Zara – episode 2

Another couple of chapters, and I did some polishing on the first two, so here they all are together.

I’ve never written romance before (‘We can tell’ the shouts come in from the back).

Have I made it too much of an adventure to start with? Is it too technical, or not technical enough? Is the tech stuff that’s there easy to follow? Am I drawing pictures in your head? Have I held off what’s happened on the planet too long? Am I being too coy about the role of Dancing Mistress? Are you in Zara’s head? In her corner?

I hope you enjoy….

Your comments welcome as always.

Chapter 1

 

You are nothing without me. Nothing! It will serve you best to remember that.

My grandfather shouting, looming over me. Terrifying man, utterly terrifying. Strong and confident adults were afraid of him, let alone a fifteen-year-old slip of a girl as I was at the time. Those wild eyebrows over the cold, piercing eyes. That cruel mouth, and the voice that issued from it; born to command. The way he carried tension in his body, as if it could break out into violence at any second.

…remember that.

I remember. He’d spoken those words standing in front of the panoramic window in his study.

That window looked over the formal manor gardens, past the ornamental lake and down into the stretching crop fields below. There were misty woods in the far distance. No inch of ground that he saw from that window was not under his ownership. The manor itself bore his Name.

You are nothing…

Quivering in fear, I had stubbornly refused to believe it then.

The arrogance of untried youth. I’d put a lot of faith in the weight of history that lay on the manor and estates. Even later, as I began to see the troubles that he’d long known, I refused to believe.

Nothing!

The weight of history, I’d thought, though I’d not dared not speak.

But history has no weight, and forms no shield. History is simply a long time to collect enemies.

…without me.

And I am without him now. He is dead, murdered by exactly the enemies he warned me about, not six years after that lecture in his study.

The large counter at the front of the room clicks loudly. Everyone’s eyes jerk up, even though we know the number displayed is one more than the last number, and we all know what number we hold in our sweaty hands.

The last woman who’d entered the office at the front hadn’t come back. She’d gone out another way, gone through. They’d let her through.

As a distraction, I try to call her to mind. Young, tall, thin, short blonde hair, serious look. Nervous, but then all of us are. Who is she? A student perhaps, hoping to join some distant university off-world? A course unavailable here?

I don’t know. All I really know about her is she has been let through; that she’s getting off this planet.

Would I trade places with her? Without even knowing who she is and where she’s going?

She didn’t look stupid; she wouldn’t trade with me, even if it were possible, not for all my ‘privileges’ and ‘history’.

And neither would I trade with her.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile! Your pride will slow you, and then the hounds will drag you down into the dirt where you will die. I imagine my grandfather’s anger at my refusal to trade places with the student, spitting out the kind of hunting metaphor he always used.

In a strange way, it is comforting to imagine him still here, still angry at me.

The man whose number is displayed on the counter is walking to the front with a display of confidence. But I can see the sweat staining his shirt, and he surreptitiously wipes his hand on his trousers before he opens the door.

What? Does he think the official’s going to shake his hand?

I try to sneer, to show how confident I am. It doesn’t work, and no one is watching. Everyone is wrapped in their own world of misery and uncertainty.

I concentrate on my breathing. It’s not impossible that they have biometric monitors in the office. Everyone who goes in is nervous, even those that have no reason to be, but too much might seem suspicious.

The officials are suspicious of everyone; it’s their job. I must do nothing that increases that suspicion. It is, absolutely literally, a matter of life or death for me.

It would probably be more calming to distract myself by talking to the people sitting around me, but my throat feels paralyzed.

My number will be next.

The man comes stumbling back out of the office, his face a picture of confusion and shattered hopes. Rejected.

I tense.

Wait for it. Wait.

The counter clicks and I stand, walk on suddenly clumsy legs to toward the office door.

Now.

Now will you trade with that student?

No.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile!

 

The room is bright, cold, impersonal. No pictures, no windows. A table. A chair on either side. A woman sitting facing me. A pad in front of her, slightly tilted so I can’t see what’s on the screen.

Without being told to, I sit.

I curse myself silently, almost standing up again. I should have waited to be told. This woman has power over me. What if she feels I’ve been rude? What is the etiquette for such situations? I should know.

But she’s doesn’t care. She’s looking down at the pad. Stabbing the screen. Presumably still dismissing the last man from the list of applicants to get off-world.

Then…

“Name?” she says. Her fingers poise over the pad like poisonous spiders in ambush-stillness.

“Izarra Azenari,” I say, and spell it out. My throat is dry. I want to drink some water, but there is none in the room.

The woman taps her pad.

It’s not my name, obviously. I have shed my Name, and put aside my history because those things will kill me.

