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First pages

Part 1

Chapter 1

The planet Vidura, a very long time ago

Amil Leyta was Iravat, a genotype indigenous to the Daza Islands. He had big eyes framed by high ears, an annular, fluffy mane and a ruff tapering to a point at mid-sternum.

As if that wasn’t enough, Iravat are distinguished by a textured pelt, taking the shape of a richly decorated formal jacket over a pure white blouse.

They’re a handsome breed, so much so that in Falling Backward, an opera about the calamity that reversed Anye evolution a million years, a smooth-skinned Anye Nava entreats the villain Vikara: “If I must become my hairy ancestor, at least make me Iravat.”

The island chain was officially known as TrayoDazaDviPavatI, meaning Consisting of thirteen islands. The actual count depends on how one defines an island, but everyone pretty much agreed there were ninety.

Most Islanders are Iravat, so Amil’s ethnicity wasn’t a problem until he skipped fifth grade. That was the year he found himself in a classful of Kopin.

Kopin are Vidura’s ubiquitous merchant class — a pioneering people who earned tenure as AjDazani by virtue of arriving in the ‘very old times’. Despite their minority status, there was no enmity between the two breeds. In fact, Amil’s uncle by marriage was Kopin.

But, Iravat were the face of the tourism industry and they ruled the Islands. Kopin, for all their virtues, tended to be somewhat drab in appearance and they were not, after all, Original People.

Despite good intentions, class distinction was inevitable. Twelve-year-olds can hardly be expected to be unaware of it, and in sixth grade, everybody was older than Amil and had a whole list of reasons to dislike him.

It wasn’t a good year.

More than anything, he dreaded field trips. Any time the teacher wasn’t looking, somebody pushed or tripped him. There was never a safe seat on the bus. He couldn’t bring a lunch without it being taken.

If forewarned, he always stayed home on those days, but that strategy depended on the warning part. Iron Arrow’s visit to Five Island was last minute.

He knew something was up when his teacher wiggled her finger at him. “Mil, come stand by me.”

She clapped her hands. “Class! We’re going out to watch a crew exhume one of the old landfills. This group is on the first bus. Move.”

His teacher was a sturdy Kopin lady with a voluminous mane, tall ears and the longest fangs he had ever seen. Some said she was more than two-hundred years old, though she looked about fifty. Amil thought she had a kind face, despite all the sharp teeth.

He stopped when she touched his shoulder. “Am I not going?”

“You are, but I’m putting you on a bus with seventh graders.”

“Yes, mahodaya.”

She let out a sigh. “Mil, I know there’s a problem, but I’m not having any luck fixing it. Sorry. Best I can do for now.”

Amil looked up with solemn eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

She took his hand. “It’s not your fault, either.”

The bus was a four-wheel, superconductor-motor, sixteen-passenger hotel shuttle. Seventh grade, Section Two, had exactly eleven students and all but one were Iravat. Amil resolved to ask his mother to make a kaphi cup, or a decorative planter, or something, for his teacher.

Their escort was a young man, Mahat Limar, on his first assignment out of University. Amil had noticed him at market — sorting through foods he’d never seen before, all the while closing his ears to grumbling about mainlanders who visit outside tourist season.

AjDazani insularity notwithstanding, nobody dared confront the man — the Broken Claw crime syndicate was operated by Mahat Limar. It was a well-known ‘fact’ that every short, stout, muscular, long-armed native of Pazca had an uncle or a cousin or even a sister who would gladly cut your throat over the slightest discourtesy.

The teacher lifted his chin at Amil as he boarded. “Hoya, welcome to our little clan. I’m Talus.”

Amil flicked an ear at him. “I’m Amil.”

“I’ve seen you around. Your mother is the ceramic artist. Your father is a carpenter.”

“That’s us.”

Talus lowered his voice. “Do you know why you’re with us today?”

Amil looked down the aisle – none of the other students were paying attention to their conversation. “Yes sir.”

“Are you all right with it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Sit up here with me.”

Their destination was on the other side of the landmass. The man let the bus’s machine intelligence drive while he got his charges settled in. Amil saw that the lone Kopin student had no problem mixing with his classmates and that everyone avoided eye contact with their teacher unless he was speaking directly to them.

