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A Plague of Change

Prologue

The trader resisted an urge to wrinkle his nose at the stinking, alien air. No telling whether the 'wormbags' could read human mannerisms, and be offended. He couldn't afford negative reactions -- he needed what they had to sell, his world had to have it or it would die.

"Thesssse we will take," hissed a chorus of alien mouths. Pale, sinuous 'arms' indicated a cluster of potted trees, and an accompanying stack of vacuum-packed seed-cannisters. A snakelike appendage wrapped itself around the slim trunk of a sugar-maple. "Isss thissss one native to your colony-world?" The sibilant, nonhuman pronunciation issued from a score of tiny worm-mouths, one to each pseudo-tentacle. Quivering, speaking spaghetti, the trader thought, repressing a shudder. Bleached grass-snakes bundled together in a sheaf, covered with chitiny beetle-wings. It was hard to remain rational in the presence of psatla even though he was not, by nature, a xenophobe. No trader could be. Pheromones? Some chemical component of the creatures' reeking air? They're colonial intelligences, he told himself, not single beings at all. They look like worms because they are worms. But we need them, he reminded himself. The blight spreads. Without their tailored viruses to combat it, every vascular plant on my world will be dead in five years, and the colony with them. Mastering his repulsion, the trader replied. "It's a maple. A native of my species' homeworld."

"Ssso I sssuspected," mused the shapeless ugliness before him. A single ashen strand writhed from beneath protective chitin and snapped off a leaf, curled around it, crushed it methodically, and drew it into the pulsing shadows beneath overlapping chitin-plates. "It tassstesss like the fffungusss that plaguesss your planet."

"Earth?" the trader exclaimed. "The blight is an Earth disease?"

"Earthhh ... dirt, sssoil. Ahhh, yesss. Dirt-world, homeworld. Like treesss, your roots remain in earth, on Earth. Isss it not ssso?" Humor? Can a synergy of semi-sentient worms make a joke? The trader forced a smile, not that the creature would recognize it as such. "So we call it," he replied through clenched teeth. Had the being, the psatla, 'tasted' the genetic structure of the leaf so easily, and recognized the scattered chainings of nucleotides that fungus-blight and maple-trees held in common, the genes of Earth? The trader fought against distraction. "You have chosen. Do we have a trade?"

"A bargain? Yesss," the psatla responded. "These ssssufffice. Your world'sss sssurvival fffor oursss."

The trader's curiosity was piqued. "Your survival?" he asked, bolder, now that agreement was reached. "Not thessse treesss alone," the psatla whispered, "But, with many othersss, thisss bare world will sssomeday sssusssstain usss." The trader understood, then. From orbit, he'd seen bare rock and empty ocean, continents dusted with lichens and brown moss. Only the temperate and tropic coasts had been green, the green of dense forest, of deep, humus-rich soils. Terraforming. With only biologicals to work with, the wormbags were trying to transform a world. Even with their inborn ability to read and manipulate genes, it was a millennial task, for psatla manufactured nothing. They had no ships, and couldn't fly them if they had, so they were dependent on human trade for everything they couldn't grow. Theirs was a desperate, tenuous situation. "I wish you success," he said, a trace of pity in his tone. "I hope you're given the time for it."

"Given time?" the worm-mouths sighed. "Isss time a giffft, or a given?" The creature is playing with words, the trader realized. Just how smart it it? He had to remind himself again that psatla, ragtag composites of worm-brains and worm-mouths though they might be, were sentient beings. Different intelligences, but not necessarily lesser ones. "You may not have thousands of years for your task," he answered. "You may not even have fifty."

"That isss a ssserious contention," the psatla hissed quietly. "You have wisssdom we lack? Will you tell usss your thoughtsss?" It motioned with a cluster of chitin-wrapped white strands, a human-like gesture. I'm being invited inside. I'm not sure I want to see how these creatures live. Would the stink of them be even more intense, within the rambling structure of vines and branches and bark they called 'home'? The trader doubted there'd be lace tablecloths and a silver tea-service. "We offer you refreshment," his host said, as if sensing his thoughts. "Cofffee from the berry-bushesss of your ssspecies-home, and tobacco, if you desssire it. Humansss who have tried them sssay they are excsssellent." There was no choice. The trader ducked his head in the dim, open doorway....


The ship rose silently at first, then, as its increasing speed warred with the friction of thinning air, it howled distantly, left a faint contrail, and disappeared into the brightness of the morning. Pungent scents rose in the humid air around the two psatla. Translated into the human tongue, the shifting odors may have meant something like this:

<<The seed is planted.>> A wet-earth scent, accompanied by a subtle puff of growth-hormone 'felt' rather than scented. This, from the larger of the two beings, whose chitin-plates were bright as new-minted gold. <<Will it flourish?>> A brief gust of 'anxious'.

<<Time ... the gift, if given ... and the winds and rains of the trader's far world, will allow the fruiting tree.>> A wafted melange of seasonal odors in rapid sequence with the odd, cold flavor of rain on far-distant slopes, then the tang of ripeness, of rich juices flowing. That, from the other, the trader's counterpart, green-chitined with a touch of bronze.

<<Will new seed return here? How will that be?>> Maple-leaf scent, faint, then grown heavy, followed by the volatile hormone 'curious wonder.'

<<Like the spinning maple-tree-seeds,>> green-bronze assured his superior, in words of crushed-leaf scent, <<many will scatter, but one, surely, will blow even this far on the ship-winds between the stars.>> The latter was machine-oil and ozone, then a cold scent-absorbing-all-scents, a sensory void.

<<It is well.>> Warm sunlight on black soil. <<We will wait for it. We will live, and our effort will continue.>> Roots and humus, and a waft of mating-pheromones that caused both psatla to spread their chitin-plates wide, savoring it.

Bronze-and-green 'spoke' aloud then, drawn-out rush of air that would have sounded, to human ears, like a sigh.

CE 2462, December 3;

Mid-morning, shiptime;

MS Stella M. Carrington, chartroom.


Chapter 1


Five hundred years out from Earth, Man is still Man. Across two thousand parsecs of drifted stars and immense black voids, boys are still boys. Vassily James Cannon was no exception. He stood stiffly at attention before Captain Sotheny and prepared for the worst.

"Congratulations, Cadet. You've successfully completed your self-assigned mission: you've attained the bridge of the Stella M. Carrington. Some facets of your academy training have been demonstrated. Evasion, infiltration, and a good knowledge of the ducts and systems of a class 'C' freighter. Oh, yes. And computer break-in as well." The captain's voice was soft, mellifluous -- and heavy with sarcasm. Vassily 'Bass` Cannon had heard such voices before, and never had they meant him well.

"Yes sir!" he said crisply, in good academy form with no superfluous muscle movement.

"Then let me test another area of your training: Law. Were you of my crew, what would prevent me from spacing you this instant? What rights would you, an invader of my sovereign territory, have?"

"Nothing, sir! None, sir."

"Admirably precise, Cadet. Correct. I could have you spaced or flogged. But you're a passenger, and thus my charge; and you're a minor as well, so not legally responsible. Those things give me a certain latitude in dealing with your `crime'." The captain leaned back in his flight-couch; whining servomotors adjusted it to his shifted weight. He pressed his thumbs together and steepled his long fingers. "Demonstrate further, Cadet. Cite each infraction and crime you have indulged in, its appropriate Uniform Disciplinary Code punishment, and your academy's indubitably milder variant thereof. Be specific."

"Sir! Removal of a ventilator grille: unauthorized modification of ship's life-support equipment; maximum disciplinary action: ten lashes and/or ten days incarceration or confinement to quarters.

"Crawling through the ventilation and service duct so accessed, and use of restricted service corridors: unauthorized entry; Maximum action: ten lashes and/or ten days.

"Use of an unauthorized computer interface to re-program seven corridor locks in order to gain entrance: sabotage of ship's operating systems while under way; maximum peacetime penalty: fifty lashes, incarceration for the duration of the voyage, and permanent grounding at the next port of call."

"And your academy`s version?"

"Sir, the Crowe Academy code is the same, but substitutes expulsion from the academy for grounding where the offense is sabotage."

"You're harsh on yourself, Cadet. You made no attempt to claim a lesser offense where you might. The exact punishment is, however, at my discretion, and I'm not a harsh man, so I'll give you your choice: seventy lashes, as specified, to be given ten per day, then incarceration in the Carrington's brig until we land on Cannon's Orb three weeks from now. That's your first choice. The second is perhaps milder, as you're technically a passenger on this vessel: if I am satisfied that she is in no further danger from the exercise of your ingenuity, you may continue as a passenger. In that case, though, I'll recommend your immediate expulsion from Crowe Academy, and you'll be blacklisted from here to Earth --be assured that as an officer in the TransReef Merchant Service, my word carries the weight to accomplish it. Your choice, Cadet?"

"Sir! The first choice, if you please."


"Wasn't that harsh? The choice you gave him?" The Carrington's second officer -- also the captain's wife and the mother of his three sons -- shook her head slowly, not raising her gaze from the chart holoscope.

"Not too. I've scanned his records from Crowe. They're all on his vitae card in the purser's safe. I know who -- and what -- he is. His cleverness with the ship's computers is only a side effect of his real talents. At Crowe, he was right off their test scales in so many areas that they're downright afraid of him."

"What's to be afraid of? He's only a boy."

"Yes, but a boy who may grow into one of the most brilliant military, political and economic strategists that the galaxy has ever produced. . . .

