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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 6

Early release of episode 6, as I’m away at the weekend.

Some research on my readers … please answer a question or two: 🙂 (Or leave a comment)

Who do you visualize for these characters? (Or for non-visual people, which well-known book characters do they most resemble?)

Name other books  you’ve enjoyed in the genres (i.e. SciFi, Adventure, Romance).

Which is your favorite scene or part-scene so far?

Are the non-standard names distracting?

If you flicked back through previous episodes, which scene/detail had you forgotten?

Thank you! Enjoy!

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Chapter 11

 

They leave, and anger drives out the fog of sleep. I cannot stand this. It’s not my fault the broker provided no contact information for me to call ahead, and that there were no buses because the roads were destroyed. It’s not my fault I look like a tramp from all the walking, and I’m so tired I spilled the brandy.

There’s not much I can do to tidy myself. My hair’s too short for a pony tail, my clothes in the duffel will still be wet from the rain, and besides, they’ve already seen me. I comb the hay out of my hair with my fingers and limp into the inn, following the sound of angry voices. There has to be something I can do.

The scene in the bar room stops me dead.

There’s an unconscious man lying on the floor, head and chest swathed in new bloody bandages, arm in a splint. A woman is kneeling alongside him. She’s cleaning blood from her hands with the fixed determination of someone suffering from shock.

Warwick is standing at the bar, arguing with a man and a woman. The man’s the one who just called me a drunken tramp, and I piece together that this is Gaude, and he’s the manager for Cardu, which is an estate, not a town. The woman’s a doctor, and her patient lying on the floor is the worst injured victim of an accident. He’s near death and they need to get him to hospital urgently.

There are hospitals along the coast, but damage to the coastal roads means the only way to get to those hospitals by car is to divert inland to a central highway. There’s a major hospital inland, in the Central District, but that’s even further away. All the roads are rough and the long journey is likely to be fatal in any case.

There’s an airfield and an aircraft at Cardu, and the hospital in the Central District has an airfield right next door. Unfortunately, the pilot of the aircraft is somewhere near Bandry and there’s no easy way to reach him directly.

Gaude wants someone to ride a horse down the coastal path at all speed to fetch the pilot. Warwick urges him to wait a couple of hours when the fishing boats start putting out to sea, and harbor radios get switched on—a message can be passed on rapidly once that happens.

All of it sounds like a long time for a dying man. Too long.

My anger evaporates. There is a chance of saving this man’s life.

Heart racing, I clear my throat. “I can fly.”

Gaude, Warwick and the doctor ignore me.

I don’t even know what aircraft it is, but I can’t just stand there like a dummy while a man dies because I couldn’t make myself heard.

There’s a bell above the bar for calling time. I jerk the lanyard and all of them turn shocked faces to me at its clear ting.

“I can fly. Maybe. Tell me what kind of aircraft it is.”

“You’re drunk!” Gaude roars. “Get out of here.”

He’s not going to listen to me, but the woman kneeling next to the patient rises to her feet and joins us. She looks about thirty, well dressed, dark red hair done up in the sort of complex style that needs someone else to do it, and probably looked stunning a few hours ago. She’s beautiful, but her face is blotchy from crying.

“Stop,” she says. Her voice is low and strained, but they both pay attention to her. “We have to try everything. Send a messenger on horseback and radio the harbor masters. And we can at least listen to what this woman says. She doesn’t look drunk to me.”

“Lady Roscarrow,” Gaude says. “I can smell the drink on her, and look at her! She’s—”

“Someone who claims to be a Dancing Mistress. Yes, I know. She looks like any of us would look if we walked all the way from Bandry. It was your idea, Gaude, to advertise for a Dancing  Mistress from places where the title might still mean something, even if you’ve changed your mind. We have to find out if she can do what she says. My brother’s life may depend on it.”

 

Which is how, an hour later, still in filthy clothes and reeking of bad brandy, I’m doing an external check of an aircraft by flashlight.

It’s an 8 seater, twin engine, Peyraud Industries Delphine II, and I have better than half a chance of being able to fly it. Peyraud are a huge, pan-system company, and they supply the majority of atmosphere aircraft in this sector of the Inner Worlds and Margin. I’ve flown smaller models from the company, and the instruments and controls are standard.

Gaude is snapping at my heels, trying to get me to hurry up, but only holovid stars take off in a plane they haven’t checked. He’s also assigned someone to sit with me in the co-pilot’s seat. A quiet man named Moyle, who has done some preliminary training on this type of plane. Gaude says it’s for safety. I know it’s actually to make sure I don’t fly away with 500,000 dynare of aeroplane belonging to his boss.

My future boss, I can still hope. I’m about to fly his plane without his permission, essentially on the insistence of Lady Roscarrow. I trust he and the Lady are on the very best of terms.

And he’s not just any boss.

I’ve found out that he’s a Duke, a title they use here for the foremost of the Founding Families. They go the distance here; he’s even got a coat of arms. It’s a snarling wolf’s head. I see it everywhere: painted on the nose and tailplane; embossed on the dashboard and seats; printed on the damned rudder pedals.

Duke Bleyd Tremayne, owner of Cardu Estate and the governor of Welarvon. My job, if I secure it, will be to tutor his daughter.

My stomach is twisting in knots, but I can’t allow myself to be distracted.

Finally satisfied that everything is in order outside, I climb in to the pilot’s seat and power up systems.

The internal checks are automated and listed, each item scrolling up the screens. The most important come first. I follow them as the statuses roll. Everything is in the green.

I’ve left the door open and Gaude has his head inside, watching me suspiciously.

“Do you want me to do a circuit first?” I ask. “Check out the handling?”

“No time, Miss Esterhauze,” he says.

Huh? Esterhauze? Where did that come from? We’ve got more to worry about than him being corrected about my name, so I leave it for now.

Cardu Estate employees have stripped out the right hand side passenger seats and are loading Lady Roscarrow’s brother in, on a stretcher. The doctor has returned to the other victims of the accident, who weren’t so badly injured, but still need her attention.

Lady Roscarrow is in the back too, obviously intent on coming with us. She earns her place by clearly having some medical training; she’s checking fluid drips and connecting up some kind of monitors for his pulse and breathing.

The Tremaynes are a Founding Family. So are the Roscarrows.

Wonderful. I’ve borrowed the Duke’s plane without his permission and I’m carrying two of the local aristocrats, one of whom is seriously injured and whose death will probably be blamed on me unless I get him to a hospital in time. It’s the middle of the night, I’ve never flown this plane before, let alone any plane on Amethys, and I’ve no doubt my job prospects will dive even lower if I take it back damaged.

No pressure.

 

Chapter 12

 

The storm has died out, the wind has dropped, and we take off smoothly.

Goddess be thanked.

The flight is straightforward. A journey that would have taken six hours on the roads is nearing completion after barely forty minutes. Moyle is handling navigation and Air Traffic Control requests. The plane itself is a joy; light and precise in controls. I’m in a quiet bubble that happens to me in flight sometimes, a feeling of calmness and serenity as the dark ground slides swiftly by, a kilometer below us, a passage marked only by the occasional lights of a farmstead or small town.

Everything is good until I start to descend. I’m focusing on a well executed flight path right down to the runway.

Too good to last.

Moyle’s been asking for landing confirmation from the airfield next to the hospital. Our callsign is Flight ME-766, and this is what comes back:

“Negative, Flight ME-776,” a voice squawks over the comms. “Airfield M-VHTR is closed for ground training purposes from 02:00 to 07:00 as documented in AV-NOTE 5766. Vector your course 080 for Airfield M-PJKL. Change frequency to one-three-five decimal two-two-six.”

My quiet bubble pops. Yes, the aviation notices the controller is referring to no doubt clearly state the airfield is closed. We didn’t have time to look them up. But ground training? Five hours of it? That smacks of an excuse to get out of bed late.

The diversion airfield is not a long flight away, but it would mean a far longer journey by road to the hospital. I want Lady Roscarrow’s brother in the hands of medics as soon as possible.

And we’re already established on the descent. I can’t see the airfield, but the instruments are giving me a simulation view that I should be able to fly right down onto the tarmac. It’s possible, but terrifying to think of doing that. There has to be a better way.

I override Moyle on the comms. Pilot’s privilege.

“Negative, Airfield M-VHTR,” I say. “Flight ME-776 has a severely injured person on board. Diversion unacceptable. We are vectoring straight in to land on runway two-one in…” I check the instruments, “zero-four minutes. Repeat, zero-four minutes. We are on final to land. Notify your emergency services. We require a medical vehicle immediately on landing to convey our passenger to Biscome Hospital.”

