Authors: Kevin J. Anderson
Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / General
And he realized the danger to the Iswander operations.
Alarmed, he had presented his results to Lee Iswander, only to be rebuffed when neither the industrialist nor his deputy—Garrison’s own wife—took his warnings seriously. Iswander impatiently told Garrison to go back to work and reassured him that the lava-processing outpost was perfectly safe. The material strength of the structural elements was rated to withstand the environment of Sheol, although with little margin for error.
When Garrison insisted, Iswander grudgingly brought in a team of contract geologists and engineers who found a way to rerun the calculations, to reaffirm that nothing could go wrong. The specialists had departed with surprising haste—worried about their own safety?
Garrison still trusted his own calculations, though. Next, he felt it was his responsibility to warn the Sheol employees, which infuriated Elisa, who was sure that his whistle-blowing would cost her a promotion.
Honestly, Garrison hoped he was wrong. He knew he wasn’t. Convinced he had no alternative, he decided to take Seth away from Sheol before disaster struck. . . .
After scanning the star catalog, the boy chose coordinates that qualified as little other than “the middle of nowhere.” The stardrive engines hummed and changed tone as they adjusted course, and the vessel streaked off again.
Seth looked up at him with a sparkle in his eyes. “If we had our own compy, Dad, he could fly the ship, and you and I could play games.”
Garrison smiled. “We’re on autopilot. We can still play games.”
Because there were no other children on Sheol, Seth had longed for a competent computerized companion, probably a Friendly model who could keep him company and amuse him. At the lava-mining facility, Lee Iswander used only a handful of Worker compies, none of which were the more sociable types, not even a Teacher compy.
“Your mother didn’t see the point in owning a compy,” Garrison said. “But maybe we can revisit that.”
After we see what happens.
In his head, Garrison heard his father’s gruff voice again. “You never should have married That Woman. You’re a Roamer, and you belong with other Roamers!”
“Elisa’s not a Roamer, but Lee Iswander comes from a good clan,” he had responded, though the words sounded flat in his own ears.
“That man has more of the Hansa about him than the clans. He’s forgotten who he is.” The bearded clan patriarch had waved a finger in front of his son’s face. “And if you stay with him, you will forget who you are. Too many Roamer clans have forgotten. A knife loses its edge unless it is sharpened.”
But Garrison had refused to listen and married Elisa Enturi anyway. He’d given up so much for her . . . or had he done it just to act out against his father? He had wanted a family, a fulfilled life, and Elisa wanted something else.
“If we find a place and settle down, will Mother come to live with us again?” Seth asked.
Garrison didn’t want to lie. He stared out at the forest of stars ahead and the great emptiness in which they had lost themselves. “She wants to take her chances at Sheol for now.”
The boy looked sad but stoic. “Maybe someday.”
Garrison could not envision any other answer but
Still running, they crossed the expansive emptiness for days, and then they encountered an amazing anomaly: a cluster of gas bags far outside of any star system. Each bloated globule was twice the size of their ship.
Garrison ran a quick diagnostic. “Never seen anything like these.”
The membranous bubbles drifted along in a loose gathering with nothing but light-years all around them. In the dim light of faraway stars, the spherical structures appeared greenish brown, and each filmy membrane enclosed a blurry nucleus. Hundreds of thousands of them formed an island in a sea of stars.
Seth studied both the sensor screens and the unfiltered view through the windowport. “Are they alive?”
Garrison shut down the engines so their ship could drift toward them. “No idea.” The strange objects seemed majestic—silent, yet powerful. Organic? They filled him with a sense of wonder. “They remind me of . . . space plankton.”
“They’re bloated and floating,” Seth said. “We should call them
A random glimmer of light brightened one of the nodules, an internal flash that faded. Then another bloater flickered and quickly faded.
Close together at one of the windowports, they stared out at the view. “If we discovered them, we can name them whatever we want,” Garrison said. “I’d say bloaters is a good name for them.”
“So we just made a discovery?”
“Looks that way.” He moored the ship among the thousands of silent, eerie nodules. “Let’s stay here for a while.”
