Stories incident on a Small Colony Written by Kristine Smith Illustrated by Lee Kuruganti


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Jim Baen's Universe

Vol 1 Num 4: Dec 2006


Credits, Issue 4

Written by Jim Baen's Universe! Staff

Jim Baen's Universe, Volume 1 Number 4

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this magazine are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2006 by Jim Baen's Universe

A Baen Publishing Enterprises Publication
Jim Baen's Universe
P. O. Box 7488
Moore, OK 73153-1488

ISSN: 1932-0930

"Incident on a Small Colony" Copyright © 2006 by Kristine Smith
"Tesseract" Copyright © 2006 by Tom Brennan
"Alone" Copyright © 2006 by Joe R. Lansdale and Melissa Mia Hall
"Olaf and the Merchandisers" Copyright © 2006 by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronizini
"Murphy's Law" Copyright © 2006 by Doug Smith
"The Big Ice" Copyright © 2006 by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold
"The Nature of Things" Copyright © 2006 by Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff
"Singing Them Back" Copyright © 2006 by Marissa Lingen
"Servants to the Dead" Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Piziks
"Caught Forever Between" Copyright © 2006 by Adrian Nikolas Phoenix
"The Ancient Ones, Part 3" Copyright © 2006 by David Brin
"Slan Hunter, Part 1" Copyright © 2006 by Kevin Anderson and Lydia van Vogt
"Fish Story, Episode 4" Copyright © 2006 by Dave Freer, Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis
"The Girl With the Killer Eyes" Copyright © 2006 by B. B. Kristopher
"Pastry Run" Copyright © 2006 by Nancy Fulda
"Fishing" Copyright © 2006 by Thea Hutcheson
"A Pocket History of Macro-Engineering" Copyright © 2006 by Gregory Benford
"Home is the Hunter" by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction in July 1953

First electronic publication: December 2006

STORIES

Incident on a Small Colony


Written by Kristine Smith
Illustrated by Lee Kuruganti


 

The receiving dock stank of berries.

Raspberries, I think. Jani Kilian stared at the bright pink mess that spilled across the floor in front of her. With a hint of . . . what? Battery hyperacid, judging from the bitter tang. Add to that the melted plastic odor of evaporating sealant, backed by the ever-present undercurrent of stale station air.

Dammit. Above her, the dock alarms whirled like dervishes, sending wave after wave of red light breaking across the walls and ceiling.

Red.

Jani struggled to concentrate as, around her, the very air seemed to throb with color. Six hours for the paperwork. Another day and a half to get it all signed off. All that work for one shattered fifty-kilo drum of flavor concentrate. But it's Family-licensed, and all the containers are tagged. Once you acquired a reputation for losing Family shipments, you could pretty much kiss your business good-bye.

"As if this place had any business to kiss." Pearl Way Lading of Victoria Colony—We Cover the Commonwealth. A bit of an overstatement. Judging from their records, they covered only the six worlds that made up the Pearl Way, and thanks to competition from other companies, both human and Haárin, along with general incompetence, their share of that market had been dropping steadily for years.

It's going to drop even more after word of this gets out. Trashing Family shipments—not the way to build business. Jani paused to wipe away tears with her coverall sleeve, then switched to breathing through her mouth. The muddled stench had made her eyes water, seared the inside of her nose.

"Timas?"

Red. Everywhere she looked, all red—

"Timas?"

Jani bent at the waist and stared at her black boots, their surfaces too scuffed and worn to reflect the pulsing color.

"Timas! You deaf or what!"

Shit—! The shout slammed Jani like a blow—she straightened as though someone had jammed a knee in her back. Timas was a new name—she hadn't gotten used to it yet. Andree Timas. Documents technician. She pushed a hand through her cropped hair, felt the slick sweat that coated her scalp. Sing yourself to sleep with it, moron. "Just trying to figure out the best way to clean this up."

The stevedore stepped in front of her. Royson, his name was, a baby-faced redhead of the sort who turned up at other people's accidents. "Va-cu-um. In-cin-er-ate." He waved a hand in front of her face and enunciated in a slow singsong as though speaking to a child, the cadence accentuated by his New Indies lilt. "Even a paper-pusher should be able to figure that out."

