SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Starplex > Opening Chapters
Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Paperback: Berkley/Ace, October 1996, ISBN 0-441-00372-9
Reprint Trade Paperback: Red Deer Press, March 2010, ISBN 978-0-88995-444-1
Chinese edition: Science Fiction World
Japanese edition: Hayakawa Publishing Company
Spanish edition: Libros del Atril
Hugo Award Finalist!
Nebula Award Finalist!
Serialized in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in four parts from
the July 1996 through October 1996 issues.
Science Fiction Book Club selection number 14361 (December 1996).
Even though the arc of the moral universe is
long, it bends toward justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
There would be hell to pay.
The gravity had already been bled off, and Keith Lansing was now
floating in zero-g. Normally he found that experience calming,
but not today. Today, he exhaled wearily and shook his head.
The damage to Starplex would cost billions to repair. And
how many Commonwealth citizens were dead? Well, that would come
out in the eventual inquest something he wasn't looking
forward to one bit.
All the amazing things they had discovered, including first
contact with the darmats, could still end up being overshadowed
by politics or even interstellar war.
Keith touched the green GO button on the console in front of him.
There was a banging sound, conducted through the glassteel of the
hull, as his travel pod disengaged from the access ring on the
rear wall of the docking bay. The entire run was preprogrammed
into the pod's computer: exiting Starplex's docks, flying
over to the shortcut, entering it, exiting at the periphery of
the Tau Ceti system, and moving into one of the docking bays on
Grand Central, the United Nations space station that controlled
traffic through the shortcut closest to Earth.
And, because it was all preprogrammed, Keith had nothing to do
during the journey but reflect on everything that had happened.
He didn't appreciate it at the time, but that, in itself, was a
miracle. Traveling halfway across the galaxy in the blink of an
eye had become routine. It was a far cry from the excitement of
eighteen years ago, when Keith had been on hand for the discovery
of the shortcut network a vast array of apparently artificial
gateways that permeated the galaxy, allowing instantaneous
point-to-point transfer. Back then, Keith had called the whole
thing magic. After all, it had taken all of Earth's resources
twenty years earlier to establish the New Beijing colony on Tau
Ceti IV, just 11.8 light-years from Sol, and New New York on
Epsilon Indi III, only 11.2 light-years away. But now humans
routinely popped from one side of the galaxy to the other.
And not just humans. Although the shortcut builders had never
been found, there were other forms of intelligent life in
the Milky Way, including the Waldahudin and the Ibs, who,
together with Earth's humans and dolphins, had established the
Commonwealth of Planets eleven years ago.
Keith's pod reached the edge of docking bay twelve and moved out
into space. The pod was a transparent bubble, designed to keep
one person alive for a couple of hours. Around its equator was a
thick white band containing life-support equipment and
maneuvering thrusters. Keith turned and looked back at the
mothership he was leaving behind.
The docking bay was on the rim of Starplex's great central
disk. As the pod pulled farther away, Keith could see the
interlocking triangular habitat modules, four on top and four
more on the bottom.
Christ, thought Keith as he looked at his ship. Jesus
The windows in the four lower habitat modules were all dark. The
central disk was crisscrossed with hairline laser scorches. As
his pod moved downward, he saw stars through the gaping circular
hole in the disk where a cylinder ten decks thick had been carved
out of it
Hell to pay, thought Keith again. Bloody hell to pay.
He turned around and looked forward, out the curving bubble.
He'd long ago given up scanning the heavens for any sign of a
shortcut. They were invisible, infinitesimal points until
something touched them, as he glanced at his console his
pod was going to do in forty seconds. Then they swelled up to
swallow whatever was coming through.
He'd be on Grand Central for perhaps eight hours, long enough to
be report to Premier Petra Kenyatta about the attack on Starplex.
Then he'd pop back here. Hopefully by that time, Jag and Longbottle
would have news about the other big problem they were facing.
The pod's maneuvering thrusters fired in a complex pattern. To
exit the network back at Tau Ceti, he'd have to enter the local
shortcut from above and behind. The stars moved as the pod
modified its course to the proper angle, and then
and then it touched the point. Through the transparent hull,
Keith saw the fiery purple discontinuity between the two sectors
of space pass over the pod, mismatched starfields fore and aft.
To the rear, the eerie green light of the region he was leaving,
and up ahead, pink nebulosity
Nebulosity? That can't be right. Not at Tau Ceti.
