Island in a Sea of Stars

An adventure from The Saga of Shadows: The Dark Between the Stars.

This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Pat Lo Brutto.

 

1

GARRISON REEVES

 

He had to run, and he fled with the boy out into the dark spaces between the stars.

Garrison Reeves took one of the ships from the Iswander Industries lava-processing operations on Sheol. Though he’d planned this for days, he gathered only a few supplies and keepsakes before he departed. None of the possessions mattered to him more than getting away safely with his son.

He had been living on edge, alert for the disaster that he knew had to come. Lee Iswander, the Roamer industrialist, gave no credence to his concerns and refused to spend the money necessary to increase the safety margins; Garrison’s own wife Elisa didn’t believe him. The other lava miners paid little attention to his warnings about third-order tidal shifts in the broken planet, not because they disputed his geological math, but because they didn’t want to believe.

So Garrison made his choice, the only possible choice, he believed. He stole one of the company ships, and Elisa was going to say that he stole their son.

He flew out of the system, running far from any Roamer settlement or Confederation outpost that might log his passage. Elisa was not only ambitious, she was also abusive and dangerous—and he knew she would come after them. Garrison hoped he’d get enough of a head start.

This was just a standard Iswander ship, nothing special, with no particular modifications. It was a workhorse, fully fueled with ekti, run by an efficient Ildiran stardrive. Garrison could fly the vessel without special training, as he could fly most standard spacecraft.

As they soared into the stellar emptiness, ten-year-old Seth rode in the cockpit next to him. Garrison spent much of the long and lonely time familiarizing the boy with cockpit systems and engine diagnostics, giving him simple navigation problems to solve—as any good Roamer father would, even though Garrison had chafed under how his stern father had raised him.

Roamers were free spirits, sometimes deprecatingly called space gypsies, whose clans filled rough and rugged niches that other, more pampered people considered too dangerous. Not many pampered people came to the lava operations on Sheol, but he had followed Elisa there, for her advancement in Iswander Industries.

“You should stay away from That Woman,” Olaf Reeves had warned him, not once but dozens of times. “If you defy me, if you marry her, you will regret it. You are spitting on your heritage.”

He hated to admit his father had been right.

Garrison closed his eyes and opened them after taking a breath. He studied the markers on the ship’s copilot control panels, then turned to his son. “Go ahead and set the next course, Seth.”

“But where are we going?” the boy asked.

Garrison smiled. “On this trip, we’re truly roaming. So long as we’re heading away from Sheol, you pick.” He tapped the starscreen, which showed infinite possibilities. “For now, we’re just staying away from everything and everybody.”

“Like hide-and-seek?”

“A little, but it’s not really a game. We need some time alone so I can rethink things.”

The boy was obviously glad to be with his father, but anxious. Seth knew that they were escaping from the fiery planet, though he didn’t entirely understand why. He respected his mother, even feared her, but he loved his father. Seth and Garrison genuinely liked each other. Elisa had never allowed herself to let down her walls—not with any business associate, not even with her own son.

After scanning the star catalog, Seth chose coordinates that qualified for little other than “middle of nowhere.” They adjusted course. The stardrive engines hummed and changed tone as they readjusted, then the vessel streaked off again.

Garrison felt dismayed to leave all those other workers at the Sheol lava-processing complex. More than two thousand employees, specialists of various ranks, engineers, metallurgists, geologists, shipping personnel, and just plain grunt workers who filled shifts aboard the smelter barges or control towers, surrounded by fires that could have inspired hell itself.

That was the landscape Seth knew—not a domed greenhouse asteroid or the toroidal orbiting habitat of Newstation, which served as the Roamer center of government. Many Roamers lived in the open gas-giant skies on an ekti-harvesting skymine, reaping great profits by collecting stardrive fuel from the diffuse clouds.

Instead, the boy’s daily view was a blaze of scarlet magma erupting in incandescent metal plumes in the smoke-filled sky; he’d grown up in a reinforced habitat mounted on pilings sunk down to solid rock.

As the two closely orbiting halves of the planet adjusted their dance of celestial mechanics, Garrison had studied the melting points, annealing strengths, and the ceramic-lattice structure of the habitat and factory components. He had analyzed the binary planet’s pirouette, uncovering third-order resonances that would cause the fragments to dip fractionally closer to each other, increasing stresses and endangering the Iswander operations.

Alarmed, Garrison had gone through all the right channels and presented his results to the industrialist, only to experience an even greater shock when he realized that neither Lee Iswander nor his deputy Elisa wanted to hear any such warnings. They simply and impatiently reassured him that the lava-processing outpost was safe enough and told him to go back to work. The material strength and heat tolerance of the structural elements was sufficient to withstand the environment of Sheol, they said . . . but Garrison knew there was very little margin for error.

Adding unnecessary and expensive levels of redundant shielding and “paranoid” safety measures—Iswander said—was irresponsible to Iswander Industries, as well as to the employees, who participated in profit-sharing.

Garrison had then made himself greatly unpopular by spreading his warnings among the Sheol employees, creating nervousness, which only upset his wife even more. She was furious with Garrison, sure that his whistle-blowing would cost her a promotion.

Sadly, when he became convinced that there was no alternative, he had to take Seth away from Sheol before disaster happened. He hoped he was wrong. He knew he wasn’t.

Elisa claimed that she loved their son, even insisted with great vehemence when Garrison had challenged her on it, but her words were only words. He knew her loyalty was to Iswander Industries. Elisa had hitched her star to the powerful man who came from a Roamer clan but acted like no Roamer.

In his head, he heard his father’s gruff voice again. “You never should have married That Woman. You’re a Roamer, and you belong with other Roamers!”

“Lee Iswander’s a Roamer,” Garrison had responded, though the words sounded flat in his own ears.

“That man has forgotten who he is.” The bearded patriarch of clan Reeves had waved a finger in front of his son’s face. “And if you stay with him, you will forget who you are. So many Roamer clans have forgotten.”

But Garrison had refused to listen, and he married Elisa Enturi anyway. He had given up so much for her . . . or had he done it just to act out against his father?

“If we find a place and settle down, will Mother come to live with us again?” Seth asked.

Garrison didn’t want to lie to the boy. He stared out at the forest of stars ahead and the great emptiness in which they had lost themselves. “I think she wants to take her chances on Sheol.”

Seth looked sad but stoic. “Maybe someday.”

Garrison could not see any other answer but Maybe someday.

In the stolen ship, they changed course several more times, flying where no one else would go. They crossed the expansive emptiness that reminded them both of how vast the universe was, and how little it contained. When they had nothing but light years around them, they came upon an amazing anomaly—a cluster of gas bags far from any star system, bloated globules, each twice the size of the ship.

Seth leaned forward, studying both the sensor screens and the unfiltered view through the windowport. “They’re bloated and floating. Maybe we should call them . . . bloaters.”

Garrison ran a quick diagnostic. “Never seen anything like it.”

The membranous bubbles seemed organic, drifting along in a loose gathering. In the dim light of faraway stars, the spherical structures were greenish brown, filmy membranes that each enclosed a blurry nucleus. Tens of thousands of them formed an island in a sea of stars.

Seth said, “Are they alive?”

Garrison shut down the engines so their ship could drift toward the gas bags. “No idea.” The strange objects seemed majestic—silent, yet powerful. They filled him with a sense of wonder.

A random glimmer of light brightened one of the nodules, an internal flash that faded. Another bloater flickered, then faded.

As he and his father stared through the windowports, Seth asked, “Did we just make a discovery?”

“Maybe we did, but I couldn’t tell you what it means.” Garrison moored the ship among the thousands of silent, eerie bloaters. “Let’s just stay here for awhile.”

 

2

ELISA REEVES

 

Elisa was so furious and indignant she could barely think straight, but she had enough common sense to maintain her composure. She squashed her instinctive reaction and clung to her professional demeanor like armor.

She could not let Lee Iswander see her like this. There was too much at stake, and her responsibilities were too great. Her kidnapped son, as well as her husband’s betrayal, were only part of what she had to worry about. Priorities had to be weighed and balanced.

He took my son! He stole a ship, and he left me behind!

Even before she’d married him, she had known Garrison was a backward bumpkin, but he had said all the right words. Together, they had laid out their great plans, and he agreed to do the proper things, keep his eyes focused on the Guiding Star that would change everything for them.

And Elisa had believed him. That made her as angry as anything else. She had believed him! She hated to feel like a fool.

Elisa presented herself at the door to Iswander’s office, in Tower One of the Sheol lava-processing complex. Tower One had five decks of offices and habitation spaces, standing high on carbon-reinforced ceramic struts. All around them, scarlet lakes oozed up from molten springs to form a shimmering—some called it terrifying—panorama.

Elisa was a lovely woman with well-sculpted features, a pointed chin, and a generous mouth. Her face was not soft by any measure, but her hazel eyes had a penetrating quality. She could shape her emotions as she wished, because different situations required different personalities, different responses. There was an entire subset of moods that she had never shown Garrison because she had not needed to—until recently. He took my son!

Outside of Iswander’s office Elisa straightened her uniform and took a moment to compose her expression. She ran fingers through her short, professional-length auburn hair with highlights of gold. When she was ready, she entered.

Lee Iswander was a busy man, an important man, but he always had time for her. As far as she could tell, he didn’t hold her husband’s irresponsible behavior against her.

Iswander stood with impeccable posture before the wall of thick polarized windows that looked out upon hell. His charcoal-colored suit fit him well. A frosting of gray at the temples of his dark brown hair gave him a distinguished look. He was a man who inspired respect and confidence at first glance. He was a boss, a business leader, a man who automatically knew what he was doing and thus was able to convince armies of middle managers and employees to do as he asked. They believed him when he made a business decision or took a corporate gamble, even when others advised against it. And Elisa believed in him too.

Turning from the window, he welcomed her with a smile. “Pannebaker says there’s a new rooster tail forming. He’s heading out to the hot spot to get images. You know how he is with fresh geological activity.”

Elisa knew how dangerous that was. “Did he sign a waiver?”

“He’s signed numerous waivers. He hasn’t managed to kill himself yet.”

“Then you’re set, sir.” Elisa came to stand next to him at the wall of windows.

The lava currents were slow-motion waves, their swells and dips caused by seismic instabilities. A reinforced landing gridwork stood in the middle of the three habitation and control towers. Armor-hulled smelter barges drifted on the molten sea, scooping up metals, sorting them, skimming out the valuable ones, and vomiting the detritus back into the pools.

For more than a century, Roamer clans had made the most profit by harvesting the exotic hydrogen allotrope called ekti, which fueled all stardrives. Ekti was one of the most valuable commodities in the Spiral Arm, but Lee Iswander had found other ways to make a profit. He had turned from traditional ekti harvesting to these operations. He had a sharp mind and common-sense business practices that were more efficient than the sometimes haphazard routines of the Roamer clans.

The cratered other half of the binary planet filled much of the sky, tidally locked with the main body of Sheol. The two planetoids fell toward each other, orbiting around a common center of mass. The stresses squeezed and pushed the crust in a gravitational tug of war. Garrison claimed that the broken planet was unstable—brilliant observation! It was that very instability that kept all the hot raw material flowing for easy industrial extraction.

Iswander seemed preoccupied. Though Elisa wanted to explode with her news about Garrison—to scream, “My son has been kidnapped!”—she forced herself to remain calm. Lee Iswander was her best ally.

