Varken Rise, page 10
The Shanta gates were five hours from the gate station, turning it into a tiny speck of light against the red world of Shanterry behind. Then they noticed the other pinpricks of light around the station.
“The lights are twinkling,” Catherine said. “They’re in the atmosphere, so they must be at the same level as the station.”
“Other ships,” Lilly guessed.
“One of them will be acting as a default way station if the station itself was destroyed.” Catherine tried to increase the magnification. “Commercial terminals….”she muttered as the view remained stubbornly as it was.
As the ship drew closer, details became clearer. Catherine found she couldn’t look away, even as she was packing her bag.
“I thought the station itself had been destroyed,” Lilly said, from her seat in front of the screen. She had packed hours before. Hers and Brant’s bags were sitting on the floor by the door. Kemp was squeezing in one last session in the gym. Catherine had sent Brant to talk to the ship’s concierge AI, to arrange for a shuttle to the station, with a pre-set budget for bribes and grease to get the job done. “I was expecting to see floating debris and not much else, but look—it’s right there and it looks just like it does in the archives,” Lilly finished.
Catherine looked up at the screen once more, as she sealed her bag.
“I can’t see any damage.” Lilly pointed at the station now clearly visible on the screen.
“The station is in crescent view. The damage must be on the other side.” Like most of the still-developing worlds, Shanta’s station was a spoked wheel, flat and stationary, now they had artificial gravity, instead of spinning as it once would have. The liner’s angle of approach made the circular station appear to be a flattened crescent, with the other side hidden from view.
The door opened, letting Brant in. He was looking bemused.
“What happened?” Catherine asked. “Did you find a shuttle?”
“I didn’t have to. The liner is docking at the station.”
Catherine straightened up. “Physically docking at the station? Like normal?”
“That’s what I was told and I checked the big screens in the dining hall on the way back. We’re on the right angle of approach for docking, too.”
“There are ships all around the station,” Lilly pointed out. “Why didn’t they dock?”
Brant shrugged. “Emergency services?” he asked.
“We won’t get any answers until we arrive,” Catherine said. “Let’s leave it alone until then. I am sick of trying to guess based on too little information.”
* * * * *
When they docked at the station, Catherine split them up and gave each of them a quadrant to work within.
“You listen to anyone who will talk and you strip out the facts. That’s what we’re looking for. If you can verify the fact with two other witnesses, I’ll be even happier. We meet back here in front of the bay doors in four standards.”
Catherine kept the far side of the station for herself. That was where the damage was, although it did extend outside the quarter into both Lilly’s and Kemp’s sections. She travelled through the closest spoke, using the light rail most arriving passengers used. The passengers were all heading for the center of the station, though, where the umbilical to the surface was anchored.
At the hub, Catherine swapped to a rail car that was heading to her assigned quadrant.
A station flunky, wearing the tags and IDs with the Shanta logo on them, stopped by her seat. “Registered emergency workers only. You’ll have to get off.”
“I’m a consultant. I’m fine.”
“Registered emergency workers only,” he replied in a monotone. “I can have you removed. Emergency protocols—”
Catherine got to her feet and slung her sack over her shoulder. “I get the idea.” This was an unimaginative employee who would mindlessly apply the rules he had been given. They were usually resistant to bribes.
She went back to the hub and found a rail car that was heading for the next closest section of the station. She could walk from there around the outer concourse to the damaged area.
No one came to kick her off and five minutes later it pulled up beside the rim platform. She stepped off and looked around.
She had been in hundreds of gate stations and this one was no different…and that was the problem. It should have been different. If even half the station had been blown away, then she expected there would be a lot more authority figures moving around the station. Commercial traffic would be at a standstill and passengers caught on the station would have been evacuated by shuttles to those ships still operable, that could jump them to the next nearest gates and the station there, to travel onward.
There should be a stillness about the place, a hushed awe, that said something terrible had happened.
However, this station was all business-as-usual. There were passengers, tourists, staff and station personnel everywhere, along with the expected pickpockets and con artists. There was a brothel right across from the rail platform, happily advertising the quality of their talents.
Puzzled, Catherine stepped off the platform, took a firmer grip on the strap of her sack and turned left. The gentle curve of the outer rim put everything out of sight that was farther than eighty meters along the rim, so she started walking. Sooner or later, she would reach the damaged area.
It took longer than she thought it should to finally spot physical barricades and molecular membrane skeletons. In front of them were the first station security she had seen since docking.
She slowed her gait until it was a casual stroll. She began to turn her head, letting her gaze wander over and around. There were not as many people here. Even so, the bars and businesses right up against the barricade were still open and operating.
When the closest guard held out his hand to stop her from moving past, she looked surprised. “I can’t go on?”
