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Surebleak Spaceport

The last time Miri Robertson was on Surebleak Port, she’d been fourteen Standards old, newly recruited to Lizardi’s Lunatics mercenary unit as a ’prentice soldier. On hearing that the only palaver she had was Terran—and Surebleak Terran, at that—Commander Lizardi had hauled her over to the port Learning Shop. Inside, Liz paid the fee, and Miri was tucked into a sleeper unit to fast-learn Trade.

Damn near killed her. Faulty equipment, that’s what she found out later. After she’d spent years thinking she was defective, because only defectives can’t take sleep-learning.

She never intended to come back to Surebleak, once she got free of it, but she’d remembered the address of that Learning Shop. Just in case.

“Planetary Cooperative,” she read the words off the bright green-and-white sign, the feeling of not being exactly where she thought she was that had been building since they’d landed going up another notch.

“Pat Rin did say that the Bosses had made the port a priority,” Val Con murmured.

Miri sighed. “He did, but—Boss, you got no idea what this place was like. Just walking through to board ship left you wanting a shower. Case like that, better’s got a lot of wiggle room.”

Val Con laughed softly. “Yes, but Pat Rin knows what a proper port is.”

He glanced to either side, taking in the juice bar to the left of the co-op, half a dozen customers on stools in front of it, and the greens market to the right.

“It is,” he said, looking back to her, “a good beginning.”

“Expect him to keep on with it, do you? Bigger, better, more?” Like the man didn’t have enough to do, what with running the whole rest of the planet.

“If this is to be our home port, more changes are inevitable.” Val Con swept out a hand on which Korval’s Ring glittered, showing her the tidy little street. “The yards alone will generate change—not to consider the warehousing required by a major tradeship such as Dutiful Passage.”

And the Passage wasn’t the only tradeship Korval owned—or owned in part. Miri’d been studying the books, in between the details of packing up to leave, and had come to be grateful that it fell to Ms. dea’Gauss to keep the count of ships, cantra, and cats.

“But,” her lifemate continued, “Pat Rin will not be required to spend all of his energies on the port. Many hands make the work light, as my foster-mother used to say. And we will, you know, shortly have many hands—most of them belonging to people who will want and need work.”

“Right.” Korval had pledges from pilots, from scouts, from affiliated and allied Houses, from—hell, it seemed like most of Liad was coming with them. Not all right at first, granted. Clan Korval and its absolute necessaries were more than enough to bring onto Surebleak at one time.

And what Surebleak would make of them . . .

Miri spun on a heel, taking in the scene. There were a good number of pedestrians about for this early in the day, not all of ’em spacers. Delivery people wove in and out of the busy crowd, pushing hand trucks and pulling wagons; shopkeepers called out to this one or that, easy and friendly. The shops were inviting, with wide, clean display windows; sharp with new paint. The tarmac had been patched and leveled—it even looked like it’d been swept sometime within the last couple days.

She shook her head, shivering as the breeze quickened. The weather at least was the same—bitter cold.

Though they were going to be changing that, too.

Miri looked to Val Con, remembering the reason they were here. “We’re early for the car, and it looks like we’ve mostly toured what there is to tour. You wanna hang around the portmaster’s office for a couple hours, or does something else look interesting?”

“Shall we stop at the Emerald Casino?” he asked. “I’ve heard that it’s top-flight.”

Pat Rin yos’Phelium—Boss Conrad, according to Surebleak—had been a pro gamer and a high roller in his former life. Remembering that, it made sense that he’d open a casino as his personal bit toward bringing the port up to “proper.”

“Top-flight, is it?” She looked down at her leathers, then back to Val Con’s grin. “Think they’ll let us in?”

“If not the front door,” he said, offering his arm, “then the back.”

- - - - -

The screens were grey, the countdown to Jump-exit running quietly in the lower right-hand corner of Number One. Inside the next eight Standard Hours she’d raise a world called Denko. She was to set down on the reserved hotpad, open the supply chute and wait exactly two Standard Hours. If all went as it should, during that brief time a plastic envelope would come up the conveyer, pass through the Toss’s automated security and arrive in the supplies locker, from which Theo was to convey it, unopened, to the safe, and lock it in.

If it happened that a packet did not arrive in this decidedly odd fashion, she was not to wait, but to lift according to the schedule filed with Denkoport Tower and proceed to Gondola.

In the pilot’s chair, Theo finished her snack and her tea and wondered if courier pilots ever died of curiosity.

On the other hand, it was probably better that she didn’t know what she was carrying. She rose and moved toward the galley. Ignorance was protection, sort of, in case she pulled a Guild inspection—which would only happen if somebody filed against Uncle—or, worse, if the Federated Trade Commission drew the Toss in a random pool. Not that the FTC targeted Guild pilots, exactly, but the stats showed higher fees and more “violations” filed against Guild, when they were stopped.

Theo put her teacup into the washer, and moved out into the bridge. In the wide space between the galley’s door and the pilots’ chairs, she danced a compact and neat dance she’d learned from one of Primadonna’s archived Fun and Education programs. The dance was designed to work key muscle groups and offset the effects of long hours at the board.

