Fool's Warby Sarah Zettel
In this New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a strange new life form threatens all of humanity, and only a fool would stand in its way
Katmer Al Shei has done well with the starship Pasadena, cutting corners where necessary to keep her crew paid and her journeys profitable. But there are two things she will never skimp on: her crew—and her/i>/b>… See more details below
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In this New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a strange new life form threatens all of humanity, and only a fool would stand in its way
Katmer Al Shei has done well with the starship Pasadena, cutting corners where necessary to keep her crew paid and her journeys profitable. But there are two things she will never skimp on: her crew—and her fool. For a long space journey, a certified Fool’s Guild clown is essential, to amuse, excite, and otherwise distract the crew from the drudgeries of interstellar flight. Her newest fool, Evelyn Dobbs, is a talented jester. But does she have enough wit to save mankind? In the computers of the Pasadena, something is emerging. The highly sophisticated software that makes interstellar travel practical is playing host to a new form of artificial intelligence, one with its own mind, its own needs, and its own desperate fears. Combatting this terrifying new threat becomes the fool’s secret fight. Evelyn Dobbs’s personal war might just cost Katmer Al Shei everything, and everyone, she holds dear. But if they fail, humanity itself is lost for good.
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By Sarah Zettel
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Sarah Zettel
All rights reserved.
Curran watched the man whose life he required settle onto one of the dozen faux leather couches that were scattered around the station's reception module. The monitors showed him Amory Dane, spruce, tall, and fair. Dane made the perfect picture of someone prepared to wait patiently for an appointment. He was a radically different creature from the furtive Freers in the corner dickering over the delivery price for the wafer case that sat on the floor between them, or the gaggle of haggard mechanics who had put in one shift too many at the bar.
Curran wondered idly what they would do if he spoke up and announced what he was. Would they laugh, thinking it was a crazy engineer's joke? Would they scramble for the wall and try to get at the computer system? Or would they just start running for the hatches?
He ran through each of the scenarios and decided that any would be amusing, but that the risk of being recorded on a hard medium was not worth it.
From his position of safety, Curran calmly overrode the inspection commands for the module's automatic systems. Then, he ordered the hatches to cycle shut. One of the mechanics, more sober than the others, jerked his head up as he heard the hatch seal.
Before anyone could make another move, Curran sent a single command to each of the three explosive charges his talent had laid against the module's hull.
As the wind ripped through the room and the screams began in earnest, Curran slid away.
"How dieth the wise man?" He murmured as he hurried toward his next task. "As the fool."
Al Shei got the distinct feeling that Donnelly was trying to stare her down out of the desk's video screen.
"In that case," Donnelly said, "the answer is no."
Al Shei refrained from letting her shoulders sag. The talent agent was playing havoc with her worn temper. She was very glad of her opaque, black hijab, the veil that covered her hair and hid the lower half of her face. She didn't want Donnelly to see her jaw move as she ground her teeth together.
"You aren't even going to do me the courtesy of pretending to consult with your client, are you 'Ster Donnelly?" For the hundredth time Al Shei mentally cursed her pilot for picking this run to sell out and leave. First class pilots who would work for the shares Al Shei offered were as scarce as water ice on Venus.
Donnelly held up his manicured hands and made an exaggerated shrug. "Jemina Yerusha is one of the best pilots I've ever represented. I know her. She's not going sign on a ship that's only got a Lennox rating of D for a twentieth share, which, according to your stats, doesn't amount to all that much."
Al Shei looked away for a moment to watch the clients at the other rented desks that filled the station's bank. The noise of a dozen different languages was deadened by panels of jewel-toned, wired plastics that covered the walls. The only quiet person in the room seemed to be Resit, who sat next to Al Shei's desk. Resit shook her head at Al Shei and mouthed "I told you so."
Al Shei tapped the edge of the desk heavily with her index finger and looked back towards Donnelly. "Yerusha is a highly skilled child who's been out of work for three weeks and must be getting pretty sick of this station."
"She's a Freer, 'Dama Al Shei." Donnelly folded his arms across his chest, making his black satin shirt wrinkle and bag. "She doesn't have a problem with stations. She does have a problem with anything under a C rating."
