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Written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Illustrated by Paul Davies


Day 54, Standard Year 1393
Solcintra, Liad

It was a pellucid, temperate morning. The humidity levels were just a point lower than the theoretical "perfect comfort" zone; the sky was an arcing blue-green bowl marred by neither cloud nor threat of rain. It was, in fact, a fine day for gardening.

As were so many days on Liad.

The gardener was early at his work, having risen betimes from restless, unsettling dreams, and knowing from long experience that laboring in the clan's inner gardens was a potent cure for restlessness. Granted, the work no longer exhausted him to the point of dreamlessness, for which he had only himself to thank. Nine standards gone, the inner gardens had been a jungle of neglect and ill-considered plantings. Now . . . he flattered himself that it was an oasis, a place of peace and beauty to soothe the spirit and calm the emotions.

To create such a place, that was certainly, he thought as he turned from the portable weather station he had mounted on the garden wall—certainly such a place was of value to the clan.

As he was not, nor ever had been.

An embarrassment to the clan—oh, yes. Many times over; the transgression which had made him gardener under what Terrans so quaintly styled "house arrest," merely the last in the series of embarrassments that had begun with his birth and naming.

That he was also the instrument of the clan's continued financial comfort—well, that was an embarrassment, too.

He took up his hoe and walked to the bottom of the garden, where the pesselberries wanted his attention. A small flock of foraging redbirds flew as far as the garden wall, complaints loud and urgent. One, braver than the rest, held position until the gardener was nearly upon him, and then joined his crew. Within moments their song was back to the constant low twitter he'd become accustomed to.

It was hardly his fault that Clan Lysta had once been on the verge of financial ruin, or that a mad Terran had wanted a ship. Not any ship, but a good ship, a Liaden-built ship, with up-to-date cans and mount points and drives, and—Korval's ships then as now being pre-bought a dozen or more years in advance—his only choice was to buy from Cochel lo'Vanna, whose clan refused to sell to any but a member of a registered clan.

The madman—one Thrugood Brunner—was not without resources. He set himself to become a member of a registered clan. He had—perhaps by chance, perhaps by reasoned searching—located Lysta, teetering on the edge of dissolution. He met with the desperate delm, an agreement was reached to publish a new Line; a contract was written, money changed hands—hey, presto! as some Terrans would have it—Lysta was saved. And Thrugood Brunner got his ship, which he soon boarded, never to return to planet or clanhouse.

But the contract. The contract had established a trust, a certain percentage of which was to be paid into the clan's operating fund every Standard for precisely as long as Line Brunner flourished in the care of Clan Lysta. This to be proven by the existence, in each generation, of a child bearing the surname Brunner and a personal name from the original Brunner's family history, a list of those names being appended to the contract.

The clan, no longer in debt, found the contract, but not the portion, to be—awkward. By the delm's word, the generational Brunners lived quietly retired, calling no attention to themselves, or to the clan which nurtured them.

Until recently, that was.

"Ichliad!" A glad, childish voice interrupted these ruminations.

He looked up and smiled as Verena rushed down the path, trailed, as ever, by orange Charzi, tail high and whiskers a-quiver.

"Why are you all the way down here?" the child asked, depositing herself with abandon on the brick walk. The cat came and stood on her knee, then wandered off, as it was wont to do, to explore what new smells might have developed over night. The birds quieted somewhat, but still muttered among the branches.

"The pesselberries must have their soil aerated, or they will not bear," he answered.

"That would be a good thing, surely?" she asked. Verena was not fond of pesselberries.

"Not all of us share your distaste for fresh fruits," he commented, wielding his hoe with a will.

"Not all fresh fruits," she objected. "Ichliad, let us make a pact! You may have all of my pesselberries, and I will have all of your kelchin fruit."

He shook his head, a Terran habit he had not been able to break. "You know quite well that kelchin fruit are nuts," he said. He gave her a glance. "And so do I."

She sighed, and squinted up at the sky. "What will the weather be today?"

"Clear and calm and placid," he answered, hoeing. "The weather on Liad is always placid."


"Excepting the occasional tempest along the coasts, yes. We are fortunate in the weather on our homeworld. Others are not nearly so tame."

Charzi appeared out of the bushes then and Verena was obliged to express her admiration of his beauty and prowess for the next few minutes. Ichliad plied his hoe, the rhythm of the work lulling him into a state almost of sleep—and was roused by the child.

"Ichliad," she asked, "will you go back to being a weatherman, when the delm is through punishing you?"

Go back to being a weatherman? he thought, and shook his head once more.

"Child, I have never stopped being a weatherman."

"And you're a good one, too!" she said stoutly. "You're never wrong about—"

Suddenly, unprecedented in this protected place—a down burst of hot, parched wind. The birds went silent. Beneath his feet, the ground shivered.

"Go!" He threw down his hoe, grabbed the child under her arms and yanked her to her feet. "Run! Into the house!"

"Charzi!" she objected and he pushed her, not gently, another blast of wind buffeting them, and a rumble building.

"I'll bring the cat! Go—now!"

She looked up into his face—and ran.

* * *

The news was everywhere, driving even his delm's treasured melant'i plays off the house screens. Clan Korval had struck against the homeworld, opening a hole in the center of Solcintra itself. Ichliad stayed a short time among his horrified kin, then escaped upstairs to his rooms, where his private screen told the same tale over.

He listened with half an ear to the explanations, the recorded warnings, the speculations as he paced the length and breadth of his quarters, his fingers twisted together as he debated with himself.

He was an authority—an expert. Unlike most of the meteorologists who studied and graphed the subtle, agreeable weather of the homeworld, he had seen, he had studied—he understood—what would happen next. The winds would carry debris and potentially deadly particles, raining them down on others, so distant from the catastrophe that they would not think of their danger.

"They must," he whispered, "be warned."

And by whom? The Scouts? Well, yes. But the Scouts were stretched thin, as he heard the tale told between the sentences of the news reports. There were evacuations, teams sent in to succor the wounded. It would be—days, perhaps, before the Scouts had leisure to think. He—this was his field, and it fell to him to give the warning.

He paused by the window and gazed down into the inner garden that had been his care and duty for the past nine Standards. The terms of his arrest were plain: he was to remain housebound, communicating with no one, calling no attention to himself, bringing no embarrassment to his house. Manage this for ten Standards, his delm had told him, with an ironic bow that indicated such restraint was doubtful, and his confinement would be ended, his debt to the clan's consequence paid.

Six Standard months remained until his parole. Freedom was within his reach.

And yet—

"They must," he said to the empty room, his voice striking the walls firmly, "be told."

His knowledge, his expertise . . .

His duty.

He had contacts, names. People who would remember him, or at least remember his work. He had only to access the communications module—unlocked, for where was the honor in obedience, if the forbidden were not available as a constant choice?

Ichliad turned from the window, walked over to the desk, sat down. His fingers moved on the keypad, and there was the screen, the program prompting him for an address.

Six months to freedom.

But, really, he was a weatherman. There was no choice.

* * *

Research Station Number Measton 4
Day 198, Standard Year 1382

"Ichliad Brunner to Storage Bay Three; I. Brunner to Storage Bay Three."

It took some moments for the noise to become sound, for the sound to become words, for the words to have meaning, for the meaning to have urgency.

Brunner looked at the remains of his solitary meal—"lunch" this would be by the cryptic schedule on the canteen wall—and realized he was done anyway. Not that the food was bad, but that his mind was far from it, his discovery of yet another bombed-out weather unit filling his thoughts. Someone on the surface was targeting the ground units—that much was certain. Why they would do so, when accurate reporting of the weather was crucial to both—or perhaps he should say, all—sides of the war being waged on the planet below—that was the puzzle.

Well, that and how he would convince the company this time to send him more units.

"Brunner to Storage Bay Three. Ichliad Brunner to Storage Bay Three!"

Sighing, he folded his assigned portable regretfully and slipped it back into its pocket. Somewhere in the latest information might be a key, a pointer, an explanation of the newest weather pattern, the one he'd hoped to pinpoint using the destroyed monitor.

At least today he'd been able to think and study at lunch. Jack was someplace else.

Never good with small talk, even among Liadens, Brunner found station-livers to be largely respectful of someone who was working. Still, there was Jacumbra Edgil—"Jack, just call me Jack and everybody'll know who you're talking about!"—who seemed to wander the station talkative and unfettered at all shifts, doing whatever it was that "Jack" did.

One was warned of Jack's approach by a chorus of subtle clicks, chirps, beeps, and clanks, some of them electronic, some born of the accidental interplay of the objects hung along his several tool belts.

There were other warnings, as well, if one were so engrossed in one's work that mere sound was disregarded. For instance, Jack was very much not of Liaden size, standing a full head taller than Brunner, carrying at least twice the weight; sometimes he blocked the overhead lights.

To hear Jack talk, which was difficult to avoid, he was personally responsible for the upkeep of the station and all its systems. How he could manage this while also being present at people's elbows during breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and "canteen cocktails" was hard to imagine. Still, the phrase, "Guess we'd better ask Jack," was said often enough to lend credence to his claims of technical omnipotence.

"Ichliad Brunner to Storage Bay Three! Code Eleven."

Well, he thought, picking up his tray, someone was impatient. And Code Eleven, forsooth! He was expecting no visitors, save the Phaetera company rep, whose existence he was coming to doubt. And when had the Scout designated himself as a mere "visitor"?

He deposited the tray, his thoughts again on the problem of the weather patterns below them. So much unexplained, so much seeming impossible. But there—explanations must exist, revealing what seemed impossible to be merely improbable. That was the hope. It was reason he was here, and why the station was here. Klamath, in its eccentricities, might well demonstrate a key that could unlock the weather patterns of a thousand worlds.

* * *

Storage Bay Three was the area reserved for the Scout when he made his frequent and largely unscheduled appearances. What the Scout did when he wasn't on station Brunner neither knew nor cared. When the Scout was on station he dipped his fingers into everything, always asking questions, always being very busy, almost always being annoying, and most often doing all of that in the company of Jack and his clanking tool belts.

Brunner entered the access hall to Storage Bay Three at his usual brisk pace, ignoring the urge to hurry prompted by yet another iteration of the demand for his appearance. This summons was a disruption of his work, his thought, and his schedule. He was obeying it—gods forefend that he bring the Scout down upon his work area!—but he would not be goaded into rushing. At least he was not like those who let their names echo through the station for a half-shift.

Ahead, the bay doors were wide open, revealing people, voices, uniforms—and Jack. For a wonder Jack was standing quiet as the Scout and a tall Terran woman dressed in a military uniform peered at something hidden by his bulk.

"Won't be a cause for trouble, then, for you? I mean political trouble. I don't think these . . ." That was the tall woman.

Jack saw Brunner, and Brunner saw the small hand-sign he made to the Scout, one of those pilots and Scouts used to communicate in noisy or distracting environments. Brunner thought of the sign as, "Attend, one approaches," but he had never been formally trained in hand-talk, something he greatly regretted. He might have been taught—would have been taught!—had his delm allowed the Scouts to buy his contract when he had been at the Scout Academy's meteorology school. Alas, by the time the offer was made, he had been under contract to the technical services company Phaetera, who had paid for his advanced training.

The Scout turned, bowed a polite if minimal bow of equal recognition, close enough to a Terran nod as to be indistinguishable except by one raised in an exacting house. "Tech Brunner."

Brunner returned the bow as precisely as possible. Really, it was saying too much for the Scout's clan to concede equality, but perhaps the Scout himself was acknowledging Brunner's Scout training. If that were so, then he was actually summoned here for some purpose having to do with his work, rather than to engage in yet another rambling conversation regarding the "news" from the planet surface. Brunner knew Scouts—and, alas, this particular Scout—well enough to understand that those conversations were not as pointless as they seemed, though he was neither sufficiently subtle nor demented to comprehend their purpose.

"Meteorologist Ichliad Brunner Clan Lysta," the Scout said now, speaking Trade tongue in deference to mixed company. "Allow me to make you known to Commander Liz Lizardi, of Lizardi's Lunatics."

"Commander," said Brunner, giving what was perhaps too curt a bow to someone of rank, but as she was both Terran and a mercenary, he doubted that she would . . .

Or perhaps, he thought, he had made too hasty a judgment regarding a mere mercenary's understanding of nuance. The commander returned a bow the mirror image of his own, her face studiously blank.

"Meteorologist," she said, and then, after a very quick scan for signs of rank, including a glance at his hands to see if he wore rings, she added, "Contractor, are you, Brunner?"

"Indeed, " he agreed, giving her the fuller bow she had earned. "Like yourself, I assume."

She smiled slightly. "Yes, but not for your boss, I assure you."

"I thought it best to bring you together," the Scout suggested firmly before either raised the conversational stakes again, "so that we might all gain advantage from an awkward situation. The commander is bringing her forces into the fray on the side of the Chilongan government. She is need of accurate weather prediction—and is willing to supply someone to carry special equipment and give reports. "

"Special equipment? I have no equipment to loan . . ." began Brunner—and stopped at Jack's low-key hand motion.

Six paces to the big man's right, a backpack stood on its rack. A red-headed Liaden youth—as much of an oddity on the station as Brunner himself—in combat dress was examining the pack minutely.

"Tech Brunner," the Scout said. "You will of course be familiar with the commercial version of this Stubbs MicroRanger from your training." He used his chin to point at the backpack. "The Scouts will supply this unit on loan to the station, if, in your professional opinion, it will be useful to your work. The station may then lend-lease the unit to Klamath—or to someone representing the legitimate government of Klamath. There is . . . melant'i at work . . . in that direction."

Brunner eyed the offered weather machine. The redheaded soldier was bent close, hands prudently behind her back, winged brows pulled together into a frown. "This is no commercial unit, Scout."

"Indeed. In comparison to the commercial Stubbs . . . This one is quite a bit more powerful, and has some additional useful features—we will of course supply the manual. Among the upgrades is the ability to transmit very long distances. It may also be set to do precision positioning and multi-remote queries on its own and to act as relay. Is this capability worth the risk to equipment which costs on the order of a dozen cantra to put in place?"

