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By Walter Jon Williams, Jonathan Strahan
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2016 Walter Jon Williams
All rights reserved.
THE WOMAN CALLED CAROLINE SULA looked up from her desk to see a mammoth ship poised in the floodlights of the ring. It hovered above the rotating ring like a skyscraper floating free of gravity, its landing lights glaring, nose studded with grapples, probes, and docking tubes all deployed to catch a berth as Earth's antimatter ring rotated beneath it.
Sula's heart gave a lurch at the unexpected sight, and then the ship vanished beneath the floor as the ring continued its rotation. She spun her chair to look behind her, and the big ship reappeared downspin from her office. Maneuvering jets flared against the ship's matte-black flanks, and the ship floated with slow majesty to a gentle berth in the Fleet dockyards.
"What the hell is that?" she demanded.
Lieutenant-Captain Lord Koz Parku, who was in the middle of delivering a report on satellite maintenance, raised his gray, expressionless head. "Lady Sula?"
"That ship that just docked. What was it?"
Parku's dark eyes focused over Sula's shoulder at the ship lit by the dockyard's floodlights, a tall irregular tower suddenly sprouting from the ring. "I don't know, my lady."
Sula rose from her desk and walked to the shelf where she kept her binoculars. She put them to her eyes and toggled the on switch.
"It looks like a Bombardment-class heavy cruiser," she said. "But it's got civilian markings. Though what's it doing in the Fleet dockyard if it's a civilian?"
"Shall I find out, my lady?"
Sula frowned. There were no warships in the Sol system that she knew of — her command consisted entirely of transports, vehicles for satellite and ring maintenance, and a swank little cutter for her own personal use. Whatever was going on with the ship, it was irregular, and she was wary of irregularities within her command.
Parku raised an arm and busied himself with his sleeve display. Sula continued to study the ship — the cruiser. No one had told her there would be civilian ships in the Fleet dockyard, let alone civilian ships that seemed to have been built to military specifications. And Parku didn't know the answers to her questions because he hadn't been here any longer than she had.
"The ship is the Manado, my lady." Parku moved to stand by her as she looked out the transparent wall. His Daimong voice was measured and melodious, though he brought with him the scent of his rotting flesh, not entirely concealed by baths and use of scent. Sula, sensitive to odors, repressed a twitch of her upper lip.
"It was laid down in the shipyards here during the war, as the new Bombardment of Utgu. But the war ended before completion, and a civilian company bought it, completed construction, and now operates it."
"Operates it as what?" Sula asked.
Parku uttered a brief, chiming tone intended as a placeholder, where a human might insert a "Well ..." or an "Umm."
"'General cargo,'" Parku said finally. "Apparently." His timbre indicated a lack of satisfaction with the answer.
None of this, Sula reflected, made sense. The Fleet was being expanded, both to replace war losses and to build a much larger force less prone to subversion. Even if the war was over, Bombardment of Utgu should have been added to the active list.
Irregularities of this sort, Sula thought, generally meant corruption somewhere. Someone had given a ship to an ally in return for a token payment.
But, she reflected, it wasn't her corruption; it wasn't her fault or her responsibility. It may not even have been arranged here but in the capital of Zanshaa or somewhere else. It had all happened before she had arrived, three weeks before.
"So, what's Manado doing in my dockyard?" Sula asked. "Why isn't it in a civilian berth?"
Again that chiming tone while Parku flicked through his sleeve display. "The Manado Company contracted to rent a berth in the Fleet dockyard." He looked up, his large eyes liquid in his expressionless face. "The contract expires in two months, my lady."
"Do they resupply from the Fleet? Air, antihydrogen? Rations?"
Parku returned to his display. "Yes. But they pay for anything they take from us."
"Generously, I hope."
Parku's timbre conveyed ambivalence. "Their payments would seem to be in line with our costs."
Paranoia stoked Sula's thoughts. "They don't take on weapons, do they? Or antiproton ammunition?"
"No, my lady."
Sula frowned at the ship and moved back behind her desk, where the scent of Parku's decay couldn't reach her.
"Find out what you can about the Manado Company," she said. "When you have a moment."
"Yes, my lady."
"And now — you were saying about satellite maintenance?"
Parku finished his report just as the ring rotated out of Earth's shadow and into sunlight. The Fleet had generously given the station commander an office in a small tower overlooking the dockyards, and now blazing Sol etched every detail of the ring and the docked ships with brilliant fire. Parku raised a hand to shade his eyes. Sula raised the sun shield in the eastern quadrant of the office.
"Thank you, my lady," Parku said.
"Is that all, then? You can return to your office."
"My lady." Parku braced to attention, his chin raised, his throat bared in order to expose himself to his superior's lethal punishment. When the punishment did not arrive, he made a smart military turn and left the office.
