Rider Mahone took his place in line to board the shuttle to Hogsbreath. And if there was not about to be a really, really horrible accident, where most of the passengers on the shuttle would die a sudden, terrifying, and painful death, then this story would be about him. He, however, is doomed.
But he doesn't know that yet.
Rider Mahone flexed his fingers around the Tru-Lether handle of his grip and tasted the cool recycled air of the shuttle terminal. How many ships had he boarded like this, carrying only the simplest necessities; his emergency oxygen helmet; a Kleen-ware pack with a spare set of clothes; ration tabs; a first-aid kit with extra dehydro pills; a frost coat; and the gloves Keila had given him when he moved in with her.
The departure lounge was crowded with all kinds of beings, but Rider was inured by now to the occasional repulsive sights and sharp smells of thoroughly alien lifeforms.
Poor Keila. She had promised to ship his other gear to meet him at the starship soon to depart Hogarth (the station orbiting Arcturus-3 that real spacer types like Rider Mahone, and in fact anyone who had been there, called Hogsbreath). He smiled to himself, a little sorry, as he recalled how that one tear had fallen from her eye, and she had blinked the rest away, adorably, when he told her he was leaving, that he had signed on as Master of Arms on the Starship Meredith Victory, bound for ports unknown.
He didn't care if that stuff ever reached him. Starting over again felt good. It felt clean and right. How many times had he done this, striding up another ramp to a new life?
Rider shuffled onto the boarding ramp, completely unaware that most of the beings shuffling with him were about to suffer the same terrible fate that he was. Those few who were fated to survive the initial catastrophe would undergo wildly improbable adventures in an unbelievably distant part of the galaxy that would prove fatal to most of them.
They weren't shuffling on board very fast. The Shepherd of the Stars Shuttle Lines advertised a complete range of services, which was this year's way of saying that it took alien business. It was a Darthian de-greeting ritual up ahead that was holding up the whole boarding process. That, and some guy in an old-fashioned velour Fed uniform arguing with the boarding steward at the gate.
The Fed had the usual boyish good looks and falsely self-deprecating charm. Rider started to burn. He didn't mind the seven Darthian family units bobbing and spinning around the family in line for departure; Darthian rituals were obligatory to their species. It was the Feds that always made him want to beat something to a pulp.
Who did they think they were? He'd heard discussions about this in every rec dive and alc joint he'd ever set foot in. If you asked one of the Feds themselves, they said they were officers (always officers!) of the naval arm of a federation of planets, but when you asked them what planets, they got really vague. They were ready to tell you at any time they were the elite of the known universe, and they had the publicity department vids to prove it. Rider had taken a few Feds out back and relieved his feelings extensively upon their various forms, so he had his doubts, but Fed defeats, strangely, never got recorded on vid.
Rider had even more reason than he knew to be furious with this Fed. The reason for his fate, which was soon to catch up with him, and all the other innocent passengers unknowingly boarding the Shepherd of the Stars, will be caused by their intersection with a Fed Probability Field. That is to say, the Fed guy boarding the shuttle would render everyone else on board a background character in a Fed adventure. If Rider had known this, he'd have stepped out of line and broken that Fed's neck out of hand. But he didn't know, and so events will soon to take their prescribed course.
Rider knew could have shipped with the Feds, if he'd wanted, but what spaceman in his right mind would ship with an outfit that got itself in royal trouble regularly on a weekly basis, and lately even more often than that? Or on a ship where all the senior officers stood one watch, the same watch? Where each ship had plenipotentiary powers to start wars, sign treaties, create colonies, move colonies, and generally mess with normal peoples' lives?
Rider had always been glad to live in a time when everybody pretty well realized that governments' only duty pretty much was to maintain a standard of fair living conditions, keep the greedy and powerful off the backs of ordinary decent folk, and have no opinion of what anybody's family values ought to be. There hadn't been any great heaving wars or cataclysms to achieve all this; governments had pretty well found their niche out of inertia. But those Feds tromping around in uniform all over the galaxy, with their super-powered weapons systems, playing war and peace everywhere they went, were a menace to everyone. What made Rider really steam was when normal people took them at their own self-assessment and treated them like the Flightless Wonder of the Galaxy's gift to the Known Universe.
