Stowaway to the Stars


 

 

 

by Graham Keeler

 

 

                                      Read more of the story


 

HOW Larry's troubles all began

The book starts in the thick of the action on Inferior. Here you can read more of how Larry got himself into that predicament, starting at the very beginning of how it began:

Larry leaned against the ornate, genuine wooden furniture in the observatory, so different from the stark, plastic and ceramic functionality of his own world.  His disguise as a photographer gave him the perfect opportunity to observe how Annek played her part as a reporter.  She was doing well for her first covert mission.  He concentrated on his trainee’s performance, only vaguely listening to the astronomer as he explained to Annek what was known about his planet’s star system.

‘There are seven major planets in the Trajian system,’ he was saying.  ‘Superior and Inferior are different.  They’re small planets locked in the same orbit as Garstil, the largest gas giant.  We recently discovered that they both have atmospheres - mostly nitrogen along with a little methane.  Sometimes I also detect a trace amount of hydrogen in the atmosphere of Inferior, and once a suspicion of oxygen as well, but never in the atmosphere of Superior.’

Abruptly he had Larry’s full attention.  That couldn’t be right.  Hydrogen was much too light to be present in the atmosphere of a low gravity planet.  He almost blew his cover by making a comment, but stopped himself in time.  His trainee was posing as the reporter.  Would she take up the point?

Annek focussed on a minor detail instead.  ‘Maybe the hydrogen was localised.  Then it would depend on how the planet was oriented when you make your measurements.  Have you any idea of the rotation period of the planets?’

Damn, she must not have appreciated the significance of the astronomer’s revelation.  But his curiosity was aroused.  Before he returned home he was going to check out that anomaly.

The astronomer looked at Annek in suspicion.  ‘You seem to know quite a lot about these things, Miss Clarim.’  Annettia Clarim was her undercover name, as close as she could get to her real name in the local Trajian language.

She recovered nicely.  ‘Well, I do have a scientific background, but I don’t understand the details, of course.’  The only indication of her nervousness was the characteristic way she tucked her short, blonde hair behind her ear.

The astronomer still seemed sceptical.  ‘Hmmph.  Well, to answer your question, no, they’re much too small to see any details, so we have nothing to use to measure periodicity.  It’s easy with the gas giants, of course, there are plenty of features on them.  But you have a good point.  If the hydrogen is localised, that would explain why we don’t always see it.’

He broke off and snatched up a notebook to scribble a few lines.  ‘Wait a minute, we could use that to determine the day length for Inferior if I made a whole sequence of measurements.’

Annek distracted him from his suspicions by showing great enthusiasm for the idea, then steered the conversation on to the other information she needed.  She had a complete list of items from the Interstellar Exploration Programme that she had to check out to find how much the Trajians knew.

The astronomer made the ideal host.  He insisted on giving them a comprehensive tour of his observatory’s facilities.  Annek politely expressed her admiration for his state-of-the-art equipment, which included a seventy centimetre refracting telescope with various attachments, including a spectroscope and infra-red filters.  Larry wielded his cumbersome, 2-D, black-and-white still camera and pretended to take photographs with it, while the pin camera hidden inside recorded 3-D vid.

****

Back in their hotel, over dinner, Larry started his debrief on the way Annek had conducted the interview.  She’d done a good job, obtaining all the information required and showing initiative when necessary.

After he’d dealt with the standard issues, he returned to the subject that had caught his attention.  ‘What did you think about the astronomer claiming to see hydrogen gas on that satellite planet.  The one orbiting at the Lagrange point of the gas giant – Inferior I think he called it?’

Annek shrugged.  ‘I imagine he misinterpreted his instruments.  They’re very crude and inaccurate.’

It seemed a lost cause to try to get her interested in the gas emissions, but at least she ought not to under-rate what the Trajians had achieved.  ‘Annek, you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the achievements of these people.  I agree that, by our standards, their instruments are primitive, and arguably crude.  But don’t be misled into thinking they are necessarily inaccurate.  The Trajians are as human and intelligent as we are, they just lack the level of technical development.  But the astronomer’s telescope, for instance, looked a precision-made device, even if it has nothing like the resolution we can get.’

‘I suppose so.  But this planet is relatively advanced compared to many, isn’t it?’  She tucked her hair behind her ear.  There was that nervous trait again.  Maybe he was being too hard on her.

‘Yes, you’re quite right.  The majority of planets are restricted to animal transport¸ and their science is more alchemy than chemistry.  Trajian tech is not the most advanced I’ve come across, though.  One planet I visited last year, Earth it was called, had very advanced flyers.  They even had a crude form of space travel, powered by chemical energy.’

Annek wiped her fingers on her napkin.  ‘If they are that advanced, how come they haven’t been invited to join the Galactic Union?  That’s what we carry out these investigations for, isn’t it, to check when a planet is sufficiently advanced for us to make contact?’

‘They were very close, but they’re still fragmented into many separate countries, that often get embroiled in local wars.  The Union worried about getting dragged into the conflicts, so they turned Earth down, even though I recommended contact in my report.  My suspicion is they’ll end up finding us.  They have a sophisticated search programme looking for life on other planets.’

****

Annek performed faultlessly during the rest of their time on Trajia.  Once they were back aboard their ship and Annek had completed the take-off sequence, Larry decided the time had come to broach the subject that still bothered him.

‘Annek, do you remember the anomaly that the astronomer detected in the atmosphere of Inferior?’

His trainee looked up from her co-pilot controls.  ‘No, not really.  Which planet was Inferior?’

As he suspected, she’d forgotten about it completely.  ‘It was one of the satellite planets of the big gas giant, locked in the Lagrange-point orbit.  Before we go home I’d like to check out the anomaly.  It doesn’t make any sense for the planet to have hydrogen in its atmosphere.’

Annek stared at him in surprise.  ‘Do you need to do that?  There’s bound to be a simple explanation for the gas.  Shouldn’t we just include what he said in our report and leave the Investigation Branch to look into it if they think it’s worth it?’

‘I suppose we could, but it’s been bothering me a lot.  You say there’ll be a simple explanation, but I just can’t think of anything that could cause such an effect, and it will be easy to examine it ourselves before we leave.  It shouldn’t take long, but if you are keen to get back straight away I can take you home first.’

‘Oh no, if you think it’s necessary, I’m coming with you.  I’ve never had a chance to visit a planet with a hostile environment before.’

That was a very positive attitude.  He’d had a few concerns, during their visit to Trajia, whether Annek had the necessary enthusiasm for the job, but now he revised his opinion upward.  She seemed to have all the qualities to make a successful agent for the IEP.

Larry pointed to the hyperspace control panel.  ‘Would you like to work out the co-ordinates for the jump?  This will be the first time you’ve had to do one that wasn’t pre-programmed.’

He watched with approval as Annek manipulated the display screen and linked the readings into the hyperspace jump unit.  When she had finished she looked over to him.  ‘Did I get it right, Laren’hi?’

