Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2017 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
“The garbage run?” Scout Lieutenant Shayla den'Kurona stared at her commanding officer in disbelief. “Six months since my last mission, and you're sending me on the garbage run? Why?”
Scout Commander Nova pel'Delim leaned back in her chair, looking down her long, aquiline nose at her most troublesome subordinate. “Because it's been six months since your last mission, Lieutenant. And despite your insistence, the medical staff is still not convinced you have completely healed from your injuries.”
Shayla raised her chin. “I am perfectly functional in all respects.”
“Functional, yes.” Commander pel'Delim leaned forward, lacing her fingers together. “But you know as well as I that mere function is not enough for a scout, Lieutenant. We send you out into the unknown, facing cultures unimaginably barbaric and savage, seeking those who may be ready to make contact with the various worlds of humanity.”
“I know all that.”
“Then you also know that scouts must be at the peak of physical and mental performance. You will be alone out there, Shayla. If your arm and leg fail you, who will you turn to?”
She kept her face impassive. Her fingers twitched, but she did not look down at her right arm, did not give any hint of the weakness she sometime felt, or the phantom pain. The scars from the crash had been erased from her body, but that did not mean the trauma did not linger in her soul.
“I'm sending you out, on the 'garbage run,' as you call it,” Commander pel'Delim said, her face impassive, “to give you a chance to ease back into your duties gently. If you are lucky, you can build your flight time back up, reacquaint yourself with the responsibilities of a scout, continue your physical therapy, and by the time you return to headquarters, you might be ready for a mission more deserving of your skill.
“Unless you’d like to join the trade expedition to Baskerville,” she finished. “I’m sure that wouldn’t be too tedious.” A dry smile crossed her face. “You might even learn something by listening to Master Trader a’Henlen.”
“No, no, that’s not necessary,” Shayla said hurriedly. Drat the woman! She knew better than anyone how much guard duty grated on her. Standing still for days on end, listening to money-grubbing merchants drone on about tariffs and taxes and tolls. Five Gods forbid! She needed action, or she would run mad.
The Commander smiled brightly. “Well, then! I’m glad we’ve settled this so smoothly!” She slid a data chip across the polished blackwood desk. “Here’s a list of your stops. You know the drill. Orbit the planet, monitor their technology, and see if any of them are close to mastering anything interesting. Jump technology, antigrav, fusion power, that sort of thing.
“And if you’re very good, Shayla, I’ll have something more…interesting…when you get back. Strong wings.”
“Keen eyes,” she replied, echoing the Scout’s motto. She saluted with a precision that did not quite cross the border into parody, turned on her heel, and left the office.
“The garbage run,” she muttered to herself for the thousandth time, four standard weeks later, as she came out of jump. Her voice was savage with frustration. The screens flared, then settled down, stars like jewels shining in the black velvet of interstellar space. She began to plot her orbit from her spot high above the plane of the ecliptic. “Someplace to hide malcontents and incompetents.”
In a better mood, which Shayla would be the first to admit she was not, she would have allowed that monitoring those planets whose denizens were still scraping their way up from barbarism was necessary. Even crucial. One never knew when some lone genius would make the discovery which could catapult his people out to the stars. It had been only thirty years ago that Scout Captain de’Forsh had caught the unmistakable sign of a functioning jump engine around Galeni’s Star. The planetary government of that third-tier world had been struck mute when a phalanx of scouts and an planetary ambassador had landed in the middle of their capital, bringing greetings from dozens of galactic cousins of whom they had been previously completely unaware.
But that didn’t make the duty any more dull and boring for those who didn’t get that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Shayla punched up the specs of the latest candidate on her computer. “Earth. How…dull. Might as well name a planet ‘Mud,’” The blue ball hovered in her forward screen.
She had to admit. It was a pretty little planet. The white of the polar ice cap, set at a jaunty angle, winked at her as she spiraled in on a long curving orbit. Deep blue seas filled her screen at one moment, shading to aquamarine and turquoise at the shallows, and then she passed over the terminator, with the lights of dozens of cities glinting up from below on the huge northern continent. Far to the south, her sensors recorded the lush vegetation of swamps and forests.
