The Gathering Edge
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
©2016 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Orbital Aid 370
The radioed message from Stost was clear, while sound from outside their suits was muddied and muffled. There was still atmosphere here, for what that was worth. There were also odd vibrations, and strange sounds too, here in the crew quarter zone, the most worrisome being a continuous scratch-scratch-scratch. It was best, Chernak assured herself, not to think too closely on it. After all, they were just passing through.
There was another sound — familiar, even companionable — the sound of breathing not her own, coming through her headset. She concentrated on that, even as she observed the passage they moved down, alert for threats, for traps, for —
The way ahead was blocked by an undogged door, likely last touched by a dead man. The light in hand would have to do; they could not manage their kits and their cases, and the cases could not be abandoned. The beam sprayed about weirdly, the passageway was bent in ways it had not been when they’d boarded. Gravity was wavering.
Calling the ship plan to mind, Chernak realized there was another emergency cabinet ahead, which might be useful. She signed to Stost, behind her, to slow, heard a tap in the troop cadence asking again for speed, which was understandable, given the state of the hallway. It went against instinct, but caution was key, here; they could not afford to rush into error; neither could lay down their burdens; both were required for mission success.
“Patience.” Her voice was perhaps louder than it needed to be, with Stost quite so close.
A touch on her shoulder, fleeting, perhaps even gentle. She took a full breath of the stored air, stood straighter.
They both wore generic soft-suits from the rack, extra flexible, high-visibility, patterned with glowing stripes, but without rank marks. Not that Pathfinder Chernak needed to see rank marks to know who she was, who her companion was, or where either stood within the Troop. As equal as might be, male and female versions of the same genotype, date and times of their first breaths so close as to have the same certified minute mark.
Both were pathfinders by training and birth and. . .she was seven seconds the elder. They shared the seventh minute of the seventh hour of the seventh day, and had been tagged as the “lucky ones” of their cohort by some K-grade staffer, for reasons they had never learned, and now never would; the Third Corps creche-world was long ago dust in a sheriekas raid.
“Patience,” she said again, less loudly. Being second was not easy.
The breathing in her ear changed to an exasperated sigh, over-loud in the dimness, and then a rebuttal:
“I had patience yesterday, when I knew what I faced.”
Yes, well. Patience.
In fact, they had been patient, yesterday, as they sought passage to the station while panic built among the city dwellers. Rumor was loose, rumor and griefers and doubters all reaching a crescendo as ships returned to port telling tales of runs ending in transition failure a dozen times in a row, while others reported successful transitions into systems staggering under the loss of entire planets.
The port authorities at Curker Center would have attached the pair of pathfinders to the garrison, as mere soldiers. Chernak and Stost, however, traveled on top level diplomatic ID, which they waved and worked with a fine bluster. The cases — one each — were strapped ’round them, under uniform jackets no longer so brave as they had been, and those they did not show.
Their orders identified them as part of a group of a dozen, but the other ten –
Of the other ten, four had never arrived in-system, two had arrived, and had been pressed into local garrison service. Four had died in an explosive ambush at Loadzt, where the histories of seven thousands worlds were being destroyed by attacks from within and without.
It was telling, that none who scrutinized their orders asked where the others of their team were.
Curker Center orbited Loadzt; the station orbited both. They arrived at Curker Center amid riot and screaming. Gunshots were not infrequently heard — it might have been a war-zone, itself.
They had orders; a mission. To fulfill the mission, they must find transport to the station.
They killed no one in their transit down the docks; they used what force was necessary to clear their path — and no more.
At last, they found a shuttle preparing to cast off. They had wrangled, demanded, and bribed, freely. Their orders directed them to win through at any cost with those items they had removed from the archives, now packed into the precious cases.
“I’m giving you the last of my pay!” Stost told the shuttle captain, who had wanted a year’s pay, and battle bonuses, too — for two places to stand, no straps, on the overcrowded shuttle to the station.
Grudgingly, the civilian let them by, and Stost had laughed as they rushed aboard.
“Oh, I hope the fool banks all of it tonight, for tomorrow night’s binge!”
There had been riots at Curker Center; on-station, there was chaos.
Cases hidden, they flashed diplomat cards, Troop marks, and high security pathfinder ID. The passenger docks were in riot as ships and crews were beset by would-be escapees. The vessel they had expected to be awaiting their team of twelve was not at the military dock – but they had long ago stopped believing in its existence. It was a matter, now, of the orders, and they were determined to run to the end of them. They were of the Troop; what else had they, but orders?
Against riot, disorder, and violence, the Troops on station were prepared to act. They were also prepared to absorb a pair of ragged pathfinders into the riot squad until those high security IDs were unleashed. It seemed for a moment that they would be required to contend for the return of those IDs, before the surly half-captain threw the cards back, only slightly stained with her blood.
“Try the trade docks, then. Run!”
To the trade docks they ran, then, half-way around the station through halls crowded by maddened civilians, arriving while two minute warnings blared, and in the midst of relative calm found a tech with an air mask ’round his neck, a repair belt over his shoulder, and senior crew hash on his sleeve, who was willing to see them, hear their orders, and consider their request for passage.
“Soldiers, we’ll be rushing a blockade,” he told them, serious, voice full of warning. “Bad odds!”
They’d glanced at each other, Stost and Chernak, recalling the Over Commander’s dismissal of their team, feeling the weight of their orders, which none had doubted would be their last.
Stost had signaled lead on. Chernak nodded to the crewman.
