Authors: Allen Steele
This went on for about fifteen or twenty minutes, during which I barely had time to look out the porthole, let alone give the lidar more than a passing glance. Since I was coming in backward, I didn't have the luxury of selecting a precise landing site. At that point, though, all I wanted to do was make it through the upper atmosphere in one piece. So by the time a white-hot corona began to form around the heat shield, I couldn't tell where the hell I was going. Except down.
Gravity took over like a baby elephant that had decided to sit on my chest. Gasping for air, I struggled to remain consciousâ¦and when my vision began to blur and I thought I was about to lose it, I hit the button that would activate the automatic landing sequence. It was a good thing that I did so, because I wasn't totally myself when the
entered Coyote's stratosphere.
I was jerked out my daze by the sudden snap of the drogue chutes being released. The altimeter told me that I was twenty-seven thousand feet above the ground. Through the porthole, I could see dark blue sky above a cotton-gauze layer of clouds. So far, so good, but I was still falling fastâ¦but then there was another jolt as the drogues were released, and one more as the three main chutes were deployed. I sucked in a lungful of air. All right, so I wasn't going to become toast. Thank you, St. Buzz, and all other patron saints of dumb-luck spacers.
But that didn't mean that I was out of danger yet. Although the fuel gauge told me that I still had .03 percent in reserves, that was practically worthless so far as controlling my angle of descent. Firing thrusters now might cause the parachute lines to tangle, and then I'd be dead meat. So my fate was cast to the wind. Although I'd done my best to pick my landing site, so far as I knew I might splash down in a channel. Or descend into the caldera of an active volcano. Or land on top of the Wicked Witch of the East and be greeted by the Lollipop Guild.
In any event, I had no vote in the outcome. So I simply hung on tight and clenched my teeth as I watched the altimeter roll back. At one thousand feet, there was the thump of the heat shield being jettisoned, followed by the loud whoosh of the landing bags inflating.
By then my rate of descent was thirty-two feet per second, according to the altimeter. I began a mental countdown from the half minute mark.
â¦At the count of twenty, I decided that this was pointless, and simply waited.
Touchdown was hard, but not so violent that I did anything foolish like bite my tongue. To my relief, I didn't come down in water; there was no rocking back and forth that would have indicated that I'd landed in a channel or a river, just the tooth-rattling
of hitting solid ground. A few seconds later, there was the prolonged hiss of the airbags deflating; when I felt the bottom of the lifeboat settle beneath me, I knew that I was safe.
Welcome to Coyote. Now where the hell was I?
I waited until the bags collapsed, then unbuckled the harness and rose from my couch. After eighteen hours of zero g, my legs felt like warm rubber, but otherwise I had no trouble getting on my feet. The deck seemed stable enough; nonetheless, the first thing I did was look out the window to make sure that the lifeboat hadn't come down in a treetop. Nothing but what appeared to be a vast savannah of tall grass.
I already knew the air was breathable, so I went to the side hatch, removed the panel covering the lock-lever, and twisted it clockwise. The hatch opened with a faint gasp of overpressurized air. A moment later my ears popped. Coyote's atmosphere was thinner than Earth's, so I swallowed a couple of times to equalize the pressure in my inner ear, then I climbed through the hatch and dropped to the ground, landing on top of one of the deflated bags.
It was early afternoon, wherever it was that I'd landed, the alien sun just past zenith in a pale blue sky streaked here and there with thin clouds. Although the air was a little cooler than I had expected, nonetheless the day was warm; it was midsummer on Coyote, if I correctly recalled recent reports of this world, which meant that it wouldn't get cold until after Uma went down. About two or three miles away, beyond the edge of the field, was a line of trees; when I stepped away from the lifeboat and turned to look the other way, I saw more forest, with low mountains rising in the far distance.
