Terry MacDonald

Oct 302013
 

Read me the story:
SyllaMost of the young people and savants had left the schola. Many had been drafted to help with preparations for the shallahee at the House, others were enjoying the opportunity to engage in their own projects.

Daveth was taking advantage of the quiet to potter in the garden outside the K’arett Pavilion. He’d put in some kilissi plants M’daina had started; it was the perfect exposure for them here by the Pavilion wall, a bit sheltered from the wind and with plenty of reflected warmth in the cool evenings. They’d settled in well, but the clawgrass from the side of the path was encroaching their space. He settled in for a nice meditative session of coaxing the clawgrass rootlings out without disturbing the young seedlings.

As usual, he lost track of time, fingers in the warm soil, the scent of earth soothing and refreshing at the same time. But he couldn’t have been at it that long, when he was conscious of someone behind him. A glance over his shoulder, and he sat back on his heels, dusted his hands, and turned, tucking feet and knees under him, to face the stormy-eyed 10-year-old seated on one of the benches beside the path.

“Sy’nda.”

“Daveth, they’re sending me away!” She was exerting great control not to weep, he could tell.

“Tell me,” he ordered calmly. “But first, breathe.”

She nodded, and took a breath, almost gulping, then let it out. He watched, motionless, while she did “five breaths to calmness.” The lines smoothed from her face, but the storm remained in her eyes.

She was a remarkably attractive child—mature for her age. She was just on the edge of puberty, but there was no awkwardness in her body, and the smooth planes of her face might have been a young woman of 15 or so. Fair hair and blue-green eyes to match—her father’s cherith ran to blondes, he knew—were offset by a clear, light-honey complexion.

“It’s your fault,” she said, with a hint of sullen anger still in her voice. “You told us we should explore nirao.”

He said nothing, tipped his head slightly, watching her steadily.

She took another breath, let it out. “No, it isn’t, and you didn’t.”

“Try again,” he prompted gently.

The corners of her lips tucked in, slightly, but she took another breath, nodded, looked away for a moment, then back at him.

“You told us we could explore nirao.”

He nodded. “You, and all of the youngsters who received the ni’alas. And why not? You know how your body works, now. You know what to expect of it. You know how to protect yourself and a partner with daraiyesh. Almost all of you have been practicing zarya for some years, now. It is expected you will explore nirao with one another.”

“Then why is it wrong? Why am I being sent away?” she challenged.

Daveth considered carefully, before he answered. “You did very well in k’arettas, Sy’nda. Perhaps it is your understanding of ev’attas that has betrayed you. What is the ethical basis for gratification?”

She frowned a little, as though she did not like where this was going. “Proportion, and context,” she said, a little unwillingly.

“Yes. Proportion— with how many partners have you shared nirao, in the ten market cycles since your ni’alas?”

Sy’nda shrugged. “Who’s counting?” she said, a little defiantly.

“And have all of them been ni’alas?” he asked.

Sy’nda looked down. “If you looked, you could still see Sanni’s. And Jirylin’s.”

“And what about Lerannan? Who is a savant under word-bond?”

“But we didn’t! There was no nirao! He told me…” her cheeks had reddened, slightly, and her eyes and voice were fierce, “…he told me he would not. Would not have me!”

“And why?”

The girl hunched a shoulder defensively. “I forgot.”

Daveth remained silent, watching her steadily.

She sighed, and looked away. “I did not forget. I just wanted him. I wanted to see what it would be like, with someone… bigger. Older. Experienced.”

“And what of Yradna, and Pe’vrin? What kind of stunt was that, for them to sneak into the challenge-ground, and engage unseconded, unsanctioned, and only be prevented from damaging each other because Wollas heard the commotion, and stopped it?” he went on, mercilessly.

She was red now, and biting her lip. “That wasn’t my idea.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“Well, I didn’t suggest it.”

“You watched. What did you plan to do, if one of them damaged the other? Were you going to share nirao with the victor? Or the vanquished?” he did not allow any scorn or chiding to temper his voice, but it was not necessary. The words themselves were a lash.

Now there were tears trembling in her eyes, but she dashed them away with a hand, and again took the five breaths. “All right, I transgressed. But enough to send me away? Sorja said…” she bit her lip again, and then went on “Sorja said she can’t Sort me. I didn’t want to be Sorted, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just a transgression. I’ll… I offered… I said I would accept a judgment. Make restitution.” She took another deep breath, this one with a sob in it, looking down at her hands in her lap. “There’s nothing wrong with me…!” In spite of all her attempts at control, her voice rose. “I don’t need to be Sorted.”

Daveth took a slow breath, himself, silently asking the Presence for guidance. Hard truths, sometimes, in Westmarch, where the harmony of the House was a fragile veneer over the contentious maneuverings of half-a-dozen cheriths for control of resources and influence.

There were some truths Prenya had clearly not shared with her daughter. It was always a difficult balance to strike, for a savant, between the judgment of the parent, and the well-being of the child. There was no doubt, too, that Prenya could make things difficult for a mere savant, in the House schola.

Even so.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with you, Sy’nda,” he said quietly. “Nothing that requires advanced Sorting, at the Aurora Chancel.”

“You know?” she looked up.

He nodded. “It was mooted with your usallo. I was asked to speak.”

“What did they say? Why am I being sent away?”

“Two questions. Which do you want answered?”

He could see the girl’s palpable effort, pulling herself back into discipline, thinking, setting aside the emotions that had been racking her, and the effort warmed his heart again to her.

She licked her lips, looked steadily at him. “Why am I being sent away?”

Now he knew why, too. He took some moments to arrange the things that must be said, while she continued to watch him.

“You know you are an heir-designate.”

She nodded. “With… what, seven others? Including the Lady’s own daughters?” She clearly didn’t think much of the status.

“Your cherith controls three seats on the Council of Masters, and your mother is all but an Elder of the Chancel.”

She nodded again, and he could see the wheels beginning to turn.

“You know there is contention between Westmarch and Ha’Arichet, and that the Cham’ai have been raiding heavily in alliance with them.”

A single short, sharp nod.

“And you know that the Sunset Chancel, and the Targali Chancel are not agreeing about the directions for the Balance Moot, and the Council of Elders not in unity.”

“My mother will be confirmed as an Elder of the Sunset Chancel. But… she’s spent a lot of time at Targali lately.”

“So I have heard. The net balance is that not everyone who holds influence within the Westmarch karil, or within the House, is in agreement with the decisions that are made, and how they are being made. And the alliances between cheriths, and the lines of amitria, are shifting. So it matters that an heir-designate, even one of seven, is becoming noticed.”

He waited, and she nodded, again. “It’s not just ‘noticed,’ though. My mother’s sister doesn’t like me, does she?”

He shrugged. “I do not know if liking enters into it. But I think it makes things easier for her here, if you are gone.”

He smiled. “But only here, of course.”

Sep 212013
 

Read me the story:
Pek-psMohv Quiddik was accustomed to being able to assess a situation quickly, sum up people with considerable accuracy, and create a reasonably reliable mental map of any given situation. But here at Headwaters, his talent kept eluding him.

They’d debriefed the target, gotten the permissions they needed to establish a perimeter for Anisala m’Anhadon and her— team? staff? family?— for the journey to Farn-Amli and the duration of the Small Cluster conference. As he’d assumed, he was Team Lead for target protection, with Declan Rawl in charge of threat assessment. The deal had been that they’d work alongside Anisala’s people, who, she explained, normally provided a perfectly adequate level of security.

Mohv took no one’s word about “adequate security,” but he’d been reasonably impressed, so far, with the arrangements at Headwaters. Among the rambling structures was a very well-equipped, well-designed saljo, and everyone worked out daily, including the children. Even Anisala did shadowflows from the Parsi tradition of hzajlit.

Mohv had wangled himself an invitation to work out with Chun and Stav, first using competition Tenso rules, and then freestyle. They were pretty good, and Stav was as fast a gun hand as Mohv himself. They’d urged him to work out with what they’d called, smirking, “the girls,” Pek and Tularik, whom everyone called Tuli.

“The girls” were regular sleep-shift bodyguards for Anisala. A little toning up would probably be helpful for them, at that.

Mohv showed up in the saljo to find them in mid warm-up. Pek was holding her right heel at full vertical extension, balanced on the ball of her left foot, left arm extended to balance—a moment arm as she tumbled forward, a blur of motion, the right leg slashing in full arc, right knee pulling in, bringing the left leg around in the same arc, landing with three-point balance, right hand and balls of her feet. Tuli, apparently paying no attention, was practicing lunges, but as Pek hit the three-point balance, Tuli changed the direction of her lunge, and one arm swept out to knock her off balance.

