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Steal Across the Sky

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Steal Across the Sky

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Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tor, 2009

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The aliens appeared one day, built a base on the moon, and put an ad on the internet:

"We are an alien race you may call the Atoners. Ten thousand years ago we wronged humanity profoundly. We cannot undo what has been done, but we wish humanity to understand it. Therefore we request twenty-one volunteers to visit seven planets to Witness for us. We will convey each volunteer there and back in complete safety. Volunteers must speak English. Send requests for electronic applications to"

At first, everyone thought it was a joke. But it wasn't.

This is the story of three of those volunteers, and what they found on Kular A and Kular B.



"Well," Cam said, rising on her toes and leaning toward the bridge's main screen, "there they are."

Lucca, despite the tightness in his throat, was startled into laughter. All the hoping to be chosen for this insane mission, all the agonizing over the Atoners' unknown selection criteria, all the complicated family reactions and media furor and governmental observation, all the tension on the voyage out--and then Cam greets the alien star system with the most mundane understatement possible. And this was Cam, an American who thrived on .amboyance like vineyards on sun. Although perhaps that was the point. Cam was making an uncharacteristic effort to be careful.

Soledad scowled. Lucca understood: Soledad had to be viewing the Kular System with mixed emotions. She was the alternate Witness, and neither Lucca nor Cam had died on the trip to Kular. Neither had fallen ill, gone insane, changed his or her mind. Cam and Lucca were going down to the twin planets below, and Soledad was not. Nonetheless, Soledad was generous enough to purge the scowl from her face and say, "I wish you both luck." Lucca took her hand and squeezed it.

He didn't touch Cam.

On-screen, Kular A and Kular B sparkled with the magni.cence of the remote. The binary planet system rotated around a common center of gravity, 1.4 AU from their G5 star. At some time in the unimaginable past they had formed from the same dust cloud, and their composition and gravity were similar. That much the Atoners had told their human surrogates.

Neither planet had any moons, although each would dominate the other's sky. On Kular A, the pole end of the one giant continent was obscured by a massive dust storm, but the rest shone clear with blue seas and green .ora. Clouds drifted over the one inhabited continent on B. Or maybe it wasn't the only inhabited continent any longer. The Atoners had not, they said, visited Kular in .ve hundred Terran years. They would never visit it again. That's what human Witnesses were for.

"Let's go to the shuttle bay," Cam said. More mundane speech. But she was right; commonplace words were what was needed right now. Procedural speech, unambiguous speech, careful speech that didn't imply grandiose emotions that could only prove embarrassing later. Speech such as, for instance, I will love you forever.

"Yes," Lucca said carefully, "let's go to the shuttle bay."

Soledad led the way; she was, as of the moment the two shuttles launched, mission coordinator. Cam followed eagerly, looking beautiful as ever but so different in the rough tunic, leggings, and boots that the Atoners had supplied, her wild black hair loose to her shoulders. He was used to her in inexpensive American clothes, trashy and sexy. But then, he probably looked just as outlandish to her. Only Soledad, her stocky body clothed in jeans and a sweater, looked normal.

Lucca trailed the two young women, glancing back once more at Kular A. In a few more hours he would be down there, a Witness for the Atoners of Neu, a part of the aliens' grand, remorseful, incomprehensible program to repent of long- ago sins against humanity, sins that humans themselves hadn't even known had been committed.

It started to go wrong the minute the shuttle hit the atmosphere. Insertion was supposed to happen with the same minimum disruption to passengers as all the other Atoner craft. Lucca didn't understand Atoner engineering--nobody on Earth understood it--but he'd been assured that the shuttle would go down "smooth as good chocolate." He'd been so startled to hear that phrase from the Atoner in the Dome on the moon--what did the Atoners know about chocolate? They must have learned the words from American tele vi sion. Smooth as good chocolate.

Lucca screamed as he was .ung violently against his webbed restraints. The shuttle lurched crazily. On the commlink Soledad shouted, "Lucca! Lucca!" but he couldn't answer her. Pressure closed his throat, burst capillaries in his eyes, took his ability to speak or move. I'm going to die--Ave Maria, piena di grazia...

Later, he would not remember that he had prayed.

Hewasn't dead,even though the shuttle was now silent as the grave, and as dark. Lucca hung upside down in his webbing. His eyes burned and his left leg ached. But pressure no longer tortured him, and he was able to free his arms.

"Soledad?" he said aloud. No answer; the shuttle commlink wasn't functioning. E che cazzo. He fumbled inside his rough woolen tunic for the portable commlink on his belt. "Soledad?"

Barely any delay; the Atoner ship empty of Atoners orbited only three hundred klicks above the planet. "Lucca! What happened? Are you all right?"

"The shuttle crashed, I think. Or not exactly crashed--" If it had, he'd be dead. "--but came down too hard. Something malfunctioned. Where am I?"

"About a thousand klicks north of where we'd planned. At the southern edge of the dust storm, actually. Are you hurt?"

"No, I... yes." Lucca unfastened the last of his webbing and fell to the ceiling of the shuttle, which was now the .oor. It took all his effort not to scream again. "I think my leg is broken."

Soledad swore in Spanish. "Shall I come and get you?"

"No!" Abort now? He had been on Kular less than ten minutes! "I'm going to use the med kit to set my leg. Call you when I have anything to report." He thrust the commlink back into his hidden belt, his .ngers brushing bare skin. All at once that brought up an image of Cam, naked in his bunk aboard the ship, which in turn brought up an image of Gianna, equally naked.

Not now.

The med kit was stored during .ight in a metal cabinet now so twisted and smashed that Lucca couldn't get it open. Several minutes of groping in the dark determined that. All at once panic, the genuine unlovely thing, split his heart down its center seam. He hit the controls for the shuttle door, then pulled and pushed at it, but it wouldn't open. He was trapped, a sardine in an alien can whose workings he did not understand.

Cam carried a laser gun. Lucca could have had one as well, but he'd refused all weaponry even though he was far more pro.cient with .rearms than was Cam. The Atoners had agreed without comment. But the Atoners hadn't imagined him trapped in a prison of their own making.

Or had they? Surely aliens with the technology for star travel must have made that technology trustworthy? If they could adapt ship controls and screens for human use, if they could send those humans light-years away in weeks, then they could...

No. This was an accidental malfunction.

He pushed away the paranoia and splinted his broken leg with the arm of his chair, which twisted off more easily than he expected. The Atoner implants in his body released painkillers and, he assumed, healing meds as well. From a cabinet not twisted shut Lucca extracted and ate some protein bars. He checked the commlink, personal shield, and translator, each in its separate tiny pouch on the belt under his tunic. And then, since there was nothing else to do, he waited in the dark.

An hour passed.

Then another.

Or maybe not--it was dif.cult to judge in total darkness. But he knew the passage of time by the deepening blackness in his soul.

This was his real enemy, and it didn't come from being trapped in an alien machine, on a mission he could never have imagined...

Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Kress


Steal Across the Sky

- shanaqui
Steal Across the Sky - Nancy Kress

- valashain


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