Back | Next


Four and a half calendar years later the fast cargo pod dove into the blue clouds of Uranus with me snug inside, wedged between a shipment of hormones from Raba’s biosynthesis vats and the hibernation capsule holding a slab of chilled meat known as Zee. I spent most of the voyage in sleep mode myself to avoid boredom.

The Uranian system is a weird place. The planet’s tipped on one side, and all the bigger moons orbit in the plane of its cockeyed equator—along with a belt of habitats and a synchronous ring made of some spare moons found lying around in low orbit. The energy needed to shift planes and match orbits with the moons or the Ring is great enough that a lot of spacecraft don’t bother. A significant amount of traffic whips through the Uranian system without stopping, just using the sideways planet’s gravity well as a way to change vector or borrow some momentum.

This makes the inhabitants a little weird and isolated. There’s only a few billion of them; I’ve been to single habitats in the Main Swarm with more people than the entire Uranian system. They’re a little old-fashioned, too: most of the habs there are barely above minimal standard tech, even the ones with no biological inhabitants.

Raba had aimed our cargo pod at Uranus itself, passing low over the clouds to burn off the speed we’d picked up by falling two billion kilometers. I couldn’t see through the pod’s shell, but I could feel the buffeting and the gee forces, and see the heat working its way through the layers of protective graphene.

I didn’t think the penguin would deliberately drop us into the depths of Uranus’s atmosphere—after all, the pod had some valuable stuff on board—but I did worry about whether the sub-baseline machine doing the piloting might screw up.

So I reached out via wireless and tapped into its simple little brain. A humble Baseline-equivalent mind like mine isn’t supposed to be able to do that, but I’m old and cunning. I don’t like to show off what I can do where anybody might notice, but inside a cargo pod surrounded by ionized hydrogen plasma in the atmosphere of Uranus seemed like a nice private spot.

I let the pod’s idiot-savant mind keep doing the job it was built for, but I did read all the sensor data as it came in. All within the proper parameters, which was reassuring. When we emerged from the atmosphere and could look around I got a scare as the pod whipped past the low-orbit hab ring with only a couple of hundred kilometers to spare.

That moment of terror was followed by a full day of tedium as the pod swung up among the orbits of the major moons. If everybody was doing their jobs, a catch ship would grab us at apoapsis and boost the pod into a rendezvous with the low-orbit ring. If someone was napping, the pod would dive back down into the atmosphere and either burn up or implode somewhere down in the chilly depths.

Zee got to sleep through the whole thing but I fretted right up to the moment when I felt the thunk of clamps as the catch ship latched on. The tug had a Baseline-equivalent mind of her own so I slipped out of the pod’s brain again and went dark until we docked at the Ring eighteen hours later.

I scrambled out of the pod as soon as the loader bots opened the shell.

“Welcome, sir, to the Uranosynchronous Ring,” one of them called out to me. “I trust you had a pleasant voyage.”

“I’ve had worse ones. Careful with that freezer. Human cargo.”

“You may put yourself at ease. It shall be handled with all requisite care.”

I followed Zee’s box through the customs and quarantine scans, and watched intently as a couple of corvid medics thawed him out and checked to make sure two months at just above zero C hadn’t turned his brain into a scoop of meat sorbet.

They warmed him up, flashed lights in his eyes and asked him some random-sounding questions while reading his brain activity. One of them told him a joke. He chuckled politely, and that appeared to satisfy them both.

“Well, sir, it does seem to me that you have suffered no injury on your voyage,” said the older bird. “If your head is empty the fault is entirely your own.”

“I figured it would keep down the mass cost for my trip,” said Zee. He and the corvids laughed at that. He signed over the capsule for local credit and then he and I got out of there.

The low-orbit ring around Uranus is a rosette of six old moons and a like number of artificial habs, all linked by giant cables of carbon filament. The whole thing orbits in synch with Uranus’s rotation. Six elevator tubes dangle down from the moons into Uranus’s atmosphere, pulling up megatons of gas. There are balloon cities down at the bottom of the tubes, but I’ve never been to any of them.

With lots of fusion fuel, a big cold planet to use as a heat sink, and expensive shipping to the rest of the solar system, the Uranus Ring’s economy is based on manufacturing something high-value and low-mass: antimatter. They crank out a gram or so per day, most of which goes for spacecraft fuel or fusion ignition elsewhere in the system. Occasionally they make a million-ton black hole for special orders. The Ring is mostly industrial facilities and giant particle accelerators, with living space for the biologicals squeezed in as an afterthought.