There was a flurry of limbs, some grunts, and the two women were locked together on the mat, Pek atop, her forearm jammed against the other woman’s neck, knee in the solar plexus. Tuli was hampered by having one arm beneath her, but her other hand was wrapped in Pek’s hair; she pulled, hard, but lacked leverage. Pek leaned in deliberately, and bit Tuli’s earlobe, eliciting a little gasp.

Mohv was glad his workout pants were loose.

“See what you get when you try to show off?” Pek eased up on her forearm. Her Translingue had a noticeable Mesrami accent.

Tuli grimaced. “Oh, I was the one showing off?” She looked significantly over the other woman’s shoulder.

Pek chuckled. “We have company, yes.” She rolled off her lover and to her feet in one smooth motion. Tuli bounced to her feet, stood beside her. Both tall women, not so tall as Mohv. Both dark-haired and slender, but there the resemblance ended. Pek was brown-skinned, dark-eyed, six or seven years older, with an aquiline nose and high, sharp cheekbones. Tuli’s fairer skin offset startlingly blue eyes, an unusual dark shade of blue, deep-set under straight, thick brows.

“Welcome Mister Quiddik, so you have decided to join us for a spar today?” Pek’s Mesrami accent had become more strongly marked, and Mohv wondered if she was putting it on for him.

“If you don’t mind, ladies,” Mohv was genial.

They both seemed amused. “Not at all. We like having new sparring partners,” Tuli assured him. “Will you warm up?”

Mohv nodded thanks, and began some stretches, a few shadowflows, loosening up. He felt self-conscious, although both women had turned away to do stretches of their own, alternating between solo and duo.

“Duo stretches, Mister Quiddik?” Tuli offered.

“Please, call me Mohv. And thanks, yes.” He positioned himself for isotonic deltoid stretches, offered an arm.

“I will help you warm up for Pek. She will take you on first.” She put her palm against his, locked her wrist, and leaned. Not much weight, compared to Mohv’s usual spar. He was careful to adjust tension. But as they moved through the six point stretch, she proved surprisingly strong.

They switched sides, and then swapped out direction, moving slowly through the standard variations. Once Tuli grunted disapproval and jabbed him lightly with an elbow when he was pushing too lightly, then grunted approval when he added pressure.

“All right, thanks.” She stood back, and nodded, and a grin flickered over her face. “Mohv… A word of advice?”

“Yes?” He lifted an eyebrow.

The flicker steadied into a smirk. “Don’t pull your strikes. If you try and take it easy on Pek, she’s likely to hurt you.”

Mohv nodded, gravely. “Thanks. I’ll be careful.”

Tuli’s smirk widened to a grin. “Your funeral.”

Twenty minutes later, Mohv understood. He stood back, massaging a very painful hip, and eying the older of the two women with considerable respect. He’d fought better opponents to a standoff, but none of them had been women. And he had an uneasy feeling that she’d been pulling her strikes a bit. He’d like to think it was a biomod alteration, but there were none of the signs. She wasn’t that strong, but she was unbelievably fast. And mean.

For her part, Pek was also massaging a shoulder, and there was a slight deepening at the corners of her mouth that might have been the ghost of a smile. “Not bad, Mister Quiddik. Not bad at all. Now would you like to take on Tuli with the blades?” She nodded to the practice blades on the wall.

“Let him fix that hip, first, Pek.” Tuli had gone over to an equipment locker and was rummaging in it. She turned, and tossed an ultraheal wand in Mohv’s direction. He caught it easily, nodded to her.

“I would, yes.” He bowed to Pek, a Tenso bow, which she returned, politely. “And please, it’s Mohv.”

“Alright, then, Mohv.” Pek’s Mesrami accent had almost vanished. She was stretching her shoulder, grimaced. “I’ll take the wand when you’re done, please.”

He applied it to his hip, feeling the warmth spread through, sharpen, and dissipate. He lunged once or twice, balanced a bit, then handed it to her, and walked over to inspect the practice blades.

Another twenty minutes later, he had no doubts at all of this particular bodyguard team’s ability to deal with ordinary close-order protection of the target. Tuli wasn’t Pek’s equal at hand-to-hand, but with the blades she was, if anything, faster. And uncannily accurate.

Sparring completed, the two women had exchanged glances, again, and then invited him, politely, to share a soak in the saljo’s radiant tub. By that time he was quite sure they were lovers, so it didn’t mean anything other than friendly courtesy, which was how he treated it. “Thanks, I’d like that.”

He went around the corner from the tub, where there were hooks and cubbies for the accommodation of guests, and stripped off his loose shirt and pants. He was half-hard, but what the hell, that happened occasionally during workouts. If they were single-sex oriented, it wouldn’t bother them, if they weren’t, well… again, what the hell.

Tuli was in the radiant tub already, and it was filling, the thick fluid glugging merrily out of the taps. Pek had a towel around her neck, and was bending over the tub control board. Mohv nodded to the women, and climbed into the tub without bothering to use the steps, hoisting himself over the side without apparent effort, and settling on the bench. It was designed to accommodate four, but he was a big man, so when Pek slung her towel on a rack and joined them, the tub was almost full. Tuli waved at the tap sensor and it shut off.

The three of them sat in silence for a few minutes, letting the heated radiant fluid swirl the tension out of them.

Finally, Tuli sighed, and stretched her arms along the tub rim. Pek scooted over just a little, to lay back against Tuli’s arm. She half-closed her eyes, but Mohv could feel her scrutinizing him. A lazy smile stretched her mouth; now, she looked more than a little beautiful. He was glad the radiant fluid was only translucent, not clear.

Tuli grinned, watching Mohv with a kind of bright interest. He swallowed, suddenly feeling much less relaxed. The grin broadened. “Stop it, Pek. We’re making Mohv nervous.”

“You’re making him nervous, maybe. I’m not the one with a taste for polemeat.” Pek chuckled and sat up, opening her eyes. “Don’t worry, Mohv. We won’t, um… eat you.”

Mohv considered several responses, settled on bland amiability. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“We like you, Mohv,” Tuli explained.

Mohv wondered why that didn’t make him feel all warm and happy, having two attractive women sharing a radiant tub naked tell him they liked him. He suspected he knew.

“Uh-huh,” Pek concurred. “We do. So, we thought we should tell you some stuff.”

“That’s right.” It was almost like a cross-talk routine. “We think you’re mostly honest.”

Mohv blinked, started to say something. But they’d moved on already.

“And we’ve done a fair bit of backwork on Kyth,” Pek informed him.

“Well, Nelauk has.” Tuli amended.

“Uh-huh. And we think as mercenary outfits go, it’s not the worst.” Pek continued.

Mohv was abruptly hyper-alert, as if in the presence of a threat. But what could it be?

“And Anisala wants to go along with this extra security deal. For now, anyway,” Tuli said.

Pek smiled, a warm, melting smile. “So we’re going along with it. For now.”

“But we wanted you to know something about that,” the friendly sincerity in Tuli’s voice could have sold used drone tugs to asteroid miners.

“Yup. Just a little thing.” Pek’s dark eyes suddenly pierced like lasers. “If there’s anything hinky planned, and you… or Kyth… is any part of it?”

She paused, but Mohv prudently chose to remain silent.

“I’ll kill you.”

Mohv looked into her eyes and believed her, absolutely.

Aug 252013
 

Read me the story:
yes-she-he
Tenli looked out over the Dawnwood with carefully detached appreciation. It was hardly possible to look at such a view without appreciation. It lay spread before him vast and perfect, a dream, a tapestry, something too big and deep and glorious for words. A wide sweep of sky, with overlapping layers of clouds painted in colors ranging from vividly savage to unbearably delicate. The endless cloak of the wood itself, draped over the undulating foothills in a thousand shades of green and blue and gray, textures playing with the light, absorbing it and flinging it back with gleaming reflections. A smoky line of foothills barely defined the most distant horizon, a hieroglyphic charcoal stroke joining sky and land.

It was a fine view, he thought. You could see a lot, from just over seventy meters up. Something splendid like this was easeful, as a last view. It had been a horrible life and it would be an honorless passage, but a last view of such immensity gave the ending some worth. He looked down, over the tower’s parapet. On this side, there was only the white stone of a little-used path, a strip of jaifryl bushes, the Cloister wall. The stones of the path beckoned him. Quick, sure, final.

To be sure, it would be better to simply leave—still the heart, empty the lungs, shut down, flow by flow, each thread of nihal and zhohar, and step forth, free of the disgusting, useless, misshapen, malformed body, into the final Light. But he was no Adept, yet—nor ever would be, it must be clear even to the Elders by now. And… he was not sure that even the most advanced Adepts could go unbidden into the Presence.