"Worth how much? Maybelle's beard! And I'm supposed to just lug this around in an active zone?"

Startled, Brunner looked back to the apparent halfling who'd been studying the Stubbs.

As Liaden as she appeared, the language she spoke was Terran and the accent was—backworld, at best.

"That's not your problem . . ." began the commander but the halfling rushed on:

"Liz, this thing could buy Surebleak with change left over, couldn't it? Didn't you say you can buy a ship for . . ."

The Scout laughed out loud, and cocked an eyebrow at the tall Terran at his side.

"I see you have found us willing transport, Commander."

She snorted, made a vague waving motion toward the young soldier.

"Put it on, then we'll see if you've got a worry, right, Corporal?"

The soldier's face was very unLiaden in its mobility and willingness to display emotion. The expression of the moment, if Brunner read it aright, was a cross between disdain and awe.

"That an order?" she asked warily. "I can't much afford to pay this back if I drop it wrong . . ."

"Order," confirmed the commander, though not as sharply as she might have done. "Now, Redhead."

"Yes'm." The soldier bent to the pack.

"The question remains, Tech." The Scout's voice drew Brunner's attention. "Is it worth the risk to the equipment to have the corporal carry it in what she properly names an active zone?"

Brunner sighed, shoulders rising in one of the all-encompassing shrugs that formed a great part of station linqua.

"You wish to argue philosophy, Scout? Equipment is to be used in the pursuit of information. This station exists to gather what information we can regarding the unique events upon the planet's surface."

Jack snorted. "See, I told you! Sure he wants the Stubbs onworld. You want the Stubbs onworld. The commander here, she wants the Stubbs onworld . . ."

"Hey, it ain't that heavy, really, is it?"

The discussion stopped as all eyes focused on the corporal and her burden. She stood as tall as she could, which was not very, and extremely straight, which was . . . admirable, given what she was wearing on her back. The unit's stand was still deployed, and she casually flipped a trip-switch on her left side, retracting it. Reaching to another switch, she said, "This one, right? The antenna?"

The Scout nodded. "But not here. The unit will begin transmitting on antenna deployment and I suspect it would give a jolt to the local receivers at this range, even if all it does is protest the lack of its key."

The corporal grinned and gave half-salute, with a cheery, "Yes, sir!" She moved her shoulders against the rig and strode away at a good clip, as if testing new boots. Out the door she went, down the corridor a dozen steps, then a quick circle back.

Brunner watched the girl-soldier with some discomfort. Certainly, she was young; at a guess, several years younger than he, and—solely in his opinion—far too young to be at war. But there, the planetary news source most usually available to the station insisted that the "free-breeders" routinely armed children younger than ten Standards. What the news source did not make plain was if those children were armed defensively, or offensively.

"Security," said the Scout, talking either to the room at large or to the commander, "simply means acknowledging that we have a mobile unit on the surface. We can have no secrets about this: all we are doing is making sure that the planet below gets the kind of meteorological coverage it deserves. Given the interconnectedness of all things, weather belongs to the whole world. And the weather where you are bound, my friend—can teach us something, I'm sure."

The Scout looked to him—a request for agreement, perhaps, or a reminder of his question?

"Yes," Brunner murmured, directing his reply to both Scout and commander. "Yes, if this item is in my inventory, it needs to be used if possible."

There. It was said. And there was another thing that needed, yet, to be said.

He turned to directly face Commander Liz Lizardi, and bowed slightly, promising an accurate account of a problematic situation. "Understand that our channels are sometimes monitored. . . . Someone on the surface is searching for weather units, and destroying them. I have no doubt that by carrying such a device you will make your force . . . it could attract the attention of those you may not be sided with."

She smiled, did the commander and gave a casual salute, as if acknowledging the intent of his bow.

"Comes with the territory, sir. We're going down there to straighten out a mess; happens the folks on the other side might not appreciate us much, with or without your piece of equipment. Weather's a big issue down there—almost another army, by what I've seen of the records. If that machine lets me know what I've got headed my way—well, sir, it's worth the risk, from where I stand."

Brunner inclined his head, accepting her summation.

"In that case, I am in favor of going forward. I require the person who is to carry the unit have some formal training beyond, 'If you push this, the machine will work'. . . . But I myself will need to read the manuals, as this is not the machine I was trained on."

"You would, huh? Well, me too." She looked at the Scout, but it was Jack who answered.

"We can hold the docking hub for you for two orbits, Liz. More'n that, it'd look like we're taking sides . . ."

"Understood." She made what might have been a gesture of dismissal . . . or a call to action, and raised her voice.

"Redhead! Front and center!"

* * *

Tech Brunner, the guy who was going to teach her how to use the weather rig, was short—not dumpy, just small and skinny, kinda like her—maybe shy, or maybe just nervous. Hard to tell how old he was—didn't she know how easy it was to suppose years off somebody just 'cause they were short and small? His face was smooth, except for some strain-lines around his eyes and his mouth, like he spent too much time in front of his screens, looking at things that didn't make him happy. His hair was what they called "ditchwater blond" back home, not showing any gray; and his eyes were real dark brown, like high-grade chocolate. He had a good voice, firm and cool, and an accent that made it sound almost like he was singing.

He didn't have any service marks on his sleeves; his uniform was basically just ship clothes: a shirt with his name above the pocket, slacks with a name on the left rear pocket, no hatch marks. The shirt did have a cloud with lightning-bolt on the pocket, just under his name—she guessed that was maybe a company or team logo, and didn't help at all with guessing how old he might be.

He amused Liz for some reason, and she held him back to walk with her and her friend the Scout, waving Redhead and the weather rig on ahead. That didn't mean she was lonely, though, 'cause the big guy—Jack, his name was—tugged right along beside her, hauling what must have been the rig's shipping crate, and pointing her the way.

Behind, the talk was half in what Redhead supposed was Liaden, half in Trade and prolly half in hand-talk, too, but that didn't bounce off the walls, so she couldn't be sure. The whole situation was odd-shaped; off-center and full of politics, in Redhead's opinion. She'd gotten pretty used to odd since leaving Surebleak, even if the politics sometimes escaped her. Being close 'round Liz maybe more than most new soldiers meant she got to watch some of the inner stuff going down, though she didn't savvy all of it.

"There go, kid," her escort directed in Terran with an accent damn' close to Surebleak's; "take the corner there. I gotta bring this cause there's a bunch of tech-stuff stowed inside, and Mr. Brunner'll be wanting that after the Scout finishes sharing out today's mess o'secret. No use us working stiffs hearin' all that; just makes us anxious."

"Call me Redhead, why not?" she suggested, letting the pack settle into the slightly rounded corner of the lift. Damn if she was going back to 'kid,' now she had chops on her sleeve. "Or corporal."

Jack leaned against the door panel, twitching at a couple of the push plates while he craned his neck to peer down the corridor, then turned back to her.

"Corporal, is it? They must have rushed grades from what I see."

Redhead sighed inwardly, but she knew from experience that the best answer was a joke.

"Nah, not really," she said to Jack, deadpan. "I'm big for my age, is all."

He shook his head.

"You can't be young enough to be big for your age and still carry a gun for Commander Liz," he said in Trade.

She followed that without any trouble, grinning wryly.

"I've known Liz a long time. Guess she knew me longer, really, 'cause she was my mother's friend, even before I was born."

Jack nodded sagely. "Right then, she mighta known you longer. . . ." Back in Terran, that was—and cut off as something on his capacious belt beeped and something else clanked. His hands moved as quick as the sounds. The beeping stopped but the clanking didn't, 'cause he was checking the location of some other stuff on the belt. He'd been doing that every so often all the time he'd been in her sight—like he couldn't stand not knowing exactly where his equipment was. She knew a couple of hands in the Lunatics like that: might call it a nervous habit, but they weren't the ones to run low on ammo or to suddenly need batteries in the field. Might be Jack'd done soldier-time somewhen, though he seemed even more disinclined to salute than Tech Brunner.

Jack mumbled something and she'd said, "Huh?" before realizing he was talking to his collar. Something twerped on his belt and the lighting in the lift went up a couple notches.

"Sorry 'bout that, Corporal. Lift's got some extra solar shielding so I had to go to back-up to get the lights on. Company don't like to waste power lighting the lifts!" He glanced at her casually, left hand still doing its tour of the belt.

"Must be handy to have the overrides right on your belt!" she said, honestly admiring such efficiency.

He sighed, surprisingly deeply. "You might think so, Corporal Redhead, but answer me this: What happens when you control the overrides?"

She shook her head and shrugged, hands up, the unfamiliar mass on her back making her shift her feet too, for balance. "Dunno. What happens?"

"When you control the overrides, sometimes you gotta make the decisions. Comes with the territory. Same with pilots, you know?" He gave her a hard look. "Same like maybe you'll hafta do, carrying all that info on your back."

"Yah," she said to Jack, nodding in agreement. "I guess that's so. . . ."

Liz hit the lift, then, ahead of her escort, leaned against the wall opposite Jack, and gave him a grin. "Penthouse, if you please!"

Jack said something with his hands that Redhead couldn't see, then the door shut behind the tech and the Scout, with Jack and Liz sharing a smile over their heads.

There was a beep, and the car jerked into motion, going sort of northwest according to Redhead's stomach. Jack's belt beeped and the lighting went down a notch.

"Penthouse, next stop!" he said, maybe louder than he needed to—at least, it seemed Tech Brunner thought so, if he wasn't frowning about something else entirely. The Scout, tucked into the corner next to Liz, only smiled.

* * *

Jack was dismantling the shipping crate, piling each piece just so on the conference room floor, making sure that all the pockets and cavities were empty of whatever odds and ends might have been stuffed there. He hummed as he worked, which was annoying, but Brunner kept himself busy by acting the host, quite happy to see the backs of the Scout and the commander as they fled for the canteen's small bar after approving the conference area as a classroom, and after the Scout passed him a small blue envelope.

The choice of food available from the conference room fresh-case was somewhat more limited than the canteen's, but since the room was used from time to time for working meetings, it was stocked with some proper teas in addition to coffee, and it held an unreasonably wide supply of chernubia especially baked for Tech Brunner by the canteen's cook, who applauded his insistence that each meal should be made more memorable by one or two small sweets to choose from.

The water steaming and a selection of fruited chernubia set out upon a tray, with cups and plates, Brunner turned toward his young student, only to discover her sitting back in the soft, oversized for her as for him, Terran conference chair, her eyes closed and breath regular. He paused, making use of the unguarded moment to study her more closely.

Her face was tanned and thin, with a spangle of freckles bridging her nose. Unlike Commander Lizardi, who wore her hair cut close and utilitarian, the halfling had made a single thick dark red braid and wrapped it around her head, like the copper crown of a barbarian princess.

Her uniform was tight to her slender throat; any jewels or necklace she might wear sealed away from his sight, but her hands, resting half-curled on her knees, were a garden of small silver and gem-chipped rings, matching those in her thin, blue veined ears. None was a Ring as one might find on a delm or even a pilot, rather they were barely more than fine wire. A child's wealth of play-jewels, gaudy and gay. There might be need, he thought, of bright color and friendly glitter, in the places this soldier frequented.

In other dress, and with her hair styled more fashionably, Brunner would not have been surprised to find her at Joint School, or at college, or as a passing guest in his own clanhouse.

The annoying hum ceased, reminding Brunner that he was not alone with his sleeping student. He turned to see Jack slowly unwinding from his knees to a crouched stand, where he paused for a long moment, as if feeling his age, or perhaps twinges from an old wound.

"Other stuff's all here, Brunner. I'm guessing you got the key already, 'cause that's not. Me, I gotta check some compressors. Catch you next shift!"

With remarkably few clinks and clanks Jack stretched to his full height, touched the ceiling with one hand, while the other did a quick inventory of his belts. He nodded once to himself, as if satisfied with his count, and departed.

Brunner fetched the tray, and carried it quietly to the table, unwilling to disturb the child, though his duty as well as hers demanded it. As it came about, he was spared the necessity; her eyes opened before he set the tray down, but he could not help but feel a small flicker of guilt for having disturbed her repose.

He bowed slightly, the words coming without thought. "Forgive me for disturbing your rest. I bring chernubia and tea, that we might study in comfort, for study we must."

The soldier blinked, and pushed herself up straight in the too-large chair.

"Sorry, sir," she said huskily, in a rush of backworld Terran. "I—uh, I mean, I guess that's Liaden. It's real pretty, but—I don't know Liaden! Terran's best, if you speak it—or Trade." She looked around the room, her eye lighting on the clock and it seemed she reached some further level of wakefulness. "The lesson," she said, cheeks coloring; "we don't have much time!"

Momentarily, Brunner's mind went blank, empty of words in any language. He hadn't realized how much he had been certain that she—how much he had needed someone who would be delighted with chernubia, and tea, and who would hear the language of home with pleasure. . . .

"Yes," he managed at last, and found a smile for her youth and her obvious embarrassment. "Of course I speak Terran. How else?"

* * *

They'd settled on Tech, or Brunner or Tech Brunner; and Robertson or Redhead. So Liaden a name as "Miri" attached to one with such an accent and so misplaced a sense of food as to prefer coffee to his carefully brewed tea . . . that was awkward, even unacceptable. Corporal Robertson had the Terran habit of trying to shorten names, but he could not hear himself called "Liad," nor would she allow "Ich" as acceptable.

"These are great! Never had anything so good!"

It was the fifth time she had told him so, and it made him feel she was even younger than he had first supposed.

"They help make my stay here livable," he answered now; "it pleases me that they please others as well."

"That's important on something so closed up as this." She stood, snatching one last chernubia before donning the Stubbs as he indicated.

