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Edward 1: 2252
There was an argument taking place on board the Eva Rye, but then again they had been arguing on board the Eva Rye since the ship had left Garvey's World. "It's a robot. It houses an intelligence, it's mobile: it's a robot."
"Why would a robot be floating in space? It's got to be a ship. A small one."
"I keep telling you, it's a self-replicator, and it's trying to trap us. Let it on board and it will convert our ship to copies of itself. We'll all be left swimming through vacuum." Edward sat on the hessian matting that made up part of the patchwork floor of the spaceship's lounge and tried to follow what was going on. Ever since the Stranger had first made contact, and everyone had been summoned to the gaudy living area, the same argument had been sloshing back and forth. It wasn't a new argument, just a natural development of the same one that had thrived on the Eva Rye for the past five weeks, given new life by the distress call they had picked up. After about an hour of Donny's bitterness and Armstrong's belligerence, Craig had brought Edward a glass of apple juice and had tried to explain what they were all shouting about, but Saskia had chosen that moment to mention Edward's sister again and another favorite quarrel had been added to the stew. The only one who had maintained his temper was the Stranger himself. His image could be seen in the viewing field that had been opened up in the middle of the conference room.
"Eva Rye, why do you keep arguing? All I want from you is delta vee. It's a common enough request. You are a trading ship, aren't you?" There was an edge to the Stranger's question that achieved something that none of the crew of the Eva Rye had managed in their one hundred and forty minutes of bitter debate. It brought silence to the room. Ten bodies paused just outside the circle of light in which the Stranger floated, his shape a grainy letter x pushed to maximum resolution by the radio telescope. The picture was an embarrassment to the technology that should be available to the ship, but it was the best image that could be achieved with the long-range senses off-line and the self-repair mechanisms still malfunctioning. In the hushed silence, Edward looked up at Craig.
"What's happened?" he whispered. Craig took a break from glaring daggers at Saskia just long enough to whisper: "Nothing yet. The Stranger just reminded us who we are. This can't take much longer, Eddie. Shh. Michel's going to speak."
Michel blinked in the dim light, not so much speaking as refereeing his own indecisiveness.
"Okay," he said, finally getting to the point in the mental debate that jammed up his head, "we could argue about this for another hour, but all the time the Stranger would just get farther away from us. I propose we put this to a vote."
"A vote?" Saskia queried in tones of mild surprise. Edward shivered. Saskia may have been Craig's sister, but he still didn't like her that much. Especially when she spoke like that; especially sitting back as she was in the stripiest of the three stripey chairs, letting her shiny aubergine-black hair fall forward to cover her eyes; especially when her words were so quiet and reasonable.
"One of your jobs as our leader is to make decisions," she said, ever so mildly.
"You should ask your specialists for their opinions and then tell us what to do." Michel rubbed his head.
"I know, I know. I was coming to that. Armstrong, what do you think?" Armstrong was sitting at the stone-and-copper dinner table, three carbon-bladed knives resting before him. His fingernails were stained black from the soft block of carbon that he was rubbing into a fourth tiny blade, growing it into a beautiful curved panga that Edward had been regarding with a wistful expression. Sometimes Armstrong let Edward hold the knives, and Edward would swoop and swish them through the air, listening to the clean sound they made. Edward wished that he could hold Armstrong's knives more often. They felt good in the hand, balanced and powerful-just like Armstrong. Armstrong always waited until he had everyone's full attention before speaking. He did so now, giving the panga a last slow wipe of the carbon block.
"I say we make contact," he growled, pointing the embryonic knife towards the object floating in the viewing field. "Like that thing says, we're a trading ship. If we run away from everything new, we'll never get to trade anything."
"Armstrong's right," agreed Maurice. He leaned back on his chair, his padded combat jacket open to the waist, just like Armstrong's. "We've got to take a few risks."
"Thank you for your opinion, Maurice," said Donny sarcastically. "Michel, we've only been a trading ship for five weeks. Who's to say what's correct behavior in these circumstances?" Donny's two children, Jack and Emily, were playing at his feet, their presence tolerated in the room because it was the only thing that could sweeten Donny's poisonous bitterness at his wife's desertion. The children were sending their dolls into the kitchen area to collect last week's grapes from a bowl set on the floor there. The dolls carried the wizened fruit back on little silver plates for a miniature tea party. Edward would have loved to join the game, but Donny had told him more than once that he was too old. Michel looked as if he was getting a headache. He had one hand to his temple, his eyes closed as he tried to make a decision.