Larry grinned.  She could never bring herself to call him by his nickname.  It had taken him long enough to get her to drop “Mr. Rasilii”.  ‘Spot on,’ he said.  ‘That should take us right to Inferior’s boundary.’

Annek smiled at his praise.

‘Okay,’ Larry said, ‘the light is on, make the jump and establish us in orbit round the planet.’

****

Inferior was a small, rocky planet, just big enough to support an atmosphere.  By the time they were approaching the end of the second orbit, Larry wondered how easy it would be to track down the source of the anomaly with their limited equipment.  He’d look foolish in front of his apprentice partner if they couldn’t find anything.

A marked cloud formation appeared, protruding from the general haze far in the distance.  The haze was to be expected, it was created by the effects of the weak sunlight on the methane component of the atmosphere.  But the cloud wasn’t natural - nothing on this frozen world could produce that type of cumuliform mass.  Larry took over control from Annek, broke out of orbit and steered toward the formation.  As he approached, he could see a huge plume hanging over one point, a turbulent reacting mass in the brown, photochemical haze that covered the rest of the planet.  It would be an amazing coincidence if the plume was not connected to the source of the hydrogen.

‘This looks hopeful,’ he said to Annek.  ‘It’s the only place we’ve seen anything unusual.’

She nodded.  ‘It does suggest that some major disturbance is happening down below.  I assume you’re going to see where it comes from.  You won’t get too close, will you?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve no wish to get caught up in that.  It looks worse than any regular storm cloud.’

Larry dived into the photochemical haze, following the column of cloud downward.  The light level was dim, this far out from the sun, and the haze was a dirty, yellow-brown colour, masking the surface below.  He tracked the cloud down through the murk, relying on his sensors to warn him if he got too close to ground level.

He grunted in satisfaction as they burst through into clearer atmosphere below.  Here the column was less well-defined, but still detectable as a roiling mass of reacting gas, down to surface level.  As the ground came up to meet him he could see that the disturbance came from a huge fissure, about twenty metres wide and a hundred metres long.

Gullies and crags broke up the surface close to the fissure, and on one side was a small lake of liquid methane.  He found a flat area to land the ship, five hundred metres from the fissure, surrounded behind and to the side by higher ground.  The light at the surface was even fainter than it had been during the descent, with no colour variation in the barren landscape.

Larry rose from his seat, stretched, and moved to the suit locker toward the rear.  Annek followed him.

‘This is far more interesting than the training exercises,’ she said.  ‘Are we going out to investigate where the gas is coming from?’

It was good to see her new enthusiasm for the anomaly, though probably it was not so much curiosity as the activity that had her interest.  It was a shame he had to leave her behind, but he was responsible for her safety.

‘No, I’m sorry, it will just be me going outside.  I don’t think there’s any danger involved, but as you pointed out, this is a hostile environment.  Protocol requires one of us to stay with the ship.’

Seeing her look of disappointment, he relented a little.

‘Let me check it out first.  If I think it’s safe, you can have a look.’  Hopefully his promise would be enough to persuade her to obey his instructions.  She had a tendency to ignore the protocols when they didn’t suit her.

The hostile environment meant he would be encumbered with a heavy duty spacesuit.  He took two from their locker and checked that Annek had hers fastened before he closed up his own.  He checked the gravity compensator was off, over-rode the safeties and cracked the air release.  A miniature snow storm of ice crystals and vapour swirled around the cabin as the freezing gas from outside mixed with the moisture-laden air inside.

As the mist cleared Larry asked, ‘Is your comm. earpiece on?’

She looked at him in puzzlement.  He pointed to her ear and mouthed the words, ‘Switch it on.’

Her eyes lit up.  She nodded and activated it.  ‘Sorry, I forgot the earpiece.’

‘That’s better.’  He waved his arm at the fading vapour.  ‘You could flush this stuff out again after I leave, and take the suit off, but it’s probably easier if you don’t.  I’ll check there’s nothing harmful in the gas.’

Larry nodded in satisfaction at the result of the gas analysis.  ‘It’s mostly nitrogen.  There’s also a little methane, and a trace of other organics, but nothing that will harm the ship’s interior for a short while.’

‘Is there anything I can do while I’m waiting, like monitor seismic activity or atmospheric turbulence?’

‘Just listen out for my transmissions over the comms.  If I thought there was any danger I wouldn’t be doing this.  But if anything should go wrong, do not come out to help.  You’re the back-up here.  Your job will be to shoot straight back to Union Central and get a rescue team.  You remember the protocols, don’t you?’

Annek looked apprehensive, but she nodded.

‘Don’t worry,’ Larry continued.  ‘I shall be very careful.  The heaters are on.  Keep the door shut while I’m gone.  It’s bitterly cold out there, and I don’t want anything to freeze up in the ship.’

He opened the door and jumped outside, making bunny hops in the low gravity.  He punched the exterior pad to close the door again and looked around.  The bright white light from his suit’s helmet lamp cut through the gloom, lighting up the landscape.

Prominences and outcrops of rock littered the route to the fissure, but not so many as to impede his progress.  The rest of the surface was smooth, covered in a thin layer of dust.  The rocks sparkled in the light from his lamp.  Most likely the rock was actually water ice, but so cold it was as hard and solid as granite.  The temperature was showing a hundred and eighty degrees below zero.

The conditions were seriously hostile on the other side of the protective layer of his suit.  A little shiver ran down his spine.  He dragged his attention back to the task in hand.

‘Can you still hear me, Annek?’

‘Yes, no problem.’

‘Good, I’m making my way over to the source.’

Larry started a steady hopping gait toward the fissure, which was slightly downhill.  As he approached it, the breeze made a sighing sound as it flowed past his suit, and as he drew closer the outflow of gas was like a stiff wind that blew against him, making a steady howl as it burst forth.  Judging from the strength of the wind, spread over the huge area of the fissure, a massive amount of gas was being punched up into the atmosphere.

Larry stared down into the gloom.  Here was the source of the gas, yet it only replaced one mystery by another.  What the hell was generating the flow?

There might well be geothermal activity in the interior of this desolate iceball of a planet that could generate gas.  What didn’t make sense was that the astronomer had specified that he had seen hydrogen, and possibly oxygen.  Geothermal activity wouldn’t produce either of those.  If he wanted to know more, he would have to climb down into the fissure.  That shouldn’t be too difficult.  The walls of the fissure had a pronounced slope, and in the light gravity climbing down – and back up afterward – should be straightforward.

He called Annek on his earpiece.  ‘I’m at the fissure.  This is definitely where all the gas is coming from.  I’m going to climb down and see if I can make out what the source is.’

‘That sounds as if it might be dangerous.  Do you need to find out any more?’

‘Yes, I can’t tell what’s causing the gas flow from here.  It’s quite straightforward, but I expect I’ll be out of contact while I’m underground.  Our comm. signals won’t penetrate through this mass of rock.’

