Finity's End (Merchanter #4)by C. J. Cherryh
Finity's End is the oldest Merchanter ship in the universe. In an era of spies, pirate traders, and uneasy alliances, the Company Wears are now over, the hunt for the fleet is winding down, and the ship is coming home to reclaim her trade routes. Having lost an entire generation, the youngest crew members, bred and trained for war, must face their most critical
Finity's End is the oldest Merchanter ship in the universe. In an era of spies, pirate traders, and uneasy alliances, the Company Wears are now over, the hunt for the fleet is winding down, and the ship is coming home to reclaim her trade routes. Having lost an entire generation, the youngest crew members, bred and trained for war, must face their most critical battle of allsurvival in a time of lasting peace.
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By C.J. Cherryh
Warner AspectCopyright © 1997 C.J. Cherryh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA system traffic monitor screen showed a blip where none had existed in this solar system. The wavefront of presence which had begun far, far out above the star spoke a series of numbers to a computer in Pell Central and a name flashed to displays throughout the room.
The master display, hanging two meters wide above the rows of traffic control workstations, simultaneously flashed up the same name in glowing green.
Finity's End had come back to Pell.
"Alert the stationmaster," the master tech said, and the message flashed through Pell Stations central paging system.
By that time the signal, coming in from the jump range buoy at the speed of light, was four hours old. The Pell Central computers generated a predicted course based on data changing by the split second, a path outlined in ordinary green. The first projection supposed an abrupt drop in velocity well out from Pell's Star.
Suddenly the huge display changed, bloomed with colors from red to blue, based on the last three courses and velocities that ship had used coming into Pell on that vector ... and projected into the sun.
It made a bright, broad display across the ordinarily routine, direct-path listings. It alarmed the newest technicians and sent hands reaching toward reset toggles. Merchanters didn't dive that close, that fast, toward the sun.
That ship had. Once. Years ago. That fact was still in the computer record and no one had purged it from files.
But the War was in the past. The navigational buoy, in its lonely position above the star, noted all arrivals in the entry range, and the information it sent to Pell Station showed no other blips attending the ship. Finity's End came alone, this time, and the master tech calmly informed the junior technicians that the pattern they saw was no malfunction, but no reason for alarm, either.
The buoys information, incoming in those few seconds, was now a little further advanced. It had already excluded some predictions, and the automated computer displays continued to change as the buoy tracked that presence toward the sun four hours ago.
By now, in realtime and realspace, the oldest of all working merchanters had either blown off excess V and set its general course for Pell, or something was direly wrong. Only the robot observer was in a position to have seen the ships entry, and second by second the brightly colored fan of possibility on the boards dimmed as more and more of that remote-observer data came in. The fan of projection shrank, and eventually excluded the sun.
The screen was far less colorful and the technicians were far less anxious ten minutes further on, when the stationmaster walked in to survey the situation.
By now a message would be on its way from the ship to the station, granted that the tamer projections on the displays were true.
The captain of the oldest merchanter ship still operating would be, predictably, saluting the Pell stationmaster who, with his help, had founded the Alliance. The powers that dominated a third of human presence in the universe were about to meet.
But stationmaster Elene Quen, also predictably, strode to a comtechs workstation and took up a microphone before any such lightspeed message could reach her.
"Finity's End, this is Quen at Pell. Welcome in. What brings us the honor?"
As far as the eye could see, Old River ran.
As far as the eye could see, thickets stood gray-green and blooming with white flowers beneath a perpetually clouded heaven.
Just beyond those thickets, huge log frames lay in squares on the earth, waiting for the floods to come and downers were at work intermittent with play.
Hisa was the name they called themselves. Brown-furred and naked but for the strings of ornament and fur about necks and waists, they splashed cheerfully through the dozen log-bounded paddies that were already flooded. In broad, generous casts, they strewed the heavy, sinking grain.
Humans had watched this activity year upon year upon year of human residency at Pell's Star.
And Fletcher Neihart could only watch, in the downers' world but not quite of it, limited by the breather-mask that limited every human on the world. He'd never been limited by such a mask in his youthful dreams of being here, a part of the human staff on Downbelow: Pell's World, the same world that had swung below Pell Stations' observation window for all his life, tantalizing, clouded, and forbidden to visitors.
But this was real, not photographs and training tape that only simulated the world. Here the clouds were overhead, not underfoot.
Here, the hisa workers, free of masks and moving lightly, toiled the little remaining time their easy world required them to work. Once the frames were built and once the world spun giddily toward spring and renewal, the hisa and the fields alike waited only for the rains.
