“A Visit to the Galaxy Ballroom” by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Scout Lina yo’Bingim inhaled, tasting the sharp, cold air, feeling a phantom flutter against her cheek. She blinked up at the gray sky, at snow—snow! She paid off the cabbie, soft flakes melting against her face.
She liked the fresh smell of the snow, but she had not come here to linger in quiet appreciation on the street. No, her purpose was to have a good time while enthusiastically expending energy.
Scout Lina yo'Bingim, off-duty for the next twenty-four hours, turned away from the curb and walked determinedly toward the building with the message lit up in bright pink and yellow lights:
WELCOME TO THE GALAXY BALLROOM
According to her information, she would find Scouts and pilots and mercenaries inside. She would find dancing, and gaming, and drinking, and—bowli ball.
She had specifically come for the bowli ball.
Inside the bar was everything one might expect of a rowdy emporium on a deep space route: twenty-three kinds of beer and ale instabrewed on the premises; both top-line and bottom-tier liquor, but none in between; and wine in quantity. A modest line of smokes was also on offer for those who sought peace.
Peace was not what Lina had come for.
Ten Standard Days ago, she had been on Liad, and looking forward with warm anticipation to Festival, at Solcintra. It had been a very difficult year; she deserved the Festival and she had intended to take full benefit from all of the festivities open to her.
Nine Standard Days ago, she had been called in to her commander's office—and given a mission.
She was to transport the Council-appointed Administrative Arbiter of Scouts, one Chola as'Barta, to Surebleak in the Daiellen Sector with "all haste." She was detached from her usual duties to this mission; Chola as'Barta her immediate superior and supervisor.
She was assigned Bentokoristo, she being one of six to have trained on it—a new ship sporting a not-quite-experimental enhanced drive and an upgraded weapons system.
That was the sole piece of good news; Bentokoristo was beautiful to fly. But no matter how fast the ship was, she was not fast enough to get to Surebleak and back again in time for the Festival at Solcintra, even if Lina flew like a Scout—which was not, after all, an option.
Admin as'Barta was . . . not a Scout. Lina was therefore constrained to put together a series of Jumps which would get them from Solcintra to Surebleak with a minimum of downtime, and which would not strain the resources of a man who counted five trips to the gaming salons in Liad's orbit as being an experienced space traveler. Admin as'Barta must, the commander insisted, arrive in fit condition, able to immediately embark upon his mission. The Administrator had been appointed to find what had occasioned the schism of the Scouts on Surebleak, creating the foolish situation of two Scout organizations—the Liaden Scouts, and the so-called Surebleak Scouts.
Nine Standard Days, the trip had taken, coddling Admin as'Barta.
For his part, he ignored her advice to move onto Surebleak time before they arrived, and periodically infringed on her rest shifts to try to talk the politics of the fissioning Scouts. He’d asked her why she thought the break had occurred, and her reply—"pilot’s choice"—had satisfied him not at all.
And, there, he wasn't a Scout, he was a Council-appointee, selected for his supposed "connections" in the piloting sphere. It was unlikely he'd known anyone who had died at Nev'Lorn, nor was he aware of the treachery that had led to the battle there.
"But how," he had demanded, as they waited for dinner to warm, "could a Liaden, born and bred to excellence in all things, having achieved a place in life through being a Scout—how could any such person turn their back on Liad and all that Liad offers? Liadens have the advantage of the Code and delms for guidance!"
"The same reason, Admin. A pilot flies the best course they may with the information to hand. A pilot operates in the moment, with the delm light years away and the Code irrelevant to the case."
"Have you found the Code irrelevant on many occasions, pilot?"
He held up a hand, forestalling a reply she had not intended to make.
"Consider your answer carefully. I will be needing an assistant after I am approved as permanent Director of Scout Operations on Surebleak. Once I have spoken to ter'Meulen, and this foolish matter has been regularized, there will be many rewarding administrative tasks available to a discerning Scout who may wish promotion and increased melant'i."
At that point the chime sounded for dinner being hot and ready, and Lina had deftly avoided the topic of promotion to as'Barta's assistant. As to the "foolish matter" of the schism, if it was Clonak ter'Meulen with whom the Admin was to liaise, then the matter would be settled by teatime. One could, if one wished, wonder why the most devious Scout currently serving hadn't fixed the "foolish matter" already, but that was merely a waste of time. Clonak always had his reasons, though they be ever so inobvious.
