Klaros Stories

Oct 022012
 

Read me the story:
A long oval table with pads, chairs, water & cups arranged for a meeting, against white walls and an artificial tree and "window" viewscreen.“There’s a three-flagged message, Member.” Zarel detected a faint resentment in her First Assistant’s voice—Porlot had expected her to give him the comcodes to screen all incoming traffic, but she’d limited him to low- and medium-priority matters. He’d be complaining to her brother Jarvin any time now, but let him. Until she had a better handle on Klaros’ financial position, she wasn’t letting any of Jarvin’s greedy little timeservers paddle their fingers in the tank.

Although it would have been a great relief to have someone she could trust to discuss things with—what she’d already learned was unnerving, to say the least. Even frightening. Why hadn’t the rest of the CivAdmin asked any questions of her predecessor, when the semi-annual financial presentations were reviewed? The colony’s capital debt was being reduced at a glacial pace, and the refinancing after the Lojau Hen mess had locked them into some very risky terms. There was going to be trouble, and this triple-flag message might be it.

She entered the security sequence on her comconsole, and looked up to see Porlot hovering in the doorway. “Yes, Mainyr?” she asked, with pointed civility. He vanished.

The message queue came up, and she selected the one with three flags and entered her decrypt key.

Half an hour later Porlot was startled by the abruptness of the ping on his comconsole, and the tension in the Member’s voice. It was even more ominous that she abandoned the meticulous politeness she usually used to him, addressing him without preliminary courtesies. “I need the backup cubes from the last semi-annual Statement, including detail on all balance sheet accounts, right now.”

Resentment at being so peremptorily ordered around by a female warred with a sudden, uncomfortable reminder of Zarel’s father’s manner when he was hot after some devious commercial maneuver. Or dealing with some incompetent subordinate.

The backups were among the cubes the Speaker—the former Speaker, Porlot reminded himself—had sent up in that last shuttle. They were readily available; all the Finance-coded cubes had been promptly routed to his office. He selected the correct cube, and took it to the Member, who barely looked up, and acknowledged him only with a nod, as he handed it to her. “Member…?”

“Not now.” Curtly.

Frowning, he left the office. Should he heads-up the Speaker? Surely Jarvin would be concerned to know the extent to which his crazy sister was exercising authority in the Finance office; he had assigned Porlot as her First Assistant to do the real work. But if Porlot complained, he’d likely be moved out of the office for failing to do his job, and the post given to some other of Jarvin’s hangers-on. That didn’t suit Otas Porlot, who had big ambitions.

Zarel was annoyed to see her hand tremble as she dropped the cube into the scanner. She was getting old, she supposed. And if the cube confirmed what she suspected…

It did. Warrior’s guts, but they were in trouble. And given their reluctance to deal with “bean counter” matters and their disdain for a female colleague, she’d have to have every single fact lined up and explained in one-syllable words for the rest of CivAdmin to see it. Not to mention her dear brother Jarvin.

It was any Seated Member’s prerogative to invoke an Emergency Meeting, though it was hardly ever done. But she could not waste the time it would take to explain everything to Jarvin, get him to understand the exact implications, and convene a regular session, even if it blew her meek pro-forma Seated Member act right through the dome.

She’d need, let’s see… she frowned over the backup documentation sent with the incoming message, and the certified digiseals. A couple of hours to download, transfer, summarize and lay out the information there. Another… three hours, maybe, to dissect those financials and extract the relevant, chilling facts. They’d have to meet at…half-sixteen. Uncomfortably late, but it couldn’t be helped. And in the mean time, she’d have to work in a private place, out of Jarvin’s orbit.

Entering her encryption code, she routed the Emergency Meeting Summons to all of the Seated Members’ desks, then gathered up the relevant datacubes and plastic flimsies, and stopped in her First Assistant’s cubicle on the way out.

“Mainyr Porlot, I’ve summoned an Emergency Meeting for half-sixteen. I’ll be back in time to convene it.” And she swept past him before he could ask any questions.

