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Falling Free (barrayar), страница 1

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Falling Free (barrayar)
 

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Falling Free (barrayar)


  Falling Free

  ( Barrayar )

  Lois Mcmaster Bujold

  Leo Graf was an effective engineer… Safety Regs weren’t just the rule book he swore by; he’d helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students—till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn’t anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither save, nor in the rules…

  Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies—now all he had to do was teach them to be free.

  Lois McMaster Bujold

  Falling Free

  Chapter 1

  The shining rim of the planet Rodeo wheeled dizzily past the observation port of the orbital transfer station. A woman whom Leo Graf recognized as one of his fellow disembarking passengers from the Jump ship stared eagerly out for a few minutes, then turned away, blinking and swallowing, to sit rather abruptly on one of the bright cushioned lounge chairs. Her eyes closed, opened, caught Leo’s; she shrugged in embarrassment. Leo smiled sympathetically. Immune himself to the assorted nauseas of space travel, he moved to take her place at the crystal viewport.

  Scanty cloud cover swirled in the thin atmosphere far below, barely veiling what seemed excessive quantities of red desert sand. Rodeo was a marginal world, home only to GalacTech mining and drilling operations and their support facilities. But what was he doing here? Leo wondered anew. Underground operations were hardly his field of expertise.

  The planet slid from view with the rotation of the station. Leo moved to another port for a view back toward the hub of the station’s wheel, noting the stress points and wondering when they’d last been x-rayed for secretly propagating flaws. Centrifugal g-forces here at the rim where this passenger lounge was situated seemed to be running at about half Earth-standard, a little light perhaps. Deliberately stress-reduced, trouble anticipated in the structure? But he was here for training, they’d said at GalacTech headquarters on Earth, to teach quality control procedures in free fall welding and construction. To whom? Why here, at the end of nowhere? “The Cay Project” was a singularly uninformative title for his assignment.

  “Leo Graf?”

  Leo turned. “Yes?”

  The speaker was tall and dark-haired, perhaps thirty, perhaps forty. He wore conservative-fashionable civilian clothes, but a quiet lapel pin marked him as a company man. Best sedentary executive type, Leo decided. The hand he held out for Leo to shake was evenly tanned but soft. “I’m Bruce Van Atta.”

  Leo’s thick hand was pale but flecked with brown spots. Crowding forty, sandy and square, Leo wore comfortable red company coveralls by long habit, partly to blend with the workers he supervised, mostly that he need never waste time and thought deciding what to put on in the morning. “Graf”, read the label printed over his left breast pocket, eliminating all mystery.

  “Welcome to Rodeo, the armpit of the universe,” grinned Van Atta.

  “Thank you,” Leo smiled back automatically. “I’m head of the Cay Project now; I’ll be your boss,” Van Atta amplified. “I requested you personally, y’know. You’re going to help me get this division moving at last, jack it up and light a fire under it. You’re like me, I know, got no patience with deadheads. It was a hell of a job to have dumped on me, trying to make this division profitable—but if I succeed, I’ll be the Golden Boy.”

  “Requested me?” Cheering, to think that his reputation preceded him, but why couldn’t one ever be requested by somebody at a garden spot? Ah, well… “They told me at HQ that I was being sent out here to give an expanded version of my short course in non-destructive testing.”

  “Is that all they told you?” Van Atta asked in astonishment. At Leo’s affirmative shrug, he threw back his head and laughed. “Security, I suppose,” Van Atta went on when he’d stopped chuckling. “Are you in for a surprise. Well, well. I won’t spoil it.” Van Atta’s sly grin was as irritating as a familiar poke in the ribs.

  Too familiar—oh, hell, Leo thought, this guy knows me from somewhere. And he thinks I know him… Leo’s polite smile became fixed in mild panic. He had met thousands of GalacTech personnel in his eighteen-year career. Perhaps Van Atta would say something soon to narrow the possibilities.

  “My instructions listed a Dr. Cay as titular head of the Cay Project,” Leo probed. “Will I be meeting him?”

