Since they are neither male nor female, no one refers to a Centaurian as "he" or "she." A Centaurian is always an "it." They would feel uncomfortable if a human speaker tried to assign one gender to them or the other.
Centaurians don't pair-bond with their mates like humans do, but they form very strong bonds with their "clan" — a group of 10-50 Centaurians who are often, but not always, genetically related. Within a clan, there is no pecking order; everyone is equal, except insofar as their ability to be experts at a narrow field of specialty is concerned. Between different clans, though, there is a definite hierarchy; in ancient times it was not uncommon for one clan to treat another as its slaves.
Centaurians are herbivorous and treat all but the smallest predators as a threat in need of extermination.
The details of the back story are to be woven into the main chapters, as reminiscences, info dumps, etc..
Some time in the mid 21st century, humans first meet the Centaurians. The Centaurians, as it turns out, had just recently developed the technology to build slower-than-light starships, and the first star system they decided to visit was our own. The first meeting was disastrous; a U.S. general panicked and ordered two nuclear ICBMs to be launched at the Centaurians' starship. Over the next 14 years, humanity prepared as best it could for the inevitable Centaurian counterattack. In the process, all terrestrial nations got subsumed under one enormous World Federal Government.
The inevitable Centaurian counterattack ended in a stalemate for both sides. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and after exchanging dictionaries/encyclopedias tailored for alien minds, both sides managed to strike up a conversation. The Centaurians returned home to Alpha Centauri A-III. However, one of their starships had been damaged in the fight and had to be abandoned in Earth orbit. It didn't take us long to reverse engineer it and discover many of the Centaurians' secrets — which we soon copied and worked into our own technology. These secrets included a highly efficient means of nuclear fusion called QC&C, and a means for generating a focused magnetic field that could extend for several kilometers.
Armed with this new technology, humanity started colonizing the planets of our Solar system. The World Federal Government evolved into the Solar Federal Government. But we soon realized the need to build full-blown starships of our own. After all, the Centaurians could decide to wipe us out at any time, and (for all we knew) they might already be colonizing the hell out of the rest of the galaxy. So, we set our sights on some nearby star systems and started sending out the scouts.
Within a few decades, we sent out two waves of colonization starships to Sirius. At over 8 light-years away, communication between the Sol system and Sirius was extremely slow — each time one party sent a message to the other, it took 8 years for the signal to bridge the gap. With Sirius realizing just how on-their-own they truly were, they declared independence from the Solar Federal Government. Sol responded by sending an armed starship force to suppress the rebellion, but they severely underestimated the amount of military buildup Sirius had undertaken and were thoroughly repulsed.
Meanwhile, the Centaurians had discovered our colonization fleet bound for Sirius. It turned out we humans were wrong: the Centaurians didn't have colonial aspirations of their own. But now that we had a colony, they had to have a colony. So, they sent their own fleet of colonization starships to CN Leonis, a red dwarf star 8 light-years away from Alpha Centauri. And as had happened at Sirius, the colony population of Centaurians at CN Leonis soon declared their independence from Alpha Centauri.
Both Sol and Alpha Centauri also played a little game of "me too" with each others' colonization fleets. They sent their own colony starships to the other guys' destination. In other words, after Sol discovered the CN Leonis colonization fleet they sent a few colonists to CN Leonis, and after Alpha Centauri discovered the Sirius colonization fleet they sent a few colonists to Sirius. In both cases, the earlier colonists captured and subjugated the new arrivals. So, there is now a small population of Centaurians at Sirius who are treated as second-class citizens, and there is likewise a small population of humans at CN Leonis who are treated as second-class citizens.
After their colonies won their independence, both Sol and Alpha Centauri decided not to make any new colonies. But, there was a small grass-roots movement of people on Earth who believed that humans and Centaurians could live together in peace and harmony and cooperation and all that kum-ba-ya stuff. They were called the Humans for Better Interspecies Relations. They sent messages to Alpha Centauri — and to Sirius, and to CN Leonis — asking if any of them would like to join them in going off and creating their own colony around a new star. Eventually, enough Centaurians agreed, and the Human-Centauri project was born.
