Back | Next

Chapter One


Theo saw the rim of dust-and-something on her sleeve, sighed and tried not to be annoyed—it wasn’t as if she was waiting for an appointment with a customer, or getting ready for an assignation, after all. Still, as she applied enough torque, manually, to start closing the small hatchway, the accumulation was evident not only on her sleeve but on the surface of the sample filter she’d replaced, and likely on her cheek as well, since she’d been brushed some irritant from there with her ring finger a few moments before.

She’d knelt to check the torque, and now some of whatever it was that had fallen to the floor.

Bechimo had thought the whole routine a waste of time, even managing to bring the word “dignity” into the conversation.

Theo shook her head. Ship’s dignity, indeed!

There was a smudge of color on the filter—this from an unused room. Really unused. According to Bechimo there hadn’t been anyone in there for hundreds of years! That would bear looking into.

Dropped and sealed into her stash bag, this was another of a half-dozen items of interest she carried, things she’d share with Clarence when they got together once again in the conference room—or Dining Room Two, if you happened to be Bechimo.

She was considering the next item on the list, wishing she had help on it since it would be a live-wet line. She’d worked on live-wets a few times at the academy, and several more less unhappy times while working the off-schedule at Hugglelans. At Anlingdin, some of the lines were—Pilot yos’Senchul had called it “misrepresented”—as having been cared for recently, or at all.

When she’d been back on Eylot, her good friend Kara had called the duty Theo now performed “ship wipe,” complete with an odd Liaden back-channel of meaning. She’d called it that at the academy and at Hugglelans, and while she evinced no particular love for the job, she’d done it dutifully and had said it was educational. Kara had from time to time come back to their shared room at Hugglelans in multiple shades of left-over dirt and dinge, her clothes so smelly that Theo donned disposable gloves to help her into the shower without leaving a permanent record on the walls.

On the other hand—

“Stinks, by damn and darn, that’s what we called it where I learned! Stinks!”

Clarence could have his “stinks,” thought Theo. She preferred “ship wipe,” and not only because she heard it in Kara’s voice.

She sighed, thinking about Kara as she crawled into corners, purposefully using second line and even third line multi-tool equipment on this stuff. Kara had a good eye for what needed done, not to mention excellent taste in tea and cheese, and a firm hand for a massage, too. She’d also been good at listening to Theo’s doubts while refusing to agree that she was a useless academic kid in over her head in the real universe…

On her knees on the deck, Theo sighed again. It would be good to see Kara again. She’d been a long time without seeing an old friend—a comfortable old friend. Especially since it seemed like all her new friends—and family members, too—were various degrees of risky to know.

Still on her knees, she straightened until her spine cracked with released tension.

Daydreaming wasn’t going to get the job done, and since she was also tracking the duty by time-taken she’d better get to it.

“Are you recording all this, Bechimo? You got live visuals?”

A pause. A longish pause. Maybe he was still annoyed at having the dignity of the ship violated.

“Pilot,” he said, before the pause got too long, the light, genderless voice just a bit too precise. “The entire process is being recorded in multiple formats as it goes forth, indexed by the day, and will be analyzed when we have more information to measure against it. Existing records of such checks are of little use since—”

She pffuffed what might have been imaginary dust off her lips—or it might have been recognition that she knew this line already…so she she matched cadence and said it:

“…the original checks were performed by crew conversant with procedures.”

It was, unfortunately, an accurate duet, and probably beneath her dignity, as First Board. Theo shook her head.

“Got that one, Bechimo, thank you. What we can do—the whole point of this, if you’ll please review your records!—is to make sure we’re all up to spec about what needs to be done, how it ought to be done, where things are, what the instructions mean, and how readings are interpreted. Since the Founders aren’t here, and since you’re arguably the only person alive—aside from Uncle—who could possibly be conversant with all of the unique procedures, I’m on my hands and knees cleaning a live-wet. I promise you we’ll either buy or build more remotes, but for now, this is the gig we’ve got.”

Silence. Well, there wasn’t much to say to that, except she’d implied an order there—

Have you reviewed those records?” she asked.

A pause. She missed having Screen Six available, that being where Bechimo’s visible presence was most often seen, but she imagined it was busy with swirling colors right now. She liked to think that the more the colors swirled, the harder Bechimo was thinking.

“Yes, Pilot. I have.”