"And did you hear him -- `use of an unauthorized interface....' A hat! The kid used a homemade, functioning, bloody-be-damned hat to link with our comp! And he doesn't even know how special that makes him. One in Gods-only-know how many billion people can use a hat. Can you imagine it? The power you'd have with all that knowledge right there in your head? All the information in a database like the Carrington's even closer than your fingertips? Can you imagine it?" Sotheny shook his head.

"I can't. And neither can you," she replied dryly. "If we could, then we'd be like him, wouldn't we? We never imagine anything really alien to us." She leaned back in her seat. "Those stories about non-human aliens -- written before we actually encountered any -- had all sorts of exotic speculations about strange societies and biologies, but ultimately the aliens were us in disguise. Not all of us, just parts. There were aliens who had no emotion or were all emotion; kind ones who loved, and warlike ones who had no word for peace. Facets of us, all of them." She breathed deeply, assured by her husband's intent silence that she'd be allowed her entire say.

"Can we explain the real aliens we trade with in human terms? Not a chance! We just deal with them empirically, without a scintilla of real understanding. "And young Bass Cannon?", she wondered aloud. "Are the Academy's manipulations of him just as empirical? Do they know what they're dealing with? Is there as little common ground?"

"At least he's human," Sotheny mused. "His mother wanted an exceptional son for her husband's sake, and that's what she got: an administrator extraordinaire to take over the Cannon empire. Only it might not be just Jack Cannon's fiefs he inherits, you see. The Panaikos Council has feared the inevitability of economic and political chaos in transReef space -- we're mineral-poor and vastly overextended -- and they knew they'd need generals of his potential calibre. They've been cultivating them -- talented cadets, especially from key families like his. It's established policy. But the Cannon boy mustn't know -- not yet, at any rate.

"You see," he went on, responding to her unasked question, "I'm only following Crowe's recommended treatment of him." The captain smiled. "That's how I know he hasn't cracked his vitae card's codes. He would have changed those recommendations for sure."

"But why be so rough on him?"

"He's arrogant, irresponsible and selfish," the Captain said with a sly grin. "A boy, in other words. But of all boys, he's got to be trained and disciplined before he discovers what he is. Personally, I think he'll survive it -- he's got more than a streak of his father in him, I can tell."

"He made the right choice, then." It wasn't a question. "And if he'd chosen expulsion instead?"

"It would have been a less responsible choice. He knew he could still have had a plush life on the Orb, being who he is. But he chose a man's punishment, not a boy's."

"And if he hadn't?", she persisted.

"Then he'd never have gotten off Cannon's Orb again. Not even dead."

Sotheny's second officer sat still for a long moment, staring into her instrument. Finally, she looked her husband in the eyes. "Perhaps he knew that. Could he? What if he chose the right alternative for all the wrong reasons?"

"I don't think there are any wrong reasons. He chose rightly, and that's what matters. The pain will pass, but he'll remember the lesson of it." Captain Sotheny shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't think we've heard the last of him. Oh, yes -- I `forgot' to confiscate his illegal `hat'."



Chapter 2


Cannon's Orb. A silly, pretentious name. All the lovely, evocative ones had been taken long ago: Windswept, Thalassa, Winter. The trite ones had been reiterated in every fashion too: Heaven, Eden, Valhalla, Journey's End. Bass Cannon shrugged. His father might have done worse. The lovely, blue-green and buff world could have been `Jack's Planet'.

From low orbit, 'the Orb' showed an intricate weave of submerged mountain chains. Even the equatorial peaks showed signs of glaciation: toothy aretes, round-bottomed valleys chained with azure lakes and fjords. Short, fast rivers tumbled from high valleys in hundred-meter cascades then separated into braided deltas.

The dominant life forms of the planet were trees. The thirty thousand identified species were only those that were economic resources: metalvein, violet-heart, and mountain redfern were beautiful; sooder and sweet nellie were aromatic, intoxicating; feathervane, redspalt and rock-ivory were dense and strong. Trees and timber were the wooden backbone of the colony. Each man, woman and child knew the feel of sawdust, the smells of wood growing and wood being cut.

Earth grasses introduced in the Barrens and on the coasts converted loess plains and dust-basins to rich range land. Some trace elements were missing from the Orb's soil, but they were easily traded for. Jack Cannon's colonists enjoyed a diet rich in red meat.

The Orb was a product of rare circumstances: twenty thousand years ago its sun, Mirasol, was within the Caprian reef, a jumble of opaque dust, supernova remnants and detritus. Mirasol, formed in an older region of the galactic arm, had entered the reef with its fourth planet already rich in life. For a million years collisions with reef-substance roiled its atmosphere and muted Mirasol's sustaining warmth. Glaciers increased the world`s albedo, reflecting back the star's diminished light. They cut, ground and pushed the planet's surface into new and contorted forms, and cleared the land of all but scattrered life.

Nineteen thousand years before the first human landed on the Orb, Mirasol emerged from the reef, and tiny patches of brown and green crept out across the face of the fourth planet.

Five thousand years after that, the glaciers were only dirty gray traces in the high ranges and at the poles. Every patch of soil deep enough to hold a root grew a tree. A million species or more spread from protected valleys and propagated by root, rhizome, seed and spore.

Fishlike creatures swam in lakes and oceans, and catlike, omnivorous 'grabbits` dominated the land, abounding in this area, starving in that. No predators existed.

A hundred twenty-five short years ago, a worn, antique spacecraft of Earthly origin assumed a wobbly orbit around the Orb. The lone young man on board studied the planet with old, well-maintained instruments. He mapped, plotted, and analyzed; then he landed. Kneeling in tall feathery ferns amid the crackling and chirping hymns of a myriad unseen insects, he raised his face skyward to his God, and he prayed. Taking samples of soil, air and vegetation, he hopped from one continent to another, collecting and studying, and after several months, he began his long journey back to Earth.

In thirty years, planetary time, he returned, having aged only five years. He came in a larger ship with a five-man crew, bringing half a thousand hopeful settlers under Contract to him. His prime Contractor was Elias Cotter, for whom the Orb's initial settlement was named: Cotterville. Still young, Jack Cannon stayed for a few years until he was sure that Cotterville was a going concern. Five hundred colonists -- he had chosen them carefully. The first roof under which they had all slept, together, was a great timbered hall, a Church.

When lights glowed in two hundred wooden houses along several muddy streets, when the first five million board feet of exotic logs were loaded in his hold, Jack Cannon departed. With that cargo alone he could have stayed on Earth as a rich man, but that wasn't even a consideration, so thirty years later -- by planetary reckoning -- he returned to Cannon's Orb.

This time, he had aged only four years, for interstellar travel was unpredictable. Over the same route, tiny variations in a ship's drive potentials and changes in the web of forces that unites the galaxy changed simple relativistic time-dilation. Aboard a ship, time was less constant than the mountain winds on Jack's world.

Five thousand Contractors and sub-Contractors disembarked; equipment, seeds, animals were offloaded and distributed to new townsites, leaseholds and camps. Three great cargo vessels were filled with the choicest woods the planet could offer. A thousand species were represented, each more lovely than the one before it. Jack went back to Earth again on the third ship, after five years on the Orb.

Before he left, his parting words to his colonists were delivered from a low dais at the head of the Cotterville church. It was a sermon and a goodbye: words to last for a generation. The godly men he'd chosen vowed then and there that when Jack returned to the Orb, their unborn sons would know his parting phrases by heart.

Those men aged thirty-two years while Jack trod metal decks and viewed distorted stars through portholes. Returning, his biological age was only forty-two. He stayed in Cotterville while his future home, High Manse, was built near the site of his initial landing. From that time on he meticulously guided the progress of his world, the world to which his son Bass now returned ...


The jolt of retrofire jarred Bass from his reverie. The Carrington was decelerating. He would soon be off the damn ship for good. And it couldn't be soon enough for him. During his final weeks on the Carrington he hadn't caught the slightest hint of Captain or Second Officer Sotheny's well-masked sympathy. He could, however, finally shrug without pain. The nerve-whip left no physical signs of its seventy passes across his back. The muscle spasms had lost their grip over the last two weeks, until only painful memory remained. He was still a cadet at Crowe Academy, the best Spacers' Guild school beyond the Caprian reef, and he still had his pride: not one whimper escaped his tight lips during the week of hell he'd endured. Old Sotheny had been disappointed, he was sure.

Someday when I inherit the family holdings, he thought in a spurt of compressed rage, he'll return to the Orb, with an empty hold, and he'll leave with a cargo of air, too! Let him explain that to the Carrington's owners. Bass comforted himself with such unworthy thoughts during the ship's thirty-minute descent, but felt no better for them.

As the ship's levellers sighed and settled firmly on the ground, Bass gave his freshly-pressed uniform a final inspection before joining his waiting family. Jack and Raquel Cannon pressed forward in the small crowd. Such was Jack's quiet way: the ordinary citizens of 'his' planet hardly knew his face, but Bass saw him immediately, for Jack Cannon still towered over most people. Seventy years had bowed him only slightly, and his shock of silver hair added inches, too. Raquel possessed a spare, angular grace that well fitted the 'queen` of a lovely, provincial world. Bass met them at the base of the rollaway stairs.

"Merry Christmas, Son. Welcome home."

"Hi Dad. Mom, what's for dinner?" His mother`s throaty laugh rewarded his old joke.

"Plus ca change... but you've changed, Bass!" She held him at arm's length, her slim hands on her tall son's broadened shoulders. "Academy life must not be too hard on you. You're taller." Bass flung his arms over both his parent`s shoulders as they walked from the field. Dad's not as tall as I am. Have I grown that much since last Christmas? A rush of confusing notions tumbled one over the other inside him: smug satisfaction with his emerging manhood shaded into wistful regret for the childhood he`d given up. He'd played his last prank as a child, and had paid for it, seventy times, as an adult.

