by John Richard Trtek
Monsieur Picot had always found a sense of renewal in the bracing atmosphere of Unemone and so, for the third straight day, he took breakfast outside upon the promenade deck of his great wind barge as it lay docked against the seawall at Mesmauran.
Nestled atop the only genuine rattan lounger within five kiloparsecs and shaded by an aging canvas umbrella that had once been green, he lovingly studied the omelet that lay before him, its mosaic of unspecified proteins flecked with precious bits of parsley. Dining tongs in hand, the Frenchman reminded himself yet again that, an eternal absence of tarragon notwithstanding, the artistry of Cook was in itself sufficient reason to stay indentured to the Krinn—quite apart from the fact that extinction was perhaps his only practical alternative. Indeed, he had to admit, even the sumptuous family feasts of childhood, remembered so vividly from the bittersweet perspective of decades and cosmic distance, could hardly compare with these glorious repasts of the present, each assembled with diligent care to please the Chief Acquisitor and Highest Factor for the Seventeen Systems of the Shalaf Locality.
“Lu lay-kukay,” he quietly intoned, invoking his favorite Maarlek wish chant.
Someday he would hit upon a truly satisfying translation of that mantra, but even without its assistance, Picot on this particular morning felt quite secure in both his immediate comforts and the prospect of their continuation. Contentedly, he glanced with idle interest through deck railings at the quay below, its familiar slate planking already alive with the usual kinetic mix of travelers, actuators, drudges, and con artists of mixed species, a never-ending flow of bodies that variously sublimated, sweated, or flaked according to lifeform. Savoring subtle interplays of ingredients so rare in this forlorn galactic armpit, the high factor kept chewing peacefully on his meal until a fellow human unexpectedly crossed his line of vision.
With amazement and a very ambivalent sense of delight, he bolted upright to better follow the loosely cloaked body plan that seemed to match his own as it retreated along the pier. Removing sunglasses before blinking four times to boost magnification, Picot quickly covered his unaugmented right eye, allowing the left to zero in and confirm his first impression: Despite a somewhat odd gait, the figure did appear to be human—a human female in particular, for gender was apparently binary and well-defined in this case, though as always age was indeterminate from such a distance.
At once, the high factor clicked teeth together twice to begin documenting.
Picot could not remember how many passages back and forth across the Seventeen Systems he had made since last glimpsing another Terran—and it had been a dead one at that. For a fact, here on Unemone itself he had never before cast eyes on a single Earth refugee in any state of health, good or bad.
Once the stranger had exited the quay through a far gate to vanish into city crowds beyond, the Frenchman again moved his jaw twice, this time to end and save the recording. He lowered the one hand and blinked three times, restoring sight to normal. By now somewhat unsettled, Picot pensively held a temple end of the sunglasses against his lips until repeated flickering at the corner of one eye stirred him.
Just above the ever-present blur that substituted for a horizon, several minor flashes—pinpricks upon the retina—were begging for the high factor’s attention, and he again donned his black frames before leaning out, almost beyond the umbrella’s protective shadow, to squint into a dazzling sky.
Disturbing the uniform glare of hot lavender, tiny sparkles of silver raced upward. Picot recognized them as a clutch of Krinn orbital ferries—no doubt the set scheduled to lift this very hour from the union port across the great bay at Guillemaat, their cargo holds packed with the latest collection of artifacts and goods approved for eventual jump shipment to his employers’ homeworld, including one of two massive chunks of jeweled sediment he had recently fingered from under the unsuspecting respiratory ducts of their Jhir excavators.
Picot thought for a moment of the second slab, now safely secreted within his stateroom’s personal vault aboard this very barge, and imagined a little smile. Then the high factor sighed, leaned back, and resumed his relationship with the omelet. Without looking up, he called to his majordomo, stationed at the far end of the deck.
“Neephas, do you presently have access to planetary customs records?”
“Of course, missoo,” droned the lithe Vishekki as they gracefully approached. “If, that is, one assumes the data desired are those relevant to Unemone alone. What categories?”
“Both transient and permanent?”
Upon a hunch, Picot said, “No, just transients.”
“Machine as well as organic?”
“You should know better, Neephas, particularly on your own homeworld,” observed the high factor with mild amusement. “Organic only, of course; there are no sentient machine visitors to be found here.”
