Now you gather close, you men morose
With your faces long and slack
And let's give a shout to them's went out
On the darkness and the black.
Well mother Earth had a terrible birth
Of her fifteen billionth son
And 'twas clear to all she was much too small
For fifteen billion and one.
So they turned their eyes to the darkened skies
Where a thousand diamonds shone
And they promised then, these desperate men
They'd each have one for their own.
The first verses of Anton Edelstein's "To the Pioneers" (2751)
A shudder. Alarm bells. He was out of the bunk and sprinting for the cockpit before the voice next to him could stir, and when it came she was groggy. "What's happening?"
"'S what I'm trying to find out," he said, and swung himself into the chair, strapping in. When something went wrong—when the alarms went off—a practised pilot had no time for grogginess. So he was alert as his eyes scanned the flickering LCDs. "Fuck. We're dead."
She'd pulled her nightgown on hastily and was behind him, looking over the same dials for meaning. "Dead? Literally dead? Carey—"
He reached behind him to give her hand a reassuring squeeze. "No, dear. Metaphorically dead. Stopped—we ain't moving."
It was a good enough question. Newton tritely said that a body in motion remained that way unless otherwise acted upon—their present lack of movement suggested a problem with the subspace drive. He tapped through computer screens quickly, distractedly trying to narrate for her. "I'm not... sure, exactly. Something ain't right... Computer, list all two-sigma ship parameters and display them on MFD one." And, sure enough, there they were. "Ah... oh, hell."
"What? What is it?"
He reached up and pulled the throttle back, drawing off the power until the numbers on the display ticked back down to normal territory. "Engine's busted. It's over-revving—drawing too much off the reactor. Coolant's off the fucking charts..."
"Why?" She asked again, dropping her muzzle to rest it on his shoulder.
Carey glanced over, and then shrugged. "Well, that's the question for the ages, hon." He sighed heavily, and then raised his voice again for the cockpit to pick up. "Computer, activate the holographic display. Set holographic display to navigation mode." It whirred to life, a blank ball in front of him. "Add all navigation buoys within five minutes." A petulant buzz from the computer answered him.
"What does that noise mean?"
He supposed Molly hadn't been on many ships before—probably not old ones like his, anyhow. "It means it doesn't have anything to display."
"Not necessarily. Our locators are old; it takes longer to get a fix. Don't mean they ain't there, just that we don't know where they are. Computer, list all navigation buoy transmissions by decreasing order of signal strength. Display them on MFD one." Carey breathed a short sigh of relief—at least there were transmissions. "Add the top five signals on the holographic display." Fuzzy lines flickered into existence, the computer's rough initial estimation of buoy location and distance. "Computer, range the following tracks. Network-1, Network-2, Network-3. On completion, update holographic display." It had been his intent, when he'd purchased the Sitka Maru, to replace the godawful voice interface with something more tactile, but other things always seemed to intervene. Like towing charges...
Molly was staring out past the windows, as though if she squinted the buoys might appear. He put a paw on her shoulder, and she looked back at him. "I just don't want to... you know." After a moment in which he didn't respond, she repeated it, more quietly. "You know..."
He shook his head vigorously. "Don't talk like that, Molly. Not gonna die—be a bit inconvenienced, maybe, but that ain't no thing. Just give it a couple minutes to figure out where we are, ok?" She seemed less than convinced, but eventually stepped back from the cockpit to lean against his seat.
It took fifteen minutes, during which time he secured the rest of the ship's systems, for the computer to give a soft chime. He frowned heavily at the navigational sphere, trying to make sense of it. Then he growled. "Fuck. Aw, fuckin' Christ."
Molly perked her ears, the worry back. "What? What is it?"
"Oh, hold on. Computer, add shipping lanes." It was as he'd feared. "God damn son of a bitch." Another buzz from the computer; he switched the microphone off.
Carey tried to keep the frustration from his voice. "Well, we're stuck, ok? Wandered into somebody else's path. It was like I was supposed to go this way and I went that way or... ah, fuck." He pantomimed these options with his paw. "What's the fucking thing, huh? You come out of Istrahe and it's what... 'if Rigel's in the sight, you'll be alright' or something? It's a—"
"—It's a what. What happened?" Molly ended his ranting with uncharacteristic curtness.
He drummed his fingers against a panel of switches, the claws making little clicking noises. "It's nothing. Don't—I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get all agitated. Like, it ain't bad, I know what happened."
"You can fix it?"
"What went wrong?"
He flopped back in his chair. "Well. You know how the main engine works?" She shook her head. "Y'ever heard it called a ticker, something like that? It comes from TIC, ok, uh—'Tractor, Ishihara-Chatterjee. A tractor drive, ok?"
"No, it's working fine. Basically... so picture any journey between two points is like sailing on the surface of the ocean. You've seen an ocean, right?"
"Heard about it. You don't need to explain what it is."
Carey nodded. "Fair enough. So we're sailing on the ocean. Now, beneath the ocean, that's what subspace is. We put the tractor in it, and it gets purchase and pulls us along through it. It's like, uh, if you were dragging a balloon through the air, and eventually you pull it down; we get pulled into subspace."
"Now, to reduce drag, the ship generates a short-wavelength cavitation field—kinda like bubbles in subspace. Very tiny bubbles. But what happens is the big freighters—the real enormous ones, the intersun guys—they put out a huge wake. It disturbs subspace, so our tractor can't get a grip—it just sits there and spins its wheels. So... it stops; we stop. Until we clear the disturbance, we're back on the surface, tethered to the tractor."
"Can you switch to the manoeuvring engines to get past it?"
"No, for two reasons. Uh, one is that the subspace disturbance extends for... a million kilometres maybe? Maybe more? In normal space, that is. Second reason is the tractor's just a big ball and chain right now. We can't drag it."
"Cut us loose?"
He shook his head. "Only goes so far. I got enough reactant to get us across the wake disturbance before we die of old age. Maybe I got enough to get us back up into a Mitchell notch so we can get underway." He coughed and looked intently at the cockpit displays. "Ain't really got enough for both."
Molly blinked at him. "Oh."
Carey didn't really bother to defend himself. "Wake'll settle out, eventually, an' maybe we can get moving again if we got enough fuel to get through the barrier. It'll just take time. Mostly just irritates me what bein' stupid is. Followed the wrong buoys—we were supposed to clear the lane; wound up running into it. That's all." His sentences were chopped; irritated. Her next question didn’t help.
"Why don't you have more fuel?"
He waved his paw—cursing himself, of course, on the inside. "Because more fuel is more fuel you gotta move. I mean, I ain't got no profit margin as it is. It's always like... It's like throwin' a dart, right? Trying to get right dead centre, balancing your fuel and all that."
"Except now you... took the dart and stabbed yourself in the eye with it?"
"Basically. Sorry, dear."
He'd said there wouldn't be any real danger, and so she shrugged, sitting on the floor next to his seat. "What now? Wait?"
Turning options over in his head, he finally sighed. "I'd rather not. Computer, begin recording." Carey waited for the chime—and waited. Well, that figured—a computer failure on top of everything. He growled, and Molly cocked her head. "Computer's dead."
"You turned the mic off," she said, and pointed over to the switch. Right.
"Thanks." He turned it on, cued the computer, and then resigned himself to the difficult words. "Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Sitka Maru, say again, this is MV Sitka Maru. We are in tradelane chatter astro niner one, closest reference buoy network dayton four seven seven. We are grounded in subspace cavitation and require assistance. Two crew. Radiation nominal; subspace variance .25. Over." Another sigh. "Computer, end recording. Save as type distress call with the current time. Broadcast every ten minutes on the emergency wireless channel towards the closest communications relay. On receiving transmission by same frequency, play alert... uh, Franz von Suppé, Light Cavalry Overture." More chimes.
"They'll help us?"
"Eventually. I mean, we're in a trade lane. Ships'll pass pretty close."
Molly nodded, unconvinced. "How close?"
"Oh, very—fifty thousand k? Maybe forty?"
"Pirates and scavengers, too."
He waved a dismissive paw. "Ain't worried about them. All they know is the closest buoy an' that's..." he considered it a moment; shrugged. "An AU? Little more? By the time they find us, we'll be out of air anyway. Won't care none." She had quirked an eyebrow with a hint of concern. "But we'll hear back from a rescue ship in less'n a day, 'specially this close to a major world. Just gotta wait, that's all."
Molly seemed to weigh her options, then, and the flicker of a grin crossed her features. "Well, we might as well make the most of it..."
He liked the way she thought.
Afterwards he stroked the soft fur along the inside of her arm, idly, and he nibbled gently on one of her ears. She flicked it, and he leaned in closer. "I love you," he whispered, and a smile crossed her face.
"Same to you, dear," she said, and he sighed contentedly. There was silence for a time—ten or fifteen minutes, even, perhaps. Then she licked his nose, gently, and as he tried to stifle a sneeze she looked away, past him. "Ah... I'm sorry, dear, but I am going to have to charge you for the extra time..."
His sigh this time was a bit less pleased—though he didn't blame her, of course. "I thought I was paying by the trip?"
Molly shook her head. "No, you pay by the day—they probably just gave you an estimate when you planned it all. I'm sorry, Carey—I know it's not your fault, but... figured I'd tell you now."
"Yeah, yeah. I ain't... mad'r nothing, that ain't it. Just kicking myself for not reading the fine print." He managed a game smile. "'Sides, it ain't like you don't deserve the money." She laughed quietly, and he gave her a gentle hug, trailing his fingers down through the silky fur of her sides. "Tell me about yourself?"
"Myself?" She tilted her head as though the question was perplexing. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you said you ain't seen oceans. Where're you from?"
"Sacagawea Station, past Mars."
She nodded, then thought twice. "No—used to be. Unanchored station, moving from asteroid to asteroid. It hadn't done that for a couple centuries when I was born, but the big rendering plants were still there—they turned them into depots. It was basically a big exchange point for the intersun boats—we saw a lot of interesting people... made me want to get out of there; see what I was missing."
Carey shook his head—he'd never stopped over at Sacagawea, but the type was familiar enough. "Can you imagine a planet so hungry they'd mine asteroids? It ain't right—you really ought to see Earth these days, though. It's real pretty, ain't nothing like it was then."
"That's what they say..." Molly sighed. "To tell you the truth, I've never set foot on any planet. Space stations and ships my whole life. Even went to school on a ship. Now this... I won't see a planet for a good long while, I think. I don't really mind it, though."
"I was born on The Island—way out planet. Aggie world, you know, aquaculture-based. Lots of water; only one continent reliably above sea-level... I think that's where I fell in love with the ocean—and normal gravity, for that matter." He stared at the bulkhead for a moment, examining the welding. "You seemed pretty jumpy, in the cockpit. Ain't done this before?"
"It's my fifth, actually. Fifth ship. Uh, never one like this. You couldn't feel the subspace travel."
"Old technology," he admitted, although Carey was in fact quite proud of the Sitka Maru. "Newer ships are precise enough to hit the notches more easily. I've calibrated the drive a dozen times, and I still can't balance things right for this one. What were your other assignments like?"
"We don't kiss and tell," Molly chided him.
"Ain't asking for names. We're not going anywhere for awhile, that's all."
Her eyes closing for a moment, she finally gave in. "Alright, alright. My first assignment was a survey ship—got hired by the chief engineer. He was in for a six-trip rotation... they bought him off for a seventh with a pretty big bonus. He gave most of it up to hire me—two months in one of those goofy-looking surveyors with all the measuring gear. I couldn't touch anything... spent most of my time I wasn't with him reading, but the ship's library was so small..." She sighed. "It was a long journey. He got too attached, you know? Started talking about our future—I had to let him down easy. Or I tried, anyway."
"That happen often?"
"Only time for me, but some of the others say it's pretty common. He talked a lot about settling down, but I could tell it wasn't for him. I bet he's still shipping out when he can." Molly clicked her claws against one another, distractedly. "My second one was more mundane. Guy like you, single-pilot ship—a bit bigger, newer... he was in precious goods. It was about three weeks, plus a two-day layover at Charybdis Junction where the QD4 and NE17 tradelanes meet... got to see all those junks, all those colours—it was a lot of fun. My shortest trip, actually, I think—except this one. Most people don't bother, for a week. Why did you?"
Carey found himself examining the bulkhead again. "You wouldn't like the answer."
"I bet I can hack it." She was grinning at him, he saw from the corner of his eye.
"Well. Ain't done this before, ok? Normally just the gals at the station or... you know, some girl what thinks it all glamour, being a captain—sometimes get a night out of that. Uh. Was talking to the local agent an'... said I was going to Dundalk. He allowed as he'd got somebody who needed passage and... offered me a discount. Shit, I guess that's all kinds of insults, ain't it?"
"What, getting me with a coupon?" He nodded, a little ashamed, but she just laughed. "Well, heck, Carey, I'm just this side of a whore—you think I haven't heard worse? At least it wasn't 'buy one, get one free'."
"Maybe," Carey said.
"You're not comfortable with it, really."
"I'm trying to be," he shrugged. "But it's one thing paying a gal for a half-hour in her bed. It's another getting her all trying to pretend you're something, you know? Ain't quite as happy with that."
"You'd prefer it to just be about sex, then?" Her brow was raised, and she brushed her hair back to clear her face and its somewhat impish grin. He didn't answer, and after a moment or two she laughed. "I know, I ask the hard questions. Anyway my third trip out was with a mining ship. Huge thing—huge. Only twenty or thirty people... the miners pooled their money and went to the agency, hired on four of us for a three-month stint cracking out in god's great nowhere."
"Four of you for twenty guys?"
She waved her paw. "No, no. I think it was only fifteen or sixteen who'd bought in. That was a lot of fun, though. We tractored in and they'd spend a day looking at the emissions, trying to find likely targets. They're all engineers, all real smart types—companies pay 'em off real good. They had good food... I remember... when they'd strike something, and start breaking it down, they'd party like nothing you've seen. Was sad when that was over, you bet."
"Never hung out with miners," Carey said, for lack of anything better. He'd thought of the trade himself, of course—hell, everyone had—but never taken it up. "Sound like good guys."
"They treated us very well," Molly said with a prim nod to forestall his complaints. And it wasn't like he was truly condemnatory of her profession—nor, to tell the truth, like he had the right to be. So he supposed if she was having fun that was what counted. "My last job was four months ago; shipped out with another solo job. A travelling salesman or something—rich; could've lined the walls with hundred-liang chips. Just had no self-esteem... I think his wife was pretty hard on him."
"Married?" Carey asked, though it almost lacked the rising tone of the question.
"Yeah. It was the damndest thing, he wanted to be a soldier, you could tell. A Guardian or something. He wore this very neat uniform when he was aboard his ship, made me follow all these protocols—call him 'sir'. He never wanted to do anything, though, just—" she caught his glance. "I don't ask. Just noticed the ring—it isn't any of my business."
"I guess it ain't right for you to meddle in that. His affairs, not yours and all."
"Exactly. Anyway he wouldn't do anything. He just set up crises, you know—fire in the reactor room or decompression or whatever. He told me he was doing it—said I wasn't in any danger. I believe him. He just... wanted to save me. Like he needed to prove himself, that he was a man. Not in bed, though, just being a hero. It was weird."
"Space is weird," Carey said, nodding. "But what do they say? There's room for all kinds, in the void." This he found to be true enough.
In another room, the strains of the Light Cavalry Overture began to march through the speakers.
"Sitka Maru, this is Guardian corvette Shrike standing by at the following communications relay: seton golem three eight one mistral astro echo four. We've received your distress call but are unable to localize it. Retransmit with additional information. Over."
Carey brought the volumetric map up and keyed in the relay. It was apparently the closest, in their little corner of space—more than 630 million kilometres distant. He stopped his outgoing signal and began recording a new one. "Shrike, MV Sitka Maru. We are eight point five minutes from navigation buoy network dayton four seven seven. Bearing from buoy's reference is approximately azimuth one-seven, elevation minus six-two. I will activate my emergency locator in one hour for terminal guidance."
By the time he repeated the message, Molly had returned, wrapping her paws around him from behind. "Why an hour?"
He turned, reached an arm back to give her an awkward hug. "Well, our knight in shining armour won't even get our message for more'n a half hour... figure ten minutes to chart their course and spool up, a minute to get over here and desync, ten minutes for their sensors to align... probably there ain't anybody out here looking for a juicy target in that time, but why chance it? It's standard operating procedure."
When he switched the Sitka Maru's transponder and emergency beacon on an hour later, the response was almost immediate. "Sitka Maru, this is Shrike. Squawk dayton niner zero zero one and ident."
"Shrike, Sitka Maru, copy." He redialled the transponder; waited.
It took a few seconds. "Sitka Maru, Shrike, squawk sweet. Dial echo parson four one eight and zero all off-reference translation and rotation."
Like most ships, the Sitka Maru had the ability to align itself automatically with another object, which helped with docking manoeuvres. Carey switched the system on, and red lights flickered across his display. "Shrike, negative. With the tractor on, this ship is not responding to thrusters."
"Stand by for further instructions," came the curt reply over the wireless.
"Copy that." He turned in his seat to face Molly. "You might want to get dressed. I think we're expecting company." She laughed, nodded, and vanished off towards the aft.
It was about twenty minutes before he noticed the Shrike. A small vessel, for the Guard, she nonetheless dwarfed the freighter. The ship's lights illuminated the proud standard of the Congress of Unity, lit the frame against the stark black all around. A clean, grey hull with silver highlights and the deadly lines of a rapier. The Guard took their jobs seriously.
By the time the Shrike had come alongside—it looked something like the slow dance of a skyscraper—Molly had rejoined him, dressed in a formal outfit that might've seen her an ambassador, or a high-ranking politician. She waited quietly, while he turned their engines off—at this point, he supposed it no longer mattered—and felt the magnetic grapples of the corvette latch on with a shudder. In all it took an hour, and then there was a solid rapping sound on the port airlock.
"Lieutenant Eugene Shockley," declared the hulk of a man on the other side—the first words out of his mouth.
"Carey Reiss," he said in reply.
Shockley was tall—a tiger, perhaps, though his face lacked some of the power there. He had the full look of a man who had been born to the comforts of the Congress and intended to stay there. The buttons of his uniform strained lightly as he turned a few degrees. "Your wife?"
Carey started to answer, but Molly cut him off. "Not yet," and she followed this up with a winning smile, lifting her paw to reveal a ring he hadn't seen before. "Pleasure to meet you, though."
The Guard rumbled something, and then turned back to Carey. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Well—'shamed to say it, really. I followed the wrong nav beacons coming out of Istrahe Station and wound up crossing over into the wash from the tradelane. Tractor was spinning its wheels and... I ain't got enough fuel to burn across and get up to speed on the other side. Fuel'd be nice but... I'd take a push."
Shockley ducked his head under the hatchway to look inside the ship, but didn't bother trying to contort himself to fit the rest of the way. "That's the problem, then?"
"I see. Not the fact that your license to transport more than fifty tons expired two weeks ago?"
"Well the... the liang are in transit, sir. I just had to leave Istrahe quickly—I got cargo what won't keep."
Shockley's voice was needlessly dry. "Silkworms, it says in the manifest you declared on leaving." Carey nodded. "Can I see your certification to transport live cargo?"
It was not going well. Carey's shoulders sank for a moment. "Are they... alive, sir? I just got word that they wanted some stuff transported to Dundalk. I figured it was all dead or they woulda told me."
"Did you also figure that your emissions were within regulations? Or that carrying too little fuel to complete your journey safely was acceptable? A clear violation, I'm sure you know, of Systems Interstellar Trade Article 19, Subsection 12 on a captain's duty to his crew and passengers. I can quote the relevant passage if you like."
"I can resolve all this on Dundalk, or, hell, uh, Downcountry... Tianxia, wherever you want. I just need to get my ship moving again, sir."
"We can handle that," Shockley assured him. "We'll be impounding your ship. Downcountry is the closest world with a processing centre—you can enjoy your time there."
"Excuse me," Molly said. "We're talking about fines, right? None of this is criminal..."
"Substantial fines, yes," the lieutenant said, smiling thinly. "At least two of the violations I could illustrate are class one, carrying a penalty of no less than two thousand l—"
She had raised up her paw, stepping closer to him. "I understand that, sir, and I really do... appreciate what you're doing... I mean. People can't just disobey the law and... well, my Carey did inconvenience you greatly."
"It was a substantial deviation from our course," he declared with a slight note of imperiousness. "But it is our responsibility to help people—regardless of whether or not they deserve it."
Molly was very close to the tiger, now, and she nodded softly. "I know—really, you're a credit to the Congress. Heck—to every citizen in the Systems Union. It just seems... odd, you know?" Shockley raised an eyebrow. "You do so much work—hard work—and you don't really get anything out of it..."
"It's my job, miss..."
"Molly," she said, and beamed up at him. Then her paw took hold of his, which held a small, thin computer, and lifted it up to where she could read it. Shockley's arm went pliant, and she shook her head slowly. "These don't look that serious... a matter of five or ten thousand liang, perhaps."
"I could... find more," the lieutenant told her—too quick, too distracted to maintain the imperial facade.
"I'm sure." Molly's voice was gentle, soothing, encouraging. "But you know what would be helpful?"
She smiled, took the computer from him gently. "If you were to give us a list of these things—plus anything else you noticed, of course. So we could fix them, at our earliest opportunity." While he mulled this over she hit him with the follow-up. "Of course such an inspection requires a professional eye—we'd have no choice but to compensate you. I know that Systems General Code 4, Section 11 permits military officers to be employed in additional contracting duties while holding a commission..." her voice was becoming softer.
"Such an inspection could be quite expensive," he purred. "A thousand liang, in some circles."
Molly considered this for a few seconds, practically leaning against the man as she ran her eyes over the computer screen once more. "In some, though so much of the work has been done for you... completing the job might only take a few hundred..."
He started to bristle, but her free paw gave one of his a reassuring squeeze, and the Guard calmed himself. "Six hundred—you'd do no better at a reputable station."
She laughed softly, turned and looked up at him. "Unlike some of us, my fiancé does not really understand what it means to be reputable. Not everyone can be as civilised as the Guard, lieutenant. Five hundred, and my undying gratitude for your assistance..."
Beginning the ignition sequence back in the cockpit, Carey finally let out the relieved sigh he'd been holding in. "Thanks."
"Your money," Molly said, and shrugged. "Better than losing the ship, though."
"Yeah, and better'n ten thousand in fines." He laughed, reflecting on it. "Systems General Code 4, section whatever, huh? Where'd you learn that?"
"I'm a whore, Carey, not an idiot. I took two semesters of Systems law when the agency sent me to school. Among other things—history, English, basic subspace physics. It's important to be well-rounded."
He looked at her curiously. "After we grounded, back there—you knew what I was talking about?"
"Perhaps," she waved a paw. "Perhaps."
"Why'd you let me ramble?"
She smiled softly. "You looked like you were having fun explaining it."
Carey wondered if he had been played, and switched topics to try to regain the high ground. "What were you two doing back there?" The refuelling process had taken about an hour, during which Molly had been nowhere to be seen.
"Talking," she said, and grinned at him. "He's quite the philosopher."
"I'm sure." They were clear of the wake, now, and the tractor drive was spinning up again. "Take a seat and buckle in."
"Yes, sir," Molly gave a brief salute and strapped herself into the co-pilot's seat adjacent to him. There was quiet for a moment—just the whine of the tractor, growing steadily higher in pitch. "I tell you what. You become my manager, and you can tell me how to spend my time."
Carey snorted. "That'll be the day. Anyway I just wanted to know if I should file for a refund on that hour, that's all."
"Funny," Molly said, and narrowed her eyes. "Like you not having a license."
"Ain't no thing. Christ, you got more'n twelve hundred planets with their own goddamned laws. Bound to fall out with one or two of them. Any other captain's in the same boat—so t'speak." He gave a dismissive shrug. "All the Guard's good for, anyway. With so many ships, ain't no way they can track 'em all—so they nail 'em when they feel like it, let the rest go. Gives the bastards a chance to power trip. Useless sons of bitches."
She smirked at him. "Saved your skin, didn't they?"
Didn't she know about the Congress? Everyone knew about the Congress. Fascist, red-tape wearing bureaucrats and pirates in fancy suits. So he growled, even though what she'd said was true and he had no good response. "Yeah, well. Hold on." The cockpit windows in front of them dimmed automatically as he engaged the tractor drive, and then brightened as the flash of the entry washed over the Sitka Maru.
As Carey pulled the throttle levers back, the ship began to shiver. At the basic pulse of subspace, and its resonances, the ride was smooth and easy. Getting to them was what required the work, and the ship shuddered heavily as it fought through the drag into each successive moment of easiness.
For the fifteen minutes it took, he tried to remind himself, again, that the ship was not going to destroy itself. Next to him, he could see Molly gripping her seat fiercely. He was half-inclined to make a comment about this, but when the ship settled into the 42nd notch—almost three quarters of a light year every hour back in normal space—he himself felt rather glad they'd made it, so it hardly seemed fair.
And in any case, there were better things to do for the remainder of the journey. He felt a little disappointed, when they slipped back into the real world—but they had places to go. And she was, he reminded himself forcibly, just a working girl.
Well, everyone had to make a living.
There was something to be said about space, and being out by one's self (or with a lovely companion) in the vast darkness there. There was something to be said for the clarity one felt, born of such isolation and the deep cold of the void. But there was something more, he thought, in the end of the voyage, and the wonderful sight of green and blue, oceans and the promise of life.
"Dundalk Sector Seven Control, this is Sitka Maru requesting permission to enter the pattern for landing at the Cromarty docks, over."
"G'day, Sitka Maru. You are cleared to enter at beacon tartan eight for standard low, pattern dayton. Follow beacon seven zero six zero and expect clearance to commence deorbit burn in two cycles." Carey signalled his understanding to sector control, although in truth he was slightly irritated—once the anticipation of solid ground beneath your feet was there, even three hours seemed an eternity.
But it would come. It would come, and another contract would come, and another planet—maybe somewhere the skies were less crowded. He had no objection to that. And so what if he was an iconoclast? So what if he wanted the Guard to be less corrupt? So what if he found Molly's enthusiasm for her work distasteful? So what if he was a goddamned idealist? He grinned.
There was room for all kinds, after all.
Oh there once was a Union maid
Who never went unpaid
But to call her a whore would make her sore
And straight away she'd show you out the door
But a thousand dollars spent
Was worth it, every cent
And if you're like most of her gracious hosts
You'd join her in this toast:
To a perfect world for all associates
Where clients forget to renegotiate
To a world of sex for fun and profit
To get you off it's an extra fee
One of the more printable versions of a bawdy miner's song, sung to an ancient Earth folk tune (Mills and Chattaway's "Red Wing," adapted from Schumann), first attested in the late 28th century.
She knew she'd read somewhere—probably back in school—that there was absolutely no difference between artificial sunlight and its genuine counterpart. That the fake stuff carried the same health benefits, let plants grow the same, bleached one's clothes and fur in an identical fashion.
The difference was that, looking up, it felt good to have a real sun lavish its rays on your face. It was the first time she'd ever felt that, this day strolling up from the Cromarty Docks, and her eyes were closed at length, letting the crowd wash over her.
Dundalk was a small colony, but burgeoning. Cromarty Township itself tended to the small side as well—perhaps a couple thousand souls—and radiated out from the spaceport, which being new was also clean and reasonably well furnished. Walking towards the agency building, she let the sounds of the crowd—vacationers, many of them, come to take in the continent-wide hot springs—filter through her ears.
"You come out, you rascal!" The child's voice was heavily accented, in an exaggerated Terran style they all associated with the Columbian provinces of the planet. "I'm gonna getcha for whatcha did to Jed!"
Molly opened her eyes to see a young pup, perhaps seven or eight, wielding his right paw in the fashion of a pistol at some as-yet unseen target off to her left. It took a moment of curiosity before she spied the little white band that wound behind his head—a Sensa Plus, probably one of the later models.
"What've you got running, young man?" she said, and—jarred somewhat from his fantasy—the little boy looked up to her.
"Ancient West on Terra, ma'am, which my ma says fits us right, save as we ain't got horses."
"Can I see?"
The kid unclasped the band from his head and handed it up to her; she slipped it on beneath her ears and closed her eyes while the Sensa synchronised to her brain. When she opened them again the vista of the town before her had changed completely. Gone were the polished white storefronts and the bright flashing lights; gone the paved street that led up from the docks to the town centre. In their place, Cromarty became dusty and wooden, the shops all fronted with a brick facade to lend an air of undeserved class.
People, clad in vests, and women in billowy dresses moved about the streets, dodging tractors and donkey motorcarts that had become stagecoaches. She looked behind her to find the starship Sitka Maru—which she had disembarked from not an hour before—a side-wheeled steamer, ragged and spilling smoke from her dying boilers. The atmosphere was excellent; Molly wondered if any of the kids' parents had helped create it.
A shot rang out, and she turned to see the figure that emerged from around what would've been the upscale Nisiko fusion dance bar, Torii Gait (replaced by a dingy joint with a hanging sign that simply read "saloon"). The shot had been fired in her direction, for she looked down to see red staining her shirt. Molly staggered, and clasped her left paw to her breast, reaching for the six-shooter that was suddenly holstered at her belt with the other.
She drew it quickly, took aim at the shadow by the saloon, and fired. The spectre wavered and collapsed, and she followed a moment later. The kid was kneeling next to her now; Molly dropped her six-shooter to clasp his hand weakly. "Tell... tell Joe's pa..." she managed, voice faltering in the clutch of cinematic demise. "I done avenged him."
"Jed," the kid said, correcting her dying words.
Molly coughed dramatically. "Jed," she agreed. "Jed's pa."
"You'll tell him yourself," a stern voice boomed from above her. "You can't die on me."
"I can't?" She rolled to bring a towering cowboy into view. Her muzzle nearly brushed against his spurred boots, and as she realised how silly she looked Molly took the Sensa from her temples, giving it to the kid—who placed them back on his head and bounded off to argue about whether the recent gunfight counted in their canon. Now the figure was wearing an expensive iridescent suit and offering her a paw. She pulled herself up.
"Aren't you a bit old for that?"
She shook her head. "Never. Those things kept me sane. You know, I grew up on an asteroid rendering station. Lots of old abandoned hallways—me and my friends spent hours turning them into... anything, really. Castles, spaceships, the mines of Moria—it looked magnificent by the end. Never did buy that malarkey about them... what, blurring the line between fantasy and reality?"
"You were on the sidewalk," the tall man said—a wolf, she thought, one of the muscular specimens who seemed to think they had to prove something to the world. "With your paw clasped up on you like you were bleeding out."
"Creative license. I'm Molly, by the way."
"Clay," he answered. "Where are you going?"
"Somewhere very much not for kids," she allowed, and started walking again.
The wolf named Clay followed. "Bar? Bit early, isn't it?"
"'Tis. I'm not going there."
"Ah," he said, the realisation dawning. "A travelling associate?"
Among many euphemisms. "That'd be it. The local agency office is supposed to be right on the next corner. Want to keep it close to the boats, after all."
"Of course. It is, I know—I've seen it. You're not dressed like I'd have thought."
Molly cocked an eyebrow. "I'm sorry your first whore wasn't everything you expected."
The wolf grinned at her, then. "You said it. I was just saying you looked mighty uncomfortable. Whatever makes you happy. That's probably what matters."
Eventually she sighed, and shook her head. "Look—I know your type, ok? Either you judge or you take pity. You convince yourself I got forced into this, you know? Got a synth or a prospekt habit to support, sold into it by my parents on some outer world. You don't know shit, so just... stay out, ok? I like what I do."
"Fuck off, suka," she glared at him, and Clay flicked an ear before drawing it back.
"Pride in your work," he eventually said. "It's important."
"Yeah, well, I'm here now," she said, coming to rest at the door to the agency building. "So get lost and let me be prideful."
It wasn't exactly that she minded, Molly admitted, inside the tastefully furnished lobby of the building, which bold bronze type declared to be Office 3755 of the Multisystem Associate, Companion and Assistant Agency. It wasn't that she minded the snide remarks and sideways glances so much as she minded the sneaking suspicion that she was actually being put on the defensive. So far as she was concerned, she had nothing to be terribly defensive about.
Still stewing, she showed the man at the door her card, and he waved her back to a waiting room. The doctor who came to take her blood and perform her physical was friendly enough to bring Molly's mood back—the office was new, but apparently aiming for prestige; interviewing for the right staff normally took months, unless you had the cash to expedite things. The doctor wished her a good day as she ushered Molly out and to a smaller room, and with the benefit of an hour's distance Molly had more or less decided to have one again.
She took a seat in front of a solid oak desk to wait. It was probably synthetic, now that she looked at the patterns in the grain, but if it had the mark of one of the craftsmen on Ostia, say, or Shepherd's Watch it couldn't have been worth less than ten thousand liang. Yes, prestige.
Some minutes later, the door opened again and admitted a counsellor—who had been doing this some time, by the service pins on her lapel. Well, they were making an effort. "Morning, Molly," she said, getting comfortable behind the desk and pulling out a folder Molly presumed contained her files. "I'm Amy—welcome to Dundalk. Was your trip ok?"
"It was alright. The pilot was a bit scatterbrained—grounded us, then when we got picked up by a Union rescue ship he admitted he didn't have his license on him. It was good for a bit of... excitement?"
"Worth an 890?"
She shook her head. "No. He's a good guy. No need to file an incident report. I just want to get all my documents updated for here. The director at Istrahe said there was an opening?"
Amy gave a quiet "mm-hmm," opening the flexible computer she drew from the folder. "That's about right... what brings you out?"
"Mostly," Molly admitted, "a change of pace. I've never actually been on a planet before."
"Huh," the counsellor said, making distracted small talk while she looked through the file. "Like it?"
"So far, though I've only been planetside for three hours now. Spent the last one with the doctor, or waiting here. I like the sunlight, though."
"You'll get used to it," Amy said, and tapped a few times against her computer, finally lifting her head to meet Molly's eyes, business-like again. "You want to close your last case?"
"Don't see a reason to keep it open."
"Mm. Well this is almost done already. Might as well wrap it up." Amy tapped on the left side of the folder to bring something up—debriefing procedures, Molly imagined, as they liked the trappings of officialdom. "Alright. Do you agree, on penalty of forfeiture of your license and other privileges of the Agency, that you are currently licensed to practise with no restrictions and that your statements to your designated doctor and Agency counsellor are made truthfully and without reservation?"
"Bio, please." The counsellor slid the computer across the desk for Molly to press her hand to, letting it draw a biometric signature. "Alright... and you were embarked on the MV Sitka Maru chartered from Istrahe Station to Dundalk under the command of Systems Union Registered Captain Carey Reiss?" Molly nodded. "I need your verbal assent."
She sighed. "Yes. That's correct."
"Please itemise your classified activities."
The nice thing about short trips, she supposed, was that this part was easy. "Put down six category ones and two category fours. Wait—no." Well, nobody's memory was perfect. "I finished once. Call it one cat four and one cat two." Amy dutifully checked the boxes, and then looked up, waiting. "That's it. It didn't take long to get from Istrahe."
"And you've cleared yourself with the doctor."
"Do you want to attach any flags or warnings to your contractor's file?"
Reiss was mostly harmless, and in any case she thought him unlikely to patronise the Agency again. "No."
"Any further notes for the file?" Molly shook her head, then caught herself and spoke aloud. This satisfied Amy, who tapped the folder to turn the computer off, then filed everything back into it and closed the whole affair. "How soon do you want to leave?"
"It doesn't matter. I can stay around or leave now if the agency can take receipt of my luggage."
"Well, we have somebody who requested you by name."
Molly perked an ear up at that. Perhaps she'd been wrong about Carey—though she didn't imagine he'd found another customer so soon after landing. "What's the offer?"
"Four to eight weeks; single-crew ship. No occupation listed. Ten thousand liang is the initial offer."
At this, the husky blinked in surprise. Reiss had only paid three hundred for the one-week trip from Istrahe Station to Dundalk—ten thousand was six month's pay. "Is the client in good standing?" The confidentiality policies of the Union kept her from asking directly who it was—though the variable length of time and the high wage made her suspect a surveyor she'd worked with before.
"It looks like it. We've run... oh, half a dozen contracts with them before, it says. No black marks."
"What's the broker's cut if I don't ask for negotiation?" Most clients were willing to haggle, and the agency had professionals for this exact purpose—but they took a percentage of the price.
"None, if you accept the first offer. Just Agency dues for the month."
Ten thousand liang with no broker's fees? Molly grinned. "Well, it's been nice seeing you, then."
At the appointed pier, she looked over the ship. It was small, and tapered down at the front to a point—predatory, really; Molly imagined the class probably had a name like "falcon" or "hawk". The hull raked backwards to wings that supported oversized tractor drives. Fast—yes, a surveying ship, she had to guess. And, by the lack of activity about it, abandoned. "Hey," she called out, voice almost lost in the Cromarty bustle. "Anyone here?"
