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 CONSIDERABLY EXPANDED SCENE AT THE END OF CHAPTER 5, TELLING OF LARRY'S EXPERIENCE WHEN HE FIRST ARRIVED ON EARTH. The original scene is in italics.

During the trip, Larry reviewed his memories of Earth.  He recalled that Earth had plenty of flyers – aeroplanes the Terrans called them – but they were chemically powered so the gravity wave detectors wouldn’t pick them up.  He rooted through his old equipment to find the radio wave reflection system he had used last time.  The Terrans had an acronym for that – radar.

He mounted the radar system on the top of the instrument panel and linked it up to his viewscreen.  It would pick up the aeroplanes, plus any other obstacles like the artificial satellites and debris they had littered around their inner region of space.  They would not be able to detect him with their own radar systems.  On the previous visit he had had the ship covered, at considerable expense to the IEP, with a radar-absorbent coating the Terran military would sell their souls for.

From orbital height he located the general area he remembered from before, and descended until he could see enough detail to pick out the type of site he wanted.  Before long he found a medium sized town with a large range of hills to the west.  There he should be able to find an isolated location where he wouldn’t be seen making daytime take-offs and landings, and somewhere to hide his ship.  He planned to continue with his frequent reconnaissance trips and he didn’t want the hassle of travelling at night, and worse, having to park the ship in orbit between trips.

He gathered together the few items he would need.  This was a well-rehearsed procedure.  Two remote controls for the ship, one to hide nearby.  Weapons – arm-mounted, concealed stun gun and stun grenades.  Something to eat and drink until he had money, suitable clothes to wear, and barter items.

This planet had artificial fabrics and a wide range of styles of clothing, so he should be able to get away with his normal coveralls.  Barter was more of a problem.  Unlike less advanced cultures, they had moved on from gold coinage.  Gemstones had more value once he could locate a buyer, but he couldn’t exactly walk into a bank and exchange a diamond for cash.  To get an initial stock of money, he had a small stock of gems in the form of ornaments that should be acceptable to any jeweller.  He picked out three diamond rings.

After a night of restless sleep, dawn was approaching.  It was time to make his landing, so he would be ready to move as soon as it was light.  He coasted down to an open area surrounded by trees, outside the town and clear of the extravagantly lighted areas closer to the town.  His terrain proximity sensors allowed him to make a gentle touchdown in the darkness.

He stepped out of the ship into the chill pre-dawn air, closed up the door and used one of the remotes to launch the ship back up into space.  He didn’t intend to do this often, but for the moment he needed the ship away from prying eyes.

When it was light enough for him to see, he made his way through the encircling trees.  His direction of travel was obvious, the sky still lit to the east by the lights of the nearby town.  Crossing a couple of fields brought him to a road.  After that his journey was easier.

It was a long walk into town, but it would be a few hours before any shops were open, so he strolled along at a leisurely pace.  His well-insulated coveralls kept the cold at bay.  Soon he was on lighted streets, making for the town centre.  This area was still residential, large houses on the outskirts and smaller ones as he progressed further.

He started to see a few cars, trailing a faint whiff of burnt organics.  They looked similar to the style of cars on Central.  The biggest difference was that they had four wheels instead of two, like Union buses, because they lacked any stabilising system.  The last time he had been here, his life had still been fulfilled and content.  The memory triggered a sudden surge of loneliness and frustration.

In the town centre he searched for a jeweller, or better still a pawn broker, where he could acquire an initial supply of cash.  He found a pawn shop in a quiet side street on the less prosperous side of town.  He proffered one of his rings to the man behind the counter, who looked at him suspiciously.

‘Nice stone.  Settin's a bit rough.  Where'd ya get it?’

‘It was my mother’s,’ lied Larry.  ‘I hope I’ll get some work soon and be able to redeem it.  How much will you give me?’

The man seemed to accept the story, or maybe he recognized that he could get a valuable diamond ring cheaply.  Larry settled for a small fraction of the value of the diamond, but it was enough cash to keep him going.  Some of the money found its way straight back to the pawn shop as he took the opportunity to fit himself out with a casual suit, shirt and tie, and a small suitcase.

‘That gear you’re wearing looks well smart.  Fancy tradin’ it in?  Give ya a good price for it, people like unusual stuff these days.’

‘I’m looking for extra clothes at present, not to get rid of anything, but I’ll bear it in mind,’ said Larry.  Not a chance, he thought in amusement.  No one is getting their hands on this high tech coverall.

His next priorities were somewhere to stay, locating a fence where he could get a sensible price for his unmounted gemstones with no questions asked, and a false ID.

That would involve hanging around in rundown bars, tracking down members of the criminal fraternity.  It was one of the downsides of more advanced planets like Earth where you couldn’t open a bank account, buy a car or rent an apartment without identification.  The planet was getting paranoid about criminals laundering their ill-gotten gains, and what was the result?  Innocent space explorers like him had to consort with criminals to get round the rules, because criminals were always one step ahead of the game.

In less than three weeks he had set himself up with a small but pleasant furnished apartment, a car and plenty of cash in the bank.  He also located and purchased a remote barn up in the hills where he could hide his ship, protected by a strong aversion field.

With a safe location for his ship he was all set up.  Exile on Earth was certainly more comfortable than on Hideaway, but all the comfort in the world couldn't change the fact that he was a fugitive in hiding.

 

 

HERE IS A CONSIDERABLY EXPANDED SCENE AT THE END OF CHAPTER 10, GIVING MUCH MORE OF THE CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN LARRY AND KAREN DURING THEIR UNDERWATER JOURNEY ON ZILON. The original scene is in italics.

Once they were settled into a routine, Larry said, ‘To pass the time, I think it would be useful if you improve your command of Universal.  The language translator will have given you a good vocabulary, but it does not fully cover grammatical differences, so you need to practice speaking.  Why don’t you tell me all about yourself in Universal?  Do you have any hobbies or play any sports?’

Karen collected her thoughts and tried to think in the strange new language that was in her head.

As they chatted, Karen frequently stumbled over the Universal words.  There were many interruptions as Larry explained the right way to say something, or there was no word that had the exact meaning that Karen wanted.  All the time they took it in turns to keep their eyes on the green water streaming past the canopy at a hundred and thirty kilometres an hour, watching for any obstructions.

‘Well I enjoy aerobics and keeping fit and I have always played a lot of sports, including tennis, hockey and baseball for local teams.’

‘I didn’t know women played baseball too.’

‘Women play everything that men play,’ she retorted.

‘Okay, okay, I’m sorry.  Tell me more about you.  What do you do for a job?’

Karen explained that she had fancied an active career in the armed forces, but in the end had not wanted to leave home, and she had drifted into office administration.  She now worked for a Sports Foundation.

Larry moved on with more questions, about her parents, her home town, and her experiences growing up.

