by Allen M. Steele
The arrival of the Bridgeton ferry was heralded by the ringing of an iron bell down at the wharf. Sawyer Lee was having coffee at the Captain’s Lady a few blocks away when he heard it. He listened for the number of bells: four, a long pause, then four more. Familiarity with the dock master’s signals told him that this was the boat he’d been expecting. Sawyer dug into his trouser pocket for a colonial and dropped it on the table, telling the girl who’d brought him coffee to keep the change. He then shouldered his pack, picked up his flechette rifle, and sauntered out the open door.
Sawyer took his time getting to the waterfront. It was a pleasant morning in mid-Muriel, warm with the taste of springtime, Coyote’s summer solstice five weeks away. Even after all these years, Leeport was still a small town, its cobblestone streets lined with blackwood-frame shops and houses. Sawyer enjoyed his leisurely stroll from Main to Wharf, dry now that the rainy season was over. At his age, he didn’t like to hurry, and he saw no reason to do so now.
By the time he reached the wharf, the ferry was tied up at the pier, its gangway lowered. Sawyer recognized it as one of the larger boats out of Bridgeton, meant more for carrying freight than people. Steam was rising from its funnel, though, so it must have arrived only a few minutes ago. As he got closer, he spotted a large object on the aft deck, bulging at the top and front, covered with heavy tarps. He had a good idea what it was.
Three men were helping the ferry crew unload aluminum equipment cases from the boat and stack them on the pier. Each of the boxes was marked UNF, leaving no doubt where they’d come from and to whom they belonged. Sawyer approached the oldest of the three, a tall, sparsely bearded gent about his age wearing a field hat over a nearly hairless scalp. He had a datapad in hand and was using a stencil to check off the serial numbers of each item from the University of New Florida.
“Ronald Blair, I presume?”
“I’m Dr. Blair, yes. And who might you—?” Looking up, Blair regarded Sawyer owlishly for a moment, then a smile slowly appeared. “Ah-ha! You must be General Lee.”
“Sawyer will do, please. I stopped using my rank when I retired.” Still, he couldn’t help but feel flattered. Not many people these days remembered that he’d once held command of the Coyote Federation Corps of Exploration. Only another old-timer would know this; recent immigrants had seldom heard of him.
“If you insist.” However long he’d lived here, Blair’s voice still carried a British accent. He shook Sawyer’s hand, then turned to the two younger men who’d just come down the gangway, each of them lugging boxes. “Cary, Jack . . . our guide, Sawyer Lee.”
Introductions were made. Cary Minnehan was in his late single digits by the LeMarean calendar, early twenties in Earth years; his accent identified him as a second-generation Coyote native. Bespectacled and slight of build, Sawyer pegged him as an academic trying to pass as an outdoorsman. Blair proudly claimed him as one of his grad students at the university and a collaborator on this particular research program.
Jack Clark was just a couple of years older. Big-boned and muscular, like Sawyer he was a dark-skinned man of African-American heritage; he also sounded like someone who’d been born and raised on Coyote. He was from the university, too, but he hadn’t always been there. When Sawyer offered him his hand, Jack responded by first giving him a military salute.
“I remember you, sir,” he said, “even if you don’t remember me. I was in the corps the same time as you were . . . posted at Mariannetown on Iroquois.”
“Oh, okay.” Sawyer returned the salute, then offered his hand again. He couldn’t be expected to remember every single corpsman who’d served under his command, and Mariannetown—a recent settlement on the Great Equatorial River, south of the equator—was somewhat remote. “As I’ve told Dr. Blair, I dropped my rank when I left the corps. So just call me Sawyer.”
“Sorry, sir, but that’s going to be hard to do.” There was hero worship in Jack’s eyes as he shook Sawyer’s hand. “If it wasn’t for the corps, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“Jack’s our pilot.” Blair clapped a hand on his shoulder. “The university assigned him to Cary and me when we tested Boidtracker last fall near Sand Creek. The test was successful, so I asked for him again.” He grinned. “I want to have the best people with me now that we’re getting the program up and running. That’s why I asked for you, General.”
“Sawyer . . . please.” He’d already noticed that Blair didn’t request the same first-name informality for himself. “Dr. Blair, I’m only too happy to join this expedition. If nothing else, UNF is paying me well. But if you have these two young men with you, I don’t see how you need my help. Jack, what rank did you have when you were with the corps?”
“Master Sergeant, sir,” Jack said with no small pride.
“Master Sergeant . . . which you don’t earn in the corps sitting behind a desk.” Sawyer looked at Blair again. “So I don’t know why it’s so important that you’d need me. There’s a lot of people who know how to find boids.”
As he spoke, there was the high-pitched whine of a motor under strain, followed by shouted commands from the dock master. They looked around; while they’d been speaking, the ferry crew had moved the deck crane into position and were preparing to raise the tarp-covered cargo from the aft deck and lower it to the wharf. The freight was massive, though; the crane operators and the crew looked like they might have trouble getting it ashore.
“Pardon me,” Blair said, then hurried away. “Here, now,” he yelled to the crane operator, “watch where you’re going with that thing—!”
Sawyer watched him go, mildly irritated that the expedition leader hadn’t answered his question. Jack noticed this. “I think he meant to say that there’s no one else who knows how to track boids as well as you, sir,” he said quietly, still deferential to his former rank.
