First Chapter Friday: Balance of Trade

The end of the last century was a pretty good time for the Lee & Miller writing team. We had Liaden books on the way, we were being courted by anthologies, our story A Matter of Dreams was set for an illustrated guest appearance in Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil (#27) and we were back in the groove of going to conventions. Our chapbooks were doing well… and then Absolute Magnitude’s editor Warren Lapine asked us for a story — specifically, a Liaden story.

That story happened to be the story of a crew member just coming to his majority on a small-time tradeship, one Jethri Gobelyn. Jethri had been bouncing and waving his hands and around in the character queue for awhile and we figured that once his story was told, he’d let us get back to the main line of things.  But the appearance of Balance of Trade as a short story turned out to be the start of something bigger, and a few years later that original short story had grown into the 2004 novel — Balance of Trade. Here’s the start.

Excerpt from Balance of Trade © 2004 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Balance of Trade

Day 29
Standard Year 1118
Gobelyn’s Market
Opposite Shift

 

 

There are secrets in all families—

George Farquhar,
1678-1707

“DOWN ALL THAT LONG, weary shift, they kept after Byl,” Khat’s voice was low and eerie in the dimness of the common room. The knuckles of Jethri’s left hand ached with the grip he had on his cup while his right thumb and forefinger whirled ellipses on the endlessly cool surface of his lucky fractin. Beside him, he could hear Dyk breathing, fast and harsh.

 


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“Once—twice—three times!—he broke for the outring, his ship, and his mates. Three times, the Liadens turned him back, pushing him toward the center core, where no space-going man has right nor reason to be.

“They pushed him, those Liadens, moving through the night-levels as swift and sure as if it were bright world-day. Byl ran, as fast as long legs and terror could speed him, but they were always ahead of him, the canny Liadens. They were always ahead—’round every corner, past every turning in the hall.”

Mel, on Jethri’s left, moaned softly. Jethri bit his lip.

* * *

“BUT THEN!” Khat’s voice glittered in the gloom. “Then, all at once, the luck changed. Or, say, the gods of spacers smiled. He reached a corridor that was empty, turned a corner where no Liaden crouched, gun aiming for his heart. He paused then, ears craned to the rear, but heard no stealthy movement, nor boot heels sounding quick along the steel floor.

“He ran then, light of heart and all but laughing, and the way stood clear before him, from downring admin all the way to the outring, where his ship was berthed; where his mates, and his love, lay awaiting his return.

“He came to the bay door—Bay Eight, that was where. Came to the bay door, used his card and slipped through as soon as the gap was wide enough to fit him. Grinning, he pushed off in the lighter grav, taking long bounds toward Dock Three. He took the curve like he’d grown wings, singing now, so glad to be near, so glad to be home. . .

“That was when he saw the crowd, and the flashing lights that meant ring cops—and the others, that meant worse.

“He shouted and ran, waving his arms as if it all made a difference. Which it didn’t. Those lifelines had been cut good hours ago, while he had been harried, hounded and kept away—and there was eight zipped bags laid out neat on the dockside, which was all that was left of his mates and his love.”

Silence, Jethri’s jaw was so tight he thought teeth might shatter. Mel gasped and Dyk groaned.

“So,” said Khat, her voice shockingly matter-of-fact. “Now you see what comes to someone who cheats a Liaden on cargo.”

“Except,” Jethri managed, his voice breathless with tension, though he knew far better than what had been told—Khat on a story was that good. “Excepting, they’d never done it that way—the Liadens. Might be they’d’ve rigged something with the docking fees—more like, they’d’ve set the word around, so five ports later Byl finds himself at a stand—full cans and no buyers, see? But they wouldn’t kill for cargo—that’s not how their Balancing works.”

“So speaks the senior ‘prentice!” Dyk intoned, pitching his voice so deep it rumbled inside the steel walls like a bad encounter with a grabber-hook.

“C’mon, Jeth,” Mel put in. “You was scared, too!”

“Khat tells a good story,” he muttered, and Dyk produced a laugh.

“She does that—and who’s to say she’s wrong? Sure, you been studying the tapes, but Khat’s been studying portside news since before you was allowed inside ship’s core!”

