Book: Skyblaze



Skyblaze


SKYBLAZE


Adventures in the Liaden Universe®


Number Seventeen

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


Pinbeam Books

http://www.pinbeambooks.com



This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are fiction or are used fictitiously.



SKYBLAZE


Copyright © 2011 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author. Please remember that distributing an author's work without permission or payment is theft; and that the authors whose works sell best are those most likely to let us publish more of their works.

First published in 2011 by SRM, Publisher.

ISBN 978-1-935224-12-9  Kindle


ISBN 978-1-935224-13-6  Nook


ISBN 978-1-935224-14-3  PDF


Published April 2011 by


Pinbeam Books


PO Box 707


Waterville ME 04903

email [email protected]

Cover art copyright © 2011




Skyblaze







Solcintra, Liad




It was perhaps a nonsense phrase, but around fares and administrivia Vertu dea’San Clan Wylan, who was in fact Wylan Herself, delm of her small clan, allowed it to amuse for most of the early shift, finding the ease with which it shifted between Terran and Trade, with at least some meaning attached to it, an instructive counterpoint to the utter inability to phrase it properly in any of the modes Liaden provided.

Somebody ought to do something.

It was the ''ought'' of course, providing the information that melant’i required an action without indicating in which direction it flowed, nor from which necessity, nor from which source, the ''somebody'' being a particular problem for the Liaden sensibility.

The phrase had become common recently, the port being unusually beset by Terran travelers left behind or inconvenienced by this or that ship, change of schedule or sudden re-routing — and had today intensified with the sudden advent of a large vessel full of boisterous mercs with only the most modest of language resources among them.

Not that they – tourists and travelers and mercs every one – weren’t good for business, especially at the hours when they were the only business, but they tended to want something to be done about signs in Trade or Terran where clearly they were on a Liaden port and should expect Liaden custom to prevail.

It was, Vertu acknowledged to herself, true that the two places most likely to be accessible to non-Liaden speakers were the elegances of High Port, and the depths within the shadow of the Tower — Low Port, where small businesses, some barely above begging shops, trembled to bring in every last coin, not disdaining Terran bits or other Terran custom.

This insight came to her as she finished a bowl of noodles and cheese with the last sip of wake-up tea from the corner shop that supplied her meals whenever she had the shift — the insight that she too, did not disdain Terran bits.

For that lack of disdain she supposed she would forever be among the last and least to receive invitations or acknowledgment from the Council, but there – she was Wylan, and would remain so for some time, and in that she was secure. She did her best to keep the clan, and if it had meant that over the relumma she’d opted to add respectable Terran and Trade lettering to her vehicles, and to choose the larger rather than the most elegant, and if Most Serene Travel Experience became Wylan’s Port Taxi in translation, so be it. That the High Houses disdained her survival was not her concern. That they expected her to bow to them out of other than necessity was absurd.

Well, perhaps she ought to bow, just for practice.

With that thought she bowed vaguely in direction of Korval’s distant Tree, it being the closest point she could see that was not of the port and thus not of the Council, and turned on the comm-retrieval, in case there was commerce.

*

The pecking order at the taxi line was nearly immutable, with latecomers – meaning those firms or clans with three generations or less experience – sitting on the second line for manual wave-ins, while those older, the ''holding clans'' who had permanent transport licenses with no expiration date, shared the first line in an intricate dance Vertu could call, but whose logic was born of something other than service to the traveling public.

Clan Wylan ought, perhaps, not be be among those called latecomers, being not recent to the trade, but to the location, but there – that was an old battle, lost some generations back when a racing park gave way to manufacturing in a slyly executed move by an Olanek – and the Balance for it would come from someone else, for her need upon retrieving the Ring from the insensate hand of her predecessor had been to preserve the clan, which to this point she had done.

The current Wylan license would grow to a holding license in only another twelve Standards; Vertu’s personal goal was to take that first drive for the clan and retire, her duty done, with daughter to take up the Ring. But for now, within her clan, port duty went first to the one who’d had least of it within the last twelve-day and she’d been the lucky one for some time, finding on-call work from the Scout back office, from the Binjali repair shop, from people traveling anywhere but to or from the port’s pick-up line.

For that stretch of good fortune, she today had the on-port line while her daughter Fereda did the outer routes and her no-longer halfling son Chim Dal still likely partied his night off with friends who might well make him late tomorrow morning. Ah, to have such energy — and such friends! — as he did.

Dutifully, Vertu pulled her taxi into the secondary line, watching the first line’s ballet as they accepted or neglected fares. A quiet shift, she was perhaps seventh in line as she waited, allowing the car’s music system to wake up the day. Soon she was sixth, and then fifth, and fourth . . . fourth behind three drivers sitting for the morning meal as they waited.

That, of course, was one of her advantages – she did not eat nor game while on wait, nor drink, smoke, or chat for more than a moment or two with other drivers – and so she was not in the wrong to move forward when the manager of line one waved frantically at line two, despite the shiny row of on-duty line ones, all disdaining the next fare.

And so, there must be a reason.

She blinked as she pulled to the front, for the ''next fare'' was not one but two uniformed mercenary Terrans and their luggage. Clearly too large for many of the top-end cabs even without their hand-carry, with it they would have needed a moving service, or indeed, a multi-cab like the very one she drove.

The Terrans nodded to her, and the darker one held out a Unicredit card as she slowed to a stop.

She popped the doors, intending to assist, but they hustled into the cab without aid, depositing their luggage between them, the dark one still holding the card out.

''We need to visit this address,'' he said in what might be flawless Trade, but who knew, after all, Trade being a language without a home. He pulled out a folded sheet of hard copy which he held for her to see, adding, ''We may be some time at the location.''

She bowed a slight acknowledgment, pointing out, ''Traveler, time and distance are what I charge for, and so we are Balanced.''

She accepted the proffered card and waved it at the reader, which happily beeped and accepted the charge, for one Howler Higdon, if she read the transliterations correctly.

''Soonest is better!'' the larger of the two said.

''Yes,'' she agreed, ''soonest is always better.''

*

Unusual to say, the address was one she’d never delivered to before – in fact, she barely recognized the sub-quadrant, much less the crossroads, and was pleased to find the vehicle map knew more than she did. The quadrant was hardly one visited frequently by anyone, especially not sudden Terrans but she accelerated away from the line at a heady pace, wondering what they might want to see in the overgrown semi-wild sections of Solcintra’s abandoned old lands.

The in-cab camera showed the Terrans at peace with themselves, watching the trip with interest but unconcern, quiet. She’d anticipated perhaps a visit to a brothel, or a gambling hall, or even a shopping extravaganza – not any of them out of the way destinations for Terrans, in her experience. This was perhaps even beyond the last unusual request she’d had – a Terran starpilot demanding a direct ride to Korval’s holdings – but there, she’d learned from that trip to take the money, drive. . .and let the traveler take care of the details.

Routed through minimum traffic once away from the spaceport exit, the cab quickly passed through the usual areas of tourist interest – the largest buildings, the gaudy town-house estates of the most overreaching High and Mid-Houses, the quaint rows of elegant shops where the rich shopped, the fastidiously landscaped inner and mid-parks, the –

The Terrans spoke low among themselves, and if the language was any she’d ever been schooled in it was not recognized by her ear at this level, at this cadence.

''Your pardon, driver.''

She glanced to the screen, found his eyes waiting.

''Does the Serene Taxi Agency employ other vehicles? Might you be able to summon more if need be? Of this size or larger?''

She blinked, which he must have seen – he had enough Liaden to see the true-name, and hence to read her own on the driver-slot. Not, perhaps, a common Terran, here . . . .''

''I have several cars in my service,'' she admitted, ''though availability depends upon prior routings and arrangements. Have you an immediate request – does your friend need another destination?''

That made the dark man smile and the larger man chuckle.

''No, driver,'' the larger one said. ''It is that, if we find our destination as we envision it, we may wish to invite others to an event.'' He paused, glancing with some meaning she did not grasp to his companion, who suppressed a smile as he continued, ''The word for such an event is picnic in Terran, or call it a lunch-fest, perhaps, in Trade.''

She had Terran, to an extent, and this word picnic had come to her along with others of use to her trade and security – rob, take, orgy, bash . . . . The destination they had chosen seemed an . . . odd . . . place for a picnic.

''Ah,'' she said, to indicate that she had heard, but not wishing to add more. She watched the city wind down to the true old houses and abandoned shells of things long left to the elements as Greater Solcintra had grown. Some of the area actually belonged to this or that clan, other parts had been early communal areas built shortly after Landfall and ostensibly under the benevolent oversight of the Council of Clans. They called much of this area a park, but as so many things the Council did it was a convenient sop to appearances rather than a reality to be enjoyed by the average Solcintran.

Here, when they arrived, was a sharp corner leading into a sudden ridge top. There was a short cross-street; perhaps buildings had adorned each end at some distant moment in history. After that came a turnabout overlooking hills falling away so sharply that at least one of them might be called a cliff, hills that fell in green profusion to wild streams and scattered rock below. It was in its way even more unregulated than the wilderness around Korval’s valley, and a little disquieting, for it showed dissolution rather than desolation. The edge of the turnabout nearest the cliff lacked a buffer or curb, and there were marks there as if someone used the spot to push unwanted items into the ravine.

Vertu stopped on the side of the pavement with a curb, car and timer running, finding the address matched perfectly the one the dark Terran had given her. She looked into the camera then, finding her passengers looking elsewhere.

''Here we find your address. Shall you depart from me here, where there are neither people nor businesses, lost in the the backwoods of Solcintra?''

She trusted that Trade might somewhat hide her amusement, for surely she’d had worse fares. Still, as a destination it . . . .

The larger Terran said in a Trade undertone clearly meant for his companion rather than her, ''This could do it.''

She glanced up, meeting the dark man’s gaze in the camera, amusement flickering about his lips and eyes.

''If you might hold for us a short while, driver. We must take a few readings . . . .''

She bowed toward the camera, turned as if to show them the functioning of the doors, which, the cab being still, were able to be opened by either of them.

''You are my fare, and so I will await you, as the cab is empowered to charge you for time as well as travel.''

''Yes, that is so.'' He smiled into the camera, and the pair moved quickly, opening the doors and exiting, pulling their luggage with them.

She watched as they walked to the paved edge, speaking too quietly now for her to overhear, gesturing in directions that indicated the sweep of the streams below, and of hills on the farther side.

A piece of luggage was snatched up, zipped quickly from its sheathing — and there stood on Terran-tall tripod, an object from another piece of luggage mounted to it — and another. The dark man stood back from it, staring into a hand-held, free hand moving as if he counted seconds.

The larger man moved to the cliff edge, staring into the distance, hands to face as if he shielded his eyes from glare, or held some small object to peer through.