But as the pod completed its passage, there could be no doubt:
he'd come out at the wrong place. A beautiful rose-colored
nebula, like a splayed six-fingered hand, covered four degrees of
sky. Keith wheeled around, looking out in all directions. He
knew well the constellations visible from Tau Ceti slightly
skewed versions of the same ones seen from Earth, including
Boötes, which contained bright Arcturus and Sol itself. But
these were unfamiliar stars.
Keith felt adrenaline pumping. New sectors of space were being
opened at a great rate, as new exits became valid choices on the
shortcut network. Clearly, this was a shortcut that had only
just come on-line, making more narrow the acceptable angles of
approach to reach Tau Ceti.
No need to panic, thought Keith. He could get to his intended
destination easily enough. He'd just have to re-enter the
shortcut on a slightly different path, making sure he didn't vary
at all from the mathematical center of the cone of acceptable
angles for Grand Central Station.
Still another new sector! That made five in the last year.
God, he thought, it was too bad they'd had to cannibalize half
of Starplex's planned sister ship for parts; they could use
another exploration mothership immediately if things kept on like
Keith checked his flight recorder, making sure he'd be able to
return to this place. The instruments seemed to be operating
perfectly. His first instinct was to explore, discovering
whatever this new sector had to offer, but a travel pod was
designed only for quick journeys through shortcuts. Besides,
Keith had a meeting to get to and he glanced at his watch
implant only forty-five minutes before it would begin. He
looked down at his control panel and keyed in instructions for
another pass through the shortcut network. He then checked the
settings that had brought him here and frowned. Why, he had
come through at precisely the right angle for Tau Ceti.
He'd never heard of a shortcut transfer going wrong before,
but . . .
When he looked up, the starship was there.
It was shaped like a dragon, with a long, serpentine central hull
and vast swept-back extensions that looked like wings. The
entire thing consisted of curves and smooth edges, and there was
no detailing on its robin's-egg-blue surface, no sign of seams or
windows or vents, no obvious engines. The whole thing must have
been glowing, since there were no stars nearby to illuminate it,
and no shadows fell across any part of its surface. Keith had
thought Starplex beautiful before its recent battle scars,
but it had still always seemed manufactured and functional. This
alien ship, though, was art.
The dragon ship was moving directly toward Keith's pod. The
readout on his console said it was almost a kilometer long.
Keith grabbed the pod's joystick, wanting to get out of the
approaching ship's path, but suddenly the dragon came to a dead
stop relative to the pod, fifty meters ahead.
Keith's heart was pounding. Whenever a new shortcut came
on-line, Starplex's first job was to look for any signs of
whatever intelligence had activated the shortcut by passing
through it for the first time. But here, in a one-person travel
pod, he lacked the signaling equipment and computing power needed
to even attempt communications.
Besides, there had been no sign of the ship when he'd surveyed
the sky moments ago. Any vessel that could move that quickly
then stop dead in space had to be the product of very advanced
technology. Keith was in over his head. He needed if not all
of Starplex, at least one of the diplomatic craft it
carried in its docking bays. He tapped the key that should have
started his pod back toward the shortcut.
But nothing happened. No that wasn't quite right. Craning
his neck, Keith could see his pod's maneuvering thrusters firing
on the outside of the ring around the habitat bubble. And yet
the pod wasn't moving at all; the background stars were rock
steady. Something had to be holding him in place, but if it was
a tractor beam, it was the gentlest one he'd ever encountered. A
travel pod was fragile; a conventional tractor would have made
its glassteel hull groan at the seams.
Keith looked again at the beautiful ship, and as he watched a
a docking bay, it must have been appeared in its side, beneath
one of the curving wings. There had been no sign of a space door
moving away to reveal it. The opening simply wasn't there one
instant, and the next instant, it was a cube-shaped hollow in
the belly of the dragon. Keith found his pod moving now in the
opposite direction he was telling it to go, moving toward the
Despite himself, he was starting to panic. He was all in favor
of first contact, but preferred it on more equal terms. Besides,
he had a wife to get back to, a son away at university, a life he
very much wanted to continue living.
The pod floated into the bay, and Keith saw a wall wink into
existence behind him, closing the cube off from space. The
interior was lit from all six sides. The pod was presumably
still being held by the tractor beam no one would pull an
object inside just to let it crash into the far wall under its
own inertia. But nowhere could Keith see a beam emitter.
As the pod continued its journey, Keith tried to think
rationally. He had entered the shortcut at the right angle
to come out at Tau Ceti; no mistake had been made. And yet,
somehow, he had been been diverted here . . .