“Bad odds,” she said, “are better than no odds.”
“Come ahead, then,” he told them, and they boarded behind him, seconds before the final check bell rang —
They moved fast, past an inset ladder with well-worn treads leading up to a pressure seal, past dogged doors and hatches neatly labeled for utility pressure suits, emergency patch kits, spill containment, and one ornately inscribed, Jarbechapik — Bug Hut — past two doors with nameplates affixed, and. . .
“Pathfinders? Here – only open spots are crew seats back here in engineering quarters.”
“Head’s there.” Their guide tech pointed. “Crew room’s up ahead. Only me now, besides the bridge crew – the rest run off — run home, run to get drunk, run to hide, I guess. Grab a seat back there –” a nod in the direction of the crew room, a semi-salute – and he was gone.
They entered the proper compartment, the passageway a tunnel between stasis-storage units, and maintenance lockers – one wall marked with radiation protection signs, it being the rear bulkhead where a push ship might butt, another wall supporting two dozen lockers containing basic low pressure suits and tools.
“Just strap in,” had been the tech’s orders; “strap in and wait for me to fetch you out. The crew won’t know you and you might be called for pirates or worse if you aren’t with me.”
They strapped in, each with reference to their down-counting chronometers once they’d taken that catch-up breath, the one breath that signaled each other that now all they had to do was wait for whatever it was the Over Commander had not had the time — or the understanding — to explain.
The ship’s transition into independent orbit when it released from station had been smooth. But then, in moments, the action had started, bad odds, Stost signed lightly, recalling to both of them bad odds of the past.
They sat, strapped in and humble, during acceleration, during evasion, during the bombardment, accomplished pilots belted like pallets of spare ration bars into a compartment where they commanded no screens, nor any attention whatever.
However humiliating their situation, though, they could take pride in the fact that they were, as per their final orders, and according to Chernak’s chronometer, in space when the zeros matched across nine digits.
# # #
“Theo, the subetheric device on that ship is an unacceptable risk,” Bechimo said.
“Is it unstable?” Theo asked, with interest.
“No, it is not. However, I believe it is compromised. Responses to testing are ambiguous. This may reflect damage taken when it transitioned to this place, or it may be the result of deliberate tampering; it would be interesting to know which, but not at the cost of putting our crew in danger. I cannot allow that vessel on my decks. Surely you have not already forgotten the dangers inherent in a compromised unit.”
Since they’d only just replaced Bechimo’s own Struven unit, which they’d compromised in the course of that risky — not to say, theoretically impossible — Jump out of Ynsolt’i traffic, the dangers inherent in a compromised unit were vivid in Theo’s memory. Granted, from Bechimo’s point view, her memory was desperately short, and horrifyingly inaccurate, but she doubted he thought it was as bad as all that. Still, best to treat the comment as a conversational device, rather than deliberate sarcasm.
Even — especially — if she suspected sarcasm.
“I haven’t forgotten,” she said evenly. “But it can’t call anybody from here, can it?”
Here being a piece of space that Bechimo was pleased to style a “safe zone,” which was what Theo had originally considered to be “dead space,” where no signals came in, nor signals went out.
She’d since revised her opinion to “wyrd space” — which was straight out of your Thrilling Space Adventures — when teapots and other small bits of flotsam began phasing in from Galaxy Nowhere.
The latest bit of flotsam was looking likely to change her opinion again, assuming the math. . .but before she did math, she had to deal with an intact spaceship of somewhat baffling lines, more or less outfitted and arranged like a courier ship that had just phased in out of Jump. It held air, that ship; and all systems were go; the only things lacking being pilot and crew.
Unless the tree in the box of soil grey-taped into the co-pilot’s chair was, in fact, crew.
In any case, and even without the math, this was another order of business than teapots, random bits from what might have been instruments, hull shred, and broken tile.
“It can, in theory, influence us,” Bechimo said.
Theo thought about that, then shook her head.
“No, it can’t, because you put two layers of shielding around our unit, and set intruder alarms.”
“It could try to influence us.” Bechimo amended, sounding cranky.
“Sure it could,” she said soothingly. “And if it does, then you’ll stop it, and we’ll have learned something. Right now, it might be a puzzle, but it’s no more threatening than — than a teapot! You brought that on-board.”
“A teapot does not contain a subetheric unit,” Bechimo said, smug at having scored a point, which Theo guessed he’d earned. Maybe.
“Is it the captain’s intent to remain here, in safety?” he asked then, which wasn’t as much of a change of topic as it might seem to the uninitiated.
“Master Trader yos’Galan has directed us to abandon the route and return to home port,” Kara spoke up from Third Board. Hevelin the norbear — the norbear ambassador — was sitting on her knee, studying the screens like he was a pilot himself, which he wasn’t.
At least, Theo thought he wasn’t.
“Not to mention that Himself takes a personal interest,” Clarence added, from the co-pilot’s chair.
“Val Con says he wants me to come home and meet my new niece,” Theo said repressively. “No hurries, there.”
“He asked gently, for melant’i’s sake,” Kara murmured. “Truly, Theo, you do not wish to push your delm into issuing orders. Best to go home, as your brother asks.”
Theo sighed, quietly. Kara’d given that opinion before. Of course, Kara was Liaden and had it in her bones that a delm’s word was First Orders. She was having a hard time accommodating herself to Theo’s assertion that Val Con was not — nor Miri, either — Theo’s delm. Brother,yes, by reason of sharing a father — and of all the things she had never expected to have to take care of in her life, it was a brother. . .