''There!''

The larger man pointed, and made some kind of hand-signal, and both of them were at the tripod, hefting it just over the rim to the hillside, sliding down the dirt there, urgently doing things she couldn’t quite see, until half of the tripod was out of sight, and half held its head above the paved plateau.

The larger man lurched up the side of the hill to the pavement, taking business-like strides past her and the taxi to the cross-street where he turned, surveying the view like a tourist, and then with purpose. He stooped, staring toward the tripod and his friend with a solemn expression.

''And so?'' he called out.

The smaller man replied across the distance, clearly saying:

''We’re synched. Port comm, ship comm, Higdon Central. Enough to start on, I’d say.''

''Got your recall on?''

''Can activate at will.''

''You know the drill, then. You’ll probably see me before you hear from me.''

A wave and the Terran near the tripod moved down the slope, disappearing from view. The large man strode back to the cab, opened the door smoothly and slid in, carefully engaging the lock.

''Thank you for waiting,'' he said as he adjusted his lanky form to fit the seat. ''Please start driving,'' he said carelessly, hand perhaps pointing toward the greater city.

Vertu bowed, put the car in motion. There were not all that many routes from here, after all . . .

She glanced into the camera, let the car straighten into the main road.

He watched, his face nearly Liaden in neutrality.

''I’d like to return to the spaceport area, but not to the point you picked us up. I’ll show you where as we get near, if I may. Also, I’d like to discuss hiring this vehicle for the next Standard Day, and another fifteen vehicles like it, if they may be had. I am able to pay cantra, in advance, at triple day rate, if you prefer.''

Returning her attention to the road, she bowed vaguely toward the camera.

''This discussion, we shall have it,'' she allowed in careful Trade, ''when we have a stop on the road.''

*

Wylan let the car’s taxi-channel chatter to itself as she turned off the direct route. The noodle shop made an excellent stop on the road, and the location was agreeable to the Terran. He, nameless, had been quite patient with her short quick inquiries over timing and locations once she’d admitted she’d be dealing with – she used the Trade term allies – to fill in the cars her own agency could not provide. That most of those would not be directly under her command she’d not let on, but there, the details need not concern him.

Into the camera, she began –

''Your need must be great, oh traveler, and you have many friends. I must, you understand, be sure of my necessities before committing so many of my resources . . .''

Also into the camera, the Terran: ''May I speak in confidence with you, and ask, if you find my offer not to your liking, that you permit me to make the offer to others –''

She bowed lightly in her seat, also raising her left hand with a slight shoo-away sign.

''If my melant’i finds your offer unfortunate, I will tell you so, carry you to a destination, and be done with it. I cannot be responsible for the melant’i of others, says the Code, nor should I wish to!''

''I appreciate your understanding,'' he said, ''and your honesty.'' He paused, reaching about his person as if in search of something, finally arriving at a bent card – yes, very much a card such as she herself might convey upon meeting new acquaintances of worth.

''It seems that I am come with a less than presentable card, and ask you to forgive my haste. Let me share this, if I may, as is –''

She opened the port and took the flimsy, which was a very high quality paper indeed.

The card was two-sided – one side printed in Trade, the other in Terran. Simple typography conveyed extremely chilling information.

Commander Octavius Higdon

Higdon’s Howlers

Military missions. Security to mayhem.

Guaranteed service

There were contact numbers listed, and the man in her cab’s passenger compartment — this Commander Higdon — quietly awaiting her reaction.

Vertu met his eyes in the screen.

''And you wish to invade our park?''

He sighed openly, which surprised her, but then Terrans were complicated, it was well known.

''I wish to expose my acquaintances to a larger experience here on Liad, and the park is an excellent location for it. In fact, my compatriots will carry their lunches and be prepared to enjoy them there, at my direction. Additionally, we are involved in a . . .situation of Balance – and my understanding is that by showing a presence here we may arrive at an equitable solution in a timely fashion.''

It was likely that she blinked at him, so unexpected was his declaration.

''Balance from off-worlders . . .is not something one often sees, here on Liad,'' she managed, ''since so many things that follow the Code are subtle and enforced by . . .'' she paused, seeking the right phrase in translation.

''Social pressure?''

He’d leaned forward, had the commander, offering his suggestion with deference.

''An accurate a turn of phrase,'' she said. ''I thank you.''

He nodded then, and perhaps threw in a shrug of indeterminate meaning, and made a hand gesture indicating perhaps, motion.

''As we noted before, soonest is better. A quick Balance sees you paid ahead and permits my friend at the gully to sleep indoors tonight! Thus, permit Higdon’s Howlers to charter your vehicle at the three-times rate now, and we shall add the others as you may arrange or broker, understanding that the request is on short notice.''

Vertu paused, considering, staring into the slightly thickening sky above, measuring her need.

Fereda, of course, was her need – it would be well to solve the girl’s urge for the soonest marriage. A single heir was all she required, of a good, if not High, clan.

The candidates were there, for Fereda kept track of those most eligible, as she kept track of the most likely contract price. And it was not as if Fereda had either a fear or a distaste for those she preferred as a father to her child – it was that her cha’laket was an artist and near-Healer, fragile in her necessities, and would not willingly abide a frequent parting. That Fereda thought this possible – well, that would be hers to mend.

The price of a husband had twice been within reach, and lost each time to business . . . this time, this time it would not be so. Three times day rate for each of Wylan’s three cabs, plus the broker fee from those others she enlisted. She would not — could not — name the sum entirely, but that it would be of use to Clan Wylan — that she could say with assurance.

''I will broker this,'' she said, ''and since Balance requires care and concern, for this my own retainer will be five times the day-rate. My other cars, and those of my associates, they will be paid for at your offered rate, per car, in advance, as they arrive to work.''

There was a pause and a glance, and a hint of a smile.

''This can be done, if we may adjust the number of total vehicles to a dozen.''

She bowed agreement.

''Here is five cantra,'' he said, showing them to the screen before placing them in the port’s tray, ''to seal the arrangements.''

*

It was the third return trip from the park to the port, and by now the fact of their passing was drawing attention, despite the window shields hiding their cargo of potential mayhem. Vertu’s cab was in the lead, with Fereda just behind. Vertu was sweating, despite the climate-controlled driver’s space.

They’d ferried the soldiers and their weapons, yes, to the hidden park — and they had done so several times, with the other dozen allied cabs assisting as they might.

Something had happened there, fighting and such, but the signs she’d seen of it were all on the rim of the park: soldiers tired and rumpled, some without the weapons and objects they’d carried in, soldiers dirty despite obvious attempts to clean up. Soldiers injured, who were assisted into passenger compartments by their undamaged comrades.

On this, her third return to Port, a wounded man occupied the seat behind Vertu, laughing with his mates, arm and shoulder bloodied. He included her in his conversation — a distraction, for he spoke Terran in a thick dialect that was almost as thick in Trade.

''Doncha worry, ma’am,'' he said when his mates had hustled him into the car. ''Don’ feel a thing. Doncha worry ‘bout Tommee, no’m. I’ll wrap this up some so’s we don’t getcher pretty car dirty. ‘mander made sure we know this ain’t like it’s a zone transport or nothing.''

His comrades folded him gently into the back seat, for he was a big Terran, and they chatted with him, trying to fix his attention, and free her to drive.

''Tommee, tell me about breakfasts, keed,'' they said – and when he laughed and said something half-finished, they had at him again, ''What’s the name of that girl waiting for them Hundred Hours?''

''Here,'' one said, soft-voiced under the rambling reminiscence of that lady’s charms. ''Just a shot, keed, so’s ya walk on yer own, an’ don’t go falling over on us.''

Tommee laughed, hearing that, or some part of it. ''Hellno! Donwan me fallin’ that’s sure! Take a platoon to carry me, eh?''

The soft-voiced one agreed, and there was the hiss of an injection, then a device came out of pack or pocket, and went around his arm — a monitor of some kind, Vertu thought, and dragged her attention back to her contracted duty.

The taxi call channels were jammed with people trying to escape something, of hurried visits to the country. Regulars were calling her in vain, for the call channels were reporting her cabs out of service, except perhaps Chim Dal, who had never answered his call to assist in today’s event.

Traffic was strangely light now, as if the Port and Low Port were emptied of all those who could go, as if the ''side door'' Commander Higdon had arranged truly opened upon some hidden corridors.

He had appeared, the commander, as Tommee was being loaded into her cab, and thrown what she thought might be a salute in her direction. She lowered the window as he leaned down.

''We’ve had a recall,'' he told her. ''Balance achieved.''

The boy Tommee, for Vertu realized that for all his length, he was young, no older than her missing son . . . Tommee was singing now, and didn’t even stop when a pair of noises erupted from the men on either side of him, each grabbing for a comm of some kind, and then each searching about themselves for –

''Tommee, where’s the sidearm, my boy?''

''Right leg storage pocket, Danil, just like regs. Just cause I got hit a little don’t mean . . .''

Beneath Tommee’s voice, continuing at length, came a chime from Routing Info indicating information incoming. Vertu looked to the screens, at routes blocked out, streets unavailable.

Unavailable?

''Ma’am,'' said the one called Danil, catching her eye in the screen. ''Our guys are seeing something a little bit like a riot, where we’re going. You may want to just drop us off a few blocks away and we’ll –''

The voice was respectful, and also his words. This did not hide the fact that he and his uninjured companion on Tommee’s left both had weapons in hand.

Vertu moved her foot, touching the floor stud that locked the partition, and brought the handgun out of the console.

''Is this an order, a robbery?''

The handgun . . . she’d fired it twice, the day she’d bought it, wondered if it would still work after all these years.

She drove on, knowing the cab’s protection was meant for urban dangers, civilians . . .

''No, ma’am,'' Danil said. ''Just that things may be out of hand towards the end of the trip . . .''

She barely spared him a glance as yet another route blinked out as impassable.

''I drive to Low Port, sir; a riot there is nothing new.''

No sooner the words were said than she regretted them, for Tommee, who by now held a firearm in his undamaged hand, began singing something in loud Trade about Low Port Tramps . . .

They were now just two blocks from the exit point, she and her fares, with Fereda behind, and several more cabs still continuing on in train. The city around them was darker than it should have been, the streets becoming crowded with what might well be a riot, with people of mixed station standing on the walks, and cars left idling on the side of the street, with . . .

The road in front of them erupted, scattering rock and road against the windshield.

''Grenades,'' said one, in the back, but by then she’d stopped the cab and unlocked all the doors.

''We’re out!

That was to her, no doubt, and the two able soldiers were out, dragging Tommee with them, and the cabs behind were disgorging their passengers as well.

Vertu saw her daughter’s car begin to move – she’d not had a casualty disembark, after all. On the sidewalks the soldiers were forming up.

