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Chapter Two

"Papa-Mike Control, this is Papa-Mike One-X-Ray, do you copy?"

Lieutenant Commander Colin MacIntyre's radar pinged softly as the Copernicus mass driver hurled another few tons of lunar rock towards the catcher ships of the Eden Three habitat, and he watched its out-going trace on the scope as he waited, reveling in the joy of solo flight, for secondary mission control at Tereshkova to respond.

"One-X-Ray, Papa-Mike Control," a deep voice acknowledged. "Proceed."

"Papa-Mike Control, One-X-Ray orbital insertion burn complete. It looks good from here. Over."

"One-X-Ray, that's affirmative. Do you want a couple of orbits to settle in before initiating?"

"Negative, Control. The whole idea's to do this on my own, right?"

"Affirmative, One-X-Ray."

"Let's do it, then. I show a green board, Pasha-do you confirm?"

"That's an affirmative, One-X-Ray. And we also show you approaching our transmission horizon, Colin. Communications loss in twenty seconds. You are cleared to initiate the exercise."

"Papa-Mike Control, One-X-Ray copies. See you guys in a little while."

"Roger, One-X-Ray. Your turn to buy, anyway."

"Like hell it is," MacIntyre laughed, but whatever Papa-Mike Control might have replied was cut off as One-X-Ray swept beyond the lunar horizon and lost signal.

MacIntyre ran down his final check list with extra care. It had been surprisingly hard for the test mission's planners to pick an orbit that would keep him clear of Nearside's traffic and cover a totally unexplored portion of the moon's surface. But Farside was populated only by a handful of observatories and deep-system radio arrays, and the routing required to find virgin territory combined with the close orbit the survey instruments needed would put him out of touch with the rest of the human race for the next little bit, which was a novel experience even for an astronaut these days.

He finished his list and activated his instruments, then sat back and hummed, drumming on the arms of his acceleration couch to keep time, as his on-board computers flickered through the mission programs. It was always possible to hit a glitch, but there was little he could do about it if it happened. He was a pilot, thoroughly familiar with the electronic gizzards of his one-man Beagle Three survey vehicle, but he had only the vaguest idea about how this particular instrument package functioned.

The rate of technical progress in the seventy years since Armstrong was enough to leave any non-specialist hopelessly behind outside his own field, and the Geo Sciences team back at Shepherd Center had wandered down some peculiar paths to produce their current generation of esoteric peekers and pryers. "Gravitonic resonance" was a marvelous term . . . and MacIntyre often wished he knew exactly what it meant. But not enough to spend another six or eight years tacking on extra degrees, so he contented himself with understanding what the "planetary proctoscope" (as some anonymous wag had christened it) did rather than how it did it.

Maneuvering thrusters nudged his Beagle into precisely the proper attitude, and MacIntyre bent a sapient gaze upon the read-outs. Those, at least, he understood. Which was just as well, since he was slated as primary survey pilot for the Prometheus Mission, and-

His humming paused suddenly, dying in mid-note, and his eyebrows crooked. Now that was odd. A malfunction?

He punched keys, and his crooked eyebrows became a frown. According to the diagnostics, everything was functioning perfectly, but whatever else the moon might be, it wasn't hollow. 

He tugged on his prominent nose, watching the preposterous data appear on the displays. The printer beside him hummed, producing a hard-copy graphic representation of the raw numbers, and he tugged harder. According to his demented instruments, someone must have been a busy little beaver down there. It looked for all the world as if a vast labyrinth of tunnels, passages, and God knew what had been carved out under eighty kilometers of solid lunar rock!

He allowed himself a muttered imprecation. Less than a year from mission date, and one of their primary survey systems-and a NASA design, at that!-had decided to go gaga. But the thing had worked perfectly in atmospheric tests over Nevada and Siberia, so what the hell had happened now?

He was still tugging on his nose when the proximity alarm jerked him up in his couch. Damnation! He was all alone back here, so what the hell was that?

"That" was a blip less than a hundred kilometers astern and closing fast. How had something that big gotten this close before his radar caught it? According to his instruments, it was at least the size of one of the old Saturn V boosters!