There it was! The Fed in velour had somehow convinced the boarding steward that whatever the Fed wanted was more important than getting her passengers on board. Rider considered tripping the both of them as they passed him on their way out of the lounge. The gate was closed; the lines had stopped. Oh well. The Darthian de-greeting ritual was going to keep them stalled for awhile anyway. They weren't at the climax yet.
With his death only a few minutes away, Rider Mahone wondered whether the Fed was saving the planet, the universe, or just having a key interpersonal development episode. Whatever it was, the vid camera wasn't in here. Rider decided if they did bring a vid camera in here he was going to have to kill someone. He knew that if the Feds started recording anything in your immediate vicinity, it was best to get out fast, if you possibly could. You might only be background for one of their conversations, but usually, if you were in one of their crowd scenes, you were probably in deadly danger of your life. Rider had heard a rumor that the Feds were not only involved in these episodes of heightened danger by chance, but that somehow they created them. He had a personal policy of staying far away from any Fed activity, though this was hard, because somehow they had developed the technology to appear just about anywhere.
Rider had decided, if he ever did become suddenly involved in a Fed situation, with vid cameras and all, he was going to kill the cameramen. He figured, that would put a stop to everything long enough for him to get out of range.
But Rider did not know that the event that was about to close him in its fatal grasp was simply a background plot line that would intersect with a main plot line in due course, after destroying the lives of a whole lot of unimportant people. Like him.
The Darthians were whirling and hooting, their eye-pods and arm portions slapping themselves. It wouldn't be long now. It was easy for Rider to identify the separate family units. There was always a tall female, a more rounded male, two wrinkled, bent, older versions of the same, and two smaller, more energetic copies; the grandparents and the kids. They looked like the perfect family. They stuck together, too. Rider had once shipped on a passenger liner that toured Darthian space. The family units berthed together in one cabin; they moved around the ship as though connected by string.
Rider laughed to himself, remembering. There had been a journalist on one of his crossings who had come to write up and extol Darthian family values. She had followed one family unit for half the trip and was even permitted to witness the ceremony where the Darthians swapped their son (or daughter) with another family. Four months later when the new couple gave birth to the usual twin offspring the journalist was invited to the celebration feast, but when, at the start of the feast, the grandparents were ceremonially butchered and their parts cut up to be eaten on the spot, she departed for her cabin. She never talked about the wonderful Darthians anymore.
The Darthians were howling now in short bursts that grew louder and louder. Rider knew they would soon disperse. He could afford to be patient; it was only two hops to Hogsbreath from here, with a short jump to sol-speed on the second leg. He didn't mind the Darthians. Their flopping parts might look as if they were going to fall off at any moment, but you got used to that. The Arachnids, though, Rider thought were repulsive.
There was an Arachnid pair up ahead, stepping daintily, their stick-like legs hardly visible in the subdued all-beings-safe lighting. They looked delicate, regal, like preying mantises out for a stroll. Their antennae were vibrating, so Rider knew they were talking, but humanoids couldn't hear whatever it was they were saying. Rider found this annoying. He hoped the female wasn't going to come into heat. When female Arachnids prepared to mate they emitted a stench so strong that no one in range— and that range was considerable— could think of anything but sex as long as it went on.
Rider had been on a ship where they'd arrested a female Arachnid and put her in isolation when she came into heat. They'd had to; they had a shipload of male Grondians on board, and male Grondians, when they started thinking about sex— well, anyway, it was a mess. Rider had taken his turn guarding the Arachnid, and that was pretty awful. The stench stuck to your clothes and hair, and got into your dreams for days afterwards.
What would Keila think of the Arachnids? Keila lived in a section of town far away from the shuttle port, that was designated humanoids-only. If she saw a non-human at least it had the number of arms, legs and heads that she was used to. He thought of telling her about the Arachnids in a letter; he had promised her he would write, but he knew he wasn't going to.