When Clay stepped out from behind one of the engine nacelles, she almost swore. "Morning," he said, and gave her a polite bow.
Molly closed her eyes, and then put on a smile—on balance, after all, she reckoned she'd had worse. "Morning, sir. I'm reporting here from the Union—you requested a contracted associate for your ship?"
The wolf's grin bared teeth. "Please, please—drop the act. You're quite allowed to speak your mind."
Part of her wanted to just play along and take the money at face value, but as he closed the distance to open the hatchway into the ship curiosity got the better of her and she took him up on the offer. "What the fuck do you want with me?"
"Ah... I liked your spark—please, enter," he said, holding the hatch open. "I didn't want someone boring and curtsying and cocksucking—it's very unseemly."
"So you're paying ten thousand liang to harangue me?" She stepped inside—at least the interior was clean and well lit. "Is that it?"
Following her, Clay closed the hatch and dogged it. "Not at all—I'd just as soon not harangue you, to tell you the truth. You were very harsh with me earlier—a shame, really, as I don't have any objections to your work. I just thought you looked uncomfortable. You look uncomfortable now, too—if it's the case, you don't have to take the contract."
She was quiet for a moment, because to at least a degree, he was right; she'd been rather vitriolic. "I just don't get why you asked for me."
Clay shrugged. "It gets lonely in space."
"Are you a surveyor?"
"No, a courier, I guess you could say. I take things to people, or people to things. Most of the time I'm by myself, though." He started walking up to the ship's cockpit, open and well paned with glass and modern-looking instruments. Kiza, Molly thought—flashy. Like he had something to prove to the world. With little else to do, however, Molly followed.
"Are you looking for someone to talk to, or someone to go to bed with?"
"They aren't exclusive, are they?" He pressed a button and the cockpit panels lit up, flat and transparent. The ship had nice visibility—a far cry from the dingy freighters she'd occupied before. "If they're not, maybe both."
"I'm just trying to decide how you want me to act."
"Like yourself. That's why I asked for you, remember? I like it when you curse at me. It keeps me in check." Clay tapped on the panel until he seemed satisfied by the answering grumble of the engines in the ship's midsection. "Will you sign a 418A though?"
Molly frowned, raising an eyebrow at the wolf. "We're already bound by standard non-disclosure. I can't give any identifying information about you to any client or other non-Agency individual. What do you need a 418 for?" The form, forbidding any discussion of the contract, tended to be used by businessmen or politicians who wanted absolutely no word leaking out about their activities. Couriers weren't generally so tight-lipped.
"What if I can only climax when I dress up like a medieval tournament horse and have you ride me while I call you King Henry? Hmm? I don't want word of that getting out."
Slightly confused, Molly shook her head. "Then I'd... put my jousting helmet on and grab a lance, but I don't get what you're so concerned about... nobody cares about your fetishes."
Clay huffed. "What if I want to cook and make you dinner, but the spices are all exotic and I don't want the recipe getting out? There's intellectual property at stake, here. I've made everyone else sign 418s, and the Agency still recommended me, didn't they?"
Yes, and she supposed the money was good. "Alright, where do you want me to sign?"
Clay reached down into a satchel beside the pilot's seat, pulling out a thin computer. Right here—it's bio, just tap it. And then take a seat—we've got places to go."
She did as she was asked, taking the seat behind him. When she offered him back the computer he reached absentmindedly for it, filing it away again before he pulled on a headset, clipping it to his ears. "Did you get my bags? The Agency send them?"
A nod. "Yep, all squared away. Anything else before we go?" Thinking some time about this, Molly told him 'no', and she saw his muzzle turn up in a grin. She felt about the seat for the restraints, distractedly listening to him talk over the radio. As the ship lifted off, Molly felt herself growing heavy, pressed downward as the craft pulled away from the docks.
Then, somewhat abruptly, the seat beneath her became fluid, wrapping about her and going snug. There was a moment of panic as the constriction pinned her lungs, and it took an effort to calm herself. "What—what's going on back here?"
Clay lifted a paw, thumb extended, though she didn't feel terribly reassured. The next thing he said was over the radio. "Cromarty, MV Castle Bravo requests permission to transit atmo at speed." A beat. "Understood, don't exceed one-five. I have the traffic on scope."
"What are we doing?" Molly asked. Her voice was remarkably still, punctuated by the exertion of trying to get her arms free.
"Getting out of here," Clay said, and the ship's nose came up until the horizon went away and they were looking up into the deep blue of the afternoon.
Clay turned to her, and the wolf fixed Molly in a grin. "Kilometres per second." And he clicked his teeth, looking forward again now. "Hang on."
Then there was the sensation that she was being compressed; that her body was trying to compact itself from the inside out, and though the seat became yielding as it wrapped about her she found it increasingly hard to draw breath. She could feel her heartbeat, and it seemed impossibly slow until she realised that no, it was just time doing that; each second of suffocation ticked on in excruciating languor.
If she concentrated very hard she could make herself breathe, and the seat seemed to help her with that, pressing in against her diaphragm to force her lungs to work. The sky was fading to a deep, comforting black. She half-suspected her vision was, too, though in the slow clarity of the moment she felt infinitely perceptive. She could see an angular shadow in her vision; a huge intersun liner with an attendant fleet of lighters carrying her goods down to Dundalk's surface. She could see the faint pinpricks of stars. She could see the transmitter beacons, flashing blue and scarlet. When the acceleration finally stopped—she could not know this, but it had only been a minute and a half—it was just as much of a kick.
She wanted to swear at Clay, to tell him that no money was worth it; to turn around and set her right back down at Cromarty—but she was too stunned. There was a bright flash as the tractor drives kicked in, and the ship punched smoothly into subspace. Her seat released her, and Clay was standing up from his own, grinning toothily as he came to face her.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?"
He offered her a paw and she took it, pulling herself to her feet and trying to regain her bearings. There was only the noise of the tractor now; an occasional thump as the ship jolted from a Mitchell notch and began clawing its way to the next one—much more smoothly than any other craft she'd been on.
"Did you think that was going to impress me?"
The look was almost childish in its enthusiasm—"boyish", she supposed, would be the most favourable term. "A little. Mostly we just needed to get out of there; I've got appointments to keep."
"And taking ten minutes instead of thirty seconds would've messed them up?"
Clay's face didn't fall for even a second. "No. That was just showing off." A beat, in which he scanned her face. "You're not happy."
Molly sighed, closing her eyes. It was less than twenty minutes into her assignment—one of indeterminate duration; possibly as long as two months. It was not, she concluded, best to get off on the wrong foot—at least not from her end, though he seemed to have no similar compunctions. "It was jarring."
"Ah. Well, you weren't in any danger, you know."
"Alright." There was little emotion in the word.
The wolf moved past her, towards the midpart of the ship—a well-kept commons area, with a table and chairs she thought were probably artisanal, from the clean lines and the unmistakable look of class. He pulled one of the chairs out, motioning to her. "Sit, please?"
She followed him, flopping down to sink into the fabric of the chair, and he sat opposite her, crossing his legs. "Ok. I'm sitting." He beamed, reaching to the table and picking up a thin flexible computer from it. She couldn't make out what was written on it.
"Thank you," he said, brushing claws over the computer. "And I do appreciate you being willing to join me, and to sign the 418. I have somewhat... unusual tastes." And he gave a self-deprecating frown.
"Da nu?" She checked her sudden outburst, and spoke more evenly. "I would never have guessed."
"If it's not too much of an imposition, I'd kind of like you to start satisfying those tastes immediately."
Clay looked forward to where the shields dimmed the glare of subspace to a dull roaring white. "We don't have anywhere to go for awhile. Yes, immediately."
Molly also looked to the outside, as if there might be some escape there, and her fingers went to the clasp of her shirt to undo it. "Alright."
The wolf wasn't looking at her, so she paused in her undressing. Presently he lifted his gaze from the computer he had turned it to. "'Haven for desert dwellers, perhaps?'" She blinked in surprise, and his eyes flicked back for a moment. "It's five letters."
Her fingers were resting awkwardly at the second magnetic catch to her blouse, and after a second or two she let them drop back down to her lap. "What?"
"The second letter might be an 'a'."
Her experience with Clay was becoming increasingly surreal, and Molly shut her eyes in the hopes that the world might've changed when she reopened them. No. He was looking at her expectantly over his computer, and she blinked a few times. "Oasis?"
"Oasis?" he echoed, head tilting.
"Isn't Oasis a Haven world?" Of course there were no such things, officially—but everyone knew that the resources of the Congress of Unity fell unevenly, and that the twenty most populous worlds, the Haven Worlds, were the places to be, vibrant and safe and clean. Molly had never been to a Haven world.
"Oh! Of course!" he cried, and shook his head. "So it is! That would make... was Yuri Antonovich the first Mediator, or the second?" She raised one finger. "That would make 'first leader of Congress' 'Antonovich,' then. Thank you. That makes sense."
"Of course." She still wasn't certain what he was doing, in the absence of a clear explanation for how the day had progressed. She rebuttoned her shirt, and waited.
"Uh. 'A bombing dictator'? No—wait. Maybe it's 'A-bombing dictator,'" he repeated, stressing the 'a' this time. Like, nuclear. Well... if they'd meant nuclear I suppose they'd say it..."
"Not necessarily." Clay raised an eyebrow. "If they said it as an abbreviation, maybe the dictator is an abbreviation. Unless Kurchatov fits?"
He shook his head. "It's three letters."
Molly thought, reaching back into her memory, all the things they'd studied in the spacefaring academies between trading stations. It was a shame the translink didn't work in subspace, or she'd just neural it. "Who was the first person to use atomics? Wasn't it some leader of Greater Columbia or another?"
Clay tapped a claw idly against the computer screen. "Maybe? I wouldn't put it past the bastards. I guess that sounds right..."
"The War of Columbian Aggression? Against the God-Emperor of Japan, wasn't it? I don't remember a lot of Nisiko history before the 24th century."
"Who was that? Was that... who was Kennedy I? Was that KJF?"
"JFK," Molly said. "The surname comes last for Columbians. But I don't think it was him. Was it Rosenberg? Rosenberg the Bloody?"
"Rose..." Clay repeated, still tapping. "Rosenberg? Roosevelt, wasn't it? Roosevelt the Bloody?"
"D," he corrected. "'FDR,' because the first letter of 'Downcountry' is 'D' and 'planetary home of the Union Institute of Cyber Agronomics' has to be Downcountry; my brother went to school there."
She herself had never heard of UICA, but supposed Clay was probably correct. "If that makes sense," she said, trailing off. It still wasn't clear to her why the pieces of the word puzzle game were falling into place before those of her life, but the wolf across from her smiled, nodded, and kept tapping.
Suddenly he looked up. "We should probably get to other things."
Other things meant, she learned then, dinner. It was this pattern that repeated itself over the next five or six days; the puzzles and philosophical musings punctuated by food. As was his custom, tonight he neither invited nor permitted her into the galley, choosing to prepare the meal himself. When it emerged it was a Heimoese pasta dish, served on what she took to be neo-reductivist flatware of an unusually pretty type. Like the Agency office on Dundalk, the wolf was a mix of affected class and coarseness—but the food was good, and she complimented him genuinely.
Halfway between mouth and plate, her chopsticks halted as a question struck her. "What's Clay short for?" Really she meant to ask his full name, as she'd thus far not seen fit to obtain it.
"Clayton, just Clayton. My tribe doesn't really have surnames. I suppose I might be Clayton van de Vesting van Heiligdom, but... it is a mouthful."
"Where are you from?"
The wolf grinned. "Well, the Vesting van Heiligdom. It's a mountain fortress on Orania. How about you—what's your name, Molly?"
"My parents are Illuminate priests," she said, and the wolf's smile widened. The religious order was widely respected for its devotion to knowledge and learning, but... but: "My brother Neil's name is actually Entropy Increases in a Closed System Garrison Bohr."
Well, and what the hell? She found herself smiling as well, at the ridiculousness of it all. "My name is actually The Calmness of Jesus is Infinite Garrison Avogadro. I don't go by that."
"I went by 'Avo' on Sacagawea and until I left to join the Agency. Avogadro did a lot of molecular work, so... I guess it's short for 'molecule'. That isn't too much better."
"It's ok," Clayton said. "The only Illuminates I've known have been flashy bastards who wanted to show off their fancy degrees and insisted everyone call them by their full name. Molly is nice, though."
"Mm. Think nothing of it. I should thank you, for putting up with my peculiarities."
"So far it's involved puzzles and making dinner. I presume there's something else?"
Increasingly at ease, Molly took another bite of the pasta and then cocked her head, pressing the issue. "Well, what is it? Big, strong wolf like you into bondage? You need me to dress up like a little girl? What kind'f peculiarities have you—"
"I kill people." Molly stopped talking abruptly, hand frozen on the chopsticks. "I'm a hit man. I terminate people on contract, generally. It's not something I do for fun, exactly."
Things started to come together. "So that's why you wanted the 418..."
"I can't have you talking about my work, obviously. It's not strictly illegal, but it would not serve me if I was terribly well known. It pays to be inconspicuous when you're trying to eliminate people."
"Of course," she said. She was not educated on the law as it regarded such activities, and had to take the wolf at his word—and she had no idea how far she trusted him. "Of course," she repeated, quietly. He was still talking, still eating, as though nothing had changed.
"It's not easy work, you know. Frequently it requires a long period of tracking... you have to be prepared to be away for many weeks, months even. Now, you, fortunately, you were quite easy to find. It was almost a stroke of luck, to tell you the—"
"Me?" Molly swallowed, a cold feeling settling deep in her stomach. She was distantly aware of setting the chopsticks down with an illegitimate normalcy.
"Oh. Yes, you. I wasn't really expecting to find you on Dundalk, I mean—the Agency is very tight-lipped about the movements of its members. I suppose they have other members to be concerned about? Ha ha," he said—a literal vocalisation instead of actual laughter. "I had to make some educated guesses, but there you were. I'm not sure what I'd have done if you weren't there... tried Istrahe again, I guess, but all the transhipment boats and everything makes it so terribly hard..."
The implications of what Clay was saying tightened around Molly in a powerful, terrifying vice. She was certain Clay had not filed a flight plan—he wasn't required to do so, and the Agency was unlikely to have asked questions. Escape was impossible, and even if she managed to take a lifeboat the odds she would be found—Molly had no idea, even, where they were going—were infinitesimal. "I see," she said, very quietly.
"Mm-hmm," Clay said brightly, and returned to his pasta. "All things in good time. Now, please—eat up. You've hardly touched dinner, miss Avogadro."
She tried to make her hand work the chopsticks, but it was as if her brain was suddenly full of mud; as if each movement was made in quicksand. She tried to speak and found she could not. But then this was ok, because she was tired, cripplingly so. And confused about the suddenness of this onset, though the sparks of caution that threw themselves up were swiftly extinguished in a tide of exhaustion that swept over her with the inexorability of winter following relentlessly on the heels of autumn.
Molly would not have understood this metaphor. And then, the blackness fell upon her in its fullness, and she understood nothing at all.
Hana Gangjeon: Among the ranks of these men we find... corruption, abuse of powers, criminal activity, liaisons with organised crime, smuggling, drug running, torture... flagrant defiance of every convention of human right, decency and law. What do you have to say?
Rakesh Chowdary: Are they effective?
Gangjeon: That's your question? Are you effective? Is that what we've come to? Is that all that's left? Not... fighting for a better world, or improving the lot of our citizens—just figuring out what the lesser of two evils is? Yes, then, damn you. You're effective in your butchery, much good may it do you.
Rep. Gangjeon (Earth), defending a proposal to force contracted defenders to follow the same human rights laws as the Union military, had particularly sharp words for Chowdary, president of one of the largest mercenary concerns (now CJ&R United). The law, heavily opposed by borderworld governors, failed by six votes in 2942 and has not been brought up since.
Pain. There was sharp pain in her temples, and the world was completely dark. Molly Garrison blinked a few times, but the light didn't return. She felt over herself. Her arms and legs appeared to be present. She was clothed. It was simply that she could perceive none of this by sight.
"Am I... blind?" Her voice sounded dull; without body. Then the world was dimly grey—not enough to make out details, but enough to see silhouettes of her form. Time ticked by—she had no internal gauge; even the hardware in her brain seemed to have shorted out. Nothing happened when she tried to call on the translink, or her internal augmentation. She felt small.
She did not remember where she was, or what had happened to her. Events drifted by like sticks in a meandering river; she plucked at them. Alarm bells in a dingy merchant ship. A tall wolf. Heimoese noodles. Dying. It seemed to her, perhaps, that the wolf had killed her. She found she could see again, now. She was in a cell, with insulated walls and no door. The walls were glowing.
Right. The wolf was a hit man; he killed people. He was the last person she had seen; she had eaten something, and now she was in this cell. He must've drugged her. She shut her eyes tightly to see if there was anything else she could recall, but it mostly involved the history of the Systems Union.
A mechanical noise marked the disappearance of one of the sections of wall; it slid upwards to reveal bars, past which she could see a hallway. And the wolf—Clayton. Clay. Clayton van... something? Van—
"We've been boarded," he said. "You need to remain absolutely quiet."
"You're going to kill me anyway," she said—a wondering tone to her voice, because the fact was in a vacuum and the emotional impact had yet to sink in. "Why bother?"
"Because if you don't make a noise," he growled—Clay was very imposing, Molly thought; tall and sinewy. His voice seemed formed from daggers. He had changed—she thought she remembered him laughing, but now... "I will kill you quickly. If you do, and complicate my life, I'll drag it out until you beg for death. Do you understand?"
"I suppose," Molly said. "Who've you been boarded by?"
"Local contracted defenders. They stop traffic sometimes; search the ships. They may come to look for you. You don't tell them anything. Make up an alias if you have to." Then he turned and left.
Contracted defenders were hit and miss, and she wasn't sure exactly whether or not to shout for help or plead her case when they arrived. If they were devoted to the rule of law, they might be willing to help her. On the other hand, most CDs attached to planets—governors were known to hire mercenaries when the Unity Guard failed to do enough to keep order—didn't seem the type to interdict random traffic. It was a quandary.
This said, she could not claim to fancy death.
It had gone quiet again, and in this silence Molly pondered further, as she'd no idea who might've asked anyone to kill her. The Agency? She couldn't think of any bylaws she had compromised, though it did seem suspicious that someone would just know to ask for her by name—and offer such an outrageous price for her services. Yes, she thought she had been quite foolish. The Agency had claimed to vet Clayton, and presumably they didn't ordinarily approve people who killed everyone they hired.
What had she done? She had paid her dues on time; her rates were appropriate, for most of them had been brokered by Agency employees. She had committed no crime. It didn't seem fair. Well, but then that was true of life. "I guess that's it," she said—out loud, to try to convince herself that she had accepted the fact, even though she hadn't. Her parents were religious; she hoped the story they were told would not upset them greatly.
It had been a few minutes since Clay left. The waiting, the nervous anticipation was the worst part. She had no idea what she would say. Perhaps it would be best to listen to the wolf, and let it all be over quickly. Then the door at the end of the hallway opened, admitting two men—a leopard, she made one of them to be; the other was clearly a raccoon. They looked official. She swallowed.
"You have to help me."
The raccoon twitched his ears. "Excuse me?"
"You have to help me. The man who owns this ship, Clayton—the wolf—he's going to kill me. Please—get me out of here. You have to." Her voice was quietly insistent; the man and his partner exchanged glances.
The flat tone of the questioning caught her off-guard, and she stammered. "He's—he's a murderer. You can't—I—I haven't done anything wrong. He said if I talked to you he'd torture me."
"It sounds like you shouldn't have talked to us, then," the leopard-looking man said, and his partner laughed. "He doesn't seem the kind of man you'd want to irritate. Not that you'd care."
"I told you." Clayton's voice came from behind the two; the wolf had followed them through the door. "She's one for making up stories. You should ask her her name."
It was plainly too late to appeal to the men who had boarded Clay's ship; she decided to try for getting in his good graces again instead. "Ashley McMackin," Molly tried, using the name of a childhood friend. "I don't know what he's talking about."
"Curious," the leopard said, and glanced over to the raccoon. "I thought you said she was using the alias... Garrison? Garrison Molly?"
Between the two, the leopard—whose uniform seemed increasingly less official to Molly as his demeanour became apparent—appeared to be the leader. The raccoon shrugged apologetically. "It's what she told Clay, apparently, yes, Molly Garrison."
"It changes by the hour," the wolf said. "Before I picked her up, I overheard her saying she was—"
Molly cut him off, her voice rising. "Yes! That's my name! Molly Garrison! I'm a registered travelling associate—he hired me on Dundalk. You can check my identification badge, it's... it should be in the cargo hold... in my... my luggage..." Her voice was becoming quieter as the degree to which she was being ignored grew apparent.
Both the raccoon and the leopard were looking at Clay, who nodded. "Yes, it's true. It's actually a very good fake—I can show it to you when we're done here. I have an idea who made it, actually—you know Zhong Hsiao-yen? Works out of Istrahe? I've put in a call to investigate it, but I have a good idea that's where it came from."
They seemed to know who Clay was talking about. "That's a big name. Well, I guess it's only fitting." The leopard narrowed his eyes, stalking closer to the bars that separated him from Molly. "Roslyn Weddell," he breathed, the voice an oath. "You fucking dani bitch. Took long enough to find you..."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Molly said quickly, a hint of fear creeping into her voice. "I told you—he—he told me to make up a name if you asked. I'm Molly Garrison—my parents are Illuminate priests. I-I-I was born on Sacagawea Station; my records are all there. I don't know who—" and she yelped in surprise, because the leopard had struck the bars hard with his paw.
"You shut up," he hissed, though the metallic clang was still ringing in her ears. "You shut up, you useless suka. Or I'll... oh, I'll make you shut up."
"Ostin, ostin," the raccoon was saying, tugging on the leopard's arm. "Calm down, dear."
"Look," Clay cracked his fingers. "If you want to do any interrogating, go right ahead. I need to take care of some things—can I leave you for a moment?"
"Will you open these bars?" Clay shrugged and pressed a button; with a hiss, the bars slid into the floor. "Then yes. Let us alone for a bit." The leopard leered, and though she half-considered begging for the wolf to stay he simply dipped his head to acknowledge the feline's request and slipped back into the recesses of his ship.
She took a step back from the door, and the leopard followed her, into the cell. Molly glanced about nervously, but there was no refuge—the walls of the cell were soft with the acoustic insulation but offered no weapons and no place to hide. "Please—I didn't get your name. I—"
"Jaime," he hissed, grabbing Molly and slamming the husky back into the wall. "Jaime Ignacio." She was panting now, her tail tucked between her legs. "Anthony was my brother."
"I don't—who's Anthony?"
Then the leopard's paws were around her throat, squeezing. Molly kicked at him, ineffectually; he leaned closer and though she couldn't breathe, the smell of his breath came in fetid hints at her nostrils. "My brother, suka. He was my fucking brother and you killed him." She tried to shake her head, but the grip of his claws only tightened. "You took his fucking money just like any other worthless usagi and you let him die. You—let—him—die." Jaime punctuated each word with a tighter squeeze, and when he finally let her go she collapsed, her vision dim.
"I never killed anybody," she managed, her voice a desperate rasp. She looked pleadingly to the raccoon, who had now joined Jaime inside the cell, but he remained impassively quiet. "Please..."
She might've said something else, but her breath left her as the leopard delivered a sharp kick to her stomach, driving the air from her roughly. "You don't ask for anything. You think Clay's going to kill you? Do you—answer me, you fucking bitch—do you?"
She nodded weakly, trying to curl into a ball. "He said..."
Another kick laid her flat again, and she shut her eyes tightly, feeling the hot sting of a tear. "He's not. Do you understand that? Answer!" he barked, accenting the question with the sudden impact to her side that left her sobbing brokenly.
"No... please stop hurting me..."
"What did you say when my brother said that?" Jaime kicked her again, savagely, and she heard the half-hearted protest of the raccoon from across a great distance. "He's not going to kill you, suka. You're going to get a trial, and you're going to get to go to prison. But when you get out..." He growled fiercely, and as his boot slammed into her side she was certain she felt something break. "I'll gut you like a fish and—"
"Cut it out!" A sharp bark from Clay, down the hall. "Cut it out, damnit!"
"She killed my brother, Clay. I'm not gonna—"
"If she's damaged before the trial, it could jeopardise everything. If you're satisfied here, you get the hell off my ship. My boss won't pay for broken goods, you idiots. Go!"
She perceived movement; a few more curses and then shuffling as the leopard and his companion left. Silence reigned again in the cell; she kept her eyes shut, trying to use the blackness to blot out the pain that threatened to overwhelm her. She could not've judged if it was minutes or hours that passed before she felt the floor dimpling next to her.
A man's voice, clear and firm and soft all at once. "I'm sorry," it was saying, and then there was an arm beneath her, pulling her up into a gentle embrace. The pain of the movement was checked by the comforting sensation of warmth and presence. "I'm sorry," Clay repeated, stroking her hair gently, untangling the knots that had formed in her struggles. "I didn't know it was going to be that bad."
Molly blinked her eyes open with an effort. The wolf's gaze fell upon her with what, she supposed, was a genuine concern. "You son of a bitch..." she meant the oath to come off biting and defiant, but she didn't have the strength and they slurred together drunkenly. "Motherfucking bastard..."
"All of those and worse," Clay agreed, and then stood, lifting the husky with him easily. "We need to get you to the infirmary, though, how does that sound?"
She couldn't find it in her to protest. "I... I..."
"Shh," the wolf whispered to her, and she closed her eyes again. She was being moved—she saw all of this as though a distant observer to her form; saw her wrapped in Clay's arms as he took her through the white antiseptic hallways of the Castle Bravo. It seemed it might be somebody else's body he was setting down on a table in the sickbay; somebody else's arm he took and pressed an injector to. The warmth that filled her existence neatly halted further reflection.
When she awoke, Molly was back in her body, blinking at the shiny wall of the infirmary room. She was on a bed, though it seemed to have been inclined upwards somewhat. At first she thought the pain Jaime had inflicted on her was gone, but as her world came back together it seemed more appropriate to describe her life as an absence of feeling altogether.
She turned to see Clay reclining back against a cabinet, watching her intently. "I guess." Her tongue was thick, unwieldy, but her command of the language came back rapidly. "What—what the fuck happened?" She tried to get up and found her muscles simply failed to respond. "Why can't I move?"
"I put an inhibitor on your neck. I injected you with some omni... they say it works best if you don't move, and it's supposed to itch something terrible. I figured it would be best if you couldn't feel that while it works. Another hour or so, at most."
She paused to reflect on the thought of the nanoscopic robots, stitching her up invisibly. Yes, they said it could drive one mad. Well, then the sedation was alright. "And then?"
"Then you can get up and throttle me, or whatever it is you want to do." He smiled thinly. "I can explain some of what happened, if you'd prefer."
Molly sighed, turned her head back to look up at the ceiling. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Alright, very well. I'm a hitman, as you know. I kill people for fun and profit—mostly for profit. It's not really all that fun. Anyway, it's useful, to lure people sometimes... your agency is good because they publish your pictures. If you need bait, the agency is a good source."
"So you were just using me?"
"I know that must come as a shock," Clay said dryly. Molly frowned but didn't reply. "As it happened, you're a dead ringer for a con man named Roslyn Weddell. She killed Jaime Ignacio's brother about four years ago—you can neural it if you're curious. It wasn't real big news, partly because Anthony was such a lowlife and partly because it was so gruesome nobody wanted to report it."
"Then I wasn't your target?"
Clay shook his head. "No, no. My targets were Jaime Ignacio and Stanley Highsmith. Well—I guess it is Stanley and Jaime Highsmith now. I forget if they married. Perhaps so. They're dead now, by the way."
She was supposed to feel a chill, some sort of guilt at her involvement in the passing of a human life, but she found it difficult to arouse much sympathy for the leopard. "Dead," she repeated, without inflecting the word. "Why did you drug me?"
"Because they're smart. I needed it to be convincing—needed you off your guard. You're a good actor—most associates are—but I couldn't trust that you were good enough. And all I needed was for you to distract them while I sabotaged one of the stabilisers on their tractor drive. They're contracted defenders, chartered to lock down on piracy in this tradelane. I knew they'd pull me over, and I knew that when they found out I was carrying Weddell they'd want to see her. Stanley and I are old... friends."
"Did he just... fall in with the wrong crowd?"
"I suppose." Clay shuffled—were it anyone else she might've thought him uncomfortable. "We were involved for about five years. I wasn't happy when he left me for Jaime, I must admit. That had no bearing on my accepting this job, of course. It was the money, that's all."
"It's somewhat complicated and very risky to know."
"I can't tell anyone," Molly pointed out. "The 418. I'd lose my license."
Clay barked a very curt laugh, shaking his head. "No. If you knew what was happening, you might tell anyway. I can't take the chance."
"Please." Molly twisted her head to face the wolf again. "You've put me through all this. At least let me know why. You'd want to know, wouldn't you?"
"I suppose that's true enough," he said. "Alright. You know about the Programmers Guild?"
She did, after a fashion. "They're a myth." There were stories about 'programmers'—she supposed they meant the people who made all the machines work, who brought the tractor drives and the translink nodes and every other facet of the modern universe to life. There were stories told that they were an elite cabal, using their influence to pull strings behind the scenes; that they lived apart from everyone else and only came to the Systems Union to abduct promising youth. They were bogeymen—a tale to remind children not to talk to strangers.
"They're not, actually," Clay said, and drew up a chair to sit next to her bed. "They're very real. There aren't many of them—ten thousand, a few more. They run a computer bank, more powerful than you can conceive of, and they know everything. Everything. Every call you make, everything you buy, they trace and plot. They can conjecture that reducing the availability of tractor parts on Tianxia now will result in a boon on Downcountry two years from now. They can predict that delaying a transport to keep an engineer from boarding a medical ship that then becomes disabled will spark a plague on one planet that will produce a vaccine to save billions. If we are a world of machines, then they are the ghosts in those machines. They're everywhere, all the time."
"Is that even possible?"
"Trivial, even. They just have a computer, playing a trillion games of chess with a hundred and sixty-four billion pieces. You can't escape them. If you start to talk to people who know, they'll see what's going on and subtly bring your life to pieces. The control they exert is nearly complete."
"But you're still here."
"For now. Here..." Clay pulled open one of the drawers and withdrew a small Sensa band, clipping it to Molly's temples. "Let it synchronise." She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the wolf had disappeared.
She was in an office, with her back against glass that looked over Toronto from the vantage point of what, she guessed, was the capitol building of the Systems Union. It was a bright day, and the sun felt warm against her back. Nobody else in the office—there were roughly a dozen people, all dressed in expensive suits and murmuring nervously—took note of her presence. A door the room opened, and everyone stood, going quiet.
"Alright, let's get this started." A slender woman of oriental build had entered, and she took a seat at the head of a long glass table, within which flickered the unmistakeable lights of a working computer. Molly supposed this placed the simulation in the last few centuries—which made the woman Haneul Chung, probably, one of the Great Mediators of the Congress. "You have a problem?"
"We do. The latest demographics are in, and there are some inconsistencies." The man speaking opened a flexible computer, tapping it to project a graph into the air above the table. "The green line is what we had expected absent any complicating variables. The red line is what was actually achieved." Molly slipped from the window to peer at the graph—the green line was noticeably higher than the red.
Another man stood to speak. "Of course, there were other confounding factors. The economy on All In and its dependent worlds has been underperforming in the last five years. There was also Delarosa's flu until we contained that. If we re-chart our predictions taking those into effect, we get a new green line. You can see it's still higher than expected."
"I don't care," Mediator Chung shook her head. "I don't care about your graphs. I want an explanation. Secretary Keeney?"
A somewhat nervous-looking mixed-breed stood, fidgeting. "Yes, madam mediator. Having taken into account all of the factors affecting the birth rate, we added in mortality. Ah... deaths from emigration account for 99.4 percent of the difference."
"That doesn't make sense. You're saying everyone who has died is a settler?"
"Sort of, madam Chung. We don't actually think they're dying. We've identified a pattern—we think, it's very hard to sift through the data. But we keep noticing a surveying mission returning and reporting finding nothing, followed by a substantial emigration that never reaches its declared destination."
"They're fleeing Congress?"
"We think so." Keeney had sat back down, and the first person who had spoken was tapping his computer again. "Using the information we have available, we guess somewhere around four billion people are living outside of the control of the Systems Union. They're effectively voiceless; they have no representation in Congress. Probably they aren't even talking to each other."
The mediator shrugged. "I've always thought this was to be expected. What's the issue here? We don't need the tax revenue—these will be farmers; subsistence workers, nothing more. They don't contribute anything."
"We see two problems, madam mediator. The first is one of human decency. We owe it to the residents of these voiceless planets to bring them civilisation. They probably are hungry, sick... they don't have raw materials or anything they'd need. We can integrate them into the fold."
"What if they don't want to be... integrated?"
"Ah—yes, madam mediator, that... addresses the second point. These worlds are dangerous. Any one of them could be harbouring people who are secretly plotting against us. They could hit us without warning; demolish our progress all out of proportion to their number. We're inviting the disasters of the 21st century all over again. I don't think you want that on your head, madam Chung."
A long silence followed, with the mediator deep in thought. Finally she nodded. "I don't. Do we have options?"
"We do, actually. Secretary Deltoro has been working on one. Miss Deltoro?"
As the first man retook his seat, a woman at the far end of the table stood. "We can estimate the populations and—to a degree—the locations as well of these... voiceless? These voiceless worlds. Unfortunately, doing so takes months of calculations for each planet. We're falling behind. I... have been speaking with scholars at the Columbian Computational Sciences University at Tonopah, and they have an answer. We can create a new computer complex—find an out of the way system, tie it into the translink, and synthesise all the information we have. If we started immediately, we could finish construction in... fifty years, perhaps. The longer we wait, the more planets will be lurking out there."
"It'll be expensive, madam gakha. But if we could divert... one percent? One percent of the Congress-wide budget for the next five years, we could effectively finance the totality of the construction. Hiding these expenditures..."
"We can do that," another man said firmly. "Leave it up to us."
Madam Chung went quiet again, resting her muzzle on slender paws. Her voice had lost its customary commanding tone when she finally spoke. "Very well. Make it happen."
The simulation went black.
"That's an official transcript from the archives. It was supposed to have been destroyed—the Programmers Guild, in fact, fairly requires that it be destroyed. They aren't powerful in number, just in knowledge—if people found out about them, the whole thing would come crashing down."
"How many copies are there? How easy is it to find?"
Clay shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, to be honest. It's not that easy—and when copies turn up, they're buried quickly. That was Stan and Jaime's problem, you know. They had this."
Molly tried to prop herself on an elbow and found her body was still not responding to commands. "That's why you were ordered to kill them? They had too much information?"
"Not officially." Clay began tidying up the infirmary, trying to keep his hands busy. "Officially I was asked by a group of pirates—efficient police on these tradelanes aren't good for business. But I know that Stan and Jaime were due to meet with the Cartographers Guild to attempt to enlist their cooperation against the Programmers."
The Cartographers Guild was tremendously powerful—it was they who maintained the trade lanes and kept knowledge of them. Molly had heard of "voiceless" worlds in the past; it was said the Cartographers were the only ones who knew how to find them. "So... to prevent their message from getting out, you silenced them? But... you know about this simulation, too—you're just as threatening to the Programmers."
"Of course. They didn't know it, of course, but I was the one who gave it to the Highsmiths in the first place."
"The Cartographers are sceptical. They don't believe the influence of the Programmers. But they know and trust Jaime and Stanley. They know how competent they are, and how careful. That's why the Cartographers asked them to deliver the information. Word will be getting out over the translink now about the loss of their ship with all hands. The Cartographers will investigate—they'll see how suspicious it is. And when they search the Highsmiths' home—illegally, of course, in case you were wondering—they'll find the simulation. They'll know why they were killed."
"You killed two men to make your story more persuasive?"
"And I hope that's enough," Clay confirmed. "Perhaps it won't be. But the Programmers have to be stopped. They're key to the Congressional effort to rope in the voiceless worlds, the... the only safety valve the Systems Union has. And, I should note, a source of no inconsiderable profit."
"And it's all about ban for you?"
Clay came to stand next to her, then, leaning over her to look at a monitor. "You should be one hundred percent, by the way." She thought, at first, that he'd ignored her question, as he slid a paw beneath her neck to undo the neural inhibitor. As the feeling returned to her body, though, he spoke up again. "It would be nicer if I had some grand story, I'm sure. If the Programmers failed to prevent a plague that killed my parents or something, would that make it better for you? I profit from freedom, Molly; they're an obstacle to freedom. That makes them my enemy."
"And it doesn't matter what stands in your way?"