"Where`re the girls?" he asked. "I thought they`d all be here to welcome me home."

Raquel wasn't sure exactly what `girls' he meant. Before his acceptance by Crowe Academy, Bass had cut quite a swath through the unmarried daughters of his father's Contractors and other landowners. Even at fourteen . . . especially at fourteen . . . he'd been viewed as a threat to morality and their daughters' virginity. Jack and Raquel had been relieved to see him off for his first year, hoping the Academy would provide outlets for a healthy fourteen-year-old's libido, ones that wouldn't damage his family's staid reputation. When he came home for the summer, their anxiety turned in a different direction . . . but no one talked about that, not willingly. . . Bass had several sisters, and his mother purposefully assumed they were the `girls' he meant. "Tonight's Chapel night, you remember. The choir will be performing excerpts from Deladius's Kyraito sil Lixen. Your sisters are rehearsing." She sounded proud, urbane.

"Incredible!" Bass blurted. "The masterwork of a pagan, non-human offworlder? Here, in the heart of God`s own realm?" The warmth of his tone took the worst sting from his sarcasm, but he still felt his father`s shoulders stiffen. "Hey! I'm sorry! -- I'm happy things are loosening up a bit, that's all. I think we should temper our devout little lives with a bit of whimsy."

"Deladius wasn`t human, true." Jack's voice was slow and deep, as threatening as the distant rumble of violet-streaked storm-clouds that were even now building in the lime-green sky over the Estvold hills. "He was an alien, but he died in the Faith, and the Synod has approved his works for informal services. The works and the being who wrote them."

Bass's laugh was sarcastic. "What a shame! If they'd banned it instead, I'd suspect it might be worth hearing. In fact, I wouldn't miss it!"

"Bass, drop it!" His mother cut him off. "You're here, and it's Christmas. Won't you come, just this once, without an argument? The estate managers and their families will attend tonight's services, and many Contractors too. We will all be there, as befits our family's position on this world, so I'll hear no more of it."

"Sorry, Mom," he said mildly. "You know how I feel. But I'll be there. For the family." Other worlds have holiday orgies, games, great, glittering pageants and festivals. What do I get to do on leave? Sing hymns with log-farmers and their prick-teasing daughters.

The saloon 'car awaited them at the edge of the landing apron. There were no customs formalities for the Cannons of Cannon's Orb. The 'car was obviously not new. Its thick, maroon finish had that swirling luster only age and many coats of pigment lovingly rubbed out can give. It was a Stollivant, the estate model made in limited numbers for the well-to-do, and its design had not changed in over a century: a central coach-pod like an elongated egg, half metal and half transparent, with three banks of seats. Four repulsor-pods melded with the main body at the places a land-vehicle would have had wheels. A brassy rail ran its circumference where glassine and metal joined and doors folded out as ramps for graceful entry. The interior exuded odors of faint perfume, tobacco smoke and old leather.

"May I fly us?" Bass inquired. "I've got my all-class license." He hated sounding like a child. How easily the old habits returned. I should just have opened the passenger door for them, and gotten in front. The key's always there.

Jack smiled tolerantly. "Take her away, son. Easy on the combat maneuvers, though. I want to keep my lunch."

Waves of diffuse warmth ran through Bass. The old comradery was still there! I do love the old man. Why can't he just accept me? Accept that I'll never be like him or believe as he does? Maybe, he thought hopefully, we can get away for a day's fishing in the Jumbles, forget about everything else.

Bass took the car up smoothly. Its turbine generators whined evenly and the repulsors pushed them swiftly up to the heavy craft's hundred-meter limit without apparent effort.

"The right-quadrant repulsor's been replaced, hasn't it?" A year earlier, it had clattered and pulsed annoyingly under load. Bass's sensitive ear had heard it long before anyone else, and his judgements of machinery were uncannily accurate. Jack had obviously heeded his warning. "I'll bet there's not a chunk of original gear left on the old bus, Dad. Aren't you ever going to get a new one?"

"There's a shop in Fallen Rocks that's making a few light-duty floaters now. Perhaps in a few years they'll be set up for larger craft, but we're still basically a timber-producing world. Perhaps if the whole transReef wasn`t so shy of heavy elements, if we could mine our own metals economically, then we could industrialize, but. . . ." Jack's voice faded dreamily. "Besides, the old beast isn't worn out yet, and a new one would have identical components."

"I suppose so. Sometimes a change is nice, though, for its own sake. Hey! What's that down there?" Bass banked the aircar to allow his father a better view from the side window. Raw ground spread out alongside the lumber-trace which wound below them. Geometric excavations pocked the blue and russet expanse of shaggy grass and second-growth bloodbushes. Yellow excavating machines were parked helter-skelter.

"Hmmph. A change, I think." Jack Cannon smiled quietly while his dry witticism sunk in. "That's Orb Industries' new dimensioning mill. We'll be shipping sawn and graded timber by next year, and a bit more money will stay here on the Orb where it belongs. The way freight and fuel costs have been going up every month, we can hardly afford to ship logs anymore."

"Isn't it a bit far from the timber operations? You'll need a railroad."

"The market's changing, son. We have to change too. Some clear-cut timber will still go by rail to the port, but this plant will handle top-grade metalvein and violet heart, and some mountain redfern in the summer. We'll select-cut each log and fly it here."

"Can you show me the plans? You must have them on the house com." Jack affirmed that he did, and Bass swung back on course for High Manse.


When Jack returned from his last space voyage, he had brought Raquel, then eighteen. The great stone and timber lodge, set into a southerly ridge, had been home to them and their children ever since.

Children. Peggy, Ariane and Elspeth had come along at regular two-year intervals, but when Raquel despaired of giving Jack the son he craved, the interval between babies shortened. Barbara, Sally and Joyce had only a year and a half between them.

As soon as baby Joyce weaned herself, Raquel had decided to take a "vacation", a six-month voyage to the capitol of transReef. Recent developments in starship technology allowed passengers on new and retrofitted ships to keep a one-to-one chronological relationship with their departure points, even at superluminary speeds, so when she returned, she was only a half-year older. Bass was born almost exactly eight months after that. Raquel never knew that the lab gave her son more, much more, than she'd paid for.

If there was gossip about Raquel's questionable journey among the devout ladies of Church, town and forest preserve, it never reached Raquel's ears. No discussion of 'unnatural manipulation' took place in Deacons' Council, either: Jack Cannon had worked harder than anyone, and had taken less reward than he allotted his contractors and managers, so if his wife was willing to take sin on her own soul to give him a son, then damned if anyone would make it harder still for her.

The saloon car crested a final dark copper ridge, and was over the estate. High Manse seemed small to outsiders, because it nestled into the rough hillside like a natural formation, exposing only slated roof and hewn granite wall to view. Its flues were shaped to resemble natural crags. Inside, even the `public' rooms were on a human scale, built more for living than for show. `Intimate' groups of ten to fifty guests that felt 'just right' at the Manse would be lost and forlorn in the high halls of more pretentious estates.

Bass dropped the aircar to the apron in front of the main house. "I think I'll ride down to Five Corners, see if Rob's around. We always used to meet there," he added needlessly.

"Bass?" His mother's forehead wrinkled with tension.

"Uh huh?"

"You don't expect to see ... anyone in particular?"

"What? I mean, who?" His blank look gave way to dawning comprehension. "Oh, Mom! I know Lorraine isn't there any more. I wasn't even thinking of her." He forced a reassuring grin. "She's not on the Orb, anyway."

"No, she's not." Raquel's words dropped like stones into mud. "She left last year, after you did. Rumor said she'd followed you ... ."

"Mom, you worry about everything! I haven't seen her -- and I don't want to. It's over. Besides, I've re-discovered girls my own age, so now you can worry about that."

Raquel rewarded him with a smile as bright as Mirasol's rays. Relief colored her words. "I'm glad you're over her, Bass. It wasn't just that she" . . . Raquel made a conscious effort not to let that one word, 'she', sound like `that woman' . . . "that she was so much older than you. You hurt so, and you were so young. . . ."

"Yeah. It was pretty rough on me. Right from the beginning." It still is. It always will be. Lorraine. . . .

She had been thirty-five or even forty-five -- Bass didn't have any idea, really -- and he'd been fifteen. She hadn't intended to seduce him, despite what people said later. It just happened. He remembered, mostly, her room and her bed, passion, and an agony of the spirit that pervaded their time together. That first night, when he snuck up to her room and hid there on a dare from Ollie and Rob, he'd had no thought of love, only curiosity about the lone woman from off-planet who had taken a room there in Five Corners. If she had been old -- or even looked her age -- none of the boys would have given her a thought, but she was dark, mysterious, and quite pretty.

He knew now that if she hadn't been drunk and running from something, someone, she would have sent him away, but. . . . In the course of that one short night he was stripped of his youth and his fantasies. Love. Is it a rigorous new position? A proud endurance record won with aching arms and battered groin? Or going home alone in the small hours, each night, vowing that it's over. What he felt during the hot, sweaty hours lying stiffly in his solitary bed, fighting the urge to get dressed and go to her -- that hadn't been love, nor was the excitement that tightened his gut and groin as he trudged through the cool night air, back down the two-track road to Five Corners one more time. One more time. . . .

Lorraine hadn't been good for him. He knew that now, just as Raquel had known it all along. No boy, no matter how virile, how driven, could have lived up to Lorraine. But God, it had been good sometimes!

Raquel must have read something of his thoughts in his face, for her worry-lines returned. "How did you know she was gone, Bass?"