At last, they had made Surebleak, and she was granted leave—twenty-four hours free of Admin as'Barta!—but not before she had been instructed as to proper behavior even on her own time.
"Do not fraternize with the locals, Scout. Beware of any attempts to make you divulge your mission. I am told that there are places where proper Scouts meet. You will confine yourself to those venues."
Repairing to the small room she had been granted, Lina called up the screen and considered her options.
Given the connection to Clan Korval and their likely inclusion of the vague and detested "locals," she decided not to attempt the Emerald Casino. The entertainments advertised at Audrey's House of Joy tempted, but, again, there would likely be "locals" present.
Best Bowli Ball Court on Surebleak! the next advertisement promised, and Lina grinned. She did consider the "local" angle, but reasoned such an emporium was more likely to attract Scouts than Admin's loose "locals."
Lina therefore called a cab, and very shortly she was entering The Galaxy Ballroom.
She stopped at the counter to buy a ticket—not, alas, a token for a private Festival bower, or a key to an all night playroom—but admission as a contestant in one bout of "real bowli ball action!" which would warm her blood and satisfy her need for action, if not her wistful libido.
She excused her way past several inebriated mercs, one a red-haired master sergeant who briefly thought she’d come for him alone, but then he recognized the jacket and insignia and bowed a polite "Efning, pilot!" at her hopefully. "Come back if you need a winner!"
He’d managed to grab a table and was large enough that it was mostly hidden behind him. "I got two chairs, prezzels, a warm heart—and I just been paid!"
She gathered that he did have a warm heart—her empathy rating was just below that qualifying as a small talent—but she’d been considering a real workout, and soon.
She smiled, and her hand flung an equally polite busy here in his direction as she moved into the darkness, seeking that proper bowli ball deck, with transparent walls and resilient ceiling, an excellent air system, and opponents worthy of her.
A half-dozen languages brushed past her ears; the potent scent of alcohol mixed with the additional odors of many dozens of people exuding sweat and energy in the dimness.
Ahead, she heard a distant thud, and another, a round of cheers and laughter, a high voice calling, "I’ll still take two to one on the blue boots!"
Scout skill to the fore, Lina yo'Bingim slid between two hefty mercs on their sudden way to the john as yes—there!
There were four players on the deck, their time almost up. She stopped to watch the play.
One player stood out. He was doing too many dives to stay in the game much longer; in the mirrored ceiling, she could see him rolling to his feet with an awkward re-step to gain balance. She could tell that he was hurting—it didn’t take her high empathy rating or her training in body language across three cultures to see that.
She pushed forward, the better to see the clock.
Ah, that was the key. He had only seconds to hit his mark . . . and finish, at least.
The ball came at him again; he kneed it roughly, it went higher than his other knee, which had likely not been his intent, but he made a good recovery by striking it with his elbow, the ball’s own kinetics giving it an off-centered boost in the direction of the oldest fellow on the deck, who nonchalantly elbowed it on to a third person who—
The bell rang; the third and fourth in the action dove for the ball together and came up laughing, bobbling the thing back and forth as it tried to spend the energy gained from the last burst of action. The spectators cheered, money changed hands, and the transparent door to the deck was opened as the next players moved forward.
The MC spoke purposefully into the mic, "Next up we have a five-group, came in together, and then . . ."
The player who had overexerted himself stumbled as he left the court, was steadied briefly by another of the combatants with an over-wide grin . . . and collapsed on the spot, nose bleeding.
"I’m a medic," one of the group entering the court yelled, and one of his companions added—"field medics, here, let us through!"
That quickly, the downed player was off the floor, and the next group of players, as well. The Master of Ceremonies looked around, eyes bright, and spoke into the mic.
"Hold up your tickets, show your cards! We'll do a quick single-match to give the next group time to get back!"
Lina’s arm reached high—yellow ticket, solo . . .
The MC saw her, waved her toward the deck door and pointed at another yellow—
"Come on up, pilots! Now or never; we got group play booked 'til after midnight!"
