Sep 062012
 

Landscape-aerial view of dry, ridged land.So the three of us, the Lady of Veran, myself, and Leifara, Veran Herald, set forth. She told none where she planned to go, so that there were none among the Royal forces who could betray her whereabouts. There were ways enough to maintain communication. Every Kingsroad is lined with stations for the Royal Post, every twenty to forty kilometers. And all of those stations are linked by wired telegraphy, its conduits buried securely beneath the road verges.

Several of the major Guilds and some Great Houses also have wired telegraphy systems, some even linked to local stations of the Post, and thus capable of relaying information—at some cost—as quickly as the Post itself. There is a substantial resource debt for such service, naturally, but Guilds such as the Financers’, and Great Houses like the Westmarch or Clearwater or Kencevri can reckon such debts and still regard the worth of the service.

Even the resource-frugal communications vectors can attain considerable speed. Royal Post riders, for instance, carrying a bag marked “Quick,” can traverse the length of the Royal Road, from Chorral in the East, on the shore of the Melliviran Sea, to the Hall of the Great House of the Westmarch—sixty-seven hundred and fifty-three kilometers—in just over twenty days, in summer time. A bird relay can make that distance in as little as eight days. Line-of-sight or sound signal relays cover shorter distances but are even faster, and LOS channels can be linked by bird relays or Post telegraphy for very fast transmission, indeed. And such systems are redundant, so that no one system destroyed or put out of action imperils all communications.

We went the first day afoot, by ordinary roads until we made the trail for Blackleaf Gap Ranger Station. There was little traffic on the roads, due to the Solstice—everyone was home, or a-hunt, celebrating the Festival of Air. We could see kites and balloons in the distance as we passed over High Yris bridge, where the people of Carn Yris were having their Festival. At the Ranger Station that night, we rested, but set out before dawn, taking mounts and a Ranger guide through the Gap to the Hasvé Trail. We changed mounts at the House Post stations on the Trail for as long as we kept to it, and so made good time.

Those first two days there was no time to think. We concentrated only on making ground, as much ground as we could, grudging the minutes spent in rest and taking food, usually at a Post station.

We crossed the Mirissi River and left the last Post station just before midday on the third day, again making afoot across the hillocky margin between the Mirissi and the veld country. In front of us unfolded the Reyai plains, the summering grounds of the endris herds. We continued on more slowly, and I could see the Lady scrutinizing the terrain like a Ranger. Once or twice she paused, to inspect more closely some clump of vegetation or cluster of rocks.

Finally she held up a hand: Stop here. She cast about, looking for something, and selected some clumps of dry vegetation that had been blown by the wind into a cleft along a low ridge. With this, she kindled a fire, and sprinkled it with water from Her bottle, sending a thin twist of distinctly purplish smoke high into the air. When it burned out, we sat, waiting. The sun had visibly dropped to the horizon when I perceived movement there.

They rode the stocky, low-slung mounts of the veld, the ri’lhar, relatives of the heavy draft animals used among the eastern lowlands. Not fast, but a ri’lhar can go a great many hours in a steady, ground-eating lope without stopping for food or drink.

As they approached, the Lady stood, awaiting them calmly—when they approached closer, she spoke in the Yrvanni dialect of the Arayai. I had heard that she had spent more than one year among the Irjharai. She seemed fluent. I, on the other hand, had studied the Yrvanni, among other Low Veran tongues, at the College of Arms. But I’d achieved little more than a cursory grasp of structure and a few basic phrases of greeting and good manners.

The riders—three men and a woman—dismounted, and the one wearing a heavily embroidered drape across his shoulders bowed, and gestured for a debt-favor. The Lady walked towards them, three steps, and each of them passed her, crouched and picked a handful of the tough, low-growing vegetation on which she had trodden. They stowed their prizes carefully about their persons, and then the leader nodded to Leifara and I.

They made us free of their karil, polite disclaimers of indebtedness were exchanged, and one of the riders went off, to return with additional mounts. That night, we ate fresh-roasted gerrit, and river tikash simmered in endris milk, and milk pudding with tarella fruit.

And we learned more of the barbarian invasion. The Arayai, like all of the Irjharai, have their own system of scouts and message-transmission, and they make extensive use of message-birds. They told of smoke over Aurora City, and over the Citadels of the Guardians. The King had dispatched the blood-banners, and the vassal-levies and bladesmen and militias were already on the move to their muster-points. Little was yet known of the enemy, but it was clearly more than a smash-and-grab raid.

That was when I, at least, realized that the Veran I knew was already changed irrevocably. Perhaps we could convince these invaders that whatever they came for would cost more than it was worth to them—but even if we did, change would come. Whatever particular circumstances induced their assault, distance and poverty (by Hub standards) no longer protected us. Without those protections, our future would be very different than what we would all have imagined just days ago.

The next day we began another long, hard ride down the Reyai Plains to the Great East Road that sundered it from the Aravan Barrens. It was easy the first two days, when small streams and springs from the Mirissi still intersected our route regularly. But once we passed far enough south, the smaller watercourses were all dried up for the summer, awaiting the elgeth storms. We had to carry every drop of water, and rely on our Arayai guide to find the occasional hidden wellspring.

Unaccustomed to riding, I developed painful blisters by the end of the first day. Our guide, a taciturn young woman called S’tiri, noticed my painful movements when we dismounted for rest. She seemed moderately amused, but vanished into a stand of brush as the setting sun swept the sea of dry vegetation with color.

Leifara unrolled a small thermal sheet and set a skin bag of water on it to heat. The Lady busied herself with care of the ri’lhar, unfastening the riding harnesses, and pouring water from the larger skins into a drinking bag for each animal. I offered to help, holding the drinking bags for each beast, but I lacked the knack and the first one managed to slobber quite a bit of water onto the ground. She showed me the trick of holding one side of the bag tight under the lower jaw, forcing them to drink more slowly.

By the time Leifara had brewed shirith, flavoring it with a handful of dried berries and herbs, S’tiri had returned, and the long shadows of sunset had merged into a purple dusk.

“We must watch this night,” the guide said, her hands busy with items pulled from various pockets or pouches on her person. The unfamiliar construction and the accent confused me at first. “Watch the night?”

She shook her head, amusement briefly flickering again. “No, watch. There are signs. I think a remsi pack nearabouts. Glows we set, yes?” Her Middle Veran was fluent but unaccustomed.

A remsi pack would be a considerable hazard if we were on its chosen hunting-grounds. They hunted nocturnally, estivating on sun-heated rocks during the day. Perhaps forty centimeters high at the shoulder, they are hexapedal, cumbrous-looking and lapped with heavy skin-scales that do not prevent them from moving with a disconcerting swiftness on the hunt. Their frontmost pair of legs are armed with envenomed retractable spines along the inner surfaces. When prey is surrounded by a pack—usually ten or twelve remsi—they dart in, one at a time, to inject their venom load. By the time the last approaches, the victim is paralyzed and the pack can feed –slowly— on the warm living flesh.

Fortunately remsi are photophobic. When their innermost eyelids peel back after sunset to allow them their nightvision, they are acutely sensitive to many light-wavelengths. We carried bioglows that could be activated by damping them with some of our precious water. Likely, they would be enough to keep a pack away, but a watch was a sensible precaution, especially since other predators of the region are not so photophobic. “Glows, certainly,” I nodded. “And a watch. Will you watch first, or shall I?”

She grinned, then, and handed me what she’d been working on—a krell leaf, wrapped around something squishy. “Here.” She pointed at my legs. “If you will ride again.” I opened the leaf and sniffed, mingled odors of herbs and animal fat. “You watch first, use this. When virath rises I watch.”

The faint green disk of palanahr had already risen over the horizon. S’tiri wandered over to collect some shirith, and I unwrapped my leggings to apply the herbal ointment. Harness galls are no small impediment, when fast travel is required. By the time I finished, Leifara joined me, bringing a drinkskin of shirith and some of the dried, spiced meat that served the Irjharai as journey food.

I was a little shy of Leifara. Veran Herald is the second-highest position a herald can reach, second only to the President of the College of Arms, and it requires advanced studies among the Cloisters as well as at the College Chancellery, and a rare degree of aptitude and skill. Although some years younger than I, Leifara had doubtless been studying and practicing heraldry since before I’d been accepted to the Citadel Pageant.

“The Aravai says there is remsi sign about,” she said. I nodded.

“For an aspiring Herald, you do not use your voice much, do you, Ilvren?”

I made no effort to hide my surprise. “Is there need?”

