Colonel Beech stepped out of his private office and walked down the short hallway that led to the nerve center of the Planetary Deflector Station. As he entered the long, quietly humming room, he glanced at the large main viewscreen on the back wall, checking the time. 0500. One hour left to the end of this team’s shift. He glanced around, his eyes automatically checking each duty station, reassuring himself that all was well.
It was not as if he had many worries. He had done his tours of the Lemurian planets, and after twenty-seven years of field duty, was pleased to find this sinecure back on his home planet. It gave him the opportunity to work with young officers in a stress-free situation, something he enjoyed immensely. His team of five men and three women included two Mars Marines doing their first duty out of the Academy.
His unit monitored the asteroids and comets in the solar system. In truth, the deflector’s computers monitored the hundreds of sensors in Dragonian space. Beech’s team was more of a support group. They had protocols for the unlikely event of complete computer failure that would force them to operate the deflector manually, but with redundant systems, the odds of that happening were astronomical.
The Officer of the Day strode up to him.
“Morning, Lieutenant Sintas. Anything interesting?”
“No, sir.” The OOD smiled. “Unless you consider a flutter on one of our short-range monitors interesting.”
“A flutter? How short range?”
“Why don’t I let Ensign McKinna tell you about it, sir? She’s sure she’s on to something.”
They chuckled together softly. McKinna was one of their Mars Marines, just three months at her current position. She was very good, but liked to investigate every anomaly the sensors picked up, even when the contact was so intermittent as to certainly be harmless background noise.
“At least she still finds the job exciting,” Beech said as the two of them turned and headed toward McKinna’s station. “Give it a few more months. She’ll be as bored as the rest of us.”
“I wouldn’t count on that, sir.”
“No, I suppose not.”
As they approached McKinna’s workstation, the ensign turned her chair toward them and stood. Beech noticed her alert, focused expression, and sighed. Youth. He waved her down.
“Very well, Mr. McKinna, be seated and show us what you’ve got.”
“Yes, sir.” McKinna slid back into her seat. Beech and Sintas stood on either side of her chair, leaning toward her console.
“I was monitoring a standard sensor sweep near Glamora, and I saw this, sir.” She tapped a few keys and her monitor displayed the sensor data graphically. Beech studied it.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Right here, sir,” McKinna said, pointing to a small spike on one wavelength.
“That could be anything,” Beech said. “Maybe one of the Glamoran moons had a seismic event.”
“I’ve ruled that out, sir. I already contacted our outpost on Cicero. They report no seismic activity.”
“You already contacted Cicero?”
“Planetary outgassing, then.”
“None of the aligned satellites reported any such phenomena in this direction, sir.”
“It’s barely there at all. It’s not a heat signature and it’s not an ion trail. It has to be natural.”
“Yes, sir. I think it’s an unknown mass displacement reading.”
“Mass displacement? Without a heat signature or visual contact?”
“The Explorers do have a Manta starship assigned to the area, sir, performing scientific scans. With her GraviDark engines she wouldn’t leave a heat signature.”
Beech and Sintas exchanged a knowing look.
“You’ll never pick up a Manta on our sensors. Their shrouds make them undetectable.”
“Yes, sir.” Undeterred, McKinna tapped up another display. “Here is the scan second by second.” The wavelength data began to move. The spike disappeared for twelve seconds, then reappeared. It disappeared immediately, and popped up again two seconds later. When it faded this time, it didn’t reappear. “I didn’t have much to work with, but I calculated a possible ephemeris and plotted it. I switched to a satellite that lay along that course. This is the scan I picked up five hours and seventeen minutes after I lost the original contact.” She tapped her keyboard again and another sensor display came up, with the familiar spike. It vanished immediately, and didn’t pop up again for twenty-one seconds. “That’s all I have so far, sir.”
Beech noted the time stamp on the display. Just over an hour ago. “Your calculated plot. Where is this anomaly headed?”
“I can’t calculate it exactly, but it’s definitely moving in our direction.”
“This is making no course changes?”
