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Spaceport Gondola


A so-called “express squirt” was the best compromise between cost and speed, Theo decided, considering the options available to her. Her message to Kamele must, of necessity, be brief—twenty-four words or less—but it would arrive more quickly. And, as it happened, more economically still, as the universities at Delgado and Gondola both belonged to the Scholar Base, and therefore offered a discount for messages sent to or from an academic account.

Theo slotted her card, tapped the screen to accept the terms and the discount, entered Kamele’s direction and . . . sat, fingers poised over the keypad.

The truth, she told herself. It’s simple.

All that information on the key—she wasn’t going to be the one who told Kamele what her onagrata had—no. Better Kamele didn’t know that. Never knew that. Maybe—maybe Daav yos’Phelium Clan Korval was right after all.

Maybe it was better that he—or whatever part of him was Father—just disappeared and left Kamele with her memories.

“No,” she said out loud in the privacy booth. “You don’t have to send her all that; it’s extraneous.”


She cleared her throat and touched the keys.

Father with Delm Korval, she typed.

And stopped, blinking at the screen.

The simple truth looked . . . thin and cold, there on the screen, even a little . . . dismissive. Kamele, after all, thought that the Delm of Korval was—a story for littlies.

On the other hand, Theo thought, Kamele was a scholar; she knew how to do research. She’d look it up—if only because Theo’s message had made her angry—and she’d find out that what they’d both thought was a story, was plain fact.

So, that was four words, and she still had to answer the question that Kamele had been too proud to ask directly.

He is safe, well, within parameters of active duty pilot.

She hesitated, but Kamele would want to know this, too: No plans for Delgado return.

One more truth that Kamele needed to know, though she hadn’t asked, and that would hit the limit.

I love you, Mother.


She read it, made sure her Guild box was the automatic reply address, nodded, and hit send.

The screen blanked, then came back up, displaying the completed transaction screen, the amount deducted from her card and the balance remaining.

The balance was . . . tidy. Uncle paid promptly, by direct transfer to her Guild account. For those places that didn’t accept Guild debit, she carried hard coin—Terran bits in a public pocket, and more of the same, in an inner pocket.

In her most secret pocket was a pair of cantra pieces, which was a lot of money, but . . . she was her own backup, running without a copilot. If trouble hit her—or her ship—she’d have to deal with it herself.

Sitting in the private booth, message sent, Theo sighed. No sense thinking about trouble. The Pilots Guild rated Gondola Spaceport in the upper percentages for safety, which didn’t mean it was safe like Delgado was safe, but did mean that her chances of finding trouble were . . . less high than they might be, say, on Volmer.

Gondola also sat at the intersection of several master trade routes; it was a rich world, so it said in the Guild Quick Guide, and Gondola Spaceport was the fourth busiest in the sector.

The starport also had, according to more than one advertisement she’d passed on the way to the Guild Hall, the best shopping outside of Kamfork.

There wasn’t any way to confirm that, since she’d never heard of Kamfork, much less sampled the shopping there. However, she did have a couple hours dirtside right here on Gondola before she was to meet Uncle’s vendor for the scheduled pickup. Surely there was no harm in getting a baseline on the local offerings.

Besides, she thought, spinning the chair and coming to her feet in a dance move, she needed to find a bookstore. Archives on the Toss were a little thin on Liaden custom, concentrating on simple texts written with an eye toward the pilot getting back to her ship in a non-honor-killed sort of way.

If she was going to talk as a cultural equal with Val Con, she was going to need something more in-depth.

She shook her head as the cubicle’s door closed and locked behind her. Father . . . she had known Father was Liaden, but it hadn’t mattered. Just like it hadn’t mattered that Kara was Liaden, or Win Ton or Pilot yos’Senchul . . .

It hadn’t mattered to her. Had it mattered to them? While they were correcting her mistakes and translating melant’i for her, and keeping her safe from custom, like she was a littlie in a room full of fragile things?

A pilot rode her own course; she didn’t expect anyone else to get her safely into port.

