A Gathering of Stars
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by Donald Moffitt
Category: Science Fiction
Description: The ambitious Sultan of Alpha Centauri can only claim the illustrious title of Caliph if he makes a ritual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. This journey completed, he will rule the entire population of the greater Islamic universe. But human knowledge has not yet been able to overcome the significant challenges presented by interplanetary travel. However, the Sultan resourcefully enlists the help of Abdul Hamid-Jones, a clever fugitive with a price on his head and the law on his heels. Thrown into the bewildering world of the Sultan's schemes, Abdul receives a hasty introduction to complex physics and the even more complex political intrigues of the Sultan's court. Responsible for the successful execution of the Sultan's plan, Abdul slowly realizes with horror that the fate of the entire Solar system could be resting on his shoulders.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1989
eBookwise Release Date: July 2001
22 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [477 KB]
Reading time: 297-416 min.
The mullah's knife flashed, and a spurt of arterial blood drenched his white robes. He continued sawing away at the sheep's throat until he was satisfied, then untangled his fingers from the woolly head and let it drop limply to the plastic sheet that the spaceport janitorial crew had spread to protect the inlaid floor of the departure lounge.
"Well, you're guaranteed a safe voyage, at any rate," said Hamid-Jones's baby-sitter, an impressively self-possessed young attaché from the Centauran embassy. "Are you going to go over there to dip your fingertips for luck?"
"I don't think so," Hamid-Jones said.
Droplets of blood were hanging in the air, settling imperceptibly in the almost nonexistent gravity of Deimos. A couple of members of the maintenance crew were sweeping the air with large sponges to catch stray drops escaping the tarpaulined area, but one jet of blood had traveled twenty feet, and another coveralled worker was hurrying to intercept it with a catch basin.
"Wise decision," said the watchdog. "Your ident's as good as we could make it, but it's best to stay in the background as much as possible till you're safely aboard Centauran territory."
The mullah was winding up the sacrificial rites with a prayer. A number of passengers were self-consciously lining up for individual blessings.
"What about the person whose place I took?" Hamid-Jones asked.
"He'll be sent back down to Mars in the same diplomatic pouch that brought you up, and we'll do a lot of computer shuffles over the next few months to pass along the hiatus till it's diluted enough to be wiped out. How was the ride? Uncomfortable?"
"It wasn't too bad."
The "pouch" had, in fact, been a sealed cylinder large enough to stretch out in. An outer shell was filled with an inert gas and lined with a lot of sophisticated baffles, some of which projected false images of the cylinder's interior. An inner suspension contained a cocoon that protected the passenger against jolts. There was a miniaturized life-support facility that provided enough oxygen for thirty-six hours, and a rather embarrassing sanitary facility that relied heavily on stickybags that would have to be disposed of later by someone or other. Hamid-Jones had had a few bad moments when the pouch had been dropped or turned upside-down, but once out of Mars's gravity field it ceased to matter. On Deimos, the Centaurans had extracted him without being detected.
Hamid-Jones reflectively fingered the curls of his false beard, which was done up in ribbons and squared off Centauran style. False was not exactly the word, since the whiskers had been force-grown from his own DNA and grafted, hair by hair, to a three-day growth of his own stubble by molecular machines. A coppery dye job disguised the disjunction at the roots, which could be presumed simply to be growing out again and gave him the properly foppish look of a young foreign service officer. He had also sacrificed the fleshy pad of a forefinger in the unlikely event that a DNA sample might be required at exit; he would have a sore finger for a few weeks aboard ship as the graft was rejected and his own fingertip, already seeded for cloned regeneration, grew out again.
He had balked at losing an eye, even temporarily, and the ambassador had upheld him against the insistence of the intelligence wallahs. "A retinal check is extremely unlikely," the ambassador had said. "Mars has adhered to civilized standards for over two centuries. The last time they interfered with diplomatic personnel was in the first unsettled years of the usurper, and even then they only checked the identities of new arrivals, not returnees."
"Don't worry," the attaché laughed. "You look like a proper Centauran. Your build is a plus; it's fortunate you were born on Earth. The gravity on our capital planet is two and a half times that of Mars -- about ninety-five percent of Earth gravity. You won't have any problems adjusting -- our ships boost and deboost at close to a standard G, so you'll have two years of subjective time to toughen up."
