The Qeng Ho fleet was first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
They were strangers, meeting far from either side’s home territory. That was nothing new to the traders of the Qeng Ho—though normally the meetings were not so unwelcome, and there was the possibility of trade. Here, well, there was treasure but it did not belong to either side. It lay frozen, waiting to be looted or exploited or developed, depending on one’s nature. So far from friends, so far from a social context…so far from witnesses. This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it. Qeng Ho and Emergents, the two expeditions, had danced around each other for days, probing for intent and firepower. Agreements were drawn and redrawn, plans were made for joint landings. Yet the Traders had learned precious little of true Emergent intent. And so the Emergents’ invitation to dinner was greeted with relief by some and with a silent grinding of teeth by others.
* * *
Trixia Bonsol leaned her shoulder against his, cocked her head so that only he could hear: “So, Ezr. The food tastes okay. Maybe they’re not trying to poison us.”
“It’s bland enough,” he murmured back, and tried not to be distracted by her touch. Trixia Bonsol was planet-born, one of the specialist crew. Like most of the Trilanders, she had a streak of overtrustfulness in her makeup; she liked to tease Ezr about his “Trader paranoia.”
Ezr’s gaze flicked across the tables. Fleet Captain Park had brought one hundred to the banquet, but very few arms-men. The Qeng Ho were seated among nearly as many Emergents. He and Trixia were far from the captain’s table. Ezr Vinh, apprentice Trader, and Trixia Bonsol, linguistics postdoc. He assumed the Emergents down here were equally low-ranking. The best Qeng Ho estimate was that the Emergents were strict authoritarians, but Ezr saw no overt marks of rank. Some of the strangers were talkative, and their Nese was easily understandable, scarcely different from the broadcast standard. The pale, heavyset fellow on his left had maintained nonstop chitchat throughout the meal. Ritser Brughel seemed to be a Programmer-at-Arms, though he hadn’t recognized the term when Ezr used it. He was full of the schemes they could use in coming years.
“Tas been done often enough afore, dontcha know? Get ‘em when they don’t know technology—or haven’t yet rebuilt it,” said Brughel, concentrating most of his efforts away from Ezr, on old Pham Trinli. Brughel seemed to think that apparent age conferred some special authority, not realizing that any older guy down among the juniors must truly be a loser. Ezr didn’t mind the being ignored; it gave him an opportunity to observe without distraction. Pham Trinli seemed to enjoy the attention. As one Programmer-at-Arms to another, Trinli tried to top everything the pale, blond fellow said, in the process yielding confidences that made Ezr squirm.
One thing about these Emergents, they were technically competent. They had ramships that traveled fast between the stars; that put them at the top in technical savvy. And this didn’t seem to be decadent knowledge. Their signal and computer abilities were as good as the Qeng Ho‘s—and that, Vinh knew, made Captain Park’s security people more nervous than mere Emergent secrecy. The Qeng Ho had culled the golden ages of a hundred civilizations. In other circumstances, the Emergents’ competence would have been cause for honest mercantile glee.
Competent, and hardworking too. Ezr looked beyond the tables. Not to ogle, but this place was impressive. The “living quarters” on ramscoop ships were generally laughable. Such ships must have substantial shielding and moderate strength of construction. Even at fractional lightspeed, an interstellar voyage took years, and crew and passengers spent most of that time as corpsicles. Yet the Emergents had thawed many of their people before living space was in place. They had built this habitat and spun it up in less than eight days—even while final orbit corrections were being done. The structure was more than two hundred meters across, a partial ring, and it was all made from materials that had been lugged across twenty light-years.
Inside, there was the beginning of opulence. The overall effect was classicist in some low degree, like early Solar habitats before life-support systems were well understood. The Emergents were masters of fabric and ceramics, though Ezr guessed that bio-arts were nonexistent. The drapes and furniture contrived to disguise the curvature in the floor. The ventilator breeze was soundless and just strong enough to give the impression of limitless airy space. There were no windows, not even spin-corrected views. Where the walls were visible, they were covered with intricate manual artwork (oil paintings?). Their bright colors gleamed even in the half-light. He knew Trixia wanted a closer look at those. Even more than language, she claimed that native art showed the inner heart of a culture.
Vinh looked back at Trixia, gave her a smile. She would see through it, but maybe it fooled the Emergents. Ezr would have given anything to possess the apparent cordiality of Captain Park, up there at the head table, carrying on such an affable conversation with the Emergents’ Tomas Nau. You’d think the two were old school buddies. Vinh settled back, listening not for sense but for attitude.