Which was neither here nor there at the moment, and maybe not at all, her brother being. . .lifemated, like Liadens said, to a competent and sensible woman who was, so far as Theo had observed, entirely capable of keeping him from making any. . .particularly. . .bad decisions.
“Must we bring Spiral Dance aboard Bechimo?” asked Win Ton, the fourth breathing member of the crew, dragging them back to the original topic of discussion. “The air is good; the ship is space-worthy. Surely, we can conduct what explorations the captain finds necessary on her own decks.”
“If she phases with one of us is on-board. . .” Kara began.
Joyita cleared his throat, drawing all eyes to his image in Screen Six.
“There is no reason to worry about an unexpected phase to Jump,” he said — carefully, Theo thought; “Bechimo can tether Spiral Dance. Can you not, Bechimo?”
There was a pause, as if Bechimo was considering denying the possibility, or arguing against the risk of it, which was his favorite reason not to do a thing. When he answered, though, he sounded calm, maybe even a little too calm, at least to Theo’s trained ear.
“Yes, Joyita,” he said; “that is certainly possible. The risk to our crew will therefore be minimized.”
Theo nodded, trying to decide if she was more amazed by Joyita putting Bechimo on the spot, or by Bechimo actually agreeing to something so risky as a —
“Captain, may Engineering speak?” Kara being Engineering, she stood up at her station, putting Hevelin firmly in her chair, and giving his rusty shoulder a meaningful pat.
“The captain hears Engineering,” Theo said, matching Kara formal for formal. “Concerns?”
“If the Captain pleases. I had myself thought that a tether might be the best solution. I have researched the most commonly used tethers-and-tube combinations and run simulations. . .”
She leaned to her board, touched a button. The screen just below center in the main array brightened, displaying a diagrammed Bechimo, and a single blue line, tagged “tight tether,” and another line, labeled “access tube” connected from Bechimo to a diagram of Spiral Dance.
“The tube-and-tether solution is very workable in stable situations, such as a designated shipyard or repair facility, where traffic is controlled, and random things –” there was a bit of irritation there, Theo thought. Kara did not approval of the so-called flotsam with which this bit of “safe space” was afflicted —
“– phasing in without warning, from all directions at once, are not an issue. We cannot control our space; it is not — forgive me, Bechimo — in the context of a tether-and-tube scenario — safe. The flotsam has been getting larger. . .”
. . .all eyes went to the screen in which Spiral Dance, their latest bit of flotsam, lay quiescent, attached to Bechimo by an access tube.
“. . .and we may, therefore, need to move swiftly, or even Jump, in order to avoid a collision. In that situation, if we have crew aboard Spiral Dance, or in the tube, transiting. . .”
The diagram in the low center screen twisted, the blue line showing kinks and corkscrews, hazard indicators blooming in alarming shades of yellow, orange, and red…
“Any pitch-and-yaw above micro-grades will put a tremendous strain on the tube – it’s meant to be latched, for long-term use,” Kara said. “Even in circumstances much less extreme than a sudden need for evasive action, we might exceed the tube’s stretch limit. . .”
Theo blinked. The sim clearly showed that overstretching the tube’s limits could result in tearing, or in a rebound, in which scenario Spiral Dance might actually collide — forcefully — with Bechimo.
“That situation is avoidable,” Joyita said.
Kara nodded at him.
“Indeed. We might bring Spiral Dance into partnership with us; lock access hatches, and become one environment. . .”
“No,” said Bechimo, not at all loudly, but with finality.
“Why not?” Theo asked.
“While Kara’s solution solves the tube-stress problem, it does not solve the other problem she has identified. If we need to move quickly, the single latch-point is an unacceptable vulnerability — for us and for the other vessel.”
“I understand,” Theo said, the math running through her head like a melody. Whether it was her own math, or information Bechimo was feeding her through their bonding interface, wasn’t important. What was important was that she saw a third solution — that provided access, stability and maneuverability.
“We’re a trade ship,” she said.
“Yes?” she said, politely.
There was a moment of silence while the crew carefully didn’t look at each other in blank puzzlement. Theo settled back in her chair and waited to see who would work it out first.
Scouts in general specialized in thinking quick, and Win Ton had been trained as a Scout, so it wasn’t a big surprise that he got there ahead of Clarence, though just barely, judging by the arrested expression on her co-pilot’s face.
“We are, indeed, a trade ship,” Win Ton said, turning his chair to face Theo. He inclined his head. “Therefore, we have pod mounts.”
Kara blinked — and dove for her board, calling up inventory.
“Yes!” she said, her eyes on the screen. “We have enough hardware on hand to do it! We can mount Spiral Dance as a pod. If we are in danger, we may move as one unit; if we must, we can jettison. Else, we can maintain the tube, shorter, for better control. . .”
She sat down, narrowly missing Hevelin, who obligingly climbed onto the arm of her chair.
“It will require modifying a pod mount, but it is well within our capabilities. Win Ton and I have the experience to do this, Theo.”
Theo looked to Win Ton, who bowed lightly.
“I am pleased to assist Kara,” he said. “I have every confidence that we can accomplish this task quickly.”
Theo next looked to Clarence, who had been a Juntavas boss before his retirement, and subsequent hiring on as co-pilot on Bechimo. Clarence has a lot of practical experience, and he wasn’t shy about pointing out flaws in plans involving their lives. He was a good deal readier to take risks than Bechimo was, but Theo was beginning to think that could be said of most people.
