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Story Excerpts

The Proving Ground

by Alec Nevala-Lee

Perhaps . . . a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them will perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise; tomorrow we shall die.

      —Daphne du Maurier,

“The Birds” 

I.

Haley Kabua was clinging to the top of a wind tower when she saw the first bird. She had clipped her lanyard, which was attached by a strap to the back of her safety harness, to a strut on the lattice directly beneath the huge fiberglass rotors. As she braced her bare feet on the scaffold, thirty precarious meters above the beach, she knew without looking that the men on the sand below had halted to watch her climb. Only a few hours of daylight remained, but she forced herself not to hurry, knowing that any mistake she made might be her last.

A pair of thick slings had been hitched to separate legs of the tower, about a third of the way down from the top. Each one ran to the closed hook on the boom of the crane behind her, which had raised the tower into place earlier that afternoon. Both of the chokers had to be released by hand. Reaching up, she unhooked the nearest shackle, letting the loosened sling hang down, and she was about to work her way around to the other when she realized that she was not alone.

Haley tilted back her construction worker’s hat to get a better look at the bird, which was perched on the tail of the turbine. It was a tern, about the length of her forearm, with spotless white plumage and a black eye encircled by a ring of dark feathers that made it seem larger. At the moment, it was clinging to the fin of the tail section with its small blue feet, and it seemed to be staring directly at her, as if it had flown up to investigate this unexpected incursion.

She glanced around. Along the eastern end of the island, six other wind towers were spaced about a hundred meters apart, their new blades shining. A seventh tower lay on the sand, where the workers had just finished bolting its sections together. There were no other birds in sight. Haley was perfectly aware that no terns had nested on Enyu in years, and the wind tower was well above the height at which they preferred to fly. And yet here it was.

Haley waved at it. “Hey, get lost. You don’t want to be around when this starts up.”

The bird tilted its head to one side. Haley returned her attention to the remaining choker on the scaffold. “Guess you like to live dangerously. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

She inched around to the second sling, the retractable strap on her harness automatically unspooling. Now she was facing toward the atoll, which formed a horseshoe thirty kilometers across, around the central lagoon. From where she stood at the southeast, she could see the full line of the reef, walkable when the tide was low, that stretched to the islet to the north, along with the seastead taking shape five hundred meters to its leeward side.

Haley paused to drink it all in. The atoll provided few natural vantage points, with its highest elevation only ten meters above low tide, so she rarely had a chance to study the entire structure at once. Seeing it now, from as high above the islet as she would ever be, she felt the sight cut through her exhaustion. It was easy to grow obsessed by details while overlooking the larger picture, she thought, and it was that kind of blindness that had led them to this crisis in the first place.

The seastead had not been designed for beauty, but it was beautiful nonetheless, with the kind of elegance that emerged as a logical conclusion of functionality and constraint. It consisted of a modular network of caissons floating on the surface of the water, with each concrete platform measuring fifty meters to a side. The colony had been designed to expand gradually. One day, there would be more, but now there were only five, a quincunx of four squares joined by a grid of covered walkways and flexible connections to the central hub.

Each platform ascended in a series of smaller terraces, stepped like a ziggurat, with the highest level of the hub rising twenty meters above the lagoon. Their roofs had a tessellated look, with photovoltaic panels alternating with surfaces for catching rain. Half of the caisson facing her was devoted to a hydroponic greenhouse, with a floating dock on the adjacent platform, and the water on the sheltered side was covered in a grid of fish pens and bioreactors that reminded her of rows of a green quilt that had been flung across the sea.

It was a work in progress, and it always looked to her as if someone had left an unfinished mosaic on the face of the ocean, spare tesserae and all. Haley, who had spent most of the last three years on the atoll trying to solve problems at sea level, was struck by how fragile it seemed from above, and as she gazed at the scattered human figures visible below, she felt shaken back into action. They had only four working hours left, and there was still one more turbine to go.

Haley was reaching for the second choker when something struck the top of her hat. At first, she thought that a piece of the turbine had come loose, but when she looked up, all she saw was that the bird that had been perching on the tail section was no longer there.

She heard the sound of wings. In the corner of her eye, there was a flash of white, and then the tern was beating against the back of her neck. She pivoted around, releasing one hand from the scaffold, and tried to bat it away. Instead, she felt a series of sharp pecks as it attacked her shoulders and arms, its feet scrabbling for purchase on the front of her shirt.

