the equivalent of a species’ generation, which varies from one race to another. Institute scholars think the time period equates to about 28 years for humans. We may only have access to the Archives for a few more years.”

“And no one realized this until recently?”

“Well, the Representative is a bit difficult to talk to. He has established so many protocols and rules before he will grant someone an audience that there is sometimes a long delay before questions are actually answered. Questions have to be written in Galactic Standard and screened by aliens before a consultation is scheduled. Even then, only about fifteen minutes is allotted. Besides, he has a backlog of appointments that’s currently measured in years. Everyone wants to talk to him. Thousands have petitioned to ask him questions. Politicians, journalists, and scientists are all vying to a chance to meet him.

“The real surprise was discovered after we found the gift of the Archives wasn’t permanent. A Researcher who had an audience with the Representative asked him why we hadn’t been told about this before. The Representative informed him that Hiam has known from the beginning.”

“And he never told anyone?” asked Winston.

“Like I said, Hiam’s been keeping secrets from all of us and he won’t explain why. That’s one of the reasons he was removed.”

“But this is terrible. There’s so much to learn…”

“And so little time left,” finished Thomas. Frowning, he said, “I know it might not be enough, but I’ve ordered the Institute to download as much of the Archives as possible for offline analysis in case we lose access to it. We don’t have much time, a few months at best… but we have to do something.”

Thomas sighed and assumed a consoling posture. “Winston, it’s not your fault, but you know better than anyone it’s taken years to get even marginal translations of data retrieved from the Archives. Even now, most of what we learn is of very little value. Despite all the effort that’s gone into research, we’ve only discovered a few useful items, hardly enough to justify the expense we’ve put into it.”

The Chairman paused and tilted his head. “Winston, are you aware of how many people are actually working on research from the Archives?”

Winston thought for a moment. “Well, there about ten thousand people work at the Institute, but many of them have rotating assignments. I’d assume about double or triple that amount.”

Thomas shook his head slowly. “Actually the number is closer to ten million. There are hundreds of educational institutions, governmental departments and companies involved in studying and analyzing the things the Institute isolates and finds. Some discoveries go right into production; others stimulate related applications research. Most of it, though, is pure research, as we try to understand the radically new alien sciences and technologies. Unfortunately, if we lose access to the Archives all that effort will stop.”

“Isn’t there any way we can retain access to the Archives?”

Thomas walked to the end of the room and thought quietly for a moment. Then he replied, “That’s not clear. It apparently depends on choices we have to make at the end of the allotted time period when the loan of the Archives expires. The Representative, however, won’t tell us the consequences of the decisions we make or which choices are necessary to retain access to their galactic library. He only says that access to the Archives will be determined by those choices.”

“What are those decisions?”

“You don’t need to know that for now. The Council is handling that matter. Your job will be to ensure that the Institute continues to function as smoothly as possible for the time that remains.”

“But what if I don’t want the job? What if I’d prefer to return to Procyon?”

Thomas’s face grew stern. “I thought I’d made that clear. Your position here will only be temporary. You’re the best candidate for Interim Director. When this crisis passes, I assure you, you’ll be allowed to return to your research back at Procyon III’s Cinder Moon and you’ll be compensated handsomely for your service.”

“And if I refuse?”

Thomas’s face grew red. “Well, then I’m afraid you may have quite a problem getting back to Procyon. The waiting list for passengers by wormhole transport is quite backlogged. You might have to wait for years.” Thomas stepped close and lowered his voice. “Winston, trust me. I can reward your service here just as easily as I can punish your obstinance.”

Winston didn’t like to be threatened, but knew that a mere statement of disapproval by the Chairman to the right people could ruin any future career he might ever consider. He couldn’t fight it. He wouldn’t win. Winston held his tongue and reconciled himself to the fact that he would only make matter worse if he argued.

Thomas stepped back and smiled. “I’ll assume that means I can count on you.” “I don’t really have a choice, do I?” asked Winston.

Thomas simply smiled and walked over to his desk. Reaching down, he picked up a silver medallion and handed it to Winston. “Oh, this is yours,” he said.

Winston took the device and recognized it as the rank insignia that Hiam had always worn on his scholar’s robes. It was an ornate starburst wrought in silver and gold.

“Security will update the bio-registry in the pin transponder. When worn close to your body, it will provide access to secured sections of the Institute. The guards outside will direct you to your apartments here on Dyson III. Tomorrow you can move to Hiam’s old quarters at the Institute.”

Winston nodded, but declined to thank Thomas for the unwanted promotion.

“Oh, there will also be a reception tonight to celebrate your new appointment as Director. A number of important dignitaries will be there. I’ll send an escort to pick you up at seven pm ship time. I’ve also taken the liberty to assign you four new assistants.”

Winston’s back stiffened. “Wait. Hiam, always selected his own aides. I know. I served as one, before he appointed me as Chief Linguist.”

“Well, Hiam is gone,” said Thomas. “So I’m appointing your assistants for you. You’ll have one from each Branch of the Institute and one who will report directly to me, in case your duties make you too busy to do so yourself.

