Back | Next

II Sunshine

Samantha MacTavish, as usual after work these days, raced home to her apartment and checked her terminal for mail. The Luna City mail system was excellent, and anything from a serviceman that had reached Luna any time up until a half hour ago should have made it through the military censor machines by now. War or no war, MoonMail guaranteed prompt delivery. Scanning through the listings, she found her latest copy of The Journal of Genano Engineering, and a letter from her mom.

But nothing from her husband Steve, out there, somewhere beyond Uranus, or maybe Neptune, serving on a battleship probably, fighting this damnable war against the Belt. "Dammit!" she said aloud. Then softly: "Oh, honey, I miss you."

The last letter had come a week ago, full of feelings, but short on specifics about where he was or what he was doing or when he'd get a chance to come home. She wistfully remembered how they'd gotten together; that stupid stunt he'd pulled as the preeminent suicide orbiteer of Luna City. Steve had bet a System Patrol officer that he could plot a suicide orbit close enough to the lunar surface to allow him to leave a mark on the ground. He'd almost gotten himself killed, had lost the bet in the process, and had thought he'd failed in his greater purpose, which was to impress Samantha enough to notice him. But she already had by then!

But shortly after they'd married, Steve was drafted and sent away.

"Damn war," she said.

Women were not drafted, but she could have enlisted. Her skills in genano engineering were first-rate, good enough to get a top research position on the Martian atmosphere project. She would have been made an officer and been put in charge of a billion-credit research facility, with no end of lucrative opportunities after the war. But she could never get past the fact that war meant people killing other people. She understood about clashing ideologies, and competing economies, and just causes, but none of that excused the evil of an institution that removed souls from their bodies.

In theory she could admit that sometimes circumstances may conspire to make killing an excusable sin. But this war with the Belt didn't make the cut.

And besides, the Patrol had separated her from her husband; she wanted no part of it.

Since she had no letter from Steve, Samantha read the one from her mother. It contained the usual trivial news and pleas to be cheerful, but didn't substantially improve her blue mood. She scanned the table of contents of the professional journal, found a couple of interesting papers and looked up their abstracts, but her heart just wasn't in her profession right now.

That settled it. She went to the environment controls for her apartment and turned down the Dykstra pseudograv field from the healthy one g field to a relaxing one-half g. Then she went into the kitchen and made herself a hot fudge sundae, extra nuts and whipped cream, and settled herself in front of the TV. When her sundae was half gone and her mood had shifted up the spectrum to yellow, still short of rosy red, the call signal sounded.

"Accept," she said to the TV, and the daytime drama she'd been watching disappeared to be replaced by a man in a military uniform. A momentary rush of excitement flooded her, thinking it must be Steve, but a split second later her eyes rested on the middle-aged face, and her mood plummeted. She didn't know military insignia worth a damn, but she thought he was a major.

"Yes?" she said, not quite hiding her disappointment.

"Hello. I am Major Gerald Moore of System Patrol Intelligence. Am I speaking with Samantha MacTavish?" the man asked.

"You have her."

"Would you mind activating your viewer so I can see you?"

Oops, she thought. She hadn't intended to be rude. She turned on the viewer.

What the major saw was a strikingly cute woman in her late twenties. Although not a classic beauty, Samantha had a twinkle in her eye and a bright, cheerful smile that had earned her the nickname of "Sunshine" long before. But the woman wasn't smiling now.

"Much better, Ms. MacTavish, thank you. I have a matter of some importance I'd like to speak with you about."

"Is it about my husband?"

"Not at all, Ms. MacTavish. Your husband is Ensign Steven Smith, correct?"

"No. It's Steven MacTavish. He changed to my last name when we married, just before he shipped out." From the look on the major's face, Samantha knew he was wondering why Steve had wanted to do that. But it was none of the major's business that Steve loved everything having to do with Scotland, so she didn't continue, but just waited for the major to explain his business.

He went on. "Well, anyway, this matter concerns you and your talents—not your husband's."

"My talents lie in the field of genano engineering. Is that what you're interested in?"

"Yes, Ms. MacTavish."

Her face became hard. "Well, maybe we can get through this pretty quickly. Do you want me to work for the military?"

"We do think you'd be able to help us."

"Major, I might be able to—but I won't. I have no interest in helping you go on with this war. My family is already helping enough."

She reached to end the call when the major said, "Your opposition to the war is well known to me—"

"It is? Why?"

"Ms. MacTavish, I'm afraid I'm the one who got your husband drafted. Finding talent is what I do. I know quite a bit about you. That's why I called."

Samantha took that in stride, said, "Then you know I won't help you with this war."

"I don't want you to help us with the war, Ms. MacTavish. You'd be working for Intelligence, true, but your work won't be at all connected with the war effort."

Now she was puzzled. "I don't understand."

The major continued: "I'd like to help you understand."

He really means it, Samantha thought. Caught between her own curiosity and her disgust with the military, disgust won out. "No. Just forget it. I don't want to work for the military in any capacity." Again she moved to end the call.

"Wait!" Major Moore said. "Let me make a deal with you."

"I'm listening."

"Let me send over a file from the project you'd be involved in. If, after reading the file, you're still not interested, I'll never pester you again." Now he wasn't being a major, just a man trying to keep her attention.

Well, I guess that can't hurt, she thought. "Okay, send the file over. I'm ready to receive."

"I can't do that, Ms. MacTavish. I'll have to have it hand delivered, and we'll have to set up some time where you can guarantee that you will be the only person to accept the delivery."

Samantha couldn't resist. "Oooh, sounds like some really big military secret stuff, huh? Very well. Tomorrow evening at, oh, 1837 hours exactly, no sooner, no later, my apartment. I'll be here then."

He ignored her sarcasm entirely. "My courier will be there at precisely 1837 hours tomorrow evening. Have a nice day." He broke the connection.

She spent the rest of the evening both convincing herself that, no matter what, she wouldn't work for the military, and also wondering just what the hell this file was going to contain.

