by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Pool Pilot and Tech Kara ven'Arith sat in the Station Master's office, on an uncomfortable, and cold, steel chair.
She sat alone, hands folded tightly in her lap, face under rigid control. Waiting. . .
A man was dead. A pilot was dead.
By her hand.
She turned her head to the left, and stared for a long moment at the door to the outer hallway and the rest of Codrescu Station. She turned her head to the right, and gave the door to the Station Master's inner office similar close study. Neither door was locked. Why would they be?
There was no place to go, and nothing, really, for her to do.
Wait on the verdict of those now discussing her and her actions, there in the inner office. Would she live? Would she die? Would she be banished to the planet's surface, to take her chances there?
They would decide: the Station Master, the Guild Master, her immediate supervisor, the head Tugwhomper, and the associate supervisor of the pilot pool.
Kara took a deep breath, and wished they would decide soon.
* * *
It was silent in the common room as the graduation list scrolled across the community screen. They were all seniors in this dorm; and each a deal more solemn than even the suspense of the scrolling list might account for.
At the back of the room, Kara ven'Arith stood alone, and hopefully out of the eye of the dorm's loyalty monitor. That one had been dogging her steps for the last semester, trying to catch her in a "subversive" act. The monitor had been at great pains to explain Kara's precarious situation to her -- the lack of three black marks was all that stood between Kara and the fate of her very good friend, Expelled Student Waitley.
The monitor had stared at her in what Kara supposed was intended to be a sad-but-stern manner, and which had been so ludicrous that she had been hard-put not to giggle. Worse, the thought of what Theo might say upon hearing her new title of honor was almost enough to send her into whoops.
It being fairly certain that she would earn one, if not two, of those missing black marks immediately for a failure to show proper respect, Kara had bitten the inside of her cheek and bowed her head, striving to give the impression of one too cowed by authority to speak.
The monitor hrummphed.
"You'd do better to sit up and meet my eye," she had snapped. "Sneaking alien ways won't improve your record."
Well, and that had almost brought her to join Theo. Kara had taken a deep breath, and lifted her head deliberately to meet the other woman's eyes.
"I am not an alien," she said calmly, in the Eylot dialect of Terran. "My family has held land on this planet for ninety-eight Standards."
The monitor, whose name was Peline Graf, frowned.
"And you think that makes you Eylotian?" she asked.
It was on the edge of Kara's tongue to say that she had been born on Eylot -- but, after all, that did not make her Eylotian -- even her delm taught so. They of Clan Menlark were Liaden, though based upon Eylot.
"You're nothing but a landed alien," Monitor Graf added, in a tone that made plain that she found this Eylotian legal reality not in the least amusing.
Kara folded her lips together and held the monitor's gaze until the other woman waved her hand in abrupt dismissal.
"I'm required to warn students who are in danger of expulsion. This has been your warning, ven'Arith. Watch yourself."
It had been, Kara had admitted to herself, after a long walk, a long shower, and a long, sleepless night, a fair warning, of its kind, and worth taking to heart. She had so much hanging, as the Terran phrase went, in Balance. Very nearly a Liaden meaning to Balance, there.
Well. She had seen what had happened to Theo, who had committed the dual crimes of not being Eylotian, and excelling beyond those who were. For those crimes, she had been targeted, trapped, and expelled. She, Kara ven'Arith, was the designated instrument of Theo's will in that matter. As such, she was honor-bound to keep all and any doors open through which Balance might enter.
That -- and there was her family to consider. To be expelled so near to the completion of her course and flight-work, even if she could show political malice as the cause? That would scarcely please her mother or her delm. Indeed, it was very likely that she would be roundly scolded for having been so maladroit as to allow her enemies to prevail against her. Clan Menlark had not prospered as pilots and as mechanics on a culturally diverse world known for its effervescent politics because its children were either maladroit or stupid.
All that being so, she had watched herself, and also, with a sort of black humor, watched those who watched her. She held herself aloof from any ties of friendship, that she might not be tainted by another's error; she studied; she flew; she tutored; she slept; and ate; and attended all and every politically significant rally and workshop offered on campus.
By doing these things, she insured her graduation, pilot's license in hand, as her mother and her delm expected.
Her mother next expected her to offer herself for hire as a pilot, that being the clan's main livelihood. There, duty. . .diverged. Kara's heart had long been with the clan's secondary business. Even as a child, she had dogged Uncle Bon Sel's every step in the repair shop, until in self-defense he gave her a wrench and taught her how to use it. Her determination was to continue in that line, now that she had done as her delm and her mother had commanded.
That being so, she filed her app with Howsenda Hugglelans, where she had a good multi-season record as a temp worker, and excellent relations with her supervisors, and with Aito, the Hugglelans Third Son. It was not at all unreasonable to think that she might be hired there as a mechanic or a tech, and best to have all her cards in hand before she brought the matter to her mother.