''Anti-armor, get out of there!''

Vertu looked up, and there before her, perhaps three cab-lengths away, stood a man, an ordinary Liaden, well dressed and calm. He met her eyes, his face perfectly composed, as he brought a tube to his shoulder, pointing it toward her, no – toward Fereda’s cab! There were sounds she knew were guns, sounds she knew was small arms fire –

Her cab lept forward under her command, Tommee and his comrades scattering as she aimed it for this calm, ordinary man. It was satisfaction she felt, in the instant that he changed his stance, and moved the tube, acquiring her cab as his target.

Vertu slammed the controls forward; the cab roared —

All around was brilliance and sound. The cab was lofted, tumbling backwards, restraints flashed into being, holding her tight and safe.

The odors were incredible, immediate. Dust covered her. The cab was wedged at an unfortunate angle, but around her the sounds continued. The windscreen was a spidernest of crazed glass, the whole car shaking with the force of Fereda’s pounding against the door. With her were Vertu’s last fares, the soldiers, with Tommee, who had not fallen down.

The door was jammed. Trussed tight in safety tape, there was little Vertu could do to aid in her own rescue. One of the soldiers took Fereda’s place, another pulling her back with a gloved hand on her shoulder. There was a scream of tearing metal, and the door — was gone.

Vertu had time to blink the dust out of her eyes, before the crash-tape retracted and she fell into her daughter’s arms.

''Mother!''

''Daughter, I am well.''

''You could have been killed!''

''So I could, and you! A moment!''

Amid the chatter of gunfire and larger sounds, Vertu snatched her gun from its holder and returned to Fereda’s side. Around them, the riot was a war zone; the soldiers gathering in positions against whatever enemy there was. The man with the tube, there he was, leveling it again, this time at her –

There was time to shove Fereda behind her; to raise the gun, to see his face, his anger and his intent –

''Whoa, now! Civlins!''

Something struck her in the ribs with enough force to knock her from her feet to the ground, and Fereda atop her.

A very tall man stood above them, gun leveled.

The explosion deafened her, disoriented her. Fereda went limp, and she feared — but no, it was only the shock. They shoved against each other, untangling and grasping at arms and shoulders, climbing to their feet, staring again at a street in disorder, and —

Tommee!

The Liaden with the tube lay like an empty bread wrap, bloody back and side to them. Tommee was forward of his position, fallen after all — swearing, swearing, surely swearing in his peculiar Terran and in Trade, his legs — his foot, too far away from the rest of him . . .

He saw her — saw them — made a grimace that might have been a smile, saw the direction of her gaze, and followed it.

For a long moment, he looked at the red ruin of his leg, at the disconnected foot in its overlarge boot. He raised his head and met her eyes.



''Ma’am, thanks for the ride. ‘preciate. Reallydo.''

The soldier’s face, already ashen and staring upward, went pale and then bright as shadows flashed out of the day and color washed out of everything.

Vertu looked to the light above her, above them all, and there in the sky over the city there was a dancing lance of purplish light, and another and perhaps more; and a boom like a thousand thunder strikes at once washed over her. Her eyes involuntarily shut against the assault of sound and light, and then she opened them, looking up to find the source, but there was no source now, just a blazing brightness in the sky. She thought it was done, but another lance of light fell upon the city, and another until at last the sky was full of sudden cloud and billowing smoke. The skyblaze was done now, but the world and the people still shook in aftermath.

*

''Dere’s a Kindal Decent Wyman comn streetedge . . . cah checked . . . .''

The news came from a guard with a comm set in each ear, who stood nodding and scanning, nodding and scanning –

Vertu looked up from the comfort of the gun and leather, the sounds coming together oddly, with almost as much meaning as ''somebody ought to do something . . .'' and for the same reason – it meant something to another, and she needed to respond. She was sitting on the curb, drained of energy, with blood still wet before her, in the street, strange clouds and a lingering scintillant light behind the smoke still rising from the strikezone.

This guard was not one she’d carried to the battle zone – this one was female, not quite as large as Tommee, with a multigun in open readiness – and she had only the barest distinguishable Terran, no Trade nor Liaden.

The words came again, this time perhaps aimed at Fereda, who leaned against her whole cab behind the shambles that had been the Delm’s Own Cab, but Fereda had not heard; was not listening, as Vertu could see with a quick glance. The girl stood with a gun grip perilously showing from her jacket pocket, staring into the sky where the flash had taken color from the world and where now rose a column of darkness unsullied by the light of the setting sun.

Fereda had been crying, which was unseemly, but the mercs had the dignity not to notice, which gave Vertu a relief far beyond reason. That gave her strength enough to look into the guard’s eyes as she stood awaiting an answer, and replay the sounds she had uttered, seeking a sense which was suddenly plain.

''Chim Dal dea’San, Clan Wylan,'' she said, speaking as clearly as possible.

The guard blamed the headset for a miscommunication by tapping at it seriously – but again she nodded, and used her chin to point toward the MidPort end of the road, which was now unblocked of the half dozen cabs still mobile.

''Yesm gots it, and ‘mander Higdon gives goheath foyah, pair.''

Translation this time was easier. Vertu moved her hand to show that she had gotten the message, understanding that they were to go now. The gun and belt were heavy in her hand, but she had tried to give it back several times, and was every time refused. Tommee had been clear as they gathered him up –

''No’m,'' he said, ''I’m f’surgery, an’ got my backups. You had this, we’d all be better off. You take it, my gift. That’s mine own, an’ I give it to you, f— for your care. Pleased to be alive, ma’am, an’ you taking on anti-armor! You’d make merc if you wanted! I’ll sing your song, I will.''

They’d known what to do, his comrades, and she’d felt helpless as they’d used belts and tubes and collected what obvious parts of his legs as they could, and bore him away. The Commander had come by a few moments later as she was still clutching her daughter to her, the two of them perhaps weeping into the privacy of the other’s shoulder. His face was clean but the uniform had been busy; there was blood — perhaps even Tommee’s blood — on his sleeve.

How someone could be businesslike under these mad circumstances she did not know, but he had been, and she returned it as best she could.

''You have my card and you have my thanks. Smitty told me you sent your cab against anti-armor, and saved his life. By the rocks, you could have been killed! Good work, ma’am. I’ll make it good — you understand? A new cab; repairs. You have my card. Get to me with a bill, hear?''

He’d attempted a bow, gave it up, saluted, and was gone. His aide also refused to take Tommee’s gun from her – ''Ma’am, he knows it might be the last thing he gets to give if you have my meaning, and you took damage for him. He’s a newbie and his paycheck and his sidegun, it’s what he owns. If it was me, I’d keep it and sleep with it under my pillow!''

Vertu sighed, made sure of her grip on the leather belt that held Tommee’s gift, and walked unsteadily over to the cab, and her daughter leaning there. It had not escaped damage, this second of Wylan’s three vehicles — there were holes stitched down the driver’s door, a shattered window, a list to one side that spoke of blown stabilizers.

A bill, she thought wearily. For a new cab, and repairs.

Tomorrow, she would bill Higdon’s Howlers for the damage they had caused her. For now . . .

''Fereda,'' she said, extending a hand to touch her daughter’s pale and soot-streaked face.

The girl blinked as if she suddenly came to her senses from a swoon, stepping sharply away from her cab, away from Vertu’s hand.

She turned her back, arms crossed tightly over her chest.

Vertu gasped, heart stuttering at the violence of the act — worse than any she had witnessed this day. Worse even than that flash which had dazzled everyone and everything, more violent than the ground-shake, more violent than the noise when that arrived.

Heart-struck, Vertu drew a careful breath and exhaled. Surviving that, she drew another breath . . . and a third.

The leather was real in her hand, and she had to do, now, with what was real now.

There was a stain on the belt, and the gun was twice as heavy as her own, the one that Fereda held in such low esteem as to pocket it so clumsily that it might fall out. But it was hers, this gun. A gift, for her care. That was real.

The fighting had been short and sharp; she’d shot once or twice with the gun Fereda had, not because she knew who was shooting but because they were shooting at her, or her car, or her daughter, or bloody Tommee . . .

She did not look at the street. Instead, she paced forward until she faced her daughter, trying to ignore the dark clouds overhead and in her daughter’s visage.

''Fereda dea’San,'' she said to set face and distant eyes, ''we shall leave here together. On the morrow, if the planet is still here, we shall sit and speak together, telling over my errors.''

Her daughter shied away from the offered hand, but she began walking through the dust toward the end of the road, Vertu dea’San Clan Wylan, the Delm Herself, threw the gunbelt over her shoulder, and cinched the strap, walking as firmly as she could, stride for stride with her daughter.

This world, it made no sense any longer.

Tomorrow – tomorrow, she would do something about it.

* * *


Port City, Surebleak


The wind whipped by, the now familiar sound rushing down the narrow side-streets becoming a brief moan before becoming a continual rattling susurration of air, grit, and weather. Her well-used coat wrapped as tight as the seals allowed, Vertu dea’San forged ahead into the morning, the dim light of the promised dawn aiding her very slightly as the day’s snow began with a gust and a swirl.

The coat was a regretful purple color, with a collar imitating any of five different animal pelts, none convincingly. Despite its age and aesthetic deficiencies, it was warm, hung well on her, and swept the path she walked without impeding her Liaden-length stride. Her tall-peaked hat was hand-knit and accidentally color coordinated with her coat, with purple symbols of good luck splashed around the red-orange that was so often seen as winter colors here.

The hat was pulled down over her ears and tucked into the collar wrapped with the heavy ugly purple and orange scarf, which was also hand-knit locally. The hat peak was stuffed with an extra pair of light gloves in the top pouch, while her so-called wind gloves were still in her pocket, where their bulk warmed her hands and helped disguise her size, and perhaps her capability.

Being no-nonsense, she tried as much as possible to put aside the recognition that this morning might well be the coldest morning she’d experienced in her life, just as she’d put it aside yesterday. The boots did as advertised, being the most expensive of her recent acquisitions, and the only certifiably (as much as anything might be certified on Surebleak!) new ones. Her other outer clothes were used and comfortable, for she’d bought early, having whiled her time in the long lines by listening to the chat of those who were native. The wisdom of the natives was also to buy clothes somewhat large, for oversize became the perfect size when layered and layered again. The boots, of course, were harder to layer, but with them she wore thick socks — and had been glad of both on the first morning that the mush in the street tripped her – mush gone stone hard and jagged on the overnight.

