Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
Tags: #Science Fiction
The chiming stopped.
Miri frowned at the paper. The words blurred out of focus; steadied:
Absorption rate 98% overall. Feedback accurate 99.8%. Self test consistent 98.4%.
Miri shook her head, remembered the packet of vitamins in her pouch and went to get something to wash them down with.
Val Con was coming toward her as she entered the bridge and she froze, mind presenting a good dozen ways to address him; combinations of bows and salutations branching off into a veritable jungle of possibilities, none seeming more right than another. The combination for greeting a senior officer presented itself and she grabbed it, executing the bow in barely proper time.
"Sir," she said, remembering to straighten before speaking, and to speak with the inflection of respectful attention, "I have completed my session with the Instructor."
Both brows shot up before he returned her bow, briefly, and with subtle irony. Miri was dismayed; recalled that one might accept idiosyncrasies of style, so long as they did not cross the line of what one's own melant'i would tolerate.
"Ma'am," Val Con said, senior to junior, though with an undefinable under-inflection, which seemed to echo the irony of his bow, "I am delighted to find your time with the Instructor so fruitfully spent. However, I believe that the length and—intimacy—of our relationship might allow you use of my name."
"Yes, certainly. . ." But
combination did not arise and the more she scrambled to find a mode that would allow it, the more confusion rose. She lost the timing of the conversation, shattered cadence and art, was adrift in an echoing sea of inflection.
She looked up at him, helpless to choose from the endless and proliferating possibilities; unable to define herself, since she could find no way to define him.
His hand closed over hers. "Miri. Stop worrying at it, cha'trez. Let it find its level and settle."
The Terran words wrenched her out of confusion; she sagged against him, suddenly aware that she had been holding herself at full attention.
"I don't guess I learned how to just use somebody's name," she muttered.
He hugged her. "That's Low Liaden. 'Val Con-husband,' remember? Eh? And 'Val Con-love.' Much nicer to hear from you than 'sir.' I thought I was in black disgrace."
She snorted a laugh. "Worried you, too."
She laughed again and pulled away, shoving the piece of paper under his nose.
"Came out of the machine. Any idea what it means?"
"Ah." He slipped it from her fingers; read it with a nod. "On many worlds it would mean that you are a genius, Miri. The module is set up to test gain and chart the student's recall. A defective person, for instance, would have been expelled from the program after the first test demonstrated that no learning had taken place. Those scores," he handed the paper back, "will have triggered an accelerated program."
"Genius?" She frowned at him, then at the paper.
"Genius." Val Con sighed gently; reached to tap the paper. "On Liad, these scores would gain you admittance to Scout Academy. Since you have also demonstrated ability to operate—and prosper—in a low-tech culture, you would likely be admitted to the middle class."
"I ain't a pilot," Miri protested, thinking that scouts were the best there was. Thinking that Val Con was a scout. Thinking that it had to be a glitch in the machine somewhere. Thinking. . .
"It can be arranged," Val Con was saying, "to have groundwork laid for piloting lessons while you are sleep-learning—a matter of appending the program to your study of the Code. It is only a preparatory program, of course, but I can teach you the math and the board-drills."
"Sure," Miri said, absently.
"Good. Would you like some tea?"
"Huh?" She shook out of her reverie, looked at the paper again—written in Liaden, she noticed, then, but was beyond being surprised. "Tea'd be fine, thanks. Gotta take my vitamins anyway."
"Yes." He went to the menu board and she followed. "I suggest you use the Rainbow tonight, cha'trez, to anchor today's learning. Tomorrow you should be able to do all three sessions."
"All three—!" She glared at his back and then sighed, recalling another bit of learning. "Guess if I'm gonna have this melant'i stuff to take care of, I'd better get the rules right." She took the cup out of his hand.
"Genius, huh?" She shook her head. "Tell you what, though, boss—I don't feel the least bit smart."
". . . coffee, flapjacks and YOO-oo-OO!" The voice wavered unmelodically, though with evident sincerity, from edge-orbit across the general beam and into the tiny professorial office. The man at the desk glanced over his shoulder at the beam-set, frown flickering into a smile as he recognized Number Three-Fifty-Eight singing his way into port, if not into the heart of
satiric mistress, as he did precisely at the professor's midnight, every night.
