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Into Gonebeyond

Susan R. Matthews



Morning. Port Wilmot, just off the Sagreen vector and five days from Langsarik Station, where the freight courier ship Bammers was due in six or seven of them. Brachi Stildyne—not “Security Chief Warrant Officer” Stildyne any more, not missing it—stood with his back to the wall drinking stale over-strong cavene from a disposable pressed-cellulose cup. He took in the early morning light, trying to put a name to the sensations he was experiencing.

He was depressed. That was kind of funny, in its own way; Brachi Stildyne, depressed, just because after having turned down the offered promotion that was the career goal of any sane Security officer once “clock in for thirty and out” was discarded—First Officer, functionally second-in-command, of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Sceppan—in order to cleave to his old boss Andrej Koscuisko, he’d then broken ties with Andrej Koscuisko, and would never see him again. Probably never. Rumor had it that Koscuisko was in Safehaven, Nurail quadrant, but Stildyne wasn’t sure he even wanted to see Kosciusko, these days.

As he watched the light change in the loading bay where freighter-courier Bammers was berthed he noted the cargo handler Wilmot Port Authority had sent coming down out of the ship and heading for him. Small ship, for something called a “freighter”; small enough to park on dirt, rather than in geosynchronous orbit, small enough to make escape velocity on its own power. Riggs wasn’t small. She was a tall woman, and something like in “Security shape” in her own right—tough, physical. Relatively junior, as cargo-handlers went, but she was in the right age-bracket, and ambitious.

“A word, Chief,” she said. She had a flat-file docket in one hand, doing a little jog across the tarmac. Yes. He knew he should be in the cargo hold, helping throw crates around. They needed all the crate-throwing they could get. You couldn’t take professional Security troops off their ship and condemn them to vacation for weeks and weeks and not expect a little twitchiness to develop. And there were special circumstances with these particular troops, of course. People. Crew. They weren’t troops any more.

But if she wanted him on shift, she didn’t say so, and he had time to finish his cavene, and it wasn’t easy to do that because Garrity had been at the brewer this morning and apparently relished the opportunity to have his cavene the way he liked it: the consistency of burnt tar, smelled that way, tasted that way.

“Waiting,” Stildyne said, and she came up close, speaking low.

“You’ve got termites.” No, they didn’t. Bammers was a clean ship; old, which could mean termites, but in this case it didn’t, because termite-hunting was another way to manage twitchiness. It was hard to take out fist-sized vermin whose normal diet contained so much stalloy contamination. Required determination, sometimes explosives. No, she meant something else: unauthorized personnel. “Three, I think. You lot must have noticed. But I can’t tell.”

Fifteen years, more, spent more-or-less on shipboard or in the safely enclosed spaces of military establishments; the light was always one thing or another, pre-sets, very limited degree of variation. Since he and the men who’d once been bond-involuntaries assigned to the JFS Ragnarok had come to Gonebeyond space he’d discovered a whole new world of ambient light, and it changed, it was different in the mornings than it was at mid-day and when the sun or suns went down.

He almost remembered that, from his childhood, what there’d been of it. Sometimes he found himself looking for a controller on the nearest wall to adjust the intensity before he realized that there weren’t any controls for natural lighting.

“We’ll be sweeping things out, once you’re happy with the loading.” No, she wouldn’t have been able to tell that the crew knew where three of Wilmot’s best sneak-thieves—and an apprentice—were hiding. They’d have passed finger-code between them. Yes, Koscuisko had pulled their governors, they could speak without being spoken to without fear of punishment. That didn’t mean any of them really knew that, yet, not on a visceral level. “Are we on schedule to clear?”

They had the Port Authority coming in six or seven hours from now to review Riggs’ estimate of value and commodity-class of goods in hull. Then they’d pay the fees and tariffs based on Riggs’ estimate and Port Wilmot’s commerce code, and shift hull for Langsarik Station.

“I’ll have to declare,” Riggs pointed out, neutral, professional. “Incidental passengers.”

That was additional traffic, personnel in transit. “Understood.” She’d be coming with them to Langsarik Station, to attest to her report when Bammers got there. So Bammers could unload. Stildyne didn’t think she’d have any trouble finding a skip back to Wilmot; or maybe she’d lay over for a while, or hop a hull for somewhere else. They were adaptable people, cargo handlers.