* * *

She hadn't slept well. It had been one of those nights where you toss and turn and drift from deep sleep to just barely conscious, always pursued by dreams that seem to make perfect sense even as they play the impossible out before your eyes.

In one particular dream, Samantha saw a System Patrol battleship land just outside Luna City, and she thought that was interesting because such ships didn't land, but it didn't bother her. Then the side of the ship opened up and Steve walked out, in shirtsleeves, as the crescent Earth shown over his shoulder, and he said, "Hey, my own sweet Sunshine, when are you going to come and join me?" And as she ran out to join him, Major Moore stuck his head out the door and dragged Steve back, and she was left standing alone as the ship lifted once again for the heavens.

The dream was on her mind as she left for work that morning. She played it back through her head while taking the overland corridor to the science dome. Most of Luna City was underground, but five domes sat on the surface, the caps to very large cylinders that went down a hundred meters, and contained most of the living space. She could have gone the whole way to work via the subsurface transit system, but this morning Samantha preferred to walk through the surface corridor since from it she could see outside. She stopped at one of the windows and gazed out at the sharp, bright surface, the magnificent desolation, and felt a small stab of disappointment; there wasn't a battleship sitting out there.

Once at work, she stopped in her cubicle briefly to turn on her workstation, and then went right into the lab to check on her cultures. Even if her personal life was in disarray, her work for the Martian atmosphere project had been going remarkably well for the past few months.

She peered into the sealed chamber that contained her culture. Inside was a dish filled halfway with Martian surface soil, scooped very carefully right off the Martian desert and returned to Luna undisturbed. Inhabiting the soil, now, was a very carefully (and ingeniously, her boss would add) tailored virus/bacteria symbiont, designed by Samantha. Observing the monitor, she noted that the free oxygen had gone up since yesterday. She knew that a scan of the soil would show an excess of pure iron. Yes, this bug looked like another success.

The field of genano engineering was only twenty-five years old, but looked like it would finally make good on some of the promises made by the prophets of nanoengineering at the close of the last century. Nanoengineering, dealing with machines measured on scales of a billionth of a meter, had long been hailed as the technological solution to all ills. Diseases would be healed, pollution eliminated, and wealth beyond imagination available to everyone, all provided on the backs of trillions of self-replicating, virus-sized slaves. The promises were still there eighty years later, but the problems of both controlling and powering nanoscopic machinery had proved to be almost ridiculously difficult. Advances were made, but never the critical breakthroughs.

And then in 2071 a genius named Chang genetically reengineered a virus to "operate" a nanoscale tool, and thus the full marriage of genetic engineering and nanoengineering took place.

Samantha was remarkably adept at the new art. Originally, she'd gone to school to be a doctor, but her biology courses had exposed her to the world of research science, a world she found she didn't want to leave. Her excellence got her a full ride to Tokyo University and Chang himself as her advisor. She earned her doctorate by making genano bugs that assembled for her a perfect cube of diamond, ten centimeters on a side. That got her both attention and a job in Luna City at the best laboratory for applied genano engineering in the Solar System, working in the atmosphere division of the Martian Terraforming Project.

And now another of her bugs had come through. This particular strain was designed to separate iron oxide into its constituent elements since the sands of Mars were full of the stuff. Bugs that broke down compounds into elements were nothing special, but this breed would also be able to live, reproduce, and work in the Martian environment with no need for additional care. In her symbiont, the bacteria lived in the Martian soil, and the virus lived on the bacteria, and while so doing, each manufactured and operated nanotools to accomplish its task. And if the iron oxide bug worked, others would follow to break down other molecules, and thicken the Martian atmosphere.

She smiled in delight, the first time this morning that her famous smile showed itself.

"I see you over there, pleased with yourself again, no doubt!" The voice came from behind. It was Martha, fellow researcher, friend, and mother surrogate.

"What?" Samantha said. "I'm just happy for the project."

Martha brought her cushiony self over to the chamber and looked in. "I checked your culture this morning myself. I couldn't wait to see that smile when you showed up." She gave Samantha a hug.

"Thanks, Martha."

"Did you get a letter from Steve yesterday?"

That brought clouds across the sunshine. "No . . . no, I didn't," Samantha said.

"Oh Sammi, I'm sorry. I was so sure you'd hear from him yesterday . . . ."

"It's okay, Martha. I'll probably get a letter from him today. It's just that it's been so long."

Martha gave her another hug, compassionate and motherly this time. "I know, honey. I know." She brightened. "Why don't you come over to my place for dinner tonight? Ted always likes it when you visit, and then maybe the three of us can go down to Entertainment Central afterwards."

Samantha thought about it, then remembered her call yesterday. "I'd love to, Martha, but I can't. I got a call from Major somebody yesterday and I promised I'd be at my place tonight when his courier drops a file for me to look at."

"A file on what?"

"I don't know. This major, I think he said his name is Moore, wants me to work for him. I told him I wasn't interested in military work, but he was persistent, so I agreed to look at this file just to get him off my back."

"Didn't you tell him how you feel about the war?"

"That didn't faze him a bit. He even told me he was the one responsible for getting Steve drafted."

"I'm surprised you didn't just cut him off," Martha said.

"I am too. But I admit that I'm kind of curious to know what's in that file he's sending over. Say, why don't I call you after the file gets dropped off, around 1900 or so? If it turns out to be nothing we could still get together."

This was agreed to, and they both got down to work.

* * *

Dinner in front of the TV, alone, with no letter from Steve to cheer her, was a considerably depressing business. A post-dinner sundae failed to help, and Samantha was just about to attempt the last ditch effort of a hot bath when the door buzzer went off. "Damn . . . that messenger." With a sigh she went to answer the door. A glance at the clock told her it was exactly 1837 hours. She kind of liked having the military kowtow to her orders like that.

At the door stood a handsome young man in a military uniform. She thought he was a lieutenant. She looked again; a really handsome young man. That in itself cheered her a little, but she wasn't the sort to find comfort in the arms of another man, so she fought off her desire to flirt and said coldly: "Yes?"

"Ms. MacTavish?"

