Nancy Kress - Crossfire 02

BOOK: Nancy Kress - Crossfire 02
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BY NANCY KRESS

NOVELS

Prince of Morning Bells The White Pipes The Golden Grove An Alien Light Brainrose Beggars in Spain Beggars and Choosers Oaths and Miracles Beggars Ride Maximum Light Stinger Yanked! Probability Moon Probability Sun Probability Space Crossfire Nothing Human Crucible

STORY COLLECTIONS

Trinity and Other Stories The Aliens of Earth Beaker’s Dozen

CRUCIBLE

NANCY KRESS

A TOM DOHERTT ASSOCIATES BOOK NEW YORK

 

NOTE: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CRUCIBLE

Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Kress

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

Edited by James Minz A Tor Book

Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC 175 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10010

Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

ISBN 0-765-34603-6 EAN 978-0765-24603-2

First edition: August 2004

First mass market edition: June 2005

Printed in the United States of America

0987654321

PROLOGUE: DEEP SPACE

They had been traveling for two months, and they had been traveling for nineteen years. Every inch of the ship, which was not theirs nor even their own species’, was as familiar to both of them as each other’s skins: every mole, every alcove, every hair, every alien fixture they did not understand. At “night,” an arbitrary concept since they had never figured out how to control the ship’s lighting, they lay in each other’s arms and whispered as if there were anyone within light-years to overhear.

“Lucy? Are you all right?” Karim Mahjoub said.

“Of course I am,” she whispered back, trying to keep her voice free of annoyance. They both considered her the more fragile one. Sometimes she resented that.

“I wish we knew for sure how much longer.”

“I thought you did the math.”

“Yes, but I can’t be sure. You know that,” he said, with just a touch of reproach. He had been taught, very hastily, how to fly the ship, and how to aim it in the right direction. He had figured out on his own how to use the formidable weapons aboard. But the computer was too complex, too alien. They were accelerating at over a hundred gees, but he didn’t know how much over, or how far away was the destination.

Lucy didn’t apologize. “I’m going to check the prisoners again.”

“They’re fine,” he said, not because he’d checked but because they were always the same. Once they had been warlike, dangerous, technologically advanced aliens. This had been their ship. Now they sat passively in their confined quarters, eating when food was brought, caring for themselves minimally, dreaming who knew what dreams in their virus-infected brains.

Lucy said, “I’m going to look.”

She rolled away from him and got to her feet, a slight figure in heavy clothing; temperature control was another thing Karim had not decoded. The alien Furs apparently came from a cold planet. Lucy walked toward the prison room, her boots clomping loudly on the metal floor.

She opened the door without caution. At first she and Karim had been so careful, setting up the force-shield walls every time they moved among the Furs. But the Furs hardly seemed to notice. Now she stood in the open doorway without protection.

Most of the Furs seemed to be asleep, although it was difficult to distinguish sleep from their awake state. “Meditating,” Karim called it. “Praying,” Dr. William Shipley had said, back on Greentrees. Jake Holman, Greentrees’ leader, had been franker: “They’ve been turned into the closest animal thing possible to moving plants.” Two Furs in the corner, however, were active, mating again. All of them did that often, since they’d been infected. They were highly contagious to their own kind, and highly attractive. That was the point.

Lucy checked that the water trough was filled and clean. One Fur slowly raised its head and actually seemed to see her, and Lucy’s heart stopped. They were so strong, so muscled with their powerful legs and even more powerful balancing tail, their teeth so sharp and pointed … But the Fur merely gazed at her, unblinking, and lowered its head again to endless silent contemplation.

Lucy shut the door. Karim came down the short corridor toward her. Even before she saw his excitement, she knew, because the floor began to change configuration beneath her feet.

The captured alien ship used a McAndrew Drive. That was what the humans called it, after the scientific genius who had described it in theory, Arthur Morton McAndrew. Humans had never built a McAndrew Drive ship; they had neither the materials nor the expertise. Furs had built them designed along the same principle, which was perfect balance between acceleration and gravity.

The ship consisted of a superdense disc, a long pole extending out from the disc, and living quarters that slid along the pole. As the ship increased acceleration, the living quarters slid closer to the disc, increasing the counterbalancing gravitational pull on the beings inside. Inside the ship, Lucy and Karim experienced a steady 1.6 gees, presumably the gravity on the Fur homeworld. But to equalize these forces at various spots inside the ship, the floor must bow when acceleration or deceleration changed and the living quarters moved up or down the pole. That was happening now. Gravity on Lucy”s body remained constant; she had no sensation of being anything other than upright. But her line-of-sight knew.

“We’re decelerating,” she breathed at Karim.

“Yes. Rapidly.”

