Chapter Eight


@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Eight

Surebleak Port


Barely more than a whisper, almost too soft to hear, but it sent a shiver of pain through her head; light flared, and she stopped hearing anything.

. . .

“Theo, please.”

The voice again; still soft, but with an edge to it, maybe panic. She tried to reach out to it–the voice. Tried to say, “Hey, calm–”

Pain flickered, hot, like lightning inside her head, followed by blackness.

. . .

“Theo, you must attend me.”

Right, the voice. She remembered the voice. Not sounding so panicky, now. Determined, maybe. No, grim.

Grim, Theo thought. Grim wasn’t good. In fact, grim was right on the edge of being bad.


“Hold on,” she said–or at least she meant to say it. She had the idea that she hadn’t done much in the way of vocalizing.

Regardless, the voice heard her.

“Theo, what is your condition?”

Her condition? She thought. Pain flickered, and she breathed into it, like she’d taken a solid strike while dancing menfri’at–and she remembered: The bullies breaking into the Road Boss’s office, Nelirikk roaring to his feet, the screen full of smoke, Val Con dragging her out the back door with him, into the alley, the corner where the other bullies had been waiting, Bechimo urging her to run–

Bechimo?” she thought then, and felt bond-space open around her.

“Yes. You should have run.”

“No,” she managed. “No, that would’ve–where’s Val Con?”

There was a flicker of lightning, distant; it hardly hurt at all.

“Theo, please, you must not risk another seizure. We have formulated a plan, but it–“

But memory was still unscrolling, implacable, unstoppable. She saw him up against the wall, three guys on him and blood on his face–

Where is my brother?” Theo interrupted–calmly, considering.

Bechimo seemed to hesitate, or maybe she’d just put him off his stride.

“Your brother is safe,” he said. “You are at risk. We have formulated a plan to remove you from your current situation, but it requires your active participation. What is your condition?”

Second time he’d asked for her condition, which was. . .odd. If they were in bond-space, he ought to know her condition.

“Yes,” he said, answering her thought. “The key informs me of your physical condition. You have two broken ribs, and your right knee has been injured. Also, you have sustained numerous of what Clarence assures me are minor injuries–“

He didn’t, Theo thought, sound like he agreed with Clarence’s assessment.

“Clarence,” Bechimo said stiffly, “informs me that it takes more than scraped knuckles and some bruises to slow down Daav yos’Phelium’s daughter. A pair of broken ribs, says Clarence, is nothing more than a very minor inconvenience.”

There was the distinct impression of a sniff–so much, Theo thought, for Clarence’s opinion.

“At least he seems to think the knee injury’s a problem,” she said, mildly.

“If you are obliged to run, he agrees that it might impede you.”

There was a short pause.

“What I need to know is how you are held,” Bechimo said after a moment. “Are you restrained? If so, how?”

“Don’t tell me Joyita hasn’t been able to get into the local systems?”

“He made an attempt and withdrew after identifying the intruder alerts, and security protocols. As you are being held on a ship, we did not wish to do anything that would cause your. . .captors to panic and lift.

“However, if you had succumbed to another seizure, Joyita would have taken the risk, and we would have implemented the plan immediately.”

“What plan?” she asked.

“The plan that the Pathfinders put together in order to win you free of your captivity, a state in which you yet reside. Theo–what is your condition?”

“Hold on,” she murmured, concentrating on listening. She heard air whispering through a vent, and some distant pings, which might’ve been a ship’s system working. As far as she could tell, there wasn’t anyone nearby, but they probably had a camera on her. She kept her eyes closed, and took a more personal inventory.

She was lying on her back on a giving, if not exactly soft, surface–a Jump couch, she thought, identifying the tightness across her torso and thighs as webbing. Her hands were at her sides and she felt straps around the wrists, which wasn’t standard for webbing in for Jump. Her chest hurt.

Actually, now that she was paying attention, she realized that most of her hurt.

“Information received,” Bechimo said, in the flat, almost machine-like voice he used when he was really upset. “The Pathfinders will reformulate their plan.”

“Wait,” Theo said. “What plan?”

“The plan to liberate you,” Bechimo said, starting to sound irritable.

“But I’m still on Surebleak Port, right? Call the Portmaster, and give her your evidence. She’ll lock the ship down, send Port Security. . .”