They met on the court, her opponent near her own age, a pilot, and, she saw with pleasure, a Scout. He wore light duty clothes, no rank marks visible, save the wings on his collar; his face was open, and a hint of a smile showing.
He would do, thought Lina, and returned the smile.
"Well, pilot?" she challenged him. "Shall we?"
He took a moment to survey her—she saw his eyes catch on the wings adorning her own collar, before he bowed, Scout to Scout.
"Pilot, we shall!"
"All right!" the MC called. "Let's get the ball rolling! Twelve minute match—what'll it be?" he asked, turning to them. "Liaden training rules, Scout standard rules, open court rules?"
"Scout standard?" she asked her opponent, and got a flicker of fingers in agreement.
"I am Lina," she said, stripping off her jacket and giving it into the MC's ready hand.
"Kelby," he answered, also relinquishing his jacket.
"Check the equipment, Pilots, you got thirty-three seconds."
Kelby received the ball first to check. Lina ran a quick rainbow, for focus, and looked about her.
"Spot!" she called, pointing, as Kelby called out, "Here also!"
The MC waved; a youngster with a mop rushed onto court and dealt with the spot of sweat, and the other, of blood.
"Right!" the MC shouted into his mic. "Up here we got Kelby and Lina, pickup match, twelve minutes, Scout standard!"
The crowd cheered, briefly.
The MC turned to them.
"Any private challenge; any bet between the two of you?"
Kelby looked at her, hands raised, face glowing as if he’d already been playing five minutes . . .
Lina bent forward, as eager as he to get the match started, whispering:
"Loser buys both breakfast?"
A grin showed in brief appreciation; she saw interest in his eyes.
He bowed, formally, accepting the challenge of an equal, and repeated the stakes to the MC, who outright laughed.
"All right, soldiers and pilots! Scouts and citizens! These two know how the game is played! Got a little private bet going—loser buys breakfast for both!"
The cheering this time was fuller, longer; the bell went blangblangblang; the MC slammed the bowli ball into the circle between them, and dove for the safety of the transparent observer's booth.
The deck was better than Lina had anticipated. The floor gave a firm, even footing without being loud; it was resilient rather than bouncy. She and Kelby had almost overrun each other on the launch, but the spin favored Lina. She twisted to catch and flick the busy ball high off a wall behind Kelby.
From within, the walls were slightly smoky and even ball-streaked but her first corner fling proved they were in good condition.
The first several minutes were given to testing—the facility, the ball, each other. The ball was regulation, with a tricky underspin. Every fifth or sixth time it hit, the ball added rather than subtracted and the amplified spin could push it along the wall or out of a grasping hand.
The match being timed rather than one-and-out, they both survived learning the ball’s eccentricities; Lina first when the ball tore itself from her hand to bounce down her wrist and into her chest, much to the delight of the crowd, and Kelby who’d timed a leap-and-grab perfectly, displaying both great style and interesting physique, only to have the ball hang for a half-second longer than anticipated, before flinging itself across the surface of the wall like a hurrying caterpillar.
The bell blanged caution at six minutes; distracted, Kelby had to do a three-hit, elbow, shoulder, palm to get the ball where he wanted it for his next throw. Between them, they'd been upping the tempo, and both still taking time to observe each other's moves and strengths.
Yes, Lina thought; he'll do nicely, as he turned from the recover and threw unexpectedly over his shoulder with his back to her—a good view—nearly rooting her to the spot with the trick move. She deflected the ball with her ankle before it hit the floor, portions of the betting crowd apparently doubtful that she’d managed it, and then had to dive and kick with the other foot, but this was one of her tricks, angling the ball high off the wall, against the ceiling, and onto another wall, the ball underspinning, leaving Kelby little choice but to do a dive of his own and juggle the ball until he mastered the tempo sufficiently to get his footwork back in sync.
"One each, here at the center stage!" called the MC. "Get your bets in, watch the action! Winner gets a free breakfast 'cause the loser’s going to pay! Thrills and chills here—Hey! Didja see that recover?"
Lina took the next throw with her left hand and did a quick launch; Kelby barely had time to catch and do the same. For several moments they traded the ball at throat level—flick, flick, flick—eyes on the ball, the throat, the face, slowly coming closer, faster . . .
