The third book in the author's Cat series and the sequel to the national best-seller Catspaw follows the tough, half-human hero as he travels to Refuge, where strange life forms face an ecological disaster.
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Joan D. Vinge wrote the Hugo Award bestseller The Snow Queen, sequels including the Hugo finalist The Summer Queen and the Nebula finalist World's End, and the Cat series. She's written a dozen movie adaptations, including the #1 bestseller The Return of The Jedi Storybook. She lives in Madison,Wisconsin.
Five or six centuries ago, the Prespace philosopher Karl Marx said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Marx understood what it meant to be human…to be flawed.
Marx thought he also understood how to end an eternity of human suffering and injustice: Share whatever you could, keep only what you needed. He never understood why the rest of humanity couldn't see the answer, when it was so obvious to him.
The truth was that they couldn't even see the problem.
Marx also said that the only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.
But he never said that time flies when you're having fun.
I glanced at my databand, checking for the hundredth time to see whether an hour had passed yet. It hadn't. This was the fifth time in less than an hour that I'd found myself standing at the Aerie's high parabolic windows, looking out at a world called Refuge; escaping from the noise and pressure of the Tau reception going on behind me. Refuge from what? For who? The background data the team had been given access to didn't say.
Not from Tau's bureaucracy. Not for us. The research team I was a part of had arrived at Firstfall less than a day ago. We hadn't even been onworld long enough to adjust to local planetary time. But almost before we'd dropped our bags here in Riverton, Tau Biotech's liaison had arrived at our hotel and forced us to attend this reception, which seemed to be taking place in stasis.
I dug another camph out of the silk-smooth pocket of my bought-on-the-fly formal shirt, and stuck it into my mouth. It began to dissolve, numbing my tongue as I looked out again through the Aerie's heartstopping arc of window toward the distant cloud-reefs. The sun was setting now behind the reefs, limning their karst topography of ragged peaks and steep-walled valleys. A strand of river cut a fiery path through the maze of canyons, the way it must have done for centuries, transforming the landscape into something as surreal as a dream.
Below me, the same river that had turned the distant reefs into fantastic sculpture fell silently, endlessly over a cliff. Protz, Tau's liaison, had called this the Great Falls. Watching the sluggish, silt-heavy waterflow, I wondered whether that was a joke.
Someone called my name. I turned, glancing down as I did because some part of me was always afraid that the next time I looked down at myself I'd be naked.
I wasn't naked. I was still wearing the neat, conservatively cut clothes I'd overpaid for in a hotel shop, so that I could pass for Human this evening. Human with a capital H. That was how they said it around here, not to confuse it with Hydran: Alien.
An entire city full of Hydrans lived just across the river. There were three of them here at this reception tonight. I'd watched them come in only minutes ago. They hadn't teleported, materializing unnervingly in the middle of the crowd. They'd walked into the room, like any other guest. I wondered if they'd had any choice about that.
Their arrival had crashed every coherent thought in my mind. I'd been watching them without seeming to ever since, making sure they weren't watching me or moving toward me. I'd watched them until I had to turn away to the windows just so that I could breathe.
Passing for human. That was what they were trying to do at this party, even though they'd always be aliens, their psionic Gift marking them as freaks. This had been their world, once, until humans had come and taken it away from them. Now they were the strangers, the outsiders; hated by the people who'd destroyed them, because it was human to hate the ones you'd injured.
The butt end of the camph I'd been sucking on dissolved into bitter pulp in my mouth without doing anything to ease my nerves. I swallowed it and took another one out of my pocket. I was already wearing trank patches; I'd already drunk too many of the drinks that seemed to appear every time I turned around. I couldn't afford to keep doing that. Not while I was trying to pass for human, when my face would never really pass, any more than those alien faces across the room would.
"Cat!" Protz called my name again, giving it the querulous twist it always seemed to get from someone who didn't believe they'd heard all there was to it.
I could tell by the look on his face that he was coming to herd me back into the action. I could see by the way he moved that he was beginning to resent how I kept sliding out of it. I took the camph out of my mouth and dropped it on the floor.
As he forced me back into the crowd's eye I looked for somebody I knew, any member of the research team I'd arrived with. I thought I saw Pedrotty, our bitmapper, on the far side of the room; didn't see anyone else I recognized. I moved on, muttering polite stupidities to one stranger after another.