Jani ignored the insult. It was standard dock abuse, and Royson had been lobbing it at her since her arrival three days before. Given some of the things she'd heard on other docks over the past five years, it almost qualified as a compliment. "The stuff's already stained the topcoat." She pushed at the edge of the gelatinous muck with the toe of her boot, revealing the telltale darkening of the floor beneath. "And the crate was a controlled shipment, which means triple the paperwork." She pressed a hand to the back of her neck as the alarm continued to flash, felt the muscles knot. She couldn't turn off the beacon—she hadn't been coded into all of the company systems yet, so she didn't have clearance. And I can't ask Royson to do it. He'd just insult her again, and given her ramping anger, she might not be able to hold back. I hit him, I'm gone. And she'd only just settled in. I can't screw up this job. She needed the money. A place to hide.

A little peace.

"Boy, Maintenance is going to love you." Royson maneuvered between her and the spill, veering in close enough to force her to step back. "The bosses got to get informed and you get to walk upstairs and collect their signatures." He clapped his hands. "Well, better go get those fancy forms out of the drawer and start filling them out." He grinned, his teeth colored pink by the alarm light. "Most action you'll see for the whole week. You might even break a sweat ridin' up and down the lift."

Jani sighed. Three days—guess the honeymoon's over. Time to challenge the new tech, get in her face. See if and when she flinched, how much she could be pushed around. And Royson's the chosen attack dog. She wondered if he'd lost a bet or won it, glanced over her shoulder toward the office compartment in time to see three heads vanish around the corner. We even have an audience. The dispatcher and Royson's two partners on the firstshift floor team.

Turn me loose. A little voice in the back of Jani's head, sensed rather than heard. No one will ever bother you again. The berry stench seemed almost pleasant now. Softer. Less pungent.

"Let's go! Come on!" Royson clapped again, right under her nose, the sound sharp as a shooter crack. Then came the echoes, as though they stood in a cave.

Hit him. The voice whispered, softly as a lover. Make him bleed.

Jani looked into her designated tormentor's eyes. She didn't have to look up to do it—she and Royson appeared matched at about one-eight. As happened with some men, Royson's lack of height advantage seemed to bother him. She watched as he tilted up his chin, furrowed his brow. That first murmur of doubt, rearing its ugly little head. Time to push back.

"Why bother?" Jani shrugged. "I'll let it slide. What's one less accident report? One less ride up and down the lift? Maintenance will ask for their copy when they come to recoat the floor, but hey, I'll lie. Tell 'em it's stuck in sign-off." She took a step forward, then another, forcing Royson back until a wet smack announced the fact that he had stepped into the spill.

"Fuck." Royson edged sideways, dragging the edge of his boot along the floor in an effort to scrape off the pungent mess.

"That's what Maintenance will say when they realize that I lied to them about the report." Jani kept moving forward, jostling against Royson with a knee or a shoulder when he tried to hold his ground or veer to one side or the other. "After a few comport calls, which I'll ignore, and a few visits, which I'll dodge, they'll say 'hell with it' and bump it upstairs to the Transportation annex, which will send an investigator to check and see what happened. That's when they'll discover that not only didn't we file—it becomes the company's fault by that time, not just mine—not only didn't we file the accident report, but we didn't investigate the spilled drum."

"You have to investigate cargo damage." Royson spouted automatically, a point from his training module disgorged on command. "It's the law."

"Screw it." Jani moved to one side, blocking Royson as he again tried to dodge around her. "Failure to investigate is just a Class 4 violation. So what if they send out an auditor from the ministry annex on Padishah? That makes it party time—it'll take a whole station-week for them to get here."

"Wait a minute." Royson stopped in his tracks. A flush as pink as the flavor concentrate crept up his neck. "If we're under investigation—"

"—you don't get paid. Because as a documented employee of Pearl Way Lading, whose reputation would have to rebound into the stratosphere to qualify as crappy, you're part of the 'we,' and we would be under a ministry-ordered shutdown until the auditor completed their investigation." Jani glanced past Royson's shoulder, caught sight of the dock wall a bare stride away, and took one last step forward. "Hope you have another job lined up."

Royson's head jerked as he hit the wall. The flush had claimed his face now, making his cheeks as shiny and pink as candy. "Just because it needs to be done doesn't mean it isn't bullshit." He pressed against the coated concrete as though he wanted to push through the slab to the other side.

Must be my charm. Jani backed off half a step, just enough to give the man a little room to breathe. "Bullshit it may be. But it's bullshit that guarantees you a paychit, so why don't you just keep your opinion of my job to yourself and leave me to get on with it?" She turned and started to walk across the dock toward the office, then stopped as the red walls continued to spin. "And while you're at it, make yourself useful and kill that goddamned alarm."