The application had not yet gained a reply, but here -- here came the approach to her name on the screen. She straightened, waiting, hardly daring to breathe. What if something had happened? What if someone in Admin had decided to withhold her last grade points? What if she had been given a black mark, despite all her care? What if there was some new reg, put into place secretly, that had to do only with those who weren't "truly Eylotian"? It had happened before. . .
Her chest was tight. Surely the feed had slowed? But no, that was foolish, and there! Her name!
And next to her name, her standing in the class -- low, but she had expected that -- and at the end of the line, her license certification. . .
Candidate Second. . .
"Candidate Second?" she gasped, stunned. She had earned a firm second class license. She had the hours, she had passed the tests, she --
"Something wrong, ven'Arith?" asked Droy Petris, with false concern. Droy Petris watched her, also, though less diligently than the monitor.
She had spoken out loud, Kara thought. Stupid, to let caution go now. Still, there was a recover to hand.
"I was astonished," she said, truthfully; "I had no idea I'd graduate at such a level."
He looked at her suspiciously, and Loyalty Monitor Graf was seen to frown, but there wasn't a regulation forbidding a pilot to express surprise.
The fiveday between the end of class and the senior graduation ceremony was traditionally a festive time, featuring parties, and picnics, dances, and epic games of bowli bowl. It was a time when friendships were reaffirmed; when new addresses and mail drop codes were exchanged.
Kara, who deliberately had no friends, dutifully attended the meetings mandated by Admin. As she was a past-champion, she also took part in the bowli ball tournament where she reveled in the play until, in the quarter finals, her lack of current connections made it easy for her to be ganged up on and evicted early from the game.
Not wishing to risk any unpleasantness in the stands, she avoided spectating. Instead, she volunteered to polish one of the long-wing training sailplanes, that it would be a welcome meeting for its next pilot, and thus received the benefit of exercise.
She also took long, solitary walks around campus, carefully avoiding such places as might call unwanted attention to her, such as Belgraid dorm, which had once housed the Culture Club, since "discovered" to be a hotbed of subversive activity, designed to indoctrinate the unwary into the customs and lifestyles of planets that were not Eylot.
She returned to the dorm from one particularly long walk to find herself the sole occupant. That would have been more pleasing if she didn't suspect that Monitor Graf had planted spy-eyes about, to watch when she could not.
Still, the absence of her dorm-mates did give pleasure. Kara stopped to withdraw a fruit drink from the cold-box, and went to her room, shaking the bulb absently.
She closed the door -- senior privilege -- and sat down at her desk, bringing the computer live with a light touch, snapping the bulb open while she waited for her mail to download.
Three letters came in-queue. Kara ran her eye down the list as she sipped her drink.
The first letter was from Hugglelans. She opened it, bottom lip caught in her teeth. If she had an offer, or perhaps an invitation to interview. . .
This letter is to inform you that your application for employment has been received. We regret to inform you that Howsenda Hugglelans is not hiring at this time.
Thank you for your interest, and the best of luck in your search for employment.
Human Resources Form Number 3
Kara stared at this missive for much longer than required to master its contents. Not hiring? she thought. Or not hiring Liadens?
The thought made her angry -- and then frightened. If Hugglelans had bowed to the rising tide of politics. . .
She took a breath, filed the form, and looked to the next item in-queue.
It was from the Dean of Students office. Her stomach clenched, and her mouth felt dry, despite the juice. She put the pod down on the edge of her desk, and opened the letter.
TO: Kara ven'Arith, Candidate Pilot Second Class
FROM: Anlingdin Pilot Certification Office
Candidate pilots are required to attend a re-orientation session immediately following graduation. At the conclusion of this session, those qualifying will see the candidate status removed and their license properly registered by the Eylot Pilots Guild.
Please report to Gunter Recreation Area on. . .
Kara squeezed her eyes shut, and mentally reviewed an exercise designed to restore clarity to a pilot's tired mind. That done, she took six deep, calming breaths before opening her eyes again and re-addressing the letter.
Her hands were cold and she was shaking, just a little, though that was anger, because they had found a way to hold her license hostage still longer! She had earned her Second Class license! Earned it! And now, she was being required to complete some other requirement -- a requirement, she was certain was in place only for those who were not truly Eylotian! And what chance had she to qualify, to see her license properly recorded at the end of it all?
"Wait," she told herself, closing her eyes again. "Wait. Think."
She accessed another mental exercise, this to impose calm; then she did, indeed, think.
She had come this far. She had completed her coursework, gained her second class license, despite the oppressive oversight that had caused others of her classmates -- friends from the Culture Club, and various others who had come from outworlds -- to drop out and return home. Kara ven'Arith hadn't quit. She had been clever, she had kept her head down, she had kept herself informed of the changing requirements, and she had graduated.
