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Authors: Sarah Zettel

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Playing God (4 page)

BOOK: Playing God
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Three Dedelphi stood with their arms around one another looking at the projection. Even from the back, Lynn recognized Praeis Shin t'Theria and her daughters. She grinned and touched David's arm. He nodded and waved her on while he headed for the dining cubes.

Lynn walked up to a polite distance and waited for Praeis to acknowledge her.

At the moment, all three of the Family Shin were dressed for indoors, and for Humans. They wore matching straight-cut robes of water-patterned rose fabric over their swaddling clean-suits. Egg-shaped, air-filter helmets covered their heads, leaving enough room for their ears to move freely.

In a few hours, Lynn and David would be dressed in the familiar Human version of the clean-suit for the trip down to the planet's surface.

Resaime, the broader of the two daughters, turned an ear toward Lynn. Her gaze followed, along with her sister Theiareth's, and her mother's.

“Lynn,” said Praeis, turning all the way around. “Human behavior in the Dedelphi system?”

“It's still a Human habitat.” Lynn walked up to a more Dedelphi-proper distance. “What do you think?” She gestured toward the
Ur.

“From here it looks like a work of art.” Praeis gazed at the gleaming domes and the toy cities inside. “I'm having a hard time imagining living in there, but it is beautiful.” She paused. “Perhaps it will change our minds about space.”

“The Great Families don't like space?” Lynn's brow rose. “I mean, I knew you didn't have any ships, but I thought that was because …”

Praeis waggled her ears gently at Lynn. “Because we lacked the technology? No.” She sighed. “A few of the Families, at one time or another, developed spacegoing capabilities. Unfortunately, they had a tendency to use them to drop rocks on their neighbors.” Praeis's ears drooped. “Whole islands got obliterated. After the first few incidents, Families began shooting down anything that looked like it was trying to make orbit.” She turned her ears back toward the screen. “Our engineers are still taught all the theories, and we do occasionally launch very disposable spy satellites when we need …” The sentence trailed off.

“We'll still be under glass in the ships,” said Theiareth, changing the subject. She was more slender than her sister, and about a centimeter shorter. “It's going to be strange down on All-Cradle, with an open sky but no clean-suits.”

“Travel should be a broadening experience,” Lynn told her sagely. “A time to gather new experiences and make new friends.”

“Speaking of which.” Resaime cocked both ears toward Lynn. “Have you spoken to your friend yet, Lynn?”

“Arron?” Lynn shook her head. “I sent him a hywrite before we left, but I haven't heard back yet.”

After seeing Arron in the treaty ceremony recording, Lynn had spun out every thread she could think of to find out what he was doing on All-Cradle. Not every answer that came back was a comfortable one.

Res still had her ears tilted expectantly. “It's been a long time,” Lynn said, trying to sound casual. “And he's tied some knots in the web that say he's not exactly … in agreement with Bioverse's approach toward the bioremediation on Dede—All-Cradle. He might not want to talk to me now that I'm on the team.”

“Well,” said Praeis, without taking her attention off the
Ur,
“like the rest of us, he'll have to adjust.” The skin under her gloves rippled. “You'll have to excuse my distance, Lynn. It's been a long time since I've been home and—”

Lynn waved her hand. “Don't worry about it.”

Privately, she was wondering if Praeis was still carrying her letter from her sisters in her pocket. A month before Lynn and David were scheduled to leave for All-Cradle, Praeis had called Lynn at home and asked if Bioverse could be prevailed upon to give her and her daughters a ride.

“What's happened?” Lynn had asked.

Praeis lifted a few sheets of the fragile paper the Dedelphi used for keeping records. “According to my sisters, I have been pardoned, and ordered by the Queens-of-All to return home.”

She'd sounded bewildered, as if she didn't know how to feel. Lynn couldn't blame her. Praeis had never given her the details, but Lynn had always understood that Praeis had presided over some kind of military disaster that had gotten an inordinate number of t'Therians killed. As a result, she was graciously allowed to flee for her life.

Lynn shook herself out of her thoughts. “I shouldn't keep you standing here. I know you've got to get ready to head on down. I just wanted to say good luck. You have my addresses for when we're planetside?”

“Yes, we do.” Praeis's mouth quirked up. “I expect to see you tearing about my homeland in a day or two with a cow switch to herd us all into place.”

