Chapter Six

THE WRONG LANCE

@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Six

Surebleak

Jelaza Kazone

“Shields up full!”

Jeeves’s voice rang across the garden, as the sky dimmed perceptibly.

“Damage report!”

Miri was on her feet, the brown cat cuddled against her breast. Daav and Aelliana were up, too; Emissary Twelve lay like the dead.

“yos’Galan’s land has been bombed,” Jeeves stated. “Damage to supplies and terrain. Defensive resources are low, but I have deployed what is possible.”

“Casualties?” Miri demanded, stomach tightening.

“Day crew had not yet arrived. Work suspended until further notice.”

“Anything else?”

“Boss Sherton reports old borer and earth-moving equipment on the move toward a village nominally under her protection. The settlement is being evacuated. Joyita has hacked the command lines; Bechimo is building stop-codes. The goal is to preserve homesteads and crops.”

“ID on hostiles?”

“Joyita is working on a match. He reports negative on Scout vessels, as well as the light-ships utilized by the Department of the Interior. Status report: Localized shields have been activated at prime locations in the city. Shelter-in-place has been transmitted. The portmaster’s office has been alerted to the presence of hostile craft-–”

Val Con.

Miri reached; found him at the end of her mental fingers, more or less calm, though somewhat weary.

She blinked back into the garden.

Daav was looking grim, Aelliana only slightly less so.

“Seems like somebody’s committed,” Miri said, and shivered. They’d been waiting for this, or something like it. For the DOI to finally realize that Korval was as vulnerable as it would ever be, right now, and decide to throw everything they had, right now, at Surebleak.

“They have not attacked the house,” Aelliana said. “Surely that would be the first priority.”

Miri shook her head.

“They’ll figure the house is base, and well-defended. They’ll take less-defended targets first, so they won’t have any surprises at their back when they turn their full attention here.”

“They’re striking on many fronts at once in order to confuse,” Daav murmured.

“That, too.”

“Status report,” Jeeves stated. “Bechimo’s codes have been transmitted; the machinery has stopped advancing. Civilian evacuation continues, but a human tech crew is being dispatched to the machines.”

There was a movement at the edge of her eye. Miri looked down in time to see Emissary Twelve raise her arms, and roll to her feet with a speed and grace not to be found among the ordinary run of Clutch.

Emissary Twelve turned to face Miri; the cat she was still cuddling hissed, claws pricking skin through her sweater.

“I have been the recipient of offensive action,” Emissary Twelve stated. “Who dares strike the emissary of the Elders?”

“Knock it off,” Miri muttered. Gods knew what would happen if she put the cat down; probably it would attack, and Emissary Twelve would declare war on feline-kind.

“Korval,” a rough voice said softly. “May I relieve you of your burden?”

Right.

With a sense of relief all out of proportion with the problem, Miri handed the cat to Daav, and turned back to Emissary Twelve, deliberately reaching for the High Tongue.

“You were inadvertently struck down while receiving the Elder Tree’s explanation of events, which you had requested. Apparently, the flow of information from the Tree overcame your sensibilities and you fainted.”

There; let her get snippy about Ren Zel again.

“I do not faint,” Emissary Twelve stated.

“Every event is unique, the first time it happens.”

“Status report!” Jeeves announced.

“Shops on six streets are on fire; emergency crews and the patrol have been called out. Gas canisters have exploded at the entrances to the Portmaster’s office, Andy Mack’s repair shop, the Emerald Casino, Tantara Floor Coverings, and the office of the Road Boss.”

Miri didn’t have to reach this time; she was there, inside his head, staring at the screen with him: Men bursting into the outer office, Nelirikk rising like a mountain out of a cloud bank, Theo spinning-–

They jumped with one will, and were on the way to the bolt hole, dragging Theo by the wrist.

The alley stank of nothing but its usual mold and mud; she let Theo go with a muttered stay close, and moved cautiously toward the corner. She could hear boot soles moving on grit, heavy breathing, the whisper of leather against leather. . .

Six, she estimated; waiting for them. She glanced over her shoulder at Theo, keeping slightly back, ready on the balls of her feet, eyes intent. Right then, Miri thought-–we go first.

She moved, fast, snaking ’round the corner, dodging a fist, and landing a kick. The first was down, as she swung to face-–

Something hit her square between the shoulder blades. Her sight went black, and she yelled, crashing to her knees on grass-–grass. A breeze supported her like a comrade’s arm around her waist, and she blinked the Tree Court into reality.

“Jeeves! Port Security to the utility alley behind the Road Boss’s office, now! Val Con, Theo-–six attackers. In the office, Nelirikk’s down.”

“Working,” Jeeves said.

She lurched upward, and for a heartbeat she saw the alley again, ghostly and grey-–stumbled, and felt her shoulders caught in a strong grip, while the breeze pushed her upright.

“Miri!” Aelliana snapped.

She blinked again, staring into bright green eyes.

“Threw me outta his head. Helluva time to learn that trick.”

She shook her head.

“I gotta get down there.”

Aelliana’s fingers tightened on her shoulders.

