Humankind headed out to the stars not for conquest, nor exploration, nor even for curiosity. Humans went to the stars in a desperate crusade to save intelligent life wherever they found it.
A wave of death is spreading through the Milky Way galaxy, an expanding sphere of lethal gamma radiation that erupted from the galaxy’s core twenty-eight thousand years ago and now is approaching Earth’s vicinity at the speed of light. Every world it touched was wiped clean of all life. But it’s possible to protect a planet from gamma radiation. Earth is safe.
Now, guided by the ancient intelligent machines called the Predecessors, men and women from Earth seek out those precious, rare worlds that harbor intelligent species, determined to save them from the doom that is hurtling toward them.
The crew of the Odysseus has arrived at Mithra Gamma, the third planet of the star Mithra, to protect the stone-age inhabitants from the Death Wave. But they’ll also have to protect themselves.
Brad MacDaniels leaned his lanky frame against the makeshift bar that had been set up on the auditorium’s floor and sipped at his lime juice.
He was an impressive figure, just a fraction of a centimeter over two meters tall, slender as a laser beam, his unruly dirty-blond hair flopping across his brow, his pale green eyes watching his fellow passengers enjoying themselves.
The youngest member of the anthropology team, Brad had the reputation of being a loner, but in truth he longed to be in the midst of the festivities—he simply didn’t know how to do it without making a liar of himself.
The French among the scientists called him “deux metres”; the others, “Beanpole” and “Skyhook” and less gentle nicknames. Brad accepted their ribbing with a slow smile and a patient shrug, but inwardly he stung from their attempts to humiliate him.
Born and raised at the Tithonium Chasma scientific base on Mars, Brad had never been to Earth until he volunteered for a star mission. He had survived the avalanche disaster that had wiped out half the base on Mars, including both his parents and his younger brother. He had cremated his family, then helped rebuild the base and gone on to win a doctorate in anthropology for himself. He had volunteered for the star mission, knowing that he would be leaving everything he had known behind him, forever.
Good riddance, he told himself.
He kept his hurts to himself; he bore a scar that he never showed, an inner wound that bled every day, every night, every minute. If they knew, he told himself, it would kill me. They would all hate me.
So he stood leaning against the bar, alone in the middle of the swirling, dancing, laughing throng.
“Hey, Skyhook, why so glum?”
It was Larry Untermeyer, a fellow anthropologist, short and a little pudgy, with a lopsided grin on his round face.
“C’mon, Brad, join the party, for Chrissakes. You look like a flickin’ totem pole.”
Larry gripped Brad’s wrist and towed him out among the dancers. “God knows we’re not gonna be partying like this for a looong time,” Larry shouted over the din of the music and the crowd. “So enjoy yourself.”
And he left Brad standing amidst the dancers. Brad could sense people eying him, a solitary beanpole poking up in the middle of the crowd. For several agonizingly long moments Brad just stood there, trying to think of what he should be doing.
Then a dark-haired, good-looking young woman glided up to him and held out both her hands. With a smile she asked, “Like to dance?”
Brad made himself smile back at her and took her hands in his. She was tiny, not even up to his shoulder. Brad recognized the game. His erstwhile buddies had talked the woman into getting Brad to dance. They thought it would be funny to see the Skyhook stumbling across the floor with a tiny partner.
Brad took her firmly in his arms and stepped out in rhythm to the blaring music. He felt a trifle awkward but, calling up the memory of his school-day dance lessons, he quickly caught the beat. Just don’t step on her feet, he warned himself.
Craning her neck to look up at him, she said, “My name’s Felicia Portman. Biology.”
Brad saw that she was really pretty. Gray eyes, deep and sparkling. Trim figure. “I’m—”
“Brad MacDaniels, I know,” Felicia said. “Anthropology.”
“Right.” And Brad realized that they all must know the beanpole that stuck up above everybody’s head.
The song ended and she led him out of the crowd of dancers, toward the tables arranged along the side wall of the auditorium. Felicia pointed a manicured finger to a table that was already half filled.
“Some of my bio teammates,” she said.
Brad followed her and folded himself into a chair beside her as she introduced the others. A robot trundled up and took their drink orders.
“Lime juice?” asked one of the other guys.
Brad nodded. “I’m sort of allergic to alcohol.”
“Allergies can be fixed,” said one of the others.
“It’s not an allergy, really,” Brad said, trying to keep his face from showing the embarrassment he felt. “Not in the medical sense.”
“Ah . . . a psychological problem.”
Felicia changed the subject. “What’s an anthropologist doing on this mission? Why do we have an anthro team, anyway?”
“Yeah. They stuck you people on board the same day we left Earth orbit. Like you were a last-minute idea.”
“Besides, the creatures down on the planet aren’t human. What’s an anthropologist going to do with them?”
Brad answered, “We’re not here to study the aliens. We’re here to study you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The people here on this ship form a compact group isolated from other human societies,” Brad explained. “It’s an ideal laboratory to study the evolution of a unique society. All of the star missions have anthropology teams with them.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“I don’t know if I like being the subject of a study.”
“Well, you are,” said Brad, “whether you like it or not.”
The looks on their faces around the table ranged from curious amusement to downright hostility.
Brad said, “We’re only a small team: twelve people. I’m the juniormost.”
“We’d all better be on our best behavior,” Felicia said with a grin.
Several of them laughed and the tension eased away.
As the party finally wound down, Brad walked Felicia to her quarters, squeezed her hand gently as he said goodnight, then left her at her door and went along the curving corridors until he found his own compartment.
He stripped and slid into bed, the only light in the room coming from the wall screen, which showed the planet they were orbiting: green from pole to pole, except for some grayish wrinkles of mountains and a few glittering seas here and there.
Hands clasped behind his head, Brad dreaded the inevitable sleep and the inescapable dream that it brought. He recalled the poem that was never far from his consciousness:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
Excerpted from Apes and Angels © Ben Bova, 2016