Читать онлайн «Blindfold»
The man in charge of the Platform, Kareem Sondheim, whose property and power rested in orbit, was called the “landholder without land.” The ancient man was said to be one of the original occupants of the first colony ship that had arrived 231 years earlier. Sondheim had never set foot on Atlas. He had remained alive by staying in zero gravity and indulging in sophisticated geriatric treatments that were not available on the surface.
Sondheim kept control of the Platform’s genetic library of embryos and cloning sequences the colonists had brought from Earth; its vast array of species, a veritable Noah’s ark, would provide the foundation of an Earthlike ecosystem on a new world.
Unfortunately, Atlas had proved more inhospitable than they had expected.
The planet’s atmosphere and climate were tolerable, with the right temperature range and an amenable mix of component gases. But Atlas was just at the very cusp of bringing forth life of its own. Its fledgling ecosystem was shallow and undiversified, with only a few primitive species, most of them in the cradle of the sea. The soil was utterly barren, forcing the colonists to begin their work several steps farther down the chain than they had hoped.
The native biochemistry was incompatible with human systems, but for a very few exceptions, such as the Veritas drug. The planetary ecology and the new Terran organic matrix were two independent and parallel paths.
Unable to turn back to Earth across the gulf of a fifty-year voyage, the colonists had to start from scratch, and they had held on by their fingernails, gradually using up what supplies they had brought with them. Separated from assistance by half a century, they could not simply send home for a new batch of supplies. The colony’s technical resources had been only marginally replenished by the four other ships that had arrived in the intervening years.
Landholders continued to claim swaths of land, bombarding them with fertilizers, fixing nitrogen, irrigating deserts, and plowing under grasses, mosses, algae they had planted to lay down a nutritive soil matrix. New life forms were introduced experimentally and with great caution once they were carefully selected from the genetic library on the Platform….
As the packages were unloaded from the elevator, Troy documented the computer chips, finding their notation on his manifests, then moved on to log a series of insulated fish tanks for Dokken Holding. The tanks were filled with thousands of trout and salmon fry that might find enough to eat among the strands of algae and the dragonfly larvae Franz Dokken had previously introduced into his warm artificial ponds.
Toth Holding had ordered cages and cages of live chicks grown from embryos aboard the Platform, and the birds were now ready to be turned loose in the grain debris in the fields.
Muttering to himself to verify his own markings, Troy moved about to inspect the cargo with loose manifest pages fluttering in his hand. He found a trio of cages holding three water buffalo calves, small and fragile and bleating. The beasts had knobby knees and large wet nostrils. Their dark eyes flicked around in confusion. According to the manifest, the water buffalo would be put to work in the rice fields in the river delta at Sardili Shores.
When someone called for a new species—such as these water buffalo, or the chickens—biological technicians on the Platform took the stored embryos from their precious library, cloned them, and grew the new animals to their birth age. The offspring were then shipped down on the space elevator.
The cargo haulers heaved the water buffalo cages out of the elevator car, bumping into each other and wrestling the beasts onto the concrete receiving area. Troy followed them briskly, needing to verify the serial numbers tattooed in the animals’ ears and scribbling on his manifest sheets.
The calves shifted awkwardly in their cages, trying to maintain their footing. Suddenly, one of the handlers slipped and let loose his corner of the cage. It crashed to the ground with a loud noise that triggered a panicked reaction. The female handler shouted and scolded her partner. The water buffalo bleated a pitiful sound.
On the pad the handlers roughly set down their wire mesh cages containing thousands of cheeping chicks, not noticing that one door had not been fastened properly. Suddenly the front of the cage sprang open, spilling a chaotic flock of fuzzy yellow chicks that scattered chirping across the landing area. Some ran toward the toroidal supports and padded bumpers around the anchor point where the elevator had come to rest.
“Hey!” Cren shouted. The handlers dropped what they were doing and rushed to help. “Get those chicks! They’re all accountable.”
Already unbalanced, the water buffalo cage tipped over as the calf tried to move. The metal crashing on the concrete sounded like thunder, which further startled the already-panicked chicks. The pathetic calf lowed as if bemoaning its fate, and the other two calves set up a similar racket. The two handlers yelled at each other, voices raised over the din.
Troy had been shuffling through his manifest sheets, but now he stuffed the papers in his various pockets as he ran to help out.