“Not that long,” Khat protested mildly, over the rustle and scrape that was her moving along the bench ’til she had her hand on the controls. Light flooded the cubby, showing four startlingly similar faces: broad across the cheekbones and square about the jaw. Khat’s eyes, and Jethri’s, were brown; Dyk and Mel had blue—hers paler than his. All four favored the spacer buzz, which left their scant hair looking like dark velvet caps snugged close ‘gainst their skulls. Mel was nearest to Jethri in age—nineteen Standards to his seventeen. Khat and Dyk were born close enough to argue minutes when questions of elder’s precedence rose—twenty Standard Years, both, and holding adult shares.

Their surname was Gobelyn. Their ship was Gobelyn’s Market, out of New Carpathia, which homeworld none of them had ever seen nor missed.

“Yah, well maybe Jethri could tell us a story,” said Dyk, on the approach of mischief, “since he knows so many.”

Jethri felt his ears heat, and looked down into his cup. Koka, it had been—meant to warm his way to slumber. It was cold, now, and Khat’s story was enough to keep a body awake through half his sleep-shift.

Even if he did know better.

“Let him be, Dyk,” Khat said, surprisingly. “Jethri’s doing good with his study—Uncle’s pleased. Says it shows well, us having a Liaden speaker ‘mong us.”

Dyk started to laugh, caught something in her face and shrugged instead. Jethri wisely did not mention that his “Liaden speaking” was barely more than pidgin.

Instead, he drank off the dregs of his cold koka, managing without much of a shudder, then got himself up and across the room, right hand still fingering the ancient tile in search of comfort. He put the cup in the washer, and nodded to his cousins before he left to find his bunk.

“Good shift,” he murmured.

“Good shift, Jethri,” Khat said warmly. “Wide dreaming.”

“Sleep tight, kid,” Dyk added and Mel fluttered her fingers, smiling. “Be good, Jeth.”

He slipped out of the cubby and paused, weighing the likelihood of sleep against the lure of a history search on the fate of Byl—and the length of Uncle Paitor’s lecture, if he was found reading through his sleep shift again.

That was the clincher, his uncle being a man who warmed to a scolding. Sighing, Jethri turned to the right. Behind him, in the cubby, he heard Dyk say, “So tell us a scary one, Khat; now that the kid’s away.”

* * *

HAVING FOUND SLEEP late, it was only natural that Jethri overslept the bell, meaning hard biscuit and the dregs of the pot for breakfast. Chewing, he flipped through the duty roster and discovered himself on Stinks.

“Mud!” he muttered, gulping bitter coffee. It wasn’t that he begrudged his cousins their own round of duty—which they had, right enough; he wasn’t callin’ slackers—just, he wished that he might progress somewhat above the messy labor and make-work that fell his lot all too often. He had his studies, which was work, of its kind; emergency drill with Cris; and engine lore with Khat. ‘Course, him being youngest, with none on the ladder ‘neath him—that did go into the equation. Somebody had to do the scutwork, and if not juniormost, then who?

Cramming the last of the biscuit into his mouth, he scanned down to dinner duty—and nearly cussed again. Dyk was on cook, which meant the meal would be something tasty, complicated and needful of mucho cleanup. Jethri himself being on clean up.

“That kind of shift,” he consoled himself, pouring the dregs of the dregs into the chute and setting the cup into the washer. “Next shift can only be better.”

Being as they were coming into Ynsolt’i Port next shift, barring the unexpected, that at least was a given. Which realization did lighten his mood a fraction, so he was able to bring up a thin, tuneless whistle to stand him company on his way down to the utility lockers.

* * *

HE WORKED HIS way up from quarters, stripping the sweet-sheets off sleeping pallets, rolling up the limp, sweat-flavored mats and stuffing them into the portable recycler. Zam, Seeli, and Grig were on Opposite; the doors to their quarters sealed, blue privacy lights lit. Jethri left new sheets rolled up and strapped outside their doors and moved on, not in any particular scramble, but not dallying, either. He had it from experience that doing Stinks consumed considerably less time than was contained inside a duty-shift. Even doing Stinks thoroughly and well—which he had better or the captain’d be down his throat with her spacesuit on—he’d have shift left at the end of his work. He was allowed to use leftover duty time for study. What had to be measured with a fine rule was how much time he could claim before either Uncle Paitor or the captain called slacker and pulled him down to the core on discipline.

