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That morning’s smoke storm left a greenish haze in the air. Over the course of the day, intermit- tent breezes would scour the fine layer of grit from the reinforced buildings . . . or maybe the weather would do something entirely different. During his decade of exile, planet Hallholme had always been
Tiber Maximillian Adolphus arrived at the Mi- chella Town spaceport, several kilometers from the main settlement, ready to meet the scheduled string- line hauler with its passengers and much-needed cargo. After Lt. Spencer, his driver, parked the ground vehicle in the common area, Adolphus made his way to the crowd that was already gathering.
Seeing him, his old troops offered formal salutes (the discipline was automatic for them); everyone on the colony still referred to him as “the General.” Even the civilian families and penal workers greeted him with real, heartfelt respect, because they knew he had made the best of an impossible situation in this terrible place. Adolphus had single-handedly shown the colony how to survive whatever the world had to throw at them.
The landing and loading area looked like a bustling bazaar as people prepared for the scheduled downboxes from the hauler that had just docked in orbit. Underground warehouse hangars were opened, waiting for the new cargo to fall from the sky. Flatbeds were prepped to deliver perishables directly to Michella Town. The colony merchants were anxious to bid for the new materials. It would be a free-for-all.
Though the spaceport clerks had a manifest of items due to arrive from other Constellation worlds, Adolphus knew those lists were rarely ac- curate. He hoped the downboxes wouldn’t contain another shipment of ice-world parkas or under- water breathing apparatus, which were of no use here.
The persistent mix-ups couldn’t be explained by sheer incompetence. Back on Sonjeera, Diadem Michella made no secret that she would shed no tears should the banished rebel General perish on his isolated colony. And yet he and his people continued to survive.
In the first year here, Adolphus had named the initial planetary settlement Michella Town in her “honor.” The Diadem knew full well it was a veiled insult, but she could not demand that he change the name without looking like a petty fool. A number of locals called the place Helltown, a name they con- sidered more endearing than the other.
“Why the formal uniform today, Tiber?” came a familiar voice from his left. “Looks like you had it cleaned and pressed just for the occasion.”
In the bustle of people anticipating the stringline hauler’s arrival, he had not noticed Sophie Vence. As the colony’s largest distributor of general goods,
Sophie always had a strong claim on arriving ship- ments. And Adolphus liked her company.
He brushed the lapel of his old uniform, touched the medals on his chest, which his followers had given to him even after his defeat. “It stays clean from one occasion to the next, since I wear it so rarely.” He ran his fingers along the tight collar. “Not the proper clothing for this environment.”
Sophie had wavy dark brown hair, large gray eyes, and the sort of skin that looked better without makeup. She was in her early middle age, a decade younger than Adolphus, but she had been through a great deal in her life. Her generous mouth could offer a smile or issue implacable instructions to her workers. “You don’t usually come to meet string- line arrivals. What’s so interesting about this one? You didn’t mention anything last night.” She gave him an endearing smile. “Or were you too preoccupied?”
He maintained his stiff and formal appearance. “One of the Diadem’s watchdogs is on that passenger pod. He’s here to make certain I’m not up to any mischief.”
“You’re always up to mischief.” He didn’t argue with the comment. She continued, “Don’t they realize it’s not much of a surprise inspection if you already know about it?”
“The Diadem doesn’t know that I know. I received a coded message packet from a secret con- tact on Sonjeera.” Plenty of people back in the old government still wished that his rebellion had succeeded.
One of the humming flatbeds pulled up before them in a cloud of alkaline dust, and Sophie’s eighteen-year-old son Devon rolled down the driver’s compartment window. Strikingly good-looking, he had a muscular build and intense blue eyes. He pointed to a cleared area, but Sophie shook her head and jabbed a finger southward. “No, go over there! Our downboxes will be in the first cluster.” Devon accelerated the flatbed over to the indicated area, where he grabbed a prime spot before other flatbeds could nose in.
Work administrators gathered by the colony reception area for the new batch of convicts, fifty of them from a handful of Constellation worlds. Be- cause there was so much to be done on the rugged colony, Adolphus was grateful for the extra laborers. Even after a decade of backbreaking work and growing population, the Hallholme settlements teetered on the razor’s edge of survival. He would put the convicts to work, rehabilitate them, and give them a genuine fresh start – if they wanted it.
