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by Stephen Donaldson

Aster's Hope stood more than a hundred meters tall—a perfect sphere bristling with vanes, antennae, and scanners, punctuated with laser ports, viewscreens, and receptors. She left her orbit around her homeworld like a steel ball out of a slingshot, her sides bright in the pure sunlight of the solar system. Accelerating toward her traveling speed of .85c, she moved past the outer planets—first Philomel with its gigantic streaks of raw, cold hydrogen, then lonely Periwinkle glimmering at the edge of the spectrum—on her way into the black and luminous beyond. She was the best her people had ever made, the best they knew how to make. She had to be: she wasn't coming back for centuries.

There were exactly three hundred ninety-two people aboard.

They, too, were the best Aster had to offer. Diplomats and meditechs, linguists, theoretical biologists, physicists, scholars, even librarians for the vast banks of knowledge Aster's Hope carried: all of them had been trained to the teeth especially for this mission. And they included the absolute cream of Aster's young Service, the so-called "puters" and "nicians" who knew how to make Aster's Hope sail the fine-grained winds of the galaxy. Three hundred ninety-two people in all, culled and tested and prepared from the whole population of the planet to share in the culmination of Aster's history.

Three hundred ninety of them, were asleep.

The other two were supposed to be taking care of the ship. But they weren't. They were running naked down a mid-shell corridor between the clean, impersonal chambers where the cryogenic capsules hugged their occupants. Temple was giggling because she knew Gracias was never going to catch her unless she let him. He still had some of the ice cream she'd spilled on him trickling through the hair on his chest, but if she didn't slow down he wasn't going to be able to do anything about it. Maybe she wasn't smarter or stronger than he was, better-trained or higher-ranking—but she was certainly faster.

This was their duty shift, the week they would spend out of their capsules every half year until they died. Aster's Hope carried twenty-five shifts from the Service, and they were the suicide personnel of this mission: aging at the rate of one week twice every year, none of them were expected to live long enough to see the ship's return home. Everyone else could be spared until Aster's Hope reached its destination; asleep the whole trip, they would arrive only a bit more mature than they were when they left. But the Service had to maintain the ship. And so the planners of the mission had been forced to a difficult decision: either fill Aster's Hope entirely with puters and nicians and pray that they would be able to do the work of diplomats, theoretical physicists and linguists; or sacrifice a certain number of Service personnel to make room for people who could be explicitly trained for the mission. The planners decided that the ability to take Aster's Hope apart chip by chip and seal after seal and then put her all back together again was enough experience to ask of any individual man or woman. Therefore the mission itself would have to be entrusted to other experts.

And therefore Aster's Hope would be unable to carry enough puters and nicians to bring the mission home again.

Faced with this dilemma, the Service personnel were naturally expected to spend a significant period of each duty shift trying to reproduce. If they had children, they could pass on their knowledge and skill. And if the children were born soon enough, they would be old enough to take Aster's Hope home when she needed them.

Temple and Gracias weren't particularly interested in having children. But they took every other aspect of reproduction very seriously.

She slowed down for a few seconds, just to tantalize him. Then she put on a burst of speed. He tended to be just a bit dull in his love-making—and even in his conversation—unless she made a special effort to get his heart pounding. On some days, a slow, comfortable, and just-a-bit-dull lover was exactly what she wanted. But not today. Today she was full of energy from the tips of her toes to the ends of her hair, and she wanted Gracias at his best.

But when she tossed a laughing look back over her shoulder to see how he was doing, he wasn't behind her anymore.

Where—? Well, good. He was trying to take control of the race. Win by tricking her because he couldn't do it with speed. Temple laughed out loud while she paused to catch her breath and think. Obviously, he had ducked into one of the rooms or passages off this corridor, looking for a way to shortcut ahead of her—or maybe to lure her into ambush. And she hadn't heard the automatic door open and close because she'd been running and breathing too hard. Very good! This was the Graces she wanted.

But where had be wired off? Not the auxiliary compcom: that room didn't have any other exit. How about the nearest capsule chamber? From there, he'd have to shaft down to inner-shell and come back up. That could be dicey: he'd have to guess how far and fast, and in what direction, she was moving. Which gave her a chance to turn the tables on him.

With a grin, she went for the door to the next capsule chamber. Sensing her approach, it opened with a nearly silent whoosh, then closed behind her. Familiar with the look of the cryogenic capsules huddled in the grasp of their triple-redundant support machinery, each one independently supplied and run so that no system-wide future could wipe out the mission, she hardly glanced around her as she headed toward the shaft.

Its indicators showed that it wasn't in use. So Gracias wasn't on his way up here. Perfect. She'd take the shaft up to outer-shell and elude him there, just to whet his appetite. Turn his own gambit against him. Pleased with herself, she approached the door of the shaft.

But when she impinged on the shaft's sensor, it didn't react to her. None of the lights came on: the elevator stayed where it was. Surprised, she put her whole body in front of the sensor. Nothing. She jumped up and down, waved her arms. Still nothing.

That was strange. When Gracias ran his diagnostics this morning, the only malfunction anywhere was in an obscure circuit of foodsup's beer synthesizer. And she'd already helped him fix it. Why wasn't the shaft operating?

Thinking she ought to go to the next room and try another shaft, find out how serious the problem was, Temple trotted back to the capsule chamber door.

This time, it didn't open for her.

That was so unexpected that she ran into the door—which startled more than hurt her. In her nearly thirty years, she had never seen an automatic door fail. All doors opened except locked doors; and locked doors had an exterior status light no one could miss. Yet the indicators for this door showed open and normal.

She tried again.

The door didn't open.

That wasn't just strange. It was serious. A severe malfunction. Which didn't show up on diagnostics? Or had it just now happened? Either way, it was time to stop playing. Aster's Hope needed help. Frowning, Temple looked for the nearest speaker so she could call Gracias and tell him what was going on.

It was opposite her, on the wall beside the shaft. She started toward it.

Before she got there, the door to the chamber slid open.

A nonchalant look on his dark face, a tuneless whistle puckering his mouth, Gracias came into the room. He was carrying a light sleeping pallet over one shoulder. The door closed behind him normally.

"Going somewhere?" he asked in a tone of casual curiosity.

Temple knew that look, that tone. In spite of herself, she gave him a wide grin. "Damn you all to pieces," she remarked. "How did you do that?"

He shrugged, trying to hide the sparkle in his eyes. "Nothing to it. Auxcompcom's right over there." He nodded in the direction of the comp command room she had passed. "Ship motion sensors knew where you were. Saw you come in here. Did a temporary repro. Told the comp not to react to any body mass smaller than mine. You're stuck in here for another hour."

"You ought to be ashamed." She couldn't stop grinning. His ploy delighted her. "That's the most irresponsible thing I've ever heard. If the ether puters spend their time doing repros, the comp won't be good for alphabet soup by the time we get where we're going."

He didn't quite meet her happy gaze. "Too late now. Still pretending he was nonchalant—in spite of some obvious evidence to the contrary—he put the pallet on the floor by front of him. "Stack here for another hour." Then he did look at her, his black eyes smoldering. "Don't want to waste it."

She made an effort to sound exasperated. "Idiot." But she practically jumped into his arms when he gave her the chance.

They were still doing their duty when the ship's, brapper sounded, and the comp snapped Aster's Hope onto emergency alert.

Temple and Gracias were, respectively, the nician and puter of their duty shift. The Service had trained them for their jobs almost from birth. They had access, both by education and through the comp, to the best knowledge Aster had evolved, the best resources her planners and builders had been able to cram into Aster's Hope. In some ways, they were the pinnacle of Aster's long climb toward the future: they represented, more surely than any of the diplomats or librarians, what the Asterins had been striving toward for three thousand years.