Sep 162012
 

A loan statement document, blank, with boxes for interest, payments, etc.“You’ve always been lazy. Bone lazy.”

It wasn’t necessarily true, Zarel thought, but it was probably fair. She inclined her head, a little stiffly. “As you wish, Brother. You are The Kerant.” She took refuge in formality, but it did not appease him. He glowered at her.

“Dammit, Zar, even if you don’t care about the family obligation, you might consider our duty to the people,” but even as he said it, he flushed, aware he’d overstepped. “I’m not discounting the sacrifices you’ve already made. But do you realize what’s at stake, here?”

Probably better than you, you little smarp, she thought, but allowed her face to show no trace of annoyance. She assumed a feminine meekness which, had Jarvin known her better, would have set off all kinds of alarms. “Brother, I’m well aware that civ is disastrously short of leadership, but so too are the Church and the Military. We are all, as you pointed out so eloquently in your last Emergency Message, in this pod together. You’d be opening yourself to considerable censure putting a female, and one who’s so near a relation, in such a sensitive post at this point— why take the risk? Of course I’ll do what I can to help, behind the scenes, as it were.”

He was mollified. Their brother’s advice, “Never let your guard down with her for an instant,” might have been ash floating in the vortexes that engulfed the ravaged planet below them, for all he remembered. “Trust me, Zar. It’ll work out all right. In this case, it’s not so much a case of having you in the position, as not having someone else there. A Tarvine, for instance. Or a Kleksal. You see? You’ve seen the rosters, you know who we’ve got to work with, reconstituting an Administration. The Tarvines and the Kleks—among others—both have to have significant roles, but can you see the surviving doyens of either family in that Seat?”

He had a point. The Tarvine and The Kleksal had both been killed in the Conflagration, among fourteen of the seventeen Seated Members of the Klarosian Civil Administration. Their responsibilities had necessarily devolved to the senior males surviving in each family, which meant in the case of the Kleks, (who were Kerant allies,) a promising but appallingly inexperienced cadet who’d been completing a Practicum rotation on the Port Authority, and in the case of the Tarvines, (who were Kerant rivals,) a venal time-server in Commerce who’d been “inspecting” some incoming cargoes on Kitran.

“Don’t you see? That hitch you did as Adlitem Trustee for Ranlis and Yallan makes it perfectly reasonable to put you in as Finance Pro Tem. Even Harlis agreed your performance was stellar, and that was a complicated Trust. It’s enough experience to make it a reasonable Pro Tem appointment, and without a Klek or Tarvine capable of contesting it, it will have to stand for now. And at least I won’t have that to worry about. I’ll give you some of the best fixers we’ve got left, all you’ll have to do is keep an eye on things and flag me if anything comes up.”

She surveyed her younger brother for a moment, without letting her amusement at his transparency show. He wanted a puppet in Finance, and would doubtless set her up with some fixer from his staff—Galdrin, maybe, or Porlot—to do all the work, while his “lazy” older sister attended Administrative meetings and looked meek and nonthreatening. She wondered, not for the first time, what Harlis could possibly have been thinking of, to confirm this youngest of their father’s sons to the Seat, rather than appointing a Pro Tem for his own younger son Duglis. Just as well, as it turned out, since Harlis, Duglis and his older brother Teb, their sisters and most of their cousins had been vaporized with Kelarant, the family dome, in the Conflagration. At least the Kerants had an adult, functioning doyen who was already in the Administration, which made him almost an automatic choice for Speaker.

She spared a thought for Wallen Torans, who’d died with his hand on the controls when the Conflagration had engulfed Center. There’d been a window of perhaps an hour or so, once the news of the chain reaction at Rayki had been transmitted. Torans could have evacuated—there was always a surface-to-orbit shuttle standing by for the Speaker’s exclusive use—but he’d chosen to load it, methodically, with crucial data cubes and a few priceless historical artifacts, and then put his Chief of Staff’s three young children, who’d been visiting their father’s office as part of a school project that day, into the passenger seats and ordered the shuttle to launch for Station One with seconds to spare before the Northring jathrin domes had begun to collapse.