With a gesture of helplessness, Thomas added, “It’s a new requirement for the Institute Director and was a compromise to the various factions of the Alliance Council. You’ll find that each of your assistants is aligned with a different voting bloc on the Council. I’ll have Carl Rictor, my personal representative, set up a meeting with your new staff and section chiefs for first thing tomorrow morning.”

Despite the fact that Winston was now one of the most powerful men in the solar system and the Director of the Institute, the most influential organization in the Alliance, he did not feel he had very much authority at all. He silently turned toward the door, wondering. If he had no say in anything, what he was really needed for?

As he reached the door, Thomas called out, “Oh, Winston, I forgot to say congratulations.”

Winston turned and smiled nsincerely, before leaving the Chairman’s office. Outside the offices, a security guard appeared and took the pin Winston was holding and reset its biometric codes. Then he cordially escorted Winston to his new quarters.

It was only after Winston wandered through the large, extravagantly furnished apartments and ordered some food from the automated kitchen area that he remembered he’d left Elise alone on the shuttle bay platform without even saying goodbye.

Chapter 5

Winston Cromwell felt like a fish out of water. While the huge reception hall was crowded, there was hardly anyone in sight that he knew. He had never been active in politics and had never associated with the people who came to such gatherings. Winston wore the white and blue robes of the Director and was surrounded by the gray, green and blue robes of Linguists, Researchers and Scholars, but few faces were familiar.

In any case, he was the center of attention and people flocked around him to introduce themselves.

After a brief ceremony and a short speech by Chairman Tracovich, Thomas invited all the assembled guests to meet with the new Director. A greeting line formed and everyone filed by. While he tried to remember them all, the names and faces of everyone who shook his hand were soon lost in a blur. When the reception line finished, everyone milled around, sampling the exotic food and drinks in the large elegant ballroom.

Across the room, Winston noted Thomas talking to other members of the Alliance Council. While Thomas looked over one or twice, he kept his distance. Winston assumed this was to avoid compromising his apparent neutrality and prevent the polarization of other Council members, who opposed many of Thomas’s policies.

In a group of people near the other side of the ballroom, Winston noticed Bran Kelly, the dynamic and energetic Chief Researcher. As usual he looked stern and intense in his long deep green robes, but he too kept his distance. Bran had always been the most ambitious member of Hiam’s staff. From what Winston had heard, Bran had been the first one nominated to the vacant Director’s post, and the first one vetoed. The look Bran gave Winston from across the hall, indicated a mix of emotions, which seemed to range from jealousy to disgust. Winston was quietly grateful that Bran remained aloof so he didn’t have to face him in public.

Scanning the crowd, Winston tried to recall whom he had met and what their names were, but there were simply too many new people to remember. Already suffering from information overload, he felt lost even as more people hurried over to talk to him. Winston hoped the wrist recorder under the sleeve of his robe would be useful to help him learn these new people’s names later when he could study its recordings.

Then, to his surprise, he turned and found Elise by his side. His relief at seeing a friendly face made her smile in response. “Thank God,” he whispered, taking her hand. “I hoped you’d be here. By the way, I owe you an apology for leaving you the way I did.”

She squeezed his hand and smiled even harder. “It’s all right, Winston. I know all this has to be a shock.”

“Yes, it is, and it didn’t get better after I met the Chairman. He gave me my first real lesson in politics today. I’d only met him briefly before and he seemed quite different then. Is he always this… assertive?”

“You mean in private or public?” Elise’s gentle laugh was unsettling. “Thomas is always different, depending on who he’s talking to and what he wants. But if you mean, ‘Is he always that pushy?’ The answer is no. Normally, he’s quite tactful. He’s a born diplomat. Recently, however, he’s been under quite a bit of pressure. I’ll have to brief you on that later.”

“I heard about some of it, but assumed there was more he wasn’t telling me.”

Elise nodded. “There always is.” She patted his hand. “But this isn’t the place to discuss that. Let me point out some of the important people you may or may not have met yet. After all, that’s what this reception is all about.”

She looked around scanning the attendees scattered across the large convention room. “I’ll assume you know your former peers, the Chief Linguist, the Chief Scholar and the Chief Researcher.”

“Yes, I saw Bran earlier, but he looked a bit upset, so I’ve been avoiding him. I haven’t seen Qualam Muta or Ashok Chandry, though.”

“Ahh, they’re avoiding you because they were turned done for your position, too.” Elise pointed to groups of people clustered in the corners of the room. “Qualam, your replacement as Chief Linguist, is over there with other members of the Unity faction.”

“Elise, wait. When you tell me about the other council factions, you’d better give me a summary. I honestly never paid much attention to all that before.”

“It’s ok. It changes pretty fast. The different voting blocs split off and merge fairly regularly. If you don’t stay up on it, relationships change and what you know quickly becomes obsolete. Here, I’ll give you a quick overview.”

She gestured toward the small cluster near Qualam, an old friend of Winston. “The Unity faction believes the Alliance should join the alien Hierarchy whatever the cost. The extremists in their group think the aliens are god-like saviors. They think humanity will be lost if we don’t join the Hierarchy. The Unity party is aligned loosely with moderates who call themselves Integrationists. They hope to gain entry to the Hierarchy on an equal level with the other alien civilizations. Ashok Chandry, the Chief Scholar, is an Integrationist, but he also backs Thomas.”

