Lois McMaster Bujold, "FALLING FREE"

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Chapter 8

It took an hour of stalking before Leo was able to catch Silver alone, in a monitor blind spot in a corridor leading from the free fall gym.

"Is there someplace we can talk in private?" he asked her. "I mean really private."

Her wary glance around confirmed that she understood him perfectly. Still she hesitated. "Is it important?"

"Vital. Life or death for every quaddie. That important."

"Well . . . wait a minute or two, then follow me."

He trailed her slowly and casually through the Habitat, a flash of shimmering hair and blue jersey at this or that cross-branching. Then, down one corridor, he suddenly lost her. "Silver . . . ?"

"Sh!" she hissed at his ear. A wall panel hinged silently inward, and one of her strong lower hands reached out to yank him in like a fish on a line.

It was dark and narrow behind the wall for only a moment, then airseal doors parted with a whisper to reveal an odd-shaped chamber perhaps three meters across. They slipped within.

"What's this?" asked Leo, stunned.

"The Clubhouse. Anyway, we call it that. We built it in this little blind pocket. You wouldn't notice it from Outside unless you were looking for it at just the right angle. Tony and Pramod did the outside walls. Siggy ran the ductwork in, others did the wiring . . . the airseals we built from spare parts."

"Weren't they missed?"

Her smile was not in the least innocent. "Quaddies do the computer records entry, too. The parts just sort of ceased to exist in inventory. A bunch of us worked together on it—we just finished it about two months ago. I was sure Dr. Yei and Mr. Van Atta would find out about it, when they were questioning me," her smile faded to a frown in memory, "but they never asked just the right question. Now the only vids we have left are the ones that happened to be stored in here, and Darla doesn't have the vid system up yet."

Leo followed her glance to a dead holovid set, obviously in process of repair, fixed to the wall. There were other comforts: lighting, handy straps, a wall cabinet that proved to be stuffed with little bags of dried snacks abstracted from Nutrition, raisins, peanuts and the like. Leo orbited the room slowly, nervously examining the workmanship. It was tight. "Was this place your idea?"

"Sort of. I couldn't have done it alone, though. You understand, it's strictly against our rules for me to bring you in here," Silver added somewhat truculently. "So this better be good, Leo."

"Silver," said Leo, "it's your uniquely pragmatic approach to rules that makes you the most valuable quaddie in the Habitat right now. I need you—your daring, and all the other qualities that Dr. Yei would doubtless call anti-social. I've got a job to do that I can't do alone either." He took a deep breath. "How would you quaddies like to have your own asteroid belt?"

"What?" her eyes widened.

"Brucie-baby is trying to keep it under wraps, but the Cay Project has just been scheduled for termination—and I mean that in the most sinister sense of the word."

He detailed the anti-gravity rumor to her, all that he had yet heard, and Van Atta's secret plans for the quaddies' disposal. With rising passion, he described his vision of escape. He didn't have to explain anything twice.

"How much time do we have left?" she asked whitely, when he had finished.

"Not much. A few weeks at most. I have only six days until I'm forced downside by my gravity leave. I've got to figure out some way to duck that, I'm afraid I might not be able to get back here. We—you quaddies—have to choose now. And I can't do it for you. I can only help with some of the parts. If you cannot rescue yourselves, you will be lost, guaranteed."

She blew out her breath in a silent whistle, looking troubled indeed. "I thought—watching Tony and Claire—they were doing it the wrong way. Tony talked about finding work, but do you know, he didn't think to take a work-suit with him? I didn't want to make the same mistakes. We aren't made to travel alone, Leo. Maybe it's something that was built into us."

"But can you bring in the others?" Leo asked anxiously. "In secret? Let me tell you, the quickest end-scenario for this little revolution I can imagine would be for some quaddie to panic and tell, trying to be good. This is a real conspiracy, all rules off. I sacrifice my job, risk legal prosecution, but you risk much more."

"There are some who, urn, should be told last," said Silver thoughtfully. "But I can bring the important ones in. We've got some ways of keeping things private from the downsiders." Leo glanced around the chamber, subtly reassured. "Leo ..." her blue eyes targeted him searchingly, "how are we going to get rid of the downsiders?"