Jarvin was no Wallen Torans, and Protectorate Affairs had been the least important Administrative Seat. But he’d always been ambitious, according to Harlis. Zarel hardly knew him, he was the son of their father’s fourth wife, and younger than any of her own children. Almost young enough to be a grandchild. “He’s a scrapper, though,” Harlis had said. “And not as stupid as he looks, which is a valuable thing, even if he does take after his mother. One of us—Teb or I—just has to sit on him from time to time to keep him in line. And the extra vote in a pinch is a Creator’s blessing. I let him vote against us from time to time, just keep them guessing, but I can yank him in whenever needed.”

She’d seen Jarvin less than half-a-dozen times, but had never been particularly impressed. He’d been a greedy, pushy, unattractive little boy, and grown into, so far as she could tell, a greedy, pushy, unattractive little man, acquiring nothing of value along the way except a thin veneer of subtlety and a Parkel wife. And now you’re not around to yank him in anymore, Harlis, and he’s an Oligarch, with his hands on the fate of nearly a million survivors, all that is left of Klaros.

But a Kerant Oligarch, at least. How their father would have laughed. Or maybe raged. It had been nearly a hundred years since the last Kerant had sat in the Speaker’s Chair. Tolvin Kerant had spent his whole life scheming to restore the Kerant fortunes after the disastrous Mutiny and the near civil war that had followed had decimated the family’s holdings, and he’d carefully groomed Harlis to be the next Kerant Oligarch. How bloody ironic that this youngest child, least regarded of his offspring, the late flowering of a final near-senescent fling with a fourth wife who had nothing more than looks to recommend her, would take the Chair.

Zarel stood, in a feminine deference that would have had Harlis’ eyes narrowing in suspicion, as Jarvin rose to take his leave, the cares of state almost visibly weighing on his shoulders. “Thank you, Sister. I knew I could rely on you. You’re not nearly as…” he chose a word, carefully, “…flighty, as family reputation makes you out, you know. Now if you can just, uh, tone down… some of your eccentricities… We have to inspire confidence, you know. We’re all the people have,” he said in his most solemn politician’s manner, seemingly oblivious to the offensiveness of his earnest advice.

She didn’t call him on it. She had nearly forty years on him, and a much better-developed sense of proportion. “I’ll do my best to be less eccentric,” she said; in a tone of voice dry enough to wrinkle the very air of the tiny cabin. It was wasted on Jarvin. “I knew I could rely on you to look to your duty in this time of crisis,” he repeated, and then, apparently dismissing her from his thoughts, he bowed perfunctorily and left.

Heavenly Bride! If Jarvin hadn’t been gifted with the infamous Kerant nose, it would have been easy to believe that fashionable mopstick of a bride had played her father false. Duty, indeed, and here it was, descending on her like an avalanche, she who had shirked duty and responsibility successfully, now, for nearly fifteen years. With a wry twist to her mouth, she turned to the datapak he’d left on the little fold-down desk, and began to make herself mistress of the financial affairs of a dead planet.

Sep 122012
 

Finger-like dark cloudy masses with irridescent auras rising upward against clouds of light and stars in the background.The advertising for the Pleasuredome’s Homelight Lounge featured the slogan “See the World from Pleasuredome.” It needed just …one… more word.

It was supposed to be their last day at the main Pleasuredome hostel—they’d booked a private cottage in the “wilderness adventure” section of the dome for the next week. Hostin and Demis’ leaves would be up at the end of the week and they’d be leaving, Hostin for deployment on Hecht, and Demis back downside on his regular assignment at the Centrum Bek Home Legion supply office.

They had taken the children to the Grav-Krazee park that afternoon, and mostly stood around while they went on ride after ride. Jamed admitted he was flagging by midafternoon, and although the kids were adamant that they were good until until closing time, Francet and Orshel had vetoed it on the grounds of early bed and an early departure for the cottage next day.