Al Shei shuffled her boots against the bristly, brown carpet. She briefly considered telling Donnelly he was an unprofessional little weasel and that when Yerusha found out he was billing her at twice her worth, thus making it next to impossible for her to find employment, she was going to take him to pieces with the thoroughness that Freers were noted for.
"Thank you for your time, 'Ster Donnelly." Al Shei pressed her thumb against the corner of the screen, cutting the connection.
"I'm very glad you didn't." Resit tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her beaded, white kijab. Unlike her cousin Al Shei's, Resit's veil left her whole face bare. Lawyers who covered their faces, she said, were even less trusted than the ordinary kind, if that was possible.
"Didn't what?" Al Shei pushed the screen down until it was level with the top of the desk.
"Say what you were thinking." Resit drew aside her full-hemmed skirt to let a man in maintenance coveralls squeeze past the desk. "I didn't fancy spending the next two weeks trying to keep you out of the brig for slander of a fellow station client. The wire-work alone would have used up most of my retainer."
"You're not on retainer," Al Shei reminded her.
"Ah, you noticed that too, did you?" Resit gave her a cheeky smile.
Al Shei grimaced under her hijab. "Don't try to cheer me up, Resit, I'm brooding." She fiddled with the hem of her black tunic sleeve, a terrible habit she had never even tried to break. "Yerusha would have been a good catch. We'd've been halfway to that C rating just having her at the boards."
Resit drummed her fingers on her burgundy-clad knee and rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "Jemina Yerusha is not the only available pilot in the whole of Port Oberon," she pointed out with a touch of exasperation. "Pick one with an agent who's a little less cagey." She looked towards the bank's hatchway and mumbled something Al Shei couldn't catch.
"What was that last bit?" she asked, although she had a feeling she knew what was coming.
Resit sighed. "And you might try to find one that's not a Freer."
Al Shei felt her eyebrows draw together. In response, Resit stiffened her shoulders. "Before you say it, I am not being bigoted. Having a Freer on board is going to create strain on the crew, starting with Lipinski and working its way out."
"All the way to you?" Al Shei did not feel in the mood to let her cousin off the hook.
"Yes," said Resit flatly. "All the way to me. I do not like revolutionaries." She paused. "I also don't like people who have been sent into exile by their justice systems."
Al Shei rubbed her forehead. "Push come to shove, Lipinski is a rational human being, as is my honored-and-educated cousin," she drew the last phrase out for emphasis. "I trust you both to behave yourselves. I also trust you to recognize that we do not have the time or the money to be overly fussy." It was an old battle, and there wasn't much Al Shei could do but continue to fight it. The Pasadena was a good ship. When she had charge of it, she generally ran it at a decent profit, but acquiring that profit too often involved a miserly attitude and constant juggling between the need for skilled hands and the need for frugality. "And yes," Al Shei sighed. "She is an exile. That's why I thought she'd be willing to work cheap. I've already had Schyler check with his Freer contacts. He says there's a lot of suspicion that the charges against her were trumped up." She eyed Resit carefully. "Schyler says he'll fly with her. If you have any comments regarding the competency of my Watch Commander's judgement, I'd love to hear them." The depressurization alarm sounded overhead. Reflexes jerked Al Shei halfway to her feet. Logically, she knew that if the leak was in the section she was currently occupying, she would have heard the whistle of the wind and felt it tugging at her clothes before the alarm even had time to cut loose, but she had half a lifetime's training in responding to any unusual sound produced by her environment. She sank slowly back into her chair.
"Do you ever get used to that noise?" Resit wrapped her arms around herself. "I've been coming out here five years and it still gives me the shakes."
"It's supposed to." Al Shei forced her hands back onto the desk top. "Somebody on this station is in danger of losing the means to breathe. If this does not upset you, you need a balance check very quickly."
Port Oberon separated its ground-side tourists carefully from its professional crews, so no information was forthcoming from the station's intercom. The landlords assumed that all the shippers wanted to know was that they weren't the ones in danger, and silence was enough for that. If it became important, she could get the information about what happened from the station's artificial intelligence.