Plants whose cycles were likewise timed to the monsoon were budded and ready. In the forests that bordered the log-framed fields, swollen at the slight encouragement of yesterday's showers, the sun-ripened puffers turned the air gold with pollen. You touched a puffer-ball and it went pop. On this day of warm weather and gusty breezes puffer-balls went pop for no apparent reason, and the pollen streamed out in skeins. Pollen rode the surface of the frame-bound ponds as a golden film. It made dim gold streamers on the face of Old River.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Two hisa, also truant from work, made a game of the puffers at woods' edge, skipping down a high bank of puffer-plants and exploding the white, gray-mottled globes in rapid succession until their coats were gold.
Then they shook themselves and pollen flew in clouds.
"Gold, gold, gold for spring," Melody crowed at Fletcher, and scampered up to the top of the bank above the river, as her co-truant Patch, whose human-name came of a white mark on his flank, chased after her. Melody dived down again. And up, in an explosion of puffer-balls. 'Silly Fetcher! Come, come, come!"
Fetcher was what they called him. They wanted him to chase them. But the staff wasn't supposed to run. Or climb. The safety of the breather-masks was too important.
"Gold for us!" Patch cried and, under his playful attack, pollen burst from the puffer-balls, pop, pop, pop-pop, in a chain of pixy dust explosions that caught the fading light.
Fletcher, watching this game up and down the little rise next a stand of old trees, exploded some of his own. That little hummock on which hisa played chase was a just-out-of-reach paradise for a teen-aged boy: things to break that only brought life and laughter and created puffer-balls for next spring.
He was seventeen and he was, like the hisa, just slightly truant from the work of the Base.
But down here no one truly cared about a little break in the schedule, least of all the downers, who would all go walkabout when the springtime called, as it was beginning to do.
A last few days to seed the frames. A last few days for pranks and games. Then the monsoon rains would come, then the land would break out in blooms and mating, and no one could hold the hisa to something so foolish as work.
A teen-aged boy could understand a system like that. He'd worked so hard to be here, to be in the junior-staff program, and here was the payoff, a delirious moment that more than matched his dreams.
The hisa shrieked and ran and, abandoning rules, he chased, into the thicket along the river shore. They dived over the crest of another puffer-ball ridge. They laid ambushes on the fly and caught him in a puff of pollen.
And after they'd chased up and down, and broken enough speckled puffer globes to have the surface of the water, the rocks, and the very air among the tired old trees absolutely gold with pollen, they cast themselves down by the noisy edge of the water to watch the forever-clouded sky.
Fletcher sprawled beside them, flat on the bank. The breather-mask, its faceplate thickly dotted with pollen now, was the barrier between him and the world, and the need to draw air through the filtered cylinders of his mask left him giddy and short of breath.
Breathe, breathe, breathe as fast as possible at the rate the mask gave him oxygen. Downers when they worked Up above, in the service passages of Pell, lived in those passages at the high CO2 level that downers found tolerable. When they exited those passages into the human corridors of the Up above, they were the ones to go masked.
On Pell's World, on Downbelow, the necessities were reversed, and humans were the strangers, unmasked inside their domes and masked out of doors.
On Downbelow, humans always remembered they were guests worked their own huge fields and mills on the river plain south of here and tended their own vast orchards at the forest edge to grow grain and fruit in quantities great enough for trade with other starstations.
For more than they themselves needed, downers simply would not work. And what they thought of so much hard work and such huge warehouses, one had to wonder. It wasn't the hisa way, to deal in food. They shared it. One wondered if they knew Pell Station didn't eat all the grain Pell operations grew on Downbelow. There were wide gulfs of understanding between hisa and humans.
Risk yourself sometimes. Never risk a downer. Those were the first and last rules you learned. Kill yourself if you were a fool, and some staffers had done that: the air of Downbelow was more than high in CO2, it was heavy with biologicals that liked human lungs too well. If your breathing cylinders and your filters gave out, you could stay alive breathing the air of Down below but you were in deep, deep trouble.
Kill yourself if you were a fool. Run your mask cylinders out if you were a total fool. But never harm a downer, never ask for downer possessions, never admire what a downer owned. They didn't react as humans reacted. Bribes and gifts of food or trinkets won points with them.
So, happily, did humans who'd play games. After all the theorizing and the scientific studies, it came down to that: downers worked so they could live to play. So the staff, to gain influence and good will with downers, played games. Trainees brought up to the stringent, humorless discipline of the wartime Up above learned different rules down hereat least the ones in direct contact with downers.
It made perfect, glorious sense to Fletcher.