Still, it would be bad enough, going unreleased, via a quick flight and a hard landing. They would never take his name into the Song of Ra’anir.

But what did that matter? They never would have taken Tenli into the Song, anyway. Her they would Sing. The cruelest thought yet; leaving Tenli breathless with the pain of it. She— the one who had never existed at all— she would take his place in the Song, have that much of life, anyway. And he would be the one never to have existed.

Would it matter? He looked out over the Dawnwood again. If you choose oblivion, you’ll never know, and never care. You escape the pain, and everything else.

It would be worth it! The voice inside him raged, screamed. No more! He found his hands balling into tight, tight fists, his body weight leaning, pressing onto them against the rough stone of the parapet. No more shame, no more dreary contemplation of day after day, stretching out ahead of him and never, ever, never feeling right. Never feeling like himself. An endless procession of days, each a dreary ordeal of being… Not-Tenli. Stuck, crying, bleeding, lost…

It would just… be… over. Blessed, blessed, peace. Nothingness. Oblivion. Everything someone else’s problem. No more problems at all.

The stones below seemed to rush up to meet him, suddenly, and instinctively he pulled back, took a deep breath. The last breath? Filling his lungs, feeling his chest—detestable chest!—expand with air. Blood drumming in his ears. He could feel his spirit loosen within his consciousness. Poised, ready, wings spread. As though the stars were calling him. Leaning forward again, slowly, balancing.

Except… if he did this—now—with the disgusting, appalling blood in him—that would not be him, either. He heard Chenaru’s voice in his inner ear: “If you do not take charge of her nihal, it will take charge of you.” Then… this was all that Not-Tenli nihal twisting his mind, distorting him even further. That “last” breath escaped him, with a sob. Was followed by another.

The colors in the sky had shifted, muted. From far below floated up a three-beat chime from the Cloister’s ghanala, signaling the watchturn. Time seemed to pause, perfectly balanced between day and evening.

It felt like a defeat.

So did many victories, though. That, at least, Tenli had already learned. He just had to hold to that knowledge: “Feeling” alone is unreliable, incomplete. He watched the sky colors continue to shift. Motion rippled in the distance—wind coming up over the Dawnwood, sweeping down from the foothills. An almost horizontal ray of sunlight suddenly fell across the treetops, illuminating a swath of verdant brilliance, and then slowly faded. His pulse slowed.

Chenaru heard her novice’s footsteps coming down the stairs from the tower’s upper level, measured, unhurried. Her eyes closed, momentarily, with an unbreathed prayer of thanks to the Power, then she opened them.

He paused, in the doorway: Lithe, well-knit youthful frame; scraped, bleeding knuckles; eyes shuttered over with discipline. He drew in a breath in the manner of one about to speak, but then let it slowly out again, without a word.

She nodded to him: Payndi to novice. “You will do well to care for your hands before you begin assisting with meal preparation.”

There was nothing in her tone but calm observation, but Tenli suddenly felt the roiling chaos within recede further, and a light warmth, like a cloak against those internal winds, fold itself around his heart.

Aug 032013
 

Read Me the Story:
embroidery-cropped“Blessingmother… they have arrived.” Kadaret murmured, respectfully.

“Is it so?” the old woman rose from her knees, and with the certainty of long practice, took the three steps to the hard plastic chair, and sat.

“They can wait,” she said comfortably. “It is time for my pranska. Did you bring it?” The veil turned in Kadaret’s direction.

Kadaret felt her jaw drop. “N-no, Blessingmother… I thought…”

The old woman chuckled. “You bring it, daughter. I’ll need it.”

Kadaret made a respectful knee-bob. Blind as she was, the old woman had an uncanny sense for such things. “Yes, Blessingmother.”

It had never occurred to her that anyone—anyone—! –would make the Cardinal Prelate’s own maiter wait!

She sped down the narrow corridor, past rows of the tiny cubbies that each provided a Vowed Daughter of the Weeping Handmaiden with a narrow sleeping pallet, a kneeler, and a small chest to hold her worldly goods. At the end there was a much broader cross-corridor and the arched doorway that led to the Garden Cloister. Kadaret did not spare a glance for it; she turned for the kitchen, and in very little time was back with a small dish, a spoon, and a clean napkin. She tapped the door frame.

“That was quick, very good. Very good.”

The old woman folded back the lower half of her veil, and fumbled for the spoon, digging it in to scoop a small mound of moist golden fruit.

Blessingmother Nanamet lived the most austere of lives, except for this one indulgence—one pranska, each Holyday, in the place of midday pottage. Everything about life at the Divine Mercy Monastery had been an invariant routine, including that.

With the news of the Conflagration, changes had come. But Blessingmother Nanamet still had her fruit. “Ahhhh….” The old woman sighed a little, and lifted the napkin to dab at a trickle of juice on her chin. “So delicious. Like the flesh of a beloved.”

What a strange thing to say. What would old Nanamet know of that, Kadaret thought? Everyone knew the Blessingmother’s story. She had been here, at Divine Mercy, since her very birth, more than sixty years ago. Her mother had been a Relict, Vowed here on the occasion of her Renunciation by her Ecclesiast husband who had heard the miraculous Call to Celibacy before he knew he’d engendered a child. Such cases were difficult, of course, but the Church could not deny a true Renunciation.

Born here, raised here, probably she’d expected to die here, like all the Relicts and Renunciates Vowed to the service of the Weeping Handmaiden.

Kadaret knew better than to let the slightest hint of her feelings show on her face, in her breathing, in a small movement. She knew the flesh of a beloved. Had thought herself beloved. Had believed that the Creator laid her path in the most abundantly joyful of places. Had quickened with her husband’s child, even. The miscarriage… it hadn’t been her fault! She had done everything, everything the birthwife had said!

Then Lankar had decided that the miscarriage was a divine leading, and he would heed the Call, and renounce Kadaret, and enter the prelacy.

Nanamet had spooned up the last bit of the pranska, and wiped her mouth daintily. Her face, still half-veiled, was turned in Kadaret’s direction and tilted slightly. The corners of the soft old mouth were tucked in with something that might have been compassion… or amusement.

“And what do I know of a beloved’s flesh, is that it?”

Kadaret tried not to start, but did swallow. The old woman probably heard it, with that preternaturally acute hearing, but she only shook her head a little, and let down her veil. “You still have so much to learn, daughter. All right. I shall keep the Holiest One waiting no longer.”

She stood, and replaced the chair under the little table, and turned to make a knee-bob to the ikon of the Bride on the wall above her kneeler.

Kadaret stood aside from the door. She knew better than to offer the old woman any assistance. Nanamet knew every millimeter of the Divine Mercy, moved about her daily rounds as adeptly as though she’d never lost her sight from the infection that had been diagnosed too late, and treated here with only the minimal facilities of the monastery’s Infirmary.

Beside the doorframe hung the long staff of the Blessingmother’s office. She put her hand to it unerringly, and preceded Kadaret to the Cloister Gate, where the Cardinal Prelate’s own private bounce shuttle waited, to take her to Pykalt for an Ecclesiastical Convocation. It was an unprecedented thing, to invite the Blessingmother of a monastery to such a gathering, even though technically such a rank was equivalent to Archprelate, in the Church’s eyes.

But these were unprecedented times.

“Well, come along, daughter.” Nanamet paused, and gestured to Kadaret to accompany her. “You don’t think I’m going alone, do you?”

Jul 302013
 

Read Me the Story:
Plena Revene-2

The cabin ComWeb chimed softly.

“Attention, Travelers. Inger Chevron, the Inger Lines’ newest liner in the ultra-luxury “Heraldic” series, has achieved final orbit around Plena Revene, home of Holiday Safari World’s Plena Leisure Parks. Disembarkation for Plena Leisure Park resorts will begin in one hour. Disembarking travelers may meet your resort shuttles in the bay indicated on your personalized Traveler’s Itinerary. Inger Lines wishes you an enjoyable stay and looks forward to carrying you on your return journey.”

The chimes and honeyed tones of the announcement produced a wave of activity. Passengers who’d ignored the downtransit announcement some hours back began hastily to pack belongings, activate luggage tags, tip their Personal Stewards (this was encouraged in the Traveler’s Tips provided by the Inger Lines at embarkation— amounts and methods were gently hinted,) assemble hand-carried belongings, and hurry to make their way to the shuttle bays. More experienced (or prepared) travelers ordered a final cocktail, exchanged comservice codes with new acquaintances, and/or used the opulently-appointed ’fresher facilities a final time, and made a more relaxed progress to the shuttle deck.

