Don't get hung up on those two pictures, though. Centaurians have body features not shown in either of them.
Most of a Centaurian's body consists of an upright cylinder a little over a meter tall and about half a meter in diameter. They have four stubby little legs on the bottom of the cylinder, arranged radially; each leg ends in a foot with a biological wheel embedded in it. On the bottom of the cylinder (between their legs) are a retractable penis, a vagina, and a cloaca for excretion. Arranged radially around the top of the cylinder are four arms, each of which has two elbows and ends in a "hand" consisting of four radially-arranged tentacle "fingers." Below and between the four arms are their four mouths, which they use for eating, breathing, and speech. They can speak out of any or all of their mouths at the same time, so their language sounds like a chorus. Atop the cylinder is a three-pronged turret, each prong of which is an eye that resembles a glass camera lens. This gives them 360 degree vision but no depth perception. At the top-center of the turret is a tiny hole, their one-and-only ear. They have no noses and no sense of smell. Their "skin" is leathery and usually mottled brownish in appearance; they rarely wear clothing.
Since they are both male and female at the same time, 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 them one gender 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 cold-blooded herbivores, and treat all but the smallest predators as a threat in need of extermination.
Humans first meet the Centaurians some time in the mid-to-late 21st century. The first meeting is disastrous, and the two species settle into an uneasy truce. The Centaurians have to abandon one of their slower-than-light starships in Earth orbit. We reverse-engineer it and start building starships of our own. We quickly colonize the solar system, and eventually colonize Sirius. But it takes over 8 years for messages to travel between Sirius and Sol, leaving the Sirians pretty much isolated. Sirius declares independence and become a separate star nation.
During this time, the Centaurians figure out what we're doing, and decide to colonize CN Leonis. But like Sirius, CN Leonis also declares independence. Now there are 4 star nations: Sol, Alpha Centauri, Sirius, and CN Leonis.
A grass-roots movement called the Humans for Better Interspecies Relations gets started in the Sol system. They want to colonize another star system with some Centaurians, without interference from any of the existing governments. They believe that the average xenophobe is infected with a psychological malady called "the emotional plague," and that if they can weed out this "plague" from this new colony they will create a utopia. Despite the years-long delay in interstellar communications, they finally reach an agreement with like-minded Centaurians in Alpha Centauri, and the two groups board their own starships and travel to Haberd's Brown Dwarf 629. This brown dwarf happens to be located midway between CN Leonis and Sirius. It also happens to be so massive that it's right on the cusp of being a true star. So, the colonists drop a shielded antimatter charge into the brown dwarf's core and ignite it. Practically overnight, the brown dwarf becomes a red dwarf. The Human-Centauri sun is born. The Human-Centauri system has no planets, only a debris ring, so the colonists have to turn these asteroids into their homes.
Arnold Hasselberg and Jerry Redlands, two operatives from the Solar Bureau of Investigation (SBI), have just crossed 8.5 light-years in hibernation flying from Sol to the UV Ceti system. They unseal their top secret orders. They are to monitor the Mad Scientist, who arrived on the planet Namu (UV Ceti IV) a year ago. He is building a "Phased Antimatter Bomb", a gigantic and incredibly expensive electron-positron bomb. If his theories are correct, it should release all of its energy in a single coherent beam (like a giant gamma ray laser). Arnold and Jerry's starship has a small landing shuttle onboard, called an Ascender. They take the Ascender to Namu's moon and set up shop there. They have a few weeks or months to wait until the Mad Scientist will be ready to test his bomb.
Finally, the Mad Scientist completes his bomb and sets it off. It works, but he had it facing the wrong way, and the gamma ray beam blasts downward into the planet. It induces nuclear fusion inside Namu and slowly tears the planet completely apart. In the wake of all this destruction, Arnold and Jerry discover a mysterious "hole in space" at ground zero, presumably created by the Phased Antimatter Bomb's detonation. They fly over to it to investigate. It's 200 meters across, absolutely flat, and absolutely black on both sides. Arnold gets into a space suit (with an attached thruster pack) and goes E.V.A. to get an even closer look. But a piece of flying debris from Namu's remains injures his left shoulder, making him unable to work his thruster controls, and he falls into the hole-in-space before Jerry can rescue him. His last instructions to Jerry are to get all the data they've collected on the bomb and the mystery hole to the Solar Federal Government.