Not all the Emergents were smiling, talkative types. The redhead at the front table, just a few places down from Tomas Nau: She’d been introduced, but Vinh couldn’t remember the name. Except for the glint of a silver necklace, the woman was plainly—severely—dressed. She was slender, of indeterminate age. Her red hair might have been a style for the evening, but her unpigmented skin would have been harder to fake. She was exotically beautiful, except for the awkwardness in her bearing, the hard set of her mouth. Her gaze ranged up and down the tables, yet she might as well have been alone. Vinh noticed that their hosts hadn’t placed any guest beside her. Trixia often teased Vinh that he was a great womanizer if only in his head. Well, this weird-looking lady would have figured more in Ezr Vinh’s nightmares than in any happy fantasy.
Over at the front table, Tomas Nau had come to his feet. The servers stepped back from the tables. A hush fell upon the seated Emergents and all but the most self-absorbed Traders.
“Time for some toasts to friendship between the stars,” Ezr muttered. Bonsol elbowed him, her attention pointedly directed at the front table. He felt her stifle a laugh when the Emergent leader actually began with:
“Friends, we are all a long way from home.” He swept his arm in a gesture that seemed to take in the spaces beyond the walls of the banquet room. “We’ve both made potentially serious mistakes. We knew this star system is bizarre.” Imagine a star so drastically variable that it nearly turns itself off for 215 years out of every 250. “Over the millennia, astrophysicists of more than one civilization tried to convince their rulers to send an expedition here ways.” He stopped, smiled. “Of course, till our era, tas expensively far beyond the Human Realm. Yet now it is the simultaneous object of two human expeditions.” There were smiles all around, and the thought What wretched luck. “Of course, there is a reason that made the coincidence likely. Years aback there was no driving need for such an expedition. Now we all have a reason: The race you call the Spiders. Only the third non-human intelligence ever found.” And in a planetary system as bleak as this, such life was unlikely to have arisen naturally. The Spiders themselves must be the descendants of starfaring nonhumans—something Humankind had never encountered. It could be the greatest treasure the Qeng Ho had ever found, all the more so because the present Spider civilization had only recently rediscovered radio. They should be as safe and tractable as any fallen human civilization.
Nau gave a self-deprecating chuckle and glanced at Captain Park. “Till recently, I had not realized how perfectly our strengths and weaknesses, our mistakes and insights, complemented each other. You came from much farther away, but in very fast ships already built. We came from nearer, but took the time to bring much more. We both figured most things correctly.” Telescope arrays had watched the OnOff star for as long as Humankind had been in space. It had been known for centuries that an Earth-sized planet with life-signature chemistry orbited the star. If OnOff had been a normal star, the planet might have been quite pleasant, not the frozen snowball it was most of the time. There were no other planetary bodies in the OnOff system, and ancient astronomers had confirmed the moonlessness of the single world in the system. No other terrestrial planets, no gas giants, no asteroids…and no cometary cloud. The space around the OnOff star was swept clean. Such would not be surprising near a catastrophic variable, and certainly the OnOff star might have been explosive in the past—but then how did the one world survive? It was one of the mysteries about the place.
All that was known, and planned for. Captain Park’s fleet had spent its brief time here in a frantic survey of the system, and in dredging a few kilotonnes of volatiles from the frozen world. In fact, they had found four rocks in the system—asteroids, you might call them, if you were in a generous mood. They were strange things, the largest about two kilometers long. They were solid diamond. The Trilander scientists nearly had fistfights trying to explain that.
But you can’t eat diamonds, not raw anyway. Without the usual mix of native volatiles and ores, fleet life would be very uncomfortable indeed. The damn Emergents were both late and lucky. Apparently, they had fewer science and academic specialists, slower starships…but lots and lots of hardware.
The Emergent boss gave a benign smile and continued: “There really is only one place in all the OnOff system where volatiles exist in any quantity—and that is on the Spider world itself.” He looked back and forth across his audience, his gaze lingering on the visitors. “I know it’s something that some of you had hoped to postpone till after the Spiders were active again…But there are limits to the value of lurking, and my fleet includes heavy lifters. Director Reynolt”—aha, that was the redhead’s name!—“agrees with your scientists that the locals never did progress beyond their primitive radios. All the ‘Spiders’ are frozen deep underground and will remain so till the OnOff star relights.” In about a year. The cause of OnOff’s cycle was a mystery, but the transition from dark to bright repeated with a period that had drifted little in eight thousand years.
