Fleet sector bases close as the Fleet moves on. Everyone knows and expects it. But still, the announcement that Sector Base E-2 will close—although still thirty years in the future—breeds a mood of tension and anxiety.
So, when Rajivk Agwu finds two pairs of shoes on a trail near Fiskett Falls, but no sign of their occupants, his already heightened senses warn of danger.
Those on the base fare no better. Bristol Iannazzi, working on the notoriously delicate anacapa drive for a runabout, also notices something strange, something out of place, something dangerous…
Expanding the rich history of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's captivating Diving universe, The Falls provides an exciting and crucial backstory for future events.
I chose The Falls for this bundle as much for its unexpected place in Kris' award-winning Diving Series as for the novel's own shocking twists. You don't need to know a thing about the Diving Series to enjoy this sf thriller, but if you're not already a fan of that series, you soon will be. – Allyson Longueira
"A skillful blend of science fiction and murder mystery which keeps ratcheting up the stakes."– Worlds Without End
"Kristine Kathryn Rusch is best known for her Retrieval Artist series, so maybe you've missed her Diving Universe series. If so, it's high time to remedy that oversight."– Don Sakers, Analog
"The Diving Universe, conceived buy Hugo-Award winning author Kristine [Kathryn] Rusch is a refreshingly new and fleshed out realm of sci-fi action and adventure. And the latest offering…doesn't disappoint."– Dave Dickinson, Astroguyz, on Skirmishes
THE SHOES STARTLED him. Rajivk Agwu stopped at the edge of the black path and stared at them. Two pairs, both brown, smallish and well-worn, were neatly lined up against the black wall. Just beyond them, the water of Fiskett Falls churned, blue and gold and gray. A slight rainbow formed on the edge of the spray as the late afternoon sunlight hit the water just right.
Usually, Rajivk never stopped at this overlook. It was halfway up the Falls, and provided a view mostly of the water as it cascaded into Rockwell Pool below. A lot of people liked to study the water as it fell. It was dramatic and gorgeous and always powerful.
But this overlook was damp and cold, with very little light. It had been built by some of the first engineers to arrive in the Sandoveil Valley, hundreds of years ago. They were entranced with Fiskett Falls, just like everyone else who visited this remote part of Nindowne, and because the engineers were from the Fleet, they decided to make it easy and safe to view the Falls.
They built several overlooks, using the same nanobits that they would use to carve Sector Base E-2 several miles from here. The overlooks were solid, if a bit too slippery. The nanobits were designed to build underground caverns that could withstand thousands of years of constant activity. So they could handle the elements, even the elements as they were on the far part of Ynchinga, the tenth—and least populated—continent on Nindowne.
The weather was always active here. Twelve seasons, although most of the people who lived in Sandoveil, still using Earth Standard thousands of years after the Fleet had left their home world, liked to say they had four seasons—the Earth equivalent of fall, winter, spring, and summer.
Really, though, this part of Ynchinga had predictable variations: early-fall, mid-fall, late-fall—and the same for the other seasons.
It was mid-fall right now, the kind of day that made Rajivk grateful, because he knew the next few seasons would be stormy and difficult. The cool sunlight that created the lovely rainbow at the edge of the mist would become rare in the next week or two. Late-fall always brought rain- and ice-storms, sometimes so severe that the only way Rajivk could get to work would be to take the underground transports, which he hated.
It made him feel like he was on the Qoraxda again, unable to feel any wind on his face or smell rain in the air. He had been born in the Fleet, always traveling through space, rarely spending any time planetside, but he was not born to the Fleet.
The day that the Qoraxda came to Sector Base E-2 for the once-every-five-years overhaul was the day that changed his life.
This was another day that would change his life—or so most of the employees of the sector base had said. He hadn't believed it, because he thought the change a minor one. Although the news must have had some kind of impact on him because he had decided, at the spur of the moment, to take the upper trails around the Falls on his walk home. The upper trails added an hour to his walk. An hour and just a bit of treachery.
Viewed from a half mile away, the Falls looked symmetrical, the water evenly proportioned across its entire plunge to the pool below. Up close, it became clear that the looks were deceiving. The center of Fiskett Falls poured the most water below, and the edges were thin and clear.