“If you’re done with your cavene, Chief,” she said, not quite making a point of it, because she was professionally polite and she’d clearly been able to read the relationship dynamics. He couldn’t stop them from calling him “Chief.” Six parts habit and one part stubbornness, or a subtle bond-involuntary joke, he didn’t know.

“Coming directly, Riggs,” he said, and tried not to smile, because—although he saw his face every day and didn’t have any particular feelings about it—he’d been told it scared people. He didn’t know what to call them, since they weren’t Fleet’s property any longer. They’d been defined by their Bonds all the time he’d known them. Former bond-involuntary Security assigned, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok wasn’t fit to requirement, for a wide range of reasons.

He knew what to do with “depressed.” Ignore it. There was cargo to manage. Nothing he had to be depressed about could be compared to what any of the others had in their pasts. The fist, maybe, a cadre of enforcers. It would have to be a Versanger fist, six; and an extra, that was him. They knew things about him and they hadn’t beaten him to a bloody pulp for past behavior yet. He was finding out more about them every day. That was something to distract him from “depressed.”

If he didn’t hurry there wouldn’t be anything left for him to do, so he drank off the dregs of his cavene even knowing that he’d regret it and tossed the crumpled cup into the waste and got himself up into the cargo hold.

###

Medith Riggs stood in the cargo bay at the top of the loading ramp with her back to the men at work, doing her best imitation of someone scanning her flatfile docket and thinking hard. The clearance agent from the Port Authority—Esfrans today, she thought—would be here inside of two hours. Chief had as much as told her they knew about the hiders, but they were walled in behind cargo-cartons three ranks deep by now.

The only real clue she had that they were going to sweep up—as Chief had said—was that they’d deviated from her carefully calibrated loading sequences to the extent of facing the hidey-hold with lighter weight cargo cubes whose contents, if the tell-tales were telling the truth and she had no reason to doubt it, could be dropped from a more significant height than ship to tarmac without suffering any damage or loss of use.

So she hadn’t pointed that deviation out to them. Her load-levels were recommendations, part of the service, best balance for fit and trim, but nobody was required to comply with her schematics, not even though they should because she knew what she was doing better than they did. She could tell. They were a fit and capable crew, but they weren’t professional cargo management handlers.

One of them was coming up behind her, scuffing a boot-heel against the flooring to let her know he was there. Because they didn’t mean to sneak up on a person, but they moved quietly, especially for big men. “Cavene,” he said. Garrity. Blond, nice hair, nice cyborg augmentation in one eye; the kind that had cost somebody a lot of money. “Join me?”

Happening, then. And didn’t want her to be in the way. She didn’t want to be in the way either.

“Sure.”

The way he made it, she only needed about as much as would cover the bottom of the cup, and water to fill. She hoped he wasn’t going to be in charge of cavene en route. Five days would be a long time to face that. He angled past her and down the ramp, very careful body language, these were all very polite people.

She followed him. The brewer was on the inner wall of the main warehouse bay, now open, empty; she was inside the bay with Garrity between her and the outside almost before she realized he’d moved her to where he wanted her, smoothly, imperceptibly. Nothing wrong, no faint trace of a potential warning; maybe—Medith told herself—it was because she already knew what he was doing and was perfectly comfortable going along with it.

“Ran through the base issue early today, sorry,” Garrity said. Possibly more words all together than she’d heard him say during the previous day and this one combined. “It’ll be weak. Going to have to stretch it on our way to Langsarik Station.”

That was to cover why he was pouring hot water into the cup he’d set there on the brewer-assembly’s lip, she supposed. He was one of the broad-shouldered types, so he made one of the better sound-barriers. That Kerenko, he was a slightly more slender model. More noise would have leaked into the warehouse bay around Kerenko, although—if she was going to be fair—all of them made fairly convincing sound-buffers.

“I’ve never been to Langsarik Station,” Medith said, in her best bright-and-conversational style, reaching for the cup. Doing her part. “Have you been there often? If you don’t mind my asking, of course. None of my business, really.”

