Read Between the Stars Online

Authors: Eric Kotani,John Maddox Roberts

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

Between the Stars

Table of Contents

BETWEEN THE STARS

by

ERIC KOTANI AND JOHN MADDOX ROBERTS

Island Worlds, #3

On the Saturnian moon Rhea, Derek Kuroda unearths two enigmatic objects of immense power. He joins forces with a genius inventor hoping to use the objects for space exploration, but others are intent on using the artifacts for more sinister purposes.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental

Copyright © 1988 by Eric Kotani and John Maddox Roberts

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

260 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10001

First printing, March 1988

ISBN: 0-671-65392-X

eISBN: 978-1-62579-229-7

Cover art by Alan Gutierrez

Printed in the United States of America

Distributed by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, N.Y. 10020

For Alayne, Angela, Beatrice, Cynthia and Valari

ONE

Rhea is an insignificant chunk of lunar material orbiting Saturn at a distance of about 327,000 miles. It is not as negligible as glorified asteroids like Atlas or Telesto, mere fugitives of the solar system captured by Saturn's immense gravity. Still, Rhea has nothing like the glory of spectacular Titan, the next moon out.

All this was on Derek Kuroda's mind as he exited his solo explorer craft,
Cyrano
. He was nineteen years old, one year out of the Ciano Academy, and he felt he deserved something better. He had applied for Titan. He had applied for Ganymede and Callisto, where serious terraforming projects were in the works. He had not applied for Rhea. Rhea he got, nonetheless.

"Ethelred," he said, stepping onto the Rhean surface, "I want it on record that this mission is a waste of the time and talents of Derek Kuroda, who is destined for better things."

"Recorded," said Ethelred, his ship's computer, who had heard many such complaints.

Like the other Saturnian satellites, Rhea had one sterling quality: its view. The sight of Saturn at close range was a spectacle that stole the breath from hardened spacers. The impact of the thousandth viewing was no less powerful than the first as the eye was drawn into futile analysis of the dazzling bands of color, their interfaces twisted into patterns of infinite complexity. Settlers of the Jovian moons claimed that the swirling colors of Jupiter were even more beautiful, but no other body in the system had anything to compare with the majesty of Saturn's rings.
If the big move comes in my lifetime
, Derek thought,
this is the only thing I'll regret leaving behind.

"You need the experience," the man back at Crater Station on Mimas had told him. "You're a kid just out of school Nobody gets the big, demanding jobs first time out. Pull a few of these routine surveys, survive and don't screw up too bad, and we'll see about giving you something more important." Straight out of the academy, Derek had signed on with McNaughton Enterprises, in the exploration department. When he found out what he was expected to do, he would have chucked the job and looked elsewhere, but he needed the money to keep up payments on
Cyrano
.

With such thoughts, it was more pleasant to look up at Saturn than down at where he was stepping. Thus it was that, when he made the greatest discovery in the history of man in space, he stubbed his toe on it. Had Rhea had any gravity worthy of the name, he might have literally tripped over it. When he looked down to see what had made him stumble, he froze. It was not a natural object.

It was egg-shaped. Derek had seen pictures of eggs and he knew that degenerate Earthies actually ate the horrid stuff inside them. He lowered himself for a closer look. It was perhaps ten inches on its longer axis and half that in diameter. The material appeared to be glassy, a transparent green shading to opacity at its center.

Who had made it and why had it been left here? Was it man-made or might it be some freakish but natural object? Glass produced by a meteor impact, flung upward and cooled into this oddly regular shape? He had never heard of such a thing, but crazy things were always turning up in remote corners of the solar system. It hadn't moved when his toe had struck it, so it had to be fastened to the ground in some fashion. He grasped its narrow ends and tugged at it. It came up, but reluctantly. It was not fastened to the ground, but he had to exert himself to lift it.

Sweat sprang out on his scalp when he realized how much this thing had to weigh. Rhea's gravity was infinitesimal, and this thing was barely a double handful, yet he had to strain to lift it. He ran his hands over it to get a reading from his palm-sensors. The instruments in his transparent helmet took a quick visual scan.

"Ethelred," he said, his voice a little shaky, "what do we have here?"

"An object of tremendous density," the computer said. "In Earth gravity it would weigh a few tons."

He looked up at Saturn, hoping for inspiration and finding none. "Only matter at the center of collapsars has that kind of density!"

