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Chapter Two

"Colonel, we've got something very odd on the scope."

Lieutenant Colonel Eric DiFalco, United States Space Force, hesitated a moment—Lieutenant Farrell, the duty officer, could be overconscientious at best and excitable at worst—then sighed and thumbed the intercom switch.

"I'm listening, Lieutenant." He wasn't sure he had gotten just the right warning note into his voice. The news from home wasn't exactly something he resented being torn away from. Even Farrell's latest attack of the jitters would be a welcome relief from a detailed analysis of just how the lunatics were going about taking over the asylum.

"Well, sir, it appears to be a spacecraft of unknown origin. Its performance parameters don't check with anything we know about. And . . . it's on a course that should intersect ours in . . ."

DiFalco came out of shock. Please, God, don't let Farrell be seeing a UFO! And don't let him have already logged it! He concentrated on making his voice soothing.

"All right, Terry. You were correct to report this. I'll be right up. Keep tracking it." He turned off his digital reader—plenty of time later for a masochistic reading of the Social Justice party's latest gains in the off-year elections—and stood up. It took only two long-legged strides to exit his tiny cabin and step out into the passageway that ran around the outer circumference of USSFS Andrew Jackson's spin habitat. People stood aside for him—about as far as military punctilio was carried in a spacecraft under way—as he proceeded to the hatch. He reached up, grabbed the rail, and pulled himself up and over into the weightless central access shaft, compensating with practiced ease for the Coriolis force. With an occasional assist from the railings, he shot forward past the shuttle docks to the control room.

The contrast between the dim chamber with its glowing instrument panels and the starry firmament beyond the wide-curving viewport seldom failed to affect him. But now he made a preoccupied beeline for the command acceleration couch. Motioning to Farrell to remain seated, he settled to the deck, magnetized soles clamping gently to its surface.

"All right, Terry. What's the status?"

"Unchanged, sir. It's on a ballistic course—a very flat hyperbola, almost a straight line. The computer has projected it backwards, and it seems to have come from a region of the asteroids where we've never had anything." He gestured at a screen showing the simulation of the unknown's orbit, and DiFalco sucked in his breath. That ship had come a long way . . . but then he glanced at its velocity figures, and realized that it could have covered the distance in a reasonable length of time after all. "And as for where they're going . . . well, Colonel, the only explanation that makes sense is that they want to intercept us." Farrell's voice was steady. At least he has the balls to lay his opinion on the line, DiFalco admitted to himself.

"No possibility that it's Chinese, I suppose," he asked. It wasn't much of a hope, anyway; they had no reason to be in this particular segment of space outside the orbit of Mars.

"Negative, sir. That was the first thing we checked. Nothing of theirs has been in a position to have gotten into that orbit, even if they had anything that could manage that many sustained gees." He glanced at the time. "By the way, Colonel, enough time has elapsed from our initial hail for us to have received a reply from that ship, if they'd sent one."

DiFalco glared at the offending blip. A UFO. Just fucking beautiful.

The term had originated in the second half of the twentieth century, when many people had looked skyward in search of a substitute for religion and persuaded themselves that they had seen alien spacecraft performing impossible feats in pursuit of no intelligible objective. It had died out in the early decades of the present century, as space flight had settled into routine and the we-are-alone arguments of Tipler and others had fossilized into dogma—the scientific establishment had come to reject the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence with such unanimity that the concept hardly even appeared in science fiction any more.

But over the last few years, curious reports had begun to appear. They never seemed to have any unambiguous instrument corroboration, and DiFalco had always been inclined to write them off as a product of the general lunacy of the times. (The California school system had recently required that astronomy texts give equal space and respect to the flat-Earth theory, for to do otherwise would be "elitist"; the Social Justice party was expected to write a similar requirement into its national platform.) Only . . . these reports had come, not from the Great American Majority of functionally illiterate drones, but from space crews, all of whom were very competent people—the only kind that anyone could afford to send into space, which was why the new civilization growing up outside Earth's atmosphere had less and less in common with the collapsing society at the bottom of the gravity well. And these UFOs, although decidedly high-performance, hadn't reversed direction without loss of velocity or otherwise violated physical laws.

Still, such reports were not noted for furthering the careers of those who made them.

Just had to take command of the last of the Washington class ships in Mars orbit for the evacuation to Phoenix Prime, didn't you? DiFalco gibed at himself. Couldn't make the trip in cryo hibernation, could you? Couldn't even travel awake on a ship commanded by one of your juniors and spend the trip dumping words of wisdom on the younger generations! (He was all of thirty-five.) Oh, no! Perish the thought!

