SFWA Grand Master C. J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher return to the Hugo-award winning Alliance-Union Universe with a thrilling entry in her far-reaching sci-fi saga.
For years, the stations of the Hinder Stars, those old stations closest to Sol, have lagged behind the great megastations of the Beyond, like Pell and Cyteen. But new opportunities and fears arise when Alpha station, the oldest of them all, receives news of a huge incoming faster-than-light ship with no identification. The denizens of Alpha wait anxiously for news about the outsiders, each with their own suspicions about the ship and its motivations.
Ross and Fallon, crew members of the Galway, believe the unidentified ship belongs to Pell and has come to investigate another massive ship docked at Alpha, The Rights of Man. Though Rights is under the command of the Earth Company, it is not quite perfected—and its true purpose is shrouded in mystery.
James Robert Neihart, the captain of the strange ship—finally identified as one of the two largest ships of the Beyond, the Merchanter vessel Finity's End—has heard whispers of The Rights of Man and wonders at its design and purpose, especially as Sol has struggled to rival the progress of the Farther Stars. Now docked at Alpha, he must convince the crews that there is more to The Rights of Man than meets the eye.
Because the reasons behind the creation of The Rights of Man, and its true plans, could change everything—not just for Sol, but for the Hinder Stars and the Beyond itself.
Release date: January 8, 2019
Print pages: 352
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Rosie’s Pub was Alpha-based spacer turf. It was where you went on the Strip to spend time, to talk with shipmates, friends, and other ships’ crew who were regulars at Alpha Station.
And like other bars on the Strip, Rosie’s maintained, half-lost in the glassware and the bottles of liquor on the shelves above the bar, a schedule board—a list of ships coming in, ships leaving, ships currently in dock. Widescreen, three separate displays: interstation FTLers, maintenance insystemers, and on the far left, the sub-lighters, those two remaining links to Sol Station and Earth, one ship coming, one going, on their ten-year-long voyages—Sol being the only star outside the jump range of the faster-than-light ships: ironic proof, some said, that there was a god.
That part of the screen rarely changed: two ships, two destinations, no surprises there. The other two sections, with FTLers listed in the center and insystemers on the right, ebbed and flowed with the tides of commerce—shifting but generally predictable.
Until three hours ago, when the words in arrival had flashed above the listing of FTL ships and assigned berths.
In arrival. With no name or origin, just an ominous blank where both ought to appear.
Three hours and counting, and still no update.
Nobody remembered that happening. Ever. FTL ships dropped in at system zenith and sent ID before the first vane pulse, so ID arrived nearly simultaneously with the entry wavefront. In arrival always, always, came with a ship name attached. Period. That information kept honest folk from flashing on Beta Station . . . and the ghosts of stationers who had just disappeared, back at the dawn of all the star-stations, when the sub-lighter Santa Maria had come into Beta Station, at Proxima Centauri, and found . . . nothing. No remains, no explanation, no clue.
No one visited Proxima, ever, after that. Alpha Station, at Barnard’s Star, the first station outside Sol system itself, developed daughter stations in the opposite direction, and thrived.
Until FTL changed everything.
Alpha still maintained its unique sub-light trade with Earth, over a twenty-year round trip, a distance only pusher-ships could travel without a break. But one of Alpha’s own daughter stations, Bryant’s, farther on in a direction opposite to the Centauri stars, was close enough to Alpha for modern FTLers to one-hop it, and it was close enough to Glory and Venture to do the same. With those stations, Alpha maintained a modern traffic, always the same ships, generally on a schedule. And give or take the age of Alpha’s systems and the occasional glitches, citizen nerves and the futures market stayed fairly steady.
But who was this inbound now? Locals and spacers alike wanted to know. And they wanted an answer a lot sooner than three hours with no ID.
Malfunction in the display? If so, it was a station-wide malfunction. Crew from bars up and down the strip poked their heads in, asking: was Rosie’s display frozen, too?
