Reclamation — Prologue
“WE’RE IN.” COMING THROUGH the cargo bay’s intercom, Hellea’s tenor voice sounded watery.
Burig let out a sigh that deflated his paunch to half its normal size. The arms on his chair tightened around his midriff to compensate. A split second later, the hum filtering through the sterile deck plates from the third level drive fell silent. Now, the Alliance Runner drifted on nothing but its own momentum and Hellea’s calculations.
A series of sharp clicks sounded from across the bay as Ovin opened all the restraint catches on her own chair and shoved its arms out of the way. Burig smiled. Ovin hated being strapped down. Already she was pulling out drawers and raising wire racks up around the thaw-out table, getting them ready for the equipment she would need to hang there if their find went into shock, or worse.
Burig shifted his weight so that the chair leaned him toward the intercom’s control board. He touched the VIEW key beside the flat screen set flush against the undecorated, blue tile wall. The familiar pattern of white spheres and gold lines that represented May 16’s system filled the too-small square. The Runner showed up as an out-of-proportion red dash floating between them. Burig rapped the image twice with his knuckle for thankfulness.
Ovin glanced curiously at him from between the forest of wires and monitor boxes she was building, but she didn’t say anything. The bay’s stark, white lights gave her profile a hard edge, despite her snub features. Burig tried to ignore her cool eyes. Instead he touched the CALL key for the bridge.
“Hellea,” he said toward the intercom, “how soon can you get me through to Director Dorias?”
“As soon as I set up a priority call for an open line,” came the reply. “Want it routed down here?”
“If you would.” Burig glanced past Ovin at the capsules. All of them waited dormant and dark in their racks, except the one humming and clicking gently by her elbow. “How far out are we?”
“This rate of drift, and all other things being equal, we’ll be putting in at Alliance Station in eight, maybe ten hours.”
“Thanks,” Burig said without any feeling. He shut the view screen off and swiveled the chair away from the wall. The restraints suddenly felt too tight around his waist. He thumbed the catches so the arms fell open to let him stand up.
“What’s the matter?” Ovin bent over the stacks of emergency gear next to the thaw-out table. Everything was switched on now, and at full ready. “Not soon enough for you?”
Burig leaned against the table and watched Ovin run through her checks. She kept her attention focused on the readouts as tightly as if she had a full hold and this was her first run. She had only stowed the loose systems that might be damaged in the event of a rough reentry into the system. Everything else had stayed up and running for the whole trip. Captain Notch had bawled her out about wasting power at the beginning. Ovin had replied that if Notch wanted to risk the cargo, wanted to risk a life, he could drop the ship into a black hole, but he wouldn’t do it by intimidating her.
Burig had hidden his smile. Nobody tried to tell Imeran d’or dyn Ovin anything about her specialty more than once. It wasn’t worth it.
“I’m just going to be really glad when we can hand her over to somebody else,” Burig said. “This is too close to contraband running for me.”
“Got a flash for you, Subdirector.” Ovin looked down at her charge. “This is contraband running.”
Burig sighed again. From here, he could see through the polymer shell of the active capsule to the woman inside. The ragged patchwork she wore as clothing looked incongruous trapped under the network of tubes and wires that fed her drugs and nutrients and monitored her condition. The translucent blue of the tubes reflected against her clear, brown skin, making long pale streaks that ran perpendicular to the scars on the backs of her hands. A respiration mask covered her mouth and nose, but Burig couldn’t see her chest move at all.
“Well,” said Burig, not taking his gaze off the still figure, “it’s not like she’s really Family.”
Ovin pursed her thin lips and watched the data on the support screens. Her trained eye picked out the details of heart rhythm, eye movement, respiration, and brain activity. “That’s not what we’re telling the rest of the Quarter Galaxy.”
“Until we know what we’ve got and why the Rhudolant Vitae are so interested in them, we’ve got to say something.” Burig stared at the screens. Technically, he knew what most of the symbolism stood for, but the jumble of letters, numbers, and colored lines kept flowing into fresh formations before he could make any real sense out of it. “This is not just another batch of cradlers’ descendants who’ve forgotten how to bang the rocks together. I’ve got an itch in the back of my head about this. This could be the future of the Human Family we’re carrying.”
“Or its past.” Ovin drew her fingers across the polymer right above the woman’s cheekbone. “That place is crashing old.”
Burig remembered the ragged canyon wall with the deep grooves wind and rain had gouged into the bare, rust red stone.
“Crashing’s the word for it …”
The intercom’s chime cut off the rest of his sentence. Burig rounded the thaw-out table and perched on the edge of the chair just as the screen lit up again. This time, it showed the image of Director Dorias Waesc. Burig had never met him in the flesh, but whenever he saw the Director on screen he thought of Dorias as “the Medium Man.” Dorias had a medium build, medium brown skin and hair, a face suggesting medium age, and a sense of humor that was moderately acute.
“Good to see you, Subdirector Burig,” said Dorias. “How’d things work out?”
“Lu and Jay came through for us, Director,” Burig said with more enthusiasm than he felt. “We got what we went after.”
“How’s he doing?” Dorias’s image leaned closer to the screen as he tried to see across the room.
“She”—Burig slid the visual unit out of the wall and swiveled it around so Dorias could have a better view—“is knocked out in a life-support capsule.”
Dorias frowned. “Was that necessary?”
Burig shrugged. “It was how we got her from Jay. I thought it’d be easier to leave her in there until we got someplace that might require a little less explanation than an intersystem ship.”
Dorias did not look convinced. “She is a volunteer, isn’t she?”
“That’s what Jay says.” Burig tried to read what was going on behind the Director’s eyes. “Is there a problem?”
“No,” said Dorias. Burig was pretty sure he was lying. “You’re what, five hours out, six?”
Burig shook his head. “Eight to ten.”
Dorias rolled his eyes. “All right. I’ve had a request from Madame Chairman to keep you on the line until you get in-system, so I hope you and your relief are feeling talkative.”
Bung looked across at Ovin. Her mouth tightened until it was nothing but a thin, straight line.
“Expecting something to go wrong?” Ovin called toward the screen.
“Always,” said Dorias. “It’s part of my job.”
Like anybody on May 16 is going to be able to do anything about it, thought Burig.
Dorias must have read his mind or the set of his jaw. “And if anything does go wrong, maybe we can’t help, but we’ll need to know about it as soon as it happens. We don’t want to risk losing an emergency burst to interception.”
“By the Vitae?” Burig asked.
“Who else?” said Dorias calmly.
