First Chapter Friday: Carpe Diem

After a book or two Sharon and I were surprised that we we’re getting noticed even if our books were coming out as original paperbacks rather than starting in the hardcover lists as we do now.It was fun, if not enriching, to see things like this in print:

“Val Con and Miri are the most romantic couple in SF!”
Susan Krinard, author of Touch of the Wolf

“You may never care about a cast of characters more or await their return with more anticipation.”
SF Site

 


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“Full of action, exotic characters, plenty of plot, and even a touch of romance. OUTSTANDING.”
Booklist

As much fun as it was to see nice things written about our books, it was even more fun to write them. There’s a lot of playfulness in Carpe Diem, some in the repartee, some in the naming of places,  some in the challenging of tropes … but hey, see for yourself!

 

SECOND QUADRANT: Ramal Sector

The pilot stared at the readout in disbelief, upped the magnification, and checked the readings once more, cold dread in his heart.

“Commander. Pilot requests permission to speak.”

“Permission granted,” Khaliiz said.

“The vessel which we captured on our last pass through this system is moving under power, Commander. The scans read the life forces of two creatures.”

“Pilot’s report heard and acknowledged. Stand by for orders. Second!”

“Commander.”

“It was reported to me that none were left alive aboard yon vessel, Second. Discover the man who lied and bring him to me at once.”

His Second saluted. “At once, Commander.” He turned and marched from the bridge.

Khaliiz eyed the screen, perceived the ship-bounty slipping through his fingers, and was displeased.

“Pursue.”

 

Val Con cursed very softly, then snapped back to the board, slapped the page into its slot, and demanded data: coords, position, speed, and amount of power in the coils.

“Could we leave now?” asked a small voice to his left.

He turned his head. Miri was sitting rigidly in the copilot’s chair, her eyes frozen on the screen and the growing shape of the Yxtrang vessel. Her freckles stood out vividly in a face the color of milk.

“We must wait until the power has reached sufficient level and the coordinates are locked into the board,” he said, keeping his voice even. “We will leave in a few minutes.”

“They’ll be here in a few minutes.” She bit her lip, hard, and managed to drag her eyes from the screen to his face. “Val Con, I’m afraid of Yxtrang.”

Aware of the tightness of the muscles in his own face, he did not try to give her a smile. “I am also afraid of Yxtrang,” he said gently. His eyes flicked to the board, then to the screen. “Strap in.”

“What’re you gonna do?” Miri was watching him closely, some of the color back in her face, but still stiff in every muscle.

“There is a game Terrans sometimes play,” he murmured, dividing his attention between board and screen, fingers busy with his own straps, “called ‘chicken’…Strap in, cha’trez.”

He flipped a toggle. “I see you, Chrakec Yxtrang. Pass us by. We are unworthy to be your prey.”

There was a transmission pause—or did it last a bit longer?—then a voice, harsh as broken glass, replied in Trade. “Unworthy? Thieves are always worthy game! That ship is ours, Liaden. We have won it once.”

“Forgive us, Ckrakec Yxtrang, we are here by no fault of our own. We are not worthy of you. Pass by.”

“Release my prize, Liaden, or I shall wrest it from you, and you will die.”

Miri licked her lips, steadfastly refusing to look at the screen.

Val Con’s face was smooth and calm, his voice nearly gentle. “If I release your prize, I shall die in any case. Pass by, Hunter. There is only I, who am recently wounded.”

“My scans show two, Liaden.”

Miri closed her eyes. Val Con, measuring board against screen, eased the speed of the ship higher, toward the halfway point.

“Only a woman, Ckrakec Yxtrang. What proof is that of your skill?”

There was a pause, during which Val Con slipped the speed up another notch and pressed the sequence that locked in the coords.

“Will it please you, when you are captured, Liaden, to watch me while I take my pleasure from your woman? Afterward, I shall blind you and give you as a toy to my crew.”