He reached a decision. "All right, Terry. Have Gomez do an EVA with her photo equipment. The UFO"—there, he had said it—"is within ten million klicks, and she might be able to get something we can analyze. And laser a message to RAMP HQ at Phoenix Prime, in Level Three code, for General Kurganov personally." Sergei had ridden the Boris Yeltsin out to the asteroid base earlier, hibernating like a gentleman and leaving DiFalco as acting military CO of the Russian-American Mars Project. But now he was awake and back in command, at least until DiFalco relieved him early next year when the top spot rotated back to an American. He needed to be told . . . and he would have the sense to sit on the information until they had learned more.

"Give him," DiFalco continued, "all the data we now have on the UFO. And tell him that I intend to continue to try to communicate with it. If it attempts a rendezvous with us"—no need to even check the figures to confirm that it was strictly up to the UFO to do so; Andy J. was committed to this Hohmann transfer orbit and lacked the reaction mass for any funny business, at least if it wanted to be able to choose an attainable destination afterwards—"I will do whatever seems indicated." And, he knew, Sergei would back him to the hilt. He unclipped his perscomp from his belt and consulted it. "It will take a few minutes to get a reply. Ask Major Levinson to join me in my cabin as soon as he can get away from Engineering. And buzz me as soon as you get any response from the UFO, or from General Kurganov . . . or when Gomez has some usable imagery for us."

"Aye aye, sir." (Funny, the way naval usages were surfacing in a service descended from the Air Force. The ex-squids in the Space Force had to be threatened with bodily harm lest they call the control room the "bridge.") Farrell looked up, and for an instant he seemed even younger than he was. When he spoke, his tone was almost beseeching. "Colonel, what is that thing?"

"I think we're going to find out, Lieutenant. Like it or not."

* * *

DiFalco's cabin was too small for pacing, and he soon found himself turning the news update back on. It was a link with familiar things, with home . . . and he needed that, however much he hated what home was turning into. He was up to the latest synagogue burning in New York (the state's Social Justice governor hadn't quite winked at the cameras as he had condemned the act "despite centuries of terrible provocation") when Jeff Levinson arrived. He switched it off hurriedly.

"Oh, that," Andy J.'s executive officer indicated the reader. He smiled wryly at DiFalco's palpable embarrassment, creasing his dark features—his mouth, like his nose, belonged on a larger face. "Why do you think there are so many of us in space? Out here, you can get away from some things. Not all, of course." He took out the plastic Ethnic Entitlements Card that every American citizen was required to carry at all times—white, with a large yellow Star of David, in Levinson's case. DiFalco's was brown; his mother was one-quarter Cherokee, which, despite all her Swedish, Scots and English genes, and the Italian, Irish and additional English ones on his father's side, made him a "Third World person" and helped account for his rank. (Levinson had risen as high as he probably ever would, especially if the quota structure was further stacked against him as seemed likely after the next general election.) DiFalco was old enough to recall when the cards had been introduced . . . strictly as a temporary measure, of course, to "enable the proper authorities to readily identify the victims of past discrimination until its effects have been compensated for." Ex-officials of the former South African government had been hired for their experience in administering a similar system; those who had commented on the irony had been prosecuted for the misdemeanor of "inappropriately directed laughter."

"But," Levinson continued, "you didn't call me in to discuss the political situation. What's up, that couldn't wait 'til after Fraser and I were done with the fuel feed?"

"Well," DiFalco drawled, "how about little green men? Terry seems to have spotted some, doing their damnedest to intercept us."

"Oy vey!" Levinson sagged down onto DiFalco's bunk. "What does the kid think he's seen now?"

"It's no bullshit, Jeff," DiFalco assured him, turning serious. He accessed the data on his perscomp and handed it to Levinson. The XO studied it with frowning concentration, then looked up.

"Eric, just what the hell is going on here? Nobody has anything like this, and extraterrestrials . . ."

" . . . don't exist," DiFalco finished for him. "Everybody knows that. I'll tell you what I told Terry: we'll find out the answer soon enough, so all we can do now is assess our own capabilities—which, I know, don't include either attempting or avoiding a rendezvous. Our weapons"—the missiles, the antimissile lasers, and the big spinal-mounted particle accelerator—"are in working order." Levinson nodded emphatically. "But I don't intend to use them except in self-defense. For now, we'll continue to try and communicate with them. We simply don't know what we're dealing with here . . . ."

The intercom beeped, and DiFalco acknowledged. "Colonel, Gomez is ready for you," Farrell reported.

