Authors: Kevin J. Anderson
Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / General
Then, a surge of light poured out of the nearest bloater. The flash washed over him and the entire ship, overloading his suit systems. His diagnostic screen went dark, as if the pulse of energy was too much for the sensors to handle. Static crackled through the helmet comm before he was left in deafening silence.
He struggled to make his way back to the airlock. Because of the overload, his life support was failing. He had enough left to get inside, but without power assists from the suit’s servomotors, he found it much more difficult to move.
With a crackle, the helmet comm came back on as a backup battery surrendered enough juice for him to hear a signal. “Dad, half our systems just shut down!”
Garrison crawled along the ship’s hull, grabbing protrusions to pull himself to the airlock. He hoped the controls still functioned. “Coming back inside.” He hammered the activation panel, got only a faint blip in response, then nothing.
Around him, the bloaters were quiescent again. Garrison could already feel deep cold settling in through his suit, though the insulation should have protected him for much longer.
His breathing sounded loud in his helmet. With gloved hands he fumbled with the access plate beneath the useless controls and managed to trigger the manual override, forcing open the airlock. Garrison pulled himself inside, manually sealed the outer door, then used the chamber’s emergency canisters for an air dump that equalized the pressure.
Worried, Seth grabbed him as he reentered the main cabin, helping unseal the helmet. Garrison reassured him. “I’m all right . . . but I wouldn’t want to be outside during another one of those flare-things.”
“Did you find what caused the static signal?”
“Yes, it was . . .” He paused, pondering how much he should say. “It was a tracker placed on our ship back at Sheol. Could be just a standard precaution on Iswander ships.”
The boy frowned. “Or maybe Mother put it there.”
Garrison hadn’t realized it before, but Seth always called him “Dad,” while he referred to Elisa with the more formal “Mother.”
Garrison was careful to avoid an outright lie. “I don’t know who put it there, but it’s gone now.” He cracked his knuckles. “Better get to work. After that flash, we’ve got repairs to make.” Though the repairs could take days, Garrison made up his mind that they should not stay here any longer than was necessary.
Seth couldn’t resist the opportunity to add, “Of course, it would be a lot easier if we had a compy to help us.”
Managing the dangerous operations on Sheol was a challenge, but becoming Speaker for the Roamer clans would be an even greater one. With Elisa Reeves gone on her own mission, Iswander left the lava-processing facility in Deputy Alec Pannebaker’s capable hands and headed off to Newstation.
Iswander never stopped looking at the big picture. Considering business possibilities in the Confederation, opportunities that even the most imaginative Roamers had only begun to explore, he concluded that the united clans needed someone with vision to lead them into the future. He could fill that role.
He guided his personal cruiser toward the bustling center of Roamer government—and his future headquarters, if all went well. His cruiser was equipped with the best Ildiran stardrive, a well-appointed interior, and redundant systems, though it looked like any normal ship. Iswander had plenty of wealth, but found no advantage in flaunting it.
The destruction of Rendezvous had scattered the clans, and for years the Roamers were held together by a frayed tapestry of family alliances and habits. After the end of the Elemental War, clan Reeves and their stubborn leader persisted in trying to rebuild the old asteroid complex, but the task was pointless and few people paid attention to them. Lee Iswander certainly didn’t.
In re-forming their government, the Roamer clans constructed Newstation as their cultural and administrative center. The new space habitat orbited a planet named Auridia, which had a working Klikiss transportal into the alien transportation network that linked numerous worlds. Iswander approved of the choice.
His cruiser glided toward the toroidal space complex. With its bright silver hull, Newstation was an old-fashioned but serviceable design, spokes radiating from a central hub out to a main ring. It rotated like a giant wheel in space above the bleak and rocky planet, which held little of interest for settlers.
Plenty of traffic flitted around the station itself, though: cargo vessels, passenger yachts, diplomatic shuttles from Theroc or from Earth, even a pair of gaudy Ildiran vessels. The place was vibrant, and Iswander loved it. And Newstation was just the tip of what could be a very large iceberg, to use an old cliché that few Roamers could grasp. Once integrated into the Confederation, the clans could become dominant members, rather than just part of the alliance. Iswander should be the one to guide them.
