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Part 1
Young Again



I Genius

"Well, Professor Dykstra, I recommend that you try using a cane."

"A cane?" the old man said. "The dawn of the twenty-second century, and the best that medicine can offer me is a cane?" He said it not with bitterness, or distress, but only ironic amusement.

"I'm sorry, Professor, but you are one hundred twenty-six years old. There's a limit to what we can do with muscle and nerve past the century mark," the doctor said.

"That's quite all right. I expected as much. Now, where might one acquire a cane?" Dykstra stood, steadying himself against the chair until sure of his balance.

"I had one brought up for you." The doctor produced a shiny, titanium walking stick, with a soft but firm handle and a cushion on the tip. "The stud here on the side adjusts the length." He handed it over.

James Christian Dykstra, the archetypal genius of the age, looked over the walking stick, weighed it in his hand, thrust it firmly into the floor, and said, "Serviceable, but short on character, I think, Doctor."

"You don't like it? But it's the best on the market."

"I have something else in mind," Dykstra said. "But I'll use this one for the time being."

And how much time will that be? he thought as he left the university medical center. He was ancient, well beyond the average age of dying in even this era of extended life, with all his roads traveled and behind him, save one that went on but a short distance ahead.

He decided to walk through the quad rather than summon his car to come get him. It was a beautiful day, after all, cane or no cane.

He saw a student at a picnic table, face buried in a textbook of familiar red, stylus in hand, its tip resting on his computer pad. "May I see what you're working at, young man?" Dykstra asked, walking up to the boy.

The student looked at him. Dykstra wondered what he saw. "If you want . . . sir. It's 4-space physics, the Dykstra field equations," the youth said. My physics, Dykstra thought, and it was clear the boy didn't recognize him.

"I recall it well," Dykstra said, examining the book, "from way back in my early days. Is there some particular difficulty you're having? Maybe I can help you."

Skepticism clouded the student's face, then a resigned "it's worth a try" look. "Problem twenty-two. I'm clueless."

Dykstra read the problem, then looked away, letting his mind work, seeing if he still had it in him to solve such problems. He had it. "From the symmetry of the situation, what you should consider is the projection of the 4-space field, its 3-space shadow if you will. Then integrate from zero to pi. The answer is 45.2 joules per meter to the fourth." He smiled, eyes twinkling.

The boy stared at him, his face jumping from pure disbelief to respect bordering on awe. "That's the answer in the back! How did you know?"

"I see it in my mind," Dykstra said. "I see the shape of the field."

"But the only person I've ever heard of who can visualize 4-space is James Christian Dykstra himself."

Dykstra smiled.

"Can I have your autograph?"

Dykstra obliged, though he was embarrassed that his signature was but a shaky shadow of its former self.

He left the boy and continued across the lush lawn to the parking area where his car waited. "Open," he said. The door slid aside. The seat moved outward. He dropped into it and was pulled inside. "Home." Gently the car lifted on its Dykstra repulsors, the fields interacting with the matter of the ground to raise the car into the sky and deliver the inventor of Dykstra field physics to his home in the mountains.

Home was a house in a meadow two kilometers up the western side of the Sierra Nevada range. The car grounded and Dykstra went inside, putting the cane aside since another of his inventions—his world-changing inventions—reduced the interior gravity to half standard. "Ahhh, home sweet home."

James Christian Dykstra, acclaimed by the whole Solar System as the smartest man in the world, was feeling his age. He accepted it philosophically, that he was old, that his days were numbered. But he had made more than his share of marks on human civilization . . . when he was younger.

He sat down in his favorite chair, looking out the window past the meadow and into the distance where the sun was creeping toward the horizon, and reminisced—the old man's entertainment.

He remembered those wild days in college, before the Collapse early in the 21st century, with his friends Jamie and Jenny. Ah, Jenny—she'd written his biography. In a way, she'd loved him, and he, her, though it had gone unconsummated. And then the Collapse years, the desperation, and the Moon Rush following, when he'd been instrumental in getting people to return to space to stay. He recalled his meeting with Paul McAndrew, the first Protestant saint. The man had shaken his hand, then looked at him funny, and said, "You are James Christian Dykstra, and through you God will give Man the stars." The memory still sent shivers through him.

The prophecy had come true, after a fashion. Dykstra field physics had made possible so many dreams of science fiction. Force shields, artificial gravity, repulsor beams, cheap fusion—all of these had resulted from his genius. With his inventions and his physics had come new weapons, weapons that the Belt was now using against the Solar Union. He felt bad about that. But humans will be humans.

Still, if mankind reached the stars, it would be by leaping off his giant shoulders, even if he wouldn't be around to see it.

He sighed.

Rousing himself from his memories, and from his chair, he went into the kitchen.

A package sat on the table, a System Patrol courier container. There was a spot for a thumbprint on the top. If the spot was coded for his print, the package would open at his touch. If not, high explosives would detonate, taking out him and the house, too.

He placed his thumb on the pad without hesitation.

The hemispherical endcaps of the container slowly separated, then the middle section split at the top and folded out. Inside was a data cube and a decidedly odd-looking implement, which reminded Dykstra of a hand weapon, though it wouldn't fit a hand properly. A tube projected from one end of the thing, out of the main bulk of two ten-centimeter diameter spheres and a heavy, padded loop—a handle, perhaps.

Dykstra left the implement in the container and took the data cube to his terminal. The cube booted and he redirected the output to his TV screen, which covered half the north wall. A man in a major's uniform appeared. "Hello, Professor Dykstra. I am Major Gerald Moore of System Patrol Intelligence. Within this cube you will find all the data we've been able to wrestle out of the device in the courier container. It's extremely dangerous, so I'd recommend that you follow the operating instructions our scientists were able to come up with before handling it. We lost a man finding out how to work the thing.

"The device is a weapon of extraterrestrial manufacture. That's right, we've encountered aliens. That fact is not for public consumption. You know what that means. The story of how we came into possession of the device is also in this cube.

"Intelligence has been able to find out how to work the weapon, but not how it works. We know how to fire it, how to adjust the length of the beam, and how to adjust the beam intensity. We also know that the beam itself is an X-ray laser. But how the beam is generated is beyond us. The weapon uses Dykstra fields in a way we've never seen before.

"Beyond that, its power source is a mystery—it doesn't seem to use anything; not batteries, not capacitors, not nuclear micropiles, not mini fusion generators, and not chips of antimatter.

"We hope you can help us out, Professor.

"One other thing—the aliens are hostile. They opened fire on the first human ship they met, out in the Oort cloud. Their technology is beyond ours. God help us if they take us to war.

"As of viewing this message, you are recalled to active status, Professor Dykstra, under the Wartime Civilian Service Act. We have a place all ready for you at the Patrol High Command on Luna. But for now we'll leave you alone for one week. My courier will contact you on the twenty-first.

"Good day, Professor."

