Return to This world might be saved, if only for the children (fiction)

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Phantryon VI had almost made it back to low planetary orbit on rediscovered technology when I arrived and blew their lifter off the beanstalk into a catastrophic hail of steel, aluminum, plastic and flesh. I'd been dropped from a Starship on a high-speed grazing pass, and I remember the fear in my stomach as the regular ordered shape spat my assault suit from a grapplock and then angled away from me. Its velocity was such that it was out of sight in seconds, although the Uplifted inhabiting it was still giving me mission briefings via the commlink in my helmet.

The assault suit was a three-ton monster of Uplifted tech, not so much put on as spun around me by a blizzard of constructor nano as components drifted into the suiting chamber and were melded into the shape surrounding my body by the cloud of singleminded tools. Some five minutes later, I was embedded in the center of more firepower than most pre-space nations, coupled with more delta-V than anything pre-Jump. I was wriggling my limbs in an attempt to get comfortable which was doomed to fail because my discomfort was all in my mind anyway. The suit had gently knocked out my nervous system below the neck and was helpfully exercising my muscles via electrostim.

Watching the Starship Needful Assistance silently recede, I turned my vision to the planet fast approaching. My head wasn't actually exposed to space, although in dire emergency I could jettison all the gear surrounding my head other than a last inner helmet, which was clear. But if I got to that point, it probably wouldn't do any good. I watched the Tzun and the assault suit mind - stupid, and mostly a receptable for an Uplifted like the Tzun, to make sure nobody else could operate it - agree on an intercept trajectory and felt my sinuses shift slightly as the suit accelerated.

Two hours, twenty-seven minutes and a few seconds later Phantryon VI itself had grown from a small sphere to a disc covering nearly half my field of vision, I figuratively shoved the computer aside and trued the weapons. As the thread-thin glow of the space elevator grew rapidly in my nonexistent senses, I waited for the quiet, diplomatic, almost apologetic bong from the suit mind and flexed whatever my part of my brain it had mapped as 'trigger.' There was a brief delay, and a small bright glare came into being on the beanstalk, just inside the blue of atmosphere.

"Done," announced the Tzun with satisfaction. I watched the scene, now falling rapidly behind, as a shower of components both mechanical and human arced outwards and began the long unforgiving fall back to the surface.

Then I vomited in my suit.

The Tzun made small talk while the suit efficiently cleaned up and the Needful Assistance swung back into view some hours later.

That was the last time I saw the place.

* * *

"Honor?" the child chirped as I approached. "Honor? Do you wish refreshment, or rest?" She was waiting by the side of the blastpath, hopping from one foot to the other. As I reached her, she began to skip along next to me, the better to continue her crier's task. "Makalym's has the cleanest beds north of the Sulzen Waste, honor! Clear water and clean food."

I turned my head beneath my hood to look at her. She grinned, still skipping. I grinned back; it was difficult to resist. "How far?"

"Not far, honor!" she cried, excited at my response. "No more than a kilo."

"Thank you." I nodded to her and reached under my cloak, pulled a small waterglobe off my belt, triggered it and tossed it to her. She caught it with delight.

"Thank you, honor! I..." her hands closed around the globe, and she fell silent in shock. "Honor, this..."

"Enjoy it. You do warm work."

"How..." she was too young for the surprise to bring suspicion or fear, and old enough to know the rarity of the gift, water cold enough to sting her hands in the beating sun.

"Magic," I said gravely, and she laughed before quickly untabbing the globe and swallowing. Her skipping stopped, and her eyes closed, all of her attention on the chill liquid. I smiled again at the small pleasure of the day, raised a hand and kept walking. Behind me, I could hear her laughing in between sips.

Phantryon VI is a desert world. It was marginal for human habitation when it was found, and marginal it remains today - the Uplift Embargo hasn't helped, but even before the disastrous day the Option was offered, the inhabitants were grimly eking out a living. The problem is water, of which there isn't enough to maintain a calorie cycle large enough for much more than subsistence, even with draconian population control. The Option, offered before I'd first come here, had met the same sort of grim resistance that the humans of the place offered their environment. The Uplifted had performed the fastramp, blown all the advanced logic frames they could find, and (final insult) slagged the head station of the Beanstalk before declaring the embargo in place and leaving the place to its own devices, mostly. I knew there were Uplifted watchers always in the system, even if not necessarily Starships; the Uplifted would respond faithfully to the populace's acceptance of the Option whenever they chose to offer it.

