Authors: John Grant
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
, originally published as by Paul Barnett, appeared in the UK in 1997 from Legend Books. This slightly revised version represents the book's first US publication.
Copyright (c) 1997, 2014 by John Grant
Cover art by: Ron Miller
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Electronic version by Baen Books
This is for Roy Gasson and Richard Evans.
Part One: Home Territory
Strider was more than a bit depressed by the way the interview had gone—essentially, she'd blown it—so she refused their offer of a courtesy cabble and decided to walk home. The night air was thin and cold—a perfect contrast to the environment-conditioning of the SSIA blister. She breathed it deep into her lungs, feeling its pleasurable pain in her throat. There was little or no traffic on the road this late, so that all she had to guide her was starlight and the faint glow of City 43, sixteen kilometers ahead of her. The walk would take her nearly an hour; in a way she wished it would take longer. She wanted to get the taste of bureaucracy out of her mouth.
A few hundred meters away from the blister—far enough away that she could feel she'd properly left it behind her—she paused and looked up at the sky. Staring at the stars was her customary occupational therapy: the thought of the distances and scale of the Universe was usually enough to calm her wraths and anxieties.
Tonight it didn't work, though. The first thing she saw was Phobos, normally her favorite companion in the heavens.
The uniforms who'd interviewed her had talked a lot about Phobos. People were building a ship on the tiny moon, taking advantage of the low gravity and the abundance of mineral wealth not far below the surface. By the time the ship was finished its mass would be a small but significant percentage of Phobos's own, so that when the vessel was ferried off to Jupiter for fuelling there would be a perceptible shift in Phobos's orbit.
That would happen in about a year's time.
She had hoped for the past decade that she would be aboard that ship.
So much for that.
She started to walk again.
In the year 2489 in the Martin Hunter Ogobe Hospital in Ouagadougou a female child was born to a mother who didn't want her. It wasn't a matter of economics—no one ever starved in Burkina Faso, whose rich plains and extensive, hardly tapped uranium deposits funded the world's most beneficent social security system. No, the reason the mother didn't want even to see her daughter after the birth was that she was only thirteen and the conception had come about as a consequence of a rape. The rapists—there had been three of them—had been tracked down and castrated, but this symbolic vengeance had done nothing to remove from the girl's memory the terror of the experience, or the pain.
Rape was a very rare crime in any part of the developed world. Most people—certainly in a country like Burkina Faso—possessed sexbots; if not, they could be hired on any street corner for the night for the price of a pack of ziprite gum. The three criminals had, rather, been expressing their disapproval of the shortness of her dress. The girl who had just given birth to a child she would never see, would never name, had started experimenting with her own parents' sexbots over a year earlier; she had found the female infinitely the better lover, yet generally she wanted the male to play a part as well, because it was good to feel his rigidity inside her when she came to her final orgasm. She had even tried to reprogram the two sexbots to copulate with each other, so that she could watch, but she'd never been able to.
None of the three men who'd raped her had enjoyed the same exaggerated penile proportions as the male sexbot, yet each of their penetrations had been agonizing. She had been in the family orchard at the time, with the sky mockingly blue above and the birds disinterestedly flitting between the trees. One of the men had held a knife against her throat and put his penis in her mouth. Another had unsuccessfully tried to ram his penis into her rectum. She had thought she was going to die, and she very nearly did. The pain of giving birth to the resulting child was as nothing compared to that earlier event.
As soon as she had discovered her pregnancy she had begged for an abortion, but Burkina Faso was then in the grip of strict Umbellism, and abortions were illegal unless the child would be born handicapped. Her parents devoutly refused to fly her abroad; however the child had been conceived, they said, it had a right to live.
They were beside her as their unwanted grandchild was born. Like the mother, they had no desire to see the baby again, and so it was left to the hospital staff to take the squealing infant away and hook her up to an automated wetnurse, on whose plastic nipple—with its carefully concocted and ever-ready supply of milk-substitute—she thrived. The child was later placed in an institution that catered for unwanted children. And she was given a name: Leonie.