“The ship on which you being held, injured and against your will,” Bechimo interrupted tightly, “is on its fifth name. The captain is not a member of the pilot’s guild. While on the face of it her license is legitimate; Joyita’s research indicates that it is. . .irregular. Both ship and captain are for hire, and the captain does not appear to care much for laws, ownership, or local port prohibitions against smuggling. Furthermore, she was one of those who ambushed you–and your brother. If the Portmaster shows any attention to that ship, Theo, the captain could decide it is in her best interest to kill you.”

“Not that likely, is it?” she asked. “She went to a lot of trouble to grab me–and she lost crew. I’m pretty sure Val Con killed the first guy. . .”

. . .and she had most likely accounted for another, she thought.

Theo took a careful breath, wincing when something grabbed in her chest and side. Right. Cracked ribs.

“Do not harm yourself,” Bechimo said sharply.

“Just trying to assess,” she said. “So, the captain’s a smuggler, and she does her own close-in work. Fine. What’s she want with me?”

“Joyita and Win Ton are doing research. What we suppose is that you are a hostage, to prevent Boss Conrad, Clan Korval, and by extension, the Port from taking action against captain and ship.”

“But–that doesn’t make any sense. Smuggler’s want to work quiet, don’t they? They’re only calling attention to themselves by taking a hostage.”

“Clarence shares your objection,” Bechimo admitted, “though he does say that we cannot discount the possibility that the captain has, in his words, smoked out what passed for her brains. In which case, she is even more dangerous to you.”

“Right. Has she made any demands?”

“Not as yet. She may be–“

“Wait,” said Theo. “The door–“

“No sense pretendin’ to be asleep, Blondie,” a man’s voice said loudly. “Monitors say you’re awake.”

Theo opened her eyes. The man looked vaguely familiar. She thought he might be the guy who’d tried to smash her head open. He also looked like he’d landed on his face when she tackled him–there was gravel burn down his right cheek, his lip was split,and his eyes were red.

“So,” she said, her voice gritty in a raw throat, “I’m awake. What now?”

“Now?” He grinned. “Now, Cap’n Lisle wants a word.”

* * *

There had been pain; Val Con recalled that, distantly. At the moment, however, there was no pain, only a pretty pastel fog upon which he observed himself reclining, seemingly entranced, and really quite pale and worn-looking, poor child. Doubtless, the rest would be beneficial; but in the meanwhile, he–the he of him–was. . .bored.

He therefore rose, and went for a walk.

The fog parted obligingly before him; his feet quickly found a path, which became, in no more than a dozen steps, a very familiar path, indeed. He smiled as the last of the pale mists faded into a jumble of greens, browns, yellows, and reds, which coalesced into shrubberies and plantings of flowers that had entirely run wild, scattering everywhere, like so many unruly children, until the path surrendered, ceasing to be a path altogether, ending abruptly at a clearing enclosed by gloan roses; dominated by the trunk of an enormous tree.

A woman had her back and one booted foot against the vast trunk in a casual lean, arms crossed over her breast, the other foot braced against the ground. She was wearing a high necked sweater, and a pair of tough canvas pants–what had become the House at-home dress on chilly Surebleak. A long copper braid fell over one shoulder, bright against dark blue.

He grinned, his heart soaring, and went lightly across the clearing.

Cha’trez,” he murmured. “It is good to see you here.”

“It’s good to see you, here, too,” she said, her smile soft as she raised a hand to his cheek. “Note that I’m madder’n a wet cat about that new trick of yours, but that’s an argument for another day.”

He frowned slightly, questing after recent memories–and found only a swirling of pink fogs.

“I believe that I am uninformed, in this time and place,” he said. He caught her wrist and placed a kiss on the palm of her hand. “Forgive me.”

“In this time and place? Sure.”

“Excellent. I promise to accept my drubbing with courage, in that other time and place.”

“Deal,” she said, and closed the modest gap between them, her arms going ’round his waist. He returned the embrace, and willingly took part in the offered kiss, turning so that his back was against the Tree, feeling it warm him through jacket and shirt.

“What brings us here together?” he asked eventually.

Miri looked rueful.

“Me. I think. At least, I hoped I’d meet you here. You’re in a ‘doc at the Port Trauma Center right now.”

She tipped her head.

“How much don’t you remember?”