“Alas, Ckrakec Yxtrang, these things would but cause me pain.” Coils up! And the Yxtrang were finally near enough, beginning the boarding maneuver, matching velocity, and direction…

“It would give you pain!” the Yxtrang cried. “All things give Liadens pain! They are a soft race, born to be the prey of the strong. In time, there will be no more Liadens. The cities of Liad will house the children of Yxtrang.”

“What then will you hunt, O Hunter?” He flipped a series of toggles, leaned back in the pilot’s chair, and held a hand out to Miri.

Slowly the ship began to spin.

There was a roar of laughter from the Yxtrang, horrible to hear. “Very good, Liaden. Never shall it be said, after you are dead, that you were an unworthy rabbit. A good maneuver. But not good enough.”

In the screen, the Yxtrang ship began to spin as well, matching velocity uncertainly.

Miri’s hand was cold in his. He squeezed it, gave her a quick smile, and released her, returning to the board.

More spin; a touch more acceleration. The Yxtrang moved to match both. Val Con added again to the spin but left the speed steady.

“Enough, Liaden! What do you hope to win? The ship is ours, and we will act to keep it. Do you imagine I will grow tired of the game and leave? Do you not know that even now I might fire upon you and lay you open to the cold of space?”

“There is no bounty on ruined ships, Ckrakec Yxtrang, nor any glory in reporting that a Liaden outwitted you. But,” he said, sighing deeply, “perhaps you are young and this your first hunt—”

There was a scream of rage over the comm, and the Yxtrang ship edged closer. Val Con added more spin. Ship’s gravity was increasing—lifting his arm above the board the few inches required to manipulate the keys was an effort. His lungs were laboring a little for air. He glanced over at Miri. She grinned raggedly at him.

“How much faster will you spin, Liaden? Until the gravity crushes you?”

“If necessary. I am determined that you will collect no bounty on this ship, Chrakec Yxtrang. It has become a matter of honor.” More spin. He paused with his hand on the throttle.

“Speak not to me of honor, animal! We have toyed long enough. We shall—”

Val Con shoved the velocity to the top, slammed on more spin, hesitated, counting, eyes on the board—

Jump!

LUFKIT: Neefra’s Tavern

The Terran creature’s name was Jefferson, and it was sweating; it talked jerkily, swigging warm beer down its gullet, moving its big, rough hands aimlessly about, occasionally plucking at its companion’s sleeve—and talking, always talking.

Much of what it said was of no value to the Liaden who stood beside it, delicately sipping at a glass of atrocious local wine; but Tyl Von sig’Alda was patient, by training if not by inclination, and the bits of useful information mixed in among the trash were jewels of very great price.

“Yxtrang,” the creature was saying, fingering its empty mug in agitation. “Well, it had to be Yxtrang, didn’t it? Stands to reason—the way the ship was cleaned out but not ruined. Coming back for it, Tanser said. Sure to come back for it. Yxtrang get a bounty for captured ships…” It faltered there, and its companion waved at the barkeeper for another beer. The creature took it absently, drank, and wiped its mouth with the back of a hand. It glanced furtively around the noisy bar and bent close enough for its listener to smell the beer on its breath, the stink of its sweat, and the reek of its fear. It was all sig’Alda could do not to recoil in disgust.

“Tanser knew it was Yxtrang,” Jefferson whispered, voice rasping. “Knew it. And he left ’em there. Alive. Could’ve put a pellet into ’em—something quick and clean. But the turtle’d said let ’em go and the boss said okay…”

Horror seemingly choked it, and it pulled back, eyes glistening, showing a plentitude of white all around the irises. The one beside him sipped wine and murmured soothingly that of course the ways of the Clutch were mysterious, but that he had understood them not to involve themselves so much with the affairs of—men.

“This one did,” Jefferson said fervently. “Claimed some kind of kinship with ’em both—brother and sister.” It swigged beer.

“Crazy alien.”