"So it has always been thought."

"You can't just pick up a hunk of collapsar and hold it in your hands, Ethelred."

"It is not possible at our current stage of technology," the computer agreed.

"Ohmigod!" Derek closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "You know what we have here, don't you? What we have here is an alien artifact."

"Not proven, but that seems to be the most likely hypothesis."

"For around two hundred years people have been looking for alien artifacts. Nobody's found any. Until now." Since it wasn't a question, Ethelred didn't bother to answer. Derek set the thing down and made a quick scan of the area. A few yards away, he found a second egg. It took two arduous walks to carry them back to his ship. He gave their readings to a robot probe and sent it in a widening spiral, searching for more.

Derek stripped off his EVA suit and went straight to the ship's tiny food synthesizer. He punched in a double tequila and it delivered the icy bulb in two seconds. With its straw clamped in his teeth like a cigar, he stared at the two objects on his deck. The moonlet barely had gravity sufficient to give him up-and-down orientation, but the two eggs sat there as if they were welded to the substructure. On Earth, they might have sunk through the crust.

"X-ray analysis?" he asked.

"The centers are opaque to X-ray," Ethelred said.

"Give them the full battery: spectrographic, chemical, everything." Carefully, he lowered one of the ovoids into an analyzer. Within one minute, the instruments had adjusted themselves to the size and shape of the specimen and began busily testing it. For the next several minutes, while the tests were being run, he stood in deep thought. The moon's gravity was too low to bother with unfolding the little ship's only chair.

Derek would have been tall if spacers had bothered much about comparative height. In the mostly zero-gee environment of the Island Worlds, such considerations were irrelevant. His bronze-colored hair was tied in a neat samurai topknot, which was both fashionable and convenient for wear in an EV helmet. Despite the hairdo and his family name, there was little Asiatic about his looks. Only a very slight epicanthic fold in the inner corners of his green eyes revealed his Japanese ancestry. His body was beautifully proportioned—lean, but with far more muscle mass than most spacers had. Since childhood he had taken special treatments and performed special exercises so that he could function in planetary gravity up to Earth normal.

Idly, he tugged loose his hair-ribbon and his implanted static charge fanned his hair into a leonine mane, a style popular with his age group in recent years. On Derek it looked better than on most. His strong face, with its broad brow and wide cheekbones, was equally leonine. He tossed the white ribbon away, and it was attacked before it could settle to the deck. A furious furball shot through the air, squalling hatred of anything small, white and moving. The shipcat was nearly spherical, with a flat, wide tail that paddled the air for added velocity. It caught the ribbon with its forepaws and tore at it with needlelike fangs. The cat twisted in air and cushioned its impact against a wall with its hind paws.

"Good move, Carruthers," Derek said. The shipcat ignored him and batted the wadded ribbon across the chamber, giving it a tiny head start before setting out in pursuit. In the early days of Lunar settlement, white lab rats had escaped and infested first Luna, then all other settlements and ships. They were a mutated stock, unnaturally intelligent, and all attempts to eradicate them had failed. Cats, mankind's oldest ally in the war with rodents, became the third spacegoing species to spread from Earth. Much research had been devoted to developing a suitable cat box.

"Ethelred," Derek said, "you are to forget that I found two of these things. You will report that I found only one."

"As you instruct." The computer's tone was mildly reproving, but it would follow orders. "As soon as the probe returns, start plotting a course for the Academy. I need to pay a visit to Aunt Sieglinde."

Hours later the probe returned, having found nothing. It was possible that there were other artifacts somewhere on Rhea, but if so, they were beyond the probe's range. Derek spent part of the time arranging Ethelred's figures so that it would look as if
Cyrano
had been accelerating only the mass of one of the eggs. The automated tests turned up absolutely nothing. He had expected as much. Whatever these things were, they were totally outside all human experience. Turning them over to his instruments was like handing a computer to a medieval alchemist and asking him for an analysis.

Under his contract, anything he found on his explorations became the property of McNaughton. For an event of this magnitude, he was willing to bend the rules. Come to think of it, did the rules apply in this case?

"Ethelred, what are my contract obligations vis-a-vis alien artifacts?"

"The United Nations pact of 1997 stipulates that any alien artifact found by anyone automatically becomes the property of the U.N. Confederacy law likewise makes any and all such finds government property."