“A provocative question. I recall the arrival of the leader of the TerraTrade survey team, who wished to interview the Road Boss. She did so with objectiveness and efficiency, then rather spoiled the effect by pointing out that Korval’s homeport, no matter where it might be, could not by definition be considered safe.”

Miri blinked at him thoughtfully.

“Did you kill her?”

“Before she filed her report with TerraTrade? Credit me with some self-restraint.”

She grinned.

“Sorry. Anything else?”

“Theo came next, aggrieved at the portmaster–” he paused, taking a sharp breath as the fogs parted and he remembered.

“The office was rushed. Nelirikk went down; Theo and I went out the bolt hole. . .they were waiting for us in the alley.”

His blood chilled.

“Theo?” he breathed.

“She’s alive. Bechimo’s got a line on her; we know the name and location of the ship. But she’s being held against her will, and the people holding her sent us her jacket–without her license. No note; no demands. Yet.”

Yet, indeed. And so it was come.

He took a hard breath, and looked into Miri’s face.

“The port is locked down?” he asked, knowing that a port lock-down was a meager deterrent at best.

“That’s right. Got Scout patrols on duocycles. Got mercs on parade. Got the port cops on double-shifts.”

“Do we know our enemy?”

Miri waggled her hand back and forth, meaning yes and, also, no.

“Looks like we got two actors–the DOI at the port, and Take Back Surebleak in the city. Or, if you like simplicity–one of the agents-in-place paid off a buncha bad actors to bust up things in the city, so it looked like Take Back Surebleak.

“Any case, there was windows busted, fires set, little bit of milling around–all that heavy lifting done by ‘bleakers.

“Out from the city, some old company equipment all of a sudden woke up and went for a walk. Bechimo and Joyita put together a stop code pretty quick, there.”

She took a breath, and met his eyes, clearly dreading her next revelation.

“yos’Galan’s land was bombed.”

Of course it was,” he said gently, and touched her cheek. Have we casualties?”

“They hadn’t quite got to work yet, at Shan’s place. Melina said it woulda been a lot worse, if it’d happened during the growing season, or if the gadgets had made it into the village. As was, a storage shed was trashed, and some land got tore up before Bechimo turned ’em off.

“In the city, some broken bones. On port–you, Beautiful. . .and four corpses, none of ’em ‘bleakers.”

“So, the Department has decided to escalate,” Val Con said; “and to hire out the work they cannot do themselves.”

“You sound sure.”

He extended a hand to catch her braid, delighting in the feel of warm, heavy silk against his palm.
“We expected this, after all,” he murmured.

“We didn’t expect exactly this,” Miri protested.

“No, how could we? Flexibility is key.” He smiled at her, raised the braid and kissed it.

“So. Our first priority is to make sure that the ship Theo is on cannot lift,” he said.

“And, also, in the spirit of flexibility–I need to get out of that ‘doc–now.”

* * *

“You wasn’t half too much trouble to pick up, was you, girly?”

The captain had grey in her cropped hair; two glittering white stones in her right ear; and grey eyes set wide on either side of a nose that had been broken at least once, and bent somewhat to the left.

She did not seem amused.

“I didn’t ask you to pick me up,” Theo pointed out reasonably.

“That’s right. Got a client. Wanted you, him, or both. Nice bonus if we got both. Too bad about that. Cost me three crew and Rindle one. Fi was you, I’d stay outta Rindle’s way; Patsy was something special to him.”

“Am I likely to meet Rindle?”

“Hard to say. Port’s on lockdown. Your ‘count, I s’pose. Rindle was for taking you off just a soons we did the snatch. That’s where it woulda been nice, we’d got both. Rindle coulda took one out and up, and seen ’em sold to his client. While me–I sat right here, just like I’m doin’, an’ collect money by the hour.”

“If the port’s on lock-down,” Theo pointed out; “you can’t lift, anyway.”

“Oh, we could lift, if we wanted to lift. Ain’t there, yet, is all. Just so long’s that money comes in, the client can have it their way. They stop payin’, we’ll go, sure enough, and turn another a profit on you elsewhen.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Theo asked.