"Well, we won't be able to shuttle them down to Rodeo, that's for certain. From the moment this thing comes out in the open, you can count on the Habitat being cut off from re-supply." Besieged, was the word Leo's mind suggested, and carefully edited. "The way I thought of was to collect them all in one module, throw in some emergency oxygen, cut it off the Habitat, and use one of the cargo pushers to move it around orbit to the Transfer Station. At that point they become GalacTech's problem, not ours. Hopefully it'd ball things up a bit at the Transfer Station, too, and give us a little more time."

"How do you plan to—to make them all get into the module?"

Leo stirred uncomfortably. "Well, that's the point of no return, Silver. There are weapons all around us here, we just don't recognize them because we call them 'tools'. A laser-solderer with the safety removed is as good as a gun. There's a couple of dozen of them in the workshops. Point it at the downsiders and say 'Move!'—and they'll move."

"What if they don't?"

"Then you must fire it. Or choose not to, and be taken downside to a slow and sterile death. And you choose for everybody, when you make that choice, not just for yourself."

Silver was shaking her head. "I don't think that's such a good idea, Leo. What if somebody panicked and actually fired one? The downsider would be horribly burned!"

"Well . . . yes, that's the idea."

Her face crumpled with dismay. "If I have to shoot Mama Nilla, I'd rather go downside and die!"

Mama Nilla was one of the quaddies' most popular creche mothers, Leo recalled vaguely, a big elderly woman—he'd barely met her, as his classes didn't involve the younger quaddies. "I was thinking more in terms of shooting Bruce," Leo confessed.

"I'm not sure I could even do that to Mr. Van Atta," said Silver slowly. "Have you ever seen a bad burn, Leo?"

"Yes."

"So have I."

A brief silence fell.

"We can't bluff our teachers," said Silver finally. "All Mama Nilla would have to do is say 'Give that over now, Siggy!' in that voice of hers, and he would. It's not—it's not a smart scenario, Leo."

Leo's hands clenched in exasperation. "But we must get the downsiders off the Habitat, or nothing else can be done! If we can't, they'll just re-take it, and you'll be worse off than when you started."

"All right, all right! We've got to get rid of them. But that's not the way." She paused, looking at him more doubtfully. "Could you shoot Mama Nilla? Do you really think—say—Pramod, could shoot you?"

Leo sighed. "Probably not. Not in cold blood. Even soldiers in battle have to be brought to a special state of mental excitement to shoot total strangers."

Silver looked relieved. "All right, so what else would have to be done? Saying we could take over the Habitat."

"Re-configuring the Habitat can be done with tools and supplies already aboard, though everything will have to be carefully rationed. The Habitat will have to be defended from any attempt by GalacTech to recapture it while this is going on. The high-energy-density beam welders could be quite effective discouragements to shuttles attempting to board us—if anybody could be induced to fire one," he added with a dry edge. "Company inventory doesn't include armored attack ships, fortunately. A real military force would make short work of this little revolution, you realize." His imagination supplied the details, and his stomach bunched queasily. "Our only real defense is to get gone before GalaTech can produce one. That will require a Jump pilot."

He studied her anew. "That's where you come in, Silver. I know a pilot who's going to be passing through the Transfer Station very soon who might be, um, easier to kidnap than most. Especially if you came along to lend your personal persuasion." "Ti."

"Ti," he confirmed. She looked dubious. "Maybe." Leo fought down another and stronger wave of queasiness. Ti and Silver had a relationship predating his arrival. He wasn't really playing pimp. Logic dictated this. He realized suddenly that what he really wanted was to remove her as far from the Jump pilot as possible. And do what? Keep her for yourself? Get serious. You're too old for her. Ti was what—twenty-five, maybe? Perhaps violently jealous, for all Leo knew. She must prefer him. Leo tried virtuously to feel old. It wasn't hard; most of the quaddies made him feel about eighty anyway. He wrenched his mind back to business. "The third thing that has to be done first," Leo thought over the wording of that, and concluded unhappily that it was all too accurate, "is nail down a cargo Jumper. If we wait until we boost the Habitat all the way out to the wormhole, GalacTech will have time to figure out how to defend them. Such as Jumping them all to the Orient IV side and thumbing their noses at us until we are forced to surrender. That means," he contemplated the next logical step with some dismay, "we've got to send a force out to the wormhole to hijack one. And I can't go with it, and be here to defend and reconfigure the Habitat both . . . it'll have to be a force of quaddies. I don't know ..." Leo ran down, "maybe this isn't such a great idea after all."