As they chatted, Karen frequently stumbled over the Universal words.  There were many interruptions as Larry explained the right way to say something, or there was no word that had the exact meaning that Karen wanted.  All the time they took it in turns to keep their eyes on the green water streaming past the canopy at a hundred and thirty kilometres an hour, watching for any obstructions.

When she finished telling Larry about her background, he said, ‘Maybe you’d like to tell me what happened to your sister, if it’s not too painful.’

Slowly and hesitantly she explained all the details of Rachel’s death, and how she had vowed to track down Rachel’s boyfriend, the man she believed was involved in the tragedy.

‘That was why I started spending my weekends disguised as Rachel, going to places where I thought they had been together.  I wanted to try and surprise him by seeing Rachel come back to haunt him.  Instead I managed to surprise you, and end up in this mess!’

‘I’m really sorry that you got dragged into this.’

Karen gave a weak laugh.  ‘It was scarcely your fault.  You did not ask me to stow away.  Mum and Dad have warned me about doing things without thinking, and this time I played a real blinder.  But I am grateful you sent that message to your friend.  At least now, whatever happens, they will find out what happened to me eventually.’

‘If we do get through this, I meant what I said.  I’ll help you track down the man you were looking for.’

For a little while they were both quiet.  Larry stared intently through the canopy and juggled with his speed control, making the churning bubbles creep forward and back over their view.

Karen thoughts turned back to her parents.  She always saw them at least once a week, so when she didn’t turn up they were certain to be alarmed.  That is, if they weren’t contacted by her boss before that when she didn’t turn up for work.

Even then they wouldn’t realize just how much trouble she was in now.  She had a suicidal break-in to a Ziloni military base to look forward to – that was if she even survived this underwater trip.  The Ziloni were desperately searching for them up above.  Would they spot the tell-tale signs of their turbulent passage?  If so, what would be the first sign?  Probably more bombs, this time aimed directly at them.  Would it be quick, or would they be drowned by the water rushing in?

She felt suddenly overwhelmed by her situation, combined with reliving the memory of what had happened to Rachel.  She squeezed her eyes shut as if it would help to blank out the memories.  Oh come on Karen, stop feeling sorry for yourself.  At least you’re still here and you’ve survived the first stage.

She ought to break the silence.  ‘What about you?’ she asked.  ‘Tell me what it’s like living on other planets.  Where do you live, for example?’

‘I grew up in the city of Greti, which is the largest city on Central.’

‘Central?  Is that a planet?  It sounds like an odd name for a planet.’

‘That’s because it was uninhabited before the Galactic Union decided to make it their main administrative centre.  Rather than single out an existing planet, which would have caused resentment from all the others, they decided it would be more diplomatic to start from scratch.’

He went on to describe life on Central.  His father was a minor government official in the administration.  His family had expected him to follow suit, just as his good friend Ket did.  However, he had always been fascinated with space travel, and as soon as he could, he joined the Interstellar Exploration Programme.  The one drawback of the job was that he spent weeks, if not months, on each exploration, and never had a settled home life.

Karen threw back at him the same question he’d asked earlier.  ‘How did your girlfriends like that?’

‘Not very much at all.  I’ve had plenty of girl friends – being a space explorer, even in the Union, is a glamorous job.  But none of those relationships ever survived an exploration trip.  I suppose I realized my lifestyle wasn’t cut out for a steady girlfriend, so I never looked for a long term relationship.  Whereas Ket took a shine to my younger sister, and now they are very happy together.’

Another obstruction loomed out of the green sea, but this time Larry was ready for it, and the gravity compensator stopped them getting thrown about.  It showed up clearly as a small peak in the seabed, not even a proper island.  But beyond it were many more.  They spent half an hour weaving through shallow water until they were clear and able to speed up.

As soon as they were under way again, Karen had more questions for Larry.  She was getting into the swing of speaking in Universal, and listening to the way he spoke the words and expressed things.  When at last they had exhausted the details of each other’s background, she had other things she’d been wondering about.

‘I once read a magazine article that said that travel to the stars would always be impossible.  Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.’

‘Absolutely right,’ Larry replied.  ‘But there’s no law against taking a short-cut through a higher dimension, which is what hyperspace is.  Your Earth scientists are now theorizing about the possibility of higher dimensions.  They’ve already discovered that three-dimensional space is a surface on a higher-dimensional entity called a brane.  The gravitational force appears so weak compared with the other forces like the electromagnetic force and the weak and strong nuclear forces, because it isn’t confined to the brane.’

All this talk about forces left her floundering.  What had it got to do with hyperspace?  Larry was beginning to remind her of one of her teachers, full of enthusiasm for the most obscure topics.

Larry hadn’t yet finished his explanation.  ‘The hyperspace unit uses the gravitational force to jump from one place on the brane to another, but it only works where there isn’t a large gravitational field like you get near a planet or star, outside what we call the hyperspace boundary.  It’s about a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres out from a typical planet.’

Although she didn’t understand all the stuff about higher dimensions and branes, she was getting the general picture.  She remembered something else in the article.

‘But if you can effectively travel faster than light, I thought that it generated paradoxes or time travel or something?’

‘Wow, that was quite a technical article.’

‘Oh, I did not read all the technical stuff.  I just . . .’ she broke off, seeing his broad grin.  ‘Oh, you are teasing me, aren’t you?’

‘No – well, maybe a little bit.  I’m sorry.  The fact is, to achieve time travel you need stations that are far apart, travelling at near-light speeds, and you have to travel between them faster than light.’

‘Hmm, that sounds pretty complicated.’

‘Yes, you have to work hard to achieve time travel.  If you want to understand how it causes time travel you have to make coordinate transformations in space-time for the two stations.’

Karen’s eyes widened.  ‘But you really can do it?’  Who cared whether it meant making coordinate transformations?

‘No, I’m afraid not.  It requires true faster than light travel to break causality and . . .’

‘I’m sorry,’ interrupted Karen.  ‘What has casualty got to do with it?’

‘I beg your pardon, breaking causality – not casualty – means reversing cause and effect.  In other words, time travel.  Hyperspace travel is not faster than light travel.  It’s travelling in higher dimensions, which include time.  In effect, you travel forward through time as well when you make a hyperspace jump.  Nature is pretty good at stopping the things that break fundamental laws of physics, like perpetual motion machines and time travel.’

That almost made sense, though she still didn’t understand how you got time travel if you could go faster than light.  She stared out of the canopy for a few moments.  The sea was clearer now.  The surface was visible far above them, while below the bottom appeared from time to time, covered in weed and rocks.

Another question occurred to her.  ‘How does your hyperspace system know where the stars and planets are?  The planets are spinning round the sun all the time, and I think the stars are moving as well, aren’t they?’

‘That’s a good point.  I don’t know the details of how it all works, in fact I don’t think anyone fully understands it, but you’re right, the stars are moving.  The unit has a powerful computer inside that calculates all the movements, and of course all the Union stars and planets are pre-programmed, so for most people it’s not something they ever have to worry about.’

