Nothing in this hand, nothing in my sleeve—
Kim slept soundly through the night and was up at six, ate a good breakfast, and finished packing. She put her wet suit and a metal sensor in a carrying case, instructed Shep to inform callers during the balance of the day that she was on assignment in Marathon and after that to say simply that she was on vacation and would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Shortly after nine she arrived at the train station and directed the loader to ship her bags through to Terminal City, and signed in. By 9:40 she was on her way to Marathon.
Marathon was a garden town, populated predominantly by people who were satisfied to live off the basic allotment, and to devote their lives to the pursuit of leisure and the arts. It had more theaters per square meter than any other place in the world, more game rooms, more libraries, more swimming pools, and probably more sex.
According to legend, its name commemorated the ultimate one-night stand when Annie Muldoon, a personage at the edge of history, took on the town’s entire adult male population, said to have numbered an even one hundred, and to have exhausted them all in a single night. There was a statue of Annie, with a bunch of bananas thrown over one shoulder, in the city hall courtyard. Kim saw it from the train window as she pulled into town.
She got off, ate lunch, and rented a horse, which she rode through woods still wet from an early morning rain, past waterfalls and wallball courts, to the UDI office. United Distribution was located on the upper floor of a small log building. The lower level featured a communications shop and a liquor store. She went up a flight of stairs, followed the signs into a service area, and presented her ID number to the dex.
The system produced her package, laying it on the counter so she could see the label she’d addressed from Eagle Point. “Is this correct?” it asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Press here, please.” It wanted her thumb print on the delivery receipt. She complied, carried the package downstairs, and hefted it onto the horse. A man sleeping on the front deck woke up, looked at her, and said hello. Kim returned the greeting, climbed into the saddle and started back toward the station.
She rode slowly. It was a lovely spring day, but she was preoccupied with her surroundings, prepared to bolt at the first sign of danger. The forest made her vulnerable, and it occurred to her belatedly that selecting a horse over a cab might not have been a good idea.
But no one appeared, and she arrived safely at the stable. She returned the animal and walked across to the station, where she sat down on a bench to await the train to Terminal City.
There were only a few others on the platform: a couple of families with children, several people dressed in ski clothes apparently headed for the mountains, and two persons who appeared to be traveling on business.
The Terminal City train came in from the east along a slow curve riding just above thick woods. It was silent at low speeds, and the view was blocked off by the station roof, so there was no advance warning that it was coming. It simply appeared on the bend, glided in, and settled into its well. A few passengers got off; the people who’d been waiting on the platform boarded. Kim, carrying the UDI parcel, joined them.
The train was more than half empty. She found a compartment where she could be alone, closed the glass door, and settled into a seat. They moved forward out of the station, gathered speed, slowed again to maneuver through a couple of ridges west of Marathon, and then climbed to the treetops and began accelerating.
Rivers and lakes flowed past. There would be no towns before Little Marseille, 150 kilometers away. That was not because there were no towns in the region, but because the velocity of the train required that it be kept away from inhabited areas. One rarely saw a human being from inside a maglev car traveling at full gait. Anyone who appeared tended to be down flat and holding on.
Kim undid the wrapping on the UDI parcel, opened one end, peeked in, and caught her breath. There was a scaled-down starship inside, but it was not the Valiant. She looked again at the label: it was the one she had addressed from Eagle Point.
Her heart began to hammer. She took it out of the package. The vehicle was the 376.
Woodbridge had a sense of humor.
She heard movement in the aisle, the compartment door opened, and a blond man in a charcoal jacket came in, glanced at her, and sat down opposite. She recognized him as one of the people who’d boarded with her at Marathon.
She closed the container. The nearby countryside was a blur; a distant range of hills passed majestically.
“Anything wrong, Dr. Brandywine?” the man asked.
She did not look at him. “You know there is,” she said.
He was silent a few moments. Then he showed her an ID. She missed his name but saw the words NATIONAL BUREAU OF COMPLIANCE circling a shield. “I wonder if I can ask you to come with me,” he said.
“Please.” He rose and opened the door for her.
She stepped past him.
“To your right, Doctor,” he said.
She preceded him down the passageway, passed into the next car, and, at his instruction, stopped outside a closed compartment. Curtains had been drawn over the windows. The blond man knocked. The door opened and he stepped aside.
Kim looked in and saw Canon Woodbridge. And the Valiant. It was on the seat beside him, a cloth thrown over it. But she knew the shape.
“Please come in, Kim,” he said, motioning her to sit down. “I’m sorry we’re meeting this way. I know this has been hard on you.” The door closed softly behind her.
