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THE OTHER SIDE OF JORDAN

ALLEN STEELE

Two-time Hugo Award winner Allen Steele is the author of the novels Orbital Decay, Lunar Descent, Chronospace, Spindrift, and many others. Over the last several years, hes been focusing on writing and expanding his Coyote milieu, of which this story is a part. The most recent novel in the Coyoteverse, Coyote Horizon, came out in March, and will be followed by Coyote Destiny.

Steele is also a prolific writer of short fiction, with four published collections, and a new one The Last Science Fiction Writer on the way. His stories have appeared in the magazines Asimovs Science Fiction, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Omni, Science Fiction Age, and in numerous anthologies.

The Other Side of Jordan is a simple tale of love lost and found, played out upon a galactic scale, with aliens and cosmic megastructures aplenty, not to mention a nice-sized helping of that good old sense of wonder.

Jordan and I broke up on the docks of Leeport, about as lovely a place as you can have for the end of an affair. It was a warm summer evening in Hamaliel, with sailboats on the water and Bearthe local name for Ursae Majoris 47-Bhovering above the West Channel. Wed gone down to the waterfront to have dinner at a small bistro that specialized in grilled brownhead fresh from the fishing net, but even before the waiter brought us the menu the inevitable arguments had begun. There had been a lot of those lately, most of them about issues too trivial to remember but too important to ignore, and even though we settled the matter, nonetheless the quarrel caused us to lose our appetites. So we skipped dinner and instead ordered a bottle of waterfruit wine, and by the time wed worked our way through the bottle, she and I decided that it was time to call it quits.

By then, it had become apparent that we werent in love. Mutual infatuation, yes. We had the strong passions that are both the blessing and the curse of the young, and Jordan and I never failed to have a good time in bed. Yet desire was not enough to keep us together; when it came right down to it, we were very different people. Shed been born and raised on Coyote, a third-generation descendant of original colonists; I was an 'emigr'e from Earth, one the gringos whod managed to escape the meltdown of the Western Hemisphere Union before the hyperspace bridge to the old world was destroyed. She came from money; Id been a working man all my life. She was a patron of the arts; my idea of a good time was a jug of bearshine and a hoot-and-holler band down at the tavern. She was quiet and reserved; I couldnt keep my mouth shut, even when it was in my best interests to do so.

But most importantand this was what really brought things to a headshe was content to live out the rest of her life on Coyote. Indeed, Jordans ambitions extended no farther than inheriting her familys hemp plantationwhere wed met in the first place, much to her parents disapproval, since I was little more than a hired handwhile having a platoon of children. I was only too willing to help her practice the art of making babies, but the thought of everything to follow made my heart freeze. After five years on Coyotefifteen by Earth reckoning, long enough for me to have allegedly became an adultI wanted to move on. Now that the starbridge had been rebuilt and the Coyote Federation had been tentatively accepted as a member of the Talus[1] , humankind was moving out into the galaxy. There were worlds out there that no human had ever seen before, along with dozens of races whom wed just met. This was my calling, or at least so I thought, and the last thing I wanted to do was settle down to a dull life of being husband and father.

So we broke up. It wasnt hostile, just a shared agreement that our romance had gone as far as it could go, and perhaps it would be better if we no longer saw each other. Nonetheless, I said something that Id later regret: I called her a rich girl who liked to slum with lower-class guys, which was how Id secretly come to regard her. Im surprised she didnt dump her glass over my head. But at least we managed to get out of the restaurant without causing a scene; a brief hug, but no kisses, then we went our separate ways.

The next morning, I quit my job at the plantationher father couldnt have been more pleasedthen went back to my apartment to pack my bags and turn in the key to the landlady. By the end of the day, I was aboard the Leeport ferry, on my way to the New Brighton spaceport.

I thought I was done with Jordan, and that Id never see her again. But some women cast a spell that cant easily be broken.

It wasnt hard to land a job as a spacer. The Federation merchant marine was always looking for a few good people, so long as you were smart enough to fill out the application form, were reasonably fit, and didnt have any outstanding arrest warrants. No experience necessary; you trained on the job, although the wash-out rate was high enough that the probation clause of the employment contract was invoked more often than not. But the pay was good, and the benefits included full health coverage, two weeks paid vacation, performance bonuses, and even a retirement plan.

When Starbridge Coyote was destroyed[2] , it was at the height of the refugee crisis, with as many as a dozen ships arriving from Earth each and every day. After the starbridge went down, those ships were effectively stranded in the 47 Uma system, with no way home. The Coyote Federation laid claim to those vessels and reflagged them, and once the starbridge was rebuiltwith the technological assistance of the hjadd[3] , whose emissaries had been marooned on Coyote as wellthe Federation now had in its possession a merchant fleet consisting of everything from passenger ships and freighters to a wide assortment of landers and shuttles.

Yet when the hjadd offered a helping hand, theyd carefully attached a string or two. Although theyd come to respect the humans on Coyote, they were also aware that the individual whod caused the starbridges destruction was from Earth, and this was just one more reason for them to regard the cradle of humanity with considerable distrust. So they made a major stipulation: the rebuilt starbridge could be used for travel to any world in our corner of the galaxy except Earth. Or at least until the High Council of the Talus, to which the hjadd belonged, determined that Earth no longer posed a threat to other starfaring races. And if the Federation didnt like it, the hjadd could always withdraw their ambassadors, shut down their embassy on New Florida, and leave Coyote once and for all, slamming the door into hyperspace behind them. Theyd reconstructed the starbridge, sure...but they also knew how to disable it so that no ships could pass through it without their permission.

