Laren Grey Steals the Stars

by Randy Kaelber

Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.

Do you know that feeling you get in the morning? You just know in your gut that you shouldn't get out of bed. Instead, you should just cover your head with a spare pillow, consider suffocating yourself for a moment until you realize that it's really not worth the effort, and just forget the world exists for a day?

Today started like that for me. Usually after about the second cup of coffee, the bulk of the morning's e-mail and news handily dispatched, that suicidal tendency is more properly redirected outward into a marginally healthier, if no more productive, vaguely homicidal angst. I was sitting in the dining nook (calling it a dining room would give it an inflated ego) of the tiny apartment I keep west of London when a priority call came in over my combook. "Steven here."

"Steve! I'm glad you're there." Damn. It's Gary. Not that I don't like my brother, it's just that he's a bit melodramatic and a royal pain in unmentionable places when he's on the com. Of course, it's strange getting a call from him in the morning. This could be more melodramatic than usual.

"Gary! What are you doing up in the middle of the night?"

"I've been in San Diego for a week now. It's still early here. Steve, you need to put on SNC-Prime."

I pulled the channel onto the wall com and put the volume up.

"-- could have some far-reaching ramifications into our efforts to explore nearby star systems. We will have more details as soon as they become available, but to recap this breaking story, Canadian alioarcheologist Dr. Laren Grey has discovered what appears to be a small intact faster-than-light capable spacecraft, buried deep in the caverns below the ancient ruins of Margaritifer Ch--" I muted the wall com and turned back to the portable.

"Isn't it amazing? Laren found it! It's just the most--" A priority interrupt came across the com, which suited me fine, since I really wasn't interested in taking a wild ride down what's left of memory lane with Gary. "Garygottago!" I said as I disconnected him and connected the priority call. I knew before the connection synced who it would be.

"Hello, Clarice. Fancy meeting you here."

"You're not funny, Steve, no matter how much you try. I suppose you've heard the news?"

"Yeah, brooms are on sale 50 percent off at Walton's. You'd best be hoppin' or you'll be taking the tube the whole season."

"Please be serious once in your life. I'm springing you. I need you to catch the shut-"

"ttle to LEO-6 to rendezvous with the research vessel Hector." I said in synchronicity with Clarice. Predictable, the old girl is.

"They broke Mars orbit 18 hours ago, so it'll be there in 10 hours, and I have word that Dr. Grey actually is bringing back the find so that the local eggheads can get a crack at it."

"Well, that's nice," I said noncommittally.

"I've got a holo crew going up right now. They'll meet you there. Use your connections, Steve! Get us an interview with her, and a sneak peek at the ship if you can swing it. There's a shuttle leaving Heathrow in 90 minutes bound for The Six. Chop, chop!"

Enthusiasm in the morning is despicable personality trait. The fact that Clarice was calling from New York made it doubly so. There's that homicidal twinge again. "I have ONE EX-connection. One. Ee-Ecks. Why don't you send Cassie? She's the ratings darling anyway."

"Because you're the Lead Science and Technology Correspondent, dear."

"Mmmmm. And because if I do get that interview, your psychometrists are telling you... let me guess... chemistry between me and Laren will likely give you 2 million extra homes, and what, about 10 million extra in advertising revenues?"

"You know how the game is played, Steve."

"Uh-huh. There's no angle so low that we can't dig a trench underneath it and go a little lower, eh?"

"Steve, you are far too cynical for as young as you are."

"I'm embittered. It's a slight but important distinction. I'm on my way."

I switched off the com, folded it and strapped it on. I committed the remains of breakfast to the recycler, grabbed my "at-a-moment's notice" travel bag, and headed out the door to catch the Underground.

It was raining then, of course. Friggin' London. I think "weather control" in Britain is another example of their dry, ironic humor. I don't get it, but then again, I'm an American. I switched on the ultrasonic and made my way to Hounslow Central Station. Setting up house here had drawbacks for commuting to more central locations, but it had close proximity to Heathrow Aerospace Port to recommend it. Anything to make escape easier, though all I usually did was trade London for New York, so that's not exactly a win, is it?

