Cantra the first
Created 1/6/2003 by Sharon
©2003 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Pleny was worried.
Nothing unusual, there–Pleny always worried. Which he would have a good thing, Cantra being as heedless as a moth. Whatever, Cantra thought, walking behind like a well-trained ‘prentice ought, a moth might be.
The port access way was empty, excepting free-trader Pleny and his soft-walking ‘prentice. Given the weather, that was hardly surprising, Cantra thought, pushing her hands deeper into the pockets of her slicker. Ship’s overalls would have been warmer, but Pleny had insisted on planet-dress, and had braided an orange ribbon into Cantra’s limp, no-color hair with his own hands.
Had she not known better, she would have been warmed by this evidence of brotherly esteem–for only the most desperate sombi would snatch a bonded, all-by-the-legal ‘prentice. Since she knew her worth to Pleny down to the last shaved quint, his care only put her on alert.
Up ahead, a webwork of sickly green lines intersected the walkway. When they broke through that barrier of light, the port–and the dubious protection of port law – would be behind them. In the city, two freetraders, shivering and obvious in their out-of-current clothing, would be prey to every law-giver and upstanding citizen as wished to make them a gift of trouble.
Cantra felt her stomach clench, and she deliberately kept her hands and her thoughts from the weapon that rode at the small of her back. Extraplanetaries were specifically forbidden from carrying weapons among the peaceful and law-abiding world dwellers.
Two steps in front of her, just on the port-side of the guard lights, Pleny checked. Cantra stopped, wondering if this were an abrupt return to sense or –
Her brother, so-called, turned his head and glared at her over his shoulder.
“Stay close, stay quiet, and stay out of trouble,” he snapped.
Standard orders–said once already, before they left the ship. It was a measure of the depth of Pleny’s worry that he repeated himself now. And a measure of hers that she dared to ask a question regarding this folly.
“What do we want in ‘tegra-city, brother?”
She hadn’t expected an answer, and she wasn’t disappointed. With one more snarl, Pleny squared his shoulders and marched forward. The webwork of light reformed, sheathing his long form in flaring green. The image froze, then flowed as the light-motes reported his bio-print to the port census brain.
Cantra took a deep breath, pulled her fists out of her pockets and followed him.
She closed her eyes in the instant before she hit the web–nothing but plain and fancy cowardice–and gagged as the strands congealed around her, freezing her in place, tightening–and releasing her to her interrupted stride, just barely ahead of panic.
Opening her eyes, she spied Pleny already at the busy cross-street, and stretched her long legs to catch him. Much as she might object to her brother’s company under usual conditions, the fact was that there was only one key for Flicker, and it hung about Pleny’s neck.
That he would leave her dirtside if it came to suit him, she had no doubt whatsoever. He’d left Amril, hadn’t he? After he’d picked her pocket for the key.
That they happened to be on a frakith world–well, and maybe he’d cut her throat for her, first, rather than risk the chance of her being acquired by a sombi-master with a scholarly bent.
She reached Pleny’s side as he raised an arm over his head. Three lanes out and two down in the rushing traffic, a tiny public carrier–nothing more than a lifter, a brain, and two open-to-atmosphere benches–ducked, dodged and angled toward them at a speed Cantra considered nothing less than suicidal. The cab being machine-mind, perhaps that aspect didn’t concern it.
Pleny grabbed her wrist, not gentle, and hissed, “I said stay close!”
“I’m close!” she snarled, and was saved saying the rest of what boiled on the end of her tongue by the arrival of the cab.
“Service?” it asked in a high-pitched, childish voice.
Pleny pushed her; she stumbled, recovered and scrambled into the high rear seat, taking hold of the hand-grips with a will. Had there been straps, she’d have used them, gratefully, but frakith didn’t care about such comforts. Pleny took his place on the larger bench just behind the brain-box and muttered a destination. The cab emitted a series of barks, spun in place three-sixty, and skated across three parallel and four lateral lanes of traffic.
Cantra closed her eyes.
The cab slowed, losing altitude gently. Cantra smelled brine and wet-rot on the breeze against her face, and cautiously opened her eyes.
The street was narrow, with only two lanes, running sedately side-by-side. Below, the tiered walks were as scant of traffic as the skyways; in the distance, just beyond the flat-roofed buildings, she could see the uneasy gray surface of a sea.