Leifara chuckled, then sobered. “There is need… and need. A herald is not a Singer, certainly.” She looked at me, her head tilted a bit. “You are well spoken of at the College. Welan put you at the top of your cohort.”

I shrugged. “Perhaps maturity has some advantages after all. It was hard enough to keep up with younger and faster brains.”

“Keep up with, and surpass, according to Welan. Does Welan lie?”

“Welan is a herald of great experience, and well able to polish a gova kernel until it gleams brightly as the unbroken shell.”

She smiled, slowly. “If all Guardians are so well-prepared for heraldry, perhaps the College should seek more students among those released from the Citadels.”

“The Citadels teach discipline, and is discipline not at the heart of any worthwhile endeavor?”

“True enough.” She fell silent for some moments, then glanced over at the Lady, who was damping a glow. “And she will need to draw upon every mote of discipline, every droplet, every smallest molecule.”

I watched the flattened sphere in the Lady’s hands begin to show a faint, greenish-yellow light. She looked up, then, from the work, her face oddly shadowed by the light from below, and nodded. “Great discipline will be required. Not the least, to make Port Aravas in four sunsets.”

I would have thought it impossible before the last two days’ travel, and even so, it seemed unlikely.

“There are many hundreds of kilometers to cross…”

She nodded again. “But by midday after tomorrow’s sunset, we will strike the Great East Road. From there we will take Post mounts.” She smiled, the growing light banishing the shadows from her face. “I trust you can ride a Post chepal?”

I thought of my harness galls and tried not to let the wince I felt show on my face. “I will ride a forzak, if needed, Lady.”

She canted her head, as though considering those swift, vicious predators as mounts. “We will hope that will not be necessary.” I thought I saw a gleam of humor in her eyes as she turned to set the now-bright glow atop a pile of gear.

We did make Port Aravas by sunset, four days later.

The Post station there had news: The Citadels had all fallen. The Guardians of Veran were no more. The King had mustered all of the Eastern levies for a stand against the invaders—a battle certain to be lost, with Veran swords and twirl-spears and yat-akkans against the FE cannons, plasma mortars, and forcebeams of the enemy.

We took ship from Port Aravas into a dark future.

Sep 052012
 

Flattened circular construction are with buildings and other structures in foreground, green lighting contrasting with the dome of red-violet light above.A double line of ornamental pine trees stretched into the distance for perhaps five kilometers, bisecting the broad avenue leading to our last battle target.

We’d all but won our objective for Hecht; this battle would destroy the last command-and-control resources for the old colonial government and their Vetzkarran mercenary contractors. Two of the three Hecht planets had already declared a functional autonomy and were ready to legalize Protectorate agreements with our government; this, the third, was the seat of colonial control. Most of the colonial forces and their mercenary defenders had concentrated here.

The avenue linked the subcolony’s major mercantile and governmental facilities with its principal spaceport. There wasn’t much call for passenger transport yet—Hecht is a long way from the major commercial travel circuits—so the spaceport was designed mainly for industrial and military use. The port and its facilities occupied about a fifth of the planet’s largest habitat dome. Wresting control of the port from the Orban colonial masters would decide the balance in our favor.

This planet was close enough to Hecht’s primary that it could use a natural sunlight cycle. Filtered by the habitat’s tavis field, the angle of the light was almost perpendicular, minimizing shadow and throwing reflections upwards. That would be a factor for the gun platforms and the heavy-armor troops of the Vetzkarrans, using standard-issue visual-ranging technology.

Klarosian technology gave us an edge; Klarosian fighting experience and will expanded it. And the blessing of the Creator upon His Chosen, and the spirit of the Divine Warrior that would sustain us in battle (according to the pious,) assured the ultimate outcome.

The Intel drones supplying my vantage point on the battle were behind and just above the centermost gun platform on our forward right-wing battle group. When you wear a drone headset you feel like you’re there, physically. The impulse to duck incoming fire is almost irresistible, at first. Your body responds to the situation the way it would as if it were there, not eighty kilometers up in a low-orbit observation corvette.

It’s safer than being on a gun platform, even a shielded one, or bouncing around in heavy armor in the thick of the fire zone, but it doesn’t feel safer. Not by much. Not if you’re not used to it.

I’m not usually assigned to Combat Observation, but my Intel unit was substituting for the CO team normally attached to this battlegroup. Brass confidence in a decisive victory dictated having my chain of command on hand right away, to negotiate the most advantageous transfer-of-control terms. My boss’s boss, General Praukent, was to be in charge of the prep for those negotiations, and he wanted our people on the spot. We’d have to move fast to salvage information that the Orban government was probably trying to destroy even now.

The gun platforms ahead of me dipped sharply and the crawl alongside the drones’ analog reconstruction suddenly blossomed with data. We were on the move. Level-sounding voices gave brief, precise orders.

The avenue ahead was utterly deserted. We had warned the population to evacuate the area around the spaceport. There was no element of surprise to be sacrificed; they knew that was the critical target and they’d been preparing defenses there. One section of the readout area surrounding my headset was a feed from the team working on telemetric intercept and signal analysis that would give us realtime information on what they had where, where and when they were moving it, and so forth. Their jammers were good; we’d wasted a number of expensive skit-class nanoparasite rounds on dud targets.

Even so, over the last few critical minutes we’d managed to establish a fairly reliable outline of what waited for us, and the final victory wouldn’t be cheap. The Vetzkarran forces knew what kind of firepower we had in the system and they knew they didn’t have a chance of running past our pickets with heavy materiel transports. They’d have to expend it or abandon it to us and take the loss either way.

A big amber wash blanked out one section of my readout: They’d concentrated massive FE beamfire on the left wing command platform. A bright line of data in one of the upper corners showed three squadrons of our ATO fighters converging on the firepoint. The roofs of two large buildings nearby suddenly slid apart and fell a hundred meters to the street, flattening smaller structures and raising huge clouds of debris. Thirty or so Vetzkarran atmo fighters rose from inside the now-roofless buildings, where they’d been concealed, to engage our squadrons while the beamfire began to rake outwards to vaporize the warehouse and commercial structures behind which our Heavy Infantry Troops were massed.

I tore my attention away from that part of the readout; it wasn’t my responsibility. A quick adjustment grayed that section a little so that the activity wouldn’t distract me from my assignment: teasing apart the confusing tangle of data streams to identify personnel tracks that might locate critical command and control installations. It’s tricky work, you not only have to follow the precise degree and type of readout, but pick the right traces to collate and analyze for patterns that will reveal what’s going on. Physio, communications, weapons, and enviro power signatures all have their unique variations based on function and it all comes together in the realtime chaos of a battle situation.

Intel programs could give you an edge, if they were fine-tuned to a hair more effective than your opponent, but only if your firepower and human and strategic assets gave you time to use them. It looked as though the Vetzkarrans were trying to rush us into committing resources and overwhelm our computing power, while the Orban government forces—what were left of them—and the militia they’d recruited from among the subcolony population took chunks out of our strike forces.

I picked three promising data clusters and activated analysis subroutines that were designed to identify the relationship between their transmissions and the meta-synthesis of the battle events. If any of them showed a time lag profile match, we might be looking at command nodes.

My readout juddered and sputtered for a moment, and the headset filled with a dull roar. Then it stabilized, as the datafeed was shunted around the damaged probes, and self-repair subroutines kicked in. But the momentary disruption had fried my analysis tracks and two of the promising nodes had dissipated and were lost in the flood of information. The third was now clearly tagged as ordinary mobile assault unit command, and it was already being routed into my boss’s infeed stream. I started looking for something else to chew on.

Another part of the readout flared blue, suddenly, stabilized, and minimized, with other sectors enlarging to occupy its area. We’d taken the habitat control facility, one of our key objectives.

I glanced at the realtime track and realized that we’d been engaged for nearly an hour already, though it felt like minutes.

Suddenly the entire readout flashed, purposefully, three quick pulses. My brain, still tracking the datastreams, froze for a moment. But my fingers were already on the controls, minimizing the readout area and switching from full-combat mode to ready mode, allowing sensory input from the actual environment where I was sitting.

I could hear the “secure for maneuvers” siren around me, and the other members of the Intel team were already retracting headset feeds—our corvette was under attack by Vetzkarran Atmosphere-To-Orbit fighters, breaching the jathrin dome fields and boosting for our low-orbit assets.

The projection film at one end of the compartment showed the corvette’s combat plot: A Vetzkarran Destroyer was maneuvering to engage us from above, and the ATO squad was already strung out in attack pattern five kilometers below. This really did not look good.

