After thousands of years of searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race…
Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky is a classic science fiction drama of courage, self-discovery, and the redemptive power of love—available now in a Tor Essentials edition with a new foreword by Jo Walton. Read the first two chapters below!
Tor Essentials presents new editions of science fiction and fantasy titles of proven merit and lasting value, each volume introduced by an appropriate literary figure. This new Tor Essentials edition of Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In the Sky includes an introduction by the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning Jo Walton, author of Among Others.
After thousands of years of searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race. Two human groups: the Qeng Ho, a culture of free, innovative traders, and the Emergents, a ruthless society based on the technological enslavement of minds.
The group that opens trade with the aliens will reap unimaginable riches. But first, both groups must wait at the aliens’ very doorstep, for their strange star to relight and for the alien planet to reawaken, as it does every two hundred and fifteen years…
Amidst terrible treachery, the Qeng Ho must fight for their freedom and for the lives of the unsuspecting innocents on the planet below, while the aliens themselves play a role unsuspected by Qeng Ho and Emergents alike.
The Qeng Ho fleet was first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
They were strangers, meeting far from either side’s home territory. That was nothing new to the traders of the Qeng Ho—though normally the meetings were not so unwelcome, and there was the possibility of trade. Here, well, there was treasure but it did not belong to either side. It lay frozen, waiting to be looted or exploited or developed, depending on one’s nature. So far from friends, so far from a social context… so far from witnesses. This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it. Qeng Ho and Emergents, the two expeditions, had danced around each other for days, probing for intent and firepower. Agreements were drawn and redrawn, plans were made for joint landings. Yet the Traders had learned precious little of true Emergent intent. And so the Emergents’ invitation to dinner was greeted with relief by some and with a silent grinding of teeth by others.
Trixia Bonsol leaned her shoulder against his, cocked her head so that only he could hear: “So, Ezr. The food tastes okay. Maybe they’re not trying to poison us.”
“It’s bland enough,” he murmured back, and tried not to be distracted by her touch. Trixia Bonsol was planet-born, one of the specialist crew. Like most of the Trilanders, she had a streak of overtrustfulness in her makeup; she liked to tease Ezr about his “Trader paranoia.”
Ezr’s gaze flicked across the tables. Fleet Captain Park had brought one hundred to the banquet, but very few armsmen. The Qeng Ho were seated among nearly as many Emergents. He and Trixia were far from the captain’s table. Ezr Vinh, apprentice Trader, and Trixia Bonsol, linguistics postdoc. He assumed the Emergents down here were equally low-ranking. The best Qeng Ho estimate was that the Emergents were strict authoritarians, but Ezr saw no overt marks of rank. Some of the strangers were talkative, and their Nese was easily understandable, scarcely different from the broadcast standard. the pale, heavyset fellow on his left had maintained nonstop chitchat throughout the meal. Ritser Brughel seemed to be a Programmer-at-Arms, though he hadn’t recognized the term when Ezr used it. He was full of the schemes they could use in coming years.
“Tas been done often enough afore, dontcha know? Get ’em when they don’t know technology—or haven’t yet rebuilt it,” said Brughel, concentrating most of his efforts away from Ezr, on old Pham Trinli. Brughel seemed to think that apparent age conferred some special authority, not realizing that any older guy down among the juniors must truly be a loser. Ezr didn’t mind the being ignored; it gave him an opportunity to observe without distraction. Pham Trinli seemed to enjoy the attention. As one Programmer-at-Arms to another, Trinli tried to top everything the pale, blond fellow said, in the process yielding confidences that made Ezr squirm.
One thing about these Emergents, they were technically competent. They had ramships that traveled fast between the stars; that put them at the top in technical savvy. And this didn’t seem to be decadent knowledge. Their signal and computer abilities were as good as the Qeng Ho’s—and that, Vinh knew, made Captain Park’s security people more nervous than mere Emergent secrecy. The Qeng Ho had culled the golden ages of a hundred civilizations. In other circumstances, the Emergents’ competence would have been cause for honest mercantile glee.
Competent, and hardworking too. Ezr looked beyond the tables. Not to ogle, but this place was impressive. The “living quarters” on ramscoop ships were generally laughable. Such ships must have substantial shielding and moderate strength of construction. Even at fractional lightspeed, an interstellar voyage took years, and crew and passengers spent most of that time as corpsicles. Yet the Emergents had thawed many of their people before living space was in place. They had built this habitat and spun it up in less than eight days— even while final orbit corrections were being done. The structure was more than two hundred meters across, a partial ring, and it was all made from materials that had been lugged across twenty light-years.
Inside, there was the beginning of opulence. The overall effect was classicist in some low degree, like early Solar habitats before life-support systems were well understood. The Emergents were masters of fabric and ceramics, though Ezr guessed that bio-arts were nonexistent. The drapes and furniture contrived to disguise the curvature in the floor. The ventilator breeze was soundless and just strong enough to give the impression of limitless airy space. There were no windows, not even spin-corrected views. Where the walls were visible, they were covered with intricate manual artwork (oil paintings?). Their bright colors gleamed even in the half-light. He knew Trixia wanted a closer look at those. Even more than language, she claimed that native art showed the inner heart of a culture.