He shaded his eyes and gazed into the greenish- brown sky, searching for the bright white lights of descending downboxes or the passenger pod. After locking onto the planet’s lone terminus ring in or- bit, the giant stringline hauler would release one container after another from its framework. When the big ship was empty, the pilot would prepare the hauler’s skeleton to receive the carefully audited upboxes that Adolphus’s colony was required to ship back to Sonjeera as tribute to the Diadem.
Tribute. The very word had jagged edges and sharp points. Among the governors of the fifty-four newly settled Deep Zone colony worlds, Adolphus was not alone in resenting the Constellation’s demand for its share. Establishing a foothold on an exotic planet did not come easily. On most worlds, the native biochemistry was not compatible with Terran systems, so all food supplies, seed stock, and fertilizers had to be delivered from elsewhere. The task was even more difficult on devastated Hallholme.
Thinking back, Adolphus sighed with ever-present regret. He had launched his rebellion for grand societal changes . . . changes that most citizens knew were necessary. And he had come close to winning – very close – but under fire and faced with treachery, he had made the only choice he could live with, the only moral choice, and now he had to live with the consequences of his defeat.
Even so, Diadem Michella couldn’t accept her triumph for what it was. She had never expected the colony to survive the first year, and she didn’t trust Adolphus to abide by the terms of his exile. So, she was sending someone to check on him – again. But this inspector would find nothing. None of them ever did.
A signal echoed across the landing field, and people scurried to get into position. Sophie Vence smiled at him again. “I’d better get busy. The boxes are coming down.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and he flushed. He hated the fact that he couldn’t discipline his own embarrassment.
“Not in public,” he said tersely. “You know that.” “I know that it makes you uncomfortable.” She
flitted away, waving at him. “Later, then.”
As the stringline hauler arrived at the terminus ring above Hallholme, Antonia Anqui found an unoccupied viewport inside the passenger pod and looked down at the planet. The pod was a standard high-capacity model, though not nearly full; few travelers chose this particular destination. No need for crowding at the windows, which was good, since Antonia didn’t want company, conversation, or any attention at all.
The young woman stared through the star-sparkled blackness to the looming globe below. Hallholme looked rugged even from space. This planet had once been lush and hospitable to life, but now it looked mortally wounded. No wonder people called it “Hell- hole.”
But even this was better than Aeroc, the planet she’d fled in desperation. She had ridden the string- line network through the central hub on Sonjeera and back out, taking the transport line as far away from the Crown Jewel worlds as she could go. She only hoped it was far enough to hide and make a new life for herself.
As the stringline hauler docked, loud noises shuddered through the hull of the passenger pod. The hauler itself was little more than a framework on which numerous cargo boxes or passenger pods could be hung like grapes in a cluster. Antonia waited in both anticipation and dread. Almost there, almost free.
One after another, downboxes disengaged from the framework, drifting into lower orbit where they were automatically maneuvered towards the marked expanse of the Michella Town spaceport. Each time a downbox disengaged and fell away, she flinched at the vibration and thud.
Hallholme rotated slowly beneath her, exposing patches of water, empty continents, and finally the inhabited section, not far from the concentric ripples of the impact scar itself. Antonia caught her breath when she saw the huge bull’s-eye where the aster- oid had struck. The shattered crater was filled with glassy shock melt, surrounded by concentric ripples. Canyon-sized cracks radiated outward in a jagged pattern. Oozing lava continued to percolate to the surface through raw scars in the ground. Five centuries meant little on a geologic timescale, and the world was still wrestling with its recovery.
Yes, Hellhole was the last place anyone would think of looking for her.
At nineteen, Antonia knew how to take care of herself better than most adults did. During her past two years on the run, she had learned many ways to elude detection. She knew how to change her identity and appearance, how to get a job that would earn enough money for her to live on without raising questions; she knew how to be afraid, and how to stand up for herself.
Two years ago – a lifetime it seemed – she had been precious and pretty, a creature of social expecta tions, the owner of a fashionable wardrobe with garments for all occasions and any type of weather. She had another name, Tona Quirrie, but that was best forgotten; she would never – could never – use it again. As a debutante on Aeroc, she had flaunted different hairstyles and cuts of clothing because her mother assured her that such things made her beautiful. These days, Antonia did everything possible to make herself less attractive: her dark brown hair hung straight down to her shoulders, and she wore only plain, serviceable clothes.
She was the daughter of the manager of a large power plant on Aeroc, one of the old civilized planets long ruled by the Riomini noble family. They had a very nice home with a large kitchen, a pool in a terrarium room, and a well-tuned piano. Her mother loved music and often played at their special parties, but the best times were when she would withdraw to the conservatory alone, playing classical pieces or evocative, intricate melodies that might have been her own compositions, and Antonia sat in the hall, just listening. She even took lessons, hoping to become as good as her mother someday. Now the music was gone from her life.