That was the story the Uplifted had told me before I dropstruck the beanstalk. The problem I had now was that in the colder light of history, it didn't make any sense. Unlike most human worlds, Phantryon VI had been enthusiastic about the Uplifted. Everyone I'd spoken to, every source I'd checked had insisted that they hadn't voted to deny the Uplift Option - that they had in fact invited the Uplifted into the system to negotiate the process. They didn't even call the event the Option, or the Sear, or the Edict, like most human colonies. They called it the Betrayal.

I wasn't sure why, but I was hopeful about finding out. And, of course, I had a hypothesis. It just wasn't one I was certain about. But I felt good enough about it to bring the Interrupt here anyway, sneaking into the system by hiding our statefall behind one of the three outersystem gas giants and spending three weeks sneaking our way into the lifezone, eyes both literal and figurative peeled for the watchers the Uplifted must have left here. So far, the score was zero/zero; I hadn't seen them, but as far as I could tell, they hadn't seen us, either. The Interrupt's Jumpdrive, based as it was on early historical human tech, didn't produce a signature similar to or nearly as strong as the Uplifted's vector taps. I hoped that had been enough to keep us hidden.

So, after a gap of years, I was back; this time dancing in between the human occupants of the place and the Uplifted blockaders. So far, it was a tossup as to which side was more stubborn. The humans hadn't had much to trade before the Embargo, and as a result they didn't miss much. The loss of their high-end logic tools caused them problems with their long-term terraforming, but they had been perilously short of resources to put into that in any case - and without space access, they couldn't retrieve comets to drop down the well anymore. So, sixteen years after the Betrayal, life hadn't changed much out in the sticks.

The one capital city was a different story, as various factions traded blame, hope and weapons fire over the situation at longer and longer intervals.

Perhaps fifteen minutes after meeting the girl I trudged over a small rise, still following the blastpath, and off to my right was a small bunker entrance with a carefully lettered sign above it: Makalym's Rest. I turned off the cleared path, kept scoured by the infrequent lifters that passed through, and felt my feet sink into deeper sand before I reached the door.

Inside, I found myself in a cool and dim room, a relief after the fiery blanket of the day outside. I pulled my hood back and blinked while my eyes adjusted - faster than a normal human's would, but still requiring a few seconds.

You really do have a penchant for finding the most awful places, said the Tzun from where it hung on my belt underneath the cloak. I ignored it and pulled off my gloves, tucking them into the cord at the other side of my waist. I looked around the room, which was perhaps three meters square. There was a barrier of some sort that looked almost like a counter surrounding the doorway in the opposite wall which appeared to protect a stairway down. The room was mostly bare, with a standing rack on one side holding various cloaks and patched, stained envirosuits and two chairs opposite it. I stepped towards the counter, reaching it at the same time as figure moved into sight from the stairs beyond. "Hello?"

"Goodgreet, honor," said the figure in a rough but female voice. I nodded politely as she came level with me. "How can we assist?"

"I'd like a meal and drink, please," I said.

"Certainly. Board is fifteen, three decis."

"Three? More than fair," I said as I pulled a credit flat from beneath my cloak and placed it on the counter. The woman took it, studied it and nodded.

"I'll have change for you."

"May I take it in water?"

"Five decis, then," she said, and waved a hand towards the rack. I removed the cloak and hung it up. The Tzun was holstered in a closed sheath, which mostly hid its shape from view down my right leg. The belt I was wearing had several more waterglobes and various pouches, no different from those worn by the few travelers I'd passed. The hostess lifted a section of the counter and beckoned me through.

I ducked my head in thanks and passed inwards, down the steps. At the bottom, I found myself in a much larger space - perhaps fifteen by fifteen meters. A more permanent countertop ran across the entire room perhaps ten meters away. Several tables were scattered on my side of the counter; at two of them, others sat. None of them looked up as I entered. The hostess gestured at an empty table near the counter and moved off behind it as I seated myself and looked around. Indirect lighting circled the room near the ceiling, which was perhaps three meters high. Fans were working near the corners and near the stairwell, pulling warmer air upwards. The walls were stabilearth, fused sand, and from shoulder height down shone with the pebbled gleam of use where hands, clothes and boots had polished them.