Theo sighed. Right. Books. Tapes. Maybe even a bilingual module for the Toss. She knew how to study, and she knew for a fact that there was plenty of time, when the screens were grey. It seemed that Rig Tranza was right again—a pilot needed something to occupy herself with, ’tween times, and she might as well learn something useful.

- - - - -

There were no new instructions from Headquarters. Tir Sha yos’Vinder took note of the fact even while he assured himself that he had expected to hear nothing. Eventually, of course, one must receive a message, but not yet.

Not yet.

The log did reflect receipt of a message off the local subnet, which excited his interest only as long as it took to open it and discover nothing more than a routine systems check.

Recognizing the bite of disappointment for the danger to duty that it was, Operative yos’Vinder rose from his seat at the console and immediately performed that exercise he had been taught as a recruit to the Department of the Interior. It bore a passing resemblance to a pilot’s simple focusing exercise; one did feel alert and on-point at the conclusion of the sequence.

One also felt far more certain of one’s place within the Department and the value of the work one was assigned to oversee.

Important work, of course, else there would have been no requirement for oversight at all, much less by so skilled an operative as Tir Sha yos’Vinder.

Exercise complete, he sat again at the console, disappointment warmed away by the certain clear knowledge of the Department’s approval of himself.

The work . . . the work that brought Operative pin’Eport and himself to this gaudy, overwrought port deep inside Terran space . . . that was of maximum importance.

On this busy, busy world, in this very spaceport, there was a dealer—a dealer in antiquities.

In fact, Spaceport Gondola was home to a dozen and more dealers in antiquities. What made Mildred Bilinoda a person of interest to the Department of the Interior was the fact that she dealt in what the Terrans termed Befores.

Old Tech.

Forbidden tech.

Tech that was so very useful to the Department, and beneficial to the Department’s Plan.

All of the Old Tech was to have been destroyed, or decommissioned, by the Scouts, of course. Most of it was rumored to have died, the timonium powering them having finally succumbed to time.

Rumors of death and destruction aside, there was yet a healthy undermarket in Befores, and in that market Smalltrader Bilinoda was known as one to approach only if the need was great and the money likewise.

Such was the extent of the smalltrader’s net of contacts that the Department must have annexed it, and also the trader, long ago. The circumstance that stayed the Department’s hand, and the reason that Operatives yos’Vinder and pin’Eport were based on Spaceport Gondola was the belief—less than certainty, more than rumor—that one of those contacts was . . . a person very much of interest.

While Smalltrader Bilinoda was not to be discounted as a prize, this other—as elusive and difficult to locate as Old Tech itself—was treasure. Rumor—well, what use rumor? Enough to know that it was the hope of gaining a lead to this person that Smalltrader Bilinoda was merely observed, her business left undisturbed, her goods allowed to pass through Spaceport Gondola intact.

It did not fall within the boundaries of Operative yos’Vinder’s duty to know what had befallen those others of Bilinoda’s contacts. His job, and that of Operative pin’Eport, was to observe the smalltrader, and to forward such information regarding her contacts as could be gained with judicious bribery.

That the largest prize remained undiscovered was apparent. Had it been otherwise, the operatives would have received word to sweep up the trader, her antiquities, and her records.

As such word had not been forthcoming . . .

The comm trilled—pin’Eport’s tone. Operative yos’Vinder reached to the console, tapped a key—and saw the familiar code form on the screen.

Smalltrader Bilinoda had left the shop, and pin’Eport was following, as per standard procedure.

yos’Vinder reached again to the console, calling up the list of ships newly berthed. This was also standard procedure. Occasionally, the match program identified a vessel of interest to the Department, whereupon he would log the sighting. Occasionally, he was required to file a complaint with the Port against the vessel identified, or to bear witness against the pilot, whereupon other Departmental operatives would perform their standard procedures, of which yos’Vinder knew, and cared to know, nothing.

Today, the match program had identified a ship, the name not merely highlighted, but glowing flame red, and sporting the glyph that indicated further urgent information available.

yos’Vinder tapped the query key.

Yard scan came live, showing a courier class ship sitting chastely at her berth. yos’Vinder frowned, upping the magnification, trained eye following the lines—updated and upgraded so that a casual glance slid past, and a slightly more interested glance merely saw an elderly ship rejuvenated by careful owners.