Jerry is just about to go into hibernation for the long trip back to Sol, when he realizes that Sol cannot be allowed sole access to a weapon that can destroy whole planets. Instead, he commits high treason, by instructing the starship's semi-intelligent (S.I.) controller beam the data (and the top secret plans for building a Phased Antimatter Bomb) to every one of the 5 star nations. He then sets course for Alpha Centauri, hoping to find asylum there.
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. There's a TV news team (or its 23rd century equivalent) on the scene, filming the event and interviewing key players in the project. One intrepid reporter decides to get a close look from directly behind the hyper bomb, so that if it works, he'll get the first ever historic shot of Alpha Centauri through a linked hyper hole.
When the bomb detonates, though, the reporter is vaporized. It turns out that the linked hyper holes were created, but half of the blast energy from the bomb that went off in Alpha Centauri travelled through the newly-formed link and came out the back end. The grief over this tragedy is drowned out in the elation over having actually created an instant-travel corridor to another star system.
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. Sol has just been caught violating the sixth.
After waiting in line behind a space freighter, Carter's spacecraft (called a "limo") travels through the Sirius/Human-Centauri 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. A Centaurian greets him when when he exits the space elevator, and leads him to the tube shuttle that will take him to the summit meeting.
At the summit meeting, Carter sizes up the diplomats of the other 4 nations. The only other human there is Håkan Brezhnev, the figurehead Ayatollah of Sirius. The other 3 diplomats are all Centaurians: Holsteader (from Alpha Centauri), Krammer (from CN Leonis), and Yukariah Heap (Human-Centauri's Chairholder).
Holsteader accuses Sol of having a secret hyper bomb on Mercury, in violation of the SALTY VI treaty. Carter counters by showing pictures taken from Sol's own spy network, showing that Alpha Centauri also has a secret hyper bomb under construction. Accusations of other secret hyper bombs fly around the room. Each side declares blockades, by blocking all traffic through one or both of their system's hyper holes. 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. 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. Just in case Sirius decides to do something nasty to them along the way, he sends out a high-speed message missile, which will reach the hyper hole long before him and broadcast the news of war as soon as it's through. He passes the intervening time by playing a Barbary Coast Pirates VR video game. He's soon interrupted, though — his pilot tells him that Sirius has sent two unmanned fighters after them, presumably to destroy them.
There is a lot of waiting involved in space combat. Even though the fighters' engines can produce thrusts of 100g, it will still take four hours for them to cross the 45 million km between themselves and Carter's limo. The pilot shuts down the limo's engine and sends out 4 thermal decoys, each of which has the same infrared signature and radar cross-section as the limo. Unfortunately, the fighters send out enough cruise missiles to cover all the targets; one of the missiles is headed straight toward them. 18 minutes later, the missile is nearly upon them. The pilot throttles up to full and engages in wild evasive maneuvers, and luckily they are able to dodge the missile.
Unfortunately, it won't be so easy to make it past the gigantic "Gate Guard" station the Sirians have positioned next to the Sirius/Sol hyper hole. Carter sends them a radio message offering their surrender, but to no avail. All looks lost. Then, at the last moment, fighters from Sol emerge from the hyper hole and start pounding on the Gate Guard. They'd received Carter's message missile and are now providing a distraction. Carter's pilot heads for the safety of the hyper hole. They almost make it through unscathed, but a last-instant hit from a magnetic snare throws them off course so that the limo straddles the edge of the hyper hole. This basically cuts the limo in half: the nose and (most of) the passenger compartment pass through into Sol space, but the engine is left back in Sirius 8 light-years away. Carter has to get into a rescue ball to survive the explosive decompression.
The war is now underway. Alpha Centauri makes a probing strike against Sol to test out a new secret weapon. One unmanned fighter, named Gellimand 3, makes it past Sol's Gate Guard, and heads for Station Jove, the enormous military spacedock orbiting Jupiter. Sol responds by sending out two experimental unmanned fighters of their own to intercept it.