Tsangmen Shuli was one of those who’d waited to the last minute to pack— but she had very little to assemble. Standard-class travelers were allowed one stored and one cabin luggage item, and no more than three and a half kilos of mass to hand-carry. She’d debated paying for an additional stored luggage item, as she expected to be on Plena Revene much longer than the tenday holiday package she was booked for, but decided to travel light, instead. No sense raising eyebrows— or suspicions.

With an infinitesimal adjustment to the ships’ gravmag generators (barely noticeable to the passengers,) the Chevron opened its massive shuttle deck bay gate, ready for the half-dozen atmosphere-to-orbit craft that were already lifting, perfectly coordinated, from the various Resort Centers.

Shuli found the queue forming to board the shuttle to the Oceans and Islands Center, Plena Parks’ premier attraction in the modest price range. She was booked for a popular standard holiday package, the “Floating Islands” resort targeted to family, convention, and leisure-oriented customers. It provided a variety of beach and boat options that focused on tours, food, and leisure services rather than adventure or athletic recreation. It was just the kind of thing Shuli would have carefully avoided, had she not been following her new employers’ instructions: Blend in.

The queue moved slowly, as each passenger had to have a retina print taken, and various documentation verified. And of course every third or fourth person had misfiled their Itinerary, or put it on a comgle which had then been relegated to an inaccessible pocket or luggage compartment.

There was a short hissing sound, a modest rumble, and then the hatch for the shuttle boarding opened, and the queue began to move a little faster.

An older couple she’d exchanged pleasantries with a few times aboard the Chevron waved at Shuli and indicated a seat in their row; she smiled back and joined them. He’d managed some kind of food processing unit for a branch of the Hoyval Multifoods consortium, but retired on employee shares; she was a voice recorder for some media company. They were celebrating an anniversary with a two-tenday “Outer Islands” package that included snorkeling and floatsailing and a “private cabanienda” with a view of the Rainbow Lagoon.

Shuli’d admired the brochure they’d shown her, and told them she’d recently Certified in Advanced Level Archaeobotany (true,) and was combining a certification present holiday from her parents (a lie, they were both dead and she was older than she looked) with a chance to observe Holiday Safari Worlds’ terraform littoral bioengineering achievements (half-truth, she’d probably see some of that but it wasn’t what she was here for.) They’d shared a couple of meals, and Shuli had taught the she-half of the couple to play Scratch in the Chevron’s Casino, with moderate success. As shipboard acquaintances, they fit nicely into her profile and helped her blend in.

The shuttle filled with no more than the predictable number of hitches- people with oversized hand-carries, parties wanting to rearrange already-occupied seating so they could sit together, nervous travelers with urgent queries for the staff about shuttle safety (excellent) and journey time (1.3 standard hours to the Palmwinds shuttleport.) But eventually everyone was strapped in, and another hiss, and a rumble, and the hatch was closed. A slight gravitic hiccup—a sensation like a very short bounce in a fast-rising elevator—and the shuttle was free of the liner’s gravmag distortion.

The transition to the shuttle’s pseudograv generator was seamless. Shuli felt herself getting light—about one-third standard gee, she estimated. Just enough to keep everyone’s breakfast in place. A few more barely-noticeable bumps as the shuttle’s directional adjustments were laid in, and a momentary sense of increased gee as the pilot applied just enough thrust to drop them into Plena Revene’s gravity well.

“Welcome, Adventurers!” a hologram of an attractive couple in exotic, colorful beach gear appeared on the overhead presentation stage at the front of the shuttle compartment. They were smiling and waving.

“Plena Leisure Parks is happy to welcome you to the Oceans and Islands Experience! Your shuttle will arrive at Palmwinds port in approximately one point three standard hours, and surface transit and docents, couriers, and sherpas will meet you at the port after you complete entrance formalities.” The male hologram was cheery, matter of fact.

“May I suggest that if you haven’t yet reviewed the Basic Complete Disclosure presentation, and filed your Liability Waiver, you use the journey time to do so? This will expedite your entrance processing. This shuttle is linked to the Plena Leisure Parks ComWeb system, and you may view the presentation on your individual presentation stage by touching the blue button on your armrest.” The female hologram was warmly confiding.

Shuli had dutifully viewed all of the recommended Complete Disclosure presentations for her holiday package, and filed her Liability Waivers from aboard the Chevron. She’d found them quite funny, actually. The idea that anyone signing up for a safari holiday wouldn’t realize that yes, they’d be exposed to potentially hazardous terrains, non-standard biological entities, and even “random and potentially uncomfortable extremes of environmental conditions,” was baffling. What did they expect? It was all legal stuff, of course—required by Hub Mercantile Conventions for the covering of HSW’s butt.

The holograms rambled on about the entertainment channels available during the shuttle journey, then wished everyone an “Amazing Adventure!” and vanished.

She managed to lose the friendly older couple during the entrance formalities, by heading off to a ComWeb kiosk while they queued up for entry processing. By the time they’d boarded the floatbus with the Rainbow Lagoon logo, Shuli was in line for the Floating Islands resort check-in, blending nicely near-but-not-with a large group of conventioneers.

The Floating Islands resort offered a choice of floatbus transport: A short transit directly from the port, more or less at surface level (about fifteen minutes’ ride) or the 90-minute “glassbottom floatbus tour” that circled the Oceans and Islands complex and provided a “True bird’s-eye view of this marvel of terraform engineering and environmental design!” Shuli opted for the tour.

She’d known it would be impressive—she’d spent a lot of time studying the HSW tri-dees and even some of the technical reports about how their resorts were designed and constructed. They really did push the envelope of bioeme design and habitat construction, combing Life Banks for usable specimen material and employing the most advanced habitat control technology. They put it all together to re-create an incredible variety of intricate, complex environments on a vast scale. Everything from re-creations of imagined Old Terra, to “Colonial Altair,” “Galania before humanity,” and fantastic hybrids of imagination and reality that involved every conceivable combination of (reasonably safe) “natural” conditions and life forms.

But actually seeing it unroll beneath you… They’d flown over one end of Oceana Plena, nearly 3 million square kilometers of saltwater habitat teeming with terraform life. They’d seen a herd of large cetaceans, the guide had called them “narwhales,” breaching and milling around a massive tour ship. Islands clustered around brilliantly colored, jewel-like lagoons, ringed with outer bastions of rock formations like twisted bridges and fountains, gleaming in the brilliant light. Beyond that a chain of larger islands, with cliffs and mountains—one nearly five thousand meters high!

They’d overflown the main shoreline—majestic pale cliffs at the north end and a rugged, rocky coastline that merged into a classic littoral zone. Then a river delta and marshes, and beyond that, coves, bays, and sandy beaches merging into a peninsula and another chain of islands, this one including a small, perfectly-simulated (but not tectonically active, the guide assured them,) volcano!

And the vegetation. Everywhere, the vegetation. Specimens Shuli had seen only in stasis labs and arcodishes and holorecs. Hectares of mixed marsh grasses, sedges, reeds… SEAweeds washing in with the waves. Islands full of tropical specimens, flowers, fruit, palms. An incredible variety; she hadn’t even tried to keep count of the categories, much less individual species.

She had been told to wait until the third day of her stay—and then sign up for the “Insider’s Tour” of the Parks Management complex. At a certain point in the tour, she was to ask a certain question of the guide.

Sometime after that, her new job would begin.

As the floatbus made a wide, curving approach to the Floating Islands Resort and began to descend in front of the rambling Golden Jasmine Inn, she reflected that the next two days might seem very long indeed.

Jul 292013
 

Read Me the Story:
Basic CMYKThe Lodis Chevron arrived in normal space just outside the Plena system one Relative Elapsed hour earlier than predicted on the liner’s itinerary, well within standard parameters for that route. Another six point eight hours on Insystem drive would put them in orbit around Plena Revene, which would already have shuttles standing by to launch and receive the holiday makers headed for Holiday Safari Worlds’ premier resort complex, Plena Leisure Parks.

During an average local day cycle, between eleven and seventeen major passenger ships called at Plena Revene, serving a daily average of 28,000 arrivals and departures, which called for efficient traffic management from the six Plena ports—Palmwinds, Glacierflash, Rivermusic, Junglethrob, Mountainair, and Forestwater. It also made it relatively easy for a traveler to be unobtrusive in their arrival and departure.

Jen-zi Cheyn, Chief Executive of Holiday Safari Worlds, liked being unobtrusive. He normally booked commercial transit for his site inspection jaunts—and nothing about this trip would vary significantly from his normal practices. Equally normal, though not invariable, was calling for a special pickup from Plena Parks management complex.

