A Science Fiction Romance set on a colonized planet. The people of Gaia think themselves blessed to be living on the most perfect colony world ever discovered. Now it's threatened by an insubstantial force that turns people and larger animals to dust and all the obvious heroes are dead. That leaves only an unlikely hero and the woman who loves him cannot hold him back. Will he return, and if so, what will he have become?
The Trouble With Heroes... won the Sapphire Award for Best SF Romance, short form, but the award and its web site seem to have disappeared.
Winner of the Sapphire Award for Best Science Fiction Romance, “The Trouble With Heroes” shows why the Romance Writers of American inducted Jo Beverly into their Hall of Fame.
"...a moving exploration of the consequences of war and power on those who fight as well as those left behind."–Romantic Times
"I adored it.... Beverley did a brilliant job of capturing real human emotions in an otherworldly situation."–All About Romance
"...an imaginative and moving allegory about war: those we've fought in the past and those we may fight in the future and on far-off worlds."–Bookloons.com
On peaceful Gaia trouble is stirring near the equator and people are fleeing north, seeking refuge in other communities. Jenny Hart and her friends are trying to come to terms with the concept of refugees, and the incomprehensible danger.
They headed out, but Jenny carried gloom with her, stirred by memories of that scout’s death.
Settlement was always preceded by exploration and the first visitors, the scouts, wore full recording equipment that sent real time data to the ship. New worlds are unpredictable, after all, and corpses don't tell what killed them.
In this case, the data told the tale but left a mystery. Even though the sys-suit recorded 360 degrees, it had shown nothing, absolutely nothing, of what had attacked. The various sensors had recorded no change in air pressure, temperature, or radiation.
The body system readouts, however, had charted extreme stress -- a racing heart, rapid breathing, and sky-high adrenalin and blood pressure. The scout had gasped and expressed terror, but she'd screamed only once, at the point of death. The oblivious sys-suit had kept on recording even when the person inside had become a pile of ash, but it had registered as little after the event as before.
Hostile Amorphic Native Entity. Or as Anglia called them, Blighters.
Jenny could imagine how often that data disk had been viewed and reviewed, but in the end Gaia had been approved for settlement. There'd been no further incidents, and in all other respects it was the best EPP -- Earth Potential Planet -- ever found. Climate, air and water needed little amendment, and it was rich in rare earths to provide economic security. It had even been strangely free of anything close to a sentient species that might complicate ownership. It had no large native species at all.
That still puzzled the scientists, but it had made Gaia perfect.
Yes, Gaia was perfect, but when they returned to the space and bustle of High Wall Street, Jenny sucked in a deep breath. She’d not thought she was claustrophobic.
“Does anyone smell anything funny?” she asked.
“Just the chip shop fat,” Gyrth said. “Look, there’s Dan.”
Jenny turned, suddenly breathing more easily. Dan, and looking normal. Not worried at all. Everything must be all right.
He was in his fixer uniform of brown shirt and trousers, with assorted badges and braid of significance to those who understood, but there was nothing special about his looks. Average build, average height. Brown hair and blue eyes in an average face.
Since he’d returned from training, however, something drew people to him like flies to jam. A fizz in the air, a brighter light, an energy that meant there was never a dull time when Dan was part of a group.
Jenny could feel the fizz now, even though he seemed relaxed, as if this were just another evening in Anglia.
Time to play.
"I wondered where everyone was. Poking around down cracks between buildings?"
"Peering out through arrow slits," Jenny said, hooking arms with him as they all turned to do down the circular staircase to ground level. "And re-analyzing Monty Python. Polly, tell Dan about the monty stuff."
That kept things light and away from blighters for a while. Now, with Dan by her side and showing no sign of concern, Jenny wanted to forget about it all.
But it wasn't so easy. Despite the chatter and laughter that something grated on her like an off note in music. When she and Dan ended up together behind the others, she had to ask. "Are there really more blighter attacks near the equator?"
His look was quick, and perhaps guarded. "Yes, but don't worry. It's all under control."