She never really worried about the fact that she hadn't a mother until much later, when she was fifteen. That was when her mother sent her a viddisc showing both the scene of her birth and, afterwards, a tearstained apology for having abandoned her at birth. Would it be possible for the two of them to get together and try to patch up something of a family?
"Fuck off," Leonie said to the screen.
She put the viddisc in the nearest disposal vent, and waited until she heard the grinders boot up, far below, before she went away down the corridor to find something to eat.
"How has your rejection by your mother at birth affected your ability to relate to other people?" said Alphonse Dulac. He was standing by an artificial window looking out on an artificial scene. People had generated lush landscapes within most of the blisters on Mars, in stark contrast to the generally still patchy vegetation of the open terrain, but the SSIA had resisted the trend: if people were indeed to be sent to the stars they should become accustomed to bleakness and alienness. This didn't stop the SSIA's bigwigs from wanting to enjoy a pleasant view from their "windows."
Strider raised an eyebrow. Her other four interviewers—all men, which vaguely annoyed her—were seated facing her around the outer side of a semicircular stone desk. They were all bigger than her, but then most people were. She imagined that the desk was a lens, and that where she sat was a focus for their gazes.
"It affected me for a year or two after I got that viddisc," she admitted. "No longer than that. I had a lot of difficulty trusting people. I mean, it's hard to make friendships when at the back of your mind you're thinking that the person who should have been your best friend of all kicked you out of her life, sight unseen, then fifteen years later tried to pass her guilt right back on to you."
She pushed her fingers back through her hair.
"But then," she continued, "after a while I began to feel sorry for her. I'd been thinking of myself as the failure in the relationship—or lack-of-relationship—but I grew to realize that it wasn't me, it was her. It'd have been tougher to bring myself together if she'd held on to me for a year or two and
She knew she was sweating. Part of the reason was that the blister's environment-conditioning was turned up too high, especially in this office; the other and greater part was because the interview had suddenly homed in on the intimate aspects of herself. She'd known this was coming, but it didn't make it any easier to deal with. Also, she was irritated by the light in here, which was Earth-standard and thus brighter than what she was accustomed to.
Dulac looked over his shoulder at her.
"So you began to be able to relate to other people again?"
"Yeah, you bet," said Strider. She grinned, at last beginning to relax.
Think of these pompous bastards as medics
, she thought.
You've told enough medics about your innermost secrets over the years
. "I related with a lot of people during my late teens."
"And those relationships . . . ended," suddenly said Rateen Macphee, opposite her.
"Most of them hardly began," said Strider, startled by his intervention. "I was enjoying myself. Weren't you the same at that age? Weren't we all?"
"What I'm trying to get at," said Macphee, "is that you can hardly class brief sexual affairs as true interpersonal relationships."
Strider reflected for a moment. The point was a fair one.
"Yeah," she said finally, "but what all of them meant was that I'd discovered how to
people again. Don't get me wrong: I was always genuinely fond of the people I had sex with, and some of them remained good friends for years afterwards—there are a couple working here for the SSIA whom I see regularly."
"For sex?" It was Dulac again.
"No. I hardly ever have sex these days—except with my bot, of course."
"Why not? Are you frightened of sex?" Dulac moved back from the "window" and resumed his seat.
Again Strider paused.
"Can I explain a few things?" she said.
"For a while after I saw my mother's viddisc I was terrified of being raped. That was another bit of guilt that she piled on me—as if somehow what had happened to her was my fault. But I got over it. Twenty years ago sex was—for me and for a lot of the other kids around me—a way of telling ourselves that we were fond of each other. We could have bought each other drinks, or something, but we never had any money. So instead we talked a lot, or went out walking if the pollution wasn't too bad—which it often wasn't, because the winds usually blew all Burkina Faso's crap southward and away—and sometimes we had sex. There was no great hassle about it."