He looked at her, raised his thick eyebrows, and touched the front of his jacket. “A special suit for my speech at Newstation in two days. Specially tailored. I want to cut the figure of a leader.”

“You always look like a leader, sir . . . but I’m not a fashion consultant.”

Iswander pressed his lips together in an unsuccessful attempt to hide his smile. “I don’t ask my wife for her opinion on these things because she always dithers and says it’s fine. I wanted an honest answer.”

“I give you an honest answer every time. When you present yourself, the Roamers will see that you are a businessman and a leader, not a sloppy worker who shuffled off a production line. I doubt your opponent will even bother to change out of his jumpsuit. I expect the decision will be obvious.”

“Then I accept that. Sam Ricks cannot possibly believe he has a chance of winning, although there are some clan members who prefer their eccentricities to the reality of business and politics.” He frowned.

“They are a dying breed,” Elisa said, thinking of her husband and his backward family. Garrison had already caused so much trouble. She searched for a way to tell Iswander, but he was preoccupied.

“I’ve been looking at the records of the Roamer clans, studying their interactions with the Confederation government—the concessions we’ve received, the inroads we’ve made. My business model takes us away from those old, inefficient Roamer ways. It’s time for the clans to get serious. I truly believe that I’m best qualified to be the next Speaker.”

She fidgeted, wanting to explode, but she knew Lee Iswander’s advancement as Speaker would also open up many opportunities for her. He would have to delegate the Sheol operations, put her in charge. “Having watched Roamer politics from the outside, I’d say anything would be better than Isha Seward, sir.”

He gave her a wry frown. “That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. She was just a compromise candidate chosen because she was lackluster and didn’t offend anyone. Now it’s time for vision, and I’ve certainly proved myself.” He chuckled. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be giving you my speech.”

“It’s practice, sir—the election’s in a few weeks,” Elisa said. She struggled with her own pain, her admission of failure, as well as the guilt of knowing that this unexpected matter would take her away from her work.

Before she could make her request, though, Alec Pannebaker broke in on the comm. “The plume’s about to burst, Chief. Right on schedule, right on target. I’m getting images that’ll take your breath away!”

Elisa felt brief tremors in the deck of Tower One. Sheol was in a constant restless slumber on an unquiet seismic bed.

Out on the lava lake near Pannebaker’s small, shielded craft, a large bubble appeared that became a spurting geyser of lava. It sprayed high, then rained down in a rooster tail that splashed back into the magma. Pannebaker whistled as he withdrew his shielded boat. “Those will make great PR images!”

Iswander sounded skeptical. “‘Come to Sheol and see the sights’?”

“No, Chief—I was thinking more of how it shows you’re a visionary with the foresight and the balls to establish a viable industry where other Roamers feared to tread. No one can argue with your profit reports.”

“It might be good for your Speaker campaign, sir,” Elisa said after the deputy signed off. “But you should delete the part about the balls.”

As Iswander returned to his desk, Elisa stood straight-backed, anxious. Surely, he could see her agitation! But she had never brought problems to him before. Finally, she said without preamble, “Garrison’s gone. He stole one of your ships.”

Iswander sat back. “What are you talking about?”

“He left between six and ten hours ago. He kidnapped our son and flew off.”

“I can’t believe your husband would do that. He seemed like such a . . .”

“Passive man?” Elisa said. “Yes, he fooled me too.”

“I was going to say ‘good father.’ Is he still insisting that we’re operating too close to safety margins? It’s nonsense. We’ve been here for years without any mishap.”

“He thinks the seismic makeup of Sheol is changing, and the old calculations are no longer valid.”

Iswander was disturbed. “He riled up the other workers. If they find out he’s left, they’re going to demand answers.”

“I knew he was plotting something.” Elisa focused more on her specific problem than on the overall question and its impact on Iswander Industries—which demonstrated just how rattled she was. “I could tell by his mannerisms. Garrison couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.”

“Do you have any idea where he’s gone? For a man to steal a child away from his mother is . . . not a good thing, not a good thing at all.”

“I’m glad I was suspicious. He checked the Iswander ships, saw which ones were fueled and supplied. Garrison thought he was being discreet, but I rigged tracers on all our ships. No matter where he goes, each time he stops and changes course, it’ll drop off a tiny signal buoy and squirt a message with his new coordinates.” She hesitated, fought with the dryness in her throat. “I can track him, sir, but I’ll need to leave right away. He’s got a head start.”

Iswander folded his hands on his desk. “You’re one of my most important employees, Elisa.”

She thought he was going to refuse her request. “I understand this is a very critical time for Iswander Industries, sir. You’re just leaving for Newstation—”

His expression softened. “And I understand that this is even more important. Choose a ship of your own, any one you like—you’ve earned it. You’ll be going alone, I take it? I’ll inform the other team leaders that you’re taking an unspecified amount of time for a personal matter.”

Elisa should have felt relieved, but her anger wasn’t dampened, merely focused. “Yes, Mr. Iswander. This is definitely personal.”

 

3

GARRISON REEVES

 

In uncharted, empty space, Garrison and Seth floated among the mysterious globules for two days of unthreatening quiet and just relaxed. They played games. Garrison told Seth about Roamer history, about other planets they would someday see. He knew they couldn’t stay here forever, and he had to decide what to do next, where they would go, what new life they would make. Although the knot in his stomach didn’t go away, it loosened a little.

The strange bloaters drifted around them, occasionally sparkling, moving onward like slumbering space jellyfish.

They were cut off from all communication, and he prayed that his concerns about the Sheol lava-processing operations were exaggerated. He would rather be proved wrong. But if nothing happened, Elisa would insist that his alarms were paranoid irresponsibility, and that he had willfully stolen her son. Garrison knew his wife could be vindictive if she wanted to be—and after what he had done, she would definitely want to be.

He remained alert, keeping watch out the windowports of his ship, observing the odd nodules as they shifted around. The things were beautiful and exotic.

Olaf Reeves had had very little patience for distractions or any opinions other than his own, but he had insisted that Garrison and his younger brother Dale respect the unknowns of the cosmos. This majestic cluster was certainly representative of that.

Garrison didn’t want to admit it, but he was afraid that his most viable alternative would be to take Seth back to the bustling safety of clan Reeves. His family would take the two of them in, but Garrison knew that would involve an apology from him and lengthy rebukes from the stern clan leader. He would have to slide himself back under Olaf’s thumb and let Seth be raised in that environment.

Yes, though Lee Iswander and Elisa represented impersonal human ambitions, Garrison also didn’t care for the isolationist Roamers. He didn’t accept his family’s scorn for “clans tainted by civilization.”

No, he would find somewhere else. He had many different skills and interests, and he could apply for any number of useful jobs. His resourceful Roamer background guaranteed that, at least.

“Look, there’s static on the screens,” Seth said. “A sort of pulse every thirty seconds. You think it’s a signal from the bloaters? Maybe they’re trying to communicate with us.”

On the screen, Garrison saw a tiny blip, a flicker of static. Seth counted, and when he reached thirty, the blip appeared again. “See!”

Garrison ran some diagnostic routines, trying to pinpoint the origin. “It’s not coming from the bloaters. They’re all around us, but this signal is . . . coming from our hull.” A chill ran down his spine—some kind of a tracer? “I’m going to suit up. I better go outside and check it out.”

He donned the flexible environment suit with easy familiarity. Everyone who grew up among the gypsy Roamer clans spent half their childhood in a suit. They knew how to fix things, tinker with all sorts of machinery; they could rig life support from the most unlikely assemblage of scraps. For a long time, that was the only way the clans managed to survive, because they got no help from anyone else.

Now, after twenty years of assimilation into the Confederation, Olaf insisted that many Roamers had forgotten their heritage, but as Garrison fastened the fittings on his suit and went swiftly through the safety checks, he knew it was something he could never forget. It was part of him.

He went to the airlock, clicked his helmet comm. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“I’ve got the ship, Dad.”

Garrison cycled through the airlock and emerged into disorienting open space. For many years, he had worked outside at the wreckage of Rendezvous, the cluster of inhabited asteroids that had been the former Roamer government seat before it was broken apart during the war. Garrison and his comrades reconnected fuel tanks, erected support girders, strung access tubes from one asteroid to another. The clan Reeves workers had taken care to lock them together according to the old plan. Olaf wanted to recreate the old seat of government exactly as it had been, refusing to consider improvements or modifications.

“Rendezvous served us for centuries, and the clans did just fine,” Olaf said. “I wouldn’t presume that I know more than they did—and neither should you.”

As Garrison emerged from the airlock and moved away from the hull, he looked up and around him. The bloaters were eerie, dimly lit by far-off starlight, as well as the glow from the running lights of the stolen Iswander ship. The swollen spheres hovered in silence, fascinating and unknowable.

Garrison stared for a long while. Seth’s voice echoed in his helmet. “Find anything yet? I’m watching the blips—every thirty seconds.”

“Still looking.” He held onto hull protrusions as he worked his way along the ship inch by inch. His hand scanner picked up signals, and he spotted the pulse coming from beneath the engines. He jetted down, maneuvered over to the exhaust cones.

Like cosmic soap bubbles in space around him, the bloaters shifted, rearranged their positions.

Now that he knew what to look for, he easily found a magnetic tracker, a cluster device that dropped out tiny signal buoys. Garrison knew about such things.

No signal could travel while a ship used the stardrive and moved faster than the speed of light, but each time they shut down the stardrive and reset course, this insidious tracking device would drop a marker with the appropriate information.

Garrison cursed Elisa in silence because Seth was listening on the helmet comm. Breathing heavily, he detached and deactivated the tracker—he wanted to smash it, but that would do no good. Instead, he just let it drift loose and free.

A glint of light distracted him, and several bloaters sparkled again. One nucleus flared with a bright flash. A moment later, another one lit up in a different part of the cluster. Two more flickered in some kind of pattern or signal, followed by three more sparking nearby.

Then, with a bright flare, the bloater closest to him sent out a surge of light. The flash washed over him and the entire ship, overloading his suit systems. His diagnostic screen went dark, as if the pulse of energy was too much for the sensors to handle. Static crackled through the helmet comm before he was left in deafening silence.

He struggled to make his way back to the ship’s airlock. With the overload, his suit’s life support was failing, but he had enough left to get inside. Without power assists from the suit’s servomotors, he found it much more difficult to move.

Finally, with a crackle, the helmet comm came back on as a backup battery surrendered enough juice for him to hear a signal. “Dad, half our systems just shut down!”

“I’m coming back inside.”

Garrison crawled along the ship’s hull, grabbing any rough edges to pull himself to the airlock. He hoped the controls still functioned. He hammered on the activation panel, got a faint blip of light in response, then nothing.

Around him, the bloaters were quiescent again. Garrison could already feel the cold settling in through his suit, though the insulation should have protected him for much longer.

His breathing sounded loud in his helmet. With gloved hands he fumbled with the access plate beneath the useless controls and managed to trigger the manual override, forcing the airlock door open. Garrison pulled himself inside, manually sealed the outer door, then used the chamber’s emergency canisters for an air dump that equalized the pressure enough for him to open the inner door.

Seth grabbed him as he reentered the main cabin, helping him to unseal the helmet. The boy was worried, with good reason. Garrison reassured him. “I’m all right . . . but I wouldn’t want to be outside during another one of those flare-ups.”

“Did you find what caused the static signal?”