Humans had learned, first of all lessons, not to be distressed when spring came full and downers went wandering, leaving their work to the mercy of the floods. The frames would hold the grain from scattering too far. The floods might lift and drift a frame or two, losing an entire paddy, but there was no need to worry. The hisa made enough such frames.
One year of legend the frames would all have gone downriver and the harvest would have failed entirely, but humans had held the land with dikes to save the hisa, as they thought. A wonderful idea, the downers thought when they came back from springtime wandering, and they were very glad and grateful that kind humans had saved their harvest, which they had been sure was lost.
But surely such disasters had happened before, and hisa had survived by moving downriver to other bands, most likely. And all the human anguish over whether providing the dikes might change hisa ways had come to naught. A few free spirits now experimented with dikes, like old Greynose and her downriver brood, but the Greynose band worked fields where River ran far more chancily than here.
Improve the downer agricultural methods? Import Earth crops, or bioengineer downer grain with higher yields? Control Old River? Hisa crops needed the floods. Humans farmed crops from old Earth only in the Up above, in orbiting facilities, to protect the world ecosystem, and those were luxuries, and scarce. Crops native to Downbelow were the abundance that fed the tanks that fed the merchant ships. Processing could turn downer grain into bread and surplus could feed the fish tanks that supplied colonies from Pell to Cyteen. The agricultural plantations launched cargo up and received things sent down, sometimes by shuttle and not infrequently by the old, old method of the hard-shell parachute drop through Downbelows seething and violent clouds.
The port and the launch site were busy, human places Fletcher had been glad to leave in favor of this study outpost along Old River. Here, in fields on the edge of deep, broad forest, things didn't move at any rapid pace and nothing fell from the sky. Here a hisa population not that great in the world met humans who monitored the effects of the vast operation to the south on hisa life, looking for any signs of stress and growing a little grain as hisa grew it, cataloging, observing
And each spring for reasons linked to love and burrows and babies, downers would forget their fields, follow their instincts and go walking females walking far, far across the hills and through the woods and down the river, with desirous males tagging after.
Fletcher hadn't been down here long enough to have seen the migrations. Hed come last year at harvest, and the monsoon was yet to come. He knew that there were tragedies in the spring: death along with rebirth. There were falls, and drownings ... the old hands warned the young staffers of that fact: the oldest hisa went walking, too, and deaths in spring were epidemic spirit tokens, those waist-cords and necklaces brought back by others to hang on sticks in the burying-place. Every spring was risky, with the rains coming down and River running high and he worried about these two, Melody and Patch, his hisa, with increasing concern.
You were supposed to be trained just to speak with downers on Pell Station.
But hed met Melody illicitly on the station oh, years ago, when he was eight, a human runaway, a boy in desperate need of something magical to intervene and Melody, squatting down to peer at him in his hiding-place, had said, "You sad?" in that strange, mask-muffled voice of hers.
How did you give a surly answer to a magical creature? Hed been locked in his own shell, hating everything he saw, hiding in the girders of the dock, moving from one to another cold and dangerous place to evade station authorities who might be looking for a runaway.
His foster-family his third foster-family had been scum that day. All adults were scum that day.
But you couldn't quite say that about an odd and alien creature who crouched down near him in the cold, metal-tinged air and asked, "Why you sad?"
Why was he sad? Hed not even identified what he felt until she put her finger on it. Hed thought he was mad. He was angry at most everything. But Melody had asked what the psychs had skirted around for years, just put her finger right on the center of things and made him wonder why he was sad.
A mother that committed suicide?
Foster-families that thought he was scum?
Hed survived those. No, that wasn't it.
He was sad because he hadn't anyone or anywhere or anything and nobody wanted him the way he was.
Excerpted from Finity's End by C.J. Cherryh Copyright © 1997 by C.J. Cherryh. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Carolyn Janice Cherry, better known by the pen name C. J. Cherryh, is the author of more than 70 books, including the Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station and Cyteen, both set in her Alliance-Union universe. She planned to write since the age of ten, and when she was older, learned to use a typewriter while triple-majoring in Classics, Latin, and Greek. Cherryh is one of the most prolific and highly respected authors in the science fiction field.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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C.J. Cherryh lives up to a good reputation here with a novel set in the Merchanter universe about a young man coming of age. Fletcher Neihardt comes from a distinguished family (from the space ship Finity's End) but feels that he has been let down by everyone he's come in contact with, except for the alien hisa. When he is forced away from his work on Downbelow to join the family 'business', he is determined not to stay - and his family is equally determined not to let him go! Cherryh's books can sometimes be a little hard to get into, but trust me, it's worth it! The characters are believable and the plot builds up to a very satisfying finale.