Impersonations

Having offended her superiors by winning a battle without permission, Caroline Sula has been posted to the planet Earth, a dismal backwater where careers go to die. But Sula has always been fascinated by Earth history, and she plans to reward herself with a long, happy vacation amid the ancient monuments of humanity’s home world.

Sula may be an Earth history buff, but there are aspects of her own history she doesn’t want known. Exposure is threatened when an old acquaintance turns up unexpectedly. Someone seems to be forging evidence that would send her to prison. And all that is before someone tries to kill her.

If she’s going to survive, Sula has no choice but to make some history of her own.

Nebula Award-winning author Walter Jon Williams returns to the sweeping space opera adventure of his Praxis universe with Impersonations, an exciting new novel featuring the hero of Dread Empire’s Fall! Available October 4th from Tor.com Publishing.

 

 

Thousands of years ago, Earth and its inhabitants were conquered by the alien Shaa. Along with other alien species within the Shaa imperium, humanity has been subjected to the unforgiving rule of the Praxis, the empire-wide law imposed by the conquerors. Intended to create an ideal, ordered society based on universal and rational principles, the Praxis is enforced by a reign of terror and blood.

Foremost in upholding the Praxis is the order of Peers, the ennobled descendants of the collaborators who helped the Shaa establish their rule. But now, with the last of the Shaa having passed from the scene, the Peers must actually try to run the empire.

The first crack in the Praxis occurred during the Naxid War, when the most senior of the conquered species tried to seize the empire and replace the Shaa with themselves. The Naxids were defeated, in part through the actions of Captain the Lady Sula, but now Sula finds the rewards for her service are exile, on a distant planet called Earth…

 


Chapter One

The woman called Caroline Sula looked up from her desk to see a mammoth ship poised in the floodlights of the ring. It hovered above the rotating ring like a skyscraper floating free of gravity, its landing lights glaring, nose studded with grapples, probes, and docking tubes all deployed to catch a berth as Earth’s antimatter ring rotated beneath it.

Sula’s heart gave a lurch at the unexpected sight, and then the ship vanished beneath the floor as the ring rotated beneath it. She spun her chair to look behind her, and the big ship reappeared downspin from her office. Maneuvering jets flared against the ship’s matte-black flanks, and the ship floated with slow majesty to a gentle berth in the Fleet dockyards.

“What the hell is that?” she demanded.

Lieutenant-captain Lord Koz Parku, who was in the middle of delivering a report on satellite maintenance, raised his grey, expressionless head. “Lady Sula?”

“That ship that just docked. What was it?”

Parku’s dark eyes focused over Sula’s shoulder at the ship lit by the dockyard’s floodlights, a tall irregular tower suddenly sprouted from the ring. “I don’t know, my lady.”

Sula rose from her desk and walked to the shelf where she kept her binoculars. She put them to her eyes and toggled the on switch.

“It looks like a Bombardment-class heavy cruiser,” she said. “But it’s got civilian markings. Though what’s it doing in the Fleet dockyard if it’s a civilian?”

“Shall I find out, my lady?”

“Yes.”

Sula frowned. There were no warships in the Sol system that she knew of—her command consisted entirely of transports, vehicles for satellite and ring maintenance, and a swank little cutter for her own personal use. Whatever was going on with the ship, it was irregular, and she was wary of irregularities within her command.

Parku raised an arm and busied himself with his sleeve display. Sula continued to study the ship—the cruiser. No one had told her there would be civilian ships in the Fleet dockyard, let alone civilian ships that seemed to have been built to military specifications. And Parku didn’t know the answers to her questions because he hadn’t been here any longer than she had.

“The ship is the Manado, my lady.” Parku moved to stand by her as she looked out the transparent wall. His Daimong voice was measured and melodious, though he brought with him the scent of his rotting flesh, not entirely concealed by baths and use of scent. Sula, sensitive to odors, repressed a twitch of her upper lip.

“It was laid down in the shipyards here during the war, as the new Bombardment of Utgu. But the war ended before completion, and a civilian company bought it, completed construction, and now operates it.”

“Operates it as what?” Sula asked.

Parku uttered a brief, chiming tone intended as a placeholder, where a human might insert a “Well… ” or an “Umm.”

“‘General cargo,'” Parku said finally. “Apparently.” His timbre indicated a lack of satisfaction with the answer.