But the terms themselves, "nician" and "puter," were atavisms, pieces of words left over from before the Crash— sounds which had become at once magic and nonsense during the period of inevitable barbarism that had followed the Crash. Surviving legends spoke of the puters and nicians who had piloted the great colonization ship Aster across the galactic void from Earth, lightyears measured in hundreds or thousands from the homeworld of the human race. In Aster, as in all the great ships which Earth had sent out to preserve humankind from some now-forgotten crisis, most of the people had slept through the centuries of space-normal travel while the nicians and puters had spent their lives and died, generation after generation, to keep the ship safe and alive as the comp and its scanners hunted the heavens for some world where Aster's sleepers could live.

It was a long and heroic task, that measureless vigil of the men and women who ran the ship. In one sense, they succeeded; for when Aster came to her last resting place it was on the surface of a planet rich in compatible atmosphere and vegetation but almost devoid of competitive fauna. The planet's sun was only a few degrees hotter than Sol: its gravity, only a fraction heavier. The people who found their way out of sleep onto the soil and hope of the new world had reason to count themselves fortunate.

But in another sense the nicians and puters failed. While most of her occupants slept, Aster had been working for hundreds or thousands of years—and entropy was immutable. Parts of the ship broke down. The puters and nicians made repairs. Other parts broke down and were fixed. And then Aster began to run low on supplies and equipment. The parts that broke down were fixed at the expense of other parts. The nicians and puters kept their ship alive by nothing more in the end than sheer ingenuity and courage. But they couldn't keep her from crashing.

The Crash upset everything the people of Earth had planned for the people of Aster. The comp was wrecked, its memory banks irretrievable, useless. Fires destroyed what physical books the ship carried. The pieces of equipment which survived tended to be ones which couldn't be kept running without access to an ion generator and couldn't be repaired without the ability to manufacture microchips. Aster's engines had flared out under the strain of bringing her bulk down through the atmosphere and were cold forever.

Nearly nine hundred men and women survived the Crash, but they had nothing to keep themselves alive with except the knowledge and determination they carried in their own heads.

That the descendants of those pioneers survived to name their planet Aster—to make it yield up first a life and then a future… to dream of the stars and space flight and Earth-—was a tribute more to their determination than to their knowledge. A significant portion of what they knew was of no conceivable value. The descendants of the original puters and nicians knew how to run Aster; but the theoretical questions involved in how she had run were scantly understood. And none of those personnel had been trained to live in what was essentially a jungle. As for the sleepers: according to legend, a full ten percent of them had been politicians. And another twenty percent had been people the politicians deemed essential— secretaries, press officers, security guards, even cosmeticians. That left barely six hundred individuals who were accustomed to living in some sort of contact with reality.

And yet they found a way to live.

First they survived by experimentation (some of it fatal), they learned to distinguish edible from inedible vegetation; they remembered enough about the importance of fire to procure some from Aster's remains before the wreckage burned itself out; they organized themselves enough to assign responsibilities.

Later they persisted: they found rocks and chipped them sharp in order to work with the vegetation; they made clothing out of leaves and the skins of small animals; they taught themselves how to weave shelter; they kept their population going.

Next they struggled. After all, what good did it do them to have a world if they couldn't fight over it?

And eventually they began to reinvent the knowledge they had lost.

The inhabitants of Aster considered all this a slow process. From their point of view, it seemed to take an exceptionally long time. But judged by the way planetary civilizations usually evolved, Asterin history moved with considerable celerity. A thousand years after the Crash, Aster's people had remembered the wheel. (Some theorists argued that the wheel had never actually been forgotten. But to be useful it needed someplace to roll—and Aster was a jungle. For several centuries, no wheel could compare in value with a good axe. Old memories of the wheel failed to take hold until after the Asterins had cleared enough ground to make its value apparent.) A thousand years after the wheel, the printing press came back into existence. (One of the major problems the Asterins had throughout their history to this point was what to do with all the dead lumber they created by making enough open space for their towns, fields, and roads. The reappearance of paper offered only a trivial solution until the printing press came along.) And a thousand years after the printing press, Aster's Hope was ready for her mission. Although they didn't know it, the people of Aster had beaten Earth's time for the same development by several thousand years.

Determination had a lot to do with it. People who came so far from Earth in order to procure the endurance of the human race didn't look kindly on anything that was less than what they wanted. But determination required an object: people had to know what they wanted. The alternative was a history full of wars, since determined people who didn't know what they wanted tended to be unnecessarily aggressive.

That object—the dream which shaped Asterin life and civilization from the earliest generations, the inborn sense of common purpose and yearning which kept the wars short, caused people to share what they knew, and inspired progress—was provided by the legends of Earth and Aster.

Within two generations after the Crash, no one knew even vaguely where Earth was: the knowledge as well as the tools of astrogation had been lost. Two generations after that, it was no longer clear what Earth had been like. And after two more generations, the reality of space flight had begun to pass out of the collective Asterin imagination.

But the ideas endured.



Nicians and puters.


On Aster perhaps more than anywhere else in the Galaxy, dreams provided the staff of purpose. On Aster evolved a civilization driven by legends. Communally and individually, the images and passions which fared the mind daring physical sleep became the goals which shaped the mind while it was awake.

To rediscover Earth.

And go back.

For centuries, of course, this looked like nonsense. If it had been a conscious choice rather than a planetary dream, it would have been discarded long ago. Bat since it was a dream, barely articulate except in poetry and painting and the secret silence of the heart, it held on until its people were ready for it.

Until, that is, the Asterins had reinvented radio telescopes and other receiving gear of sufficient sophistication to begin interpreting the signals they heard from the heavens.

Some, of those signals sounded like they came from Earth.

This was a remarkable achievement. After all, the transmissions the Asterins were looking at hadn't been intended for Aster. (Indeed, they may not have been intended for anybody at all. It was far more likely that these signals were random emissions—the detritus, perhaps, of a world talking to itself and its planets.) They had been traveling for so long, had passed through so many different gravity wells on the way, and were so diffuse, that not even the wildest optimist in Aster's observatories could argue these signals were messages. In fact, they were scarcely more than whispers in the ether, sighs compared to which some of the more distant stars were shouting.

And yet, impelled by an almost unacknowledged dream, the Asterins had developed equipment which enabled them not only to hear those whispers, sort them out of the cosmic radio cacophony, and make some surprisingly acute deductions about what (or who) caused them, but also to identify a possible source on the star charts.

The effect on Aster was galvanic. In simple terms, the communal dream came leaping suddenly out of the unconscious.

Earth. EARTH.

After that, it was only a matter of minutes before somebody said, "We ought to try to go there."

Which was exactly—a hundred years and an enormous expenditure of global resources, time, knowledge, and determination later—what Aster's Hope was doing.

Naturally enough—people being what they were—there were quite a few men and women on Aster who didn't believe in the mission. And there was also a large number who did believe who still had enough common sense or native pessimism to be cautious. As a result, there was a large planet-wide debate while Aster's Hope was being planned and built. Some people insisted on saying things like, "What if it isn't Earth at all? What, if it's some alien planet where they don't know humanity from bat-dung and don't care?"

Or, "At this distance, your figures aren't accurate within ten parsecs. How do you propose to compensate for that?"

Or, "What if the ship encounters someone else along the way? Finding intelligent life might be even more important than finding Earth. Or they might not like having our ship wander into their space. They might blow Aster's Hope to pieces—and then come looking for us."

Or, of course, "What if the ship gets all the way out there and doesn't find anything at all?"

Well, even the most avid proponent of the mission was able to admit that it would be unfortunate if Aster's Hope were to run a thousand lighthtyears across the galaxy and then fail. So the planning and preparation spent on designing the ship and selecting and training the crew was prodigious. But the Asterins didn't actually start to build their ship until they found an answer to what they considered the most fundamental question, about the mission.