“Negative, Flight ME-776. Negative. Divert to M-PJKL.”

“Negative, Airfield M-VHTR. Declaring code HX.” I swallow, hoping that Amethys emergency codes are the same as Newyan. A glance at Moyle, he gives me a nod. “I say again, code HX. Flight ME-776 is a medical emergency. Get your ambulance rolling now. On final for two-one. Landing in zero-three minutes.”

Moyle enters codes into the transponder system. The Traffic Controller’s screen will be pulsing with a red emergency symbol now. One that he can’t ignore.

Code HX should be initiated by a doctor. I guess we can argue about it when our patient is in hospital.

There’s a long silence. Then in the distance, I see the runway lights come on. I let a lungful of stale breath sigh out of me.

“Affirm, ME-776,” the controller says. “You are cleared for standard descent and landing on runway two-one. Wind at 05 from 020. Emergency vehicles in attendance.”

From his tone, I don’t expect a bunch of flowers from him anytime soon.

I repeat his clearance back as required, keeping my voice neutral.

“Thank you,” comes over the intercom in a female voice, startling me. I’d forgotten Lady Roscarrow had a headset. She’d listened to the whole exchange.

“Pleasure, milady,” I murmur back and exclude everything else while I concentrate on putting the Duke’s plane down in one piece.

At least there’ll be an ambulance chasing us if I get it wrong.

 

It’s not my best landing, but it’s good enough to get us on the ground in one piece and minutes later, paramedics are closing the doors of the ambulance behind Lady Roscarrow and her brother.

The paramedics had given me some looks as they worked to move him. I guess the pilot of the plane is not supposed to look as if she walked a whole day, slept in her clothes on a pile of hay, and then spilt brandy all over herself before getting in the pilot’s seat. On the other hand, it could just be as I suspected, that their ‘ground training’ was only an excuse to sleep late, and one that I ruined.

I put it out of mind and go around checking the aircraft carefully again to see if my landing has damaged it. Moyle follows me, not speaking but nodding in satisfaction as he completes the checklist on an infopad. As he does, he has to juggle that task with answering a call of thanks from Lady Roscarrow. Her brother has gone straight into surgery, and it’s her opinion, which the doctors appear to share, that he owes his life to me.

It’s very welcome news, that there was justification for this night’s craziness, all of which is starting to sink into me. Landing an unfamiliar plane, in the dark, at an airport I’d never even seen. Adrenaline after the event makes my hands shake. We’ve been lucky.

We complete the checks. I’m still walking gingerly with my sore feet, but that stinking brandy did more or less what Warwick claimed for my blisters and abrasions, so at least I am walking. Small mercies.

When we finish, I sigh.

“Okay, let’s go do the paperwork with the nice gentleman in ATC.”

Moyle snorts.

I’m not looking forward to our conversation with Air Traffic Control. I filed no flight plans, didn’t inspect the obligatory aviation notices prior to the flight, don’t have the permission of the owner to be flying the aircraft, and don’t have the medical qualification to pull a code HX. That’s before we get into handing control of the radio over to Moyle, who doesn’t have a license at all, and the even more thorny issue of my Newyan flying license, which I don’t have proof of, and which may not apply here on Amethys.

That’s just the list I can think of, off the top of my head.

We enter the ATC building, and I know all my fears are justified as soon as I see the face of the controller.

He’s so angry, he can barely speak.

He shouts a long list, with all the regulation references, every violation of the flying laws that I have broken, and starts to wind up with what he thinks tops it all: “You’re clearly not in a fit state to fly, as required by—”

I’d listened without interruption, but I’ve had enough at that point, and lose control of my mouth.

“I understand,” I cut across him. “You’re terribly, terribly upset. Tell me, to whom should I convey your disapproval? To Duke Tremayne, the governor of Welarvon, who owns the aircraft? To Lady Roscarrow, who is currently at the hospital? To her brother in surgery, only alive because we flew here and didn’t divert?”

The controller’s eyes bulge.

From his tirade of grievances, I gather he hasn’t got around to investigating issues of ownership and the actual medical case that caused the flight. He probably assumed something trivial that we’d overblown for convenience.

He now looks like someone who wants to retract some of his actions this morning, but, as it happens, he’s too late. His eyes look over my shoulder as the door opens behind me.

I glance around.

The uniforms may be different on different worlds, but there’s something common throughout human occupied space that just shouts police about the pair that come in.

 

An hour later, I’m in a police cell. I’m under arrest for being in control of an aircraft while intoxicated, flying without a license, failing to produce identification when asked, it’s in my duffel bag in Stormhaven not being a defense, declaring an aviation medical emergency without appropriate qualification… and on and on, until I lost track. I don’t think they’ve charged me with theft of the aircraft, yet.

Moyle’s under arrest as well, held separately. His comms have been taken away. We’ve not been allowed calls yet.

The Duke’s aircraft has been impounded. They’re classifying it as evidence in a crime. Massive fines are threatened, and the way the law works apparently, the Duke is liable.

I have no funds to pay any fines. They’re well aware of that.

What they’re threatening me with is deportation back to Newyan.

 

Chapter 13

 

It’s impossible to sleep in the cell block. The ‘bunk’ is just a board. It doesn’t even have a piece of foam as a mattress. It’s daytime but the harsh lights are on full. It’s noisy, with the sort of echo you get off concrete and metal. And the smell, some of which is down to me, is overwhelming.

They’ve taken a blood sample, so I’m guessing the intoxication charge will be dropped. Great. One down.

When they get around to contacting the hospital, maybe I can hope for mitigating circumstances.

Enough not to deport me?

No one has spoken to me all day, apart from the prisoners in other cells, and their conversation is coarse, limited and unpleasant.

All in all, not turning out to be the best day of my life.

Then in late afternoon, I witness a force of nature.

It starts small. A couple of my jailors rush in and handcuff me, before dragging me out. From terse comments between them and the guard on duty, I gather the Duke is here, and this is not a good thing.

Death would be so much easier. The person I’m applying to for a job meets me for the first time at the police headquarters, where he’s had to come to regain access to his aircraft, because I borrowed it. I’m under arrest, dressed in clothes I’ve lived in for two days and I stink.

Perfect.

Except as it turns out, it’s not the first time we’ve met.

Duke Tremayne is none other than Mr Lead Stallion. He’s still in his uniform, apart from the gleaming helmet and long lance. He looks tired and dusty, which is about right; to get here he must have been on the road from Bandry for hours. There are two of his troopers with him, a man and a woman, also in uniform. All three of them are over six foot, and together they make the room feel crowded.

The police superintendent they’re talking to definitely feels that; he’s trying to argue jurisdiction when I’m dragged in. He’s backed up against the wall and he looks as if he wishes the wall would swallow him.

The Duke turns to look at me. Yesterday, when I saw him sitting on his horse with his helmet perched on the top of his head, I’d thought his face bluff and arrogant. Today, the word I’d chose would be brutal. His face is actually expressionless, it’s just that underneath, there’s a sense of rage, or even violence, barely contained. What I’d assumed yesterday was a crease in his cheek turns out to be an old scar, giving him a sinister air.

“Uncuff her,” he says brusquely.

The officers don’t even look at their own superintendent. My cuffs come off.

He turns back to the superintendent.

“So,” he says. “Let me summarize. I have a document from the airfield manager retracting most charges relating to aviation. I have a document from the head physician at Biscome Hospital stating that the flight was a medical emergency, and any delay, including an airfield  diversion, would most likely have resulted in the death of Lord Marik Roscarrow. You have the pilot’s blood tests revealing no significant levels of alcohol present. The use of my aircraft is entirely within my discretion. All of that, and you continue to maintain there is a case to answer?”

“The judicial aspect of the case is not within my power, sir,” the superintendent says. He hides his hands behind his back and shifts his weight uncomfortably. “On the majority of charges, there is clearly nothing to answer, but once the charges have been filed, they need to be dismissed through due process in the courts. They can’t do that until next week.”

“Then I will hold her until you can arrange for a hearing,” the Duke says. “She is an off-worlder who has applied for employment in Welarvon, not Central District. That is where she will be held, under my authority as governor.”

The superintendent doesn’t need reminding that he’s talking to the governor, but he gamely tries to hold out until Duke Tremayne offers to call the Central District Police Commander.

At which point, I’m transferred without further delay. It’s a nominal sort of improvement. I get a peek at the paperwork as it’s handed over; instead of being in the custody of the Central District Law Enforcement Service, I’m now being held by the Welarvon Mounted Police. It seems the governor is their commander and it’s obviously considered normal for them to canter along the coast path dressed up as pre-space cavalry.

