The House of Fumeiyo-ie
A slim Nisei woman, her back straight as a swordblade, glossy black hair coiled at her neck, paused before a shoji-panel of laminate cedar and redwood. She took a moment to straighten the crisply-starched cuffs of her dress whites, to tuck her cap under one arm and to adjust the four tiny golden skulls on her collar tabs. Then, prepared, she placed two fingers against the door itself.
There was a quiet chime – the sound of a temple bell filtered through autumnal leaves – and the panel slid soundlessly to one side. The Imperial Méxica Navy Chu-sa stepped out onto a covered porch, walked down a flight of broad wooden steps and out into a perfectly manicured Tokuga-period garden. A glassite pressure dome vaulted overhead, half of the armored panels polarized against the glare of the twin primaries of the Michóacan System. Her boots clicked on a curving stone bridge crossing a swift, silent brook – the recycled water clear as crystal, reeds and tadpoles wavering in the current running over mossy stones – and she passed beneath the rustling branches of a stand of hothouse aspen.
A tea house stood beneath the golden trees, ancient wood and paper walls meticulously assembled at the heart of the Fleet base, slate roof strewn with leaf-litter. The newly-minted captain knelt at the door and paused again – taking a measured breath – before drawing aside the old-fashioned panel of rice-paper and varnished pine. The large interior room was quite barren. A tatami lay in the middle of the floor, a pale jute-colored island in a sea of gleaming dark fir planking. A man was kneeling on the mat, hands hidden in the folds of a plain civilian kimono. He lifted his head curiously at the sound of the opening door.
His thin face, pale and seamed from long exhaustion, was calm.
Then he recognized her and everything sure and composed about him disappeared in a jolt of surprise – delight – and then slowly dawning grief.
The woman removed her boots and padded across the spotless floor to the edge of the mat.
"Oh Sho-sa," the man said, shaking his head. "You should not have brought me the honorable blades. A fine gesture, truthfully, but—"
"I bear no swords," Susan Koshō said, kneeling gracefully and drawing a parchment envelope from the inner pocket of her uniform jacket. "The Admiralty tribunal has concluded its deliberations. You will not satisfy the Emperor’s Honor for the loss of our ship. As of only an hour ago, you are free to leave this place at any time you please." She set down the envelope, touching the corners to align the rectangle properly between them.
Koshō shook her head no, gaze politely averted from his, attention unerringly fixed on the hem of his kimono, which was frayed and showing a small tear. She wondered, seeing how shabby his clothing was, what had happened to the old manservant who had tended Hadeishi’s personal affairs aboard the Cornuelle. The rest of the crew – those who had lived through the disaster over Jagan – had scattered to the five directions. Even my feet, she thought, are on a strange road, every compass awry with the influence of the fates. With every step, a crossroads appears out of the darkness…
"I have been retired?" Hadeishi’s voice was thin with distress.
"No," Susan met his eyes at last. "You have been placed on reserve duty, pending the needs of the Fleet. Your record...your service jacket is… all references to the incident at Jagan have been removed. A compromise was reached—"
"But I have no ship," he said, blinking, trying to take in the abrupt end of his career as a plain envelope pinched between thumb and forefinger. "No duty, no… no…"
He stopped, lips pursed, dark eyebrows narrowed over puzzled, wounded eyes. Susan could feel his mind whirling – imagined touching his brow would reveal a terrible, fruitless heat – and her own face became glacially impassive in response to his distress.
After a moment, Hadeishi’s eyes focused, found her, remembered her words and his head tilted a little to one side. "What of the others? Or am I the only one small enough to be caught in the net of accountability?"
Hadeishi stiffened, astonished. "Fought? Fought! I was taken unawares by a weather satellite network – our ship crippled, our crew decimated -- our only struggle was to stay alive while repairs were underway and the ship kept her nose up!"
Susan nodded, saying. "Representatives of the Mirror-Which-Reveals-The-Truth mentioned this on several occasions – as a mark against you. But the Admiralty has no love for spies and informers, or for the clumsy Flower War priests who sparked the Bharat revolt. They would not let you hang for a botched Mirror project. Not when it meant a smudge on their own mantle!"
"They cannot give you a ship, Chu-sa. Not with so many powers quarreling over the blame." Susan frowned, then allowed herself a very small sigh. "Colonel Yacatolli fared no better – he’s been posted to a sub-arctic garrison command on Helmand – while Admiral Villeneuve was actually reprimanded, with a black mark struck on his duty jacket for failing to provide Cornuelle with munitions resupply – and Ambassador Petrel has simply left the diplomatic service."
Hadeishi’s eyes flickered briefly with anger, before he snorted in cynical amusement.
"Did the tribunal assign any blame in this wretched turn of events?"
"The—they are blaming the Europeans for this?" Astonishment flushed Hadeishi’s countenance with a pale rose-colored bloom. "There has not been a European resistance movement in extra-Solar space for nearly fifteen years! Not since—"
Mitsuharu snorted again, dismayed. "Do they even care what actually happened?"
"The P—No, you make a poor, poor jest, Sho-sa. Not—"
Koshō – at last – let her properly impassive countenance slip, showing a flash of dismay. She dug into her jacket and produced a carefully folded tabloid. The busyink lay quiescent while Hadeishi unfolded the paper, before flashing alive with colorful diagrams, animated graphs, tiny low-res videos…all the appurtances of modern news.
A sallow-faced youth with unmistakable Méxica features popped out, pockmarked walls visible behind his shoulder, smoke coiling away from hundreds of bullet holes, the glossy black of his Fleet skinsuit spattered with blood, a heavy HK-45B assault rifle slung over one shoulder. The boy – he must have been in his late twenties, but he seemed much younger – was grinning triumphantly.
"The hero of the hour," Koshō drawled, "savior of the legation, captor of the native ringleaders… Tezozómoc’s public image is shining and bright this week. Someone, somewhere, is very pleased with themselves for this bit of… editing."
Hadeishi stared at the picture, impassive, eyes hooded, and then turned the tabloid face down on the mat beside the parchment envelope. For a moment he pressed both palms against his eyes, head down, breathing through his nose. Koshō waited, wondering if her old captain would react as she had. I should have brought a sidearm, a ship-pistol, something… to stun him with. When he becomes violently angry. When he threatens to—
"All this…" Mitsuharu did not look up. "Our dead – our broken ship – the wreckage on the surface – my career – it was all for him? To polish his reputation, to give this dissolute Prince some respectability in the eyes of the public?"
"The Four Hundred families cannot allow a Prince Imperial," Susan replied, voice carefully neutral, "to seem the buffoon, to be known as a wastrel, a drunkard, a party-addict… the Emperor is no fool. Even the least, most laughable member of the Imperial Clan must be seen by the general populace as a potentially terrifying warrior of unsurpassed skill. Particularly when Temple of Truth runs a popular weekly featurette detailing his latest lewd binge…"
Hadeishi rocked back, eyes still closed, fists clenched white to the knuckle. Susan waited, feeling a tight, singing tension rise in the pit of her stomach. After ten minutes had passed, the man’s eyes opened and his shoulders slumped. Hastily, Koshō looked away, giving her old commander the illusion of privacy, though they were no more than a meter apart.
