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Caught in the Crossfire
A human colony settles on a distant planet, a colony formed by Jake Holman— a man trying to escape a dark past. But as this diverse group of thousands comes to terms with their new lives on a new world, they make a startling discovery: primitive humanoid aliens. There are only a few isolated villages, and the evidence seems to indicate they aren't native to the planet—despite the aliens living in thatched huts and ...
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Caught in the Crossfire
A human colony settles on a distant planet, a colony formed by Jake Holman— a man trying to escape a dark past. But as this diverse group of thousands comes to terms with their new lives on a new world, they make a startling discovery: primitive humanoid aliens. There are only a few isolated villages, and the evidence seems to indicate they aren't native to the planet—despite the aliens living in thatched huts and possessing only primitive tools.
When a handful of human colonists finally learn the truth, they will face the toughest decision of their lives, a decision that could determine not just the fate of their new home, but the fate of all humanity.
Gail Cutler loved the Ariel. That astonished her, because after Lahiri's death she had not expected to genuinely love anyone or anything again.
As Gail walked the narrow passageway that led past the tiny sleeping chambers to the wardroom, she shot out one hand and stroked the gray metal bulkhead. It was a quick, tentative stroke; she didn't want anyone else to know how she felt about the ship. For one thing, it was damn silly, this affection for a huge hunk of metal. For another, the Ariel would be disassembled and converted once they reached Greentrees. Who could love, say, a sewage-purification vat?
"You seem to be in a cheerful mood, Gail," Faisal bin Saud said as she entered the wardroom. The others were already seated at the lunch table, except for Captain Scherer and his officers. "Good news from Earth?"
"No news," Gail said briefly. After two entire years, she still wasn't sure she liked Saud. He was too polished, too artificial. He seemed to embody too many contradictions: a Muslim who prayed several times a day facing Sol, a Martian-educated connoisseur of Terran Elizabethan folios. His women lived the segregated lives of the andarun, yet he dealt with Gail as a financial and political equal. Also, he was unfailingly tactful and accommodating, surprising in one who had been a prince.
"There must be some news," Ingrid Johnson said belligerently. "They don't waste quee link on nothing, Gail."
Gail gazed calmly at the geneticist. There was no ambiguity about her reaction to Ingrid: Gail detested her. It was a point of pride, however, to keep this contempt well hidden. In the closed, confined environment of a long-duration space voyage, she and Jake had written in the guidelines for the Board of Governors, courtesy and tolerance will become as important as keeping productively occupied.
"Yes, of course, you're right," Gail said to Ingrid, "there was some news. The United Atlantic Federation passed stiffer penalties for illegal genemods. The war in West Africa is worse. The rebellion in China has escalated. Another earthquake along the Pacific Rim. Coffee crop failure in Colombia. The Genetic Modification Institute has announced another drug to combat melanomas. You can get all the details printed on a flimsy right after lunch."
"I will do that, also," Faisal said in his impeccable, sexily accented English. Gail, of course, was immune to the accent, but she suspected Ingrid wasn't.
Transmissions came twice a month from Earth by quee, Quantum Entanglement Energy link. By now the Ariel, moving at 1.25 gees, had reached some sizable percentage of c—Gail was no scientist. Quee was instantaneous, if costly. It was the Ariel's only tie to home; every week left farther behind not only in space but, thanks to the relativistic speeds the ship would attain before it began deceleration, in time as well. When the colonists disembarked on Greentrees, they would have spent six years and seven months aboard ship. On Earth, nearly seventy years would have passed. Earth would be an unimaginably different place, and most loved ones long since become dust. Which was, of course, why most colonists brought their loved ones with them, traveling in groups. Gail's entire extended family, 203 people, lay asleep belowdecks.
"Well," Ingrid said peevishly, "I wish you'd paid for weekly news instead of just twice monthly. It couldn't have cost that much more—we're already paying for that second quee link, anyway. What's for lunch? Not fish again?"
"I believe it has a different sauce today," William Shipley said. "Doesn't it smell good!"
Shipley's cheerful tact irritated Gail almost as much as Ingrid's pettishness. Slow down, Gail told herself. Keep control. We expected this.