"To an extent, no." He replaced his medical tools in a cabinet, closing it with a flourish and turning to her as she sat up in bed. "I wish... I wish Jaime had not behaved as he did to you. I wish I'd stopped it sooner. I wish, also, that Stanley had spoken up. I would've wanted my last memory of him to be fonder. So no, there are limits. There was no excuse for what he did to you."
Molly felt over her side. There was no pain. The omni injection worked wonders in many situations, she had heard—though, she thought, she'd never had to have one before. "I guess that laser's already been fired. No use chasing it."
"No use," Clay agreed. "I'll double your pay, though. You'll want me to pay you in cash, incidentally."
"Because they'll be watching you now. And because you know something, you'll give a sign that you know it. They'll figure it out, and you'll notice that you're being followed. By that point, your bank account may already be locked. Most places will take cash—it might keep you alive for a bit longer."
"You seem to have managed ok."
Clay smiled, but the expression was distant and hollow. "Please don't get the wrong impression, Molly. I'm going to die soon—it's just a matter of time. Weeks, months maybe—not years. I'm not fooling myself. I like you, miss Garrison—I told you the truth when I shouldn't have because I think you deserve to know it. I like you, but... we're marked. It's how it goes."
"But you still do it."
"Of course. Pride in your work. It's important," he said. Then the wolf sighed, heavily. Molly let the ensuing silence hang. Finally, when it became clear he would say nothing else, she spoke.
"Where are we going now?"
Archimedes Station was a sprawling, wretched installation—a massive transhipment hub, full of intersun boats and small tramp liners making their way back and forth between its arms. It described the form of two intersecting spiders, each pair of legs forming a right angle to the other. Istrahe Station, which prided itself on reputability, glowed white in deep space. Archimedes was a shadow, black on the blackness of the stars.
True to his word, Clay paid her twenty thousand liang, in platinum strips. It was a reassuring weight in her purse, and she kept it close as they sat in a bar near the station's hub.
"Should we not talk?" she had asked, and the wolf had shook his head, explaining that while the Programmers could analyse nearly anything, they could not spy on the conversations of random parties in random bars. So she felt a bit reassured, leaning across the table. "Clay. Are you telling the truth?"
He smiled wanly. "If I'm not telling the truth, then I killed two people for a lie. Yes, I'm telling the truth. You can look for yourself. The records should be accessible, anything in the 2805 to 2810 budget marked for agricultural subsidies. Check the difference between the allocated money and the amount that was paid out."
"Where are you going from here?"
"Albion, eventually. It's one of the only Haven worlds that's free enough to still have some contacts left on it. The time's pretty close when there won't be anybody left—need to take advantage of their presence while they're still alive, you know? We probably won't see each-other again."
"I'll keep an eye out for you," she said. "I don't intend to go to Albion, but I'll keep an eye out all the same."
"Good." The wolf seemed genuinely appreciative; his smile had finally adopted some warmth. "I'll keep an eye out for you as well." He stared down into his Journeyman's whiskey, closing his eyes for several long seconds. "Eventually someone will come for you. Your ties aren't that strong, but... you're just another number to the Programmers. It's not worth the risk. So eventually someone will come for you. It'll be the Programmers or one of the voiceless—I'm not sure who will get to you first."
"How will I even know the difference?"
"After you shake their hand, find out whether you're dead or not." The gallows humour didn't suit the wolf; he frowned. "No. That wasn't right of me. I trust you'll know the difference, how's that?"
"I hope you're right."
Clay didn't say anything else, not even a word of goodbye. He dipped his head to Molly; then his jaw was set and he stood, making his way from the bar so swiftly he might've vanished. She was alone, then, and she nursed at her drink for a long time, thinking.
Now I'm thinking: it could mean you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. Nine-millimetre here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be that you're the righteous man, and I'm the shepherd, and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is that you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men.
Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction (1994)
The Castle Bravo was a small ship, but he didn't feel like searching it at first—if they wanted him found, they'd find him. All the same, as he ran his paw down the shiny skin of the craft, it seemed possible that discretion might be the better part of valour. He locked out the computers and turned the life support off, leaning back against the wall to face the ship's only hatch.
A minute passed; two. Five. He was ready to conclude that paranoia had got the best of him when there was a scrabbling sound behind the airlock. Clayton unholstered a chemical pistol from his belt and stepped quietly across the landing bay to wait. The wheel turned slowly, faltering in steps. Finally the door swung open and a heavy thud marked the impact of a body against the floor. A fellow wolf, who lay panting. He carried weapons, both holstered. Well, his loss.
Clay thumped the wolf with his pistol to disorient him, and then drew his arms roughly behind his back, cinching them together with wire. He kicked the interloper onto his back and squatted down next to him, eyeing him dangerously. "Hello there."
The wolf was still breathing heavily, taken by surprise. His hands jerked towards his guns, not noticing at first the bindings that kept his wrists in place. To remove any doubt Clay took both weapons from the man's belt and tossed them across the room. "Who are—who are you?"
"You can call me Clay—this is my boat. What were you doing on it?"
"I—I got lost," the wolf stammered—but his eyes had flickered just a bit too much when Clay had mentioned his name, and he found the story wanting. Clay stood up, resting his weight on the wolf's ankle and giving him a reproachful look. As the bones started to splinter, the intruder's consciousness returned in full. "Oh—God! What are you doing? Fuck—I'll talk, I'll talk—get off!"
Smiling thinly, Clay sat back down, gesturing with his pistol. "Alright, go ahead. I tell you what, actually—you give me the truth nice and easy-like and I won't hurt you. How's that?"
His captive nodded swiftly. "They call him 'the Ear'—they say he only has one. He's a mob boss on Siyah. He said you were causing problems with some CDs he bought off out of Redfire Coreward. Gave me fifty thousand for the job."
"Interesting." He scanned the wolf's face, toying with the safety on his pistol.
"Ease up on the pachi," the man said, jerking his muzzle to Clay's gun. "Look, it's nothing personal. I mean, you fuck with the mob, you're gonna get it eventually, right?"
"Right." Considering his expression and the speed at which he'd begun talking—the man struck him as highly inexperienced—Clay believed him to be telling the truth on all counts. Ah well. No, it was nothing personal—business was business, after all. "Do you believe in god?"
The wolf blinked in confusion. "What? I mean—I guess not, no, why?"
Clay's voice was weary—so few of them did. "I was just wondering if you needed time to pray first."
"Needed time to pray? Time befo—oh! Fuck!" the realisation sunk in heavily and the wolf shook his head violently. "You said you weren't going to hurt me!"
Taking his finger off the trigger, Clay thought about this. He considered trying to think of something clever to say and decided on honesty instead. "Ah. I was lying." No apology followed.
Abrupt shock was still written over the intruder's face. "No—no!" Clay pulled the trigger before the man could say anything else; he stiffened and went limp. It was a small-calibre bullet; there was no exit wound. He took his time dragging the body and setting it in the starboard exhaust vent of his ship. Others had probably heard the shot, but on Archimedes Station nobody would care.
Albion, being a Haven World, was wealthy enough to be useful for making contacts—but wild enough, in parts, to let one keep them as well. The system's star was set against the sprawling New Caledon desert when he desynced from subspace and dropped back into the universe, and the sand seemed to glow. It warmed Clay's heart; despite his Orania upbringing, Albion had always felt more like home.
He touched down at the docks outside Dawson City—a smaller town, thirty or forty thousand people at the edge of the New Caledon expanse. There was periodically a soft noise from the distant energy transmitter as it sent a pulse of light up into orbit; other than that, the city was still. It was early in the morning as he strode easily along the cracking sidewalks.
Clay liked the cracks, actually, when he thought about it. It made Dawson City special—too many of the worlds in the Union were recent colonies and hadn't taken the time to develop character. Dawson City—like most of the towns around the New Caledon expanse, whose resource-rich sands had drawn the bulk of Albion's early settlers—had personality.
He stopped at the church, a triangular building done in the Oakley style of solid colours and simple lines. The door was unlocked, and there was only one person inside when he entered. A short, bookish woman whose canine form spoke of a dozen or more breeds in her lineage, she perked her ears at his entry. "Good morning, Clay."
"'Morning, Pastor Kenley." He bowed to her in deference. "I'm sorry I haven't been around more."
Riya Kenley shrugged to him and closed the tome she studied. Clay knew and understood the asceticism of the trinitists, but the complete absence of technology in the church hadn't properly struck him before. Kenley studied the cover of her book a few seconds more before sighing. "Of course, Clay, of course. What brings you to Dawson? Confession, I imagine?"
Clay shook his head, closing the door behind him and taking a seat on the opposite side of the desk Kenley occupied. "No, ma'am, nothing like that. Just a question. I haven't got anything to confess. Well—nothing I care to," he corrected, his ears lowering a bit. "I treated a woman rather poorly, I suppose."
"I thought you weren't interested in women?"
The wolf blinked a few times until he properly understood her meaning. "I—eugh. No. Not like that, ma'am. I told her some lies... took advantage of her without telling her what was going on. It was a necessary evil but I am not fond of what I did. I performed my penance on the trip to Albion. Nothing to confess. Just a question," he repeated, and after a few moments Riya Kenley nodded.
"Alright, my child. Go ahead."
"I was wondering... I shot a man on Archimedes Station, and I—"
Kenley had raised a paw to halt him. "Some would say that might count as something to confess, Clay." Her voice had the quiet, chiding tone one might take with a wayward child.
"It was in self-defence, after a fashion. He snuck aboard my ship to try to kill me, ma'am. I found him first... he would've reported me—I didn't have a choice. I've done little but read the book for guidance since I left."
Kenley perceived acutely the lack of any real contrition in the man's voice, but thought it better than the feigned sorrow he might've adopted instead. She had never been of the opinion that Clay was simply taking advantage of her inability to report him to the authorities; he came to her genuinely. "That isn't really a question."
"I asked him, before I shot him, whether he believed in God. He said 'no,' and I guess I was wondering... what happens to him? Does God care? Archimedes Station is so remote and so shabby..."
"You're asking if he's going to go to heaven?"
"I'm asking if he's going to go anywhere. Did he just... die?"
Kenley shook her head, patting the book in front of her with a mix of affection and trust. "The distance doesn't matter, Clay. We know that... when Jesus returned, he made it very clear that the expanse of space was as nothing to God. He can hold Appolonia and Archimedes and Earth in His hand at the same time."
"Jesus will be able to reach him, then?" He leaned forward, his ears at a half-perk, waiting her answer.
When Riya Kenley spoke again, she was quoting from the book in front of her. "'First he bowed in thought, and then arose. "That's a good question," he said, "but you don't need to worry about the distances. For God, a parsec is the same as a picometer and His voice can be heard on Earth or a million galaxies away." Even Jesus looked awed by the thought, but the assembled stardrive engineers knew that he spoke the truth.' That was an important question, Clay, before Jesus returned, of course... it's good that you're thinking about it."
"What text is that from?"
"It's from the Testament of the New Era, the first volume. About a third of the way through the book of Wu, you see here?" She ran her claws along the well-worn edges of the page to tap against the numbers that marked the chapter and verse.
Satisfied, Clay reclined and nodded. "He'll be judged and welcomed, then, the same as you and I?" Kenley balked slightly, and the wolf shook his head. "I didn't mean the judgements would be the same, ma'am."
"He'll be judged and welcomed, then, yes, eventually. If he accepts God when the answer is poured full upon his face at the Tribunal." The wolf pondered this for a time, and then got up to leave, bowing to her and offering his thanks. She stood as well. "Clay, you would ease your passage to the Kingdom if you would change your ways."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I can't," he said. "There's things yet I have to do. Some concerns are more important than a few millennia in purgatory. I can't give up until I'm finished."
Riya Kenley sighed, for they had had this conversation a dozen times before. Sometimes he seemed to be closer to his end, but it never stopped completely—and neither did the confessions, the vague hints at crimes unspeakable. "Then just be careful, alright? Go in peace, Clay."
"Likewise, ma'am," he said quietly, and slipped back into the warming day outside.
"Where the fuck is everybody?"
"Got, sleeping or fled, Holzschuherl." Julius looked at Clay with a resigned, fatalistic grin. "But isn't this the way it always goes?"
"Are you worried?"
At first on the verge of a flippant answer, instead Julius Dauskardt gazed into his beer until it gazed back at him, and then looked up, his thick accent growing more muddy with thoughtfulness. "Of course, but what is it we could do?"
The two of them had been fighting monsters too long to suffer the arousal of too much fear, particularly for something as meaningless as death. "I'm not sure. Somebody snuck onto my ship at Archimedes."
"Two pistols on his belt, one of them a nice sonic number. Twenty thousand liang, at least."
Julius rapped his claws in sequence against the glass of his mug. "What did you do?"
"Shot him and dumped him into the exhaust. He's all gone now."
"You know who he was?"
The wolf shook his head. "Not a fucking clue. He claimed to be with a mob boss out of Siyah pissed about the loss of two CDs he was paying off."
"Siyah..." It was a mean world of scant consequence; organised crime was there—as it was everywhere—but mattered little to the account of most.
"You know a guy who goes by 'the Ear'?" Nominally a respectable merchant—a broad man who might've been a badger; a life of comfort had obscured any details—it was well known that Julius had fingers in every pie and the connections to keep them there.
Now, he seemed to be musing on them. "His real name is Ronaldo Marquez... mostly, he is working in the black market, medicine and guns and... so on."
"A real person, though?"
Julius nodded. "Oh, he's very real. He did... oh, when is it? Ein, zwei..." Julius counted back on stubby fingers. "Four years in the kamush on the Hephaistos Moon for armed robbery. That is where his ear is lost—a real mean... mm, son of a bitch? Yes, that is it—you might say he is taking it out on everyone else."
"So he'd put a hit on me for knocking off a couple of wannabe-cop CDs?"
"Oh, yes. Who, though? Recent? The only story on the link has been the SJ—their ship is blown up." Clay remained impassive, and Julius raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Really..."
"You look surprised. Anyway, I probably didn't do that, of course..."
"Of course." He trusted Julius not to say anything—else he would not have approached him. "The SJ is important seriously, Holzschuherl—the large leagues for sure. Whoever did it is very careful—they say if they have not the killer found until the end of the week, they won't do it. The rumour says that it is a mob hit."
"I think it was. I can't believe the Ear would've been paying them, though. SJ was supposed to be incorruptible." And indeed, for their foibles everyone seemed to acknowledge that Stanley and Jaime had not been on the take.
"Not quite." Now it was Clay's turn to be surprised; he cocked his head, eyes narrowing. "That is something you know, yes? The Fourth Pyramid is backing them for eight months now."
Clay sat back heavily—the pieces were starting to come together. "Isn't Fourth Pyramid supposed to be in the Cartographer Guild's pocket? Is the Ear a Cartographer?"
"Not as I'm aware. Actually, I can't be imagining a reason he is trying to kill you if it is just because of the Stanley and his husband. Very peculiar, Holzschuherl, very peculiar. What are you going to do about it?"
The wolf rubbed two of his claws together, feeling the keratin sand itself down as he worried them. "I don't know, old friend. I think I might finally have roused the wrong giant."
"You will have to be careful."
"My priest said the same thing."
Julius grinned, his yellowing teeth catching the dull neon in the bar. "To hell with your soul, little one. I do not want to have to find someone else for my proclivities. In fact..."
"Harvested last week," Clay said, and set a metal box on the table. He tapped the top once and it went transparent, revealing coarse grains of pure Dundalk salt. It was rumoured to have medicinal qualities; Julius would use it for cooking. He had the money to afford such extravagance. "A kilo and a half. If I'm still alive next month, I'll bring you some more."
"You must not do this..." Then he grinned. "But I hope you will anyway. You will still be alive next month." Julius licked his chops in what would've been an unseemly way, had he not been so esteemed. "Danke, Clayton. Stay safe."
Well, that was the idea. "Bitte, Julkje."
Back at the Castle Bravo, Clay tried to piece together what was going on in his life. The Ear didn't care about the fate of two Contracted Defenders, particularly those allied with a rival mafia. If Marquez had actually been behind the hit—Clay had his doubts—it must've been paid for from a Programmer's wallet.
This suggested that the Programmers Guild was on to him, at least in part. Perhaps they understood what his larger strategy had been, staging the assassination of Stan and Jaime. Perhaps they thought he was just out to smear their name.
Perhaps it was all unrelated, though Clay rather thought he'd seen too much of the world to expect or allow for randomness. Or perhaps the Cartographers were behind it—though they tended to wear the Fourth Pyramid's affiliation as a mark of pride, as though having a gang at their beck and call meant they'd finally made it in the world. Yes, he rather thought that if the Cartographers had found out he was behind the SJ job they would make their displeasure more publicly known.
He was being paranoid again, he knew. In his work, he had drawn the ire of a dozen separate crime families; twenty corporations, thirty municipal governments. All it took was one of them to connect the dots and send someone after him...
That was fine. He expected to die violently—he hadn't decided where he might end up after that, for despite Riya Kenley's frequent protests he had never been much for reform. He was fine with that; fine with the prospect of impending, ever-looming death. The Programmers, though... he could almost see the light!
It was common, too common, for those who opposed them to regard the Programmers as an impossible foe. But their analysis was not perfect, Clay knew—merely very good. And they were not everywhere; they were human, after all, with human limitations. The Guild was not a god, just a way to upset the balance in a fashion Clay found unsporting—and it could be taken down.
The Cartographers had the clout to expose the Programmers Guild, and if they chose to do so would be a powerful ally. Clay had no idea how many voiceless worlds still circled the distant stars—hundreds had probably been settled. Many of these had failed; a few lingered on. Fewer still were connected to the Systems Union in some way, mostly the black market. Clay knew of just one, and as it was his only link to the ultimate freedom that came from escaping the Union, the Programmers—and, indeed, all the agencies and guilds and bureaucrats—he feared its demise greatly.
It was the official policy of the Union that they integrated voiceless worlds as a gesture of humanitarianism. Clay knew, however, that it was not quite that simple. The existing power structures weren't preserved, and though Congress held that the discoverer of a planet got to become its governor, Voiceless worlds forfeited this privilege, giving Congress direct control of the planets and their resources. The original settlers had a fashion of curiously disappearing, though even Clay didn't know whether they simply fled or were in other ways disposed of. Either was a possibility.
The wolf didn't think himself terribly sentimental, though he knew he held the world—the Rock of Anteus, he'd heard it called—in more esteem than it deserved. It was somewhat hardscrabble; though the world would be bountiful in time it had yet to reach full florescence. He wanted to go there—longed for it, actually. Well, perhaps that was a good idea—get away from the heat for awhile; let things settle down.
He tapped the cockpit panels to bring the Castle Bravo online, closing his eyes to imagine Anteus as the whine of the engines built up. There was a town he was particularly fond of, at the end of a rather stark cape that cut out into the northern ocean. You could just sit and feel the growing glow of the sun as the water dashed against the cliffs until—
The engine choked and the noise cut off abruptly.
Clay swore, eyes flicking over the panels. The engine status screen flashed a simple message: "control override cutoff"; underneath, in smaller text, it read "contact system authority". He was aware of the implications. Congress had mandated a kill switch be added to every starship's engine, so that someone on the wrong side of the law could be prevented from leaving.
Of course, anyone worth his salt knew how to disable the override—and, in fact, Clay had done so. He called up the system display, tracing the path the command to start the engine had gone through. The Congressional override—the "Safeguard module" of the ship's software—had never been invoked. The command had been initiated in the user interface routines, passed into engine management... his claw ran over the path to follow it.
The signals to start the navigational computer were returned fine, and those to the fuel flow regulator, and to the coolant, and... and an internal integrity check on the second starboard auxiliary electrical bus returned an error that shut everything down.
The auxiliary bus—in six years of owning the Castle Bravo Clay had never seen it used—was buried deep in the ship's starboard engine nacelle. Accessing it would take six hours—maybe longer. Bypassing it would require reorganising the power conduits in the ship's spine—perhaps only twenty minutes, but he suspected he didn't have that much time. He swore again and then shook his head, chiding himself—the anger would get him nowhere, after all. He set the ship's communication relay to transmit on the control channel and blacked out all the viewports. Then, grabbing a pair of radios and setting one on the pilot's seat, he went aft to the hatch.
There was nobody on the other side; he made his way from the ship to the crowd of the docks. There was a self-service motel on the edge of town facing the landing pads, and he checked in quickly, paying in platinum chips instead of with the small strip of computer linked to his bank accounts. When he was in his room, and could see the Castle Bravo from the window, he took the other radio and keyed the transmit switch. "Ah, tower Dawson One, this is MV Castle Bravo." A pause, then a scratchy command to go ahead came through the radio in his hand. "I seem to have tripped a control override in my ship's computer. Can you reset that for me?"
"Dawson tower, Castle Bravo, I don't see any problems with your systems. Give us a few to check it out."
"Understood." So he waited. And it was irritating—infuriating, actually—but not terribly surprising when a squad of policemen in very heavy armour presently arrived, taking up positions around the ship. It wouldn't be a problem in the short term—he had plenty of cash. Still, the Castle Bravo would be missed... well, what was the alternative?
When the controller's voice returned through the handset, it seemed a little shaky. "Uh, Castle Bravo, this is Dawson tower. Looks like it's, uh, looks like it's a problem on our end." A pause, during which the controller was probably being told what to say. "Uh, would you mind stopping by the central office to sort it out?"
Clay sighed into his radio and hoped the sound carried to the transmitter in the ship. "Sure, alright. Can you give me thirty minutes to lock the ship down and give me a tow to clear the pad?"
A long pause. "Ok, Castle Bravo. We'll have a tractor there in a half-hour."
The wolf tapped a few buttons to send an inaudibly high-pitched tone to his ship. Inside, the environmental controls switched over to draw straight from the reactor cooling system. Even with the engine off, the coolant was at least six hundred degrees and at high pressure—turning the Castle Bravo into an autoclave. He figured the procedure would take ten minutes, and thought the police would probably start cutting through the hull in fifteen. If they started before then, well, that was their loss.
He slipped from the hotel—nobody in the police squad looked his way. They couldn't have planned this particular operation, he realised—else they would've had his ship monitored. Well, making use of local authorities was a talent of the Programmers.
Clay was quite sure he had not been followed, but he paid for his ticket on the next rocket shuttle out of Dawson in platinum.
At the terminal in Albion Point, he closed his eyes and plugged himself into the neural translink. In his mind, he sifted through the news from the planet, and then Dawson City in particular. There were no breaking stories about any dead cops and no news of an escaped criminal. He wasn't sure what to make of the second part.
On the one hand, he partly thought they wouldn't be stupid enough to fabricate some charge against him—it was more or less acknowledged that, where crime was concerned, the police knew substantially less than the criminals. If they made something up, the underworld would know—and sympathise. That was too dangerous.
There were only a few regular shuttles from Dawson City. Albion Point, being the capital of the planet, was more heavily patrolled and thus a less desirable destination—but it was so large as to have a million places to hide out for a spell. The Albion police had only so many resources, and if they were trying to keep things quiet they didn't have the option of a full-scale mobilisation. And perhaps the Programmers weren't capable of orchestrating such a thing on a Haven world anyway—he could hope. More than this, he hoped the Dawson police thought he had an escape planned that didn't involve public transportation.
There was nothing incriminating on the Castle Bravo—if everything had gone to plan, not even DNA. The computers were clean of all but crossword puzzles; the entirety of his life he carried with him in physical form, inscribed in nanoscopic cuneiform on a tiny chip in a fake nail.
How many of his aliases could the Programmers guess at? What deposits were safe to drain? He had ways of getting at his money—contacts in various banks across the Systems Union—but he didn't want to needlessly expose them to risk. One didn't keep friends that way.
He unlinked himself and reached into a vest pocket to pull out a Sensa band and a pair of sunglasses, clipping both to his temples and letting the Sensa sync to his brain. The Sensa was a childish pursuit—he had said as much to that woman, Molly, back on Dundalk. But, sitting as it did between sight—the reptilian brain—and perception, it could be turned to one's use.
He'd spent several years writing the program. It made the scenery flat and monochrome—something to navigate in, not focus on. The walls of the Albion Point terminal became grey, the paintings and bright colours muted and flat. Most of the people darkened as if in shadow; his trained intuition called out suspicious types—people he believed aberrant even without realising it—in white. Right now, he saw no angels.
As he passed a corridor, someone stepped out behind him, brightening in his sight. Clay watched him in the reflection of his glasses. The figure followed as he turned into the tunnel that led to the terminal's monorail, and brightened steadily. Then he dimmed away to nothing; Clay turned, the man was now stopped at a food vendor, buying dinner. He kept moving—if the man reappeared, he trusted his subconscious to mark this.
A few dozen people boarded the monorail with him, though—turning down the strength of the Sensa for a moment—he thought none of them suspicious. They were all traveller types—tired, worn, staring at their luggage. Now that he thought about it, it had been a long day for him, too. The train downtown would take ten minutes... could he sleep then? If he hadn't been followed, then perhaps.
He knew where he was going, at least. A bar, a terrible hole in the wall six blocks from the station in what passed for the slums of Albion Point. The police didn't venture there; the clientele drew from a three or four block radius. It would be safe; all the same, when he got off the train he headed in the opposite direction. There was only so far you could go from the train before following someone became suspicious... and he didn't notice anyone. After not having been caught on the Castle Bravo, Clay supposed this was his second lucky break of the day. God was watching out for him in spite of himself.
The bar was called "7750," its address—it had been the fashion for some time for high society establishments to name themselves in this way, although 7750 had never been able to pass for high society. He took the Sensa and the sunglasses off and pushed through the door.
Two days later there had still been no news about his escape, and nothing about his ship. He was not in the clear, of course... but then, when had he ever been? Now there was only the matter of figuring out a way to get off-world. He could buy another ship—this was the most ideal solution. Could he afford the attention? Clay had just concluded that he could—that he had become inconspicuous again—when there was a sharp knock at the door.
On the other side, when he opened it, was Randall, the bar's proprietor. "One of your proxies got a message for you. It got forwarded over here straightaway. No return info."
"You look at it?"
"Of course not"—the mutt's answer came quick, although Clay had made it clear before that he trusted Randall enough to allow him such access. "Came straight here."
"Well, alright, let's see it." Clay grabbed the key—a physical key, anachronistic but harder to simply force with computer wizardry—and followed him down to his office. The message was gibberish, sprawled across the screen—recognisable Nisiko characters with no recognisable meaning. "What is this?"
"The message was a series of 32-bit characters but no opening control sequence. I figured it would probably be Chinese or something, but... this don't look it."
"Maybe it's an image? How many characters?"
Randall's fingers swept over the computer for a moment. "Six hundred thirty-two."
"Well, try it, I suppose. Just take the first twenty-four bits."
The result was a long stripe of colour. Randall spent a few moments altering the width and height of the small image, shrugging finally at the wolf. "Nothing."
"No," he agreed, and frowned deeply. "Alri—wait. How are you doing this—first eight red, second eight green, third blue?" Randall nodded, and Clay leaned over him to peer at the computer. "This is all green and blue, isn't it? What do the first eight bits look like? Show the raw data." His companion brushed over the computer screen again—there was variation, although not much. "Do you know of any 8-bit character sets?"
"Some Latin ones, if you can read it."
"Try a few?"
He shrugged again. "Whatever you say."
The results were no more intelligible—characters in the Latin alphabet, now, instead of a Nisiko variety, but no more clear. Until—"stop. This is it."
"You can read it? What does it say?"
"They tell me I can predict what will happen. Since they pay me to work for them, I suppose an apology is in order as I'm something of a failure here. Thirty years, thirty thousand kilos in refined ore of copper. Why does the acclaim feel so artificial? They just see goods and no problems in how it becomes pure. If this was gold instead they'd care. If they knew how you and I suffer... can we give this find up? I'd love some time under the blue skies back home. Twilight doesn't happen here, or at least not underground. So I just rail at you instead. Write back just as soon as you can, for I'm about to drop into that dead zone."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't... know..." His mind was turning the message over again rapidly, looking for patterns."There's something not right about this. 'Refined ore of copper'?"
"Maybe they're not a native speaker?"
Perhaps, Clay had to admit, though it seemed like no small amount of trouble to go to simply to hide a message. "Or it's done purposefully. Can you tokenise that into words?" He waited while his friend's fingers danced over the computer screen. "A hundred and twenty-four words? Take every fourth word—see? 'They can happen...' wait." 'They can happen me' made no sense. "Offset it by one. Offset it by two?" He sighed. "Three?"
"Four'll just put you back where you started, if it didn't make sense then."
It wasn't necessary. Clay's claw traced along the sentence that remained. "I will pay for an order of thirty kilos of the artificial goods in pure gold if you can find some blue twilight or underground rail. Write soon for drop zone."
"It says that? Really?"
"That's what it says... blue twilight is a strain of synth, isn't it?"
Randall turned about in his chair to face the wolf. "So's underground rail. You running drugs, Clay?"
"No." Riya Kenley would've never forgiven him. Randall was asking him, now, if he'd been framed, but Clay's thoughts were elsewhere and his answer was distracted. "No, no... go back to the raw data for a moment?" He hoped to avoid more tedium—there was only one number mentioned in the hidden sentence. "Can you just show the thirtieth bit?"
"Sure sure. It's all random, though. Or... well, not quite. That's a little strange, it almost seems... regular? Never more than two ones or zeroes in a row. What are the odds of that? Look: on, off, on, off, on, off, off..."
Randall raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"I know what it is. For that matter, I know who sent it." He gave a short laugh, but one without mirth—because he knew the message as well. "I'm sorry, I need to handle this myself. Can I use your transmitter?"
It was an old Earth convention—Morris code, he was pretty sure they called it, a simple trinary way of communicating. Short tone, long tone, nothing. Dull, bright, darkness. Soft, loud, silence. A thief's code—a way of sharing information without alerting the authorities. He'd played at it as a child, on Orania, with the boyhood friend who'd taught it to him. In this case, the message read, simply: "someone set the plague rats loose send help". If he remembered correctly—and this explained the reference to refined ore of copper—Andrew van den Berg was a doctor on Argus, one of the Union's outer colonies.
The message had come in on an old, mostly disused relay, and he linked the bar's distinctly unauthorised transmitter up only with an effort. For a minute or two, his call went unanswered. Then there was a click, and the screen in front of him came to life. It was his old friend, though—and at the sight, Clay winced a little—he looked decidedly under the weather. "Andy? What's going on?"
"Ah—you got my message? It's not well. The... the colony's under self-imposed quarantine, now. We've been trying to get a hold of vaccine precursors but the supplies are very low. They're getting sick around here, now—I was vaccinated after an outbreak on Doyle Station four years ago..."
"What is it?"
"... but of course nobody else is that lucky, not around here." Andy continued on, wandering without punctuation, until the message caught up to him. "What? I can't... I shouldn't say. In case it gets out, you know—general panic? The capital is going to have to declare a state of emergency and broadcast a public request soon enough, but... ah, it's Singh's, you know? It's Singh's, Singh's Dystrophy. Now you know." He was rambling, and his eyes looked hollow and haunted. Clay wondered how long it had been since the doctor had slept.
"They're going to call for the vaccine, though, right?" He waited impatiently for the signal to reach its destination—the translation through subspace was nearly instantaneous, of course, but all told there was a million kilometres in real-space between the beacons.
"Yes, I hope. The health department in the capital hasn't been answering me, though. I think things are getting more serious, Clay. They've been telling me not to report some things..." his face fell, and though Clay could see nobody else in the viewscreen his friend leaned forward, whispering urgently. "The disease started in all of the major cities simultaneously. We've been tracking the spread... we don't think it was an accident."
Acts of biological terrorism weren't unheard of in the Union—it was simply too big to police everyone all the time. That was why the Programmers existed, after all, to keep such things to a minimum. Clay sighed heavily. "You haven't been able to contain it, then?"
"No. No," Andrew said again, more firmly, leaning back once more. "We can't. If we don't get the vaccine, then Argus goes quiet. It's headed that way now."
"Andy. You need to get out."
After a few seconds, and many worlds away, Andrew van den Berg shrugged. "I can't. They need me here, Clay. As long as I can keep the lights on, they need me here. So far they—" there was a series of deep noises and an ominous rumble; Andrew flinched. "It's the soldiers, you know? Martial law. They've been shortening the perimeter... I'm still inside for now, you know? It'll be alright, really. It'll—" another rumble; the visage on the computer froze for a few seconds. Then there was a soft chime, and a pleasant voice told him that R&M InterCommunications apologised, but the remote party had disconnected the chat.
He closed his eyes, allowed himself a minute to recuperate, and started work.
Sing to me—
Of gallant steeds that take to the night
And gallop off for suns unknown;
Sing to me the rocket's roaring promise,
And the compass-point nose that arrows forward
To invisible marks on empty treasure maps;
Sing of virgin sunrises on unblemished horizons,
Of the homestead life, and the first crop of hard-won grain,
And houses cut from cold sod;
Sing to me of anguished cries unheard in the darkness,
And lonely deaths unmourned;
And sing to me of barren worlds that trod an aimless walk,
And feel the loveless gaze of bitter stars,
Where exiled dreams gutter, kick, and in a breath expire
To be quick forgot, and sung no more.
Linda Yin, "Call for a pioneer's lullaby" (2819)
Six hours. The man—Anthony, his name was; Carey had never met him before—had told him six damned hours, useless fucking bastard with his fucking smile and his worthless fucking merchandise anyway. Six hours it was supposed to take him to get the cargo from the intersun freighter to Mriya. Now he was being told that the goods would have to go belowside to the docks at Rincon for repackaging.
It had been twelve hours. Carey Reiss watched Shepherd's Watch darken beneath him, cracking his knuckles one by one. If he expected to get to Ankara on time, it was now going to take... a quarter again as much fuel? A third? And that presumed the merchant (here Carey strung together a few more expletives) could get it to him in the next six hours.
A light was flashing now, steadily, in the corner of his vision; he cocked his head—an emergency signal. These were fairly rare; he pressed the light and was rewarded with the warbling tones that preceded a vocal transmission—his computer would be downloading the information contained there now. "Attention all registered captains with interstellar range. A medical emergency has been declared on Argus. Vaccinations are available at Mriya Station. All vessels at Mriya Station, Lao Hu Station, Andaman Station. All vessels at Shepherd's Watch, Geary, and the Sunshy Colony. You are directed to contact the Mriya Station coordinator for further instructions."
After a few more tones, the message repeated. Carey flicked the radio off again. He debated calling the station coordinator, but her office was only a few hundred yards away—it hardly seemed worth the effort. And it wasn't as though he had anything better to do—it was a diversion, anyway, and maybe (though he increasingly doubted it) by the time he returned from his meeting his merchant friend would've gotten his act together.
The sign on the fluid glass door said "Station Coordinator" in golden lettering, and beneath that "Jessica Chao" in black. Both swirled away to nothing as the glass melted back, allowing him to step through. Chao was talking with someone over video wireless; as he waited, he looked about her office.
It was neatly furnished—as one would expect from a high-ranking official of the Systems Union. The ceremonial pistol granted high-ranking functionaries in Congress glittered behind more glass, decorated with the Congressional seal; tapestries in local silk sprawled across the walls—and the silk craftsmen of Shepherd's Watch were held to be some of the best in their field. Adjacent the pistol was the standard Wreath of Harmony, crossed with an olive branch—the two symbols of the Systems Union, everlasting peace and everlasting vigilance.
"Can I help you?" He was busy looking at the wreath, whose top was now snowed with dust, and had not noticed the end of her conversation.
"Captain Reiss, MV Sitka Maru. I'm responding to a declared emergency?"
She blinked at him. "That was fast."
"Ain't got far to travel, ma'am; just docked right down there. Is it anything serious?"
"Take a seat?" When he had, she nodded an affirmation. "Quite serious, yes. It's an outbreak of Singh's Dystrophy on Argus—you familiar with the disease? The colony?"
"Only the second, ma'am." Argus was a "two-century jewel" for the Systems Union—that was to say, it was predicted that in two centuries it would be one of the most prosperous worlds in the galaxy. Argus's deposits of copper had no rivals in abundance or purity; it threatened Appolonia's supremacy in trade of the material. Reiss had been to Argus once or twice, delivering supplies to the colonists there—the world had only been settled a few decades prior, and while immigration was at record levels the infrastructure suffered.
"Singh's is one of the gifts Earth gave us, back in her most overcrowded days. It attacks the nervous system—disintegrates, I suppose, would be the more proper term. It's a vicious thing—very contagious. When people don't travel, it burns itself out—kills all the possible hosts before it can move on. There's a few days before people show symptoms... no telling how far it's spread on Argus now—nor how people are going to move when they get panicked."
"Is it treatable?"
"Eminently. It was so deadly when it first emerged that Earth poured all her resources into it. They never managed to eradicate it completely—it can live in insects—but the treatment's cheap and common. Mriya Station here has a repository."