There. She wasn’t sure but what there was contrition in that, but assuming an AI learned like a beginning student did, something at some level in this project might stir up some new thoughts and insight.

She hoped.

* * *

She called lunch break a few minutes early, and the human part of the team carried after-meal tea with them to their station. Clarence had his smoky black, while she’d dipped into her dwindling supply of Lishanea Spring-morning, known to be efficacious in easing sore muscles.

Clarence started, mildly: “Things were a bit dustier than I expected in a couple of those crew rooms, Chimmy.”

He was looking at Screen Six, where the blues had mused in quiet clouds while they ate; now the pace picked up and distant features faded into the hint of a face where there was no face but motion.

Theo glanced that way, and back to Clarence, who might have lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug, who may have twitched a pinky as he sketched a word to himself. For her part, she flicked a one-handed query in his direction, but he missed it, watching the active screen.

They shared the quiet flow of air and underfoot vibration that was always there, and the circulation brought the scents of the tea about them, infusing the after-lunch conference with a certain air of quiet relaxation.

Clarence leaned toward Number Six, raising his teacup toward it. He sighed, loudly.

Theo had noticed Bechimo was sensitive to sighs, and apparently Clarence had, too. The blue flared bright, heralding a petulant response.

“Less Pilot, in the absence of a crew-member named Chimmy, should I suppose that remark directed to me?”

“It was. Saw you fiddling with a face back there, I thought, and it reminded me of a couple someones I used to know, that’s all. Brothers they was, many years apart, Chimmy and Chack. Chimmy had the looks, he did, and once his brother let him off the leash, he was quite the pleaser with the ladies and the threes.”

He drank off what was left of his tea and slotted the cup.

There was silence, other than the fans; Clarence continued to watch Screen Six, and so did Theo. The face that might have been there in the moving clouds faded even more.

“I have not accepted this name as a referent, Less Pilot. The link between myself and a pleaser of your acquaintance lacks clarity.”

“Ah, youth!” Clarence turned to Theo then, a suppressed smile on his face and his hands signing new kid. Theo snorted—not likely he was going to get a newbie’s rise out of a spaceship.

He glanced back to the screen and shook his hands at the same time—forget it, that meant, in hand-talk.

“We’ll talk about it later, then. Right now, we got all this dirt we collected. You’ve been neglecting…”

“I have not been neglecting, Less Pilot. The rooms are as they were left by the prep-crew the Founders employed. They were deemed acceptable by the Founders, and—”

“How many Founders, I wonder,” Clarence interrupted, “and why did you never have a crew after that?”

The blues on Number Six went to stormy green; the proto-face faded entirely and the whole went into jittery flux.

“Pilot, please inform Less Pilot O’Berin that I may not answer portions of that question.”

Theo raised her eyebrows and shook her head, at the same time signaling my board to Clarence.

Bechimo, consider him informed. We know that Uncle was a member of the Founders; why can’t we know the rest?” She didn’t say, since they’re long dead anyway, because…there was Uncle, who was very much not dead. And who knew if any of the other Founders had been of his persuasion?

Not that the idea of a committee of Uncles soothed her, particularly.

Screen Six was displaying a bland, uniform dark blue.

“Pilot—certain information is not necessary to the conduct of flight operations. The information requested is not available for casual discussion.”

Theo didn’t sigh. Just.

“This discussion began,” she reminded him, “as a question about about how the physical plant—Ship Bechimo—has been, and should be, maintained. Flight crew should have access to maintenance schedules, and to logs. We should also have an understanding of what materials we discovered, and how their discovery may reflect ship readiness and future operational stability. Pilots need to be sure of ship operation—that’s why we started this process—the ship-wipe. We’re a new crew on an untested ship.”

The screen color flared to a brighter blue, and settled in the mid-range.

“Pilot, in so far as ship operations are concerned, we may continue. The ship is able, and there is no existing physical condition which would endanger the crew. Lacking a Captain, however, certain details of former personnel must remain confidential.”

Theo looked up, found no answers on the ceiling, unstayed her command chair and let it rotate beneath her. Bechimo had been on his own for hundreds of years, she reminded herself. As hard as it was for a pilot who had grown up on consensus-mad Delgardo to grasp, he just didn’t know how to be part of a team.