Though it was a small dance, it required significant concentration, which was the other thing Theo liked about it. By the time she’d gone through the phrases and come to a rest, her mind felt like it had been stretched, too.

Moving lightly, she went to the copilot’s chair, where she’d set up her personal comm, and accessed Kamele’s letter again.

Jen Sar has disappeared in midsemester, without notice to me or to the Administration, on his off day before mid-tests. The only clue I can gather is of a small and dilapidated spaceship long unflown, departing Delgado the same day, from an airfield within easy drive, flown by one of his description. His car, keys on seat, fishing gear in place, sat in an assigned spot there. The spaceship, so station informs me, is not in Delgado space.

Within a day of his departure, I discover that the house on Leafydale Place, all possessions, and especially the cats, are gifts to me. I continue the tea run, with fading hopes. I felt that you must be told, and can only hope your connections with your father are not as fully disrupted as my own.

Right. Theo ticked the points off on her fingers:

1. Jen Sar left

a. suddenly

b. without a word to anyone

2. Departure via a spaceship nobody knew he owned

3. All of his possessions—house, car, cats—were now Kamele’s

4. Subtext: Theo, if you know where your father is, please tell me that he’s safe.

Father’s story about his previous arrangement with . . . with Scholar Caylon, and his Balance—that was interesting, and merited both thought and fact-checking. It was even possible—no, he definitely owed Kamele the truth he had given Theo, and an apology, and whatever else that was due a relationship that covered so many years, and so many memories.

But that was Father’s debt to Kamele, not Theo’s.

She—well, she’d seen Father, and he was safe.

That was a truth that a daughter could—and should—share with her mother.

She’d make sure—she’d make time—to stop at a Guild Hall the next time she was at a port, and she’d send a message to her mother. The truth, no more nor less.

- - - - -

He’d opened his table up just in time, Villy thought, watching the man and the red-haired woman. They were space-pilots, you could tell by the leather jackets. The man was a little taller than the woman, and neither one a heavyweight, though she had something in the oven, like his gran used to say. They were kind of cute, Villy thought, and visibly happy with each other, holding hands and talking low between themselves. The man seemed to be trying to convince her to try the sticks. For a second, it looked like she was gonna walk away, then she laughed and shrugged, and the two of ’em came up to the table.

“What odds?” the man asked in a soft mannerly voice that reminded Villy of Boss Conrad, sorta.

“Evens for a twelve-fall, House sets the sticks. Buy the bundle for twenty-four cash, House pays double for every stick that makes it to the cloth; twelve times the total if all twenty-four are liberated. No rollers, no double-flipping, no spotting.” He didn’t have to think about the patter, which gave him time to size up his patrons. A certain kind of pilot seemed to think the sticks were gonna be easy, on account of them being so fast. But the sticks just weren’t about fast, they were about thinking and strategy, and—Boss Conrad said—luck.

The woman was watching, interested, but willing to let the man take the lead. The man . . . he did remind Villy of Boss Conrad. Not so much that they looked alike, but that they seemed alike. Almost like the man had been studying the Boss’s ways, or—

“The bundle, please,” he said, dropping tokens onto the game surface with his right hand. He glanced to the woman. “Cha’trez, will you play?”

“Me?” She laughed. “I’m gonna stand back and let you show me how it’s done.”

“That’s put me on my mettle.”

She grinned and went one step back, giving him elbow room. Villy swept up the tokens and reached into his drawer, bringing out the bundle with a flourish, holding it so the patron could see the seal, numbered and signed by the floor boss.

“Excellent.” The man extended his left hand.

The glitter of a ring drew Villy’s eye; he gasped—he couldn’t help it, not with this guy wearing the Boss’s own ring.

“Wait—” the man said, raising both hands to show himself harmless, but it was the Boss’s ring; Villy’d seen it enough times, and if this guy had Boss Conrad’s ring that meant, it meant—and besides, his foot had already hit the panic button on the floor under his counter.

Security came fast—two big guys from Boss Vine’s territory, vests back to show their motivators.

“What’s up?” the biggest one—Jeremy, his name was—asked.

Villy swallowed, and nodded at the man, who was watching him with calm green eyes. “He’s got Boss Conrad’s ring.”

“Yeah? Turn around, the both of you. Slow.”

- - - - -

Daav yos’Phelium carried a cup of tea out of the galley, glancing at the countdown and comparing it with the timeline in his head. Yes. They would sleep in-House tonight.

Sighing, he relaxed into the copilot’s chair, deliberately boneless, and closed his eyes.


Yes, van’chela?

Having taken the decision to ask the question, now he hesitated. And yet, who better to ask for news of the discorporate than the dead?

“I seem to have . . . become disconnected,” he said slowly, which was one way to describe the feeling of absence inside his head. “And I wonder if you know, van’chela, where Kiladi has gone to.”

Silence was his answer; so long a silence that he began to think he would have no other.

Aelliana sighed in his ear, her breath ruffling his hair, so he would swear. He felt the weight of her arms around his neck and her cheek, soft against his. He took a careful breath and did not, most assuredly did not, open his eyes.

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice somber. “I fear . . . Daav, I very much fear that he has been lost.”

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