Garrity nodded, leaning casually against the wall between her and the outside. Looking relaxed. Swirling the cavene in his own cup, the mud in his cup, and why it needed to be swirled was a question since he drank it straight—so there was nothing to dissolve or mix. “Chief’s got someone to see, I guess. We’ve never been. Yet. But hey, recent arrivals, it hasn’t been but a few months. You?”

This was funny. She was enjoying it. “Born and bred, actually.” Her family had been lucky. They’d gotten out of Jurisdiction space before the Bench had really started to crack down on Nurail, before the clearances, before the relocations, an entire generation before the Domitt Prison. That was why she had as much family as she did. “Raised in Ilvers. It’s a nice place. But it’s quiet. I wanted to travel.”

She could hear vague sweeping sounds, coming in from outside. Moderately muted shouting, of the suddenly-interrupted kind. Maybe a few miscellaneous yells and crashes. Garrity grinned at her, and glanced back over his shoulder toward where Bammers stood with its cargo bay open. Suddenly she liked that. They weren’t trying to keep any secrets; they also credited her with knowing exactly what was going on.

“Done a little more traveling than I ever wanted to, really, but that’s life for you. Now I don’t know what I’d do if I had to sit in a boat and haul net all day. Any fishing in Ilvers? Sounds like “eelvers,” doesn’t it? My old people, they still dried eels. Called ’em ‘springsnakes.’ We’d eat them every year on the year-turning, whether we wanted to, or not.”

Nothing coming out of Bammers’ cargo bay sounded scared, from where she stood. Angry. Frustrated. Occasionally hurt, but of the quick sharp impact kind. Fist-fight. There was nothing wrong with a good brawl. She’d gotten into her share in her time, mostly in taverns, mostly of the “Didn’t you hear the lady? She said no” variety.

She wondered how much longer the rest of his crew was going to make Garrity stand there and make conversation, because it didn’t seem to come naturally to him. “There’s a troutlike thing,” she said. “So we call it a trout. They’re pretty. And they’re good eating. Especially on the lake-shore where you caught them.” She’d never actually tasted much more than butter and salt on the fish, so she’d been happy to let her brothers and sisters eat most of the catch.

“Cargo management,” Garrity said. That didn’t seem to follow directly, but Medith excused it. Garrity was clearly reaching for topics. “That loading diagram, thing of beauty. There are people at home who can do that in their heads, but mostly it’s just a stunt these days. Folklore competition week. It’s been a long time since people moved cargo on the old wooden hulls. Long time.”

Long long time, Medith thought, to encourage him; but he’d stopped. They were rapidly running out of things to talk about. “Nice climate at home,” she said. “At Ilvers, I mean. Ah, a problem some years with getting enough hot days for grain crops, but the season’s pretty long, so it works out, by and large. We’ve got a nice moon, too, pretty.”

She sounded as hopeless at conversation as he did, she thought. She wasn’t used to having to carry both ends. She never ran out of things to say to her sweetie, but that was different, and they didn’t always get much time on remote-link.

“Two seasons. Freezing and frying. Those houses people used to put up on the slopes? They only looked like they were falling down. Maximum ventilation.” But someone called to them from outside, and he straightened up with visible relief.

“Garrity,” someone said. Medith thought it was Pyotr. “You’re needed.” Garrity nodded to her with a sort of a come-if-you-want look to his original-issue non-cyborg eye, and went back out into the open air. So she followed him, stopping in mild perplexity as she took in the scene.

Three people sitting on the ground looking downcast, yes. But another person on the ground a little removed, that made four; she hadn’t expected that. And everybody was taking their shoes off. That was a little weird. Pyotr had stopped in front of the three men on the ground and folded his arms.

“Here’s the deal,” Pyotr said. She’d been told to report to “Chief” Stildyne, and “Chief” was clearly the coordinator, but it was more of a spokesman thing as far as she could tell. “You’ve been sitting in our cargo bay waiting for your chance. Port Authority says you’ve got somebody sneaking access to loading manifest, so you can steal the best stuff.”

Loading manifest? Her loading manifest? Riggs frowned. Nobody had any business with her documentation except her, and she took precautions. So her flat-file docket itself had been corrupted. That was bad. But Pyotr said he’d heard that from the Port Authority, so that was good. But nobody had told her: so that was bad, again.