  “Old data,” said Van Atta. “Dr. Cay died last year—several years past the date he should have been forcibly retired, in my opinion, but he was a vice-president and major stockholder and thoroughly entrenched—but that’s blood over the damned dam, eh? I replaced him.” Van Atta shook his head. “But I can’t wait to see the look on your face when you see—come along. I have a private shuttle waiting.”

  They had the six-man personnel shuttle to themselves, but for the pilot. The passenger seat molded itself to Leo’s body during the brief periods of acceleration. Quite brief periods; clearly they were not braking for planetary re-entry. Rodeo turned beneath them, falling farther away.

  “Where are we going?” Leo asked Van Atta, seated beside him.

  “Ah,” said Van Atta. “See that speck about thirty degrees above the horizon? Watch it. It’s home base for the Cay Project.”

  The speck grew rapidly into a far-flung chaotic structure, all angles and projections, with confetti-colored lights spangling its sharp shadows. Leo’s practiced eye picked out the clues to its function, the tanks, the ports, the greenhouse filters winking in the sunlight, the size of the solar panels versus the estimated volume of the structure.

  “An orbital habitat?”

  “You got it,” said Van Atta.

  “It’s huge.”

  “Indeed. How many personnel would you guess it could handle?”

  “Oh—fifteen hundred.”

  Van Atta’s eyebrows rose, in slight disappointment, perhaps, at not being able to offer a correction. “Almost exactly. Four hundred-ninety-four rotating GalacTech personnel and a thousand permanent inhabitants.”

  Leo’s lips echoed the word, permanent… “Speaking of rotation—how are you handling null-gee de-conditioning in your people? I don’t—” his eyes inventoried the enormous structure, “I don’t even see an exercise wheel. No spinning gym?”

  “There’s a null-gee gym. The rotating personnel get a month downside after every three-month shift.”

  “Expensive.”

  “But we put the Habitat up there for less than a quarter of the cost of the same volume of living quarters in one-gee spinners.”

  “But surely you’ll lose what you’ve saved in construction costs over time in personnel transportation and medical expenses,” argued Leo. “The extra shuttle trips, the long leaves—every retiree who breaks an arm or a leg until the day he dies will be suing GalacTech for the cost of it plus mental anguish, whether he had significant bone demineralization or not.”

  “We’ve solved that problem too,” said Van Atta. “Whether the solution is cost-effective—well, that’s what you and I are here to try and prove.”

  The shuttle sidled delicately into alignment with a hatch on the side of the Habitat and seated itself with a reassuringly authoritative click. The pilot shut down his systems and unbuckled himself to float past Leo and Van Atta and check the hatch seals. “Ready for disembarking, Mr. Van Atta.”

  “Thank you, Grant.”

  Leo released his seat restraints, and stretched and relaxed in the pleasureable familiarity of weightlessness. Not for him the unfortunate nauseas of null-gee that sapped the efficiency of so many employees. Leo’s body was ordinary enough, downside; here, where control and practice and wit counted more than strength, he was at last an athlete. Smiling a
little to himself, he followed Van Atta from handgrip to hand-grip and through the shuttle hatch.

  A pink-faced tech manned a control panel just inside the shuttle hatch corridor. He wore a red T-shirt with the GalacTech logo over his left breast. Tight blond curls cut close to his head reminded Leo of a lamb’s pelt; perhaps it was an effect of his obvious youth.

  “Hello there, Tony,” Van Atta greeted him with cheerful familiarity.

  “Good afternoon, Mr. Van Atta,” the youth replied deferentially. He smiled at Leo, and cocked his head at Van Atta in a pantomime plea for an introduction. “Is this the new teacher you were telling us about?”

  “Indeed he is. Leo Graf, this is Tony—he’ll be among your first trainees. He’s one of the habitat’s permanent residents,” Van Atta added with peculiar emphasis. “Tony is a welder and joiner, second grade—working on first, eh, Tony? Shake hands with Mr. Graf.”

  Van Atta was smirking. Leo had the impression that if he hadn’t been in free fall, he would have been bouncing on his heels.

  Tony pulled himself obediently over the control panel. He wore red shorts—

  Leo blinked, and caught his breath in shock. The boy had no legs. Emerging from his shorts were a second set of arms.