"It is important to stay occupied and pleased with your diet," he agreed. "So let us study basic operations. It is unlikely that you will need to deploy the DRAPIN—that is the Direct Report And Pinbeam option—which rapidly drains the energy source and requires a modicum of effort; more on this later. You will be acting as our mobile unit; and while the Stubbs can report continuously on deployment of the antenna, the antenna itself may make your travel . . . less convenient. We shall therefore assume that you will not be simultaneously traveling and transmitting. Instead, let us assume that you have arrived at a destination. Or not even a destination—let us call it not a bivouac but a simple rest stop. You then release the stand . . ."

Here Robertson did as indicated.

"The unit may be set to begin automatic operation when the stand is released. However, I understand from your commander that she prefers the reports to be under your control. To access the basic operator program, one merely inserts the key. To adjust the program from your side—if, for example, you wish to access the location transponder screen, you must insert both keys."

She looked up, gray eyes slightly squinted. "Both?"

He removed from the envelope the Scout had given him all three keys; it was conceivable that she might need them all, and the idea of a "manager's key" kept safe on station, to be issued only at need was ludicrous.

"This one," he said, handing it to her, "is basic. With this key anyone can turn the unit on or off. You may carry it in your pocket if you like."

The basic key was flat, silver-colored, and recognizable as what it was. Unlike an everyday key, though, it was clad on several levels of a metallic insulation and had shaped insets at both ends.

Robertson accepted it without comment; her fingers were surprisingly cool as she made light contact with his hand.

"Right then," she said, nodding so deeply in agreement that at first he took it as a bow. "This is a workday key."

"Yes. Good. A workday key. This, too, is such a 'workday key.'" He waved it for emphasis. "Normally, they both must be inserted in order to set local reports or alerts, or to use the unit as a communicator. If you lose one key you may still access basic functions with the other; I will give you the override instructions before you leave for the surface. This system is to insure that little mistakes do not happen, that alerts are neither set, nor lost, easily. It is perhaps best that these two keys not be carried in the same pocket. If you have an assistant, that person might carry one."

He handed the second key over reluctantly, startled again by the cool touch of her fingers, and more so by her laugh as he held the pair up and compared them by eye.

"That'd be good, wouldn't it? Miri Robertson's assistant! Might be a long time before I'm in charge of anyone 'cept that—what is it?—Stubbs Ranger, what already knows what its doing."

He bowed, acknowledging that he had heard her.

"It often happens," translating a line from one of his nadelm's favorite melant'i plays, "that expectation and event are not the same. When necessity exists, conduct follows."

She looked at him firmly, gray eyes serious, and nodded once more.

"That's the way it works everywhere, ain't it? Push comes to shove, that's when you find out what somebody'll really do."

She shook herself then, as if casting off unwanted implications, and showed him the keys.

"So, all I need to do is put these in once a day and you'll get the data and whatever else you need?"

It was his turn to smile.

"If this 'stop once a day' is all that is possible, then that is what we will hope for. But we have far more hopes than that!"

He produced one of the hard copy instruction manuals and a series of charts he'd printed out of the station's own records. "You will know about the basics of weather from your schooling. But this world you invade—for many reasons this is not a world of standard weather."

Robertson shook her head energetically.

"Nah, you can't depend on what I know about from school. My folks never sent me to school."

After a moment Brunner realized he might be said to be staring, and dropped his gaze.

"Surely, some education . . ." he offered, daring to look up again when he heard her short laugh.

"Not so you'd call it school. The money came in, and it went out, and school was on the list for when there was enough. Never was enough, I guess. But I do a lot of reading, you know? My mother taught me how to read. Liz—Commander Lizardi—she gets me classes to study when we got time. And, sorry . . . weather ain't been covered yet."

He raised his hand, concerned she'd feel ashamed.

"School came not easy to me, either," he offered, "for my clan also often felt the money spent better elsewhere." He sighed, and brought his focus back to the necessities of training.

"If I am able, I will send to you information explaining why you are seeing what you are seeing. The equipment can be used that way. The important point, for here and now, is that most weather texts, most weather information we have for habitable worlds, assumes some tectonic activity, some long-term patterns even on worlds mostly ocean, for the ocean has predictable currents."

He pulled a chart and placed it on the table so Robertson's gaze fell upon it easily.

"This is key. For Klamath is perhaps not really a habitable world as we would like to see one. It has not enough core definition; it has not formed . . . say that it has not formed dependable solid plates to top the mantle. Instead, all the land is on—rafts! Some, like plates, are stuck to each other—in time, for all we know now, they may become plates. Others merely glance off each others like a transient crowd in a space station at boarding time, moving generally in the same direction but with independent velocity and goals."

"You are experienced at swimming?" he asked suddenly, concerned that this, too might have been denied her by "folks" who had better use for their money than educating their youth.

"Yep. Gotta be able to swim to be a Lunatic. Why?"

"Because on Klamath it is as if the plates are swimming. On most mature worlds the plates remain in close proximity to each other, they are bordered and ordered. They may be said to 'stick' on a volcanic vent, or quake when subsurface forces collide. Most short-term motion—that is, motion over a dozen—or a dozen dozen—Standards—that motion is limited to modest amounts caused by the grinding of plates against themselves, or plates slowly being submerged or becoming emergent. . . But on Klamath the motion can be—and often is—more considerable. This motion may include 'waves' beneath the lands, making the surface bob up and down, far less stable than one would like, and altering atmospheric and ocean currents in the process."

"Sounds complicated!" The soldier stared intently at the charts, but he despaired of her comprehension.

He sighed, perhaps too loudly, and found her gaze, faintly ironic, on him.

"So what's this mean for what I gotta do, beside not get motion sick?"

He smiled, as her comment was clearly a joke. "Yes, this is good. You cannot fix the world or make the people not colonize it: they are there. So for you, to stabilize the populace, for the commander to succeed in her mission, you need weather warnings and weather information. For me—for the station—what you can do is to help us by reporting in as often as possible. Understand that on Klamath everything is changeable. You may camp at night at one altitude and awake in the morning, still comfortable, at another. Each report assists us all!"

She nodded. "Guess you'll want to put that in writing to the commander. I'll do what I can, but she's gonna have to decide a lot of it."

"Yes. That is well thought. I will make some notes for the commander. But for you, there is also this—another key. This one is . . . a manager's key. It will permit you to leave the Stubbs on auto-function if need be, and return for it later. You might, with sufficient information, also be able to reprogram the unit for specific local necessities. This is unlikely, but you should be aware of the ranges of possibility open to you. Also, this key permits the setting of the DRAPIN, which I mentioned earlier."

Robertson shook her head lightly, as if denying the need.

"Are you sure this thing can send a pinbeam? That'd take a lot of power!"

"Indeed," he agreed. "It does require much power. So much so that it is an option we mention rather than demonstrate. This key, however, permits that." He showed it to her, a small thing, made of slightly phosphorescent blue metal.

"This must not be lost. It must be kept safe and returned to me at the end of your mission. The other keys may be replaced or circumvented, if need be. This one cannot."

He handed it to her. She held it up for frowning study.

"So it's important? " she murmured, perhaps speaking to herself. "Like treasure?"

"Like treasure," he agreed, astounded anew that this valuable and rare equipment was going to war with so volatile and naive a halfling.

"Gotcha!" She slid a finger under the top seal of her uniform, and the second, as if, Brunner thought, panicked, she were disrobing!

She saw him start and laughed.

"You're safe, Tech!"

Quick, beringed fingers reached behind her neck, pulling from beneath her collar a flesh-colored cord. Following the sinuous flow of cord came a small pouch, sliding up between the open shirt-top.

"Treasures!" she said as she pulled pouch and cord over her head. She gave him a friendly grin.

"See, all mercs gotta have someplace to keep their important stuff. Some use belts, some use secret pockets, you know, for their cash and gems and cards and stuff. Me, I'm kinda skinny, and I don't own much cash but that's all right, 'cause I don't have that many treasures, either."

She casually dropped the pouch on the table, and flipped it open. Within were several small metallic containers and a cloth-wrapped something . . .

"How ' bout I tuck it inside here?" she said, flipping the cloth open and casually exposing—Brunner stared. A clan badge? But she had denied any knowledge of Liaden! She asked for coffee, and—but the child was speaking.

"This is my best treasure, see?" she said, while Brunner strained to recognize the half-shrouded device. "Got it from my mother. I'll keep your key just as safe, if you understand me."

He looked into her face, aware that she was already folding the cloth over badge and key, returning the pouch to its hiding place while he gathered words.

"Galandaria," he said in low tones, and inclined his head.

"What's that?" She showed no faintest hint of comprehension as she resealed her shirt, her rough Terran at odds with the artwork she'd called her treasure, at odds with her quick bright eyes, at odds with the moment.

Brunner looked away, let his mind run for a moment, cataloging possibility. This was not, as he had supposed, only an ignorant Terran halfling, but a woman acknowledging both her legacy and her isolation. Trusting him with her secret. With her treasure.

He had a moment to wonder why—but, there, the answer was plain. She was about to descend into danger, with her commander and her troop. Whatever necessity required her to act—to be—merely a Terran halfling, yet she could not allow him, a Liaden like herself, to be deceived.

"Yes," he said in soft Terran, accepting the burden of her secret. "I see that you will keep the key as safe as your best treasure, as I would myself."

"Right," she said. "Got that. Tell you what, if all this works out good for you, you owe me a cup of coffee, how's that? Tea's all right with these cakes, but coffee would be perfect."

He smiled at her apparent reversion to simplicity.

"I agree to owe you a cup of coffee, Robertson, and to pay promptly when we meet again."

She nodded happily. "So, you need me to memorize any frequencies or stuff? I got a real good memory."

"Let us first review the basics again," he said. "This unit can function as a communicator if need be. I am, as you know, Ichliad Brunner. You will ask for me if there is need."

* * *

Brunner was working alone in the meteorology lab when the first transmission from the Stubbs came through. This was not necessarily by happenstance. As soon as Commander Lizardi and Corporal Robertson had departed the station for their posting, he had volunteered to take what Jack called "night shift" and what the crew in general just called Slot C. There were fewer people about then and there was often work to be caught up on from the preferred "day-shifts," of Slots A and B.

Coincidentally, Slot C was most concurrent with Miri Robertson's expected working hours of daylight.

It took several station-days for the request to go up and down the short command chain; in the interim Brunner managed to stay at work beyond his assigned shift and to arrive before, in case there should be a problem, though what he might do, if there were—

But, as it turned out, both his care and his worry were unnecessary.

The Stubbs came online flawlessly, registering locality and altitude, barometric pressure, wind speed, humidity. Allergens were noted, as were pollutants. Cloud cover was ranged and categorized. The somewhat variable mix of atmospheric gases was logged every ten ticks, the air temperature every ten ticks, alternating with the gases. Piggyback on the databursts was a quick recording in her soft drawl: "The manuals say I should do a base test. Here it is. If there's a problem, the manuals say you can reset remotely or have me recalibrate."

The readings continued for a short time, and ceased in an orderly shutdown, and Brunner breathed a sigh of relief, tinged with anticipation. Now, perhaps they could get accurate—and uninterrupted!—data to work with!

Less than a quarter day later a new report came in, and that, too was an orderly report, sans voice, which Brunner regretted. He found Robertson's willing approach to the manuals both thoughtful and interesting. Perhaps her appointment to the weather machine was not after all mere whim on the commander's part.

Days passed, overfull of work; data came in, perhaps half the time accompanied by a recorded message from the operator. Brunner continued on Slot C, and no one complained, save the company's accountant, who felt that he should not receive a bonus for working a shift he clearly preferred. He signed a paper, waiving his right to the Slot C differential, and was left alone to do his work.

To hear the news source tell it, the introduction of "professional warriors" had taken the heart out of the enemy or enemies. All fronts were quiet; even the reports of atrocities decreased. The enemy-or-enemies had, the news source reported, withdrawn, to pray and to take counsel of such wise ones and elders as they had. The government in Chilonga Center, in the province where Lizardi's Lunatics had been stationed, audibly held its breath.

Brunner watched the weather, made predictions, noted his errors; he collaborated with Dr. Boylan, the planetologist, on a study of the likelihood that there was a long-term subsurface flow echoing the jet stream. The Stubbs continued to report, so whoever had been targeting the stationary weather machines seemed not to have the interest—or the means to destroy—a roving unit.

Betting pools were formed—days until the end of the war; where the next cyclone would form; which government would fall to a coup.

As always, Brunner declined to bet, but found himself importuned anyway, as those who had formed a pool on the probable length of survival of the various mercenary units inquired after the supposed "inside information" he was gaining from his contact on the surface.

In retrospect, it was a time of peaceful repose such as Brunner had rarely experienced during his tour of duty.

* * *

The first hint that things might be returning to normal came, not from Brunner's intense study of Klamath's erratic weather systems, nor from his rather less intense study of the news reports, but from his contact on the planet's surface.

"Okay." Robertson's recorded voice sounded breathless. "Just wanted to let you know that we got through it fine, and the machine's good. Some of us got messed up and we had to send a few off to the hospital in Chilonga Center. We had real good luck, though, 'cause I read the manuals, and when I can I have the local prediction mode up. Caught a march on the Bluebies that way. Anyhow, we're gonna be moving fast so don't expect too many updates for awhile."

What "it" had been he did not know, though he was heartened to hear that she had survived it in good health and with the Stubbs intact.

Automated reports flowed up from the surface, though there was no communication from the operator for nearly a Standard week. Brunner chose to view the arrival of the data as proof of her continued good health—after all, she had said she would be out of contact.

He went back to his work. The pressure systems had undergone a subtle and not-entirely comprehensible change. Brunner pulled archives, did overlays, ran projections, sorted and resorted the data, stretching his work shift well into Slot A.

Ten days after assuring him of her survival of "it," Robertson sent another message, short and barely intelligible over a sound like ship's engine cycling.

"Wow! Lotta wind!"

And indeed there had been a lot of wind as a high and a low had fought their own battle over a quarter of the planet, starting at the pole and spiraling down across the equator where they'd formed battle lines over the tortured isthmus connecting Chilonga's embattled territories with those of their bitter invaders.