None of this, Sula reflected, made sense. The Fleet was being expanded, both to replace war losses and to build a much larger force less prone to subversion. Even if the war was over, Bombardment of Utgu should have been added to the active list.

Irregularities of this sort, Sula thought, generally meant corruption somewhere. Someone had given a ship to an ally in return for a token payment.

But, she reflected, it wasn’t her corruption, it wasn’t her fault or her responsibility. It may not even have been arranged here, but in the capital of Zanshaa or somewhere else. It had all happened before she had arrived, three weeks ago.

“So what’s Manado doing in my dockyard?” Sula asked. “Why isn’t it in a civilian berth?”

Again that chiming tone, while Parku flicked through his sleeve display. “The Manado Company contracted to rent a berth in the Fleet dockyard.” He looked up, his large eyes liquid in his expressionless face. “The contract expires in two months, my lady.”

“Do they resupply from the Fleet? Air, anti-hydrogen? Rations?”

Parku returned to his display. “Yes. But they pay for anything they take from us.”

“Generously, I hope.”

Parku’s timbre conveyed ambivalence. “Their payments would seem to be in line with our costs.”

Paranoia stoked Sula’s thoughts. “They don’t take on weapons, do they? Or antiproton ammunition?”

“No, my lady.”

Sula frowned at the ship and moved back behind her desk, where the scent of Parku’s decay couldn’t reach her.

“Find out what you can about the Manado Company,” she said. “When you have a moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“And now—you were saying about satellite maintenance?”

Parku finished his report just as the ring rotated out of Earth’s shadow and into sunlight. The Fleet had generously given the station commander an office in a small tower overlooking the dockyards, and now blazing Sol etched every detail of the ring and the docked ships with brilliant fire. Parku raised a hand to shade his eyes. Sula raised the sun shield in the eastern quadrant of the office.

“Thank you, my lady,” Parku said.

“Is that all, then? You can return to your office.”

“My lady.” Parku braced to attention, his chin raised, his throat bared in order to expose himself to his superior’s lethal punishment. When the punishment did not arrive, he made a smart military turn and left the office.

Sula rotated her chair and contemplated the matte-black bulk of Manado, a darkness against the greater darkness of space, and then she shrugged.

Something underhanded had gone on where the ship was concerned, and eventually she might get to the bottom of it.

But not today. In a few hours, she’d begin her vacation.

* * *

“You won’t need parade dress, will you?”

“I hope not,” said Sula. “I don’t want to have to wear those heavy boots, let alone that leather shako.”

She viewed the tall stovepipe headgear that Spence held for her inspection.

“Let’s not pack it,” she decided.

Spence nodded with relief. “Very good, my lady.”

An officer with the rank of captain was expected to travel with an amazing amount of gear—a full set of uniforms for all climates and seasons, equipment for any sports or hobbies she might enjoy, plus of course a complete set of place settings for the dinners she was obliged to host: plates, bowls, cups, and utensils suitable for all the species living under the Praxis, each ideally marked with her family crest or the name of her command. Plus wine and other liquors, delicacies like candied taswa fruit or cashment soaked in vermouth.

Sula’s last ship had been outfitted in haste and she hadn’t the time to commission all that porcelain, and though she’d hosted dinners for her officers and for her captains, they’d eaten off plain dinnerware from the galley. In fact she still hadn’t acquired the appropriate porcelain, because she’d planned to buy it on Earth, where porcelain had been invented. And because she didn’t drink alcohol, she was at a loss where wine was concerned; and though she’d served it to others, she had to trust the brokers as to its quality.

Of course she had dined with her officers on the ring station, but again off plainware from the galley; and if they had any doubts about the wine, they’d kept it to themselves.

“My lady?” Gavin Macnamara appeared in the doorway. “Are we taking sidearms?”

You are,” Sula said. Macnamara was a Constable First Class and might, she supposed, be called upon to restore order somewhere. “For myself, I don’t plan on shooting anybody.” She turned to Spence. “And you?”

Spence looked doubtful. “Is it dangerous down there?”

Macnamara —tall, lean, with a halo of curly brown hair—and Engineer/1st Spence —pug-nosed, sturdy, short, and straw-haired—were the other two survivors of Action Group Blanche, a stay-behind group on Zanshaa intended to lead the resistance against occupying Naxids.

All the other members of the group had been captured and tortured to death. Only Sula’s paranoia had managed to keep her own unit alive—paranoia, along with a talent for criminality.