“Hello, Canon.” She managed a smile. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“No. I’d think not.” He glanced down at the Valiant. “Tell me,” he said, “is this really a starship?”
She tried to look puzzled. It was difficult under his penetrating gaze. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Kim.” He sounded disappointed. She could trust him to do the right thing, his demeanor told her. Everything will be fine. Have no concern. “This will go much better if we’re honest with each other.” He drew the cloth aside. “Is this the ship from Orion?”
“That appears to be it,” she said, in a tone that conceded defeat.
“Incredible.” He touched it gently, as if fearing it might disintegrate. “It’s so small.”
She folded her arms and sat back, staring across at the seat opposite.
“I’m disappointed that you had so valuable an artifact in your possession and failed to inform me.”
“I’d have preferred to inform no one.”
“Yes,” he said. “Apparently. I thought I could trust you.”
“I knew you’d take it from me.”
“Kim.” The train had begun to sway and he put a restraining hand on the artifact. “I don’t think I understand your motives in this matter. I mean, this goes far beyond what’s good for you or me. What did you plan to do with this?”
“It’s of considerable value.” She dropped her eyes. Guilty as charged, you son of a bitch. “I was going to keep it.”
He studied her. “Hold it for ransom?” he asked at last.
“Just keep it.”
“You continue to surprise me, Kim. You seem to be making a career of stealing starships.” He replaced the clodi. “You’re really quite a little bandit, aren’t you?”
“It is mine, you know,” she said. “By right of discovery.”
“Oh, we both know better than that. Technically, I would think it belongs to the Tripley heirs. And I can assure you we’ll return it to them when we’re finished examining it.”
“There won’t be much left by then, I suspect.”
“Probably not.” He sighed. “But it’s unavoidable. Who knows what sort of technology is embodied in this? I understand the younger Tripley had it in his office all these years and never knew what it was.”
“Ben? Yes, that’s so.”
“Hard to believe.” Something in the countryside caught his eye, and he turned to look. Kim followed his gaze to a distant bridge across a river. Two kids sat on it with fishing poles. “The simple pleasures, eh, Kim?”
She didn’t respond.
“Well,” he said, “nevertheless, you won’t come away empty-handed. By no means. We’ll be making a public announcement shortly, and I’ll see that you’re suitably recognized.”
“Another medal,” she said.
“Yes. The Premier’s Medal is in order this time, I would think. That’s quite an honor. It would of course depend on your cooperation.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“It carries with it a considerable stipend. And you’ll be able to name your price for speaking engagements.”
“Eventually,” she said, “we’re going to encounter these creatures. How are you going to deal with that?”
“To be honest, Kim, I hope we’ve seen the last of the celestials. I don’t like them, they’re lost out there somewhere, and we should have no real trouble staying out of their way. Traffic is extremely rare in the Alnitak area. In fact, we’ve done a study. How many ships do you think have been out there during the last century, other than the survey and several visits by Kile Tripley? And your own, of course?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“The answer is zero. Nobody. So we probably don’t have a problem unless we invite one.”
“You’re simply going to ignore the fact there’s another civilization in the region? This whole thing is just going to disappear!”
“Kim, I’m surprised at your change of heart. A few days ago you would have been happy to send the fleet after them.”
“You know why I changed my mind.”
“The Kane statement.”
“It tells me we can deal with these creatures, Canon.”
“Oh, I’m sure we can. After an initial period of instability. Risk. Uncertainty. Who knows what sort of effect interaction with a strange culture might bring? We live quite well; there are no problems. The status quo is rather nice, don’t you think? Everybody lives a good life. It seems to me we’ve nothing to gain and perhaps everything to lose by pursuing this.”
“I don’t think that’s exactly the spirit that brought us out from Earth.”
“Kim, be realistic. Have you given any thought to what contact might mean? Even assuming these creatures are not malevolent, although I’d have to say that remains open to question, think about the potential for mischief. It’s quite likely your celestials are far ahead of us technologically. What happens when cultures of unequal capabilities encounter each other? What happened to the South Sea Islanders? The Aztecs? Or, if you prefer, reverse the coin. If we have superiority, they will be damaged. And that principle seems to be operative regardless of the intentions of the superior society.”
“We can take precautions against that.”
“Can we? I doubt it.”
“Canon, this is a chance to get a whole new perspective from an intelligent species. The potential for new knowledge is unlimited. But even that’s not the point. They’re like us in some very significant ways. We know that now—”
“We don’t really know anything, Kim. Look, I’m not saying you’re not right. I’m saying, we don’t know. Why take the risk?”