Burig mouthed “told you,” toward Ovin. The entire project had been padded with excessive caution from the beginning. The Runner had been registered as an independent cargo ship. Except for Ovin and Burig, it was crewed with contract fliers from half a dozen disparate systems, none of which called themselves Family. May 16 had been watching Vitae movements nonstop from the moment they left dock. All normal. There hadn’t been even a twitch in the Runner’s direction. Despite that, Burig couldn’t bring himself to believe they were home and clear yet.
“So,” said Dorias, settling back, “what did you think of the Realm?”
“The Realm?” Bung’s eyebrows rose.
“MG49 sub 1,” said Dorias. “Its people call it the Realm of the Nameless Powers. Didn’t Jay give you a history lesson?”
“That’s Cor’s job,” Burig reminded him. “She was out playing native. We didn’t get to hang about to say hello.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he realized how harsh his words sounded. “We didn’t stay grounded very long. That place … it’s not exactly easy to get off of, you know. Especially with the number of eyes and ears the Vitae’ve got in orbit. Has there been any …”
The shrilling of the ship’s alarm cut through his sentence. Reflex jerked Burig’s head up.
“Blood …” he croaked out the syllable just as the world shuddered.
Burig’s shoulder slammed painfully into the wall. He gripped the edge of the seat reflexively to keep from being thrown to the floor. Ovin dropped herself into her security seat, fastening the belts down and locking the struts into place so she’d stay within arm’s reach of the capsule.
The ship jerked back and forth for a bad moment before the regulators kicked in again. The racks jingled and rattled and three of them collapsed. A dozen different alarms sounded and the ship’s voice came from every direction. Hull breach, hold evacuation, engine shutdown. Burig’s head spun.
What in the God’s name’s happened! We hit an asteroid? What …
“You’re being boarded!” shouted Dorias.
“How’d you know?” Burig punched up the view from the hull cameras. Over the back of the ship’s pitted hull hung a black, unmarked cylinder with its nose buried in the Runner’s side.
Ovin’s eyes went round. “Who …”
“It’s the Vitae.” Dorias’s voice cut across the visual.
The screen blurred and cut to black.
“Couldn’t see where they’re coming in …” Burig hit the CALL key to the bridge, and hit it again.
“Tai is on her way,” reported Dorias’s voice from the intercom. “Going to intercept them at the airlock … blood, blood, blood … They’re cutting in through the cooling tanks!”
Burig’s gaze jumped to the wall in front of him. How like the Vitae, he thought ridiculously. Go straight in. No fussing around with airlocks where someone might be able to slow you down …
“Suit!” shouted Ovin a split second before the breach alarm blared inside the bay.
Burig made it to his feet. The outside image flickered back into place on the intercom. All he could do was stare at the unmarked ship with its nose stuck into the Runner’s flank. A thin, silver ribbon of coolant rippled into the vacuum, dispersing in a flurry of sparkling crystal.
Two points of pressure slammed against his back, knocking some wind out of his lungs, and sending him stumbling toward the cargo bay door. “Suit, Burig!” bawled Ovin.
Reflexes honed by years of drills let him yank the locker open and start shoving himself into the pressure suit, despite the trembling that threatened to overwhelm him. Ovin twisted her helmet sharply, left then right, to lock it into place. Her fingers, blunted by the white gloves, stabbed Burig in the collarbone and rib cage, closing down his seals for him just as Tai, in her own suit, shoved open the hatch.
“Ditch the find!” Tai yelled into her transmitter loud enough to make Burig wince. “And get outta here!”
“No!” Ovin shouted back.
“We can’t let the Vitae have it!”
“No.” Ovin’s steady voice carried more weight than Tai’s shout ever could have. “No one’s committing murder in my bay!”
The ship’s voice droned on, calmly reporting the hull breach, the tank breach, the coolant drop.
Burig’s jaw clenched. The Runner was already dead. He was probably already dead in his tracks. The realization broke a fresh sweat on his brow. The only thing left to do was to keep the Vitae from getting their hands on what the Family had found.
She’s not really Family, he told himself firmly as he pushed past Ovin. Ovin shouted something, but Tai grabbed her shoulders and dragged her toward the airlock. Burig stretched his hand toward the main power feed for the support capsule.
Behind him, metal screamed and shattered. Burig’s feet flew out from under him, propelled by the rush of freed air. The deck smashed against his back, splashing a wave of coolant across his faceplate.
Burig rolled onto his knees and tried to scrabble to his feet. Above him, a human figure in a red pressure suit climbed out of the flood of coolant gushing through the tear in the hull. The alarms shrieked. Ovin and Tai shouted. Burig couldn’t even stand. Two more suited humans waded out of the broken tank.
The invader lifted a half-meter-long stick from its belt. A twin bore down on Ovin and Tai. The first bent toward Burig. Burig swung his arm. The invader blocked it almost casually and knelt on his chest. The stick had a razor-edged blade on the end. Burig could see it clearly as it flashed down toward his throat.
Burig gagged on nothing at all. His lungs burned and his arms flailed randomly, splashing coolant across his faceplate. The invader stood up. Burig clutched at his helmet lock. His hands dropped away and a grey haze swam in front of his eyes. There was nothing to breathe and no strength in his arms and the God knew where Ovin was and all he could do was watch while the invaders typed the release code for the support capsule and waited for the rack to retract its hold on their find.
How did they know about her? Burig thought. How in the name of the God did they know …
With his eyes wide-open, Burig died.
Chapter 1—Haron Station, Hour 06:23:48, Station Time
A million years ago, someone, somewhere, looked up at the sky and said “I will go there.” With that, they launched a cradle full of their own kind into the sky. Eventually, distance and history claimed them and left us here. We rise. We fall. We bicker and we make peace. We create our own children and our own cradles. We find our own kind and we lose them again.
Of ourselves, this is all we will ever know.
Alda of Jorin Ferra from “Concerning the Search for the Evolution Point.”
ERIC BORN WATCHED HARON Station’s hull rise. It filled the bottom half of the view wall with an ungainly conglomeration of gold and steel blobs. The scene jiggled slightly as the docking clamps took hold of his ship and hauled it into place over the airlock. Behind him, the common room’s terminal chimed twice to indicate an incoming message. Through the doorway that led to the bridge, he could hear the precise voice of Cam, his android pilot, delivering the ship’s maintenance requirements to the station’s docking authorities.
Eric ignored both sets of noises and kept his eyes on the view wall. Another ship, a massive smooth-edged thing, drifted up from behind the bumpy horizon that the station created. Even without magnification, Eric could see the scarlet-tailed comet emblazoned on its side.
Well, he thought. You’re here and I’m here. I just wish you’d tell me what’s going on.
The terminal chimed again. Eric sighed and dropped into the overly padded chair in front of the communications board. Impatiently, he skimmed the introductory message displayed on his ship’s secondary terminal.