The meal, when it arrived, was uninspiring-looking stew, likely vatsoy from the look of it, but it smelled good. I dug in, crushing the flatbread next to it over the bowl, and was pleasantly surprised at the taste. Nothing in the known universe can make vatsoy taste like meat, but whoever had cooked this had performed the nearly-impossible task of making vatsoy taste appetizing. Next to the bowl was set a waterglobe, the 0.5 glowing on the side. It wouldn't be a hard task to make a waterglobe that lied, but the first time you matched it against someone else's watermeasure you'd probably be found out - and cheating others over water was a quick and painful way to die on Phantryon VI.

When I was nearly done with the stew, I picked up the waterglobe and drank. It was slightly cool, likely stored in cisterns set in bedrock. Active cooling was a rarity these days, casualties of the loss of modern manufacturing and machine intelligence enough to code the transfer nano or manufacture superconductors. I was wearing an active cooling flask slung at the small of my back and had carried two active cooling waterglobes, one of which I'd given to the child crier. I had a bet on with myself that I'd get it back, given the strict nature of waterdealing here.

If I didn't, it wasn't a problem for me. None of my gear had come from onplanet anyway. The Interrupt had fabbed it all for me with the Override's help before I'd landed in the ship's tiny drop shuttle - little more than a shielded personnel pod. I'd walked over two hundred kilometers since then, moving generally in the direction of my goal, meandering where needed to inquire of the locals.

"Another?" The hostess stopped near me. I put down the 'globe, 0.2 glowing, and nodded.


She whisked the bowl into the back, returned with it filled and another 'globe, filled as before. I handed her another credit flat. The forty credits I'd just spent would have bought me a luxury dinner on most of the more habitable worlds of Uplifted space, but I couldn't say it'd have been more satisfying. Trekking through desert makes you appreciate your food and drink.

When I was done, I sat back and finished the last of my water. When the hostess came back to retrieve my bowl and the empty globe, I lifted a hand. "Your pardon. I'm wondering if you might help me, as I'm not local."

She paused, looked at me directly. "Know yer not. What d'you need?"

"I'm trying to find a government lab that was around here Before."

"What for?" Her suspicion caused several of the others in the room to look up sharply, take my measure.

"My brother. He was on the Beanstalk. He worked there, before. I think he left some keepsakes there, and I'd heard it was abandoned after the attempt. They might still be there."

She turned to face me, her expression still guarded. "You come all the way out here for that?"

"No." I forced a laugh. "No, I'm on my way to the watermines up at Pelisidar. I have a letter of reference from a friend of my father's. It's not worth much, but he led me to believe it might be worth a labor job."

"You don't look like a miner."

"I wasn't, not until recently. I'm an engineer. Was, I mean."

"In what?"

I ducked my head, looked at the table. "Logics."

The reaction in the room was immediate. Several people hissed, although not at me. The new hatred of the Uplifted was strong here, where the tools of survival were sorely missed. The hostess nodded, her face softening. "No place for you now?"


"Well..." she shifted the bowl and globe, lifted a hand to a man sitting against the far wall. He nodded, stood up and ambled over. "Legan here used to deliver there. He can tell you about it. Good luck at the mines."

I thanked her, and she nodded to me and headed off towards the kitchen. I turned to Legan and offered him the other chair, which he took. He was tall and burnt bronze, skin leathery as most humaniforms get under constant sun. "You're looking for the academy?"

"I am. My brother used to work at the labs there. Is anyone still there?"

"Nah. Place was closed years ago. Sand in the corridors."

"Was it cleaned out? He might have left something of our father's there. I'd hoped to find it."

"What?" asked Legan.

"Sandblade." I coughed. "From his kidhood. Passed it to my brother- he was older. Not fancy."

Legan nodded. "Might be there. Nobody really looted the offices. All the gear might be useful is gone - motors, transformers, starpanes, o' course. But the offices - lots of stuff scattered. You'd be looking some time."