Nobody on the ground was saying anything. One of them put his boots on the side at arm’s length, clearly in response to an instruction given before she’d gotten out here to hear it; “Yeah, down to the skin,” one of the crew said—Robert, she thought—and the man began to strip off his boot-stockings, reluctantly. What was that about?

“And Port Authority knows something you don’t know. About us. About me.” Pyotr clearly hadn’t expected any response, because he was still talking. Medith could appreciate that, though. Pyotr was a substantial piece of work, maximum intimidation in effect. Scaltskarmell. There weren’t any people with complexions that color among the Nurail lineages: he was as dark-skinned as hominids came.

“So let’s talk about me. My name’s Pyotr Micmac. Until recently, bond-involuntary Security assigned, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok. Do any of you pathetic excuses for local muscle know what that means?”

This was a question direct. One of them answered. “So what?” he said. “Inquisitors, yeah. This is Gonebeyond. You’re saying we’re supposed to be scared, because you used to be with Andrej Koscuisko?”

There were some vague stirrings of recognition in the back of Medith’s mind, but they weren’t very well defined. Bond-involuntaries: Security slaves, with governors in their brains, because otherwise you couldn’t find enough people who’d serve an Inquisitor of their own free will. Thirty-year term of enslavement. Immediate and ferocious punishment for the slightest infraction. Andrej Koscuisko, and the Domitt Prison.

“No,” Pyotr said, leaning forward to loom over the speaker. Medith was impressed by the menace Pyotr communicated with just the word, and she wasn’t the one facing him. “I’m saying you should realize that we know how to hurt people. We know how to hurt people really, really convincingly. And we will, too, because you annoy us, ask me why.”

At this moment Medith almost would, just to take the edge off the apprehension she felt by proxy. Fortunately for her—she told herself—one of the three of them said it for her.

“Sure, Jack,” the man with the now-bare feet said. “Why?”

“Glad you asked.” Pyotr unfolded his arms, and he made it scary, too. Hands on hips, now. “I knew a man who was put under Bond for just this sort of stupid stuff. You’re not under Bond. Nobody’s torturing you to death. Nobody’s making you torture anybody, except maybe you, your breath could be weaponized. That makes me really, really angry. Because I remember Lipkie Bederico. We were under Captain Lowden together.”

Now the curly-headed one, standing together with the other two of them behind the three men on the ground, raised his voice. Hirsel, that was. She’d been introduced, but since none of them talked much they didn’t say each others’ names and she wasn’t as sure about that detail as she would’ve liked to have been.

“So me, I’d be perfectly happy to take it out on you,” Hirsel said. “Angry, that is. There’s only one reason you’re not leaving here in bitty bloody pieces. Nothing to do with the Port Authority. Don’t get me wrong.”

And now Godsalt. Garrity had talked himself out, clearly. He’d changed places with Chief, going to stand with—Robert?—guarding the single person who’d been pulled out, and was sitting alone. The one Medith hadn’t known about. The youngest of the bunch, she thought.

Chief when he joined Medith near the warehouse bay didn’t look much disarranged to Medith, hardly even breathing heavily. She didn’t think he’d as much as broken sweat.

“No, the Port Authority’s done you a favor,” Godsalt said. “Asked us to look out for people like you and turn you over. We’ve talked. We’ve decided. Maybe someone could have let Lipkie run. Then what happened to him wouldn’t have, maybe. So we’re letting you run. Except. Barefoot. We keep your shoes, just because we can. Maybe you cut your little pink feet. Maybe you think about what could happen next time. Especially if you get caught by the wrong crew. Yeah?”

Not what Chief had planned, Medith thought, suddenly. Chief would have turned them over. Chief was deferring. That was interesting. What did it mean? Had he been “Chief,” like “Security Chief?” She wasn’t sure she could see why he’d be here, if that was so. Bond-involuntaries in Gonebeyond, well, if they could get out, it’d be the only place they could really go, wouldn’t it?

But how could they have gotten out? Governors. Everybody had heard about them. Little spider-intelligences in a person’s brain, and if you even thought about violating your instructions, you’d be lucky if you never remembered the agony the governor would inflict in punishment.

“I’d rather go with the Port Authority than listen to you flap at me,” one of the others said, resentfully. Not getting the message, Medith thought. Or maybe just not liking it. None of the crew seemed to find it particularly worth noticing. “What about that kid? He’s nothing to do with us. So you should have no problem with him. He walks. With his shoes on.”