"Mom," he explained patiently, "you aren't the only one who writes letters. Rob wrote too ... Hey! It's almost four. He'll probably be at the Corners already. Gotta go, Mom."

"Why don't you come in and change first, Bass?" his mother asked. "You can keep your uniform neat and have it pressed for tonight."

He vetoed the suggestion brusquely. No way am I going down there looking like a hick timberman, he thought. I earned my bars, and I'm wearing them.

His father looked long and hard at him. "I'd not want you to give yourself airs, Bass. It's not our way."

Bass shrugged acquiescently and walked with his parents to the house. Less than an hour later, when he slipped out to the aircar, he was still wearing his proud Academy colors.




Chapter 3


Five Corners: nine unpainted wood buildings, single-story except for the New Paradise Cafe, which had rentable rooms upstairs. Bass's eyes quickly turned from those curtained windows back to the aircar's instruments. Lorraine's windows, and her curtains left behind. He imagined movement -- a heavy drape pulled slightly aside. Lorraine. Waiting for him. Angrily, he jerked the 'car's prow around.

The five roads into the Corners seemed to trail off in the near distance, to vanish as if they went nowhere, existing only to give the cluster of sheds and defunct vehicles a reason for being. The northeast road was no more than an extended driveway to High Manse, an old construction trail. The others had enough traffic to keep the slow-growing native ground covers from obscuring them, no more.

Bass recognized two of the aircars parked at the Old Saw Tavern, so he brought the Stollivant down between them. One was a utility vehicle belonging to the Magnusson Company, one of his father's prime timber contractors. The other, even more ancient than the Stollivant and showing every year of it, was the proud personal property of Rob Santiago, Bass's closest childhood friend. Alighting, he thumped its scored and dented cowl as he walked up to the tavern. With Rob, he reminisced, he had probably lifted every component in and out of the clapped-out vehicle at least once. Only skill and considerable attention kept the old `bird' flying.

The tavern was dark; Mirasol's light was whiter than Sol standard. Everyone wore ultraviolet-screened contacts indoors and out, and even the lightest summer clothing was full-covering and reflective. Windows were shaded and baffled to keep out the carcinogenic light. Thus the tavern's occupants recognized Bass well before his own eyes had adjusted to the gloom.

"Hey, Bass! When did you get back?" Rob jumped up to throw an arm around his shoulder, and pummelled his back. "Whoo-ee! Cadet Captain Cannon!" he said when he noticed the bright silver bars on Bass's collar. "Here, stand back you guys. Let's get a good look at him."

The others hadn't crowded all that closely. Actually, they had stayed clustered nearer their table than to Bass, who recognized Ollie Nickerson's plump form first, and then Alexei Dovstran`s pale blond hair. The squat, broad-shouldered silhouette behind them was Stef Myers. Wayne T'song was still sitting at the round table. "Ten-Hut! Let's have a little respect for our returning hero," he said, all too laconically.

"Hi Wayne", Bass said equally diffidently. "Can I buy you guys a beer?"

"Nah. Lunch break," Stef said. "Can't be drinkin' until after hours. We work for a living, now." Stef was truculent even at the best of times. Bass ignored the jibe and sat down. Dad was right, he realized. I should have changed first. They're all convinced I'm a snob, now. He changed the subject. "Are you all working on the same job? What are you doing?"

"Clear-cutting on Sarpint Ridge. Tomorrow we'll be forming up for the last caravan to Cotterville," Ollie explained in his usual level tones. "We're eight days ahead of schedule, so there's a bonus due us."

"Great! Maybe I can help, eh?" Bass's reply engendered a stiff silence. "What's wrong? What did I say?"

"Look, Bass," Wayne said cautiously, thinking out each word before speaking it, "It's all very well for you to come down here in your fancy uniform, but this job is no kid game. We've been sweating it out on the Ridge for six months now, and it's our own operation, not your father's."

"Yeah!" Stef cut in. "No need for you to get sawdust on your fancy spaceman-suit -- We're not cutting you in on what we've earned anyway. You kin go back up on the hill and polish your boots."

"Sorree!" Bass spat. "I guess I've been away too

long! I thought we were friends. I don't want any of your money, I just wanted to help."

"We don't need no help from you," Stef insisted. "We been doing just fine. Let Daddy find you a nice office job, huh?"

Bass was taken aback by Stef's bitterness. His own face flushed with a mix of anger and undeserved shame, and he struck back without thinking: "Got your little niche cut out, eh Stef? A contract with Magnusson? Ever think who holds his contract?"

Bass knew he was overreacting. Stef, the bully, his childhood nemesis, had ruined his glorious entrance. He was embarrassed now, and he lashed out to cover it. Sucking in a rough breath Bass spat "Did he hire your old man too? Or is your `daddy' too busy pouring booze down his gullet?" Bass's angry singsong cut through the dim tavern air like sharp blades. "Why don't you sign him on yourself? He'll never get a contract from anyone else!"

Myers said nothing, though the flush darkening his face was visible even in the dimness. Stef's parent was unable to hold even the least responsible of jobs. Booted off a spaceship he'd been crewing on, he'd landed on Cannon's Orb with nothing but a thirst. One of the whores in Cotterville gave him Stef, and had supported father and son for ten years, until a customer slit her throat. After that, they lived from day to day on odd jobs and charity.

Stef didn't reply. Never eloquent, the internal struggle he hosted prevented speech, and though Ollie and the others had heard everything, they too remained ominously silent. Bass immediately regretted what he`d said, but it was beyond recall.

Alexei and Wayne peered silently into their glasses, and only Rob continued to recognize Bass's presence. He tried to ignore the electric tension in the air: "Are you using the family monster?" he asked awkwardly, "the Stollivant?" He nodded in the direction of the door.

Bass looked around. None of the others would meet his gaze except Stef, who stared at him with inarticulate hatred. "Yeah. I am," Bass replied. "Come with me?"

"Uh huh. We've got to talk."

"Good idea, Spaceman," Stef grated. "Don't hurry back."

Rob jerked Bass out the door before he could make another unthinking reply.

"Blight, Bass! That was really dumb," he exclaimed as the door shut behind them.

"What was? Coming here? I guess it was, wasn't it?"

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I know. But what was I supposed to do? Just stand there and take it from him? He didn't have to start right in on me, either."

"He's been trying to get ahead. You really hit him hard. Damn it, Bass! You haven't been here! Stef's been doing really well. You blew it this time!" Bass didn't reply. What could he say? He knew he'd been a fool, but even now, the adrenaline lingering in his blood wouldn't let him admit it.

They climbed into the Stollivant, and with the resiliency of youth, their talk turned to the military craft Bass was learning to fly, but the conversation felt forced and unnatural, and they soon gave up. They flew over the Shadney River's towering stands of larch and sooder, then followed the river for several minutes, in silence.

"Better drop me back at Five Corners, Bass. Maybe I can smooth things out. Besides, I have to go home and clean up for Chapel tonight."

"Yeah, me too. I wish I could skip the whole thing, but `the Queen' requires my presence."

"My ma too. It's not so bad, though. The Mallin twins'll be there. You remember them? The brunettes?"

"Uh huh. Nice." Bass's low-key reply belied the sharp twinge in his groin that even the memory of the twins brought. He'd spent more than one long summer evening with the twins -- one or both of them: evenings of groping, clutching, giggling adolescent passion that, always unconsummated, had left him lightheaded and aching. After Lorraine, though, he hadn't resumed such frustrating pastimes. "Picked one for yourself, yet?", he joked.

"Hah! If I could tell them apart, I might. If I contract with old man Mallin next year, maybe I can find out how closely they match."

"Better be careful," Bass warned him. "Deacon Mallin'll nail your hide to his barn if he catches you."

"I suppose you'd know about that, wouldn't you?", Rob teased him.

By the direct route, they were over the Corners in minutes. "See you tonight, Rob. If you don't go down in smoke first."

"There's always a first time, eh? See you." The Corners were empty of craft other than Rob's and the Stollivant. They'd gone back to work, Bass supposed. He pointed the old 'car toward High Manse. Even Mirasol's brilliant glare failed to penetrate his depression. It was starting out to be a really great vacation!




Chapter 4


Chapel was . . . well, it was Chapel. A bit more crowded than an ordinary service, a little brighter with all the extra candles. Christmas. Perhaps I should stay at Crowe next year, with the `orphans', chase downside girls who aren't afraid to drink and dance -- and more. I should have done it this year.

Bass estimated that eighty aircars clustered around the plain stone building. It looks like third shift at a finish mill, he told himself. Indeed, the Chapel had no distinguishing ornamentation, no architectural flairs or follies. Its ashlar walls were bland taupe stone, its wood fasciae carefully painted to match. Its curtained windows were small and multi-paned like small-time factory windows on any industrial world. The First Dharmic Church of Christ, Reincarnate had placed no ban on the use of stained glass, statuary and carvings, distracting frills, but neither did it encourage them. Jack's austere nature, that had tolerated years of loneliness in a barren scoutship, had no use for them either.

Bass went in at his mother's side, feeling conspicuous without a group of older, taller, sisters to shield him. He smiled and nodded at neighbors and acquaintances in the close-pressed mass of faces.

Jack sat on a stiff-backed, spindled chair facing the congregation, raised only a few inches above them on a roughly-finished wooden platform. It was exactly high enough for him to lock eyes with those in the back row, over the heads of the others -- and not an inch higher. Jack had planned it that way: the First Dharmic Church didn't encourage its ministers giving themselves airs, either.

Ollie's parents were in their usual seats, as were Wayne's. Neither of the boys were present, and Bass was sure that his father, from his vantage point, had noticed the vacancies in their family pews. There would be wondering, perhaps questions, later.