See; I am nothing, Grandfather.

I present my ID. It’s a genuine ID in the name of one Izarra Azenari, recent graduate, provisionally employed, and it’s from the real government department that issues IDs. It’s not a fake, and yet it is – Izarra, or Zara as she would be to her non-existent friends, is a fabrication with a real ID.

The picture is me, even if it shocks me to see it. Short, unstyled black hair in the common fashion. Tilting green eyes and outdoor skin that hints at the scrambled ethnic history behind the Name which I must now deny.

I recall seeing the photo for the first time, when the artist had finished manipulating it: removing the elaborate hairstyle, making the skin paler, the freckles more noticeable. I will never look like that I’d thought.

And here I am, recognizably the face on the ID, thanks to scissors and creams.

The ID with its embedded photo is a precaution from six months ago, when my Name was still my own and my money could still buy a ‘genuine’ identity document.

Grandfather didn’t know I bought it. I was still arguing to his face, too proud to concede.

And now, my famous Name and position, all my unbending arguments and pride, all my supposed privilege and history, everything has been subsumed and exchanged for that little card.

She passes it across the scanning contact on the pad.

And now I find out if my family’s enemies were watching me even then. I paid the clerk who made the documents, and I paid him well, but there was nothing I could do to stop him giving or selling the name of Izarra Azenari to others once I left him.

Such betrayals have dragged the rest of my family into the dirt and killed them. Every single one of them.

I wait for the woman’s eyes to rise back up to mine, an alarm to be sounded, and my life to end.

 

Chapter 2

 

The woman’s eyes remain on the screen.

“Reason for requesting permit to leave?” she says mechanically.

“Employment offer,” I reply.

She flicks her fingers impatiently, and I hand over the employment chip card. This one is genuine. I have an offer of employment off-world. All I need to do is to get to where the job is.

She slides the card across the scanner and places it neatly on the table beside my ID. She does not give them back to me.

Her eyes come up, and she’s frowning at what she’s seen on the screen.

“Dancing Master?”

“Dancing Mistress.”

Inter-system, faster-than-light communications are at a premium. Governments and commercial combines, the militaries, and other pan-system or federated organizations take the lion’s share of bandwidth. A private individual seeking employment off-world submits her messages to a server which bids for tiny gaps of opportunity in the data stream, and she pays for every word, every character. With words at such a cost, work description is reduced to a four character code which does not bother to differentiate on gender.

I bite my tongue, swallowing my retort about the official’s parentage, eyesight, intelligence and likely prospects.

I must remember, I am nothing.

I do not want to call attention to the job, because there’s a code within the code; another layer of deception. The definition of the role of Dancing Master/Mistress in the code frame is not the true definition of the job.

Something like that is known among the Names. I beg the stars that it is not known to this bureaucrat who has such power over me.

All for nothing if I do not get off this planet.

“Clearly, a poor choice of career,” the woman says.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She means that it’s a poor choice because it has led to my seeking employment off-world. Every world out here on the Margin clings its peoples. There are worlds where the population has fallen below the critical point; they remain only as salutary reminders to the rest.

But staying on this world means death for me. My family’s enemies have already claimed the estates. My re-appearance would be inconvenient for them, and an irritation that would be remedied swiftly by a fatal accident, regardless of whether the government arrests me for my fake ID and the slew of bogus charges in the meantime.

So much for history. So much for a Founding Family Name.

“There are opportunities here outside of your chosen career path,” the woman says.

Yes, there are always opportunities. There are thousands of jobs, mostly without prospects, but many of them are well paid. They’re traps. The planetary government is lavish with its currency, because you can only spend it here. Do well and attract a life partner. Have children. Put roots down. That’s their plan for you.

Not my choice, and anyway irrelevant to me. Some unforeseen event would reveal my fake ID, or I’d be recognized and dead shortly afterwards.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I say meekly. “I’ve come to realize that, but I thought I’d give my choice one last try.”

She looks at me with distrustful eyes. Perhaps I’m being too polite.

“What does it entail?” she says. “Dancing instruction? Is that any kind of job?”

Officials can refuse your permit to leave for any reason, including disapproval of the employment you’ve been offered elsewhere.

“It’s just the old title for the position. The Dancing Mistress is privately employed by a family to provide a finishing education for the female children of the family.” I spoke carefully, as if quoting from a book. I was. “Yes, formal dancing is included, as are deportment, etiquette, social graces, estate and household management. The Dancing Mistress also provides the services of a chaperone and confidant as needed.”

The woman grunts, unimpressed. “Anything else?”

“Sports, of specific, approved types,” I say primly.

