Cross the Stars by David Drake



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CHAPTER TEN


"The seat of honor, Mister Slade," Onander said as he pointed to the chair at the center of the cross table. The chair to either side of the central one was empty also. Nan took the guest's hand lightly to bring him forward, much as her daughter had led Slade to the car.

There were about thirty adults already sitting at the two side tables and at the seats to either end of the table that crossed them into a square-based U. They clapped lightly as the castaway entered the room. There were decanters and covered dishes on the tables, but the meal had waited for Slade's arrival.

Slade's tunic and shorts were red, as he had been warned. The garments were comfortably light in the warm evening, and they were loose enough to give him occasional twinges as he remembered his garb on landing. Other Elysians were wearing similar clothing, though mostly of printed cloth. There was no certain cut or style. One man was nude at least from the tabletop to his cap of iridescent feathers.

Nan sat in one of the flanking chairs. Onander pulled out the central one and gestured Slade into it. Before the Elysian himself sat down, however, he called, "Friends? Our guest would probably be better for a meal in him. Afterwards, we hope he'll join us in the other room and tell us something about himself and the things he's seen; but for now, let's all eat in peace."

There was another patter of hands beneath a rainbow of Elysian smiles.

The Slammers were normally fed with ration packs, standardized food. It might once have had a Dutch emphasis, but when reconstituted it tended to be as featureless as a hooker's thirtieth trick of the night. The mercenary troops themselves came from worlds as varied as those on which a contract might station them. It was better to accept the cost and inconvenience of standardized rations than to lose thirty percent of your effectives to diarrhea or constipation every time you shifted planets.

Slade, however, had made a practice of eating on the local economy wherever possible. He hadn't joined Hammer to be bored, and he'd always figured he pulled his weight even when he had the runs. The big man therefore appreciated the meal before him as few of his fellows would have been able to do.

Not that the food was exotic in any normal sense. There was roast meat, vegetables both raw and cooked—nothing Slade recognized, and nothing particularly striking except a dish that looked like cole slaw and tasted like napalm—and bread, which was almost certainly baked from Terran wheat. The wine was probably better than Slade had a palate to enjoy. He had grown up on Tethys with stim cones, not alcohol. His introduction to the latter as a low-ranking trooper had been regimental stash, valued for reasons apart from its piquant subtleties of flavor.

"You know," he said around a bite of roast—from the end, where it was cooked gray, not pink—"I sort of thought you might be vegetarians. It, well, I thought you might."

"Some of us are," Onander said as he forked more meat from the tray between the two men. "Down at the far end," he noted, with a gesture toward one of the side tables, brief enough to be unobtrusive. "We haven't a large population on Elysium, but neither is it a monolithic one. You wouldn't prefer, ah, vegetable protein, would you? Really, I should have checked."

Slade had not been conscious of being the center of attention. The other people in the hall had been eating and chatting in normal fashion. Now, however, the big wood-paneled room had noticeably stilled. "Oh, not at all," the castaway said in embarrassment. "It's mostly seafood of one sort or another . . . a lot of it compressed and textured plankton, but animals to start out even if they were little ones."

He grinned and looked around the room. "Tell the truth, a lot of what I was raised to eat was about as bland as regimental food." He raised a bite of roast on his fork. "Nothing as good as this," he closed, putting an obvious period to the explanation by eating the morsel.

Slade had not done any physical labor since his last bout of exercise on the lifeboat. The tension of the landing, however, had itself kept his metabolism cooking at a high rate. He plowed on through repeated servings, vaguely conscious without focusing on it that those around him continued to eat though at a much lower rate. When Slade finished, covering a belch with his hand, there was almost simultaneous movement among his hosts to push their plates away and lean back.

Nan stood. "I think," she said, "that if we've all eaten, we can adjourn to the Assembly Room to listen to our visitor. If he wouldn't mind?" she added, looking down at Slade. The question was real and hopeful, not a rhetorical exercise.

"Ah, I'd be delighted," said the big man. When he got up, he found that his muscles were wobbly with exhaustion and the pleasant burden of food being digested. Natural courtesy aside, Slade owed these friendly people a duty for their hospitality. It did not occur to him to shirk his duties simply because he was tired.