Stinks being a duty short on brain work, the brain kept itself busy. Mostly, Jethri used the time to review his latest studies, or daydream about the future, when he would be a trader in his own right, free to cut deals and commit the ship, without having to submit everything to Uncle Paitor, and getting his numbers second-guessed and his research questioned.

Today, the brain having started on a grump, it continued, embroidering on the theme of scutwork. Replacing the sheets in his own cubby, he tried to interject some happy-think into what was threatening to become a major mood, and found himself on the losing side of an argument with himself.

He was juniormost, no disputing that—youngest of Captain Iza Gobelyn’s three children—unintended, and scheduled for abort until his father’s golden tongue changed her mind.

Despite unwelcome beginnings, though, he was of value to the ship. Uncle Paitor was teaching him the trade, and had even said that Jethri’s researches into the Liaden markets had the potential to be profitable for the ship. Well, Uncle Paitor had even backed a major buy Jethri had suggested, last port, and if that didn’t show a growing faith in the juniormost’s skill, then nothing did.

That’s all right, the half of himself determined to set into a mood countered. Uncle Paitor might allow you value to the ship, but can you say the same for your mother?

Which was hardly a fair question. Of course, he couldn’t say the same for his mother, who had put him into Seeli’s care as a babe and hadn’t much use for him as a kid. When his father died—and only owning the truth—captain’d had a lot of changes to go through, one of them being she’d lost the lover and listening post she’d had since her second voyage out of her homeship, Grenadine. She taken three days of wild-time to try to recover some balance—come back drunk and black and blue, proclaiming herself cured. But after that, any stock Jethri’d held with his mother had vanished along with everything that had anything to do with his father, from photocubes to study certificates to his and Jethri’s joint collection of antique fractins. It was almost as if she blamed him for Arin’s death, which was plain senseless, though Seeli did her best to explain that the human heart wasn’t notoriously sensible.

Quarters finished, and in a fair way to seeing that mood set in plate steel, Jethri went down to Ops.

The door whined in its track when it opened and Jethri winced, sending a quick glance inside to see if his entrance had disturbed anybody at their calcs.

Khat was sitting at the big board, the captain shadowing her from second. Cris, on data, glanced over his shoulder and gave Jethri a quick jerk of the chin. Khat didn’t turn, but she did look up and smile into the screen for him. The captain never stirred.

Dragging the recycler to the wall, he moored it, then went back to the door, fingering the greaser pen from his kit belt. He pulled open the panel and switched the automatic off. Kneeling, he carefully penned a beaded line of grease along the outer track. The door whined again—slightly softer—when he pushed it open, and he applied a second row of grease beads to the inner track.

He tucked the pen away and stood, pushing the door back and forth until it ran silent in its tracks, nodded, and switched on the automatics again.

That minor chore taken care of, he moved along the stations, backmost first, working quick and quiet, replacing the used sweet-sheets with new, strapping fresh sheets to the board at each occupied station.

“Thanks, Jeth,” Cris said in his slow, easy voice. “‘preciate the door, too. I shoud’ve got it myself, three shifts back.”

Thanks from Cris was coin worth having. Jethri ducked his head, feeling his ears heat.

“‘welcome,” he murmured, putting the new mat down at second and reaching for the strap.

The captain stood. “You can replace that,” she said, her cool brown eyes barely grazing Jethri before she turned to Khat. “Keep course, Pilot.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

She nodded, crossed the room in two long strides and was gone, the door opening silently before her. Jethri bit his lip, spun the chair and stripped off the used sheet. Glancing up, he saw his cousins pass a glance between the two of them, but didn’t catch its meaning, being short of the code. He smoothed the new mat into place, stowed the old one with all the rest, unmoored the recycler and left.

Neither Khat nor Cris looked ’round to see him go.

* * *

STINKS WAS A play in two parts. Between them, Jethri took a break for a mug of ‘mite, which was thick and yellow and smelled like yeast—and if anyone beyond a spacer born and bred could stomach the stuff, the fact had yet to be noted.