His jaw dropped as the bogie made a crisp, clean, instantaneous ninety-degree turn. Apparently the laws of motion had been repealed on behalf of whatever it was! But whatever else it was doing, it was also maneuvering to match his orbit. Even as he watched, the stranger was slowing to pace him.

Colin MacIntyre's level-headedness was one reason he'd been selected for the first joint US-Soviet interstellar flight crew, but the hair on the back of his neck stood on end as his craft suddenly shuddered. It was as if something had touched the Beagle's hull-something massive enough to shake a hundred-ton, atmosphere-capable, variable-geometry spacecraft.

That shook him out of his momentary state of shock. Whatever this was, no one had told him to expect it, and that meant it belonged to neither NASA nor the Russians. His hands flew over his maneuvering console, waking flaring thrusters, and the Beagle quivered. She quivered, but she didn't budge, and cold sweat beaded MacIntyre's face as she continued serenely along her orbital path, attitude unchanged. That couldn't possibly be happening-but, then, none of this could be happening, could it?

He chopped that thought off and punched more keys. One thing he had was plenty of maneuvering mass-Beagles were designed for lengthy deployments, and he'd tanked from the Russkies' Gagarin Platform before departure on his trans-lunar flight plan-and the ship shuddered wildly as her main engines came alive.

The full-power burn should have slammed him back in his couch and sent the survey ship hurtling forward, but the thundering engines had no more effect than his maneuvering thrusters, and he sagged in his seat. Then his jaw clenched as the Beagle finally started to move-not away from the stranger, but towards it! Whatever that thing on his radar was, it was no figment of his imagination.

His mind raced. The only possible explanation was that the blip had stuck him with some sort of . . . of tractor beam, and that represented more than any mere quantum leap in applied physics, which meant the blip did not come from any Terran technology. He did not indulge himself with any more dirty words like "impossible" or "incredible," for it was all too evident that it was possible. By some unimaginable quirk of fate, Somebody Else had come calling just as Mankind was about to reach out to the stars.

But whoever They were, he couldn't believe they'd just happened to turn up while he was Farside with blacked-out communications. They'd been waiting for him, or someone like him, so they must have been observing Earth for quite some time. But if they had, they'd had time to make their presence known-and to monitor Terrestrial communication systems. Presumably, then, they knew how to contact him but had chosen not to do so, and that suggested a lot of things, none particularly pleasant. The salient point, however, was that they obviously intended to collect him, Beagle and all, for purposes of their own, and Colin MacIntyre did not intend to be collected if he could help it.

The exhaustive Prometheus Mission briefings on first contact flowed through his mind, complete with all the injunctions to refrain from hostile acts, but it was one thing to consider yourself expendable in pursuit of communication with aliens you might have gone calling on. It was quite another when they dropped in on you and started hauling you in like a fish!

His face hardened, and he flipped up the plastic shield over the fire control panel. There'd been wrung hands at the notion of arming a "peaceful" interstellar probe, but the military, which provided so many of the pilots, had enjoyed the final word, and MacIntyre breathed a silent breath of thanks that this was a full-dress training mission as weapon systems came alive. He fed targeting data from his radar and reached for the firing keys, then paused. They hadn't tried talking to him, but neither had he tried talking to them.

"Unknown spacecraft, this is NASA Papa-Mike One-X-Ray," he said crisply into his radio. "Release my ship and stand off."

There was no answer, and he glowered at the blip.

"Release my ship or I will fire on you!"

Still no reply, and his lips thinned. All right. If the miserable buggers didn't even want to talk . . .

Three small, powerful missiles blasted away from the Beagle. They weren't nukes, but each carried a three-hundred-kilo warhead, and they had a perfect targeting setup. He tracked them all the way in on radar.

And absolutely nothing happened.

Commander MacIntyre sagged in his couch. Those missiles hadn't been spoofed by ECM or exploded short of the target. They'd just . . . vanished, and the implications were disturbing. Most disturbing.

He cut his engines. There was no point wasting propellant, and he and his captors would be clearing Heinlein's transmission horizon shortly anyway.

He tried to remember if any of the other Beagles were up. Judging by his own total lack of success, they would be none too effective against Whoever-They-Were, but nothing else in this vicinity was armed at all. He rather thought Vlad Chernikov was at Tereshkova, but the flight schedules for the Prometheus crews had grown so hectic of late it was hard to keep track.