"What's the catch?"
Chao shrugged. "There isn't one, really. The full treatment course weighs about a kilogram, but it's fairly compact. Congress just doesn't have the resources out on the Watch to courier it themselves. I was just on the wireless with the SV Kilkenny Silver—that's the big intersun ship in orbit right now, if you saw it. They'll be taking it to Argus by themselves, using their own lighters."
"You've got it all taken care of, then?"
The station coordinator's face darkened. "I'm not sure, actually. Do you know what 'CVV' stands for?" He shook his head. "I got a note that ends with "CVV" about an hour ago, before the emergency broadcast."
"It says, 'remember not to put all your eggs in one basket. The big fish can't be trusted. You aren't the first to hook them, after all. Not everyone sees death as a tragedy and not every malfunction is an accident.' Then it says 'cast a wide net. Good fortune, CVV'. I don't know what to make of it."
"It sounds like a threat."
"Doesn't it?" Chao's face was still cast in internal shadow. "The captain of the Kilkenny says he'll get her there absolutely guaranteed. All the same..."
"I could take some." She nodded, slowly, as if agreement would mean submitting to rash paranoia. "What are your rates? You're offering the standard emergency contract?"
"Yes." She sighed, and then brightened up. "I'm sure it won't be needed, but... it's not my money, after all. How much space do you have?"
"Right now I'm about ten thousand tons light." He was carrying a load of spices that were due on The Island, but not for three weeks—and he had friends there; he thought he could push the deadline back a bit if it came down to it. "I can take what you got to spare, though. If you're shipping in CSB standard boxes, that's what, forty thousand doses a container?"
"That's right. Can you keep the hold below sixty degrees?" He nodded, and nodded again when she asked if he could keep it above freezing. "Alright, we'll get a few containers moved over, then."
She took a biometric signature, and Carey Reiss went back to his ship to suggest a new place for Anthony to keep his merchandise.
Mostly, Reiss was motivated by selfishness. He had no doubt that the Kilkenny Silver would get to Argus—probably, actually, it would beat him; the intersun ships got to run in favourable tradelanes. Congressional emergency pay, however, was set at five times standard tonnage rates for valuable cargo, and he could use the money. Every captain liked emergencies like this, when the contracts could be had.
The way he saw it, Reiss figured on a week to Argus, which was on a dogleg route to The Island anyway. That was a nice, unexpected bonus—he smiled, thinking about it, and tried to imagine how best to spend the money. A vacation back home seemed nice—visit the old farm, maybe see if his father was up for a bit of sailing out in the clear, impossibly pure waters of Yellowsand Bay. He didn't get a chance to see his home very often.
Reflecting on it, he felt certain that The Island must've faced its share of disease in the past. Somehow, they managed to get through it without having to run to Congress with their tail between their legs. It was apparently a hard lesson for settlers—they kept going out anyway, and the consequences be damned.
He had decided, seven days later, that this was their loss and he had no need to stick around the planet. He presumed they would be busy offloading the Kilkenny Silver, but if he could get a reasonably competent crew there was no reason for it to take longer than a few hours to get the vaccines from the Sitka Maru, unpack them from their crates, and get the empty containers back on his ship. If he played things right, Carey figured it ought to be possible to spend less than a day out of subspace around Argus.
He pulled the throttle closed, and the ship desynced back into the coloured world. He was going through the prelanding checklist when the radio lamp lit up, and he clamped the headset on his ear. "Sitka Maru."
"Carey?" The voice didn't sound familiar, although almost nobody did when distorted by distance and the low bandwidth of long-range wireless. He answered in the affirmative. "This is Clay van Vesting, I'm a friend."
It wasn't a name Carey had heard before. "Clay—" something clicked, from the week before at Mriya. "Cardiff Virgo Virgo?"
"You're a quick one. Now here's the deal. Try to pick them up on wireless. I haven't been able to get in touch with anyone on the planet, but if I'm talking to you the relay is still working. If the Ku transmitter is down, you can patch into the net through their C band auxiliary. You shouldn't need to authenticate... my local relay doesn't transmit that low, so I haven't been able to test it."
"C band, copy. You're expecting problems, then?"
"Do you suppose—on a plague planet?" The man's voice was gruff, commanding. "Try to raise the strip at Windfall Gulch first. Get in touch with a named Andy van den Berg. If that doesn't work, contact the capital. Are you armed?"
"Armed? Why the hell would I need to be armed? What are you getting at?"
"Windfall Gulch, then the capital. Out." The 'receive' light on the radio went dead.
A small colony like Argus would only have one transmitter to link the planetary network to the interstellar relay and, as his mysterious contact had suggested, transmitting over the K band link failed to produce any results. He switched over to the auxiliary and tried again, dialling in the code for Windfall Gulch. There was no answer, and none when he tried the capital spaceport either.
Now enough time and effort had been spent that Carey felt his rising worry justified. He set the radio to the general channel and keyed his microphone. "Ah... all Argus traffic control stations, this is MV Sitka Maru, is anyone there?" Silence. "I say again, this is a net call to any Argus traffic controllers, this is MV Sitka Maru, please respond on same channel."
The impression that his ship was hurtling towards a dead world was uncanny. As the quiet lengthened and Argus grew steadily before his cockpit, the knot in Carey's stomach tightened. When the 'receive' light clicked on and his headset came to life he thought his heart might stop from the shock. "Sitka Maru, this is Argus Sector One control. Planet's under quarantine, trader; turn around." The voice on the other end sounded worn.
"Sector One control, Sitka Maru. I'm, ah, I'm a charted relief vessel from Mriya Station. Can you use my assistance?"
There was a half-second pause, and when the voice was back in his ear the weariness was gone, animated by what sounded like desperation. "Sitka Maru, you're cleared to enter the pattern at beacon lagos one five for emergency re-entry high, pattern cardiff. Follow beacon two eight one. You're cleared for your deorbit burn immediately. Contact Panop tower after trans-atmo."
His navigation computer had received the instructions and lit up the path in front of him. It could not be smooth, but Carey turned the autopilot on anyway. There was a sudden shudder as the retro engines fired, and a tortured groan as the cockpit hydraulics fought to keep Carey in place. He found himself ground forward against the straps of his harness, having to put effort into his breathing as Argus swelled up in his vision. The ship was still struggling to contain its deceleration as it hit the atmosphere, and by the time the ride had smoothed out they were only fifty kilometres above the surface. His voice was strangely calm, though he felt like cursing. "Panop tower, MV Sitka Maru requesting directions and landing instructions."
"Sitka Maru"—the voice was the same as before, he noticed—"the field is not an option. There's a... what? In that?" Carey blinked, and after a moment the voice returned. "Alright, there's a... park with a clearing, three hundred metres by one hundred metres. Can you land in that?"
His ship was only two hundred metres long, though it had been some time since he'd had to land manually. He took the ship's wheel somewhat gingerly. "Ah... sure."
"Is your compass good?"
"I think so."
There was a word half-spoken, then rustling, and a new voice. "Ok, you can follow your instruments into the capital port, then turn left to two-eight-zero degrees. We're going to mark the field with IR and visible light strobes. Ok?"
"What's the surface?"
"It's... uh... grass, I think. Is it grass?" There was an indistinct voice. "Yes, it's grass. Shouldn't scuff anything."
The capital spaceport was drawing closer; he could see it now, small against the cockpit glass. He was not looking forward to having to take over from the autopilot—even less, trying to land on grass. "I ain't worried about scuffing it, I'm worried about burying it. My ship weighs more'n fifty thousand tons loaded."
The quiet from the other end of the conversation wasn't reassuring, but presently the voice came back. "Ah... ah, ostin, the engineer says it'll be ok. Just set it down gently."
Carey took a deep breath and pulled back on the ship's wheel. The bow came up, and the autopilot turned off with a low warble. "Gently, ok," he said, and then nothing else, focusing on the Sitka Maru as he turned the wheel over, watching the numbers on the compass change. Three hundred... two-ninety... he started turning the wheel back to the centre and let his breath out as the ship settled into its new course.
He could see the park, at least, a green smear against the white stone and red brick—the town of Panop—that sat around it like a spilled mess. There were lights coming on, now, in a more verdant square of the park—they were still setting out the beacons. He fired the forward thrusters to brake the Sitka Maru's forward progress, giving them time. Giving him time, come to think of it. He was perhaps only a kilometre distant.
Now he became aware of a design flaw in the Sitka Maru's class of light freighters: he couldn't see between his feet. The nose of the ship had crossed into the clearing, but he had no idea where the stern was. Carey missed the autopilot dearly as he braked again. The lights to either side of him stopped moving, but the ones that marked the far edge of the clearing were close enough now that he supposed he had sufficient space.
Shutting his eyes for a moment to steel himself, he dropped the ship's landing struts and eased off the gravito-magnetic compensators. His weight ebbed as the ship settled down—it might've looked leaf-like, but for its bulk and the straightness of its trajectory. They were descending at a veritable glacier's pace, and it took much longer than necessary for the thump of solid ground to rock through the ship.
All the same, he slumped forward with a desperate sigh of relief.
A small group of people were milling around outside when he opened the cargo hatch, hopping down onto the soft grass below before it had a chance to fully extend. One of them—the only one not wearing military fatigues—stepped forward and gave him a bow. "Amanda Brooks," she said. "Deputy Secretary of Interstellar Transportation."
He returned the bow. "Carey Reiss."
One of the tall, uniformed men that accompanied her spoke up, then, gruffly. "Ex-Secretary. Madam Brooks is the governor of Argus." Carey felt his one of his ears perk curiously. "Since the governor and all his staff left last week to try and find help." He growled the last few words with an intensity that suggested he did not believe this explanation. "Beg pardon, ma'am; figure the captain'd best know who he's dealing with."
In the absence of any information to the contrary, Carey chose deference. "Might we postpone this discussion? Do you have anything to get the hold unloaded, madam governor? A tractor'r anything?"
"I think Corporal Wunsch has a couple of donkey sleds available, if I'm not mistaken. Corporal?"
"Right away, ma'am." The growling man dipped his head in acknowledgement and, gesturing to the other uniformed people, took them with him towards the periphery of the park.
"We're going the same way," Brooks said, nodding her head in the direction of the departing Wunsch and starting off. "Just don't need to jog."
Carey followed, at least for a few steps. "I'd prefer not to leave my ship unattended, madam governor, if it's all the same."
She turned, walking backwards for a bit, and shook her head. "It's not. The whole perimeter is guarded—not that there's anyone in these parts anyhow. Your ship will be safe, Mr. Reiss."
"It's been pretty bad, then?"
Brooks sighed, and as she turned to walk forwards again he caught a dark flicker crossing her face. "It's been pretty bad," she echoed. "It's good to see the cavalry, let's just say that, sir."
Sir. Brooks had not completely grown into her position of authority. Then something else struck him. "The cavalry, madam governor?"
Brooks looked at him blankly, and then laughed. "Oh—yes, sorry, it's an idiomatic expression. I'm referring to you as our rescuer, that's all—and you don't have to call me 'madam governor'; 'Amanda' is fine, or 'Ms. Brooks' in a pinch. I don't need the formality."
Carey kicked at an errant clump of grass. "I'm more'r less familiar with the idiom, Ms. Brooks. I'm not the cavalry, though—I'm just along for the ride. They chartered a whole big intersun ship for this—weren't you told?"
"We lost contact with the offworld relay four days ago, so there hasn't been any news from the outside world. We just have the transmitters for the planetary network right now. Another boat is coming, though?"
"That's right, Ms. Brooks. I've only got eighty thousand units on my ship—the rest are all with the intersun liner..." He stopped and turned to look back at the Sitka Maru. "You don't have any way to link to the trans-stellar net?" She shook her head. "Well, the relay itself is working fine... is your transmitter here down?"
"It's possible. The technicians at the remote site didn't answer our calls, and we don't have a way of getting to the site right now... it's halfway across the planet, two continents over. We're sort of... trapped, right now, in the capital. There have been riots."
"Once the governor left and it became clear we didn't have any treatment, yes, riots. We have a secure perimeter, from the capitol building to this park here. It's just me and about four hundred other government employees—people who were in the area before the riots got bad. Another two hundred soldiers or so. There are other pockets of order, I know... we've been trying to keep in touch. A few large quarantine zones."
With his head shaking in astonishment, Carey turned around, gesturing at his ship. "Let's figure out where the lighters from the big ship can land, then—I ain't going to be much use, by myself." Brooks shrugged and accompanied him back to the freighter, where he powered up his radio and let the transmitter sync. Most of the traffic was inconsequential—only one stood out. It was a message he was all too familiar with, spoken in a dull, defeated voice:
"-day. This is the Kilkenny Silver; I say again, this is the Kilkenny Silver in tradelane quarter highline eight two seven. The closest buoy is mistral shadow six four one. We are disabled and require assistance. Our reactor is unstable and we have shut it down. There are two hundred and seven souls aboard. Radiation and subspace variance are normal. We are on a priority relief mission. Please answer on same net."
When he glanced over at Brooks, her ears had gone completely flat and she looked deflated. She caught the movement and lifted her head slightly, meeting his gaze. "What are we supposed to do?"
"I'm not sure, properly"
"How many doses did you say you had? A hundred thousand?"
Amanda swallowed hard, and looked at the radio speaker as though it had set upon her some great and inescapable curse. "And how long did it take you to get here?"
"A Terran week, ma'am." The formalities returned in the gravity of the moment.
"That's the fastest you can go?"
He felt guilty—horrified, even—that he had dallied; that he had thought the mission a formality for himself. "Ship's real thirsty at high speeds... I could probably get it down a day or two if I opened the throttles." He started speaking faster, seeking an absolution. "If I pulled the safeties on the engines I might be able to get it down to three or four days—once."
The shock was starting to wear off the governor, and she shook her head firmly. "Alright. We can unload your ship here. Can you make a rendezvous with the big freighter?"
He closed his eyes, thinking—could he? "It'd be hard, ma'am. Slow as all hell—the lighters're all real special designed; I don't think intersun boats're made for container ships like Sitka Maru."
Amanda worried her muzzle with her paw. "You'd have to go back to Mriya, then. Perhaps they'll have fixed the intersun ship by the time you get back. Either way... how much more can you carry?"
"I'm about ten thousand tons light, so... what, ten million doses? It ain't a problem, if they can get them loaded, ma'am. How many souls is Argus?"
"The census says twelve million. It's probably a little more than that. By the time you get back, though..."
Carey looked around for any sign of the men Amanda had dispatched to find a sled, and was disappointed. "I'll head off now. Just give me a moment." The medicine was packed into forty-ton CSB containers—huge composite boxes approved by the Congressional Standards Board. He hadn't really looked them over before they'd been loaded, and was gratified to see his trust in the largesse of the Union well-founded—they were in good knick, and the gravito-magnetic systems spooled up quickly, leaving the containers floating a few centimetres above the ground. "How fragile is the treatment?"
"Shouldn't be at all, if it's well designed. Why, what are you doing?"
"Stand back." Carey strapped himself into the ship's forklift and turned it on. It was not designed, of course, to lift CSB containers—but then, it didn't have to be. He manoeuvred behind one of the crates and ramped the throttle up until the big CSB started to move, sliding away and over the floor to slip down the cargo ramp, coming to a halt only as it dug into the grass of the park. Its companion met a similar fate, and with the two containers off he didn't even bother to disembark again. Instead, with a brief salute to the governor, he closed the hatch and ran forward to the bridge to start the engines.
In a way, Carey wished he hadn't agreed to take the relief assignment. Then he wouldn't be involved in this; wouldn't feel the weight of a whole planet on his shoulders. And here he had been thinking about vacations! Vacations, while on Argus twelve million people waited to die.
With the throttles opened to the stops, the Sitka Maru's computer told him that the trip back to Mriya would take a little under four days. He didn't sleep at all on the first two days of the journey; spent it, instead, rearranging the cargo hold for optimum efficiency. Twelve million doses of medicine meant three hundred of the CSB containers—he had plenty of room.
The tonnage would be a concern. The ship's gravito-magnetic system, which was designed to lessen the degree of downward force the engines needed to put out, was only rated to compensate for fifty thousand tons. Right now, Carey was travelling ten thousand tons light, and while he'd burn off some of that weight in fuel by the time he returned to Argus twelve million doses of the vaccine, at a kilogram each, put him two thousand tons over what the compensators could handle.
It wasn't, necessarily, an insurmountable problem. The ship's manoeuvring and drive thrusters were capable of putting out more than enough thrust to overcome that. The Sitka Maru wouldn't mind—only the people below the ship, who would feel the full force of the engines. Reiss' aptitude for orbital mechanics was not great—he tended to trust his computer to do that sort of heavy lifting—but he worked feverishly on a plan for his re-entry.
The numbers suggested he'd be cutting it close, but he thought the whole thing doable. The remaining twenty hours before the ship was due to arrive at Mriya he spent in a dead sleep.
"Madam Chao?" The station coordinator was staring down at a computer when he stepped into her office, and when she looked up he nearly recoiled. Her eyes were bloodshot and sunken in exhaustion; her movements were shaky. In a week and a half she seemed to have aged forty years.
"Do I—do I know you?"
"Carey Reiss, ma'am. I was part of the relief shipment to Argus?" When he spoke the planet's name, she flinched and closed her eyes. "I need the—"
"They... they told me there wouldn't be any problems," Chao said, her voice intense; haunted. "They said they could deliver without any sort of a delay; they guaranteed it. I have that... I have the guarantee—right here—I have it. Do you—do you want to—I—" she stammered to a halt and shook her head. "What—what do you need? You want—you want your payment? I paid you. I paid you at the same time. Please don't."
Carey blinked and tried to collect his thoughts. "I can... I can take twelve million units to Argus, but I need you to authorise that. I've cleared out the room in my hold. It'll only take a few hours to load, and then we—"
"I can't. I can't authorise it. They... the colony is allocated twelve million units but... we shipped... I shipped—they—they said—they took it, right? They took twelve million already, on the... on the... captain Marks said they could have it on the colony in three days. They have the medicine, right there. They can't have any more. Congress says. It says—that's why we chose them—perfect record; they have a perfect record." Her hands were shaking; the computer fell from them and hit the floor with the sound of cracking plastic.
"You have almost two hundred million units on the station. You can replenish them with the ones from the Kilkenny Silver when it gets underway again. Right now, the people on Argus need that medicine, ma'am. If they don't get it, millions of people are going to—"
Chao leapt up from her chair, her teeth bared like a rabid animal; Reiss felt himself jump back all the way against the wall, and now she was screaming. "I know that? Don't you think I know that? I know what's going to happen! I know it! I..." and with a whimper that turned into a choking sob, she sank back into her chair. "How was I supposed to know?"
He wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to shout at her, to tell her to pull herself together—nobody on Argus was being helped by histrionics. But her outburst had terrified him, and he trod gingerly. "Ma'am, this is still... fixable. We can still do this."
"Authorise the shipment. Just let me take it; I can do it. To hell with the bureaucrats." He tried to keep his voice calm; reassuring. "Forget about them; they're not important right now."
Chao shut her eyes tightly for a few seconds, and then rose, drawing herself up straight. Her face had gone more relaxed. "For this. I'm sorry. Please... please tell them I'm sorry. I wish... I wish I could've seen what was coming. I didn't..." she shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"The... the authorisation?"
She took a small, octagonal card from her desk and held it out to him; as he took it, turning it in his fingers, she explained. "It's my administrator card. You'll be able to authorise the transfers yourself. You can file for the payment when it's delivered on Argus."
He nodded crisply. "Thank you, ma'am."
Jessica Chao smiled, and nodded her head. "Of course. Get there quickly, Mr. Reiss."
Carey bowed, and stepped back through the door. Chao was not moving. He was halfway down the hall, pondering their conversation, when there was the sound of shattering glass from the office behind him. He paused, ears swivelling. After a few seconds they caught the sharp percussive crack! of a chemical weapon being discharged, and then the thud of something heavy hitting the floor.
He took off for the warehouse at a run.
They hadn't asked questions, at the dock. Carey wasn't certain if the station coordinator had told them something after he'd left, or if they simply didn't know—or care. Whatever the reason, it was all done with now. The ship was a bit sluggish to accelerate—Carey hadn't run fully laden for some time—but it bucked gamely through the subspace resonance barriers towards its top speed nonetheless.
At the 42nd notch—what Carey considered the Sitka Maru's cruising speed—the ship travelled just over three quarters of a light year every hour. That had gotten him to Argus in a week. The ship's rated top speed was somewhere between the 43rd and 44th notches; somewhere around 1.7 or 1.8 light years an hour, back in normal space.
Of course, he didn't want to travel between Mitchell notches. For one, it was highly inefficient, and the stress on the hull from constantly clawing through subspace was rough—in the Mitchell notches the ride was smooth; it was said that if you could hit the notch precisely, you wouldn't ever need to expend any additional fuel. All the same, landing the ship in the 44th notch meant reaching Argus in only two and a half days. He sighed and switched the engine safeties off; whole panels lit up in red warning lights to remind him of the risks.
The Sitka Maru slammed back into the tumult of subspace hard as it left the comfort of notch 43. Carey tightened the straps on his seat; held on tight to the armrests. The effect, Carey thought, was something like being an ice cube in a martini shaker; he fought to keep breathing regularly as he watched the ship's speed creep up. By the time the Sitka Maru and he were at her top speed—with half the gap between the notches left to go—Carey suspected strongly his internal organs were being shuffled into exotic new configurations.
It took a vast effort to avoid pulling the emergency stop; an effort that built as the shuddering grew worse and alarms began to go off in the cockpit. The stresses on the ship were becoming extreme, beyond the tolerance of the materials in her hull; he could hear disconcerting groans from behind him as his ship tore itself to pieces. "Oh, sweetheart..." he found himself murmuring, squeezing hard at the armrests of the chair. "You do this, and I will refit you plate by plate. Just a little bit more... just a little..."
Suddenly the turbulence slacked and disappeared entirely. It had started to resume again when Carey found the presence of mind to draw off the throttle; it was a minute or two more before his breathing had returned to normal. After the violence of getting there, the calm in the notch was eerie. The ship's diagnostics showed problems throughout; mostly, he suspected, bits of electronics that had been dislodged. Offering a prayer of thanks to the Sitka Maru—the only god Carey really believed in—he went aft to get to work.
Two and a half days later, as they desynced back into the world, Carey figured the Sitka Maru to be at 80 or 90% of her peak readiness. This was fortunate; in some ways, the worst was yet ahead. Once again there was silence, as he tried to raise the Argus control towers; when the voice came back it was cautiously hopeful. "Sitka Maru?"
"That's me. Is the park where I landed before still clear?"
"Uh, they had the containers there—ah? Qi huo? Qi huo." Carey didn't really understand Farrago, and he waited for the English to resume as the voice finished its conversation with someone else in the room. "It's clear, yeah. Bring it down."
"I need you to clear a path a five hundred meters wide in a direct path from the capital spaceport to that park. Can you do that? And do you have any working fire engines?"
"Yes, and... yes... what are you doing?"
"I'm too heavy; need to burn my primaries to keep from going in. You've got about an hour, is that enough?"
The voice said it was, and disappeared—he realised he had no idea who was even speaking to him. The same person as before, but he didn't think it was Amanda Brooks. A mystery he didn't have time to consider. Carey set the thought aside and checked his bearings, keying the autopilot in to the course he'd planned. It was a smoother ride into the atmosphere this time, though he held no delusions about how the second part was going to go.
And, indeed, at ten kilometres above the surface the Sitka Maru was beginning to complain in earnest. Naturally, "sink rate" and "gravity compensators over tolerance" appeared to be the most common protests, although he detected others, and the hull overstress lamps were starting to illuminate on the systems display to his right side. All in all, a good start.
By a kilometre up, and quickly descending into Panop City, Carey was wrapped in a cocoon of alarm klaxons and warning lights. The descent was not lost on him; he felt himself growing lighter, floating up towards the ceiling. He set the ship's engines to point downward; waited. If all went according to plan, his approach would avoid setting fire to any houses in favour of turning the river that bisected Panop to steam. That river, a fat grey snake beneath the clouds—it was raining, he noticed—was swelling in his vision, now; he pressed the throttles forward and there was a deep roar from the engines.
He deployed the landing skids; the river was directly beneath him, now, and the park just beyond was growing much more quickly than Carey was comfortable with. He shoved the throttles forward and with a creaking moan from the deceleration stress the ship slowed to a more comfortable pace. It wasn't sustainable; he aimed for the park, backed off the throttle, said another prayer to the ship.
It slammed heavily into the earth, but as he cut the throttles he realised that the struts had held, that he was still alive, and that he was very happy to have landed on grass.
The same was probably not true of the park; Carey had to disembark through the cargo hatch, which failed to deploy completely; the Sitka Maru was embedded perhaps three or four metres into the wet sod. More troublingly, the trees between the park and the river had vanished; on the periphery of his path, the few that still stood were afire.
"We'll take care of it, don't worry."
He nodded to the governor, who had arrived on a donkey sled with a contingent of heavily-armed men. "There's twelve million doses here. Can you get them distributed? I ain't..." He looked over the hull of the Sitka Maru, which still hissed in places as the rain struck it. "I ain't real mobile right now."
"Yes. We can do that—twelve million?" He nodded again, and Amanda shook her head. "Some people didn't think you'd come back. You left very quickly."
"Seems to me as a bit of a hustle was called for, ma'am. Any word from the Kilkenny Silver?"
"Not one. Just goes to show you what trust is good for—dani useless usagi bastards." She shook her head once more, firmly. "Bastards," she repeated.
Two weeks before Carey had used language like that to describe a shipper, as well. It seemed so long ago—so inconsequential. "The lighters would've been useful for ferrying this."
"We have our own PVs. Commandeered them. Declared martial law four days ago. Fortunately most of the soldiers are still loyal... had to bribe some of them. The vaccines you left us were gone in a matter of hours—just this quarter of the capital. We've been mobbed."
"Can I help you?"
"You've done the only thing you can. If you want my honest opinion, I'd get out. Get these containers off, and get out. Once they figure out that the vaccines are here, it'll become a madhouse. We couldn't get the official Union sequence for the travel locks, you know, the ones that keep you from starting your ship? We had to improvise our own... there are some reports that people have already found a way to decrypt our lockout codes. That knowledge will spread... they'll come here. People are going to die." She bit her lip, as if to force the fatalism at bay. "I'd say you need to get out while you can."
The soldiers set to work pushing the big CSB containers out of the hold, and Carey went back to the cockpit, trying to figure out how badly the Sitka Maru had been wounded. It was bad, but not terrible; the struts had overcompressed; the engine flow meters had blown. It would take a spell in drydock, but the hull itself seemed to be in good condition. The soldiers worked quickly, and by four hours after his landing—in the early evening, with the rain still pouring down on the ship—he was ready to go again.
Amanda met him on the ramp, bowed to him. "We owe you, you know. The people of Argus—we're all in your debt. It's a shame that... everyone here, we have to rely on the greatness of individual men."
"You do what you got to, nothing more. That's just how it goes, ma'am. It ain't greatness; just... what any decent folk'd do in that circumstance. Don't need nothing more than that. You get the medicine out and you've done much more'n I could—I'm just a mule, ma'am. Just passing through."
She laughed softly, nodded. "Alright. Good journey, captain Reiss. Let me know if you're ever planetside again."
Carey dipped his head in salute and went forward to the cockpit. There was a moment of long, difficult hesitation as the Sitka Maru strained against the dirt that held her fast; then she was up, soaring off and towards the heavens, leaving the little world of Argus behind.
They tell us that we are in a world beyond steel and calculation—that only art for art's sake will mark our progress through the ages. Well, I say that architecture, that engineering can be beautiful; can be iconoclastic, can be enduring. We are a caste of people hobbled by fears of our own irrelevance, but I say to you: the ghost of Isambard Brunel watches over us constantly, and with a reproving eye—how much higher, we have to ascend; but how great the rewards of the summit!
Shipwright Artur Chavez, speaking at the commencement of
the Unity Engineering College in 2430
The best design work took place on computers. Everyone knew this. Everyone knew this but, he found, there was something lacking in the holographic screen, a sense of purpose, of place—of form. There was something very pleasant about being able to turn a physical model over in your own hands, and as he did this very thing Kelly Coverly, thirty years old and already resigned to a life outside the spotlight, nonetheless hummed quietly to himself.
Transport ships—bulk and container freighters; settlers' wagons and the like—were his bread and butter, and he was content enough to help with these. What he held in his hands, though—yes, this was his triumph. It was soft and pliant now; he smoothed the line from the prow of the ship to the engine nacelle down with a finger. Better. Kelly shocked the model to make it rigid again, nodding approvingly to himself.
In a way, he envied the designers who predated the TIC drives—the people who had designed the Apollo PVs, or the first sleeper research ship to Alpha Centauri. They could build for function, ignoring form, and it was so much simpler. Subspace pressure would've caved in the Apollo space capsule like an egg with no pause for mercy.
This particular ship—he allowed himself a moment of boyishness, taking it in his paw and flying it through the air—was a dream, anyhow; he would never have the resources to complete it. In scope it would be massive, of necessity; the design was intended to allow the shock of subspace to be distributed over a long, tapering distance.
People were not enthusiastic about the design, or indeed the very concept. When they expressed reservations, though, he merely nodded his head behind him, to a bust of a man who had died more than a millennium before. Beneath the bust was a simple quote: "the ghost of Isambard Brunel watches o'er us, and with a reproving eye." Brunel, Coverly thought, would not have abandoned his work so easily.
In the mirror finish of the brass plaque, Coverly did not—it had to be said—perceive Brunel. He saw a harried young man, with his hair already thinning and his nose cracked slightly from the distraction and stress of single-minded focus. He saw a wiry fox whose frame made him look bookish, among the engineers in the guild. Then there was a knock at the front door, and he saw his eyes go wide with surprise before he turned around. "It's unlocked; please come in." He smoothed down his suit and tried to make himself appear presentable.
The man who entered was not wiry in the slightest; tall and muscular, he might've looked like a wrestler, except that his suit, by orders of magnitude, was more expensive than Kelly's own. "This is Coverly's office?"
"I'm Kelly Coverly, yes..." he stood, somewhat cautiously. "Do I know you?"
The big man shook his head. "No, no. I'm Clayton; I don't really have a last name. You build ships?"
Kelly coughed. "Well, I... I modify ships, yes..." The business index for the planet had him listed as a shipwright, a slight overstatement of his credentials. "Buy them and improve them and sell them, yes."
"You have some for sale now?"
"Well... ah, yes. What are you looking for?"
"Something with deep range. And speed—the subspace engine needs to be rated for the 45th notch, if not the 46th. Can you do that?"
"Uh..." he thought about which of his projects were the closest to being completed. "Yeah, yeah. I have an old T-class light bulker convert I've got redesigned for packet work, that'll do 4.5—maybe even 4.6, sure. It'll take a couple days to get ready..."
"Can you do it in twelve hours?"
"Ah... well... I mean, it's a lot of work..."
The man—Clayton—slipped a hand into his pocket, and for a moment Kelly feared the next thing he saw would be a gun. Instead, he set a stack of liang chips, in high denominations, on Kelly's desk. "This is a half a million liang. Can you do it?"
Kelly played nervously with his fingers for a moment, and then coughed. "Well, I tell you what, let's... let's take a look at it, how's that? It's right out back, I can show you... if it's up to your liking, we can... we can talk about this."
"Is it doable? At all?"
He shut his eyes, went over the list of things that would have to be fixed in the ship. Then he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm pretty sure. Yeah. Yes. Doable."
Clay favoured him with a coarse laugh, and then shook his head. "Very well, let's see it, then."
"Not much for looks, is it?"
Like many bulk freighters, this—the MV Grantham Chase—had not, in fact, been designed to be aesthetically pleasing, even in the favourable light of the Albion early morning. It was sleek, however, and being a freighter—designed for constantly weathering the stress of atmospheric transit—it was sturdy and well-built. "It's... an acquired look, sure, but it's got... a certain charm, right?"
"It looks inconspicuous."
"That too, Mr. Clayton; that too. Either way, it's a pretty competent ship, I have to say. Two thousand tons registered, about seventy metres long, very manoeuvrable—handles quite tidily."
"What's her history?"
Kelly tapped into his neural augmentation for the details. "Ah... she was built by the AD Campbell company in Dunblane Firth—about seven hundred kilometres south of here. Launched in, uh, 2806, she—" next to him, Clayton let his breath out in an oath. "Well. It's a T-class ship, you know—a venerable design. Real proven, Mr. Clayton. She served as a tramp ship around Albion for twenty years before being sold to the Kobayashi Firm and transferred to Shinkoku as the... uh... as the Yurihonjo Maru, is that how you say it? She was overhauled completely in 2950 and converted to passenger use with a capacity of about seventy... that's what she is now. Uh, Kobayashi sold her back here six years ago, and she went back to tramp service until I bought her. Nice little ship."
"Does it work?" Clayton had stopped his walking circuit to rub his finger over a deep nick in the hull.
"Uh, well, yes... yes, I mean—yeah, it works. She works. What, uh—hey, don't do that, please?" He was picking at a loose panel—Kelly had pried it up to access the electronics beneath a few days before and had not yet welded it back down. "What looks like fatigue cracking on the starboard nacelle here isn't—the old owner thought it was, which is why they sold it, but it's actually just corrosion and heat stress on the outer skin. I scoped the whole thing; it's solid—just replace that, or, hell, paint over it."
"And it's fast?"
"Well... uh. I haven't... tested it, technically, yet. The, ah, the nice thing about the old T-class ships is they were built before the Kazimi school really took hold. They're seriously overengineered, you know? It launched with four, uh, four RDv-70s, and they upgraded those to RDv-90s in about 2940, but, uh, I pulled those—junk, really. Now it's got four Helios engines. They ought to be good for 4.5 or 4.6, I definitely believe. Very strongly."
"My old ship had a pair of Helios 6s. If you ramped the throttle up too quickly, the coolant couldn't keep up; they'd overheat and shut down."
Kelly nodded briskly. "Oh, yes, yes—it was a... a problem. These are, uh, Helios... 8 bis models. They said they fixed it, but I don't necessarily believe that... uh, see, here—what I've done is replaced the coolant manifold with one of my own design... it should minimise the constriction, uh... here..." he stretched up to tap the metal. "Which is where the problems were, historically."
"In the interests of disclosure, this is why I'm looking at your ship. The engines—nobody on Albion is selling anything else with the Helios line, not right now. These engines are in good shape?"
Coverly paused, his head tilted. There wasn't anything particularly special about the Helios engine, except that it was fairly powerful—why anyone would seek them out in particular escaped him. "Uh... yeah, they're about ten years old, but freshly overhauled. Real good knick, Mr. Clayton. I'd fly with them."
"And you can get this whole thing flying in twelve hours? What needs to be done?"
Was he a criminal? From his bearing, Coverly wasn't sure—he almost came off more as a businessman, though on Haven worlds like Albion nobody was ever harried enough to need things in hours. A lack of initiative that Kelly found distasteful... he nodded to the tall wolf. "I can. The plates I've pulled up need to be resecured, and a new heat shield fitted to the fronts of the nacelles... beyond that, it's just letting the diagnostics run. I flew the ship in four months ago... everything should be in good shape."
"It has the Safeguard module installed and fully functional, I presume?"
A government inspector? "Uh... well... yes, sir, of course. It wouldn't be legal without that, Mr. Clayton; it's in perfect condition. Perfect."
"Mm." The wolf turned a platinum liang chip over in his fingers—a 20,000-liang mark, solid money. He held it up to Kelly's gaze. "As it's very important in my line of work, I'd like you to pay... particular attention to the Safeguard module. Make sure it's functioning in only the best shape." He pressed the mark into Kelly's paw.
Coverly pocketed it, nodding. The module was designed to allow the police to prevent a ship from departing; it wasn't uncommon for businessmen—even legitimate ones—to want the module compromised in some way. "Of course, sir. I wouldn't want something that simple to give you any trouble. I'll give it a thorough once-over."
"Good. I'll buy, then—half a million, plus that extra for the special check, of course. It should be only a few hour's actual work for you?"
"Alright. Just one more thing, then, if you don't mind. I'd like you to bypass the second auxiliary electrical busses on all the engines."
"Any particular reason?"
"Just one less thing to go wrong. As long as you have the ship opened up anyway, it shouldn't be a problem for you, right?"
Bypassing the electrical busses—though Kelly couldn't think of a single reason why anyone would want to do this—would only add another hour or two to his work, and the money was good. He had planned on selling the ship for perhaps only a hundred thousand liang—five times that, well, that was close to letting him pay off his debts to the owners of the land he worked on. A good sale.
Welding the ship back up, circumventing the auxiliary electrics on the Helios engines, and checking out the Safeguard module—here, Coverly made sure his probe accidentally shorted out the module's receiver—took only four hours, and it was still midafternoon when he set the ship's internal diagnostics to run, keyed them to broadcast to his neural augments if any problems came up, and retired to his office to work.
