Read an Excerpt
By Timothy Zahn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved.
Two hours earlier, the C.S.S. Dryden had killed its rotation, moving for the first time in fifteen days back to zero-gee. An hour earlier, the last course change had been implemented, bringing the ship into as close a direct vector with the target planet of Arachne as possible. And now, with five minutes remaining on the clock, the bright red mass-line had finally appeared at the center of the helmtank and was beginning its leisurely stretch toward the edge.
They were almost there. Almost to Arachne ... and the Tampies who would be waiting for them.
Captain Haml Roman gazed at the mass-line a moment longer, wishing one last time that someone else's ship could have been tapped for this mission. Appearances and assurances apart, the outcome was about as much in doubt as Arachne's orbit, and it soured his stomach to have to be part of the charade. But neither the Senate nor the Admiralty had ever been in the habit of asking his opinion on such matters. Probably just as well.
Four minutes to go. Reaching over to his intercom board, Roman keyed for his passenger's cabin; but even as he did so the door to Roman's right slid open and Ambassador Pankau floated onto the bridge. "Captain," he nodded, giving himself a push that sent him gliding across the bridge in Roman's direction. "We have an ETA yet?"
"I was just about to call you, Mr. Ambassador," Roman nodded back, wondering distantly how Pankau managed to maintain that stiff dignity of his even while floating like a child's balloon across the room. "We'll be making breakout in just under four minutes."
Pankau caught the back of Roman's chair to stop his momentum and set his feet firmly into one of the velgrip patches in the deck. "How long to Arachne from there?"
"Shouldn't be more than a few hours. Maybe less, depending on how close in we get before breakout."
Pankau snorted gently, but he was clearly experienced enough to know the uncertainties were beyond Roman's control. At thirty hours per light-year, the Mitsuushi StarDrive chewed up an astronomical unit every 1.7 seconds, and even with computer control a ship was lucky to make breakout within a half-million kilometers of its projected target. "Do your best," the ambassador said, almost grudgingly. "And then I want a minimum-time course to Arachne. No point dragging this out any longer than absolutely necessary."
At the exec's station Lieutenant Commander Trent threw Pankau a sour look, one which the other fortunately missed. "Understood, Mr. Ambassador," Roman said, keeping his own voice and features firmly in polite/neutral mode.
Pankau nodded curtly and fell silent, and together they watched the steady lengthening of the mass-line. It was almost to the edge of the helmtank when, abruptly, the bridge lights dimmed and half of the main status board went from green to red and then to dark blue.
The Dryden had arrived.
"Lieutenant Nussmeyer?" Roman invited, keying on the main display. The screen came to life, blazing with stars and, off center to the left, the red-orange globe of Arachne's sun.
"Dead on target, sir," Nussmeyer reported, peering at his helm display. "We're just over seventy thousand kilometers upslope of Arachne."
Upslope; which meant that the sun's gravity would be helping, instead of hindering, their approach. "Very good, Lieutenant. Plot in a minimum-time course at—" he glanced at Pankau. "Keep it under 1.5 gees."
"Aye, sir. Approximately ninety minutes to orbit, then."
"Very good. Execute."
The acceleration alert began its warbling, and Roman listened to the clicks and creaks as the bridge began swiveling into position for forward linear acceleration. The number and decibel level of the squeaks had been on the rise lately, and he sent up a quick prayer that the equipment would hold out at least until they could make port again. Trying to handle even a relatively small warship like the Dryden from a misaligned bridge could get nasty very quickly. "Will you be sending any messages before we make orbit?" he asked, looking again at Pankau.
The other was squinting at the main screen, which now held the small crescent shape of a planet dead center. "Probably depends on whether the Tampy delegation's still topside or whether they've gone down and sent their ship home," he said. "Can you get any more magnification on that thing?"
Roman turned back to his console, feeling an odd stirring of anticipation as he keyed the screen for full mags. If the Tampy ship was indeed still standing by ...
The small crescent jumped in size to fill the entire screen; stabilized and enlarged again to become a flat strip of mottled planetary edge. The camera started a slow scan....
And there it was, silhouetted against the lighted section: a small, dark rectangular/cylindrical shape, trailing behind a similar but much larger cylinder. The Tampy ship ... and its accompanying space horse.
The screen's scale came on, locked and stabilized, and someone on the bridge gave a low whistle. "Nine hundred twenty meters long," Pankau read, a touch of awe seeping through the professional coolness in his voice. "I don't think I've ever seen a space horse quite that big before."
"The average is supposed to be eight hundred," Roman agreed. Even preoccupied, he could hear the underlevel of schoolboy excitement in his voice.
Pankau obviously heard it too, and Roman could feel the ambassador's gaze shift from the screen to him. "Your first space horse, Captain?"
