First Chapter Friday: Crystal Soldier

Full disclosure:  Crystal Soldier is not the first book in the Liaden Universe®, mostly because, err, it takes place in a Whole ‘Nother Universe — a universe that is not only at war, but is losing the war.

It is the first book of a duology (the second book, despite Sharon’s insistence that she would not, no never, title a book Crystal Dragon, is — Crystal Dragon), which can be read independent of the Liaden Universe® novels.

Soldier was published in 2004 by Meisha Merlin, as a single title; Baen returned it to print as part of the omnibus edition The Crystal Variation, including Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, and Balance of Trade, available everywhere.  Or it can be purchased as an ebook from Baen ebooks, and Amazon.

A detail we have neglected to mention in our previous First Chapter Friday posts (because the first two titles were available as free ebooks) is this — if you’re kinda, sorta hooked by what you read here, but you’re still not really certain you want to commit to a whole book, Baen has on its site the first nine chapters of this (and indeed,  all of their ebooks), free for the reading.

Excerpt from Crystal Soldier, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2004

PART ONE: SOLDIER
One
On the ground, Star 475A
Mission time: 3.5 planet days and counting

JELA CROUCHED IN the dubious shade of a boulder at the top of the rise he’d been climbing for half a day. Taller rock columns on either side glared light down at him, but at least helped keep the persistent drying wind and flying grit from his lips and face.

At the forward side of the boulder, down a considerably steeper slope than the one he’d just climbed, should be the river valley he’d been aiming to intersect ever since he’d piloted his damaged vessel to the desolate surface four days before.

Overhead and behind him the sky was going from day-blue to dusk-purple while—on that forward side of the boulder—the local sun was still a few degrees above the horizon, bright over what once had been a ragged coastline.

In theory he should be watching his back; in theory at least one of his guns should be in his hand. Instead, he used both hands to adjust his cap, and then to slip the sand-lenses off. He used them as a mirror, briefly, and confirmed that his face was not yet in danger of blistering from the sun’s rdiation or the wind’s caress.

Sighing, he replaced the lenses, and craned his head a bit to study the mica-flecked sandstone he sheltered against, and the scarring of centuries of unnatural winds and weather. The purpling sky remained clear, as it had been all day, and all the previous days—no clouds, no birds, no contrails, no aircraft, no threats save the featureless brilliance of the star; no friends, no enemy spiraling in for the kill, no sounds but the whisper of the dry, pitiless, planetary breeze.

So certain was he that he was in no danger that the rescue transponder in his pocket was broadcasting on three frequencies . . .
He sighed again. Without an enemy—or a friend—it would take a long time to die in the arid breeze.

Friends. Well, there was hope of friends, or comrades at least, for he’d drawn off the attacking enemy with a reflexive head-on counterattack that should not have worked—unless the attacking ship was actually crewed rather than autonomous. He’d fired, the enemy had fired, his mother ship had fired . . . and amid the brawl and the brangle his light-duty vessel had been holed multiple times, not with beams, but with fast moving debris.

Both the enemy and the Trident had taken high speed runs to the transition points, leaving Jela to nurse his wounded craft into orbit and then spiral down to the surface and attempt a landing, dutifully watching for the enemy he was certain was well fled.
There was no enemy here, no enemy other than a planet and a system succumbing to the same malaise that had overtaken a hundred other systems and a hundred dozen planets in this sector alone. Sheriekas!

Sheriekas. They’d been human once, at least as human as he was—and even if his genes had been selected and cultivated and arranged, he was arguably as human as anyone who didn’t bear a Batch tattoo on both arms—but they’d willfully broken away, continuing with their destructive experiments and their… constructs… while they offered up a grand promise of a future they had no intention of sharing.

They’d named themselves after their own dead planet, which they’d destroyed early on in their quest for transformation—for superiority. In their way, they were brilliant: Conquering disease after disease, adjusting body-types to planets, increasing life-spans . . . . They’d been driven to achieve perfection, he supposed, having once known a dancer who had destroyed herself in the same quest, though she hadn’t had the means to take entire star systems with her.