"The one and only."

"May I come in?"


"I see. I'm Lieutenant Robert Nachtegall, Major Moore's courier. I have a file for you." Samantha couldn't help but notice Nachtegall's own coldness. Well, she deserved that. She was surprised to see the proffered file was a hard copy. She took the folder from his hands.

"Hard copy? Is the military still in the last century, Lieutenant?" And why am I being such a bitch? She wondered. It's not this guy's fault that Steve didn't write. 

"Hardly, Ms. MacTavish. Major Moore directed me to tell you that this file is for your eyes only, and you are not to discuss the contents with anyone. Ever. Do you understand this?"

The lieutenant's manner, and his statement, knocked all the sarcasm out of her. "It really is that important, huh?"

"It is, Ms. MacTavish."

"All right. I understand the restrictions. When do I need to get this back to you?"

"You don't. That's the reason for the hard copy. Tonight before you go to bed, leave the entire file in your sink. Tomorrow morning you can rinse the residue away. Major Moore will contact you tomorrow. Good evening, Ms. MacTavish." He turned smartly and strode off down the corridor, not waiting for her to acknowledge the end of the conversation.

Samantha took the file to the couch, shut off the TV, which was annoying her with war news, and opened it up.

And she didn't quite get it. The file contained a potpourri of different reports. In addition to twenty pages of close-print text were dozens of photos, many of which looked like cell cross-sections seen under a microscope. There were also lists of composition materials, calculations, and equations that looked like something out of her freshman physics class or her husband's journals, and a brief subsection that referred to three hundred different references ranging over the last century and a half.

The only thing she could immediately recognize as normal in the entire file was a photo of some guy named Richard Michaels, whoever he was.

After her brief survey of the contents, she decided to concentrate on the photos. The first was of a corpse, badly desiccated, of some kind of animal. She read the caption: ALIEN BODY AS FOUND UPON INITIAL BOARDING OF OEV 1. "What is this stuff? Something out of a bad movie?" she muttered. She went through more of the photos. She realized that they showed the "alien" body in various stages of dissection.

She didn't get it. No one believed in aliens anymore. If they existed, they should have been here by now, was how the old argument went. Steve had never believed in BEMs as he called them: bug-eyed monsters. He'd never explained how the term had originated either. Until now she hadn't been interested.

But unless this was some kind of elaborate hoax, what the major had given her was a file on humanity's first contact with an alien species.

She dug into the section on the alien biology.

The call signal went off. It chimed half a dozen times before Samantha recognized it and answered. It was Martha.

"Sammi? What's going on, honey? I was expecting you to call half an hour ago."

"Oh, Martha, I'm sorry. It completely slipped my mind. That file I told you about—the one the major was going to send over. Well, it turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected, and . . . I guess you shouldn't expect me tonight. I'm going to be busy for quite some time."

"What's in the file, Sammi?"

"I can't tell you that. I'm sworn to secrecy."

Martha was old enough to have been a little girl during the last big war, the Belt War of Independence. Her father had taught her well that sometimes you accept that a secret is a secret and don't pry. She said, "Okay, I understand." Then: "Do you think you might work for the major now?" There was concern in her voice.

Samantha hadn't gotten that far in her thinking yet. She was too fascinated by the file's contents to have considered what she was going to tell Major Moore tomorrow. "I don't know, Martha," she finally answered. "I just don't know."

The biological data was both fascinating and puzzling. Most of what she found was utterly unlike anything she'd encountered before. Since this was an alien, that made sense. But there were also tantalizing similarities. The amino acids and the protein structures were oddly similar to terrestrial life. And the genetic structure of the alien cells was a double helix. "Good Lord," Samantha whispered. "All God's children got the helical stairway." She also noted similarities in the relative chemical abundances of the alien's whole body with that of mammalian bodies, except for the amount of iron; the alien body had a huge amount of iron.

She found the answer to that puzzle in the section on anatomy. The aliens' bones were made of tubular steel, cross-hatched on the inside for great strength. "A steel skeleton. And it's natural. Instead of calcium they build bone out of iron." She couldn't help but realize that her work on the Martian atmosphere project and the abundance of iron in the alien body must have been what had put Major Moore onto the idea of recruiting her. She didn't know why yet, though. There were plenty of other scientists who could work on this, and obviously a great many already had; the reports she was looking at were first-rate.

Other anatomical facts were equally fascinating, but didn't seem to fall into her area of expertise like the iron bit did. The alien didn't have muscles, but a system of hollow tubes and pistons, and several heartlike pumps; the steel skeleton was driven by hydraulics. She also noticed that the elbows and knees bent backwards, unlike a human's.

And the people who had worked on it had failed to come to a consensus on what the alien used for a brain.

Additional reports in the file dealt with alien technology and the whole story of how Intelligence had come into possession of the alien body. Samantha only had time to skim these sections; it had been hours since she'd opened the report, and the paper was starting to disintegrate. She remembered that Nachtegall had told her to put the file in the sink, and very reluctantly she did so, but not before the pages had discolored themselves to the point where she could no longer read them.

That night she lay awake for some time. "Tomorrow I'm going to have to make a big decision," she said to the ceiling. "I don't want to work for the military. But, dammit, I want in on this thing, too."

* * *

The following day in the lab did not go quickly. Her cultures were still doing just fine, and Samantha busied herself most of the day with writing up results and working on a paper. But she found it hard to concentrate as her mind kept drifting to the contents of the secret file.

At one point Martha came over from her work to talk. Wrapped up in her own thoughts, Samantha hadn't even noticed that Martha had failed to greet her earlier, as was her custom. Last night she'd had a stray idea or two that Martha would be angry with her about not coming over, but then decided that was silly.

"So how is our resident genius doing today?" Martha asked. She sounded cheerful enough, but Samantha thought she detected an undercurrent of tension in Martha's manner.

"I'm no genius, Martha. I just work hard and I get lucky."

"Did that file keep you busy all night?"