Most assuredly the victims were Val Con yos’Phelium and the female companion; though why an agent might be traveling with such a one was more than could be fathomed. Tyl Von sig’Alda assayed another sip of syrupy wine. The female…Headquarters had assumed a mischance during the journey home, assumed that the female had, perhaps, served for a time as camouflage. A sound enough theory.

Unless, sig’Alda thought, training was somehow broken? At once the Loop flickered to life, showing .999 against that possibility. He was aware of some dim, faraway feeling of relief. The Loop was the secret weapon of the Department of the Interior, an impartial mental computer implanted only in the best of its agents. Its guidance was essential to the Department’s ascendancy over the enemies of Liad. It was an essential part of training. Training could not be broken.

Jefferson leaned close, breathing its beery breath into sig’Alda’s face. “I have a son,” it said hoarsely.

“Do you?” he murmured. And then, because the creature seemed to await a fuller response, he said, “I myself have a daughter.”

It nodded its head in barbaric Terran agreement and withdrew slightly. “Then you know.”

“Know?”

“Know what it’s like,” the creature explained, a trifle loudly, though not loud enough to signify within the overall clamor of the tavern. “Know what it’s like to worry about ’em. My boy…And that turtle telling—bragging on himself, maybe. Maybe not even telling the truth. Who can tell what’s truth to a turtle?”

Was that relevant, or more of the creature’s ramblings? sig’Alda gave a mental shrug. Who could tell?

“But what did he say?” he inquired of Jefferson. “The turtle.”

“Talking about how his clan or family or egg or whatever it is will hunt down the first and the last of a family, if you don’t do what he says to do.” Jefferson gulped the last of the beer and set the mug aside with a thump, black despair filling its half-crazed eyes. “And Tanser put ’em right in Yxtrang’s path, after the turtle’d said let ’em go free. Gods.”

There was a long moment’s silence, while the Loop presented the chances of survival for Val Con yos’Phelium and his female, whomever and whatever she was, stranded in a ship marked for Yxtrang reclamation and deprived of coords and coils.

.001

So, then. He smiled at Jefferson. “Another beer, perhaps?”

“Naw…” The Terran was twitching, suddenly eager to be off, perhaps conscious all at once that it had been spilling secrets wholesale into the ear of a stranger.

sig’Alda laid a gentle hand on its sleeve. “Tell me, did anyone check to see if the ship was still there? Even the Yxtrang might make an error from time to time.”

The despairing eyes gazed back up at his face. “It was gone when we dropped back to look.” It swallowed harshly. “Tanser laughed.” Another painful working of the throat. “Tanser ain’t got any kids.”

It stood away from the bar abruptly and held out a horny hand. “Got to be going. Thanks for the beers.”

sig’Alda placed his hand into the large one, forcing himself to bear the pressure and the up-and-down motion. “Perhaps we will meet again.”

“Yeah,” Jefferson said, not very convincingly. “Maybe.” Its lips bent upward in a rictus that might have been meant as a smile. “G’night, now.” And it turned and strode away, leaving Tyl Von sig’Alda staring into the depths of his sticky glass.

 

Jefferson went rapidly through side streets and back alleys, cursing his tongue and his need and the horrible, ever-present fear in his belly.

The man had been Liaden—and maybe the woman, too. Yxtrang and Liaden had been enemies, blood and bone, for longer than Terrans had been on the scene. Jefferson swallowed against the fear’s abrupt nausea. Yxtrang would have special ways to treat a couple of representatives of their old, most-hated enemy…

Jefferson leaned against a convenient light post to get his breath and wait for the shaking to ease—but he only shook harder, gripping the post in misery and closing his eyes.

He never saw the slender shadow take aim in the empty street, never heard the gun’s discreet, genteel cough or felt the pellet enter his ear and rend his brain.

 

The Terran crumpled slowly, as if falling into a swoon, and lay still in the puddle of light. Tyl Von sig’Alda slid his weapon away, glanced up and down the street, then walked carefully over to the carcass. He made short work of stripping the pouch and pockets of anything remotely valuable—it was to appear a mere murder for gain, as might happen to anyone walking alone in the dark back streets of Lufkit.