I managed to arrive at Heathrow without incident, and my ticket was even for the right shuttle. It was a really refreshing change of pace for me. First Class, too. Clarice must have had a guilty conscience. Fifty minutes after take off, we were lining up for docking at LEO-6. LEO-6 was the sixth great space station built in low Earth orbit (and the sixth to be given a really imaginative name, too), and though it was the largest of the 10 LEO stations, measuring nearly 10 kilometers at its widest diameter, it was also the least inhabited, with only about 700 permanent crew members and maybe upwards of a thousand transient residents. It primarily served as a base of operations for research and exploration in the solar system, and as such, seldom had too many people lollygagging about. It was primarily a home for equipment, consumables, and other miscellaneous junk that researchers needed.

Today was different, however. Through my tiny porthole in the side of the shuttle, I could see at least five other shuttles in a holding pattern waiting for a chance to dock. Full of newsies and scientists, no doubt. I figured that there were at least as many waiting on the other side, so I settled my seat back to catch a quick nap, because we we going to be here a while.

Maybe three minutes passed by when my combook buzzed me. I pulled it out to see a simple text-only high priority message. It was Laren. It said in the subject line "See you soon, sweetie" and had no message body.

"Sweetie?" I said out loud, which got me a sour look from the shuttle attendant. "Sorry, not you", I said as I slid the combook back in its holster.

In case you're not paying attention, let me catch you up: I have a bit of a past with our illustrious Dr. Laren Grey. I met her when I was a junior at the University of Arizona majoring in astronomy and physics. She was a grad student just off from finishing her double major in physics and anthropology at the University of Toronto. We both worked at Steward Observatory, in jobs that primarily involved us doing the grunt work for faculty research projects there. At least it helped get us published early, as long as we could legally change our name to "et al."

Well, I'll spare you the gory details and cut to the chase. We fell madly in love, got married shortly after I got my bachelor's degree and she had finished her master's. We looked around at other schools, but decided to stick it out to the bitter end in Tucson. We were happy there for the next two years, working on projects together and doing stuff that newlyweds do best.

After I got my Master's degree, I got one of the most unexpected job offers: I friend of mine from my undergrad days had climbed up the ladder pretty quick at the Solar News Channels, the big up-and-coming multi-channel news network that finally knocked the old guard networks from the top spots they had held since the Video Age. He wanted me to weekend host a science and technology show aimed at that forever important 18-34 demographic. It was a great opportunity, and it seemed like it would be fun, and the pay was outstanding.

The only catch would be I wouldn't have time to get my doctorate, and I'd be in New York City 4 days a week. I think that was the beginning of the end for us. Laren, I think, was not too happy with me leaving school and research, wasting my talent to become a talking head on holo. I think this because she told me as much about 3 months before we split up.

You don't have to beat me over the head with a large spanner for me to get a clue, but everyone who knows me will tell you it generally helps.

Anyhow, we've been apart about seven years now, and shortly after our split up, the FIND was unearthed on Mars (or would that be unmarsed?). It was the remains of a technologically advanced civilization on Mars, dead and buried for approximately 2 million years. Laren's unique background in physics and anthropology quickly propelled her into prominence and the mother of the infant field of "alioarchaeology", the study of alien artifacts and culture.

Her research yielded many interesting science and technology discoveries, though all of them so far were more evolutionary than revolutionary. Until this. An actual FTL capable spaceship? Physicists in the last 50 years had conceded that there were a few bizarre exceptions to Einstein's ultimate speed limit, but those were primarily at the atomic and subatomic levels. Nobody had any clue how to make macroscopic materials go that fast. Certain advances in our understanding of gravity and its relation to electromagnetic forces had given us cheap and fast interplanetary travel, but even these advances were but tiny nibbles off the giant pie that was interstellar travel.