The Humans for Better Interspecies relations, and their Centaurian counterparts, colonized a brown dwarf that lay midway between Sirius and CN Leonis. It had a ring of asteroids orbiting it, but no actual planets. The colonists fof this new Human-Centauri "star" system didn't really need the light of a true star; nuclear fusion technology gave them practically unlimited energy. But, it turned out this particular brown dwarf was right on the cusp of stellar ignition. They dropped a specially-prepared antimatter warhead into its core, and bam, the brown dwarf became a red dwarf. The Human-Centauri sun had been born.
When viewed from the right angle in deep space, the five populated star systems — Sol, Alpha Centauri, Sirius, CN Leonis, and Human-Centauri — kind of look like the corners of a pentagon. Hence, populated space is sometimes referred to as "The Pentagon."
The novel opens on Jerry Redlands and Arnold Hasselberg, two operatives from the Solar Bureau of Investigation (SBI). They have just crossed 8.5 light-years in hibernation, flying from Sol to the UV Ceti system. UV Ceti is one of a pair of red dwarfs called Luyten 726-8, both of which are hostile to life. UV Ceti itself produces sporadic, violent flares. Because this star system is so undesirable, it's the perfect playground for very very dangerous experiments. A man called only "The Mad Scientist" arrived in this star system a year earlier, and is planning one of these very very dangerous experiments. When they left Sol, Jerry knew next to nothing about his assignment, having been sent on this mission at the last minute. Arnold knew only that the Mad Scientist was involved; neither of them would know the nature of the experiment until they arrived in UV Ceti and listened to their top secret orders.
We learn that the starship they arrived in is no ordinary starship. It's a top-of-the-line model, which the Bureau gave Arnold because they consider him pretty special. It can pull a sustained 2g, which cut their actual travel time to 10 years and the time-dilated "experienced" travel time on board to a paltry 3 years. (Neither Arnold nor Jerry experienced those 3 years, though, because they spent the whole time in hibernation chambers.)
When they play their orders, they learn that the Mad Scientist's latest invention is an enormous antimatter bomb, powered entirely by positrons. According to the Mad Scientist's theory, this bomb should emit all of its energy in a single beam, like a super-powerful gamma ray laser. Sol is interested in this technology because, if it works, it will enable them to punch through even the most heavily armored intruder from millions of kilometers away. Arnold and Jerry's job is to monitor the final construction phase of this "phased antimatter bomb" and collect all possible data during its detonation. The Mad Scientist is on the daylight side of the 4th planet (UV Ceti IV, christened Namu by astronomers), and Arnold and Jerry are to do their observing from the surface of Namu's moon.
Arnold and Jerry prepare to leave the comfort and safety of their starship. Their starship is an orbit-to-orbit vehicle, meaning it can't land on a planetary surface. Berthed within the starship is a small spacecraft called an Ascender (so named because it's capable of ascending from the surface of a large planet with an atmosphere). It's cone shaped, and not much bigger than an Apollo command module. They intend to use the Ascender to fly to Namu's moon and set up camp. They inspect the Ascender and make sure they have everything they'll need for a months-long stay. In the process, Jerry decides to take along his poster of Cronazza Heap, the Centaurian who's currently the Chairholder (elected leader) of Human-Centauri. This launches into a whole discussion of why Jerry likes Human-Centauri ("If you like Human-Centauri so much, why don't you go live there?") and of Jerry's fascination with Centaurians in general. It turns out Jerry's specialty was Alpha-Centaurian culture, and he'd hoped that his first interstellar mission would be a diplomatic one to Alpha Centauri A-III. Instead, he's stuck here at UV Ceti, 8.5 light-years away from anything even remotely resembling civilization.
