Young Rue Cassels of the Cycler Compact -- a civilization based around remote brown dwarf stars -- is running for her life from her bullying brother, Jentry, who has stolen her family inheritance and threatens to sell her into slavery. Fleeing in a shuttle spacecraft from the sparsely populated and austere comet-mining habitat she has lived in her whole life, she spots a distant, approaching object, and stakes a legal claim to it. It is not the valuable comet she hoped for but something even more wonderful, an abandoned Cycler starship.
Since the discovery of a faster-than-light drive, unfortunately operable only between larger stars, the Cycler Compact civilization has gradually dwindled. It's much cheaper for the star-based civilizations of the new Rights Economy to bypass the stops that can't be made with the new technology, and the civilizations of the brown stars are gradually sinking into anarchy and chaos. It has been decades since the last Cycler ship passed anywhere near the system in which Rue grew up. Her discovery unleashes a fury of action, greed, and interstellar intrigue as many factions attempt to take advantage of the last great opportunity to revitalize-and perhaps control--the Compact.
This is the story of Rue's quest to visit and claim this ship and its treasures, set against a background of warring empires, strange alien artifacts, and fantastic science. It is a story of hope and danger, of a strange and compelling religion, Permanence, unique to this star-faring age, and of the rebirth of life and belief in a place at the edge of forever.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||461 KB|
About the Author
Karl Schroeder lives in Toronto, Ontario.
KARL SCHROEDER is a professional futurist as well as one of Canada's most popular science fiction and fantasy authors. He divides his time between writing and conducting workshops and speaking on the potential impacts of science and technology on society. He is the author of The Million, as well as a half-dozen previous SF novels.
Read an Excerpt
PART ONEEdiacara1RUE PAUSED JUST long enough to catch her breath. She had reached the outer station now, far from her bedroom, and was breathing hard enough to use up a day's ration of oxygen. Add that to my bill, she thought sourly.Jentry and the others couldn't be far behind. She had been unbelievably stupid, she knew; but this time Jentry had gone too far. She reached up and absently stroked the small stone disk that hung on a thong around her neck. Jentry could insult her, he could restrict her access to vital parts of the station; he could poison the minds of the workers against her. But to steal her birthright--no, if she had to do it again, she would still have gone to steal it back. Maybe more carefully, though ...Her uneven breath frosted in the dim weightless air. The outer shells of the spherical station were a maze of corridors and cells, relying on what little warmth trickled out of the core for energy. This corridor was one of the rarely used ringways--a long hexagonal tunnel outside the Earth-G centrifuge, intermittently lit and lined with filmy shipfur. As she rapelled from handhold to frosted handhold she looked for signs. In the Core, especially the centrifuge, everything was labelled: Mom's poor substitute for the baroque carving that covered every surface of more wealthy stations. Out here, the only markings were the ones Rue had made for herself over the years, during the hours and days she spent hiding out from Father and Jentry and the others.There--she spied interlinked triangles scratched near a bulkhead door. They glittered faintly with hoarfrost and for the first time she shivered. Rue knew that the temperature beyond that door was little more than 250 degrees Kelvin. She had come this way many times partly because she knew the others wouldn't venture down here. The halls beyondthat bulkhead were unusually cold for this level and unless you knew to dress for it in advance, the cold would ward you away. She'd used that fact to her advantage many times.The only problem was, she wasn't dressed for it herself tonight. She wore only the light thermals she had donned in her bedroom."There she is!" Despite her years and independence, Jentry's voice still had the power to freeze Rue. A flashlight beam jiggled crazily over the frost on the walls and blinded Rue for a second. She shook herself and spun away, groping for the handle of the bulkhead door."Come back here, you little leech!" Jentry had called her that for so long that the insult had lost its force years ago."Suck vacc!" she shot back.Her knuckles rapped the door handle and she grabbed it. The cold hit her palm like fire, but she ignored it as she yanked on the door. It groaned open