And the sheriekas—they achieved what his dancer had not. To hear them tell it, they were the evolved human; the perfected species. Along the way, they’d created other beings to accomplish their will and their whims. And then they’d turned their altered understanding back along the way they had come, looked on the imperfect species from which they had shaped themselves—and decided to give evolution a hand.
So they had returned from wherever it was they had gone, sowing world-eaters, robot armor, and destruction as they came . . . .

It had been a big war—the First Phase, they called it, fought well before his time—and the after-effects spread over generations. That those refusing the initial offer of sheriekas guidance had supposed they’d won the war rather than a battle meant… It meant that Jela was here, fighting a battle centuries later.. and that there was no pretense from the enemy, now, of benevolent oversight.

Jela blinked against the glare, pulling his mind back from its ramble. There was a real danger, with your Generalist, of feeding them so much info they got lost in their own thoughts, and never came out again.

He couldn’t afford that—not here. Not yet. He had time, he had duty. All he needed to do was get off this planet, back to a base and . . .
His timer shook silently against his wrist. Water.

He leaned into the warm boulder and dug into the left leg pouch, fingers counting over the sealed bulbs. Ten. That meant that there were still ten in the right leg pouch. He always drew first from the left, ever since the fight where he’d broken his right leg.

The leg ached in sympathy with the thought, as it sometimes did, and M. Jela Granthor’s Guard, Generalist, finished his water, uncurled himself, stretched, and danced several fight moves to bring up his attention level. Feeling considerably refreshed—his was a resilient Strain—he moved around the boulder, heading down.

Behind him, his shadow was flung back across a day’s walk or more as he strode across the ridge, but there was no one there to notice.

* * *

FROM ORBIT IT had seemed clear that something . . . unusual . . . had been at work on the world, and that a good deal of time and energy had been spent in this, the last of the river valleys likely to have retained life under the onslaught of meteor-storms and radiation bursts. After concluding that his vessel would not in fact leave the surface in its current state, there’d been little left to do but sit and hope—or explore the structures on either side of the river. Being a Generalist—and an M—he’d naturally opted for exploration.

Moments after stepping around the boulder and moving on his way, he realized that, somehow, he was not exactly where he thought he should be. He was not overlooking the valley that led to the tip of the former river delta, but was instead on the rim of a side valley.

Curiosity drove him to check his position against the satellite sensors—and he sighed. Gone, or down to three and all but one on the wrong side of the planet at the moment. They hadn’t had time to get the things into stationary orbits.

“Can’t triangulate without a triangle…”

The breeze took his voice along with it and rewarded him a moment later with an echo.

He laughed mirthlessly. Well, at least that ranging system worked. It was, alas, a system he’d never learned to use, though he’d been told that on certain worlds the experts could say a song across a snowy mountain range and tell, from the echoes, distance as well as the safety of an ice pack.

Ice pack. Now there was a dangerous thought! Truth was that this world used to have an ice pack, but what it had now for all its trouble were two meteor scarred polar regions and a star with so dangerously and preternaturally active a surface that it could be a candidate for a nova in a million years or so. His ship’s geologist had speculated that in the height of planetary winter—five hundred or so local days hence, when the planet was nearly a third more distant from its star—there might be enough cold to accumulate a water snow to some significant depth—say as deep as his boots—on the northern plains and cap.

Checking the magnetic compass for north he saw a nervously twittering display as the field fluctuated, and he wondered if there’d be another round of ghostly electric coronas lighting the night sky.

As he walked across the rocky ridge, anger built. Within historical record—perhaps as recently as two thousand Common Years—this world has been a candidate for open air colonization. In the meantime? In the meantime the sheriekas conceived and mounted a bombardment of the inner system, setting robots to work in the outer debris clouds and targeting both the star and this world.

Kill. Destroy. Make life, human, animal, any—already improbable enough—impossible…

The sheriekas did this wherever they could, as if life itself was anathema. Overt signs of sheriekas action were an indication that a planet or a system held something worthwhile…

And so here was Jela—perhaps the first human to set foot on the planet, perhaps the last—trying to understand what was here that so needed destroying, what was here that the sheriekas hated enough to focus their considerable destructive energies upon.

