Monday, June 30, 2014
In the wee small hours of the morning, before the Star Sailer made port, Ellington Webb slept soundly. Though firmly not of the superstition that his dreams--or anyone's--carried any kind of prophetic power, as he made his mad dash escape attempt later that day, Webb would feel nonetheless shortchanged at the Universe not sending him some kind of unconscious warning.
The day began as any other in the Redwood Moon. Light filtered through the Aperture, glinting off the mirrorwall and reflecting back down to the world below. From his window, Webb could see the elegant slope upward of one half of the great tree. The other half, antipodean, grew from overhead until the trees laced their branches together in spin-neutral freefall.
Morning was when the moon felt most like home, like Earth. Light streamed through at an angle that suggested a just-rising sun. The mirrors were rubbish at other parts of day, but they did morning and dusk exceedingly well. The interior of the Redwood Moon resembled the cross-section of some massive eye, with habitations along the inner surface, clustered around the roots of the ancient Earth-native tree. Exterior-wise, the asteroid resembled a large potato a hundred kilometers long. Sunlight filtered through the aperture and was reflected on mirrors at the far end of the drum. Something like sixty thousand people lived here, most of whom were born in Redwood, and had never set foot on a proper planet.
Centuries ago, the Redwood Moon was hollowed out by an army of mining drones, who extracted the metals in its core to build the first ships of the great Navy of the Human Diaspora, the first Star Sailers. When everything usable was extracted, the robots continued until the Moon was a hollow shell that could be filled with air, water, plants and human beings. Great rockets were built at cardinal points on the asteroid's exterior, spinning it in a swift twirl of centrifugal force, creating an artificial sense of gravity against the interior of the habitation shell. From his window, beyond the sweep of the great tree, Webb could see the horizon curve upward, homes and buildings on the far floor just waking up to the city's artificial dawn.
That morning, unlike most, Webb was awake early enough to see the first ships pierce the Aperture's Static Shell, sliding in slowly to nestle within Redwood's branches. One of them, clearly, was military. The silhouette, like two old-Earth battleships fused together along the keel, was unmistakable. The sight of it caused a glint of cold panic to shudder through his insides. Calm down, he told himself. It was hardly the first Star Navy ship to dock at the Redwood Moon in the last four years. No one was looking for him, They all knew--thought--he was dead. He was, of course, after a fashion. So were the rest of the Navy's drones, when it came down to it. The old scars on his arm itched for the first time since the last Star Sailer made port.
He would cancel his appointments. There was no one he needed to see today. Nothing that couldn't wait. Was that what he did the last time? Wouldn't someone get suspicious? Redwood wasn't exactly Ceres. It was a small town. People talked. Ellington Webb, the shop mechanic, really quite good at old star ship parts and oddly invisible any time one of the Diasporan Navy Star Sailers makes port. Eventually, someone would do the math. They might not have all the pieces, but by then it wouldn't matter.
Anyway, after all this time, it wouldn't be the Londinium. Couldn't be. So, best to keep up appearances. They'd be gone within a day or two.
Still his scars itched.
His shop was a modest one-room storefront above which he kept a small apartment. All the comforts of home. He'd bought the place outright from Li Chau when the old woman retired, after apprenticing to her from almost the moment he got off the boat. Four years he'd been here, after covering his tracks for two. The shop was dim and dusty, strewn about with spare parts and the discarded limbs of machines that would never work again. He could clean the place up, recycle the parts, actually dust once in a while, but he found the clutter lent a certain old-Earth authenticity to the place that drew in customers. With a wave of his hand he brought up the shades and the light streamed in. Outside, the other bodegas and store fronts were waking up: the cafe across the street, the Fog Bank, the travel agency. He looked long and hard at that last one.
Webb had money: business treated him well these past few years. And there were always new colonies developing, new moons being hollowed out, new cities. He could visit the floating palaces of Venus, or the Ice Caravans of Mars. He could buy a house on Luna and watch his old home rise in the sky each morning. Choi expressed an interest in buying his space. Webb would push outward, find somewhere new.
Along the length of Ellington Webb's left forearm were seventeen scars, tally marks recording his Conveyances.
Webb grew up on Earth, on a farm his father managed. Which was to say that robots did most of the actual farming. His father's chief duty seemed to lie in worrying. Webb was the fifth of seven children, forever lost in the shuffle, forever underfoot. There was probably a marker or something back on the farm or in town by the old church, a bodiless tombless headstone giving his particulars and the fabricated date of his death. He would never go home. Never find out if and for how long his father looked up from that long panel of robot oversight controls to soak in the news of his son's passing.
It was a cold fact never acknowledged: to be Conveyed is to die. They say your life flashes before
your eyes, and they're right, but it's more than that. The blackness comes first Then, as your body dissolves into pure energy, every synapse in your brain fires at once. Memory and mathematics and supposition and nightmare bleed into one another, and you disappear. Die. To be replaced by another, different you on the other end.
