Here's the blurb:
The colony world of Stittara is no ordinary planet. For the interstellar Unity of the Ceylesian Arm, Stittara is the primary source of anagathics: drugs that have more than doubled the human life span. But the ecological balance that makes anagathics possible on Stittara is fragile, and the Unity government has a vital interest in making sure the flow of longevity drugs remains uninterrupted, even if it means uprooting the human settlements.
Offered the job of assessing the ecological impact of the human presence on Stittara, freelance consultant Dr. Paulo Verano jumps at the chance to escape the ruin of his personal life. He gets far more than he bargained for: Stittara’s atmosphere is populated with skytubes—gigantic, mysterious airborne organisms that drift like clouds above the surface of the planet. Their exact nature has eluded humanity for centuries, but Verano believes his conclusions about Stittara may hinge on understanding the skytubes’ role in the planet’s ecology—if he survives the hurricane winds, distrustful settlers, and secret agendas that impede his investigation at every turn.
When the hatchway opened on the drop shuttle and I filed out after most of the others, Stittara turned out to be a purple-gray world, just as all the briefing materials indicated, but mere words and screen and link presentations aren’t the same as the reality. Not for me, anyway. As for why that purple-gray was so intense, rather than dull, I couldn’t have said. Oh, I could have presented reason after reason, and they’d all make perfect sense, beginning with the translucent always-airborne microorganisms that absorbed certain frequencies of visible light. The meteorologists have their measurements, their analyses that confirm those reasons. For them, that solved the problem. For me, it didn’t. An old, old physicist once told me that labeling anything had nothing to do with solving a problem. Neither does explaining how something works. As far as I was concerned, the meteorologists had just analyzed and labeled the planet’s atmosphere, and let it go. There were reasons for letting it go, and I suspected that what lay behind those reasons might be why I was there. Well… not exactly. They were why the Unity’s ecological arm, the Systems Survey Service, had posted that free-lance consulting assignment that I’d jumped at just to get away from Bachman and Chelesina, except it had been dangled right in front of me, and I’d jumped at the bait like every other consultant who thought a proposal had been written exactly for his or her experience and abilities. And I was fairly certain this one had. What galled me the most was the feeling that I was part of a multimillion duhlar political throwaway vote-getting gambit… that the experience that the Survey Service was paying for was only mid-level camouflage and that the results of my assessment would change nothing. Except… I’d known that the assignment wouldn’t likely change much. Every consultant knows that ninety percent of what they do is to either give cover to doing nothing or to support a decision already made. In the case of Stittara, it was more than clear which was most likely.
Now… I was wondering just how good an idea it had been to take the contract, given that I was stepping off an antique half-winged/half lifting body shuttle, carrying a modest duffel, in addition to the two crates in the shuttle’s cargo bay. I’d had a look at the planet from the viewers on the orbit control station, and while the atmosphere looked hazy, I had been able to make out the outline of the continents and the comparatively narrow oceans that separated them. From space Stittara hadn’t looked all that different, just another water world, with less water than many, except the veil of stars that was the Arm was far narrower, and the blackness on each side much wider… and there had been a shading of purple, but the view from outside the atmosphere had given no idea of the intensity of that purple gray… or the fact that the sun was not a circle hanging in the sky, Rather the microorganisms in the upper troposphere diffused – and diminished – its illumination so that almost a quadrant of the sky was intensely luminous. Part of that was because Stittara’s sun was an F class, but Stittara wasn’t as far away as it should have been to be in the habitable zone because the atmosphere reflected more heat than did that of most T-type worlds.
Once I was down the ramp and clear of the shuttle I looked around, past the faded low greenish-gray stone structure at the edge of permacrete tarmac to the west, looking around to see who from the local Survey Service was there to meet me. I couldn’t pick out anyone in particular from the thirty or so individuals standing near the blockhouse-like dropport terminal, but I did see a pair of men in what appeared to be security singlesuits, along with a woman, greeting Aimee Vanslo, while a single functionary met Holly and Georg. The others before me had merged into the small crowd.
Once I looked away from the passengers and their greeters, the next thing I noticed was the grass, brownish purple green, that seemed to cover everything, leaving no bare ground or rocks. The next was that there were no trees, not anywhere I looked, and the clumps of bushes that I did see were dome-like and barely a meter tall. Nor were there any sharp shapes or jagged peaks, even of the hills or mountains in the distance. All that presented a landscape with an almost surreal and streamlined appearance, and in colors that would have seemed dull, monochromatic, had it not been for the intensity of those colors themselves.
Then… there was the sky, or what was in it. Stittara didn’t have clouds. Well… not clouds in the way anyone from a standard water world would consider them. What struck me immediately was the complexity and the intricacy of the skytubes, that and the intensity of their purple-gray, a shade that didn’t stay exactly the same in one place for more than moments. Yet I couldn’t actually see the shift in color and intensity, but that might have been because the skytubes I saw were far to the southwest.