It wasn’t useful to be angry at the enemy when the enemy wasn’t to hand. He sighed, called to mind the breathing exercises and exercised, dutifully. Eventually, he was rewarded with calm, and his pace smoothed out of the inefficient angry stride to a proper soldier’s ground-eating lope.

Suddenly he walked in near darkness, then out again as the defile he’d entered widened. In time of snow or rain this would have been a dangerous place. It was as convenient a walkway as any, now that the plants were killed off or gone subsurface, now that the animals, if there had been any, were long extinct.

After some time he found himself more in the dark than otherwise, saw the start of a flickering glow in the sky to the north, and stopped his march to take stock. Underfoot was windblown silt. Soft enough to sleep on.

He ran through his ration list mentally, pulled out a night-pack, selected his water, and camped on the spot. Overhead the sky flickered green fire until well after he went to sleep.

* * *

THE FOOTING HAD become treacherous and Jela half-regretted his decision to travel with light-pack. The dangle-cord he carried was barely three times his height and it might have been easier to get through the more canyon-like terrain with the long rope. On the other hand, he was moving faster than he would have with the full pack, and he’d have had no more rations anyway…

Now that he was below the ridges rather than walking them he found the grit and breeze not quite so bad, though the occasional eddy of wind might still scour his face with its burden. Too, not being constantly in the direct rays of the local star helped, though that might be a problem again as it approached mid-day. For the moment, though, he was making time, and was in pretty good shape.

Rations now. Rations were becoming an issue. It was true that his rations were designed to let him work longer on less, and it was equally true that he’d been designed—or at least gene-selected—to get by on less food than most people ate, and to be more efficient in his use of water. Unfortunately, it was also true that he did require some food, some water, some sleep, and some shelter—or he, like most people in similarly deprived circumstances, would die.

Bad design, that dying bit, he thought—but no, that was what the sheriekas had thought to conquer—and perhaps had conquered. No one seemed to know that for sure. Meanwhile, he—Generalist Jela—had been designed with human care, and he approved of much of the design. He could see and hear better than average, for instance, his reaction times were fast and refined—and he was far stronger for his size than almost anyone.

It was this last bit of design work that had got his leg broken, despite it, too, being stronger than average. He just couldn’t hold the weight of six large men on it at once. He’d gone over that fight in his mind many times, and with several fighting instructors. He’d done everything right—just sometimes, no matter what, you were going to lose.

He was rambling again. Deliberately, he brought his attention back to the job at hand. The next moment or two would bring him to the mouth of the canyon and into the valley proper; soon he should have sight of the structures he’d spotted on his recon runs.
The possibility that they were flood control devices had been suggested by the ship’s geologists, as well as the idea that they were “cabinets” for some kind of energy generating stations that needed to be able to survive both flood and ice. Dams—for water conservation? Even the idea that they were the remains of housing had been suggested…

His stomach grumbled, protesting the lack of wake-up rations. He figured he’d be hungry for awhile. No reason to break that next pack open quite yet.

He slogged on, cap shading his eyes, watching for the first sign of the—

There! There was one!

It was silted in, of course, and beyond it another—but the form of it, the details of it, the stubs—
He ran—a hundred paces or so it was to the nearest—put his hand on it—

Laughed then, and shook his head.

And laughed some more, because he didn’t want to cry.

First Chapter Friday: Agent of Change

It’s Friday again, and you know what that means, right?  Right!  Time for another free first chapter to whet your appetite for more.  This week, we decided to bring you the first chapter — the very first chapter EVER, written in 1984, for the book titled Agent of Change, published in 1988 by Del Rey, as a paperback original

Once again — if you like this chapter and want to know what happens next, the whole book is available for free from the Baen Free Library, from Amazon, Kobo and the rest of the Usual Suspects.

If you like Agent, you have many more books ahead of you.  Here’s a list to get you started.

Excerpt from Agent of Change, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 1988

 

Chapter One
Standard Year 1392

THE MAN WHO was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.