I don’t list them. They vary from place to place, family to family. They include sailing, swimming, tennis, horse riding and fencing. So much for the official list. I must not think of the unofficial list, in case some suggestion of it appears on my face.

“You’re fully qualified for all of this?”

“Not exactly.” I bow my head as if to hide a blush. “I was also honest that it would be my first position. I believe the offer I have reflects that inexperience and lack of full qualifications.”

She grunts again, and surprises me by leaning forward, her elbows on the table. She makes eye contact, softens her voice deliberately.

“Look, Izarra, why chance it all? This job takes you deep into the Inner Worlds. The Inner Worlds. You know, they’re not like us, back there. They’ve no sense of honor. They are decadent, without the ethical backbone that makes the Margin such a fine place to live.”

“Ma’am,” I respond. Polite, without agreeing or disagreeing.

“This wealthy family might decide you’re not right for the job,” she continues. “They could discard you, leaving you penniless, without support and far from your home. That’s even before we get into the possibility that the job has been taken when you reach there. And this world you want to go to,” she glances down at her pad before locking her gaze back onto me, “Amethys. What do you truly know of it? There are planets in the Inner Worlds which are industrial nightmares, where you can’t even breathe the air without filters, where they tax the air. Whereas here, on Newyan, your home world, among people you know and trust…” she spreads her hands to encompass everything I will give up.

Her point about the possibility of losing the job if I’m delayed is valid. It’s a provisional offer with no guarantee that other offers have not been made. Similarly with the security of the position. I could fail and be out of a job the same day I take it up. That’s the level of desperation my search arrived at before I found this advertisement.

As for the rest of her arguments, well, on a personal level, the honor and ethics displayed toward my family here suggest I can’t find a lower level elsewhere, however hard I try. I will not use the name of the planet, the name the Founding Families chose. It hurts too much. It means promise, and that promise has been broken.

She’s not to know all that. In her eyes, she’s made good arguments. Given me sound and sensible advice.

My grandfather made good arguments, too. Perhaps ones I should have heeded.

But both their arguments are two sides of the same coin.

Grandfather wanted me to form alliances with stronger, more politically secure Names, to protect us against the attacks he saw coming. To form those alliances, all I would need to do was marry one of the eligible bachelor sons, and cement the union by producing more sons like a conveyor belt.

“It’s not like we’re some Frontier world,” the official says, pulling my attention back to where it should be. “I know you have college education, but that’s not a problem with all men. Some of them quite like it, you know.”

How kind of them.

I will pull my fingernails out, one by one, without anesthetic, before I’m allowed, allowed to have an education or an opinion by a husband she considers suitable for me.

And from a completely different section of society, that was exactly the problem I had with my grandfather’s plans. The Founders must be turning in their graves to contemplate the spineless, opinionated, ill-educated, arrogant fops that their descendants—

“It seems to me, that your intended career is really just a way of teaching young women how to be more marriageable in their society. Now that’s a skill we could value here.”

She’s changed tack. My reactions must be showing on my face.

I clear my throat. “There is the…the social opportunity of my position,” I say, and shift my weight on the chair as if uncomfortable. “I might be fortunate, and better myself.”

I lower my face again, pretending a shame I do not feel, because there is no way, no way that I will be using this job to claw my way back up the social ladder. I will not return to a point where I attract enemies such as my Name attracted here.

And no marriage. All my fingernails, and all my toenails. Without anesthetic. Stars witness my oath.

The point of telling this lie is that the official understands the mercenary motivation. She thinks I’m looking to snare myself a rich husband, or become a kept woman. Earning my living on my back one way or another. Grunting in childbirth or grunting to convince some sweaty oaf he’s a rampant sex god.

No.

Not here on this world, and certainly not where I’m heading.

If she lets me go.

I have plummeted in her opinion, but I don’t care about that. I want her to think this world would be better rid of me, and the sooner the better.

It may be working. She stops trying to engage me. The voice goes back to brusque, all-business tones.

“Assets.” She flicks her fingers again.

I hand over the last data card and she wipes it over the scanner, then places it next to the others.

Her hands poise and then tap-dance across the screen.

It takes an age.

“Well,” she says finally. “If you’re convinced you know your mind.”

“I do, Ma’am.”

She makes a last entry, then she hands the cards back, one by one.

“Your ID, updated to show an exit permit. The ID is keyed to allow admission to the secure departure area for passengers, and remains your prime form of identification in transit off this world. Identification requirements for any worlds you visit are solely your responsibility.”

The second card.

“Your employment card, updated to show off-world.”

She gives a satisfied little toss of her head as she hands the last one back.

