Shay closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
She’d been in her office for hours, a “Do Not Disturb” sign on her door, looking for any single tiny piece of new information that might let her believe hope still existed.That her stupidity had not destroyed Settled Space’s last best chance for freedom.
Bashtyk Nokyd, the philosopher she’d risked her life to rescue from a Pact Worlds Alliance death contract, whom she had secured in the Longview, and whom she could have gotten to the City of Furies if she hadn’t been stupid enough to let him go to dinner with the owners of Bailey’s Irish Space Station, was dead because of her.
Her hero. The man who’d been responsible for her own freedom, the man who had written Simple Rights: The Indi- vidual As Universal Core, was dead, and she might as well have killed him herself.
She pushed the replay button again and once again saw him sitting across the table from her. He had his tablet in hand.
“I have it,” he said, drawing, and she could hear his excitement in those few words. His surprise. “The process for freeing the Pact Worlds’ captive people.” His hand moved steadily, drawing boxes, writing words.
She watched herself say, “You do?” At her desk, her whole body stiffened. Even after seeing the replay so many times, she could not stop the reflex to tense, to get ready to stop the thing she could not stop.
His voice was deep, certain, but still tinged with the elation of discovery. “I can’t give them freedom. No one can. The only free people are those who recognize their right to be free, claim it, and then fight to protect that freedom.”
Wils Bailey, the owner of Bailey’s Irish Space Station, said, “We see that here. Like everyplace else, we’re getting refugees who are escaping from Pact Worlds. Some understand that to be here, they have to pay their way. Some…” He shook his head. “They ask where they can sign up for benefits, and where the free rooming houses are, and how to get the free food…”
Shay spotted an expression on the face of Wils’ teenage daughter, and wished she had been paying attention to the girl, not to Nokyd. She hadn’t noticed it at the time. She’d been too intent on watching Bashtyk Nokyd drawing on his tablet.
The girl stood up and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Her father smiled, giving her a half-second glance, returning his attention to his guest without any recognition that something was wrong. “We’re a space station,” he said. “What we can’t make or grow here on our own, we have to go out to get or pay to have brought in. We don’t have the resource buffer that planets have, with food growing wild that you just find lying around on the ground, or shoot as it walks past.”
Nokyd didn’t look up. He was busy diagramming. His hand stopped moving for a moment, long enough for him to study what he’d drawn, and he said, “Most worlds — being terraformed — don’t have easy food or other resources either. But I get your meaning. You’re dealing with government slaves. Religion slaves. They’re different from body slaves — men and women owned by individual masters. Body slaves know that if they don’t work, they don’t eat. If they resist, they don’t eat. If they fight, they’ll be chained to a stake without shelter. Their actions all connect — so when they get free, their minds still work.
“Government slaves and religion slaves are different. Their minds have been intentionally broken. They have been taught from birth that work and food are unrelated. That no matter what they do, they will still eat, still have a place to sleep, still have someone to take care of them, because government or God will provide. At the same time, they are taught that their time, their thought, and their work have no value to them. That they must give it away for free, for the benefit of others. That anything they do for themselves is of no use, of no importance. That anything they want for them- selves is evil or selfish — even their own lives. Even their own thoughts.”
He went back to drawing, and said, “I cannot say the fix for this will be simple, and there will always be people who will choose to be slaves rather than work to be free.”
“Here’s where we start,” he said, and pointed to his diagram.
And the girl placed her hands on either side of his head. His head imploded before Shay could pause the holo. She closed her eyes, blinked back tears.
Took a deep breath and straightened her spine.
The diagram was in front of her.
The solution to giving lasting freedom to the people of Settled Space.
She stared at the place on the tablet where his finger rested, to what he’d designated as the starting point.
B or F Principle.
In the week following his death, she’d immersed herself in his work, had brain-imprinted everything he’d published over his long life, as well as every lecture he’d ever given. She’d force-fed seven million written words and almost a thousand hours of holo and audio via high compression into her consciousness.
And there simply was no B or F Principle in any of his work.
There was no B or F Principle anywhere in any philosophy. As for the rest of the diagram…
Better Horse or Bigger Gun → NO net! → moon & sun dilemma → Shoot on Sight → “Happy Madame”
There was nothing. Nothing that made sense, nothing that connected to any philosophical theory… just nothing. And with the threat of attack by PWA-hired pirate fleets running through the dark channels of space, with rumors of forces being built to come against both the Longview and Bailey’s Station, she could not afford to throw herself against this wall any longer.