"I know, Donny, I know. What is the correct behavior in these circumstances?" He turned to Craig's sister, sitting, as always, right beside him. "Saskia, what do you think?" Edward wasn't happy to see Saskia tilt her head again so that her straight dark hair fell around her face, hiding her eyes. Her reply came in her mildest tones, making Edward want to retreat into a dark corner and hide. "It's not for me to say what I think, Michel," she murmured. "You're the commander. This is not the place from where I would make a decision. If it had been down to me, I'd have stayed at the edge of the old Enemy Domain. I wouldn't have taken us out of human space completely."
"People, people, why do you keep arguing?" The grainy shape in the viewing field was moving, forming shapes at the edge of recognition. Everyone leaned closer, trying to make out what they were dealing with. For over two hours they had gazed at the Stranger, trying to guess what he was. "Listen," he said. "I have the capacity to trade through Kelvin's Paradigm, the Northern Protocol, and 1.66. I don't understand why you keep talking about risk."
"Do you have FE software?" called out Joanne, not quite concealing the edge of impatience in her voice. "Joanne," said Saskia, "I thought we agreed, all communications go through Michel." "It's okay," said Michel, withering under the glares of both women. "It's a good question. Do you have FE, Stranger?"
"FE?" said the Stranger, in some surprise.
"Yes, I have Fair Exchange software, though I have not used it in some time. This explains something about your behavior: you are new to the trade game, are you not?"
"Don't tell him anything," hissed Armstrong. "Why not?" asked Joanne, reasonably. "Like the Stranger said, we're perfectly safe if we use the FE software. We're guaranteed a Fair Exchange. That's what it's for, isn't it?" Edward had never quite understood exactly what the FE software did. All he knew was that it was responsible for him leaving his home on Garvey's World and flying off on this spaceship. It had meant leaving behind his sister, Caroline. He thought of her standing outside the patchwork hull of the Eva Rye, trying not to cry as she gave him a hug.
"Here you are, Edward," she had said, handing him a plaited bracelet made of n-strings. "This is to remind you of me." She held up her own wrist, showing an identical bracelet there. "See, I have one, too."
"Where's Dad?" Edward had asked, looking around the bleak greyness of the landing field. "He's off with Mum, working. They'll still be out in the fields, scanning for venumb infestations."
"Dad doesn't want me to go."
"I know, Edward. But this is for the best. If what they say is happening on Earth is true, then the sooner you're away from here, the better." Safe in the near darkness close to the floor, Edward ran a finger along the bracelet, feeling the strange slippery surface of the n-strings. He thought of Caroline's parting words.
"Listen, Edward. I know you're not very clever, but you've always done your best to be a good boy. You need to be a good boy now. You've heard the rumors: the Dark Plants are spreading, and they say the Watcher is calling everyone back home to Earth for their own safety, starting with the most helpless. And that means you. I really don't know what to do. But they say that the trade ships are safe. The Fair Exchange software guarantees that nobody can be cheated. Well, I hope so. I've bought you passage on the Eva Rye." A cold look came into her eyes, thin as the misty rain that filled the dull green valleys of Garvey's World.
"Are you okay, Caroline?" She gave him a sudden, fierce hug. He kissed her on the cheek and she smiled at him. "Now get on board. Quickly." And before Edward had had a last chance to look around the grey, rain-sodden hills, she had pushed him up the rainbow-striped staircase into the hatchway of the spaceship. That had been three weeks ago. Since then Edward had wandered the multicolored corridors of the ship, trying to make sense of his new situation. The Eva Rye was not a happy place: there was no peace or harmony to be found anywhere on board, not socially, aurally, or visually. Especially visually. The decor in the living areas was a wildly eclectic mix; no two parts of the ship matched. Great bulky brown studded leather recliners humphed their way between delicately carved wooden dining chairs upholstered in shot silk. Rubber-coated floors, embossed with round gripping bumps, were covered with coconut foot mats; woodchip wallpaper was pasted over brushed aluminum bulkheads. Even the material from which the ship was constructed flowed and changed from room to room. Wedges of grey concrete were driven into blond parquet that was in turn tiled with cream plastic shapes. And as for the people, you couldn't have picked a more disparate bunch if you tried. Nobody seemed to want Michel to be the leader, least of all Michel himself.