In Rosie’s, the early assumption had been that it was just a glitch, that the screen was frozen—except, as various people immediately pointed out, the time kept ticking away in the corner of the display.
And over on another display, behind the blue neon sign for Beloit’s Premium Vodka, the news screen and the station information screen ran on as usual, unglitched. Likewise an entertainment channel at the back of the bar was running smoothly.
God knew, malfunctions were no stranger to Alpha. The station being the oldest of all star-stations, breakdowns happened now and again, though usually not so long-lasting in a system so basic and critical to a station’s well-being. Consolation was that, over near the hand-printed Rosie’s Special Ale, the local market board ticker, that other heartbeat of commerce, was still running. Its clock marked a steady flow of time above the list of current prices for goods on Alpha, and last-known prices for the same goods on other stations. Every ship that came in caused a cascade of changes in those prices—and not only as their cargo went on offer. Along with physical cargo, every ship also brought information safely stowed in its black box, untouchable information vital to every aspect of interstellar trade. And as an arriving ship’s black box fed its last gulp of data from afar into the station’s systems, that data joined the data every other ship had fed in from every other station, some of it way out of current date and from the other end of civilization, some near enough to be useful. The station’s computer would rapidly sort out the relevant market information, and that screen would stabilize, reacting only to in‑station trade—until the next ship arrived.
That information flow affected the markets. It affected plans. It was the routine pulse of trade and business. But in the last three hours since the arrival screen had frozen, local prices had begun to react, wildly, unpredictably, for internal reasons. Uncertainty did that. Movement in the market meant people shifting their bets, freeing money, prepared to draw back and hope to buy in low.
Betting on changes in prices, whatever that incoming ship carried.
People with money at stake were not happy. Spacers and station customers with agreements ready to sign, now put on hold, would be pissed as hell.
Dammitall, was the frequent comment. With In Arrival lit up, there should be a ship name, not a frozen screen. A manifest should arrive to settle those fluctuating numbers.
Hours on—with no announcement from admin—it was insane. Did admin want a riot on the Strip?
Big question was: what ship was it? Had to be incoming from Bryant’s Star. There was nowhere else for it to originate, sanely speaking. There were a few Alpha regulars not in port, ships who might have changed their mind, done a quick turnaround at Bryant’s, but how would that warrant this silence? And why would they, with their regulars at Venture and Glory waiting?
Unless it had to do with the strangers currently in port: three of them, all from routes farther up the line, from Pell and beyond. Three ships trading in foodstuffs and metals, and not saying why they’d come all the way out here, or when they planned on leaving.
This problem with the schedule boards was downright embarrassing, something major as this malfunctioning in front of these fancy, state-of-the-art outsider ships.
Spacers began to speculate in low tones about, well, maybe station had shut down the flow deliberately. Maybe it was an accident in the jump zone. A mistake could fling a ship into Alpha’s small red sun. Miscalibration of a too-old nav system could send it on a comet’s path, outbound for a million years or so, nobody able to catch it—a cheerful suggestion that came from one of Firenze’s stranded crew. Station might not be getting any information from the arrival and station might still be without any answer.
Maybe it was just a damaged antenna. That had happened. Station might be trying, in the fierce output of a sun, to find a very tiny signal.
So why didn’t they just say? A breakdown? A glitch?
Maybe a ship in serious trouble.
Maybe, nervous-making thought, a ship that chose to run incognito.
The Santiago captain, word came down the strip, had queried Alpha Central—what’s going on with the board? What ship’s coming in?
And gotten just a, “System is down. Be patient.” That . . . to a captain’s direct question about an incoming ship. No denial or confirmation that something was out there, which anyone with half a brain knew was the significant part of that question. Central could have set that concern right with four simple words: There is no ship.
So maybe there was and maybe there wasn’t. Secrets ran deep on Alpha. Maybe station was withholding that information for some good reason. But they’d damned well better say something soon.
