With The Man in the Tree, Locus Award-winning author Sage Walker has given us a thrilling hard science fiction mystery that explores the intersection of law, justice, and human nature.
Humanity’s last hope of survival lies in space…but will we even get there?
Helt Borresen is an Incident Analyst. What that means is that aboard the seed ship Kybele, he is the closest thing that the organization has to a security officer. But he doesn’t think that it’ll be a big part of his job, as all the candidates have been carefully screened.
Why the need for a seed ship? Because our planet is toast and the colonists that leave our world are the best shot that we have for our species to continue.
Everything is set…and then someone is found hanging dead just weeks before the launch. Fear and paranoia spread as the death begins to look more and more like a murder. The authorities want the case settled quickly and quietly so as not to cause panic.
And Helt is the one to prevent a murderer from sabotaging the entire mission.
“Rapid-fire storytelling from start to finish!”Greg Bear
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
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The sun in the hollow center of Kybele is supported by six Eiffel Towers.
In daylight, the clusters of petals near the top of the towers, closed, look like bulbous minarets. As they unfold, black shadows strike the fields and forests below. Kaleidoscopic patterns of ever-increasing darkness spread over the landscape until the edges of the petals almost touch each other and the day-bright interior of the asteroid is dimmed for night.
Kybele was Earth's first, perhaps Earth's only, seedship, and she existed because there was a chance, a statistically infinitesimal chance, that someday she or a daughter ship of hers might return, headed back toward Earth with hope and life. Kybele's singular existence was possible because of asteroid mining, hope, and diverted resources from an Earth that said it couldn't afford her. The Mars colony, small and underground, was only viable because of money from asteroid mining. The time frame for terraforming Mars, a planet with no seas and no magnetic core, was centuries longer than Kybele's voyage.
Earth's humans were in a battle for survival that constantly teetered near disaster. Kybele was a long-shot insurance policy of sorts. Some very good minds had run the numbers and found an intersection, a window, between dwindling resources and increasing technical ability where a seedship could be built. Kybele was that intersection.
Helt Borresen, Incident Analyst for the seedship, walked spinward from the base of Athens tower on a path he knew well. He sat down beside a creek and fitted his back against the trunk of an aspen. The creek talked a little of this and that.
This was a private place, one he liked. He came here for solitude, but last night and the night before he'd caught glimpses of an interesting woman, barely seen in the shadows, a woman who moved quickly and quietly, as if she were watching something but didn't want to be seen.
Downhill from the aspen, a marshy meadow flanked the creek. Tall grasses grew there, late summer yellow, some of them seeding for next year. Cattails marked soggy ground. Beyond the meadow, anti-spinward, the deep gash of Petra canyon was darker than the forest that grew to its rim. Beyond it, up the curved inner surface of Kybele's hollow interior, the forest ended abruptly at the edge of croplands, squares of plowed black soil and yellow stubble, striped by shadows from the legs of the towers and going monochrome in the fading light. The warmth of an October day began to fade and a cool breeze came up to rustle the cattails. Kybele's night was programmed to replicate the twenty-eight-day cycles of Earth's moon, and as Helt sat, half-dozing, the light dimmed toward quarter moonlight, dark enough to silver the grass and turn the shadows black.
A flicker of white brought his focus back to the meadow. White-tailed deer, a dozen or so, appeared in the tall grass, as quickly and quietly as if they had been popped into place by a special-effects team. Two yearling bucks, their antlers only brave stubs, were with the females, but none of the big guys. The herd was close enough that Helt heard grass tear as they munched their way toward the water. He had never been able to see a herd of deer, or elk, or reindeer, without counting them. Fourteen. The herd went downhill in the tall grass and vanished.
The show was over. He thought about getting up.
And then he didn't, for the pair of young bucks reappeared at the edge of the meadow. The woman he had seen here briefly last night stepped out of the pines on the far side of the clearing. She had a bottle tied to her belt and something small gripped in her right hand.
The deer came to her. She was on the far side of the deer from Helt, so he couldn't see what she did to the neck of one and then the other. Whatever it was, when she finished, she shoved at the neck of the deer she had just handled. It didn't move away. The little buck lowered his head to have the skin around the nubs of his antlers scratched. His buddy decided he needed some attention, too.