The lifeboat had a survival kit; I'd already found it during my long trip here. Yet although it included a map of Coyote and a magnetic compass, a fat lot of good they'd do me now. The mountains represented no landmark that I recognized from ground level, and although the compass would help me tell north from south and east from west, a sense of direction was all but useless when I was ignorant of exactly where I had landed. So far as I knew, I was on the outskirts of Munchkinland, about a hundred miles from the Emerald City.
But the kit also included food sticks, six liters of water, a fire-starter, a survival knife, and a satphone. I could always use the satphone to call for helpâ¦but only as a last resort. I'd arrived aboard a stolen lifeboat, after having made a somewhat violent escape from a Coyote Federation starship. Therefore, it made little sense to yell for help when it was all but certain that my rescuers would take me to the nearest jail. And although my two feet were safely planted on Coyote soil, these weren't exactly the right circumstances to beg for political asylum.
Soâ¦first things first. Gather as much stuff as I could carry, pick a direction, and slog it out of there, with the hope that I wasn't too far away from civilization. I climbed back into the
and used the survival knife to cut away the lining of my seat, with the intent of using it as a makeshift pack for everything I'd take with me, and perhaps also as a bedroll. Once I had a nice, long strip of fabric, I laid it flat on the deck, then placed within it water bottles and food sticks. Once I wrapped the strip tightly around my belongings and lashed it across my chest and back, it made an acceptable sling. The satphone and fire-starter went into my jacket pocket along with the map and compass, and the knife was attached to my belt. As an afterthought, I removed my cravat and tied it around my forehead as a sweatband.
So now I was good to go. Ready to tackle the Coyote wilderness, wherever it might lead me. Despite my trepidation, I found myself eager to discover whatever lay out there. This was why I'd joined the Union Astronautica in the first place: to explore new worlds, to go places where no one had ever gone before. Well, I'd finally have my chanceâ¦
One last look to see if I'd forgotten anything, then once again I dropped out of the lifeboat. Farewell,
. You've stolen one more base, and this time slid home farther than you ever have before. Making sure that my sling was tightly knotted, I began to walk away from the lifeboatâ¦
And straight into the muzzle of a Union Guard carbine, pointed at me from less than six feet away.
“Stop right there!” The kid holding the gun wore a blue vest over a short-sleeve uniform of the same color and looked barely old enough to shave. “Don't move!”
“Not moving.” Nonetheless, I started to raise my hands. The customary gesture of surrender wasn't appreciated, because the kid's trigger finger twitched ever so slightly. “Easy, soldier,” I added, making like a statue. “Harmless. Unarmed. See?”
“Keep it that way.” Still keeping his hands on his weapon, the boy spoke into his headset mike. “Charlie two, this is Bravo leader. We've got him. Repeat, we've got him.”
Keeping my hands half-raised, I turned my head as much as I dared. To my left, another trooper was emerging from the high grass only a few yards away. I looked to my right, and caught a glimpse of a third soldier coming into view from behind the lifeboat. Like the squad leader, both carried Union Guard rifles, probably leftovers from the Revolution. Unless my guess was wrong, they belonged to the Colonial Militia, second-generation members of the Rigil Kent Brigade that had kicked the Western Hemisphere Union off Coyote nearly twenty-five years ago. These were the descendents of guerrilla fighters, and therefore wouldn't care much for the son of the son of their enemy.
I might have been surprised to find them, but they sure as hell weren't surprised to find me. Within minutes, a gyro roared down out of the sky, its twin-prop rotors flattening the grass around us as it touched down only thirty feet away. By then Bravo Company had forced me to my knees, ripped my sling from my shoulders, patted me down, and removed everything from my pockets, then used a plastic strap to tie my hands behind my back. They marched me to the gyro at gunpoint and offered little assistance as I struggled aboard.
And that's how I came to Coyote.
Busted on Coyoteâ¦
the discreet charm of the Colonial Militiaâ¦
weird incident in the stockadeâ¦
a business proposition from Mr. Morgan Goldstein.