"Send Ti with them," suggested Silver reasonably. "He knows more about the cargo Jumpers than any of us."

"Mm," said Leo, drawn back to optimism. If he was going to pay attention to the odds against this escapade succeeding, he might as well give up now and avoid the rush. Screw the odds. He would believe in Ti. If necessary, he would believe in elves, angels, and the tooth fairy.

"That makes, um, suborning Ti step one in the flow chart," Leo reasoned aloud. "From the moment he's missed we're out in the open, racing the clock. That means all the advance planning for moving the Habitat had better be done—in advance. And—oh. Oh, my." Leo's eyes lit.

"What?"

"I just had a brilliant idea to buy us a head start . . ."

Leo timed his entrance carefully, waiting until Van Atta had been holed up in his Habitat office nearly the first two hours of the shift. The project chief would be starting to think about his coffee break by now, and reaching the degree of frustration that always attended the first attack on a new problem, in this case dismantling the Habitat. Leo could picture the entangled stage of his planning precisely; he'd gone through it himself about eight hours previously, locked in his own quarters, brainstorming on his computer console after a brief pause to render his programs inaccessible to snoops. The leftover military security clearance from the Argus cruiser project worked wonders. Leo was quite sure no one in the Habitat, not Van Atta and certainly not Yei, possessed a higher key.

Van Atta frowned at him from the clutter of printouts, his computer vid scintillating multi-screened and colorful with assorted Habitat schematics. "Now what, Leo? I'm busy. Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

And those who can't teach, Leo finished silently, go into administration. He maintained his usual bland smile, not letting the edged thought show by any careless gleam or reflection. "I've been thinking, Brace," Leo purred. "I'd like to volunteer for the job of dismantling the Habitat."

"You would?" Van Atta's brows rose in astonishment, lowered in suspicion. "Why?"

Van Atta would hardly believe it was out of the goodness of his heart. Leo was prepared. "Because as much as I hate to admit it, you were right again. I've been thinking about what I'm going to bring away from this assignment. Counting travel time, I've shot four months of my life—more, before this is done—and I've got nothing to show for it but some black marks on my record."

"You did it to yourself." Van Atta, reminded, rubbed his chin upon which the bruise was fading to a green shadow, and glowered.

"I lost my perspective for a little while, it's true," Leo admitted. "I've got it back."

"A bit late," sneered Van Atta.

"But I could do a good job," argued Leo, wondering how one could achieve the effect of a hangdog shuffle in free fall. Better not overdo it. "I really need a commendation, something to counterweight those reprimands. I've had some ideas that could result in an unusually high salvage ratio, cut the losses. It would take all the scut work off your hands and leave you free to administer."

"Hm," said Van Atta, clearly enticed by a vision of his office returning to its former pristine serenity. He studied Leo, his eyes slitting. "Very well—take it. There's my notes, they're all yours. Ah, just send the plans and reports through my office, I'll send 'em on. That's my real job, after all, administration."

"Certainly." Leo swept up the clutter. Yes, send 'em through you—so you can replace my name with your own. Leo could almost see the wheels turn, in the smug light of Van Atta's eyes. Let Leo do the work, and Van Atta siphon off the credit. Oh, you'll get the credit for how this project ends all right, Brucie-baby—all of it.

"I'll need a few other things," Leo requested humbly. "I want all the quaddie pusher crews that can be spared from their regular duties, in addition to my own classes. These useless children are going to learn to work like they never worked before. Supplies, equipment, authorization to sign out pushers and fuel—gotta start some on-site surveying—and I need to be able to commandeer other quaddie spot labor as needed. All right?"