One mug of ‘mite delivered a cargo can load of vitamins and power nutrients. In the old days, when star travel was a new and risky undertaking, crews had lived on ‘mite and not much else, launch to planetfall. Nowadays, when space was safe and a ship the size of Gobelyn’s Market carried enough foodstuffs to supply a body’s needed nutrients without sacrificing taste and variety, ‘mite lingered on as a comfort drink, and emergency ration.

Jethri dunked a couple whole grain crackers in his mug, chomped and swallowed them, then drank off what was left. Thus fortified, he ambled down to the utility lockers, signed the camera out, slotted the empties and a tray of new filters into the sled and headed out to the bounceway.

* * *

OPS RAN MARKET’S grav in a helix, which was standard for a ship of its size and age. Smaller vessels ran whole-ship light-, or even no-grav, and weight work was a part of every crew member’s daily duty roster. Market was big enough to generate the necessary power for a field. Admin core was damn’ near one gee, as was Ops itself. Sleeping quarters was lighter; you slept strapped in and anchored your possessions to the wall. The outer edges of the ship, where the cans hooked in, that was lighter still—as near to no grav as mattered. On the outermost edge of E Deck, there was the bounceway, a rectangular space marked out for rec, where crew might swoop, fly, bounce off the walls, play free-fall tag, and—just coincidentally—sharpen their reaction times and grav-free moves.

It being a rec area, there were air vents. It being the largest open atmosphere section on the ship, it also had the highest amount of ship air to sample for pollen, spores, loose dust, and other contaminants. Jethri’s job was to open each vent, use the camera to record the visual patterns, change the camera to super and flash for spectrographic details, remove the used filter, install a fresh, and reseal the vent. That record would go right to command for analysis as soon as he plugged the camera into the charge socket

Not quite as mindless as replacing sweet-sheets, but not particularly demanding of the thought processes, either.

Mooring the sled, he slid the camera into the right pocket of his utility vest, a new filter and an envelope into the left, squinted thoughtfully at the position of the toppest vent—and kicked off.

Strictly speaking, he could have gone straight-line, door to vent. In the unlikely circumstance that there’d been hurry involved, he would, he told himself, curling for the rebound off the far wall, have chosen the high leap. As it was, hands extended and body straight, he hit the corner opposite the vent, somersaulted, arcing downward, hit the third wall with his feet, rising again, slowing, slowing—until he was floating, gentle and easy, next to the target vent.

Bracing himself, he slid the door open, used the camera, then unsnapped the soiled filter, slipped it into the envelope and snapped in the replacement. Making sure his pockets were sealed, he treated himself to cross-room dive, shot back up to the opposite corner, dove again, twisted in mid-dive, bounced off the end wall, pinwheeled off the ceiling, hit the floor on his hand, flipped and came upright next to the sled.

Grinning like a certified fool, he unsealed his pocket, slotted the used filter, took on a clean one, turned and jumped for the next vent.

* * *

IT MIGHT’VE BEEN an hour later and him at the trickiest bit of his day. The filter for the aromatics locker was special—a double-locking, odor-blocking bit of business, badly set over the door, flush to the angle with the ceiling. Aromatics was light, but by no means as light as the bounceway, so it was necessary for anyone needing to measure and change the filter to use their third hand to chin themselves on the high snatch-rod, knees jammed at right angles to the ceiling, while simultaneously using their first and second hands to do the actual work.

Normal two-handers were known to lament the lack of that crucial third appendage with language appropriate to the case. Indeed, one of Jethri’s fondest memories was of long, easy-speaking Cris, bent double against the ceiling, hanging over the vent in question, swearing, constantly and conversationally, for the entire twenty minutes the job required, never once repeating a cuss word. It had been a virtuoso performance to which Jethri secretly aspired.

Unfortunately, experience had taught him that he could either hang and cuss, or hang and work. So it was that he wrestled in silence, teeth drilling into lower lip, forcing himself to go slow and easy, and make no false moves, because it would be a serious thing if an aromatics spill contaminated the ship’s common air.

He had just seated and locked the clean inner filter, when the hall echoed with a titanic clang, which meant that the cage had cycled onto his level.

