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Antares Passage [Secure eReader]
eBook by Michael McCollum

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: After more than a century of isolation, the paths between stars are again open, and the people of Alta are in contact with their sister colony on Sandar. The opening of the fold lines has not been the unmixed blessing the Alta had supposed, however.

For the reestablishment of interstellar travel has brought with it news of the Ryall, an alien race whose goal is the extermination of humanity. If they are to avoid defeat at the hands of the aliens, Alta must seek out the military might of Earth. However, to reach Earth requires them to dive into the heart of a supernova ...

eBook Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2000

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It was high noon when the commercial shuttle touched down at Homeport Spaceport. Even so, the Antares Nebula was clearly visible in Alta's deep purple sky if one knew where to look. It had been three years since the nova had first burned bright in the Altan heavens, and while Antares was no longer the eye-searing spark it had once been, the supernova's power and its relative proximity assured that it would be visible in daylight for several years to come.

Fleet Captain Richard Arthur Drake unstrapped from his seat and stood to remove his kit bag from the shuttle's overhead baggage compartment. Around him, four dozen fellow passengers did the same. Then each man and woman queued up in the shuttle's center aisle and waited patiently for the landing bridge to be maneuvered across the shuttle's wing and attached to the midships airlock.

Drake was of medium height, with a lean, muscular figure. His hair, which he wore in the close cropped style of a military spacer, was black with a touch of gray around the edges. A tiny network of worry lines emanated from the corners of his green eyes, and a whitish scar cut one of his eyebrows into two unequal sections. As he moved slowly down the aisle, he did so with the smooth motion of one who has learned to maneuver under widely varying conditions of acceleration and gravity.

The crowd was slow to disembark. As each passenger reached the storage lockers just forward of the midships airlock, he or she would stop and sort through the carry-on luggage, blocking the aisle in the process. Normally, Drake would have found his patience running short at the continued delay. Not today. After six months spent breathing the reconstituted effluvium that passed for breathing gas aboard a starship, he was more than happy to merely stand and inhale deeply of the virgin air that wafted in through the open airlock.

Eventually, he found himself across the landing bridge and inside the terminal building. He threaded his way through the waiting crowd and was about to board a slidewalk for the main terminal building when a familiar voice called out: "Richard!"

Drake turned at the sound and was nearly overwhelmed by the fragrant bundle of femininity that flew into his embrace. Arms wrapped around his neck and warm lips pressed hungrily against his mouth. He responded in kind for long seconds before breaking free of his assailant with a grin.

"Excuse me, Miss, but do I know you?"

"You'd better know me," Bethany Lindquist replied with mock severity. "We've got a date at the altar, remember?"

"Do we?" he asked. "The last time I asked, you said that you didn't want to set a date because ..."

"You knew what I meant! Now stop teasing me before I forget that you ever asked me."

"Yes, Ma'am, except as I remember, you asked me."

"Then your memory is faulty, sir. Now then, aren't you happy to see me?"

"You know I am, Beth. Here, stand back and let me look at you." Drake thrust his fiancée out to arms' length and feasted on the sight of her. Bethany was nearly as tall as he was, with a well-proportioned figure and an easy, graceful stance. Her heart shaped face was framed by shoulder-length auburn hair. Her green eyes had a slight slant to them that complemented her high cheekbones. She was smiling broadly, which produced dimples in her cheeks. After long seconds of mutual inspection, he pulled her close again and sighed. "My God, you're more beautiful than I remember!"

"Thank you, kind sir. May I say the same about you?"

"You may. How the hell did you know I was coming, anyway?"

"I have my spies."

"I'll bet you do. But seriously, how did you know? I didn't know myself which ship I would be on until a few hours before I left Felicity Base."

"First of all, they're holding a Parliamentary briefing concerning the Helldiver Project at the Admiralty tomorrow. I knew you would be attending."

"That's supposed to be a secret."

"Not to me. I'm an invited participant."

"You are?"

She nodded. "I'm the official representative of the terrestrial ambassador, remember?"

"Ah, yes. Now I remember why we can't get married. Something about your duty to your uncle ..."

"Hmmm, do I detect a hint of annoyance in your tone, m'love?"

"More than a hint," he muttered.

"How sweet!"

"Don't change the subject. How did you know I'd be on this shuttle?"

"My uncle told me."

"How the hell did he know?"

"He has an office on Parliament Hill now. He hears things."

"He could have been wrong, you know. What if I hadn't come through that door just now?"

Bethany shrugged. "Then I would have met every arriving ship for the next month if I'd had to." She snuggled close and kissed him again. "Oh, Richard, it's so good to have you home!"

