It was United Earth Ship, Fallen Asteroid’s first jump home from Ursa-T. Prophetic tours inside prediction zones had warned against sending a Catarian to a null-inertia system, but earth needed the fuel and Asteroid was the only ship able to safely accomplish the distance or on-load and transport the tonnage. Post orbital aspect achieved, replacement parts and personnel were the first order of business.
* * * * *
Restoration was not quite the same as looking into a device like a crystal ball or reading the tarot; more a falling off the edge of the world and landing on star stone. JUumara pushed wandering hair from her eyes and waited for her vision to interpret length and width. Depth would come back over the balance of the evening shift like slow fingers of sunspots seen from an observation bubble a million lights out.
The ship was quiet during the sleep cycle, but she was not ready to sensory-die again so soon. Trolling time was not exhausting, rather restful, refreshing like rising from one of the ship’s deep swimming tank to welcome oxygen and addicted space. United Earth Ship, Fallen Android, slid past Sol and maneuvered into orbit; coordinates supplied by nine UE Enclave parking navigators who were permanently installed in the megapolis sized command center for earth’s eastern quadrisphere. JUumara grazed the notion of life-oaths to serve without mate or offspring for the continued domination of trade and finance this side of the spiral stars. Long strings of hair danced hypnotically slow in null-gee, causing her to blink.
Equations, calculating the acceleration arc of a thousand tonne chunk of Venusium against gravidics of a three moon world, helped her to concentrate.
“Was there anything of importance we should consider in our report to EU, beautiful one?”
Korvia’s voice was the map pin to help her navigate back to time and the perception auras of earth born. “Two recruits ready to join our commune are insufficiently stable for transit in no gee transport chambers. There is one candidate from your home creches who will serve.”
Kor shifted into discorporation range to tap the Catarian’s ideation band. The miasmic whirlwind hit her like an unsecured solenak wrench striking her head in free fall. “Tell me,” she said in one of the limited Catariaa phrases she had mastered over their thirty thousand lights flight back from Ursa Tertius. “Will earth trade the candidate for the ore?” she inquired softly, proud of her mastery of Catariaa inflection spikes.
“Legally, they own the ore, Korviaaslax Sapphir.”
“They will argue the Striden Venuseum is paid for and theirs after import taxes,” Kor altered from Catariaa to All Earth English to voice more complex concepts with the outer-worlder. Tsua, their ship’s eldest crew member, spoke seventy eight galactic tongues. JUu spoke at least that many earth dialects plus an impressive spread of galactic and near-space trade languages. Kors would never match their prowess with words in any language.
“Trade the flesh if it is allowed. Tsua is old and will die before we reach our next out-world. Enrek has said this to you and I say it to you,” JUumara offered counsel in the manner Tsua had instructed she assume with other crew when awake between world walks.
Undeniable truths drifted inside the language sphere that allowed inter-species communication. Like silver ball bearings cast against space void, Korvia tamed the Catarian’s emotion rich cacophonics solidly into a human’s concept absorption range. “Of course, I will try. Where is the human sacrifice?”
“The potential honor cadet is a laywoman. She lives and her cells divide here.”
A map sector of the midwestern hemisphere articulated and Kor shuddered. That zone had been irradiated for twelve centuries. What the Cat suggested meant full rad-gear and special permits to raid. Bypassing permits was a specialty for Tsua who was earthborn but raised on Io. It would be fast in and faster out.
“I will prepare the anti-radiation lifter. No one is going to protest a purloined radi mutant. You are sure?”
Distortion was a crushing tidal wave that served as emotion for the Catarian in high celebration. “Absolutely.”
* * * * *
Unaccustomed to earth’s light gees, JUumara used down-trust to remain next to the earth female. The permits to travel on Earth’s surface were easy; inspection and delivery of their payload had been quickly accomplished and the search had begun directly after leaving the UE Commerce Embassy as Sol sank behind the cobweb of buildings knitting together the sixty thousand square kilometers of the Regional Spacer Guild located on Mt. Pleasant.
JUu considered a hair shoring before returning topside. She briefly admired the short locks of her Earth moon-born companion through the bright-light helmet visor. Keen noses dominated the species, narrow fore brain cranial formation, ears too far back on the small rounded dark head to hear most of the universe. Hair on humans was more varied than approach vectors to orbit any world or moon base.
“High grade ore was distilled from the Venusium we salvaged from that floating hegemony of two-suns, Pauline offered brashly. As a First Navigator, she was the only choice as third for the downside mission. “No one else has been out that far in eons. S’was a good run. Profitable too. Those humans evolved nicely, no? Got some good ore outta there.”