I rode on Zee’s shoulder as we made our way through the zero-gravity habitat. “I’m glad you offered to come along,” he said. “It’s nice to have company. I guess the first thing to do is find out if Kusti or Ravenal has been here.”

First we get some food into you,” I told him. “You lost about six kilos in hibernation.”

“I’m fine,” he said, but he didn’t argue as I steered him toward a shopping-and-dining concourse that ran around the outside of the hab section. We aimed for the planet side, so that Zee could eat his ubas and broiled carcols with a view of a crescent blue Uranus as big as his two hands at arm’s length.

While he ate I thought once again about telling him his lost love was all an implanted delusion, and once again I didn’t say anything.

If I told him, I’d have to explain how I knew, and then I’d have to explain why I hadn’t told him sooner. And in order to explain that I’d have to tell him the facts about my past that the penguin had threatened to reveal. Or at least tell him that there were facts about my past I preferred to keep secret. It was just so much simpler to go along with the story. After all, Zee would run out of cash sooner or later, and have to give up on this crazy quest, and we’d go back to being just a couple of friends working together. The only difference would be the absence of nosy penguins.

“I request network access,” he said to the air when he’d finished the carcols, and a moment later his eyes focused on something I couldn’t see, and started darting around as he navigated a dreadfully slow sensory interface.

If I had lungs I would have sighed. Instead I dove into the local datasphere. The Uranus Ring didn’t have a single governing mind. Apparently the thought of one personality controlling hundreds of grams of antimatter made some people nervous. Instead it had hundreds of Baseline-equivalent intelligences running specific systems. They allocated resources through a market setup, and made long-term decisions through weighted voting. Even the biologicals could participate.

That was good news for me, as it meant no pesky third-level mentalities trying to mind my business for me. Datasphere security was controlled by a handful of minds no better than my own, so I managed to stay anonymous. I saw Zee looking up listings of trade ships calling at the Ring over the past couple of decades, so I went to work scanning through them a thousand times faster.

I knew that I wouldn’t find a ship named Ravenal or his imaginary girlfriend in that list, but I wanted to see if any of the ships had come via Raba, and where they were now. I figured that if one of them looked like a match, Zee would want to follow her.

When his face took on a puzzled and disappointed expression I knew exactly why. “Can’t find anything?” I asked him.

“I can’t locate any trade ships that came here from Raba in the past thirty years.”

“Not surprising,” I pointed out. “Big ships like them only come here at the solstices, when the plane of Uranus’s equator lines up with its orbital path. It’s easier to match orbits with the Ring then. No plane shifts.”

“But the last solstice was thirty-two standard years ago. I wasn’t even born then!”

“I guess the ship lied,” I said. “Or changed her mind after leaving Raba. I hope you didn’t expect finding Kusti to be simple.”

He grimaced, but then gave his determined little nod again. “I don’t care how long it takes. I will find her.”

“Well and good, but how are you going to go about it?”

He finished the last of his ubas before answering. “I guess I need to get info on every ship that’s come through Uranus space in the past decade. I can do that from here—just send queries to all the moons and habs. The lightspeed delay’s not bad. Once I have all the data, I’ll figure out which ship was Ravenal, and try to contact her.”

“If you count payloads that just pass through for a gravity assist, that’s almost two hundred thousand spacecraft. Even with my help, it’ll take you days to find the ship you’re looking for. You’ll need a place to stay.”

“And food, and air, and power, and data, and the transmitter fees.”

I checked the local network. “You should allow for at least twelve hundred gigajoule credits a day.”

“Guess I need to find a job so I don’t use up my credit balance. How about you?”

“Oh, count me in,” I told him. “I’d rather do a job than just spend my days in slow-tick mode.”

He called up a job listing, then closed it again and looked at me. “I want to thank you for coming along on this crazy trip. You’re a real friend, Daslakh.”

“Don’t flatter me. I was bored at Raba anyway. A crazy trip’s much more interesting than keeping those stupid miners running.”

He smiled at that and opened the job listings again. “Hey, there’s an operation inside Juliet looking for repair techs. It looks really interesting.”

I looked at the page. An ice mine. They needed repair techs for their mining machines. “Are you sure you’re qualified for that?”

He chuckled, then skimmed another one. “How about this? Rescue and emergency response. Oh—I’d have to get a paramedic tag.”

“How about this?” I flashed him the link. “Personal care, mammal preferred. Do you nurse your young, Zee?”

