Authors: Allen Steele
Just beyond a small glade, only a few hundred yards away, lay what I first took to be a fortress. A ring-shaped structure, built of what seemed to be solid rock, its outer walls sloping inward to surround a cylindrical inner keep that vaguely resembled an enormous pillbox of the sort that had once been built by German soldiers during one of the world wars back on Earth. Narrow, slotlike windows were set deep within the keep's round walls, while wiry antennae jutted from its flat roof. There were no openings of any sort visible in the outer walls, although an indentation of some sort gave the impression of a gate that I couldn't make out through the trees.
embassy.” Goldstein's voice was subdued, almost as if he expected to be overheard. “The original structure was built by us, on land President Gunther ceded to them as sovereign territory. That was shortly after the
crew returned from Rho Coronae Borealis, with the Prime Emissary aboard. Once heshe determined that hisher people would be safe here, though, heshe summoned a ship from home. A few days later, two of their shuttles touched down over there, and thenâ¦” He paused. “They created that place in four days.”
“Yeah, okay, butâ¦” Then what he'd just said struck home. “Did you say four
“Uh-huh.” Goldstein nodded toward the bench. “They wouldn't allow any of us to come near, but when I heard what was happening, I got someone to let me join the faculty members who were observing everything from here.” There was an expression of wonder on his face as his gaze returned to the distant compound. “It was like seeing a flower blossom in the early morning. At first, it didn't seem as if anything was happening. But after a while, we saw that something was growingâ¦”
“Being built, you mean.”
“No. I mean it
. No scaffolds, no heavy equipmentâ¦not even construction crews. It just rose from the ground, little by little, so slowly that you didn't think anything was happening. Then you'd go away for coffee or to have a smoke, and when you came back you'd see that the outer walls were just a little taller than the last time you'd looked. And all of it solidâ¦perfect, like it was a stone plant of some sort.”
“That's our best guess, yeahâ¦but far more advanced than anything we've ever developed. Spectrographic imaging reveals that the walls are comprised of minerals found in the native soil, but that's as much as we know. It resists everything else we throw at it. Thermo-graphs, sonar, radar, lidarâ¦totally airtight. Even the windows are reflective. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out.”
“So what have youâ¦I mean, what have our people found out? About what goes on in there, I mean?”
“So far, the
have allowed only three people inside. Carlos Montero, the former president, in his role as official liaison. He doesn't say much to anyone, but that's to be expected. A Dominionist missionary whoâ¦well, he's not talking to anyone either, but from what I've heard, he's had a crisis of faith.” He paused. “And I'm the third person.”
“Only so far as an anteroom, where I spoke with them through a glass window. That's the farthest they've allowed anyone, or so I've been told.” Goldstein tucked his hands in his trouser pockets. “I wanted you to see this, to give you an idea of what we're going after. It's not just establishing trade relations with another raceâ¦it's getting our hands on technology of such magnitude that something like that is little more than a trinket.”
Before I could answer, he turned his back to the compound. “Come on,” he said as he began to walk down the hill. “Let's get you cleaned up. Then I'll introduce you to the rest of the crew.”
Goldstein had made a reservation for me at a small B&B called the Soldier's Joy, in the old part of Liberty, not far from the grange hall that had been the meetinghouse of the original colonists. Before he dropped me off, Goldstein pointed to a tavern just down the road from the inn and told me that he'd meet me there in three hours. Then the limo glided away, leaving me alone again in a strange town.
My room was on the second floor, and, while it wasn't the presidential suite, at least it had its own bath, which was all that I cared about just then. So I took a long, hot shower that rinsed away the last of my travel sweat, then wrapped myself in a robe I found hanging on the bathroom door and lay down on a feather-stuffed bed that felt nothing like a jail cot. I hadn't slept well in the stockade, and I figured I had time for a midday siesta.
The afternoon sun was shining through the windows when I woke up. Opening the dresser and closet, I discovered three changes of clothes, along with a shagswool jacket and a sturdy pair of boots stitched from what I'd later learn was creek cat hide. There were even toiletries in the bathroom, including a sonic toothbrush and shaver. I got rid of my whiskers and brushed my teeth, then tried on a pair of hemp trousers, a cotton shirt, and a shagswool vest. Everything fit me better than I had expected, even the boots; either Goldstein had an amazingly accurate sense for clothing sizes, or his people had found my specs during their research. I didn't know which prospect unnerved me more.
In any case, I arrived at the tavern a little less than three hours after promising Goldstein that I would meet him there. I was on schedule, but my new boss wasn't. Or at least his hoverlimo was nowhere in sight. And the tavern itself was rather run-down. With a weather-beaten signboard above the front door proclaiming its name to be Lew's Cantina, it was little more than a log cabin with a thatch roof and fieldstone chimney to one side. Just a shack that someone had neglected to tear down.
I hesitated outside for a few moments, wondering whether I'd misunderstood Goldstein and gone to the wrong place. But there was nothing else in the neighborhood that looked even remotely like a bar or restaurant, and he'd told me that he'd buy me a drink once I got there. So I walked across a wood plank and pushed open a door that creaked on its hinges.
Inside, Lew's Cantina was little more inviting than its exterior. A low ceiling with oil lamps suspended from the rafters. An unfinished floor upon which wood shavings soaked up spilled ale. Faded blankets hanging from log walls. Battered tables and wicker chairs, some of which looked as if they'd been repaired several times. A stone hearth with a couple of half-burned logs. The bar was no more than a board nailed across the top of a row of beer kegs; behind it stood an old lady, thin and frail, who scowled at me as she wiped a chipped ceramic mug with a rag that probably played host to three or four dozen different strains of bacteria.
Yeah, this was definitely the wrong address. Yet just as I started to turn toward the door, someone in the back of the room called out.