“Over there,” she said, pointing at another corner of the room, “You’ll see a tall man in uniform. That’s Admiral David Briggs. He’s one of the survivors of the Aldebaran Colony disaster that occurred years ago.. He was only a young Lieutenant when the aliens first arrived and, while there’s little left of their colony, he’s still an honorary member of the Council. Briggs is the leader of the Expansionist faction. They oppose the ban the aliens have place on any further colonization by humans and they’re putting a lot of pressure on Thomas to ignore those edicts. Most factions are afraid to oppose the aliens because of what happened to Aldebaran V. The Expansionists are dangerous xenophobes and violently object to all alien influence. They hate the aliens for what they did to their colony and they oppose the Unity faction. They’re also aligned with smaller groups, the Humanists, who promulgate a human-only policy, and the Isolationists who propose turning our backs on the entire alien community and their technologies.”

“But Bran Kelly, the Chief Researcher is over there in that crowd, too,” said Winston.

“Ahh well, Briggs has been wooing the Researchers for years. He wants to gain weapons technology from the Archives, apparently to oppose the aliens. Everyone considers him somewhat mad. The aliens undoubtedly have weapons greater than those used by the Ashurans. Anything in the Archives would likely be obsolete and using such technology against the Hierarchy would be suicide.”

Tugging on Winston’s sleeve, Elise Morat pointed at the finally cluster of people in the far corner. “Those over by Thomas are the Conversationists. They’re the ones who voted Thomas into the position as Chairman. They’re still the dominant group on the Council and are dedicated to ensuring the stability of the Alliance. However, their faction is starting to fragment. There are the Terraformers, who want to focus on rebuilding the Earth’s eco-system after the damage caused by the TimeField Wars of the late twenty-first century and the catastrophe that followed the Fall. They’re slightly anti-tech, but not as bad as the Revisionists, who want to suppress virtually all technology, especially those they consider dangerous.”

“Finally, there are splinter groups, like the Technologists. Bran Kelly, the Chief Researcher, is one of their key spokesmen. They’re small, but influential. They want to regain access to the technologies that were lost after the Fall. Now that Bran has lost the opportunity to become Director, he may run for a Council seat. That’s probably why he’s being nice to Briggs.”

Winston concentrated. “All right. Let me see if I’ve got it straight. There are three main factions, the Unity faction, the Expansionists, and the Conservationists. Then there are splinter groups in each, like the Isolationists, the Revisionists, the Technologists, Humanists, and the… Terraformers?”

“Right,” said Elise. “The thing to remember is that each faction has its own agenda and some have alignments with other groups. The Technologists, for instance have ties to all three main factions, so do the Humanists. The relationships are pretty dynamic and it doesn’t take much to make get people to change their affiliations. One reason Thomas wanted you as Director was to avoid major powershifts that might result from Hiam’s abrupt departure. Major changes in allegiance could wash away most of Thomas’s support in the Council. ”

“You make it seem like I’m the little Dutch boy with my finger in the dike, holding back a flood.”

Elise laughed softly. “I guess you could say that. Thomas has put a great deal of trust in you to stabilize things, but remember, he won’t trust you too far, until you have as much to lose as he does.”

Winston thought a moment and then grew serious. “Elise, I’ve never even asked. Which group are you aligned with?”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said. “I have friends in all of the factions, except for the Humanists. They’re bunch of bigoted, xenophobes who desperately need to seek psychological reconstruction. In any case, I’ve probably supported Thomas the most. Technically, I’m an independent and was elected as a member-at-large by the Trade-guilds. As a group, they’re pretty even split between the Conservationists and the Unity faction. Some guilds think trade with the aliens would be profitable; others think it would be suicide. They’re not a strong voting bloc because they don’t agree on anything but profits.”

She stopped talking and studied the worry on Winston’s face. “What’s wrong?”

Winston shook his head. “This is all getting too complicated. All I ever wanted to do was field research. Hiam talked me into serving at the Institute for far longer than I wanted. Now, Thomas has called me back to do more.”

Elise tilted her head. “So take it as a compliment,” she said. “Powerful men keep placing their confidence in you. Maybe you’re better than you think at things you don’t value. You know, there’s more to life than academics. Start looking at the bigger picture. Your little universe is bigger than you realize.”

“God,” said Winston flinching. “Now you’re beginning to sound like Hiam. By the way, can you tell me why he was really removed as Director?”

Elise opened her mouth to answer, but then nudged Winston and pointed behind him. “Perhaps later, I think there’s someone here to meet you.”

Winston turned and saw two of the small aliens that served at the Institute. They were both Cratarimatta, the brilliant race of translators that had taught humans the basics of Galactic Standard and stayed on to study Earth’s diverse languages in turn. They resembled a race of flightless, beakless birds and were covered with a soft coat of fine, blue feathers. Their articulated legs made them bob up and down as they approached and, with their short thin-boned arms folded in front of them, they seemed to bow with every step.

The one in front craned its short neck to look up at him and blinked its large blue eyes. “Congratulations, Chief Linguist, now Director Cromwell. It is pleasing to meet you again.”