She had done what was needed, and she could -- she would -- do whatever was necessary to clear this new barrier to claiming that which she had earned.
When she opened her eyes this time, her feelings were firmer, though they suffered a ripple when she saw that the re-orientation "session" was indeed a planetary month long.
And Gunter Recreation Area. . .was a wilderness campground, without even an air-breather landing field.
Her stomach clenched again, and she hurriedly closed the letter, marking it for later review, and opened the last file in the queue.
It was a personal note from Flight Instructor Orn Ald yos'Senchul, her academic adviser, inviting her to take tea with him -- in an hour.
Kara smiled with real pleasure. Pilot yos'Senchul had been a support and a comfort, subtle as he was. He remained at Anlingdon, so he had told her, in honor of his contract, which the new administration was unexpectedly too canny to cancel out of hand, having perhaps learned a lesson from the Slipper instructor's dismissal.
But -- good gods, the time! Kara leapt to her feet and ran for the shower.
"A tenday tour?" Kara took the paper Pilot yos'Senchul held out to her across the tea-table, and sat somewhat ill-at-ease, cup in one hand, folded printout in the other.
"Please," her host murmured, "take a moment to familiarize yourself. I thought first of you when I read it, and I am curious to know if you feel the same."
Immediate need. Codrescu Station, Eylot Nearspace. Student mechanic to tour, inspect, and repair station systems under supervision of Master Mechanic. Long hours. Union rates. Teacher recommendation or references required. First qualified hired.
Kara felt her pulse quicken. It wasn't a full-time job at Hugglelans, but it was far better than a walk in vacuum without a spacesuit.
She frowned, calculating. The graduation ceremony was in three days -- an empty formality since her mother had let her know that circumstances would unfortunately keep her kin from making the trip to Anlingdin.
"I have my ratings and references from my break-work at Hugglelans," she said, speaking aloud, but more to herself than to Pilot yos'Senchul. "A tenday tour. . ." She frowned at the print-out again. "Immediate need," she mused, and looked up to find his gaze very attentive on her face.
"If immediate means that I may start within the next two local days," she said slowly, "I can do the tour and return in good time to attend the re-orientation class."
"Do you mean to do so?" Pilot yos'Senchul asked.
She looked at him in surprise.
"Well, I must, if ever I want to free my license of that wretched notation of candidate!"
"Yes, of course," he said, and used his chin to point at the paper she still held. "Do I hear that you are interested in filling that position, assuming that immediately is found to be accommodating?"
"I am, yes."
"Very good." He put his cup down and stood, slipping the paper away from her with his natural hand while the fingers of his prosthetic spelled out, rise! quick lift!
Startled, she came to her feet. "Sir?"
"Go quickly and pack. If I may -- pack heavy, lest there is a dorm cleaning while you are away I will meet you at the shuttle in an hour."
"Sir, but --"
"I had said that I thought first of you. Having done so, I sent the master mechanic my recommendation, forwarding your references from Hugglelans, which were available to me, as your adviser. He replied that he would have you, if you were interested. We have established that you are interested. And I should tell you that immediately in this instance means, according to Master Thelly, three days or a week ago."
"But, I --"
"You may send an introduction from the shuttle," he interrupted. "Or perhaps you've changed your mind, and that is why you stand here when your ship needs you?"
"No, sir!" She cried, and bowed -- respect to an instructor.
Then, she ran.
Kara's personal effects, with those things that Theo had entrusted to her, were in the shuttle's modest holding area. She was in the pilot's chair, Pilot yos'Senchul sitting second. Once they had broken orbit, she had 'beamed a message to Master Mechanic Thelly, introducing herself and informing him that she was on her way to take up duty.
She was doing the set-up for Codrescu approach when the master's reply arrived, telling her to find him in Sub-sector Blue Eleven's machine room after she'd been cleared through.
"I'm going to have to hit the deck running," she commented, not unpleased by the prospect of getting right to work.
"Union rates," her co-pilot murmured. "Be certain to keep track of your hours; Master Thelly is quite capable of working three shifts in four, and he expects his assistants to do as much."
She shot a glance at him, but only saw the side of his face, calm as it usually was, his eyes on his screens.
"That sounds like the voice of experience," she said. "Did you 'prentice with Master Thelly, Pilot?"
"In fact, I did, some few years ago. He was at first. . .doubtful. . .regarding the utility to himself of a one-armed assistant. I was able to put those doubts to rest, and learned a good deal in Balance." He glanced at her.
"You will find the master a thorough teacher."
"Good," said Kara.
The board pinged for her attention, then, and she gave it.
"This way, Pilot," yos'Senchul said, waving her into a dim side passage that was definitely not the route to the Station Master's office.
"Master Thelly. . ." she began.
"Master Thelly will still have work for you in half-an-hour," he said.