The small atmosphere-to-orbit vehicle that had been dispatched to the Chevron to fetch Jen-zi was not one of the Plena Parks’ fleet of shuttles. Unlike those larger vehicles, it was designed to carry a maximum of six passengers, could be piloted by a single individual, and it had a fast field-bounce drive unit that made it ideal for short hops between the fourteen separate Parks facilities dispersed over the surface of Plena Revene.

“Ten Cheyn?” the driver wore a standard coverall and the patch of Parks Management. She was a cheerful-looking, athletic young woman who differed from standard HSW guest services personnel only in a slightly heightened alertness. When he settled in the front seat next to her, she cleared her throat, and said diffidently, “Excuse me, Ten, but I was instructed to verify…?” She indicated a security jack on the operation console. He stuck a finger on the pad for a micro-sample and DNA match. The indicator winked blue, and she smiled. “Thank you, Ten Cheyn.”

“Thank you, Ti…?”

“Navrit. Luras Navrit.”

“Thank you Ti Navrit.” He sat back and let her do her job, but once the initial flight check was completed, she turned to him. “I was told to take the final coordinates from you, Ten Cheyn.”

She had the clearance, or she wouldn’t have been assigned to this task. He gave her the coordinates of the officially nonexistent research and development facility. She entered them, then looked at him blankly. “Needs additional clearance?”

“Oh, right.” Jen-zi activated his implant and provided the extra key. Once the nav board went blue, the pilot carefully disengaged from the Chevron’s gravmag field, made a few minor adjustments with the directionals, and applied just enough thrust to drop them back into the Plena Revene gravity well.

An hour later he was being greeted by Ros Maklenan. “Jen-zi!” Ros was jubilant. “We’ve done it!”

His excitement was contagious. Jen-zi found himself walking faster, and by the time they reached the centropticon, they were both practically running.

“We started with a micro-habitat. Three hundred and sixteen eukaryotes, all from Procyon-D biotopes, and a thousand, eight hundred and nine prokaryotes, most from Procyon-D, but this is the amazing thing—we couldn’t get true life-tropes—well, you know that part. I really have to give the credit to Mayala T’quan, she was the one who thought of tracking the levels of proteinogenic biosynthites. The amazing thing—we were seeing high levels of a pseudo-aminoglycoside, a homolog of the kacin series…”

Jen-zi racked his brain for the specific biochemistry, had to ping his implant for help. It had been too many years since he’d spent any time in a life-lab. “And that would jigger up several classes of prokaryotes?”

“Jigger… Well, yes, more or less. We went looking for a congruent dystope. Scanned the entire Procyon-D biobanks, every known storage facility.”

“And wasn’t that FunCluster Central.”

By this time they were at the control station, and Suva had joined them. She grinned, a flash of white teeth. “We had to route our search requests through so many proxies I am thinking some of them are still working their way through the U-League documentary protocols. And in the end, for nothing. It wasn’t a…”

Ros interrupted, his glee bubbling over— “It wasn’t a xenobiote at all! That’s the amazing thing! It was a terratype—a virus! Well… viroid, really. And… this is the great part… it’s a common one!”

Suva made a noise not unlike a snort. “If you can call a viroid a biotope.”

“If it acts like life…”

They were clearly off and running on chapter two hundred and twelve of an ongoing publication.

“But it worked?” Jen-zi yanked them back to the topic at hand.

“Well, not at first.” Mayala had arrived. She gave Jen-zi a nod and a grin. “In fact, at first we wrote it off as contamination and were ready to dump the whole arcodish.”

Ros took over again. “But then Maya thought of taking the biosynthite levels one more time, just to establish a reference for another iteration. And there it was! Sustenance and reproduction, throughout the spectrum.”

“At first,” Suva pointed out. “Then we started seeing a bloom-die cycle among the oratinids. We managed to stabilize it by taking some of the low-UV ’topes out and replacing them with higher-sensitivity range versions. And then…”

She stopped, probably because of the hand gesture Jen-zi was making. They all stopped, grinning at him—a grin reflected on his own face, where it looked unaccustomed, but welcome.

“So?”

They looked at each other. Ros made a “follow me” gesture.

They went through a vacuum-lock, coming out in a small room with a scattering of tools and equipment leaning up against one wall, and a rack of meters and sensor probes on the other. At the far end was a simple—and unlocked—airlock-type exit door. He grabbed a multiprobe from the rack, handed it to Jen-zi. “Here. You’ll want this.”

They stepped practically together through the door. Ros was obviously trying to hang back, to allow the boss the experience of going first, and equally obviously couldn’t control himself, he was so eager to get out there.

To anyone accustomed to the lush habitats in the Plena Revene resorts, it would have been mystifying and a little disappointing. They stepped out into Plena’s natural sunlight, only slightly filtered by a tavis field. There was no jathrin dome here.

And he was breathing.

He could see the edges of the tavis field. This wasn’t a large space, maybe two and a half klicks in diameter altogether. The terrain was uneven, sloping upward steeply to the left, and irregularly, like a line of miniaturized mountains. A natural crevasse—Plena Revene’s surface had many of them—cut the landscape obliquely, near the far edge of the tavis field, ahead.

Unlike the spectacular vegetation featured among the resort habitats, life forms here clustered loosely, thinned out, apparently vanished altogether, in spots. A flash of motion caught his eye to the right, and vanished. Too quick to see what it was, other than macro-dimensional, and motile.

There was an odd effect around the edge of his vision, and suddenly Jen-zi realized he had forgotten to breathe, and filled his lungs with an explosive gasp. He looked down.

Life was everywhere. Stains on the rocks were lichen homologs from the Procyon-D life banks. Among the scree and dust around his feet he could see organic matter, tiny scraps of the dusty blue-green, lavender-brown, and rusty colors that predominated among specimens he’d seen, until now, only in stasis slides or tri-dee repros.

He realized he was holding something—the multiprobe. He took a few simple readings. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, minute traces of nitrogen and methane. Airborne prokaryotic biotopes. Ros, still grinning, was watching him. He touched the boss’s arm, said softly “Don’t move. Look to your left, and down, about one-thirty-five-degrees, about six meters ahead.”

Jen-zi looked, moving only his eyes. This time the flash of motion resolved itself… About half the size of his closed fist. He’d only seen them in holos. They’d been a major, almost dominant, life-form in the tundra-like equatorial zones of Procyon D prior to its terraforming. They were small, unspectacular omnivores. Unlike a few xenobiotopes that had been preserved and replicated, researched and integrated into various commercial and recreational functions (Holiday Safari Worlds used most of them, in various settings,) this creature had never offered any promise of entertainment, function, or profit to humanity. And so, it had languished in the life banks, for centuries. Catalogued, described. Of interest only to a few xenobiologists.

“A lorrtel.”

Ros nodded. The creature sensed the motion, vanished from view. “We introduced them nearly a year ago. They have a very short reproductive cycle, you know? Three generations, already.”

The quiet pride in his voice was more eloquent than his earlier enthusiasm.

“Higher life forms.”

“Uh-huh. And look—” he gestured again. A tufty bit of vegetation Jen-zi didn’t recognize, with a greenish-blondish color to it.

“Terraform?”

“It’s a version of the danthonia that’s employed in the early stages of the Type-4 terraforming process. Do you know, we had to retro-engineer the DNA? I think we got close to its original form, but I wish we could consult with one of the paleobotany people at New Lexandri. Strivek or Mellanbel, maybe.”

He was asking permission, obliquely. “I’ll see what I can do, Ros. Maybe there’s a way.” New Lexandri was heavily subsidized by the big habitat-design industries. U-League security was a sieve when it came to information, and that by design, but it posed a continuing challenge for anyone who wanted to stay off the radar of mercantile R&D espionage.

And now, their own operational security had just ratcheted up to a whole new level.

(Special thanks to Chuck and Peter for voices.)

Jul 132013
 

Read Me the Story:
hotsy-totsy-PSThe Cast Manager of Club Priape looked him over, and Lewji obligingly turned, slowly, striking a pose. No reason not to. Stav Benthik’s employers did not stint on the quality of their tools, and the biosculp they’d sprung for, before he left Lyad Retsa, had been top quality in its class. He now looked ten years younger than his calendar age, somewhat enhanced where it would count the most, and a whole lot less experienced.

Of course, the biosculp had been accompanied by the implantation of a sensory recording net, add-on modules for the existing mastoid implant, and enough other thises-and-thats to make him feel like a virtual, if temporary, cyborg. It had taken an extra thirty hours or so just to run it all in and get it functioning smoothly.