The service went along at its usual pace, and Bass was no more bored than on numerous other occasions. One good lesson of the military life: how to survive being bored. At least I don't have to stand at attention.

Giving his father due credit, it could have been worse. Jack Cannon was an excellent speaker. Though his voice was becoming airy with age, some of its mature resonance remained, and he'd lost no volume at all. It filled the crowded room to the rearmost corners, not allowing the sleepiest, nodding head a moment's rest.

The subject of his sermon that night was, predictably, the meaning of Christmas. The subject had less scope for charismatic harangue than Jack's favorites, and Bass was grateful for that. He half-listened, becoming fully aware of Jack's words only when they diverged from what he had heard before.

". . . The man Jesus said nothing about the souls of non-human sapients. Why should he have? There were no Gelenites in Galilee, no Armoths in Samaria, not even a lone Psatla in Rome, the greatest city of His time. In an earlier incarnation, six hundred years before, he had even less reason to speak of such -- his fellow humans, separated from each other by language and extremes of custom, were alien enough. But even then, his Hindu people knew that even beasts of burden were more than Godless flesh; nothing indicates that the Buddha rejected that belief.

Our own Church, first among many that will surely follow, has addressed the question of alien souls with more than words. An Armoth, taking the honored name of Saint Deladius for his own, was gathered to the Church only months before his Passing On. The choral celebration you will hear shortly is his final tribute to the Church, to you, to all of us who share his adopted Faith: the Kyraito sil Lixen. In Armotha, that means `My Soul Has Wandered'. Some have remarked the similarity of the title to a Song we have all heard: Kyrie Eleison.

"The Church's decision to accept Deladius has been hotly debated. Perhaps, for all of us, his music will give answers no words can provide. . . ."

Bass listened intently, despite his earlier disparagements, for the small choir was quite good, and Deladius's masterwork deserved the high praise it usually got. When the choir's last echoes died, the benches in neat rows across the floor were moved aside and stacked equally neatly. Coffee was served -- real Earth coffee, not the locally-grown, acidic brew. There were small snacks too, but Bass couldn't force himself to eat. His stomach was still twisted with unspent anger and frustration. Rob pushed through bunched families to get to Bass.

"The twins're over there by the door, Bass. Come with me before Mallin drags them away, all right?"

"I don't know, Rob. I'm leaving in a week and it'd probably take two just to get a kiss. Don't let me stop you, though."

Rob was crestfallen at first, but then he gave Bass a long, penetrating look. "That bad, huh? Have you decided what you're going to do about Stef?"

"I think so. Not today though. Have fun with the twins, will you? Squeeze one for me?"

"Not much chance of that! Not yet, anyway. Well, good luck Bass. I hope you straighten things out."`

"Thanks, Rob. See you." Rob made his way back across the room. Bass mixed politely with the older folk who surrounded his parents, answering their repetitious questions about Academy life and how good it must be to be home. He never initiated a conversation, and went into no greater detail than direct questions demanded. He was relieved when he saw people working their way to the door, when they came to say goodbye instead of to pass the time in idle chitchat.

On the way out to the Stollivant he didn't talk, and he hardly heard his parents' murmured conversation as he steered the aircar through the darkness. At the Manse, he avoided their curious, concerned looks and, pleading a headache, went directly to his room.

His old, comfortable bed was too soft now, and he tossed and sweated in it, wishing for his firm foam pad in Barracks seven-B. Finally, he tossed a blanket and pillow on the floor and fell asleep in seconds.


The kitchen terrace was pleasantly cool, its dark slaty flags still sheltered from Mirasol's morning glare. Later in the day, it would be a furnace. "Where's Mom?", Bass asked as he poured himself a glass of sailfruit juice from the thermal pitcher.

"Com center. It's a workday for her, Christmas or not. She'll be back by noon, though." Jack Cannon's cheery voice rang falsely on his son's ears. "Do you have plans today?"

"Ah ... I thought I'd do a little hunting down in the Wallow. Rob told me the grabbits are overbreeding, getting into the fields."

"You're not going alone, are you? You know how I feel about that. Can't you get someone to go with you? Wayne or Ollie, maybe?"

Here it comes, Bass knew. "By the way, I didn`t see. . . .

"By the way, I didn't see them in Chapel. I understand they have a contract with Magnusson. He's working near enough for them to have come."

I won't crawl. He'll find out what happened anyway. "We had a quarrel yesterday. Stef Myers and I. They're boycotting me, not the Church. I'm sure they'll be back after I've gone."

"Anything I should know about? I don't like resentments to fester. If any ruffled feathers need smoothing, Son. . . ."

He's treating me as an adult. Damn. This is going to be even harder than I thought. Bass knew then that he was going to tell his father exactly what had happened. As an adult, he'd have to do more than slink offworld until time muted the nastiness of his words. A formal apology was due. Ollie and Wayne would accept it matter-of-factly. Alexei would shrug it off and smile, but Stef? Stef would gloat. On the Orb, children were usually exempt from rigid adult codes of behavior. But they did learn the forms: My words have given offense. I humbly apologize for having said them, and I wish to make reparation. I await your considered suggestion of how that might be done. Stef wouldn't make it easy for him.

"What did you say, Bass?" Jack had half-heard his murmured recital.

"It was my fault, Dad," he blurted. "I asked if I could work with them, and they brushed me off. Stef was pretty mean about it. I lost my temper and said some stupid things ... about his father." Haltingly, Bass described events as they had transpired.

When he finished, Jack was silent. Bass had seen his neck and cheeks redden, saw the cold glitter of his narrowed eyes, the wrinkling of his weathered forehead that deepened as Bass spoke, but he returned his father's gaze steadily, face on. He saw Jack's visible effort to quell his ire before he spoke. As I should have done yesterday, Bass realized.

"You are my son and heir," Jack said at last, "and whether or not you choose to return permanently to the Orb when you graduate, to take the reins of power from me, you'll still be richer and more powerful than most men dream of being. Unless you throw it away, that is -- and what you did today was a step in that direction.

"I didn't choose the contract structure only because it was simple to administrate. I chose it because it veiled the extent of my own interests. The flaunting of power breeds resentment and, ultimately, revolution. The Orb was my discovery, and how I chartered it was my decision alone. I could have been a king, pope, even called myself God had I wished, and only the caliber of the colonists I recruited would have suffered. Only a weak ego needs such trappings, and you're not weak."

Jack raised his hand, palm outward. He hadn't finished, merely paused to weigh his next words. "That is the situation. The structure now exists, unchangeable except by the Panaikos council, and the Orb will remain a contract world. Do you wish I had decided otherwise, Bass?"

"I don't think so. I've only experienced one other system -- Crowe democracy. Our system seems to work well enough." Bass's tone was thoughtful and serious, with no trace of childish servility or adolescent pique. Jack clearly sensed that his agreement reflected honest opinion.

"Here, it does. Some contract worlds are ill-disguised hells -- like Hematite and Dagnabbit." He leaned forward as if he were about to impart a precious secret to his son, a preacher's mannerism. "A light hand makes the difference. A careful balance between ostentation and reticence. A humble demeanor, a willingness to delegate all but essential decisions, an open ear to contractors at all levels." Jack couldn't help sounding like a preacher, but Bass was used to that.

"Illusion and willing self-delusion are my machine's lubricants. Every man wants to believe he is a free agent, with only simple and clear-cut obligations, and Stef Myers is no different. Disregarding your cheap shots about his father, your worst act, in my view, was to 'put him in his place.' You broke the hard-gained illusion that, since he holds no contract with you, he is your equal in all respects. You threw sand in the works. Now I expect you to clean it out."

"I plan to, Dad. A public apology -- reparation too, though I don't know what he'll ask for." He stifled the urge to throw his troubles upon his father's still-broad shoulders, to let the older man take the burden from him and to be, once again, a child.

"Will any of your friends act as arbiter? Or will you have to submit to a professional?"

"They're all involved. A professional, I guess." Professional arbiters were Jack's own innovation. The Orb had no judicial system, as such, and there were no crimes save broken contracts. Refusal of private arbitration by either party to a dispute caused it to default to the Guild, and refusal of Guild arbitration resolved the issue in favor of the other party. It was simple enough, and it worked.

Bass hoped that Myers would choose to accept his simple apology without reparation, but Stef's mind was a dark, unpredictable place. He wasn't optimistic.

Jack nodded. "This has to be resolved immediately. Guild arbitration could hold you here, and you'd miss school. When will you see him?"

"They're taking a load of timber down from Sarpint's Ridge tomorrow -- I'll try to get up there before they leave," Bass said glumly. For the second time in a month, he'd committed himself to an adult penalty for childish acts. It was no auspicious beginning for the balance of his life, he thought.

From his son's expression and posture, Jack understood the tenor of his thoughts, and squeezed Bass's shoulder. "You have to come up against yourself sometime, Bass. Now's better than later, when you really have something to lose. Get it over with so we can take a couple days off for fishing, eh?"

They hugged. His father didn't feel so slight right then, even though Bass had to bend his knees for the embrace.




Chapter 5


Bass flew a utility floater out to the timber-camp the next morning. The flight took him over a series of ridges that had escaped the worst ravages of past glaciation. Blackleaf thorn trees filled the valleys like thick, matted moss. It would never do to be forced down there -- no man without a 'dozer or a flame gun could hope to cut his way out of the tangled, spiked mass. The ridges were covered with friendlier growth: mayberry and greasewood, sugarroot and conifers. There would be sodafruit in the understory if the grabbits hadn't gotten it all.