and the puff of air that emerged made her gasp. She let go of the handle, leaving skin behind and dove into the dark opening.Talking back to her half-brother was the quickest way to a beating, but this time Rue had worse things to worry about. Mom was dead three weeks now; the last roadblock in Jentry's plan to sell Rue was removed. She knew a cometary cycler would be passing the station in two weeks time and Jentry had sneeringly told her that there was a man on it who needed laborers for his station. Allemagne's tiny ecology couldn't support Rue, he'd said. She just wasn't productive enough. She would have to go--one way or another.There was no time to shut the bulkhead door behind her. Rue dove shuddering into the cold. Her thin shipfur jacket was no protection at all here. She clamped her mouth firmly shut and breathed through her nose, feeling a ring of fire around her nostrils every time she did so. A single fullmouthed intake of air could freeze your lungs here; she had to be careful. And she avoided touching the snow-coveredwalls with her skin, using taps of her boots to keep herself moving forward."She's crazy! Rue, get back here! You'll freeze your sorry little ass down there." Shadows from Jentry's head moving in the doorway loped ahead of her. He wasn't dressed for this part of the station either--her only advantage at this point."Rue, come back here this minute or I'll send the miners after you." He'd adopted Father's tone of authority of late and seemed to relish using it on Rue. She snarled but didn't succumb to the temptation to talk. The skin of her face and hands felt tight from the cold; the air here was perfectly dry and she'd start to dehydrate soon. Scraping snow off the walls would not satisfy that thirst; the finer whisks of that frost were made of carbon dioxide, not water.At least her frost-burned hand no longer hurt. She came to the end of the long corridor, where another ringway started. The walls here were nearly cold enough to liquefy nitrogen. To breathe was to drink fire; she held a hand over her face so that the weak heat of her fingers would help warm the air. She probably had less then a minute to live if she didn't find what she was after.Years ago, there had been an accident on a visiting rendezvous shuttle. It had slammed into the half-mined comet that loomed next to Allemagne and bits of hull and debris had flown everywhere. Jentry and the other favored lads had spent the better part of six months rounding up all the flotsam that had drifted away into interstellar blackness. Rue, who was never allowed outside, had instead used some miner robots--probably the same ones Jentry was about to send after her--to patrol the outer hull of the station looking for breaches.She had found one--a hole punched by a section of the ship's hull. In the zigzagging lamp light of her miner's headlight, she had beheld a rough triangle of wall, torn and peeled along the edges, wedged into a gap of brokenfullerene spars. Clouds of shipfur floated everywhere. In the very center of the triangle was an airlock door.Before she reported her find, Rue had pried open that door, to find an almost intact cylindrical airlock beyond it. Its lockers were filled with treasures.Now she raced down the leftward arm of the ringway, hands held in her armpits, breathing shallowly while her ears and face went numb from the gentle movement of air past her face. She was shivering uncontrollably now and her back was dangerously close to spasm. Rue tried to calm herself; she had calculated this distance quite carefully when she stashed her discoveries all those five years ago. She should have time.She bounced herself to a stop over a frost-rimed door. The only illumination here was a single blue tube ten meters down the corridor, but Rue knew where the doorplate was and she used a corner of her jacket to wipe it free of frost. Then she breathed on her thumb to warm it and tapped the plate.Nothing happened. Rue cursed; she didn't want to hold contact with the thing for more than a split second, or she would freeze to it. She prodded the plate again.This time it flashed and the door grated open, light blooming from inside. She couldn't breathe and her hands had gone completely numb by the time she maneuvered herself around the icy metal doorjamb. Here, though, was her treasure: a storage room containing three EVA suits, reaction pistols, rolls of fullerene cable, and bundles of shipfur. Also, an addition that she had stolen from Father's stores a week after stashing this stuff: an emergency thermal pack.She dove for the thermal pack and looped her unresponsive fingers through the big ring on its side. One good pull and it began to throb with warmth, stronger every second.For a while she