Kara sighed and followed him, the peculiar taste of station air on her tongue. She had been to Codrescu Station a dozen times or more, and thought she knew its maze of corridors pretty well. This hall, so thin that she and Pilot yos'Senchul -- both comfortably Liaden-sized -- needed to proceed in single-file, wasn't at all familiar. It was a utility hall, she thought, noting the access panels set high and low. Well, perhaps it would soon become familiar.
Ahead, their hall ended in another -- and this one Kara did recall.
"The Guild Office?" she asked.
"Indeed," he answered. Before them was the door, and a guard beside it, sidearm holstered.
"yos'Senchul and ven'Arith, to see the Guild Master," her companion said. "We are, I think, expected."
"You're on the list, pilots," the guard confirmed, opening the door for them. "Straight ahead."
Guild Master Peltzer ran her card, made a noise strongly reminiscent of a snort, and nodded in her direction.
"Be a couple minutes to review your files, Pilot. You wanna make yourself comfortable here? I got a feeling Pilot yos'Senchul wants to have a private word with me. Is that right, Orn Ald?"
Pilot yos'Senchul inclined his head gravely. "You know me too well."
"Just about well enough, I'm thinking. Step into my office. Pilot, please, take some rest."
The two men stepped in to the Guild Master's inner office and the door closed. Kara, too energized to sit, or to be comfortable, walked quietly to the small green garden across from the intake desk, its tall fronds waving in the breeze from an air duct. An agreeable gurgle of running water came from somewhere in the depths of the tiny jungle.
Kara knelt down and considered the greenery. There were, as she knew from previous visits, norbears living among the fronds -- one quite old, and the other quite young. She would, she thought, like to have the attention of a norbear at the moment, though it would be rude to wake them, or to disturb their pretty habitat.
She was about to rise again, when the fronds dipped more deeply than could be accounted for by the small breeze, and here came the elder norbear -- rust colored and thin of fur -- marching deliberately forward, through the fronds and out of the garden entirely, climbing familiarly onto Kara's knee.
"Hevelin, good-day to you," she said, stroking his head gently. He burbled and pushed into her fingers, demanding a more vigorous scrubbling.
Kara smiled and settled cross-legged to the floor, careful of the old norbear's balance, and rubbed his head with vigor. His pleased burbling seemed to leach her restlessness, and she sighed, half-closing her eyes.
An image came into her head, lazily, like a dream -- an image she recognized as Pilot yos'Senchul. She recalled him entering the Guild Master's office, and the image faded, to be replaced by the impression of a pointed, pale face dominated by fierce dark eyes, framed by blow-away pale hair that Kara knew to be as soft and warm as feathers.
"No," she murmured. "Theo's not with me, though I have her things. I'm here for a tenday tour, to assist Master Thelly."
A man's round, red-cheeked face faded through Theo's, his eyes blue and sharp, the lines around them made by worry, laughter -- or by both. Master Thelly, perhaps.
She felt herself sinking into a languor; almost, she felt she could have a nap.
Happily for her dignity, the door behind her opened at that moment. The languor fled, leaving behind a feeling of tingling alertness. She opened her eyes to look up, at Orn Ald yos'Senchul, and, further up, at Guild Master Peltzer.
"Hevelin took the edge off, did he?" he said with a nod. "Worth a full night's sleep, one of Hevelin's purr-breaks. If you'll stand up, Pilot, we can get your little matter finished up and send you to the Station Master for registration."
"Thank you," Kara said to Hevelin. "Would you like to go back to the garden?"
It appeared that Hevelin did not. He clambered up her arm to her shoulder and grabbed onto her collar to steady himself.
"I'd say that's plain," said Guild Master Peltzer, moving over to the intake desk. Kara came to her feet, careful of her passenger, and stepped up.
"All right now. Pilot. This'll take a bit to propagate across the databases, so I'll just drop a note to the Station Master and to Master Thelly, letting them know the news." He tapped keys, and Kara, Hevelin humming in her ear, waited with what patience she could muster for someone to tell her the news.
"Right, then. Here you are, Pilot." He held her license out in her general direction, while his other hand and his eyes were still on the computer.
Kara took the card, Hevelin all but deafening her with his purr, and slipped it away into an inner pocket.
"Sir?" she said. "May I –"
He looked up, catching her gaze with his, and inclined his head formally.
"Congratulations, Second Class pilot Kara ven'Arith."
She stiffened. "Your pardon, Guild Master. I am, I believe, Candidate Second Class pilot ven'Arith."
He shook his head, his smile tight.
"That's according to the so-called Pilots Guild of Eylot, which has no standing with the Interstellar Starship Pilots Guild. Eylot Guild can deny our licenses and our regs 'til they're short of air, but at the end of the shift, they're a local independent piloting group. Anybody lifting with an Eylot Guild ticket is just another indie flyer, far as this Guild is concerned."
