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Solitary and silent, the huge starship Prometheus sailed through space, propelled by the sunlight reflected from its large circular lightsail of thin silvery metal film. The 300 kilometer diameter lightsail maintained its flat circular shape by a ponderous rotation of the structure about its central axis, like a slowly cartwheeling tinfoil moon passing across the backdrop of a gigantic empty stage. Below the lightsail hung a metallic cylinder, a space habitat, somewhat the worse for the wear it had experienced over the almost half century that had passed since it had left the Solar System. In the weak light of the small red dwarf star Barnard, six light-years distant from Earth, the ship's metal exterior shone a dim, pale red.

Mechanically and efficiently, the optical telescopes, infrared imagers, particle detectors, electromagnetic receivers, neutrino counters, gravity sensors, data analyzers, information recorders, and interstellar communicators under the supervision of the powerful central computer of Prometheus performed their myriad and continuing tasks of observation, analysis, and reporting of the physical aspects and the behavior of the various bodies in the Barnard planetary system.

In close orbit around Barnard circled the gas giant planet Gargantua—four times bigger than Jupiter—with its retinue of nine moons—four large planetoids and five small rocks. Between the circular orbit of Gargantua and Barnard whirled the strange double-planet Rocheworld in its own highly elliptical orbit around Barnard. Rocheworld's orbital period was exactly one-third that of Gargantua's orbital period, so it passed close to Gargantua once every third orbit.

All the moons and planets of the Barnard system had been surveyed from space during the first three years after the arrival of Prometheus at the Barnard system, and two of the bodies had been explored by landing parties. Rocheworld was one of the bodies that was visited, not once, but twice. Two different alien lifeforms were found there. One, the "gummies", lived in the highlands of Roche, the name given to one lobe of the double planet, and the other, the "flouwen", lived in the oceans of the other lobe, Eau. The third exploration landing had been on Zulu, the innermost large moon of Gargantua, whose ice-covered ocean contained hot-water geysers around which lived colonies of intelligent "icerugs."

Now, Prometheus approached the next landing target, the Gargantuan moon Zuni, which orbited between the water-covered moon Zulu and the smog-covered moon Zouave. A little larger than the Earth's moon, with a surface gravity of only 28% that of Earth, Zuni should have been barren and cold, or at least should have had a hostile environment like Rocheworld or the other moons of Gargantua. Instead, it looked like a miniature Earth, a South Pacific version, with verdant volcanic island chains stretched out over a planetwide blue ocean dotted with white rainclouds. Part of the reason Zuni had been chosen as the target for the last of the four planetary exploration landers that Prometheus carried, was to find out why this small moon was so Earth-like.

Within the sheltering metal hull of the space habitat, the central computer and "brain" of Prometheus, James, absorbed the data that flowed in from all over the ship, while at the same time it effortlessly monitored the condition of its equipment, operated the versatile and sensitive motiles by which it essentially ran the ship; and, at least as important, cared for and served the nineteen human beings whose lives were confined within the hull. For, although James collected and correlated the data, the real analyses and discoveries were made by the humans, who studied the information their machines had gathered about these strange planetoids, and struggled to comprehend the meaning behind the complex gravitational, electromagnetic, mechanical, thermal, and chemical phenomena which shaped and activated them.

The crew lived on the lower five of Prometheus' seven circular decks. The decks were connected by a central shaft four meters in diameter and sixty meters long, terminated at each end by a transparent dome which contained science scanning instruments. The shaft contained an elevator for moving massive equipment, and served as an access route between decks. In the nearly freefall environment of the lightsail propelled spacecraft, the humans drifted up and down the shaft like bubbles as they went about their routines.

The top two decks of the seven decks were tucked up under the center of the lightsail. These were the domain of James's primary motile, the Christmas Bush. Those decks contained the "workwall," a twisted labyrinth of foot-wide corridors with walls that were solidly lined from floor to ceiling with banks of miniature machines, each backed up with triplicate spares in storage. The machines ranged from simple free-fall weighing devices, to fermenting tanks, to ultrasonic cleaners, to tunneling array microscopes, to cubic-meter-sized complete biochemical analytical and synthesis machines. Although all the instruments were controlled electronically by James using direct data links, it was the Christmas Bush motile or one of its subunits which inserted the samples to be analyzed and removed the products that had been synthesized.