An eye such as yos’Vinder’s, reinforced by intensive sleep-learning and pattern recognition—that eye saw a ship not merely elderly, but improbably old, kept spry and spaceworthy far beyond the time when even a doting owner would admit that it was more cost-effective to scrap the old and buy new.

The match program snapped into place, the pattern fitting precisely over the image on the ship at its berth.

Tir Sha yos’Vinder inhaled, carefully.

The Department knew this vessel. The Department had been looking for this vessel.

He sent the standard query, and there on the screen was the ship’s registry.

Name: Arin’s Toss

Home Port: Waymart

Owner: Crystal Energy Consultants

Pilot: Theo Waitley, First Class

Operative yos’Vinder tapped the screen once more, accessing the detailed instructions pertaining to his duty with regard to this ship.

Tag and follow.

- - - - -

“Place is fillin’ up,” Miri commented. From her vantage on the balcony, she could see lights in second-floor windows around the inner garden. Behind those windows were apartments like the one behind her, that she shared with Val Con. Sort of alike, anyhow; though the leftovers from former occupants would be different. New tenants shifted the furniture around to suit themselves, sent what they didn’t want or need to House Stores, and laid down their own layer of possessions, which would get overlaid in turn by the next clan member who took the rooms for themselves.

She stretched, trying to ease her back. The only thing that kept her from thinking that being pregnant could get over with any time now was the thought of what she was going to do with a kid. Val Con—he liked kids. Herself . . .

Miri shivered.

It was chilly on the balcony; down at ground level, a cold breeze was running rough inside the garden, shaking the flowers and the shrubs below like a street thief trying to get one more coin out of a mark.

Miri sighed. She’d never noticed flowers much before Jelaza Kazone, but she’d gotten used to seeing them, just like she’d gotten used to the pleasant, mannerly Liaden breezes, that carried scents up to the balcony and offered them like wine.

Something disturbed the air at her back. She moved a step to the right without looking around.

“A full clanhouse is a joy,” Val Con said, folding his arms on the rail next to her.

Not that they would hit the limit, even with every adult clan member, staff, and assorted folk like Ms. dea’Gauss added to the sum.

Was this house ever full?” she asked, nestling companionably against his side.

“Once—and once or twice again, after. Korval has never been a populous clan. We take too many risks.”

Miri laughed. “Well, at least I know it’s in the family.”

She felt, rather than saw, him smile.

“Indeed. Reckless to a fault, every one of us. Though Nova displays some sign of possessing common prudence, and—until lately, of course—so had Pat Rin.”

“Setting up as a high roller and living off of your winnings is real prudent and commonsensical.”

“Yes, but one must view the course in context. He took care to be known as a marksman nonpareil, and as a man who excelled not only at cards and dice, but also at games of skill.”

“So he went in with a legend.”

“Exactly. Pilots, on the other hand, may be as skilled and as formidable as they like, and still the Jump may kill one. Compelling as we find it, piloting is not a safe trade.”

“And you like to brawl in taverns.”

“That, too.”

She snorted a soft laugh, and shivered against a renewed assault from the breeze, this one showing teeth.

“Flowers ain’t gonna make it,” she said gloomily.

“Some may adapt, and we mustn’t discount the gardener. The food crops have her first attention, of course, but she did allow me to know that she had our garden under care.” He moved his shoulders. “Father had used to keep the inner gardens himself.”

“Yeah, he said that. Thinking of putting him to work?”

“Of course. Though perhaps gardening is not the best use of his talents. Nor of Mother’s.”

There it was again, a little thrill of . . . worry laced with pain that accompanied Val Con’s considerations of his parents. Miri bit her lip. Sometimes, knowing what your partner felt about something was worse than not knowing. And what was even worse than not knowing, was not knowing whether she should do something, or just figure it was his to work out.

He shifted, moving a hand to massage her aching back.

“Miri, it will be well.”

“So you keep saying.” She sighed. “Talk me into anything, can’t you?”

“Indeed, I cannot. I distinctly recall several instances when I failed of getting my way—to my profit, not to say, my survival.”

