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Auberon
Author: James S. A. Corey

 

AUBERON


The old man leaned back in his chair, ran his tongue over his teeth, then lit a fresh cigar. His left arm was a titanium and carbon-fiber prosthetic grafted deep into the bones of his shoulder, but his natural right arm was just as intimidating: scarred and pocked by decades of violence and abuse. His hair was a fluffy white fringe that cupped the back of his skull, and he wore a thin mustache like it was a joke he was in on.

“All right. So we’ll get a new governor who answers to a different boss,” he said. “It happens. Everyone’s playing by the rules, and then something rolls through and changes them all. Things get scrambled for a while until everyone figures the new rules out.”

His second went by Agnete because it wasn’t her name. She didn’t roll her eyes. She was used to the old man getting poetic, especially when he was thinking something through. The fingers of his metal arm shifted unconsciously, the wrist curling in on itself the way the real one had, back in the day.

The office wasn’t really an office at all. At the old man’s level, business could be done anywhere, and he liked the little bar on the Zilver Straat plaza with its wide-bladed ceiling fan and the smells of salt and sulfur coming off the bay. He claimed it reminded him of the kinds of holes and corners he’d grown up in, back on Earth. Some days, people came to meet him there. Occasionally, he’d go out and sit with people in other parts of the city. Someone powerful needed a loan and couldn’t get one. Someone needed a supply of agricultural chemicals or drugs, pornography or off-book sex workers, untraceable security teams or zero-day code exploits, then sooner or later they came to the old man.

“The thing is,” he said, “you only have so long to figure out the new rules. That’s what kills you. You’ve got to look at the situation like you’re just coming into it, because you are. And sure, maybe it’s got the same street and the same people. That doesn’t mean it’s the same place. All the things you just take for granted about how it works are up for grabs again, and—”

“Permission?”

He scowled, but he nodded her on.

“Boss,” she said, “we didn’t just get a new governor. We got conquered.”

The old man grunted dismissively. He didn’t like being interrupted. Agnete nodded toward the wallscreen behind the bar. The newsfeed from Sol had the secretary-general of Earth, the speaker for the Martian parliament, and the president of the Transport Union—the most powerful people among all the scattered human billions—being humiliated and brought to heel by the new order like the burghers of some half-razed medieval town. The combined fleet was in tatters. The void cities broken or occupied. Pallas Station was reduced to pebbles and hot gas. Medina, at the heart of the gate network, taken over by the half-alien ships that had boiled out of Laconia system. The whole human orthodoxy overturned in what felt like a moment. High Consul Winston Duarte had named himself ruler of all humanity and had killed enough people to make it true. Emperor of the galaxy.

“This time is different,” she said.

The old man spat smoke and grunted again.


* * *


The gate network had opened more than thirteen hundred solar systems to humanity, almost all of them with one or two or three planets in the Goldilocks zone. Under hundreds of suns, evolution had improvised new answers to the overwhelming question, What is life? With carbon and nitrogen, hydrogen and sunlight and time, the possibilities weren’t limitless, but they were mind-boggling. The DNA and asymmetric chirality of organic life on Earth and its Sol system colonies turned out to be idiosyncratic in a wide and creative universe. Even animals shaped by the same selective pressures to look similar to Terran life—the grass trees of Bara Gaon, the humpbacked pigeons of Nova Brasil, the skinfish of New Eden—only needed a glimpse under a microscope to show they were as different from their Terran counterparts as a bull from a bicycle.

A human being could eat all day and still starve to death in the great garden of Sigurtá, surrounded by bright fruits and soft vegetables, trees heavy with fat birds and rivers filled from bank to bank with things that almost passed for trout.

The forest of life was varied and exotic, and the trees there didn’t get along with each other. Or most of them didn’t anyway.

At first glance, Auberon system didn’t seem exceptional. Three modest gas giants, none of them larger than Saturn. A single wet, life-bearing planet with a large but unexceptional moon. There were no alien artifacts the way there had been in Newhome and Corazón Sagrado. No weirdly pure ore profiles like on Ilus or Persephone. Just a scattered handful of planets, a couple of asteroid belts, and a star burning its slow way toward a billion-year-distant collapse. Among the hundreds of systems to which humanity was heir, it could have been anyplace.

But it was now the most important human system outside of Earth, Laconia, and maybe Bara Gaon Complex. Only a few decades into its settlement, and it already boasted a dozen cities, each of them in the middle of built-up rural areas like the floral disc in the center of a daisy. There were six dwarf planets with mining and refining developments big enough to have permanent civilian populations growing around them. There was a transfer station built to accommodate the trade between it and the other, less fortunate colony worlds. It was the second most developed human settlement in the universe, and on track to keep growing for centuries. And the thing that made its first settlers the winners of history’s land-rush lottery was that, apart from competing for sunlight, the biosphere of Auberon barely interacted with the plants and animals of Earth.

There was a famous image of an Earth apple tree and an Auberon-native tree, their roots intertwined as if each were acting as soil for the other. That mutual biochemical shrug made open-air farming possible on Auberon. Contamination by local organisms tended not to mean more than a mild case of gas. And because it was the most habitable of the new planets by orders of magnitude, it was developed. Because it was developed, it was influential. Because it was influential, it was wealthy. And because it was wealthy, it was corrupt.

And now, it was Biryar Rittenaur’s problem.

A woman’s face appeared on his handheld. She had a prominent chin, long white hair in tight curls, and a high forehead… Biryar tapped his fingers against his thigh. He should know this one. A face like a spade. A spade is a garden shovel. Shovel…

“Michelle Cheval,” he said. “President of the Agricultural and Food Production Workers Union.”

The handheld shifted to a young man’s face. Pleasant, neutral, with a mole at the side of his mouth that reminded Biryar of a cartoon rabbit. That was the image he’d built—cartoon rabbit with a basketball. He knew it was the right image, but he couldn’t make the jump to why he’d chosen it.

“Damn it,” he said, and tapped the man’s profile. His name was Augustin Balecheck. He was the deputy minister in charge of planetary transportation security. Mona leaned over his chair, resting her chin on Biryar’s shoulder.

“What was this one?” she asked. He could smell the almonds on his wife’s breath and feel the shifting of her jaw against his as she chewed. It was the third year of their marriage, and he had never stopped loving the smell of her skin close to his.

“A rabbit basketball player,” he said. “The mole was like a rabbit whisker. Balecheck like ‘ball check.’ Also traveling is a foul in basketball, and he’s planetary transportation.”

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