John Maddox Roberts - Space Angel

Prologue

It
had fled for a long time and was weakening. The enemy was nearing, and another battle Hke the last would finish it. Once pursuer, It had become the pursued. It would have to hide.

Beginning with the nearest, It made a broad-spectrum survey of the neighboring stars, gradually broadening the scan until it encompassed a triangular quadrant of the galaxy, with the Center at its apex.

The survey quickly revealed that the Core Star held no intelligence, a condition to be expected in so small a stellar swarm. The planetary vermin would be the dominant intellects when they began to develop. Meantime, It needed a place to hide.

Though here the stars were few and widely separated, one was found that suited Its purposes: a stable, main-sequence star whose system would probably never give birth to intelligent life.

It gathered material from the star and created a

nest. When the hard crust had formed, It assumed

the most efficient form and burrowed in. All functions were curtailed save those necessary to maintain Its form. It waited.

One

Torwald's timer woke him at 0700. For a few minutes he enjoyed the luxury of staring at the ceiling, then rolled out of bed. It was shipout day. As he shaved, the mirror reflected the Spartan simplicity of his surroundings: bunk, table, chair, a small bathroom, all encompassed by walls painted a pleasing neutral color. The room was identical to millions of others in transients' hotels scattered throughout the ports of the inhabited worlds. A spacer seldom needs anything more luxurious.

His bag was already packed at the foot of the bed, and as Torwald hoisted it to his shoulder, he made the ritual last-minute check for overlooked items, then walked down the hallway to the drop and stepped inside. His stomach jumped as the circular platform swiftly descended ninety-five floors. At ground level, he entered a lobby decorated with murals of alien landscapes, an inevitable motif in hotels catering to spacers.

Outside, the ground level of the multilayer city was almost devoid of traffic. The big people-movers wouldn't be plying the streets for an hour yet. Torwald took a deep breath. The air smelled clean; Earthport must be on one of its periodic cleanup campaigns, he decided. It still didn't make the city any more attractive to him, but he decided to walk to the spaceport anyway. Soon he would be within the narrow confines of a ship, and he wanted to enjoy a walk while he had the chance. He didn't have much use for cities. The ports were all alike, at least on the more developed worlds, and Earthport was no exception: a great, overcrowded anthill towering into the sky.

Toward the spaceport, brick and concrete buildings gave way to structures of a recently developed plastic foam that, when poured into inflated molds, hardened in seconds. Torwald considered it the ugliest architecture he had ever seen, but it was cheap, and a building could be completed in a few hours. All the construction around the spaceport was new because the area had been bombed flat by the Warlord's forces during the War a few years before.

The rest of Earthport was just waking up, but the spaceport and environs worked round the clock. Torwald was looking for a place that served good meals. He always held back enough pay for one final feast before moving out. On most ships, especially the small ones, ship fare became monotonous very quickly.

He stopped before a sign that proclaimed
authentic athenian cuisine
and decided to give it a try. He was partial to Greek food, and Greek restaurants abounded in any port city. The interior smelled of roasting lamb and fresh-baked bread. He sat down and ordered an elaborate meal, dictating his choices to a grille set into the table. A few minutes later a servobot rolled up silently on tiny wheels and delivered plates heaped with thin-sliced lamb on rice pilaf, stuffed grape leaves, and pita bread from its heated interior. Torwald dug in. All was delicious and all authentic, even though the lamb probably had been cloned in a laboratory and the grain for the pita bread was from an orbiting agristation. These days little land remained on Earth for farming or grazing. Tor-wald finished his breakfast with baklava and coffee, the rich honey-and-nut flavor of the pastry neatly offsetting the strong, bitter black coffee. Before picking up his bag, Torwald jotted "Piraeus" in his notebook, giving it four stars.

At the gate of the spaceport the familiar chemical odor hit him. He inhaled deeply; it was reassuring, the smell of his trade. To the uninitiated it was an ungodly stench: solvent, vehicle fumes, fuel for the boosters and the short-haul chemical burners. After several minutes the loop shuttle—a robot tractor pulling a string of cars lined with benches—glided up to the gate and the few home-bound late-shift workers descended. Torwald climbed aboard. He was the only passenger.

The port area covered four square kilometers of perfectly level surface, much of it occupied by hangars, repair docks, and underground machine shops, which Torwald passed through in the shuttle on his way to the terminal. Far out on the launching fields he could make out the lordly shapes of three towering Transgalactics. They were ships of the big lines that had cornered 97 percent of all intersystem trade and transport. Beyond the Transgalactics stood the humbler, lower silhouettes of the tramps. Those were his ships. In the glamour buckets, all was regimented and impersonal; the only way to gain rank was to bootlick all the way up the ladder. It was a system Torwald couldn't stomach—a .flaw of personality that had kept him a ranker or probationary officer all the time he was in the Navy.

The shuttle finally stopped at a gigantic dome, the largest spaceport building in all human space, though those of several of the colonies were catching up fast. Torwald entered the terminal and found himself in an immense circular cavern, acres in area. Around its periphery were ticket booths, waiting rooms, gift shops, snack bars, lading offices, Customs and Immigration, hiring offices, and hundreds of others.

The center of the building was filled with display cases and exhibits illustrating the history of space exploration. Torwald wandered among the cases, waiting for the Ship's Personnel Hiring Office to open. He loved this museum. He'd read about it when he was just a boy living on the fjord at Trondheim, dreaming of the day he would go into space. His initiation. into spacefaring had been brutal: drafted at sixteen into the Space Navy when the Triumvirate had attacked the Republic. Many of the displays were devoted to the ships of the Triumvirate and to samples of the weaponry of that vicious but mercifully short-lived empire.