I kept walking, my eyes on the sky because all the briefing cubes in the world couldn’t have conveyed that vibrancy… and yet, as I looked at the skytubes, they were somehow both intense… and just plain dull purple tinged with gray. The sky was a lighter gray, tinged with purple, also intense, just not so intense as the skytubes themselves.
“Gets you somehow, doesn’t it?”
I looked away from the skytubes to see walking toward me a pleasant-faced woman of indeterminate age, not that I expected anyone on Stittara to show obvious age, given that it was essentially the source of cosmetic and physiological anagathics for the Unity. She smiled, obviously waiting for me, since she wore the gray-blue singlesuit of Systems Survey, if one in a style long since abandoned on Bachman, conservative as it was compared to styles on Eduardo or elsewhere in the center of the Unity.
“Aloris Raasn,” she added.
“Paulo Verano. I’m the – ”
“ – the ecological assessor sent by the Unity, more precisely under the direction of the Chamber’s Oversight subcommittee.” Aloris finished for me.
That an oversight committee had been involved didn’t surprise me, but that I hadn’t been told and that she had told me that she’d clearly received a beamed message from the Persephonya, which had reached her more swiftly than I had, for all that it had traveled with me, there being nothing faster for practical interstellar communication transmission than a ley-liner. Even so, she’d had to have acted quickly. “What do you do with the Survey?”
“I’m the assistant meteorologist and the administrative director.” A smile slightly more than polite crossed her lips. “I have a groundcar. A Survey Services van, actually. We’ll have to wait for your equipment.”
“Don’t we have to pick it up?” I gestured toward the blockhouse port building.
“It’s easier for everyone if they deliver it to the van. I told Tadao you’d likely have some equipment.”
“Two crates and a few templates.” More than a few, since I’d brought as many as I could beg, borrow, or steal.
“Not exclusive single use, I hope.”
I shook my head. “You’re welcome to all of them, so long as I have access to the first prods on the ones I need for my work. Where do we go from here?”
“To the Survey compound. You’ll be staying in the guest quarters.”
“The first in how many years?”
“They’re used often by Survey personnel from the out-continents. You are the first off-planet visitor in several decades.”
That wasn’t exactly surprising. I would have bet that I was the first in longer than that.
There wasn’t any ground de-briefing, nor any entry formalities and procedures. All those had been taken care of on the orbit station. That made sense, because there was only one ley-liner a year from Bachman. Perhaps another handful from elsewhere in the Arm ported at Stittara, bringing either bored trusters on tours to see the oddities of the galaxy or industrial science types arriving – or departing – from the handfuls of projects scattered around the globe that had been established to study and to attempt to replicate the internal structure and properties of the various natural anagathics in the local flora.
We walked past the single long and low stone blockhouse set back from the shuttle strip toward a large flat expanse of permacrete, on which were arrayed a variety of vehicles, mostly ground types of some sort. There were two flitters, both with fuselages finished with the smooth dark gray that suggested years of usage and more than a few refinishings and repairs. The Survey Service van was finished in a yellow that had doubtless been brilliant and designed to stand out against the gray of the sky and the purple-gray of the skytubes. Now, it was just yellow.
“What do you expect to find here on Stittara, Ser Verano?” She opened the rear of the van, and I put my duffel in on one side, leaving more than enough room for my small crates. “Or not to find, as the case may be?”
“Paulo, please.” I smiled. “I don’t expect to find anything. I’m here to determine whether there are environmental and ecological impacts arising from the various projects that have been established to further develop the immunological and anti-aging boosters gleaned from the local organisms… and, of course, those studying the skytubes.”
“There’s little of that these days.”
“It’s proved futile and fatal too often. You can see that in the Survey records.”
That was interesting. Of course, neither of us had to mention the fact that Stittara likely would have long-since been abandoned without the intermittent flow of data and bio-discoveries. Those discoveries were another reason why I was standing there, since no one really wanted to abandon Stittara, for whatever reason, and my presence, at the very least, would buy enough time for a fickle electorate to forget and move on to the next sensational political revelation. My greatest danger was that I actually might find something that would change everything.
“If they were having such an impact, don’t you think we would have reported it?” Aloris’s voice was calm, but that didn’t disguise the edge behind it. “And who might care when you return in over a hundred and fifty years?”
“The Environmental Ministry might. It has lasted more than a while.” And I’d care, just out of professional pride, which might be all I had left by then.
“Ah, yes. The Ministry.” She smiled. “Tadao will be here in a few minutes with your equipment.” She walked to the back of the van, manually opening it.
I glanced to the west, where the skytubes were barely visible in the distance.
