Chapter One

THE WRONG LANCE

@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter One

Surebleak

Jelaza Kazone

Miri watched the car out of sight before turning back toward the house. She’d argued for the delm’s office today, and Val Con hadn’t fielded anything more than token resistance. Which meant they’d been on the same page, and it really didn’t matter if that was courtesy of the lifemate link, or just a case of great minds thinking alike.

What mattered was getting him another set and order of problems to chew on, so he could come back fresh to the mess that was Clan Korval’s on-going personal business. And, truth told, they had to open the Road Boss’s office today–most especially with the survey team from TerraTrade still on-port, asking questions, counting heads, reviewing systems, and in general making everybody nervous.

There was, Miri acknowledged, as she walked down the hall to the delm’s office, some risk in having Val Con on the same port as the survey team, but after the little dust-up at the reception, she counted on Team Leader Kasveini to make sure it was herself who conducted the interview with the Road Boss.

And, if it turned out that the team leader wasn’t sensible, or wanted to push an issue, then she’d just have to depend on Val Con wanting Surebleak Port upgraded and certified more than he wanted to visit mayhem on idiots who questioned Korval’s honor.

In the meantime, all they really had to do was to keep their heads down, and not do anything outlandish that skewed more attention their direction. How hard could that be?

She opened the door to the delm’s office, and went directly to the buffet to pour herself a cup of coffee. The scanner was on, which was Val Con’s habit. The names and home ports of ships incoming, and the filed destinations of ships outgoing imparted actual meaningful information to him. To her, not having been raised to have a familiarity of ships and ports and politics, the scanner was at best an occasional amusement and at worst just. . .noise.

Still, she didn’t detour on the way to the desk to turn the thing off. Today, the calm voices talking over the details of her homeworld’s traffic were. . .comforting.

She pulled the chair out, checked to be sure a cat hadn’t taken possession before her, and sat down, tapping the screen on.

There was mail in the delm’s in-box. Not exactly a surprise.

She pulled up the first, which was from Ms. dea’Gauss, acknowledging receipt of the delm’s direction to discover funding for the clan’s newly acquired space station. She assured them that the project was a priority, and that she expected to have preliminary figures within the week. In the meanwhile, she allowed that a schematic of the station, systems inventory, a list of needed upgrades in order of urgency, as well as a detailed report on the damaged portion of the ring, would assist her greatly in her work. Also, if the station keepers would send their estimate of expected traffic and a ranked list of services and amenities required by said traffic, that, too, would be of assistance.

Miri sipped coffee while she wondered whether the keepers had any notion how much traffic they were likely to see, and what services the Free Ships she understood were expected to be Tinsori Light’s main clientele would want most. Well, they had Tolly Jones to consult, there. . .She shook her head.

“Gonna be a job of work,” she commented to no one in particular. And that was before anybody figured out how Free Ships paid their bills.

“Jeeves–” she began–

“Sleet and snow!” the scanner shouted. “Didja see that! It come right outta the sun, I’m tellin’ you! No signature, no glare–“

“Meteor alert! Incoming! Keep to assigned orbits. If you are on approach, stay on course.”

Miri spun to stare at the scanner. Meteor? She thought. Came right out of the sun, was it? She felt a slight chill in the warm office.

“Jeeves, can you see that rock?”

“Yes, Miri. I am coordinating with Bechimo. The route is. . .unconventional, but we believe that it is a route, nor is the object detritus–“

“A ship,” she interrupted, realizing that she had come to her feet.

“Yes,” Jeeves said again. “I have a broad match with the Clutch vessel that transported Korval’s holdings to Surebleak. However, the vessel incoming is. . .much smaller, and–ah. Bechimo has backtracked to the entry point. We have very good reason to believe that it is using the electron substitution drive. I have extrapolated its course–on a heading for– “

“Our back field?”

“No, Miri. It is on course for our driveway.”

She blinked.

“Odds of survival?”

“One hundred percent,” Jeeves said promptly. “It is already slowing its descent. I estimate arrival in–“

“I have a communication from the approaching vessel,” came a pleasant, unfamiliar voice. Comm Officer Joyita that must be, Miri thought, patching in on the shielded house line. She decided to be pissed about that later.