“Yes, it was . . .” He paused, pondering how much he should say. “It was a device someone placed on our ship back at Sheol. Could be just a standard Iswander tracking device.”

The boy frowned. “Or maybe Mother put it there.”

Garrison hadn’t realized it before, but Seth always called him “Dad,” while he referred to Elisa with the more formal “Mother.”

Garrison stretched the truth, though it wasn’t an outright lie. “I don’t know who put it there, but it’s gone now.” He cracked his knuckles. “We’d better get to work. After that flash, we’ve got repairs to make. It could take days. Then, after we run a full check, I don’t think we should stay here much longer.”

 

4

LEE ISWANDER

 

Managing the dangerous operations on Sheol was a tremendous challenge, but becoming Speaker for the Roamer clans was an even greater one. With Elisa Reeves gone, Iswander left the lava-processing facility in Deputy Alec Pannebaker’s capable hands and headed off to Newstation.

Iswander never stopped looking at the big picture. Considering the business possibilities in the Confederation, opportunities that even the most imaginative Roamer clans had only begun to explore, he concluded that the united clans needed someone with vision to lead them into the future. He could fill that role.

He guided his personal cruiser toward the bustling station—and his future headquarters, if all went well. His cruiser was equipped with the best Ildiran stardrive, plenty of ekti fuel, a well-appointed interior, and redundant systems, but at first glance it looked like any normal ship. Iswander had plenty of wealth, but he found no advantage in flaunting it.

In re-forming their government, the clans had chosen Newstation as their cultural and administrative center: a giant, newly constructed space habitat orbiting a planet. Meanwhile, clan Reeves and their stubborn leader persisted in trying to rebuild the old asteroid complex of Rendezvous, but few people paid attention to them. Lee Iswander certainly didn’t.

His cruiser glided up toward the giant toroidal space complex. Newstation rotated like a giant wheel in space, an old-fashioned but serviceable design. Plenty of traffic flitted around the station: cargo vessels, passenger yachts, diplomatic shuttles. The place was vibrant, and Iswander loved it. And Newstation was just the tip of what could be a very large iceberg.

He logged his arrival on the traffic band, asked for appropriate positioning and a docking slot. The traffic attendant recognized his voice. “Mr. Iswander! Right away, sir. I’ll see that you get a priority berth.”

He flew his cruiser to the appropriate landing bay and his assigned ship berth. Before he disembarked, Iswander combed his hair and made sure his clothes were unrumpled. Even though he would not be addressing the gathered representatives until tomorrow, he couldn’t be sloppy in front of one group of people, then dress in fine clothes and act like an esteemed leader in front of others. He had worked so hard at his persona that he had forgotten how to do otherwise. When people looked at him, they would think of a Speaker for the clans. Considering his credentials, there really wasn’t any doubt that he would be elected. Still, he wouldn’t assume.

As he entered the colorful turmoil of Newstation, Iswander made a point of greeting everyone he encountered, station personnel and visitors alike. Some of them gave him a sidelong glance and a cold shoulder, though most acted professional. Others seemed pleased to have a Roamer celebrity among them.

He took a rail shuttle that traveled along the circumference of the station, and though the rail was straight, the curvature of the torus made it look as if the rail shuttle were constantly heading up a steep hill. He checked into his rooms, found them adequate and comfortable.

His wife and son wanted to travel to Newstation for a vacation, but Iswander had always been too busy. Men like him didn’t take vacations. Still, there was only so much fire and lava a person could look at. If he was elected Speaker for the clans, then Londa and their thirteen-year-old son Arden would move to Newstation and spend all the time here they liked.

In the room’s cleansing cubicle he took a mist shower. The convocation would not happen until the next morning, and he intended to be well-rested and well-rehearsed. He had to convince these people that he was far superior to his opponent Sam Ricks, a man who had little fire in him. Sam Ricks didn’t know business, didn’t know how to interact with the Confederation. He thought he wanted to be the Speaker merely because it seemed like something to do.

Lee Iswander, however, wanted it. This was the next natural step in the progression of his career. His mindset and his business acumen was the right Guiding Star for the future of the Roamers.

In his quarters, Iswander sat reviewing his datapad. He looked through the windowport as the view slowly changed from stars to the fleeting lights of space traffic, the cracked surface of the planet below, then to the open field of stars again.

He called up his concise presentation, though he knew the clan representatives were familiar with his biography. (And if they didn’t know who he was, what business did they have choosing leaders?) Some might call him pushy, abrasive . . . but he liked to think of it as being daring, unapologetic about his drive to succeed. Why should that be a thing to be ashamed of? He worked hard and wanted everybody to work hard, to exceed expectations, to seize opportunities that arose. The Roamers needed a bold man with an exuberant can-do attitude.

He could have spent the night in the shops, restaurants, or drinking establishments on Newstation, buying items he didn’t want in order to earn goodwill from certain clan members, but he preferred to be alone. Rubbing elbows and smiling, and being everyone’s friend—that was the hard part, much more difficult than envisioning spectacular projects.

In his quarters, he practiced his speech and wished he could have reviewed it with Elisa Reeves, because she was supportive as well as intelligent. She could give him that objective read and tell him what he needed to fix, whereas his wife would merely smile and applaud whatever he said. That was good for his ego, but not necessarily instructive. . . .

He rested, rose early, practiced his speech again, and found that the rehearsing only made him feel less natural, so he scrapped it all. He put on the suit that Elisa said made him look like a leader, and traveled to Newstation’s primary meeting chamber.

It was a big room with lines of seats that extended up the curvature of the walls so that the attendees in the outer rows looked as if they might fall forward into the speaking area, but the station’s rotation held them in place. Iswander assessed the clan representatives with their colorful garb, scarves, and embroidery, family markings, swatches of red, violet, blue. Many wore jumpsuits instead of formal clothes, even for such an important meeting. He touched his impeccable suit, wondered if he had made a miscalculation. The best response was to refuse to acknowledge it, and to proceed on a steady course.

Isha Seward managed the meeting from her Speaker’s platform. Her shoulder-length dark hair was much grayer now than when she had first been elected as a compromise Speaker. She was plump as well, having gained weight during her administration. Iswander vowed that he would take care of himself, once he became the next Speaker.

The business trivialities seemed interminable. Iswander glanced over at Sam Ricks, who was casual—too casual. His rival wore his everyday work jumpsuit with a prominent green clan armband. By the Guiding Star, the man looked as if he hadn’t even shaved! Could he not at least try?

Speaker Seward called upon Ricks first, and he delivered a rambling and uninspired speech that basically said all the clans knew him and therefore he would make an adequate Speaker.

When Iswander stepped up to the podium, he felt a renewed purpose. This was like the first day when his lava skimmers had produced exotic metals from the magma on Sheol, like the first shipment of prefab modules he had dispatched to Roamer asteroid colonies. The first profit-sharing bonus he had given his employees. He had built himself a pedestal of his own successes.

“I was born a Roamer, and I am still a Roamer,” he said. “But I’m a new kind of Roamer, because we live in a new Spiral Arm. I was just a young businessman back at the birth of the Confederation. I was one of the first to embrace our new situation, and I’ll bring that new attitude to all clan dealing with the rest of the Confederation.”

The audience didn’t sound as enthusiastic as he had hoped. Roamers had long resented the idea of big business, especially after being hounded for so many years by the corrupt and repressive old Earth government. But those outdated thought patterns were no longer relevant.

Iswander turned to the other gathered faces. “Because I was thinking big, I bought out my parents’ stake in our clan business and began building new factories. We specialized in supplying modular space habitats and prefab domes for rugged planetary surfaces, where Roamers have always thrived. I made it easier, safer, and more lucrative.”

Sam Ricks let out a rude snort. “And you charge the clans as much as you charge Confederation customers. Anyone with real Roamer blood in his veins would give us better prices.”

Iswander was annoyed that Ricks would interrupt him, when he had politely endured his opponent’s bland speech. “That only proves you don’t understand business. My production costs are the same, regardless of who buys the units. It’s business. Mathematics doesn’t play favorites. My operations demonstrate the benefits of being pragmatic. For too long, the clans lived by the seat of their pants.”

From the Speaker’s platform, Isha Seward said, “Sam, no more interruptions. Be polite.”

One man, dour-faced with a thick beard and shaggy gray hair, scoffed. “Be polite? Roamers sure have changed, and not in a good way. Convocations used to be an open exchange of ideas, now it’s like some prissy court dance. Should we bow and curtsy too?”

Iswander recognized the man as Olaf Reeves, Garrison’s father—an idiot by any measure. He wore traditional clothes with pockets, zippers, clips, and clan symbols embroidered on the fabric. Some might have called the clothes old-fashioned or woefully unstylish, but Reeves wore them as a badge of honor.

“I don’t mind a frank and open exchange of ideas, Olaf Reeves,” Iswander said, then couldn’t resist twisting the knife. “In fact, let me ask: Why haven’t you finished rebuilding Rendezvous yet? If you’d let me supply prefab modules, as I offered, you could have completed the job a decade ago. There are far more efficient ways than your old-fashioned methods. I did make your son an excellent offer.”

“We didn’t need your prefabs,” Olaf said. “We’re Roamers. We’re self-sufficient. We do what we need without help from outsiders.”

“I am no outsider,” Iswander said. “I am a Roamer, and Roamers adapt. I have adapted to the Confederation.” He was no fan of the stick-in-the-mud leader, and he realized now that Elisa’s husband had probably fled back to the clan. Iswander crossed his arms over his chest, realized it was a defensive posture, and tried to relax as unobtrusively as possible. “I offered you a way to finish your project at Rendezvous, but you tossed it aside. I thought Roamer clans were supposed to help one another. Those who turn their backs on their cousins tend to fail.”

 “You’ve had a few failures yourself, Iswander.” It was Sam Ricks again, oblivious to the frown Speaker Seward gave him. “I checked out your business record—a lot of risky investments. Some might call them catastrophes.”

Iswander had been prepared for that. “Yes, I made some risky investments.” In fact, four of them had crashed and he’d lost everything, but one paid off—enough that he could keep going. “Roamers can’t forget how to live on the edge. That’s where the profit is. If Roamers made only safe choices, we would have died out long ago. I understand what it is to be a Roamer.” He looked around the room. “And I also understand that we’re citizens of the Confederation now, not isolated outlaws hoping that we’re never discovered. It’s time to come into the daylight and be who we’re supposed to be.” He smiled, summing up, “That’s why I’d appreciate your vote for Speaker. I can see the Guiding Star, and I know where it leads.”

Next, for his own summation, Sam Ricks couldn’t articulate a reason as to why the clan should vote for him. Iswander took a moment to say, “Thank you for your time.” He wanted to leave the chamber, but knew he had to stay and shake hands and chat with other clan representatives.He had done well, hammered home his point. Ricks was not a serious challenger.

Before the chamber was dismissed, Olaf Reeves bustled out with his younger son Dale and two other family members. “Vote for whichever man you like. You aren’t the same Roamer clans we once belonged to.”

 

5

ELISA REEVES

 

Though her ship was faster than Garrison’s, the search was tedious. Elisa raced along the course her husband had set, making up for lost time in open space. But she had to wait for the ping from her breadcrumb tracking devices.

It was tedious and time-consuming. She had to stop and find the little beacon buoy that was automatically dropped off each time he changed course. Then she would take readings, adjust her own course, and head off again. But she didn’t consider giving up or letting him get away with her son—not for a minute.