Colonel Gratev’s voice growled in my headset. “Relax, gentlemen. The Saintly Sword is on the job, and we have Glerik Squadron on their tails. There’s still a battle to conn.” The projection film went dark, which would have made me pee myself with fright if I hadn’t been suited up and fully catheterized, but I realized a moment later, as existence continued, that the film had just been deactivated to keep it from being a distraction.

You can’t work as effectively in “ready” mode, but there’s a lot you can do and the boss wanted us doing it, not worrying about whether we were about to be meet the Divine Warrior face-to-face.

It was some comfort to know that Glerik Squadron was in our vicinity. I knew the squadron leader, Matt Donley—we’d been classmates at the Academy and Matt was one crazy-dangerous son-of-a-falut who could outmaneuver anything in flight, atmo or insystem. He had more than thirty kills notched on his helmet and the Glerik Squadron’s pennon was loaded with enough battle honors to weigh it down in a gale-force fanbreeze. I got back to work.

Three hours later the Orban government signaled our command ship, asking for terms. I’d feel good about it, after the migraine wore off.

Sep 052012
 

Hydroponic equipment and racks against a reflective background.Two days before the world died, Vetkar Allis was busy spreading manure on the north forty. Well, not “manure,” as in ‘the organic end product of animal digestive processes,’ but “manure,” as in ‘exquisitely balanced chemical nutrients and enhancements formulated to produce maximum yield.’ The manure catalyst was supplied at cost-plus to Niepach Agro contractors like Allis.

The empty tank was loaded on a float pallet for the Niepach Agro supply truck to retrieve and guided to the exchange point. He glanced upward. The angle and intensity of the light told him he had half an hour or so before he’d have to collect and process the dairy outflow. That might be enough time to check on those fruit crops.

He stripped off his hazmat suit—manure catalyst wasn’t something you wanted to come into contact with—and racked it carefully in the equipment shed, then abstracted a battered float scooter and maneuvered it among the big control towers until he came out on the far end. Before him stretched—literally farther than the eye could see—row after row after row of grow vats, each row separated by maintenance racks from its neighbor. To his left, the arrays were stacked four-high, showing a uniform pale green, the soy seedlings planted ten days ago reaching sturdily upwards to the light. To his right, there was more variation.

He turned the scooter and made for the several rows of vats that were partly shielded by filters curving over them from the maintenance racks. These were the genetically modified fruitstocks that relied on changing day lengths to initiate their fruiting cycle. Less yield per vat, but they were high-price items. The first few rows were apples, the three standard varieties, and then a couple of rows of specialties. The Crimson Crunch were in blossom: Each vat held three, with narrow, straight twigs rising from two branches stretched horizontally, bent ninety degrees from the stubby rootbase. He pulled the scooter to hover close, carefully lifting one of the filter hoods, and stuck his head under. A wash of faint, sweet scent rewarded him.

Yes, they’d have to be pollinated tomorrow, surely. The dense clusters of blossom promised a good crop. He inspected the vats carefully—automatic sensors could tell you when something went wrong, but human eyes were still the best judge of when something might be about to go wrong, and it was always cheaper to catch things early. His neighbor had lost six rows of tomato vats last year because by the time a fluid pressure anomaly had registered on the sensors, a critical feeder line was splitting.

Carefully, he hovered down the rows of vats, checking connections, filter hood adjustment, indicator lights. All well. When he reached the end, it was time to go empty the dairy-production units, and start the processors.

His children, Kacek and Pralet, found him in the dairy processing shed, checking the readouts on the row of dairy producers behind their sterile plasglas window. Each producer, a vat-grown construct of the digestive system of a dairy cow right down to the rubbery, swaying udder and the puckered waste outflow valve, had a dozen sensors attached, monitoring enzyme levels, production rate, molecular integrity, and all the other factors that kept a model “Bossie 9” producing milk for up to 20,000 hours before its molecular integrity disintegrated and it had to be replaced.

“Fa, FA!!” Kace was at the stage when he couldn’t vocalize anywhere below a roar without concentrated effort. Vetkar turned around, squatted slightly, and held out his arms, relishing the sensation of having them full of warm, wriggling offspring. “FA!!” Kace bellowed in his ear.

“Whoa, there… What’s up, big fella?” He knelt with one knee, and set Pralet on the other, with Kace in the curve of his arm.

“Fa, teacher says we’re goin’ to space!” Kacek reported importantly. Pralet wriggled with excitement. “With you, Fa!”

Vetkar chuckled. “I just volunteered to drive the bus, mighty mites. Your teachers will be showing you around.”

“Oh.” Pralet sounded disappointed. “But you’ll be there?”

He nodded. “With the shuttle.”

“Have you been to the spaceport before?” Kace probed.

He nodded again. “Lots of times. When I was in the military, before you were born, mighty mite.” He glanced at his chrono. “Does your Ma know you’re home from school?”

Headshakes.

“Well, run in and tell her, then. She’s been fussing over the kitchen processor all day, maybe there’s something special coming out, hmm? I have to finish the milk run, then I’ll be in and you can tell me all about what you’re going to see in space.”

It wasn’t until hours later, when the kids were tucked up in their bunks, that he sat down in front of the battered comsuite to check the day’s messages. Gislet was wiping down the storage and processing units, and the elderly dishwasher was chugging away, so she didn’t hear his soft exclamation of dismay. But she could tell by the set of his shoulders that something was wrong. “Vet?” She dried her hands, and came over to the comsuite, setting them on his shoulders and feeling the tension there. “What is it?”

He shook his head, grimly. “Another water rate increase.”

“Oh, no! All of it?”

“Not residential. Just industry and agro on our side of the ring. Something about an upgrade to the processing facility, combined with a new share issue for Oquan Hydro.”

“But… won’t that wipe out whatever we’d hoped to get from the four percent soy yield increase?”

“Pretty much. I swear, if I had a nasty, suspicious-type mind, I’d think that Niepach tipped off Oquan about the production increases. The timing is perfect.”

“Maybe we should give up the dairy and specialties, after all…” They’d talked about it before. The dairy operation paid its way, like the fruitstocks and specialty vegetables for the restaurant market, but they didn’t net anything like the amount that could have been made from growing more soy with the same investment in space and equipment.

“No, dammit! I want the kids to drink our milk, eat our food. It’s appalling, that an agronist’s kids should have to eat standard rations, even emp-class rations.”

“They’re nutritionally complete, balanced, and supplemented at school for the childrens’ developmental needs, aren’t they? I love the stuff we grow, too, but at this rate…” she shook her head. “We’re never going to be able to buy shares.”

Although technically their contract with Niepach Agro qualified them to be approved for employee-class rations and cubage—Gislet bought staples at the Hurst Niepach Hypermarket, when they did go into town to shop—contractors never qualified for the retirement shares and other benefits that an actual company employee received. Only if they could scrape together the not-inconsiderable sum of cash needed to buy either the limited retirement shares Niepach offered for contractors, or full stakeholders’ shares, could they ever hope for any kind of economic security.

Vetkar sighed. “Maybe if I plant some faster-maturing varieties, I can get a full five crops this year.” Obsessively, he called up the planning spreads sheets for the agronery. Gislet leaned over, her arms circling his shoulders, and laid her cheek against his hair. “Not tonight, please, dearest… you’re not getting enough sleep, you know.”

It was true, he’d slept badly last night, and been up, as usual, two hours before first light. He reached up to caress her cheek. “I’ll be in to bed, soon, love. You get some rest, you’ve been up just as long.”

Sep 032012
 

Colorful painting of female figures dancing, with red, green, yellow, and flesh tones predominating.“Wow. That was nice, Jamed.” Yalet stretched, luxuriously, a ripple of motion down a body whose loveliness owed almost nothing to bio-sculp. “Thank you.”

“Thank you, my dear. It’s nice to know that my youth isn’t entirely a thing of the past.” Jamed Ursek chuckled gently, and caressed the abundant soft hair spread on the pillow beside him.

Yalet blinked up into his face, blue eyes wide. “You’re not very old! And anyway, the young ones are…” her nose wrinkled a little. “Well, they’re energetic, but they don’t have much style, if you know what I mean.”

Jamed laughed. She probably said the same thing to a hundred men a year, but she certainly managed to deliver the line with sincerity. He groaned a little, involuntarily, as he turned and swung his legs out of bed. He was in decent shape, worked out regularly, but he’d used muscles that didn’t come into his regular regimen.

The heavy lirasilk robe was tossed over a chair beside the nightstand; he reached for it and swung it over his shoulders.