This process happened to Ellington Webb seventeen times. At first he thought little of it. After all, it couldn't work how it seemed instinctively to work, he must simply have misunderstood the process. They wouldn't knowingly kill you over and over again, that seemed ludicrous.
Somewhere along the line, however, something happened. A subtle change in his point of view, which, to his horror, he understood as this version of himself being fundamentally different from the previous version. He tried to shirk Conveyor duty whenever he could. It was easy at first. The machine was, after all, incredibly expensive and energy-consuming. It was rarely the first choice. There were times, however, when it was unavoidable, and Webb's gradual suspicion gave way to full-blown paranoia. They were killing him. Over and over. He was surrounded by the walking dead.
He began to put forth a plan. Rather, Iteration Sixteen did. It was Iteration Four who first began to suspect, Iteration Nine who started the tally, and, finally, Iteration Seventeen who hacked Londinium's systems, created a false alarm in the infracloud, and rigged an escape pod to "mistakenly" jettison and crash with him inside. He hitched passage on an Amaranthine Hermitage, bartering his skills until he found an asteroid where he could get cheap gene drifting treatment. He stayed there--couldn't recall the name anymore--for a handfull of months before moving on. Always a different alias, always a different ship, criss-crossing the solar system for two years before landing in Redwood.
That morning he kept himself busy, pointedly and self-consciously not looking out his window or thinking about the kinds of things they do to deserters.
Hours later, two Navy officers shimmered in to being on the street outside his shop and Webb's heart stopped. Choudhry. Eldridge. Older, careworn, but unmistakable. He felt at once jubilant to find them still alive--or as alive as anyone Conveyed so often and, in this case, so crassly, ostentatiously, in front of him--quickly replaced by a cold and unsubtle dread. To be the both of them here and now. They found him. Must have. After the surgeries and the gene drifting. After time spent on Titan and the Obsidian Spire. Still they found him. He was paralyzed. Six years on he couldn't have imagined this. A slow, shallow inhale of breath. They stepped through the door, the bell jingling, another of Webb's concessions to the old world.
Choudhry carried something, a case not a weapon. "Good morning," she said, her voice unchanged by the years and the repeated resurrections. "I'm told you're the man to talk to about repairing a JP38."
"It's a valve. For deuterium plasma. Our own machinist was having trouble, but we heard good things about this place."
Webb took the valve on reflex, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Neither Choudhry nor Eldridge seemed anything other than mildly expectant. The latter cast an appraising look about the place. Could it be? The valve was a glossy black, pitted and scarred where plasma stresses took their toll. The grooving was subtle, the scarring faint. It was enough, however, he knew, to render the thing useless.
"Not surprised," Webb finally managed. "Your typical Navy machine shop doesn't do this kind of delicate."
"Spend time on a Navy ship?" Eldridge asked. He was moving about the shop, fiddling with cast-off pieces of machinery and items Webb had marked for sale. The question seemed casual, but it felt to Webb as barbed as anything he ever heard.
"Let's just say you're not the first Star Sailer to come through here with a busted '38 valve," Webb recovered.
"So, can you fix it?" Choudhry asked.
He held the valve up to the light. The grooves and pits were easier to make out. His sleeves slipped downward, though, and he had to bring the valve down hastily, aware that they could have seen his scars. "I have an old positron lathe that can do the job, yeah. Say tomorrow? How long are you in town?" His tone neutral.
"A few days," Eldridge said. If he noticed anything, he made no sign of it. "We're on leave. Two month tour past the Neptune frontier." Webb grunted, pretending to pay more attention to the valve joint than he actually was, hoping not to seem too much in a panic. "Anyway," Eldridge continued, having made an appraising circuit of the shop, "We'd like to get this done and fitted before the day is out. Chief is eager to get on leave, too. You understand."
"Of course. Come back at, say, eighteen hundred hours?" Could this still really be coincidence? It made a sort of sense. Why send a full fledged Sailer like Londinium for one lousy deserter? They'd send a patrol ship, surely, or contact O'Hara and the local regulars. Could he be free? Scott free even now and staring Choudhry and Eldridge (the latter of whom he always hated) straight in the face?
"Eighteen hundred is perfect," Choudhry said, and the two of them departed as informally as the left. From the door Webb watched them tour the lazy street. Not once did they ever look back.