And that, Sam insisted, was clear proof. Terry had never done anything quietly in his life if there was a way to get a fight out of it.
Pete, walking at Sam’s left behind the prisoner, wasn’t so sure. To all appearances, the man they had taken was Terrence O’Grady. He had the curly, sandy hair, the pug nose, and the archaic black-framed glasses over pale blue eyes, and he walked with a limp of the left leg, which the dossier said was a souvenir of an accident way back when he’d been mining in the Belt of Terado.

They stopped at a door set deep into the brick wall of the alley. Up in front, Russ raised his fist and struck the heavy kreelwood twice.
They waited, listening to the noises of the night city beyond the alley. Then the door opened silently on well-oiled hinges, and they were staring down a long hallway.

As he stepped over the threshold, Pete gritted his teeth and concentrated on the back of the man before him. The man who was not Terrence O’Grady. Maybe.

It was in no way a remarkable back: slightly stoop-shouldered, not quite on a level with Pete’s own. Terrence O’Grady, the dossier noted, was short and slender for a Terran, a good six inches below the average. This made him a valuable partner for bulky Sam, who handled the massive mining equipment effortlessly, but was not so well suited to exploring the small gaps, craters, and crevices where a rich vein might hide.

Sam and Terry made money in the Belt. Then Terry quit mining, bought himself some land with atmosphere over it, and settled into farming, child raising, and even politics.

Eight years later Sam got a bouncecomm from Terry’s wife: Terrence O’Grady had disappeared.

Sam went to talk to wife and family, as an old friend should; he asked questions and nosed around. No corpse had been found, but Sam declared Terry dead. He’d been too stubborn a dreamer to run out on all of them at once. And, given Terry’s luck, someone would have had to kill him to make him dead before old age.

Sam said Terry had been murdered three years ago.

But recently there had been rumors, and then this person here—wearing a dead man’s face and calling himself by a dead man’s name.
Pete shook himself as they rounded a sharp corner and barely avoided stepping on the prisoner.

“Look sharp!” Sam whispered harshly.

They turned another corner and came into a brightly lit, abandoned office.

The man who was not Terrence O’Grady nearly smiled.

From this point on, he knew the layout of each of the fourteen suites in this building, the voltage of the lighting fixtures, the position of doors and windows, the ambient temperature, and even the style and color of the carpets.

Within his mental Loop, he saw a number shift from .7 to .85. The second figure changed a moment later from .5 to .7. The first percentage indicated Chance of Mission Success; the second, Chance of Personal Survival. CMS recently had been running significantly above CPS.
His escort halted before a lift, and both numbers rose by a point. When the lift opened onto an office on the third floor, the Loop flickered and withdrew—the more imminent the action, the less precise the calculations.

* * *

THE DESK WAS beautiful, made of inlaid teak and redwood imported from Earth.

The man behind the desk was also imported from Earth and he was not beautiful. He had a paunch and an aggressive black beard. Soft hands laced together on the gleaming wood, he surveyed the group with casual interest.

“Thank you, gentlemen. You may stand away from the prisoner.”

Russ and Skipper dropped back, leaving the man who was not O’Grady alone before Mr. Jaeger’s desk.

“Mr. O’Grady, I believe?” Jaeger purred.

The little man bowed slightly and straightened, hands loose at his sides.

In the depths of his beard, Jaeger frowned. He tapped the desktop with one well-manicured finger.

“You’re not Terrence O’Grady,” he said flatly. “This readout says you’re not even Terran.” He was on his feet with a suddenness surprising in so soft an individual, hands slamming wood. “You’re a damned geek spy, that’s what you are, Mr.—O’Grady!” he roared.

Pete winced and Sam hunched his shoulders. Russ swallowed hard.

The prisoner shrugged.

For a stunned minute, nobody moved. Then Jaeger straightened and strolled to the front of the desk. Leaning back, he hooked thumbs into belt loops and looked down at the prisoner.

“You know, Mr. …O’Grady,” he said conversationally. “There seems to be a conviction among you geeks—all geeks, not just humanoid ones—that we Terrans are pushovers. That the power of Earth and of true humans is some kind of joke.” He shook his head.

