The Gathering Edge
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
©2016 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Orbital Aid 370
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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.