“I’ll let you know when I have some.” He wrinkled his nose at the listing and skimmed onward. “Here’s a good one: three thousand energy for waiters at a funeral celebration.”

“It’s only one night.”

“Sure, but that’ll tide me over while I find a more steady gig. And I might make some useful contacts.”

The job was inside Puck, the biggest moon in the low-orbit ring, the next node along the Ring from where the catch ship deposited our cargo pod. Zee and I decided to head over there right away, and make it our base of operations.

The synchronous ring around Uranus has monorail shuttles running both ways along the cables connecting everything. We paid two hundred gigajoules to go aboard. The shuttles were long hexagonal prisms with diamond windows on five sides and a magnetic induction motor on the sixth. Each shuttle had twelve decks, with four passenger compartments and a bathroom on each deck. The compartments were padded on top and bottom, since local gravity changed a lot during the trip. Our shuttle left Ringport One and accelerated smoothly up to six kilometers a second for the four-hour ride to Puck.

Zee had intended to sleep all the way, but all the revival drugs coursing through his system after a seven-week nap made him practically hyperactive. He spent about twenty minutes watching an entertainment, then used the bathroom, then tried a different entertainment, then spent half an hour looking out of the window at Uranus, then got some water to drink, then used the bathroom again, and finally got it into his head to go have a look at Puck through the forward window.

With nothing better to do, I rode along on his back. Zee pulled us down the passage to the front end. There was Puck, barely big enough to show a disk at that distance, shining red gold against the black sky. The gray length of the cable slid past us endlessly, with marker lights strobing by four times a second. I could tell from his breathing and heart rate that Zee found the sight a little hypnotic.

I decided that was a good time to broach a delicate topic. “You know we’re probably never going to find her,” I said.

“She’s out there somewhere.”

“It’s a big system. A billion worlds, a quadrillion people. You’re just one man.” I was entering dangerous territory; his awareness of his insignificance had caused the whole imaginary girlfriend situation in the first place.

“I know. That’s why I’m doing this. Out of all those people, she and I loved each other. I’m not going to give that up.”

“You’re very stubborn. I haven’t decided if it’s a bug or a feature.”

He chuckled but didn’t say anything, and after a few more minutes turned to go back to our compartment, seven decks away.

On Deck Three a very loud thump from one of the compartment doors startled us both. It sounded like something about the mass of a human had slammed into the door with great force.

Zee hesitated, then approached the door. I poked my mind into the shuttle’s sub-baseline internal net. The other three compartments were unoccupied. I brushed aside the flimsy privacy protection and looked through the camera in that space, but the image just showed opaque orange fuzz.

“Hello?” Zee knocked on the door. “Is everything all right in there?”

We heard a muffled squeal and a couple of thumps, then a cheerful male human’s voice called, “Sorry! Just fucking!”

But we heard the squeal again, and I played it back amplified for Zee. “You’re the one with a reproductive instinct, you tell me: Does that sound like sex noises?”


More squealing, accompanied by a couple of loud thumps on the door.

Zee frowned, then nodded to himself, in what I was coming to recognize as the sign of imminent stupidity. He tugged on the door handle—it was locked, with a simple mechanical latch, just as the door was a simple sandwich of graphene and aerogel. No way for me to do anything in infospace; this was all brute matter.

But Zee had his own share of brute matter, about eighty kilos of it, currently pulsing with adrenaline and added stimulants. He braced his feet against the ceiling and pushed against the door handle with all his strength. The latch was designed to provide the illusion of privacy, not any real security. There was a loud crack of overstressed plastic, and the handle spun freely. Zee flipped and landed on the floor, then pulled the door open.

For a good half second, everyone froze. Zee stood in the doorway with me peeking over one shoulder. In the compartment a blue-haired man and a red-haired man were grappling with a young woman in a way that looked highly nonsexual. The two men had the opposable toes of spaceborns, and the woman had the willowy build and color-changing skin common inside Miranda. The whole lower half of her face was covered by a meteor patch and her hands were bound by a cable tie. In the corner, a fat orange cat had wedged itself in front of the room’s camera.

The woman recovered first. Her skin pulsed vermilion as she planted a solid kick in the face of the blue-haired man holding her other foot. Meanwhile the red-haired man, with a look of glee, launched himself at Zee. I took the opportunity to jump from Zee’s back to the ceiling.