"Yes, it did. I'm sorry again, Martha. I would have liked to have gone out last night, but . . ." She had been just about to say that the file was timed to disintegrate, so she had to look at it last night, but then Samantha wasn't sure if Major Moore would want her to release that particular fact. I'm not even working for the military and already I'm censoring what I say, even to my friends, she thought. She didn't like that one bit. Instead, she said, "I just couldn't pull myself away. And the major wanted me to read all of it last night." That wasn't quite a lie, but it was hardly the truth either.

"That's all right, Sammi," Martha said. "I know what it's like when the military wants you and there's a war on. My dad used to spend half his time telling us kids what kind of questions we couldn't ask him. I won't pry into your secrets." She walked away.

They're not my secrets, Samantha wanted to say. But if she did work for the military, they would be.

By the time she got home she had pretty much made up her mind to tell Moore to go stuff his alien where the Sun didn't shine, but then was disappointed when she found the major hadn't left her any messages during the day. She recognized that she wanted it both ways—to work on the alien, but not be working for the military. What's the bigdeal? she thought. So it's the military. I wouldn't actually be doing war work. This alien is bigger than my personal feelings. 

She was half done with eating when she realized that she hadn't even noticed that she still hadn't gotten a letter from Steve. By the time she finished eating, she still hadn't gotten a call from the major, either.

At exactly 1837, the call signal went off. She answered.

"Well, I see you have a sense of humor, Major, calling at 1837 hours. Or was it just a coincidence?"

"Why, Ms. MacTavish, I'm sure you know that we in Intelligence don't believe in coincidences." A smile broke out across his face.

"Point made, Major. And I'm sorry for giving you a rough time the last time you called. So where do we go from here?"

"Have you made up your mind to work with us on this project, Ms. MacTavish?"

"Please, call me Samantha," she said. For now, "Sammi" or "Sunshine" were out. "No, I haven't decided yet. I'll admit I'm intrigued. Excited even. But I'm still likely to say no. However, I have decided to let you have a little more time trying to convince me."

"Very well Ms., er, Samantha. Did you make it through the whole file?"

"Actually, no. I got pretty deeply into the technical parts, and I was going to read the synopsis of how you got your hands on the alien, but the report disintegrated before I could do that."

"Sorry about that, Samantha. But most people read the synopsis first—"

"I'm not most people," she said bluntly, interrupting.

"No, that you're not. How much of the story would you like?"

"Just the highlights. I don't want to have too much to forget if I decide not to work for you," she said.

"Okay. About four years ago, the USSSG, that's United Solar System Study Group, sent a probe out deep into the cometary halo . . ." Moore told her the story of Richard Michaels' encounter with the aliens with practiced efficiency.

Samantha was wondering whether or not Michaels had believed in BEMs before his encounter when Moore got to the part where the alien was killed. "He killed it just like that! He didn't try to communicate with it?" She was disgusted.

"The aliens had opened fire on his ship, Samantha. Without warning. Mr. Michaels was afraid for his life. Furthermore, when the aliens boarded, they didn't ask permission—they just blasted their way in, and they didn't give a damn whether or not they killed anyone when they did that! Yes, he killed one of them. He tried to kill the other one, too, but it got away!" The coolness of the major's manner had disappeared in the heat of his answer. "I think it would be a good idea if you met him and heard his story firsthand."

"I didn't mean to upset you, Major. I'm sorry. I wasn't there, so I shouldn't question what he did," Samantha said. And that's as humble as I'm going to get, so you'd better take it, she thought.

"Right." Down a couple of degrees, but far from cool. "To continue, after that Michaels managed to send a message back to Earth. The USSSG contacted Intelligence right away—" she knew that was a half truth "—and we hushed up the story immediately. Mr. Michaels thought he'd have to wait a few years at least for any possible rescue, but, well, the military has ships that could get him and the alien body back a good deal sooner than that."

Clearly finished, Moore waited for Samantha to comment, or ask another question. She wasn't sure what to say. The story fascinated her. She feared that if she listened to Moore much longer, she really would throw caution, as well as her principles, to the wind and join up. Finally, she said, "Major Moore, I know at least a hundred other biologists who are more competent than I am to work on this . . . what do you call this project anyway?"

"We call it the Phinon Project."

"Odd name."

"Odd project," Moore said.

She figured out that he wasn't going to explain the origin of the name any more than that, so she went on. "What sort of work do you think I might be able to do for Project Phonon that these others can't?"

"That's the Phinon Project," Major Moore corrected, irritated.


"To answer your question, I don't know what sort of work or what sort of results I expect to get from you. That's not the point. You just happen to be one of the brightest and most talented individuals in the field of genano engineering, and you may be the person we're looking for."

"Looking for for what purpose, Major?"

"To kill the aliens in the event it becomes necessary," he answered bluntly.

"That's what I thought. It isn't enough that we slaughter each other—you want us to take our freak show on the road and slaughter everything else in the Universe, too." She said it as frostily as possible, and expected Moore to recoil.

He went on the offensive instead. "Spare me the melodramatic pacifist nonsense, Ms. MacTavish. The aliens attacked a human ship first, that's a fact. They pose a threat, the full nature of which is not yet certain. But dammit, if we have to fight them we'd better be ready! You're just one of a hundred I've contacted, one of a hundred hypertalented people who might, just might, provide the key to defeating these aliens if they become our enemies. I don't want to go to war with the aliens, Ms. MacTavish. But if we have to, I'd rather we had a chance to win. And if they were to attack tomorrow, we wouldn't!"

Pushed a button there, Samantha thought. "That's a bit melodramatic too, isn't it, Major?" she said.

"Anything having to do with war always is, Samantha." He was actually smiling again.

"Okay, Major Moore," Samantha said, making up her mind. "You haven't gotten me into your little project yet, but I'm willing to admit I see the logic of it. But I still don't know if I want to work for you. Do you have any more things you want to do to try to convince me to join? I'm open to attempts."

Moore paused. He frowned and seemed to be considering what options he had left. And whether or not I'm worth it, Samantha thought. "To be honest, Samantha, I'd hoped this call would be enough. If you were anyone other than yourself I'd give up at this point. But someone who has studied your work—he is working for us already—told me to go all out to get you."