"Speak to me, beautiful Captain!" The singer urged against the background chatter of half-a-hundred ships, from port to the fringe of the third world out; and in blithe disregard of the possibility that there might be any number of beautiful captains within hearing.
"Sorry, Three-Five-Eight. Thought you were in the middle of breakfast." The woman's voice was cool, with an undercurrent of amusement, precisely as always. The professor smiled again and turned back to the screen and the thesis he was grading.
A singularly disappointing document, truth told; even though the author had not been one from whom he had hoped great things. However, one liked to know that a
learning had taken place, even in the least promising of scholars. Ah, well, they were but at the mid-term. Perhaps guidance might yet produce thought.
So thinking, he brought his wandering attention more firmly back to the thesis, seeking the most profitable means of providing guidance. Behind him, Three-Fifty-Eight pled his case with the cool-voiced lady, one tile in a familiar, comforting mosaic of voices. The professor listened with half-an-ear, then with even less, as the key to guidance presented itself and he gave it his full attention.
It snarled across the familiar mosaic like an angry boot heel. The professor had already spun in his chair, dark eyes intense on the squat receiver as if he would see through it to the ship that carried so urgent a message.
ATTENTION! ALL JUNTAVAS EMPLOYEES, SUPPORTERS, DEPENDENTS, ALLIES SHALL FROM RECEIPT OF THIS MESSAGE FORWARD RENDER ASSISTANCE, AID AND COMFORT TO SERGEANT MIRI ROBERTSON, CITIZEN OF TERRA; AND SCOUT COMMANDER VAL CON YOS'PHELIUM, CITIZEN OF LIAD; TOGETHER OR SINGLY; REDIRECTING, WHERE NECESSARY, YOUR OWN ACTIVITIES. REPEAT: AID AND COMFORT TO MIRI ROBERTSON AND/OR VAL CON YOS'PHELIUM IMPERATIVE, PRIORITY HIGHEST.
MESSAGE REPEATS. . .
That quickly it was done, gone; leaving nothing but dead beam for a heartbeat—for two. . .
"What the hell was that!" The irrepressible Three-Fifty-Eight.
"Courier ship," snapped someone else and, "You should've seen that brother go! Third planet kick-off, skimmed in, dropped it and gone!"
Five days out. The professor eased out of his chair, went with wary, silent grace across the room to the little receiver, staring at it as if it had suddenly become something quite else.
"Scout Commander Val Con yos'Phelium," he whispered, extending a hand to touch the power-off. "Scout Commander Val Con yos'Phelium. . ."
He turned, paced the length of the tiny office—five of his strides—and the width—five more—until he came again to the desk and the work awaiting him. A hand slipped into one pocket; emerged—and he stood staring down at the flat gleam of a ship's key, incongruous in his soft, scholar's palm.
Professors of cultural genetics did not as a rule own spaceships. He sighed and slipped the key away.
So deep a cover, constructed over so many years. . .
He shook his head, banishing the thought with the key and sat once again to his work, trying to recapture his previous mood of gentle instruction. Screen-light gleamed off his single ring—three stands of silver, twisted into a flat knot, worn on the smallest finger of his left hand. After a moment, he sighed again, leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.
Scout Commander Val Con yos'Phelium. . .
House. She was sure that was the word. House.
Sleep-learning had reinforced her vocabulary, made her comfortable with sounds and meanings, and the recent social encounter at the landing field had almost convinced her she had all things Liaden by the scruff of the neck.
It was huge.
Miri stopped on the crest of the gentle rise, staring up at the long expanse of velvet-lawned hill, and the u-shaped sweep of gray-and-black stone, several stories high. The house, that was. She looked at Val Con.
He glanced away from his own study of the landscape, one brow quirking. "It does
to be a clanhouse," he murmured; "but recall that I have never called upon Erob, either."
She took a deep breath. "It's as big as a hyatt," she told him, stating the obvious in as calm a voice as she could muster. "A
hyatt. Maybe we got the wrong directions. Maybe it is a hyatt, which ain't all that bad. We could maybe get a room if we got enough money, and call ahead."