They need me. The thought made him happy. He hadn't worked for the military since he was in his nineties, but not for lack of offering on his part. The System Patrol had always treated him politely when he suggested that he might still be of help to them on some technical matter, but always with refusals. Only last year, the Belt, just before the start of the war, had demonstrated the ability to produce antimatter in vast quantities, tons at a time it looked like. Dykstra had received the news through some old friends on the inside. The knowledge that such a thing could be done had set his mind to racing, playing over the possibilities, and in a short time he was ready to make his pitch to the Patrol. He needed intelligence data and the proper facilities, but he was certain he could duplicate the Belt process.

They stiffed him, told him no, said they had their own people working on it, with the underlying implication that he should be content to be a legend and quit bothering them.

"And now you need me, Major Moore." He wasted no time on bitterness over the past, nor gloated that they came to him now. But success, and thus vindication, would taste sweet indeed. He smiled.

"So let us see what else is in this cube." He raced through the contents. Later he would go back for a more thorough investigation, but for now he simply wanted to see what they'd delivered to him.

The speed with which Dykstra perused the information was astonishing, not just for an old man, but for any man. His IQ had never been adequately measured—he never missed any questions on the tests, never reached his limits. One tester, in frustration, had simply written "IQ over 300" across the top of Dykstra's score sheet and let it go at that. There had simply never been anyone in the age of mental testing with his raw intellectual ability.

"Ah, very interesting." Dykstra was watching visual scenes of the weapon being tested. There were its parts, disassembled—it looked remarkably simple. There were three men out in a field, test-firing, manipulating the settings to make the beam change length from less than a meter to unlimited. There were scenes of the weapon being fired at targets—a fifteen-centimeter-thick steel beam, sliced in two effortlessly; a three-meter-wide crater blasted into a granite mountainside; a one-hundred-thousand-liter tank of water brought to the boiling point, and entirely evaporated, and the gun still not short of energy.

He looked away from the screen to his table. He picked up the weapon. "You will not defeat me," he said, but he smiled at it with admiration.

He caught a glint of light out of the corner of his eye. It was the shiny titanium walking stick, leaning securely in the corner by the door. Characterless.

With a twinkle in his sharp eyes, Dykstra carried the gun with him, took the cane in his right hand, and went outside. "Now is as good a time as any to start my tests," he said to the squirrels playing tag around the trunk of an ancient oak.

The cane was a help, he had to admit, walking out here in a full g field. Crossing his yard he approached the edge of the woods. He had a particular branch on a particular young oak in mind. Ah—there it was.

He leaned his cane against a neighboring tree and examined the weapon. If the instructions were correct, then moving this lever to here, and touching this stud just . . . so . . . Fisssss! Out came the beam, glowing brightly, too bright to look at for more than an instant. Dykstra's careful eye estimated the length at eighty-five centimeters.

Somewhere behind his eyes, though almost visible to him, his mind started the process of figuring out how the weapon controlled the length of the beam. He couldn't help it—his mind had always worked that way.

He brought the beam against the base of the limb, quickly, and with a brief burst of flame and a blast of superheated smoke, the branch fell to the ground.


Dykstra took his walking stick from the tree and laid it down alongside the branch, measuring. With another flick of the beam he cut the branch to the desired length. As if born to it, Dykstra played the beam against the branch, severing the remaining branchlets, baking off the bark, delicately charring the surface.

The twinkle still in his eyes, he turned off the beam, then reached down for his creation. It was warm to the touch, but not too hot to hold. It left black marks on his palms, but he didn't care. "I'll have to clean you off, and sand you a bit, and give you a coat of wax," he said to the stick.

But carved from a living oak with an alien weapon—the world's first alien weapon—and shaped by his own hands. . . . Now there was a walking stick with character.

* * *

Very late at night, in his shop, with a half-consumed and long forgotten cup of coffee sitting within reach, Dykstra was stymied. In two days, Moore's courier would contact him, and he'd be on his way to the Moon. But he'd done no packing yet, hadn't even thought about it. The weapon consumed him.

It had yielded up its secrets with difficulty, and some still escaped him, but yielded up secrets it had. He knew how the beam length was controlled now, knew how the energy of the X-ray photons arriving at the terminating point was returned to the source. The application of Dykstra fields (he wondered what the aliens called them) was ingenious and unique, but on Earth they were his baby after all. No matter what new wrinkles the aliens may have thought up for them, he was sure he could smooth those wrinkles into understanding.

The power source—that was a tricky one. The weapon used mass conversion, turned matter directly into energy, without any of the fuss and bother of fusion, or nucleus splitting, or combining particles and antiparticles. Any kind of matter would do, but in an atmosphere the weapon just used air molecules. How it converted the matter into energy his mind hadn't finished sorting out yet, but he had clues.

What stymied him now, what had gotten him out of bed after three desperate attempts to shut his brain off and go to sleep, was Dykstra's complete inability to understand why the weapon didn't do something.

The X-ray laser beam had a diameter of 4.238 millimeters. Its projection length could be adjusted from 72.586 centimeters to infinity. The beam intensity could be adjusted from night light to fusion bomb. "So why in the world didn't they make it so you could adjust the beam diameter and the collimation?" Dykstra muttered for the hundredth time. "It would be trivial to add those characteristics. Why didn't they? Didn't they think there would ever arise a time when a microfine beam might be desirable? Could they never foresee a reason to make the beam disperse?

"Did they just plain miss it, or am I missing something?"

By his estimate, the alien technology was seventy-five to one hundred years ahead of human achievement. Why not a thousand? He couldn't answer that question. But why didn't they add those features?

The coffee remained, pointlessly, well within reach.

* * *

"Good morning, Professor Dykstra. I'm Lieutenant Robert Nachtegall."

"Yes. Major Moore's courier. I've been expecting you. And I prefer `Doctor.' " The young man stood outside the front door. Dykstra had watched the lieutenant come down onto his mountain, watched the sleek military courier vessel as it dropped below hypersonic speeds way out over the valley and then gently floated down to the meadow that was Dykstra's yard. He had curly blond hair and clear blue eyes, and looked like a nice enough sort. "I'm ready to go."

"What?" Nachtegall said, surprised. "I thought—"

"No, young man. I'm ready to go now. I presume I can find additional clothing on Luna, so everything in that suitcase over there is all I intend to take. Oh, and this cane, too."

"Very well," the lieutenant smiled. "Also, the device . . . ?"

"All packed up in its container. It's on my table. Would you mind getting it while I collect up my suitcase?"

"Not at all."

Presently they were back on the front porch. "House, seal up command Alpha. Standard stand down procedure." Locks gave out audible clicks as they snapped into place. "That should hold her until I return," Dykstra said. "That is, if I return." He smiled at Nachtegall. "At my age you never know."

"I'm sure you'll be returning, Doctor."

"We shall see."

Proceeding across the meadow, halfway to the boat Nachtegall finally insisted on carrying Dykstra's suitcase for him. The old scientist raised no protest. They boarded the craft.

"Care to ride up front, Doctor? There's an extra seat."

Delighted, Dykstra said, "I'd like that very much. But isn't it against regulations? It was the last time I did military work."