“Proceed, please, Mister Joyita,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am. Pilot identifies herself as Emissary Twelve and states she is on the business of the Elders. An immediate meeting with the Delm of Korval is requested.” There was a small pause.

“She apologizes for this unseemly haste, and pleads. . .necessity, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Mister Joyita.” Miri sighed, and turned toward the door.

“Jeeves, with me, please.”

“Yes, Miri.”

“Readiness report,” she said, walking quickly, but not running, toward the front door.

“The nursery has been sealed and shielded. House shields are engaged. The Southern Suite has been sealed, by agreement with Captain Waitley. I am recording, and sending live to the office of the Road Boss.”

“Does Mister Joyita have permission to access in-house communications?”

“Miri, he does, retroactively. We had been discussing comm security protocols, as he had been kind enough to point out an error in my configurations. This present event overtook us before I could effect a repair.”

“I see.”

She felt a slight niggle at the back of her mind, and glimpsed a glitter of intense and tightly-woven pattern. Val Con had the feed, now, and was focused on it, all his training to the fore. He wasn’t worried, so far as she could tell, and that soothed her in a way Jeeves’ assurances hadn’t.

Still, she thought, coming to a branching of the hall; big rocks that were only small in comparison to out-of-reason enormous rocks, coming down ‘way too close to a good subsection of the people she cared about most. . .Even the Clutch made mistakes–at least, she assumed so.

And, if the house shields were up, there wasn’t one damn’ bit of good in her going to the door.

She turned right and followed the hall to the morning parlor, where there was a screen. For that matter, there was a screen in the delm’s office, but she hadn’t been thinking, had she?

It was then that she felt it, a warm pressure, as if he had kissed her cheek.

Smiling, she stepped into the parlor.

“Show me, please,” she said.

The screen came live, one half displaying the projected course, with deceleration rates, approach path, and approximate time of arrival on their doorstep.

The other half of the screen showed the object itself, rock-like as it was. As she watched, a ghost overlaid the approaching vessel–the image of the ship that had brought Jelaza Kazone, house and Tree, all of yos’Galan’s household goods, with room left over for a few atmosphere fliers to get tucked ’round the edges–to Surebleak.

“Courier ship,” she said. Jeeves must’ve figured she was talking to herself, because he didn’t answer.

She felt the sense of Val Con’s interested attention intensify, and then fade, as if he was satisfied with both the ship and its proposed docking; and had stepped back into being Road Boss.

Frowning, she scrutinized the screens again. Half an hour, more or less, before Emissary Twelve was with them. Time for a cup of coffee.

She’d just drawn a mugful from the carafe on the buffet when she heard the clatter of boots on the front stair. With a nod, she picked up another mug and filled it from the tea pot.

Light steps moved down the hall, and she turned, mug in hand, offering an easy smile.

“Hey, Theo. Want some tea?”

Val Con’s sister blinked, and shook her wispy pale hair back from her face. She had the family features–pointed chin, decisive nose, well-marked brows–but her expressions were more open than were usually found among her kin, even when they were being deliberately broad, for the benefit of children and Terrans.

“Tea’d be great, thanks,” Theo said, coming forward to take the mug.

Bechimo says there’s a Clutch ship coming in for a landing.”

“Jeeves says the same. If we’re to believe the message caught by Mister Joyita, we’re expecting Emissary Twelve, who needs to see the delm immediately, and who’s sorry for the bother, but pleads necessity.”

Theo paused with the mug half-way to her mouth.

Necessity?” she repeated.

“That’s the message.”

“When–” Theo began, then stopped, her gaze jumping to the screens.

“I saw–Bechimo showed me the route in. They’ll be lucky if they’re only slapped with a fine.”

Miri blinked.

“Gods, I hadn’t even thought of that. As soon’s the portmaster realizes it’s a ship, not a rock, she’s going to have to fine ’em. Especially with the–“

BOOM.

* * *

Tapout Quarry

“How many are viable?” the driver asked, pulling the all-terrain buggy close to the edge of the quarry lip.

The passenger brushed her fingers over her screen in an arcane pattern, looked up, her face pinched with cold.

“Of the six in the pit, three. They will do little for us beyond adding to the noise. The four over there–“

She used her chin to point at the field beyond, where machinery hulked, rust-colored and quiescent in the dim light.

