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WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1999 by Maxine McArthur
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First eBook Edition: June 2001
A totally inadequate thank you to my editors: Viki Wright, whose patience and encouragement over two years kept me going through every draft; and Louise Thurtell, whose skill and perceptivity turned the final draft into a publishable manuscript.
When I was a little girl my great-grandmother would tell me stories of the days before the Invidi came to Earth.
She would sit in her room under the frangipani and I'd bring tobacco for her to smoke in secret in return for the stories. She'd suck and puff until the thin pipe drew properly, then lean back in the creaky cane chair. I can't remember her face—only the long arms and heavy voice, both of which are now my own. That and the flowery-smoky-musty smell of her room.
Always the same beginning to the stories.
"Listen now, child. This was a town of women. When Marlena Alvarez became mayor, she asked me to be chief of police because she knew I could do the job.
"The old mayor and judges were dead. They'd been murdered by the very thugs who put them in office. The old police chief and his deputies had disappeared, either dead or in hiding. Or they'd joined one of the gangs.
"The able-bodied men? Mostly dead, drafted by the militia or arrested by them—it came to the same thing in the long run. Everyone who could afford to go to the cities did so. Many of them couldn't afford transport but they went anyway. Better to brave the dangers of disease, famine, guns than stay. The only ones left were the old, the sick, the very young, and the women who looked after them.
"God, those politicians hated her. They tried to scare us out of town, they tried to force us to do what they wanted. They tried ridicule and starvation…death threats all the time. Tried everything to wear us down.
"Marlena never said anything, but I watched her grow old before my eyes."
Her tone would become softer, reminiscent. The pipe would go out.
"We did a good job though. Rebuilt the town. She never turned away refugees. They needed shelter, we needed the labor. Marlena pestered the state and central governments for funds. We got media contacts, too, and told everyone what was happening. After years of bargaining and compromise she finally placed the town off-limits to all armed groups." Demora would roll her eyes. "Mad, we all said she was mad."
Sometimes I would sneak away at this point, before she reached the end of the story. It didn't matter whether anyone was listening or not. She had to say it, had to relive it and forgive herself again.
"Marlena died on January 3rd, 2017. I should have watched the roof. We never caught the sniper. I remember it was about dusk because I couldn't see the color of her eyes when I held her."
The town of Las Mujeres had no public money and no resources beyond its people, and their lives changed little during the twelve years Alvarez was in office. But by the time she was assassinated in 2017 the groundswell she had created was unstoppable. I grew up hearing the name Marlena Alvarez as though she were an eccentric and beloved aunt. It was years later that I realized her actions in the town of Las Mujeres sparked the original EarthSouth movement, and that she was a legend to freedom fighters everywhere.
The EarthSouth movement demanded social justice and economic reform and provided the precedent that persuaded the aliens to sign the Mars–Invidi Agreement on Species Rights in 2080, and to admit Earth as a member of the Confederacy of Allied Worlds in 2085. Marlena Alvarez played her part in bringing us out here and history says that her death was not in vain. But my great-grandmother knew better.
I am not blind to the parallels between Las Mujeres and ourselves. We are isolated, surrounded by enemies and indifferent friends. We have no resources and cannot decide our own fate, which is what they used to say about women in those times. We are divided among ourselves and cannot conquer our own weaknesses, which is how the galaxy sees humans now. The big difference, though, is that we have no Marlena Alvarez—only me.
First Day, 8am
You'd think on a space station this size there'd be an all-night food dispenser open.
I thumped the ringlift controls in a useless attempt to make the door close faster. If I hadn't had to search vainly for a meal after the Engineering briefing I would have had more time to catch up on the backlog of urgent administrative tasks. And now I was going to be late for the comet presentation. Not a good example from the head of station.
The doors wheezed shut with maddening slowness, and a faint, transitory lightness in my feet told me the ringlift had begun its descent from Alpha to Gamma levels. The throughways had been deserted earlier. Perhaps the stall owners who usually wander the lower level at night were preparing for the coming festival. There certainly wasn't much business anymore from shift workers—the Seouras blockade has destroyed most of our production capability and there is no longer any need for a twenty-four-hour workforce. The majority of residents now follow the same diurnal schedule. Earth's, for convenience, although our orbit around the planet below is completed in about half that time.
I'm hungry, having forgotten to eat anything since lunch yesterday. I'm overdrawn in space rations, too, or I might have resorted to ingesting my quota of those.