"Welll . . . yes it is. But if I tell them you insisted . . . ?" The question was in his eyes as well as his tone.

"Sonny, I insist you allow me to ride up front."

"Very well, Doctor, but it's against regulations." They both laughed.

Dykstra snugged himself into the chair and looked out the windscreen. Earth up close, he thought. It may be a long time before I see her this close again. 

"I'm setting the internal gravity to half standard, Dr. Dykstra—"

"I've changed my mind about that. Would you mind calling me Chris? I'm going to get `Dr. Dykstra'd' to death soon."

"Okay, Chris. Anyway, this boat has full compensation fields so you won't feel a bit of acceleration—" Nachtegall stopped. "Uh, you know all this, don't you?"

"I invented the system fifty years ago, Lieutenant."

"Bob. Call me Bob."

The craft lifted gently from the meadow on her Dykstra repulsors, then climbed rapidly riding the atmosphere jets until it reached thirty kilometers altitude. Once there, Nachtegall was legally permitted to activate the drive, and hot plasma blasted out of the tubes, heated by a speck of antimatter.

"We'll do this trip at three gees, Chris," Nachtegall said after they'd cleared the atmosphere and Dykstra was enjoying the stars splayed out before him. "A couple of hours from now we'll be dirtside again at the High Command."


They filled the time with conversation. Though more than a hundred years older than the lieutenant, Dykstra found it easy to talk to the young man, who was refreshingly free from the sort of intimidation that most people felt whenever they talked to "the smartest man in the world."

They talked about the war. Nachtegall resented being stuck as a courier while there was a war on, even though he felt that this war with the Belt was unfortunate.

Though animosity had existed between the Solar Union, consisting of the four inner planets and the major moons of the outer planets, and the Belt since the latter had won its independence a half century before, it had rarely escalated beyond minor skirmishes.

But this time things had gotten out of hand.

The gas giants have complex satellite systems. Along with the large moons over 300 kilometers in diameter, the big planets also have a plethora of smaller moonlets and rocks. Jupiter has practically its own asteroid belt consisting of rocks less than a kilometer across. The Solar Union claimed those rocks belonged to it. But when large heavy metal strikes were made in the Jovian belt, the Belt decided to challenge that claim.

Negotiations went nowhere, shots were fired, and the war was on.

"Now, don't get me wrong. I'm as patriotic as they come. But this `war of the little rocks' is damn silly. Who cares if the Belt skims a little from the Jovian belt? There's plenty to go around. Besides that, Ganymede's a cesspool. Still, I've got my request in for a position closer to the actual hostilities. If there's going to be a war anyway, I'd rather be fighting than ferrying. No offense, Chris. It's not your fault I have this duty."

They went on to discussing the aliens. Dykstra found Nachtegall less inclined to speak his mind on that topic. "I've met Richard Michaels," Nachtegall said. "You know, the guy that actually ran up against the aliens out in the Oort cloud. They spook me, Chris. I was always taught that there probably weren't many technological civilizations out in the Universe, maybe none besides us. If there were, we'd see some kind of evidence—Dyson spheres, radio signals, something. But we never found anything like that, not in more than a century of looking.

"And then just when the Universe looks empty they show up on Michaels's doorstep and blast their way inside. They don't seem interested in communicating, they don't—aw, hell, you'll just have to talk to Michaels about it. He says they didn't do anything that made any sense."

After that Dykstra told the lieutenant about the old days: the Collapse, the excitement of the Moon Rush days, the Belt War of Independence.

But not what it was like to be 126 years old. Dykstra didn't bring it up, and Nachtegall was tactful enough not to ask.

* * *

"Luna City just off to the left, Chris."

"She's so much bigger now. Four more surface domes, dozens of connecting tunnels—the landing field is three times bigger than the last time I was there. I've watched her grow through my telescope back home." Dykstra smiled serenely. In some ways, this was "back home," too.

"We'll be grounding in ten minutes."

Smoothly the boat descended. They flew into the mouth of the artificial cave that was the berthing area for the System Patrol small craft. Nachtegall set them down without a bump.

"All ashore that's going ashore," Nachtegall said.

They left the boat. Dykstra remembered to put his cane out first, using it to help him stand. "I see they still keep System Patrol installations at one gee," he said.

"It keeps the troops in fighting form. You invented artificial gravity, too, right?" Nachtegall said.

"Yes. Paying for it now, though, aren't I?"

The man from the message was waiting. Dykstra recognized the major immediately.

"Professor Dykstra, greetings. I'm Major Moore. Welcome to the Moon."

"Thank you, Major. It's good to be here. But call me `Doctor.' "

Moore noticed the cane. "What's that?"

"My cane, Major. I have difficulty getting around in full gee fields without assistance. My doctor suggested a cane."

"But it's—a stick. Your doctor gave you a stick?"

"I made this stick, Major. I prefer it to a sterile titanium rod." Dykstra watched Moore closely, noting his expressions. Moore hesitated after Dykstra's comment, perhaps afraid he'd irritated the old professor. He's uncomfortable with me, Dykstra thought. He only knows me by reputation, but now that he's seen me, he doesn't know if I've still got it. Or maybe he's afraid I'm a crazy old coot. We shall see, Major, whether or not I've still got it. We both shall see. 

"We should get you situated in your room, Dr. Dykstra. Take him to his quarters, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir." Nachtegall carried Dykstra's suitcase and the two proceeded through the vast labyrinth of the High Command complex until they came up to an ordinary door well down the eighth distinct corridor (Dykstra counted) they'd traveled.

"Put your palm on the ID plate, Chris." Dykstra did so. The door opened. "It's keyed to your handprint only," Nachtegall said. "That's not at all common for rooms here. They want you to feel special."

They went inside.

Room. Lots of room. Dykstra's experienced eye picked out the luxury items: the first-class workstation with more computing power than he had at the University; the first-class autochef, capable of preparing any kind of food that an old, delicate constitution might require; and the gravity dial.

Nachtegall went to the control and turned the internal gravity down to half standard. "Is that good enough? If you want, I can kill all the pseudo gravity and you can have Luna standard. But they didn't rig this room for null gee—it'd cause too many problems with the floors above."

"Quite all right, Bob," Dykstra said. "These are unusually nice quarters—how many others are there like it?"

"None. Well, maybe the commander's. I don't know. I've never seen his place. Like I said, they want you to feel special."


"Because the Phinon Project isn't getting anywhere, Chris. Calling you in was the last good idea anyone has had in a month."

"What is the Phinon Project? The aliens? I'm not familiar with the origin of the name."

"It's a cobbled together name. The `phi' part is just the Greek letter. The `non' part is short for `nonsense.' The first nonsense project was called Alpha Nonsense, and so on."

"Why `nonsense' project?"