The woman groomed both of them for a little while. Then she laughed, low and soft, and clapped her hands. The deer bounced away. She unhooked a bottle from her belt, put things in it, and screwed down the lid. The motions caused the interlocked squares of her plaid shirt to tighten and loosen over her breasts in pleasant ways.
She turned and walked toward Helt's aspen. He supposed she saw him. He was visible enough against the white trunk of the tree, so he stood up. She was a tall woman. The top of her head would have fit comfortably just under his chin. She had dark hair, tied back. The faux moonlight made it shine.
She stopped walking.
"Hi," Helt said.
She gave a little shrug. It looked liked resigned acceptance of his presence. "Hello," she said aloud. "I disturbed you."
"I enjoyed watching you. I'm only a little disturbed."
"About what you did to call them in."
"Oh." She reached in her shirt pocket and pulled out a little control box. She stepped closer to Helt, to show him. "They have electrodes in their pleasure centers, and the buzz they get gets stronger the closer they come to this. The guys you saw were numbers thirty-three and thirty-five. I pushed their buttons. They came running."
She was close enough that he could smell her hair, her skin. He didn't smell perfume, just clean healthy human, and whatever scent there is that tells a hindbrain a woman is nearby. She was maybe ten years younger than Helt and her eyebrows were dark wings above her large eyes. In the moonlight, he thought her eyes were gray.
Helt felt lonely. He was lonely. He had no one special right now, and hadn't for a couple of years. Well, four, actually.
"It's just tech. I wanted to think it was magic."
"It's sufficiently advanced to seem so. To a deer."
"Clarke's third law. Advanced technology looks like magic. Did you ever read any of his novels?" Helt asked.
"No. I came across that quote once and liked it."
The novels had been written in the twentieth century. The 2209 Helt lived in was very different from the future the old dreamer had imagined. Humanity had stayed at the edge of disaster, as ever, and survived some of its own failings — so far.
"I'm Elena," she said. "Biosystems."
"Helt. Systems Support." He wondered why he'd never met her. He wondered how long she'd been on board.
They started walking toward Athens tower.
"Thirty-three and thirty-five will be leaving the herd soon, out for a tour of enforced bachelorhood," Elena said. "The stags will see to that. I needed some blood from them. We monitor hormone levels, nutrition, muscle mass, many other things." She spoke standard Omaha English, but there was a touch of hesitation, of indrawn breath, before some of her words. "These yearling bucks have stayed with their moms a bit longer than we expected," Elena said. "If they're developing normally, their testosterone levels should be lower than they were a few weeks ago. Rutting season is almost over."
Helt didn't mind a discussion of testosterone levels at all. His were rising a little, and he decided to take her willingness to play biology teacher as a positive sign.
Beneath the support pillars of the towers, the ground was in permanent shadow. People walked there because it was easy. Nothing much grew underfoot. Helt thought of giant mushrooms, blind insects, cave-adapted species, spooky creatures made of old fantasy. Perhaps he would avoid mentioning them to the SysSu techs. They might manufacture some displays to jump out and go "Boo!" Just because they could.
"Are you worried that the deer won't be guy enough for their jobs?" Helt asked.
"That's what I'm checking. They have a lot of adapting to do," Elena said. "They seem to be thriving at half-g. They love to jump, but we've seen no broken legs yet, so they've sorted that out. They can't be really wild with this much human contact; there's taming, of sorts. They don't get shot at, so they don't flee us the way their cousins back home do. And there aren't any large predators to give their adrenals a workout."
No large predators, except for humans. When it came time to thin the herd, to harvest venison, would Biosystems establish a hunt? Would running the deer become a sport on Kybele, good for working off human frustrations and sharpening the survival skills of the herd? Surely Biosystems had thought of this, and had made a list of pros and cons. Helt would look to see what they were, later. "Do you think the fear of getting eaten would keep them healthier?" he asked.
"Perhaps. They are active without that, so far. They play. The males battle each other. But there's so much to think about. Maybe they're missing mosquito bites, or something," Elena said.
"You're teasing me," Helt said.
"Please tell me you won't put mosquitoes up here."