"Of course everyone couldn't gather to meet you directly tonight," said Onander as he opened the door behind his own chair. A two-meter long hallway, open at the further end, lay beyond. "But from the Assembly Room, we can broadcast and share your talk with the whole community."

Slade had noticed that the dining room into which he had first been ushered was only half the exterior size of the building. The Assembly Room filled the remainder, save for the length of the hall between them. Too narrow for a kitchen, he would have thought . . . and none of his business; Slade wasn't searching this city for contraband.

The Assembly Room took his breath away with its abruptness.

They had dined beneath bare rafters, seated on wood and eating from hand-thrown pottery. The Assembly Room was by contrast as technically advanced as anything Slade had seen. It was of a style that was wholly new to him as well.

Elysians who passed as Slade stepped aside were reclining on what seemed to be a bare floor. The surface rose and mounded, not only beneath their weight but by meeting their bodies at comfortable angles. The feet of those walking to places to sit did not affect the floor in any visible manner.

But it was the walls that made Slade pause just inside the doorway. They held his attention in growing horror. The covering material had its own light as had that of the air car garage. This time the wall was not a wash of blank color but rather a mural painting with life and depth and movement.

"It's a scene from our history," Nan said with quiet dignity. "Our ancestors were slow-ship colonists. There was a higher level of radiation aboard than the designers had allowed for, or perhaps they just failed to allow for the passage of time on a closed system. There was, at the end, fighting between our ancestors and other passengers who had—deviated further from the original stock."

More than Slade's eyes were absorbed. He could not have seen the objects on the black background more clearly: rusty iron, the golden gleam of a join brazed instead of welded, the silvery polish of the lands against the shadowed grooves of a gun barrel. To another man, they would have been crude steel boxes, crawling their way one at a time through narrow darkness. But Slade was a tanker. His palms sweated and his heart began to race. "No," he whispered. It was not only other men in those tanks, it was him again.

The lead vehicle disintegrated. There was a spark on the glacis, then a globe of orange fire. Fuel and ammunition had exploded. For that brief instant, the surroundings were more than hints in shadow: girders interlacing, reaching far beyond visibility. Nowhere in sight was there a longitudinal connection except the catwalk down which the armored boxes struggled.

"The main drive was in East Section," Nan was saying. All the others who had dined with Slade were now seated on the floor. "For generations, our ancestors had used auxilliary units in West for power, but at the end it was necessary to tap the main drive."

The next vehicle clumsily shoved aside the remains of the first. Glowing fragments slipped over the edge of the catwalk and pirouetted, as softly as thistle seeds, toward the black that swallowed them and their warmth. Flashes lighted slots in the bulkhead at the walk's far end. Projectiles rang and splashed from girders, from the walkway, from the armored targets waddling forward.

"You can't just bull your way in!" Slade said. "Not if they're waiting, not if they're hardened and you give them time to pick and—"

The leading vehicle had been firing toward its goal with three automatic weapons. Now a pale amber beam threaded through the girders at an angle and touched the vehicle's flank.

"—choose, it's—"

Another orange explosion.

"—suicide!"

"There was no choice," the Elysian said. Her firm hands held one of Slade's to keep the castaway from gouging himself with his cropped nails. "There was only one vehicular connection between East Section and West. The crews knew what they were doing."

The third vehicle might have been lighter than its fellows, or perhaps even machinery could feel and react to desperation. The tank rocked through the wreckage at speed. The laser touched it but did not bite out the vehicle's heart. The beam left only a scar that glowed white, then red, as it cooled. As the tank neared its goal, the guns in the bulkhead fired at an increasing deflection. Shots still hit. The weapons replying from the vehicle's bow fell silent. But there were not so many hits, and they did not have the seam-splitting accuracy of moments before.

"At the time this was going on—" Nan continued. A white flash beneath the lumbering vehicle scattered the three iron road-wheels on the left side. They spun off the catwalk as the tank lurched the other way. Their edges glowed and disappeared.

"—a team was entering the power room from outside, unnoticed by the inhabitants who were concentrating on the bulkhead."