It was, fortunately, difficult to blush in zero-gee. "It's the first one I'll have a chance to see close up, yes," Roman conceded. "I have seen them from a distance, of course."
Pankau grunted. "It would be rather difficult for the commander of a bordership to totally avoid them." His eyes shifted back to the main screen and his lips puckered. "I suppose I ought to go ahead and talk to them. At least let them know we're here."
Roman nodded. He reached for the comm laser control; remembered just in time and keyed the radio instead. The Tampies had never developed the laser themselves, and had shown complete disinterest in acquiring the necessary technology from the Cordonale. "It's all yours, Ambassador," Roman said.
Pankau cleared his throat. "This is Ambassador Pankau, aboard the Cordonale Star Ship Dryden," he called. "Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"
The response was immediate; clearly, the Tampies had already noted theDryden 's arrival. "I hear," the alien voice replied.
The whiny, grating, set-the-teeth-on-edge alien voice. Roman clamped his teeth together hard, trying to remember that the Tampies didn't do this on purpose.
"I am Ccist-paa; I speak for the Tamplissta," the other continued. "I greet you."
"And I you," Pankau said, his tone and manner showing none of the reflex irritation Roman felt. But then, Pankau was far more used to putting up with Tampy voices. "I come with open hands and goodwill, and bring the Supreme Senate's desire that our differences here be resolved as quickly as possible." He hesitated, just the barest fraction of a second. "Can you tell me if there's been any change in the situation in the past fifteen days?"
There was a hint of resentment in Pankau's voice, a feeling Roman could well understand. Irritating voices and mannerisms were something professional diplomats learned to live with; lack of adequate and timely information was something else entirely. Running on the Mitsuushi for fifteen days, cut off from access to the Cordonale's network of planet-based tachyon transceivers, everything the Dryden knew about the trouble on Arachne was two weeks out of date. The Tampy mission, in contrast, would have been in contact with their own colony here up until the time they'd had to leave their home port ... which had probably been no more than a few hours ago.
And in this case, the time-lag turned out to be significant indeed. "There has been change," Ccist-paa said with what sounded like a wheezing sigh. "Some of the humans of the Arachne settlement have attacked the Tamplissta of the Tyari."
Pankau clucked his tongue gently. "Any fatalities?"
"No humans were injured. Two Tamplissta have died."
Roman grimaced. It was a pattern that was repeating itself more and more frequently these days on the half-dozen worlds that the Cordonale shared with the Tampies: simmering confrontations boiling over into sharp episodes of violence ... and always the Tampies who got the short end.
"I'm sorry," Pankau said. "We'll reach your ship in approximately ninety minutes. I'd be honored if you would allow me to transport you to the surface."
"The honor is mine," Ccist-paa said. "However, there is no need. My lander is capable of providing me with transport."
"Ah," Pankau murmured. "In that event ... perhaps you'd be kind enough to giveme transport."
There was a short silence from the Tampy end. "We have no filter masks aboard," Ccist-paa said.
"I have one of my own." Pankau hesitated, glanced down at Roman. "It seems to me that, in the light of recent events, it might be good for us to discuss this matter in private before we talk to the settlers themselves."
Another pause. "You are welcome to ride in my lander," Ccist-paa said, without any trace of emotion Roman could detect. "If you will come alongside, my lander will join with your ship."
"Thank you, "Pankau said. "I'll look forward to seeing you."
"Farewell," Ccist-paa said, and a moment later the aliens' radio carrier cut off.
Roman keyed off the Dryden 's own radio. Behind him, the rising drone of the ship's main fusion drive became a dull roar, and weight began to return. "Drive activated, Captain," Nussmeyer confirmed unnecessarily.
"Very good," Roman nodded. "Start calculating the intercept vector to the Tampy ship whenever we're close enough." He looked up at Pankau. The other's face suddenly looked older; but then, it might have been merely the effect of returning weight. "I hope you were prepared to deal with an outbreak of violence," he commented quietly.
Pankau made a face, his eyes still on the main display. "What else is there when humans and Tampies get together?" he said sourly. He looked down at Roman, his gaze intensely thoughtful. "It doesn't bother you to be moving your ship in close to a space horse?" he asked, his tone oddly challenging.
Roman cocked an eyebrow up at him. "Not really. Should it?"
The searchlight gaze continued for a moment, then seemed to flicker out. "There's a lot of misinformation floating around concerning space horses," Pankau said obliquely. "False and embellished stories, general paranoia—that sort of thing." Straightening his shoulders, he stepped off the velgrip. "I'll be down in my quarters, preparing my pack. Let me know when we reach the Tampy ship." He hesitated. "Or if anything ... unexpected ... happens."
Roman glanced at Trent, saw the exec looking steadily back at him. "I'll do that, Mr. Ambassador."
"Tampy lander away," Trent reported. "Trajectory ... right on the money."