Spence and Macnamara were two of the four servants Fleet regulations permitted to captains like Sula. The third was a Cree chef named Turney, for all those banquets, and the fourth slot was currently unoccupied.

“I don’t know that Earth is any more or less dangerous than Zanshaa,” Sula said.

“That doesn’t help,” Spence pointed out. She turned to Macnamara and sighed. “I’ll take a sidearm. I don’t suppose I’ll ever wear it.”

“Very good.” Leaving a faint scent of gun oil, Macnamara returned to his packing.

Other last-minute packing decisions took an hour, and then Sula took a shower and went to bed with her hand comm and a collection of mathematical puzzles. Neither held her attention. Instead she considered the matter of firearms, and how they reflected what sort of person she now was.

The war had been fundamental in shaping her self—she remembered five enemy ships torn to golden plasma streamers at Magaria, and her cry, “It was Sula who did this! Remember my name!” For over two years she’d been a weapon, as purposeful as Macnamara’s sidearm, and she’d been very good at being what she was, a nearly feral creature whose sole purpose had been the destruction of the Naxid enemy.

But now the war was over, and Sula had been given a pointless job in a dusty corner of the empire. She was still a weapon, but nobody needed weapons now. She was like Bombardment of Utgu, the heavy cruiser renamed Manado and set to a peaceful job in a peaceful world.

At least Manado‘s tasks were necessary for somebody. Sula wasn’t sure her own job had a point at all: nothing done at the Fleet dockyard had any genuine military purpose, it could all be done by civilian contractors.

But then there wasn’t genuine military purpose any longer, not anywhere. It was peacetime now.

Sula wasn’t allowed to be a weapon any longer. So what was she now?

Because Sula possessed a certain pride, she did her new job well. She’d spent the first three weeks diving into the workings of the dockyard, bringing personnel up to the mark, making sure the equipment and supplies she’d signed for actually existed, and handing out demerits with a liberal hand. The dockyard was now running well enough so that Sula could go to Earth itself, and view what her distant ancestors had managed to create in the way of civilization.

But despite all that, Sula wasn’t her new job, or vice versa. What was she?

She didn’t have an answer.

She looked at the hand comm and checked her messages. There were a few minor issues from the dockyard, easily dealt with. And then she saw another message, I’m coming to Terra!, sent by one Lady Ermina Vaswani.

Sula couldn’t imagine why she’d care whether someone named Ermina Vaswani was coming to Terra or not, and with a degree of skepticism she triggered the message.

A woman in her mid-twenties appeared on the screen, blonde and green-eyed, with a large, noble nose prominent in the center of her face.

“Hi!” she said, in a bright, enthusiastic voice. “It’s your cousin Goojie, your best friend from school!”

Sula paused the recording, freezing Cousin Goojie’s ardent face.

“Shit,” she said.

She called up her own image on the screen and laid them side-by-side. She and Cousin Goojie shared the same pale blonde hair and green eyes. Sula didn’t have Goojie’s distinctive nose, and Goojie lacked Sula’s pale, porcelain complexion. To an objective observer, it wasn’t completely implausible they might somehow be related.

Sula rubbed the thick pad of scar tissue on her right thumb, then triggered the message again.

“I’m a Vaswani now, of course,” said Goojie. “We have the Toi-ans as patrons, and they’ve have a company with a branch on Terra, so I’m coming out to manage it! I know you’re a big hero now, but if you’re not too busy being heroic, I hope we can meet and catch up with old times!”

She cocked her head. “Are you still Caro, now that you’re all so grand and important? I’m still Goojie, of course, at least to old friends.”

All of which, Sula thought, made a certain amount of sense. The Sulas had been an ancient family, rich and influential, with scores of clients throughout the empire. But the previous Lord and Lady Sula had been caught in some kind of complex fraud, and they’d been skinned alive and executed. The money and property had been confiscated. The Sulas had been dispersed and disgraced—Goojie’s parents taking a new name like “Vaswani” would have been camouflage—and all the clients would have been reassigned from the Sula clan to new patrons, like the Lai-own Toi-an family.

At the end of all that, Clan Sula had been reduced to a single member, the sole daughter of Lord and Lady Sula.

Caro Sula. Cousin Goojie’s old school chum. Who had been shuffled off to the care of distant relatives on the world of Spannan, far from Zanshaa and the capital.