HARON STATION WELCOMES THE U-KENAI INTO DOCK AND EXTENDS FULL GREETINGS TO OWNER SAR ERIC BORN. ACCESS TO ALL STATION PUBLIC SYSTEMS AND AREAS APPROVED FOR UP TO ONE HUNDRED HOURS. TWO MESSAGES HAVE BEEN TRANSFERRED INTO YOUR SHIP’S HOLDING MEMORY. APPROPRIATE DEDUCTIONS HAVE BEEN MADE FROM YOUR ACCOUNT.
Eric glanced at the itemized deductions and typed in his approval code. Then he touched the RECEIVE key and the first message took shape on the terminal’s screen.
As Eric suspected, it was from his employers, whose ship had just arrived. The recording showed a blurry, grey background and in front of it stood Ambassador Basq of the Rhudolant Vitae. At least, Eric assumed it was Basq. He’d seldom seen more than one Vitae at a time, and although they appeared human enough, they all had been white-skinned, hairless, and wrapped in billowing, red robes. Eric always thought of the Ambassador as male, but the delicate bones and thick draping of cloth made it impossible for him to be sure.
“Sar Born,” said the image, “please confirm your arrival time to the Vitae receivers. I will meet you at Data Exchange One to discuss your assignment.” The message blanked out as abruptly as it had begun.
Eric gave a small, wordless growl of irritation. He’d spent the past thirty hours scrambling to get four separate projects to the point where they could even be understood by some other Contractor, let alone finished by them. Then he’d had Cam almost burn out the U-Kenai’s third level drive to get to Haron Station, and he still didn’t know what was so urgent.
What can’t you discuss over the lines, Basq? Eric keyed in confirmation of his arrival at Haron and his ability to be present at Data Exchange One in an hour. Haron Station rebalancing their accounts without the Vitae’s permission? Or am I just going to go steal some files?
Eric’s two specialties as a systems handler were being impossible to stop and impossible to trace. The combination guaranteed him some of the more … interesting assignments the Vitae had to hand out. He didn’t mind the clandestine work, and he was grateful to have employers who didn’t ask too many background questions, but he liked to know what was going on so he could get ready for it, whatever it was.
He touched the key to bring up the next message. Plain lines of text printed themselves across the screen. A flood of address information spilled out and Eric raised his eyebrows. This one had come nearly all the way across the Quarter Galaxy.
Finally, the heart of the message came into view.
FROM: SAR DORIAS WAESC OF THE CITY OF ALLIANCES, LANDFALL PLAIN, MAY 16
ERIC: AS SOON AS CAN, GET A LINE OPEN TO THE UNIFIERS. CONTACT DR. SEALUCHIE ROSS. THE RE …
The message ended abruptly.
Blasted antique station. Eric hit the CONTINUE key. A new text line formed.
TOTAL TRANSFER COMPLETED
Eric glanced at the time display in the lower corner of the screen. The hour he had given himself to get to Data Exchange One didn’t leave him much slack time. A message from Dorias, though, was a rare occurrence. What was rarer was the message not getting through in one piece. There was only one systems handler who was better than Dorias, and that was Eric.
He looked at the clock again. Might be time to at least start to find out what’s happened.
Eric reached for the keys, but before he could issue the first command, the receiving light blinked green.
“Now who?” Eric tapped the light to get an ID for the sender. The screen added the words AMBASSADOR BASQ OF THE RHUDOLANT VITAE to the display.
“Garismit’s Eyes.” Eric keyed the line open and shifted his features into his professionally cheerful expression.
The screen lit up and it might have been the recording playing over again. Basq held the same stance against the same background.
“Good Morning and also Good Day, Ambassador,” said Eric. The greeting was one of the few formalities that he knew was used by his employers. Their culture was one of the many things the Vitae kept to themselves. Eric had never been able to decide if they were full-fledged xenophobes, or merely paranoid. Neither attitude made much sense, since their civilization existed by providing skilled labor to most of the Quarter Galaxy. “I sent my arrival time as soon as I docked. Did you get the message? The station seems to be having trouble on the lines …”
“I did receive your arrival time, Sar Born”—Basq’s voice was a smooth tenor, undisrupted by emotional inflection—“but the assignment is urgent and we require your presence immediately. A transport track has been cleared for you. Please proceed to the pickup kiosk.”
So much for slack time. “I’m on my way, Ambassador.”
Basq’s silence passed for assent and the screen faded to black.
“Cam!” Eric called as he got to his feet. The U-Kenai was a well-made, comfortable ship, but it was so small, Eric had activated its internal intercom only half a dozen times in the five years he had owned it. Shouting down the hall was easier.
“Leave a complaint with Haron’s Mail Authorities. I’ve got a partial message here. I want the rest of it, or a refund.”
“Yes, Sar Born.”
Eric reached into the drawer below the console and pulled out one of the thumbnail-sized translation disks that he kept there.
No way to know who I might have to talk to for this, he thought as he slid the disk into place in his ear. Eric had only managed to learn one of the languages spoken around the Quarter Galaxy, and he still had trouble with that one sometimes. It was only a minor handicap, however, since most people who worked with offworlders wore their own translators.
His palms itched. He’d worked for the Vitae for six years, and he’d never seen them in a hurry before. They were usually far too organized for that. It was a standing joke that the Vitae did not permit emergencies. They interfered with the schedule.
Seems to be the day for exceptions. He checked his belt pouch to make sure his identification and account access cards were all there. He had the feeling that this job, whatever it was, was going to take awhile and he didn’t want to be caught locked out of any of his accounts.
Eric undid the console’s stasis drawer. He eased his tool case out of its holder and checked the contents. The delicate probes, virus cards, and line translators all lay snug in their compartments. After a moment’s consideration, he hung the spare diagnostics kit on his belt beside his card pouch. Better be ready for anything.
He ordered the terminal to hold Dorias’s message in storage and, case in hand, walked out the U-Kenai’s arched airlock into Haron Station.
The dock’s corridor was empty, except for a pair of dog-sized cleaning drones polishing scuff marks off the metallic deck and walls. Haron reserved frills like carpeting and wall coverings for its residential levels. Eric’s reflection in the polished walls showed a spruce, alert man whose permanent slouch had much more to do with low-ceilinged corridors than a lack of self-confidence. His curling, black hair had been combed back ruthlessly. His grey shirt, loose trousers, and soft-soled shoes were all well made, but strictly functional.
Eric stepped around the drones. Over their whirring brushes, he could hear the staccato bursts of voices, the arrhythmic tread of booted feet, and all the other miscellaneous noises created by too many people in an enclosed space.
The safety doors at the end of the corridor pulled aside as he reached them. All at once, the still, station air filled with the smells of sweat, perfume, soap, and disinfectant and the babble of half-translated voices. People from a thousand light-years’ worth of climates and cultures crowded the warrenlike hallways, intent on accomplishing the business of their lives.