Vinh looked back at Trixia, gave her a smile. She would see through it, but maybe it fooled the Emergents. Ezr would have given anything to possess the apparent cordiality of Captain Park, up there at the head table, carrying on such an affable conversation with the Emergents’ Tomas Nau. You’d think the two were old school buddies. Vinh settled back, listening not for sense but for attitude.
Not all the Emergents were smiling, talkative types. The redhead at the front table, just a few places down from Tomas Nau: She’d been introduced, but Vinh couldn’t remember the name. Except for the glint of a silver necklace, the woman was plainly—severely—dressed. She was slender, of indeterminate age. Her red hair might have been a style for the evening, but her unpigmented skin would have been harder to fake. She was exotically beautiful, except for the awkwardness in her bearing, the hard set of her mouth. Her gaze ranged up and down the tables, yet she might as well have been alone. Vinh noticed that their hosts hadn’t placed any guest beside her. Trixia often teased Vinh that he was a great womanizer if only in his head. Well, this weird-looking lady would have figured more in Ezr Vinh’s nightmares than in any happy fantasy.
Over at the front table, Tomas Nau had come to his feet. The servers stepped back from the tables. A hush fell upon the seated Emergents and all but the most self-absorbed Traders.
“Time for some toasts to friendship between the stars,” Ezr muttered. Bonsol elbowed him, her attention pointedly directed at the front table. He felt her stifle a laugh when the Emergent leader actually began with:
“Friends, we are all a long way from home.” He swept his arm in a gesture that seemed to take in the spaces beyond the walls of the banquet room. “We’ve both made potentially serious mistakes. We knew this star system is bizarre.” Imagine a star so drastically variable that it nearly turns itself off for 215 years out of every 250. “Over the millennia, astrophysicists of more than one civilization tried to convince their rulers to send an expedition here ways.” He stopped, smiled. “Of course, till our era, tas expansively far beyond the Human Realm. Yet now it is the simultaneous object of two human expeditions.” There were smiles all around, and the thought What wretched luck. “Of course, there is a reason that made the coincidence likely. Years aback there was no driving need for such an expedition. Now we all have a reason: The race you call the Spiders. Only the third nonhuman intelligence ever found.” And in a planetary system as bleak as this, such life was unlikely to have arisen naturally. The Spiders themselves must be the descendants of starfaring nonhumans—something Humankind had never encountered. It could be the greatest treasure the Qeng Ho had ever found, all the more so because the present Spider civilization had only recently rediscovered radio. They should be as safe and tractable as any fallen human civilization.
Nau gave a self-deprecating chuckle and glanced at Captain Park. “Till recently, I had not realized how perfectly our strengths and weaknesses, our mistakes and insights, complemented each other. You came from much farther away, but in very fast ships already built. We came from nearer, but took the time to bring much more. We both figured most things correctly.” Telescope arrays had watched the OnOff star for as long as Humankind had been in space. It had been known for centuries that an Earth-sized planet with life-signature chemistry orbited the star. If OnOff had been a normal star, the planet might have been quite pleasant, not the frozen snowball it was most of the time. There were no other planetary bodies in the OnOff system, and ancient astronomers had confirmed the moonlessness of the single world in the system. No other terrestrial planets, no gas giants, no asteroids… and no cometary cloud. The space around the OnOff star was swept clean. Such would not be surprising near a catastrophic variable, and certainly the OnOff star might have been explosive in the past—but then how did the one world survive? It was one of the mysteries about the place.
All that was known, and planned for. Captain Park’s fleet had spent its brief time here in a frantic survey of the system, and in dredging a few kilotonnes of volatiles from the frozen world. In fact, they had found four rocks in the system—asteroids, you might call them, if you were in a generous mood. They were strange things, the largest about two kilometers long. They were solid diamond. The Trilander scientists nearly had fistfights trying to explain that.
But you can’t eat diamonds, not raw anyway. Without the usual mix of native volatiles and ores, fleet life would be very uncomfortable indeed. The damn Emergents were both late and lucky. Apparently, they had fewer science and academic specialists, slower starships… but lots and lots of hardware.
The Emergent boss gave a benign smile and continued: “There really is only one place in all the OnOff system where volatiles exist in any quantity—and that is on the Spider world itself.” He looked back and forth across his audience, his gaze lingering on the visitors. “I know it’s something that some of you had hoped to postpone till after the Spiders were active again… But there are limits to the value of lurking, and my fleet includes heavy lifters. Director Reynolt”—aha, that was the redhead’s name!—“agrees with your scientists that the locals never did progress beyond their primitive radios. All the ‘Spiders’ are frozen deep underground and will remain so till the OnOff star relights.” In about a year. The cause of OnOff’s cycle was a mystery, but the transition from dark to bright repeated with a period that had drifted little in eight thousand years.
