The Morthans consider the human race to be little better than animals—even though they came from humans themselves. Now they are determined to conquer the worlds still controlled by their physical and mental inferiors.
Docked for repairs after a harrowing battle with a Morthan ship, Jonathan Korie and his crew discover they have a Morthan imp aboard: a weapon so quick they have no chance of catching it, so clever they have no hope of outsmarting it—and so deadly they have no choice but to try . . .
With an introduction by Spider Robinson, this is an exciting space adventure in the Star Wolf series by the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author.
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The rookie had arrived at Stardock so recently, his eyebrows still hadn't had time to come back down to their normal position.
He moved through the corridors of the station with a tentative step and an expression of permanent astonishment on his face. He carried his few personal belongings slung over his back in a limp black duffel. He had a yellow transfer order and a baby-blue security pass in one hand, and a half-unfolded map in the other.
He was clearly lost. He checked the number on every wall panel against the unwieldy map — perversely, it kept trying to complete the process of unfolding; periodically huge sections of it would make a desperate leap for freedom. Finally, in frustration, the rookie stopped where he was, and dropped to one knee to refold the map on the floor.
"That's not a good place for that, son —"
"I know, but the damn thing won't —" And then he looked up, saw who he was speaking to, and shut up immediately. He scrambled to his feet, stiffened to attention, and nearly knocked his eye out with his transfer card as he tried to salute. His duffel swung wildly behind him, banging him uncomfortably on the butt.
The officer was a grim-looking man, thin, with gray eyes and sandy hair. He had a hardness of expression that was terrifying. But the hardness in his eyes was directed somewhere else, not at the rookie. It was almost as if the much younger man didn't exist for the officer, except as a tool to be used ... if he was good enough. The officer's nametag identified him only as Korie. The diamond-shaped insignias on his collar gave his rank as — the rookie frowned as he tried to remember — commander!
"As you were," the officer said, returning the salute with a perfunctory nod. He reached over and plucked the transfer card and security pass out of the rookie's hands. "Crewman Third Class Robert Gatineau, engineering apprentice," he read. He made a single soft clucking noise in reaction. "Rule number one," he said, handing the cards back. "Always wear your nametags."
"Yes, sir." Gatineau began fumbling in his pocket for the nametag he had been given only moments before. As he struggled to pin it on, he asked, "Anything else, sir?"
"Keep out of the way. Don't call attention to yourself." As an afterthought, he added, "And get your job done as if your life depended on it. Because it does."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
The tall man nodded and started to head up the passage.
"Uh, sir —"
"Could you tell me how to get to berth T-119?" Gatineau stammered, "That's the Star Wolf."
"I know the ship," the man said noncommittally.
"Is she a good ship? I've heard stories — "
"She earned her name fairly." He turned and pointed. "Down to the end, turn left, go up the stairs, take the slidewalk all the way around to the T-module. From there, just follow the numbers down the tube; it'll be the nineteenth berth. But the Star Wolf isn't there. That's only where her boats are docking. The ship is still sitting out at decontam point one." The officer glanced at his watch. "If you hurry, you can catch a ride back. If you miss this shuttle, there'll be another one in ninety minutes. Pee before you go. It's a long ride. When you get there, report to Commander Tor, she's acting command. Then get your gear stowed and get into your works. You'll be on Chief Leen's crew. I'm sure they can use your help. There's a lot to do."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Gatineau saluted again enthusiastically.
The officer returned the salute with barely concealed annoyance. "Oh, one more thing. Ease up on the salutes. That's for groundsiders. In space, you want to keep one hand on the wall."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir!"
The tall man nodded and headed up the passage. Gatineau stared after him with an expression of unalloyed awe. The diamonds on the commander's uniform had been luminous silver, striated with bands of flickering color — that meant he was certified for an FTL command! He wished he could follow him —
Abruptly Crewman Robert Gatineau, third class, unassigned, remembered what the commander had said about the shuttle, and he hurried to gather up his belongings. He reshouldered his duffel, stuffed the recalcitrant map into the pocket of his shirt, and scrambled quickly down the passage.
"Down to the end," he repeated as he ran. "Turn left, go up the stairs, take the slidewalk —"
The slidewalk circled the Stardock. Gatineau rode it all the way from the administrative domain, through the supply modules, to the docking spurs. He scrutinized each passing sign as if it held a secret message just for him, ticking off each docking spur as it slid past. At last, he saw the sign he was waiting for; he leapt off impatiently at the entrance to the T-module, almost stumbling as he did. Swearing in annoyance and frustration, he half-walked, half-ran down the broad passage. Beneath his feet, the carpeting gave way to industrial decking; his footsteps clanged and echoed.
The passage was punctuated with airtight doors. Each section was sealed by triple locks that popped quickly open at his approach and slapped softly shut after him; by the time Gatineau reached the nineteenth berth he had passed through seventy-two separate hatchways. He had run nearly the entire length, counting off the numbers all the way to the next-to-last berth, T-119.