"Good to be home," he replied with his nose nestled in her fragrant hair. After a long moment in which no one spoke, they released each other by mutual consent. Drake sighed deeply and said, "Well, shall we go in search of the rest of my luggage?"

"Suits me," Bethany replied.

They avoided the slidewalk, preferring to walk arm in arm down the long concourse. Drake found himself whistling under his breath. As they walked, he became aware of the warmth of her beside him, and of the general acuteness of his senses. He watched the bustle around him with newly sharpened vision.

Overhead were several large holoscreens. Some were used to display launching and arrival information; others directed travelers to various destinations within the spaceport, while still others displayed the latest news concerning the recently completed election. Drake ignored the latter. He'd had all the "news" he cared for on the long flight down from Felicity Base.

They came to the end of the concourse and turned left into the main section of the spaceport terminal building. A large holocube stood at the point where several slidewalks spilled their loads into the cavernous terminal. Inside the cube stood a creature from out of a nightmare.

* * *

The basis for interstellar travel was established by Bashir-ben-Sulieman in 2078. Sulieman, an astronomer working out of Farside Observatory, Luna, spent his life measuring the precise positions and proper motions of several thousand stars. After two decades of work, he reluctantly concluded that existing gravitational theories did not adequately explain the placement of various stars within the galactic spiral arm of which Sol is a member. Sulieman became convinced that space is not only curved locally around planetary and stellar masses as Einstein had maintained, but that it is also folded back upon itself in long lines stretching across thousands of light-years. He theorized that these foldlines originate in the massive black hole that occupies the center of the galaxy, and that they stream outward in complex patterns along the spiral arms. He further theorized that whenever such a foldline encounters a star, it is focused much as a lens focuses a beam of light; and if that focus is sufficiently sharp, a weak spot, or foldpoint, appears in the fabric of the space-time continuum.

Twenty years after Sulieman's revelation, scientists positioned a spaceship within one of the two foldpoints known to exist within the Solar System and released copious quantities of energy in a precisely controlled pattern. The energy release caused the ship to be instantaneously transported along the foldline to the system of Luyten's Star, some 12.5 light-years distant from Sol.

There was no holding the human race back after that. Over the next several centuries, the leakage of population into space became a flood. The pattern of the migration was determined almost entirely by the shape of foldspace, as the aggregate of foldlines and foldpoints came to be called. While some stars were found to possess only a single foldpoint, others were endowed with two, three, or more. The biggest, most massive stars were found to be especially fertile centers of foldpoint production; and therefore, the systems of these stars became the crossroads of interstellar travel. The red-orange supergiant star Antares was the champion foldpoint producer throughout human space. Its six interstellar portals made Antares the linchpin of a network of related star systems known collectively as the Antares Foldspace Cluster.

When Antares exploded on 3 August 2512, the immediate effects were felt far beyond the confines of the Antares system. The release of so concentrated a burst of energy jolted the very fabric of space-time; and with it, the structure of foldspace for hundreds of light-years in every direction. In some systems, foldpoints underwent radical changes of position, while in others, foldpoints appeared where none had previously existed. In still other star systems, preexisting foldpoints disappeared without a trace.

The F8 dwarf star known as Valeria had been doubly unlucky. Situated 125 light-years from Antares, the Val system was what foldspace astronomers called a cul-de-sac, a star with but a single foldpoint. When Antares exploded, Valeria's foldpoint had simply disappeared. Thus it was that the human colony on Valeria IV (Alta to its inhabitants) had found itself isolated from the rest of human space for a century and a quarter. Then, early in the year 2637 (Universal Calendar), Antares had burned bright in the Altan sky, signaling the arrival of the leading edge of the nova shockwave. Simultaneous with the passage of the nova shockwave, Valeria's foldpoint had reappeared high in the system's northern hemisphere.

* * *

"What's this?" Drake asked Bethany, gesturing toward the display.

"Part of the government's 'Know Thy Enemy' campaign," she replied. "They've got them in most public places. Push the button and it will spew out all manner of interesting facts. Here, listen." As she spoke, she stepped forward and pressed a stud that jutted from the base of the holocube. The image came to life and seemed to peer down at them. At the same time, a sonorous voice began to speak.

"The creature you see before you, sir or madam, is a Ryall, and the mortal enemy of all humanity  ..."

The image in the holocube was that of a creature designed along the lines of a six-legged centaur. The legs were short, less than half-a-meter in length, and culminated in wide padlike feet. Their shortness was amply compensated for by the creature's forebody - a vertical torso topped by a long, flexible neck that carried the alien's head to the height of a man's. The head was wide at the back, showing considerable cranial bulge, and narrow at the front where a toothy snout jutted forward some fifteen centimeters. The eyes were set wide apart such that the creature had trouble looking straight ahead. In the hologram, its head was cocked to one side, as though scanning the faces of passersby. The mouth was partially open, showing two rows of conical teeth and a triply forked tongue. On top of the head were two flaps of skin stretched taut by rigid, spikelike projections. Of nostrils or any equivalent, there was no sign.