So they’d gone for dinner while it was still daycycle, at one of the restaurants that catered to children with “fun meals” and costumed characters for service and entertainment.

“We’ll meet you in the Homelight,” Jamed had told the two girls as they’d shepherded the youngsters off to bed, and won a grateful glance from his younger son and son-in-law. It was still early enough that they managed to get a domeside table, though the credit chip Jamed had palmed to the maiter hadn’t hurt, either.

“Holy Warrior,” Hostin muttered as they sat down. “I think I’m as tired as you, Fa.”

Demis grunted in agreement. “If I had to ride that TowerTwister one more time, I was seriously considering jumping off.” He caught the eye of one of the servers, and raised an imperative hand.

They gave orders for drinks, Hostin and Demis considerately ordering for the girls. No one had much conversation left, after the strenuous afternoon. They’d eaten all they needed with the kids; no one had the energy for another restaurant, but Jamed ordered a platter of fingernibs to accompany the drinks.

The huge, slightly curved glasteel wall that butted up against the very edge of the tavis field enclosing the Pleasuredome resort was still a trifle opaque from the glare of the fading day lights, but the outline of Reveille C could be discerned, a vast bulk hanging beyond the short horizon. The planet orbited far enough out from the primary that its natural daycycle was all but irrelevant; the jathrin domes that enclosed its two rings of habitats were engineered with supplementary light cycles, just like Pleasuredome. The habitat domes were beads of light, like necklaces draping the poles.

An attractive female server in the brief Homelight Lounge uniform (well, brief for women—the male staff had ordinary service keks and tunics with a formal sash) brought their drinks. Jamed eyeballed her cleavage and had a moment’s dreamy reminiscence of that amazingly nimble and good-natured dancer from the show lounge. Really, it was a shame he wouldn’t have time for another visit… maybe when they returned from the cottage.

“What the…?” he heard Hostin exclaim, and turned.

His son was staring at the planet.

Jamed followed his gaze.

Among the lighted “beads” of the south polar habitat chain, was an expanding, multicolored sparkle effect.

He could feel the color draining from his face. His head felt light, and very far away from the rest of him.

There was a murmur rippling through the lounge, now, and more and more of the patrons and staff were turning to the windowed wall.

Someone muttered, “Creator have mercy…”

But there was no mercy today. The sparkling effect continued to expand, and small strands of incandescence began to form, fringing the main blur.

Not many in the Homelight lounge had ever seen a tavis field in catastrophic failure. But everyone knew that this light show was no part of the Pleasuredome entertainment schedule.

Helplessly, Jamed Ursek watched millions die. “Demis.”

His son-in-law was staring out the window, brows twisted in confused alarm.

“Demis!”

“Wha…” he turned. “Is that…?” His voice was hoarse, a little breathy, his eyes unfocused.

“Demis!”

Abruptly, Demis’ eyes focused. He looked at Jamed with the automatic response of a legionary to a commander. His lips parted, then closed again.

“Demis, go and tell the girls to stay in their rooms, and keep the children there, as well. Do it now. Then get your uniform brassard and shockwand, and report to the Security desk in the lobby.”

Another half-second of frozen regard, then a truncated nod, and Demis was gone. Jamed would have been glad to follow, to have something useful to do, to have a need to fill. But there was nothing he could do, not now. Kalven… Pranis… the grandchildren… everyone.

Everyone.

Around them, the murmur was swelling. A woman’s voice rose keening above the crescendo in a high, hopeless descant. The sound of someone retching violently close at hand. Crockery breaking. Something heavy hitting the floor. Splintering sounds.

A man flung himself against the window, fists pounding. “No! No! NOOOOO!!”

Jamed took one last look out the window, then turned to Hostin, watching mesmerized as the incandescent fringe wove itself into twisting tentacles, reaching north… breaking off…

He shook his son’s arm. “Hos!”