To be sure, quite a few people objected to being cut off from Earth. Yet a surprisingly large majority supported the hjadds decision. Ever since the unexpected arrival of the first Western Hemisphere Union starship, four years after the Alabama party set foot on Coyote, and the military occupation that followed, Earth had been little but trouble for the colonies. The refugee crisis had been only the latest example of how the folks back home were using and abusing the new world, with little but a supply of trade goods to show for it. But if the Talus was willing to make up for this shortfall with a new source of vital materials...well, why bother with Earth at all?

So Coyote had become the latest partner in a galactic network of commerce and cultural exchange, with vessels constantly coming and going through the starbridge, bound for distant worlds whose very existence had been unknown until only a few years ago. And those ships needed crews. The fleet already had plenty of captains and first officers and navigators and engineers; those guys had come with their vessels, and their jobs essentially remained unchanged. But someone had to load cargo, repair hull plates, scrub decks, cook meals, clean toilets, and otherwise perform all the menial tasks to go with running a starship...and thats how guys like me earned our paychecks.

After I passed through a four-week boot camp and earned my union card, I became a Payload Specialist Third Class, which is a polite way of saying that I was a cargo rat. My first billet was aboard the Lady Amelia, a jovian-class freighter that made regular runs out to a planet in the HD 114386 system, locally known as...well, Im not going to try to it spell the name of the place; you couldnt pronounce it anyway. The inhabitants called themselves the arsashi, and they had a use for the mountain briar our loggers cut in the highlands of Great Dakota. So I spent a couple of days loading lumber aboard a pair of payload containers, and once the containers were lifted into orbit and attached to the Lady Amelia, off we went to the Puppis constellation.

I didnt see much of the arsashi homeworld. A small planet the color of ear-wax in orbit around a white dwarf, its atmosphere had too much ammonia and too little nitrogen for it to be habitable by humanswhich is, indeed, the case for most worlds of the Talus. Yet the natives were friendly enough for a race of eight-foot tall, bug-eyed yeti; once my fellow rats and I unloaded five tons of wood, the arsashi did their best to make Amelias crew as comfortable as possible, even putting us up for the night in a small dome suitable for humans. Their food was indigestible, but at least we had a nice view of a nearby shield volcano. Which, so far as I could tell, was the only thing on their planet worth seeing.

I stayed aboard Amelia for the next six months, Coyote time, long enough to make five more trips to HD 114386. By then, Id ended my probation period and had been promoted to Payload Specialist Second Class. I was tired of the arsashi and their dismal little wad of a planet, so after that last run, I gave up my billet to another spacer and went in search of a new job.

This time, I lucked out: the next available post for a cargo rat was aboard the Pride of Cucamonga, the freighter that made history by undertaking the first trade expedition to Rho Coronae Borealis. Word had it that, if you were fortunate enough to crew aboard the Pride, then you could get a job anywhere in the fleet. As things turned out, the Prides cargomaster was about to take maternity leave, and Captain Harkerhimself a near-legendary figureneeded someone to fill her position. I was barely qualified for the job, but the letter of recommendation that the Lady Amelias captain had written on my behalf went far to ease his reluctance. So I managed to get one of the choice jobs in the merchant marine.

Cargo for the Pride of Cucamonga was cannabis sativa, but that wasnt the only thing we brought with us. The Talus races opened trade with Coyote for our raw materials, yet it wasnt long before we learned that they were willing to pay better for something else entirely. Not our technology; with the exception of seawater desalinization, for which the sorenta gave us negative-mass drive, anything humans had invented, the aliens had long since perfected.

To our surprise, what they liked the most about us was our culture.

The nord enjoyed our music. They didnt think much of Mozart or Bach, and thought jazz was boring, but they liked bluegrass and were absolutely wild about traditional Indian music; apparently both the banjo and the sitar sounded much like their own instruments, only different. The sorenta were fascinated by our art, the more abstract the better, and didnt mind very much if what we brought them were copies of Pollock, Kandinksy, or Mondrian. The kuatah were interested in nature films; Coyotes surface gravity and atmospheric density meant that theyd never set foot on our world, but they loved seeing vids of the plants and animals wed found there.

As for the hjadd...the hjadd were intrigued by our literature. Theyd learned how to translate most of our major languages long before humans actually made contact with thema long story that I shouldnt need to repeatso they read everything we brought them, from Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley to 20th century potboilers to The Chronicles of Prince Rupurt. So not only was the Pride of Cucamonga carrying five thousand pounds of cannabis to Rho Coronae Borealis, but also a comp loaded with novels, stories, and poems by authors as diverse as Jane Austen, John D. MacDonald, Edward E. Smith, and Dr. Seuss...all as another payment for the sophisticated microassemblers that had enabled us to transform log-cabin colonies like Liberty and New Boston into cities the likes of which had never been seen on Earth. Our nanotech was primitive compared to theirs...but then again, theres nothing else in the universe quite like Green Eggs and Ham.[4]

We never actually landed on Hjarr, of course. No non-hjadd ever had, with the sole exception of the chaazbraan, the Great Teacher of the SaTong. Instead, the Pride once again docked at Talus quaspah, the immense space colony in orbit above Hjarr that served as one of the major rendezvous points for the Talus races. This was the first time Id visited the House of the Talus, the place from which Id embark on a journey that would eventually bring me to Hex.

But before then, Id send a letter home.


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