"So I am the last, least fish caught in this flowery net."
Susan did not reply, her gaze fixed on the rear wall of the tea-house.
"And I am left with nothing." There was the crisp rustle of parchment. "You are to await the pleasure of the Emperor," he read, "should he have need of your service." Hadeishi sounded utterly spent. "How long, Sho-sa, do you think I will wait? A year? Two years?"
Forever, she thought, feeling the tension in her stomach turn tighter and tighter. You will be forgotten, like so many other disgraced captains before you.
"There is nothing to say, is there?" Hadeishi lifted a hand and scratched slowly at the stubble on his chin. "There are never enough combat commands for all those who desire them… who need them. Not without some great war to force the hand of the Admiralty and inspire a new building program." A tiny spark of anger began to lift the leaden tone from his words. "Not when political favor can be exchanged to see some well-connected clan-scion at the helm of a ship of war—"
He stopped abruptly. For the first time, Mitsuharu focused fully on Koshō’s face. A clear sort of penetrating light came into his eyes, wiping aside the despair, but leaving something far more tragic in its place.
Hadeishi bowed in place, as one honorable officer might to another. "Chu-sa, I regret the words just spoken. I do not impune the nobility of your birth. Of any man or woman in the Fleet who has borne my acquaintance, you – you are worthy of a ship."
The cable of tension in Susan’s stomach bent over on itself, wire grating against wire.
Koshō nodded and felt a sharp pain in her gut, as though the imaginary cable had frayed past breaking and steel wires spun loose to stab into her flesh. "They did. She is waiting at Jupiter for me right now."
There was the ghost of a smile on Hadeishi’s lips. "She is a fast ship, Susan, new and bold… tough for her size, but still no dreadnaught! I pulled her specs months ago. A sprinter, she is, not a plow horse, not a charger… you’ll need to keep her dancing in the hot of it – no standing toe to toe – not with the armor she lifts. In and out, missile-work and raids…" The momentary surge of energy failed, and his eyes grew dull again. "You’ll do well… a Main Fleet posting, I’d wager… something where you’ll be seen, noticed…"
Where my family connections can lift me up, Koshō thought bitterly as he fell silent. Where my advantage of birth can show its strength. Where the son of a violin-maker and a shop-clerk would not even be accorded the time of day by his fellow officers.
"Say nothing, Sho-sa. Say nothing."
"No. You are the finest combat commander I’ve ever met. All of my skill springs from your example. You will be wasted on the List, waiting for some… some scow to need a driver. Let me…" She struggled to frame the proper words, failed, and blurted out: "Enter my service, Sensei. You’ve the heart of a samurai; let me make you one in truth. Then you will command a ship again! Come with me—"
Hadeishi stiffened, almost recoiled, and a quick play of emotions on his agile face exposed – just for an instant – astonishment and then a stunning grief shown by suddenly dead eyes and a waxy tone to his flesh.
"Hai!" she said, overcome with embarrassment and bowed so deeply in apology her forehead brushed the mat. "Please, you mustn’t lose hope. I can—"
"No, thank you." Hadeishi said faintly, staring at her as though an apparition had risen through the gleaming floor, a yakka-goblin out of legend to torment him and lay bare every scar carried in his heart. "An honest gesture, Sho-sa, but the weight of my failure will only drag your star down into shadow."
Susan almost flinched from the icy tone in his voice. She felt short of breath. Koshō blinked, forcing her face back to accustomed impassivity, falling back behind her shield of customary remoteness. "Chu-sa…"
"You should leave now," he said coolly. "Your ship is waiting."
Entirely unsure of what she’d said to put such abrupt distance between them, Koshō left quietly, gathering up her boots. Outside, the day-program of the garden had advanced into twilight, yielding mist from the streams and pools. The panels far overhead dimmed still further. The twin suns at the core of the Michóacan system were now reduced to sullen pinpoints, no brighter than the other main sequence stars in the sky.
Susan strode into the base’s main departure lounge in a black mood. Riding alone in the tubecar from the Fumeiyo dome she had turned her conversation with Hadeishi through all five directions. He does not wish your charity, Koshō-sana. He will starve and die rather than ask a friend for assistance. Idiot. Three kinds of idiot. No, four kinds!
But it was a familiar idiocy.
How many of grandfather’s retainers went the same way? Wasting away, living on less and less, refusing to admit their sons and daughters needed to learn useful skills – would it be so terrible to master a craft? To… to sell goods in the marketplace?
That Koshō’s grandmother had steered her into a military career – the one paying profession which remained honorable for her caste, though the subject of intense competition – seemed now the most natural thing in the world. An admirable and direct answer to the nagging question that plagued all of the old nobility: How does one pay the rent, when there are no koku of land remaining to till, leasehold, or sell? Changes in Nisei tax law under a succession of canny Diet Prime Ministers, and the constant pressure of the mercantile classes, had eroded the vast estates of the old families. Susan was sure the Tai-Sho was quite pleased with the outcome. No one can raise and arm men from houses filled with antiques. And the merchants pay their taxes.
Susan’s pace slowed, eyes drawn to the huge transit board filling the far wall of the lounge. Hundreds of ships were listed, heading in every direction. One of them was hers – a Fleet personnel liner bound for the home system, to Anáhuac, and the massive Akbal yards off Jupiter.
My first command. My own ship… the dream of every junior officer in the Fleet. For a moment, she felt uneasy, aware of an incipient loneliness, and part of her devoutly wished Hadeishi had accepted her service. I will miss him, but I do not need him to guide my hand.
Then a half-familiar shape glimpsed from the corner of one eye drew her head around. The general ill-feeling of anger, resentment and thwarted intent endemic to the passages of the base suddenly had a singular, unmistakably clear focus.
"Green Hummingbird!" she hissed. Koshō turned on her heel and plunged through a squad of enlisted ratings sprawled on transit couches, the floor around them littered with Mayahuel bottles and patolli gaming mats sprinkled with money and dice sticks, to fetch up before two men – no, one human and one alien – sitting in a quiet corner of the huge, bustling room.
"What are you doing here?" Susan’s voice was cold.
The human was holding a package in his hands, something rectangular wrapped in twine and brown paper. He looked up, catching Koshō’s gaze with a pair of green eyes deep as Tuxpan jade, and his polished old mahogany face, etched with tiny scars and sharp wrinkles, expressed nothing more than the most polite interest. "Chu-sa Koshō, a pleasure."
"What are you doing here?" A horrible suspicion had formed in her mind the instant she’d set eyes on the old Méxica. He was well known to her – an Imperial nauallis or Judge, of the sort who traveled the backwaters of the Rim, poking and prying into all sorts of dangerous business, showing up at odd places and times, commandeering the Cornuelle or any other Imperial ship on hand as he pleased – he and Hadeishi had some kind of history, for the Captain had always been accommodating, bending rules and regulations with aplomb to accommodate the Judge and his ‘business’. An Imperial agent, a spy, an assassin, a sorcerer… a walking career disaster.