“I hope we’ll get a chance to catch up,” Goojie went on. “My ship Benin is decelerating now and we’re scheduled to dock on the ring in less than a month.” She raised a hand and gave a little wave. “Bye! For now!”

Sula gestured at the screen and froze Goojie in mid-wave. Her brain churned. Best friend in school.

Best friend in school. Which school? Better find out.

“Are you still Caro?”

Well, no. She had never been Caro. Caro Sula was dead.

After her parents’ execution, Caro had been shipped to Spannan… and then bad things just kept happening. Alcohol. Drugs. Unwise relationships.

And in the worst, most unwise decision of all, Caro had become friends with a girl named Gredel. Who was the girlfriend of a gangster, and who bore a striking resemblance to Caro herself, Gredel who had the silver-gilt hair and the emerald eyes and the pale complexion, and who had a talent for mimicry and voices and accents, and who had a miserable life of her own that she was desperate to escape.

Her hand trembled as she looked at the hand comm, at Goojie’s frozen face. She remembered the little smile on Caro’s face as Gredel pressed the med injector to her neck, the hiss of the drug as it sent Caro into the twilight that had become her home in her empty, sad life. Remembered the flash of Caro’s pale hair as it disappeared beneath the dark waters of the Iola River.

Remembered walking up the hill from the river, to Caro’s apartment, to take possession of her identity, to become the woman called Caroline Sula.

She was so young then, Sula thought. Seventeen imperial years, fifteen years by the standards of Earth. So fearless.

Sula’s bravery had won her fame and decorations in the war, but she’d never dare try anything like that now.

Sula shuddered, closed her eyes, then opened them again because all she saw were the dead eyes of Caro Sula looking at her.

When she’d been on Zanshaa she’d encountered any number of people who remembered the young Caro Sula. But they were mostly of an older generation, friends of the late Lord and Lady Sula, and they remembered her as a child, no older than eleven or twelve. What they now encountered had been a young woman, an officer in the Fleet, and soon after that a decorated hero. She’d been able to bluff them.

But could she bluff Caro’s best friend from school? A person who knew her intimately?

There was little option but to try.

“It’s wonderful to hear from you,” she sent Goojie in reply. “I don’t remember those days very well—but I remember you, of course. I’m looking forward to seeing you, but I’ll be on the planet surface for a long tour starting tomorrow. I hope that doesn’t complicate things.”

I hope you hit your head on a hatch, she thought.

At least she’d have some time for research. Once upon a time she’d learned everything there was to know about Caro, and obsessively memorized her biography. But in the years since no one had ever challenged her, and even those who’d known Caro accepted her story; and some of the facts had got a little blurred. Clearly she needed a refresher.

Fortunately Lady Ermina Vaswani was a Peer, and Peers were very well documented indeed. Genealogies were readily available, and all manner of biographies and monographs existed, many commissioned by Peers or Peer clans to explain to other Peers how wonderful they were.

Research. Something that Sula was good at.

Sula realized she wouldn’t be able to sleep for hours yet, not with the jolt of adrenaline that Goojie’s appearance had brought, so before beginning her researches she went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. She was adding a thick dollop of golden cane syrup when Macnamara entered, wearing official viridian Fleet sleepwear and a nacré velvet dressing gown that Sula had given him as a present, knowing something so grand would make him uncomfortable but wanting him to have it anyway.

“My lady,” he said. “You should have called. I would have brought you tea.”

“I’m perfectly capable of making tea,” Sula said.

She really didn’t need servants. She was happier keeping her own place tidy, polishing her own shoes, brushing her own tunics, tossing her own salads. She was perfectly self-sufficient in that regard, and she didn’t like other people touching her things. But Spence and Macnamara were too precious to dismiss from her life, and so she had to put up with their insistence on making her life easier.

The nacré dressing gown shimmered closer. “Do you need anything else, my lady?”

Sula stirred the tea, put the spoon in the saucer. “No, that’s all. I’m sorry if I woke you.”

“I wasn’t asleep.”

“Good night, then.”

“Good night, Lady Sula.”

Macnamara remained in the kitchen, ever on duty, as Sula carried her tea to her quarters.

What am I going to do with him? Sula thought. Him and his gun.

She put her tea down on the bedside table, and reached for her hand comm.

First things first. She needed to find out all she could about Caro Sula’s best friend.

