Cross the Stars by David Drake



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CHAPTER EIGHT


"Number two thruster has failed to trip," said the console, in Spanglish and with a decidedly cheerful tone.

"Via!" Don Slade said. The boat's control console was supposed to have brought them out of Transit space with momentum calculated for a feather-light thruster landing on Elysium. "Why—" Wrong question, save it for later. "Cancel. Does the other thruster have enough power to bring us down safely?"

"The other two thrusters," the console said, supercilious now as well as cheerful, though Slade could imagine a programmer thinking the correction might be useful to the pilot, "have more than enough power to execute the landing within the original parameters."

Praise the Lord, even if the initial announcement had taken a year off Slade's life. He didn't have much head for heights, and the rate at which Elysium was swelling in the analog displays did nothing for his heart rate, either. The planet appeared blue in the onrushing holograms. Tethys would have been gray at the same distance; though on Tethys' surface, the moaning seas were blue and green and sometimes a maroon like an emperor's robe, when the sun and the life within the waters were just right. "What happened to Number Two?"

"An error in assembly," the console said. "A three-oh-three-seven board was installed in the control circuit instead of the four-oh-three-seven board proper for this model."

"Via," Slade repeated. The vessel was beginning to shudder now with the atmospheric buffeting he recognized from a score of light-craft insertions. However, Slade did not usually have a display to remind him of the terrifying height and speed.

"The feed valve in number two thruster did not shut off when the unit failed to trip," said the console's happy voice. "We are losing reaction mass at the maximum rate of flow for that unit. We will be at approximately twenty-one thousand meters above the planetary surface when thrusters one and three shut off for lack of reaction mass."

"Blood and death," said Don Slade in open-eyed horror.

"Unless there is a failure in those unit controls also," the console added in a caveat which it might have programmed into itself during the past seconds.

"All right," said Slade. He rose from the pilot's seat in front of controls he did not understand and could not in any case have used as effectively as the console itself had done. "Run through recommended procedures for this emergency—and if you say there isn't one, I'll come through a bulkhead to find you!"

"Unlock and press the red lever on the underside of your right chair arm," the console said. "The chair will drop into the escape capsule. I will deploy the capsule when thrust ceases. I am broadcasting a Mayday, giving course and altitude particulars on five bands carrying local communications traffic. I am adding the information that the Terzia has asked that you be afforded aid."

Slade interlaced his fingers behind his neck and jerked back, cracking stiffness out of his shoulder muscles. Then he sat down again in front of the console. The short hop from Terzia had required three weeks of perceived time, because the boat's instruments were not powerful enough to lop off large chunks of Transit space. During that time, the console had gotten on Slade's nerves badly. Its cheerful voice had seemed to sneer at all his questions as at those of an ignoramus . . . as Slade indeed was, in the craft of space-faring.

But the machine's exposition now reminded the man uncomfortably of his training officer long years before. The officer was Major With, an Academy graduate from Friesland and a professional with no sympathy for recruits who had not grown up with organized warfare the way he himself had done. Major With had discussed failures in target practice or personal hygiene in a dispassionate voice that cut a recruit like a trip to the flogging block.

With's voice had remained just as cool, his appraisals just as accurate, the night enemy commandos hit the Operations Center because local traitors had sabotaged the perimeter warning system. None of the commandos survived after they wiped out the headquarters cadre. With precision, Major With had disposed his half-trained recruits by radio even as the commandos blasted through a wall of the room in which he was barricaded.

Control consoles were not human, of course. But Slade hadn't been sure that Major Frikki With was human either, before that night he saved so many of the trainees he had scorned.

"Dust to dust," Slade muttered as he sat down again. He threw the concealed lever. His stomach lurched with the drop, and the light went out. Something slammed shut overhead.

* * *

The lifeboat had bunks for twelve, but it did not surprise Slade to learn that there was only one escape capsule. Spacers and those who built to spacers' specifications had a tendency to regard outsiders as cargo, not humans. This boat had been intended for an immigrant ship in which a single crewman would have commanded a load of lay freight.

The lurching darkness in which Slade was now confined was oddly comforting. He no longer had displays and meaningless controls to worry him. What waited on the ground did, sure, but it wasn't a hot LZ. The familiar state of mind excluded the other concerns over which he had no control. Slade's right palm sweated for a gunswitch to rest on, but that was no great lack.