Just like she didn’t really know how to command, and Clarence wasn’t used to riding second, after commanding a desk for more years than Theo’d been alive. This new—this possible—Loop they were exploring for Clan Korval, this was a shakedown trip.

In more ways than one.

Theo nodded to herself and addressed Bechimo, gently, like she was facilitating a team solution, back on Delgado.

“I understand you to say that standing crew can’t know how many Founders there were? Do I hear you correctly?”

“Yes. That information has no bearing on current operations.”

All right, she thought, that was final, for now. Best move on to the next topic.

“And the residues we collected?”

The reply came promptly.

“Those are from tests for aromatics and filter function, and from the overstimulated plants from the emergency hydroponics siting tests. In fact, all of those tests went far better than expected and a full crew on standard schedule would have collected the residues and remains on their first sweep, as current crew has done.”

“No crew’s been in peril on this ship, then?” Clarence put in, with a sharp stare into Screen Six. “You weren’t without crew because of ship conditions?”

The screen snapped to dark green, the silence echoing like a thunderclap. Theo twisted her seat, eyes carefully not on the screen, but on Clarence.

“No crew has ever been in peril on this ship,” Bechimo stated so flatly that he sounded like a machine.

Clarence nodded thoughtfully. “So why haven’t you never had a crew then, Chimmy?”

“I do not accept that designation. The information you request is available to the Bonded Captain.”

“Which we are presently without, as I’m understanding the matter.” Clarence gave Theo an oblique glance. “Can we get the broad outlines? No names, no dates, just as general as you like it.”

“Your question is difficult to answer, Less Pilot, even in broad strokes.”

There was a pause while Number Six roiled, more green than blue.

“I may state that the prep crew and Founders withdrew as testing was completed; crew never arrived. I received orders to utilize emergency programming, and to withdraw from nearspace for multiple random checks. Confirmation was also received, and I withdrew as ordered.”

Theo leaned forward, fingers gripping chair arms, her eyes on Clarence, wondering if the same chill struck him: Bechimo had been abandoned, cut off from community, ordered to save himself from enemies.

Ordered to abandon his crew.

“A problem, indeed,” said Clarence, suddenly in Liaden. Seated as he was, he bowed to Screen Six. “I commend the quickness of your actions, and the success of your strategy.”

His hands moved simultaneously, slower and sharper than his usual accent in hand-talk, illuminating the depths of the controlled phrases: Urgent great deep situation, solitary survival necessity.

There was a pause, as if not one of the three of them knew how to move from this point of tension, to find again the discussion of workaday housekeeping.

“The pilot’s care shall be ship and passengers,” Theo said suddenly, wondering even as she spoke why she should be quoting the Guildbook now. “The co-pilot’s care shall be pilot and ship.”

More silence.

“The ship’s care,” said Bechimo, his voice very low, “shall be pilots, and crew.”

“I don’t think that’s in the Book,” Clarence said, in quiet Terran, “but maybe it oughta be.”

Silly or not, her quoting had gotten them near enough to commonplace that she could clear her throat and say, “Bechimo, I have a question, if I might.”

“Yes, Pilot?”

“Let me be sure of this,” she said slowly. “You were ready to begin your Loop, prep-crew had cleared you and the Founders signed off. Then came this emergency. It wasn’t your decision, you said that. Do I have this right?”

“Yes, Pilot.”

“So, someone else declared the emergency. Who was that? Who gave you the order—how were you warned?”

The answer came almost sprightly compared to his recent replies, the screen settling in silver-shot blue.

“The head of the launch committee had arrived and was close enough to dock, were it allowed. I took the order across several bands—coded direct radio, as we’d been using for testing, and tight laser.”

“And the name?” Clarence prompted, low-voiced. “Who told you to run?”

“That information,” Bechimo said, and to his credit he did sound abashed, “is available to the Bonded Captain.”

* * *

“Pilot, if you would,” Clarence said in his impeccable Liaden, “two final tasks bearing upon today’s exercise.”

Theo didn’t sigh. She needed to learn Liaden; she had to learn Liaden; and she had entered into a bargain with Clarence that he would help her learn, since he had thirty years or more of living among native speakers.

Languages didn’t come easy to her. And switching back and forth between, like Clarence insisted on doing, gave her a headache.


“What tasks are these?” she asked, keeping an ear on her mode. Clarence had used Comrade, and it was polite to answer as you were addressed, unless you had a point to make. “One would not wish to be behind in any necessity.”