"Good. Tell her the XO and I will be in the lab ASAP."

* * *

Afterwards, neither DiFalco nor Levinson was ever sure how long a period of utter silence they had spent staring at the blowup. No fine details could be made out, of course, even with deep-space photography using mid-twenty-first-century equipment. But two things were very clear about the spacecraft. The first was that it was a spacecraft, an inarguably artificial construct. And the second was that it was a product of no known design philosophy, nor even any known concept of a viable spacecraft; there was no room for doubt that it had originated elsewhere than Earth.

Finally, Levinson looked up, his engagingly ugly face wearing a lost expression DiFalco had never seen there.

"Colonel, what are we going to do?"

"We are going to wait," DiFalco stated firmly.

* * *

The Unknown lay a few kilometers off, a clearly visible affront to DiFalco's sense of reality.

It had matched vectors with Andy J. so smoothly that DiFalco was somehow sure that it wasn't showing off, merely executing a routine maneuver. It certainly had the thrust to do it . . . he had tried to calculate the power required for that kind of sustained maneuvering by a ship massing what that one must, and given up. And it produced all that thrust with no great display of flaming exhaust; its drive was evidently too efficient to waste much energy on such things.

"Well," Levinson broke the silence in the control room, "we know one thing about them."

"You mean besides the fact that they're very goddamned advanced?" DiFalco, like the XO, spoke in a hushed voice, for no reason that stood up to logical analysis.

Levinson nodded. "They don't need weight."

DiFalco nodded in reply. He had already thought of it himself. That gleaming bluish-gray shape—rather like a cigar with the small end forward, with four elongated blisters spaced evenly around the hull near the stern, alternating with what was obviously tankage—was a seamless unity without any segment which could plausibly be a spin habitat like Andy J.'s. If its occupants had wanted to use angular acceleration to counterfeit gravity while in free fall, they would have to spin the entire ship, which was patently impractical. Humans were unsuited to prolonged periods of weightlessness. Drugs coupled with regular exercise now enabled them to live indefinitely in low-G environments like Luna, but some weight was still required to prevent fluid imbalances and atrophy of the bone tissues and muscles, and all interplanetary spacecraft designs reflected this. It was the final piece of evidence that the UFO's crew were not human. Were they even organic?

One thing they definitely were: damned uncommunicative. He had stopped paying attention to Farrell's endlessly repeated hails and requests for acknowledgment up and down the frequencies—they had become a meaningless ritual of some forgotten religion.

So, like everyone else in the control room, he jumped when the hush was shattered by a screech of static, dying down to a faint roar overlaid by a voice speaking in careful, faintly accented English.

"Calling United States Space Force Ship Andrew Jackson. We urgently request that your commanding officer come aboard our ship for consultation on matters of the highest importance."

In the stunned silence, DiFalco was the first to find his tongue.

"This is Lieutenant Colonel Eric DiFalco, commanding," he rapped out, pleasantly surprised that his voice didn't crack. "Who am I addressing? Can we have a visual signal?"

"I am afraid not," the voice resumed. "All your questions will be answered here. You will, of course, find our shipboard environment quite safe. Please enter through the airlock we have illuminated." Levinson touched his arm and pointed at the magnified image of the UFO. A blinking exterior light had awakened on that unbroken surface. He was gazing at it when Farrell looked up.

"The signal has been broken off, Colonel. They're not accepting any further transmission."

"Damn!" DiFalco turned to the XO. "Jeff, could that voice have been artificially generated?"

"In theory, yes," Levinson replied judiciously. All state-of-the-art computers could accept vocal input, and the more sophisticated ones could provide simple "spoken" output. But you knew damned well it was a machine talking, and there was no question of carrying on a conversation. Chatty computers still belonged to the realm of science fiction. For that matter, so did UFOs.

DiFalco gazed a moment longer at the image in the screen, with its somehow impudent winking light. Then he unstrapped and shoved himself up from the acceleration couch.

"XO, have GP shuttle number two readied. And have Sergeant Thompson meet me at the docking bay."

"Holy shit, Eric!" This was pushing the limits of informality even for the Space Force, but Levinson looked like he was past caring. "You're not actually going over there, are you? I mean, we don't know . . ." He sputtered into speechlessness.

"That's right," DiFalco said quietly. "We don't know anything. And we're not going to find out, sitting here staring at them and hoping they'll resume radio communications. And I want very badly to find out, Jeff. Call it curiosity or anything else you like, but there's no way I could not accept this invitation. Anyway," he continued with a slight smile, "if they wanted to zap us, I have this strange feeling that we'd all be dead by now." He moved toward the hatch. "You have the con, XO."