He had taken heart from that message as well; whatever fighting that may have taken place since her last contact was far from her mind at that moment.

The winds continued to grow; the shift in the pressure systems suddenly painting an all-too-cogent picture. Brunner worked longer hours still, pushing himself and the station's resources, combing the literature.

Something . . . Terran would have it that something "bad" was hovering on the horizon. One hesitated to ascribe such values to the outcome of systemic interactions. And yet—something . . . at least different was bearing down upon them. Hints whispered to him from the altered pressure systems, from the increasing erratic winds, if only he had wit enough to understand . . .

* * *

The Scout stood by while Brunner teased a possible pattern from the various historical models. If the Scout recognized what he was doing, or knew how it might be done more efficiently, he said nothing, but that was the way of Scouts—they interfered as little as possible unless you failed of doing what they wanted of you. So, for the moment at least, the Scout wished him to work.

Eventually, Brunner smoothed the touch panel with a reluctant thumb, watching as the images reformed, showing as the storm moved in reverse, dividing into two smaller storms and a smudge of low pressure. He tapped the screen again, looked up to his silent watcher.

"Service? It will be a number of minutes before the information I seek appears on screen."

The Scout sighed lightly, his hands saying something Brunner couldn't read, and then said, quite abruptly, "While the data, which should belong to all of us, is encrypted, the words, which should belong only to the speaker and their intended recipient, are not."

Brunner felt his face heat.

He bowed, acknowledging receipt of information.

"And this is monitored where beside my own instruments, if I may know?"

"It is recorded, as a side channel, along with all the broadcasts from Klamath."

"This is not simply a science station, then?" Brunner asked sharply, though he had for some time suspected . . .

"Of course not, except as you allow the study of human systems in disintegration to be a science."

Brunner acknowledged the point with another bow, and looked back to his screen.

"Science can be so many things," said the Scout, speaking to the wall perhaps, or to the floor, or to himself. "It can be imprecise and immediately useful and reek of technology and action, or it can be an escape of beautiful equations and elegant systems, backed by theory and distanced by case numbers and modeled meta-statistical analysis."

The Scout paused as the screen Brunner was watching reformed. The storm systems moved forward once more, dutifully came together, marched across the planet picking up energy, joined two into one, and again, two into one, the cyclonic motion barely apparent early on and then . . .


The systems stopped moving.


The screen now displayed four views, all tagged with the same date and time.

The top left showed a widespread storm, faltering, moving northward above the equator with its center diffuse.

The top right showed a tight-knot of mini storms first hugging the northeastern coast above the equator, then following a wide bay north.

The bottom two veered from the northern route and crossed the isthmus, where both blossomed into monstrous cyclonic storms. While the one on the right rushed eastward and then slowly dissipated, the one on the left veered deep into the Chilonga Mountains after striking the river delta.

Brunner knew the why of the blossom into major storm: on the west side of the isthmus the ocean level was considerably higher and considerably colder than on the east side. Assuming the storm survived the not inconsiderable plunge down the cliffs of the isthmus.

"These are the major models which are now at work." Brunner said conversationally. "One and Two are most standard. Four is the "preferred" model of my predecessor. She was very climate-oriented in her approach, I think. In going back over her work and comparing it to the standard models, I find that hers were often less wrong than those models, which is interesting given the variability we think we see."

"Less wrong is a useful trait, is it not?" murmured the Scout.

They both watched as the images ran again in hypermotion, Brunner mumbling a distant, "Indeed. In theory, it is better."

Thumb-tap. Models One and Two disappeared from the screen. Three and Four immediately resized themselves, greedily filling the space.

Number Four played its image out, giving way to another image, which formed itself with a view of a cloud formation far to the west. That formation, shown as small storms, dispersed into a weak trough, then . . . the trough joined a small storm, which merged with a larger which . . . stopped about where Number Three began.

"My current model," Brunner said, "is Number Three. On screen to the left is the model that predicted the current positions within this—" a touch on keypads, a screen tap, an overlay. . . .

The images were not identical by any means, but on a gross scale storm overlaid storm, calm highs overlaid calm highs.

"Ah," said the Scout, executing a small bow.

"My model works from the assumptions my predecessor made initially, modified to reflect my conclusions that we have here in Klamath a planet acting more like a gas planet than a core planet, a planet whose weather is not only driven by surface and near surface conditions but by core convection and other inconvenient energy sources such as groundswell tides and the like."

"So there might be a paper in this for you? A publication is always good for the career!"

Brunner shook his head, his attention still mostly on the screen and the predicted, coming storm.

"I am not so sure," he said to the Scout. "The information may be owned by my employer, after all. If they care to admit that it exists. At the moment the chief is broadcasting my real-time information, but uses the old model for the official predictions he broadcasts."

The Scout raised his hands, palms up.

"Chief Thurton values the neutrality of the station high, does he not?"

Brunner sighed. "Staff is under orders to write a letter of dissent to your involving the mercenary unit in our work. I am to report any actions I perform under your orders or in your name."

"Yes," said the Scout, who was pacing the long axis of the room almost as if he were at exercise. "You must, of course, follow protocols. My orders to this point amount to you doing your work, making your predictions, and sharing that information with interested parties. My actions are the same; report them as you must. In the meanwhile, you must be aware that your communications with those on the surface may be public."

Now the scout favored him with a bow of direct instruction.

"As I understand matters you are from time to time in direct contact with the party carrying your monitor. Continue that association, and share with that group your exact forecasts. You are to make the fullest use possible of the Stubbs unit. Read the manual thoroughly, and forward information as may be required to maintain the unit's performance. Report and forecast the weather accurately. I do not require you to seek out other interested parties to share your predictions with: simply make them, forward them to your party on the ground and to the control room where Chief Thurton must see the information shared."

He spun, standing ready on the balls of his feet, as if he expected to need to run, or leap—

"Understand me, Brunner. In so far as you are able, insure the continued performance of the Stubbs unit. That serves the purpose of the organization which hired your company and it serves my needs as Scout-in-Place. As to the needs of the group carrying the unit . . . inform them that I have forbidden landings by unaccredited spacecraft, and that ongoing scheduled unmanned replenishment may go forward. I have broadcast a request planet-wide that civilian populations not be targeted and that I will permit landings on my approval only and by agreement of locally recognized authorities."

Brunner bowed in receipt, and considered his latest predictions.

"Then I am to suggest to . . . Corporal Robertson . . . that the Stubbs should be on a protected elevation away from rivers within three Standard days and that wind speeds of up to one fourth the speed of sound are probable?"

The Scout bowed his assent.

"You are so instructed."

* * *

"Brunner, you guys are life savers!"

"Please, if you are in a secure location do not leave it! You are only in the eye!"

A very slight delay and then:

"Oh boy, aren't we. This has gotta be the best weather we've seen on this place. Feels great. Even smells Okay, kinda like ocean!"

Yes, of course it smelled like ocean. . . .

"Redhead, you are not in the center of the eye—this lull is very glancing. Mere moments. Eat something! And I must say it is very dangerous for to move during the storm. Please do not do it again unless threatened . . . You are already. . ."

But there, he hadn't thought to start a threaded conversation, and the delay was small, so a thread was not really required . . .

"Are you crazy? I was hunkered right down here the whole time. Haven't moved a bit except to empty water out of my boots!"

Not moved? But, the instruments were quite clear, and quite accurate!

"Say again?"

A sound: footsteps behind him. He waved for quiet.

"I said I haven't moved!" Redhead repeated. "I felt like I was floating a couple times but there's no water here that didn't drain off! We're tucked in a grain storage ranch with everything made out o' crete! But the rest of your info is right, hey? Been working out for you?"

Indeed, the rest of the information was useful—treasure beyond price. And her report of floating; the fact that the unit reported it had moved by nearly a meter! That required study.

"It is excellent," he told her. "You have done well, and I am very pleased!"

"Good. I'm gonna grab something to eat! Liz says a spotter claims to see a wall o' clouds. Out."

"Out," said Brunner, but she had already gone. He sighed and turned away from the monitor.

The Scout stood nearby, smiling.

"The young Terrans, they are amazing. One can hear the excitement in their voices . . ."

Brunner frowned. Was it possible that the Scout did not know? "Terrans?" he murmured.

"Brunner, for this, yes, Terrans. Jack asked me . . . but no matter. Liz vouches for the child as from Surebleak. Liz is from Surebleak. Surebleak is Terran."

Brunner bowed in acknowledgment, allowing irony to be seen, and turned back to his equipment.

"Your point, Tech Brunner," the Scout murmured, perhaps amused. "In the meanwhile, it may be well for you to produce both local and regional forecasts, as usual."

"I have been remiss," Brunner said, without looking around. "In yestermorning's recorded note from our galandaria was this message, which you have perhaps not heard." He touched a key.

Flat silence except for the sussuration of the room's air moving equipment, then Miri Robertson's steady voice, "Liz ain't too happy about these new landing regs. Says it sounds iffy as all get out. Wants to know if I can pinbeam a voice message outta here to Merc Headquarters if things get tight. Dunno what that might do to the power supply and your info." A slight hesitation, as if she was listening, then: "Liz says relay to the Scout that any merc transport should be passed, no questions."

Brunner looked at the Scout.

"I have not answered."

"I hear this." The Scout sighed.

"Ah. Well, hear also that the girl holds the master key. When she is bored she reads the manuals."

The Scout glared—and then laughed, fingers dancing out an unread phrase.

"Yes, of course! All honor to you. Were I on a strange world which is doing its best to rid itself of humankind, encircled by enemies who are trying to kill me, I would also need light reading. Liz Lizardi hires quality help. I hear this, too, Weatherman."

* * *

No matter how engrossing the work, a man must sometimes tend to other necessities. Brunner acknowledged that he was becoming a danger to the data when he caught himself reviewing the same data loop for the fifth time.

Dragging himself to his quarters, he fell fully dressed into his bunk, plummeting instantly into sleep.

"Ichliad Brunner! Report to the meteorology lab!"

The words reached him in the dreamless depths, senseless as stones.

"Ichliad Brunner to the weather deck, pronto. Ichliad Brunner—-"

That voice roused him, and he pushed upright, still more asleep than awake. The weather deck . . .Yes, surely! He had told her to call for him by name—

"Ichliad Brunner to the weather-deck, pronto!" Again came the demand in Jack's big voice; the speaker at his bedside taking up the cry; echoing those in the hall outside his quarters. The door buzzer gave tongue, followed by pounding.

Brunner threw himself across the room, slapped the door open and stepped back as Jack all but fell into the room.

"You're needed. Sorry to wake you."

Brunner stared. "What can possibly be worth all this—"

"Under seal," Jack interrupted. "We'll talk when we're private."

* * *

His lab room was hardly private. The planetologist's intern huddled near the real-time monitors, openly weeping. Brunner stopped, horrified. Why had she not been given the privacy such emotion required? He looked 'round to Jack, but that noisy person had stepped over to the aux monitors, toolbelts silent, for a wonder, as if he wished not to be noticed.

The Scout stood with Station Chief Thurton some distance from the weeping girl, his face half-averted, as if he, too, wished to grant her seclusion. Dr. Boylan, the planetologist, stood at the intern's side, apparently taking the part of kin.

She looked up as Brunner approached, face grim.

"Ah, here you are, Weatherman. Estrava," she said, carefully touching the intern's shoulder, "was following up on my request for drift correction. We've been using the dome of the Governor's Hall as a target, it being gold-plated and reflective in a number of useful frequencies." She took a hard breath and nodded at the screen. "We need you to confirm a disaster."

The monitor she indicated displayed a looping series of images, first in false-color infrared mode, then in visible wavelengths. It repeated: an area of relatively lush valley giving way to random buildings, then to an actual urban conglomeration dominated by a bright-lit structure all out of proportion to the rest. Suddenly smoke—or possibly fog—intruded, deepening from a vague white mist to a frothy greenish mass, drifting down from the hillsides, filling the valley and the town until only the top of the building remained visible. The image cut back to infrared . . .

"An unusual flow," Brunner said slowly. "It seemed very dense. Were this some backworld I would say smog. But this is Klamath, after all; fluke winds might conceivably have trapped a sulfur exhalation and created such a fog."

"Not fog," the intern moaned, half-bent over the counter, like a bird favoring a broken wing. "Not fog. Not fog."

Brunner turned to her, keeping his face politely neutral, which was the least he could do for her distress. He'd had little enough to do with Estrava, the planetologist having laid claim to the bulk of her hours, and she nervous of Liadens in any case.

"It's not fog," she said shrilly, straightening to stare directly into his eyes. "Look at it! The spectrum is wrong, the flow is wrong . . . people are dying!"

Brunner looked as directed, frowning at the lack of definition.

"What have we, then?" he asked the room at large, stepping forward, his fingers already on the fine controls.

It was the Scout who answered.

"Death," he said, his voice neutral to the point of aggression. He bowed, firmly, a bow of duty required.

"As we need to know for certain, Ichliad Brunner. First, please confirm that what we see here is a poison gas. If this is the case we will wish to know of its dispersal range, potential mixing, and to track it if we might . . ."

"Scout, this station is to remain neutral!" The station chief gestured with his hands, not with sense as the pilots might, but conveying urgency nonetheless. "The treaty requires that we not interfere."

"I require information!" the Scout interrupted. "Your station is here at my whim, Chief Thurton."

"I think Phaetera might have something to say to that, sir!" the chief snapped.

Brunner turned from the monitor and raised his hands, one to each combatant, seeking instruction.

Chief Thurton drew a hard breath, turned his back on the Scout, and walked away.

"Do as he says, Brunner. You'll give me a full report of all actions you perform for this man, and we will both sign a statement that you act under duress, as I do."

Brunner bowed at the retreating back.

"And these coordinates," he said to the helpful room, "do I have them?"

"In the south," the intern whispered. "Chilonga Center."

* * *

On civilized worlds, among civilized people, disasters are accidents or acts of nature; they are not premeditated.

