By Allen M. Steele
Allen M. Steele was a journalist before turning to his first love, science fiction. Since then he has published nineteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories. His work has received numerous awards, including three Hugos, and has been translated worldwide. A lifelong space enthusiast, he has testified before Congress in hearings regarding space exploration and flown the NASA space shuttle simulator. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife Linda and their dogs.
Jordan and I broke up on the docks of Leeport, about as lovely a place as you can have for the end of an affair. It was a warm summer evening in Hamaliel, with sailboats on the water and Bear – the local name for Ursae Majoris 47-B — hovering above the West Channel. We’d gone down to the waterfront to have dinner at a small bistro that specialized in grilled brownhead fresh from the fishing net, but even before the waiter brought us the menu the inevitable arguments had begun. There had been a lot of those lately, most of them about issues too trivial to remember but too important to ignore, and even though we settled the matter, nonetheless the quarrel caused us to lose our appetites. So we skipped dinner and instead ordered a bottle of waterfruit wine, and by the time we’d worked our way through the bottle, she and I decided that it was time to call it quits.
By then, it had become apparent that we weren’t in love. Mutual infatuation, yes. We had the strong passions that are both the blessing and the curse of the young, and Jordan and I never failed to have a good time in bed. Yet desire was not enough to keep us together; when it came right down to it, we were very different people. She’d been born and raised on Coyote, a third-generation descendent of original colonists; I was an émigré’ from Earth, one the gringos who’d managed to escape the meltdown of the Western Hemisphere Union before the hyperspace bridge to the old world was destroyed. She came from money; I’d been a working man all my life. She was a patron of the arts; my idea of a good time was a jug of bearshine and a hoot-and-holler band down at the tavern. She was quiet and reserved; I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, even when it was in my best interests to do so.
But most important – and this was what really brought things to a head – she was content to live out the rest of her life on Coyote. Indeed, Jordan’s ambitions extended no farther than inheriting her family’s hemp plantation – where we’d met in the first place, much to her parents’ disapproval, since I was little more than a hired hand — while having a platoon of children. I was only too willing to help her practice the art of making babies, but the thought of everything to follow made my heart freeze. After five years on Coyote – fifteen by Earth reckoning, long enough for me to have allegedly became an adult – I wanted to move on. Now that the starbridge had been rebuilt and the Coyote Federation had been tentatively accepted as a member of the Talus, humankind was moving out into the galaxy. There were worlds out there that no human had ever seen before, along with dozens of races whom we’d just met. This was my calling, or at least so I thought, and the last thing I wanted to do was settle down to a dull life of being husband and father.
So we broke up. It wasn’t hostile, just a shared agreement that our romance had gone as far as it could go, and perhaps it would be better if we no longer saw each other. Nonetheless, I said something that I’d later regret: I called her a rich girl who liked to slum with lower-class guys, which was how I’d secretly come to regard her. I’m surprised she didn’t dump her glass over my head. But at least we managed to get out of the restaurant without causing a scene; a brief hug, but no kisses, then we went our separate ways.
The next morning, I quit my job at the plantation – her father couldn’t have been more pleased — then went back to my apartment to pack my bags and turn in the key to the landlady. By the end of the day, I was aboard the Leeport ferry, on my way to the New Brighton spaceport.
I thought I was done with Jordan, and that I’d never see her again. But some women cast a spell that can’t easily be broken.
It wasn’t hard to land a job as a spacer. The Federation merchant marine was always looking for a few good people, so long as you were smart enough to fill out the application form, were reasonably fit, and didn’t have any outstanding arrest warrants. No experience necessary; you trained on the job, although the wash-out rate was high enough that the probation clause of the employment contract was invoked more often than not. But the pay was good, and the benefits included full health coverage, two weeks paid vacation, performance bonuses, and even a retirement plan.
