Brunner nearly fell over Trina as he made the turn into the weather room. She was backing out and he was looking more at the packages in his hands than at anything else.
“Hmph…hello. Pardons, please. I didn’t see you…”
“Yes, and I also didn’t see you. Fewer things are your fault than you would have the world believe, Ichliad.”
“That we will not discuss. I will tell you I was looking at the packages…data tapes from the surface.”
“And not expecting me to be approaching best side forward!”
“Yes. How would I expect that? It has not been so easy to see you for awhile.”
“You have seen far more of me in the last few days than you have in the rest of our time here,” she chided gently, “and I do not suggest its all my idea. Yet I was looking for you. I thought I might debrief you.”
” I don’t have the information yet. It’s here.”
He tapped the packages.
“Would you like to watch?”
She bowed a careful bow, then ‘smiled.
“Its true about Liadens…they can have your heart’s
desire, but if you don’t ask, they won’t TELL you. Besides, we
need other information not in the packages. Tell me about the people you spoke with…”He did so as they entered the workroom, going as far as to tell her of the difficulty with melant’i he’d encountered with the woman.
“It is unfortunate” Ichliad Brunner was saying “that we haven’t been able to calibrate the equipment being used. I understand that it is of good quality. Yet if we KNEW that the five different units read within the same half percent it would help.”
Trina was watching the weather simulation screen with some interest, letting the topic of the people go for the moment. Brunner hardly noticed: his vocation was upon him like a shadow.
On the screen was the weather at Point 478 as they had recorded it.
“Look. Here was our projection, and here …” he said touching a switch, is what happened over the next three hours or so.”
The projection, in blues and greens, went one way slowly, while the actual weather system picked up speed, moving ever more rapidly in another direction.
” Now. Here is with the local conditions added in.”
The simulation of the actual weather showed more detail: the clouds were thicker it seemed in one section, and there was clear spot elsewhere that hadn’t been in the first simulation.
“This is the projection with the rest of this data–and the data I got from your report of yesterday–added in.”
For a few moments the two images were as one. Then a slow sidewise drift seemed to hit the projection and it pivoted its way around a mountain side.
” Can you study the difference between the prediction and the …”
” It is done daily,” he said tonelessly as he watched the
“Yes. Of course. I didn’t mean…”
“Forgotten. Tell me what you see, please?”
“It looks like the projection was off because of a wind or something, like it got blown off course…”
“Yes.” He agreed with animation. “Wrong question answered.”
“I see.” She paused for a moment and then continued. “Is
“To use resources best, yes. This current information base will change randomly?”
Neither spoke for a moment: on the screen Brunner set up
Finally: “Not random, Ichliad. Either a wise command or a weak plan by the Domain of Inch. Perhaps both. The groups are getting accustomed to the weather problems. They are learning to cope. None of them is in an attack position, though these three spots here: she pointed to the simulation currently on the screen, might be advance bases for a local march.”
He nodded as he fiddled with controls a moment more. Then, turning to look at her carefully, he said a word in Terran.
” Just guessing, my friend? Ah, Liadens…yes. But. But. But I don’t think they will march. I think this is designed draw attention while arrangements are made. I don7t think it wise to attack a border area with the entire countryside not yet mobilized. I expect a strike at any of a dozen targets. I also
shortly. You may well have sensors stretching from the Domain all the way across the sea and into the northern cap. “
” I can arrange daily contact. Direct contact. This will help me predict the weather. Will it help you?.” This was said quietly, and without inflection.
We cannot be seen as allies of either side, my friend” said the woman.
” I will have my information, Trina. It is closer to me now than before. Who knows where a key i to be found?”
” Who indeed? I cannot stop you from cooperating with anyone who offers information. It may even be necessary. I too want the information. A puzzle to solve…a truth, maybe.”
She watched the screen as the weather prediction churned on, running by program and now bearing little relationship to any of the real events…
” You will send information then? As well as receive it?”
” How else? Twice daily, an update on a general band; four times daily, updates on five areas–they have five units capable of the required measurements and broadcasting– and as required, but no more than a dozen per day, mind, for one unit.”
He was silent a moment now as he copied the information in the files for her.
” Why only one Ichliad?”
” I am not staffed to predict for a war. We already do hourlys automatically to four tightcast locations…more than that–two for each side–and I don’t think we will be considered either neutral or desirable. So, one field unit, We’ll call this a third side.”
Trina said nothing for a moment, watching the storm sequence on the screen to flow off the edge of the field of vision, as if it now dripped onto the floor.
” I’ll be able to give you some intercepts as well. That is good.”
” So it will be then. I will tell the Commander Lizzardi
that it shall be one of her units. The one with the Liaden handling the equipment.”
Trina laughed quietly.