"Acknowledged," Roman nodded. "Stay on it, Commander—make sure it stays that way."
The other threw Roman a glance before turning back to his displays. "You think Pankau knows something we don't?" he asked over his shoulder.
Roman shrugged. "I'd guess he's just being cautious. On the other hand, there has been at least one incidence of violence down there already."
Trent snorted. "And since Pankau's instructions are probably to give the Tampies whatever they want ...?"
Roman shrugged again. Ours is not to reason why, he quoted silently to himself. Though that didn't mean any of them had to like it.
Ten kilometers away, their orbit just below the Dryden's, the Tampy ship was pulling slowly away. "Keep us with him, Lieutenant," Roman instructed Nussmeyer, studying the velocity readouts on his tactical display. A kilometer ahead of the alien ship floated the dark mass of their space horse.... "On second thought, let's do more than just catch up," he corrected himself suddenly. "I want a closer look at that space horse. Slow approach, parallel course, and keep us about two kilometers away."
The background hum of quiet conversation abruptly cut off. Nussmeyer looked at Trent, and Trent looked at Roman. "Something, Commander?" Roman asked mildly.
Trent's lip twitched. "The Tampies aren't going to be pleased if we spook their space horse."
"That's why we're staying two kilometers away," Roman told him.
"What if that's not far enough?"
Roman cocked an eyebrow and glanced around the bridge. "We're not exactly going to be sneaking up on it, gentlemen. The Tampy Handlers should certainly be able to hold onto it, or at the very least figure out that they can't in time to warn us off. Besides, space horses aren't that skittish."
Trent's expression was stony, but he turned back to his work without further argument. Roman watched his back for a moment, then shifted his attention to the helm. "Lieutenant?"
"Maneuver plotted and fed in," Nussmeyer reported, his voice a little strained. Like Trent, he clearly wasn't happy about this; unlike the executive officer, he wasn't in a position to argue about it.
"Very good," Roman said. "Execute."
Through the hull plates the whisper of the drive on minimal power could be felt, bringing with it an equally faint echo of returning weight. Slowly, the Dryden moved forward and planetward, passing the Tampy ship and the kilometer of nearly invisible webbing.
And within a few minutes, they were paralleling the space horse itself.
It was something of a cliché—a twenty-year-old cliché, at that—that no camera or holo could truly capture the awesome majesty of a space horse. Roman had heard it probably a hundred times since joining the Starforce; but it was only now that he finally understood why everyone who'd seen one close up seemed so insistent on repeating the standard line.
The creature was huge, for starters. Nine hundred twenty meters long, built roughly like a cylinder with rounded ends and a slight taper from front to rear, the space horse totally dwarfed the small Tampy ship trailing it. The delicate webbing linking the two was essentially invisible, even on the telescope screen, but as the fibers caught the sunlight there were occasional glints from it that added a fairy tale sparkle to the scene.
It was the things that didn't show up on long-range scans, though, that Roman found most fascinating. The space horse's skin, for one: though in holos it invariably turned out a flat gray, it was in fact strangely iridescent, in a way that reminded him of silk. The sensory clusters, located in axial rings at either end of the cylinder, were likewise far more delicately colored than holos could adequately capture, with colors ranging from a pale blue to a dark burgundy to a surprisingly bright yellow to an utterly dead black.
"Getting an absorption readout now," Trent reported into Roman's thoughts. His voice, still disapproving, was nevertheless beginning to show some grudging interest. "The skin seems to be soaking up about 96 percent of the sunlight hitting it, holding to that same percentage over the complete electromagnetic spectrum."
Roman nodded. Space horses were supposed to be able to absorb radiation of virtually any wavelength—one of the power sources that kept the huge beasts going. "Any idea what that shimmer effect is?" he asked the other.
"Probably a diffraction effect caused by the dust sweat," Trent said. "Or so goes the theory, anyway. Let me see if I can get some kind of direct reading on that."
He was reaching for his console when the Dryden 's alarms suddenly began to trill.
"Anomalous motion, Captain," Nussmeyer snapped. Unbidden, the main screen shifted to a tactical display, the laser targeting crosshairs swinging up over and past the bulk of the space horse.
"Easy, gentlemen," Roman said, flicking over to the indicated screen even as his muscles tensed with anticipation. The anomalous-motion program had originally been designed to detect slow-moving ambush missiles; but this close to a space horse ... "I doubt we're being threatened here."
"It's a meteor, sir," Trent identified it even as the telescope screen locked and focused on the object.
"As I said," Roman nodded. "Nothing to do with us."
"Maybe, maybe not," Trent countered darkly. "It occurs to me that the Tampies could just as easily have something besides space horse fodder in mind for that rock. Like having the space horse telekene it through our hull."
Excerpted from Warhorse by Timothy Zahn. Copyright © 1990 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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