Elisa was so furious and indignant she could barely think straight, but she had enough common sense to maintain her composure in a business setting. She stifled her instinctive reaction and wore her professional demeanor like armor.
She could not let Lee Iswander see her as weak. There was too much at stake, and her responsibilities were too great. Her kidnapped son and her husband’s betrayal were only part of what she had to worry about. Priorities needed to be weighed and balanced.
He took my son! He stole a ship, and he left me behind!
Even before she’d married Garrison, she had known he was a backward bumpkin, but together, they had agreed on a plan. He said he would follow it, keep his eyes on his silly Guiding Star, trusting that it would change everything for them.
And Elisa had believed him. That made her angrier than anything else. She had
him. She hated to feel like a fool.
Now, Elisa approached the door to Iswander’s office in Tower One of the Sheol lava-processing facility. Standing high on carbon-reinforced ceramic struts, Tower One held five decks of offices and habitation spaces. Scarlet lakes oozed up from molten springs to form a shimmering—some called it terrifying—panorama all around them.
Standing outside of Iswander’s office, Elisa straightened her uniform and took a moment to compose her expression. She smoothed a hand over her short, professional-length auburn hair with highlights of gold. When she was ready, she entered.
Lee Iswander was busy, an important man, but he always had time for her. As far as she could tell, the industrialist didn’t hold her husband’s irresponsible behavior against her.
Iswander stood with impeccable posture before the wall of polarized windows that looked out upon Hell. His dark suit fit him well. A frosting of gray at the temples of his dark brown hair gave him a distinguished look, a man who inspired respect and confidence at first glance. As a boss and a business leader, he automatically knew what he was doing and thus was able to convince armies of middle managers and employees to do as he asked. People trusted him when he made a business decision or took a corporate gamble. Elisa believed in him too.
Turning from the window, he welcomed her with a smile. “Pannebaker says there’s a new roostertail forming. He’s heading out to the hot spot to get images. You know how he is with fresh geological activity.”
Elisa also knew how dangerous that was. “Did he sign a waiver?”
“He’s signed numerous waivers. He hasn’t managed to kill himself yet.”
“Then you’re set, sir.” Elisa took her place beside him at the wall of windows.
The lava flowed in slow-motion waves, their swells and dips caused by seismic instabilities. A reinforced landing gridwork stood in the middle of the three habitation and control towers. Armor-hulled smelter barges drifted on the molten sea, scooping up metals, separating out the valuable ones, and vomiting the detritus back into the pools.
The cratered other half of the binary planet filled much of the sky, tidally locked with the main body of Sheol. The two planetoids fell toward each other, orbiting around a common center of mass. The stresses squeezed and pushed the crust in a gravitational tug-of-war. Garrison claimed to have discovered that the broken planet was unstable—brilliant observation! It was the very instability that kept all the hot raw material flowing for easy industrial extraction. Beyond that, he was being an alarmist, looking for problems rather than solutions.
Right now, Iswander seemed preoccupied. Though Elisa wanted to explode with her news about Garrison—to scream, “My son has been kidnapped!”—she forced herself to remain calm. Lee Iswander was her best ally.
He turned to her and touched the front of his jacket. “New suit for my speech at Newstation in two days. Specially tailored. I want to cut the figure of a leader when I give my speech to the Roamer council. What’s your impression?”
“I’m not a fashion consultant, but it’s a good look. You always look like a leader, sir.”
Iswander did not hide his smile well. “I don’t ask my wife for her opinion on these things because she always dithers and says it’s fine. I wanted an honest answer.”
“I give you an honest answer every time. When you present yourself, the Roamers will see that you are a businessman and a leader, not some sloppy worker who shuffled off a production line. Your opponent won’t even bother to change out of his jumpsuit. I expect the decision will be obvious.”
“Then I accept that. Sam Ricks cannot possibly believe he has a chance of winning, although there are some clan members who prefer their eccentricities to the reality of business and politics.” He frowned.