The high technology embargo imposed by the Krinn, Jhir, and Maarleks upon Unemone and those other planets where all three species happened to share principal influence was often a source of awkward friction with the silicate sensibilities of the Autonomy, but in this instance, it simplified matters somewhat. READ MORE
by Gregory Norman Bossert
Helena was high above Mo‘okini Heiau in the morning shadow of Kohala when the swarm found her. She swatted the microdrones out of the way and kept climbing.
“Dammit, Helena.” Izzy’s voice was a tiny buzzing chorus from the scattered swarm.
“I want to reach the ridge before it gets hot,” Helena said. “And Pololu before it rains. Which means walking, not talking.”
Izzy regrouped the swarm just out of reach, the drones connecting themselves into a sort of flying speaker. “Some of us manage to do both at the same time,” she said.
“Some of us are sitting on their ass in an office right now.”
“I’m working. You might vaguely remember the concept. The Republic of Hawaii doesn’t run itself, even on a normal day. It takes all sorts of unique personalities.”
It was beginning to sound like Izzy was working to a point, and that point might involve not making it to Pololu before the rain. Helena picked up the pace. Izzy sent the swarm after her and turned up the volume.
“The Sisters dropped in-system last night.”
“So I saw,” Helena said. The seven primary spheres of the composite ship had hung brilliant in the evening sky, haloed by their fractal cloud of companions.
“Wandering Willie D was on board.”
“Well, you pick a name like that for yourself, you better actually do some wandering or folks will talk.” Helena had spoken about the lone alien’s choice of names, back when the news feeds still sought her opinion as a xenoanthropologist, back before she’d become news herself.
“The Sisters, Helena.”
“I heard you the—”
“—Which means he had to write a petition strong enough to persuade the most cautious and . . .”
“. . . ethical of the five known starships to carry him here.”
“I do recall the Sisters’ rules, Isabella, thanks. I also recall explaining them to you in the first place. Look, he’s the last of his species; that’s a pretty persuasive argument. And he’s always had a thing for Earth.”
“Not ‘here’ Earth. ‘Here’ Hawaii.” The linked microdrones smacked the back of Helena’s head. “Will you turn around already?”
Helena spun, one hand raised to fling the swarm into the dirt. “Dammit, Izzy, I’m not . . . Oh . . . oh.”
Maui was eighty kilometers away. The cloud-covered bulk of Haleakala sprawled on the line between blue ocean and blue sky, and behind it was the twenty-kilometer- wide sphere of one of the Sisters’ primaries, floating motionless in defiance of physics and sanity.
“She’s sitting there over the ‘Au‘au channel just like she did in ’52.”
“When she picked me up,” Helena said, reluctantly, knowing she was hooked.
“It’s a convenient place to park if, say, you’re an island-sized interstellar starship dropping your passenger off in my office.”
Helena sighed. “Okay, okay, Counselor. What is Wandering Willie D, the last survivor of a dead alien race, doing in your damn office?”
Helena could hear the satisfied grin on Izzy’s face through the buzzing feed. “Why, Kulikuli, he’s asking for you.”
* * *
Izzy’s office was up the hill above the civic center, safe from the tourist crush of Lahaina’s shorefront. Most days there was little traffic beyond government staff catching a little sun. But Helena was still two blocks away on her walk from the skimmer port, and the street was packed. And it was not just tourists on the lookout for aliens or gawking at the curve of the Sisters’ ship overhead; the crowd was equal parts camera crews, remote presence robotics, and drones of every size, from microswarms up to heavy armored quads that must have flown in from the base the U.S. still rented on Oahu.
Helena turned right to skirt around the worst of the crush, considered turning around altogether. But Izzy was most likely already tracking her with a swarm, and anyway curiosity had always been her downfall.
“Well, Helena, that cat is already dead, so what do you have to lose?” she muttered, and cut through the hospital parking lot toward Izzy’s back door.
The answer, of course, was a peaceful solitude that had taken her a decade to achieve. Even though she pulled her frizzled bangs down and pushed her sunglasses up, there were cameras on her for the last ten meters to the door, and face recognition algorithms were not so easily fooled.
Izzy kept a small crew, now that she was counselor-at-large and less involved with the day-to-day functions of independent Hawaii. Her legal aide and general factotum, Kai, was at the front door, talking with a couple of police officers, and her research assistant was gesturing emphatically behind a pair of AR glasses. Kai saw Helena over the cops’ shoulders and waved her toward Izzy’s office. READ MORE