Her earlier enthusiasm had gone and she sounded uncertain.  ‘I don’t like the idea of being out of touch.  Don’t you have enough to report to the Investigation Branch now?’

She was right, of course.  That would be the sensible thing to do, but he’d always had a burning sense of curiosity.  He couldn’t bear to leave unexplained mysteries like this.  It was the same inquisitiveness that had, for example, wasted days checking out that freak, sterile planet in the fringes of the Orion arm, trying to find out why it had a breathable atmosphere.  Now he couldn’t rest until he found out why this frozen planet was belching out vast quantities of hydrogen.

‘All I’ll do is climb down to try and find what the source is.  Just sit tight, and if by any chance I’m not back in, oh, say four hours, drop a radio beacon and fly straight back to Central.  They’ll send a fully-equipped rescue party.  But don’t worry, I’ll be back long before then.’

As he descended, the ground angled away.  He passed under the far edge of the fissure into the darkness, lit only by his powerful helmet lamp.  In its light, he could just pick out the far side of what now formed a huge, sloping tunnel.

The footing was uncertain at first, he slipped several times and had to grab on to the rough surface to save himself.  Soon the surface levelled out a little, making the going easier and convincing him the ground would not suddenly fall away.  The gale caused by the escaping gas blew unabated, so he had to lean into it a little for balance.  It generated a steady, irritating background roar from its turbulent flow over the uneven surface of the fissure.

The descent became easier as the slope lessened.  His helmet light, powerful as it was, didn’t light the way very far ahead.  Yet there seemed to be something very faintly visible in the far distance.

He turned out his light and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  There was no doubt about it, far down below he could see a glimmer of light.  Something very strange was going on.  How the hell could there be light in this fissure that carved its way into the depths through the hard-frozen ice that formed the base rock of this planet?

Larry pondered what might be causing light in this tunnel, deep underground.  He checked his suit radiation monitor, but it showed nothing abnormal.  No question of turning back now, he had to find the source of that light.

The descent got easier as the slope continued to become shallower.  After about five minutes, he thought he could make out a faint sound, over and above the noise of the wind.  The light was now noticeable in spite of his helmet lamp.

In another minute he was sure about the sound.  It was unmistakable, and regular, far too regular for him to believe it had a natural cause.  It sounded like some form of heavy machinery.  It looked as if he had to backtrack on what he had assured Annek.  This was no natural phenomenon, but the other possibility that sprang to mind was space pirates, and that made no sense either.

Whatever it was, he wasn’t turning back now until he’d found out.  If only he could contact Annek and warn her about what he had discovered, but a quick call on the comm. earpiece brought no reply.  That wasn’t surprising, the rock would be shielding the signal.

A little further still, and he could see that below him the tunnel led into the top of a huge underground cavern, though the far side of the tunnel obscured most of the view.  The light came from further inside and he could see, far ahead, the ground flattening out to form the bottom of the cavern.  His helmet lamp was no longer necessary and prudence suggested it would be safer to kill it straight away.

The vista opened up as he descended to the level of the cavern roof, where he stopped to stare.

It was incredible!  Hectares of the cavern floor were strewn with equipment, cabins, bunkers and machinery of different types.  Far in the distance people scurried like ants.  He could just determine that they were all space-suited, and some were driving open vehicles across the vast area in front of him.  Several huge buildings were in the process of being erected.  Space pirates be damned, this was a huge, professional project, but he couldn’t begin to guess its purpose.

The source of the sound and the outpouring gas was clear.  Far away on the other side of the cavern, machines were cutting away and vaporising the walls to enlarge the existing area.  The wall wasn’t really rock, it was ice.  To dispose of it, they were not simply boiling the water.  Water vapour would have re-condensed straight away in the intense cold of the cavern.  Instead they were breaking it down into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen.

That must be taking an incredible amount of effort.  It involved electrolysis on a vast scale.  Yet, it made a kind of sense.  Nuclear energy to power the process was cheap, and they had a huge volume of material to shift up to the surface and dispose of.  By turning it into gas they could blow it out through this natural fissure, where it would disperse into the atmosphere, instead of the tedious, slow process of manhandling it to the surface and transporting it to a dump somewhere.

An icy chill ran down his back despite the hot, stuffy suit.  If this wind was in fact a mixture of the oxygen and hydrogen being produced from the water ice, not hydrogen alone, it was one of the most explosive chemical mixtures known.  The volume of gas in the tunnel, not to mention the cavern itself, was vast.  One spark would set it all off with as much energy as a nuclear bomb.

He swallowed hard.  By all the saints, surely that couldn’t be right.

He flipped down the binocular vision system mounted in the top of his helmet.  With its aid he could make out huge pipes running away from the excavations.  Some ended near the mouth of his tunnel.  Others led away in the opposite direction.  They must be splitting the gases into two streams as they were generated and venting them through separate fissures.  He’d been holding his breath, as if that would somehow stop from generating a spark, and he let it out with a gasp.  Of course they wouldn’t be charging around down there in an explosive environment.

Larry’s mind raced.  Not one fissure but two.  Why had he only seen one plume?

The visible plume had to be the oxygen.  It would react with the methane component of the atmosphere and show up clearly.  The hydrogen would be inert in the absence of something like oxygen or chlorine.

That explained why the astronomer had seen mainly hydrogen.  It would punch its way right to the top of the atmosphere, where it would show up on his spectroscope.  Whereas the oxygen was mixing with the atmosphere and reacting with it.  That made it much more visible to Larry, but less so to the astronomer.

To think that the gas rushing past might be pure oxygen.  He shuddered.  Thank goodness his suit didn’t have any oil or similar organic material on it.  Those materials could ignite spontaneously in pure oxygen, even in the freezing temperature of the cavern.  Still, it seemed like a big risk for the people down below.  If he were managing this scheme, he’d be pumping nitrogen down from the surface as well, both to help keep the gases apart and to dilute the oxygen.  Maybe they were doing that.  Yes, they had to be, otherwise somewhere there’d be an area where the two gasses came into contact.  He felt a little better when he’d worked out that obvious solution.

Someone was making an enormous effort to mount this operation and keep it hidden.  The vast scale meant that either a planetary government, or possibly a multi-planetary corporation, had to be running the project, not some tinpot mining company.  Larry had stumbled on a major, covert operation.  It must be something highly illegal if it had to be carried out here in this underground cavern in a remote star system.

He was horribly exposed up here at the edge of the tunnel in plain view of everyone below.  A wave of fear swept over him.  What if they had sensors set up to detect intruders?  Maybe they knew he was here, but were waiting to see what he did.

But he wanted to know more about the secret project – especially who was behind it.  If there were sensors he’d been detected by now anyway.

Hiding between the crevices in the rock, he turned his binoculars onto the nearest area of activity.  It didn’t take him long to figure out from the markings on the vehicles and equipment that the people running the operation were Ziloni.  Unless of course the markings were bogus, to deceive anyone like him.  But that was unlikely.  If they were concerned about spying, they’d have guards posted.  For that matter, they’d have scanners that would have picked up his ship in its approach.  They must be relying on being so well hidden that no one would find them.  Which would have been true but for his meeting with the astronomer.