"Oh, are you volunteering for the hands-on part too?" A fleeting vindictive greediness crossed Van Atta's face, followed by doubt. "What about keeping this under wraps till the last minute?"

"I can present the pre-planning as a theoretical class exercise, at first. Buy a week or two. They'll have to be told eventually, you know."

"Not too soon. I'll hold you responsible for keeping the chimps under control, you copy?"

"I copy. Do I have my authorization? Oh—and I'll need to get an extension against my downside gravity leave."

"HQ doesn't like that. Liability."

"It's either me or you, Bruce."

"True ..." Van Atta waved a hand, already sinking back gratefully from harried to languid mode. "All right. You got it."

A blank check. Leo tamped a wolfish grin into a fawning smile. "You'll remember this, won't you Bruce—later?"

Van Atta's lips too drew back. "I guarantee, Leo, I'll remember everything."

Leo bowed himself out, mumbling gratitude.

Silver poked her head through the door to the creche mother's private sleep cubicle. "Mama Nilla?"

"Sh!" Mama Nilla held her finger to her lips and nodded toward Andy, asleep in a sack on the wall with his face peeping out. She whispered, "For heaven's sake don't wake the baby. He's been so fussy—I think the formula disagrees with him. I wish Dr. Minchenko were back. Here, I'll come out in the corridor."

The airseal doors swished shut behind her. In preparation for sleep Mama Nilla had exchanged her pink working coveralls for a set of flowered pajamas cinched in around her ample waist. Silver suppressed an urge to clamp herself to that soft torso as she had in desperate moments when she was little—she was much too grown-up to be cuddled anymore, she told herself sternly. "How's Andy doing?" she asked instead, with a nod toward the closed doors.

"Hm. All right," said Mama Nilla. "Though I hope I can get this formula problem straightened out soon. And . . . well . . . I'm not sure you could call it depression, exactly, but his attention span seems shorter, and he fusses—don't tell Claire that, though, poor dear, she has enough troubles. Tell her he's all right."

Silver nodded. "I understand."

Mama Nilla frowned introspectively. "I wrote up a protest, but my supervisor blocked it. Ill-timed, she said. Ha. More like Mr. Van Atta has her spooked. I could just . . . ahem. Anyway, I've been turning in overtime chits like crazy, and I requested an extra assistant be assigned to my creche unit. Maybe when they realize that this foolishness is costing them money, they'll give in. You can tell Claire that, I think."

"Yes," said Silver, "she could use a little hope."

Mama Nilla sighed. "I feel so badly about this. Whatever possessed those children to try and run off, anyway? I could just shake Tony. And as for that stupid Security guard, I could just. . . well..." she shook her head.

"Have you heard any more about Tony, that I could pass on to Claire?"

"Ah. Yes." Mama Nilla glanced up and down the corridor, to assure herself of their privacy. "Dr. Minchenko called me last night on the personal channel. He assures me Tony's out of danger now, they got that infection under control. But he's still very weak. Dr. Minchenko means to bring him back up to the Habitat when he finishes his own gravity leave. He thinks Tony will complete his recovery faster up here. So that's a bit of good news you can pass on to Claire."

Silver calculated, her lower fingers tapping out the days unobtrusively below Mama Nilla's line of sight, and breathed relief. That was one massive problem she could report to Leo as solved. Tony would be back before their revolt broke into the open. His safe return might even become the signal for it. A smile lit her face. "Thanks, Mama Nilla. That is good news."

Revolution 101 for the Bewildered, Leo decided grimly, should be his course title. Or worse; 050. Remedial Revolution . . .

The shell of floating quaddies hovering expectantly around him in the lecture module had been officially augmented by both the off-duty pusher crews, and loaded with all the off-shift older quaddies Silver had been able to contact covertly. Sixty or seventy altogether. The lecture module was jammed, causing Leo to jump ahead mentally and think about oxygen consumption and regeneration plans for the reconfigured Habitat. There was tension, as well as carbon dioxide, in the air. Rumors were afloat already, Leo realized, God knew in what mutant forms. It was time to replace rumors with facts.