The Cratarimatta gift for languages was based in great part on the fact that they were the Universe’s best mimics. They could copy and reproduce virtually any sound and had developed this ability until they had no rivals. Their mastery of English was flawless and they could even copy specific accents, dialects, and individual voices depending on who they were speaking to. After all these years working with them, however, it was still disconcerting for Winston to hear them address him in his own voice.

Winston bowed in turn and said, “Trata kali sinpa tru, my friend.”

The creature leaned back and issued a high-pitched keening cry as it clapped its tiny hands. After regaining its composure, it replied “Well said. Well said. I bring a message for you from several members of the Hierarchy.”

It paused carefully waiting for acknowledgement. This was a courtesy, since they often talked so fast that others could not keep up with them.

“Please, continue,” said Winston.

“Three invitations are sent to the new Director. The first is from the Tsitakka Representative. The second is from the V’tarr ambassador and the third is from the So-Udan. Each of them wishes to meet with you at your earliest convenience.”

“Thank you, master speaker,” replied Winston. “Tell them I will meet them tomorrow.”

The bird-beings both bowed and turned to walk-hop away. While the most frequently seen aliens at the Institute, the Cratarimatta still commanded everyone’s attention as they left. All eyes in the room followed them as they crossed the hall and the crowd parted to make room for them. Although they seemed meek and unintimidating, it was difficult to forget that their species was more than 80 million years old and had mastered interstellar travel before mammals appeared on Earth. Yet even with that impressive age, they were one of the younger races in the Hierarchy.

As they left, Elise said, “Well, I guess rumors travel fast. Your new role as representative of humanity is starting pretty quickly, Director. Have you ever met any of the other ambassadors?”

“No,” he said. “The only aliens I’ve ever worked with are the Cratarimatta. I never got around to meeting the other dignitaries. I was always buried in my work. Maybe I’d better get a briefing on them before I go visit.”

“That would be a good idea,” replied Elise. “The V’tarr ambassador scared the hell out of me, when I first met him. By the way, what did you say that made the alien translator screech like that?”

“Oh,” said Winston laughing. “The Cratarrimatta love language-based puns. That noise he made was how they sound when they laugh. I merely said ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you again, my friend.’ ”

“So what’s so funny about that?”

“Well, in one of their languages, the phonemes ‘mai frend’ means ‘tall stranger’… so I made a joke, a double bi-lingual pun. I greeted him as an old friend and at the same time called him a tall stranger, so my comment was both true and false. They love that kind of thing.”

Elise shook her head in amazement. “See what I mean?” she said. “You have a talent for understanding these aliens better than anyone I’ve ever met. You understand how they speak and how they think. You even make jokes in multiple languages. Maybe you’re better suited for the job of being a diplomat than you realize.”

Winston looked around and scanned the crowd. In quick succession, he caught the eyes of Admiral Briggs, Thomas Tracovich and Bran Kelly. All of them had been watching him closely, but they turned away when he looked up.

“God, Elise,” he said. “I wish that were true. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out the members of my own species.”

Elise laughed softly and said, “That may be because they don’t want you to know what they’re thinking. Perhaps you’re right, though. Sometimes humans are more alien to me than extraterrestrials. Still, you have the right general idea. You have to get in their heads to understand the difference between what they say and what they mean.

“Tell you what,” said Elise cheerfully. “Since I’m more familiar with the political environment, I’ll give you some advice. Unless you want to get trapped here all night, you’d best make a final round of friendly small talk and leave while you can. Here, I’ll help.” Looping her arm in his, she escorted him into the mass of people milling around in the nearest group. The crowd parted and closed behind him, as people extended their hands to reintroduce themselves.

Chapter 6

The evening passed in a blur and Winston made his way out of the reception, just as he was ready to collapse. Unfortunately, Thomas called Elise back to the gathering before they got more than a dozen steps away, so Winston didn’t get to talk to her privately. He guessed that Thomas wanted to grill her on how he was adapting to his new role. Winston was confident that Elise would reassure the Chairman appropriately.

Unexpectedly tired, Winston returned to his temporary quarters on the station. Actually the apartments were quite spacious but Winston was far too tired to enjoy the accommodations and promply lay down on the oversized bed without even taking off his formal robes. Before he realized it, he fell asleep and only woke when the room computer rudely sounded an annoying alarm to inform him that he was going to be late for his morning staff meeting.

Winston jumped up and hurried to the fresher. After washing and putting on a clean robe, he grabbed a quick bite from the kitchen food dispensers just as the apartment door chimed. He was still swallowing his breakfast as the door slid open to reveal a young man wearing a Institute novice tunic who said, “Sir, my name is Carl Rictor and I’ve been assigned to be one of your assistants. I am to escort you to transportation that will take you to the Institute for a meeting with your staff.”

“Well, thanks. But I need to clean up a bit before we can leave. You’ll have to excuse me for a few minutes.” As Winston headed for the fresher facility in the apartment, he thought, Damn, he’s as pushy as Thomas.

Taking his time, if only to annoy Carl, Winston washed, applied depilatory cream to his face, and combed his hair. When satisfied with his appearance, he stopped and transferred the ornate pin from his old robes to his new set.

Returning to the main room he nodded curtly to Carl and headed toward the door without further comment. Carl hurried in front of him to lead the way through the station’s maze of corridors and passageways.