The interior of Five Island was all hills and valleys, deeply textured with tropical rain forest and the occasional agricultural enterprise. Amil could measure how new it was to the teacher by Talus’s obvious rapture upon reaching the top of every rise in the landscape.

Ten minutes into the trip, Talus gave the controls back to the bus’s Oma.

“Amil, are you interested in tree climbing?”

“Native sports? Ock.”

“It builds muscle and scary claws. Might be perfect for you.”

“Oya, perfect for working tribal shows in a loincloth. No thanks.”

“I was trying to think of a way to deal with your situation.”

Amil sniffed. “Sir, with respect, you’re not from here.”

“Tell me what’s going on.”

Amil spoke softly. “I’m younger, smaller and I get better grades. I answer questions in class. I’m Iravat. My Ta gets all the work he wants from the hotels and I’m in line to apprentice at my uncle’s fuel cell shop.”

“What are the last two complaints about?”

“Some Kopin think the trades are their territory.”

Talus narrowed his eyes. “That’s a complication.”

Amil nodded.

“Will it get better when you’re older?”

“Ta always has trouble on the job.”

The teacher shook his head. “I see the problem. Do you have a plan?”

Amil put his shoulders back. “I’ll join the Cadre and go to University.”

“To learn what?”

“I don’t know yet, but I won’t come back.”

“Then I stand on my original suggestion — join the tree-climbing team.”

“Ha! So I can get big enough to fight? Teacher doesn’t want me to fight.”

Talus drew Amil’s gaze to his face. “Look right here, son. I’m going to give you important advice.”

Amil complied. “Sir?”

“I didn’t learn how to be a man from the women in my tribe — that’s not what they teach. If you intend to be a man, then look to men to show you how it’s done. Do you have a bullying problem? You want to join the Cadre? Take charge of your life, embrace risk, bulk up and learn to tap into your aggression.”

Amil stared into the face of a warrior — and inhaled spit down his windpipe.

Talus thumped him on the back. “You okay, buddy?”

Amil nodded. “You scared me a little.”

“I want you to listen.”

“I hear you, sir.”

Talus laughed. “You’re kind of grown-up for an eleven-year-old.”

“That’s what my mother says.”

Their conversation lapsed into silence. Amil watched scenery roll past. He thought about having said he would leave the Islands forever — and wondered if he meant it. A wave of doubt came over him, followed by the sensation of eyes on the back of his neck.

He turned to face a girl in the front row. She would be thirteen and, in ordinary circumstances, exponentially more mature than he. Amil knew at a glance she was the class alpha. She met his gaze with poise and made a subtle, sympathetic smile.

 

Chapter 2

The landfill was an old one, closed around the time of the Change, seven hundred years past. A person might have mistaken it for a small mountain, but for vent pipes sticking out of it.

The tourist season was a month away and there was little entertainment to be had, so a bevy of townspeople were in attendance. The teacher showed the palm of his hand to the class as the bus rolled to a stop.

“Keep your seats. Other than the political angle, who knows why an orbital mining crew would come to Five Island?”

Amil put up a hand. “Because the ice ring is too far away right now.”

“That’s right. The mining field is in a different orbit from our planet. What else?”

A girl answered. “They’ve already taken out the old satellites.”

“Muh huh. What else?”

“All the seagoing ships have been recycled.”

“Good.”

The lone Kopin in class barked his answer. “Vidura First won’t let them take metal out of empty buildings.”

“Which brings us back to politics. I don’t like their position on land-based mining, but the greens have a point about dust pollution in metro areas.”

Amil put his hand up again. “What do the greens say about mining?”

“You’ll get history and civics next year. Short lesson — activists forced an end to planetary mining within the Anye Accord about four hundred years ago.”

A boy chimed in. “Now, the only mines left are in the Vanya Dominion.”

“So what?”

“That’s how our enemies pay to get contraband shipped into Laghu.”

The teacher puckered his lips. “And how the Vanya can afford to export kidnapping and murder.”

Amil coughed. “Why doesn’t the Assembly do something?”

“They’re corrupt, but there’s plenty of complicity to go around. We’re consuming embargoed merchandise in a way that harms us as a direct consequence of cutting off our own domestic production.”