  Functional arms, he was even now using his—his lower left hand, Leo supposed he’d have to call it—to anchor himself as he reached out to Leo. His smile was perfectly unselfconscious.

  Leo had lost his own hand grip, and had to fumble to retrieve it, and stretch awkwardly to meet the proffered handshake. “How do you do,” Leo managed to croak. It was almost impossible not to stare. Leo forced his gaze to focus on the young man’s bright blue eyes.

  “Hello, sir. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” Tony’s handshake was shy but sincere, his hand dry and strong.

  “Um…” Leo stumbled, “um, what’s your last name, uh, Tony?”

  “Oh, Tony’s just my nickname, sir. My full designation is TY-776-424-XG.”

  “I, uh—guess I’ll call you Tony, then,” Leo murmured, increasingly stunned. Van Atta, most unhelpfully, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying Leo’s discomforture.

  “Everybody does,” said Tony agreeably.

  “Fetch Mr. Graf’s bag, will you, Tony?” said Van Atta. “Come on, Leo, I’ll show you your quarters, and then we can do the grand tour.”

  Leo followed his floating guide into the indicated cross-corridor, glancing back over his shoulder in renewed amazement as Tony launched himself accurately across the chamber and swung through the shuttle hatch.

  “That’s,” Leo swallowed, “that’s the most extraordinary birth defect I’ve ever seen. Somebody had a stroke of genius, to find him a job in free fall. He’d be a cripple, downside.”

  “Birth defect.” Van Atta’s grin had grown twisted. “Yeah, that’s one way of describing it. I wish you could have seen the look on your face, when he popped up like that. I congratulate you on your self-control. I about puked when I first saw one, and I was prepared. You get used to the little chimps pretty quick, though.”

  “There’s more than one?”

  Van Atta opened and closed his hands in a counting gesture. “An even one-thousand. The first generation of GalacTech’s new super-workers. The name of the game, Leo, is bioengineering. And I intend to win.”

  Tony, with Leo’s valise clutched in his lower right hand, swooped between Leo and Van Atta in the cylindrical corridor and braked to a halt in front of them with three deft touches on the passing handgrips.

  “Mr. Van Atta, can I introduce Mr. Graf to somebody on the way to Visitor’s Wing? It won’t be much out of the way—Hydroponics.”

  Van Atta’s lips pursed, then arranged themselves in a kindly smile. “Why not? Hydroponics is on the itinerary for this afternoon anyway.”

  “Thank you, sir,” cried Tony, and darted off with enthusiasm to open the air safety seal before them at the end of the corridor, and linger to close it again behind them on the other side.

  Leo fastened his attention on his surroundings, as a less-rude alternative to surreptitiously studying the boy. The Habitat was indeed inexpensively constructed, mostly pre-fab units variously combined. Not the most aesthetically elegant design—a certain higgledy-piggledy randomness indicated an organic growth pattern since the Habitat’s inception, units stuck on here and there to accommodate new needs. But its very dullness incorporated safety advantages Leo approved, the interchangeability of airseal systems for example.

  They passed dormitory wings, food preparation and dining areas, a workshop for small repairs—Leo paused to gaze down its length, and had to hurry to catch up with his guide. Unlike most free-fall living spaces Leo had worked in, there was no effort here to maintain an arbitrary up-and-down to ease the visual psychology of the inhabitants. Most chambers were cylindrical in design, with work spaces and storage efficiently packing the walls and the center left free of obstruction for the passage of—well, one could hardly call them pedestrians.

  En route they passed a couple of dozen of the—the four-handed people, the new model workers, Tony’s folk, whatever they were called—did they have an official designation, Leo wondered? He stared covertly, breaking off his gaze whenever one looked back, which was often; they stared openly at him, and whispered among themselves.

  He could see why Van Atta dubbed them chimps. They were thin-hipped, lacking the powerful gluteal locomotor muscles of people with legs. The lower set of arms tended to be more muscular than the uppers in both males and females, power-grippers, and thus appeared falsely short by comparison to the uppers; bow-legged, if he squinted them to a blur.