Both of them turned to look at the view outside the huge curving windows of the departure lounge. Lit from one side, Mars was an enormous breast in the sky, with Olympus Mons for a nipple. The view from Phobos, of course, was more spectacular; there, Mars filled the sky -- almost was the sky. But on Deimos, at least, one had the sensation that one was looking up at it, not in danger of plunging down into it at any moment.
"Here it comes," the attaché said. "If you look close, you can just about make it out."
Hamid-Jones strained his eyes and was rewarded by the sight of a glimmering mote at the exact center of the planet. Of course that was the only place it could be -- at Mars's equator and directly below, or rather "above," the tiny moon. Even the east-west and west-east mail satellites, which dropped their own skyhooks from orbits a little above, or below, synchronous orbit, were constrained to an equatorial run.
As he watched, the mote grew more bright. It made the 12,000 mile trip up its spider's thread in a couple of hours, and at about a hundred miles the braking rockets had to cut in to keep it from smashing into Deimos. Its flattened nacelle shape was visible now. The last time Hamid-Jones had seen it, it had been unreeling itself from the Martian sky with a belly full of soldiers. "It's the last one," the attaché said. "Do you want to board ship before the crush?"
"No, I'll wait," said Hamid-Jones. "I want to see if anyone I know gets off."
"Hmm, yes, there's that," the attaché agreed. "A starship's big, but it's best to see what inconvenient persons you might have to avoid for the next two years."
"Five years," Hamid-Jones corrected.
"Yes, five to us stay-at-homes. But time will fly for you. The time dilation effect won't be very noticeable for most of that initial year of boost, but by the time you get up to within about one millionth of one percent of the speed of light, it'll reach a factor of approximately seven hundred. So you'll do the entire middle part of the journey -- covering some three and a quarter light-years of distance -- in what will seem to you to be about a day and a half. Turnover will take place halfway through that day and a half, and I guarantee that the captain and crew will be very busy. There's no gravity for several hours -- while the ship is coasting through that appalling void at ninety-nine point nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine percent of the speed of light -- and I believe the passengers are confined to their cabins for safety reasons. Actually it's to keep them out of the crew's hair. Then comes deboosting and another year of shipboard boredom."
"You seem to have it all down pat," Hamid-Jones said. He was getting tired of being on a leash, even when the other end of the leash was held by a succession of scrupulously agreeable people like the attaché.
"Oh, I've given the tour many times," the attaché said. There might have been a tiny shade of resentment in his tone, too. "There'll be a lecture aboard, I believe, for those passengers who are new to star travel."
Outside in the blackness, a last firing of retro rockets had slowed the hangar-size nacelle to a stop. It strained at the end of its tether several hundred feet up, like an enormous flattened balloon. The passengers inside would be technically upside-down -- but that hardly mattered in Deimos's negligible gravity. A misty puff from the attitude nozzles flipped the traveling terminal over on its belly, and it started slowly to settle into its docking cradle. Hamid-Jones's eye was just quick enough to see the flick of the detached tether as it snaked into its slot beside the cradle.
The stars above were suddenly occulted as the nacelle mated with the departure lounge. Craning his neck around the curve of the observation window, Hamid-Jones saw the great lid come down and connect the two structures. He felt a faint vibration under his feet as the lounge rang in vacuum.
"Quite a circus," the attaché murmured as the first embarkees came through.
Passengers in the lounge stared at the newcomers making their way across the vast floor. At the head of the throng was a wave front of four-armed dwarfs in gaudy puffed costumes and turbans like fat pretzels. The little men were laden with suitcases, glad-stone bags, small sea chests, brass-bound coffers -- one to each arm. Many of them were outmassed by their burdens, and though weight was no problem in Deimos gravity, the dwarfs must have been enormously muscled under their flaring finery to have managed all that tonnage on the surface of Mars.
"Product of Palace bioengineering?" the attaché asked.
"I'm afraid so," said Hamid-Jones. "The Emir always went in for that sort of novelty."
"Handy for carrying a gentleman's luggage," the attaché said dryly.
"They're not a particularly elegant example of gene redesign, like sandipedes or hexapodal camels," Hamid-Jones said with professional distaste. "They were created by a rather crude form of somatic replication -- the Palace cloning department uses a lot of shortcuts. They wouldn't breed true if, in fact, they weren't already sterile."