“Can you see the planet?” A stupid question; she knew that as soon as she asked it. The ship drew energy from the quantum activity in the vacuum. It moved in a furious cloud of plasma that blocked all outside signals until they stopped,

“Nothing visual yet. But it can’t be long now.” Karim drew a deep breath, raised an arm, let it pointlessly fall.

Not long now.
Not long until their arrival at an alien planet, and not one belonging to the Furs but to the third species loose in this part of the galaxy. A species far more alien to humans than the Furs. A species whose legacy represented humanity’s only real chance at protecting Greentrees.

A sudden image invaded Karim’s mind, unbidden and unwelcome. His grandfather in their beautiful, long-ago garden in the Terran city of Isfahan, intoning the Koran to a small Karim, who had been frightened of him. The old man’s dark eyes had burned with passion and faith: ”
‘Every soul shall taste of death, and we will prove you with evil and with good for a trial of you, and unto us shall ye return.’”

“Come on, Lucy” Karim said. “Let’s go back to the bridge. We need to be ready for arrival.”

MIRA CITY

T
he party was reaching its city-wide crescendo, the speeches would begin soon, and no one could find Alex.

Typical,
Siddalee Brown thought grumpily as she pushed her way through the crowd in the park. Never where she was supposed to be. Off doing something else—probably a worthy something else, but not
here.
Not where Alexandra Cutler was supposed to be and Siddalee Brown was supposed to make sure she was. Typical!

“Have you seen Alex?” she asked Salah Hadijeh. Salah, dressed in some fantastic white flowing robe—you could never tell about the Arabs, likely to turn up in anything at a party except conventional clothes—only laughed. “Alex? I saw her ten minutes ago, in the Mausoleum. Drunk as a vat bug.” He laughed again, swaying, and raised his glass to Siddalee.

Huh! Alex didn’t drink. But Salah certainly had been, and weren’t those Arabs supposed to stay away from alcohol? Against their religion, Siddalee had been told. Not that she cared, but it was just one more sign of everything wrong with the young people today. And Salah’s information was useless; Alex certainly wasn’t in the Mausoleum, which Siddalee had just finished searching, every single square foot, without finding anyone who’d even seen her boss. And Siddalee certainly wasn’t going to search it again.

So where to look? She chewed her generous bottom lip, surveying the park, and as she looked the bottom lip pursed more and more until Siddalee was chewing the inside of a mouth clamped tightly shut.

The party was, in Siddalee’s opinion, out of control. Practically every table in Mira City had been dragged out into the park for the fiftieth anniversary of the First Landing on Greentrees. Earlier, Siddalee had noticed pitchers of that new alcohol, Blue Lion, that those kids who owned the Chu Corporation were fermenting. That had been bad enough—a fiftieth anniversary should be a solemn celebration, to Siddalee’s way of thinking—but by now you couldn’t even
see
the tables. People stood on them and sat around them and probably lay under them, a seething mass of people, at least half of whom looked drunk. The pretty genemod flower beds were all getting trampled. The Chinese kids were setting off those awful things they called firecrackers, and a mixed bunch of Arabs and Cutlers were loudly singing that demeaning song that Siddalee heard everywhere now:

“On Greentrees we are

For good, but is it good,

How would I know, all I know

For sure is yooouuuuuu …”

Siddalee had never heard such stupidity celebrated—as if they hadn’t all learned to “know” so much from being on Greentrees! And the song had a pretty tune, too … such a waste. To make it worse, she spied among the Arabs and Cutlers three kids that she knew for sure were New Quakers. Quakers! Acting like that! Their parents certainly didn’t know.

At least the Quakers wore modest gray coveralls, which was more than you could say for some of the other young ones. Dress on Greentrees offered two usual choices: coveralls, modeled after the ones the First Landing wore (some of them
were
the ones the First Landing wore; Threadmores lasted nearly forever). Or the more popular “wraps,” which had evolved on Greentrees. These were no more than pieces of bright holcum-fiber cloth cut into different shapes and worn tied around the body in whatever configurations happened to strike the wearer as interesting, from voluminous to skimpy. During the cool nights, wraps were worn over the thermal skinsuits that covered everything but hands and head. Days were warm enough that most people just tied their wraps over bare bodies. As fashion, it was both cheap and highly competitive, with much praise going to innovative wrappers, although not from Siddalee.

At the far end of the park, against the huge government building that everyone called the Mausoleum, a temporary platform had been built high above the crowd for the speeches. Siddalee saw Jake Holman’s wheelchair being pushed up the ramp by a muscular Arab in another of those silly flowing robes. If anyone knew where Alex was, it might be Mr. Holman.

“Oh!” a girl cried as Siddalee pushed past her. Siddalee had spilled the girl’s pitcher of Blue Lion, sending the bright blue liquid foaming down the front of the girl’s coverall. “Watch what you’re doing, you Furry shit!”