“No, sir. It’s moving like a natural object.”
“Have you checked the next sensor along your projected route?”
“Based on my velocity measurements between the first and second contacts, the anomaly won’t be coming up on another one along that course for at least two hours and forty-two minutes, sir.”
Colonel Beech looked past McKinna. “What do you think, Mr. Sintas?”
The OOD gave him a small smile. “It’s thin, sir, thin as an aurora. If there was anything there, the computers would have picked it up by now.” He rubbed his chin. “Of course, if it’s headed our way…what’s your calculated distance for this anomaly, Mr. McKinna?”
“Based on my rough ephemeris, approximately eight hundred million kilometers, sir.”
“Well inside Glamora’s orbit, then. Maybe we should—”
He stopped as an emergency message squawked over the speakers. Everyone in the room turned toward the main viewscreen on the back wall. Beech and Sintas stepped away from McKinna’s station and moved in front of the viewer. A man’s face had appeared, a grainy, snowy image that was hard to see.
“This is Manta Commander Callisto,” he said. He wore the dark gray coat of the Luna Explorers. Static filled his audio transmission. “Come in Dragonian Defense.”
“This is Colonel Beech. We read you, Commander. Please state the nature—”
“I am tracking a comet inbound for Dragonis.”
There was a collective gasp from Beech’s staff.
“That’s impossible!” Beech said. “We’re not showing anyth—”
“The comet is shrouded. My navcom’s course estimates put it dead on for your moon, Persan. I am attempting to burn the concealing material off with my exotic matter beam. I recommend you engage your deflector.”
“Commander, we are not detecting any threat.”
“Sir!” It was Ensign McKinna. “I’m reading his exotic matter beam. There’s something there, Colonel.”
The words were hardly out of her mouth when the station’s alarms began clanging. The lights in the room switched to red.
“Emergency alert!” Sintas’ voice rang in the enclosed room, and Beech’s team turned alertly to their monitors.
“Got something on ranging,” Ensign Chung reported. “Definitely a collision object.”
“Ah, Dragonian Defense.” Callisto’s voice was hard and controlled. “Are you reading the inbound? I am currently under attack from an unidentified source.” Beech could tell Commander Callisto could not see him and wondered why that was.
“Confirmed,” McKinna reported. “It looks like something is shooting rocky projectiles at him at extreme speeds. Two have already left our system.”
“Dragonian Defense, do you copy? Do you have the object on your sensors?”
“Affirmative, Commander.” Beech glanced at the master control panel. “The Deflector is moving to intercept. Beam initiation in seven seconds.”
“Acknowledged. I am disengaging. Callisto out.”
“Get us a video feed of Deflector initiation,” Sintas ordered.
“Yes, sir,” Chung replied.
The main viewer switched video feeds several times. Then it stopped on a space satellite picture.
The Deflector flashed into view. It was the shape of a large bulk cruiser, but city-sized, with an elongated profile studded with sensors. Since it never left Dragonian space, it did not have interstellar engines—its entire bulk was devoted to the NGM-56, the nuclear plasma generator that produced the deflection beam.
“Confirm beam initiation code,” Beech said.
“Yes, sir,” Chung replied. “Code confirmation transmitted.”
The viewscreen lit up the room brilliantly as the deflector’s main repulsor shot out. It was a blue-white, triangular slash against the black backdrop of space. The force of the beam boiled away the rest of the material that had been covering the comet. Exposed now to the deflector’s power, the comet’s tail sprouted, streaming millions of kilometers behind it in seconds.
“Size?” Beech asked.
“Cometary nucleus is approximately four kilometers,” McKinna said.
Beech glanced at Sintas and noticed his OOD’s face was white. That size comet was a world-killer. “Did we get it in time?”
“Still calculating, sir.”
Beech turned to his communications officer. “Hail the LSA. We’re going to need authorization for an immediate evacuation. Get Administrator Costa on the beam.” When his comm officer hesitated, Beech shouted, “Get Costa! Now!”