Aloris said nothing while we waited, and I didn’t feel like making small talk. That’s always been a problem for me. Chelesina complained that I was always pontificating or boring people with details. Somehow I never cared much for debating the latest linkpopper’s hair shades or private life that was really scripted for public consumption.
Before long an open ground lorry appeared, moving first to one of the flitters, where a uniformed patroller and another man in a silver-gray singlesuit waited while the loader transferred three cases, all covered in quantum-locked film, to the flitter.
“The latest microprint specs,” said Aloris.
That made sense. With molecular assemblers – microprinters – given an energy source and raw materials – tech transfer and updating was simply a matter of information. And since every ley-liner carried backup printers, if an outsystem world had suffered some form of catastrophe, rebuilding was certainly possible, not that I was aware it had ever been necessary.
After the microprint templating specs had been off-loaded, the flitter lifted almost immediately and headed westward. What did strike me as odd was that the craft stayed low, no more than a hundred meters above the ground. Yet the sky was clear. Were the skytubes actually aware and sensitive to aircraft? The old reports I’d read had speculated on that, but had come to no conclusions. I hoped that the Stittaran Survey office had more recent and conclusive data, but that remained to be seen.
After a few minutes, the stocky young man with serious dark eyes guided the ground lorry over to the van. “Professor Doctor Verano?”
He extended a hand tablet. “Please authenticate receipt of your crates. Receipt does not invalidate any claims for damage, but you must make such claims before the Persephonya breaks orbit.”
“When will that be?”
He grinned. “Not for another two months. The systems have to be recalibrated.”
That only took a week or so. The rest of the wait time was to accommodate those who only needed a few weeks before departing.
Then he swung down and lowered the lorry’s drop gate until it was level with the rear of the Survey van. In quick movements, he slid both crates into the van.
“Our thanks, Tadao.” Aloris nodded.
“Summer calm, and my best to Raasn,” he replied.
I assumed that he referred to some relative of hers, but since I didn’t know the relationship nomenclature on Stittara, I just mentally filed the comment.
“Summer calm?” I asked as the lorry glided back toward the single structure serving the dropport. “Are the skytubes or the local winds less violent in the summer?”
“Not really. The early colonists thought so. By the time they found out, the expression had stuck, and now it’s as much ironic as custom.”
“By the way, what is the local season here?”
“Spring. The seasons don’t vary much here. There’s almost no axial tilt.”
“And there’s life here?” My question was rhetorically sardonic, designed to provoke a reaction.
“Stittara wasn’t always this calm, the geologists say.” She turned and walked to the driver’s side of the van.
I walked to the other door, opened it, and slid into the seat. I actually had to manually fasten the safety straps. When I looked over, after fumbling them on, and nodded to Aloris, she pressed a stud on flat surface before her and then put both hands on a steering wheel. I didn’t say a word as she guided the van from the parking area onto a narrow permacrete highway. I hadn’t expected a planetary or even a local VCS, but it was still a slight jolt to ride in a wheeled conveyance traveling a highway at high speed that was actually controlled by a person and not a system. I knew it wouldn’t be the last surprise I should have anticipated and didn’t.
“What have you found most intriguing about meteorology here on Stittara?” I asked as an opening question.
“That it’s comparatively predictable and seldom intriguing.”
“Even with the skytubes?”
“They seem to coexist with the weather. There’s no data and no documentation on any instances where they could have changed or influenced meteorological conditions. You could make a rough analogy that they’re an airborne cross between plankton and jellyfish. Ocean jellyfish merely ride the currents. They don’t create them.”
More than a stan passed as the van continued westward, and as Aloris Raasn expanded on her theory. During that time, we passed exactly two other vehicles, and I saw not a single structure once we left the dropport. Nor did I see any trees, only gently rolling hills covered with the thick low grass with its undershades of brown and purple, and low bushes of various types, whose leaves held close to the same shades as the grass. I’d read about the ecology and studied the reports, with the notations that only the mountains held any flora or fauna of significant height, but there’s always a difference between reading and experiencing.
Finally, Aloris pulled off the highway and guided the van along a narrow way, over a rise, and down a slope into a wide grassy vale that held an array of hundreds, if not thousands, of structures, all but a few less than ten yards on a side, and none of them more than a story in height, if that. While there was a clear plan to the community, what it was escaped me, because all the streets were the same narrow width and all curved. There wasn’t a straight stretch of permacrete anywhere, not from what I could tell, and not a single one of the tiny structures had any sharp corners, not even gently smoothed right-angled ones.
“Welcome to Passova.”
“This is civilization, then?”
“There’s more here than meets the eye, as you must know.”
My eyes didn’t see more, which confirmed that there was a lot underground, given that supposedly close to a hundred thousand people lived in Passova, the administrative center for the geographic area centered on the dropport.