Hostin turned his head, looked at his father as though seeing a stranger for the first time.

“What?”

“Hos, we’d better go meet Demis at the Security station. Come on.”

It was something to do. Better than standing, watching.

Hostin looked over his shoulder, more than once, as they left, shoving their way through a growing chaos. As though the view might change. As though it might turn back into the peaceful bulge of Revielle C, with its serene necklaces of habitat domes, homes to half a billion people. As though the nightmare might end.

End. That was it.

“See the World End From Pleasuredome.”

Sep 082012
 

Black and white tone drawing of figures carrying a bier through strangely curved structure.“For in the beginning, we were trapped in time.”

“And You opened for us Eternity.”

Father Rillem was performing the Funeral Service, to which he was now so accustomed that it required a stern effort not to allow the familiar words to blur his attention into a rote performance. The congregation needed and deserved better.

“And so we send forth our sons and daughters…” he paused, while the congregation murmured their litanies of names—so many names—and sank into silence again.

“…in the secure hope of being restored unto them in Your Presence.”

“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”

“Give us the fortitude to fight on, and let Your Avatars and Handmaidens uphold us, even as they enfold our sons and daughters into Your endless Justice and Mercy.”

“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”

Methodically, reverently, he finished the Service, and then, as the congregation sang the final hymn, he returned to the vesting-room and replaced the heavily-decorated robes back in the armoire. Resuming the white-piped dark green duster of a Congregational Pastor, he circled around through the back corridor to be at the sanctuary doors when the congregation left. It was the most exhausting part of the service, acknowledging, looking at, really seeing each person who stopped to greet or thank him, tear tracks on the women’s faces (and even a few of the men—it was no shame to shed a few tears at a Funeral Service, after all,) the still-choked voices, and worst of all, the eyes. Half-blind with grief, or worse, dead of all feeling, bewildered (especially the children, painful stabs of heartbreak each one,) angry, beseeching as though somehow time could be made to run backward…

He felt wrung out, sucked dry and then some, after these Funeral Services. It was what he’d committed himself to as a priest, all those years back, but no one could have seen, then, the magnitude of the demands that would be made on the Church and all of the Creator’s Servants.

Last out was his bride, who wordlessly took his arm as he nodded to Delart Morkam the verger. He put his hand over hers on his arm, patted it gently. Their children, and their two grandchildren, had all been back in West Avart Warren, a bare five hundred klicks from Rayki. He’d tried to comfort her, and himself, again and again, with the reflection that the Conflagration would have come upon them without warning, giving them no time for panic or agony, just a quick and merciful translation to Eternity. She’d pretended to be comforted, and he’d pretended he believed her comforted, and that was all they could do for each other.

“Can you make it back to the Pastorage, my dear? I’m called to a meeting at the Chancery in,” he glanced at his ringwatch, “a quarter hour.”

“Yes, of course, Rillem. I’ve a committee meeting, remember? It’s Daughters of Mercy afternoon,” her shoulders lifted a couple of millimeters. If pastoral work was often a burden for a priest’s bride, it had its mercies, too. Linvet had always been a capable organizer and never had the need for her talents been greater. One could, for a time, overlay grief with the focus on work.

“Yes, certainly. It slipped my mind. You’ll look after the emergency housing recommendations?”

She nodded. “We’ve more than three thousand cubages identified that can be converted. I’ll let you know for the Ecclesial Report.”

“Thank you.” They exchanged a squeeze of hands, and he turned to make his way to the Chancery. Linvet’s handclasp stayed with him, but the warmth it had momentarily evoked faded quickly as he took his comp from the pocket of his duster and called up the figures he had to present at the meeting. It was not good, not good at all. In so many ways. Creator grant them the resources of courage and imagination, not to mention power and cubage and everything else, to deal with the problems.

***************

“I would bring your attention, Reverences,” he was saying, nearly half an hour later, “to the bottom line figures.”