"It's all right. I don't have to be at Pelisidar any particular time." He grimaced, and we shared a nod. Watermining was tough, nasty, dirty work in subterranean tunnels prone to collapse, prospecting for the hints of moisture than might have been aquifers thousands or millions of years before. An engineer forced to the work, as I had claimed to be, wouldn't be eager to start.

"Well," said Legan, "I'm headed that way. I'll pass within five klicks of the place, point it out to you. Welcome to come along."

"Many thanks," I said. As we were rising from the table, the girl from the 'path bounced down the stairs on her way to the rooms behind the counter. She gave me a blazing smile and held out the waterglobe I'd given her. I handed her another crystal flat. She took it and the globe, bounced into the kitchen, and returned to hand me the refilled globe. I tousled her hair and Legan and I climbed out.

* * *

Legan had a small floater on which he'd strapped a number of satchels. The floater itself was a small platform, perhaps one and a half meter by three quarters, which remained a constant twenty centimeters or so off the surface. It had several starpanes attached to the light railings that ran around it, their dark surfaces drinking the sun's power, and a sealed repulsion unit in the base. Completely solid state, with no moving parts, the repulsion pack would probably outlive the both of us. We trudged onward, the floater attached to his waist via a stiff lead to keep it from bumping him as he towed it.

"You carry mail?" I asked.

"Mail, yah. Anything, really. Do a route between Pelisidar in the North, NotSprings in the east, and the liftport south. Did you come in at the port?"

"Yes. Passage on a cargo run." I hadn't, of course, but it wasn't an unusual way to reach the area.

"Yah. Well, tomorrow we'll pass a few klicks from the academy. It's down a box canyon, at the far end, so you can't get lost on the way. There's shade there, 'course, but nobody and nothing else - no food, no water."

I patted my belt. "I should be all right. Thanks."

He nodded and we walked on, taking advantage of the evening's temperatures as the desert swung between hot and cold. When night came, the slowtubes in our cloaks slowly radiated the heat they'd absorbed during the day, keeping us warm as the heat escaped to space through the cloudless sky. I looked up at the stars, wondering where Tio and the Override had taken Interrupt after dropping me off - we'd all felt that it would be safer if I didn't know.

Around local midnight, Legan stopped and pulled a thin sheet out from a satchel on the floater. Tying the floater's lead to a metal tube removed from the railing, he drove the tube into the ground for an anchor and then draped the sheet over the floater. When we pegged it into the sand off to each side of the platform, there was enough room for each of us to lie alongside the platform underneath. Pulling our cloaks around us, we slept.

The next morning we rose early to make use of the last of the coolness before the sun and continued on. Legan was a man of few words, but we did converse after a fashion. I was curious about what the academy had been up to before the Betrayal, but he just shrugged - he hadn't known or cared. "If you wanted to know that, we should've asked Hilfyn."


"Yah. He was at Makalym's, one table over. He used to work at the academy. Wasn't no engineer, but he had a job there."

My stomach sank, slightly. "I wonder why he didn't come over?"

"Ah, you know. Touchy subject. Might've lost someone there who left, after, too."

"Was Hilfyn there long? He might have known my brother."

"Several years. I'm sure he did."

I was sure he didn't, since my brother of course didn't exist. If this Hilfyn hadn't interrupted our conversation to point that out, then either he hadn't been interested or he had been more concerned with gathering information than handing it out. The latter was more likely, and since I really wasn't interested in anyone official knowing about my presence on-planet or my visit to the Runsthan academy campus, it also meant I probably now had a deadline.

"Do they have a terminal at Makalym's?" I asked casually.

"You forget to make a call?" Legan snorted, laughing. "Nah. Belts play hob with wireless up this far north, and there's no cable nearer than the port or Pelisidar."

"If I find what I'm looking for, I'd like to tell my mother, and Makalym's is closer than Pelisidar. But if they don't have a terminal, I'll just have to wait until the mines."

"Back fifteen or so kilos past towards the port, there's a couple with a beamcom. They can get a satellite bounce a couple times a night. They sell message relay into the net, non realtime."

Damn."Ah, that's too far to backtrack," I said. Legan shrugged.

I left Legan at the mouth to the box canyon, waving to him as I turned off and began the walk in. The Tzun waited until we were perhaps a hundred meters apart before asking, "Hilfyn is a problem?"