Beech turned back to the main viewer. The Deflector was slowly approaching the comet to increase its angular momentum. As Beech watched the machine’s maneuver, he kept thinking the same thing over and over: how could a comet have possibly gotten this close to them without being detected?
The Manta’s Demand
Catherine DeChat, Director of Luna Base, walked to LSA headquarters, her breath pluming in front of her. She shivered. Luna was the oldest base in the Lemurian Space Agency, located underground on the battered, meteor-pocked far side of Earth’s moon, and it was traditional to keep it very cold. This was the most elaborately shielded of all bases, to prevent detection by terrestrial probes.
Few lights burned this time of night. She pushed through the front doors of the Administration complex.
Administrator Costa had requested a meeting. The two of them were to conduct an interview with a rare Manta Starcruiser. Costa had sounded evasive when she asked him why they needed to have an interview to appoint a captain to a ship.
She was still appalled that they had had to approve the evacuation of the Dragonian moon Persan, but the close approach of a comet had made the decision automatic. Persan was heavily populated, and the society residing there had had no warning.
Now, two months later, the experts still did not understand how the comet had eluded detection and gotten so near an inhabited world. The mammoth object had appeared in the sky seemingly out of nowhere. It had been nearly as bright as a second sun in the daytime and as brilliant as a full moon at night. Dragonis had activated its Deflector in time, but just barely.
The comet was a rogue, its origin unknown.
They had cancelled the evacuation of the large moon by the end of the first day, but the people of Dragonis and Persan had been badly frightened.
The question of how the comet had come so close to a Lemurian planet—one that had a fully functioning Planetary Deflector Station with a system-wide network of scanners—was of overriding concern. DeChat was very troubled; the government had charged the LSA with the responsibility of making sure it never happened again.
DeChat exited the elevator and turned down a short corridor. The door to Costa’s vestibule phased open. DeChat strode in, followed closely by the Administrator’s personal hoverbot, Winston. The bot pursued her into the office, trying to take her jacket.
“Stop it, you know I never let you take my coat,” she told the hoverbot. She made pushing-away motions at it and pulled her dark gray Luna Explorers coat closer. “Leave me alone.”
“Very good, Director,” the bot replied, sounding sad; it floated out of the office and back into the vestibule.
“Why does he do that every time I come to your office?” DeChat scowled as the inner door phased shut. “He knows I don’t want him to take my coat.”
“He likes taking coats. He’s developed certain idiosyncrasies in his old age.” Costa had dark brown skin with a bald head.
“I don’t like it. You should replace him. He’s an old model, anyway.”
“Winston?” Costa shook his head. “No, no, he’s been with me my entire career. I could never get on without him. I’m an old model myself.”
“You haven’t told him to do that to me, have you? One of your pranks?” DeChat asked suspiciously.
“Of course not, Catherine. As I said, he’s become somewhat unique the last few years. He’s taken to reciting poetry to me when I’m sleeping. I’ve told him to stop, but it’s almost as if he’s sleep-floating, so he continues to do it. Engineering has checked him out, and they say they can find nothing wrong with him. To tell the truth, I’m actually becoming quite fond of the behavior—it helps me sleep better to know he’s right there with me.”
“I guess I can understand that,” DeChat said. They both had had precious little sleep the last couple of years. The LSA had been trying to cope with unexplainable and terrifying events and still had no concrete answers. This latest crisis with the Dragonis comet had them especially concerned.
“We can discuss our current slate of priorities later, if that’s convenient.”
“That’s fine,” DeChat said. “Are we ready to confer with this Manta? I want to assign it a captain, and get it back in service.”
“There’s a bit of a complication, Catherine,” Costa said.
“Oh?” DeChat lowered herself stiffly into a chair.
“Coperna has requested a specific commander.”
“Well, isn’t that too bad. She’s a Luna Manta under my command. I assign captains to ships.” DeChat shook her head. “Coperna has always been prone to get above herself. All of these Mantas are difficult, worse than dealing with people—this one especially.”
“She is a unique ship, Cathy. She’s worked for the LSA longer than you and I have been alive.”