He knew little about the Ziloni except their reputation for taking a hard line in dealings with the Galactic Council.  Zilon was an Associate Member of the Galactic Union, so they had more independence than planets that had moved on to Full Membership.  He’d heard that the planet ran under a strict regime that did not welcome dissent.  Not the best group to tangle with if they were plotting something illegal on this scale.

The wail of a siren interrupted his thoughts.

THIS IS THE POINT WHERE STOWAWAY TO THE STARS BEGINS

 

 

HERE IS A THE FIRST PART OF CHAPTER 6, TOLD FROM KAREN'S POINT OF VIEW. The original scene is in italics.

When Karen started searching for Grant in bars she was optimistic, but her hopes slowly faded as she worked through all the more likely locations without success.  After more weeks of fruitless searching, she was near despair as she took a short cut through Bridge Street to try and find more bars to investigate on the far side of the river.

.

.

.

The room was almost empty, not too surprising at this early hour.  Two elderly men sat around one table playing dominoes, and discussing how to put the world to rights.  The only other customer was a much younger man, seated alone in one corner with a pint of beer.  He looked up at Karen as she walked over to the counter and ordered a glass of wine.  As she took her drink she stole a look over her shoulder and caught him watching her intently.  Could this be Grant at last?

He was staring at her openly now.  As she caught him out he looked quickly away, but not before she had instinctively glared at him.  Damn!  Had she given herself away.

She sat sipping her wine and there was no doubt.  The stranger was still watching her surreptitiously.  He had to be the one!

It was quiet and cool in the bar in spite of the heat of the day that still lingered outside, the swish of the fan overhead seemed quite obtrusive.  There were few other customers at this early hour and they were absorbed in their own conversations.  As Karen sat trying not to pay any attention to the stranger, she suddenly realized that she had made no plans for what to do once she had found Grant.  She could hardly accost him in the bar, even though it was quiet.

Impulsively she emptied her glass, picked up her vital clutch bag and hurried out of the bar.  What she had in mind was to try and follow Grant when he left, but as she entered the car park she saw the sleek red convertible parked with the top down, standing out ostentatiously from the few other cars, and a new idea occurred to her.

She approached the car cautiously, looking to see if it had an alarm.  There was nothing obvious except a small, strange-looking device on top of the dashboard, but it didn’t look like an alarm – maybe some new-fangled GPS system.  Oh well, only one way to find out.  If it was protected he’d probably come dashing out, so she’d better be ready.

She opened her clutch bag and drew out the little pistol that had been making it surprisingly heavy.  Holding the gun she carefully slid one of her long legs over the rear door and slithered into the seatwell at the back.  As she did so she felt a momentary wave of nausea.  Was it nerves getting the better of her?  But the moment passed and no alarm went off, so she tucked herself low into the well on her back so that she could see out and held the pistol ready.  A long coat was laid carelessly on the back seat, so she pulled that over herself, pulled down from her face but ready to pull it over when he appeared.

For the next half an hour she lay there nervously waiting, but there was no sign of Grant.  Just as she was getting ready to give up she finally heard footsteps approaching and tensed for the likely discovery.

But Grant got into the car without a glance into the rear, and moments later he gunned the car out of the car park.  Karen cautiously eased herself up a little, taking care not to be seen in the rear-view mirror, and could see a little of their progress.  He headed out into the countryside and up into the hills, now taking on a golden hue in the evening sunshine.  It was past the peak of summer now, but the grass was still lush and green and the trees bore a full canopy of leaves, creating flashes of shade from the lowering sun that was beginning to disturb her vision with its glare.  The last of the houses was left behind and the road started to climb steadily towards the peaks in the distance, looking sombre in the shadow with the sun almost directly behind them.

Now on the open road, with no other traffic about, Grant seemed to be driving the car quite recklessly, swinging vigorously around the bends.  After about half an hour he turned off the road and down a narrow rutted track.  Up here high in the hills it was cooler and the hedges were wild and ragged, the grass thin and wiry at this altitude and of little interest for cultivation.  Even the trees were looking tired, in contrast to the lush growth in the valley far below, as if worn out by the fight for survival, their roots struggling to find enough nourishment in the dry, barren soil.

Karen was bumped around considerably as they drove down the track, shortly cresting a small rise and then descending into a large hollow that was clearly the intended destination.  It was a large, stone-built barn in a small clearing surrounded by trees.  Grant stopped the car well clear of the barn and fiddled with hand-held device, presumably some sort of remote control, then carried on to park just outside the building.  Karen crouched right down again as he got out of the car, ready to cover him with the pistol if he spotted her, but he remained oblivious to her presence.  This was going really well.

Grant strolled over to the large doors of the barn and swung them open, then returned to the car and drove it into the barn.  Except when the doors were open, one small window, high up in the gable end, provided the only light, and most of that came from a missing pane of glass.  The remaining panes were thick with grime and cobwebs.  The air inside the barn had a characteristic musty smell from years of accumulated dust and decay.

Grant got out of the car again and started to move about the barn.  She dared not look out at what he was doing, but she heard a faint whirring followed by a small thump.  The already dim light in the barn suddenly faded further and a crash made her jump.  What the hell was that?  Oh, just a gust of wind that had caught one of the barn doors and swung it shut.  Grant walked over to the doors and started messing about with them, obviously trying to prop them open more securely.

Karen took the opportunity to slide over the side of the car and crouched behind it.  She peered round it to check that he was not looking.  He had parked next to a weird looking object that she could only guess was some type of large caravan.  It was hard to make it out clearly in the dim light, but it was the strangest caravan she had ever seen.

She dared not try and examine it properly, Grant would be back any moment and he must surely be going to use the caravan because there was an open doorway with two steps.  The sound she had heard must have been the door opening.

She sprinted across the short distance to the caravan and up the steps.  Inside she looked around for somewhere to hide.  To the front were four seats, separated by a gap just wide enough to give access to the front and facing what looked like a vertical dashboard and a large wrap-around windscreen above it.  Maybe it was a motor caravan.

Facing her were a row of lockers, and to the rear a fixed table and bench, a large chest, a pair of bunks and some more space screened off out of sight and in semi-darkness.  It really had to be a caravan, with the screened area hiding some sort of toilet provision.

She ducked behind the screen.  The only light was from the evening sunshine streaming in through the canopy, and back here she was well hidden by the gloom.  A couple of minutes later Grant entered the caravan, but he didn’t even glance in her direction.  He moved to the front and fiddled with the dashboard.  She risked looking out a bit more, ready to duck back if he started to turn.  The caravan wobbled slightly, then from her restricted view through the windscreen it seemed to be reversing out of the barn.  Daylight flooded into the caravan and she ducked back.  None to soon, as the caravan stopped and he got up again and she heard him walking down the steps.  She could see well enough to watch him closing the barn doors before returning.  He punched something on the wall that caused the door to lift back into place, then swung down a lever on the wall to cover the door.  Immediately he turned towards the front, slipped through the narrow aisle between the pairs of seats and settled back into the front left-hand position.

