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Steal Across The Sky
By Nancy Kress
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 Nancy Kress
All rights reserved.
"WELL," CAM SAID, rising on her toes and leaning toward the bridge's main screen, "there they are."
Lucca, despite the tightness in his throat, was startled into laughter. All the hoping to be chosen for this insane mission, all the agonizing over the Atoners' unknown selection criteria, all the complicated family reactions and media furor and governmental observation, all the tension on the voyage out — and then Cam greets the alien star system with the most mundane understatement possible. And this was Cam, an American who thrived on flamboyance like vineyards on sun. Although perhaps that was the point. Cam was making an uncharacteristic effort to be careful.
Soledad scowled. Lucca understood: Soledad had to be viewing the Kular System with mixed emotions. She was the alternate Witness, and neither Lucca nor Cam had died on the trip to Kular. Neither had fallen ill, gone insane, changed his or her mind. Cam and Lucca were going down to the twin planets below, and Soledad was not. Nonetheless, Soledad was generous enough to purge the scowl from her face and say, "I wish you both luck." Lucca took her hand and squeezed it.
He didn't touch Cam.
On-screen, Kular A and Kular B sparkled with the magnificence of the remote. The binary planet system rotated around a common center of gravity, 1.4 AU from their G5 star. At some time in the unimaginable past they had formed from the same dust cloud, and their composition and gravity were similar. That much the Atoners had told their human surrogates.
Neither planet had any moons, although each would dominate the other's sky. On Kular A, the pole end of the one giant continent was obscured by a massive dust storm, but the rest shone clear with blue seas and green flora. Clouds drifted over the one inhabited continent on B. Or maybe it wasn't the only inhabited continent any longer. The Atoners had not, they said, visited Kular in five hundred Terran years. They would never visit it again. That's what human Witnesses were for.
"Let's go to the shuttle bay," Cam said. More mundane speech. But she was right; commonplace words were what was needed right now. Procedural speech, unambiguous speech, careful speech that didn't imply grandiose emotions that could only prove embarrassing later. Speech such as, for instance, I will love you forever.
"Yes," Lucca said carefully, "let's go to the shuttle bay."
Soledad led the way; she was, as of the moment the two shuttles launched, mission coordinator. Cam followed eagerly, looking beautiful as ever but so different in the rough tunic, leggings, and boots that the Atoners had supplied, her wild black hair loose to her shoulders. He was used to her in inexpensive American clothes, trashy and sexy. But then, he probably looked just as outlandish to her. Only Soledad, her stocky body clothed in jeans and a sweater, looked normal.
Lucca trailed the two young women, glancing back once more at Kular A. In a few more hours he would be down there, a Witness for the Atoners of Neu, a part of the aliens' grand, remorseful, incomprehensible program to repent of long-ago sins against humanity, sins that humans themselves hadn't even known had been committed.
IT STARTED TO GO WRONG the minute the shuttle hit the atmosphere. Insertion was supposed to happen with the same minimum disruption to passengers as all the other Atoner craft. Lucca didn't understand Atoner engineering — nobody on Earth understood it — but he'd been assured that the shuttle would go down "smooth as good chocolate." He'd been so startled to hear that phrase from the Atoner in the Dome on the moon — what did the Atoners know about chocolate? They must have learned the words from American television. Smooth as good chocolate.
Lucca screamed as he was flung violently against his webbed restraints. The shuttle lurched crazily. On the commlink Soledad shouted, "Lucca! Lucca!" but he couldn't answer her. Pressure closed his throat, burst capillaries in his eyes, took his ability to speak or move. I'm going to die — Ave Maria, piena di grazia ...
Later, he would not remember that he had prayed.
HE WASN'T DEAD, even though the shuttle was now silent as the grave, and as dark. Lucca hung upside down in his webbing. His eyes burned and his left leg ached. But pressure no longer tortured him, and he was able to free his arms.
"Soledad?" he said aloud. No answer; the shuttle commlink wasn't functioning. E che cazzo. He fumbled inside his rough woolen tunic for the portable commlink on his belt. "Soledad?"
Barely any delay; the Atoner ship empty of Atoners orbited only three hundred klicks above the planet. "Lucca! What happened? Are you all right?"
"The shuttle crashed, I think. Or not exactly crashed —" If it had, he'd be dead. "— but came down too hard. Something malfunctioned. Where am I?"
"About a thousand klicks north of where we'd planned. At the southern edge of the dust storm, actually. Are you hurt?"
"No, I ... yes." Lucca unfastened the last of his webbing and fell to the ceiling of the shuttle, which was now the floor. It took all his effort not to scream again. "I think my leg is broken."
Soledad swore in Spanish. "Shall I come and get you?"