Next to him at the front table, S. J. Park was smiling, too, probably with as much sincerity as Tomas Nau. Fleet Captain Park had not been popular with the Triland Forestry Department; that was partly because he cut their pre-Flight time to the bone, even when there had been no evidence of a second fleet. Park had all but fried his ramjets in a delayed deceleration, coming in just ahead of the Emergents. He had a valid claim to first arrival, and precious little else: the diamond rocks, a small cache of volatiles. Until their first landings, they hadn’t even known what the aliens really looked like. Those landings, poking around monuments, stealing a little from garbage dumps had revealed a lot—which now must be bargained away.
“It’s time to begin working together,” Nau continued. “I don’t know how much you all have heard about our discussions of the last two days. Surely there have been rumors. You’ll have details very soon, but Captain Park, your Trading Committee, and I thought that now is a good occasion to show our united purpose. We are planning a joint landing of considerable size. The main goal will be to raise at least a million tonnes of water and similar quantities of metallic ores. We have heavy lifters that can accomplish this with relative ease. As secondary goals, we’ll leave some unobtrusive sensors and undertake a small amount of cultural sampling. These results and resources will be split equally between our two expeditions. In space, our two groups will use the local rocks to create a cover for our habitats, hopefully within a few light-seconds of the Spiders.” Nau glanced again at Captain Park. So some things were still under discussion.
Nau raised his glass. “So a toast. To an end of mistakes, and to our common undertaking. May there be a greater focus in the future.”
“Hey, my dear, I’m supposed to be the paranoid one, remember? I thought you’d be beating me up for my nasty Trader suspicions.”
Trixia smiled a little weakly but didn’t answer right away. She’d been unusually quiet all the way back from the Emergent banquet. They were back in her quarters in the Traders’ temp. Here she was normally her most outspoken and delightful self. “Their habitat was certainly nice,” she finally said.
“Compared to our temp it is.” Ezr patted the plastic wall. “For something made from parts they shipped in, it was a great job.” The Qeng Ho temp was scarcely more than a giant, partitioned balloon. The gym and meeting rooms were good-sized, but the place was not exactly elegant. The Traders saved elegance for larger structures they could make with local materials. Trixia had just two connected rooms, a bit over one hundred cubic meters total. The walls were plain, but Trixia had worked hard on the consensus imagery: her parents and sisters, a panorama from some great Triland forest. Much of her desk area was filled with historical flats from Old Earth before the Space Age. There were pictures from the first London and the first Berlin, pictures of horses and aeroplanes and commissars. In fact, those cultures were bland compared with the extremes played out in the histories of later worlds. But in the Dawn Age, everything was being discovered for the first time. There had never been a time of higher dreams or greater naïveté. That time was Ezr’s specialty, to the horror of his parents and the puzzlement of most of his friends. And yet Trixia understood. The Dawn Age was only a hobby for her, maybe, but she loved to talk about the old, old first times. He knew he would never find another like her.
“Look, Trixia, what’s got you down? Surely there’s nothing suspicious about the Emergents having nice quarters. Most of the evening you were your usual softheaded self”—she didn’t rise to the insult—“but then something happened. What did you notice?” He pushed off the ceiling to float closer to where she was seated against a wall divan.
“It… it was several little things, and—” She reached out to catch his hand. “You know I have an ear for languages.” Another quick smile. “Their dialect of Nese is so close to your broadcast standard that it’s clear they’ve bootstrapped off the Qeng Ho Net.”
“Sure. That all fits with their claims. They’re a young culture, crawling back from a bad fall.” Will I end up having to defend them? The Emergent offer had been reasonable, almost generous. It was the sort of thing that made any good Trader a little cautious. But Trixia had seen something else to worry about.
“Yes, but having a common language makes a lot of things difficult to disguise. I heard a dozen authoritarian turns of speech—and they didn’t seem to be fossil usages. The Emergents are accustomed to owning people, Ezr.”
“You mean slaves? This is a high-tech civilization, Trixia. Technical people don’t make good slaves. Without their wholehearted cooperation, things fall apart.”
She squeezed his hand abruptly, not angry, not playful, but intense in a way he’d never seen with her before. “Yes, yes. But we don’t know all their kinks. We do know they play rough. I had a whole evening of listening to that reddish blond fellow sitting beside you, and the pair that were on my right. The word ‘trade’ does not come easily to them. Exploitation is the only relationship they can imagine with the Spiders.”
“Hmm.” Trixia was like this. Things that slipped past him could make such a difference to her. Sometimes they seemed trivial even after she explained them. But sometimes her explanation was like a bright light revealing things he had never guessed. “… I don’t know, Trixia. You know we Qeng Ho can sound pretty, um, arrogant when the customers are out of earshot.”
Trixia looked away from him for a second, stared out at strange quaint rooms that had been her family’s home on Triland. “Qeng Ho arrogance turned my world upside down, Ezr. Your Captain Park busted open the school system, opened up the Forestry And it was just a side effect.”
