Authors: Kevin J. Anderson
Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / General
Fennis led him inside the sanctuary domes. The air smelled of medicines, disinfectants, and quarantine, but Tom Rom also smelled fish and salt and odd spices. This was not just a hospital or a research station—it was also a home for those Ildirans misbreeds who couldn’t survive elsewhere.
He recognized Tamo’l from his prior communications. She was pretty, with a scholarly look, obviously a halfbreed; her feathery hair had a sparkling quality. When Tom Rom greeted her, he tried not to stare at the two figures beside her. Both were male, or so he thought.
The taller one had three eyes, one of which was in a socket low down on the cheekbone. His skin was leathery, and his features looked as if they had been carved out of wax and left for too long under the hot Ildiran suns. One arm was shriveled and drawn up to his chest, while the other dangled long and loose, more of a tentacle appendage than an arm.
The other misfit was hunched over, but his head was at the end of an abnormally long neck, like a stalk bent upward. His skin was covered with thick, yellowish brown scales that looked like stained thumbnails.
Showing no disgust whatsoever, Tom Rom nodded to the head of the facility. “Thank you for seeing me, Tamo’l. My employer is very interested in your work.”
Tamo’l assessed his reaction, as if she had given him some kind of test, then she nodded with a smile. “You are welcome here, sir. I’m happy to share our work with a fellow researcher. Follow me and meet the rest of our people.” She turned, and her strange companions turned with her, moving with a unique awkward gait that they had developed to deal with their infirmities.
More misbreeds emerged from adjacent corridors and chambers in the sanctuary dome. They were an amazing conglomeration of misshapen bodies, overgrown faces, a patchwork assortment of limbs, skin types, fur, scales.
“During the breeding program on Dobro,” Tamo’l explained, “Ildiran researchers crossbred kiths in many possible combinations, including a separate group interbred with human colonists.” She caught herself, then forced the words out, “Human
I am one such halfbreed. My father was a lens kithman, my mother a human green priest. As you can see, not all of the mixed offspring turned out as healthy as I did.”
Tamo’l led him toward the medical research stations, which interested Tom Rom the most. Along the way, they passed living chambers, some dim, some bright, cluttered with possessions, blankets, tapestries, cushions. A group of the misfits preferred a damp environment, while others wanted dry, hot chambers.
“Kuivahr truly is the best refuge for the mixed-breeds. Obviously, they have difficult lives, often tragically short, although they can also live longer than the norm. The idea behind the Dobro breeding program was to develop hybrid vigor. Some of the mixed-breeds are indeed superior . . . but they don’t all turn out so well.”
Misbreeds played music, they cooked, filling the air with the interesting smell of spices and grease. There were even children, Tom Rom saw—and he realized that the misfits here interbred and formed families. They all turned their faces toward Tom Rom as he passed, several were blind, several had too many eyes.
“With so many specimens to study, you must have done a great deal of research,” he said. “My employer will be pleased with this data. Would you share your genetic records as well? Maybe she can find a useful breakthrough.”
Tamo’l faced him, her expression hard. “I do not think of these people as mere specimens. They are my friends as well.” She calmed herself with a visible effort. “I will, of course, share my information for the greater good, though I don’t know how applicable our Ildiran genetic research will be to your employer’s work.”
Inside a large chemical research lab, Shawn Fennis greeted an Ildiran woman warmly. “This is my wife, Chiar’h,” he said, as if he had won a trophy.
Tom Rom gave a polite nod, but he wasn’t interested in their relationship. He wondered if these two intended to have halfbreed children, or if they were frightened by all of the misfit halfbreeds they saw around them.
“We’re testing kelp extracts and mineralized slime as a palliative for some of our worst cases,” Tamo’l said. “There’s been a blossoming of a rare kelp strain, and that gives the mixed-breeds a strength they didn’t have before. They can never be cured, but they can thrive here, even love like normal people.” She looked around with obvious satisfaction. “Kuivahr is more than just a last hope for hopeless cases—this is their home. They are victims of the breeding program, as so many of us are. They just paid a higher price than most.”