As Thomas’ agent, Carl was probably also assigned to spy on Winston and report all his activities. While still somewhat angry at Thomas, Winston followed Carl but did not speak to him.

They boarded a shuttle on the private embarkation docks reserved for political dignitaries in silence and the transport promptly disembarked and accelerated toward their destination.

Winston watched through the viewport, as they glided toward the Institute. The facility hung in space, silhouetted against the Moon. Its position in Lunar orbit made it easily accessible to both Earth-bound and space-based facilities, while avoiding the heavy traffic near the other large habitats in the Terran LaGrange points. The Institute’s design, however, was quite different from that of any other orbital structures and was modeled after the shape of the Archive artifact itself.

The alien library, the artifact that the Institute studied and which lay at its core, was a quadrahedron, a pyramid of shiny, green metal of unknown composition, roughly forty meters across. Its surface was pockmarked with thousands of data ports, each of which could be used to query the unusual database.

However, while the Archives housed at the Institute’s core measured only about thirty meters on each side, the Institute, which mimicked its tetrahedral shape was more than three kilometers across, exactly a thousand times larger. Within it, nearly ten thousand scientists, researchers, scholars, and support personnel managed the information processing of this incredible gift.

Winston wondered what would happen to the Institute if the Archives were lost to humanity. Then he remembered, Thomas’ comment about downloading information to offline storage. While saving only a fraction of the data, the effort would likely keep mankind busy for centuries.

As their shuttle approached, the sentry ships stationed around the Institute eased themselves aside to let them pass through the security perimeter. Other, unauthorized ships getting too close would be challenged or destroyed if they came too close.

In moments, the shuttle docked and the hatch opened to reveal tall wide corridors that differed greatly from the claustrophobic confinement of the habitation levels of the Dyson station. Walking in long confident strides, Winston hurried down the corridor as Carl Rictor struggled to catch up to him and whispered to him directing him away from the Linguist section and back toward Hiam’s former executive conference rooms.

Frustrated that he hadn’t had a chance to prepare for the meeting, Winston followed Carl solemnly down a series of hallways, until they reached the largest conference room on the top administrative deck of the Institute.

Everyone rose as he entered. Surveying the two-dozen people in the room, he recognized members from of all three of the Institute Branches in their colored robes. To one side he saw three other people in plain off-white attire standing near his seat at the end of the table. Since they were dressed in novice tunics like Carl, he assumed they were this other three assistants. Studying them more closely, he saw that each of them had different colored trim on their sleeves, one gray for Linguists, one green for Researchers, and one blue for Scholars. Carl, on the other hand wore gold trim on his tunic as befitted a nominal representative of the Council.

Gesturing for everyone to sit, as he had seen Hiam do so many times before, Winston was interrupted as Carl stepped close and handed Winston an agenda on a portable electronic notepad.

“Sir, these are suggested topics for you to cover,” he said. “The Branch Chiefs are prepared to give you a formal briefing at this time, if you wish.” Then Carl stepped back and folded his hands in front of him.

Winston nodded and scanned the text displayed on the small computer pad. Scrolling down the list, he sighed angrily. It was ridiculous. They’d never be able to cover all these items in a day, let alone in a single morning. Besides, he had to get over meet with the Representative and greet the other alien ambassadors.

Tossing the pad down, he said, “Thank you all for coming. I think I know most of you and will assume all of you know me… or know of me. I realize the past few weeks must have been extremely stressful for all of you. While I was spared most of that, I’m now in charge. Although I didn’t seek this position, I want to reassure you I’ll do my best, but I’ll never be able to replace Hiam.”

Scanning those sitting at the table, some people nodded their heads, but others sat motionless or glared at him. Straining to remain in control, he reminded himself that he had been Chief Linguist for nearly twenty years and quickly assumed that role of authority. “I’m not ready for a formal briefing from all of you at this time. I have other meetings to attend to and I’ll trust each of the Branch Chiefs to administer their activities as they see fit.” He paused to see how that was accepted, but most of his staff remained unreadable.

“I will, of course, expect a private briefing by each of the Branch Chiefs as soon as I’m settled in here at the Institute. After becoming acquainted with standard operations activities, I’ll do my best to establish a regular routine. At this time, however, just tell me if there are any problems I need to address.”

Several people started speaking at once and Winston held up a hand. “One at a time, please. Let’s start with the Branch Chiefs.” Pointing at Bran, he said, “What are your issues?”

Bran Kelly, the chief Researcher leaned forward angrily. “Research has been hampered by Chairman Tracovich’s new directives. More than fifty percent of the Archive data ports have been commandeered to do maximum rate data dumps.”

“Don’t you know why?” asked Winston.

Bran looked around awkwardly. “Uh…yes.”

Continuing, Winston said, “It’s because we may not have access to the Archives for much longer and the Council is trying to download as much information as they can before it’s all lost.”

Shocked expressions appeared on most of the faces in the room. Bran glanced around and then frowned at Winston. “That information was classified by the Council and wasn’t supposed to be divulged.”

Winston shrugged. “Well, it’s not classified anymore,” he said. “Besides, it wouldn’t have stayed a secret much longer anyway. Don’t you think everyone would notice, when the Hierarchy takes the Archives back.”