“I see you had your physical exam and license review on Mesram Xina,” she glanced at the readfield on her desk, then returned to looking him over with practiced attention. “The license review is fine, but we have local regs, so you’ll have to re-do the physical here. But if you pass, we can prep you at the same time, and the fee will be on us.”

That meant A) he’d gotten the contract, and B) Club Priape was every bit as high-end and professional as Stav had indicated it would be. First hurdle passed. Stav had warned him that Priape was “clean— we have nothing to do with it, no connections. Has to stay that way. That’s partly why we’re using you on this job.”

The license was a put-up job, just like the illicit ID he was using, but again, it was top quality. And he’d done enough sex work in the past to pass as licensed. Prepping was a disagreeable necessity for health and safety reasons, but it also enabled a sex worker to use MetaTest safely, and that made the job a whole lot easier. “I’m fine with that,” he told her.

She finally cracked a smile. It wasn’t much of a smile, and it didn’t go beyond the lower half of her face, but it was enough. “Alright, last check, let’s get a retina, and you can stat-print the contract.” She tossed him the Eye-D. He caught it, blinked into it, and it confirmed his ID and initiated the standard InfoWeb searches— clean, of course. He placed it on the desk; she was already reviewing the results.

“Good. Here’s the contract, eyeball it and statprint. It’s a class 2 temp; if we like your work, we’ll upgrade after three payouts— that’s in section twelve.” She handed him a flatreader with eyeball tracker and built-in Eye-D scan, a standard legal registration tool. “You can sit, if you want,” she gestured to one of the couches on a side wall.

Lewji shrugged, and kept reading. Not fast enough to invalidate the track, but not terribly attentively, either. It was a standard employment contract that obligated them to do nothing but pay him if they felt like it, and gave them legal cover to kick his ass out anytime they wanted. Final execution contingent on the outcome of the legally-required physical exam and successful completion of the “FuckPrep Select” temporary biomod process.

The validation clause at the bottom flashed red when he reached it, and supertext appeared over the readfield: ‘To validate this agreement, activate Eye-D scan and read validation clause into audio pickup.’ He found the activation slide, blinked into the scanfield, and said, “I, Jannas Tango, register my agreement under Hub Mercantile Code Section nine-eight-two, for the execution of this agreement, identified as delta-six-ed-four-one, with Club Priape and its parent corporation Pandor Entertainment Limited.”

The clause turned blue, and he handed the flatreader back to his new boss. “Great. Go get your physical, and report for wardrobe review and New Cast orientation at half-seventeen.”

Jul 112013
 

Read Me the Story:
Old AuriganThey were meeting in the Old Aurigan café and social club, as usual.

Lewji was pretty sure Stav Benthik had an office somewhere. He was also pretty sure he knew who Stav worked for, but in neither case did he make the slightest attempt to confirm or deny his assumptions. Stav was a customer, a special, valuable customer, and Lewji’s business ethics deemed customer privacy utterly sacrosanct.

Of course, he hadn’t worked for Stav, lately. The last job had been… about two years ago. A simple delivery, handled with the unobtrusive discretion that Lewji thought of as his trademark. He’d made the delivery, he’d checked his credit balance a couple of hours later. The payment had been there. He hadn’t heard from Stav since, which wasn’t too surprising.

The downeast stratline had brought him into the commercial sector of the city’s Kedwalit node. Kedwalit was a virtual warren, left over from Lyad’s precolonial settlement, and there was only the one stratline platform and damn few working slideways, so he’d have to take pedways most of the way.

Stav had once, six years or so back, intimated that if Lewji wanted regular employment, he’d be accommodated. That was after a particularly tricky series of contracts, finally culminating in some bottom line work, which again, Lewji had handled well. He didn’t much care for bottom line work, though he’d undertake it as needed to complete a contract. And he was very good at planning and executing undetectable and convenient “accidents” when needed.

There’d been talk of a bonus, which Lewji turned down— a matter of policy. He set his fees, with minimal negotiation, and they were ‘inclusive.’ So Stav had hinted about regular employment, which Lewji’d been briefly tempted by, but it would probably have involved more travel than he’d want. Junari was younger then, and he didn’t like leaving her alone with his mother too long. The old woman was a terrible influence.

He’d just said he currently wanted to spend more time with his daughter than regular employment might allow, and hoped that wouldn’t be misinterpreted. Stav’s employer, he felt, would be bad people to get crossways of. But Stav had seemed to understand. He’d noted that “the bosses” were pleased with Lewji’s work, and would find some acceptable way of showing it.

A few months later, Junari taken Academy quals and come out near the top. Even with top quals, there was no guarantee a kid could get a good Academy slot; there were never enough slots available. But a recommendation, from some senior ’crat in the Lyad Retsa Education & Training division Lewji’d never heard of, had tipped the balance.

Since then, Stav had occasionally asked about “your girl’s” progress at the Academy, in a glancing sort of way. Lewji had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, he was fairly sure there wasn’t much Stav’s employer didn’t know about him, and probably Junari, and probably his mother, as well. And letting him know they knew… that could be a sign that they regarded him as a trusted associate, or just that they knew which strings to pull. Or both.

He checked the marker coming up for the next slideway— Malgar Conduit. When the slideway ended, he turned into the crowd, walking mostly against the tide of homebound shift-changers. It was still daycycle, but in this neighborhood, most businesses kept their nightcycle lights on all twenty-four. Many of them had music blaring over the pedways, as well, just a fraction of a decibel below the “public nuisance” threshold.

The Old Aurigan was about a kilometer from the intersection, but the slideway on this section of Malgar hadn’t operated for years. Instead, it had become an informal market point for casual vendors of everything from sex to toothpaste. The gaffers swept through often enough to keep things “casual,” (no one sold anything they couldn’t pick up and carry away fast) but some of the vendors had occupied their particular pitches for years.

Lewji kept to the pedway. About halfway there, the ambience began to change. Not spectacularly, but definitely. The competing strains of music were just a little less loud, a little less strenuous. Aimed at a crowd that could remember the musical fashions from a couple of decades ago. There were fewer EZshops, cleaning establishments, fast eateries, tempsculp parlors, and more betting shops, oases, and sit-down eateries. Light displays were a tad less garish.

And there, on the corner of Malgar and East 112th, was his destination. Unobtrusive, and a little shabby. No display lights, just a sign, and a dusty display window with an ancient still life of wine carafes and fake Chendillian food items, to which some wag had added a few pieces of formidable-looking cutlery, a joke appreciated only by those in the know. It didn’t even look open, this time of day. But Lewji passed his hand over the sensor and the door opened.

Inside was very different. Clean, for one thing. The lighting level was low without being dim, and the décor, though old-fashioned, was relaxed in character and had once been expensive. There were few patrons, this time of day—a table of four on one side of the main dining area, another deuce by an archway that led to the back premises, two women sitting at the end of the bar nearest the front door, and a man sitting at the far end of the bar: Stav Benthik.

“Lewji. Good to see you.”

“Stav.”

“Glass of caldos?” Stav lifted the small footed glass in front of him suggestively.

“Pleasure, thanks.”

Lewji sat down, nodded to the bartender, and accepted a similar minute glass of the very strong apple cordial. He disposed of it properly, and eyed Stav with patient enquiry while the little fireball he’d swallowed spread through his torso, up his spinal column, over his scalp, and brought a mild sweat to the back of his neck.

“There’s a Small-Cluster conference coming up. On Farn-Amli.”

Lewji put on his negotiating face, and nodded. A Small-Cluster conference? That was out of his usual sphere of operations. He ran a few quick mental calculations on why they might need a freelancer, and came up with some interesting totals. This would not be a small job.

“We’d like to get you in place well before the conference opens, and keep you there throughout. Multiple targets, multiple objectives. Tiered.”

“So what are we talking about, in the way of time, here?”

Stav’s eyes rolled upwards as he worked out some internal calculation. “To Farn-Amli… The conference itself… You’d need to leave fairly soon. Then figure, twelve- maybe thirteen hundred hours altogether, including travel time.”

The negotiating face didn’t slip, but Lewji considered the eight or nine weeks—that would be pretty much the entire offterm. Granted, Junari would be at that Starna Lake Camp for five of those weeks, but still, he’d hoped to spend more time with her, when Camp was over. Maybe take her on a trip to Lyad Center, let her pick out some upend clothes for her final year at the Academy.

On the other hand, a job of this size and complexity could be lucrative. Even on a half-subsidy, the Academy wasn’t cheap.

“Tell me more.”

Stav lifted an eyebrow. “I can do that. Under an erase agreement.”

Lewji didn’t care for erasure, but it didn’t have many long-term side effects any more. It was just annoying. You always knew something had been erased, if not what. Like an itch you could never scratch. And because of the way erasure worked, it had to be text. No verbal, no questions and answers— that left different memory traces, problematic for erasure.

