Two star systems are colliding, And Mike Christopher of the Earth starship Asaph Hall is rushing to unlock their secrets. But two alien races on the journey are keeping their own potentially deadly secrets.
It doesn't help that the love of Mike's life can't handle the emotional stress of being near him, and that he has to give the Earth ambassador on-the-job training!
Afterward, watching the debris of two star systems go their separate ways, Mike didn't think of the stupendous forces he'd witnessed as much as he thought of the dead. Even planetary collisions, he thought, don't affect the soul as profoundly as watching a loved one die.
# # #
Four months earlier:
Mike Christopher quickened his pace down a broad corridor within Urhaven Station, with Linna Maurishka and Luther Kindred right behind him. The place smelled of piss and ozone and smoke. Sickly green pipes resembling tentacles thrust chaotically through featureless, dingy yellow walls.
"Why in space we're meeting a Unity ambassador here is beyond me," Mike said.
Linna said, "It would've been nice to come up with a plan before we ran out hell-bent for who-knows-what." She was his shipmate, though circumstances kept them from sharing quarters most of the time. She had a round face, pert nose, brown eyes. Mike had included her in this because she was an empath — a handy skill in a volatile situation. Linna asked, "Where are we headed, anyway?"
"A tavern called The Accretion Disk," Mike said. He pushed aside his concerns about Linna; now wasn't the time. Ambassador Song had arrived here early, then for some unknown reason left her courier ship and started across the station toward the Asaph Hall's dock, without any security.
Luther was along because of his genetically engineered strength — his broad, solid shoulders, and hands that looked as if they could crush a bulkhead. "Why'd she stop there?"
"No idea. I had the impression her trip across Urhaven didn't go so well." Mike was an artificial Human, his features a sampling of Human heritage, his skin light brown, dark brown hair lightly curled, eyes a bright blue but with epicanthic folds. He was also second-in-command of the Earth Unity exploratory starcraft Asaph Hall, but neither distinction counted for much in a fight. And a fight was likely. Station security had laughed when he'd asked for an escort.
They were close to the Disk. Mike touched his wrist sensor. "Eight inside. Five Humans. Two Arols. One Kanandra." He pulled his stunner. "Let's go."
Mike pushed through the Disk's swinging doors and was disoriented for an instant; gas giants spun sedately overhead and comets arced across an inky starfield. Holograms. "The Disk lives in a busy galaxy," he muttered.
Every being in the tavern peered at the three Humans. The tripedal Kanandran sat at a table near the door. The two leather-skinned Arols sat at the bar. Two of the five Humans stood behind the bar — the men were apparently twins. A third man sat at the bar ordering a drink.
Rockhopper, Mike thought. This man's idea of freedom and independence would involve jaunting from one asteroid to the next hoping to find one rich in iron, nickel, or even water, and bartering the rights to it for whatever they needed to survive. An anachronism, Mike thought, but it's not my place to judge.
Toward the rear of the room, Ambassador Song sat at a table with two more rockhoppers. By the looks of their dirty, greasy clothing and long, stringy hair, they'd not had much luck lately. One of the men was leaning toward Song and repeatedly stabbing his finger at her.
The ambassador cowered. She looked to be in her early thirties and held a personal bag clutched tightly to her chest. Her long black hair was disheveled, but she didn't appear to have been harmed — not yet. Then she saw Mike and stood up — and she was clearly about four months pregnant.
Great, Mike thought. Just another complication. This is the turning point. I know I can count on Luther. I only hope Linna's up to this.
I can only hope I am, as well.
The two rockhoppers stood and stared at Mike, Linna, and Luther with open contempt. Then the third one, at the bar, said, "You must've come here for your woman."
Mike said, "She's no more mine than yours. But she is going with us."
The man eased his hand from his drink as Luther took strong strides past him, toward the ambassador. A kaleidoscope of light from the gas giant over his head played across his broad shoulders.
Linna said, "Luther, behind you!"
It was after Linna spoke up that the rockhopper at the bar pulled a disruptor. Luther turned and rammed both his fists into the man's belly. The man collapsed. So did the two Arols, whose species could not stand to witness violence.
More softly, Linna told Mike, "The closer barkeep."
Mike aimed his stunner and fired. The bartender, who hadn't even moved yet, also collapsed and his twin rushed to break his fall. The man glared up at Mike as he cradled his brother's head in his lap, face silhouetted against the light from several comets. "Bastard," he said.
"Not possible," Mike told him. "I'll know if anyone else tries to hurt us. Just let us go."
No one said a word. Mike nodded toward Luther, who took Ambassador Song by the arm and led her out. Linna followed, then Mike backed out slowly, leaving the tavern's busy galaxy.
Then he took the ambassador's other arm and he and Luther pulled her down that smelly yellow corridor so quickly her feet barely brushed the deck.