There was even a gaggle of snake-bodied, long-limbed Shessel in seamless, vermilion atmosphere suits forcing a wriggling path between the humans.
Eric stayed in the threshold to give the Shessel a few extra centimeters to get past him. He folded his arms respectfully as they threaded their way by and received a slow nod in return.
It never ceased to amaze Eric how much easier it had been to make himself learn the Shessel’s courtesies than it had been to learn the ways of the other humans around him. The Shessel looked so different, it was easy to accept that their manners would be unlike anything he knew, but the other humans … in spite of the spectrum of colors and shapes they wore, they had looked so much like the People, he had expected them to act, in most ways, like the People.
Actually, he had expected them to be a bit more barbaric, having never lived under the laws of the Nameless Powers.
Eric felt his mouth bend into a small smile as he remembered his own naïveté. He’d never even considered they might have separate names for themselves. In the Realm, they had just been “the Skymen.”
“Coming through!” Eric called, and the shifting crowd gave ground reluctantly. He shouldered his way between a pair of cold climate women in jumpsuits and a gowned and veiled man who was at least ten centimeters taller than he was. At last, he reached the transport track.
A thick crowd milled around a cylindrical kiosk that supported a screen posting the transport schedule. The snatches of conversation that Eric made out did not sound happy. He soon saw why. One of the four-seater “mini-boxes” waited near the kiosk, blocking the track. The screen on its door read RESERVED. Until the box moved, no public transport could use the track.
Eric ignored the scowls as he pressed forward to type his station account number on the board below the screen. The mini-box’s door lifted open. He folded himself into the seat and let the holding arms swing into place. The door closed and beneath his feet, the track cranked into life. The box trundled forward a few yards and, with a sharp lurch, began the long, slow descent into the main body of the station.
Haron was an old facility that had been not so much designed as thrown together over a series of decades, which made for narrow corridors, rich histories, and easily crowded facilities. One of the few things the engineers had done correctly from the start, as far as Eric was concerned, was separate the automated traffic from the foot traffic. The box shafts snaking through Haron’s piecemeal construction provided bone-rattling transportation, but it was better than trying to fight the pedestrian crowds in the maze of corridors.
Besides, the transit boxes carried comm terminals. Eric slid the board onto his lap and propped the screen back. He keyed open a line to the mail banks. If Dorias’s message was important, he might have left an extra copy in coded storage. No matter how skilled the sender, communications across light-years were tricky and there were lots of opportunities for scrambled data.
Entering his ID produced the heading MESSAGES WAITING with nothing under it. Eric called up the account log. Except for the two messages relayed to the U-Kenai, it showed no activity since his last trip in. Eric pursed his lips and requested the original receipt time for the message for Dorias.
NO MESSAGE RECEIVED FROM THE ENTERED ADDRESS
What? The box jostled him as it settled onto the level track and started backing up. Eric keyed the request in again, more slowly this time.
NO MESSAGE RECEIVED FROM THE ENTERED ADDRESS
Eric drummed his fingers on the edge of the board. Only two things could have happened. One, Dorias had erased his own tracks. Dorias had a lot to hide, but he wasn’t given to unwarranted panic. If he thought there was a chance that either he or Eric was being watched, he’d bounce the message around the net, drop it in the account, and wipe the trail. But he’d also check to see that it had arrived intact. In fact, he’d take precautions to make sure it had.
The other possibility was that somebody had tapped Eric’s account and erased the message.
But if that was what had happened, why had they left anything for him to read at all?
What if they were wiping the file right when it got sent to U-Kenai? The thought left a chill in the back of his mind.
Eric mentally replayed the partial message. As soon as you can, get a line open to the Unifiers. “To the Unifiers,” not “to me.” Which was really strange. The Alliance for the Re-Unification of the Human Family normally did not want anything to do with anyone who worked for the Rhudolant Vitae. They held up the Vitae as the main stumbling block to their ideal of an “indivisible family of all those who trace their lines back to the Evolution Point.” Eric had never gotten around to asking why Dorias had taken up with them. Dorias was a lot of things, but he was only human when he chose to project that image from his home behind the terminals.
“Arrival in three minutes,” said the comm board. Eric pushed the board back into place. No time to check on any of this. All he could do was get through whatever the Vitae had for him as fast as possible and get back to the U-Kenai. From there, he could get a line to the Unifiers, and to Dorias, in relative safety. If necessary, he could crack Haron’s system open and find out who was playing games with him.
He had to work to keep that grim thought from showing in his expression as the mini-box opened and let him out in Data Exchange One.
The exchange was a relatively open courtyard. Circular work terminals, each big enough for five or six people to sit around comfortably, sprouted out of the deck plates. Curtains of blurred light shrouded eight of the tables, allowing whoever had rented them to work in privacy.
Eric searched the edges of the court until a flash of scarlet caught his eye. Ambassador Basq of the Rhudolant Vitae sat stiffly at the terminal farthest from all three pedestrian entrances to the exchange.
“Good Morning and also Good Day, Ambassador Basq.” Eric gave the full greeting before he moved to sit down at the terminal.
“Good Morning and also Good Day, Sar Eric Born,” Basq replied. “I trust you have freed yourself for our project.”
Eric studied Basq’s smooth face, trying to find something new in it, a hint of anxiety or eagerness. “It took some doing. At least two of our clients are going to be filing complaints about their deadlines.”
Basq didn’t even blink. “That was expected. Their contracts will be reassigned. All deadlines will be met. Are you ready to come with me?”
“Of course,” Eric said. “Which lines should I open?” He touched his fingertips to the power key for the terminal. The closest work pad and screen lit up, ready for his identification. From here, he could reserve intersystem network space for up to twenty-seven hours. It was an expensive maneuver, but it did guarantee his ID instant access to major data cores.
“This assignment will not require the networks.” Basq stood. “When you are ready, Sar Born.” His robes brushed Eric’s shoulder as he strode past.
Rebellion flared briefly inside Eric. Abrupt orders from the Rhudolant Vitae were nothing new, nor were assignments where the information was doled out on a need-to-know basis, but this had already been a long day.
“Ambassador”—Eric snatched up his case and hurried to catch up with Basq—“if this doesn’t require the nets, why are you contracting me? I’m a systems handler. It’s what you’ve got me on staff for.”
Basq didn’t even break stride. The other pedestrians moved in tight knots and bundles, stepping between each other wherever they could find room. Basq ignored them like he ignored Eric. He walked in a straight line as if he expected the crowd to get out of the way for him, and because the crowd recognized him as Rhudolant Vitae, it did. Almost no one liked the Vitae, but even the Unifiers, who vilified them, could not ignore them.