The Christmas Bush motile had a six-"armed" main body. Each arm hexfurcated into copies one-third the size of itself, and each copy repeated the hexfurcation until the final stage, which consisted of millions of near-microscopic cilia. Each subsegment had a small amount of intelligence, but was mostly a motor and communication system. The segments communicated with each other and transmitted power down through the structure by means of light-emitting and light-collecting semiconductor diodes. Blue laser beams were used to monitor closely any human beings near the motile, while red and yellow beams were used to monitor the rest of the room. The green beams that were used to transmit power and information from one portion of the Christmas Bush to another gave the metallic surface of the multibranched structure a deep green internal glow. It was the multicolored red, yellow, and blue lasers that sparkled from the various branches of the greenly glowing structure that gave the motile the appearance of a small Christmas tree, and thus its name.

James, the central computer in the spacecraft, was the "brains" and the primary controller of the motile, communicating with the various subportions of the Christmas Bush through color-coded laser beams. It took a great deal of computational power to operate the many limbs of the Christmas Bush, but built-in "reflexes" at the various levels of segmentation lessened the load on the central computer.

The "hands" of the Christmas Bush had capabilities that far exceeded those of the human hand. The Christmas Bush could stick a "hand" inside a delicate piece of equipment, and using its lasers as a light source and its detectors as eyes, rearrange the parts inside for a near-instantaneous repair. The Christmas Bush also had the ability to detach portions of itself to make smaller motiles. These could walk up the walls and along the ceilings using their tiny cilia to hold onto microscopic cracks in the surface. The smaller twigs on the Christmas Bush were capable of very rapid motion. In free fall, these rapidly beating twigs allowed the motile to propel itself through the air. The speed of motion of the smaller cilia was rapid enough that the motiles could generate sound and thus talk directly with the humans. Each member of the crew had a small subtree or "imp" that stayed constantly with him or her. In addition to the imp's primary purpose of providing a continuous personal communication link between the crew member and James, it also acted as a health monitor and personal servant for the human.

Between the two work decks above and the five living decks below was the storage area for the robotic explorers which were sent down to explore the planetoids ahead of the humans, and the four large planetary landers that carried down and returned the human exploration crews. Most of the original robotic explorers had been deployed during the initial survey phase of the mission, and continually transmitted back to Prometheus the information they were gathering about the two lobes of Rocheworld, the planet Gargantua, and Gargantua's nine moons. Orbiters, communicators, amphibious crawlers, aeroplanes, balloons, rollers, penetrators, and diggers had all been launched in the three years since the humans first arrived on their mission.

And the mission continued, and would continue as long as these explorers, both human and robot, existed. Launched from Earth forty-five years previously, the crew of Prometheus intended to explore the star system Barnard exhaustively for the rest of their lives, faithfully transmitting all the information they gathered back to the planet they would never see again. During those forty-five years, the carefully-selected personnel had experienced most normal human emotions and difficulties, and some not so normal. The life-extending drug No-Die, administered by James to the crew over a span of forty years, made it possible for them to arrive at their destination while still relatively physically young, but at some costs.

Three of the crew were now at their duty stations on the bottom control deck. In the limited space, they were crowded close to each other; nevertheless, through long habit, each spoke automatically only to his or her imp, which connected them directly to the central computer, which in turn connected them with all the rest of the ship, machine and human alike. For most of the crew, their imp rode on their shoulder, like a brightly sparkling six-legged tarantula, with one leg resting lightly on the neck of the person, its laser beams constantly monitoring pulse, blood pressure, and, using reflection laser spectroscopy through the thin skin, blood constituents. Sparkling with constantly moving flashes of blue, green, red, and yellow along its slender extending fibers, the shape and riding position of the benign imps sometimes reflected the individuality of the people they served. In the case of the expedition commander, Major General Virginia Jones, she had chosen to have her imp form itself in the shape of a bejeweled hair-comb, set firmly into her short crop of curly black hair just behind one ear. Here, the imp could not only carry on its health monitoring activities, but, when she was talking, act as a lightweight telephone operator's headset, one arm extended to pick up her every whisper, and another arm fanned out near her ear to verbalize James's response.

"Caroline, double-check status of the amphibious crawler Bubble. It's floating in the middle of a small lagoon on an island at the Inner pole of Zuni. It's been instructed to dive and explore the bottom, but it's not doing it." The words were murmured so softly into the twinkling extension of the Christmas Bush waiting at her lips that she could barely hear them herself. But echoed back from James through her own imp into her ear, the command came clear and brisk. James routed the command to Caroline, who was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the speaker.

"Double-checking, Jinjur," Caroline Tanaka muttered in reply to the command coming into her ear through her imp. She deftly rearranged the incoming data display with a few quick finger stabs at the touchscreen. "Hmmm. Lack of actual depth record. Malfunction? David, malfunction of Bubble's depth recorder?"

