Lois McMaster Bujold, "FALLING FREE"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16

Chapter 6

"Well, it wasn't my fault," snapped Shuttleport Administrator Chalopin. "I wasn't even told this was going on." She glowered pointedly at Van Atta. "How am I supposed to control my jursidiction when other administrators hopscotch my properly established channels of command, blithely hand out orders to my people without even informing me, violate protocol ..."

"The situation was extraordinary. Time was of the essence," muttered Van Atta truculently.

Leo secretly sympathized with Chalopin's testiness. Her smooth routine disrupted, her office abruptly appropriated for the Ops VP's inquest—Apmad did not believe in wasting time. The official company investigation of the incident had commenced, by her fiat, a bare hour ago in Aisle 29; he'd be surprised if it took her more than another hour to finish sifting the case.

The windows of Shuttleport Three's adminstrative offices, sealed against the internal pressure of the building, framed a panorama of the complex—the runways, loading zones, warehouses, offices, hangars, workers' dormitories, the monorail running off to the refinery glittering on the horizon and the eerily rugged mountains beyond. And the vital power plant; Rodeo's atmosphere had oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, but in the wrong proportions and at too low a pressure to suit human metabolism. The air conditioning labored constantly to adjust the gas mix and filter out the contaminants. A human might live for fifteen minutes outside without a breath mask; Leo was uncertain whether to think of it as a safety margin or just a slow death. Definitely not a garden spot.

Bannerji had sidled around behind the shuttleport administrator. Hiding behind her, Leo thought. It might be the best strategy for the security guard at that. From her smart shoes through her trim Galac-Tech uniform to her swept-back coiffure, not a hair out of place, and her set, clean jawline, Chalopin radiated both the will and the ability to defend her turf.

Apmad, refereeing the scrimmage, was another type altogether. Dumpy, on the high end of middle age, frizzy grey hair cut short, she might have been somebody's grandmother, but for her eyes. She made no attempt to dress for success. As if she already possessed so much power, she was beyond that game. So far from regulating tempers, her laconic comments had served to stir the pot, as if she was curious what might float to the top. Definitely not a grandmother's eyes . . .

Leo was still close to a boil himself. "The project is twenty-five years old. Time can't be that much of the essence."

"God almighty," cried Van Atta, "am I the only man here conscious of what the bottom line means?"

"Bottom line?" said Leo. "GalacTech is closer to its payoff from the Cay Project than ever before. To screw things up now with an impatient, premature attempt to wring profits is practically criminal. You're on the verge of the first real results."

"Not really," observed Apmad coolly. "Your first group of fifty workers is merely a token. It will take another ten years to bring the whole thousand online." Cool, yes; but Leo read a fierce concealed tension in her the source of which he could not yet identify.

"So, call it a tax loss. You can't tell me this," Leo waved a hand toward the window, indicating Rodeo, "can't use a tax loss or two."

Apmad rolled her eyes at the man who stood silently at her shoulder. "Tell this young man the facts of hie, Gavin."

Gavin was a big rumpled goon with a broken nose whom Leo had taken at first for some kind of bodyguard. He was in fact the Ops VP's chief accountant, and when he spoke it was with startlingly precise and elegant elocution, in impressive rounded paragraphs.

"GalacTech had been offsetting the Cay Project's very considerable losses with Rodeo's paper profits since its inception. I'd better recapitulate a little history for you, Mr. Graf." Gavin scratched his nose thoughtfully.

"GalacTech holds Rodeo on a ninety-nine-year lease with the government of Orient IV. The original terms of the lease were extremely favorable to us, since Rodeo's unique mineral and petrochemical resources were at that time still undiscovered. And so they remained for the first thirty years of the lease.

"The next thirty years saw an enormous investment of materials and labor on the part of GalacTech to develop Rodeo's resources. Of course," he prodded the air with a didactic finger, "as soon as Orient IV began to see our profit passing through their wormhole nexus, they began to regret the terms of the lease, and to seek a larger cut of the action. Rodeo was chosen as the site for the Cay Project in the first place in part, besides certain unique legal advantages, precisely so that its projected expenses could be charged against Rodeo's profits generally, and reduce the, er, unhealthy excitement said profits were generating on Orient IV.

"GalacTech's lease of Rodeo now has some fourteen years left to run, and the government of Orient IV is getting, ah, how shall I put this, infected with anticipatory greed. They've just changed their tax laws, and from the end of this fiscal year they propose to tax the company's Rodeo operation upon gross not net profit. We lobbied against it, but we failed. Damn provincials," he added reflectively.