just huddled around it, soaking up the warmth. After a minute or two she heard a faint hissingcoming from all around her. some of the frost on the walls was evaporating.Rue had rehearsed her next moves a thousand times in hopeful daydreams. Her fingers were waking up and felt like th ey had been burned to the bone. Her ears were still numb, but her face was starting to hurt, too. As soon as she could move her fingers enough, she pressed the thermal pack against one of the EVA suits, then grabbed the warmed fabric and pulled it free of its hook. She worked in stages, putting the thermal pack against each item before she touched it: diagnostic panel, thermal controls, zips. She started the suit's heat cycle, then began attaching her meager supplies to its belt loops. When it was warm enough inside the suit, she wormed her way into it.With the suit enfolding her like a second skin, Rue made herself stop and just breathe for a while. She had done it! From here things got easier. She popped open the door to the ringway and exited it hand over hand. The suit had been perfectly preserved in the cold and worked like new.She pitched the nearly spent thermal pack down the corridor. Hopefully Jentry's miners would fixate on its infrared signature and go after it rather than her. The insulation in Rue's suit was efficient enough that her main problem was overheating. Back to the intersection, then past it, and soon she had reached another bulkhead door, beyond which the cold was an order of magnitude more deadly. She rapelled confidently through it and down two more levels as the outside temperature dropped closer and closer to absolute zero. By the time Rue reached the outside hatch she sought, all air had frozen out of the corridors and the meager heat radiating from her suit made the snow on the walls flash into vapor.Her skin was all pins and needles; her hands ached and she curled them arthritically. It was a familiar pain. Rue had felt such cold many more times than Jentry, she'd bet. He never had any reason to lurk in the outer rings of the station, after all.She pried open the outer hatch and for only the third time in her life, stood on the outside of Allemagne station. Starlight didn't illuminate the great black curve of the sphere; there were no running lights. She could see the station only by how it blotted the stars. Much clearer was the comet to which Allemagne was parasitically attached; it formed a bulky scab-colored mountain above the sphere's black horizon.Rue was on a mission, but the temptation was too strong to look up. She thought only to glance at the stars to orient herself, but ended up gaping. They were brilliant points here, hard as diamond and so distinct as to be three dimensional--ranks and sheets of stars behind stars, clouds and swirls like the frozen breath of the unimaginably titanic All.All her life, Rue had seen the stars on screens and twice in glimpses as she stood on the hull of Allemagne. They were the homes of wonders, those stars, and tonight she was finally on her way to visit them.It took a while to psych herself up, but finally she kicked off from the hull. Long ago, when they were friends, Jentry had shown her how to maneuver using a reaction pistol and she blessed that memory now as she fired hers to wobble in a long loop around the station. After a few minutes the dark rectangle of the docks came into view. Long gantries jutted out into space and here the station's ships and shuttles were silhouetted against the stars. She picked out the largest of those black forms and jetted toward it.Any second now miners would come out of the dark at her, claws out, carapaces shielding the nested purple curves of the camera eyes through which Jentry would be watching. She would fail and be dragged back--or he would just kill her on the spot. It didn't matter. She had made her bid and, for Rue, that was the first and last unshakable fact that declared who she was.She grinned tightly when she found herself touching the hull of the cycler shuttle--safe and unsuspected. Maybe the miners were still rattling around in the ringways,thwarted. She would pretend they were, anyway, until rude reality stopped her.The miners didn't arrive in time to stop her from locating the airlock to the cycler shuttle. They didn't reach to stop her from turning the emergency handle and nothing was waiting for her in the red-lit airlock that opened for her.Rue entered the ship with a sense almost of disappointment; certainly of anticlimax. She had been afraid of Father and Jentry all her life; nothing that she'd done in defiance of them had ever gone unpunished, except for the tiny actions, like making her own safe refuges in the outer ringways, that were symbolic to her and utterly