On perhaps any other inhabited planet in the Galaxy, that question would have been the question of speed. A thousand lightyears was too far away. Some way of traveling faster than the speed of light was necessary. Bat the Asterins had a blind spot. They knew from legend that their ancestors had slept during a centuries-long, space-normal voyage; and they were simply unable to think realistically about traveling in any other way. They learned, as Earth had millennia ago, that c was a theoretical absolute limit: they believed it and turned their attention in other directions.

No, the question which troubled them was safety. They wanted to be able to send out Aster's Hope certain that no passing hostile, meteor shower, or accident of diplomacy would be able to destroy her.

So she wasn't built until a poorly-paid instructor at an obscure university suddenly managed to make sense out of a field of research that people had been laughing at for years:


For people who hadn't done their homework in theoretical mathematics or abstract physics, "c-vector" was defined as "at right angles to the speed of light." Which made no sense to anyone—but that didn't stop the Asterins from having fun with it. Before long, they discovered that they could build a generator to project a c-vector field.

If that field were projected around an object, it formed an impenetrable shield—a screen against which bullets and laser cannon and hydrogen torpedoes had no effect. (Any projectile or force which hit the shield bounced away "at right angles to the speed of light" and ceased to exist in material space. When this was discovered, several scientists spent several years wondering if a c-vector field could somehow be used as a faster-than-light drive for a spaceship. But no one was able to figure out just what direction "at right angles to the speed of light" was.) This appeared to have an obvious use as a weapon—project a field at an object, watch the object disappear—until the researchers learned that the field couldn't be projected either at or around any object unless the object and the field generator were stationary in relation to each other. But fortunately the c-vector field had an even more obvious application for the men and women who were planning Aster's Hope.

If the ship were equipped with c-vector shields, she would be safe from any disaster short of direct collision with a star. And if the ship were equipped with a c-vector self-destruct, Aster would be safe from any disaster which might happen to—or be caused by—the crew of Aster's Hope.

Construction on the ship commenced almost immediately.

And eventually it was finished. The linguists and biologists and physicists were trained. The meditechs and librarians were equipped. The diplomats were instructed. Each of the nician and puter teams knew how to take Aster's Hope down to her microchips and rebuild (not to mention repro) her from spare parts.

Leaving orbit, setting course, building up speed, the ship arced past Philomel and Periwinkle on her way into the galactic void of the future. For the Asterins, it was as if legends had come back to life—as if a dream crouching in the human psyche since before the Crash had stood up and become real.

But six months later, roughly .4 lightyears from Aster, Temple and Gracias weren't thinking about legends. They didn't see themselves as protectors of a dream. When the emergency brapper went off, they did what any dedicated, well-trained, and quick-thinking Service personnel would have done: they panicked.

But while they panicked they ran naked as children in the direction of the nearest auxcompcom.

In crude terms, the difference between nician and puter was the difference between hardware and software—although there was quite a bit of overlap, of course. Temple made equipment work: Gracias told it what to do. It would've taken her hours to figure out how to do what he'd done to the door sensors. But when they heard the brapper and rolled off the pallet with her ahead of him and headed out of the capsule chamber, and the door didn't open, he was the one who froze.

"Damn," he muttered, "That repro won't cancel for another twenty minutes."

He looked like he was thinking something abusive about himself, so she snapped at him, "Hold it open for me, idiot."

He thudded a palm against his forehead. "Right."

Practically jumping into range of the sensor, he got the door open; and she passed him on his way out into the corridor. But she had to wait for him again at the auxcompcom door. "Come on. Come on," she fretted. "Whatever that brapper means, it isn't good."

"I know." Leftover sweat made his face slick, gave him a look of too much fear. Grimly, he pushed through the sensor field into the auxcompcom room and headed for his chair at the main com console.

Temple followed, jumped into her seat in front of her hardware controls. But for a few seconds neither of them looked at their buttons and readouts. They were fixed on the main screen above the consoles.

The ship's automatic scanners were showing a blip against the deep background of the stars. Even at this distance, Temple and Gracias didn't need the comp to tell them the dot of light on the phosphors of the screen was moving. They could see it by watching the stars recede as the scanners focused in on the blip.

It was coming toward them.

It was coming fast.

"An asteroid?" Temple asked, mostly to hear somebody say something. The comp was supposed to put Aster's Hope on emergency alert whenever it sensed a danger of collision with any object large enough to be significant.

"Oh, sure." Gracias poked his blunt fingers around his board, punching readouts up onto the other auxcompcom screens. Numbers and schematics flashed. "If asteroids change course."


"Just did an adjustment," he confirmed. "Coming right at us. Also,"—he pointed at a screen to her left—"decelerating."

She stared at the screen, watched the numbers jump. Numbers were his department; he was faster at them than she was. But she knew what words meant. "Then it's a ship."

Gracias acted like he hadn't heard her. He was watching the screens as if he were close to apoplexy.

"That doesn't make sense," she went on. "If there are ships this close to Aster, why haven't we heard from them? We should've picked up their transmissions. They should've heard us. God knows we've been broadcasting enough noise for the past couple of centuries. Are we hailing it?"

"We're hailing," he said. "No answer." He paused for a second, then announced, "Estimated about three times our size." He sounded stunned. Carefully, he said, "The comp estimates it's decelerating from above the speed of light."

She couldn't help herself. "That's impossible," she snapped. "Your eyes are tricking you. Check it again."

He hit some more buttons, and the numbers on the screen twisted themselves into an extrapolation graph. Whatever it was, the oncoming ship was still moving faster than Aster's Hope—and it was still decelerating.

For a second, she put her hands over her face, squeezed the heels of her palms against her temples. Her pulse felt like she was going into adrenaline overload. But this was what she'd been trained for. Abruptly, she dropped her arms and looked at the screens again. The blip was. still coming, but the graph hadn't changed.

From above the speed of light. Even though the best Asterin scientists had always said that was impossible.

Oh, well, she muttered to herself. One more law of nature down the tubes. Easy come, easy go.

"Why don't they contact us?" she asked. "If we're aware of them, they must know we're here."

"Don't need to," Gracias replied through his concentration. "Been scanning us since they hit space normal speed. The comp reports scanner probes everywhere. Strong enough to take your blood pressure." Then he stiffened, sat up straighter, spat a curse. "Probes are trying to break into the comp."

Temple gripped the arms of her seat. This was his department; she was helpless. "Can they do it? Can you stop them?"

"Encryption's holding them out." He studied his readouts, flicked his eyes past the screens. "Won't last. Take com."

Without waiting for an answer, he keyed his console to hers and got out of his seat. Quickly, he went to the other main console in the room, the comp repro board.

Feeling clumsy now as she never did when she was working with tools or hardware, she accepted com and began trying to monitor the readouts. But the numbers swam, and the prompts didn't seem to make sense. Operating in emergency mode, the comp kept asking her to ask it questions; but she couldn't think of any for it. Instead, she asked Gracias, "What're you doing?"

His hands stabbed up and down the console. He was still sweating. "Changing the encryption," he said. "Whole series of changes. Putting them on a loop." When he was done, he took a minute to doublecheck his repro. Then he gave a grunt of satisfaction and came back to his com seat. While he keyed his controls away from Temple, he said, "This way, the comp can't be broken by knowing the present code. Have to know what code's coming up next. That loop changes often enough to keep us safe for a while."

She permitted herself a sigh of relief—and a soft snarl of anger at the oncoming ship. She didn't like feeling helpless. "If those bastards can't break the comp, do you think they'll try to contact us?"

He shrugged, glanced at his board. "Channels are open. They talk, we'll hear." For a second, he chewed his lower lip. Then he leaned back in his seat and swung around to face her. His eyes were dark with fear.