A chime sounded from the room behind them. Miri frowned.

“We late?”

“More likely it is one’s sister Nova, wishing to know if we intend to be late,” Val Con said, pushing away from the rail.

She followed him inside, sliding the door closed behind her, shutting out the toothy, feral breeze. Over the snick of the lock, she heard the hallway door cycle, and felt the flutter of Val Con’s surprise.

“Good evening, Jeeves.”

“Master Val Con. Miri. I regret the necessity of disturbing you. A matter of security has presented itself which I thought best to bring immediately to your attention.”

The thrill of dread she felt then was all her own.

House security?” she snapped, thinking of all those people—Gods, the whole clan, ’cept for the kids, still hidden away. They’d known it was a risk to bring the adults under one roof, but—they’d considered it acceptable, with Jeeves to guarantee a whole-house defense net.

And that, Robertson, she told herself, is why Clan Korval is so small. The man just told you so, didn’t he?

“Forgive me,” Jeeves said, headball flickering in her direction. “House security is firm. I speak to . . . maintaining the security of allies.”

“This,” Val Con said, stepping back from the door with a slight bow, “sounds as if it could be complex. Please enter, Jeeves, and make yourself comfortable.”

“I am always comfortable, Master Val Con. The chassis suits me excellently.”

“It pleases me to hear you say so—and to observe that you have not held shy from making those modifications which are of benefit.”

Jeeves rolled in, wheels muted by the carpets, and settled himself before the double chair. Miri came forward to perch on one arm, Val Con on the other.

“Now,” he said, “maintaining the security of allies?”

“Quite so, sir. I have heard from Pod 77, which you will recall is located upon Lytaxin, a gift from Korval during the time that Theonna yos’Phelium wore the Ring.”

“I recall that Pod 77 comported . . .” Val Con paused, head tipped slightly to one side. “Jeeves, I must ask your assistance in the matter of the pronoun.”

“The pronoun would be it, sir. A complex machine and, as I believe you were about to observe, sensible of its duty. It is in fact this sensitivity to duty which led it to contact me.

“Firstly, the attack upon Erob’s clanhouse brought it to fuller functionality than it had enjoyed for many years. Its programming prompted it to seek downloads and upgrades, whereupon it was noted that such downloads as might be useful to it were not necessarily compatible with its existing systems. This places its mission, received from the Delm of Korval, in peril and so it sends, rightly, that it requires upgrading.”

Miri blinked. “Do we have an Old Tech repair person on staff?”

The headball flickered in the pattern she thought of as a chuckle.

“It may be that a Scout trained in the preservation and disarming protocols would be able to perform repairs on a fractin-driven device, though such attempts have in the past not been notably successful. Fortunately, though of course Korval has Scouts on call, this is not the problem that faces us. Pod 77 is of much more recent construction. Indeed, as it supplied a complete systems architecture in its report, I am able to say with confidence that it is of a vintage and design with which I am very familiar. I am more than competent to guide Pod 77 in making the needed alterations and upgrades. The delm may wish to dispatch a human repair person to install hard memory expansions. I will know what to recommend after the alterations are in place and tested.”

“This is then . . . a request to proceed with assisting Pod 77?” Val Con asked.

“Pod 77 does require permission from Delm Korval to accept my assistance as the delm’s proxy. I have taken the liberty of sending it Korval’s lineage so that it may derive that the present delm is indeed the successor of the delm who gave it duty.”

“Will a voice stamp do? Or do we need to go back to Lytaxin our own selves?” Miri asked. She flicked a grin at Val Con. “Not sure the kinfolk’d be real happy to have me visiting again so soon.”

“I believe that a certified voice stamp will serve admirably,” Jeeves said. “I will ascertain from Pod 77 whether there are specific command phrases required.”

“Excellent.” Val Con came to his feet. “We thank you for bringing this matter to our—”

“There is one more thing, sir,” Jeeves interrupted delicately.

Val Con paused, and Miri felt a thrill of dread—his, hers, theirs.

“And that is?”

“I have also been contacted by Pod 78. With a request for repair.”

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