She had found three breadcrumbs already and followed the staggering path. Garrison’s navigation made no sense. If she could figure out where he was going with Seth, she could head straight there and intercept him. But his flight was erratic, zigzagging across space, heading out into nowhere.

Why would he want to do that, unless he was trying to hide from her? Maybe he guessed that she was hunting for him. Yes, in some ways Garrison was a smart man. She clenched her jaw. In some ways, though, he was a fool.

As she drifted in space near another breadcrumb buoy, she looked at where he was headed now. Garrison didn’t seem to be aiming for any particular star system, no known Roamer outpost, no Confederation planet.

She activated her stardrive and headed after him again.

Her personal mission had focused her for days. Though she’d remembered to bring work along—documents to review, processes to audit and, if possible, streamline—she hadn’t been able to think about her job since she raced away from Sheol. And she resented Garrison for that too.

By now, Lee Iswander would be making his case to the Roamer clans at Newstation. Normally, in his absence, Elisa would have been left in charge of the lava-processing operations, but since she had to take care of this nonsense, Iswander would have turned over the responsibility to Alec Pannebaker. She should have been his choice.

Iswander must think that she was not reliable after all, that she was one of “those” professional women who couldn’t balance family matters with business necessities. Elisa did not want to be seen as a woman like that. She had worked too hard, devoted too much of her life, made too many sacrifices to get where she was.

All along she had thought Garrison was her partner with the same goals, seeing an intensely bright Guiding Star—to use a metaphor from the silly Roamer superstition.

As Elisa cruised along, not knowing how soon she might encounter the next shifting point, she called up her personal image library and scrolled through to find a photo of Seth (not that she had forgotten what her own child looked like, thank you!). The first photo she found was a portrait of herself and Garrison, both smiling as they held the one-year-old boy. Happy times. Elisa frowned when she saw it, recognizing the silly delusion in her eyes.

Without thinking, she deleted the image, scrolled through the library, and found another one of Garrison and Seth laughing as they ate some gelatinous pasta meal they had cooked together. She deleted the second image as well.

She didn’t like to be reminded of that, and when she finally took Seth back, she did not want her son to be able to view and remember enjoyable times with his father.

She found several more images of Garrison and Seth at different ages. Then two of herself and Garrison, and she deleted those as well. Elisa didn’t need to be taunted by her mistakes. Even more photos of Garrison and Seth. What did he do, spend all of his time staging images of them? No wonder he hadn’t advanced far in his job.

But she couldn’t find any warm, smiling photos of just herself and Seth. And since Garrison was so keen to take images, he must have done it on purpose, intentionally leaving her out.

She finally uncovered several images of just the boy alone, which she kept. Elisa displayed them on the cockpit screens. That was a sufficient reminder, and she could always use her imagination to place herself there alongside him. It would be good enough.

Though she didn’t need to shore up her resolve, she studied the shape of his nose, the curve of his smile, tried to determine how much of his features looked like her. She saw hints of Garrison there too—that couldn’t be helped. Seth was still her son, regardless.

Her ship stopped at the next breadcrumb tracker, and she reoriented her nav system, studying the new course. She shook her head. “Where the hell is he going? That’s the middle of nowhere.”

She flew off again, increasing speed, because by now she was growing impatient and angry. The course took her out into an emptiness well outside the nearest star system.

When she arrived and scanned the area for signs of Garrison’s stolen ship, Elisa found that the area was not empty at all. She encountered a cluster of large globules, greenish-brown spheres brought together through gravity or some kind of willful motion. The cluster looked like a miniature galaxy, with hundreds of other globules floating around the periphery. Trails of outliers extended across the emptiness, marking some kind of mysterious trail through the void. She had never seen anything like it.

She wondered if Garrison had come here on purpose, if he intended to hide this strange anomaly from her and from Iswander Industries. The magnetic tracking device had stopped transmitting, but as she extended her sensors, she detected the stolen ship. Found you!

Yes, Garrison was here. That was what mattered.

 

6

LEE ISWANDER

 

After making his formal case to the Roamer clans, Lee Iswander returned to Sheol, anxious to get back to business. Though he could have spent days in meaningless meetings at Newstation, chatting with clan heads and Confederation trade representatives, he had obligations at his lava-processing operations.

Iswander enjoyed his time alone in the cruiser, but the flight seemed long. After the first few hours of putting his notes and his thoughts in order, he wanted to be back in his office. Once elected Speaker, he would have to rely on Alec Pannebaker and Elisa Reeves for the day-to-day work. Though he liked being a hands-on person, showing good leadership by being there and being involved, some things would have to change. That was the price one paid to move forward.

Approaching the hot binary planet, he deployed the cruiser’s heat shield and descended toward the magma operations. From space, the broken planet looked dangerous, two halves playing tug of war, but he was not here as an astronomical tourist. He radioed ahead to let Pannebaker know he was coming. “Prepare a production summary for me, please.”

“Got it already, Chief. I do my homework before I have fun—and by the Guiding Star there’s lots of fun now. Thermal instabilities, more than usual. Three lava geysers. One shoots half a kilometer into the atmosphere.”

“Does it pose any danger to our facilities?”

“No, it’s five kilometers away from the towers, but worth the trip to go see. I’ll take you out there if you like.”

“I’ll just look at your images, Mr. Pannebaker. I’m sure you’ve taken hundreds.”

“Thousands, actually. Got to get just the right frame. We’ll show them off to Captain Kett. She’ll appreciate it.”

The head of the Confederation’s largest trading fleet, Rlinda Kett was due to arrive at Sheol to take a large cargo of metal products to Newstation. It was a symbolic gesture to impress the clan heads, and the hearty businesswoman knew that full well. But she had agreed to do it, so long as he gave her sufficient inducement.

“A bribe?” Iswander was familiar with the way business and politics worked, but he hadn’t thought Rlinda Kett would be so blatant about it when he had approached her.

“Not at all,” she said, when they had met earlier at Newstation. “Shipping terms—I want two percent reduction in my costs on all exports from Sheol.”

Iswander frowned, but knew a negotiation when he saw one. “Pure ingots only.”

“No—ingots, processed-metal foams, alloy films. Two percent reduction across the board.”

Iswander offered, “Two percent on ingots, one percent on other specialty materials.”

Rlinda was a big, dark-skinned woman who had only grown bigger over the years. She had let out a loud laugh. “Good enough—and we’re done here.I’ll have Robb Brindle and Tasia Tamblyn handle the details and draw up the paperwork. They’re the ones really in charge of my company.”

After a handshake, they had set up a date for her Voracious Curiosity to fly to Sheol to pick up the large shipment of materials. For the upcoming election, he had particular timing requirements, though it had to look casual.

Iswander flew in using the cruiser’s assisted piloting, as thermal disturbances roiled up to shake his ship from side to side. The cracks below were like arterial wounds that spilled molten metals and incinerated rock. His extraction facilities rode in the hot seas, plated with ultra-heat-resistant materials so they could scoop up fresh molten metals. Alloy processors and fabrication chambers in Tower Two created exotic metal foams and films, useful mixtures with polymers and ceramics.

He steered clear of the lava plumes that had so excited Pannebaker, aiming for the cluster of stilted extraction structures, the three towers, and the anchored landing platform. His cruiser settled into place, and he waited while a protective tunnel extended, so that he could transfer into the shielded admin tower.

Pannebaker met him in the office on the high deck of the tower, grinning as he handed Iswander the report he wanted, anxious to be rid of it. He was a competent engineer with management abilities, but no great fondness for administrative work—in other words, the best kind of deputy.

Pannebaker had silvery-gray hair and intense eyes, as well as a mustache that framed his mouth all the way down to his chin; he grew it strictly because it was completely out of style. Every day in the Sheol lava mines excited him like an adrenaline rush.

“The shipment of ingots is ready for Captain Kett, sir—our purest, most expensive stuff,” Pannebaker said. “But I also included the exotic materials that’ll really impress the Roamers.”

“I already impressed the Roamers with my speech at Newstation,” Iswander said. “Really, I can’t imagine any other adequate choice. Speaker Seward set the bar so low by being, uh . . . nothing. And Sam Ricks doesn’t have any credentials.”

Pannebaker was not interested in clan politics. “Whatever you say, Chief. But you’ll want to look at those geological reports. Heat plumes are rising—which is great because it adds purer material to the mix, but the temperatures are outside the norms. With the construction materials we used, we’re awfully close to tolerances. Could be something to worry about if it gets hotter.”

Iswander wondered if Garrison Reeves had legitimate concerns after all—which reminded him, “Any word yet from Elisa?”

“None, Chief. Isn’t she taking personal time?”

“Yes, but I thought she’d be back by now.” Iswander was worried about her. Elisa would never take the time away from work unless the situation was as serious as she claimed. Her husband was an adequate worker—and Iswander had plenty of adequate workers—but he could not replace Elisa Reeves. He hoped her family problems didn’t interfere with her job performance.

Iswander was fortunate that his own wife never posed any problems, never interfered, and never demanded too much. He had made the terms clear when he’d entered the marriage, needing a woman who was willing to operate within those parameters.

Now that he was back on Sheol, Iswander considered going to the residence deck to see his family, greet his son (who certainly revered his father), give Londa a peck on the cheek, answer her few rote questions . . . but he could do that later. Right now, he wanted to settle into his office, which, truth be told, felt more like home than the residence deck did anyway.

When Iswander did take the time to review the geological reports that Pannebaker provided, he began to frown. The tidal stresses were higher than any previously recorded in eighteen years of study. Had they missed something?

In his initial warning, Garrison Reeves claimed that he’d uncovered second- and third-order oscillations in the orbiting planetary fragments, which would begin a cycle that brought the two halves even closer, a miniscule difference in an astronomical sense, but enough to increase the tidal heating. The magma already flowed upward at a higher temperature, heat plumes intensified, quakes struck more frequently, all of which had implications for the stability of his processing structures.  

Although Lee Iswander didn’t waste money on protective measures far beyond what was necessary, he did have a healthy respect for the inherent hazards here. The Sheol facility was dangerous by its very nature, but he had enough heat shielding to offer adequate—though not overly foolish—protection. Nevertheless, he would have to look into this in greater depth—discreetly, so as not to cause a panic. Garrison Reeves had already caused enough trouble.

Pannebaker cheerfully interrupted him over the comm. “Just had a surprise, Chief. The Voracious Curiosity came a day early. Captain Kett says she wanted to catch you sleeping.”

“I rarely sleep,” Iswander said. “Good thing we’re ready with our shipment.”

“And best of all—a fourth lava geyser just erupted! Our sensors picked up the heat spike, and it’s jetting high, definitely visible from the landing platform.”

“Why is that good news?”

“Because it’s spectacular. Captain Kett will see it as she comes in. She’s brought Tasia Tamblyn and Robb Brindle with her to handle the business details.”

Iswander nodded to himself. With the erupting geysers, maybe it was a good thing the Curiosity had arrived at Sheol a day early. With luck, Captain Kett's ship could fly off to Newstation with the cargo before anything dangerous or embarrassing happened here.

 

7

TASIA TAMBYLN

 

Tasia Tamblyn flew the Voracious Curiosity on its final approach to the Iswander landing structure. Although Rlinda Kett had wanted to pilot her famous old vessel for the meeting with Lee Iswander, after hitting the severe thermal storms in the atmosphere, the trader had handed over the piloting chores.

“This has ceased to be fun, Tamblyn,” Rlinda said. “I’ll bow out in favor of a better pilot.”