Sula rotated her chair and contemplated the matte-black bulk of Manado, a darkness against the greater darkness of space, and then she shrugged.
Something underhanded had gone on where the ship was concerned, and eventually she might get to the bottom of it.
But not today. In a few hours, she'd begin her vacation.
* * *
"You won't need parade dress, will you?"
"I hope not," said Sula. "I don't want to have to wear those heavy boots, let alone that leather shako."
She viewed the tall stovepipe headgear that Spence held for her inspection.
"Let's not pack it," she decided.
Spence nodded with relief. "Very good, my lady."
An officer with the rank of captain was expected to travel with an amazing amount of gear — a full set of uniforms for all climates and seasons, equipment for any sports or hobbies she might enjoy, plus of course a complete set of place settings for the dinners she was obliged to host: plates, bowls, cups, and utensils suitable for all the species living under the Praxis, each ideally marked with her family crest or the name of her command. Plus wine and other liquors, delicacies like candied taswa fruit or cashment soaked in vermouth.
Sula's last ship had been outfitted in haste and she hadn't the time to commission all that porcelain, and though she'd hosted dinners for her officers and for her captains, they'd eaten off plain dinnerware from the galley. In fact, she still hadn't acquired the appropriate porcelain, because she'd planned to buy it on Earth, where porcelain had been invented. And because she didn't drink alcohol, she was at a loss where wine was concerned; and though she'd served it to others, she had to trust the brokers as to its quality.
Of course, she had dined with her officers on the ring station, but again off plainware from the galley; and if they had any doubts about the wine, they'd kept it to themselves.
"My lady?" Gavin Macnamara appeared in the doorway. "Are we taking sidearms?"
"You are," Sula said. Macnamara was a Constable First Class and might, she supposed, be called upon to restore order somewhere. "For myself, I don't plan on shooting anybody." She turned to Spence. "And you?"
Spence looked doubtful. "Is it dangerous down there?"
Macnamara — tall, lean, with a halo of curly brown hair — and Engineer/1st Spence — pug-nosed, sturdy, short, and straw-haired — were the other two survivors of Action Group Blanche, a stay-behind group on Zanshaa intended to lead the resistance against occupying Naxids.
All the other members of the group had been captured and tortured to death. Only Sula's paranoia had managed to keep her own unit alive — paranoia along with a talent for criminality.
Spence and Macnamara were two of the four servants Fleet regulations permitted to captains like Sula. The third was a Cree chef named Turney, for all those banquets, and the fourth slot was currently unoccupied.
"I don't know that Earth is any more or less dangerous than Zanshaa," Sula said.
"That doesn't help," Spence pointed out. She turned to Macnamara and sighed. "I'll take a sidearm. I don't suppose I'll ever wear it."
"Very good." Leaving a faint scent of gun oil, Macnamara returned to his packing.
Other last-minute packing decisions took an hour, and then Sula took a shower and went to bed with her hand comm and a collection of mathematical puzzles. Neither held her attention. Instead, she considered the matter of firearms and how they reflected what sort of person she now was.
The war had been fundamental in shaping her self — she remembered five enemy ships torn to golden plasma streamers at Magaria, and her cry, "It was Sula who did this! Remember my name!" For over two years, she'd been a weapon, as purposeful as Macnamara's sidearm, and she'd been very good at being what she was, a nearly feral creature whose sole purpose had been the destruction of the Naxid enemy.
But now the war was over, and Sula had been given a pointless job in a dusty corner of the empire. She was still a weapon, but nobody needed weapons now. She was like Bombardment of Utgu, the heavy cruiser renamed Manado and set to a peaceful job in a peaceful world.
At least Manado's tasks were necessary for somebody. Sula wasn't sure her own job had a point at all: nothing done at the Fleet dockyard had any genuine military purpose; it could all be done by civilian contractors.
But then, there wasn't genuine military purpose any longer, not anywhere. It was peacetime now.
Sula wasn't allowed to be a weapon any longer. So, what was she now?
Because Sula possessed a certain pride, she did her new job well. She'd spent the first three weeks diving into the workings of the dockyard, bringing personnel up to the mark, making sure the equipment and supplies she'd signed for actually existed, and handing out demerits with a liberal hand. The dockyard was now running well enough that Sula could go to Earth itself and view what her distant ancestors had managed to create in the way of civilization.
But despite all that, Sula wasn't her new job, or vice versa. What was she?
She didn't have an answer.
She looked at the hand comm and checked her messages. There were a few minor issues from the dockyard, easily dealt with. And then she saw another message, I'm coming to Terra!, sent by one Lady Ermina Vaswani.
Sula couldn't imagine why she'd care whether someone named Ermina Vaswani was coming to Terra or not, and with a degree of skepticism, she triggered the message.
