First Chapter Friday: Balance of Trade

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

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

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

Balance of Trade

Day 29
Standard Year 1118
Gobelyn’s Market
Opposite Shift

 

 

There are secrets in all families—

George Farquhar,
1678-1707

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if he did know better.

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

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

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

“Good shift,” he murmured.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, Cap’n.”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Iza.

That got through.

Dyk blinked. “Ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

The captain left, the door swinging shut behind her.

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

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

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

“What was you making?” Jethri asked.

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

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

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

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

— — —

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First Chapter Friday: Scout’s Progress

So, cast your mind back — ‘way back to the last decade of the 20th century, by which I mean late 1992 and continuing into late-ish 1993.  Our third novel, Carpe Diem, had been published in October 1989, and Del Rey had cut us lose for having “disappointing sales,” which was Del Rey’s Thing back in the day, though we didn’t have the internet then, so nobody really knew it until years later, when many hearts and careers had already been broken.  I believe that we were still trying to get the rights to Carpe Diem back (that also used to be A Thing, that publishers would revert books back to the author).

Anyhow, we’d pretty much given up on the whole writing thing.  Which is to say that we still wrote, but we hardly bothered sending stuff out anymore, since the rejection letters we received on just about everything made it clear that we weren’t writing what people wanted to read.  At that point, Sharon (this is Sharon’s fault) decided, Dernit, if we’re not writing what people want to read anyway, I’m gonna write whatevertheheck I wanna write.  And what I want to write are — Regencies!

Well, Regencies, except she didn’t want to have to do the considerable research involved in writing a real Regency.  Providentially, however, the Liaden Universe® has a Regency sensibility, despite the first couple novels being action-adventure, so Sharon went back a generation, and wrote. . .two Space Regencies, Local Custom and Scout’s Progress.  That’s the order they were written in, but really, you can read either one first, so just below this introduction is the first chapter of Scout’s Progress, which introduces Aelliana Caylon Clan Mizel.

If you like what you read here, but aren’t sure you want to commit, Baen generously provides the first nine chapters of Scout’s Progress and Local Custom for your — free! — reading pleasure. In paper, Scout and Custom are included, with Conflict of Honors, in omnibus edition The Dragon Variation.

In addition to Baen ebooks, Local Custom, Scout’s Progress, and the third book in that arc (written 17 years later), Mouse and Dragon, can be purchased from The Usual Suspects.

Excerpt from Scout’s Progress, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2001

CHAPTER ONE

 Typically, the clan which gains the child of a contract-marriage pays a marriage fee to the mating clan, as well as other material considerations. Upon consummation of contract, the departing spouse is often paid a bonus.

Contract-marriage is thus not merely a matter of obeying the Law, but an economic necessity to some of the Lower Houses, where a clanmember might be serially married for most of his or her adult life.

—From “Marriage Customs of Liad”

#

“Sinit, must you read at table?”

Voni’s voice was clear and carrying. It was counted a good feature, Aelliana had heard, though not so pleasing as her face.

At the moment, face and voice held a hint of boredom, as befitted an elder sister confronted with the wearisome necessity of disciplining a younger.

“No, I’m just at a good part,” Sinit returned without lifting her head from over the page. She put out a hand and groped for her teacup.

“Really,” Voni drawled as Aelliana chose a muffin from the center platter and broke it open. “Even Aelliana knows better than to bring a book to table!”

“It’s for anthropology,” Sinit mumbled, fingers still seeking her cup. “Truly, I am nearly done, if only you’ll stop plaguing me—”

“If you keep on like that,” Aelliana murmured, eyes on her plate, “your teacup will be overset, and Ran Eld will ring down a terrific scold. Put the book aside, Sinit, do. If you hurry your breakfast you can still finish reading before your tutor comes.”

The youngest of them sighed gustily, and closed the book with rather more force than necessary.

“I suppose,” she said reluctantly. “It is the sort of thing Ran Eld likes to go on about, isn’t it? And all the worse if I had spilt my tea. Still, it’s a monstrous interesting book—I had no idea what queer folk Terrans are! Well,” she amended, prudently sliding the book onto her lap, “I knew they were queer, of course—but only imagine marrying who you like, without even a word from your delm and—and kissing those who are not kin! And—”

“Sinit!” Voni put a half-eaten slice of toast hastily back onto her plate, her pretty face pale. She swallowed. “That’s disgusting.”

“No,” Sinit said eagerly, leaning over her plate, to the imminent peril of her shirt-ribbons. “No, it’s not disgusting at all, Voni. It’s only that they’re Terran and don’t know any better. How can they behave properly when there are no delms to discipline and no Council of Clans to keep order? And as for marrying whomever one pleases—why that’s exactly the same, isn’t it? If one lives clanless, with each individual needing to make whatever alliance seems best for oneself—without Code or Book of Clans to guide them, how else—”

“Sinit.” Aelliana thought it best to stem this impassioned explanation before Voni’s sensibilities moved her to banish their younger sister from the dining hall altogether. “You were going to eat quickly—were you not?—and go into the parlor to finish reading.”