Forced you, I bet, she thought. "I thought you said you knew about me through my husband?"

"I did. But that isn't what got your name brought up for this project."

Curious, Samantha asked, "Who was it?"


"I don't know any Dykstras," Samantha said.

"Dr. James Christian Dykstra, the hypergenius responsible for artificial gravity, defense shields . . . the Dykstra that Dykstra field theory is named after."

Oh—that Dykstra. 

"Heard of him?"


"I'd like you to meet him, Samantha. He's on the Moon these days."

She was flabbergasted. Moore wanted her to meet the foremost genius of the 21st century, the man who'd replaced Einstein as the archetypal genius. And he knew about her work. All she could think of to say was, "I thought he was dead."

"He's one hundred twenty-six years old, Samantha. But he hasn't lost anything."


"I take that to mean you want to meet him?" Moore confirmed.

"Absolutely. Who wouldn't?"

"Very well. I'll have you brought to our headquarters tomorrow. Can you be ready to go at 1000 hours?"


"I'll have Lieutenant Nachtegall pick you up. I'd also like you to meet with Richard Michaels."


"Have a nice evening, Ms. MacTavish." He signed off.

She knew this would be another night of tossing and turning. But she was also afraid that, after tomorrow, there would be no turning back.

* * *

Since the confirmation of the aliens' FTL capability, Dykstra had thrown himself at the problem of understanding how it must work. The past week and a half had found him sequestered in his apartment, chained to his workstation, reverting to his old form of working alone.

He tried to keep Hague apprised. Now and then he'd call the lab where Hague was continuing the work, with great success, on the mass converter, and discuss various theoretical approaches.

"Ah, yes, yes, Dr. Dykstra, yes, I'll think about that, yes, oh yes," was the typical reply. Once Hague returned a call and reeled off a long string of mathematical expressions. Dykstra was almost certain Hague had made a mistake.


He'd torn apart his own preconceptions, restructured his gravity theory all over again, tracked down ingenious, esoteric, and sometimes even goofy ideas in the literature, and tried to synthesize the possibilities into one rigorous whole.

He was still trying when someone showed up at his door. A glance at the clock showed it to be 1930 hours. "Come in," Dykstra said, arising stiffly from his chair. He twisted his neck to work out a kink.

Major Moore entered, uttered preliminary niceties, and got down to business. "This Samantha MacTavish you wanted me to recruit, Doctor—"

"The genano engineer. Have you talked to her?"

"Yes. You're right—she's something special. She's also a tough nut to crack. She doesn't like the military one damn bit."

"A pacifist?"

"It has more to do with her husband being drafted shortly after their marriage."

"I see."

"And I was indirectly responsible for her husband's draft notice. He's an astrophysicist. He was also the best suicide orbiteer on Luna."

"Ah, yes," Dykstra said. "Those fellows who plot close approach trajectories to the surface and then follow them in space suits. A wild hobby." Something occurred to Dykstra. "Close approach orbits, hmm? Did he wind up at Slingshot?"

"That's where we put him. Samantha thinks he's on a battleship," Moore said. "And she'd better not find out different from you."

"How's that, Major?"

Moore frowned. "Let me lay it on the line, Dr. Dykstra. I've been bending over backwards trying to land this woman for us. If it were up to me, I would have given up long ago. But my superiors, because you requested her, want me to play the persistent suitor. To do that, I've had to let her in on the existence of the aliens, but she is not cleared for anything else, and that includes where we put her husband—"

"How is he, by the way?" Dykstra interrupted. Moore was getting wound up, and Dykstra didn't like it.

"What? Oh yeah, the base. He's probably fine. We don't have a casualty list yet, but I'd guess most of the fatalities came among the regulars. Ensign MacTavish would have been buttoned up deep inside during the raid, or else zipped away in a lifeboat. Why?"

"Just curious," Dykstra said innocently, but he'd derailed the Major's train of thought.

"Right. Well . . . Ms. MacTavish is going to visit you tomorrow, and you're supposed to convince her of the merits of joining us in our work. She's visiting Richard Michaels in the morning, and she'll be over here after lunch."

"But I wasn't informed—" Dykstra began to protest.

"I'm informing you now," Moore said, regaining the initiative. "You wanted her, you can help us get her. I'd suggest you look at her file before tomorrow. Good evening, Doctor." He turned abruptly and strode out.

"Okay," Dykstra said to his back.

After the encounter with Moore's obvious hostility, Dykstra found it impossible to return to work. He got dinner; he'd forgotten to eat earlier. Lieutenant Nachtegall came by at 2100 and woke Dykstra up as he dozed listening to music.

Over coffee, Dykstra asked the lieutenant what the major's problem was.

"Major Moore would slice me open from throat to groin and pour in hot coals if he knew I'd told you this. The major didn't want you here. He fought bringing you in right up until he was formally ordered to try."

"But why? Doesn't he think I'm capable? I think I've proved myself," Dykstra said.

"You have. Beyond anyone's wildest dreams. But that only makes it worse. You see, the major is responsible for the scientific personnel here, a whole bunch of guys who are a hell of a lot brighter than he is. Moore is no dummy, even though he was just a peacetime bureaucrat officer, but he knows he doesn't have the brains to go toe to toe with any of the people under him. But he does have authority over them, and he can push them around, and he can always get rid of someone because there're more young geniuses out there to pick from.

"But you're James Christian Dykstra. You're the best. Who can he replace you with? He wanted you to fall flat on your face when you came here. You didn't. He knows there isn't a damn thing he can do about you if you decide to have things your own way, and he doesn't like it."

"Like with Samantha?"

"Yeah. She's a babe-and-a-half, by the way. I met her when I dropped off the data on the alien at her apartment. Anyway, he's sick of trying to lure her in to work for Intelligence, but there you are, you wanted her, and what the Genius wants, the Genius gets."

"But I haven't been unreasonable, have I?"