"Don't like this," he said distinctly, "Don't like it at all. A faster-than-light ship coming straight for us. Straight for Aster. And they don't talk. Instead, they try to break the comp."

She knew his fear. She was afraid herself. But when he looked like he needed her, she put her own feelings aside. "Would you say," she said, drawling so she would sound sardonic and calm, "that we're being approached by somebody hostile?"

He nodded dumbly.

"Well, we're safe enough. Maybe the speed of light isn't unbreakable, but a c-vector shield is. So what we have to worry about is Aster. If that ship gets past us, we'll never catch up with it. How far away is it now?"

Gracias turned back to his console, called up some numbers. "Five minutes." His face didn't show it, but she could hear in his voice that he was grateful for her show of steadiness.

"I don't think we should wait to see what happens," she said. "We should send a message home now."

"Right." He went to work immediately, composing data on the screens, calling up the scant history of Aster's Hope's contact with the approaching ship. "Continuous broadcast," he murmured as he piped information to the transmitters. "Constant update, Let Aster know everything we can."

Temple nodded her approval, then gaped in astonishment as the screens broke up into electronic garbage. A sound like frying circuitry spat from all the speakers at once—from the hailing channels as well as from intraship. She almost let out a shout of surprise; but training and recognition bit it back. She knew what that was.

"Jammer," Gracias said. "We're being jammed."

"From this distance?" she demanded. "From this distance? That kind of signal should take"—she checked her readout—"three and some fraction minutes to get here. How do they do that?"

He didn't reply for a few seconds: he was busy restoring order to the screens. Then he said, "They've got faster-than-light drive. Scanners make ours look like toys. Why not better radio?"

"Or maybe," she put in harshly, "they started broadcasting their jammer as soon as they picked us up." In spite of her determination to be calm, she was breathing hard, sucking uncertainty and anger through her teeth. "Can you break through?"

He tried, then shook his head. "Too thick."

"Damn! Gracias, what're we going to do? If we can't warn Aster, then it's up to us. If that ship is hostile, we've got to fight it somehow."

"Not built for it," he commented. "Aster's Hope. About as maneuverable as a rock."

She knew. Everything about the ship had been planned with defense rather than offense in mind. She was intended, first, to survive; second, not to give anything away about her homeworld prematurely. In fact as well as in appearance, she wasn't meant as a weapon of war. And one reason for this was that the mission planners had never once considered the idea of encountering an alien (never mind hostile) ship this close to home.

She found herself wishing for different armament, more speed, and a whole lot less mass. But that couldn't be helped now. "We need to get their attention somehow," she said, "Make them cope with us before they go on," An idea struck her, "What've the scanners got on them?''

"Still not much. Size, Velocity." Then, as if by intuition, he seemed to know what she had in mind, "Shields of course. Look like ordinary force-disruption fields."

She almost smiled. "'You're kidding. No c-vector?"


"Then maybe—" She thought furiously. "Maybe there's something we can do. If we can slow them down—maybe do them some damage—and they can't hurt us at all—maybe they won't go on to Aster.

"Gracias, are we on a collision course with that thing?"

He glanced, at her. "Not quite. Going to miss by a kilometer."

As if she were in command of Aster's Hope, she said, "Put us in the way."

A grin flashed through his concentration. "Yes, sir, Temple, ma'am, sir. Good idea."

At once, he started keying instructions into his com board.

While he set up the comp to adjust Aster's Hope's course— and then to adjust it continuously to keep the ship as squarely as possible in the oncoming vessel's path—Temple secured herself in her momentum restraints. Less than three minutes, she thought. Three minutes to impact. For a moment, she thought Gracias was moving too slowly. But before she could say anything, he took his hands off the board and started strapping his own restraints. "Twenty seconds," he said.

She braced herself. "Are we going to feel it?"

"Inertial shift? Of course."

"No, idiot. Are we going to feel the impact?"

He shrugged. "If we hit. Nobody's ever hit a c-vector shield that hard with something that big."

Then Temple's stomach turned on its side, and the whole auxcompcom felt like it was starting into a spin.

The course adjustment was over almost immediately: at the speeds Aster's Hope and the alien were traveling, one kilometer was a subtle shift.

Less than two and a half minutes. If we hit. She couldn't sit there and wait for it in silence. "Are the scanners doing any better? We ought to be able to count their teeth from this range."

"Checking," he said. With a few buttons, he called a new display up onto the main screen—

—and stared at it without saying anything. His mouth hung open; his whole face was blank with astonishment.

"Gracias?" She looked at the screen for herself. With a mental effort, she tightened down the screws on her brain, forced herself to see the pattern in the numbers. Then she lost control of her voice: it went up like a yell. "Gracias?"

"Don't believe it," he murmured. "No. Don't believe it."

According to the scanners, the oncoming ship was crammed to the walls with computers and weaponry, equipment in every size and shape, mechanical and electrical energy of all kinds—and not one single living organism.

"There's nothing—" She tried to say it, but at first she couldn't. Her throat shut down, and she couldn't unlock it. She had to force a swallow past the rigid muscles. "There's nothing alive in that ship.''

Abruptly, Aster's Hope went into a course shift that felt like if was going to pull her heart out of her chest. The alien was taking evasive action, and Aster's Hope was compensating.

One minute.

"That's crazy," She was almost shouting. "It comes in faster than light and starts decelerating right at us and jams oar transmissions and shifts course to try to keep us from running into it—and there's nobody alive on board? Who do we talk to if we want to surrender?"

"Take it easy," Gracias said. "One thing at a time. Artificial intelligence is feasible. Ship thinks for itself, maybe. Or on automatic. Exploration probe might—"

Another coarse shift cut him off. A violent inertial kick— too violent. Her head was jerked to the left. Alarms went off like klaxons. Aster's Hope was trying to bring herself back toward collision with the other ship, trying—

The screens flashed loud warnings, danger signs as familiar to her as her name. Three of the ship's thrusters were overheating critically. One was tearing itself to pieces under the shift stress. Aster's Hope wasn't made for this.

She was the ship's' nician: she couldn't let Aster's Hope be damaged. "Break off!" she shouted through the squall of the alarms. "We can't do it!"

Gracias slapped a hand at his board, canceled the collision course.

G-stress receded. Lights on Temple's board told her about thrusters damaged, doors jammed because they'd shifted on their mounts; a locker in the meditech section sprung, a handful of cryogenic capsules gone on backup. But the alarms were cut off almost instantly.

For a second, the collision warnings went into a howl. Then they stopped. The sudden silence felt louder than the alarms.

Gracias punched visual up onto the screens. He got a picture in time to see the other ship go by in a blur of metal too fast for the eye to track. From a range the scanners measured in tens of meters, the alien looked the size of a fortress—squat, squarish, enormous.

As it passed, it jabbed a bright red shaft of force at Aster's Hope from pointblank range.

All the screens in the auxcompcon went dark.

"God!" Gracias gasped. "Scanners burnt out?"

That was Temple's province. She was still reeling from the shock, the knowledge that Aster's Hope had been fired upon; but her hands had been trained until they had a life of their own and knew what to do. Hardly more than a heartbeat after she understood what Gracias said, she sent in a diagnostic on the scanner circuits. The answer trailed across the screen in front of her.

"No damage," she reported.

"Then what?" He sounded flustered, groping for comprehension.

"Did you get any scan on that beam?" she returned. "Enough to analyze?" Then she explained, "Right angles to the speed of light isn't the same direction for every force. Maybe the c-vector sent this one off into some kind of wraparound field."

That was what he needed. "Right." His hands went to work on his board again.

Almost immediately, he had an answer. "Ion beam. Would've reduced us to subatomic particles without the shield. But only visual's lost. Scanners still functioning. Have visual back in a second."