She showed him her extensive medical treatment facility with special wards for tending the numerous breakdowns of the misbreeds. When one of the misfits died, even the body was studied in order to help the others.
The misfits did not fill him with disgust so much as fascination. Not pity, not sympathy. Tom Rom only cared that they might be useful to Zoe Alakis.
Getting down to business, Tom Rom opened the satchel he carried. “My employer has authorized me to offer a substantial fee for your data.” He revealed a glittering kaleidoscope of prisdiamonds, enough to make anyone in the Confederation gasp with astonishment.
Tamo’l was appreciative. “I understand that this is a great treasure, so I will accept it and put the funds to good use.” She looked at him with her large eyes. “But Ildirans don’t value wealth the way humans do. If your employer makes a breakthrough that could help my misfits here, I hope she will share.”
“I will tell her that.”
He knew the very thought was absurd.
Before Orli reported to Kett Shipping for her new job, she did her homework. DD helped her track down the records and specs of the
—the ship she would be flying.
Orli had worked so long at the compy facility on Relleker that she’d forgotten a great deal about piloting a ship. Before marrying Matthew and settling down, she had traveled far and wide, often flying with Captain Kett aboard the
or Captain Roberts on his
She was certainly competent, and she could learn—or relearn.
Even so, when she delivered the formal paperwork to Tasia Tamblyn and Robb Brindle at the Kett Shipping headquarters, Orli wanted to make a good impression.
After Orli entered the offices on Earth, Tasia shook her hand. “You’re very welcome here, Captain Covitz.”
Orli was at a loss. “
I’m just submitting my application. I haven’t been—”
Robb scanned her application. “Of course, you’re accepted. You can fly a ship right? Looks like you have plenty of experience.” He tapped the screen.
Tasia said, “Rlinda recommended you, and it’s her company. I understand you’re already slated for the
DD piped up, “Captain Kett suggested the
might be an appropriate ship for us.”
“She’s refueled, ready for a shakedown cruise,” Robb said. “Will you need a copilot? I can assign one of our shipping experts to show you the ropes, if you like.”
Orli couldn’t control her smile. “I have DD.”
The compy added, “Captain Kett said there were enhanced piloting and engineering modules for me to upload if it became necessary.”
Tasia called up ship records, toggling past image after image. Each vessel had a different hull configuration, some with additional engines or expanded stowage pods. “Kett Shipping currently has forty-seven ships. Rlinda owns fourteen of them outright—including the
Robb and I own four, and the others are privately owned by their individual captains, who have contract arrangements with us.”
“If those captains own their ships, what do they get out of being part of Kett Shipping?” Orli imagined that if she owned her vessel, she’d want to be independent, fly from place to place, pick up whatever cargo she liked.
“Insurance,” Robb said. “Steady work, a safety net, repairs and rescue, and prices negotiated through the clout of Kett Shipping.”
Tasia grinned. “And the pleasure of working with us. That’s our biggest selling point.”
“We are very pleased to work with you,” DD said.
“Good. Let’s go take a look at your ship.”
When one of their pilots complained that he’d been cheated on an agreed-upon fee for a shipment, Tasia hurried off to deal with the minor emergency, while Robb took Orli to the company hangar. DD strutted along beside them.
was a small cargo ship with a comfortable cockpit, a compact stateroom just big enough for Orli, and a well-organized cargo hold. She wouldn’t be hauling any huge loads, but the ship could make niche runs to specialized markets and planets that saw little regular trade.
She ran her gaze along the hull. “I like it.”
Robb nodded. “
’s a good ship. Mary Coven flew her for us seventeen years, and before that she did black-market runs in the last four years of the Elemental War.”
An odd sour smell clung to the upholstery. Robb sniffed. “Mary Coven had her quirks. She liked to smoke a tobacco pipe, spent a fortune replacing air filters, but she claimed it was worth the expense.”