When Antonia was seventeen, a dashing young man named Jako Rullins came to work for her father in the power-plant headquarters. At twenty-one, Jako was handsome, intense, clever, and obviously moving up in the world. He quickly made himself indispensible in her father’s work and often came to their home for business meetings, which turned into social occasions.
When Jako fixed his attentions on young Antonia, she had been swept away, and her parents had not objected because they liked the young man. Jako was utterly focused on Antonia whenever they were together.
Four months later, Jako asked Antonia to marry him, and her surprised parents told him to wait, explaining that she was too young, although they encouraged him to continue to court her. Despite being upset by the delay, Jako swore that he would prove his devotion to her. Antonia remembered her father smiling at the promise. “I hope you do exactly that, Mr. Rullins. Just give it time.”
Jako, however, seemed to feel an urgency that Antonia found bewildering. Whenever they were alone, he tried to convince her that they should just escape somewhere, get married, and live their own lives. He was so earnest and optimistic that she almost said yes, but his intensity worried her. Al- though she loved Jako, she saw no reason to hurry. “We’ll still be together in a year, and then we can have the grand wedding I’ve always dreamed of.”
But Jako didn’t want to wait. He grew edgier and more possessive, though he still played the part of a gentleman. A month later, after the pair came home from one of their frequent dates, her world ended in blood and lies . . .
Over the next two years, Antonia learned to mistrust everyone around her. Jako taught her to be that way while the two of them were on the run. Then she escaped from him, too. With a new appearance and identity, she ran to the main Aeroc spaceport, completed an application in the colonization office, and signed aboard the next stringline ship heading for the Deep Zone planets. She didn’t care which one.
The ship was bound for Hellhole.
“Anything to see out there?”
Antonia turned irritably. Next to her stood a grinning, good-humored man she’d noticed on the voyage out from the Sonjeera hub. She feared that he had somehow recognized her or tracked her down, but the man seemed cheery with everyone, blithely jabbering away, pleased with his choice to go to Hallholme.
“All the ports have the same view.” She hoped he would get the hint and go away. He didn’t.
“My name is Fernando – Fernando Neron. We’re about to start a great adventure! And your name is?” Though on her guard, Antonia realized that being too reticent would only raise suspicions. Besides, she’d have to get used to going by her assumed identity, so she decided to start now. “Antonia Anqui,” she said. “Let’s hope it’s an adventure instead of an
“Did you hear that, Vincent?” Fernando waved to another man who had been quiet during the en- tire trip. “She says she hopes it’s an adventure in- stead of an ordeal!”
“I heard her.” The other man nodded, more courteous than open and friendly. He had seemed pre- occupied throughout the journey.
During the four-day stringline crossing, Antonia had kept to herself. Their private sleeping cabins were so tiny and claustrophobic that most passengers spent their days in the passenger pod’s common room, which forced them to get to know one an-other.
Very few of those aboard seemed pleased with their situation. One group, an isolationist religious cult called the Children of Amadin, avoided their fellow passengers even more than Antonia did. The cult members were easily identified by square-cut hair – both men and women – and their baggy, pale blue uniforms, which did not look as though they would hold up in a dirty wilderness environment. Another oddball religious group, looking for the promised land on Hellhole . . . or at least someplace where people would leave them alone.
A group of convicts – men and women sentenced to exile on Hallholme – was kept in a separate compartment; the Constellation liked to wash its hands of such problems and let the Deep Zone administrators deal with them. Other travelers aboard the pod were commercial representatives and government officials, engrossed in their own business and hardly interested in the other passengers.
“So what brings you to a place like Hellhole, young lady? What are you – eighteen, nineteen? And very pretty, not a typical colonist.” Fernando seemed genuinely friendly.
In her years on the run, Antonia had learned never to reveal too much about herself. She tried to be just open enough to sidestep further questions. “Maybe I’ll tell you later. For now, I’d like to enjoy a few moments of quiet. This could be our last bit of calm before we start the hard work.” She made her lips curve upward in what she hoped was a sincere- looking smile.
Fernando laughed and looked over his shoulder again. “Did you hear that, Vincent? She says we’d better enjoy the last few moments of calm.”
“I agree with her.” Vincent took his seat. Without warning, the passenger pod shuddered.
The clamping hooks released them, and the craft began to fall toward the planet.
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