The ringlift jarred to a halt. I left it and threaded my way through the morning crowd, fastening my jacket as I walked and trying vainly to tidy my hair. I hope my face doesn't look as tired as I feel.
Fifteen pairs of eyes turned to watch me as the meeting room door opened. I get this sort of intense regard much more as head of station than I ever did as head of Engineering, and it still stops me momentarily in my tracks.
"Commander Halley." Lieutenant Gamet, a trim woman with hair pulled back tightly from her face, nodded to me from the far side of a round table. I took my place next to Bill Murdoch, the burly head of Security, and smiled a greeting to the others. Of the department heads only Murdoch, my friend Eleanor Jago, the head of Medicine, and Veatch, the station manager, had accepted the invitation to the briefing. Eleanor, cool and tidy in her hospital whites, half-smiled back at me but her glance was more professional than personal. Veatch stared back impassively through alien eyes. The other participants were a mixture of EarthFleet, scientific research, and Engineering staff.
Murdoch caught my eye as I looked around the table.
"You should have made it an order to come," he rumbled, leaning sideways so no one else could hear. "You need to give people more incentive."
I frowned. Surely a rare interstellar phenomenon was incentive enough? And I'd hinted at the prospects it offered us to break the siege. Either the other department heads hadn't understood, or they were becoming jaded by our frequent failures.
The room darkened and in place of the panel lighting a starfield blossomed brightly above the center of the table as Gamet activated a holomap.
We could see an asteroid belt, one planet close enough to be warm and hospitable, and two more far-off frozen ones orbited an unassuming orange star. The Abelar sys-tem seemed to grow as the holomap's magnification increased. A tiny disk representing Jocasta orbited the inner planet. Nobody commented on the lack of correct scale—it felt good to confirm our presence, and it was a while since most of the officers here had seen such a good show. Engineering is the only place on the station that still has functioning holovids.
"Comets were regarded as omens of evil in many ancient Earth cultures. For us here on Jocasta, it may be the opposite." Gamet pushed a slim forefinger into the map on top of the space station and swirled it around the planet in simulated orbit.
The officers seated around the holomap table in the dark room leaned forward to see better.
"The comet has passed its perihelion and is now on the second day of its four-day trip out of the system." She added the last element to the holomap with a flourish, and there was a murmur of appreciation as the comet winked into existence and its bright tail streamed away from the star.
Gamet was always a stimulating presenter, which was why I'd chosen her for this one.
"Have you given it a name?" an EarthFleet ensign asked slyly.
Murdoch jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow. I started out of my half-doze. The double-nighter was starting to tell.
"A number will be sufficient," I said coldly. The ancestors on my maternal grandfather's side may well have been distant relatives of the astronomer who bequeathed his name to Earth's most famous comet. Then again, it might be mere coincidence. In any case, one Comet Halley in the astronomy database is plenty.
"The orbit of Comet 002," continued Gamet, with a regretful glance in my direction, "passes between our planet and the sun on its way out of the system. Which means that particles from the tail will saturate this area of space." She activated a simulation and we all watched as the comet sped outward again and the dust, gases, and ions released by the star's warmth sprayed the darkness in a glittering stream.
"We believe this comet is releasing a type of particle particularly disruptive to communications." She paused to give them time to consider the implications.
"Which means?" Jago's impatient voice added an uneasy note to the general atmosphere of interest, and Gamet hastened to explain.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am. It means that our sensors will be unable to function adequately"—someone laughed shortly but she ignored them—"and there will be some interference with communications outside the station."
The same person muttered, "What's new?"
"By the same token," Gamet said loudly, "the Seouras ships' sensors will not work either."
There was complete silence. The Seouras ships surround our station and block communication with the outside galaxy. One remains in a close companion orbit with the station and at least three more cover the approaches to the system with efficient menace.
"The only window of opportunity for this exercise will be…" Gamet waited until the comet was just past the pale planet in the map, "here." She halted the simulation to give everyone a view of the tail streaming past Jocasta. "If we set a probe to follow the tail out of the system, it might be able to avoid interception by the Seouras ships before the tail itself dissipates. The probe will then send a message to the Confederacy as it continues along a course set to intercept a major trade route."
Assuming, of course, the Confederacy of Allied Worlds is still there to listen to us. The invasion might have happened there, too.