“All right. Erase agreement.”

Stav poked at his wristcom. “Okay, you got it. Want a beer while you’re looking it over?”

“No thanks,” Lewji was already pulling up the readfield, adjusting it for the dim light in here. Stav shrugged, signaled the barkeep for a beer for himself, and turned to watch the holostage above the bar, where coverage of the Retsa Cluster finals in the Central Axis Peiball League was underway.

The text rolled out on the readfield. It was a complex job. A couple of deliveries. Sensory recording. Observation. And…

Oh, great. Sex work.

Jul 062013
 

Read me the story
Honor Roll CertificateIt was a little difficult to tell whether the enthusiasm of the applause was attributable to the quality of the performance, or the fact that it was that last one on the schedule. Either way, the smiles it brought to the faces of the dozen or so eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds on the stage were enough to prolong it another ten seconds.

“Thank you very much,” the poised youngster who stepped forward to the front of the stage gestured for silence, and received it. “We’d like to thank our Precep, Ti Vundaras,” he gestured at the smiling young woman standing at the side of the stage, who waved a little, then motioned for him to continue. “And we’d like a special round of applause for Junari Ulongo, who adapted the story of the Three Lost Starfarers for our script.”

That was a request Lewji Ulongo could grant with fervor, as the Precep gestured to his daughter from the other side of the stage and the applause swelled again. Junari walked over to stand by the boy at the front of the stage, who made a theatrical mime of gathering the cast together, and all the children bowed again.

The plaudits completed, parents extricated themselves from the slightly-too-small seats, and straggled out to the “lobby” area in front of the academy’s Media Center. Here several tables of refreshments awaited them, and the youthful performers, who were starting to stream out from the backstage area.

Lewji positioned himself where he could see Junari right away when she came out, which also happened to be where half a dozen other parents were queuing for hot cafchi, dispensed by one of Junari’s Preceps. The man grinned at him “I will miss Junari very much, when the new term starts, Ten Ulongo.”

One of the other parents, a blondish woman with a biosculp that definitely hadn’t been worth what she’d paid for it, turned to smile at Lewji. “I should think so! Such a talented little girl!” He’d chatted with the woman briefly before the show began, but for the life of him Lewji couldn’t remember whether her kid was male or female.

Think fast, Lewi… “I think we can both congratulate ourselves on the general excellence of our offspring, don’t you?” His return smile was calculated nicely to distract her without offering insult, and it had its effect. “Oh… Well, I know that Trokip and Junari haven’t always been, ah… friends, but I think they have a lot in common!”

Oh, yes. Trokip. Trokip Temagun. Junari described him as “Eight hundred cc’s of vacuum between the ears with slightly less personality than a lint ball.” But he was a good-looking lad, if he was the one Lew was thinking of… winner of this year’s Mixed Tenso combat medal. “Yes, quite a lot,” he offered. That was true, if age, human DNA, general area of residence, and attendance at the Ermetyne Academy were placed in the “shared characteristics” column.

There she was! Lewji extricated himself without letting his relief show. “There’s my girl…” he murmured, turning to meet his daughter emerging from the cross-corridor that ran behind the venue stage. She separated herself from a small cluster of classmates, and looked a little surprised at the hug he offered. They weren’t normally demonstrative in public. Then she caught sight of Ti Temagun by the cafchi table, smiling and waving. “Oh, right. Let’s go over here, Dad. I want to introduce you to Ti Vundaras, she’s been great.”

They made their way among the little knots of parents, students, and Academy staff, to where the young Precep was chatting to a set of parents with twins who’d appeared in Junari’s “Endless Search” one-act playlet. Well, Lewji thought of it as Junari’s, though technically it was her whole pod’s project. “Ti Vundaras, this is my father, Lewji Ulongo. Dad, Ti Vundaras preceps Creative Expression for all the Upper Division pods.”

“A pleasure, Ti Vundaras,” Lewji placed his palms together, and nodded, and she returned the gesture. “The pleasure is mine, Ten Ulongo. It has been such a joy to work with your daughter this term, she has a most creative imagination, and a flair for writing.”

“She only says that because I can’t act for sparklets. So they had to find something else for me to do.” Junari caught sight of her father’s lifted eyebrow. “I’m not flapdowsing, honest! I flopped every audition. Besides, what chance did I have with these two in the lineup?” She exchanged grins with the twins, who looked alike enough to be identical, except for the sex differentiation.

Lewji greeted the Chuko-zun twins, Hendale and Tandali, and their parents, Aja and Horis. The Chuko-zun were a disept of the vast (and wealthy) Chuko clan. Aja was an Advocate, qualified for Hub Mercantile Exchange Arbitration, and Horis was a maintenance executive in Vastok Commerce Shipping. There had been a security check, back at the beginning of term, when it became clear that their twins and the daughter of a freelance Receivables Consultant would be spending a certain amount of leisure time together.

One of the twins made an eyeroll/grimace cue to their father, who nodded, and addressed himself to Lewji: “Ten Ulongo, I understand Junari will be at Starna Lake Camp this offterm?” he verified politely.

Lewji nodded. “That was the deal. She’s more than earned it with this term’s qual score.” Junari gave an embarrassed shrug. “Da-ad… they’ll think I’m a grind,” she muttered.

Aja and Horis exchanged amused glances. “We will be having a little sendoff gathering for ’Dale and ’Dali on our skyboat, a three-day tour of the Lake, and then taking them to Camp. We would be so delighted if Juni could join us for this? There will be two or three other young people as well, with my brother’s partner and her sister,” Aja explained.

Junari looked at her father. She probably thought she was being very carefully controlled and grown-up, but the light escaping from all the cracks showed the supernova of hope and anticipation inside. Lewji repressed a sigh. He’d hoped to have a few more days of her company between the end of term and dispatching her to Camp, but… “How very kind of you to offer. Of course she may join you,” he smiled at the Chuko-zuns.

The Academy’s Dean was circulating, chatting briefly with parents, exchanging greetings with students, and in the process tactfully beginning the process of bringing the Term-End Gala to a close. Lewji was just as glad to escape the rarefied atmosphere, so when the Chuko-zuns moved off to greet acquaintances, he placed himself more or less on the Dean’s trajectory.

“Ten Ulongo, I’m glad to see you at the Gala this year.”

“I’m glad I could be here.” Lewji knew full well that implicit in Junari’s subsidy had been the assumption that he’d be a devoted Academy parent, attending functions and volunteering to proctor outings and all the rest of it. Well, that might be fine for parents who had partners, and/or whose work was based on regular hours and locations. Fortunately, he’d had a little extra clout in the recommendations department. And then, Junari had pretty much carved her own way through the subsidy route, consistently placing top honors quals even among peers who included a high percentage of genmod-enhancements.

Still, it didn’t hurt to be a little conciliatory to the Dean, a formidable woman who reminded him very much of his mother. In fact, he hoped the two of them never met. So far he’d successfully prevented that.

The Dean smiled at Junari. “Junari, would you mind giving me a moment alone with your father? Perhaps you could collect your gear for leaving.”

“Yes, Ti Ardasan.” Junari was properly respectful, but the glance she threw at her father held plenty of subtext.

“Ten Ulongo, I’ve been most impressed—really, most impressed, with Junari’s quals this year. So much so, that I have included her on my Recommendation List. Just in case you were thinking of a Lyceum application.”

“A Lyceum application,” Lewji repeated carefully. He’d counted himself beyond lucky to get the recommendation from Stav Benthik that had gotten Junari into the Ermetyne Academy, five years ago. But then, Academies in Lyad Retsa were chartered to accept at least 15% subsidized enrollment. The requirement for Lyceum status was one tenth that, and even a half subsidy would be far, far outside his ability to afford it. “That’s… Well. Thank you. Thank you very much, Ti Ardasan.”

The Dean smiled encouragingly. “You never know, Ten Ulongo. A youngster as bright as Junari deserves every chance.”

Lewji couldn’t agree more. He thanked the Dean, and she moved on to another parent. He was looking around for Junari when he felt a tingling, behind his ear.

He’d almost forgotten he had the mastoid implant. Blinking, he activated his wristcom, and checked the incoming file. Nothing there, so it wasn’t urgent. Just important.

Very, very important.

May 082013
 

Read me the story
mapdragonHelset Morvaine woke, sweaty and breathless, from a nightmare of watching helplessly as her parents’ agonized faces disappeared into the raging vortexes that had engulfed their home. Silently, she cursed herself for a fool, fumbled for the light switch behind her head, and clicked it once, producing a dim glow that barely reached to the edge of the bunk. The untroubled breathing of her cabin mate indicated that at least she hadn’t cried out in her sleep.