The weather had been unrelenting, windy and cold, for the past seven-day now, and the forecast for the morrow was much the same. The night winds would move over the seacoast, pushing moisture into the swamp-regions, where it would gather energy from the barely frozen rivers, then push to and over the bowl of the city as the winds changed with the morning — and it would snow. The local at the bakery – Granita – promised Vertu that it had been a warm year so far, and that when real winter arrived, she’d wear her hood, sight loss or no, lessen she got herself some working blizzer goggles to hold on her face.

The street was not empty, but it being the dark of morning rather than the dark of night it was much safer than it might have been a quarter spin before. The doors of the open bars were far fewer, and the doors of the day businesses shone with the white blue of guide lights.

The door she wanted was across the street, and she looked both ways for traffic of vehicles, and then for people within intercept distance, and crossed to Brickoff Flourpower, where the door recognized her and whined open as she approached.

Behind the counter, Granita looked up with a grin. ''There you are, more on time than I’d guess!''

Vertu bowed in her direction wordlessly, letting the warmth comfort her as she read the words to be a welcome. It was good to expected and greeted, and she found it happened more often on Surebleak than it had in Low Port, and more often in Low Port than many of the Higher places she’d frequented in Solcintra. Who expected the ragged to recall one’s usual time of arrival?

''Why so, mother of baking?'' Vertu ventured, pulling her hat off and checking the room in the same motion. The Hooper sat in his corner, hands cupped around his mug of ‘toot . . . she knew it was ‘toot because he asked for it by name, and sometimes she was here before he was. He got ''’toot and crackers'' most mornings, the ''crackers'' being yesterday’s flatbread covered in a pasty flour-sauce with soy crumbles.

Granita extended a hand with two fingers straight up, which meant, here, ''hold that thought'' and rushed to the back to do something in response to a quick-triple beat beeping noise. The ticking wall clock chimed about then – it did count the quarters – and Vertu wondered if the clock-count was part of Granita’s secret to good service . . .

Vertu’s usual morning dish of Ronian Cheese was warming, it being a port-staple at all hours, and a proper-size cup sat on the counter side among a triple dozen of other unmatching and mostly oversized cups, the one waiting on Vertu, as had become a custom at the Flourpower these last seventy-seven mornings.

The Hooper said little to anyone, save Granita. In respect of his station, and also in acknowledgment of a service done her, Vertu accorded him a nod, and a half-raised hand, which was considered a ''good-morning'' here.

Chatter overheard from others of Flourpower’s reggers taught Vertu that The Hooper was an ''organeer'' — a musician, so she gathered, though the precise instrument eluded her understanding. Still, it would seem that any life event of importance — births, deaths, trothings — was made moreso by the presence of The Hooper and the blessing of his art. There were such on Liad — galan’ranubiet they were called: Treasures of the House.

True enough that The Hooper little looked like a Treasure. His clothes in winter-come were the same as in winter-coming – a brown hat with a brim all around and a small crown festooned with tiny green and white feathers – and a coatlet half as thick as hers, which he took off without fail upon entering, to reveal a vest with two dozen vari-size pockets, each pocket showing the tip of something metallic. He rarely took off his hat, which covered a half-bald spot in a head of otherwise bushy colorless hair, and when he did it was to neaten the thick sideburns of the same no-color that stopped abruptly in a razor sharp line, giving way some days to a light stubble and others to a face as smooth as hers.

Vertu had thought him an elder when first she had seen him; an impression that persisted. Others of the reggers called him Old Fellow, and others his proper name — and none with anything but respect.

Some mornings, The Hooper bent over his mug as if hoarding it, sipping his ‘toot with no crackers, and those mornings his hands moved restlessly over his pockets, as if he counted, as if the contents were pets that required gentling. On other mornings, he sat relaxed with his ‘toot and crackers, and a side of morning beans, and even engaged in an odd kind of conversation with others of the reggers, though never with Vertu herself.

Quite outside his obvious status as a Treasure, Vertu acknowledged a debt to The Hooper. Her first morning world-side, cold beyond any previous experience, disoriented and lost, she had someway stumbled after The Hooper, who had walked as a man who knew his street and also his destination, entered Flourpower in his wake, and stood behind him at the counter. He had ordered his meal, and she, tired and ragged-minded, uncomprehending the menu scrawled upon the pale blue wipe-board, had scarcely managed a whisper — ''What he is having, I will have.''

That was the second from the last time she had willfully ordered ‘toot, though of a day she might yet ask for crackers, and now that she was acknowledged regger, she owed him too for the information that, ''Dems reggers that brin thanown cup, dems saves a cup of fife!''

The fifth filled cup was free if you had your own cup, brought to the counter and offered, that stayed on the premises. Both Granita and her late-help Bets knew each cup by its owner, and knew, too, what went into each without fail.

Vertu’s beverage might be the oddest of all, for into her cup now went a measured haspoon of the local Yellobud tea, which was acceptable if brewed half as long as the locals did, the boiled water tempered by a cube before it was poured.

By now, besides The Hooper, she probably knew most of the reggers by face, and could tell if they’d been in, as they’d know if she had. If her cup wasn’t on the counter and she wasn’t at one of the two back tables she favored, then she’d comin-gawn, because usually dishwa happened once per day at close.

The reggers sometimes talked about the years with numbers of the local calendar, and it had been those discussions – forwarded perhaps for her edification, who knew? — that had convinced her of the good boots. They had told over people she saw sometimes daily, walking with a gait they’d ''picked up on ‘66 and they’d lost the little toe for burnfrost,'' or ''backta ‘59'' when the rains came for a week in mid-winter and toes and feet had mildewed or molded along with the clothes, until the thaw died.

Granita returned from the kitchen, her skinny face coming back to a smile from its work-a-day lines, as she answered Vertu’s question.

''Huh, girl. You come in here wif snow in your curls and boots, and down inside the collar. That’s a day with wind, and newfuns sometimes takeaback when the real weather gets in. Still, you’re a worker, I can tell, and bet you don’t let no boss down timewise.''

The bow fell from her shoulders along with the nod – here at least no one was annoyed if she might have Liaden habits, nor asked. Here was reggers, locals, strangers, or flights, and reggers might share a confidence, or might never. She’d seen some of the reggers in the wider world, where they’d sometimes think to raise left hand to left eyebrow in recognition, but else reggers mostly left reggers be, if not invited to converse.

''Not my best sun, this morning,'' she said, using one of the common phrases, ''but bright enough to get in!''

Granita’s smile got broad, and she pointed toward the warming tray.

''Got’s some starcheese just in to spice our Ronian Cheese if you want some, or the crackers haven’t been hardly dredged yet ‘cept for The Hooper, if you want something ribstickers.''

Vertu blinked, considering. She’d be early in line if the snow slowed folks down: early in and as likely early out.

''Ronian Cheese, that be fine.''

The bow came to her shoulders again, but the woman was already fetching the cube for her cup, and missed it.

*

Her ears burned, and not from the wind and snow.

Vertu held herself at her fullest height, glad for a new reason that her collar was high and her coat voluminous. She continued to look ahead as well she could while the man behind her muttered to the man behind him in a Terran so odd even that one had requested a sayagain.

There were things on Surebleak of which she was still unsure and finding answers was not always as easy as asking the person in line behind you, nor reading an infoscreen.

''Hworked treedays, mysel, liddle miz, donya haz to hwork toady yuwon booznrazzle. Payada ferya, feedsya an feelya fine. Gotz heat, gotz smokes, gotz dembigbed, yez, no bliz tashov, no dreamslong.''

That was as clear as she’d made it out after he’d tapped her diffidently on the shoulder – he’d apparently been repeating something she hadn’t understood was directed at her.

She shouldn’t have asked for a sayagain, for it came with a wide gap-toothed grin and the clear odor of alcohol and smoke and rampant decay.

The hurt of it was that his face was comely with mouth closed, and his person elsewise no more unkempt than any of the seven in line behind him.

She’d managed a ''Nothangya,'' accented as well as she might recall from bakery talk, holding back the bow as much as it hurt her nerves to do so, for the bow would have brought her closer to the lips with their near-blue inner smoke stains.

For the first time this day she doubted her decision to leave Liad and then shook herself with a derisive inner laughter in recognition that the choice had barely been hers.

Still, of the outcomes she’d considered, public solicitation for prostitution was proof that she’d erred –

NO!

She stamped her foot, the act stinging for her and unremarked by others here – who knew when one needed to rid the boot of snow or ice or mud, after all?

Well, at least the foot was warm, if still tingling from her anger. She bowed a tiny bow to herself, permission to admit error. That was a trick her only social mentor taught her a bare day before she was off to be Contract-wifed: sometimes the only real person in the room is yourself, but manners must be served even so.

In fact she was being unfair to herself, for she’d had such offers from travelers and drunks from the time she’d first driven for her clan, in fact since her second fare. Well she recalled that, and moreso since that person was seated yet on Liad, comfortable and honored on the Council of Clans, while she, Ring stripped from her finger, stood in danger of — but, again, no. She would not permit herself to believe that this banishment, this mercy from her daughter the delm, might yet end in the death for which the Council had sued.

The line moved, with the work-pair who’d stood in front of her moving now together toward a table to the left while four other tables with work supplicants in place were revealed to her. A very short line; apparently the weather was expected, indeed, to ''turn bad.''

The man behind shuffled close and whispered toward her, and she glanced at him, hard, pushing the lingo through her teeth, near as she could.

''Nothangya, heerit?''

He mumbled and backed away a half-step, lips tight.

Compared to the offer from a clan head to pet her face with tongue and tumescence, this man’s offer was downright honorable: ''I’ve worked three days myself, little miss. You don’t have to work today if you want to booze and wrestle. Payday for you, food for you, feels fine for you. Got heat, got smokes, got a damn big bed. Yes, I say no blizzard to shovel, no dreaming alone.''

Her delm had been unimpressed by her outrage — a lesson well learned, that. A Lower House could hardly bring such a complaint against one of the High without evidence – and such evidence, were there any, would hardly survive the impoundment.

Here, the offer was a passing of the time of day. Practical and even, perhaps honorable. That she had living funds for less than a Standard more in this place weighed on her, but work was in fact available at times . . . and she was in noways desperate, this day.

The table to the right cleared, a man of middle height and middle years smiling and hurrying off with a bright blue chit in hand – going to do something for the street association, she’d figured out over time. That would be day-pay and not long-term, she’d heard in the bakery, but day-pay was day-pay, after all.

She took the vacant spot with alacrity.

''Heavy manual labor?''

The man behind the table was familiar; his voice was brusque and impartial as ever. She raised her head in consideration, and made a counteroffer, staring at the seven bright blue tubs behind him, each mostly empty, and the brown one, with scraps in the bottom.

''Mechanics, systems, detail work, Trade-writing, Liaden-writing, light stock and inventory, driving.''

The man pursed his lips.

''Picked up anything new overnight? This ain’t being a busy day.''

''Translation? Garden design?''