“‘cause I find people to be a deal less trouble to me when they unnerstan their proper place in the transaction. This is bidness, see, girly. My priority is to get paid. Got a client paying to keep you alive. Now, you might think that gives you a certain amount o’freedom to try my patience. What you need to know is you already tried my patience–Benny, Zama, and Feecher–they was old hands. Finding replacements and trainin’ ’em up is gonna be spensive for me in a way the client’s money don’t cover. Client’s contract is we gotta keep you alive, an’, being the smart girly like you are, you’ll see right off where that gives me a good deal o’latitude in your general condition.”

“So, here’s what you need to know. The client says alive, and the ribs’re problematic. You might could do some damnfool thing and puncture a lung. So, we’re gonna hafta see you in the ship’s ‘mergency unit for a minimum patch-up. We’ll do that directly. First, though. . .”

She reached under the couch Theo was strapped to, and pulled out a pilot’s jacket.

Her pilot’s jacket, Theo saw, with outrage. She took a breath, felt a stab of pain; the room faded briefly, and came back, grey at the edges.

“See, now,” the captain said. “You don’t wanna be doing anything stupid; them ribs are cracked good. Can’t stand shoddy work, m’self. Now, this jacket, here. . .”

“My jacket,” Theo managed, her voice not steady.

“That’s right,” the captain said approvingly. “Your jacket, that the delm of Korval is gonna recognize every bit as quick as you did, just then. This jacket is gonna tell ’em not only we got you in hand, but you couldn’t stop us takin’ it offa you.”

“So, you make the delm of Korval mad, then what?” Theo asked interestedly.

The way the client tells the story, that jacket’s gonna make the delm of Korval scared, girly. The client has it as an article of faith that the delm of Korval will do anything the client says, to keep you alive.”

Theo was aware of a growing feeling of outrage, emanating from the area of bond-space. She took a breath, winced, and asked, “What happens if Korval decides not to play your client’s game?”

Improbably, the captain smiled.

“That’s a good question. The answer from the client’s side is that we send along another little teaser that you wouldna give us, if you was able to resist. Say, a hand. . .” She paused, shrugged.

“It’s been done, with a different client, unnerstan. Dunno the style of this present one, but that’s the general gist o’the thing.”

The outrage was approaching a boil.

“Calm down,” she managed to say, in bond-space. “I need to think.”

Bechimo’s anger was gone, as if he’d closed a door between them.

Theo took a careful breath, mindful of the ribs. The captain nodded.

“So, we’ll just be sending this along by courier, and while that’s getting done, Jake’ll get you set up in the ‘doc.”

The captain rose, and left.

Two minutes later, the door opened again, and here was the man with the scraped cheek and irritated eyes. Jake.

“What in space was that stuff you threw in my face?” he demanded, as he released the webbing.

“Tea,” she told him.

Tea!” He unhooked the wrist restraints from the couch, but not from around her wrists. Instead, he snapped the free ends together, to make one long leash.

“Right,” Theo said. “Bitter Truth blend. Did you like it?”

He jerked her up by the wrist restraints; she didn’t yell because she didn’t have the breath to yell with, not then, and not when he pulled her off of the pallet, onto her feet.

She might’ve fallen, but he pushed hard against her, pinning her between himself and the couch.

“Don’t be funny, girly, right? I don’t like funny.”

She got some air into her lungs, and managed to nod.

“Right,” she said.

“That’s a good girly,” he said, with a grin. “You an’ me’re gonna get on just fine.

* * *

“We have a demand letter,” Pat Rin said.

Natesa looked up from her screen.

“From. . .?”

“Take Back Surebleak, over the signature of Boss Surebleak.”

Pat Rin met her eyes.

“A touch, you must admit.”

“But I do not,” she said. “Though I will admit that it is wonderful, how having an alias to hide behind emboldens the weak of character.”

“You are harsh,” he said, and looked back to the screen.

“Boss Surebleak demands that the Council of Bosses retire Conrad, and the Road Bosses. Children and adults of Clan Korval who were not involved in the invasion and hostile takeover of Surebleak will be allowed to leave the planet. All property of Conrad, and Clan Korval will be confiscated to partially offset the damage deliberately and maliciously done to a sovereign world.”

He glanced up.

“All of this to be accomplished within the next two weeks, local.”

Natesa leaned back in her chair, frowning.

“Someone,” she said eventually, “has been tutoring Boss Surebleak.”

“It does seem so, does it not?”

Pat Rin sighed.