Hevelin's purring hit an ecstatic crescendo.
Kara looked closely at the Guild Master's grim face. She transferred her gaze to Pilot yos'Senchul, who inclined his head gravely, and murmured, "A signal achievement, Pilot. Well done."
"You brought me here for this, didn't you?" she demanded.
"In part," he allowed, with a slight smile. "I did also think of you first when the tenday tour came into my queue."
Kara took a breath. "Pilot yos'Senchul," she began – and stopped as he held up his hand.
"Please, honor me with the use of my given name, now that we are colleagues – and comrades."
She frowned at him. Colleagues, yes, because they were now both certified by the same guild, though he was Master to her Second Class. Comrade, though...
"Do you have work on-station? But your contract at the Academy --"
"The present administration has placed conditions upon my continued employment which I cannot in conscience accept. Therefore, I have offered myself to Guild Master Peltzer, who believes he may be able to find a use for me."
The Guild Master laughed.
"More like sixteen uses for you!" he said. "I figure to whittle it down to three, after I talk with people."
"The Academy's shuttle. . ." Kara protested, thinking of Cherpa in Berth Fourteen.
"I will send the key down on the station shuttle. Whomever the Academy chooses to take it down may ride the jump seat on the supply wagon."
"Details," pronounced the Guild Master, waving a bluff hand. "What the two of you need to do is get registered with the Station Master office. Soon's that's done, we can start getting some work out of you!"
"Indeed," said Pilot yos'Senchul, with a slight, comradely bow. "After you, Kara."
"Yes," she said, and turned to put Hevelin back among the greenery.
The Pilot handling her forms for the Station Master was called Fortch; his work blouse was that of a commercial transfer company. He looked her up and down before she announced herself, and then with a spark of interest when she did.
"ven'Arith, eh? I gather you've been expected for a day or so. Forms have been waiting – fill and sign and. . ."
Seeing her glance at his name and the Certified Pilot logo on his breast pocket, he nodded and tapped it with one finger.
"Company gave me my uniform the day the newest rules came down,” he told her as he checked her work. "All I needed was the paper. But you know what's happening, and I do: they say I'm no pilot until I get their paper. Can't get their paper 'cause my father's brother was suspected of being on the wrong side twenty years ago. I get to do some tugwork here, they put me in the pool. I help out here on the slow days." He sighed, glancing at the form screen. "At least you'll get a chance to pick yours up."
Kara nodded. Tugwork meant he was likely a third class, maybe an air pilot too – and that was hard. If his family went back for generations and was thought unreliable, he might never get work on-world.
There was a small chirp and he started nervously; and out of the air the order "Send in the new one, Fortch! Master Thelly's in a snit to get her on the job!"
The aide jerked his head at the inner door, and handed the forms back to her.
"Luck. Hope to catch you around."
She'd worked overshift – not unusual, and becoming more usual as she double-timed herself – working two full shifts, then cramming a class into her so-called rec shift. The class she was currently embroiled in, remote repair, required not only coursework, but board time, not with a sim, but with an actual remote, out on Codrescu's skin. Time and necessity being what they were, she had to grab her practice sessions betwixt and between. The work shifts today had gone long, whereby she had been late to log into class, and so last to take the remote.
The work had not been mere practice, but real work, resetting a trio of lock-anchors on Ten Rod Two, the arm that the Guild supply ship Zircon Sea was due to use. With the strangenesses attendant to Eylot's politics the Sea's technical and parts refills were much needed to make up for several quarters worth of back-orders, missing items, and out-and-out damaged-on-receipt goods. Given the state of supplies, she'd triple checked her work, and delayed herself more. . .
And now, she was starving.
At least there was an easy answer to that; very possibly the first easy answer she had been confronted with today.
She turned down the hall to the Hub Caf, ran her station card under the reader and picked up a tray.
Quickly, she onloaded soy soup, fresh salad, and a more-or-less fresh-baked roll, and a cup of lemon-water. She turned from the serving bar, expecting at this shift and hour to have her choice of tables – which wasn't. . .quite true.
There was only one other diner in the Caf – a man in coveralls much like those she wore. Uncharacteristically, his shoulders were hunched, his arms crossed on the table before him, his attention wholly on the screen before him.
Kara hesitated, took a breath and went forward. Comrades held duty to the well-being of each other; and even if they had not been comrades, she owed him the same sort of care he had shown for her.
"Orn Ald? May I join you?"
He looked up, and even in the dim lighting, she could see that his cheeks were wet.
For a Liaden to so far forget melant'i as to weep in public – that was appalling. That Orn Ald yos'Senchul should do so could signal nothing less than a cataclysm.
Kara clattered her tray to the table, staring at him.
"What has happened?"
For answer, he spun the screen.
She recognized the Eylot Gazette, the Liaden community's social newspaper, open to the death notices.
There was only one.