The starship has a built-in Semi Intelligent (S.I.) controller that Arnold refers to as "Doris." It's pretty smart, but true Artificial Intelligence has never been perfected. Arnold calls Doris on the Ascender's radio and tells it to release them into the void. They launch away in the Ascender, on a slow orbital descent to Namu's moon. Jerry gets his first look at their starship from the outside. We get a description of the whats and whys of its shape, from the narrow wire-mesh cone in the front, to the long boom sticking out the back, to the enormous deflated mylar bags that held its fuel at the start of the trip. Jerry is then startled by a bright pinkish light in space; Arnold scolds him for being so jumpy ("We are in a binary star system, you know").
The trip down to the surface takes an hour and a half. Jerry tries to pass the time by asking Arnold about the one time he was on the same planet as the Mad Scientist. It happened over 112 years ago, before Sirius declared independence from Sol. Arnold was on a scouting mission to Lalande 21185, an 8 light-year trip from Sol, and the Mad Scientist tagged along to do one of his early very-very-dangerous experiments at the same time. Back then, hibernation technology hadn't been invented yet, so they all had to live on board that starship. Even with the time dilation, that was 5 years out and 5 years back. Arnold got married and divorced twice on that trip, and produced 3 children whom he's never seen since. One of those children has already died of ripe old age. This lets the reader know that, no, we have not conquered the aging problem with future medicine. It also serves to remind Jerry that 20+ years will have passed back home by the time he gets back from this mission; all of his old friendships will have long since withered, and worse, if he goes on another mission (say, to Alpha Centauri as he had hoped), any new friends he makes after he gets back from UV Ceti will also drift away. He will become the same man-out-of-time that Arnold is.
Arnold lands the Ascender deftly on the moon's rocky surface. The gravity is only half a percent of Earth's, barely any gravity at all. The Ascendor shoots out anchor lines to keep it from drifting or bouncing away, then they inflate the pressure tent that's going to house their instruments and workspace. Those times when they're sleeping, they'll be doing it in the Ascender, because it's shielded enough to weather he harsh flares of UV Ceti.
Chapter 2 opens on Arnold and Jerry watching the Mad Scientist through a telescope. The moon is in synchronous rotation with Namu, which means that Namu will always appear in the same place in the sky for Arnold and Jerry. Unfortunately, the moon also orbits Namu once every 13 hours, so the side of Namu with the Mad Scientist on it will not always be visible. Arnold catches sight of the Mad Scientist just on the horizon, eating lunch.
Jerry asks why they don't just position a couple of synchronous spy sats over the Mad Scientist's head. Arnold tells him that the SBI would be too paranoid about anyone intercepting the transmissions from those satellites. Even though they're eight light-years from anyone who could conceivably listen in. ("No one ever accused the SBI of being infallable decisionmakers.") Just as Arnold is offering Jerry an unappetizing "meal bar" to eat, the flare warning alert goes off, and they have to clamber into the Ascender and shut the door lest they get exposed to too many X-rays. They're going to have to stay in there until the flare subsides, so Arnold figures this is as good a time as any to hit the hay.
Jerry, unfortunately, isn't used to sleeping in ultra-low gravity yet. Every time he rolls over, it feels like he's drowning. So, after the flare subsides, Jerry quietly lets himself outside into the pressure tent to look up at the stars. We're treated to a few examples of how the constellations have shifted from their appearance on Earth, due to the fact that he's viewing them from 8.5 light-years away. Alpha Centauri, he notes, has moved all the way from Centaurus to Virgo, right next to Spica. This leads into a long reminiscence about the Centaurians, during which a sizable chunk of the back story gets told. It's also the place where the capabilities of QC&C technology are described — sure, it's good for efficient nuclear fusion, but it can also be used for Active Radar Absorption (ARA). ARA is a kind of radar invisibility that military spacecraft occasionally use; it won't keep you from being seen, but it'll make it a lot harder for enemy weapons to track you. In mentioning this military use, we learn that there hasn't been any armed conflict for the last 102 years.