In such times, a meteorologist's declaration of disaster insures the issue of world-wide warnings and unleashes a gathering of willing assistance. Emergency plans bring together medical teams, rescue teams, housing teams . . .

Klamath hung below the station, uncaring, uncivilized.

Still, it was his necessity as meteorologist to confirm and declare the wind-borne poisons, the act of intentional war, a disaster.

Perhaps someone would be listening, and thus be warned and saved.

So his thoughts went, and he recorded the thing, and set thumb to it.

The Scout bowed.

"A disaster declared, I hereby interdict and quarantine Klamath as a hazard to space travelers."

Brunner stared at the Scout.

"You cannot," he said, hearing the protest as if it was spoken by someone else.

"I can and I do," the Scout responded, weariness and sorrow apparent on a worn face. "Believe I do it lightly if you must."

Brunner brushed the words aside. They were alone in his lab and had been for several hours. Brunner had backtracked the flow; the Scout, on an auxiliary machine, had taken to himself the tedious task of identifying the chemicals by their spectrographic signatures and dispersal fugacity.

"The mercenaries," Brunner said now, arguing, gods, with a Scout! "The off-world techs serving the Chilongan government. The natives who have filed for immigration . . ."

The Scout slid off the stool and bowed the bow of accepting necessary burdens.

"I must," he said, and waved unsteadily at the microphone.

"Tell the girl—you see? I take that burden, as well. Tell her, then get some sleep, comrade. You will be needed at your board soon enough."

* * *

"Quarantined," Brunner said into microphone, taking especial care with his pronunciation of the Terran.

"I repeat, the Scout has interdicted Klamath, and placed it under quarantine." He took a breath, knowing his words were potentially recorded in records besides that of the Stubbs unit.

"Poison gas has been deployed against civilian targets in contravention of general usage of warfare."

The planetologist's equipment was powerful enough to allow him to see bodies lying on the streets, to see fires burning in the city, to watch Klamath's fickle winds sweeping the vapors out of the city in a strong flow to the south.

Not one, but three aerosol dispersants had been loosed upon Chilonga Center. The first sank rapidly, displacing oxygen, and suffocating some quickly. The second gas, more mistlike, hovered and flowed in every breeze, torturing the lungs and eyes of any who survived, eating at their skins. The third hung higher, and featured a potential late-stage crystallization so that it might precipitate and leave a residue of skin-dangerous toxics.


Cursing the winds under his breath, he had checked the Stubbs' last reported location, all but weeping when he found it east to northeast of Chilonga Center. Miri Robertson, Corporal Redhead—the winds blew past her. In a planetary day, perhaps two, the chemicals would have dispersed entirely, and what was left of the city could be entered.

All of this he told the Stubbs, remote and unreachable, and when he was finished, he whispered, "Please acknowledge."

There was no reply. He told himself that it was the middle of her night; that her pattern was to report in the evenings, and sometimes very early in the morning. He told himself that she was safe, well away from the destruction in the city; that she would call, if she had need of him.

He kept the line open anyway, the microphone clipped to his shirt, the Stubbs' uplink window open in the corner of his work screen.

In the meanwhile he started literature searches: toxic flows, aerosol dispersal, plume pollutants, plume tracking, micro-climactic poison control, history of planetary quarantines and interdictions, general usage of warfare, strategic poison, tactical toxics, history of Terran Mercenary Units.

The histories held an uncomfortable number of references to merc units being lost without record. He put them aside for later reading and turned his attention to those things he might do that would increase the chances of one particular mercenary unit surviving its odds.

* * *

His work was twice interrupted by crew looking for updated information for the on-going betting. He dealt with them—not as they deserved—locked the door, disabled the bell and returned to the literature. Eventually, he found a treatise specifically on defensive meteorology and the tracking of dangerous atmospherics. In the information about aerosols there were unpleasant images, but also some useful approximations he could add to the station's regular monitoring.

He might even be able to—but motion distracted him, and then sounds.

Information was flowing from the Stubbs to his monitor; from the speaker came sharp cracking sounds, then—

"You there, Brunner?"

He touched the microphone. "Here, galandaria."

"Good! Hey, nothing like a little gunfire to get you focused, right?" Despite the cheery phrasing, she sounded . . . breathless. Worn. Brunner frowned, closing his eyes so that he might hear her better.

"Yeah, that was bad, what happened in the city. We lost a couple of ours in the hospital over there. I—not the way I'd wanna go, y'know? Anyhow, business—Liz wants to know what that means if we get a recall, that quarantine. She sent it upline to our employer but no answer yet. Got anything you can tell me? Before I forget—this Stubbs? It's great! Got some dings in it but it took a couple for me and bounced 'em right out. Pretty open here, don't think Liz is gonna keep us—Right. Gotta go. I'm glad you was there. Out."

She was gone, pushed by her necessities, and he had not even said—What? he asked himself. Go carefully? Be alert? Don't breathe tainted air?

Perhaps he should have demanded a fuller accounting of the damage to the Stubbs—but to what end? A glance at the screen told him that the self-test had registered no warnings, so the station's unit must be intact. Unlike Redhead's unit, which had "lost a couple of ours . . ."

As to Commander Lizardi's query—certainly, there was nothing he, caught between the station chief and the Scout, could tell her. Chief Thurton was adamant in neutrality, while the Scout . . . while the Scout played whatever game the Scout was embroiled in.

What he could do was have available the best possible wind charts, produce the most accurate weather forecast, and not forget that down there were people relying on him. On him!

* * *

Liz didn't say a word: just nodded as she went by.

And what was Liz gonna say anyway, Redhead thought, not much more than half worried. Skel was a Lunatic, she was a Lunatic . . . and . . . and. Damn. She sighed and finished sealing up her uniform.

She'd drawn first clean-up, and now here was Skel already, washed up himself and holding a cup of coffee out to her like it was a prize. That was nice, she thought. Warming. So she took the cup like it was a prize, grinned at him, and worried a little more.

There was plenty to worry about, and not just maybe Liz not liking it that she'd partnered up with Skel. Folks had been skittish before word about Klamath being under blanket quarantine had gotten into the general need-to-know pool. Now—hell, Liz was skittish, Skel was skittish, Auifme was downright dangerous, and the liaison the Chilongan government'd given them was scared out of his prayer beads. 'Course, he'd been that way since day one, on account of being stuck all by his lonesome with a buncha Unpious, Outsiders, Orbiteers, Freelovers, and—damn if there wasn't a dozen more not-exactly-appreciative names the man had laid on the Lunatics. Scandal'd said it was a good thing they were on his side, else he'd really be calling in the long guns, which had made the knot of 'em crouched together over quick rations laugh, and the liaison rattle his beads.

Now Skel, Redhead thought, turning her mind to cheerfuller things, he'd kinda surprised her last night; caught up to her right after she'd tucked the rig in with proper camouflage and getting ready to tuck in herself. Sat his pretty tall self down right there beside where she'd been going over her vitamins to make sure she was up to date and said it right out.

"Hardly like it's a fancy invite, Redhead, but you know, we get along right well and there ain't no time presently for Liz to approve us a proper Hundred Hours to get all perfumed and slinky and everything."

She'd blinked at him, not believing, on account of there was an unofficial moratorium on asking Miri since the Grawn brothers had cut each other awhile back about who was going to ask her . . . and she'd have told them both no, anyhow. Sorry about them, sort of; died in that damn hospital the liaison got them sent off to.

But Skel'd said his piece, pointed out that weren't neither of them on guard schedule, and that he did have coffee, smokes, and stringent cloth too, among other supplies what could clean the sweat off and give them some distance from this land that moved like water and the 'way too many crazy people who were trying to kill them.

She'd smiled, felt her heart beating faster—and faster again, when he lost a bit of his serious and smiled, too.

"Hundred Hours is right expensive," she said. "Don't know I could buy in to it . . ."

He'd laughed, and relaxed some more, like she'd said something right.

"Oh, hell, I'd pick up the Hundred Hours. I mean, I know what a newer 'cruit's got to worry with, 'spense wise. But like I say, as is, even if we get to town down here ain't none of these folks'll rent us a side-by-side lunch seat much less a big soft room with a big soft bed . . ."

He'd paused, looking some tentative, and she was sure feeling the same. It was funny, kinda, to see him that way when he could pick up four launch tubes and a long-arm and go wading into battle. She liked Skel fine—always had, and she wouldn't mind . . . but the man had a right to know.

"Not sure," she said, glancing down at her boots, her uniform slacks, her shirt-front. "Umm . . . Not sure I can give you the best time, see? It'd be learning on the job mostly for me, kinda, not like . . . I mean."

He didn't say anything but he'd rearranged himself, getting cross-legged, and close enough she could see the scrapes on his boot soles and the slot where he'd been knocked off his feet the other day, the bullet just creasing the shoe. Hell, if the shot had struck true he could have been back there in Chilonga Center with the Grawns.

"Your call, Miri. We can bunk up here if you want, or I got me a spot with three ways out and some quiet, down in a little hollow. You want, you can just sleep."

She smiled and realized that she was smiling so low and slow she was laughing, too.

She looked into his eyes then. Still smiling.

"Got coffee and stringent, huh?"

He nodded, just his eyes smiling, and it came to her, forcibly, that she didn't want to sleep all alone, with just the weather machine to wake up to.

She stood up and stretched, as much like a cat as she could, before reaching a hand down to him.

"Let's see who snores first."

* * *

"'Morning." Robertson's voice was softer than usual. Brunner touched the volume control, increasing the gain slightly. "Smokey down here," she murmured. "Been that way the last three days; getting worse, seems like . . ."

On the station, Brunner nodded, and carefully did not sigh.

"There are large fires burning in the grain belts on both the major continents," he told her, keeping his voice merely informative. She had no need, after all, to carry the burden of his anger. Idiots, fools, and—but, no. That was for later. Now, there was there were other necessities to be served.

"Some of the forests also seem to have been set on fire. I see plumes all over the planet from installations and communities that have been . . . set afire."

"Yeah, they asked us to start burning things awhile back. Ain't in our job description. Seems they got some kind of fetish 'bout fire cleaning things up—you know, purifying."

Robertson coughed; Brunner pushed a button to download a satellite image to the Stubbs' screen.

"Your location is the blinking green dot," he said. "The other green dots are your most recent report points. The valley directly ahead is very smoky—you can see that there are four distinct plumes which then merge. . . I believe that all of the major communities in your area have burned or are burning; certainly the crop fields have burnt."

A pause, broken by her sigh.

"Guess we won't capture much there. We was supposed to be moving on one of them towns to meet . . . well . . ."

He thumbed the plate, waited.

"Huh. What's this about winter? It got pretty cool last night, even for a girl from Surebleak. I'd have had damn frosty toes without help . . . Hey! That looks ugly as all get out!"

She was multi-threading, though there was scarcely need—or maybe, he thought, there was. Who knew how long she had until the order came to move? Threading was an efficient way to share information.

So. "Winter does come," he said, picking up each thread in turn. "A very strong winter on much of the planet, according to the records. The snowcaps triple in size at the poles. But there are still eighty to one hundred planet days until that is a concern for you. Yes, it is ugly. Easily one hundred and fifty major fires in both hemispheres; on the plains up north there is effectively a single fire half the width of the continent."

A sound came out of the speaker, as if of a boot against rock, followed by a murmured question, Redhead's soft, "I dunno . . ."

A new voice emerged from the speaker, crisp and tight.

"Commander Lizardi here. My weather reporter says it looks like the locals are burning themselves out of house and home. If the Scout is available relay this to his attention. News of the quarantine has been a catalyst for major upheaval within power structures. Violent upheaval, even by local standards. My ground station for our tactical satellite has been destroyed by ground forces, and the Chilongan government that hired me has been in transition this last five-day, leaving me with no current contact up-line despite reports that the north is bringing a major invasion force down on the continent. If the government that hired me is gone, I need to withdraw. Repeat: We have no assurance of contracted withdrawal at this point. We also have attracted a few dozen off-world non-combatants who travel in our train. The Scout has my contact radio frequencies and I expect them used appropriately.

"We're moving now. Lizardi out."

* * *

"Brunner, from this point on you will have an assistant on duty with you at all times while you are in the meteorology lab."

Chief Thurton stood beside his own desk in his own office, hand clenching and unclenching nervously.

"An assistant?" Brunner stared, wondering if he looked upon madness, or only exhaustion.

"We have no such an assistant available," he pointed out. "Shall you assign the intern's hours to mine, it might be possible."

"The intern . . . is on sick-call. She is . . . unreliable. I note that I don't have your letter on file. I need it as soon as possible. You—through the orders of the Scout, or by your own choice—are on the verge of violating our neutrality."

"Indeed," he murmured, keeping his voice calm, his posture non-argumentative. "By your direction I follow the Scout's necessity. And the station's—am I not to preserve the function of the monitor?"

"Liz Lizardi is a combatant, as is the operator of the equipment. You should not be carrying messages of a tactical nature for the Scout from Lizardi!"

The chief spun, paced; he stared at the monitors with their images of smoke-streaked atmosphere.

"Am I," Brunner asked carefully, "relieved of the command to follow the Scout's orders? The equipment on-world was supplied for our use by the Scout."

Abruptly, the chief sat behind his desk, still if not at ease. He closed his eyes, and spoke softly, enunciating each word with great care.

"Until such time as we are able to assign an assistant for you, you will record any and all activity within the laboratory, you will forward the text of any and all communications with the ground, with the Lunatics, as soon as it is completed. I have found a dozen or more conversations you've had with that soldier in the files, contacts you've never mentioned. . . ."

Brunner bowed, keeping the wave of frustrated confusion in check with an effort. This conversation was far too similar to the senseless interrogations regarding melant'i, proper conduct, and "civilized behavior" that his halfling self had endured from delm and nadelm to be borne with true calmness.

"It is as you say, Chief. The conversations were brief and part of the record. It seems . . . profitable . . . to be in touch with the one operating the unit, and in fact to ascertain that the operator is intact enough to operate it properly. The unit is in a war zone, and I am told I am responsible for it!"