A door from somewhere ahead of the disabled vehicle spewed others onto the catwalk. The remaining gun on the tank fired until the barrel shone. Weapons from West Section itself must have joined, because the flecks of projectiles ricochetting patterned the vehicle's quarter for the first time. It made no difference. The others were over the tank like maggots on the third day's corpse. They were humanoid, but they had huger bodies and fewer eyes than men. They began to devour the vehicle's crew even as they dragged them through the prized-open hatches.

"If they had known, you see," Nan said as the mural faded to swirls of dark pastel, "they would have cut the connection. The power had to be on for three full days before all the passengers in West Section could escape to Elysium. All the survivors."

Slade shuddered to bring himself out of the waste of fear and memory where he had lived for the past moments. Music of some sort was a soothing undercurrent in the hall. Patient, friendly faces were turned up to his. "Dear Lord have mercy," the tanker said. He released his hand from the woman's. He managed a smile. "I'm Don Slade," he said. "I was a merchant . . . ."


CHAPTER ELEVEN


"I think we've got a balance," said the blonde technician. Her voice whispered out to every human on Elysium except for Don Slade. "We're going to begin coupling in." Her fingers played over the banks of rocker switches before her.

"A little up in the thirties, I think," said her bald companion. The blonde's fingers replaced a nod. They touched controls and sharpened the color of the images forming in her mind, her companion's mind, and in those of the other thirteen thousand Elysians with right-brain implants.

The bald technician rubbed his temples. "Blessed Lord," he grumbled. "That spike almost took the top off my skull. And just the mural, not something he'd been through himself."

"How's this?" asked the blonde as the images firmed.

"Perfect," said her companion. He touched one of his own controls, minusculely changing the attitude of the hidden probe aimed at the back of Slade's head.

"I had the controls set down, just cracked enough to get a reading, I thought. Really."

"I'm not blaming you," the bald technician said. He had closed his eyes. "I never knew an affect to peak like that either. I just hope the shunts catch the next spike the way they're supposed to. Or—" he smiled, covering a wince of remembered pain— "our guest is going to be very surprised when his audience starts to scream just as he gets to the good part."

Then the two of them relaxed behind their instruments. With the ease of long experience, they let Don Slade's words and the thoughts like sharks beneath those words hiss simultaneously through their own minds.



"The ship on which I hired passage," the speaker was saying, "had a lot of military types aboard. There'd been a lot of fighting on Friesland in the recent past. Hard-cases had signed on with one side or another. Now that things had settled down, they were leaving; and sometimes one step ahead of the White Mice, the authorities. Passes weren't being checked very carefully. The Colonel—ah, President Hammer, the new executive, seemed to figure that it was as cheap to ship the trash out as it was to cull them and shoot them.

"Or just shoot them, I guess—" A vivid image of bound figures collapsing against a shot-burned wall; a smile on the speaker's face that matched the image much better than it did his merchant persona. "I hear that might've been discussed before a fellow named Pritchard, close to the President, put his foot down."

Elysium watched the men with the uniforms and bearing of military men who filled a small, tense room. Young men in battle-dress stood beside the door. The seated men had the age and rank. They were scowling, several of them ready to jump to their feet. Danny Pritchard in civilian clothes was clicking off, coldly as an abacus, the long-term effects of a present resort to terror.

Don Slade was not a figure in his own vision. The scene was tinged red with suppressed violence. Beneath the physical details ran an awareness of the weight of Slade's pistol holster and the smooth hardness of the mini-grenade concealed in his left hand. The big man was poised to clear the room if Hammer ordered his friend's arrest.

"I wasn't too worried about the other passengers," Slade was saying. His voice was a pleasant tenor, sharply at variance with the jagged images in his mind. It was always the striking memories that remained, of course. But what the subject found striking depended on the life that had brought him to them.

"I'd turned all my, ah, wares to cash, and I figured to arrange a bank transfer when I got home to Tethys. The others aboard the ship, a tramp with just the registry number GAC 59, weren't the sort of folks I'd have wanted to go to sleep with if I'd had anything worth stealing. But I didn't, and they knew it, and I figured I could handle minor annoyances about as well as the next guy." The smile again, and the great, scarred fingers of one hand caressing the knuckles of the other.

"Thing is," Don Slade continued, "there was one thing I had that the others turned out to want: my—trading experience, for the venture they were planning . . . ."




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