“Shit.”

“You could have said ‘what a surprise’, but I’ll let it go. Any other reasons?”

“Sorry, sir. Yes. The Star Forge at the gas giant is barely operational.”

“Oya, and it’s six light years away. To which I would add — ever since the disappearance of the spacecraft Pariksaka, nobody, not Iron Arrow, Asurya Horizon, Sinaya Gravitics or Parsanda Research have made any progress with the Saraf Drive.”

Amil made a solemn face. “Rivan Saraf is still out there. He’s coming back, someday.”

“I hope so. There’s one last bit. Does anybody know what it is?”

Talus scanned the bus. “No? Here’s a hint — there’s no profit in it.”

The class alpha spoke up. “Public relations?”

“In a way. They’re recruiting.”

“Us?”

“Oya. By courtesy of our population crisis, they’re talking to all age groups.”

He glanced at his phone. “Iron Arrow is hosting an event, tomorrow at Vilasa Resort. I’ll make arrangements if anyone wants to go.”

He looked up. “Are we ready?”

Seventh Grade, Section Two, replied in the affirmative. Talus pulled a door lever. “Let’s go check it out.”

Workmen had stretched iridescent pink tape between vambah poles, five meters in from the edge of the road, a hundred fifty meters short of the mound.

Talus stood at the barrier. “Don’t let me catch you crossing this line. One spark can set the landfill on fire, and it can reach us even here. Does everyone understand?”

Electric ground buggies were parked everywhere. Concession vans served frozen dairy and beverages. Amil’s uncle had his service truck on the shoulder. It was, Amil thought, a shrewd move — there would be business for him at the end of the show.

The mining machine was staged in a freshly mowed field across the road, bordered by another pink tape fence. Locals milled around, taking pictures and waving arms in the air.

Amil laughed out loud on the walk over, earning a tap on the elbow from the girl he locked eyes with on the bus.

“What’s so funny?”

“We’re acting like tourists.”

“Oh, that is funny.” She took the lead. “I’m Dani.”

Daza Island lifestyle was advertised as quaint, rural and close-to-the-planet, but that was just a promotional concept — AjDazani were fully connected to the mainstream.

As for the local economy, it was subsistence only in the sense that very few individuals were willing to work hard enough to buy aircars. They didn’t want them — Islanders knew what the world looked like, and preferred to stay home.

Even so, nobody had seen anything like an orbital mining machine, at least not up close. It was enormous, a tangle of beams and extrusions, private parts hanging out everywhere. There were twelve gimbaled distortion cans at the edges, giant coils in the middle, blocky iron skids on hydraulic levelers beneath and an atomic shredder power capsule aft of the operator’s pod.

An Iron Arrow crew boss stood behind the tape. She wore shorts and a tube top under a bright yellow vest — the latter decorated with ‘The Arrow’ embroidered in SaMskRta on the front of it. The lady was Raji Limar, the Iravat’s closest cousin on the breed list — taller, varied markings, smooth rather than textured pelt.

All the men were flirting with her, and there was a line. Talus came up with the rest of the class in tow.

“I’ll stand in queue. Keep your ears open.”

The class worked its way around the perimeter with phones out and Buddhi Oma reasoning engines answering questions. Amil stood for a still image in front of the mining frame, and was pleasantly surprised when ‘front row girl’ posed with him.

Talus whistled. The class returned to find him holding an opening. The lady gave them a friendly smile.

“What would you like to know?”

Dani put up a hand.

“How did you get this job?”

The crew boss cocked her head.

“Wuf! Well, first off — I’m just here having fun. I’m a fab line engineer. I divide my time between the orbitals and Anvasana.”

Talus interjected. “Do you like what you do?”

“Oya. A lot.” She rubbed her chin. “How I got here. Okay, mostly by doing difficult things and, sometimes, things I didn’t really want to do.”

She continued. “I’m not saying I’ve been plodding along my whole life. Just … I made choices, and some of them weren’t easy, but I made them anyway.”

Amil looked sideways at her. “How did you sort through it?”

“I looked at people who were already where I wanted to go, and I did the things they did.”

The lady tapped below her ear.