“We didn’t force anyone—”
“I know. You didn’t force anyone. The Forestry wanted a stake in this mission, and delivering certain products was your price of admission.” She was smiling oddly. “I’m not complaining, Ezr. Without Qeng Ho arrogance I would never have been allowed into the Forestry’s screening program. I wouldn’t have my doctorate, and I wouldn’t be here. You Qeng Ho are gougers, but you are also one of the nicer things that has happened to my world.”
Ezr had been in coldsleep till the last year at Triland. The Customer details weren’t that clear to him, and before tonight Trixia had not been especially talkative about them. Hmm. Only one marriage proposal per Msec; he had promised her no more, but He opened his mouth to say—
“Wait, you! I’m not done. The reason for saying all this now is that I have to convince you: There is arrogance and arrogance, and I can tell the difference. The people at that dinner sounded more like tyrants than traders.”
“What about the servers? Did they look like downtrodden serfs?”
“… No… more like employees. I know that doesn’t fit. But we aren’t seeing all the Emergents’ people. Maybe the victims are elsewhere. But either through confidence or blindness, Tomas Nau left their pain posted all over the walls.” She glared at his questioning look. “The paintings, damn it!”
Trixia had made a slow stroll of leaving the banquet hall, admiring each painting in turn. They were beautiful landscapes, either of groundside locations or very large habitats. Every one was surreal in lighting and geometry, but precise down to the detail of individual threads of grass. “Normal, happy people didn’t make those pictures.”
Ezr shrugged. “It looked to me like they were all done by the same person. They’re so good, I’ll bet they’re reproductions of classics, like Deng’s Canberran castlescapes.” A manic-depressive contemplating his barren future. “Great artists are often crazy and unhappy.”
“Spoken like a true Trader!”
He put his other hand across hers. “Trixia, I’m not trying to argue with you. Until this banquet, I was the untrusting one.”
“And you still are, aren’t you?” The question was intense, with no sign of playful intent.
“Yes,” though not as much as Trixia, and not for the same reasons. “It’s just a little too reasonable of the Emergents to share half the haul from their heavy lifters.” There must have been some hard bargaining behind that. In theory, the academic brainpower that the Qeng Ho had brought was worth as much as a few heavy lifters, but the equation was subtle and difficult to argue. “I’m just trying to understand what you saw, and what I missed… Okay, suppose things are as dangerous as you see them. Don’t you think Captain Park and the Committee are on to that?”
“So what do they think now? Watching your fleet officers on the return taxi, I got the feeling people are pretty mellow about the Emergents now.”
“They’re just happy we got a deal. I don’t know what the people on the Trading Committee think.”
“You could find out, Ezr. If this banquet has fooled them, you could demand some backbone. I know, I know: You’re an apprentice; there are rules and customs and blah blah blah. But your Family owns this expedition!”
Ezr hunched forward. “Just a part of it.” This was also the first time she’d ever made anything of the fact. Until now both of them—Ezr, at least—had been afraid of acknowledging that difference in status. They shared the deep-down fear that each might simply be taking advantage of the other. Ezr Vinh’s parents and his two aunts owned about one-third of the expedition: two ramscoops and three landing craft. As a whole, the Vinh.23 Family owned thirty ships scattered across a dozen enterprises. The voyage to Triland had been a side investment, meriting only a token Family member. A century or three down the line he would be back with his family. By then, Ezr Vinh would be ten or fifteen years older. He looked forward to that reunion, to showing his parents that their boy had made good. In the meantime, he was years short of being able to throw his weight around. “Trixia, there’s a difference between owning and managing, especially in my case. If my parents were on this expedition, yes, they would have a lot of clout. But they’ve been ‘There and Back Again.’ I am far more an apprentice than an owner.” And he had the humiliations to prove it. One thing about a proper Qeng Ho expedition, there wasn’t much nepotism; sometimes just the opposite.
Trixia was silent for a long moment, her eyes searching back and forth across Ezr’s face. What next? Vinh remembered well Aunt Filipa’s grim advice about women who attach themselves to rich young Traders, who draw them in and then think to run their lives—and worse, run the Family’s proper business. Ezr was nineteen, Trixia Bonsol twenty-five. She might think she could simply make demands. Oh Trixia, please no.
Finally she smiled, a gentler, smaller smile than usual. “Okay, Ezr. Do what you must… but a favor? Think on what I’ve said.” She turned, reaching up to touch his face and gently stroke it. Her kiss was soft, tentative.
The Brat was waiting in ambush outside Ezr’s quarters.
“Hey, Ezr, I watched you last night.” That almost stopped him. She’s talking about the banquet. The Trading Committee had piped it back to the fleet.
“Sure, Qiwi, you saw me on the vid. Now you’re seeing me in person.” He opened his door, stepped inside. Somehow the Brat stuck so close behind that now she was inside too. “So what are you doing here?”
Qiwi was a genius at taking questions the way she wanted them: “We got the same scut-work shift starting in two thousand seconds. I thought we could go down to the bactry together, trade gossip.”
