She was probably no more than thirty.
It was hard to tell with humans. They all looked old to Arkady, and they aged fast out here in the Trusteeships where people lost months and years just getting from one planet to the next.
This human looked like she'd lived harder than most. Her skin was ravaged by decades of unfiltered sunlight, her face lined by wind and worry, her features gaunt with the gravity of some heavy planet. Still, Arkady didn't think she could be more than a few subjective years beyond his twenty-seven.
"Act like you're picking me up," she said in a low husky voice that would have been sensual had it not been ratcheted tight by fear. She spoke UN-standard Spanish, but her flat vowels and guttural consonants betrayed her native tongue as Hebrew.
She flagged down the barkeep and ordered two of something Arkady had never heard of. When she gripped his arm to draw him closer, he saw that her cuticles were rough and ragged and she'd bitten her nails to the quick.
He bent over her, smelling the acrid fungal smell of the planet-born, and recited the words Korchow had taught him back on Gilead. She fed him back the answers he'd been told to wait for. She was pulling them off hard memory; her pupils dilated, blossoming across the pale iris, every time she accessed her virally embedded RAM. He tried not to stare and failed. This is your first monster
, he told himself. Get used to them
He studied the woman's face, wondering if she was what other members of her species would call normal. It seemed unlikely. To Arkady's crèche-born eyes her features looked as mismatched as if they'd been culled from a dozen disparate genelines. The predatory nose jutted over an incongruously delicate jawline. The forehead was high and intelligent . . . but too flat and scowling to get past any competent genetic designer. And even under the dim flicker of the strobe lights it was obvious that her eyes were mismatched. The right eye fixed Arkady with a steel blue stare, while the left one wandered across the open room behind him so that he had to fight the urge to turn around and see who she was really talking to.
"Why did you come here?" the woman asked when she was satisfied he was who he said he was.
"You know why."
"I mean the real reason." You have to ask for money
, Korchow had told him during the interminable briefing sessions. He could see Korchow's face in his mind's eye: a spy's face, a diplomat's face, a manifesto in flesh and blood of everything KnowlesSyndicate was supposed to stand for. You have no idea what money means to humans, Arkady. It's how they reward each other, how they control each other. If you don't ask for it, you won't feel real to them.
"I came for the money," he told Osnat, trying not to sound like an explorer trading beads with the natives.
"And you trust us to give it to you?"
"You know who I trust." Still following Korchow's script. "You know who I need to see."
"At least you had the wits not to say his name." She glanced at the shadowy maze of ventilation ducts and spinstream conduits overhead to indicate that they were under surveillance.
"Here?" Arkady asked incredulously.
"Everywhere. The AIs can tap any spin, anytime, anywhere. You're in UN space now. Get used to it."
Arkady glanced at the sullen and exhausted drinkers around him and wondered what they could possibly be doing that was worth the attention of the UN's semisentients. These weren't humans as he'd been raised to believe in them. Where were the fat cat profiteers and the spiritually bankrupt individualists of his sociobiology textbooks? Where were the gene traders? Where were the slave drivers and the brutally oppressed genetic constructs? All he saw here were algae skimmers and coltran miners. Posthumans whose genetic heritage was too haphazard for anyone to be able to guess whether they were human or construct or some unknown quasi-species between the two. People who scratched out a living from stones and mud and carried the dirt of planets under their fingernails. Throwaway people.
Arkasha would probably have said they were beautiful. He would have talked passionately about pre-Evacuation literature, about the slow sure currents of evolution and the vast chaotic genetic river that was posthumanity. But all Arkady could see here was poverty, disease, and danger.
The bartender slapped their drinks down hard enough to send sour-smelling liquid cascading onto the countertop. The woman picked up hers and gulped thirstily. Arkady just stared at his. He could smell it from here, and it smelled bad. Like yeast and old skin and overloaded air filters: all the smells he was beginning to recognize as the smells of humans.
"So." The woman used the word as if it were an entire sentence. "Who really sent you?"
"I'm here on my own account. I thought you understood that."
"We understood that was what you wanted
us to understand." She had a habit of hanging on a word that gave it a weight at odds with its apparent significance and left Arkady wondering if anything in her world meant what it seemed to mean. "It wouldn't be the first time a professional came across the lines posing as an amateur."
