Authors: Kevin J. Anderson
Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / General
Del stroked his beard and chuckled. “Medicinal uses? I’ve heard that one before.” Of course, Tamo’l did use some of the formulations to ease the suffering of her misbreeds in the sanctuary domes, but he doubted that was what Tom Rom meant.
The strange visitor fixed him with a gaze as intense as a high-energy spotlight. “It is precisely why I’m here.”
Marius broke in, “We’re always happy to sell our products, Mr. Rom.”
“Call me Tom Rom—my full name, no honorific, appropriate for all purposes. No need to shorten.”
Del found it odd, but he had met, and done business with, plenty of odd people. “Fair enough. Do you work for a company? A research project? Anything special you’re looking for?”
“My employer is Zoe Alakis, and she conducts privately funded medical research. We’d like samples of your raw materials for biological analysis. Some of the natural Kuivahr substances may have pharmaceutical uses.”
“Never heard of Zoe Alakis,” Del said.
“My employer likes to keep a low profile.”
Del said, “We make no medical claims. Our fine distillations are meant to be imbibed and enjoyed.”
Marius muttered under his breath, “
them might be a little much.”
Tom Rom ignored the comment. “Cost is no object. I require an exhaustive list of your base ingredients and your distillations, as well as liberal examples of each item so we can catalog them. I understand that some kelp extracts and plankton varieties produce unusual effects in humans?”
“And Ildirans.” Del patted his rounded stomach again. “Mr. Denva here will set you up. We’ll even throw in a batch of Ildiran kirae—it tingles when you drink it, but no human can stand more than a sip.”
Tom Rom was utterly humorless, all business. “Thank you. My employer will add that to her studies.”
Marius said, “We’ll calculate a fair price, but we don’t want to give away any of our trade secrets.”
“All of my employer’s work is entirely confidential, and not for profit,” Tom Rom said.
Del suggested, “If you’re after medical research, you might want to meet with Tamo’l in the Ildiran sanctuary domes. She has a whole colony of misfits there, the mixed-breeds that didn’t turn out well from Dobro.” He called up a chart. “The tide’s low, so you could take a skimmer over there.”
Tom Rom turned his gaze toward Del. “My employer may wish to follow up on that at a later date.”
“Does she focus on any special areas of research?” Marius asked.
“Her interests are wide ranging.”
In less than two hours they had given Tom Rom sealed packages of ingredients and of each of their distillations, including kirae, and the stranger headed back through the alien transportal. For some reason neither of them could quite explain, the man made them uncomfortable, and they were happy to send him on his way.
Later that afternoon when a clan trader arrived with expensive medusa meat from Rhejak—which Del considered a delicacy and paid well for—the scruffy woman also delivered news packets that included recordings of recent speeches the candidates had given at Newstation: Lee Iswander and Sam Ricks making their case to be elected the next Speaker.
For half an hour, Del refused to watch. He muttered to himself that he had no further interest in politics, that the election of the next Speaker meant nothing to him. But in the end he gave up and reviewed the presentations.
Running the clans was out of his hands now, and he didn’t need political ulcers again, yet the candidates worried him. Iswander was a Roamer, but he reminded Del too much of the worst parts of the Big Goose. Sure, Del accepted the need for the clans to change, but he didn’t want Roamers to become what the Hansa Chairman had once represented. Ricks’s lack of preparation or enthusiasm was hardly commendable either. Del was tempted to record a message of his own. He didn’t want to endorse Sam Ricks, but he wanted to rally the clans to remember who they were.
He stopped himself and deleted the recording. No. He would not let himself get preoccupied with the election. He was past that now. He had his own life. If anything, he should have been paying more attention to his family.
In fact, he made up his mind to go to Newstation for the election—strictly for appearances—and then head off to the gas giant Golgen, where he would visit his daughter and his grandchildren. Zhett and her husband operated the skymine there quite capably, but they could always use his advice, and it would give him something to focus on other than politics.
The skymine drifted above the blue and gray clouds of Golgen, churning through rising vapors. Probe lines dangled down for kilometers, analyzing the chemical composition of the gas giant’s atmosphere. Roamer skyminers could raise or lower the industrial behemoth in order to harvest the densest hydrogen concentrations. The facility reminded Zhett Kellum of an enormous jellyfish.