Maurice agreed with everything Armstrong said and did; he even dressed the same way. Donny hoarded his sour resentment, rationing his formerly sweet nature only for his children. Most people, but especially Saskia and Joanne, looked the other way when Edward entered the room. Only Craig seemed to take the trouble to speak to him, now that Donny had told Jack and Emily to keep away. Only Craig. Oh, and Miss Rose, but she hardly ever left her room, and when she did it was just to hurl, with a careful eye, more bad feeling into the bouillabaisse of hurt that was the Eva Rye. And nobody would tell Edward what was going on. He wandered into rooms just as decisions had been made. He watched on viewing fields as deals were already done, and as other similarly eclectic spaceships slid away from theirs without Edward ever having seen those on board. All of this was something to do with the FE software that lurked unseen in the processing spaces of the Eva Rye. Edward was really beginning to resent it. All he wanted to do was to go home to Garvey's World, to its monotonous greyness and to Caroline.
Now another stranger had contacted the ship. This time everyone had been summoned to speak to it. Nobody had been really happy with the trades that had been made so far. Everyone thought that Michel was making bad decisions, and people were beginning to say so out loud. Edward didn't understand how that could be so, when surely it was the job of the FE software to make the trades, but even so, when the Stranger had hailed the ship, it had been agreed that this time everyone should be present for the negotiations. Even Edward. Craig had insisted on that point. So now Edward sat on the hessian mat, his backside aching, his hands sore and itching, as the mysterious Stranger bargained for delta vee.
"Craig," hissed Edward. "Craig! What is delta vee?"
"Acceleration," whispered Craig. "The Stranger is floating in space. It wants us to take it somewhere else, and that requires fuel."
"Why is it floating in space?" asked Edward. Craig stared at him for a moment, and a lopsided smile slowly spread across his face.
"Do you know, Edward, I don't think anyone has actually asked that." He raised his voice. "Stranger! Why are you floating in space?"
"All communications through Michel," said Saskia reprovingly. "It's okay," said Michel. "It's a good question. Go on, Stranger, why?" The fuzzy x in the viewing field laughed.
"I told you, I work on systems repair. Where else would I be but floating in space, waiting for systems to repair?" Craig looked down at Edward. "Does that answer your question?" he said.
Edward shook his head. "No. No, it doesn't. If it is where it is supposed to be, why does it want a lift from us?"
"A very good question!" called the Stranger. "I require delta vee because I'm floating towards a region of Dark Plants. I estimate I will be amongst them in around six hundred years if someone does not help me."
Edward noted the hungry expression that had awoken in Joanne and Saskia's faces. Joanne was mouthing, "Pick him up." At the same time Saskia murmured, "I think you should consider this new information, Michel."
"Why is the Stranger afraid of Dark Plants?" whispered Edward up to Craig.
"Every intelligent being is afraid of them," Craig whispered back. "Even AIs stop thinking when near them."
"Why?" "I don't know, but Dark Plants kill intelligent life. You must know that, Edward. You must have heard of Dark Plants before! Anyway, Joanne and Saskia now think that we are in a much better bargaining position."
"Because . . ." began Craig. "Look, I'll explain later. Shhh, listen!" "I think Joanne is right," called Armstrong, Maurice nodding in agreement. "We should pick him up. Find out what's on offer."
"Be quiet," hissed Michel. "I haven't engaged the buffer. It can hear everything we're saying."
"Yes, I can hear everything," agreed the Stranger. It really did have a cheerful voice, thought Edward. Happy and positive: it made you feel good just to listen to it. "Listen, I will give you some advice. Free advice! Remember, as all negotiations pass through the FE software, there is no need to be secretive. All of our intrigues will be as naught once FE takes over."
From the Paperback edition.