He waited until lunchtime before he went out looking for Choi. The proprietor of Redwood's other major repair shop was eating lunch at the same place he usually did, a dim, homey affair with walls of simulated wood made to look as though they were, in fact, the roots of the great Redwood outside. Every booth carved into the faux-wood, little nooks and knots and whorls everywhere. The floor was festively uneven. Webb hated the place. He did not, in fact, particularly care for Choi Mu-Seon, either. In what Webb took to be his customary booth at the far end of the restaurant, Choi sat, scarcely looking up from his Ruben sandwich as Webb approached. If you could call it a Ruben. Nothing grew in Redwood in quite the same way as Earth. It took Webb ages to get used to the food on each of the moons on which he lived, to say nothing of Navy gruel. The smell of the somehow-off pickles and sauerkraut made him glad he had not yet eaten.
"What can I do for you, Webb?" Choi Mu-Seon was skirting his fifties, flecks of silver just starting to appear in his short black hair. He wore the standard lapelless olive coat tinged with gold and yellow leaves--looking nothing like the leaves of the actual redwood tree outside--favored by many in Redwood, and an expression of supreme dissatisfaction.
How to play this delicately? "Remember how last month," he soldiered forth before a lull in conversation could become pronounced. "When you offered again to buy my shop and I said no?"
"Vaguely." Not diverting attention from his sandwich. They've had this discussion a dozen times before.
"I'm amenable to reopening the negotiation."
"I can see that."
"What's the hurry?"
Webb spun out a tale half-formed from sleepless nights imagining how he would play just such a conversation as this. Dead brother back on Earth, just found out today, has a family and business of his own needing looking after, the occasional extraneous-but-grounding detail. It is the discussion of passage where Webb most needs to negotiate delicately. Choi mentioned the Hotspur. Webb countered that she wasn't due back for another six weeks.
"And the Londinium?"
Webb prayed his poker face didn't crack. "Not headed anywhere near. I just spoke to a couple of the crew, myself. Looking to repair a JP38. They're moving out past Neptune."
Annoyance played across Choi's face in less subtle notes than usual, at the mention of the Londinium crew. They clearly hadn't asked him. Still. No way to go but through. "Look," Webb continued. "I know I'm not supposed to know this and I know you probably can't tell me directly, but I also know there's a ship berthed at the outer shell. One of the old June Bugs. I know she's yours and you use her to ferry supplies to the Sundered Moon. She's, what? Twenty years old? Power core out of date I'd guess, alignment's probably shot. You're due for an upgrade, my friend. I'll take the old Bug off your hands and you can get yourself a new one of those Silver Darts I saw on download."
"Where would I get that?" Choi said in a tone that demonstrated how much Webb had worn out hsi welcome. "They open a shuttle dealership since this morning?"
"I don't know, you'll find a way!" Frustration barreled into Webb's own voice. "You found a way to buy my business!"
"You found a way to sell it." A pause. "Must have been some guy, your brother."
"Huh? Oh, yes. Mechanic, like me. Owns--owned--a shop out in New Connecticut.
Another pause, this one longer and somehow more pointed, as Choi finished his sandwich and took a long drag off his perspiring root beer. "Bug seas two, You're in luck because we are moving product. I'll take your shop, and your inventory, and your customers. Priya will see that you get a first-class berth from Sundered back to Earth. Little out of your way, but it's better than nothin'. You'll be seeing that family of yours in a month, tops."
"A month?" It was the closest thing to latch to to protest. Already Webb knew he'd be taking the deal. He'd known coming in. Still. He hadn't quite imagined the depth to which he'd be screwed.
"Priya leaves tonight. Take it or leave it."
"Fine. I'll be back at seven with the keys to the shop." Webb rose to go.
"Great." Choi replied. He hastily scribbled something on a napkin. "Directions to the shell point where you'll find Priya and the Bug. And Webb?" he added mock solemnly. "Keep out of trouble."
Webb polished through the valve and called his assistant Jane to look after the shop. Londinium would get its JP38; hopefully that would assuage them. He was alone in the back, looking a little wistfully through his inventory when the old-fashioned bell announced someone entering. Jane? Too early. The clock read 16:30. He moved cautiously from the lathe to the front of the shop.
She stood in the doorway alone, still in her short-sleeve gray uniform, close cropped hair and clipped, precise posture. His heart skipped. Even as his mind raced, it was still good to see her, or this iteration, at least.
"You're in luck," he said, even-toned, moving quickly, business-like to cover up his slack-jawedness the moment before. "I was just finishing up your valve. I was going to leave it with my assistant, I have some business...I wasn't expecting you until--"
"I saw the scars on your arm this morning."
"I'm sorry?" The floor fell out from him, as though the moon stopped its spin.
"I knew a man once, had scars like that."
"Boring. Got my arm caught in a thresher, doing farm work on Ceres. I have your piece in the back, let me get it."
"It's actually more common than you think," Choudhry spoke up, her tone didactic. "People with teleportation psychosis. They need some way to keep track of their Conveyances. Still. You'd think they'd just keep a diary or something."
"I'm afraid you're not making much sense, er...Lieutenant."
"I knew a fella who got tattooed every time. Not because he thought he died or anything stupid like that, he just wanted to mark his passage."
