Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free

Chapter 1

The shining rim of the planet Rodeo wheeled dizzily past the observation port of the orbital transfer station. A woman whom Leo Graf recognized as one of his fellow disembarking passengers from the Jump ship stared eagerly out for a few minutes, then turned away, blinking and swallowing, to sit rather abruptly on one of the bright cushioned lounge chairs. Her eyes closed, opened, caught Leo’s; she shrugged in embarrassment. Leo smiled sympathetically. Immune himself to the assorted nauseas of space travel, he moved to take her place at the crystal viewport.

Scanty cloud cover swirled in the thin atmosphere far below, barely veiling what seemed excessive quantities of red desert sand. Rodeo was a marginal world, home only to GalacTech mining and drilling operations and their support facilities. But what was he doing here? Leo wondered anew. Underground operations were hardly his field of expertise.

The planet slid from view with the rotation of the station. Leo moved to another port for a view back toward the hub of the station’s wheel, noting the stress points and wondering when they’d last been x-rayed for secretly propagating flaws. Centrifugal g-forces here at the rim where this passenger lounge was situated seemed to be running at about half Earth-standard, a little light perhaps. Deliberately stress-reduced, trouble anticipated in the structure? But he was here for training, they’d said at GalacTech headquarters on Earth, to teach quality control procedures in free fall welding and construction. To whom? Why here, at the end of nowhere? “The Cay Project” was a singularly uninformative title for his assignment.

“Leo Graf?”

Leo turned. “Yes?”

The speaker was tall and dark-haired, perhaps thirty, perhaps forty. He wore conservative-fashionable civilian clothes, but a quiet lapel pin marked him as a company man. Best sedentary executive type, Leo decided. The hand he held out for Leo to shake was evenly tanned but soft. “I’m Bruce Van Atta.”

Leo’s thick hand was pale but flecked with brown spots. Crowding forty, sandy and square, Leo wore comfortable red company coveralls by long habit, partly to blend with the workers he supervised, mostly that he need never waste time and thought deciding what to put on in the morning. “Graf”, read the label printed over his left breast pocket, eliminating all mystery.

“Welcome to Rodeo, the armpit of the universe,” grinned Van Atta.

“Thank you,” Leo smiled back automatically. “I’m head of the Cay Project now; I’ll be your boss,” Van Atta amplified. “I requested you personally, y’know. You’re going to help me get this division moving at last, jack it up and light a fire under it. You’re like me, I know, got no patience with deadheads. It was a hell of a job to have dumped on me, trying to make this division profitable—but if I succeed, I’ll be the Golden Boy.”

“Requested me?” Cheering, to think that his reputation preceded him, but why couldn’t one ever be requested by somebody at a garden spot? Ah, well… “They told me at HQ that I was being sent out here to give an expanded version of my short course in non-destructive testing.”

“Is that all they told you?” Van Atta asked in astonishment. At Leo’s affirmative shrug, he threw back his head and laughed. “Security, I suppose,” Van Atta went on when he’d stopped chuckling. “Are you in for a surprise. Well, well. I won’t spoil it.” Van Atta’s sly grin was as irritating as a familiar poke in the ribs.

Too familiar—oh, hell, Leo thought, this guy knows me from somewhere. And he thinks I know him… Leo’s polite smile became fixed in mild panic. He had met thousands of GalacTech personnel in his eighteen-year career. Perhaps Van Atta would say something soon to narrow the possibilities.

“My instructions listed a Dr. Cay as titular head of the Cay Project,” Leo probed. “Will I be meeting him?”

“Old data,” said Van Atta. “Dr. Cay died last year—several years past the date he should have been forcibly retired, in my opinion, but he was a vice-president and major stockholder and thoroughly entrenched—but that’s blood over the damned dam, eh? I replaced him.” Van Atta shook his head. “But I can’t wait to see the look on your face when you see—come along. I have a private shuttle waiting.”

They had the six-man personnel shuttle to themselves, but for the pilot. The passenger seat molded itself to Leo’s body during the brief periods of acceleration. Quite brief periods; clearly they were not braking for planetary re-entry. Rodeo turned beneath them, falling farther away.

“Where are we going?” Leo asked Van Atta, seated beside him.

“Ah,” said Van Atta. “See that speck about thirty degrees above the horizon? Watch it. It’s home base for the Cay Project.”

The speck grew rapidly into a far-flung chaotic structure, all angles and projections, with confetti-colored lights spangling its sharp shadows. Leo’s practiced eye picked out the clues to its function, the tanks, the ports, the greenhouse filters winking in the sunlight, the size of the solar panels versus the estimated volume of the structure.

“An orbital habitat?”

“You got it,” said Van Atta.

“It’s huge.”

“Indeed. How many personnel would you guess it could handle?”

“Oh—fifteen hundred.”

Van Atta’s eyebrows rose, in slight disappointment, perhaps, at not being able to offer a correction. “Almost exactly. Four hundred-ninety-four rotating GalacTech personnel and a thousand permanent inhabitants.”

Leo’s lips echoed the word, permanent… “Speaking of rotation—how are you handling null-gee de- conditioning in your people? I don’t—” his eyes inventoried the enormous structure, “I don’t even see an exercise wheel. No spinning gym?”

“There’s a null-gee gym. The rotating personnel get a month downside after every three-month shift.”


“But we put the Habitat up there for less than a quarter of the cost of the same volume of living quarters in one-gee spinners.”

“But surely you’ll lose what you’ve saved in construction costs over time in personnel transportation and medical expenses,” argued Leo. “The extra shuttle trips, the long leaves—every retiree who breaks an arm or a leg until the day he dies will be suing GalacTech for the cost of it plus mental anguish, whether he had significant bone demineralization or not.”

“We’ve solved that problem too,” said Van Atta. “Whether the solution is cost-effective—well, that’s what you and I are here to try and prove.”

The shuttle sidled delicately into alignment with a hatch on the side of the Habitat and seated itself with a reassuringly authoritative click. The pilot shut down his systems and unbuckled himself to float past Leo and Van Atta and check the hatch seals. “Ready for disembarking, Mr. Van Atta.”

“Thank you, Grant.”

Leo released his seat restraints, and stretched and relaxed in the pleasureable familiarity of weightlessness. Not for him the unfortunate nauseas of null-gee that sapped the efficiency of so many employees. Leo’s body was ordinary enough, downside; here, where control and practice and wit counted more than strength, he was at last an athlete. Smiling a little to himself, he followed Van Atta from handgrip to hand-grip and through the shuttle hatch.

A pink-faced tech manned a control panel just inside the shuttle hatch corridor. He wore a red T-shirt with the GalacTech logo over his left breast. Tight blond curls cut close to his head reminded Leo of a lamb’s pelt; perhaps it was an effect of his obvious youth.

“Hello there, Tony,” Van Atta greeted him with cheerful familiarity.

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