The Sol/Alpha-Centauri hyper hole is 350 million km away from Jupiter, so each side has some time to wait before they're within weapons range of each other. Gellimand 3 can't avoid Sol's fighters, but it can reduce one of them to making only a single high-speed pass, which will greatly increase Gellimand 3's chances of surviving the encounter. Several hours later, after having dealt with some cruise missiles, Gellimand 3 whizzes past the first Sol fighter. It only suffers a minor gash in its armor from one of the fighter's short-range missiles. The better part of an hour later, the second Sol fighter intercepts Gellimand 3. Gellimand 3's onboard S.I. knows its odds of surviving a toe-to-toe duel with another fighter are 50/50 at best, so to improve its odds it unleashes its secret weapon.
Alpha Centauri's secret weapon is a molten iron slug which, somehow, can lock onto its target and track it like a missile does. Since it has no delicate electronics, it can be launched by a high-speed railgun, and cannot be "shot down" on its way to the target. The Sol fighter is completely unprepared for this, and due to a software glitch cannot interpose its new experimental "directional screen" between itself and the deadly slug. It scores a direct hit and turns the Sol fighter into a drifting hulk.
Alarmed, Sol sends out two more unmanned fighters. Gellimand 3 is coming toward Station Jove so fast now that both of these fighters can only make a single high-speed pass at it. Both Sol fighters fail to kill it. Now in a near panic, Sol sends out four full fighter-deployers' worth of unmanned fighters — 17 in all. This finally succeeds in destroying Gellimand 3, but not before Gellimand 3 gets within range to fire its secret weapon at Station Jove. Station Jove is powerless to stop the incoming molten slug. It impacts the station in the middle of its superstructure, shearing it in half.
The station is now in two pieces, but each piece can still sort-of function. But not for long — they made a major miscalculation by destroying Gellimand 3 so thoroughly. There is now an expanding cloud of debris, which used to be Gellimand 3, hurtling toward their position at 2% of the speed of light. The damage to the station has disabled its maneuvering thrusters, so they can't get out of the way. It ends up riddled with tiny holes, some of which went through people as well.
It's a year into the war. We finally meet the story's main protagonist, a Centaurian named Torra Zorra. It (note the genderless pronoun) is a Lieutenant in the Human-Centauri Defense Force, serving on board a fighter deployer.
While repelling an incursion by Sirian fighters, two of Torra Zorra's four hands mysteriously start typing commands and pressing buttons on their own. These involuntary actions succeed in shooting down a Sirian fighter hidden in the sun's glare, which the fighter deployer had not, and could not have, detected. Torra's hands then type out a message, implying that Arnold Hasselberg is controlling them from beyond the grave, and telling Torra it absolutely must get to UV Ceti within a decade or the galaxy will end.
Torra's commanding officer, the human Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Doe, is impressed. She arranges to have Torra and herself meet up with the Chairholder of Human-Centauri, Yukariah Heap. The Chairholder is convinced that the warning is real enough to merit investigation, and assigns them a secret experimental antimatter-powered starship they've been working on named Mercurand. They will also need a navigator for the trip, and Jennifer eagerly requests human Captain Ken Tractor for the job.
Human-Centauri is more than 12 light-years away from UV Ceti. Only one star system in the Pentagon is close enough to UV Ceti for them to make the trip within the one-decade deadline, and that's Sol. They'll have to take the hyper hole to Sirius, sneak across Sirian space, take the hyper hole to Sol, and then head out for UV Ceti — all while their nation is officially at war with both Sirius and Sol. Even if they make it through, they'll still be spending nearly ten years in hibernation while they fly from Sol to UV Ceti. Torra Zorra says its last goodbyes to the Zorra clan, so we get to see how Centaurians interact with other Centaurians.
They inspect Mercurand, get on board, and take off for the Human-Centauri/Sirius hyper hole.
Mercurand travels through the Human-Centauri/Sirius hyper hole at high speed, surprising the Sirians and allowing them to make it past the Sirian Gate Guard (and the tiny fleet in use as a Second Guard) unscathed. But now they have to cross 300 million km of Sirian space to reach the Sirius/Sol hyper hole, while Sirius tries to kill them. They broadcast a pre-recorded message to the Sirians explaining their benevolent intentions. They also fire a message missile at the Sirius/Sol hyper hole, carrying the same message so that Sol can hear it; but the Sirians shoot it down. Fortunately, Sirius's strategic reserves of deuterium fuel are low, so they can only afford to send one unmanned fighter after Mercurand. They survive the encounter by using their own exhaust as a weapon to blind the fighter's sensors, and get in a lucky hit with Mercurand's one-and-only real weapon (a slug launcher) as they pass it.