Protz, my keeper, was a midlevel bureaucrat of Tau Biotech. His name could have been anything, he could have been any of the other combine vips I'd met. They came in both sexes and any color you wanted, but they all seemed to be the same person. Protz wore his regulation night-blue suit and silver drape, Tau's colors, like he'd been born to them.
Probably he had. In this universe you didn't just work for a combine, you lived for it. Keiretsu, they called it: the corporate family. It was a Prespace term that had followed the multinationals as they became multiplanetary and finally interstellar. It would survive as long as the combines did, because it so perfectly described how they stole your soul.
The combine that employed you wasn't just your career, it was your heritage, your motherland, existing through both space and time. When you were born into a combine you became a cell in the nervous system of a megabeing. If you were lucky and kept your nose clean, you stayed a part of it until you died. Maybe longer.
I looked down. The fingers of my right hand were covering the databand I wore on my left wrist--proving my reality, again. Without a databand you didn't exist, in this universe. Until a few years ago, I hadn't had one.
For seventeen years the only ID I'd worn had been scars. Scars from beatings, scars from blades. I'd had a crooked, half-useless thumb for years, because it had healed untreated after I'd picked the wrong mark's pocket one night. The databand I wore now covered the scar on my wrist where a contract laborer's bond tag had been fused to my flesh. I had a lot of scars. The worst ones didn't show.
After a lifetime on the streets of a human refuse dump called Oldcity, my luck had finally changed. And one of the hard truths I'd learned since then was that not being invisible anymore meant that everybody got to see you naked.
"You've met Gentleman Kensoe, who heads our Board…"Protz nodded at Kensoe, the ultimate boss of Tau, the top of its food chain. He looked like he'd never missed a meal, or a chance to spit into an outstretched hand. "And this is Lady Gyotis Binta, representing the Ruling Board of Draco." Protz pushed me into someone else's personal space. "She's interested in your work--"
I felt my mind go blank again. Draco existed on a whole separate level of influence and power. They owned Tau. They controlled the resource rights to this entire planet and parts of a hundred others. They were the ultimate keiretsu: Tau Biotech was just one more client state of the Draco cartel, one of a hundred exploiting fingers Draco had stuck into a hundred separate profit pies. The Draco Family, they liked to call it. Cartel members traded goods and services with each other, provided support against hostile takeover attempts, looked out for each other's interests--like family. Keiretsu also meant "trust"…And right now Draco didn't trust Tau.
Tau's Ruling Board had drawn the unwanted attention of the Federation Trade Authority. Cartels were autonomous entities, but most of them used indentured workers from the FTA's Contract Labor pool to do the scut work their own citizens wouldn't touch.
Technically, the Feds only interceded when they had evidence that the universal rights of their laborers were being violated. The FTA controlled interstellar shipping, and no combine really wanted to face FTA sanctions. But I knew from personal experience that the way bondies were treated wasn't the real issue for the Feds. The real issue was power.
The FTA was always looking for new leverage in its endless balance-game with the combines. Politics was war; the weapons were just better concealed.
I didn't know who had reported Tau to the Feds; maybe some corporate rival. I did know the xenoarchaeology research team that I'd joined was one of Tau's reform showpieces, intended to demonstrate Tau's enlightened governmental process. We'd come here at Tau's expense to study a living artifact called the cloud-whales and the reefs of bizarre detritus they had deposited planetwide. The Tau Board was sparing no expense to show the Feds they weren't dirty, or at least were cleaning up their act. Which was a joke, from what I knew about combine politics, but not a funny one.
It was just as obvious that Protz wanted--expected--everyone on the team to help Tau prove its point. Say something, his eyes begged me, the way I knew his mind would have been begging me if I could have read his thoughts.
I looked away, searching the crowd for Hydrans. I didn't find any. I looked back. "Good to meet you," I muttered, and forced myself to remember that I'd met Board members before. I'd been bodyguard to a Lady; knew, if I knew anything, that the only real difference between a combine vip and an Oldcity street punk was what kind of people believed the lies they told.
Lady Gyotis was small and dark, with hair that had gone silver-white. I wondered how old she really was. Most vips on her level had the money to get their genetic clocks set back more than once. She wore a long, flower-brocaded robe that covered her from neck to foot. Nothing about her said combine vip except the subtle, expensive design of her necklace. Its scrolls were the logos of corporations; I recognized Tau's somewhere midway up her shoulder.
I also recognized the pendant at the center, a stylized dragon wearing a collar of holographic fire. I had the same design tattooed on my butt. I must have been gorked when I'd done it, because I couldn't even remember how it got there. I didn't tell her that wearing Draco's logo as body art was something we had in common.