“What do you mean a better pilot? I’m the best pilot.” As Tasia white-knuckled the ship down, she secretly allowed a bit of buffeting—just to give them a good ride.

Robb Brindle saw what his wife was doing and muttered, “You don’t need to impress Rlinda.”

She blinked her eyes innocently. “Who, me?”

Rlinda was neither frightened nor impressed. “I know damn well what Tamblyn’s capable of, and I’ve flown through rougher conditions than this myself. Let’s stick to business. We’ve already caused plenty of consternation by showing up a day early.”

“I thought that was the intended effect,” Robb said.

“Exactly.”

Rlinda still owned Kett Shipping, although the big woman rarely involved herself in the day-to-day operations now. Tasia and Robb were well-suited to running the successful shipping company. Tasia came from the prominent Tamblyn clan, Roamers who had operated the water mines on Plumas for generations. And Robb Brindle was the son of the former military commander of the Earth Defense Forces.

As Tasia brought the ship down, the second half of the binary planet loomed in the sky overhead. Fissured and cratered, it looked ready to fall on top of them. The molten sea below churned and swirled. A cascade of lava spewed upward, ejecting globules high enough that they cooled and hardened in the air. Tasia gave the scarlet spray a wide berth.

“My first visit here.” Rlinda looked around. “This is for anyone who ever told me to go to hell. They can’t say I didn’t listen.”

Tasia couldn’t help but admire the fact that Iswander had actually built a thriving industrial operation here. In the past, the clans had been forced to eke out an existence in ferociously inhospitable environments, but that had not been necessary for the past twenty years. “Roamers don’t do such risky, cutting-edge work anymore,” she said. “Looks like Iswander made it a viable operation.” She settled the Curiosity down on the landing deck, where workers in thermal-armor would load the ship with cargo.

When the shielded heat tube connected to the Curiosity’s hatch, Rlinda and Robb went into Tower One to take care of the paperwork with Lee Iswander. Meanwhile, inside the insulated shack at the corner of the landing deck, Tasia found an appropriate thermal suit from the locker, inspected it carefully, and prepared to supervise the loading of the Curiosity.

Through the shack’s observation port, Tasia scanned the large, roving foundries outside. To her astonishment she spotted a pair of armored workers riding lava sleds, skimming over the sluggish waves to inspect the pumping and hardening apparatus.

Deputy Alec Pannebaker entered the shack and saw Tasia’s interest. “I can take you out on one if you like. It’s a lot of fun.”

“Looks dangerous.”

Pannebaker shrugged and repeated, “It’s a lot of fun.”

She smiled. “No thanks. The view is spectacular enough.”

After he checked Tasia’s fittings, he donned his own armor to accompany her onto the loading deck. She put down the glare shield on her helmet and exited. The storm of heat and fire around them seemed to be the natural state of Sheol. Exposed, the Curiosity sat on the raised landing deck, connected by the safe access tube. Worker compies and suited crewmen used anti-grav clamps to bring load after load of packaged metals aboard into the hold.

As tons of metal product were loaded aboard the cargo ship, Pannebaker kept up a running commentary and explained the operations in the three towers. Abruptly his voice faltered. He paused to look down at his feet.

Tasia realized that the deck felt uncertain beneath her boots. She stomped down, saw that her heel left a clear impression in the metal. “Is it supposed to be this soft?” Then, as she watched, amazed, the Curiosity slid several inches. “Shizz, the landing deck is tilting!”

“We’re off-level, that’s for sure.” Pannebaker clicked his general-comm signal. “I guess we’re closer to material tolerances than I thought.”

Nearby, another lava geyser spurted up—bright yellow with a core of white. The startled workers had stopped loading the Curiosity, but the robotic compies kept carrying their cargo.

“You sure this is safe?” Tasia asked.

In his bulky thermal armor, Pannebaker lumbered to the shielded control shack, and she followed, tilting her helmet for a last glance at the half-planet that loomed above like a boot about to smash them.

Once the shack door was sealed and coolant jets dropped the temperature of their thermal armor down to acceptable temperatures, Pannebaker slipped open his face shield, disengaged his thick gloves. Curls of steam drifted around them. Pannebaker called up a summary on his screens. “There’s a massive thermal plume upwelling from below—much hotter than we’ve seen before. Damn, I don’t think we can take that much!”

“We’ve got heat shielding, don’t we?”

“Shielding, yes—but these peak temperature readings might alter the structural integrity of our bedrock support struts. These three towers were built with high tolerances, but a plume this hot could make them soften and bend.”

The workers scrambled for shelter on the raised landing deck. The Curiosity slid another few inches.

Out on the molten sea, one of the five enormous smelter barges began to founder. The crew boss yelled over the open comm so all employees could hear, “This is an emergency. Thermal breach in our lower hull!”

 

8

ELISA REEVES

 

She found Garrison’s ship surrounded by the mysterious nodules that drifted in the emptiness of space. The vessel’s running lights were on, but he had not detected her yet.

Elisa did not find it surprising that he had let his guard down. Why would anyone look for a ship out here, so far from the nearest star system? He must have thought he’d found a perfect hiding place.

Noticing carbonization on the hull, burned-out station lights, and other indicators of damage, she wondered what sort of trouble he had gotten into. It looked as if Garrison had been in a fight.

Elisa narrowed her eyes as she ran scans. He better not have let any harm come to Seth.

She activated the comm, not bothering to think through her words. “Garrison, I tracked you down. Don’t make this harder on yourself.”

Seth’s image appeared, looking surprised and confused. “Mother!” The boy looked different, but she wasn’t sure how. Elisa tried to remember the last time she had really looked at him. “You found the bloaters, too!”

Bloaters? Did Garrison know about these things ahead of time? What were they?

When he came on the screen, he didn’t look angry or frightened, just resolute. “I thought you might be following us. When I found your magnetic tracker, I couldn’t believe you would do that, but after all these years of knowing you, I don’t know why I was surprised.”

“Apparently, I know you better than you know me—which is why I guessed what you’d do.”

“I had to get Seth away from Sheol. You and Iswander kept ignoring the warnings.”

“You stole my son!”

Our son,” he corrected in a maddeningly calm voice. “You could have left with us. We could have stayed together as a family, but you made your choice—and I made mine.”

“I’m taking him back with me.” Having studied the specs en route, she knew that the weapons on her ship were much better than those on the vessel he had stolen from the Iswander operations. Elisa intended to do whatever she needed to do to cripple his ship. Garrison wouldn’t have a chance. “You proved you’re an unfit father by kidnapping him.”

She tried to bait him, make him lose his temper in front of Seth, but he wouldn’t rise to it. “We can work out a resolution, provided Seth doesn’t go back to that place. My priority is keeping him safe.”

“He’s coming with me.” She eased her ship closer. The bloaters were all around them. “No negotiation beyond that.”

She thought of how she would strengthen her relationship with her son, make life better for him on Sheol, make him love her more. First of all, Elisa would arrange to have many more images of the two of them, build up a library of mother-son portraits. Alec Pannebaker fancied himself a photographer; maybe she would ask him to help.

On the screen, Garrison regarded her, and for a moment his features looked just like the image of Seth that she’d put on display. “He’s not a trophy you can claim in order to prove you’ve won something, and I’m not going to make him choose.” His stolen vessel drifted in among the bloated nodules, trying to hide. One of the nuclei flashed, and the sudden flare of light distracted her.

“I didn’t ask him to choose—he’s going home with me! I warn you, I can damage your engines with a single shot and then take him—to safety.”

Garrison maneuvered his ship through the mysterious bubbles, dodging out of sight, and Elisa accelerated after him. He was trying to lose himself among the hundreds of floating globular islands and slip away from her again.

Sounding disappointed, he said, “I can’t believe you’d hunt us all the way out here, but at least you’re safe from Sheol now—whatever it takes.” Another one of the nodules sparkled, then faded.

“You think anyone is better off here? In the middle of nowhere?” She tried to lock in on his engines for a disabling strike.

“We could find a neutral place. Seth is old enough to go to one of the Roamer schools. It would do him good to be among other kids his age.”

“You can shirk your responsibilities, but he’s staying with me. I’m his mother.”

Garrison sighed. “I thought that’s what you’d say, but I wanted to make sure I tried everything. We ditched your tracker—you can’t follow us.” He powered up his engines and began to move, flitting among the island-sized nodules, gaining speed.

“Damn you, Garrison!” She activated her weapons and plunged after him, looking for a good shot. At the moment she didn’t care if she cracked open his hull and Garrison went flying out into space from explosive decompression. But that would cause too much damage and might harm Seth, which wouldn’t look good for her at all.

Garrison kept dodging the bloaters, flying away from the cluster. She raised her voice. “I’m warning you!”

He sent a parting message, which enraged her: “I’ve had plenty of warnings, and I know which ones to listen to.”

He didn’t take her seriously! Damn him. He was forcing her to do this. She tracked ahead and fired a warning shot across his bow. The high-energy beams lanced out like searing javelins.

When the beam struck one of the bobbing globules, the sphere erupted. The explosion was more than an outpouring of fire and energy: it was like a supernova. The detonating bloater ignited an adjacent bloater, then another one, like firecrackers in a chain-reaction inferno. The shock wave engulfed her ship.

 

9

LEE ISWANDER

 

Heat plumes continued to rise, turning Sheol’s ocean of red magma into an angry yellow-white storm. Iswander could only stare at the horrific beauty from his tower windows. The harpy song of alarms shrieked from dozens of systems as if his entire facility had gone insane.

Rlinda Kett put her hands on wide hips. “I know shit hitting the fan when I see it. You have an evacuation protocol?”

Iswander forced calm resolve as he dove into the problem. He hadn’t been able to study the cautionary report Pannebaker had prepared, and he needed more time to develop an emergency response plan. “Captain Kett, we may need your assistance—and your ship. The situation might be beyond the scenarios we modeled.”

Robb spun, looking at him in astonishment. “You live in . . . this and you aren’t ready to evacuate on a moment’s notice?”

Iswander was scanning the reports on the screens, the stranded smelter barge with the imperfect hull allowing magma to leak inside. He forced down panic. “Let’s not go overboard. Everything here was built to withstand the heat.”

The structure of Tower One began to groan. As the ceramic-metal pilings were heated beyond their tolerance levels, the structure softened, bent. The deck shifted, which forced him to grab his desk as he activated the comm and broadcast over the full-facility loudspeakers. “This is Lee Iswander, activating emergency protocols. Team leaders, get your crews to safety. Take emergency shelter precautions. Go into your bolt-holes if necessary. I want structural integrity reports for Towers One, Two, and Three. We’ll have evacuation ships on standby if this gets worse.”

Rlinda said, “I’d say once you pass the disaster limit, it doesn’t matter how much worse it gets.”

Iswander was normally a reticent man who knew how to keep awkward information confidential, but he was going to have to rely on every possible option now. He turned to the trader woman. “We don’t have enough ships for a total evacuation—not nearly enough.” Didn’t budget for it, didn’t plan for it—but he wasn’t going to say that now. “We did not foresee any circumstance that would require an immediate and total evacuation.”

But Garrison Reeves had warned of this. And the other employees knew that Iswander had received, and dismissed, the warning. He had to salvage the situation, or he was going to look terrible. The material tolerances should hold, unless the heat grew significantly worse.