Bass looked for signs of occupation: smoke columns, sawdust haze on the fickle ridge-and-valley winds, the snaking course of a fresh trail. There! A road! Yellow earth gnawed by heavy equipment led under a canopy of beersap. Where were the floaters and the cargo lifts? Bass dropped his own floater close to the trees. Dull brown rectangles of matted fern and old leaves marked the locations of tents now struck. He had the right place -- but the timber and the men who had cut it were gone.

"Bass Cannon! Is that you?" A booming voice from a copse of beersap startled him. The speaker was smaller than his lungs presupposed. He wore `cruising' clothes, lighter and cooler than those worn in open country, but less effective against the sun: blue trousers bloused over webwork boots, and a plain cotton shirt. His face was a mass of wrinkles like a dried snowberry.

"I kinda thought you'd show up. Good thing you tuk your time."

"Hi, Albee. I'm surprised you're still here. Is everyone else gone?"

"Yep. Magnusson sent out extra lifts, took everything in one haul. They're in Cotterville by now, probably half-drunk already."

"Why's it good that I took my time?"

"You'd know that better'n me. That Myers boy's been talkin' fierce. Don't know how you riled him so, but he's out fer you, sure thing."

Bass heart sunk. A formal apology, even reparation, was one thing, but if Stef had spent the past day and night brooding, things could get nasty. Stef would ponder the wrongs done him and hold them close, but once he started talking big to the others, he'd feel committed to go for blood -- hopefully only figuratively.

"I've got to apologize to him. I lost my temper and said ... things."

"You might want t' wait a day'r so, let him wind down a mite. Maybe Ollie and Wayne can calm him, if you give 'em time."

"Aw, Albee -- I want to get it over with. Besides, it's only Stef. You know how he is, always mad about something. Anyway, I've got to see him -- I'm leaving next week. Back to school." And there's Dad. I can't face him until this is settled. I won't.

Albee shrugged. "Good luck, Bass. Give my `hello' to yer old man, eh?"

"Sure, Albee. See you next time." Bass took the floater up to maximum altitude. The wind was behind him across the mountains and down the outwash plain, and he made good time. He had little to think about except his coming encounter with Stef. In spite of the confidence he'd expressed to Albee, Bass was worried. Stef was tough, and a good enough scrapper to give Bass a few bruises. That would be like Stef, to prefer a fight over a grown-up settlement.

He reached Cotterville by late afternoon. The Meadows came first: the Orb's only true slum. Rows of unpainted wood buildings, none over three stories high, were separated by muddy furrows laid out as streets. Most were clogged with refuse, animal pens and decrepit floaters.

Beyond were higher buildings surrounding the port and the Orb's ever-growing commercial district. Between lay unpretentious shops, with taverns and restaurants on the ground floors and dwellings above. Open, tree-lined squares were kept clear for floaters and aircars.

Bass tried the port first. If the cargo hadn't been turned over to its buyer, he'd only have to find a ship surrounded by orange Magnusson craft.

There were three ships in. One was a small, private craft. The others were typical transReef vessels, cargo ships with minimal accommodation for passengers, ships much like the Carrington. One was shiny and well-painted. Large timber-bunks were stacked around it and its hatches were all open. The other looked like it had taken no cargo and, seeing its scored, battered exterior, Bass wondered if it were in shape to lift at all.

No Magnusson machinery was in evidence around any of them, so Bass swung around the port, trying to second-guess his (erstwhile?) friends. He wasn't going to get home by dark.

He quartered the town, flying diagonally and earning glares from other fliers, but saw no orange vehicles. Had they left immediately instead of hanging around the port? Perhaps Magnusson's older contractees, family men, had, but the others? They must have gone to one of the Meadows dives, where, according to local tradition, drinks were strong and every barmaid was a part-time whore. Those places could be as rough as big-time spaceport bars, and people got killed sometimes. There weren't any MP's or shore patrols. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't go there, but. . . .

Though Bass had spent little time in the Meadows, he flew over them every trip in to the port, and he'd seen the crude signs whitewashed on blackened roof shakes.:

NANCY'S LOUNGE

girls + Girls + GIRLS

AL PEREDISIO

always open

SEMBER'S Dine-n-dance

He found their Magnusson craft on his first circuit, at Nancy's. The place was quiet that late afternoon. A wide apron and parking area, and the great sweep of the roof itself, covering almost a half-acre, indicated that the placidity was only temporary.

Bass made his way inside, and waited in the lobby to let his eyes adapt -- he felt enough at a disadvantage without the additional handicap of partial blindness. It wasn't hard to find them. The bar area was an island of light in the dim expanse of tables and upside-down chairs. The only patrons were Rob, Ollie, Alex and Wayne. Where was Stef? They watched him approach without greeting him. Flesh tightened across the back of his neck. It wasn't getting easier.

He'd walked into a spaceman's bar once. Cadet uniforms weren't exactly welcome there. The patrons had all watched him like that, staring and silent. He'd ordered a drink, downed it quickly, and had been allowed to leave. This wasn't going to be so easy. Even Rob was silent. Only a quick, nervous grin showed he knew Bass at all.

"I've got to talk with Stef. Is he here?"

"Out back," the bartender growled. Watcha want with him?"

"Will you call him for me?", Bass countered. "We have to talk."

"Get `im yerself. Through there." He gestured with a spatulate thumb. Had Bass met him before? There was something elusively familiar about him. He was short, with thinning hair neither blond nor brown, a stocky build and a truculent, abrasive manner. Two scars crossed on his left cheek, one old and white, the other still tinged with pink and only narrowly missing his eye. Knife scars, Bass thought. Who was he?

"I'll get him for you." Rob had slipped off his stool and was halfway around the bar to the rear.

"Siddown, kid! You're not his go-fer. He wants my son, he kin go hisself." Stef's father, of course. With a job. That made Bass's insults worse.

"Sir, it would be better if you called him out here. What I have to say calls for witnesses." Bass tried to keep his voice calm and level.

"He's right, Mr. Myers," Rob said placatingly. "I think this concerns all of us, in a way. I'll go get Stef and... ."

"You siddown, like I said. This rich ninny 'n his fam'ly's pushed us around long enough. If he wants Stef, he can damn well get him hisself."

The last thing Bass wanted was to confront Stef alone. He wasn't afraid of what the other boy might do to him, but a violent confrontation would create complications. He wanted to end the quarrel, not further it. Besides, without witnesses, any apology he might make would have no weight and would have to be repeated again later. He shrugged. He could go to the door, call Stef, and wait there.

Shouldering past the stout man, he pushed the double-swing door wide. "Stef! Stef Myers! I need to talk with you." Musty silence greeted him. He had stepped into a storeroom lined with cases of empty bottles. Gray light fought its way through the dirty glass of a loading door and fell on stacked spun-aluminum kegs. A yellow glow streamed past a half-open door further on. An office? Why didn't Stef answer him?

With a sound like a shot, the door behind him slammed shut. He heard its iron bolt clack home. He drew breath to call out again, but expelled it unvocalized as something massive struck him across the shoulder. His forehead struck the door's edge and he stumbled, dazed. Pain spread like fire up his neck and down his arms. He felt the grinding of broken bones.

Combat mode! Now! Echoes of a drill instructor's voice penetrated the mist. You, Cannon! Does it hurt? It's gonna hurt more, so get with it! Defense posture. Now! Obediently, Bass's body moved, assuming a protective stance. He spun toward the source of the impact, forearm angled across his face, eyes leading movement by a fractional second, ears tuned for the lightest sound.

Yellowish light reflected from Stef's pasty face, caught in an expression of surprise. The heavy pipe in his hand had hurt Bass, and Stef hadn't expected a counterattack. He slid back as stiffened fingers darted for his eyes. He couldn't move fast enough! As in slow motion, he saw light hairs on the back of the hand that reached toward his face, saw a bit of dirt under Bass's fingernail.

The blow never landed. As Bass's arm reached its fullest extension, he felt something give inside. He grunted in pain as his shoulder buckled, as bone-fragments grated and muscles twisted in agonizing spasms.

Cannon! Your arm's broken! Forget it! Use your feet, Cadet, your feet! Bass automatically turned his leftover impetus into a pivot: knee rising up, good arm drawing in the other one, an ice skater's move, or an orbital pilot's. Linear motion became circular, speeding up until the kick landed.

Stef's grunt, and the impact of his heel on ribbed muscle and bone, told Bass he had injured him. Broken ribs for sure. Bass attempted a follow-through, but his injury threw him off, and he stumbled badly. He would have been killed right there, if Stef had been trained to fight, if his own body was an integral weapon. He would have moved in with hands and feet. He didn't, but he still had the heavy bar. He took the extra time to ready it, and swung powerfully at Bass's head.

Hearing the swish of air, Bass twisted, and the heavy pipe glanced off his skull instead of crushing it. There was a flash of meaningless, disconnected agony, and then nothing at all.


"If you kill him, you'll have to kill me too." Rob was adamant, though he was ready to break into tears. "He was coming here to apologize. What more do you need? We should be getting him to a medic, not standing around."

They had dragged Bass out into the tavern. The yellowish light couldn't disguise his unnatural pallor, but worse injuries were beneath his skin. Blood trickling down the side of his head looked black.

"You're in this too, kid," Henry Myers growled. "Any rap, any trouble, Stef's not going to take it alone."

"I don't care, don't you see? I just don't want him to die."

"He won't die from that tap." Stef shook his head. "And that's the problem. You guys might walk away from this, but me? My pa? Hah! The arbiters'd have us stripped and packed like frozen fish, on the next ship."

"That's not true!", Rob protested. "Bass wouldn't do that. He came here to apologize to you, not to hurt anyone."