The edges froze in late-fall or early-winter, making the Falls even narrower, and much more dangerous. All of the moving water squeezed into the middle section, shutting down the lower overlooks.
This overlook was always closed from the beginning of the freeze until mid-spring, but most of the locals stopped using this overlook in late-summer.
That was why the shoes startled him. They didn't look like tourist shoes. These shoes were nearly boots. He could tell just from a glance that the shoes had local modifications. It took some particularly strange footwear to climb the paths. The nanobits were too smooth, and impossible to reconfigure, so local footware designers modified boots generally used in zero-g. The boots would cling to surfaces, but not too much. They would adjust according to the conditions—if the path was wet, the boots would provide a different kind of traction than if the path was covered with a thin sheet of ice.
If locals decided to wear shoes like these, they still had the modifications. And these shoes did.
Then Rajivk shook his head. Shoes shouldn't have startled him, no matter how unusual they were. Maybe some hiker had set them here to wait for a return. Although they were getting wet.
And climbing up the trail in mid-fall could be dangerous. Those thin sheets of ice were invisible to the naked eye. Many a hiker tried to take the upper paths around the Falls, only to slip and break a limb. Some of the local guides only took tourists up the paths if the tourists wore basic environmental suits, the kind that space tourists had to use to prevent easy injury.
Rajivk walked the upper paths as much as he could, and hadn't worn an environmental suit up them ever. Once he moved here, fifteen years ago, he made it a point to learn everything he could about Fiskett Falls and its trails.
And the first thing he learned—the thing he reminded himself about every single spring—was that the Falls were dangerous. They could kill if he didn't pay attention every single second.
That was probably why he shouldn't have come up here today. He was distracted. For the first time since he started working at the sector base, everyone had been required to attend a meeting. Usually information got recorded and shared, or trickled down through departments.
The announcement made at the early morning meeting was simple enough: the base had finally received its closure date. Thirty years from right now, the base would shut its doors. It would stop taking Fleet ships for their every-five-years maintenance twenty years or so from now, depending on the rotations. And it would stop taking emergency repairs at least two years before closure.
Closure itself would take every moment of those two years. It would be better, the administrators said, if the base had five years to shut down operations. Everything had to be done perfectly, and no one wanted to leave some Fleet ship stranded, too far from Sector Base F-2 to have its anacapa drive make easy contact with the base's drive.
In theory, a Fleet ship could contact any existing sector base, anywhere, so long as the Fleet ship was in foldspace. In practice, the contacts became difficult once a ship moved several sectors away from a base.
The Fleet learned, over the years, to move the bases, along with the ships, mostly as a precaution.
Rajivk believed in precautions when it came to space. He was raised on Fleet ships, born in motion, as they liked to say, and he had chosen to stay at Sector Base E-2 even though everyone knew it would be the next base closed. The Fleet kept only three sector bases open at one time—at least for ship repairs. In addition, there was always one base (sometimes two) under construction at the far end of the Fleet's trajectory, and there was often (although not always) one base in the process of shutting down at the back of the trajectory.
Rajivk wasn't even born when Sector Base D-2 had shut down. As long as he had been alive, Sector Base E-2 was slated to close. The only difference today brought was an actual date—and that date was so far in the future, a good third of the crew would already be retired.
He ran a hand through his hair. The spray from the Falls had beaded on it. The sunshine and the warm(ish) mid-fall weather had kept him from noticing the growing damp. The spray wasn't really spray today, more like a fine mist. It smelled faintly of sulphur—the entire Falls did sometimes—and fresh air with just a hint of the decay that signaled mid-fall was nearly over.
Seasons changed. They moved forward, just like the Fleet did. The change of seasons was as reliable as the fact that the Fleet would eventually leave a sector. At some point, the Fleet would be gone forever. And then it would become a memory, at least in this part of this galaxy. Then it would become a rumor or a legend or a myth—or, as some said, forgotten completely.
Although the Fleet would leave, much of its tech would remain on this little corner of Ynchinga, and eventually, the people who lived here in the Sandoveil Valley would remember that some group had initially colonized this area, but they wouldn't remember who.
The rainbow was slowly disappearing. The sun was moving along the horizon. He needed to move too if he wanted to get home before dark.
