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The Ecolitan Enigma
By L.E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1997 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Filled with the faint odors of oil, hot metal, and recycled air, the down-shuttle from Accord orbit control to Harmony was less than half full. In the left front couch sat a tall sandy-haired man wearing the formal greens of an Ecolitan. On his left uniform collar was a black-and-green lustral pin — a gift from the Emperor of the Hegemony of Light, more commonly known as the Terran Empire. The pin was a contradiction in terms because the substance of the lustral represented a small fortune and the form was a miniature of the crest of the Ecolitan Institute. Beside the Ecolitan sat a dark-haired woman in a blue jumpsuit.
Sylvia glanced sideways at Nathaniel as the Ecolitan fidgeted in the hard passenger seat of the Coordinate shuttle.
"Iffy approach," he said.
"And yours haven't been?" The slender and dark-haired woman offered a smile.
"Yours." The smile broadened.
"Which kind are you referring to?" he countered, trying not to grin in return.
"Any kind, most honorable envoy."
"I'd hope mine, especially in shuttles and needle-boats, were less rocky," he finally said, squelching a frown as the buffeting shuttle tossed him against his harness.
"Do all pilots find other pilots' approaches questionable?"
"Probably. We hate being passengers."
"It sounds like you're all control addicts." She offered a softer smile.
"That's probably true, too."
"I still wonder." She shook her head. "This is so sudden. I hadn't planned to emigrate so soon. And certainly not to Accord. Your clearance officers on the orbit control station — they barely looked at me. Do all Ecolitans have that kind of power?"
"Hardly." Nathaniel laughed. "It wasn't me, but the Prime Ecolitan's access codes."
"Just codes? Could any Ecolitan do that?"
"Not unless the Prime gave him the codes." The sandy-haired man swayed in the seat as the shuttle banked onto what Nathaniel hoped was the final approach. "They're held tightly."
"Does that happen often?"
Nathaniel shrugged. "Every few years, maybe. This was important to us." Still, he had trouble believing his mission as an agent/official envoy was over, and that he had actually managed to avert what could have been an interstellar war between the Coordinate of Accord and the Empire. Although he'd sweated and worried, especially when it had looked as though the Imperial fleet had been ready to deploy, now it seemed almost too easy ... and as if he'd missed something. He refrained from shaking his head. At least he'd gotten Sylvia off Old Earth. But did she want off?
"You'd already gotten the trade agreement before you left Old Earth," Sylvia continued. "You didn't need me. Why was I important to your mission? Or afterwards?"
"Because I think so." He grinned. "Because you made it all possible, and because —"
"Please remain in your seats. Shuttle Beta is on final approach to Harmony. Please remain in your seats."
"— you'd be an asset to the Institute."
"They'd take me on your recommendation?"
"Not automatically, but I can't recall when the recommendation of a senior professor was last rejected." He cleared his throat and raised his voice above the roar of the landing engines. "That's because we don't make many, and we're held responsible."
"How many have you made?" Sylvia asked with a smile.
"You're the first. I don't know of any professor, or even the Prime, who's made more than three. Some never have."
Her eyes dropped to the green of the bulkhead before them. "You make me sound extraordinarily special, and I'm not."
"You're not? How many people would have had the background, the understanding, and the willingness to help me — and to prevent the deaths of billions of human beings?" And that was just where an interstellar war could have led.
"I'm not that special."
"We'll talk about that later, Ms. Ferro-Maine," Nathaniel said as the shuttle's tires screeched on the permacrete of Accord and he lurched against the harness. "Way too rough ..." he murmured more to himself than Sylvia.
Even before the shuttle lurched to a halt, prompting another sour look by Nathaniel, the announcement hissed through the passenger compartment.
"Please pick up your bags or any luggage on the way out of the shuttle. You are responsible for carrying your own luggage unless you have made prior arrangements. Please pick up your luggage on the way out."
"Self-sufficiency begins from the moment you set foot on the planet, I see." After the final lurch, Sylvia eased out of her harness and stood, stretching.
Nathaniel watched for a moment, enjoying her grace, still half-amazed that she had not been good enough for a professional dancing career on Old Earth.
"Dancing takes more than grace."
"How did you —"
"You've said it enough, especially every time I stretch." Another warm smile crossed her lips. "Time to become pack animals."
"With what little you brought?"
"I had very little time to choose, as you may recall?"
"Sorry. I'll see that you get a stipend for that." And he would, even if it came out of his pay.
"You aren't responsible for everything, dear envoy."
No, he thought, we Ecolitans only think we are.
One of the uniformed crew members — a woman in olive greens standing behind the baggage racks — looked sharply at the two for a moment as they retrieved their bags, two field packs for Nathaniel and two oblong black synfab cases for Sylvia.