As the days drag on, Arnold and Jerry can see a chaotic heap on Namu's surface grow larger and larger. This is the matter/antimatter supply for the Phased Antimatter Bomb. There is a lot of antimatter there, a full quarter of a ton of positrons. Such a huge positron stockpile represents a third of all the positrons the Solar Federal Government has. Eventually Jerry asks why Sol is willing to take such an enormous risk on an invention devised by somebody with "Mad" in his name. Arnold doesn't know, but guesses it's because such a device could blow away an entire invading fleet before it got close enough to do any harm. Jerry notes that it could also blast away half the atmosphere of a developed planet, which leads to a kind of argument with Arnold about might-makes-right and deterrence and such. Arnold seems to be the consummate patriot here. Jerry is very worried that Sol would become the very monsters that Arnold denies they are.
Our next scene is from the Mad Scientist's perspective. It turns out his name is more than just some old B-movie archetype. He really is mad, or nearly so. He takes hormones that keep his sanity teetering right at the brink of outright schizophrenia. It's what gives him his edge. The SBI would never have entrusted him with this project, except that he also has an uncanny ability to focus, to literally will himself sane. (And, yes, my inspiration here was John Nash from A Beautiful Mind.)
The Mad Scientist decides to have a little fun with the two operatives sent to spy on him. He breaks radio silence and says a big hello to the basecamp on the moon overhead. In return, a bright green light from the basecamp taps out "please maintain radio silence, you know the rules" in Morse code. He is impressed; very few people knew that he could decode Morse on the fly. He figures its Arnold Hasselberg, who has spied on him in the past, and agrees to play nice.
He makes one final examination of the Phased Antimatter Bomb, which assembler robots have been busily hooking together for the past several weeks. In passing, we learn that over the year he's been here he's sketched out a few new inventions, and even prototyped a couple of them with spare parts he'd taken with him from Sol. Satisfied with the assembly, he drives his cart back to his pressure bunker a few kilometers away, and signals Arnold and Jerry that he's going to set off the bomb in 5 minutes. Arnold and Jerry scramble to ensure that every instrument and recorder they have is turned on and pointed to the right spot, not wanting to miss gathering a single piece of data. At last, the countdown finishes.
The bomb went off just as the Mad Scientist had designed it to — except for one detail. The quarter ton of positrons annihilated in a flat plane, with matter fed in from the opposite direction. He was sure that the phased gamma ray beam would come out of one side of that plane, but he couldn't be 100% certain of which side. He was 90% sure it would shoot out of the positron side, so he'd positioned the bomb with the positron side pointing straight up. This would allow the gamma ray beam to shoot harmlessly out into space. But in actual fact, the beam comes out of the other side, the side facing straight down into the ground.
The resulting cataclysm vaporizes all rock within 7 kilometers of ground zero, and sends shock waves through the ground that completely overwhelm the Mad Scientist's pressure bunker. As a bit of foreshadowing, the Mad Scientist's final thought is that he'll never get to test his Zero Drive. The gamma ray beam bores all the way through the planet and out the other side. Arnold and Jerry watch in horror as Namu's thin atmosphere boils away from ground zero, unzipping into space in an ever-widening circle. Worse, it turns out that the gamma ray beam is intense enough to induce nuclear fusion inside the planet's interior. The extra heat vaporizes even more rock inside the planet. The internal pressure is so great, in fact, that the planet tears itself apart, sending chunks of itself all the way out into their own orbits around UV Ceti.
Arnold looks back at the data their instruments gathered from the initial blast, and discovers that the gamma ray beam was only half as intense as it should have been. They look back at the point in space where ground zero had been. Incredibly, inside a tiny region in their field of view, they see debris disappear behind some unseen jet-black object and then re-emerge. This unseen object appears oval shaped, doesn't show up on radar, and emits no radiation of any kind, not even ordinary thermal radiation. As they continue to watch pieces of debris pass behind it and re-emerge, they see a rock pass "into" it and never emerge. Arnold decides they have to get a closer look, despite the danger of all those chunks of Namu floating around. They get back in the Ascender, leave their pressure tent and instruments on the moon's surface, and launch at a whopping 7g This is a stronger G force than Jerry has ever experienced in his life.