Vinh dived into the back room, this time shutting her out. He changed into work fatigues. Of course, the Brat was still waiting when he emerged.
He sighed. “I don’t have any gossip.” Damned if I’ll repeat what Trixia said.
Qiwi grinned triumphantly. “Well, I do. C’mon.” She opened the room’s outer door and gave him an elegant zerogee bow out into the public corridor. “I wanna compare notes with you about what you saw, but really, I bet I got a lot more. The Committee had three povs, including at the entrance—better views than you had.” She bounced down the hall with him, explaining how often she had reviewed the videos, and telling of all the people she had gossiped with since.
Vinh had first met Qiwi Lin Lisolet back in pre-Flight, in Trilander space. She’d been an eight-year-old bundle of raw obnoxiousness. And for some reason she’d chosen him as the target of her attention. After a meal or training session, she’d rush up behind him and slug him in the shoulder—and the angrier he got, the more she seemed to like it. One good punch returned would have changed her whole outlook. But you can’t slug an eight-year-old. She was nine years short of the mandatory crew minimum. The place for children was before voyages and after—not in crews, especially crews bound for desolate space. But Qiwi’s mother owned twenty percent of the expedition… The Lisolet.17 Family was truly matriarchal, originally from Strentmann, far away across Qeng Ho space. They were strange in both appearance and custom. A lot of rules must have been broken, but little Qiwi had ended up on the crew. She had spent more years of the voyage awake than any but the Watch crew. A large part of her childhood had passed between the stars, with just a few adults around, often not even her own parents. Just thinking of that was enough to cool a lot of Vinh’s irritation. The poor little girl. And not so little anymore. Qiwi must be fourteen years old. And now her physical attacks had been mostly replaced by verbal ones—a good thing considering the Strentmannian high-grav physique.
Now the two were descending through the main axis of the temp. “Hey Raji, how’s business?” Qiwi waved and grinned at every second passerby. In the Msecs before the Emergents’ arrival, Captain Park had unfrozen almost half of the fleet crew, enough to manage all vehicles and weapons, with hot backups. Fifteen hundred people wouldn’t be more than a large party in his parents’ temp. Here, it was a crowd, even if many were away on shipboard during duty time. With this many people, you really noticed that the quarters were temporary, new partitions being inflated for this crew and that. The main axis was nothing but the meeting corners of four very large balloons. The surfaces rippled occasionally when four or five people had to slip by at once.
“I don’t trust the Emergents, Ezr. After all the generous talk, they’ll slit our throats.”
Vinh gave an irritated grunt. “So how come you’re smiling so much?”
They floated past a clear section of fabric—a real window, not wallpaper. Beyond was the temp’s park. It was barely more than a large bonsai, actually, but probably held more open space and living things than were in all the Emergents’ sterile habitat. Qiwi’s head twisted around and for a short moment she was quiet. Living plants and animals were about the only things that could do that to her. Her father was Fleet Life-Support Officer—and a bonsai artist known across all of near Qeng Ho space.
Then she seemed to startle back to the present. Her smile returned, supercilious. “Because we’re the Qeng Ho, if we only stop to remember the fact! We’ve got thousands of years of sneakiness on these newcomers. ‘Emergents’ my big toe! They’re where they are now from listening to the public part of the Qeng Ho Net. Without the Net, they’d still be squatting in their own ruins.”
The passage narrowed, curving down into a cusp. Behind and above them, the sounds of crew were muted by the swell of wall fabric. This was the innermost bladder of the temp. Besides the spar and power pile, it was the only part that was absolutely necessary: the bactry pit.
The duty here was scut work, about as low as things could get, cleaning the bacterial filters below the hydro ponds. Down here, the plants didn’t smell so nice. In fact, robust good health was signaled by a perfectly rotting stench. Most of the work could be done by machines, but there were judgment calls that eluded the best automation, and that no one had ever bothered to make remotes for. In a way, it was a responsible position. Make a dumb mistake and a bacterial strain might get across the membrane into the upper tanks. The food would taste like vomit, and the smell could pass into the ventilator system. But even the most terrible error probably wouldn’t kill anyone—there were still the bactries on the ramscoops, all kept in isolation from one another.
So this was a place to learn, ideal by the standards of harsh teachers: It was tricky; it was physically uncomfortable; and a mistake could cause embarrassment that would be very hard to live down.
Qiwi signed up for extra duty here. She claimed to love the place. “My papa says you gotta start with the smallest living things, before you can handle the big ones.” She was a walking encyclopedia about bacteria, the entwined metabolic pathways, the sewage-like bouquets that corresponded to different combinations, the characteristics of the strains that would be damaged by any human contact (the blessed ones whose stink they need never smell).
Ezr came close to making two mistakes in the first Ksec. He caught them, of course, but Qiwi noticed. Normally she would have ragged him endlessly about the errors. But today Qiwi was caught up in scheming about the Emergents. “You know why we didn’t bring any heavy lifters?”