Two years gone, four plus to go. Already everyone who had paid to stay awake was tired of the food, tired of the available entertainments, tired of the exercise room, tired of each other. Three of the twenty had already elected to be put into cold sleep for the rest of the voyage: Gail and Jake had a bet on how much longer the rest would last. Cold-sleep boxes awaited each of them. Only Captain Scherer and his crew of six were really necessary before the interstellar voyage ended, and the captain, unlike the civilians, had the military appreciation for keeping his sailors fully occupied as a defense against boredom, depression, and hostility.
"Where's Jake?" Shipley asked, helping himself to fish and rice that until ten minutes ago had been frozen solid. "He wasn't at breakfast, either."
"He's with the other meal shift," Gail said. The wardroom could seat only ten when the table was lowered from the wall; meals had been planned in two shifts. She and Jake ate with each shift, sometimes separately, sometimes together to compare notes. It was important to track everyone's mental stability. The only significant selection procedure for these colonists had been their money. "What did everyone do this morning?"
Todd Johnson, Ingrid's mild and dominated husband, said pleasantly, "We analyzed once again the bacteria genomes from Greentrees' soil samples."
"Not that we haven't been over them twenty times already," Ingrid said.
"We'll have new data soon, honey, from Greentrees."
"Oh, is another quee transmission due from the planetary probe?" William Shipley asked with interest. "May I see the data?"
"Certainly," Todd said, while Ingrid pursed her lips in professional territoriality.
Shipley, the New Quaker representative ("We have no leaders"), was interested in everything. Gail could not have defined her exact expectations of a New Quaker, but Shipley wasn't it. The New Quakers were supposed to be a return to austere First Principles, a rejection of the "worldliness" that had crept into the religion since its plain and humble beginnings in the seventeenth century. Shipley, like his 1902 sleeping fellows, dressed in unadorned gray coverall with no jewelry or implants. One look at him was enough to showhe had no genemods: gray where he wasn't bald, wrinkled seventy-year-old skin, fifty pounds overweight. He liked to eat ... how was that austere? How austere was his keen interest in Earth events, in classical music, in genetics, in the ship's drive ... in everything. And he was a medical doctor, which was certainly material rather than spiritual.
On the other hand, Shipley never cursed, never watched vids, never used VR, never took fizzies or drank what passed aboard ship for wine. Every Sunday he invited his awake shipmates to "meeting." Gail wasn't sure if anyone had ever gone; she hadn't.
Captain Scherer strode into the wardroom and slid into his seat, followed by Lieutenant Gretchen Wortz.
"Good afternoon, Commander," Faisal said in his impeccable English.
"Hello, all. Ah, fish. Good." He helped himself liberally.
The ship's crew, like everyone else, was never returning to Earth. They had all served in the tiny Swiss space fleet and had applied to Mira Corp together. Efficient, stable, interested in the biggest ship and longest voyage that would ever be available to them, they nonetheless remained enigmas to Gail and Jake. Military men served in military organizations; on Greentrees these seven people would be the only military that existed. For a while, anyway. Jake had contracted with them to form the police force of Mira City, the central city-state of the complex set of fiefdoms that Greentrees was slated to become.
Rudolf Scherer had agreed readily. He and his crew, he told Jake with calm assurance, would make an excellent law enforcement team. This was probably true; Jake had them subjected to background checks that would have turned up a failing mark in grade-school spelling. All seven Swiss were as clean as snow had once been. They were also polite, efficient, and genemod attractive, all seven of them.
So why did they make Gail slightly uneasy?
"Where is Lieutenant Halberg?" Gail asked Scherer. Three crew were scheduled for this meal shift, four for the other.
"He finds a routine machine error." Scherer's English comprehension was excellent, and Gail suspected that he could speak in more than present tense if he wished to.
"Rad error?" Todd asked. Cosmic bombardment regularly created bugs in the ship's computerized equipment
"I am sure." Scherer began to eat with good appetite. The sailors all kept to stringent exercise schedules, as well as structured work, leisure, sleep, and meal times. For all Gail knew, Scherer may have devised bathroom routines for his crew. Maybe all that structure was what had kept them noticeably more cheerful than the civilians.
Depression, tension, anxiety, and hostility can result from long-term close confinement, Jake had written. It is important that all awake colonists realize how trivial difficulties on ship may loom unreasonably large.
"If the equipment had been better shielded," Ingrid said acidly, "there might not be so much computer error."
Scherer said between bites of breakfast, "The shields are standard."
