The hearings have been going on for days.
I don’t know why I thought it was over, just because we got the truth out. There are always people who refuse to believe it, or want to analyze what they’ve seen seventy-four times before they even try to accept that reality has changed. I’ve been answering the same questions under oath for them for the last week, so I’m at the end of my patience when I’m summoned, yet again.
The room-bot tells me, “Your presence is required in conference room 7-J, Sirantha Jax.”
Well, of course it is. My eyes burn as I step out into the pristine white corridor. I feel oddly fragile, as if my bones have grown too big for my skin. I haven’t been sleeping well in what used to be Farwan’s staff dormitory, and they won’t let me see March. They’re keeping us sequestered to make sure we don’t synchronize our stories, I guess. The Conglomerate-appointed Taskforce has a great interest in getting at the truth, which is understandable, given that we’ve known only what the Corp chose to disseminate for decades now.
The Conglomerate spent countless centuries as an impotent coalition of planetary representatives, holding sessions and debating issues that never changed anything. Now all the representatives are gathered on New Terra, jockeying for power and trying to fill the void left by Farwan’s fall. At this point, the Conglomerate can’t be blamed for its zeal. They don’t want someone else to seize control while things whirl in a chaotic spin.
Doesn’t mean I enjoy these constant, courteous interrogations. I find it difficult not to flash back to all the “counseling” sessions I suffered after Kai died. Kai was my pilot first, then my friend—and then he was . . . everything. I’d never known it was possible to love as he did—with complete devotion yet devoid of promises. The crash of the Sargasso, engineered by Farwan Corporation, reshaped my world, and for a while I wasn’t sure I’d survive the shift.
That’s behind me now. The world has changed because of Kai’s death. People won’t forget him, and that assuages the loss. The other day, I saw on the news, they’re building a monument in Center Park, a small reproduction of the Sargasso with a brass plaque graven with the names of the dead.
The Conglomerate mines its representatives from corporations and special-interest groups. Only a few come from genuine free elections, devoid of corruption, kickbacks, and nepotism, and I can’t honestly say whether I’ve done a good thing by destroying Farwan. If nothing else, they were stable, and now we have a great chasm at the center, around which everything trembles.
But I couldn’t let them get away with murdering Kai.
People nod at me as I pass through the hallway and into the lift, heading for the seventh floor. I’m a public figure now. I always was to some degree, I suppose. The news vids often flashed images of me, returning from a successful jump, and the gutter press loved to publicize my barroom brawls.
Bracing myself, I step through the open doorway into conference room 7-J. To my surprise, I don’t find the usual panel of judges and planetary representatives gazing at me with poorly concealed disapproval. Maybe they finally believe I’m telling the truth, but they don’t like me for it. Thanks to me, the status quo has been destroyed, and now we have multiple parties rushing to fill the vacuum, some of which are worse than Farwan. Sometimes the truth doesn’t set you free; it just presents a different set of problems.
Instead I find Dina, March, and the Chancellor of New Terra. March smiles at me with such warmth that my heart contracts. They’ve cleared him of charges since nobody died during the standoff, plus the resultant broadcast knocked him clean off center stage.
When he thought I was dead, he stormed Corp headquarters and took the whole building hostage. March didn’t think it would bring me back. He just wanted to watch the man who gave the order die.
The woman, Dina, looks good, as if she’s been getting some sun, and her blond hair shines with new highlights. When she feels my scrutiny, she discreetly flips me the bird. I barely restrain a smile.
You all right? He comes into me quietly.
Right after I met March, I thought I was going crazy— and perhaps I was, but not because I sensed him inside my head when he shouldn’t be. Since he’s Psi, he can skim surface thoughts as if he were dipping a net into the water. With most people, that’s all he can do without causing irreparable harm. Our theta waves are compatible, which means he can share a lot more with me.
I answer with my eyes and a slight smile. Just being in the same room with him makes things better. Easier.
The Chancellor gazes between us as if sensing subtext. He’s a sharp one. Suni Tarn is a big man, rawboned, with disheveled salt-and-pepper hair, but he wears real silk. A study in contrasts, then. His smile seems sincere as he invites, “Take a seat, Ms. Jax.”
Warily, I do so. “What’s this about?”
I expected to find another panel wanting to hear the same story yet again. For some reason, this assembly makes me nervous. March offers a look of quiet reassurance, and some of the tension fades. If it was bad, he’d warn me, surely.
“The Conglomerate has served as figurehead long enough, and we’re determined to restructure so that regulatory functions return to our control. No longer will the private sector control tariffs and jump-travel training. After reviewing your testimony, we’d like to repay you for your loyalty to the Conglomerate. It can’t have been easy, staying one jump ahead of Farwan when they were so determined to suppress the truth.”