"That's a relief," the attaché said as the little men marched past, the weight of their multiple loads keeping their buskined feet more or less in contact with the floor. "I'm sure they're much esteemed here on Mars, but they wouldn't be a very suitable gift from one sovereign to another if there was any danger of their spreading."
Hamid-Jones suspected the attaché was making fun of him, but he could detect nothing but seriousness in his expression.
"My word, look at that!" the attaché exclaimed. "Your Emir certainly does have a taste for these prodigies!"
Following the dwarfs was a gaggle of four-legged dancing girls in scanty, sequined costumes that left no doubt of their profession. Their faces were concealed for travel, but the leg-veils billowing below were gauzily transparent. They moved across the floor like skittish racehorses, their dancers' skills doing for them what anchoring weight had done for the dwarfs. The effect of the double-hipped platforms bearing all those slender, upright torsos was rather like a procession of candles on trivets.
"If one may ask," the attaché said, "does two sets of legs, ahem, also imply two functional sets of other apparatus?"
"They're capable of bearing children at either fork, if that's what you mean," Hamid-Jones said, annoyed.
"Two in one!" the attaché exclaimed. "That truly would be a princely gift from royalty to royalty -- if the recipient had a taste for the bizarre. Our Sultan, however, is a man of uncomplicated though hearty appetites. He'll probably pension these dancing quadrupeds off. I have no doubt they'll all find husbands. But did I understand you to say that they're not sterile?"
"That's right," growled Hamid-Jones. "But they carry a sex-linked lethal recessive that goes with the quadrupedia. So any surviving male children would be back in the genetic mainstream.
After the dancers came a matched set of two-headed singers capable of performing duets with themselves -- the pair of them constituting a quartet.
"What, one wonders, is their repertoire?" the attaché drawled. A lowering look from Hamid-Jones cut off his further comment.
The amazed stares of the spaceport bystanders changed to admiration as the next offerings of the Emir filed past -- a succession of handlers and grooms with some of the finest animals in the Solar system. There were prancing salukis, their silky ears flying in the low gravity, held down to the floor only by the pressure of the leash; fierce, caged Marsfalcons with magnificent plumage.
"The poor creatures will never fly on Alif Prime," the attaché said, serious now. "Those great fragile wings would snap like matchsticks at first flutter. They'll have to be sent to one of the moons and kept in a zoo."
Hamid-Jones's heart stopped as he recognized al-Janah leading the string of Mars stallions being escorted by Royal Stables grooms. Had someone else -- Rashid or Ja'far -- completed the cloning project he'd started? After he recovered from the first surprise, he realized that there wouldn't have been time to carry a clone to maturity. The horse was unmistakably al-Janah, but he would have to be the product of an earlier cloning.
"Wonderful animal," the attaché said. "Is something the matter?"
Hamid-Jones turned away. "I hope that none of those grooms can recognize me through this disguise."
"You won't have to worry about them once you're aboard. They'll turn the horses over to our own stablemaster and return on the next tethershuttle."
Porters with padlocked cases, in lockstep with armed guards, followed the animals, and then came crews of navvies floating pallets with huge crates, big enough for elephants, a few inches off the floor. Jewels, perhaps, in the smaller cases. The contents of the crates could only be guessed at. In a previous exchange of gifts between rulers, the Emir had sent a custom-built state yacht, tested on one of the enclosed palace lagoons and then dismantled in sections; the Mars-made craft could not have stayed afloat for five minutes in Alpha Centauri's seas, but as a gesture it was hard to top.
Last of all came the new Martian ambassador and his considerable retinue, who were to present the collection of state gifts. The current ambassador, four light-years away, could have no inkling that he would be replaced upon the arrival of the starship. Even the news of the bogus Emir's "recovery" from the ambushed operation would not arrive by radio until a year before the ship. The distant ambassador was a Rubinstein man. He was definitely on Ismail's list. Hamid-Jones wondered whether there was a killer in the replacement ambassador's retinue, or whether the execution would wait until the old ambassador returned to Mars.
"Is there anyone in that bunch who might know you by sight?"