"System Patrol Intelligence started some speculative projects about twenty years ago. If something comes along that fits with the project, it already has a program to cover it. The nonsense designation came because some of the ideas are pretty far out. The Gamma Nonsense Project was for investigating unlikely advances in energy technologies. The Belt antimatter successes are dealt with under that one. The Phi Nonsense Project was for alien contact. When things heated up, the name got shortened, hence Phinon. Some of the guys are already referring to the aliens as `Phinons.' I suppose it will stick."

"And you say the project is getting nowhere?" Dykstra continued as he took a seat in the comfy chair. The lieutenant sat down opposite him on the couch.

"That's right. I'm not a scientist, but working this close to Major Moore I picked up a lot of things, mainly from having frustrated Ph.D.'s use me as a sounding board. They've had successes, sure. They understand to a dozen decimal places what the alien technology—the weapon and some other things we got back from the Oort cloud—can do. But figuring out how they accomplish these things has remained beyond them."

"I have my work cut out for me," Dykstra said.

"I'd say so." Nachtegall stood, checked the time, and said, "I have to leave now. I'll be back tomorrow morning, say, 0900 hours? I'm supposed to be at your beck and call for the next two days. So if you need me for anything . . ."

"Very well, Bob."

Nachtegall left and Dykstra set the autochef to prepare a meal. While waiting, he checked out the workstation. A few commands assured him he had full access to the Phinon Project files. He found a section on the biology of the aliens that hadn't been included in the cube Moore had sent him. The aliens had steel skeletons, and in place of muscles, they used a system of hydraulics. Dykstra, fascinated, lost himself in the information.

Lunch was forgotten and grew cold.

* * ** * *

"May I come in, Doctor?"

"Certainly, Major Moore." Dykstra led the man to a seat.

"I understand you have something to discuss with me?"

"Names, Major. Among your duties is the recruitment of special talent for the Intelligence branch?"

"Yes. Do you have someone in mind?"

"I have many people in mind. I've been here a week now and I've made a list." Dykstra handed over a printout.

"I don't recognize any of these names," Moore said after scanning the list.

"I didn't expect you to. All of these people are very young, practically just out of graduate school. They haven't had time to make their big marks yet. But I've read their research papers.

"Those names are of individuals who are brilliant." Moore couldn't doubt him. "You should recruit them for the Phinon Project. We'll need them."

"Well, I respect your opinion, Doctor. But some of these disciplines don't fit into what we're doing. This first one, Samantha MacTavish, genano engineer. How could a genetics and nanotech specialist help us?"

"MacTavish is the biggest prize, Major. The aliens have steel skeletons. Doctor MacTavish is currently involved in genano research aimed at separating iron oxide into its constituent elements using bacteria/virus/nanomachine hybrids. Besides that, she has an exceedingly rare form of intuitive genius. She'll think of lots of things we can't."

Major Moore looked skeptical. Finally, he said, "I'll see what the budget can handle, Doctor. But I won't make any promises."

"Go after Dr. MacTavish first."

Looking annoyed, Moore said, "Right."

Missing the signals, Dykstra pressed on. "If you have any difficulties with the requests, Major, I'm sure I can convince the holders of the purse strings just how badly we need these individuals."

"How's that, Doctor? Is that a veiled suggestion that you'll go over my head if I don't talk to these people?"

He's angry . . . thinks I'm trying to run his show. "Now, Major, that's hardly fair. I've said nothing of the sort. But I did get the impression that you were brushing off my suggestions. That would be terribly unwise," Dykstra said, unconsciously leaving open the question of what he meant by "unwise."

"I'm sorry for the misunderstanding, Doctor." Moore smiled. Barely.

"No harm done. Will you be at my seminar tomorrow, Major? I've made some valuable progress in my week here."

"I'll be there, Doctor."

* * *

Lieutenant Nachtegall was running late, which was evident from the way he tore down the corridors of the High Command on his way to Dykstra's seminar.

"Where's the fire, Lieutenant?" an ensign called after him. He was ignored.

He'd planned to make the seminar in plenty of time. Chris hadn't said what he intended to present, but had made it plain that at least one bombshell was in the offing. Nachtegall wouldn't have missed it for anything.

He'd thought.

The call had come just before he was going to leave, direct from General Hadella, the Czar of Special Operations. He'd gotten a mission! Top secret, very hush-hush. He'd be leaving for the Belt in a week as pilot for a behind-the-lines raid.

He was finally going to get in the war big time.

The seminar was just starting. He slipped through the back door and quietly took a seat. Dykstra, cane in hand as a pointer, was gesturing at some items on the presentation screen that were meaningless to the lieutenant—all mystical symbols and misshapen letters, and here and there an equals sign. Dykstra needed the cane anyway since the gravity in the room wasn't adjustable, but the old scientist was so animated that Nachtegall never saw it touch the floor, except when Dykstra set it aside to deal with some equipment on the table before him.

"Did you follow any of that?" Nachtegall heard one scientist whisper to another.

"Maybe half. Every other letter, I think," came the reply.

"Here we have the alien weapon," Dykstra was saying. The device was mounted on a stand. "You've seen it many times already, and I have many of you to thank for determining a safe method for operating it." He moved down the table to another device, this one unfamiliar to Nachtegall, and considering the murmurings he heard, apparently unfamiliar to all.

"I know some of you wonder about my solitary working methods. I never meant to leave any of you out, but I had a lot of catching up to do, and I do better on my own in such instances." Nachtegall smiled at that. What Chris meant was that he didn't need a lot of dimwits in his way distracting him while he sorted things out. "But I will be working closely with you from now on. I'd like to show you some of the things I've found out."

Dykstra flipped a switch, and a light lit on the unfamiliar apparatus. "This is my attempt to copy the alien weapon." Nachtegall studied the reaction in the room. No one said anything, but there was a change in the atmosphere. A few faces were scowling, perhaps in disbelief that anyone, Dykstra included, could have duplicated the weapon. None of them had been able to do so. Others waited with anticipation, wondering at what the legend had done.

"First, the original," Dykstra said. He tripped the trigger and it bored a neat hole through a three-centimeter thick block of ceramsteel before terminating in its no longer mysterious way. He returned to his own device. It bored a neat hole also. "Now this in itself is no big deal—X-ray lasers are old hat. But my beam is generated the same way the alien weapon does it."

"You've figured out how it works?!" The exclamation came from down front. "How?"

"How it does it, or how I figured it out?" Dykstra asked.

"Uh . . . both."

"The first question is answered in the report you will be given at the conclusion of the seminar. As for the second . . . well, I invented Dykstra field physics. The aliens have developed some interesting tricks that I never noticed before, but once I saw what they'd done, the pieces fell into place."

"I'm in awe," the scientist by Nachtegall whispered to his neighbor.

"Me, too," the woman replied.

Nachtegall didn't know what to think. He knew he wasn't capable of judging just how incredible a thing it was Dykstra had achieved. He had to settle for judging the reactions of others, people who had a real understanding of what was involved.

So far they seemed amazed, though some faces looked positively dour.

"Doctor Dykstra?" A young engineer stood up.

"Yes, Dr. Vander Kam?"

The man looked surprised. "You know who I am? But we've never met."