The bird drew blood again and went for her eyes. As she attempted to duck out of its path, her foot slipped. She grabbed for the strut above her head and missed. An instant later, she was toppling back, the impossibly blue sky above the rotors filling her field of vision, and all other thoughts vanished, replaced by the logic of gravity. She tried to correct herself, failed, and fell. . . . READ MORE

 

Twilight's Captives

by Christoper L. Bennett

In Madeleine Kamakau’s long experience, one could learn much about a society from its angry mobs. The focus of their protests could illuminate its values, its priorities, and its degree of unity or division, while their character and tone could reveal much about its rationality and stability. Now, as she followed her escort through the main thoroughfare of the small Daikoku colony, Madeleine observed that the protestors lining its curbs were orderly, civil, and self-disciplined, almost embarrassed by the deep anger they had come here to express. The dense air filtered the light of the setting K-type sun to a melodramatic blood-red, evoking the familiar footage of the firelit riot that had already become an interstellar flashpoint, and yet these people who had lived through that riot resisted the urge to succumb to the same fury once again. Nevertheless, their chants and placard animations left no doubt that they felt violated to the core by what the Nocturne League had done here. “No negotiation!” “Don’t make deals with darkness!” “Give us back our babies!”

Inwardly, Madeleine ached for them. It had been well over a subjective century since the war in Chryse Planitia had taken three of her children, but at times she still felt the grief as though it were fresh. She vividly remembered the terror when her fourteenth child had been kidnapped to undermine her peacemaking efforts among the Martian states. And she still lived with the pain of the day, half a century ago at the start of the warp era, when she’d returned from a months-long diplomatic mission to find that her latest husband had divorced her in absentia and taken their two children. She knew every flavor of the anguish, loss, and rage she saw in these parents’ eyes, and then some.

Yet if that flame were allowed to spread, it could spark an interstellar war that would only kill more children. Madeleine could not, would not, allow that.

Daikoku’s governor, Sato Leiji, met his people’s eyes supportively. “Our League clientship has been trouble from the start,” the younger man told her with quiet intensity. “So many rules they insisted we follow—just excuses to impose extortionate penalties, gain control bit by bit. But we never expected it to go this far. Interpret the rules differently and they steal your children?” he went on with rising volume. “Burn your houses, kill your families?”

This was a dangerous time to play to the crowd. “I’m sure no one is assuming the loss of life—either human or Aksash’sk—was intentional,” Madeleine countered, using a tone of gentle implacability developed over more than a century of motherhood and politics.

Sato calmed under her gaze. “Certainly, it was a tragedy. But the Aksash provoked it.”

Madeleine’s Denzeuur colleague, Rabnaara Vutiiri, flipped his head up and over on its swanlike neck to face the governor. The quadruped’s pear-shaped body was front-back symmetrical, and the vertical symmetry of his head let it function either side up. To human eyes, it was a disarming trait, and Rabnaara used it cagily. “That’s one way of looking at it,” he observed in his soft clarinet voice. “But every point of view has its flip side.” He blinked his loris-like eyes and waggled the sunburst of whiskers around his broad, lavender-furred face. Madeleine smirked. Denzeuur were subtle, shrewd people, good at putting others at ease . . . and off their guard.

Sato faltered a bit. “Even if the Nocturnes had a case about our alleged violations, it wouldn’t justify kidnapping. Or precipitating an incident that claimed lives. The Akisu are the criminals here.”

Madeleine’s gaze subtly chastised him for the racial slur, the Japanese word for “sneak thief.” “Who did what, and why, is a matter for our investigation,” Madeleine replied. “But it would surely be a crime to let our anger spark a war.”

“Is that all you see?” One protestor stepped forward: a tall woman, bronze-haired with epicanthic green eyes. “Some cold exercise in galactic strategy? Are our children just variables in an equation to you?”

“Claire . . .” the governor cautioned. “Ambassador Kamakau, Mediator Vutiiri, this is Claire Takeuchi-san. Her Shannon-chan is one of the prisoners.”

“I’m sorry for you,” Madeleine said sincerely.

Claire was unmoved. “Of course you are,” she scoffed, looming over the ambassador. “The pain of a small colony out in the boondocks matters so much more to the Planetary Commonwealth than your vital trade arrangements. What do you plan to do? Buy peace with our children’s lives?”

“There’s no reason to believe their lives are in danger,” Madeleine tried to reassure her.

“You face down an Axe charging you with bloody claws and tell me that. You watch your house burned down, your daughter get ripped from you by those claws, and tell me that!” Her rhetoric began agitating the crowd. Reluctantly, the governor nodded to the guards to escort her away. “This isn’t some diplomatic puzzle, this is about family!” Claire called out.

“Don’t sell our children!” a protestor cried in sympathy. The crowd readily picked up the chant.

Rabnaara stroked Madeleine’s back, seeking calm as much as offering it. “Don’t listen to her. If she had any idea how many children you’ve raised . . .”

“It’s all right, Rab.” Madeleine understood how the young mother felt. Modern medicine and relativistic starflight had brought her through more than two centuries with her Polynesian features unlined and her meter-long hair still shimmering black, save for the well-cultivated white streak emerging from her left temple. But outliving great-great-grandchildren made one feel one’s age. . . . READ MORE

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