Their eyes locked briefly as they trusted the motion, then they began backing away as they continued the same throw and catch at least a dozen more times. He changed it up: took the ball left-handed and swung back and around once before launching vertically so Lina had to move closer to catch it.
It was her turn to vary, her throw bouncing off a sidewall so she could catch it and she did that twice again, moving toward a corner, making him retreat to stay in front of her. Then an underhanded lob toward the leg he’d just raised and …
A roll! He landed hard, snatched the ball, the roll brought him very close before the ball was released, and he used the wall for the save, the angle bouncing the ball from wall to ceiling.
It was the ceiling that almost defeated her; Lina managing to just get to the bounce that extended to the other side of Kelby, who was still rising. The ball was in overdrive. Lina lunged, got a hand on it, and then tangled in Kelby’s legs, the ball bouncing overhead, with the crowd roaring.
Kelby lunged from his spot in the tangle, keeping the ball up and then she did the same, on one knee and then he reached through her arms and swung to keep it higher; the continued nearness a surprise, the joint effort promising.
The crowd was cheering wildly, some counting, and the "four, three, two, one . . ." ended with the blangblangblang of the closing bell.
Lina smothered the ball, hand on her shoulder to keep it still while Kelby’s hand was also on her shoulder and a laughing MC made his way onto the deck . . .
"Looks like we gotta live heat here! Even score! Guess the pilots here'll hafta figure out who pays for breakfast some other way, hey?"
He reached cautiously for the ball, with Kelby and Lina not quite smoothly working it from between them into his hand.
"I tell you what," he said into the mic, working the still merry crowd. "This ball's had quite a workout—it's still buzzing and so am I! Big cheer for Lina and Kelby!"
The crowd obliged as the MC helped the two of them finish detangling, and the mop-up crew came in to make all seemly for the next group.
"You’re good," Lina told Kelby as they hurried out, jackets in hand.
He bowed on the move, hand rising to sign So are you.
"I'm just in today," she said, when they paused by the door to pull on their jackets. "Please, Pilot, lead on!"
Lina returned to port with an hour still to run on her leave. The room she had been assigned was scarcely more than a pilot's ready room: a cot, some shelves, and a screen.
Kelby’s rooms were multiple and tidy, the small kitchen, small bath, and small living area with both a couch and a bed far wider than a cot.
As it came about, she had paid for breakfast at Reski’s, a mere three hundred paces from his rooms—perfectly equitable, as he had paid the taxi, shared his wine and worthy snacks, and not the least, his bed.
This room—well. If she were to be on Surebleak longer than three nights, she would have to find something else.
But that was for later. For now, her condition was considerably improved.
She’d had a romp far better than an impromptu Festival meeting, and had already accumulated a favorite morning cafe, taxi company, and bowli ball court, not to mention having Scout Lieutenant Kelby chel’Vona Clan Nosko’s personal and work comm codes in her pocket.
Came the sound of steps in the hall, followed by imperious knocking and the querulous voice of her direct superior.
"Open now, yo'Bingim!"
For a heartbeat, she considered ignoring the command, her leave with yet an hour to run.
She growled softly and stepped to the door, opening with hairbrush in one hand and in the other, her wings.
Administrator as'Barta stood in the door, a pilot Lina had never seen before behind him—she was not a Scout.
"So you returned after making your contact, did you? I had word that you were off in the wilds beyond the city last night."
Lines of anger bracketed his mouth.
Mastering her own spurt of anger, Lina bowed a brief welcome to her superior, and made no answer regarding her whereabouts while on leave.
"Should you like to come in, Administrator?"
"No, I should not, yo’Bingam. Give me the key cards for our ship—all that are in your possession."
"All," she repeated, unsnapping her pouch even as she turned toward her jacket, hung on the back of a chair.
"You will not need your jacket," as'Barta snapped.
"A pilot keeps keys to hand, sir. You had wanted all in my possession."
She slipped her hand into the discreet inner pocket and removed the first set of keys, and the second set from her pouch. Those she brought to the door, and held toward the Adminstrator, who fell back a step and waved peremptorily at the stranger pilot.