The burly handlers seemed to think the best way to catch chicks was to lunge after them, large hands outspread. But the fuzzy birds simmered across the area, rushing toward the chain-link fence.
The four sol-pols leaped into action, pointing their weapons at the escaped birds, as if their threatening posture could help.
Troy crept toward some of the chicks, whistling cheerily at them, extending his hands and trying to coax them nearer. He nabbed one, which squirmed and pecked at him, peeping comically, but Troy didn’t let go until he had stuffed it back in its cage.
The people in the merchant district paused to observe the spectacle. Apparently, the frantic action of workers scrambling about was worth giving up a few minutes of business. Troy shook his head, muttering to himself that this was the most spectacular entertainment the citizens had seen since the grim judgment of Eli Strone several days earlier. He wondered what might come next—a comet striking the planet and obliterating all life?
One of the handlers managed to find a shovel and used it unceremoniously to scoop up five chicks at a time, depositing them back in the wire cage. Downy feathers flew in the air like a seed storm in one of the kenaf fields.
On the other side of the fence Cren used his palms to rattle the chain link, which frightened away the chicks that were trying to work their way through the openings in the wire. They ran around in circles, cheeping in terror.
It took the better part of an hour to recapture the birds. But the victory was not without casualties. Three of the delicate chicks had been killed in the roundup, and another had a broken leg.
Troy sighed, knowing he had done a good enough job, even as Cren used a low tone of voice to rail at the handlers for their stupidity and clumsiness. Cren checked out the water buffalo calves, then sent them to the big holding warehouse. The following morning they would be whisked off on the mag-lev to Sardili Shores.
At the end of his shift, Troy handed in his crumpled manifest sheets listing his tally of the computer chips, pharmaceuticals, supplies of the Truthsayers’ precious Veritas drug, and live animal cargo.
He shook his head, thinking again of the frantic escape attempt by the baby chickens, the mishandling of the water buffalo calves. This wasn’t exactly what he had expected when he left the Mining District to take a respectable job as a documentor for First Landing.
Oh, well. All in a day’s work.
As evening gathered around the city, and the glass-and-steel buildings lit up with hydroelectric power, Troy settled in to his small rooms. The new place in the multiple-dwelling complex was still unfamiliar to him, and he reveled in the delicious privacy. He could think and breathe and not bump into anybody else when he decided to daydream. It seemed like heaven.
For too long Troy had been cramped in the same apartment with his mother and father and sisters, listening to loud arguments, tedious conversations about the day’s events (which always sounded the same to him, though his mother and father went through the same dialog every evening, as if it were a ritual). He smelled Rissbeth’s acrid homemade perfume, endured entire days without five minutes of privacy or quiet. For release, he dabbled with painting, strictly for his own enjoyment, though his mother resented the expenditure on useless items and his little sister criticized his work.
Their quarters had become even more crowded when Leisa married and brought her husband to live with them; he had lost much of his older sister’s attention as well, one of the few tolerable aspects of his life there. No doubt Leisa and her husband would soon wish to start a family—a large one, as most colonists preferred—and that would take up even more space. But these new rooms were Troy’s own space, and he had already begun to think of it as his “home.”
After preparing a meal of hydroponic vegetables and a few small morsels of cultured turkey and setting it to cook, he settled back to unwind and to begin painting. What a luxury to indulge himself with a hobby. He had been experimenting with new paints available from First Landing vendors, vibrant colors he had never before seen in the small merchant shops up in Koman Holding. Brilliant blues, reds, and yellows made from cobalt and cinnabar and uranium oxide.
He dabbed designs with his paint. Some of his fresh work hung on the walls, like trophies. Nothing very good, he knew, but Troy enjoyed the soothing yet exhilarating act of painting. He’d experimented with different techniques, different styles. His abstract imitations were complete failures—but then, he wasn’t quite sure how to tell when an abstract painting “failed.”
He preferred painting imaginary landscapes, looking out upon the vastness of Atlas with his mind’s eye. He had already drawn the low, rocky hills of Koman Holding, honeycombed with mine shafts. He swirled the colors, sketching out another barren landscape—but this time adding forests, swamps, beautiful birds spreading their wings to display remarkable plumage in the sunlight as they glided across the air … pure fantasy.
Troy hummed to himself, scratching his curly, light brown hair. Muffled noises came through the thin walls, his neighbors arguing, the children crying. He had lived his life among the sounds of other people, so it didn’t bother him, but he would have preferred to overhear a happy family.
