Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
Tags: #Science Fiction
"Priscilla!" Shan's voice, high and hoarse.
"Teams Five and Three. Take it out." The ship shuddered and the bursts were away. The fleas' mother died in a flare of vapor.
"Priscilla, accelerate," Shan—no,
said into her ear. "There's a cloud of fleas closing on you."
His boat was spinning, moving, dodging, guns flaring—and each move taking him further and further from the
. From safety.
"That is an order," he said, cold in command. "Accelerate!"
"Yes, Captain." Behind the Wall, she screamed and railed and rent her garments in anguish.
On the war bridge, she spoke quietly into her microphone, relaying the order to accelerate.
She had memorized this computer code seven Standards ago, offering at the same time a prayer to the Goddess, that she would never need to use it. Her fingers shook as she entered it now, but there was no shame in that. Neither the Goddess nor melant'i demanded fearlessness in the performance of duty, merely that duty was done.
The screen blanked as she entered the last digit, taking even the window at the bottom right corner, which elucidated the progress of lifeboat number four toward the planet surface. There was silence in the captain's office, as if the
were mulling over her request, and more than half-inclined to refuse it. Priscilla folded her cold hands together on the wooden desk, waiting.
made up its mind with a beep and a flash of letters on her screen.
DUTIFUL PASSAGE OFFICER ALTERATION ROUTINE.
HISTORY: SHAN YOS'GALAN, CLAN KORVAL
ER THOM YOS'GALAN, CLAN KORVAL
SAE ZAR YOS'GALAN, CLAN KORVAL
CANDIDATE: PRISCILLA DELACROIX Y MENDOZA,
HISTORY: PET LIBRARIAN
PILOT THIRD CLASS,
TRAINING SECOND CLASS
PILOT SECOND CLASS,
TRAINING FIRST CLASS
PILOT FIRST CLASS, TRAINING MASTER
ACCEPT: COMMUNICATIONS MODULE
ACCEPT: PRISCILLA DELACROIX Y MENDOZA,
ADJUSTMENT: CAPTAIN'S KEY FILE
AUXILIARY INFORMATION: RANKS FIRST MATE, SECOND MATE, THIRD MATE UNMANNED. HIGH RISK CONDITION NOTED. OPTIMUM SOLUTION: APPOINT OFFICERS: FIRST MATE, SECOND MATE, THIRD MATE.
MINIMUM SOLUTION TO UNACCEPTABLE RISK CONDITION: APPOINT FIRST MATE.
The screen blanked once more. Priscilla extended a hand that still showed a tendency to quiver and tapped in a retrieval request. A heartbeat later, Plan B lit her screen.
A changing array of safeplaces shall be maintained at all times, in the event of immediate, catastrophic threat to the Clan. There is no shame in strategic retreat. Even Jela sometimes ran from his enemies, the better to defeat them, tomorrow.
Keep the children safe. Honor without love is stupidity.
This by the hand of Cantra yos'Phelium, Captain and Delm, in the Third Year after Planetfall.
The screen beeped, indicating the existence of an auxiliary file. Priscilla accessed it with the touch of a key.
This message was not nearly so ancient. In fact, it was mere weeks old, dispatched by Nova yos'Galan, Korval's first speaker in trust, to Shan yos'Galan, captain and thodelm.
Plan B is in effect. Assume our enemy omnipresent and dedicated to Korval's utter ruin. Contact no one, for we cannot know which alliances stand firm and which are rotted out from the core by the work of our enemy. Arm the
Secure yourself. Repeat: Plan B is in effect.
Keep safe, brother.
Priscilla sat back in Shan's chair, staring at the screen. They had armed the
. They were, as far as conditions allowed, secure. The ban on radio contact was subject to captain's interpretation, given those same conditions. She touched another key, sealing the files once more. The diagram of Shan's descent to Lytaxin reappeared in the bottom right corner of the screen.
Eyes closed, she considered priorities.
The ship's priority, that there be at least one other in the command chain, should the captain fail, was best acted on at once. The radio . . . She reached out and flipped a toggle.