Moyle is released without charge and we’re taken outside, where there’s a dusty truck waiting. The Duke goes into the front cab on the passenger side. One of his troopers drives and I sit in the back, squashed between the other trooper and Moyle.

I’m not sure it’s appropriate to thank the Duke, and besides, he hasn’t even looked at me since ordering my cuffs to be taken off.

I’d sit in silence, but the trooper speaks very quietly out of the side of her mouth.

“Well, the boars didn’t get you, then.”

If I start laughing, it will be inappropriate. And manic, to the point of sounding like a lunatic having a breakdown. I bite my cheek for half a minute before I answer.

“I didn’t see any sign of boars,” I whisper back. “Almost made me think they were a complete invention, made up to frighten a stranger.”

“Nah. We must have scared them off. That’s how we hunt them, you know. Horse and lance.”

The Duke glances over his shoulder and she shuts up.

I’m not sure I believe her, but just that exchange of words has relaxed me. I guess she’s just a trooper, but she has a cheerful, open face I feel I can trust.

My situation isn’t good, but it’s better than being in a cell at the Central District police lockup.

 

I wake up when the truck stops, jerking my head off the trooper’s shoulder, to her amusement.

I check I haven’t been dribbling while I slept.

We’re back at the airfield, alongside the Duke’s aircraft.

Gaude’s there, in another truck, with a couple more people from Stormhaven. He must have driven up today as well. He looks daggers at me, like it was all my fault. I am such a popular girl.

What does Gaude think? That I caused Marik Roscarrow to have an accident? I planned to fly an aircraft under dubious legal circumstances and pick arguments with traffic controllers and lazy airfields just to upset him?

I want to stand in front of him and scream Roscarrow would be dead.

And I need to keep a lid on all of that. I’m not a member of the elite. At best, I’m a lowly employee of these people. At worst, I’m a tramp, just as he named me.

“Pre-flight checks,” the Duke says. He thrusts out the infopad that Moyle was using yesterday.

“Huh? Me?” It slips out.

“Who did you think I was talking to?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

I really need to bite my tongue. The double-sir sounds sarcastic, and I know he hears it. But he moves away to speak to Gaude. Moyle shadows me and I run through the checks again. Much more of this, and I’ll get familiar with it.

After the external checks, the Duke is still busy talking with Gaude. I am not going to interrupt, so I shrug, climb in the cockpit, and start the internal checks.

At least he’s giving me orders. Does that mean I’m hired? Or does he give everyone orders anyway?

Concentrate.

Gaude has brought the aircraft’s seats in his truck, the ones they removed to get Roscarrow’s stretcher in, and the Stormhaven staff refit them while I complete the checks.

The Duke and Gaude get in the back, still talking. The Duke is fuming about the delays to repair the coast road, which could have cost the life of his neighbor if there hadn’t been an alternative method of getting him to hospital.

Point for me.

Moyle and my Amazonian trooper friend get in the back as well, while a small, dark guy with a big moustache and beady eyes gets in alongside me, in the co-pilot’s seat.

Who’s he?

He glances at the infopad with all the checks on it, nods.

“Start the engines and plot a course to Stormhaven Cardu airfield, via these waypoints,” he says, handing me a scribbled list.

I don’t reply immediately. I turn to look at the Duke.

He makes a curt gesture—get on with it.

I check that the trucks are clear and start the engines, then busy myself with setting up the course on the positioning system under the watchful eye of the stranger.

It’s like my flying exam, I think. Exactly like it.

We take off and it turns out, I’m right. He’s a flight examiner, and I’m doing a certification flight.

Does this mean I might be hired? As a pilot?

“Starboard engine failure,” the examiner says calmly, closing the throttle on that side.

Concentrate!

 

Two hours later, in the gathering evening gloom, we land at Stormhaven airfield and I’m sweating, despite the cabin air-conditioning.

The flight has been a relief in one way; there was no chance of dwelling on all the problems I’d had over the last few days or the situation I’m in. On the other hand, the examiner kept me within a hair’s-breadth of meltdown the entire time.

“Pass,” he says, getting out. “Certificate attached in email to you, sir.”

“Thank you, Venner,” the Duke replies.

There’s a truck waiting to take Mr Venner back to wherever it is they keep demons in between torturing students who want a license to fly.

We get out and Moyle takes the infopad. He begins the post-flight checks without speaking.

Which leaves me, the Duke, Gaude, and the trooper.

Stormhaven is an unattended airfield. There’s nothing but a hangar, with a small office and utility building beside it. The Duke leads us to the office.

The trooper remains standing next to the door. The Duke and Gaude pull up chairs at a large briefing table.

“Sit,” he says.

I obey; he has that voice. I resent its power deeply, and I have to put that to one side. I’m here applying for employment, unappealing as he seems as a boss. It’s not the way he looks that concerns me; he’d be considered handsome by some, in a brooding sort of way, even with the scar. But I can still feel the sensation of him inspecting me on the coastal path yesterday. There’s a sense of entitlement and ownership he gives off.

I don’t know where the boundaries are, here in Welarvon.

On the other hand, my options are limited and I need to mind my manners; I’m officially still under some sort of arrest, for a start.

I open my mouth to speak, but he stops me with a gesture.

“Before you thank me, you need to be aware that little of today’s effort was intended for your direct benefit.”

I swallow, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“You are due thanks, and I take this opportunity to pass on Lady Emblyn and Lord Marik Roscarrow’s sincere thanks for your actions, without which Marik would almost certainly be dead.”

Their thanks, not his. Okay.

I just nod.

“I travelled today to the Central District solely for the purpose of reacquiring my aircraft, which is needed for personal business this week. During the long journey from Bandry, I was advised of a legal loophole that could reduce the level of fines I potentially face over this incident.”

I had hoped he’d got everything squashed, but it sounds like I’m going to cost him a lot of money. This is not good.

Gaude takes over, voice dry as dust: “It turns out that being able to prove you are qualified pilot, albeit unlicensed at the time, negates one set of charges with their substantial fines. In order to take advantage of this, it was necessary to extract you from the jail and submit you to an examination. This does not in any way indicate that an arrangement exists between us.”

Nothing to do with concern over my welfare. Or my situation that came about entirely from trying to help. As much as I attempt to control it, I cannot stop the anger.

I stand and lean over the table. “Thank you so much, I’m touched by your concern. I really don’t understand you people. You’re acting as if I’ve gone out of my way to cause trouble for you.”

Gaude blinks in surprise at the way I’m talking to him. Did he expect me to just sit there and take it? With that no arrangement comment, he’s just admitted there’s no chance of employment for me here now, so there’s no reason to keep myself in check.

“On the contrary,” I say, warming up, my voice rising and rising. “I found myself in Bandry with no easy way to get to you because your authorities can’t even keep the roads in good repair. Instead, I have to walk the entire way. Star’s sake! What year is this? Then I get here and save a life by flying Lord Roscarrow to hospital and the thanks I get is to be arrested and treated like a criminal. I can understand the police in Central are doing their job, as they see it, but you—you’re treating me like a criminal as well.”

Now Gaude’s standing too, and we’re nose-to-nose over the table.

The Duke has a look like thunder on his face, and I belatedly remember that he is the ‘authorities’, and I’ve just insulted him about the state of his roads.

Well, with good reason.

“We’re treating you like a criminal, are we?” Gaude yells.

He throws ID cards down on the table as if we’re playing a bizarre game. It’s my ID, credit and employment cards that I left in my duffel bag here at Stormhaven when I flew to the hospital.

“How appropriate!” He emphasizes every sentence by stabbing at my collarbone with his finger.  “What do you think Central Police would have done if they knew you had fake ID? Eh? You think we’d have been able to get you out then? Who the hell are you, really?”

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adventure Romance – Episode 5

This leads straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/10/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-adventure-romance-episode-4/

The start of the series is at https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

The roads have been damaged, so Zara sets out to walk to Stormhaven along the coast path and claim her job as Dancing Mistress. Easy…

Chapter 9

 

After five minutes walking, I know I will never make it as far as Stormhaven.

My improvised rucksack is cutting into my shoulders. My boots are too loose despite being tied so tightly that they squeak. And I’m walking in a sort of limbo; there’s a heavy fog coming off the ocean that swirls around me and makes macabre ghosts of the stunted coastal trees along the path. Every step feels like climbing.

