Harry Turtledove - Herbig-Haro
ERIC G. IVERSON
Like all the ships Loki flew. Erasmus Chang's scout Praise of Folly was too old. She went into or out of hyperdrive with a jolt that twisted a man's guts, her air recycler wheezed, and she had a 5% waver in her pseudogravity, so Chang's weight went through a seven-kilo cycle every twenty minutes. The computer was old, too. In a way, that was an advantage: the navigation data programmed in were Terran Confederacy, the most far-reaching set even if it was six hundred years out of date. But after enough time, memory dumps or no. a computer will develop a personality of its own—the current flows get set. Chang did not trust his machine very far. It was as cynically underhanded as he was.
"Well, hero, they're still gaining," it said with what he thought was misplaced amusement.
"I can see that for myself, thanks," he growled. He paced up and down the cabin, a lean, trim man a bit below middle height whose wide, high-cheek-boned face was framed by a thin fringe of black beard. Pace as he would, though, his eyes kept coming back to the hyperdrive detector. There was little enough else to see; with the drive on, none of the normal-space instruments worked. The four glowing points in the detector display were Zanat warships. One he might have challenged. Taking on four was sure suicide, and he could not afford it. Loki and all the worlds in human space needed to know about the Zanat.
Unfortunately, they would overtake him long before he could deliver the news—long before he gut out of the Orion Nebula, for that matter.
He punched for a sandwich, ate it. When he looked at the FTL display again, the four warships had slid a little closer.
"I wish I'd chosen a different bar," he said.
"You aren't the only one," the computer told him.
As soon as the shavetail lieutenant had stepped into the London Pub. Chang knew his leave was doomed. The youngster was in uniform, which meant he was on duty. and Cluing was the only Service man in the dive. Just my luck. he thought sourly: run a successful mission and not get the chance to celebrate.
The load of books, cassettes, and floppies he'd snaked out of the cathedral on Cienfuegos deserved celebrating, too. Old floppies especially were more precious than gold. Even the Cienfuegans remembered that much; they'd mounted the discs above the altar, by the statues of their gods. The scout pilot was still fuming when the lieutenant brought him back to Salvage Service Central. B'kila thought it was very funny. "Where did he find you? The London Pub or Nadia's?"
"The London Pub," Clang sighed. That his habits were known did not surprise him; he would have been surprised had it been otherwise.
B'kila looked him over, cocked a critical eyebrow. "That's not much of a beard, either." The scout pilot put a defensive hand to his chin. He had grown the whiskers on Cienfuegos, to make himself less conspicuous there, and was proud of them. In spite of his name, he had enough caucasoid genes to let him raise a fair crop. "The day you start telling me how to wear my hair, you old harridan, is the day I get out of the Service."
B'kila laughed out loud, a bad sign; things that amused her generally meant trouble for other people, She was a plump black woman with straight, graying hair, the head of what was euphemistically known as the Loki Salvage Service. Loki's few friends called the Service a band of scavengers. Everyone else started with names like pirates, thieves, spies, and went downhill from there. Having wasted enough time on pointless chatter, B'kila waved Clang to a chair by the big holo tank that took up most of one wall. He sat with the same feeling he had whenever he was in her office—that of being in the center of a spiderweb. watching the spider at work. Being on the same side helped only a little.
"What's gone wrong?" he asked bluntly, sure she would not have recalled him without pressing reason. Operatives got their chance to roister between missions.
She punched a button on her desk. The holo tank sprang to life with a view of that small chunk of the galaxy humans had touched. Stars with planets that were thought from any source, however ancient, to have been settled by men were shown in blue; those about which Loki actually knew something flashed on and off. Red marked the suns of nonhuman species that used the hyperdrive, yellow those of planetbound races. Most others were omitted; the white points here and there were stars with absolute magnitudes bright enough to make them useful nav checks over many light years. She moved a veneer, touched another control. One of the winking blue points flared brighter for a moment. "Cienfuegos," she said unnecessarily. "I've listened to your report. A good run."
"Thanks," He waited. The compliment was another danger signal. Anything she had to get around to by easy stages was bound to be dicey—not for her of course. For him.
His suspicion was confirmed when four brilliant orange points sprang to life beyond the glowing mist of the Orion Nebula, which dimmed to show their location more clearly. She said, "As well as I can judge. those spots mark where we've lost ships in the past two years."
"That's impossible," Cluing blurted. "There are no human worlds out there." Loki itself was two hundred light-years Terraward from the Nebula, and hardly any blue points lay between it and the great cloud of gas.
"Impossible is not a word used to describe what's already happened." B'kila said in mild reproof, as though to a student who should do better.
