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For uncounted minutes Parke looked down at the Captain’s chair from which he personally accessed the Core. And he knew he was postponing the private interface for myriad reasons, but primarily because he wouldn’t be able to unknow once he knew. Was that one of the reasons that previous captains had stopped interfacing? To remain unknowing? To be ignorant purposely? Because to know would mean taking action, rather than going on as they had been. He shook his head slowly, a gleam of tears in his eyes for his father, because it negated everything that a captain should be to refuse to understand, to refuse the responsibility of knowledge, even if it was unpalatable.
He sat down, plugged in.
Captain Parke? Confirmed. Ready.
Bring up the archives.
A pause. All of them?
Parke felt a prickle of something like bemusement. I need the truth.
You want the facts.
Parke digested this mentally. Was that a tone? It was difficult to tell, but he felt like there was some sort of layered message.
Awareness can be both a wonder and a peril, Captain.
Definitely some kind of tone. Before he could change his mind, before he allowed himself to leap up and run away like a coward, he physically took in and let out a slow, deep breath. Let’s start at the beginning.
Which beginning? The voyage? Human history? Space exploration? Formation of the Sol System?
Daunted, he wanted to simply say “yes” but instead relayed: The voyage.
Time falls on us all. And rarely with kindness.
The small group of colonists stood near the devastated farm strip, voices raised as they argued with one another about what to do with the ruined area that had lost nearly all of its viable soil. Two remained silent; Constable Denys, because he couldn’t reason with the others yet, and Fehed, who felt accused and guilty by association so was trying to hide behind Kestors. The colonists were, in fact, so focused on each other and their own complaints that they failed to realize that the two men approaching them were strangers.
One wore a Journeyman black-and-silver tie that marked him as from Mechanical. The other was—surprise!—from Command.
“Allo,” said Zennor generally to the group, his gaze finally stopping at Denys.
“Allo,” the Constable said in a genial manner. Denys was a large man, over two meters in height, broad in the shoulder, with (it was reputed by those who had reason to remember) fists that could knock a man through a stone wall. It wasn’t the sort of thing he did a lot, but it was good, as Constable, to have people know you were capable of it. He eyed the Command officer curiously. “Taking the anspin long route?”
Shinichi held out the frayed bindings.
Kestors stepped over and took a look. “Ai, that’s flax cord. Where’d you find it?”
“Securing a bomb to a water pipe,” Zennor answered.
Master Ag-tech Se-Kim sighed heavily. “As if we don’t have enough problems.”
“It was them, wasn’t it?” Pana, her thick hair held back with a colorful scarf, pointed toward Fehed. “They did it! Trying to destroy everything so we’ll be miserable as them!”
Both Zennor and Shinichi looked at Fehed, who tried even harder to become invisible. Zennor asked the boy: “Are you from the habs?”
“He was,” Kestors said repressively, giving Pana a hard stare, before he turned back to Zennor. “He’s apprenticed to me now.” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezed gently. “And he has nothing to do with monads.”
“Is that true?” Zennor addressed Fehed directly once more. And when Kestors opened his mouth, Zennor lifted a hand to forestall the Journeyman ag-tech from speaking. Kestors closed his mouth, but squeezed Fehed’s shoulder again.
“Sir,” Fehed said, one hand twisting his new green-and-white tie with its apprentice band, “I never would do anything like what they did!” His lips pressed together for a moment. He looked up, eyes dark and troubled. “I don’t understand that kind of thinking any more than you do.”
“Huh!” grunted Pana, crossing her arms over her chest.
The others ignored her.
Se-Kim suffered another sigh. “I have to tell you that the habbers steal stuff all the time.”
“What kind of stuff?” Zennor asked, glancing around as he speculated on what the monads might find useful.
“Food, if they can find it,” Pana said.
“Tools,” Kestors added. “Knives. They raid the Trader Village during sleep shift when it’s upstarspin.”
“During a specific rotation then?” Shinichi asked.
