"No," he said. "I'll pass for now. I'd rather have you owing me an invitation. That way I can be sure I'll see you again."
Epilogue January 18,623 The stone was set in a corner of Cabry's Beach, not particularly noticeable unless one was looking for it.
The engraving read, simply, IN MEMORY OF... and listed five names: Sheyel Tolliver, Benton Tripley, Amy Bricker, and two others. The remaining security guards.
Kim probably owed her life to Amy and her comrades.
During the more than two decades that had passed since that terrible night on the beach, life had come back to Severin. The village had been rebuilt, boats had reappeared on the lake, and a train station had been erected. Even the refreshment stand was back, and during the summer a new raft floated just offshore. It was off-season now, early December, but the place was nevertheless not as dark as she remembered. The village lights filtered through the trees, and the new city hall tower was visible if she was willing to stand at the water's edge.
Overhead, lights moved through the sky.
Some of them would be carrying dignitaries from throughout the Nine Worlds to greet their first nonhuman visitors. Well-maybe not quite the first.
Tomorrow, they would arrive in Severin, guests and hosts. Speeches would be made, bands would play, and a second memorial would be dedicated: To the crew of the Valiant, who gave their lives for a people they never knew.
The term "crew" was probably meant to include the shroud, and she didn't care much for that part of the idea. But she had no way of knowing what that abandoned creature had been through, so she was willing to forget. Nevertheless, she remained conscious of the stone behind her.
The Cho-Choi don't name their vessels, and the designator doesn't translate well, so everyone agreed that the name humans had given the microship was appropriate to the occasion. Several vessels of the Valiant class had already arrived at Sky Harbor in commemoration of the event.
Their home world was located three hundred light-years the other side of the Golden Chalice. Human ships had visited their worlds last year and had returned with tales of wondrous sights.
The Cho-Choi, like humans, had thought themselves alone. And also like humans, they seemed delighted to find they had company in a universe thought to be windswept and full of echoes.
Kim looked out across the lake. Homes were going up on the far side too.
Her taxi had set down almost exactly where she'd landed with Solly on that January night just after the turn of the century.
She scanned the tree line. There was where we went into the forest. And Tripley's villa had lain in that direction, a few points south of west. It was gone now, had been taken down years ago.
"It all turned out pretty well." She spoke the words almost aloud, as if she were not quite alone.
Solly would have been amused to discover she was still a fund-raiser. Kim was older now, and had faced the reality that she simply didn't have the abstract or mathematical skills required of a first-rate astrophysicist. She could have gotten along, but instead she'd gone back to the work she discovered she enjoyed, that she was good at: talking to people and persuading them to donate to a good cause. It wasn't very glamorous, but it did feel significant. She was still contributing, supporting the general effort with the one real talent she seemed to have.
The good cause now was Stellar Survey. Money was pouring in, ships were being built and launched, and the human race seemed to be on the move again. Curious ruins had been found in the Triangle, two thousand light-years out, on the far side of the sky from Orion. And the new Chang Telescope might have sighted evidence of a Type II civilization in Andromeda.
Last week, the Solomon Hobbs reported evidence of ancient stellar engineering from Lyra Omega.
There are other mysteries. The Cho-Choi insist that their distant ancestors once had a tunnel into an alternate universe. But the engineering techniques have been lost.
To Kim's satisfaction, Emily and her colleagues have their place in history, largely because no lasting damage was done by the Hunter. Now they are only remembered as having initiated contact.
But the species may have learned something. Survey's exploration teams, who are carrying on the search for whoever else might be out there, are extensively trained in how to respond to a contact. Similar training is now required of anyone seeking to purchase or pilot a deep-space vessel.
She gazed around the beach. It seemed smaller than she remembered.
Her link sounded. It was Flexner, who'd gone over to Survey with her. "Yes, Matt?"
"Kim, where are you?" He sounded annoyed.
She sighed. "I'm on my way."
"Good. We need to know exactly what you're going to say tomorrow so we can set everything up for the interpreters. And that has to be done tonight."
She would be speaking, not in her own right, but as Emily's sister. "I'll be there in ten minutes," she said.
"Good. And Kim?"
"That means we have to stick to the script, right?"
"Right," she said. "Absolutely." She took a final look around, and climbed into the taxi. "Severin," she told it. "Lakeside Hotel."
It lifted off. Cabry's Beach dropped away and she glided among the stars.