The second knock of the day—Kelly was slightly surprised; he generally didn't do much business—came only an hour before he would've closed. "It's unlocked."
The door opened, permitting the entry of two men—shorter than Clayton had been, but equally muscled. They wore sharp outfits that looked like uniforms, though not those of the Unity Guard. He suspected contracted defenders. "Kelly Coverly, I presume?"
"Uh, yes." He stood, and shook hands with each of the men in turn as they introduced themselves—Miguel, a slightly taller, stocky guard dog sort and Robert, whom he took from his mass of hair to be a lion. "Can I help you?"
"Have you had any customers today? A tall wolf, perhaps?"
Kelly briefly considered lying, but he had been caught off-guard and his stammering gave himself away. "Well—yes, actually. Uh, why?"
"We're with the Albion Trading Union, and we've had some problems with Mr. Clayton—unless he told you a different name?" Kelly shook his head. "He's a rather... unscrupulous businessman, how's that? The word they'd say out in the galaxy is usagi—a thief. I wouldn't want you to get wrapped up in that."
"I don't really know anything about him. He offered a pretty good deal... you're aware, certainly, that the Systems General Code absolves me of responsibility for the uses my ships are put to. I'm sorry if you've had problems with him, but..." He had had some dealings before with the various guilds and pseudo-criminal entities that sought to bend people to their will and had no great love of it.
Miguel, who had been doing the talking, smiled thinly at Coverly. "Sir, you mistake my intent. I'm only trying to prevent... certain misunderstandings with the ATU. You must know that it would be somewhat uncouth for you to be seen as uncooperative with such an august body."
"I see." Albion was a Haven world, and the Union's bounty—and the munificence of her police—supposedly fell most prolifically on those planets. Even here in the capital, though, this type of corruption was not unheard of. He hated it—he hated Albion, actually, the more he thought of it. Useless world. "So if I go through with this sale..."
"It might be that you would never sell another ship to anyone within two degrees of influence of the ATU, yes," Miguel confirmed. "I know you wouldn't want that to happen." His voice was firm; patronising.
"Is that a threat?"
"It's a statement of consequences, Mr. Coverly, sir. You can take that however you want, though... a man of your stature would not, of course, want to make the wrong choice."
Isambard Brunel, Coverly thought, would not have had to contend with such manifest barbarism. He sighed heavily, and at this Robert spoke up. "I'm sorry, Mr. Coverly—we don't mean to come off as... overbearing. We can explain this to you logically."
Kelly suspected he would not find their logic compelling, but he nodded anyway. "Alright."
"Clayton is a... well, a criminal, really. He attempts to aspire to the class of principled men, like you and I, but... his tastes are too dark for that to hold any water whatsoever. What sort of ship was he looking for, from you?"
He blinked, trying to decide if the question was legitimate or a fishing attempt. "Ah, well—a container ship, he said—open-hold, anyway. I tried to sell him on, uh, an old K-type light container, or an Albatross-class I've got, actually, but he was more interested in an Regulus-B I've been refitting."
"Do you know why?"
He shrugged, as genuinely as possible. "Not really. There's not many differences."
The two men across from him exchanged glances, and Miguel paused for a moment, eye twitching—probably neuralling something, Kelly thought. "Doesn't the Regulus have a dedicated life support module for the cargo hold?"
"Maybe? I don't know. I just got it in. Is he a cattle thief or something?"
"It's worse than that," Miguel said severely. "He deals in people—a slave trader."
Kelly looked appropriately shocked, leaning back in his chair. "Jesus Christ..."
Miguel nodded. "Yes. You can imagine how that would look if it somehow got out that Kelly Coverly was selling slave ships. It would be... terribly unfortunate if anyone knew. Like us, for instance."
"Yeah," Kelly said. "I'm aware of the ramifications." Under his breath, he added a low "blackmailing bastards," and Miguel snorted.
"I'm not making a request, Coverly. You have two choices. You can forget about this deal and go back to playing with your little toy boats"—Kelly had been worrying his model, he realised, and set it down quickly. "Or you can never do business here again."
"Alright. Fine. He'll be in tomorrow evening. I'll tell him then, how's that?"
Miguel smiled again. "Wonderful. You're smarter than you look, Coverly. Good day, sir."
And without another word, they left.
He kicked at his desk, cursing. What the hell was it all about? He wasn't sure. Clayton wasn't a slaver, of course; the Grantham Chase was entirely unsuitable for that. So he'd fallen out with the ATU in some other fashion—which, considering they were essentially thugs, was hardly surprising.
Kelly supposed that the threat—that he'd never be able to work again on the planet—was probably accurate. God knew they had enough clout to make that happen. It was a question of whether they would, and if they were sufficiently pissed, it was a possibility. Probably, Kelly thought, Clayton was a tramp captain, and if he was looking for a fast ship he was probably undercutting the ATU's profits.
Half a million liang, plus the value of the other ships in his yard, was more than enough to clear Coverly's debts. He liked this thought. Maybe he could leave, after all. What was the use of Albion? There were other planets, other worlds in need of shipwrights. Isambard Brunel would understand.
Clayton had said twelve hours, and true to his word there was a knock at the door, ten minutes before twenty-six in the evening. The wolf carried with him a satchel, and Coverly saw a pistol holstered at his belt. That was new. "Is it ready?"
"Diagnostics didn't show anything wrong. I'd say yes. You have the money?"
He counted out five hundred thousand-liang marks—Kelly had never seen them before, and they looked unused, shiny in the light from the ceiling. "As agreed, yes?"
"Yes." He took the money—it felt surprisingly light, for the value. "Some of your friends stopped by earlier, from the ATU. They suggested I shouldn't do business with you."
The wolf was quiet for a few seconds, and he nodded with a low growl. "The ATU. Interesting. You want more money, then, I presume?"
"No, I'm getting off this damned rock. I'm tired of it, you know? I'm tired of all this sodding bullshit. All these people trying to control you, but they don't even say it—they just... hint at it, pull you around like a godsdamned puppet." He pantomimed this urgently. "I'm getting out. Don't know where I'm going yet, but I'm leaving. If it isn't the ATU, it's the fucking Caledon Shipwright's Guild, or it's some mob family or—" there was a sudden heavy noise, like dull thunder, and the whole building shook. "What the hell was that?"
"That's not normal?"
Kelly shook his head. "No, it's not bloody normal." There was another sound, softer, and he leaned up to peek through the door to the yard behind him. "Oh, fucking hell..." One of his ships—the Albatross—was off its braces and had collapsed twenty feet to the ground. There was movement, and the flare of sparks; he tried to focus.
Clayton had joined him at the window. "I believe those two men are cutting the support struts from underneath your ships and then disabling the gravito-magnetic systems. What do you suppose?"
He stammered. "I—I suppose I'm going to call the bloody deckers."
"The police won't come. Why don't you go see what's going on? They probably don't even think you're here; maybe they'll listen to reason."
"Go." Kelly took a deep breath and pushed the door open. Once he was outside, he found running easy, and he shouted at the figures, who stopped their work and turned to him. It was Robert and Miguel.
"What are you doing here?" Miguel asked, turning off his torch and setting it down.
Reason be damned. "It's my fucking shop! What the hell are you doing?"
"Keeping you honest. Just in case your friend comes back. We wouldn't want the lure of money to tempt you, so... you know. We'll knock your ships off their struts for awhile for you. As a favour, you know?" He grinned toothily, pulling a sidearm from a holster at his shoulder. "If you'd like, we can knock out your struts as well." He gestured with the gun, but Kelly was too worked up to notice.
"Oh—of course! That's very kind of you. Exceptionally kind!" He was shouting, now, at the top of his lungs, gesturing wildly. "I've—the cops are coming, you fucking bastards. I've called them. You need to... they're going to arrest you, and to hell with the goddamned ATU!"
Miguel snorted at his exertion. "The cops don't care about you, Coverly. I thought I'd... I thought..." The dog blinked confusedly a few times and then sneezed, a bright crimson mist in the hard lights that overlooked the concrete yard. "What? What the..." There was a note of panic to his voice, but whatever words might've followed vanished in a wet cough and he doubled over, dropping his gun and sinking to the ground. Kelly looked to his partner, but the lion had already collapsed to the cement and was kicking, struggling in a growing shroud of red that framed his body. He looked back, and Miguel was extending a paw towards him in a plea for mercy, a look of anguish and shocked terror written across his reddening features.
Kelly turned to flee but hadn't gotten twenty feet before he ran headlong into the bulk of the wolf he'd left behind in his office. Clayton gripped him by the arm, roughly. "Calm down. It's ok. It doesn't help to stress yourself."
He was suddenly aware of how weak his knees were; he sagged against the wolf heavily. "I..."
Clayton was propping him up with his other arm, trying to keep him upright. "It's ok," he said again, but the rush of emotions was collapsing back on Kelly and he shuddered heavily.
"Please... please let go. I'm going to—I'm gonna be sick."
The wolf nodded, giving his shoulder a pat. "It's ok. Sure. You do that," he said, and his tone was almost fatherly as he let Kelly collapse to his hands and knees. "You do that."
"I..." He straightened up, wiping at his muzzle with the back of his paw. "I'm sorry."
"It's ok." Clayton had said this five or six times, now, Kelly thought, which didn't make it any more true. "That's not going to help, exactly. Here... here, take this." He had pulled something from his belt and pressed it to the fox's paw.
A canteen. Water, he thought, as it hit his tongue. He took a long drink, spit it out; took another. "I didn't mean to, uh... I'm sorry... uh, your boots. I think."
"Probably." When Kelly offered it, he took the canteen back. "It's alright, though; I don't mind. The men from the ATU will understand as well, when they come to investigate."
"Investigate? Are they, uh..." he tried to indicate where the intruders had been without turning to look at them. After a moment, Clayton nodded his understanding.
"Dead? Yes, I'm afraid so. I'm sorry it wasn't more pleasant for you; I felt I had to act. I wasn't expecting you to engage him with such... vigour."
Kelly felt drained—any vigour long since gone. "I was upset. I can't... I can't stand people like that. Bullies. They're all just bullies. Aren't you... aren't you supposed to stand up to 'em?" He tried to laugh but the sound was grotesque, unwieldy on his tongue.
"I suppose. You may not want to be here, when the ATU comes back. I expect, whatever the reality, that they'll suspect you responsible for the deaths of their operatives. As it's... well, as it's my fault, really, I'll offer you passage to wherever you'd like. We might consider leaving now, though—can you leave?"
"Yes. Yeah, just... got to get some things."
"Alright. I'll take care of this. Get your belongings."
Kelly hobbled back to his office, trying to catch his breath; trying to blot out the tableaux that sprawled across his vision every time he closed his eyes. He was still panting as he opened the door, grabbing desperately at his things, shoving them into the briefcase he kept beside his desk. His paperwork; his flexible computers. He grabbed the bust of Brunel, whom, he suspected, had never had to see the things that were burned into Kelly's eyes. It was reassuring to think that there were men who could lay claim to this. He grabbed his model, too, carrying these things in either hand with his briefcase slung over his shoulder. By the time he returned to the tarmac, all that remained were two broad stains. "What happened to them?"
"It's best if you don't dwell on that any more than you dwell on what happened to them before. Is your ship ready to go?"
Kelly nodded, and they made their way over to where the passenger ship hulked, close to the ground. They found lockers for their belongings, and he strapped in next to Clayton.
"This is it. You're ready?"
As Kelly kept himself distracted in the dials and flickering computer screens, the wolf started the engines up. "Can you please plot the traffic for a departure on the echo pattern from the capital field? We won't be talking to the tower, and I'd prefer not to run into anything."
Kelly worked over the computer, setting up their course. "You're good. There'll be traffic between the nine and ten o'clock, but they'll have their lights on and they'll be running slow. This late at night, nobody'll want the sonic booms." A flashing notice in the upper part of one of the panels caught his eye. "Uh, hold on, Clayton. We need to abort. I've got an integrity check failure in the second auxiliary electrical bus on engine two."
"I thought you bypassed those?"
"Well, I did, but—"
"An integrity check?" He shook his head. "Alright." The engines continued to spool up, a comforting whine as they built to takeoff power. "Ah. Wait, I've got another integrity check failure. It's... what? It's the second auxiliary bus again, engine four this time."
They were at full power, and the Grantham Chase lifted up cleanly. By the time they were at a kilometre up, the other two engines had also lodged a complaint and, noticing this, Clayton offered a feral grin to the fox. "What did I tell you? You got to bypass those things."
Kelly was still trying to figure things out when the answer hit him. "Oh, son of a bitch. It's another Safeguard module, isn't it? How did you know to pull it?"
"Like I said, my last ship had Helios engines. It's probably not the same for each ship, but... it was worth a gamble, what do you suppose? You secured?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm good." He held the armrests, and there was a kick as the ship's main engines ramped up power. One by one, as they left the range of the transmitter at the capital field, the integrity warning lights flicked off; by the time they had reached orbit, there was nothing but the peaceful murmuring of the main drive and the quiet chirp of the LIDAR display as it sought out debris in front of the ship.
Nothing else was said until, ten minutes later, Clayton tractored the ship into subspace, secured his station, and turned to the fox with his fingers intertwined. "I presume you'd like some explanation?"
When he first opened his mouth, Kelly intended to say "yes," but on reflection he shrugged and shook his head. "You're a mobster, I suppose—or some other type. You've pissed off the wrong people, I got... lucky. Got to explore that with you. Got to... see... those wrong people..." he tried to find words, halted.
"I'm not, actually. I'm a... a preacher of unorthodox ideas, I suppose you could say. Not everyone wants to hear them. I've been in my share of scraps. Don't mind it these days." Kelly looked him over; Clayton's face was indeed nicked deeply, the fur scarred and uneven. He looked the personification of a battered old soldier.
"I suppose I can sympathise. That's what my life is like too. People... don't want to hear what I have to say."
"Unorthodoxy, sure. My designs aren't conventional; my business isn't conventional. I get shaken down a lot. Never thought to uh, turn a bl... a fucking... whatever kind of gun that was, on them. But it's unconventional business, all the same. You take some flak for it."
"The model you carry with you?"
Kelly nodded, and produced it from his jacket. It was rigid, still, and defined the shape of a long, flowing column that swept to a point, with two short fins that melted organically from its after half. "Yeah. I've been working on it for four years now. It's still a model, but... it's coming. One of these days it'll... I'll figure out something."
"What is it?"
"Well it's a... it's an ark, really. See, it's about eight thousand metres long; pretty good sized. Room for about four hundred people."
"It's... well, most of it is engines. Big, big coaxial drives all down the whole length, here. I figure I can beat all the old records with this. By my calculations, it'll hit the 52nd notch. Maybe—maybe—even the 53rd." The record, so far as Kelly knew, was just past the 47th notch. Fifty was unheard of.
Clayton's raised eyebrows reflected this. "Do you really think that? What would even be the point? Four hundred people between Earth and Dundalk in... what, a few hours I suppose? But the cost... who would pay for that? It would be absurd."
"It's not meant to be an intersun replacement. You're thinking in the wrong ways. Fifty-second notch speed doesn't just mean Earth to Dundalk in a day. It means Earth to Andromeda in only three years."
For once, the wolf seemed to be the one surprised. "Andromeda," he repeated—not even a question. "Why?"
"Start again. There's got to be a planet or two over there. Get away from the Systems Union, all the meddling, all the crime families. Just... start over, you know? They couldn't do anything about it, Congress couldn't. Even if I set up relays—which I wouldn't—that's still half a day even to get a signal out there, let alone a warship. I'm going to get some like-minded people, settle all away from that garbage. And maybe in a lifetime we'll all be dead, but... we have to do right by our ancestors. Isambard Brunel would've understood the... the perseverance against these kind of obstacles."
"You're talking about freedom."
"I am, Mr. Clayton. I am."
The wolf nodded approvingly. "Clay. When do you start building it?"
Kelly raised the model up. "You've seen here as far as it's going to go, Clay. I'm not stupid—they'd never let me build this."
He shrugged, and the model moved with the gesture. "The Union, the mobs. Anybody who's got a vested interest in keeping people under their thumb. I'm sure the Programmers would hate it; probably take me down a peg or two."
Kelly waved a paw, sinking back into his seat. "I was joking, mostly."
"You believe in them?"
He blinked, tilting his head. "Well... a man's faith in a private thing, Clay, I—"
"Do you believe in them? In the legend of the Programmers?"
Kelly sighed, and then he gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Yes. I mean. I know it's strange—mother of all conspiracy theories. But I do, yes. I do. Go ahead and mock."
"I know where Enlightenment is."
Kelly's laugh cut off abruptly. "Do you, then?" Enlightenment was at the core of the theory—a twisting, winding conspiracy yarn that suggested a small cabal of engineers used a massive computer to be able to predict the future and pull on threads to direct the unravelling of the universe with the utmost care. They worked for the preservation of the Union and its government—though of course, with their knowledge they could subtly work to bring people favourable to their viewpoint to bear. Enlightenment, in the story, was that computer—a planetary-sized matrioshka brain whose construction had consumed a sizeable percentage of the Union's resources while it lasted.
"There's some dissent, in their ranks. Some people think it's gone too far; that they're too concerned with their own preservation, not the lives of the people they're supposed to be protecting. I found a man eight years ago, adrift. He was in a ship that disappeared mysteriously in about 2830—you can neural it if you want; it was the MV Eridanian, an old transport." Kelly made a note in his augments to query the name when they were back in normal space. "It was terribly maintained; he told me that he'd had to steal it. He was dying of radiation poisoning, then, but he had the coordinates for Enlightenment. I hadn't even heard of the Programmers at that time. It was my first clue. Since then I've been pursuing them, trying to figure out how to bring them down."
"They're real, then?"
"Oh, yes. I believe so, anyway. I've stayed... a step ahead of them. Now it's only half a step; they're getting closer. The time is coming, Mr. Coverly. If there will be a reckoning, it'll have to be soon—but I'm very close."
"Good riddance to them, then."
"Yes. The problem is how to effect that. I've considered trying to publish something, to... expose them to the spotlight. You're right, they'd never let you build your ship. If you didn't wind up dead, you'd find yourself facing varied and mysterious obstacles. You'd find yourself constantly stymied until you gave up, broken. But..."
"Could this ship be modified to carry weapons? It would just need to do so once, but... four hundred people and their belongings, provisions for three years and settlement—think of how much antimatter you could put in there. At the speeds you're talking about, you could do a zero-correction desync, launch a barrage of missiles, and dive back into subspace... they'd never be able to stop it. We could destroy Enlightenment—put a dent in their plans, at least, and give you the freedom to leave this galaxy."
"Killing thousands of people."
Kelly blanched. He had never had much of a taste for violence, and had lost whatever remained along with his dinner, back in his shipyard. "I'm not sure I can do that. What's the... what's the upside?"
"Well, there are two. The first is that, if you did this, you'd be freeing the entire Union from the yoke of the programmers. No more unfortunate 'accidents'"—he highlighted the word with an arch of his battered eyebrows—"to plague relief ships; no more subtle manipulations of the market to drive promising entrepreneurs out of the market because they're forecasted to pose a threat. All of that, over."
"And the second?"
"The second is that I know a shipyard where you'd be able to build it, in secret. Not just a model. The real thing. I know a place with working constructors and qualified men to oversee them who would jump at the chance. A voiceless world, where the Programmers and the Union can't reach."
Kelly Coverly, in the shadow of Isambard Brunel and now of his own ghosts as well, shivered. "Where are we going? Can I think about it?"
"Right now, back to Albion. We'll be assuming the identity of another ship; another T-class I had a friend buy and drop into a star. I need to take care of some things, now; after that, I don't know. But you can think about it, of course. All you like."
As they made a long circuit, looping back to the sprawling deserts and the towering edifices and the vindictive unions of Albion, that was all he did.
When I bid farewell to Terra
I was a nineteen and a day;
And I've more than made my fortune
Though it's much to my dismay—
For I've won companies and battles
Since I left my world behind;
I've won girls and I've won money
But I've lost of my peace of mind,
So I'd trade it all
Just for one little stone
Just a plain little rock
Just a piece of my home
"Homesick (One Little Stone)," Helen Rain and the Ravens
(wr. Rain and Kierbach). Wanton Singularity (2965)
"Can I help you?"
The man—older; a squat feline with age-bleached fur—blinked at her. "Hey, lady, I'm just checking the timetable. Didn't mean nothing."
Perhaps her voice had been a little sharp. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be such a baka. Nerves—travelling, you know?" Molly smiled, but something in it must've put the man off, for he said nothing else before retreating away from the intercity rocket timetables.
She reached into her handbag and felt around for the bottle, with its reassuring clatter of little pills. It was so tempting... she'd been so on edge... Molly shut her eyes, forced her paw to withdraw, and rubbed weakly at her temples.
She was keenly aware that she was being paranoid, but it was hard to help. It had been more than a month since she'd parted ways with Clayton van Vesting, the wolf, and in that time she had travelled to two different space stations and now this, Tamazolinco, a mining world towards the periphery of the Systems Union. It was hot, though; too hot, she'd been trying the intercity rockets, but the entire wretched planet was an oven, split evenly between oppressively humid jungles and the cracked plains of arid deserts. She was trying the desert right now, and it was no better than the capital city had been.
More problematically she was being followed, she was sure of it. She couldn't put her finger on why, but there was a certain familiarity that marked her companions at each new stop. They were tracking her movements, recording them, following when she left, slinking out of sight when her eyes fell upon them. Maybe they were going to kill her; maybe there was a laser beam tracking each step she took; waiting for the right opportunity. Her paw reached for the bottle of pills again, reflexively.
She needed to get out of the heat. Even here, in a run-down bar by the terminal where all one could do was drink tequilas in silence and the climate control module squealed constantly in impotent anguish, the air was sucking the life from her. Well, such life as there was.
Molly was pretty certain that Clay had been lying about the Programmers. The little Sensa demonstration he'd given was engaging, but not unimpeachable. A good artist could fake it, she thought, unless there was something she'd missed. The story itself was fairly silly, when one took it at its merits—a guild of people who could poke and prod a whole universe into compliance with some grand plan. It was like religion, and Molly was not religious. Her parents had been; it was a silly pursuit, she thought, with little use to it.
They hadn't spoken for awhile; a year or so, since she'd started working full-time as a travelling associate. It wasn't a decision they were entirely happy with... but they were her parents, after all... yes, she needed to give them a call. Her father's birthday was coming up, she thought... yes...
Then she shook her head. Her mind was wandering; it had been doing that. It was the climate, mostly, though she knew the pills she'd been taking probably didn't help. They calmed her nerves; kept her from lashing out at people. Like that old man...
She was in a curious world-between-worlds. Everything she could conceive of rationally told her there was nothing to be concerned about, but there was a nagging, constant fear at the bottom of her brain, bubbling up in sparks of restless unease. If she thought her worry was justified, she told herself, she could at least come to terms with it. More happily, she would like to banish the fears completely—but this seemed unlikely.
Her foot tickled, and she looked down to see a small black scorpion scuttling across her sandal, its claws sinking into the short fur between the straps. She kicked it away with a shudder of revulsion and stood, shutting her eyes to the dull, roaring tedium of the bar to steel herself. The spaceport was a few hundred metres away; the occasional rush of a starship's engines helped remind her that there was an exit, an escape off the rock. She set off towards the corrugated-metal hangars, cursing the sun above her roundly.
The board said ships were departing for Tilt, Bikeyah, Andaman Station and Dakaro Karzal. There was only one Haven world among these, Dakaro, but she knew nothing of it—and none of the other worlds seemed appealing; she had little stomach for another undeveloped colony. She sighed, and picked her way over the heat-cracked cement to where the little courier and tramp ships slouched, and men hid from the sun in the shrinking shadows.
There was no real way to judge; she picked the first ship that looked promising, a small ship with racing lines—it reminded her, a little, of Clayton's Castle Bravo. She thought she'd spent some time on that, though the events were somewhat hazy. From beneath the ship, a figure straightened up. "Can I help ya?"
"You taking passengers?" She was blinded by the sun, and it took a moment, as she joined the man beneath his ship, for the figure to resolve.
He was tall and brown; shaggy, with blunt features, but he looked genial enough. "Could be. Where ya lookin' to go, young miss?"
A Haven world—she craved civilisation. There were none that stood out to her, but she realised how ridiculous she looked, uncertain of her own destination, and she picked quickly. "Albion. You going to Albion?"
The man thought about this, a rumbling, thoughtful "mm" that sounded like the groan of an old house, settling. She supposed he was a bear, by at least majority vote of his genes. "Well... that's a bit of a ways, but I can do it, young miss, sure."
"Molly, please. Molly Garrison."
He offered her a paw, twice the size of hers, at least, but she shook it anyway. "Glenn Whitcomb. This is the Sharkolia. We can do Albion in... a week and a half, perhaps? Maybe two weeks, I'd have to run the numbers."
"Twelve hundred. Can you pay?"
It was steep, but she'd been keeping the money Clay had paid her in reserve. "Yes. Cash, ah... or I am a registered travelling associate with the Dundalk bureau, if you have... other needs."
Glenn leaned back, as if turning the proposition over. "Never seen a contracted associate up close, you know? Now that I think about it."
"We can fix that." She drew her identity card from inside a pocket in her gown, handing it to him. "You can run this, if you'd like. Or there's this." She produced a representative mark from her pocket.
He nodded, and his eyes scanned her membership card—neuralling it, probably. Presently he grunted, evidently satisfied, and handed the card back. "We can talk about it. Do you want to leave now?"
"As soon as possible, yes. I'm... getting quite tired of the heat."
The bear gave a deep, rumbling bout of laughter, and he grinned. "Sure, I'm not arguing. Fur like yours? I'd shave it if I couldn't get off this rock, and that'd be a shame. Take the first stateroom on the right when you enter, then, and I'll get us ready for takeoff." He pressed a button, lowering the boarding ramp, and she nodded her thanks to him as she stepped aboard.
The stateroom was cramped—"cosy," she imagined the description would read in an advertisement. She only had one bag, anyway, and she stowed it in the locker beneath the small bed. Her face in the mirror looked tired, but her mood was improving and there was a genuine lightness to her step as she ducked through the hatch into a narrow hallway that led up to the passenger cabin.
This was more luxuriously apportioned; presumably the Sharkolia had been designed for executives to travel in, although she had no idea what it was doing on the hellish alkali playas of Tamazolinco. She imagined a young corporate worker at a mining firm chartering the ship to their first assignment; recoiling from the heat as they stepped out onto ground. Their fault for choosing the industry, she supposed.
They were nice seats, and she took one next to a large window. She sank readily into the material; kiryon or artisanal Raivati fabric, she thought. It was nice; comfortable. She closed her eyes to relax, buckling the harness to secure her. After a moment or two, there was a sound from in front of her and she opened an eye; Glenn was leaning out of the cockpit. "Strapped in?"
She gave him a thumbs up. "In a very lovely seat."
"Only the best for our passengers," he said, and vanished again. After a moment there was a soft hum—the engines were well-insulated. She thought, for a moment, she was floating; when she looked outside the ground was melting away. It was the smoothest departure she'd ever experienced.
Molly realised, looking at Tamazolinco below her, that she didn't care about the planet, and she leaned back heavily into the chair, staring at the sky as it slowly darkened to black. The stars held such promise... she smiled softly at them. Then they disappeared; there was a soft thump as the Sharkolia slipped into subspace, and a dull rumble as it started its acceleration, and she was on her way.
This comforted her. The deepening purr of the tractor and the rocking of the ship as it thumped through the æther were soothing. She closed her eyes again, letting the sounds flow over her, and it seemed that when she opened them again she might find herself anywhere.
Instead, when she opened them again she was looking at Glenn, who gave her a warm smile. "Hey, miss. Would you like some dinner? It's just sandwiches—old Terran food, bread and some meat—but..."
"How long was I asleep for?" She straightened up—her back felt fine; the chair didn't seem to have tortured it any despite the repose.
"I don't know." He held out a tray with a sandwich on it; a slice of what she took to be cheese and some sort of processed meat between two slices of deep brown bread. She took it, biting down; it was bland, but this was the nature of dining in space. "When I came back, you were already asleep. We took off about five hours ago, though."
"About five hours, then." She laughed. "I've been pretty tired, lately."
"You looked it." Glenn had a sandwich, too; he ate it in large bites, a quarter of the thing at a time. "You seem a bit better now, though. Guess you were right about the heat."
"I'm not used to it. It was only my second planet, you know? I grew up on a trading station—just got used to always being cold."
"I know the feeling... I was born on a station too, actually. Left when I was about six, but it gets in your blood. Don't remember it much beyond the cold—big outpost, Sacagawea Station, in the Terran system."
Molly laughed, setting her sandwich down—she was taking smaller bites. "That's where I'm from, actually. East or west lobe?"
"West, I think—it's been forty years. You're really from Sacagawea, huh? And this is your second planet? You never went down to Mars or hit up Earth?"
"No. My parents didn't want me to, and when I left I joined MACAA straight out. I was posted to stations all the way until Dundalk. Then I came here."
"And now Albion?"
"Yeah... my first Haven world. I've got friends there." Which, she supposed, wasn't really true. Clayton had said he would be on Albion, but she had no idea how to find him and, really, no great desire to. It would be just another planet—without scorpions, she hoped. "Have you been?"
"A few times. You need to desync and head in for landing at just the right time, when the sun's coming up over the big desert on the northern continent. The whole thing glows; it's amazing."
He had brought with him a glass of water, and she watched the still liquid in the cup curiously—something bothered her about it, and when she realised what it was she laughed again. "It's not moving."
Glenn looked at her strangely. "Should it be?"
"Every other ship I've been on, it's been like riding on an earthquake. This is... very different."
The bear rocked back into his chair, beaming, his muzzle cracking in a friendly grin. "I spent a long time calibrating the drive. We're running at almost no throttle right now... just coasting. It's a good feeling, you know? I take a great deal of pleasure in the comfort of my passengers."
The voyage was getting off to a good start. The rest of the first day they spent reminiscing, and when she retired for the evening she felt more buoyant than she had in nearly a month. It felt good to be taking control of her life again; good to be soaring off towards an unburdened destination. In her stateroom, tapping through a novel on her computer, the worries of the past few weeks seemed to melt down into something fluid and conquerable.
She'd been relaxing for an hour or so when there was a knock, a gentle rapping at the hatchway to the stateroom. She drew her gown close about her to appear presentable, stood, and spun the hatch open. "Yes, sir?"
Glenn looked over her, and then down at his paws. "I was wondering. Ah... if I wanted to engage you, you know... for your services—like we talked about, planetside... how would I—what's the, you know... the fee, and all?"
Molly tried to consider how she felt about this development and decided that, if nothing else, there wasn't anything particularly unseemly about it. And it would defray the rather steep costs of the journey. "Ordinarily, it's a hundred liang per day. That's my standard rate. But... we didn't discuss it on the ground, which would've given you some opportunity to negotiate, so I'd say... half that? Does that sound fair?"
"Yes—uh, more than fair. So do I... how does it..."
He was nervous; his unsteady voice at odds with the size of his frame. Molly patted his shoulder gently—she had to reach up for it, though he bowed his back to make the job easier. "Well, I tell you what. Let's... let's go to your room, alright?"
He nodded compliantly, and she took his broad paw, leading him out. Nothing else was surprising; nothing in the movements, in the short vocalisations, in the rising temperature of the enclosed space. Afterwards he collapsed atop her, a massive, dead weight, and she had to push on his chest to remind him to move. He seemed, after awhile, to be on the verge of finding his voice, but instead he simply wrapped his arms around her—slightly possessively, she thought, but in the cooling air of the starship the warmth of another living being was comforting.
She gave him a few moments, and then whispered his name, questioningly. There was no answer, and his breathing was growing slow and rhythmic. It was unfortunate; she wanted to talk, but such was the life. It would be indecorous, to rouse him for discussion if his preference was sleep. Instead she closed her eyes, and imagined the rush of subspace over the skin of the Sharkolia, and Albion drawing nearer, and the steady recession of any doubt or longing. She would not've been able to recall which happy thought dwelled in her mind at the moment the curtains closed on her consciousness.
It marked the start of a routine. Glenn was friendly, and willing to enlist her help in the kitchen, and in tidying the vessel—it was kept immaculately, which pleased her. The food remained bland, as did the bedroom, but as he seemed to enjoy both she supposed she had no real cause for complaint.
Four days in, the small size of the ship began to make itself known to her. There were six staterooms, each identical, and two small heads. There was the passenger cabin, with its luxurious chairs, and a small commons area beyond which lay the galley. Beyond a minor cargo hold, and the cockpit, there was nothing else to the ship; one could carry on a conversation, in only slightly raised voice, from one end of the Sharkolia to the other.
For the most part, Glenn respected her privacy, but her duties as an associate compelled her to avoid cloistering herself, and she spent much of the day with him. By the end of each, she was staring longingly and the blank shielded windows, as though there might be something interesting beyond them. There was not, she knew—just the deafening, blinding white of subspace—but it beckoned.
She was testing herself, with the pills in her handbag. She set them out, one by one, in a line on the small desk in her stateroom. She counted them out and then back in; always the same number, always the same routine. But she was starting to get anxious, to pace at the walls of the ship. On the fifth day, the number of pills finally went down.
It was a raw defeat for her, even though the anxiety ebbed and she no longer had to sit perfectly still, taking deep breaths, to avoid screaming out her pent-up emotions. It was the size of the ship; it was feeling trapped. That was it. She felt trapped. Everyone was trying to trap her.
If it wasn't the hull of a ship it was the metal frame of a space station, or the periphery of a "town"—a few small huts, really—at the edge of a blistering, impenetrable desert. Or it was the nagging, planted suspicion that she lacked free will in some subtle and indefinable way. The walls were closing in.
The pills stalled them, but never for long, and as such were a source of both love and loathing. She had acquired them on Archimedes Station, to help her sleep after the third night of insomnia in a row. The doctor hadn't seemed particularly concerned before writing out the prescription, but the relief had been so strong that she didn't ask any questions.
The most terrifying thought, to her mind, was that eventually they would cease to be effective, and her world would draw straitjacket-snug around her, cutting off her air until she died choking, throttled by her own demons. This explained the rationing, and the rationalisations when the fear grew too palpable and she finally took one to ease her thoughts.
All the same the ship wasn't getting any larger, and Glenn wasn't becoming any more of a conversationalist. It needed fixing. Yes—perhaps that was it. She needed to take the bull by the horns, as they said on Earth. Molly had never seen a bull, but she tried to resolve herself to her own recovery. An hour after taking the pill, and convinced she would be able to handle whatever followed, Molly slipped the bottle discreetly into the ship's incinerator.
By the morning of the seventh day of the journey, she felt almost unable to leave her stateroom. She had tried to burn off her anxiousness in a fit of exertion, the night before, but Glenn had drawn back, concerned, and ended their encounter prematurely.
Now her paws were trembling, her breath coming in ragged pants, but although the stateroom was constricting—suffocating, even—it was hard to find the strength to turn the wheel and open it. She shut her eyes, trying to breath steadily; it took half an hour, but she emerged, seeking Glenn out in the cockpit.
"What's the closest planet? Closest major planet, I mean. More than a billion people."
The bear shrugged. "Ah, I'd have to find out..." he turned, his broad back to her, and started bringing up charts on one of the computer screens. "Earth, I guess, actually. Bit of a detour, but... it's closer'n anything else of that size."
"Please change course. Can you? Please—I need to go there."
"Is everything alright?"
She tried to think of how to explain herself and decided on honesty. "I think I might be being chased. I think there are people after me, and I... I feel like I can't breathe. The walls are constantly closing in on me. It's like... the air is too thin. I can't... I'm sorry; it's not you, it's not your ship. I just... I need to get off. I'll—I'll pay you the full amount, the full transit, no problem, I'll do it—more—just—please. Land."
Glenn had turned back to her, and his face was full of worry. "We can do that... I'll do that, right now... it'll be about four hours, can you handle that?" She nodded weakly, and he tapped a few times at the glass panel of his ship's controls before facing her once more. "Now what's this about being followed?"
She tried to explain. She tried to explain the murder of Stanley and Jaime Highsmith, two men she had never seen before in her life. She tried to explain pressing, shoving at the bulkhead of her rented room on Archimedes, trying to get it to give her space. Tried to explain the terror that filled her waking moments, fear of a monster whose very existence she doubted—and to explain that it was doubt that haunted her; that if it were real, she would be threatened, even in mortal peril—but not insane. That if it were false, she could sleep again. That the ambiguity was destroying her.
There was no worry, in her rambling dialogue, that she would turn him off, or frighten him. And indeed, he simply put his arms around her, and for the four hours until they dropped from subspace into the orbit of the Systems Union's mother he simply held her, stroking the sort fur of her neck until not a hair was out of place.