Feeling secure in the dim interior, Karen watched curiously as he did some more things on the dashboard for a few moments.  Then he sat back in his seat and she instinctively grabbed the side of the screen and suppressed a gasp as the barn she could just see through her restricted view of the windscreen suddenly tilted down out of sight, just as if the caravan had pitched over onto its back.

But immediately she realized that it hadn’t moved at all, she was still firmly crouching on the floor.  But she would have sworn that the canopy at the front was simply a windscreen giving a view outside.  Now it looked as if it must be some sort of movie screen that Grant was playing with.  This was getting seriously weird.

The next thing that happened was a strange sound like rushing air, initially just a whisper but gradually rising to a muted roar, like the sound of a distant waterfall.

Very gradually what looked like the sky, the only thing now visible through the canopy, darkened from eggshell blue to indigo and then black, while the airflow noise faded to the faintest whisper.  As the canopy darkened, what looked like stars could be seen against the pitch black backdrop.  Suddenly the stars swung rapidly across the canopy, and the sun appeared incongruously against pitch black darkness of the sky, blindingly bright after the previous dimness and casting razor-sharp shadows in the caravan.  Then the sun swung away in a different direction and was replaced by the panorama of the Earth’s surface in the overhead position of the canopy, bathing the caravan in muted Earthlight – except that Karen very much doubted now that this was a caravan at all.  And the canopy had to be some sort of movie projection screen, but the light and pictures it gave off was quite amazing.

The arc of the Earth now started to move backwards across the canopy, slowly at first and then more quickly until it was out of view behind, the internal lights brightening again to compensate for the loss of Earthlight.

After that Grant put his arms behind his head and leaned back in his seat and nothing further happened for the next few minutes.  Karen felt a frisson of disappointment.  She had taken the big gamble of hiding in his car and then this strange caravan-like thing and got away with it, and had expected to catch him out in some sort of nefarious activity.  Instead he was just sitting there doing absolutely nothing.

Oh well, at least she had tracked him down.  The thing to do now was confront him and maybe surprise him into giving something away.  Maybe she could find out what this thing was that they were in as well.

Still clutching her pistol, she held it out determinedly pointing at his back as she crept forward across the short space to where he was sitting.

**** 

Larry had been having another really boring day.  So much so that even the presence of the strange girl in his favourite bar had made a welcome distraction.

Currently he was on the run, hiding out in the sleepy rural town that had not quite caught up with the twenty-first century.  Having been there for the best part of four weeks he was no nearer to working out how to resolve his situation, which he was finding extremely frustrating.  He had rented a smart new flat in a small apartment block and set it up with all the latest TV and video equipment to keep himself entertained.  But four weeks had saturated his interest in both current affairs and the interminable soap operas that seemed to dominate the TV channels.  He probably knew the man in the video hire store better than anyone else, except perhaps for the bartender.

At least money was not a problem.  He had plenty of gold and gemstones left, enough to last years if necessary, and he had passed some time tracking down a dealer who would give him a good exchange rate, in ready cash, with no questions asked.

The weeks of inaction had been getting him down, and the injustice he felt did not help.  He had decided on another reconnaissance trip, the second that day.  The chances that anything had changed, or that he would learn anything new, were quite remote, but it was action and that was what he needed.

From time to time since he had left the bar his mind had drifted back to the girl in the strange disguise.  He had the feeling that underneath it she was even more attractive than she had appeared.  What reason could she have for changing her appearance in such a way?  And had her hostile gaze been personal, or were they the result of his own obtrusive stares, betraying his interest in her.  At any rate it was a minor distraction from his own concerns to wonder about her and her motives.

He was well over halfway out to the boundary when quite suddenly all hell broke loose.  It started with a voice behind him that was so totally unexpected that he shot up and spun round as if he’d been stung.  It was the girl that he had just been thinking about, now to his amazement sitting in his rear seat and pointing a gun at his head!

 

HERE IS ANOTHER OF THE CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN LARRY AND KAREN DURING THEIR UNDERWATER JOURNEY ON ZILON, EXPANDING THE MIDDLE OF CHAPTER 11, WHEN LARRY TELLS KAREN ABOUT EARLIER EXPLOITS AS AN IEP AGENT. The original scene is in italics.

The next morning, Karen prepared breakfast while Larry got the ship under way again and took the first turn at steering.  After they had both eaten, Karen tidied up, then came back to sit in the passenger seat.  She stared out at the murky water, a strange environment for an interstellar spaceship.  What must it be like to use the ship for its proper purpose?

She turned to Larry.  So what is it like to be an IEP explorer? she asked.

‘Well, for me it’s the ideal job.  I get to see lots of new planets and mix with primitive people.  I have to be ready for trouble, think quickly when it occurs.  Yet it’s not all that dangerous.  I know that if all else fails, I have some advanced technology that will help get me out of trouble.’

‘I guess you have had a few exciting moments.  Tell me about some of them.’

‘It can be exciting.  One time, while I was on a planet at about the technological level of seventeenth century Earth, I was travelling on a stage coach that was held up by a couple of highwaymen.’

‘Oh, like Dick Turpin, do you mean?  How romantic.’

‘I don’t know who Dick Turpin is, but they are not in the least romantic, they are sad, desperate men who take to robbery as a last resort.  I felt sorry for them, but that feeling did not extend to having them relieve me of a great deal of gold, or high tech items like my remote control.  However, a major aim on any visit is to maintain our cover if at all possible, so I had to do my best not to resort to the use of advanced technology to get out of the fix.’

‘Did you manage that?’

He nodded.  ‘The trick is to catch them off guard.  I leapt out of the stage coach and grovelled and pleaded with the closest man.

‘The guy was mounted on an ugly-looking horned creature.  He was brandishing a loaded and cocked, single shot pistol, with a second tucked into his belt.  His companion was out of the way on the other side holding the coach horses.  I was grovelling on my knees, which allowed me to get up close to the bandit.  I made sure I was out of sight of the other occupants of the coach, and I thrust up hard on the man’s foot.  This threw him off balance, his pistol went off into the air and I swung round under the animal’s head to the other side.  That made it rear up, almost unseating the guy.  Before he’d recovered, I jumped up to snatch the second pistol from his belt and said “piss off before I shoot you, and shout to your assistant to run as well”.’

‘Were you not taking a bit of a risk?  The assistant presumably still had a weapon, he might have come and shot you.’

Larry took his hand off the control stick for a moment to flex his fingers, and shifted his position in his seat.  ‘Maybe, but as I guessed, when things went wrong and they’d lost the advantage, they had no stomach to fight on.  They galloped off and I dumped the pistol.  When the passengers leapt out of the coach to ask me what had happened, I said that the highwayman’s horse reared for no reason that I could tell, and the bandits lost their nerve and bolted.  I pleaded with them not to say anything about the encounter.  I made out I was so embarrassed at having acted like a coward.’

