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Young Rue Cassels of the Cycler Compact -- a civilization based around remote brown dwarf stars -- is running from her bullying brother, who has threatened to sell her into slavery. Fleeing in a shuttle spacecraft from the sparsely populated and austere comet-mining habitat she has lived in her whole life, she spots a distant, approaching object, and stakes a legal claim to it. It is not the valuable comet she hoped for but something even more wonderful, an abandoned Cycler starship.
Her discovery unleashes a fury of action, greed, and interstellar intrigue as many factions attempt to take advantage of the last great opportunity to revitalize - and perhaps control - the Compact.
This is the story of Rue's quest to visit and claim this ship and its treasures, set against a background of warring empires, strange alien artifacts, and fantastic science. It is a story of hope and danger, of a strange and compelling religion, Permanence, unique to this star-faring age, and of the re-birth of life and belief in a place at the edge of forever.
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Karl Schroeder lives in Toronto, Canada.
PART ONEEdiacara1RUE PAUSED JUST long enough to catch her breath. She had reached the outer station now, far from her bedroom, and was breathing hard enough to use up a day's ration of oxygen. Add that to my bill, she thought sourly.Jentry and the others couldn't be far behind. She had been unbelievably stupid, she knew; but this time Jentry had gone too far. She reached up and absently stroked the small stone disk that hung on a thong around her neck. Jentry could insult her, he could restrict her access to vital parts of the station; he could poison the minds of the workers against her. But to steal her birthright--no, if she had to do it again, she would still have gone to steal it back. Maybe more carefully, though ...Her uneven breath frosted in the dim weightless air. The outer shells of the spherical station were a maze of corridors and cells, relying on what little warmth trickled out of the core for energy. This corridor was one of the rarely used ringways--a long hexagonal tunnel outside the Earth-G centrifuge, intermittently lit and lined with filmy shipfur. As she rapelled from handhold to frosted handhold she looked for signs. In the Core, especially the centrifuge, everything was labelled: Mom's poor substitute for the baroque carving that covered every surface of more wealthy stations. Out here, the only markings were the ones Rue had made for herself over the years, during the hours and days she spent hiding out from Father and Jentry and the others.There--she spied interlinked triangles scratched near a bulkhead door. They glittered faintly with hoarfrost and for the first time she shivered. Rue knew that the temperature beyond that door was little more than 250 degrees Kelvin. She had come this way many times partly because she knew the others wouldn't venture down here. The halls beyondthat bulkhead were unusually cold for this level and unless you knew to dress for it in advance, the cold would ward you away. She'd used that fact to her advantage many times.The only problem was, she wasn't dressed for it herself tonight. She wore only the light thermals she had donned in her bedroom."There she is!" Despite her years and independence, Jentry's voice still had the power to freeze Rue. A flashlight beam jiggled crazily over the frost on the walls and blinded Rue for a second. She shook herself and spun away, groping for the handle of the bulkhead door."Come back here, you little leech!" Jentry had called her that for so long that the insult had lost its force years ago."Suck vacc!" she shot back.Her knuckles rapped the door handle and she grabbed it. The cold hit her palm like fire, but she ignored it as she yanked on the door. It groaned open and the puff of air that emerged made her gasp. She let go of the handle, leaving skin behind and dove into the dark opening.Talking back to her half-brother was the quickest way to a beating, but this time Rue had worse things to worry about. Mom was dead three weeks now; the last roadblock in Jentry's plan to sell Rue was removed. She knew a cometary cycler would be passing the station in two weeks time and Jentry had sneeringly told her that there was a man on it who needed laborers for his station. Allemagne's tiny ecology couldn't support Rue, he'd said. She just wasn't productive enough. She would have to go--one way or another.There was no time to shut the bulkhead door behind her. Rue dove shuddering into the cold. Her thin shipfur jacket was no protection at all here. She clamped her mouth firmly shut and breathed through her nose, feeling a ring of fire around her nostrils every time she did so. A single fullmouthed intake of air could freeze your lungs here; she had to be careful. And she avoided touching the snow-coveredwalls with her skin, using taps of her boots to keep herself moving forward."She's crazy! Rue, get back here! You'll freeze your sorry little ass down there." Shadows from Jentry's head moving in the doorway loped ahead of her. He wasn't dressed for this part of the station either--her only advantage at this point."Rue, come back here this minute or I'll send the miners after you." He'd adopted Father's tone of authority of late and seemed to relish using it on Rue. She snarled but didn't succumb to the temptation to talk. The skin of her face and hands felt tight from the