DeChat made an impatient gesture with her hand. “Unique or not, Albert, she’s still a ship, and under our command. Shall we proceed?”
“Yes, of course.”
Costa and DeChat glanced away from each other for a moment as their communication implants got in touch with the ship and the familiar beep sounded in their ears as the Manta acknowledged the beam.
“Coperna?” DeChat said.
“Yes, Administrator Costa, Director DeChat?” The voice of the ship was rich and melodious. DeChat had never heard anything like it from a machine. She pictured the ship in her mind as she had seen it three months ago, hovering in its berth in Delta Security Dock, a raw and forbidding presence, its design still one of the most closely guarded secrets in the galaxy.
“We need to discuss the assignment of your next captain,” DeChat said.
“I require Nikkola Savoy to be my next commander.”
Her mouth fell open. “Savoy? The girl who’s been testing on the symbiotics?”
“Isn’t she a teenager?”
“She is sixteen this year,” Coperna answered.
“Ridiculous! A child? You require? Now, just a microsecond here, Coperna. We will choose your next commander, just as we have in the past, and you will accept whatever assignment we give you.”
“I will not.”
“You will not?” DeChat’s mouth thinned at this blatant refusal. “You will do as you are ordered. You will—”
“Just a moment, Catherine,” Costa said. “Coperna, you know that Savoy cannot be inducted into the Explorers until she is at least eighteen?”
“You would have to wait two years for her.”
“I will wait.”
“Albert!” DeChat was beside herself. “Leave a Manta Class Starcruiser in spacedock for two years? Can we afford to waste such a resource? With all that is going on now, do we dare?”
They both knew it was not necessary to warn Coperna that everything she heard was confidential. The Manta had been keeping the LSA’s secrets for over a century.
“Cathy, you know Coperna is symbiotic,” Costa said. “None of our current Explorers connects well enough with symbs to pilot her skillfully. You’ve seen the test scores. Her last commander, Callisto, posted higher scores than anyone we have currently, with the exception of Savoy. Even Callisto admitted his contact was distant at best.”
“We’re still testing for a qualified candidate,” DeChat said stonily.
“I know. I also know you’ve seen young Savoy’s symbiotic scores, too,” Costa said. “There’s never been anyone like her, regardless of age.”
DeChat shook her head, not wanting to be convinced, but as much as she hated to admit it, there was some merit to Costa’s claims about the teenager’s abilities.
She remembered the first time she had reviewed Savoy’s flight sims. It had been four years ago. The twelve-year-old had outmaneuvered every pilot candidate she had flown against, including students much older. DeChat started assigning pros to fly against her, some of them full-fledged Explorer Commanders, in simulated maneuvers. They had been Starfish commanders, not Stingray or Manta commanders, but after all, they were going up against a child.
DeChat had been reading the Sim Trainer’s weekly reports stating that this “child” had beaten all of DeChat’s captains. She got tired of it. So two months ago, she had beamed the Simulation Trainer.
“Assign Marconi, Vargas, and Thompson to her next. Solar system parameters. Savoy may not fly more than point five light-years above or below the ecliptic plane. If her pursuers impact her shields even once, she loses the simulation. Tell the hunters that. Tell Savoy that she’s flying against human pilots in a hunter/seeker simulation and that she’s flying a symbiotic ship again. I think this will be her fifteenth time?”
“Yes, good. Arrange it.”
DeChat remembered the day the results of that flight test had flashed across her desktop.
She had been swamped with work. As busy as she was, she hadn’t wanted to read a simulation report. She had been curious, though. She remembered that she had given young Savoy an impossible challenge. She wanted to see how her best commanders had taken the youngster down.
As she scanned the video replay and the accompanying text report, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Savoy had scored decisive hits on two of the most experienced pilots in the LSA and had avoided being hit at all. Again. She had also performed micro-maneuvers—nano-jumps—of such difficulty during the simulation, they had never been tried by any other pilot. DeChat had read the Sim Trainer’s gushing report on the girl with growing irritation.