Speculation began to run amok, quietly spoken, so as not to jinx the possibility, that, God, maybe it was finally an FTL arrival from Sol. That came from a stationer mouth, first, a waiter—no spacer really thought that. Even if Sol had found that long-sought jump-point to get them here, a sim-trained crew would be dead crazy to be the first to test it.
But it could be, the speculator insisted, a robot probe. It could mean that FTL to Sol was on the horizon, and they would all soon be living in luxury.
Practical speculation said dream on, stationer, and moved on to another, more realistic possibility. Realistic and a bit ominous. Was it another outsider—and this one not saying its business?
In the last ten days, Alpha had had three ships come in, two of which had never visited Alpha before, none of the three admitting any connection with the other two—and they had sent metal and food prices down. A temporary dip, that—canny traders didn’t panic. But the arriving outsider crews were standoffish and sticking to a ship- peak nobody could penetrate, and not anything like the same ship- peak, either. Alpha crews might welcome one ship—charitably. There was barely enough trade in the First Stars to keep Alpha-based ships moving on very limited routes. Some ship that generally operated the other side of Venture Station might drop in, oh, every half-decade or so, with some new item unique enough to warrant the cost, and it could be welcome. Two such at once, yes . . . once in living memory, when two had jumped in at the same opportunity and destroyed their own profit margin.
But three? They’d undercut Alpha-based ships’ barely break-even margins on two vital commodities. They’d made ships reassess their own plans and scramble for cargo that wouldn’t be affected by some similar dump of goods at Bryant’s, which these ships would have visited, coming here
Questions on that topic had started to fly up and down the Strip, to which “Don’t know,” and “Bob down in cargo said that his cousin Sam heard that one of the newcomers said . . .” weren’t highly informative answers.
Station, on the other hand, wasn’t complaining about the influx of foodstuffs or metals. And when that third ship had showed up within five hours of the second, bars and sleepovers mothballed since the last pusher-ship departure had been pressed into operation, fast as personnel could be pulled in from the residency side of the station. The newcomers might use a ship-speak nobody could understand, but they had pidgin enough when it came to food and drink and lodging, and ship’s scrip began to flow into stationer hands. Two newly reopened bars were routinely full of the outsiders.
And now might a fourth have arrived? Maybe in trouble and unable to send the standard identification? Thoughts of “What could be wrong?” began to extend to “something wrong further away than Bryant’s?”
Something going on between Pell and Cyteen, the two mega-stations that thus far had managed a relatively peaceful co‑existence?
Not a happy thought at all, but a possibility that always lurked in the shadows of every Alpha-based mind.
Not surprising, then, that for the last three hours speculation had drawn local spacers from bar to bar up and down the Strip, waiting—hoping—or some flasher to come up on‑screen to say it was all a false alarm, that the input was screwed, that some fool had pushed the wrong button, and there was no ship.
Because even if that incoming ship wasn’t in trouble, one more crew crowding the Strip, one more bar opening to take favored, experienced station staff away from the regular Alpha crews’ watering holes, one more ship’s requests for accommodations and services stacking up in the already-scrambled administrative queue, with more goods flooding into a small market . . . well, tempers already on edge were going to snap, no way not, and damned if they’d feel guilty if a little furniture got broken, not after this too-damned-long silent treatment by admin.
“Did you hear?” a newcomer said. “They’re opening the Olympian. They’re calling in staff.”
“No way,” somebody said.
But a check of listings proved it was true. And it stopped being a question of “is it a ship?” and became a question of “just how big is it?” The Olympian, old and regal, was the palace that housed pusher crews during their extended sleepovers. Big crews. Favored crews.
But it couldn’t be a pusher. There were only two serving Alpha. You wouldn’t ordinarily mistake their arrival signature for an FTLer’s, not to mention their vector. Sol began to be in question again. And Station ops had to know more than they were saying, damn straight.
47.3 minutes into the fourth hour—the screen flashed.
And all eyes turned.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...