Two heavily muscled arms attached to the forebody at the same point as the neck. The creature's hands consisted of four slender fingers flanked by two opposable thumbs. At the opposite end of the main body, a meter-long tail dragged the ground. The Ryall's hide was scaled, the scales shading from gray-green on top to light beige beneath.

The lecturing voice continued. "... Although the Ryall bear a passing resemblance to both terrestrial and Altan reptiles, they are neither. Indeed, they don't fit particularly well into any of our normal taxonomic categories. They are warm-blooded and the females suckle the young - although on a mixture of blood and nutrients rather than milk. In spite of these mammal-like traits, they also lay eggs. Note the vestigial webs between the fingers of each hand, and again between the short digits on the feet. The Ryall evolved as aquatic animals and did not leave the water for the land until quite recently in their past. Experts tell us that they were forced from the water by another sentient race on their home world, a race the Ryall call the swift eaters. It is this incident in their history that we believe makes them so highly territorial that they have attacked us without provocation. That being the case, the only thing left for us to do is ..."

Drake didn't wait to find out what the narrator had in mind. He nudged Bethany and said, "Come on, we've better things to do than listen to this."

She glanced at him and smiled slyly. "Maybe we can ask the taxi driver to take a shortcut into town."

* * *

The return of their star's foldpoint should have been front-page news throughout the Valeria system. In fact, no one noticed. For a foldpoint is a difficult object to find under the best of circumstances, and after 125 years of isolation, the Altans had stopped looking. Therefore, it came as something of a shock when an unidentified starship materialized high above Val's ecliptic and immediately began thrusting for deep space.

Despite their surprise, the Altans lost no time in dispatching a ship to investigate. What it discovered was a battered warship bearing the markings of the Grand Fleet of Earth, and a crew of corpses. Somewhere in its travels, the Earth fleet blastship had been badly mauled in battle and abandoned by its surviving crewmembers. After that it had jumped blindly from foldpoint to foldpoint under the control of a radiation-damaged autopilot, eventually ending up in the Val system.

With evidence of fighting beyond the foldpoint, the Altans had hurriedly organized an expedition to scout the situation. The expedition's first destination had been the Napier system and the colony world of New Providence. It had been from New Providence that Alta had originally been colonized. What the Altan expedition found was an ancestral home abandoned by its inhabitants. It hadn't been difficult to discover the reason. All the while the Altan ships were in the system, their outside radiation monitors had chattered wildly. New Providence and the whole Napier system had been made uninhabitable by the radiation from the nearby Antares Supernova.

The discovery that New Providence was a dead world had saddened, but not surprised, the Altans. A number of astronomers had warned them that the fifteen light-years that separated Napier from Antares was insufficient to protect the system from the full fury of the supernova. What had surprised the Altans was the condition in which they found most of New Providence's cities. The steady rain of high-energy photons and charged particles was deadly to all forms of life, but should not have materially affected the concrete, stone, and steel that comprises a city. The Altans had expected to find a world of abandoned, but pristine, municipalities.

What they found instead were horizon-to-horizon ruins bearing the unmistakable signs of nuclear bombardment. Shocked at the sight of widespread destruction, the Altans had dug through the ruins, searching for clues to what had precipitated the fighting. What they found had been the biggest surprise of all. For, contrary to the explorers' expectations, the New Providentials had not fallen to fighting among themselves. They had been attacked by a race of centauroid aliens, the Ryall.

Shortly after learning of the aliens' existence, the Altan expedition had departed the Napier system for the neighboring system of Hellsgate. New Providence had established a second interstellar colony in the Hellsgate system. According to the records the Altans found in the ruins, it had been to this second colony that New Providence's refugees had fled.

The Altan ships had entered the Hellsgate system and quickly made contact with the inhabitants. They discovered that Sandar (the colony planet in the system) had been at war with the Ryall for more than a century. Before the Altans were finished, they were given the opportunity to view the war at first hand!

* * *

Richard Drake was jolted awake by a low-pitched hooting from somewhere outside. His first thought was that it was the cry of a night hunting calu beast. Then, as he came more awake, he remembered that there hadn't been a calu sighted in Homeport in more than a century.

"What is that?" he asked softly in the blackness.

Bethany stirred beside him, stretching as she came awake. After a moment's silence, she said, "I must have fallen asleep. What time is it?"

