Chapter Nine

THE WRONG LANCE

@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Nine

Surebleak Port

“Theo?” Bechimo sounded tentative inside her head.

“Right here,” she said.

“You were gone. . .” he said.

“They put me in a ‘doc,” she said, remembering that much. She opened her eyes, and considered the pale glow a few inches above her face. “Still there, looks like.”

“What is your condition?”

“Good question.”

She took a deep breath. Some residual ache, but no stabbing pain. The knee was sore, but nothing that would prevent her from walking, running, or even kicking, if it came to that. Her hands were stiff; experimentally, she flexed her fingers, and something heavy and slick ran across her palm.

Anger sparked.

“What is it?” Bechimo asked, sharply.

“Idiot put me into the ‘doc with the restraints on. I guess he’s not taking any chances.” She took another breath; sighed it out.

“Other than that, I’m in good enough shape. I’m going to open the lid.”

“Wait!” Bechimo said. “Theo, you must hold yourself ready. We are going to get you off of that ship. You must be ready to run, when I say the word.”

“In that case,” she said; “I’d better get this lid up.”

The strap linking her wrists wasn’t tight, but it didn’t give her much play, either. She had to move both hands more or less together, which was awkward. With a little wriggling, she was able to reach the right side of the compartment, where the release lever should have been. . .

But wasn’t.

Theo muttered, and squirmed ’round onto her back again.

Some models, she remembered, had a latch on the inside of the lid. She raised her bound hands, groping, and failed to locate a latch. A shove directly against the lid failed to pop it.

She was locked in.

“Theo, your heartbeat just spiked.”

“The lid’s locked,” she said. “I guess they don’t want me wandering around on my own. It makes sense, really. I’m in no danger.”

Good thing I don’t have claustrophobia, she thought. Her childhood best friend, Lesset, had a horror of being confined in the dark; she’d been assigned to take therapy for it. Back then, Theo had a long list of physical disabilities on file with the Safety Office, but she’d never been afraid of small spaces, or the dark.

“We will wait to act until you are at liberty,” Bechimo said. There was a pause, and he said, tentatively, “Would you like me to stay with you?”

She wasn’t afraid of the dark, Theo thought. On the other hand, it would be good to know that she wasn’t alone.

“Yes,” she said. “I’d like that a lot.”

“All right,” said Bechimo; he hesitated, and then asked, “Would you like to listen to music?”

Theo took a breath. The inside of the ‘doc hadn’t gotten any smaller, she told herself. It was just that the light had faded, a little.

“Tell me a story,” she said.

“A story?” Bechimo sounded startled. “I don’t know any stories.”

“Sure you do. Where did you go, after you’d saved yourself, and before you met Win Ton? You must’ve seen some interesting things.” She paused, and decided to risk teasing him a little.

“You didn’t stay in your safe place all the time, did you?”

“Not. . .all of the time,” Bechimo said after a moment.

There was another pause, though she could still feel his presence in bound-space.

“Well,” Bechimo said then, and his voice had something of Clarence’s lilt to it. “Now that you mention it, I do remember the time I was over near the edge of the Dust, and I happened upon another ship, like me. . .”

* * *

A chime was going off in his ear, progressively louder. Val Con opened his eyes to behold a very worried, very Terran, face above him.

“You’re healed?” said the face, sounding equal parts disbelieving and horrified.

“The machine seems to think so,” Val Con answered; “but it is prudent to be certain of these things. A moment.”

He lay still for a moment, taking stock; there was, he noticed, a lingering taste of Tree-fruit along his tongue. Other than that, he felt no pain, nor weakness in his limbs; he breathed easily, with no burning in his lungs.

Carefully, he raised his arms. The face hastily retreated, and he used the momentum of the stretch to pull himself into a sitting position.

He felt perfectly well.

“Apparently,” he said to the med tech; “I am healed.”

“But it’s hours too soon;” the tech protested. He turned away, as Val Con rolled out of the ‘doc, landing effortlessly on his feet.

The tech turned back, clutching a diagnostic pad.

“The inventory of injuries, and the projected time to heal. . .” he said, shoving the pad under Val Con’s nose.

Politely, he glanced at the screen.

“Yes, I see–a nine hour repair. How long has it been?”