Ejection was downward and sudden, sharp enough to lift Slade against the restraints that had wrapped him to the seat without his will or notice. The capsule was not blind, as he had thought and secretly hoped. Screens, black because their pickups had been shrouded in the belly of the lifeboat, flared when the capsule spat free. Three digital displays and a horizon with arrow came to life at the same instant of uncoupling. The shock of the drogue chute deploying snapped Slade back into the seat. His feet and the base of the capsule jerked up against the drag. Then the main canopy banged open, forcing Slade's weight through the cushions and against the metal backing of the seat.

That was the point at which everything went to hell again.

It was probably nobody's fault that the boat's fuel-starved thrusters cut out a half second apart instead of simultaneously. That skewed impulse was enough to send the vessel rumbling at 90° to its programmed slant away from the capsule. If the timing had been slightly worse, the separated objects would have merged again and reached the planetary surface as an amalgam of metal and extruded flesh. Instead, the lifeboat rotated through the capsule's parachute with the motion of a hawker winding cotton candy onto a cone. Then the vessel passed on, releasing the chute with a last playful tug. The fabric streamed behind the capsule. It was a shroud for Slade's corpse and no longer a canopy that could slow his impact to a safe degree.

The castaway had a brief hint of what must have happened. The display whose pick-up had shown the canopy's black fabric across the violet of space suddenly changed. It filled with the streaked white coating of the lifeboat's belly. Then the black was gone and the white was a spark. Images spun to match the sudden fury of the capsule from which they were observed.

The digital displays went wild. The attitude arrow blurred from its own spinning and from Slade's failing consciousness. He never wholly blacked out, but there was no task he could have accomplished had one been set him. Slade was at the point of a high-speed corkscrew. Centrifugal force darkened his face and hands with blood. Across him played the light of the downward screen. The screen was verdant with the image of a meadow through which the capsule would crush its path.

The first hint of relief was a tug too gentle to have been noticed, even if Slade had his full faculties. The canopy had been stopped from spinning, but it was some seconds before that stasis was transmitted through the line to brake the capsule's own rotation. Even before that happened, there was a shift of perceived weight downward as Slade's body translated deceleration into gravity. The unread altimeters that had been clicking off a descent of over fifty meters per second began to slow at an increasing rate. The capsule was being controlled as an angler controls the rush of a fish against a light line. The attitude arrow steadied into a sway that matched the way the globe rolled in the lower screen.

In the upper screen was a daisy-chain of four air cars, each with a line of the canopy looped over a stanchion. The cars were so light that even under full power they should not have been able to halt Slade's plummeting descent. With intelligence and equal care, they had re-extended enough of the canopy to take the initial shock of deceleration. The cars must have dived nose-first to make the pick-up, but now their bellies were to the capsule and their fan modules were directed straight down. It would have taken skill and great strength to control such a vehicle with one hand and with the other to reach out into a two-hundred kph air-stream to snag the canopy.

Now that the descent was slow and controlled, the drivers leaned over to peer at the capsule between their vehicles and the black curve of the canopy. Either the pick-up lied, or Slade's rescuers were a group of young girls.


CHAPTER NINE


Because the capsule was supported by four separately-controlled vehicles, it lurched the last hand's-breadth to the ground. That was still a softer landing than many that Slade had made behind professionals . . . and only seconds before, he would have traded his hope of salvation for the chance to awaken in a hospital, much less to walk away from the capsule. There was a quick-release lever in the center of the panel in front of the seat. Slade was still searching for it when his rescuers turned the dogs from outside and the walls fell away. Slade was surrounded by nymphs on a sunlit meadow.

Slade's first thought was that they were girls and very pretty. A moment's further consideration showed that in fact, his four rescuers were women and beautiful—but there was a level of truth to the initial impression as well. Three of them were dark-haired and stood nearly as tall as the man's shoulder. The fourth had the same elfin features, but she was fifty millimeters short of the others' height and her hair was red. None of them were as old as eighteen standard years, so far as the castaway could judge. The red-haired girl reached to hand Slade out of the capsule. If the others were nymphs, then surely the fourth was a pixie princess.

A girl giggled. "Lord have mercy!" Slade muttered. He had been too logy until that moment to remember that he was still as naked as he had been during the long, lonely Transit from Terzia.

All of his rescuers were laughing, now, though it was not a cruel sound. "Here, you've come this far," said the red-haired one as Slade tried to hide back in the capsule. She gave his hand an encouraging tug. "We shouldn't laugh," she said. "Liet, toss me my wrap from under the seat."