Thrumming pistons pumped hydrogen from the intake scoop through reaction chambers, and separated out the rare allotrope ekti, which fueled Ildiran stardrives. Exhaust boiled away from huge stacks, sighing back into the atmosphere and propelling the facility along its aimless route. The skymine produced ekti for the Confederation as well as the Ildiran Empire.
Hydrogues still dwelled in the deep uncharted cloud layers below, but their diamond-hulled warglobes had not been seen for years.
A cargo ship skimmed in across the upper clouds, approaching the skymine. Zhett knew from the schedule that this must be the
part of the Kett Shipping fleet. The pilots, Xander Brindle and Terry Handon, were reliable, but more interested in traveling to different places than in establishing a boring regular route. Zhett envied them, but not too much. She and Patrick were happy here with their family.
She touched her ear comm as she rode a lift down to the landing bay. “Fitzy, Xander and Terry are landing in ten minutes. Want to say hi?”
Her husband responded, “I’d love to, and I’m sure Toff would too, but we’ll have to pass, since this young man seems much too distracted to finish his homework.”
Zhett heard their thirteen-year-old son, Kristof, groan and make excuses, but she tapped the ear comm to silence it, letting Patrick deal with the whining. He was better at it, and this was his week to supervise homework while she did the administrative duties.
The landing bay was a giant open maw in the lower half of the drifting skymine. Racks of sealed metal canisters full of concentrated stardrive fuel were ready to be loaded aboard the
Breezes swirled around Zhett as she stepped into the cargo bay, whipping the long dark hair across her face. Just this morning she had found a gray strand and plucked it out, indignant. She was much, much too young to worry about going gray. (And she told herself the same thing every year.)
came in, adjusting from side to side as the pilot used attitude jets to level it out. Though he wasn’t yet twenty years old, Xander Brindle had more experience than many professional pilots; he had been born aboard a ship and grown up at the controls.
Xander deftly landed the ship on the alignment cross, then powered down the engines. The side hatch dropped down, and he bounded out. The son of Robb Brindle and Tasia Tamblyn had a youthful energy, light tan skin, kinky brown hair, and striking blue-green eyes. He grinned as he spotted Zhett. “We’ve got room for a full load of ekti if you quote us a good price.”
“And we have more ekti than you could possibly carry—so long as you have items to trade.”
His partner Terry came down the ramp from the cargo hold, accompanied by their compy OK. Terry was a studious young man with short hair, a soft smile, and a quiet demeanor. Antigrav clamps at his waist kept his motionless legs and feet just off the deck; he held on to the compy to stabilize himself. Normally in zero-G, Terry’s useless legs didn’t hinder him at all, but since the skymine maintained gravity, he used the compy to help him around.
Terry said, “OK has comparison prices from ten other skymines, as well as the trading hub on Ulio. We can show you the going rate.”
Zhett shrugged. “Skymining isn’t cheap. We still have production costs.”
“But you’re not risking death anymore for every load of ekti you distill. The hydrogues have been quiet for years.” Terry held on to a rail and released OK. The compy started moving supply crates out of the
’s cargo hold to make room.
Zhett glanced toward the sea of clouds. “True. Now we only have to worry about the
While Terry called up inventory files on his pad, Xander helped OK haul out crates of goods they had brought from the Ulio trading hub. “We’ll find something to trade, no worries,” Xander said. “Saltpond caviar, medusa steaks, and a whole box of mushroom fillets from Dremen, cured in saltwater. They don’t taste too bad, especially if served with enough of this—New Portugal wine, last year’s black vintage.”
Terry added, “We’ve got Theron cocoonweave fabrics. I’m sure your husband would want to give you a nice scarf or dress.”
Zhett plucked at her work jumpsuit embroidered with clan symbols. “Do I look like the sort of person who wears dresses and scarves?”
“Maybe your daughter then?” Xander said. “Shareen’s seventeen, right? Two years younger than me. She must like pretty—”
Zhett’s laughter cut him off. “Then you know Shareen even less than you know me. She’s still at school on Earth anyway.”