!eir two largest landers could hoist a thousand tonnes from surface to orbit. Given time, they would have had all the volatiles and ore they needed. Of course, time was what the Emergent arrival had taken from them. Ezr shrugged, and kept his eyes on the sample he was drawing. “I know the rumors.”
“Ha. You don’t need rumors. You’d know the truth with a little arithmetic. Fleet Captain Park guessed we might have company. He brought the minimum of landers and habs. And he brought lots and lots of guns and nukes.”
“The trouble is, the damn Emergents are so close, they brought a whole lot more—and still arrived on our heels.”
Ezr made no reply, but that didn’t matter.
“Anyway. I’ve been tracking gossip. We’ve got to be really, really careful.” And she was off into military tactics and speculations about the Emergents’ weapons systems. Qiwi’s mother was Deputy Fleet Captain, but she was an armsman, too. A Strentmannian armsman. Most of the Brat’s time in transit had been spent on math and trajectories and engineering. The bactry and the bonsai were her father’s influence. She could oscillate between bloodthirsty armsman, wily trader, and bonsai artist—all in the space of a few seconds. How had her parents ever thought to marry? And what a lonely, messed-up kid they produced. “So we could beat the Emergents in a straight-out fight,” said Qiwi. “And they know that. That’s why they’re being so nice. The thing to do is play along with them; we need their heavy lifters. Afterward, if they live up to the agreement, they may be rich but we’ll be much richer. Those jokers couldn’t sell air to a tankless temp. If things stay square, we’ll come out of this operation with effective control.”
Ezr finished a sequence and took another sample. “Well,” he said, “Trixia thinks they don’t see this as a trade interaction at all.”
“Um.” Funny how Qiwi insulted almost everything about Vinh—except Trixia. Mostly she just seemed to ignore Trixia. Qiwi was uncharacteristically silent. For almost a second. “I think your friend has it right. Look, Vinh, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there’s quite a split on the Trading Committee.” Unless her own mother had blabbed, this had to be fantasy. “My guess is, there are some idiots on the Committee who think this is purely a business negotiation, each side bringing their best to a common effort—and as usual, our side being the cleverest negotiator. They don’t understand that if we get murdered, it doesn’t matter that the other side has a net loss. We’ve got to play this tough, be ready for an ambush.”
In her own bloodthirsty way, Qiwi sounded like Trixia. “Mama hasn’t said so straight out, but they may be deadlocked.” She looked at him sideways, a child pretending to conspiracy. “You’re an owner, Ezr. You could talk to—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything!”
She let him be for a hundred seconds or so, then started on her schemes for making profit off the Emergents, “if we live through the next few Msecs.” If the Spider world and the OnOff star hadn’t existed, the Emergents would have been the find of the century in this end of Qeng Ho space. From watching their fleet operations, it was clear that they had some special cleverness with automation and systems planning. At the same time, their starships were less than half as fast as the Qeng Ho’s, and their bioscience was just bad. Qiwi had a hundred plans for turning all that to profit.
Ezr let the words wash over him, barely heard. Another time, he might have lost himself in concentration on the work at hand. No chance on this shift. Plans that spanned two centuries were all coming down to a few critical Ksecs now, and for the first time he wondered about his fleet’s management. Trixia was an outsider, but brilliant and with a different viewpoint from life-long Traders. The Brat was smart, but normally her opinions were worthless. This time… maybe “Mama” had put her up to this. Kira Pen Lisolet’s outlook had been formed very far away, about as far as you could get and still be in the Qeng Ho realm; maybe she thought a teenage apprentice could affect things just because he was from an owner’s Family. Damn…
The shift passed without further insight. He’d be off in fifteen hundred seconds. If he skipped lunch, he had time to change clothes… time to ask for an appointment with Captain Park. In the two years subjective that he’d been with the expedition, he had never presumed on his Family connections. And what good can I really do now? Could I really break a stalemate? He dithered around that worry through the end of the shift. He was still dithering as he chucked his bactry coveralls… and… called the Captain’s Audience Secretary.
Qiwi’s grin was as insolent as ever. “Tell ’em straight, Vinh. This has to be an armsman operation.”
He waved her silent, then noticed that his call hadn’t gone through. Blocked? For an instant, Ezr felt a pang of relief, then saw he was preempted by an incoming order… from Captain Park’s office. “To appear at 5.20.00 at the Fleet Captain’s planning room…” What was the ancient curse about getting one’s wish? Ezr Vinh’s thoughts were distinctly muddled as he climbed to the temp’s taxi locks.
Qiwi Lin Lisolet was no longer in evidence; what a wise little girl.
The meeting was not with some staff officer. Ezr showed up at the Fleet Captain’s planning room on the QHS Pham Nuwen, and there was the Fleet Captain…. and the expedition’s Trading Committee. They did not look happy. Vinh got only a quick glimpse before coming to attention at the bracing pole. Out of the corner of his eyes he did a quick count. Yes, every one of them was here. They hung around the room’s conference table, and their gaze did not seem friendly.