Pauline was chatty. Always had been. Kor sighed, aware that Pauline always used too much oxygen inside exasperation mode. Also, Kor knew the IV-Pilot would have preferred enjoying earth’s cultural offerings, particularly the music of earth’s 20th Century, than galavanting along radiation saturated shoreline looking for who knew what.
“We’ll need the Venusian extraction for the leap to Hillslip’s Star. Training the newbie will be fun, won’t it JUu?”
A cough of laughter filled the audio-send from Korvia in response.
“It’s your turn,” JUumara accepted mirth from the inside of a mental perception loop. “I sponsored Enrek. The new recruit, if found viable, will fall in your lap.”
Korviaaslax Sapphir chuckled softly, loving listening to JUumara emulate human grammatical anomalies. Her smile broadened as she leaped to the pile of rubble two etage-lengths above them. JUu arrived second, followed by the loquacious Bostonian.
“Exceptional!” Pauline’s exclamation startling Kor out of ruminations about the lengthy training schedules that would interrupt tube-sleep tours. The rest of the crew was not going to like longer shift assignments.
Beyond the rust hazed foreground lay a seemingly unending horizon punctured with tall mostly collapsed multi-textured and pale hued structures; rusted steel girders like blooded rib cages supported the dead cityscape. Kor knew Pauline was estimating the melt-down of already smelted metals. The Commander initiated an eye-lens adjustment to her thought-desire for a close-up in 1k-x. People.
They lived in the ruins, in hovels, in edifices constructed from rubble and scavenged brick and wood. Fires dappled the alleyways and parks, building annexes, and roof gardens. Everything looked rusted or the color of blood as if attempting to peer through a severely damaged eye’s lens. Ship’s scanners send a constant stream of information on the denizens of what was elegantly misnamed Edgewater, Illinois. The lakes in the area were mostly sludge bubbling ruin. “Do you sense her?”
JUumania tilted her cranium for maximum reception to the feeds across her temple. “Negative. Closer.”
JUumania was a gem on land walks. Once she intuited or dream-mapped the aura of a living entity, locating it was a matter of sensory trails she had attempted often, and unsuccessfully, to explain to Korviaaslax Sapphir.
Walking among mutants in the dark that parted only as they approached bonfire sized encampment blazes in full isolation gear and helmets was exhilarating for Kor, disruptive bordering on terrifying to the denizens of Chi-Town. The eastern shoreline community in the one-time megacitadel, Chicago, had been one of the first hit in the ancient nuke war. The survivors had either been deep below the ground in bunkers during the initial blasts, or had migrated here from other survival pits along what was left of Lake Michigan.
“We should have brought food. These earthborn are starving,” Pauline continued a never ending observation oratory that had begun as soon as they damped their thrusters and landed on the square of near pulverized concrete, more cracked than smooth, buckled from erosion or land’s vane attempt to relevel. Dust had erupted as their feet landed in long unvisited silt-debris. Their suit registers noted that they had twenty two point six minutes to complete their mission before they suffered radiation contamination and cellular damage.
It had begun to snow. JUu found the flaking in cold atmospherics fascinatingly wonderful. It was gray and everywhere around them, registering as beyond safety limits acidic on her suit’s sensoria.
Not beyond the concepts of compassion and charity, the Thraskian born sent on link, “We drop nutrition barges from the ship and feed for ten cycles. Burn cream and full spectrum antibiotic infused candy and bread. Twenty cycles better.”
“Years,” Pauline corrected. “Good idea. These humans are balancing on the edge of extinction without help from the outside. Once we get hold of this galactic space wonder child, how long before we can let her walk the ship without skewing every system aboard?”
“Not long,” Kor said. “Three week’s detox, two in isolation and a cell sifter. Language is going to be the challenge. JUu?”
It had taken the Catarian Heiress less than two years to master Earth euphemisms and dialects. The idioms had been the most difficult to inculcate . The one’s name, JUu, in interrogation format was a request for an update. “I have her. Three klicks northwest, shoreside.
The jump out took three minutes. Locating the lass, another five point one two minutes.
“Do you speak Earth Universal?” Kors kneeled beside the three females who cowered on a dirty blanket that was mostly holes, near a fire that provided some light and very little heat. The heads were extended and overly large cheek bones made them look avian. Eyes seemed to have evolved to sit higher where eyebrows usually nested. Lights from helmet crests lit up tri-circle spheres twenty feet surrounding the triad. Two of the females, registering as under twelve on suit analysis scanners, were too frightened to speak.