He logged his arrival on the Newstation traffic band, asked for an appropriate docking slot. The traffic attendant recognized his voice. “Mr. Iswander! Right away, sir. I’ll see that you get a priority berth.”
“I don’t deserve anything more extravagant than any other trader, though. What’s your name?”
“Klanek. Tony Klanek, sir.”
“Thanks, Tony. I’ll know whom to call if I need anything.”
Normally Iswander wouldn’t have asked the young man’s name, since he was just a voice on the comm, a low-level worker doing his job, but winning the position of Speaker would require personal interactions, clan votes, family alliances. It wasn’t enough for him to rely on his business successes.
Guided by Klanek’s signal, he flew his cruiser to the appropriate landing bay and his assigned ship berth. Lights sparkled around the rim of the rotating station.
Prominent in space nearby was a captured comet, Academ, that now served as a school complex for clan children, run by former Speaker Cesca Peroni and her husband Jess Tamblyn. The comet had been diverted to Auridia seventeen years earlier during construction of Newstation, its interior hollowed out, and the ice used for water, air, and fuel supplies. Perfect for a school.
His wife and son wanted to travel to Newstation for a vacation, but Iswander was always too busy. Men like him didn’t take vacations. Still, there was only so much fire and lava a person could look at. If he were elected Speaker for the clans, then Londa and their thirteen-year-old son, Arden, would move to Newstation and spend all the time here they liked.
Before disembarking, Iswander combed his hair and made sure his clothes were unrumpled. Though he would not be addressing the gathered representatives until tomorrow, he couldn’t be sloppy. He worked so hard at maintaining his persona that he had forgotten how to do otherwise.
As he entered the colorful turmoil of Newstation, Iswander made a point of greeting everyone he encountered, station personnel and visitors alike. Some of them gave him only a sidelong glance; most acted professional; others seemed pleased to have a Roamer celebrity among them.
He took a rail shuttle along the circumference of the station; though the rail was straight, the curvature of the torus made it look as if the rail shuttle were constantly heading up a steep hill. He checked into his rooms, found them adequate and comfortable, and took a brief mist shower in the room’s cleansing cubicle. Even though the giant Academ comet orbited nearby, containing all the water they could need, the Newstation Roamers conserved their resources. Roamer austerity ran deep. It was admirable in a way, although unnecessary.
He intended to be well rested and well rehearsed for the following day’s convocation. He had to show that he was far superior to his opponent Sam Ricks, a man who had little fire in him. Ricks didn’t know business, didn’t know how to interact with the Confederation or the Ildiran Empire. He barely seemed interested in the job of Speaker.
Lee Iswander, however,
it. He doubted he’d have any trouble convincing the clan heads he was the better choice, but he had to be careful not to insult the current Speaker, Isha Seward, a lackluster woman who would go down in history as little more than a name on a list.
The last strong Speaker had been Del Kellum, who served for fifteen years in the turbulent transition that followed the fall of the Terran Hanseatic League, until he finally said
and announced his retirement. As a parting shot, Kellum said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want the position, but Iswander knew. This was the next natural step in the progression of his career. His mindset and his business acumen would serve as the Guiding Star for the future of the Roamers.
In his quarters, Iswander looked through the windowport as the view slowly changed from stars to the fleeting lights of space traffic, the shimmering comet, the cracked surface of Auridia, then to the open field of stars again. The rotation was slow enough as to be almost imperceptible.
He called up his concise presentation on his datapad, though the clan representatives were familiar with his biography. (And if they didn’t know who
was, what business did they have choosing leaders?) Some might call him pushy, but Iswander liked to think of it as being daring, unapologetic about his drive to succeed. He worked hard and wanted everybody else to work hard, to exceed expectations, to seize opportunities that arose. The Roamers needed a bold man with a can-do attitude.
