Only the recently dead can helm the “deadman switch” to pilot a ship through the Cloud, a mysterious solar entity that shields the Solitaire solar system and its valuable heavy metals. Two convicted murderers are routinely sacrificed for this task—one to enter the system, one to exit. Gilead Raca Benedar is a Watcher, employed by the wealthy head of an intergalactic mining company as a human lie detector of sorts. When Benedar is sent to Solitaire, with its metal-rich moons, to assist with the acquisition of its valuable mining rights, he and the crew are able to make it to Solitaire safely, and all goes well. That is, until Benedar’s Watcher powers show him that the second convict they are traveling with—the one meant to helm the deadman switch on their return journey—is innocent.
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About the Author
Timothy Zahn is the New York Times–bestselling science fiction author of more than forty novels, as well as many novellas and short stories. Best known for his contributions to the expanded Star Wars universe of books, including the Thrawn trilogy, Zahn also wrote the Cobra series and the young adult Dragonback series—the first novel of which, Dragon and Thief, was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Zahn currently resides in Oregon with his family.
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By Timothy Zahn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved.
I'd been sitting at the window of my small cubicle for nearly an hour, listening to a Joussein symphonaria and watching the intricate drift of sunlight and shadow across the city from a hundred twenty stories up, when the call I'd been expecting all morning finally came. "Gilead? You in there?"
"Yes, sir," I replied, turning off the music with a wave of my control stick and standing up. The Carillon Building's intercom speakers were very good, and I had no trouble discerning the excitement and anticipation in my employer's voice. With Lord Kelsey-Ramos, that could mean only one thing. "I take it the raid is nearly finished?"
He snorted, just loudly enough for me to hear. "Is it that obvious?"
"It is to me," I said simply.
He snorted again. "Well, you're right. Come on in."
"Yes, sir." Stepping across the starkly plain room—kept so by my own request—I set the control stick down by the player and crossed to the second of the room's two doors. "Gilead Raca Benedar," I told it, speaking distinctly. The voicelock was a slightly ridiculous precaution, here in what amounted to Carillon's inner sanctum, but I'd long since stopped feeling annoyed by it. Paranoia, in one form or another, was one of the many burdens of wealth.
The door opened; and from my cubicle I entered Lord Kelsey-Ramos's office.
Lord Kelsey-Ramos himself had once likened the contrast of the two rooms to that between midnight and noon; but for me that comparison fell far short. From the dark at the bottom of a mine shaft to noon, perhaps; or even to the searing brightness outside a sunskimmer's slingshot pass by a star. For a pair of heartbeats I paused there on the threshold, senses struggling as they adjusted from the peace of my undecorated room and quiet music to the flamboyant luxury laid out before me.
To the luxury, and even more to the shrewdly engineered contradictions embedded within it. The milky-white living carpet, the shimmering Vedant woodling panels and camocarvings, the massive gemrock desk—the sense of the room reaching my eyes was one of extreme wealth, calm and stable. At the same time, the subtle yet distinctive sounds of the InWeb news/data analyzer and Wall Street Interactive machine gave off a totally opposite sense, that of frantic haste and unrest. It created just enough emotional confusion that first-time visitors were invariably thrown slightly off stride, though few of them realized on a conscious level just what it was that was bothering them.
And in the midst of it all, as much a study in contrasts as the office itself, sat Lord Kelsey-Ramos.
Seated straight-backed at his desk, gazing almost disinterestedly at the displays facing him, he blended quite well with the calm decor ... but as I stepped closer, the lines around his eyes and the play of his facial muscles radiated the message I'd already learned from his voice. Somewhere out there, on some ethereal battlefield of paper and computer memory, a war was raging. A quiet, civilized war, fought by opposing sums of money ... for no more purpose than the acquisition of even more of that same money.
The love of money is the root of all evils, I quoted to myself. But it was an automatic, almost ritual thought these days. Once, I'd thought in my pride that my mere presence might be enough to influence the way Lord Kelsey-Ramos handled his wealth; now, years later, I could barely consider myself lucky that that part of my own conscience hadn't become uselessly numb. Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall ... Another ritual thought, and one that always included the reminder that destruction came in many forms. Including stagnation.
After eight long years, I still didn't fit in here. And most everyone knew it.
Lord Kelsey-Ramos shifted in his chair, the faint squeak of embroidered cloth on camileather reminding me I wasn't here just to indulge myself in self-pity. Over the familiar scents of the room's woodling and living carpet I caught a whiff of Marisee Tinge, the executive secretary's perfume; beneath that, I could smell the very human odor of Lord Kelsey-Ramos's tension. The images, sounds, scents—all of it blended together into the all too familiar sense of civilized warfare that I'd felt upon entering. I'd seen it many times before in my time at Carillon ... but this time something about it was different. This time, there was something more than just money at stake. Something far more important ...
And at that moment, it was abruptly over. The tension lines left Lord Kelsey-Ramos's face, and his eyes softened, and he looked up at me. "Congratulate me, Gilead," he said, his voice rich with overtones of satisfaction. "After ten years of trying, I've finally done it."