“Well, you’ve got one more ship.” Rlinda activated her comm. “Tamblyn, we need the Curiosity. Dump whatever cargo you’ve loaded aboard and hook up to the Tower One heat tube. Our ship is going to be standing room only.”

Tasia responded, “Heading to the cockpit right now. Looks like everything’s going to hell.”

“We started out in hell,” Rlinda said, but Iswander didn’t appreciate the joke.

His five enormous smelter barges had the best hull shielding, and he hoped they could withstand the increased heat from the plume. But one was already foundering, suffering a breach in the lower hull. Iswander contacted the other four barge pilots directly. “Do you have room for evacuees? We might need a few dozen people to climb aboard and hole up until this simmers down.”

One of the barge pilots responded, “I don’t like the readings from our hull, Mr. Iswander. We’re well into the red zone and softening up here ourselves.”

Iswander pounded on the transmit button. “And I don’t like the readings from Tower Three! Get over there and rescue as many as you can.”

A second barge pilot broke in. “Will do, sir, but just because these barges look big doesn’t mean we have any spare room. Most of the vessel is for lava processing and metal storage. Only a few small chambers on the bridge level are shielded enough for habitation.”

“Understood.” He should have planned better before. He had been angrily reluctant to listen to Garrison Reeves’s paranoia, more intent on quieting the rumors and keeping the workers calm than in assessing the problem. When constructing the facility, the structural materials should have been sufficient!

The supervisor from Tower Three called in, “We’re tilting at an alarming angle here. Our struts are buckling.”

Through the window wall of the admin deck, Iswander saw the cumbersome smelter barges lurch toward Tower Three. He had three hundred and fifty people in that structure, and if each barge could take only a dozen or so refugees . . .

Maybe it wouldn’t collapse. Maybe the material strength and heat tolerance was higher than projected.

Maybe that was wishful thinking.

Tower One began to groan again. A keepsake mug from Iswander’s son slid off the smooth desktop and thumped on the floor.

Robb Brindle stepped over to the window wall and watched as the Voracious Curiosity lifted off from the raised landing deck and circled around. “Where’s Tasia going?”

As soon as the ship was in the air, the lower cargo hatch opened. Pallets of specialized metal products, foams, ceramic alloys, and stacked ingots tumbled out like garbage, falling into the broiling yellow soup of molten rock. The Curiosity came back, buffeted from side to side as a thermal hurricane churned the air.

Iswander was more angry than panicked. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. His engineers had guaranteed him that these structures were safe! Geologists had analyzed the tidal stresses and the magma temperatures; materials scientists had approved the tolerance levels of the ceramic-metal composites. This should not have been a problem!

Tasia Tamblyn’s voice came over the comm. “I’ll land on the deck close to the access tube, but I don’t know how long that platform is going to last. It looks questionable to me.”

Standing near the windowport, Iswander could see the rippling surface of the landing deck. Blistering heat radiated through the special insulated glass. Three empty company ships were in shielded structures on the landing platform, along with his own private cruiser. From his desk comm, he switched to a secure channel. If the disaster grew worse, he had to set priorities. “Mr. Pannebaker, get my wife and son to our cruiser and take off. Once I know that they’re safe, I can better deal with the crisis here.”

Rlinda added, “If you don’t have enough lifeboats for everyone, you’d better cram your cruiser as full as you can. That’s another twenty people? Thirty? We’ll need every spot.”

Tower Three transmitted alarms, and the supervisor grew more panicked. The first smelter barge approached the distressed tower, positioning itself so it could link with the access hatch and take on a group of evacuees.

The Tower Two supervisor called out, “Save room for us! Our systems are already failing.”

Iswander sounded a full-fledged evacuation. Personnel in Tower One were to fill the ships waiting on the landing deck. It was complete chaos.

The facility comm lines were a chatter of overlapping queries, shouts, and contradictory orders. On the private channel, Pannebaker broke in, “Londa and Arden are on your cruiser, Chief, and we fit twenty other people aboard. If we stick around, I could maybe take five more, but—”

“I want them safe now.” He no longer had any faith in safety margins.

“Understood, Chief.”

The cruiser lifted off into the smoke-stirred sky just in time for Tasia Tamblyn to land the Curiosity on the open grid next to the access tube. “All right, we’re open for business. Get your people aboard.”

Iswander dispatched a pair of large company ships over to Tower Two to rescue maybe a hundred more workers. It wouldn’t be enough, but he had no more ships to give. He promised to send more nevertheless, reassuring the doomed people.

When the first vessel landed on the second tower’s access deck, though, the evac hatch wouldn’t open. “It’s fused shut!” the pilot cried.

The tower supervisor yelled through the static-filled comm, “We have to get out of here!”

“We have twenty special heat-shielded worker compies,” Iswander explained, “mostly at Tower Two for the maintenance of external systems.” He reassigned the small robots to intercept and assist the evac ships, but wasn’t sure it would do any good.

The smooth, shielded compies crawled outside the tower and worked their way to the evac hatch. Blunt-headed models designed to survive in extreme heat, they looked more like beetles than miniature humans. The robots scuttled around the hatch, using their specialized tools to attack the controls that had melted shut.

“We’re working on the problem,” Iswander said to Tower Two in his cool administrator voice. “Just hold on.” He felt lightheaded, and sweat prickled on his forehead.

A smelter barge finally attached to the evacuation hatch on the bottom deck of Tower Three. The remaining three barges closed in, but one veered off again, declaring an emergency just like the first stranded barge. “Lower hull breach!” the pilot said. “Lava flooding the lower chambers. We’re going to get cooked in here.”

Iswander didn’t know what to do. “Your habitation chambers are insulated. Just hold on.” His hopeful words sounded empty, but the desperate workers clung to them because they had no other choice.

Then Tower Three failed.

 

 

 

10

ELISA REEVES

 

In the bloater explosion, Elisa’s ship screens went blank as emergency filters blocked the overwhelming surge of energy. Shockwaves hurled her ship backward, spinning out of control.

Since she’d been worried Garrison might try to trick her, maybe even open fire with his low-power weapons, Elisa had kept her shields up. That had probably saved her life.

As the cluster of nodules continued to explode in a chain reaction, her ship tumbled away, damaged and blind. Elisa couldn’t orient it, couldn’t regain engine control. It was all she could do to hold on.

She managed to restore one screen, but the view was haphazard and she couldn’t see Garrison’s ship in the spreading inferno. The shockwaves rippled farther and farther, and even the outlying bloaters glinted and sparked, as if in alarm. Her screens went to static again. Through the windowports, she could see the blast going on and on and on.

Alarms rang through the cockpit, and her engines sputtered. Life support wavered into the red zones, but secondary systems stabilized the air and light. The chain reaction continued interminably, until the inferno climaxed and finally dwindled as the explosions spread to the diffuse outlying bloaters.

Half-blinded, she tried to catch her breath, astonished to be alive.

With only a few of her sensors still functioning, she searched through the dissipating energy cloud, frantic. Elisa couldn’t detect Garrison’s ship, not even any wreckage. But if his vessel had been in the heart of those detonating bloaters, it would have been vaporized. That meant Seth was dead!

Anger warred with her grief. Garrison had ripped the boy away from her because he feared Sheol was too dangerous a place—and he’d brought their son out here to a cluster of unstable bombs in space. She felt sick inside.

The glare from the clustered explosions dissipated. Her screens remained dark, most sensors non-functional, and she would have to determine how many other systems were damaged. It was going to take all of her resources just to limp back to civilization.

She looked again at the portrait image of Seth she’d placed in the cockpit. She didn’t even understand what had happened, refused to believe it. She had just fired a small warning shot with low-powered jazers! She had never expected that reaction.

Hundreds of the bloaters still drifted around her, as mysterious as before. And another question tugged at the back of her mind. What the hell are those things made of?

 

11

LEE ISWANDER

 

Tower Three was located in the most intense part of the thermal plume, and when the thick support struts approached the melting point, the tower’s legs began to bend and buckle. In a slow and inexorable plunge, the tall structure folded over and collapsed on top of the smelter barge that had docked to the base to take evacuees. The comm channel was a storm of screams.

Iswander gasped, “I can’t fix this—there’s no way to fix this!” He wanted to call up the reports, prove that he had done everything prudent to provide a safe environment. This was going to look very bad for him.

“How many personnel are stationed on Sheol?” Rlinda demanded.

He called up the data immediately. “Over two thousand—two thousand seventeen, I think.” Then he remembered that Elisa Reeves had gone off after her husband and son. “No, two thousand fourteen.”

“Too many for the ships you have,” Robb said.

Iswander couldn’t argue with that. “We have shielded facilities, heat-resistant smelter barges, bolt-holes in the towers. We did not foresee the need for a full and complete evacuation of personnel.”

“Looks to me like that’s what we’re going to need,” Rlinda said.

On Tower Two, the heat-armored compies kept working at the evac hatch, while the two large rescue ships circled, looking for a way to retrieve the stranded personnel. Through the magnification screens on his desk, Iswander saw one of the shielded robots spark and collapse, its exterior skeleton melting. It dropped away from the hatch and fell like an insect sprayed with poison. Another compy took its place, working at the same ruined controls.

Half of the geothermal sensors positioned around the sites had already burned out. Through the confusing squawk of alarms, Iswander heard an even more urgent tone: on the warning screen, a spike in the readings indicated an intense heat column rising through the magma near Tower Two.

“There’s a new lava geyser forming!” He signaled to the Tower Two supervisor. “Prepare yourselves. There’s going to be—” He stopped, knowing there was no way the supervisor could prepare herself.

Yes, this was going to look very bad for him.

Molten rock vomited upward and covered the hull of Tower Two. The spray hammered both of the waiting rescue ships like liquid cannonballs. Lava destroyed the tower’s evac hatch, vaporized the compies, and hardened in the air to form an impenetrable seal over the structure.

The two damaged rescue ships reeled, unable to maintain control. One engine exploded, and the first ship tumbled down into the sea of lava. The other ship managed to circle for a few moments longer before skidding to a landing on the access deck of Tower Two, but the weakened deck collapsed and dumped the second vessel down into the magma. Iswander reeled, stunned to think of how many people had just died, but also angry and frustrated that the structural engineers had let him down again. The deck should have been sturdy enough!

In Tower One Rlinda grabbed Iswander’s arm, pulling him toward the door of his office. “Come on, we’re getting to the Curiosity now. You’re not going to be stupid and go down with your ship.”

He followed her, surprised by her comment. He had no intention whatsoever of going down with the facility.

The structure shook and slid, and Iswander knew it wouldn’t be long before the support struts buckled as well. Captain Kett was right: they had to get out of here.

All five smelter barges had now declared emergencies. Temperatures inside their enclosed chambers were rising, and there was no way they could escape. Every crew member aboard was going to be roasted alive—and the barge crews had to realize it by now.

He, Rlinda, and Robb staggered along uncertain corridors, racing toward the exit tunnel and the waiting Curiosity. Rlinda huffed as she ran. Robb touched his comm, “Better not leave without us, Tasia.”

“I’m already fully loaded, sixty-three people, but I’ve got room for a couple more. You may have to sit on my lap.”

“If that’s what it takes,” he said. Five other evacuation ships lifted off.

Most of the people assigned to Tower One had already gotten away, but the bulk of Iswander’s personnel had been out at the various work sites for the day shift. The processors and materials handlers were all in Tower Two, and the off-shift workers were in the crew quarters on Tower Three. Iswander felt a sick certainty that they were all lost already. Nothing he could do about it.