Levinson made one last try. "Colonel, we only have the word of some robot or some bug-eyed monster that it's safe in that ship! How can they even know what's safe for us?"

DiFalco turned toward him with an odd expression. "You know, Jeff, that's one of the things that makes me so curious about all of this. Remember when he told us that?" Levinson nodded. "Well . . . why should the suitability of their environment for us be an 'of course'?"

* * *

Andy J. was still visible as an elongated dumbbell (DiFalco had vetoed Levinson's suggestion that the ship be realigned so as to aim the particle accelerator at the alien) when the lighted airlock became visible as a faint outline on that curving wall of unidentifiable alloy.

Piloting the little interorbital shuttle toward it, DiFalco stole a glance at his companion's black face, frowning with concentration as he checked out, not for the first time, his recoilless launch pistol. Not that the little rocket gun would be likely to do much good, even if the colonel let him use it. Since he had no real intention of doing so, he wondered why he had even brought the sergeant. Purely as a ceremonial bodyguard, he supposed—the Marines performed shipboard duties for the Space Force similar to those they always had for the Navy, although their EVA role was a new wrinkle for them. Anyway, having him along made DiFalco feel better.

Gunnery Sergeant Joel Thompson, USMC, was not a particularly huge man. In fact, he was only slightly bigger than the six feet and one hundred eighty pounds maintained by DiFalco, who worked at keeping in shape—largely, as he admitted to himself, because he was reaching the age at which a flat stomach was an emblem of self-discipline. But vanity had nothing to do with the sergeant's unrelieved musculature, without an ounce of efficiency-impairing fat. He was not an easy man to know, but he was as formidable and dependable as he looked. And his stubbornness was a force of nature.

A faint boom sounded through the shuttle as it made airlock-to-airlock contact with the UFO's hull and instruments confirmed magnetic seal attachment. For a moment, the two of them sat in silence as if awaiting something, then exchanged quick, sheepish smiles and proceeded to don their vac suit helmets. DiFalco's mounted a videocam whose continuous transmission to Andy J. would, he guessed, be of some interest to Levinson and everyone else who could contrive an excuse for being near a screen. Like their helmet communicators, it would be relayed by the shuttle's more powerful comm equipment; they shouldn't be out of contact with the big ship, barring intentional jamming by the . . . aliens, he supposed he had to call them. Concentrating grimly on the the concrete and the routine, he led the way to the airlock.

Decompression completed, their outer door slid open to reveal, as he had more than half expected, the UFO's airlock similarly open to vacuum. They floated from one chamber into the other, and the strange door sealed behind them. There. That was it. Shouldn't I have said something historical before stepping across?

"Can you hear me, XO? Are you getting this?"

"Barely." Levinson's voice came faintly. "The transmission sucks. Swing a little to your left, will you . . . there! I wanted to get those instructions, or whatever they are, on the wall . . . shit!" The light that awakened just above the odd, cursive lettering startled DiFalco almost as much as it did Levinson, whose picture it momentarily overloaded like a flash bulb.

Immediately, DiFalco began to feel the return of outside air pressure.

Sergeant Thompson studied a readout on the bulky equipment he was carrying. "Skipper"—it was one of the things DiFalco had stopped trying to break him of—"pressure is almost up to one bar. And the initial reading shows nitrogen and oxygen in the right percentages."

"Did you copy that, XO?" Levinson confirmed, and Difalco continued. "All right. I am going to open my faceplate." Ignoring Thompson's disapproving frown, he did so, holding his breath. The air was a little warmer than Andy J.'s. He was preparing to take an experimental breath when the light went out and the inner door slid open. Lightheaded as he was, nothing else seemed to register. He expelled his breath and pushed himself across the threshold into the passageway beyond . . . .

The universe fell on him, slamming him to the deck.

Lying there, he heard Levinson's shouts and Thompson's bellows as if from a great distance, for reality had, for him, suddenly narrowed to two impossible facts. One was that he had just floated directly from free fall into a gravity field that had absolutely no business being there. (How strong was it? Two gees, surely. No, make it three.)

The other was the pair of feet, in utilitarian-looking boots of some unfamiliar material, planted on the deck a few inches from his face. His eyes travelled up the legs and body, the videocam travelling with them . . . and Levinson's frantic voice trailed off. DiFalco got slowly to his feet (maybe the gravity was only around one gee after all), groping for something to say.