"No. But you could be if you wanted to. Major Moore is a military man. He looks at capabilities, not intentions."

"I assume then that he'd like to have a way to neutralize my supposed advantage. And that explains—" Dykstra began.

"Hague," Nachtegall said. "If Hague works out here—"

"He is working out," Dykstra said.

"Right. If Hague works out, then Moore can look for excuses to send you home. And Hague isn't likely to give him any trouble."

After Nachtegall left, Dykstra called up Samantha MacTavish's file. There were academic records and comments from instructors, some even reaching back to elementary school. I'll say one thing for Moore—he can be thorough. 

In the personal section, he saw that she preferred to be addressed as Ms. MacTavish rather than Dr. MacTavish. Even though she'd earned her Ph.D. She also most often went by "Sammi," but some of her close friends called her "Sunshine." He looked at her picture, noted the dancing eyes and the shining smile, and understood why.

There was also an extensive section concerning Moore's own personal observations of the candidate, which ranged from neutral to overtly hostile. He could have limited my access to this stuff. He wanted me to see it. 

The rest of the document contained the evidence of what Dykstra already knew—that Samantha MacTavish was a rare genius indeed.

Closing her file, on a whim, he opened another. Just what kind of a man would have been confident enough to marry a supernova like you, he thought. He looked into the Slingshot file under Ensign MacTavish, Steven J. All he found there was a link to another file, that of Ensign Smith, Steven J. Samantha's husband had taken her maiden name as his own. There was no explanation why, though Dykstra guessed that perhaps Steve had wanted a name less common than "Smith." At any rate, it revealed a secure man.

The rest of the document revealed much more.

Steve was the solar champion suicide orbiteer, having once taken a plunge that zipped him past the lunar surface close enough to leave a mark. He was the man responsible for the brilliant work Dykstra had noticed in the Slingshot file. I see you married an equal, Samantha. I'm impressed. 

* * *

Lieutenant Nachtegall arrived at Samantha MacTavish's door at exactly 1000 Saturday morning. He recalled their first meeting. She'd been cold and wouldn't even invite him in. Too bad, too. She was something to look at.

The door opened. Samantha was stylishly dressed, wearing a loose blouse and mid-thigh skirt. Nachtegall took in the pleasing curves of her body without once letting his eyes drop from her face. "Hello, Lieutenant." She smiled, a sunrise on a frosty morning. "You're right on time."

"Major Moore insists on it," he said. He led her up topside to the landing berths and they set out across Mare Crisium in the military courier boat. There wasn't a trace of her earlier hostility, though she seemed edgy, drumming her fingers on the armrest.

"Are you nervous, Ms. MacTavish?"

"Yes I am," she said without hesitation. "Have you ever met Dr. Dykstra?"


"What's he like? I mean, does he seem like a legend when you're with him?"

"So that's it," Nachtegall laughed. "You have nothing to worry about. His genius does live up to its legendary billing, but when you're with him you'll just think he's a sweet old man."

Nachtegall's words seemed to settle her. After a bit she said, "Lieutenant, can I ask you a question?"

"Call me Bob, please, Ms. MacTavish."

"Okay. Call me Samantha."

"Done. And yes, you can ask me a question if I get to have one in return."

"Fair enough. I don't know quite how to ask this, but . . . did you think I was a bitch that first time you stopped by?"

Yes I did, Nachtegall thought. "I thought you were rather cold, Samantha. But I didn't take it personally. Major Moore had warned me that you weren't fond of the military."

"I'm not. But that doesn't excuse my behavior. I'm sorry I didn't even let you in the door."

"Apology accepted," Nachtegall said. "Now my question: Why don't you like to be called `Doctor'?"

"It makes me feel old."

"That's it?"

"Lieutenant, do I look like a Dr. MacTavish?"

They landed at the High Command and the lieutenant led Samantha through the labyrinth.

He left her alone in an office, but waited outside the door for Moore. Moore arrived and went in to talk with Samantha, emerging soon thereafter with a disgusted look on his face. Richard Michaels came, and Nachtegall was directed to wait outside until Michaels and MacTavish were finished.

"Damn guard duty," Nachtegall muttered. He dozed in a chair until his subconscious notified him that an hour had passed and it was time to take Samantha to lunch.

"So what did you think of Richard Michaels?" Nachtegall asked Samantha as they sat eating.

"He's a nice guy," she said. "Haunted, though. I guess being forced to kill will do that to a person. And considering what the first thing was he killed . . ."

"Yeah. That'll sober a guy up."

"One thing he said really sticks with me," she continued.

"What's that?"

"He said, `I don't think that morally, ethically, maybe philosophically, that we have anything in common with them.' Weird."

They went to Dykstra's apartment. Samantha was nervous again. Nachtegall felt sorry for leaving her there at the door. But she'd be okay—Chris would take good care of her.

* * *

Standing outside Dykstra's door, Samantha gathered her courage. What do you say to a legend anyway?

She'd read Dykstra's biography in school, and she tried to remember some of it. She'd never forgotten the opening line: "There are geniuses, and then there are geniuses, and then there's Dykstra." But she was bothered that Dykstra had agreed to work for Major Moore, had agreed to work on a project that had as its objective the designing of means to kill the aliens. Could that ever be right? It just didn't jibe with her view of what a great, kind genius should be involved in. It wasn't the Dykstra she knew from the book.

But maybe he was seduced in, just like they're trying to do with me.

I guess I'd better buzz or knock, she thought. Waiting wouldn't make things any easier. She assured herself there was nothing to be afraid of.

Nevertheless, he was a legend.

She pressed the buzzer. The door opened. A pleasant voice said, "Come in, Mrs. MacTavish. Watch your step—the gravity is lower in here."

Samantha entered, and the pseudograv field left her feeling only half as heavy as a footstep ago. We share a minor indulgence, she thought. Sitting in the middle of the room in the comfy chair was the old man himself, looking like a well preserved seventy. For a moment, she doubted he could be Dykstra at all. But he arose and said, "Hello. I'm James Christian Dykstra. My friends call me Chris. You may call me whatever you feel most comfortable with."