Karen gave him a sympathetic look.  After what she’d seen him do, cowardice seemed a most unlikely characteristic.  ‘You must have hated them thinking you were a coward when you had saved them all.’

Larry shook his head.  ‘It doesn’t usually bother me.  It’s what the job is about.  The important thing is to maintain your cover.  I remember though, one time I did get fed up with acting like a coward.’

He continued with a story of a time when he had been harassed by two sword-wielding soldiers until his patience had snapped and he had used his unarmed combat training to beat them into submission.

Maybe the story had been coloured for her benefit, but his matter-of-fact delivery gave credence to the tale.  She could sit here forever listening to these fascinating tales, dreaming what it must be like to be an IEP explorer.

‘Do you get involved in many fights?’ she asked.

‘Only when it’s unavoidable, that’s why they tend to stick in the memory.  I have also twice been involved in duels.  The first one was no problem, I had the choice of weapons, since as you might guess I hadn’t initiated the duel, so I said I’d fight with bare hands.  The guy said that was ridiculous, he wanted a fight to the death.  I said that was okay, I could kill him with my bare hands.  After that he went off the idea.  The other one was trickier, because somehow I got manoeuvred into a duel with single-shot pistols.’

.

.

.

‘In that case, it’s more strict than our rule.  Ours is purely pragmatic.  We have found from bitter experience that revealing ourselves or getting involved is likely to do more harm than good.  But it’s by no means absolute.  If there is ever a situation where we are certain interference will be beneficial, we can do it.  And of course, if we see someone being murdered, or something of that sort, we step in if we can do it without jeopardising our mission.’

He broke off as another obstacle loomed up in front of them.  It turned out to be nothing worse than a huge school of fish, and he coasted along until they were through.

Once they had picked up speed again, he said, ‘Now that I think about it, we had to interfere once on Earth.  I remember it was a rare enough occurrence that it made the back pages of the regular news.  There was a crisis over a lot of missiles based in Cuba, and your leading nations launched enough nuclear weapons to create complete mutual destruction.’

What was he talking about?  Everyone knew the Cuban crisis ended peacefully.  ‘I think you must have that wrong.  They never launched any missiles.’

‘Huh, don’t you believe it.  What you mean is that they never admitted to it.  But trust me, both sides launched massive waves of missiles.  Can you imagine the faces of your generals, though, when all their precious weapons took a detour into deep space in the tender embrace of our tractor interceptors?  Little wonder it never became public knowledge that both sides lost all their missiles.’

That had the ring of truth.  The generals would have moved heaven and earth to keep it a secret if that was what really happened.

‘That is amazing, I had no idea . . . Wait a minute.  Did you say you remember about the Cuban missile crisis?  Even my parents can scarcely remember it.  How the hell old are you, Larry?’

He sidestepped a direct answer to the question.  ‘I should explain that we have slowed down the aging process due to medical advances.  Think how much longer your people live than truly primitive races, where forty is old.  I was only young when it happened, but I was already interested in space exploration and primitive planets.’

Karen was silent for a little while after this exchange.  She’d figured him to be not a lot older than she was, instead he could be her father.  The thought made her smile.  What the hell, he didn’t look or act like an old man.

Larry continued with more entertaining stories, until eventually he said, ‘I seem to be doing all the talking.  I’m sure this can’t be interesting to you.’

‘Oh, but it is.  It all sounds fascinating.  I can see why you enjoy your work so much.’

‘Yes, I love it.  There are boring times, of course.  It can often be uncomfortable living in primitive conditions, and I do mean really primitive.  Not like Earth, which is much more civilised than most places I visit.  But it’s so interesting to see all the cultures and it’s like going back in time.  You see people in the different stages of development; from living in caves, to castles in medieval cultures, right up to planets like Trajia and Earth that have quite advanced technology.

 

HERE IS AN EXTRA SCENE AT THE END OF CHAPTER 22. IT TAKES PLACE WHILE LARRY AND KARENS ARE HIDING IN THE MUSEUM WAITING TO HEAR FROM KET. The original chapter sections are in italics. Warning - this section is a bit technical.

For the next couple of hours Karen browsed in fascination through all the displays and information.  She was still finding it difficult to read the strange Universal script.  The language translator had put all the Universal words, their spellings and their meanings into her head, and the shapes of all the letters, of which there were considerably more than the twenty six English letters.  But reading was still a skill that had to be learnt.  However, Larry seemed happy to read things out for her when she had difficulty.

She started in the section on the origin of interstellar space travel, which had begun about eight hundred years ago on a planet called Sarstrin, still a major planet in the Union hierarchy.  It was there that the gravity wave drive had been invented shortly before the first interstellar flight.

Previously the only way of providing thrust in space had been to use the principle that Earth physicists would know as Newton’s third law; that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Karen had never heard of it before and asked Larry what it meant.

‘It’s simple,’ he replied.  ‘Imagine that you and I were both on roller skates.  If you tried to give me a push to get me going, I would go forward all right but you would shoot off backward.’

After that she understood the idea that blasting mass out of the back of a spaceship produced an equal and opposite forward thrust on the spaceship.  Chemical rockets used the chemical reaction of a fuel and an oxidant both to generate energy in the form of the superheated gas and to provide the mass blasted away at high velocity.  Ion drives blasted ionized atoms out, the energy of the ions being generated by electrostatic forces.  Even solar sails worked the same way, reflecting light photons from the sail.  Karen found it hard to understand that although light photons did not have mass, they did have momentum just like the exhaust gas in a rocket.

This part of the museum display had lots of vid pictures, though mostly only 2-D, of the early attempts at rocketry on Sarstrin, which looked to Karen very much like Earth rockets.

The displays next explained how the gravity wave drive had been invented and developed, with vid of the inventors.  The invention of the gravity wave drive revolutionized space travel, because the interaction of the gravity waves with the mass of the spaceship – or to be precise, the mass of the drive unit – provided the thrust force.  The energy still had to be provided, of course, but now it was easy to use the hydrogen fusion nuclear reactors that the Sarstrini had developed to provide the energy.

The museum displays included the theory of the gravity wave drive.  It had something to do with the interference between the gravity waves from nearby massive bodies, such as the sun or the local planet, with gravity waves generated inside the drive, the direction of the thrust being controlled by the relative phase of the waves.

‘I can’t make any sense of all this complicated physics,’ said Karen.

Larry smiled.  'Don't worry, I can't either.  This stuff is here for the eggheads.’

Karen found this admission surprisingly comforting after all the science he had seemed to know previously.

The next section of the museum was much less technical and Karen avidly read the story and looked at all the ancient vid clips about the development of interplanetary and interstellar travel.