How many people on the Time Ripper had she prescribed sleeping medication for? She hadn’t run a precise count, but she’d bet the total would be somewhere above seventy percent. She’d get a colleague to chart her an issue of medication next watch. Even the most combat-hardened men of the Second Legion were still dealing with the shock of losing homes, families—everything. What made her think she was any different? Wearily, she slid out of her bunk and donned a fatigue jumpsuit. Trying to get any more sleep now would be futile; she might as well get some work done. There was a senior medical staff meeting scheduled for her regular watch, so she’d get nothing done then.

The companionways that served residential compartments showed the three-quarter light of the deadwatch, but once she emerged into the working areas of the ship, it was brighter. That didn’t make it any less disorienting. Time Ripper was normally a First Legion heavy transport, a much larger class of ship than the Strike Forces of the Second Legion’s light carriers. Helset still got lost from time to time and had to call up the deck map on her handcom.

She went to her tiny cubicle office first to collect her mug, then to the J-deck galley. Sometimes if you brought your own mug, the galley crew would fill it for a single coffee chip, even if it was a little larger than the standard galley cups. She was well into a caffeine-bolstered productivity surge when her handcom chimed a reminder of the staff meeting.

The Chief Medical Officer of the Second Legion, the Fleet’s Chief Surgeon, and General-Hartman Ralin were sitting in a row at the work table that served as a focus for the meeting. Helset slid into a chair next to Senior Partiram Jesney, Surgeon of the Vengeance. There were about a dozen other senior medical staff in the briefing room, and as Helset sat down another three or four arrived.

General-Hartman Ralin checked his chrono and stood up. No preliminaries, no courtesies, but that was how the General was. He was not an attractive man—short for a Klarosian, barely 160 centimeters tall, and nearly as broad, but it was all bone and heavily-knotted muscle. His face had been reconstructed in a field unit after a close encounter with forcebolter backwash. He’d never bothered to have it prettied up afterwards. There were a whole range of speculative rumors about why; you paid your credits and took your choice, depending on how you felt about the General.

“Our strategy is pending operational confirmation at this point, as it’s based on limited intelligence. Nevertheless, the broad outline is unlikely to change much,” he rumbled, “and the Lord Commander wants the Medical Services both to be prepared, and to provide further planning input—more on that later. For now, the outline is simple.”

He activated a wall display with his handcom, showing an aerial view of the large continent that was G417.902c-D’s only substantial landmass. An extrapolated grid representing known intelligence was superimposed over the static image. He gestured to the dots scattered over the right-hand side of the picture.

“The eastern half of the continent is populated widely but very thinly. The only substantial concentration of population is here—a city of about half a million, with an adjacent low-traffic spaceport. There are orbital systems…” he made an adjustment, and the planet shrank and receded; the overlay changed to show conjectured orbital paths, “including proximity detection satellites and random probes, close-orbit drone platforms, and at least one manned orbital station with some insystem fighters. On the surface, the only substantial defenses are the spaceport security, which doubles as city defense, and a network of small permanent installations scattered over the inhabited portion of the continent.”

“Current analysis of known and postulated weapons systems has been downloaded to your handcoms, but I emphasize—this is preliminary. We’ll do more reconnaissance as we approach the system and revise final mission planning then. Based on what we know now, we don’t anticipate much effective resistance. We’ll take out the orbitals at the same time we knock out their comsats and deploy our own disruption probes to disable their communications. Small strike forces will be dropped to neutralize the dozen or so permanent installations, and the main thrust will be focused on taking the spaceport area and securing the city.”

“Specific strategic and tactical protocols are dictated by our mission objectives, which are unique to this mission, and unprecedented. All of our planning is based on the requirements of long-term colonial occupation.” Ralin shut off the display, and sat down. “Let me hear your understanding of those requirements, please.” He nodded to General-Kenterum Stavran Orlot, the Chief Medical Officer.

Orlot returned the nod. “We’ll be greatly outnumbered by the indigenous population, for a start. Twenty-six million or so. We’ll have less than a million colonists to protect.” He looked dubious. “There’s sure to be heavy casualties among the natives if they try to fight, but they can’t hold out long with primitive weapons, so it probably won’t reduce the population too much. We’ve got nearly 28,000 effective combat personnel with us to hold the planet until the rest of our people arrive, with another 90,000 or so coming with them. That’s not a good ratio.”

“Why are we worrying about the native population at all?” Chief Surgeon Scharnav asked coldly. “If they give trouble, selective large-scale depopulation would both make the ratio more favorable, and the remaining population more docile.”

Ralin nodded. “That’s the most logical solution. But the Lord Commander wants to avoid large-scale depopulation for a number of reasons. So does the Church. The Archprelate places a high priority on, ah…” the General’s gaze fell on Helset, and he hesitated perceptibly before continuing. “On redressing our current gender imbalance.”

“In other words,” Orlot drawled, “we need their women.”

Helset felt her shoulders tightening, but as the only female officer in the Medical Corps, she’d long since learned to hide any emotional reactions.

Senior Partiram Jesney glanced at her, then addressed the General. “It’s an anachronist colony, so they’ll have very little in the way of technical resources or materials to support our population, except what we can capture from those Guardians. We’ll have to look at building everything we need from scratch, so we’ll need native labor, as well.”

Ralin nodded. “The city isn’t even domed. We’ll have to construct at least one habitat to be ready for our colonists when they arrive.”

“Why?” A voice asked mildly.

Helset turned to look, although she thought she knew that voice. Sure enough, it was Colonel Ridder. His head was tilted, and there was an odd sparkle in his eyes. Ralin frowned at him, and Scharnav narrowed his eyes. Orlot suppressed a grin.

“What do you mean, ‘why’?” Ralin asked.

“Why will we need to build a habitat? The native Veran colonists seem to have occupied the planet successfully for a good many centuries without domes. Surely habitat construction will use resources and energy we can ill afford, especially if our control of the population depends on our ability to present a credible military threat for a very long time?”

“The natives,” Scharnav said, with the suggestion of a snort, “fight with spears and swords. They eat unprocessed foodstuffs, and timps, they probably wear furs and skins, too. Are you suggesting we join them?”

Ridder was unabashed. “We can hardly expect to recreate a type-4 terraformed colony on a type-2 planet. Particularly since we can’t exactly hire any of the big Hub planet-engineering firms to condition the place.”

Orlot interjected himself smoothly between his staff contrarian and the Fleet Surgeon. “That cuts both ways, Ridder. Our population isn’t prepared to meet the challenges of a type-2 environment. We’ll need time to adapt. It’s clear from the little we do know that the original Veran colonists did not eradicate all of the planet’s xenic bioforms. We’re looking at potential threats from disease and other organisms, for which our people will have little preparation and no resistances. Which brings us back to the subject at hand,” he turned to General Ralin. “Is the Lord Commander including such potential threats in his operational planning?”

The General’s eyebrows—or what was left of them—rose. “The Lord Commander is certainly aware of the potential biological threats, General. But I think he expects his Medical Corps to provide the analysis and operational planning expertise that will be required. We have two teams working on operational planning: A General Staff team working on the assault, and a team of military and civilian specialists working on the occupation and colony preparation phase. Both teams need technical advice from the Medical Corps.”

Helset felt her spine lengthening a bit. An operational planning assignment would suit her perfectly—use her background in Infection Pathology research, and, just possibly, give her a chance to get noticed at higher levels and restart her stalled career track. She’d reached her present rank of Ord-Colonel nearly seven years ago. Becoming the first female full Colonel in the Second Legion would be a considerable achievement.

Orlot’s eyes traveled over the staff assembled. Scharnav shook his head. “My people are too damn busy, General. We’re pulling double watches as it is, and our techs are hot-bunking.”

Orlot’s eyes rested for a moment on Ridder, then on Colonel Lest Bardrep, then moved on. He glanced at Helset, at Hartman Stavross, then gave a quick nod. “Colonel Bardrep, you can report to the General Staff Secretary, and…” he glanced at Ralin. “Who’s coordinating the other team?”

“Senior Lieutenant Rynart Joklan, First Corps, HQ Intel Brigade.”

“Good. Colonel Morvaine, you can report to Lieutenant Joklan.”

It wasn’t working with the General Staff, and Helset had her doubts about the importance of any planning group that included civilians—especially if it was coordinated by a mere Senior Lieutenant—but it did promise to be interesting.

Not to mention a welcome distraction from the discomfort of thinking about the past. Or what they were doing heading for Veran at all.

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