  They were dressed mostly in the sort of comfortable, practical T-shirt and shorts that Tony wore, evidently color-coded, for Leo passed a cluster of them all in yellow hovering intently around a normal human in GalacTech coveralls who had a pump unit half-apart, lecturing on its function and repair. Leo thought of a flock of canaries, of flying squirrels, of monkeys, of spiders, of swift bright lizards of the sort that run straight up walls.

  They made him want to scream, almost to weep; and yet it wasn’t the arms, or the quick, too-many hands. He had almost reached Hydroponics before he was able to analyze his intense unease. It was their faces that bothered him so, Leo realized. They were the faces of children…

  A door marked “Hydroponics D” slid aside to reveal an antechamber and a large airy end chamber extending some fifteen meters beyond. Filtered windows on the sun side, and an array of mirrors on the dark side, filled the volume with brilliant light, softened by green plants that grew from a carefully-arranged set of grow tubes. The air was pungent with chemicals and vegetation.

  A pair of the four-armed young women, both in blue, were at work in the antechamber. A plexiplastic grow tube three meters long was braced in place, and they floated along its length carefully transplanting tiny seedlings from a germination box into a spiral series of holes along the tube, one plant per hole, fixing them in place with flexible sealant around each tender stalk. The roots would grow inward, becoming a tangled mat to absorb the nutritive hydroponic mist pumped through the tube, and the leaves and stems would bush out in the sunlight and eventually bear whatever fruit was their genetic destiny. In this place, probably apples with antlers, thought Leo in mild hysteria, or potatoes with eyes that really winked at you.

  The dark-haired girl paused to adjust a bundle under her arm… Leo’s mind ground to a complete halt. The bundle was a baby.

  A live baby—of course it was alive, what did he expect? Leo gibbered inwardly. It peered around its—mother’s?—torso to glower suspiciously at Leo-the-stranger, and tightened its four-handed clutch on home base, taking a squishy defensive grip on one of the girl’s breasts as if in fear of competition. “Ackle,” it remarked aggressively.

  “Ow!” The dark-haired girl laughed, and spared a lower hand to pry the little fat fingers loose without missing a beat of her upper hands parting sealant in place around a stem. She finished with a quick squirt o
f fixative from a tube floating conveniently beside her, just out of the infant’s reach.

  The girl was slim, and elvish, and wonderfully weird to Leo’s unaccustomed eyes. Her short, fine hair clung close to her head, framing her face, shaped to a point at the nape of her neck. It was so thick it reminded Leo of cat fur: one might stroke it, and be soothed.

  The other girl was blonde, and babyless. She looked up first, and smiled. “Company, Claire.” The dark-haired girl’s face lit with pleasure. Leo flushed in the heat of it. “Tony!” she cried happily, and Leo realized he had merely received an accidental dose, as it were, of that beam of delight, as it swept over him to its true target.

  The baby released three hands and waved them urgently. “Ah, ah!” The girl turned in air to face the visitors. “Ah, ah, ah!” the baby repeated.

  “Oh, all right,” she laughed. “You want to fly to Daddy, hm?” She unhooked a short tether from a sort of soft harness on the baby’s torso to a belt around her own waist, and held the infant out. “Fly to Daddy, Andy? Fly to Daddy?”

  The baby indicated enthusiasm for the proposal by waving all four hands vigorously about and squealing eagerly. She launched him toward Tony with considerably more velocity than Leo would have dared to impart. Tony, grinning cheerfully, caught him—handily, Leo thought in blitzed inanity.

  “Fly to Mommy?” Tony inquired in turn. “Ah, ah,” the baby agreed, and Tony hung him in air, gently pulling his arms out—like straightening out a starfish, Leo thought—and imparting a spin rolled him through the air for all the world like a wheel. The baby pulled his hands in, clenching his face in sympathetic effort, and spun faster, and gurgled with laughter at the success of his effort. Conservation of angular momentum, thought Leo. Naturally…

  Claire tossed the infant back one more time to his father—mind-boggling, to think of that blond boy as a father of anything—and followed herself to brake to a halt hand-to-hand against Tony, who proffered an automatic helping grasp for that purpose. That they continued to hold hands was clearly more than a courteous anchoring.

 
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