” Right. I didn’t realize your joke, my friend. Three sides to anything…the right side, the wrong side, and the Liaden side.”
” If a choice needs be made, it should satisfy someone. This choice satisfies me.”
” Of course. I would consider favorably sharing some time
later, my friend. I must go.”
He bowed back. A bow with implicit request.
” I would like that very much. Better,too, if we might wake up together…”.
” I also. Perhaps the bell will be silent tonight.”
” Another problem solved” Miri said out loud as she saw the
arriving replacements. Paulia was among them, as was the fickle
” What’s that Sarge?”
” Nothing Joey…nothing at all. Just noticing that we have
local transport this time.”
“Yeah. Great, huh?”
” Sure. Least it’s not horses…”.
Joey didn’t answer that one as the noisy trucks pulled up to
the pennant pole where Miri waited.
” Look! It’s SKEL!” Joey called out.” How’d he get here?”
It was Skel, and he was ,in a manner of speaking, driving
one of the odd vehicles.
” End of the line” he yelled out at the top of his voice,
“unless you got round trip fares’,”
Miri found herself grinning.
It was Skel alright. It really was.
…and so it was that I found out that that Aus guy was shipping out, and I knew that the Lunatics were gone already, and so I kinda got myself a personal service contract with Rolf. Told him that if we got where he was going and the Lunatics weren’t there I’d just regular up with him for the action…”
He stopped a moment now, fighting the strange needs of the vehicle. The transmission was totally mechanical, as were all of
the controls. The machine didn’t like climbing hills. it didn’t
like going down them or up them.
Actually it seemed best suited to sitting still, thought Miri. She was sore from the one way trip and wondered how well the guards and drivers had come through the so far on the round-trip.
“…and it was easy, really. I mean, I know the signs. 6o when my brother started on how it was ‘So Good Of Me To Come’ and how he ‘ Hoped You’ve Finally Decided To Settle Down, I Can Find Work For You Here….” took me about three shifts to decide that I really couldn’t do it…”
…one of those jobs where you sit watching a monitor all day long and if you see an intruder you gotta call in the local police force. I mean why couldn’t I go down and just shoot’em or throw em out? But no that’s not the it works there…”
Miri leaned against the door of the truck, eyes on Skel. The Aus called him scrawny…but they called everyone scrawny, or worse. Skel was like the rest of the universe: taller than Miri by at least a half head. His arms were as free of fat as the rest of his body. He wasn’t muscular in the body-sculpting sense but was close to having that kind of strength.
” Skel,” she asked him when he took a breath. ” why aren’t you a Captain? I mean, what are you this trip? Acting Corporal?”
” Common Miri. What would I want to be Captain for? Just make me more of a target. No , not Captain. Actually, on the chain of command I think they put me a little ahead of you, except all by myself. I’m Courier Class Five.”
Miri laughed now.
” Last I looked you could only get to Class Four as Courier, boss.”
The truck found it’s way to the top of the hill, started wending its way down another steep incline….
” Really Miri. I am. Courier Class Five. Means I have to try to do for transport what Joey does for weapons. Recognize it figure it out, see if we should use it. That’s why I’m driving this trip…”
” But you oughta be in charge of something….”.
” I am. Me. Take it light on me, huh? You sound like my brother. Well. Almost. “
She didn’t say anything.. He broke the sudden silence.
“Aw Miri, I wasn’t yelling at you. It’s just that…I can’t do it. I tried before you ever joined up. I was Sergeant. I was even a brevet Lieutenant once….but it won’t stick. I’m just not cut that way.”
I hear you, soldier.” she said. ” I said the same thing about me, too.”
” Yeah. Well. But see, you, you’re young enough to learn. I’m not cut out to learn at my age. Falling apart, body and soul.”
She didn’t bother to stifle the the laugh.
” Not that body.”
He looked hurt.
“You ain’t seen this body in…months. Maybe years. It’s getting old, kid.””
” I hear you boss. I hear you. “
” No really. I can prove it!”
” Hell, it was OLD the first time I saw it…”
” Now that’s not true. I was only…when was that?”
Skel, how long could it be? I’ve been with the Lunatics since…well, that was local years. Just about five standards now. “
” So that means you’re pushing about 25 standards. Me? I’m older than that. I was 25 when I joined up more’n 17 standards ago…”.
“Um ….Skel? Who says I’m about 25?”
Miri had to wait for his answer as he wrestled once more with the controls, producing a strange grinding noise from within the chassis.
” Stands to logic, kid. You certainly can’t be 30 yet, and maybe you’re 24…”.
” Yeah. Well guess you might think that. Now Heathrow is old, wouldn’t you say? He’s at least 50 I think….”
