Read me the story:
The navlink pinged. They were approaching the point where the stratline’s autonav would drop them. Mohv fed a Kyth shortcode to the interface that enabled them to use the stratline powerlink without the system recording it, and let the flowcar descend slowly to a contour altitude well below the now sparsely-occupied traffic lane.
The evening color display was being replaced by the pale radiance of starblaze. Beyond the Center dome, the tavis fields didn’t dim the blaze for nightcycle except with local overrides, so it was plenty light enough to view the rolling terrain sloping down to the Park on their right, and the widening gaps between dark-shielded or artificially-lit clusters of human habitation.
The clusters grew further apart and they seemed to be navigating across entirely uninhabited territory. Only a faint glow on the far horizon, the Pelarati College domes, gave any hint of why a stratline led in this direction. Mohv glanced down at the position ping on the nav board, then squinted into the hills ahead on their left.
“Says it’s up there.”
A faint blue light appeared in a fold between two ridges. “Must be that.”
Rawls was still staring into the scanfield. “Yeah, the security field is registering on the PPS now. Should I ping them?”
Quiddik shrugged. “Why not.”
“Standard acknowledgement, no voice, no vid.”
“Okay.” Quiddik warmed the aux power battery and released the stratline link. The flowcar slid smoothly out of the traffic pattern, the starblaze giving it a faint shadow on the uneven terrain below.
“Big!” Rawls was surprised. The habitat ahead was dark-shielded, but through the polarized screen faint lights were now visible, indicating a sprawling, many-structured habitat spread along the bank of a stream that fed into the Park’s riparian network. As they got closer the blue light resolved itself to a fieldgate indicator.
At their approach, a pleasant tenor voice, apparently a recording, wafted through the nav board’s speaker. “Hi, welcome to Headwaters. We don’t have accommodation for guest vehicles inside the security field, but you’re welcome to park on the secure pad by the gate. We’ll be with you shortly.”
The two Kyth operatives exchanged glances. Quiddik maneuvered the flowcar gently down on its grav-cushion while Rawls confirmed their arrival for Dispatch, and activated various recording devices.
The fieldgate was a simple archway with a stone pad in front of it. As they stepped onto it, the gate irised open. There was no one on the other side, but a disembodied voice from the stanchion just inside addressed them in a slightly husky alto: “Please come through to the main house, ahead and to your left. I’ll send Stav to meet you.” In the background, they could hear a murmur of subdued conversation, someone playing a vianallo—quite well—and a tenor voice saying “why me?” while another laughed.
Again they exchanged glances. Rawls indicated in Kyth silent-talk that they were in a surveillance field and presumably being recorded, and that their live-transmit recording device was being efficiently jammed, but not the static recorder. Quiddik shrugged and they set off in the direction indicated.
A series of ground lights came on, illuminating a path that wound between a dim-shrouded variety of shapes breathing living scents into the cooling air. The stream in the distance burbled gently over rocks, adding a background soundtrack. Quiddik was conscious of an impulse to relax—but that only made him more alert. He blinked, purposefully, to activate his IR lenses.
With that assistance, the landscape was revealed as strips and patches of garden plots, winding along the path and extending back from it. At least, he assumed they were garden plots. Plants arranged in various configurations, some orderly, some less so, some crowded, some sparse. Here and there a bench or an array of stones or some other apparently purposeful object varied the arrangements.
A bright figure approached along the path, presumably “Stav,” and he deactivated the lenses. As his eyes readjusted, additional lighting activated, this time from above, glare-free but light enough to make out the amiable expression on Stav’s face. He was almost as tall as Mohv, not so muscular around the upper torso, but he moved with supple poise and easy assurance. He might be in his thirties.
He approached, and stopped, unostentatiously out of arm’s reach. “Good evening. I’m Stavann Kassinger. A call came in from Kyth just a few minutes ago. I’m to ask you each for a code?”
Codes given, as well as their names, Stav nodded. “Thanks. This way to the main house.” He gestured, and then stood aside to let them pass him. They walked ahead of him about fifty meters along the winding path, to the single-level, rambling building. Quiddik had the hyper-alert feeling he generally associated with being observed through a range-finder, and wondered why someone had bothered with the Kyth Agency at all.