Frowning, she blinked up the map of Vantegra City she’d downloaded from the port tourist brain.
A green mote of light flickered in the map–her present location – and the legend, “Shandlir Street, Vantegra Seaport.” As the ship flew, they were hard by the port–the spaceport – though the tangle of streets was nothing she would have wanted to attempt on foot, map or no map.
The cab floated past the first walk, and executed a sharp right turn. Despite her hold on the grips, Cantra gasped, feeling her weight shift dangerously–and then they were level again, hovering next to the blue surface of a private landing dock. A door sighed open.
“Destination achieved,” the cab piped. “Please exit at the open hatch.”
There was a heartbeat of hesitation before Pleny moved–sliding across his seat to the open hatchway, Cantra saw, rather than risk overbalancing the tiny craft, and felt a spurt of rare sympathy for her elder sibling.
He got himself out without mishap, and it was her turn. She took a breath, moved, felt the cab ship-steady beneath her boots, and stepped onto the dock. Behind her, she heard the snap of a hatch sealing, spun–the cab was rising, twirling on its axis as it did, heading back to the high traffic lanes and its next fare.
“Come on!” Pleny snapped; she heard the grit of his boot soles against the dock, sighed and turned about, the obedient–the quiet and so-respectful–‘prentice, following her master down the short blue dock toward a blank blue wall.
It being a frakith dock, there were no such things as guardrails, and Cantra kept her eyes scrupulously away from the near, thin edges were ramp met atmosphere. It wasn’t that she had no head for heights. ‘mong shipborn, she was known for her ability to tolerate height, gravity, noise, and all the other uneasy variables attendant to worldwalking. Not that she was precisely shipborn, no more than Pleny, who seemed to have taken to the life like he’d never spent his first dozen years down-space, as ship cant had it.
The blank blue wall was closer; another three strides and Pleny would run his long nose right through–
Light flared–a crimson lattice-work of light, forming a gate between Pleny and the wall. Cantra twitched toward a stop, but her brother never broke stride. The lattice received him, enveloped him–and let him go. Cantra saw him stagger, a little, before she, too, entered the light’s sticky embrace.
Contact, freeze, release. She forced herself to walk on as if there had been no interruption, keeping her sigh behind her teeth. Up ahead, her brother strode on, through the door that hadn’t been visible a heartbeat before.
She felt the skin between her shoulder blades tighten, but she kept the pace, and followed him inside.
The hall was narrow and straight, the floor a continuation of the docking stone, bright with the colorless illumination from a dozen wall-mounted glow-panels. At the end of the hall was a man, dressed in an orange unisuit, the hood thrown back to reveal a haughty, narrow face with a shock of space-black hair above it.
“Captain Torvin?” he asked, voice prim and over-precise.
“That’s me,” Pleny said, which was more-or-less true, allowing for the wide difference in custom between the Rim and the frakith worlds. He stopped and tucked his hands into his belt, nonchalance embodied.
“And that?” The doorkeeper stabbed his pointy chin at Cantra. She kept her eyes down, like a decent ‘prentice would, and let the master deal.
There was a heartbeat of hesitation. The haughty doorman hadn’t been told to expect a ‘prentice, Cantra thought, her gut going cold. Pleny had counted on custom–the social convention that said an apprentice was only her master’s shadow, ignored in trade and at table, to pass her through at his back. His insurance against the deal going bad, invisible, and the illegal hideaway tucked in her belt…
The man went back a step, clearing the doorway, and bowed slightly, sweeping his hand out in a ritualized gesture of welcome.
“Please, enter. Bentaji Zolibrith expects you.”
Pleny bowed, short and sharp, and swung through the door, a bit of swagger in his walk, now that there was a high-caste frakith at hand to impress.
Soft-foot and smooth, Cantra went after him, eyes down, face neutral. She passed the doorman, hoping that he wasn’t augmented in anything but the usual ways. A ‘prentice might be excused an accelerated heartbeat and slightly quickened breath on her first visit to so substantial a person as a guildlord. If the doorman were properly deferential, himself, he would only read those indicators as awe. If, on the other hand–
She was through. Biting her lip, she moved, silent now, and careful of her balance on the field. The floor was, to her eye, handpainted porcelain, so fragile that the weight of a mouse might shatter it. The repeller field between the priceless artwork and her destructive bootheels was less than the width of one of that mouse’s whiskers–and strong enough to bear Flicker, all six pods attached.