She felt embarrassed, when the ship jolted with the touch of its landing gear on the spaceport outside of San Francisco. Her outburst had been cathartic, and for a time she had considered telling Glenn that there was no need to detour. She paid him the full amount, but he pressed half of it back into her paw, and she gave him a final embrace, a tender kiss before stepping down the ramp.
The first footfall on Earth was surprisingly mundane. She had expected something transformational, she supposed—a harp playing, or a ray of light. No. Earth looked much like Dundalk had, although San Francisco was much larger than Cromarty. She let her eyes trace the skyline lovingly, and it was as if the relief had returned in full when she found an autocab to take her downtown to find a hotel room.
The Systems Union, she knew, was not entirely certain what to make of Earth. On the one hand, it was responsible for the very existence of the Union; the birthplace of mankind and of all the clans and tribes and countries that had spilled forth into the void. On the other hand it also represented the old order, and the tight grip of the bureaucracy; by some estimates 70% of her four billion souls worked in the government.
Of course, Molly was just visiting. She had little real concern for the politics and philosophy of the Union's colonisation. It was sufficient to know that it was a beautiful day, with the sun hanging high above, set in a cloudless sky. It was sufficient to know, looking out through the windows of the autocab, that there were living things beyond her, outside her sphere and her perception. That the trees stretching up would be cool to the touch; that the grass would be soft and yielding beneath her feet.
Her hotel room, as it turned out, was half a kilometre up, well beyond the trees, but it offered a view of the great ocean to her west, and the rolling coastal range. It was beautiful; soothing. She told herself that it was the solution to all her problems, and the answer seemed to stick.
In the next few days, she mostly occupied herself in exploring the streets of San Francisco. She checked in with the local MACAA office; the woman at the desk made a note in her file wordlessly, asking then if she was looking for work. Molly had to consider the question, but then shook her head—no. Not yet.
Perhaps, on reflection, Dundalk might also have slaked her thirst for solid ground and a discernable horizon, but Molly was more than happy with Earth. Five days after landing in San Francisco she took off again, to explore the Congressional Park around the remains of a city called Washington. It was a cool morning, and the fog rose off the Potomac River to curl around the collapsed columns and wind like ghosts through the foundations of the old buildings.
It was haunting, but—she concluded, after the fog had burned off and the sun returned—it was beautiful as well. So there was transience in life; what of it? What would it matter, if everything Clayton had said had been completely truthful, and an evil cabal of puppeteers was soon to swoop down on her and steal her life away—so what? At least, she thought, she would not have to be memorialised on garish iron monuments like the inhabitants of Washington. She could fade away with dignity.
Of course, there wasn't anything at all to suggest that there was such a cabal at all. The news reported, briefly, on a plague outbreak on Argus, and there were arguments about why a relief ship had become stranded. Clay had said something like this; but then, it seemed entirely plausible, to her, that ships might break down of their own accord. Perhaps, as the forces of reason said, it was simply that haste, in the spirit of the emergency, had made people forgetful.
She seemed to recall that he had offered some proof, though her memory was somewhat fuzzy. She was sitting on a marble slab—it had been a courthouse of some sort, according to the plaque she'd come across in her wanderings. Proof—what had it been? Something about manufacturing? No—farming. Agricultural subsidies, he'd said—irregularities, at the turn of the last century.
Then, though, he had also told two complete strangers that she was a murderer.
Well, what could it hurt? She had a friend with access to the old records, if her memory served. He was in Brussels, on the other side of an ocean, but it was still early in the morning. She walked back to civilisation, returned to her hotel room in Annapolis, and turned on her computer.
"Avo? Is that you—my god, it is! It's been three years now! How are you?"
Rohit Patel's face was young, and boyish—as it always had been, and always would be. "Hey. I've been ok... travelling, you know? Work and all that."
"Ashley said you'd become a travelling associate. Pretty good work, yeah—you enjoy it?"
"It's fun. You meet a lot of interesting people, that's for sure." Patel laughed, and said that he envied her. His enthusiasm was infectious; she grinned at him. "Well, you could always enlist. They pay for school."
He shook his head vigorously. "My father would disown me. Now... are you appearing out of the blue for a friendly chat, or can I help you?"
"Both, of course. I enjoy the friendly chat... do you have ready access to the old budgetary archives? I think I could go to a library here, but I'm not sure..."
"Oh, yes. You could, just... you wouldn't be able to make any sense of it. They always try to confuse the budget—that way nobody can criticise them for it. What are you looking for?"
Molly laughed at herself; it was an odd question, but she forged ahead. "I'm looking for the 2805 budget for... agricultural subsidies. Specifically any irregularities between the money allocated and the money paid out. Does that make any sense?"
"Yes... just give me a moment. Alright, in 2805 Congress allocated 21.4 trillion liang in agricultural subsidies. They paid out... hmm." In her computer, Patel leaned forward, although she suspected he was investigating something on his own screen. "They only paid out 16 trillion liang. Hmm... well, maybe this is normal. No... no, in 2804 they allocated 20.7 and paid out 20.7... but there is a six trillion liang gap in 2806, too."
"What happens to that money?"
"There was a special bill, I think... redistributing it. Hmm—why do you ask, Avo?"
"A friend of mine said there were some irregularities, but I don't know anything about the budget."
"Well, this was classified until forty years ago. Somebody thought it was important. A corruption issue of that magnitude, though, we'd hear about that... I'm sure it's explainable. I tell you what, Avo, I'll ask around and see if anybody came across anything about it. In my experience, these sorts of things have very mundane explanations."
She trusted him, of course; Molly nodded. "Alright. Any help you could give me would be very appreciated."
"Sure, Avo. I'll talk to you tomorrow." She smiled, waved at him, and the channel went dead.
As Patel had predicted, there were copies of the budget in the Annapolis library, but the organisation was impenetrable. What she had, however, were numbers; she skimmed the section on agricultural subsidies until her finger came to rest on the number "21.4." There was a brief table, and at the final number—16 trillion and some change—a footnote pointed the way to a different bill.
The library had this, too. It was a large budgetary amendment, and there was no mention of "agriculture" anywhere in it. It took seeing a chance reference to the Union Development Funds Disbursement Agency, whose allocations matched the missing money from the agricultural subsidies bill, for anything to make sense.
UDFDA had its own separate budget but, at the end of the document, the targets of its funding were plainly listed. Six billion to Amalgamated Farming Supply, Limited, for steel pipes. Three billion to the Jones and Harper Corporation for tractors. Twenty billion to Finley-Crutch and Partners for field generators. She hadn't heard of any of the companies before, and when she neuralled them discovered that references to them existed only across a span of a decade, right around the budgetary strangeness.
Molly sighed and left library, wandering around until she a public communications terminal. Finley-Crutch had taken the largest payments; if any company was still around she supposed they might be. She connected to the operator service, and after a moment a man's voice answered. "How may I help you?"
"I'd like to speak to the customer service department at Finley-Crutch and Partners, please."
"And do you know where they're located?"
"I don't. I'm trying to do some maintenance on an old field generator, and that's who made it." She spelled the name out, and the voice asked her to wait. She did not approve the request for video communications, and she held her paw up to block the lens of the camera on her side.
"Ah, I'm afraid we don't have anyone by that listing... the registry suggests there was a company by that name on New Hibernia—you might try connecting to directory assistance there. I can patch you through, if you'd like."
"That's alright, sir. Have a good day."
She slipped away from the communications panel along the wall, trying to stay hidden until she was out of its sight. New Hibernia? New Hibernia had only been settled in the late 28th century—the date stood out because the colony had tried to declare independence on the 50th anniversary of its founding, and she clearly recalled learning the date of the rebellion as 2846. That left New Hibernia as only ten years old in 2805—who would put twenty billion liang onto a company on an unstable new rock?
She shook her head, ordered a stiff drink at the bar in her hotel, and waited for Patel's call.
The prohibition on using "Terra" or "Earth" as a name for new colonies stems from early submissions to the Congressional registration bureau in Johannesburg. Of the first ten planets to which men laid claim, eight received some variation of the name "New Earth"; the only other proposal would've seen the planets given numbers—in the form of "Earth-10" or, as was predicted to occur by the 28th century, "Earth-100".The early settlers fled Terra quickly, but just soon as soon discovered it held some ethereal magnetism, and could be left behind only when—and if—it became truly repellent. That it never did is reflected in the strength of today's Systems Union.
Dr. Henry Krauze, "Epistle to the Ghost of Tsiolkovsky (reply to
'Philosophy of the Frontier: Early Offworld Migrations in Post-Terranist
Context')," Journal of Union Colonial History 117.4 (2911)
Planyeta yest' kolibyel' razooma, no nyelzya vyechno zhit' v kolibyeli
Earth is the cradle of our minds—but one cannot live eternally in a cradle
Rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1911)
It had been two days since Patel had promised to investigate further, and he hadn't yet gotten back in touch. Molly was not entirely certain of the implications, though she thought that none of them were particularly good. Had he not been meant to pry? But the database was open...
Curiosity eventually got the better of her, and she turned on her computer, dialling Patel's office. The system chimed every few seconds; there was no answer. Finally the screen flicked on to reveal an older woman, tilting her head at the video feed. "Can I help you?"
"Yes, I'm looking to talk to Mr. Patel—I'm an old friend of his. Is he in?"
The woman's eyes went dark, and she looked away from the camera. "You haven't been told yet, then?"
Molly's heart sank, although there was none of the nervous anticipation she'd feared—it was as if the whole conversation that now unfolded was an unhappy inevitability. "No, I don't suppose I have been—is something wrong?" She felt peculiarly like the dialogue was scripted; that it might have come from a play or an old book.
"Mr. Patel passed away two days ago, leaving the office. A car—a delivery sled I guess, really—didn't see him. The doctors say he was killed instantly, ma'am."
Though she expected them, the words stung. She shut her eyes heavily. "My god..."
"I'm terribly sorry you had to find out this way. Were you close?"
"We grew up together," Molly said—there were tears, now, building in her eyes; her throat was growing involuntarily tight. "I just came to Earth last week... oh, my god..."
It was a god she didn't believe in, but she used the name anyway, and the woman on the other end seemed to understand. "The funeral will be this Saturday, if you'd like to attend. I'll transmit the location to you in a few minutes—the map is in the other room. Is that alright?"
"Yes. Yes—thank you," she managed, and hit the button to disconnect the link before she said anything else.
It would've been profanity. It would not've been acceptable grief or quiet, demure acceptance. She would've screamed, and the people she would've cursed would, in all likelihood, have been completely unknown to whatever hapless person had been assigned to tidy up Patel's affairs.
She wouldn't attend the funeral, for two reasons. Firstly, she half-suspected that there might be people waiting for her, and she wasn't certain how to handle that. Secondly—more pressingly—she was now resolved to spend as little time on Earth as possible.
It was not that it felt constricting, as Tamazolinco or the Sharkolia had been. More, it was that it was... heavy, she supposed; there were ghosts, here, and weighty significance. It was the core of the Union; the source of the tendrils that snaked out to twist and writhe about; to trap and punish people whose only crimes had been nebulous, committed against philosophies and abstract concepts rather than people or things. They said—in the songs and the poems—that Earth was like a first love, that it was attractive and intoxicating.
Molly disagreed. It was attractive, perhaps—there was bait there—but it was a snare; a net. Earth was the spiritual home of the Programmers, and the spiritual home of the Union. Neither of these were institutions she felt particularly compelled to respect anymore, and Clayton's parting words—that eventually, someone would come for her—seemed haunting.
In one sense, one horrible sense, Patel's death was something of a relief. It meant that Clay had been telling the truth, or some close approximation of it. This did not solve Molly's problems—in fact it made them more pressing—but in making them real, as well, it gave her something concrete to grapple with.
To begin with, she needed to get off the planet. She had fourteen thousand liang left, in cash, and another ten thousand in her bank account. It would be enough to get anywhere—although, she thought, there was only one place she could really expect to find any kind of answers. She made her way to the Annapolis spaceport, drawing up plans in her head.
It was harder than it looked. She tried to put herself in the mind of someone like Clayton van Vesting, who—apparently—was constantly scheming, but quite successful at it. He could predict things, however, that were completely lost on her; was always six or seven moves ahead. It was uncomfortably like chess, a game that—despite the best efforts of her teachers in the MACAA programme—she had never mastered.
When she checked her bank to make a withdrawal at the spaceport, she discovered the account had been frozen. This, for example, was not something she had expected, though she had sufficient reserves in cash to travel anyway. Surprising to her as well—though decreasingly so—was the red tint her MACAA identification card had gained; in letters across the upper right of the card it read simply, "suspended".
"I don't suppose you can explain this to me? I pay my dues through automatic transference from my account—it posted two weeks ago. Is there an investigation going on?"
The desk agent at the San Francisco office shrugged her shoulders. "I have no idea. You'll have to take it up with your boss. That's on Dundalk, right? Office'll open in four hours. I'd suggest you wait until then."
That, in and of itself, was troubling. MACAA could only endure and gain workers by protecting them religiously; that the Agency would strand her without support suggested that the desk agent did indeed know something, that there was nothing that could be done, and that Dundalk would be of no use at all.
Not that she intended to wait.
At the spaceport, Molly bought some luggage and some clothes, packing quickly. She bought a ticket on one of the big spaceliners, a graceful ship in Quetzal Lines livery. It was due to depart for Journeyman's Rest in sixteen hours; she checked her luggage, smiled politely at the agent, and then asked if it would be alright if she left to get some food. As long as she was back four hours before boarding, the agent said, there would be no problem.
That was fine by her. In twelve hours, another person would've taken the shift, with no memory of Molly. They wouldn't do a head count on a liner of that size; if all went well nothing would be checked until it landed again. Feeling reasonably pleased with herself, she went to hunt down one of the itinerant pilots along the bay.
She still had no real idea how to pick a ship; she let her eyes wander and picked the one that seemed cleanest. The master, with the short, stocky build of a badger, was playing checkers against herself when Molly approached. "Steffi Ellinghaus—can I help you?" Her speech was clipped, but friendly.
"Molly Garrison. Are you available for hire?"
"Oh, sure, sure. Where you going?"
"Albion. What are your rates?"
"Albion? I can do in three days—900 liang."
Molly pulled the chips from her gown and handed them over. "Are you good to leave now?"
"Oh, sure. Hop on, yah?" She folded the checkers game into itself and slipped it into a bag at her side. "You rushing? You seem real quick."
She tried to weigh how much of the truth was appropriate. "A little bit. Is there any penalty for landing at a different spaceport than you file for?"
"No charge... some paperwork for the controllers, maybe. Maybe not even that. Why?"
"I'll pay you an extra five hundred if you file for Tianxia instead of Albion. My... boyfriend—ex-boyfriend, I guess—is... I guess he's got wrapped up in the mob, or something. I... I've got friends on Albion; I want to get in touch with the police there. He's got them bought out, here—they'll do whatever he wants, you know?" She was lying, really, but the words came easily.
Steffi frowned sympathetically. "Can't have that. Sure, I'll tell 'em wherever you want. Get on." The interior of the ship was cramped, more than the Sharkolia had been, but it looked well cared for. Molly took a seat; closed her eyes as Steffi bustled about outside. Then there were steps up the boarding ramp. "Ah, Molly?"
She turned around. "Yes?"
"Looks like you were right—got a couple of deckers heading out onto the tarmac, I think. You want to get into the engine compartment? Be a little warm, but—just for a bit? Hide you there."
Molly frowned, but there did not appear to be an alternative. The captain prised up the floorboards, revealing a space roughly person-sized. It was hot, and Steffi cautioned her not to touch any of the pipes that ran ten centimetres to either side of her. Molly relaxed, trying to stay calm as the floor closed over her again.
After a moment, there were more footsteps, and a slightly muffled voice from above her. "You're the master of this ship?"
"Yah, yah. You want a contract?" Steffi's voice sounded as unconcerned as it had when Molly had approached her.
"You filed for Tianxia—you have any passengers?"
"Do you see any passenger? I got a contract for a pickup on Tianxia—got to head out for there first, yah? Can't afford to keep waiting for business."
"You haven't seen anyone? We're looking for a young woman, a red husky about this tall—someone said they'd seen her talking to you."
"Dressed like a geisha, yah? Oh, yes, she stopped by—wanted to go to Appolonia, I think it was—real big hurry. No interest in Tianxia for some reason—walked off that way. You might ask Richard, he has the boat, the dark red one. He was going to Appolonia."
There was a loud thump of a boot landing right above her. Molly closed her eyes and tried to remain calm, taking deep breaths. "You sure you're not... carrying any illicit cargo? No stowaways?"
"On a twenty-metre ketch, you think I have stowaways? Where do I put them, under the wings? Please."
Another voice, from further off. "IR looks clean, except this seat's warm. Set of checkers here." So they had a heat sensor. This explained why she was nestled up next to some line or another for the engine. The temperature in the compartment had to be forty or fifty degrees, at least.
"Who were you playing checkers with?"
"Myself. Look, the seat faces the bulkhead, there's no room for anyone else. I was just about to go like this and king myself when you came in." She must've set her game up again, on the tray that slid out from the chair. Molly made a note to add another chip or two to her payment.
"No stowaways." A pause, with no other voice. "Well, you won't mind if we search the ship, then?"
"Oh, sure, sure. You can get the guided tour—you have a 12UC form handy?"
"What the hell for?"
"Look, you want to waste my time with a search, fine, but my engines are running. I need to file for compensation. It'll only take a couple of minutes, if you can get your supervisor to sign. Then, we can walk all over. I'll even show you where I keep my secret supply of whisky."
Silence for a few seconds, and then an exasperated sigh. "You fucking cheap freighter caps. Fine—get the hell out of here. Enjoy Tianxia."
After a minute or two, there was the sound of motors being activated, and the thump of the boarding ramp. A minute later the floor lifted up, and Steffi grinned at her. "Fucking cops, yah?"
"I owe you a lot," Molly said; it was half an hour from the surface, and they were now in subspace. "I don't know what would've happened if they'd found me."
"To hell with the whole lot," Steffi said, and shook her head, turning around in the cockpit to face Molly's chair. "No use for the cops. They ride me every time I land there. Every damn time. Last week, my wife finally said 'Steffi, no more going to Earth; you're gonna get arrested.' You're lucky, miss Garrison, you know that? This is my last trip. Money's just not good enough anymore."
"Earth is overrated."
"You could say that twice, sure. I don't know what people see in it."
"Home. That bright blue globe... it's home for everyone—that's what they say. I was born on a space station; no planet feels more like home than any other."
Steffi nodded, and then turned off her controls and stepped back to join Molly in the ship's small cabin. "I feel the same way. That's why I'm a freighter pilot. What about you; what do you do?"
"I was a contracted associate, actually. This is partly why I'm leaving Earth... guy I knew—hell, I guess not even a boyfriend, really—pulled some strings and got me deregistered. Now I'm not sure... without MACAA looking over me, selling sex feels a little too much like straight prostitution, you know?"
Her companion nodded again. "I bet, yah. It's a shame you got kicked off. You like the work?"
"It was fun. I got to travel a lot; meet some very interesting people. I guess I could do the same as crew on a freighter, but... my training's all in classical literature and tea ceremonies, you know? Jikuso... I don't know what I'm going to do." This was the honest truth—Molly had never really stopped to consider what life would be like without the family of the Agency backing her every move. "Whole big universe."
"Oh, sure. Room for all kinds in the void." A trite saying; she had no idea where it came from and even less why freighter captains were so fond of it.
Carey Reiss had said that, she remembered—it felt like a long time ago. She had been worried, then; the ship had gone dead, and they were stranded, waiting for help. In retrospect, it seemed a silly thing to be worried about—they were legitimately in distress; of course someone would come to rescue them.
Probably there would be no one to rescue her now. The involvement of the police—at least, she assumed they must've been agents of the government—and her rejection by the Agency told her that she was probably facing entities with resources that severely outpaced her own. She would be inclined to view it as an insurmountable obstacle, except that people lived without the condescending support of the Union all the time. She did not imagine Clayton had many friends in the government.
Now the question was simply how to proceed. She found that her mood had improved significantly over the previous weeks. Now, with any questions about her peril put to rest, she could focus on the singular issue of survival. Thus it was that she did not feel compelled to pace back and forth, as she had on the Sharkolia, although Ellinghaus' ship was substantially smaller. Her stateroom, in particular, was just a cot, which was comfortable enough—Steffi, so near as she could tell, slept in the cockpit.
Eighteen hours out of Albion, Molly had formulated a plan. She would travel to the MACAA office to plead her case in person. Her appearance there, she hoped, would take them by surprise; with a suitably contrite appearance she hoped to be able to get provisional access to the database again.
That would give her a clue as to Clayton's whereabouts, and although she had no doubt that the information would be, at best, misleading, she hoped it might at least give her a city. At that point, it was a simple matter of staking out the spaceport and trying to find his ship. He was distinctive enough, in appearance, and his ship was conspicuous; it would be a matter of time—she hoped.
Steffi didn't pry into her personal affairs, which was also calming; they mostly talked and played checkers, an endeavour that saw Molly's regular and crushing defeat. That was alright—Molly had decided she was going to be a chess-player anyhow; thinking great steps ahead like a grandmaster.
It was not entirely her own fault, when they landed on Albion and Steffi bid her good luck, that Molly discovered it to be Sunday—worship day; the MACAA office was closed.
She started trying to think ahead again. She'd have to get a hotel room—in cash, of course. Perhaps a self-service hotel, if there were any close by. In the meantime she walked along the concrete of the Albion Point spaceport, looking over the parked ships. Clay's did not appear to be there. Although... something gave her an idea.
Feeling proud of herself, she returned and sought out a service agent at the port. "Sir?"
"Can I help you, ma'am?"
Molly took quick breaths, appearing quite harried. "I'm—I'm supposed to catch a charter flight here, I think, but I can't find the ship anywhere. Can you help?"
The man set his computer at an angle to view it better, nodded to her. "Of course. What's the name of the ship?"
"It's, ah... Castle Bravo. I'm pretty sure that's it."
The agent's fingers danced. "There's no ship by that name at Albion Point, ma'am."
She wanted to sigh, but instead shook her head vigorously. "Are you certain—completely certain? I—I have the ticket, it's... can you look again?"
The agent did sigh, and tapped a few more times at his computer. After a moment he raised an eyebrow, looking at Molly sceptically. "The Castle Bravo, you say?"
"Yes—I'm almost positive that's it."
"Ah... MV Castle Bravo was impounded three weeks ago, on the far side of the planet. Your ticket must be mistaken, ma'am. Castle Bravo is a... it says here it's a smuggling ship."
Her eyes went wide, and then she looked confused. "That's not... right."
"It says so right here, ma'am." He turned the computer around so she could see, and indeed a news story confirmed that the MV Castle Bravo had been taken over by Albion police on suspicion of its involvement in criminal activity.
"That's not the... oh, wait. No! Sorry, I've been working on my thesis—Castle Bravo was a nuclear test. I mean Castle Bothwell."
The agent laughed, warmly, and returned his fingers to the computer. "Ah! That's very different! The MV Castle Bothwell—bound for Heimo, on the Castle Line?"
She nodded urgently. "Yes, that's it."
"You have about six hours, ma'am. It's in berth 61. You'll just want to turn right at that sign over there, and walk out onto the docks that way. Shouldn't take you more than twenty minutes, ma'am."
Molly sighed in profoundly-evident relief. "Thank you so much, sir." She bowed heavily and made her way off in the direction the man had indicated. Once she judged herself out of sight, she swung on a different tack, towards the exit of the spaceport.
She wasn't certain what it meant that the Castle Bravo had been impounded. There was no note of an arrest, though... perhaps that didn't mean anything. The existence of the Castle Line ship at the port had been a stroke of good luck, but she had no idea how to proceed further. A park overlooked the docks; she took a seat and closed her eyes.
With no other alternatives, she simply plugged in to the translink and neuralled Clay's name. There was nothing of significance—older news stories about people who, so far as she could tell, were not even related. She tried limiting the search to Albion and was again disappointed; there was only one story, about a gift to a church in Dawson City, and she couldn't conceive of the wolf as being religious.
The sun was warm, and she was comfortable, but there were absolutely no useful leads whatsoever. She growled softly and held her muzzle in her paws. Was he even there? Thinking about it, it was entirely possible that he had left the planet; it had been a great deal of time since they parted ways. But if not Albion, then where? And how would he have travelled, without a ship? And—
"Don't move." Something hard jabbed into her side, and a man's low voice set her ear twitching. "You can open your eyes, but don't move. Or talk."
She glanced next to her, and then briefly down at where the barrel of a small weapon could be seen flush against the side of her ribcage. The man was small, and lithe; a jaguar, perhaps, or some other predatory feline. "Ok." She spoke very quietly.
"We're going to get up. I have an autosled parked about fifty metres behind you. We're going to walk to it, and you're going to get in. You're not going to scream for help. You're certainly not going to run. If you run..."
"I won't run."
"Very good. Now get up. Walk normally, next to me." She did so. The autosled was enclosed, with dark tinted windows. He opened the back door for her, and she entered. A partition separated her from the front; she remained quiet until he had taken his seat and the sled was moving.
"Can I at least ask who you are?"
He turned, tapping his forehead. There were two vertical bars of dark fur amongst the spots. "Two Stripes. You're Molly Garrison, right?"
"That's right. Where are we going?"
"I don't know."
"Who are you taking me to?" Her voice was strangely calm—it almost surprised her. They said you only used 10% of your brain; Molly now envisioned herself to be employing the rest, planning.
"I don't know. I was just asked to be a courier. Don't know who by. Don't know where from. Don't cause any problems for me, and I won't hurt you. That's all I know."
He didn't even make the attempt to answer her further questions, and so instead she just watched the city pass around them. The ride took twenty minutes; they passed a few more marinas until the sled pulled up in the cargo yards. They were surrounded by towering cranes and decrepit-looking office buildings that overlooked the muddy water of the port.
"Get out, and walk to that building. Open the door, and don't turn back. Do you understand?" She nodded, and he unlocked the door. She stepped out; it was cold, in the shadow of the buildings and the breeze from the harbour. Molly took a deep breath, sighed heavily, and walked up to the door. The handle turned easily, and she stepped inside.
"What?" She turned, taken by surprise at the sudden voice beside her. Everyone was insisting on her luck, but given the way her life had been going Molly had her doubts. In this case, she made an exception.
"We're getting ready to leave." Clayton, van de Vesting van Heiligdom, pulled the door shut behind her with a solid click. "If you'd come twelve hours later, you'd probably be at the bottom of George's Bay by now. Neuralling my name was a good way to get attention—not all of it friendly. Like I said—lucky."
"It's good to see you again, too."
"At this point, ma'am? You're alive. That counts for a lot. The Programmers have been cracking down."
She nodded. "One of my friends was hit by a lorry. He was checking up on the budgetary information you told me would be proof."
Clayton had taken a seat, at a rickety desk, and was working at a computer, but he looked up at this revelation. "I'm sorry to hear that, Molly. We're... close, now, though. We're going to bring it down."
"Bring it down?"
He stood again, nodding, and gestured about the room—there were other people, she saw, a round badger—she was coming to like them—and a nondescript, mongrel sort of dog. "This is Julius Dauskardt and Randall Reeds—they're my primary sources of information; the most at risk. They're coming with me." She shook their paws in turn.
A third man spoke up, a thin, ruddy figure with wiry hair. "I'm Kelly Coverly; I'm the token civilian, I guess. Clayton here engaged me for business... then he killed two people, and I had to start running."
Molly took the offered paw, shaking it with a raised eyebrow. "You too, huh?"
"The circumstances were slightly different," Clay said. "And don't let Mr. Coverly give you the wrong impression. He's key to the whole affair.
"There's an affair?"
"Kelly is a shipwright," Clay explained. "He's designed a ship that will allow us to deliver enough explosive power to destroy the Programmers' primary computer. We just need to get him to a place where he can build it."
"Yes..." the fox nodded. "I've become an arms merchant, somehow. It wasn't on my agenda a few weeks ago. Apparently we live in a changing world..."
"And changing faster by the moment," Dauskardt, the badger, said. "This is putting forward our timetable, Holzschuherl?" Clayton growled an affirmative, after a moment's reflection. "We should probably leave until sunset."
"That's only three hours away. Can you do that, Kelly?"
"Yeah, I think—sure. Yeah. Yes. We can leave whenever you're ready. Anytime, boss."
"Why don't you go get Ms. Garrison settled in the ship, then. I'm just trying to get in touch with a few friends here. Just in case. If they don't answer, we'll leave now."
Kelly nodded and slipped past Molly, holding the door open. She followed, stepping back out into the cold and the unidentifiable stench of the port. "You're an old friend of his?"
"Business partner, more like it. It all went... jikuso, it went bad, how's that? I got beaten up, and a couple of guys got killed. Then he sold me some weird nonsense about the Programmers."
"He knows where the computer is, you know?"
She raised an eyebrow at the fox. "Does he?"
"It's why he's fighting. It was kind of the same thing, for me. He wanted to buy a ship... then a couple of guys came to shake me down. I got angry at them, bloody thieves. They started crashing the ships in my yard and... well, I think... I went to yell at them, and I think... I guess I owe my life to him, you know? He really bailed me out."
"By killing them, I presume?"
"He..." Kelly's face went dark, his eyes looking past her at something, she knew without turning, that only he could see. "Well." He shook his head—not in denial, just to scatter the question, as though it had been an errant drop of rain instead. The force of it flicked his ears and scattered his hair; he reached up to smooth it back down. "We've been working together, since. I believe what he says. I think we can take it down."
The shipwright, Molly thought, had gotten a little too close to Clay's sphere of influence. "Too late."
"It was stupid—I've been cursing myself for being such a thoughtless baka ever sense."
"It's not your fault. I mean, this is the shape of the world, you know? It's not... it's these sodding programmers. I don't really care if they live or die, anymore. I'm leaving. Eventually, of course."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "I thought the point was that you couldn't."
"Well, that's what my ship is for. It'll go to Andromeda. They can't follow—not in my lifetime."
They were standing, now, by the struts of a small passenger liner. "This? This will go to Andromeda?"
Kelly laughed, shaking his head, and tapped on a panel to lower the gangplank. "No, this is the, ah, the MV Glen Einich. Actually it's the Grantham Chase, but... that name's dirty, apparently. Nobody's any the wiser. It doesn't look like much, but it's pretty sturdy. We got it up to the 46th notch, which isn't shabby. I wound up switching out the old restrictor plates in the flow chambers—it's straight through now, good for another thirty or forty... thirty... I'm boring you," he caught himself. "But it's fast."
The interior was spartan, but Kelly assured her that it was all in good order. She took a stateroom, claiming possession by way of her handbag, and let the fox lead her on a small tour. In the cockpit, she stopped to look out across the water, and the darkening sky as it waned towards sunset. "Do you know where we're going?"
"Right now, up." They turned; Clayton was flicking on the ship's electronics. "We're going to have company over."
Molly tilted her head. "Company?"
Julius chuckled darkly. "It's not the sort we are putting out our fine china for, how is that?"
"How fast can you spool the engines, Kelly?"
"Ah... uh, ten minutes? Five, if we skip all the safeties."
"Well, we've already done them, right?"
"Yes—last time we took off. That was a week and a half ago."
Clay shook his head, and for the first time Molly saw hints that the perfect planning had its limits. "It'll have to do. Start them up."
There was a deep rumbling, the rising groan of a waking giant. Numbers started to march upwards on the ship's display, and Kelly buckled in to the co-pilot's seat. Clayton jerked his muzzle towards the passenger cabin, and Molly joined Randall and Julius, sitting down and fastening their harnesses.
The ship was starting to float, the gravito-magnetic system winding up to full power, when there was a sharp clang, followed immediately thereafter by another. Clay was the only one still standing; he leaned to gaze through a window. "Kelly—how soon?"
"Another two minutes until we have anything even close to takeoff thrust." A series of sharp thuds rocked through the hull. "I think that's light arms fire. The hull will be ok, but if they nick the coolant veins we'll have to put down. That's what I'd be aiming for."
The wolf shook his head. "Alright. I'm going to go take care of this." As Molly watched, he snapped off part of one of his claws, pressing it into Coverly's hand. "There's a chip in there, with nanocuneiform. You'll be able to read it—it has the coordinates. Get there—tell the shogun what your plan is. He'll help you." Coverly nodded.
"Is this it, Holzschuherl, you think?"
"Probably, Julkje. It's alright. Pride in your work... It means going out there even when it's not pleasant. I'll—" there was another thud, and sparks flew past the window. "Ah, to hell with last words. Get the ship up, Coverly!" And then he was sprinting back, past Molly's vision; she heard the door open, then shouting, and then silence as the door closed again.
There were one or two more clangs of chemical-driven projectiles against the hull, and a low hiss that Coverly assured them was just a laser burning through their heat shield. Then this stopped, and a minute later the Glen Einich hoisted itself up like an ungainly bird, clawing through the Albion afternoon out towards space. The ship never turned to let the windows look out on the docks below.
Molly wasn't certain how she felt. It was Clay's fault that she was on the ship, of course; but then, it was also his actions that meant there was a ship to board in the first place. It was not an issue without complication. There was silence, when the ship hit subspace and Kelly secured his station to come aft, sitting with them.
"Do you know where we're going?" Reeds was the first to speak up.
"Yes. It's a voiceless world, apparently. About three weeks out—past the border. I've never heard of it before, and what he gave me doesn't have a name."
"We have provisions?"
"Yes, Mr. Dauskardt. We..." Kelly's face clouded again. "Well, we have food and water for four people for a month. I was going to say it might be tight but... I guess we do only have four people."
Reeds sighed. "Fucking hell..." He said this again, his eyes closing. He looked like a strong man, but he seemed to Molly on the verge of tears. "That's it? Qi huo... all done."
"You don't know..." the badger was subdued, as well. "You don't know. He has spent most of his life all... how do you say it, all zadnits? Always fighting the wrong crowd. Always winning."
Randall remained dark, staring at the floor of the ship. "He saved my skin so many times he coulda owned me, if he wanted. Never said nothing about it."
"He was complex," Molly said. There was an undeniable sense of loss, although her time with the man had been less than uplifting and she didn't want to set anyone on edge so soon into the journey.
"Oh," Randall waved his paw. "He was a Machiavellian bastard. He'd fuck somebody over half to death if he thought it meant keeping somebody from getting fucked over all the way. But the people he cared for... well, he sent that guy for you, didn't he?"
Molly looked at her paws as though they had become unbelievably interesting. "He did do that. I guess I'm not sure whether he was an evil man or a hero, then."
"No question in my mind." Randall sat back heavily.
"If this was a story or a fairy-tale, perhaps he is one or the other." Julius shrugged his massive shoulders. "But it's not. He was an above-average man in a wretched world. You can't be that without being above-average at wretchedness also."
Molly nodded softly. "Perhaps."
"But I would trust him with my life. For that matter, we just did." The badger let out a discontented sigh. "These days, that ought to be worth a Nobel prize."
Now I bid you reply with a sceptic's eye to the breadth of the Union's rule
To the iron control of those latter-day thanes
And the gold that they lift from their ill-gotten gains
And that sweet old lie that they get you to buy in your civics class in school.
That the noble plan when it first began was to give us the right to be free
But the six hundred reams of the Systems Laws
Offer no escape from her clutching claws
To defy them a man from the frying pan to the fire is meant to flee
And they say their intent, when your taxes are spent, is not to raise your ire
It's the charity born of religious relief
But it's hard to accept this as honest belief
When fifty percent of your wage is meant to use as the Union desires
So give the slip to your slaver's whip, for your destiny is the stars
And null and void is the contract that binds
When a downtrodden man arises and finds
That the platinum chip is jailer's scrip—and he's the one buying the bars!
The final verses of Anton Edelstein's "Escape Velocity" (2780)
"Well? Any clearer picture of what it looks like?"
Molly smiled quietly at the put-upon look on Kelly Coverly's face. Randall had asked him that question six or seven times, since they'd discovered a faint picture of the planet encoded in the chip Clayton had given the fox before his death. "Yes, Kelly—any news?"
"I'm trying." He had the picture expanded on one of the big computer screens, and had been playing with it to try to wring some clarity from the fuzzy ball. "I think it has an atmosphere."
"You only think? You should be knowing this, before we land."
Kelly shrugged and tapped a few more times on the computer. "Hopefully we will. It's... pretty much Earth-sized, I guess, give or take a bit? It's really hard to tell. I'm not... I'm an engineer, you know?" He slouched back in his chair. There was quiet for a time, and then Randall and Julius struck up a conversation, talking about their future on the new world.