Bran looked incredulous.

Ignoring Bran’s confused expression, Winston asked, “Can you tell me where they’re putting all that offline information? There’s got to be an awful lot of data.”

Clearing his throat, Bran said. “Well, one of the few practical applications gained from the Archives is a technology that let’s us store information at the molecular level. A cylindrical crystal about a foot long and three inches across can store about 10 to the 21 bytes of information. That’s roughly equal to everything ever written in all languages in human history up until the year 2030. There’s a factory producing these boules of monolithic crystal as fast as they can. When loaded to a data port, we can fill about one crystal per day at maximum transfer rates.”

Winston’s lips tightened momentarily and he asked, “How many would we need to download the entire Archives?”

Bran grimaced and said, “The amount information in the alien database is phenomenal. Even if we had time, it would take several thousand years to copy all of it and would take more storage crystals than could fit in the Dyson habitat.”

Winston’s eyes widened. The Dyson station was twenty miles long and three miles across. The corresponding amount of information was staggering. “But the Archives aren’t nearly that large. How does it store so much data?”

“We don’t know. We think information is stored at the quantum level in a distributed or holographic form. In any case, we’re only going to be able to download a tiny fraction of the information in the Archives.”

“All right then,” said the Director. “We’ll proceed with the download. Hopefully it shouldn’t have too much impact on current data processing, since we cannot process all that information in such a short time anyway.”

“Actually,” the Chief Scholar said, “we have another problem. The Representative has stopped holding audiences. He won’t see anyone, scientists, academicians, researchers or scholars. No new petitioners have been received since Hiam… ah, since the old Director left. The work in my Branch has been almost completed stalled.”

“Why?” asked Winston.

“Because he’s waiting to meet you,” said Ashok. “The Representative says that without a Director, such audiences aren’t allowed. It’s part of the rules and protocols he established when the Institute was set up. There’s no arguing with him. He just says that’s the way things have always been done. That’s another reason the Chairman was so anxious to instate you as the new Director. Much of our research has been put on hold until Hiam’s replacement was selected and installed.”

Normally, Winston would have been shocked that such information had not been communicated to him. This morning, however, he mentally shrugged and mused that maybe he was getting used to how much people didn’t tell him. “All right then,” he said, standing up. “I guess I’d better adjourn this meeting and go break the log jam.

“Oh, wait,” he said interrupting himself and turning to Qualam Muta, the Chief Linguist, Winston’s former assistant. “I didn’t ask if you had any pressing matters?”

Qualam’s famous enigmatic smile appeared on his face and he said, “Nothing pressing. We share the problems of the Researchers and the Scholars, though the unexpected slowdown has allowed us to catch up on our normal backlog of work. Go ahead and deal with these other problems. We’ll have time to talk later.”

Winston smiled briefly, appreciating Qualam’s deference to Winston’s other priorities. “Thanks, I’ll set aside time for us to talk as soon as I get the chance.” Then, worrying that he might be showing favoritism to his old colleague, he added, “Of course, I’ll need to meet with each of the Branch Chiefs. How does tomorrow morning sound?”

Turning to his new assistants, he added, “I’ll want the three of you to prepare a summary list of issues that require my attention, complete with recommendations and possible courses of action.”

Addressing Carl, he said, “Since the uses related to the Representative seem to be the greatest concern of the Branch Chiefs, I think we’d better head there next.”

Finally speaking to his staff once more, he said, “If there’s nothing else urgent then, this meeting adjourned.” Since no one moved to interrupt him, he rose, without further comment, and hurried down the hall, as his four assistants scurried to keep up with him like a gaggle of fledging ducks.

Chapter 7

Winston was disoriented for a moment when he got out into the hallway. Since he had never been to the Representative’s audience chamber, he wasn’t certain which way to go.

Carl tactfully walked a few steps and then paused to wait for him, before Winston composed himself and took the hint. As he walked toward the alien section of the station, he passed a number of Institute personnel, many of whom stopped and stared at their new Director. Winston also passed a number of aliens who worked or resided at the facility. Most were the bird-like translators, the Cratarimatta. They always seemed to travel in pairs and were constantly jabbering to one another. Those that noted the Director glanced at him and chattered even faster.

The only other aliens Winston saw along the way were members of a race called theYtrami, a reptilian servant race of administrators, which served the ambassadors and other visiting aliens. Unlike the translators, the lizard-like Ytrami ignored all humans, remaining aloof and indifferent towards them. Indeed they acted as if other humans were nothing more than inanimate objects. Whenever he saw them, they flicked their tongues, as if tasting bad air and, despite the fact that they were subservient to the other alien races, they looked down on humans as if men were misbred mongrels. Their race, after all, was more than sixty million years old and humans were insignificant newcomers to them.

Arriving at the Representative’s audience chamber, Winston found a large open area outside tall majestic doors, which reached all the way up to an arching twenty-foot ceiling. The hallway was lined with benches, but they were all empty.

Winston straightened his robes and checked his wrist recorder.

“Oh, that won’t do you any good,” said Carl. “Recorders won’t work in there.”

“What do you mean?” asked Winston.