Clarence, now — was nodding.
“I like it. If it’s mounted as a pod, locked in and secure — it’s us. Like Kara said, we can maneuver how and when we need, or drop it, if we gotta.” He nodded again, and grinned.
“Right you are, there, Captain. We’re a trade ship.”
Into the silence that followed this came a pleased mumble of murbles from Hevelin. A chuckle went round the crew, and Theo felt Bechimo’s tension fade.
“Yes,” he said. “Pod mounting and close-tube access will solve all difficulties.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do!” Theo stood up, saluting them all, with a special, small bow to Hevelin.
“OK, people. Let’s get to it. Kara and Win Ton — how long to modify the mount and seat our new pod?”
Kara looked to Win Ton, who moved his shoulders.
“A long-shift ought to see it done. The most difficult part will be matching mounts and tie-downs.”
“Which is always the most difficult part of securing a pod,” Kara said. “I concur, Theo; both of us, working one long shift will see the work done. If Win Ton is able, and with the captain’s permission, we may begin now.”
There was a small silence. Theo wasn’t sure if she actually saw Win Ton frown, or if she felt the change in his heart rate through the link with Bechimo, and understood his distress. Whatever it was, it was gone as soon as she was aware of it, and Win Ton was rising, face smooth, and shoulders relaxed.
“Soonest begun, soonest done,” he said easily. “I am perfectly able.”
“Good, then — with the captain’s permission?”
“Go to it,” Theo said, with a nod.
They left, Hevelin settling back into Kara’s chair with a sigh.
Theo echoed him, lightly.
“The scout’s still a little touchy about his recuperation,” Clarence commented from his station.
Theo nodded. Win Ton’s injuries had been. . .extreme. It only made sense that a complete recuperation would take time. He knew that, she was pretty sure — knew it academically. But Win Ton was a pilot — more than that; he was a scout pilot, his reactions fast and finely honed. It was natural he’d worry about. . .never fully regaining his skills.
“He’s pushing himself, a little,” she said to Clarence. “He’s smart enough not to push himself too much.”
“That’s right,” Clarence said. “My shift, then, captain?”
She glanced at the clock.
“Your shift, co-pilot; I’m going to get some sleep. Call me if we get a cruise liner coming through.”
# # #
The Gathering Edge, is the twentieth Liaden Universe® novel written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. It is the direct sequel to 2012’s Dragon Ship (making it the fifth book in the Theo Waitley arc). The action happens concurrently with the action in Alliance of Equals.
The Gathering Edge will be published as a hard cover, ebook and audiobook in May, 2017. You may preorder the hardcover now from Amazon. Uncle Hugo will be accepting preorders for signed and/or personalized editions after the first of the year.
Today’s winner of the MP3 edition of Dragon in Exile by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, narrated by Kevin T. Collins, is!
Number 97, whose secret identity is Jeff Mierzejewski, of Austin, Texas.
And you! Have you entered today’s drawing? What drawing you ask? Here’s the rules
Monday’s winner (awarded Tuesday) is!
Marni Rachmiel from Seattle.
You — yes, you! — still have time to enter your name for a chance to win one of the six remaining mp3 editions of Dragon in Exile. Here’s how to enter.
Steve and Sharon will be visiting a few bookstores to talk about Alliance of Equals. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hi!
July 5, 7 pm: Flights of Fantasy, Albany, NY
July 8, 7 pm: Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester, MA
July 9, 2 pm: Toadstool Books, Milford NH
July 16 2 pm: Childrens Bookcellar, Waterville ME
August 14, 2 pm: Barnes and Noble, 1920 N. Rock Road, Wichita, KS
As previously advertised, Steve and I will be at Boskone (February 19-21, 2016) in Boston, MA for New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s going to be a fun weekend filled with books, film, art, music, gaming, and more, and we’d love to see you there! For more information about Boskone, check out The Boskone Blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Visit the Boskone website to register. The Full Con Schedule may be found here.
Our schedule for the weekend is below. Also look for us in the Art Show, the Dealer’s Room, and sitting around the lobby, chatting with friends.
We also try to host a Friends of Liad breakfast each year at Boskone. Because this requires active collaboration with the hotel restaurant staff, we will not know time or day until we are on-site. As soon as we know, we will Put the Word Out.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Collaboration: Writers, Artists, and More!
Friday 6:00 – 6:50, Harbor III (Westin)
Creative collaboration is an endurance event. Each experience is different, whether working in a shared universe, co-writing a story, or working word by word with another author. Whatever the scenario, it can be an immensely rewarding experience. However, personalities can clash and the final decision isn’t always mutual. If you’re curious about creative collaborations and want to find out where to start or how to avoid the most common missteps, this panel is for you.
Steve Miller (M), Julie C. Day, Teddy Harvia, Stephen Hickman, Sharon Lee
Kaffeeklatsch 2: Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Saturday 10:00 – 10:50, Harbor I-Kaffeeklatsch 2 (Westin)
Foppish Fiction: The Dandy in SF/F/H
Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Harbor II (Westin)
The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro both hid their secret identities behind foppish appearances. We’ll explore their descendants, both male and female, in speculative fiction. Then there’s the effete ruler of a decadent empire as a trope (or is that a meme?) of our genres. And what about the sidekick with a flair for fashion? Why are our protagonists all Winters in jewel tones, and none of them Autumns in burnt umber?