cold; the air here was perfectly dry and she'd start to dehydrate soon. Scraping snow off the walls would not satisfy that thirst; the finer whisks of that frost were made of carbon dioxide, not water.At least her frost-burned hand no longer hurt. She came to the end of the long corridor, where another ringway started. The walls here were nearly cold enough to liquefy nitrogen. To breathe was to drink fire; she held a hand over her face so that the weak heat of her fingers would help warm the air. She probably had less then a minute to live if she didn't find what she was after.Years ago, there had been an accident on a visiting rendezvous shuttle. It had slammed into the half-mined comet that loomed next to Allemagne and bits of hull and debris had flown everywhere. Jentry and the other favored lads had spent the better part of six months rounding up all the flotsam that had drifted away into interstellar blackness. Rue, who was never allowed outside, had instead used some miner robots--probably the same ones Jentry was about to send after her--to patrol the outer hull of the station looking for breaches.She had found one--a hole punched by a section of the ship's hull. In the zigzagging lamp light of her miner's headlight, she had beheld a rough triangle of wall, torn and peeled along the edges, wedged into a gap of brokenfullerene spars. Clouds of shipfur floated everywhere. In the very center of the triangle was an airlock door.Before she reported her find, Rue had pried open that door, to find an almost intact cylindrical airlock beyond it. Its lockers were filled with treasures.Now she raced down the leftward arm of the ringway, hands held in her armpits, breathing shallowly while her ears and face went numb from the gentle movement of air past her face. She was shivering uncontrollably now and her back was dangerously close to spasm. Rue tried to calm herself; she had calculated this distance quite carefully when she stashed her discoveries all those five years ago. She should have time.She bounced herself to a stop over a frost-rimed door. The only illumination here was a single blue tube ten meters down the corridor, but Rue knew where the doorplate was and she used a corner of her jacket to wipe it free of frost. Then she breathed on her thumb to warm it and tapped the plate.Nothing happened. Rue cursed; she didn't want to hold contact with the thing for more than a split second, or she would freeze to it. She prodded the plate again.This time it flashed and the door grated open, light blooming from inside. She couldn't breathe and her hands had gone completely numb by the time she maneuvered herself around the icy metal doorjamb. Here, though, was her treasure: a storage room containing three EVA suits, reaction pistols, rolls of fullerene cable, and bundles of shipfur. Also, an addition that she had stolen from Father's stores a week after stashing this stuff: an emergency thermal pack.She dove for the thermal pack and looped her unresponsive fingers through the big ring on its side. One good pull and it began to throb with warmth, stronger every second.For a while she just huddled around it, soaking up the warmth. After a minute or two she heard a faint hissingcoming from all around her. some of the frost on the walls was evaporating.Rue had rehearsed her next moves a thousand times in hopeful daydreams. Her fingers were waking up and felt like th ey had been burned to the bone. Her ears were still numb, but her face was starting to hurt, too. As soon as she could move her fingers enough, she pressed the thermal pack against one of the EVA suits, then grabbed the warmed fabric and pulled it free of its hook. She worked in stages, putting the thermal pack against each item before she touched it: diagnostic panel, thermal controls, zips. She started the suit's heat cycle, then began attaching her meager supplies to its belt loops. When it was warm enough inside the suit, she wormed her way into it.With the suit enfolding her like a second skin, Rue made herself stop and just breathe for a while. She had done it! From here things got easier. She popped open the door to the ringway and exited it hand over hand. The suit had been perfectly preserved in the cold and worked like new.She pitched the nearly spent thermal pack down the corridor. Hopefully Jentry's miners would fixate on its infrared signature and go after it rather than her. The insulation in Rue's suit was efficient enough that her main problem was overheating. Back to the intersection, then past it, and soon she had reached another bulkhead door, beyond which the cold was an order of magnitude more deadly. She rapelled confidently through it and down two more levels as the outside temperature dropped closer and closer to absolute zero. By the time Rue reached the outside hatch she sought, all air had frozen out of the corridors and the meager heat radiating from her suit made the snow on the walls flash into vapor.Her skin was all pins and needles; her hands ached and she curled them arthritically. It was a familiar pain. Rue had felt such cold many more times than Jentry, she'd bet. He never had any reason to lurk in the outer rings of the station, after all.She pried open the outer hatch and for only the third time in her life, stood on the outside of Allemagne station. Starlight didn't illuminate the great black curve of the sphere; there were no running lights. She could see the station only by how it blotted the stars. Much clearer was the comet to which Allemagne