He painted part of a granite outcropping, adding fanciful wind-bent cypress trees in the crannies of the rock … and then on impulse he sketched in some stylized mountain sheep. He recognized that he was mixing a great many ecosystems here—accuracy was not his goal at the moment. He looked at the mountain sheep and smiled.
He went to change his clothes, pulling on a wool sweater Leisa had made for him (though her new husband grumbled that it was a waste of expensive Bondalar yarn). As he folded up his work pants, Troy heard a faint and unexpected crinkling sound. He reached into his back pocket to find one of the wayward manifest sheets. He must have thrust it there during the chaos of the escaping chicks.
Then the implications struck him. He blinked rapidly, and his throat tightened like a piece of gnarled wood. He had recorded all of the deliveries from the elevator car, but without this last sheet he had missed several items. The logs wouldn’t match—and that meant big trouble.
Troy sighed and sank into a seat beside the bed, wearing the pullover sweater but leaving his pants crumpled on the floor. He looked at the manifest sheet and groaned. Cren would have his hide for this—he just knew it! After his previous mistake of the transposed shipments, his boss would be utterly unforgiving. No more chances. After only three weeks, Cren would have an excuse to send him whipped back home, no doubt imagining a preposterous chain of disastrous effects.
Red-faced, Cren would yell, “This error could set up echoes throughout the entire system, mistake upon mistake, leading to misdirected supplies, unreported shipments, and major upheavals in the economy of Atlas itself!”
Troy sighed. “Or more likely Cren will be the only one to notice, and I’ll still be on the next mag-lev car back to Koman Holding.” He would spend the rest of his life down in the shafts, coming home to a crowded apartment no bigger than a cargo container, with his own family glaring at him because he failed them in their one opportunity to get a foothold in the city.
He didn’t want to go back to the Mining District.
Troy ran his fingers over the rough scrap of paper in his hands. He knew exactly how he could fix this mixup, if he could get back to the holding warehouse and the inventory terminals before anyone noticed. Troy knew the appropriate passwords to access the records computers—he had been so proud when Cren had grudgingly given him the access codes the week before.
The idea caught hold, and he clutched it like a drowning man clutched a twig. If he could log in these receipts before the space elevator began its return journey up to the Platform, no one would be the wiser. Sondheim would get his expected shipment, and First Landing’s records would accurately reflect the supplies that had come down.
Troy felt so stupid. Abruptly, the smell of his dinner overheating on the stove unit penetrated his melancholy, and he dashed into the kitchenette to remove his now soggy and overcooked vegetables.
He would wait a few hours yet, go in much later that night and make a few quick adjustments on the computer. Simple enough. No one would ever know. His stomach was already tied into a knot of nervousness, but this would be the quickest and safest solution.
Simple, he thought. Simple.
The storm front finally rolled in just after dark, pelting down clean fresh rain that gave the air a metallic tang, slicking down the streets with muddy runoff that gurgled in the gutters. Breezes tore the clouds to shreds, and the tattered remnants scudded across the sky, clearing patches of night flecked with stars.
The wet cobblestones of First Landing’s thoroughfares looked oily under the wavering aurora, and silted runoff curled through drainage channels. Because of the heavy weather, most streets were deserted. Only a few vendors of fried vegetables, sweet desserts, and warm beverages remained open to catch brave customers. The smell of hot oil, burned honey, and watery coffee mixed with the scent of rain.
Four figures moved through the wet shadows, keeping to narrow alleys when possible. Two sol-pols took the point, wearing deep blue uniforms that turned them into silhouettes in the falling darkness.
A tall bald man with a craggy face, his features seemingly carved out of stone with a blunt chisel, strode confidently behind the guards, taking long steps in his loose gray jalaba. The fourth man betrayed the greatest eagerness, but he hung back behind the bald man, glancing furtively about. “Maximillian—”
The bald man cut him off with a quick gesture of his broad hand. “Don’t worry, Cialben. We have everything we need.”
“But what if we’re stopped?” Cialben pressed.
“We won’t be stopped. We’re obviously going about official business. We’re accompanied by two sol-pols.”
“Sol-pols assigned to Dokken Holding, not First Landing—”
“Who’s going to stop us?” Maximillian asked in a sharp tone.
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