“Five,” said the med tech, snatching the pad back and staring at the readout. “Five hours, and you’re completely–that’s not possible.”

“And, yet, it seems to have happened. Perhaps the machine needs recalibration.”

“I guess it does! Putting that order in right now!” His attention on the screen, he started out of the cubicle; paused and looked over his shoulder.

“Your wife sent down some clothes that don’t have blood and muck on ’em,” he said. “They’re in the press.” He paused, eyes narrowed. “Might be best if you just had something to eat in the caf, here, and stay where we can see you for the next hour. Just in case something’s really screwy with that ‘doc.”

“Thank you,” Val Con said. “I will undertake to do nothing beyond my abilities.” He thought he heard something very like Miri’s disbelieving snort at the back of his mind–gone before he could decide if it had come through the lifemate link, or was merely his supposition of her likely reaction.

The tech, meanwhile, his attention already back on the data-pad, left the cubicle.

Val Con surveyed the area, concluded that “the press” was the small mobile closet, and opened the door.

Very shortly, he was dressed in a dark, high-necked sweater; tough canvas pants; and his own boots, which would need to be cleaned, but would do for the moment. His jacket. . .there was a brush on the shelf at the top of “the press,” and he spent a few minutes applying it vigorously. Space leather was tough, and pilots tended to take pride in the scars and stains their jackets accumulated. Sticky alley scum was another thing altogether, and he was pleased that most of it yielded to the ministrations of the brush.

He checked the pockets, finding everything in its place, nothing missing; and was about to swing the jacket on when it–buzzed.

Frowning, he slipped his hand into a semi-public pocket on the inside right, and pulled out a Scout-issue close-range comm unit.

He thumbed it on.

“yos’Phelium.”

“Master Val Con, excellent,” Jeeves said, sounding positively buoyant. “We are preparing to remove Captain Waitley from her predicament aboard Teramondi. Are you in a position to assist?”

“As a matter of fact, I am. What do you have planned?”

* * *

Boss Surebleak,” Boss Schroeder snorted. “We’re s’posed to take this serious, are we?”

“Oh, I think we gotta take it serious,” Penn Kalhoon said. “Did a bit o’damage today on my streets, and the fact that we didn’t get anything more fatal than a broken arm from it wasn’t necessarily in the Boss’s plan.”

“That’s a surety,” said Melina Sherton; “assuming it’s Boss Surebleak who got them machines walking over Tapout way. They’d’ve crushed Gapton Village if we hadn’t got some friendly intervention from Captain Waitley’s comm officer.”

“Doin’ what?” asked Boss Wentworth.

“Got into the command-line and issued a stop order,” said Melina.

“Somebody’s smarter’n new snow,” said Fortunato. “How’d the machines get started up first off?”

Melina shrugged.

“Remote signal, just like what stopped ’em. There’s a set o’manual override keys, but I know where they are, an’ ain’t nobody touched ’em since the day I come Boss.”

“Remote signal,” said Boss Vine. “We got so many remote signals flyin’ around late days, there’s no sayin’ but that one of them triggered the machines, accidental.”

“Maybe,” said Melina. “I’ll hold it as a consideration. But my first inclination is to count the machines in with the rest of today’s antics. Boss Surebleak hit wide, but, what’s specially inneresting to me is that they hit the territories of the Old Bosses who threw in with Conrad.”

There was silence.

Melina looked around at the other Bosses, each in their screen.

“Well?” she said; “ain’t that so? Penn Kalhoon, me, Ira, Wentworth. An’ that’s before we get to lookin’ at the port–who got hit there?” She raised her hand, fingers extended, and folded down one with each word–“Emerald. Mack’s. Road Boss. Portmaster. Conrad and his brother; and their two biggest supporters, portside. Does that look like random to any of you?”

Boss Whitmore broke this silence.

“Gotta assume it’s all related, ’til we have more info. Trouble’s gonna be gettin’ more info before Boss Surebleak turns testy and starts up another round of zample-makin’.”

“We don’t know there hasn’t already been another round,” said Schroeder, glumly.

“I think that we would be informed, if there had been another series of attacks,” said Conrad gently. “I also think that we may expect no more attacks today. Boss Surebleak has issued demands, and a deadline by which those demands must be met. Therefore, while we may perhaps except a slowly escalating scale of small mischiefs, as the deadline comes closer, I believe that the streets are safe enough for at least the next few days.”