"You're Rick Vander Kam, heir to the Capitol Products fortune. I worked for your great-grandfather, your grandfather, and even your father. I've also studied your work—you're very talented."

Vander Kam brightened three shades of red.

"You had a question?"

"Yes. I'm almost afraid to ask, but how are you powering your device? I don't see a power conduit or a fusion pack or anything."

Dykstra smiled. Nachtegall could see the triumphant twinkle in his eyes from all the way in back. "Total mass conversion, Dr. Vander Kam. I duplicated that process, too."

"What?" "I don't believe it!" "Most holy shit!" Shocked disbelief. Questions were fired at Dykstra; he answered them simply, still with that twinkle in his eye—he was thoroughly enjoying himself. After five minutes Nachtegall sorted out the gist of what Dykstra had accomplished:

1) He had leapfrogged all the work of the Gamma Nonsense Project, for cheap antimatter production was a trivial spin-off of Dykstra's development, and also now obsolete.

2) He had not only deciphered the alien technology, but had duplicated it with terrestrial means right at hand, and all by himself. That really galled some of the gathering.

Nachtegall looked at Major Moore, seated off to the side. The major was not smiling. Now what's his problem? Nachtegall wondered. He knew Moore hadn't wanted Dykstra to be given the star treatment, had felt that it might interfere with his authority, and had been overruled. Now Dykstra had managed to outshine even the brightest of the early hopes for what he might accomplish.

Dykstra was tapping his cane on the table. "Quiet, please. Quiet. This seminar is not over yet. I have some other matters to discuss. I need to point out a problem I'm having in understanding the alien design philosophy. It may shed light on the alien thought processes themselves."

The room came to order, though Nachtegall could still see half a dozen conversations continuing in whispers.

Dykstra stood again by his device. "I want to show you one other thing that my copy does." A few changes were made to settings, then the beam reappeared, truncating at eighty centimeters. But instead of a thin cylinder, the beam was now a tight cone, the apex at the point of emergence. Dykstra slid the ceramsteel block against the base of the cone, then backed it away to show the large hole bored through the block. "You see—by allowing the beam to spread, I am now able to make a bigger hole in the block. There are other possible uses for a variable collimation of the beam. I'm sure many of you could think up particularly nasty applications.

"Now here's the rub—the alien weapon can't do this."

There was silence while Dykstra scanned the room, and Nachtegall could almost hear the collective thought of "So, what's your point?"

Vander Kam spoke up. "But even your first duplication attempt has that feature. I gather it isn't difficult to do?"

Dykstra smiled. "Very much correct, Dr. Vander Kam. Adding adjustable beam collimation is altogether trivial. The question is why the aliens didn't do it."

Another older scientist stood up, Dr. Manlinkov, looking like the original Russian bear. He'd begun the seminar with a neutral look that had soured into anger as Dykstra's success became apparent. "Now one damn minute! What the hell does this have to do with anything? Aliens chose not to collimate beam. So what? We're not in position to question what seems to them reasonable—we know nothing about them. To speculate will be utter waste of time!"

"I see no chains confining you to your seat, Dr. Manlinkov. Perhaps you would like to get back to your investigations of the alien technology?"

Nachtegall struggled to keep from laughing. Dykstra had said the words so sincerely, but everyone knew that Manlinkov had been working on the alien power supply, and getting nowhere, for months. He was just being petty.

"Hmph!" Manlinkov said, and sat down.

Dykstra continued. "I think what Dr. Manlinkov is concerned about is that the aliens' failure to add adjustable collimation may be like our reasons for not making every shotgun double-barreled.

"I am convinced that there's more to it than that.

"Suppose you were wandering the old West and you found what you thought was a six-shooter. Upon closer inspection, you discover that the cylinder has only one chamber drilled in it. Now, the cylinder is able to rotate, and there is ample room for five more chambers, and everything works exactly as a six-shooter should, except for that deficit in the number of chambers.

"Clearly, adding five more chambers would make the gun a better weapon. So why didn't the maker do it? Did he have some powerful reason for boring only one chamber? Or did it simply never occur to him to bore five more?"

"That doesn't make sense," Major Moore called out. "How could anyone who could make the gun in the first place be so stupid as to miss something like that?"

"I don't know," Dykstra said. "But consider this: Dr. Manlinkov mentioned that the aliens chose not to add the variable collimation feature. Perhaps there was no choice involved at all."

* * ** * *

"I don't know where I'm going, Chris," Nachtegall said. "They gave me the coordinates to some anonymous rock no one's ever heard of—but no indication about what we're supposed to do there." They were sitting in Dykstra's living room a day after the seminar.

"Did you meet any of your team yet?"

"Yes. Four are cybernetically enhanced commandos. The commander, Captain Reynolds, is made of some very fine steel indeed. The two other team members are medical doctors."

"Really?" Dykstra said, curious. "Do you recall their names?"

"Oh, boy, let me think. One had curly blonde hair . . . Mary Beth Doelder, a surgeon. The other one, Diane something . . . Joseph? No, Joswick. Diane Joswick."

"She's not a surgeon," Dykstra said.

"No. A psychiatrist. You've heard of her?"

"Yes. She's the name in autism research."

"Then what's she doing in the Patrol?"

Dykstra shrugged.

"The whole thing is goofy," Nachtegall said. "But at least it's a real mission."

"Courier days finished, Bob?"

"Nope. I'll be back with Moore in a few weeks."

Dykstra smiled. He looked good, Nachtegall thought. Relaxed, at peace, enjoying himself. And more. He looked like a man at the peak of his powers, and wise enough to know and relish it.

Dykstra was gesturing with his cane. "This mission is a puzzle. Let's figure it out. You were chosen as pilot because you're already familiar with both the Phinon Project and the Belt antimatter investigations?"

"Yeah. And I'm a damn good pilot, too."

"I wasn't implying otherwise. And I'm beginning to get an idea. Have you seen your ship yet?"

"A Capitol Products Streakbomber. Oversized engines, but no bomb payload. It looks like we'll be going in fast and coming out fast. But without bombs we're not going on a secret demolition mission."

"You also wouldn't be bringing along Joswick," Dykstra said.

"So? What? We're going to steal something? Or someone?"

"That's my guess," Dykstra said. "You're going in to kidnap someone from the Belt. Someone who is very valuable to them, or to us, or perhaps to both."

The lieutenant went to fix himself a drink, also drawing a coffee refill for Dykstra. "Any idea who?" Nachtegall asked, resuming his seat.

"The man responsible for the Belt antimatter successes. I can think of only one person who could have sorted it out. He lives in the Belt."


"Arie Hague."

"Hey! I've heard of him. He's the guy that found that—"

Dykstra cut him off. "Found that mistake in the Dykstra gravity equations. I've been hearing about that for twenty years. The fact that it wasn't a mistake he found doesn't change the perception on the part of the public . . . or my colleagues, for that matter."

"You disagree?"

