“A marriage, like a house, needs a strong foundation to build from, so buy a good bed.”
— Grandfather Twofeathers
Logan Twofeathers looked at the inky, cloudless sky as the pinprick of light crawled toward the eastern horizon. Even through high-powered binoculars, it was nothing more than a bright dot glimmering with reflected sunlight. It wasn’t the Hansen, the transport ship that had brought them to the planet. At that time of day, the transport’s orbit would place it on the other side of Kwelengsen. And the next scheduled supply ship wasn’t due for another month.
“Have you got anything?” he said, tracking the dot.
He was standing by the window of the science and communications building of New Hope—the first and so far, only, city on the planet. Behind him, illuminated by the lights from several computer consoles, a shadow moved.
“The ship is broadcasting a transponder ID, but our systems don’t recognize it.” Logan’s wife, Aurore Vergari, sat at one of the computers studying the information on the screen. “And the imaging we can get from down here is inconclusive. It doesn’t match anything on the books.”
“I thought you were our science expert.” Wildan Tejal was the settlement’s lead civilian authority, and his dark mustache wriggled over his plump lips like a hairy, oversized caterpillar when he spoke.
“There’s no reason for that attitude, Administrator.” Logan’s jaw tightened. Tejal might be a good politician and competent in a general sense, but he liked to play people. “We’re doing what we can, but until our reconsat gets a closer look, our information is bound to be limited.”
“We need to know who it is and what they’re doing here.” Tejal sighed, as if he were talking to a misunderstanding child. “You’re supposed to be our technical leads.”
Logan gave a humorless smile. “Feel free to issue a request for replacements. I’m sure Earth will be willing to log another of your complaints.”
A message would take over a day to get to Earth and the same for any response to return. Even with the RoboPony relays invented by Logan’s friend Joe, interstellar communication was closer to sending an old-style letter than anything approaching “real-time.” Besides, the Combined-Earth Settlement Authority had made its personnel assignments and wasn’t likely to change them, short of the community on Kwelengsen failing. Something Tejal was aware of.
“What about Captain Manners?” Tejal said. “Can’t the Guard launch a reconnaissance ship?”
“I’ve apprised her of the situation,” Logan said. “They’ve shown no hostile intentions, and I believe she’s happy to wait on the reconsat feedback.”
Tejal frowned. “We don’t know who they are, or why they’re here. The entire settlement might be in danger.”
“Then you should raise your concerns with her.” Logan stared down at Tejal, holding his frustration in check. “I’m not a soldier.”
Tejal took a step back. “Well, no, but you… well, you have influence, shall we say.”
Logan glanced across at Aurore, her brown eyes almost black in the subdued lighting. Her nod was meant to reassure him, but they’d discussed how he felt about his past
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said brusquely.
Tejal’s mouth clamped tighter, making his fleshy jowls look bigger than usual. “I see. I’ll be including this lack of cooperation in my CESA report.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else, Administrator.”
Tejal marched out of the room, his footsteps clicking on the concrete floor.
“He thinks too much of himself,” Logan said.
“He’s a jumped-up pencil pusher with a stick up his ass,” Aurore said. “Why they chose him is beyond me.”
“He knows how to smooth ruffled feathers, both here and with CESA.”
Aurore sniffed. “Well, he seems to know how to ruffle my feathers, and yours—even though you hide it.”
After the discovery of Kwelengsen—the first habitable planet found by humans—Earth’s nation-states had scrambled to put together an expedition to explore and settle the new world. Everybody wanted a slice of the new pie, and CESA, the Combined-Earth Settlement Authority, had been created to ensure each political group had equal access. Surprisingly, most historical differences had been put aside, and the first expedition drew its representatives equally from the United States and Provinces, Pan-Asian Confederation, Old Europe, and the United African Democracies—something previously unimaginable for Earth’s nation-states.
“If it were a regular Earth ship, they’d make themselves known,” Logan said. “That leaves the Atolls and the Corporates. And neither of them like us very much.”
“The feeling’s mutual.” Aurore’s expression hardened. “The Atolls are too busy trying to stop their habitats dissolving to worry about us. Besides, they don’t like planets.”
Since the attacks on the Atolls with the Contravalency Phage, they were preoccupied with looking for a cure for the virus-like substance threatening to destroy them, but Logan knew desperate people often resorted to desperate solutions. “Maybe not. But I don’t like it.”
Aurore moved closer and gripped Logan’s hands. “Remember you’re the head of engineering operations, not responsible for the entire settlement. Everyone here came for their own reasons.”