“So, what’s that get us?” asked Engle.

We have time to write a letter of our own. . .” Conrad frowned. “No, perhaps, we will take a notice in the newspapers, as Boss Surebleak did not include her direction in the letter.”

“A notice in the newspapers saying what?” Penn Kalhoon asked, fair brows drawn together.

“Why, stating that the Counsel of Bosses is in receipt of Boss Surebleak’s letter, and wish to discuss the list of demands with the Boss personally at the special working lunch meeting called for mid-week.”

Penn blinked.

“They’ll come in shootin’,” said Vine. “If they come at all.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps not. We can but make the effort.”

More silence, as the assembled Bosses each turned the idea over and examined it.

“It’s what we gotta do,” said Ira abruptly. “That’s what people do, they have differences; they try to work ’em out. Give a little, get a little; nobody’s happy, but everybody’s still standing. If we don’t want Surebleak took back to the way it was, then we gotta do different from the Old Bosses.”

There was a general murmur of agreement. Conrad inclined his head.

“I will draft a notice for the papers, and send it to each of you no later than tomorrow morning. Comments and suggestions may come back to me before sundown. I will place the approved notice in the papers tomorrow night, and it will run beginning in the daylight editions on the day after tomorrow.”

He glanced ’round at each face in its screen.

“Does that meet with the approval of the Council?”

Ayes were given, and Conrad stood.

“In that case, I bid you all good-day. Let us be watchful, and stay in touch. If it comes about that there is more mischief, please contact Penn Kalhoon with a detailed report. He will keep a list and share it with council members.”

That, too, gained approval, and one by one the screens went dark as the Bosses signed out of the conference.

Pat Rin sat down again with a long sigh, and met Natesa’s eyes.

“Do you intend to retire Boss Surebleak?” she asked.

He gave her a wry smile.

“No. But before you paint me with virtue, it is only because a retirement will not solve the problem. Retire one Boss Surebleak, and a second will arise, stronger than the first. We must find another way. And, also–“

He gave her a light, seated, bow.

“We need to discover who is giving Boss Surebleak her lessons.”

* * *

The story had been fascinating as much for the things Bechimo didn’t say as those that he did. And apparently the Dust was even stranger that she’d supposed it must be.

“Is that even true?” Theo asked, half-drowsily.

“Of course, it’s true!” Bechimo said, doing a really good job of sounding outraged at this impugning of his honor. “I cannot lie.”

She laughed.

“I might’ve believed you if you hadn’t added that.”

“Truly?”

“Truly. Ask yourself if Clarence would’ve ever said that.”

“He would–he has! He places his hand over his heart, and–“

Theo laughed again, remembering.

“He does, doesn’t he? And manages to look offended and coy at the same time, too!”

“Perhaps there is a tone of voice that is both offended and coy,” Bechimo said. “I will research the problem.”

“You do that,” she said cordially. “I want to hear it when you–“

The ‘doc was flooded with brilliant light; Theo reflexively threw up one hand to shield her eyes, the binders tangled briefly, and she hit herself in the nose.

Blinded by the light, she heard a grating noise, felt the movement of air against her face; started to sit up–

And was slammed back on to the pallet.

The breath left her lungs in a shout, and a hand came down hard over her mouth.

“Miss me, Blondie?” said the unwelcome voice of Jake, with the scraped cheek and the red eyes.

Theo bit his thumb.

He swore, slapped her face with the wounded hand and twisted the binding cord in his other hand, jerking her arms over her head.

Theo grit her teeth; her eyes were still dazzled, but she could make out a dark shape leaning close above her, feel his breath, coming fast, against her face.

“So, you liked bein’ left alone in the dark, didja? We’ll see if we can’t put you back, after we have some fun.”

He tightened the cord; she gasped, and tried to twist.

“That’s right; I like a feisty girl,” Jake said, and jerked her sweater up, his fingers closing over her breast like a vise.

Distantly, she was aware of Bechimo’s fury; a paltry flame against her own bonfire of outrage.

Jake was leaning over her, his weight on the pallet, controlling her by keeping the cord taut. She had to move before he brought his weight into play.