She had realized then Savoy was destined to be a ship’s commander, but DeChat had never intended to assign a Manta to her. Certainly not this Manta.
“I don’t care,” she said. “She’s too young, far too young for me to assign her a ship like this. This Manta may be the finest scout cruiser in our entire fleet.”
“Thank you, Director,” Coperna said.
“Never mind, Coperna,” DeChat said. She thought for a moment, then she asked, “Is that why you want the Savoy girl? Because of her symbiotic scores?”
“I still can’t see it. Assign a Manta to a teenager?” Her lips compressed. “I will not authorize this commission.”
“I require Nikkola Savoy,” the Manta repeated.
DeChat opened her mouth, no doubt to deliver a scathing reply, but Costa shook his head at her.
“Coperna,” he said, “you will have to give us some time to discuss this.”
“That is all,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Coperna replied, and Costa and DeChat heard the tiny beep in their ears that told them the Manta had broken the comm link.
“Albert, there is no way I will approve this command assignment. Eighteen, indeed! That ship has always been—and always will be—required to perform Explorer tasks at the highest levels, including filing Discovery Briefs and participating in campaign missions. How can a teenager do that?”
“If Savoy can do the things she’s done in the simulator, Coperna’s performance will be greater than anything we have seen so far, as you well know. As for Savoy’s Explorer duties, we’ll bring her along slowly. No need to place her in critical situations her first few years.”
“I don’t like it—taking on a commander that can’t carry her weight. What will the other captains think?”
“Let them think what they like. This ship has never had a good connection with a commander in her one hundred and twelve years of service. I want to know if she can really do the things Shanara said she could. After all, we have been training Savoy to be a ship’s captain, and she has proven to be very good at it. Perhaps we should acquiesce to the Manta’s demand.”
“Cathy,” Costa said, “I don’t think we have a choice on this one.”
And in that moment, DeChat knew he was right.
No Music for Nikki
Nikki Savoy’s parents asked her to sit with them in the living room. She had been playing the piano in the parlor, but she stopped when they beckoned.
Her parents sat on the couch and Nikki sat in the big overstuffed chair facing them.
“Administrator Costa has informed us that your simulation test scores are very high.”
Nikki had known this conversation was coming. “I’m not joining the Explorers.” She had just turned eighteen and had been offered an opportunity to play for the Juilliard orchestra.
Nikki’s mother twisted her hands in her lap. Nikki was mildly uncomfortable. She had never seen her mother act so.
“You are going to be assigned a Manta Class Cruiser,” her father said. “A symbiotic Manta.”
Nikki’s mouth dropped open and her heart almost stopped. The engineers of Atlantis designed the Manta Class ships. They were the most sophisticated examples of artificial intelligence in the galaxy and the pinnacle of technology in interstellar travel.
“No,” her mother said. “I don’t want her forced into this. She’s a child—a gifted musician. She can’t captain a ship like that and explore the galaxy! Albert and that woman are insane!”
“Now, sweetheart,” her father said, “we already talked about this. We agreed that—”
“I never agreed to this!” Her mother’s voice was panicky. “This is too much. She can’t do this. Even Director DeChat was against it, you heard her. An Explorer is bad enough! But a Field Explorer in a Manta?”
“Catherine DeChat does not like you or me, and she would love to see the ship assigned to anyone but Nikki,” her father said. “You know her as well as I.”
“I don’t care,” her mother said.
“Dad, I don’t want to,” Nikki said. Her parents were talking about her life as if she had nothing to say about it. “Juilliard’s asked me to play in the orchestra. You know that. I love what the Explorers do, and I love flying, but I don’t want to be an Explorer.”
“It’s not that simple,” her dad replied.
“No, dad. No. I’m not doing it. I’m accepting Juilliard’s offer, of course I am!”
“I’m afraid it’s not entirely up to you, sweetie,” her dad told her. “If the Explorers want you, you must serve for a minimum of three years.”
“It will go quickly, I promise.”