"Yes. Odds are good he's going to report to somebody in the Capital. Even if he's not actively watching the place, I can't imagine a stranger wandering through asking about it is something he'll keep to himself."

"Your story was fairly weak."

"I didn't hear you suggest something, so keep it to yourself."

The gun vibrated thrice against my leg, its version of a quiet snicker.

Several hours later I rounded a bend in the canyon and came upon the academy. It was a cluster of medium-sized buildings, perhaps two stories tall. I knew from my research that most of it was underground. The visible part looked quite a bit like a light manufacturing plant or civil service office park. About half of the buildings had windows indicating normal floors; the others were solid-walled indicating either storage, garage or lab space.

They were all standing open. I chose the administration block from the plans I'd bought at the port and clambered through the debris-filled lobby. The windows were all open squares, their panes stolen for use in the area. Sand covered the floor. Making my way up a staircase which, while ankle-deep in sand was otherwise undamaged, I reached the second floor rear and began counting doorways from the start of the hallway. Seven doors in I came to my goal. A sign reading "E. ZAKRIAN / TRANSFORM" was still in its slot on the wall. Entering, I looked around.

The office was almost bare. Empty shelves lines much of the walls, still present because they were built in and too much troubel to remove. A few random pieces of office equipment were scattered broken around the room. The workstation chair also remained, built into the station itself, but no equipment graced its work surface. I sat down and cleaned the sand from the desk by sweeping it aside before blowing away the remaining dust. When I had cleared the surface, I removed the Tzun from its sheath and placed it on its side on the surface.

"The dust-!" said the gun, indignant.

"Not now," I said. "We don't have the time. Get with it. You can get the Override to do a full microstrip on you later."

"You've been saying that for the past three months," the gun muttered. "Fine. Checking. Regular syncbands quiet. Office bands quiet."

"Try military."

"Working on it. And...ah. Diagnostic band open! Something's still down there."

"Can you get in?"

"If you leave me to concentrate..." it trailed off, doing an excellent job of pretending it was concentrating all its resources on the task at hand. I tapped it, and it didn't respond. Frowning, I made to pick it back up. "Stop that! I'm busy, I said." I pulled my hand back, surprised that it hadn't been kidding.

While it sat on the desktop, doing whatever it was doing via stateband to the remnants of logicframes somewhere in the facility, I stood and browsed around the office. I found three stylos (none worked), an open-topped container of some kind with a crack in it, and a side cabinet with a closed and locked door. Intrigued, I was pulling a couple of small and low-tech tools from my belt to have a go at the lock when the Tzun said "It's here," and fell silent again. After waiting a few seconds to see if it would continue, I fiddled with the lock until the cabinet opened and then carefully opened it. I figured a boobytrap would probably have been sprung during the looting, but I wasn't sure why this one was still locked.

It contained a series of flat solidos. I leafed through them and found that they all appeared to be of a young family - man, woman and a small girl. I looked at the stack for a few moments, and then shook my head and replaced them in the cabinet, locking it behind me, in the forlorn hope that someone who wasn't lying might one day come looking for them.

"We need to go," said the Tzun. "Now. Sooner if possible."

I scooped it up and loped off down the hall. "I was hoping to check the rest of the facility."

"Forget it. It's stripped. We need to get out of here."

I frowned as I slowed enough to replace the gun in its sheath. "I've never heard you this timid before," I said. "Who's coming?"

"Well, everybody, really," said the gun. "There's an enforcement team en route from the Capital. Forty men, in flitters. They're burning fuel for this, so they really want to know who's out here."


"There are a couple of locals watching from the closed rim of the canyon."


"There is an Uplifted watcher who had a trip in the system. I didn't see it in time."

I swore, with feeling. "Where are they?"

"I'm not positive, but the trip fired a message out one of the we-thought-it-was-decrepit dishes behind the facility in the direction of the third debris band, just inside the first gas giant."

"Did you call-"

"I have notifed the Interrupt. The Override is calculating for a pickup pass. The drop shuttle is being reprogrammed. It can't land in the canyon; you'll need to get out past the mouth. Get moving now."