Val Con grinned and stroked her cheek. "This is a frontier world, cha'trez—the entire clan would live in one house, plus necessary staff, plus guesting rooms, contract-suites, administration, supplies.
"Recall that this is the capital-in-fact of the planet until they recover from the revolt—actually the center of the world in some ways even before." He lifted a shoulder. "I would say that they have no more space than they likely need, depending upon the size of the clan and the amount of administration they feel it necessary to perform."
"Gods." She looked at him, suddenly struck with a thought. "Is
house this big? The one you grew up in?"
"I grew up in Trealla Fantrol," he said softly; "yos'Galan's line house. It is very grand, of course, but not nearly so large as this. Korval has never ruled the world." He offered his hand, smiling.
After a moment, Miri dredged up a smile of her own, wove her fingers around his and went with him, toward the house.
The good thing about being on world was the smells. The breeze. The colors. The hand in hers. The quiet.
That was an odd one, Miri realized as they walked paths that had only recently been guard marches and troop routes. Quiet.
As many worlds as she'd been on, none of the planetfalls had been like this. Leisurely, and—aside from her own certainty of ruin at the end—calm. The weapons checks were habit, the vitamin dosages learning aids rather than war-prep, the entry to atmosphere a tourist's wonder of ocean, continents, and icecaps.
They'd come in as the cordon around the planet was being dismantled. Troop and guard ships alike had failed to notice them—as Val Con had prophesied—and there'd been no alerts, no threats, and no danger.
For three orbits Lytaxin had spun below them. The radio had told the tale pretty clearly: A stupid and bungled coup attempt followed by a dirty little war mostly confined to a single continent. The mercs had come quickly.
What they hadn't gotten from the radio they had soon enough from Riaska ter'Meulen. Now
was a person who could talk. She'd limped out of the office of the little general aviation field, to Miri's eye unflapped by the sudden and unannounced appearance of their—of the Department of Interior's—vessel.
"Scouts," she'd said, nodding a rather unconventional kind of a bow at both of them. "How may I be of service? And how shall I register your visit?"
Val Con returned the nod with a formal bow. "Of your kindness, register the ship as
, out of Liad, piloted by Val Con yos'Phelium, Clan Korval. Business of the clan."
The woman made her own bow at that point and Miri's new-poured training kicked into gear. Val Con's bow, acknowledging what?—personal debt, personal respect?—to the clan of an ally or friend of his clan? And ter'Meulen's bow acknowledging . . . acceptance of respect and recognition of the—honor, was it, of being so acknowledged?
She walked with them across the airfield, discussing the war, her limp growing more evident with each step. She stopped them in front of an open hanger housing a vintage ground attack aircraft.
"Pilot of Korval, I expect you are well-placed to assist us. This is the official airfield defense craft. It and its kin were gifts of Korval, and before the war we had perhaps a double dozen of them. There were five here, but all save this one went off in The Long Raid. I understand that the contingent on the islands were destroyed by our side, and Erob's allies in the highlands used theirs until they were relieved by the mercenaries. The Long Raid was their idea, I gather—stuff enough fuel and strip enough weight to get them 'cross the ocean. . ."
Val Con listened, quiet, while Miri nodded at the good sense of the tactic. Sounded like the kind of thing Kindle would pull together.
"Many planes were shot down—where Clan Kenso got weapons like that I'd give the rest of my leg to know!—and so I have this. . ." She bowed toward the plane—fond respect, Miri thought.
"Parts are hard to come by, and while this one flies, and will continue in its duty, it would be good to have spare parts. If there might be a way—the patterns and the equipment that built them are on Liad, in your own shops."
Val Con bowed. "As time permits I shall speak to the first speaker."
Riaska ter'Meulen bowed. "I am grateful."
"Cars are yet in short supply," she said then. "May I call the House and have them send, or may I offer you service of my flitter?" A wave of a hand indicated a tiny craft—barely more than a cabin over a lift-fan.
Miri stirred, in no hurry to raise the house and seeing no need to deprive a wounded woman of transport.