They arrive near ground zero, where the unseen object is. They conclude that the Phased Antimatter Bomb must have created it. They make a trip around it. It is revealed to be a perfectly flat disc some 200 meters in diameter. Even this close, their Ascender's most sensitive detectors can't see any light coming out of it, or reflecting off of it, at any frequency. Arnold decides to get an even closer look. He puts on a space suit with a thruster pack, and gives Jerry some minimal instructions for what to do in his absence. He goes down through the safety checklist for the suit and the thruster pack, then exits through the Ascender's tiny airlock.
Arnold thrusts toward the black disc, then coasts so he can enjoy the sensation of space walking. He snatches a slow-moving pebble from the passing debris. He brakes himself to a stop barely 150 meters from the disc. It looms large in his field of view. He lets Jerry get a radar fix on the pebble he's carrying, then throws it at the disc. It disappears from sight at the same moment it disappears off Jerry's radar. Arnold engages his thruster pack to get in even closer, but right after he does, a high-speed piece of debris the size of a dime shoots right through his left shoulder. His space suit automatically seals itself against air leakage, and the wound doesn't cause much blood loss, but his left arm is now totally useless — and it's his left arm, and only his left arm, that can work the thruster controls.
They quickly discover that Arnold is drifting toward the black disc. Jerry starts up the maneuvering jets on the Ascender and tries to fly in to rescue Arnold, but he doesn't have much piloting experience and he's long out of practice. The Ascender's controls are such that the S.I. on board their starship cannot take over and pilot it, so Jerry cannot call on the assistance of Doris. Soon, Arnold realizes there's no way Jerry can get to him in time. He is doomed to fall into this "hole in space." He warns Jerry to steer clear lest the Ascender fall in too. His last instructions are to get all the data they've collected back to Sol, as the Phased Antimatter Bomb has just become orders of magnitude more important than anyone could have guessed. Then, Arnold vanishes into the void.
Now, Jerry has to get back to the starship. There's no one to help him within 8.5 light years, he's stuck in a two-man short-range capsule that he barely knows how to operate, and he's surrounded by lethal whizzing rocks.
Thankfully, Doris the S.I. can help talk him in. Although the S.I. can't send commands to the Ascender's controls, it can receive telemetry from them. He has Doris set up a rendezvous trajectory for him, then carefully steers clear of the hole-in-space lest the rendezvous trajectory happens to pass through it. He takes the trip back at a leisurely half a g, since he lacks Arnold's stomach for high gee maneuvers. He has one emergency along the way as a meteoroid punches through the hull, but he manages to slap sealer patches over the two holes to stop the air leaks. When he arrives, Doris has to talk him through the docking procedure.
When he's on board the starship again, he instructs Doris to snatch up all the data from their camp on the moon, even if they have to break radio silence to do it. But before he sends the data to Sol, he has a pang of conscience. The Phased Antimatter Bomb had proven that it could actually destroy an entire Mars-sized planet. If Sol built one as a weapon, they might decide to make an "effective demonstration" of its power on an inhabited planet. There were still some in government who believed the only way to be safe from the threat of a Centaurian attack was to wipe all the Centaurians out. He decides to commit high treason. He instructs Doris to plot a course not for Sol, but for Alpha Centauri, where he will seek asylum. Doris is to transmit a copy of the Phased Antimatter Bomb data, along with the highly classified instructions for building the device, to every single one of the 5 star nations. Since the transmissions only propagate at light speed, they are to be timed such that each one will arrive at its destination star system at the exact same time.
At last, when all is in place, he strips and enters his hibernation coffin.
This is an interlude chapter, detailing the creation of the first linked hyper hole.