“Nah, that won't be for another week yet.” Lynn grinned at her. “Take care of yourself, all right, Praeis? And get hooked up fast. How am I going to handle things without you to correct me?”

Praeis blinked broadly. “I would have thought you'd be glad to get your own way for a change.”

Lynn shook her head. “Between you and David, I wouldn't know what to do with it anymore.”

Praeis laughed. “You'll think of something, I'm certain.”

Lynn touched Praeis on the shoulder. “Good Luck, Praeis.”

“Thank you.” Praeis lifted her arms from her daughters’ shoulders and took their hands instead. “Come, my daughters, we still have much to do.”

Lynn wished them luck as well, and they waved with their free hands and trooped off with their mother.

Lynn's stomach growled with surprising strength. She headed for the cafeteria's garden.

David might be content with vat-grown, form-molded, flash-cooked food, but Lynn possessed a set of working taste buds and her stomach was not steel-lined. She picked up a wicker basket and threaded her way between the chatting knots of people to the stations she needed. She pulled two eggs out of the drawer under the ceramic “battery hen.” Walking between the troughs of black soil, she plucked a ripe tomato off one vine and a green pepper off a plant from a waist-high grow table. The apples were bright red, but the orange trees were just blossoming, and they filled the air with their light summery scent. The cheese in the processor didn't look ripe enough for her taste, so she skipped it and picked up sealed bulbs of orange juice, coffee, and milk, and a small loaf of fresh, warm bread from its slot in the bakery box.

She was looking forward to having her own place again, where she could set up her own garden and kitchen. As soon as the evacuation, sorry, the relocation was over, they'd have a house on All-Cradle that they could organize as they pleased.

David had left the privacy walls clear on the cube he'd chosen, so Lynn spotted him easily. She threaded her way through the exaggerated mouse-maze of cubicles to him.

He looked at her basketful of raw materials and shook his head. She ignored him. “Room voice, send in a cooking jobber and opaque the walls.”

“Completing request.”

The walls around the table darkened to an aesthetically neutral beige.

The cooking jobber scooted in and parked itself next to the wall. It was a plain machine, little more than a mobile stove with storage for pans, utensils, and spices. Lynn busied herself chopping vegetables, beating eggs, and humming, fully aware that David was grinning behind her back. When she turned around with her fresh omelette steaming on her plate, she had to admit it looked remarkably similar to the half-eaten concoction in front of him, but she would never say so out loud.

“One of these days”—David pointed his fork at her—“I'm going to give you a double-blind taste test, and I'll bet you won't be able to tell the difference between this lovely, ready-prepared meal and what you just spent a half hour picking out and cooking.”

“It was twenty minutes, and I'll take that bet.” Lynn scooped up a fluffy forkful, chewed, and swallowed. “Ahh, real food. Nothing like that delicate tang of mud and blood.”

“Primitives.” David had lived most of his life in space enclaves of one kind and another and still affected a minor horror of unprocessed nature.

“Lynn Nussbaumer,” said the genderless room voice from the tabletop. “Iola Trace and Shane R.J. wish to put through a call.”

Lynn swore and met David's gaze.

He shrugged. “I'm surprised we've had as much peace as we've had.”

“Me, too.” She took a swig of orange juice. “Room voice, I'll accept the call.”

The right-hand wall lit up to show small, dark, tidy Trace in her spartan office with its soothing aqua walls and gleaming work surfaces. She had probably been up and in the station's “working” section for the past two hours. The back wall showed gangly, perpetually bemused R.J., still in his cabin in the dormitory module. He had his walls set to show an African savannah with lions stalking through the tall grass. Lynn still had not quite gotten a handle on how R.J.’s aesthetic sense tied in to his sense of humor, or how stuffy Trace's sense of propriety really was. However, they worked extremely well together and had guided her deftly through Bioverse's corporate maze. Lynn's staff numbered in the dozens, and under them were hundreds of direct-report personnel, but these two were her personal assistants. Lately, their job seemed to consist of keeping her schedule from getting totally overwhelmed by requests for conferences, advice, or talks. Brador had said Lynn had a reputation as a Dedelphi expert. The entire staff of Bioverse seemed bent on proving him right.

“Good morning.” Lynn saluted them both with a forkful of eggs.

“Good morning, Lynn. Good morning, David,” said Trace. David lifted his beaker of coffee to the projections, then turned his attention back to his faux-omelette, politely pretending to ignore the proceedings.