Slade swallowed. He should have learned more about Elysium before he left Terzia, but Lord! he'd been launched and gone before he really had time to think about what was happening to him. You don't really cross cultures when you have a gun in your fist and orders to execute. Your culture is that of your unit, and what surrounds your unit is so much glassware—to be spared where practical. This was different; and a gun, while intrinsically useless, would have made a useful pacifier for Slade's soul.

"Thank you, lady," he said to the girl who handed him the wrap. It was just that, a cape with a brooch fastener. The metal was a copper alloy, hand-worked and very delicate. With the cape upended, what would have been the lower hem for the owner could be pinned around Slade's solid waist. The rest hung down as a tawny apron, a natural wool of some sort, and quite adequate for modesty. Slade had soldiered too long to have any personal taboos about nudity. He had, however, a lively appreciation of how the parents of these girls might react to the naked man who suddenly appeared with them. He stepped carefully out of the capsule.

Flustered, Slade had last spoken in his birth tongue. In Spanglish, "lady" would have been replaced by "donya" in the vocative. It was in the same true English that one of the girls now said, "But how are we going to carry him, Risa? He must weigh two hundred and—" She flicked her eyes back to Slade in a glance that appraised more than his weight, correcting the phrase already begun. "A hundred and ten kilos at least."

"Oh, that'll be all right, Sare," said the red-haired girl, the leader as the castaway's instincts told him. "He'll ride with me. We'll stay low and slow. If the drain's still too much for my power, you can jumper me."

"Ah, ladies?" Slade said. "You're going to take me to your government? I was sent here by the ruler of a neighboring world—" Via! The Mayday had mentioned Terzia, and they must have heard it or they couldn't have snagged him out of his streaming plunge. Think! "Ah, I was sent here by the Terzia, who thought your rulers could help me."

The air cars, though light, showed a heartening sophistication that belied the wool wrap and the hand-crafted brooch. Dainty bronze-ware wasn't going to get Don Slade home in his lifetime.

Liet giggled again, but Risa said, "We'll take you to the city, of course. There aren't many visitors here on Elysium, not many people know about us; but I'm sure we'll be able to help any friend of the Terzia."

They were all looking at Slade in some wonder. He had suspicion that Risa's "not many visitors" was an understatement. "It's not in your charts," the Terzia had said of this Elysium, and Slade had no reason to believe that she was wrong.

Certainly the cursory navigational data supplied with the lifeboat did not mention the place. The girls' eyes made Slade feel something like a side of meat, but he had at least the consolation that it was pretty good meat.

Slade was past his first youth, but he had no inclination to have become inactive. He had seen too many line officers leave a tank turret for a desk and go to seed with appalling suddenness. Slade's build would permit that if he let it, the great ropes of muscle growing marbled with fat, the hard belly beginning to sag to match the wobbling buttocks. The tan of Terzia's sun had faded somewhat during the voyage, but improvised exercise had kept up the muscle tone of his big body. Sare's estimate of his weight was short by five kilos, perhaps because so much of Slade's bulk was dense muscle.

Also . . . early in his service with the Slammers, before a former nickname had resurfaced, Slade had been known as "Tripod." He knew quite well that in love-making, as in any other craft, the workman's skill is more important than his tool. From the way their eyes flickered to Slade's groin, it seemed that these girls were not aware of that as yet.

"Well, I think we'd better get back," Risa said. "If you wouldn't mind, sir, we'll trim better if you sit sideways in the luggage space instead of in the other seat. I'm afraid you'll have to put your knees up."

Risa was leading the way to the open car. She stretched back an index finger as if to draw Slade physically along. The other three girls scattered at once to their own vehicles. All of them were landed neatly beside the collapsed parachute. The chute's monomolecular fabric should have been of interest to locals who seemed to wear no synthetics. The girls scampered over the canopy without a glance down, and Slade knew enough to doubt their disinterest stemmed from ignorance.

The hull of Risa's car was molded in pastel swirls. The pattern was not quite garish up close, and at any distance it would mute into a blur more natural than any equal expanse of a solid color could be. The meadow's vegetation was more varied than the screens could suggest, but only an occasional stalk was more than a meter high. There were no thorns to jab Slade's legs or bare feet.

The car was little more than two seats and, behind them, a cargo space narrow enough to be a strait fit for Slade's chest sideways. "Lord and Martyrs," he exclaimed as he seated himself gingerly. "You dived this at two hundred kays?"