She touched the last known positions of the gray Seouras ships, which appeared as tiny triangles, greatly out of scale on the map, but much too small for the weight they occupied in our minds.
"Any questions?" She moved quickly to this last segment because we'd agreed that people wouldn't absorb information unless it was directly related to their own jobs.
"Why not send a crewed ship?" the EarthFleet ensign asked.
Our main defenses, two squadrons of EarthFleet fighters, had been decimated in the initial Seouras attack. The remaining personnel now worked in other areas, but many, like this ensign, itched to do something more.
"We're not that certain it'll work," I said, and a couple of people chuckled half-heartedly. It wasn't a laughing matter. Six months ago when the Seouras attacked, most of the residents with the means to do so had attempted to leave. All of them died when the gray ships fired on them. Since then we've tried to sneak a couple of small ships out at various intervals, but so far we've lost them all.
"Do you require any particular cooperation from my department?" asked Veatch, the station manager, in his aggrieved drawl. His department was Administrative Affairs.
Gamet returned normal lighting to the room as she answered. "Only the requisition details for the shuttle, sir."
"Then I fail to see why I was encouraged to attend this meeting." He probably didn't mean to sound quite so petulant.
"We thought you might be interested, seeing that the plan involves the entire station." Gamet's normally placid face was taut. "Like everyone else."
"Perhaps I am not like everyone else."
"You can say that again," the EarthFleet ensign commented under his breath.
"It was only twenty minutes. Surely you can spare that," said Eleanor Jago. "We're all busy."
"Twenty-two minutes." Veatch couldn't resist the pedantic correction. It was one of the reasons the Melot were such brilliant bureaucrats.
Murdoch nudged me again and I stood up.
"Engineering will contact each department if they require any assistance," I said. "If you have any suggestions or other input, I'm sure they'd be delighted to receive it."
Jocasta is Earth's first outspace station, established five years ago in 2116. Three rings like a corrugated discus spin around a central core, where the modified alien engines nudge us back into correct orbit every twenty-two days and provide backup for essential systems in case the solar reflectors fail in an emergency. Such as a blockade.
The station had only been in Confederacy hands for two standard years when it was handed over to Earth. It had been under construction when the Tor abandoned the system after losing their decades-long war with the Invidi and the Confederacy. Abelar was a former Tor colony system, but after the Tor withdrew, the Confederacy of Allied Worlds, of which Earth is a minor member, was busy with economic problems in the inner sectors. The Confederacy was slow to begin taking an active part in the administration and protection of this obscure system on the edge of a barren outer sector. ConFleet patrolled only occasionally. Opportunists moved in quickly and by the time the Confederacy finally asserted its rights over the system, the area had become a haunt of pirates and unaligned, unregistered traders.
Then someone had the bright idea of finishing the space station that the Tor had begun. Not only was this cheaper in the long term than maintaining a mobile force in the area, but it was also less of a threat to the balance of power here. That balance consisted of a tentative standoff between two or three huge trading conglomerates that maintained mercenary fleets and acted in the interests of different factions on the Confederacy Council, and the Danadan, a spacefaring race who have traditionally pirated this area of space after their homeworld was destroyed by the Tor centuries ago. As well as these major players, there were a number of small, unaligned trading companies, and pirate gangs, all of whom jealously guarded their right to plunder what they could of this isolated and resource-poor cluster.
Then the Confederacy decided to "give" the station to Earth. It was a generous gesture for the Council to approve administration of a sector facility by one of its minor members, and none of the eight other non-jump species had ever been accorded a similar honor. A gesture it remained, however. The four founding member species—the Invidi, the K'Cher, Melot, and the Bendarl, the "Four Worlds"—have always refused to allow the lesser members independent use of faster-than-light spacedrive, so Earth was forced to bow to the schedules of Sector vessels or rent private shipping to transport its personnel and sublight ships to the station. Without this cooperation we are completely isolated.
I arrived here as one of the engineering crew in the second year of the reconstruction and the year before Jocasta officially became an Earthstation. It wasn't my first job as overseer but the others had never been as chaotic as this. Work was constantly disrupted by the non-arrival of supplies and personnel, booby traps left by the Tor, and occasionally by attacks on the station itself. We only ever finished because the Danadan became embroiled in territorial squabbles with the Seouras and the other two largest pirate fleets engaged in a bloody feud for nearly a year. Even then, the outermost ring was still incomplete at the inauguration ceremony.