33 years have passed since Arnold and Jerry witnessed the first Phased Antimatter Bomb detonation. In the intervening time, scientists from all 5 star nations have pored over the data. The "hole in space" produced by the blast is actually a hyperspatial doorway into a parallel space, where time and matter (and maybe even distance) have no meaning. This doorway is now called a "hyper hole." And everybody now refers to the Phased Antimatter Bomb as a "hyper bomb."
According to the scientists, if two hyper bombs are detonated at the same time, with their blasts pointed directly at one another, the two hyper holes will be permanently "linked," so that any matter or energy entering one of these linked hyper holes will instantly re-emerge from the other — even if the two hyper holes were created several light-years apart. In other words, if you can coordinate with the people in another star system, and your aim and timing are just right, the two of you can create a permanent parallel-space tunnel between your two star systems, through which anything can transit instantaneously. (So long as what you're sending is small enough to fit through a 200 meter hole.)
Sol and Alpha Centauri have decided to try to make such a tunnel. As the chapter opens, their experiment is about to come to its climax. A hyper bomb has been placed in orbit between Jupiter and Saturn. It's scheduled to detonate at exactly the same time as another hyper bomb over in the Alpha Centauri system. These detonations are only moments away. Everyone has his or her fingers crossed; there are a lot of unknown factors that could turn this experiment into a dismal failure. Not the least of which is the mystery of what happened to the missing half of the gamma ray energy in the original hyper bomb blast that destroyed Namu 33 years ago.
Tricia Sanchez, a TV news reporter — or this century's equivalent of a TV news reporter — is live on the scene in a space liner. With her in the liner is Dr. Monidas Chen, Sol's head scientist on this project, and senator Allison Maeda, who is on the senate committee that backed the project. Tricia briefly interviews both of them. Senator Maeda is a hawkish Solar patriot.— She and Dr. Chen get into an argument over Jerry Redlands; Maeda says he was a traitor to humanity, while Chen says he was a saviour who kept one species from exterminating the other. During their exchange, we discover that Jerry Redlands was assassinated on Alpha Centauri A-III some years ago, and that in the early years some of the Humans for Better Interspecies Relations were thrown into jail for their views.
With less than 2 minutes to go before detonation, the news cameras switch to a live feed from Josh Grüben, an intrepid reporter flying his own miniature spacecraft. He is very close to the hyper bomb. However, he feels safe — he is on the positron side of the explosive lens, and all the scientists know that the gamma ray blast is going to come out of the electron side (the far side) of the 'lens. He wants to be facing the dead-center of the hyper hole when it forms. He is hoping that he will be the first person in history to get a picture of Alpha Centauri seen through a linked pair of hyper holes.
The countdown to detonation reaches zero. The gamma ray beam is invisible; it heads off harmlessly into deep space toward Alpha Centauri. (It will be too diffuse to cause any damage when it arrives there in 4.3 years.) However, at the same instant, the video feed from Josh goes dead. Tricia tries to raise him on the radio to find out what's wrong, but gets no answer. Then, her space liner's pilot informs her that Josh's spacecraft isn't showing up on radar any more. Then, the bomb's assembly crew calls in to tell her that Josh's spacecraft vaporized when the bomb went off.
To his growing horror, Dr. Monidas Chen realizes what must have happened. The mysterious "missing half" of the gamma ray energy must have gone into parallel space, and then come out the other end of the newly-created linked pair of hyper holes. Josh had been hit full-force by half the energy of Alpha Centauri's hyper bomb. He tells Tricia this, while the cameras are running. Josh, he tells us, wouldn't have had time to realize that anything was wrong before he disintegrated.
Tricia has to stifle her raging torrent of emotions, though. A senior member of the work crew, out by where the hyper bomb used to be, has his own low-quality microphone and camera, and is now providing their only on-the-scene video feed. Sure enough, in the grainy picture being relayed to the news team, the star field at ground zero has changed. There is a 200 meter diameter disc filled with different background stars. The guy holding the camera moves around, changing their viewing angle. Everyone is too excited to think about the tragedy that just befell Josh Grüben. At one viewing angle, a bright yellow light appears through the hyper hole. It's Alpha Centauri B! They are seeing directly into the Alpha Centauri system just as though they were right next door to it.