Which meant that whoever controlled this interstellar dragon knew
more about the shortcuts than the Commonwealth races did.
And then it hit him.
The horrible realization.
Time to pay the toll.
It had been like a gift from the gods: the discovery that the
Milky Way galaxy was permeated by a vast network of artificial
shortcuts that allowed for instantaneous journeys between star
systems. No one knew who had built the shortcuts, or what their
exact purpose was. Whatever hugely advanced race created them
had left no other trace of its existence.
Scans made by hyperspace telescopes suggested that there were
four billion separate shortcut exits in our galaxy, or
roughly one for every hundred stars. The shortcuts were easy to
spot in hyperspace: each one was surrounded by a distinctive
sphere of orbiting tachyons. But of all those shortcuts, only
two dozen appeared to be active. The others clearly existed, but
there seemed to be no way to move to them.
The closest shortcut to Earth was in the Oort cloud of Tau Ceti.
Through it, ships could jump seventy thousand light-years to
Rehbollo, the Waldahud homeworld. Or they could jump fifty-three
thousand light-years to Flatland, home of the bizarre Ib race.
But the shortcut exit that existed near Polaris, for instance,
just eight hundred light-years away, was inaccessible. It, like
almost all the others, was dormant.
A particular shortcut would not work as an exit for ships
arriving from other shortcuts until it had first been used
locally as an entrance. Thus, the Tau Ceti shortcut had
not been a valid exit choice for other races until the UN sent a
probe through it, eighteen years ago, back in 2076. Three weeks
later, a Waldahud starship popped out of that same shortcut
and suddenly humans and dolphins were not alone.
Many speculated that this was how the shortcut network had been
designed to work: sectors of the galaxy were quarantined until
at least one race within them had reached technological maturity.
Given how few shortcuts were active, some argued that Earth's two
sentient species, Homo sapiens and Tursiops
truncatus, were therefore among the first races in the galaxy
to reach that level.
The next year, ships from the Ib homeworld popped through at Tau
Ceti and near Rehbollo and soon the four races agreed to an
experimental alliance, dubbed the Commonwealth of Planets.
In order to expand the usable shortcut network, seventeen years
ago each homeworld launched thirty boomerangs. Each of
these probes flew at their maximum hyperdrive velocity
twenty-two times the speed of light toward dormant shortcuts
that had been detected by their tachyon coronas. Upon arrival,
each boomerang would dive through and return home, thus
activating the shortcut as a valid exit.
So far, boomerangs had reached twenty-one additional shortcuts
within a radius of 375 light-years from one or another of the
three homeworlds. Originally, these sectors were explored by
small ships. But the Commonwealth had realized a more
comprehensive solution was needed: a giant mothership from which
exploration surveys could be launched, a ship that could serve
not only as a research base during the crucial initial
exploration of a new sector, but also could function as embassy
for the Commonwealth, if need be. A vast starship capable of not
just astronomical research, but of undertaking first-contact
missions as well.
And so, a year ago, in 2093, Starplex was launched. Funded
by all three homeworlds and constructed at the Rehbollo orbital
shipyards, it was the largest vessel ever built by any of the
Commonwealth races: 290 meters at its widest point, seventy
decks thick, a total enclosed volume of 3.1 million cubic meters,
outfitted with a crew of a thousand beings and fifty-four small
auxiliary ships of various designs.
Starplex was currently 368 light-years due galactic south
of Flatland, exploring the vicinity of a recently activated
shortcut. The closest star was an F-class subgiant a
quarter-light-year away. It was surrounded by four asteroid
belts, but no planets. An uneventful mission so far nothing
remarkable astronomically, and no alien radio signals detected.
Starplex's staff was busy winding down its explorations.
In seven days, another boomerang was due to reach its designated
shortcut target, this one 376 light-years away from Rehbollo.
Starplex's next scheduled assignment was to investigate
Everything seemed so peaceful, until
"Lansing, you will hear me out."
Keith Lansing stopped walking down the cold corridor, sighed, and
rubbed his temples. Jag's untranslated voice sounded like a dog
barking, with occasional hisses and snarls thrown in for good
measure. His translated voice rendered in an old-fashioned
Brooklyn accent wasn't much better: harsh, sharp, nasty.
"What is it, Jag?"
"The apportioning of resources aboard Starplex," barked the
being, "is all wrong and you are to blame for that. Before we
move to the next shortcut, I demand you rectify this. You
consistently shortchange the physics division and give
preferential treatment to life sciences."
Jag was a Waldahud, a shaggy piglike creature with six limbs.