She was right, but that did nothing to ease Logan’s burden of responsibility. He was the one who’d found Kwelengsen—no one would be here if he hadn’t. He’d hoped it would be a new start for Earth people, but increasingly it looked like yet another source of conflict.
She looked up at him and brushed his cheek. “What if I launched ClutterBug early? It wouldn’t be hard to do a pass on the ship to check it out, and my surveying mission is open ended.”
ClutterBug was the name Aurore had given one of the general-purpose Nomad Transports that had been assigned to science duties. The survey mission worried Logan but not because of the unknown ship’s arrival. Aurore would be gone for two weeks surveying the closest planet to Kwelengsen. She’d be alone, and that bothered him despite his confidence in her abilities. Not to mention that whenever she was gone, a hole opened up inside him as big as an asteroid.
“No need for that. You have prep work to finish. We shouldn’t let an unexpected ship arrival throw all our plans into a loop.”
“You’re not concerned about me, are you, Mr. Twofeathers?”
“You have your duties to perform, I understand that.”
“Uh-huh.” Aurore pulled his head down to meet hers. “I’ll miss you too you know.”
The communications console behind Aurore beeped several times and she moved over to check it.
“There’s a broadcast from the ship.” She switched the transmission to the speakers, and a gruff male voice reverberated around the room.
“Kwelengsen, this is Captain Akinyemi in command of Atoll Defense Fleet cruiser Sarabhai. We’re in orbit around your planet, as I’m sure you’re aware, and would like to harvest some of your system’s raw materials.” Akinyemi hesitated. “We could, of course, simply take what we want, but I thought it courteous to ask.”
Logan raised an eyebrow at Aurore. “Surprisingly polite considering what the Atolls are dealing with at the moment.”
“I better call Tejal,” she said. “This is his decision.”
“Include Manners—CEG will consider this a security issue.”
Aurore flipped several controls and initiated a three-way connection, excluding the Atoll ship, and played back the transmission.
“Do we know what they want?” Tejal’s lips were greasy as though he’d just started supper.
“They included a list along with the transmission. Water ice, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide—all unrefined, and all things they can extract out of asteroids and comets.” Aurore ticked the items off. “Basic raw supplies for any deep-space vessel.”
“I don’t see any harm in it.” Tejal nodded. “As they said, they could have taken what they wanted.”
“I don’t want them on the planet’s surface.” Manners was as brusque as usual. “They’re a security risk.”
Logan sighed. “I’m sure they’re not interested in coming down. Atollers aren’t comfortable on planets.”
“That may be so,” Manners said. “But right now they’re less predictable than a kicked-over hornet’s nest.”
“A reasonable precaution,” Tejal said. “We don’t want trouble.”
Logan looked from one image pickup to the other. “We might make their lives a little easier.”
“How do you mean?” Tejal wiped his mouth with a napkin, as if only then realizing the condition of his lips.
“Everything they need is in the Breadbox.” Logan jerked a thumb upward. “More than enough for them to resupply with.”
The Breadbox was a large storage vessel in orbit, automatically replenished by several remote mining drones that harvested the system’s extensive asteroid fields. The drones weren’t fast, but they didn’t need to be. Perhaps when the settlement reached double or triple its current size they’d need to look at the capacity, but for now, it wasn’t a concern.
“Those supplies are for emergencies,” Tejal said. “I can’t possibly authorize handing them over to the Atollers.”
“That’s a tactical asset. I can’t permit Tollers to access it either.” Manners scowled. “They’re the enemy, and we’re a long way from home.”
Tejal’s dark eyes narrowed. “And why should we help them? They have their own equipment. We don’t owe them anything.”
“Well, I could argue we should do it because it’s a friendly thing to do.” Logan didn’t hold much hope of persuading them. “Or if you want a more pragmatic reason, if we share our resources with them, they might be less of a potential threat. Or look at it from a purely practical point of view—the faster they resupply, the sooner they can be on their way.”
“Absolutely not. They can mine whatever they want. But that’s all.” Tejal glanced over his shoulder. “That’s my final word. Now, if no one minds, I will finish my supper.”
“I will not authorize an Atoll ship to dock with any CESA facility.” Manners stared at Logan through the screen, her golden eyes turning a deeper jasper. “End comm.”
Both displays darkened, and the room fell quiet. Eventually, Aurore spoke. “Now what?”
“Contact the Sarabhai. I’ll deliver the message to Akinyemi.” Logan’s voice had an edge to it.