“That kid,” the one by himself. He’d taken off his shoes, but he had a kit back there, too. Beside him. Medith saw the crew look at each other, passing eye-contact; passing something else, maybe? She’d wondered if it was her imagination that people had twitchy fingers. Maybe it still was. Maybe there was some communication going on.

“Okay,” Pyotr said, one hand to his face now, fingers crooked over his mouth like people on the vids when they were supposed to be thoughtful people weighing arguments. “For that you get your shoes back. So long as you run out of here before you put them on. Get out. We don’t know when the port’s sending security, but we don’t think it’s very long now.”

It took a moment before the men on the ground appeared to grasp what Pyotr was saying, not because they weren’t as smart as the next sneak-thief, but because it was unexpected. Once the message sank in, though, nobody waited. Gone. There’d be no particular problem running across the tarmac, Medith supposed. But the pavement outside, that was all gravel. That would hurt.

And once they were gone Robert nudged the one that was left with his foot. “As for you,” Robert said. Robert looked Nurail to Medith, but that was maybe just because she was Nurail and had been raised in a Nurail community and people tended to look Nurail to her anyway. If he was Nurail he’d be Rabin, not Robert. If he was, if he’d been, bond-involuntary, though, Fleet could have called him Constanza or Stucco Wall or whatever they liked, and he’d have had to answer to it. “What’s your story?”

“I’ve got to get out,” the man on the ground said. Yes, young. Very. Maybe a boy yet, but what did that matter? “Thought I’d stow away. Almost made it, didn’t I? If the Port Authority takes me home, my da will kill me. If they don’t he’ll find me and kill me anyway.”

Well, that sort of talk was just what a person would expect from a kid, over-dramatizing, world revolving around him, and so forth. “So your dad did that to you,” Robert said, as Garrity pulled the man to his feet. Maybe there was something about it that Medith couldn’t see from this distance. “So you’re clearly not too young to find your own way around it. How old are you?”

“I’m legal.” That was a sullen insistence, but a little resigned, a little hopeless. “I’ve got papers to prove it. Let me go. I won’t try it again. I promise.”

Chief moved his feet. Just a little. Hardly more than taking a deep breath. But the others noticed, Medith was sure they did. “How do you plan to feed yourself at Langsarik Station?” Robert asked. “You’ve got money? I somehow didn’t think so, so, what’s your plan?” Robert glanced over to where Chief was standing with Medith. “Hopeless, Chief. Doomed to failure. Not our problem.”

He didn’t mean it. He was waiting. He was going to have Chief make the call. Medith recognized it, suddenly: Nurail humor. Serious humor, in this instance, but she could practically smell the joke in the air. Chief had been Security chief. What he was doing here Medith still didn’t know, but Chief was Chief Warrant Officer, these men were refugee bond-involuntary Security slaves, and Robert was going to make Chief Stildyne say the word, just because that had been his job.

“You’ll scrub the galley,” Chief said. “And the lavs. After the galley. Do a good job and maybe we cut you loose with scut-worker salary. Put your shoes on. Keep your mouth shut when you muster for the Port Authority, Riggs, let’s call it incidental labor, that’s about all it’s worth, isn’t it?”

For an instant she was tempted to say oh, we won’t call it anything, just this once. But she had her code of duty. And Chief was right: declaring an additional incidental laborer wouldn’t add enough to the total tariffs and fees to even almost notice. “I’m good,” she agreed. “Only we’d all look better if the cargo bay was back to schematic by the time the clearance agent gets here. I know who’s on shift, I think. The cleaner we look the less likely there’ll be any questions.”

But they knew that. And they were already heading back into the cargo hold. The would-be stowaway was fastening his shoes as quick as he could, and ran up after them as soon as he could manage—wanting to help, maybe. He’d just be in the way. Maybe they wouldn’t point that out to him.

“Was a time I had to get away,” Chief said. It was just the two of them, now, she and him. “Not like that kid, no. But I’m not in a position to tell anybody to clean the lavs.”

Nothing she’d seen of this crew would indicate that the galley, and the lavs, weren’t cleaner than many and completely up to code. Now she had a better idea why: these were professional military men, and maybe the standards of this particular crew had been set at higher than most.