"What do you think I'm doing?" I was out of the lobby, jogging towards the access road. Part of me regretted that I'd never know what was lurking in the rest of the facility - I love exploring, even abandoned places rather than new ones - but I had bigger problems.

You are not moving quickly enough, said the Tzun on vibe via my implant. The drop shuttle will be at the canyon mouth in approximately three hours. It needs to get beyond the liftport's sensor perimeter before vectoring here.

"Does it really matter now?"

"There are interceptors at the liftport. It does not have shielding."

"Ah. Fair enough." There was a flat BANG and a section of sand about the size and shape of a dinner plate exploded perhaps a meter from my right foot. "What the HELL WAS THAT?" I had fallen, but was already rolling to get back to my feet.

I cannot tell. Draw.

I pulled the Tzun and waved it back towards the complex while weaving backwards. With another BANG, another spot spouted new glass and sand slightly closer. Ah. The two on the back rim have an antipersonnel laser. I do not see a smartscope or any advanced sensors or motors; I advise dodging.

I was already facing around and running flat out towards the first turn of the canyon. "Yeah, I figured that part out."

I could-


The Tzun made the equivalent of a frustrated sigh. Very well. Do you want to know what I retrieved?

"Yes. Tell me as we go." I made it around a small pile of rocks, breaking the line of sight with whoever had been shooting at me, and settled back to an endurance jog.

You were correct in your suppositions. There was a project to recreate personal computing extant at the facility. It appears that they were hoping to use in situ materials to create the equivalent of a small logicframe directly inside and massively interconnected with the human brain.

"So...that would mean...they were trying to upload?" I was starting to breathe heavily.

It appears that way, yes. The nanorecipe is not that complex, but the nanoprogram is somewhat elegant and quite adaptive. It appears that it would be usable on a healthy human brain. "How long...would it build a suitable...frame?"

Perhaps several months, using only materials culled from nutritive inputs.

"Would you inload to something like that?"

I would not. I have a form, and a function, which I am content with.

"Huh. But you'd be still run the gunframe if you had...enough connectivity."

I would not choose to.

"Fair enough." I had found my rhythm, and pulled a waterglobe off my belt and drained it. The chill was a relief. "I can make ninety this rate."

That will be adequate. The flitters will not arrive until just past that time, and there is a likely chance that they will fly directly to the facility rather than the access point. The Uplifted...hold one. It went silent. I guessed it was using all its output to try to talk to the Interrupt which, at this distance, wasn't easy for anything other than a beacon signal. The Override informs me that it is monitoring an Uplifted Starship inbound from the debris belt. They are behind it, remaining in low observable mode. It will reach a point some ten kilometers above this spot in approximately one hundred five minutes at this acceleration profile. If it dispatches a liftcraft, that will be on site in approximately one hundred ten minutes.

"Good enough. Tell the Override to send the quiet and assume we'll do a running pickup. They're...small enough that they may be able to remain unobserved...and they may only send the dropcraft after a shuttle. Maybe we'll...make it out."


Naturally, when I reached the canyon mouth, the plan was changed.

There was a small figure sitting on the sand perhaps twenty meters from the blastpath. I staggered to a stop, breathing hard, and it stood.

It was the girl.

"Goodgreet, honor! Did you find..." she broke off, taking in my exhaustion and bedraggled appearance. "Is something wrong?"

Oh, malfunction, said the gun. Don't, please, be your normal noble self. We don't have time. They won't hurt her.

"You don't know that," I said.

"Honor?" asked the girl, confused. I shook my head irritably.

"Not you." She just looked at me, beginning to look alarmed. I pulled the second to last waterglobe off my belt and drained it at a gulp, then tossed it to her. "You can keep that."

"Thank you, honor..." But wasn't said, but was certainly present. I looked at the sky; nothing. The late afternoon was darkening, sunlight sliding towards horizontal.

I didn't have any right.

But I had to start somewhere.

Tzun, I said, Can you jury-rig that nanorecipe?

Yes. It will not be as efficient. I can repurpose some repair nano.

Do it. Put them in the flask, in storage. Then...

I understand. I believe I even agree. How long?

At least a year, I said. But for the immediate future, as you like.

Working, said the Tzun, and fell silent.

"Honor, I'm sorry I followed you. I just wished to know if you had found your sandblade."