Eric bit back a curse. “Ambassador …”
Basq stopped in front of a sealed door set into one of the blocky module junctures. Haron had a number of special sections reserved for the really high-paying customers. More than one of them was cut off from public traffic to accommodate differences in environment or security requirements.
Basq faced Eric, tilting his head back until he looked Eric square in the face with his pale, round eyes.
“Beyond this door, you are in Rhudolant Vitae space, Sar Born. Our laws are operative here. Breaches of confidence, security, or duty will be prosecuted according to our laws. Because you are in ignorance of most of our legal system, you will be warned when and if initial transgression occurs. Before we go any farther, do you understand and accept this?”
Eric imagined he could hear the sound of his temper fraying. “Ambassador, I need to know what my assignment is before I agree to undertake it.”
“Do you understand and accept the terms I have given you?” said Basq.
Eric gripped the handle of his tool case. This was just about enough. Someone was playing with his accounts until even Dorias couldn’t get a message through. The Vitae wanted him for something possibly extremely illegal, which was all right, and totally unknown, which was not. Part of him said get back to the ship and get out of here.
Calm down, he told himself. I can at least find out what this is about. If I don’t like it, I can still walk.
I’d like to see even the Vitae keep me in if I want out.
“I understand and accept your conditions,” he said out loud.
The door slid silently open.
The corridor on the other side looked no different from the dock corridor, but it felt different. Eric’s joints and inner ear picked up subtle shifts in pressure and gravity. Their readjustment registered as a dispersed discomfort.
Once his body finished the transition, Eric found himself savoring the feel of the new atmosphere. The gravity was heavy enough for him in here and the air was a little warmer and a little damper than the usual station atmosphere. In fact, it was almost comfortable.
Their footsteps made no sound on the metal floor. Eric could hear the lights hum overhead. If there was anyone else in this section, they hid behind the featureless doors lining the corridor’s walls.
The corridor dead-ended in what looked like a small waiting area with three straight-backed chairs clustered around a square table. One more of the blank doors was set in the farthest wall.
“You can leave your kit here.” Basq gestured toward the table. “It will be taken to your quarters for you.”
To my what? Eric pulled up in mid-stride.
“Ambassador”—Eric kept the case in his hand—“this is well beyond the limit. I need to know what you want from me. Now.”
“You will do as you are instructed for as long as you are instructed,” Basq said.
Eric’s frayed temper snapped abruptly in two. “Not for this treatment.” He turned on his heel and started for the main door.
A wave of pain shot through the soles of his feet. He screamed before he knew what he was doing and crashed to the floor on hands and knees.
“You no longer have the option of leaving our service,” said Basq before Eric’s stunned senses could recover themselves. “That was your first warning.”
Fury and confusion roiled inside him. Eric hauled himself to his feet, panting. The floor, he realized, must be wired somehow, but whatever had hit him had completely missed Basq. A dozen illogical insults and exclamations chased each other through his head.
“Why are you doing this?” he finally managed to croak.
“That is not your concern, Eric Born.” Eric did not miss the fact that Basq had dropped the honorific.
Dorias, was this what your message was about? Was Basq the one who tried to erase it?
“You will hear your instructions now.” Basq made an imperious come-hither gesture.
Eric took a deep breath and flexed his hands. He took one step toward Basq, then swung his whole body around and bolted for the door.
The pain toppled him before he was even halfway there.
His shoulders hit the floor and the pain seared through them. His teeth and eyes clenched shut and tears streamed down his face as he choked on his own screams.
The release was like a blessing. Eric lay where he was, unable to do anything to silence the sobs spilling out of him. With each degrading sound, his anger built. When he could finally raise his head to look at his impassive captor, he knew it all shone in his eyes.
The expression on Basq’s face didn’t even flicker. “This treatment will not kill you, Eric Born, but it will seriously traumatize you if you require it to continue.”
Shaking, Eric got to his feet. He mopped the sweat and tears off his face. “What could possibly be this important to you?”
Basq moved to the door and traced a pattern at shoulder height on it. A portion of the surface cleared away to reveal a square of clear silicate. He stood aside so Eric could have an unobstructed view.
Easy. Eric made himself breathe deeply. Need to take this easy. I’ll get out of here somehow and then this hairless barbarian better look to his skin. I just need time.
Eric bent down and peered through the little window, using the wall to hold himself upright. The room beyond was airy by station standards. A long table held a pitcher and an empty plate and a stack of what appeared to be artwork folios. Next to them were scattered the pieces of a partly completed woodblock puzzle. A sunken pool of water big enough for bathing steamed in the far corner of the room across from a thick sleeping mat. The corner to the right of the door was curtained off.
His fresh confusion barely had time to take root before the curtain drew back and a woman in rags and patchwork stepped out of the alcove. A strip of coarsely woven, black cloth hid her hair completely. A poncho made of greased patches covered a shapeless tunic of undyed cloth belted with a strip of worn leather. More leather strips bound her thick leggings and straw-soled sandals.
The woman glanced at the door and Eric got a full look at her face. Dark, calculating eyes slanted above her high cheeks. The skin on her face and throat had been roughened by exposure to harsh weather. Her jaw had a determined set. She made no gesture toward him, however, and Eric decided this must be a one-way window.
After a moment, the woman shook her head and strode to the pool. She squatted down next to the steaming water and extended her hands. Jagged, white lines crisscrossed her dust-colored skin, making a pattern of uneven squares.
Eric felt as if he’d been struck hard in the chest. He remembered, all too clearly, when his hands had borne their own marks. His were elaborate blue-and-green swirls curling from his fingertips to his wrists. Bright, gold circles shone in the centers of his palms. He remembered how shaky they felt when he stood in the streets of Tiered Side with the night’s freezing rain spattering against them and the Skymen with eyes like ice and milk told him he’d be free….
Eric jerked his head back to stare at Basq. “She’s from the Realm!”
“We require you to act as translator and cultural liaison for us,” Basq said. “Beginning immediately. There has already been too much delay.”
He looked back through the window. The woman sat at the table now, fitting pieces into the puzzle. He squinted toward her hands, looking for a trace of gold on the palms. There was nothing, just bare, brown skin.
“But …” he began incredulously. “What do you want with a Notouch?”
Basq tapped the translation disk in his ear. “That term is not coming through.”
“A nothing. A pariah.” Eric searched for an explanation. “There’s a caste system in the Realm. A strict one. “That”—he pointed toward the window—“is the bottom of the heap. They aren’t even allowed residence in the cities. If you were looking for information or power, Ambassador, your contraband runners cheated you.”
“We were not cheated. She is what we require.”
For what? Eric tried to collect his thoughts. His head still reeled from the shocks he’d been given.