"I am waiting for my ship, like everyone else," Hummingbird said, showing the ghost of a smile, "and catching up with a recent friend."
His scarred hand – now empty, the package having disappeared into one of the medium-sized travel cases at his feet – indicated the alien in the opposite chair. Susan spared a glance for the creature – a slight shape with a vaguely humanoid face. Thin, ancient-seeming fingers covered with a close-napped blue-black fur held a chain of beads. Much like Hummingbird, the alien was wearing a hooded mantle over tunic and trousers, this one a faded, mottled green with a dull-colored red cross quartering its chest.
Then her whole attention was on Hummingbird again, her face tight with barely repressed anger. "Did you have anything to do with this? With the Tribunal’s compromise? With what happened to us on Jagan?"
"I had nothing," the old Méxica said carefully, "to do with the astounding success of the xochiyaotinime in providing Fleet and Army with such a vigorous martial test. And I am very pleased Captain Hadeishi was not forced to satisfy his honor, or that of the Emperor, in some… final way."
"Are you?" Koshō managed to keep from curling her lip, all in deference to the old priest watching the two of them with bright, inquisitive eyes. "Then why have you done nothing to help him, when he has always rendered you aid – even in defiance of his ordered duty? Is this how the nauallis repay their allies?"
Hummingbird’s chiseled face tightened. He was rarely challenged by anyone, much less a Fleet officer whose career he could destroy with a comm call. Susan knew this and failed to care. She had never found him intimidating – dangerous, yes, like a redwood viper loose on your command deck – but not a source of fear. Though she would be loath to admit such a thing, the Judge did not exist high enough on the slopes of the Heavenly Mountain to impress her.
"I have done what I can," he snapped. "He lives, does he not? He will have a command again, when enough time has passed to dim the memory of his enemies."
"He only has such enemies," Koshō allowed a faint exhalation of disgust, "because of his association with you."
The old nauallis became quite still, eyes narrowing, and he seemed to settle into the lounge-chair like a mountain finding its footing in the earth. "What would have of me, child, that Hadeishi would not ask himself? For he has not asked me for aid, though I have offered."
Have you? How many visitors has my captain entertained in his empty rooms? How many well-meaning friends has he turned away?
The admission stilled her angry rush, letting unexpected venom drain from her thoughts.
"He has to be saved," she said, controlled once more. "Before he simply fades away."
Hummingbird shrugged. "Perhaps you should let him tread his own path?"
Hummingbird rubbed the top of his head, which was brown and smooth as a betel-nut. He cast a sideways glance at the Sra Osá, whose attention seemed far away, politely ignoring the argument playing out before him, rosary beads clicking one by one through pelted fingers.
"Arrangements could be made," the old Méxica allowed with a grimace.
"Good." Koshō offered the most minimal bow, glanced up to check the transit board, cursed at the time and then left in haste.
The nauallis watched her go, his expression pensive. Hummingbird rubbed the back of his head again, glancing sideways at his wizened companion. "Ah, if only she had a gram of Hadeishi’s native circumspection! He will be hard to replace… but what is done is done. Once the arrow has flown…"
Sra Osá said nothing, ancient face impassive beneath the woolen hood.
Hummingbird nodded to himself, some internal judgment weighed and accepted, checked his bag for the twine-wrapped package, then lifted both cases and moved away.
In the Kuub
The navigator of the IMN DD-217 Calexico frowned at her console, tapping her throatmike to life: “Chu-sa Rae? We’re at barely thirty-percent seethrough in this… combat reaction range is down to less than a light minute.”
At the other end of the narrow, 20-meter long bridge, Captain Rae’s grimace matched the navigator’s wary expression. His destroyer had an upgraded sensor suite to match the two Deep Range scouts for which he was flying gunsight, but in this protostellar murk nothing was working quite to Engineering Board specifications.
“Hai, kyo” the navigator responded, watching the particle collision counts on the forward transit deflectors flicker rapidly in and out of redline on her stat panel. “Feed is clean, but we’re edging towards full-stop.”
“I see it.” Rae had the same readout running on his console. Calexico lacked the new battle shielding Fleet was refitting onto the capital ships, and her transit deflectors – though upgraded to match Survey requirements – were finding it hard going in the heavy interstellar dust endemic to this region of space. “Comm, patch me through to the K and K.”
Rae waited patiently while his communications officer rounded up the captains of the two Survey ships. Watching the collision counts surging red did not ease his mind. The kuub was notorious for its hazards to navigation. Ancient stellar debris –rumor said the science team was feeling warm about a double-supernova – swirled in a hot murk glowing with radiation from the few suns still embedded in the nebula. There were solid fragments as well, the bits and pieces of planets shattered by the catastrophic detonation, mixed with cometary debris, stray asteroids… a nebula of incredible breadth and density.
There were hints of a massive gravity sink down at the heart of the region. A black hole, or maybe more than one. The navigator was starting to see queer distortions in the local hyperspace gradient, though they didn’t look anything like the usual fluctuation patterns around a singularity. She tapped her throatmike again.
Rae, in the midst of offering the Kiev an engineering team to tear down a degraded shield nacelle, caught the change in her voice and his reaction was instantaneous. He slapped the FULL STOP glyph on his main console and barked a confirming order to his crew: “All engines, go to zero-v and prepare to rotate ship! All power to transit shielding, all stations report!”
In the threat-well directly in front of Rae’s station, the icon representing the Survey ship winked out. A camera pod immediately swiveled towards the event and two seconds later the Chu-sa was watching with gritted teeth as the Kiev vanished in a plume of superheated plasma.
“Antimatter containment failure—” Rae’s voice was anguished, but then his eyes widened in real horror. The Korkunov vanished from the plot three seconds after its sister ship. A second burst of sunfire stabbed through the dust. His fist slammed the crash button on his shockframe.
A klaxon blared and every lighting fixture on the ship flashed three times and then shaded into a noticeable red tone. Rae’s shockframe folded around him and a z-helmet lowered and locked tight against his z-suit’s neckring. A groan vibrated from the very air as the destroyer’s main engines flared and the g-decking strained to adjust. The Calexico – which had been about to rotate and slow with main drives – surged forward into a tight turn, its radar and wideband laser sensors emitting a sharp full-spectrum burst to paint the immediate neighborhood.
Down on the gun deck, a message drone banged away from the ship, thrown free by a magnetic accelerator and immediately darted back along the expedition’s path of entry into the kuub. The drone’s onboard comp was already calculating transit gradients, looking to punch into hyperspace as quickly as possible. A second drone was run out by a suddenly-frantic deck crew, ready to launch as soon as the results of the wide-spectrum scan were complete.
A louder alarm was blaring in Engineering, drowning both the warble of the drive coil and the basso drone of the antimatter reactor and its attendant systems. In the number three airlock, Engineer Second Malcolm Helsdon turned in place, his z-suit already sealed, a gear-pack slung over one shoulder and ten meters of heat-exchange thermocouple looped around the other. Through the visor of his suit helmet, he peered back through the closing inner door of the lock, seeing the on-duty crew moving quickly - as they should, he thought – to action stations.