When the hiring light on the big board lit up, Torwald sauntered toward the office. The man behind the desk was typical of those who worked for the port authorities or spacing companies but never got into space themselves: neat uniform, bored face. Torwald undipped the gold spacer's bracelet from his wrist and handed it to the officer, who fed it into his computer console. The bracelet carried his naval and merchant service records—at least the official parts of both. His eyebrows rose fractionally as he read the printout. "There are two Class Ones of the Satsuma Line out there," he said, "and the Four Planet Line
Starvoyager.
With your qualifications, I could line you up with a berth in any of them."

"Not interested. What about the tramps?"

"Oh, sorry," the young officer said affably. "You have a psych problem?"

"Yeah, I hate stuffed uniforms."

"Well, let's see. There's the
Space Angel.
She's looking for a quartermaster. Captain interviewed all day yesterday and rejected everybody we sent over. Granted, they had all been rejected by the lines, but that's getting awfully picky. None of them had your skills, though. I'd say she's your best bet."

"Sounds good. Captain interviewing yet?"

"In about an hour. I'll page you when I get the word."

"Fine. I'll be in the coffee shop." Torwald shouldered his bag and carried it to a locker. Then he fed in a plastic chip and set the spacebag inside, pressing the ball of his right thumb against the glass plate on the door so it could get a reading of his print. That done, he headed for the lift. Torwald picked the port's general coffee shop on Level Six because it was a good place to pick up gossip about the ships in port and the doings of the lines. He found the shop sparsely populated with people who were mostly spacers like himself, wearing the spacegoing garb of dozens of systems, the uniforms of many lines.

Torwald went to the service block nearest his table and punched the button marked
coffee, black, sweetener
. A cup rose immediately through the countertop and he carried it to his table. Seated, he tuned his ears to the talk around him. Life had taught him early to speak little and listen always. Though he could tune in on several conversations at once, he heard little of value. The usual rumors that someone had discovered intelligent aliens; that one had made the rounds every six Earth-months, regular as clockwork, for as long as Torwald could remember. Satsuma was planning a merger with the Nebula Line. That might be useful. Mergers that size were illegal. Torwald filed the information away for future reference.

He suddenly became aware of a presence at his elbow.

"Oh, excuse me, sir."

Torwald looked up and saw a boy, about seventeen, stringy and blond, with a thin, undernourished face. He wore a faded government-issue coverall that was too small for him.

"Go ahead and sit," Torwald said, gesturing at the seat opposite him.

"Thanks," the boy responded, sitting down. "Which ship are you with?" He wore a shy smile and was so puppyish that Torwald was tempted to tickle his belly or swat him with a rolled-up journal.

"I haven't found out yet. I'll probably know by this afternoon." He returned his attention to his coffee. The newcomer was staring at him with awe, and that always made Torwald self-conscious.

"You mean, you can just pick a ship and go out with it?"

"Usually," Torwald mumbled. "There aren't many ship's posts I can't fill, except for bridge officer positions, and engineer* If there are three ships in port, I can usually ship out on one of them." He hoped that that would end the conversation. His hope was futile.

"I've been trying to get one to take me on for a year," said the boy, bitterly.

"What's the problem?"

"No experience. They won't take you without experience. How can I get experience unless I get a job on a ship?"

"Easy," said Torwald. "Join the Navy. That's where I learned spacing. You'll get plenty of ship experience there. When you get out, you'll have your Able Spacer's bracelet." He held up his own.

"I try about once a week," the kid said miserably. "These days, they want you to have a university degree, and I have a slight astigmatism in my left eye. They don't want anybody with a physical defect."

"That's tough, kid. When I went in, they counted your arms and legs. If it all added up to four, you were in. If you could read, that was a plus. That was during the War, of course. They weren't being picky' back then."

"That's just it—with the War over, there're too many spacers and not enough berths. The Navy's on peacetime status and only taking university graduates. No way for me to get into space." His face fell.

"What do you do?" Torwald asked to change the subject. "I mean, when you're not haunting the port? What do your parents do?"

"No parents," the boy said with a touch of bravado. "I'm on my own. I was raised in a State orphanage until I was sixteen, then they kicked me out. Too many orphans since the War."

"So what have you been doing?"

The boy shrugged. "Odd jobs. I sweep up around here sometimes. I get a State- dole twice a week.

They don't let me starve, at least."

"Spacer First Class Torwald Raffen, report to captain of independent cargo vessel
Space Angel
for interview,"
came the disembodied voice of the PA system.

"That's for me," Torwald said, getting up. "Been nice talking to you, kid. Good luck." He walked away without looking back. Torwald wasn't trying to be callous—indeed, he truly felt sorry for the boy. They were just too many of them: kids who wanted to get into space so desperately that it could hurt a spacer just to look at them. There was nothing a man could do. Torwald left feeling disgustingly lucky.

He walked to the ship. He enjoyed crossing spaceport docks, and the captain probably wouldn't mind. There would be few qualified men putting in for a job on an elderly tramp freighter. He passed several immense Satsuma Line vessels: lovely ships, even if he couldn't stand to serve in them. The Class Ones had been the workhorses of the fine for a number of years. Rumor had it that'they were soon to be replaced by something called a Supernova that was to be the most advanced spacecraft ever built, but Satsuma was keeping the project under wraps. Past the Satsumas Torwald came upon the
Starvoyager,
an immigrant ship, ready to ferry thousands from overcrowded, war-torn Earth to some roomier world that offered a chance of a better life.

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