“Oh.” Recalled to the plan, she picked up a muffin-half and coated it liberally with jam. “I think it would be very interesting to be married,” she said, which for Sinit passed as a change of topic.

“Well, I hardly think you shall find out soon,” Voni said, with a return of her usual asperity.
“Especially if you persist in discussing such—perverse—subjects at table.”

“Oh, pooh,” Sinit replied elegantly, cramming jam-smeared muffin into her mouth. “It’s only that you’ve been married an hundred times, and so find the whole matter a dead bore.”

Voni’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Not—quite—an hundred, dear sister. I flatter myself that the profit the clan has made from my contract-marriages is not despicable.”

Nor was it, Aelliana acknowledged, worrying her muffin into shreds. At thirty-one, Voni had been married five times—each to Mizel’s clear benefit. She was pretty, nice-mannered in company and knew her Code to a full-stop—a valuable daughter of the clan. Just yesterday, she had let drop that there was a sixth marriage in the delm’s eye, to young Lord pel’Rula—and that would be a coup, indeed, and send Voni’s quarter-share to dizzying height.

“Aelliana’s been married,” Sinit announced somewhat stickily. “Was it interesting and delightful?”

Aelliana stared fixedly at her plate, grateful for the shielding curtain of her hair. “No,” she whispered.

Voni laughed. “Aelliana,” she said, reaching into the High Tongue for the Mode of Instruction, “was pleased to allow the delm to know that she would never again accept contract.”

Round-eyed, Sinit turned to Aelliana, sitting still and stricken over her shredded breakfast. “But the—the parties, and all the new clothes, and—”

“Good-morning, daughters!” Birin Caylon, Delm Mizel, swept into the dining room on the regal arm of her son Ran Eld, the nadelm. She allowed him to seat her and fetch her a cup of tea as she surveyed the table.

“Sinit, you have jam on your face. Aelliana, I wish you will either eat or not, and in anywise leave over torturing your food. Voni, my dear, Lady pel’Rula calls tomorrow midday. I shall wish to have you by me.”

Voni simpered. “Yes, mother.”

Mizel turned to her son, who had taken his accustomed place beside her. “You and I are to meet in an hour, are we not? Be on your mettle, sir: I expect to be shown the benefits of keeping the bulk of our capital in Yerlind Shares.”

“There are none,” Aelliana told her plate, very quietly.

Alas, not quietly enough. Ran Eld paused with a glass of morning-wine half-way to his lips, eyebrows high in disbelief.

“I beg your pardon?”

I’ve gone mad, Aelliana thought, staring at the crumbled ruin of her untasted breakfast. Only a madwoman would call Ran Eld’s judgment thus into question, the nadelm being—disinclined—to support insolence from any of the long list of his inferiors. Woe for Aelliana that her name was written at the top of that list.

Beg his pardon, she told herself urgently, cold hands fisted on her lap. Bend the neck, take the jibe, be meek, be too poor a thing to provoke attack.

It was a strategy that had served a thousand times in the past. Yet this morning her head remained in its usual half-bowed attitude, face hidden by the silken shield of her hair, eyes fixed to her plate as if she intended to memorize the detail of each painted flower fading into the yellowing china.

“Aelliana.” Ran Eld’s voice was a purr of pure malice. Too late for begging pardons now, she thought, and clenched her hands the tighter.

“I believe you had an—opinion,” Ran Eld murmured, “in the matter of the clan’s investments. Come, I beg you not be backward in hinting us toward the proper mode. The good of the clan must carry all before it.”

Yes, certainly. Excepting only that the good of the clan had long ago come to mean the enlargement of Ran Eld Caylon’s hoard of power. Aelliana touched her tongue to her lips, unsurprised to find that she was trembling.

“Yerlind Shares,” she said, quite calmly, and in the Mode of Instruction, as if he were a recalcitrant student she was bound to put right, “pay two percent, which must be acknowledged a paltry return, when the other Funds offer from three to four-point-one. Neither is its liquidity superior, since Yerlind requires three full days to forward cantra equal to shares. Several of the other, higher-yield options require as little as twenty-eight hours for conversion.”

There was a small pause, then her mother’s voice, shockingly matter-of-fact: “I wish you will raise your head when you speak, Aelliana, and show attention to the person with whom you are conversing. One would suppose you to have less melant’i than a Terran, the way you are forever hiding your face. I can’t think how you came to be so rag-mannered.”

Voni tittered, which was expectable. From Ran Eld came only stony silence, in which Aelliana heard her ruin. Nothing would save her now—neither meekness nor apology would buy Ran Eld’s mercy when she had shamed him before his delm and his juniors.

Aelliana brought her head up with a smooth toss that cast her hair behind her shoulders and met her brother’s eyes.

Brilliantly blue, bright as first-water sapphires, they considered her blandly from beneath arched golden brows. Ran Eld Caylon was a pretty man. Alas, he was also vain, and dressed more splendidly than his station, using a heavy hand in the matter of jewels.