The chief opened his eyes.

"I see. In fact, your motives are pure and your thought wise." He took a hard breath. "Allow me to be specific. Do forward messages as they occur. Do not initiate any conversation with the ground which are not in response to their queries or actual operational necessity. Do not contact any other ground units or respond to any outside requests for information; all such must go through my office. Do not argue with the Scout, but if he gives you further instructions, report them to me for clarity before carrying them out."

Brunner bowed again and turned to—

"Brunner—" The chief called him back. "Maybe you don't understand your situation—the precarious situation of this station with regard to the . . . situation on the planet. As a result of the Scout's declaration of quarantine, the so-called legitimate planetary government has vanished, giving rise to two entities who now claim to be in control. A third has announced its willingness—and ability—to destroy 'all interlopers in the system.' At one point this was a civilized world and they had means to back that threat up. A space station, as I am sure I don't need to tell you, is a very, very vulnerable habitat."


Brunner bowed once more, speechless. The chief collapsed against the back of his chair, boneless with emotion and waved an incoherent hand.


* * *

Redhead shut the Stubbs down and pushed up off her knees. Skel looked 'round from where he'd been watching for her, his face black with ash.

"Get 'im?"

"Just static. I think that roll down the hill might've shook something loose," she said, pulling the now-familiar burden up over her shoulders, and settling it with a wince. Truth told, that tumble hadn't done her a lot of good, either. Skel'd wrapped the ribs for her, but there wasn't much else to do about the bruises and contact burns than ignore 'em.

"Best let's catch up," she said. "I'll try again tonight."

* * *

There was activity in the Chilongan isthmus. Heavy equipment working between the mismatched sea walls. Brunner upped the magnification, trying to see what they were about, conscientiously recording to the planetologist's queue.

Could they be digging? he wondered. But what—

Alarms went off, not just in his lab but all over the station, raucous noise bouncing against walls and ear drums.

Brunner spun away from his screen, trying to catalog the racket—alarms only, no instruction to abandon ship, or report of sections sealed, only—

Jack, clanking in at a run, a device of some sort in his hand.

"What is it," Brunner yelled, over the unabated clamor.

"Neutrons! Look to your station screen!"

Brunner spun back, slapping the keypad as the alarms reached a crescendo, faltered, died.

"High Energy Particle Alert" flashed across the station information screen. "Check badges now."

"Jack here, we're fine in Science A." A glance showed him listening intently before he said, "Then recalibrate. It's not an error."

Brunner snatched the badge from his pocket, confirmed that it was a perfect, unblemished white, spun back—

Jack waved him 'round again. "Take a look realtime—someone's shooting off big stuff!"

The alarm gave tongue again; ceasing almost at once.

"Are we attacked?" Brunner demanded, his fingers calling up satellites and long-range scans.

"Dunno," Jack admitted, flipping through his beltside inventory. "We're looking secure right now. Bridge didn't mention incoming."

Jack walked around the lab, casually, fingers still busy along his belts. "Yeah, this'll flush out what tech's left, I'm guessing . . ."

The alarms blared again; Jack flashed his scanner, touched his collar, listened, then wandered over to stand next to Brunner.

"Not aimed at us," he said, as the alarm screamed into silence. "Air bursts, off on the limb. Mostly neutron and gamma stuff but our shielding's up to it . . . you'll have some tracking to do."

"But, the radiation! They'll kill everyone!"

Jack made a noise like a laugh without energy, and patted the top of Brunner's monitor as if it were a pet in need of reassurance.

"Nah, now. Only if they do it right. Likely they don't have enough N-bombs to do everybody in that way. Gotta hand it to 'em, though, between the gas, and the nukes and burning everything that'll take a flame, they might've figured out how to manage it, anyhow."

Speechless, Brunner brought the tracking screen to full magnification, moving the satellite to cover the area of the Stubbs' last report, while he fingered up the Stubbs' screen. Even as the window came live, data began to flow. Brunner closed his eyes against the wave of relief, took a breath and touched the send button.

"Miri Robertson, please alert. Miri Robertson . . ."

The response was as instantaneous as the minor lag allowed. "Brunner! Am I glad to hear your voice! Tried to get you earlier, but the machine wasn't getting anything but static! Anyhow, we're ready for a forced march outta here. Locals are gone crazy; had a bunch attack us with sticks . . . carrying candles like they was going to light us out of the way. Another bunch just sat down in front of us and shot their own brains out . . ."

"Galandaria, they are using nuclear weapons on each other."

A pause; a long, long pause . . .

"Say again, Brunner." Absolutely serious, her voice, all trace of childish exuberance extinguished.

"We are recording," he said, keeping his voice calm, so calm, for her sake. Jack shifted at his side, making room for the Scout.

". . . we are recording nuclear weapons blasts," Brunner said into the microphone; "high energy particle counts. I have not had opportunity to analyze, but . . ."

"Right. Hold that there. I'll see if I can get Liz here to . . . damn!" There were sounds, popping, hisses, explosions. "Bastards coming over the hill! I'll call!" The speaker went dead.

"Redhead!" He slapped at the switch, knowing it futile. On the screen, the instrument reports flowing in from the Stubbs cycled from active, to collate, to archive.

* * *

Jack was still, as it turned out, in the weather room when Brunner returned from his nightmare-riddled off-shift. He lounged in Brunner's chair, feet propped up on the instrument stool. He was awake, as were the monitors, and seemed none the less for the wear. Brunner's mood, already black, darkened.

"Jack, I see now what makes you so valuable to this station. You never sleep and you are always concerned of things you have no need to know!"

Jack grinned and bowed a meaningless, half-reclined bow.

"We're alike that way, aren't we? And yeah—my sleep center took a hit when I was on a mission, back when I was the age of your redhead down there. Well, pretty much all of me took a hit, tell the truth. Got put in an autodoc for about a week . . . and came out mostly better, 'cept I can't sleep more'n about three hours at a time."

Brunner shook his head, looking around at the busy screens.

"What happened?" he demanded.

"Well, I survived and found a job using my unique talents . . ."

Brunner bristled, strode over to his main screen.

"I know," Jack said, rising with a minimum of clank and clatter. He bowed; a surprisingly apt bow of a colleague relinquishing activity to an equal. "It ain't funny, but it's my only defense right now."

Sighing, Brunner returned the bow. "Now tell me: Down there—what has happened?"

Jack rubbed his face wearily. "They're killing each other. Not a peep from our weather station. Every time the terminator hits a new planetary time zone, bombs go off. Looks like somebody's answering somebody else back. There's been a couple of pretty big bombs go off up north, random times, like maybe they had to be delivered in person. I think there's been more gas, too, but it's hard to tell with all the other . . . Anyhow, I saved it all for you."

Brunner stared at the screens full with smoke, fire, doom and destruction. He leaned against the counter, pushing hard to counteract the shaking.

"To what can they aspire?" he whispered in Liaden. "What can they achieve?"

"I guess," Jack answered, in quiet Terran, "that they can be right."

Still shaking, Brunner took his seat, riffled screens, counted seventeen marked explosions on the charts. He had no way of knowing dispersal rates at this point but many were already thinning rapidly. One in the north was very heavy, and he zoomed the map in to take a closer look.

"Was the south attempting to destroy the rest of the farmlands?"

Jack looked over his shoulder, shook his head.

"That's centered on a small range of hills. Might've been the Chilongans were after a base, a treasure house—something buried for protection."

The door opened, admitting the Scout. He waved toward the wall and Brunner reluctantly put the image of the whole hemisphere on the big screen, with the terminator moving relentlessly west.

"That could be bad downwind," said the Scout, shockingly matter-of-fact. "We'd need twelve dozen automated Stubbs, to begin tracking. Perhaps we could get by with six dozen if we rule out a need to . . ."

"Rate they're going at it," Jack broke in, "won't be any reason to track it but science."

"We shall see. I have spoken to the chief, who informs me that the station cannot accept more than ten dozen refugees, and that only with the assurance that there be no local interference and that ships will be on the way to offload them soonest."

"No local interference? Surely . . ." Brunner was watching the clock and the terminator on screen, bringing the satellite online to the old coordinates . . .

"Nothing there," Jack told him. "Trees, some. Burn marks. Couldn't catch anything moving but the IR isn't that good . . ."

"There!" the Scout shouted, not quite as loud as the alarm.

Jack muttered something, his belt clanked briefly and the alarm shut abruptly off.

"What are they doing?" Even from here there were noticeable points of light, all concentrated.

"Carpet-bombing. Nuclear bombing on the isthmus."

The alarms sounded again as two very bright spot blossomed, beeped as several more . . .

. . . and stopped.

". . . here. Dawn shows us clear; we blew the bridge and . . ."


Brunner slapped at the switch.


"Got static, Tech, are you . . . There, gotcha. Yeah, it's me. Most of us got through, but we picked up some damage. The Stubbs, it bounced a couple with my name on 'em."

The station alarm sounded, stopped.

". . . so none of 'em are dependable. Hey, sounds like you got some hoorah going up there."

"Miri, Miri, do you know they are still using nuclear weapons? Several dozens or more. All over the world. Many, thirty degrees northeast of you. The . . ."

"Right, we thought something was going on. Locals suiciding, station control ain't answering—doesn't acknowledge."

The Scout made a small sound, and Jack said, "Why you think I'm down here? Tried to answer the phone, stupid old man that I've come to be."

"No," the Scout said sharply, "look at the isthmus!"

The low sun angle and remains of expanding clouds made the seeing difficult; but the intent appeared clear. The excavation he had noticed so many days ago had been completed—perhaps by the bombing—and stretching from one ocean to the other.

Brunner took a hard breath. "Miri, it is good that you are far from a coast," he murmured, his fingers keying his cameras to record, while Jack moved away. "We shall need to speak with Commander Lizardi."

The alarm beeped, but barely. Around it, he heard Jack paging the planetologist.

". . . with the wounded. I'll grab her when I can. Be there, right?"

"We will be here," Brunner promised. "Next orbit."

* * *

Dr. Boylan was . . .delighted.

"Do you see what they've done? They have removed the isthmus, and that . . . and that has done something unprecedented on an inhabited world. There are shock waves registering on the seismographs, and not simply the explosives. They've significantly altered the actual surface structures . . . and they've created a triple tsunami as well! Something else is going on—but that will take days to confirm, and perhaps millennia to conclude!"

Brunner closed his eyes against this ghoulish enthusiasm while trying to visualize the changes, the—

"I believe the flow of water has upset the balance of the underlying plates," she went on, "and may have even broken the link! They'd be free to float . . ."

"Brunner! We will need as much as you can get in the way of gas analysis, for they may well have released the oceanic methane clathrates. Oh, that's a delicate balance indeed, and given the odd sediment formations here, and the subsurface temperature variations, we could be looking at a cascade of undersea landslides and quakes, reinforcing a continental redistribution . . ."

"The jet streams," Brunner managed to get in, "should not be greatly affected, but the currents . . . much of my database will need to be rebuilt, and we have no reliable reporting scheme . . ."

Boylan fizzed on, lost in the beauty of the cataclysm. "Imagine! A complete change in the ocean currents occurring nearly instantly! Storm systems and climate disrupted on the spot! Given the elasticity of the plates, who knows but that we might get volcanism out of this?"

"The people," Brunner said, forcefully. "The survivors . . ."

Boylan's lips straightened. She looked at him, and pointed at the missing isthmus.

"What we need to do now is study and record the processes and phenomena that have been unleashed," she said firmly. "The people will have to be left to historians, don't you think?"

Brunner's glance sought the Scout, who took a breath and bowed low—excessive respect for one far exceeding the bower's humble estate.

"Dr. Boylan," he murmured, honey-voiced. "Your enthusiasm for science is well known and manifest. I wonder if you might have the means among your programs, or"—he bowed to Brunner as might one to a comrade—"if you, Ichliad Brunner, might have among yours, a means to predict where these triple tsunami might strike, and when? Perhaps we are best placed to offer warning, if not solace, to those who still live."

* * *

There was no response to Brunner's call on the following orbit, and nothing on the automatics indicating that the Stubbs was online. Chief Thurton, apparently again against objections, permitted the station to broadcast a multiband warning to the world below once the Scout pointed out that he might do the same from the comfort of his own ship, if the station preferred not to.

As to specific warnings, that was barely possible. A tsunami travels transparently in open ocean, its wave a rapid but nearly invisible swell in an already tumultuous world. They had no resources to determine speed, nor even to insure that the first burst of monster wave against nearby shores had continued beyond the initial coastline.

Eventually Jack was pressed into service with the satellite, sampling coasts and islands visually, with his observations of specific sites added to the warning the scout gave. What lives were affected by this they could not tell: the surface spoke not at all to them, along any of the regular bands. Periodically he returned to view the isthmus area where a few sandy shoals amidst the deep gash of a river of darker water triumphantly flowing from the west were all that was left of the former barrier.

"An army of liberation?" Jack asked heavily of the room. "Is that what was here?"

"Does it matter?" Boylan answered impatiently. "They are beyond concern at this point, are they not?"

Brunner held to his tasks and said nothing, working as if he could prevent further disaster by the strength and purity of his research.

Eventually, the Scout returned, bearing with him a station-issue portable.

Bowing a bow of respectful request to equals, he waved the portable as if it were a child's rattle or toy.

"The main computer was able to share with me demographic information reported by planetary authorities, and later by those splinter groups claiming authority. Some of it conflicts, some of it is probably purposefully wrong. I would like to use overlays of the various records you have of the last Standard, with particular emphasis on the past three days."

This was said to the room at large.

Jack looked at Boylan, who was tending her screens, working as if the words had not been said.

Brunner sighed and bowed, finding it within himself to add the flourish which brought his acceptance close to that of accepting a comrade's necessity.

"Yes," agreed the Scout, "there is some of that, isn't there?"

"Some of what?" asked Boylan, raising her face from her work.

"Must be a Liaden thing," Jack said, rolling his eyes, and nodded at the Scout. "How can I help?"