"We had to," said Risa, hopping into the driver's seat. "Nobody else was anywhere around, and we couldn't just let you fall."

The car staggered a little on a sliding lift-off, but its fans had a surprising amount of power for an open vehicle. Risa trimmed them manually at three meters, then slipped upward to ten where there was a better view of the rolling landscape.

The planet was not entirely open meadow as Slade's subconscious had been trying to convince him. Mountains were now visible astern in the near distance, and the broad band of darker green to the left was surely a forest fringing a watercourse. In addition, mixed herds of animals, none of them familiar to Slade, cropped the vegetation. Occasionally, the whine of fan blades or the shadow of one of the cars flitting above would spook a whole section of the plain. Hundreds of beasts, the largest species up to half the size of the lifeboat, would rush off across the sward like dark surf. They showed no signs of being domesticated.

It was a matter of increasing concern to Slade that, apart from the cars, there were no signs of civilization at all.

"You settled here recently?" he asked. That would explain both the low population and the Terzia's remark about the planet being uncharted.

The car was traveling at fifty kph or less, so wind noise was no impediment to normal speech. Risa glanced back at her passenger and gave him a broad smile. "We've been here longer than you might think," she said. "But if you mean Elysium doesn't show—signs of much development, well, that's true. Our ancestors picked this world to settle because it seemed to them a paradise, a—" she dimpled— "an Elysium. They were determined to keep it that way, and every generation since then has agreed. There aren't many of us on Elysium—that's part of why the planet has stayed, well . . ." She took her left hand from the controls to gesture in an evocative semi-circle. "But we're happy with our world and happy with our lives, almost all of us."

Slade nodded and tried to keep the questions behind his eyes. Early migrant ships did not pick and choose planets. They had drives which frequently failed, leaving them between stars with no way to re-enter Transit space, or—and this could only be surmised because it left only negative evidence in the human universe—stranded them forever in Transit, in an envelope crushed slowly inward by a palpable grayness.

Risa either read or deduced the doubt in the castaway's mind. "Our ancestors were slow-ship colonists," she said. "That wasn't working for many reasons, so they found a way to escape from their vessel. But I guess it'd be better if you heard the details of all that from my parents."

"This seems a very lovely world," Slade said carefully, "and a very peaceful one." He did not know whether the girl was lying to him or if she were merely retailing the lie which had been told her in the guise of history. That was not important, but it was crucial for Slade to learn enough of the present situation for him to tailor his own lies to meet it. He was a lone traveler, and his hopes of getting home depended on the impression he made on the people he was about to meet.

"Oh, very much so," Risa agreed with another bright smile. "That's the main reason we don't mix very much with other, well, cultures. There'd be problems—sometimes not even everybody here on Elysium agrees about what to do or how. If we opened ourselves to the rest of the galaxy, some of the problems might become violent. Avoiding violence was very important to our ancestors, and to us."

"Well," said Don Slade, "a merchant like me who's bounced around on a lot of planets sees violence, I'm afraid. And I can only respect the way you folk have managed to avoid it." There was, Slade realized, as much truth to that statement as not.

Risa had not called her base, home, whatever, so far as Slade could tell. He had noticed that the girls in the accompanying cars were speaking. Though there were no microphones evident, it was obvious that they were reporting to someone. Six or eight kilometers ahead, on the shore of a lake that reflected the clouds above it, was a settlement of a few hundred houses and a probable public building or two. None of the structures looked particularly impressive, though that opinion might be affected by distance and the way the walls managed to blend with their surroundings. "This is the nearest town, then?" Slade asked.

"This is the town," Risa said, "though we call it the city." For a moment the girl's smile was replaced by something gentle but wistful. "We've seen real cities, you know," she said. "But none of us have visited one."

Risa touched a plate in the dashboard. It glowed green, reassuring her about the state of the power-pack. The car's instrumentation was unobtrusive but very slick, certainly nothing some farmer had cobbled together during a long winter. "This isn't everyone," the girl said. "Lot of families like to live alone or with just a few neighbors. But there aren't very many of us, as I said."

"Well, the . . ." Slade said, frowning now in open puzzlement. "These air cars. They are made on Elysium, aren't they? Or do you—?"