A couple of hours later, I was in a jail cell in Liberty. We will now have a brief pause to relish the irony of that statement.
As it turned out, my lifeboat landed in a savannah on the southern half of Midland, a large subcontinent just across the East Channel from New Florida. Indeed, if the
hadn't tracked the
on its way down and informed the Colonial Militia of its touchdown point, I could have hiked east to Goat Kill River, then followed it north to Defiance, a settlement near the mountains I'd seen from my landing site. If I'd headed south, I would have found a fishing village calledâso help me, I'm not lyingâCarlos's Pizza, located on the banks of the Great Equatorial River. And if I'd gone west, I would have eventually reached the East Channel, where one of any number of pirogues, catamarans, tugboats, or yachts that plied the river could have picked me up.
In any case, I was never more than a day or two away from civilization. All the same, though, perhaps it was just as fortunate that the Colonial Militia found me when they did. Although I was close enough to a couple of towns to reach them on foot, the grasslands were rife with boidsâ¦and considering that I was unarmed save for my survival knife, an encounter with one of those man-eating avians would have been fatal. But the blueshirts got to me before that could happen, and soâ¦
Well, to make a long story short, I wound up in what was colloquially referred to as the stockade, even though it was an adobe structure larger than some of the homes in town. Liberty, of course, was the first colony on Coyote, established almost a half century ago by the original colonists from the URSS
. It had since grown into what might pass as a city if you squinted hard enough. I didn't get to see much of it, though; once the gyro landed just outside the stockade, the blueshirts marched me straight in.
The crime rate on Coyote must be really low, because the six cells on the ground floor were unoccupied save for a drunk passed out in the first one. The blueshirts handed me over to a proctor, a not-un-kindly old guy they called Chief Levin. He walked me down to the end of the cell block, where he unsnapped my handcuffs before sliding open the iron-bar door. Dinner would be at sundown, the Chief told me, and my arraignment was scheduled for the next morning. If I needed anything before then, just yell. Then he slammed the door shut and walked off. I heard him return a little while later to rouse the drunk and usher him out, and after that I was pretty much left alone.
My cell was primitive but comfortable, or at least as much as these things go. A foam pad on a wrought-iron frame, complete with a blanket woven from some coarse fabric that I'd later learn was called shagswool. A pitcher of water and a ceramic cup. A commode that didn't flush, but instead wasâ¦well, call it a porcelain throne above a foul-smelling netherworld eight feet below; one whiff, and I resolved to keep the lid shut. Baked-clay walls upon which previous guests had scratched their initials, along with some fairly interesting, if sometimes rude, graffiti. A ceiling light panel that looked as if it had been recently installed, evidence that modern technology had lately been imported from Earth.
It was the window that I enjoyed the most. Ribbed with four iron bars sunk deep within the adobe, with hinged wooden shutters on the exterior, it wasn't glazed, but instead was open to the air outside. As I sat on the cot, back propped against the wall and legs dangling over the side, I savored the warm breeze of a late-summer afternoon. Sure, I was a prisoner, and it was very possible that I would soon be aboard the
Robert E. Lee
again, this time as a deportee bound for whatever punishment the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Union Astronautica had in store for me. But for a short while, I'd get a chance toâ¦
Something itched at my mind.
There's no other way to describe it. Imagine a mosquito bite, perhaps at your ankle. Annoying, but not painful. But when a mosquito tags you, it's just a flesh wound; you can scratch it until it goes away.
What I felt was a little like that, but instead deep within my head. Like something had crawled into my cerebrum and given me a tiny yet distracting little sting. Sitting up on my bunk, I reached up to rub the back of my neck. For a moment, the sensation went away, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Evening was closing in, with light fading through the window. I hoped that someone would close the outside shutters before it got too cold. And perhaps bring me something to eat, too. I hadn'tâ¦
Then I glanced at the window and saw someone standing just outside.