“The Yxtrang make war on our worlds and pirate our ships; the Liadens control the trade economy; the turtles ignore us. We’re required to pay exorbitant fees at the so-called federated ports. We’re required to pay in cantra, rather than good Terran bits. Our laws are broken. Our people are ridiculed. Or impersonated. Or murdered. And we’re tired of it, O’Grady. Real tired of it.”

The little man stood quietly, relaxed and still, face showing bland attention.

Jaeger nodded. “It’s time for you geeks to learn to take us Terrans seriously—maybe even treat us with a little respect. Respect is the first step toward justice and equality. And just to show you how much I believe in justice and equality, I’m going to do something for you, O’Grady.” He leaned forward sharply, his beard a quarter-inch from the prisoner’s smooth face. “I’m going to let you talk to me. Now. You’re going to tell me everything, Mr. O’Grady: your name, your home planet, who sent you, how many women you’ve had, what you had for dinner, why you’re here—everything.” He straightened and went back around the desk. Folding his hands atop the polished wood, he smiled.
“Do all that, Mr. O’Grady, and I might let you live.”

The little man laughed.

Jaeger snapped upright, hand slapping a hidden toggle.

Pete and Sam dove to the left, Russ and Skipper to the right. The prisoner hadn’t moved at all when the blast of high-pressure water struck, hurling him backward over and over until he slammed against the far wall. Pinned by the torrent, he tried to claw his way to the window.

Jaeger cut the water cannon and the prisoner collapsed, chest pounding, twisted glasses two feet from his outflung hand.

Russ yanked him up by a limp arm; the man staggered and straightened, peering about.

“He wants his glasses,” Pete said, bending over to retrieve the mangled antiques.

“He don’t need no glasses,” Russ protested, glaring down at the prisoner. The little man squinted up at him.

“Ah, what the hell—give ’em to him, then.” Russ pushed the prisoner toward the desk as Pete approached.

“Mr. Jaeger?” he ventured, struck by an idea.

“Well?”

“If this ain’t O’Grady, how come the water didn’t loose the makeup or whatever?” To illustrate, Pete grabbed a handful of sandy curls and yanked. The little man winced.

“Surgery?” Jaeger said. “Implants? Injections and skintuning? It’s not important. What’s important—to him and to us—is that the readout says he’s a geek. Terry O’Grady was no geek, that’s for sure.” He turned his attention to the prisoner, who was trying to dry his glasses with the tail of his saturated shirt.

“Well, Mr. O’Grady? What’s it going to be? A quick talk or a slow death?”

There was a silence in which Pete tried to ignore the pounding of his heart. This was a part of the job that he didn’t like at all.

The little man moved, diving sideways, twisting away from Russ and dodging Skipper and Sam. He hurled a chair into Pete’s shins and flung himself back toward the desk. Sam got a hand on him and was suddenly airborne as the little man threw his ruined glasses at Jaeger and jumped for the window.

Jaeger caught the glasses absently, standing behind his desk and roaring. The former prisoner danced between Russ and Skipper, then jumped aside, causing them to careen into each other. He was through the window before Pete caught the smell of acronite and spun toward the hallway.

The explosion killed Jaeger and flung Pete an extra dozen feet toward safety.

First Chapter Friday: Fledgling

So, there’s a new thing we’re taking part in, called First Chapter Friday, in which authors post the first chapter of one of their novels in a Clever Plot to get readers interested enough to buy the rest of the book.

Steve and I decided to post the first chapter of Fledgling as our first First Chapter Friday offering, for two reasons.

Reason ONE: If a reader is sufficiently captivated by this chapter and wishes to go on, they may do so immediately (so long as they don’t mind reading an ebook), and for free, by going to Amazon, or Baen eBooks, or any other of the Usual Suspects, and downloading it for free.  As in, for free.

Reason TWO:  Fledgling is the first book in the Theo Waitley story arc contained within the Liaden Universe®.  That means, if a reader likes Fledgling and wants to find out what happens to Theo, there are four more books awaiting them:  Saltation, Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship, and the just-released The Gathering Edge.