Dykstra took a deep breath. "No point in letting myself get worked up about it all over again," he said. "What Hague found was a discontinuity in the full five-dimensional expression of my gravity equations. I knew it was there. I ignored it because it was physically irrelevant. It still seems that way—Hague never has demonstrated any reason why the discontinuity shouldn't just be ignored." His tone lightened. "Still, to have even found it . . .

"Oh, well, this is beside the point. In my judgment, Arie Hague is the one person beside myself who I'm certain understands the physics involved well enough to have invented the Belt antimatter process."

"So, we're going to kidnap Arie Hague?"

"Yes, but what's the justification? Why are you kidnapping him?"

"Hell, that's easy. If he's all you say he is, then just taking him away from the Belt is enough reason. Besides, once he's here, we might be able to bribe or coerce him into working for us. We've already seen what one super genius can do," Nachtegall added, grinning.

"There's one other reason you probably haven't heard about yet. If it's Hague, I think I know what he'll be working on here, provided we can get him to do it."


"The alien faster-than-light drive. If it exists, that is."

Nachtegall's eyes went wide. "I have heard some things. But most of the other technogeeks, I mean, scientists, don't believe the aliens have one."

"And not without good reason," Dykstra said. "A few months ago I would have agreed that FTL drives are an impossibility."

"And now?"

Dykstra sat solemnly, his cane still waving unconsciously in front of him. "Lately I've seen too many new tricks in my physics. Maybe it can be done. One thing I do know, if the discontinuity Hague rediscovered does have physical significance, then the possibility of FTL travel is assured. That's one reason why I ignored it in the first place."

"Oh, geez, look at the time," Nachtegall said, rising abruptly. "Sorry, Chris, but I gotta get out of here. I have to be somewhere in ten minutes."

Dykstra rose also. "Another meeting?"

"A date," the lieutenant said. "It isn't every day a brave man goes off on a secret mission he may never return from."

Dykstra laughed.

"I guess we figured it all out," Nachtegall said.

"Not all of it," Dykstra said. "What's the psychiatrist for?"

* * *

The week following the lieutenant's departure brought no direct word on the success of his mission. Dykstra, concerned for the safety of his friend, kept his ear to the ground for any news out of the "spook camp," that subdivision of Patrol Intelligence devoted to using any means possible to gather information on the enemy. He caught excited whispers about a successful Patrol raiding mission. The smug smile on the face of General Hadella confirmed that something had gone very well recently in Special Operations.

Dykstra's professional work moved along. He was handed the task of designing a power system and spacecraft drive centered on his mass conversion technology. In the process he gained a helper and disciple—Rick Vander Kam.

"Any additional news on the lieutenant, Chris?" Dykstra heard immediately upon entering the lab.

"Not yet, Rick. Bob's only been gone a week. But I did overhear General Hadella mention something about a big surprise and good news for the `alien technology boys.' I assume Nachtegall's return will coincide with the release of that other information."

"So Bob will be back in a day or two?"

"I hope so."

Designing a power system based on mass conversion technology was easy. Designing one that was useful for the military was a different matter. Though Dykstra was both a brilliant theorist and experimentalist, he had seldom had to do the sort of intensive detail work that turned a brilliant demonstration experiment into a great product. But that was Vander Kam's forte. Dykstra was routinely impressed by the younger scientist's deftness at both finding necessary equipment already on the market and designing things that would meet their unique needs.

The morning proceeded without unusual incident, but while they were at lunch, general quarters sounded.

"Whoa! Wonder what's up?" Rick exclaimed.

"I'm sure we'll soon know. But let's go to the tracking room," Dykstra said.

The tracking room was a broken anthill of activity, with orders being shouted and relayed, and the data display being continuously updated. The big screen told most of the story, with the chatter providing the sound track.

"One raider. That's all I see!" "I check that." "Velocity three thousand twenty-six kilometers per second." "Course?" "Flyover of the North American west coast. I'd say California." "He'll be there in ninety-five seconds." "Still no other tracks?" "Negative. He's running this thing alone." 

Dykstra and Vander Kam watched with rapt attention from the railing. Dykstra had not missed the reference to California, but revealed his concern only in a soft, unconscious tapping of his cane against the floor.

"Demon Chaser missiles away!" "They won't catch him." "Sure they will—in an hour or so." "Earth's laser batteries will fry him before then." "Maybe." 

"Does any of this make sense to you, Chris?" Rick asked.

"My guess is that this is a limited raid with narrow objectives. But I don't know what those might be."

"Uh oh. He's dropped three missiles." "Got it. Twenty seconds to impact. Initial track puts all of them in California." "The raider is blasting off-vector. Evasive maneuvers." "He's finished what he came here to do." 

Dykstra and Vander Kam were watching the screen when it displayed California and three circles representing the missile impact sites. Dykstra let out a gasp.

"What's the matter, Chris?"

"I'm from California, Rick."

"Are you familiar with the areas hit?"

"Intimately. My home is on the west side of the Sierra Nevada."

"Near the impacts?"

"Under them."

They stayed a while longer. The view of California expanded to show the impact areas in detail. The warheads had leveled and incinerated hundreds of square kilometers of lakes and streams, fields and forests, and at least one house—Dykstra's house.

"Dr. James Christian Dykstra, report to Major Moore," came over the PA.

Dykstra set off with heavy footsteps, leaning greatly on his cane.

* * *

Alone in his suite, lights dimmed, Dykstra brooded.

He'd lived in the house one year short of a century. He remembered the parties, the late nights spent talking to the brightest lights of the 21st century—scientists, authors, entertainers, and politicians. He relived that last chess game with his best friend, Jamie. He shed a tear over the image of Jennifer, saying good-bye to him from her deathbed.

His collection of rare chess sets was gone forever, all three hundred. His music collection now just random atoms.

Priceless works of art, gifts from admirers and friends, now just vapor.

Their monetary value was meaningless. Their sentimental value, incalculable.

But what he most regretted losing were the letters—hundreds of letters written to him over a period of seven decades—from Jennifer.

They'd been together since before the Collapse. She'd loved him. At first it was a love he wouldn't return, not the way she wanted. After a while, that had ceased to matter.

Their souls had been linked. Jennifer had told him he'd been placed on the Earth for a purpose, and that she had been placed there to be beside him, and that's all that mattered.

Her letters had been a comfort whenever she was away. After her death, he'd often pulled them out just to look at them, and relive precious moments.

Gone. All gone.

He cried.

* * *

Dykstra was awake by four in the morning. He didn't get up, though. He felt old. He rolled over and pulled the pillow under his face. Too warm, he pushed the covers away. Too cold, he drew them back.

Nothing helped—he was just a tired old man, unable to sleep.

Images still played through his mind, as they had earlier—scenes from the tracking room, the meeting with Moore, and even of himself, crying pathetically.

He slipped away again.

He was jolted awake by the door buzzer.

"Huh? What? Oh, good lord, Richard Michaels was coming this morning." The clock said 8:01. Despite the turmoil of the previous day, he kept the man waiting only an additional two minutes.