After the last ice age ended on Rehbollo, the polar caps had
melted, flooding much of the land and crisscrossing what remained
with rivers. The Waldahudin's ancestors adapted to a semiaquatic
lifestyle, their bodies becoming well insulated with fat overlain
by brown fur to keep out the chill of the river waters they lived
in. Keith took a deep breath and looked at Jag. He's an
alien, remember. Different ways, different manners. He tried
to keep his tone even. "I don't think that's quite fair."
More dog barks. "You give special treatment to life sciences
because your spouse heads that division."
Keith forced a small laugh, although his heart was pounding with
repressed anger. "Rissa sometimes says the opposite that I
don't give her enough resources, that I'm bending over backward
to appease you."
"She manipulates you, Lansing. She what is the human
metaphor? She has you wrapped around her little finger."
Keith thought about showing Jag a different finger. They're all
like this, he thought. An entire planet of quarrelsome,
bickering, argumentative pigs. He tried not to sound weary.
"What exactly is it that you want, Jag?"
The Waldahud raised his upper left hand, and ticked off stubby,
hairy fingers with his upper right. "Two more probeships
assigned exclusively to physical-sciences missions. An
additional Central Computer bank dedicated to astrophysics.
Twenty more staff members."
"The staff additions are impossible," said Keith. "We don't have
apartments to house them. I'll see what I can do about your
other requests, though." He paused for a second, and then: "But
in future, Jag, I think you'll find that I'm easier to convince
when you don't bring my private life into the discussion."
Jag barked harshly. "I knew it!" said the translated voice.
"You make your decisions based on personal feelings, not on the
merit of the argument. You are truly unfit to hold the post of
Keith felt his anger about to boil over. He tried to calm
himself, and closed his eyes, hoping to summon a tranquil image.
He expected to see his wife's face, but the picture that came to
him was of an Asian beauty two decades younger than Rissa and
that just made Keith madder at himself. He opened his eyes.
"Look," he said, a quaver in his voice, "I don't give a damn
whether you approve of the choice of me as Starplex
director or not. The fact is that I am director, and will
be for another three years. Even if you could somehow get me
replaced before my term is over, the agreed-to rotation calls for
a human to hold this post at this time. If you get rid of me
or if I quit because I'm fed the hell up with you you're still
going to be reporting to a human. And some of us don't like you"
he stopped himself before he said "you pigs" "at all."
"Your posturing does you no credit, Lansing. The resources I am
demanding are for the good of our mission."
Keith sighed again. He was getting too old for this. "I'm not
going to argue anymore, Jag. You've made your request; I'll give
it all the consideration it is due."
The Waldahud's four square nostrils flared. "I am amazed," said
Jag, "that Queen Trath ever thought we could work with humans."
He rotated on his black hooves, and headed down the corridor
without another word. Keith stood there for two minutes, doing
calming breathing exercises, then headed along the chilly
corridor toward the elevator station.
Keith Lansing and his wife, Rissa Cervantes, shared a standard
human apartment aboard Starplex: L-shaped living room, a
bedroom, a small office with two desks, one bathroom with human
fixtures, and a second with multispecies fixtures. There was no
kitchen, but Keith, who liked to cook, had rigged up a small oven
so that he could indulge his hobby.
The main door to the apartment slid open, and Keith stormed in.
Rissa must have arrived a few minutes earlier; she came out of
the bedroom naked, obviously preparing for her midday shower.
"Hi, Chesterton," she said, smiling. But the smile faded away,
and Keith imagined that she could see the tension in his face,
his forehead creased, his mouth downturned. "What's wrong?"
Keith flopped himself onto the couch. From this angle, he was
facing the dartboard Rissa had mounted on one wall. The three
darts were clustered in the tiny sixty-point part of the
triple-scoring band Rissa was shipboard champion. "Another
run-in with Jag," said Keith.
Rissa nodded. "It's his way," she said. "It's their way."
"I know. I know. But, Christ, it's hard to take sometimes."
They had a large real window on one wall, showing the starfield
outside the ship, dominated by the bright F-class star nearby.
Two other walls were capable of displaying holograms. Keith was
from Calgary, Alberta; Rissa had been born in Spain. One wall
showed glacier-fed Lake Louise, with the glorious Canadian
Rockies rising up behind it; the other a long view of downtown
Madrid, with its appealing mixture of sixteenth- and
"I thought you'd show up here around now," said Rissa. "I was
waiting to shower with you." Keith was pleasantly surprised.