"Congratulations, sir," I said. "What is it you've finally done?"
Amusement lines replaced those of the earlier tension, and the sense of his satisfaction deepened. "I've obtained the Carillon Group a transport license for Solitaire."
My stomach tightened. "I see," I managed.
He peered up at me. "Bothers you that much, does it?"
I looked him straight in the eye. "It's the paying of a blood offering in exchange for wealth," I said bluntly.
His lip twitched, and some of the satisfaction left his face. But not very much. "I'm sorry you feel that way." Reaching to his desktop, he snagged his control stick and began punching buttons, my opinion already dismissed from his thoughts. "If it helps your conscience any, Carillon won't actually be handling flights in and out of Solitaire system, at least not directly. What I've done is simply to buy up a controlling share of HTI Transport, the company with this particular license. I thought it might be interesting to call up HTI's chief exec and see how he reacts to the news."
Which was why he'd sent for me, of course. "Anything in particular you want me to watch for?"
"Signs of resistance, mostly. HTI's always been stiffnecked jealous about its autonomy, and I want to know how badly they're going to resent being swallowed up. Ah—"
A decorative young woman had appeared on his desk's center display. "HTI Transport; Mr. O'Rielly's office," she said pleasantly.
"Lord Kelsey-Ramos of the Carillon Group," Lord Kelsey-Ramos identified himself. "Mr. O'Rielly will want to speak to me."
A flicker of uncertainty touched the secretary's face, but she was obviously knowledgeable in the names of Portslava's business elite and she put the screen into hold without argument. A moment later it cleared to reveal a middle-aged man wearing an expensive business capelet. "Lord Kelsey-Ramos," he nodded in greeting. "What can I do for you, sir?"
"He doesn't know yet," I murmured from just outside the phone's range.
Lord Kelsey-Ramos's eyelids dipped briefly in acknowledgment. "Good morning, Mr. O'Rielly," he said. "I just wanted to call and personally welcome you into the Carillon Group."
O'Rielly's face went the whole gamut—shock, disbelief, more shock, outrage—all in the space of a second and a half. Behind him, the out-of-focus background shifted as the camera tracked his lunge forward, and through the stunned silence I could hear the faint click of nervous fingers on control keys. One look was really all he needed. "Spike you, anyway, Kelsey-Ramos," he snarled. "You putrid, smert-headed—"
"Thank you, but I've heard it all before," Lord Kelsey-Ramos interjected calmly. "I'll leave it to you to inform the HTI board of this, and I'll want a meeting scheduled to discuss any changes that'll need to be made. In the meantime, do you have anything besides insults you'd like to say? On or off the record, of course?"
Some of the pure fury was fading from O'Rielly's face, to be replaced by an icy bitterness and more than a little discomfort. "What, off the record with your little pet lie detector Benedar there somewhere?" he sneered, eyes darting around as he searched the limits of his screen for some sign of me. The sarcasm wasn't nearly strong enough to cover his discomfort. "Or did you think I didn't know about him?"
Lord Kelsey-Ramos had indeed thought that, but only I caught his annoyance. "I take it that means you'll save your statement for the board meeting, then," he told O'Rielly. "Equally fine. Have your secretary call mine when you've scheduled the meeting. Oh, and we'll be wanting to send a rep to Solitaire to check on your locals there. I'd appreciate it if you'd send word to Whitecliff to expect him."
O'Rielly's lip twisted. "You're really enjoying this, aren't you? You've been trying to get your sticky little fingers on a Solitaire license for, what, eight years now?"
"Closer to ten," Lord Kelsey-Ramos said coolly. "Not that it matters. I'll be sending a courier over to your office within the hour; kindly have copies of all your records and documents ready by then. Good morning to you, Mr. O'Rielly."
He waved his control stick, and the display blanked. "And that is that," he commented, dropping the stick on his desk and looking up at me again. Some of the thrill and triumph was draining out of him now, leaving a measure of tiredness behind. "A very profitable day's work, I'd say."
I nodded, a neutral enough response. "You'll be going out to Solitaire yourself, I take it?"
He smiled. "Is it that—?" Abruptly, the smile vanished. "Is it that obvious?" he asked cautiously.
The paranoia of the wealthy. "It is to me."
A muscle in his cheek tightened. "Could it have been obvious to O'Rielly, too?" he asked.
I thought back, trying to remember every nuance of the man. "It might have been," I agreed. "The shock of it all was wearing off at the end, and he wasn't ready yet to give up. Once he stops to think about it he may be able to guess at least that much."
Lord Kelsey-Ramos pursed his lips. "Tell me everything else you got."
I went back through the conversation for him, giving as best I could the sense I'd had of O'Rielly at each juncture. "Do you think he'll put up a fight over this?" he asked when I'd finished.
"A legal fight, or otherwise?"
I shrugged. The sense of the man on that point had been abundantly clear. "He'll fight to the limits of either his abilities or his conscience. I don't know where either limit lies."