Lef Nal vin'Eved Clan Selbry, of injuries sustained during Anlingdin Academy Graduate Re-orientation camp. Selbry Herself stands as the instrument of his will. Clan and kin grieve.
Kara remembered him only vaguely – they had been in few classes together and he hadn't been a bowli ball player. He had, in fact, been rather frail, all the more so for a certain single-mindedness that allowed him to discount every obstacle between himself and a goal. Lef Nal was, thought Kara, easily the sort of person who might fall off a cliff by reason of having momentarily forgotten about the effects of gravity.
She raised her eyes to Orn Ald's ravaged face.
He had, she saw in relief, used a napkin to dry his cheeks, but not even Liaden social training could hide the desolation in his eyes.
"I have also had a private letter on the topic," he said quietly. "It would appear that Pilot vin'Eved has been reft from clan and kin as a result of what is termed a hazing. He and several others had been identified as lacking a proper reverence for the new political scenery, and so were placed in. . .special circumstances, in order to cow them. The others are injured, but will survive." He sighed, and spun the screen to face him again.
"One save a year," he murmured, and she looked at him sharply.
"What is that?"
"Ah." He raised his eyes to hers, his mouth twisting. "When I was newcome to Anlingdin Academy, the elder instructor who was assigned as my mentor taught that we who teach must sometimes rescue our students – from themselves, from bad advice, from the expectations of kin, or of the world. She had it, as a point of philosophy -- or perhaps of honor -- that one save a year made all the rest worthwhile."
Kara slid onto the stool across from him, pushing her tray with the cooling soup and wilting salad to one side.
"You saved me," she said, very softly; and then, whispering, because even the thought was too terrible to bear.
"Was it only us – the landed aliens – who were given conditional licenses, Orn Ald?"
He shook his head. "A few less than half, by my count, were in your case, and in. . .Pilot vin'Eved's case. A handful of outworld students received conditional licenses, also, but they were merely required to certify that they would be leaving the planet after graduation."
It was easier to breathe. She sighed, slipped off of the stool and bowed as one who was cognizant of debt.
"Do not think of it," he murmured. "Our relative melant'i at the time placed one in the position of protector. Honor is fulfilled, on all sides, and Balance maintains." He shook his head, and said, in subdued Terran, "I advised him to go home and place it in the hands of his delm."
And Lef Nal had decided that school matters were the student's to solve, and matters of one's license best resolved by the pilot.
It was, Kara thought, precisely what she would have done.
Indeed, it was precisely what she had decided to do, until Orn Ald yos'Senchul had whisked her off for a tenday tour, and showed her a way to gain her license without condition.
When the fill-in assignment had come open, near the end of her tenday, she had contacted her mother and her delm, who had advised her, in their separate faces, to pursue opportunity at the station. Her mother had said that their own small yard was for the moment empty and thus closed, for want of business. Her delm had noted that all Menlark pilots were for the present pursuing hire contracts out-world, and that none were expected to return to Eylot in the foreseeable future.
Failing an outworld piloting contract, Codrescu Station was, said her mother, the best place for her.
She looked again to Orn Ald. As the one owed, it was his to assert what might be the cost, or if they resided in Balance. A comfort, certainly, but rather chilly. A comrade might offer more warmth.
Kara inclined her head.
"Forgive that I notice your distress. I merely do so that I may offer relief, if it is desired."
His eyebrows rose, and she braced herself for a light comment regarding their relative ages. But, when it came his response was only a mannerly, "The offer is gently made. However, I fear I would bring little to the cause of comfort – and you are wanted in not too many hours at your duty."
He slid off his stool and bowed to her as between comrades, indeed.
"I will leave you to your meal. Speaking with you has been a balm. Good-shift, Kara."
"Good shift, Orn Ald," she answered, and turned to watch him walk away before once again taking a stool and pulling her meal toward her.
After a moment, she stood again, picked up the tray and carried it over to the disposal.
The bowli ball zagged, then zagged again, avoiding Bilton's grasp as adroitly as if it had eyes and reason. Kara, next nearest, jumped, spinning lightly, and capturing the ball against her chest. It kicked, not hard, and the moment her feet hit decking, she threw it well to the left of Yangi.
The rangy red-haired pilot showed her teeth in what might equally have been a savage smile or a grimace of pain, and launched into a long vertical lunge. She snatched the ball, holding it in the crook of her elbow as she tucked to roll mid-air, coming down flatfooted, knees bent. Her smile grew positively feral as she threw ball with considerable strength, straight down at the decking.
Predictably -- at least to those wise in the ways of the device and the game -- the ball shot upward. Unpredictably, it skated to the right, into the space occupied by the hapless Fortch, the least apt of their players, nearly as new on station as she, and yet unaccustomed to his local mass.
He jumped for the ball, twisting in an effort to eat his unwanted momentum, actually got a hand on --
"Kara ven'Arith!" The all-call rattled the walls of the so-called Arena.