He finally managed it. "You . . . look human." So much for history.

The elderly gentleman—he reminded DiFalco of one of his maternal uncles—looked miffed. "Thank you," he said dryly. "So do you."

One of the group behind him, a striking-looking young woman clad like all of them in a kind of jumpsuit, stepped forward and spoke rapidly to the oldster in an utterly unfamiliar language of many liquid vowel combinations and few hard consonants. DiFalco knew a scolding when he heard one. The man smiled in acknowledgment and turned back to his guest.

"Forgive me," he said with his faint accent. "I should have warned you about the internal artificial gravity field. One takes things for granted. Oh, by the way, ah, Colonel—is that it?—could you possibly speak to your subordinate?" He gestured rather fastidiously toward the airlock. DiFalco turned and saw that Sergeant Thompson had also entered the passageway but had managed to land in a crouch, from which he now had the scene covered with his launch pistol. His hand and his expression were both rock-steady, but beads of sweat were visible on his brow behind his faceplate.

"Sergeant," DiFalco spoke carefully, "stand up and lower your gun. I think we're among friends. And you might as well open your faceplate—I seem to be doing okay, under the circumstances."

"Aye aye, sir." Thompson grimly obeyed. He still looked very watchful.

DiFalco turned back to the man who had no more right to be here than the gravity that kept them both standing on the deck. He didn't really look much like Uncle Dick, or any other member of any of Earth's racial groupings, although he could probably have walked down a street in any large Western city and attracted no more than occasional glances of mild curiosity as to his origin. He was tall and spare, his hair and thinnish VanDyke-like chin beard of a silvery gray that contrasted with his skin, which was a rather coppery brown. His cheekbones were wide, his nose prominent and straight, and his eyes a brown so dark as to be virtually black. The people behind him showed about as much individual variation in size, features and coloring as you would expect in a group made up of members of one moderately heterogeneous nationality on Earth. The common denominators seemed to be a tendency toward height and slenderness, and a coppery quality to the skin tone.

"I trust I was telling the sergeant the truth," DiFalco said. "About being among friends, that is."

"Of course, Colonel. And I apologize for our seeming secretiveness. Let me begin to try to answer some of the questions I know you must have. My name is Varien hle'Morna. My companions and I come, as you have undoubtedly surmised, from another planetary system. And you may rest assured, the fact that you belong to the same species as ourselves is as inexplicable to us as it is to you. We have merely had a little longer to become accustomed to it. We—"

"Excuse me," Di Falco cut in, about to OD on unreality, "while I communicate with my ship." Varien made a gesture which presumably signified gracious assent. "XO, are you getting all this?"

"Affirmative." Levinson's faint voice came after a slight pause. "I've been keeping quiet because I didn't want to distract you—and because I'm in a state of shock like everybody here."

"You and me both," DiFalco muttered. "I'm just coping from second to second. Stand by." He raised his voice. "Uh, Mister . . ."

"Simply 'Varien' is sufficient, Colonel," the stranger said indulgently.

"All right, uh, Varien." DiFalco plowed grimly ahead. "You obviously know a lot more about us—our language, for starters—than the zero we know about you. Your radio message was less than informative . . . ."

"Again, I apologize for that, Colonel. That message was sent using specially constructed equipment which was not up to visual transmissions—our own communications devices are incompatible with yours. And, candidly, we were also motivated by security considerations; we wished to minimize signalling that might possibly be picked up at random." He paused thoughtfully. "I know this is all very overwhelming for you, Colonel," he continued in a slightly patronizing way. (Was it DiFalco's imagination or did the young woman roll her eyes heavenward?) "But I am going to have to decline to answer many of your questions at present, in order to avoid repeating myself later, when we reach the asteroid I believe you call 'Phoenix Prime,' your present destination. You see, I have approached you to solicit your aid in arranging a secret meeting with whoever is in ultimate authority there."

"So," DiFalco said faintly, "you want me to . . . take you to our leader?"

Varien brightened. "Yes. That's it. Well put. If you wish, I will gladly accompany you back to your ship, as a gesture of good faith." Does he think we primitives are into giving and taking hostages? DiFalco wondered. Varien motioned the young woman forward. "Or, if you prefer, I will send my daughter, Aelanni zho'Morna, who has full authority to make all arrangements."

DiFalco heard a low moan from his helmet comm. "What is it, XO?" Varien and the others politely did not listen.

"It had to happen," Levinson groaned. "Why am I even surprised?"

"What are you talking about, Jeff?"

"The mad scientist has a beautiful daughter!"

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