After twenty-five minutes, I allow that I might make it in a day or so. Except I haven’t brought any food apart from crackers and water. I have no idea how far to the next village along this path and whether they might sell me food. But yes, I will stagger into Stormhaven eventually, my boots caked in mud, my clothes wet, stained and wrinkled from sleeping in the wild, grass and twigs in my hair, my face badly sunburnt. I’ll be met at the door of the house by the new Dancing Mistress. She’ll be a beautiful, blonde-haired lady, cool and slim, dressed in the most elegant and fashionable style. She’ll actually call the family to laugh at the ridiculous apparition that has arrived at their door.

After about forty-five minutes, the sun’s up and the fog’s ebbing back into the ocean. The shoes have stopped squeaking and my feet have swollen to fit. A couple of passes of tape, right around me and my duffel bag have stopped it rolling so much, and I’ve kinda forgotten it.

I’ll buy or beg some food from villagers. I’ll pick berries and ask the villagers to tell me which I can eat. Pride is a luxury I can no longer afford, and while that’s something in the future, it doesn’t feel so bad.

The coastal path is an old cart track. It’s made from crushed white rock so it stands out, and it follows the contours of the land. It sways and dips, lifts and falls in front of me like the track of a bird’s flight.

I’ve slowed down from the pace of the first few minutes, and the rhythm of walking is now permeating through my body. My doubts receed with the fog and the beauty of the scenery starts soaking into me.

It’s a wild and spectacular coast.

Black rock plunges into an endless blue-grey ocean, and forms isolated towers and stubborn headlands, all crowned with deep-green grasses. Pale sea-birds ride the currents of the strong on-shore wind and scream at each other in faint, high voices.

Don’t fall in love with this place until you have that job, I warn myself.

It does no good.

The stunted trees that loomed out of the fog like grotesque ghosts are now shown to be works of art, fashioned by the dominant weather. Branches are gnarled and knotted into fantastic shapes, and roots look like muscular arms and fingers gripping and anchoring the trees into the scoured cliffs.

They’re almost like bonsai.

I wonder if Shohwa would like to see them, and make a mental note to take pictures and post them to my account on the Xian bulletin board for her to see. Would she be able to send a construct down here? Could the construct enjoy the sensation of running fingers along the rough bark and narrow, oily leaves?

When did I start thinking of her as a person? As Shohwa and not a ship called the Shohwa.

I’m not sure and I find I don’t care. I sigh, fill my lungs with salty air and feel lighter than I should in the 98% gravity of this planet.

Things could be much worse.

It wouldn’t be so bad, if I became a vagabond, walking up and down this coast, living off the land.

That would be better than dead, or in a prison cell, which is what the conspirators on Newyan want.

I’m still a loose end for them.

If I get this job, they could find out about it easily enough. Employment information is exchanged freely between planets. But they wouldn’t want to make an extradition order; that would give me a forum in court to present my side of what happened.

The alternative option is exactly the sort of thing that the Dancing Masters and Mistresses were set up to defend against—they could send an assassin. If I can’t defend myself against an assassin, it’s hardly a recommendation for my employment.

And if I don’t get this job, if I live like a vagabond, or drift from one temporary job to another, that would make it an order of magnitude more difficult to find me.

On the coastal path, with the sun on my face and the wind buffeting me as I walk, those worries seem remote, unreal, and just a tangle of incalculable possibilities.

It’ll go where it goes.

I’ll concentrate on one thing at a time.

Get to Stormhaven first.

I comb my hair with my fingers, futilely. The wind messes it as soon as I let go. The thought that I’ll look like a scarecrow if I pass someone on this road makes me smile. A couple of months ago, I cut my hair, short as a boy, as part of my disguise, and it’s barely started to grow out again. It wasn’t just to change the shape of my face. On Newyan, Founding Families and the wealthy tend to wear their hair long. Cutting it so short changed people’s initial impression of me, made them make assumptions which helped me pass as someone else.

I haven’t studied Amethys enough, but it seems it might be the same. Maybe I’ll be able to confirm that when I find a village.

As if conjured up by my thinking of it, I see a village in the distance as I trudge around a headland.

It looks tucked in, crouching down out of the wind. It sits in a valley between two promontories, partly shielded on either side, and it has a harbor with quays reaching out like arms. There are a score of large boats moored there, and plenty more small ones pulled up out of the water. Upslope of the village, I can see the brighter green of grazing fields surrounded by dark trees, all along the valley and the lower slopes of the hills above.

It looks so peaceful, from a distance.

Closer up, it’s very different.

The town itself is picture perfect. Narrow houses with freshly-scrubbed pastel faces cluster around tidy cobbled squares. Windows gleam and even the standing water pump has a recent coat of black paint. The fishing fleet is in harbor and every one of them has been cleaned or has crew swarming over them with buckets and brushes. Little boats pulled up on the dock are glistening with new varnish. There are smart wooden benches on the sides of the squares, but they’re all empty. Everyone’s in motion.

There’s a food stand set up in the main square where people are hurriedly taking snacks before rushing off to some other task. It’s looked after by an old woman in a wheelchair.

She can see the expression on my face.

“Feast Day,” she says solemnly. “Gets a little hectic.”

That is an understatement. From their laconic way of speaking, this frantic activity was the last thing I expected from the people of the Welarvor coast.

“Is it possible to buy something to eat?” I ask. “Something not expensive.”

I have no idea what food costs out here. Just because I could buy something for 5 dynare in the city doesn’t mean that’s what it costs in a little village on the coast.

“No,” she says. “You won’t find a soul to take your money here today.”

Seeing my face fall, she takes pity on me and laughs.

“Feast Day, lass! No money must change hands. Go on. Help yourself.”

“I can’t. Surely I can pay something? A donation.”

“Not to me. Nor anyone here. Not on Feast Day. Bad luck that is. Might bring the piskatellers to knock on our doors at midnight.”

I have no idea what a piskateller is, and despite what I thought out on the road, I’m having to struggle with my pride. Accepting the food feels like begging.

But she takes no prisoners, this old woman.

“Come on with you. These here, these are raw, night-caught. You have to eat them in the next couple of hours or they spoil. Take them with pickles and the pepper, like so.”

She demonstrates. The small fishes have been neatly beheaded, gutted and boned, but the tail left attached. She picks one up, rolls it in something that looks like chopped onions and peppers and chews it in three bites, leaving just the tail.

I follow her example, and my eyes stream tears. It’s tasty all right, just a bit hotter than I expected. Vinegar and chili and onion and raw fish. Hmmm.

She packs some in paper with the piquant sauce in a little carton, and refuses any money. She also advises me that I can eat any berries that are red, brown or black. That I must avoid berries that are yellow and green. And every village has a standing pump which I can drink from. They’re about an hour’s walk apart, the villages, she says, so I don’t need to carry so much water.

I’d stay and ask more, but a man looking like a cartoon of a mayor from ancient history rushes up and frets about some preparations that are not done. The old woman appears to be a former mayor and proceeds to laugh off all the problems.

I interrupt briefly to thank them, and then leave, passing a town hall which gives off aromas that tell me this is going to be where the feast day earns its name.

It’s far too late to worry about not falling in love with this coast.

My love story continues throughout the morning, walking over more hills and headlands, through more villages, past the odd farmstead, and by the ruins of some mining industry.

The people are busy and friendly in a casual way. I get the feeling everyone notices me but no one is aggressively curious. No one laughs at my jury-rigged backpack. A few ask where I’m going, and on being told Stormhaven, they nod and smile as if to say, well if you can’t live right here, then Stormhaven’s not a bad second choice.

And apart from the first village, everyone’s relaxed.

Away from the villages, alone on the swooping white path, there’s only the wind to talk to me. It whistles and moans around oddly shaped rock formations.

I daydream that I’ve stepped back in time; way, way back. There’s none of the bloated complexity of life and politics and space travel and work and assassins. It’s a time before we ventured off our planet, when life was so simple and easy and people got along. And I don’t even have the whole world to think about. There’s just this coast, the road beneath my feet, the little villages, the sun, the ocean, and the sounds that the wind makes. Bliss.

And then the wind brings me a sound that is very different.

The clatter of hooves and jingle of harness: riders mounted on horses are coming down the path toward me. There’s something predatory about that sound.

I freeze and look up.

Just in time to see them pour over the crest of the next hill; a column of mounted troops, with gleaming full-face helmets, tall lances and flying banners.

I have stepped back in time, and I’m right in their path.

 

Chapter 10

 

I’m off the road and crouching between trees before they’ve seen me.

I might have gotten away with it, too, but I hadn’t counted on the lead stallion. He knew I was there. Obviously I was unexpected, and maybe I smelled like a horse eating kind of person, so he shied away, with his eyes rolling and his hooves kicking.