“I speak. Who you want?”
“She,” JUu said, identifying their target recruit’s flesh.
“What is your name? I am Korviaaslax Sapphir, moon born. My companions are JUumania of Thrask’s World and Pauline of earth.
“Felicitations,” the earther said and bowed her head formally, released her companion’s grips and scrambled up to face the full armored outsiders. Kor shadowed her and gave ground to demonstrate the intent of no harm.
“I am Etta. No surname, just Etta. My companions call me Et. The one is Maria, the other Sara. We code them Mar and Sar.”
The smile was unexpected on lips that were too full and too wide. The teeth were corrupted, but nothing a day in a dental surgery would not amend. JUu was measuring her cellular metabolism, finding the brain’s neurological configuration above norm, as she had dreamed during her outreach examination of Sol’s third planet and populations. The pattern fixed explicitly, the voice was a memory forgotten brought to full recall. “Come with us. We feed and heal your comrades and drop from our ships tools to build better shelters. For you.”
“You are slavers?” Etta stepped back, alarmed, trembling, exuding fear and probably nourishment deficiency syndrome.
Pauline, the more earth oriented said, “Naw, girl! We recruitment specialists today. Wanna go topside with us and leave all this behind? Food everyday, fresh air, and cure for anything you got as a disease. You are special. We need your abilities and your presence to make our team efficient and productive. Will you come?”
Korviaaslax Sapphir thought it a bit overkill as a sell, but the child, no more than ten years, Earth Standard, relaxed and seemed to be considering the proposal. JUu remained on rear watch, desirous to be inoffensive. She watched the Bostonian unpack three nutrition squares and pass them out, diplomatically. They ate unceremoniously and gulped down the shared canteen of water Kor carefully provided.
In short strides, the Etta began to pace the slanted path behind her big eyed and lopside headed companions. JUu finished a full analysis of physical stamina, finding the Etta above norm in musculature, cellular regeneration and aspiration rates, and immunity levels. Whatever made her capable of sustaining and thriving in space aboard a mostly null-gravity ship had also preserved her in this toxic environment. Spectacularly, and what had drawn her broadcast-search here was the organ function matrix. The lass had two hearts, excellent lungs that, in spite of the befouled environment, filtered better than any respiration systems JUu had scanned in decades.
“You must come. Or we will take you. Earth Central Extragation has approved up to six of you if we want more. Legally we notify you that The Embassy has not certified our gleaning. You will serve.” JUu announced, experiencing time as an entity undulating around them.
The lass was five feet tall and big hipped. Muscle bulged at upper and lower appendages like an artist’s rendition of a caricature or cartoon. The hair was uncut, black and string falling in tangles to her calves. The Etta’s skin was almost ebony from dirt or natural pigmentation. When she spoke, over-large teeth flashed in helmet sent wavering illumination.
“I am supposed to be honored. The oracle of our village said we should go if asked to leave this hell. I do not know what hell is, but it is for leaving, they say. Can Sar and Mar come too?”
“Negative. We only have air reserves for one,” Pauline said, impatiently. “I don’t know why you’d wanna stay here. It’s dark and dirty. We offer you light and a cellular clean-up. Get your gear.”
The large head pivoted to the hovel beyond the fire. Like the huge snowflakes that fell around her, Et was frozen as if in contemplation of her options. They waited for her decision.
The left eye was larger when the huge cranium swung back to the visitors. “I want all the provinces of the Inside supplied with water purification systems and oxygenators. Our babies die from lack of both in pureness.”
JUumania let the earth born negotiate. There were sufficient pac-tent field edifices in the inventory at their warehouse in the rim. She actioned her forearm adjudicator and sent the request for relaxation of laws forbidding soil, water, or air pump and purifiers to the hot zone. Response was instantaneously returned. No.
Korviaaslax Sapphir thought the request not particularly unreasonable. Getting Central to give any kind of relief to raddies was going to be a tough sell. There were several avenues to explore to circumnavigate the legals. If her face were unhelmeted, she would have kneaded her lips as she sought for the potentially most likely to solve this new dilemma.
Pauline earned her pay this month with, “Probably not available legally, but the food drop may have a large container of equipment and instructions to build rudimentary purification towers. I can mask ’em from The Censoria easy enough. Where you want ’em dropped.”
Etta’s smile was an acquiescence of the plan, well received. “Right here. When?”
“Two hours, your time,” JUumania told the human girl. “We have a surplus of seeds, canine, bovine, and rabbit embryos, if you want them. Twenty thousands of each.”