Hamid-Jones studied the ambassadorial staff. There were too many eunuchs among them -- about fifty out of a total of a hundred or so. The uncastrated men tended toward civil service fops, some of them as gaudy and overadorned as the eunuchs.
The ambassador himself, a cadaverous fellow with shifty eyes, was not a eunuch -- that would have been an insult to the Sultan -- but he was Ismail's man nevertheless. It was more than four light-years to Alpha Centauri, but fear made a long string.
"I don't recognize anyone offhand, but you never know."
"If worse comes to worst, you can put yourself under the captain's protection. He won't be able to acknowledge you openly -- there's already too much diplomatic strain between Mars and Alpha Centauri -- but perhaps he might tuck you away somewhere. I don't know how many coverts are traveling with that dressmaker's circus, but it's unlikely that even the loosest cannon would compromise his ambassador's position with a shipboard attempt on your life." His teeth gleamed in a perfect smile. "Governments generally hire the Assassins for that sort of skulduggery."
"That's very comforting," Hamid-Jones said.
"There go the last of them," the attaché said, turning. He was a bit of a fop himself, but when his short Centauran-style chlamys parted, Hamid-Jones clearly saw the outline of a shoulder holster. "You'd better get a move on. Do you have your boarding pass?"
"Good. I'll leave you here, then. I'm not cleared past the gate. Good trip and all that."
Hamid-Jones picked up his carry-on luggage and joined the last-minute flow to the departure gate. There were fewer than a thousand people left. They parted in two streams around the mullah, who was cleaning up the remains of the sacrifice while an impatient custodial worker rolled up the edges of the plastic tarpaulin. A number of passengers were pausing to dip their fingertips or pick up a fragment of the laser-charred mutton. At the last moment, Hamid-Jones did the same, popping a blackened morsel into his mouth with a mumbled prayer.
As he moved in a low-gravity shuffle through the long transparent passage that curved over Deimos's small horizon, never more than a hundred yards away, he lifted his eyes with almost everybody else to watch the rising of the starship above the pocked skyline.
It was a vast onion shape, over a mile in diameter, that would flatten out still further under acceleration. He could see the gossamer shroud clinging to the ship and all the complicated rigging and stays that would unfold it in flight to protect the craft from the howling storm of charged particles that would impinge on it at relativistic velocities; the superconducting fabric was gaily painted with colorful Kufic calligraphy, though the decorations would char away long before the ship reached even a fraction of its final speed.
The ship itself, of course, was mostly wood, varnished to a glossy sheen. Wood was the most practical material for large structures built in space. It didn't have to be lifted at great expense out of the gravity wells of planets -- it was sent spiraling inward from the cometary belt, where the forests of mankind had been growing for five centuries. The great shipyards beyond the orbit of Uranus fashioned the comet-grown lumber into starships, space stations, habitats, intrasystem liners -- everything except the small craft designed for atmospheric reentry. The giant trees, bio-engineered to live in a vacuum, subsisted on the water, carbon, and nitrogen of cometary ice and in the absence of significant gravity grew to immense size. Timbers a hundred miles long, used in the construction of habitats, were not uncommon.
For a starship like the Saladin, timbers and planking a mere mile or so in length sufficed. Hardly a bolt or fastener had been used in the Saladin's construction. Like the Arab ships of yore, it was sewn together -- not by coir, as in the ancient seagoing vessels, but by thousands upon thousands of miles of rope made from monofilament fiber. The stitched construction gave the starship the advantage of flexibility. Like a living thing, it could change shape and adapt itself to the enormous stresses of continuous one-G boosts over periods measured in years. Wood and cord were far more sensible materials than metal, which would have had to have been worked into movable joints, or plastic, which was inclined to deteriorate under exposure to the shorter wavelengths or, still worse, to snap.
Wood had been an underrated material in the early days of space exploration, but once mankind had outgrown its tin cans, the engineers had begun once again to appreciate its virtues of high tensile strength, elasticity, and superior insulating qualities. The cedars of Lebanon were reborn -- this time in the cometary wilderness. Someday, when the spreading ecology had transformed the Oort Cloud, the greater portion of humanity would live on comets.
"It looks almost like a giant mosque, doesn't it?" remarked an elderly gentleman who was shuffling along beside Hamid-Jones, holding a bird cage. He peered nearsightedly at the wooden onion with its slipcover.