Webb winced--inwardly he hoped--at the mention of Santhiago, the laughing big man who they'd both fought alongside in the Adrastean uprising. "And how many tattoos was that?" he asked, finally joining in Choudhry's dance.
"Oh, I don't remember. Does it matter? Moore?"
His birth name traveled through him like a bolt of lightning. She had him. How did she have him?
"Matter more than what?" he tried facilely. still certain he could salvage this. What did they have on him? Really? "I...I'll get you that '38."
The back of the shop was more of a jumble than the front, a narrow cramped nook of shelves and parts. He passed through it blindly and shot through the door in the far back. Only when he reached the air outside did Webb realize how quickly and shallowly he'd been breathing.
Down the cluttered alleyway, past Market Street and its oblivious bustle of afternoon shoppers--how many of them did he know? How many might he call friends? All lost--under the monorail pass, across two more streets until he found the manhole cover. She'd be on him by now, surely. Down into the sewers. Choi drew him a map, It was back in the shop. He would have to go from memory.
Splashing through ankle-deep waste water, past pipes and grates and checkpoints and sleeping monitor robots, limned faintly by light from above the sewer grates. Down to a raised platform and another cover, this one into the deeper levels. Past electrics and the dim hum of recycling machines, the oxygen reclimators, all the viscera of Redwood's life-sustaining machinery. The airlock was small an unassuming; he might have tripped over it in his dash across these dim and featureless corridors. A round hatch in the floor, a keypad dead center.
5. 6. 7. 9. Buzz. Red light. Nothing. Had Choi screwed him after all? Did Choudhry and the others get to him? Webb knelt there, his breath ragged with panic. After all this? He tried again. 5. 9. 7. 6. Red. 5-6-9-7. Red. 5! 7! 9! 6! Green! he was through the hatch. A lone spacesuit in the locker below. Webb slithered in to it as the airlock above closed automatically. Twenty seconds in and the lock depressurized, almost before he had his helmet on.
Moore. Six years since he heard that name and Choudhry had him pegged instantly. If he got out of this alive, he'd kill that gene drifter.
The light went out above, the airlock was fully depressurized. There was no code to the other hatch. A few turns and he was outside.
Another tunnel.This one twisting downward along the mining robots' ancient path. Webb lowered himself through the hatch. Closed it behind. His earlier panic was replaced by a calm resolve. Choi hadn't screwed him. Another quarter mile of tunnel and he would be out. They couldn't Convey him through all this rock; he would have only a narrow window between when he emerged and when he found the June Bug where he'd be vulnerable. Down he went through twisting passages of rough-hewn rock, claustrophobic bends where he almost didn't fit, his breath the only sound for company, his helmet lamp the only light. He braced himself against the wall as he scrambled down. Centrifugal force kept pushing him outward toward the skin of the Redwood Moon. If he slipped, if he lost his grip he would be tossed free into open space.
The tunnel angled around to starlight with little warning and Webb gingerly lowered himself face first down the last few feet. It was like coming into some unimaginably vast basement cavern. Outside the fissure there was a series of rungs through which Webb laced his feet before turning on the spacesuit's magnetic boots. For the briefest of moments, he allowed himself awe at the vista. Four years since he last saw stars. Cold and shining and brilliant. Unfettered by atmosphere, unbound by windows and walls. The same stars that called out to him all those lifetimes ago.
The June Bug lay clasped to the outer shell of the moo, its gangplank extended upward to Redwood's surface. Webb moved slowly, deliberately toward the Bug, a pitted ancient gray flyer in the general style of an old airplane, but boxier. It grew as he approached: the horizon of Redwood wasn't exactly far away. Around and above him the sky spun. He risked a few seconds of radio.
"June Bug, this is Webb. Can you see me?"
There was a crackle of static and another voice, one he should have expected. Choudhry's.
"Ellington Webb. You are wanted under suspicion of desertion. Please stand by to surrender to the proper authorities."
Webb turned, frantic but impeded by the slow lock of his magnetic boots. It was like moving through a dream. Back to the fissure, can't Convey through rock, back down. He'd hide in the city. He still had friends there. Jane. People who would understand, who would get him off Redwood and on to somewhere else in the Belt.
As he turned he saw it rise up against the far starlit horizon of the Redwood Moon. The spin of the moon was drawing him away--there was still time. Frantic, Webb spun back to the Bug. "I don't know what you're talking about!" he shouted into the radio. "I'm a private citizen! Leave me alone!"
"Come on, Crispin," her voice crackled. "Time to come in from the cold."
"How many Madeline Choudhrys have there been?" he demanded, desperate. "Coming and going like mayflies? Do you even remember what she was like?"
The cabin lights were on in the Bug. They could outrun a Star Sailer. Surely. He just needed a few more seconds. Just a few mor--