"No!" Abort now? He had been on Kular less than ten minutes! "I'm going to use the med kit to set my leg. Call you when I have anything to report." He thrust the commlink back into his hidden belt, his fingers brushing bare skin. All at once that brought up an image of Cam, naked in his bunk aboard the ship, which in turn brought up an image of Gianna, equally naked.
The med kit was stored during flight in a metal cabinet now so twisted and smashed that Lucca couldn't get it open. Several minutes of groping in the dark determined that. All at once panic, the genuine unlovely thing, split his heart down its center seam. He hit the controls for the shuttle door, then pulled and pushed at it, but it wouldn't open. He was trapped, a sardine in an alien can whose workings he did not understand.
Cam carried a laser gun. Lucca could have had one as well, but he'd refused all weaponry even though he was far more proficient with firearms than was Cam. The Atoners had agreed without comment. But the Atoners hadn't imagined him trapped in a prison of their own making.
Or had they? Surely aliens with the technology for star travel must have made that technology trustworthy? If they could adapt ship controls and screens for human use, if they could send those humans light-years away in weeks, then they could ...
No. This was an accidental malfunction.
He pushed away the paranoia and splinted his broken leg with the arm of his chair, which twisted off more easily than he expected. The Atoner implants in his body released painkillers and, he assumed, healing meds as well. From a cabinet not twisted shut Lucca extracted and ate some protein bars. He checked the commlink, personal shield, and translator, each in its separate tiny pouch on the belt under his tunic. And then, since there was nothing else to do, he waited in the dark.
An hour passed.
Or maybe not — it was difficult to judge in total darkness. But he knew the passage of time by the deepening blackness in his soul.
This was his real enemy, and it didn't come from being trapped in an alien machine, on a mission he could never have imagined and had not even remotely expected to be chosen for. The depression was an old and accustomed companion, as well known as the feel of his growling stomach or the taste of his mouth when he awoke each morning. This gray fog, this low-grade fever of the mind, had been with him since childhood, banished only for the three glorious years with Gianna. When that London lorry had rolled off St. Martin's Lane, onto the sidewalk, and over his wife, the blackness had howled through Lucca like a typhoon, and had not abated for an entire year. But that shrieking grief had almost been preferable to the deadened aftermath.
He'd told the Atoners all of that during his recruitment interview, stumbling through the simplest words in an attempt to be honest: "I am a widower. My wife died in an accident three years ago. I become depressed." Did the Atoners even value honesty? No one knew. They/he/she/it, whoever was behind that impenetrable screen, had not commented. They won't take me, Lucca had thought, and hadn't known which was greater, his disappointment or his relief.
But they had taken him, and here he was, and not even a trip to the stars had banished the soul-blackness. Nor had that stupid affair with Cam, nor would anything ever except the impossible, having Gianna back.
Time dragged on. Eventually, he slept.
HE WOKE TO POUNDING on the hull, to pounding in his head, and to muffled shouts. Kularians.
Lucca reached under his tunic and turned on both the translator and the personal shield. He felt hot and feverish — a side effect of the implanted meds? — and the loud hammering of his heart rivaled the banging on the hull. He banged back.
The pounding stopped. After a while it resumed, steady and purposeful. The Kularians were, with excruciating slowness, cutting him out of the shuttle. Tools able to work metal. His first observation as a Witness.
A long time later, a meter-square of hull fell inward, clanging on the shuttle floor. Lucca braced for the weapon that would follow, although of course nothing they could have would penetrate his shield. Would it be a spear? A club? An automatic rapid-fire gun? They had had ten thousand years, after all. The Atoners said that neither Kular A nor Kular B gave off electromagnetic signatures of any kind: no radio transmissions, no television, no microwave towers, nothing. Presumably that meant, at most, an early-industrial society. But on Earth, the Gatling gun, capable of getting off two hundred rounds a minute, had been patented in 1862.
A head poked through the opening in the shuttle. Just that — an unprotected head.
The head said something.
Lucca smiled. The translator needed native language, a reasonable amount of language, before it could decipher anything. Lucca pointed at his leg and made a grimace of pain. The head vanished.
A half hour later they had him out. By then his whole body ached, feverish. It was daylight, although with the blowing sand, that could have meant dawn or dusk or anything in between. Grit blew continuously against everything, coating shuttle and clothing and tools with coarse dust. There were eight Kularians, and they worked with a cooperative energy that involved much arm waving, heated discussion, and foot stamping. There didn't seem to be a formal leader. At no time did they show anything that Lucca could interpret as fear. They seemed intensely interested in getting a task done, and not at all hesitant about whether it should in fact be done in the first place.
