Caroline J. Cherryh

Downbelow Station


Chapter One

Earth and Outward: 2005-2352

The stars, like all man’s other ventures, were an obvious impracticality, as rash and improbable an ambition as the first venture of man onto Earth’s own great oceans, or into the air, or into space. Sol Station had existed profitably for some years; there were the beginnings of mines, the manufacturies, the power installations in space which were beginning to pay. Earth took them for granted as quickly as it did all its other comforts. Missions from the station explored the system, a program far from public understanding, but it met no strong opposition, since it did not disturb the comfort of Earth.

So quietly, very matter of factly, that first probe went out to the two nearest stars, unmanned, to gather data and return, a task in itself of considerable complexity. The launch from station drew some public interest, but years was a long time to wait for a result, and it passed out of media interest as quickly as it did out of the solar system. It drew a great deal more attention on its return, nostalgia on the part of those who recalled its launch more than a decade before, curiosity on the part of the young who had known little of its beginning and wondered what it was all about. It was a scientific success, bringing back data enough to keep the analysts busy for years… but there was no glib, slick way to explain the full meaning of its observations in layman’s terms. In public relations the mission was a failure; the public, seeking to understand on their own terms, looked for material benefit, treasure, riches, dramatic findings.

What the probe had found was a star with reasonable possibilities for encouraging life; a belt of debris, including particles, planetoids, irregular chunks somewhat under planet size with interesting implications for systemic formation, and a planetary companion with its own system of debris and moons… a planet desolate, baked, forbidding. It was no Eden, no second Earth, no better than what existed in the sun’s own system, and it was a far journey to have gone to find that out. The press grappled with questions it could not easily grasp itself, sought after something to give the viewers, lost interest quickly. If anything, there were questions raised about cost, vague and desperate comparisons offered to Columbus, and the press hared off quickly onto a political crisis in the Mediterranean, much more comprehensible and far bloodier.

The scientific establishment on Sol Station breathed a sigh of relief and with equal quiet caution invested a portion of its budget in a modest manned expedition, to voyage in what amounted to a traveling miniature of Sol Station itself, and to stay a time making observations in orbit about that world.

And very quietly, to further imitate Sol Station, to test manufacturing techniques which had built Earth’s great second satellite… in stranger conditions. Sol Corporation supplied a generous grant, having a certain curiosity, a certain understanding of stations and what profits could be looked for from their development

That was the beginning.

The same principles which had made Sol Station practical made the first star-station viable. It needed a bare minimum of supply in biostuffs from Earth… mostly luxuries to make life more pleasant for the increasing number of techs and scientists and families stationed there. It mined; and as its own needs diminished, would send back the surplus of its ores… so the first link in the chain was made. No need, no need at all, that first colony had proven, that a star have a world friendly to humans, no need even for a moderate sun-type star… just the solar wind and the usual accompanying debris of metals and rock and ice. One station built, a station module could be hauled to the next star, whatever it was. Scientific bases, manufacture: bases from which the next hopeful star could be reached; and the next and the next and the next. Earth’s outward exploration developed in one narrow vector, one little fan which grew at its broader end.

Sol Corporation, swollen beyond its original purpose and holding more stations than Sol itself, became what the star-stationers called it: the Earth Company. It wielded power… certainly over the stations which it directed long-distance, years removed in space; and power on Earth too, where its increasing supply of ores, medical items, and its possession of several patents were enormously profitable. Slow as the system was in starting, the steady arrival of goods and new ideas, however long ago launched, was profit for the Company and consequent power on Earth. The Company sent merchant carriers in greater and greater numbers: that was all it needed to do now. The crews which manned those ships on the long flights grew into an inward-turned and unique way of life, demanding nothing but improvement of equipment which they had come to think of as their own; station in turn supported station, each shifting Earth’s goods a step further on to its nearest neighbor, and the whole circular exchange ending up back on Sol Station where the bulk of it was drained off in high rates charged for biostuffs and such goods as only Earth produced.

Those were the great good days for those who sold this wealth: fortunes rose and fell; governments did; corporations took on more and more power, and the Earth Company in its many guises reaped immense profits and moved the affairs of nations. It was an age of restlessness. Newly industrialized populations and the discontents of every nation set out on that long, long track in search of jobs, wealth, private dreams of freedom, the old lure of the New World, human patterns recapitulated across a new and wider ocean, to stranger lands.

Sol Station became a stepping-off place, no longer exotic, but safe and known. The Earth Company flourished, drinking in the wealth of the star-stations, another comfort which those who received it began to take for granted.