"Er, yes, I guess you could say that," Hamid-Jones agreed politely.
"And the covering with the sacred inscriptions -- it reminds me of the embroidered covering of the Kaaba. Have you been to Mecca?"
"Er, no, not yet."
"The inscriptions -- will they protect us from harm, do you think?"
"Well, uh, when the magnetic umbrella opens up it will certainly protect us from all the hydrogen atoms that will rain on us at relativistic speeds."
The old man squinted rheumily at Hamid-Jones. "Don't I know you from somewhere? Have we met?"
"I don't think so."
"Just a minute and I'll have it," the old man said.
"It's been nice talking to you," Hamid-Jones said, and hurried to leave the old man behind.
A smiling steward was waiting to greet him at the head of the gangplank. He compared Hamid-Jones's boarding pass to a list summoned up on a palmscreen and said, "Welcome aboard, sidi. A porter will show you to your cabin. There's plenty of time to get settled -- we don't cast off for another hour and a half. I suggest you go to the observation deck to watch our departure. It's a grand sight. We borrow Deimos's orbital motion to assist us, and as we pull round on the sunward side, you'll see Mars go through all its phases in a half hour. A full Mars at only twelve thousand miles is worth seeing! There won't be much to see after that -- Earth will be visible to the naked eye for only about a week, and two weeks after that, the Sun will be only another star. By the time we reach a third of the speed of light, the stars themselves will start to disappear -- blind spots will appear both ahead and behind as the stars Doppler through the spectrum and become invisible, below infrared behind, beyond ultraviolet forward. The blank disks will enlarge, squeezing the rest of the stars between them into rainbow hoops, until there's just a thin band around us. We ride through a void after that. So see the sights while you can."
"Thanks, I will," Hamid-Jones said.
"Don't worry about acceleration, though. You'll have plenty of time to acquire your space legs. We'll give you about six hours to get up to a Martian standard G -- takeoff's practically unnoticeable -- and then we give the passengers a month to work up to a standard Centauran G. There are exercise programs available to help. We suggest strongly to all Marsborn passengers that they sign up, but if you're Centauranborn or Earthborn to start with, and you've only lost tone on Mars, the gradual increments of acceleration are generally sufficient to get you back in shape -- though mind you, an hour or so daily in a penguin suit can't hurt."
He was looking curiously at Hamid-Jones. Hamid-Jones remembered that while he was dressed and coiffed as an Alpha Centauran and traveling under a Centauran name, his accent was distinctly Solar -- Martian with an underlay of Anglo-Arab. His sturdy frame though, forged in Earth's gravitational field, had more in common with Centauran physiques than those of most of the inhabitants of the Solar system.
"I'll keep that in mind," Hamid-Jones mumbled.
The steward snapped his fingers. A porter appeared at Hamid-Jones's side, dressed in blue pantaloons and a white jacket. He touched his tarboosh respectfully and gently pried the bag from Hamid-Jones's hand. "Would you like me to carry you, too, sidi?" he said, producing a wraparound girdle with two handles.
Hamid-Jones had no intention of being toted like a log of wood. "No, thank you, I can manage very well in low gravity," he said snappishly.
"Very good, sidi," the porter said, and launched himself in a flat trajectory, leaving Hamid-Jones to follow as best he could.
The cabin turned out to be more like a stateroom, with its own tiled bath and a curtained sleeping alcove. There was plenty of room aboard a starship, the economics of interstellar travel being what they were. The prayer nook contained a circular rug that perfectly illustrated the nature of star travel with its continuous boost. Instead of a pointed mihrab to align the worshipper properly, the prayer niche was round, with a circular target for the forehead. Mecca would always be directly below during the first half of the journey, directly above for the second half.
He washed his face, fiddled with the holovid to see what the ship's library contained, sampled a piece of fruit from the bowl on the table. A pamphlet told him that the Saladin possessed its own orchards that were supplied with light in the growth spectra diverted from the awesome glare of the total annihilation drive, its own flocks of sheep and chickens for fresh mutton and poultry, grew its own garden vegetables and heterochronic grains -- though there were bulk suppliers aboard for a two-year subjective voyage should blights or poor harvests afflict the hydroponics cages. There were also several paradises aboard, with purely decorative trees, flowers, and songbirds. Passengers were cautioned to be careful about letting songbirds escape when entering or leaving through the double doors.