We finally got our clearance, and we docked up without much fanfare. I checked my watch, pleased that it was still not yet noon by my own time, which, coming from the Greenwich Time Zone, meant I was perfectly in sync with the time of the station. When you go around the world every 106 minutes, the concept of "time zone" seems a bit silly, so all LEOs were synched to GMT.

I commed a message to the holo crew that I was here and set up an appointment to go over strategy for recording "The Find of the Third Millennium" (A fairly arrogant thing so say considering that we still have 700 years or so to go), for the posterity of those who would come after us. Or, at least to get a couple hundred thousand more households and some more cash from our sponsors. Hey, I'm a pragmatic guy.

The primary enterprise of this station seemed to be hotels and restaurants, which wasn't surprising given the transient nature of those who come here. Even so, it was apparent that some scientists and newsies were going to be sleeping in corridors. Fortunately, SNC maintained two or three permanent suites on every LEO and even one on every geostationary. I wouldn't be homeless this time, though in my book even homeless on a LEO beat my suburban London matchbox hands down.

I got to the reservation desk and showed the young lady at the counter my credentials. The moment she registered them into the computer my combook went off again. Another message from Laren: "Docking Bay 6R, 30 minutes. Bring your stuff, but not your crew." She was always so mysterious and damn good with a computer.

I checked the directory and figured out how to get to the docking bay. I arrived fifteen minutes later. According to the toteboard, it was just a shuttle bound for the Tokyo GEO station. After a few minutes, a pilot showed up.

"Mr. Thomas?"

I nodded.

"Go ahead and get aboard. We'll take off in just a few minutes."

"Um. I've got a job to do here."

"I've been asked to bring you to Tokyo Geostationary, sir. I can't make you come, but I was told to tell you that you won't be disappointed if you come with me."

Well, my job is to get an interview with Dr. Laren Grey, and she's the one who told me to come here. If I miss the big dance, I've got an excuse. Not that it would cut the mustard with Clarice. I certainly didn't suspect Laren would try to sabotage me. Even though the break-up was painful and had more than its fair share of screaming marathons, we've managed to remain friends and keep in occasional contact through the years. No, Laren was never vindictive, even when she had a right to be.

I entered the shuttle. It was a cargo job, with only a minimal passenger compartment. The pilot came in behind me and said, "It's just the two of us, so if you want to take the co-pilot's station, you're welcome to."

"Absolutely!" I replied. Yes, I'm one of those people who adore space travel. It's one of the very few nice things about my job these days. I strapped myself in, and looked over the consoles. My training in school enabled me to understand the theory of most of the controls and indicators, but we'd be in serious trouble if I ever were expected to actually fly a spacecraft.

The pilot came in and took the seat next to me. He deftly punched up a high orbit course, ran through a safety checklist, and requested clearance from LEO-6 traffic control. In a few moments, we were accelerating at 10 gees away from LEO-6. Inertial stabilizers made the 10 gees feel more like a gentle coast up to cruising speed in an aircar.

We docked with Tokyo GEO about an hour later. Tokyo GEO was so named because its geostationary point was more or less centered over Tokyo's longitude, though it was really closer to New Guinea than Japan. But, the Japanese built it, so I suppose they can name it what they want. I've only been here one other time. It's a small station, only about a kilometer across, and inhabited only by traffic controllers, meteorologists, communication specialists, and a few researchers. If there's a backwater of Earth orbit, Tokyo GEO is it. Currently, there was one other ship docked there, a big long-range cargo hauler, almost as large as the station itself.

I realized that I was getting such an extraordinary view of the cargo hauler because the pilot was lining up to dock with it, rather than the space station. When he mated up with the ship and verified the atmosphere seal, he said, "If you come with me, Mr. Thomas, I'll take you where you need to be."

I followed him through the ship's narrow corridors, and he stopped at a door labeled "REC ROOM". The pilot opened the door for me and waved me in. "If you will, Mr. Thomas?"

"Oh, thanks," I said as I stepped past him. It looked like just about any rec room you've ever seen anywhere: Holo unit in the corner with a few lounge chairs, a ping-pong table, a treadmill, coffee and snack machines, legal disclaimers on the wall. Very Corporate.