“For now,” Cary added. “If we’re successful, then anyone will be able to locate them.”
“Really?” Sawyer said dryly. “Is that a fact?” READ MORE
by Sean Monaghan
C.J. Penn listened to his daughters sleep, Matilda’s breath regular and assured, Jessie’s labored and fluttery, like a fallen dying fledgling, gasping on the edge of a cold concrete walk. He wondered if he would ever get used to it.
Cool steely light from Ariosto’s single big silver moon stole through the gap in the hotel room’s thick black curtains. The light made an angled, blade-like slash across their beds, below Matilda’s feet and on through Jessie’s midriff.
Holding a hot fat-walled cup of local pekoe tea up near his chin, Penn felt entranced. They were really here. Ariosto.
The room didn’t come cheap. Their beds had maroon satin quilts with gold trim, and actual loomed instead of filmed sheets. Eight hundred count cotton, whatever that meant. The hotel’s advertising waft bragged that point.
On the wall above each bed hung a picture on a choice-screen. Matilda had chosen a minimal, ancient thing by an old master called Wyeth. Penn thought it looked like an elephant, but Matilda, fifteen, had explained with impatience that it was a cabin in the snow.
Nine-year-old Jessie’s choice was an illustration from Lambert’s book Chicken Avoids Fox’s Dinner Plans. The bright red chicken, wings wide, leaping from the fox’s den.
Matilda said it was childish, but Penn couldn’t help but read Jessie’s sophistication into it. A bid for freedom.
Matilda understood illustration anyway. Her drawing pane lay on the narrow bedside table. On the rare occasions she deigned to share her creations, they always impressed him. Ocelots pouncing on hapless prey, butterflies straining from their chrysalises, Penn frowning in concentration, deep lines on his forehead.
Lots of other people, too. Matilda had a real talent for portraits. None of Jessie though. She hated seeing her sister’s slack damaged face. To Penn she was beautiful, but he understood Matilda’s resistance.
Vaporous wafts rose in curling spirals from the tea’s surface, catching the moon’s silken light, like tiny ghosts dancing between Penn and his daughters. He took a sip. Bitter. Perfect. The ghosts fled for a moment.
From outside, silence fell across him. Penn wasn’t used to anywhere without wind. Of course it had to be that way.
The artificial birds flew just before sunset, over the mirrored lake. The reflecting effect would be lost with the weakest of zephyrs.
Their clever machine intelligence reminded him of Jessie’s walkerskeleton, now folded next to her bed, ready to snap on come morning. Perhaps that similarity contributed to his attraction to coming here.
Reaching through the gap in the curtains, Penn placed one hand against the glass door. Cold. As if the night was going to freeze.
With his free hand, he took the edge of the intentionally coarse curtain material and pulled it around, stepping between the fabric and the door. Placing his hand on the cold door again, he called up menus. Above the tips of three fingers, a set of choices rose.
Room service, Explore and Visit, Room Comforts. He tapped the last and tapped for the door to open. The glass dilated into an approximate Penn shape, and he stepped through into the cool night.
Overhead half a billion stars shone at him, their edges twinkling. Earth lay out there somewhere, and Kepler, and Holm. A dozen other worlds where they’d sought some kind of succor.
Penn shivered, his denim trousers and light film shirt inadequate against the evening chill. Bracing, he thought, and took another sip from the cup. At least he had thick warm socks and solid boots.
During Penn’s childhood, his father had lost toes in a snowstorm while climbing Mount Hilden. For Penn, ever since, warm shoes were habit.
From across the shallow lake a bird called. A long, living screech. The water reflected the stars and moon as if there was a hole in the world.
Penn shivered. He finished the hot tea and set the cup on the balcony railing. The cup flashed at him, A refill sir?
“No thanks,” Penn said. “I’ll just enjoy the view for a moment.”
The cup’s display faded.
Peering along to the right, Penn tried to spy the cave. There, at the head of the lake. A black mouth against the glitter of the water, and the gray-green of the low hills above.
Perhaps this time, Penn thought. Perhaps I’ll see a genuine smile.
He knew Jessie had it in there. Buried away. It just needed for him to dig deep.
Coming here now was no accident. Shilinka Switalla, the artist who’d created Crimson Birds, would be making one of her routine visits.
Penn wondered if his long-shot message had gotten through. It would be remarkable if the girls could meet the woman who’d created this.
* * *
In the morning, Matilda hammered on the wooden door while he showered. The bathroom occupied almost as much floor area as their living room back home. A long, deep white surge bath took up a quarter of the space, with a vast mirror screen and a dozen amenities, from shampoo to brushes to soda bombs. A rack of thirty towels.
The water setting blasted a perfect balance of heat and pressure, massaging and warming-cooling at once. The water even had a sweet oily scent. Penn liked the feeling and wondered how he could obtain a shower rose like that back home.
Mertabe remained a frontier world. Out of the way, under-resourced and under-populated. They only stayed because his agri-botics design business thrived. Every trip, though, he found himself second-guessing.
“Come on, Dad!” Matilda hollered through the door. “You’re going to use up all the water.”
Despite all their travels, his elder daughter had still not gotten used to the idea of endless hot water.
She kept up with the hammering.
Penn shut the water off. “Two minutes,” he told her. READ MORE