unimportant to the world at large.She undogged the suit's helmet and said, "Ship, awake."Light bloomed around her, inside a ship that was as much hers as Jentry's (according to the inheritance) but where she had been only a few times in her life. She quickly stripped off her gloves and reached to touch a tapestry on the wall. The walls and floors were done in complex, quilted fabrics in dark earth tones and crimson, lit by unobtrusive spotlamps. This airlock opened near the galley, which glowed with suspended holos; a central well with a ladder led up and down to sleeping quarters and games rooms. There was no control room; everything was voice and inscape-controlled. The shuttle was designed to keep its occupants comfortable--and amused--for the weeks that it might take to rendezvous with a passing cycler.It was the most luxurious place Rue had ever been. No wonder Jentry had forbidden her to visit it. She remembered there were fish tanks and a tiny arboretum with green plants in it. There were lots of places she had never been, as well. She wanted to explore right now, but first she had to finish her escape. She dove down the central well of the ship.As she entered the main cargo hold she shouted, "Ship, cast off. Set a course to rendezvous with the next cycler.""Nice try, Sis."She caught herself on a cargo net and looked around. Jentry hung in the open airlock that connected to the docking tube. "I thought you might try something like this," he said. "So while you were pulling maneuvers in deep space, I sailed up here. After all, the others could find you if you went anywhere else. This was your only option--too bad you're so predictable." He grinned insolently and launched himself at her.Jentry had hit her so many times that Rue's instinct was to raise her hands when he came for her. This time, though, she found one of her gloves still held the reaction pistol.The look on his face when he saw it was priceless; Jentry was in midflight and couldn't stop himself or turn away. She levelled the pistol and shot him in the face.He vanished behind a puff of white vapor; the pistol kicked back, nearly tangling Rue in the cargo net. Jentry shrieked, limbs flailing as he tumbled past her and hit the wall.His face red and blistered, Jentry groaned as he drifted back into the center of the hold. For a second Rue felt a deep pang of remorse, because she had never wanted to hate Jentry. He had driven her to it."I'm sorry, Jentry," she said and she meant it. She jumped, rolled in midair and planted her feet in his midriff. Kicking off, she ended up back at the cargo net while Jentry sailed precisely through the middle of the airlock door. She watched him recede down the docking tube for a moment, then dove to the doorway and pressed the close button."Ship! Cast off!""I recognize you, Meadow-Rue Rosebud Cassels," said the ship in its liquid voice. "Jentry Terrence Cassels has issued an order that I should remain in port."Rue felt a shock run through her, like the premonition of a blow. "I have authority over you. Mom gave you to both of us.""Yes, Meadow-Rue.""So ... what's it to be?""According to law, when equal ownership applies to a ship, authority is held first by the one who is physically aboard the ship. Your order takes precedence over his.""Then go! Go, damn you!"Then suddenly she was moving, drifting toward the floor--no, the floor was drifting up as the ship left dock. She alighted on the soft surface and gradually over the next few minutes her weight increased to full.It took Rue a full hour to convince herself she was really on her way. When she finally believed it, she curled up in a corner and cried. Then she slept and didn't wake for almost a full day.
BEFORE CREEPING INTO Jentry's quarters to retrieve her heirloom, Rue had visited the few places in Allemagne that had meant something to her. She needed to say good-bye, but with Mom gone there were no people she wanted to say it to. But all her memories were here--her whole past--so she went to the gardens and sat for a while sniffing under the coal-black leaves of her favorite air tree. It was very bright here--as bright, Grandma had told her once, as a full-moon night on Earth. The black trees and black grasses were much more efficient light-gatherers than the green wildflowers Mom kept in her blinding hot terrarium. As a child Rue had lain back in the grass, feeling the faint heat of the ceiling lamps a dozen meters overhead, seeing a slight glow through her eyelids. She imagined she was on Earth or some exotic alien planet in High Space, baking in sunlight.The gardens took up nearly a third of Allemagne's two hundred meter centrifuge; the rest of the circle was taken up with fish tanks and other recycling equipment and sleeping