It was called sweetening the pot, JUu reflected distantly in a lesser memory as she watched Korvia nod approval.
“We have no electricity or power plants working to grow them. The soil will not support plants yet,” Etta looked downcast, affecting the posture of one dreading the loss of so much wealth.
“A few generators. Your enclave can build bigger ones if we supply blueprints,” Pauline was shocked that they were going to get a new ship pusher for so little. United Earth credits was the usual bartering coin.
“Anything else?” Korviaasiax Sapphir asked Etta. It was amazing that the lass knew so much about earth technology living in such an isolated area. Time was being eaten by the negotiating, but this was a no speeding zone.
Wailing arose from the pair, Mar and Sar, still clutching each other on the right side of Etta’s feet. JUu realized the trio had formed a family aggregate. They loved.
“You can not come with me,” Etta said gently. “But learn to read and figure so you can help construct the generators. Shielded?”
Pauline was insulted, “Of course! We don’t want to have our ship impounded if that equipment is traced to us.”
“Central will not give care for the solace rendered,” JUamania declared. “They have bigger fish for the fryer.”
Both Kor and Pauline chuckled. The girl stared hard from one spacer to the other, not understanding why they laughed.
“No matter,” Kor told them. “Once we leave all will be forgiven. We are the only junker that travels to the rim worlds. A few amenities to make life here less harsh will likely, in after thought, appeal to The Embassadorial Suite.
JUu added, “And Central owes us a few favors.”
“Yes, they do. This transaction is too small for yielding a boon.”
Shaking hands was still an old earth custom and JUu extended her seven fingers and thumb and left it suspended in the Etta’s reach sphere.
Etta took it and shook vigorously. It pleased Kor that the lass was not afraid of the thoroughly alien countenance in the lit helmet’s interior. Half insect, half horse is how Pauline had described the Catarian at their first meeting. Kor nursed a slight raising of hair at the nape of her neck. Special or not, earth born quarantined home worlders would not touch anyone as outer world as JUu.
Sudden as if a meteor hit a wheatfield, a great glow covered the entire arena of the encampment. Along with the other people near them, Mar and Sar bolted.
Kor and her companions were surrounded by UE Forces in full dress combat armor who ignored the rag wearing majority and concentrated their aim at the senior crew of Asteroid. Shielded, the guardians had approached the perimeter undetected by ship’s sensories or JUu’s personal radar. Kor re-examined the girl in front of her as the Commander of the unit descended from the rubble field and landed on Kor’s left. The squadron’s complement, heavy lance bearers , landed in a confining semi-circle, weapons drawn and aimed. It was too late to run. It would be a short lived goal, anyway. There was no way to escape.
JUu examined the Etta more thoroughly and found anomalies missed in her preliminaries that explained the elevated immune system. The earth-child had not run away like the others. Fingernails, too trimmed and minute deviations in its speech pattern anchored the truth behind the suspicion.
“Thank you for your service to Earth, Etta-1,” said the Commander who wore a shimmering blue dress uniform anti-rad suit. Pauline was aghast and sputtered a few incomprehensible sounds. “You reigned in the Catarian nicely. Kor Korviaaslax Sapphir, you and your companions are attached. Prison for you and your crew will be reassigned to Earth Fleet. We have waited a long time to confiscate jump-cargo hauler, Fallen Asteroid. Heiress JUumara, your world summons you home. Your dame and sire were assassinated. Cataria paid The Embassy very nicely for your return.”
The full picture coalesced into a tragedy of political maneuverings. JUu’s world, Thrask, was notorious for never asking politely for anyone or anything. It took what it wanted and protected what belonged to it ruthlessly. Bribe is what other worlds attempted with Earth high born. What Thrask proposed had another name.
Pauline contemplated how much “very nicely” interpreted into in galactic currency. Thrask’s System produced the best long-jump barges in the known worlds. Ore. Earth was going to pay for new fleet ships in exchange for a goodly portion of the Venusium supply Asteroid had just delivered to the main UE smelters. At ten thousand credits per square milligram, Earth had a lot of wealth to barter better flesh than they were attempting to do. Kor sighed. Prison was no place for a captain of a star barge. Earth prison was no where for anyone with or without a spacer commission.
“Who are you, you piece of Zakaxe slag!” Pauline demanded, but like Kor she already understood their days of walking the stars together were over.
JUu referenced extensive lexicons and found several hundred words for the conceptualization of their relative time circumstance. The word was familiar. Trap. The answer to it was well rehearsed and would be executed against United Earth installations across the known worlds and limitless time. JUu’s answer would be vengeance.