Jefferson had given much information freely; its continued existence had been a threat to sig’Alda himself. More, its elimination was a minor balance for the act of putting a Liaden—any Liaden—in the way of the Yxtrang. That the Liaden had been a member of his own Department and one of its best was a sad fact. Tanser’s name had been duly noted; sig’Alda’s report would mention it, and another bit of balance would no doubt follow.

sig’Alda stepped back, noting that the Loop gave him excellent chances of attaining the shuttle to Prime Station and the deck of Raslain, his passage away. Yet he hesitated, nagged by a consideration that was by rights none of his, he who was assigned to determine what had become of Val Con yos’Phelium, lost en route to his debriefing. And still there was the damned female…No. He would leave tonight, information pertinent to the mission having been gathered on Lufkit. His report to the commander would reflect Jefferson’s certainty that yos’Phelium and the female had fallen to the Yxtrang bounty-crew, as well as the corroboration of the Loop. It was futile to spend time backtracking the female. He was not assigned to provide her a eulogy.

So thinking, he turned and faded into the shadows, leaving the street to the puddle of light and that which lay within it.

LIAD: Trealla Fantrol

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Shan…” Nova yos’Galan flung forward and caught her brother’s sleeve in one slim hand. Head tipped back, she stared up into his face, seeing the ice forming in the silver eyes and the lines of Korval stubbornness tightening around the big mouth. “Shan, by the gods!”

He made the effort—he took a deeper breath, then another. “You tell me that the First Speaker wishes me to contract-wed. Why now? Why not last week or next week? Have you some sweet offer for the stupidest of the Clan? This is arbitrary beyond sense, sister!”

She recoiled from the anger in both his words and his face. “It is Val Con! I—I must consider what is proper. He has been missing all this while…”

“Is he truly missing? I know I haven’t seen him for some time, but missing?”

Nova held up her hand, moved to the console, and touched several buttons, bringing the computer screen to life.

He moved closer as she scrolled the information there, finally settling on a spot.

“…the First Speaker’s point is, however, valid insofar as it concerns the necessity of the Nadelm’s education,” she read. “I shall undertake to make myself available as soon as practicable following my thirtieth anniversary Name Day for instruction on the proper administration of a Clan from both the First Speaker and Korval’s man of business. It is made extremely clear by the First Speaker, my sister, that I am expected to graduate to Delm very quickly.”

Shan sensed the underlying impatience in those few words as clearly as he felt the tension singing in Nova.

“His word, from the last letter I had of him, nearly three Standards gone. His Name Day is more than a relumma past, and I have heard nothing! I must prepare, for the benefit of Korval. yos’Galan must prepare, as well!”

“Is he dead, then?”

His query was quite calm. Had she been less wrought up herself, she might have mistrusted such calmness. As it was, she gasped and stared up at him, dimly aware that somehow during the course of the interview the lines of melant’i had shifted so that it was no longer Korval’s First Speaker, eldema-pernard’i, in conference with the Head of Line yos’Galan, but a younger sibling pleading with an elder.

“Dead?” she repeated, golden fingers snaking about each other in agitation. “How can I know? They answer no questions! The Scouts say he was placed on detached duty to the Department of the Interior these three years gone by. The Department of the Interior says he has been offered leave and refused it; that it is not their part to force a man to go where he would rather not. They refuse to relay the message that he come to his Clan, when next he is able…”

And that, Shan thought, was not as it should be. Even the Scouts, who had little patience with many things Liaden—even the Scouts, appealed to in need, had sent broadbeam across the stars that Scout Captain Val Con yos’Phelium was required immediately at home, on business of his Clan. So had Val Con come, too, in remarkably short time, shaky with too many Jumps made one after another, to stand and weep with the rest of them at his foster mother’s bier.