Al Shei gave herself and Resit a moment to recover from the alarm before she reached for the desk screen again. "All right, let's try " "'Dama Al Shei?" said a woman's voice. "I'm your fool."
Al Shei blew out a sigh that ruffled her hijab and looked up. "I beg your pardon?" she said, not bothering to put patience into her tone. The woman's Arabic was heavily accented. It was possible she didn't know what she was saying, but it had already been a long morning.
Al Shei came from a family of small women, but the woman in front of the desk was not merely small, she was minuscule. She stood barely a hundred and thirty centimeters tall and probably weighed all of thirty kilograms, if you added the loose cobalt-blue tunic, baggy trousers and soft boots into the calculation. Her skin was a clear brown, two or three shades lighter than Al Shei's earth tones. That and the angles in her eyes and her face said a good chunk of her ancestry was European.
"I'm Evelyn Dobbs," said the woman. "Fool's Guild rating, Master of Craft, reporting for duty to the engineer-manager of the mail packet ship Pasadena. I've a two year contract as part of your crew."
Al Shei stared at her. For the first time she noticed that a necklace of red and gold gems encircled the other woman's throat, representing the motley of the Intersystem Guild of Professional Fools.
Al Shei sighed again. It was turning out to be one of those days. Fools, like expert pilots, were required for a first class operation. They were entertainers, confidants, clowns who could say or do anything. They functioned as pressure valves for long trips and cramped quarters. As such, they were in high demand and short supply. That placed them even farther out of the Pasadena Corporation's budget than Jemina Yerusha. If the currently unreachable Yerusha was half of the Pasadena's Lennox C, the other half was standing in front of Al Shei's desk, looking across at her with summer brown eyes.
"I'm sorry," Al Shei switched over to English. "There's been a mistake. I haven't contracted a a Fool." It felt strange saying the word to the woman's face, but as far as Al Shei knew, the Fool's Guild had never adopted another name for their members.
In answer, Dobbs unclipped a light pen from her belt, touched the download stud and pressed the point against one of the blank films piled on Al Shei's desk. The film's chip read the transmission and printed a text file across the slick surface. Al Shei scanned the black print as it flowed across the grey film. It was a contract, complete with confirmation and certification information, between the Intersystem Guild of Professional Fools and the Pasadena Corporation for the services of one Master of Craft for a period of two years, measured by contiguous hours of active service. It was signed, confirmed and pre-paid by Ahmet Tey.
The sight of her uncle's name sent a spasm of anger through Al Shei. Would the man never, ever let up? She and Asil had done quite well, thank you very much, and they hadn't had to beg one penny from the family. Why did Uncle Ahmet keep treating her like
Resit must have seen her shoulders tense. With a lawyer's practiced eye, Resit had already scanned the contract and filtered the implications through her mind.
"It'll make us Class C Lennox," she said calmly to Al Shei in Arabic. "Pick it up, Katmer, tell Schyler to get a spot inspection done, and we'll be able to afford Yerusha."
She did not, of course, mention the increase in profits the C rating could mean for this run. She knew well enough that a part of Al Shei's mind had involuntarily worked the percentages out already.
Her anger did not cool, but Al Shei made herself swallow her pride in one, large lump.
"I beg your pardon, Master Dobbs. My uncle neglected to inform me that he had acted on my behalf." She held out her hand. "Welcome aboard the Pasadena."
"Thank you." Dobbs beamed as she reached for Al Shei's hand, but then her forehead wrinkled and she looked down at the desk top. Al Shei's gaze followed automatically. The Fool's pen was still pressed to the film.
"I'm sorry, I um " Dobbs tugged at her light pen, but it didn't come away from the film like it should have. "There's a ah " She frowned and tugged again. No good. The point of the pen stayed firmly stuck to the film. She grabbed it with both hands and pulled harder. "Must be a sorry " She grabbed her own wrist and strained backwards with all her might.
Al Shei felt herself smile. Resit snorted out loud. Heads turned all around the room to stare coolly or curiously at the strange scene. Dobbs blushed heavily, put one foot against the desk to brace herself, grabbed the pen in both hands, grit her teeth and hauled backwards.
