Right to Know by Edward Willett

29 Jul

Here is a short excerpt from the beginning of Right to Know. Read a review of the book at SFRevu.

 

Chapter One

Rick’s Place was crowded when Art stepped through the door, Treena on his arm. But then, everything was crowded in Habitat Twenty: the apartments stacked from deck to skyplate, the four levels of tubewalks, and even the central park, consisting of little more than a few hundred square metres of scraggly grass and a fountain that hadn’t worked in fifteen years. The only thing the habitat had going for it was the beer in Rick’s Place—best beer on the ship, Art was convinced—and Treena, the busty blonde who’d contacted him earlier that day out of the blue with the provocative news that her name had come up in the Conception Draft, that his name was on the list of approved fathers, and that she much preferred to fulfill her reproductive duties through old-fashioned rather than technological means.

 Art was more than willing, and had arranged to meet her. Now they threaded their way through the crowd, nobody paying them any attention. It was another reason he liked Rick’s Place. He’d been going there often enough he was seen as a regular. Nobody cared that every evening his face was plastered on screens all over the ship, reading the shipday’s news. In the mid-Habs and higher there were fancier places where he would have been treated as a celebrity. That could be nice, but sometimes he just wanted to be an ordinary guy interested in ordinary things…like beer. And Treena.

A table had just opened up in the corner; he steered Treena to it. “I’ll get us some drinks,” he said to her, and she smiled. Her nose crinkled adorably and her chest heaved in an interesting fashion, and although her blue eyes were rather vacant, they were certainly pretty. Art smiled back and turned to pick his way to the bar.

 “Rick”—Art had never known if that was his real name or not—had just put a pint of red ale and a fizzy pink cocktail on the bar when Art’s arm was suddenly seized in an iron-like grip and twisted behind him. He gasped in pain as he was frog-marched through the crowd, which scattered in front of him. His unseen assailant smashed him up against the faux-wood wall, right between the dartboards, and growled in his ear, “You’ve got your nerve coming here.”

 The words were carried on a puff of hot breath smelling of fresh beer and old garlic. “Who—” Art began, but got no farther before he was spun around and squeezed up against the wall by a massive arm across his chest, so tightly he could hardly breathe. He blinked at the face just inches from his own. “Pete?” he wheezed.

 His best friend from childhood glowered at him. “This is a place for Shipborn, Stoddard. Shipborn.”

 Art managed to get a breath despite the pressure on his lungs. Beyond Peter’s florid face he saw two beefy guys in nondescript clothes, arms folded, grinning: friends of Peter’s, obviously. The other patrons of Rick’s Place watched with interest, but no apparent inclination to rescue him. The owner looked concerned, though. “You damage anything, you’ll pay for it,” he growled.

Art flicked his eyes back to Peter. “What are you talking about?” he wheezed. “I am Shipborn. You know that. You—” He had to stop as the pressure on his chest increased.

 “You’re a boot-licking jelly-spined mouthpiece for the bloody Council and Crew, that’s what you are!” Peter bellowed. “And you aren’t welcome here!”

 “Look, Peter, why don’t we sit down—I’ll buy you a drink—”

 “I don’t drink with Council or Crew!” But Peter let go of him and stepped back. “Come on, Stoddard, we’ve put this off long enough. Let’s settle it!”

 Art took a couple of deep breaths and pressed the heel of his hand into his aching chest. “Settle what?” he said, honestly bewildered. He’d come in here, minding his own business, looking for a little relaxation after a hard day spent sweltering in the rain forest in Hab Six trying to get some decent video of dead fish, and now…

 Over Pete’s shoulder he saw Treena downing a drink he certainly hadn’t bought for her, and talking to a tall young man in tight blue coveralls. He wore the gold star of an approved reproductive partner, just like Art. Art groaned and turned his attention back to his erstwhile friend. “Pete, what’s this all about?”

 “I see you,” Pete said. “Every night. You in your nice suit. You in your fancy studio. Living up in Habitat Three. We played together as kids. I was every bit as good as you at everything. Better at most things. And you’re up there,” he pointed toward the ceiling, “and I’m down here.” He waved his hand vaguely to encompass the bar and presumably the entire habitat. “And you know what they’ve got me doing? Scrubbing hydro tanks. Robot work.” His fists clenched.

 Art flushed, and fought to keep his temper. He didn’t want a fight—not with anyone, but especially not with Peter. Peter was—had been—his best friend. As kids they’d once promised they’d be friends all their lives. “Look, Peter, you’re right, it’s not fair. I just got lucky, that’s all. It could just as easily have been the other way around.” If your father were on the Council and could pull the strings necessary to get you a job like mine, he thought, instead of a crazy drunk who managed the impossible task of getting himself killed by a maintenance robot. And speaking of crazy drunks… “Let me buy you a drink and we’ll—”

 “I don’t want a drink! You think you can buy anything, don’t you? You think you’ve got it all—fancy clothes, money—lots of money—and girls. Lots of girls. You always got a girl, Art.”

He glanced at Treena. She wasn’t paying any attention to them; she only had eyes for the tall young man, who had now folded himself into the seat Art should have already been occupying, beer in hand.

Art felt a surge of anger at the sight. This has gone on long enough. He didn’t try to keep the contempt out of his voice. “Would you like me to find you a girl, Pete? Is that what you need?”

Peter’s face darkened even more. “I don’t need anything from you, Mister Stoddard,” he said as distinctly as alcohol would let him. “Except the pleasure of smashing your pretty face in. We’ll

see how much good you are to the Council after—”  

“So go ahead! Smash my face in. And then what happens to you? It won’t be hydro tanks any more. It will be sewage tanks. Or prison.”