Once the gravity drive was thoroughly tried and tested, the Sarstrini were quickly able to carry out manned exploration of every planet in their solar system.  As was almost invariably the case, theirs was the only planet capable of supporting life out in the open, so the trips were mainly of scientific interest, along with some commercial uses in obtaining resources such as rare metals that were running short on the home planet.

If they were ever to find other inhabitable planets or intelligent life they knew it would be necessary to mount an interstellar mission, so in due course they planned for an interstellar flight.  The target of the mission had been obvious for the Sarstrini.  Even though they had discovered a number of stars with solar systems that could conceivably have inhabitable planets, they had a different target.  A somewhat more distant star, about fifty light years away, had for some time been known to be emitting a strong radio signal which was unmistakably produced by some form of intelligence.

The signals were encoded in various ways, including amplitude and frequency modulation.  They had all sorts of information, ranging from a stream of successive integers to data that had been interpreted as mathematical formulae and representations of pictures.  Karen thought it must have been boring and disappointing that they were only pictures of things like squares, circles and geometrical figures.  It struck her that it would have been much more useful to have pictures of alien beings.  Nevertheless, for the Sarstrini such clear evidence of intelligence made the star a must for exploration.

The first interstellar flight, to the source of the strange radio signals, was a massive and ambitious undertaking.  A huge spaceship was built with a hydrogen fusion reactor at its heart.  There were lots of vid clips of the first interstellar spaceship.

It was a very long term mission.  With a round trip distance of a hundred light years it was going to take over a hundred years before the explorers returned.  Fortunately it was not going to seem that long for them.  Travelling eventually at close to the speed of light, relativistic time dilation meant that for the travellers the journey would appear to take only a few years.  But when they returned, all family and friends that they had left behind would be long dead, so the brave first interstellar travellers made huge sacrifices on behalf of their mission.

Karen turned to Larry.  ‘This reminds me of the early ocean trips that were happening on Earth at much the same period in history, with explorers like Marco Polo, and later Christopher Columbus, setting out on long voyages into the unknown.  Isn’t that strange?  They must all have been so brave, not knowing whether they would have found the star, and whatever happened they would never see anyone they knew again.  Even Marco Polo didn’t have that problem.’

Larry nodded.  ‘Mind you, when you read on you’ll find that in the end it wasn’t as bad as that.  It must have been an exciting time to be living.  But I’m lucky that I can still go exploring new planets with the IEP, which has some of the same excitement without all the risks and sacrifices.’

The next section of the display had details and vid clips of the journey itself, which involved extreme physical stresses for the travellers.  Without the benefit of gravity compensators they still needed to use the largest possible acceleration for as long as possible while they were still in the vicinity of their own sun, because eventually they would be so far from its gravitational influence that the gravity wave drive would stop working effectively, and after that they would be coasting the rest of the way to their destination.

‘I really don’t understand that at all,’ said Karen.  ‘Why does it matter how quickly they accelerate?  They will just leave the influence of the sun more quickly.’

‘Hmm, well it’s certainly a fact, it comes out of the equations.’  Larry thought for a few moments.  ‘Ah, I know.  Imagine that the region where the gravity wave drive works is like a drag race track.  You know what one of those is?’

Karen nodded.

‘Well if you have two cars, one with a much higher top speed but the other one with a better acceleration, which one is going to win the race?’

‘Oh well, the one with the higher acceleration of course.  That’s what drag racing is all about.’

‘Exactly.  And winning the race means travelling fastest.  That’s what the first interstellar explorers needed to do.’

‘I see.  I love it when you explain things like that.  It makes so much more sense than the way they put it in the display.  Okay, let’s see what happened on their journey then.’

For the first few weeks of the flight, while the starship was still in the strong influence of their sun, it accelerated for two hours at a time at a steady 4 g, with the travellers jammed into their padded seats by the thrust that made them feel as if they weighed three times more than normal.  Two hours at a time were all the doctors reckoned they could tolerate before a break, then they would have a quarter hour in which the thrust was cut back to 1 g and they could get up and walk around, loosen up their aching muscles, freshen up and eat.

After the first few weeks things became easier because the gravity wave drive could no longer generate 4 g, but it was several months before the thrust fell below 1 g.  From then on they were able to live comfortably, eventually spinning the ship to provide artificial gravity at a steady 1 g as the gravity wave drive became less and less effective.

They also had to ensure, while the drive was still delivering appreciable thrust, that they were exactly on course for their target, because if they missed it they would have no gravitational waves at the other end to enable them to slow down and they would drift helplessly between the stars forever.

Accelerated eventually to within one percent of the speed of light relative to their home star and target, time dilation meant that the journey took less than a tenth of the time that was elapsing back on the home planet.  Even so the journey took several years for the travellers, and the ship was equipped with efficient recycling facilities and hydroponics to renew the air and supply fresh food.

’Larry, I don’t understand again.  Why, if they could get to within one percent of the speed of light, couldn’t they get the last percent as well?’

Larry tried to explain the theory of relativity and its consequences.  After several attempts the way he finally explained it that made sense to her was that there was also a relativistic increase in the mass of the spaceship (and crew) so that it became harder and harder to accelerate it further.

The epic journey reached the target star at last and the travellers finished the journey as they had begun, clamped into their seats for two hours at a time under 4g of reverse thrust so that they did not overshoot their target.

Once there, the fruits of their journey exceeded the wildest dreams of the travellers.  The source of the radio signals turned out to be an artificial planet, about a mile in diameter.  As the explorers investigated it from the outside, they found that it was a perfect rotating sphere apart from an obvious large recess at one of the poles.

The recess was a huge airlock to the interior of the sphere, inside which was a breathable atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen. Use of the airlock was clearly explained by diagrams, and the explorers lost no time in operating it and investigating the interior of the planet.  What transpired, after weeks of investigation, was that the sphere turned out to have been constructed by the ancient race that Karen remembered Larry telling her about earlier.  It had been deliberately placed in orbit around a star with no planets of its own, so that it would be undiscovered by any humans until they had developed sufficiently to be able to make an interstellar voyage by means of their own resources.

In the sphere the ancients had provided information on advanced science and technology over a range of areas, including amongst many others the stasis system that Larry had once used in his efforts to save Annek’s life.  The most difficult problem for the explorers was to understand all the information that was left for them, but there were many aids to help them learn the language, or more accurately the code, in which the information was presented.  It appeared that the whole planet was a gift from the ancients to the humans that they had been nurturing, to speed their progress by revealing certain highly advanced science and technology that they might never discover for themselves, once they had developed sufficiently by themselves to understand what was provided on the planet.

Of all that was there, the most important items were details of hyperspace and the hyperspace drive, the gravity compensator and the method of making antimatter.  Antimatter was not a source of free energy as such, it took much more energy to make it than was available afterward.  Its value was as an incredibly compact form of energy storage, even compared with hydrogen fusion reactors, that would subsequently revolutionize space travel by freeing future spaceships from the need to carry a fusion reactor on board as a power source.  Karen thought back to her time on Zilon and reflected that it also had many other uses, including acting as a very compact explosive, as she had vividly experienced.