The inaudible question, properly switched by James to the imp standing on David Greystoke's shoulder, arrested David's attention from the screen he had been watching so intently. He switched his screen to the image on Caroline's screen and scowled.

"Hmmm. All other functions of Bubble are operating normally. I'll have James send a self-check command to clarify the situation before it proceeds with the dive. Can't understand why that one unit should fail. Damn." Both Jinjur and Caroline heard the little growl of complaint through their imps—James did not edit any spoken words.

As directed, the central computer sent its questioning impulses on their way, while the crew on duty continued with their analysis work. Soon, the voice of James, tinged with the built-in apologetic note it had been programmed to use when data seem inadequate, addressed them all.

"Bubble apparently cannot reach the bottom of that particular body of water without threat of damage to itself. The reading from its sonar depth gauge is off its range."

"The lagoon is not that big across," replied Jinjur. "How can it be that deep?"

"Might be a drowned caldera," suggested Caroline. "Not surprising, since according to Richard and Sam, all the islands on Zuni are of volcanic origin."

"David. Better have Bubble make a few traverses of the lagoon's surface while measuring the depth to the bottom, then run that data, including angle of bottom slope, etcetera, through James's geophysical mapping program to develop a seabottom map and a safe descent route before we send Bubble down to explore. Make a reminder note for—let's see, who's coming on science analysis duty next?—Carmen, I think, and George and Richard."

The reminder note was made and stored. The shift period finally came to an end, and the three people pulled the backs and legs of their coveralls loose from the velcro attachment pads of their console seats, maneuvering carefully in the low gravity so as not to bump into each other between the close-ranked consoles.

"Hey, David!"

David looked over at Jinjur as she spoke directly to him without going through the imp-to-James-to-imp interface. "How's the sonovideo show coming?"

David grinned, his elfin face lighting up under his thatch of reddish hair. "Slow but sure, Jinjur—can't hurry us geniuses! Got to go back to it right now . . ." He went quickly from the command room. Writing music for the sonovideo light and dance performances he created was a joy David couldn't, and wouldn't, share with anyone. They would just have to wait for the performance. He considered, dispassionately, how to costume his preferred dancer, the acrobatic Arielle Trudeau, for the "Dance of the Northern Lights" he was composing. The auroras he had witnessed on the icy planet of Zulu had left him tingling to set them to music, and the quickness, litheness, and fragility of Arielle's body could illustrate it to perfection; but the spare frame of the aerospace pilot preferred a snuggly bunny suit to any other form of clothing, even in the mild, carefully regulated atmosphere of the ship. Tendrils of ribbon-like fabric with the shimmering overtones of auroral emission colors would be appropriate, but Arielle quite possibly would object. As David made his way up the central shaft to the crew quarters above, he swiftly outlined the problem to James, then dismissed it from his own mind. He knew that James would use its Christmas Bush to manufacture something that would be perfectly satisfactory to both composer and performer.


James noted David's requirement for a costume. Within the labyrinthine confines of the two upper decks, a Christmas Branch, a subset of the Christmas Bush, detached itself from the main motile and went silently to work, spinning gossamer strands from recycled threads of artificial fabric, and creating new colors by synthesizing the appropriate chemical dyes. Such a minor task was handled routinely and easily by James, using only a very small part of the giant computer's capabilities. At the same time, the health reports coming in from nineteen imps were analyzed and stored, maintaining a record of all the changes in the well-being of the human bodies James cared for.

In the hydroponics lab, further subsets of the Christmas Bush moved about in their flickering clusters to pick the crops, filter out the algae, harvest the fish, and cut fillets from the meat tissue cultures, "Ferdinand," "Lambchop," "Chicken Little," "Hamlet," and "Pâtè LaBelle." They then transferred the harvested foods to the automatic galley, where they were transformed into basic food staples and stored. Meals were normally prepared by the galley imp on demand from the crew, although a certain supply was kept available for the rare times when a human decided to cook.

Since there was no dirt, in the earthly sense, aboard the ship, there was little waste to dispose of. Human fingernails, human hair, and human waste of all sorts was automatically collected, and along with other organic waste from food preparation and cleanup, was reduced to safe organic molecules. These were then recycled to become part of James's feed stock of basic organic compounds for use in the hydroponics tanks.

Lint from worn clothing, bedding, and the looped carpet that lined the floors and walls of the living areas was also collected by the microimps, along with metal and plastic dust that had been rubbed or scraped off equipment. This was segregated from the organic waste, combined with similar artificial fibers, plastics, and metals obtained from worn-out clothing and equipment, and spun or recast into replacements.