Jethri closed his eyes and clenched into the corner, forcing himself to wait until the wall had stopped reverberating.

“It’s settled,” the captain’s voice echoed in the wake of the larger noise.

Might be settled.” That was Uncle Paitor, his voice a rumble, growing slightly fainter as the two of them walked outward, toward the cans. “I’m not convinced we’ve got the best trade for the ship in this, Iza. I’m thinking we might be underselling something—”

“We’ve got space issues, which aren’t leaving us,” the captain interrupted. “This one’s Captain’s Call, brother. It’s settled.”

“Space issues, yeah,” Paitor said, a whole lot more argumentative than he usually was when he was talkin’ to the captain, and like he thought things weren’t settled at all. “There’s space issues. In what case, sister o’mine, you’d best remember those couple o’seal-packs of extra you been carrying in your personal bin for damn’ near ten Standards. You been carrying extra a long time, and some of what’s there ought to get shared out so choices can be made—”

“No business of yours—none of it, Paitor.”

“You’s the one called kin just now. But I’m a trader, and what you got’s still worth something to somebody. You make this trade and that stuff ought to be gone, too!”

“We’ll chart that course when we got fuel for it. You done?”

Paitor answered that, but Jethri only caught the low sound of his voice, no words.

Cautiously, he unclenched, reached for the second filter and began to ease back the locks, forcing himself to attend to the work at hand, rather than wonder what sort of trade might be Captain’s Call. . .

* * *

LATER, IN THE galley, Dyk was in a creative frenzy.

Jethri, who knew his man, had arrived well before his scheduled time, and already there were piles of used bowls, cruets, mixers, forks, tongs, spoons and spice syringes littering every possible surface and the floor. It was nothing short of awesome. Shaking his head, he pulled on his gloves and started in on first clean up.

“Hey, Jeth! Unship that big flat pan for me, willya?”

Sighing, Jethri abandoned the dirties, climbed up on the counter and pulled open the toppest cabinet, where the equipment that was used least was stowed. Setting his feet careful among the welter of used tools, he reached for the requested pan.

The door to the galley banged open, Jethri turned his head and clutched the edge of the cabinet, keeping himself very still.

Iza Gobelyn stood in the doorway, her face so tight the lines around her mouth stood in stark relief. Dyk, lost in his dream of cookery, oblivious to clear danger, smiled over his shoulder at her, the while beating something in a bowl with a power spoon.

“Good shift, Captain!” he called merrily. “Have we got a surprise ordered in for you tonight!”

“No,” said Iza.

That got through.

Dyk blinked. “Ma’am?”

“I said, no,” the captain repeated, her voice crackling with static. “We’ll want a quick meal, no surprises.”

The spoon went quiet. Dyk put the bowl aside, real careful, and turned to face her. “Captain, I’ve got a meal planned and on course.”

“Jettison,” she said, flat and cold. “Quick meal, Dyk. Now.”

There was a moment—a long moment, when Jethri though Dyk would argue the point, but in the end, he just nodded.

“Yes’m,” he said, real quiet, and turned away toward the cabinet.

The captain left, the door swinging shut behind her.

Jethri let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding, slid the flat pan back into its grips, closed the door, and carefully got himself down to the floor, where he started back in collecting dirties.

He was loading the washer when it came to him that Dyk was ‘way too quiet, and he looked up.

His cousin was staring down at the bowl, kinda swirling the contents with the power spoon turned off. Jethri moved a couple steps closer, until Dyk looked at him.

“What was you making?” Jethri asked.

“A cake,” Dyk said, and Jethri could believe it was tears he saw in the blue eyes. “I—” he cleared his throat and shook his head, pushing the bowl away. “It was a stupid idea, I guess. I’ll get the quick meal together and then help you with clean up, right?”

Dyk wasn’t a prize as a partner in clean up, and Jethri was about to decline the favor. And a cake—why would he have been after making a cake, just coming into port? Another one of those everybody-knows-but-me things, Jethri thought, frowning at his larger cousin.

Something about the set of his shoulders, or even the tears, Dyk not being one to often cry, counseled him to think better of refusing the offered aid. He nodded, trying to remake his frown into something approaching agreeable.

“Sure,” he said. “Be glad of the help.”

— — —

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