“How ’bout a kiss for lettin’ you outta the dark?”

His mouth came down on hers; tongue invading–and his grip on the cord slackened, just enough.

Theo twisted, got her legs up and kicked.

It wasn’t a solid hit, but it knocked him back–and he dropped the cord.

“Why, you little bitch.”

She heard the snap of a flip-knife opening, and kicked again, knocking him back, using the momentum to snap upright, both fists before her, and punching as hard as she could.

There was a snap, like a piece of plastic breaking. Theo kicked a third time and rolled out of the ‘doc, landing awkwardly, one foot skidding on– Her eyes were mostly clear now, and she could see that she’d skidded on the flip-knife.

Jake. . .

Jake was down, his neck at a bad angle.

The door to the alcove snapped open.

Theo swooped, snatched up the knife, and came up into a crouch, hands close.

Framed in the doorway, the captain gave her a nod.

“You’re no end spensive, ain’t you, girly?”

“He was–” Theo begin–and stopped when the captain moved her hand in a sharp abort!

“I seen it. Din’t say I blamed you, but I’m getting’ low on crew.”

She paused, squinting.

“Normal times, you’d earnt that knife, but you ain’t crew; and times ain’t normal. I can take it away from you–an’ I can take it away from you–or you can slide it over here, polite-like.”

“Theo. . .” Bechimo said in bond-space. “Do not risk yourself.”

But Theo had already bent over to send the knife skittering over the decking.

“Smart girl.”

The captain picked up the knife and tucked it into her belt. Straightening, she nodded at what was left of Jake.

“Place wants tidying. You stay right there, an’ I’ll send Lyn down to supervise that.”

* * *

“Now,” said Chernak, and swung out into the row of ships, walking briskly, satchel in hand. Stost, at her side, was similarly attired in coveralls with MACK’S stitched onto the right breast. He wore a tool belt.

The coveralls were Andy Mack’s contribution to pay-back, as he had it, and, with sleeves rolled and legs tucked into boots, could be made to look as if they fit.

So, two of Mack’s repair techs on their way to a job, tool-belts jingling.

“Do you wish them to hear us coming, my Stost?” Chernak asked.

“In the usual way of things, Elder, would repair techs not walk hard, tools ringing?”

She considered that, and altered her own gait until her bootheels hit the ‘crete smartly.

“You are correct,” she said.

This was fully for the benefit of those who they might meet in the short walk down to the pad where Teramondi sat, outwardly innocent.

Teramondi’s sensors, as well as the sensors of all the other ships in this row, and the port’s own sensors–failed to record their passage. This was Joyita’s doing, with assistance from Clarence. But even they could not override the sensors for long. Soon or late, someone would note that the feed was blank, and try to reboot.

Best they were done and well-away before that occurred.

They arrived at the correct pad, swung under the gantry, and were immediately invisible.

* * *

Val Con finished his tea, carried the cup to the washer, and left the caf by the side door. It was a crisp afternoon, naturally enough, and the Trauma Center had been very warm, by Surebleak standards. He finished with the underarm pocket, sealed the jacket, turned the collar up and pulled on the gloves he had stowed in the cargo pockets. That done, he tucked his hands in those same pockets, and leaned against the wall, waiting.

He let his attention touch the song that was Miri–the manifestation of the lifemate link–and allowed it to soothe him.

Miri was not happy with the plan, which, truthfully, could scarcely be dignified by the word. At the moment, they stood very much at a disadvantage, forced to react to their opponent’s moves, rather than setting the tempo themselves. That, of course, would need to change, but first, the board must be cleared of unnecessary pieces. Theo, for instance, was not meant to have been in the game at all.

That she had been taken, and held at the whim of the Department–was, he admitted to himself–horrifying. And while he was reasonably certain that there was no agent of the DOI on Teramondi at the moment, he was far less certain that this would continue to be the case.

Thus, an immediate extraction was called for.

The odds of that succeeding were very good, indeed, he noted. The follow–well, there. They were forced to dance to a tune of another’s choosing, and for the follow, he was reduced to. . .hope.

A sound from the real world intruded upon his thoughts–a low, growling purr, moving up the street toward his place against the wall.

He opened his eyes and straightened as the duocycle gently rounded the corner, and nosed in to park against the wall.