"Good." She doublechecked her own readouts, made sure that Aster's Hope's attempts to maneuver with the alien hadn't done any urgent harm. At the same time, she reassured herself that the force of the ion beam hadn't been felt inside the shield. Then she pulled her attention back to the screens and Gracias.

"What's our friend doing now?"

He granted, nodded up at the main screen. The comp was plotting another graph, showing the other ship's course in relation to Aster's Hope.

She blinked at it. That was impossible. Impossible for a ship that size moving thai fast to turn that hard.

But of course, she thought with an odd sensation of craziness, there isn't anything living aboard to feel G-stress.

"Well." She swallowed at the way her voice shook. "At least we got their attention."

Gracias fried to laugh, but if came out like a snarl. "Good for us. Now what?"

"We could try to run," she offered. "Put as much distance as possible between as and home."

He shook his head. "Won't work. They're faster."

"Besides which," she growled, "'we've left a particle trail even we could follow all the way back to Aster. That and the incessant radio gabble— If that mechanical behemoth wants to find our homeworld, we might as well transmit a map."

He pulled back from his board, swung his seat to face her again. His expression troubled her. His eyes seemed dull, almost glazed, as if under pressure his intelligence were slowly losing its edge. "Got a choice?" he asked.

The thought that he might fail Aster's Hope made panic beat in her forehead; but she forced it down. "Sure," she snapped, trying to send him a spark of her own anger. "We can fight."

His eyes didn't focus on her. "Got laser cannon," he said. "Hydrogen torpedoes. Ship like that—he nodded toward, the screen—"won't have shields we can hurt. How can we fight?"

"You said they're ordinary force-disruption fields. We can break through that. Any sustained pounding can break through. That's why they didn't build Aster's Hope until they could do better."

He still didn't quite look at her. Enunciating carefully, he said, "I don't believe that ship has shields we can hurt."

Temple pounded the edge of her console. "Damn it, Gracias! We've got to try! We can't just sit here until they get bored and decide to go do something terrible to our home world. If you aren't interested—" Abruptly, she leaned back in her seat, took a deep breath and held it to steady herself. Then she said quietly, "Key com over to me. I'll do it myself."

For a minute longer, he remained the way he was, his gaze staring disfocused past her chin. Slowly, he nodded. Moving sluggishly, he turned back to his console.

But instead of keying com over to Temple, he told the comp to begin decelerating Aster's Hope. Losing inertia so the ship could maneuver better.

Softly, she let a sigh of relief through her teeth.

While Aster's Hope braked, pulling her against her momentum restraints, and the unliving alien ship continued its impossible turn, she unlocked the weaponry controls on her console. A string of Sights began to indicate the status of every piece of combative equipment Aster's Hope carried.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, she thought to herself. She'd never imagined it like this. When/if the Asterin mission encountered some unexpected form of life, another space-going vessel, a planetary intelligence, the whole situation should've been different. A hard-nosed distrust was to be expected: a fear of the unknown; a desire to protect the homeworld; communication problems; wise caution. But not unprovoked assault. Not an immediate pitched battle out in the middle of nowhere, with Aster itself at issue.

Not an alien ship full of nothing but machinery? Was that the crucial point?

All right: what purpose could a ship like that serve? Exploration probe? Then it wouldn't be hostile. A defense mechanism for a theoretically secure sector of space which Aster's Hope had somehow violated? But they were at least fifty lightyears from the nearest neighbor to Aster's star; and it was difficult to imagine an intelligence so paranoid that its conception of "territorial space" reached out this far. Some kind of automated weapon? But Aster didn't have any enemies.

None of it made any sense. And as she tried to sort it out, her confusion grew worse, it started her sliding into panic.

Fortunately, Gracias chose that moment to ask gruffly, "Ready? It's hauling up on us fast. Be in range in a minute."

She made an effort to control her breathing, shake the knots of panic out of her mind. "Plot an evasive course," she said, "and key it to my board." Her weapons program had to know where Aster's Hope was going in order to use its armament effectively.

"Why?" he asked. "Don't need evasion. Shield'llprotect as."

"To keep them guessing." Her tension was plain in her voice. "And show them we can hit them on the run. Do it."

She thought he was moving too slowly. But faster than she could've done it he had a plot up on the main screen, showing the alien's incoming course and the shifts Aster's Hope was about to make.

She tried to wipe the sweat from her palms on her bare legs; but it didn't do much good. Snarling at the way her hands fell, she poised them over the weapons com.

Gracias's plot stayed on the main screen; but the display in front of her gave her visual again, and she saw the alien ship approaching like a bright metal projectile the Galaxy had flung to knock Aster's Hope out of the heavens. Suddenly frantic, as if she believed the other ship were actually going to crush her, she started firing.

Beams of light shot at the alien from every laser port the comp could bring to bear.

Though the ship was huge, the beams focused on a single section: Temple was trying to maximize their impact. When they hit the force-disruption field, light suddenly blared all across the spectrum, sending up a rainbow of coruscation.

"Negative," Gracias reported as Aster's Hope wrenched into her first evasion shift. '"No effect."

Her weight rammed against the restraints, the skin of her cheeks pulling, Temple punched the weapons com into continuous fire, then concentrated on holding up her head so that she could watch the visual.

As her lasers turned the alien ship's shields into a fireworks display, another bright red shaft of force came as straight as a spear at Aster's Hope.

Again, the screen lost visual.

But this time Gracias was ready. He got scanner plots onto the screen while visual was out of use. Temple could see her laser fire like an equation on a graph connecting Aster's Hope and the unliving ship. Every few seconds, a line came back the other way—an ion beam as accurate as if Aster's Hope were stationary. "Any effect yet?" she gasped at Gracias as another evasion shift kicked her to the other side of her seat. "We're hitting them hard. It's got to have an effect."

"Negative," he repeated. "That shield disperses force almost as fast as it comes in. Doesn't weaken."

Then the attacker went past. In seconds, it would be out of reach of Temple's laser cannon.

"Cancel evasion," she snapped, keying her com out of continuous fire. "Go after them. As fast as we can. Give me a chance to aim a torpedo."

"Right," he responded. And a second later G-stress slammed at her as all the ship's thrusters went on full power, roaring for acceleration.

Aster's Hope steadied on the alien's course and did her best to match its speed.

"Now," Temple muttered, "Now. Before they start to torn." Her hands quick on the weapons board, she primed a whole barrage of hydrogen torpedoes. Then she pulled in course coordinates from the comp. "Go." With the flat of her hand on all the launch buttons at once, she fired.

The comp automatically blinked the c-vector shield to let the torpedoes out. Fired from a scarce moving as fast as Aster's Hope was, they attained .95c almost immediately and went after the other ship.

Gracias didn't wait for Temple's instructions. He reversed thrust, decelerating Aster's Hope again to stay as far as possible from the blast when the torpedoes hit.

If they hit. The scanner plot on the main screen showed that the alien was starting to turn.

"Come on," she breached. Unconsciously, she pounded her fists on the arms of her seat. "Come on. Hit that bastard. Hit."

"Impact," he said as all the blips on the scanner came together.

At that instant, visual cleared. They saw a hot white ball explode like a balloon of energy rupturing in all directions at once.

Then both visual and scan went haywire for a few long seconds. The detonation of that many hydrogen torpedoes at once filled all the space around Aster's Hope with chaos: energy emissions on every frequency; supercharged particles phasing in and out of existence as they screamed away from the point of explosion.

"Hit him," Gracias murmured.

Temple gripped the arms of her seat, stared at the garbage on the screens. "What do you think? Can they stand up to that?"

He didn't shrug. He looked like he didn't have that much energy left. "Wouldn't hurt us."

"Can't you clear the screens? We've got to see."

"The comp's doing it." Then, a second later: "Here it comes."