The gifts from the ancients included fully working hyperspace drive units, one of which the explorers were able to install into their spaceship for the return journey.  They created a huge surprise on Sarstrin when they burst out of hyperspace less than a million miles from home, and more than fifty years early.  Most of the travellers found they had relatives still alive who they had known before their trip.

‘Oh, I guess this is what you meant earlier, about it not being as bad as they expected,’ Karen said.  ‘It must have been wonderful for them, getting home so quickly.  But imagine finding all the young people you knew before now fifty years older.’

‘Yes, it makes you appreciate how the hyperspace drive was such an incredible gift that the ancients left for us.  It’s the one thing that makes regular travel between the stars feasible.  It’s so easy now, half an hour and you can be half-way across the galaxy.’

Karen thought to herself, And without it I would never have enjoyed this amazing experience.  The trouble is, I shall never be able to tell anyone back home about it.  Oh God, I don’t know whether I’m glad it’s nearly over or not.  There was nothing she could do about that, however,so she carried on through the exhibits.

After all the detail of the first interstellar flight the next section dealt with the general history of the development of the Union.  With the new technology brought back from the ancients, space travel developed rapidly.  In the fifty years and more since the first journey had begun, the Sarstrini had detected other advanced civilizations on nearby stars, and indeed had already launched other interstellar flights to visit those planets.  The flights still in progress received in their turn the surprise of rescue flights dropping out of hyperspace alongside to save them further years of painfully slow flight through ordinary space to their distant destinations.

The Sarstrini introduced their new technology and space flight to the other civilizations that they had discovered, and before long the first stage of the Union was formed by Sarstrin and her neighbours.  A founding principle of the Union was that the gift of technology from the ancient race was for all races advanced enough to make use of it.  So a major initiative of the Union was the Interstellar Exploration Programme that Larry worked for, which searched continuously for new civilizations ready to share the ancient technology, as well as monitoring less advanced civilizations so that they could in turn be introduced to it as soon as they were ready.  Another founding principle was that they did not interfere with less advanced civilizations, although there was an unresolved debate over whether this would include standing by if a civilization was in danger of complete destruction.

As the Union developed, more and more planets joined and the process became more sophisticated, with new planets having a probationary period of membership before becoming either a full member of the Union, if they integrated the entire control of their planet into the Union, or an Associate member if they wished to run their internal affairs independently.  Most planets started with Associate membership, and many had since progressed further to full membership.

With the expansion of the Union it had needed a major administrative centre.  Various planets had wanted to be the centre, and Sarstrin had felt it had a strong case for the role, but in the end it had been decided not to select any existing Union planet for the special status.  Instead they had selected a planet without any intelligent life, but a pleasant climate over a large part of the planet, and had developed the planet from scratch to become the administrative centre.  For obvious reasons the planet had been named Central.  The name had nothing to do with the physical location of the planet, it was not particularly near the centre of the explored Galactic Sector, but with hyperspace travel physical location within the Sector was not important.

The museum had lots of details about the various planets in the Union, and when they had joined, but none of this meant very much to Karen, until she came to the section on Zilon.  It was a relatively new member of the Union and had been an Associate member for less than fifty years.  She learned from the brief details of its history that it had a far more rigid internal regime than most of the other planets, and since joining the Union it had always been pressing for changes in the way the Union was run.  Just the type of planet that might want to break away and start a rival grouping, Karen thought to herself.  Earth’s own history was full of such attempts and she wondered whether that was common, or maybe the Union could have something to learn from Earth about the problems with tyrannical regimes.

Apart from Zilon she did not find the details of other planets very interesting and she moved on to another part of the display and learned that the Union was now over seven hundred years old.  Once again she thought about the state of Earth back when it was first formed.  Earth was still in the Middle Ages, well before the Black Death and long before Europeans had become aware of the existence of America.  Had the Union already been visiting Earth in those times, watching its progress? she wondered.

As she was browsing she gradually became aware that Larry, who had been beside her explaining things throughout, was now close beside her with his arm around her waist.  Enjoying his closeness she snuggled up against him for a moment without thinking.  Then suddenly realizing what an intimate gesture it was, she pulled away like a startled rabbit.

Before anything else could transpire she was brought back to the present abruptly as the mini-phone tingled in her ear.

 

TO FINISH, A SHORT EXTRA SCENE NEAR THE END.

THIS SCENE TAKES PLACE IN CHAPTER 23 AFTER LARRY LEAVES TO GUIDE THE ATTACK ON INFERIOR 

Gen and Karen were left together in the house.  Gen said, ‘Well, Karen, we have lots of time to spare before Larry gets back.  Would you like to have a look round the shops in Greti?  I don’t suppose you’ve had much chance so far.’

‘Only briefly.  Every time I thought that things were getting better and I might get a chance to see places properly, something else went wrong.  I would love to have a really good browse round the shops, not looking over my shoulder for Ziloni or police.’

They spent over an hour looking at various shops.  Karen quickly forgot her silly worries.  The shops in Greti worked much the same as the one on Drazen.  All they had was a single sample of each type of garment.  No changing rooms and no opportunity to try anything on.  The same was true with shoe shops.  If she wanted to see how something would look on her, the shop took a 3-D holographic picture of her and superimposed the clothes or shoes she was interested in on the image.  She tried the system out in a shop with particularly attractive fashions.  It was almost spooky.  Here was this perfect 3-D image of herself in the dress she had selected.  She could look all the way round and see exactly how she looked.  No wonder the shop didn’t bother with mirrors – this was much more useful.  If she had wanted to buy anything, the item would have been made on the spot from the same holographic image.

You weren’t even restricted to the samples on show.  They had other designs that you could view on video, and try on in the same holographic simulation system.  When you decided what you wanted, computer-controlled robot machines cut the fabric to the necessary size and sewed the finished items.

She discussed the system with Gen.  ‘I love the idea of being able to have anything made on the spot.  You cannot imagine how frustrating it is on Earth.  Whenever you find something really nice, they never have it in the right size.  But I would be a bit worried about not being able to try things on before I bought them.  It was all right for these things that I bought on Drazen, the top was stretchy and was bound to fit.  But some of these dresses we are looking at, and the shoes, would have to be just right.  What happens if they don’t fit?’

Gen laughed.  ‘It would be no problem, they’d be most apologetic and make them again.  I’ve never known it to happen, though.  The computers are really good at getting your size right.  I can’t imagine having to buy something that had been made already and wasn’t cut exactly to your size.’

After they had browsed a good selection of dress shops they moved on to household goods.  The two girls spent a while discussing the differences between items on Earth compared with the Union.  At times the two of them ended in fits of laughter as Karen described things that Gen thought were particularly primitive, such as bars of soap and razor blades. 

 

More scenes not in the book may be printed here later. Keep coming back to this site if you want to read more.

 

 

© Graham Keeler 2012
 
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