"So. After the end of this fiscal year, the Cay Project losses can no longer be offset against Orient IV tax savings; they will be real, and passed through to us. The terms of the new lease at the end of the next fourteen years are not expected to be favorable. In fact, we project Orient IV is preparing to drive GalacTech out and take over its Rodeo operations at a fraction of their real worth. Expropriation by any other name doth smell the same. The economic blockade is already beginning. The time to start limiting further investment and maximizing profit is now."

"In other words," said Apmad, a hard angry glitter in her eyes, "let them take over a hollow shell."

Could be hard on the last guys out, Leo thought, chilled. Didn't those jerks on Orient IV realize that cooperation and compromise would increase everybody's profit, in the end? The GalacTech negotiators were probably not without fault, either, he reflected grimly. He'd seen other versions of the hostile takeover scenario before. He glanced out the window at the large, lively, working facilities laid out below, hard-won results of two generations of sincere labor, and groaned inwardly at the thought of the waste to come. From the horrified look on Chalopin's face, she had a similar vision, and Leo's heart went out to her. How much of her blood had gone into the building-up of this place? How many people's sweat and dedication, cancelled at the stroke of a pen?

"That was always your problem, Leo," said Van Atta rather venomously. "You always get your head balled up in the little details, and miss the big picture."

Leo shook his head to clear it, grasped for the lost thread of his original argument. "Nevertheless, the Cay Project's viability—" he paused abruptly, seized by a breathtaking inspiration as delicate as a soap bubble. The stroke of a pen. Could freedom be won with the stroke of a pen? As simply as that? He gazed at Apmad with a new intensity, two orders of magnitude more at least. "Tell me, ma'am," he said carefully, "what happens if the Cay Project's viability is disproved?"

"We shut it down," she said simply.

Oh, the tales out of school he might tell—and sink Brucie-baby forever as an added bonus—Leo's nerves thrilled. He opened his mouth to pour out destruction—

And closed it, sucked on his tongue, regarded his fingernails, and asked instead casually, "And what happens to the quaddies then?"

The Ops VP frowned as if she'd bitten into something nasty: that hidden tension again, the most expression Leo had yet seen upon her face. "That presents the most difficult problem of all."

"Difficult? Why difficult? Just let them go. In feet," Leo strove to conceal his rising excitement behind a bland face, "if GalacTech would let them go immediately, before the end of this fiscal year, it could still take whatever it chooses to calculate as its investment in them as a tax loss against Rodeo's profits. One last fling, as it were, one last bite out of Orient IV." Leo smiled attractively.

"Let them go where? You seem to forget, Mr. Graf, that the bulk of them are still mere children." Leo faltered. "The older ones could help take care of the younger ones, they already do, some. . . . Perhaps they could be moved for a few years to some other sector that could absorb the loss from their upkeep—it couldn't cost GalacTech that much more than a like number of workers on pensions, and only for a few years. ..."

"The company retirement pension fund is self-supporting," Gavin the accountant observed elliptically. "Roll-over."

"A moral obligation," Leo offered desperately. "Surely GalacTech must admit some moral obligation to them—we created them, after all." The ground was shifting under his feet, he could see it in her unsympathetic face, but he could not yet discern in what direction the tilt was going.

"Moral obligation indeed," agreed Apmad, her hands clenching. "And have you overlooked the fact that Dr. Cay created these creatures fertile? They are a new species, you know; he dubbed them Homo quadrimanus, not Homo sapiens race quadrimanus. He was the geneticist, we may presume he knew what he was talking about. What about GalacTech's moral obligation to society at large? How do you imagine it will react to having these creatures and all their problems just dumped into its systems? If you think they overreact to chemical pollution, just imagine the flap over genetic pollution!"

"Genetic pollution?" Leo muttered, trying to attach some rational meaning to the term. It sounded impressive.

"No. If the Cay Project is proved to be GalacTech's most expensive mistake, we will containerize it properly. The Cay workers will be sterilized and placed in some suitable institution, there to live out their lives otherwise unmolested. Not an ideal solution, but the best available compromise."

"St—st ..." Leo stuttered. "What crime have they committed, to be sentenced to life in prison? And where, if Rodeo is to be closed down, will you find or build another suitable orbital habitat? If you're worried about expense, lady, that'll be expensive."

"They will be placed planetside, of course, at a fraction of the cost."

A vision of Silver creeping uncomfortably across the floor like a bird with both wings broken burst in Leo's brain. "That's obscene! They'll be no better than cripples."

"The obscenity," snapped Apmad, "was in creating them in the first place. Until Dr. Cay's death brought his department under mine, I had no idea that his 'R&D—Biologicals' was concealing such enormously invasive manipulations of human genes. My home world embraced the most painfully draconian measures to ensure our gene pool not be overrun with accidental mutations—to go out and deliberately introduce mutations seems the most vile ..." she caught her breath, contained her emotions again, except what escaped her nervously drumming fingers. "The right thing to do is euthanasia. Terrible as it seems at first glance, it might actually be less cruel in the long run."