” Miri. You trying to hold something back on ol’ Skel now. How old are you. If you don’t mind me asking? You know I don’t go round bragging on confidences. It really don’t matter to me if you are 30, or even 35. You’re Miri, that’s all.”
She choked back a half-laugh.
” Skel, I’m, oh damn…. I’m about …well, a little shy yet, of
standards, I’d say.”
” That won’t fadge Miri! That’ve meant you’d have been say 15 standard– or less if you’re shy of 20 now–the first time we ever messed around for a night.”
” Yeah. I know. That’s about right.”
There was a silence. Miri took the opportunity to look out on the sudden view: mountains ahead, to the right and left a long green covered valley, and in the bottom of the valley a straight, deep-flowing river.
” Come on kid. I mean, you wouldn’t have been legal…least not where I come from. I’m no Joey…”.
They both laughed.
“No,you’re no Joey. That’s sure. And I like you Skel, always have. But I come from Surebleak.
” Yeah. Well. Born there, I was. Grew up there, too. Li., had a place there–you know that–she used it sometimes when she was waiting for multi-unit mixes to get together. She’ knew my mother…and Robertson too. Skel, didn’t I 4ver tell you this stuff?”
” On the kynak, Miri. Not once. None of it.”
” No. Guess not. Anyhow, that’s it. Liz got me a chance to get off world. So I got.”
” Ho. That’s it? And then sweet tiny Miri took the whole command by storm. And you were so quick. And you killed that idiot what’s his name ?”
” Malter. Corporal Malter. ” she supplied the name, barely recalled the incident though. It hadn’t been the first time someone had assumed such a small person was defenseless.
” And I got you drunk and you took me back with you because you were still shaking.”
“I was going to leave you at the door, Skel. I really was.
The idiot had been demanding part of my rations, and I’d thought I was out of all that. And he pushed me. Pulled a goddam stunner on me.
” I was still scared Skel, and it just seemed a good thing.
No it was a good thing, to have a friend. You’re hardly old at
” My pleasure. Do it again, too. But damn, Miri, I mean you took it so good, really. It’s one thing when you’re fighting a war. But this guy…you did the right thing. You had to fight back..but you know that.”
” Yeah. Seems like it keeps happening to me. You heard about Brum?”
The truck rumbled on a few moments.
” I took her in irons to the transshipment point. She and a bunch of cargo are waiting for a couple of weeks to C40 someplace else.” She shouldn’t pulled such a stupid thing. If I was there I’d have shot her in the back–combat soled shoes!”
” No, Skel. You wouldn’t have. Happened pretty fast. Hmmm. Maybe you would have. You always see what’s really happening.” ” Not if you weren’t fifteen standards yet.”
” Let go Skel. Not important. You were important. I came
off of Surebleak. I’d already ki..already been in some tough spots. J didn’t act like the kids on the high class planets. Besides, I didn’t give you much of a _choice, I think.”
He laughed this time.
“Always can say no, Miri. Always have that choice when it comes to sharing joy…but I’ve always had a weakness for redheads.”
“Always had a weakness for joy, you mean,” she said
” Camp coming up. Look smart: now you’re the expert on the territory!”
” You ignoring me?” she asked as he shifted through the gears one last time.”
” Naw, Miri. Just don’t have a good answer to that one that’s all.”
” All out!” he yelled as the truck came to skidding halt.”All out…”.
Her troops were finally situated. Miri walked slowly around the perimeter of thier camp, trying to decide what was bothering her. It wasn’t the ache: that was still with her and she knew it for what it was.
No something about the camp.
To begin with it seemed odd that Heathrow was in charge tonight and that she’d been scheduled to see Liz the following afternoon. Still, she didn’t know everything. Perhaps there were pressing things calling on Liz’s time.
Something else tickled at the back of her mind.
The camp itself wasn’t substantially changed from the day they’d dropped. The roads were plainer now from use, as were the paths around the camp: that was natural. The quarters were now defended by earthworks, but that would have happened anyway; it was nearly automatic to put walls up.
Ah. That was it. There weren’t earthworks elsewhere: just around the quarters.
Anyone watching might assume that the Lunatics were digging in for a long stay, making things permanent. Instead it could be torn down in less than an hour. The earthworks were to make give the soldiers something to do. Until they moved . Which might be anytime.
” Damn.” Miri said softly and without conviction. For good measure she added several other expletives, none with force behind them.
Her “weather machine” was operating: she was rereading the manual for the third or fourth time, and still feeling as if she were missing some important instruction that would, by itself, cure the equipment of it’s inaccuracy.
The wind had turned colder: that’s what had inspired her to check the equipment in the first place. Now the reading was for snow. The sky was slightly cloudy; what clouds there were seemed bent on a u-turn slightly to the west of the camp.