Excerpt from Fledging, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2009

One

Number Twelve Leafydale Place
Greensward-by-Efraim
Delgado

“Why do I have to go with her?” Theo demanded, and winced at the quaver in her voice. She’d meant to sound cool and remote and adult. Instead, she just sounded like a kid on the edge of a tantrum.

Housefather Kiladi looked up from his work screen and regarded her just a shade too seriously. Theo bit her lip.

“Because,” he said in his deep, calm voice, “in the culture predominant upon Delgado, children—by which I mean those persons who have not attained what that same culture deems as their majority—are understood to be submissive to, and the responsibility of, their biological mother.” He raised a strong eyebrow. “Surely you are aware of these things, Theo.”

Well, she was. But that didn’t mean she had to like them. Or live with them.

“You’re the one who taught me that accepting cultural mores is a choice,” she said, pleased that her voice was steady now, if still more heated than she would have liked. “I don’t choose to accept these particular conditions.”

“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair, hands folded on the edge of his desk, considering her out of thoughtful black eyes. “But a decision to rebel against predominant standards is only half a decision. What will you do instead?”

“I’ll stay here. With you.” There. She’d said it.

Both eyebrows rose, and he tipped his head to one side, consideringly. Theo felt a brush against her knee, and a moment later black-and-white Mandrin leapt to the top of the desk and sat down primly next to the keyboard.

“A bold and straightforward plan,” Father said eventually. “My congratulations.” He reached out to scratch Mandrin’s ears. “I must ask, however, if you have considered all the ramifications of this choice.”

Theo eyed him. “What do you mean?”

“Decisions have consequences,” he murmured, his attention seemingly centered on the cat, though she knew better. Jen Sar Kiladi had been her mother’s onagrata for as long as Theo could remember. She knew him every bit as well as she knew her mother—and I like him better, too, she thought rebelliously.

“For instance,” he told Mandrin. “Your mother will certainly be both shocked and saddened by this decision. She may exert her influence. Ethics and law are, as you know, on her side. How will you respond? To what extent are you willing to fund this choice? How much sorrow are you willing to cause? How much disdain are you willing to bear? Surely, your friends must recoil as you step beyond that which they feel and know to be proper. Your mentor may consider it incumbent upon her to alert the Safety Office, and the Safeties deem it their duty to intervene.”

Mandrin shook her head vigorously, as if these possibilities were too awful to contemplate. Professor Kiladi smiled slightly and refolded his hands, gaze settling on the untidy stack of hard copy on the desk-side table.

“In fact,” he told the papers gravely, “such deviance from the norm might come to the attention of the Chapelia, who would perhaps feel Moved to send a Simple to you, to ascertain if your rebellion might Teach.”

He glanced up and pinned her in a sharp glance.

“If you were to ask me—which I note that you have not—I would say the price seems excessive for what may be at most a few months’ inconvenience.” He inclined his head. “You must, of course, please yourself.”

Theo swallowed. “You don’t know that it’s only for a few months,” she said, her voice unsteady again.

“Do I not?” he murmured in that over-polite voice he used when he thought you were being especially stupid. “How inept of me.”

Theo looked down at the floor and the blaze of galaxies dancing there. Father’s study floor usually projected the star fields; he said they helped to put his work into perspective. Theo’s mother said they made her dizzy.

“Do you,” she said, raising her head and meeting his eyes. “Do you know for certain that it’s only going to be a couple months?”

“Child . . .” He came out of his chair in one of his boneless, catlike moves, flowing toward her across the pirouetting stars, silent in his soft, embroidered slippers. “Nothing in life is certain. Your mother tells me that she requires a few months to concentrate on her own affairs. She is, I believe, at a delicate point with regard to her career, and wishes to do all that she may to advance herself.”

He paused, head cocked to one side. “Who am I to argue with such excellent reasons? Kamele is scrupulous in these matters, and I, at least, admire her determination. For I don’t hide from you, Theo, that I am a lazy fellow. Indeed, if I did not already enjoy tenure and a position I would surely be too indolent to seek them.”

“You’re not lazy,” she said sullenly, and took a deep breath. “And the fact is, you don’t know when—or if!—she’ll decide to come back here. She might decide to, to . . .”