“Captain Torvin. How very good of you to come to me.” This voice was rich, smooth–as expensive as the floor. Cantra dared a quick glance up through her lashes, but all she saw was her brother’s back, and a long wall of scrolls, neatly rolled and slotted.
“Bentaji Zolibrith.” Pleny’s bow was deep, which Cantra wholeheartedly approved. It was impossible to do too much reverence to the individual who held dominion over such a room. “I am at your service, sir.”
For a price, Cantra thought, flicking covert glances about the room. Impossible to tally the treasure that lay in plain sight. She began to have some hope that whatever scheme Pleny had might earn them more cash than trouble.
“Certainly, certainly,” the rich voice answered. “But, come, sit with me and let us discuss our business over a glass of wine, like civilized men.”
Well, that was going a stretch, Cantra thought, at least on Pleny’s behalf. The rich-voiced guildlord, now–but no. A civilized man would not need the services of an edge-trader like Pleny so-called Torvin.
Nonetheless, Pleny agreed to the chair and the glass, for which she couldn’t blame him, and followed the host down the room, Cantra, his faithful shadow.
The chairs were set in a corner where two scroll shelves joined. Frakith chairs, spun from a substance that glittered like glass and very possibly was just that, with wide, translucent arms.
The host paused by the first chair, forcing Pleny to take the inner, and to Cantra’s mind, less favored seat. She followed her brother, eyes modestly down, edge-vision gaining a quick impression of richly worked robes and the sharp shine of jewels.
Pleny reached his place, turned and bowed–all polite and civilized, Cantra thought, slipping into the scant space between the chair and the shelf.
“Please, Captain Torvin, sit,” the guildlord murmured. Perforce, Pleny sat– carefully, as if the spun glass chair might collapse under his weight. Across from him, Bentaji Zolibrith sank lightly into his seat, and disposed his robes gracefully.
From her post behind Pleny, Cantra could now study their host more or less at leisure. He was a small man, his pale hair neatly braided with what she supposed must be the medallions of his rank. His hands were gloved in golden mesh; the fancy work on his robe showed gleams of the same material – intellistrands. Cantra glanced up the length of the shelf beside her, caught a gleam of gold, high up, and felt her stomach tighten once more.
The guildlord and the guildlord’s room were. . .in communion, through the interface of the strands. So long as the gloves covering his hands, the threads woven into his robes of office, reported a biologic system in harmony, all would be well. Let the strands report an upset in the balance of the lord’s emotions, or his physiology–and the room would act to cleanse itself of threat.
Frakith were fond of such toys. If a device could be made to do a thing–if man could conceive the need of a device which might perform such-and-so a function–depend upon it that the frakith had already built the thing and were employing it for some dire or trivial purpose.
The guildlord smoothed his robes once more, raised his face and smiled. It was a narrow face, not unpleasing, though younger than she had–
The thought died. The muscles of the young face took the smile easily. But the eyes–blue and set somewhat close together–the eyes were ancient, calculating and cold.
Cantra felt her blood freeze.
“Honor me,” Bentaji Zolibrith said in his rich, trained voice, “by sampling a glass of the guild’s finest.” One golden-gloved hand rose, fingers moving in a small series of subtle gestures. From the larger room came a sound, as of air escaping a hose. A shadow moved, and Pleny turned his head, tracking the motion. The guildlord, Cantra saw, keeping her eyes on the clearer danger, let the smile go, his face settling into lines as austere and as giving as crystal.
Once upon a time, someone had wished for there to be a way to live forever. As bad luck would have it, the wish was said within hearing of a frakith, who immediately put his thought on how to produce a device to accomplish it. And, frakith being frakith, they had accomplished it, after a fashion only frakith would find acceptable.
Cantra’s peculiar and particular studies had included information regarding this device, which was nothing more than a thin golden circlet, which was settled on the brow. The circlet was in communion with a storage tile, to which it downloaded all of the past experiences, memories, emotion–the entire self–of a certain person. Most usually this procedure was performed as that certain person lay dying, though that point was moot, as the total eradication of the self induced fatal trauma.