was parasitically attached; it formed a bulky scab-colored mountain above the sphere's black horizon.Rue was on a mission, but the temptation was too strong to look up. She thought only to glance at the stars to orient herself, but ended up gaping. They were brilliant points here, hard as diamond and so distinct as to be three dimensional--ranks and sheets of stars behind stars, clouds and swirls like the frozen breath of the unimaginably titanic All.All her life, Rue had seen the stars on screens and twice in glimpses as she stood on the hull of Allemagne. They were the homes of wonders, those stars, and tonight she was finally on her way to visit them.It took a while to psych herself up, but finally she kicked off from the hull. Long ago, when they were friends, Jentry had shown her how to maneuver using a reaction pistol and she blessed that memory now as she fired hers to wobble in a long loop around the station. After a few minutes the dark rectangle of the docks came into view. Long gantries jutted out into space and here the station's ships and shuttles were silhouetted against the stars. She picked out the largest of those black forms and jetted toward it.Any second now miners would come out of the dark at her, claws out, carapaces shielding the nested purple curves of the camera eyes through which Jentry would be watching. She would fail and be dragged back--or he would just kill her on the spot. It didn't matter. She had made her bid and, for Rue, that was the first and last unshakable fact that declared who she was.She grinned tightly when she found herself touching the hull of the cycler shuttle--safe and unsuspected. Maybe the miners were still rattling around in the ringways,thwarted. She would pretend they were, anyway, until rude reality stopped her.The miners didn't arrive in time to stop her from locating the airlock to the cycler shuttle. They didn't reach to stop her from turning the emergency handle and nothing was waiting for her in the red-lit airlock that opened for her.Rue entered the ship with a sense almost of disappointment; certainly of anticlimax. She had been afraid of Father and Jentry all her life; nothing that she'd done in defiance of them had ever gone unpunished, except for the tiny actions, like making her own safe refuges in the outer ringways, that were symbolic to her and utterly unimportant to the world at large.She undogged the suit's helmet and said, "Ship, awake."Light bloomed around her, inside a ship that was as much hers as Jentry's (according to the inheritance) but where she had been only a few times in her life. She quickly stripped off her gloves and reached to touch a tapestry on the wall. The walls and floors were done in complex, quilted fabrics in dark earth tones and crimson, lit by unobtrusive spotlamps. This airlock opened near the galley, which glowed with suspended holos; a central well with a ladder led up and down to sleeping quarters and games rooms. There was no control room; everything was voice and inscape-controlled. The shuttle was designed to keep its occupants comfortable--and amused--for the weeks that it might take to rendezvous with a passing cycler.It was the most luxurious place Rue had ever been. No wonder Jentry had forbidden her to visit it. She remembered there were fish tanks and a tiny arboretum with green plants in it. There were lots of places she had never been, as well. She wanted to explore right now, but first she had to finish her escape. She dove down the central well of the ship.As she entered the main cargo hold she shouted, "Ship, cast off. Set a course to rendezvous with the next cycler.""Nice try, Sis."She caught herself on a cargo net and looked around. Jentry hung in the open airlock that connected to the docking tube. "I thought you might try something like this," he said. "So while you were pulling maneuvers in deep space, I sailed up here. After all, the others could find you if you went anywhere else. This was your only option--too bad you're so predictable." He grinned insolently and launched himself at her.Jentry had hit her so many times that Rue's instinct was to raise her hands when he came for her. This time, though, she found one of her gloves still held the reaction pistol.The look on his face when he saw it was priceless; Jentry was in midflight and couldn't stop himself or turn away. She levelled the pistol and shot him in the face.He vanished behind a puff of white vapor; the pistol kicked back, nearly tangling Rue in the cargo net. Jentry shrieked, limbs flailing as he tumbled past her and hit the wall.His face red and blistered, Jentry groaned as he drifted back into the center of the hold. For a second Rue felt a deep pang of remorse, because she had never wanted to hate Jentry. He had driven her to it."I'm sorry, Jentry," she said and she meant it. She jumped, rolled in midair and planted her feet in his midriff. Kicking off, she ended up back at the cargo net while Jentry sailed precisely through the middle of the airlock door. She watched him recede down the docking tube for a moment, then dove to the doorway and pressed the close button."Ship! Cast off!""I recognize you, Meadow-Rue Rosebud Cassels," said the ship in its liquid voice. "Jentry Terrence Cassels has issued an order that I should remain in port."Rue felt a shock run through her, like the premonition of a blow. "I have authority over you. Mom gave you to both of us.""Yes, Meadow-Rue.""So ... what's ...
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