The engineer reached out to key the lock override, but the looped thermocouple bound his arm and he paused, shifting his feet, swinging the ungainly package around to his other side, to get a free hand on the control panel. Sweat sprung from his pale forehead, and the usual shag of unkempt brown hair was in his eyes.
Through the outer door’s blast window, the blur of motion was so swift only the faintest afterimage registered in his retinas.
“What—” was that? The overhead lights in the airlock went out.
There was an instant of darkness and Helsdon knew, even before the local emergency illumination kicked in, that main power had failed catastrophically. Without a second thought, he threw himself back against the wall opposite the interior lock door and seized hold of a stanchion. As he moved, local g-control failed and he slammed hard into the plasticine panel. The Calexico was at full burn and only the armored resiliency of his Fleet z-suit kept Helsdon from breaking both shoulder and arm. For an instant, all was whirling lights and vertigo.
A moment later, the engineer steadied himself and ventured to open his eyes.
Everything was terribly quiet.
Still alive, he thought, blinking in the dim glow of the emergency lights. The thermocouple had come loose and was drifting in z-g, slowly uncoiling to fill the airlock with dozens of silvery loops. Reactor hasn’t fried me yet… He kicked to the inner lock window, bracing one leg against the side of the heavy pressure door. Streaks of frost blocked most of the view, but Helsdon had no trouble seeing out.
Grasping what he saw took a heartbeat, then another… two breaths to realize he wasn’t looking down at an engineering drawing, but rather at the heart of the Calexico herself laid bare. Somehow Engineering was falling away from him – along with the great proportion of the destroyer itself – every deck exposed, every hall and conduit pipe gaping wide to open space. A huge cloud of debris – sheets, coffee cups, papers, shoes, the stiff bodies of men already dead from hypoxia – spilled from the dying ship.
Helsdon’s helmet jerked to one side, searching for a point of reference – anything that made sense – and fixed on a section of wall jutting out into his field of view to the left. He could see three-quarters of the hallway – flooring with nonslip decking, dead light fixtures, a guide-panel – and then nothing. Only an impossibly sharp division where the ship simply ended.
We’ve been cut in half.
A week’s tips feeling very light in his pocket, Hadeishi trudged up a long low hill through fresh snow. In summer, the hillside would be covered with neatly-cropped grass and the misty forest on either side of the parkland would be a deep cool green, filled with croaking ravens and drifting butterflies. Now everything was crisp and white, the mossy pillars covered with hanging ice. Even behind him, where the sea broke against a reddish slate headland, gray waves shone with pearlescent foam. Walking carefully between the ice-slicked walkway and endless rows of grave markers, Mitsuharu picked his way along a turfed horse-path. Even in this weather, the springy sod beneath the frost yielded queasily with each step. Here, he thought wistfully, everything is just as I remember. So our dead sleep quietly, shielded from the restless chaos of the city.
The other places he’d held unchanged in childhood memory were simply gone.
Fifteen years of Fleet service – and at least a decade since he’d spent leave in the bustling commercial capital stretching east and south of this quiet peninsula – had seen his old neighborhood leveled. His parent’s single-story house with the green tin roof and white-painted walls was gone. The entire street -- ancient cobblestones and crumbling asphalt and peeling advertisements on the garden gates -- had vanished. No more little single-door shops, tucked in between the warehouses and old factories, selling tea and cakes and hot noodles. Even the narrow park along Deception Creek – which marked the southern edge of downtown – had been replaced. Ancient rows of cherry and mulberry trees sawn down, replaced by a modern promenade of expensive shops and brisk, gleaming cafes catering to the young and rich.
Civilians. Merchants, he thought, dully angered by the wall of gleaming sea-green-glass apartment towers burying his boyhood memories beneath sixty stories of luxury flats and their attendant hovercar garages. Even a dirty, industrial neighborhood should be allowed to putter along… without improvements, without renovations.
But Shinedo of the Nisei had grown enormously while he’d been gone among the stars. A new high-speed maglev cargo railway now ran day and night to the far eastern coast, moving millions of tons of Asiatic goods from Shinedo’s deepwater port to the grimy coastal cities of Oswego and New Canarsie in the Iroquois Protectorate. And from there, onward to Europe and Afriqa. The sprawling spaceport in the wetlands south of the city benefited as well. Though there were larger Fleet installations planet-side, Shinedo uchumon handled a constant and lucrative passenger service. The industrial districts Mitsuharu prowled in his youth had moved south to sprawl around uchu in a thick belt of newly-built factories, smokestacks and office parks.
But little of that ugliness was visible within the quiet solitude of the preserve. Here – and only here within greater Shinedo metro, still protected by the edict of an Emperor long dead when the first human spacecraft lumbered into orbit from the Nanchao testing range – towering groves of old coastal redwoods remained. The entire park, save for the serpentine meadows containing the cemetery, was filled with the same nearly-impenetrable rainforest which had greeted the first Nisei to set foot upon gumshan – the Golden Mountain.
Beneath their broad eaves, heavy with snow, there was a deep sense of quiet.
As befits the honored dead, Hadeishi thought as he turned onto a side-path – this one set with wooden steps and a railing – which climbed the westernmost hill in the park. Let them rest, distant from the garish, uncaring noise of those who still live.
His Fleet discharge pay had evaporated once he’d stepped off the shuttle. Shinedo was not cheap. Food, lodging, bus tickets… everything was expensive. Even the most wretched grade of sake was a full quill the jar. Two ceramic bottles clinked in his jacket pocket, rubbing a handful of wilted flowers to pale yellow dust. There was a dole for the indigent, but Mitsuharu had prided himself on having useful skills. His comp, waiting messages ignored, and other things reminding him of the Fleet, he sold. So his old life had been eaten away by the new.
Solving a four dimensional puzzle with seventy-six vectors in less than a second has no value in the civilian world. Knowing the little tricks of command, of gaining men’s loyalty, of making them work harder, faster, more accurately as a team under fire… who needs that here? There is no war in the city.
Very near the shuttle port, in the maze of narrow alleys and bars and tea-houses making up the district called Water Lantern, he had managed to secure employment. He played the samisen in a tea house on the evenings, while the off-duty Fleet and merchanter ratings wasted their money on girls and rice beer and gambling at patolli or dice or cards. His father – who had been very good with almost any stringed instrument – would have been appalled to see his so-promising son picking away at the kind of cheap lute a tea-house teishu could afford.
Hadeishi had not practiced in nearly twenty years – not since he was a boy – and his fine set of thumbs – now accustomed only to electronic play on a warship’s computers – produced the most appalling racket. But the drunken sailors and their joygirls didn’t seem to mind, not until a string broke with a piercing screech, and then he merely bowed his head and let the broken bottles shatter on the wall behind him. There were little cuts on his neck and hands, but the rough coppery smell of blood was familiar, and Hadeishi had no taste for a fight. Not now. There was nothing to fight for.