"Oh, the machinery!" Risa said delightedly. "Oh, my goodness, you thought you'd see that! All of that is underground, right here, most of it, under the houses and some distance beyond, I believe. I'm sure they'll show it to you if you'd like, but it isn't the sort of thing we—on Elysium—wanted in the open. My goodness," she repeated, her laughter bubbling into the sky as an image occurred to her. "You must have thought you were on a planet where you'd have to grow a long white beard and learn to card wool. Really, I'm sure my parents can help you get home."

"Risa," said some undifferentiated part of the dashboard in a bass voice, "why don't you bring our guest by the house first. We have some clothes for him. After he's had a chance to bathe and change, your mother and I will walk him over to the Hall for dinner."

"All right, Dad," the girl replied. Slade could not see how she was keying the mike, but there could have been a button on the control stick. Risa made a moue over her shoulder at the man. "I hope you like red," she said. "Kelwin dearly loves it, and I doubt anyone else in town has clothes to lend that might fit you. Not that you're as heavy as Kel . . . ."

People were standing on porches or against vine-covered fences, watching the car approach. The individual yards were separated by walkways, but there did not seem to be any provision for ground vehicles. That was not completely inexplicable, but the only air cars Slade had seen were the quartet that had rescued him. Additional transport should have been parked in the yards, even if none of it happened to be airborn at the moment.

Then Risa guided her vehicle—a trifle too fast at first, because she was unused to compensating for Slade's considerable mass—around a house of weathered stone. An older man and woman waved from where they stood, well clear of the opened back wall. Risa tilted the fans forward to balance momentum with their thrust. Then she drove neatly into the building and parked beside two very similar cars.

The garage was well lighted. Slade had expected the floor and walls to be stone or concrete. It was with a sense of surprise that he realized these were some synthetic which glowed without any external light source.

The older couple had walked in as Risa shut the fans down. They could have passed as Slade's age or less, but the castaway's instinct was that they were much older. The man had Risa's hair and features, while the woman was nearly blond and somewhat less fine-drawn. Both smiled warmly at the girl and her passenger. "I'm Nan," said the woman as she stretched out a hand to Slade, "Risa's mother; and this is my husband Onander. I'm sure our daughter has welcomed you to Elysium, but let me assure you that the welcome was from the whole community."

The hull and seat-back flexed beneath Slade's weight when he levered himself out of the space in which he had ridden. He touched Nan's hand as he stepped from the vehicle, though he was careful not to put any strain on her. "Lady," he said, conscious of his image but able nonetheless to be sincere, "your daughter and her friends saved my life. I can't think of any welcome better than that one. And if there's any way you might help me get home, the way the Terzia thought you might, I—well, how could I owe you for more than my life? But I would appreciate it."

"Of course we'll help you," said Onander. He clasped the bigger man, hand to biceps, in a gesture that brought their left wrists together as if they were mingling blood. "But I hope you'll accept a night of our hospitality here. We dare allow few visitors, but someone the Terzia recommended is welcome not only as a guest but also as a font to slake our curiosity. But you will—" he glanced down at Slade's garment with a smile and not censure—"be more comfortable in proper clothes, won't you? They're right upstairs in the bathroom."

Nan and Onander were already leading the way around the parked cars to the staircase in a corner. The outside door had pivoted shut unnoticed. That was the sort of effortless control to be expected in a room with smoothly-gleaming surfaces; but the stairs took Slade aback again. They were of dark wood, old enough to show wear in the gentle bowing of the treads. Each tread was pegged, not nailed or glued, to the stringers. The fit appeared flawless.

"Via, this is a fine piece of work," Slade said aloud as he let his fingers brush the balustrade. He felt that he had to be as careful with it as he had been with his hostess, though the dense wood barely flexed beneath his foot. It struck him that the Elysians themselves might be less fragile than his nervousness seemed to be warning him.

Nan glanced back at the big man. "My mother's mother built it," she said. "To replace the extruded one. I'm told that it was almost six years before she called it finished—not that she was working on it full time."

Nan paused at the stair head and rapped the balustrade. The sound had a life that masonry or synthetics would not have duplicated. "They were both, this and the plastic, utilitarian in that they permitted people to walk between the garage and the first floor," the woman continued. "But this had a utility for my grandmother while she was working on it, too . . . and for us, to remember her every time a step sounds on the tread."

As he mounted the last step himself, Slade glanced over his shoulder and smiled. Risa still waited at the foot of the stairs, watching the play of the castaway's muscles. When his eyes caught hers, the girl blushed before she grinned back.




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