Once they understood that Lucca's leg was broken, they became more careful in handling him, although never really gentle. Finally, with a good deal more shouting and foot stamping, they loaded him onto a kind of travois, which at first Lucca thought they would pull themselves. But then someone led an animal from around the other side of the shuttle, a slow and seriously ugly beast like a shaggy elephant, ruminatively chewing God knew what. The animal's yoke was tied to the travois, giving Lucca a clear view of its hindquarters. He saw no anus, but the beast smelled terrible. It lumbered forward, led by one Kularian, while four others walked protectively beside Lucca.
Lucca looked up into the face of the Kularian nearest him and smiled. Thank you.
The man nodded. A swarthy man with deeply weathered skin, a long black mustache, very dark eyes, and one front tooth painted dull red. The man wore a hat of animal skin with flaps now shoved onto the top of his head, tunic and leggings not unlike Lucca's own although of coarser cloth, and clumsy skin boots. He carried nothing, which was unusual for a man in anything but an advanced culture. More primitive humans away from their homes usually had things that needed carrying: weapons, baskets, stringed instruments. But this was indubitably a human, just as the Atoners had said. A human being whose ancestors had been kidnapped from the plains of Earth and brought here ten thousand years ago, as part of the huge experiment for which the Atoners now dripped with inconsolable remorse.CHAPTER 2
TRANSCRIPT, "WITNESS" INTERVIEW
Property of the United States Air Force
Classification: Secret, Level 8
Recorded: April 18, 2020
Interviewee: Camilla Mary O'Kane, ID # 065-453-8765274 [personal data and background check attached]
Interviewer: Atoner, identity unknown
Place: Atoner Luna Base
Recorder: Col. John Karl Stoddard, USAF Intelligence
Present: Interviewee, Recorder, Atoner behind usual screen, all usual restrictions in place
ATONER: Good day, Ms. O'Kane.
O'KANE: Good day, sir. [NOTE: DESPITE EXHAUSTIVE PREINTERVIEW BRIEFING, INTERVIEWEE IS RESPONDING COUNTER TO SUGGESTION WITH HONORIFIC CHOICE. ATONER GENDERS REMAIN UNKNOWN.]
A: I hope your flight up to Luna was pleasant.
O: Yes. Your shuttle was smooth and fast. I never flew on a plane before.
A: You have been chosen from a large number of applicants for this interview. Why do you wish to become a Witness?
O: So we're going to plunge right in? Okay. I'm going to be honest, sir. I'm twenty-three years old and I've always held pretty crappy jobs. Right now I'm a waitress. I was smart in high school, but afterward I couldn't afford college, and the way things are in the United States right now ... Do you know what I mean by that?
O: The way things are, the best I can get are jobs where I can't make any decisions or learn anything important or have an impact on anything. And I live in Nebraska. I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want to be a Witness! Here I am on the moon, something I never dreamed possible for me. And to go to another planet, see a whole different — Haven't you had applications from all over the world?
O: And that's only from countries that permit their citizens to apply! I heard that on a podcast. If the repressive countries let their people apply, you'd probably get millions more applications.
A: What do you think are your qualifications to witness for us on another planet?
O: I'm intelligent, strong, and healthy. I'm brave. I don't rattle easily — I really don't. I notice everything. And even though I'm not trained or anything, I want to do this so much that I'll study anything you want, do anything you tell me to.
A: You notice everything?
O: Well, maybe not everything — please don't hold that statement against me!
A: What would you do if we told you to do something you think is morally wrong?
O: [long silence] Then ... I guess I wouldn't do it. Does that disqualify me?
A: No. You say you are intelligent and strong and able to learn well. Why don't those qualities enable you to create a life better than "crappy"?
O: [long silence] I think — forgive me, sir — that despite what you said before, I think you don't understand the United States right now. The economy sucks. The environment is going down the toilet. Even rich and educated people are scrambling to stay all right, and for somebody like me ... You think intelligence and grit can succeed by themselves, but I'm telling you that's a pretty illusion.
A: Thank you for your interview, Ms. O'Kane.
O: What? You mean that's it? That's all the time I get? [NOTE: INTERVIEWEE IS STRONGLY ACTING CONTRARY TO PREINTERVIEW BRIEFING.]
A: What more would you like?
O: Can I ask some questions?
A: [long silence] Yes. [NOTE: THIS SILENCE OF 6.3 SECONDS HAS BEEN NOTED IN NO OTHER INTERVIEW RECORDED BY USAF INTELLIGENCE OR BY THOSE COUNTRIES PARTICIPATING IN THE ALIEN DATA-SHARING INITIATIVE.]
Excerpted from Steal Across The Sky by Nancy Kress. Copyright © 2009 Nancy Kress. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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