. . . to choose another onagrata, which was—unthinkable. Theo took a hard breath. I won’t cry, she thought. I won’t!

“She may decide to remain separate from me,” Father said, completing her thought smoothly, like it didn’t matter. “She may decide to seek another arrangement for herself and for you. These things fall within her rights as an adult in this society. However, if you will give the matter only a little consideration, I believe you will discover that you have some rights, as well. For how long have we enjoyed our private dinner on Oktavi evening?”

She blinked at him. “Ever since Kamele started teaching the late seminar,” she said. “Years and years.”

“So, it is a long-standing arrangement to which your mother has given her consent. There is therefore no reason to discontinue our pleasant habit, unless you wish to do so.”

“I don’t!”

“Then there is no more to be said.” He tipped his head, consideringly. “This is not, I think, something for Delm Korval.”

He wanted her to laugh, Theo thought. Treating her like a kid. Well . . . she wouldn’t laugh, that was all.

But she did feel, just a little, relief, knowing that the just-them Oktavi dinner would stand, no matter where Kamele—

The ancient mechanical clock wall mounted over Father’s desk struck its two notes just then—one for the hour, and one for the eighth, which was seven—and a muted thweep from her pocket registered her mumu’s agreement.

Professor Kiladi moved his shoulders in his familiar, supple shrug, and reached out to tousle her hair, like she was six instead of fourteen.

“The hour advances, child. Go finish packing. Your mother will wish to leave for the Wall before night opens its eyes.”

“I—” She cleared her throat. “I’ll come by your office on Oktavi, at the usual time.”

“Indeed,” he said solemnly. “I anticipate the occasion with pleasure.” He smiled, then, gently. “Take good care, Theo. We need not be strangers, you know.”

“I know,” she said. Mustering her dignity, she turned to go, only to find her body overruling her mind, as it so often did. She spun, flinging herself against him in a hug, squeezing tight, feeling strong arms hugging her in return.

“You take care,” she muttered fiercely into his shoulder. “Promise me, Father.”

“I promise, child,” he murmured, his deep voice a comfort. He released her, stepping back out of the embrace.

“Go, now. Be on time for your mother.”

#

Theo dropped the case containing her music slips into the packing cube, narrowly missing Coyster’s inquisitive pink nose.

“Keep out of there!” she told him, turning back toward the desk. “You don’t want to get packed, do you?”

Coyster didn’t answer. Theo swept up her biblioslips, the extra thread and her back-up hooks, and went back to the cube, walking so hard that the simulated koi swimming in the floor mosaic dashed away to hide under the simulated lily pads.

Bending, she put her things carefully into the cube and sighed, staring down into the half-empty interior. Beside her, Coyster sighed in sympathy and settled onto the rippling blue waters, white paws tucked neatly under orange chest, amber eyes serious.

“Hey.” Theo knelt and tickled him under the chin. “I’m going to miss you, cat,” she whispered, blinking hard. “Don’t play with Father’s lures, ‘k? You’ll get in trouble if I’m not around to untangle them for you.”

Coyster squeezed his eyes shut in a cat-smile, and Theo blinked again before giving him one last chuck under the chin and rising to her feet.

Her bed was stripped and folded away; the desk was clear. The desk itself, and the bed, were staying right here; all the faculty apartments in the Wall were furnished, Kamele had told her, adding that one desk was as good as another.

Theo doubted that, but Kamele had made it clear that the discussion period was closed, so she’d kept the thought to herself.

She took a deep breath. Really, she was almost done. All that was left was to take the pictures down, fold up the closet, and decide about her old books—and the mobile.

The mobile—that was hard. She’d made it herself for an art project, back when she’d been a kid. It was the Delgado System, with its space station and twin ringed ice giants, built to micro-scale. With Father’s help, she’d hung it up where the air from the vent would move it. Coyster had discovered it as a kitten, and had hatched all kinds of plans to reach it—from leaping straight up from the floor, to taking a running leap off the top shelf over the desk—but the mobile remained uncaptured.