He'd always thought the humanoids who segregated themselves like that were pretty stupid. Why deny what's out there? Why not get more familiar with it, instead of always just looking in a mirror, so to speak. The Feds, almost without exception, crewed their ships with humanoids only. You had to have the right number of heads and limbs to get into the exclusive officer's school from which they staffed all their ships, and if you wanted to rise to the top it was best to get a sex change if you weren't male; unless you wanted to spend your career as a helper or assistant to the top officers.
A kind of peace settled on the crowded lounge as the Darthians abruptly fell silent and dispersed. Well, there was still all the snuffling, honking, clicking, creaking, odd vibrations, color flashes and smells that all passed for communication among the various beings waiting for the shuttle to depart. Where was that damned gate officer?
The line swayed uneasily as thirty or forty different species adjusted to frustration in their own ways.
The Feds weren't always this lucky, Rider reminded himself. There was that story about a Fed ship— about the size and make of a Shepherd of the Stars shuttle, in fact; the very shuttle he was about to board— that had been chasing an "outlaw" craft (whatever that meant; the Feds made their own laws) that had supposedly kidnapped one of their officers. (Highly unlikely; no one messed with the Feds. No one knew how, but they had this incredible knack for bringing in more ships, reinforcements, whatever was needed— even a breakthrough in technology— just in the nick of time, whenever they needed it. Rider often heard people wonder what gods the Feds prayed to, that they should be so lucky all the time). Anyway, this Fed ship had supposedly been transferred intact, together with the outlaw ship it was chasing, to some remote region of the galaxy, seventy-five million light years away. Well, it could happen. It wasn't very likely, but it could happen. It especially wasn't very likely to happen twice in a row, as the Feds claimed, but what the hey. Strange things did happen at sol-speed. The Feds called it something else, but who cared about them? No one quite understood sol-speed; they were just glad it existed, and if a ship or two were lost now and then, it was a chance everyone took for the privilege of traveling in a manner they didn't understand. Rider knew that about sol-speed. He was willing to risk it.
The gate director was back! She was still accompanied by the Fed who had drawn her away, and another young man, a standard Fed-type smooth-white-male humanoid. Rider watched with disgust as the Fed got this guy on board first. Oh well, who cared; the line began to move forward; the Fed departed the lounge without coming into range for the kick Rider really wanted to give him. Rider shifted his grip to his other hand and dug his board-card out of his pouch.
What was the name of the Fed ship they'd lost— literally misplaced, in fact. Traveler. Something like that. The story had come back over the last year that they'd made an appalling mess of things within two hours of being transmitted out to the regions of unknown space: started an interplanetary war, and joined forces with the enemy ship— the Feds now had standing charges against them for fraternizing with an enemy, negligence and criminal stupidity, which, even among the Feds, in these enlightened times, was a felony offense.
No wonder, Rider'd heard, the Traveler wasn't trying very hard to get home. No, they were still out there somewhere, petting giant unknown entities, offering such reverence to unknown alien races that they sometimes forgot to breathe, and having deep interpersonal relationship episodes with one another.
There was a time when he'd envied the Feds, Rider thought as he found a seat on the aisle, stowed his grip and strapped himself in. Back in the days when they careened around the galaxy and word came back of their adventures he'd even thought briefly of joining up— though he didn't like their uniforms; they didn't seem to fit anyone. But lately they'd been taken over by a bunch of incredibly self-righteous prigs who spent so much time revering other life forms that they'd lost all common sense. No, it was the Meredith Victory for him. She was known as a lucky ship, a private merchant-cum-explorer, which meant anything goes as long as you brought back a profit, whether from the cargo, or— even better— unclaimed real estate. Which is why she was heading for ports unknown. It was the kind of berth Rider had always wanted, out there where you saw things no one had yet imagined. Safer than the Feds; the Meredith Victory was a tight ship, and he could go off-watch and sleep knowing that the second officer was
on duty if the first wasn't, and a fully certified navigator, not some rating, was at the helm.