Next to him at the front table, S. J. Park was smiling, too, probably with as much sincerity as Tomas Nau. Fleet Captain Park had not been popular with the Triland Forestry Department; that was partly because he cut their pre-Flight time to the bone, even when there had been no evidence of a second fleet. Park had all but fried his ramjets in a delayed deceleration, coming in just ahead of the Emergents. He had a valid claim to first arrival, and precious little else: the diamond rocks, a small cache of volatiles. Until their first landings, they hadn’t even known what the aliens really looked like. Those landings, poking around monuments, stealing a little from garbage dumps had revealed a lot—which now must be bargained away.
“It’s time to begin working together,” Nau continued. “I don’t know how much you all have heard about our discussions of the last two days. Surely there have been rumors. You’ll have details very soon, but Captain Park, your Trading Committee, and I thought that now is a good occasion to show our united purpose. We are planning a joint landing of considerable size. The main goal will be to raise at least a million tonnes of water and similar quantities of metallic ores. We have heavy lifters that can accomplish this with relative ease. As secondary goals, we’ll leave some unobtrusive sensors and undertake a small amount of cultural sampling. These results and resources will be split equally between our two expeditions. In space, our two groups will use the local rocks to create a cover for our habitats, hopefully within a few light-seconds of the Spiders.” Nau glanced again at Captain Park. So some things were still under discussion.
Nau raised his glass. “So a toast. To an end of mistakes, and to our common undertaking. May there be a greater focus in the future.”
* * *
“Hey, my dear, I’m supposed to be the paranoid one, remember? I thought you’d be beating me up for my nasty Trader suspicions.”
Trixia smiled a little weakly but didn’t answer right away. She’d been unusually quiet all the way back from the Emergent banquet. They were back in her quarters in the Traders’ temp. Here she was normally her most outspoken and delightful self. “Their habitat was certainly nice,” she finally said.
“Compared to our temp it is.” Ezr patted the plastic wall. “For something made from parts they shipped in, it was a great job.” The Qeng Ho temp was scarcely more than a giant, partitioned balloon. The gym and meeting rooms were good-sized, but the place was not exactly elegant. The Traders saved elegance for larger structures they could make with local materials. Trixia had just two connected rooms, a bit over one hundred cubic meters total. The walls were plain, but Trixia had worked hard on the consensus imagery: her parents and sisters, a panorama from some great Triland forest. Much of her desk area was filled with historical flats from Old Earth before the Space Age. There were pictures from the first London and the first Berlin, pictures of horses and aeroplanes and commissars. In fact, those cultures were bland compared with the extremes played out in the histories of later worlds. But in the Dawn Age, everything was being discovered for the first time. There had never been a time of higher dreams or greater naïveté. That time was Ezr’s specialty, to the horror of his parents and the puzzlement of most of his friends. And yet Trixia understood. The Dawn Age was only a hobby for her, maybe, but she loved to talk about the old, old first times. He knew he would never find another like her.
“Look, Trixia, what’s got you down? Surely there’s nothing suspicious about the Emergents having nice quarters. Most of the evening you were your usual softheaded self”—she didn’t rise to the insult—“but then something happened. What did you notice?” He pushed off the ceiling to float closer to where she was seated against a wall divan.
“It…it was several little things, and—” She reached out to catch his hand. “You know I have an ear for languages.” Another quick smile. “Their dialect of Nese is so close to your broadcast standard that it’s clear they’ve bootstrapped off the Qeng Ho Net.”
“Sure. That all fits with their claims. They’re a young culture, crawling back from a bad fall.” Will I end up having to defend them? The Emergent offer had been reasonable, almost generous. It was the sort of thing that made any good Trader a little cautious. But Trixia had seen something else to worry about.
“Yes, but having a common language makes a lot of things difficult to disguise. I heard a dozen authoritarian turns of speech—and they didn’t seem to be fossil usages. The Emergents are accustomed to owning people, Ezr.”
“You mean slaves? This is a high-tech civilization, Trixia. Technical people don’t make good slaves. Without their wholehearted cooperation, things fall apart.”
She squeezed his hand abruptly, not angry, not playful, but intense in a way he’d never seen with her before. “Yes, yes. But we don’t know all their kinks. We do know they play rough. I had a whole evening of listening to that reddish blond fellow sitting beside you, and the pair that were on my right. The word ‘trade’ does not come easily to them. Exploitation is the only relationship they can imagine with the Spiders.”
“Hmm.” Trixia was like this. Things that slipped past him could make such a difference to her. Sometimes they seemed trivial even after she explained them. But sometimes her explanation was like a bright light revealing things he had never guessed. “…I don’t know, Trixia. You know we Qeng Ho can sound pretty, um, arrogant when the customers are out of earshot.”
Trixia looked away from him for a second, stared out at strange quaint rooms that had been her family’s home on Triland. “Qeng Ho arrogance turned my world upside down, Ezr. Your Captain Park busted open the school system, opened up the Forestry.…And it was just a side effect.”