The woman named Elena looked up at him and smiled. He still couldn't tell exactly what color her eyes were. The lights near the elevator door made them look sort of hazel, maybe. Her plaid shirt was black and white and gray.
He hoped she liked men who were sort of sand-colored all over. He hoped she didn't mind a five o'clock shadow with a few white whiskers in it. He hoped she didn't mind that his hair looked like someone had cut it with a pair of office scissors, for that's what he had done four days ago when he'd noticed it was falling in his eyes.
Helt wished the walk had been longer. He liked Elena. Walking with a woman beside him felt good.
The elevator was large enough for twenty. There was no good reason for him to stand really close to her as it took them down from Center, so he didn't.
The doors began to slide open on Level One. "Could we keep talking?" Helt asked.
"I really have to get back to my lab before my blood gets hot," Elena said. She looked down at the thermos bottle clipped to her belt, tapped it, and walked away. She was going toward the train station that would take her back to Stonehenge, he supposed.
But he'd seen a little smile at the corner of her mouth.
His interface gave him her name; Elena, Biosystems, was Elena Maury, MD, PhD. He found a headshot that gave him a good look at her huge eyes, her high cheekbones. Her eyes, in the photo, looked more hazel than the gray he'd seen in moonlight and in the elevator lighting.
That was enough to know for now.
The Man in the Tree
It was Wednesday evening, and Helt Borresen wasn't up in Center for the sunset. He was beneath Center on Level One, eating supper in the Frontier Diner. The diner was a mundane place of stone-topped tables and bamboo chairs. The air held a reassuring hint of French fries and coffee, and because it served a 24/7 clientele, you could get breakfast at any hour. Helt liked breakfast for supper, so he was having a spinach omelet with a side Caprese salad.
If Elena followed a daily schedule, she would be back in Center about now. He could go up there. She might not be there. She might be looking at her deer and think he was pushy or weird, or, worse, if he went up there she might think Helt Borresen had come hunting for her.
Yeah, it was time and past time to look for a love that would last a lifetime. So he really was hunting and he might as well admit it.
He was afraid, and he might as well admit that, too. His mother had been injured when he was young, and the injury had left scars on her brain. He knew, intellectually, that it was nothing he had done, yet he was still afraid that anyone he loved would get hurt. It was an irrational fear and he knew it.
Admit it, sure. Change it? Not so easy.
Helt scooped up the last bite of the nutmeg-laced spinach with a piece of toast and looked up at the man approaching his table. Navigation coveralls, dark five o'clock stubble on his chin and his shaved head, a lot of muscle in neck and shoulders, and the brown eyes of a puppy who had just been yelled at and didn't understand why.
"That's me. I'm Helt."
"Yves Copani. I went to your office but you weren't there. I apologize for coming after hours, but —" Copani pulled his interface out of a pocket and gripped it tightly.
"But you just got off work and there's something you want me to see," Helt said. "It's okay. I'm still working, actually." A moonlit walk wasn't going to happen tonight. Fine. Now he wouldn't have to worry that seeing Elena again so soon would make him seem like a pest. "Sit down. Send your file to IA Helt." Helt reached for the folded screen next to his coffee cup and popped it open. "Want some coffee?" This evening's waitperson approached and filled Helt's cup. Copani waved him away. "No, no thank you."
What came to Helt's screen was the Curriculum Vitae of Yves Copani, welder, whose engineering doctorate had been earned in Milan. He was overeducated for the job of tunneling out nickel-iron from Kybele's Level Three. That he was overeducated was no surprise; most contract workers held doctorates in something or other. Helt scanned the rest of the info as well.
"I want to stay here," Copani said. "I want to spend my life here.
A lot of dreamers on Earth below wanted to come here, live here, take the risk that their descendants, seven generations down the line, would reach a new planet and be able to live on it. Only a few of the rich, a few of the lucky, made it past the barrier of requirements and became outbound colonists.
A lot of realists on Earth below thought they were crazy to take the chance. Earth was a sad and damaged place, but parts of her still functioned, and that she could support human life was a given. No one knew if the new planet could do that.
"Is it still possible?" Yves asked.
"Barely. There's still some shuffle room on the passenger list for the last shuttle, but there isn't much. You've asked David II for a colonist slot, I'm guessing."