The farmers all blinked at the reference. Kestors said, “Ai, and always a certain lockdoor.”
“Starboard,” Zennor said, looking in that direction thoughtfully.
“It’s all men in there now,” Pana said with a derisive sniff, but a kinder expression in her eyes. “They got rid of the women and little ones a few harvests ago, sent them upportspin, wearing nothing but patched rags, hardly able to walk, much less carry anything. A real shame to see. We gave them what we could, tried to help as much as they’d let us.” She shook her head, nodded once again toward starboard. “Nobody left but mean men and lanky boys looking for trouble.”
“They break things,” Denys said. “Small things so we won’t be mad enough to go after them. They’re meaner than us, but they’re still habbers, been in there all their dreary lives. We’d beat them into goat mulch if we put hands on them.” His expression clearly indicated he’d be more than happy to do that very thing.
“We have plenty of work to do here,” Se-Kim said, frowning slightly at the Constable.
Zennor shook his head, baffled. “It’s almost zero-g. It’s wet and dirty and dark. Why do they stay in there?”
Kestors said, “It hurts them to come out.”
Se-Kim, Denys and Pana all nodded. As did Fehed.
Shinichi let out a breath, said to Fehed. “Do you know or think they steal from Mechanical?”
The boy glanced up at Kestors, who nodded encouragingly. “Yes, sir.” He pointed at the flax cord. “They couldn’t make a bomb with only farmer stuff, could they?”
Zennor and Shinichi exchanged an alarmed look.
“Do you think they want us to hurt because they hurt?” asked Denys.
“Ai,” said Pana.
“They’re dying,” Kestors said quietly. Fehed hung his head.
Zennor nodded. “And they want us to die right along with them.”
“What are you doing?”
Naera, startled, drew back her hand from the door activation panel. She turned her head to see her Uncle Camlen less than three meters away.
He didn’t like her, she knew that, but at the moment he looked like he hated her. “I asked you a question.”
“I heard you,” she replied calmly, “but you don’t have the right to question me.”
He widened his eyes, smiling in a particularly nasty way. “Is that right? You’ve gotten a little proud, haven’t you, girl?”
“What do you want?”
He took several steps toward her. Always aware that his size intimidated people, he enjoyed looming over others to watch their reactions. How had the other ministers allowed his rise to his present rank? His relationship to the Governor? He clearly wasn’t fit for a spiritual vocation. “You don’t the right to be here . . . yet.”
The small alcove in which they stood wasn’t used by anyone but the Governor because only the Governor could activate the panel that led into the Augur Chamber, full of secrets that usually only those from Command and Mechanical knew. The large outer room of the Library, full of teaching stations, was empty of students at the moment, so there were only the two of them; one craving the imagined power and one heir to it.
Naera simply lifted her hand to the panel, her gaze steady and intent on her uncle’s face. The panel activated the large, metallic door. It opened with a soft whoosh of musty air.
“No! You’re not T-eighteen yet! No!”
“Apparently,” Naera said, “being Governor-Presumptive is qualification enough.”
“Then I should be able to do it!” He moved closer, an ugly hunger in his eyes.
Naera put her hand on the panel again, pressed so that the door closed. She stepped back and gestured for him to go ahead and try.
He didn’t seem to recognize her serenity for what it represented. All he could see was the opportunity as he stepped up to the door and lay his palm on the panel.
Camlen frowned at the unresponsive door. He lifted his hand and lay it back again. And again. Finally closed his hand into a fist and struck the panel.
“Don’t damage it,” Naera said mildly.
He whirled toward her, hands outstretched, face contorted. For a moment it seemed as if he really would try to throttle her, but he stopped himself just short of touching her. Breathing hard, he straightened up.
“My actual birthday,” Naera said, “seems to be a mere formality that means more to us than to that door and that room.” She paused and added: “Accustom yourself to the reality of it, Uncle.”
“Never,” he said through gritted teeth.