I turned to ask the pilot about Laren and if she was here or what, to find that he had disappeared. I popped open the hatch to look down the dimly lit corridor. He was nowhere to be found.

I turned back around, and sat down on one of the lounge chairs, found the control for the holo, and scanned around for something to pass the time. SNC-Prime was already advertising an interview with Laren featuring "SNC's Science and Technology correspondent, Steven Thomas." I tell you, Clarice is a piece of work.

The promo ended and the channel a newscast about the "disturbing lack of progress" in getting more people living off world, and the potential for a shortfall in food production this season.

"Hi, Steve," I jumped as her strong, nimble hands landed on my shoulders.

I stood up, turned around, and looked into her intense blue eyes. "Oh, h-hi, Laren!" I was never sure what to do when we met nowadays. I settled for a brief hug, which she apparently found acceptable. "Congratulations on your find! This is really impressive."

"Aw, jeez, Steve. We just dug the thing up. You're acting like I built the thing with my bare hands."

"Well, you might not have built it, but it's the bloody Holy Grail of rocket science you've found," I couldn't help it, I hugged her again, she returned it, and kissed me on the cheek.

"I'm glad you're happy for me, Steve. It means a lot."

"So, why all this cloak and dagger stuff? I thought you were on the Hector. What are you doing here, of all places?"

"Well, I just wanted to avoid the media circus, so we employed a little misdirection and sent the Hector in without me. I've actually been here for three days now."

"So, in order to avoid the media circus, you invite the ringmaster to your inner sanctum here?"

"Well, Steve, I'm not a big fan of the media, but this is a story that needs to be told. And whatever I thought of your decision to pursue this line of work, well, I just want you to know you do good work," she turned and walked a few steps away, "You have a gift for making this stuff exciting to people, and if people are interested in what we're doing, it makes our jobs easier."

Just for reference, this is the first time since the divorce that she has ever mentioned my job in any way, positive or negative, even when I interviewed her once a few years back. I was speechless.

She turned back around to face me, "So," she says, a wicked grin enveloping her face, "would you like to see it?"

That was enough to restore speech functions. "It's here?"

"On this very ship. C'mon!" she stepped toward me again, grabbed my hand, and pulled me out of the door in into the tight corridor again.

We rounded a few corners and came to a really big hatch labeled "MAIN HOLD 3A", with a green light glowing steadily that read "PRESSURIZED" next to the handle. She opened it and ushered me in.

If I didn't know Laren better, I'd think it was a put-on. It looked like a 25-meter wide Styrofoam crescent roll with two giant plastic forks sticking out of the back. It had a weird self-luminous quality to it. As I approached, I could see that the texture was not the random bubbles of Styrofoam, but a regular pattern of very small tesselated octagons. I reached to almost touch it, and looked back at her.

"It won't bite," she said.

It felt like glass that was slightly damp. "The dampness you feel is really just the charge of the metal fooling your nerve endings. You want to get in?" she asked.

I nodded aggressively, and she took me underneath the center of the ship. She touched a slightly recessed panel, and a three-meter wide circle under the ship vanished and a bar as wide as the opening glided down and landed noiselessly on the decksole. She stepped up on it, I followed suit, and the bar retracted into the ship.

The interior was somehow stranger, looking like something out of the old 2-D science fiction movies of the mid 20th century, interfaced to the modern technology of the late 23rd century.

"What is all this?" I asked.

"Navigation, Star Charts, Power Management, Helm control, all interfaced to the alien control mechanism, and here is a standard communications array, and my personal library computer," she responded, pointing to each mundane device in turn.

"Holy... I thought you guys just found this thing. Where'd you get the time to do all this?"

"We actually found it six months ago. We kept a lid on it as long as we were able to, and when it leaked out I arranged this little misdirection to keep it out of the public eye a little longer."

"Why? You're going to have to turn this over for more research sooner or later, you know."

"No, I don't think so."