"No, you didn't, girl. You followed me because you wanted to know why I have an active cooling waterglobe if I'm poor enough to have to go to the mines."

She colored. "Well...well, yes."

I grinned. "I'll tell you why," I said, as the faint whine of flitter fans drifted out of the box canyon, still far in the distance. I didn't know how long I had, but I presumed they'd at least make a cursory search of the academy- well, no. Not if the spotters who'd shot at me told them I'd taken off. In that case, they'd search the road, and be here in perhaps ten minutes. "I have it because I lied. I'm not from the capital. And I'm not going to Pelisidar."

She backed away, slowly. "Then..."

I raised a hand reassuringly, I hoped. "Don't worry. I'm leaving, and soon. But I'm not from there. I'm from offworld."

Her eyes were huge. "Offworld! But how? The Betrayal! And you..."

There was a distant whine in my hearing now, growing slowly. Completed, said the Tzun.

Have you ever thought about having children? I asked the Tzun.

Not in so many words, it replied, uncharacteristically serious. Not until now, at any rate.

I reached behind myself, still holding one hand palm out to induce her not to run. I unlatched the cooling flask from my back and held it out. "Here. This will condense, chill and hold two liters," I said. "You can fill it via the top, here, you see, or it will pull water from the air through the skin if it can find any. Leave it in the sun for an hour every day or so to keep it charged."

I could see, from the way she stopped moving away from me, that she was tempted, but I could also see that she didn't fully believe me. "Why would you give me this?" she asked, quietly.

"Because, I told you. I'm going away. I won't need it." The whining was much louder now, and a strange light was flickering around us. I looked up and saw the wavering dot of a laser source, high in the sky - probably the dropcraft from whatever Starship was inbound, on its way and keeping us located via lidar. "That's one of the Uplifted now. I can't let him catch me. But I don't need this, and you should have it."

She looked up, and I could see the belief come. She reached out and took the flask by its straps; I released it, a small thing, and felt the world change.

STANDARD KUNIR, came a booming voice through my implant. I winced. REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE. DO NOT MOVE.

They can't see us that clearly yet, said the Tzun. Tell her to get away.

"Listen!" I shouted, over the rising whine from the canyon and the thin scream coming from the sky. The laser was fluttering around us, spiraling in towards where we stood. "You have to get away from here! Get home and stay safe! And remember my thanks!"

She looked up, looked at me, sobbed, and turned away. I turned as well and began to run into the darkness.

The last thing I heard before the shriek of the Interrupt's arriving drop shuttle cut off everything around me was a small metallic voice, coming from the now-swirling sands where she had vanished.

"Well, hi," it said. "And what's your name, kid?"

Then the liftfield from the drop shuttle snatched me off my feet as it passed overhead, and I was rising through a howl of warm desert air, the glare from the setting sun forcing my eyes closed as the small cocoon enfolded me to its breast. After that, when I was fielded in to the small seat, locked against the cushion by grav, the drop shuttle rotated to face upward. As the laser scanner locked onto its upper surface and held, bathing my head in a cloud of sparkling actinic light, the boosters fired and the shuttle shot upwards in a cloud of absolutely unbelievable noise. Behind, I could tell via my taclink from the Tzun, the dropcraft had instantly reversed its smooth descent and was climbing after me. The Starship it had come from had been in the process of ascending back towards orbit, heading in a direction opposite the trajectory up which I was rising; only the dropcraft was coming after us, and it was for the moment satisfied with matching velocity.

Ten minutes later, when it was trying to determine if the ballistic arc onto which I'd launched myself was really in fact going to take me all the way to the Capital liftport, the terminus of my course, there was a sudden dark rush and a SLAM and then we were going sideways at 0.12 c, the Override and Tio were both talking to me in my ear, reassuring and tense both at once, and the dropcraft below was trying to lay weapons fire on us, but we were being pulled into the Interrupt's shuttle bay and headed outbound, trying to find clear space to bring up the vanes for the next pulse. I thought about the girl, and thought about the Uplifted waiting in the water flask with the reprogrammed repair nano, and about the Tzun, and what would happen a year from now, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

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SciFiQuest 2011: The Undiscovered Nodegel

Tech catches up with scifi yet again.