When Starbridge Coyote was destroyed, it was at the height of the refugee crisis, with as many as a dozen ships arriving from Earth each and every day. After the starbridge went down, those ships were effectively stranded in the 47 Uma system, with no way home. The Coyote Federation laid claim to those vessels and reflagged them, and once the starbridge was rebuilt — with the technological assistance of the hjadd, whose emissaries had been marooned on Coyote as well – the Federation now had in its possession a merchant fleet consisting of everything from passenger ships and freighters to a wide assortment of landers and shuttles.
Yet when the hjadd offered a helping hand, they’d carefully attached a string or two. Although they’d come to respect the humans on Coyote, they were also aware that the individual who’d caused the starbridge’s destruction was from Earth, and this was just one more reason for them to regard the cradle of humanity with considerable distrust. So they made a major stipulation: the rebuilt starbridge could be used for travel to any world in our corner of the galaxy except Earth. Or at least until the High Council of the Talus, to which the hjadd belonged, determined that Earth no longer posed a threat to other starfaring races. And if the Federation didn’t like it, the hjadd could always withdraw their ambassadors, shut down their embassy on New Florida, and leave Coyote once and for all, slamming the door into hyperspace behind them. They’d reconstructed the starbridge, sure … but they also knew how to disable it so that no ships could pass through it without their permission.
To be sure, quite a few people objected to being cut off from Earth. Yet a surprisingly large majority supported the hjadd’s decision. Ever since the unexpected arrival of the first Western Hemisphere Union starship, four years after the Alabama party set foot on Coyote, and the military occupation that followed, Earth had been little but trouble for the colonies. The refugee crisis had been only the latest example of how the folks back home were using and abusing the new world, with little but a supply of trade goods to show for it. But if the Talus was willing to make up for this shortfall with a new source of vital materials … well, why bother with Earth at all?
So Coyote had become the latest partner in a galactic network of commerce and cultural exchange, with vessels constantly coming and going through the starbridge, bound for distant worlds whose very existence had been unknown until only a few years ago. And those ships needed crews. The fleet already had plenty of captains and first officers and navigators and engineers; those guys had come with their vessels, and their jobs essentially remained unchanged. But someone had to load cargo, repair hull plates, scrub decks, cook meals, clean toilets, and otherwise perform all the menial tasks to go with running a starship … and that’s how guys like me earned our paychecks.
After I passed through a four-week boot camp and earned my union card, I became a Payload Specialist Third Class, which is a polite way of saying that I was a cargo rat. My first billet was aboard the Lady Amelia, a jovian-class freighter that made regular runs out to a planet in the HD 114386 system, locally known as … well, I’m not going to try to it spell the name of the place; you couldn’t pronounce it anyway. The inhabitants called themselves the arsashi, and they had a use for the mountain briar our loggers cut in the highlands of Great Dakota. So I spent a couple of days loading lumber aboard a pair of payload containers, and once the containers were lifted into orbit and attached to the Lady Amelia, off we went to the Puppis constellation.
I didn’t see much of the arsashi homeworld. A small planet the color of ear-wax in orbit around a white dwarf, its atmosphere had too much ammonia and too little nitrogen for it to be habitable by humans – which is, indeed, the case for most worlds of the Talus. Yet the natives were friendly enough for a race of eight-foot tall, bug-eyed yeti; once my fellow rats and I unloaded five tons of wood, the arsashi did their best to make Amelia’s crew as comfortable as possible, even putting us up for the night in a small dome suitable for humans. Their food was indigestible, but at least we had a nice view of a nearby shield volcano. Which, so far as I could tell, was the only thing on their planet worth seeing.
I stayed aboard Amelia for the next six months, Coyote time, long enough to make five more trips to HD 114386. By then, I’d ended my probation period and had been promoted to Payload Specialist Second Class. I was tired of the arsashi and their dismal little wad of a planet, so after that last run, I gave up my billet to another spacer and went in search of a new job.