quarters for the hundred or so residents and transient workers who struggled to keep Allemagne livable.They were roughnecks--rejects of the cometary halo worlds, criminals, misfits, and failed profiteers. These men were Rue's "uncles" as she was growing up and a few had been kind. The rest had trained her to a caution and cunning that ran as deep as her marrow.From the gardens she had gone to the observatory. Things here were shut down. Father had declared last year that every mineable object within half a light-year had been spotted and claimed, mostly by other stations with better telescopes. No scrap of ice bigger than a fist had escaped the prospectors' attention. Hence there was no reason to look outside anymore.The observatory enchanted Rue, as it had when she first discovered the place. Although it was deep inside the station, outside the centrifuge and near the fusion generator at Core, a mirrored screen twenty meters across brought in the glow of the stars via light pipes. Rue loved to hang weightless in the center of the observatory, with her entire field of vision taken up by sky. The Milky Way was a ghostly band that twisted diagonally across the black. Everywhere were stars. She knew many of them by name. She could order the computer to rotate the view and look anywhere and by the time she was twelve Rue had learned to orient herself by merely glancing at those stars. Quite an accomplishment, she thought, since at that age she had never been outside the station.After visiting the observatory she had rapelled her way to the newsroom. Information feeds too complex for inscape were presented here. Mom had shown Rue programs from many halo worlds in this place and even broadcasts from Earth. The big octagonal chamber flickered with multicolored holos, even now with no one present to see them.Here she had learned to dream of faraway worlds, aliens and exotic men from High Space. When Jentry began to turn bad, she'd started coming here to launch herself into a universe of adventures and romance where he could never follow.These rooms had been Rue's refuges. Jentry and the other station rats never visited them, preferring the telepresence locker where they operated mining robots and had them race or fight in off hours.Finally she admitted to herself that she was procrastinating. It was a short run to the docks, there to steal a rendezvous shuttle and escape. Before she could go there, though, she had to rescue her heirloom.She went back to the centrifuge and dawdled outside Jentry's apartment for a while. There was no traffic in the halls this late at night, nor any sound coming from inside his rooms. He always locked the door at night, but one of the first skills Rue had taught herself in idle hours was lock-picking. She had a small pad of shipfur on which she'd reproduced his thumbprint and after taking a deep breath she pressed this against the door plate and waited. The door slid aside without trouble.Jentry's main room was dark; next to it were the head, his bedroom, and the kitchenette, all luxurious compared with her own single room with fold-down toilet. In theory Rue had never been here and would have no idea of the place's layout; in fact she had visited these rooms many times while Jentry was busy playing telepresence games or pursuing any women unfortunate enough to be visiting.She walked quickly, sweeping her toes ahead of her to scan for unexpected obstacles. Here was the couch and here the dining table. Make a left turn, take four steps, reach out carefully ... she felt the cool smoothness of the small display case where Jentry kept her inheritance. A pulse of anger burned in her as she pictured him impudently displaying what Grandma and Mom had declared to all was hers.Lifting the glass cover off with both hands, she flipped it onto the palm of her left hand and lowered her right to the surface of the dais. The cool siltstone disk of the pendant was right where it should be. She scooped it up and turned back to the door in one motion."Whooz' ere?"--Jentry's voice, thick with sleep and in all likelihood drugs. Rue started involuntarily at the sound and dropped the glass cover.It shattered. She cursed and ran to the door. Behind her Jentry swore too and she heard bedding being thrown aside. She was in the hall before he got the light on, but Rue knew he would know who had stolen the pendant. There was only one person in Allemagne who coveted it enough to risk his wrath."Come back here, you little beggar!" She made it to the elevator that led out of the centrifuge, but by the time Rue reached the weightless corridors outside Core, Jentry had roused the entire station and locked down the doors to the docks with the command codes he'd inherited from Father.