He could have spent the night visiting Newstation’s shops, restaurants, or drinking establishments, rubbing elbows and smiling, being everyone’s friend, but he preferred to be alone. In his quarters, he practiced his speech and wished he could have reviewed it with Elisa Reeves, because she was supportive as well as intelligent. She’d give him an objective read and tell him what he needed to fix, whereas his wife would merely smile and compliment whatever he said. Good for his ego, maybe, but not necessarily instructive. . . .
He rested, arose early, practiced his speech again, taking out a few lines that sounded forced, and reviewed the changes. He put on the suit that Elisa said made him look like a leader and traveled to the station’s primary meeting chamber.
Lines of seats extended up the curvature of the walls so that the attendees in the outer rows looked as if they might fall forward into the speaking area, but the station’s rotation held them in place. Iswander assessed the clan representatives with their colorful garb, accented with scarves, embroidery, family markings, swatches of red, violet, blue. Many wore jumpsuits instead of formal clothes, even for an important meeting. He touched his impeccable suit, wondered if he had made a miscalculation.
Isha Seward managed the meeting from her Speaker’s platform. Her shoulder-length dark hair was much grayer now than when she’d first been elected Speaker. She was plump, too, having gained weight during her administration. Iswander vowed to take care of himself, once he became the next Speaker.
The business trivialities seemed interminable because Roamers had to discuss
to death and each clan had to contribute to even minor decisions. Iswander glanced over at Sam Ricks, who was casual—too casual. His rival wore an everyday work jumpsuit with a prominent green clan armband. By the Guiding Star, the man looked as if he hadn’t even shaved! Could he not at least try?
When the discussion turned to the upcoming vote, Speaker Seward called on Ricks first. He delivered a rambling and uninspired speech that basically said all the clans knew him and therefore he would make an adequate Speaker.
Stepping up to the podium for his turn, Iswander felt a renewed purpose. Ricks was obviously not serious about his candidacy, so Iswander could proceed. The feeling reminded him of the first day when his lava skimmers had produced exotic metals from the magma on Sheol, or when he dispatched the first shipment of prefab modules to Roamer asteroid colonies, or when he paid the first profit-sharing bonus to his employees. He had built himself a pedestal of his own successes.
“I was born a Roamer, and I am still a Roamer,” he said. “But I’m a new kind of Roamer, because we live in a new Spiral Arm. I can guide us into the future and balance who we are with who we need to be.” He paused for a moment, letting the idea sink in. “I was just a young businessman at the end of the Elemental War and the birth of the Confederation. I was one of the first to embrace our new situation, making alliances with Roamer facilities and doing business with former Hansa industrialists.”
They didn’t react with as much enthusiasm as he had hoped. A few groans came from the audience. “That’s a good thing?” someone commented loudly enough for the whole room to hear.
“Who cares about the Big Goose?” someone asked, using the deprecating name for the Terran Hanseatic League.
After being hounded for so many years by the corrupt, repressive Hansa, Roamers still resented the idea of big business. They preferred informal family and trade connections to specific commercial guidelines. But those old thought patterns were no longer relevant.
Iswander kept his impatience in check. “It’s not the Hansa anymore—it’s the Confederation. We should all care about their markets and their facilities, and what they can mean to every one of us. I was one of the first to redraw the business maps, to stop thinking of the former Hansa as our enemy but as a new partner. In so doing, clan Iswander used our materials-processing factories to supply much of the rebuilding effort. We helped the whole human race recover.”
He looked at the man who had complained, but he couldn’t place the name. He would have to work harder at memorizing the names of people. “Talk to your parents, talk to the elders of other clans. Maybe you aren’t old enough to remember it, but ask them if they liked the war so much that they want to perpetuate it. Chairman Basil Wenceslas is long dead, and King Peter is and has always been our friend. Accept it.”
Iswander turned to the other gathered faces. “Because I was thinking big, I bought out my parents’ stake in our clan business and began building new factories. We specialized in supplying modular space habitats and prefab domes for rugged environments, where Roamers have always thrived. I made it easier, safer, and more lucrative.”