“Your place is here, Korval,” she said, the High Tongue ringing like crystal bells in the quiet garden. “You have given your orders. Allow those who serve you to act.”

She swallowed, tasting smoke.

Delm-for-the-day, Robertson.

Her laugh morphed into a cry as the kick landed, slamming her back into the wall, her right arm going with an audible snap.

Aelliana braced her, guiding her collapse until she was again kneeling in the grass.

Van’chela, of your grace.”

“Yes,” said Daav. “One burden for another, Pilot.”

He put the brown cat on Aelliana’s shoulder on his way past, and the next moment, Miri felt herself swung up into strong arms.

“I can walk,” she said, her voice so unsteady she didn’t even believe herself.

“Of course you can,” Daav said, moving briskly toward the pathway. “Merely, at the moment, I can walk better.”

* * *

Emissary Twelve watched the three humans, with attendant predators, depart. The delm of Korval had fallen ill, and the others had an imperative to care for and guard her. This was comprehensible.

In the throes of this crisis, they had forgotten the emissary of the Elders. This was less comprehensible, but possibly the humans did not understand the Elders well enough to know that one removed one’s attention from them at one’s very great peril.

This could also be said of Emissary Twelve, under most of the circumstances into which she might have been quickened. That she had been called forth to perform diplomacy, considerably lessened the peril the humans might expect to confront on her account. She might yet need to resort to force in order to obtain what the Elders had ordered her to bring to them, but-–not yet.

This naive forgetfulness, in fact, served the purpose of the Elders, Emissary Twelve thought. She now had the opportunity to question the Elder Tree in her own way, without the interference of the delm of Korval.

They would see, now, who prevailed, when it came to strength against strength.

She turned toward the Tree-–and paused, tantalized.

An. . .aroma reached her nose. A delicious and provocative scent that awoke feelings of a strange and particular hunger.

She knelt down, scanning the ground, looking for the source of that wonderful –

There!

A round object lying among the grasses, green and definitely organic, yet seeming to glow, as if lit from within.

Emissary Twelve extended a three-fingered hand. The object fairly leapt into her palm. The scent was stronger, more seductive. . .compelling. She must eat of this fruit, whatever it was, or she would never be free of hunger again.

Fruits did not behave in this manner, so her store of memories informed her.

Fruit did not behave in this manner.

But traps did.

She brought her hand up to throw the thing away from her-–and stopped, hand falling, as hunger spiked. A peculiar hunger; not merely a need to replenish her resources, but a hunger specific to the fruit itself.

The skin of her palm was warming gently, agreeably.

She looked down to find that the fruit had obligingly fallen into quarters. The Elders and the mission she had been born to fell before the assault of the fruit’s promise, and faded into nothing.

Emissary Twelve picked up one single quarter and brought it to her mouth.

* * *

Miri roused, and sat up, grabbing for her hideaway, even as she realized that this was no back alley, but the morning parlor, and she was lying, not on sticky, cracked crete, but on the window seat.

She sighed, and slid the gun away. Aelliana, who was watching her interestedly from a chair set at a prudent distance, gave her a smile.

“As you bore no wounds, and your arm is perfectly unbroken, we decided against the ‘doc,” she said. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

“Not just yet, thanks.” Miri looked ’round the room, seeing Daav sitting, just to the left and behind Aelliana. He had a brown cat on his shoulder and a white cat on his knee.

“Where’s Emissary Twelve?” Miri asked sharply.

Aelliana got to her feet.

“She is in the Tree Court. Jeeves0–”

“All hands on deck!” Joyita’s voice rang out.

“Repeat! All hands on deck! The captain has been abducted!”

* * *

In the Southern Suite, Clarence swore, got to his feet and grabbed his jacket.

He was out the door and running for the staircase before the second call was completed. At that, he wasn’t the quickest of them; Win Ton was well ahead. Kara, on Clarence’s very heels, saw him pelting down the stairs, taking two and three at a time, silent as a ghost-–to be overtaken and left behind by an orange-and-grey flash.

“Hevelin!” Kara cried.

Clarence threw her a grin over his shoulder.

“Bet he’s in my chair when we get aboard!”

* * *

“Abducted!” Chernak repeated, coming to her feet. “Who would dare?”

Stost was already on his way to the door.

“Halt!” shouted Diglon Rifle.

“Commander Relgen and her second-in-command are coming here to interview you, in order to best determine your future lives.”

Chernak turned to him.

“Our captain has been abducted. All hands are called to the ship. You heard this.”

Diglon considered her.

“Do you say it? Your captain?”

“What else should we say?” Stost demanded from the doorway.

Diglon raised his fist in a salute between comrades.

“If that is what you say, Pathfinders-–then, go! Duty calls, and glory awaits!”

“With such a captain and such a ship, it could hardly be otherwise,” Chernak answered. She returned the salute, and spun, running after Stost, through the door.

They were gone, then, and Diglon, alone in the ready room, allowed himself to grin.

“Jeeves,” he said; “please be sure that nothing impedes the Pathfinders on the way to their ship.”

* * *

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