"Pilot sig'Sted receives the keys."
The pilot stepped forward to do so, her eyes averted. Lina frowned at the logo on the breast of her jacket. vee'Mastin Lines, she saw. Adminstrator as'Barta's vaunted "connections with the piloting sphere" included owning half of vee'Mastin Lines.
Lina's fingers tightened on the keys, and she pulled them slightly back.
"I will surrender these to a Scout," she said. "vee'Mastin Lines has no cause to hold the keys to a Scout ship."
"You will surrender those keys when and to whom I direct you!" snarled as'Barta. "Give them to her!"
"No," said Lina, and put both sets of keys into her pouch.
"Insubordination! I will see you stripped of rank, and license."
"I will surrender the keys of a Scout ship to a Scout," Lina returned. "You have hundreds of Scouts at your beck, Administrator. Call one here."
He moved suddenly, surprisingly, kicking at her knee. She jumped back, avoiding the clumsy blow—and the door closed with a snap that meant the outside lock had been engaged.
Lina crossed the room to her screen, and called the duty desk.
"This is Lina yo'Bingam. I need to schedule an appointment with the base commander, immediately," she said.
There was a pause.
"Lina yo'Bingam, you are already on the commander's hearing list," the duty desk officer said. "Administrative Arbiter of Scouts as'Barta has filed a complaint, and placed your license under lock. The hearing is scheduled in two hours. You will be escorted to the meeting room."
Escort had been two Scout security officers. They had checked her weapon, locked it, and allowed her to return it to its place in her jacket. Ship keys were not mentioned; the first set was in her jacket; the second set in her pouch—standard procedure. Lina walked between her escorts calmly, eager to lay the situation out before a Scout, who knew the regs, and who would understand her objection to turning over the keys to a Scout ship to a passenger line pilot.
Her escort triggered the release on a door, and she walked into the conference room between them.
Before her was a conference table. Behind the conference table was Admin as'Barta, a hard-faced Scout captain—and the passenger line pilot to whom she had refused to give Bentokoristo's keys.
There were no chairs on her side of the table.
Lina drew a hard breath.
"Why is there a civilian at this Scout hearing?" she asked.
"It is not your place to ask questions here," snapped Admin as'Barta.
The Scout captain frowned.
"I will answer. It is a reasonable question of protocol, and an unusual situation."
He inclined his head slightly.
"Pilot sig'Sted is Administrator as'Barta's advising pilot. As the difficulties the Administrator has come to solve are Scout-based, it is considered best that the Administrator's team be outside of the Scout hierarchy."
"The disciplinary hearing is now called to order," Admin said briefly. "This procedure is being recorded and will become part of your permanent records."
He glanced down at his tablet and began speaking in her direction without making eye contact. As he spoke he ran his fingers down the tablet, apparently checking tick-boxes as he hit each point.
"Last evening I had dinner with Pilot sig'Sted, a mature pilot well-known to me. Her melant'i is without stain, and I trust her implicitly in all matters of piloting."
Pilot sig'Sted, seated next to him, had the grace to look embarrassed.
Lina put her hands behind her back and broadened her stance, waiting.
"I described to Pilot sig'Sted the irregular and exhausting journey produced by Scout yo'Bingam on my behalf. Pilot sig'Sted gave it as her professional opinion that the pilot in charge had been hasty and foolhardy, had made questionable and potentially dangerous choices of route, and subjected me to unnecessary hardship."
He paused to glance up, but did not meet Lina's eyes.
"Based on this information, I immediately moved to have Scout yo'Bingim's license revoked until she has taken remedial piloting classes and re-certifies at every level."
Lina looked at the Scout Captain.
He avoided her eyes.
"I am," she said, "a Scout pilot. That is the equivalent of a master pilot. I—"
"You do yourself no good by being uncooperative," Admin as'Barta stated.
The Scout Captain said nothing.
Lina bit her lip.
"In addition to her piloting errors, and willful disrespect for my person, my melant'i, and my office, it has become clear that Lina yo'Bingim is an agent of the false Scouts. No sooner had we landed, she filed for leave, and met with an agent attached to command structure of the very group which I am here to correct and bring back into alignment with the proper Liaden Scouts.