The next person to don the circlet, then, accepted the download of the stored self, allowing it to live on. Some frakith liked this scheme so well that they uploaded and downloaded themselves serially, achieving, yes, immortality.
For some definition of immortality.
Guildlord Zolibrith was one such. The eyes told the tale. Cantra could not hazard a guess as to precisely how old he might be, but she would wager atmosphere to vacuum that this was not his first life. Nor even his third.
The soft whisper of escaping air claimed her attention. She glanced away from those too-old eyes with something very like relief and looked to the entrance to the alcove, where came a spun-glass table bearing two fluted glasses filled with ruby liquid. The table progressed steadily, at a height of about Cantra’s waist above the floor, and paused by the guildlord’s chair. He lifted a glass in a golden hand. The table drifted to Pleny, who received the remaining glass with really commendable nonchalance.
Bentaji Zolibrith raised his glass, tipping it slightly toward Pleny.
“Please, honor me with your opinion.”
Pleny sipped–doing justice to the wine and reasonable caution, both–and sat a moment in consideration.
“A subtle vintage,” he said at last, and it was genuine respect in his voice, immediately recognizable, though seldom enough heard. He sipped again, and the guildmaster smiled, before lifting his glass to his lips.
Pleny shifted slightly in his chair, and put the glass on the wide chair arm.
“I hope I do not offend,” he said, carefully, “if I introduce the subject of business. I had received the impression from Fraumin Belgase that there was some. . .urgency to the matter.”
“Urgency. . .” The guildlord tasted the word, languidly, swirling his wine gently in the glass. “Yes, I suppose one might say there is some urgency to the matter, now that events are in motion.” He sipped wine and the muscles of his face smiled once more.
“The package is ready,” he said softly. “When we are done our wine, you will be escorted to the garage, where you will find a lorry waiting to bear you back to your ship. Once you have offloaded that which you will find in the cargo compartment, the lorry will . . .execute its second level of programming.”
Pleny inclined his head. “I understand,” he murmured, all polite and high-caste. He moved a hand, aping the guildlord’s graceful gesture.
“Fraumin Belgase had named a sum. . .?”
“Certainly, certainly! Have no anxiety, sir; payment will be made before we two part.”
Cantra blinked. That was something exceptional, payment more usually coming in halves – the up-front to push and the back-end to pull. The guildlord was no fool, after all; he must have thought that edge-traders are risky folk. He had hired them because they were risky folk and he had risky business to do.
“Thank you, sir,” Pleny said, even more polite. The guildlord moved a glittering hand.
“Common practice, I assure you,” he said, airily. The cold, old eyes sharpened.
“But, come, Captain Torvin, you are not drinking! Do you find my little vintage unworthy, after all?”
Cantra took a breath. It was an article of faith with them–all of them–never to drink all the wine, or consume all the food that was offered, down-space. Why overworkthe system? Amril had used to say.
Still, there were times when the drink could not be spilled, or the food slipped into a pocket. It would never do to offend the guildlord while they were still owed what Cantra very much hoped was a tidy sum in hard currency.
Pleny’s calculations had taken less time than hers; the glass was already in his hand.
“Truly, sir, I wished to have a plain business understanding between us so that I might savor the reminder of this vintage in harmony with yourself.”
A pretty speech, Cantra allowed, if entirely untrue.
The guildlord raised his glass with a grand flourish. “Well, then–a toast to the success of our joint enterprise!”
Pleny’s flourish was considerably less grand. “To success!” he repeated and sipped.
“A pity you do not have time to visit the vineyard which produces this vintage,” Bentaji Zolibrith said softly, his glass held loosely between golden fingers. “The mother of our vines is surely the most accomplished of all those now nurturing, the product of a line unbroken over six dozen generations.”
Cantra considered that, wondering if the purity of the master vintner’s line had been preserved by frakith tech, and, if so, what form that tech might take. She was still worrying that puzzle when Pleny set his glass down.
“So,” said the guildlord, rising at once, in a smooth, effortless flow, “to business!”
The lift was enclosed, for a frakith wonder; the only indication of their speed or direction a row of red pinlights, which lit, one after the other, following the same route from ceiling edge to floor, over and over again. Cantra stood at the back of the compartment, Pleny and the unisuited security before her, all facing the door–or, at least, the wall that had been the door when they entered–and silent.