This time, I lucked out: the next available post for a cargo rat was aboard the Pride of Cucamonga, the freighter that made history by undertaking the first trade expedition to Rho Coronae Borealis. Word had it that, if you were fortunate enough to crew aboard the Pride, then you could get a job anywhere in the fleet. As things turned out, the Pride’s cargomaster was about to take maternity leave, and Captain Harker – himself a near-legendary figure — needed someone to fill her position. I was barely qualified for the job, but the letter of recommendation that the Lady Amelia’s captain had written on my behalf went far to ease his reluctance. So I managed to get one of the choice jobs in the merchant marine.
Cargo for the Pride of Cucamonga was Cannabis sativa, but that wasn’t the only thing we brought with us. The Talus races opened trade with Coyote for our raw materials, yet it wasn’t long before we learned that they were willing to pay better for something else entirely. Not our technology; with the exception of seawater desalinization, for which the sorenta gave us negative-mass drive, anything humans had invented, the aliens had long since perfected.
To our surprise, what they liked the most about us was our culture.
The nord enjoyed our music. They didn’t think much of Mozart or Bach, and thought jazz was boring, but they liked bluegrass and were absolutely wild about traditional Indian music; apparently both the banjo and the sitar sounded much like their own instruments, only different. The sorenta were fascinated by our art, the more abstract the better, and didn’t mind very much if what we brought them were copies of Pollock, Kandinksy, or Mondian. The kua’tah were interested in nature films; Coyote’s surface gravity and atmospheric density meant that they’d never set foot on our world, but they loved seeing vids of the plants and animals we’d found there.
As for the hjadd … the hjadd were intrigued by our literature. They’d learned how to translate most of our major languages long before humans actually made contact with them – a long story that I shouldn’t need to repeat – so they read everything we brought them, from Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelly to 20th century potboilers to The Chronicles of Prince Rupurt. So not only was the Pride of Cucamonga carrying five thousand pounds of cannabis to Rho Coronae Borealis, but also a comp loaded with novels, stories, and poems by authors as diverse as Jane Austen, John D. MacDonald, Edward E. Smith, and Dr. Seuss … all as another payment for the sophisticated microassemblers that had enabled us to transform log-cabin colonies like Liberty and New Boston into cities the likes of which had never been seen on Earth. Our nanotech was primitive compared to theirs … but then again, there’s nothing else in the universe quite like Green Eggs and Ham.
We never actually landed on Hjarr, of course. No non-hjadd ever had, with the sole exception of the chaaz’braan, the Great Teacher of the Sa’Tong. Instead, the Pride once again docked at Talus qua’spah, the immense space colony in orbit above Hjarr that served as one of the major rendezvous points for the Talus races. This was the first time I’d visited the House of the Talus, the place from which I’d embark on a journey that would eventually bring me to Hex.
But before then, I’d send a letter home.
After I left Jordan, I told myself that she was just another girl with whom I’d had a brief affair, and that I’d miss her no more than any other woman I’ve slept with. She was gone. No regrets.
As time went by, though, I gradually discovered that I was wrong. I did miss Jordan, and I did regret the things I’d said to her. It wasn’t as if I was lacking female companionship. I’d had a brief fling with Lady Amelia’s com officer, and on those occasions when another merchant marine vessel was docked at Talus qua’spah, I could always count on a one-night stand with another Federation spacer. But these dalliances were nothing more than sexual exercise, and more than once I woke up in a bunk with a woman whose name I barely knew, to find myself thinking, if only for a moment, that it was Jordan who was curled up beside me.
Yet when I tried to get in touch with her, those times when I was back on Coyote between flights, I discovered that she’d taken measures to cut me out of her life. Her pad number had been changed, and when I tried calling her house, her folks would immediately disconnect, leaving me talking to a dead phone. Mutual friends informed me that she was still in Leeport and hadn’t yet taken up with someone else; on the other hand, she never mentioned my name, or seemed to miss me in any way.
Nonetheless, I wanted her back. And so, during my third trip to Talus qua’spah, I wrote her a letter.