"In short, Lina yo'Bingim is working against my office, my mission, and myself. She is working to undermine and destroy the Liaden Scouts! Revoking her license to fly scarcely begins to address the problem. She must be struck from the lists of Liaden Scouts. In this she will finally serve my office and my mission, by standing as an example of what happens to those who work against the proper order and the Code."
"Scout Captain—" Lina began.
"Be silent," Admin as'Barta snapped.
She glared at him, felt her escort shift closer from the sides, and closed her eyes briefly, accessing the rainbow, for calmness.
"You may retain your place in the Scouts, though at a much reduced rank," Admin as'Barta said, then. "Tell me what information you shared with this agent of the schismatic officer ter'Meulen."
She took a breath.
"He named his ship; I named mine. We shared our class years and first flight dates. We counted the bruises we had from the bowli ball match we had played, and laughed because there, too, we had tied. I did not tell him the name of my superior; he did not tell me the name of his, though ter'Meulen—"
She looked again to the Scout Captain, who did not meet her eye.
"ter'Meulen," she continued, facing the admin again, "was head of pilot security for the Scouts—for the Liaden Scouts—for decades. He is no enemy of yours. If it is ter'Meulen who has authored this breach, then you must look for the fault in our own ranks."
Admin as'Barta sat back, satisfied. He turned to the Scout Captain.
"You hear her. She must be cast out."
"Yes," the Scout Captain said. "I hear her. The paperwork will be completed this afternoon."
"Captain," Lina said urgently. "The keys to the Scout ship I piloted here—Bentokoristo. There are only six trained to fly her . . ."
"That is no longer your concern, Lina yo'Bingim," he told her, and held out his hand.
"The keys, if you please."
Relief almost undid her. At least, in this, he would be proper. The Scout ship would be relinquished to a Scout.
She reached into her jacket, into her pouch, approached the table and placed the keys in his hand.
"Escort, take Lina yo'Bingim to her quarters. Hold yourselves ready to escort her out of this facility, once the paperwork is complete. Dismissed."
She was a Scout; everything she needed or wanted was in her jacket. Her license . . . she drew it out, slid it into the slot—and caught it when it was forcibly spat out—rejected.
Thoughtfully, she considered Admin as'Barta, the Council of Clans, and the assumptions surrounding this mission to re-unite the Scouts.
She then considered Clonak ter'Meulen, whom she had known, slightly. A Scout sublime, Clonak ter'Meulen, and one who cared for his pilots above all other things.
What could have happened, to make Clonak ter'Meulen break away from the Scouts he had loved?
The door to her cubicle opened. Her escort said, "It is time."
They handed her a stick—her records, they said. They walked her to the door, and outside, into the port. They left her standing on cold 'crete at the edge of the street, and went back inside.
Lina yo'Bingim inhaled sharply, tasting the sharp, cold air, feeling the phantom flutter of a snowflake against her cheek.
Across the way, she saw the bright green of a call-box. She crossed to it, fingering the slip of paper with Kelby chel'Vona's numbers on it out of her belt.
He answered at once, sounding pleased to hear from her so soon.
"I find we have an acquaintance in common," she said, after they had been pleased with each other. "Clonak ter'Meulen."
"Yes, of course. Everyone knows Clonak, so I've always heard it."
"I, too," she said. "He never let a pilot reside in peril. I wonder if you could bring me to him?"
"One of the things I recall Clonak saying—his fondness for Terran quotations, you know. He had used to quite often say that it’s better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.
"I want to talk to him about becoming part of the solution."
Copyright © 2019 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
This story is set within Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe® series, and within the timeline of December Liaden novel Accepting the Lance. Maine-based Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have written dozens of short stories and twenty plus novels, most set in their star-spanning Liaden Universe®. Before the husband-and-wife team settled down to the serene and stable life of science fiction and fantasy writers, Steve was a traveling poet, a rock-band reviewer, reporter, and editor of a string of community newspapers. Sharon, less adventurous, has been an advertising copywriter, copy editor on night-side news at a small city newspaper, reporter, photographer, and book reviewer. Both credit their newspaper experiences with teaching them the finer points of collaboration. Steve and Sharon maintain a web presence at korval.com.