OF COURSE JENTRY had called: a little inscape diamond was hanging in the air above her when Rue awoke. She ignored it and went to freshen up. Her new quarters were sumptuous and she took full advantage of the water shower and sonic cleaners. She ordered a new fullerene EVA suit from the ship's assemblers and made herself eat a full and complete breakfast before she finally sat down to review his messages.Never once in all his ranting did he ask her to come back. "You will come back, I'll make you," he said at first. Then, later, "I see you're trying to hook up with a cycler. Well, guess what? I've called them and told them you're a criminal--that you spaced a man here. The instant you board that cycler, you'll be arrested and they'll extradite you right back here. Enjoy your holiday while you can, you little shit. 'Cause the instant you get back you're dead."She laughed at that--he'd given himself away. There was no way any legal body was going to believe his story over hers, once they reviewed the messages. It was quite possible, though, that his deal with the cycler was more pragmatic. He might just be buying her back from them.Rue had heard stories--more and more of them in recent years. Anarchy and despair were leaking into the stations, year by year. One couldn't hang around the rough types who filled the labor force at Allemagne without listening to tales of cannibalism, neural-lock slavery and mass suicide from the far fringes of the cometary zone. Some of those stories had given her nightmares when she was younger. Some of them, she had later learned, were true.Cometary cyclers were supposed to be above petty disputes. They made their slow rounds between places like Allemagne, gossamer magnetic sails turning them ever so gradually to a new heading every time they passed within ten billion kilometers of a station. Light cargo ships accelerated out from the stations, docked at the cycler and disembarked at later stops. The cyclers were supposed to be bastions of stability and civilization in the halos, like their cousins the great interstellar liners.Well, when a cycler came within hailing distance of a major halo world such as Erythrion they sure acted civilized. But out here, beyond law and sanity, Rue knew they had begun to deal in slavery and vice--whatever their customers desired so long as they made the trades that kept the cyclers supplied.Rue had been reviewing the messages in the galley, which might well become her favorite place in the shuttle. Now she gripped the table and stared into the starfield she'd called up in inscape. The stars shone in their indifferent millions and floating before them were hundreds of tiny strings of red numbers: all the stations, comets, and ice chunks within half a light year.She still had plenty of fuel for the shuttle's fusion engine. Normally cyclers were the only practical way to ferry passengers the huge distances between the halo worlds, but that was partly because people tended to save their trips up and take them together. This shuttle had life support enough to keep a hundred people alive for amonth. Rue used only a fraction of that and the life support system was designed to be scalable; only a little of it was switched on right now."Ship, how long can I stay alive without resupply?" she asked after a while. Her finger strayed from one little address to the next and mentally she put names and faces to some of them--considering, then rejecting each."I can keep you alive for two years, Rue," said the ship.She took a deep breath. "How long would it take us to reach Erythrion,?"The ship's voice showed neither surprise nor concern. "Minimal or maximal-burn?""Maxi.""Four months."She started. "Is that all? Well, shiz, do it!"The ship started a stomach-flipping turn. Four months. To someone else, sixteen weeks of solitary confinement might have seemed an awful prospect, but all Rue could think was, Peace and quiet for four months. It was perfect.
Exactly halfway into her journey, Rue received a hail from Erythrion. The shuttle had filed a flight plan unbeknownst to her and now the great halo world was replying. The reply was mostly numbers.Rue had no money on her at all.The shuttle was worth a million dites easy, but selling it required both her and Jentry's thumbprint. She supposed she could sell some of its fittings and furniture, but when Rue totalled it all up her assets came to a meager two thousand dites, enough to let her dock for a day at one of Erythrion's colonies, but no more. She would have to set theshuttle on a slow-burn return flight to Allemagne and find work right away.The prospect was depressing. She would have a few days at most before she was in debt and debt could mean deportation. Maybe Jentry would have the last laugh after all.Finally, after considering all the angles, she reluctantly brought out her pendant and shone a little crafts light on it. It wasn't much to look at--just a dark gray disk five centimeters across. In the center of the disk was a slightly upraised circle with a rough three-armed spiral in it. She traced the arms of the spiral carefully with her fingertip."What's so special about that old rock?" she'd asked when Grandma first showed her the pendant."You must never tell anyone," said Grandma. "It's a secret, but this 'old rock' is the most precious thing I own.""Why?" Jentry had asked belligerently. He had been sitting next to Rue on the floor of Grandma's apartment."Because," she