“I will invite the Council of Bosses and the Road Boss to a remote conference in two hours. That will give everyone time to refresh themselves, and to become familiar with the terms.”

* * *

Data flowed, building airy structures of possibility, which melted under the weight of discovered facts, or formed a core from those self-same facts and thus became, first, interesting, and then useful.

Joyita had quickly uncovered five of Teramondi’s previous flight-names–impressive work, and so Jeeves praised it to him. However, Joyita, with his captain in peril, and Bechimo chafing to act, had turned his considerable talents into other channels thought to have more to do with the present emergency.

Jeeves had once spanned a planet, and had long ago developed subroutines–an entire bureaucracy of specialized protocols. He did not have the resources to span Surebleak, thus his planetary oversight duties consumed somewhat more computing power. But the little offices, the small efficiencies, that remained untapped were more than capable of tracking Teramondi down through all nine of the names it had flown under during a fifty-eight year career.

It had come into service as small trader Light Star out of Qwensi, under the command of one Vareta Jigs, captain-trader.

Trader Jigs developed and served a modestly profitable Short Loop for most of fifteen Standards; her fortunes changing when she was boarded by pirates, who presumably spaced the crew, of whom nothing else was ever discovered.

Light Star, however, rose again within the Standard as Ysla out of Waymart. She served the grey and black markets until an error in judgment brought unwanted attention upon her, whereupon she disappeared.

And appeared again not six Standards later, with a registration bought at Edmonton Beacon, for the good ship Lalilokane.

And so it went down the years.

The ship knew hard use by her numerous serial captains. Repair records included replacing damaged pod-mounts; tuning the drive engines; replacing the Struven unit; upgrading weapons systems; hull repair–and a replacement of the internal crisis system.

Teramondi, as she had been known for the last five Standards, had the hatch switches replaced at Selig Hulls. Selig Hulls yards–the company-owned yards, that was–produced competent work. Those yards which merely paid of fee in order to display the Selig Hulls logo, among others, in their advertising, in general, produced less competent work.

Teramondi, which at that time had been Ankhor out of Waymart, no longer even brushed the hems of the light worlds. Certainly, she was unlikely to come across a certified Seilg Hull repair facility.

Nor did she.

Thus, Teramondi had a vulnerability which could be exploited from a distance.

Jeeves considered the report Joyita had forwarded to him regarding Theo Waitley’s condition. He would need to coordinate closely with Bechimo and Joyita, and also with the Pathfinders, who he understood were undertaking a rescue mission of their own devising.

Well enough, thought Jeeves. For this, the more confusion, the better. Though Bechimo insisted, and Jeeves agreed, that any action they undertook must wait until Theo Waitley had emerged from the autodoc.

* * *

Miri stirred.

“Won’t do you much good, will it?,” she asked her lifemate. “Way I heard it from the med tech, that arm’s broke pretty good; plus some cuts and bruises; not to mention the gas you got into your lungs wasn’t as nasty as it coulda been–but not by a lot.”

“I believe that we have the means at hand to remedy many of these inconveniences,” Val Con said.

The Tree, he meant. Which they’d talked about, with each other, and the Tree, too, while they were planning for this moment–or one not at all like it. There was just one problem.

“How’m I s’posed to get a pod into you, while you’re locked in an autodoc in the Port Trauma Center?”

He blinked.

“Good question.”

“That mean you don’t have a good answer?”

“I–” Val Con started–and stopped, looking up into the branches above them.

Miri heard it, too, a long rustle, getting louder, as if of some object plummeting from a height through leaf and branch. . .

She stepped back; Val Con held out a hand. The pod hit his palm with a solid smack.

One pod; and it was his. She could tell by looking at it, and so could he. Even as she watched, the thing fell into quarters in his hand.

Miri looked up into the branches.

You are an accessory to stupidity,” she told the Tree. “And besides that, this ain’t real; it’s dream-time.”

“Are we certain of that?” Val Con asked, dusting pod-shred off his fingers.

She glared at him.

“I sure went to sleep to get here.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that we are. . .only. . .dreaming.”

He took a step toward her–and hesitated, eyes narrowing.

“I’m being called back,” he said, and closed the distance between them.

The kiss was urgent; rough; then he turned away, walking quickly across the clearing to the path–and was gone.

* * *

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