Karen frowned.  ‘What do you do when the planet is not pre-programmed, like Earth?  Or your secret Hideaway planet?’

‘It’s dead easy – the unit is linked to the viewscreen and you simply mark the star on the screen.  The unit picks up the coordinates from that and tracks it for a little while to work out it’s movement.’

‘How do you know so much about science, when you are an interstellar explorer?’ she asked curiously.

‘It’s an essential part of the job.  We have a lot of training.  Self-defence, weapons training, how to cover up our presence and keep a low profile, and where to look to get information on the state of science and technology.  That’s where our knowledge of science theory comes in.’

Larry was easy to talk to and the time passed quickly as they chatted.  The conversation ranged over all sorts of topics.  She was getting to know him well, but there was one subject that they never seemed to touch on.  Eventually she could contain her curiosity no longer.

’Larry, how did you come to be a fugitive from the Ziloni?’

His face clouded and he turned away.  For a moment she thought she had over-stepped the mark.

‘Oh, I’m sorry.  I did not mean to pry.  It just –’

‘No, it’s not your fault.  I ought to explain.’

He glanced at her for a moment, before returning his gaze to the water rushing past.  He took a deep breath and began.

‘It all started during a standard IEP visit that I was making to Trajia.  Their state of development would have corresponded to, let me see, maybe the beginning of the twentieth century on Earth.  Because Trajia was a world that had an enlightened attitude to women, I took a new woman agent with me to supervise her on her first full mission.’

Once he had started, the whole story of his exploits and Annek’s death came tumbling out.

 

 

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.

When the light started to fade, Larry found a shallow area of ocean and settled the ship onto the ocean floor, where they stopped for the night.  After they had eaten a good evening meal they retired to the bunks at the rear.  Larry stripped to his underpants and climbed into the upper bunk, leaving Karen what little privacy there was in the bunk below.

He lay there wide-awake for a while, thinking about the mission to come, encumbered with his stowaway.  He was beginning to get a good feeling about the capabilities of the attractive Earthgirl.  She had bounced back from the traumatic shock of discovering she had stowed away with an alien on a spaceship.  On the stressful roller-coaster ride down to Zilon, she had kept her nerve when the missiles were coming and launched their interceptors confidently.

Why had he been so set against her coming?  It meant he was responsible for another person’s life as well as his own.  But it wasn’t like his responsibility for Annek – Karen had insisted on coming against his advice, knowing the dangers.  It was not her lack of fighting experience – if he got into a major fight he wouldn’t stand a chance, either with her or alone.  At the beginning, he had been worried that she might go to pieces, but the signs now were that she wouldn’t.  At least her presence might not be the disaster he had feared.  She was good company, and he was enjoying being with her more than he would have expected.

****

When Larry climbed into his bunk, Karen stood for a few moments, unsure how to handle the situation.  She shrugged to herself, took off the clothes Larry had lent her and tucked herself into the lower bunk.  As she lay in the dark she was struck by the incongruity of her position, sleeping under the ocean in a spaceship on an alien planet, in the next bunk to a man she had only met two – or was it three? – days ago.

And not only a man, but an alien space explorer, on the run and on a probably fatal mission.  On the plus side, he was gorgeous and had an attractive, cavalier manner.  She realized with a sudden shiver that she was, of course, completely in his hands.  Yet on this underwater trip he had behaved with perfect manners, and she had come to know a lot about him – more than she had ever got to know the boyfriends she had been out with.  With his mind on other things, and the fact that she was from a non-Union world, there was no hope of him taking a more personal interest in her.  She wouldn’t mind if he did, though.  The thought made her smile.  In any case, she could do nothing about it, so she put it out of her mind, curled up and went to sleep.

****

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?

‘Tell me what it’s like to be an IEP explorer,’ she said.

‘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.’

‘So what did you do?’

Larry laughed.  ‘I cheated and used a stun gun on him.  They fire tiny needles of soluble tranquilliser that will penetrate several layers of clothing.  No matter where they hit, they knock you out for an hour or more.  We have arm-mounted stun guns that are easily concealed.  You fire them by twisting and flexing the wrist.  I had one on my right arm, and pretended to be left handed.  It was the usual sort of duel, ten paces, turn and fire when ready.  So I spun round fast and fired my pistol way over his head, putting my right hand under the pistol as if to brace it.  But I was really aiming the stun gun and I shot him with that.  He was taking his time to shoot, thinking he had me cold.

‘Well of course, he went down with not a mark on him and still alive and breathing.  So to his seconds, I accused the man of fainting out of cowardice, and walked away in contempt.’

‘Suppose you had been caught out cheating?’

‘Actually, even if they had found the gun they’d have had no idea what it was.  I’d have passed it off as an arm brace.  I did get caught out a few times though.  I remember one was a woman who fancied me for some unaccountable reason.’

Karen knew exactly why the woman fancied him.  She arched her eyebrows at Larry and he laughed.

‘Oh, all right, but I swear I did nothing to encourage her.  Anyway, she lay in wait for me, hidden in my bed, which she somehow managed to get into without setting off any aversion fields.  When I returned I didn’t get straight into bed, but started working on my data processing unit, which she saw when she looked to see what I was doing.  I got away with it by pretending I was a government special agent with secret technology no one must know about.  I told her that if she ever breathed a word to anyone, I’d have to track her down and shoot her.

‘So you see, Karen, you’re not the first primitive who has caught me out.’

‘I see.’  She frowned.  He was always using that word primitive, but she hadn’t associated it with herself up to now.  ‘I’m not sure I like being referred to as a primitive, though.’

Larry pulled at his ear and looked embarrassed.  ‘My apologies.  It’s the nearest translation the language translator can find for the Universal word.  It’s just the standard terminology for any civilization that hasn’t been invited to join the Union.  It isn’t intended to be derogatory, just a convenient distinction.’

She flicked her hair back.  ‘It’s fine, it just sounded odd.  I suppose I tend to think we are pretty advanced, but it’s all relative, isn’t it.  Hmm, come to think of it, this rule of yours that you cannot reveal your existence to primitive cultures sounds a lot like the Prime Directive in Star Trek.’

‘Sorry, I’ve never heard of that.  I assume that Star Trek is some sort of story?’

‘It was a long-running TV show.  I have never watched it, but someone I work with likes to bore everyone with all the details.’

‘So what is the Prime Directive?’

‘I do not remember the details, but it was their most fundamental rule when mixing with other civilizations, that no matter what happened they must not reveal themselves or interfere.’

‘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.’

‘It sounds great to me,’ said Karen.  ‘I would love to do something like that instead of my boring administrative work.’

‘You should definitely try and find a more exciting job.  From what you say, you have no ties at present, so now is the time to do it.  There must be something on Earth that would fit the bill.’

‘Hmm, maybe I will.  There is one small snag right now.  We have to get through this trip first, and it looks as if it will give me more excitement, if that is the right word, than I might ever want.’

