Authors: m c a hogarth
“Hi, pretty!” Irine added from her brother’s lap.
Hirianthial paused as he stepped off the lift, eyes drawn by the world magnified on the
old and cranky viewscreen: a tawny ball streaked in aquamarine and cobalt blue and swaddled in sullen gray clouds. He said, finally, “Promising.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Sascha said, and snorted. “Of course you are.” He leaned back, resting a hand on Irine’s head. “That is Kerayle.”
“And Kerayle…,” Hirianthial began, trailing off.
“Is the world Reese asked us to come to,” Kis’eh’t offered from her station. The
crowded bridge did not allow for many crew, and Kis’eh’t’s centauroid body took up more than one person’s share; she kept her paws tucked close and eschewed the chair someone else might have used at the sensor station. “It’s a colony. She thinks they might have useful things to trade since no other ship comes out here regularly yet.”
“They don’t even have a Well repeater in system,” Sascha said. “Weather satellites, sure, but no station and no repeater. This is honest-to-angels middle of nowhere.”
“It’s the brave frontier,” Kis’eh’t said.
“It’s something,” Sascha said. “I just hope it’s not ‘too poor to be able to afford shipments.’”
Irine bumped her head against his hand. “Scratch behind my ears!”
Sascha obliged her. As Harat-Shariin activities went, it was one of the less outrageous the twins engaged in; initially Hirianthial had thought Reese’s agitation in that regard exaggerated, but he had in fact happened on the twins at least twice while engaged in activities that would probably have made their captain’s blood pressure spike. Hirianthial himself had no opinion on the matter. The Pelted had their own history with genetic engineering and reproductive challenges, and what the twins chose to do together was not his business. Unless they asked him to participate, which they did. As they always cheerfully accepted his rejections he did not allow the invitations to perturb him.
“So where is the captain?” he asked.
Sascha and Kis’eh’t exchanged looks. Then the latter said, “She’s in her cabin, doing accounting for the quarter.”
Hirianthial said, “Ah.” He glanced at the last chair. “I suppose I might use that?”
Sascha chuckled. “Because you’re not volunteering to interrupt her? Be our guest.”
Theresa “Reese” Eddings, captain of the registered Terran Merchant Ship
, was sitting in her room at its battered old desk in front of her display. Scowling at numbers was one of her least favorite activities, and yet she always seemed to be doing it. It didn’t seem to matter whether she was in the black or the red, she always found a reason. Reese had been frowning at these for so long that her cheeks hurt; she stretched her mouth and rubbed her jaw, wincing as it popped.
An image formed in her head: drooping willows, their melancholic fronds dragged in a leaden gray stream. She looked down at the fuzzy round alien in her lap and said, “All right, all right, it’s not
The sun tried to gild the leaves of the tree in her head. “Don’t get too optimistic, though,” she said. “Fleet gave us a hell of a lot of money, but the upgrades were expensive. And I don’t want to dip into our savings.” She paused to savor the word. She’d never had savings before. Squaring her shoulders, she said, “I want to protect our reserve, you know?”
The alien’s neural fur turned a bright, cheery yellow. She smiled and petted him—it, technically, but she’d never been able to think of Allacazam as an it—and said, “We’re going up, slowly. But I don’t want to blow it. It would be easy to end up poor again.”
The Flitzbe set fire to the tree in her head, added people running around it, screaming, and then threw in a rain of frogs for good measure. Who would have thought something more plant than animal and shaped like a furry ball could have a sense of humor? She hugged him with a grin. “Okay, maybe I’m being a little paranoid. But better that than spendthrift.” Lifting her head, she frowned. “Come to think of it… the engine noise’s changed, hasn’t it?” She leaned over and hit the intercom. “Hey, bridge!”
Sascha’s voice: “Hey, Boss!”
“Did we make it?” Reese asked.
“We did. Kerayle awaits.”
“Great,” Reese said. “There should only be one town. Set us down in walking distance. And I mean ‘close enough not to give me panic attacks about being able to see the horizon clearly.’ ”
Reese squinted. “Something wrong?”
“The view’s a bit underwhelming,” Sascha said. “It doesn’t look like they get much traffic out here.”
“That’s fine,” Reese said. “It means they’ll be happy to see us.”