Pleny, Cantra thought, was likely congratulating himself on his success so far. And, to be just, that success was not inconsiderable, measured in hard coin, as it had been. The frakith chest containing that coin sat on the floor between Cantra’s feet. All that remained was to do the job.
Whatever it was.
The pinlight line snapped to a solid bar of red, blinked twice and went out. The wall they were all facing slid silently away, revealing a steel-walled bay, the promised lorry standing hard by.
Security exited first, followed by Pleny, followed by Cantra, box on shoulder.
The door to the passenger compartment stood open. Pleny paused.
“Our package?” he asked the security-man.
“Loaded and locked,” the other replied.
Pleny frowned, and Cantra could follow the line of his thought as if it were her own.
Here’s a man pays good–very good–money to have a certain package up-space and away. So he says. What odds the deal is a different deal, with two edge-traders set up and sacrificed, the cash recovered later? What odds, if those dice didn’t roll a winner, that the security man, here, was up for a little bait-and-switch? Or, hold–what odds that–
“I’ll see that the package is in place,” Pleny said. “Captain’s Prerogative.”
Security didn’t like it, but he didn’t argue it, either. Might have been he’d done some space. Might have been he’d studied, much as Cantra had.
Shrugging, he went ’round to the back, twisted the catch and shoved the gate up.
The package was locked into the first bay–a low steel box about as long as Cantra was tall, and a half-a-dozen hands wide, sealed with nothing more exotic than ordinary cargo-cord.
So, the package was in place. Captain’s Prerogative did stretch to unsealing the box and inspecting the contents, and Cantra saw Pleny take an extra breath or so to consider it. In the end, he came down on the side of not irritating Security unduly, which was a reasonable decision, if not precisely the one Cantra thought she would have made.
He stepped back, caught her eye and jerked his head. She, obedient ‘prentice, went forward, swung the treasure-box down from her shoulder and slid it into the bay behind the package. There came a sturdy snap as the lock-downs took hold, Cantra ducked back and Security slammed the gate.
Pleny walked back ’round to the front of the lorry, Cantra after, Security following both. She hoisted herself up and onto the back bench. No belts, of course, but she tried to take comfort from the fact that the compartment was enclosed.
“Just give the navigator the coordinates of your ship,” Security said, as Pleny climbed into the front and settled himself around the smooth dome that housed the lorry’s brain.
“What about sending it home?” he asked
“Pre-programmed,” said Security, and touched the side of the compartment, ducking away from the descending door. It locked with a boom, leaving them enclosed, with what illumination came from the faintly glowing floor.
“No screen?” Cantra dared ask, when she had counted three heartbeats and Pleny had not bespoken the navigator.
He sighed, very softly, and she resigned herself to receiving no reply.
But–”Apparently not,” said her brother, and leaned to whisper Flicker’s direction to the lorry’s brain.
She’d not have credited the assertion that there was any more harrowing travel than open to the wind on a frakith cab, or that the lorry’s blind, frictionless crawl could have so quickly eroded her equilibrium. By the time the door swung up and away, revealing Flicker’s own cargo-lift before them, Cantra had twice regulated her breathing and her pulse, and was considering the wisdom of going to a secondary state for the duration.
To judge by her brother’s rapid exit of the pilot’s bench, he had suffered a similar crisis of function.
“Quickly!” he hissed at her and she slid out of the compartment and round to the back, where he had the gate up.
Cantra pulled a key out of her belt, and slapped it against bay one’s lock. The affect of the field unlocking was so strong that the treasure-box bounced a little, and the payload swung, cargo-cord grating against the smart-tile floor.
“Get the pallet jack,” Pleny directed, swinging up into the bay. He jerked his head at the smaller box. “Send that up the chute.”
“Aye,” she said, and ran to do both.
The package was heavier even than Cantra had judged, and it took both of them and the jack in overdrive to get it offloaded and onto the lift. Cantra looked back at the lorry, in the instant before the door sealed, and saw a shimmer ’round the body, as if it were hot, and giving off its heat in waves–
And then the door came closed and they were rising, back to the safety of their ship.