A figure in space leather swung out of the saddle, landing somewhat unsteadily, and stood for a moment, hand on the bar, until she had her balance back.

Val Con moved forward, and the Scout looked up, her face grim and weary.

“Long shift?” Val Con asked her, in Comrade mode.

She grimaced.

“I’ve done longer, though not while dodging stones and sticks and garbage,” she said. “The portmaster has us on short circuits, to diminish the opportunity for malice to spring up between sweeps. Not a bad plan, on the face of it. However, knowing the timing and the route does provide occasion for merriment among the ne’er-do-wells.”

“Riots?”

“I judge not. Just the local bad element having a bit of fun at our expense.”

“Ah.”

He used his chin to point at the cycle.

“It happens I have business down-port. May I borrow that?”

She considered him frankly.

“You are the reason I was ordered to break route at the Trauma Center for tea and a rest period, aren’t you?”

He smiled.

“Yes.”

She nodded, and turned toward the cycle.

“An innovation, perhaps, since the last time you rode.”

She pointed at a lever set at the joining of the handlebars.

“Turn that as far as it will go to the left and the machine will produce a nerve-shattering roar, which even the local bad element are inclined to take seriously. Nudge it up just a mark, and the cycle produces that delightful low growl that alerted you to my presence.”

“Yes, thank you; that is a new feature.”

“Also,” the Scout said; “the tires are Surebleak weight, for more traction in snow and ice.”

She looked back to him, and moved her shoulders.

“Other than that, it’s the same design you and I stealthily borrowed from the academy’s inventory in order to go joy-riding ’round Solcintra Port.”

“Excellent,” he said; “I have fond memories.”

“As I do.”

She gave him a brief nod.

“If you wish to enjoy the ride, avoid the old refinery section. There are quite a number of ne’er-do-wells congregated there, and their target is the cycle. Rider down is plainly their goal.”

“I will be careful,” he said, softly.

She laughed.

“I believe you.”

He watched her open the door and enter the caf before he swung up into the saddle and kicked the starter.

* * *

Theo was on her knees on the cold decking, cleaning out Jake’s pockets, while Lyn leaned against the wall, stun-gun out, watching.

Jake hadn’t been a pilot, but his jacket had just as many pockets, and then there were more in his pants. Mostly, he had money–not much of any one kind, but at least a dozen different currencies, including Surebleak cash.

He also had a complete set of finger-knives, a tin of vya, another tin of, according to the label across the top, All Fine, six flats of brightly colored pills, a smoke bomb, and a thumb-gun.

Among other things.

Theo finally sat back on her heels, and used both hands to push her hair out of her face.

“I think that’s everything,” she said.

Lyn shook her head.

“Had a couple necklaces he always wore; an’ the belt’s got some kinda trick to it,” said Lyn, not moving.

Theo sighed, reached for Jake’s shirt and unsealed it.

Three chains in three different metals around his neck; a leather bracelet with a name burned into it–Sal Zar ter’Eazon–the belt, all required some persuasion, but at last Theo sat back on her heels.

“Anything else?” she asked.

Lyn peered in to the box.

“Gods, he was still wearin’ that thing?” she muttered, and looked up.

“That piece o’space leather, there, tells you everything you need to know about Jake. Killed a pilot–first kill, the way he tol’ the story. An’ he made him a bracelet outta the jacket, with the name on.”

Shaking her head, she eased back against the wall.

“People pay good money for spaceleather, ‘specially the jackets. Don’t matter it’s some scratches or stains–space! some’d pay more for the damage. Coulda sold it for upwards of a cantra, all he hadda do was be patient and pick his port.” She shook her head in disgust.

“Not Jake, though. No, ma’am. He’d rather have that victory bracelet to prop up his legend.”

She snorted.

Legend. Somebody shoulda wasted his legend long years ago.”

Theo didn’t say anything, but Lyn looked at her hard.

“Don’t be getting any ideas like I’m owing you. We don’t play by them rules.”

“‘course not,” Theo said mildly. “Is that everything, now?”

“Don’t see nothing not there that oughta be,” Lyn said; “an’ you hit every pocket I could see.”

She straightened up and jerked the stun-gun at Theo.