Aurore frowned and checked the screens. “They’ll be out of range in twelve minutes. Do you want to wait until their next orbit?”
Logan shook his head. “This won’t take long.”
Aurore made the connection, and Akinyemi appeared after a short delay. His face was long, with a slightly pointed chin that was a little at odds with his rounded cheeks, and gave him a gaunt, hungry look.
“Captain Akinyemi.” Logan nodded. “I’m Logan Twofeathers. Head of engineering and technical lead for Kwelengsen.”
“Good day, Mr. Twofeathers. Thank you for responding to our communication.”
“We would have contacted you earlier but we weren’t sure who you were. Your ship configuration is an unrecognized type.”
Akinyemi rubbed his chin. “It’s a new Huanshi design. Procured for this mission.”
Huanshi was one of the largest private shipbuilding Corporates. Logan guessed the Atolls had switched to the design to avoid further vulnerability to the Phage that was wreaking havoc on their own technology. “What is your mission, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“We’re a scout vessel. Searching for habitable planets.” Akinyemi smiled, but there was no humor in his eyes. “What else would we be doing at a time like this?”
“Planets?” Logan shifted uneasily.
“I admit it’s unusual for us. But desperate times…”
Logan stepped up to the pickup area. “Your request for permission to procure materials is approved. We don’t own the entire star system, and are happy to share.”
“Well, according to interstellar law, as the first settlers, you do.” Akinyemi leaned closer to the pickup, his head getting cut off by the top of the screen. “Is there a charge?”
One does not sell the land, Logan thought. “None. Though if you have any entertainment media we may not be aware of, we’d appreciate the chance to extend our library.”
“That’s generous of you. I’ll have one of my officers arrange an exchange of our entertainment files.”
“We could be more generous.” Logan hesitated. “We have a resource storage facility in orbit, we call it the Breadbox…”
Akinyemi looked puzzled. “We detected it on approach.”
Aurore shook her head, but Logan ignored her. “It contains all the materials you’re looking for, already refined and separated. You’re welcome to use its resources—that would mean less work for you.”
Akinyemi said nothing, and the screen went dark.
“What the hell?” Logan looked at Aurore. “Did we lose them?”
“They’re in range. Five minutes until they pass over the horizon.” She worked the controls. “Looks like they cut the transmission. But Logan, you’re not authorized to let—”
The screen lit up again showing Akinyemi, but Logan noticed the background behind the Atoll officer had changed. “Was my offer inappropriate?”
“Apologies, Mr. Twofeathers. I transferred your call to my private office. Your offer is generous, and a little surprising under the circumstances, but I appreciate it. My response, though, is not something I want my crew to hear.”
Akinyemi’s forehead creased. “The Directorate has issued a complete isolation order, banning all contact between Atollers and Earth personnel or facilities. The Phage is running rampant through our stations and ships. If we don’t find a way to block it, our society will be effectively destroyed.” A hint of bitterness crept into his voice. “The Directorate is afraid Earth may try to finish what has already started and eliminate us.”
“I assure you, our supplies are clean. You can run checks on them to satisfy—”
Akinyemi lifted his hand. “I don’t doubt your sincerity, Mr. Twofeathers, but I have to respect the Directorate’s orders.”
“Are things that bad?” Logan’s gut twisted—the Atolls might pose a bigger threat than generally thought.
“If we can’t stop the Phage, our culture may be all but destroyed within two years.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Captain.” Logan took a deep breath. “There’s enough room out here for everyone.”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you? But potential real-estate is limited.” Akinyemi scowled. “If I’m honest, I’m not sure our people are capable of adapting to planetary living.”
“It’s only been a hundred and fifty years. I doubt there’s been much physiological change in that time,” Logan said.
“In a biological sense, you’re undoubtedly correct. The problem is more psychological. Atollers have mentally adapted to the freedom of space, so being trapped on the surface of a planet seems like a backward step to most.”
“You could use some of Earth’s recent technology. The Nakaji-Wei habitats would be similar environments.”
Akinyemi glanced off to the side. “We’re out of time I’m afraid, Mr. Twofeathers. While you’re correct, you can understand how reluctant my fellow citizens would be to follow that route.”
The screen flickered, filling with static, then the transmission cut off.
Aurore checked the instruments. “They passed over the horizon. Next communications window will be in three hours, unless they change orbit. But Logan, I’m glad he didn’t take you up on the offer. You might have lost your position for that.”
“I know. I thought we could ease some of…” Logan’s voice faltered.