A chime sounded, and a pleasant disembodied voice reminded passengers that the ship would cast off in one hour, for those who wished to secure a good place on the observation deck. Hamid-Jones struggled for the better part of a nanosecond against the desire not to appear overeager and unsophisticated, then jammed the unfamiliar tarboosh back on his head and joined the trickle of passengers moving through the corridors. It wasn't every day that one set sail for the stars.
With a groan of protesting timbers that was audible within the ship but went unheard on Deimos's airless surface, the Saladin cast off its mooring cables and started to rise. Slowly, ponderously, like a vast squashed balloon, it drifted upward on the momentum imparted by the loaded springs of the landing cradle. Once, the gentle nudge had come from compressed CO2, but worried Sufi environmentalists had pointed out that the molecules tended to linger, even on a body with an insignificant gravitational field like Deimos.
Deimos fell behind, a smallish potato crisscrossed with the glittering threads of enclosed tubeways and studded with the thumbtack shapes of the hotels and spaceport facilities that had grown there over the centuries. Two of the potato's eyes were glazed over -- Swift and Voltaire craters wore bubbles containing, respectively, a park and a low gravity recreational lake over a mile in diameter. Somewhere in Swift Park was a monument displaying a replica of the first Deimos lander, a Russian craft of the early twenty-first Christian century.
The intrasystem fusion drive kicked in when the Saladin was far enough away from Deimos not to endanger it. The initial boost was at a gentle one hundredth of a gravity. Within the ship, loose objects, including people, began to settle to the floor. Water stayed in basins. Flower arrangements in cabins showed the slightest droop. People weighed a pound or two -- more than they had when the ship was berthed at Deimos.
Steadily, weight increased. In ten minutes it had doubled. At the end of the first hour it was up to about six percent of a Terrestrial G and still increasing. The ship's modest hydrogen reserves would be used up long before it crossed the orbit of Jupiter, but by then it would be safe to turn on the Harun drive -- at that point the Saladin would be traveling several million miles below the plane of the ecliptic, no inhabited body of the Solar system would be anywhere near its path, and the memories of the Solar system's traffic computers would have been searched to insure that no spacecraft had strayed from the ecliptic on a course that would risk intersecting the trajectory of the Saladin at close range.
The Harun effect was well understood after six centuries, and there had been no major accidents since the unfortunate release of the antihydrogen cloud that had wiped the surface of Hygeia clean and turned it into a ball of fused glass. But one doesn't take chances when one rends the curtain of Creation.
The great wooden bubble, a world in itself, steadied and trimmed until it was aligned with the Centaur. Once, that constellation's brightest star had guided Arab mariners venturing south of the equator by pointing the way to the Southern Cross. Now it shone as a yellow beacon beckoning toward another of Allah's kingdoms in the sky.
"I beg your pardon, but could you help me to a seat? I can't seem to stay on the floor."
Hamid-Jones turned his head and saw the old gent who had been carrying the bird cage. He was clinging for dear life to the backrest of Hamid-Jones's seat; evidently he had lost his nerve while trying to negotiate his way toward one of the few empty chairs.
"Here, take mine," Hamid-Jones said, springing to his feet and managing to stay anchored himself only by grabbing a knob on the armrest.
"Oh, I couldn't..."
"That's all right. Sitting or standing, it doesn't matter much at a sixteenth of a G. Here, let me help you. Maybe you'll be more comfortable with the safety belt fastened."
The old man settled gratefully into the cushions. "Oh, you're the young man I spoke to at the spaceport."
"Er, yes." Hamid-Jones started to edge away.
"I was afraid I'd bounce up too far and fall into that! It makes me quite dizzy just looking at it."
He gestured toward the central well that rose through the mile-wide acreage of the observation deck. It was a thousand feet across and surrounded by a chest-high railing. It was there to allow for expansion as the Saladin changed shape, and it was the core of the ship. From the lounge chairs drawn up to face it, one could look down into a chasm that at present was a halfmile deep, or up to see the destination stars of Centaurus. Most of the ship's passengers were seated a halfmile away to watch the retreat of Mars through the ports that girdled the ship, but the more romantically inclined had taken their positions here, to dream and to speculate.
Copyright © 1989 by Donald Moffitt