Read Corona Online

Authors: Greg Bear

Tags: #Science Fiction

Corona

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An
Original
Publication of POCKET BOOKS

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For the Saloon

Acknowledgments

My wife, Astrid, and friends Karen Schnaubelt
Turner and Kelly Turner were particularly helpful.
Always useful for reference and authority was Bjo
Trimble's and Dorothy Jones Heydt's
Star Trek
Concordance, which, incidentally, I helped
illustrate in its original publication. Does that
mean I'm a trekkie?

You bet.

Alan Brennert has always been helpful, especially
when we bearded the producers of
Star Trek
's
abortive second TV series in their dens during
story conferences. The idea for
Corona
arose
during one such session.

The glaring errors—if any remain—are my own.
More subtle differences from the canon are
probably matters of interpretation.

Prologue

From horizon to horizon, the sky was filled with a dark purple glow, broken by wisps of milky white and luminous green. T'Prylla felt the crunch of ages-old pebbles beneath her boots, the only sound besides that of her breathing and the space-suit's instrumentation. She had left the station to be by herself for a while, and to watch the rise of the new suns, suns barely a year old.

Station One sat on a planetoid on the outer edges of the Black Box Nebula. The station's crew consisted of T'Prylla, her husband Grake, their two children and two research assistants, Anauk and T'Kosa. In reserve—that is, in the cold storage of suspended animation, to save limited resources—were thirty volunteers, whose expertise ranged from astrophysics to space medicine. T'Prylla herself had once been the most renowned physicist on Vulcan, quite a rarity for her youthful sixty years; but she had run afoul of the Vulcan Science Academy by using unorthodox methods of logical analysis—methods which had brought charges of heresy—and had imposed this kind of self-exile on herself and her family to avoid an even more painful confrontation.

Ultimately, then, she was the one to blame for all that had happened. Discoveries had been made—but not in time to save the thirty in cold-storage, who were as good as dead. She had learned more about Ybakra radiation than any previous scholar—but at what a cost! And she had learned other things she might never be able to tell.

Forty-eight hours earlier, Grake had broadcast the normal-space message they had prepared together. They had deliberately concealed their action from the children. Day by day, the children grew stronger, more willful, directed by a force neither she nor Grake understood; the power the children had over their parents and the station crew was disturbing, to say the least. Had she been human, she might have been near panic.

But there was nothing more they could do. In ten years, the message would reach a Federation buoy far beyond the nebula's outpouring of radiation. The buoy would re-broadcast Grake's words and the science report by the faster medium of sub-space radio. Shortly thereafter, perhaps …

But it was too much to hope for. She thought briefly of her distant relative, Spock, a science officer aboard a Federation starship. What would Spock do in a situation like this? She had never had the chance to know Spock well. Despite his human ancestry, he had always been held up to her as an example of what a Vulcan could be, could achieve.

The glow on the horizon brightened. The asteroid was turning inexorably toward the source of their new knowledge, the source of their difficulties—the infant stars.

One by one they appeared, huge oblate reddish blobs of light, their edges diffuse and irregular. They were triplets, collapsed from the nebular dust and gases. Gravity had drawn them into mutual orbits, their own growing mass finally cooking off the fusion of hydrogen deep within the stellar envelopes.

The final stages of their birth—the final collapse into true protostars—had taken less than a month, catching the researchers by surprise. Theory had predicted a much longer period; the discovery of huge sub-spacial mass anomalies in the region of the triple stars had come late, and the intensity of Ybakra radiation had not been foreseen. The resulting interference completely ruled out sub-space communications and all but the most concentrated tight-beam radio signals.

"Mother."

T'Prylla turned as quickly as her suit and the low gravity allowed, facing her son, Radak. He was five years old, too young even for the most basic ritual of Vulcan maturity,
ka nifoor
. His expression was peaceful, contented.

"Mother, we know what Father has done."

He motioned for her to follow, and they returned to Black Box Nebula Station One. There would be no further messages.

And no answers, for at least ten years.

 

Chapter One

Rowena Mason stood transfixed at the window of the personnel transport. She had spent her entire life on the small, yellow-orange planet Yalbo, more known for its spacedock facilities and mining colonies than its natural beauty. Yet now Yalbo, rotating slowly below, was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Banks of dusty yellow clouds drifted over the tan and pink Erling Mineral Massif, casting umber shadows across the rills and valleys where her family had labored for three generations. She had never been off-world before, and pictures could not compare with reality.

The personnel transport rolled to face the huge orbiting spacedock, a spider-web-delicate framework of thin cylindrical supports laced together by lateral beams. Huge banks of work-lights were being switched off and spacedock work crews were withdrawing from the U.S.S.
Enterprise.
Mason had researched the
Enterprise
thoroughly after receiving her assignment: the first Constitution-class ship to be equipped with warp drive, on a continuing mission of research and exploration, she was easily the most famous ship in human history.

The quarterdeck of the
Enterprise
seemed to be the only peaceful location on the ship. Officers and crew had already boarded, but stores were still being loaded through the shuttle bay, and preparations were being made for casting off. Rowena Mason stepped off the transport, uncertain, as she walked through the passageway, exactly at what moment she boarded the
Enterprise
.

She was greeted by the Officer of the Deck in Spacedock, a shiny-faced junior lieutenant who, to Mason's relief, was quite human. Starfleet tended to group humanoid oxygen breathers together as crews to avoid expensive ship refitting; non-humanoid types were grouped in various other categories, aboard ships appropriate to their needs. She could not have met, say, a Medusan (she had had nightmares about them as a child), but she was none too sure what she would do when she encountered a Vulcan or Andorran, both reputedly stationed aboard the
Enterprise.
She was glad for a brief reprieve.