Leave it. Leave it. But she couldn't. "Then why are people pouring north?"
She thought he wasn't going to answer, but he pulled a face. "You'll hear it on the news soon. Central has recommended that everyone in the affected areas leave until the hellbanes are stamped out. After all, one person ashed is one too many."
He declared it as a trite motto, but Assam caught it and turned back. "Damn right. But the problem won't reach here, will it? Polly can't travel now."
Polly and Gyrth stopped to listen as well. Perhaps they weren't as unconcerned as they looked.
"Blighters have always been more active near the equator," Dan pointed out. "That's why Hellbane U is there, which means there are plenty of fixers on the spot, including the most skilled and experienced. They’ll deal with it."
Jenny relaxed, and Polly said she was too tired to walk and wanted to take a tram and Gyrth went with them.
Jenny and Dan strolled along in comfortable silence for a while, but she had questions, and this seemed the time to ask them. "Fixers can feel blighters, can't they? That's how you hunt them."
"I wouldn't exactly call it hunting. Just stand around and they come."
"I thought you had trouble finding them for training."
"True, but the only way we know is to bait a trap.”
“With ourself. We go to a place where they’ve ashed animals and wait for one to turn up.”
“Then you zap it. Before it ashes you. Do fixers ever fail? I mean, die?”
“Very, very rarely.”
But he could have died. She’d never imagined that.
They paused to let a tram pass, and Jenny thought about what he’d said.
When they were across the tracks, she asked, "What does it feel like? A blighter, I mean."
He pulled a face. "It can't really be described. Like a nightmare, the awareness evaporates before we can find words to describe it."
She started at how that mirrored her feelings.
"Can non-fixers sense this? At a distance, I mean?"
His look was quick and sharp. "You're sensing something now?"
“No! I’m not a fixer, Dan. Don’t even think it.”
"You don't want to be able to fix things? It's an honorable calling."
"I know. It's the years away from home I couldn't take."
He touched her face. "Don't worry. Some people have a trace, but not enough to be taken seriously. What are you picking up?"
She tried to explain, but it was as he’d said. Words evaporated.
Even so, her efforts seemed to make sense to him. Though she felt incoherent, it seemed to make sense to him.
She tried to read his expression. "You're feeling the same thing, but much stronger?"
"I assume so."
"So they are coming?"
"No, seriously, there's no need to worry, Jen. The action is all in the hotter lands."
She stopped to stare. "What action?"
He sighed. "The blighters and the fixers dealing with them.” He grabbed her hand and tugged. “Come on. The others will be there long before us." But three steps later he stopped. He muttered something, but he pulled the fine wire from his earring to his mouth. "Fixer."
After a moment he pushed it back. "Kid fallen off High Wall near Watling. Luckily, only a broken leg. Want to come, or do you want to go on to the Merrie?"
"Come." She rarely got a chance to see him work, and it always delighted her.
Hand in hand they ran across to the nearest tram line and Dan waved one down, his uniform his authority. He seemed to have the lines in his head and they jagged rapidly across town to the west wall, where they found a boy on the ground with two nurses in attendance and a small crowd of gawkers.
The patient was about thirteen with freckles and ginger hair. A tubby dark haired lad hovered, looking more shocked than his injured friend. It turned out that the patient had already had something for the pain.
"Right leg," said the nurse who was kneeling beside him. "Tibia and fibula, I think. Might be spinal, too. Name's Jeff Bowlby."
"Thought you could fly, Jeff?" said Dan, sitting cross-legged beside him.
"Just fell. Will it hurt?"
Dan smiled at him. "Not at all. Relax."
He put his hands on the boy's leg, which was still covered by his jeans. Jenny knew the rules. Everyone did. In case of an accident do nothing except pain relief until the fixer comes, unless it's necessary to prevent death.
The youth tensed anyway, but then his eyes widened. "It tingles."
Dan didn't say anything. There really was nothing to see of what he was doing except a stillness that was very unDanlike. But this time, Jenny realized, she too could feel something.