After this they were both silent for a while.  Karen mulled over what lay ahead, and she suspected Larry was too, from his sombre demeanour.

What was going through his mind?  Did he regret the way she’d persuaded him to bring her along?  Not that she cared too much.  She had come to terms with the likelihood that they wouldn’t make it out of the mission alive.  She’d always tended to live for the moment and that served her well now, helping her to cope with her predicament.

But she knew the real action would start the next day.  The reality was beginning to sink in that the next morning they were going into the abyss and they would probably not come out alive.

Late that afternoon they reached the far coast.  A large spur of land gave a good fix on their location.  They turned north, tracking up the coast, slowly now because they dare not leave their tell-tale trail of turbulence close to shore.  Another half-hour brought them to the estuary Larry was looking for.  Here he stopped on the ocean floor again, to wait out the coming night.

 

 

HERE IS AN EXTRA SCENE IN THE MIDDLE OF CHAPTER 15. IT TAKES PLACE DURING LARRY AND KARENS' ESCAPE FROM THE MILITARY BASE AND GIVES THE VIEWPOINT OF THE ZILONI BASE COMMANDER. The original chapter sections are in italics.

Larry gave the man instructions.  ‘As soon as we get out, I want you to turn round and drive back past the base.  Don’t drive too fast.  You’re bound to hit a roadblock before long.  Say nothing about us.  If we’re caught, we’ll say you agreed to give us a ride for cash and show that recording as evidence.  Do you understand?’

The man nodded, looking petrified, and flung the money back at Larry.  He patiently picked it up again, and handed it back.  ‘You might as well take it, we already have the recording of you with it.  Put it away if you know what’s good for you.’

Larry and Karen scrambled out of the car and watched as he reversed and shot away.

‘Slow down, you stupid clown,’ said Larry to the dwindling vehicle.  He shrugged his shoulders and said to Karen, ‘Hopefully he will calm down and slow up before he meets anyone.  I’m glad I sent him back that way, though.  At least that should keep them confused if they are suspicious.  Nothing we can do now.  Let’s get moving.’

He tucked the laser rifle inside his tunic top, consulted his map, and led the way into a field on the left.

‘Cutting across here should avoid the first road block, which is likely to be the most thorough.  My map shows a large village across the next few fields, where we should be able to pick up another ride.  We need to get out of the open before they extend the flyers to search this way as well.’

****

Dartan Stalig, the base commander, was puzzled and worried as he discussed his options with Renick Vontar, his deputy.  ‘I can’t figure out why a group of terrorists would decide to target our base.  All we do is collect and analyse intelligence reports.’

‘Have you figured out what their objectives were?’ asked Vontar.

‘As far as I can tell, their main purpose was to destroy our main computer system.  But what’s the point?  Except for the information we gathered earlier in the day, the rest was backed up elsewhere.  They could have achieved much more by attacking a more important base.  It’s unfortunate that today’s data included most of the images of their attack on the base, so we don’t have any decent vid of who we are looking for.’

‘I suppose we were a soft target, being manned mainly by civilians.’

‘True.  But considering the amount of explosives they used, they’ve achieved no dramatic results.’  He ticked off on his fingers.  ‘A few bits of structural damage.  One replaceable computer system destroyed.  Four guards killed and one seriously injured, and a technician with a minor leg injury.’

‘At least that should mean we’ll be let off lightly, shouldn’t it?’

Stalig snorted.  ‘Are you kidding.  I guess you shouldn’t have any problem, but as base commander, I’ll be held responsible for not defeating the attack and allowing the terrorists to escape.  I’ve heard a rumour that one of them was a former IEP explorer called Laren’hi Rasilii.  For some reason, the High Command has been desperately trying to track him down.’

‘Why would an IEP explorer get mixed up with criminals, and why do High Command want him so badly?’

‘I have no idea.  They don’t share that information with me.  But we seem to have bungled an opportunity to catch Rasilii.’

‘At least you’ve got a scapegoat to carry the main portion of blame.  There seems to be no doubt that Prenstall was in collusion with them.’

Stalig brightened.  ‘I know, but what the fuck would possess the fool to do it?  Have you found out yet?’

‘Not so far.  Somehow he got stunned during the attack along with Fratzin and the technicians.  I’ve got him under lock and key but I haven’t bothered to have him revived.  I’m busy trying to do Prenstall’s job and catch the fugitives.’

‘Don’t worry, Prenstall can be dealt with later.  He’s as good as a dead man, once you’ve interrogated him and confirmed his collusion.  Right now the only thing that matters is to recapture the terrorists.  At least we’re in a remote location, that should make the search operation easier.  How are you getting on with it?’

Vontar handed over a sheet of film.  ‘This is a summary of what I’ve done so far.  We’ve set up several layers of roadblock, so although it looks as if they might have managed to seize a car before we got the inner layer of roadblocks established, we’ll get them at the outer layers unless they abandoned the vehicle.’

‘What are you doing about an escape on foot?  The countryside around is heavily wooded to the south, and you told me that is the direction in which the terrorists seem to have fled.’

‘That’s where I need your decision.  The infrared detectors on the military flyers can pick up the smallest mammal through that vegetation cover.  The problem is that it needs a thorough grid search to distinguish humans from all the wildlife.  I’ve got insufficient flyers available at short notice to make such a detailed search of the complete area around the base.’

‘What are our options?’

‘As you said, there seems little doubt that they were fleeing to the south.  That was the direction they left the base, and the stolen uniforms were recovered on the main route to the south.  You can concentrate most of the flyers on a grid search from southeast to southwest, and allocate just one flyer to each of the other three quadrants.  The lone flyers would be limited to a visual search for any obvious fugitives, on the remote possibility that they doubled back.’

‘Okay.  Is there an alternative?’

‘Spread the flyers uniformly in all directions.  That means only a quarter searching the likely quadrant on a coarse grid, and we could miss them.  Either way we should get a second chance.  It will take no more than an hour to get more flyers, after which we can extend the search in all directions.  If the terrorists are on foot they won’t have got far.  If they are trying to escape by car it’s immaterial, the roadblocks will get them.’

‘Okay, we’ll concentrate the search to the south.  Damn Prenstall for his collusion.  If he had been running the security team properly, we would have had a flyer up in time to catch the bastards as they made their escape.  Prenstall will pay for the trouble he’s caused.’

 ****

 The weather had improved during the morning, and patches of blue sky let through some sunshine.  Larry and Karen tramped across the fields, most with crops nearly ready for harvest so that they had to walk round the edges to avoid them.  The warm sun made the walking hot sweaty work, and even more uncomfortable for Larry with the rifle hampering his movement.  After they had been walking for ten minutes he saw a flyer, still well in the distance but headed in their direction.

‘Quick, get down on the ground.’  He pulled her down onto the grass verge as he spoke.  At the same time he pulled the laser rifle out of his tunic and tucked it underneath them.  If his plan failed he needed it handy.  He was at least going out fighting.