“Those four are walkers; equipped with blades, scythes, grinders, and other instruments of destruction. All four are viable, and ought to remain so for a significant time.”

The driver consulted the on-board map, then squinted out over the land, gauging direction.

“More than a diversion,” he said at last, and with satisfaction.

“Oh, indeed; food-crops cannot hope to stand against those,” the passenger said. She paused as if considering the question fairly. “Nor could a farmer.”

“Once they’re started, they’ll go until they meet with an accident, or run out of fuel?”

“They will continue unless or until they meet with an accident,” the passenger said. “They are self-powered. The longer they walk, the more fuel they have available to them.”

“What’re the chances of them having a set o’keys?”

“Slim. Management would have kept the keys and the codes. If either had been available to those left behind, the machines would surely have been put to work, rather than left to rust.”

“Good,” said the driver. “Fire at will.”

The passenger tapped her screen in a rapid sequence.

Across the quarry, one of the large pieces of equipment shifted. Lights came on at the apex, as if some giant creature had opened its eyes. It rolled forward slightly, gears clashing and snarling. The racket seemed to wake its comrades; lights snapped on, great blades flexed, and they began–slowly at first, but rapidly picking up speed–to move, down the hill and toward the village at its base.

* * *

Dudley Avenue and Farley Lane

It might have been a roll of thunder that waked Daav. If so, it waked only him. His bedmates slumbered on, Kamele’s head on Aelliana’s shoulder; a pleasant picture, which he tarried a moment to admire before slipping out from beneath the blankets.

His pants came easily to hand, and he pulled them on before turning toward the window. A line of very bright light showed at the edge of the drawn shade; he eased it up a fraction and gazed upon a morning already well underway, and a brilliant, cloudless sky. Well, then, possibly it had only thundered in his dreams. Certainly, it would not have been the first time.

He let the shade fall back, looking again to the bed, and the pair slumbering there. Given the advancing hour, he really ought to wake them. Surely they had tried Kareen’s patience–and her hospitality–far enough. He and Aelliana had stopped for a morning visit, and had proceeded to monopolize Kamele all day. They ought, he told himself wryly, to have expected that–after so much time, and so many adventures, in which Aelliana’s physical presence, and his own abrupt youthening, were not the least strange–of course it would take hours–days!–to catch themselves up. It had been his error, to expect that Kamele would meet them coldly. His grievous error, unworthy of the man who had been Kamele Waitley’s onagrata for twenty Standards.

Well, and he had his error shown to him, and they three had filled in the broad outlines, at least. His sister had been forbearing, and perhaps even kind–witness the discreet series of trays sent up to the scholar’s office, and the lack of a call to Prime.

To tell truth, neither he nor Aelliana had planned a bed visit, nor, he was persuaded, had Kamele. Yet, when the moment came, it had been recognized by all, and accepted as inevitable.

So–a touch, and another, a press, a stroke; knowing kisses shared between familiar lovers–and the bed, all three aflame. And after they had rested, once again, comfortable and comforting, before sliding into shared sleep. . .

To wake and find morning busy before them.

As if to punctuate that thought, there came a discreet knock at the door, which was very likely their eviction notice.

Running his hands over his short-cropped hair, he crossed the room and opened the door, expecting to see his sister, frowning her irritation. Instead, there was another tray on the table beside the door, a multitude of small covered plates clustered on it, with a steaming teapot, and a carafe of morning wine nestled next to a small vase holding three small dark red flowers.

Well.

He picked up the tray, brought it into the room, and put it on the table by the window.

Daav, Aelliana murmured inside his head; has Kareen had enough of us?

Very much the contrary, he told her. True affection is honored, and we are invited to make merry.

We HAVE made merry, Aelliana pointed out.

Ah, but have we been merry thrice? He asked, focusing deliberately on the vase and its contents.

There was a flicker of. . .something from Aelliana. Perhaps it was astonishment.

KAREEN sent that?

So I suppose, as it was Kareen who urged us to call and make our bows. She must feel a certain proprietary interest. And she does appear genuinely fond of Kamele.

She is. . .much changed, Aelliana offered eventually.

I am told that age mellows, he answered. Not that I would know, of course.

Of course, his lifemate said politely. If you have done fussing with the tray, you might come and help me wake Kamele.

Daav smiled, and bowed gently to the three bold flowers in their vase.