He was overwhelmed and furious. “This was supposed to be safe. My engineers, my designers, my specialists were all—”

Rlinda cut him off. “We can point fingers later. Get aboard.”

As he ran, he realized that this was the worst possible timing. The disaster would have repercussions through the Roamer clans, they would know of his failure right before the election of the new Speaker. Garrison Reeves had issued many public warnings; an inspection of records would show that Iswander Industries had operated on very narrow safety margins, had declined to use superior—but more expensive—materials.

Many people were going to die here. That was unavoidable. He had to rescue as many as possible. If he had, say, a ten percent casualty rate then he would still look good, he could still claim that he had led them through a disaster, saving all but a few martyrs. The sympathy vote might even be stronger than his current campaign.

But he was going to lose more than ten percent. A lot more.

As they charged through the access tube to the waiting cargo ship, Iswander felt the heat blazing around him. The walls of the thermally shielded tunnel had a dull shimmer, nearing the melting point. If even the smallest crack broke through, the searing temperatures would incinerate them in an instant. Iswander didn’t intend to be one of the casualties.

Tasia’s voice shouted across the comm, “The outer section of the landing deck just collapsed. All available ships have launched, and we are going to be gone in a minute if you’re not aboard!”

They raced through the tunnel into the crowded loading deck, the last ones aboard, and Robb sealed the hatch. He touched his comm. “Go, Tasia!”

Iswander collided with a group of panicked, sweating workers. They all recognized the chief. Most were too stunned to say anything, their faces red, their eyes wide, but others glared at him. He saw their accusing expressions—and knew it was only the beginning. They already knew whom to blame.

With a lurch, the Curiosity lifted off just as the low landing deck dropped away. The structural sheets buckled and sank into the lava, where they melted in a discolored swirl.

Rlinda shouldered evacuees aside, clearing a path to the cockpit. There were a great many people aboard, but the numbers were deceiving. Iswander was responsible for 2,014 people, and only a small fraction of them had gotten away.

The Curiosity rose into the sky, and Iswander saw the other half of the split planet looming huge overhead. Tasia fought with the controls against thermal buffeting.

Once the evac ships departed, there would be no survivors left behind on Sheol. Some would die instantly in a flash of heat; those who managed to reach temporary shelter would bake slowly in a horrible death.

He had to start thinking and planning. He had a very serious problem.

 

12

GARRISON REEVES

 

When the bloater explosions happened, Garrison was accelerating away—and they missed the worst of the blast.

When Elisa had threatened to take potshots, Garrison powered up the shields, activated his engines, and set a course away. He never believed she would actually fire on them! It was probably just a warning shot to prove she was serious.

And the bloater detonated like a small supernova. The shock waves compounded the flame fronts, blossoming outward like solar flares. Garrison was already moving, activating the stardrive, shields on full.

Seth yelled. The windowports automatically opaqued as the flash roared over them, outracing even their engines.

Before the damaged stardrive shut down again, they leaped far enough away that it took a full three minutes before the light from the growing explosion reached them as they hung there in utter darkness.

Their life-support systems were drained and damaged, but the hull remained intact. Garrison’s hands flurried over the controls. Though in shock, Seth pulled himself together and helped his father. Garrison had never been so proud of him.

He didn’t want to admit that Elisa was surely dead in the inferno. The conflagration had erupted so quickly, the shockwaves extending outward in all directions. No, she couldn’t have survived back there.

Seth realized it as well, but they didn’t talk of it. The boy finally whispered as the main lights came back on in the piloting deck: “Why did Mother do that?”

“She didn’t know they would explode,” Garrison said, but he hated making excuses for her.

“She still shot at us—why would she take the chance?”

Garrison focused on the controls in front of him and willed himself not to look up to see Seth’s expression. Instead he said in a quiet voice, “I really don’t know . . .” Maybe he didn’t know her at all, not the way he had thought.

She was so different from the woman he had met and fallen in love with. Growing up with clan Reeves, working at the mostly abandoned site of Rendezvous, he’d been trusted with starship runs from the time he was seventeen, flying back and forth to various clan strongholds.

But Earth was always a forbidden destination; Olaf Reeves made that very clear. The more he was told not to do it, however, the more tempted Garrison was, so he made an undocumented detour on one of his runs. When he saw the busy operations, the big ships and equipment, the modular habitations, he realized these could be used to great effect at Rendezvous. It could help clan Reeves finish their slow, long-term project.

Secretly, he had met with a Confederation trade representative, who was partnered with wealthy and ambitious Roamer industrialist Lee Iswander. Her name was Elisa Enturi. She was independent, hardened, out to make a good life for herself. He’d met her at a trade function and learned that she might be able to help him get some of the Iswander equipment modules for construction work at Rendezvous. She agreed to help.

The following night he had spotted Elisa at an Earthside bar and went over to talk with her. They went out on a balcony with their drinks, and she quieted him. “The meteor shower is going to be spectacular tonight. I want to see it.” Together, they watched the shooting stars, which were frightening and beautiful, and they didn’t talk business at all.

Elisa had helped him make a deal with Lee Iswander, and he arranged to buy surplus modules, seeing that as his chance to show problem-solving abilities to his father, the sort of thing a clan leader would need to do. This was also a big deal for Elisa, because it made significant profits for Iswander Industries.

Proud of what he had accomplished, Garrison arrived back at Rendezvous with a flotilla of Confederation machinery and modules. Olaf was horrified and wanted nothing to do with the “help.” He publicly upbraided his son for making such a foolhardy mistake and refused to accept the delivery.

Elisa had a steel spine, though, and lashed back at the stubborn clan leader. “Sorry—the shipment has been paid for, and Iswander Industries will not take them back.” She dumped the equipment at Rendezvous and left.

Just to show his disdain, Olaf cut the equipment loose and let it drift out into space, not wanting to clutter the rest of Rendezvous with it. Garrison was appalled at the bigotry and stupidity, and told his father that. Olaf beat him down, but this time Garrison stood up and slapped his father back. “Do not treat me like a fool, Father, when you are an even bigger one.”

Garrison left and never returned.Back on Earth, he had found Elisa to apologize for the treatment she’d received from his pig-headed father. She told him she only cared about the treatment she received from him, and Garrison treated her very well.

They had celebrated, and commiserated, and slept together. When he realized that partnering with her was the most potent way he could defy his father, he and Elisa got married. She introduced him to Lee Iswander, and they began working together. Olaf disowned his older son, but Garrison didn’t care.

He had been happy when Elisa got pregnant, though she found it inconvenient. Iswander gave her time off for the new baby and distributed her responsibilities to secondaries, promoted them instead of her, and Elisa felt left behind,but back then she didn’t admit she resented her husband.

On Sheol, Garrison had had his work, but he cared more about his family than advancement. Oddly, although Olaf Reeves had never even met his grandson, Garrison began to realize the call of family that he hadn’t understood before.

Now, in the aftermath of the bloater explosion, Garrison thought of the falling out with his father, and worried that the clan leader might have been right. . . .

As they drifted in open space, he and Seth spent eight hours assessing the damages. They repaired what they could, studying their energy levels and life-support reserves before calling up the starmaps.

“Where are we going now?” Seth asked.

Garrison didn’t trust the engines, but he could limp along to a destination, provided it wasn’t too far. After the pummeling it had received, this ship deserved a full refit and overhaul in an adequate spacedock facility, but he didn’t know how he could afford that. He had left everything behind on Sheol.

Garrison had options, though. He was a Roamer. Maybe they could go to Newstation and ask for help, hope that some sympathetic person would offer assistance. But now that he had lost so much, still feeling the sharp pain in his heart from knowing that his wife was dead—and he had indeed loved her—he realized with a hollowness in his chest that he had only one place to go.

Home.

Garrison set course for the clan Reeves settlement at Rendezvous.

 

13

LEE ISWANDER

1,543.

The number haunted him. 1,543. Lee Iswander wasn’t even convinced it was an accurate count, but that was the official casualty number from the Sheol disaster.

Once he and the evacuees were taken to Newstation, two days’ starflight away, Iswander felt it was his obligation to scroll through all the names, and it bothered him that so many were unfamiliar to him. A handful of team leaders, yes . . . shift supervisors, some of the crew chiefs, the five smelter barge pilots, but he simply didn’t recognize hundreds of the names.

Frowning, he called up the personnel records, their images, studied how long those people had worked for him, the commendations or reprimands they had received. A few he recalled from walking through a cafeteria chamber in between shifts at Tower Three, but most were just random faces to him—men and women who had families, people with political leanings, people who loved their work, and people who hated it.

1,543.

No one gave him credit that almost five hundred had survived. Didn’t that count for something? They only saw that he’d placed all those people in danger for his industries, but he had not provided adequate safety margins or a comprehensive disaster plan, not even enough escape ships. A quarter of them had been saved.

Three quarters of his personnel had died.

The escapees vocally blamed Iswander’s lack of foresight, his cutting of corners, his failure to design proper protective systems. The survivors were not able to console the victims’ families that all the deaths had been swift and painless, either. Even Iswander cringed as he thought of how many had been trapped inside the sunken smelter barges or the collapsing towers, roasted alive. It gave him nightmares—as well it should.

His ambitious facility should have been a shining example of his ability to make a profit while dancing at the cliff edge of danger—proof of Hansa business acumen and Roamer ingenuity. Yet it had been swallowed in a whirlpool of molten metal and stone.

He had submitted the engineering records to show that the structural materials and heat shielding should have been sufficient against the Sheol environment, but Sheol itself had grown worse. Roamers would have been forgiving in the face of a planetary disaster . . . but Iswander Industries had been warned. Knowing how capricious the universe could be, Roamers did not ignore warnings. Iswander simply hadn’t wanted to spend the money.

All the evacuees, the injured as well as those who were simply shocked and angry, took refuge at Newstation. Clans met there, Roamers exchanged assistance, other ships came in to offer help to the refugees. There in the giant wheel habitat, they recovered, and they talked.

Normally, Roamer clans pulled together in times of crisis. Throughout their existence, they had faced setbacks and disasters, and their history was full of tragedies. But Iswander could tell by their whispers and glares that they did not feel sorry for him, nor would they ever forgive him.

Reunited with his rescued wife and son, Iswander holed up in his usual suite on Newstation, large quarters with all the amenities. He had barely noticed the place before; it was just a room where he slept and prepared for business meetings. Now, it became a place to hide. He couldn’t stay here for long.

He sat in the chamber, staring at reports, reviewing his losses. He was ruined, of course. The Sheol disaster ripped away his safety net and would certainly drain him of everything he had. Lee Iswander would be reviled, disgraced—and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

1,543.

Londa brought him a cup of pepperflower tea. It had never been his favorite—too sweet—but she felt as helpless as he did, and this was her way of making a gesture. “It’ll be all right,” she said, finding nothing absurd in her statement.

“Thank you, Londa.” He took a sip of the tea, then shooed her away as politely as he could.

“Would you like me to bring lunch?” she asked. “I can make your favorite.”

He wondered what she thought his favorite was. In fact, Iswander didn’t even know he had a favorite, but it would give her something to do. “That sounds nice. I have to go soon, though. The election . . .”

As Londa bustled off, Iswander felt metal jaws of guilt gnawing at his stomach. He tried to think of what he would say at the clan gathering, what excuses he might use, whether he should be defiant or defeated, whether to beg for understanding and forgiveness. A second chance.