He felt the shuttle trembling slightly under his feet. The seats were filling fast. The bridge crew boarded from their own quarters off the lobby. The downstairs shuttle lounge was for first class only, and had its own access way to the first class cabin in the deck below the main cabin. First class was usually reserved for those who needed special environments. It must be fully booked today, Rider saw; there were four or five other beings in enviro-suits scattered around the main cabin. It was filling up all right; he smelled the thick wet miasma of the Frog People. Three of them squeezed past and sat in the row alongside him. Rider didn't mind. He'd smelled worse.
He'd gone to space on his first ship at sixteen; he'd been a spaceman all his life. He'd shipped on freighters, on passenger ships, and even crewed inter-system shuttles like this one; the Shepherd of the Stars. The Meredith Victory was his dream ship. This was going to be the best berth he'd ever had. The Captain was a Platomorph, he'd heard, which probably meant a forty-hour ship's day, two watches a day; a leisurely schedule for exploring. There were upwards of two hundred crewmen, which was a good-sized community for a long haul. Not like this would be: Rider looked around at the tight quarters, the fully-booked main cabin; there were only three seats left, right in the back.
What was the hold-up now? The com clicked twice and the smooth-voiced Journey Steward apologized for the delay. Two soft-footed deck crew members, Nolians by their small size and transparent epidermises, served complimentary beverages and Fringian mushrooms to mollify the passengers during the delay. Rider relaxed along with everyone else; Fringian mushrooms were pretty much a universal delicacy. He ate his share with relish; they were even more delicious than he remembered. You didn't often get Fringian mushrooms; not more than two or three times in a lifetime, they said. This was quite a treat. The wine was a little acrid, but this station was a long ways from any real fruit or flowers, so Rider thought he couldn't complain.
Here was the problem! A Stellar Beauty Queen stepped onto the shuttle, ducking under the hatchway as she entered. Her bodyguard, even taller than she, stepped in front of her, and eyed the passengers as he led the way to the three empty seats with watchful ease. Behind the Stellar Beauty Queen stomped her professional manager and chaperon. Rider's pulses jumped in spite of himself. He'd seen pictures, of course. Everyone had; that was the whole point. But he'd never seen a Stellar Beauty Queen in the flesh before. He stared as she passed him. Could her legs really be that long? The garment she wore looked like it was adhering to her by static cling alone. And she really did have rocket-tipped breasts. Her sloe-eyed glance captured his for a moment as she passed him, and he was stabbed. He watched the humanoid pubescent male across the aisle turn a deep beet red. The Frogs beside him were honking quietly and enthusiastically.
Rider had heard that these females were volunteered as pre-pubescents and manufactured by leading health and beauty companies, plastic surgeons and pharmaceuticals, into the Beauty Queens of the Galaxy. Their careers as wealthy models and actresses were assured. They worked for their companies until they were twenty-nine and then they retired, some said to their own planets. They were systematically designed to make all pulses race. Rider sat back with pleasure and waited for his to ease up.
They were starting at last.
On to new worlds; a new ship, a new life. Farewell to Keila, and all the women in port that he had ever loved. Rider spent the short hop to the third planet reviewing with sad pleasure the good-bye scenes he'd been through in the past. He wasn't cruel; he never made them wait. It was kinder— and less awkward in the long run— just to break things off.
There was short pause at the second planet where half a dozen passengers departed and two more enviro-suits got on, followed by a couple of half-breeds of some kind, and one of the Pointy-Eared People, who walked down the aisle in the ponderous, dignified way of his kind, and found a seat, inevitably, next to the smooth-white-male humanoid the Fed had shepherded on board. Rider saw the smooth humanoid speak, the Pointy-Eared Person reply, and snorted to himself as the two immediately began quietly to argue.
The shuttle hummed, then roared, and they were told by the soft-voiced Journey Steward to prepare to jump. Rider thought of the Meredith Victory, so soon to be his home, and how anything could happen out there. He felt clean; he felt new; this was the beginning of it all.
Then it happened. They jumped.
It was the last thing he ever knew.