* * *

Liz was talking to the Scout via the Stubbs, and Liz was not happy. Redhead hovered nearby, one eye on the machine and the other on the horizon. The air was bad, pollution and radiation levels high—she saw it all on the screen as the Stubbs did its upload.

"The shuttles that brought us down might still exist," Liz was saying, sounding like she'd be mad if she wasn't so damn tired. "So what? They're hellengone back down where the city used to—"

"In that case," the Scout interrupted. "They do not exist, my friend. Nothing exists there anymore."

Liz rubbed her face.

"I've broadcast a plea for assistance," the Scout continued, "but Klamath has not been a good neighbor these last dozen years and it is painfully clear there is no immediate commercial advantage to be had."

Liz shook her head. "Merc unit here. I don't have much in the way of bargaining chips, but I do have some off-planet resources. Beam Merc Headquarters, tell 'em Lizardi's good for the fare . . ."

Redhead saw it first, the tell-tale wobble in the land.

"Quake, clear and down!" She was parched, and her voice didn't travel; Skel bellowed a repeat before going down flat.

Exhausted Lunatics ran from under tree and makeshift shelters. You didn't want to be under anything when the wave came through and you didn't want to be standing, either—in fact, you couldn't; it was like trying to stand on a tarp stretched out over the sea with the tide coming in.


Redhead was flat when the roll hit, and Liz, already sitting cross-legged, bobbed around as the dirt groaned and a few more trees fell, and that part was over.

Now came the hard part for her: the ground felt unsteady and swollen under her, like it was thinking about splitting open or folding over, or . . .

The second stage passed, too, and she sighed into the scorched ground before pushing upright. Liz was still at the Stubbs; she swept her hand out toward the scattered Lunatics—

"Injury check!"

Redhead rose unsteadily and hinted at a salute with her right hand while grabbing up the staff she'd picked up from down-wood. Her speed and size conspired, giving her a chance to get through tree-fall and such in a hurry. The circuit here was familiar, and this time there were no new casualties among the troops.

The civilians . . . there were still a few out there, and as long as they didn't actively shoot or throw rocks it didn't matter if they came along. They'd already been on short rations and shorter morale when they'd stumbled on the Lunatics and their grasp of Trade and common Terran was less than good. Some of them still grabbed for their amulets and lucky pieces instead of hightailing to open land . . . and there were a couple more among them injured.

She got back to the Stubbs in time to hear an exasperated Liz snap, "Tidal? We're a good three days' march from anything approaching shore side, assuming I can still read a map. Unless things have changed . . ."

"The tsunami made some new dents, but nothing that extreme," the Scout offered. "The under-plates themselves are doing something we can't quantify yet. The planetologist and the weatherman are working to define—to predict. Moment . . . Ah. Tech Brunner shows me that your location gained altitude in the last upheaval. Higher by about the height of your redhead, I think."

"That's interesting," Liz grated. "But it doesn't get us out of here."

The line buzzed empty, then the Scout was back. "It does not," he admitted quietly. "Give me the headcount at your next check-in—your people and the civilians. I do not wish to commit insufficient transport—and I would prefer a better landing zone."

That, thought Redhead, sounded like he was going to get them transport—and apparently it sounded like that to Liz, too.

"Will do," she said, sounding easier. "Here's your connection!"

Liz waved her over. Redhead muttered a quick report: "Lost three of the locals overnight but everybody else came through fine. Might've been a sprained ankle there . . . but that's livable."

Liz nodded and moved away, hand up to grab somebody else's attention.

Redhead sat down and punched the "talk" button.

"Redhead here."

"Here's Tech," she heard, followed by his calm, unflappable voice. It was like easing in for a swim after a hot, horrible day, his voice; the water so cool it felt like silk . . .

"Redhead, you are untroubled by the earthquakes?"

She laughed, hand to face.

"That's not true, Brunner. I hate 'em. I feel like the whole damn world's trying to shake me off it! And that's when the locals aren't praying for me one minute and shooting at me the next."

"You have a good commander, Redhead," he murmured. "I think you will not have those problems much longer. If you have a portable, or paper to hand to record this . . . we think you can expect waves of about the same strength as you recently experienced at approximately every nine standard hours. I stress that this is approximate. Recent events are—unprecedented, which makes prediction . . . difficult. So, there will be a resonance, if we are right, a larger kick-in-the-pants, as Jack calls it, perhaps every fourth or fifth. Also, there will likely be random sharp waves."

"Got it," she said, memorizing what he told her; she'd lost her portable, with her books and games and all—gods, it seemed like years ago, at that firefight at—

"And so," Brunner was continuing, "the rest of the information is that in the short term we see no major precipitation. This is good; it keeps some of the fallout radiation above you. You are not under the jet currents carrying the worse loads yet. The long-term is much harder."

"Snow?" she offered.

Brunner laughed.

"Not snow, no. What is happening is that we have new water flows in the ocean, new and unstable. This will affect the . . . the . . . mesoscale events, the regional weather and possibilities for local and regional. Weather we cannot predict so well. We are um . . . perhaps aided in that we know where you are and will be able, to some extent at least, to concentrate our efforts in predicting for you. It would be best for us and for you, if we can receive frequent updates. They needn't be non-stop, but perhaps a reading each orbit or two that we travel overhead . . ."

"That's what—about fifteen times a day?" She chewed her lip. "I'll see what we can do. Might need to add somebody to the talk list . . . but if mostly you need the unit switched on, we ought to be good for that."

A pause then, and then Brunner's voice came as if he was partly turned away from the mike.

"Yes, we will monitor at all times, but will expect voice communication as you need, else three times per day. Perhaps you should take our tide warnings and we will set a schedule from there?"

"I can do that. Send away!"

* * *

Brunner woke, his body already calling for tea and chernubia. He kept time now by the next time he was needed at the microphone, or what sort of weather was imminent. It happened that this time, his waking and first meal coincided with the day's first scheduled report from the surface, where Lizardi's Lunatics slowly moved through the smoldering remains of what had once been a vast forest toward an abandoned hilltop farmstead, hoping to find shuttles waiting to bear them to the station.

That there would actually be shuttles—that sat between the Scout and the station master.

He heard raised voices as he approached the weather room, one of them Boylan's, one the Scout's. Then Jack chimed in and the level rose.

"We have to go in!"

"There's nothing we can do."

"The chief insists that we cannot land." That was the Scout, and it hurried Brunner's steps. Cannot land? But—

"It's disturbing the science!" Boylan shouted. "We knew from early on there was little chance . . ."

Brunner ran, bootheels noisy against the floor.

"What has happened?"

His three associates fell silent. The Scout bowed, slowly, as between equals.

"I see we need not wake you for this news."

Jack stepped up, ushering Brunner toward his seat.

"I slept late and had a meeting with the intern," said Boylan defensively, "and when I arrived, we were beyond range already."

Brunner turned to face her, his stomach twisting. "What has happened?"

She turned away from him. It was the Scout who leaned forward and touched the pad, started the recording. There was noise, bursts of sounds that once he would have mistaken for thunder.

"Tech! Recon squad found us a nest of leftovers. Liz tried to talk to 'em but you hear what they're saying. Hold them ships till you hear from us cause it looks like they got themselves some anti-air stuff. Bastard's tried to sneak in through . . . damn. Out."

"Last orbit?" Brunner demanded, though he could see the time on the scan. "This happened and no one told me?" He spun, coming up out of the chair so quickly the Scout fell back a step.

Boylan turned to face him. "What could you have done?" She shouted. "Nothing! There's nothing you can do for them, Brunner, and the sooner you stop pretending—and him, too!—the better, for you and for the mission! Mercenaries are paid to die!"

Breath-caught, Brunner took a step, his hand going out of its own accord, snatching up a coffee cup left on the counter—

Jack moved, clinks subdued, caught Brunner's shoulder and pried the cup from his hand.

"Sorry, Tech." The hand squeezed his shoulder, perhaps meaning comfort, then Jack turned, cup yet in hand as he nodded to the planetologist.

"Let's get some breakfast, hey? We'll be able to work better after we've had something to eat."

Boylan looked at Jack, then at Brunner, her eyes wide and her face hard.

"Later today," she said, and her voice was soft. "I marked it in the event file. Later today the tides will be bad. Ugly. I'm not sure they're survivable. I'm sorry, Brunner."

He stared at her, vision spangling. He blinked and felt the tears, hot down his cheeks.

"Right." Jack took Boylan's arm and steered her toward the door.

"Coffee. Coffee'll help us both, and company, too . . ."

Weeping, Brunner watched them leave, then turned back to his instruments, tapping the event file up.

"The times are there," the Scout said quietly. "I believe that the quakes are due six orbits from now. Before that, there is the enemy. With the right weather, with luck, perhaps they may sneak past to a place of safety. It would be wise of you to prepare a forecast, my friend. I go to see if calls for assistance will be answered."

The Scout bowed, gently, and Brunner replied, "Comrade."

* * *

The civilians were dead; the gun took the couple the land had let live. Liz pulled what was left of the Lunatics back some, and sent scouts out, looking for a way around trouble. Joey came back, reporting no joy. Auifme didn't come back at all, which Redhead guessed amounted to the same thing.

"We got no good choices," Liz said. "Weatherman upstairs says there's bad weather coming—worst we seen. Weatherman's a cheerful boyo, but he's not being cheerful about this. Wants us to get to a safe place pronto, by which I gather he means off-planet and maybe out-system.

"In the meantime, the Scout's guaranteeing transport, but we've got to make the rendezvous point before that weather hits."

Scandal shook her head. "Hell, Liz, that ain't no choice; it's one choice!"

There were a few laughs from around the circle. Miri finished up her half of the last ration bar in her pack, had a drink, and passed her water jug to Skel. They'd stripped down to necessaries some while back, taking just enough to keep 'em to the rendezvous. That was before they'd run into the crazies with the Forsbo 75, o'course, not that anything they'd had left would've answered it for good.

"There's a little obstacle between us and the rendezvous, in case you hadn't noticed," Skel said to Scandal, when Liz didn't.

"So, we run for it," she answered, pushing her helmet up off her face with a grimy forefinger.

"It's an option," Liz allowed. "I'd like to up our odds some, though. I'm thinking in terms of a diversion. Something to draw the gunner's fire while we're sneaking past in the direction we need to go." She looked 'round at them, taking her time.

"I'm looking for a volunteer."

Miri took her water jug back from Skel and snapped it onto her belt. Outside the circle, a baby wind twist swirled into being, stirred the dust, threw a couple stones and dissipated. Inside the circle, nobody said anything.

"I'll do it," she said, and heard Skel draw in a hard breath, exhaling it on a laugh.

"Hey, no, now. Stealing my thunder, Redhead?"

She shook her head at him, but she was looking at Liz. Liz, whose face had gone still, eyes narrowed; who'd gotten her off of Surebleak and given her a fighting chance.

Well, and sometimes you fought, and sometimes you lost. Even she knew that.

And, besides, she didn't intend to lose.

"Makes sense," she said to Liz's hooded eyes. "I'm smallest. I'm fastest. Got the best chance of getting in, doing the job and getting back out."

Liz took a breath. "You got a distraction in mind, I take it?"

"Yes'm." She nodded. "I do."

* * *

"Tech Brunner, I have news which may . . . ease your burden somewhat."

Brunner turned from his screen. The Scout was disheveled, even unkempt. He was, however, smiling. Brunner felt his own heart lift in response, which was surely not wise, but hearts were not known for wisdom.

"What has happened?" he asked.

"We have shuttle craft fueled and standing by, we have pilots volunteered from among the crew."

"Ah. And the permission of Chief Thurton, you have that, as well?"

"Pending receipt of a message from Phaetera headquarters. If the hour comes upon us and the message as yet unreceived, we go. This by the chief's own word."

Brunner's knees wobbled. He sat abruptly on the stool.

"This is . . . an astonishing reversal," he said slowly, and took a breath.

"Earlier, when I spoke to her—they are still pinned. Commander Lizardi had pulled back, and sent recon to seek a way around." He took another breath, remembering. "She said, this morning's count was twenty-seven. The civilians . . . they did not survive the night."

The Scout inclined his head. "All honor to them," he murmured, then straightened, eyes bright. "We have been in contact with others who are also making for the rendezvous point. We will take any and all who meet us, but . . . I fear we will not be able to wait for those who are not there."

"Understood," Brunner whispered. He cleared his throat. "Understood."

* * *

"Tech? Ichliad? You there?"

"I am here, galandaria." As if he could—would—be anywhere else until this was over, however it came . . .

He leaned his head against edge of the monitor, the plastic cool against his skin.

"I wanted to tell you," Miri Robertson said, her voice as clear as if she stood next to him in the weather lab. "Couple things. First, you done real good by us; we wouldn't've got this far without you helping us so much . . ."

Brunner closed his eyes, hand fisted on his lap. "Child . . ."

"No, hey, listen. And I gotta tell you—having you on the other end of this thing, talking to me, an' all? You didn't have to do that and it—I don't guess I can say out how much it helped, so you're gonna just hafta believe it did. A lot. We sit down and get that coffee, after this is all over, I'll try to 'splain it better, okay?"

Brunner swallowed. "Okay . . ."

"Good," she said. "That's good. Now, the other thing I got to tell you? We're gonna be moving real soon. Gonna strike for the rendezvous point—run like hell, that's the plan. Good one, huh?"

"Indeed. A most excellent plan."

"It's got a lot going for it, mostly being the only plan we got," she said, sounding amused. "But, see, the Stubbs here. I'm gonna—"

"Leave it!" he said violently. That she should worry over mere equipment when—He took a breath.

"Galandaria, listen to me. Set the unit to automatic and leave it. I will gather what data I may, while it functions. Promise me that you will do this."

"No . . . can't. I—Brunner. Look, I need this thing, okay? What I wanted to tell is—you're prolly gonna lose the signal. Don't worry 'bout that, right? Promise."