"All you paper-pushers think you're so hot." Royson slipped past her to the control panel, palmed it open, and smacked one of the pads with his fist. "Two-bit tech, never gets her hands dirty, acts like she's a friggin' examiner." The alarm light stopped.

The red . . . ceased.

"Bitch and moan, bitch and moan." Jani resumed walking, eyes fixed on the floor at her feet. The light might have stopped, but her head—Why is everything still moving so slowly? "Is someone going to own up to this spill, or do I blame it on the redhead?" Her voice reverberated inside her skull. She glanced over at Royson, who glared back at her, his fist still pressed to the alarm pad. "I'll be going to my cube in case anyone wants to talk. Confession time starts in-"—she checked her timepiece—"fifteen minutes." She veered away from the office, heading instead for the dock exit that led to the station innards. "I'll be there with my beads and my holy water and whatever else you think might help you to unburden yourself." She needed a few minutes alone in the dark. Just had to find someplace empty. Quiet.

"Timas?"

Jani spun toward the voice. "What?" She closed her eyes when she saw who had spoken. No, you don't want to give him a reason to wonder about you. "I'll write up the incident report as soon as I get back."

"No rush." Delmen, the dock lead, started to back away from her, then stopped. "You OK?" He cocked his head, voice soft with concern.

Jani hesitated, then nodded. "Just working out some ground rules with the gang." She forced a smile, her facial muscles fighting every twitch.

Delmen grinned. He was young for a lead, no more than thirty, his face unlined, brown skin ashy from the months spent working at the station, four hundred kilometers above the Victorian surface. "Yeah, I heard." His voice was gravelly, but quiet. How he got the stevedores to listen to him was anyone's guess. "So." He looked around Jani toward the spill. "Insurance?"

Jani tried to nod, stopping when the walls started to pulse. "Filed the updated applications yesterday."

"Then we're covered?"

"Maybe." Just breathe. Jani focused on the skin on the backs of her hands. Dark brown, darker than Delmen's, the darkest thing on the dock. Except for Delmen's eyes. They were brown unto black, his pupils almost invisible. But I can't stare at him. He'd think she was after him, and Royson would sniff that out like the dog he was. He'd spread the word that I was after my lead. That always did wonders for one's reputation. "You were two quarters behind with your premiums. I let the company know that it was a case of simple oversight—your last tech had ignored the cancellation notices. You've had no incidents up to this point. The company should accept my explanation, but I have the appeal forms lined up in case they don't. I just need to run up to Transportation and grab some supplemental—" She glanced up to find Delmen staring at her, his hand pressed to his forehead as though his head ached. "What?"

"How do you know all this stuff?" The man let his hand drop and shook his head. "Just wrangle it any way you have to—I'll sign off." He started to walk toward the office compartment, then stopped and turned back to her. "You've been here three station-days. I can see the tops of the desks again. The stacks of paper are disappearing. The comports aren't bleating every ten minutes with an angry somebody or other on the other end." He smiled. "I don't know how we managed without you."

"I don't—" Jani swallowed, felt the blush creep up her neck despite her disorientation. Thank Lord Ganesh for dark skin and bad lighting. "It's my job."

"Maybe." Delmen shrugged, then turned and resumed walking toward the office. "Thanks for doing your job."

Jani watched him walk. Trim build, almost wiry. Nice shoulders. He's shorter than I am. By half a head, at least. He likes my work—I can't mess that up. She felt attracted to him—she could admit that as long as it stopped there. As long as it went no further. Dark hair. She could imagine lacing her fingers through it while Delmen worked that gentle voice, telling her whatever he thought she needed to hear.

She shook herself aware. Delmen had joined Royson by the control box—he did all the talking while Royson stared past him in her direction. Their eyes met. His brow furrowed.

Dammit. Jani strode across the dock, smacked the exit doorpad with the flat of her hand, then shouldered the panel aside when it failed to open quickly enough. The door array bleated in protest. Heads emerged from doorways up and down the corridor. A voice blared from an office at the far end. "What the hell's going on!"

Jani pushed the door closed, then hurried down the hall, past the general mail drop into the women's locker room. That door opened quickly, closed quietly.

Thanks for doing your job. Jani leaned against the wall just inside the door and pressed the heels of her hands to her temples. Anyone seeing her would think she fought a headache, which was as good an excuse as any.

Get a grip. Her eyes stung. How many things had she heard over the years that should have grabbed her heart and twisted, yet hadn't?

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