It was the worst insult on Greentrees. Siddalee stopped dead, stared at the girl, and realized she knew her. Star Chu, they’d worked on the reservoir project together. Star had cut her glossy straight black hair short and she wore one of those stupid fake-Cheyenne fake tattoos on her left cheek, a cluster of tiny stars, plus that new red lipstick that Chu Corporation had just put on the market along with its alcoholic drinks. But Star wasn’t a bad person. She recognized Siddalee and blushed.

“Oh, sorry, Siddalee, you just startled me.”

“Have you seen Alex Cutler?”

Something strange passed through Star’s eyes, but she just shook her head. “No. Sorry.”

“Thanks.” Siddalee left, again chewing on her bottom lip. Star hadn’t seemed drunk, or at least there hadn’t been any slurring in her accented English. Star was smart and resourceful, Siddalee knew from the reservoir project, as smart as Siddalee herself, which was very smart. So why did she want to get herself up like that and act like she was some sort of painted party girl instead of the responsible citizen of Mira City that she really was?

“You’re a Puritan, Siddalee,”
Alex had said to her, more than once.
“They’re only ten years younger than you are, you know, and fundamentally no different.”
But Siddalee didn’t feel the same age as Star and Salah and their crowds, and she didn’t know what a “Puritan” was, and she wasn’t about to look it up in the deebees. Old stuff, probably. Useless stuff. Alex wouldn’t even know the word if it weren’t for Mr. Holman.

Where was Alex?

Siddalee fought her way through to the quieter area close to the Mausoleum walls. Here the New Quakers sat decorously around their tables, talking softly, trying to ignore the raucous hilarity behind them. Off to one side sat a group of veiled Arab women. Under the veils, Siddalee knew, would be mostly wrinkled, gentle faces; the new generation of Arab girls didn’t go veiled and some even had the genetic treatments that meant they would never have the wrinkles of their mothers and grandmothers. Siddalee approved. She had never understood the strict Arab division of sexes, and she was glad it was weakening so much on Greentrees. That was one good thing about her generation, anyway.

She reached the steep ramp leading to the speakers’ platform and hauled herself up it. No one tried to stop her. On top, Mayor Ashraf Shanti argued timidly with a tech fiddling with the broadcast cubes. Behind them stood the weirdest group of people that Siddalee had ever seen.

She expected the New Quaker representative, of course, sober in his gray coverall, waiting his turn to make a brief speech commemorating the First Landing. She also expected the Chinese leader of the dissident city, Hope of Heaven, although only yesterday had Mayor Shanti become certain that the troublemaker (and that’s what they all were in Hope of Heaven, don’t try to tell Siddalee anything else!) would show for the ceremony. Siddalee even expected the Cheyenne chief. He stood to one side, a fantastic figure in some sort of animal skins trimmed with feathers arid beads, a tattoo on his deeply sunburned cheek. Didn’t he know how bad that much sun was for him? Did the Cheyenne even take skin-repair genetic supplements?

But the weirdest figure by far was the woman who crouched at the very back of the platform, beside Jake Holman’s wheelchair. Siddalee looked, and looked again, and thought,
It can’t be.

Alex had told her about Nan Frayne, tales that Alex had heard from Mr. Holman and from Alex’s dead aunt, Gail Cutler, who’d been among the First Landers. Siddalee had only half believed the stories. Sometimes Siddalee had even doubted that Nan Frayne existed. Could this person possibly be—

“Siddalee,” Mr. Holman called in his quavery old voice. “Come here. I want you to meet someone. This is Nan Frayne.”

Siddalee approached warily. Nan Frayne didn’t rise or extend her hand. She looked at Siddalee with such a straight, grim stare that Siddalee felt outraged— what had she done to earn that much dislike? Nothing. Nan Frayne was old, maybe sixty, but looked even older because her skin was so lined, burned, and discolored. Against that skin her pale gray eyes looked startlingly light. She had gray hair, cut very short, and on her wiry body wore a clean new coverall too big for her.

“Hello,” Siddalee said politely—Alex insisted on politeness to everyone—but Nan Frayne didn’t so much as answer her. “Mr. Holman, do you know where I can find Alex?”

An odd look passed across Mr. Holman’s face, the same kind of look that had flitted though Star Chu’s eyes. Something was going on here that Siddalee didn’t know about. But all Mr. Holman said was, “Isn’t Alex supposed to make a speech?”

Of course Alex was supposed to make a speech—Alex was the
tray-o.
Mr. Holman knew that. But Siddalee restrained her irritation. In addition to Alex’s insistence on courtesy, Mr. Holman deserved great respect. He was the man who had organized the colony ship to Greentrees fifty years ago, he’d been the CEO of Mira City back when the city had been a corporation, and he had led the group that fought off the alien Fur attack all those decades ago. Plus, he was old, over eighty in both Terran years and Greenie years, and Siddalee Brown was not going to snap at him.