She watched him leave, heard him hit or kick one of the teaching desks on his way out, and considered options of dealing with him in the future. As Governor, she would possess the power to do what needed to be done, because there was no doubt something had to be done about him.
Doc Quy wiped her hands with a soft towel in the kitchen at Latimer’s farmhouse. The towel was finely-woven cashmere rather than flax and felt too nice for use in the kitchen, but there was nothing else so she’d been forced to use it. She hadn’t done much to help bring this new baby into the world, the nurse-assistant had, as usual, but it didn’t matter--washing up afterwards was a habit she’d never break. She folded the lovely little towel neatly and set it on the polished maple counter that she knew one of Latimer’s great grandfathers had built with his own hands (and the help of neighbors). The stands of maples in Mechanical were lovely, but the machiners didn’t cut them at random because they had other uses (so the machiners said), thus using maplewood was rare and often had to be gathered over many years, carefully stored until used. The Latimers had only used enough for the top of the counters, the rest was pinewood.
She loved the smell of this kitchen, the faint smell of the wood, the lingering scents of basil, mushrooms and tomatoes that had been the meal they’d been consuming when Cynn Latimer’s birthing contractions began. With a deep breath, she opened the kitchen door and stepped out onto the back porch. Two steps down would lead her into the small herb garden that could be found near every farm home. Instead she sat down in the rocker chair to the left.
The rocker chair to the right was already occupied by Oola Latimer, the great great grandmother of the baby boy inside. Oola turned her face toward Doc Quy, smiled her sweet smile.
“It’s a boy, isn’t it, Quy? Vin will be so pleased.” She laughed a little. “Men always want to have boys, although they dote on their daughters.”
Doc Quy said, “Yes,” rather than simply nodding because blind Oola wouldn’t see a nod.
“You’re tired,” Oola said, picking up on the weary tone.
“I’m getting old,” Doc Quy said, something she wouldn’t admit to anyone except perhaps Oola, who was even older.
Oola laughed softly again. “It happens.” She turned her face, lifting it toward the brightening light emanating from the rims of the skystrips. Soon all their world would be full of light for the day period. Doc Quy knew the older woman could sense the change in light and dark, but nothing more. “There are more babies this season.”
“I know.” Doc Quy didn’t know why, although she was glad in a way because babies seemed such a happy thing, such a healthy sign for her people. And there was food enough, for now, although she worried about the safety of everyone now that she knew that there were stresses that put them all at risk. She glanced at the old farm woman curiously, wondering why she’d made the remark when she had to know that the Physician Master, of all people, already knew.
“I’ve been holding on,” Oola said, something else that Doc Quy already knew, “because they need us for a little longer.”
Doc Quy blinked slowly as she considered the ramifications of such a statement from someone who was, she admitted to herself, wiser and more insightful than she was, who had visions and made prophecies that tended to spook people even if they were usually happy events she predicted. She was afraid to ask, but forced herself. “What do you mean?”
That gentle, blind face that could see further than any of them turned toward Doc Quy. Oola reached out her hand and Doc Quy met those trembling, aged fingers, holding them as Oola whispered, “Time for the next stage.”
And as the words left Oola’s mouth, Doc Quy saw something out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head sharply, afraid that it was literally a piece of the world falling toward them. But she found herself sucking in a breath and holding it.
It was a bird, wings spread as it glided over the garden and swept through the air close enough that Doc Quy could see one dark eye turned toward her before the creature flapped its wings and went higher, circling wider and wider until it was no longer visible against the brightening skystrip.
“A bird,” Doc Quy said aloud with baffled awe.
Oola tilted her head. “There are no birds.”
Doc Quy nodded and then remembered and said, “I know.”
Time. To. Fly.