Basq didn’t give him time for another question. “We require that she be made aware of her situation and the necessity of cooperating with us fully. Coercion is time-consuming, but still a viable option and you will make that clear as well. We require answers to our questions so that we can construct a context for her language usage and communicate with her directly.”
Eric felt as if the world about him had begun gently rocking. He was supposed to go in there and threaten a powerless Notouch with coercion? What could she have possibly done to get the Vitae so … irrational?
Even if she did turn out to be a power-gifted, like him, but who’d never been picked up by the Temple, what could she possibly have done?
Eric shoved the questions to the back of his mind. “Whatever it is you want from her, but there’s no guarantee I can get it for you.”
He held up his hand, relieved to see that it had stopped shaking. “No hand marks. I had mine removed. The maaman tell a person’s caste and family identity. They also tell if they’re an ayaraku, a priest, or … teacher, is maybe a better translation.” He lowered his hands and studied the backs for a moment. “They also mark you as one of the People. One of those named by the Nameless Powers. Without hand marks, she’s got no way to know who she’s addressing, so she may decide not to trust …”
“You speak her language. We require that you get her to begin talking. That is your assignment. You are already aware of the consequences of refusal.”
Who in all the worlds do you think you are? The anger that rose in him was almost enough to temporarily block out the memory of the pain. Almost.
Eric let his head droop. “You can threaten me until the suns burn out, Ambassador. I’ve still had my hand marks removed. She won’t know me from a Shessel’s brood and she’ll have no reason to trust me, even if she’s capable of understanding what I tell her, which she might not be.”
“If I am satisfied that you have made the fullest effort on this, you will not be hurt further,” said Basq.
Garismit’s Eyes! Eric resisted the impulse to run both hands through his hair. This was going from beyond comprehension to beyond belief. What could he do? Even if she was a volunteer, as he had been, and had gotten into this on her own, he couldn’t just leave her with these … things.
A Teacher is the caretaker of all those spoken of by the Nameless Powers. A Teacher is bound by the gift of power and the …
Stop it. That’s over with. That’s dead and drowned.
He looked at her again, nearly mesmerized by her scarred hands and intense face as she fitted two of the puzzle pieces together. She had left youth behind but hadn’t arrived at middle age yet. She was his own age, maybe. The lines around her mouth had been drawn by smiles as well as cares. Eric wouldn’t have believed there was room left in him for more confusion, but he felt it all the same. There sat a living, breathing representative of everything he had run away from, and part of his soul reached out to her like a long-lost friend.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do what I can.”
Eric thought he heard a whisper of a sigh escape from Basq. “Is there any other information I can provide you?”
The question is, is there any information you are going to provide me? Eric set his jaw and, with an effort that almost drained what little strength had returned to him, tried to think productively.
“I assume she has seen you?”
“Yes. Her reaction was … unexpected.”
Eric felt his forehead wrinkle. “In what way?”
“She attacked her caretakers.”
Eric took another look at her. She looked like she weighed a hundred pounds less than he did, but the Notouch spent their time at backbreaking labor and the Realm’s gravity was stronger than most. She probably could have laid someone Basq’s size out flat if she’d tried.
What made her try, though? Aside from being kidnapped. If she was kidnapped. I can’t be the only one who was ready to commit heresy to get off that mud-ball. And a Notouch would have even more reason to run than I did.
“Did you show her anything outside the ship that brought her here?” asked Eric. “The stars or the station or anything?”
“She was kept anesthetized until she reached her quarters, since your culture does not yet support the concept of powered flight.”
“That’s not the only concept my former”—Eric stressed the word—“culture does not support. Have you seen the Realm of the Nameless Powers?”
“I have seen representations of it. It is a network of canyons within a range of mountains.”
“Which means all their lives, the people there are surrounded by walls. The language has no word for ‘horizon’ because no one’s ever seen such a thing. It makes for a group of natural agoraphobes, among other things.
“The Words of the Nameless Powers, the basis for the ‘local religion,’ draw a distinction between walls terezan and the sides of the border canyons or those mountains. Those are World’s Walls, monderterezan.
“It’s the ultimate heresy to try to climb a World’s Wall, because all evil lives beyond them. We are all taught that the Nameless Powers, the gods, erected the Walls to keep their Realm safe.
“If she knew you’d taken her out of the canyons, she might have been hysterical about committing heresy. The Notouch take the Words very seriously. She might think you’re servants of the Aunorante Sangh …”
“The what?” demanded Basq.
The force of his question jolted Eric. “The Aunorante Sangh. It means ‘shameful blood.’ It’s the name for the powers of evil beyond the World’s Walls. Even the World’s Wall couldn’t keep them out, so the Nameless Powers had to send the Servant Garismit to move the Realm.”
“I see.” Basq’s calm returned, after a moment’s visible struggle. “Go on.”
What is going on in that bald head? Eric thought while he tried to find the thread of his reasoning again.
An idea struck him. “Did you take any jewelry or body decorations away from her?”
Basq considered for a moment. “We took a pair of knives from her, and three small stones.”
Oh. Well, that explains that, at least. “You probably took her namestones.”
“What are they?” A new and completely unexpected note crept into Basq’s voice. Curiosity.
Eric framed his answer slowly. His head was beginning to clear and he wanted all the time he could get to regain his strength. “Most of the Notouch carry carved bits of rock or quartz that represent the dena, the first … the original name. The Teachers frown on the custom,” he added, “but only a few of the Notouch communities have ever dropped the practice.” A little extra information might make it look like he was accepting his imprisonment. Which might make Basq get careless sooner. “As I said, they take the Words of the Nameless very literally. Taking her namestones probably did a lot to contribute to the idea that you were the Aunorante Sangh, or their servants.”
“I see. Is there anything else?”
Eric suppressed a sigh and straightened his shoulders. “I don’t think so. Whenever you’re ready, Ambassador.”
Eric stood back while Basq used the first two fingers on his right hand to tap an uneven rhythm on the surface of the door. The door slid away, creating a breeze that ruffled Basq’s scarlet wrappings.
The Notouch jerked her head up. Her eyes did not go round with shock or fear at the sight of Basq, which Eric would have expected, but narrowed to dark slits. The sight of Eric, though, made her draw back in her chair.
Eric walked into the room, keeping to one side of Basq. The Notouch did not kneel as she should have before another of the People. She just watched him come toward her. The pattern of the formal greeting of a Teacher to a Notouch came to Eric easily, as if he’d spoken it yesterday, not ten years ago.
He raised both hands with the palms turned toward the woman. “I stand in the place of the Nameless Powers and the Servant Garismit and so do I greet you who were named when the Powers walked the world.” The words of his native language felt strange, almost unwieldy, against his tongue. “I was named by them Teacher Hand kenu Lord Hand on the Seablade dena Enemy of the Aunorante Sangh.