"Rusty, this is the captain," she said quietly.
There was a short, electric pause, then a respectful, almost somber, "Yes, ma'am."
"Please do me the favor," she continued, hearing her own voice take on Shan's speech pattern, "of constructing an anonymous message to the appropriate authorities regarding Lytaxin's situation."
"Yes, ma'am," he said again, then: "I'm assuming we don't want to give away our name or our location."
"That's exactly what we don't want, Rusty. Can you do it?"
"Take a little fiddling, but—yeah. I can do it. You want to review before implementation?"
"Will do," he said, and his voice was brighter, as if the promise of a problem he was able to master had cheered him up. "Tower out."
"Thank you, Rusty. Captain out."
The screen on the side of the desk was live, displaying the current crew roster, but the decision had been made before ever she keyed in the request to see that document.
Priscilla sighed. Ten Standards she and Shan had captained the
between them. To name another to take the place she had made for herself, as duty demanded that she take Shan's rightful role was—not easy. Yet it must be done, for the safety of ship, crew, and kin. The temple had schooled her well in duty, before she had ever dreamed of Liad.
Priscilla closed her eyes and called up an old exercise—one of the first taught to novices in temple, honing her anxiety into purpose. She had barely opened her eyes again when the door chime sounded.
"Come," she said, and the door, obedient to the captain's voice, slid open.
"Acting Captain." He bowed respect from the center of the room and straightened, awaiting her notice.
She took a moment to consider him: A medium tall man, as Liadens measured height, skin an unblemished medium gold, hair and eyes a matching medium brown, neither beautiful nor ugly, not fat nor yet thin. He wore no rings of rank nor any more simple adornment. His shirt was plain and pale, his trousers dark, his boots comfortable and well tended.
He was a pilot of some note—first class verging on Master—and she knew him for a quick and incisive thinker. The information that he possessed humor would have startled many of his crewmates, but none of those would have said his judgment was unsound, or that his temperament was other than steady.
He was also inclined toward austerity, which was worrisome, Priscilla allowed, even when it was austerity applied to the best good of ship and crew.
From her seat behind the desk, she inclined her head and moved a hand toward the pair of visitor's chairs.
"I have a proposal to put before you, my friend," she said in mild, modeless Terran. "Will you sit and listen to me for a moment?"
"Gladly," he responded. His Terran was heavily accented, though his comprehension was excellent. He took the chair nearest the corner of the desk and folded his hands neatly upon his knee.
Priscilla closed her eyes briefly, opened them and considered Ren Zel's quiet face. She remained, perforce, behind her Wall, reduced to reading the emotions of others from the shifting clues of expression and bodyline. Like most Liadens, Ren Zel was a master at keeping his emotions well away from his face.
"An announcement will be made to the entire crew within the hour," she said, and took a breath, enough air, certainly, to force the few words out. "The ship has accepted me as captain."
Face smooth, Ren Zel inclined his head. "Has there been—word—of Captain yos'Galan?"
Priscilla shook her head, gesturing at her screen and the diagram describing the descent of lifeboat number four. "He will make planetfall within the next few hours. After the lifeboat is stable, we'll rig a punchbeam. For the moment, we—assume—that Captain yos'Galan is alive, but unavailable to us. Circumstances dictate that the ship be served by a full captain." "Assume," Ren Zel said, voice expressing interest without judgment, which was only prudent from a man reared in a culture where a judgment expressed outside of one's proper area of concern might well result in honor-feud. Priscilla was free to ignore him, but she would have to stretch—and endanger her own melant'i—to read insult into his question.
"Assume," she repeated, and smiled with good intent, if limited success. "Understand that I am—shielded away. Without Healer skill. There are exercises I must soon undertake so that I may serve the ship as it must be served, but for the moment, I have no more knowledge of Captain yos'Galan's safety than what I can read from the tracking computer and from my own desires."
Something moved in the brown eyes. She thought it might have been pity. "I understand. Forgive me. I had not intended to cause you pain."
"You have a right to ask—to know. Shan is your captain, after all."
