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Melissa Scott

MIGHTY GOOD ROAD

Oh, the Rock Island Line, it is a mighty good road Oh, well, the Rock Island Line, it is the road to ride. Now if you want to ride it, Got to ride it like you find it, Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line!

CHAPTER 1

The Memorial glowed in the somber light that mimicked Earth’s setting sun, or the reddened light of fires. It was a disturbing light, to anyone who’d spent any time on the orbital stations of the Loop, and deliberately so. At the center of the pool of light were the statues, twice life-size, a man and a woman crouching together, their bodies arched protectively over the huddled shape of a fallen child. The pale stone stood out in high relief against the blackened metal that sealed off what had once been the entrance to the Cross-Systems Railroad’s Platforms Four and Five. There were flowers at the woman’s feet, real flowers, already wilting a little from the heat of the lights: an extraordinary expense on any station, but especially here.

Gwynne Heikki shivered, seeing the frail bundle, and glanced for reassurance back over her shoulder toward the bustle of the still-working platforms. Signs flashed above the entrances, the mass of the most recent arrivals ebbing away through the multiple customs barriers. Few appeared to notice the statues, or the other signs of the disaster, the charred softiles, bare metal, melted wires hanging in tatters, that were still carefully preserved on the memorial wall. Nor did they pay much attention to the man who sat cross-legged on the floor tiles just outside the band of light that defined the memorial, protest banner dangling limply overhead. The green circle stood out sharply against the black background, three interlaced gold “R”s inscribed on its surface. They stood, Heikki knew only too well, for the Retroceders’ creed: Remember, Repent, and Return. Remember that the railroad has failed once, repent of your dependence on it, and return to the planets from whence you came.

Heikki shook her head, and turned away. Popular though that creed might be in the Precincts, for the planets not yet connected to the Loop by a spur of the railroad, it was hardly practical. Settled space depended utterly on the Loop as its economic and political center, and the Loop in turn was dependent on—more than that, was created by and existed only because of—the railroad, the network of permanently open warps that allowed virtually instantaneous travel between the Loop’s stations, the thirteen Exchange Points. But the railroad in its turn was dependent on the Papaefthmyiou-Devise Engine, and that, Heikki thought, was the weak point that the Retroceders could and did exploit. After all, a PDE had failed once, here on Exchange Point One, and the station was still recovering from the disaster a hundred and fifty years later. Despite the engineers’ assurances—and they swore it could never happen again, that it had been the strain of trying to open a fifth warp in an already crowded system that had caused the PDE to fail—not one could be entirely certain that they were right.

Heikki shook herself then and turned away, annoyed at having given Retroceder propaganda even that much consideration. She stepped onto the slidewalk that carried arriving passengers toward the center of Point One, swinging her carryall deftly out of the way as barriers rose to either side. The flexible carpet picked up speed, and signs flashed overhead, warning riders to use the handrail to either side. Heikki balanced easily, shutting out the hum of the machinery and the shop displays flickering past outside the barriers. She should deposit the draft from the ProCal job as soon as possible, now that she had access to Loop banks and the better exchange rates they could offer. Even if she had to search a little to find an open console, she’d still have plenty of time before her next train left for EP7.

The end-of-strip lights flashed overhead, breaking her reverie, and a moment later a dulcet mechanical voice repeated the warning. She stepped from the slidewalk as soon as the barriers went down, disdaining the slow-down strip or the grab bars. To her left rose the massive arch that joined the Station Axis to the Travellers’ Concourse, the gleaming, gold-washed metal engraved with the names of the people who’d died in the disaster: Exchange Point One wanted to be certain no one would ever forget her losses. Heikki made a face, and looked away, adjusting the strap of her heavy carryall.

Outside the arch, the Concourse was crowded, as always—Exchange Point One was still the unofficial capital of the Loop’s Southern Line—but Heikki wove her way through the crowd with practiced skill, heading for the massive staircase that led to the Concourse’s upper level. After several weeks in the Precincts, and in the open air, working sea salvage on Callithea, the noise and the faintly chemical smell of an over-worked ventilation system were almost pleasant: this was home, or close to it. Heikki allowed herself a faint, lopsided smile, and took the upward stairs two at a time, dodging a group of giggling tourists whose clothes marked them as inhabitants of the Danae cluster. The first four uni-bank consoles were occupied, lights on and doors blanked. The fifth was empty. Heikki started toward it, then checked, abruptly understanding why. A group of neo-barbarians crouched in an alcove less than three meters away from the cubicle’s door—probably between trains like any other travellers, Heikki knew, but neo-barbs had a deservedly bad reputation on and off the Loop. In the same moment, she saw a florid, soberly dressed man whose high-collared jacket bore half a dozen variations on his corporate logo, obviously hesitating to use the same cubicle. He saw her glance, and sneered slightly. That was enough to make the decision for her. This was EP1, the Travellers’ Concourse of EP1, not some planetary spaceport. If the neo- barbs were stupid enough to start something, the securitrons would be on them in an instant.

Even as she thought that, the group in the alcove stirred uneasily, scowling down the length of the Concourse and murmuring to themselves. One of the Point’s security teams, a half-armored human and his mechanical enforcer, was making its leisurely way along the walk. The neo-barbs pushed themselves to their feet, the single woman tugging nervously at her greasy skirt, the three men hastily collecting their heavy, shapeless bags, and started back toward the station axis. Heikki waited a moment longer, then stepped into the cubicle, ignoring the veiled annoyance of the florid man. As she latched the door, lights faded on inside, while the clear material of the door darkened to opacity behind her.

Like most people who did business both on the Loop and in the Precincts, she did her banking through Lloyds/West, with its well-earned reputation for being able to handle any local currency at an acceptable rate. She settled herself in front of the console and keyed Lloyds’ codes into the machine. The screen blanked, the internal mechanisms clicking to themselves, and she leaned back in the little chair to fish her data lens from the outer pocket of her belt. She fiddled with the thick bezel, adjusting the setting to match Lloyds’ privacy codes, then squinted through it as the prompt sequence appeared. She keyed in her personal codes and the serial numbers for the local draft that was the payment for her latest job. Viewed through the lens, the string of numbers was perfectly bright against the dark background; when she opened her other eye, she saw only a blank screen. The machine considered briefly, then signalled its willingness to accept the draft. Heikki fed the embossed datasquare into the port, and watched through the lens while numbers shifted on the screen. The exchange rate was better than she’d expected, almost two Callithean dollars to the pound-of-account. Nodding to herself, she touched the keys that would accept the transaction. The machine beeped twice, and recorded the transfer of 13,128.49 poa, less service fee, from the negotiable draft to the account of Heikki/Santerese, Salvage Proprietors. Even after twenty years in the business, Heikki still smiled a little, seeing the name.

She shook herself then, slipping the data lens back into the belt pocket, and touched more keys to close the terminal and retrieve her access card. The cubicle door swung open, plastic fading again to transparence. The florid man was still waiting for a cubicle, his face prim with disapproval. Heikki hid a grin, and started down the

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