Lady Gyotis smiled at me, meeting my stare as if she didn't notice anything strange about my face, not even the cat-green eyes with their long slit pupils: Hydran eyes, in a face that was too human, and not human enough. "A pleasure," she said. "We are so pleased to have you as a part of the study team. I'm sure your unique perceptions will add greatly to whatever discoveries are made."
"Thank you," I said, and swallowed the obedient "ma'am" that almost followed it out of my mouth, reminding myself that I didn't work for her, any more than I belonged to Tau. This time I was part of an independent research group.
"We feel his being a part of the team will demonstrate our goodwill toward the"--Kensoe glanced at me--"local Hydran community." He smiled.
"Let us hope so," Lady Gyotis murmured. "You know, the inspection team from the FTA is here tonight." I'd met the Feds; I didn't envy Kensoe. But then, I didn't feel sorry for him either.
"Yes, ma'am," Kensoe said, glancing away like he expected assassins. "We'll be ready for them. I think they'll find the, uh, problems here have been grossly misrepresented."
"Let us hope so," Lady Gyotis said again. "Toshiro!" she called suddenly, lifting her hand.
Someone came through the crowd toward us. Kensoe stiffened; so did I. The stranger coming toward us wore the uniform of a combine's Chief of Security. I checked the logo on the helmet he hadn't taken off, even here. It was Draco's. His business-cut uniform was deep green and copper, Draco's combine colors. A lot of meaningless flash paraded across the drape he wore over it. His ID read SAND.
There was no way in hell a Corporate Security Chief would cross half the galaxy from the home office just to attend this party. I wondered exactly how much trouble Tau was in.
"Lady Gyotis." Sand bowed slightly in her direction, smiling. He was still smiling as he followed her glance toward me.
I couldn't tell what the smile meant. Couldn't read him.…Stop it--I couldn't force my own face into an expression that even resembled a smile. I'd met a lot of Corpses in my life. I'd never met one I liked.
Sand's skin was smooth and golden; his cybered eyes, under epicanthic folds, were opaque and silver, like ball bearings. One glance from eyes like that could scan you right down to your entrails. The last CorpSec Chief I'd known had had eyes like that; they came with the job. The more power a combine vip had, the more augmentation came with it. Usually the most elaborate wire jobs didn't show; most humans were too xenophobic to want the truth visible, about themselves, about each other. There was nothing I could see about Lady Gyotis that looked abnormal, even though she had to be hiding a lot of bioware. Draco's subsidiaries made some of the best.
But in some occupations, looking strange was power. Sand's was one of them.
"Mez Cat," Lady Gyotis was saying, "may I introduce you to Toshiro Sand, Draco's Chief of Security"--as if the evidence wasn't obvious enough by itself. She didn't introduce him to Protz or Kensoe. Protz and Kensoe looked like they wished they were anywhere else; maybe they'd already met him. "He was also most impressed by your interpretive work on the Monument."
I grimaced and hoped he took it for a smile. He held out his hand. I looked at it for a few heartbeats before I realized what it meant. Finally I put out my own hand and let him shake it.
"Where are you from, Mez Cat?" Lady Gyotis asked me.
I glanced back. "Ardattee," I said. "Quarro."
She looked surprised. "The Hub?" she said. Quarro was the main city on Ardattee, and Ardattee had taken Earth's place as the center of everything important. "But wherever did you get that charming accent? I've spent much time there, but yours is unfamiliar to me."
"Oldcity," Sand murmured. "It's an Oldcity accent."
I looked up to see her glance at him, surprised again. She'd probably never even seen Quarro's Oldcity--the slums, the Contract Labor feeder tank. I'd tried to get the sound of it out of my voice, but I couldn't, any more than I could get the place itself out of my memories.
Sand looked back at me. "Then I'm even more impressed by your accomplishments," he said, to my frown.
I didn't say anything.
"I expected you to be older, frankly. The concepts in your monograph suggested a real maturity of thought."
"I don't think I was ever young," I said, and Lady Gyotis laughed, a little oddly.
"Mez Perrymeade told me the original interpretation was yours," Sand went on, as if he hadn't heard me. "That remarkable image about 'the death of Death.' What was it that gave you the key to your approach?"
I opened my mouth, shut it, swallowing words that tasted like bile. I didn't believe that he meant anything he was saying, that they were really looking at me a...
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