She presented her credentials to the OD, who smiled with formal courtesy and passed them through the security device mounted on one side of his podium. "Permission to come aboard?" she asked, unsure of the procedure.

"Permission granted, Mister Mason. Welcome to the
Enterprise.
"

That was another thing she'd have to get used to. By calling her "mister," they were extending her a courtesy usually reserved for officers, both male and female.

"Thank you. I'd like my arrival announced to the Federation News Service as soon as possible. And when do I meet the quartermaster?"

"Uh … quartermaster? I'm sorry. You must mean Army usage. There is no 'quartermaster' aboard the
Enterprise.
All quarters are allotted by the ship's computer. Your escort will meet you in a few minutes. You're a bit late."

"I know," Mason said. Only six hours before, she had been happily at work on her history of twenty-second century approaches to quantum electrodynamics, her major at the very small Yalbo University of Humanities. She had managed a fairly stiff curriculum despite her work as an FNS reporter. Mason's parents had disapproved of her academic pursuits, preferring that she immediately join her father in the Union Rare Earths Company as a filial apprentice; her decision to continue at the university had resulted in their cutting off all support. She had gone to work as a stringer for the Federation News Service to keep off the despised Student's Dole, and had gradually worked her way up to a staff position, one of only two in Yalbo's FNS Bureau. The other was held by her boss, a crusty ex-demolisher and closet philosopher named Evanric.

Yalbo supplemented its mining income (and kept its chronically idled mining engineers employed) by serving the Federation as a repair and outfitting station. It was no small story when the
Enterprise
was ordered to put into spacedock around Yalbo for new equipment installations. Mason had covered what aspects of the story she could from planetside. When FNS had asked Evanric to release her for an off-planet assignment, she could have refused, but she had been sitting around, calm and happy, for entirely too long … and she was, after all, a reporter. Reporters were supposed to be in the thick of things, not puttering on academic projects in the middle of nowhere. If FNS thought her small-planet articles were good enough to merit such an assignment—and if she happened to be the only reporter in the vicinity other than Evanric, who adjudged himself too old and set in his ways—who was she to refuse?

"There may be some confusion at first, Mister Mason," the OD said. "We've just spent twenty days undergoing repairs and refit. New installations."

"That's why I'm here," she said.

"To catch us while we're vulnerable?"

Ah, the military mind resenting the intrusion of the press, she thought. "No. To report on the new monitors, observe the reaction of the crew. How the
Enterprise
behaves." She smiled.

The junior lieutenant returned her smile. Such discipline, she thought sarcastically. He didn't exhibit a trace of masculine interest in this new addition to the ship's female population. Correct and polite in every particular—except, of course, for that brief probe of her intentions.

"Mister Mason?" a woman asked.

It took her a second to recognize her own name. She wondered if she would always assume someone was asking for her father. She turned and saw a dismayingly beautiful woman in a red regulation uniform standing in the quarterdeck elevator. "I'm Lieutenant Uhura," she said, stepping forward and offering her hand. "Communications officer. Starfleet thought since we'd be working together off and on, we might as well share quarters."

Mason blinked. No wonder the OD hadn't shown any interest in her. Were all Starfleet women so depressingly, exotically gorgeous?

"Lieutenant Uhura is your escort, Mister Mason," the OD explained.

"Yes, I understand, thank you." She shook the communications officer's hand and followed her into the elevator. "My luggage—"

"It's coming through the shuttle bay," the OD said behind them. "It's all taken care of."

"It better be," she said, half under her breath. "There are two FNS mobile recorders, and if they're damaged it'll take me four years to pay for them."

As the elevator door closed, Uhura looked Mason over quickly. Her smile seemed quite genuine, something of a contrast with the OD. "You're going to do a story on the
Enterprise
's new monitors?"

"Partly. I'm also interested in the new medical equipment."

"Looks like we'll have quite a shakedown ahead of us. If we ever get to the shakedown … Starfleet keeps us very busy, you know. Most of our training and shakedown cruises have turned into the real thing. I don't see any reason this time should be different."

"I'm not sure I'm ready for a real adventure," Mason admitted. She could look forward to a nice, safe bit of investigative reporting—but life among mining engineers had taught her that adventure was a euphemism for serious injury or death. "If an emergency comes up, will I be put off at an outpost or starbase?"

"Not on your life. The captain will make sure you're with us every step of the way. If Starfleet wants monitors, and the Federation wants press coverage, they'll have both, and he won't blink an eye or complain once … or let them off the hook. You'll see. You could write a whole book just about Captain Kirk."

"You seem to admire him."

"Seem? Honey, he's the
captain
. I don't think there's a man or woman on board who wouldn't follow him down the mouth of a naked singularity."

"And how does he feel about the press?"

"I don't think the question's ever come up. At any rate,
I'm
happy to see you. They've upped my quarters allowance and lowered my mess bill, just to show you around, duty permitting. And I've already worked my way up to the best quarters in junior officers' country. Plenty of room for two. Privacy, even."

"Sounds like a luxury cruise."

Uhura shook her head. "Like I said. Mister Mason—"

"Rowena, please."

"Rowena. Like I said, I don't think there'll be much time for luxury."

"Ship's quarters, junior officers' sector," the elevator announced. The doors opened with a
wheep
, revealing a stark white and gray corridor with impressively massive bulkheads outlined in red.

"Welcome home, honey," Uhura said, leading the way.

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