As the data streams came in from the orbiters, landers, and other exploration robots spread out over the many bodies in the Barnard system, they were analyzed by James; reduced to tables, graphs, and charts, and stored, ready for instant access by the crew. Images from the various telescopes were scanned, enlarged, and contoured. Aberrations in the incoming reports were instantly caught, double-checked, verified, and the corrected data then added to the memory banks, while at the same time being inserted into the continual data stream being sent back to Earth by a multitude of interstellar laser communicators. Within James's inexhaustible memory were stored not only all of the data that had been collected to date during the mission, but all of the vast libraries of science, medicine, literature, music, history; all ready for instant retrieval by the humans. Although James was contained, physically, within the hull of the vessel, and designed by humans to serve them, in many ways James actually was Prometheus, and bulked far larger in activity and importance than all of them put together. The great computer knew no pride in itself nor affection for the human creatures it cared for; it simply continued its multitudinous functions, as it had been programmed to do. Only the flickering lights of the motiles, and the smooth voice of James, were substantial evidence of the computer's activities; never noticed because it was always there.

James noticed that David was now approaching the living area deck. It had been David's habit to have a tea break at about this time, so James had its motile in the galley switch from cleaning to preparation.

David made his way into the galle,y where the galley imp handed him his squeezer filled with hot pseudo-tea and a fresh watercress sandwich made with algae-flour bread. The squeezer was monogrammed with his name and a string of multicolored musical notes. Instead of taking his afternoon tea on the communal sofa in front of the large three-by-four meter oval view window in the lounge, David decided to relax up on the hydroponics deck. With both hands full holding squeezer and sandwich, he used his Velcro-bottomed slippers to push on the loop-pile covered handholds built into the main shaft walls in order to propel his way upward. Arriving at the hydroponics deck, he brought himself to a stop at the sofa which had been hauled up from one of the video lounges and placed here in front of one of the larger hydroponics tanks. Twisting his body so that the Velcro patch on the back beltline of his jumpsuit stuck to the looped fabric of the sofa back, his slight form almost lost in the soft cushions, he leaned back to enjoy the sight of the three massive flouwen, swirling dreamily in the hydroponics tank that had been converted for their use. He alone had the instinctive color sense that allowed him to see the marvelous gradations of color in the three aliens, which the others called, aptly, Little Red, Little White, and Little Purple. The "Littles" were small subdivisions of the giant intelligent sea-dwelling natives the crew had befriended on Rocheworld. They had been brought along in this tank of carefully-engineered construction and precisely balanced fluid, to assist the humans by exploring the ocean depths of the other worlds in their planetary system while the humans explored the land surfaces.

The "parent" flouwen back on Rocheworld were formless, eyeless, flowing blobs of brightly colored jelly massing many tons. They normally stayed in a cloud-like liquid shape tens of meters in diameter and many meters thick, moving with and through the water. The amorphous flouwen were very intelligent—but non-technological—like dolphins and whales on Earth. They had a highly developed system of philosophy, and were centuries ahead of humans in their knowledge of mathematics. The flouwen used chemical senses for short-range information gathering, and sound ranging, or sonar, for long range information gathering. The bodies of the flouwen were sensitive to light, but lacking eyes, they normally could not look at things using light as humans did. However, the flouwen, White Whistler, parent of Little White, had learned to deliberately form a clear imaging lens out of the gel-like material in its body. White Whistler had then taught the eye-making technique to the rest of the flouwen.

In organization, the flouwen bodies were similar to an ant colony. There were no specialized organs. Instead the whole body was made up of tiny, nearly featureless, dumbbell-shaped units, something like large cells or very small ants. Each of the dumbbell units could survive for a while on its own, but had minimal intelligence. A small collection of units could survive as a coherent cloud with enough intelligence to hunt smaller prey and look for plants to eat. When the collection of units finally grew large enough, it became an intelligent being. Yet, if that being was torn into thousands of pieces, each piece could survive. If the pieces could get back together again, the intelligent individual was restored, only a little the worse for its experience. As a result, although the individual units that made up a flouwen body had a relatively short lifetime, the flouwen itself was essentially immortal. David was always awed by the fact that each of the flouwen in the tank had memories that stretched back thousands of years into the past.