Shayla sighed regretfully, even as she calibrated her sensors. It had been too long since she had set her feet on solid ground, had breathed anything but recycled air. Scout she was, and she was meant to roam free, to learn, to understand, not to be cooped up for day-cycle after night-cycle in a glorified tin can.
She set her instruments, already shaking her head at the results as they began to pour in. This society was at the cusp; no longer barbarians, but not yet at a point where they were fit company for anyone but themselves. Dozens of space-born satellites wove a net around the blue globe, facilitating communication. But there were no mighty ships, no explorers venturing out into the great unknown. It had been nearly fifty standard years, she knew, since these people had taken their first halting steps out into the infinite depths of space. They had set down on the airless moon which orbited their homeworld, and had then left it again, never to return. Each stumbling stride forward had almost immediately slid back. They were scattered, divided, leaderless, tribe warring against tribe, and even the strongest among them feared for its safety, wondering what would happen if its back was turned.
If only they had a teacher, she thought. Someone who could unite them.
She could do it, she knew. The information in her computer banks could change this from an interdicted world to one which was open to commerce and trade. A simple computer hack, a download into one of the major universities, and knowledge beyond measure would be theirs.
And what then would they do with it, Lieutenant?
The very thought made her blood run cold. Every Scout knew the story. Every Scout was required to study what had happened at Parsifal. A Scout, sympathetic to the grinding poverty and innate decency of an interdicted society, had landed and had given them what they so desperately needed. And inside of ten standard years, the planet was an uninhabitable wasteland, so irradiated it glowed in the dark.
Which would have been a pity, but not much more, except for the fact that the terrified Parsifalians, religious zealots and xenocidal to an extreme, had managed to sterilize three other planets before they had finally been wiped out.
Remember, Professora ne’Killan’s voice whispered to her. All knowledge is worth having. But knowledge is useless without wisdom. We do not give such things away for free. They must be earned.
“Yes, Professora,” she growled. She opened the file on Earth and began to log her observations.
Twenty hours later, she was done. With the help of the instruments on the ship, she had recorded the results of her scans. There was a measurable uptick in solar-based technology, which was a welcome respite after decades of dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear fission. Sadly, however, there was little sign of the sort of world-wide cooperation which was necessary to hurtle a planet into the cosmos. A society had to be free of both internal and external threats if it was ever to make that giant leap. They could never take the time to race to the stars if they were hobbled at home. For all of their technological gains, however, Earth seemed to be in danger of becoming more politically fragmented, not less.
Which was why the scouts protected them. The Silver Horde could lay their little planet in ruins, were it not guarded ceaselessly. People like this, blind to everything but their own concerns, were the scouts’ greatest triumph. They were sheltered, even if they did not know it.
She sipped a cup of tea, her eyes tired and distant. The planet slowly spun beneath her, only a few hundred miles away. The west coast of the smaller northern continent hove into view, cities lighting up the night like light-flies on an evening at home.
Suddenly she was sick of it all. Sick of clipped wings. Sick of the unrelenting physical therapy, her body screaming as she fought to bring it back to its former peak. Sick of her family, who demanded more than she was willing to give. Sick of confinement and the stifling feeling of the walls closing in about her, a cage to trammel her in.
I have to feel the free air on my face, or I will go insane.
She strapped herself into the command chair and called up the topographical display of the continent below. What she was doing broke so many regulations she didn’t even bother to think about them. Her eyes scanned the readout.
Flat land, with the nearest large community dozens of melurra away. She sent the ship downward, its wings extending from the fuselage, catching the thin wind of the upper atmosphere.
Just a little walk. No one will ever know. I’ll be up and away before anyone on this benighted dirtball even knows I’m here.
I have to get out of this place.
The thought drilled into Mark Paxton’s head as he guided his car along the bumpy farm road.
Six years out of college, still up to your ass in debt from student loans, no wife, no kids, and stuck in this piss-ant town trying to teach a bunch of mouth-breathing rednecks about the mysteries of the universe. You might as well raise the level of the Mississippi River by pissing in it.
He snorted as he pulled into an abandoned field and killed the engine. Where was the idealistic young man who had graduated from Illinois State less than a decade ago?