Silver waved all clear from the airseal doors, turning all four thumbs up and grinning at Leo, as one last T-shirted quaddie scurried within. The airseal doors slid shut, eclipsing her as she turned to take up guard duty in the corridor.

Leo took up his lecture station in the center. The center, the hub of the wheel, where stresses are most concentrated. After some initial whispering, poking, and prodding, they hushed for him, to an almost frightening attentiveness. He could hear them breathing. We would need you even if you weren't an engineer, Leo, Silver had remarked. We're all too used to taking orders from people with legs.

Are you saying you need a front man? he'd asked, amused.

Is that what it's called? Her gaze upon him had been coolly pragmatic.

He was getting too old, his brain was short-circuiting to some distant rock beat, slipping back to the noisier rhythms of his adolescence. Let me be your front man, baby. Call me Leo. Call me anytime, day or night. Let me help. He eyed the closed airseal doors. Was the man waving the baton at the front of the parade pulling it after him—or being pushed along ahead of it? He had a queasy premonition he was going to learn the answer. He woofed a breath, and returned his attention to the lecture chamber.

"As some of you have already heard," Leo began, words like pebbles in the pool of silence, "a new gravity technology has arrived from the outlying planets. It's apparently based on a variation of the Necklin field tensor equations, the same mathematics that underlie the technology we use to punch through those wrinkles in space-time we call wormholes. I haven't been able to get hold of the tech specs yet myself, but it seems it's already been developed to the marketable stage. The theoretical possibility was not, strictly speaking, new, but I for one never expected to see its practical capture in my lifetime. Evidently, neither did the people who created you quaddies.

"There is a kind of strange symmetry to it. The spurt forward in genetic bioengineering that made you possible was based on the perfection of a new technology, the uterine replicator, from Beta Col-

152 Lois McMaster Bujold

ony. Now, barely a generation later, the new technology that renders you obsolete has arrived from the same source. Because that's what you have become, before you even got on-line—technologically obsolete. At least from GalacTech's point of view." Leo drew breath, watching for their reactions.

"Now, when a machine becomes obsolete, we scrap it. When a man's training becomes obsolete, we send him back to school. But your obsolescence was bred in your bones. It's either a cruel mistake, or, or, or," he paused for emphasis, "the greatest opportunity you will ever have to become a free people.

"Don't. . . don't take notes," Leo choked, as heads bent automatically over their scribble boards, illuminating his key words with their light pens as the autotranscription marched across their displays. "This isn't a class. This is real life." He had to stop a moment to regain his equilibrium. He was positive some child at the back was still highlighting "no notes—real life", in reflexive virtue.

Pramod, floating near, looked up, his dark eyes agitated. "Leo? There was a rumor going around that the company was going to take us all downside and shoot us. Lake Tony."

Leo smiled sourly. "That's actually the least likely scenario. You are to be taken downside, yes, to a sort of prison camp. But this is how guilt-free genocide is handled. One administrator passes you on to the next, and him to the next, and him to the next. You become a routine expense on the inventory. Expenses rise, as they always do. In response, your downsider support employees are gradually withdrawn, as the company names you 'self-suflicient.' Life support equipment deteriorates with age. Breakdowns happen more and more often, maintenance and re-supply become more and more erratic.

"Then one night—without anybody ever giving an order or pulling a trigger—some critical breakdown occurs. You send a call for help. Nobody knows who you are. Nobody knows what to do. Those who placed you there are all long gone. No hero takes initiative, initiative having been drained by administrative bitching and black hints. The investigating inspector, after counting the bodies, discovers with relief that you were merely inventory. The books are quietly closed on the Cay Project. Finis. Wrap. It might take twenty years, maybe only five or ten. You are simply forgotten to death."

Pramod's hand touched his throat, as if he already felt the rasp of Rodeo's toxic atmosphere. "I think I'd rather be shot," he muttered.

"Or," Leo raised his voice, "you can take your lives into your own hands. Come with me and put all your risks up front. The big gamble for the big payoff. Let me tell you," he gulped for courage, mustered megalomania—for surely only a maniac could drive this through to success—"let me tell you about the Promised Land. ..."