Once they stepped out of the shuttle and into the shuttleway to the port terminal, Nathaniel took a deep breath. "Smells better than ship air."
"It smells like burned hydrocarbons to me," confessed Sylvia.
"Professor Whaler?" asked the redheaded young woman in plain greens, waiting by the end of the shuttleway.
"I'm Whaler," Nathaniel acknowledged. "And this is Ms. Ferro-Maine. She's accompanying me to the Institute."
"Trainee Luren, sirs," offered the youngster, probably a fourth-year trainee, Nathaniel suspected. "The Prime sent a flitter when he got your message." Her rust-colored eyebrows lifted just slightly. "If you would follow me?"
"Thank you." The Ecolitan did not answer the unasked question. Few Ecolitans got private flitters on returning to Accord. Most carried their own luggage and took the monorail.
As they trailed Luren, Sylvia murmured, "I thought you said we'd have to take the monorail."
"I couldn't count on a flitter ... didn't want to disappoint you."
"You won't be disappointed that you aren't flying it?" She raised her eyebrows.
"A little, but into each life some rain falls."
Luren paused by a narrow doorway. "We're down the steps and across the permacrete."
Nathaniel squinted as they stepped out into the bright sunlight of Harmony, if a shuttle port nearly twenty kilos south of Harmony could be considered part of the Coordinate capital.
"There it is, sirs," said Luren.
Nathaniel glanced toward the green flitter as he eased the field packs through the doorway, then looked back toward Sylvia, whose mouth opened.
Nathaniel scarcely felt the needles that slammed him around, not after Sylvia threw him behind the slight cover afforded by their bags. For a moment, he just lay there. On Accord? With an Institute flitter less than a hundred meters away? How could an assassination attempt take place? And why? He'd already done his job, and nothing would stop implementation of the trade agreement.
Nathaniel squinted through his sudden dizziness at the sprawled form of the trainee and then toward the flitter.
Thrummmm ... thrummm ... Almost as quickly as the stunner bolts flew from the Institute craft, two figures in greens sprinted from the flitter toward the three sprawled on the permacrete.
Eeeeeee ... The sirens seemed to waver in and around Nathaniel from a distance as he slowly eased himself into a sitting position.
His entire side was a mass of fire.
"Are you all right?" Sylvia asked.
"Will be ... need to get to the Institute." He struggled to stand, then found himself being helped by both Sylvia and a young Ecolitan.
"Whoever it was is gone, professor. We've alerted the Prime, but we're to get you home double speed." The young crewman turned to Sylvia. "You, too, Ms. Ferro-Maine."
Nathaniel forced his legs to carry him toward the still waiting flitter, although it was more of a stagger than a walk. Still, he knew every pace was worth more than antique gold, especially if the needles had carried nerve collapse toxins. He blocked the pain and kept walking, but the permacrete and the flitter began to swirl around him.
"Catch him."CHAPTER 2
The Fuardian officer wearing crimson-trimmed formal grays and a silver hawk on his shoulder tabs stepped inside the spacious office. "Ser?"
"I don't have time to read forty-page reports, colonel. Answer me simply. Are your operations going as planned?" asked the gray-clad officer behind the desk.
"Ah, sub-marshal ... yes. We had not foreseen the Accord trade negotiations, but the Coordinate's conduct there has sharpened the Grand Admiral's concerns. The use of an Ecolitan as a trade negotiator has definitely put the laser on the Rift. The devastation of the synde bean plague on Heraculon has reinforced those Imperial concerns ..."
"The death toll is over four million so far. The Empire has had to divert most of its spare cargo capacity for food concentrates. They've even sent in military power systems from reserve units."
"There are still murmurs about Accord. We don't have the analysis yet, but those could be pushed by the trideo initiative. Either way, the laser points directly at Harmony. We've taken some additional steps there as well to point back at the Admiral ... or others. We had to divert a fast courier, but ..."
"That's secondary, though, for now. Do we have enough seed stock for the next phase?"
"Yes, ser, and the next phase will target both the anchovies and the algae. Anarra, the Matriarchy, then Imperial Sector Four. We've established the probable secondary vectors if it were a natural plague, and those will be planted over the next few weeks, using the commercial trade system."
The sub-marshal nodded curtly.
"What about the transfer arrangements?" asked the colonel. "Our contacts have asked about that."
"We do not have to deliver anything — especially warcraft — until the Ninth and Eleventh fleets are transferred to the Rift, or two other fleets in the sectors bordering the Three System Bulge are shifted along the Limber line." The senior officer smiled. "When that occurs, the general staff will be more than happy to approve the transfer. More than happy. After we occupy the systems, particularly ... shall we say ... those of the priggish Avalonians."