The screens wiped themselves clear, and a new scanner plot mapped the phosphors in front of him. It showed the alien turning hard, coming back toward Aster's Hope.

The readout was negative. No damage.

"Oh, God," she sighed. "I don't believe it." All the strength seemed to run out of her body. She sagged against her restraints. "Now what do we do?"

He went on staring at the screens for a long moment while the attacking ship completed its turn. Then he said, "Don't know. Try for collision again?"

When she didn't say anything, he gave the problem to the comp, told it to wait until the last possible instant—considering Aster's Hope's poor maneuverability—and then thrust the ship into the alien's path. After that, he keyed his board onto automatic and leaned back in his restraints. To her surprise, he yawned hugely.

"Need sleep," he mumbled thickly. "Be glad when this shift's over."

Surprise and fear made her acid. "You're not thinking very clearly, Gracias." She needed him, but he seemed to be getting further and further away. "Do you think the mission can continue after this? What do you think the chances are that ship's going to give up and let us go on our way? My God, there isn't even anybody alive over there! The whole thing is just a machine. It can stay here and pound at us for centuries, and it won't even get bored. Or it can calculate the odds on Aster building a c-vector shield big enough to cover the whole planet—and it can just forget about us, leave us here and go attack our homeworld because there won't be anything we can do to stop it and Aster is unprotected. We don't even know what it wants. We—"

She might have gone on; but the comp chose that moment to heave Aster's Hope in front of the alien. Every thruster screaming, the ship pulled her mass into a terrible acceleration, fighting for a collision her attacker couldn't avoid. Temple fell like she was being cut to pieces by the straps holding her in her seat. She tried to cry out, but she couldn't get any air into her lungs.

Her damage readouts and lights began to put on a show.

But the alien ship skipped aside and went past without being touched.

For a second, Aster's Hope pulled around, trying to follow her opponent. Then Gracias forced himself forward and canceled the comp's collision instructions. Instantly, the G-stress eased. The ship settled onto a new heading chosen by her inertia, the alien already turning again to come after her.

"Damn," he said softly. "Damn it."

Temple let herself rest against her restraints. We can't— she thought dully. Can't even run into that thing. It can't hurt us. But we can't hurt it. Aster's Hope wasn't built to be a warship. She wasn't supposed to protect her homeworld by fighting: she was supposed to protect it by being diplomatic and conning and distant. If the worst came to the very worst, she was supposed so protect Aster by not coining back. But this was a mission of peace, the mission of Aster's dream: the ship was never intended to fight for anything except her own survival.

"For some reason," Temple murmured into the silence of the auxcompcom, "I don't think this is what I had in mind when I joined the Service."

Gracias started to say something. The sound of frying circuitry from the speakers cut him off. It got her attention like a splash of hot oil.

This time, it wasn't a jammer. She saw that in the readouts jumping across the screens. It was another scanner probe, like the one that tried to break into the comp earlier. But now it was tearing into the ship's unprotected communication hardware—the intraship speakers.

After the initial burst of static, the sounds began to change. Frying became whistles and grunts, growls and moans. For a minute, she had the impression she was listening to some inconceivable alien language. But before she could call up the comp's translation programs—or ask Gracias to do it— the interference on the speakers modulated until it became a voice and words.

A voice from every speaker in the auxcompcom at once.

Words Temple and Gracias understood.

The voice sounded like a poorly calibrated vodor, metallic and insensitive. But the words were distinct.

"Surrender, badlife. You will be destroyed."

The scanner probe had turned up the gain on all the speakers. The voice was so loud it seemed to rattle the auxcompcom door on its mounts.

Involuntarily, Temple gasped, "Good God. What in hell is that?"

Gracias replied unnecessarily, "The other ship. Talking to us." He sounded dull, defeated, almost uninterested.

"I know that," she snapped. "For God's sake, wake up!" Abruptly, she slapped a hand at her board, opened a radio channel. "Who are you?" she demanded into her mike.

"What do you want? We're no threat to you. Our mission is peaceful. Why are you attacking us?"

The scanner plot on the main screen showed that the alien ship had already completed its turn and caught up with Aster's Hope. Now it was matching her course and speed, shadowing her at a distance of less than half a kilometer.

"Surrender," the speakers blared again. "You are badlife. You will be destroyed. You must surrender."

Frantic with fear and urgency, and not able to control it, Temple slapped off her mike and swung her seat to rage at Gracias. "Can't you turn that down? It's splitting my eardrums!"

Slowly, as if he were half asleep, he tapped a few buttons on his console. Blinking at the readouts, he murmured, "Hardware problem. Scanner probe's stronger than the comp's line voltage. Have to reduce gain manually." Then he widened his eyes at something that managed to surprise him even in his stunned state. "Only speakers affected are in here. This room. Bastard knows exactly where we are. And every circuit around us."

That didn't make sense. It made so little sense that it caught her attention, focused her in spite of her panic. "Wait a minute," she said. "They're only using these speakers? The ones in this room? How do they know we're in here? Gracias, there are three hundred ninety-two people aboard. How can they possibly know you and I are the only ones awake?"

"You must surrender," the speakers squalled again. "You cannot flee. You have no speed. You cannot fight. Your weapons are puny. When your shields are broken, you will be helpless. Your secrets will be lost. Only surrender can save your lives."

She keyed her mike again. "No. You're making a mistake. We're no threat to you. Who are you? What do you want?"

"Death," the speakers replied. "Death for all life. Death for all worlds. You must surrender."

Gracias closed his eyes. Without looking at what he was doing, he moved his hands on his board, got visual back up on the main screen. The screen showed the alien ship sailing like a skyborne fort an exact distance from Aster's Hope. It held its position so precisely that it looked motionless. It seemed so close Temple thought she could have hit it with a rock.

"Maybe," he sighed, "don't know we're the only ones awake."

She didn't understand what he was thinking; but she caught at it as if it were a lifeline. "What do you mean?"

He didn't open his eyes. "Cryogenically frozen," he said. "Vital signs so low the monitors can hardly read them. Capsules are just equipment. And the comp's encrypted. Maybe that scanner probe thinks we're the only life-forms here."

She caught her breath. "If that's true—" Ideas reeled through her head. "They probably want us to surrender because they can't figure out our shields. And because they want to know what we're doing, just the two of us in this big ship. It might be suicide for them to go on to Aster without knowing the answers to questions like that. And while they're trying to find out how to break down our shields, they'll probably stay right there.

"Gracias," her heart pounding with unreasonable hope, "how long would it take you to repro the comp to project a c-vector field at that ship? We're stationary in relation to each other. We can use our field generator as a weapon."

That got his eyes open. When he rolled his head to the side to face her, he looked sick. "How long will it take you," he asked, "to rebuild the generator for that kind of projection? And what will we use for shields while you're working?"

He was right: she knew it as soon as he said it. But there had to be something they could do, had to be. They couldn't just sail across the galactic void for the next few thousand years while their homeworld was destroyed behind them.

There had to be something they could do.

The speakers started trumpeting again. "Badlife, you have been warned. The destruction of your ship will now begin. You must surrender to save your lives."

Badlife, she wondered crazily to herself. What does that mean, badlife? Is that ship some kind of automatic weapon gone berserk, shooting around the Galaxy exterminating what it calls badlife?

How is it going to destroy Aster's Hope?

She didn't have to wait long to find out. lmost immediately, she felt a heavy metallic thank vibrate through the seals that held her seat to the floor. A fraction of an instant later, a small flash of light from somewhere amidships on the attacking vessel showed that a projectile weapon had been fired.

Then alarms began to howl, and the damage readouts on Temple's board began to spit intimations of disaster.

Training took over through her panic. Her hands danced on the console, gleaning data. "We've been hit." Through the shield, "Some kind of projectile." Through the c-vector shield, "It's breached the hull." All three layers of the ship's metal skin. "I don't know what it was, but it's punched a hole all the way to the outer-shell wall."