Sharon Lee (M), Ellen Asher, Debra Doyle, Grady Hendrix, Walter Jon Williams
Reading: Steve Miller & Sharon Lee
Saturday 12:00 – 12:25, Griffin (Westin)
How You Get the Word Out: Starting and Running a Successful Podcast
Saturday 2:00 – 2:50, Harbor III (Westin)
Podcasting gives us an outlet to share our thoughts and ideas with the world, and everyone seems to have something (perhaps a lot) to say. But is podcasting right for everyone? How do you go about “bootstrapping” a podcast? What do you need and what do you need to know? How do you attract and keep an audience? Where do you find a place to host your site? Successful ‘casters pass on their secrets.
Steve Miller (M), Kate Baker, C.S.E. Cooney, Don Pizarro, Brianna Spacekat Wu
Romance Across Space and Time
Saturday 3:00 – 3:50, Marina 2 (Westin)
Romance shows up in the unlikeliest places: from prehistory to the far-flung future; from pole to pole; from fantasy and science fiction to horror. Must it be a guilty pleasure? Or should we proudly proclaim the heart of the matter: wherever they may find it, all the world loves a love story!
Darlene Marshall (M), D L Carter, Mary Kay Kare, Steve Miller, E.J. Stevens
Writing: Pinning Down Your Plot
Saturday 4:00 – 4:50, Marina 3 (Westin)
Complicated plots need proper handling. Writers who lose control of a twisty tale can confuse and/or alienate their readers. But just how do authors manage a complex story line? Come hear their tips for keeping track of the trickiest of plots.
Steven Popkes (M), Ken Altabef, Sharon Lee, Christie Meierz, Vincent O’Neil
Boskone Book Party
Saturday 6:00 – 7:20, Galleria-Stage (Westin)
Join us for Boskone’s Multi-Author Book Party, see what’s new from authors you love, and discover new favorites. Boskone is also launching three NESFA Press books tonight: The Collected Stories of Poul Anderson Vol 7, Conspiracy!, and The Grimm Future. (Authors and publishers with a new book and a current Boskone membership are welcome to take part; contact email@example.com for details.)
D L Carter, Tom Easton, Grady Hendrix, Carlos Hernandez, E. C. Ambrose, Judith K. Dial, Sharon Lee, Steve Miller, Cerece Rennie Murphy, N.A. Ratnayake, Erin Underwood
NESFA Book Club: Conflict of Honors by Sharon Lee & Steve MIller
Sunday 11:00 – 11:50, Griffin (Westin)
This February, the NESFA Book Club hosts its monthly meeting at Boskone. Join us as we discuss Conflict of Honors by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, who will join the group halfway through the discussion in order to lead a Q&A. All members are welcome and newcomers are encouraged to attend.
Michael Sharrow (M), Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Autographing: James Cambias, Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Sunday 12:00 – 12:50, Galleria-Autographing (Westin)
Take Me To Your Leader
Sunday 1:00 – 1:50, Harbor II (Westin)
Does SF/F get leaders all wrong? How do leaders in large organizations actually act? Are leaders creative? What motivates them? Let’s compare character archetypes from page and screen to real-world leaders.
Stephen P. Kelner Jr. (M), A.C.E. Bauer, Vincent Docherty, Sharon Lee, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Exoplanets Are Out There
Sunday 1:00 – 1:50, Burroughs (Westin)
Did you ever expect to view exoplanets from Earth? SF writers since Doc Smith seemed to assume we’d discover planets only when we approached the stars they orbited. Now astronomers have confirmed 2,000 exoplanets and counting; they’re designing new devices to resolve their spectra and hint at their habitability. Was this a failure of imagination, a choice to build drama, or an unexpected success of astronomical instrumentation? Didn’t any writers get it right?
Charles Gannon (M), Jeff Hecht, Beth Meacham, Steve Miller, Mark L. Olson
. . .from Sharon and Steve, and from Toni Weisskopf at Baen, who agreed that this had to be done.
Here is your Very First Taste of Alliance of Equals, the 19th novel set in the Liaden Universe®, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.
He rushed her, a tall Terran male, overtopping and outmassing her. Padi dropped back one step, flat-footed and centered, knees flexed — and he was on her, keeping himself tight, seeking to overturn her with his speed, and flatten her under his weight. She ducked inside his reach, snatching at belt and elbow, twisting her upper body, letting him lift himself over her shoulder. Momentum, it was all his own momentum, and, in the last instant before she let him go, she straightened, adding her motion to his, throwing him with every ounce of strength she possessed before she released him — and continued the spin, completing the move and dissipating unused energy.
Her late opponent hit the floor some number of his own body lengths down the room. Hit, rolled, and leapt to his feet; turned. . .
. . .and bowed, vanquished to victor.
“Your follow, having thrown your attacker far away?” he inquired in Terran.
Padi’s bow was from student to teacher.
“I would have run, sir, and been many blocks distant before he regained his feet.”
“And if he had a partner at the top of the street?”
“I would have shot her,” she said coolly, “and run on.”
Arms Master Schneider looked around the practice room, as if he were seeing something other than the padded walls and floor.
Padi folded her hands and waited. Arms Master Schneider took time with his words, and there was no speeding the man up, no matter how much one might wish it. Padi supposed it another sort of practice, and did her best to recruit herself to patience.
“I wonder,” he said eventually, walking toward her, his posture soft, and his hands unthreatening. Padi remained at center, and allowed her hands to unfold into neutral positions at her sides.