He shook his head, muttering, ''Don’t think so.''

He turned dutifully and pulled the few sheets of hard copy out of the brown tub, fanning them, glancing up with a sigh and going through the sheets one by one, the first quite dismissively.

''I got armed security, long-term – bring your own gun, night work. I got ‘crete formula mixer, experienced.'' He paused, shook his head. ''That one I bet you can do, sound of you, but they want experienced, which I’m betting you can’t.''

''This is true, '' she admitted. ''I can learn –''

''No on the job training, they’re right clear, since winter-time set-up is nothing for beginners.''

He pulled another sheet. ''Whorehouse needs all positions, mixed hours.''

She closed her eyes. Not yet.

''Serious work there,'' he said earnestly. ''An’ they got need for some folk who ain’t doing the customers . . .''

She moved a hand, cutting him off. ''And else?''

He dropped the cards back into the tub with a shrug.

''Guess else is tomorrow, if we can keep the doors open.''

A half-bow she offered, and then gave a second thought.

''Security, night work? Is it experienced?''

The man sat back, looked at her shrewdly, appraising.

''Bring your own gun,'' he reminded her, but he reached into the tub for the flimsy.

''If necessary, I can do that.'' She straightened, and took a deep breath. Be assured, she told herself. Show no doubt. She had done well, Skyblaze night, had she not? She could –

''Yeah, I mean we all can, right? But they’re looking for serious hardware . . . damn, I was impressed when I read it coming in.''

He flipped the sheet, then pulled free the clip-attached sheet, with notes on both sides, running his gaze rapidly down first one side, then the other.

''Here it is, let’s see . . . dumbty here it is . . . ‘Must be Nordley, Bangtu, Lademeter, or certified genuine Resh & Rolfe or Zombin.’'' He looked up into her face. ''Big guns, ma’am; not street-wear.''

She held his eyes a moment, then half-bowed, hiding her sigh, and her hand.

''Do they mention caliber or charge-range?''

He glanced down, then again to her.

''It says here, service-rating. That’s a gun that can be shot every day and –''

''Yes,'' she said, drawing close as if to peer at the paper, at the same time briefly displaying her cradled hands.

His eyes widened. He nodded, several times, and cleared his throat.

''Oh, yes, umm, a Nordley Thirty Pack would do,

but . . .''

He turned the papers over; finger tracing the details.

''You gotta supply your own nightsight gear, too, combat status. And a cold weather suit.''

She said something very potent under her breath and he held his hands up, palm out, placating.

''These things grow on trees on Surebleak?''

He blinked, eyes flicking to her hands. Vertu smiled, deliberately, and tucked the weapon away.

''Forgive, it was not to threaten you. But work is good.''

He nodded, relaxing visibly, still using his hands for emphasis.

''I was hoping we had you a match today, much as I seen you in here. Maybe come winter-gone, if you can get in with ‘em. It’s port security, they’re beefing up big time, but best come here unless you get an in with a Boss to put your name through.''

She made a puffing sound with her lips as the gun found its inner pocket.

''Security is not my first choice, please.''

''Got that,'' he said, nodding. ''Yes, got that.''

He opened his hands wide – and went on, ''Far as I know, all the others is digging, shoveling, construction, work-crew things. Even the forefolk gotta be able to stand shoulder-up with the rest of the crew . . .''

''Ayes and more,'' she said, drawing from the bakery, and making his eyes widen again. ''I understand.''

''Good. And sorry. You best get on to cover by lunch, ‘specting a bad one, I hear.''

''Heard it ya.'' She nodded and turned at the dismissal, striding with unexpected purpose past the man who’d been behind her, who must have seen or heard something of her discussion, because he cleared room for her, hissing, ''Seery, seery, ma’am, nothinmen.''

Nothing meant.

Perhaps she should break into her precious capital to buy herself a coldsuit and dark-goggles? Work was, truly said, work, and the contract had been long-term. Weighing the matter, she nearly walked all unsealed into the storm.

Warned by the clatter of the door and the frigid breeze that kissed her face, she stopped there in the vestibule to seal her coat against the wind and snow. She pulled her hat on, and gloves, being sure that the coat’s collar was well up around her face.

Think, Vertu, can you really report to your daughter, the delm, that you’ve hired on as a gun hand? That report she must take to the Council and Wylan is not yet safe from the price of your errors. You are a dangerously unbalanced radical, in league with the villains Korval. Gun-hire is the last thing you want — even less than the whorehouse.

Mouth tight, she slapped the door with her palm, unnecessarily hard, and stepped out into the storm.

She hesitated then, at the side of the door, considering her best route. Her first day, her first purchase, save The Hooper-imitated meal, was a set of maps: Port map, city map, country map, world map. The disorientation she had felt, disembarking from the ship, the understanding that she knew where nothing in this city was situated, nor the three best routes to gain them. Then, at that moment, she had almost carried out the Council’s first judgment, that her delm had appealed and fought and argued until Vertu had her life back, but not, never again, on Liad.

The moment had passed, and she had resolutely gone forward, trying to feel out a new life — a life without clan — on this strange and bitter world. There were moments — of course there were moments, of doubt, and of loneliness. Those things she endured, as befit one who had once been Wylan Herself.

Now though, just this instant, staring out into the skirling snow, and the street near empty of traffic — gods, how she wanted her cab, to feel the controls in her hands, and the seat that knew her form, and the whole of the Port in her head, as familiar as the face of a lover.

The snow swirled, wrapping her in impenetrable whiteness, then parted, revealing — a cab.

That it was not her cab was quickly and painfully apparent, yet it proceeded as a cab should, businesslike and foursquare down the snow-filled street, the yellow ready-light set atop it turning the dancing flakes into gold.

Breath-caught, Vertu watched its progress, the driver a silhouette inside the cabin. She watched until it had passed her and made the turn at the end of the street, left — toward the port proper.

Only then did she breathe, looking down to find her coat growing a second coat of sparkling flakes, and realized that she was cold.

Flourpower, she thought, thinking of warmth and companionship and food. Before they closed, she would go there, and spoil herself with new food. After all, she thought, setting out with a care for the slippery walk, today she had almost found a job, and that was already better than yesterday.



*

Vertu’s mug sat, steaming, before she’d had her coat off. The coat-racks were full since the room, too, was almost full, so she laid the snow-rimed coat beside her on the bench seat she’d ended up with, back in the colder corner, away from the kitchen, near the sealed and covered side-window – so dealing with the coat had taken time. Her order of soup of the day was acknowledged with a wave, and promised as up in a minute.

It was good to see the room so full, and the sound level elevated. Good for this hour, at least. She’d probably not want so lively a place early in the wake-up time of the day. Granita deserved a good day if the morrow was going to be a snow-mess, and talk was of little else.

''I ain’t putting a screen in, Lesker. No, I am not! You wanna keep up, that’s for you. But folks come here to eat, not to stare at sat-pics of show-tops. Just ‘cause they got themselves a weatherman don’t mean I gotta do one thing about him.''

Well, they did have a weatherman, and apparently Surebleak hadn’t had one before – they being the so-called Road Boss, the Delms Korval – and now there was real-time forecasting and interpretation, too, instead of the antiquated six spot condition reports that the Port had been using the last fifty Standards to approximate how a day might shape.

Delms or delm, Korval they still were to Vertu, no matter the mythic transition that had, for Surebleak, made the prime yos’Phelium into his cousin’s little brother, and gained him a new title. Korval still lived under Tree, which was well enough, and from spot and spot around the city she was pleased to see the crown or more of that great Tree, and still – as light or cloud formation drew her eye to it – she bowed to it from time to time as she had in Solcintra.

As in Solcintra, too, the gambling cousin lived in the city, gambling still; his stakes being no higher than a planet’s survival. That story she had only in pieces, how Boss Conrad had come from nowhere and, one by one, toppled the most abusive of the Bosses, turning the patchwork territories into a more congenial whole, using talk and gun and explosives as required, and only as much of any as was needed. Thus he’d become legend before she’d arrived as a ‘comer.

Legends. As a gambler in Solcintra he had been quiet, even cordial in her cab the time or two he’d traveled alone in it; and when he traveled with a companion in the late evenings as he had from time to time, he had been nothing but exacting in his attentions – to the companion.

Her cup hand flat on the table, Vertu sighed, acknowledging the lack of Ring on her finger. The Boss – Boss Conrad, who had been Pat Rin yos’Phelium, Clan Korval — he, of course, wore the Ring wrong-fingered, while his ''little brother'' wore another, properly. She no longer wore a Ring, nor wanted one in this place where having even such a modest Ring as Wylan possessed might leave one throttled and motionless of a night-time sidestreet.

Vertu shook those thoughts away, and deliberately looked about the room. She recognized some of the reggers, was rewarded with nods and finger waves by them, and waited patiently for her soup. The clock chimed a quarter – and as if that was a signal, folk around the room began to rustle themselves about, to rise and start donning coats, or to hurry-sip the dregs of their cups, or some to wrap what was left of their lunch into bags or napkins to take with.

It was, she reckoned, not quite closing time, but – oh. Several of the nearby bars opened for day business soon, and on a day such as this some of the reggers would be trading one seat for another about now.

Snow squalled into the room as four patrons left together, the small outer welcome way doing nothing to dim the ferocity. Vertu shivered involuntarily. She had been hoping for moderation, but if anything, the weather had gotten worse in the short time she’d been sipping her tea.

Ah, and the door had not only been open to let some out, but to let The Hooper in. He all but fell into his no doubt warm just-vacated regular spot, his hat uncharacteristically flung to the table top as he mopped snow off his brow and face.

Vertu watched him as other patrons filed out, until finally it was just the two of them, the sounds of the wind outside and the clatter of the unseen kitchen work. He was visibly more comfortable now, though she saw a couple of fleeting half-suppressed reaches toward his vest, but not the full-fledged search she’d seen him do at other times, when clearly agitated. Merely a trifle out of sorts then . . .

''’toot?''

Granita’s voice was muffled as she peered at the room from behind the back counter, and she repeated herself, louder.

''’toot? I got your cup here if –''

The Hooper beat his hat against his knee and pulled it on, only then admitting that he’d heard her.

''Guess so, if’s time.''

''Extra few minutes ain’t a problem, you know. Girl here’s got about the last of the food though, less you want some biscuits. Fact, I’ll bring you both some, on me, ‘cause they won’t wait so good for tomorrow.''

The soup came, a bowl for her, delivered with a nod and three cheese biscuits, while a hot cup of the same and three more biscuits went to The Hooper, who had leaned his chair back against the wall while he ate, his foot twitching time to a tune only he could hear.

Granita might have seen his nerves, because she paused, waving her hands toward the door.