"Enter," Dykstra said as he left the bedroom.

The door slid open and a boyish young man entered, and stumbled, but caught himself before going over altogether. "Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Michaels. The gravity is half standard in my rooms. I should have warned you."

"That's all right," Michaels said, gathering his composure. "I've been through a lot worse recently."

"Where have they been keeping you, Mr. Michaels?" Dykstra asked.

"I've been down Earthside, visiting VIPs at the regional capitols. They all want to hear about the aliens firsthand."

"I see," Dykstra said. "I wanted to meet with you because I need to understand the aliens better. Some aspects of their technology mystify me. Perhaps you can give me some insights into their personalities."

"I'll do my best," Michaels said.

"But first, one of the things we've been doing is trying to determine whether or not the aliens have FTL travel—"

"They must," Michaels interrupted. "First there wasn't anything on the scanners, including the Dykdar, and then there was. The ship just popped in out of nowhere. What else could it be?"

"It could be FTL, true. But it could also be advanced stealth technology, even against Dykstra wave scanning."

"I thought that was impossible."

"So is FTL. Or so I thought. I've seen enough `impossible' things in the past month to make me leery of that word. But apart from stealth, they might also have come in at very near to lightspeed, say ninety-nine point nine percent, then done the equivalent of a quantum transition to a lower velocity state. It would look much the same as a magical transition from FTL to sublight."

"Quantum velocity states?" Michaels looked bewildered.

"A speculative technology that didn't pan out in the details. But the point is, there are lots of possibilities to explain what you saw that don't require FTL drive. Unfortunately, your memory is the only record we have of the event—we never could get the data out of your ship's log."

"Tell me, Dr. Dykstra, do you think they really have FTL drive, or will it turn out to be one of the less exciting possibilities?"

"Before I answer, first tell me if you're familiar with the work of Arie Hague."

"Hague? Isn't he the one who rediscovered the discontinuity in the full expression of your gravity equations?"

Dykstra laughed at the man's diplomacy. "You phrased that just right. Well, for our sun, the gravity equations theoretically break down on a shell roughly fifty-seven point four astronomical units in radius. It's called the Hague Limit. I've always believed that the limit has no physical meaning, mainly because it implies the possibility of FTL travel and thus the usual causality paradoxes.

"So to answer your question, if the aliens do have FTL travel, then Hague is right and I was wrong to ignore the discontinuity. For reasons of professional pride, I'd like to say that I don't believe in an alien FTL drive."

"I sense a `but' in there," Michaels said.

"But . . ." Dykstra said, "to use an expression one of my old college friends was fond of, FTL travel would be `nifty as tits.' "

They both laughed. "So . . ." Michaels finally said, "your bottom line is that you just don't know."

"Correct. However, I am sure of one thing, and I don't know if even Hague has figured this out yet. But if the aliens do have FTL drive, then they can't use it inside the Hague Limit. The physics of why that must be so is a little hairy, but I'm certain of it."

Dykstra asked Michaels what he wanted to drink, then discovered the man hadn't had breakfast, and set the autochef to preparing a suitable repast. After a swig of orange juice to wash down his last bit of toast, Dykstra said, "But how did you feel when you first encountered the aliens? I mean, what was your impression of them, apart from the situation?"

"I happen to be one of those people who can't abide spiders. Ants, beetles, other bugs don't bother me," Michaels said. "But spiders . . . I think Satan himself invented spiders."

Dykstra listened. He'd had a pet tarantula that must be crispy critters now, but he didn't mention it. Michaels obviously hadn't been told of his recent loss.

Michaels continued. "After the aliens blasted their way in, I got a good look at them when they came into the corridor. The backward bending elbows and knees were funky enough, but what struck me wasn't the way they looked. It was that I felt like I was up against big spiders, things that were so utterly different . . . ." He trailed off.

"You're stuck because you were going to say they were so utterly alien, and that's a bit redundant," Dykstra said.

"Right. I mean, put me in a corral with a horse, or a cow, or even in a zoo with an elephant, and there's still this sense of common ground. I can empathize with an animal. Even dolphins, and they come from an entirely different environment.

"But the aliens were like spiders—who can empathize with a spider? They walked on two feet, they had technology, they flew spaceships. But as they stalked my ship, when I was killing that one, even when the other one ran away like a bat out of hell, it just didn't feel like humans have anything in common with them at all.

"I know this is subjective—"

"That's all right," Dykstra said. "I'm finding this very valuable. There are aspects to their technology that make me feel much the same way that you're describing."

Michaels sat quietly for a minute, just staring at the wall. "Dr. Dykstra, you're a religious man, right? I seem to remember something from your biography about you and the Calvinist Reformed Church."

More memories flooded Dykstra's mind, most pleasant, some unwelcome. Whole chapters of his life had been devoted to that church. The story of his life made a very long book. "Yes, I'm a religious man."

"I'm not," Michaels said. "I'm a lazy agnostic. I was always just live and let live on the subject."

"Have the aliens affected your thinking?"

"Maybe. Because the best way I can think of to describe them involves a religious idea."

"That being?"

"The soul, Dr. Dykstra. I'm not much of a philosopher, let alone a theologian. But as the only man who's actually met the aliens face to face, I think I have a right to an opinion. And I don't think the aliens have souls."

* * *

Nachtegall's left hand was bandaged, and tubes ran into the dressing from a portable med unit strapped around his arm. "What happened to your hand?" Dykstra asked. The lieutenant, sitting on Dykstra's couch, had gotten in late yesterday.

"The original is somewhere in the Belt. This one," he raised the globe of bandage, "is a cloned replacement they attached last night. I'll be good as new in a few days."

"How did you lose it?"

"Getting Hague out of that dungeon they had him in. All right, so it wasn't a dungeon, but I don't think he could come and go as he pleased." Nachtegall got a strange look on his face. "Not that he ever would have wanted to. Have you met him yet?"

"Major Moore said Hague would be in my lab early this afternoon. The med teams aren't finished with him yet." Then: "It was rough, wasn't it?"

Nachtegall's shoulders sank. He cradled his new hand in his lap. "Yeah, Chris. It was rough. We lost almost everybody. That's all I can tell you. But if Hague really is their best brain, they'll be readying some kind of retaliation. And they're going to be pissed about what I did to that laboratory station."

Dykstra gave Nachtegall a sardonic smile. "They've already retaliated," he said. "Lex talionis. A few days ago they hit California with fusion bombs. My house was under them."


"They don't know I'm on the Moon, I guess. We deprived them of their mad scientist. They wanted to deprive us of ours."

"I'm sorry, Chris. You loved that place."

Dykstra stood up. "There's a war on. We don't have time for sentimentality. At least I don't—not at my age. Now, tell me about Hague."

Nachtegall frowned. "Moore won't let me. He was specific."


* * *

Dykstra arrived at his lab to find Vander Kam already there with Major Moore and another man. He assumed it was Hague, but he'd never seen any pictures of the man. Judging by the man's appearance, he now knew why.