“Yes, sir, she’s supposed to speak right after you and… damn, the mayor’s starting!”

The tech had fixed the broadcast cubes, which, like so much other nonessential machinery on Greentrees, was falling apart. Then the tech must have left the platform, because Mayor Shanti was starting his speech and the only people left on the stage were the ones who belonged there and Siddalee Brown.

“Don’t worry about Alex,” Mr. Holman said quickly. “She’ll show up or she won’t. Just go sit down and enjoy yourself, Siddalee.”

As if she could do that with her boss messing up again! Blushing darkly, Siddalee scurried across the platform, down the ramp, and into the anonymity of the crowd.

“—for half a century,” Mayor Shanti was saying in his unaccented English. The crowd had quieted, mostly, and Siddalee could hear the translators’ mechanical voices in the Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish that some of the older people needed. Everyone born on Greentrees, of course, had learned English at school, even the Arab women in the medina. It was the law. “—trials and triumphs no one could have foreseen, but—”

Where was Alex? She was supposed to speak third, after the mayor and Mr. Holman. Well, Siddalee had done her best. She dropped heavily to the grass, scowling. A sudden breeze brought the smell of moonflowers, a thick heady fragrance. Probably from plants crushed under some table, Siddalee thought crossly. It would take weeks to restore Mira City’s beautiful park. Somewhere to her left another of those annoying “firecrackers” went off, followed by drunken laughter.

No one on the platform reacted. And, Siddalee noted suddenly, Nan Frayne was no longer up there. Siddalee hadn’t heard or seen the woman follow her down the ramp, but nonetheless she was gone, as stealthy as the sweet-scented wind.

On the other side of Mira City, Alexandra Cutler ran through the deserted streets toward the genetics labs.

God, she was out of shape! Fear kept her moving until, winded, she was forced to stop and bend over for a moment, hands on her knees, a middle-aged woman who stayed lean but not fit. Or not fit enough for this anyway, although “this” should not be something anyone on Greentrees had to prepare for. “This” should not be happening.

Please let it not be true.

Her panting echoed in her ears, unnaturally loud. As soon as she could, she straightened and resumed running.

Finally the lab buildings loomed ahead, windowless foamcast structures, many large enough to contain negative-pressure safe labs and plastic-roofed growing beds. A virgin grove of Greentrees’ tall narrow trees, their leaves purple from an analog of Terra’s photosynthetic rhodomicrobia, grew beside the labs.

Although they stood at the edge of Mira City, just before the river swept abruptly west, to Alex the labs were the heart of the city. Here the native flora and fauna of Greentrees were genetically adapted to fit two not always compatible ends: preservation of the native ecology and use by humans who had come from a different planet. Without the labs, humans might have survived on Greentrees, but they would not have flourished. As the tray-o, the Technology Resource Allocation officer, Alex meted out the largest share, by far, of resources to the gene labs. Too large a share, some said. Let them. The labs were key.

And someone had the arrogance, the stupidity, the sheer bad taste—to Alex, the three were nearly synonymous—to threaten the labs.

The solemn, pretty Chinese girl, Star Chu, had warned Alex just minutes ago. “Alex … I’m afraid there might be trouble at the gene labs. Soon. Now. I can’t say more, but I think you should survey it. Take security with you.” And Star had turned away, disappearing fluidly into the crowd, before Alex could question her, could in fact do more than numbly register that Star herself looked like the embodiment of what she had delicately referred to as “trouble”: a hardworking, successful part owner of a Greentrees corporation who nonetheless wore fake Cheyenne tattoos on her cheek, used Blue Lion and fizzies, and wore discontent as blatantly as her red lipstick. Yet she’d warned Alex.

Alex’s father had once told her that he thought the Arabs would cause eventual problems.
“Over time the Arabs might find Greentrees a real culture shock. The contrast between the traditions they bring with them and the ways pioneer societies evolve could lead to real factionalism among them, even violence. Watch out especially for their youth, Alex.”
But the Arabs had settied in seamlessly, developing a sort of semisecular semiassimilated Islam that satisfied everybody, and the Chinese youth had splintered, rebelled, and exploded. Go figure.

The lab buildings looked quiet, an unlovely utilitarian series of connected foamcast cubes. Alex, who hadn’t taken the time to wait for security, approached cautiously. The front door of Building D stood crazily agape on half its hinges. Someone had lasered it.

Alex could remember when no one on Greentrees locked buildings.

She took her comlink from a pocket formed by her red-arid-green wrap, which she had tied in an elaborate, modest crisscross that didn’t impede movement. Guy Davenport, Mira’s security chief, answered immediately. “Alex here,” she panted. “I’m at the gene labs, the door’s been forced open, and there may be trouble.”

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