Next, they try to send radio messages across the gap. After a couple of false starts and a few frequency hops, they establish communication with an observation spacecraft, on Alpha Centauri's side of the hole. Although this spacecraft is 4.3 light-years away, communication is instantaneous. Finally, they send a small unmanned radio beacon directly through the hole. The Centaurians on the other side tell us they're tracking it on radar, and that it came through intact. We can see it if we stare directly down the hole into Alpha Centaurian space, too. The linked hyper holes are a resounding success.
While all this is going on, off camera, Senator Maeda apologizes to Dr. Chen for her gruffness, then asks him how long the hyper hole link will last. Dr. Chen responds that the unlinked hyper hole at UV Ceti, the one created 33 years ago, was still there when an expedition visited UV Ceti less than 10 years ago. Theoretically, these hyper holes should last as long as the universe is still there. Maeda is worried. This means the star nation that poses the greatest threat to Sol will have a tunnel right into Sol's back yard that they can't get rid of.
Before Tricia signs off, Dr. Chen mentions that both sides of the newly-created hyper hole are linked to the other hyper hole in Alpha Centauri. Not just the side facing toward Alpha Centauri, the side facing away from Alpha Centauri as well. Anything entering our near side exits the Alpha Centaurian hole's far side; anything entering our far side exits the Alpha Centaurian hole's near side. And vice-versa, for objects entering either side of the Alpha Centaurian hole.
The end of the chapter is a quick historical overview of the next 34 years. After the success of the Sol/Alpha Centauri linked hyper holes, all 5 star nations build more hyper bombs and create their own links with each of their two nearest neighbors. Populated space ends up looking like this:
These linked hyper holes spell the end of the starship. Now, ordinary interplanetary spacecraft can journey between the stars. A trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri (or Sirius) now takes only as long as a trip from Earth to Saturn. Quick and easy interstellar trade becomes the norm.
But this newfound proximity to our stellar neighbors has a dark side. Each star nation has existed as an isolated pocket of life for nearly two centuries. They all carry deep suspicions, and even seething hatreds, toward one another. And now, once-distant nations they used to consider their mortal enemies are right at their doorstep.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, they are all painfully aware that hyper bombs can do more than just create hyper holes. They can also destroy whole planets.
James Carter, a diplomat from Sol, is en route to Human-Centauri for a summit meeting. International tensions are at an all time high. Six treaties, SALTY I through SALTY VI, have been proposed between the 5 star nations to limit the building of hyper bombs. The first five of these SALTY treaties have all failed. The sixth calls for all nations to disclose the existence and size of each and every working positron factory they posess, and the number of hyper bombs they've stockpiled. It seemed to be working — until Alpha Centauri's spies discovered an extra, unreported hyper bomb that Sol has been keeping secret.
It turns out that each nation, with the exception of Human-Centauri, has at least one extra hyper bomb they're keeping hidden. It's more-or-less an an open secret. Sol just had the bad luck to get caught.
The chapter opens with Carter riding in a "limo" — a small private spacecraft, which serves the same function as a modern-day business jet. He is in the Sirius system, about to enter the hyper hole that leads from Sirius to Human-Centauri. He has to wait a little bit, though, because there's an enormous freighter in line in front of him, which has to maneuver very very slowly and carefully through the hyper hole. It's almost as big around as the hole is. If it makes even the slightest mistake, it could bump into the outer circular edge of the hole, which would shear off chunks of it like an infinitely sharp knife. (Such accidents are called "boundary shear" events, and happen about once a year, mostly to freighters with impatient pilots.) When Carter's turn to make transit finally comes, we are treated to a view of what it's like to pass through a linked hyper hole.