"Hmm, this could be tricky. Well, Aunt Sieglinde's sort of an institution. That's close enough." Actually, she was not his aunt. But, as a member of the extended Ciano-Kuroda-Taggart clan, Derek had access to the legendary Sieglinde, and the right to address her as his aunt. It had been her genius that had pulled the Confederacy's chestnuts out of the fire in the space war three decades before.

"Ethelred, what are chestnuts and why do they need to be pulled out of fires?"

The computer made an electronic sigh. Derek often asked such questions. "It is an archaic and largely meaningless metaphor indicating—"

"Never mind. Do we have the power to accelerate and brake one of those eggs all the way from here to the Academy?"

"Fuel level is insufficient, but the ship can make it within distress call range of Avalon."

"Not good enough," Derek said. "They'd send out a tug to take us in tow and they'd detect all the extra mass. Will my credit cover a fuel delivery and transfer?" He studied Saturn again. Through the curved square of his main viewport, it looked like a holographic projection.

"No. In fact, the emergency service will probably impound this vessel until you pay the towing bill."

"Probably. Sometimes I think we carry this free enterprise stuff too far." Immediate credit was the rule in the Belt, and the entrepreneurs of Avalon were more demanding than most others. Derek tossed the drink bulb into the recycler and punched in another. As he sipped the drink he told himself that, at this rate, he would be an old drunk before his time. The thought of old drunks gave him the much-needed inspiration.

"Ethelred, how about the Ciano Museum? Will our fuel get us that far?" This might work out better, if he could pull it off.

"If we leave within twenty-four hours."

"Then let's button up and head for the base vessel." He strapped himself into his acceleration couch while all loose objects were automatically secured. His head was swimming with thoughts, plans, schemes, counter-schemes and just plain fear. A few hours before, he had been despairing over his boring, dead-end job. Now, he was in the middle of the biggest drama he could have imagined. Life in the Belt, he reflected, never stayed dull for long.

The base vessel, "mamaship" to its dependents, was a cluttered complex of modules and engines, constantly changing in configuration. Ships usually had names, but larger ones could be broken down into a number of smaller vessels, limited only by the number of engines available. Only the smallest vessels, like Derek's
Cyrano
, retained their identity throughout the vessel's lifetime.

Derek's mamaship was the
Jardine
, named for an illustrious nineteenth-century opium smuggler to whom the McNaughtons claimed kinship.
Jardine
orbited Titan, occasionally firing canisters of gene-engineered bacteria into the giant moon's murky atmosphere. The bacteria were transforming the atmosphere and surface of Titan into something inhabitable by humans. Real colonization was slated to begin within the next generation. Already, it was possible to see the surface from orbit. When Derek was born, the atmosphere had still been opaque, resembling thin tomato soup.

After a tricky braking maneuver, Derek left one of his finds in Titan orbit with a locator, to be picked up later. With the other, he proceeded to
Jardine
. When he was still a few minutes out, the face of his first-line supervisor appeared in the holo tank.

"Kuroda, why are you back so soon? Are you having mechanical difficulties? I remind you that the company accepts only limited responsibility for the repair of vessels personally owned by employees."

"Oh, blow it out your—" He took a deep breath and started over. "Solo explorer craft
Cyrano
, Derek Kuroda commanding, returning to base vessel
Jardine
with alien artifact aboard."

The supervisor didn't seem to hear him. "State your reason for returning early, Kuroda."

There was no talking to a company man. "I said I have an alien artifact aboard, goddamn it! Get me the base director right now!"

"You have a what?" Obviously, the supervisor wasn't equipped to handle anything unexpected. Abruptly, a new face appeared in the holo tank, this one broad and black.

"Base Director Helen Jackson here. What's this about an alien artifact?" He knew her by reputation. Jackson had been a Marine in the Earth forces during the war. Taken as a POW, she had opted to stay in the Confederacy after cessation of hostilities. She was probably somebody he could deal with.

"Just what I said. I picked it up on Rhea. All the tests I could make say it's not of human origin. It's a bit massive, so I have to brake easy."

"Can you make it into the Emergency Dock?" She was all business, as if she had handled this sort of thing before.

"Sure. No difficulty there."

"I'll have it cleared. When you're secured, stay right where you are and I'll meet you with a research team. Does this thing look in any way dangerous?"

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