Molly took the seat opposite the fox, giving him a wave; he nodded to acknowledge her presence. They had been on the Glen Einich six days, and a natural partnership had already emerged. Randall and Julius were both old friends of Clayton, and—for lack of a better word—worked in his particular industry. That left Coverly and Molly Garrison; they had been talking more often.
"Are you looking forward to it?"
"I think so. Yeah. Yes, I am," Kelly said, with more conviction in his voice this time. "I definitely am. It'll be good, you know? It'll be good for us. Maybe even a chance to get away from the mob for awhile."
Molly grinned. "What, you don't think you could be a don?"
The fox shook his head. "Not a chance. You know, Isambard Brunel wouldn't never had to deal with this. It was very simple, you know? Build a bridge; build a ship. I imagine he never had to run away from anybody shooting at him."
"Was he a friend of yours?"
Coverly pointed to the cockpit, where the bust of an old man sat, watching over the pilot's seat. "Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the greatest engineer in history. An iconoclast, in the old British Empire back on Terra. He died more than a thousand years ago, but if he were alive today... oh, it'd be a different world, believe you me."
"More than that. A mentor, too... almost like a god, in a way. I pray to him, sometimes, when I'm having trouble with some engineering problem. It probably doesn't help, you know? I know that. But... when I get the answer right, I thank him anyway."
Molly looked at the bust, which was lit with a dull glow from the white of subspace beyond the cockpit's shields. "Did you like your old life?"
"Mostly. Albion was a bloody awful place to work, especially where I was. There were a bunch of harbour guilds, and they were always fighting. I wasn't ever big enough to get anybody interested in protecting me, just in beating me up. That last night, I just... snapped. These two men took torches to the support struts on my ships, and then killed the gravity. I mean, I guess the ships probably weren't damaged—just intimidation—but I decided I was tired of it, you know? You don't have to put up with that."
"So you left."
"There were a couple of dead bodies involved."
She raised an eyebrow. "You don't seem like the type."
"It wasn't me," he explained. He swallowed, fidgeting, and seemed to turn a little pale beneath his fur. Finally he shuddered, letting out a sigh. "I don't like to talk about it, if that's ok." She nodded, but Coverly was quiet for a long while. "How about you? Did you like what you did?"
"Well, I was a travelling associate. I—"
Molly turned this over in her head. She had enjoyed her work and, absent the hand that had dealt her, would probably still be doing it. The lapse in her membership, though—and perhaps it even was simply the recognition that Agency didn't really care about her—made the whole endeavour feel slightly distasteful. "Well... a whore, basically, I guess. I mean. We had a union, a guild and everything. The way it works is you hire somebody to keep you company on one of your voyages. It doesn't have to be sex, I suppose. Could be cooking, or crossword puzzles—Clay had me do crossword puzzles."
"He hired you?"
"That was where we met. On Dundalk." She recalled her first taste of natural sunlight; recalled playing with a Sensa program being run by some youths around the dock. If she counted back the literal days, it was only a few months prior, but it seemed several worlds distant. "He didn't really want me for what most people do."
"You had kind of hinted at that."
"Well, he... he wasn't really looking for a companion. Apparently I looked like some con man he knew, so he used me as bait to snare a couple of CDs. One of them beat me up pretty good... I don't remember that too well, just that... I thought I was going to die. After that I think he felt... guilty, maybe. He told me about the Programmers... we parted ways on Archimedes Station and I thought that was the last of it."
"But you're here now."
"I got tired of not knowing, I guess. Got tired of... feeling trapped by it all." It was hard to find the right words. "Sometimes not knowing what's going to happen is worlds worse than knowing it's going to be bad."
Two weeks later found Julius and Randall squaring off at chess—she had given up on this again, for the moment—and Molly dozing lightly, leaning on Kelly's side. Her eyes opened to the sound of a soft chime and a purring sound from the engines, dropping steadily lower in pitch.
Coverly had been occupied with essentially the same thing as she and he blinked a few times, next to her, before muttering under his breath. Then he shouted. "Alright—seats, people. We're desyncing, now—dropping back into the world."
Julius was up in a moment, the speed well at odds with his girth. "We're here?"
"Yes, sir..." the ship was realigning itself from subspace, with reference to their intended destination. It took a few minutes until they were repositioned and up to speed; then the tractors cut out, and despite Kelly's order to take seats everyone crowded behind him.
The planet was in darkness, just the hint of a sun setting the atmosphere to a dim glow. Kelly fired the ship's thrusters to guide them into an orbit, and in thirty minutes, as they watched, dawn struck the planet in a brilliant flash.
There was a thin band of green, towards what would've been the equator; the top hemisphere that faced them, though, was nearly completely white. In the cockpit, everyone exchanged glances; the world did not become more colourful as the Glen Einich drew closer to it.
"We're aiming for something on a continent that looks like an upside-down boot," Kelly said, and tilted his head to try to match the sight in the cockpit windows with the map they'd been given. "I think that's it. Those mountains along the top are where we're going, I think. Towards the... the right..." he pointed, tapping his finger on the glass. "Does anyone see anything that looks like a city?"
It took coming to within four hundred kilometres, well on the way to their descent, for anything like civilisation to become apparent. The first hint was a dull glow on the ship's sensor array, and then as they sank deeper into the atmosphere Julius pointed to what could've been—it wasn't clear—a little grid of roads.
"I guess we'll have to try for that. Everybody take your seats—I, uh, I mean that now. We're coming in a little fast." They jostled for the seats that offered a view into the cockpit; Molly settled for one next to a window that faced slightly forward. They hit the atmosphere with a jolt, and fell through clouds that flicked past like ghosts of a winter fog beyond the windows, stabilising their descent about six kilometres above the ground. From here, ten minutes later, the buildings that rose up in the shadows of the mountain were very clear, and now Coverly began keying the wireless, trying to get an answer as the ship braked, dipping lower.
Kelly looked back at Randall with a puzzled look on his face. "I don't know, exactly." He frowned, looking forward again. "This is the Glen Einich to anybody on the net, we've been directed here by Clayton van Vesting but that's all we know. We're not—" he stopped abruptly, and his paws gripped the ship's wheel tighter. "Understood, I've got it. We're not—we... yes, ma'am. Understood. Understood."
The ship heeled over heavily, the retro-thrusters firing in a rush. "What's going on?" Molly asked, softly—trying not to disturb him too much.
Coverly waited until the ship had righted itself. "Well, the good news is that I know where we're going now—they lit up a beacon for us. We'll be gear-to-ground in about five minutes. The bad news is I'd start praying now, because they said they're going to board us, and if they don't like what they find, they're going to shoot us."
Julius snorted, although from his smile the badger either didn't think the threat credible or found some fatalistic humour in their situation. "Wunderbar. You've picked a place having a very good welcoming committee, Mr. Coverly."
"Yeah," he said. "Yes, I have. Apparently. Bloody good way to start the morning."
As soon as they set down, Molly could see white shapes rushing past the window towards the hatch. Kelly stood, cautioning the others not to do the same, and after the sound of the motors lowering the rear boarding ramp, there was the hissing wail of a sharp wind and the sound of boots against the carpet.
The ramp closed again and the wailing stopped—though the temperature had already dropped several degrees—by the time anyone came forward to the passenger cabin, a minute or so later. A dozen figures, clad in pure white, with only their faces visible. Presently their leader drew his hood back, revealing a sharp-featured canine with hard, golden eyes. "Welcome to Teikoku. State your business."
"We're here on the orders of a man named Clayton van Vesting—he's apparently familiar with the planet. Unfortunately he couldn't make it; there was a firefight, as we attempted to leave Albion three weeks ago. His last orders were to go here. My name is Kelly Coverly—this is Molly Garrison, Julius Dauskardt, Randall Reeds. We're all associates of Mr. Clayton."
The man appraised them for a long moment before nodding, slowly. "I'm Hiraku Saito. Clayton is a friend of mine—how is he?"
They were all quiet for a few seconds. Julius was the first to speak. "Operatives that we are believing linked to the Programmers Guild caught us, as we were departing. Clay stayed behind to give us a chance to escape."
Saito growled. "Programmers?"
"That's why we're here. Clay and I were working on a design for a weapon to destroy their central computer. He suggested that we talk to the... the leader here, I guess, the governor, about this."
Hiraku's jaw set. "His highness will not see you. However, I may be able to arrange a meeting with the shogun. He oversees the military and the industrial base here... if he approves, we may be able to help you. But—you'll want to put on warmer clothes, first."
While they rummaged through the lockers for parkas—Clay, having anticipated the climate without informing any of them, had packed some away, although Molly found that his fit terribly, making her look exceedingly ridiculous—Saito withdrew to converse with someone over the wireless. By the time they had bundled up and were ready to face the cold he had finished his conversation and nodded his head lightly to Coverly. "The shogun will see you now. You'll want to maintain some level of decorum. Do you know how to bow?" Molly did, and at her demonstration Saito nodded approvingly. "It's good to see that some civilisation remains in the Union."
The gesture seemed to perplex the rest of them inordinately, but when they had mastered it to Saito's satisfaction he led them out, into what Molly had to imagine her textbooks had referred to as a "blizzard". The snow was driving, and cold; the wind snatched at one's breath and drew it away harshly. Molly tried to count her footsteps, but it was a futile endeavour.
Ten minutes, thirty, an hour later—she wasn't sure—they stood at the gate of a stone-walled building, looking up. It was imposing, although more than respect Molly felt a certain longing for what had to be warmth within. Saito opened the door, and they ducked inside swiftly.
At the far side of the room, a figure sat quietly, watching. Kelly started to approach him; Molly grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back, pointing to his feet and his heavy jacket. She had to remove her own boots and parka before he understood, following suit. It was warm, at least, in the room.
"General Watanabe." Saito bowed deeply, straightening up to indicate the four newcomers. "These are friends of Clayton van Vesting, one of our contacts on the outside. They say they have a plan."
The general looked at them, expectantly. Molly bowed first, as her companions glanced at each other blankly. "O-machido sama."
Watanabe, who had the same sharp features as Saito, was starting to grey around the muzzle, and the white fur shifted as his lips turned up in the hint of a smile. "English, please—for your companions, if nothing else."
Kelly leaned slightly towards Molly, whispering. "Can I talk?" She nodded, as little as possible, and he bowed again towards the shogun. "We have... ah... I've been working on a design for a vessel to remove the threat of the Programmers entirely." Watanabe's face once more lost its implacable facade. "I'm a shipwright—my name is Kelly Coverly, I worked with Clayton on this. It's basically a new type of starship. It can travel very quickly, to prevent interdiction, and... it can carry enough antimatter weaponry to destroy their... matrioshka computer, which we call Enlightenment."
"Fascinating. You can achieve this?"
"It's an adaptation of a design I've been working on for many years now." Coverly pulled a model of the ship from his jacket and held it out to the Watanabe, taking a step forward to permit him grasp it without leaving his chair. Molly shut her eyes tightly and hoped the shogun would forgive any breaches of decorum from the young fox. "The design is solid. There are some problems with it, however."
"Well, that... model is to scale, but the... actual ship, to reach its full potential, should be, ah... should be eight kilometres long."
Watanabe blinked and didn't say anything for a moment or two. "Pardon me, did you say eight kilometres?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. shogun, that's correct. The internal trusses and everything, it's all designed—there's no real new technology, just new configurations. It needs to have a proportionally small frontal profile—to get through subspace. Most of the ship is taken up in engines. Originally, it was a design of mine to act as an ark to get to the Andromeda galaxy, Mr. shogun, sir."
Molly whispered as quietly as possible. "Don't call him that. It's—"
"Yes, please, don't." Watanabe had stood, now. "Katashi will suffice. Mr. Coverly, if we could provide the resources and the constructors, you believe we could land a fatal blow against the Programmers? This is what I hear you telling me. If we can remove that threat against us—if we could live in the lowlands, instead of hiding from infrared scanners in the mountains—I would ensure that the totality of our industry be pledged to you."
"If, uh... well, if the... the information that Clay has given is right, we could do... immeasurable damage to the Programmers, yes. Nobody seems to believe that Enlightenment has a, uh, uh, a counterpart, or a backup—it's expensive enough as it is, and probably nowhere near capacity."
Watanabe nodded, thoughtfully. "And how long would this project of yours take?"
"If you had any nanoconstructors and were willing to release the replication locks... three months, maybe four. I have a list of the resources required but, if your constructor templates are newer than the 27th century or so, most of it can be self-mined."
"I could be persuaded to release the locks... can I see the list?"
Coverly produced a computer from his jacket, holding it out to the general and taking his model back in trade. "The numbers are all in thousands of tons."
Watanabe tapped the computer, holding it out to one of his aides. They spoke quickly, in hushed tones. Presently he turned back, nodding, bowing slightly, and returning the computer to Coverly. "I'll make the arrangements."
They were quartered in two houses, close to the industrial sector, although Kelly had begun looking over the maps to find a suitable spot to begin construction. Two days after their arrival, a man arrived to tell him that the replication locks on the nanoconstructors had been lifted; Kelly went to work, drafting a plan to construct the ship in the most efficient way.
Through this, Molly spent most of her time in the small house, both because she enjoyed Kelly's company and because the bitter cold outside suggested against any great ventures. Finally, after a week, he grinned at her over their evening soup. "I think this is it."
She smiled back at him. "Really?"
"Yes. I think—yes. I think so, yeah" He'd been stammering slightly less, with his ideas finding traction, and finally he nodded decisively. "Three months, tops. They'll be able to pull most of the raw materials from the mountains. The mountains will disappear, but... Katashi says they aren't sacred. It'll be out of sight."
Molly had no idea, she had to admit, what any of technical specifications meant. It was sufficient to know that Kelly was happy; they danced briefly, and then he donned his parka to deliver the news to the industry coordinator for the planet, which consisted—apparently—of only two settlements, the other a thousand kilometres away down the coast, where it was somewhat warmer. They had not, of course, been permitted to begin construction there—lest anyone passing by spot the activity.
A month later, Kelly borrowed a sled with an enclosed, insulated cab and took Molly up to show her the growing progress. The form of the ship was already clear, the hull half-complete, a solid black form stretching out into the snow. Kelly was fairly beaming at the work that had been done; he pointed at nascent forms, lifting his model up to show her how it would take shape.
She put an arm around him, then, and they leaned heavily on each other. Kelly shook his head, wonderingly. "I never thought I'd actually see it. I think it's going to work, you know? I think it's going to work."
Molly gave him a squeeze. "What happens when it's done?"
"Well... when it's done—all the way done, I mean, the whole mission... it'll be simple to refit it. Take a lot of refuelling... I was talking to the antimatter director, here, he says it'll take them four months to get enough just to get this ship moving—it's got its own generator but that'll take... a long time. They need to ramp up production... but... when it's all done, then... I think I'll leave. I've been talking to some people here. Not the important ones, yet."
"The important ones?"
Kelly nodded, his head rubbing at hers gently. "Some important ones. Most important, maybe." He leaned back from her, tilting his head. "Have you ever had any interest in the Andromeda galaxy?"
No—not before. But it seemed appealing now; she smiled, softly. "I could be convinced, I think."
He looked slightly worried, as though the flame of an opportunity was sputtering. "What—what would it take? To convince you, I mean?"
Molly found herself laughing, softly; then she found herself hooking an arm behind him, pulling his muzzle to hers gently. He was hesitant, for a moment; then he responded, canting his head, and when she closed her eyes a few minutes later it was because he had drawn her closer; had wrapped his arms behind her back to shrink the space between them until it disappeared into its own obsolescence. It was some time before they returned to the town.
In the two months that followed, they spent much of their time in this fashion, overseeing the steady, organic growth of the ship, which Kelly had decided to simply call Andromeda, and then Andromeda Maru on advice from one of the engineers that had gravitated towards the project. Everyone was feeding off the excitement of the ship, even as it lay beyond their view; they were stopped, often, by people offering comments, or criticism, or advice. There was an infectious air of possibility and promise; Molly guessed it was probably how settlers felt, striking out for a new world.
As Kelly had predicted, the ship itself was complete three months after construction began. There remained only the fuelling—this would take much longer—and the construction of the arms. Watanabe had not permitted Kelly to undertake this himself; the missiles were being assembled in a different factory, and loaded one by one onto the massive ark.
Past this, then, there remained only one lingering question.
"I have no idea."
"None of it makes sense." Kelly was scanning the nanocuneiform from Clayton's fake nail once more, hoping to find some clue as to where, exactly, Enlightenment was. Kelly had explained that the coordinates labelled "Enlightenment" were actually for a patch of empty space a few light years from Journeyman's Rest. There was no possibility that a planet there might've been overlooked.
Kelly had suggested that, perhaps, the coordinates were from a different offset, but nothing seemed to make sense. Using the Teikoku—Clayton had called it the Rock of Anteus, Kelly seemed to recall later, but the shogun said the name was almost never used—as a starting point suggested Enlightenment was well beyond the borders of the Union, which seemed unlikely.
Nor was there any clue in the maps of tradelanes and subspace relay beacons. It made sense that Enlightenment would have been connected in some way to these networks, but no buoys seemed to be out of place. This analysis had taken four days, with eight different people poring over the maps.
"Where's he from? Orania, right?"
"Orania," Julius said. "Try that as the origin?"
"I'm trying," Kelly said. Then he sighed, shaking his head. "That doesn't work either. Ok. I have a new idea."
The badger shrugged, lacking a better option. "Wunderbar, Mr. Andromeda—we are all ears."
"Let's take a look at the tradelanes. Do any of them seem out of place? Are they... do they curve in places where they shouldn't? Any lines that are too long, let's look for those."
"Jikuso, really? All the tradelanes?" Reeds tugged on his ears, as if trying to mute the suggestion. "That'll take forever. Suka—not you, sorry; frustrated. Can't we just go ask someone?"
"Not all the tradelanes. Enlightenment wasn't built until the early 29th century. Anything before that is ok."
Molly bit her lip. "It's going to take as long to figure out when the tradelanes were inaugurated as it will to do the analysis." He didn't have a response. "Well, I guess we better get started."
This took a week, though it did net them thirty possible leads. A few cartographers from the town university came to join them, but it quickly became apparent that what they had thought was promising consistently amounted to things that could be explained by other means.
Molly slipped away from the work and went back to the small stone cabin. The frustration was beginning to wear on her, and the constant cold was oppressive and demoralising. It served, she concluded, sitting by herself in front of the heater, to reinforce how alone they were.
It wasn't that she was homesick for any place in particular. Dundalk seemed nice, with the sun—it would probably be late summer, now, in Cromarty. For that matter, Istrahe or even Sacagawea could be liveable. It was the complete isolation that was wearing on her.
There was news from the outside world, very occasionally. The town needed some supplies, things they couldn't make themselves or lacked the resources for, but to keep suspicion to a minimum the trading missions were rare—once a week, sometimes once every two weeks. They brought downloads of news from the translink, and Molly devoured these like a starving man at a banquet. Nothing, no matter how trivial or banal, escaped her eye.
There was nothing about Clay, and Molly had resigned herself to the probability that she would never learn his fate. She imagined he'd been killed shortly after their departure; there wouldn't be any news about someone so inconsequential.
She was learning, though, that she thought it unlikely she'd be able to go to Andromeda with Kelly. The distance was simply too great; the disconnectedness too haunting. Like many people, she'd had her brain augmented to plug directly into the translink; the absence of this was like being deaf, or blind.
"I want to go back," she told Kelly.
"I know that," she said. "I'm just saying that I'm going to go insane here."
And he nodded. But there was nothing they could do, and the days dragged on.
What passed for summer had now come to the mountains, and Molly perceived what Teikoku looked like without its constant veil of snow. Uncovered, with lush green grass struggling up against the sun, it was soft and beautiful; for the time being, Molly found the situation bearable.
In the summer light, the Andromeda Maru gleamed like a sword. When they went to admire it—as they did often; Julius needled her playfully about the time she spent with the fox—they frequently found other people had come up from the town to look it over. It was a pleasant hike, without the blizzards.
Even with the meadow clear, it could be hard to see from one end of the ship to another. The habitable part was confined to the nose; they walked through it together, inspecting the bulkheads. There was no human quality to the ship; it was smooth and slick and refined—the constructors had done impeccable work.
Kelly picked out a stateroom, on the starboard side of the ship, looking towards the pass that led from the town. They sat in the bed together, watching the sun come up; Kelly closed his eyes as the light fell through, and she took advantage of the moment to kiss him.
He had changed, in the six months since they'd landed. The stammering had gone completely; he carried himself with confidence. It was the recognition, she thought; the realisation from others that his ideas were sound. The eight kilometre-long proof of this—now fuelled and ready to depart—was testament enough.
Molly wondered, as they lay on the bed together, whether she had changed as well. It was hard to gauge, looking from the inside out. She felt vaguely different; more cynical, perhaps, though she thought herself better able, too, to appreciate the things that life offered her when it felt magnanimous. The sound of frogs, moving up from the lowlands to capitalise on the summer rains; the feeling of warmth from the metal beneath her feet when she walked along the scaffolding outside Kelly's starship. The way a spot of dust, intruding in the ship, drifted down in a sunbeam to rest on the fox's ear as he lay next to her, eyes closed peacefully.
If it was a change, it was not something she was unhappy with.
She tried to consider plans. The cynic in her thought that, if she went to Andromeda with Kelly, it would crush her—there would be no coming back; Kelly said the Andromeda Maru could make the journey in three years, but there would be no way to return, not within her lifetime.
The budding romantic, however, thought that it would be bearable. Life on a pleasant world, unconcerned with the politics and infighting and the self-destruction, seemed at times, as she stared at the wall of the ship, looking for a single spot out of place, to be quite desirable.
Of course this was in the future. For now, they still spent their days trying to decipher the mystery of Enlightenment's location. For now, they had to wait.
Eternal Father, long Thy face
Hath watched us from that silent space
Where yet Thy glory may be heard
Wherever men extol Thy word
And pray Thy mercy, heaven-sent
Protects those in the firmament.
Trinitist hymn, author unknown
The odds that he was in heaven were small, but the bright white light and the absence of pain anywhere seemed to argue that, against all semblance of reason, he might've made it. The last he remembered was pain. Somebody had shot him in the back; he remembered a crippling agony, a steady fuzziness blurring his vision. Then there was nothing.
Now there was nothing.
He felt over himself; his back, where he remembered being shot, didn't hurt. He was lying on a floor, though; the walls were glowing. Ah. Yes, he had a cell like this on his ship—his last ship, he supposed. The Castle Bravo... he missed it. The new ship, the T-class container boat, looked like it had been through something's digestive system. Maybe he was on that?
No. No, he had left that ship. There was a gunfight. They were trying to keep him from taking off, that was it. He'd shot them; he remembered shooting people. The ultrasonic pistol... it had been expensive. It was probably gone now. The police must've taken it when they locked him up. He sat upright. The featureless glow of the room contributed strongly to a sense of sensory deprivation; Clay frowned.
Presently, the door slid open. Two men entered. They wore dark blue jumpsuits. It looked good on one of them—a dog of some sort; he was bluish-grey in hue, and the clothes complimented his fur. The other one, a tiger hobbled by orange fur, looked only to be celebrating the accomplishments of some athletic team. He stood to meet them.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm well," he said. "I think. I remember being shot, but it doesn't seem to have had any lasting effect. Omni, I guess?"
"Omni," the tiger confirmed. "I'm Kevin, and this is Lee."
He took a step towards them, to shake their hands, but Lee shook his head once, firmly. "Please don't approach us. Would you like some food?"
"I'm alright for now."
The two looked at each other, nodding. "You've been out for about two weeks, while we tried to figure out what had happened and transported you to a secure location. You'll be safe here, now, don't worry."
"Where am I?"
"A space station. Andaman Station, if the precise location helps you; one of the outer arms. It's a quiet place. We needed some quiet."
Lee glanced to Kevin before he spoke. "Well, we'll be interrogating you. There will be some questions; if you don't answer them, we'll torture you as well. I hope it doesn't come to that."
"I hope it doesn't as well," Kevin said. "But, you never know."
Their candour was bizarre. He opened his mouth, started to ask a question. Then he gave up, and asked another; the most direct: "who are you with?"
"We're investigative technicians with the Programmers Guild."
"We fix the problems that other people create for the sanding," Lee added.
Kevin smiled, and what worried Clay, a little, was how unforced it seemed. "The Union is its own craftsman, you must understand. All we do is sand out the rough spots, when they occur. Then, everything works well. According to plan."
Lee nodded his agreement. "You can run your hand along it, without splinters."
Kevin looked to his partner. "Yes. We have no use for splinters. But we'll question you at a later date, Mr. Clayton. You can rest for now. Is there anything else we can do for you?"
"In time, Mr. Clayton. You're trying to rush things; it won't help."
The two men left, and the door closed behind them. The room was solid white again; disconcerting white. Clay rubbed at his temples. Their forthrightness reassured him, for two primary reasons. Firstly, it suggested they were aware of his history, and thus probably more or less honest. Secondly, it meant he wouldn't be leaving the station alive, and this was a weight off his shoulders.
At some time in the future—Clay believed it to be less than a day, though there was no unimpeachable way to tell time in the cell—the men returned. They shot him with something that knocked him onto his back, and then, putting an electrical restraint about his wrists to bind them in place, they led him down a short, dark hallway to another room of roughly equal size. There were straps attached to a cot, fixed to the wall; they secured him to it and rotated the cot down forty-five degrees.
There were two chairs, facing the bed; they each took one and sat, smiling at him. He said nothing, and eventually Kevin gave up. "Good morning, Mr. Clayton."
"Morning," he said, as politely as possible. "If it is morning."
"It is. It's 9:30, station time."
"9:34, actually," Lee corrected. "The morning, regardless."
Kevin followed immediately, as though the sentences were logically joined somehow. "Where were you going, when we captured you?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that."
Kevin nodded, as though he expected this answer. "If you don't, we'll have to torture you."
"It will be quite painful," Lee said. "You'd be advised to answer us. We know you have a device in your brain, to stimulate your endorphins artificially. We've disabled it."
"Actually, we've disabled the endorphins."
Clayton afforded himself a sigh, internally, but shook his head at the two men. "I'm sorry, really. If you want the answer, you may be able to hack my brain, but I can't tell you."
Kevin clucked his tongue. "Please, Mr. Clayton. We know you've undergone the Ivanov process. We're aware of your medical history." It was designed—successfully, so far as he knew—to prevent people from being to decode his thoughts, or peer in on his neurons. As long as the Ivanov implant was active, his thoughts were scrambled; known only to him. With it disabled, they would be able to read the patterns—but he had it for so long that removing the device would collapse him into useless aphasia. "Please cooperate."
"Yes, please. You really gain nothing by resisting, Mr. Clayton, you must admit. Nobody else will care about your stubbornness. Now, please answer Kevin's question: where were you going?"
"I was leaving Albion to travel to a different planet."
"It doesn't really have a name, Kevin."
"Does it have a place? What are the coordinates?"
"I can't tell you that. I swore I wouldn't, to people I care about more than you. I'm sure you understand."
Kevin sighed heavily. "The torture won't be pleasant. Once more: the location, please."
"He's said the magic word to you, Mr. Clayton. If you don't tell, we'll have to set you on fire."
"You'd probably better go ahead and do that, then."
"As you wish." Kevin stood and cinched a blindfold over Clay's eyes. There was the sound of footsteps for a time, and then something wet was being poured over him. He could smell something sharp; the odour of benzene crossed his sensitive nostrils. Someone sighed, next to him, and there was the rushing sound of something catching fire. At first, there was nothing but heat. Then a sharp pain, along his right leg. He tried to pull it away reflexively; the pain followed, spread.
Then he was panting; trying to keep from screaming. Everything below his shoulders was a shapeless, twisting, amorphous shout of agony. There was something wrong—something they were doing. He waited for the pain to end, for the nerve endings to burn away. It didn't; instead it doubled, trebled—his teeth hurt from where he clenched them. He struggled against the restraints on the cot to no avail.
And then it stopped.
The blindfold disappeared, and Kevin's face was tilted in front of him, smiling softly. "Hello again."
"Hello." He almost hesitated to look downwards, but of course his body was intact. The smell was gone; he tried to figure out what was soaking his legs. "That was... clever."
"It's water, in case you're wondering. It's a conductor for the nanobots—they're stimulating your nerves directly. It's very effective, we find."
"Not effective enough to get me to tell you where the planet is?"
"No. But did you enjoy the fire?"
Kevin nodded. "I'll offer you another chance to escape it."
From somewhere else, behind him, Lee spoke as well. "This would be a good opportunity to help us, Clayton. We deserve to be helped, sometimes."
The blindfold went back on, and they poured the liquid over him once more. Clay knew it was an illusion, all a trick of his nerves, but it didn't make the tension any less real. This time, at the breaking point, the fire failed to stop. It continued, building in strength. He waited to pass out; for his body to give up. It didn't happen. When the screaming started, it took him a long time to realise it was his own.
He had been in hell for years—decades, even—when the feeling stopped. Kevin and Lee were wearing different clothes, different undershirts beneath their jumpsuits. Kevin brought the cot back flush with the wall, so that Clayton was standing upright. "It's been about sixteen hours. We thought we'd give you an opportunity to experience what not being on fire feels like. You can sleep now, and consider that before we talk to you again."
He wasn't able to walk, for some reason; Kevin gave him a shot of omni to clear out the nanobots the torture had injected—irony, he thought, setting robot against robot. In any case he discovered after a few minutes that his throat had been repaired as well. He coughed a few times and found that he could talk, but there was nobody else in his cell.
The floor was softly padded, though not enough to sleep on comfortably. Instead he curled up and thought about things for awhile. Clarity failed him, and he shut his eyes. "Almighty Father, I... I am not in a good place right now. I need Your guidance. I need... I need the strength to endure. I... am screaming, Father, it's a sign of weakness. Let me... please help find the way..."
He rambled on for a few minutes until the effort seemed ridiculous, and he opened his eyes again. Though. Now that he thought about it, there was an answer. In the tumult of being set afire, he had forgotten it, but there was a key element to this reality. If they were torturing him—questioning him at all—then the Glen Einich had escaped. If Kelly was halfway competent—and Clay suspected he was—then they were already probably at the Rock of Anteus.
That was a good thing. He felt certain the shogun would help them; at that point, the destruction of Enlightenment was a certainty. What happened to him here, then, was completely irrelevant, if agonising. He smiled softly to himself, then—he had won, only a day into the interrogation. Now he just needed to die.
It was a slight shame, in some ways. He had wanted to see Kelly's ship. Coverly was a promising young man; uncertain of himself, but full of potential. If he could overcome his demons, he could do anything he wanted. Even Andromeda... Clay shook his head. Perhaps not. Andromeda, he thought, was too far even for him—too big a step. Well, not that it mattered anyway.
And Molly. He was glad that she'd found him. He hadn't been very nice, on her return—this disappointed him. He should've apologised; should've tried to make things right. It probably wouldn't have made any difference, but—settling his affairs on the floor of a prison cell—Clay wished he had been less harried nonetheless. She might've been alright, had she avoided crossing the wrong people, but in the care of the shogun she was definitely alright, and could give up her career to boot.
Clay frowned at where the train of thought had stopped. He was being judgmental, which was not an appropriate way to spend his last few days alive. He supposed if she enjoyed it, and the shogun was willing to tolerate it, she might well return to her profession on the Rock. What was the harm?
Content with his conclusions, he closed his eyes again. Randall and Julius would be fine anywhere. He didn't have to worry about them; had brought them along only as a favour. Probably the Programmers wouldn't have killed them—they were too insignificant, not dedicated enough to the cause, not willing to ask the right questions—but their business would've been made difficult, and in any case he could avoid the whole issue by inviting them to come with him to Anteus. Julius would miss the Dundalk salt, but he could cope.
That was that. Clay smiled again. He was happy with his life; with where it had gone. There were elements of it he regretted, of course; it was only to be expected. For now, though, he was calm. "Just go ahead and get it over with," he murmured to the floor—doubtless they had microphones. "I'm not telling you one blessed thing."
There was a soft hiss, from a hidden air vent. He chuckled quietly, and was still laughing when the darkness fell over his eyes.
Opening them again was an unfortunate surprise. It was the same dim white walls as the room had always had, but that meant they had kept him alive for some reason, and while he didn't care it was, exactly, he could envision no universe in which being alive was better than the alternative.
Presently, the door slid open, and Kevin and Lee stepped through, beckoning him to rise. There was no point in causing a fuss; he stood, bowing slightly. "Good morning."
"Evening, this time." He looked at Kevin quizzically. "You slept for awhile."
"It's been about two weeks."
Clay blinked at the pair. He had spent the bulk of that time unconscious, then, which probably meant they'd been hacking at his brain. "So, back to being set on fire?"
Kevin and Lee looked at each other, and then the tiger turned to him, shaking his head reproachfully. "Mr. Clayton, please"—as though the very thought were unconscionable. "That didn't work, did it?"
"I suppose not."
"Then why would we do it again? Really, Mr. Clayton." Kevin seemed shocked at the very idea, his short ears folding back slightly.
"Yes, Mr. Clayton, sir," Lee added. "We don't want to hurt you, after all. We just want the information."
"Yes, yes—and by the way..." Kevin looked at him questioningly; expectantly.
"Not a chance."
The tiger's face fell, ears pinning further. "Ah."
"I told you, Kevin. We'll have to find someone else to be more persuasive."
Kevin closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he smiled brightly at the wolf. "Yes, very well. Well, come along then, Mr. Clayton—we wouldn't want to keep our guests waiting, now would we?"
Although he moved to accompany them back to the torture chamber, Lee shot him anyway, then—as he doubled over in an involuntary spasm—patted him on the shoulder. "Sorry, sir."
He found the dog's apology slightly difficult to swallow, but when he could straighten up again he did so, only nodding softly to the pair. Kevin nodded back, and they led him out of the cell again. He tried to pay attention to the walls outside, but they were featureless; dirty, metal-grey and without character. It could've been one of the outer arms of Andaman Station, he supposed—but then, it could've been Archimedes or, for that matter, Enlightenment itself.
When they opened the door to another room, though, it was not the chamber they'd used before. He could see a chair, and the hint of another. Kevin gestured to it. "We'd like you to have a talk with our counsellor, Mr. Clayton—perhaps they can help you see reason. I trust that when you're done, you'll have the location of the colony for us. Ten minutes, Mr. Clayton." He hesitated, and Lee shoved him in; the door slid shut behind him.
He stood, picked himself up, turned around and came to an abrupt halt. In the chair closest to the door, whose occupant had lain hidden from view, sat Riya Kenley. She frowned at him, contemplatively. "Ah," she finally said. He was still trying to gather his wits.
"What are you—what are you doing here?"
"I was going to ask you the same question, Clay, but I have to imagine that they're related. The last thing I remember is going to sleep, but that was back on Albion. Then there were these two men—they told me they needed me to get someone to talk, but they didn't say what about."
He took the other chair, sitting down heavily and resting his head in his paws. "I've been fighting dragons," he said. "You know. They still exist, these days. It's all I can tell you."
No, but he supposed it was close enough. "It's similar, at that. It's similar. They are—they'll probably even admit this to you—trying to find out where some people are hiding from them. That's their goal. I have not been telling them. And..." he frowned deeply. "I don't think I can, ma'am. I'm sorry... I don't know what they threatened you with; what they said..."
"They didn't say anything. Just that I needed to get somebody—you, I suppose—to talk."
"I can't, ma'am."
Pastor Kenley nodded. "I understand that, Clay. Really—if I'd known that it was you, I might've told them not to bother." She smiled, softly, and they waited for the ten minutes to expire in silence. When he exited the room, Kevin raised an eyebrow; Clay shook his head, and Lee guided him by himself back to his holding cell.
He had kept Kenley in the dark on purpose. It hadn't been her fault—none of it had. He supposed they had gleaned the insight into his personality from his prayers; the chain of events to tie him then to the little church in Dawson City wasn't terribly hard to navigate.
All the same it was possible—the hope was shrinking, but real—that they would simply use her as a tool and then cast her to the side. She knew nothing about the Programmers—probably not even the name. He'd been exceptionally careful, over the years, to protect her from understanding too much about his personal struggles. No good could've come from it.
A few minutes later, from down the hall—muffled slightly, but plainly audible—the screaming started. Its absence, when it came a few hours later, was almost as crushing; Clay sat, cross-legged, and spent the rest of his consciousness in prayer.
The next morning—he thought of their cycles as day and night, although it might've been only ten hours later; he had no way of telling—Lee returned, shooting him again and securing his wrists with handcuffs, which he gripped to pull Clay to his feet. "I really wish you were willing to be cooperative."
Clay was past the point of acceptance or politeness. He glared at the dog sharply. "Go to hell, you fucking bastard." Lee's ears flattened back, and Clay growled deeply.
"Please, don't mistake our intent," Lee said, shaking his head sadly. "We just want you to talk. Surely you must admit that we can't have people living outside the boundaries of the Union—surely?"