OK kept a complete inventory list. The two traders posted their items, and let the skymine workers dicker over them. After Zhett negotiated a rate for the ekti, skyminers loaded the
, and Xander and Terry were ready to depart.
“Won’t you stay for a meal?” Zhett asked. “Fitz would like to see you two.”
“Sorry—places to go, planets to see,” Xander said. “Too many other spots to check off on the life list.”
Even a skymine administrator had to fit some time into the schedule to be a mother. Patrick shouldered a lot of the parenting duties while Zhett ran the huge cloud harvester, and then they alternated shifts. She met him on the skydeck, a large open balcony platform where breezes gusted through the faint filtering field.
Their son Toff was bouncing a ball against the wall and catching it. If the ball bounced wrong, it would carom off the edge of the observation deck and plunge into the infinite sky, but he caught it every time. Toff had deep red hair, which was genetically unexpected, considering both Zhett and Patrick had dark hair. The thirteen-year-old was blowing off steam, having finished his homework (under duress).
Patrick propped their two-year-old, Rex, against his waist, even though the toddler squirmed and wanted to play with his brother. “I think our Kristof is ready to go back to Academ,” he said in a teasing tone.
Toff reacted to his father’s suggestion with horror and almost missed catching his ball. “I still have two months off before I go back to school.”
Zhett turned to her husband and said in a mock serious tone, “Hmm, do you think he’d do better studying on Earth, like Shareen?”
“But Shareen hates it there!” Toff cried.
“You’ve both got it good,” Patrick said. “Try growing up with tutors at every turn, or protocol instructors who teach you which fork to use at which part of the meal, how to fold your napkin, and which side of the lips to dab first.”
Toff snorted. He bounced his ball on the rail, caught it, then bounced it against the deck, where it ricocheted against the wall, arced up into the air, and came down into his palm again.
Patrick Fitzpatrick III was a blue blood, the grandson of a former Hansa Chairman. Patrick had been in the Earth Defense Forces, survivor of a disastrous battle against the hydrogues. Zhett was the daughter of Roamer industrialist Del Kellum, whose clan had rescued Patrick along with other injured EDF comrades. Their romance had had a Romeo and Juliet quality—more than twenty years ago.
The toddler squirmed and fussed, and Patrick let him run around on the skydeck, but he watched every movement. Patrick was a good father, maybe to counterbalance the fact that his own upbringing had been so sterile. Zhett had been surprised by the mellowing and growth in his personality. When she first met him, Patrick was—frankly—a jerk. Now he claimed to have learned as much from being a real father as his children learned from having one.
Showing off, Toff threw his ball again, which bounced sideways in front of Rex. As the ball flew toward the edge of the deck, the two-year-old bounded after it in a cockeyed run. Barely even pausing in his conversation with Zhett, Patrick snagged Rex by the collar and held him dangling, arms outstretched, as the ball ricocheted off into the wide-open sky. Patrick didn’t even seem alarmed.
Zhett said, “He could have gone over the edge!”
“No, I was watching.”
Toff added, “I could always grab a swooper and dive down to catch him.”
Zhett took the toddler from her husband and scoffed at Toff’s bravado. “Once he dropped down into the thick clouds, how would you even find him?”
Toff made a rude noise. “Rex would cry so loud I’d hear him for kilometers.”
“You might catch him in time,” Patrick said. “But you’d have to change his diaper afterward.”
“Eww! Now that’s dangerous.”
Zhett let out a sigh, happy with her circumstances. The clouds below were thick, mysterious, quiescent. She had a good husband, a fine family, a fulfilling career, an important skymine. She liked being a wife and mother, she liked being a businesswoman. In fact, she had everything she could possibly want.
That feeling of euphoric satisfaction should have made her suspicious right away.
“You don’t know everything, young lady,” said the professor, looking as if she’d just swallowed a chemistry experiment gone horribly wrong. “In fact, you don’t even know as much as you think you do.” Professor Mosbach displayed Shareen’s test scores for the other students to see in an obvious and juvenile attempt at humiliation. “You need to concentrate on your learning.” Some of the students chuckled.