“How did they name you, Notouch?”
For a moment she just stared at his unmarked hands. Then, the corner of her mouth twitched.
“So, it’s true. You did climb the World’s Wall.” She used the “level-eye” permutations and, for a minute, Eric wasn’t sure if she was insulting him or just talking to herself.
Despite himself, Eric was startled. “Who are ‘they,’ Notouch?”
“Gossipers, Teacher. Heretics. It’s been ten years since you vanished and there were all sorts of stories.” She spoke directly to him now and still didn’t change her speech patterns. Her mouth spread into a knowing grin. “Tell me, are the birth ranks really observed in this place? His people are all bare as children.” She jerked her chin toward Basq. “Come to that, so are you.”
“What is she saying?” Basq cut in.
“Nothing you’d be interested in yet, Ambassador.” Eric lowered his hands. This was not behavior he’d ever seen from a Notouch. They bowed and groveled. They begged to be of use, any use at all. He understood that law and custom that made them behave that way, not natural inclination. Not really. But it had taken him a decade’s absence to work that out, and this woman had apparently just been plucked out of the canyons.
“I will decide what interests me, Eric Born.” A warning sounded clearly under the ice in Basq’s voice.
“You can talk to them?” The Notouch sounded genuinely impressed. “Tell them to give me my namestones back.”
“She’s asking about her namestones,” Eric told Basq.
Basq’s forehead drew together around where his eyebrows should have been. “What about them?”
“She wants them back.” Eric raised his own eyebrows and gave a small shrug. “I did tell you, Ambassador.”
Basq made no reply and Eric turned his attention back to the woman.
“You haven’t told me how to call you yet.”
“Nameless Powers preserve me.” She slid off the chair onto both knees and held her hands in front of her eyes to display her hand marks. “Teacher Hand kenu Lord Hand on the Seablade dena Enemy of the Aunorante Sangh, this despised one is Stone in the Wall dena Arla Born of the Black Wall. She craves your blessing and asks in what way she may serve?”
Without waiting for an answer, she picked herself up off the floor and folded her arms. The sardonic smile slid back into place.
Eric worked to smooth the grimace out of his own features. “She says that she is Stone in the Wall, born … originally …” He searched for a way to translate the primary name into something that would fit in Basq’s world. “Star in the Night Sky. A bit grandiose for a Notouch, isn’t it?” he added to the woman.
“This despised one begs her Teacher’s pardon if that name is discordant.” The casual shrug she gave him made a mockery of her subservient language. “It is what the Nameless Powers bestowed upon her.”
Frustration and bewilderment vied for dominance inside Eric. Where did they find her?
Never mind, he told himself. I need any help I can get.
“Listen quick, Arla Born of the Black Wall, do you want to stay with these people?”
Her eyes shifted toward Basq. “Not really. But I’m not leaving this place until I’ve found my stones.”
“You idiot Notouch.” Eric fought to keep his tone conversational. “We’re both pris—”
“Have you explained her status to her?” Basq’s shell of patience was clearly beginning to wear thin. “I have an extensive list of questions.”
Eric spread his hands. “She’s very upset about those stones.” He could do a great deal on his own, but another pair of eyes at the right time could make the difference between freedom and recapture. If getting her namestones back would put him on the right side of this superstitious woman, very well then. Besides, the more time he spent on this nonsense, the less time Basq would have to get what he wanted. “I can’t swear she’ll answer anything until she gets them back. I’ll try to make things clearer to her.”
Eric faced the Notouch again. “Do you want your namestones back?”
“If it so pleases her Teacher, this despised one does.” For a split second, the sarcasm faded.
“All right. For some reason his people”—he swept his hand at Basq in a gesture that was much grander than the language he was using—“want you to answer some questions. No matter what I say after this, you keep your mouth shut until they bring your namestones back, understand?”
The Notouch plunked herself down on the chair. She looked up at him with her lips pressed dramatically together.
Eric spread his hands to Basq again. “She won’t talk until she gets her namestones back.”
Basq said nothing, but Eric could see anger forming in his normally impassive eyes.
“Listen to me, Ambassador. Try to understand. This Notouch is a believer. What you we … think of as a superstitious and primitive religion is reality to her. She can’t disregard it any more than you can disregard the laws of physics, do you understand?” Never mind that she’s already broken a dozen or more tenets just by the way she’s been talking to me. “She’ll act according to what she knows as real. Those stones are onar, a … a … bond between her and the Nameless Powers. She’ll die before she helps the ones who have them.”
Come on, swallow it. Swallow it, you arrogant dandy.
Eric waited while Basq thought. He could almost hear the circuits buzzing in the other man’s head. Nothing was plain here. Nothing clear or simple.
What in the Realm of the Nameless do you want with Notouch talismans?
Who in the Realm of the Nameless is this Notouch you’ve found?
And how do I get myself out of here before you translate this conversation for yourselves? Eric did not glance at the walls. It would have been pointless. There was no way he was going to be able to see Vitae surveillance equipment.
Two red spots had appeared on Basq’s cheeks. “Tell her that she will speak. We will hurt her if we have to.”
Eric translated the declaration into the Realm’s most formal command grammar. “The Skyman says if dena Arla Born of the Black Wall does not speak, they will torture her.”
She just looked at him and said nothing.
Eric waited for what seemed a decent interval. “You are either going to have to give her back the namestones, or hurt her,” he told Basq. “I’ve made the situation as plain as I can.”
Basq laid his hand on the door and spoke. Eric touched his translator. Whatever language Basq used, the disk in his ear couldn’t cope with it.
“The stones are being brought back,” Basq announced. “Tell her that and then tell her we will have her cooperation.”
This time, Eric relayed the message word for word.
“As soon as the stones are in my hands, I’ll answer whatever he asks me.” The Notouch kissed her fingertips and held her hand toward the ceiling to send the words from her mouth to the ears of the Nameless.
Eric translated her words faithfully. Basq stayed silent this time and Eric took that to mean “good enough.”
For now, anyway.
The cell door swished open and a slender Vitae, as bald as Basq, handed the Ambassador an opaque plastic tray. On its ribbed surface rested a trio of polished spheres, each the size of a baby’s fist and the color of winter ice.
Eric sucked in a deep breath.
The Notouch pushed past Eric and snatched the spheres up. One at a time, she held them toward the ceiling. The light glinted against their curved sides.
“What did you say?” demanded Basq.
“Arlas.” Eric repeated as the Notouch turned her treasures over in her hands. “It means star, or eye, or, well, diamond, I suppose would be close. I’ve only ever seen one set. In the Temple vaults in First City. No one’s found any new arlas in … hundreds of years.” He stared at the Notouch. “Arla Born of the Black Wall,” he murmured her name. “Where did you get those?”