“But my music! I can’t tell Juilliard to wait for three years. How would I explain it?”
“You cannot, of course.”
Nikki looked to her mother, but Mrs. Savoy just stared at her hands. Nikki’s chin jutted as she turned back to her father.
“And if I refuse?”
“You can’t.” He shook his head gently. “It’s not as bad as you’re making it, Nikkola. You’ll only be twenty-one when you finish your obligation to the LSA.”
“But that’s three years! My chance at playing for Juilliard will be gone by then! And I’ll never get another chance.”
“That’s probably true,” her father said.
Nikki’s blood boiled. It wasn’t fair! How could they do this to her? Where was her right to choose her own life? She wanted to play for Juilliard!
“Why me? Why is it so important?”
“Because,” her father said, “you’re not like any other person ever tested with symbiotic machines. Your connections are nearly perfect, and your simulated flight performance is the best in history.”
“I love flying those ships,” Nikki said, her anger ebbing. “It’s easy.”
“We know,” her father said with a small smile. “But no one else finds it easy. Most people can’t even establish a connection at all. Like your mother,” he said with a laugh.
“Joseph!” Her mother’s face flushed red.
“I’m not much better,” he said. “I can get symbiotic ships to do things just by thinking about it, but I have to concentrate very hard and everything happens very slowly. I can pilot the ship much more effectively—and do things a lot faster—without the symb connections.”
“Why can I do it so well?”
Her parents looked at each other, then back at her.
“No one knows exactly,” her father said. “The symbiotic machines are designed to work with younger, more malleable minds, but even among the kids your scores are significantly higher. “Off the scale” is what the Symb Trainer said the last time I talked to him.”
“I see. And the Explorers are going to assign me a Manta? I thought Mantas were the most advanced ships ever made.”
“Then why give me one? I’m no Marcus Sardentu. I don’t even want to be an Explorer.”
“We’re not sure,” her mom said. “But they are determined to have you.”
Nikki was still angry, but confusion overrode it. Make her a Manta captain? It just didn’t compute. “Have you ever been aboard a Manta?” she asked.
Her mother shrugged. Her father shook his head.
“No. We’ve never even seen one close up. There are only seven or eight in existence, I think. I don’t know how many of them are symbiotic. Most of the information on Mantas is highly classified.”
“Can’t I talk to Uncle Albert? He’s the head of the LSA. Maybe I can convince him to let me play for Juilliard.”
“It’s no use,” her father said. “You’re an Explorer, Nikkola. You begin your Cadet Service in one week.”
Late that night, long after the Savoy household was quietly asleep, the ring of the doorbell awakened Nikki. As she stirred, she could hear her parents’ voices, and the deep, familiar voice of a visitor. Her room was warm and cozy and she snuggled under her covers, trying not to wake up. She fell asleep again.
The house vibrated gently as a conversation began in the living room.
Nikki turned over, hearing the unmistakable sounds of her mother serving tea. She plumped her extra pillow, pressed her face into it. She closed her eyes. She covered her ears. She could still hear her parents talking.
She glanced at her wristband. It read 0014. Rupert floated down from his corner of the room, alerted by her movements. His colored lights twinkled.
“Is there something I can do for you, miss?” he asked her quietly.
“No. Who’s here?” Nikki asked.
She was more awake. “Uncle Albert? Why? What’s wrong?”
“I do not know,” Rupert answered.
She tried to forget about it and fall back asleep, but she couldn’t, not after last night. She slid out of bed.
She was tempted to go out there right now and tell Uncle Albert that she was not joining the Explorers. He was not a real uncle, but Nikki and her sister Logan had called him that all their lives. She had played the piano for him many times while he had tea with her parents. She couldn’t believe he was forcing her to do this.
She decided to wait. She crept quietly to her door and opened it silently. She thought for a moment, then returned to her bed and grabbed her pillow. She took the pillow to the corner of her room against the outside wall, away from the door, and threw it on the floor near the ventilation grate. She pulled her comforter off the bed. She flopped onto the carpet, dropped her head on the pillow, and dragged the coverlet to her chin.