They saw him as a powerful Roamer industrialist, one of the wealthiest people in the Confederation. He knew most of the clan heads, but not well enough to consider them friends. He couldn’t say how they would react. Many had made their fortunes operating huge skymines that harvested ekti in gas giants. Stardrive fuel was hard to obtain, expensive to produce, but the demand made the effort and investment worthwhile. The disgraced Iswander Industries, though, would never be able to secure funding for even such a traditional, stable business venture. Nor would he ever find large crews to work for him.

He stared at the list of all those unfamiliar names, all the people who had burned on Sheol. 1,543.

He could think of absolutely nothing he might say.

The door slid open and his son burst in, eyes wild. Arden was fuming rather than sobbing; his face was flushed with emotion, and he sported several fresh scuffs and bruises.

Iswander rose to his feet. Arden whirled as if ready to throw a punch, then his shoulders sagged. His voice hitched. “They hate you! They called you . . . they said—”

Iswander faced his son. His hands remained at his sides. “I don’t care what they say. They weren’t there. They don’t know.”

Arden looked up to him, even though they rarely spent any close time together. Once in a while, Iswander would give him encouraging talks. He checked on the young man’s grades, emphasized how important it was that he become educated, intelligent, and the best he could be, because Arden would run Iswander Industries someday. He felt a knife twist in his heart at that thought.

Arden continued to tremble with rage or with shame. “They said all those people died because you’re not a real Roamer, that you’ve forgotten our ways. That the facility failed because you cut costs and increased profits.”

Iswander quelled his angry retort and calmly pointed out, “And yet when I first announced the Sheol operations, they applied by the hundreds to work there. They were excited to sign up for profit participation. Roamers know that life is hard and dangerous on the edge.”

Arden burst out, “It’s not your fault!” But Iswander knew that it was his fault, at least in part.

They couldn’t stay here at Newstation. The more visible he remained, the louder the recriminations would be. Better to lie low, find a place to be quiet and out of sight until the most intense anger died away. He decided he would take them back to Sheol, settle in one of the orbiting transfer stations that had quarters, food, life support—until he figured out what to do next.

But he had to stay for the vote. He felt obligated to face that, at least.

Londa came back into the room carrying a tray of food, noticed Arden’s tears and his flushed face, and her mouth dropped open. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

Iswander thought it was ridiculous that she couldn’t guess. He mildly said, “Look, your mother brought you lunch. She’ll take care of you.” He glanced at the clock as if it marked the hour of his execution. “I need to go. The clan gathering is scheduled soon, and I don’t want to be late for the voting.”

 

Lee Iswander entered the speaking chamber, arriving exactly on time, on purpose. He didn’t want to have to stand there as a specimen any longer than was absolutely necessary. Low conversation hummed from the filled seats, and he heard a distinct change in tone as he showed himself. No, he would not get a sympathy vote.

He wore his best business suit and a veneer of all the pride he could manage, but it did not run deep. He reminded himself that he was one of the greatest Roamer industrialists in recent history, but he felt very small. 1,543.

Because he and Sam Ricks were the two candidates for Speaker, by tradition they would stand at the heart of the assembly area while the audience voted. It made Iswander feel naked to have so many eyes turned toward him, but it gave him a well-defined place to be, rather than sitting among the clan representatives. He wouldn’t have to risk an awkward moment when others got up and changed seats rather than be near him.

I will get through this.He made a point of recalling his earlier accomplishments that any Roamer would applaud. But those were eclipsed by one incident. He silently wished Elisa Reeves were there at his side, but she was gone too.

I will get through this.

His rival, Sam Ricks, chatted with several companions, walking along the lowest row of seats, waving to clan members. He seemed energetic and confident, much more alive than he’d been in their prior debate. And why not? Iswander felt a distinct chill in the room, and it was directed toward him.

Speaker Isha Seward took her place at the elevated podium and decided it was time to get down to business, regardless of what the clock said. “We’re all here. Let’s wrap up this election so I can retire.” At any other time attendees would have chuckled, but now there was too much tensionin the air. “The candidates have agreed not to make any final statements. Or have you changed your mind, Mr. Iswander?”

She glanced at him. He had thought long and hard on it, but gave a quick shake of his head.

For the sake of formality, she called upon Sam Ricks to cast the first vote, for himself, of course. Then she turned to Iswander, who cast his vote, and the chamber was filled with an immensity of silence before Speaker Seward called upon all the other clan heads.

His was the only vote he received.

Iswander stood listening to one member after another say the name of Sam Ricks, most of them with little enthusiasm. He endured. In his heavy chest, though, this disgrace felt as spectacular as the disaster on Sheol.

 

14

ELISA REEVES

 

When her damaged ship finally limped back to Sheol, Elisa found that her entire world had collapsed—for the second time in as many weeks.

She had spent four days alone in space at the site of the exploded bloaters, working on her ship, rerouting the damaged systems to bypass any that were not absolutely vital. And she did it herself.

Garrison had always been arrogantly proud of Roamer ingenuity; he bragged about how his people could take the most unlikely hodgepodge of components and make them work like magic.

Lee Iswander was also a Roamer, but instead of relying on his pilots being able to make duct-tape-and-twine repairs, Iswander Industries simply provided adequate spare parts in each ship, in case anything should fail. Elisa had swapped out life-support modules, navigation circuits, and damaged engine controls. Eventually, her ship was ready to fly again. . . .

During the flight, she pondered and rehearsed exactly how she was going to report what had happened. Her mission had not turned out the way she’d expected, but at least she wasn’t returning empty handed—thanks to her intrepid investigations. She couldn’t wait to tell Lee Iswander what she had found.

She didn’t want his pity for the tragic death of her son as well as, she supposed, her husband. But once he learned what else she had discovered, Iswander would surely promote her (after acknowledging the painful loss of her family). It was worth an incalculable fortune.

When she arrived at Sheol, the binary planet looked like a glowing ember in space, cracked and bleeding with lava. The lack of space traffic surprised her. Her comm system carried none of the constant chatter of cargo ships hauling exotic metal-polymer materials or straightforward shipments of ingots. She surfed the channels, expecting to hear the usual drone of conversation from smelter barge crews and the control towers, even Alec Pannebaker showing off some stupid stunt.

She transmitted her queries, trying to find someone who would answer, and finally received a reply—but the transmission did not come from the admin tower down on the fiery surface. Rather, the response emanated from a small satellite station in orbit that received bulk shipments and transferred supplies.

“Elisa, you came back!” It was Lee Iswander’s voice. She couldn’t believe he would be manning the comm himself. “Did you retrieve your son?”

“No,” she answered in a clipped voice. “He . . . he’s dead. Garrison took him into a hazardous situation. He was reckless. He . . . they were both lost in a massive explosion.”

Iswander groaned and said something that didn’t seem directed toward her. “Aren’t fifteen hundred and forty-three deaths enough?”

Elisa felt a sudden chill. “What happened? Where is everyone on Sheol?” By now, she had expected Lee Iswander to be the Speaker for the Roamer clans.

“Everything happened. The facilities are gone. Hundreds dead—fifteen hundred and forty-three. The survivors are at Newstation, but I . . . I had to come back here, see if I could salvage anything. It seemed the best place.”

Elisa’s head was ready to explode with questions, but she quelled them. “I’m docking soon. You can tell me everything then—face to face.”

She guided her ship into the orbiting transfer station, which was mostly empty. Hers was one of only four ships in the bay; half of the lights had been dimmed.

She carried a data-transfer file that held the images of the bloater cluster, the record of the explosions, and the rest of her discoveries. She had been so excited, bursting with her news, but when she presented herself in the control chamber, she was astonished to see Lee Iswander’s face. He looked exhausted. His skin tone was grayish, and he had shadows around his eyes.

“I’m glad to have one supporter back,” he said. “You don’t know how much that means to me.”

Pannebaker swept into the control center, and his usual smile looked more relieved than excited. “Elisa! Well, that’s one step closer to digging our way out of this hole.”

“We’re in space,” grumbled Iswander’s eleven-year-old son. “Everything’s a hole.”

His mother wrapped her arm around the young man’s shoulders and pulled him close, though Arden resisted. “I told you it’ll be all right. Your father’s had ups and downs before. We’ll get through this—we just have to be strong.”

Elisa looked Iswander straight in the eye, not even requiring full explanations before she made her decision. “I’m here to provide anything you might need for Iswander Industries. You have my full commitment . . . now that my son is gone.” Her voice cracked at the end. Now that I have no distractions. No family obligations. Nothing else to divert me.

“We’ll need it,” he said.

Iswander explained the disaster in the lava-processing facilities, and how it had become clear to other Roamers that he’d used “irresponsible safety margins.” Before leaving, Elisa had read the Chicken Little reports Garrison had compiled and witnessed his increasing agitation, but she had dismissed his fears, and Iswander had chosen not to prepare.

“Fifteen hundred and forty-three dead,” he said again. “Only two dozen workers followed me back here, in hopes of salvaging something from the wreckage. Not because they have faith in me—I just don’t think they have anyplace else to go.” He hung his head. “I’m ruined. I have assets from my other industries, and I’ve buried funds in banks on scattered planets, but it won’t do me much good. After this debacle, no one would partner with me again.”

Elisa still didn’t understand. “So . . . you came back to lie low?”

“We’re not hiding—we’re reassessing,” Iswander said. He gave Elisa a self-deprecating smile. “By the way, I lost the election to become Speaker.”

“How bad was it?” she asked.

“I got one vote.”

“I wouldn’t vote against you,” she said, then lifted her chin. “In fact, I’ve found a new venture for you. A big venture, something no other Roamer knows about. Are you willing to start from scratch?”

“Don’t have much choice,” Iswander said. “And I’ve done it before.”

Her heart had felt heavy to see him so defeated, and now she saw a faint light in the back of his eyes again. Good.

She installed and displayed the file she had brought, then put determination in her voice. She had felt defeated, too, but she wouldn’t allow that anymore—too much at stake. She had to be strong so she could help Lee Iswander.

“This is where I tracked Garrison in his stolen ship.” She displayed images of the swollen nodules drifting about in the empty dark between the stars. Thousands of them, some connected, others floating loose and far apart. “He tried to hide among them, even though he must have known they were dangerous. Watch this—just a little spark, an energy discharge . . .”

She displayed the furious inferno as the bloaters detonated, one after another, a chain reaction that swelled outward like multiple supernovas. The blast flung her ship on the crest of the shockwave.

Iswander blinked, as if reminded of the too-sharp pain of other flames. He reached out to clutch her hand with a strong grip as he said, “I’m sorry about your son, Elisa.”

She pulled her hand away and called up another file. “That isn’t all, sir. Those bloaters were scattered across great distances, like breadcrumbs in a line. Once I knew what to look for, I scanned far and wide—and discovered another concentration, a large cluster of bloaters near the fringe of an uninhabited star system. I suspect there are other clusters as well. I left a marker there—we can go back whenever we like. It will save you, and it will make you fabulously rich.”

Iswander looked at the images of the exotic bloaters, dull brownish-green nodules barely lit by the distant spray of starlight. “But what are they? And why are they so special?”

Elisa’s eyes shone, and now she clasped his hand, trying to push her intensity upon him to reignite his own drive. “Because, sir—they’re filled with stardrive fuel!

 

“Island in a Sea of Stars” copyright © 2014 by Kevin J. Anderson

Art copyright © 2014 by Stephen Youll

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