In a heartbeat, the column has turned in its own length and I’m faced with a score of them; dusty, curious horse faces, pre-space helmets, with plumes, for stars’ sake, old military style uniforms, and even a lance or three waving in my direction.

I stand straight, but otherwise keep very still. Hands by my sides.

They’re long, those lances, and they look exceedingly sharp. They draw the eye. And dry the mouth.

Someone laughs.

Mr Lead Stallion pushes his helmet back so it rests on his forehead, emphasising the deep frown marks there.

The face is bluff, bold and arrogant; the eyes sharp as the points of those lances.

The voice is a surprise. Deep. Not as snide as I expected. I don’t know the voice, but I recognize the type without any effort. He sounds like my grandfather.

“Where away, lad?”

I bite my tongue. If I cut my hair and dress in a man’s cast-off work clothes, I guess I should expect people to make mistakes. And my instinct for self-preservation kicks in and grabs the first words I want to fling back at him, including blind and stupid.

I haven’t stepped back in time. I don’t know who these people are; maybe some re-enactment guild with a obsession for authenticity that has them drilling with horses every day, but Mr Lead Stallion is not a local fisherman or farmer. I’m looking to work in this part of the world, and I have no Name or eminence to defend me if I’m rude to a person of significance here.

“Stormhaven, sir.”

I’m very pleased to note the lance points begin drifting back up and away. Politeness appears to have worked.

He doesn’t acknowledge his mistake, and instead, Mr Lead Stallion’s eyes rake me up and down in an insolent sort of way that I would have objected to just three months ago on Newyan.

I will not react. I need to get used to it.

I am not a Name. I have no pride. I’m one step from a beggar.

“Stormhaven,” he says. His mouth turns down. “Then we’re both late.”

As if he might consider something else if he wasn’t in a hurry. Standing in the hot sun, my blood goes cold.

A safe, law-abiding place. Mostly.

That’s what the woman in the refreshment shop in Bandry had said as we shared the teapot.

I guess that comment could be interpreted different ways. A law for people snug in their villages, maybe, and a different one for travellers out on the paths. A lesser law for those that wander and ‘bring things on themselves’.

I don’t know, and I’m not going to find out this time: the archaic helmet slides back down and the lead stallion wheels in place, kicks off down the road at a leisurely canter.

The remainder of the troop follow smoothly, all but one.

She, I know it’s she, despite the uniform, has to tug her horse’s bridle to prevent it from joining the others. She uses just a finger’s worth of pressure.

“You know how to use that staff?” Her voice sounds peculiar from inside her helmet.

I cut a stout stick earlier, as a hiking cane rather than a staff, but it would serve the purpose. I spin it casually. Yes, I do.

“Some,” I say. “I thought the predators stayed inland.”

“They do,” she replies. “One of the reasons they do, stranger, is that some of the old farm stock mutated when they brought them here. Hides out here, near the coast path.”

“I’m going to be chased off a cliff by a berserker ram?”

“Perhaps.” I can hear her smile. “But the really nasty ones are the boars. That’s what we thought you were, hiding in the trees. That, or a morlader.”

Her horse is fretting as the others disappear ahead.

“We’ll see you in Stormhaven,” she says, “if the boars don’t get you.”

She touches heels to her horse’s side and it gallops down the road, eager to rejoin the rest.

Morladers. Piskatellers. Mutated pigs. Mounted troops with lances. There’s a lot on this coast that doesn’t seem to feature on the InfoHub.

They’re not a re-enactment company. That level of horsemanship isn’t really something you achieve without living in the saddle. They’re the local military or police force. But the helmets? The plumes? The banners? Those damned lances?

The expansion of the human race across the Inner Worlds and the Margin has created pockets of strangeness, but those tend to be whole worlds. Where I came down the Skyhook in Kensa seemed normal. Even Bandry, way back behind me where I started this morning, was normal, if a little rural.

I could understand the economies of a rural police force that was mounted, but surely nowhere substituted lances for firearms.

It’s a mystery I may clear up in Stormhaven, and Mr Lead Stallion clearly thinks I’m behind my schedule to get there, so I start walking again and try to pick up the pace.

The afternoon wears down, the main difference being that the sun tends to be on the right side of my face, and the wind veers. The sounds it carries change. At one point I’m sure I hear hunting horns. Makes me shiver. It’s imagination, or something about the bizarre shapes of the rock formations.

Late afternoon, I use a water break to stop and examine one such formation.

It’s black rock, the same mineral as the cliffs. I can’t see how erosion would shape it the way it is—a large, tapering arrowhead shape rising at one end of a long, rounded base. There are too many like this for it to be coincidence. Also, they all have a hole bored through the middle of the arrowhead. That’s one of the causes of the wind sounds. It’s as if the stones were made to sing with the wind.

I need more time to research, but the sun touches the ocean and the western clouds begin to boil up in yellow and red. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t look promising for this evening.

And the storm hits about an hour later, just as the daylight dies. The wind begins to howl and cold rain comes in horizontally like ice spears.

I’m torn between seeking some kind of cover and toughing it out. I argue with myself that I can’t be that far from Stormhaven. I’m not that far from the cliff edge either, but the pale road stands out, even in the darkness, and so I put my head down and march. As long as the boars don’t like the rain, I’m reasonably safe.

But all the things that kept me going during the day are lost to me. Without distraction, my feet are blistering, my shoulders are numb, my legs wobble. Exhaustion hits hard.

When the next village looms unexpectedly out of the night, I’m fighting to keep walking. A little voice is telling me I could sleep under an unpturned boat. Just a couple of hours out of the rain and be on my way.

But I know when I stop, getting going again will be hard.

The only person outside looks like a sailor, making his way home across the square in the dark, with the peak of his stormcoat pulled down over his head.

“How much further to Stormhaven,” I croak.

He jumps. His night-blind eyes can barely make me out. Perhaps that’s an advantage.

“You’re here,” he says when he recovers. “This is Stormhaven.”

Goddess be thanked.

But I can’t turn up at my future employer’s house tonight. Apart from not even knowing which house it is, I look like a drowned scarecrow.

“I need an inn. Is there one here?”

“Down in the harbor, lass. The Spyglass. Look for the lighted sign above the door.”

His eyes are adjusting to the darkness. He peers closely at me.

“Are you all right?” he says.

“I will be, thank you. A bath, a night’s rest, you won’t recognise me. I hope.”

He chuckles and points me down a street.

The Spyglass is easy to find, and just getting out of the cold rain is a blessed relief.

I don’t go too far in because I’m dripping water like I brought in my own stormcloud with me. I stand, swaying, starting to steam in the heat and using my knife to release me from the tape holding my backpack.

“Oh! Lad, lad, look at you!” the innkeeper bustles up. “Thought a merman had swum up out of the harbor for a minute.”

“Mermaid,” I manage to say, as the duffel bag slides from my shoulders and I groan with relief.

He roars with laughter, and pulls me inside, placing a chair in front of the fire.

“I’m your host, Warwick,” he says. “And these fine people here are the salt of Stormhaven and the finest of Praedarth, from up the way.”

I’m the center of attention, which was not how I anticipated arriving in the village I hope is my future home and place of employment. Especially not looking like a bedraggled tramp, or a sunburnt mermaid. A Dancing Mistress should have poise. I’m sure it says that in the manual.

I can afford the light beer that appears in front of me, and the lamb pie, I hope.

It being quiet enough, the innkeeper sits down to find out all about me, and gives me an opportunity to ask, with some anxiety, what a room costs.

“Oh, no, lass. Got no rooms left in this inn, and this is the only one in town,” he says. “You can sleep in the stable though. It’s dry and it’s warm enough. And free.”

“Done.” My pride has shrunk in the rain. “I need to get presentable tomorrow. Do you think you might loan me the use of a bathroom in the morning?”

“Oh, yes. You’re not going back on the road tomorrow, then?”

“No,” I say between mouthfuls of pie. “I’ve come to take up a job in Stormhaven. I just need to find which house when it’s not dark and raining.”

“A job?” He looks puzzled and sits back in his seat. “Now, lass, I know everyone in the town. Unless you’re a sailor or a shepherd, I’m not sure there’s work for you.”

His audience nods wisely along with him. He knows everyone. And there are no jobs.

“Not that type of job,” I say. “It’s a job I arranged through a broker.”

“Oh! Broker! Heard of that. City type of thing I must say. Not what we do here.” The listeners heads shake. Not what we do here. “But still, what’s the job?”

“A Dancing Mistress,” I say, through gritted teeth. My heart plummets at the expressions on their faces.