After replaying his words in my head, they still ring with governmental doublespeak. “I’m not actually sure what that means.”
“They intend to make you an ambassador,” Dina says with a smirk.
“True.” Tarn nods, folding his hands before him. “There are a few formerly class-P worlds that have reached the correct level of technology to be considered for addition to the Conglomerate. There are also a number of xenophobic planets from which we need to recruit representatives. If they are allowed to secede, they will presume they are exempt from travel regulations and tariffs as well. And that’s how wars start.”
We share a grim silence, remembering the casualties from the Axis Wars. In the aftermath, Farwan stepped into the breach, offering impartial mediation. They took control by centimeters, and nobody noticed the bloodless coup until the Corp had stripped the Conglomerate of all decision-making autonomy. Oh, the tier worlds still elected representatives every ten turns or so, and they went around talking about “issues,” but Farwan held the real power. Until now.
“I’m flattered,” I say carefully, because this mission sounds like a great way to get killed. Maybe that’s why they want to send me. I’m no stranger to the notion of peoplewanting to space me to tie up loose ends. “But my first obligation is to finish what I’ve started. I have people on Lachion counting on me to help them get what they need to found a jump-training academy.”
March studies me with an inscrutable expression, but I receive a sense that he’s proud of me. This opportunity would keep me in the limelight, almost like being a nav-star again, but I don’t want that life anymore. I want to make love to him in my shabby glastique flat on Gehenna, see how Doc’s doing, and then go find out how we can help on Lachion.
“They have everything they could possibly need,” Tarn tells me. “When we seized Farwan’s assets, that included their research, and we disbursed the information to all interested parties. Your friends aren’t the only ones engaged in genetically engineering a race better suited to the nav chair. We’re living in an exciting time, full of innovation and change, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens, just like everyone else. However, that leaves you at loose ends, I believe.”
I can see how Tarn got elected. He has a charming, toothy smile and a persuasive manner. Maybe it’s a reflex left over from dealing with the Corp, but I don’t trust him. He has a point, however.
If they have all the data they need, which I’ll verify with Keri, then the rest is lab work for Doc to do on his own. I remember those poor women on Hon-Durren’s Kingdom, and part of me shies away. In my time I’ve seen some horrific things, but few things have lingered like that ward of helpless breeders, catatonic females condemned to be used as wombs.
I don’t like the idea of genetic engineering, but thankfully, it’s not my responsibility. The Conglomerate will appoint arbiters and navigator activists when the time comes, I have no doubt. Still, there won’t be a class for me to train for a while yet, and I’m not the only teacher anymore. Everyone who used to work at the Farwan Academy is now looking for a job, too.
“If they don’t need my help on Lachion, I’d rather go back to jumping for its own sake,” I answer finally. “Logging new beacons. That was what I loved.”
Tarn arches a brow with an indulgent air, almost as if he’s talking to a child. “And who’s going to pay you to do that, Sirantha? That isn’t a Conglomerate priority at this time, I’m afraid, and your ship will have expenses: fuel, food, miscellaneous supplies. Not to mention a living wage for the crew.”
Shit. I’ve never needed to think about a paycheck before. I’m not even sure how much I have in my personal accounts. Living on Farwan stations where they comped everything, I didn’t have to worry about such details.
If they have no use for me on Lachion right now, then I’d just be living off Keri’s largesse, and they’re already going through tough times because of me. Then it sinks in. I actually need a job, and I’m probably not in a position to turn down an offer at the moment.
I’ll need to check my financials as soon as possible, assuming my assets haven’t been frozen because they came from Farwan. Surely that’s not possible. I won’t feel easy about it until I find out, though.
“We want you and your crew to start with Ithiss-Tor. You’re in a unique position, as . . .” Tarn checks his notes on the datapad. “Velith Il-Nok, a bounty hunter of some repute, is willing to travel with you to his homeworld and help you traverse the obstacles that tripped up other ambassadors.
“Needless to say, this mission does present its share of dangers. Given the current state of the shipping lanes, you will be fortunate to get there in one piece.” He pauses to let the gravity of his statement sink in.
Oh, how I wish he were kidding. But Tarn doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor. And he’s right. Pirates, raiders, smugglers . . . they all know there’s no strong Corp militia coming to kick their asses anymore; the time has never been better for them to ply their trade and push the lawless frontier a little closer to civilization.
It’s going to be a f**king mess out there. And it’s largely my fault. I sigh and scrub my hand over my face as Tarn continues, “So I’ll allow you twenty-four hours to discuss the opportunity with your crew. You’ll find the Conglomerate most generous, however, if you should choose to join our employ.”