Beyond the arch was a small clearing laid with fitted stones – swept clean even on such a cold day – surrounding a temple-house of red enamel and dark, polished wood. The smell of incense hung in the frigid air, tapers twining long loops of smoke through the rafters. Hadeishi’s Fleet boots made a tapping sound as he walked and the careful eye could make out ideograms cut into each of the paving stones. Ever here, in the Western Chapel, where at winter’s end the Emperor came to witness the sun of the vernal equinox settle into the distant sea, surrounded by the great nobles and the deep, throaty roll of massed drums, the dead lay close at hand.
Mitsuharu knelt in the temple, bending his head against the floor in obeisance to the gilded idol. The altar was crowded with candle-stubs, pools of melted wax and drifts of fallen ash. Coins, gewgaws, trinkets, little toys, chicle-prizes, letters, twists of paper folded with prayers covered every flat surface in the shrine.
“The city is expensive,” he said aloud, shaking his head in dismay. “I’ve little to leave you, mother, father.” Hadeishi dug in his pockets, found the sake, the flowers, the hard plastic shape of his Fleet comm. “But what I have, I will send to you, beyond the sea.”
Beyond the walls of the temple-house, a late afternoon wind guttered among the stones. The first Nisei to be laid to rest in the Western Paradise had been interred within days of the Landing. The fleet had breached upon this shore out of exhaustion. The rough passage between the outer bulwark of Nootka island and the rocky, forest-shrouded coastline had taken the last burst of energy the refugees could muster. Thirty-six days had passed while the gray vastness of the sea hammered at their boats. Few of the Japanese vessels had been fitted for such a voyage, though in the mad panic to evacuate Edo and Osaka, no mind had been paid to their seaworthiness. More than half of those who fled dying Nippon had perished. But the Emperor himself had survived, carried forth from the wreck of his ancient realm in a massive Chinese hai-po taken in raid off Taiwan. That enormous ship had run aground in Deception Creek, or so the children said, and the last true Emperor to be born in the Immortal Islands had splashed ashore with katana in hand and rusted armor upon his breast. Though the shore he faced was crowded with an impossibly thick forest, and his people were sick and weak, there was nowhere else to run.
Mitsuharu made a little space among the grave goods with his fingers and set both sake bottles among the debris left by other mourners. He considered his comm for a long time. The metal surface was chipped and worn, discolored by plasma backwash, and a sixteen-glyph was blinking on the display surface. Messages of sympathy from fellow officers, he thought, entirely devoid of curiosity, I will never view.
“One leaf lets go,” he whispered, eyes squeezed tight, “and another follows on the wind.”
I am sorry, mother, father; that I did not come home. News of your illness, your death, reached me by courier off Kodon, when vital repairs were already underway. I am late to bring you these things, to pray for you, to bid you a speedy journey home to the Blessed Isles. I am sorry. I am not a good son. I was not a good captain. Now I am a wretched player in a disreputable tavern. So the wheel turns.
The foundation of the temple-house was laid upon the grave of that first man – a lesser courtier of the Imperial House; a kugyo born in Echizen – to die upon gumshan. He was not the last. Fell beasts roamed the primordial forest and the natives were quick and sly, slipping unseen through deep shadows with knives of knapped stone. The weather was far fiercer than the nobles of Nara and Kyoto expected, and the refugees accounted barely a handful of men experienced in hunting, fishing, carpentry, blacksmithing… by winter’s end, another quarter of the survivors were crudely interred around the temple-house. The great cemetery had begun its millennia-long sprawl.
But the third spring had brought an unexpected sight – long boats with many rowers toiling up the coast from the south. The handful of Nisei ships which remained seaworthy – many had been cannibalized for nails, lumber, cordage and other desperately-needed fittings – met the Toltec pochteca on the low swell at the mouth of Deception Creek. From the front step of this very temple-house, a pillar could be seen on the further shore where the Emperor’s representatives had first held conversation with the emissaries of the great southern kingdoms. By then the Nisei had driven the tribal peoples from their villages along the shore and were beginning to clear the forest for their new city.
Mitsuharu finished his prayers and remained seated, feeling entirely directionless.
I’ve done what must be done, he realized, every commission discharged. Honor to Fleet, family and Emperor satisfied by the most meager effort. My purpose at an end. His lips twisted in dismay and thin, fine-boned hands patted at his service jacket, feeling for the hilt of a knife or blade of some kind. Ah, old fool. You traded your service tantō for new strings for that useless scrap of wood… you have already forgotten yourself, haven’t you? A samurai, an officer, without even the least weapon to hand? What would Lord Musashi think of you now?
An old, old memory came to mind – the fuzzing screen of an ancient black-and-white two-d set showing the calm, centered face of a samurai framed by the pillars of another temple, one in Japan itself, where a ring of ruffians – not even samurai, though their nervous hands held blades aplenty, but bandits and honorless men – circled the lone sword master. A strong wind was blowing, rustling the leaves of ancient trees, bending their creaking limbs. Lord Musashi had nothing in his hands save a length of willow-wood.
They were doomed, Hadeishi remembered, the ghost of a child’s smile in his eyes. Though he had nothing but the clothes on his back. The Five Rings chambara had played on the two-d every afternoon throughout Mitsuharu’s childhood. Hundreds of episodes, rarely shown in order, depicting the long and remarkably heroic life of the sword-saint Miyamoto Musashi. An excellent reason for a youngster to run home from school and fling himself onto the floor of his parent’s house in a pile of blankets, eyes fixed on the tiny screen. Five Rings was particularly beloved for its setting – Japan itself, during the long struggle of the Restoration, when the Nisei had returned to the home islands and driven out the vile Mongol dynasty which had terrorized their homeland during five centuries of exile.
I will have to buy a knife next week, Hadeishi thought glumly. When I’ve a little money again.
The door of the temple-house slid closed behind him with a soft click. Mitsuharu tucked his chin into the collar of his jacket, frost biting his face. A long walk faced him – back into the upper city, across the lower bridge vaulting the estuary, a hike up over the ridge separating the well-heeled Khahtsalano district from the area around the spaceport and finally home to his pallet.
Hadeishi was descending the wooden stair into the cemetery proper when a long-drawn-out rumble reached him, carried up from the south in the cold, still air. A laser-boosted shuttle cut through the clouds, a bright red spark racing away to orbit. He looked back to the shrine, thinking of the sake bottles. Opium would be better, he thought wanly. But I’ve money for neither. Goodbye, mother; goodbye father.
The cold settled in his limbs with a dull ache as he walked through the forest. Hadeishi put aside recurring thoughts of stealing the shrine liquor. He’d never thought of himself as a drunkard before, but now – with all this weight pressing on his spirit – he could see the draw of forgetfulness. Another shuttle was launching from uchu by the time he’d reached the narrows bridge. This time he watched, face lifted to the clouds, until the heavy cargo vessel vanished into a darkening sky. Mist boiled around the ship’s path in a long, filmy corkscrew.
They look big from down here, he thought, remembering sitting on the hillside across the river from the main launch-pits at uchu with his father. Gigantic. Leaping into the heavens on wings of flame… But even the largest shuttle was dwarfed by the massive shape of the commercial liners waiting in orbit, much less the vast bulk of a Fleet carrier or dreadnaught. The cold was in his heart now, and an ache was trickling along his spine.
