Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
Tags: #Science Fiction
Jason Carmody walked down East Axis, an island of blonde quiet among the noisy, purposeful bustle going on all around.
Every so often, Jase turned aside to talk to this one or that; on two occasions he ducked inside half-dismantled tech-sheds to supervise some particularly tricksy bit of equipment balancing. Merc Center would be stripped down to dirt by this time tomorrow. Dawn the day after would find only torn meadowlands and a network of synthphalt service roads, already crumbling back to sand.
Jase ducked out into the sunlight and stood, techs and troops flowing around him like a dusty leather river, staring at nothing in particular and gently stroking his beard.
Eight days to Fendor, if the transport was on time. It had been known to happen. More often it wasn't, but the Gyrfalks had another contract pending, so they'd paid a premium for a guaranteed pick-up. Sometimes that worked. In the meantime, Suzuki and the spec-team were on their way to negotiations, leaving Jason, the tyros, and the low-ranks to break camp and tidy up.
Jase sighed and shook his massive frame into motion, going with the flow down East Axis until it intersected with Command Way, where he turned off, heading for his quarters.
"Jase!" The voice from behind was familiar, but not urgently so. Jason checked his stride unwillingly, half-minded to go on.
"Jase!" the voice persisted. "Jason Carmody!"
He sighed and turned, hoping the problem wasn't going to be too time-consuming and scanning the scurrying crowd, looking for a face to match the voice.
She was a mere four of his paces before him, a red-haired Liaden woman in a yellow shirt and burgundy trousers, comfortable boots, belt, pouch, no apparent gun. Her hair was single-braided and fell below the holsterless belt. A man stood at her right shoulder. Jase flicked him a look, established that he was Liaden, too—scar across the right cheek, dark hair, no gun—before bowing to the woman.
"Yes, ma'am," he said in respectful Trade, cudgeling his brain to recall which of Clan Erob she precisely was. "What can I do for you?"
The woman blinked, flashed a quick glance at her companion and drifted a step closer. Something in the way she moved sparked a flicker of deeper recognition, gone even as he fumbled for it.
"What the hell's the matter with you, Jason?" she demanded in Terran. "Tell me I can come back anytime I want, then forget what I look like inside of a year?"
?" Jason very nearly goggled, at last seeing past the disguise of rich clothes to the lithe, familiar body, the sharp face and dark gray eyes. He fell to his knees, which put him only a head or so taller than she, and flung his arms wide.
"Gods love us all, my darlin'!" He cried. "Come and give Jason a kiss!"
"Yes, but darlin'," Jason was saying, handing kynak all around in the privacy of his quarters, "if you and Tough Guy was comin' to Lytaxin anyway, why not just come with us in the first case? We'd have saved you a good bit of time."
Miri lifted a shoulder and flashed a grin at her partner, who was perched on the arm of her chair. "Had a spot of trouble to clear up first."
"Spot o'trouble, indeed!" Jase sprawled on the thick rug, taking up most of the available floor space, and braced his wide shoulders against the side of a wooden chest, the delicate hand carvings just visible through the mars of rough travel. He waved a massive hand in Val Con's direction. "You didn't have that facial decoration last time I saw you, did you, my lad?"
Val Con considered him out of bland green eyes. "No."
"Wouldn't've thought there was much out there fast enough to touch you," Jason persisted. "Polesta still ain't recovered from that little love tap you gave her. Actually heard her say 'please' to the muster-clerk this morning. Enough to give a man religion."
Miri laughed. "Make a soldier outta her yet. How'd the campaign go? When you shipping out?"
"The angels won," Jase said comfortably; "and the employer was prompt with regard to the fee. Paid in full, yes, indeed, and due to ship out tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Miri's shoulders sagged; and Val Con shifted slightly to press against her.
"Now, now, my small, take heart. You know what transport pilots are: why book three runs when six're offered? They're bound to make at least two on time."
She laughed and sipped a little of her drink, laugh turning to a gasp and half-choke.
"A little out of the way of it, darlin'?"
She managed a grin and shook her head. "Been drinking wine lately. 'When on Maris. . .'"
"'Drink what they offer'," Jase finished and knocked back a quarter of his glass. "Only too true. About this other thing, though; you know we're not throwing you to the beasties. Sign back up where you belong and there's a place on the transport with your name on it. Suzuki and me're still wanting to give you that lieutenant's badge. . ."