“This area of the station has been damaged, sir. You’ll have to head back that way.”
“The cruiser I’m on is closer, if I go that way,” she said. She gave him a disarming grin. “I’ve been walking ever so long, you see. I think I’ve come almost the full circle. I’d love to finish it.”
He almost rolled his eyes. He pointed at the skeleton bars of the molecular membrane barrier. “See that? That’s a molecular membrane. It’s holding in all the air here because just beyond it, there is no air.”
“Really?” Catherine peered over his shoulder. The pristine white surfaces of the concourse showed scorch marks and farther on, they had crumpled under heat. “There’s a hole in the side of the station?” She let her tone say that she thought that was exciting.
He really did roll his eyes this time. “It’s not a hole. A whole section of the station is gone.”
“Wow! What happened?”
He gaped at her. “You don’t watch the news feeds?”
She giggled. “I just landed. There was this man, you see. Right up until we docked we…you know. They had to kick us out of the cabin.”
“Then why don’t you turn around and go find a news feed and catch up with what the rest of the known worlds know?” he suggested.
She wasn’t going to get anything else out of him. Her apparent ignorance had offended him. She gave a mental shrug. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. She gave him another innocent smile and turned around. She had seen as much as she was going to see, anyway. A molecular membrane barrier was too expensive to put one up just for show. There was vacuum just beyond, which fit with a whole section of the station being missing.
One of the businesses still operating near the barricade was a bar. It was low profile, with only a small sign declaring the name of the place and no windows to reveal the drinkers inside. Syd’s was one of the types of bar that Catherine liked to use to find passengers and transport contracts. Spacers would know of the place and head there because its reputation had spread by word of mouth. Syd’s didn’t need to advertise.
She shifted her stride to the long, slower pace that those experience in space walking and lower gravities used on the more standard gravity worlds and made her way inside.
It was dim, which was normal. There was no game tank taking up most of the room, nor was there a stage where a pretty singer would croon to the customers during the popular hours. There were tables and comfortable chairs and well-padded stools pulled up to the bar itself. There were only two customers, which didn’t surprise her a lot – the concourse here was nearly empty and it was early morning, Shanta time.
Catherine remembered bars similar to this one from when she had been in her first century. Nothing changed about the human habit of drinking except the drink itself.
She took a seat at the far end of the bar, away from the two drunks holding up the middle of it and parked her sack on the seat next to her, instead of hanging it off the back of the chair the way a tourist might. That was just asking for trouble.
The barman floated over to her, a well-muscled woman with the rose red skin of a native Shanterrian and a crooked nose that Catherine suspected had been broken in a fight and never reset. As basic longevity therapy would have easily fixed the bend in her nose, it meant the barman liked the oddity.
“What’s good?” Catherine asked.
“All of it.” The woman shrugged, as if Catherine had asked a stupid question.
Catherine placed her cash on the bar where the barman could see it. “A glass of your best, as long as it isn’t wine.”
The woman smiled and turned away. She brought back a bottle and a glass and poured two slim two fingers. Catherine peeled off a note and gave it to her. The barman made it disappear with a practiced motion.
Catherine took a sip. It was some sort of white spirit, probably distilled from a local plant. It wasn’t bad, but a long way from what she considered good, too. She played with the folded cash, letting the corners riffle down from her fingers. “It’s unusual to see a Shanterrian woman running a business. You must have quite a story.”
The woman shrugged. She went back to the drunks and refilled their glasses, deprived them of more cash and wiped down the counter by their elbows. She seemed to be managing them quite well.
Catherine patiently sipped her drink, working on finishing it so that she could order another. There was a pacing to these things she had to follow to get the information she wanted. That included being a good customer, especially for a barman who dealt with sloppy drunks so well.
“Another, thanks,” Catherine said when the woman returned. She pushed her glass over.
The barman poured in front of her, watching her as she poured. The fingers were more generous this time.
Catherine handed over two more notes and watched them disappear from view again. She didn’t know where the barman was putting the cash. It would be somewhere on her body that was safe from pickpockets or stroppy drinkers who wanted their money back.
“They just bounced me at the barricade, back there,” Catherine said, hooking a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the barricade.
“I saw you go past the first time,” the barman said. “Foot traffic is light down this end, so I noticed.”
“Because of the explosion?”
“You could say that.”
“Would you say that?”
The barman gave her a small smile and drifted away again. Catherine worked on the drink and by the time she had emptied the glass, the barman was back. Catherine nodded. “Again, thanks.”
This time, she paid more than triple the price of the first glass. “I’m Caitlyn,” she offered.
“Maxaria,” the barman replied. She studied Catherine with her reddish brown eyes. “You’re passing through?”