Bilton leapt, and came spinning to the deck, the bowli ball dancing along his fingers, shedding energy as it did.
Yangi grabbed Fortch by the belt just in time to keep him from ramming his nose against the wall.
Kara, flatfoot and hands at her side, stood waiting.
"Kara ven'Arith to Central Repair," Master Thelly's voice blared. "Kara ven'Arith to Central Repair, now!"
"Sorry 'bout it, Kara -- know it's your rec shift. Vechi had an accident in Green-Mid-Six. Got 'er out to the clinic, but the work'd just got started, and needs to be finished. You got least hours on the card."
"So I win," she said, showing cheerful in the face of his worry, though she was worried, too. This accident was the fifth among the tech-crew in the last eighteen Station-days; more than the total accidents for the last six Standard months. Not only newbies, either -- two old hands had spent a couple work shifts each in the station's autodoc, getting patched up from injuries from 'freak accidents'.
Kara finished belting on her kit, and looked 'round.
"Vechi's wagon's still down in Mid-Six," Master Thelly said. "Had to carry her out."
Kara stared at him.
"What happened this time?"
"Wild charge," Master Thelly said, looking even more worried. "You be careful, hear me?"
"I'm always careful," Kara told him, picking up her tea bottle.
He grunted. "So's Vechi."
Green-Mid-Six was a well-lit and roomy utility hall in a low-grav segment of the station. Kara had helped with the complete maintenance overhaul of the systems housed in this hall during her tenday tour. Vechi's orders, still up on the work wagon's screen, were to check an anomaly in Bay Four. The hatch was off, and leaning neatly against the wall. The test leads were still tidily wrapped on the wagon, so the wild charge must have struck Vechi either as she removed the hatch, or when she did her first eye-scan. That was standard procedure for a tech with an anomaly report to retire: A visual scan to make sure there wasn't any obvious damage -- melted leads, snapped fuses, anything broken or compromised.
If the tech's eyeballs or nose didn't locate a problem, then the leads from the wagon were attached, and a series of diagnostics were run.
A wild charge build-up, thought Kara, pulling on her gloves, while contemplating the open access from the side of the wagon -- that would create an anomaly, all right.
It would also create damage with a very particular signature. Once identified, all that remained was for the tech to pinpoint the cause, for the reports, and file a work order for rebuild.
Gloves on and light in hand, Kara advanced on the open access port.
Even though she knew what she'd see, Kara still blinked as her light illuminated the interior of the hatch.
Carnage was the word that came to her mind; and also the thought that there would be no identifying the failed source; there simply wasn't enough left to support a forensic diagnostic. The smell of ozone was not completely gone, nor that of the antiseptic sprays they'd used on Vechi.
She returned to the wagon, tapped up the main schematic screen and traced the power flow.
The station operated with tertiary back-ups, only sensible in so vulnerable a habitat as a space station. She was pleased to see that the back-up had come online without a glitch and there had been no discernible disruption of service.
So much was to the good. She opened another screen, logged the damage and created the work order for the rebuild. In plain truth, she was likely to draw that one, but right now she was Vechi, with Vechi's orders to clear.
She tapped the screen, bringing up the list of work orders. Anomaly resolution went to the top of a given roster-list, so this had been Vechi's first stop on her shift. It glowed yellow on the screen -- begun, but not logged as complete.
Below was a long list of work orders, all patiently showing green -- waiting for tech.
Kara sipped from her tea-bottle as she created a ref-file, attached the open, incomplete, order to the rebuild order, raised her finger to tap the next task in line -- and stopped, frowning.
Vechi was the fifth tech injured in the line of duty. Had the others all been checking anomalies, too?
In less than thirty seconds, she had the anomalies report open on one side of the wagon's screen; on the other, the tech department's injury report.
The injured techs: Vechi, Mardin, Whistler, Harfer, and Gen Arb -- and yes, each had been checking an anomaly report when they had been injured.
Kara's fingers were quicker than her thoughts. She called up the real-time functions, using her key for the big ops board, that she sat on rotation every eight station-days.
The wagon's screen was too small to accommodate the whole function screen, but all Kara wanted to do was to set an alarm. That done, she opened up the next work order in-queue.
About half-way through Vechi's shift, Kara paused between jobs to file a manual schedule adjustment. There was, she reasoned, no sense going off duty for one shift, only to have to report back for her regular work-shift. Best to just keep on, with the loan of Vechi's wagon, and swap out her second shift for rest. That would get her two rest shifts in a row, and put her back onto her regular schedule.
The system OK'd the change, which meant that Master Thelly was on maintenance himself, and would scold her the next time they met, per standard procedure.
Content with her changes, Kara finished out Vechi's shift, closed the list of completed work orders, signed in as herself and downloaded her own run of work.