Tingling? That was one way to put it. What she felt was in the air, or in her mind, or rather, in a part of her mind she hadn't known was there. Oh, she didn't like this. She didn't like it at all. She wasn’t a fixer!
A man rushed up. "Jeffy?"
Jenny and the second nurse took an arm each before he could interfere.
"He's fine," said the nurse, his voice steady. "Mr. Bowlby, is it? No great harm done and it's being fixed. We'll just need some details from you."
The young man led the father away to comfort him with record taking, and sting him with a bill. Co-payment for foolishness.
"All right?" Dan asked.
Jenny turned back to see a slight shudder pass through him as he raised his hands from the boy's leg. "That's good as new, but take care of my work, okay, Jeff? Let's see if you've done any other damage." He passed his hands over the boy, pausing for a moment in one spot, then rose easily to his feet. "All clear."
The boy started to sit up but the nurse beside him held him down. "Oh, no you don’t. We'll help your father take you home and keep an eye on you until the shock and medicine wear off." She looked up at Dan as if he was a miracle worker. "Good job, Fixer."
Dan gave the nurse his tally and she typed in the code that would authorize his payment from Anglia's health program.
Jenny noticed the expressions of the people around. Most were awed, but some looked uneasy. They’d be ones who weren't comfortable with fixing, though they were glad enough if they needed it. A few nutcases called it sorcery, and some religious types worried about it being ungodly. She'd always thought that daft, but where exactly did fixing come from?
As they returned to the tram stop, she asked, "Does that take a lot of your power?"
"Not particularly. A string of those and I'd be wiped for a while. Normally."
Before she could ask, he said, "As it is, I welcome the chance. If I don't use the energy it tends to... flare."
He was walking so fast she had to work to keep up. She caught his hand, to slow him. "Flaring's bad?"
“It can turn me a bit wild."
"It's your greatest charm, Dan Rutherford, and you know it."
He laughed. "I like it when you call me that. I know people like my energy, but there's an edge there."
That put her worry into words. Flaring high spirits that led to exciting times, but that threatened a conflagration, perhaps mostly of himself. Though they could fix so many problems, fixers rarely lived to a hundred.
"It's the magic," he said. He put an arm around her, urging her on. “We’re half the town away from the Merrie. The others must be wondering where we’ve got to.”
A shiver went up her back at his touch. Not particularly unpleasant, but a shiver, and for a moment she thought that’s what he meant. But then she realized he meant the flaring.
"You mean fixing?"
"Magic’s a better word. A more realistic one."
"Realistic? Magic doesn't exist.”
"Who knows? Why so many Earth stories if it never existed? And they show it as dangerous stuff. Magic creatures who lurk in dark places and trick people to their deaths. Or seduce them with gifts and feasts, then keep them prisoner forever. Or make them dance themselves to death for amusement. That fits."
She eased out of his arm. "That's superstition, and it’s nothing to do with what you do. With fixing."
She didn't want this, not now, with her stomach queasy and her mind jangled by his touch, and by ashes on the wind. But his silence demanded something, and friends should be friends, so in the end she asked, "Well, is it?"
He leaned against the tram shelter. "There's no way to compare, is there? They say fixing doesn’t work on Earth, but I’m not sure when they tried. I've thought of going back to find out, but who can afford it? Someone once said that all sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. That’s another way of looking at it."
The tram glided up and they climbed on. He led the way right to the back, where they used to sit as kids, but he talked quietly, even though there was no one close.
"Fixers aren't normal, Jen. You have to see that. They warn us to be solitary, that it's safer. Not to return home. To keep aloof wherever we go."
"Aloof?" It pulled a laugh from her. "Failed that part of the course, didn't you?"
“Abjectly. And I insisted on coming back home." A fleeting grin faded. "Sometimes I think they're right."
"No, they're not. Bad enough that you had to leave home for years."
"People marry out. Your mother did. Or in, in that case."
"That's different. That's love. And I wonder how people can love enough to do a thing like that."
"So do I. I didn't like being away, Jen."
It was the first time he'd said that, and he'd been back two years.