"Next time, send a summary with the report. It will save us both time."CHAPTER 3
Nathaniel looked from his bed at the dark-haired dancer, her left arm in a sling and covered with a nerve regeneration sheathe. "I didn't expect ... such a welcome here in Harmony."
"Neither did I." Sylvia offered a wry smile. "It was even more dramatic than your welcome to New Augusta."
"No one seems to want me to go anywhere, even home." He swallowed. "Are you all right?" As close as Sylvia sat on the straight-backed wooden chair, he couldn't miss the dark circles under her eyes. Behind her, through the wide window, he could see the low hills to the west of the Institute, their treed lower slopes a deep green.
"You're asking how I am?"
"I know how I'm doing. I'll live, and nothing permanent's damaged."
"On Old Earth, you'd be dead, I think." She frowned. "I knew the Institute had good medical techniques, but knowing ... and experiencing ..."
"This is Accord." He forced a soft laugh, ignoring the wave of pain that the sound sent down his side. "But I wish you hadn't gotten the experience firsthand."
"You are impossible."
"How are —" he asked.
"I'm fine. The arm hurts, and the nerves burn all the way to my neck sometimes, but the medtechs say that's normal and there's no lasting damage."
"Good." Nathaniel offered a smile. The last thing he wanted was for her to arrive on Accord and be crippled ... or worse. But why had someone been after them?
"Has anyone —" He had trouble concentrating, his thoughts skittering from one image to another, reinforced by the tightness in his stomach that kept insisting that something was very wrong.
"Your Prime Ecolitan talked to me, while they were still working on you." Sylvia smiled. "He was more forthright than anyone from the Empire would have been."
"And?" Nathaniel tried to bring up the relaxation techniques to reduce muscular tension and pain, and eased himself back against the pale green sheets — sheets, soft as they were, that felt like hundreds of pins where his bare skin brushed them.
"The needles were Imperial military issue — the ones they use for Special Ops. They're transparent to everything. They found a dead Coordinate trooper, minus his uniform and equipment, just off the Dehar base —"
"DeHihns," corrected Nathaniel. "Named after the first planetary chairman."
"They think he'd only been killed a few hours before."
"It couldn't have been an Imperial Special Op." Nathaniel shook his head momentarily, then stopped as a line of fire slashed up his left side. He closed his eyes against the light from the window. Even that seemed to glare.
"I'd agree." Sylvia smiled ironically. "I'd like to know why you think that, though."
"First," he said slowly "it's unlikely one could pass the screens, but if he or she did, they'd be good enough that one or both of us would be dead. Second, they'd have had a better opportunity on Old Earth. There, the timing would have been far better ... easier ..." He took a slow deep breath, letting the relaxation techniques blunt the pain.
After all, Nathaniel reflected silently, for an Imperial Special Operative to get to Accord before they had in time to set up an assassination attempt meant that it had to have been planned almost before Nathaniel had completed his trade negotiations. "Third ... it's too obvious."
"It was meant to be obvious."
But why? That was the question. His vision blurred.
Sylvia stood quickly and stepped up beside the bed, touching his forehead with her good hand, with fingers that were cool and soothing. "Just relax ... you need to rest."
He tried to smile, but found blackness looming over him.CHAPTER 4
As he had the last time he had visited the Institute, Delegate Minister of Interstellar Commerce Restinal paused outside the open door.
"Come on in, Werlin," called the Prime Ecolitan's cheerful voice. "Remember, we don't stand on ceremony. We don't even sit on it."
Restinal forced a genial smile and carried his datacase into the lorkin-paneled office, bowing to the silver-haired man who stood by the wide table that served as his desk.
"Take a seat." Without waiting for Restinal to follow the suggestion, Gairloch Pittsway, Prime of the Ecolitan Institute, sat down in the hand-carved armchair behind the table.
Restinal eased into the chair closest to the door, his datacase on his lap. "I wished to convey personally my thanks to you and to the Institute for its willingness to relinquish Ecolitan Whaler to the Ministry. His efforts as Trade Legate to New Augusta were most effective." Restinal smiled again. "Most effective."
"I'm glad you recognize that."
"I was sorry to hear that the Empire rather belatedly also recognized his expertise and effectiveness."
"Professor Whaler will be incapacitated for a short while, no longer, and I am sure he will appreciate your concern, Werlin. Even if I did have to force him on you." The Prime's smile was faint.
"I bowed to your wisdom then, and I still do."
"Werlin, you only bow to superior force of one type or another, and we both know it." There was a slight pause. "You didn't come all the way out here just to offer congratulations and condolences. What did you have in mind?"
Restinal shifted his weight on the chair, already hard. "I understand that Professor Whaler is a highly regarded expert on development economics, and especially economic infrastructures."
"That is his specialty," acknowledged Pittsway.
Excerpted from The Ecolitan Enigma by L.E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 1997 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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