She wasn’t going to argue. It wasn’t her place. Also, she kind of agreed with the group decision. “Wonder if he can make cavene,” Medith said. “And I’ll just be doing final inspection, when you’re ready.”

If Esfrans gave her any trouble she’d slap him silly, and the crew would pay the tariffs she established, and that would be all there was to it. If she never came back to Wilmot Station it’d be no particular loss.

###

Lek Kerenko was deeply grateful that someone else had made the cavene, because he was fairly sure his plumbing wouldn’t take many more days in a row of Garrity’s approach. The only thing that had saved him from a total collapse had been someone’s wrangling twice as much dairy as a growing boy would normally go through in a month, and it was good dairy, too, actual dairy dairy—not dairy equivalent.

It didn’t taste like good Sarvaw cow’s-milk, but there weren’t any Sarvaw cows in Gonebeyond that he knew of, and he’d been doing without the good stuff for years now anyway. It wasn’t standard issue on the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok. The officer’s household had served him the best of Aznir high-fat cream for his cavene when he’d accompanied Koscuisko home on holiday, the once; he’d been a little worried that it might give him hives—since he was Sarvaw—but he’d survived the experience. He’d forced himself to repeat it as often as he’d dared during that downstay, because he’d been fairly sure he’d never have a chance like that again.

Now he sipped his cavene carefully—he’d developed a conditioned protective reflex during their lay-over at Wilmot—and found himself a place on the bench in the narrow cramped common-room on the freighter-courier Bammers to take his mid-meal. Bammers hadn’t been built for a full crew of Security; the benches were just a little short, but Robert being youngest found himself a place sitting on a stores-locker and Chief just leaned up against the wall.

It was a good practice to take at least one meal together. He found himself getting a little anxious if he was too much alone. “So,” Pyotr said to his bread-fold, both elbows on the table. Complete violation of protocol, which was the point, of course. Also maybe Pyotr had just grown up putting his elbows on the table. “How old were you when you ran away from home, Chief?”

It was a personal question. They asked a lot of personal questions, these days; because they could. There were a lot of inquiries in queue, after all those years of never asking anything about each others’ personal lives, and what was the worst that could happen? A fist-fight. That hadn’t happened yet. All of those years under Bond they’d had each other, only each other, whether they liked each other or not; that part hadn’t changed.

“Nunya,” Chief said, after taking a contemplative moment to swallow. None of your business. “Trade you for the first hot shower, when we get to Langsarik Station.”

There were Malcontents at Langsarik Station, Dolgorukij slaves of the Saint, the secret service of the Holy Mother’s church, “cousins” one and all. The officer’s blood-cousin Stanoczk had arranged a Sarvaw pilot from Langsarik Station to take them from Emandis Station into Gonebeyond, and Malcontents at Langsarik Station had been their primary interface with life in the new world ever since. Chief—Stildyne—had an understanding with Cousin Stanoczk.

Pyotr nodded. Chief looked at the half-eaten bread-fold in his hand. Asking about peoples’ pasts was one of the biggest taboos there was, among bond-involuntaries. “Sixteen years Standard, I think,” Chief said. As old as Robert, then, Lek thought, startled. But they weren’t supposed to know that. “I was big for my age, and tough enough for Fleet. They marked me down for eighteen, no questions asked.”

He’d passed for older more successfully than the stowaway currently cleaning the lavs, then. That was what had put the question in Pyotr’s mind, naturally; it wasn’t that anybody was eavesdropping, not on purpose, but when your Chief said anything it was good survival practice to be sure you heard what he was saying. Even when you didn’t hear anything at all, not officially. “Same reason?” Godsalt asked. “You can have first crack at the laundry, too.”

In case he wanted to get pretty, in case Cousin Stanoczk was there. It had to be lonely for Stildyne, all these weeks without Koscuisko in the back of his mind. Not that Koscuisko wasn’t in the back of Stildyne’s mind, whether or not they’d ever see him again. Stildyne took another bite of his bread-fold and chewed it down before he answered.

“He never laid a hand on me,” Stildyne said. “Not once I got old enough to hit back. That’s when I went street. But someone came running to me about my sister, and I went back. After that. Stuffed some rags in a bag I stole from someone to make it look like I had something more than just the clothes on my back, and reported to the nearest recruiting office.”