The berth itself was only a naked service bay; a wide featureless alcove, it lacked even the barest amenities. It was nothing like the commercial berths Gatineau had experienced, with their multiple displays and couches and various service booths and comfort areas. The difference both shocked and pleased him. It proved to him that he was finally here, serving at a real stardock.
The business end of the bay was a broad elliptical hatch. It stood open. Gatineau approached hesitantly.
"Hello?" he called down the long boarding tube. "Ahoy? Anybody aboard?"
There was no answer.
"Is this the boat for the Star Wolf?" Gatineau edged tentatively into the tube. "Is anyone here?"
At the far end there was another hatch, this one closed. The access panel was green, indicating that the atmosphere on the opposite side of the door was breathable and pressure-balanced.
Gatineau took a breath and pressed his hand against the panel. Several hatches slid back simultaneously, startling him. He stepped through into a tiny airlock. The hatches behind him closed, turning the chamber into a claustrophobic closet. More nervous than ever, but too uncomfortable to hesitate, Gatineau popped open the next hatch — and found himself staring into the aft cabin of the number three boat of the Star Wolf.
The boat was half-crammed with supply modules of all shapes and sizes. He edged sideways into the cabin and the last hatch slapped shut behind him. "Ahoy?" he called softly. "Crewman Robert Gatineau, third class, unassigned engineering apprentice, reporting for duty?"
Still no one answered. Gatineau stepped through the next hatch into the main cabin of the boat. "Hello? Anyone?" No one.
The rear half of this cabin was filled with various life-support and supply modules; all were labeled. He recognized the codes for starsuits and EVA equipment, as well as emergency medical gear. The forward half was all industry-standard seating, gray and impersonal. Gatineau had seen buses with more personality.
Shrugging to himself, he hung his duffel on the wall over one of the seats, then he climbed forward and knocked on the flight deck hatch. It slid open almost immediately and the pilot swiveled around in his chair to look at him. Gatineau looked up ... and up. And up. The pilot was a three-meter Morthan Tyger with a grin so wide he could have bitten off Gatineau's head in a single bite. "You the new meat?" he asked.
Gatineau nearly crapped his pants. For a moment he was paralyzed, his heart thundering in his chest in a cascade of uncontrollable explosions. Adrenaline flooded through his body in an atavistic frisson of fear and horror and wonder, all stumbling over each other at once. The sensation was like a sudden cold immersion into stark screaming terror. He gulped and stammered and tried to back away. "Excuse me —" he tried to say, even while his mind yammered with the terrifying realization, Oh, my God, a Morthan. I'm going to die!
And even as he wondered what he could do to defend himself against the monster, the rational part of his being was already noting the dark gray uniform on the beast, the nametag — Lt. Commander Brik — and the amused expression on the face of the human copilot.
"I, uh — uh, I'm looking for uh — the boat to the Star Wolf —" And then he remembered his training and snapped to attention. "Sorry, sir. Crewman Robert Gatineau, third class, unassigned engineering apprentice, reporting for duty, sir!" He'd heard there were Morthan officers in the fleet. He hadn't realized he'd be serving under one — he started to salute, then remembered the other officer's advice and stopped himself, then wondered if he'd committed an even bigger mistake by not saluting the Morthan officer. He gulped, decided against trying to make it up, and simply held out his transfer card and security pass for inspection.
Commander Brik took the cards with exaggerated gentleness. The huge dark Morthan hand dwarfed Gatineau's much smaller one. It was all that he could do to keep from flinching. He hadn't felt so small since he'd been four years old and had seen his father naked in the shower.
Brik laid the cards on the flat reader panel between himself and the copilot and studied the display without reaction. As he did so, Gatineau tried to calm himself by studying the layout of the flight deck. An actual starboat! He took a deep breath and peered out the forward window, pretending to be nonchalant as he took in the view.
Beyond the forward glass, the bright spurs of Stardock gleamed with thousands of work lights, so bright they almost banished the hard emptiness beyond. Looking out the side window, Gatineau could see nearly a dozen liberty ships strung along the length of the docking spur. His intake of breath was clearly audible. Starships! They were magnificent. They were wonderful. And they were nearly close enough to touch —
Brik grunted impatiently. The sound broke Gatineau's reverie. He realized that the Morthan was holding out his identity cards and waiting for him to take them back.
"Oh, thanks. Um ..." Gatineau decided to risk it. "I'm sorry, sir, if I, uh — behaved badly just now. I —"
"Don't sweat it, fella," the copilot said. His nametag identified him as Lt. Mikhail Hodel. "Commander Brik has that effect on everybody. It's part of his charm. What do we call you?"
"Um, my dad used to call me Robby, but uh —"
"Right," said Hodel. "You're a big boy now, Robby. How about we call you Gatineau ... or Mister Gatineau when we're pissed?"
"Uh, sure — thanks, I think."
Hodel swiveled forward again, pressing one finger to his right ear to concentrate on an incoming message. "Roger that, thanks," he replied. "Over and out." To Brik, he said, "We're clear to launch."
"Strap in," Brik said to Gatineau, indicating the seat commonly occupied by the flight engineer.