“They’re my namestones.” Apparently satisfied that the spheres were genuine, she began unwinding her headcloth. “You’d be surprised, Teacher, what you find in the swamps.” Ignoring the fall of tangled, black hair that dropped across her cheeks and shoulders, she wrapped a fold of cloth around the stones. With practiced motions, she knotted the material to make a long-handled pouch.
Basq nodded to the messenger. He tucked the tray under his arm and touched the door.
“Now we will begin,” said Basq.
Eric opened his mouth. Before he could speak, a blur of motion cut across his peripheral vision.
Basq toppled to the floor. The Notouch whirled her pouch and swung it down. The stones cracked against the messenger’s skull and he fell in a heap next to Basq.
The door opened. Eric stared at the fallen bodies.
“Move, you high-house fool!” shouted the Notouch.
Eric’s senses and reflexes reasserted themselves. He shoved his foot against the threshold to keep the door in place and scanned the corridor. Empty, but that didn’t mean safe. The Vitae had to be watching them. There was nothing he could do about that.
Eric sprinted down the hall, vaguely aware of running footsteps behind him. From here, he could see the door to the main station shut tight. He did not allow himself to think about how the floor of the empty corridor could be brought to life at the touch of a remote key.
Eric skidded to a halt in front of the door. There was no time for finesse or distraction. He laid his palms on the thin line where the door met the wall and reached deep into the back of his mind, down into his soul where his power gift lay. He opened a path for it to stretch down his arms and out through his fingertips. Its tendrils coiled around the slender, metallic bars that held the door shut.
“Break,” he ordered.
His gift seized the bars. Eric’s heart froze. The lock cracked sharply and his heart beat again, hammering against his ribs. Eric pressed hard against the door and leaned sideways. The door slid back. Pain shot up his legs and Eric doubled over. A hand seized his arm, dragging him into the open station hallway.
“Which way out!” The Notouch stared wildly around her.
For a second, Eric wondered what she was talking about, then he remembered she had no idea where she was. He had no time to explain. There were six stories of station between him and the dock that held the U-Kenai. A call had probably already gone down to security.
They’ll hold the ship, seal the docks. Watch both. They’ll close my access to the networks, and watch the halls. When they see me, they’ll come get me. He glanced up at the security cameras. Hello, there.
His mind raced down unfamiliar paths. There’ll be two guards, three, maybe. Darts, tasers, and uniforms. Orders to take me quietly. Don’t panic the paying customers. He eyed the passing crowd, each one of them a paying customer. Don’t damage the goods either, I hope.
Eric ran. He dived into the crowd, shoving aside anyone who didn’t get out of the way fast enough. He risked a glance behind him. Arla followed his mad dash, almost overtaking him.
The jumble of faces and colors broke apart to give him a clear path to the farthest corridor entrance and he raced toward it.
Footsteps pounded the floor behind him and he fervently hoped they were Arla’s. Eric pushed a man in trader’s motley into the wall and hurdled a maintenance drone. The footsteps closed, but no shouts to stop came.
Eric ducked around a left-hand corner and yanked on the emergency override for the security door. Alarms blared and the door came open. Eric swung himself up the maintenance ladder. As he did, he saw Arla duck through the threshold, her poncho flapping around her. She took the time to slam the door shut before she grabbed the ladder rungs to follow him.
Up. All the way up, until the metal rungs bit into his hands and his heart pounded in his throat.
They could shut the hatches, trap us. Send guards in to get us. No. They figure why bother? They know where I’m going. Only one place I could be going from here. They’ll already have guards there. Why not wait for me to turn up?
Guards trained to use their weapons. The ones who’ve been told by the Rhudolant Vitae I’m unarmed and she’s primitive and neither of us know what we’re doing.
Idiots. You’ve only seen one part of my life.
Three bulkheads passed by them. Four.
“How big is this place?” gasped the Arla.
Eric didn’t have the breath to reply.
Five. Six. He stepped off the ladder and pulled the release for the door. It slid aside. Past it waited the corridor to the airlock that was sealed to his ship. The big hatch to the main station had been closed. A red light shone on the airlock door. Sealed for security reasons. Two men and a woman in crisp, black coveralls stood between him and the airlock. All three of them were armed with tasers, which were out and ready.
Eric’s ears rang from exertion and adrenaline. “Soldiers,” he said to Arla between gulps of air. “The things in their hands are distance weapons, like slings.”
Do I still remember how to fight? He raised his hands slowly until they were over his head. Do I still remember anything?
“That’s it,” said the broader of the two men. “Easy now. You too, woman. Hands up.”
Arla stared at the guard, and then at Eric, her mouth open in disdain and shock.
“Don’t do it,” he said urgently.
“Then who will?”
Arla ripped her homemade sling off her belt and whirled it over her head. Before she brought it down, the woman guard took her aim calmly and fired. The taser wires snaked out of the barrel and sank into Arla’s chest. The shock ran into her and she screamed. The sling crashed against the floor and Arla dropped next to it, curled up like a fetus. All the guards watched her fall.
Eric lunged. His hands clamped down on the nearest guard’s outstretched arm and swung him around. The guard crashed into his comrade and they both reeled against the wall. A taser clattered to the floor. Eric slammed the edge of his hand against the first guard’s throat. The man gurgled and collapsed. The second guard reached across the fallen body and grabbed Eric’s shoulders, effectively blocking the woman’s aim. Eric flung himself sideways. He and the guard both hit the deck. With a wrench, Eric rolled them over until he came out on top. He shoved the heel of his hand against the man’s nose. Blood spurted across his palm and the guard went limp.
Eric flung himself across the floor and rolled again. Above him, the woman took fresh aim. Eric kicked both legs out and caught her ankle. She crashed against the floor. He hauled her shoulders up and cracked her skull against the deck plates. She grunted and sagged in his arms. His fingers found the catch on her bracelet terminal and snapped it loose.
Eric scrambled to his feet. He shoved the plug from the stolen bracelet into the socket beneath the warning light and twisted. The light blinked from red to green and both sides of the airlock hatch swished open.
Something sharp slammed between his shoulder blades and Eric sprawled across his own deck, pinned down by a weight that squirmed. Reflexively, he rolled, ready to swing his fist out, but the weight had scrambled out of the way. Arla towered over him for a split second. In the next, she bolted down the short hall toward the common room and the view wall.
“Cam! Get us out!” Eric shouted without even trying to stand up.
The engine’s hum became a rumble. Over its noise came a scream of pure terror followed fast by the sound of a body hitting the floor.
The Notouch had looked out at open space, and had passed out, as Eric had known she would.
It was, after all, what had happened to him.
Relief and exhaustion blurred Eric’s mind until the world took itself away.