Gracias interrupted her: "How big's the hole?"

"About a meter square." She went back to the discipline of her report. "The comp is closing pressure doors, isolating the breach. Damage is minor—we've lost one heat-exchanger for the climate control. But if they do that again, they might hit something more vital." Trusting the c-vector shields, Aster's Hope's builders hadn't tried to make her particularly hard to damage in other ways.

The alien ship did it again. Another tearing thud as the projectile hit. Another small flash of light from the attacker. More alarms. Temple's board began to look like it was monitoring a madhouse.

"The same place," she said, fighting a rising desire to scream. "It's pierced outer-shell. Atmosphere loss is trivial. The comp is closing more pressure doors." She tapped commands into the console. "Extrapolating the path of those shots, I'm closing all the doors along the way." Then she called up a damage estimate on the destructive force of the projectiles. "Two more like that will breach one of the mid-shell cryogenic chambers. We're going to start losing people."

And if the projectiles went on pounding the same place, deeper and deeper into the ship, they would eventually reach the c-vector generator.

It was true: Aster's Hope was going to be destroyed.

"Gracias, what is it? This is supposed to be impossible. How are they doing it to us?"

"Happening too fast to scan." In spite of his torpor, he already had all the answers he needed up on his screen. "Faster-than-light projectile. Flash shows after impact. Vaporize us if we didn't have the shields. C-vector brings it down to space-normal speed. But then it's inside the field. Ship wasn't built for this."

A faster—For a moment, her brain refused to understand the words. A faster-than-light projectile. And when it hit the shield, just enough of its energy went off at right angles to the speed of light to slow it down. Not enough to stop it.

As if in mockery, the speakers began to blast again. "Your ship is desired intact. Surrender. Your lives will be spared. You will be granted opportunity to serve as goodlife."

So exasperated she hardly knew what she was doing, she slapped open a radio channel. "Shut up!" she shouted across the black space between Aster's Hope and the alien. "Stop shooting! Give us a chance to think! How can we surrender if you don't give us a chance to think?"

Gulping air, she looked at Gracias. She felt wild and didn't know what to do about it. His eyes were dull, low-lidded: he might've been going to sleep. Sick with fear, she panted at him, "Do something! You're the ship's puter. You're supposed to take care of her. You're supposed to have ideas. They can't do this to my ship!"

Slowly—too slowly—he turned toward her. His neck hardly seemed strong enough to hold his head up. "Do what? Shield's all we've got. Now it isn't any good. That"—he grimaced—"that thing—has everything. Nothing we can do."

Furiously, she ripped off her restraints, heaved out of her seat so that she could go to him and shake him. "There has to be something we can do!" she shouted into his face. "We're human! That thing's nothing but a pile of microchips and demented programming. We're more than it' is! Don't surrender! Think!"

For a moment, he stared at her. Then he let out an empty laugh. "What good's being human? Doesn't help. Only intelligence and power count. Those machines have intelligence. Maybe more than we do. More advanced than we are. And a lot more powerful." Dully, he repeated, "Nothing we can do."

In response, she wanted to rage at him. We can refuse to give up! We can keep fighting! We're not beaten as long as we're stubborn enough to keep fighting! But as soon as she thought that she knew she was wrong. There was nothing in life as stubborn as a machine doing what it was told.

"Intelligence and power aren't all that count," she protested, trying urgently to find what she wanted, something she could believe in, something that would pull Gracias out of his defeat. "What about emotion? That ship can't care about anything. What about love?"

When she said that, his expression crumpled. Roughly, he put his hands over his face. His shoulders knotted as he struggled with himself.

"Well, then," she went on, too desperate to pull back, "we can use the self-destruct. Kill Aster's Hope"—the bare idea choked her, but she forced it out—"to keep them from finding out how the shield generator works. Altruism. That's something they don't have."

Abruptly, he wrenched his hands down from his face, pulled them into fists, pounded them on the arms of his seat. "Stop it," he whispered. "Stop it. Machines are altruistic. Don't care about themselves at all. Only thing they can't do is feel bad when what they want is taken away. Any second now, they're going to start firing again. We're dead, and there's nothing we can do about it, nothing. Stop breaking my heart."

His anger and rejection should have hurt her. But he was awake and alive, and his eyes were on fire in the way she loved. Suddenly, she wasn't alone: he'd come back from his dull horror. "Gracias," she said softly. "Gracias." Possibilities were moving in the back of her brain, ideas full of terror and hope, ideas she was afraid to say out loud. "We can wake everybody up. See if anybody else can think of anything. Put it to a vote. Let the mission make its own decisions.

"Or we can—"

What she was thinking scared her out of her mind, but she told him what it was anyway. Then she let him yell at her until he couldn't think of any more arguments against it. After all, they had to save Aster.

Her part of the preparations was simple enough. She left him in the auxcompcom and took the nearest shaft down to inner-shell. First she visited a locker to get her tools and a magnetic sled. Then she went to the central command center.

In the cencom, she keyed a radio channel. Hoping the alien was listening, she said, "I'm Temple. My partner is crazy—he wants to fight. I want to surrender. I'll have to kill him. It won't be easy. Give me some time. I'm going to disable the shields."

She took a deep breath, forced herself to sigh. Could a mechanical alien understand a sigh? "Unfortunately, when the shields go down it's going to engage an automatic self-destruct. That I can't disable. So don't try to board the ship. You'll get blown to pieces, I'll come out to you.

"I want to be goodlife, not badlife. To prove my good faith, I'm going to bring with me portable generator for the c-vector field we use as shields. You can study it, learn how it works. Frankly, you need it." The alien ship could probably hear the stress in her voice, so she made an extra effort to sound sarcastic. "You'd be dead by now if we weren't on a peace mission. We know how to break down your shields—we just don't have the firepower."

There. She clicked off the transmitter. Let them think about that for a while.

From the cencom, she opened one of the access hatches and took her tools and mag-sled down into the core of Aster's Hope, where most of the ship's vital equipment operated— the comp banks, the artificial, gravity inducer, the primary life-support systems, the c-vector generator.

While she worked, she didn't talk to Gracias. She wanted to know how he was doing; but she already knew the intraship communication lines weren't secure from the alien's scanner probe.

In a relatively short time—she was Aster's Hope's nician and knew what she was doing—she had the ship's self-destruct device detached from its comp links and loaded onto the mag-sled. That device (called "the black box" by the mission planners) was no more than half Temple's size, but it was a fully functional c-vector generator, capable from its own energy cells of sending the entire ship off at right angles to the speed of light, even if the rest of Aster's Hope were inoperative. With the comp links disconnected, Gracias couldn't do anything to destroy the ship; but Temple made sure the self-destruct's radio trigger was armed and ready before she, steered the mag-sled up out of the core.

This time when she left the cencom she took a shaft up to the mid-shell chamber where she and Gracias had their cryogenic capsules. He wasn't there yet. While she waited for him, she went around the room and disconnected all the speakers. She hoped her movements might make her look from a distance like one furtive life-form preparing an ambush for another.

He was slow in coming. The delay made her fret. Was it possible that he had lapsed back into half somnolent panic? Or had he changed his mind—decided she was crazy? He'd yelled at her as if she were asking him to help her commit suicide. What if he—?

The door whooshed open, and he came into the chamber almost at a run. "Have to hurry," he panted. "Only got fifteen minutes before the shield drops."

His face looked dark and bruised and fierce, as if he'd spent the time she was away from him hitting himself with his fists. For a second, she caught a glimpse of just how terrible what she was asking him to do was.

Ignoring the need for haste, she went to him, put her arms around him, hugged him hard. "Gracias," she breathed, "it's going to work. Don't look at me like that."