* * *

Once upon a time, when she was Gredel, she’d been known as “Earthgirl.” She had been obsessed by Terran history, the intricate, complex narrative of ancient humanity before Earth’s conquest by the Shaa. Her friends had found her hobby amusing and singularly useless—even humans couldn’t work up much interest in the backwater world on which their distant barbarian ancestors had built their rude civilization. And even she, trapped in poverty on the world of Spannan, hadn’t ever seen Earth, or could reasonably hope to do so.

She had learned to imitate an Earth accent, a hick dialect even she had found hilarious. Once she’d actually arrived on Earth’s ring and taken command of the shipyard, she’d encountered workers born on Earth, and discovered that there were a great many different Earth accents, of which imperial popular culture had absorbed only the most uncouth.

She felt indignation on behalf of humanity when she realized this. Imperial culture had trivialized her species’ homeworld. And then, because she was never far from paranoia, she wondered if this had been done deliberately, to degrade all culture but that imposed by the Shaa conquerors.

But no. To the rulers of the empire and the sophisticated denizens of the capital, all that mattered was the culture of Zanshaa High City, compared to which all else was provincial. Next to Zanshaa, every world was a backwater, and worthy of mockery whether it had once belonged to a single species or not.

Sula had been given the Earth assignment as punishment, by a superior offended by her unorthodox behavior. But Sula was unorthodox enough to rejoice in the assignment, and the possibility that she might view all the places and monuments that had filled her imagination when she was young.

SaSuu. Byzantium. Xi’an. The Grand Canyon, the Arch of Macedoin, the Pyramids. All wondrous places that had stirred her, that had become her passion as she’d coped with a childhood of poverty, deprivation, and violence.

And now, as she stood in the waiting room before boarding the elevator that would take her to the planet’s surface, she looked at the video monitor that showed a view of the blue-and-white world, and thought, Soon.

Who was she now? A tourist, she hoped. A happy tourist.

Sula got only a few hours’ sleep, the rest spent in a thorough search of available records for Lady Ermina Vaswani. Caro’s friend Goojie had been born a Sula, sure enough, but after the fall of the Sulas, her parents had changed their name to that of another relative, a Vaswani, a Peer family largely unknown on Zanshaa, but powerful on their provincial home world of Chijimo. To trade the Sulas for the Vaswanis was to drop several levels in the Peer hierarchy.

Nevertheless Goojie had continued her education on Zanshaa, gone to Remba College for a degree in Praxis Theory, and then had celebrated with a tour of vacation spots throughout the empire. Obviously the Vaswanis had survived with more money than had the Sulas. Goojie had been on Preowyn when the Naxid rebellion broke out, and spent the war there in apparent comfort. Now she was the new Executive Director of the Terran Division of the Kan-fra Company, controlled by her patron Toi-an clan. Apparently Kan-fra rented medical equipment to hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes.

It seemed a company safe enough for a new, young Executive Director. Goojie’s inexperience and her degree in Praxis Theory probably couldn’t do much harm.

Probably they couldn’t do Sula any harm, either.

* * *

Sula turned at the sound of footsteps and saw her own chief of security, Lieutenant-captain Lady Tari Koridun, as she carefully came down the ramp into the departure lounge. Koridun moved a little uncertainly in one-third normal gravity. The lower part of the ring—“lower” only from the perspective of someone on the planet, not on the ring itself—rotated at the same speed as the planet to which it was tethered, and provided only one-third gee. The “upper” ring, where most people lived and worked, rotated at a greater speed to provide normal gravity.

Koridun bounced a bit on the landing, then braced in salute with her throat bared. She was a Torminel, with thick gray fur striped with rich sable, and to keep from overheating wore only a uniform vest and shorts over her pelt. Her eyes were a deep, distinctive cobalt blue, unusual in her species.

“Koridun?” Sula said. “There’s a problem?”

“Nothing to concern you, Lady Commandant.” Koridun lisped the words around her fangs. “I’ve got to go to the planet surface to bring up a prisoner.”

Sula was surprised. “Don’t you have constables for that?”

“There seems to be some dispute concerning whether the authorities have the right prisoner. Since I know Laimak by sight, I decided to go down to Palermo and see to the matter myself.”

“Laimak,” Sula repeated. She tried to remember where Palermo might be. “That would be the rigger that’s overstayed his leave?”

“Yes, my lady.”