“It’s time for me to go to work.”

Chapter 3

There was a flurry of applause as the machine lifted off. It rose on red and violet columns of twisted space, its turbulence throwing the scent of fractured soil, burning grass and ozone across the road.

The mining frame was atop the mound in seconds. A loud thrumming shook the ground. Even from far off, spectators could see soil heaving around the skids. Metal ground against metal as the landfill yielded its treasure to the irresistible force of quantum attraction.

There was a whoosh. The machine peeled away, engulfed in flame.

Amil, in the middle of a sneezing fit, almost missed the spectacle. Dani fetched tissues out of her pack, passing one to him.

She spoke in his ear. “Gas pocket explosion.”

He raised eyebrows while blowing his nose. “Do you think the pile will catch fire?”

“It might.”

Dani’s Kopin classmate showed them his tablet. “Someone’s posting commentary.” He waited while their phones polled the link.

Amil took advantage of the moment to offer his hand. “Amil.”

The boy reached across. “Oman.”

Talus spoke as he walked behind them.

“The pilot’s bringing it back over. Does everyone have the narrative channel up?”

The landfill was starting to look like a volcano — a thick plume of black smoke poured out of the top.

Amil’s nose started to twitch. Dani coughed.

“Gods, what a stink!” She looked back at Talus. “Sir, do we need to get out of here?”

“If they don’t get it under control in two minutes, we’re going to the bus.”

The machine settled back on the mound, thrusters crackling and squealing, distortion cans pointed in every direction.

Oman shouted. “Ground crew says she’s going to put out the fire with vacuum!”

There was a sharp ‘crack’, like a nearby lightning strike. Liquid surged out of the mound, rocking the machine in its wake. A black mist blew straight up through the chassis, ran into an invisible barrier, coalesced and fell back down.

Talus waved his phone in the air.

“The fire is out. Cancel our escape.”

The job took an hour and a half, producing a respectable, but not impressive, pile of mixed metals.

The soil layer over the top third of the mound was completely torn up. The rest had taken on a distinctly puckered appearance all the way down the slope.

By this time, most of the spectators and school shuttles had left, driven away by the smell. Tablets and phones informed the hardy few who remained that another crew would arrive in a few days to treat the fill with a bioform agent and recap the mound.

Talus’s class observed the final half-hour from their seats in the bus, grateful for filtered air conditioning. They were all restless, but nobody complained.

Their teacher beamed at them.

“Everybody’s itching to go do something else, but here you are, showing great composure. Good for you.”

He pointed east.

“Vilasa Resort is that way. Fifteen kilometers. Who wants to make a bet that we can get an audience with Iron Arrow today instead of tomorrow?”

Chapter 4

Talus put Dani in the operator’s chair, motioned Amil to the front row, and turned the tour guide’s throne to face the class.

Dani spoke to the bus’s Oma. “Take us to Vilasa Resort”.

Talus lifted his chin at her. “Don’t let it do anything stupid.”

The bus crawled off the shoulder onto the roadway. Dani watched the mirrors, one foot lightly touching the brake.

“Yes sir.”

The teacher leaned forward.

“If you allow it, I’ll frame this part of our outing in context of the SagGha admonition to ‘Be present’.”

The announcement was met with groans. Talus held up his hands.

“I’m not going to preach a sermon. Hear me out.”

He pointed at Amil. “What’s the first iteration?”

“We don’t go to meeting, but I think it’s ‘Live in the moment’.”

“And?”

“That’s all I know, sir.”

“Anybody?”

Oman spoke from the back. “Be in the present, for the past is gone and the future is yet to be.”

“Right out of the text, but what does it mean?”

“Sir, our priest has a lot to say about this one.”

“What does it mean to you?”

“Auf! Okay. Every potential opportunity — to take action, make a choice, like something, dislike something, appreciate, regret, plan or put off — is focused in this instant. It’s a call to an intentional life.”

Talus put thumbs up. “Well said. The second iteration reminds us to be present in fellowship and in so doing to recognize the obligations implicit in relationships. In the long form, it speaks to the idea that we must give to receive and that we have a right, even a duty, to ask everyone to contribute.”