Between them, they wrestled the package off the lift and into the first of the interior holds. They got it off the jack and locked; Cantra reached for the cord–
“Get the jack stowed,” Pleny said sharply, grabbing her wrist. “Then file us a lift with admin.”
Her temper flared, and she wrenched free.
“File us a lift to where?” she snarled. “What d’you take as a reasonable percentage, in fast money?”
Pleny glared at her. “File us for Kineo, why not, little sister? Just a standard lift-out, is all, when the pattern favors us. No reason to call attention to ourselves. Is there, Cantra?”
She was breathing too hard. She took care of that, then held out her hand.
“Give over the key, then.”
He jerked the chain over his head and threw it at her, the links whipping nastily toward her face. She flung an arm out and the chain wrapped snuggly around her sleeve.
“Lift out, no hurry,” she said, by way of verifying her orders. “Filed for Kineo.”
Pleny grunted, which she took for yes, his eyes already hard on the package. Cantra shrugged, cycled the jack and steered it out of the hold.
The pattern gave them a clean lift within a double kwatrane. Cantra verified the numbers with admin’s brain and locked the course, then hit the supplies inventory. They were down on non-synth foodables, the synthetic being nourishment of last resort with Pleny. Cantra never minded what she was eating, a function she usually performed with both eyes on a scroll. Pleny, though, craved cheeses, soft breads, beers, and sweet fruits.
Flicking through the port directory, she found a green-grocer that would supply those things, quicktime, at only a twelve percent markup, and placed the order, giving berth number and cargo-lift orientation. She transferred the funds from ship’s account to the grocer’s, with a hold on release until delivery was taken.
That done, she upped the mag on the screen that monitored the cargo-lift–and, frowning, upped it again.
Directly before the lift, obvious against the pale blast surface, was a pile of grey matter–dust, she thought, increasing the magnification a third time. But would dust scramble and crumple in on itself, or–she slapped the heat sensor on, and coded the mag to the top.
The sensor found a little heat in the rapidly moving dust pile, a reading that dropped even as she watched it. The dust pile itself–was not dust, but countless tiny machines, growing steadily less as the more mobile turned upon and devoured their lesser brethren.
Fingers flying, Cantra accessed the cargo eye, rolled the recording back to the top of the hour and watched as she and Pleny wrestled the pallet jack and the package onto the lift, catching a glimpse of her own wary face just before the door closed and the lorry began to melt.
It went quickly, eroding into dust which the tiny machines devoured before turning upon and devouring themselves. The record ran into real-time, showing her the clean, pale surface–and then another lorry, painted bright green, with the grocer’s glyph large on the side pulled up, gate lifting.
Still frowning, Cantra stood, jerked the key from its slot on the board, and went down to the lift, dropping the chain over her head as she went.
Some while later, foodables stowed and the time coming worrisome close to lift, she went in search of her brother.
He wasn’t in quarters, nor yet in bio. No reason for him to be in the library, but she checked anyway, finding the chamber locked and dark.
Frowning, Cantra checked the time. She could lift Flicker, if it came to it–the ship’s key hung for a change ’round her neck. Problem was, she’d caught some of the glances Pleny was starting to throw her way. Soon now, it wasn’t going to matter that she was his insurance in strange ports and his back-up on ship. Soon, Pleny was going to convince himself that she was a deadly danger to him–just like he’d done with Amril. Amril, who had been the keenest and the kindest of them all, without who none of them would have gotten out of the–
She moved her head, shaking away bad memories, and stretched her legs, heading for cargo. That Pleny would ultimately betray her was inevitable, and something she neither could nor wished to prevent. But she could damn well make sure that he abandoned her someplace where she had a credible chance of surviving long enough to find another ship. Which particular paradise did not include anywhere so frakith as Vantegra. Best then not to excite paranoia by reminding her brother that she could pilot Flicker as well as he could.
A shadow moved at the joining of the main hall with cargo, and there was the missing, not quite running, face slightly damp. His eye fell on her and he snarled.
“Get to the tower! Don’t we have lift?”
Cantra reversed direction smoothly and headed back the way she’d come, keeping two steps ahead of him.
“Came looking for the pilot,” she said, forcibly calm. “So lift could go forward.”
Behind her, she heard labored breathing, and dared a glance over a shoulder.