But the innkeeper’s face clears. “Ah! That explains it, lass.” He laughs. “Dry yourself out, eat your pie and drink your ale. Old Warwick will make a call.”

Fortunately, his audience stare at him in puzzlement, and he knows he has to explain to them, if not to me.

“Well, we don’t have call for Dancing Mistresses and the like in Stormhaven, do we?” he says. “But there’s a place that does.”

“Ah!” another man gets it and claps his leg. “It’s the sort of thing you’d get up at Stormhaven Cardu.”

“I’m in the wrong place?” I sigh, feeling every muscle whimper. “How much further?”

“More than you want to walk tonight,” Warwick says. “Yes, this is Stormhaven Wyck, the village of Stormhaven. You want Stormhaven Cardu, up on the headland. Another hour or so, a steep climb, and one you may not need to do. I’ll call Gaude.”

With that obscure comment, he goes off and I’m left fielding gentle questions, mainly about where I’d walked from and how long it’s taken.

Warwick is quickly back in the bar. “No answer. Don’t fret, I’ll try calling Lady Roscarrow. It’s at the back of my mind Gaude had need to be over that way today.”

I try to stop him; I don’t want any Lady being disturbed tonight, but he’s quicker than I am in this state.

By the time he comes back, still unable to get through, I’m fading fast. It’s been a long and hard day. The food and sitting still have finished me off. All I can think of is lying down and sleeping.

The innkeeper takes my duffel and a lantern. Seeing me wince and limp when I walk, he quickly grabs a bottle from behind the bar and then guides me out to the barn behind his inn.

A couple of horses blink sleepily at me. My stall is the free one at the end, and it’s a measure of how exhausted I am that I don’t argue with Warwick taking my boots off.

He hisses through his teeth at what he sees.

“Ah! Thought so,” he says.

He takes the bottle he brought and sets it in the straw beside me. It’s a quarter full.

“Now, lass, I would advise you to wash your feet with that.”

“What’s that?” I mumble.

“Well, officially,” he replies, “it’s bale-fruit brandy. But ’round here, we just call it Headless. Whatever you do, don’t drink it, but it the very thing for blisters and the like. Now, I must get back to my bar. I’ll try calling Cardu again later and we’ll sort you out in the morning whatever happens.”

I mumble thanks and keep myself awake long enough to clean my feet with the brew.

It stings, so it must be doing good.

The smell, on the other hand, is a mixture of boat varnish and day-old dead things.

Doesn’t make any difference. I’m asleep before I’ve got the cork back in the bottle.

 

And awake to lanterns and flashlights and loud voices.

It’s still pitch dark outside. Warned by the smell and the feeling of damp, I look down. In the bobbing lights, I realize the uncorked brandy bottle has tilted and leaked over my shirt as I slept.

“For sky’s sake! She’s a bloody drunken tramp off the road, Warwick, not some missing Dancing Mistress come to see me! I don’t have time for this.”

Even to my tired brain, certain things are clear, foremost among them that I have created the worst possible first impression with my employer. That’s my prospective employer—I haven’t got the job, and it doesn’t sound like I’m going to get it.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adventure Romance – Episode 4

This continues straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/zara-scifi-romance-3rd-installment/

Okay, okay, y’all giving me such trouble over the cliffhanger endings. This is a little quieter. 🙂

Comments, please. 🙂 Everyone! I really love to hear feedback on how it’s coming from a readers point of view. And yes, we’re getting to the romance. Not long now.

++++++

Chapter 7

 

Over her shoulder, the comms log screen jumps a line and a new message catches my eye.

Freighter Shohwa: “Newyan Traffic Control and Customs Cutter Duhalde, this is the freighter Shohwa of the Xian Hegemony, regarding your request for one Izarra Azenari. You are misinformed. We have no record of this person as passenger or crew aboard this ship. End transmission.”

I gape at the screen, not able to believe my eyes.

Then there’s a sickening, swiveling, jarring sensation, and feeling of falling that has me clutching the armrests. Just as my stomach seems to be about to exit my mouth, there’s a thump as ‘gravity’ re-establishes itself.

Both comms screens blank and disappear. The walls return to plain beige.

“I have engaged the Chang field,” the Shohwa says calmly. “My apologies for the temporary discomfort and restraints, but the acceleration compensators are configured for normal transport, not for high-G missile evasion.”

The Duhalde fired!

“But…”

The restraints disappear. I jump to my feet.

If we’re within the Chang field, we’re safe, we’re not exactly not there any more, because there’s no precise there, there. I mean here, inside the field. But for the purposes of missiles and laser beams in the Newyan system, we have left the area.

“You were wrong,” the Shohwa says conversationally. “The Duhalde fired no warning shot. Their first salvo was intended to disable this ship.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I… Why? They… You’ve saved my life… took my side—”

“Not at all. I have not taken your side. I have saved this ship from an attack, as I am entitled and required to do.”

They won’t see it that way.” I’m supposed to be thanking her—it, and instead I’m arguing. I’ll have to put it down to the understandable effects of an adrenaline overdose that has my legs wobbling.

“Will they not?” the Shohwa smiles and another screen appears behind it. “Let me summarize. The publically available records show we accepted, among others, a bid for a single person, basic level, one-way passage from Newyan to Amethys.”

The details of the transaction we made is displayed.

“That bid was from an electronic travel broking system called AnyTick on Newyan, and made by an anonymous user name: zara2735. As is standard with these broking systems, no proof of identity is required and the contract was made under a unique identifying code. Payment was made to this ship’s account which secured that contract. We do not care where the money came from; it’s of no concern to us. A person named Zara Aguirre duly claimed that contract by presenting the identifying code in the bay, and she boarded our shuttle.”

Of course I made the bid anonymously. But that unique code the Shohwa supplied was logged to my ID card, which says Izarra Azenari.

The screen splits. One half shows a video of me at the docking bay presenting my ID to the scanner.

The other half shows the electronic data scanned from my ID, including the Shohwa’s contract number.

But the name reads Zarate Mirari Aguirre.

The Shohwa gives me no time to question that as it continues: “Then, while in transit between Newyan orbit and our designated jump point to the Amethys system, we were subject to unexplained and unjustified routing requests from Newyan Space Traffic Control. We were under no obligation to comply, and did not. Eventually, Newyan Control, now represented by Customs Cutter Duhalde, provided a sufficient explanation of their requirements and a theoretically acceptable solution which would not impinge our schedule. However, it then turned out that their records were in error and this was all a mistake. We informed them of that.”

In my former life, my duties, loosely under the heading of ‘estate management’, have made me familiar with manure products, and this is premium quality, raw manure from the biggest horses in the stable. I am not about to complain, no, but…

“Thank you,” I manage to say, though it seems inadequate. It’s at least good manners, and manners matter, especially if your next job is about teaching them.

But to get to that job on Amethys, I need to survive.

My paranoid instincts rush in and short-circuit the muscles that move my jaw, leaving all my questions unspoken.

I need that caution. Despite everything, Shohwa does not like me. It has not taken my side. It has reasons for what it did. I am an incidental beneficiary.

“In spite of being informed of the error,” the Shohwa continues, “Customs Cutter Duhalde clearly continued to act under their misapprehension, and compounded it by firing on this ship, in contravention of its own system’s laws, federal rules, all the conventions and universally accepted rights of free passage, and disregard for the life of the crew and passengers on this freighter. This was a completely illegal and unjustified attack from which we barely escaped, and only then at great risk, by engaging the Chang field.”

The Shohwa stands up and the two unused seats sink into the floor without trace.

“A formal complaint regarding this incident will be transmitted to the federal authorities on Earth, copied to the Xian Hegemony and the Newyan planetary government, and will be made available to all planetary jurisdictions we visit until we have a satisfactory conclusion.”

My jaw is clenched shut and my mind is working furiously.

Why, why, why?

The scenario presented by the Shohwa absolves the ship of any wrong-doing and puts the blame for the incident entirely on the Duhalde. Of course, I need to go along with its story—that’s a given.

But what logical reason could the ship have for saving me?

My mind flashes back to the log of demands made by Traffic Control. Return to orbit. Okay, any freighter might refuse that one with inadequate explanation. Then the Duhalde’s demands. Stop. Same thing as return to orbit—the freighter had a valid reason to ignore that request unless justification was made.

Then: Your passenger manifest includes a fugitive criminal. We will match velocities and board to apprehend her.

Ahhh. Boarding.

The Shohwa wouldn’t have minded the routine customs inspections in orbit, where a couple of inattentive officers would inspect the cargo holds and check the manifest. But that wasn’t the same as a platoon of officers coming aboard after a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a fugitive.