“No, no, stay where you are, my dear. I’m just going to get us a drink. I could certainly use one, anyway. You?”

She turned, and raised herself on an elbow. “One of those jet-propelled fruit things? Sure! I never had anything like that before, those are good.” It had been one of several pleasant surprises that, while he’d welcomed her with a glass of very expensive brandy, he’d then switched to the amazing tangy-sweet fruit concoction from a real crystal decanter in the room chiller. She’d not had to worry about palming more booze, just enjoyed the light glow of the one brandy and then really liked the tart, sweet thing he’d called a “rembek tootie” or something like that.

“Ah. I’m glad you approve. The rembek comes all the way from Surimaka Delta, shipped intact, since they don’t deconstitute well. A very expensive vice, but I developed a taste for it when I was stationed at Raliki.” He poured the sparkling, pale-green concoction into two tall, narrow, footed goblets.

Her eyes widened again, as she reached for the goblet he extended. “You’re not a Homie, then? I didn’t think so!”

“Certainly not. Klaros Legion, retired General-Hartman.” He set his goblet on the nightstand and slid back in next to her, reaching to dial the canopy lights to a marginally brighter golden glow that gave her skin a warm luster. His eyes dwelt appreciatively on the exquisite curve of shoulder and breast for a moment, then he picked up his goblet and held it out.

Her eyes sparkled as she tapped it with her own glass. Yalet wasn’t too sure of the higher military ranks, but she knew that any kind of General was pretty far up there. “I always kind of envied military women,” she confessed. “It must be wonderful to travel, and see how people live on other worlds. Even if they are all benighted heretics,” she added hastily, her gaze becoming suddenly wary.

Retired General-Hartman Jamed Ursek suppressed a cynical grin. “A very proper sentiment. Yes, it’s interesting,” he gazed into the middle distance for a moment, remembering a few things, then pulled his attention back to the amazingly lovely woman beside him. “Oh, well, they also serve who only help retired old officers ease a little biological back pressure,” he smiled.

She laughed. “I guess it’s the least I can do, as a patriotic citizen.” She sensed he was drifting a little, and lay quietly beside him, sipping the delicious drink occasionally. His gaze had returned to the middle distance, and his face was hard to read. She wondered if she should make a gesture toward going, decided to leave it for a bit. When he came out of his brown study, she’d be able to get a better read on it.

He’d pleasantly surprised her, and she’d been glad to deliver with real sincerity the conventional thanks she delivered so often with carefully calculated coquetry. Older men sometimes, especially if the ‘biological back pressure’—she grinned a little at the phrase—had been building up for a long time, were a little too abrupt for her to really hit her stride. Jamed had been one of the lingering kind, and also one of the confident ones, neither intimidated by her looks nor anxious about their own capabilities. It had been nice. Very nice. Why, she wondered for the billionth time, did the Church have such a down on it?

She looked up at the half-dome canopy that covered the upper third of the bed, lights gleaming subtly from artful recesses. A sideways glance at him reassured her that the customer was still off in his own thoughts. Sometimes they wanted to talk, and sometimes not. Sort of a shame Jamed wasn’t the talking kind, he had interesting stories, she’d bet. The little he had told her, that he was a widower, retired, treating his two daughters and their families to a family holiday at Birval before taking up a lectureship at the Altyne Orbital educational facility, was intriguing enough. Altyne Orbital was that big satellite cluster, riding out beyond Revielle D, where all the famous scientists and writers were. EduTel had run a vid program on it last year.

Yalet always watched EduTel when she had a chance. Her own education had ended at Eight-level, which was better than most in Reschek, the small Fard Karachik community she’d grown up in, but she always wished she’d been eligible for the extra two levels that the better-class cit kids could request.

One more sip, and the lovely fruit stuff was gone. She glanced sideways at Jamed, who was, she thought, smiling faintly now, and set her glass on the nightstand beside her. The tiny chink seemed to recall him, and he turned his head to look at her, and smiled. “Sorry, my dear—Yalet. How discourteous of me to leave a lady unaccompanied.”

Her eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile. “Not at all, if you were enjoying yourself. I like seeing people enjoy themselves.”

He chuckled then. “You do, don’t you. How admirably suitable.”

She had the read on him now, something in the tone of voice told her the evening was over. She slid out of bed, and came round to his side, and leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re a great gentleman.”

“Well, thank you. You must go?” It was a polite enquiry, but he was already elsewhere.

“Indeed, I have to get some beauty sleep, Citi… er, General. I have three shows tomorrow.” She let a saucy lilt come into her smile. “’But all you have to do is…whistle!’” She quoted the classic line from Evening at the Tower.

“‘Ahh… and I do know how to whistle!’” he smiled, capping the quote.

She went to the chair beside the table where she’d left the wrap and low-cut gown and provocative underthings she’d been wearing. “Shall I take these in the ’fresher?” Some men, she knew, loved to watch a woman undress but didn’t care for the reverse process.

“You needn’t, unless you’d like to.” She was pleased by his attention as she drew the garments on, carefully, one by one, then went to stand before the vast mirror by the console between the windows, and tidied her hair and face.

Jamed wasn’t conscious of how much he enjoyed watching her dress at first, but then he realized it had been, what…–nine years?—since he’d been both intimate and relaxed enough with a woman to watch the little smoothings and pattings and attentions she gave to herself during the dressing process. He thought of Liret, but it was a warm nostalgia, not the painful ache that often came with such memories. As Yalet gathered the tiny gilt bag and scarf, he slid from the bed himself, took a folder from his dressing-gown pocket, abstracted a credit slip, and walked her to the door.

“I hope you’ll allow me to express a little extra appreciation, Yalet. I very much enjoyed myself… and you.” And he bowed over her hand just as though she were a real exec-class type lady.

He was a real gentleman, to be sure. She gave him her warmest smile and most appreciative wink, as the door closed behind her.

Sep 032012
 

Tubular space with reddish light and reflections, with pipes and round stanchion running down the center.

Three days before nearly half a billion people were wiped out in a few hours, and the priorities of the eight hundred thousand or so surviving Klarosians changed drastically, priorities were the last thing on the mind of Yalet Redal, civilian (class S) and about-to-be-former occupant of cubage K4-8G-1422 in the Six Under district of Pykalt. Although listed as Q/K4-8G-1422 in the records of the Insystem Office of Cubage, it was known as Ma Keller’s to its occupants, since Ma held the permlease on the premises.

Yalet decided she wouldn’t be sorry to bid farewell to the two cramped little rooms. They had once been dosses for employees of Pyvart Engineering, the company that had excavated the original habitat here on Reveille C’s larger moon, and consequently possessed environmental control facilities appropriate to temporary habitations—and dating from a bygone era, at that. In other words, they were stuffy, overheated, and both the lighting tubes and ‘fresher facilities were inadequate. The one mandatory “view” panel was a simple day/night relay from the Pykalt Municipal Park that was out of order half the time.

The furnishings were all battered built-ins, except for the little plaswood table Yalet had brought with her, that held her scroller and a decorative jewelry box. She scooped box and scroller into the smaller of her two hold-alls, and made one more check of the underbed storage drawers. Empty. She traveled light; since her costumes, makeup, and stage jewelry were stored in her dressing locker at the Pleasuredome resort hotel. Her only acquisitive vices were jewelry and storychips, neither of which took up much space.

That was a good thing, since the residential cubicle that had just come vacant at the Pleasuredome’s Transient Workers’ Complex was even smaller than her space at Ma Keller’s. She’d miss Ma, and a few of her fellow-tenants, but not having to commute nearly an hour each way was more than worth it. And the upgrade in status from Casual Worker to Temporary Worker carried other advantages, too. She might even be able to angle an upgrade to Employee-Probationary Grade by the end of the year. If she continued to funnel the generous rakeoffs from her unofficial “tips” income to Ild Devet, the assistant maiter in charge of the Dastek Dining Room.

A final look around—and one more check in the tiny ‘fresher, where she caught a glimpse of her grinning mug in the mirror and stuck her tongue out at herself. Ridiculous to be so excited about it, really, though excitement did things for her natural-blue eyes and lent an additional glow to her creamy skin. She waved a hand over the sensor to douse the lights, and thumbed the lock for the last time without regret.

Ma was in her office, adjacent to the subwarren’s main entry. The office also served as her living cubage, and was a comfortable clutter of furniture, endless racks of mylar wisps, at least four comstations in various states of disrepair, three coffeemakers, ditto, racks of cleaning supplies and countless other artifacts of nameless origin and purpose.