Naera sat cross-legged on the woven hemp mat, spindle in her right hand, the bunched flax fibers in her left hand as she drew a single string out, the spindle turning. She glanced at the string now and again, but mostly she let her hands perform the long-practiced work with the ease of experience. She’d learned spinning from her mother as soon as she could hold the spindle. She’d never be a great weaver, although she could work the loom, but she knew she was good at spinning. She found it soothing, the movements, the spinning of fluffy fibers into useful string, gathered on the worn spindle, as old as anyone could remember, rubbed gold by the hands of generations of women. She dipped her left hand into the bowl of water with submerged sponge, pinching the ends of the fibers with her fingertips and then easing the fibers into the string; smooth and easy, a faint hum pitched so low that it was nearly inaudible although her dog, Svet, sometimes turned his head and she knew he heard it and was just making sure that all was well with her although he’d seen her do this task from his first puppy days.
She didn’t have to spin and cook, not as the Governor’s daughter and heir, certainly not as Governor-Presumptive, but she’d learned how to do all the things that every woman in the Homeland learned because she wanted to know, first of all, and she wanted to know what it took for anyone to live through the days and years, and because she was a woman, she wanted and needed to see life through the lens of their eyes.
She knew things they did not, history and literature and math and science, knew the whys behind the hows, but she also knew that none of that mattered to them. That things worked, that they could feed and clothe and protect their children, those were the important facts and the rest of it was just noise unless it directly affected them.
Her fingers worked and she felt the soft stuff turning into something usable, watched it wind around the spindle, her foot rhythmically pumping the pedal. It was a kind of music, one that she’d loved all of her life. Even the scent of the flax fibers wove into her memory like the smell of her mother’s hair and her father’s shirts. Tears pricked at her eyes, but she didn’t try to dash them away, smiling instead and breathing deeply to invoke the depth of the memories rather than banish them. The patterns of life, the history that they all made simply by living out their lives, the traditions they followed--these were truths, too, like the timing of the light and darkness, the growth of children and puppies and maple trees.
Spinning. The world spun its slow circuit, curved into its own horizon. She imagined God’s fingers easing the world around much as her fingers eased the flax into fiber and imagined that the water she dipped her fingers into as the equivalent of blessings like the rare rains that fell.
Svet shifted so that he could lay his muzzle on her left foot, his eyes following the movement of her right as it pumped the pedal. And that warm weight felt right and good, connected and enduring.
She was to remember that shining time, bright and clear, as the last peaceful moment before everything changed irrevocably as when the sky strip opened like a wound in the world, bleeding away precious air. She felt the hair on the back of her neck lift in atavistic warning. Dear old Svet raised his head, alert, a soft cough of a bark in his throat.
Svet growled and leapt. They, whoever they were, either didn’t know or had forgotten about the dog. Naera flattened, turned, trying to see who and what. She felt a sharp sting against her left shoulder.
Someone let out a surprised yelp. “Get the damn dog!” Poor Svet whined a savage hurt.
Naera grabbed for the woven bag at the foot of the spinning chair. Extracted a handful of knitting needles. Something wet, blood probably, dribbled inside her blouse. Curiously, she felt no real pain. Not yet. She crawled toward the shearing shed.
Someone bent over her. The combined smells of unwashed flesh and old urine flooded over her in a nauseating wave. Swallowing convulsively, she turned and struck with two of the knitting needles. One needle cut a shallow furrow into the man’s face along his jaw toward his ear. The other stabbed into the side of his mouth.
He howled, let her go and grabbed at the bloody needles.
Naera kicked at his knees. She figured he had to be a monad, a habber with weakened bones, and when her kick landed on his knee, he went down with an even louder howl. She scrambled away, up to her feet, ready to run.
She pivoted and stared in disbelief. No. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. But she saw him clearly. Her uncle. A sad little sob bubbled in her chest. She put her hand over her heart, as if in comfort, and felt it melt away. So be it.
Another habber grabbed Camlen’s arm. “Forget getting her! Just blow it.”
Camlen growled, his face twisted with such hate that Naera felt it like an actual punch to her stomach. Then he turned and ran with the habbers, the bleeding one casting her a look much like Camlen’s.
Naera ran and picked up Svet, holding the wounded dog close. He licked her hand. Tears filled her eyes. And the saving of her dear dog was what cost her. She could still see the habbers and her uncle running anstarspin when the bomb exploded.