Dani spoke from the driver’s seat. “The third iteration says — be present to receive blessings, pay debts and meet your destiny.”

“And what does that mean?”

She laughed. “Show up.”

Chapter 5

The bus took them to an elevated parking lot, carved out of a hillside above the resort. The pavement’s perimeter featured a circuitous watershed management network of deep, rock-lined swales, serving a collection of densely landscaped retention ponds downslope.

The bus’s Oma steered into a space, signaling . “The hotel will dispatch transportation. Please wait by the shelter nearest this location.”

The shelter spanned a bridge across one of the channels. The overlook was high enough for one to appreciate the facility’s homage to traditional Islands architecture, albeit done on a scale that never existed until tourism arrived.

Farther east, across a sprawling two-story hotel and its subordinates, a shining white beach led into the deep blue Western Ocean and outwards, growing darker towards a horizon that had, apparently, ordered up a shipment of storm clouds.

A stiff windward breeze kicked up foam-topped rollers offshore, filling their noses with damp salt air. Talus had a few words with his phone.

“My Oma says the rain will be here in two hours.”

Dani walked backwards toward the bus. “The shuttles are open-sided. Let’s go to staff parking.”

“Can we get away with that?”

“My mother isn’t here. We’ll use her spot.”

He shrugged. “Okay.”

Talus concluded his lesson on the Three Iterations while the bus negotiated with the hotel Oma for passage through a service gate.

“Rather than contriving to force an outcome, let’s see if fortune will find us. At the very least, we’ll have lunch and be home for nap time.”

Amil took to Dani’s side at the entry to the kaphi bar. “This place is dead.”

She held the door. “This time of year, they might serve a hundred guests a week.”

The restaurant host was a tall, dignified lady of mixed Iravat and Vyala extraction. She greeted Dani with a hug, shook hands all around and led them to a nearly empty dining room.

Talus introduced himself while his students assembled a row of tables.

“I’m the new teacher at School Number Eight.”

“I gathered. How are they treating you over there?”

“It’s a bit chilly.”

She gave him a menu. “Do you have an aircar?”

“I do, but I sent it to storage in Pulina.”

“The reason I ask — the hotel corridor is more welcoming of outsiders. You can find full-time cottages for rent up in the hills, and my circle, at least, is starved for somebody new to visit with.”

“That’s a generous invitation. Thank you.”

The lady patted Dani on the shoulder. “What’s your tribe doing today, baby — looking to connect with Iron Arrow?”

Dani threw a loud whisper. “It’s an exercise in being present.”

Their host nodded. “I’ll be discreet.”

She addressed the table. “We have a short menu, but there’s deepwater whitefish, caught this morning.”

Dani touched her hand. “My mother says to tell you that Vilasa Rainforest Tours is buying lunch.”

The woman winked. “Got it.”

Amil caught Talus’s bemused look. “You were right, sir. We just got here, and already, wonderful things are happening.”

Chapter 6

The cook — a stocky Kopin gentleman, who Talus thought might have Mahat Limar in him — came out to greet them.

“We don’t have servers today.” He acknowledged a paucity of guests with the sweep of his arm. “So it’s just she and I. Does everyone here eat meat?”

The man counted nods. “The fish is as fresh as you can get it, and very good. Let me make recommendations so we can deliver your meal efficiently.”

Halfway through taking orders, he called attention to their view of the ocean.

“Hoya! The machine is coming back from a bath in the ocean.”

A hundred meters past the beach, Iron Arrow’s mining frame skidded towards shore, throwing spray out of a deep cavity in the water below it.

Amil went to the window. “Sir, I see ground current masts unfolding. Does the lady know she’s driving a discharge target over the lightning capital of the planet?”

The cook barked. “I’m sure it’s safe.”

“Until she gets out of the pod.” Amil turned to face him. “Distortion thrusters bleed off a lot of electrical energy. If her landing spot isn’t already polarized, it will be when she sets down.”

The building shook as the machine passed overhead. The man looked up. “It wouldn’t hurt to tell her. I’ll be right back.”

Talus watched the cook depart. “That’s the kind of thing they’d already know.”

Amil sat down. “You’re right. There’s probably a meter on the console.”