His Beagle continued to move towards the intruder, and now he was turning slowly nose-on to it. He leaned back as nonchalantly as possible, watching through his canopy. He ought to see them just about . . . now.

Yes, there they were. And mighty disappointing they were, too. He didn't really know what he'd expected, but that flattened, featureless, round-tipped, double-ended cylinder certainly wasn't it. They were barely a kilometer clear, now, but aside from the fact that the thing was obviously artificial, it seemed disappointingly undramatic. There was no sign of engines, hatches, ports, communication arrays . . . nothing at all but smooth, mirror-bright metal. Or, at least, he assumed it was metal.

He checked his chronometer. Communications should come back in any second now, and his lips stretched in a humorless smile at how Heinlein Base was going to react when the pair of them came over the radar horizon. It ought to be-

They stopped. Just like that, with no apparent sense of deceleration, no reaction exhaust from the cylinder, no . . . anything. 

He gaped at the intruder in disbelief. Or, no, not disbelief, exactly. More like a desire to disbelieve. Especially when he realized they were motionless relative to the lunar surface, neither climbing away nor tumbling closer. The fact that the intruder could do that was somehow more terrifying than anything else that had happened-a terror made only worse by the total, prosaic familiarity of his own cockpit-and he clutched the arms of his couch, fighting an irrational conviction that he had to be falling.

But then they were moving again, zipping back the way they'd come at a velocity that beggared the imagination, all with absolutely no sense of acceleration. His attitude relative to the cylinder altered once more; it was behind him now, its rounded tip barely a hundred meters clear of his own engines, and he watched the lunar surface blur below him.

His Beagle and its captor swooped lower, arrowing straight for a minor crater, and his toes curled inside his flight boots while his hands tried to rip the arms off his couch. The things he'd already seen that cylinder do told his intellect they were not about to crash, but instinct was something else again. He fought his panic stubbornly, refusing to yield to it, yet his gasp of relief was explosive when the floor of the crater suddenly zipped open.

The cylinder slowed to a few hundred kilometers per hour, and MacIntyre felt the comfort of catatonia beckoning to him, but something made him fight it as obstinately as he had fought his panic. Whatever had him wasn't going to find him curled up and drooling when they finally stopped, by God!

A mighty tunnel enveloped them, a good two hundred meters across and lit by brilliant strip lights. Stone walls glittered with an odd sheen, as if the rock had been fused glass-slick, but that didn't last long. They slid through a multi-ply hatch big enough for a pair of carriers, and the tunnel walls were suddenly metallic. A bronze-like metal, gleaming in the light, stretching so far ahead of him even its mighty bore dwindled to a gleaming dot with distance.

Their speed dropped still further, and more hatches slid past. Dozens of hatches, most as large as the one that had admitted them to this impossible metal gullet. His mind reeled at the structure's sheer size, but he retained enough mental balance to apologize silently to the proctoscope's designers.

One huge hatch flicked open with the suddenness of a striking snake. Whoever was directing their flight curved away from the tunnel, slipping neatly through the open hatch, and his Beagle settled without a jar to a floor of the same bronze-like alloy.

They were in a dimly-lit metal cavern at least a kilometer across, its floor dotted with neatly parked duplicates of the cylinder that had captured him. He gawked through the canopy, wishing a Beagle's equipment list ran to sidearms. After his missiles' failure he supposed there was no reason to expect a handgun to work, either, but it would have been comforting to be able to try.

He licked his lips. If nothing else, the titanic size of this structure ruled out the possibility that the intruders had only recently discovered the solar system, but how had they managed to build it without anyone noticing?

And then, at last, his radio hummed to life.

"Good afternoon, Commander MacIntyre," a deep, mellow voice said politely. "I regret the rather unorthodox nature of your arrival here, but I had no choice. Nor, I am afraid, do you."

"W-who are you?" MacIntyre demanded a bit hoarsely, then paused and cleared his throat. "What do you want with me?" he asked more levelly.

"I fear that answering those questions will be a bit complicated," the voice said imperturbably, "but you may call me Dahak, Commander."

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