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The World Before
By Karen Traviss
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Karen Traviss
All right reserved.
The Federal European Union greatly regrets the loss of life on Bezer'ej and the deaths of Superintendent Frankland and her ussissi aide. We condemn the actions of Commander Neville. Let me restate our position: we did not and would not sanction first-use of nuclear devices. As we have no effective military structure left on Umeh, there is no direct disciplinary action we can take against Commander Neville or the troops under her command; but they are now dismissed the service, and in the absence of FEU enforcement, they fall properly within the scope of your own judicial system as the protectors of the bezeri. Our representative Dr. Mohan Rayat will offer every cooperation.
Foreign Minister, Federal European Union,
in a statement to the matriarchs of F'nar
F'nar, on Wess'ej, August 2376
Ade Bennett clung to his schedule twenty-five light-years from home in an alien city that was coated entirely in pearl.
He ran ten kilometers every morning at dawn and there was no reason to stop doing it just because the sun was now a different star and he was a prisoner of war. He pounded along the terraces of F'nar and down its stepped slopes.
Wherever the sun warmed smooth stone, the tem flies would congregate and deposit a thin layer of nacre. The iridescence was insect shit: Shan had found that funny, Aras said. She liked irony.
And she's dead. And it's all your fucking fault. You let her die.
Ade wanted to erase the final picture of her standing in the airlock, seconds from death. But it was the last scrap of her that he could still grasp, the memory of a woman he had never expected to love and to whom he had left everything unsaid. Something in him wouldn't let it go. He had decided to confront it instead.
The native wess'har paused to stare at him as he made his way down the terraces. Some acknowledged him with stiff nods of their sea horse heads. He was a POW in a city where he was regarded as a hero, but every day he was here served only to remind him that he was alive and Shan wasn't, and that he'd failed the basic heroic qualification of saving what you loved.
Sweat prickled its way down his back. He made his way through the alleys that honeycombed the lowest level of the city at the bottom of the encircling caldera. Beyond the city lay the irregular mosaic of fields and allotments that blended into the natural landscape, and beyond them were the plains that were arid in summer and covered with quick-growing vegetation in the brief, wet winter. F'nar had been built where it would have least impact rather than the most convenient location. Wess'har didn't seem to have the same priorities as humans.
Ade's route took him south of the caldera and up the rock face of a volcanic plateau that looked down onto the fields and the city itself. He liked climbing: it was one of the basic mountain warfare skills he had learned as a Royal Marine, and he could lose himself in absolute concentration. Freesoloing -- climbing without a partner or equipment -- was what he did best. That was just as well. There was no other way to climb on Wess'ej.
The rock face was smooth enough in places to attract the attention of tem flies and it was embossed with the pearly shit they'd laid down in the summer. If he half-closed his eyes, the reflected glare made it look like a snow-streaked peak back on Earth. He felt above his head with his right hand for a secure hold and locked his fingers into a horizontal crevice.
For a few moments he hung with his full weight on one hand, face against the cool gold rock, looking up at another hold thirty centimeters beyond his normal reach.
Combat boots were lousy for climbing. He jammed a toecap into a pocket of rock and transferred his weight, lunging upwards to grab hold of the outcrop above him. He knew every hold on the ascent now. He could climb it blindfolded.
What he really needed now was a good, solid hex to jam into the fissure above him to take a rope. He wondered if the wess'har might be able to make him some kit for the harder climbs. But for now he was reliant on his free-climbing skills alone, and he reached for another hold. The crevice accepted his fingers. It felt secure.
And the moment he hung all his weight on that hand, he knew that it wasn't.
The rock came away from the face and suddenly there was no sense of pressure under his fingertips at all.
He flailed, grabbing instinctively. He felt his right humerus snap as his arm clipped an overhang and he landed flat on his back with an involuntary shout as the air was slammed out of his lungs. He couldn't breathe. His head was filled with a single high note like a tuning fork's. For a second he wondered if it was his own scream of pain, but then he realized the noise was somehow inside his head, probably triggered by a shattered spine.
He'd been told that happened. It was funny how you could think rational things when you were dying.
Shit, shit, shit --
It occurred to him that he deserved to die anyway. Shan was dead, so if he died too, then at least he'd never have to wake up to that realization again. The pain filled his mouth. He had no idea how long he lay there paralyzed and wondering when the sky would go dark.
You can't die. Aras said so. But he was dying, he was sure of it: and now he wanted it over with.
Instead of being filled with creeping cold, he felt he was burning. Then the searing pain ebbed and he found himself breathing, first reflex, shallow gasps while he tested his ribs, and then deep breaths.
Excerpted from The World Before by Karen Traviss Copyright © 2005 by Karen Traviss.
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