“Hey! Your name Truffaut?”
I looked around, saw three people seated around a table next to an open window. Two men and a woman, with a pitcher of ale between them. I nodded, and the guy seated on the other side of the table beckoned to me. “You're looking for us. C'mon over.”
As I walked across the room, the fellow who'd spoken rose from his chair. “Ted Harker,” he said, offering his hand. “Commanding officer of theâ¦” His voice trailed off, as if unsure how to finish. “Well, anyway, just call me Ted. We don't stand much on formality. Have a seat. We've been waiting for you.”
Ted Harker? The name sounded familiar, although for the moment I was unable to place it. A young guy in his late thirties, with long black hair tied back behind his neck and a trim beard just beginning to show the first hint of grey. “Thanks,” I said, shaking his hand, “but I thought I was supposed to meet someone else hereâ¦”
“Morgan?” This from the woman seated next to him. A little younger than Ted, with short blond hair and the most steady gaze I'd ever seen. Like Harker, she had a British accent. “Yes, wellâ¦figures he'd put you on the spot like this.”
“Typical.” The second man at the table, same age as Ted, with an olive complexion and a Middle Eastern lilt to his tongue. “Bastard has his own agenda.”
“C'mon, now. Speak no evil of the man who signs our paychecks.” Ted motioned to an empty chair, then turned toward the bar. “Carrie? Another round for the table, please, and a mug for Mr. Truffaut here.”
“Jules. My friends call me Jules.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jules.” The woman smiled at me as I sat down. “I'm Emily. First mate.” She didn't mention her last name, but neither did she have to; when she lifted her beer mug, I noticed the gold band on her ring finger. First mate in more ways than one.
“Ali Youssef. Helmsman and navigator.” The other man extended his hand as well. “I take it you're our new shuttle pilot.”
“That's what Mr. Goldsteinâ¦Morganâ¦hired me to do.” I looked at the three of them. “So this is it? The entire crew?”
Ted shook his head. “We've got two more. One of them is using the facilities just nowâ¦she'll be back in a minuteâ¦and the other is arriving with the ship. And we'll have two passengers as wellâ¦”
“More than two,” Ali interrupted. “I spoke with Morgan earlier today, and he told me he's bringing someone else.”
“What?” Ted stared at him in disbelief. “Well, that's bloody wonderful. So when was he going to tell the captain, pray tell?”
“Don't look at me.” Ali shrugged as he took a sip from a glass of ice tea; he was the only person at the table not drinking ale. “I just happened to see him on the street, and he told meâ¦”
“Morgan's going along?” That was news to me; he hadn't mentioned it during our previous conversations.
“He has to. After all, he's the one who's trying to make a deal.” Emily let out her breath. “At least we don't have to deal with Jared again.”
“No. He backed out at the last minute. Said one trip to Hjarr was enough for him.” A wry smile from Ted. “Just as well. I had enough of him on Spindrift.”
Spindrift. As soon as he said that, everything clicked. “Oh, good grief,” I said, feeling my face go warm. “So you'reâ¦I'm sorry, but I didn't recognize you. You were on the
.” Before he could answer, I looked at his wife. “And that would make youâ¦”
“Morgan didn't tell you?” Emily glanced at her husband. “Nerve of that guy.”
Theodore Harker. Emily Collins. First officer and shuttle pilot respectively, they were two of the three surviving members of the
expedition. Like everyone else on Earth, I'd heard about their encounter with Spindrift, the rogue planet that turned out to be a starship carrying the remains of an alien race called the
. Along with a third member of the expeditionâit took me a moment to recall his name; Jared Ramirez, the astrobiologistâthey had landed on Coyote fifty-three years after the
's disappearance, bringing with them the
Prime Emissary. And they were in the same room, seated across the table from meâ¦and I hadn't even heard that they'd gotten married.
Ted looked as if he was ready to blow a mouthful of beer through his nose. He swallowed with difficulty, then looked at Emily. “Morgan certainly enjoys his little games,” he grumbled, then returned his attention to me. “Yes, you've found us out. Not that we were trying to keep it from you, butâ”
“Keep what from whom?” a voice said from behind me, and I looked around to see a girl about four or five years younger than me. Shoulder-length hair the color of cinnamon, a narrow but pleasant face, nicely curved everywhere that mattered. Incredible eyes, the shade of green you find at twilight on a midsummer day.
And then she looked at me and said, “Who the hell is this?” Like I was a bug she'd happened to find.
“Ensignâ¦sorry, I mean Jules Truffaut,” Ted said. “He's our shuttle pilot.”
“Yeah. Okay.” She started to sit down but waited while the bartender hobbled over to the table with a fresh pitcher of ale. Carrie placed a mug in front of me, then quietly pulled back a chair for the girl. “Thanks, Carrie,” she said, giving the old lady a sweet smile. “Oh, by the wayâ¦” She crooked a finger, and Carrie bent closer while the younger woman murmured something in her ear. She nodded, then stood erect and shuffled back to the bar.
“What was that about?” I asked once she was gone.
“No more paper in the outhouse. Thought she should know.” She shook her head, then glanced at the pitcher with distaste. “You guys already on another round? For the love ofâ”
“You can have mine.” I picked up my mug, offered it to her. “Too early for me.”
“Don't drink.” Ignoring me, she looked at Ted. “So who's keeping what from whom?”
“Never mind.” Ted picked up the pitcher and reached for his mug. “Jules, allow me to introduce you to Rain Thompson. Our quartermaster and cargo officer.”
“Happy to meet you. Iâ”
“Likewise.” Rain barely glanced my way. “Skipper, I just saw Morgan's limo pull up. Looks like he's brought someone with himâ¦besides his bodyguard, I mean.”