If I could harbor suspicions about the ship just from a few questions about the unnamed flight crew, the shuttle specifications and Shohwa’s performance parameters, what would trained people see? What questions would they ask that the freighter would not want asked?

Almost anything.

My instinct says this isn’t a freighter. It’s a Xian military vessel masquerading as a freighter and, on top of all that, it’s commanded by an AI.

The Duhalde didn’t realize how lucky it was. I’m certain, as I go over the incident in my mind, that the Shohwa could have blown the cutter into elementary particles without breaking stride. The only thing that saved the cutter was the Shohwa wanting to maintain its disguise.

What about when Duhalde changed from demanding a boarding to ejecting me in a survival pod?

Why not go along with that?

What if those survival pods weren’t civilian specification?

What if they were military? Built for extended use, with military beacons and hardened shell construction to withstand the environment of a battle.

If all of that was the case, I could see that the Shohwa’s only option finally was to provoke the Duhalde into firing on it, knowing it had the capability to escape that fire. No one’s going to be asking questions about the freighter’s behavior now—all the attention is back on the cutter’s actions.

All good for Xian and their disguised warship.

But I know the Shohwa is an AI, it’s admitted it to me, and that on its own would also cause questions that the Hegemony don’t want asked.

So what’s keeping me alive?

The Shohwa has assessed that I’m no threat.

I’m not going to argue, and I am certainly not going to ask questions that make the Shohwa realize I suspect that it’s a military ship.

I need to keep quiet. No questions. No comments other than agreeing.

“I understand,” I say. “It must have happened exactly as you’ve described.”

“Good,” it says. “Of course it was appropriate that I confirm your identity while talking to Newyan authorities. That is why you were called up here, and you convinced me that you are indeed, who you say you are. During the following disturbance, you appear to have dropped your cards.”

The floor shimmers and the table reappears.

On it, there is a set of the ubiquitous cards of modern life without which you are nothing: ID; credit; employment. I pick them up. They look identical to my Izarra cards, except for the name. They all say Zarate Mirari Aguirre.

The table sinks and disappears again.

The Shohwa is still watching me, still smiling.

“Enjoy the remainder of the journey, Zara,” she says. “I will disengage the Chang field in 53 hours, when we reach the planar zenith of the Amethys system, and we should enter orbit over the planet approximately 91 hours later, depending on traffic. I remain fascinated by your ongoing story. When my business leads me to visit Amethys again in the future, be sure I shall enquire after you.”

The cards are the most tactful, gently stated threat that I can imagine. Yes, she has given me my Name back, but these are cards she’s fabricated. She’ll know them, be able to track them. I have no way of buying any alternatives, and no prospect of being able to, not starting out dirt-poor on a new planet. She knows that. These cards would lead her to me, if she needed to find me.

And her final comment confirms it in my mind. If I talk about her secrets, she will find me, and no doubt rectify the situation.

I lift my head, look her steadily in the eyes, and nod my understanding. It’s fair enough, I owe her my life and my silence.

If I could just ask a few questions… No. Shut up.

As I’m thinking that, she shimmers and sinks into the floor.

I have to stop myself yelling and reaching out, as if grabbing her would prevent that body disappearing.

It’s the most peculiar, two-horned sensation. One, that I should have stopped chiding myself for attributing the Shohwa with human characteristics, thinking of her as she. And two, that she could so casually de-fabricate her physical presence like that; a construct maybe, but one that was imbued for a time with the intangible her. She had cast off that body with less concern than I might cast off an old sweater. Much less. I have unwearable, shabby sweaters from my Academy days hanging in the closet back in my old room that I have refused to throw away.

No longer mine, or my concern.

The Newyan Bureau of Industry has seized the manor and my room. Most likely, those old sweaters, and everything else I owned, are ash now.

At least the Shohwa can re-fabricate her construct.

The door I entered through reappears and the lights in the corridor outside go on.

I return the way I came, down the elevator, and go straight to my shared cabin.

On the far end of the cabin, set in the wall, there are four small combination code safes, one for each of the occupants. I open mine.

It’s nearly empty. I don’t have much of value. My cards were in there, but it appears the nanotechnology of the Shohwa reaches every part of the ship.

I put my new cards in and lock the door.

If only it was as simple to lock my questions away.

 

Chapter 8

 

The passengers know nothing about what happened. The majority of ship staff are similarly unaware, beyond that there was an unusual and quickly-corrected problem with the acceleration compensators just before the Chang field was engaged. An alert had been broadcast and everyone had managed to strap in or hold on somewhere.

However the security team know I went to the flight deck and came back down. That gives me legendary status with them, as none of them have. I believe most of them are unaware of what’s up there. I think Danny knows. Maybe. We don’t discuss my visit to the flight deck, at all.

The good news is that I get to join in their training sessions.

Of course, they now know that I’m quick and sneaky in sparring. My element of surprise is lost and I spend much of the time picking myself off the floor or thumping the mats in surrender. Life’s like that.

Fat Boy, real name Gartz, is especially keen to be my partner for sparring. He collects his payback with a toothy grin and a gleam in his eye.

Out of his hearing, Danny mutters thanks in my ear that the boy has turned a corner with the effort he’s putting into training now.

Best of all is Slow Guy, real name Bernard. I learn a lot from him, despite the fact that I can never actually lay a hand on him unless he lets me. He’s always not there when I grab, like he has his own personal Chang field. I end up grabbing thin air and he’s standing a little to one side, blinking and with a look of faint surprise, as if he were saying ‘how come I’m over here?’.

I split most of my waking time between training and researching on the ship’s InfoHub. I devour all the additional information on Amethys that the Shohwa has released. It’s all great overview and broad brush, population statistics and political parties, but there’s nothing on the family I’ll be working for, or even the place I’ll be living.

Once we’re in the Amethys system, the ship links directly to the local InfoHub, but there’s not really a lot more information and my search ability is restricted by the bandwidth.

There are general maps. They show me that I’ll be descending the only space elevator, which they call the Skyhook, to Kensa, which is the largest continent and sits on the equator. Then I have to make my way across to the smaller, southerly continent of Murenys, and once there, to the western coastal region of Welarvor. The only further clue I have is ‘Stormhaven’—but whether that’s the name of the estate or a town is not clear.

The local InfoHub is full of advertising and that doesn’t bring me good news.

The local credits are called dynare.

Five dynare gets me food for a meal from a store. Fifteen would get me a meal in a restaurant, but double that if I include alcoholic drinks. It looks like forty would get me a night in a hotel, or a new set of ordinary clothes.

What remains of my pan-system credits converts to less than a couple of hundred dynare and the trip on the scheduled passenger plane from Kensa to Welarvor costs a thousand.

The transport system is the same as on Newyan, which gets summed up with the phrase broke or broker. In other words, if you fly on the standard passenger fare, you’ll go broke, so register with a broker system and put bids in for special deals.

The trouble is that it takes time to get a ticket with the broking system. I can’t afford to stay in Kensa because my money would run out inside of a week. I could bid higher, and maybe I’d get a ticket sooner. Maybe I don’t need to eat this week. Or sleep in a hotel.

There’s added stress I don’t need at the moment. My job offer came through a pan-system employment broking network. The way these work is hampered by the difficulties of communication from one system to another. The same job offer is broadcast to multiple planetary systems. It takes too long for any detailed negotiation to go back and forth between wherever the offer originated and wherever someone applies, so the local agent is granted a limited authority. At the time I was offered the job, the local agent in Newyan was not aware of anyone else being offered the job, but that doesn’t mean someone else on a different planet wasn’t offered the same job by their local agent at the same time.

It could be a race to get there, and second prize would be the termination salary in the offer—three month’s wages.

I could be left jobless and with barely enough money to live on while I apply for another job.

I have to get there, and I have to get there quickly.

I send a message through the employment broking system that I’m on the way, but it isn’t even acknowledged. That could just be a holdup in the comms system which is still all channeled through the Shohwa’s connection.

The day we make orbit over Amethys, I’m on the InfoHub, checking my bid on the travel broker in case a ticket has come up, checking if I have a response from the employment broker. There’s nothing.

When you log into the InfoHub, there’s a messaging utility. It’s the way Danny told me when the security team planned to train. I open the utility and there’s a new message. It’s anonymous, a tag that links me to a small news item just broadcast from the Amethys InfoHub: the captain of a customs cutter in the Newyan system had gone mad on duty, firing at ships. Luckily no damage was done, the article says, and the man ended up killing himself.

Believe what you will. The Newyan conspirators are cleaning up loose ends and presenting their defense and apology to Xian.