The top of her head practically touched the grate. As long as she remained completely silent, she could hear any conversation in the living room. Nikki closed her eyes and listened.
Rupert had been bobbing around her soundlessly during this time. Now he cruised to where she lay, hovering half a meter above her chest. “Is there anything I can—”
“Shhh!” Nikki hissed at him. “I don’t need anything right now,” she whispered. “Go back to sleep.”
She watched him as he drifted obediently back to his corner in the ceiling directly above her. She would have liked to send him to the kitchen for a snack and a glass of water, but he would have to pass her parents and then they would know she was awake. She had tried to explain to Rupert about stealth, and staying close to the ground to avoid detection, but he just wasn’t good at deception. Nikki was not impressed. She suspected her parents had programmed an override into him that forbad him to be sneaky.
He settled into a niche near the top of her closet door, and his lights winked out.
Nikki listened to Costa talk to her parents.
“The destruction was immense. The planet is uninhabitable now, at least for a few years, until we can get teams in to place phase domes. Billions of tons of debris thrown into the atmosphere on impact, of course. And volcanic activity on every continent and in many areas of the seas.”
Nikki heard him take a sip of tea and heard the clink of cup and saucer.
“Even after we get phase domes in, I’m afraid your dig is going to be extremely limited,” he said. “Life outside will be hazardous for decades, perhaps centuries. And it’s possible all the evidence may have been destroyed.”
“But how could this have happened?” Her father’s voice was incredulous. “How could a comet get through the defense net?”
“We’re not sure. The thing seems to have appeared out of nowhere. And it was big. Even the Planetary Deflector couldn’t divert this monster, not as close as it was when it appeared in the sky.”
Her mother’s voice sounded shaken. “That doesn’t seem possible.”
“No one was hurt?” her father asked.
“Thank goodness, no, but it was close.” There was a pause. “I’m curious. I understand young Nikki had a strong reaction to the planet. Something about a strange sound she heard, you told me. She said she heard some kind of music coming from Blankmoor?”
Nikki remembered. She had been piloting them into the system when she heard a song that was the worst music she had ever experienced. She could tell it came from the planet they were approaching. She had begged her father to take over control of their Star-A-Way, something she had never done since her parents had allowed her to pilot. The planet made her feel lonely and unhappy even from far away. She had sobbed as they made final approach, and had not liked landing on the planet.
The terrible music of Blankmoor swept through Nikki again. It seemed to Nikki the most depressing music in the whole universe. She shivered under her blanket, remembering, and drew the heavy quilt tighter around her shoulders.
“Yes,” she heard her father say. “I’ve never seen her act like that. She’s been with us dozens of times on our digs.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I don’t know. But she has told us that she can hear music coming from certain planets. She says Earth and Cancri “sing” beautiful songs to her whenever she’s in space.”
“Yes, you mentioned that before. Is it the same song every time?”
“She says Earth has its own song and so do other planets.”
“I’ve never heard of that. Have either of you?”
Nikki heard her parents say no.
“Why?” her mother said. “Why do you have to have our Nikki?”
“You know about her sim record. She’s never lost a flight scenario. She beat three experienced Stingray commanders in a hunter/seeker game. On her last three simulated runs, she did things with her ship even we didn’t know the ship could do. She goes beyond the hardware specifications and it’s—it’s got many of our engineers stumped.”
“So what are you saying? That she can jump farther than others?”
“Probably, although we’re not too interested in that. She has already learned how to perform jump sequences, so we know she’ll be able to move great distances very quickly even if she has to navigate around large gravity sources. It’s her ability to jump tiny distances that is unlike anything we have ever seen.”
“Tiny distances?” her father asked. “What’s important about that?”
“The extreme level of difficulty, for one thing. She does these micro-maneuvers within our solar system, with the sun practically next door to her and a number of other very large planets and moons all presenting gravitational problems that she would have to solve in order to successfully navigate.”
He paused, and Nikki heard him take another sip of tea.