“I’m off, Ma.” She set the holdalls down just inside the door.

“Good thing, too,” her erstwhile landlady growled. “I got a new tenant hot an’ runnin’ to get in.” She sniffed, which might have been an effort to suppress emotion, but was more likely the aftereffects of a joyjuice hangover. “Y’ll be sorry one of these days, y’know… lettin’ premium cubage like this go…”

Yalet grinned. “I’m sorry already, but not about the cubage, Ma. You take care of yourself, huh?”

“Sure, sure, kiddo. OK, I gotcher deposit forya. Thumb here,” she held out the reader in one skinny claw. Yalet noted the ‘TX-Ready’ indicator, and her cash account receipt code, and thumbprinted the transaction receipt. Ma clicked the verification button, and collected the wisp of mylar that extruded from the reader’s slot. “Well, that’s that. Gonna miss ya, kiddo… you gave the place a little class, y’know?” She heaved a sigh.

“Yeah, well, you gotta be careful, Ma… too much class and they’ll be wanting to raise your cubage rating, and who needs the extra taxes?”

The older woman’s wheezy chuckle followed her out the door.

Six Under main corridors were crowded, noisy, and none too clean. Yalet kept a tight grip on her holdalls as she made her way to the transfer tube.

Sep 032012
 

A path leading through a forest with heavy undergrowth and large, straight tree-boles.It was the third night on that wild scamper across half of Veran, the race to make Port Aravas and take ship to preserve what we could. We were in the Eastveld, the home of the Irjharai—the Arayai, nomads who follow the endris herds. Irjharai are not normally friendly to strangers and rarely grant permission for outsiders to travel in their stewardship, but they regard the Lady of Veran as one of themselves. For her, as ever, the accounting is completely different.

I was there by accident—perhaps. Certainly it was unexpected. I had taken my retirement from the Guardians nearly five years past, having served my twenty and with no taste for another twenty. I spent the last five years in Aurora City, indented to the College of Arms to learn what would make me useful when I returned home to Fahalanahr—having neither taste nor talent for clothwork, the business of my House. In the last twenty-five years I’d seen my karil four times, only once for any period of time, during my tenth-year leave. But a retired Guardian, if willing to learn a skill, is always sure of honorable work, and I thought it more than likely that herald’s training would gain me a worthy place at the Great House of Nul-Atar.

I had done well at the College and was offered advanced training, but before I made that decision I thought to travel back to Fahalanahr, where one waited for me, and discuss the matter with her. So I asked and received permission to travel east with the Royal Household on summer’s progress, planning to leave them at the Lower Pass and travel on through the Joyful Hills to that green City, Queen of the Falarin River.

The Household was in the forests covering the foothills of Yimsin Mountain for the Solstice Hunt, when the news was received. The Guardians have always had layers of contingency plans in place, to deal with the attacks of planet pirates or ordinary raiders, and yes, even the unlikely threat of a barbarian invasion. The standard equipment of the Household detachment of Guardians includes a communications link, always on, always active. If that link goes down, a countdown is automatically initiated.

There are many reasons the link might go down—the most common being weather, although that far east in midsummer the weather is as calm as it ever is. Less common is satellite malfunction, or a fault somewhere in the many strands of the triply-redundant web that links all Guardian outposts. In the event of such, the standard procedure is to wait a selected time, during which some unaffected node can re-establish the link for the duration of the storm, or during which the self-repair relays can shunt the link to working nodes. Forty-nine times of fifty, that happens before the first countdown ends.

But the other reasons the link might go down are not innocent: Planet pirates. Slavers, or ordinary raiders. Even (although this was always considered a contingency so remote as to be laughable,) a barbarian invasion. Veran has little of value to the techno-barbarian colonies of the Hub, and even slavers would generally find us too far off the regular space routes to be an economically viable source of supply. Still, it has happened, as in my mother’s time, and she was a Guardian, a veteran of the Land Festival raid, fighting off three well-equipped corsair craft of Wylenthian criminals. And it began, as expected, with an ECM burst that disabled the communications network.

So, if the first countdown runs out without the network patching itself to restore communications to the Household detachment, a second countdown is started. This longer countdown entails first-level preparations for action according to the Emergency Protocols, including ensuring that the King and other key persons may be secured quickly. It took some time to get a fix on the locator with the hunting party, and by the time the jetcar reached them, the second countdown, too, had expired. Guardians all over Veran initiated contingency plans.

By the time the hunting party returned to Bellflower House, a message-bird relay had arrived from Traaki, the nearest Citadel of the Guardians, relaying the information that they were under attack, and that weapons flashes had been observed in the Eothain Valley, approximately aligned with Aurora City. We had to consider all of Veran under attack.

There was some dispute, I remember, about how our response should be made. But the Guard-Major prevailed, insisting that the Emergency Protocols be fully implemented, in spite of the ceremonial importance of the Solstice Hunt.

I knew the Protocols, of course, from my days with the Guardians. They do change, but not so quickly or drastically that a five-years’ absence would render me ignorant. And a key Protocol is to separate, as widely as possible, the Lady of Veran from the King.

There is sound strategy behind this. First: Because the King becomes the military leader of the response, and is expected to lead the Guardians, the Levies and Militias into battle if needed—the King is a target. Most barbarian weapons are foolish, indiscriminate, destructive things that cannot distinguish between a target individual and the next person to them. So it was imperative to move the Lady from harm’s way. Second: If by some chance the King was killed in battle, it would be the Lady who must ensure the succession and provide leadership against the attackers. That was simple enough.

She listened to the debate for some minutes before she silenced them with a gesture. “I will leave now,” she said. “And I will travel fast. I will take only Veran Herald, to make the greatest distance in the least time.”

The Lady’s will is not questioned. And in ordinary times, she could travel so, if she willed. But the times were not ordinary, as many pointed out. It was her brother the King who persuaded her to take one skilled in fighting, for her protection. The Lady, by long custom, is not guarded and although her ultimate authority embraces them, the Guardians are the King’s force.

She would not take even a single Guardian from the King’s forces—all might be needed, she said.

I was no longer a Guardian. But I had been twenty years in their ranks, serving as Royal Champion nearly a dozen times, and winning much honor in the biennial Practice Wars. Yet as an Adept of the College of Arms I was also indented to the service of Veran, and my service would not outrage custom. We still worried about that, then.

Sep 032012
 

Two long, curving tubes next to a metal walkway and handrail. Reflections from overhead lights highlight the long depth and distant vanishing point.On the fifth day before the world ended, Jamed Ursek, retired General-Hartman of Legion Intelligence, departed the surface of Reveille C for a family vacation at Birval Pleasurdome, adjacent to the Moonstation habitat complex on the planet’s larger satellite. This involved catching a gravprop tube at the central station in Port Andall, part of a habitat complex in the planet’s northern ring of settlements.

“Alright, Fa,” his son Kalven assured him, with only a touch of anxiety. “Demis and Francet will be at the station when you get to Centrum Bek, and Hostin and Orshel will be minding the kids at the shuttleport. Assuming they all coordinate on time, anyway. Silly idea, all meeting at Centrum Bek—why didn’t Hostin and Orshel just go direct to Pykalt from Mag Alpha, instead of traveling all the way north with three little kids?”

Kalven had always been a bit of a fusser, but it made him a formidably competent logistics officer. Jamed grinned at his son. “Sure you don’t want to ask for a little leave, and join us?”

Kal snorted. “What, to help you ride patrol on seven noisy kids at Pleasuredome? As you’re always reminding us, Fa, you didn’t raise any fools.” He glanced up at the departure board. “Capsule incoming.”

“Five minutes out. Plenty of time. And yes, I agree your brother-in-law is a stiff, but it wouldn’t hurt you to come along and congratulate him on his promotion.” Kalven had never cared much for Demis, and considered that his sister had married beneath her when she became the bride of a Home Legion Senior Lieutenant. It was a common prejudice among the First Legion officer class. And, if the truth be told, Jamed thought his son-in-law rather a dull dog, too. But he made Francet happy.

“It’s not just that, Fa. I’ve got duty this afternoon, and we’re… busy.” Kalven carefully said no more. His father was a General-Hartman, true, but he was a retired General-Hartman, and that didn’t give him the security clearance to know anything about his son’s current assignment.

Jamed glanced sideways at his son, and debated whether to discomfit him by a reference to the First Legion units being readied for deployment to Hecht. He still tracked plenty of Klaros’ many current military operations. But it wouldn’t do. More than thirty years in military intelligence made him constitutionally disinclined to reveal any information at all to anyone who didn’t already know, even to remind Kalven that “retired” did not equate to “vegetative.”