“That’s the plan,” Catherine said truthfully. “Just trying to find passage. I was surprised by how many ships are docked here. I heard the whole station had been blown away. I was expecting to stay parked on the cruiser I came in on for days until I found an outward bound ship.”
Maxaria snorted. “Those news feeds. I remember when we didn’t get them at all. The only news was what happened on Shanterry. Then we joined the Federation and suddenly, there’s this downpour of information, so much of it you don’t know where to start. If they get as much wrong as they did about this station, then I say what is the point?”
Catherine nodded. “Like saying the whole station was gone, when it was just one section?”
“Then is it true that the rogue sentient did this? That’s what I heard.”
Maxaria looked over her shoulder, toward the door. She held up a finger, indicating Catherine should wait. Then she moved up the bar and took care of the drunks once more. While she was standing there, she looked through the steel glass door, out upon the concourse. Then she came back and this time, she continued speaking, even though Catherine was still working on the third drink.
“He was in here,” Maxaria said softly.
Catherine drew in a sharp breath and hid it by turning it into a sneeze. Her mind raced. “Actually here?” she asked. “In this bar? You served him?”
Maxaria nodded. “Five days before he blew the station up. I didn’t know it was him, then. Not for sure. Later, when the feeds started going crazy, I saw his picture and that confirmed it.”
“Then you already suspected it was him, before he did it?”
Maxaria picked up the bottle from which she had been pouring Catherine’s drinks. Catherine emptied her glass and pushed it over. This time, she paid the same amount, yet the glass was nearly full.
Maxaria leaned on the bar with her elbows. “He talked,” she said. “He warned me. Told me to tell everyone I know we shouldn’t be on this side of the station that night.”
“Did you? Tell everyone?”
Maxaria’s gaze was steady. “I might have taken him for another blow hard, except I’ve heard some very strange things tending this bar that later turned out to be true. Including the way the old Federation tried to keep everyone down below and humble, throttling interstellar traffic and everything.”
“That’s the strangest thing you’ve ever heard?” Catherine asked, amused. She also chided herself. This was getting away from the subject.
Maxaria just smiled. “You’ve got the look of a spacer about you. Was that the most bizarre story you’ve ever heard?”
Catherine shook her head. “Not even close.”
“I’ve had people arrive here from the Silent Sector,” Maxaria said, wiping the counter. “Straight in from doing the run to the Last Gate. Most of them have stories that are so strange you’d think it was pure fiction and if it was just one or two of them, it might be fiction. Only, not so many of them, not all the time like they do.” Maxaria stood up again. “Anyway, the news feeds were good for something. I recognized him as soon as he stepped into my bar. I knew he was the computer who had transferred to a human body and was in love with that woman.”
Catherine held her breath. If Maxaria was going to recognize her at all, now would be that moment. However, Maxaria was into her story and Catherine nodded in all the right places.
“He was perfectly normal,” Maxaria continued. “Paid up without fuss, then tipped well on top. He looked and smelled like a spacer, too. He knew enough about the spaceways to come here.” She smiled. “Very polite, he was. Four, five days, hanging around my bar in between whatever business he had to take care of, then he scared the water out of me and told me to tell everyone else.”
“So you did.”
“Then he blew up the station?”
“They say it was him. I didn’t see him do it.”
“He knew enough to warn you, though, didn’t he?”
Maxaria gave a sigh. “Yeah, he was mixed up in it in some way.” She glanced around the empty bar once more. “If he did do it, then he did us all a favor, anyway.”
Catherine squeezed her glass, controlling her reaction. “That so?”
She left the drunks happy once more and came straight back to Catherine. “There’s a reason a woman got to own this bar,” she said.
“You own it?” Catherine let her admiration show.
“When I first took it over, it was too close to the wrong side of the station.”
Catherine shook her head. She didn’t know what that meant.
“Shanterrians have been running this station since it was built. That was over three centuries ago.”
The spoked wheel design had already told Catherine the place was old. “Was the section the sentient blew up in need of repair?” she asked. That would explain why she thought it was a good thing the section had been taken out.
“Glave, no,” Maxaria said. “It was the section that got all the repairs it needed. Even before the more important stuff got done elsewhere. That was after the Gramoor took over and ran the section into the ground. The only businesses that could survive in there were those that were in the Gramoor’s favor.”
“Extortion,” Catherine breathed. She finished the glass without noticing the bitter taste and Maxaria filled it up again and waved away Catherine’s money.
“That sort of thing…it spreads,” Maxaria continued. “Like a virus. People started staying away from the section. That’s how I got to buy this bar at a stupid price. No one wanted to be that close to the Gramoor. Then, because even the tourists knew enough to stay away, business slowed down. The only customers who stayed loyal were the spacers, who don’t give a damn about local politics.”
“The sentient was docked in the Gramoor section?”
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