In order to send mail across the galaxy, one relies on hyperspace communication links; once a message was encrypted and addressed to its recipient, it’s sent to a network of transceivers maintained by the Talus, which in turn relays the letter to its intended destination. Unfortunately, that means that it’s theoretically possible for the message to be intercepted, decrypted, and read anywhere along the line. One has to be able to translate the written language of an alien race in order to do that, of course, and while I doubted that anyone would have much interest in what I had to say to my former girlfriend, nonetheless I didn’t want others to read my mail.
So I opted for a slower means of communication. I hand-wrote my letter on pages ripped from my logbook, sealed them in an envelope, and addressed it to Jordan’s home. A friend of mine who was heading back to Coyote aboard another ship offered to carry my letter for me. An old-fashioned way of doing things, sure, but at least I’d be a little more assured of privacy.
In that letter, I let Jordan know where I was and what I was doing, then went on to apologize for the things I’d said to her. I told her that I missed her very much, and that I wanted to see her again. I also attached a recent picture of me standing watch on the Pride’s bridge, the galaxy-trotting spacer and all that. After adding the ship’s hyperlink suffix – no sense in her going through the same rigmarole if she didn’t want to — I gave the letter to my buddy. And then I went about my business, and tried not to be too anxious about when I’d get a reply.
A couple of weeks later, the Pride returned to Coyote to drop off cargo and take on another load of weed and books. Just before we left for Rho Coronae Borealis again, Captain Harker informed me that the regular cargomaster had successfully delivered her baby and that she would soon be coming back to work. After this trip, I’d have to find another ship. So I sent a second letter to Jordan in which I informed her of my change of plans before reiterating everything I’d written in my first letter.
I waited. Still, no response.
At Talus qua’spah, I happened to run into an old acquaintance, another guy who’d gone through training at the same time as I did. His ship was the Texas Rose, a long-range merchanteer that didn’t come and go between just two planets, but instead traveled among the Talus worlds on year-long voyages, carrying freight from one planet to another. My friend had done two of these circuits, and he’d seen enough of the galaxy; the time had come for him to go home.
I spent the night getting drunk and having a long talk with my heart. The following morning, still nursing a hangover, I went to see Captain Harker and asked permission to leave the Pride and take a job that had just opened up on the Rose. Ted was willing to do this, and so was the Rose’s captain, and so my friend and I swapped billets; he returned to Coyote aboard the Pride, while I…
Let’s be honest. I told myself that I was fulfilling my ambition to see the stars, but the truth of the matter was that I was running away from a woman who, through her silence, had told me that she wanted nothing more to do with me.
But still, I continued to write to her. It had become a habit, a way of passing time when I was off-duty. I had no idea whether Jordan was receiving my letters, let alone reading them, but nonetheless it was something I had to do.
For the next year, I visited worlds that were once beyond my reach. At Tau Bootis, I walked upon the shores of a methane sea beneath the ruddy glow of a variable star. At HD 150706, in the Ursa Minor constellation, I found myself on the moon of a superjovian whose orbit about its primary was so eccentric that its summers were hot enough to boil mercury and the carbon dioxide of its atmosphere froze solid during the winter; no indigenous life was possible in such a hellhole, but the kua’tah had established a mining outpost there, and so the Texas Rose took on a load of iron ingots in exchange for vids of ice medusae. From high orbit above the sorenta homeworld in the HD 73256 system, I saw one of the wonders of the galaxy: a continental mountain range, larger and higher than even the Andes, which primitive sorenta had spent countless generations carving into the likeness of the god that they’d worshipped in ancient times, until it resembled a vast, somber face perpetually staring up into the sky.
All these worlds, and many others, I told Jordan about in my letters. For even though I’d tried to run away, I couldn’t escape my memory of her. I traveled hundreds of light-years, visited nearly a dozen planets, and yet every night I lay awake in my bunk and wished that she was there with me.