The pen came free with such force, Dobbs flipped tail over teacup across the carpet, coming up on her backside, brandishing the pen triumphantly.
Al Shei whooped with laughter and Resit applauded briskly. Dobbs smiled, leapt to her feet and bowed deeply to her audience.
"When do we start launch prep, Boss?" Dobbs asked, clipping her pen back onto her belt.
"Nine hundred tomorrow." Al Shei knew Dobbs could hear the smile in her voice. "Check in with Watch Commander Schyler to get your weight allotment and cabin assignment and don't be late."
Dobbs grinned all across her round face. "I'm not that kind of Fool, Boss. I'll be there."
She bowed one more time and turned on her heel, too fast. She wobbled precariously, windmilling with both arms before she found her balance again and set off jauntily through the oval doorway in the narrow end of the room.
Resit giggled audibly. Al Shei turned and gave her a dramatically sour gaze. "Go ahead, laugh," she said, dropping back into Arabic. "You're not the one who has to thank Uncle Ahmet."
"No. I'm just the one who has to try to get Yerusha's agent to stick to his terms." She grimaced. "Freers. What you want with a jacked-up kid "
"Look who's talking." Al Shei laughed. "Grit your teeth and think about bonus pay. That's what I'm doing." And money in the bank and the plans for the Mirror of Fate which'll have a B rating before we even get it crewed, and quarters for Asil and the kids She shuffled Dobbs' contract into the stack of films in front of her that held Pasadena's current certifications, crew contracts and share commitments. "What's left?"
"Good thing I certified as a secretary as well as a lawyer," grumbled Resit, like she always did, but she pulled her schedule pad out of her bag and checked the display. "We're supposed to meet with Dr. Amory Dane about the packet he wants to send to The Farther Kingdom. Medical updates, he says. It's a big load but it shouldn't take long to iron out."
"Okay." Al Shei ran her finger along the edge of the pile of film, sealing the sheets together to form a thick book. "You meet with Dr. Dane and get the contract settled. Then, get into Donnelly's office and sign up our new pilot. The Watch Commander and I should be able to burn through the red tape on the inspection. I want us re-registered before we start launch prep tomorrow."
Resit lowered her eyes in mock humility. "Your pardon, oh-my-mistress, but if 'Ster Inspector should desire, Allah forbid, to create difficulty about the fact that you haven't actually signed the pilot you are no doubt going to list "
"I shall threaten him with the keen and ready wit of my lawyer." Al Shei stood up. "Who is going to get her share halved if she doesn't "
"I'm going, I'm going." Resit shoveled her films and her schedule pad into one stack. "See me go Boss." She made her way between the desks, imitating Dobbs' swinging stride and making the hem of her skirt swirl.
Excerpted from Fool's War by Sarah Zettel. Copyright © 1997 Sarah Zettel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sarah Zettel is the critically acclaimed author of more than twenty novels, spanning the full range of genre fiction. Her debut novel, Reclamation, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her second release, Fool’s War, was a 1997 New York Times Notable Book, and the American Library Association named Playing God one of the Best Books for Young Adults of 1999. Her novel Bitter Angels won the Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback in 2009. Her latest novel, Dust Girl, was named as one of the best young adult books of the year by both Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association. Zettel lives in Michigan with her husband, her rapidly growing son, and her cat, Buffy the Vermin Slayer.
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This is a good book which is not quite a page turner because it has a complicated yet fair plot and offers many places to pause and think about the implications behind the author's ideas and how they reflect on our own times. This meets my expectations of Science Fiction, not to produce horrors or explosive action [of which it has some] but to take a possible scientific idea and build a human story around it. Not so much Heinlein or Asimov, but more like some of Clarke.
Got go about page 80 and lost interest.
Story line so far a bit chaotic and tho writing is ok the book seriously needs proofing. All the missing words and additional ones quite distracting. Will repost if it gets better in second half
Suppose artificial intelligence were to become reality. What would these new beings think of the networked world within which they live? What is the moment of birth like, when consciousness is suddently trust upon them? These are the questions Sarah Zettel seeks to answer, and she does so in a riviting and visionary way. Buy this book!