"You think his father'll feel that way too?", the elder Myers asked dryly. "Big Jack Cannon, up there in his fancy house? Him'n his kind been tryin' for years to get me throwed off the Orb."

"You didn't do anything, Mr. Myers. We'll all swear to that. It's between Stef and Bass. I know Bass. I can talk with him, get him to call it even. But we've got to decide now, or he'll die!"

Henry Myers grunted and motioned his son to him. They went aside and spoke in low tones. A decision was reached, and with identical determination displayed on their square, stolid faces they turned to the others. Hank spoke for both of them.

"Okay, here's how it's gonna be. We got two choices." He raised a thick forefinger, tapping on it with the other one. "We kill him here 'n now, ditch him and his floater -- he must have one out front -- 'fore anyone else even knows he been here. We're all each others' alibi, see?" Henry Myers sounded as if the situation wasn't new to him. Rob half-stood to protest. Myers pushed his chest. "Siddown and shuddup. Yer in this too. Stef'n I'll swear it.

"Now then, we crash th' floater with him in it. That's easy enough. If that's not okay with the rich kid's butt buddy here... ," He put a thick hand on Rob's shoulder, squeezing it until the boy winced, "then the two of 'em kin go together.

"Otherwise, like I said, we got one other choice. I got a friend out at the port. A shipowner. We put the kid on his ship, 'n their medic looks at him. Then they brig him until liftoff, and no harm's done. Besides," Myers said with a crooked grin, "it's what he's schooled for, isn't it? We're just upping his graduation a bit."

Ollie, always the pragmatist, shook his head dubiously. "He'll come back, sooner or later. Then what will we do?"

"That ship won't come back here. It's got old engines, time-stretchers. The kid ever comes home, we'll be long gone, me 'n Stef. Then you four kin say whatever you want."

"There'll be questions," Ollie said, nodding, "but without Bass, there'll be nothing anyone can prove." He had obviously decided what was to be done -- for all of them. "But what about the aircar? If there's no body in the wreck ... ."

"We take it out over the ocean," Myer replied, "and leave it on the water, with his uniform all folded neat-like, and let it float back in. They find it, why, he just dropped down for a swim, got cramps and drowned. Simple, see?"


Chapter 6


Muffled metallic sounds: the clatter of a frenetic winch-pawl, clanging hatches, the squeal of ill-maintained heavy machinery. Then: a shrill double tone, each note so close, so almost-tuned, that it caused the very air to throb. It reached down from the upper limits of audibility and tickled deep inside his ears. Bass knew, in the most general of terms, where he was. For a moment, he thought he was still aboard the Carrington, that the days past had been only a dream, but the return of awareness brought pain: throbbing soreness across his temple and by his right ear. Sharper pain concentrated under his right arm, shooting along his ribs and spine whenever he shifted his weight. His hands and feet refused to answer his mind's commands.

He was lying on his back. There was light somewhere overhead, but his eyes were crusted shut. He struggled without success to take control of the dead hulk that was his body, but all he could do was make things hurt. The effort exhausted him, and he fell back into a dull, dreamless sleep.


On the Orb, Jack Cannon raged. Raquel withdrew from her work for three days, emerging from her room for her son's memorial service. After that, she was seen only rarely, usually by com, not in person. A month after Bass's disappearance, she quietly slipped aboard a fast, unscheduled freighter. Her delegation of the many tasks she'd performed was thorough and complete: no one missed her. Not even servants' gossip hinted to the outside world that she was gone.

Just before Christmas, she returned. Basil Benjamin Cannon was born at High Manse just in time to be viewed by the Primes and their wives when all drew together for the holiday. Jack no longer raged. One of the Primes who had much contact with him in the months following the tragedy summed up the new Jack Cannon: "He's pleased with his new son, but he's become an old man, just marking time. It's business as usual, but his heart's not in it."

Little Ben kindled a certain light in Jack's eyes, it was true, but the baby boy was still almost eighteen years shy of being the vital young man Jack had lost. The equation of names went unnoticed. Etymology was of little importance on a colony world.


In May, less than half a year after Bass's disappearance and `drowning', Henry Myers was found dead in a Meadows trash heap. Reeking muck filled his mouth and eyes. His throat had been slit. No investigation was made, no arbitration required, for he had neither friends nor relatives to mourn him. Stef had disappeared a month earlier, without informing anyone of his plans. There had been an unregistered armed trader in port at the time, the kind that sometimes indulges in honest trade between piracies and smuggling runs. Perhaps his father had known where he had gone.


Aboard the Sally B. Halpern, Bass Cannon mended slowly. His broken ribs healed cleanly. His cracked skull left no chips or splinters to press on his brain, but his shattered zygoma welded itself in a lumpy mass through which his jaw-muscle ran painfully. He was subject to massive temporal-muscle spasms and consequent headaches which drove him to his bunk for hours or sometimes days at a time. Pain shaped his life: he avoided chewy foods; he shunned tension and conflict for the jaw-clenching they brought on; he worked quietly and efficiently at the tasks assigned him.

He wasn't a slave, but the effect was the same. He had been `signed' on the Sally B. while unconscious. No money had changed hands, but his medical care had been `expensive'. Sally B.'s captain, Alois Battersea, planned to recoup his loss when he `transferred' Bass's contract on some out-of-the-way world downreef.

Functionally, though, Bass was a ship's officer. Merchant vessels like the Sally B, undermanned and running high-risk routes on limited budgets, couldn't afford to waste talent, so once Battersea realized that his shanghaied crewman wasn't going to sabotage the ship or attempt violent revenge he made good use of Bass's training.

Bass rose rapidly from sweeping and cleaning on the lower decks to a third officer's post on the bridge. Pain conditioned his thoughts as well as his outward actions: it wasn't long before he was actually content to be aboard the Sally B., to be an efficiently functioning member of her crew.

Too, more than one of Sally's female crew members had noted him with approval once his bandages were off. Following his rise from deck-sweeper, they found ways to demonstrate that approval. So many ways. Though he still slept in his own bunk in the officers quarters, hardly a night passed without a warm, anonymous feminine shape slipping quietly beneath his sheets, without the sweetness of hardened nipples brushing his chest, and smooth thighs clutching his own. Some nights he had more than one visitor, but he never failed to satisfy his silent benefactrices.

Not yet eighteen, he saw nothing unusual about his opportunities -- shipboard life is like no other, and crews make their own rules -- and didn't consider his stamina unusual. He happily, greedily awaited his off-shifts, his `nights'. It was so easy -- no one demanded anything, it just seemed to happen. On those rare occasions when he was too tired to want companionship, he had only to say so, and a quiet, unrecognizable voice would say `tomorrow, then'. He laughed a lot, too, though quietly, so as not to wake his bunkmates. His partners laughed with him. Daytimes, he tried to say funny things, to elicit a familiar, quiet laugh, but it didn't work -- bedtime giggles had a special quality never heard in the galley or on the bridge. Nonetheless, he eventually figured out who was who, but he never let on. It would have spoiled things.

Battersea was quick to recognize Bass's adaptation, and soon allowed him almost unlimited access to the ship's computers in his off-watch hours, a decision he never regretted. Bass modified several of the ship's programs, improving her drive efficiency by several percent. Still, the aging engines only performed at only thirty percent of their rated efficiency.

Bass knew that more improvements could be made, but having established his own `credentials', he was content to wait for the right opportunity to take his next step toward freedom. A step. Not blind reaching out, not mere favor-currying survival. He had grown up. Perhaps the feedback cycle of anger/pain/anger had effected the change; he was forced to think, not merely react. Pleasant thoughts allayed agony. Positive ones, concrete plans of action, brought satisfaction. He worked and reworked his strategy, his contingency plans, against the day when conditions were right.

Sally's first port of call was Arbuckle's Station. Arbuckle, whoever he'd been, was long gone, but his `trading post' was still going strong and his salvage yards were a mecca for the run-down, neglected and out-of-date ships that serviced the boondock worlds of far transReef. Near-orbital space around Arbuckle's station was cluttered with dead and de-commissioned ships. It was a junkyard. The planetary surface, not large, as planets go, was the same. Too small to retain an atmosphere, it was a perfect place to store ships that could land under their own power. A thousand of them sprawled across the featureless plain beyond the spaceport domes, antiques, for the most part, but there were a few newer models, accidental casualties whose owners had found it cheaper to abandon them than to pay Arbuckle's exorbitant repair rates.

Alois Battersea didn't come to sell, but to buy. Only a few crates of miscellaneous cargo was offloaded. Battersea made his habitual check of the salvage yards. He came back to the ship swearing and shaking his head.

"Someday Sally's goddamn drives'll blow and we'll never see port again. Everybody's got engines, but never the ones I need."

"That's because she's so old, isn't it?" Bass asked, fighting to keep his voice level and casual. His racing heart drummed, and blood rushed in his ears. Conscious effort and thinking of his strategy for freedom helped quiet his runaway reactions and stilled the throbbing pain always lurking only a thought away. "Can't you refit her with a newer type?"

"I could, if I had the programs to run them. Nothing on the old girl's compatible with anything else this side of the Reef."

"If you can get engines to fit her, I can make them work."

"Oh? And where did you learn that skill? Did your academy teach you that too?" The captain's scepticism was only half-sincere. Bass had been careful to understate his abilities, to continually surprise him with results always exceeding his stated goals.

"In a way, sir. They taught us how to repair battle damaged drives, the newer kinds -- reprogramming them so they'd interface with jury-rigged control systems. I could do the same for Sally's controls. Can you get the engines?"

"We'll see. What else would you need?"