He and Rawl stopped politely on the stone threshold.
Stav smiled apologetically. “Gentlemen, I’m certain that you’re armed. We have a rather strict policy about who’s allowed to carry weapons indoors at Headwaters, so if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you to leave your weapons in the stash?” He gestured to a recessed panel, with a simple thumb lock on the frame, next to the door on the left.
He’d maintained that unobtrusive, arms-length distance from them, and had quietly dropped into a flanking position that left several possible lines of fire from concealed observers. Somewhat bemusedly, Mohv glanced at Rawl, and the shorter man, with a slight shrug, reached out and activated the thumb lock. The panel slid open; it was a featureless cube, but Mohv knew battlesteel in all its guises.
He and Rawls placed the obvious guns inside, and then, without even a sideways glance, the less obvious weapons each carried. Rawls thumbed the lock again, and the panel closed. Stav smiled at them. “Thanks. We have our little ways. Appreciate your cooperation.”
The door opened. Another man, this one possibly in his late twenties, stockier-built, but with a round, innocent-looking face under a shock of black hair, stepped back and smiled. “Welcome to Headwaters. I’m Chun.” He glanced at Stav. “Ani says take them through to the workroom.”
Their guide nodded, and led them along a convoluted route that included hallways, short staircases, rooms, a few ramps, out through a courtyard with more garden in it, back in, around corners, down another ramp and then through a wide, low-arched doorway into a torrent of sound that resolved itself into two women and a man jamming on vianallos and a set of kanga drums.
There were five other people in the room besides the musicians; three adults, two children in the between-toddler-and-teenager range. One of the adults was a rather thick-set woman who might be in her fifties, possibly sixty—middle age, at any rate. She had a long, gray-streaked braid of hair over one shoulder and wore a loose, colorful coverall in the Parsi style. She looked up, saw the three men in the doorway, smiled, and waved, gesturing to one of the long sofas, and then turned her head back to the musicians, who were reaching some kind of climactic musical moment. Quiddik wasn’t a Vils fan, but he recognized the driving lilt and layered rhythms that characterized the style. He and Rawl sat.
The music drove to a torrential conclusion, with a coda, and a flourish, and the three musicians sat back, grinning and laughing. The others all applauded; the two Kyth men grinned politely. The woman with the braid turned to Mohv and Declan. “You will be Mister Rawl and Mister Quiddik,” she said in Translingue, but with a Parsi lilt to her speech. “I am Anisala.”
She looked around at the others. “Stav and Chun you have met.” She gestured to the male and female vianallo players. “Varanada and Pek, and our kanga player is Tularik.” She indicated the other young woman, who had a scan console in her lap. “Nelauk.” The children were now staring curiously at the strangers. “Come, Gavanne, Hetra, meet Mr. Rawl and Mr. Quiddik.”
The children nodded politely.
“And now, Gavanne, what was the deal?”
The girl, who might have been around ten, looked annoyed, then shrugged resignedly. “One more song, and then bed.”
Anisala smiled, and looked at the remaining adult, a slender man wearing his long dark hair in elaborate Parsi pattern-braids. “Teshi v’arhaql an, Manchiv.”
He grinned. “Only when they’re here, Ani. They’re trying to impress you. Night greets, Hetra, Gavanne.”
The boy, a year or so younger than his sister, reluctantly got to his feet. He put his palms together, fingertips under his chin, and bowed to Manchiv, and then Anisala. “Night keep you, taka, and my father.”
“Oh, courteous young warrior!” applauded the female vianallo player, detaching the keyclamps from her fretboard. She grinned at the boy, and he bowed to her as well, then rather spoiled the gravity of the gesture with a slight bounce. “That’s right, isn’t it, Pek?”
“Just so, Gav. More tomorrow.”
The girl sighed, and stood up as well, and took her brother’s hand. “All right. Night keep, Father, Ani.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the two Kyth operatives as she exited.
It wasn’t lost on Mohv that Stav and Chun’s casual-seeming positions were angled precisely where he and Declan might have been, had they been on alert protecting the target.