Laimak was a Torminel name, and the Torminel had no physical characteristics that would confirm ID, such as a human’s retina patterns or fingerprint. Eyewitness identification was the most common way to clear up any disputed identity.

Sula rubbed the heavy layer of scar tissue on the pad of her right thumb.

“Can’t you do a gene test?” she said.

“There is a dispute concerning who is to pay for any such test, my lady. The Palermo authorities have been… intransigent.”

Sula gave up. Perhaps Koridun’s story was true, or perhaps she was using Laimak as an excuse for a bit of leave on Earth. As security in the dockyard consisted almost entirely of breaking up fights, tossing inebriates in the drunk tank, and keeping thieves out of Fleet stores, there was no urgent business to keep Koridun on the ring. She might as well have fun in Palermo, wherever that was.

“Well,” Sula said. “It will be a pleasure to share the journey with you.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

Sula turned to Macnamara and Spence and introduced them to Koridun. They braced in salute.

“Very good,” Koridun said, as if she for some reason approved their names. “Bordi, my attendant, is dealing with the baggage.”

There was a chime, and then a soft-voiced announcement that the elevator car was ready. Sula turned as the double row of airlock doors opened, and then led the others into the car named Kirinyaga.

Two stewards in gold-striped uniforms of pale blue offered to assist her entry, but she was reasonably competent in low gravity, declined their offer, and entered the compartment reserved for Fleet officers. There was a glass wall that would gaze out over the planet once the car left its docking bay, video monitors with a selection of entertainments, a small kitchen, a full bar with ornamental brasses sculpted with Earth’s wonders, a deep soft carpet both on the floor and ceiling, and luxurious leather-clad acceleration couches suitable for all the species living under the Peace of the Praxis. The recycled air carried a slight taste of cardamom .

Koridun followed into the section, then turned back to Spence and Macnamara with a faint air of surprise.

“You’ll find the servants’ compartment two or three sections below,” she said.

“They can stay,” said Sula, a bit more firmly than she’d intended. Koridun turned to Sula and retained her look of mild bewilderment.

Sula was unwilling to explain herself. As far as she was concerned, Spence and Macnamara had earned the right to sit in the company of anyone they wanted. She’d throw Koridun out the door before either of her servants.

But it probably wouldn’t do for Koridun to think that.

“Please join me, lieutenant-captain,” Sula said. “Shall we have refreshments?”

Terrans and Torminel shared similar construction, though Torminel tended to have a stockier physique and a more substantial bottom. They could use the same furniture. Sula and Koridun sat on adjoining couches, and the blue-jacketed stewards brought them menus. Sula ordered tea and pastry, and Koridun a tartare and a hot drink that probably involved blood.

Koridun was being tactful in the presence of a member of another species. Torminel were carnivores, and most of their meals tended to involve recipes a bit more messy than tartare.

Sula looked over her shoulder and saw that the stewards had every intention of ignoring Spence and Macnamara. She gave the nearest steward a glare, and with a show of reluctance he picked up a pair of menus and handed them to the enlisted.

Sula poured a long tawny rope of honey into her tea, sipped, then settled into her couch. The scent of fine leather rose from the cushions.

“I wonder, lieutenant-captain,” she said, “if you know anything about the Manado that I saw in the dockyard yesterday.”

“I know they rent space in our dockyard,” Koridun said. “Otherwise the Manado Company is very secretive.”

“Do you know what they’re trying to do?”

Koridun lapped at her drink, licked a drop of scarlet from her lower lip. “I can guess, my lady. I think they’re exploring the outer reaches of the system. Looking for a planetoid, or some other resource they might exploit.”

Sula considered this. Koridun’s speculation seemed reasonable.

“Do you have any hard evidence?”

“No. But Manado is gone for months at a time. They bring back very little, just some cases that might be samples or instruments, and that we aren’t allowed to look at.”

“Do they carry shuttles? It would be difficult to land something as big as Manado on a planetoid, and much easier to use a shuttle. If it’s samples they’re after, I mean.”

“I saw two shuttles strapped onto the ship.”

Sula nodded, sipped again at her sweetened tea. “Another speculation, then, if I may. Why the Fleet dockyard, and not one of the civilian docks?”

Koridun tapped her fork lightly against the side of her plate as she contemplated the question. “I can only guess, but they may intend to reduce speculation about their mission. If they used a civilian dockyard, they’d be operating in full view of their competitors, and there would be a lot of talk. And, frankly, our security is better than that at the civilian docks, which tends to be, ah, porous.”