“Excellent.” He inclined his head. “Bechimo informs me that there is available a hydroponics bay. The module in place was supplied by a company no longer in existence. There are supplies enough to begin, should we wish that. Do we wish that?”

She considered, frowning at the deck, which wasn’t proper Liaden body language. She forced her head up and met Clarence’s eye.

“Fresh vegetables and fruits would be welcome,” she said. “If the unit can be made to function. Does Bechimo advise us to procure a new module?”

“He believes the current module will serve, and has identified another from available catalogs, that may be made to be compatible.”

Kit-bashed, that meant. Well, if Bechimo thought he could force compatibility and was willing to do the work, who was she to say no?

“I leave this in Bechimo’s care,” Theo said, bowing her head to show that she was done with the subject.

“Very good. There is then only one thing remaining. We should each perhaps inspect the cabin of the other, so that we will know what is usual.”

Theo once more inclined her head.

“Agreed. Let us finish what we have begun.”

* * *

There hadn’t been time for Clarence to personalize his cabin, and he hadn’t brought anything but his basic kit; his space looked almost as spare as her own. Ambient lighting was low and seemed somewhat reddish to Theo. On the small shelf over the desk, was a hand-size fold-out easel, with pictures flowing one to the next, some of countryside and buildings and several, in the same sequence, of a man’s smiling face, with and without a beard.

“Here we are, then,” he said, so suddenly that the Terran words sounded wrong to Theo. “You know, I haven’t had an inspection in a dozen years. Anyhow, one thing a long looper is going to have on a courier ship is space, I guess. Never mind a lot of courier pilots live on their ships for years!

“I can bring the light up to trade-bright, if you like, but I usually keep it on Grandia sundown. I got used to it in the old days, and it got to be habit.”

Theo signed is good and looked around more carefully. She’d only been in the cabin a couple times after Bechimo came for her, mostly as another place to walk when she’d been working out a day or two of shoulder cramps after her time in the autodoc.

The door—hatch, really, since it was a pressure door, like almost everything else that opened or closed on Ship Bechimo—cycled, and Clarence let it slide shut, hand casually wiping the inset pressure gauge as if to get her attention before both hands joined in a flood of sign.

Ship withholds info total cubes breathe room back-up spares latchpoint limit stress limits jump-point limits

He signaled full stop, raised his hands and added, says captain pilot-captain access higher, and finished: stop done

“’course, you can do a whole lot of tuning to the air, too, but you should know I have my vents set on a cycle that gets faster over sleep-time—’nother habit. I like to wake up to a breath o’fresh air, cooler for the last bit; I add a touch of Oh Two for morning stretch out. Habit.”

So there were hidden compartments in Ship Bechimo, Theo thought, maybe not quite as shocked as a well-brought-up Delgadan woman ought to be. Listening to Clarence with half-an-ear, she worked it out. The room where the Remastering Unit lived, where Win Ton fought for his life—that wasn’t something you wanted to advertise to the galaxy, and who knew but the Founders, which group had included Uncle, had a bit of plain and fancy smuggling in mind from the start?

The hidden space was a risk when they moved the ship or Jumped, because not falling into a sun depended on calculating the correct mass to be moved. On the other hand, Bechimo did his own calcs, and, on the occasions she had run her own set, he had provided ship’s mass.

So, maybe not so much of a risk, Bechimo being the safety-fiend that he was.

In the meantime…

“Habits,” she said out loud; “I guess I’ve got a few, too. I’ve just been using default in my quarters—well, you’ll see for yourself, if you’d like to return the favor now, Pilot?”

“Certainly, Pilot,” Clarence said, in Liaden again, damn him.

Theo paused as they came into the main hallway.

Bechimo,” she said, stubbornly in Terran, “we’ll do a prelim check-off this shift for the for the run to Frenzel, and after that we’ll go over the want lists and priorities, do an access check on the cargo-locks, then go to night sched.

“Before we hit the end of Jump, I’ll want a detailed list of all hidden compartments, including measurements and access codes, if any, available to both pilots, please, Bechimo.”

Behind her, she heard Clarence take a sharp breath. She didn’t blame him, and she braced for learning that the information was only for the Bonded Captain.

In which case she was surprised.

“Of course, Pilot,” said Bechimo.

Back | Next