“Your asset card. The goods you have declared to be shipped off-world have attracted the statutory 35% export tax applicable for miscellanea. The passenger ticket, which auto-confirmed on the change of status on your exit permit application, has attracted 40% emigration tax. Those charges have been debited. I have allowed 250 credits to remain on your balance, and marked that sum as permitted to be exchanged for pan-system credits to cover your incidental travel expenses. In compliance with Emigration Credit Regulation 403, section 5, all other assets are subsumed into the Emigration Holding Fund. You may apply for a return of those assets, should you decide to return to this world, such application to be made at any suitable Bureau of Immigration office.”

I can see that I have ceased to exist for her.

I take the cards and walk numbly through the door behind her.

They’ve stripped me of nearly everything. 250 local credits converted to pan-system credits won’t pay for my food on the journey.

But my equipment is cleared. I’m cleared. I have half an hour to board and I don’t care what they’ve taken from me. I’m leaving.

Interrogating the asset card gives me the shuttle bay of the ship that picked up my ticket bid, and a warning that loading will commence momentarily.

It’s all I can do not to run down the corridor to the passenger boarding zone. That would not be dignified behavior for a Dancing Mistress, whatever her true and secret role out there among the Names of the Inner Worlds.

 

Chapter 3

 

“First time?”

Turns out escaping the Emigration office isn’t the end of questions and lies.

A man in a merchanter uniform is hustling people aboard the shuttle already, reading ID cards and asking questions I can’t answer truthfully.

“Yes. First time. Really nervous.” I put in a little quaver and flap my hands a bit, hating myself.

It works. He goes into protective mode. I’m seated up near the front, and as I clearly can’t even manage to log into the seat’s infotainment pad, he taps it with his override card and logs in for me.

As soon as I can, I will find a Universal Temple and chant prayers to atone for all the lies, banging my head on the floor if that’s what the priests advise.

And then I should find a Shrine to the Goddess and tear my flesh for every time on this escape that I have helped perpetuate that stupid, helpless, nervous female stereotype.

My humor is getting as dark as my worldview. I’m going to have to ditch that and my current attitude before I start work on Amethys.

We’re still connected to the world’s InfoHub, so the infotainment pad has endless channels of the local low-budget shows and dramas. There are news channels as well. I’ll get back to them. At the moment, I skip past everything and go straight to the ship’s information channel, flicking down through the menus to get the real skinny.

She’s called the Shohwa. New, barely five Terran years old. Latest inter-system freighter design out of the Xian Hegemony. She’s a gleaming spine two thousand meters long, surrounded by modular, multi-functional racking systems, capable of storing blah, blah. Drill down. Flexible envelope of operations, blah, blah, more advertising. I drill down again, looking for the engineering specifications.

It’s too late to recall my bid and I really need to be off this planet, but I want to know how much risk I’m going to be exposed to as a result of the way I’ve had to purchase my ticket.

I’ve heard that, on the Inner Worlds, they run scheduled services between planets. Out here, in the vast expanses of the Margin and the Frontier, if you can’t afford your own inter-system ship, and you’re in a hurry, the only option is to log onto a travel broking system and set up an automated bid for a passage.

It’s a gamble. You can end up with just about anything. One of the infrequent passenger liners with unexpectedly free cabins, a chartered ship desperate to fill the last passenger bunks, a top-line freighter filling unused cargo capacity, a tramp freighter looking for unskilled crew, all the way down to the manifestly inadvisable and vague ‘passage in exchange for services’.

I’d gotten lucky with the Shohwa. Maybe. Maybe. Something just felt out of kilter.

I’d bid for what I could afford which put all the options with passenger liners out of the question. It looked as if I’d got the next best possible result, a good freighter, but I’m increasingly wary of anything that could be described as good luck.

Another two levels down into the information and I’m finally into top-line engineering description.

Triple redundancy systems for the FTL jump. Triple?

Historical jump navigational accuracy is showing to within minute fractions of a percent, with each jump actually appearing in the table. Show offs.

In-system propulsion rated at 30 ms² and acceleration compensators. They need the compensators for the load hauling capacity and flexibility, I guess.

‘Estate management’ covers a great deal. Grandfather had insisted I supervise an entire cycle of the estate’s business. I was no expert, but over a year, I’d had to learn about soil nutrients, field preparation, planting, reaping and storage. Then I’d shadowed a cousin on the floor of the Bourse, forced to stand with my hands behind my back as trading was done with hand signals, shouts and nods, where that final nod committed our estate produce to a price and delivery contract, as firm as a book full of legal phrases. And, thanks to my grandfather, I’d shipped with that cargo to its destination on another planet. When the last container had been emptied, I was the one, alone, the representative of my family, that stood tall and shook hands with the customer to confirm the deal had been met in all particulars. I’d never told Grandfather how incredibly proud that made me, and now I never would.