“We didn’t force anyone—”
“I know. You didn’t force anyone. The Forestry wanted a stake in this mission, and delivering certain products was your price of admission.” She was smiling oddly. “I’m not complaining, Ezr. Without Qeng Ho arrogance I would never have been allowed into the Forestry’s screening program. I wouldn’t have my doctorate, and I wouldn’t be here. You Qeng Ho are gougers, but you are also one of the nicer things that has happened to my world.”
Ezr had been in coldsleep till the last year at Triland. The Customer details weren’t that clear to him, and before tonight Trixia had not been especially talkative about them. Hmm. Only one marriage proposal per Msec; he had promised her no more, but…He opened his mouth to say—
“Wait, you! I’m not done. The reason for saying all this now is that I have to convince you: There is arrogance and arrogance, and I can tell the difference. The people at that dinner sounded more like tyrants than traders.”
“What about the servers? Did they look like downtrodden serfs?”
“…No…more like employees. I know that doesn’t fit. But we aren’t seeing all the Emergents’ people. Maybe the victims are elsewhere. But either through confidence or blindness, Tomas Nau left their pain posted all over the walls.” She glared at his questioning look. “The paintings, damn it!”
Trixia had made a slow stroll of leaving the banquet hall, admiring each painting in turn. They were beautiful landscapes, either of groundside locations or very large habitats. Every one was surreal in lighting and geometry, but precise down to the detail of individual threads of grass. “Normal, happy people didn’t make those pictures.”
Ezr shrugged. “It looked to me like they were all done by the same person. They’re so good, I’ll bet they’re reproductions of classics, like Deng’s Canberran castlescapes.” A manic-depressive contemplating his barren future. “Great artists are often crazy and unhappy.”
“Spoken like a true Trader!”
He put his other hand across hers. “Trixia, I’m not trying to argue with you. Until this banquet, I was the untrusting one.”
“And you still are, aren’t you?” The question was intense, with no sign of playful intent.
“Yes,” though not as much as Trixia, and not for the same reasons. “It’s just a little too reasonable of the Emergents to share half the haul from their heavy lifters.” There must have been some hard bargaining behind that. In theory, the academic brainpower that the Qeng Ho had brought was worth as much as a few heavy lifters, but the equation was subtle and difficult to argue. “I’m just trying to understand what you saw, and what I missed.…Okay, suppose things are as dangerous as you see them. Don’t you think Captain Park and the Committee are on to that?”
“So what do they think now? Watching your fleet officers on the return taxi, I got the feeling people are pretty mellow about the Emergents now.”
“They’re just happy we got a deal. I don’t know what the people on the Trading Committee think.”
“You could find out, Ezr. If this banquet has fooled them, you could demand some backbone. I know, I know: You’re an apprentice; there are rules and customs and blah blah blah. But your Family owns this expedition!”
Ezr hunched forward. “Just a part of it.” This was also the first time she’d ever made anything of the fact. Until now both of them—Ezr, at least—had been afraid of acknowledging that difference in status. They shared the deep-down fear that each might simply be taking advantage of the other, Ezr Vinh’s parents and his two aunts owned about one-third of the expedition: two ramscoops and three landing craft. As a whole, the Vinh.23 Family owned thirty ships scattered across a dozen enterprises. The voyage to Triland had been a side investment, meriting only a token Family member. A century or three down the line he would be back with his family. By then, Ezr Vinh would be ten or fifteen years older. He looked forward, to that reunion, to showing his parents that their boy had made good. In the meantime, he was years short of being able to throw his weight around. “Trixia, there’s a difference between owning and managing, especially in my case. If my parents were on this expedition, yes, they would have a lot of clout. But they’ve been ‘There and Back Again.’ I am far more an apprentice than an owner.” And he had the humiliations to prove it. One thing about a proper Qeng Ho expedition, there wasn’t much nepotism; sometimes just the opposite.
Trixia was silent for a long moment, her eyes searching back and forth across Ezr’s face. What next? Vinh remembered well Aunt Filipa’s grim advice about women who attach themselves to rich young Traders, who draw them in and then think to run their lives—and worse, run the Family’s proper business. Ezr was nineteen, Trixia Bonsol twenty-five. She might think she could simply make demands. Oh Trixia, please no.
Finally she smiled, a gentler, smaller smile than usual. “Okay, Ezr. Do what you must…but a favor? Think on what I’ve said.” She turned, reaching up to touch his face and gently stroke it. Her kiss was soft, tentative.
Copyright © 1999 by Vernor Vinge