"I'd probably be most comfortable with Dr. Dykstra," she said.

He smiled at that, a soft smile. He looked at her, eyes twinkling, crystal clear, and infinitely penetrating. "As you wish," he said.

"But you can call me Samantha."

And after that Samantha didn't have a clue as to how to begin. Fortunately, Dykstra did.

"We will have to fight them, you know," he began. "Now that we're able to get out to the Oort cloud we've become a threat to them."

"But I don't understand why it has to be that way," Samantha replied. "Space is so big. Why can't we just leave each other alone?" She stopped; she was arguing with the foremost genius of the age.

He was grinning. "Very good, Samantha! I thought if I made a blunt statement you'd forget about being intimidated by my reputation and just say what you thought. I'm counting on you to continue to do so." There was a gentleness to his manner, and yet a certainty in the way he spoke, that both put her at ease and increased her already immense respect for the man. It was obvious that, despite his unique genius, he had no shred of egomania.

"So you don't think we'll have to fight them after all?"

"No. We will have to fight them, I believe. I said that I was blunt, not that I was kidding."

"Your reasons?"

"First, why don't you take a seat, Samantha. I hope you don't mind the gravity, but my doctor insists that at my age, well, I think you understand." She sat on the couch and he back in his comfy chair. "Now, as for my reasons, I'm sure Mr. Michaels told you that he thinks the aliens are all through the cometary halo. It's hardly likely that there was only one ship, or that he'd find them almost immediately upon arriving in the cloud."

"He told me that," Samantha said. "But even if they do occupy the halo, what difference do we make to them? We like it close in to the Sun, and for all practical purposes, they're living in interstellar space. Do we even have anything they want? And if we do, why haven't they attacked us a long time ago?"

"Your points are well taken, Samantha. It's not at all unlikely that the cometary halos of nearby stars overlap each other. The aliens could very well be a true interstellar race, living only between the stars. At least now." He paused for effect. "But what did they used to be?"

Samantha thought about it for a second, said, "They must have evolved on a planet—their physical structure allows no other conclusion. But that doesn't mean they're interested in stars now."

"But they might be. The prudent military man must consider that," Dykstra said.

"I almost forgot you're working for them, Doctor."

"You need not fear me trying to verbally coerce you into joining, Samantha. I'm genuinely interested in your opinions."

"Why? I'm barely out of school," Samantha said, protesting, yet glowing inside. And she knew he was being honest.

"I'll get to that. But let me remind you that I was still in school when I first formulated the Dykstra field equations."

"I recall reading that."

"Another factor I've considered is the way they behaved when they first came upon OEV 1. We have two things to consider. The aliens have either encountered other intelligent life before us, or they have not. Assuming the two who met Michaels were representative of the race as a whole—"

"Then in either case," Samantha interrupted, "it would make them xenophobes."

"You've got it. And there is one other thing. I'm sure Richard Michaels conveyed to you his visceral impression of them?"

Samantha recalled what Michaels had said. "He did, yes. He was quite disturbed by it, I thought."

"Are you a religious woman, Samantha?" Dykstra asked.

Puzzled, she said, "Sure. I believe in God and heaven, and I go to church. Er, now and then. Steve, my husband, is the more religious of the two of us, though. Why do you ask?"

"You believe you have a soul?"

"Yes. And Michaels thinks he didn't sense any common ground because the aliens don't."

"Yes. You are delightfully quick, Samantha," Dykstra said, smiling.

"Call me Sammi now," she said. She liked this old, brilliant man.

"May I be so bold as to throw in an occasional `Sunshine'? I see how you got the nickname."

"I'd be honored . . . Chris."

"To answer your questions, I think it's possible that the aliens have no souls. But I have no idea how you go about proving something like that. The whole thing scares me." Dykstra got up then and brought them refreshments from the kitchen.

Looking at the clock, Dykstra said, "I see we're almost out of time. I have a meeting in ten minutes. Let me tell you a couple of other things.

"It's entirely possible that the aliens' faster-than-light drive—we're certain that they do have one—won't work deep in a gravity well. Perhaps they've left us alone up until now because they can't keep the advantage of FTL travel near the Sun. A scientist named Arie Hague pointed out that for any spherical gravitating body there's one unique distance from the center where my field equations don't seem to work at all. A discontinuity. It's called the Hague Limit. For years people have wondered, myself included, if the discontinuity had any physical implications. It's my intuition that the alien FTL drive doesn't work inside the Hague radius, which for our Sun is about 57.4 astronomical units."

"But Chris, aren't they so far ahead of us technologically that it wouldn't matter whether or not they could use their FTL drive? I mean, aren't they way ahead of us?"

"You know, you're only the second person who has spotted that objection without having it pointed out. And it makes perfect sense, except that I have examined some of their devices—"

"Like what?"

"You'll have to sign up before I'll tell you that," Dykstra said.

"I see."

"Anyway, they are not that far ahead of us." To her, he looked a little puzzled by that, even as he spoke, and he seemed distracted. "In fact, I saw a couple of obvious inefficiencies in one of the devices . . ." But then he trailed off and wouldn't continue.

He didn't seem like he was going to start the conversation again, so Samantha said, "Before I go you said you'd tell me why you wanted the major to get me on the project?"

Dykstra came back from wherever his mind was trekking. "Oh, I'm sorry, Sunshine. Forgive an old man for absentmindedness. The reason I want you for the project is that, of the other genano engineers I've seen, you have the most obvious intuitive genius."

"I'm not a genius," Samantha protested. "I'm good, but Chang is—"

"You're better than Chang, Sammi. Even he says so."


"Trust me on this one, Samantha. I'm the smartest man in the world, remember? I recognize the exceptional genius when I see it."

"Well . . . thank you," was all she could say. And though she denied it, she knew what Dykstra meant. She had always had a good feel for how to solve a problem, for which approaches made sense and which didn't, and hadn't realized until grad school that the level of her talent was virtually unique.