Her instructor did not seem to notice; he continued to walk gently forward; his eyes on her face.
“It’s very natural,” he said, resuming speech without giving voice to what it was he had wondered; “to want to throw an enemy as far from yourself as possible, gaining the opportunity to run. But it seems to me, Padi, that your solution to a rush is invariably to throw.” He smiled, and added, “Even if you are able to throw impressively far.”
He paused, well inside Padi’s defense space, and settled deliberately, hooking his thumbs in his belt.
“We’re fortunate to have such ample practice space, but I wonder what you would do, if you were on-port, and had to counter an attack in, let’s say, a small space. An alley, a vestibule, even a ‘fresher? What, for instance, if the person standing peaceably next to you suddenly — lunged?”
He did so, far too close for mercy. There was only one imperative, here: survive to protect her pilot, and her passengers — a little boy with two infants in his charge.
She knew the answer; she had drilled the answer until it was reflex.
Ducking, she stepped into his lunge, raised a hand and snapped into a short, savage jump. The extended palm should have caught him under the chin, but Arms Master Schneider was far too canny for that. He arched into a backflip, using the space he had only just been scolding her for utilizing. Padi landed lightly in place, shaking her arms to release the energy she had withheld. Delivered with full force, the strike to the chin would have snapped her attacker’s head back and broken his neck.
It was of course very bad form to kill one’s instructor; besides, she liked Arms Master Schneider — and it was practice. Even if the blow had landed, he would have been in no danger, though he might have had a headache, after.
“Your reasoning?” he asked, from two body lengths away.
“You had posited cramped quarters and an assailant well within my space. The only sure answer in such a case is a kill. I cannot risk a deflection; I might find myself snatched and immobilized, unable even to call a warning. I cannot risk a prolonged engagement, if indeed, as you had also offered, the first attacker was one of a team. I am alone, and I must prevail quickly, if I am to survive.”
There was a long silence while Arms Master Schneider told over his store of words.
“Let’s try another scenario, in that same small space, in a confusion of wind and darkness, let’s say. A person is grabbing for you, and crying out. What’s your answer?”
Padi frowned, and paused to consider the question twice, suspecting a trick. But, a second examination revealed nothing that might change her answer.
“It is the same,” she said, calmly. “I must take definitive action.”
“And if it’s later found that the person who reached for you was asking for your assistance — or warning you of danger? Your answer would kill an innocent — even an ally — no differently than a villain.”
But this is play-acting! Padi thought irritably.
“The only intent I can be certain of is my own,” she said, which was straight from the training tapes they had Learned on the Rock. “Others depend upon me. I cannot risk myself.”
“What do you risk, by dancing an avoid before the kill?”
“Time,” she said promptly; “tempo. Opportunity.”
Arms Master Schneider pressed his lips together, which he did when he was considering something especially difficult.
“We have a few minutes left,” he said eventually. “Let’s practice some of the common avoids. Particularly, we should pay attention to how much time is lost to the move, and if tempo can be preserved — or even created. You will take the part of the attacker.”
He bowed, and she did. Both centered themselves.
“At will,” he said, and Padi launched into action.
* * *
There was no new correspondence in his mail queue.
There was, for instance, no letter from the Terran Trade Commission confirming the committee’s decision to upgrade Surebleak Port from Local to Regional. Such confirmation had been promised to him by the committee chair no later than the end of the relumma. Which was fast approaching.
Additionally, there was no letter from Lomar Fasholt, which he had been expecting daily, if not hourly, since Theo had reported that his former trade partner had broken with her Temple, and subsequently disappeared from her homeworld.
Nor, for that matter, was there a message from Theo, acknowledging receipt of his pinbeam, and reporting that she, her ship, and her crew were enroute to Surebleak and the safety of Korval’s clanhouse.
Shan glared at the empty in-box. It hardly seemed fair or fitting that a circumstance which ought to have afforded real, if fleeting, pleasure should instead generate strong feelings of frustration.
He felt his fingers moving in a soothing, familiar rhythm, glanced down and saw a chipped red gaming counter, its edges showing naked wood, moving across the knuckles of his left hand. The token crossed the last knuckle, his hand turned, palm up, to catch the thing before once again setting it on its journey.
He had acquired the gaming token, and the fingering exercise, elsewhere, and some little while ago. In fact, he had lately considered himself quit of both, having gone so many days undisturbed by either. Only to find them manifesting again, and with the Passage barely out of the homeport. Simple sleight-of-hand, that was all. Completely unremarkable, save for the manner of its. . .acquisition.
Three times, while he watched, the token walked across his knuckles. At the end of the fourth journey across the back of his hand, it did not fall into his waiting palm, but seemed instead to vanish into plain air. That would, perhaps, have been comforting, if he did not know with a certainty that had nothing to do with logic, or even understanding how the trick was done, that the token was, now, in his right front trouser pocket.
Blast the thing.
He took a deep breath to cool his irritation, and looked back to the screen.
Certainly he had other work to fill his idle hours, even if he had no mail.
The touch of a key banished his unsatisfying inbox and brought the sketch of the new trade route onto the screen.
It was, truth told, a malformed and unbalanced thing, hardly worthy of a novice trader, much less a master. He knew how to build routes, of course, but the sad truth was that most of his work as Korval’s master trader had been the maintenance and modification of long-established routes built by the master traders who had gone before him.