''A little too long a walk down to the Stadium today, or they run out of lights already?''

The Hooper shook his head, took a sudden interest in one of his biscuits, stuffing it into his mouth all at once while he moved his hand as if he explained something the whole time he was chewing.

''Got lights, but not my best welcome right now,'' he said, biting into another biscuit like he was afraid it might get away from him, following Granita with his eyes as she straightened chairs and wiped tables down.

''Looked to be Bopst Eckman and High-Man Prezman hanging at the Stadium door, it did, the pair both. Thought I saw your Harley Irsay ahead of ‘em, going in. Hasn’t seen them twonce since I dunno – no I do, it’d be the Wicky and David wedding day, same day as when I saw them together at Cholo’s wake, when they took the casket-bottle and thought no one saw ‘em. Not my best welcome, any of themselves, you know it.''

The soup was hot and nourishing if not up to the standards of a fine Liaden restaurant – certainly there were too many beans and tubers, and too much salt – but with the butter and the biscuits Vertu felt on the cusp of content, despite the coming frosty trudge to her small apartment in the Hearstings. Vertu concentrated on her food, trying to be inconspicuous – she’d never heard The Hooper open up quite so much, nor speak quite so clearly.

The door shook with the wind, and then opened roughly – not the wind, but a large man in a rustic black coat nearly as long as her own, and wearing a hooded overcape so covered in snow as to deaden the loud stripes to spots.

He looked in and around, pushed the door against the wind and noise and yelled ''Get in!''

Two more snow-covered forms trailed behind, and the last of them pulled the door to with a will, slapping at the day-locks like a guard before stamping his feet and shaking the snow away.

It wasn’t her imagination: the sound The Hooper made was close to a sob, right then, overwhelmed instantly by the loud and bitter, ''Get out!'' Granita the baker offered them as she brandished her slops tray like a weapon.

*

The big man looked past Granita, right at Vertu.

''You belong here, do you? Just eating? Or you from the Patrol?''

''Get out,'' Granita repeated. ''Closin’ time; we’re done.''

The big man casually turned to her, laughing.

''You got no right to run me out, girl. Just shut up!''

For a moment they stared at each, and then the baker fled toward the rear of the place, leaving a pile of dishes on the table.

The other men were noisily looking about and taking coats off, but there was no doubt that this one, hand to the inside of his coat, was both wary and dangerous.

Her voice caught in her throat for a long moment.

''You talk at all? Speak up!''

The words formed, finally, on her lips.

''I eat here. Often. I —''

''She got herself a mug, Harley, so she’s a regger. Pretty little regger, ain’t she?''

''Quiet, gots to be sure. Patrol?''

She shook her head, Terran-style.

''Not Patrol. I just eat here.''

''Don’t know you, so you’re new. Good. Bidness is good all over they say, ‘cept for the dead bosses who ain’t saying nothing. Your work for a Boss?''

She shook her head again, aghast at his rudeness, unable to marshal a fitting response to it. The cut direct, she suspected, would be lost on this person. And that left only civil answers to his questions as defense.

''Looking for work,'' she said.

The man turned his back on her, to look at The Hooper, huddled in the corner.

''More than you do, old man,'' he said, pointing at Vertu. ''Least she’s looking for work. All you do is make silly sounds and trouble for people. You know what I mean, old man. More than once the news spread I did this or that and the only one might know was you, can see right through them closed eyes of yours when you’re drunk, can’t you? But we can work this out, ‘cause there’s a great storm here right now, and we’ll all be here for a good long time while this new patrol’s out looking for us.''

Vertu had caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and saw Granita, face pale and stern, standing behind the counter with a strange looking weapon –

''Out, Harley! Get out!''

He turned on her, his hand full of a gun of his own.

''I staked you to this, girl, and we was just about married, and that means this is my place, too. You got no right to –''

Granita raised her weapon, and it was her turn to say, ''Shut up.''

''These things,'' he said, ignoring the gun entire and picking up one of the mugs; ''These are mine aren’t they? It was my idea, I told you how they did it, off-world.'' He smashed the mug into the pile of dishes, picked up another and smashed it, turned the tray over and laughed as they fell, kicking at the remains.

He moved his hand, and his confederates rushed into The Hopper’s corner, lifting him effortlessly and dragging him to stand before Harley.

''Can’t rightly aim that, can you?'' He said to Granita. ''Your old regger here – him and me got a lot to talk about. Might as well put that down – we got what we need for a snow party now, don’t we? We can have some music, and we got us a couple women, we got food and ‘toot, and since the old man don’t need none, that’s enough women to get us by ‘til this storm’s done in a couple days, all comfortable and snug.''

''Let him go, Harley – this ain’t his fight.''

''He don’t get fight, he just gets hurt.'' One of the followers that was, suddenly launching a flurry of strikes and blows at The Hooper while his mate held the sobbing man.

Vertu stirred, then, not sure how to best interfere, how to help —

''See? You can’t do it! You had a knife on me and you couldn’t use it!''

They were slapping the The Hooper now, one after another. He made no move to resist, only holding his hands down over his vest, over his precious things — until Harley stepped in, snatching at pockets, fishing out one, two, three tiny objects, slick and silvery as fish as they fell to the floor. Heavy boots rose – fell . . .

The Hooper yelled, wordless, fighting now, the one who held him laughing as he twisted the old arms harder.

''Stop!''

Authority rang in that voice, and for a moment Vertu thought that the Patrol had arrived.

But no, she realized, standing tall with Tommee’s gift ready in her hand — it was only Vertu dea’San, playing the fool once more.

She hit the side switch that would throw the weapon power, the hum adding itself to the racket in the room.

''’Ware! Gun!'' The follower pointed, too far away to interfere with her.

Harley turned, his weapon shining in the light, his eyes targeting her as he moved.

There were two explosions, then perhaps a third . . . a rush of smoke and whining, zinging things. There came a groan, the room was full of smoke, and Granita shouted, ''Don’t shoot!''

*

The Patrol arrived, stepping in through the door the moment Granita snapped the locks back. Two went immediately forward: one to The Hooper where he knelt on the floor, moaning as he picked up bits of silver and what might be reed, and placing them in a startlingly white kerchief.

The second Patrolwoman went to Harley and his mates, standing cowed beneath the baleful glare of Vertu’s gun, unsnapping wrist restraints from her belt as she walked.

The third — was Liaden, and walked with the soundless step of a Scout, to Vertu’s very side, taking care to be seen, yet not be in her sights. He paused at the proper distance for speaking to a stranger and bowed gently.

''Galandaria, I am grateful for your assistance, and regret that it was necessary. I am Scout Lieutenant ter’Volla, detached to the Surebleak Street Patrol. My crew and I are tardy, but now we are come. You may stand down, if you please.''

In truth, the Nordley had grown heavy, and it was all she could do, to hold it on target. Vertu inclined her head to indicate that she had heard, averted the gun’s gaze, and touched the power-stud.

The hum died, and she slid the weapon away before turning to face the Scout and showing him empty palms.

''It is well,'' he said. ''Again, I regret. I will need your name, for the reports, and also, please a description of what has happened here.''

*

The wind had lessened, and the snow fell silent and bewitching in the meager day-light. Vertu dea’San stood at the crossroads, her hat pulled low and her gloved hands tucked into her coat pockets, checking her direction against the maps she had memorized.

The Patrol, having gained names and reports, had dispersed, two taking Harley and his mates on foot to the so-called ''station house,'' while the Scout and Granita coaxed The Hooper into the Patrol’s own car, for transport to Ms. Audrey’s whorehouse, where it appeared he had call upon a room at need, and folk to give him the care due kin.

That was, in Vertu’s view, only proper — a Treasure of the House deserved nothing less.

For herself, she had been left staring at the white kerchief and its burden of bits and splinters, and one instrument nearly whole so that she might say with authority that she had never before seen its like.

''These,'' she said to Scout Lieutenant ter’Volla. ''The Hooper is galan’ranubiet. These are the instruments of his art.''

The Scout moved his shoulders. ''He has others, yet safe in their pockets. The lack of these will not silence his voice.''

''Only limit what he might say,'' Vertu answered, perhaps more sharply than was required.

He looked at her, the Scout, and abruptly he bowed as to one who has spoken a pure truth.

''This is so. Have you an interest?''

An interest? She looked at the broken bits, stark against the white kerchief, remembered The Hooper checking his pockets of a morning, gentling his pets.

''Somebody,'' she said, ''ought to do something.''

''Ah.'' The Scout looked toward the ceiling, as if seeking advice from the lighting, then looked back to Vertu. ''If you find that it falls to you to serve one who is, in truth, a Treasure, then you may bear these to the Port Repair and ask for Andy Mack, who may, or may not, be inclined to repair them. Say that ter’Volla sent you, and that these are rescues.'' There was a pause, and perhaps the glimmer of a smile, before he added, ''Say also that, yes, I do know that he is busy, and he may call upon me for Balance.''

So it was that Vertu dea’San found herself at the crossroads, consulting the map in her head and counseling herself that it was too far, at this time, in this weather, to walk.

The pieces of The Hooper’s instruments, tied up in their white kerchief, were sealed into an inner coat pocket, safe from the snow. For herself, however . . . she was cold, and the Port no small distance from where she stood.

Truly, she thought, one needed a cab.

And as before, precisely as if her thought had summoned it, there came a cab, the very same garish yellow cab she had seen earlier, the roof-mounted light telling all who might care that it was available for hire.

Vertu’s hand signal flashed out and up as the cab proceeded down the street, and past her to about its own length, before it pulled aside and stopped, the door nearest the walk popping open.

She — did not run; the footing was too uncertain for that. She did, however, hurry, noting as she entered the passenger compartment the name painted in too-thin letters on the side door: Jemie’s Taxi.

''Where to?'' a cheerful voice asked her as the door sealed behind her.

''The Port, if you please. The repair shop of Andy Mack.'' Vertu said, looking up to find, not a screen, but merely a glass partition with a speaker set at low center.

The figure in the driver’s slot was thin and gave the impression of extreme youth. An impression which was not amended when the driver turned to face Vertu through the glass, shaking ragged black bangs out of brilliant blue eyes.

''Port’s outta reach right now, sorry to say. Road was open, but what’s some amateur gotta do but put his delivery wagon right across all lanes at Vine’s toll — at what ustabe Vine’s tollbooths. Word comes down —'' She leaned to her control board and tapped what Vertu took to be the router — that the road crew’s working on it, but the weather ain’t makin’ things easy. Don’t suppose you got a backup plan?''

''In fact,'' Vertu said to that absurdly young and open face, ''I do. If traffic is stopped at Vine’s tollbooths, then we may re-route down Fuller Avenue.''

A startled blink was her answer, followed by a look of concentration.