Now, he set his wine glass aside and took a moment to adjust one of his many finger-rings.
“Naturally,” he murmured to the room at large, “Aelliana’s discourse holds me fascinated. I am astonished to find her so diligent a scholar of economics.”

“And yet,” Mizel Herself countered unexpectedly, “she makes a valid point. Why should we keep our capital at two percent when we might place it at four?”

“The Yerlind Shares are tested by time and found to be sound,” Ran Eld replied. “These—other options—my honored sister displays have been less rigorously tested.”

“Ormit is the youngest of the Funds I consider,” Aelliana heard herself state, still in the Mode of Instruction. “Surely fifty years is time enough to prove a flaw, should it exist?”

“And what do I know of the Ormit Fund?” Ran Eld actually frowned and there was a look at the back of his eyes that boded not so well for one Aelliana, once the delm was out of hearing.
She met his glare with a little thrill of terror, but answered calmly, nonetheless.

“A study of the Exchange for as little as a twelve-day will show you Ormit’s mettle upon the trading floor,” she replied, “Information on their investments and holdings can be had anytime through the data-net.”

The frown deepened, but his voice remained dulcet, as ever. “Enlighten me, sister—do you aspire to become the clan’s financial advisor?”

“She might do better,” Mizel commented, sipping her tea, “than the present one.”

Ran Eld turned his head so sharply his earrings jangled. “Mother—”

She held up a hand. “Peace. It seems Aelliana has given the subject thought. A test of her consideration against your own may be in order.” She looked across the table.

“What say you, daughter, to taking charge of your own quarter-share and seeing what you can make of it?”

Take charge of her own quarter-share? Four entire cantra to invest as she would? Aelliana clenched her fists until the nails scored her palms.

“Turn Aelliana loose upon the world with four cantra in her hand?” Ran Eld lifted an elegant shoulder. “And when the quarter is done and she has lost it?”

“I scarcely think she will be so inept as to lose her seed,” Mizel said with some asperity. “The worst that may happen, in my view, is that she will return us four cantra—at the end of a year.”

“A year?” That was Voni, as ever Ran Eld’s confederate. “To allow Aelliana such liberty for an entire year may not be to the best good, ma’am.”

“Oh?” Mizel put her cup down with a clatter, eyes seeking the face of her middle daughter. “Well, girl? Have you an opinion regarding the length of time the experiment shall encompass?”
“A quarter is too short,” Aelliana said composedly. “Two quarters might begin to show a significant deviation. However, it is my understanding that the delm desires proof of a trend to set against facts established and in-house. A year is not too long for such a proof.”

“A year it is then,” the delm announced and flicked a glance to her heir. “You will advance your sister her quarter-share no later than this evening. We shall see this tested on the floor of the Exchange itself.”

Sinit laughed at that, and Ran Eld looked black. Voni poured herself a fresh cup of tea.
Aelliana pushed carefully back from the table, rose and bowed to the delm.

“If I may be excused,” she murmured, scarcely attending what she said; “I must prepare for a class.”

Mizel waved a careless hand and Aelliana made her escape.

“But this is precisely the manner in which Terrans handle affairs of investment!” Sinit said excitedly. “Each person is responsible for his or her own fortune. I think such a system is very exciting, don’t you?”

“I think,” Voni’s clear voice followed Aelliana into the hallway, “that anthropology is not at all good for you, sister.”

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.

Join us for a Pre-Release Party on May 1!

Asyouknowbob, The Gathering Edge, twentieth novel in the Liaden Universe®, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, owner-operators, will be released in hardcover on May 2.  Naturally, we’re very excited (it’s not true what they tell you that, when you’re an Old and Sober Author you won’t get excited when a new book comes out).  In fact, we’re so excited, we want to share some of that energy around.

So! We’re inviting you all — yes, you, too! — to a pre-release party A(sk) M(e) A(nything) on Reddit, Monday, May 1, at 12 noon Eastern.

You don’t need a Reddit account to hang out and read the questions and answers, but you will need an account if you want to participate in the AMA.  If you want to get an account now, just, yanno, in case, just go here; it doesn’t cost a thing and it’s quick and easy to do.

We’ll be updating here as we get nearer to the date, but in the meantime, put us on your calendar, why not?  It’ll be fun.

Yule Present 2016

The Gathering Edge
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
©2016 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Prologue
Orbital Aid 370

“Move.”

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.

# # #

Chapter One
Bechimo
Wyrd Space

“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.

So.

“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.

Mostly.

“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.

Kara blinked.

“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.”

She hoped.

“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.”

He grinned.

“Will do.”

# # #

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.

Alliance of Equals Northern Kingdom Book Tour

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 pmFlights of Fantasy, Albany, NY
July 8, 7 pmAnnie’s Book Stop of Worcester, MA
July 9, 2 pmToadstool Books, Milford NH
July 16 2 pm:  Childrens Bookcellar, Waterville ME
August 14, 2 pmBarnes and Noble, 1920 N. Rock Road, Wichita, KS