He hadn’t built a major new route since. . .well. Since the Bestwell-Kessel-La’Quontis Route, the year that Padi was born.
“Admit it, Shan,” he said aloud, “you’ve gotten soft.”
There being no argument forthcoming from himself, he reached for his wine glass and sipped, eyes on the inelegant shambles adorning his screen.
He might, he thought, putting the glass aside, be somewhat kinder to himself. The route as described revealed not so much a master trader whose skills had atrophied, as a master trader who was required to feel his way, combining discovery with design.
The first part of the route — that had been well enough, with six stops of light trade, all at ports known to Korval ships, if not to Dutiful Passage herself. At each of those six ports, in addition to the trade, he and Priscilla had met with allies and business partners, to strengthen old ties, and to build new ones, where necessary, the two of them empowered by the delm to speak with Their Voice.
They were now embarking upon the second phase, wherein they would be on the search for new trade partners, allies, and business associates. They would also, in this phase as in the former, be demonstrating to the universe that Clan Korval, doing business as Tree-and-Dragon Family, was doing business; that it was not afraid of its enemies; nor ashamed of its past actions. Miri had dubbed the plan playing chicken with the universe, but she had agreed with him, Priscilla, and with Val Con, that the demonstration was required.
Though the actions that had seen Korval banished from Liad had been justified, not to say necessary, they had — people, rumor, and politics being what they were — their character to redeem, and the sooner they began that work, the sooner they would succeed.
Also, they labored under another piquant truth: the clan’s purse was. . .less than plump. Oh, they were by no means destitute, and Ms. dea’Gauss was hard at work establishing new income streams and researching new investments.
Still, there had been a cost in removing themselves, and their finances, from Liaden society, and Liaden economy. In the long term, Liad would pay the larger portion of that invoice, which, while satisfying to contemplate, did nothing to mitigate the necessity of Korval’s holding household while establishing a firm base of operations on a rather backward planet, and seeking to expand their resources.
Historically, the clan had expanded resources through trade. And it was his duty, as Korval’s master trader, to build new routes — strong, viable, profitable routes — and build them quickly.
Which adventure, he had best be about.
So. Their first new stop on the route they were simultaneously discovering and building was Andiree in the Kinsa Sector. According to the Guild Quick Guide, Andiree was a solid port, rated Safe, for whatever comfort that might lend to the naive, or those who made it their business to be unsafe. It declared itself Terran, yet had included in its colonizing population a small number of Liaden artisan clans.
That was of interest, being something like the situation in which Korval now discovered itself. The Liaden artists of Andiree, rather than forming an enclave from which the greater planetary society was excluded, as Liadens had done on other worlds where they were the minority population. . .the artists had embraced the local culture, first on the level of craft, as they joined with those who shared their passions for pottery, sculpture, painting, paper-making, carving, and weaving, and from that base spreading out, into, and finally joining with, the planetary society.
According to the anthropologists who had studied the place, what had occurred over time was not the assimilation of one population, with its customs, into the other, but a melding that had produced a separate-but-equal third society with entirely new customs. The primary unit of personal allegiance, for instance, was neither clan nor family, but guild. Contract marriage existed, but between guildmasters only, as a political tool, rather than for progeny. Balance existed, administered formally through the guilds, while Balance between individuals was socially unacceptable.
Shan sighed. Andiree was perhaps a glimpse of Korval’s future, though it was difficult to imagine Surebleak’s blunt and rugged culture allowing itself to accept anything of Liaden sensibilities — or even Korval House custom.
It was. . .profoundly disturbing, to think that they — that who they were, and had been since the Great Migration itself, would be lost within a generation, or two. . .
The door to his office hissed slightly as it opened and he spun from his screen, coming to his feet as his lifemate entered.
She paused, brows knit, as the door closed quietly behind her.
“Shan? What’s wrong?”
In addition to her melant’is as lifemate to the thodelm of yos’Galan, and captain of the Dutiful Passage, Priscilla Delacroix y Mendoza was a Witch — or, according to Liadens, a dramliza. She would have read his emotions even as he now read hers, thereby learning that she was tired, and slightly irritable. A meeting with the third mate, then, he thought, moving around the desk.
“Nothing so much as wrong,” he said, opening his arms. “I was only reflecting on Korval’s future, and how we will soon become strangers to ourselves.”
Priscilla stepped willingly into the offered hug, her arms going ’round his waist. She sighed, deeply, and dropped her head to his shoulder. He lay his cheek against her soft curls, and breathed in her fragrance.
“He’s a bit stiff in the honor, the third mate,” he murmured.
Priscilla hiccuped a small laugh.
“He is, isn’t he?”
She sighed again, and he tasted the particular tang of a relaxation exercise, even as her body softened against his.
“I ordered a tray brought to us here,” she said, straightening slowly out of the embrace. “I hope you’ll join me.”
“Breakfast or supper?” he asked, lightly.
“Both — or neither. Or perhaps a midnight snack, before I seek my bed.” She smiled at him, and added, “My lonely bed.”
“Underhanded play, Priscilla!”
“Nothing more than the truth.” She tipped her head. “The change in Korval’s estate worries you.”
“Not our estate so much as our future,” he said, moving toward the cabinet. “May I pour you a glass of wine?”
Priscilla preferred white wine. He poured generously.
“Val Con was pleased to leave Liad, though not,” she added thoughtfully, “necessarily with the manner of it.”