And Lek was sorry Pyotr had asked. On a psychological trauma scale of zero to bond-involuntary it didn’t slide up much past half-way, though; and of course Stildyne owed them, for past misbehaviors. But that was just a technical issue.

He’d been no worse than many and maybe even a little better than most, because Stildyne had always been a practical man who took his responsibilities to keep the equipment in good working order seriously—that was them, bond-involuntaries, instruments of torture. Then Koscuisko had happened. That had been good for all them, the Bonds. For Stildyne there’d been challenges.

Pyotr looked down at his plate, the second—uneaten—bread-fold; and sighed. Picking it up in one hand he eased himself up and away from the table, which was one of Pyotr’s better tricks, close as the quarters were around here. “Well, all right, then,” he said, and tore the bread-fold in two between his fingers, holding out half for Stildyne to take. “I’d better go check the vector spins. Lek worries.”

But Pyotr didn’t leave. He waited, watching Stildyne examine the half-a-bread-fold in his hand. Stildyne took a bite, and a sip of cavene to wash it down. Then, and only then, Pyotr turned, and went away.

“Any chance of an invite to that Daigule’s house for dinner, Lek?” Robert asked, just to break the tension, Lek knew. “Because. Dumplings.”

Kazmer Daigule—their pilot from Emandis into Gonebeyond—was as Sarvaw as Lek was, and an important man in the Langsarik Port Authority. Married to the cousin of the Provost Marshall himself, Flag Captain Walton Agenis’ own niece. She made soft-curd sour cheese dumplings to dream on, and her not even Sarvaw at all, except by marriage.

“You’re dreaming,” Lek said. “That was a one-off.” Although if they were ever invited to the Modice Agenis household again he hoped they wouldn’t all sit there like bond-involuntary security troops assigned, incapable of all but the most rudimentary conversation. It had been too soon, the last time. A man could hope for a second chance, even if the only reason they’d had a first one was that Cousin Stanoczk and Kazmer Daigule knew each other. “Marry your own bride. Then you can ask for the recipe. Wedding-present.”

Things had gotten a little serious around here, and needed setting back to neutral. Stildyne was finishing the half-a-bread-fold Pyotr had given him, whether he wanted it or not. Lek got up. “Garrity will be missing his meal.” Riggs as well, and the stow-away. “I’ll go call them in for bread-folds.”

It was just part of the redefinition of relationships, after all. Because they had one. Stildyne, and the rest of them. On his own merits, whether or not Koscuisko had sent him out with them into Gonebeyond, to facilitate their transition from under Bond to normal human beings.

The sooner Stildyne could make up his mind to that, the better it would be for everybody.

###

Langsarik Station. It was a pretty place, though it lacked contour; Robert appreciated the fragrance of spring blossoms in the air, blowing in from the greenery that clothed the walls of the launch-lanes off in the middle distance. He remembered the Provost Marshal, Hilton Shires; and wondered, a little, what warranted the presence of the senior man in the Port Authority at the arrival of a freighter-courier like Bammers.

“You remember my friend Kaz?” Shires was asking Stildyne. Of course we do, Robert thought, but did his best to make his mental tone appropriately polite. It had been Kazmer Daigule who’d piloted the ship that had brought them here, after all, and it hadn’t been more than a few weeks. Three months. Maybe. “We might have to check his pockets. We might have to check my pockets. But our Malcontent cousins specified the crew, as a condition of access.”

Traffic Control had brought Bammers in next to a ship already on the tarmac, beautiful ship, heavy courier. Robert thought he’d seen it before. Stildyne was apparently sure, but Stildyne would know; Stildyne—and Lek—had been on board of the Kospodar thula when it had made its famous mid-vector intercept of the Ragnarok. Also when it had shot a way through the mine-field that Taisheki Station had been laying to trap the Ragnarok, and saved Ragnarok and its crew from prosecution to the fullest extent of the law for crimes they hadn’t committed.

“Ship’s Engineer would tell you he’s got first dibs,” Stildyne said. “Don’t say anything to him. He’ll come after us.” Ragnarok was in Gonebeyond Space too, that was so. Nobody had come looking for them yet, though. Robert wasn’t sure Captain ap Rhiannon really cared about chasing them down: but maybe it was just that the Ragnarok had other things on its mind, just now. Distracted.