“On your feet and grab aholt, there, girly. Jake’s going down to the ‘cycler, where he’ll finally be doin’ some good.”

#

Theo’s ribs were aching by the time she got Jake to the recycling room, and she straightened slowly, taking a couple of deep breaths.

“You need to rest,” Bechimo told her.

“What’s the hold-up?” Lyn snapped.

“Taking a breather,” she said, keeping her voice mild.

“You can get your breather after you get Jake situated.”

Theo held up her hands, showing the cord that bound them together.

“Can I get some help? Maybe you could take off the bindings?”

Lyn shifted, showing the stun-gun.

“Or maybe you could stop stalling and get the job done? It’ll be tougher after you come up from bein’ stunned, but if you’re workin’ the challenge level, I’ll help you, sure.”

Theo counted to twelve, which didn’t do anything at all for her temper, and visibly increased Lyn’s irritation.

“I can’t operate the mechanism with my hands bound like this,” Theo said. “That’s just a fact, and it won’t change, no matter how many times you stun me.”

She waited, already feeling the bolt crackle along her nerve endings.

Lyn huffed, reached into her pouch and jerked her head.

“Come over here and hold out your arms.”

Theo stepped forward.

“That’s close enough!”

“Right.” She extended her hands.

Lyn raised a little device that was barely any bigger than her thumb, and pressed it.

There was a slight sigh, and the binders fell from Theo’s wrists.

“Thanks,” she said.

“You’re on borrowed time, girly, and the minute Jake’s took care of, it’s going back on, right?”

“Right,” muttered Theo, turning toward the recycling unit.

THUMP

“What the–” yelled Lyn, spinning around toward the door, stun-gun ready, like she’d fire at the next noise.

“Theo,” Bechimo said inside her head. “You must go now to the nearest exit. It will be open.”

“Which will be open?” she demanded, stepping around Jake’s body.

“All of them.”<

“Right,” she said aloud.

Lyn turned.

“Get away from me, girly,” she snarled,raising the stun-gun.

Theo socked her in the jaw.

* * *

THUMP.

On her way to the bridge, Captain Lisle staggered, straightened, and broke into a run.

“All hands, all hands!” Ruzo’s voice came over the intercom. “We have a breach. Repeat, the hull has been breached!”

She hit the wall-switch.

“Lisle. Details.”

“Captain. Hull breached at four pressure points, internal and external.”

“Recording?”

“Camera’s dead,” Ruzo said.

Lisle swore.

A gentle bong sounded in over the speaker, reverberating slightly. The door on the tool station next to the intercom silently open.

“Breach!” Ruzo snapped again. “All hatches open!”

“What!” Lisle stared down a hall lined with open doors–utility stations, the door to the galley; the door to her own stateroom. . .

“Interior hatches?” she asked Ruzo.

“Negative–all,” came the reply; then–

“Visitor at the main hatch,” she said, just as the annunciator sounded.

Captain Lisle turned and ran toward the main hatchway.

* * *

Chernak pressed the annunciator button once more and settled comfortably at a slight angle to the hatch. She had not taken cover, but she was not precisely where she would be expected to be, and that was all the advantage she needed, should the person who eventually arrived from inside the ship fire before thinking.

There came from within the sound of hasty feet, and a well-grown woman of the sort called Terran rounded the corner and approached the hatch.

She slowed, gun in hand, and–stopped, just inside the open hatchway.

To her credit, she did not fire.

In fact, she froze, looking at Chernak’s face, her own gone pale.

“Soldier,” she croaked.

“My reputation proceeds; it is well,” said Chernak affably. “Surrender your weapon.”

She was obeyed without hesitation, which was interesting, Chernak thought. According to the records Joyita had found, this woman did not surrender easily.

Chernak took the offered weapon by its butt, and slid it away into a pocket. There was a slight tremor under her boots, and Stost arrived on the gantry at her side.

“Star hammer!” he cried, brandishing that tool in both hands.

Chernak smiled.

“Do you claim it as a prize? Kara will be pleased.”

“Put that down!” snapped Captain Lisle. “I gave my gun to this soldier; I’m unarmed!”

There was a moment of silence before Stost hefted the hammer, grinning like the fool he was not.

“As I am!” he said jovially. “Shall we try, unarmed, each against the other?”

* * *

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