Ingrid's face grew red. "What do you mean, 'standard,' Captain? How can there be tested standards when we're only the fifth interstellar colony ship and the other four—all military!—had much shorter trips to much nearer planets?"
"Ingrid," her husband said gently.
"The shields are standard, Dr. Johnson," Scherer said mildly. He drained his hot coffee with no wasted motion.
"Don't just brush my question aside!" Ingrid said.
"Honey, he's not doing that," Todd said carefully. Gail had often wondered why such a quiet, bland man had married a harridan like Ingrid. But, then, why did anybody marry anyone? And Ingrid was beautiful, with delicate blond genemod looks and eyes like sapphires. Gail suspected that one reason Ingrid was so brash was that her astonishing beauty had been a professional liability in being taken seriously. Parents could be such fools. Not to mention men in lust.
Ingrid said to Todd, "Don't tell me what the captain said! I can hear as well as you!"
"But not as quietly," Gail said, mustering her authority. This had gone far enough. "Ingrid, may I see you in the office, please?"
It was not a request, and Ingrid knew it Her face grew even redder, mottling the pale rose skin. But she stood and followed Gail.
The Mira Corp office was a small room set aside for backupdocumentation on nonelectronic media in case of catastrophic computer failure on Greentrees. Colonist records and contracts were stored here, along with written procedures for doing everything from ocean navigation by the stars to sawing down a tree. Gail and Jake used the room for private conversation in an environment where privacy was scarce. She motioned Ingrid to Jake's chair. The two seated women occupied most of the tiny space.
"Ingrid, I don't need to tell you what stress we're all under at this point in the voyage, or all the reasons why."
"That's still no reason for that sanctimonious—"
"I don't need to tell you what stress we're all under at this point in the voyage, or all the reasons why," Gail repeated. Ingrid got the point. Gail was going to go on saying the same thing until Ingrid responded. It was a technique Gail had learned from Jake, not easily.
"All right," Ingrid said sulkily.
"And I know you've been making a major effort to control your emotions for all our sakes." God, the lies a leader had to tell. Why wasn't Jake doing this? "But I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to increase that effort."
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to increase that effort."
"Gail, please don't talk to me as if I were a child!"
"You're not that. But, Ingrid, I have a clear obligation to this expedition, and I can't let you endanger it. I won't."
That was enough. Ingrid had signed the Mira Corporation contract; she was aware of Gail's power to enforce cold sleep if Gail deemed it necessary for the good of the expedition. Jake, the former lawyer, had drawn up the contract. Rudy Scherer would enforce it without question. William Shipley would sedate Ingrid so quickly she wouldn't even realize it had happened until she woke up on Greentrees.
Gail watched Ingrid struggle with her temper, her outrage, her totally understandable, space-induced paranoia. They all felt it. Ingrid had given in, but only in a minor way. The geneticist was volatile by nature but not disconnected from realities. Gail had counted on that. She hadn't even armed herself.
"All right, Gail," Ingrid muttered. "I'm sorry. I'll try to keep myself in control."
"I never doubted it," Gail said with totally false warmth, and waited. One, two, three ... yes, Ingrid slammed the door as she went out.
This pathetic show of defiance depressed Gail more than the entire rest of the incident. What would all the awakes, including her, be like when they finally reached Greentrees? The people still out of cold sleep were all intelligent and accomplished. There were the members of the Governing Board who had elected awake: Faisal bin Saud, William Shipley, Liu Fengmo, and Scherer's military, who were the most disciplined bunch Gail had ever seen. The scientists were usually focused and resourceful: Ingrid and Todd; the quiet, mousy paleontologist, Lucy Lasky; Maggie Striker, the ecologist; Robert Takai, energy engineer; and the rest. Competent and seemingly stable, all of them.
But everyone who colonized outside the solar system was, by definition, anomalous. They had overwhelming dreams, or fears, or—like Gail—beliefs. Of course, she thought wryly, her beliefs reflected reality more than the others aboard. Well, egotism aside, they did. She was leading her large, intelligent, wealthy family to an unknown planet because the planet they had occupied had no more than another few generations left.
Gail's people had always anticipated, and profited from, global economic changes and global social changes and, now, global ecological change. "The Canny Cutlers," the press called them. Canny and clannish and calculating. Led intellectually by Uncle Harry and legally by Gail, they were clear-eyed about the coming ruin of Earth's precious biosphere. And they were getting out.