Pleny was a long-nosed, sharp-faced, unhandsome fellow, and his sister Cantra was another just like him. That given, he’d rarely looked so poorly as he did right then, with the sweat sheeting his face and dripping off the end of his nose.
“What’s amiss?” she demanded and earned another snarl for her sisterly solicitude.
“Nothing! Give me the key!”
She pulled the chain over her head with alacrity, and swung aside, back to the corridor wall, the key swinging from her outstretched hand.
He snatched it away and lumbered by, running for some definition of the act, but with none of the surefooted grace bred into them all.
The wine, she thought, stomach clenching, and hurried after him, down the long corridor and up the stairs to the piloting chamber.
They lifted for Kineo, right enough, and as soon as the alignments favored them, altered course for a lesser-known translation point on the risky side of the equations. Cantra ran the co-pilot’s share–communication, scan, shields–and kept herself as close to invisible as possible.
Pleny leaned over the pilot’s side like a man who had taken his death, crumpled at the waist and canted to the right. The straps held him up, and his hands moved with precision. But his face was gray now–almost a match for the metal hull, and his down-space silks were soaked with sweat.
His hands moved once more, locking the amended course into Flicker’s navigation brain–and again, to unlock his straps.
Leaning hard on the arms of the pilot’s chair, he pushed himself to his feet and stared down at her out of glazed brown eyes.
“I’m going to quarters,” he said, thickly. “Keep the course.”
“Aye,” Cantra said, without inflection.
Whether Pleny heard her, she didn’t know. He turned and staggered away, one hand hard against the wall.
Translation was some while in the past, drop-out some while still in the future. In the boredom between, Cantra fed herself, showered, napped, and came back to the tower, excepting to find Pleny at the board before her.
The tower was empty, the go-lights showing stable, ship’s key an iridescent glow from its nesting place in the center of the board.
Biting her lip, Cantra stepped forward, hesitated at the pilot’s station and went past it to the co-pilot’s couch. She fed in her code and accessed the navigator, running a re-calc in her head more as a calming exercise than in expectation of finding serious trouble to shoot. There was a little drift in the numbers, Flicker’s navigator being slightly idiot, and she fed in the corrections, no more than half attending what she did.
Corrections accepted and locked, she sat a moment, then bent forward fast, not giving herself a chance to argue the con side, snapped on an open line in-ship and cleared her throat.
“Pleny, respond to tower,” she said, her voice sounding tense in her own ears, her brother’s gray and sweating face all too vivid before the eyes of memory. “Pleny, we re-enter normal space in one kwatrane.” She paused to struggle briefly with herself before adding. “Brother, if you are in need of aid, only call, and I will come.”
She sat back, then, sensors set on the broadest band possible, and listened.
For a while, there was nothing to hear save the rub of air against the equipment, which, Cantra thought, she might take as either a hopeful sign on a dire one. She and her sibs were tough and resilient. If the frakith wine had gotten the better of Pleny for a little time, the odds were very, very good that in the end her brother would have prevailed. The cost of such victories was sometimes counted in many kwatranes of deep sleep, from which he would certainly not rouse simply to reassure his favorite sister, Cantra.
She leaned forward, hand outstretched to cancel the scan and–a sound issued from the pick-up.
A groan, deep and breathless, traced to the interior hold where they had stashed the frakith cargo. Cantra thought a curse–did not give it voice.
The groan came again, slightly louder, and sounding not at all like Pleny Torvin.
Cantra locked her board as she surged to her feet, running out of the tower and down to cargo.
The hold was empty, save the package–cargo cord undone, top ajar. Of Pleny, there was no sign.
Amril had used to say that Torvinlab had, on one slow day, spun cat-strands into those they’d been refining, and that half-serious experiment had yielded Cantra. Certainly, she had more active curiosity than the rest of her sibs, totaled, which was why they’d set her to study and cipher.
Quickly, she stepped to the side of the open package, expecting to see nothing, but unable to deny herself a look.
Her curiosity was rewarded, for what she glimpsed under the gaping lid was not merely the empty metallic gleam of the interior, but–a face, a form, and, as she leaned closer–a groan, breathless and deep.