Arkady played with his drink, buying time. Don't explain, don't apologize
, Korchow had told him. Right before he'd told him what would happen to Arkasha if he failed.
"I'm a myrmecologist," he told her.
"Whatever the fuck that is."
"I study ants. For terraforming."
"Bullshit. Terraforming's dangerous. And you're an A Series. You reek of it. No one who counts ever gets handed that raw of a deal."
"It was my Part," he said reflexively before he could remember the word meant nothing to humans.
"You mean you volunteered
"I'm sorry." Arkady's confusion was genuine. "What is volunteered?"
Her right eye narrowed, though the left one remained serenely focused on the middle distance. An old scar nicked the eyebrow above the lazy eye, and for the first time it occurred to Arkady that it might not be a birth defect at all, but the product of a home-brewed wetware installation gone wrong. What if it wasn't internal RAM she was accessing but the spooky-action-at-a-distance virtual world of streamspace? What was she seeing there? And who was paying her uplink fees?
A movement caught Arkady's eye, and he turned to find a lone drinker staring at him from the far end of the grease-smeared bartop. He watched the man take in his unlined stationer's skin, his too-symmetrical features, the gleam of perfect health that bespoke generations of sociogenetic engineering. They locked eyes, and Arkady noticed what he should have noticed before: the dusty green flash of an Interfaither's skullcap.
You were supposed to be able to tell which religion Interfaithers hailed from by the signs they wore. A Star of David for Jews; two signs Arkady couldn't remember for Sunnis and Shi'ites; a multitude of cryptic symbols for the various schismatic Christian sects. He gave the Interfaither another covert glance, but the only sign he could see on him was a silver pendant whose two curving lines intersected to form the abstracted shape of a fish.
The Interfaithers scared Arkady more than any other danger in UN space. It had been Interfaithers who killed an entire contract group right here on Maris Station and mutilated their bodies so badly that all their home Syndicates ever got back were diplomatic apologies. The rest of the UN had made peace with the Syndicates--if you could call this simmering cold war a peace--but the Interfaithers hadn't. And when anyone asked them why, they used words like Abomination
--words that weren't supposed to exist anymore in any civilized language.
Arkady glanced at the bar-back mirror, trying to reassure himself that he fit in well enough to pass safely. But what he saw didn't reassure him at all. Korchow's team had broken his nose and one cheekbone, a precaution that had seemed barbaric back on Gilead. But it took decades at the bottom of a gravity well to get the lined and haggard look of the planet-born. And it would have taken a lifetime--someone else's lifetime--to mold Arkady's frank and open crèche-born face into the aggressive mask most humans wore in public.
Arkady gave the Interfaither another surreptitious glance, only to find the man still staring at him. Their eyes locked. The Interfaither turned away, still holding Arkady's gaze, and spit on the floor.
"Creature of magicians," the woman muttered, "return to your dust!"
"What?" Arkady asked, though he knew somehow that the words were a response to the Interfaither.
"It's from the Talmud." Again that black inward gaze as she tapped RAM or slipped into the spinstream. "Then Rabbah created a man and sent him to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Zera spoke to him but received no answer. Thereupon he said to him: 'Creature of the magicians, return to your dust!
' That's how the first golem died."
"What's a golem?" Arkady asked.
"A man without a soul." Her laugh was as hard-bitten as everything else about her. "You."
Arkady heaved a shaky breath that ended in a bout of coughing. He was running a fever, his immune system kicking into overdrive to answer the insult of being stuck in a closed environment with thousands of unfamiliar human pathogens. He hoped it was just allergies. He couldn't afford to get sick now. And he didn't even want to think about what the UN's human doctors would make of his decidedly-posthuman immune system.
He lifted his glass and sipped cautiously from it. Beer. And not as bad as it smelled. Still he didn't like the cold skin of condensation that had already formed on the glass. It was a sure sign that the station was underpowered and overpopulated, its life-support systems dangerously close to redlining. A Syndicate station whose air was this bad would have been shutting down nonessential operations and shipping its crèchelings to the neighbors just to be on the safe side. But people here were carrying on as usual. And on the way to the meet Arkady had passed a group of completely unsupervised children playing dangerously far from the nearest blowout shelter. You could spend years listening to people talk about the cheapness of life in human space, but it didn't really come home to you until you saw something like this . . . You were wrong, Arkasha. They're another species. We're divided by our history, by our ideology, by the very genes we hold in common. All we share is the memory of what Earth was before we killed it.