Jake's fledgling corporation had come along at just the right time. The family hadn't wanted to move to Mars, or Luna, or Europa. Hostile environments, all of them. But the four planets already claimed by different Earth governments were not yet open to colonization. The fifth, a newly discovered and viable biosphere, was empty. The landing probe said so. It had been sent out decades ago, when the United Atlantic Federation had still had tax money to do such things. The probe had been in transit for over a Terrancentury; its detailed information had come back instantly by quee. Soil composition, atmospheric content, genetic analysis of the life within its limited range. DNA-based, of course. All five planets were. The scientists argued ... no, Gail wasn't going to rehash that old argument in this fugitive moment of quiet.
She rubbed her eyes and leaned forward, elbows on Jake's console. God, another day of noise, boredom, captivity. That's what it was, for all of them: captivity, despite all the careful provisions made for recreation, work, exercise, all of it. But nothing ever happened. Every day the same. Gail had always prided herself on being self-sufficient and adaptable, but this! She hadn't, couldn't have, imagined the ennui and irritability and distortion of all normal interactions. Of course, it would be different when they reached Greentrees, but—
"Gail?" Jake stuck his head into the office.
"Jake, what kind of stupid name for a planet is 'Greentrees'? Who picked it?"
"You did. You wanted something inoffensive in any language, and it's certainly better than that UAF designation: '64a pending.' Gail, we have a problem."
She looked up. "A problem? What sort of problem? Lieutenant Wortz's computer error?"
"No. A human problem. Lucy Lasky."
"What about her?" The paleontologist had been the least trouble of anyone on ship, spending more and more time in her tiny sleep chamber. Studying, Gail had assumed. Lucy was inexperienced in comparison to the other, older scientists. Mira Corp hadn't needed to recruit a top talent. Nobody thought their survival depended on paleontology. "Isn't she in your meal group?"
"She didn't come to breakfast," Jake said.
"Well, where is she?"
"She's locked in the hold. She unpacked a laser rock cutter and she's threatening to carve the ship into tiny pieces."
Copyright © 2003 by Nancy Kress
Posted December 9, 2008
The end days seem apparent for the troubled earth so Mira Corporation CEO Jake Holman and his company manager Gail Cutler decide to build a starship The Ariel to escape. They sell passage to six thousand wealthy patrons from an assortment of earthlings. The group travels through space before establishing Mira City on the planet Greentrees. The settlers meet the Furs, who are also from off world. Subgroups of Furs behave extremely different from others with some violent and some passive, but no mixing of behavior within a subgroup. Not long afterward, an alien ship arrives containing the Vines. Though the colonists' military wing attacks the newcomers in vain, the Vine remains peaceful and seeks talks. The expatriate earthlings learn that the Vines and the Furs are at war. Soon a Fur ship attacks the Vine vessel and captures Jake, Gail, and other humans. To keep Mira City and Earth safe from a Fur assault Jake (and company) must destroy the force field that protects the Vines' homeworld. Though not quite at the level of the Probability trilogy, CROSSFIRE is a terrific first contact tale loaded with action as the three species seem genuine and the key characters whether human, Fur, or Vine seems real. However, what makes this action packed outer space tale so strong is the competing battle of philosophies as ideas are fully discussed yet interwoven so as not to slow down the hyperspeed pace. Though the ending will disappoint some readers, Nancy Kress will once again take the genre by storm with her usual cerebral action adventure thriller. Harriet Klausner
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 6, 2004
One of Nancy Kress's strengths is that she is able to create characters whom the reader gets to know. In this respect, I think she's done her best work in 'Crossfire.' But that's only one dimension of this fine book. The concept of a first-contact novel is of course not new, but Ms. Kress has put a terrific twist on the concept, and built a riveting story about a settlement of several thousand humans who depart a dying Earth in search of a new start--and get much more than they bargained for. Of course, if they found a new Eden, we wouldn't have much of a story--and to be sure, once the settlers encounter aliens, the mystery only deepens, and doesn't get any easier once another group of aliens turns up. So--we have great characters in a good story, but Kress doesn't stop there. The book has a brisk pace to its complex plot, which sweeps the reader through its numerous twists. Topping it off is a resolution that, like so much in life, leaves important issues unsettled. In this case, I hope that means there will be a sequel!
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