 “You can’t scare me!” But Peter’s eyes narrowed, and behind him, his two friends exchanged worried looks.

 “I am the Information Dissemination Specialist: Civilian,” Art said coldly. “You are a…what? Manual Laborer, Fourth Class? A ‘make-work jerk’?” It was a term of contempt, and Art made sure his voice dripped with it. “Just which do you think is of more importance to the workings of the ship, old friend?”

 “You little shit!” Peter lunged at him, but his friends grabbed his arms and held him back.

 “He’s not worth it, Pete,” one said urgently. “You heard him. You touch him and he’ll have the ’keeps on you. He’s practically Crew!”

 Art had not moved and he said nothing, but his anger drained away and his stomach churned as he looked at Peter’s rage-twisted face; then Peter shoved his companions away, straightened and turned his back contemptuously on Art. Art glanced around the room. No one would meet his eyes; even Rick turned away and busied himself with mixing drinks. The juke started cranking out the latest syrupy synthotune.

 Art went back to the long faux-oak bar, where the drinks he’d bought still waited. Peter’s right, he thought sickly. I shouldn’t come here anymore. He drank deeply of his ale, the hand holding the glass trembling slightly. It was time to find some other place to drink—someplace where he was still wanted. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” he muttered, and drained his glass. Then he tossed back the pink cocktail, made a face at its burning sweetness, and turned to leave.

 A cool touch on his hand stopped him. He looked back and down into Treena’s blue eyes. “Not going without me, I hope?” she murmured.

 He blinked, surprised. “I thought—” he looked over her shoulder. “That tall guy—”

 “Not my type,” Treena said.

 “He bought you a drink.”

 She shrugged. “I never turn down a free drink. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

 Art laughed, suddenly feeling better. “With pleasure.” The cost of the drinks had been automatically deducted from his account the moment he’d ordered them; he left the empty glasses on the bar, took Treena’s arm and started toward the door…only to find it blocked by a tall man wearing a disheveled and suspiciously stained suit, his shock of white hair glowing in the light. He’d stumbled to his feet from a booth as they approached, and now stood between them and their escape.

 “Yer a ghoul…good…good lad,” the man wheezed. “Standing up for selsh…self.”

 Art took a deep breath, then wished he hadn’t as the reek of whiskey and onions filled his nose. He swallowed to keep from gagging and said, “Councilor Woods. You shouldn’t be here. Where are your bodyguards?”

 Woods drew himself up. “Don’t need ’em. People love me. Fav’rite Councilor. Four years running. Puke a pup…I mean, look it up.” He poked a finger into Art’s chest, and then weaved away toward the bar.

Art sighed, shook his head, and led Treena outside. They emerged into a narrow roadway with four-story stacks of apartments on either side, light gleaming in hundreds of windows, rising up to the skyplate, itself dark except for the pinpricks of light intended to simulate the stars as seen from Earth. Never having seen Earth—never having set foot on any planet—Art didn’t have a clue if the effect was accurate or not. His father and the others of the Originals said it was, and he supposed they would know. Unlike them, though, he never thought of those lights as stars. They were nothing but low-energy/high-output LEDs, and unless he missed his guess, about half of the ones that should have been shining up there were burned out.

 Something skittered past them down the pale ceramic pavement, a silvery globe with four jointed spider-legs and four manipulator arms: one of the ubiquitous maintenance robots. Art had once been told that on a ship the size of the Mayflower II a part failed every three seconds. A dozen micro-factories utilizing 3D printing technology recycled old parts and churned out new ones, and a thousand robots scurried around the habitats fixing and replacing, and yet…

 And yet, the LED constellations overhead had dozens of blank spots, the fish were dying in the tropical rainforest habitat, and every day other stories of breakdowns and failures crossed Art’s desk…

 Crossed his desk, and fell into the black hole of silence imposed by the Council and Crew on any news of problems with ship maintenance.

 Art sighed. He looked up at the skyplate again and tried to imagine what it must be like to walk the surface of a planet with nothing between him and space but a few insubstantial kilometres of gases. He’d watched hundreds of ancient entertainments, “films” and TV shows and holographic soap operas, and though to him the Mayflower II had always been home and world combined, sometimes he longed for the wonders of those long-gone days, for mountains and oceans and skyscrapers and a vast blue sky of air —

 —for room; room enough to escape the constant press of — People like Peter. “Bastard,” he muttered. 

 “Was he really a friend of yours?” Treena asked. In the cool darkness she seemed much younger than she had in the overheated bar.

Art put his arm around her and she snuggled close. “He was my best friend, once. But we—drifted apart.” He started walking, away from Rick’s Place, from Peter, and from memories.

 “Because he’s a ‘make-work jerk’ and you’re—”

 “I shouldn’t have said that,” Art muttered.

 “But that’s why, isn’t it?”

 “Yeah, but I still shouldn’t have said it.”

 “Why not?”

 “I pulled rank on him.” He shook his head. “That’s a Council trick. A Crew trick.”

 “That’s all right,” Treena said brightly. “You practically are Crew.”

 He almost hit her. Instead he stopped, there on the ceramic street, until he could say, gently, “I’m not. I’m Shipborn. Like him. Like you.”

 “But—”

 “Don’t talk.” Art roughly pulled her close. “Haven’t we got better things to do than talk?”

 She nodded and smiled, back on familiar ground. “Where—”

 As if there were any choice. He could no more take her to his home in Habitat Three then he could have fixed the matter/antimatter reactor that powered the ship. “Your place,” he said, and let her lead him away into the artificial night.

 

You can buy the entire book here or here or here or wherever science fiction is sold and the e-book here or here or here.

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