There was a buzz at the door. Nachtegall had arrived to take her home. She said good-bye to Dykstra, but she knew she'd had more than just a unique encounter with a legend—she'd found a new friend.

And . . . something more. But she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

* * *

If the Sunshine Bob had left at the door had suffered from cloudy skies, the girl he flew back to Luna City was as bright as a crisp, clear, Rocky Mountain afternoon.

"Oh, Bob! He was everything you said he was, and more. He was so kind, and down to earth, and brilliant! And there I was, talking to the legend, and . . . and . . ."

"Holding your own?"

"Yes! He treated me like an equal. And I think he liked me, apart from my abilities, I think he liked me as a person." Her smile lit the interior of the shuttle, and dispelled the shadows outside.

"I get the picture," Nachtegall said. Dykstra was something else. Even at his age, he could still charm the young ladies. The lieutenant wished Samantha would gush about him that way.

Later, Nachtegall reported to Moore the bare details of Samantha's visit. The major wasn't interested in hearing more. Then Bob went to Dykstra's to see what the old professor's view was of Sunshine.

"What a thoroughly delightful woman," Dykstra said. "And what an appropriate nickname. `Sunshine'—it's obvious how she got it."

"She was thoroughly impressed with you, too, Chris. She gushed all the way back to Luna City, pleased as hell that you treated her like an equal."

"She deserves that kind of respect. She has the gift, or the spark, call it what you will. She's better than or equal to any of the others Moore has gathered here. But I couldn't convince her to join us yet. I hope she decides in our favor. She would add a dimension to our work that we haven't even touched yet."

Nachtegall sensed déjà vu. Hadn't he heard this sort of bewitched infatuation earlier today? "You feel more than just respect for her intelligence, don't you, Chris?"

"Is it that obvious?"

Nachtegall nodded.

"She reminds me of someone, Bob. Someone who was very special to me. Jennifer didn't look anything like Samantha, but somehow I think they share the same spirit." Dykstra smiled faintly, wistfully.

Jealousy nipped at Nachtegall's heart. "You're not in danger of falling in love with her, are you?"

"What?" Dykstra laughed. "Are you worried about my heart, lieutenant? Or is it your own that you should be minding?" Dykstra's look went in ten centimeters deep.

"She does have that effect on men, doesn't she?"

"She's a married woman," Dykstra said.

"And you're five times her age," Nachtegall said.

"There's no reason to bring that up."

* * *

After the afternoon meeting with Dykstra, Samantha knew she had some serious thinking to do.

She was fixing herself a snack when she remembered she hadn't checked her mail yet today.

There was a letter from Steve.

Eagerly she brought the letter up, redirected the output to the big screen of her TV, and sat down just as the image of her husband formed. "Honey, you look so good," she said out loud. "I wish you were with me." She also noticed that he needed a haircut, and he'd lost weight.

Steve said: "Hello, my darling Sunshine. I'm sorry this is a few days late, but our . . . operations . . . had me tied up pretty thoroughly.

"I miss you, sweetheart. I want to be with you more than anything else in the Universe. Sometimes some of the other guys catch me staring out the port into space, and they say, `Look, the Moon's come out again,' because they know I'm mooning over you. But I don't care. I love you, Sammi, and I always will.

"You know I can't tell you about what I'm doing, but this military service actually turned out to be kind of interesting. My talents are being well used . . . ." Her eyes were fixed on the screen, just looking at him, drinking him in. The pain of their separation tore at her even as she melted inside while he spoke of the infinitely important mundane, important because it was all about him.

She wanted him back so badly.

Damn war, she thought anew.

" . . . should be back on leave month after next, Sammi. They're giving me a whole week! Oh hon, the things we'll do!"

"You got that right, lover," Samantha said.

"I have to finish this letter up now. I wish I were there with you, darling. I know you tell me what's up in your letters to me, but I want to know what you're doing every minute, what's making you laugh, if anything is making you cry, what you're worrying about . . . just everything. I want to wrap my arms around you and hold you so tight I can feel your heart beating next to mine, rub my hands up and down your back, and kiss you . . . oh, and kiss you. . . ."

"Me too, hon. Me too," she whispered, tears welling.

"Good-bye, Sunshine. Until next time." And the letter was over.

She had a good cry after that. She replayed the letter five times before going to bed, and for the first time in what seemed ages, her last thoughts before drifting off to sleep had nothing whatsoever to do with Major Moore, and everything to do with Steve.

But that night she had another dream.

It was somewhat of a nightmare, but not the scary kind—more of the "something gone wrong" type. She found herself on the surface of Mars, without a suit, and she was watching her symbionts at work, an easy thing to do since they were the size of bulldozers. But something wasn't right—the symbionts were going down to the river, which itself was the result of a different project, and splitting the water molecules up, and then bringing the oxygen atoms to the desert and making iron oxide. "What are you doing?" she cried. "You're doing everything backwards!" And a bulldozer symbiont came up to her, and somehow it reminded her of the aliens, and it said, "But it's so much easier to do it this way. It's almost as if the iron wants to rust." And the words echoed through the last vestiges of the dream: Wants to rust; wants to rust; wants to rust; iron wants to rust . . .

She awoke with a start. The meaning of the dream flooded into her.

It was Sunday morning. Since her conversation with Dykstra the previous day, she had made up her mind to attend church this morning, something she'd lapsed in since Steve's departure. But she had to sort this out. She went to her workstation and immersed herself in the work of the genano engineer. She looked at the structure of her new symbionts, played with some different assumptions, had the computer test theoretical modifications, and by 1500 hours she had the answer her intuition had told her was there during the dream.

She had a weapon against the aliens—she could make their bones rust.

It wasn't really difficult. A few changes would allow her virus nanotool users and their hosts to live in the aliens themselves. I haven't even agreed to work on the Phinon Project yet, and already I know exactly what I'd be doing, she thought. I'd better make up my mind about what I'm going to tell Moore. 

Saying no would be harder now. The temptation to prove herself yet again was overwhelming, particularly now that she knew how to do it.


Back | Next