''Yanno . . .'' The driver paused, possibly checking the map in her head, even as Vertu rechecked her own.

''Yeah, that’d work. Thanks!''

She faced front, and gave the vehicle its office, moving inexorably through the snow.

''Weather update says storm’s about done,'' she said over her shoulder. ''So, not as bad as we’d braced for, but plenty bad enough. I’m Jemie, by the way. You?''

There was no need for the driver of a taxi to know the name of a particular fare, except insofar as Unicredit or some other voucher might record it within the payment system. Nonetheless, Vertu answered, choosing to see the question as a pleasantry born, perhaps, of a slow day.

''My name is Vertu,'' she said, giving only one, as Jemie had done.

''That’s pretty. Liaden, huh?''

''Indeed.''

''Pretty good idea ‘bout goin’ around. Fuller’s nice and wide — oughta be able to get down there, no problem. You drive?''

It was Vertu’s turn to blink. ''Your pardon?''

''You drive? Like a cab, or maybe a delivery wagon? Don’t meet many who got the streets laid out in their head. Meet more who think it’s kinda funny that I do.''

''Once, I had owned a small fleet,'' she said, slowly. ''Three cabs, and thinking of a fourth.''

''Yeah?'' blue eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. ''What happened?''

''There was . . . a war action. At — On Liad, they name it Skyblaze. I — my cab and I — picked up the wrong fare.''

''Hey, that’s tough.'' There was a moment of silence, as the driver maneuvered them around what appeared to be another car, abandoned in the center of the road.

''Amateurs,'' Jemie muttered. ''Could at least’ve pulled it to the curb. So!'' she said a moment later, the hazard to travel safely behind them, ''you lookin to set up?''

Vertu shook her head. ''I have . . . limited funds.''

''Don’t we all? Worse luck, too. What’ve I got but the Colonel hisself willin’ to stake me a cab, but I gotta find a ‘nother driver. With references. ‘nother driver’s bad enough. References — wellhell, I’m the first legit cab ever, less you count them little jitneys they’re usin’ to move folk around Port proper.'' Another blue glance in the mirror. ''You don’t happen t’have references, do ya, Vertu?''

For a moment, she sat there, thinking of the references she could have produced, before Skyblaze, and the Council’s judgment and her banishment from clan and kin . . .

''As a driver, locally,'' she said, keeping her voice steady with an effort. ''I fear not.''

''Wellhell,'' Jemie said again, making the turn from the Port Road onto Fuller Avenue with commendable caution. ''You’re for Mack’s shop, though, right?''

''I am, yes.''

''He know you?''

''No. I am sent to him by the Patrol.''

''Well, maybe we can talk him inta letting you do a — whasit called, when you try somebody out and see if they can do the job? A parole?''

''Probation?'' Vertu suggested, wondering after the connection between the Colonel who staked cabs and Andy Mack of Port Repairs.

''Right.'' Jemie sighed, and the cab made a smooth turn out of Fuller Avenue and into the Port Road. Behind them, Vertu could see the blinking red lights of emergency equipment. Ahead of them was the entrance to Surebleak Port.

''You gonna need a ride back, Vertu?''

She looked out the window. The snow had dwindled to a stop, and the star was slightly more robust in the greycast sky.

''I believe that I’ll walk.''

''I b’lieve that you’ll freeze your tail, you try it,'' Jemie said frankly. ''Tell you what, I’m gonna stop at the Emerald and eat m’supper. You finish with Mack, come on over — it’s just ‘round the corner. I’m still there, we’ll work something out for pay — maybe you can drive f’me one night I need to be elsewhere. That suit?''

''That — suits. But —''

''No buts, woman! We’ll work it out. Later. Right now, here y’are. Get on out and let a girl get something ta eat.''

The door opened at her elbow. Vertu reached into the pocket of her coat, fished out the few coins she found there and put them in the pass-tray.

''Hey —''

''For the cab,'' she said, overriding Jemie’s protest. ''The cab costs, and those costs must be covered.'' She pulled her coat around her and exited.

''Thank you!'' she called and closed the door.

*

The man was Terran and grizzled, and he’d hauled himself out from beneath an obscenely large and smelly piece of something that appeared to be an engine of some sort, the while complaining, ''Whoever used this scooter last is gonna have to learn to adjust it proper!''

Vertu heard the same thing three times and was still not sure if ''this scooter'' was the item with wheels that he rode flat on his back as he came out feet first or if it was the object he’d been under.

''I’m Mack,'' he said brusquely. ''These are rescues, eh? I guess someone thinks that’s important, but it ain’t like I don’t got a hundred dozen other rescues to deal with –''

He looked at the knotted kerchief she held, and let her continue to hold it while he stretched several times, as if being under things was not what he was best at.

''This thing’s a rescue, too,'' he muttered, ''and damned if I know why they found it now and not a generation ago when we might still’ve had parts somewhere here or in half the ports near-space. But no, now they find it, and it’s up to me to get it running.'' He shook his head, glared at her and demanded, ''Who’d you say sent you?''

''Scout Lieutenant ter’Volla sends me. These —'' she held up the kerchief, ''are rescues. They are all from the pockets of a crime victim. They are important because they belong to a galan’ranubiet.''

Andy Mack blinked.

''I got lotsa vocabulary, young lady, but that’s one I don’t know. And who are you, by the way?''

''Vertu dea’San,'' she said, biting the clan name away.

He shook his head again. ''Everybody’s important, you ever notice that, Ms. Vertu?'' He shook his head once more. ''’specially when they want somebody else to do something for them.''

Vertu inclined her head, the smile coming. ''Scout ter’Volla gave me to say that, yes he did know that you were very busy and that you might call upon him for Balance.''

He snickered, waved one hand toward the ceiling.

''ter’Volla, is it? Well then, I can see who’s climbing the gantry next time I need some lights changed!''

Vertu laughed, which was needful: such sounds had not come willingly to her since her son had dropped her and her scant luggage at Solcintra Port in obedience to the Council’s order.

''All right, then, since the Scout’s willing to pay. Bring what you got over here and I’ll take a look . . .''

Vertu bowed then, thanks to a master, but if he noticed, or knew, he offered no bow in return because he was already striding toward a room-side table. The place echoed with their steps, and there were other noises in constant background hum – heaters and blowers, perhaps, and maybe a device compressing air, and perhaps the hiss of air leaking from someplace that was not the cold outside but a spherical tank.

''Ms. Vertu,'' he said over his shoulder, ''what is a galan’ranubiet, and what’s it doing owning a handkerchief full o’junk what needs repair?''

She strode with him, impressed that for one who claimed not to know the word he’d managed to both recall it and pronounce it. True, it was not a Solcintran accent he used, but he’d been taught by a native speaker. The clicks and sounds of the place were not sufficient to hide a facility with language.

''A galan’ranubiet is a person, Andy Mack, a person with an extreme melant’i . . . an earned recognition, that would be. Someone with, let us say, knowledge or skills of importance to a whole community.''

''Well, hand it over,'' he said, ''and if that’s the case, I pity the person because no doubt they got more to do and less to do it with than they ever did.''

Vertu placed the kerchief on the desk, and was surprised to see him reach not for it, but for a small pad of paper and a writing stylus.

In good, round script he wrote, ''Received of Vertu dea’San, one bag of community treasures . . .'' then he looked up – ''Who’re these from?''

''The man’s call name, what they know him as on the street, it is ‘The Hooper’.''

Andy Mack’s startlement was clear in the near explosive intake of breath.

''Crime victim? The Hooper? Is he in health? What happened?''

There was no playfulness in him now, but full attention.

''The Patrol wrote in the report that he was ‘beat up by punks’.''

The Colonel’s expression got even more serious, but if he was going to speak his words were swept away by the deep voice of a large man who was suddenly, otherwise silently, beside them.

''Beat up by punks? Guess that’s a report waiting for me!''

*

The jacket was battered and totally incongruous for the weather; the face somehow familiar. That she’d reached for her gun as a first reaction wasn’t lost to the man who owned the face; his hand twitched but he suppressed it instantly.

Her hand had been slower to stop and closer to acting; perhaps in a public place it wouldn’t have been noted.

She blushed even before Andy Mack started chuckling –

''’swat you get from sneaking in a back door like a galoot ‘stead of coming in like folk!''

Recognition stirred on the galoot’s face as he dragged a handy stool from beneath the workbench, the gun-hand going to forehead in a salute to all present. Snow fell from creases in his jacket; in other spots it was already going to patient water-drops that held on as if frozen by a root. He sat fluidly, his size having nothing to do with his grace.

''Andy, you give me a key and leave to use the door, I’m gonna. Save my ears and brain from freezing, using the back way – ''

''Too late on that save?'' Andy Mack’s mischievous grin got the best of him, and turned into a chuckle.

''It ain’t froze yet. If it was we’d both’ve drawn. And pardon me, driver, for giving you a start. I’m McFarland.''

''Pilot McFarland, yes, it is good to see you again.''

''And you, driver. Got some bunch of light years ‘tween you and . . .Solcintra, I think it was.''

''I am Vertu dea’San, Pilot –''

Andy Mack interrupted, holding a hand toward each of them.

''Damme if you didn’t make me forget my manners, Cheever. But looks like you met before –''

''Briefly,'' Vertu managed. ''It would have been a taxi-ride from the small private-ship side of Solcintra Port to some place unexpected – I think Korval’s valley, to yos’Galan’s house. We have not met in a social way, Andy Mack.''

The mechanic stood then, shaking the foot he’d had tangled around the chair as if it had been asleep.

''We have here,'' he announced formally, ''Vertu dea’San, deputized by ter’Volla on Patrol to bring items of interest to us all to me in order to make something wrong as right as it can be. I’m pleased to be receiving such visitors, I am.''

He nodded, then turned with a flourish. ''This here — this is Cheever McFarland, Master Pilot, come as Boss Conrad’s Right Hand, if I have that proper.''

Cheever McFarland nodded, and Vertu answered with a seated bow, each murmuring appropriately.

''Good, so let me see what we got here, if you can be patient, Cheever, and then you can get to whatever brought you out in the snow.''

*

The plastim of tea was better than she’d expected, and it was even recognizably a Vertuna blend, as promised – the tea her namesake, due to a prior Wylan’s whim. Empty now, she moved it aside as the pilots told over the contents of the kerchief. Drawing her more and more into conversation like comrades rather than strangers, they’d made as sure as they might that The Hooper’s physical injuries were minor.

''So they roughed him up because they could, was that it? Thing is that if he said what he did, The Hooper, in front of trusty witnesses, them boys have got themselves a mess of trouble anywhere there’s someone for the block. Took the casket-bottle? Stupid –''

''But what happened next? Patrol show up?'' That was McFarland.