He trudged across the bridge, bitter sea wind piercing his jacket and sweater, cap tugged low. There was a merchanter’s guild office, Hadeishi remembered, and I’d qualify for a senior rating’s birth. Perhaps even an officer. On a miner, or a cargoman, or a bulk carrier. It would be… something. Better than being a samisen player for drunkards.
He felt colder, realizing his father had made a good living, for many years, playing in tea-houses and inns. Enough to buy a little house and keep his children fed, his son in school uniforms, engineering books, testing fees... It’s not enough for me. I want… I want my family back. I want my command.
The wounded sound of the Cornuelle’s spaceframe groaning as she twisted into the atmosphere over Jagan was suddenly sharp in his memory. The hoarse rasp of his own breath inside the helmet, the queasy nausea of shattered ribs. Corridors clogged with floating debris, bubbles of smoke, the drifting bodies of the dead.
I killed my ship. Susan’s face appearing out of the darkness, her eyes blazing with worry as her helmet visor levered up. The tightening of dismay around her almond-shaped eyes as she realized what he’d done. I killed my own children. For pride. Because I was very good at what I did. But not good enough to deny fate.
Neon washed his face as he walked, expression vacant, thoughts light years away. Snow was falling again, dusting his hunched shoulders with white. He’d felt terribly cold then too, strapped into his shockchair, hands numb with the effort he’d spent to get the ship’s nose up, her orbit stable. Empty too, then as now, though the white-hot fury which had vomited out of him at Villeneuve’s aide was long, long gone.
Trucks were rumbling past, the streets filled with the comings and goings of a busy mercantile district. The cloying smell of diesel and hot oil permeated the air. The blare of music from the doorways of dance-halls and pachinko parlors drowned out everything else, even the roar of another shuttle lifting off. But Hadeishi still felt the subsonic rumble vibrating through the soles of his boots. It was inescapable.
If I were not prideful, Mitsuharu thought, feeling his spirit sink even lower. I could be among the stars again. But what am I beyond pride, he wondered, without my uniform, without duty? Am I more than a shell of starched linen and golden ribbon? Is there any reason to be anything else?
Without a warship to command, he realized, merely shipping out was without purpose.
Lord Musashi, He remembered, would not compromise his honor at such a pass. He would wait patiently, living on a beggars’ charity, until someone deserving of his service called upon him. Even if he waited until death.
But that was a very cold comfort, on this gray and frigid day.
Sahâne stepped gingerly down a flight of well-worn steps formed from compressed ash, his eyesight adjusting smoothly to the abrupt separation of a hazy, hot day and the cool dimness of a restaurant. The insect-whine of his cooling system fell below audibility and the Hjogadim priest let out a relieved hiss. His long snout-like nose twitched, assailed by the thick, greasy smell of cooking meat, the acid bite of chile powder and the earthy smell of red beans simmering in an iron skillet. With a conscious effort, Sahâne closed his mouth, thick gray tongue rolling back into his jaw.
This species of indigene, young smoot, a gruff, pedantic voice spoke out of memory – one of an interminable number of teachers replaying in response to the situational prompt - grows uncomfortable, even agitated, when confronted with the sight of our superior dentition.
“No teeth, no teeth,” the Hjogadim muttered to himself, a jaundiced eye roving around the gloomy cavern. Long wooden tables – all too small for his two-meter-plus frame – jammed against the walls, crowded by throngs of chairs and threatened by wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from the domed ceiling on chains. “A torture chamber.” Sahâne observed, beginning to feel nervous. To remain demands intoxicants.
The cool air, however, was a blessing he was loath to abandon so quickly. The superconducting threads running through his heavy fur could only dissipate so much heat when he was walking – no, more like swimming – through the thick hot air of the city. That the natives would build underground, or behind heavy whitewashed adobe walls, or install their own refrigeration systems on a massive scale, did not trouble his mind. Sahâne was keenly aware of his own discomfort, but the theoretical trials of a planet of inconsequential toys did not move him at all.
Circling around the wicked ornamentation of the nearest chandelier, the Hjo sat at one of the tables, back against the pleasantly cool wall, and wondered if the establishment was closed. A handful of other patrons sat at the far end of the long room, but none of them had paid his entrance the slightest attention. Sahâne’s long, tapir-like head swiveled, looking for the telltale ghosting of a human comm-panel in the air. Nothing. He frowned, the leathery skin around two deep-set eyes wrinkling up. He could smell food, but… how did you order a meal without an interface?
“A waiter comes,” someone said, in passable Trade. “And you tell him which ingestibles you desire.”
Sahâne’s frown deepened into puzzlement. The human settling into a chair opposite the young Hjo was familiar – Sahâne had been aware of him dozens of times – but they’d never spoken before. The fine layer of hollow hairs forming the top layer of his fur shivered, making the silver-gray gloss ripple. An Eye should not speak, it is inappropriate! Its only duty is to spy.
“Though,” the human male continued, tucking a pair of sunglasses into a pocket of his mantle. “The menu here is limited. You’d be best to order an octli beer and perhaps a plate of nopalli, if you are hungry.”
“I am not,” Sahâne said, after a moment of consternation. “You have never spoken to me before – is there a… a situation? A danger?”
Every member of the Hjogadim delegation on Anáhuac, to the best of Sahâne’s knowledge, had at least three Eyes fixed upon them – not all at once, of course, but in rotating shifts throughout the swift Terran day – but always from a distance. This one – tall, as the indigenes went, with sleek dark fur on its head and regular, waxy-skinned features – had always been at least a block away for as long as the Eye had observed the Hjo. That it should come closer – or even speak to Sahâne – implied something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Ah, the Hjo suddenly realized, the wretched Eyes don’t wish me to purchase trimethoxyphene from this new vendor. The previous merchant must have complained—
“There is no situation,” the toy said, quite calmly. It approximated a Hjo smile, lips tight. “You are perfectly safe. There will be only a slight delay before the priest comes.”
Sahâne blinked, feeling a familiar fog of confusion congealing around him. He did not like this place – the backwater polity; the crude, barbarous planet; much less this dreadful bowl of hot smog that passed for a city – and the intrigues and plots of the local princelings did not move him at all. His master the Zhongdu seemed to take an interest in the chattering and scrabbling of the humans, but Sahâne had done his best to stay far, far removed from such things. It was not, after all, his purpose.
“I told him,” the human said, unnaturally slim fingers producing a data crystal, “that you would be a little late, and wished to try authentic Tenochtitlán food. Where else but Tlatelolco would you find such fine grilled dogs? We will need only a moment for our business.”
The Hjo’s dull black eyes fixed on the message capsule, which was banded with red and seemed to shine with an inner light. “That is one of ours,” he muttered, feeling his skin heat with distress. “How did you get it?”
The human smiled again. “This is for your master. Will you convey it to the zhongdu?”
“I will not,” Sahâne hissed. The low ceiling pressed down claustrophobically. “It is not my purpose to exchange messages with your kind! I will be…” The Hjo clamped his mouth shut before severely punished escaped into the open air. “I am not a Voice,” came out instead, as a hiss.