Neither Carmen Cortez nor Cinnamon Byrd, entering a few minutes later, noticed David on the sofa. The vivacity which was so noticeable a part of Carmen's personality when the ship embarked from Earth had been nearly destroyed by a past emotional trauma from which she was now slowly recovering. This new reserve was like a very thin protective film about her; delicate and fragile, but vital to her, and none of the crew had attempted to come too close, preferring to let her take her own way. The communications systems on Prometheus which she controlled with such expertise were her only real link with her fellows, as if distancing herself through an electronic link would insulate her from further trauma.

Cinnamon stopped at the flouwen tank and spread her long slender brown fingers out over the surface, clearly and sweetly crooning a song to the inhabitants, who clustered quickly to her. Cinnamon's imp was divided into two sub-imps, one covering each ear—a glittering pair of personal stereo earphones, quietly playing the music of one of her favorite songs taken from James's music archives. Her long black braids swung, as together, human and aliens swayed to their mutual music, an unearthly duet obviously very pleasant to them all. David and Carmen left quietly so as not to disturb them.

Richard Redwing's large frame rarely went anywhere quietly, and in this case he was shouting as he came through the passway that led from the central shaft.

"Little Red! Let's get you out of that fishbowl, buddy, and do something noisy!" Cinnamon smiled at the interruption, and stepped away from the flouwen's tank, returning cheerfully to the hydroponics lab and her partners there, Deirdre O'Connor and Nels Larson.

Deirdre didn't glance up as Cinnamon came in, and Cinnamon was not surprised. Of all the crew, Deirdre had always been the most self-contained. Indeed, the little animal sharing space with the imp on Deirdre's shoulder usually reacted more to what was going on around them than the woman did. The icy green eyes remained intent on the microscope viewer before her.

Nels stood, as he always did now, at the tall desk he had requested from the Christmas Bush when his new legs were grown. The advanced mathematical skills, analytical ability, and large memory of the flouwen had been able to unravel and comprehend the growth regulators in the human DNA and deduce a method which made it possible for Nels to grow new legs to replace the flippers with which he had been born. Nels now took secret pride in the long, but very hairy, limbs which now supported him. At Cinnamon's arrival, he moved slightly to one side, indicating a graph on the console screen before him, as he continued his conversation with James through his imp.

"This decline in cell division of the flour-protein algae—possible causes, James?"

The computer began its survey. "Initial diagnosis is insufficient nutrients combined with a weakening in light intensity. However, the light intensity monitor was calibrated last week . . ."

Cinnamon thought briefly about the algae in question. Her nurture of the all-important crop was as instinctive as it was learned, as were her other multiple skills in piloting and emergency medicine. She stepped away down the corridors lined from floor to ceiling with water-filled tanks, and looked thoughtfully at one of the sealed algae tanks with its microscopic but living occupants. She reached to increase, ever so slightly, the levels of oxygen within one of the tanks. She returned as Nels concluded his conversation with James: "If you say the oxygen sensor is out of spec, then it's probably a slight case of oxygen deprivation. Increase and observe results." Cinnamon said nothing and went on to her next task.

Back at the flouwen tank, Richard, with the assistance of James, finished "pumping" the fluid red creature out of its tank and into its clumsy but efficient "wetsuit." The wetsuit, custom-built by the Christmas Bush, enabled the aliens to move safely about the ship in the low gravity, while protecting the humans from the ammonia in the ocean water that the flouwen preferred to live in. The wetsuits were made of the same strong flexible metallic glassy-foil material that the human spacesuits were made of. In the legless wetsuit with its rounded bottom, the red flouwen looked like an over-sized version of a child's punch toy. From ports in the neckring of the helmet there extended three short "arm" sleeves ending in three-fingered "gloves." By inserting a thickened, gel-like pseudopod into the sleeves and gloves, the flouwen could point, control James's touchscreen computers, manipulate small objects, and pull itself about in freefall. On a planet, it could swim in the suit using its normal undulating swimming motion, and move about, clumsily, on land surfaces, by rolling or humping like a seal.

Just as a human space suit came with its own imp, the flouwen wetsuits had imps that could pick up the sonic speech of the flouwen and transmit it to James, who then translated the flouwen speech and retransmitted the translated message to the imps of the humans.

Two semi-globular lenses of plastic were molded into the helmets of the wetsuits at the same position as the eyes of a human. With the lenses to focus the incoming light into an image, the light-sensitive bodies of the flouwen could look at things using light, replacing their more normal method of "seeing" things using sonar. Out in space, this was the only way the flouwen had of observing things at a distance. Inside Prometheus, there was air to transmit sound, so they could also use their preferred method of observing, which was to "see" things using sonar pulses generated and detected by their bodies. The wetsuit rendered Little Red about the same size as Richard, and through the assistance of James's imps and translation programs, the two disparate beings were able to communicate with each other quite well enough to argue. It was, perhaps, odd, that of all the physical bodies in this little society, the only two that really enjoyed contact were these two, as they disputed passage of a door with only room enough for one.