Gavin the accountant, squirming, twitched an uncertain smile at his boss. His eyebrows had gone up in surprise, down in dismay, and at last settled on up again—not taking her seriously, perhaps. Leo didn't think she'd been joking, but Gavin added in a facetiously detached professional tone, "It would be more cost effective. If it were done before the end of this fiscal year, we could indeed take them as a loss—total—against Orient taxes."

Leo felt suspended in glass. "You can't do that!" he whispered. "They're people—children—it would be murder—"

"No, it would not," denied Apmad. "Repugnant, certainly, but not murder. That was the other half of the reason for locating the Cay Project in orbit around Rodeo. Besides physical isolation, Rodeo exists in legal isolation. It's in the ninety-nine-year lease. The only legal writ in Rodeo local space is GalacTech regulation. I fear this has less to do with foresight than with Dr. Cay's successful blocking of any interference with his schemes. But if GalacTech chooses not to define the Cay workers as human beings, company regulations regarding crimes do not apply."

"Oh, really?" Bannerji brightened slightly.

"How does GalacTech define them?" asked Leo, glassily curious. "Legally."

"Post-fetal experimental tissue cultures," said Apmad.

"And what do you call murdering them? Retroactive abortion?"

Apmad's nostrils grew pinched. "Simple disposal."

"Or," Gavin glanced sardonically at Bannerji, "vandalism, perhaps. Our one legal requirement is that experimental tissue be cremated upon disposal. IGS Standard Biolab rules."

"Launch them into the sun," Leo suggested tightly. "That'd be cheap."

Van Atta stroked his chin gently and regarded Leo uneasily. "Calm down, Leo. We're just talking contingency scenarios here. Military staffs do it all the time."

"Quite," agreed the Ops VP. She paused to frown at Gavin, whose flippancy apparently did not please her. "There are some hard decisions to be made here, which I am not anxious to face, but it seems they have been dealt to me. Better me than someone blind to the long-term consequences to society at large like Dr. Cay. But perhaps, Mr. Graf, you will wish to join Mr. Van Atta in showing how Dr. Cay's original vision might still be carried out at a profit, so we can all avoid having to make the hardest choices."

Van Atta smiled at Leo, smarmily triumphant. Vindicated, vindictive, calculating . . . "To return to the matter at hand," Van Atta said, "I've already requested that Captain Bannerji be summarily terminated for his poor judgment and," he glanced at Gavin, "and vandalism. I might also suggest that the cost of TY-776-424-X-G's hospitalization be charged to his department." Bannerji wilted, Administrator Chalopin stiffened.

"But it's increasingly apparent to me," Van Atta went on, fixing his most unpleasant smile on Leo, "that there's another matter to be pursued here. . .

Ah shit, thought Leo, he's going to get me on an assault charge—an eighteen-year career up in smoke—and I did it to myself—and I didn't even get to finish the job. . . .


"Huh?" said Leo.

"The quaddies have been growing increasingly restive in the past few months. Coincidentally with your arrival, Leo." Van Atta's gaze narrowed. "After to-

114 Lots McMaster Bujold

day's events I wonder if it was a coincidence. I rather think not. Isn't it so that," he wheeled and pointed dramatically at Leo, "you put Tony and Claire up to this escapade?"

"Me!" Leo sputtered in outrage, paused. "True, Tony did come to me once with some very odd questions, but I thought he was just curious about his upcoming work assignment. I wish now I'd ..."

"You admit it!" Van Atta crowed. "You have encouraged defiant attitudes toward company authority among the hydroponics workers, and among your own students entrusted to you—ignored the psych department's carefully developed guidelines for speech and behavior while aboard the Habitat—infected the workers with your own bad attitudes—"

Leo realized suddenly that Van Atta was not going to let him get a word of defense in edgewise if he could possibly help it. Van Atta was onto something infinitely more valuable than mere vengeance for a punch in the jaw—a scapegoat. A perfect scapegoat, upon whom he could pin every glitch in the Project for the past two months—or longer, depending on his ingenuity—and sacrifice qualmlessly to the company gods, himself emerging squeaky-clean and sinless.

"No, by God!" Leo roared. "If I were running a revolution, I'd do a damn sight better job of it than that—" he waved in the general direction of the warehouse. His muscles bunched to launch himself at Van Atta again. If he was to be fired anyway, he'd at least get some satisfaction out of it—

"Gentlemen." Apmad's voice sluiced down like a bucket of ice water. "Mr. Van Atta, may I remind you that terminations from outlying facilities like Rodeo are discouraged. Not only is GalacTech contractually obligated to provide transportation home to the terminees, but there is also the expense and large time delay of importing their replacements. No, we shall finish it this way. Captain Bannerji shall be suspended for two weeks without pay, and an official reprimand added to his permanent record for carrying an unauthorized weapon on official company duty. The weapon shall be confiscated. Mr. Graf shall be officially reprimanded also, but return immediately to his duties, as there is no one to replace him in them."

