Shadow of Artemia: Chapter Three

Shadow of Artemia
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Three
Cinder City

Jeni ba’Fasholt, whose name on this new world was Jen Nondorean, had been trained as a medic, in the latter times, when the Temple school taught boys useful skills so that they might better serve their future wives.

He was Lomar’s second husband, after Terbus, as all of her husbands were after Terbus. Years ago, when they had all three been young together, living cramped and content in the quarters above the modest trade office at the edge of Dayanport, he had contributed to their prosperity by making himself available as a medic-on-call. Lomar had approved this, not only because he was paid for his work, but because it allowed him to be useful to others, and also because he heard things during the course of his work. Even then, women would often forget that men had ears, or memories. He would bring that gossip home and share it with his Wife and brother-husband over the evening meal. Several times, so Lomar had told him, his tidbits had assisted her in making a good buy, or in selling shrewdly.

He’d eventually had to give up his service, not because Lomar had forbidden it, but because it was no longer safe for a man to travel by himself on the streets.

On this world Ember, however, he could walk the streets unescorted. He carried a pistol, of course, Lomar and Terbus having insisted years ago that he become proficient with the weapon. But other than that commonsense protection, he was free as he had not been free for . . . years.

In fact, he was free to volunteer at the clinic several blocks from their new home, and once again use his skills to benefit those in need. He went, of course, with Lomar’s blessing, for he did not reckon himself free of her authority as his Wife. A man needed a Wife, so the Temple taught, to guide him and to shield him from error. In his life, Jeni had found that to be more, rather than less true.

The clinic today was crowded. A high velocity neuramindic virus had arrived in the crowded streets outside the port, perhaps carried in by a crewman or other outworlder, who had ventured into the city in search of the exotic or the strange.

A week back, they thought they’d seen the last of it, then, just two days ago, there had been an explosion of cases. That taught them something about the incubation period, said Head Medic Cerella, and it also taught them something about vectors.

Whether it also taught them something about mutation rates remained to be seen.

Jeni had worked a long shift yesterday, and come in early today, supposedly his off-day. No one at the clinic objected to his presence; he was merely given a file of cases, and left alone to do what needed to be done.

At mid-morning, he felt the comm in his pocket vibrate, but he was with a patient. At mid-afternoon, he came to an end of the morning file, and decided to rest before picking up another. He stripped off gloves, mask, apron, tapped his leg pocket to be sure of his portable kit, and stepped out the side door into the small alley staff used as a respite zone.

Which was how he came to see them–two fell women in dark robes, silver badges on their breasts, moving with deliberate steps toward the main clinic door.

Jeni drew back into the small courtyard, recalling that tiny vibration in his pocket, now hours ago. He slipped his hand into his pocket for the comm.

There on the small screen, one word: Go

Jeni took a breath, and slid the comm away.

He didn’t have much time: The Sister Hunters would ask at the intake desk; the receptionist would access the database, find he’d signed in. They would call for him to come to the desk.

If he was going to go, he had best go now. Terbus . . .

But Terbus had made his own arrangements, surely, just as Jeni and the rest had made theirs–in secret, so that if one or more were taken up, they could not betray the others, though their memories were peeled, layer by layer, until they forgot even themselves.

There was a wire fence at the far end of the alleyway; not difficult for even a man who was no longer young to climb. The hunting pair would find it, of course, but first, they had to be certain he was not in the clinic; then they would check the street, then the alleyway.

He moved, squeezing behind the trash compactor, and a moment later went over the fence.

The alley on the other side was vacant when he dropped into it, though there might be eyes at the windows of the apartment houses on either side. It didn’t matter.

Jeni walked to the end of the alley, and turned left, away from the port, away from Lomar, away from their apartment.

Toward the tenements where the virus had taken hold, and people who would find him useful.

* * *

“We have our certifications, yes, Mistress,” the large man with the gentle eyes brought the requested documents from the pouch on his belt. His companion, less large, his gentleness tinged with what was perhaps shyness, likewise brought forth a set of documents, and placed them on the desk before her.