In the waning light of day, it was difficult to make out his features. I stood up, stepped closer to the window. “Hey there,” I said. “Who are you?”
He said nothing, but continued to stare in at me. He wore a dark brown robe, its hood pulled up around his face. A fairly young man, a little older than me, or at least that was my first impression.
Again, there was the itch in my mindâ¦and suddenly, I tasted chicken. Roast chicken, warm, perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of paprika, garlic, saffron, sea salt, and black pepper. The chicken of the gods. Chicken the way Mama used to make it, back when I wasâ¦
Then my mind fell open.
Again, I have no other way to describe it. Imagine that there's a little trapdoor at the back of your skull, one that's been closed for so long, you've forgotten that it even exists. Then, one day, someone who has the key inserts it within the lock, turns itâ¦and
, everything that is you rushes out. All your memories, all your knowledge, all your fantasies, all your little loves and hates, everything that comprises what you might call your soul gushes out as a stream of viscous black sludge.
As swiftly as it had opened, the door of my mind slammed shut. And as it did, the taste of chicken faded from my palate. Staggering away from the window, I managed to make it to the bunk before I keeled over.
I slept for only a little while before I woke up. Feeling strangely hungover, I stumbled back to the window. Twilight was fading, and the stranger was nowhere to be seen. Once again, I was alone.
Something within my mind insisted that this was an illusionâ
you dozed off,
a small voice said,
and had a vivid dream
âyet I couldn't quite believe this. I'd just received a visitor. Of that, I had little doubt.
Dinner arrived about an hour later, on a tray carried in by Chief Levin, who slipped it through a rectangular opening in the door. By coincidence, it was roast chicken. Nowhere near as tasty as the mental impression I'd received just a little while earlier, but I was in no position to complain. Besides, I was starving. So I wolfed it down, cleaning the plate of the green beans and sweet potatoes that came with it. A small surprise to find that I'd been given a knife and fork; apparently no one seriously believed that I might try to make use of them as weapons. But the Chief wasn't dumb; when he came for my tray, he made sure that the utensils were in plain sight before he took it back from me.
Once again, I wondered why I hadn't yet seen the magistrates, let alone been charged with anything. I'd arrived late in the day, of course, but surely the legal system must have some means of processing those who've just been arrested. Perhaps the magistrates were trying to find a lawyer who would represent me pro bono. Come to think of it, did they even have lawyers on Coyote? A few days ago, I would've hoped notâat least not by the standards of the Western Hemisphere Union, where one is guilty until proven innocentâbut cooling my heels in a jail cell, I found myself praying for someone who had a better grasp of colonial law than I did.
I was still trying to figure out whether or not to plead guilty to whatever I would be charged with when I heard the cell-block door swing open. Two pairs of footsteps came down the corridor, and I sat up on my bunk. Okay, this would be my solicitor. I hoped that his sheepskin hadn't been mail-ordered from Earth.
Then the Chief stopped in front of my cell, and with him was a short, rather pudgy middle-aged man with a shaved head. He looked familiar, yet I couldn't quite place him.
“Here he is, Mr. Goldstein.” Chief Levin nodded in my direction. “Sorry, but I can't let you in. Rulesâ¦”
“Quite all right, Chris. So long as we can talk.” Goldstein looked around. “Of course, if I could have a place to sitâ¦”
He cast a look at the Chief, and Levin turned and walked away. Goldstein waited patiently, the fingers of his left hand absently playing with the crease of his tailored trousers. Wearing a tan linen suit, a red silk scarf hanging loose around his thick neck, he was easily the best-dressed man I had yet seen on Coyote. Which wasn't saying much, because everyone I'd met so far was a blueshirt or a proctor. Nonetheless, this person practically smelled like money. Had to be a lawyerâ¦and yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had seen him before.