As an experienced nuledor, Zee waited until his opponent was in free motion to react. He shoved himself forward and up, passing over the red-haired man to bounce off the ceiling and drive himself feetfirst at the blue-haired one.

With his brains already rattled by a foot in the face, Blue was unprepared for Zee delivering about half a kilojoule of kinetic energy to the back of his neck. He lost his grip on the woman and went tumbling into the window. Red took the opportunity to grab Zee from behind, getting him into a full-nelson hold.

I didn’t have the mass to get involved in any of those alpha-primate goings-on, but I did make myself useful by diving at the woman and cutting the strip binding her wrists. She tried to get past the wrestling pair spinning in the center of the compartment, but Blue recovered enough to snag her ankle with one foot. I jabbed his calf with my cutting tool, deep enough to hurt but not enough to sever any major arteries. He let go of her and knocked me spinning across the compartment.

Zee got his feet braced against the table and began banging the man on his back against the ceiling. That just made Red mad, and he tried to shift to a choke hold, but as soon as he released Zee’s left arm Zee got his hand in the way and grabbed Red’s wrist. Equally strong and keyed up, they strained against each other until Red pulled his arm close enough to bite Zee’s hand.

“She’s getting away, you idiots!” said the cat, launching itself at the door after the young woman.

Blue kicked Zee in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him, and that gave Red the chance to disengage and follow the cat out of the compartment. Blue did likewise, but paused at the door. “This is what you get for interfering,” he said, and tossed something at the window before following Red.

The ball he tossed splattered on the diamond pane, and for about half a second it looked like just a gob of bright red paint. Then the window exploded outward as every part of the diamond touched by the paint disintegrated into sparkly dust. A sudden gale slammed the door shut—and blew Zee out of the window.

I managed to grab his foot as he passed, and made my own feet sticky to hold onto the table. Unfortunately, the tabletop had some kind of self-cleaning surface which actively rejected my sticky feet. Still holding his foot, I followed Zee into space.

* * *

In the first second Zee’s travel suit went into vacuum mode. The fabric sealed and contracted around him for pressure support, the collar whipped itself over his head and went transparent, and the jacket cuffs transformed into mittens over his hands. I couldn’t detect any leaks, so I climbed up to his shoulders and we talked via his implant link.

“How much air do you have?”

“About half an hour at low-exertion. Two hours if I take a tranq. How long do you think it will be before someone comes to get us?”

“Yeah, about that. The good news is that even though we’re moving toward Puck at four kilometers a second, we’re not going to make a new crater. That’s because we’re not in orbit right now. We’re moving against the direction of orbit at almost half the velocity of the Ring. So right now you and I are in the process of falling toward Uranus. That will take a bit more than four hours, so you should have plenty of time to die of hypoxia before we hit the atmosphere.”

“I’ve got my emergency transmitter on. They can send a ship to grab us.”

“We’re moving contra-orbital, remember? The odds are against it.”

He was silent for half a minute. “What are the odds?”

“Of a ship?” I did a little estimating. “Assuming Ringport One even has rescue craft on standby, I’m afraid the chance of anyone noticing us, tracking us, deciding we’re worth the trouble, and being able to intercept is about two percent.”

“So fifty to one. I’ll bet you ten thousand gigajoules we get rescued.”

“At fifty-to-one odds? I’ll owe you half a million if we survive. Seems like a bad bet for me—how will I collect when you lose?”

“It was worth a try,” he said.

Just then the spotlights came on, and as Zee slowly rotated I got a look at the rescue ship about a hundred meters below us. She was an orbital tug like the one which had snagged our cargo pod: an oversized fusion motor, some big pillowy fuel tanks, with the command module and grabbing arms at the front end. We bumped down onto a fuel tank and Zee was sensible enough to make his gloves and feet sticky so we didn’t bounce. He pulled us forward to the command module with me perched on his back.

A green rectangle on the side of the command module pulsed bright and dim. We pushed through a pressure membrane into a two-seat cabin.

The solitary pilot was suited, face mask mirrored—and pointing a little air gun at Zee. No way to tell what it was loaded with. Harmless paint? Killer nanobots? Or just a shaped-charge grenade?

“Who are you?” a female human voice demanded. “Where’s Adya?”

“Um, my name’s Zee. Zee Sadaran Human SeRaba. Thank you for saving us.”

I waved a limb. “I’m Daslakh. And you are?”

She turned her face mask transparent and Zee’s heart rate shot up as she introduced herself. “My name is Kusti Sendoa.”

Back | Next