 

 

HERE IS THE FIRST HALF OF AN EXTRA SCENE AT THE END OF CHAPTER 19 AND THE BEGINNING OF CHAPTER 20. IT TAKES PLACE DURING LARRY AND KARENS' ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET DRAZEN. The original chapter section is in italics.

Karen stared about her as they walked back to the main road.  She expected Ziloni agents to spring out from every house.  That was ridiculous, how many agents could they have on one planet?  The chances of passing one of their houses was negligible, but somehow that thought did nothing to dispel her fears.

They hadn’t walked far down the main road when Larry stopped at a large, transparent cabin.  So this was what a public transport stop looked like on Drazen.  Before long Karen saw her first alien bus.  It was the first vehicle she had seen with four wheels since leaving Earth.

When she commented about it Larry explained.  ‘It’s a trade-off of stability versus efficiency.  Buses keep stopping and it saves having to put down stabilizing legs each time.  The extra drag of four wheels and lack of tilting when going round corners doesn’t matter in a slow moving bus.’

As it slowed to a stop, the first surprise for Karen was that it had no driver.  Instead it was computer-controlled, following a pre-programmed route and stopping whenever a sensor reported that a cabin had passengers waiting.  The second surprise was that when it had completely stopped the whole chassis subsided gently until it was at ground level, before the door opened.  They were able to board without needing to step up at all.

Larry registered his presence on the bus by inserting his ID finger in a machine by the door.  Karen took her cue from him and did the same.  Although she was still struggling with Universal script, she could decipher the simple instruction over the machine: “PAY ON EXIT”.  Larry squeezed their cases into the tiny luggage compartment by the door and led her to a pair of seats near the back.

Karen looked around curiously.  It struck her that inside it was not so different from an Earth bus; the aisle has to be up the middle, it is the only practical arrangement.  The bus had several other passengers in a wide variety of garments.  Some would not have looked out of place on Earth if you didn’t examine the fabric too closely.  But others struck her as outlandish, such as a few of the men wearing what could only be described as skirts - and nothing like the kilts that Scottish men sometimes wore.  They were also far more friendly than she was used to.  One young man, apparently oblivious to Larry’s presence, tried to hit on her as she passed him.  She had to resort again to speaking English to get away from him.

They had boarded the first bus that came along because of the need to make a rapid getaway.  They made two changes before they reached their destination, which was the local spaceport.  When the third bus stopped at the spaceport they got up to leave, but Larry suddenly pushed Karen back into an empty seat and sat down again beside her.

‘What’s up?’  She peered out of the window.  ‘Surely it can’t be more Ziloni agents?’

Larry shook his head.  ‘No, but I have a bad feeling.  There are too many cops about.’

 

CHAPTER 20

Karen’s heart somersaulted at Larry’s comment.  She could only see two or three of the familiar black uniforms among the crowds milling around the spaceport entrance.  Surely that couldn’t be a sign of trouble.

‘Are you sure?’

‘No, but I dare not take the risk.  Tostensti will be awake by now.  They are probably already looking for us.  They will have a picture of you from the vid call you made, and with your good looks you really stand out.  Even your clothes are still the same.  We will have to try something else.’

Karen gave a big sigh.  ‘Oh Larry, will this nightmare never end?’

He squeezed her hand.  ‘Don’t worry, I will work something out.  With our new identities we will be fine once we get off Drazen.’

They stayed on the bus for two more stops, which took them to a busy commercial area.  Larry said, ‘This will do.  We’ll grab the cases and get off here.’

Once off the bus, Larry hailed a taxi and told the driver to take them to the nearest car hire centre.

‘I dare not risk taking a commercial flight away from Drazen now,’ said Larry as the taxi pulled away.  ‘All spaceports will have security that are likely to pick you up from your picture.  Even if we got you some face moulding as well, it’s only effective for routine computer surveillance, not when the police are looking out for us.’

Their predicament was getting worse by the minute.  ‘What on earth can we do, then?’

‘The only other escape route is my ship.  That’s why we need to hire another car, to get back to Tanil field.’

‘Even if we escape from Drazen, won’t the Ziloni be looking for us wherever we go?’

‘I don’t think so.  This time we have our false IDs, so on another planet we should be safe from Ziloni agents, and I don’t think our recent brush with the police will be serious enough to justify an interstellar search for us.’

Before they could discuss any more, the taxi arrived at a car hire centre.

Larry glanced at Karen.  ‘Do you mind looking after the cases while I go in to hire another car?’

He was at it again.  Leaving her by herself while he ran the show.

As he walked into the centre she muttered, ‘Why not.  I know I’m just the stowaway you have to drag along till you can dump me back home.’

She instantly regretted the words when he looked round and she saw the hurt look on his face.  Damn, she’d forgotten about the earpiece transmitting her words to him.

He shook his head and turned back to go inside.  She heard his reply on her own earpiece.  ‘I would never think that way about you.’

This time he had hired a bigger car, one with a computer operated homing system that could find its own way back when they were finished with it.  They started the long drive back to Tanil field.

‘How will you get to the ship?’ asked Karen.  ‘Won’t they be watching the field as well?’

‘I’m certain they will.  I had to leave the ship in my own name and they’ll have found out who I am from the Ziloni agents.  We won’t be able to get too close, but it’s an IEP ship – it has a sophisticated remote control system.’

Karen spent the whole of the drive back to Tanil field looking round for signs of trouble.  What a contrast with how exhilarated she had been on arrival, when they thought that their troubles were over.  But the journey passed uneventfully, and two hours later they were approaching the landing field.

‘Do you think there will be road blocks again?’ asked Karen.

Larry shook his head.  ‘I doubt it.  This isn’t like Zilon, where they were desperate to stop us.  I expect that they’ll just have a few men stationed in case we try to get back to the ship.’

He turned into a quiet side road not far from the spaceport and continued until they came to an open field.  There he stopped, turned the car round, unloaded the luggage and carried it a little way into the field.  Karen idly prodded at a tuft of grass with her toe.  It was quiet and peaceful here, away from the built up areas.  Birds were singing in the distance and the sun was shining, but unlike Zilon it was pleasantly cool, typical weather for late afternoon in spring.  It would be so pleasant to forget about Ziloni secret agents and police hunts and just sit there on the strange, silky grass, enjoying the evening sunshine.

She brought her attention back to their problems as Larry returned to the car and set the homing device, but left the car door open.

‘As soon as the door is shut it will be away,’ he said to Karen.  ‘I don’t want to send it off until I’m sure we have the ship, otherwise we’ll be stranded.’

He pulled his remote control from his pocket.  ‘Right, let’s see if we can get our ship back.  I hope they haven’t put any restraints on it.’

Karen’s heart flipped and she stared at him in alarm.  ‘Christ, Larry, why do you always wait till the last minute to tell me it could all go wrong?’