Chief Levin returned with a straight-backed wood chair that he'd found somewhere. “You're too kind,” Goldstein said, as the proctor placed it in front of my cell. “That will be all for now, thanks.” He raised his right hand to the proctor, and I caught a brief glimpse of green paper neatly folded within his middle and ring fingers. The Chief shook Goldstein's hand, deftly causing the colonial to disappear, then he vanished as well.
Goldstein waited until the cell-block door slammed shut, then he turned to look at me. “Ensign Truffaut,” he said, favoring me with a broad smile. “So good to see you again.”
“I'm sorry, butâ¦”
“Of course we have.” Smoothing the back of his trousers with his hand, he sat down in the chair the Chief had brought him. “Can't blame you if you don't remember me, being rather preoccupied at the time. Mr. Heflin is very efficient in his duties, don't you think?” A sly grin. “But perhaps that lump you delivered to the back of his head will teach him not to mistake efficiency for attention to detail.”
It was then that I recognized him. The passenger who'd emerged from his first-class cabin aboard the
just in time to see the chief petty officer escort me to the bridge. Goldstein nodded, his grin growing wider as I gaped at him.
“Ah, soâ¦now you know.” Goldstein reached into a pocket of his jacket, produced a pair of thick brown cigars. He offered one to me; when I shook my head, he shrugged and put it away. “If you hadn't been exposed,” he continued, “I might have come over to ask if you wanted a poker game to pass the time.” He used a pocket guillotine to clip the end of his stogie. “Then again, if I'd done that, I might have taken your cover story at face valueâ¦that you were a gentleman by the name of Geoffrey Carr, and nothing more interesting than that.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Disappoint me?” An eyebrow was raised as a gold-plated lighter was produced. “Far from it. In fact, you may be the answer to a problem I have. And I may be the answer to yours.”
I didn't know quite what to say to that, so I simply waited as he flicked his lighter and used it to gently char the end of his cigar. Blue-grey fumes rose toward the ceiling; I don't smoke, but it was fragrant enough that I almost regretted not accepting the one he'd offered me.
“Name's Goldstein. Morgan Goldstein.” He settled back and stretched out his legs, so self-assured that you could have sworn that he owned the stockade. “Ever heard of me?”
“No, Iâ¦” Then I stopped myself. “There's a Morgan Goldstein who's in charge of Janus, butâ¦”
“But what?” He rolled his cigar between his fingertips, not quite looking at me. “Please. Speak your mind.”
What was on my mind was the improbability of a billionaire sitting in a cell block, having a smoke and a chat with someone about to be convicted on felony charges. Sure, I knew who Morgan Goldstein was. Founder and CEO of Janus, Ltd., the largest private space firm in the solar system. Earth's, that is, or at least until just a few years ago, when he abruptly uprooted his corporation from the Western Hemisphere Union and relocated it to Coyote, where he reestablished it as the richest company in the new world, with himself as its wealthiest citizen. Although most of Janus's shipping interests still remained forty-six light-years away, the corporate headquarters were now located in Albion, not far from the New Brighton spaceport where, if things had worked out better, Geoffrey Carr would have peacefully disembarked.
“Yeahâ¦sure, you're that same guy.” I waved my hand back and forth to clear the air in front of my face. “And I'm Dorothy Gale from Kansas.”
His face darkened for a moment, as if nonplussed to find someone who wouldn't instantly take him at his word. Then he relaxed and tilted back his head to exhale smoke at the ceiling. “Then I'd have to ask where you left your little dog and why you couldn't have found a better place to park your farmhouse.” He shook his head. “I'm not normally accustomed to proving my identity, but if you insistâ¦”
Reaching into a coat pocket, he produced a datapad. I couldn't help but notice that it was a Son Ap Executive: state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, in what appeared to be a platinum casing. He pressed his thumb against the ID plate, then raised the pad to his face so that the retinal scanner could check his eyes. A soft
, and the pad opened. He tapped a couple of commands into the keypad, waited a moment, entered yet another set, then leaned forward to pass the unit through the cell bars.