Dani pulled a small round object out of her pocket. “Huh. Mine reads yellow, but it would, indoors.”

Talus squinted at her. “What is that?”

Dani passed it over. “Strike potential indicator. My mother makes me carry it.”

Amil showed his. “They should sell them in the tourist shops, but they won’t.”

The teacher rolled it in his palm. “Nobody said a thing to me about it.”

“Muh huh. It’s bad for business.”

Oman peered out the windows. “Guys, all the harvesters are full out.”

Dani pushed out of her seat. “It’s good that Amil said something.”

The sky was now dark as night, but the hotel Oma did such a good job dialing up interior lighting that nobody noticed the change.

Oman took his phone out. “Sir, didn’t you say ‘two hours’ about twenty minutes ago?”

“That was for rain. The front comes in first, and it doesn’t ask my phone for permission to accelerate.”

“Okay, well, this front looks like it means business.”

Oman jerked at the crack of twin lightning strikes.

Talus leapt up. “That was close!”

There was a shout from the front of the restaurant. The cook came back in with eyes as big as serving platters, a phone pushed against his ear.

“The machine took a hit while I was talking to her.” He rubbed his face. “Mahodaya?”

He nodded at them. “She’s fine. Miss? Hello. Ya, ya. Good. We’re sending somebody. Stay in the pod until we tell you. Okay. Good. Just stay. Five minutes. Okay.”

The cook pocketed his phone. “That was exciting. Let’s get the rest of your orders.”

Halfway through lunch, he returned to speak with Amil.

“The pilot said to thank you for the warning. She hopes to see you here tomorrow.”

Dani waited until he went back to the kitchen. She gave the table a tight smile.

“They’re not coming to lunch.”

Talus shrugged. “It doesn’t mean our visit didn’t have purpose.”

Chapter 7

The next morning, a hotel bus picked Amil up at his house. He boarded to join Dani, Oman and a handful of students from other schools for the trip to Vilasa Resort.

Iron Arrow served lunch for thirty-five in a conference room large enough for three hundred. The fab line engineer was joined by her ground crew, a husband and wife mechanical maintenance team.

If the hosts were disappointed by low turnout, they didn’t show it. The presentation was enthusiastic, replete with thrilling tales and framed in brilliantly executed motion capture media.

Amil didn’t expect to be singled out for recognition — and he wasn’t.

Oman offered consolation on their way to the bus.

“Vira, she had to know you were here. What an ungrateful wretch.”

Amil patted him on the waist. “Eh. I bet somebody saves her life every day.”

Dani bumped him with her hip. “Did you get anything out of it?”

“I think I should become an engineer.”

Chapter 8

Sixthday arrived with a text message from Talus, instructing Amil to meet him at a trailhead off the road to Vilasa.

The path led up a densely forested mountainside to a traditional home of vambah poles lashed together with hardgrass fiber. There, they met Five Island’s most respected competitive tree-climbing coaches, a couple in their fifties who operated a produce business.

They were the most physically fit people Amil had ever seen — lean with ropy muscles and thick wrists. The lady showed Amil her hands, displaying hardened claws that refused to completely retract.

“If you start this, you won’t be playing any musical instruments until long after you quit.”

Amil gave her wide eyes. “How do you use a computer?”

She laughed. “I write on the screen with a claw, or I dictate.”

“How do I start?”

The lady wrinkled her nose at him. “Do you have a job lined up for session break?”

“I was going to ask my uncle.”

“Will he be disappointed if you spend three months harvesting shellfruit instead?”

“I don’t think so.”

Chapter 9

Amil’s first month with the harvest crew was intensely humbling — everyone was stronger, tougher and experienced. He was not allowed to climb —instead relegated to pushing carts, bringing water and sorting.

When Amil started to present a modicum of conditioning, his boss allowed workers to show him a few moves. Belayed at the end of a rope, Amil fell repeatedly, until finally he stopped falling.

During the last month, he climbed with the rest of them. By the time Amil showed up for Grade Seven, he was six centimeters taller and five kilos heavier than he was in Grade Six.

Entering Talus’s class on the first day, Amil met his Kopin classmates with a work-hardened frame and the confidence that goes with it. To his surprise, they greeted him with friendly smiles.