Lately, he’d gotten above trying to capture it, but Coyster still harbored a fascination for the flying, spinning thing. Theo would entertain him—and herself—by changing the speed or direction of the air flow from the vent, to make the mobile twirl wildly, or spin verrrrry slowly. She turned her head. Yes, he was watching it now from his tuck-up next to the cube, ears set at a calculating angle.

Theo grinned, then nodded. That settled it. The mobile stayed; it would give Coyster something to do besides stalking Mandrin and playing with Father’s fishing gear.

The books . . . She wandered over to the shelf, koi beneath her shoes, and fingered the worn spines. Mr. Winter and the Mother of Snows; The Shy Kitten; I Can Find It!—stories for littlies, that Kamele and Father had read to her until she could read them herself, and did until she’d memorized them. Her fingers moved on, tarrying on Sam Tim’s Ugly Day, and a smile tugged at the corner of her unwilling mouth. “Is it worth taking to Delm Korval?” she whispered, and shook her head, eyes blurring again.

“Well.” She turned away from the shelf and looked down at the koi making lazy circles inside the floor. “No sense cluttering up my new room with books I never read anymore,” she said, maybe to the simulated fish, or maybe to the cat drowsing by the cube. She sniffled a little, and turned on her heel.

Her clothes hung orderly in the closet: dark green school coveralls with Team Three’s red stripes on shoulder and cuff; sweaters, jerseys, and slacks. She pulled her favorite sweater off its hanger, and slipped it on, her fingers stroking the border of bluebells ’round the cuff. It was too early for bluebells in the garden, of course, but—

She swallowed, blinking hard to clear her vision, and slapped the side of the closet harder than was really needed. It began to compress, hissing a little as the air squeezed out of her clothes.

Next stop was the control unit over the desk. She put her fingers against the keys, eyes closed so she didn’t have to see the picture of Delgado from the space station’s observation tower snap out of existence, or the picture of Zolanj, who had been Father’s cat before Mandrin, and who had sometimes agreed to sit on Theo’s lap, but never on Kamele’s. Or the picture of the river camp where Father went to fish, or . . .

Her fingers moved across the keypad with cold deliberation, like they belonged to someone else, while Theo bit her lip and reminded herself that they were stored in the house bank, and that she could easily retrieve them when she came . . . back.

Her fingers touched one last button; she took a deep breath and opened her eyes, to look ’round at her denuded room.

It looked . . . peculiar . . . with blank walls and floor, without all of her things spread around—like a stay-over room on the station. She blinked again, reminding herself for the hundredth time that she was not going to cry.

“Is this move really necessary?” she asked Coyster, but he was absorbed in watching the mobile and didn’t answer.

Theo shook her head. Something was wrong—really wrong—and whatever it was, the adults weren’t talking to her about it.

“Pack up, Theo, we’re moving to the Wall,” she said, in a wicked—and deadly accurate—imitation of Kamele in her I-am-the-mother voice.

And Father—Theo sniffed. She’d been sure he would understand her position. But he was just as bad as Kamele—Don’t be late for your mother! Treating her like she was a kid—

And that was wrong on a whole ‘nother level, Theo thought, as she leaned over the ambiset again, turning off the aromatics, white noise and breeze. Father never treated her like a kid—even when she acted like one. Especially when she acted like one.

She chewed her lip, staring down into the blank floor. Kamele wasn’t stupid—and neither was Housefather Kiladi, despite his frequent claims to the contrary. If whatever was going on was so twisty that they couldn’t untwist it . . .

“Maybe we ought to take it to Delm Korval, after all,” she said over her shoulder in Coyster’s general direction. He sneezed, and she grinned, reluctantly.

Behind her came the snap of the closet’s magnetic locks meeting and sealing. At that instant, her mumu thweeped its reminder—her mother would be waiting downstairs, with new keys in hand, and a determination to leave the house on Leafydale Place, where Theo had lived her whole life. ‘Til now.

“Chaos!” Theo muttered. She grabbed the closet’s handle and dashed back to the cube, sealing it with one hand while she dragged her bag over a shoulder with the other.

One last look then around the blank, bleak room. Then she took a firm grip on closet and cube and hurried out. Behind her, in the empty room, the left-behind storybooks trembled on their shelf, and one tumbled to the featureless floor.