And then, at the farthest point in the Rose’s circuitous route, we arrived at Hex.
Humans didn’t learn about Hex until we made contact with the nord, and even then it wasn’t until after their homeworld was destroyed when a rogue black hole passed through its system at HD 70642. The nord met our people at Talus qua’spah, and when they found that we had something they wanted – did I mention that they really loved bluegrass? — they offered to reveal to us the starbridge coordinates of the place where they’d gone after they evacuated Nordash. At first, we were only politely curious … but then a Federation Navy ship went there, and realized that this information was worth its weight in banjos.
HD 76700 is a G-class star located in the Volans constellation, about 194 light-years from Earth. It’s also the home system of the danui, a rather reclusive race that, although capable of interstellar travel and hence a member of the Talus, wasn’t much interested in visiting other worlds. Instead, the danui did exactly the opposite: they made something that would guarantee that other starfaring races would visit them instead.
They built Hex.
Once, several millennia ago, HD 76700 was home to a fairly modest solar system, with a couple of terrestrial-size planets in stable orbits within its habitable zone and a small gas giant in close proximity to the star itself. Except for the hot jupe, those planets no longer exist; the danui dismantled them – don’t ask how; no one knows, and the danui aren’t telling – to construct the largest artificial habitat in the entire galaxy.
Picture a geodesic sphere – the technical term is geode, or “twisted dual geodesic dome” – comprised of hexagons, with empty space at the center of each hex. Now, make that geode 186 million miles in diameter, with a circumference of 584,337,600 miles; the legs of the individual hexagons are hollow cylinders 1,000 miles long and 100 miles wide, with a total perimeter of 6,000 miles. Construct this enormous sphere around a small yellow sun at the radial distance of one a.u., leaving the hot jupe where it is in order to furnish the hexes near the equator with an eclipse once every four days. Rotate the entire thing so that centrifugal force provides gravity within each cylinder, ranging from 2 g’s at the equator to nearly zero-g at the poles; the top half of each cylinder is a transparent roof comprised of some polymeric substance that provides radiation protection while also retaining atmospheric pressure.
The result is a habitat the size of a planetary system, comprised of nearly 100 trillion cylinders, each with its own individual environment.
The danui did this. And then they opened the doors and invited their neighbors to move in.
Why go to such effort? Damned if anyone knew, except that they liked company but hated to travel. But what everyone agreed upon was that only the danui would even conceive of such a thing, let alone pull it off. As a race, they had what, in a human, would be diagnosed as Asperger syndrome. Shy, inept at communication, and ugly as sin – they looked like gigantic tarantulas with enormous, lobster-like heads — the danui nonetheless were genius engineers, capable of focusing their entire attention on a single goal and working at it obsessively until it was brought to completion. At some point in their history, they’d decided to pull apart their homeworld, along with its closest neighbor and a nearby asteroid belt, and turn it into Hex.
That’s what humans called the place. The other races of the Talus, of course, had their own names for it. And nearly every one of them had accepted the danui invitation to establish colonies within individual hexes. There was no reason for anyone to push or shove – plenty of room for everyone, and then some — and the danui were willing to help newcomers transform their hexes into miniature replicas of their native worlds. The only stipulation was that the inhabitants live together in peace.
Which was an easy thing to agree to; wars are fought over territory, after all, and who’d go to war over a place where there’s more elbow room than anyone could possibly want? Besides, the other Talus races had already seen what had happened to the morath when they’d attempted to invade the kua’tah hex: the danui had simply sealed off the morath hex, then jettisoned it into space, toward the sun. It had taken nearly three months for the morath colony to fall into HD 76700, and the few survivors were told to leave Hex and never return.
Humans were only the latest race to stake out land on Hex. Our six habs were located about halfway up the northern hemisphere where the surface gravity was about .7-g, less than Earth’s but just a little more than Coyote’s. The Texas Rose entered spherical node between habs One and Two; a mile in diameter, it was spacious enough to hangar the entire Federation fleet, and indeed two other vessels were already docked there. Our ships had been coming to Hex for over a year now, bringing materials necessary to turn our hexagon into a little version of Coyote. Now that the Rose had completed its circuit, about half of our cargo would end up here, most of it various items we’d acquired in trade with other races.