“We’ve an obligation,” she said, “at the very least, to say hello. We’re the part of the universe that thinks. How can we fail to act simply because we want to eliminate risk? You’re talking about the status quo. Is that really what we’re about?”
“That’s all a trifle abstract for me.” Woodbridge sighed. “This would be so much easier if you were a bit more practical, Kim. Nevertheless, maybe history, in its very long view, will demonstrate that you’re right and I’m wrong. Or maybe not. For the moment at least, life is quite pleasant in the Nine Worlds, and this thing in Orion is a very large unknown. We are therefore going to try to keep it at a safe distance.”
“You understand,” she said, “this breaks our agreement. I no longer feel bound to remain silent.”
He shrugged. “This,” the microship, “changes the equation. I’m sure the government will be making an announcement within the next few days.”
The train slowed to navigate a long curving defile.
“You’re going to make it public?” she asked. “Why?”
“Oh, there’s no way to keep this sort of thing quiet. Once we begin bringing people in to look at it, the story will get out quickly. We’re not nearly as good at keeping secrets as people like to think.”
“So missions will be going out to Alnitak after all—”
“They’ll be going to Zeta Tauri. That’s where the celestial incident will have occurred. It’ll be leaked, and we’ll deny it, of course. So everyone will believe it. And the missions should be quite safe there.”
“Unless I tell them differently.”
“This is what I referred to when I suggested we would want your cooperation. If you persist in going your own way, Kim, we’ll simply write you out of the scenario altogether. We have an alternate narrative set up. It does not include you, so there is no reason anyone would believe you.” He pressed his palms together. “I don’t want you to think I’m threatening you. I’m simply trying to spell out the realities. Please understand that I take no pleasure in any of this, but it’s essential that we avoid future contact with these things. You, of all people, should be able to see the wisdom of that position.”
He rapped on the door. Two women came in, carrying a container. They bundled the Valiant into it and asked Woodbridge whether he needed anything. He did not, and they left, taking the microship with them.
“If you can see your way to cooperate, Kim, I’ll try to arrange to have you present when we dissect it.”
Her time was up. He rose and opened the door for her. “You’re a talented woman,” he said. “If you’re interested, I think the conciliar staff would have a place for you.”
Kim went back to her seat, collapsed into it, and stared desultorily out at the passing countryside. Gradually the forest changed to marsh. They slowed to negotiate a curve back toward the west and Kim saw the skyhook.
The train leaped ahead again, passed beneath a series of ridges, and raced out across a lake. The shock wave struck the water like a ship’s prow. At the water’s edge, a crocodile watched them pass.
They slowed again, settled to earth, and emerged through a patch of cypress into a wide stretch of parkland. A few kids turned away from a ball game to wave. People on benches looked up and then went back to reading or talking.
The train joined the main east-west line at Morgantown Bay and ran the short gauntlet of cliffs, sea, and islands into Terminal City. It passed slowly through the downtown area, glided into the terminal building, and settled to a stop. The doors opened.
Kim walked dejectedly out onto the platform. There was no sign of Woodbridge or his people. She picked up her bags, held out the one with the wet suit and the metal sensor, and tagged the rest for Sky Harbor. To be held till called for.
No one seemed to be watching her. She checked the timetables, noted that she had fifty-five minutes before the next departure for Eagle Point.
The train she’d just left was filling up. A bell sounded, doors closed, and it rose on its magnetics and pulled slowly out of the station. It would be heading back east.
She went to the terminal roof, hailed a cab, and told it to take her to the Beachfront Hotel. It rose into clear air, swung onto a southeastern tangent, and moved swiftly across the city.
At the Beachfront, she took an elevator down to the lobby. A cluster of shops ringed the area. She wandered into one, bought a comb, went out to the registration desk and reserved a room. Then she got back on the elevator, rode up past her floor, and went instead to the roof. Two cabs were just landing. She took one and instructed it to proceed to the train terminal.
There was still no indication of surveillance. Good. They had what they wanted, she hoped, and would not further concern themselves with her. She arrived at her destination, strolled over to an ADP, inserted her ID, and got a ticket to Eagle Point. Then she found a bench and watched a holocast talk show.
Ten minutes later her train arrived. She boarded, sat down, and lazily started browsing through the library. The doors closed and they left the station on schedule. The train cruised above the parks and residences on Terminal City’s north side. It crossed the VanderMeer Bridge to the mainland, and began to accelerate. The trees thinned out and they moved over rolling fields.