Park acknowledged Ezr’s brace with a brusque wave of his hand. “At ease, Apprentice.” Three hundred years ago, when Ezr had been five, Captain Park had visited the Vinh Family temp in Canberra space. His parents had treated the fellow royally, even though he wasn’t a senior ship’s master. But Ezr remembered more the parkland gifts from what seemed a genuinely friendly fellow.
At their next encounter, Vinh was a seventeen-year-old would-be apprentice and Park was outfitting a fleet to Triland. What a difference. They had spoken perhaps a hundred words since, and then only at formal expedition occasions. Ezr had been just as glad for the anonymity; what he wouldn’t give for a return to it now.
Captain Park looked as though he had swallowed something sour. He glanced around at the members of the Trading Committee, and Vinh suddenly wondered just whom he was angry at. “Young V—Apprentice Vinh. We have an… unusual… situation here. You know the delicacy of our situation now that the Emergents have arrived.” The Captain didn’t seem to be looking for an acknowledgment, and Ezr’s “yessir” died before it reached his lips. “At this point we have several courses of action possible.” Again a glance at the Committee members.
And Ezr realized that Qiwi Lisolet hadn’t been spouting complete nonsense. A Fleet Captain had absolute authority in tactical situations, and normally a veto vote on strategic issues. But for major changes in expedition goals, he was at the mercy of his Trading Committee. And something had gone wrong with the process. Not an ordinary tie; Fleet Captains had a deciding vote in cases such as that. No, this must be a deadlock verging on a mutiny of the management class. It was a situation the teachers always mumbled about in school, but if it ever happened, then just maybe a junior owner would become a factor in the decision process. Sort of a sacrificial goat.
“First possibility,” continued Park, oblivious of the unhappy conclusions rattling around in Vinh’s head. “We play the game the Emergents propose. Joint operations. Joint control of all vehicles in this upcoming groundside mission.”
Ezr took in the appearance of the Committee members. Kira Pen Lisolet sat next to the Fleet Captain. She was dressed in the Lisolet-green uniform her Family affected. The woman was almost as small as Qiwi, her features sober and attentive. But there was an impression of raw physical strength. The Strentmannian body type was extreme even by Qeng Ho standards of diversity. Some Traders prided themselves on their masked demeanor. Not Kira Pen Lisolet. Kira Lisolet loathed Park’s first “possibility” as much as Qiwi claimed.
Ezr’s attention slid to another familiar face. Sum Dotran. Management committees were an elite. There were a few active owners, but the majority were professional planners, working their way up to a stake that would allow them to own their ships. And there was a minority of very old men. Most of the old guys were consummate experts, truly preferring management over any form of ownership. Sum Dotran was such. At one time he had worked for the Vinh Family. Ezr guessed that he opposed Park’s first “possibility,” too.
“Second possibility: Separate control structures, no jointly crewed landers. As soon as practicable, we reveal ourselves directly to the Spiders”—and let the Lord of Trade sort the greater winners from the lesser. Once there were three players, the advantage to simple treachery should be diminished. In a few years their relationship with the Emergents could become a relatively normal, competitive one. Of course, the Emergents might regard unilateral contact as a kind of betrayal in itself. Too bad. It seemed to Vinh that at least half the Committee supported this path—but not Sum Dotran. The old man jerked his head slightly at Vinh, making the message obvious.
“Third possibility: We pack up our temps and head back to Triland.”
Vinh’s stunned look must have been obvious. Sum Dotran elaborated. “Young Vinh, what the Captain means is that we are outnumbered and possibly outgunned. None of us trust these Emergents, and if they turn on us, there would be no recourse. It’s just too risky to—”
Kira Pen Lisolet slapped the table. “I object! This meeting was absurd to begin with. And worse, now we see Sum Dotran is simply using it to force his own views.” So much for the theory that Qiwi had been operating at her mother’s direction.
“You are both out of order!” Captain Park paused a moment, staring at the Committee. Then, “Fourth possibility: We undertake a preemptive attack against the Emergent fleet, and secure the system for ourselves.”
“Attempt to secure it,” corrected Dotran.
“I object!” Kira Pen Lisolet again. She waved to bring up consensual imagery. “A preemptive attack is the only sure course.”
Lisolet’s imagery was not a starscape or a telescopic view of the Spider world. It was not the org or timeline charts that often consumed the attention of planners. No, these were vaguely like planetary nav diagrams, showing the position and velocity vectors of the two fleets in relation to each other, the Spider’s world, and the OnOff star. Traces graphed future positions in the pertinent coordinate systems. The diamond rocks were labeled, too. There were other markers, tactical military symbols, the notation for gigatonnes and rocket bombs and electronic countermeasures.
Ezr stared at the displays and tried to remember his military-science classes. The rumors about Captain Park’s secret cargo were true. The Qeng Ho expedition had teeth—longer, sharper teeth than any normal trading fleet. And the Qeng Ho armsmen had had some time for preparation; clearly they had used it, even if the OnOff system was barren beyond belief, with no good place to hide ambushes or reserves.