“Roamers are a dying breed,” Elisa said, thinking of her husband and his backward family. Garrison had already caused so much trouble. She searched for a way to tell Iswander, but he was obviously preoccupied.
“I’ve been looking at the records of the Roamer clans, studying their interactions with the Confederation government—the concessions we’ve received, the inroads we’ve made. Even though you married a Roamer, I’m not sure you understand the mindset, Elisa: clan connections, seat-of-the-pants innovations, personal promises and barter, exchange of favors. My business model takes us away from those old, inefficient ways. It’s time for the clans to get serious. I truly believe that I’m best qualified to be the next Speaker.”
Even with the concern about Garrison and Seth weighing on her mind, Elisa realized in a broader sense that Lee Iswander’s advancement as Speaker would open up many opportunities for her. Caught up in his governmental role, he would need to delegate the Sheol operations, put her in charge. “Having watched Roamer politics from the outside, I’d say anything would be better than Isha Seward, sir.”
He gave her a wry frown. “That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.”
“You’re obviously the stronger candidate, sir. It goes without saying.”
“But the clans need it said. Isha Seward was just the interim Speaker after Del Kellum retired. She knows it, and everybody knows it. She was chosen as a compromise candidate because she was lackluster and didn’t offend anyone. Now it’s time for vision, and I’ve certainly proved myself.” He chuckled. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be giving you my speech.”
“The election’s only a few weeks away,” Elisa said.
He went back to his desk where reports streamed across the data-screens embedded in its flat surface. “If I’m going to be elected as the next Speaker I’ll have to keep in touch everywhere, in real time. Not just through business shuttles, like I have now. Maybe I should bring a green priest here.”
Elisa nodded. “Many have hired themselves out, and they take oaths of confidentiality. A green priest stationed here with a treeling could be in instantaneous contact with every other green priest at any other outpost, ship, or settlement. Would you like me to look into it, sir?”
“I doubt it would do any good.” He swiveled in his chair to look out at the oceans of turbulent magma. “They prefer to be back on their forested world—or at least in a more hospitable place than this. All this fire and lava would make them nervous.”
Elisa made a note in the back of her mind that she would send out an inquiry; perhaps with a sufficient financial incentive, she could find an open-minded green priest who would be willing to move to Sheol. But she couldn’t devote her time and energy to solving that problem until
she tracked down Garrison and got Seth back. It was time to tell Iswander.
She struggled with her sense of failure, as well as the guilt of knowing that this unexpected matter was going to take her away from her work. Before she could make her request, though, Alec Pannebaker broke in on the comm. “The plume’s about to burst, Chief. Right on schedule, right on target. I’m getting images that’ll take your breath away!”
Elisa felt tremors in the deck of Tower One, and moments later they calmed down. Sheol was in a constant restless slumber on an unquiet seismic bed.
Out on the lava lake near Pannebaker’s small shielded craft, a large bubble became a spurting geyser of lava. It sprayed high, then rained down in a roostertail. Pannebaker whistled as he withdrew his shielded boat. “Those will make great PR images!”
Iswander sounded skeptical. “‘Come to Sheol and see the sights’?”
“No, Chief—I was thinking more of how it shows you’re a visionary with the foresight and the balls to establish a viable industry where even other Roamers feared to tread. No one can argue with your profit reports.”
“It might be good for your Speaker campaign, sir,” Elisa said after the deputy signed off. “But you should delete the part about the balls.”
As Iswander returned to his desk, Elisa stood straight-backed, anxious. She had never brought personal problems to him before. Finally, she said without preamble, “Garrison’s gone, sir. He stole one of your ships.”
Iswander sat back. “What are you talking about?”
“He left between six and ten hours ago. He kidnapped our son and flew off.”
“I can’t believe your husband would do that. He seemed like such a . . .”
“Passive man?” Elisa said. “Yes, he fooled me too.”
“I was going to say ‘good father.’ Is he still insisting that we’re operating too close to safety margins? It’s nonsense. We’ve been here for years without any mishap, and the recent structural scans should have put all concerns to rest.”