It was not always so—in the long years of the flight there had been many, many incidents of physical contact between most of the humans—and highly enjoyable they were, to most concerned. But, with James so admirably tending to every human need, and the necessity to work long, hard hours collecting and analyzing data, the people had become more content to pursue solitary interests. And the last journey of exploration, to the frozen wastes of the Gargantuan moon, Zulu, seemed to have left the explorers themselves a little chilly, a little more distant from each other, a little less concerned about each other, than ever they were before.

Shirley Everett, Chief Engineer, concentrating on perfecting the already-smooth operation of the apartment-building-sized spacecraft she helped design, had no room in her thoughts for the several romances she had known on the trip. Her eidetic memory was now focused on mental images of the original fabrication drawing detailing the fastening arrangements for the heavy duty water pump in front of her.

After verifying the position of the bolt holes using the tiny, but brilliant beam of her Permalite, she used her considerable strength to muscle a replacement pump into its position under the flouwen water tank, the seals on the previous pump having failed while handling the slightly corrosive ammonia water that the flouwen preferred. She was assisted by Reiki LeRoux, who held two bolts, ready to insert them when the mounting holes were lined up, while in the crawl space beneath the floor, a Christmas Branch waited with lockwashers and nuts. The Christmas Bush, despite its wondrous abilities, was too physically weak to manage the massive pump itself, and so James often had to rely on the brute strength of the larger humans to carry out some of its more difficult tasks.

As the pump slid gratingly into its tight fitting position, Reiki dropped the bolts into the mounting holes. Underneath the floorboard, the waiting Christmas Branch quickly and efficiently installed the washers and twirled on the nuts. Then it rearranged itself so that its six tough metal main arms were locked into a bracing structure holding the nut.

On the other side, a slightly panting Shirley replaced her Permalite in her shirt pocket and dug out her Swiss-Army Mech-All from its pouch on her belt. She manipulated a control on the side and the rounded blob of memory metal at one end reconfigured itself into a metric wrench jaw that just fit the hexagonal bolt head. She torqued the bolt down, but in the tight quarters, she skinned her knuckles in the process.


Reiki politely pretended not to hear.

Shirley's personal imp shifted from its normal crescent shape encircling the top of Shirley's thick single blond braid into a more effective six-legged tarantula shape, and clambered down Shirley's arm to staunch the flow of blood and dress the wound, while sending out distress calls to James. A sub-imp came flying in from the sick bay and unobtrusively applied ointment and a patch of Nu-Skin to the knuckle, then took off again carrying the trimmed off pieces of skin and the coagulating droplets of spilled blood.

Just as Shirley finished tightening down the last bolt and was putting her Swiss Army Mech-All back into her pouch, through her imp, and that of everyone's imp on the spacecraft, came the call that they all had been waiting for. It was from Nels.

"Come to dinner!"

Nels had offered to cook a meal for the entire crew tonight, in celebration of the good news the Zuni orbiters, flyers, and landers were sending up. His own inventions of new algae cultures and variations on tissue cultures were always edible, but he claimed that he and Cinnamon had prepared something really special for them that evening.

In preparation for the dinner, the Chief Lightsail Pilot, Tony Roma, had put Prometheus into a "high-gee" acceleration mode to provide them with some temporary artificial gravity in the normally near zero-gee environment. The acceleration wasn't much—a few hundredths of an earth gravity—but it sufficed to keep wine in glasses and napkins on laps. The crew seldom missed the gravity of Earth. The freedom of living in free-fall was a delight, and with the advent of simple medications to counteract calcium loss and other problems noticed during the early space age, people in free-fall were able to stay active and healthy for decades longer than those subjected to the debilitating effects of a constant one gee drag on one's body. Everyone on Prometheus had benefitted from this, as well as the age-lengthening properties of the No-Die drug. These, combined with the strong bodily systems for which the crew had been so rigorously screened, made them capable of enjoying the manufactured foods they normally ate. Tonight's dinner, however, was special.

Reiki, obviously delighting in the formality, smoothed the napkin on her lap and quietly lined up her silver with the edge of the table. She elected, however, to use chopsticks this evening instead, in honor of the occasion. Her beautifully lacquered set had been a gift from her great-grandmother when she first left Japan, and she had treasured them all these years.