Cantra grabbed the lid and shoved it aside to totter for a moment, and then clang noisily to the floor. A breath of warm air struck her face, tasting faintly of wine. The woman in the sarcophagus muttered, her wild brows pulling together; long brown fingers plucking fretfully at her diaphanous wrap.
Gripping the edges of the box, Cantra stared. Warm goods. She took a breath, deliberately bringing her rage and her horror down into dispassion.
Pleny agreed to ship warm goods, she thought, and horror spiked again, despite her best efforts.
The woman in the box muttered, muted liquid sounds from no language that Cantra knew. She focused her attention, noting that this woman had been radically augmented, as often purchased courtesans were, to more greatly pleasure their owners. Though what pleasure one might find in hair of tangled leaf and twig, fingers gnarled like long roots, and a sharp boned face all covered in pale green down, strayed beyond Cantra’s understanding.
She shuddered where she stood, bent over the unconscious captive. Augmentation was surely not strange to her, with the past she had behind her. And yet–she shivered again, and put dangerous thoughts away, and looked once more to the other.
Her ears were tiny and close to her head; the lobe of the right one was torn, as if an ornament had been yanked free, with no regard for the damage done.
And why, after all, Cantra thought, recalling the guildlord in his robes, and his subtle, gold-meshed hands–why should there have been any care taken of one who had displeased the master?
And why, she asked herself, then, would one who had displeased the master not simply be relieved of her life?
What had Pleny agreed to, for that frakith chest full of coin?
She closed her eyes. Perhaps the woman in the casket had been sold? she thought hopefully. And Pleny Torvin had agreed to do nothing other than escort her to her new owner?
It was a comforting thought, and she rejected it immediately. Pleny’s fee had been too large to purchase any lawful service.
“Sanatharu evaji?” The voice was light and sweet.
Cantra opened her eyes. The woman in the casket was twisting, fingers pulling at the wraps as if they constricted her.
“Evaji?” she said again, writhing, her voice rising toward panic. “Evaji te andal! Te andal!”
Cantra reached down, gripped the frail covering where it lay against the inner wall of the casket and pulled. There was a moment of strong resistence before the cloth came free, revealing a corded brown body loosely clad in a short white shift; her feet, as long and gnarly as her hands, were bare. Cantra yanked the restraint from its anchorage on the second wall and flung it to the floor.
In the casket, the captive stilled, took a hard, deliberate breath–and opened her eyes.
Red they were, deeply so, very much of a color with the guildlord’s wine, with no white to be seen, and the long dark lashes curling up. She stared into Cantra’s face, her sharp, downy features tightening.
Cantra raised her hands, fingers spread, in the common sign for peace. The woman took another deliberate breath, and raised both of her long, gnarly appendages, in imitation.
“Where,” she said, halting, as if her tongue were not quite accustomed to the taste of the mercantile language, “do I awake? In the care of friend? Or foe?”
Well, now, that was the question wasn’t it? Cantra thought.
Slowly, displaying no threat, she lowered her hands to her sides.
“You find yourself a passenger on the good ship Flicker,” she said, taking care to speak each word clearly, in consideration of an unpracticed ear. “I am Cantra, ‘prentice to Captain-Owner Pleny Torvin.”
“Ship,” the other repeated. “To what shore are we then bound?”
Another pointed question, that. Cantra sighed. “Kineo,” she said, that being last filed, and no need for this woman, just yet, to know more than Vantegra Port.
The wild brows pulled together and the ruby eyes narrowed.
“That is no port known to me or to my house,” the woman in the box said at last. “I think that this must be no proper seaship.”
“Seaship, no,” said Cantra. “Flicker sails the stars.”
The ruby eyes flew wide. “The stars,” she repeated, toneless.
“Just so,” Cantra assured her briskly. “Now, you have had courtesy of me–my name, the name of my captain, my ship and the port to which we are bound. May I not have your name?”
The deep red eyes gazed up into her face, expressionless. An old game. Cantra returned stare for stare, her breathing slow and sure. The woman in the casket looked aside.
“I am called–”
A chime sounded–the half-kwatrane warning to translation end. Cantra moved a hand.
“Quickly, your name. I must to the tower in a heartbeat.”
One wild brow lifted, imperious.
“I am Sartony Tokai of House Tan Jevonese,” the woman said. “I am valuable. Return me and be rewarded beyond your dreams of wealth.”