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A lonely being in a lonely galaxy…
Heron Meed has two strikes against it. It is a hemaphrodite in a galaxy dominated by two-gendered beings. And it's a convicted criminal.
After six years of incarceration, Heron is trying to start a new life, but that isn't easy when so many avenues are closed to it. It finally finds a refuge of sorts on the Castor Xeni Orbital and a surcease from its pain in the arms of voluptuous Subah Doisson, but then various systems on the Orbital start getting sabotaged. With a small engineering population, and Heron the only newcomer to the station, how can the hermaphrodite prove its innocence amid a sea of entrenched prejudice?
(2016 This book, previously titled PRIME SUSPECT, has been re-edited for this edition. A compact list of people, places and things is also included)
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Heron Meed tried to look nonchalant as it handed over its identity chip.
Immigration. For not the first time, the hermaphrodite wondered what selection process seemed to award the role of planetary gatekeeper to people who looked either like sadistic bastards or apathetic sloths. Not that one had, in all honesty, too much face-to-face experience with such people. Once, years ago, as a member of the Republic Space Fleet, one and its cohorts could enter and leave territories with impunity. But that was before the mutiny charge, and before six years of lonely incarceration.
Now, as a member of the unprivileged public, stripped of all privileges, it was important to abide by the rules and cultivate an air of shallow humility.
"What was your last place of embarkation?" the Immigration officer asked, his colourless eyes alight with a perverse pleasure.
You already know that, you bastard.
"The e'Bultar Detention Centre," Heron replied quietly. It didn't have to turn around to see fleeting expressions of distress flash on the faces of passengers behind it. The shuffling of feet and sound of sudden furtive movements said it all.
"Were you, visiting perhaps?" the officer asked with false innocence.
Heron didn't hesitate. "No."
The condescending smile was wiped from the officer's face as quickly as it appeared and Heron knew the game was now on. There was nothing anybody could do to stop Heron from entering the Castor Xeni Orbital; artificial habitat constructs were not off-limits to recently released criminals the way precious natural planets were. One never saw the logic in such a policy but, for the moment, was glad of the loophole. But it alsoknew that Officer--Heron quickly scanned the id badge--Fusmic would make things as difficult as possible.
Tough. The passenger transport it had arrived on was the last for three days and if there was no pretext for throwing the hermaphrodite into a holding cell--which there would not be--then Immigration had to let it through.
"There seems to be an irregularity. According to this, your gender...."
Fusmic left off and ran his eyes suggestively down the slim figure on the other side of the low counter. The being identified as Heron Meed had regular features: olive skin, square jaw, high cheekbones, slightly slanted silver-grey eyes and dark straight hair cut short. There was the slight protuberance in its throat, at odds with the soft curves that the snug-fitting faded jacket could not hide. Much as it also could not hide--Fusmic's eyes moved lower--the bulge in its military-style trousers.
Heron was used to the looks, the almost-physical stripping that it was forced to endure more times than it liked, and remained impassive.
"I'm an hermaphrodite from the Morhea Sector. The last I heard," Heron drawled, unable to contain its contempt, "it is still part of the Republic."
Fusmic's eyes widened and he threw the chip back across the counter where it skittered to a stop in front of the hermaphrodite.
"We don't like your kind here," he snarled, although whether he meant Heron's immediate past or gender was unclear. "See to your business then get lost." His eyes finally moved past Heron. "Next."
Heron picked up its chip, hoisted the backpack on its shoulder and kept walking.
"Could have been worse," it said softly.
Could have been a hell of a lot better.
Now that Heron was clear of the first major hurdle, it stopped to take a good look around.
Upon release from a detention centre, the Republic generously provided a single one-way trip, but only within the neighbouring sectors, to the destination of the previously incarcerated's choice. Heron had spent the last several months of imprisonment trudging through stick after stick of data, sifting through the blaring 'Denied!' on most worlds before finally coming to a shortlist of four. Going home--to the Morhea Sector, to admitted failure--at this point, was not an option. Which left two orbitals, one moon habitat and an asteroid belt. The Castor Xeni Orbital had seemed the best choice at the time.
Heron knew Castor Xeni from its old days in the Space Fleet. The privately-owned orbital specialised in the repair and refitting of commercial and luxury spacecraft and even the Fleet had been known to use it for emergency repairs. It was a busy place, full of arriving and departing ships and several cadres of engineers, all supported by an intensive mining operation on the planet below that kept the station supplied with the exotic ores its commerce relied on.
Busy, however, did not translate to a high turnover of personnel. Ships came, bearing no extra passengers, and ships left, better than before but also carrying no paying passengers. Castor Xeni was strictly a place of business and not anybody's first choice of pleasure spots, which explained the low frequency of commuter services.
Heron considered this good news. Few visitors meant a dearth of loud-mouthed tourists, overzealous security personnel and inane shallow pleasure-seekers who viewed sex with an hermaphrodite as nothing more than a notch on their hedonist belts. Although, now having passed Immigration, it wondered whether it had been a bit too idealistic about the casualness of the orbital's personnel.
Well, it was too late to change its mind. With funds too meagre to buy passage off-station, Heron was forced to spend the next few months on the station, finding work and beginning the process of 'cleaning' its past of any distasteful connotations.
Past the sterile open Arrivals/Departures area, wide corridors splayed out in a star configuration. One way led to the food ellipse, another to the habitat levels, yet others to Engineering, Cargo and Station Administration.
Food, Heron decided, as its stomach rumbled.
It was difficult being back in the wider society after eight years of service in the Republic Space Fleet, followed by six years of unjust incarceration. At any moment, Heron expected someone to rush up to it, either with a set of orders or a dehumanising command, but it was ignored.
Heron moved past the slower knots of people and into the multi-choice eating space. From now on, everything was going to start costing money, from the meals one ate, to its rooms and even maintenance charges for the air and water it used. Its savings would diminish much quicker than on a habitable planet but that couldn't be helped. Until Heron held down five years of legal employment, its feet would never touch the soil of a free planet.
With a grimace, Heron took a tray from the pile just inside the entrance and bought the cheapest, most filling meal available--bread with protein cubes in a brown gravy and a small bottle of flat, recycled water. The food might have been better in the detention centre but it was prison food, when all was said and done, and always laced with the bitterness of injustice.
A job and someplace to sleep were the next things on the agenda after immediate hunger was assuaged. Heron paused on the way out of the large canteen and grimaced. No, that wasn't correct. As an ex-criminal, the first thing to do--the thing it should have done before even eating--was to register with Station Security. As if it hadn't already paid its debt to the Fleet and to society at large.
A large directory schematic directed Heron to the Security office, and it headed there resentfully. It provided its name to one of the staff and was left--waiting on hard, thinly-upholstered benches--for two hours before finally being ushered into the Administrator's office, a pointed reminder of just how low on the pecking order it had fallen.