I hope he knew.

But all that means I know about freighters. About haul capacities, and the economics of risk and return.

The Shohwa doesn’t look like a freighter under the skin.

Eight interlocking Chang generators and triple phase Suidao FTL engines?

That’s military grade equipment.

Oh, crap. I’ve leaped out of the frying pan, but what kind of fire have I landed in?

The engineering detail runs out. I work my way back up through the menus and try and find where the Shohwa has visited, but that’s not logged. The distances are shown as part of the promotional bit about how good their navigational systems are. There’s nothing there that looks alarming: they seem to be inter-system jumps between the Hegemony, the Inner Worlds and the Margin. Nothing to suggest the Shohwa trades in dark depths of the Frontier.

They would hardly advertise that, would they?

The goods are only mentioned in terms of how diverse the shipments that they’ve carried are. Again, no obvious red flags like ‘heavy agricultural equipment’, which all too often means weapons.

Costs?

I follow the links. Actual costs would normally be settled in the Bourse, but indications are given. They’re on a rough par with what my cousins arranged for shipment of our produce. Slightly more expensive, but the Shohwa is trading on its speed and reliability. Nothing there to increase my suspicions.

Crew?

And here again it gets strange. There’s no mention of the flight crew or officers. All the details are about Cargo Management Teams and Dockside Controllers and Handlers and Environmental Specialists. They’re all labelled staff.

Why isn’t there at least a captain’s name?

Passengers? Accommodation?

Down in a sub-menu. Clearly not the priority in the operation of the Shohwa. A half-dozen private cabins, but those aren’t in reach of the travel bid I put up on the clearing board. I’ve got a bunk in a shared room with four others. Mixed.

I can survive narrow bunks and being cramped for space with men.

Don’t I sound tough?

The shuttle’s doors are closed and sealed. My ears pop. A vibration builds up, and I can feel the heavy clunks as the shuttle is re-oriented by the bay handling gantries.

I look around the cabin at the other passengers.

I guess there are seventeen, sharply different from the Shohwa staff. There’s nothing defining about them—they’re just a group of travelers of mixed age, race, gender and current fortunes.

Not what you’d expect if the Shohwa wanted to press-gang crew, or sell passengers to slavers out in the deep.

I shudder. I paid way too much attention to holovid dramas in my teen years.

The boarding officer buckles in beside me.

“Feeling better?” he says brightly.

“Oh, yes, just sitting down and browsing made everything feel more normal again. It’s silly. I mean, this is just routine for you, isn’t it?”

I give him a little eye flutter in case I decide to pump him for information later.

It’s too much of a risk now. I can’t afford to attract attention by asking too many questions. Of course they aren’t going to sell me into slavery on some desperate Frontier world. Of course. Rationally, it’s a lot more dangerous to attract attention to myself and have questions asked about who I really am. So I shut up.

He can also see what I’m browsing, and I head back up into the news channels.

I pull up the overview pages and scan down the main items.

‘Advances made in securing assets of mega-corruption enquiry’. They’ve seized more estates. Some property has even been surrendered in an attempt to prevent what had been done to my family. Making an example of us had clearly worked; the other Founding Families are panicked. Or they’re exempt because they’re part of the plot.

The boarding officer glances over and I flick past the article, pretend to read something about a holovid star instead.

When he gets bored and looks away, I return to the news overview screen and I see more confirmation tucked away in a corner among the ‘Other headlines’. Last week the strapline was ‘Fears for safety of missing heiress’. This week it’s ‘Heiress wanted in connection with corruption enquiry’.

The picture next to the news item is me. It’s a year old, taken at one of the ridiculous debutante balls where I failed so spectacularly. The media use that picture because I look like a debutante and that fits with their story. Good. I look nothing like that now.

Heiress is a misnomer. They’ve already stolen the estates. I’m heir to nothing.

And the corruption? That’s theirs, entirely theirs. I know. At Grandfather’s insistence, I worked a year on the estate accounts. There probably are vast amounts of money missing, but they’re missing from the Bureau of Industry accounts, not from our estates.

I don’t follow the links to read the articles. Somewhere on the InfoHub there’s a AI spider, feeling the tug of the strands as people read articles. Even if I’m logged in as the boarding officer, I can’t be sure of how much analysis might be being done right at this minute. Could they connect all the dots? Work out that it’s me on board this shuttle? I don’t know.

And I’m still on the planet, although that’s about to change.

There’s a snap as the shuttle locks in above the maglev rail, and red warning lights come on for the passengers. The seals open and we’re shunted into the evacuated tube of the space elevator. Immediately, we start to move forward, and from there the acceleration is gradual but relentless. The tube begins its rise and we’re pressed back into the seats.