The tube capsule indicator changed from “approaching” to “arriving,” and Jamed picked up his small bag—the rest of the luggage had been sent on by freight carrier to the Treasuredome resort hotel—and gave his son a light tap on the upper arm. “All right, Ord-Colonel Ursek. Duty first, as always. Warrior inspire you, Bride protect you. See you in three weeks.”

Kalven smiled. “You too, Fa. My best to the girls. And Hostin. And Demis, and congratulations on his promotion.” He stepped back from the rush of air that signaled the capsule’s impending arrival.

Jamed gave him a wave, as he boarded. The capsule door slid closed, and a honeyed mechanical voice announced, “Please be seated, and strap in. Next stop, Centrum Bek Shuttle Port.”

Sep 022012
 

Weapons discharge at left, with trailing light effects, smoke, and an armored vehicle at right, against a dark background.Deran Chagarth had always assumed roses would sprout from his ears before he’d admit that his father was right about anything. As he remembered that, he caught himself fingering his ear and suppressed a rueful grin, even as he picked up his helmet and looked around the ready room.

Chagarths—at least this Chagarth—didn’t belong in the military. He’d gut it out for another two years, but the chance that he’d re-up was rapidly reaching the zero level. As the light bar around the ready room ceiling went from green to amber, he mechanically lifted the helmet and settled it over his head, replacing ambient sound with the soft ping of the electromagnetic seal engaging in auto mode.

A purple digital readout flared into existence in the upper right-hand corner of his field of vision: -00:03.20

The only things left on the armor rack were the massive glove/gauntlet combinations, positioned so that he could slide his hands into them as he stood before the rack labeled “Chagarth, D: T-4” with his unit designation below. Another ping and he was fully accoutered in the massive suit of a Heavy Infantry Trooper. There was no hiss of pneumatic seals engaging yet, they’d remain on ambient air until the cruiser spat them at their target, the last remaining underground base that contested Klarosian dominance of Hecht II.

Mechanically, he initiated the test sequence that would tell his platoon RS that he was fully suited, all systems functioning. In the corner of the ghostly headsup display that floated inside the faceplate of his helmet, he saw the ready indicators of the platoon light, one by one. Ahead of him, Trooper Prant went through the ATV’s bay door and webbed himself to the drop rack.

Chagarth bite-clicked his mobility circuit to “basic,” and followed Prant. In the ATV’s drop bay, the light bar over the bay doors gleamed a steady amber. He webbed himself next to Prant, and behind him, Trooper Madchek checked the security of the FE cannon’s targeting assembly on his special-function chest bracket before webbing himself to the drop rack.

“First platoon, on standby for weapons activation,” Rankserj Jorvak’s voice growled over the squad circuit as the last light came up, and the ATV bay door closed. A moment later, Lieutenant Brant’s voice came over the platoon circuit, “First platoon requesting weapons activation,” and the weapons officer, Kenterum Rorkav, responded, “You’re hot, first.”

Chagarth’s glance flicked quickly over the telltales to confirm that the suit’s built-in weapons were slaved to his control and all the ammo packs fully charged, even though he’d run the checks on the charge packs himself before he’d racked the suit after the last drill.

-00:02.44

He could feel his adrenaline starting to ramp up, the flutter somewhere between his throat and the top of his stomach, and the sweat starting to break on his palms, absorbed by the glove liners. The suit’s airflow adjusted a degree cooler in compensation as, simultaneously, the light bars above the bay doors winked from amber to scarlet, his pneumatic seals hissed, and his faceplate polarized so that the ATV’s drop bay was no longer visible except as a tactical representation on his heads-up.

“First squad, prepare for deployment.” Corporal Arnix’s voice, sounding calm, maybe even a little bored, came over the squad circuit. Arny always sounded like he was half-asleep before an action, but Deran had never gotten up the nerve to ask him if it was some special way the Corporal had of dealing with pre-drop nerves.

-00:01.52

You couldn’t actually feel the drop, not really. Suit gyro compensators kept you feeling an “up and down” orientation. And the drop from a high-atmo cruiser orbit didn’t require any more kinetic thrust than it took to boot the ATV clear of the cruiser’s drop doors. But Deran always knew when they were falling. They all did.

This part of Hecht II didn’t have any atmosphere to speak of. The jathrin domes that held most of the planet’s population were in the equatorial belt. So there wasn’t even any need to engage the Atmospheric Transit Vehicle’s field grappler. A slight jerk was the only sign that they were on the grav-mag cushion, riding down to the final landing.

-00:00:39

“First squad, clear rack.” The red bars above the doors began to wink, and the catches on the webbing that secured suits to the drop rack opened. Each trooper pulled his retract tab. There was a slight but noticeable sway to the vehicle now as the grav-mag cushion bucked a little on the set-down Might be a grav-mag fault, might be the pilot’s jitters. Or it might be field disturbance from enemy fire. No way of knowing.

“Platoon deploy,” the ATV pilot’s voice crackled onto the platoon circuit.

Deran pivoted to face away from the drop rack, to the sliding blast door that would drop in three… two… one seconds.

He was already moving when it dropped.

His digital timetick display read: 00:00.00.

The tactical representation showed the rippled edges of the huge hole that the Klarosian plasma mortar had ripped in the massive, triply-armored wall of the entry bunker. Moving with ponderous speed, Chagarth went through the opening and flattened himself against the right-hand wall between Dannek and Prant. Following him, the three-man team that operated their FE cannon made it to the other side. Second squad was moving in the controlled-bounce of heavy armor mobility down the side of the bunker to another hole.

To their left, the massive blast door that protected the entry bunker from the planet’s nitrogen-heavy atmosphere hung askew in its frame, dislodged by the mortar impact, and to their right, an airlock blinked red, showing the seal inoperative, the next compartment breached. As the FE crew flattened themselves, Corporal Arnix bounced past them, a forearm lifted to enable the auxiliary scanner array to assess the airlock door and what could be sensed of the area beyond.

“Alright, Prant, let’s get that airlock open. Chagarth, Dannek, flank and cover.”

Behind them, a brilliant flash momentarily blanked whole segments of their TR displays, and their suits transmitted a vast rumble. As the displays cleared, what was left of the ATV could be seen, bouncing away from the bunker in three large pieces, still coruscating flares from the FE blast that had hit it.

“A little late, aren’t you, boys?” Prant’s voice on the squad circuit was followed by a couple of snorts from other troopers.

“Alright, alright, let’s get this done, they might correct their aim any time,” Arnix reminded them calmly although he was working fast, attaching the microseal around the edge of the airlock doorframe. Prant followed with the fine spray of chemical activator and as the two men stepped back, the door, frame and all, fell with a “whump” transmitted faintly by their ambient sensors, revealing a scorched and burned pile of heavy, twisted armor shards barring their passage.

“Cute,” muttered one of the FE crew.

The ambient sensor array was transmitting faint echoes of firing, now, and the ambient temp display was rising, but only Arnix’ display would provide more information than the short-range displays the troopers could see.

“I don’t think they want us to go this way,” Dannek observed mildly, as he fell back to allow the FE crew to pass him. While they were dropping the cradle for the cannon, Chagarth again stepped back, and flipped up the enhancement on his visual scanners, checking the room for… There!

“Corp, got automatics two and ten, two and a half meters,” he reported, and sure enough, as his voice sounded over the squad circuit the improvised panels faired into the walls beyond the airlock slid back and the deadly emission bells of needle sprayers emerged. Without conscious thought, Chagarth was already shooting one of his forearm-mounted heatbeam sprayers at the right-hand opening.

The left-hand bell managed to get off a truncated volley before fire from Arnix’s heater fused it, but needler bolts weren’t something Heavy Armor troops needed to worry about unduly, although there was a sound between a yelp and a curse as one of the FE crew took a direct hit on a sensor array.

“Madchek, was that your ranger?”

“No, Corp, just an enviro.”

The FE cannon was mounted and the cradle locked down. “Give it the business,” Arnix instructed, and the others turned away, quickly. Suit sensors could compensate for FE emission leakage, but the first shot was likely to stress them until they calibrated for it.

Chagarth could feel his suit’s airconditioner ratchet up, and the resolution on his display faltered briefly, then stabilized. A slight turn enabled forward visuals again, and he saw the residual glow and the melting pile of slagged heavy metals. His suit’s atmospheric sensors chattered briefly and the readout turned amber. “Not healthy to stay here,” Arnix observed, “And they seem to have ranged behind us. Looks like the only way out is through, hmmm? OK, troops, full defcon.”