“What's going on?” asked Lynn.

“You mean aside from your three meetings, the advisory panel you're facilitating, and the t'Therian culture lecture you're giving?” asked R.J. brightly. He looked across at Trace and gave her a tight smile. “You lost, Trace. You go first.”

“Thank you,” Trace replied with a primness Lynn was almost certain was an act. “First the personnel-registration hardware is going to be delayed by at least a week.”

Lynn dropped her fork and groaned. David shot her a sympathetic glance.

“How'd that happen?” Lynn asked, wearily.

Trace looked down at her table screen. “Apparently when the project outline and payment scheme were rereviewed, somebody balked.”

“They're holding out for direct credit rather than a down payment and percentage,” chipped in R.J. “Seems our PR on this project is not as clean as some would like it.”

“How clean do they want it?” Lynn threw up her hands. “It's a big project. We're evacuating—”

“Ah-ah.” R.J. held up one finger. “Relocating, remember?”

“We're relocating,” Lynn started again sourly, “an entire population and cleaning up a planet that's five percent bigger than Earth. It's going to generate controversy.” Corporate enclaves ran on the goodwill of their contractors and subcontractors, and those, in turn, ran on the goodwill of their home enclaves, both the ones scattered up and down the Human Chain and the ones on Earth itself. The threads and knots of the info-web connected all the enclaves tightly together. If opinion on the web was bad, and the enclaves got nervous, the best contractors and subcontractors would turn the job down in favor of safer work, or would drive their prices up into the stratosphere. For a project like this, with ever-expanding needs across decades, too much of that could be disastrous.

“Well, I'm afraid Haberbuild is the main support of a small enclave, and they don't like controversy,” said Trace. “So, we're renegotiating.”

“Can you get me the downloads on that?” Lynn poked thoughtfully at her food. “Maybe I can help somewhere. I know some people in the enclave.” She paused and took a fortifying swallow of coffee. “You said that was first?”

“Second”—R.J. watched his stalking lions for a moment—“Commander Keale has put in an urgent request to see you before the final meetings start.”

Lynn choked on a swallow of coffee. Keale was the head of Bioverse Corporate Security, the people who were usually called the Marines. “What's Keale need to see me for?”

R.J. shrugged. “He isn't saying. But if you're going, you need to remember that we've got our first official meeting at ten.”

Lynn subvocalized “Time,” to her implant, and 9:32 flashed in front of her right eye.

“Nothing like cutting it close, is there?” she said in normal tones. “All right.” She glanced regretfully at David. “Pass the word I'm on my way.”

“Okay. See you in A12 when you're done.” R.J. cut the line, and his wall went blank.

“Call us if you need anything.” Trace's wall blanked out as well.

Lynn looked across the table at David. “Sorry.”

“It's
okay.” He took her hand. “If I don't catch up with you in the room, I'll see you on the shuttle.”

Lynn stuffed a final piece of omelette in her mouth, followed it with a swig of orange juice, picked up the coffee bulb, kissed David quickly on the mouth, and retreated into the corridors.

Dedelphi Base 1 was designed for long stays, so the corridors were wide and frequently cut through arboretums or gardens with fishponds and lawns. Much of the interior paneling was flagstone or vat-grown wood rather than metal. The light was bright and full-spectrum.

Lynn followed the directions her implant displayed for her. Keale's office was just off an alcove that had been made into a Buddhist rock garden. A brownstone path ran up the middle so no one would have to disturb the sine-wave patterns in the sand.

The door was open, so Lynn stepped over the threshold. The office was a standard hexagon-shaped room with plain metal walls and a bare floor. Keale sat at a multiterminal comm station in the middle. The far end was taken up by a conference table, over which hung a view screen showing two schematics. The first was a globe of the Dedelphi's homeworld. The second was a blueprint of a city-ship like the ones the Dedelphi would be relocated to.

Lynn knocked on the doorframe, and Keale looked up. He was a broad-shouldered man in the spruce green uniform of the Bioverse security team. Multicolored ribbons decorated his chest, and he wore four pips on his high collar. He was not shaven. His thick hair was iron grey, and he'd never bothered to get the wrinkles smoothed out of his copper skin. His chiseled face said his ancestors came from Europe as well as any of a dozen equatorial islands.

BOOK: Playing God
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