And the star-stations clung to the memory of that lively, diverse world which had sent them, Mother Earth in a new and emotion-fraught connotation, she who sent out precious stuffs to comfort them; comforts which in a desert universe reminded them there was at least one living mote. The Earth Company ships were the lifeline… and the Earth Company probes were the romance of their existence, the light, swift exploration ships which let them grow more selective about next steps. It was the age of the Great Circle, no circle at all, but the course which the Earth Company freighters ran in constant travel, the beginning and end of which was Mother Earth.

Star after star after star… nine of them — until Pell, which proved to have a livable world, and life.

That was the thing which cancelled all bets, upset the balance, forever.

Pell’s Star, and Pell’s World, named for a probe captain who had located it — finding not alone a world, but indigenes, natives.

It took a long time for word to travel the Great Circle back to Earth; less for word of the find to get to the nearer star-stations… and more than scientists came flocking to Pell’s World. Local station companies who knew the economics of the matter came rushing to the star, not to be left behind; population came, and two of the stations orbiting less interesting stars nearby were dangerously depleted, ultimately to collapse altogether. In the burst of growth and the upheaval of building a station at Pell, ambitious people were already casting eyes toward two farther stars, beyond Pell, calculating with cold foresight, for Pell was itself a source of Earthlike goods, luxuries — a potential disturbance in the directions of trade and supply.

For Earth, as word rode in with arriving freighters… a frantic haste to ignore Pell. Alien life. It sent shock waves through the Company, touched off moral debates and policy debates in spite of the fact that the news was almost two decades old — as if they could set hand now to whatever decisions were being made out there in the Beyond. It was all out of control. Other life. It disrupted man’s dearly held ideas of cosmic reality. It raised philosophical and religious questions, presented realities some committed suicide rather than face. Cults sprang up. But, other arriving ships reported, the aliens of Pell’s World were not outstandingly intelligent, nor violent, built nothing, and looked more like lower primates than not, brown-furred and naked and with large, bewildered eyes.

Ah, earthbound man sighed. The human-centered, Earth-centered universe in which Earth had always believed had been shaken, but quickly righted itself. The isolationists who opposed the Company gathered influence and numbers in reaction to the scare — and to a sudden and marked drop in trade.

The Company was in chaos. It took long to send instructions, and Pell grew, out of the Company’s control. New stations unauthorized by the Earth Company sprang into existence at farther stars, stations called Mariner and Viking; and they spawned Russell’s and Esperance. By the time Company instructions arrived down the line, bidding now-stripped nearer stations take this and that action to stabilize trade, the orders were patent nonsense.

In fact, a new pattern of trade had already developed. Pell had the necessary biostuffs. It was closer to most of the star-stations; and star-station companies which had once seen Earth as beloved Mother now saw new opportunities, and seized them. Still other stations formed. The Great Circle was broken. Some Earth Company ships kited off to trade with the New Beyond, and there was no way to stop them. Trade continued, never what it had been. The value of Earth’s goods fell, and consequently it cost Earth more and more to obtain the one-time bounty of the colonies.

A second shock struck. Another world lay Beyond, discovered by an enterprising merchanter… Cyteen. Further stations developed — Fargone and Paradise and Wyatt’s, and the Great Circle stretched farther still.

The Earth Company took a new decision: a payback program, a tax of goods, which would make up recent losses. They argued to the stations of the Community of Man, the Moral Debt, and the burden of gratitude.

Some stations and merchanters paid the tax. Some refused it, particularly those stations beyond Pell, and Cyteen. The Company, they maintained, had had no part in their development and had no claim on them. There was a system of papers and visas instituted, and inspections called for, bitterly resented by the merchants, who viewed their ships as their own.

More, the probes were pulled back, tacit statement that the Company was putting an official damper on further growth of the Beyond. They were armed, the swift exploration ships, which they had always been, venturing as they did into the unknown; but now they were used in a new way, to visit stations and pull them into line. That was bitterest of all, that the crews of the probe ships, who had been the heroes of the Beyond, became the Company enforcers.

Merchanters armed in retaliation, freighters never built for combat, incapable of tight turns. But there were skirmishes between the converted probe ships and rebel merchanters, although most merchanters declared their reluctant consent to the tax. The rebels retreated to the outermost colonies, least convenient for enforcement.

It became war without anyone calling it war… armed Company probes against the rebel merchanters, who served the farther stars, a circumstance possible because there was Cyteen, and even Pell was not indispensible.

So the line was drawn. The Great Circle resumed, exclusive of the stars beyond Fargone, but never so profitable as it had been. Trade continued across the line after strange fashion, for tax-paying merchanters could go where they would, and rebel merchanters could not, but stamps could be faked, and were. The war was

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