Today's Reading

The Artilect added, SO THE OBJECT'S RADIUS IS CENTIMETERS ... CANNOT SEE.

"Pretty damn dangerous neighborhood," Beth said. "If those fast dots are black holes and the masses are right—hell, they're less than a centimeter across? We're looking at the plasma around them." Beth's mouth twisted into her patented wry slant again. "No wonder the Glorians keep it out here, a thousand AUs from their world."

Cliff chuckled. "Recall the banner at our sendoff party? The Star-Craving Mad Farewell. Well, we'd sure as hell be crazy to get close to that."

Redwing couldn't let that go by. With only three of them resurrected so far, and revival going no faster than one a day, he needed coherence in their effort. "It's part of my orders. We're to study the grav wave emitter, and there it is. Not that the physicists had any idea of what was going on here—plus study the biosphere of Glory, first priority."

Cliff didn't like conflict, so Redwing watched him flip through some images, then—"I went to a broader view and found a good clue. Look—"

A composite image of the whole Excelsius system rippled in the air.

Cliff pointed at the apex of a parabolic arc. "That's the star's bow shock. The Excelsius solar wind meets the interstellar plasma there."

They all knew what this meant. SunSeeker was deliberately using the bow shock paraboloid to augment its magnetic braking. Plasma built up all along that pressure wall. The ship had been taking advantage of it for weeks as it approached the star, flying along its long curve.

"They've put their grav wave emitter at the highest plasma density in the outer system," Beth said. "Why?"

"That's for us to find out," Redwing said.

Cliff said slowly, eyes veiled, "Those Earthside orders—you'll follow them?"

He and Beth were married but they didn't necessarily agree on tech issues or policy, Redwing knew. He raised his eyebrows at Beth, hoping for support, but she said, "Earth is so far away—hell, decades at lightspeed—we 'can't' be guided by their mandates."

Redwing had never subscribed to the communal view of crew governance. A generation before, one starship bound for Tau Ceti had followed a shared-governance system and broken down into fighting factions, dooming the mission. Nasty, and Earthside heard no more of them.

He stood, a clear signal in a small room. "We can't remotely understand this system without knowing about this grav wave emitter." He used his stern gravel voice. "It's sending messages! We can't read 'em on board, but I'll bet there's a way to pick them out. Maybe in that plasma cloud. They must need it, but why? I don't want to approach the inner worlds without understanding how some aliens built this thing. And maybe even why."

"But we're in the long fall to Glory," Cliff said mildly. "The braking is fine. Any change of vector will be tricky—and that plasma plume is many astronomical units away."

Redwing nodded. Decelerating a starship was risky without heating the ship so much its systems malfunctioned. SunSeeker's support structure was made of nuclear tensile strength materials, able to take the stresses of the ramjet scoop at the ship core. But even that could not overrule thermodynamics. Heat had to go somewhere. The big magnetic fields at SunSeeker's braking bow drove shock waves into the hydrogen ahead, ionizing it to prickly energies, then scooping it up and mixing it with fusion catalysis, burning as hot as suns—to power the vast fields serving as an invisible parachute in the star's solar wind.

Yet he had to respond to this latest oddity, too. There must be a lesson here: All plans die upon first contact with the alien. That's what this strange expedition, crossing light-years and centuries, could do: embrace ultimate strangeness. He had long before learned that what his imagination could not summon, reality delivered with a shrug.

The couple glanced at each other, silent, then back at Redwing.

"My orders stand," Redwing said, closing the subject.


This excerpt ends on page 24 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, January 25th, we begin the book The Alpha Enigma by W. Michael Gear.
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