“You tried.” Aurore draped herself against his shoulder, turning his chin so he faced her. “You miss being in space, don’t you?”
“Not as much as I’d miss you if I’d carried on with it.”
“Then what is it?”
Logan didn’t answer right away. Despite being overcapacity with engineering projects, he was restless, and couldn’t say why. The settlement was meant to be a fresh opportunity for him as well as everyone else—a chance to build a better world, one where everyone was truly equal for the first time. But sometimes he woke from dark dreams that left him feeling hollow, though he didn’t remember the details.
Aurore stared at him for several minutes. “SecOps would take you back in a heartbeat, if you said you were interested.”
Logan’s skin tingled, and for a moment his adrenaline surged. Then, almost immediately, it was gone. He’d put aside that part of his life, and was determined to stay as far away from the violence and paranoia that always seemed to accompany military ventures. “I’m done with that. Why bring it up again?”
“Because it hurts that you don’t trust me enough to talk about these things.” The laughter lines on Aurore’s face deepened into a frown. “You don’t have to hide anything from me.”
“I know,” Logan said. “And I don’t”
“You’re not a very good liar.”
Logan chuckled. “You should see the estimates I come up with for a job.”
Aurore’s smile faded. “Have you spoken to Carl recently?”
“Carl… not for a week or so.” Logan held up his hands. “I know. But he likes fieldwork—I think that’s only because it’s a good way of avoiding me.”
Carl’s father had been Leonard Begay, a family friend of Logan’s, and as close to him as a brother. After Begay’s death, Logan had pulled strings to get the boy assigned to the expedition. It wasn’t what most people would have thought of as a favor considering the settlement’s primitive state, but at least Carl would have direction, and an environment with fewer reminders of his father.
“He’s been through a lot,” Aurore said. “Don’t give up on him.”
“I thought this”—Logan made a sweeping gesture—”would help him. But perhaps I should have left him where he was.”
Aurore put a finger on his lips. “Not everyone wants the same things. And no one can fix the whole world, not even you.”
“Worlds.” Logan stroked Aurore’s hair. “There’s more than one now, remember.”
“My apologies, oh mighty Lord Twofeathers, conqueror of worlds.” Aurore punched him playfully in the side.
“I haven’t conquered anything. Including myself.”
“You conquered me.” She batted her eyes at him theatrically. “I enjoyed it.”
“So I remember.”
“Remember?” Aurore drew back. “Has it been that long?”
“We’ve both been busy. Starting a new world isn’t easy. Even one as underdeveloped as this.”
Aurore pulled him to his feet. “Well, I think it’s about time you reminded me how it all works.”
Logan stood, letting her think she was pulling his much larger weight. “Remind you? Was it that forgettable?”
The following morning dawned clear, with a light haze of cloud, though there were dark patches growing by the distant snow-capped Baraban mountain range to the west, and Logan guessed they might see storms later in the day. The planet’s annual cycle was ebbing, and the first cold fingers of winter would soon make themselves felt. He whistled as he strolled over to the engineering offices, feeling as if his feet were dancing over the rough track. Kwelengsen had eighty percent of Earth’s gravity, to the delight of everyone who’d settled there.
The office was a prefabricated, gray PlaSteel box like the other first-generation buildings, and sat near the edge of the main city square. A great deal of the early construction wasn’t much to look at—grimly functional in a way that would make only a bureaucrat smile. As the city grew, they were making increasing use of local materials such as 3-D printed concrete and wood, and many of the newer designs were more decorative and larger. Despite the office’s stark appearance, the work carried on inside by Logan and the other engineers was crucial to the settlement’s development—they were literally designing and building the planet’s future.
His main focus for several months had been designing and planning the resources for a Space Elevator. The relatively low gravity meant construction was easier than on Earth, and once built, an Elevator would change their future considerably. But, as was so often the case in engineering, it was a question of building the capacity to build something else. They weren’t at the point of being able to produce all the raw materials needed, but with the completion of the first nano-fiber plant—scheduled for construction in eight months—they would be close. And once they had an Elevator, it would be cost effective to ship commodities back to Earth, or build orbital habitats.
Logan had left Aurore to finish her breakfast, but not before extracting a promise from her to contact him if there was any further news from the Atollers. She’d be heading for her own office in the science building, to carry on prepping for her mission. So far, they’d only done preliminary scans of the other planets in the star system, and she was excited to be able to do some real core science as she put it, instead of the settlement’s day-to-day business.