Gods, gods. He took another deep breath, and when he spoke, his voice was calm, never hinting at the tears running from closed eyes.

"Of course, you will do as you deem wise," he told her. "You have never given me cause to doubt your judgment. Now," he said, more briskly. "You should know that the Scout has just recently assured me that there will be ships at the rendezvous point. They will board any who come, but they will not wait, galandaria. Do you understand me?"

"Got it," she said cheerfully. "Right in line with the plan, huh?"

"Yes," he murmured. "Run like hell."

* * *

"Get 'im?" Skel hunkered down next to her and held out a square of chocolate.

"Did. Told me to get my ass to the rendezvous point or else." She nodded at the chocolate. "You better have that."

"Already did," he said, and if he was lying—which he prolly was—he was good. "Saved this out for you. Least I can do, huh?"

"Thanks." She took it and gnawed on a corner while she pulled up the Stubbs' manual, ran the search and pulled up the page.

"You tell 'im it ain't likely you'll be with us to meet the pilots?" Skel asked harshly.

She looked up at him, shaking her head. "Not planning on getting done just yet. You?"

"What are you planning, then, if you don't mind sharing with a friend?"

She nodded at the screen, gnawing on her chocolate. "This thing here? It's got a power supply capable of powering a pinbeam."

Skel sat back on his heels, face attentive. "Does it, now?"

"That's what it says here." She tapped the screen. "An' if I was to do a series of something stupids, like it warns me here in this manual never to do? Then it might give up all its power at once."

Skel didn't say anything. She gave him a look and a grin. "Want your chocolate back now, don't you?"

"You got everything you need to pull this off?"

She nodded, and reached 'round with her free hand to pull the grubby cord up over her head. The key was right where she'd put it, nestled next to the enamel disk her mother'd given her. She palmed it and let Skel put the string back over her head, and tuck the pouch away.

"You tell 'im up there you was gonna blow up his equipment?"

"Told him he was gonna lose the signal, and not to think anything 'bout it."

"That'll be a comfort," Skel said dryly, and Miri sighed.

"I'll make it up to him. Now, gimme a minute to read this part again, right?"

* * *

The door opened and Jack strode in, tool belts clanking.

"Tech," he said, nodding, and wandered over to the supply cupboard, belt clanking, casually opening a hatch that was coded to Brunner's thumbprint, and placing something within it.

"I see that I am wise to lock important items away," Brunner said.

The big man shot a grin over one shoulder. "Little testy? Well, you got a right, I guess. We all do. Just gotta remember that I hold the overrides. You're safe from everybody but me." He closed the hatch and walked over to the monitor shelf, hitching himself up on the stool.

Brunner sighed and turned back to his screen. "If you are here for a purpose . . . ?"

"Come down to see how the work was going, is all. Heard from that girl of yours lately?"

"Indeed. She informs me that they intend to make rendezvous. I have assured her that the ships will be there."

"Did you, now," Jack murmured, and Brunner threw him a sharp look.

"Will the ships be there?" he demanded.

"Said so, didn't you? Now, you might be interested in knowing that the chief, he got his answer from the company. And—following the letter of his instructions, y'know, just like he ought—he's had the Scout arrested and thrown in the brig. I expect to be—yeah, here it is, now."

Footsteps rang in the corridor outside; the door opened and three people in Phaetera security colors entered the room. One stood by the door, stunrod held ready, the other two advanced on Jack, who docilely held out his hands to accept the restraints.

"Phaetera Company orders Jacumbra Edgil removed from his position and the company payroll. His access to the station is restricted and he will be removed from the station at the earliest opportunity." The security guard looked up from the portable from which she had been reading, and looked hard into Jack's face. "Phaetera Company also wishes you to know that there will be no involvement in the situation on the planet below. Promises of rescue or succor made by Scout Commander Kon Rad yo'Lazne and/or Jacumbra Edgil are not binding on Phaetera Company."

What? "But—" Jack's shoulder lifted minutely and Brunner stopped himself, biting his lip. Jack rose at the prompting of his guard, bound hands held awkwardly in front of him. The other guard looked to Brunner.

"We apologize for disturbing your work, Technician Brunner."


"See you, Brunner! Hey, it's about time I got a vacation. Don't expect the Scout to be such good company, though . . ."

He passed through the door on the heels of his guard, the others following.

The door closed, leaving Brunner alone with the equipment.

* * *

Getting in close enough to kill the gun, Redhead thought, as she rested behind the scant cover of a charred bush, that was gonna be tricky.

But not half as tricky as getting back out before the Stubbs blew.

Liz, she'd laid down the law, and it was the scariest thing Miri had heard so far in her life.

"Soon's Redhead's diversion goes off, we're running, and it's every hand for themselves, you hear me? If your partner falls and don't get up, run. If I fall—run. If you get hit and fall and it ain't fatal—get up, damn you, and run!"

Miri figured she'd be a little behind the general race, what with having to set the Stubbs and all. She had the route to the rendezvous set in her mind, so that was okay. Skel, he'd wanted to stick with her, but she'd told him to look out for himself, like Liz'd said, and she'd see him at the shuttles, or for sure on the station, after.

Time to move. She took a breath in, deep, got her feet under her, and moved.

* * *

Brunner locked the lab door, went to the cupboard, set his thumb in the lock and pulled the door open.

Calmly, and not at all surprised, he removed the non-station communication device and a data stick.

Returning to the monitors, he cleared one, inserted the stick, and touched the "talk" button on the communicator.

"Jack?" Cautious. Low.

"Brunner," he answered serenely. "I am the meteorologist of record. You and your compatriots are in place and willing?"

"We're willing, sir, but the dock's locked up."


"Not now."

A schematic blossomed on the screen as the feed from the datastick kicked in. Brunner looked at it, understood what he was to do, and spoke into the communicator.

"You can move at once."

"Yessir, but—"

"I will take care of the airlock and the bay door. If anyone should ask, you do this on under my orders, which you believe I am able to issue. You understand this?"


"Good. The airlock will cycle in three minutes from my mark. Mark. What is your name?"

"Jamin Fowler, sir."

"Jamin Fowler, fly well. The weather will be unsettling on planet, bear in mind that it will soon be worse. Be quick, and bring everyone you can."

"We aim to do just that, sir."

"Good," Brunner said. "Good."

He glanced over at the weather screen, saw the window for the Stubbs open, and data begin to flow. Surely not! he thought, suddenly not calm at all. There was no time now to stop and—

The data continued to flow, he reached out, touched the speaker plate—

Static from the speaker was abruptly cut off. On the screen, the data flow ceased, and the window reformed, displaying the legend:


* * *

Day 54, Standard Year 1393
Solcintra, Liad 

"We had managed," the Delm Lysta said, "to quiet the problems you have caused. We brought you home to the clanhouse, fed you, clothed you, kept you from prying eyes and wagging tongues. You have, in return, tended our inner gardens, and for the most part you have been respectful."

His delm turned on him suddenly. Brunner recognized the play, and the actor whose stance was but poorly emulated.

"Tell me why you thought, what gave you the least reason to assume, that you would be permitted to broadcast your name to the world now? You fall yet short of the ten standards we had agreed to retain you in house for your own protection. Have you no sense of propriety? Is it that you specialize in disasters?"

The delm pounded a key, sweeping the on-hold play from the wall-screen taller than he and replacing it with:

Scouts Confirm Meteorologic Concerns over Blast Aftermath read the teaseline, above a wonderfully colorful and overwrought full motion graphic representation of the beam blast and the resultant dust plume. Below that was his paper, exactly as he had written to yo'Lazne, detailing his concerns regarding trace timonium and other radioactive by-products, the assumptions of dispersal difficulties, the recommendation that nearby residents be tested for pollutants at least and perhaps treated to a prophylactic stay in an autodoc.

There was more. He was quoted from his letters of testimony regarding the investigation into the actions of Phaetera Company in the matter of Klamath, his certifications were listed. As he had given his opinions in his melant'i as a professional and an expert, he was signed as I. Brunner, Master Meteorologist, with neither clan nor even city of residence appended.

His analysis, including jet-stream particulate distribution, fall-out rates, half-lives, everything he'd sent to the Scout, were included by link.

Brunner sighed and turned to his delm.

"By warning the people of Liad of the peculiar nature and dangers of the blast plume, and showing potential areas of concern, I have shamed the house?"

His delm stamped feet, twice. Brunner wasn't certain of the play from which the gesture was borrowed, though the mood he knew far too well. The delm being a forever hopeful playwright, all actions were seen through another author's eyes.

"Ten Standards. Ten Standards you were to remain silent to the world, and then to remove yourself to a quiet occupation. This morning already I have had three comm calls and a piece of mail inquiring if is the clan home of I. Brunner.

"We have an orderly house." The delm sniffed. "And we will have an orderly house. This—" waving energetically at the wall "—is not a quiet occupation, do you understand? I am willing to acknowledge you ten years a gardener, and to divert a portion of the trust to set you in that service."

Brunner bowed, acknowledging that he'd heard.

The comm line blinked; the delm ignored it in favor of staring toward the door toward the outer halls, where a rarely heard chime echoed discreetly.

"This, if this is more of your doing we shall . . ."

The what of the doing was interrupted by yet another comm call; this one at least was known to the house for the comm emitted a quiet chirchirchir, stolen from the sounds of chiretas closing out the last act of A Clan Dissolute, the extended critical version.

The delm said "Answer" and the comm dutifully did so.

"Cousin," started the voice, and Brunner winced. "Imagine my surprise . . ."

"Hold Cousin, there's a knock."

Brunner winced again: Act II, Scene 6 of The Interminable as echoed in Act I, Scene 4, of the current rage False Melant'i.

Verena stood at the door when the delm opened it. A polite if rapid bow followed, and a sweep of words.

"There are visitors to see Ichliad. They ask by name and they have . . ."

A stamp of feet.

"Ichliad does not receive visitors. Not from friends and not from the curious! This house does not permit."

Brunner still stood, wondering if the child would break and run. He was pleased to see that she did not, nor did she look at him.

"My delm, please. I have cards." She showed them, two, fanned between small fingers. "Also, the lady sends this—" She raised her other hand, showing a slightly phosphorescent blue key.

Brunner's stomach went into freefall.

Lysta snatched the cards, reached for the key, but Verena stepped sideways, extending her hand to Brunner.

"The lady said that I should place it in Ichliad's hand, for she had promised to bring it back to him, when her mission was done."

He moved, received the key, and stood for a moment staring at the imprinted Stubbs logo in archaic Terran script.

"She died," he said, perhaps to Verena, perhaps to his delm. "On Klamath. I—she was not listed among the survivors and—"

"Korval!" His delm's voice carried shock without artifice. "We cannot receive Korval. They are—"

". . . thrown off planet for being bad boys and girls," an ironic voice concluded in backworld Terran. A redheaded woman in working leathers stepped into the room neatly between Verena and Lysta, followed by a slender, dark haired man wearing a battered pilot's jacket.

"Hi, Brunner," the woman said to him, gray eyes measuring him, head to toe.

"Redhead," he whispered. "Is it you?"

She grinned, and he saw the halfling soldier. "'Fraid so. Amazing what some people'll do to collect a debt, ain't it?"

She reached behind her, took the man's arm and brought him forward. "Ichliad Brunner, I make you known to my lifemate, Val Con yos'Phelium Clan Korval." Now she spoke Liaden. Her accent was Solcintran, pure and perfectly clear.

Korval Himself bowed, a bow most exquisite in its exactness and in its brevity: The bow of one owing a debt beyond paying.

"Ichliad Brunner, I am most glad to meet you," he said softly.

"And now that you have met him," Lysta said sharply, "I will ask you to remove yourselves from this clanhouse." The cards were thrust out imperiously, exactly the famous gesture performed by Nadelm Casaro in A Clan Redeemed. Brunner closed his eyes.

Korval turned and bowed again, delm to delm. He seemed unaware of the attempt to return the cards.

"Lysta, forgive us for coming to you in such a state of disarray," he said smoothly. "There is a long history between my lady and Meteorologist Brunner; many events to be told over, several Balances to be crafted and weighed. You will have heard the news; we do not have much time here."

Val Con glanced at them, his free hand executing a sign Brunner took to be "Continue."

"Too long and too short," Redhead murmured from her place next to Brunner. She sent him a quick look from beneath her lashes.

"You and me got a lot to talk over, like the man says," she continued, as Korval walked Lysta over to the other side of the room, still talking, his posture one of concerned respect. "So, quick question—you looking for work?"

Brunner blinked. "Work?"

"Yeah, work. 'Cause, see, where we're going, we're gonna need a weatherman, and I want to hire the best there is. I'll tell you right out, the weather ain't as interesting Klamath's, but we're figuring to set satellites, warm the place up. Going to need some studies done, and . . ."

Did he want work? he asked himself, and almost laughed. His fingers itched for a portable, so that he could begin making notes. And yet—He lifted his head, watching his delm speaking with Korval.

"Your choice, Weatherman," she murmured, and he did laugh, then, loudly enough that Lysta turned to stare. "And look, I mean we can get you going today, if you want. But really, just say no if you don't think it'd be a fit. You'll have to work with some pretty strange folks, like us, and some mercs, and some Scouts, too."

He raised a hand a moment, and held the key she'd brought back to him to eye level.

"I think, I need to know something first. How is it that your name was never on the station rescue list?"

"Well," she said in Terran, "I got rid of that gun that was holding us down and then . . . I took some damage. When they brought me up, they didn't bring me in station. While the crews were getting Jack and the Scout out of the brig they just took me right to the Scout's doc. I really did mean to bring that thing right back to you!"

He sighed and it turned into a slow smile and a gentle laugh. "Scouts, mercs, strange people, Redhead and her partner. And odd weather . . ."

Redhead bit her lip as he paused, vaguely hearing something his delm was saying to Korval about how Solcintra's theater could be improved if new plays were sometimes brought to stage . . .

"Yes," he said, and bowed to her. "Indeed, I would very much like to have work. And very much, I expect it will be a fit."

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