Everyone was delighted when the serving imps brought out the free-fall wine glasses. Tall and tulip in shape, they had much narrower rims than an earthly wine glass, and just below the inner rim was a narrow film of water-repellant compound that kept the ball of wine inside—unless one became careless.

"I am so pleased to see this instead of a squeezer," said Reiki, holding up her glass to look through it. "This will allow us to partake of our libations in a civilized manner, enjoying the smell and taste of the wine at the same time, instead of merely slurping the liquid directly down the throat through the squeezer straw, bypassing nose and tongue completely." She looked around as Linda Reagan and Katrina Kauffmann joined them at the table, making nineteen in all. "And we're all sitting down together for once, instead of eating alone like hermits. The experience of sharing food is so conducive to civilized behavior!"

The serving imps then paraded in with six wine bottles and went through the wine-tasting ceremony using Sam Houston, John Kennedy, Thomas St. Thomas, George Gudunov, Reiki, and Jinjur as their tasters.

"A 2069 Gewurztraminer!" said Reiki, reading the static-stick label on the real glass bottle.

"No need to sniff this . . ." said John, as he put aside the reusable plastic cork with disdain. He took a tentative sip. "But I've got to admit that it beats any Gewurtz' that I've tasted on Earth, despite the fact that there isn't a single grape in it."

Arielle, brought up on French wines, took a small taste, shuddered visibly, and left the rest untouched.

After an appetizer of pâtè de foie gras made from the liver tissue culture "Pâtè LaBelle," served with crisp algae-flour wafers, the first course was served.

"What is it?" asked Richard suspiciously.

"It's a spinach quiche," replied Nels with pride. "It has a new strain of spinach that I developed that doesn't make your teeth squeak after you eat it, and a new algae pseudocheese with a taste of both mozzarella and parmesan."

"Real men don't . . ." started Richard, then spluttered as his quiche was spirited right off his plate.

"I was waiting for you to say that," said Shirley, who now had a slice of quiche in each hand and was taking alternate bites from both of them. She then saw the disapproving look in Reiki's eyes and handed Richard back his quiche, slightly diminished.

"Now the piece de resistance!" said Nels somewhat later. "The first harvest of Cinnamon's new contribution to our real-meat meals. I have to hand it to our resident ichthyologist. She has managed to manipulate the genes of our standard hydroponics fish and created a delicately flavored 'ponics-Trout that you would swear just came from a high mountain stream."

The dinner finally drew to a close with dishes of strawberry sherbet made with real strawberries, followed by more white wine and after-dinner drinks of various ports, sherries and liqueurs, all from James's versatile chemical synthesizer. George raised his wine glass in a toast to the new world they were soon going to explore.

"To the wild winds!" said George, who had been monitoring the patterns of the almost constant storms on Zuni below.

"To the restless waters!" said Shirley, who had worked out the complex tidal charts for the planetoid.

"To the roaring earth!" said Richard, who had determined that each one of the ninety-five island continents on Zuni was the top of a submerged active volcano.

George was in high good humor and opened another bottle of wine with a flourish. "The landers gave us excellent reports from the surface! The flyer, Orville, was really busy, flying over island chains to open water and back again, in and out of thunderstorms—plenty of weather down there!"

"Selecting the best spot for our own landing is going to be interesting," said Jinjur, holding out her glass, while George shook a gobbet of wine into it. "With all the different sorts of weather we're seeing perhaps we can pick out a region less  . . .hectic? After the problems we had with the waterfall on Rocheworld and the geysers on Zulu, perhaps we ought to look for a quieter place this time."

"It's not going to be easy," said George. "Zuni always has a great deal of weather activity. We're going to have to time things very closely to get the rocket lander down to the ground during a lull between storm fronts."

"Each island is a volcano," reminded Elizabeth Vengeance. "And they all become active during the three-moon conjunctions every twenty-three Earth days."

"Well, Red, then find me a nice large island with a big beach far away from the central caldera," replied Jinjur. She looked at a stack of blue-green and white colored electrorase prints on the center of the table.

George picked up a print from the top of the stack. "Here's a candidate at the East Pole . . .."

"East Pole!" said Jinjur. "Which of the poles is that?"

"East when you're looking at Zuni from Gargantua," said George. "The 'Leading pole'—the part of Zuni which is always facing in the direction that the moon is moving in its orbit around Gargantua. Besides that, and the North and South spin poles, there's the 'Inner pole' which always faces toward Gargantua, the 'Outer pole' which always faces away from Gargantua, and the 'Trailing pole' which faces in the direction opposite to the motion of the moon in its orbit."


Cinnamon held a print, almost reverently, up to the lights, her fingers careful to respect the surface.