The launch procedure was simpler than Gatineau expected. Brik gave a single command to the boat's intelligence engine. "Prepare for departure."
A moment later the intelligence engine replied, "All hatches sealed. All systems up and running. Confidence is ninety point nine."
Abruptly the sense of gravity fell away to nothingness and Gatineau's stomach went with it. His gut clenched alarmingly, and then — as he recognized the not-very-familiar sensation — he began to relax. Almost immediately there was a soft thump from the rear of the craft and the quiet voice of the I.E. reported, "Disengagement."
"Set course and activate."
Although there was no apparent sensation of motion, the view out the window began to shift sideways and downward. A moment later and the stars began to rotate around an axis somewhere below Gatineau's feet.
"If you want a better view," said Hodel, "climb up into the observation bubble."
"Can I? Gee, thanks." Gatineau unstrapped himself and floated straight up out of his seat, bumping his head on the roof of the cabin. "Oww —" He grabbed for the top of his head, which caused him to start rotating clumsily in the tiny cabin. He grabbed for the wall and ended up at a very awkward angle, upside-down in relation to Hodel and Brik with his legs kicking at the ceiling. "Oops. Sorry about that."
Hodel grabbed the younger man by his waist and gave him a push out through the cabin door. He grinned at Brik and shook his head. Newbies. From the passenger cabin there came a confirming series of painful grunts and thuds as Gatineau careened and bounced his way aft toward the observation bubble. Hodel grinned at Brik. "I love this job."
Brik grunted. He wasn't without a sense of humor, but he did not believe as Hodel did that slapstick was the highest art.
In the cabin Gatineau pulled himself into the bubble with unalloyed delight. The glass of the observation dome sparkled with luminance, the reflections of hundreds of thousands of work lights. The Stardock was a technological confection, its complex structure a blazing hive of light and color and motion, belying the darkness of the vast night beyond. Vertical spars struck upward, horizontal planes sliced crossways; tubes and pipes of all kinds, some lit from within, curled and coursed throughout the vast structure. And everywhere, there were ships hanging off it — ships of all sizes, all kinds — but mostly liberty ships; the beautiful little cruisers with their polycarbonate foam fuselages and bold carbon-titanium spars. They were held together with monofilament tension cables and a lot of hope.
The New America assembly lines were turning out three new liberty ships every twelve days. In the nine months since the mauling at Marathon, the Allied worlds had begun to respond to the threat of the Morthan Solidarity with an extraordinary commitment. Some of the evidence of it was already filling the docking berths.
As the boat drifted away from the dizzying mass of spars and tubes, modules and tanks, the larger structure of the deep-space Stardock came clear. It was a giant metal snowflake. Within it, suspended as if in a spider web, were scatterings of habitats, cylindrical, spherical, and patchwork; the living and working quarters that had grown and spread across the original design.
There was no light in the bubble except that which came from the Stardock itself but it was enough to bathe the shuttle in a bright white aura. Gatineau's eyes were suddenly moist with emotion. A flood of feelings filled him, some joyous, some fearful — mostly he was rapturous. The conflicting sensations only added to the overwhelming impact of the moment.
But all too soon the light began to fade and with it, Gatineau's rapture. They were accelerating now into the night. As the Stardock shrank away behind them, finally vanishing into the speckled darkness, Gatineau was suddenly aware how small and vulnerable and alone he was here in this tiny spaceboat. He had never before in his life been this far away from ... safety. His life depended solely on the strength of the fragile glass and polycarbonate around him. After a moment, the sensation became unbearable.
Nervously, he pushed himself down out of the bubble and pulled himself carefully forward back to the flight deck. He strapped himself into his seat and held on to the edges of it with a tight grip, while he closed his eyes and tried desperately to overcome the overwhelming rush of contradictory feelings. He was being buffeted by dizzying agoraphobia and smothering claustrophobia, exhilarating joy and terrifying loneliness, raving enthusiasm and stark panic. It was all too much to assimilate.
Both Hodel and Brik noticed the whiteness of Gatineau's expression; neither said anything. Hodel swiveled his chair around, opened a panel next to Gatineau, and pulled out a bubble of bouillon. "Here," he said, pressing it into Gatineau's hand. "Drink this. It'll help. The first time can be a little overwhelming. I know."
"I'm fine," Gatineau insisted. "Really, I am."
Hodel's expression suggested that he knew otherwise. "It's a six-hour ride. Do you want to spend the entire time with your eyes closed?"
"Uh ... okay." Reluctantly Gatineau took the bubble. "Thanks." He popped the top off the nipple and sucked at the hot liquid slowly. It gave him something to do, something to concentrate on. After a bit the emptiness in his stomach began to ease, and so did the feelings of panic in his gut.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Middle of Nowhere"
Copyright © 1995 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Black Hole Gang,
The Bridge Crew,
A Hole in the World,
The Ops Deck,
Vice Admiral O'Hara,
David Gerrold's Legendary Novel Is Back!,
Coming in January 2004 from BenBella Books,
Also from BenBella Books,
A New David Gerrold Novel,