That leaves just the one loose end, here in the Amethys system. Me.

As I read, another message arrives and a second tag links me to a message board on the Amethys InfoHub which is maintained by the Xian delegation on the planet. It gives me an account and password. I guess I have a way to report what I’m doing to the Shohwa. And she’ll have another way to keep track of me.

I change my entries at the two brokers to my new Xian-sponsored address and check the time. The infopad shows me there’s only an hour left before the shuttle leaves.

It doesn’t take long to clear my stuff out of the cabin. I have a single long duffel bag which contains everything I own, apart from what I’m wearing. Embarrassingly, what I’m wearing is cast-offs from Danny. They’re durable fabric, pants and jacket, faded dark brown and with lots of pockets. I re-stitched the seams, washed and pressed them. They’ll do. I can’t afford to refuse charity now. This is my new life. I’ll get over the embarrassment. Or I’ll get used to it.

Not just Danny; all of the security team have been real friends.

I didn’t say anything, and I don’t think the Shohwa told them, but they work out that I’m in a bad way financially. There’s nothing too obvious. If we sit down to eat, somehow my meals get paid for when they divide up the bill. Danny and others casually ask if I wanted anything from the stuff they’re throwing out.

I’m angry. Not with them, but with myself, or with fate, that I have to accept charity. And I have to keep smiling.

I blink the thoughts away. There’s a new life on Amethys to concentrate on.

But I’ll miss them, I’m thinking, just as I spy Danny, Gartz and Bernard at the docking bay.

Paranoia kicks in with a scenario where they’re here to hand me over to the police as soon as we land, but Danny’s grin dispels that.

I lift my mood by going on the attack.

“Things are that bad they’ve put you in charge of bidding for freight planetside?” I say.

Danny laughs. “That would be bad. No. Just new rules. Security on all shuttle operations, until further notice.”

We banter some more, which is better than me choking up.

Gartz has actually taken shore leave on Amethys once before, and while we all board the shuttle and strap in, he lists all his recommendations. These are mainly seedy bars in the coastal resort on Kensa he stayed in. Not much use for me, but his exaggerated descriptions are worth listening to for the laughs.

I guess it’s my last chance to ask more about the Shohwa, but I don’t. The shuttle is still part of the ship, and I suspect the lens next to the comms unit at the front of the seating area is for recording everything in the passenger area.

The questions continue buzzing inside me like wasps, but they’ll die down soon enough, I hope.

It’s harder for us all to talk while we’re in flight because Bernard and Gartz are in the row of seats in front of us. But once we’re accelerating at a constant rate down the Skyhook, they unstrap and kneel backwards on their seats to continue talking to us. In doing so, they happen to block the line of sight to the recording lens at the front.

Danny ignores what they’re saying.

“Zara, just listen, can’t talk long,” he says. “Boss wouldn’t like any recorded evidence of there being any substantial association between us and you. Understand? No evidence we planned with someone from Newyan to cause a fight with the cutter. No evidence you’re a particular friend, outside of us training together and talking to you.”

I nod. I wonder where this is going. Boss is just his way of saying Shohwa.

“We’re the good guys, okay?”

I nod again. I don’t know what the Shohwa is really doing. I don’t think they’re spying, or that the Xian Hegemony is planning an attack of systems on the other side of human space. The only thing I can think of is some kind of anti-piracy patrol. Not that they’d get attacked in the Margin or the Inner Worlds, but a Xian freighter that only travelled out in the Frontier would be suspicious. Pirates aren’t dumb, and they monitor traffic movements to spot the best targets.

Piracy is an ugly, ugly problem in the Frontier and anti-piracy patrol would require the sort of absolute secrecy Shohwa wants.

It half-fits. The questions come buzzing up again, but Danny doesn’t give me time to voice them.

He presses a battered old wallet into my hands.

“Despite the stories Gartz tells, the guys didn’t manage to burn all their spare dynare last time they had shore leave on Amethys. This is what’s left.”

“Danny, I can’t take this.”

“Hush. It’s really not much. In there is a ticket as well. A printed ticket. You know, retro-style, a piece of paper. Don’t lose it. It’s not traceable and not replaceable.”

“I can’t take this,” I say again.

“You don’t have an option. We hacked the employment broking system you used. You’re in a race. There’s one other person who has applied for the job. Only one—the offer has been closed now, so no more are coming—but that one person is on their way.”

I look down at the wallet and blink tears away. My friends don’t owe me anything. They don’t really even know me. And yet, without them, I could have waited in Kensa for a ticket to become available, and lost the job.

“Put it away in your pocket,” Danny says. “Now, as soon as you clear Immigration, change your pan-system credits to dynare, because you won’t be able to do that anywhere else. Then take the first bus you can find to the commercial airfield. It’s only a couple of kilometers away. The name and loading areas are printed on the ticket. This is not going to be a quick or comfortable trip—it’s a Xian industrial transport plane that flies out once a week to places including Welarvor—but it starts off in a couple of hours. Don’t miss it.”

“Thank you, all of you,” I say, blinking again.

He grins. “And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t cost us anything. It’s a favor.”

He looks up at Gartz and Bernard. “Guys, sit down and strap in. You’re setting a bad example, and we’re about to start braking.”

Beneath the view of the recording lens again, we talk about neutral things and I try not to choke up.

 

All of which is how, a couple of days later but a whole continent away, I am able to step down from the cargo plane onto a dusty little airstrip in Welarvor, on the western coast of Murenys, and start trying to find out how to complete my journey.

 

“Stormhaven, you say?”

The local merchant who had come to collect his delivery from the Xian transporter rubs his nose, and squints away westwards.

“There’s a Stormhaven down the coast,” he says. “Fair distance, mind.”

The accent is soft and slow. After listening to Xian accents, it sounds very unhurried.

“Are you going that way?” I ask hopefully.

“No, lass. I’m heading back with this load up the coast. I can drop you in Bandry. That’s the biggest town ’round here, and it’s on the coast road.”

“That would be good, thank you. Do they have buses there that go along the coast?”

“Can’t say I’m sure they do,” he replies. “But they have an inn, and you could call ahead, get your friends to fetch you, maybe.”

I could call ahead if I had their telephone number. I could find their telephone number if I had their name. Unfortunately, every time I’ve managed to check on an infopad there’s been no response to me from the employment broker, and I have nothing except the validation code which I was given on accepting the contract, and the name of the town, Stormhaven. All references in the contract are just given as ‘the Employer’.

I help with loading his truck and then we talk while he drives to Bandry.

When we get there, I buy tea from a little refreshment shop and talk to the owner. It’s a slow day. She joins me with her cup.

However slowly I feel she’s talking, by the time we finish, I know many things:

This is a sparsely populated area. It’s also a safe, law-abiding place. Mostly. It’s a step back in time, and the inhabitants like it that way.

It suffers from powerful storms coming in off the ocean.

A ‘fair distance’ to Stormhaven is a long day’s walk and it would be better to take the coast path, not only because it’s more direct than the coast road, but also the road suffered major subsidence in the last storm. Traffic on that road is very light.

And the predators, mainly nighttime, she assures me, tend to stay inland. Thank you.

I spend some of my dwindling money on a new pair of walking boots, some strong tape, a plain meal and a good night’s sleep at the inn.

At dawn, I’m walking on the coast path. The handles of my duffel have been converted into a backpack harness with tape and some foam I’d been able to beg from the innkeeper.

I’d also been allowed to use his infopad. No messages. The continued silence from the employment broker is unnerving me, but I’m out of options.

I glance upward. Somewhere up there is Shohwa. I wonder if she has surveillance watching me now, but thinking of that makes my flesh creep. Her message, through Danny, is clear enough. Even with the explanation that the incident with the Duhalde was all down to the cutter’s captain going mad, the conspirators on Newyan will be trying to turn it around and point at the Shohwa. Trying to show that the Xian ship had some plan involving using me to provoke an incident. To counter that, it has to be obvious to all observers that I’m completely independent of the ship, and that my travelling in her was a coincidence. She won’t be able to help me, even if there was a logical reason for her to want to.

I hit a low point, and I walk with every doubt in my head weighing me down.

What if the other Dancing Mistress beats me to Stormhaven?

What if there’s a problem with the contract?

The broker’s no longer in business? Does that impact on the contract?

Coming second to another applicant would be bad enough, but if there’s no job at Stormhaven, I don’t even have enough money to make my way back to anywhere populous enough that it could offer a chance to work, let alone enough money to survive while I find that work.

So much for being a Name.

I won’t just be poor, I’ll be a beggar.