The captain’s chair was frayed at the corners, the armrests patched with polymer strips and adhesives. Some of the paint on the control panel was worn, and spots of alloy films had been rubbed away; labels on several controls had been marked over with fresh tape and handwritten identifications.
“Looks like she did a little custom rewiring,” Orli said.
“Those are fixes, but the ship checks out, fully functional. If you want, I can reupholster the seats, give the interior a repaint and a freshening up, but I don’t think Rlinda will pay for an upgrade of the control modules.”
Orli stared at the cockpit, imagining the other captain who had spent so much time inside the ship, an independent and adventurous woman who was free to go where she wished and not afraid to do it. So different from her own situation with Matthew and the Relleker facility.
“That won’t be necessary. New control modules have their bugs too, and this ship’s got history. She’s proved herself.”
Robb grinned. “If I hadn’t approved you before, Captain Covitz, you just passed the test. That comment shows you know enough about piloting. You and the
will get along just fine.”
“I am very excited, Orli Covitz,” DD said in a completely deadpan voice.
She sat in the pilot seat, touched the controls, settled into the cushion. It felt right. She wanted to do this.
Robb said, “We’ve got a small shipment ready to go to the military base on Mars. Nothing fancy. It’ll be a quick trip, take you no more than two days, but it would be a good shakedown, if you want to practice.”
“I’d like that very much. DD, how do you feel about being my copilot?”
“I look forward to my new role, Orli.”
She ran her hands along the arms of the pilot’s chair and flicked on the power systems, verifying that the fuel supplies were full, the energy levels optimal. “All I need is a course to set and a cargo to deliver.”
The flight was smooth, quiet yet exhilarating, and it let her forget. Orli felt as if she had shed her skin and become a brand-new person, no longer just a shadow of herself in the aftermath of Matthew’s change of heart. Orli wasn’t defined by him anymore; she was a ship captain now, and DD was at her side.
The simple delivery from Earth to Mars was one of the most satisfying things she had done in a long time.
After landing back at headquarters to make a report and look for her next assignment, she was pleased to see Rlinda waiting as she and DD disembarked. The matronly woman crossed her arms over her chest. “Everything went well?”
“Without a hitch.”
“Good, that makes you my very best captain—thought you’d like to know that.”
“Very best? How is that possible? I only did one little run.”
“Statistically, you are one hundred percent reliable and not a nanosecond overdue. Of my forty-seven ships, not a single other pilot can say that.”
Orli felt warm inside. Yes, she was going to like this job very much.
“I’ve got your next assignment,” Rlinda said. “Nothing urgent, but it’ll give you practice . . . and frankly, it would make me feel a whole lot better.”
That piqued Orli’s curiosity. “Where am I going?”
“Olaf Reeves and his clan headed off for points unknown to set up some new colony. They think they can be self-sufficient, and I’ve heard that some pigs think they can fly, too. I doubt the old curmudgeon believed it himself, because he left me the coordinates and arranged a line of credit, in case he needs emergency supplies.”
“Did he ask for help?” Orli asked. “How long has he been gone?”
“Not long. And he’d never ask—he’s too proud. But I could have you just drop in, make sure they’re all right, and take a cargo of emergency supplies with you, as well as some pampering items. They won’t chase you away, I promise.”
The Mage-Imperator’s order was everything a scholar could possibly hope for. Jora’h wanted all possible knowledge about the Shana Rei, real answers about the previous crisis, no matter how deep the rememberers had to dig or which document crypts they opened.
Anton wished he could work without interruption—there were so many recovered documents to read and translate, so many lost records that no Ildiran eyes had seen in centuries. Five sealed vaults had been smashed open on the Mage-Imperator’s orders.
Scouring the document crypts from that time period, rememberers had indeed found old accounts of the Shana Rei, correspondence from the legendary Tal Bria’nh, even rudimentary designs for the sun bombs. The ancient plans had not been destroyed, merely buried by the weight of countless centuries of records. After the Shana Rei had been defeated, the sun bombs were considered obsolete, unnecessary, and resigned to obscurity.