“This is a pretty strange idea of ‘happy to see us,’” Sascha opined as he followed her down the deserted lane in the middle of town. The tigraine had his shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets, and his tail was low and twitchy.
Reese couldn’t blame him. They’d been to a few too many worlds with too-quiet towns—well, two, but even one was too many when they’d both turned out to be pirate hang-outs. She said, “We surprised them, I guess.”
“Oh, sure,” Sascha said. “A merchant ship shooting through the atmosphere and touching down a mile away. Doesn’t give them much time to prepare a welcome party.”
Reese eyed him and he subsided, or at least, he pretended to.
Hirianthial, at least, was quiet. He was always quiet, though; it made her nervous, not knowing what he was thinking when she knew he could read their minds. Ever since she’d asked him to stay he’d been keeping out of her way. Maybe he knew she hadn’t decided yet if she’d forgiven him for reaching into her head and pulling out her carefully unexamined fears.
Or worse, maybe there was no “maybe” about it. Maybe he’d read her mind about that too.
For most of her life, Reese had wondered about the mysterious Eldritch, had read about them, had occasionally dreamed of meeting one. They were tall and beautiful and tragic and courtly and their esper abilities were portrayed in all her romance novels as magical. She’d had no idea, once she’d been saddled with one, just how infuriating the species could be. Tall and beautiful did nothing but make her feel ungainly and inadequate. Tragic and courtly turned out to be a pain in the tail rather than romantic and pitiable. And the magical esper abilities, while fascinating in fiction, were frighteningly invasive in real life; the fact that Hirianthial had never intentionally read her mind only made it more frightening, because if he couldn’t control it that was much worse than if he could and chose not to... wasn’t it?
But for no reason she could really understand, she’d asked him to stay and he had, and the worst part was that he could probably tell
why she’d made that decision.
Blood in the soil, it was enough to make anyone crazy.
Still, she didn’t object to him tagging along. If she could handle a pair of Harat-Shariin twins, she could handle one Eldritch, no matter how frustrating.
Besides, he was occasionally useful.
“There,” he said now. “At the end of the lane.”
Reese was about to ask if he’d sensed something but, no, there was someone stepping out of the house there: a Hinichi wolfine in a long shift, the fabric thin enough to show a silhouette of his lanky body. He was padding toward them now, so Reese stopped to let him approach. He was smiling, at least, and his ears were perked.
“Welcome,” he said when he was close enough. “We weren’t expecting traders.” He inclined his head. “I’m Saul, assistant to the Kesh of Kerayle. Won’t you come out of the sun, tell us what you’ve brought to sell?”
“We’d be glad to,” Reese said. She glanced at the buildings. “It seems... quiet?”
“It’s the heat of the day,” Saul said. “Most people are napping.”
“Oh!” Reese said, relieved. “Right. It is hot, isn’t it.” She offered her palm. “Reese Eddings, captain of the TMS
“Pleased,” he said, covering her hand. “Let me show you to our place of business.”
The wind in Kerayle did not cool, Hirianthial thought; it blew the heat onto one’s cheeks and throat, with stinging spatters of dust as an encore. He found it pleasing after months of the dry cold on the
, but he could only imagine how Sascha was finding it with his dense pelt, and Reese had been born to controlled climates and was already sweating.
There would be water, he thought; no culture that lived in such heat would fail to offer. Nor was he disappointed; it was the first thing Saul presented to them in ritual courtesy, pouring from a sweating pitcher into a bowl by the door and handing it to Reese. He was glad the Hinichi had offered to her first; he suspected she would have balked at drinking from anything he’d sullied with his mouth. It had been several months since she’d asked him to stay, and he couldn’t read her—couldn’t tell her if her ambivalence was terror, dislike or something more positive but still nascent. And though she refused to believe it, he would never pull it from her mind without her permission. Since she wouldn’t talk to him, he remained as confused on the matter as she was, and so he did his best to avoid provoking her.
There were days he wondered why he’d stayed...but he had gone through too much alongside the crew of the
to easily turn his back on them now.
Reese handed the bowl back to Saul, who gave it to Sascha. The Harat-Shar drank without reservations, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand, then passed the bowl to Hirianthial. It was shockingly cold to his fingers: when he drank, the water was so frigid it numbed his lips and throat. Even here, he thought, at the most remote corner of the Alliance, there was technology to shame his own species. Cold water from a pitcher left out in the heat...