“If you do not accept the gift,” the human said, sharp brown eyes watching the nervous alien and wondering what a “Voice” might be, “then your ‘priest’ will be further delayed and there will be no godhead to accompany you to the consulate.”
The gods are not here! An ancient-sounding voice sneered among Sahâne’s thoughts. Were they, we would be exalted and these toys churned to ash for our gardens. Were the gods here, we would not need these pasty sulfates and salts to entertain us! We would burn with—
“I can find another—” Sahâne rose abruptly and there was a dull clonk as his head slammed into the iron candelabra suspended over the table. “Aaah!”
Wincing, the Hjo staggered away from the table, long fur-covered fingers clutching his tapered head. His mouth gaped wide, revealing the heavy rows of grinding molars and chisel-shaped cutting teeth lining his fore-jaw.
The Hjo grimaced, wrenching his polluted limb free from the toy’s grasp. Beneath his fingers, the warm oozing sensation of a cut was already fading as his scalp-skin crawled back together. “I heal,” Sahâne spat. Though his legs felt loose and rubbery, the Hjo fled, staggering up the steps and brushing past a startled looking youth in vibrant, polychromatic robes, carrying a ribbed, dark green effigy pot in his hands.
Behind him, in the dim recess of the restaurant, the young Méxica pretended not to notice the puzzled Xochipilli priest on the stair. He smoothed down his mantle before spraying a biocide on the table and chair where the Hjogadim had rested. Then he glanced around the room to make sure no one was paying any attention and disappeared out through the kitchen.
Down the street, Sahâne stumbled to a halt, leaning against a wall covered with glossy, painted tile showing dozens of young boys dressed as bees, birds and macaws sitting in the branches of a massive tree whose branches tangled the sun and stars, while the roots twined down amongst the skulls and bones of the dead. Opposite him a stall lined with dozens of flowered cloaks caught the midday sun, casting a hot glow of brilliant hummingbird colors in his watery eyes.
This is a dreadful place, the young alien thought for the thousandth time, pawing in the pouch at his belt for a map token that would lead him to other vendors. I will just find some alkaloids instead—
His long fingers brushed against something small, smooth and cylindrical. The Hjo fell still, hindbrain yielding up a list of everything he’d donned in his cubicle before setting out into the teeming anthill of the human city.
Seconds passed. Sahâne carefully pulled out and regarded the data crystal with a jaundiced eye. He looked about, saw only the usual throng of humanity and pitched the irritating little item into the nearest garbage can. Then he stood up, feeling relieved, and loafed off thinking: Right Thought guides me well, to avoid the complications of lesser creatures at every turn!
The Hjogadim had gone a good block or more, almost stepping out into the bustling flower market of Tlatelolco to buy his lunch, when another thought intruded: What if some cunning Eye informs the Viceroy of my meeting, and Demands are made upon me to produce the contraband? If I do not hold it in my hand, it will seem I am hiding Truth or have sold something for my own profit.
Cursing, he paced back down the alley and retrieved the crystal, which had gone seemingly untouched. Now it seemed far too heavy in his palm.
The little old Yaqui man squatting at the corner did not look up from stuffing his face with fried chapultin, nor show the slightest interest in the creature’s self-conscious scrabbling in the garbage bin, but the event had not gone unnoticed.
Dumfries Post Station
The leaden gray sky poured down rain as a small, backwoods settlement lurched into view through streaming windows. Sitting quietly on a cracked dark green vinyl seat, Green Hummingbird watched weather-worn buildings roll past, their windows shuttered tight against a cold, damp summer. The transit bus slid to a halt before a terminal of patched glass and corroded metal. He climbed down behind a crowd of migrant lumbermen and waited patiently for his turn at the baggage claim.
Hummingbird paused a moment inside the drafty arrival hall, letting the crowd of travelers carrying waterproof luggage tubs swirl past and out the doors. The crowd was mostly dour-faced humans wearing heavy clothing and knee-high boots. They scuffed across a hard-surfaced floor smeared with yellowish mud and out into the rainy afternoon. A collection of heavy-wheeled vans, crawlers and logging tenders was waiting. There were no taxis or pedicabs in sight.
When the locals had sorted themselves out, the Méxica put away his hand-comp and shrugged into a non-descript, Imperial Army surplus poncho. His boots rattled on the slabbed logs making up the sidewalk. Somewhere out of sight, enormous tractors rumbled past heavy with newly cut lumber. Their passage made the puddles filling the street quiver and shake. On their way to docks at lakeside, he guessed.
The identifying sign for Dumfries Technical College was far newer than any of the buildings, and each door was marked by irregular patches were older signs had been recently removed. Piles of crumbling, moss-eaten concrete lined the walkways between the classroom halls. Hummingbird passed from building to building, a steadily growing frown etching his face. None of the signage matched what he expected to see. At last, after passing through a grove of dour trueoak which had apparently grown up unplanned in one of the quadrangles, he found an unpainted wooden building turned dull silver with age.
Now his hand-comp chimed quietly, indicating the outline of the old laundry matched a six-week old Identicast from a Colonial Administration surveillance satellite.
Through a scratched metal door at the end of a dirty hallway, in the basement of the building, Hummingbird found Gretchen Anderssen sitting behind stacks of archaic equipment, her desk covered with manila folders, stacks of memory crystals and a relatively new comp – though he could see the device lacked a Pochteca maker’s mark.
“These computers were old when I was a young man,” he said by way of greeting.
Gretchen did not look up. Her fingers, lined here and there by old scars, moved quickly on the old-style interface.
“There’s a pitiful ghost in this corner,” the nauallis said, forcing himself to step through the door despite an uneasy stomach. “There’s no proper sign on your door, no windows… this whole building feels… ill.” He patted the chest of his poncho. “My guidebook says this was formerly the Territorial Prison.”
“Then leave,” Gretchen said, not bothering to look up from her control slate. “I have work to do. Paying work to finish today.”
He leaned over the table, reading her comp screen. Disaster Communications Protocols: Classroom Lockdowns. One of the side panes was filled with thumbnail-sized video feeds from cameras scattered around the campus. The rest of the display surface was filled with text-readers scrolling constant streams of log data. To his eye, even the fonts seemed archaic.
Hummingbird moved a stack of printed manuals aside and sat down. “ISS will make it worthwhile to listen; I’ve found a contract for you – a lucrative one – if you’ve need of more quills than this place can afford.”
Gretchen’s fingers paused in their movement. Now she did look at him, and her expression was cold. “Do you? Paying like the last one? Not a single quill? An oversupply of broken promises? What will it be this time? Do you know my son Duncan is..... too old for calmécac, even if, at long-last, you came up with tuition and an open door. He is.... too young for logging, but there he must go because there’s no money for professional school anywhere we can afford to send him.”
Gretchen laughed harshly, her oval face suddenly chiseled with tight fury. ”Duncan’s applications were lost, so the calmécac deans say. So sorry. It is too late, Dr. Anderssen. All the deadlines have passed. Perhaps when your son has obtained a certification from your local collegium, he can apply for graduate school?”
