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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."
Excerpted from Reclamation by Sarah Zettel. Copyright © 1996 Sarah Zettel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 22, 2009
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