So far, only Hab One — christened Nueva Italia by those who lived there – was settled, and even so its population was still less than a thousand. Not many people on Coyote were willing to pull up roots and relocate so far away from others of their own kind. A small town, Milan, had been built near the western end of the cylinder, not far from the tram station that connected Nueva Italia with the other habs in our hex. The dwellings were prefab faux-birch yurts shipped from 47 Uma, but it was hoped that, once sufficient forestland was cultivated, the colonists would have their own supply of lumber.
I spent the better part of my first day on Hex driving a forklift, hauling pallets, crates and barrels from the tram to an open-sided shed where the supplies were stockpiled, so I didn’t get much of a chance to look around. Indeed, I was trying hard not to; I’d seen many strange things during my tour of the galaxy, but even this minuscule corner of Hex was mesmerizing. It took an effort to not become distracted by a landscape that lacked a discernible horizon, but instead curved upward on both sides and at either end until it merged with a barrel-shaped sky where a sun perpetually stayed in the same place, never rising or setting.
Even so, the day on Nueva Italia did eventually come to an end. The danui had programmed the window panes to gradually polarize over the course of hours until a semblance of nighttime came upon Milan. A collection of yurts in the center of town served as a bed-and-breakfast for travelers, and nearby was a small tavern. After knocking off work, I joined the rest of my crew at the tavern. Hex marked the end of our long voyage, and the captain was feeling generous; he told the barkeep that he’d pay the tab for everyone at our table, and so we settled in for a night of drinking.
I was on my third or fourth pint of ale when I became aware of something tugging at my left foot. Looking down, I found a young woman kneeling beside me; the laces of my work shoes had come undone, and she was retying them for me. Her head was bowed, so the only thing I saw at first was the top of her scalp; light brown hair fell around her shoulders, hiding her face from me. I started to tell her that I could tie my own shoes, thanks anyway, but then she looked up at me.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“Yes … yes, I think you do.”
“You should be more careful. If you walk around with untied shoes, you might trip over them and hurt yourself.”
“Good advice. I make mistakes like that sometimes.”
“People are like that. They do things they don’t mean to do.”
“Umm … yeah, you’re right. Sometimes you don’t…”
“Hush.” Jordan reached up to take my face in her hands. “I forgive you.”
She’d received my letters. That was my first question; any others were unnecessary, or at least just then.
In time, she would tell how she’d thought about responding, but decided instead to maintain an aloof silence while waiting to see what I’d say or do next. And when she’d heard enough to convince herself that my apologies were sincere and that I really did love her, she left her family and caught the next ship to Hex, knowing that the Rose would eventually make its way there. And then she’d waited for me to show up, to tell me…
“I got your letters,” Jordan said, once she’d kissed me. “I read every one of them. And I’m sorry, too.”
“You don’t have to be.” She was sitting beside me at the table, her hands in mine. The rest of my crew, realizing that we needed to be left alone, had quietly moved to another side of the room. “Anything you said, I don’t…”
“No. That’s not what I mean. Your letters … I’m sorry, but I don’t have them any more.”
“What did you…?”
“I had to get here somehow, and my family didn’t want me to … well, you know how my parents feel about you. So I sold your letters to buy passage out here.”
“I don’t understand. Who would buy my letters? Who’d even want to read…?”
“Who do you think?”
Of course, I forgave her for this. Love is a matter of forgiveness, if nothing else. Since then, we’ve had a very happy life together, here on Hex, where the sun never sets and we have plenty of neighbors to keep us company.
All the same, we try to avoid the hjadd. They know enough about us already. How our story ends is none of their business.
“The Other Side of Jordan” first appeared in Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams, April 2009.