Mistress Cohlena of Cohlena’s Camp of the Arts Courteous made a show of checking the documents, but she had no need. She remembered this pair of applicants very clearly. Very few men applied for positions with the camp; fewer still scored in the ninetieth percentile of empathy. Both had provided good references from an off-world service, which had checked out admirably. They knew children; they knew how to be firm; they knew how to be kind; they knew when to be stern.

And their manners were impeccable.

They would, Mistress Cohlena had no doubt, be an asset to the camp, the curriculum, the students–and perhaps even their colleagues.

“Very well,” she said, passing the documents back. “We have a class forming this evening. There is a place for two observer-apprentices. After you have been through one camp session, then we will sit down and assess whether you wish to move into full-time positions with us. Is this acceptable?”

“Yes, Mistress,” said the smaller one, who was called Karaman.

“May we,” asked the larger one, Aramis, with a soft, sweet smile, “join the camp now?”

“Certainly, if you have no other business on port,” she said. “Once you are registered, you may not leave until camp is over.”

“Yes, Mistress,” said Karaman. “We have no other business on port.”

“In that case . . .” She pressed a button on her desk. “Wiskin will guide you to the common room, and introduce you to the registrar.”

They smiled and nodded, and Wiskin arrived to bear them away into the private heart of the camp.

Mistress Cohlena smiled and went back to her work, looking up when a shadow passed over her window, hoping, as all natives of Ember eternally hoped, for a storm.

But it was only a tall woman in a dark robe walking slowly past the office; her shadow momentarily stealing the light.

* * *

“Running like rabbits,” Sleak muttered. “We should fight!”

Aster sighed, sharply.

“Fight a Hunting Pair of Artemia?” she said, craning to see the nearest screen. She didn’t want to miss their stop. “Yes, that will preserve us, as Mother wished!”

“The housemother has scarcely preserved us,” Sleak shot back, and Aster’s hand twitched with the desire to slap him. If she were honest, which she tried always to be, Sleak had a point, no matter how bitterly made. But Mother never struck the husbands. Never. What else could she do but emulate her, standing as she did in Mother’s place, with the safety of the two youngest husbands in her hands?

“I think you could show a little kindness for the housemother,” Nathin said softly. “After all, we are in this stew because of you.”

That was also a point, Aster admitted, though she would not herself have dared to say so to Sleak.

Sleak, though, had a fondness for Nathin which, unlike any fondness he may have felt for his Wife–or his Wife’s daughter–had survived his recent tragedy.

“You are correct, little brother,” he said, as the train began to slow. “I am the cause of this entire affair.”

“Come,” Aster said, rising, and gathering her travel case to her with one hand. She grabbed Nathin’s shoulder with the other, and pulled him up beside her.

He straightened, the strap of his duffel over the opposite shoulder.

On Nathin’s far side, Sleak rose, boneless as a cat, his ruined face as smooth as an acolyte’s, mandolin case slung against his back, travel bag in his left hand.

The door squeaked as it opened, and Aster hustled them out into the heat of midday.

They were in the rough end of the port, ringed by warehouses, where the working ships slept out their well-earned rests. Far down the avenue formed by the sleeping ships, quite near to the shuttle pad, Aster could see what had once, perhaps, been a bright yellow pavilion, but which was now only a sort of dusty umber.

The legend that rippled across the top of the pavilion, though, that was bright and fearless and easy to read.

“Visitors League?” Nathin asked.

“Yes,” Aster answered, increasing her pace, as if the tent would fold and the League steal off before they could arrive to claim their places.

“The pair of you have been saying forever that you wanted to travel and see the universe,” she said, sending a stern glance first into Nathin’s face, and then into Sleak’s.

Neither said anything. Nathin bowed his head slightly, in pretty respect, but Sleak met her eye firmly, and gave one sharp downward jerk of his chin, unmannerly agreement.

“Fine, then,” she said, and pulled the tickets from the inside pocket of her jacket. She handed one to each, saying, “Do not lose these. And remember that we are Aster, Nathin, and Sleak Medier–sister and brothers.”

Nathin actually stopped, his mouth hanging open in shock.

Aster kept walking, though she turned to wave at him to catch up. She pretended not to hear Sleak, who was keeping pace at her right side–and laughing.


Shadow of Artemia: Chapter Four

* * *

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