The digital timetick read: 00:02.04

The FE team was already disassembling and stowing the cannon. Chagarth bite-clicked his suit control, scrolled it to “Defcon:full.” Suit power shifted from weapons and mobility systems to shielding. The suit’s movement “feel” reflected the shift, becoming heavy and a little sluggish. Weapons indicators blinked amber.

Arnix advanced a step or so, slowly, taking readings from his suit’s more advanced sensor array. “Alright, go, go, go…” he waved them forward and, moving at the max speed their suits allowed, they filed past him, bouncing over the worst piles of bubbling slag.

“Corp, I got personnel blips!” Prant, who’d gone first, reported.

“I see ‘em. Didn’t think they’d ignore us when we knocked so hard.”

Now Chagarth could see the blips on his own TR, showing people at the far range of his suit sensors, crouching behind an improvised gauntlet of barriers and weapons emplacements.

“Chagarth. Find a cover.”

Chagarth was the squad’s sharpshooter. His mouth was dry, he turned his head slightly and took a mouthful from the water nipple as he maneuvered, suit still sluggish, forward and to the left. No line-of-sight yet… yet…

“Got ‘em, Corp,” he said softly, even though their helmet circuits transmitted no ambient sound and his own ambient sensors indicated a lot of noise out there. The cross-hairs of his targeting display came up, and he blinked rapidly three times, slaving it to his eye movements, and confirming it with a bite-click. The targeting display showed his field of fire, laid out over the cluttered representation of multiple layers of barriers. Within, four bright white blips showed what his sensors thought were personnel, covered by multiple layers of wall, barrier, and debris, and five amber blips that might be personnel.

“Aright, Dannek, Silz, point.”

In Chagarth’s display, the blue blips that were his squadmates approached his peripheral sensors, slid past. One of them launched a jinker, a projectile with electronic emissions intended to confuse enemy sensors into reading it as a personnel blip.

Sure enough, it drew fire, revealing the position of a gun emplacement. Deliberately, Chagarth centered his targeting crosshairs over it, and fired.

The wall he’d aimed at melted, but as it did, his display suddenly went bright, then vanished, his faceplate automatically depolarizing as his suit took damage. Through the screened faceplate he could see the blazing glare that engulfed the corridor ahead, and the prone, stationary suit of one of his squadmates. His own suit’s emergency display lit, around the edges of the faceplate, coded lights indicating damage, indicating that his suit was yammering for help to the platoon command circuit, but he could hear nothing, only the faint vibrations of ambient noise.

He saw two other suits—Prant and Arnix, he thought, move in the far periphery of his faceplate. Something sailed past him. Ahead, the prone suit suddenly half-vaporized as an actinic glare blinded him even through the heavily-shielded faceplate.

His suit got hot. A sighing sound, and two of the lights around his faceplate turned red. One was blinking. Which one was that, again? Deran racked his brain, frantic. Damn. He was on residual air, the suit’s conditioner was out. He had a choice, now: activate the injection that would put him into a coma, reducing his air use so that residual suit air might keep him alive until he was picked up, or let ambient air into the suit’s emergency mechanical exchanger.

He tried to recall the last reading he’d seen on the atmo sensor, as the emergency com circuit crackled to life in his ears. “Chagarth, hibernate. We’ll get pickup in five.”

The worst thing about being a legionary trooper, sometimes, was not knowing. Were the other squads doing better than theirs? Would there even be pickup? Sure, Arnix had radioed, but if they were all getting pounded like First Squad, Third Platoon, would there even be anyone to do pickup?

The digital timetick, powered by the suit’s emergency battery, read: 00:03:43

As unconsciousness took him, he wondered briefly who had been in that half-vaporized suit ahead of him.

Sep 012012
 

Read me the story:
pencil and chalk sketch of expensive-looking restaurant with modern furnishings, open clerestory and large windowsOf course, her sister would want to meet her for lunch at the oh-so-exclusive, oh-so-expensive club that Partel and her husband belonged to, Mirget Kostak reflected sourly. Trust Partel to rub her nose in just how much more money and status Flest Vanus and his bride enjoyed than Mirget and Welstam Kostak. Although she had to admit it was a beautiful setting, the stepped terraces adjoining the clubhouse, overlooking the vast green expanse of the kress lawn.

She could see a white-clad threesome just moving off the launch area for the fifth kress marker, their gilies trailing behind them with expensive equipment bags, as the maiter led her to Partel’s table. Actual human servers, no less. Nothing but the best, for the elite of society here in Chart Deb. Partel was waiting for her at a table on the uppermost terrace. A frivolous, colorful parasol floated above the table to shield her from the brilliant light that kept the kress lawn and the elaborate plantings around the terraces so lush.

Darling! I adore the outfit! How quaint!!” On the offensive immediately, but that was no surprise. Being offensive was a sisterly specialty. Mirget’s smile was just as insincere—and fully natural, as she didn’t hesitate to remind Partel. “Darling… how sweet of you. And I love the new biosculpt! Let me look at you!” She stood back for a moment, palpably surveying her older sister’s perfectly-sculpted face, shoulders, and torso.

Partel would never grind her teeth, expensively enhanced and even more expensively preserved, but she had no hesitation at all in putting her little sister in her place. “What do you call that divine little thingie around your neck, sweetheart? Is it the latest rage among the lunatic fringe?” A wonderfully ambiguous insult, that, since “lunatic fringe” had been a fashionable general-use slang term for the small elite of boardsman and upper echelon executives living on Moonstation. Well, three or four years ago, it had been fashionable. Now it was morphing into a derogatory reference among upper crust youth who considered anyplace further from the capital than the Vardry Cluster as beyond civilization altogether.

Mirget caught herself before uttering the satisfyingly cutting response hovering on her tongue. She was here to get something out of her sister, and if she let Partel provoke her into a politely honeyed slanging match (which Partel, never the brightest of the Tarvine offspring, would inevitably lose,) she’d have no chance of parking her children with their cousins over the Long Vacation. Since it was vital to Wilan and Savret’s future to be able to form social connections in prestigious Chart Deb, she couldn’t afford the luxury of annihilating her snotty big sister.

She smiled again, a demure, slightly mischievous smile that could charm the gloves off a senior prelate. She knew that the floating wisp of fabric, with its invisible suspensor fiber and subtle iridescence, showed off her slender neck and throat to great advantage, even if it was outdated by two years or more. “Embarrassed to be seen with your country cousin?” she asked, playfully arch. It set her teeth on edge, but her sister relaxed, secure in her superiority. “Oh, hardly that, darling. Maybe after lunch we should go shopping, though. I’ve found the most clever designer in Wals Rellatat, he really is a marvel. If you can afford it?”

It was likely she couldn’t, since the shopping arcade of Wals Rellatat catered exclusively to the wealthiest upper crust boardsman brides and daughters, and doubtless this was one more way of rubbing in the fact that Partel’s quarterly clothing allowance probably exceeded Mirget’s entire yearly household budget. Still, the Kostak finance accounts were getting satisfyingly larger every year, and the savings account Mirget hoarded from remittance to remittance was growing with them. And there was annual Cultural Affairs Gala coming up. As a committee chair, she’d be expected to show up in something spectacular. She did a couple of mental calculations—including the fees for Wilan and Savret’s highly exclusive private boarding schools—and decided she could probably swing it. “Aren’t you dear! I’d love to.”

She turned her attention to the menu that appeared in front of her, projected against the white tablecloth. “So what’s good here?” Mirget further appealed to big sister’s experience and expertise.

“Oh, they have a fabulous selection of baby vegetables sautéed in Tersican glaze. And the duerzin Marcal—that’s a mixed stew of saltwater crustaceans. They have their own saltwater growing vats here, and fresh herbs.” Partel gestured to the sinuous containers that formed an elegant pattern on the larger terrace below them. The outer containers were planted with flowers and small shrubs, the inner ones with elegantly-trimmed herbs.

“Mmmm… that does sound good,” Mirget agreed. She hated seafood. Partel signaled a server and gave the order—cocktails, prime course, rising course, center course, refresher, coda and sweet, with complementary wines and between-course sorbets. The selections from the ladies’ side of the menu were always dainty compared to the men’s more robust choices for the usual seven-course (informal) or nine-course (semi-formal) midday meals.