But first, he walked over to the shoes. He had to investigate them. They bothered him. Anything out of the ordinary bothered him up here.
Annoyingly, his boots stuck to the path. The black nanobits weren't wet enough to make the first level of the boots' tech effective, but they were wet enough to activate that first level.
Another reason he rarely walked to this overlook.
His heart started pounding as he approached the shoes. He observed his own reaction as if he were outside himself. Sometimes the proximity to the Falls made his heart race. The roar of the water, the damp and cold air, the constant and hard vibration all around him sometimes grabbed control of his limbic system.
Rajivk wasn't sure if his increased heart rate was because of the Falls or because of the shoes. He couldn't see the shoes' owners anywhere. Leaving two pair of shoes behind, deliberately, was either symbolic or really stupid.
Apparently, part of him was worried that he was dealing with really stupid. Had two people taken off their shoes, climbed onto the smooth wall to see the water better, and fallen?
If so, he might find them on the other side of the wall, unable to get purchase to climb back up it. He knew of some kids who had fallen off this part of the overlook, but they were local kids. They knew that they couldn't climb back up. They threaded their way along the pointed rocks, moving slowly, and making sure of every step until they made it to the other side of the overlook, and crawled the last few feet to the path itself.
Of course, they had the proper shoes, and they had even brought hiking gear, so they had the right kind of gloves and rope and all kinds of tech that enabled them to survive the most treacherous part of their fall.
And none of them had been hurt.
His mouth was dry. He had been breathing through it, nervously. He didn't want to find someone on the other side, clinging to those rocks.
He braced his hands on the cool wall. Water had beaded on the top. He actually dislodged puddles that he hadn't been able to see. He wondered if this part of the wall was ever dry.
He leaned forward. He would have shouted, but it would have been impossible to hear his voice over the thunder of the Falls. He looked down, saw slick wet rocks the color of slate. Tiny runnels of water threaded down the sides of the rocks, as if creating their own miniature waterfalls.
He hadn't expected it to be so wet and violent on that side of the wall. He had known about the kids, had thought that they had landed on a dry patch, but of course they hadn't.
There was no dry patch on that side of the wall. Technically, there was no dry patch on this side of the wall.
Clearly luck—and fantastic equipment—had allowed those kids to grip the rocks at all. Sheer determination that enabled them to crawl away from the water. And even more luck that got them past the overlook, to the drier rocks on the side, before they finally reached the path he had walked up.
Whoever owned the shoes on the overlook beside him hadn't had the proper equipment. Shoes were good on the path, but to handle the wet side of the Falls would require full-fledged boots, maybe some kind of suit, and climbing gear.
Maybe the shoes owners' had removed the shoes and put on boots. But he saw no evidence of that.
And why would someone do it? There were people who tried to best the Falls, and some who succeeded, but that took more than good boots and a willingness to step into a wall of water, free-falling at the rate of thousands of cubic feet per second. Rajivk had never wanted to try. It seemed like certain death to him.
Rajivk wiped the water from his face. He couldn't even see into that wall of water. He didn't understand the attraction.
He glanced at those shoes, so neatly lined up, and felt a surge of anger. Maybe someone had left them to taunt him. Maybe they were supposed to signify something he didn't understand.
Whatever the reason, he hadn't asked to be the one to find them. He hadn't asked to worry about them.
And, he finally decided, the shoes were not his concern.
He backed away from them, and then when he reached the path—and only then—did he shake the water off his shirt and pants. If he had known he was going to get that close to the Falls, he would have worn his outdoor gear.
But he'd been thinking about the sector base's end date, the fact that he could envision his choices again—if he wanted to take them. He could stay here for the rest of his life, knowing he would retire in thirty years whether he wanted to or not. Or he could apply to work at one of the other sector bases. Or he could stay here, find some other job, and move even farther away from the Fleet.
Those thoughts were why he had chosen this upper path. Because he knew, deep down, that if he wanted to continue his career into the future, he would have to move.
He would have to leave the Falls.
And he couldn't imagine leaving the Falls.
Just like he couldn't imagine climbing into them.
He would have to do something about those shoes, and unfortunately, he would have to do it soon.