“Val Con is yos’Phelium, and a scout. He’s obliged to find the — former homeworld tiresome.” He sighed, and shook his head. “It may be that I refine too much. After all, if we’re to become something else, it was Father who began it, with his Terran lifemate. Only see what came of that!”
“Even more Terran lifemates?” Priscilla asked, taking the glass from his hand with a smile.
“Three, so far, in the following generation,” he agreed, turning toward the desk to retrieve his own glass. “The gods alone know what — or whom — Nova may embrace.”
“If anyone,” Priscilla said, and glanced toward the desk an instant before the incoming message chime sounded from the comm.
Shan stepped ’round the desk and tapped a key.
The letter in-queue was from James Abrofinda.
Shan smiled. He was fond of James Abrofinda, and met him too seldom. He’d been a Tree-and-Dragon contractor for at least twenty Standards, and —
Notice of Buy-Out
Shan blinked, and sat down, carefully, in his chair.
Immediately after Korval’s action against the Department of the Interior base beneath Liad’s surface, which had, regrettably, left a crater in Solcintra City — he had received quite a number of buy-out notices, most from Liadens, as would be expected. He had by this time rather thought he was done with buy-out notices. To receive one now, and from such a source — a Terran small trader running a long, stable route; open to trying new, or slightly outrageous, cargoes; quick to communicate what worked and what didn’t. . .
But, wait, there was a letter, too. Shan tapped a key, and felt a light hand settle on his shoulder.
“I thought we’d seen the last buy-out,” Priscilla said.
“As I did, but here — James has done us the kindness of explaining himself. . .”
A quick scan put him in possession of the facts. James had come in to Capenport, where he was not only well-known, but expected. Before the hull was cool, the port had slapped him with a fine equal to half his cargo —
“Because he’s our contractor?” Priscilla said, reading along with him.
“And because Capenport decided that Korval committed crimes against a planet and is therefore outlawed,” Shan read the next bit aloud.
I’d been hearing some muttering here and there about Tree-and-Dragon turning bad, but I put it down to the usual. This, though — I’m a small shipper; I can’t afford another fine like this one.
Outcome is that I dumped the cargo, next port up, and cleared the logos and call-signs off the hull and out of my landing packet. I never thought I’d do this, but there’s no other way; I’m buying the contract out. The deposit’s been made to my usual account. I’m sorry for it, there’s no acrimony in it, except for the pinheads at Capenport. You and me, and the Dragon, we’re in Balance, but we can’t do business.
Here’s my advice: Change the trade-name, if you want to keep on with the family business. I don’t like to think about what might have happened if Pale Wing or the Passage had come onto Capenport, considering what they felt was just punishment for a contractor.
Be careful, Shan.
He sighed, and leaned his head back into Priscilla’s hip.
“A rational man, James. Of course, change our name is just what we can’t do, the delm being adamant in their opinion that we have comported ourselves with impeccable melant’i and are in no way ashamed of our actions.”
“Korval revealed and weakened a hidden enemy of Liad and its people,” Priscilla said, her fingers quietly kneading his shoulders. “Not only have we done nothing wrong; Korval is a hero.”
“Not to hear the Council of Clans tell it. And various of the news sources. But I agree — Korval’s honor is unscathed, and our melant’i in the matter of the Department of the Interior is pure.” He sighed.
“Poor James. A two cantra buy-out on top of that fine? And he’ll have dumped the cargo at salvage rates.”
“Send the money back. Tell him it’s compensation for his loss; that Tree-and-Dragon doesn’t expect its contractors to bear the expense of false accusations.”
“Priscilla, that’s reasoned like a Liaden.”
“No,” she said, seriously; “it’s reasoned like an honorable person, who wants to do well by those who have done well for him.”
A chill froze him for a moment before he shook his head.
“Yes, I am going to have to become accustomed, aren’t I?”
“It’ll come,” Priscilla said, and he felt the brush of her emotions — amusement and concern, with concern the greater part of the mixture.
“I suppose it will,” he said. “Padi’s generation will be the last, I think, to consider themselves Liaden. Those who follow will be Bleakers.” He sighed. “Who names a planet Surebleak?”
“It was descriptive, surely?”
“Oh, surely; and still is. Until Mr. Brunner gets those weather satellites up and tuned, and even then, I fear we’ll only have graduated to Halfbleak.”
“Our house will be there,” she murmured, which was perhaps an attempt to give his thoughts a more cheerful direction, in which she was partly successful.
“Our house will be there if ever Architect vin’Zeller will finish with the plans and send them to us! I’d hoped to break ground during the current year’s summer. If we need to wait through another winter –“
A chime sounded, sweet and high: the door annunciator.
“Your midnight snack arrives,” Shan said to Priscilla, and raised his voice slightly. “Come!”
The door whisked aside, and Arms Master Schneider brought his tall and muscled self into the office. He paused and inclined slightly from the waist, his compromise between a bow and a Terran nod.
“I hope I’m not inconvenient,” he said.
“Not in the least,” Shan assured him, considering the swirl of the man’s emotions. “What may I be honored to do for you, Jon?”
Jon came another step into the office, and gave them each a solemn glance, in turn.
“Well, sir — ma’am — I’d like to talk to you about Padi’s defense training.”
Alliance of Equals
A Liaden Universe® Adventure
©2015 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Publication Date: July 5, 2016, Baen Books
Elizabeth Wichman, visiting with the family tree.
Congratulations, Beth! And — Thank you! to all the challengers.
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You may view all of the entries for Week Seven by clicking this link.
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