As he unlocked the office door, Logan spotted two tanglefoxes scratching at some boxes stacked against the wall. It was unusual to see them in the city now, and the ungainly creatures took off when they heard him. They were scavengers by nature, but increasingly avoided contact with humans as the settlement expanded.
Logan lumbered inside and made his way to his desk, distinguished from the others by a row of small shelves stacked with reference data cards. The cards held encyclopedic files on Earth engineering at the time they’d left, as a repository of information to safeguard against a failure of the RoboPony communications relays. Another unspoken benefit was that if anything should happen to Earth, the files would act as a backup of vital information for any survivors. He’d barely sat down when he heard the door open followed by the flat slapping of multiple footsteps on the stairs. He glanced up to see Pasquale and Linnie approaching, two of the engineers working under him.
“Our processing capacity is severely limited.” Pasquale Debiasi’s words shot out in rapid succession, as if taking the time to breathe was a luxury. “Expanding the Farm has to take second place.”
“I swear you bought your degree off some shifty Worldnet company.” Linnie Whitker pushed Debiasi out of the way and dropped into the chair behind her desk, flipping the power buttons on her console. “How are you going to increase processing if you can’t power it? That’s why we need to make the Farm top priority.”
“If we don’t increase capacity, we can’t make the materials for your silly wind farm. You know we could run the processing units with the generators on the Nomads.”
“Good luck getting Manners to okay that.”
Logan nodded in agreement at Linnie’s comment. The settlement had six Nomad Transports available. Two were designated for scouting and research duties and the others assigned for general use under the command of Captain Manners. Manners interpreted that as meaning they were to be held in combat readiness for any military situation that might arise, unless they were on a specific mission. Using them as supplemental power systems was an idea she wouldn’t sanction.
“Someone needs to explain to that gung-ho hellcat that this is a civilian settlement, not a military expedition.” Debiasi glugged some water and looked at Logan. “Her troops are supposed to be here at the service of the settlement, not the other way around.”
“Talk to her directly instead of complaining behind her back.” Logan had heard the arguments before. “The captain isn’t completely inflexible.”
“Maybe with you.” Debiasi slumped behind his desk. “She hates me.”
“Poor Pasquale.” Linnie chuckled. “Tough women scare him. Don’t they, baby?”
“Only when they’re overly fond of guns and explosives.”
Logan smiled. These two were currently working from the office, while the rest of his team were in the field and weren’t expected back anytime soon. The two engineers were both young, and close, despite their constant bickering.
This argument over power availability wasn’t new. It was a conflict they’d been steadily heading toward as the community grew. They had one general-purpose reactor that covered the basic needs of official settlement business, and a separate solar and wind farm that served the town. The demand for power to support their burgeoning industry was increasing. But every problem was a chicken and egg situation. To complete one project, another needed to be completed first, and that required something else before it.
“If you’re too gutless to face Manners, put in a request for more mini-fusion generators.” Linnie was already absorbed by the details on her screen and didn’t look up. “If the committee back home approves it, you might have them in a couple of months.”
“All we can expect from Earth is people,” Logan said quietly. “Both the PAC and United Africa are pushing for higher immigrant volumes, and everyone else will follow suit under the Equal Access rules.”
The settlement’s development had received full support from all sides, but only after immigration quotas had been agreed. These guaranteed that settler numbers would be controlled by global population percentage. So, while the greater push for moving people came from the PAC and UA, any increase had to be matched by the USP and other nation-states to maintain ratios.
“We don’t have the infrastructure. We’re already maxed out.” Debiasi’s words rattled out. “That’s why we need access to the Nomad generators. Call Manners, set up a powwow.”
Logan frowned. He wasn’t deeply traditionalist, but misuse of that word set him on edge. Debiasi was right though—the ships’ generators would go a long way toward making up for the shortfall in their capacity until a permanent solution was available. “I’ll send a request to CESA for mini-fusion reactors,” he said. “You never know—someone might wake up.”
“Fat chance,” Linnie mumbled, intent on the display in front of her.
“But what about—”
Logan shrugged. “I know. I’ll meet with the captain as well. If I explain things to her she might loosen the reins a little.”
He stiffened as he spoke. He disliked the political aspect of his position, and especially resented the time it sucked from what he considered to be his real work. He should have been working on the Space Elevator. Once completed, they could assemble a solar station at the top and push power down from orbit at levels far higher than the surface installations could generate.
“I’ll head to the CEG compound. Captain Manners might have some time to spare.” The unwelcome bite of responsibility nipped at Logan’s shoulders.
“You’ll be fine,” Linnie said. “Just remember, she can smell fear.”