She closed her eyes, rested weary head in hand, and the image of a Medix floated like sweet temptation through her mind.
Reju would feel wonderful…
But that wasn’t what the image meant, was it? This was her brain trying to tell her something important. And what she saw hadn’t been a regular Medix. It had been one of the modified
Sleepers who had applied to become crew would have already been tested, would have already received basic crew training, and would have personality profiles on hand.
None of them were doing anything at the moment. They were still in sleep because the Longview was docked at Bailey’s, and because its Death Circus charter had been cancelled when the Pact Worlds Alliance put a bounty on the ship. Shay didn’t see the ship going anywhere for a while.
The most promising of the Sleepers would have been brought up as crew by Melie once she could be announced as captain.
But in the meantime, they were in the Sleeper cells.
Shay could dig through their files, find the potential crew best at lateral thinking, puzzle-solving, and logic-leaping.
The owner would need to present them with the situation and impress them with the importance of the task to him.
Once that was done, though, they could dig through Bashtyk Nokyd’s sealed quarters. Perhaps they could find something she’d missed.
We sit at a long table, four of us, staring up at a man covered head to toe in what I’ve learned is an armored deep-space worksuit. His face is hard to see through the shaded moleibond helmet shield, his voice is deep and rasping. He has identified himself to us as Mado Werix Keyr, the owner of this ship.
“Each of you is being drafted as provisional crew. If you provide something from your first objective that proves your resourcefulness and attention to detail, your ability to think creatively, or a provable solution or partial solution to the task I’m giving you, you will receive a permanent universal iden- tity and a crew slot on the Longview.”
The speaker stares at the four of us — and the shield does not hide the fact that he is… terrible.
I’m taller than he is, broader of shoulder, hardened by a brutal past — but the gleam of his eyes through the shield plate sends ice down my spine.
I’ve been brought out of storage to find something that probably doesn’t exist, and three other men have been brought out with me.
His voice, muffled by the suit’s breathing apparatus, is clear enough to get the danger in our situation across.
“The man who drew this diagram was getting ready to tell a small audience of listeners the process he’d figured out for changing Settled Space to Free Space — for setting up a system of laws, perhaps, or something else that would make the conditions that permit slavery impossible. Before he could explain each of the items on the diagram he drew, he was murdered by a third party, not present in the room, control- ling a child who was.
“Everyone present at that meeting submitted to memory scans, and we now know that nothing in what Bashtyk Nokyd said before his death provides clues to what any of this means.”
“Others on this ship well-suited to the task are searching for his killer. Meanwhile, the Pact Worlds Alliance has hired an armada of pirates to exterminate everyone on this ship, as well as everyone on the station to which we’re docked. And because of treachery and enormous loss of life, the crew of this ship is short- handed. We can spare no active crew to do what must be done in these quarters. Which is why the four of you receive this chance.”
He pauses, leans against the table that separates us from him, and breathes heavily. He is looking at each of us in turn, and when his gaze meets mine, I feel myself shrinking, falling into darkness, losing my grasp on who I am.
When he looks to the next man, my mind clears. But I feel shaky and sick. Whatever is wrong with the man across the table from us is beyond the scope of my experience, and it is ugly.
“You four have proven yourselves trustworthy while in hibernation. You have each passed the honor test, reading and crew tests, and various problem-solving tests that make you ideal for the task you’ve been given. In these quarters you are bound to conduct yourselves by ship rules, and maintain ship discipline. If the answer to the problem before us can be found, the four of you will find it.
“Anything in these quarters might offer a key to the solu- tion we seek. Ignore nothing. Assume nothing. No piece of information is too small. If it relates to this, nothing is insignificant.
“When you find something that applies to the words on the diagram I’ll give you, press your button on your wrist- com.” He points, and I look down to see that a band has been attached to my wrist just under the sleeve of the shipsuit I wear. The band is smaller than the diameter of my hand. It will not come off, will not be possible to lose.
I nod my understanding.
“When you press your com button, you will reach either me or my representative. One of us will come when you call.
And he hands each of us a tablet. I am familiar with the technology. My second parents taught my brothers and sisters and me on such devices.
I stare at the image before me, scrawled by hand in the language I learned following my second birth.
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