Careful calculations have gone into ensuring that the events in this chapter would happen in the order and at the times described, given the distances and accelerations of all parties involved.
They decide that their only chance of making it past the Gate Guards that are guarding the Sirius/Sol hyper hole is to tell the Sirians that they're powered by a hundred tonnes of antimatter. If the Sirians destroy them, the explosion — and the stray antiprotons released — would do untold harm to the Gate Guard. It appears to work; the Gate Guards don't open fire on them as they approach the Sirius/Sol hyper hole. But since their original message missile never made it to Sol space, they're all but convinced that Sol is going to blast them to flinders once they make transit through the hole, and there's not much they can defend themselves with.
Just as they come within close line-of-sight of the Sirius/Sol hyper hole, chapter 9 ends.
The next chapter tells the same events from the Sirians' point of view. The Sirius/HC Gate Guard crew that saw Mercurand squirt past them so unexpectedly, the reaction by Ayatollah Breznev and by the real ruling faction in power, the reaction to Mercurand's "We come in peace, just passing through" message, the decision whether to let Mercurand's message missile through, the disobedient Sirian(s) who want to relay their message to Sol in spite of their government's official position against doing so (without letting the reader know whether they were successful!), the decision to send only one fighter out to meet them on a comparatively slow trajectory due to their low strategic reserves of deuterium, the crew who sends out the lone fighter to meet them (and their flabbergasted reaction when Mercurand survives), the Second Guard crew who gets told about their antimatter fuel supply — all these are possibilities.
When Mercurand goes through the hole, Sol doesn't open fire. Sol explains that a disobedient Sirian forwarded Mercurand's message to them, and they're letting them through. Elated and relieved, they set course for UV Ceti and enter their hibernation chambers.
This is another interlude chapter. Torra Zorra is awakened half way through the trip. Ken wants to show Torra what the universe looks like while travelling at 92% of the speed of light, which few people ever get to see. We are shown the view out of Mercurand's observation bubble, with all the near-light-speed effects — Lorentz contraction, blueshift, redshift, aberration of starlight, the whole shebang.
Back home in Human-Centauri, the war has entered its eighth year. The once-inexhaustible economies of each star nation are feeling the pinch. Human-Centauri's defenses are being whittled down faster than they can rebuild them. But now, CN Leonis — one of the two enemy nations on either side of Human-Centauri — is feeling pressure from its main enemy (Alpha Centauri) and is willing to offer Human-Centauri an alliance.
Yukariah Heap meets with Krammer in the underground capitol of CN Leonis II. They negotiate the alliance. One of the conditions Krammer insists on is that their military — including the brainwashed Fanatic Brigade of humans in their employ — be allowed access to the Citizens-Only asteroids within the Human-Centauri system. Yukariah is extremely wary, but is desperate enough to accept. It hopes that Human-Centauri's citizens have developed enough of an immunity to the Emotional Plague that the Leonians' added presence won't contaminate them.
Mercurand arrives at UV Ceti. Here, the ability of Arnold's "ghost" to communicate (via controlling two of Torra's hands) is much stronger. Arnold tells them that Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, is going to reach the "upper mass limit" in a matter of months. When this happens, it will instantly (at infinite speed) annihilate the galaxy. The only hope is to "poke a hole" in its event horizon with a hyper bomb, which will let the accumulated mass/energy escape.
Arnold also tells them that the Mad Scientist invented a "Zero Drive" before he died, the prototype for which is still intact amid the rubble of Namu. Arnold gets in a space suit and climbs aboard Mercurand's tiny one-man Ascender to go out and retrieve it. Before he leaves, Jennifer overhears his conversation with Torra, where he reveals that he and Jennifer used to be lovers, and that he left her because she was too controlling. He also reveals that he's not sure the Emotional Plague even exists.
Ken lassos the Zero Drive with a tether, but then Jennifer radios him. She says he must have picked up the Emotional Plague, and that she's going to get rid of him. Then she fires Mercurand's slug launcher at him, and misses. Torra realizes what's going on, and shoots her with a stundart pistol before she can fire the slug launcher again, but in so doing accidentally kills her.