“Well, some of the Representatives audiences, particularly those with other ambassadors, are private. To enforce that, the aliens installed some kind of technology that disables all electronics. No recording instrument we’ve ever developed works inside,” Carl said, pointing at the tall chamber doors.

“For normal audiences, all questions have to be submitted in written form, in Galactic Standard, and all answers are also provided in written form, though sometimes the Representative will provide a verbal explanation, as well, or rarely a data crystal.”

“What happens if someone tries to enter without written questions?” asked Winston.

Carl pointed at the lone Ytrami standing by a podium near the entrance. “He doesn’t let them in. Don’t let him deceive you. They may look innocent enough, but he’s armed and can disable anyone stupid enough to try to pass without permission.

“Also, they’re very good at their job and they hate humans anyway. Once or twice petitioners didn’t like the answers they got and refused to leave when instructed. The Ytrami stunned them and the humans had to be carried out unconscious. Once someone tried to assault the guard. He died.”

Winston looked at the wiry, thin-limbed reptile. The long snout and tiny narrow eyes didn’t seem particularly imposing, but the guard’s long tail wagged menacingly and the alien suddenly didn’t seem quite as harmless as it had before.

“Uh,” stammered Winston. “Do I need a written question to see the Representative? I don’t have anything prepared.”

“Oh, no,” chided Carl. “You’re the only exception to all those rules. You, or rather the Director, is the only human who has unlimited access to the Representative.”

“So Hiam was able to come here as often as he wanted?”

“Yes, and it drove the Scholars crazy constantly readjusting the backlog of petitioners who had appointments.”

“So what did he talk about all the time?” Winston asked.

“No one knows,” said Carl. “And Director Levendel wouldn’t tell anyone either, not even the Chairman. That’s one reason he got in so much trouble with the Council.”

Carl’s innocent smile suddenly seemed like a warning and a threat, as Winston remembered that Thomas held this man’s leash.

Winston nodded and stepped toward the Ytrami guard. The alien stared inscrutably at him for a moment and then moved aside. The doors swung silently inward revealing a large dark room within. Walking as confidently as he could, Winston entered, feeling about as secure as a fly entering a spider web.

As he passed through the portal, Winston examined the room. Almost immediately, the doors behind him closed in absolute silence and the light behind him vanished. Squinting against the darkness, Winston found himself in a large hemispherical chamber more than sixty feet across. On the opposite side of the room was a small raised dais. While no source of illumination was visible, the platform was lit with a soft muted light.

On the small stage sat the Representative. There were no furnishings present, no podium or desk. The room was completely empty except for a tall beautiful tree off to one side that sat in a large low container of dirt. It had long, thick, gnarled branches and delicate blue crystal leaves.

Winston stopped and examined the strange being who had summoned him.

The Representative was the only member of his species who had ever visited Earth and he had been at the Institute since the day the Archives arrived. In fact, he had delivered the alien library personally. The alien dignitary was tall, had long limbs, and large multifaceted eyes. His race, the Tsitakka, was supposed to be one of the oldest races in the Hierarchy. Physically, the Representative looked like a giant praying mantis squatting on the platform, his legs drawn up beneath him and his claw-like hands folded motionless in front of him. His head, which held large insect-like multifaceted eyes, was tilted to one side as if he was, in turn, studying Winston. While the Representative was larger than Winston had expected, he wasn’t nearly as frightening as the pictures he’d seen of it.

As Winston approached, the Representative turned his head and opened its arms in a gesture of welcome. The new Director stopped abruptly, uncertain how to address the creature.

In perfect English, the alien broke the impasse and said, “Ah, the new Director has arrived. Greetings and salutations.”

Winston stepped closer and felt his hear pound unusually hard. “Hello, I bring you greetings and bid you welcome,” he said.

“It is I who should welcome you, for you are the new one here,” said the insect-like Representative. Winston could not tell if the voice was its own or generated using some form of automated translator.

“Yes,” said Winston. “I guess that’s true.”

“So tell me, new Director, why are you here?”

Winston started to answer, but stopped and paused to consider the appropriate response. He was here because he’d been summoned. Also, he was here because the alien had stopped seeing other petitioners. Frankly, he was here for a lot of reasons. Winston considered a number of replies and then remembered what had brought him to the Institute in the first place. Grinning, he said, “I have come to learn.”

The alien clicked both of its claws in unison and said, “It is a good beginning.” After a moment, it asked, “Are you familiar with the protocols?”

Winston started to answer and then stopped once more. Instead of answering yes, he said, “Only a few. I am new to this position and am still learning. Can you tell me what I need to know?”

The alien clicked one claw sharply, and said, “No. You must find the questions. I cannot give you any answers that you have not earned. If you cannot find the questions, you do not deserve any answers.”

Winston nodded. So this was going to be a game. Considering the problem for a moment, he said, “I have been told that unlike other petitioners, I can meet with you whenever I want. Is that true?”

The alien answered, “No. I too have schedule and a cycle I must obey. I hold audience here for about eighteen of your hours at a time, according to whatever criteria you have to select petitioners, as long as the appropriate forms of propriety are satisfied.”

“You mean that applicants must submit questions in advance written in Galactic Standard?”

“Yes. Learning the language is important is it not, former Chief Linguist?”

Winston nodded. The creature seemed well informed about human activities outside the chamber.