"But I was screwed," complained Bannerji.

"But I'm totally innocent!" cried Leo. "It's a fabrication—a paranoid fantasy-—"

"You can't send Graf back to the Habitat now," yelped Van Atta. "Next thing you know he'll be trying to unionize 'em—"

"Considering the consequences of the Cay Project's failure," said the Ops VP coldly, "I think not. Eh, Mr. Graf?"

Leo shivered. "Eh."

She sighed without satisfaction. "Thank you. This investigation is now complete. Further complaints or appeals by any party may be addressed to GalacTech headquarters on Earth." If you dare, her quirked eyebrow added. Even Van Atta had the sense to keep his mouth shut.

The mood in the shuttle for the return trip to the Habitat was, to say the least, constrained. Claire, accompanied by one of the Habitat's infirmary nurses pulled off her downside leave three days early for the duty, huddled in the back clutching Andy. Leo and Van Atta sat as far from each other as the limited space allowed.

Van Atta spoke once to Leo. "I told you so." "You were right," Leo replied woodenly. Van Atta nearly purred at the stroke, smug. Leo would rather have stroked him with a pipe wrench.

Could Van Atta be all right, as well? Was his disruptive pressure for instant results a sign of concern for the quaddies' welfare, even survival? No, Leo decided with a sigh. The only welfare that truly concerned Bruce was his own.

Leo let his head rest on the padded support and stared out his window as the acceleration of takeoff thrust him back in his seat. A shuttle ride was still a bit of a thrill to something deep in him, even after the countless trips he'd made. There were people—billions, the vast majority—who never set foot off their home planets in their lives. He was one of the lucky few.

Lucky to have his job. Lucky in the results he'd achieved, over the years. The vast Morita Deep Space Transfer Station had probably been the crown of his career, the largest project he was ever likely to work on. He'd first viewed the site when it was empty, icy vacuum, as nothing as nothing could possibly be. He'd passed through it again just last year, making a changeover from a ship from Ylla to a ship for Earth. Morita had looked good, really good; alive, even undergoing expansion of its facilities, several years sooner than anyone had expected. Smooth expansion; plans for it had been incorporated into the original designs. Over-ambitious they'd called it then. Far-sighted, they called it now.

And there had been other projects too. Every day, from one end of the wormhole nexus to the other, countless accidents of structural failure did not occur because he, and people he'd trained, had done their jobs well. The work of a harried week, the early detection of the propagating micro-cracks in the reactor coolant lines at the great Beni Ra orbital factory alone had saved, perhaps, three thousand lives. How many surgeons could claim to save three thousand lives in ten years of their careers? On that memorable inspection tour, he'd done it once a month for a year. Invisibly, unsung; disasters that never happen don't normally make headlines. But he knew, and the men and women who worked alongside him knew, and that was enough.

He regretted slugging Bruce. The moment's red joy had certainly not been worth risking his job for. The eighteen years of accumulating pension benefits, the stock options, the seniority, yes, maybe; with no family to support, they were all Leo's, to piss into the wind if he chose. But who would take care of the next Beni Ra?

When they returned to the Habitat, he would cooperate. Apologize handsomely to Bruce. Redouble his training efforts, increase his care. Bite his tongue, speak only when spoken to. Be polite to Dr. Yei. Hell, even do what she told him.

Anything else was impossibly risky. There were a thousand kids up there. So many, so varied—so young. A hundred five-year-olds, a hundred and twenty six-year-olds alone, cramming the creche modules, playing games in their free-fall gym. No one individual could possibly take responsibility for risking all those lives on something chancy. It would be endless, all-consuming. Impossible. Criminal. Insane. Revolt—where could it lead? No one could possibly forsee all the consequences. Leo couldn't even see around the next corner. No one could. No one.

They docked at the Habitat. Van Atta shooed Claire and Andy and the nurse ahead of him through the hatchway, as Leo slowly unfastened his seat harness.

"Oh, no," Leo heard Van Atta say. "The nurse will take Andy to the creche. You will return to your old dormitory. Taking that baby downside was criminally irresponsible. It's clear you are totally unfit to have charge of him. I can guarantee, you'll be struck from the reproduction roster, too."

Claire's weeping was so muffled as to be nearly inaudible.

Leo closed his eyes in pain. "God," he asked, "why me?"

Releasing his last restraint, he fell blindly into his future.