"Indeed, I owe him my life," Ren Zel murmured. "And yourself, as well."
In lieu of being able to pay Shan directly
, Priscilla thought wryly and deliberately suppressed the shudder of anxiety. She lay her hands flat on the desktop and looked at him.
"Then perhaps you will find this proposal even more interesting," she said and tipped her head, seeing wariness at the back of his eyes.
"You know that we are short-handed, that we have been short-handed since the
became a full-scale battlewagon."
Ren Zel inclined his head. "And with the loss of Pilot Johnson and Captain yos'Galan we become less rich in resource."
"Exactly. In a ship—rich in resource—the second mate would move to first, third to second, and a third mate would be chosen by the captain."
"We do not have this luxury of personnel," he agreed. "We are at war."
She nodded. "The ship requires a first mate and the captain must decide who will serve the ship best. I propose yourself for first mate, unless you can think of a compelling reason why you shouldn't be."
Shock stripped his face naked. He sat—just sat—and stared at her for the space of three heartbeats. He closed his eyes then, and sat through two heartbeats more. He opened his eyes and they were distant, his face without expression. When he spoke, it was in High Liaden, in the mode called Outsider.
"The captain is reminded that one is clanless, with neither name nor kin nor melant'i to support one. The ship is best served by one who is alive."
"The captain recalls most vividly that you have been reft of your birthright," Priscilla said carefully, following him into Liaden, but only so far as Comrade mode. "The captain points out that your piloting license bears a name—Ren Zel dea'Judan. The captain fails of recalling a single instance of that name being dishonored in the several years of our association. The melant'i which you embody is pure. The ship can be no better served."
There were tears in the medium brown eyes and she dared not unshield, even to offer comfort. Instead, she sat and waited while he mastered himself, while he thought it through, and when he rose to bow acceptance.
"Captain, I am honored. I will serve willingly, with all my heart."
She stood from behind the desk and returned his bow, reaching into High Liaden for the ritual phrase spoken by a delm when accepting a new member into the clan.
"I see you, Ren Zel dea'Judan, First Mate. The ship rejoices."
Tears again, hidden by a hasty bow. "Captain."
She smiled slightly and shook her head. "First lesson," she said in Terran.
Quickly, he looked up, brown eyes bright. "Yes?"
"My name is Priscilla," she said, and held her hand out to him.
The crew, at battle stations, accepted her ascendancy to captain and Ren Zel's appointment as first mate with somber approval. She had detailed their mission: to take up defensive orbit about the planet and await the aid that surely must come in response to Rusty's carefully anonymous pinbeams.
"In the meantime," she said, "Captain yos'Galan's lifeboat has entered atmosphere. We will attempt to establish a dialog via laser packet when he comes to ground and we are sure his position is stable."
"Why not just use the radio?" That was Gordy, face tight, voice harsh with pain.
"The Yxtrang may ride our radio wave down to the planet surface and discover the location of an object we value," Ren Zel murmured, before she could frame a reply. "They have surely marked that one pod escaped the battle, and they must wonder after its worth. A laser burst is not so easy to follow, so we may shield Captain yos'Galan while informing him of our vigilance."
In the screen, Gordy nodded, jerkily. "I see. Thank you."
"Other questions?" Priscilla asked, and there were none, so she released them to their duties or their rest, then turned to Ren Zel.
"First Mate, the shift is yours."
He bowed, accepting the duty. Priscilla hesitated.
He looked up.
"I—there are preparations that I must make," she said, slowly. "Preparations which are . . . of the dramliz. I will be in my cabin for the next few hours, but I will not be available to you." She bit her lip, and added that most dangerous of Terran phrases, "I'm sorry."
He moved his hand lightly, as if clearing the air of a faint wisp of smoke. "Necessity. I, to my duty. You, to yours."
She smiled, then. Almost she laughed. Practical Ren Zel.
"Of course. How could I have forgotten? Good shift, my friend."
"Good shift, Priscilla."
Self-healed, and whole once more, Priscilla drew a breath in trance slightly deeper than the one before. Her lips moved. The voice of her body whispered a word.