“After that time,” the creature continued, “I stop seeing petitioners for an equal period of time before returning my attention to those with questions. That is the schedule I have kept, since my arrival. You may elect to meet me at any time I am open to other petitioners.” It tilted its head and asked, “Do you have any more questions, Director?”

Winston paused and said, “Actually I have many, but I may have to organize them first. The most important one is about the Archives. I understand that the gift of knowledge you have brought is not permanent and that it may be taken back. Is this true?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Why? Why would you bring such a gift only to take it back?”

“Because all knowledge has a price. That which is given too freely is cheapened in value. You have not yet earned the gift we offer.”

“How do we earn it, then?”

“By making the choices you have been given to make.”

“What choices are those?”

The Representative clicked one of its claws loudly. “That question has already been asked and answered. I do not repeat answers here.”

“But, I don’t know what answers you gave.”

“Then seek those who asked the questions. Again, if your race cannot keep track of such facts, you do not deserve them.”

Winston sighed in frustration. So the alien wouldn’t answer the same question twice. Well, he’d just have to find different questions. “Who asked the question about the choices Mankind has to make?”

“Several people. The first was the old Director. The second was a man named Briggs. The third was Chairman Tracovich.”

“But I thought you wouldn’t answer the same question twice.”

“I did not. While the topics were the same, they asked different questions and they each received different replies.”

Winston tried to think of a way around this trap. “What were the questions these men asked?”

The Representative clicked his left claw twice and did not reply.

The sound seemed like a warning and Winston started to understand. When the alien clicked both claws, it meant his question was good. When the alien clicked only one, it was a negative gesture. Clicking a single claw, multiple times was even worse. Winston guessed that it was a matter of symmetry. Symmetry was good and asymmetry was not.

He thought back on the Representative’s responses thus far. So, you couldn’t ask questions that had been asked before. Nor could you inquire about what questions others had asked. It was like the Representative had said, he had to find his own questions.

Winston smiled and said, “Thank you. I will consider what you have told me and return when I find better questions. Is there any advice you can give me freely?”

Both claws clicked and the alien said, “Yes. Seek the old Director and ask him to share what he has learned. Ask him about the price of knowledge and the difference between ignorance and wisdom.”

“Is that all?” asked Winston.

“It is enough for now. There is some information I cannot share freely, but others of your species might.”

“Is there anything I need to do before you will begin seeing petitioners again?”

“No, I will inform the Ytrami to admit questioners again. Now that there is a Director once more, it is allowed.”

Winston started to leave and then stopped. “I have once more topic. Why all these rules? Why all these conditions just to ask you questions?”

Both claws clicked. “Because knowledge must be structured and organized for its true value to be appreciated. Also, because younger races must often be trained, just as all children must be taught.”

“So this treatment is not special to us? This has been done before?”

“Yes, this is the way new races have been handled since the beginning.”

“The beginning?”

“Yes, since the Elder Races first appeared, all races have been taught in this manner.”

“The Elder Races?”

“Yes, the first ones, beings very unlike any you have yet met. They developed the protocols and taught new races as they evolved and appeared. Now, however, they have turned these matters to those of us who have learned since then. The Middle Races now manage the Younger races, like yours.”

“And we are now the youngest, I suppose,” said Winston.

The Representative clicked both claws and nodded.

“And this approach always works?”

“No, but it is best.”

“So not all races learn? What happens to those who do not?”

“They die.”

“You mean they are killed?”

“No. Those without the knowledge to survive, inevitably fail to do so. Sometimes they destroy themselves. Sometimes others destroy them, if there is need.”

“So what can Mankind do to avoid such an to outcome?”

“You must make the right choices.”

Winston realized he was back where he’d been moments before and he wasn’t getting anywhere. He’d gotten a lot of information, but didn’t know what to make of it. Backing away he bowed. “Thank you, again,” he said.

“You are welcome,” came the reply. “Come again when you have decided what it is you wish to learn.”

Winston walked back across the wide chamber floor. The doors opened quietly and he exited. Apparently, those outside had already been notified that the Representative was seeing visitors once more, because there was a flurry of activity down the corridor and people were being escorted toward the hall.

Standing outside, Winston watched a nervous Scholar in a blue robe, fidget madly with a paper writing pad and a pen, as he waited for his turn to enter. A line of petitioners was already forming along the benches. Among them, Winston recognized the cut and style of Council robes.

Carl hurried up to Winston and said, “Director? I’ve been asked to debrief you after all of your visits with the Representative. The Chairman wants to avoid the problems that occurred with the old Director.”

“Not right now, Carl,” Winston replied. “I have to think about what the Representative said. Take me to my quarters and get me a detailed briefing on the other alien ambassadors who I’m supposed to meet. I don’t want to go in unprepared again.”

“Yes, sir,” said Carl. “Follow me please.” Carl led Winston down a side corridor and his remaining assistants excused themselves to prepare the other information he had requested earlier.

As Winston walked to his quarters, he was soon lost in thought. By the time he reached Hiam’s old apartments, he decided he had been wrong. The Representative wasn’t an ambassador or a librarian; he was a teacher.

If you like what you have read and would like to read more, contact me at the link here robinson_ja@q.com