The pack leader took him aside during lunch, shaking his hand with exaggerated gravity, and explained: “We’ve all grown up a little. I want you to know that this year will be different.”

During final session, Amil participated in his first climbing competition, enrolled in a University intake program at Telepresence Academy and became intimate with Dani. He was twelve, she was fourteen.

For Amil Leyta, Seventh Grade was a very good year.

Chapter 10

When Amil was seventeen, the experimental spacecraft ParikSaka called in after having been missing for forty-three years. Due to time dilation, only a week had passed for Rivan Saraf and his crew. They were alive and coming home.

It was Amil’s final year of eligibility to compete as a climber in the Junior Division. He placed first at Matsyajala — a fishing village in the Outer Islands — finishing ninth in the region and twenty-first overall in a field of more than a thousand athletes.

A month later, Dani moved to Matsyajala to start a guide business. The lovers always knew they must someday part, but it was a heartbreak nonetheless.

Amil was still too poor to go away for college, and too young to enlist in the military. So, he worked at his uncle’s fuel cell service, ran a desk at Vilasa Rainforest Tours, waited tables at tribal shows and occasionally demonstrated his sport for a share of the tips.

But he never forgot his dreams. The now-proven utility of Rivan Saraf’s interstellar drive made Amil surer than ever about what to do with his life. Three months after finishing secondary school, Amil enrolled in a two-year equivalency program at InfoSpace University.

And then, a month after that, Amil’s father put his foot down in the wrong place atop a post-frame building and fell to his death.

Dani came back for the funeral. She held him tight, kissing his ears while he cried over her shoulder.

“Oh, Gods, Mil.” She pulled away, gazing into his eyes with sorrowful resignation. “Your plans to go away are shattered. I’m so sorry.”

Amil’s mother disagreed. “I can take care of myself. If you want to be an engineer, then that’s what you should do.”

It took two years for ParikSaka to make its 315 light-year journey back to the orbitals. When Rivan Saraf returned, Vidura’s economy accelerated — and demand for engineers exploded.

Amil found his mother at her pottery wheel. Her shop smelled of combustion, paint, clay and sweat. He kissed her cheek and spoke the words they both knew were coming. “Mi, I’m going to join the Cadre.”

Chapter 11

The Cadre scheduled Amil for entrance processing two months out. It gave time to make rounds and tidy up loose ends.

Oman went along at every opportunity. When Amil finally inquired about it, his Kopin sidekick freely admitted to self-interest.

“Vira, I’m waiting for the breeders to line up.” He shrugged. “I’m not as beautiful as you, but maybe I’ll find fortune in your wake.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re taking valuable genotype away from here. The ladies will want you to give them a good poke beforehand, just to see if it takes.”

Amil snorted. “You’re insane! The population crisis hasn’t made us that desperate.”

Oman was adamant. “My friend, it most certainly has.”

His uncle laughed when Amil mentioned it. “It could happen, but Oman will be disappointed — it’ll be a mature lady you know from the market, a teacher from your school, one of your mother’s friends, or a married couple who haven’t been able to make a child.”

“Never mind.”

“I could ask around.”

“Please don’t.”

The closest mainland port was Pulina, fourteen hundred kilometers east across open sea. Dani’s mother negotiated a work-for-fare exchange with the cruise line. She sent a generous parting gift to Amil’s account on his last day at her tour company.

“Save your money. Eat in the crew commissary; don’t buy anything on the ship”

She gave him a long hug. “You would have been a good son-in-law. I wish you luck, Amil.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Born in Chickamauga, Georgia, John Dyer moved to Asia in 1956, when his father took an engineering assignment with a power utility. He attended grades 1-12 at an international school, touring with his family through 29 countries before settling in the Midwest. A computer scientist, he is a founder of an IBM-affiliated software company, and an early innovator in electronic commerce. He brings a lifelong interest in science and engineering to everything he writes.

Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
Visit my Wordpress site at https://johngdyer.wordpress.com
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
I like Joss Whedon for the way he wraps the fantastic in the mundane and William Gibson for what one reviewer calls his "holographic narrative style" - which I read to mean a knack for filling in peripheral details at exactly the correct intensity.

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