The SS Cygni probe sent back hours of video, captured by the Biolathe AI, but only a few minutes mattered–the four minutes that showed a creature made of fire, living , moving, dancing in the plasma fire of the double star’s accretion disk. A dragon made of star stuff, so alien that only a human expedition to observe and perhaps capture it, could truly understand it. It’s a perilous journey into the future, however, for SS Cygni is 245 light-years from Earth, and even though only two years subjective time will pass on board the Karamojo, the crew will return to an Earth where five hundred years have passed.
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Unlike most first-time visitors entering the world headquarters of Biolathe, Inc., Dr. Samuel Fisher didn’t pause at the moist cloying air that moved across the building’s threshold like breath. If anything, his pace increased; he threw his shoulders forward and his streaker-clad feet rushed as if to prevent a fall, sinking into the plush rose ruglings with each step. Unlike the sunlit diamond and gold, seemingly mandatory in corporate buildings, this lobby throbbed pink and organic. The entire building was alive. Despite the omnipresence of biotechnology, walking inside it rather than sitting on it still made most hesitate.
Not Fisher—he was in the middle of five major projects. He didn’t believe his life would be as transformed by the upcoming presentation as the Biolathe agent had hinted. He charged ahead, glancing about the nearly empty lobby for signs to guide him.
What was this? He’d been here six seconds already! There was never enough time to waste any of it. He decided there was one thing he would hesitate over in the future: being talked into a physical meeting.
In the middle of the cavernous chamber Fisher stopped abruptly, brought up short by a bipedal mobile with wrinkled gray skin attached to the wall by a pulsing umbilical. Fisher said, “Excuse me.”
“No excuses needed, Dr. Fisher.” The biped had no openings, no visible external sensory organs, and nothing at all resembling a head. Raw biomass, quickly shaped, without even a mouth. The words emanated from the ceiling, its surface a taut drum able to focus sound anywhere. The entire building was alive. “I am a mobile of our brain, here to escort you to your meeting.”
“Fine. Lead on.”
The mobile moved toward the rear of the lobby toward a tunnel, reversing its motion without turning around. No one-way joints, Fisher noticed, a more versatile design than most. The umbilical showed no slack, but grew or tightened as the distance to the malleable wall varied.
Fisher followed, buoyed up and forward by the plum-colored ruglings underfoot in the same direction as his steps. More good design in the carpeting, he noted. A lot of rugling lines didn’t do anything but let themselves get walked on.
“Coffee?” asked the beamed voice. “Please.”
Without breaking stride, the mobile pushed an arm back out of the formless trunk. The end of the appendage coalesced into a round shape that darkened, grew shimmery hard, then rolled down into a groove that formed before it.
Fisher caught the bulb and lifted it to his lips as they walked. The bulb opened into a bony, ceramic cup. He drank, grimacing, as they entered a circular hallway. Instant. Ah, well, not great but his usual. He efficiently drained the bulb.
“In here, please.” The mobile gestured with the coffee- delivering appendage, which then receded and melted back into its body.
Fisher stepped past the mobile into a circular room lit with blue-green tinged bioluminescence that made him feel as if he were underwater. A ring of five chairbeasts surrounded a picture tank squatting at the room’s focus. People sat in the chairbeasts, two women and two men.
One of the women rose as he approached the vacant chairbeast. She was as tall as Fisher, just shy of two meters, and her white uniform showed no creases from sitting, although the crisp mater- ial appeared to be neither high-tech like his own duradenim nor alive like Rhynoskin. Her short blonde hair was similarly crisp, as perfect as a helmet. She offered a long-boned hand to shake.
“Captain Lena Fang, corporate fleet,” she said, words clipped, gripping firmly with rough fingers. Her almond-shaped eyes bore steadily ahead.
“Fisher,” he replied, his eyes sliding past her gaze onto her thin, fluted lips, which reminded him of a recurve bow. A vivid image sprang into his mind: barbed orders flying from her mouth like arrows. He wondered if her striking appearance resulted from bodmods, or, as suggested by her name, the unusual ethnic mixing that often occurred on colony worlds. The cause didn’t much matter; she was striking. “Sam Fisher.”
“Fisher. Right. This is Henderson, biosystems,” she said, nod-
ding toward a bulky, classically handsome man with a big cleft