When the server had left their cocktails before them, Partel turned a little to look out over the kress lawn. A threesome was just coming up on the fourth marker, their gilies racking the floats in the launchers and stepping back. A tall, lean figure with a shock of unruly-looking dark hair and immaculate kress whites leaned over to calibrate the first launcher, while the other two watched. There was something familiar about the springy line of spine and the set of his head. Mirget narrowed her eyes. “Is that…?”

“Yes, darling, Lorstan Kleksal. Flest and Ordik Malmig are with him.” Partel glanced sidelong at her sister. “Didn’t you used to have rather a crush on him?”

Mirget chuckled, with no sign of the effort it cost her. “Darling, didn’t everyone? He was the catch of my Presentation Year. Rather a starched-chemise, but that gorgeous hair! Whoever did he end up with?”

Partel’s eyes widened. “You mean you didn’t know? But I would have thought surely you’d been invited to the wedding! You and Rindel were such friends!”

“Rindel? Rindel Scafras?” Why that sly, little… 3D hell, but that one hurt. Mirget and Rindel had indeed been best friends, back then, and Rindel had been the only one she’d confided her youthful passion to. Rindel had been so exquisitely sympathetic, too, when Mirget had learned of her betrothal to Tam Kostak, the undistinguished junior scion of an undistinguished minor sept of the Kostaks—a mere exec, and slated for a mediocre civil service career.

“No, I didn’t hear from her. But then I wouldn’t expect to, really. She’d have known I couldn’t spare the time for a trip downside just for a wedding. So what’s Lorstan up to, these days?” Mirget’s voice was so naturally casual, Partel decided there was no further potential for inflicting pain. “Not much, really. He’s been appointed to junior seats on Glaymis Bek Financial board and Dar Nexan board, as well as a family seat at Kleksal Brokerage.”

It was a very conventional path for someone of Lorstan’s background, surprisingly unspectacular considering his flamboyant youth. “Really. Is he still chamba-racing, and big-game hunting?”

Partel laughed. “Oh, no, darling, not chamba racing. The Dar Nexan board is insured by Quem Guaranty Company; they’d never countenance one of their juniors hopping onto a souped-up airbike and playing chicken with the dome forcefields. I don’t know about the hunting, though. I heard he travels south regularly, so maybe he goes to—what is it called? You know, that ranch in Martabal Bwes…”

“Govey Xenon Preserve?”

“Yes, there. Anyway, he mostly confines himself to kress these days. He was Club Champion this year, and won the Open tournament at Kos Pentrad. Didn’t you hear?”

“I don’t really keep up with downside sporting news. I probably should.”

“Yes, darling, you should. One of these days it will come very convenient, you know.”

“I hardly think so,” Mirget said diffidently, picking up a prong and impaling a delicate baby carrot. brown-scored and shining from the grilling glaze. “This is my first trip downside in… what, six years?”

“Yes, but won’t Savret be ready for her presentation next year or the year after? You’re not going to bring her out on Moonstation, are you?”

Mirget shrugged. “I may have to. Tam’s got a plus chance of getting appointed to replace Kosep Radik when he retires next year, and if he gets tied down in Pykalt, I’ll have to be upside during the presentation season. The Senior Coordinator has to do a lot of entertaining, you know.”

Partel’s beautifully-sculpted brows rose. “Senior Coordinator! Really? My, my, you have been busy, haven’t you, sis?”

Yes, she had, but Mirget just smiled. “I think a lot of people underestimated Tam. He’s headed for a board seat, one of these days, you know.”

Partel swallowed a morsel of baby squash and eyed her sister with respect. “Well, if anyone can make it happen, you’ll manage, I’m sure. But it won’t happen in time to help Savret, will it?”

Mirget pushed her plate away. “Partel, you’ve never been upside, have you? Except for transferring at Pykalt Interstellar port for your honeymoon trip?”

Her sister nodded.

“So you have no idea what Moonstation is like, these days. It’s growing incredibly fast, and it’s the nexus for the whole Insystem Region. We have more than twenty boardsman family compounds or manorhouses in Pykalt, and a dozen more in Gitwen, Ruv Denal, and Fornalt. Pykalt and Birval Pleasuredome are on the itinerary of every major arts ensemble, holovid celeb, sporting exhibitor, and rising CivAd hopeful. Last year the Livkad district in Pykal opened more major exhibits than Kos Centrum. The last three Democratic Companies chartered have all been chartered in our District. They’ve started the dome for a new Cathedral that will be bigger than anything downside except Glorious Revelations.”

The server whisked a napkin over her used plate and wafted it away, replacing it with a paper-thin porcelain bowl on a gold-rimmed saucer garnished with fresh orchid blossoms. Tiny real shrimps floated in a clear broth. She picked up her spoon.

“I know I need to keep up our connections here, but if Savret has to be presented at home, it won’t be a total disaster. Last year Nelret Parkel spent the Season in Pykalt, for Bridesakes, and you know how much social influence she has!” She took a spoonful of soup, savored the tangy-sweet broth for a moment before swallowing. “But you’re right, it would be better if she could be presented here.”

Partel nodded. “And what about Wilan? Don’t you want him to spend his Drones Year downside?”

That was one thing Mirget would never compromise. “Absolutely, if I can find a way to swing it. I think I can get him an invite from Evlit Dembrig for some part of the year, since he and Qev Dembrig are so close. He’s got other friends, too, if he can just spend more social time here, but…” She shook her head in frustration. “I can’t park him on Mykep again, with his bride expecting her first.”

“Well, darling…” Partel said slowly.

Mirget tried not to let the sudden tension show as she gracefully sipped another spoonful of broth. Was this it? Holy Bride send luck…

“We had planned to take the boys to the Vardry Cluster this long vac, but then Flest got this Chagarth Fabrik board appointment, and he’ll have to be south for most of the time, so that won’t work. Perhaps you could send Wilan—and Savret, too, if she has no other plans—to us at Kos Vanus?”

Yes! Mirget set her spoon down so that if the relief flooding through her made her tremble, she wouldn’t spill her soup. “Kos Vanus? Really? What a wonderful idea, Party! I’m sure they’d adore it. Thank you so much.”

“Not at all, darling. You’re working so hard, it’s the least I can do. After all, Vanus Major is right on the edge of Devlit Wild, and the young people seem to love to spend time there, at the moment. The kids’ friends are always trooping in and out. We’re set up for it, so it’s hardly an effort. I’d be delighted, really.”

It wasn’t hard, after that, for Mirget to rationalize a teeny bit of overspending on the exquisite lirasilk gown Partel and her pet designer talked her into.

Sep 012012
 

Seven chalk sketches of fashion designs on a black background.Four days before the researchers at Rayki Weapons Lab discovered that it’s easier to induce matter-to-energy projection than to control the results, Mirget Kostak was downside. She had personally escorted her son and daughter to the exclusive schools that would continue to strain the Kostak family budget in the short term, but yield (she hoped) considerable dividends in the long term.

It was disappointing, she fumed, to find that so much had changed in the formerly-exclusive Deb Argosy shopping complex—though not unexpected. Trends came and went, and it was more than fifteen years since she’d spent a good part of her Presentation Year flitting giddily from shop to shop, trying to get every credit’s worth of fashion from her (in her opinion) miserly Presentation Allowance. She’d thought then that The Tarvine should have made a more generous investment in a great-niece whose beauty and education promised as well as hers.

There were few Boardsman-class establishments left here now, she decided, looking down the long arcade with its central aisle of huge potted palm trees. And those few remaining were unlikely to remember her, and fudge her Purchasing Credentials on the strength of old acquaintance. In fact, she was probably, she reflected gloomily, exactly where she belonged. Most of the shops displayed the scroll-design that designated them as authorized to accept employee-class Purchasing Credentials, and most of the scrolls were silver, although there was a scattering of gold among them.

Really, it was too provoking! Now she’d either have to manipulate one of her sisters or cousins into a shopping trip—and they’d certainly know exactly why she was doing it, which would be appallingly humiliating—or settle for using her Kostak Purchasing Credentials, and buying something from an emp-class shop to wear to the Pykalt Cultural Affairs Gala. Even if two childbirths had left her figure exactly as it was before she’d married, all of her clothes from then were hopelessly outdated.

And it would be worse to show up in outdated boardsman-class finery than to show up in the best possible employee-class gown she could manage. Oh well, maybe something from a shop in one of the most prestigious downside communities would be better than anything she’d find upside, even if it cost more. It was always worth it to dress well when you had a position to maintain. And even more so, when you had a position to aspire to.

She’d find something, somehow. Anything was better than having to ask Partel for help and be condescended to.

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