Relations with Sector Central were further soured by difficulties in getting the station running smoothly. There were four station heads in that first year: one quit, two committed suicide and one was poisoned. By the time I found myself the unwilling and ostensibly temporary holder of that office, as head of Engineering and the most senior ConFleet officer, most of the construction crews and ConFleet forces had pulled out. No respectable trader would come anywhere near the station—many didn't know we existed—and to cap it all, it seemed that Jocasta's charter stated that the head of station was also obliged to act as governor of the Abelar system. This meant I had to worry about two battered and almost completely useless planets with tiny mining colonies and the usual one light-year territorial boundary as well as the station itself.
It took nearly three years of hard work to achieve a precarious stability both in the running of the station and between the species who visited and lived here. The Danadan threatened to upset it all when they declared this had always been their space and demanded special trading privileges. At about the same time the Seouras presence along the Confederacy border grew stronger and the two species clashed frequently.
The Seouras were an unknown factor. It was rumored that they had returned to claim the area for their own, but in fact their ships made no aggressive moves against the system or Confederacy traffic. There was no indication that the Seouras had aggressive intentions or that they possessed the level of technology necessary to effect a seizure. Their ships then weren't half as big as the ones watching the station now, and the design was different.
The Danadan and mercenary fleets ruined trade and filled the station with refugees, which we could ill afford; because of the lack of support from either Sector Central or Earth, the only way for us to become self-sufficient was by trade. Even then, we were always low on essential stocks—medical supplies, delicate equipment replacements. To provide a counterweight, I suggested a treaty between Jocasta, the Danadan, and the Seouras as we then knew them. The captain of the Danadan ship that was disturbing trade around the system at the time agreed to consider a compromise. Murdoch was appalled by the idea and said so.
It took several weeks of intensive diplomatic effort to hammer out an agreement basically satisfactory to all. Both the Seouras and Danadan were to suspend hostilities in the Abelar system and a surrounding twenty-light-year radius. No force was to be used against Confederacy ships or installations in said area. Both species were allowed full access to and trade privileges on Jocasta. If one party broke the treaty, the others were to come to the aid of the injured party.
The Danadan were not happy at the prospect of losing a profitable area of pillage, but perhaps they considered the benefits of having a powerful ally such as the Confederacy worth conceding a demilitarized buffer zone in and around the Abelar system. The Seouras seemed pleased to be rid of the Danadan and expressed an interest in both trading and communicating with other species in the Confederacy.
Unfortunately the trading conglomerates and their employees at all levels of Confederacy government were not pleased, and neither were the K'Cher trade barons who manipulated them. Nor were Earth administration (because Sector was upset), crooked traders and agents on the station (because station Security now found time to deal with them), or elements within the Danadan hierarchy who thought the loss of their piracy income too high a price to pay for a peace they'd never wanted. As they say, you can't please everyone all the time.
The Abelar Treaty seemed a good idea at the time, and it worked for a while. It kept our space free from large-scale fighting between Seouras and Danadan and let us concentrate on removing smugglers and pirates, and on attracting genuine traders. We had nearly a year of peace and prosperity afterwards. The Seouras kept their distance, the Danadan visited only to trade.
A few refugees took advantage of the peace to seek safety with the Confederacy, it is true, but one hundred years ago Marlena Alvarez never turned refugees away and I was damned if I would now. Some trade from the main jump routes began to spill over to us and representatives of the sector's largest mercantile financier and the K'Cher trading fleet opened offices on the station. Sector Central even sent a team from the Audit Ministry to complain about our management structure.
All that changed in a few hours when the gray ships came.
"You really think it'll work?" Bill Murdoch leaned his elbows on the table between us and kept his voice low. He is a big man, broad and heavy-muscled, and his uniform always seems a little tight over the shoulders.
"It's the best chance we've had for a while to send a message." I stifled another yawn. I'd been working all night with the engineering team to prepare the probe. The trouble was, I'd also been kept up the night before that when the Seouras called. They send a certain signal to the station when they want me over on the ship. As soon as the signal comes, I go. The last session had been a long one, almost twelve hours, leaving me feeling completely ragged.
Murdoch pushed his chair back and looked at me with an expression that could have been either exasperation or concern. "Hard night?"