“Of the total eight hundred forty-seven thousand survivors, three hundred and twenty-seven thousand are evacuees. The balance are the population of Moonstation, military and civil servants on outsystem or orbital deployment, and the various populations of colonists, researchers, transients and others who happened to be at extraplanetary facilities.”

“So it should not be surprising that the imbalance between men and women is so great, nor that the number of surviving children is so pitifully low. One hundred and sixty-six thousand women, one hundred twenty thousand or so of childbearing age. But of those, more than eighty-one thousand are married women with living spouses—colonial families, residents of Moonstation, women who joined their husbands on civil service deployments, and so on.”

“Which leaves,” Rillem looked around the table at the lengthening faces of the Ecclesial Council, “about thirty-eight thousand women of childbearing age, single or widowed. And of those,” he shook his head, “a substantial percentage represent women in military service, a good many of whom have experienced radiation exposures at levels placing their childbearing capacities at risk.”

He opened his mouth to continue, then shut it rather helplessly and shrugged. The facts were the facts, and all of the Council members had copies on their comps. He waited for the inevitable questions.

“Father Rillem, what is the margin of error on this census?” the Archprelate of Warrest spoke first, as the senior present.

He shook his head. “Naturally there is some considerable margin for error, Reverence. We have had excellent cooperation from the military authorities, and their data are probably the most reliable. The civs have been most cooperative but only the colonial data and the municipal census from Moonstation can really be considered accurate. Everything else is, well…” he shrugged apologetically, “iffy, at best. The evacuees were counted and re-counted in several locations at several times, consolidating that was a challenge. We tried to err on conservative side, but even if our margin is as high as ten or fifteen percent…” he trailed off. Heads nodded, and faces got gloomier, if possible.

“How recent is the colonial data?” Prelate Edrell of Avatar Kanstan’s asked, hopefully.

Rillem shook his head. “Colonial Affairs had just done their biennial census as part of the appropriations request. The figures are no more than a quarter to a half year out of date.” No hope, there.

There was a long silence. Prelate Viggen of All Martyrs murmured “And more than five hundred and twenty thousand men under sixty, single or widowed.”

Prelate Reervin shook his head, grimly. “It should not surprise us so much. Women do not work at orbital manufacturing facilities. Women are few and far between at the levels of senior researchers, scholars, and students at scientific facilities. We discourage military service for women, and thus less than, what, five percent? –of the surviving military are female. Even in the colonies, we hesitate to send women until the colonial security is assured, and then only as wives of qualified colonists.” He sighed. “A tragic irony, that our care to protect women has resulted in so few survivors.”

“Indeed,” the Archprelate of Stellan Down said dryly, “but it is the corresponding abundance of males that poses the greatest challenge. It’s taken more than a hundred years to transform dueling custom to nonfatal combat. Are we now to see a revival of men killing each other off for the chance at a bride?”

A cold chill seemed to settle in the room. The Archprelate of Warrest broke it, looking from the faces of the Council members, back to the podium, and nodding to Rillem. “Our thanks, Father, for your report, however upsetting the facts. If there are no further questions for Father Rillem?” He verified with a glance at his colleagues, and then nodded again. “Go with the Creator’s blessing, Father.”

Sep 072012
 

A multi-barrel configured ship making insystem transit, showing blue & green energy trails against the background of a major space station.“Sir? I’ve never seen an init code like this before…” The communications technician was an Ensign on his first cruise, so Themat Jurnis wasn’t too surprised. He didn’t hurry as he strolled to the com station, moving only with his customary orderly dispatch. He looked at the codes on the screen and frowned. He’d never seen them either, but better safe than sorry. “You’re relieved of duty, Ensign,” he said formally, as he clicked the log tab.

“Relieved, Sir,” the Ensign left.