Lord Kelsey-Ramos gnawed the inside of his cheek. "I have a pretty good idea of both limits," he growled. "Unfortunately. So. You think he'll figure me to go charging off to Solitaire to personally stick Carillon's flag into the dirt, eh?" Gently, under his breath, he swore. "You know, Gilead, I've waited for this moment for ten years now. Petitioned and maneuvered to get the Patri to grant new transport licenses, pushed and prodded at companies who already had them—" he glared up at me, discomfort flicking across his face—"and put considerable money into trying to find a substitute for the Deadman Switch. I've earned the right to be the first man to ride a Carillon ship to Solitaire, blast it."
He broke off, took a deep breath. "And now I've got to stay here and duel with O'Rielly and the HTI board instead. Thanks to you."
"You could ignore my advice," I reminded him. "You've done so before."
A touch of dark humor came back into his face, as I'd expected it would. "And usually wished I hadn't," he pointed out wryly. "Besides which, what's the point of hiring a Watcher in the first place if I'm not going to listen to him?"
"People have done stranger things to themselves, sir. Often even willingly."
His eyes flicked past me, to the door of my—to his mind—painfully plain cubicle. "And more often done those strange things to others. Not willingly."
Punishing the parents' fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation ... "The training really hasn't been a burden, Lord Kelsey-Ramos," I assured him quietly. "There's a great deal of beauty in God's universe—beauty that you may never even notice, let alone be able to appreciate."
"Does that beauty make up for all the ugliness that's also there?" he asked pointedly. "Does it make up for the fact that you have to strip a room practically bare to get a little relief from sensory overload?"
To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third one ... "I do what I can with what I've been given," I said simply. "In that way, at least, I'm no different than you."
He pursed his lips. "Perhaps. Someday you'll have to tell me—to really tell me—what it's like to be a Watcher."
"Yes, sir." I never would, of course. He didn't really want to know. "If that'll be all ...?"
"Not quite." His face tightened slightly, his sense that of a man preparing to deliver unwanted news. "I concede that you're right, that I can't afford to traipse off to Solitaire right now. But someone ought to go, if for no other reason than to let them know Carillon will be taking things firmly in rein. It seems to me that the obvious person for that job is Randon."
He clearly expected a negative reaction, but I had none to offer. At twenty-five, Lord Kelsey-Ramos's son still had a lot to learn about life, but he knew enough about how to handle people—his own and others—to make a reasonable ambassador to a conquered firm. "I presume you'll be sending a financial expert along with him?" I asked. "In case their records need looking over?"
"Oh, I'll send a whole slate of experts along with him—don't worry about that. Still, even experts often miss important details ... which is why you'll be going, too."
I took a careful breath, feeling my heartbeat increase. "Sir, if it's all the same with you—"
"It isn't," he said firmly, "and I'm afraid I insist. I want you there with Randon." He hesitated. "I realize the whole idea of the Deadman Switch bothers you, but I'm sure you can handle it this once."
Solitaire ... and the Deadman Switch. For a moment I nearly told him no, that this time the price was too high. But even as I opened my mouth, the quiet reminder of why I was working for him in the first place drained the defiance away.
As it always seemed to do. Punishing the parents' fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation ... "All right, sir," I told him instead. "I'll do my best."CHAPTER 2
The Carillon group numbered several small courier ships among its modest fleet, and I naturally expected our group would ride one or more of those to Whitecliff, transferring at that point to one of HTI's freighters. But Lord Kelsey-Ramos would have none of that. This was his personal triumph, and he had no intention of having us ride someone else's ship into Solitaire like hitchhikers or afterthought cargo.
Which consideration made it almost inevitable that he would saddle us with the Bellwether.
From his point of view, it was a generous favor, of course. His own personal craft, the Bellwether was a genuine superyacht, with all the luxury and heavy-duty status that that implied. Unfortunately, the size and sleek lines carried their own hidden costs: the size meant the Bellwether could do only eighteen hours at a stretch on Mjollnir drive before having to go space-normal to dump its excess heat; and the sleek lines meant it then took up to six hours to cool down enough to continue on.
Which meant that instead of the twenty-three-plus light-years per day a heavily radiation-finned courier ship could cover, we stodgered along at barely eighteen. Which meant the hundred-odd light-years to Whitecliff took us nearly six days to cover, instead of a courier's four and a half.
Which meant HTI's representatives in Alabaster City were primed, ready, and waiting when we arrived.
I'd half expected them to try and hide their preparation, but they apparently knew better than to try and play stupid. Instead, they'd opted for the opposite response: laying the honey on with a sealant spreader.
It started practically before we'd even gotten our feet on the ground, with the spaceport director himself greeting us at the Bellwether's gatelock as we disembarked. He bubbled a message of greeting tinged with nervous awe, led us through an artificially brief customs ritual, and then escorted us across the terminal to the connecting hotel. The three best suites, we found, had already been reserved for us, as had the most secure meeting/privacy room on the lobby level. Randon left a message with the hotel registrar to be transmitted to the local HTI office, and we retired to our rooms.
Even then, the HTI people showed their expertise in such matters, giving us a half-hour to relax and readjust to groundfall before arriving at the hotel.
Excerpted from Deadman Switch by Timothy Zahn. Copyright © 1988 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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