They'd showered together a lot when they'd first gotten married,
almost twenty years ago, but had gotten out of the habit as the
years wore on. The necessity of showering twice a day to
minimize the human body odor Waldahudin found so offensive had
turned the cleansing ritual into an irritating bore, but maybe
their impending anniversary had Rissa feeling more romantic than
Keith smiled at her and began to undress. Rissa headed into the
main bathroom and began running the water. Starplex was
such a contrast to the ships of Keith's youth, like the Lester
B. Pearson he'd traveled on back when first contact with the
Waldahudin had been made. In those days, he'd had to be content
with sonic showers. There was something to be said for carrying
a miniature ocean around as part of your ship.
He followed her into the bathroom. She was already in the
shower, soaking down her long, black hair. Once she'd moved out
from under the shower head, Keith jockeyed into position,
enjoying the sensation of her wet body sliding past his. He'd
lost half his hair over the years, and what was left he kept
short. Still, he massaged his scalp vigorously, trying to work
out his anger with Jag in doing so.
He scrubbed Rissa's back for her, and she scrubbed his in turn.
They rinsed, then he turned off the water. If he hadn't been so
angry, perhaps they'd have made love, but . . .
Dammit. He began to towel off.
"I hate this," Keith said.
Rissa nodded. "I know."
"It's not that I hate Jag not really. I hate . . . hate myself.
Hate feeling like a bigot." He ran the towel up and down his
back. "I mean, I know the Waldahudin have different ways. I
know that, and I try to accept it. But Christ, I hate
myself for even thinking this they're all the same.
Obnoxious, argumentative, pushy. I've never met one who wasn't."
He sprayed deodorant under each arm. "The whole idea of thinking
I know all about somebody just because I know what race they
belong to is abhorrent it's everything I was brought up to
fight against. And now I find myself doing it day in and day
out." He sighed. "Waldahud. Pig. The terms are
interchangeable in my mind."
Rissa had finished drying herself. She pulled on a beige
long-sleeve shirt and fresh panties. "They think the same way
about us, you know. All humans are weak, indecisive. They don't
have any korbaydin."
Keith managed a small laugh at the use of the Waldahudar word.
"I do too," he said pointing down. "Of course, I only have two
instead of four, but they do the job." He got a fresh pair of
boxer shorts and a pair of brown denim pants out of the closet,
and put them on. The pants constricted to fit around his waist.
"Still," he said, "the fact that they also generalize doesn't
make it any better." He sighed. "It wasn't like this with the
"Dolphins are different," said Rissa, pulling on a pair of red
pants. "In fact, maybe that's the key. They're so different
from us that we can bask in those differences. The biggest
problem with the Waldahudin is that we have too much in common
She moved over to her dresser. She didn't put on any make-up;
the natural look was the current style for both men and women.
But she did insert two diamond earrings, each the size of a small
grape. Cheap diamond imports from Rehbollo had destroyed any
remaining value natural gemstones had, but their innate beauty
Keith had finished dressing, too. He'd put on a synthetic shirt
with a dark brown herringbone pattern, and a beige cardigan
sweater. Thankfully, as humanity moved out into the universe,
one of the first bits of needless mass to be ejected had been the
jacket and tie for men; even formal wear did not demand them
anymore. With the advent of the four-day, and then the
three-day, workweek on Earth, the distinction between office
clothes and leisure clothes had disappeared.
He looked over at Rissa. She was beautiful at
forty-four, she was still beautiful. Maybe they should
make love. So what if they just got dressed? Besides, these
crazy thoughts about
Bleep. "Karendaughter to Lansing."
Speak of the devil. Keith lifted his head, spoke into the air.
Lianne Karendaughter's rich voice came out of the wall speaker.
"Keith fantastic news! A watson just came through from CHAT
with word that a new shortcut has come on-line!"
Keith raised his eyebrows. "Did the boomerang reach Rehbollo
376A ahead of schedule?" That sometimes happened; judging
interstellar distances was a tricky game.
"No. This is a different shortcut, and it came on-line
because something or, if we're lucky, someone moved
through it locally."
"Has anything unexpected come through any of the homeworld
"Not yet," said Lianne, her voice still bubbling with excitement.
"We only discovered this one was now on-line because a cargo
module accidentally got misdirected to it."
Keith was on his feet at once. "Recall all probeships," he said.
"Summon Jag to the bridge, and alert all stations for a possible
first-contact situation." He hurried out the apartment door,
Rissa right behind him.
More Good Reading
An excerpt from Starplex by Robert J.
Sawyer. Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights
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