He returned her embrace so roughly he made her gasp. But almost immediately he let her go. "Keep your suit radio open," he rasped while he pashed past her and moved to his capsule, "If you go off, the comp will take over. Blow you out of space." Harshly, he pulled himself over the edge into the bed of the capsule. "Two-stage code," he continued. "First say my name." His eyes burned blackly in their sockets, savage with pain and fear. "If that works, say 'Aster.' If it doesn't work, say 'Aster.' Whatever happens. Ship doesn't deserve to die in her sleep."

As if he were dismissing her, he reclined in the capsule and folded his arms over his chest.

But when she went to him to say goodbye, he reached out urgently and caught her wrist. "Why?" he asked softly. "Why are we doing it this way?"

Oh, Gracias. His desperation-hurt her. "Because this is the only way we can persuade them not to blow up Aster's Hope—or come storming aboard—when we let down the shields."

His voice hissing between his clenched teeth, he asked, "Why can't I come with you?"

Tears she couldn't stop ran down her cheeks. "They'll be more likely to trust me if they think I've killed you. And somebody has to stay here. To decide what to do if this all goes wrong. These are the jobs we've been trained for."

For a long moment, he faced her with his dark distress. Then he let go of her arm. "Com'll wake me up when you give the first code."

She was supposed to be hurrying. She could hardly bear to leave him; but she forced herself to kiss him quickly, then step back and engage the lid of his capsule. Slowly, the lid closed down over him until it sealed. The gas that prepared his body for freezing filled the capsule. But he went on staring out at her, darkly, hotly, until the inside of the lid frosted opaque.

Ignoring the tears that streaked her face, she left him. The sled floating on its magnetic field ahead of her, she went to the shaft and rode up to outer-shell, as close as she could safely get to the point where the faster-than-light projectiles had breached Aster's Hope's hull. From there, she steered the mag-sled into the locker room beside the airlock that gave access to the nearest exterior port.

In the locker room, she put on her suit. Because everything depended on it, she tested the suit's radio unit circuits four times. Then she engaged the suit's pressure seals and took the mag-sled into the airlock.

Monitored automatically by the comp, she cycled the airlock to match the null atmosphere/gravity in the port. After that, she didn't need the mag-sled anymore. With hardly a minute to spare, she nudged the black box out into the high metal cave of the port and keyed the controls to open the port doors.

The doors slid back, leaving her face-to-face with the naked emptiness of space.

At first, she couldn't see the alien ship: everything outside the port was too dark. But Aster's Hope was still less than half a lightyear from home; and when Temple's eyes adjusted to the void she found that Aster's sun sent out enough illumination to show the attacking vessel against the background of the stars.

It appeared too big and fatal for her to hurt.

But after the way Gracias had looked at her in farewell she couldn't bare to hesitate. This had to be done. As soon as the alarm went off in the port—and all over Aster's Hope—warning the ship that the shields were down, she cleared her throat, forced her taut voice into use.

"All right," she said into the radio. "I've done it. I've killed my partner. I've shut down the shields. I want you to keep your promise. Save my life. I'm coming out. If we're within a hundred kilometers of the ship when the automatic self-destruct goes, we'll go with it. '

"I've got the portable field generator with me. I can show you how to use it. I can teach you how to make it. You've got to keep your promise."

She didn't wait for an answer: she didn't expect one. The only answer she'd received earlier, was a cessation of the shooting. That was enough. All she had to do was get close to the alien ship.

Grimly, she tightened her grip on one handle of the black box and fired her suit's small thrusters to impell herself and her burden past the heavy doors out into the dark.

Automatically, the comp closed the doors after her, shutting her out.

For an instant, her own smallness almost overwhelmed her. No Asterin had been where she was now: outside her ship half a lightyear from home. All of her training had been in comfortable orbit around Aster, the planet acting as a balance to the immensity of space. And there had been light! Here there were only the gleams and glitters emitted by Aster's Hope's cameras and scanners—and the barely discernible bulk of the alien, its squat lines only less dark than the black heavens.

But she knew that if she let herself think that way she would go mad. Gritting her teeth, she focused her attention— and her thrusters—toward the enemy.

Now everything depended on whether the alien knew there were people alive aboard Aster's Hope, Whether the alien had been able to analyze or deduce all the implications of the c-vector shield. And whether she could get away.

The size of the other vessel made the distance appear less than it was, but after a while she was close enough to see a port opening in the side of the ship.

Then—so suddenly that she flinched and broke into a sweat—a voice came over her suit radio.

"You will enter the dock open before you. It is heavily shielded and invulnerable to explosion. You will remain in the dock with your device. If this is an attempt at treachery, you will be destroyed by your own weapon.

"If you are goodlife, you will be spared. You will remain with your device while you dismantle it for inspection. When its principles are understood, you will be permitted to answer other questions."

"Thanks a whole bunch," she muttered in response. But she didn't let herself slow down or shy away. Instead, she went straight toward the open port until the dock was yawning directly in front of her.

Then she put the repro Gracias had done on the comp to the test.

What she had to do was so risky, so unreasonably dangerous, that she did it almost without thinking about it, as if she'd been doing things like that all her life.

Aiming her thrusters right against the side of the black box, she fired them so that the box was kicked hard and fast into the mouth of the dock and her own momentum in that direction was stopped. There she waited until she saw the force field which shielded the dock drag the box to a stop, grip it motionless. Then she shouted into her radio as if the comp were deaf, "Gracias!"

On that code. Aster's Hope put out a tractor beam and snatched her away from the alien.

It was a small industrial tractor beam, the kind used first in the construction of Aster's Hope, then in the loading of cargo. It was far too small and finely focused to have any function as a weapon. But it was perfect for moving an object the size of Temple in her suit across the distance between the two ships quickly.

Timing was critical, but she made that decision also almost without thinking about it. As the beam rushed her toward Aster's Hope, she shouted into the radio, "Aster!" And on that code, her ship simultaneously raised its c-vector shields and triggered the black box. She was inside the shield for the last brief instants while the alien was still able to fire at her.

Later, she and Gracias saw that the end of their attacker bad been singularly unspectacular. Still somewhat groggy from his imposed nap, he met her in the locker room to help her take off her suit; but when she demanded urgently, "What happened? Did it work?" he couldn't answer because he hadn't checked: he'd come straight to the locker from his capsule when the comp had awakened him.. So they ran together to the nearest auxcompcom to find out if they were safe.

They were. The alien ship was nowhere within scanner range. And wherever it had gone, it left no trace or trail.

So he replayed the visual and scanner records, and they saw what happened to a vessel when a c-vector field was projected onto it.

It simply winked out of existence.

After that, she felt like celebrating. In fact, there was a particular kind of celebration she had in mind—and neither of them was wearing any clothes. But when she let him know what she was thinking, he pushed her gently away. "In a few minutes," he said. "Got work to do."

"What work?" she protested. "We just saved the world— and they don't even know it. We deserve a vacation for the rest of the trip."

He nodded, but didn't move away from the comp console.

"What work?" she repeated.

"Course change," he said. He looked like he was trying not to grin. "Going back to Aster."

"What?" He surprised her so much that she shouted at him without meaning to. "You're aborting the mission? Just like that? What the hell do you think you're doing?"

For a moment, he did his best to scowl thunderously. Then the grin took over. "Now we know faster-than-light is possible," he said. "Just need more research. So why spend a thousand, years sleeping across the Galaxy? Why not go home, do the research—start again when we can do what that ship did."

He looked at her. "Make sense?"

She was grinning herself. "Makes sense."

When he was done with the comp, he got even with her for spilling ice cream on him.

PRISONER\S BASE by Fred Saberhagen | Berserker Base | FRIENDS TOGETHER by Fred Saberhagen