A woman in her midtwenties appeared on the screen, blond and green-eyed, with a large, noble nose prominent in the center of her face.
"Hi!" she said, in a bright, enthusiastic voice. "It's your cousin Goojie, your best friend from school!"
Sula paused the recording, freezing Cousin Goojie's ardent face.
"Shit," she said.
She called up her own image on the screen and laid them side by side. She and Cousin Goojie shared the same pale blond hair and green eyes. Sula didn't have Goojie's distinctive nose, and Goojie lacked Sula's pale, porcelain complexion. To an objective observer, it wasn't completely implausible they might somehow be related.
Sula rubbed the thick pad of scar tissue on her right thumb, then triggered the message again.
"I'm a Vaswani now, of course," said Goojie. "We have the Toi-ans as patrons, and they have a company with a branch on Terra, so I'm coming out to manage it! I know you're a big hero now, but if you're not too busy being heroic, I hope we can meet and catch up on old times!"
She cocked her head. "Are you still Caro, now that you're all so grand and important? I'm still Goojie, of course, at least to old friends."
All of which, Sula thought, made a certain amount of sense. The Sulas had been an ancient family, rich and influential, with scores of clients throughout the empire. But the previous Lord and Lady Sula had been caught in some kind of complex fraud, and they'd been skinned alive and executed. The money and property had been confiscated. The Sulas had been dispersed and disgraced — Goojie's parents taking a new name like "Vaswani" would have been camouflage — and all the clients would have been reassigned from the Sula clan to new patrons, like the Lai-own Toi-an family.
At the end of all that, Clan Sula had been reduced to a single member, the sole daughter of Lord and Lady Sula.
Caro Sula. Cousin Goojie's old school chum. Who had been shuffled off to the care of distant relatives on the world of Spannan, far from Zanshaa and the capital.
"I hope we'll get a chance to catch up," Goojie went on. "My ship Benin is decelerating now and we're scheduled to dock on the ring in less than a month." She raised a hand and gave a little wave. "Bye! For now!"
Sula gestured at the screen and froze Goojie in mid-wave. Her brain churned. Best friend in school.
Best friend in school. Which school? Better find out.
"Are you still Caro?"
Well, no. She had never been Caro. Caro Sula was dead.
After her parents' execution, Caro had been shipped to Spannan ... and then bad things just kept happening. Alcohol. Drugs. Unwise relationships.
And in the worst, most unwise decision of all, Caro had become friends with a girl named Gredel. Who was the girlfriend of a gangster, and who bore a striking resemblance to Caro herself, Gredel who had the silver-gilt hair and the emerald eyes and the pale complexion, and who had a talent for mimicry and voices and accents, and who had a miserable life of her own that she was desperate to escape.
Her hand trembled as she looked at the hand comm, at Goojie's frozen face. She remembered the little smile on Caro's face as Gredel pressed the med injector to her neck, the hiss of the drug as it sent Caro into the twilight that had become her home in her empty, sad life. Remembered the flash of Caro's pale hair as it disappeared beneath the dark waters of the Iola River.
Remembered walking up the hill from the river, to Caro's apartment, to take possession of her identity, to become the woman called Caroline Sula.
She was so young then, Sula thought. Seventeen imperial years, fifteen years by the standards of Earth. So fearless.
Sula's bravery had won her fame and decorations in the war, but she'd never dare try anything like that now.
Sula shuddered, closed her eyes, then opened them again because all she saw were the dead eyes of Caro Sula looking at her.
When she'd been on Zanshaa, she'd encountered any number of people who remembered the young Caro Sula. But they were mostly of an older generation, friends of the late Lord and Lady Sula, and they remembered her as a child, no older than eleven or twelve. What they now encountered had been a young woman, an officer in the Fleet, and soon after that a decorated hero. She'd been able to bluff them.
But could she bluff Caro's best friend from school? A person who knew her intimately?
There was little option but to try.
"It's wonderful to hear from you," she sent Goojie in reply. "I don't remember those days very well — but I remember you, of course. I'm looking forward to seeing you, but I'll be on the planet surface for a long tour starting tomorrow. I hope that doesn't complicate things."
I hope you hit your head on a hatch, she thought.
At least she'd have some time for research. Once upon a time, she'd learned everything there was to know about Caro and obsessively memorized her biography. But in the years since, no one had ever challenged her, and even those who'd known Caro accepted her story, and some of the facts had got a little blurred. Clearly, she needed a refresher.
Fortunately, Lady Ermina Vaswani was a Peer, and Peers were very well documented indeed. Genealogies were readily available, and all manner of biographies and monographs existed, many commissioned by Peers or Peer clans to explain to other Peers how wonderful they were. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Impersonations by Walter Jon Williams, Jonathan Strahan. Copyright © 2016 Walter Jon Williams. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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