"And then?" said Dulac.
"Yeah, then I went through a bad patch." Strider looked around at the five blank faces. In a way, Dulac and Macphee were the easiest to cope with. The other three had said nothing at all to her after the mumbled introductions, an hour ago; besides, their faces were covered with different pieces of interactive technology: for all she knew, they could right now be examining her alveoli in detail or watching a soap opera. At least Dulac and Macphee had each left one eye uncovered. It gave Strider something to look at, some way of communing. "I became infatuated with someone. It lasted just over a year. It took me that long to realize what a complete turd he was. When I left him it hurt a lot—not because the relationship had dissolved but because I realized how
"To trust him?" This time it was Macphee. He and Dulac were positioned at opposite ends of the huge, heavy desk. Strider was being interviewed in stereo.
"No. Where I'd been stupid was that I'd let my hormones govern my perceptions. I'd wasted a year of my life. I was like a junkie who'd managed to come off the tabs and then looked back on all the time that had been
—all the good days that had been thrown away. Cured junkies have a choice: to go back on the tabs or to build themselves a life. I decided to build myself a life—that I wasn't going to make that kind of mistake again."
"You decided not to fall in love again," said Dulac, clearing his throat.
"I hadn't been in love in the first place." She grinned once more, and for the second time this evening began to relax. "I thought about what I really wanted to do, and discovered that it was to go starside. Part of my task was to re-learn how to make friendships, so I did that; I realized that sex wasn't the best way of establishing trust—that a game of chess was better. Also, I got myself a degree in astrophysics at Ouagadougou Univ and—"
"A first," said Macphee, looking across at Dulac.
"With honors," replied Dulac.
Strider recognized that the little exchange had been designed merely to harass her. They were deliberately putting her under stress. She shrugged. That was part of their job: to find out how she coped with stress.
"I got the degree," she said, "and then I signed up as a trainee with the SSIA. The rest you know about—it's all in the computers."
Dulac looked grumpy. "Of course we've been through your records, Strider, and very impressive they are—you wouldn't have been called here for interview had they not been. But the purpose of our meeting is not to examine your academic credentials or your technical skills or your military expertise but to try to find out what sort of a person you are. We've all looked at your psychological profiles as well, but they can tell us only so much. You're obviously well adapted and stable; you're a strong personality with a high IQ. What we need to establish is whether or not you could endure the strains of being cooped up in a tin can for thirty years with forty other people, some of whom will certainly prove incapable of tolerating that strain."
"Can I get up and walk about?" said Strider.
She moved over to the fake window and looked out at the scene. Someone had spent a lot of computer-time generating the holographic display. The theme was an idyllized version of Classical Greece, with philosophers in long white robes strolling through sylvan greenery and exchanging what were presumably great wisdoms—probably definitive proofs that the Earth was flat. The tranquillity of the scene, however, was infectious; Strider felt as if the room temperature had just dropped by a welcome five degrees.
"You've been asking a lot about my personal life," she said, turning back towards her interrogators, who had swivelled their chairs to face her. She shrugged. "It hasn't been all that pleasant for me, but it hasn't bothered me too much, either. Some things about me I keep very secret, and no one will ever discover them: you could keep me in this room for a month and you'd still never find them out. Most of them are secret because if I talked about them I could hurt other people—which makes me sound more sanctimonious than I intend. Some of them are secret for the most selfish of reasons. Everything else about me, though, is information I'm happy to divulge.
"And one thing that I'm happy to divulge
," she said, staring Dulac straight in the eyes, "is that I will not allow anyone to call the
a 'tin can'. I don't know how much personal work you've put into its creation, buster, but I do know that thousands of other people have labored over it, from the designers and techs through to the person with a wrench who helped install the shower-heads. Some of them have been working for the money, but I reckon most of them have seen that ship as the liferaft she is."
Dulac looked unfazed. Strider had expected an angry reaction from him.