After five minutes the acceleration eases off gradually until we’re back to near-normal weight, hurtling along silently and without vibration inside the vertical tube.

The tube is an opaque nanostructured sheath, and this is a no-frills freighter shuttle so there are no windows to look out anyway, but I close my eyes and imagine the planet falling away beneath us and the curvature starting to appear.

The boarding officer touches my hand to catch my attention and taps the info pad screen.

He’s read my mind and selected a channel with a view downwards which is transmitted live from the tube terminal, still a thousand klicks above us. On screen, the tube itself disappears from view as it falls away beneath the terminal. The rest of the picture is dominated by the planet. It almost glows, and there’s a swirl of white weather systems like lace over a pale blue and green surface.

It’s beautiful. It looks so calm and peaceful from here, my home planet.

That’s so false, that thought. It’s not calm and peaceful, and it’s not my home planet any more.

That is, it’s not my home planet as long as I get on board the Shohwa and out of the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Industry, and the grasp of whoever else betrayed and murdered my family.

 

Chapter 4

 

An hour after being spat out the terminal of the space elevator tube, the shuttle floats into the docking bay of the Shohwa, and gets locked into position.

They actually seal and pressurize the bay, so we get to disembark from the shuttle for the short walk to the exits. I get to look around.

From the folded wing structure, the shuttle is not only compatible with maglev space elevators, it’s capable of atmospheric flight. Not a standard freighter shuttle.

What is this ship?

But technically, I’m still within the jurisdiction of the planet, so I keep quiet.

We’re immediately under way, only the slightest tremors getting through the acceleration compensators and revealing the movement.

Inside the ship, my opportunities to look around are limited. The inside of the freighter is divided: flight deck, engineering, environmental, staff quarters, passenger quarters, common eating and recreational areas, the holds. All areas except passenger quarters and common areas are out of bounds to me. I see a couple of instances of passengers visiting staff quarters in the company of staff, but I’m not interested in that.

What I am interested in is that I never see anyone accessing the flight deck area. Access to areas is by elevator and each elevator has a level indicator above it. The elevators are right opposite the eating area, so I can sit and watch without looking too obvious. The flight deck, level 1, never lights up.

So maybe there’s another way to access that area. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe there’s a reason for every anomaly that I’ve seen, all of which suggest that the Shohwa is not exactly what it says it is.

My shared room is okay. The woman and two men I bunk alongside  would be good travelling companions if I could relax. As it is I listen and keep my distance, saying as little as possible.

The recreation area has info pads, and I try to query the ship’s navigational data. How long will the trip take? How fast are we going? The sort of queries any passenger unused to space travel might make.

I get fobbed off with a bare minimum of information. I know the navigational parameters of any FTL trip are complex. The Chang generators work better the further they are from any massive bodies. Get far enough away from a star and its planets and, to outside observers, a Chang generator would look like a small, perfectly symmetrical singularity as it pokes a hole in the local space-time dimensions. However, navigation from inside the Chang field requires ‘referent masses’ – you need to measure the distortion of the field by those masses to know where you are. Too close and the distortion itself creates an error, too far and the limit of sensitivity of measurement creates an error.

In very approximate terms, for a star of unit solar mass, any FTL jump requires you to be around two Astronomical Units or say, 300 million klicks, away from the star, and about one AU away from any super-massive planet. The shortest path to achieve that is to move out of the plane of rotation of the planets.

You need the same considerations of distance from mass for any waypoint you use to check your position while the Chang field is active, and of course you need them again for the star system where you intend to arrive.

And the velocity and acceleration with which you enter the Chang space is preserved on exit, but of course, the departing and arriving star systems may have motions relative to each other which also need to be taken into account.

Get any factor wrong by a significant amount and the deep takes you. Or you smear the ship across a million klick arc of space.

That’s why every jump has three computers dedicated to it.

Those three computers would have had their first estimates before we even left orbit. They are refining them as I try, and fail, to query the navigation.

The estimates I get from talking to staff are ‘a few more days to jump’ and ‘about the same time in the Amethys system’.

I think my best bet is to try the guy who was the boarding office for the shuttle.

“Oh! Well, Ms Azenari, it’s really complex, you see,” he says. “I mean really difficult, even for the guys with training. We don’t want to bother the passengers with all that stuff. Look, why don’t you use the time to catch up on your favorite holovid dramas. The Infotainment system got a complete update at Newyan—all the latest hot shows.”

When I was my family’s representative, and a ship was carrying our produce, all I had to do was ask and I got answers.