Drake glanced at the disembodied red numerals that floated in the darkness where he remembered the nightstand to be. "Nearly twenty hundred. What's that noise outside?" Bethany sat up in bed and listened. "Oh, that's just the space raid siren. They announced a drill this morning on the news."

"How do you know it isn't a real raid?" he asked.

"Hmmm," she responded. "You don't think the Ryall would have the bad taste to launch an attack during a scheduled drill, do you?"

He laughed. "I'm sure they would if they could. However, they'd have to get past the Sandarians first. Since we haven't heard of any major Ryall successes in the Hellsgate system, I think we're safe for the time being."

"Depolarize the window, Richard. I want to let the night in."

"Where's the control?"

"On the nightstand, beside the clock. The large round knob next to the light switch."

Drake fumbled for the control, found it, and turned it full in the clockwise direction. As he did so, one whole wall of the bedroom disappeared as the floor-to-ceiling window went from 100% opaque to fully transparent.

Beyond the window lay a clear, calm night. Across the Tigris River, the lights of Homeport shone brilliantly in subdued colors, while Antares hovered low in the western sky. The nova shed a light the color of a mercury vapor lamp and suffused the countryside with a pale silver glow. Directly in front of them, nova light reflected from the surface of the river to produce a broad band of silver across which a small pleasure boat moved upstream in silence.

Bethany rolled onto her stomach and propped her head on a pillow. "Isn't the night beautiful, Richard? Look what the nova's done to the river!"

Drake reached out and let his fingertips trace the soft curves of her spine. "You're the one who is beautiful."

In the distance, the soft ululation of the siren slowly drifted down toward the limits of audibility.

"I guess that's it," she said. "I wonder how much use these drills will be if we're ever raided for real?"

"Not much," he replied. "They're mostly to get people in the proper mood. If you are rousted out of bed in the middle of the night to seek shelter, you're more likely to put up with the extra inconveniences a war economy requires."

"I always suspected as much. Not to change the subject, but are you hungry?"

"Famished," he replied

"Then opaque the window and turn on some lights. I'll make us a snack. We can eat out on the balcony and watch the nova set."

"If that is your wish, my love."

"It is. Hurry, it will be down in an hour."

Drake rolled over and reset the window control, followed by the overhead lights. They dressed quickly. Bethany busied herself in the kitchen while he set the table on her balcony. Fifteen minutes later, they were enjoying a late supper of roast beef, cril greens, and coffee. The coffee was nothing like the bitter Earth original, but rather an Altan product that the founders of the colony had decided was the closest local substitute. As they ate, they watched Antares sink toward the western horizon.

They watched in silence for long minutes before Drake turned to Bethany and asked, "Will you marry me?"

"It seems to me that I've answered that question more than once," she replied.

"No," he persisted. "I don't mean marry me someday. I mean marry me now, this very minute! We'll call up city hall and register our vows, then roust the nearest city magistrate out of bed."

"We shouldn't have to roust anyone out. It's only 20:30 hours."

"Even better. We'll have the whole thing over in an hour."

Bethany caressed his cheek with her hand. "I'll do it if you insist, Richard, but I would rather wait. I've had a lot of time to think about it these last six months, and I've decided I want a big church wedding."

He shrugged. "Fine. I'll see if I can't reserve a church for next weekend. Surely the boss will give me the time off if I tell him why I want it. You can invite your uncle and friends, and I'll invite everyone at the Admiralty who has ever spoken to me. We'll even throw in fifty or so strangers to fill out the crowd. I guarantee a minimum attendance of two hundred!"

She laughed. "You don't understand, Richard. I don't want a big wedding in a church. I want a wedding in a big church!"

"You're right, I don't understand you."

"It's simple really, darling. I've decided that I want to be married in Notre Dame Cathedral. You know, the one in Paris, France."

"You want to be married on Earth?"

She nodded. "I thought it would be a nice touch."

"I'm not sure Notre Dame exists any longer."

She shrugged. "Then Westminster Abbey, or St. Peter's Basilica will do just as well. Or even the Little Chapel by the Road. Just as long as we're married on Earth."

"Has it occurred to you that we may never find Earth again?"

"I have confidence, Richard. We'll find it because we must." Bethany got up and stretched. "Now then, if you are through eating, sir, I think it's time we went back to bed."

"What about the nova? There are still fifteen minutes before it sets."

"We can see Antares anytime, and it isn't every night a woman receives a proposal of marriage."

"Or avoids it so skillfully," he said, glancing one last time at the setting star. When he turned his attention back to the table, he discovered that he was speaking to an empty balcony. Lifting a napkin from his lap, he dropped it on the table, stood, and followed her inside.

Copyright © 1987, 1998 by Michael McCollum

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