Bent to her task, Miri didn’t notice the meaning of time every five minutes she took a new reading, compared it with the one before, compared the forecasts…
Now the sky was turning darker, and with it, her mood. The wind whipped in from the east solidly now. The clouds swept past at higher speeds, getting denser.
Now the forecast was for rain. Lots of rain.
The wind shifted again. With it came a few quick drops of rain and an obsessionally snowflake. Then just a blustery breeze: the drops stopped coming.
BOOM! Came the thunder from overhead.
As if aimed at the camp came the rain. One moment nothing, the next a heavy pouring, drenching torrent.
Miri leaned into the equipment. it at least, was waterproof. The sound was deafening and the flash of lightning repeatedly slashed at the pale late afternoon.
Then, a touch on her shoulder.
A dark form leaned into her in the rain she couldn’t
recognize at first.
” ..fool stunt is this, dammit Miri? Come on with me…”. She made nodding Motions, quickly shut the equipment down. She stood, felt a hand unexpectedly on her own.
” Skel?” Now she could see who it was.
He pulled on her hand and she followed , hand above her eyes to ward off the stinging rain.
The noise was a distant beat suddenly; she nearly fell into the relative silence of the room.
“What were you trying to do!” He was yelling.” Look at you!”
She looked down and began laughing: “I got wet, Skel!”
” Wet behind the ears, dammit. I’,m likely to believe that story of yours…here!”
He handed her a blanket and a towel.
” Get in there and get dry. Can’t imagine what your troops will think about a Sargent not smart enough to get out of the rain.! Ought to …dunno. “
He was pointing to the back section of his quarters.
” Look at you ! You’re as wet as me…”.
She took the towel in her hand, knocked his cap to the
ground with it, and began dabbing at his hair.
” You get dry first…”
He started to argue, instead turned the effort to picking
her up…and her reactions countered the move….in a moment they
were Wrestling, and in the next, wet shirt against her face, Miri
saw Skel’s face clearly. Full of concern. Interest. Care.
” At ease, at ease.” she whispered .
She was half on her back when she stopped resisting…and
let his momentum carry him past her on the hard-packed floor.
She pounced then, throwing her tiny weight at him carefully.
” You’re pinned Skel.” she said seriously. ” You wanna prove
how old you are?”
” Redhead, you sure?”
She laughed, nibbled momentarily on his nose, and stood up.
” What do you think? ” she asked as she started to slip out
of her soggy blouse. ” Gotta bed in here somewhere?”
The roar of the rain was a shield. For the first time in weeks Miri was more than an arm’s length from a gun or knife; for the first time in weeks she was unconcerned about her troops. The weather equipment could stay where it was no one would bother it and she needn’t be bothered with it either.
Miri, considering the noises they’d both made, was glad for
the privacy. It was difficult being alone among the mercs, difficult to be both private and unrestrained. Paulia had yet to learn; assumed that somehow the closing of a metal door was enough distance.
This, this was almost luxury. Easily as private as the most expensive R&R resort she’d ever been to.
Of course Skel had been there, too. She’d invited him and footed the bills for the fling. Skel hadn’t asked the cost: that would have been rude. As it was she’d spent all the bonus money and three quarters of the year’s regular pay on those five days. In truth, worth every bit of it.
Here, today, was Skel. Skel who knew Miri’s delight and joy with herself, Skel who appreciated Miri’s demands. For that matter it was Skel who’d helped her discover some of her favorite things in those fervent days.
And it had been Skel who had carefully explained to her that love and lust within the Lunatics was not an easy thing; it required both patience and dignity to arrange liaisons in the field or it took neither.
For those who lacked patience and dignity there was always someone willing to take a few minutes or so for a bit of quick pleasure. That had always been too much like Surebleak for Miri, though, too much like the woman who’d lived downstairs from her for half-a-standard and whose loud passionate moans could be heard every half-hour during the working day.
For those with dignity and patience there were good people; honestly giving and taking pleasure and joy and comfort without demanding more. That too, had been a hard lesson to learn. As
close as one got, as many special private joys might be shared, there was always one or two or three someone elses . Unless full-partnered and willing to be part of that more-than-married state of bliss there HAD to be someone else. Being a mercenary was not
an easy job, nor a safe one More than a fifth of new recruits
were hurt on the first mission, more than a half of those died. Skel moved against her, half asleep.
” Hello, red-head. Thought you’d be gone.”
” Not gone yet, boss. Still got some itches need to be scratched. D’you know that hardly anyone I know really likes…”.
She reached around him with arms, began using her mouth on his neck. In a moment Skel was awake, and in a moment or two the figures looked like that sculpture she’d admired so much back at her first R&R resort.
The rain was a shield, the night a cloak, the joy an art. Klamath was unaware.
Splinteruniverse.com is authorized to use this text.