The only indication of the nature of the structure into which she guided the van was the Service logo beside the vehicle doorway. Once the door had closed, and we had driven down the ramp behind it and into a vehicle bay, she seemed slightly less tense, but I wasn’t certain why, unless she didn’t care for driving a van more than a stan each way to the dropport.
“Why is the dropport so far from Passova?” I asked as I unstrapped and opened the door.
“It’s located mid-way between Passova, several research communities, and eight other towns. It’s also in the area with the best weather – and the greatest visibility.”
“Have the skytubes ever destroyed a drop shuttle?”
“Once. That was over two hundred years ago. That’s another reason why the dropport is where it is.”
“And why everything on the surface is aerodynamically smooth and why important installations are underground?”
“It makes sense. You can leave your duffel in the van for now. You can meet some of the others, but the Executive Director won’t be back until late tonight, and then we’ll get your equipment transferred to the vacant lab space and your personal gear to the guest quarters.”
I followed Aloris Raasn down the ramps to the open receiving area on the main level, lit by piped light. The diffused atmospheric light was close to T-standard, but far from identical.. There another Survey member stood. He could have been her brother, or regendered clone. He probably wasn’t either.
“Ecologist Verano, this is Meteorogist Raasn Defaux.”
I managed not to gape. I’d obviously been wrong, in more ways than one. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
“And surprised. You shouldn’t be. It’s in the Charter. Without imprint cloning, Stittara couldn’t maintain critical expertise.”
“He’s also a far better meteorologist than I,” added Aloris.
That might be true, but it was irrelevant. What was relevant was that Raasn was effectively her twin brother. Even if I reviewed the Stittaran Charter, I’d find that such a provision existed, and Raasn knew it, which was why he’d offered the statement, I suspected.
“Raasn and Demotte will take care of your gear while I show you the guest quarters,” said Aloris smoothly. “This way, if you will.”
I followed her to the end of the open area through what was clearly a pressure-seal door and out into a corridor a good six meters wide and three high, effectively an underground highway, emphasized by the fact that Aloris immediately moved to the right side of the tunnel corridor. Given that the top of the corridor had to be at least two meters below ground level, I had to ask, “Why the pressure-seal doors?”
“At times the storms can be so violent that there’s a significant pressure drop in the center. If there’s a break in any above-ground structure, the pressure differentials could wreak havoc with the equipment.”
That made sense. I didn’t think it was a complete answer, either, since wreaking havoc with equipment suggested even worse impacts on those operating the equipment.
We walked past another open pressure-seal door.
“Those are the quarters for local Survey staff. The visiting quarters are accessed through the next door.”
After walking another hundred yards, and being passed by a silent small conveyance I would have called a tunnel lorry, we reached that door, also equipped with pressure-seals. Beyond the door, the much narrower corridor sloped gently upward until we came to a simple iris-door. Aloris palmed it, and it opened. “You can add your print to the setting before you leave the next time.”
I nodded, following her into a foyer of sorts, with a narrow closet. Beyond the foyer was a modest-sized receiving chamber.
“Receiving chamber, dining, kitchen, and spare bedroom and bath down here, sleeping quarters, study, and bath/fresher on the upper level.”
“Are all the quarters like that?”
“No. We’ve just discovered that out-worlders feel confined without an outside view.”
“You don’t need it?”
She shook her head. “Most of us prefer the lower levels. Dermotte should have your personal gear here shortly. If you’ll enter your prints on the door, that will confirm your biometrics and cancel other access. Then I’ll show you your spaces in the Survey complex.”
I did just that, a little chilled, but not totally surprised that she had my biometrics. Then I followed her on what was likely to be a comparatively long walk through endless tunnels.
Spring was the garden of my sky, thought one,
Where there we loved in joy and saw no sun.
“Daisies are the perkiest flowers, don’t you think?” Ilsabet looked to the wall and to Alsabet, framed in the wallscreen. “Petals of sun and light, centers of ink.”
“If they don’t get caught in the wind,” replied Alsabet. “Then they’re just scattered petals.”
“The skytubes let them be, as any can see.”
Alsabet was silent, as if waiting for a prompt.
“I know,” Ilsabet finally declared, “because it’s so.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. But I won’t tell you. You’d tell them now, but you don’t know how.” With that, Ilsabet’s hand came down in a cutting motion, and the wallscreen blanked. After a moment, she smiled. “I know you’re still there, but it makes me feel things are fair.” Her voice changed slightly. “I’m going outside. Matron says I can go and bide. I wish there were a storm today, but they’ve all gone away. So the door will open for me. It only closes when I want to see. I learned to know that about doors a long time ago.”
Her grayed braids swung girlishly behind her as she danced out through the door that had irised open at her approach. Once outside, her wide gray eyes lifted to behold the twisted purple tubes that festooned the sky to the south. Far to the south. Too far.