Now in Human-Centauri controlled space, Carter's limo docks at a space station in synchronous orbit around the "Greeting Area" asteroid. It's the only place in the whole star system open to non-Citizens of Human-Centauri. He takes a space elevator down from the space station; it descends beneath the asteroid's surface. The gravity is only 1% of Earth gravity, too weak for the asteroid to hold an atmosphere, so all living space is deep underground. He is greeted by a Centaurian when he exits the space elevator, which startles him. He wasn't expecting to be face-to-face — or rather, face-to-eye-stalk — with a Centaurian this soon. The Centaurian leads him past the spaceport gift shops, to the tube shuttle that leads to where the summit meeting will be taking place. The meeting will be inside one of the many enormous centrifuges the Human-Centaurians have built deep undeground. They prefer to live and work in centrifuges for the artificial gravity.
At the summit meeting, Carter sizes up the diplomats of the other 4 nations. From Sirius, there's the figurehead Ayatollah, Håkan Brezhnev. He's the only other human diplomat there. From Alpha Centauri, there's Holsteader, the diplomatic expert of Alpha Centauri A-III's ruling clan. From CN Leonis, there's Krammer, from CN Leonis II's leading clan. By convention, neither of them needs to mention their last names, because everyone is supposed to know who the ruling clans are. Human-Centauri, on the other hand, always elects its Chairholder as an individual from among both the human and the Centaurian population there; Yukariah Heap is the current Chairholder of Human-Centauri and is also present at the summit meeting.
Holsteader immediately gets down to business. It accuses Sol of having a secret hyper bomb on Mercury, in violation of the SALTY VI treaty. Carter knows the Centaurians must have snuck some spy satellites into Sol's space traffic system, in order to get pictures good enough to show their hyper bomb. Carter tries to deflect the attention of everyone in the room by bringing up those spy satellites, but fails. Holsteader informs him that Alpha Centauri has already decided to block all traffic through the Sol/Alpha-Centauri hyper hole, effectively creating a blockade.
This prompts Carter to pull out his "ace in the hole": Sol's own spy network has discovered that Alpha Centauri also has a secret hyper bomb under construction. He takes out the photographs to prove it. This new revelation prompts Krammer to declare that CN Leonis will create their own blockade, by blocking all traffic through the Alpha-Centauri/CN-Leonis hyper hole. Unfortunately, Carter's ploy backfires; instead of making Holsteader back off on Alpha Centauri's blockade, it makes Brezhnev wary enough to institute a blockade of the Sol/Sirius hyper hole. Carter explains that Sol has no intention of using its secret hyper bomb to blow up Sirius A IV or anything so barbaric; Sol just wants to avoid a "hyper bomb gap", since they suspect every other star nation has a secret hyper bomb program.
This accusation infuriates Krammer, who insists that CN Leonis has no such secret program. After some back-and-forth, Brezhnev is backed into a corner and all but admits that Sirius has such a secret program. Krammer continues to protest CN Leonis's innocence, but no one believes it. We also learn that Human-Centauri has a secret antimatter factory; but Yukariah Heap claims it's an antiproton factory, not a positron factory, and so doesn't violate SALTY VI.
More blockade declarations are made on all sides. Tensions flare. Finally, Holsteader reaches its breaking point; Alpha Centauri declares war on CN Leonis. Then CN Leonis declares war on Human-Centauri. Then Alpha Centauri declares war on Sol. Then Sirius declares war on Sol. Then Alpha Centauri and Sirius declare war on each other. Then Sirius declares war on CN Leonis. Then Sirius declares war on Human-Centauri. By the end of the conference, everyone is at war with everyone else.
Chapter 5 details Carter's attempt to get back home to Sol. His only route home is through Sirius space, whom Sol is now at war with. His limo makes transit through the Human-Centauri/Sirius hyper hole without incident, but it will take a couple of days to reach the Sirius/Sol hyper hole. He and his pilot both know that Sirius could decide to stop playing nice with them at any time.
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