This is my new life and I have to get used to it.

It’s a good learning experience. A valuable lesson. I keep telling myself that and trying to unclench my jaw as I walk away.

I have to acknowledge there’s been…resistance to some lessons in my life.

For example, my grandfather’s lessons about cementing the family’s position in the planetary hierarchy. I spectacularly failed to snare a husband at the debutante balls and frustrated my grandfather into near apoplexy.

I can’t claim it was anything other than being headstrong and intolerant of patronization, but would my marriage have saved the family? More than half of those ‘stronger, better-placed’ Names that I was urged to ‘be more amenable to’ have joined the list of Founding Families who’ve lost their estates.

But maybe not their lives. That’s the sting.

We were singled out. We were the arrogant, isolated family that could be used as an example. The breath of scandal about my parents. My inability to attract marriage proposals. The fear my grandfather inspired in others. The success of our estates.

Yes, we were the perfect example, and that’s partly my fault.

Tears are an indulgence I’ve not been able to allow since I went on the run. I may not have the luxury again once I arrive at my destination.

Better now.

Letting go catches me by surprise.

There’s grief, like a cold stone in my chest. The death of my grandfather, my cousins. Murdered in a supposedly unrelated series of ‘incidents’—accidents, random assaults, home invasions, ‘suicides’. The deaths aren’t even limited to just the family. Some of our employees were fatally caught up in the incidents.

And the next zones of destruction, moving outward as if from an explosion with my family at its heart.

The tenants on our estates, the workers, all thrown out and decreed unemployable in whatever jobs they had been qualified for.

The whole structure of friends and associates, in business and personal lives, all under suspicion because someone powerful decided that their fake corruption enquiry needed a central character, a face, and ours was the best fit.

There’s little privacy in the passenger section.

By luck, I was on my way to the common area gym when I stopped to question the boarding officer. I continue to there. It’s empty.

I let the sweat hide the tears as I pommel the punch bag and thrash my body to exhaustion on the machines.

It’s efficient. A word my grandfather used a lot. I get to hide my grief and at the same time get my body in top physical condition as required for my role of Dancing Mistress.

Inefficient would be trying to squeeze any more information from the ship’s infopads. About anything of interest to me. I can’t even get current data about Amethys or about the family who I will work for. Inter-system information services share the same bandwidth restriction that I encountered when applying for the job—unless a major corporation or federated service has an interest, the data comes through like droplets through the roof while there’s a thunderstorm going on outside.

 

I’m in the gym again a couple of days later when some ship staff I haven’t seen before join me.

One comes across and introduces himself.

“Hi, I’m Danny. It’s my misfortune to be department boss for this bunch of lame-bones,” he says, indicating the rest of them with his thumb. He has a nice smile. His accent is pure Xian; liquid, quick-slow, quick-slow.

“Zara,” I reply, looking them over.

If he’s upset by my reticence, he doesn’t show it.

“Look, we want to do some sparring, ya mind if we move this equipment back over there?”

Some of them have already taken their tops off and are limbering up.

It’s written all over them: they’re security of some kind. Young guys, tall, powerful, brash. Cropped hair. Tattoos. Almost like a military unit.

What the hell does a ship need a security team of this size for?

Paranoia aside, I need sparring practice as well.

“Go ahead,” I say. Then: “You have an odd number.”

He chuckles. Little girly wants to play with the big bad men.

“Yeah, we make do. Gets a bit rough and that evens the numbers out sometimes.”

My jaw is starting to clench again. If I was thinking clearly, I’d go take my shower.

“Oh, I see,” I say with my brightest smile. “They’re just learners. It’s okay, I’ll go easy.”

Danny’s eyes, up to that point wide-roving and lazy, go suddenly narrow and gleam with focus.

“I’ll start with Fat Boy.”

I point.

He’s fat like I’m pretty, but there’s just a hint that’s he’s fond of his food. His pals will be merciless in teasing him, and he shows it’s a sore point with a scowl at me.

The guys all out-mass me, out-reach me, out-punch and out-kick me. If I let them, any one of them could pound me into the mats that they’re busy laying out. The trick is not to let them.

I have two huge advantages I can take. The first is the guys know how big and tough they are, but they have no idea how fast and sneaky I am. They’re overconfident. The second is Fat Boy is too angry to think straight, and he’s out to prove a point.

Danny holds up his hands and steps back. A ring of spectators forms.

“Competition rules and three points?” Danny suggests as Fat Boy bristles and glares.

“Done.”

Fat Boy moves from a perfunctory bow straight into a full lunge. Wants to grapple. I don’t.

I trip him as he hurtles past.

He lands like a pig in a puddle.