The Emergents, on the other hand: The military symbols clustered around their ships were hazy assessment probabilities. The Emergents’ automation was strange, possibly superior to the Qeng Ho’s. The Emergents had brought twice the gross tonnage, and the best guesses were that they carried proportionately more weapons.
Ezr’s attention came back to the meeting table. Who besides Kira Lisolet favored a sneak attack? Ezr had spent much of his childhood studying the Strategies, but the great treacheries were things he’d always been taught were the domain of insanity and evil, not something a self-respecting Qeng Ho need ever or should ever undertake. To see a Trading Committee considering murder, that was a sight that would… stay with him awhile.
The silence grew unnaturally long. Were they waiting for him to say something? Finally Captain Park said, “You’ve probably guessed we have an impasse here, Apprentice Vinh. You have no vote, no experience, and no detailed knowledge of the situation. Without meaning to offend you, I must say that I am embarrassed to have you at this meeting at all. But you are the only crewmember owner for two of our ships. If you have any advice to give with regard to our options, we would be… happy… to hear it.”
Apprentice Ezr Vinh might be a small playing piece, but he was the center of attention just now, and what did he have to say for himself? A million questions swirled up in his mind. At school they had practiced quick decisions, but even there he had been given more backgrounding than this. Of course, these people weren’t much interested in real analysis from him. The thought nettled, almost broke him out of his frozen panic. “F-four possibilities, Fleet Captain? Are there a-any lesser ones that didn’t make it to this briefing?”
“None that had any support from myself or the Committee.”
“Um. You have spoken with the Emergents more than anyone. What do you think of their leader, this Tomas Nau?” It was just the sort of question he and Trixia had wondered about. Ezr never imagined that he would be asking the Fleet Captain himself.
Park’s lips tightened, and for an instant Ezr thought he would blow up. Then he nodded. “He’s bright. His technical background appears weak compared to a Qeng Ho Fleet Captain’s. He’s a deep student of the Strategies, though not necessarily the same ones we know… The rest is guess and intuition, though I think most Committee members agree: I would not trust Tomas Nau with any mercantile agreement. I think he would commit a great treachery if it would make him even a small profit. He is very smooth, a consummate liar who puts not the faintest value on return business.” All in all, that was about the most damning statement a Qeng Ho could make about another living being. Ezr suddenly guessed that Captain Park must be one of the supporters of sneak attack. He looked at Sum Dotran and then back to Park. The two he would trust the most were off the end of the map, in opposite directions! Lord, don’t you people know I’m just an apprentice!
Ezr stepped on the internal whine. He hesitated for seconds, truly thinking on the issue. Then, “Given your assessment, sir, I certainly oppose the first possibility, joint operations. But… I also oppose the idea of a sneak attack since—”
“Excellent decision, my boy,” interrupted Sum Dotran.
“—since that is something we Qeng Ho have little practice in, no matter how much we’ve studied it.”
That left two possibilities: cut and run—or stay, cooperate minimally with the Emergents, and tip off the Spiders at the first opportunity. Even if objectively justified, retreat would mark their expedition an abject failure. Considering their fuel state, it would also be extraordinarily slow.
Just over a million kilometers away was the greatest mystery-possible-treasure known to this part of Human Space. They had come across fifty light-years to get this tantalizingly close. Great risks, great treasure. “Sir, it would be giving up too much to leave now. But we must all be like armsmen now, until things are clearly safe.” After all, the Qeng Ho had its own warrior legends: Pham Nuwen had won his share of battles. “I-I recommend that we stay.”
Silence. Ezr thought he saw relief on most faces. Deputy Fleet Captain Lisolet just looked grim. Sum Dotran was not so reserved: “My boy, please. Reconsider. Your Family has two starships at risk here. It is no disgrace to fall back before the likely loss of all. Instead, it is wisdom. The Emergents are simply too dangerous to—”
Park drifted up from his place at the table, his beefy hand reaching out. The hand descended gently on Sum Dotran’s shoulder, and Park’s voice was soft. “I’m sorry, Sum. You did all you could. You even got us to listen to a junior owner. Now it’s time… for all of us… to agree and proceed.”
Dotran’s face contorted in a look of frustration or fear. He held it for a moment of quivering concentration, then let his breath whistle out of his mouth. He suddenly seemed very old and tired. “Quite so, Captain.”
Park slipped back to his place at the table and gave Ezr an impassive look. “Thank you for your advice, Apprentice Vinh. I expect you to honor the confidentiality of this meeting.”
“Yessir.” Ezr braced.
The door opened behind him. Ezr pushed off the bracing pole. As he glided through the doorway, Captain Park was already talking to the Committee. “Kira, think about putting ordnance on all the pinnaces. Perhaps we can tip the Emergents that cooperating vessels will be very dangerous to hijack. I—”
The door slid shut over the rest. Ezr was overcome with relief and the shakes all at the same time. Maybe forty years ahead of his time, he had actually participated in a fleet decision. It had not been fun.
Excerpted from A Deepness in the Sky, copyright © 2023 by Vernor Vinge.