‘Sorry.  There was no point in both of us worrying about it beforehand.  Cross your fingers.  Here goes.’

 

 

HERE IS THE REMAINDER OF THE EXTRA SCENE AT THE BEGINNING OF CHAPTER 20. IT TAKES PLACE DURING LARRY AND KARENS' ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET DRAZEN. The original chapter section is in italics.

He set the remote control to lift the ship and they looked out into the distance for it to appear.

‘Are you sure we are looking in the right direction?’ asked Karen.

Larry nodded and increased the setting on the remote to maximum.  A faint twang sounded in the distance, and a moment later they saw the ship shooting skyward.  Larry quickly got it under control and guided it toward them.  As it approached they saw cables hanging from the ship.

He said, ‘Thank the saints for land-bound policemen who have no idea of the lifting power of these ships.  I hope those cables haven’t scratched the paintwork.’

Karen gave a nervous laugh.  Larry concentrated on landing the ship as close as possible.  As soon as it was down, settling on the landing legs that had never been retracted, he picked up the cases, hurried to the door, unlocked it and threw the cases on board.

They heard sirens, faintly at first in the distance, but approaching fast.  ‘Can you shut the car door so that it can go,’ Larry called to Karen.  ‘I need to get these cables off so they don’t flap around.’

She raced back to the car and slammed the door.  Despite knowing what was coming, she jumped as it shot back down the narrow road.  By the time she got back to the ship, Larry had the cables clear and they scrambled on board.  Larry sealed the door and hurried to the controls.

Karen settled herself into the right-hand seat and watched as Larry’s hands flew across the control console.  She was beginning to understand the take-off process now.  The cabin lights came on and she felt the slight jerk as the gravity compensator kicked in.  ,They lifted clear of the ground, and she was ready when he pitched the ship up to the vertical.  She managed to resist the urge to hang on to something.

Through the canopy they could see several of the bright red police cars approaching fast along the little side road, but they shrank out of sight as Larry accelerated upward hard.  The noise of the airflow rose rapidly to a high-pitched whistle, changing abruptly as they went supersonic.  Karen heard the change and looked over at Larry.

‘Are we breaking the speed limit again?’

Larry nodded.  ‘One more offence to add to our list of crimes.  Hmm, looks like we might be getting company.’

He pointed to the viewscreen where a trace had just appeared.

Karen groaned.  ‘Are we in deep trouble again?’

Larry gave her an encouraging smile.  ‘No, I don’t think so.  It looks as if someone has commandeered a spaceship from Tanil field to follow us.  I doubt if it’s even armed with attack missiles, and I’m certain they wouldn’t open fire even if they could, for what is little more than a misdemeanour.  So there’s not much they can do.’

The radio burst into life.

This is the Drazen police in pursuit of spaceship IEP zero zero eight.  You have made an illegal ascent from an unauthorized site.  You are also in breach of speed limit rules.  Cease your climb immediately and return at once to Tanil field.

‘I think we might as well try a little bluff, just in case they have missiles,’ said Larry.

He thumbed his own transmit pad.  ‘This is IEP zero zero eight.  Please be advised we are official Galactic Council agents on an urgent mission.  We apologize for infringing the rules of space travel but this was unavoidable.  We expect full assistance in completing this mission.’

The reply came back immediately.  ‘We have no notification of any Union agent activity.  IEP zero zero eight is recorded as registered to a Laren’hi Rasilii who is currently on the Union wanted list.

Larry replied, ‘We are aware of the status of this ship, but we had no choice in the matter.  Please register any complaint with the Galactic Council.  In the meantime do not impede this operation.’

The sky gradually turned black and the noise faded to silence.  Larry selected a new setting from the database of the hyperspace unit, rolled the ship onto a new heading and pushed his stick all the way forward.  The pursuing ship slowly fell behind, and it made no further radio broadcast.

‘Do you think they believed you?’ asked Karen.

‘I doubt it, but it gave them something extra to worry about.  I expect that they’ll just tail us out to the boundary.’

The rest of the race to the hyperspace boundary was uneventful, though Karen’s stress level was maintained until the hyperspace console light went blue and Larry made two random jumps in quick succession.

Karen looked at Larry and pleaded, ‘Please tell me we really are safe now.’

‘Yes, for the moment.  The only real risk left is getting through security on Central itself.  We have false IDs and I’ll fake our ident again the way I did when we first approached Zilon.’

‘You mean we are going to Central in your spaceship now?’

‘Good heavens no.  That would be much too risky.  The place we’re going to is Nepentar, because it’s a major Associate Member Planet that has direct flights to Central.  It’s the second stop I was planning to make from Drazen on our commercial flights, but I can go there direct now we’re in my ship.  It’ll be handier after all this is over, too, when I can take you home, if we only have one flight to make to get back to this ship.’

‘That sounds really good.  I had given up the idea of ever seeing home again.’

Larry smiled at her, before turning his attention back to the control panel.  It did not take him long to set up a fake ident.

‘There’s one potential problem this time with having a fake ident.  It won’t match the registration marking on the ship.  It didn’t matter on Zilon where we weren’t making a regular landing.’

‘Is there anything we can do about it?  I don’t fancy going outside to paint on a different registration.’

Larry looked at her sharply.  He hadn’t cottoned on to her sense of humour yet.  Though why she was cracking jokes she wasn’t sure.  They seemed to be beset by endless problems.

‘I’m not changing it much, and we’ll have to rely on the fact that people don’t pay much attention to such things.  Have you ever paid attention to the registration mark on your airliner when you’ve made a flight?’

‘Well yes, you do sort of notice where it says something like KLM in huge letters.’

‘That’s the airline name you’re talking about.  The registration is something like F-ABCD.  The same as little aeroplanes have.’

‘Oh, I see.  No, I can’t say I have ever noticed that.’

‘Well, here’s hoping no one at the spaceport does either.  We’ll find out soon.  I’m ready to jump now.’

They came out of the jump pointed directly at Nepentar.  It looked a lot like Drazen, though less blue and with a greater proportion of land mass.  Karen had wondered if the approach would lose its dramatic impact with familiarity, but it was every bit as exhilarating as before, and she was relaxing again now that Larry had assured her that they were safe.

They landed at a small provincial spaceport that accepted private craft.  This time everything was straightforward.  No one commented on the fact that their registration mark was wrong.  They gave their new IDs their first thorough test at the check-in without any problems.  For the second time Larry organized long term parking for his ship, and then they took a shuttle flight to the main spaceport.

Larry went to the booking office and bought two tickets for the flight to Central and two bedrooms in the spaceport hotel for a sleep over.  It could not be called spending the night since it was actually broad daylight on Nepentar, but spaceport hotels were geared up for travellers needing to sleep at any time of the local day.

Before sleeping, they stopped for an evening meal in the hotel lounge.  It was a sumptuous meal, as good as the one they had enjoyed on Drazen, but it had been a long and stressful day and Karen was weary and unable to fully appreciate it.