Certainly, he said. After all, one would scarcely wish to disoblige one’s sister.

#

Later, having obliged Kareen most thoroughly, they tardily addressed breakfast, each telling over the tasks of the advancing day.

“We have two ships to inspect, so that we may vigorously debate the merits of each,” Aelliana said, sipping the last of her tea.

Kamele tipped her head to one side. Her hair was still damp from the shower, and droplets glittered like gemstones, strung through her pale curls.

“Will you set up as small traders?” she asked.

“As couriers,” Aelliana said. “We are quite unsuited to be traders, I fear.”

“And it must be said,” Daav added, “that the potential of randomized danger draws her, like a moth to flame.”

“Very true,” Aelliana said gravely. “Besides, you know, if I fail to fall into enough scrapes from which I must be extracted, Daav becomes bored, which I am certain you agree is to be avoided.”

Kamele laughed.

“When he’s bored, he takes things apart,” she said, giving Aelliana a comradely nod; “as you know. You’d definitely want to avoid that, on a spaceship.”

“Unkind!” Daav protested; “I always put them back together again!”

He put his empty cup on the table, and met Kamele’s eye, lifting a shoulder in a half-shrug. “Nearly always.”

She laughed again.

“Do you plan an immediate lift?”

“Not quite immediately,” Aelliana said. “The debating of merits may take some time. Also, we must be tested for new licenses.”

Kamele frowned, and glanced to Daav.

“Theo tells me that a master pilot’s license never expires.”

“Very true, but in the particular case, it is–more expedient, let us say–to obtain a new license under a new name than to undertake an explanation of my current estate to either the Pilots Guild or to the Scouts.”

“The delm is adamant,” Aelliana added. “We must qualify on our current abilities, and the tickets we fly on must be true.”

“No falsifying sources,” Kamele said wisely, and was rewarded with a wide smile.

“Exactly so.”

“And you?” Daav said. “Are you entirely fixed on resigning your position at Delgado?”

“Yes. I’ll be sending my letter this week. I expect Admin will be delighted. I’ve been more of a thorn in their side than a rose in their crown, lately.”

“I wonder. . .” Aelliana said, and hesitated, casting Kamele a conscious look. “I fear that I am about to meddle.”

Kamele met her eyes blandly.

“Well, I’m certainly not used to that.”

Aelliana inclined her head gravely.

“Indeed, how could you be? Now that you have been warned, I proceed–Kamele, must you resign?”

“What else should I do? Go back to Delgado and be compliant?”

“Oh, no; that would be too dreadful! I was only thinking that–of course, you will wish to use your expertise to build Surebleak an educational system. Surebleak, though, is short of funds, and likewise short of scholars trained in the traditional way. How if you allowed Delgado to participate in the project? Would not a satellite school on a planet which is poised to enter the universal conversation increase Admin’s melant’i, and the whole worth of the university?”

“Especially,” Daav murmured; “if they could assign some of their more. . .non-compliant scholars to the project?”

Kamele stared. . .toward him, though she was seeing her thoughts. It was an expression he knew well.

Our work here is done, van’chela, he said to Aelliana.

We may trust so. And only think what a gaggle of Delgadan scholars might do with Surebleak.

Imagination balks, he assured her.

Bah.

Kamele blinked back to the room.

“I take your point,” she said to Aelliana. “This is an op–“

She was interrupted by sudden commotion in the hallway, followed by a pounding on her door.

Daav came to his feet, and moved across the room. Behind him, Aelliana rose to stand between Kamele and the door, one hand in her pocket.

He spared a thought for his own hideaway, then simply jerked the door violently open.

Amiz, Kareen’s personal bodyguard, stood framed in the doorway, both hands in plain sight.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said quickly; “but there’s Mister Jeeves on-comm calling for Professor Waitley’s guests to go up to the Road Boss’s house, quick! He says there’s Clutch involved.”

He hesitated, and eyed Daav speculatively.

“He said you’d know what that meant.”

Clutch? Daav thought.

How fortunate that we are at home, Aelliana commented dryly.

Daav did not laugh. Instead he nodded to Amiz.

“Indeed; we know precisely what it means,” he said, stretching the truth in the interest of preserving calm and order.

“Thank you. Please tell Jeeves that we are on our way.”

* * *

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