"Dr. Dykstra," Moore said. "I'd like you to meet your new colleague, Dr. Arie Hague. Dr. Hague, this is Dr. James Christian Dykstra."

"Pleased to meet you," Dykstra said, extending his hand.

Hague took Dykstra's hand limply. "Yes, Dr. Dykstra, Dr. Dykstra, yes, yes, Dr. Dykstra." Hague was short and chubby, with soft muscles and a pinched face surrounding an undersized, pointy nose. "Yes, wonderful lab, wonderful lab, Dr. Dykstra, yes." He was nodding his head and smiling and seemed to have forgotten that he was still clasping Dykstra's hand.

Dykstra looked him over. So this was his rival, the man responsible for the only controversy to arise from his work. An autistic savant. Incredibly deep talents but so narrowly focused. Now I know how he could plunge so far into my physics, and still remain so unknown outside the discipline. They kept him under wraps. "Have you shown Dr. Hague our facilities yet, Rick?"

"Just briefly," Vander Kam said. "He'd really like to look over our mass converter, I think." Vander Kam had already referred to Hague in the third person, as if he weren't there. It was easy to do. Hague didn't notice.

Dykstra disengaged his hand. "Shall we have a look at our current project, Dr. Hague?" he said, leading the squat prodigy over to the table on which the gear was spread.

Major Moore waved from the door and made his exit, smiling, as if pleased with himself.

"Oh yes, Dr. Dykstra. The equipment, the equipment, yes, the work. Let us examine the work, Dr. Dykstra, yes."

Dykstra explained the theoretical details of the mass conversion process and Vander Kam covered specific items dealing with the device itself. Hague was a good listener except for his maddening habit of muttering, "Yes, oh yes, Dr. Dykstra, very good, yes," after every other sentence.

It was when Rick was discussing the specifics of the power control unit that Hague showed the first real glimpse of his uncanny talent. "Not right, no, not right, Dr. Vander Kam, no. Not right. Not good. Not this one."

"Why?" Dykstra asked. "What's wrong with that power control?"

"Not right. Not best," Hague said. "Magnoflux Electrics catalog, page 453, entry five, model SQG-100230983-A. Need that one. Yes, need that one, is best, yes, need that one."

Vander Kam looked at Dykstra, shrugged, and called up the entry from the catalog. Dykstra looked at the screen, read the specs, turned to Vander Kam and said, "He's right."

Vander Kam nodded assent. "I know. Damn! I looked through catalogs for three hours just trying to find the one we've got now."

Hague was still at the table. While the other two had been distracted, he'd decided to fiddle with the device. "Hey!" Rick shouted as Hague pulled out a field guide.

"Wrong shape, wrong, all wrong. More curve, yes, curve. Radius of curvature 4.55982 centimeters, 4.55982 needed."

Rick rushed to the table and took the field guide away, then turned to Dykstra and looked at him helplessly.

Hague was jumping up at Vander Kam's hand, trying to retrieve the piece. "Give back, let me fix. I can fix. Please, I can fix, yes, I can fix: 4.55982 centimeters, yes."

"Give it back to him, Rick. Let's see what our new colleague can do." As he said it, he felt the sudden onset of a chill, as if the Sun had gone into eclipse.

* * *

"Dr. Dykstra?" Moore's face filled the screen. Dykstra was in bed, but the red blinking light by the screen had indicated an urgent priority, so he accepted the call.

"Yes, Major? What is it?"

"I'm sorry to awaken you, Doctor. But there's a new file on the system tonight, Slingshot. Look at it immediately. You'll understand what's involved from the technical end and I think you'll want to start dealing with this new information right away."

"Oh, c'mon Major, give me just a little hint," Dykstra said, annoyed.

Moore frowned, looked serious, and said, "The aliens have made another appearance. We learned some new things from this encounter. You of all people should look into it right away." Then with an expression Dykstra could best describe as "savage delight," Moore added, "And Dr. Hague, too." He broke off the connection.

Dragging himself from bed, Dykstra instructed the autochef to make him coffee, lightened to a fifty percent concentration of cream, and brought up his workstation. He retrieved the Slingshot file.

Reading rapidly, he discovered the basic facts. Slingshot was the code name for a System Patrol base some sixty astronomical units out. The work there involved investigating methods of delivery for kinetic kill projectiles against Dykstra shielded installations. Dykstra knew better than anyone that the best way to crack a shield was to smack it with something heavy, moving fast. Most of the work involved the use of close orbits past airless moons and asteroids by warheads that were essentially "rocks" equipped with high gradient pseudograv generators. The rocks were to be introduced into the Belt along carefully determined trajectories, where they'd perform close flybys of asteroids to undetectably pick up speed and alter their vectors, then smash into, as the text put it, "Belt military assets."

Dykstra admired the work, recognizing some of it as inspired, even brilliant; he'd have to check out the Slingshot base roster to see who was responsible.

Details were sketchy, and more information was promised for later, but the base had been hit by two alien spacecraft. They'd come in fast, without warning, and opened fire. The base had taken a beating, but somehow they'd managed to wreck one of the alien ships, and the other had immediately raced away.

Okay, this is all very interesting, but why couldn't it have waited until morning? 

He found a cache of raw data from the tracking instruments that had first acquired the incoming alien ships. There was no visual data yet. The base was a wreck. The only information Intelligence had as yet was the text of the messages the acting base commander had sent, and whatever raw instrument data was in shape to transmit.

It took Dykstra only moments to orient himself to the numbers in the data cache. Here were the readings from the spatial position where the alien ships would shortly appear. There: Doppler radar and Dykdar scans indicating two craft, two hundred thousand kilometers out, closing rapidly. The tracking data followed the two vessels up until the moment they destroyed the scanning instruments.

What he saw disturbed him.

"Okay," he muttered. "Let's take a closer look at the time sequence." Time was resolved to the millisecond. At 14:31:46.003 the scans showed nothing. At 14:31:46.004, indications of one object appeared. At 14:31:46.013, a second object appeared, while the first was now a clear image.

But the scanning radius for the Dykdar alone was over five million kilometers. Even incoming at almost lightspeed would have put the ships in the Dykdar scan volume for sixteen seconds prior to their emergence.

But one moment, nothing, one hundredth of a second later, two ships, and both only two hundred thousand klicks out.

"Dear Lord!" Dykstra exclaimed. "They have it. Faster-than-light drive. Hyperdrive, overdrive, ultradrive, warp drive, and everything else the science fiction people have named it. The aliens have it."

But how does it work? I have no idea how it works. It was clear why Moore had called. The major was right; Dykstra was glad to have this information immediately. But something else: Major Moore knew it would not be wasted on Dykstra that Hague had been right about the discontinuity. And he, wrong. Spite, Major? Was your call also motivated out of spite? 

No point in being small about it. His second call found Hague in the lab. "Yes, oh yes, Dr. Dykstra, oh yes?" Dykstra told him the news. "Yes, oh yes, Dr. Dykstra, oh yes!"


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