As soon as they were finished they went straight to bed.  It was the first time Karen had slept in a proper bed since leaving Earth, and what a bed it was.  The sheets were softer and smoother than the finest silk she had experienced back on Earth, and the mattress was firm yet moulded itself somehow to her body so that it was incredibly comfortable.

As she lay luxuriating in the experience it occurred to her with something of a shock that it was the first time since she had met Larry that she had slept separately from him.  This thought brought back feelings she was trying to deny, but she knew she would never be able to shake them off.  Despite the comfort, she suddenly felt miserable and she buried her head in the pillow.  Then tiredness took over and she was asleep.

 

 

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.

 

 

HERE IS THE FIRST HALF OF ANOTHER EXTRA SCENE AT THE END OF CHAPTER 22. IT TAKES PLACE IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE PREVIOUS SCENE, ABOVE, WHEN LARRY AND KAREN HEAR FROM KET WHILE THEY ARE HIDING IN THE MUSEUM. The original chapter sections are in italics.

 ****

 Ket had arranged an appointment with his closest Council contact , but that left him with the problem that now he had to return to the Council buildings, where he expected that there would be Ziloni agents waiting.  He made his way slowly back to his office.  Maybe he was being paranoid.  But not without cause – after all, they had been willing to shoot down an innocent spaceliner in order to get at Larry.

As he neared the huge complex of buildings containing his office, he saw the car he had seen earlier, still parked with the driver doing something to it.

There was no way he could get past without being seen.  But this guy was probably just an observer.  He hadn’t interfered before when Ket went out to the spaceport.  Maybe it was time to take the bull by the horns, now that he had ensured the safety of the information from Larry.  He strode up to the car and as he came alongside the man he stopped.

Without looking at the man he spoke in a conversational tone.  ‘What you’re after is in the hands of several Council officials and members.  I’m going to an appointment with one of them.  The computers monitor the cameras in this street at all times, so I recommend that you don’t dig the hole your people are in any deeper, by taking any ill-advised action.’

The man did not say a word, but he flung his tools into the back of the car, leapt in and drove off.  Ket could see that he was in animated conversation with someone as he drove.  Ket sighed with relief that the confrontation had ended peacefully and hurried inside for his appointment.

After it was over he phoned his wife on the office vidphone.

‘Gen, you will never believe what’s happened this morning.  Larry’s back, and not only that, he’s got cast-iron proof about the Ziloni.  Harbit Wilstrand, on the Council, is convinced that it will clear him.  Larry’s been through a string of hair-raising events to get it.  For example, it was him involved with the spaceliner the Ziloni attacked.’

‘Really?  So is he all right?’

‘Yes, he seems to have survived it all.’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful.  You must bring him home to visit as soon as he’s in the clear.’

‘That’s not all.  He had someone with him, a girl called Karen.  She got tangled up with him while he was on the run, a primitive no less, and she’s been with him on his escapades.’

‘Then you must bring her as well.  Oh, are they, er, involved together, do you think?’

‘No, I don’t think so.  Although come to think of it, there was something about the way Karen spoke of Larry.  Anyway, I’ll phone again when I know what’s happening.’

Two hours later he got the news he was hoping for.

 ****

 Braxel Strensin was having a really bad day, and now he had a difficult decision to make.

Two days ago, a top priority instruction had come through from the Ziloni High Command.  All current Secret Service operations were suspended.  All personnel were diverted to the task of apprehending or intercepting Laren’hi Rasilii before he could pass on stolen intelligence of critical importance to Ziloni High Command.

Even Strensin had no idea what that intel was, but it had the High Command shitting themselves to get it back, so it must be red hot.  The rumour was that a similar order had gone out to every Union planet where Zilon had an embassy, but the operation on Central was the most important and critical one because the expectation was that Rasilii was trying to get the intel to the Galactic Council.

As second in command of the Security section of the embassy on Central, Strensin had been tasked with guarding every spaceport on Central that handled interstellar flights, which was a huge operation and a nightmare to man with the resources available to him.

At the time he had been highly frustrated to get that job, which he had privately considered a waste of resources.  He hadn’t believed that Rasilii, a wanted fugitive throughout the Union, would be stupid enough to try and sneak back onto Central.  The key operation had gone to his number one.  That was the interception of any message probes from Rasilii.  He had been convinced that that course of action was a much more likely one for Rasilii to take, and agents had been infiltrated in various positions in the interstellar messaging system to stop anything from him reaching the authorities on Central.

Yesterday evening sketchy reports had come through that agents on Drazen had located and tried to apprehend Rasilii, but there had been some monumental cock-up with Rasilii’s female accomplice.  She had managed to thwart the operation and it had ended in a firefight with a large contingent of Drazen police.  This had confirmed in Strensin’s mind his view that Rasilii was not heading back to Central.

Because of the shortage of manpower he had shared the watch on Greti’s main spaceport.  Earlier this morning, near the end of his 8-hour stint, Rasilii had proved him wrong by trying to smuggle himself and his bitch accomplice through to Central on a scheduled interstellar flight, using some type of false ID.

He had been tired and not expecting any action, and he hadn’t spotted Rasilii.  If he was honest he’d been distracted by the woman with him.  He would never have identified her from the poor quality holos he had seen - all that they had recovered from the computer system that Rasilii had wrecked.  In those she had been in a shapeless coverall or uniform and mostly with a hair bonnet.  In the security line she had looked gorgeous, with long flowing dark hair and a short skirt and skin-tight top that displayed a stunning figure and would probably have got her arrested back on Zilon.  Like a fool he had been ogling her instead of paying attention to her companion.

 

HERE IS THE SECOND HALF OF THE EXTRA SCENE AT THE END OF CHAPTER 22. IT CONTINUES FROM THE SCENE ABOVE, AND DESCRIBES WHAT BRAXEL STRENSIN DOES. The original chapter sections are in italics.

Rasilii had been detected at the security check, and the next moment he had leapt the desk and was making a run for the exit while his accomplice struggled with the security officer.  Belatedly Strensin had galvanized himself into action and set off in chase of Rasilii.  There was no way he dared try for a kill shot in public, he couldn’t get his stun gun free as he was running and his arm-mounted gun was too inaccurate for him to try a shot in the busy concourse.  He almost caught the bastard but Rasilii made it to the exit door first.  The damned lock-down left Strensin trapped inside glaring helplessly out through the one-way window at Rasilii saying something to the scattering of pedestrians outside.

At that point Strensin had found time to call over his comm. set to Vartzil, the agent guarding the exterior of the spaceport, but the idiot had stationed himself on the far side of the road – to get a better overall view he had claimed afterward – and he had similarly failed to get an opportunity for either a kill shot or even a stun in the busy thoroughfare.  Obviously he had tried to pursue Rasilii, but the cunning sod had been well trained in evading tails and Vartzil had lost him.