"Yeah, well. . ." She sighed, not daring to look at Val Con. "Thing is, we just got here yesterday and there's some stuff I still gotta do, being as they're my clan and all. . ."
Jason stopped with his glass halfway to his mouth. "Who's your clan, Redhead?"
"Umm—people up at the house."
"What!" Jase sat up straight, hitting his head a solid
on the overhanging chest-top. "What house—the big house?
She looked at him doubtfully. "Yeah."
Jase slapped his thigh. "I
they were right 'uns! The old lady with the ring—damn me if I didn't think she was familiar the first time I saw her!" He suddenly seemed to do a double take. "That is
clan, Redhead? Eh? Not your partner's?"
"My clan," Val Con told him softly, "has its seat upon Liad."
"Mine," Miri said, half-grinning. "Late-breaking news, appalling everybody from the delm down, except maybe Alys and tel'Vosti."
"The General? You could easily do worse by way of relatives. The General's worth all four of my uncles—with a grand-dame thrown in! And young Alys shoots like a trooper. I wish I had a tyro as sharp with a yessir as she is!" He slid back down against the chest and had another slug of kynak.
"But you haven't said what you've been about, my small, besides the clearing up of business."
"Well, let's see . . . Got into it a bit with the Juntavas—their mistake, really—but I guess that's all straightened out by now. Spent some time, ummm," here she glanced at Val Con for a moment, "out of touch, sort of. Little bit of action there. Worked some odd jobs, did some singing and celebrating. . ."
"Directed the defense that turned an enemy invasion into a rout," Val Con's quiet voice picked up; "without loss to home guard. Learned High and Low Liaden, mastered the salient points of The Liaden Code of Proper Conduct, began the study of the opening equations and board-drills, sufficient to attain the level of provisional pilot, third class."
There was a small silence, during which Miri tried to decide whether to break Val Con's arm or only his jaw, then Jason cleared his throat.
"That right?" He shook his massive head. "Busy, my small—and here I was afraid you'd fall into trouble, what with having idle time on your hands." He looked at Val Con.
"You're a pilot, are you?"
"Master level, yes."
"And you been teaching Redhead piloting." He stared off into the far corner of the ceiling for a moment, then looked back at Val Con. "Your opinion, as a Master level pilot, is that Redhead is capable of attaining what class?"
There was a small pause. "Second class, easily," Val Con said. "If she chooses to apply herself, first class is certainly within her reach. Master—" He moved his shoulders. "It is too soon to know."
"Well," said Jase and finished off his drink. His eyes came back to Miri with something like wonder. "Your partner telling it square, darlin'?"
"Yeah," she said, throwing a glower at Val Con, who lifted an eyebrow. "Yeah, he's got it right."
"Well," Jase said again. "Might have to make that a captain's badge." He held up a hand. "Suzuki has to OK it, too—you know the drill. Learning how to pilot, tacking on both brands of Liaden. . ." He sat up straight, carefully avoiding the chest lid.
"I know Tough Guy's your partner. If you want to talk further on it, I can commit the 'falks to a pilot's slot at a rank comparable to his grade in-?"
Miri grinned wickedly. "He's a scout," she said, feeling Val Con shift sharply beside her. "Scout Commander, First-In."
"Ooof!" said Jason—and laughed. "You don't brag on yourself, do you, my son?"
"One does," Val Con told him, "what one does."
"Right you are." He laughed again. "Scout Commander . . . but you look to be at liberty, if I might say so. If you want work as a pilot, or if there's something else, the unit could only profit."
"I—" Val Con hesitated, alive to the sudden note of longing in the sense of Miri within him. He glanced down into her eyes. "There are discussions to be made," he said, and she nodded, wistfully.
"It sounds good," she told Jase truthfully. "And I want it—but him and me still got some stuff to clear up. You're going back to Headquarters, right?"
"For a time—there's a new contract on the burner, though, so it looks to be a jump-in/jump-out. Suzuki's gone to start the talk-which I assume you knew, since you didn't ask for her."