* * *
Her name was Osnat.
Hebrew? German? Ethiopian?
Arkasha would have known which half-dead language had spawned such a name. It was exactly the kind of thing Arkasha had always known. And exactly the kind of thing Arkady had never learned for himself because he'd always thought Arkasha, or someone like Arkasha, would be there to tell him.
Osnat guided him through the back passages of the station as surefootedly as if she'd been born there. When she finally ducked into the shadowy alley of a private dock, the move was so unexpected that Arkady had to backtrack to follow her.
The gate's monitor was either broken or disconnected. Outside the scratched porthole a dimly lit viruflex tether snaked into the void. At its far end, looking as if it had been cut out with scissors and pasted against a black construction paper sky, floated the impact-scarred hulk of an obsolete Bussard-drive-powered water tanker.
Osnat palmed the scanner. Status lights flickered into life as the gate began its purge and disinfect cycle.
"No one said anything about getting on a ship," Arkady protested, though it was far too late to back out or demand answers.
"So your employers don't seem to be keeping you too well informed. What do you want me to do about it?"
Arkady didn't answer, partly because she was right . . . and partly because he was wracking his faded memories of pre-Breakaway history trying to figure out what employers
The purge and disinfect cycle ended. The airlock irised open and a bitter breeze wafted over them, smelling of space and ice and viruflex. Arkady peered down the long tunnel of the tether, but all he could see were scuffed white walls curving away into darkness.
Osnat put a hard hand to the small of his back and pushed him into the dazzling spray of the gate's antimicrobial cycle. By the time he blinked the stinging liquid from his eyes she was in the tether with him, riding its movements with the ease of an old space dog. It took Arkady a curiously long time to notice the gun in her hand.
"You're a piss poor spy, pretty boy."
"I'm not a--"
"Yeah yeah. Ants. You told me. Well cheer up. You'll get plenty of ants where we're going."
"Just suit up. They did
teach you how to use your NBC gear, didn't they?"
The nuclear-biological-chemical suit was supposed to be just for allergies, according to Korchow. Which had seemed reassuring until Arkady actually stopped to think about it. He pulled the unit out of his pack and tried to activate it. His fingers fumbled on the unfamiliar controls. Osnat shifted from foot to foot impatiently, cursed under her breath, and finally grabbed it from him.
He thought briefly of grappling with her now that her hands were occupied. He imagined himself disarming her and slipping back through the airlock into the relative safety of the station. But one look at Osnat's hard body and strong hands was enough to discourage him.
She slipped the mask over his face and demonstrated the filter's workings with quick gestures of her ragged fingers. "This line connects to an auxiliary air tank if you need one. The tank clamps on here and here. You brought spare filters?"
He checked. "Yes."
"You'll need 'em. You're not engineered to survive where we're going."
She squinted at him, lips pressed together in a bloodless line. Somehow the question, as ordinary to him as asking about the weather, had offended her.
She shrugged it off. "Guess you could call it that. Few million years of the best engineering no money can buy. What about the shots we told you to get?"
There'd been dozens of shots, starting with a bewildering array of antiallergens and intestinal fauna, and ending with cholera, tuberculosis, polio, yellow fever, and avian influenza. Arkady had spent hours in his bare white room on Gilead Orbital--a prison cell for all intents and purposes, though there was no lock on the door and he would never have thought to call it a prison before Arkasha--trying to guess where he was going from the shots Korchow had given him. But no immigration authority anywhere in UN space required that battery of inoculations; if such a hellhole existed in the vast swathe of the galaxy that still belonged to humans, they were ashamed enough to keep it secret.
"Good," Osnat was saying. "An allergic reaction doesn't mean sniffles and a runny nose down there."
"Down where? Where are we going? Please, Osnat."
"Haven't you figured it out yet?" She sighted down the barrel of her gun at him, and the smile that drifted across her face was as thin as the clouds in a terraformed sky. "We're going to run you through the blockade, golem. You're going to Earth."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Spin Control by Chris Moriarty. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Moriarty. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.