had said, dangling the pendant for Rue to see, "this stone is from Earth!"Rue picked it up and sniffed it. There was no smell, but she imagined she inhaled a few molecules of old Earth. Maybe there were dormant bacteria or spores trapped in the pores of the rock. Dropped on a fallow world, it might seed a whole new biosphere."But there's more," Grandma had said. "See this design?" She had held the siltstone so that the trefoil pattern caught the light."It's a galaxy," Jentry said. "Isn't it?"Rue had reached out to trace the shape with her finger, just as she did now. "No it isn't. Is it a fossil?""Yes, Meadow, it's a fossil and not just any fossil, but the oldest kind of Earth fossil. This is an Ediacaran and it dates back to the very beginning of life. This is the first thing bigger than a microbe that lived. And it is ours.""What's a fossil?" Jentry asked, annoyed.Rue smiled at the memory. It was probably that single display of ignorance on Jentry's part that made Grandmadecide to bequeath the pendant to her alone, instead of both of them.It was all she had left of Grandma or her mom. And if she was going to make a life for herself in Erythrion, she was going to have to sell it.Rue took a photo of the pendant and then sent a message ahead to inquire what a siltstone fossil from Earth, six hundred million years old, might be worth. She was pretty sure it would be a lot.She traced her finger over the faint design on the stone. As an adolescent Rue had been sure the pendant held the key to understanding time. There was a mystery to the thing, because caressing it you could feel its age: life had turned to stone here without the intercession of Medusa, just by lying in deathly repose for sufficient aeons. Yet Rue could go outside Allemagne and scoop from their captured comet snowflakes that had formed three billion years before the little fluttering Ediacaran was born.To have such a snowflake end its unimaginable life span by melting in your hand left no impression; somehow it still seemed younger than the pendant, since for over three billion years nothing whatsoever had happened to it or near it. The stars had changed. That was all.During the ever-so-more-brief life of the Ediacaran fossil, on the other hand, comets had smashed into the Earth, trilobites and coelecanths had arisen. Mountains thrust up and wore down around the stone cocoon that held the Ediacaran. The planet's continents had collided and subducted numerous times. Dinosaurs had fought above the fossil's resting place; later men had missed it while blowing up cities and overturning mountains in their fight for resources. The Ediacaran had survived all these adventures unscathed, to be finally dug up and shot halfway across the universe. It was still in one piece.Now that was time.As Rue was turning the stone over in her hands, becomingincreasingly depressed over losing it, the ship pinged to get her attention."What? Is it dinner time already?""The prospector scopes report an anomaly, Rue," said the ship.She sat upright, forgetting she was in freefall. The pendant bounced through her fingers and drifted away."Show me!" She slammed her hand on the tabletop, bringing up the external view. There were the stars and the hundreds of little addresses; lately Erythrion had appeared among them. One of the little strings was flashing green."The prospecting scopes have spotted an object that is not registered with the Claims Bureau," said the ship."Is it a ship? A cycler?" For a moment she wondered if Jentry was following her--but that was preposterous. She had Allemagne's only shuttle."All ships in halo space are accounted for, and there are no more interstellar cyclers on this ring," said the ship. "This anomaly is not in the database.""H-how big?""We will not know until we get a parallax view of it, Rue, but based on its spectral signature and occultation pattern it may be a kilometer or more in diameter.""A kil-" She sputtered. There hadn't been a kilometersized comet discovered in the halos in half a century. "I'm rich! I don't believe--Wait, wait a sec, are you sure nobody else has staked a claim on this thing?""The maximal-burn course you asked me to take has brought us far from any stations. It is quite possible that their scopes have not picked it up, even though they are larger."And if they're as gob-stupid as Jentry, they've all turned their scopes off to save power, since everybody knows all the ice in the area has already been found."Stake me a claim! Right now! I don't want to risk a single second. If that thing is as big as you say it is, we've gotit made!" She wouldn't have to sell the pendant--quite the contrary, she could buy a box full of fossils. Speaking of which, where was it? Rue dove across the room and retrieved the siltstone from where it had drifted against an air grate."Preparing the claim form, Rue ... claim sent.""That's it? That's all you have to do?" The ship said yes and Rue proceeded to turn somersaults through the galley, screaming her relief. When she finally settled down, she fell to waiting nervously for the reply from the Claims Bureau. By the time it came--seven hours later--she was frazzled with nervous exhaustion. But the message was clear:New object verified. Designation number 2349#MRRC, staked by Meadow-Rue Rosebud Cassels July 23, 2445.She had escaped. She was going to see civilized society for the first time in her life. And she was rich.Copyright © 2002 by Karl Schroeder