"It's beautiful," she murmured. Her enjoyment of the compliments of the crew on her 'ponics-trout contribution to the fine dinner had given her, unusually, the confidence to take part in the conversation. "Like a beautifully colored marble, or like the Earth! This one, in particular, taken from so far away."

"I took that myself with my electrocamera, from the sunside science dome," beamed Thomas. "Glad you like it."

"That superficial resemblance to Earth could be dangerous," warned George flatly. "We've got to avoid the trap of unconsciously assuming a similarity that doesn't exist in fact."

"That blue-green color may indicateEearth-like photosynthesis, but the light from Barnard is so poor, the plants would have to struggle for it." They all turned to look at Deirdre; her voice was heard so seldom, everyone tended to overreact when she did speak.

Richard and John put down their forks, and carefully wiped their hands before reaching for the stack of prints. Richard ran a finger along what had all the appearance of a storm front.

"Clouds, that's a glare from lightning, I'm sure  . . .rain . . ."

"And a strong wind blowing, just there," John noted. "Real weather: it'll seem odd being rained on, even though we're in suits."

"Golly! Remember umbrellas?" Carmen spoke the word, and there was an instant's silence. How strange and ancient a thing! And yet all understood, and recalled, wistfully, the forgotten sensation of water falling freely on bare skin.

John growled, "Yeah, and don't forget to remember puddles, and mud, and slush, and ruined shoes . . ."

Arielle chuckled. "John always look on bright side!"

Shirley spoke thoughtfully. "It's too early to be sure, of course, but the reports I've been studying about the atmosphere below are certainly reassuring. There is plenty of oxygen for us to breathe, and except for a slight excess of volcanic-type gasses, nothing harmful in the air. Our suits are vital for safety, of course, but we might be able to do without . . ."

Jinjur interrupted with absolute authority. "No, and that's final. Not one sniff of strange air, no matter what the analyzers say. All it takes is one undetected virus, one microbe, and either we're in trouble, or one of the alien life forms on Zuni are in trouble . . ."

They all knew she was right.

"Still, even in suits, we may be able to explore it just like a new country on Earth," Shirley said. "Those clouds really do seem to be water, and so do the lakes. The temperature averages between thirty and forty celsius. Pretty warm, but we should find some cooler spots in the shady regions."

"Sounds great," grunted Richard, taking a third helping of the remains of the salad Cinnamon had harvested only two hours ago. "I won't mind if I'm never cold again." He knew what it meant to be cold—he'd lost both small toes to frostbite during an Alpine rescue. "But why is it so warm? Barnard and Gargantua certainly can't be supplying all that much heat."

George leaned back in his chair. "Tidal action," he said briefly. "The same thing that warms Rocheworld. All those tides. Gargantua raises a huge tidal bulge that shifts slightly as Barnard and the other moons rise and set. Then there are those short, but really high tides when Zuni and Zouave get together in the same part of the sky . . ."

"It's not just tides sloshing around," added Red. "I've been modeling the composition and chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Zouave, the moon that orbits Gargantua just outside Zuni's orbit, loses some of its nice fertile smog into space every day. The smog just sits there in space near Zouave's orbit. Most of it gets picked up as Zouave comes around again, but some of it expands inward to Zuni's orbit and Zuni comes by and scoops it up. Same thing with the water from the geysers on Zulu, which has an orbit inside that of Zuni. Some of the water vapor from the geysers on Zulu gets thrown high enough to go into space, where it forms into a sort of doughnut-shaped fog bank centered around Zulu's orbit, the outskirts of which also fall in on Zuni."

"And all that infalling water and smog pours down out of the sky onto the Leading pole," mused Nels, bent over the closest picture to that area. "Which is why we see a large region of permanent high pressure centered at the Leading pole, spawning storms off its perimeter ranging from hurricanes to super-dense fogs."

"I remember a strange little valley in China," mused Reiki. "It was a lovely, peculiar place, richly green, and so thickly layered with moisture-saturated air that the slightest vibration, like a sharp clap of the hands, caused a tiny shower. I wonder, will this strange world have such fascinating micro-climates?"

There was a long pause in the conversation, and Reiki took the opportunity to take her leave.

"Excuse me," she said softly. John smirked slightly; his tolerance for polite behavior being somewhat limited. Reiki picked up her wine glass, being careful not to disturb the quivering ball of white wine resting in the bottom, and withdrew to her apartment on the upper crew quarters deck to insert the day's events into her electronic journal, and to consider thoughtfully all the implications of an exploratory journey to a new world.

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