The quiet motion rocked her to sleep. She dreamed of the shroud but somehow knew it was a dream and forced herself awake. The car was full of sunlight and skis and the laughter of children. Everybody seemed to be on vacation.
A drink table approached, and Kim helped herself to a frozen pineapple.
It was late afternoon when they glided into Eagle Point. She got off, walked over to the tourist information booth, and consulted the commercial registry. Finding what she wanted, she went up onto the skywalk and minutes later entered The Home Shop. She bought some white ribbon, and had it cut into six strips, each about twenty centimeters long.
Next she proceeded to the Rent-All Emporium sporting goods outlet, down at the next arch. There she picked out a collapsible boat, a converter and a jetpack, and several tethers designed for mountain climbing. They delivered everything to Wing Transport, where she rented a flyer. An hour and a quarter after she’d arrived, she was flying south over countryside that had grown painfully familiar. She picked up the Severin River, and followed it through the canyons and over the dam to Lake Remorse.
The lake was bright and still in the afternoon sun. No boat moved across its surface. It was almost, she thought, as if this area were disconnected from Greenway, and had become part of whatever strange world from which the shroud had come.
She took the metal sensor out of her carrying case and tied it into the flyer’s search system. That done, she skimmed the shoreline once, perhaps to ensure that she was alone, perhaps to be in a position to flee if anything rose out of the trees to come after her. She shuddered at the memory and made an effort to put it out of her mind.
At Cabry’s Beach, someone had put up a memorial for Sheyel, Ben Tripley, and the three guards.
She hovered over the place, tempted to go down and pay her respects. But time was short. She promised herself she would come back.
Kim turned north onto the same course she’d followed when fleeing the shroud, and retraced her flight across the lake. She homed in on the clutch of dead trees, measured angles between them and the town and the face of the mountain. She had been about sixty meters offshore when she pitched the Valiant into the lake.
She descended to within a few meters of the surface and moved slowly across the face of the water, watching the sensor. It lit up a couple of times, but the position wasn’t quite right. Too far east. Too far out.
Eventually she got the hit she was looking for. She marked the spot with a float, found a landing place, and took the flyer down. When she’d come back to Remorse with Matt, she’d not felt much, just a kind of numbness. But today she was alone again, and the area oppressed her, weighed on her spirits.
She tried to concentrate on Solly, to imagine him alongside her, telling her not to worry. Nothing here to be afraid of.
She hauled the boat out of the aircraft, pulled the tag, and watched it inflate. A hawk appeared high overhead and began circling. She was glad for its company.
She tied her tethers together, making two lines, one approximately twenty and the other forty meters long, and laid them in the boat. She added her strips of ribbon, and picked up two rocks, one white and one gray. These she also put in the boat.
When everything seemed ready she got back into the flyer and changed into her wet suit. She strapped on the jets and the converter, then disconnected the sensor and put it in her utility bag.
She launched the boat with a sense of bravura and rode out to the marker. Depth registered at twelve meters. Deeper than she’d hoped. But by no means out of reach. She initiated the sensor search. That way, closer to shore.
Kim moved to the indicated spot, tied the shorter line around the gray rock and dropped it over the side to serve as her anchor.
It would have been easier to work with a partner in the boat, as she had with Solly above the dam. Now she had to forego the advantage of an observer with a tracking screen.
She attached the sensor to her lamp, strapped the lamp to her wrist, and slipped over the side.
The lake was cool and clear, but dark in its depths. She arrowed down until she touched bottom. Then she turned slowly 360 degrees, watching the sensor, waiting for the blinker to brighten. When it didn’t, she tried moving out, swimming in a circle, and immediately got her directions confused. The easy way was not going to work.
She went back up to the boat and thought about it. A flyer passed, moving south. She watched it until it was gone.
It was getting late. The afternoon was beginning to change color.
She paid out her second line and tied the ribbon to it in five-meter increments. When she was finished she looped it over one shoulder, put the white rock in her utility bag, went back over the side, and descended to the anchor.
She connected the line with the ribbons to the anchor line, measured out five meters and marked the outermost limit with the white rock.
Something hard-shelled, a turtle probably, bumped into her and scurried away. A good sign.
Holding on to the first ribbon to prevent moving beyond the perimeter, she searched the area immediately around the anchor, out to five meters. When she got back to the white rock, she switched her attention to the area outside the perimeter, and completed a second circle. Then she moved the rock to ten meters and repeated the process.
She found the Valiant on the next circuit, lying upside down in a tangle of vegetation. She removed it gently, clasped it to her breast, congratulated herself, and rose slowly to the surface.