He's caught! Bass hid his elation behind a pensive stare at the gray metal bulkhead above. "If the salvage yards have engines, they should have the proper drive-field emulators, too. I can use those to change the control parameters and test them. If it works with the emulators, it'll work with the new drives."

"And what will you want for all this? More than a pat on the back, I'd guess." Battersea peered cautiously beneath half-shuttered eyelids, his immobile face cracked only by the slightest smile.

"I want my contract signed over, and back wages on account." Bass said, letting his triumph show, knowing that his requirements were going to be met, "And," he added spontaneously, "regular third officer's pay from now until I find a ship going back home."

Battersea smiled broadly. "That's all? No punitive damages? And you'd trust me to keep my word?"

"Will you trust me not to write some sort of `time bomb' into the operating programs?"

The captain's smile dropped momentarily, then returned with even greater intensity. "You're a sharp one all right. `Stinky' Myers didn't lie about that. I'll trust you to give me the codes to disarm your `bomb' once you're safely off the Sally B.. Shall we drink to it?" Bass wasn't a whiskey-drinker, though he'd slugged his share of rotgut liquor with his fellow cadets. The fine, pale stuff that Captain Battersea poured was a different thing entirely. Calversham's Vat, Bass read on the blue-and-gold label.

Bass's subsequent progress on the drive programs was as smooth as the whiskey. The emulators were set up in two days, and by the end of two weeks, when two heavy floaters arrived with the Sally B.'s almost-new engine units, he had the controls working smoothly.

Installation took longer. By the end of their second month on the backwater planet, Battersea was in sorry shape, mumbling his conviction that his poor excuse for a ship would never lift again, that the portside butchers who'd hacked her apart would never find all the pieces.

To judge by his gloomy mood, he seemed convinced that Sally would be forever lost the first time he turned on the drives. He cursed the Reef whose narrow star-lanes passed only vital goods, that prohibited the transport of massive, brand-new engines except in massive, brand-new ships. He called himself twice a fool for allowing his ship's junk engines to be replaced with newer junk engines.

Bass avoided contact with him when he could. He seldom suffered his headaches when he was working with the ship's computers, but Battersea's lack of confidence was stressful. Bass knew the Sally B. would function as promised.

When the new units had whined up and down their vibrating scales countless times, when the installers were done checking their work, Battersea called Bass up to the bridge. "Well, Third, do you want to be up here for the proof of your work?"

"I'd like that, sir."

"Good. I want you here if we come off drive in the center of a star."

"Everything's in fine shape, sir."

"So you say, so you say. I hope you're right."

The Sally B. Halpern pushed out of atmosphere on a new, smooth note, and assumed temporary orbit. Bass and the other officers made a final series of checks, under Battersea's baleful eye. When she broke orbit for the second leg of Bass's journey, her drives hummed more smoothly than ever in the captain's memory, and his mood lightened considerably.

Arriving in their destination system after several weeks under way, they calibrated the ship's clock. Though time dilation during Bass's first transit on the Sally B. had been on the order of one to eleven, this last time it had been a neat one to one. The days had passed simultaneously on board her and on the worlds and star systems they had threaded between.

In spite of his success, Bass was profoundly depressed. He was only eighteen -- a birthday had passed unnoticed -- but the ship's calendar read CE 2473, February 24. Ten years had elapsed on the Orb. His father would be truly old, now -- if he were alive at all. His mother? Ten years stolen. His depression was aggravated by the new engines -- now, when it was already too late, the Sally B. Halpern could travel the high roads of space.


Captain Alois Battersea was an ugly man, cast in a mold like his erstwhile crewman, Henry `Stinky' Myers, with a pockmarked face, shambling gait and grating voice -- but the resemblance stopped there. Where Myers had been cruel, Battersea was merely tolerant of the rougher aspects of his chosen life, where the safety and profit of his ship was concerned.

The `new' engines would pay for themselves, and from now on, there'd be no need to squeeze each credit so tightly -- no need for marginally profitable sidelines like the shanghaied-labor trade. Battersea felt good about that.

He felt good about Bass, too. A strange, distant youngster, he thought, but damned determined. A good officer. The captain knew Bass wouldn't stay on. Battersea would have let him go even if there weren't a `time bomb' in the ship's programming. Still, he owed it to Sally to try.

"There are strange things happening out there, Bass. Too many ships disappearing along the Reef. You might be safer with us than heading back again. Why not wait for a better time -- even a year or so?"

"I've read the reports and log dumps, sir," Bass replied with a slow shake of his head. "Whatever is happening back there, you're best out of it. But the further I go, the harder it's going to be to get home at all. Will you put me off on the next world where I can earn passage-money?"

"I won't be able to change your mind, will I? Very well. You pick it, you've got it. With your wage, you'll have over three thousand credits to start with. I'd make it more if I could afford it. The drive modifications are going to pay for themselves, but not soon enough for you to share in those profits."

"I'm grateful for my wage, sir. "

After that encounter, Bass spent even more time at Sally's main console. His research was no longer mechanical or abstract: he needed a destination, a world where he could make enough money to pay his way home. He studied all the possibilities, rated them, and weeded them out. Dates and figures scrolled up his screen faster than most people's eyes could have read them. Even without a `hat' he was a sponge, absorbing the masses of data he was afloat in.

Gradually, as if knowledge seeped in without active seeking, he became aware of trends no one else had remarked: trails of phenomena that, taken together, summed up the Panaikos Council's most ominous predictions of chaos and despair, and amplified them.

Even without the lost `hat' things stood out `from the gray background of commerce and industry like particle traces in an antique cloud-chamber . They intersected, merged, and went their separate ways again, and Bass couldn't have explained why or how he was aware of them, only that their effect upon his thinking was magnified with his exposure to ever-more-extensive data.

He didn't know what to do with his insights. Whom could he approach with the certainty, undocumented as it was, that the coming unrest would be far greater than anyone had imagined, that the coming decades were an intersection at which humanity -- on the transReef worlds and even across the Reef to the Old Worlds and Earth itself -- would be forced to choose among innumerable branching paths into the future?

Whom could he, Bass Cannon, convince that, of all those paths, only a handful would lead to a future where humanity would stand out like a supernova among the already-bright stars of the galaxy, among the hundreds of other races and species already strewn wide across it?

Thousands of paths led elsewhere. Those Bass imagined vividly, his images drawn from inward sources whose existence he'd never imagined. He saw mankind scattered, a subject species on a half-million alien worlds: workers and petitioners, cattle. Worse of all were his visions of worlds upon worlds, the Orb among them, whose cities were abandoned monuments, crumbling blemishes in landscapes dominated by inhuman, alien forms.

Why was he vouchsafed those visions? Who was he, to be so sure of the course of universe-twisting events? Why didn't he even consider that they might be paranoid aberrations? Could others see what he saw? He didn't think so. But someone must! The councilors and sociodynamicists? Increasingly, as data flowed, as paths clarified in his mind, he began to compartmentalize them and isolate them from his daily life and thoughts. There was nothing he could do about them anyway.

As he studied the worlds ahead of him on Sally's route, a conviction grew until it approached certainty: one -- and only one -- of those worlds was pivotal to him and to the `historic flow' he perceived. It seemed unlikely that the two were related (after all, that would mean that he had some place in the resolution of his species' fate, wouldn't it? And who was he?)

His more immediate problem was that he had didn't know the name of that pivotal world. Coris, a local trade center and etape? Aphane, with its noted university? Or Caddon, which was the breadbasket for half a sector? All were significant worlds, influential ones where a talented individual could work to earn passage money and more, but still, something felt subtly wrong, something was missing from his analyses, hidden, perhaps, because he placed too much emphasis on each planet's obvious assets.

Each time he rose from the console, he shrugged off his indecision. There was still time. He could wait until Sally was ready to break orbit before it was too late to leave her.

When the answer came to him, it arrived not as a flash of insight but as a creeping suspicion that gradually became a dead certainty. At first he resisted it, because the world he focused on was such an unlikely one. When he informed Captain Battersea of his choice, the captain was totally unimpressed.

"Phastillan!", he exclaimed, "That's not a human world, it's a pissant colony."

"Psatla," Bass corrected him. "They're really not insects. More like armored crustaceans, I think. Have you ever seen a squid?"

"The things with tentacles? The ones that eat ships?" Battersea's grimace gave his opinion of such creatures.

"No -- that was only a story," Bass replied with an indulgent chuckle. "Real squids are only about this big" -- Bass spread his arms a half-meter. "People eat them, not the other way around. Anyway, psatla are all tentacles, with protective chitin over them. The chitin's the only reason they look a little like fat bugs. And they're not hive creatures -- they have an elaborate caste system, and they communicate with odors."

"Just so," Battersea replied, unimpressed with Bass's xenological knowledge, "but there aren't more than a hundred human beings in Phastillan's whole solar system -- I read the reports too. What'll you do for company? Besides, there's something else that's funny about pissants, too -- nothing that gets in the reports, you understand, but people who work for them get ... strange ... and never talk about the planet."

"Whatever it is," Bass said with a confident grin, "I can handle it. They've bought five million credits' salvage computer hardware that's junk unless they can hire someone like me to set it up and run it. The company that sold it to them went bankrupt."

"What do they need the stuff for, anyway? Pissants aren't supposed to be able to use machinery."

"They don't use much. They're almost instinctive bio-scientists, and they terraform their planets with specially-bred bioforms -- everything from bacteria to full-sized grazers. They were trying to computerize their operation on Phastillan, and now they're stuck with a warehouse full of junk. They're offering five thousand credits a year for a qualified programmer. I could be on my way home in two years if I take the job."

"I see what you mean. If you can take two years with no company but pissants, the money makes sense."

"I'll survive," Bass assured him.
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