Ken hauls the Zero Drive on board. He and Torra install it, and try it out. It instantly cancels Mercurand's velocity, putting them at "absolute rest" relative to some fundamental reference frame of the universe. They switch it back off. If what Arnold told them is correct, they should be able to enter the nearby rogue hyper hole with the Zero Drive on and wind up in a "limbo" between real space and parallel space, enabling them to maneuver at many times the speed of light. They discover that Mercurand's drogue, which gathers surrounding hydrogen and is absolutely essential for slower-than-light interstellar flight, has jammed. They have no choice but to try enter limbo with the Zero Drive. They line themselves up with the hyper hole, switch on the Zero Drive, and sit and wait for the hyper hole's natural motion through space to sweep over them.
While they're waiting, Torra enters its monthly fertility cycle and starts making annoying "Grooooonk!" sounds. Ken tries to show how annoying it is by imitating the sound, but this backfires: Torra grabs him and practically drags him to the floor before stopping itself. ("Don't do that unless you mean it!") If I put any human-on-Centaurian porn in this story, it'd go here.
They enter limbo and learn how to maneuver there. Acceleration works backwards on the other side of the energy curve. They fly back to Human-Centauri at thousands of times the speed of light. They can still see everything in the normal universe, including messages beamed across space that they happen to be in the path of. They use this to catch up on the news. Which brings us to:
One year ago. Spacecraft manned by CN Leonis's Fanatic Brigade attack Alpha Centauri. Several of them make it past their Gate Guards. One of them makes it all the way to Alpha Centauri A-III, the Centaurian homeworld.
It's carrying a hyper bomb.
Alpha Centauri A-III is ripped apart. Only its iron core saves it from being turned completely inside-out like Namu was.
After Torra grieves the loss of its species' homeworld, they scout out the Human-Centauri system while still in limbo. They discover that an attack is underway by unmanned fighters from Sirius. The fighters have made it through Human-Centauri's defenses and are nearly within striking range of the major populated asteroids. They figure out a straightline trajectory that will intercept most of the fighters, then line up with one of the hyper holes and shut off the Zero Drive. Mercurand erupts from the hole and shoots through the system at near-relativistic speed.
Despite having only one slug launcher, Mercurand is able to outgun the fighters thanks to judicious use of its Zero Drive. It can literally stop on a dime, then fly away as though they'd never slowed down. When the Zero Drive is turned on, any objects entering its small field of influence instantly attain zero verocity along with Mercurand — including shrapnel, slugs, missiles, and particle beams, thus rendering incoming fire from such munitions harmless.
They land on Human-Centauri III and tell the Chairholder all the news. They need a hyper bomb to save the galaxy, but Human-Centauri doesn't have a hyper bomb. While they're sorting this mess out, Torra visits its clan. Ten years have passed; the clan has changed dramatically. Torra's mother died earlier that year, and half the clan members Torra knew have split off and formed their own, new clan.
Finally, all the nations decide they've had enough of war because, darn it, the galaxy is going to end, and they all hold hands and sing Kum-Ba-Ya or something. Mercurand, due to the presence of the prototype Zero Drive, is the only spacecraft that can cross the 30,000 light-years to Sagittarius A* in the few months they have left, and it's the property of Human-Centauri. The other nations, though, have the only hyper bombs. They cooperate, and Mercurand ends up pushing a 25-meter-wide hyper bomb strapped to its nose.
They re-enter limbo and fly to the center of the galaxy. The view at such impossible speeds is overwhelming. When they reach Sagittarius A*, they discover it's even closer to the upper mass limit than Arnold had told them. They're not sure what will happen if they detonate a hyper bomb in limbo. But they succeed, the galaxy is saved, and everybody lives happily ever after.
On the way back, Torra speculates about the impact the Zero Drive will have on the future of both species. It will inevitably be reverse-engineered, and then everyone will be able to travel from any hyper hole to any other hyper hole at thousands (or millions) of times the speed of light. Colonizing a new star system will be as simple as carrying a hyper bomb with you through limbo, and detonating it near your destination.
The leaders of the 5 nations sit down to negotiate peace terms. CN Leonis has dismantled its Fanatic Brigade, but Alpha Centauri still finds it awfully hard to forgive them, considering what they did to the Centaurian homeworld.
In the midst of the negotiations, Arnold's ghost physically appears for the first time. He says, "Well! It looks like I've finally found a solution to the localization problem." The end?
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