“He’d have to fight my Aunt Walton for it,” Shires noted, mildly. “That would be something. We could sell tickets. But he’d lose.” The Provost Marshal’s “Aunt Walton” was the Flag Captain of the Langsarik fleet, the senior official—semi-retired—in all of the Langsarik quadrant of Gonebeyond space. She probably had experience, fighting with Ship’s Engineers.

Pulling a short stack of data wafers out of the bosom of his overblouse Shires passed them to Stildyne, with an expression of moderate regret on his face. “Here are your codes, Chief. I heard your crew would be wanting to move in right away, I’ve scheduled you for a briefing tomorrow midshift, come see me for ship’s next assignment. Please. We’d like Fisher Wolf’s help with station management out Perjuki way. Nowhere near the Ragnarok.”

Fisher Wolf? Is that what it’s calling itself, now?” Stildyne asked, with that subsonic rumble of amusement he could get in his voice from time to time. Robert wasn’t quite sure he could parse the joke, but he knew what Dolgorukij men usually meant when they were talking about “fish” and there wasn’t a fried filet with chopped pickle on the side anywhere in sight. So there was a joke. He just wasn’t entirely in on it. “Robert. Call Lek out. Tell him his cousin Stanoczk’s brought him a present.”

The Kospodar thula. Fisher Wolf. Long and almost straight through the flanks, its forward sector bulging out like a tilted pitfruit. The wheelhouse’s clearscreens beneath the forward hood of the ship’s top skin took a rakish angle down to their thermal sills on the slant; six back stabilizers, two to a side, one dorsal, one ventral, and the dorsal stabilizer was at least twice the size of any of the others.

It reminded Robert of nothing so much as an aquatic predator, a famous monster out of the great ocean worlds of Tabyhee Allegate; he’d had seen pictures. Ancient beasts. Primitive, efficient, and beautiful in their savagery. Stildyne had been on board as one of its weaponers, at Taisheki; Koscuisko as well, as insurance against any potential conflicts between Lek and his governor. And Lek on pilot’s station. People had talked. People had said that Lek and the thula were beautiful together.

Their hot showers were maybe going to be delayed for a little bit, then, and their laundry besides. Whether Cousin Stanoczk—Stildyne’s lover—was actually here at Langsarik Station or not Robert didn’t know; and that was actually none of his business. There was the thula. Here were the security keys and the control authorizations. Holding out his hand Robert waited: Stildyne dropped them into Robert’s hand, one, two, five.

“Right away, Chief,” Robert said, and turned to trot up into the Bammers’ cargo bay to find Lek and tell him he had a girlfriend waiting. One with teeth. One with attitude. One with a Dolgorukij accent.

They’d get out to Safehaven to see the officer sooner or later, but in the meantime there were adventures waiting, and they were just the crew to meet anything head-on.



Copyright © 2017 Susan R. Matthews



This story is a prequel to Susan R. Matthews’s new novel, Blood Enemies, part of her critically acclaimed Under Jurisdiction series. In Blood Enemies, former Fleet Inquisitor Andre Kosciusko reunites with the enslaved “bond involuntaries” we meet in the preceding story. He has helped to free them from their technological chains. Now they must face an enemy more implacable and evil than even the totalitarian Jurisdiction from which they’ve escaped into Gonebeyond Space. Blood Enemies can stand alone, but to read the full Under Jurisdiction series, be sure to read the first six books collected in omnibuses Fleet Inquisitor and Fleet Renegade.



Susan R. Matthews was raised in a military family and spent her younger years living around the globe in a myriad of places including Germany, both coasts of the U.S., and India. Often cut off from television and other media, she read voraciously. Her first encounters with science fiction came via classics such as I, Robot and Stranger in a Strange Land. Matthews' debut novel, An Exchange of Hostages, the first entry in her critically acclaimed Under Jurisdiction series, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. Matthews was also a finalist for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer. Matthews lives in Seattle with her wife, Maggie, and two delightful dogs. She is a veteran of the U.S. Army, where she served as operations and security officer of a combat support hospital. She is also an avid HAM radio operator.


© 2017 Baen Publishing Enterprises