"But—" Chang's protest died Unspoken. B'kila knew the obvious as well as he. Starships in hyperdrive flew blind, of course; there was always the chance of returning to normal space coincident with solid matter. It was a very long one, though. Aliens might have worked up a trick good enough to snare one ship. he thought. but hardly four, not with the technological lead humans had—and especially humans from a planet like Loki. which still kept most of the skills of the dead Confederacy. That left . . . nothing he could see.
B'kila spoke with seeming irrelevance: "Do you know 'The Road Not Taken.' a poem by a Middle English writer named Frost?"
"Never heard of it."
"You might look up a modern translation when you leave. This Frost person could have been looking a hundred years into his own future."
The galactic map disappeared from the holo tank. A scratchy flat image replaced it: a crowded city scene, with swarms of humans in strange clothes, both civilian and military, milling about at a cautious distance from a starship of a make Chang did not recognize: a pretty crude one, he thought.
"This is Tokyo—the first Roxolani landing on Terra; it might just as well be Cairo, New York. Moscow, Shanghai, or twenty others. A.D. 2039," B'kila said softly. Seeing that the archaic date meant nothing to Cluing, she added, "45 pre-Confederacy."
He whistled. No wonder the video was scratchy—it was over twelve hundred years old. He wondered how many times it had been rerecorded.
In the picture, the ship's ramp was lowering. "You can imagine the Terrans' anxiety," B'kila said dryly. "˜They'd been radioing the Roxolani since the fleet came out of hyperdrive in the solar system." Chang nodded. Naturally, they had gotten no reply.
Out came the Roxolani. a platoon of stout, furry humanoids in high-crowned helmets and steel corselets. They moved with the precision of veteran troops, shaking themselves into a skirmish line. At a shouted command from an officer wearing scarlet ribbons on his arm and fancy plumes, they raised their weapons to their shoulders and fired into the Terrans.
Chang heard the ancient screams. Undoubtedly the man holding the video set ducked for his life, for the picture jerked and twisted, but the scout pilot saw the clouds of black-powder smoke float into the sky.
The Terran soldiers around the starship returned fire automatically opening up with small arms, rocket and grenade launchers, and recoilless shells from the armored fighting vehicle that had somehow squeezed into position close by.
When the video straightened, the starship was holed and all but two of the aliens down. The survivors gaped at their fallen comrades. Neither had made the slightest move to reload his musket. Reading nonhumans' body language was always tricky, but Chang knew stunned horror when he saw it.
"'The Road Not Taken,'" B'kila murmured. "Back then, on Terra, they knew FTL travel was impossible forever. It was a rude shock when they found that a couple of simple experiments could have given them the key to contragrav and the hyperdrive three, four, even five centuries earlier."
"How did they miss them?" Chant asked.
"No idea—in hindsight they're obvious enough. What's that race that flew bronze ships because they couldn't smelt iron? And every species we know that reached what the old Terrans would have called a seventeenth-century technological level did what was needed—except us.
"But trying to explain contragrav and the hyperdrive skews an unsophisticated, developing physics out of shape. With attention focused on them, too, work on other things, like electricity and atomics, never gets started. And those have much broader applications—the others are only really good for moving things from here to there in a hurry."
With a chuckle. Chang said, "We must have seemed like angry gods when we finally got the hyperdrive and burst off Terra. Radar, radio, computers, fission and fusion—no wonder we spent the next two hundred years conquering."
"No wonder at all," B'kila agreed soberly. "But the Confederacy grew too fast and got too big to administer, even with all the technology we had. And unity didn't last forever. None of our neighbors could hurt us, but we did a fine job on ourselves. Someone back then wrote that it was only sporting for humans to fight humans; no one else gave any competition."
"And so, the Collapse," Chang said.
"And here we are, on Loki and a few ether worlds, picking over the pieces, a scrap from here, fragment from there, and one day we'll have the puzzle together again—or maybe a new shape, better than the one before . . . if we get the time. But those four missing ships frighten me." That was a word Chang had never heard her use before. "I still don't see how they disappeared. There's no one out there."
"No one we know of," B'kila corrected. "But I keep thinking that a road traveled once might be traveled twice."
As he took her meaning, Chang felt the little hairs at the nape of his neck trying to stand up. She finished low and fierce. "Find out what happened. And come back."
"Any other little favors you'd like?" Praise of Folly's computer had demanded when Chang described the mission. "Shall I write the suicide note, too? I won't go. I tell you—I'd end up in the scrapper there just as much as you."
"Shall I shift into override mode?" Chang snapped, in no mood for backtalk,
"No, don't," the computer said with poor grace. "It always leaves me slow and stupid for a couple of days afterwards."
Surly was a better word, the scout pilot thought, but held his peace. The takeoff was as smooth as takeoffs under contragrav always were, the shift into hyperdrive as brutal as the others Praise of Folly had been making lately. Chang staggered into the head and threw up. When he came out, he asked plaintively; "Isn't there any way to smooth that out?"