"I'm not sure he's looked at the request," Copani said.
David Luo II was the Engineering boss on Kybele, a busy, busy man.
"So you came to me."
"I hoped you could help," Copani said.
"I may not be able to. I'm the Incident Analyst. My job is to arbitrate conflicts between Navigation, Bioscience, and Systems Support if and when they come up. I do some intramural work in the divisions when I'm called in, but it's only advisory." Helt permitted his overdeveloped sense of fairness to come forward and ask questions. Why me and not him? Why don't I get sent off so he gets to stay? Not fun. Why not him and me both stay? "Yves, it's true that in extraordinary circumstances I can make upgrades to colonist status, if there are no objections from the division chiefs. For me to sponsor you, I'd need to show you would be of extraordinary benefit to the ship. Are you extraordinary?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"You aren't grandiose, anyway. That's good, but humility isn't something I can sell to David II or his boss. Your CV says you have a job waiting in Cape Town for three times the amount of money you're making here."
Salaries on Kybele were high. Contract workers usually drew enough AUs, Access Units, Kybele currency, to meet expenses, and converted the rest to euros in Earth-based accounts. The AU was a sound currency. The conversion rate was, as of last week, something like 1 AU to 2.3 euros.
AUs, like any currency, were tokens for barter, their value based on energy expenditure, physical or mental, and traded for other energies or material things. For now, they could be converted back to euros for Earth-based transactions.
The lottery for colonist selection and funds from supporting nations had given Kybele a fat bank balance. She spent like a sailor on shore leave, but she also exported tech advances and media to Earth below and was making money from them.
"You're telling me you are willing to give that up, to stay here as a flunky welding steel rods to keep tunnels from collapsing, for the rest of your life. Why?"
"I'm in love," Copani said. "She's in Biosystems, a colonist. She doesn't want to leave."
Oh. "I see." Elena's name was a version of Helen, and a Helen in a time long past had launched a thousand ships and a war. Helt was screwing up his courage to go to war with himself, his old fears, his new ones, over the Helen he had met last night. Love, the possibility of love, counted, damn it.
"That's an honest reason to want to stay," Helt said. "In that case, why don't you order some dinner and we'll figure out a narrative I can use to bring you to David II's attention. That would be the place for you to start."
Helt signaled the waiter.
Back in his office, Helt promised himself he would only work one more hour and then go home.
Because linear information, lists, two-dimensional graphs got too visually busy too fast for him, Helt looked at the humans on Kybele as bubbles of information. He liked Venn diagrams, spherical ones. His programs rendered facts and factoids about a particular individual into colors, shapes, and varying degrees of opacity. In the past ten years, some of the bubbles had acquired accumulations of biography, work history, friendships, frictions. Over time, as events, likes, and dislikes pushed and pulled, aggregates formed. Attractive traits drew other bubbles closer. Givers and team players attracted other souls; takers and users were often, but not always, repelled.
Excerpted from "The Man in the Tree"
Copyright © 2017 Sage Walker.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Pleasure Centers,
Chapter 2: The Man in the Tree,
Chapter 3: An Autopsy,
Chapter 4: A Lonely Man,
Chapter 5: Night Work,
Chapter 6: An Unexpected Death,
Chapter 7: Make a List,
Chapter 8: Elena's Story,
Chapter 9: Last Meal,
Chapter 10: Cold Equations,
Chapter 11: In Absence of Directives,
Chapter 12: Comfort,
Chapter 13: The Sane Suspect,
Chapter 14: The Sculptor and His Girl,
Chapter 15: Privacy,
Chapter 16: Manipulated Objects,
Chapter 17: Chimeras,
Chapter 18: Key Words,
Chapter 19: The Midwife,
Chapter 20: Mena and Doughan,
Chapter 21: Retracing Steps,
Chapter 22: At the Roots,
Chapter 23: Code Talkers,
Chapter 24: Kicking the Anthill,
Chapter 25: The Seed Banker Revolt,
Chapter 26: Cold Places,
Chapter 27: Orbital Transfer,
Chapter 28: No There, There, Yet,
Chapter 29: An Eye for Wisdom,
Chapter 30: Old Masters,
Also by Sage Walker,
About the Author,