Algon found the door to the Captain’s quarters unresponsive when she approached. That was new. She paused, then stated name and rank. The door opened. She entered slowly, heartbeats a little quick, and found the Captain standing with his back to her, hands clasped behind him as he stared at the wide situation screen mounted just right of his desk. He didn’t address her immediately, so Algon remained silent, uneasy for reasons she couldn’t name.
The screen that he stared at currently showed changing views of the Outbound from every outside angle.
“Lieutenant,” Parke said in a tone Algon had never heard him use before, “what are your duties?”
He turned around, hands still clasped behind him, with an expression on his face much like the tone of his voice. Always serious, he seemed somber, even grim. He repeated: “What are your duties, Lt. Algon?”
“I . . .inventory and distribute all supplies in the Command torus,” she said. And when he continued to stare at her, she added: “I also monitor those supplies we need to have supplied by Mechanical and Residential toruses, note if and when they’re available and how to procure them.”
Parke nodded. “Quartermaster duties.”
“Yes, sir.” Algon clenched her hands and deliberately loosened them. “What’s this all about? Why are you asking me—“
“What is your designated duty, Lieutenant?”
“My designated…? You know I’m the Astrogator.” She involuntarily choked back a laugh. “But it’s not like I have anything to do with navigating the ship anywhere!”
Parke didn’t laugh.
“I’ve been performing my inherited duties ever since my mother retired,” Algon said, trying to keep a flare of temper out of her voice. “I believe I do right by my fellow crew members. Have there been complaints?”
“No,” Parke said in that quiet, intense stranger’s tone, “but I require that you resume your assigned, designated duties as Astrogator immediately.”
Algon took a step toward him. “Why? And what?” She gestured widely. “Does it look like the ship needs any help from me? The duty post isn’t even active! What am I supposed to do? Sit there for a standard shift and key dead codes?”
Parke walked behind his desk and seated himself. “I suggest you physically check your station, Lieutenant, before you make any more assumptions about what you can and cannot do.” He flicked her an unreadable upward glance. “You do know how to perform your navigational duties?”
She wanted to tell him he’d been a likable boy, but that he’d turned into an incredibly dislikable man. But she said instead, “Yes, Captain.”
He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Then be at them, Lieutenant.”
Algon restrained both the words she wanted to say and several rude gestures. The door opened for her to exit, closed behind her. She stood for a long moment, taking deep breaths, before heading for the command bridge.
Time falls on us all. And rarely with kindness.
Naera could hear voices. They sounded far away and anspin, becoming more distant as she listened. Finally faded away. In her dreams she felt a gentle hand on her cheek, brushing back her hair and even that soft touch hurt.
She opened her eyes once and saw her cousin Seru sitting in the visitor’s chair. Seru smiled and rose to her feet. Naera’s eyes closed involuntarily before the other woman reached her side.
The next time she woke, she could see the slant of light through opened shutters. She knew she was in the Infirmary, and wondered how long she had been there. Oh, she hurt. Trying to move made her realize how stiff she was with bruises and bandaged lacerations, especially her left shoulder and every centimeter of her head. Even her eyelashes hurt. Ouch. There. Ouch. And there. She gave up and simply winced as she sighed. She wondered sadly about her injured dog. Was Svet okay and resting comfortably somewhere?
No one sat in the visitor’s chair, but she realized that someone stood just inside the door to her private cubicle. A man. A stranger who wore Command colors watched her with palpable concern.
“Allo,” he said.
“Allo.” She tried hard not to wince again as she shifted to see him better. “Pardon me, but who are you and why are you here?”
He took the several steps from the door to the side of the bed. Looked down into her face with clear, direct eyes. “I hope you look worse than you feel. The indomitable Doc Quy says you’ll be up in a few days. That’s good for all of us.” He held out his hand, palm up. “I’m Captain Parke, Governor, and we need to talk.”