by Fred Warren
“Move the colony.”
It was a throwaway line, something John would toss out for a few cheap laughs at a cocktail party, a bit of cynical commentary on the state of Avenir Eclectia. It wasn't a call to action. No one but the lunatic fringe would seriously consider it. The Avenir space station might have been born an interstellar transport, but in the hundreds of Foundings since its arrival at 94 Ceti, it had added a panoply of pods and modules and bays and docks, like a hermit crab adorning its seashell home with bits of flotsam and jetsam, until its spacefaring origins were obscured beyond recognition.
But the Dreamers had not forgotten, and they were working patiently, incrementally, and invisibly to make Avenir a spaceship once again. John had no doubt they would succeed, and his business instincts screamed at him to seize their invitation to unlimited power and leverage. They controlled the nanofactories, the computer network, and who knew how many key government officials. Their virtual world was amazing, even when experienced through an obsolete interface. Part of him longed for the full experience. Sensations, smells, tastes, sights beyond his wildest imaginings, so vivid as to make the distinction between real and virtual irrelevant. Islands, and birds.
And there was Anya.
Something still held him back. All dreams came at a cost, and this one was no exception. He'd never thought much about his fellow colonists, other than as human resources or business competitors, but now as he wandered the station, ranging farther than he ever had before, he found himself looking at their faces, pondering their fate. From the idle rich of the upper levels to the desperate poor begging for scraps in its depths. Aristocrats and merchants, Peacekeepers and Enforcers, dockworkers and technicians, fishmongers and beetle butchers, pickpockets and orphans. Who would be taken when Avenir shed its encrustations and blasted away to a more hospitable star? Who would be left behind? Would they find a way to survive without the station's technical resources? Would the colony devolve into barbarism, a handful of scattered tribes clinging to life as both hunters and prey of Eclectia's giant insects, slowly suffocated by the planet's corrosive atmosphere?
What did it matter? The colony was dying anyway. The Dreamers knew this. The only way to save any of it was to move along with whatever they could salvage. From that perspective, his choice was either to remain as he was, gathering wealth and gilding his own pleasures as best he could until the end, or to join the Dreamers, where he would have a voting stake in the colony's future--and the power to shape it.
When John thought about it that way, there wasn't any choice at all. He found an observation gallery in an obscure corner of one of the station's lower levels and gazed out at the feverish countenance of Eclectia and beyond to shattered Sheba and the leering glow of the Whale Star itself. It might be the last time he saw them face to face, with his own eyes.
“You've made up your mind.” The image of Anya Sherikov stood beside him in her shimmering red dress, her eyes merry.
“I can't even have the privilege of a quiet moment with my own thoughts?”
“You will succeed me as Communications Officer. No one can intrude upon your privacy without permission, save Captain Aziz. Even he must knock first.”
“We wagered among ourselves how long it would take you to deliberate. Captain Aziz thought you would decide within the first day. Victoria was less optimistic.”
“How much less?”
“She said I'd probably find you dead drunk in a dockside bar two weeks from now.”
“Vicky is one scary little girl. What about you? What was your guess?”
Anya smiled. “You're right on time.”
“Congratulations. So, what now?”
“Look over there.” She pointed toward the window. A Hawthorne-class VIP shuttle had just cleared its moorings and was falling away from the station toward Eclectia.
It exploded in soundless flash of white light.
“The official records will state that all occupants, including one John Milton, were lost when their spacecraft suffered catastrophic engine failure en route to Adagio. Your personal assets have been dispersed and controlling interests in your various business ventures transferred to your partners. It's time to take up residence in Paradise, John. Welcome to your afterlife.”
Melanie checked the address again. It had taken a little digging, but she was certain this was where he lived. She smoothed her tunic and trousers and brushed a stray wisp of hair from her eyes before ringing the chime.
A thin, pale man wearing a plain black suit opened the door. His face was void of any emotion as he examined her. “May I help you, Miss?”
“I...my name is Melanie Hunt. Are you Mr. Milton?”
“No, this unit served as Mr. Milton's valet. I await re-purposing.”
It was a Frank. Melanie swallowed hard. She had to see this through, for Carson's sake. “I need to speak with Mr. Milton. It's urgent. Tell him it's about the Dreamers.”
The cyborg butler was still for a moment, then it blinked twice. When it spoke again, its voice was higher in pitch, almost feminine. “Mr. Milton died early this morning.”
“What? Oh...oh, no. I'm so sorry. I had no idea. Thank you. I...I hope they find you a good job.” She had to fight an impulse to flee. Turn away, and take one step at a time, like a sane person.
She spun around. The impassive face wore a softer expression. It was smiling. There was just enough curve in the mouth to make it certain. Franks weren't supposed to feel emotion. Was this a new feature, special for rich owners?
It opened the door wider and bowed. “Come in, Miss. Perhaps I may be of assistance.”