"What do you think you're going to do? Fly it?"

"Exactly."

This is the kind of behavior I expected from me, not from her.

"What on Earth for?"

"Exactly. For Earth. They are planning to take it apart and put it back together to see what makes it tick."

"Well, isn't that a good thing? Finally, FTL drives for humanity. Isn't that the plan?"

She shrugged, "In theory, yes. But the reality is that there will be committees, legal wrangling over who gets legal rights to build the stuff, and years of fruitless research to eventually take 30 or 40 years to know what I already know. By then it will be too late. We're already outgrowing this star system."

"And what is this secret knowledge you have?"

"The materials needed to make part of the FTL propulsion system cannot be found anywhere in the Sol system."

"And where can we find them, then?"

"Psi Serpentis A"

I remember enough of my astronomy to know that's no carriage ride through the park. "Oh sure. Take a jacket with you, it'll be a nippy walk."

"I can fly this thing."

"You what?"

"I can fly this thing."

"You're crazy."

"Maybe. But I've flown it once already."

"To where?"

"Pluto and back. It took about 20 seconds each way, objective and subjective time. No dilation effects."

I did the math in my head. "That's almost..."

"1800 times the speed of light," she finished with me. "We can be in the Psi Serpentis vicinity in less than 2 weeks at that speed. And..."

"What?"

"It's a G class star system and if we're translating their computers correctly, there's a water-zone Terra-like planet there, nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. A little toastier and drier than Earth, on average. It's close to the inner part of the habitable zone. Hotter and dryer. Pretend it's Tucson."

"No... 'We'?"

She took my hands in hers. "Steve... This will be a second shot at everything. I'm going to start a colony there. We're going to go into the FTL drive business, and I'm gonna need a partner. We get a second shot, too."

"It's gonna take more than two to make a colony," I said. I can't believe what I'm saying, but the dream is right here, and I'm standing in it. I'm standing next to her.

"Oh, I know. It's gonna take more than two to start building FTL drives, but once we get our first built, we can come back here and refit it onto a transport ship and bring them there in wholesale lots."

"So, what are we going to do in the meantime?"

"This ship can carry four and generate the consumables we need to survive. We'll grab people we know, two at a time, tell them the score. They'll come. Can we get Gary and Ray to come this first trip? I'll need a good materials engineer, and Gary is about as good as they come."

"Gary's never fully forgiven me for allowing us to split up in the first place. I think he'd be in for anything that we do together." The audacity of what we're about to do hits me at last. "There are gonna be some sorely pissed off people back at LEO-6," I said.

"And at Solar News, I would guess," she said, as she leaned forward to kiss me. The tingle I got was no alien electric field, I assure you.

"Actually, I think that one is covered," I said as I slipped from our embrace and took to the couch by the communications array. "Communications Ops is go here, Skipper."


It's a year later, to the day, and I've returned to the Sol system by myself. I'm not here to pick up anyone this time. There's fourteen of us now, living in a big lodge Laren and I built shortly after our arrival in the Pinaleno Nuevo Mountains, on the planet Wildcat, more formally known as Psi Serpentis A-2.

The authorities are quite perplexed by the disappearance this last year of the closest friends of both Dr. Laren Grey a.k.a. "The Woman who Stole The Stars" and Steven Thomas, who are both wanted system wide for the theft of a valuable alien artifact. Well, we'll see who is perplexed now.

Laren estimates that they'll have the first FTL drive that can be installed on an Earth transport completed in about six months. She estimates also that she'll have our first child completed in about five months. I think there's something there that's fitting. The first human to build an FTL drive will also give birth to the first human not born in the Sol system.

Let's hope that Earth takes our broadcast seriously. If they do, and they send the people and equipment Laren recommends, we estimate that we can have 80 transports FTL capable in five years. Plus, Sol will have the technology to build FTL drives, too, as long as they get raw materials from us.

Of course, if they decide not to pardon The Woman Who Stole The Stars and her once-again husband, they're welcome to come and arrest us. After all, we're only fourty-eight light years away.