She was in Green-Mid-Forty-Five; her work started in Blue-Mid-Twelve, conveniently near. Kara regarded the change of venue as a break.
She sipped tea as she walked, the wagon following. The best route to Blue-Mid-Twelve involved a shortcut through Orange, where the root of Ten Rod Two joined the station structure proper.
And there she quite unexpectedly found Fortch, the pool pilot who had not yet mastered the station's gravity, in front of the utility-core for the arm, an access hatch wide open, and several tools haphazardly sticking from his pockets and belt.
"What are you doing in the tech-tunnels, Pilot?" she asked, using her tea-bottle as a pointer, her voice sharper than it ought to be, for truly, he could be temp-help, or --
But if he was temp-help, where was his repair wagon? Where was his kit?
Fortch seemed to feel himself at a disadvantage. He licked his lips.
"Kara! I didn't know you were working down here!"
"And I didn't you were working down here."
"Oh, well I am – working. Filling in. Just checking something out for Master Thelly, that's all. There was a glitch on the screen and he asked me to – but wait, I need to talk to you about your license problem...”
He was moving, as if trying to stay between her and the open hatch. Lights were on, and covers hinged back from equipment.
Behind her, the anomaly alarm went off on the work wagon, and three things happened in a quick succession.
Fortch jumped toward her, a spanner suddenly in his hand.
Kara spun as if she were playing bowli ball, ducked under his outstretched arms, using the open tea-bottle to fend off the tool he swung down. There was a clang, the bottle was torn from her hand and spun away, splashing tea everywhere. Her spin continued as his lunge faltered; she came up behind -- and pushed him away from her, hard as she could, toward the open utility room.
He, inept in the station environment, skidded on the tea-splashed deck, arms pinwheeling now, half-fell and half slid, snatched for his balance, cursing -- and lost his balance altogether, striking his shoulder on the access door and crashing heavily into the room, arm up in a desperate and failing bid not to fall into the panels and wiring.
There was a sharp snap and a dazzling flash, and he collapsed to the decking, unmoving.
The door to the Station Master private office opened, and Kara stood up, preferring to meet her fate thus.
"Tech ven'Arith, thank you for your patience," the Station Master said gently, giving her a bow as well-meaning as it was meaningless. "You're free to go."
She blinked at him.
"To go?" she repeated. "Go -- where?"
"To your conapt, I'd say," Master Thelly stuck in. "You got the next three shifts off -- use 'em to sleep!"
"But --" She looked among them until she found Orn Ald yos'Senchul's face. "Fortch is dead."
"So he is, and that is unfortunate, since there were questions that various of us would have liked to ask him. Clearly, however, he was undertaking sabotage against the station and his efforts might have killed hundreds. Stopping him was of utmost importance -- and stop him you did." He inclined his head.
Kara noticed that her hands were clenched. She opened them, and shook her fingers out.
"But -- why?" she asked. "Why was he trying to. . .harm the station?"
Bringo, the Chief Tugwhomper, looked grave.
"Had a drink wit' the boy not so long ago," he said slowly. "Shortenin' it considerable, he told me he figured out how to get his paper, Eylot-side."
Kara shivered, suddenly cold.
"By killing the station?"
"Now, missy. Coulda just drunk too much coil fluid and talkin' big. Cheer 'imself up, like."
"There will be an investigation," said the Station Master. "Might be something in his quarters will be helpful. In the meanwhile, Pilot ven'Arith, the lesson you're to take away from you is that you acted in self-defense – properly acted in self defense. If Fortch hadn't had the main power bus to the arm open he'd be alive. I'd say the fatal mistake was his, not yours."
Orn Ald's voice then, quick, comforting Liaden preceding a gentle bow between comrades.
"The station is in your debt, Kara."
"That's right, and we don't aim to stay that way," said Guild Master Peltzer. "There's a reward for preserving environmental integrity. Understand, it's not what any of us can call exact Balance -- more like a symbolic Balance. Be as may, I reckon that reward's gonna show up in your account." He gave the Station Master a hard look, and that individual smiled.
"Without a doubt, Guild Master. Without a doubt."
"That's all set now," said Master Thelly, firmly. "Kara -- go get some rest."
"Yes," she said, numb, but with a dawning sense of relief. She bowed a simple bow of respect to the group of them, and turned toward the door.
As she stepped into the hall, she found Orn Ald yos'Senchul next to her.
"Will you share a meal with me, comrade, and allow me escort you to your conapt?"
"Yes," she said again, and considered him. "And you will tell me everything that the others didn't want to tell me, won't you Orn Ald?"
"Oh, yes," he said serenely. "I'll do that."
Copyright © 2012 by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Maine-based writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the co-creators of the best-selling Liaden Universe® saga, including latest offering Dragon Ship. Steve and Sharon maintain a web presence at www.korval.com.