"Why not?" He was trying to keep his temper in check with only occasional success. "After all, you treat the ones inside it so well."
"I don't think that's very fair. We made ourselves quite clear to you, Mr. Clayton—there wasn't any attempt to confuse or mislead you." Lee shook his head, as though confused. "I don't believe we've told a lie yet."
"Will you let me go?"
He brightened. "Of course! All you'd have to go is tell us the location of this mysterious colony, and agree to submit to re-education. It's a very simple process."
Clay wasn't sure how much of the pair's lightness was an act and how much was sincere belief. It was said that they abducted children soon after their birth, to prevent any possible corrupting influences from tainting their upbringing. "And if I don't tell you?"
They were at the door of another cell, now, where Kevin stood, waiting. "Then we'll torture you. Eventually, you'll die. It obviously isn't the outcome we prefer."
"The same goes for your pastor, naturally," Kevin added. "We attempted to question her last night, but she claimed to have no knowledge of our organisation or your activities."
"Of course she doesn't. Why the hell would I tell her that? The way you act—the way you treat people? Why would I expose anyone to that?"
Kevin shrugged. "Because you use people, Clay—they're pawns to you; nothing more. Why would she be any different? Why would she be different than your fiancé?" Clay bristled; his paws bunched to drive his claws into his palm sharply. "What, you think we didn't know who killed him? What do you suppose his last moments were like? Do you suppose it was instantaneous—or did he have the chance to curse you, before his ship exploded? Was his last thought a condemnation?"
His initial reaction was to curse. To lash out at the tiger until his throat burned—but it would have no use. Clay took a deep breath, and then he shook his head. "I don't know."
"He prefers not to dwell in the past," Lee said, and Kevin nodded. "We should probably avoid bringing up any guilt over his murdering. It's non-productive."
Kevin seemed to consider disagreeing for a moment, but then nodded. "So it is. Very well, then, very well. Since Pastor Kenley hasn't been of any use as a source of information, we believe she might be more useful as a tool for persuading you. She hasn't agreed to do so, but... that's alright."
"You're going to threaten her life unless I help you?"
"No, no," Kevin said, shaking his head dismissively. "You are." He pressed something to Clay's paw—he couldn't tell what it was, at first, a metal object, warm from the tiger's grip. "So here is a knife. You have a choice, in the next fifteen minutes—you can return with the location of your friends and their no doubt quite utopian paradise, or you can return with one of the pastor's fingers. You may want to talk it over."
"You son of a b—" he didn't finish the sentence; Kevin had opened the door and, kicking him in the back of the knees to set him off balance, shoved him inside.
Kenley didn't seem to have slept; her eyes were dark, but beyond this she seemed healthy enough. When she spoke, though, there was a disconcerting quiet. "Hello, Clay."
He got to his feet, slowly. "Hello."
"Do you know, I don't think they're going to let us go—do you think they will?"
"It depends on my willingness to play along with them, ma'am." He sat down across from her again, keeping the knife concealed in his paw. "Comes down to whether or not I'm willing to talk to them."
Riya nodded, with a quiet sigh. "I wish I understood the penchant you all feel for violence."
"It's a tool. A barbaric tool, ma'am; I wouldn't argue. But a tool. To control people; to bend things to your will. Their organisation, by their own words, is an attempt to refute this—to control things subtly, to bend trees with a whisper instead of an axe. That's the idea—you see what it comes down to."
"Who are they?"
He frowned and considered his answer for a time before he finally spoke. "They're bureaucrats, mostly. They take everything they can find—every piece of information, every bit of your life that they can get their hands on. They take it, and they try to figure out what you're going to do, and what your doing that will do, and so on. To the end of time."
"Are they right?"
"I don't know, ma'am. Probably sometimes—if you distract an engineer so that a hospital ship breaks down and keeps medicine from reaching a plague planet, sure, you know what's going to happen. They try to predict more than that—that mass casualties on one world will mean incomparable benefits to four others. They say they mean well."
"You don't agree with this, though?"
"I don't. It comes too close to playing God, to me, ma'am."
"Clay the theologian..." she smiled softly, though her eyes were still staring off into the distance. "You're sheltering people from them?"
"I know a planet where some people have escaped the Union completely. It's not... it's not a utopia. It's hard work; people struggle and die there, trying to get by. It's not perfect. But they and God are the only ones there to speak for their fate. I'm comfortable with that."
Kenley nodded, very slowly. "I think that I would be as well. This is what you've been doing, all these years?"
"Yes, ma'am. One of these days, they'll be brought to justice..." He paused. They were doubtless monitoring the conversation; Clay wasn't certain whether they knew of his plans to strike at Enlightenment, and decided not to chance it. "For now, I just want to mitigate their activities as much as possible. So far it's seemed to work."
"It won't excuse you for what you've done, you know, Clay. No matter how noble you think it is." Her voice wasn't condemnatory; was soft, slightly sad.
"No, ma'am," he said. "I never believed it would. Not for what I've done, nor for what I will do." At this, there was some movement to her face; an eyebrow arched slightly. "They gave me a knife, and told me to return to them with the location of the colony they want or with one of your fingers." He looked down at his palm, pressing the button to flick the knife out. It was short—a few centimetres, barely enough to do the job.
"Which will you do?"
"I can't t—"
"Tell them?" Riya looked at the knife, and then sighed, a wan smile crossing her features for a moment. "Well, I suppose I don't need all of them."
"They won't stop with your fingers," he said. "You don't have anything they want except leverage on me. If I don't tell them... "
For the first time in their conversation—for the first time ever, now that he thought of it—Kenley looked unnerved. "They did something to me, last night. I don't know that... I..." Her speech faltered, and she shivered lightly. "I thought if I broke they might stop... they didn't stop..."
"It doesn't have to be painful, ma'am. I..." He kept his mouth open to finish, but the words were difficult. She looked at him for a few seconds, and then started to shake her head. "One more sin in a life of sins, ma'am, I expect it won't make much difference as to where I end up. Nor you."
Her eyes went unfocused, blank. She didn't say anything for a minute or so, and her voice was barely a whisper when it resumed. "Alright..."
"Stand up?" She did, and he joined her, wrapping his arms around her in an embrace, from behind. She leaned into him a little, and he rested his muzzle on her shoulder. She was murmuring, now—praying; he caught the words at intervals. He rested his paws on her chest, feeling her heartbeat. It was rising, steadily; the shivering had gotten worse.
She spoke finally, her voice unsteady. "My knees, Clay..." Riya had started to sag against him, and he sat back down in the chair she had occupied, the fabric still warm from her body. He cradled her gently as the quiet murmuring resumed, nearly silent hisses below chattering teeth. Her paws were clasped tightly together, her eyes shut. After a moment the praying stopped. There was silence—no sound came, in the little room; not a ticking clock, not the whine of atmospheric regulator. When she finally said something, her voice steady and clear, it might've been the loudest thing he had ever heard. It was two words only: "I'm ready," she said. The shivering had lessened.
"I'm sorry it came to this," he said, his muzzle still resting on her. Now it was his voice that sounded uncertain; his teeth that knocked against each other. But he needed to be precise... he felt; waited... let his brain clear. Then he struck her chest, hard, drawing his hand back against her with a jerk.
She stiffened. "What was that for? What—oh." The realisation did not seem to have caused her any grief. She took a deep breath, and as his paws returned to their embrace of her light form, he felt the corner of her muzzle turn in a faint smile. "I'll put in a good word for you. I don't know if anyone will listen, but I'll..." She took a short breath, almost a gasp. Then it left her, in a rush, and Riya Kenley went limp in his arms.
Clay held her frame close, but there was nothing else. He closed her muzzle and shut her eyes, making no further movements. It was some time—the fullness of the promised fifteen minutes, he supposed—until the door opened. Kevin perceived the scene with a frown.
"I really wish you hadn't done that."
He said nothing to them; they dragged him back to his cell and shut the door. The glow to the walls built, suddenly, until it was a painful glare, from all around him. Then the temperature dropped; his fur was powerless to shield him, and Clay found himself shaking. This he bore stoically.
Even with his eyes closed the light was too bright to relax or to sleep, and a high-pitched whine, at the fringes of his hearing, began shortly afterwards. Clay curled into a corner of the room, trying to conserve his warmth. There was no real escape from the torment.
Nor was there respite. He tried to count the seconds, and then the minutes, but they faded away swiftly. After some time he was aware of thirst, and then sometime later of hunger. Neither longing subsided; the glow did not dim and the noise did not ease. He stood up—it had been hours, maybe; maybe days. He tried to pace around the room, but at the first step a crippling pain seized his temples and he sat again, drawing his ankles up. He stared into the whiteness.
His claws were longer than they had looked, holding Riya's body. Some of this was dehydration, he thought; the rest of it, he wasn't sure. Had he been in there that long? It wasn't possible. And yet... as he watched them the claws grew longer still. He tried to push them back with the palm of his other paw, and when that failed to work he tried to gnaw on them. There was sharp pain, and the coppery taste of blood. He stanched the finger against the wall; if nothing else the blood gave it colour.
The strain grew tacky and dark quickly—Clay could no longer trust his senses, but it seemed clear enough to him that he was now hallucinating. How to deal with was another matter entirely; he tried to talk, but what came from his mouth bore no resemblance to words.
"You could've told them, I suppose, Clay." He scrabbled back, along the floor. Riya Kenley sat where the stain had been—or perhaps it had given birth to her; he could not be certain. "It wouldn't have satisfied your question for vengeance; your vindictiveness... but then, I have never understood your penchant for violence."
He couldn't answer her; his muzzle simply failed to work. "She forgives you." Next to the pastor, who—despite the words—fixed him in a reproachful gaze Stanley Highsmith shrugged. "I wish I could say the same. You know we could've been something. I was willing to do anything for you—anything but this damned quest of yours. Was it really easier to kill her? Was it easier to kill me?"
Riya's voice was as soft as it had ever been. "He knows it was your fault."
"I trusted you—we never had any reason to think otherwise. We tried to stop the ship but it was too late... it was clear it was sabotage. I tried to send a message but... I died first. I wish I hadn't. Why did you kill me, Clayton? Was it worth it? Was it?"
At some point, he had reached the far side of the wall, but the figures didn't recede. Then there were more of them; faces he remembered dimly, their eyes dead—or hateful; as their life dripped from wounds he supposed he had inflicted. Many of them he only remembered now, in the depths of his growing insanity. Kenley started to approach him, shaking her head sadly. He jerked violently back, and his head slammed into the wall behind him.
When he came to the white light remained, but it was Kevin's face above him and the noise was gone. So, too, was the cold. "Three days," he said. "Very impressive. We had to rehydrate you—you'll be going back, soon. What were you seeing?" Clay shot a cold glare at him; the tiger shrugged. "I was merely asking. Please don't take my curiosity the wrong way, Mr. Clayton."
He was secured to a bed through a pair of handcuffs that bound his wrist to the railing. Nothing else kept him, though when he tried to move his right arm he could hardly summon the strength. "You can't..." his voice was hoarse, inhuman. "You can't trust what I say. I'm not useful to you like this."
"You presume we're concerned about your information, and not simple vindictiveness. Yes, Mr. Clayton—even we have our limits."
There were sparks, dancing in the white light of the ceiling in the surgical bay. They formed shapes; a face, a landscape. Then they seemed to shift. There were numbers written on them; he saw an engineer's arrows written above his leg, guiding its movement. He saw equations of force; saw chemical reactions that fed energy to muscles sparked by neurotransmitters he saw sketched in perfect, crystalline clarity. "Go to hell."
"Of course, Mr. Clayton." Kevin leaned over him to adjust a machine, and in that moment the equations—the maps and lines and poetry—flashed brilliantly. As if in slow motion his leg drew back, and then punched forward, catching the tiger in his throat. Clay's leg dropped back, all his energy sapped, and the world moved at a steady pace again. Kevin was gone; he heard noises from below the bed; the frame rattled with kicks from an unseen force. Soon the noises stopped.
Clayton waited tiredly for a few minutes, waiting for Lee to arrive and dispatch him. When nothing happened, he tilted his head, looking around the room. It was empty. There were no voices, just the whirring of machines—the IV next to him, that dripped fluid into his arm. He was starting to feel stronger.
He shook his head, and looked around him. He tugged on the handcuffs; they held fast. Then he nodded, for what else was there to do?
We hold all Earth to plunder—
All Time and Space as well—
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in mid-illusion
Of Godhead 'neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned.
The mighty works we planned.
Rudyard Kipling, "Hymn of the Breaking Strain" (1935)
Summer was starting to wane, and there was still no progress on decrypting the numbers Clayton had left behind. Instead of desperation, though, there was a complacency—the Union had not arrived, and the Programmers had not found them. Perhaps, despite the massive bulk of the Andromeda Maru that stood as a stark reminder of their aim, there was nothing to be concerned about.
Molly was eating lunch with Kelly Coverly, in the meadow beneath the ship, when she caught a slight sound. It was very faint, and unfamiliar—the closest comparison she could make was with the alarms that had gone off when they simulated a hull breach, on Sacagawea. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" She put a finger to her mouth—the noise was building. "Bloody hell—they've found us." Kelly pulled Molly to her feet, and they raced for the autosled. The village, when they shot from the pass that overlooked it, was a mass of activity. The defensive guns on the perimeter were pointed up, waiting.
There was a deep thud from above them, and a sudden thick trail of condensation blazed across the sky. It was sinking quickly, towards them; when the descending starship finally fired its retro rockets they were close enough to hear. The guns had held their fire; Kelly ran with her towards the closest one, where the operator was focused on the falling vessel—a little courier ship; battered, the shielding gone from her right nacelle. "What's going on? Who is that?"
"I don't know—they just said not to fire. Must be an unexpected trader."
Her heart was still in her throat, and she joined Kelly, jogging to the landing strip as the ship touched down. The air still shimmered from the heat of the hull, but the passenger hatch opened anyway, and a figure jumped to the ground, striding towards them. She started to speak, caught something.
"What happened to you?" Randall Reeds had joined them, with a dozen or so other spectators.
"The word you're looking for is unarmed," Clayton van Vesting said, "if you're feeling particularly clever, or cruel. You—" he turned to Kelly, his eyes fierce. "Why haven't you left yet?"
"We didn't know where Enlightenment was. Your coordinates don't mean anything—we figured you were using some offset, but nothing seemed to make sense."
The wolf seemed on edge, shaking his head with a growl. "It's a trinary code, embossed on the numbers. That's why you use nanoscopic writing, to hide things like that. How quickly can you leave? I saw your ship over there. Is it finished?"
Kelly nodded, a look of pride on his face. "We can leave at any time."
Without acknowledging the feat Clayton grunted vague approval at its completion. "Good—start it up. What happened to my ship?"
"The Glen Einich? It's docked with the Andromeda Maru—uh, the—"
"I guessed. Go. Start getting ready for launch."
"Uh, sure, we—"
The wolf cut Coverly off roughly, grabbing him with his remaining arm. "God damn it—go." As Kelly blinked, and then took off at a run for the autosled, Clay looked back over the crowd. "Saito—I need to speak with the shogun at once." They took off together, and Molly followed, aware of Randall and a few interested soldiers with her.
The shogun was seated over a bowl of rice when they entered. "Clayton—" He stood, abandoning the rice.
"Tell the Emperor that we need to evacuate. The Union will be coming—probably quite soon."
General Watanabe froze; there was a soft clatter as his chopsticks fell to the bamboo mat beneath him. "What—how do you know?"
"Because—if they have a gram of sense—I was followed. It's possible that my escape was entirely legitimate—I took precautions, and God knows I'd like to think I'm smart enough to avoid a setup. But you have to be ready."
"Your arm..." The shogun seemed to notice the tied-off sleeve for the first time. "What happened?"
At first, the wolf seemed ready to snap, as he had at Coverly. Instead he sighed quickly. "It's a long story. After they left Albion, I was captured by the Programmers. They... presented an eventual opportunity to escape. It merely exacted a... small toll in flesh, that's all."
Molly spoke up, entirely out of turn. "Are you alright?"
"No. No, I'm not—and the arm won't be growing back, either. As I said, General—it's possible I got away cleanly, but I'd imagine they took the opportunity to find what I wouldn't tell them. They may not be here tomorrow—I covered my tracks as best I could—but I'd destroy that ship and start getting ready to move."
"If you thought they might follow you—even for a moment—why did you come back to us?"
The wolf shook his head. "A deepening—if evidently justified—concern that that ship would not yet have launched. If we move now, perhaps—I stress the ambiguity—we can head them off before they find you. But it would unwise to take no further precautions."
"You wish to strike now?"
"I'll crew that ship by myself if I have to. We're taking them down—now."
Watanabe sighed heavily, and his eyes closed. When he opened them again, it was with a nod of his head, an accepting growl. "Then we'll stand with you. We have arms, here. If the Union wants this planet, they can go through us. If there's no-one left to subjugate, they can hardly be said to have conquered."
"The women and children? The elderly?"
"Their hearts beat the blood of this place through their veins every bit as strongly as yours or mine. They'll fight alongside us, I'm sure of it."
Clayton—whom Molly had not really considered particularly romantic—looked to contest the argument for a moment; then he bowed. "Take one down for me, General."
Watanabe grinned darkly, returning the bow—even more sharply than the wolf had moved. "The same to you, Clayton. If we fail... I will see you in the next world. Until then—go. In the name of the Emperor."
Molly left, more or less she thought, in her own name, following closely with Clay as he sought out another sled to make the trip over the pass. Seeing him a couple, burdened with supplies from the market, shoved them roughly off the sled and offered it to him. He saluted crisply, taking a seat. Towards the centre of town, the alarm bell began to chime, slowly, a deep gong that rang out over the valley. The sea of people began to draw towards the tower.
Around the autosled, only three people remained. "If you need me on that ship, tell me—a single word, Clay, that's all you have to say. Otherwise... I'll stay with these people. I can shoot—a damn sight better than some kid can."
"I think, Holzschuherl, their cause is probably hopeless. But if one old man can still be allowed to fight for what he believes in, then I'm with Randall here."
Molly saw the wolf swallow, hard. "It's probably for the best—they need people. I'll be back soon—a week, two at most. I'll join you on the lines, then. It would be an honour to die beside you."
"We'll give a good account of yourself, friend—and who knows... "
He stepped from the autosled. His jaw was set, firmly, and he hugged each of them, saying nothing until he was seated once more. Then he turned to Molly. "You staying to fight, too, or do you want to pay a short visit to the Union?"
Molly smiled, trying to ignore the nervousness that rose in the tension of the moment. "I'd like to go home," she said, and stepped aboard the sled. She was barely secured before he twisted the handles and it leapt forward like a startled doe.
Smoke was rising from the Andromeda Maru; dust billowed from beneath the engine exhaust ports. The ramp was still down; Clay sprinted up it, and she followed, tapping the panels to close the door behind them. On the bridge, Kelly was busy at the computer.
"I found your coordinates. It took a little adapting, but... we have a course. We'll need to be accurate to... well, we'll have to be exceedingly accurate, let's say that—but we have it. I can put us on a line to intercept them on a zero-correction desync. We'll have about a minute to fire the missiles."
"That should be plenty. We're lifting off now—there may be Union forces inbound. Any expediting you can do would be much appreciated, Kelly."
"Yes, sir." A powerful rumble shook the Andromeda Maru; Molly and Clay exchanged a brief glance. "Gravito-magnetics. Not quite enough to compensate for our whole weight—not without using up all our antimatter doing it. But..." The ship lurched, and off the starboard side Molly could see the mountains dropping away. "Close enough. You two will want to strap in; I can't guarantee what this is going to feel like."
Molly sat down, and was starting to buckle when Clay swore, next to her. The harness was not conducive to single-handed operation; she leaned over to help him, holding the magnetic clasp in place while he brought its mate over until the two clicked. "Thank you," he said—quietly; the first quiet thing he'd said. Then she secured her own harness, nodding her head to Kelly when he looked back.
The ship punched forward; there was no way to see the Teikoku as it receded behind them. There was only the rush of air, fading quickly; then darkness, with the stars beginning to emerge. She felt herself shift abruptly as the ship turned itself with remarkable speed. Then the stars vanished, the tractor powered on with the bellow of a ghostly organ, and they were away.
"Do you mind telling us what this is about?"
They hadn't stopped moving since he'd landed, Molly realised—it hardly seemed such a short time ago. "Yes—what's... what happened to you? Where have you been—it's been eight months now. We thought you were dead, or... worse, I suppose."
"Worse," Clayton said, shifting his gaze between the two. "It was worse. Does that help you conceive of it?" She said nothing, looking away from the wolf's eyes—they were piercing, with a hollowness she hadn't seen before. "The Programmers found me. Tortured me, I suppose you would say. They wanted to know where that planet was. It was too large a gamble to tell them unless I knew that you had launched, and... they gave no sign that you had. Eventually they... left me with one guard, in a hospital bed. I... overcame his observation. To escape I had to cut off my hand."
"Bloody hell," Kelly breathed. "Is that what happened?"
"I got out—they were using a little cell on Andaman Station. I was able to keep myself from bleeding to death long enough to steal a ship. I made it to Shepherd's Watch, but... by the time I found a doctor, it was too late for my arm. That's it. I escaped." He said the word bitterly; Molly guessed the experience prior to the escape had not been kind. "Not everyone escaped. I did. And perhaps I got away cleanly, or perhaps they followed me. I told the shogun to evacuate, either way. That's their fight, now. This is ours."
"Who didn't escape?" Kelly asked the question that danced in the front of Molly's own brain. Clay unbuckled himself from the seat, turned, and went aft without speaking. Neither of them said a word in his absence.
She could only conjecture at what had happened; and for it to have to broken him in the way it seemed, she knew her conjecture was probably far too tame. The activity she had seen from him, upon his first landing, proved to be an aberration; when they were not working on the ship, he was quiet, speaking only when asked a question and allowing nothing about his past other than that, she gathered, he intended to exorcise it in the destruction of Enlightenment.
She hoped that would be sufficient.
"One hour. I've made all the final corrections. Let's bring the missile control board up."
"It's not responding." Clay didn't seem particularly animated or concerned; his voice was matter-of-fact and calm. "Doesn't look like there's any return signal."
"The backup systems... say they're working... what's the error code?"
"Twelve. What does it mean?"
Molly looked between the two men as they talked; Coverly was working with increasing franticness at his computer. "The controller board from here isn't talking to the computers on the missiles. It's... son of a bitch. It's in the missiles; the transceiver must be unpowered. I... god damn it—they wouldn't let me show them how to connect to the mains..."
"Can you fix it?"
"Not in an hour; not with all of them. They'll have to be launched manually."
Clay nodded, as if the malfunction was merely another inevitability to be accepted stoically. "And how long will that take?"
"Fifteen, thirty seconds a missile?"
"Enough to launch six." Kelly looked to Molly, shrugged and nodded. "Out of thirty. That's not sufficient."
"I'm not sure what else to do, offhand."
The wolf shrugged. "You should be—you're an engineer, after all. How fast will we be going, when we desync? A hundred and fifty kilometres per second? We've been accelerating most of this time, yes?"
"Well, yes—you wanted to be able to strike without the opportunity for them to defend themselves..."
"This ship masses a hundred and ten million metric tons. Our kinetic energy alone would suffice."
"That would mean sacrificing the ship," Kelly said, shaking his head. "The... the Glen Einich—maybe it would be able to take the stress of escaping; I doubt it."
Clay nodded. "You're probably right, and I'm sorry. But we all have to make sacrifices—unless you have a better idea, Mr. Coverly."
"It'd be over quickly, at least," Molly said. She wasn't entirely certain she cared about this, but Clay—she suddenly realised—was right. There was no clean way out. "We should've been ready for it, right? All the time we spent running; all the things we've been through? It was going to be our time eventually, but we did it anyway. We have to see it through."
The wolf laughed, almost inaudibly—but he nodded crisply, then, to her. "She's right, Mr. Coverly. Pride in your work—it's important. It's the only thing we have, in the end—being able to say we're happy with what we've done. You've built a good ship, Kelly—men will build another. It's a question of time, that's all."
"Should we try to escape?"
"It would almost certainly be futile, but... I wouldn't hold it against you. You should probably start readying the Glen Einich now, though. I can watch the bridge for you."
Kelly frowned, then, but stood from his seat at the captain's chair and headed back for the small docking bay. Molly looked to Clay; he met her eyes with a smile. Some of the darkness was gone, but—"you won't be joining us, will you?"
The wolf shook his head. "I don't think so. I... I have a lot of sins to pay for, Molly. I'd like to get started on my punishment early. There are people I'd like to see... none of them where I'm bound—in time, perhaps. In time."
"You could at least try to come with us."
"Unfortunately, miss Garrison, doing so carries with it the risk that I survive. I don't want to, anymore. It's this world, I think... it doesn't have any use for me. If we succeed, that is—I've given up so much; done so many terrible things... there's no payoff. Just completion. But if we fail, well... I'm as good as dead anyway, and I've seen what the Programmers do to people."
"Was it too much?" She didn't mean it to condemn him; her voice was quiet. She felt genuine concern, even if she could not justify the reason. "I never would've have thought you capable of being broken."
"This is, unfortunately, not true. One of the greater gifts in your life, miss, is that you will never know what they did—the greatest is that you never find out firsthand. I hope you make it, though; the Glen Einich is a strong ship. I wouldn't consider it impossible."
She nodded. "I hope, actually, a little. Kelly and I..."
"I can see that." The wolf closed his eyes; he looked worn, aged, but he smiled anyway. "Then you better make it, no? You have to respect a final wish, don't you?"
Molly stood, and at the movement, he opened his eyes again. "Molly. I want you to know that... I'm sorry, for what I did to you. I would do it again—I don't regret doing it. I should be honest. But... I regret that I lived a life where that had to happen, and I regret every misfortune that it's caused you." He stood, bowing his head to her. "I don't mean to compel you to accept the apology, just... know that it's sincere."
The truth came honestly, and it came as she wrapped her arms behind him, giving him a tight embrace. "I forgive you. And I hope you find peace, Clayton. I hope the last thing you feel is that you've done right by the universe. I'll make sure there'll always be people who know that you did."
He nodded, slowly. But he said nothing else; only took his seat again, eyes shutting a final time. A few minutes later Kelly reappeared. He slipped up to the bridge, running his paw over the armrest of the captain's seat. Then he gave it a soft pat; turned to her. "It's time to go. You coming, Clay?" The wolf shook his head. "Take good care of her, then. It's a good boat."
They left quickly, towards the exit. Before the door closed she chanced a glance backwards. Clayton sat placidly, head bowed in prayer silhouetted against the dull white glow behind the lightshields of the cockpit glass. It would be her enduring memory of him.
"We have a very small window of opportunity. When we drop out of subspace, we're going to have to fly out the side of the Andromeda Maru, turn exactly to her course, and jump back in before she hits Enlightenment and takes us with it. It's going to be rough."
She squeezed his paw tightly. "I think we can make it; what do you suppose?"
"I intend to try, that's for damned sure." He grinned, baring his teeth against the nervousness that was plain on his face. "Buckle in?"
There was a soft rumble, and the hatch in front of them opened to black space. The Glen Einich shot forward, clearing the Andromeda Maru; they turned, parallel to it, and Kelly pulled the throttles all the way back to engage the thrusters at full reverse power. Molly strained forward at her seat as the Andromeda Maru started to slip forward in her vision, pulling away from them. "We'll... stay back as long as we can, try to bleed off speed... every meter per second counts..."
"I trust you," she said. He laughed, nervously, and shot her a worried glance. "I do—really."
"Well, that's one of us..." the Andromeda Maru was well in front of them, now, moving away. "Son of a bitch... look—can you see that?"
She strained her vision, shaking her head. "No—what?"
"There... right in the centre..."
Then she saw it, a dull grey sphere, growing larger as they pushed swiftly towards it. Enlightenment—a blank, featureless cinder, lit only half-heartedly by the star that lay off their port. "That's it? That's what all this has been for?"
"Hard to believe." He shook his head. "We're going much too fast. I think—I think we're going to be envying Clayton in about thirty seconds, dear."
"Because it'll be over for him first." He pulled a thin strip from his pocket with some effort—a watch, in the Downcountry style. "Twenty seconds until the ship impacts... fifteen..."
"Will we see it?"
"Unfortunately, we can't afford to watch the fireworks. Ten... nine... eight... slow down, god...damn... you!" Then he engaged the tractor, and they jumped into subspace.
The sense that they were going to die—and soon—was immediate. The Glen Einich began a series of tortured wails and alarms, shrieking in protest as they slammed into the æther. The throttles were shaking themselves about with the force of the stress; Kelly reached his hand out to steady them, trying to hold them back.
If the fury was easing, it was impossible to tell. Molly tried to make out the numbers on the ship's dials without success until, in a flurry of sparks, the lights all went off. It was then that she screamed, and as if this had helped the ride began to ease. There were jolts; sharp, rough bucks as though a great hammer were falling on the ship—but they did not seem to be dead, and after a few minutes Kelly turned to her, his face lit in the glow. "We're coasting."
"Somehow... Jesus... oh, that was a rush..." he panted heavily, shaking his head. "You want to do that again?"
Her throat was raw, but she laughed in the giddy relief of her own survival. "Yes."
"Too bad; our engines are shot. We'll... ahh, hold on." He reached out with his leg and kicked something; the lights came back. "Circuit breaker. We are... oof. Well she's done it once, but this ship's not making another journey, I'll tell you that much."
"Can we call for help?"
"Yeah, we can... I'll wait for us to slow down before we desync—not sure if the hull'll take the stress otherwise. But... everything seems to be working."
In a sense, this was unbelievable. But there was nothing else to be done—she had to accept it anyway. Kelly leaned back, heavily, and grinned at her. She grinned back. "Good work."
An hour later, he judged the ship to have slowed enough to make the re-entry safely. They dropped back into normal space, and he started querying their position for the distress call. She leaned on him, nibbling his ears as he worked, and when the distress call had been sent she added what she'd been meaning to say for some time:
"I love you."
"If you'd said that a month ago, I could've found somebody else to fly this."
"You wouldn't have. You needed to do it—no other way."
"Could've at least said that before. What if we'd died?"
"Yeah, but what if I'd said and then we'd died—would've been very bittersweet."
There was a quiet buzz from the computer, and Kelly leaned over to examine it. "You might get your chance anyway. Life support just cut out."
The giddiness had drained in an instant; Molly felt suddenly detached, as though she was watching herself from a distance. "Can we fix it?"
He tapped at the computer a few times, and shook his head. "No. I mean... it's not completely hopeless. We've got air for... six hours, maybe, with the recirculators down? Maybe a bit more if we don't move much. Heat won't be a problem—reactor's still hot."
"Are we going to die?"
Kelly took a deep breath, whistled softly. "Probably. Out in the middle of nowhere—got an aggie rock a couple of light years out, but that's it. Ways from a tradelane—message'll carry, but that'll take time."
She nodded. It seemed a shame, really, to have come so far—but if it was true, there was no grand point in arguing it. She lifted her head, indicating a bench along the ship's wall. He sat next to her, there, with his arm around her. "You know... I would've gone with you. Anywhere, anywhere you wanted. Andromeda—or, hell, could've kept going. The whole universe."
"I wasn't sure if you would've been happy. I don't think I could've done it, if you were miserable—it's fine; civilisation is a good thing for people. I'd have stuck around, if I thought there was anything worth a damn..."
Molly took his paw and played with it, gently, stroking his fingers. "Would you have built another ship?"
"I'm not sure. With the Programmers gone... maybe not. I could settle down somewhere else; bit closer. Maybe even Albion." Then he laughed, shaking his head. "No. No, not Albion."
"Is it?" He turned, giving her nose a gentle kiss. "Let's plan on moving there, then. They could probably use a shipwright. What about you? What would you do?"
"Teach. I think I could be a teacher."
He nodded, pulling her close; voice dropping to a whisper. "A teacher, then. We could buy a house, I think—I've got some liang left over from the payment Clay gave me for this rustbucket. Nice little house..."
"I want a garden. Can we do that?"
It would be small; easy to tend to, the house and garden both. She would grow vegetables, there, and chop them up in the evenings for dinner, with the smell of fresh food wafting through the house. It would be close enough to market to walk—so that, on summer evenings with the sound of birds and crickets in the low bushes, they could walk down, hands together, to pick over spices and haggle with a merchant who knew them by their first names.
It would be small, but big enough for a nursery—maybe they could convert another room; her den, perhaps, she fancied herself with one to study in. They could put a crib there, paint the walls together in a soft, comforting colour, and lean back to admire their handiwork.
It would be small, and the garden would fall to disuse as the yard became the stomping ground for the next generation. There would be hills raised, and valleys dug as moats for castles built of rock and twigs. There would be a grill, there; food, cooked over an open flame, and they would point to the sky, showing their child what it meant to be from Downcountry, from Tianxia, from Earth.
There was a soft chime, from the cockpit. Eight hours had passed; they roused themselves from sleep with difficulty. The wireless crackled. "This is the MV Sitka Maru—you folks look like you still need help. I'm closing from about eight thousand kilometres—can I get a squawk for terminal?"
At first, Kelly seemed confused. "What? Wh—oh my god." He sprung to his feet and Molly followed close behind, slower in the dwindling oxygen of the ship's atmosphere. The fox keyed the microphone, panting in exertion and excitement. "Transmitting—can I get a reference? Our main engines are dead, but we've got thrusters; I can zero out for you. Christ almighty, are you a sight for sore eyes."
The airlock hissed as the two ships joined. The door slid open; Molly thought she could smell the oxygen as it poured over into the wreck of the Glen Einich. Their rescuer's captain stepped in. "Captain Reiss, pleased to—Molly?"
Kelly turned to the husky with eyebrows raised. "You've met?"
She was too shocked to form complete sentences; her speech was clipped and rapid. "A few months ago—worked for—he's—I've seen this ship before—took me to Dundalk."
"It's a small universe," Carey said, and shook Kelly's paw. "But you're lucky as hell to get picked up. You're way out of the tradelanes—I came out here specifically 'cause there isn't any noise. Needed to calibrate my sensors—my ship's been in drydock for six months getting patched up. Ain't nobody else out here but me."
"Good fortune has to look for everyone once or twice..."
"Yeah, or you got seriously good planning skills. To hell with the odds, though—I can take you back to The Island; you need to salvage anything from this ship?"
After a moment Kelly returned, carrying their bags. He shook his head when Carey asked if there was anything else.
It was easy to shut the door on the Glen Einich; easy to look forward to The Island, to Dundalk, to anywhere. Molly felt buoyant, like she could've floated the distance there without a starship—but the tractor drive helped.
She tried to decide how much to tell Carey—now, she supposed, the danger was gone. But the story was impossible to believe; harder still to narrate. Instead, she took a computer back to one of the staterooms and began dictating.
Molly thought with her eyes closed. She thought of people, faithfully serving the Emperor of a millennia-old dynasty the Union would never have recognised. She thought of her friend, on Earth, Patel, who had given his life for something so vast that his death was practically an act of god. Of a hapless freighter captain who had nonetheless managed, through luck of staggering odds, to be in the right place to welcome them aboard with open arms. Of a young shipwright who had lost two ships in under a day but thought nothing of starting anew. Of a dark shadow, with bowed head, waiting with his eyes closed for the end of a lifetime's quest.
She paced the Sitka Maru's decks—it had been so long they no longer felt familiar. By the wheelhouse, she talked to Carey; Coverly already had, and the captain seemed to think it a yarn—except. There were tiny sparks of recognition, flames to flicker and singe the doubt a bit. When she mentioned Clayton van Vesting, Carey's face had darkened, and he'd shaken his head when she'd asked him why. Kelly, too, had been unable to get an answer. "You're something else," Carey had said, finally. "The both of you." But he grinned, and she supposed he meant it.
Perhaps it was unremarkable—perhaps, in a universe of a hundred and sixty billion people, the impossible happened every day. Perhaps it was all inconsequential; perhaps none of it mattered. Perhaps the people were only as unique as the next man at the market.
But she disagreed. She had stood, she thought, in the presence of great things. She had known great people—had done, perhaps, no inconsequential things herself. And, knowing what she did—knowing the consequence, the journey, the ending—she resolved that she would do it again, given the choice. So it was, that when she finished talking to Carey she returned to her room, and she wrote it all down. And at the end, with her voice cracking from the hours of dictation, she added the Roddy Callen poem from the Sitka Maru's dedication plaque, on Carey's request:
Though the darkness is vast and repelling
A frontier we'd do well to avoid
Still it takes not an ounce of foretelling
To observe how it might be enjoyed
On the planets are men overbearing
A free spirit might oft' be annoyed
Freely raising alarm and despairing
At the freedom that men have destroyed.
So they turn to the stars on a freighter—
Where a rebel might still be employed—
And remember to thank their Creator
That's there's rooms for all kinds, in the void!