''Not until I had pulled my gun, and Granita fired hers. Harley was struck with — the Patrolwoman said ‘bird shot’ — instead of a charge from this.''

She showed the gun in explanation, and there was a whistle, and an, ''Ah.''

''I see we should talk,'' Andy Mack said. ''You tell me your campaigns and I’ll tell you mine!''

Cheever it was who understood her quick questioning look –

''Not been on campaign? That’s a heavy duty merc weapon for a civilian taxi-driver then. Can I see it?''

She checked it for safety, and handed it over to the hand of the Boss, who held it appreciatively.

''Real one, Colonel – not one of those cheap look-likes they sell down the Low Ports.''

McFarland made a gesture, which she interpreted as asking permission to hand the weapon to the other man, and she nodded.

''Not more’n two Standards old, by the serial number. They don’t usually sell a Nordley on Liad though – and I know you can’t often pluck one up out on the dock here!''

He returned the weapon, respectfully.

''It was a gift,'' she explained carefully. ''On the day of Skyblaze, a solider gave it to me, in thanks for the ride. His mates insisted I should have it –''

Neither of the men said anything, and she felt like there was something more she needed to tell them.

''The soldier, he’d been wounded already when I picked them up. Then, we got back to near port and a man, came at us, there was shooting, and he pointed – umm, they called it anti-armor, at us! I could do one thing to protect my fares – I ran the car at them and he shot wild.''

They waited, and she wished there was tea in the cup.

''This Tommee, this boy, he was wounded and trying to shoot, too, and then he said ''Thank you much for the ride ma’am . . . and gave this to me, since I might need it, and it was all that he had.''

The Colonel pressed his hands, then slowly spread them with tips touching its opposite twin, staring into the cavity as if some truth existed there, and nodded slowly.

''He made a good call, the boy,'' he said after a moment. ''His mates were with him to sing him home?''

She closed her eyes, hearing the question fully, shaking her head with the Terran not-so.

''They said they could get him to medics, that he had some time off coming, and a vacation –''

Her voice drifted off, remembering Tommee’s wounds, the still, bloodied form of the man who had targeted her cab, and, later, standing before the Council, hearing their judgment come down. So much lost, that day, by so many . . .

''It was for my part in the rebellion — carrying enemy soldiers who were in league with those ships that fired upon the homeworld — that is why I am here. On Surebleak.'' She took a breath and met Cheever McFarland’s eyes. ''If I was to aid Korval in their madness, then I might go to them in their banishment.''

He frowned. ''That was your sentence? The Council sent you to Surebleak?''

''My daughter, who is now delm in my place by the Council’s order, sent me to Surebleak. The Council wanted my life.''

There was a long pause, then Andy Mack said carefully.

''You go to Korval, once you hit planet?''

She laughed. ''To what end? I did not fight for Korval. I fought to protect my cabs, my daughter, my life. Before that, I negotiated in good faith to ferry a group-client from the port to a city park, and return them, at need.''

''When my daughter — my delm — sued for my life, the Council offered this, as leniency: That I might not show my face in Solcintra for twelve years Liaden, nor to be seen anywhere on planet in control of a vehicle until such time as the Council of Clans credited that I had been cured of my errors and was no longer a rash and conspicuous danger to the populace and institutions of Liad. I would be disallowed from forming alliances, making contracts, or adult decisions without the written consent of my delm, or the nadelm if appropriate. That was to be revisited at the end of the dozen years, if the Council of Clans pleased.''

There was silence – for a moment. Then Andy Mack sighed a heavy sigh for her, putting aside the minute metal piece he’d been studying, moving his hands as if he now rubbed his wrists against unseen shackles.

''House arrest for a dozen years? No time off for good behavior? That’s hardly a civilized way to be –''

''Happens,'' said Cheever sharply, ''and we’ve both talked to a man on-world who had his delm do the same.'' He looked to her.

''What about your cab – could you bring that?''

She shook her head, Terran-style.

''My cab,'' she said, ''my cab that carried you to Dragon’s Valley — that was destroyed on the spot where Tommee exited; we took pieces of sharpness –'' here she paused, not knowing the exactly correct word . . .

''Shrapnel,'' Andy Mack said. ''That could hurt a civilian vehicle pretty bad.''

''Thank you. The Commander Higdon, an excellent man for all that he was banished forever from Liad on pain of death, he offered to replace my cab, but that replacement vehicle was –'' here she sighed out loud against her own wishes – ''That vehicle was dedicated. It is to be used for carrying the Council Speaker only, and to be manned by drivers furnished around the clock by Wylan.''

There was a loud snap then as McFarland stretched both hands, interlocked, to the ends of his arm with quite some energy.

''So they stole your cab, took your ring, and took your name. Then they tossed you randomly off-world?''

She looked down to her Ringless hand.

''That last, no, not that. Even a madwoman must obey her delm. So it was that Wylan commanded me to go off-world, for she knows my limits perhaps not so finely as I do myself, but near enough. Twelve years a drain upon my House — that, I would not, could not, abide. And so I was granted capital, and a berth arranged — to Surebleak. I think Fereda — my daughter, though perhaps not my delm — had hoped that Korval’s wing would unfurl.''

''But you didn’t ask.''

''This is not of the Dragon’s melant’i, but my own.''

They exchanged glances, the two Terrans, and it was Cheever McFarland who asked, ''So, what’re you doing for work?''

''I have just this afternoon had an offer of work,'' she said, ''but first, I must ask —'' She looked to Andy Mack.

He nodded, watching her.

''Are you also called the Colonel, and have you offered to stake Jemie a cab, if she hires a second driver?''

A grin spread slowly over his face.

''Now, then, happens I am and happens I do. You applyin’?''

''I am, if —'' She looked to the other man, who was watching interestedly — ''if Pilot McFarland may give me a reference.''

He laughed, and her stomach sank, hearing in his merriment the last and best of her slender hopes dissolving.

''Give you a reference? Hell, I’ll buy you a cab!''

''No, hey, now — none o’that! Competition’s all well and good, in its place. What we need right now is a port-n-city taxi squad that’s honest, strange as that word might fall on your ear, there, Pilot. If Ms. Vertu’s willin’ to take Jemie on, then I think we’re on the way to solving a couple problems right now.''

''I would welcome the work,'' Vertu said, looking between the two of them. ''Wylan has driven cabs for many generations. We have experience that, perhaps, Jemie might find to — to our profit.''

''Startin’ with gettin’ the name of the taxi service big enough to be read ‘cross the street,'' Cheever said.

''That,'' Vertu admitted, with a smile, ''is one of the first things I will speak of with her.''

''All right, then,'' Colonel Andy Mack said. ''Soon’s I can get the news to Jemie, you got work.''

''Jemie had stopped at the Emerald for her supper, and asked me to come by when I had finished here. She proposed to take me home as a free-fare, with the debt to be paid that I drive for her some day when there was need.''

''Well, now she can drive her partner home and bring ‘er back to port tomorrow to pick up ‘er cab.''

Andy Mack grinned and stuck out his hand, Terran style. Vertu blinked, then placed her hand in his.

They shook.

''Done!''

''’bout time,'' Cheever McFarland said. ''Speaking of the Emerald, I’m heading back that way, Ms. Vertu, and I’d take it kindly if you’d have some supper with me before you go on home. If Jemie can’t wait, I’ll drive you back.''

''Thank you,'' she said, rising. ''That is very kind, but —''

''No buts,'' he said firmly, and bowed her toward the back door ahead of him.

*

It was spring at last, insofar as Surebleak entertained the season. Vertu dea’San sat in her cab outside of the Emerald Casino on the Port, awaiting her contracted fare.

Who was . . . about to be late. She lowered the window, settling back into the seat that by now knew her shape, and considered starting the meter. Spring had brought the addition of a third cab to Jemie’s fleet, and a new driver, known to the Colonel, for he had grown up on a Surebleak street. One leg was cybernetic, but that was no handicap to the cab, and he held the streets in his head like a driver-born. Soon, they would need a fourth driver to stand at call, and she and Jemie had discussed the possibility of branching out into the ground-courier bidness.

The Emerald’s door opened, and a big man exited, crossing to the cab in a half-dozen long strides, and settling familiarly into the seat beside the driver.

''’Evenin’,'' he said, pulling the door closed and giving her a grin. ''Ready?''

She nodded, looking down at herself — a white shirt and a dark sweater under a spring-weight jacket; new trousers and boots. She was as presentable as she might be, for this trip out to the end of the road, and an introduction she thought never to receive.

''Know the way?'' Cheever asked her, waking the echo of memories.

Vertu grinned and put the car into gear.

''I know the way,'' she said. ''The question becomes — Can we afford the fare?''

He laughed, and she did, and the car slipped into traffic, heading out the Road, toward Korval.

* * *

About the Authors

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the co-authors of the best-selling Liaden Universe® series and have been writing together since the first “Kinzel” stories hit Fantasy Book in the 80s. They started the first Liaden story in 1984 and have published more than a dozen novels and several dozen short works in that series alone.

Along the way they’ve become fan favorites at SF conventions from California, USA to Fredericton, Canada, with Guest of Honor and Special Guest appearances at PenguiCon, COSine, AlbaCon, Trinoc*con, ConDuit, MarsCon, ShevaCon, BaltiCon, PortConMaine, SiliCon, Second Life Library, and elsewhere.

They count Baen, Del Rey, Meisha Merlin, Ace Books, Phobos, and Buzzy Multimedia among their English language publishers and have several foreign language publishers as well. Their short fiction, written both jointly and singly, has appeared in Absolute Magnitude, Catfantastic, Dreams of Decadence, Fantasy Book, Such a Pretty Face, 3SF, and several incarnations of Amazing.

Lee and Miller's work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with Scout’s Progress being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and Local Custom finishing second for the same award. Local Custom was published by Buzzy Multimedia as an audio book read by Michael Shanks, Stargate’s Daniel. Balance of Trade appeared in hardcover in February 2004 and hit Amazon.com and Locus genre bestseller lists before going on to win the Hal Clement Award as Best YA Science Fiction for the year.

Their most recent Liaden novel is Mouse and Dragon (sequel to Scout’s Progress), published in summer of 2010, with Ghost Ship due August in 2011 by Baen. Baen is also reprinting the original ten Liaden novels in four omnibus editions and has contracted with the authors for three additional Liaden novels due in 2012.

Steve was Founding Curator of Science Fiction for the University of Maryland’s SF Research Collection as well as Vice Chair of the Baltimore in 80 WorldCon bid, while Sharon has been Executive Director, Vice President, and President of the Science Fiction Writers of America; together they were BPLAN Virtuals, an ebook publisher in the late 1980s. These backgrounds give them a unique perspective on the science fiction field.


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