Hummingbird sat quietly, his face still.
Gretchen went on. “The colonial government denied us access to the tuition funds. Your so-subtle influences meant nothing to these institutions. You have no power over them. I have no delusion that you are capable of paying me anything for my work. Ever. Go away!”
“How does it happen that you are not, at least, still working for The Honorable Company?”
“I am working here because I fit with everything here. We are unaligned with any of the great families, the big corporations or the Imperial government. We cater, in fact, to the sons and daughters of the timbering crews, the land-clearing gangs, the Batrax miners, and the local rural population.”
She pointed to the door. “If you leave now, you can still catch the last bus. You’ll be back at your transport node by noon tomorrow. Find another fool for your dirty work.”
Hummingbird did not stand up. He continued sitting quietly, watching her work. Twice, he attempted to dissipate the suffocating atmosphere of the cell-like room with a movement of his wrinkled hand.
“Stop that!” Gretchen turned and gave him a sharp look. The blue flash of her eyes showed her pent-up anger had not abated. “I like it this way. It keeps managers and other carrion birds out of my hair.”
Hummingbird smiled a little at her joke, but did not reply. Instead, he continued to wait.
At last, Gretchen gathered her materials together and stood up. “Why are you still here? I told you ‘no’.”
“I cannot leave until you accompany me.”
She hissed in annoyance, then shuffled though papers in one of the drawers. “See—“ she handed him a closely printed page. “You must leave no later than tomorrow by eleven in the morning, or you’ll be stuck here for three days longer. The bus service only runs four days a week.”
The Anderssen homestead hugged a ridge well above the town. Gretchen’s mother had picked the site – there was plenty of open space to discourage surprise attacks, and the house sat with its back to the wind among stands of imported spruce and fir. Night had already fallen under the eaves of the forest as they settled onto bare, rocky ground west of the house that served as a landing pad. Together, they pushed the aircar into a pole barn cut into the hillside. Heavy blocks of stone and turf formed three of the walls. Before crossing the garden – all rows of spindly beans on lattices, with some tomatoes and squash in between -- Anderssen took a slow careful look around, hand light on the heavy revolver slung at her hip. “You carry a weapon, Crow?”
Hummingbird shook his head, though her tension made him wary.
“I don’t use them,” the old man said quietly, keeping clear of her gun-hand.
Inside the house and behind a pair of locked, airlock style doors, Gretchen started to relax. Curt introductions served to identify the Méxica to Grandmother Anderssen and the two girls. Isabelle and Tristan regarded Green Hummingbird with interest, but when the meal arrived, they quickly fell to whispered gossip from the day. Gretchen’s mother caught the wary look Hummingbird gave their sidearms and monofilament knives as she was setting the table for dinner.
Hummingbird ignored the aside, his attention fixed on the hulking gray reptilian shape squatting on a broad, leathery tail at the end of the table. Gretchen smiled wickedly at the old nauallis’s pained expression when Malakar snuffled around him, her snout wrinkled up in suspicion. Anderssen was in no mood to explain anything to the Crow.
Why volunteer, she thought, that our old friend spends her nights crouched at my bedside with pen and parchment book, listening to me mutter and sing in my sleep, writing down all the fragmentary bits and pieces of Mokuilite poetry so revealed? It is the least I can do to repay her my life, and her friendship.
After the plates were emptied and cleared away, and the night was fully upon the house, and with all eyes upon him, Hummingbird nodded to them each in turn and then faced Gretchen. “Your particular skills are urgently needed, Dr. Anderssen.”
Both girls perked up at this, but Gretchen felt a cool threat of anger boil up in her chest. That’ll get you nowhere, Crow. She caught her mother scowling from the kitchen door and held up a finger for pause. “Excuse me.” Gretchen took a hand-held scrambler from the pantry and set it on the table between them. The constellation of lights on the device flickered, formed a series of random geometric patterns and then settled into a calm, blue square.
Hummingbird tilted his head to one side. He scrutinized the sturdy, if out-dated, Vosk Model 12 for a moment and then nodded approval. In a low voice he went on: “Imperial Scout Service has found something enormous, Anderssen, hidden back in the depths. Within an area of heavy interstellar dust clouds navigators name the kuub. Are you familiar with this place?”
Gretchen blinked involuntarily in recognition, then eyed Isabelle and Tristan, who were sitting very quietly at the table, trying their best to remain invisible. “Why don’t you two show Malakar how to play that new coaling sim?”
Twin pouts met the invitation, but the code for “Make yourselves scarce. This is business.” was unmistakable. The girls left disappointedly, gathering up their gunrigs and taking the shotguns with them. Gretchen frowned at Hummingbird.
He responded to their exit by pulling a flat packet out of his vest pocket. Unfolded, the package proved to be another, far more modern, scrambler.
“A something, Crow? You must have more than that? Something won’t get you anything here…”
“There was a Survey mission. Telemetry was received.”
“There seems to be a multiple singularity within the region.”
“Black holes inside a dust cloud? Shouldn’t the particles have been drawn into the…”
“It’s artificial. The whole arrangement has to be,” Hummingbird’s expression – though it had not appreciably changed – seemed pinched to her. His voice dropped even lower. “Something is holding the clouds at bay... and there’s a weapon that snuffed out three ships in as many breaths.”
Gretchen felt a flush of heat on her hands and the back of her neck. “How old?”
“You need ask, given the scale of the artifact?”
“Well, yes, Crow, I do need ask. Are you asking me to look at a First or Second Sun creation that’ll fry my brain and that of all of my troublesome friends and relatives in a millisecond? Or something young enough it could actually be studied?”
Hummingbird grimaced. “When you come with me. What we find… will be beyond my capacity to evaluate properly.”
She considered her palms, and the glassy scars and nicks lining her fingers.
She felt his inward sigh of relief as a knot uncoiling. In the same moment, she felt a sharp pinch between her shoulder blades. Just the sort of feeling you got in the alpenstand when crossing the trail of a kilikat.
Ay, she realized, sweating suddenly, that was an easy catch for him. Goddamnit! We need that money, though. No, they need it. Gretchen turned her head, relieved to see the girls and Malakar crouched in front of the 3-v, arguing about the loading capacities of the latest mine crawlers. I don’t need anything anymore.
Much later, when Gretchen had sent out the last piece of reporting for her “paying work,” she stood up from the scarred kitchen table and turned off the dimming solar lamp.
“Hoooo, now,” a now-familiar alien voice spoke softly out of the shadows. “This old one does not trust this ‘friend’ of yours.”
Gretchen nodded ruefully. The scrape and rustle of the Jehanan’s long furred coat filled the doorway to the main hall. “You shouldn’t. He is not a nice man.” She moved to pass by, but Malakar placed a long, broad-fingered hand on her shoulder. Though old and hunched, the alien still outweighed Anderssen by twenty or thirty kilos.
“It stinks of disease and death.” The triply-lidded eyes blinked slowly, revealing deep-set irises tucked deep into a bony integument. “Broken shells and ash—”