“Point!” Danny yells. The rest of them laugh.

“That’s not a throw!” the poor guy shouts as he gets back to his feet, red-faced. He’s actually right. Danny shrugs and smiles again.

My opponent is not fat and neither is he dumb, but he’s still out to prove a point.

He gets hold of me and hurls me, using brute strength. It works, and he gets a point, but then gets over-confident again.

One point each later, I catch him in ude garami, the bent-arm hammer lock, and he has to thump the mat to surrender or dislocate his shoulder. I win.

“Well, that was entertaining,” Danny says. “Okay, guys, show over, pair up.”

I think Danny means to pair with me, but he waves for me to choose.

“The slow guy,” I say and point.

The slow guy had barely bothered to watch the sparring. He’d been loosening up, moving like a sleepy bear, and looking for all the world as if he was rusty.

He blinks, and smiles like I’d just handed him an ice-cream with chocolate.

There are smirks on other faces, and I know I’ve made the wrong choice, big time.

But a call interrupts Danny. He picks up his comm unit and there’s a sudden tension that flows out from him to the whole group of them.

He turns to me. His eyes are back to that gleaming, narrow focus, his arms are loose, his weight held just so.

“Ms Azenari,” he says painfully politely, “your presence is required on the flight deck.”

+++++

What happens next? Next episode: Episode 3

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About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first book, 'Sleight of Hand' is available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/Sa0D3n

25 responses to “Zara – episode 2”

  1. azrm says :

    Oh, better and better… Love how the backstory is building!

  2. wiggiemomsi says :

    Gaaah! No, don’t stop here!

    Great story, and I’m really liking the fiesty heroine. Your impressive knowledge of space travel is … impressive!

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Ha! This is strictly weekends only so I have to stop somewhere, and I can only hope that it will always be where readers say ‘don’t stop here’.

      I’m glad I’m carrying you away in my spaceship. 🙂

  3. Michael Orton says :

    I’m enjoying this and I hope you are too.

    A change of genre may be refreshing, but I’m glad you are keeping this to weekends as I want to read “Inside Straight” and you have a lot to write before that rolls off the virtual press.

  4. Mark Waddoups says :

    Hi Mark,
    I’m really enjoying this new story. I can hardly wait for the next installment!
    I did notice a couple of things. Toward the beginning, right after ‘Nothing!’ you’ve got ‘I’d not dared not speak’. I wouldn’t mention it, except that your stories are normally so wonderfully edited to remove anything which might trip the reader, unlike the bulk of e-books these days.
    Also, are you redefining a klick for the purposes of this story? You’ve got that two AUs equates roughly to 300 klicks, so I wondered if, for the purposes of brevity a klick in this universe is 1,000,000 kilometres?
    Other than that, I love it.
    I’m so pleased, too, that you’re running several threads of fantasy and a thread of sci-fi concurrently. I’ve read from other authors, that working on different projects keeps their ideas in each area fresh and maintains their enthusiasm for each set of characters, so I’m delighted to see you taking a similar tack. 🙂

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Thanks Mark, you have it exactly right that projects which are well spaced out (sorry) help keep ideas fresh. I’ve just spent the morning burning through a problem chapter in Bian’s Tale.

      A klick is the standard kilometer, and I should probably use the word ‘kilometer’. It should read 300m klicks in the story. The writing comes hot off the press and onto the page, so my normal edit routine (a dozen passes by me, including reading aloud, and one by my editor) don’t get done on these serial installments.

      I’ll fix these bits. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  5. amper5andrew says :

    Are you being too coy about the dancing mistress?

    If you intended something unwholesome there then yes, I didn’t pick up on it ’til you asked the question. I enjoyed the chapters and didn’t think the technical stuff was overwhelming—I thought I was following it reasonably well.

  6. Jon.Gray says :

    Okay Mark, you have me hooked. I usually don’t read serials because I’m too impatient to wait for the next episode or I get them out of order. But like I said, I’m hooked.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Thanks Jon.

      (Beta reading must be hell for you 🙂 )

      • Jon.Gray says :

        Beta reading is yes and no. Yes, I wait anxiously for the next section, but, no, the sections are longer and I get to read all the versions. Plus, when I make a suggestion that is used I get a small sense of ownership and satisfaction. That makes it worth the wait. However, I’m 71 now…write faster. Please?

  7. Justin Savely says :

    Dancing Mistress? You mean assassin, or accountant for the Mafia?

  8. Jason says :

    Nice one, I like what you did with her name there at the end. Is this her old name or the new one? What does the captain know? Well played sir, well played.

  9. Philip Cresswell says :

    OK, I’m hooked! Prepared to pay actual money to find out what happens next…

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