The string of initiation codes contained some Jurnis did know, however, including the one that signified that the contents of the message was a triple-encrypt, eyes-only message for the Lord Commander of the Second Expeditionary Legion, in person and with every security bell and whistle the brass could tack on. Too well-trained to even allow himself to imagine curiosity, Jurnis initiated a security trace for the Lord Commander: In the Orbital Command Platform, not unnaturally. He didn’t need to know why or where, merely relayed the message’s init codes to the Lord Commander’s Adjutant, Major Callet, with an “urgent” flag. Then he waited, sternly disciplining himself from even thinking about what could possibly rate such a stew of security.

Callet was inspecting inventory lists when the double tone of the com flag alerted him. What he saw on the scrambler sent him to the next room, in spite of the red “privacy” light on the doorlatch.

The Lord Commander was meeting with Alren Tydar, Hecht’s new Military Governor, and the Regional Command Staff. He looked up with no more sign of annoyance than a minute eyebrow movement, but when he saw Callet, he nodded. Wordlessly, the adjutant circled the meeting table, and handed over the scrambler.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the Lord Commander stood.

“Lord Commander, I must insist that we resolve this…” Tydar caught the Lord Commander’s eye and trailed off.

The OCP’s secure communications facility was adjacent to the main Situation Room. Karth Tallis placed his palm against the lock, then blinked into the retinal scanner, then spoke a series of nonsense syllables in a precise sequence for the voiceprint analyzer. Triply-encrypted, eyes-only messages were never sent with good news, he reflected, as the doorseal winked green. He prepared himself, he thought, for the worst.

An appreciable time interval later—less than half an hour, although it felt like a day, maybe a year—he sat back and frowned. Whatever he’d prepared himself for, it wasn’t this. Methodically, he re-checked the encryption. Then re-checked it again.

Again he sat back. That was it. Nothing more. Just that bald command. Could it be a trick? Frowning, he ran through the possibilities. None seemed likely, given the initiation codes and routing guide on the message heading. Outside his chain of command, yes, but it did carry the triple sealcode of the Three, the ruling Oligarchy of Klaros. And yet… why, if they bothered to put the sealcode on, would they not sign it? Surely, given the content of the message, they would want to forestall any conceivable doubts about its legitimacy.

He left the communications facility, punctiliously re-engaging the security seal. Callet was waiting in the Situation Room. The only other personnel were the security monitor and the Lieutenants standing watch at the various regional control consoles. Tallis gestured to his adjutant, and gave a few low-voiced orders.

Less than an hour later, the Situation Room was packed. The Expeditionary Legion Command Staff, the Fleet’s Flag Officer In Charge, and the Occupation Administration leadership were all gathered around the main table. Watch functions had temporarily been re-routed back to Combat Command, and the room was secured and sealed.

“We have a directive from the Three,” Tallis wasted no time on preliminaries. They all knew it was an extraordinary conference. Some brows rose. Tydar’s eyes narrowed, but his mouth folded in at the corners. Had he expected this? The Military Governor was not, in spite of his title, a military officer, but an appointee of the Civ, which had no secure communications facilities in the Hecht system yet. Tallis watched him as he continued.

“The directive is unequivocal. We are to withdraw all Klarosian personnel from the Hecht system, evacuating entirely, within four hundred hours. We are to commandeer every functional interstellar vessel in the system, and to load the maximum quantity of transuranics that can be transported by our own Fleet vessels plus all commandeered vessels. We are to return to Orbital One by the shortest possible route, without calling at Bejan Base, with the ker-equipped Fleet vessels preceding the standard-drive vessels, which are to be convoyed by adequate Fleet vessels to ensure they make a safe journey. We are not to discuss these orders with any personnel below Command Staff ranks.”

He touched the tab that relayed the segment of the decrypted message cleared for Command Staff ranks to the wraparound view projector at the center of the table, so that they could all see the sealcode of the Three, and waited. His own Command Staff, and Admiral Destane, the Flag, read the message carefully, but refrained from comment. The Civies, on the other hand, were agog. Amazing that a mere half-dozen individuals could generate such a babble. And, by the expression on Military Governor Tydar’s face as he re-read the message for the third time, whatever he might have been expecting, it wasn’t this.

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
 

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.”

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