“If he will not come to us—” Nova was saying distractedly, “If he is so angry with me, even now…”

And there was the nub of it, Shan knew. When last he had been home on leave, Val Con had quarreled with his sister, the First Speaker, over her insistence that he take himself a contract-bride and provide the Clan with his heir. That quarrel had been running for several years, with subtle variations as each jockeyed for position. There was very little real pressure that Nova as Korval-in-Trust could bring upon Korval Himself, whether he chose at the moment to take up the Ring and his Delmhood, or remain mere Second Speaker. However, the Second Speaker was bound to obey the First, as was any Clanmember, and the Clan demanded of each member a child, by universal Clan Law. A pretty problem of melant’i and ethics, to be sure, and one Shan was glad to contemplate from a distance. Obviously even Val Con had bowed to at least part of melant’i’s necessity, as evidenced by that snappish letter. But still…

“That’s hardly like him, denubia. Val Con’s never held a grudge that long in all his life.”

His attempted comfort backfired. Nova’s violet eyes filled with tears, and her hands knotted convulsively.

“Then he is dead!”

“No.” He bent to cup her face in his big brown hands. “Sister, listen to me: Has Anthora said he is dead?”

She blinked, gulped, and shook her head so the blond hair snared his wrists.

“Have you asked her?”

Another headshake, fine hairs clinging to his skin like grade-A silk, and he read the two terrors within her.

“Anthora is dramliza,” he said patiently, beginning to pay out a Healer’s line of comfort as pity overtook him. “She holds each of us in her mind like a flame, she told me once. Best to ask and know for certain.”

Nova touched the tip of her tongue to her lips, hesitating.

“Ask,” he urged, seeing with satisfaction that her agitation quieted under his weaving of comfort and gentle hope. “If this Department of the Interior flouts Clan tradition, then we will search ourselves. Korval has some resources, after all.”

“Yes, of course,” she murmured, moving her cheek against his palm in a most un-Novalike demonstration of affection. Shan cautiously lowered his level of input and pulled his hands away. She would do, he judged. Korval’s First Speaker had a cool, level head. Even without his aid, she would have taken up her charge again very shortly and done all she perceived as necessary to keep the Clan in Trust for Korval’s Own Self.

Shan shook his head slightly. He had briefly held the post Nova now filled and did not envy her the necessity of running a Clan composed of such diverse and strong-willed persons. Dutiful Passage was more to his taste, more in keeping with his abilities; yet the trading life had bored Nova to distraction.

He smiled down at her—the only one of the three yos’Galans who had inherited all their Terran mother’s height. “Ask Anthora,” he advised again. “And tell me what I can do to help us find our brother.”

She returned his smile faintly, a bare upward curve of pale lips. “I will think upon it. In the meanwhile, do think upon what we discussed earlier…”

Anger flared, but he held it in check, unwilling to give her cause to fear the loss of another brother. “I will not contract-wed. I have done my duty, and the Clan has my daughter in its keeping. I have done more than my duty—I hear that the child Lazmeln got from me aspires to be a pilot. Leave it.”

“If Val Con is dead—if he is eklykt’i—then yos’Galan must be ready to assume its position as Korval’s First Line. You are Thodelm yos’Galan—head of our Line! You are A’nadelm, next to be Delm, if Val Con—”

“If Val Con!” The anger clawed loose for an instant before he enclosed it. “If Anthora claims our brother dead, I still demand to see the body: my right as kin, my right as cha’leket, my right as A’nadelm! You do not make me Korval so easily, sister. Nor do I contract-wed again, and so I do swear!”

Her face was stricken; he felt the grief roiling off her like bitter smoke and made his bow, utterly formal.

“With the First Speaker’s permission,” he said precisely, and left her before it was given.

 

Excerpt from Carpe Diem ©1989 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Available from Baen as an ebook: http://www.baen.com/carpe-diem.html
Also Available as an Audible audibook, MP3 CD, and Kindle edition.

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