"Heard it on the chatter when we were coming in." Miri nodded. "I'll leave a message, after this other stuff gets settled." Val Con stirred slightly. "Or, at least, after we got a better idea of what's happening." She sighed and looked up at him. He lifted a light hand to her cheek.
"Know you can't hold an offer like that forever—" she said to Jase's suddenly speculative eyes.
"Never mind it, my small. If you decide you want us, believe that we want you! Anytime, anywhere, any terms. Why, I'll even give you my slot—"
Miri laughed and came to her feet. "Gods, look at the time!" she said, flicking a slender hand toward the window and the reaching orange rays of sundown. "We're gonna be late for dinner, boss."
"Alas," Val Con said, standing. He bowed slightly to the towering Aus. "Honor attended the asking," he said stiffly. "My thanks to you and your troop."
"That's all right, son. I know quality when I see quality-not quite as thick as that!" Jase laughed and loomed to his feet. "Walk you to the access road. Pretty planet. Pretty sunsets."
The three of them stopped at the place where East Gate had been earlier that afternoon, and Jase bent nearly double to hug Miri and plant a kiss firmly on her mouth.
"Take care of yourself, my small."
"You too, Jase. Best to Suzuki. Tell her. . .
The message was swallowed in the sudden appalling uproar—a banshee wail from the lone communication pole still upright beside the comm shack—and startled beeps from a half-a-hundred personal communits.
"Air attack—popped up over the mountains—reentry speed—" Miri could barely hear the words pouring from Jason's communit against the siren's wail and the new sound, a sound like a thousand thunderstorms, all letting loose at once.
"Bastards tricked us! Pull everyone. . ." Jason cut off in the middle of issuing orders to stare.
In the sky: A formation of deadly shapes, black against sunset orange. As they watched, one peeled off—another—a third, toward the distant city and the closer town.
"Oh, shit," breathed Jason. "Redhead—"
Redhead was already gone, moving flat out down the synthphalt toward Erob's house, her partner a fleet dark shadow at her side.
Warning to the civilians in hand, Jason whirled, bellowing to his troops.
"Yxtrang coming in! Blood war!"
Alone and weaponless, he held the planet.
It was an accident and one that would cost
a stripe or two, though not himself, who had neither stripe nor rank to lose. The moment was laden with irony, had one taste for it—that Nelirikk No-Troop should be first Yxtrang upon this world, before even the General.
Having devoted most of ten Cycles to acquiring a taste for irony, Nelirikk embraced the moment and looked about him.
The world was beautiful and lush—exactly the sort of place Liadens usually chose to colonize. The wind—warm, yet edged now with evening-chill—brushed against his clean-shaven face, treating him to natural odors for the first time in—ah? those same ten Cycles! The noises behind him were those of war, but not yet the smells.
"Try now! Try again!" came the order from the ship.
Nelirikk rotated, put his foot back onto the landing chute, and with a swing of the solid metal mallet struck the recalcitrant holding lug. The mallet's head bounced uselessly on the first strike, and the second—but the third strike was true, and the offending lug shot free and rolled away into the crushed field grass.
Automatics took over then, and Nelirikk bounded away in time to avoid being run over by the command cars coming hastily to life in the chute.
He ran farther, perhaps, than was required—and then a few steps more.
Behind him: sounds of motors, of shouting, of feet, hitting the metal plank in troop rhythm. Before him: free growing plants, high-flying birds, and flowers. Nelirikk filled his lungs with fragrant air; sighed it out grudgingly.
A small gray animal poked its head out of the high grass just beyond Nelirikk's grasp, ears perked, eyes bright. It jerked abruptly upright; showing front paws very hand-like, and in a nose-twitch was gone. Two soldiers hit the grass from the landing tube, took aim instantly—and held fire pending orders. Nelirikk breathed a second sigh—and was instantly aware of this new irony, that a no-troop attached to an invasion force pledged to slay thousands of sentients should feel relief at the escape of a squirrel.
Someone shouted then and Nelirikk jumped aside, saluting the General's car, as even a no-troop must, then melted away, alone of the crowd without duty or orders, to watch as the troops and vehicles of the 14th Conquest Corps turned the pretty land into Field Headquarters.
The General's word brought him to the war room, a grim-faced Captain Kagan as his guard. Nelirikk's greedy eyes sought this screen, that, taking information in rapidly and indiscriminately.