“Thank you. You’ve helped a great deal.”

“Pleased to be of service, my lady.” Koridun took another swig of her prokaryotic beverage.

There was a chime, and a sonorous Daimong voice informed the passengers that the car was about to depart, and that all travelers should by now be strapped into their couches. The stewards stepped forward to assist, but Sula and the others managed to buckle themselves in without help.

There was another, more urgent chime, and the same voice said that the car would be under one point seven gravities for the first few minutes of the descent. Sula took a gulp of her tea and placed the cup and saucer on the telescoping table provided for the purpose.

A third chime, and then acceleration pushed Sula into her couch. Kirinyaga shot free of its tunnel, and suddenly Earth was visible through the glass wall, a great blue-white plate above Sula’s head, its outlines hazed with atmosphere. The brilliant cloud formations were as big as continents.

The elevator car crackled and shivered under acceleration.

“Have you been to Terra before, my lady?” Koridun asked.

“No. But I’ve studied the history here.”

“I’m afraid I know very little.”

Sula smiled. “It’s a specialized subject.”

Kirinyaga’s acceleration continued. Even before it launched, the car was theoretically at escape velocity—any ship released from dock on the ring would be thrown free of Earth even if it never lit its engines—and so the car had to overcome its own outward potential energy before it could begin its plunge toward the planet. But soon Kirinyaga was well on its way and acceleration eased to one Earth gravity. The recorded Daimong voice told passengers that they could unstrap from their couches and walk freely in their assigned area.

Sula spent the hours strolling, in desultory conversation with Koridun, and in drinking sweetened tea. For the most part, though, she just watched as Earth grew larger. She could make out the beige and green landmasses, the profound blue of the deep ocean, the silver serpents of rivers writhing through green landscapes. Lightning coiled over storm clouds, flashed like a semaphore transmitting in an unknown language. And slowly the great line of darkness advanced over the Pacific as night’s terminator swept along on its eternal mission, leaving behind islands of light and the uneasy flashes of storms.

She had seen all this on other worlds—on Zanshaa itself—but somehow this was special. Earth had long been the planet of her dreams, and she possessed the notion that she would feel at home here, comfortable in a way that she hadn’t felt at Zanshaa, in the Cheng Ho Academy, or even living on her own home world of Spannan.

Earth was ancient. Earth’s primeval stones would murmur in her ear, speak to her daughter in a voice both consoling and filled with the melancholy, hard-earned, disenchanted wisdom of the very old.

Perhaps Earth would even forgive. Who could say?

Because she was senior officer, Sula was able to call for a soundtrack to her thoughts, and so Kirinyaga vibrated to the sound of a massed Daimong chorus, the booming voices a perfect accompaniment to the magnificence of the view.

Everyone strapped in again for the turnover point, where acceleration ceased and the passengers experienced weightlessness. The couches rotated to face what had been the ceiling, and so, in a neat trick of engineering that was a pleasure to watch, did the bar and the kitchen, which was equipped with appliances that could either be flipped or used with gravity going either way. Then deceleration began, gravity built, and the couches settled into their new configuration, along with the rest of observed reality. The carpeted ceiling had become the carpeted floor, and Earth was no longer over Sula’s head but below her feet. As soon as she was permitted, she unstrapped and walked to the glass window to give herself a better view.

She had to strap in again for the entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Gees built, and Kirinyaga rattled on its cable as sheets of flaming ions cascaded past the glass wall and strobed everything in the room with stark, brilliant light.

Eventually the ride calmed down, and Sula looked up at a dark blue sky, with the thin silver arc of the antimatter ring shining from horizon to horizon. Minor shifts in deceleration tugged at her inner ear. High winds buffeted the car.

A moment of sudden grayness, and then they were through cloud. Sula felt her heart lift.

The Daimong chorus struck a climactic chord as snow-capped Mount Kenya rose silently into view, its pinnacles glowing in the westering sun, its fissures and valleys a deep black. Kirinyaga bobbed on its cable, lurched like a terrestrial elevator trying to locate the proper floor, and then the beige buildings of the launch complex rose around them, and the elevator car silently entered its home as the Daimong choir sang out their triumph.

Excerpted from Impersonations © Walter Jon Williams, 2016

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