Someone from spaceport security had seen Strensin chasing Rasilii and had asked what he was doing.  He almost got away with his tale of a concerned citizen who had seen the escape attempt and tried to help, but the nosy plod had wanted to search him and he’d had to invoke his diplomatic immunity.  Since then he’d had a security officer breathing down his neck all the time.

His next move was to go back to find out what had become of the bitch who had been with Rasilii.  He’d discovered that she’d been stunned and taken into custody for interrogation, so he’d hung around to see what happened to her.  A bit later Ketar’hi Dartelii had appeared and been escorted into the security section.

Because of his link to Rasilii they had a close watch operating on Dartelii.  Strensin had linked up with Brachard, one of the agents who’d been tailing Dartelii – the other tail had stayed to watch Dartelii’s car.  The two of them had shared the watch for either Dartelii or the bitch, or both.

There was absolutely no way that either had come out of the security section, but before long Vartzil had reported in to say that he’d spotted Dartelii and the woman heading for the subsurface transport system together.  For some reason they’d not gone back to Dartelii’s car, where they would have been picked up by Brachard’s partner.  Instead Vartzil, the incompetent fool, had managed yet again to lose his targets, this time a pair of amateurs.  At least, Dartelii was an amateur.  No one had found out who the hell the bitch was.  She wasn’t an IEP agent, she wasn’t a known associate of Rasilii and she wasn’t in any database.

Now, just when he thought that the day couldn’t get any worse, the agent keeping watch on Dartelii’s office complex had reported in that Dartelii had confronted him, bold as brass, and told him that what they were trying to retrieve was in the hands of several Council members and officials.  He’d taunted the agent to do something stupid in a street that was crawling with computer-controlled cameras, and probably computer-controlled security as well.  Not surprisingly, the agent had bailed out.

Strensin thought long and hard.  He was in charge of the spaceport operation and so he’d get a major share of the blame for this fiasco.  The way High Command was panicking about whatever it was that Rasilii had got, they’d be looking for scapegoats.

He came to a decision.  It was time to bail.  Okay, if he was going to do it, the sooner the better.  He turned to Brachard.

‘I’ve got to get back to the embassy, now this has all gone tits up.  I want you to hang on here in the spaceport.  Try to find out what the hell went wrong, why we never spotted Dartelii and the woman leaving.  We’ll need reasons why we fucked up so badly.’

He hurried out of the spaceport, but he didn’t return to his car and he headed away from the embassy.  As he went, he made a call on his mini-phone to a number unknown to any of his superiors and not stored on any of his phones.  It was to his mistress.

‘Yelin, it’s Braxel.  I need to implement operation Diplomatic Retreat immediately.’

‘Oh Braxel, darling.  Are you sure?’

‘Yes, I’ve thought carefully, but there’s no alternative.’

‘All right, I’ll see you soon.  I’ll be ready.’

That was it.  He was committed now.

He had prepared this escape plan a year ago, when it first became apparent to him that High Command was going in a direction he didn’t like, and unpleasant things started to happen to agents who fouled up.

He was certain that no one knew about Yelin.  She came from a thinly populated planet with plenty of space to drop out of sight, and she had family who would help them set up a home there.  It was the hope that the plan would come to fruition that had kept her sweet for the past year.  She knew that while he was on Central, working for the embassy, their relationship would never be more than quick, furtive meetings, but he had sworn to her that no matter what, he would implement the plan when he had enough savings tucked away.  He hadn’t expected things to come to a head so soon, but Rasilii had been the final trigger.

Now he had to get off Central fast and fix himself up with a false ID.  An authentic one, not whatever cheap and inadequate fix Rasilii had tried.  With that he could lay a long trail of confusion before ending on Yelin’s planet.  Thank the saints the Galaxy Sector was so big, it should make him impossible to trace, even if they expended the effort that they had to track Rasilii.  Which they wouldn’t, he didn’t flatter himself he was so important in the scheme of things.

Life might not be so bad after all.  Yelin was a sweet, compliant little thing, she might almost have been a Ziloni.  Not like that shrew of a wife of his.  He should have known better than to marry an off-worlder like her.  So many of them didn’t know their place.  He would miss the kids though.

**** 

When the mini-phone rang right in her ear, Karen was confused for a few moments.  Then she remembered how Ket had shown her to accept the call.

‘Hi, this is Karen.  Is that you, Ket?’

‘Of course.  Are you still in the museum?’

‘Yes.  It has been fascinating.’

‘Good.  Well I’ve finally heard the results of the Council deliberations over Larry’s information.  I’ll tell you both all about it when I see you, but the important thing is that Larry’s been given a temporary pardon.  I’m sure it will be ratified as soon as his case is considered properly.  So he’s in the clear and I’m coming get you both.  I’ll see you outside in about ten minutes.’

 

 

TO FINISH, A COUPLE OF SHORT EXTRA SCENES 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. 

****

THIS SCENE TAKES PLACE DURING CHAPTER 26, WHEN KAREN, KET AND GEN RETURN HOME AFTER LARRY IS SAVED IN THE HOSPITAL

That night as Ket lay in bed with Gen, she turned on him.  ‘What did you get up to this afternoon?  I noticed your crack about incentive, even if Karen didn’t.’

‘Gen darling, I didn’t want to lose your brother and a dear friend.  I thought his best chance was to have a real incentive to live.  And, though he is dear to us, and I hope we are to him, neither of us was the one he would really fight to live for.  So I persuaded the doctor to let Karen stay with him alone.’

‘How did you know that she would say anything?’

‘Oh, I didn’t know for sure.  I thought she might, and I reckoned it would be much better if it came spontaneously.  If she hadn’t said anything within about five minutes, I was going to tell her to do it.’

‘How did you know what she was saying to him?  She spoke in English.  Actually I felt a bit devious, listening and watching from outside.’

‘Well, she wasn’t telling him about the weather.  I was pretty confident from the tone of her voice that she was opening up to him.  As for listening in, I had no compunction about that.  Believe me, I would have done whatever was needed to give Larry the best chance.’

‘What made you so sure how they felt about each other?’

Ket laughed.  ‘Did you see how Karen looked at Larry when he wasn’t watching?  She couldn’t take her eyes off of him.  As for Larry, well, I’ve known him a long time.  Anyway, he more or less admitted it to me last night.  But the stupid sod told me he was waiting for a signal from her.  And there was no way she would give him one any time soon.  She was too much in awe of him.  I was planning to draw him a diagram after the attack on the Ziloni, but events overtook us.’

‘Will you say anything to Karen?  Perhaps she ought to know what you were up to.’

‘No, it would be a bit difficult.  It was rather underhand, but you know I did it for the best.  If things work out I’m sure Larry will say something.  When he’s feeling better I’m certain he’ll figure out what went on.  He knows me too well.  He’ll realize that she wasn’t there alone by accident.’

‘Well it looks as though tomorrow could be interesting.’

 

 

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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