"Two of them. I'm going back to my quarters." I stretched stiffly. Joint pain is one of the side effects of the Seouras interaction. Murdoch watched without comment as I flinched and rubbed. The intensity of his round, dark gaze made me stop, embarrassed to be revealing a weakness here.
The other officers got to their feet also, murmuring to each other. They filled the room, which looked smaller in the light—the sky blue of EarthFleet, the navy of Con-Fleet, Murdoch's olive-green Security jacket, the brown suit of a civilian researcher in Astro, and Veatch's slim, gray form. Jago's white-jacketed figure disappeared quickly—she was on call at the hospital.
The other colors left space around Veatch's gray. It was a deliberate snub. Veatch was a Melot, a "humanoid" species—how they hated that phrase. They had essentially the same form as humans: bipedal, forward-facing eyes, a respiratory system, etc., but they were one of the four founding species of the Confederacy. There were nine other member worlds/systems/species in the Confederacy, making a total of thirteen, as well as dozens of affiliated worlds that were not formal members but had economic or cultural ties with Confederacy worlds. The Four Worlds made it quite clear who the senior members of the partnership were, and the Nine Worlds, as the rest of us were called, put up with it because…it was true. If it had not been for the technology and knowledge of the Four, most of the Nine would have still been clawing our way out of our respective atomic ages. Or have destroyed ourselves first, as the case may be. But it was not pleasant to be reminded of one's own inferiority, and Veatch's insensitivity fanned the embers of resentment onstation against the Four, and against the Confederacy in general. The Confederacy that had not saved us from the Seouras.
In their first attack the gray ships approached the station, ignored greetings and then warnings, and blocked our communications with anyone beyond the system. At the time, I hadn't wanted to make any aggressive moves—they were obviously better armed than we were—but they got closer and closer. They sent no communications and we had no idea who we were facing.
The EarthFleet officers, whose fighter squadrons formed our first and only line of defense, wanted to give a warning followed by some aggressive posturing by the squadrons. I resisted this, because the ships had made no attack on us, although the squadron leaders pointed out that to isolate us from the Confederacy could be interpreted as a hostile act. This initial tension continued for hours, while we tried desperately to find some method of communication, and ended tragically when a couple of the traders docked at Jocasta tried to make a run for it and were swiftly, effortlessly shot down by the nearest gray ship.
So began the blockade. I gave in to recommendations from EarthFleet and ConFleet officers to retaliate. The fighter squadrons were destroyed—shot away as they attacked, picked off as they retreated. The station's residents panicked. Many of the traders and those residents with access to transport tried to leave, against our direct orders. The gray ships destroyed them too. The station was in an uproar. Already overtaxed environmental systems started to fail and damage to reflectors plunged whole sections into darkness.
We kept sending a message of surrender but there was no sign the ships received it, until they sent us a message that bore the signature we'd used for the Seouras in the treaty negotiations. We couldn't understand why they were doing this when they already had access to the station. We still don't understand.
They called me over to the ship in the same way we'd negotiated for the treaty. Like those other Seouras they did not seem able to communicate either verbally or electronically in a way we could recognize, and they used the implant their predecessors gave me, by which their "thoughts" or "moods"—neither, really, but there is no word in our vocabulary to describe it—are directly communicated to my mind. I couldn't do it back, but they seemed to understand me when I spoke.
All they said this time, though, was "Wait."
So we waited.
They returned force with force and their defenses were far more sophisticated than any weapon we possessed, as we found to our cost. It might have been easier if we had known what they wanted. Why they were cutting us off from the rest of the galaxy and then leaving us to our own devices on the station. Why they would not talk except to one representative. Why they attack shuttles or small ships. Why they take nothing from the station, but hold it hostage for my good behavior and vice versa, send for me arbitrarily on an average of once a fortnight, wring me sometimes to the point of insensibility for whatever they get from our "conversations"…and then let me return. Why, if they needed nothing, they were here. And so on and so on. It nearly drove me mad at first. Then I finally realized that it was a waste of time trying to understand why they were doing this to us. Now I think about what we do know—six months' worth of sensor readings on their ships—and leave motive to the gods. There has to be an answer somewhere in the data.
All we can do is wait, while the station falls apart around us.
The wall comm link beeped through the low hum of conversation.
I reached past Murdoch and tapped open the screen. "Halley here. What is it, Baudin?"
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2001
- Page Count
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- Grand Central Publishing