Book: Halfling Moon



Halfling Moon

Halfling Moon


Adventures in the Liaden Universe®


Number Sixteen

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


Pinbeam Books

http://www.pinbeambooks.com

Halfling Moon

Copyright © 2009, 2011 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental and really amazing.

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the written permission of the publisher or authors except for the purpose of reviews.




Hidden Resources © 2009 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


Moon On The Hills © 2009 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller





Cover art copyright © 2009, 2011 by Bill Wright



Published by Pinbeam Books


PO Box 707


Waterville, ME 04903


email: info@pinbeambooks.com





ISBN:


Kindle: 978-1-935224-24-2


EPub: 978-1-935224-25-9


PDF: 978-1-935224-26-6




For the Clans of Blueblaze and Kennebec, for all the joy your offspring have brought us



Hidden Resources

Runig's Rock

The ship was still there, hanging just inside the sensors' range. Not a ship of the Clan, certainly; nor yet the ship of an ally, the captain of which would have been given the pass-codes, hailing protocols, and some understanding of the capabilities of this, Korval's most secret and secure hidey-hole.

This ship . . . This ship only sat there, making no attempt at contact, seeming to think itself both hidden and secure -- watching.

Waiting.

The urgent question being -- waiting for what?

Alone in the control parlor, Luken bel'Tarda leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes, wearily.

His wager, slim as it was, rested on the square marked "orders," while Lady Kareen, his collaborator in maintaining the integrity of Korval's treasure-house, had her coin on "back-up."

That the fruition of either choice would do more than inconvenience themselves and that which they guarded was assured. With Plan B in effect, he and Lady Kareen were their own safety and rescue. Even if they had been inclined to endanger others of the Clan in these uncertain times, the news that reached them was not encouraging. Liad in turmoil, trade in disarray, murmurings even of the Juntavas, which in saner times certainly took care to keep itself and its business far from the news feeds . . .

No, even if they had been so minded, there was no certainty that any of the secure message drops remained so, and they could not risk what they guarded on anything less than certainty.

They were not without resources -- weapons, that would be. And so it was that he and Kareen had decided, uneasily, to wait, though at an increased level of alertness.

Luken rubbed his eyes again and looked once more to the screens.

The ship was gone.

* * *

Syl Vor was snoring.

To be perfectly truthful, it wasn't so much a snore as a sort of puff-puff-puff sound that Quin customarily found . . . comforting. If his small cousin were sleeping thus deeply, it must after mean that they were all perfectly safe, no matter that they were in hiding, and deliberately cut off from clan and kin.

Tonight, though -- say that tonight thoughts of kin weighed heavy on Quin's mind, magnifying the small sound of Syl Vor's sleep into an intolerable annoyance.

He had tried turning onto his side, and putting his head under the pillow. But then it was hot, and he couldn't find a comfortable place for his hands, and his feet kept twitching, and --

Syl Vor sneezed, tiny and sharp, like a kitten; he muttered, bed clothes rustling as he resettled himself without really waking up.

Quin took a careful breath, loud in the sudden silence.

There was no sound from the bunk beneath, where his cousin Padi slept as if all were well, as if they hadn't just today . . .

Well. It wasn't her father who hadn't reported in, after all. Cousin Shan had missed several call-ins, but then began reporting again, just as usual.

Pat Rin yos'Phelium, however . . .

Pat Rin yos'Phelium had never once reported in. Which meant . . .

Quin swallowed, hard.

It does not mean, he told himself, that Father is . . . is -- anything could have happened! He might be safe with, with an ally, or . . . traveling! Or . . .

But his inventiveness failed here, and after all he wasn't a youngling like Syl Vor. He knew what Plan B meant. More, he knew that people could die. That people did die.

Even people one cared about.

But not, he thought, Father. He's far too clever. He will have -- He will have done SOMEthing . . .

He swallowed again, and it was abruptly intolerable, lying here with his thoughts whirling, and the children asleep around him.

Syl Vor sneezed again.

Quin gritted his teeth and sat up in his bunk. He put the blanket aside, and swung silently over the edge.

* * *

Luken had walked the Rock for the third and last time during his shift, manually verifying every reading. It was in its way a soothing routine, and by the time he let himself into the family quarters, he was fairly calmed. He might, he thought, be calmer, if he could know what had moved that ship, now, and whether it had gone for good, or for ill.

It might be, he told himself, that the ship master had never harbored any intentions regarding themselves. There were reasons enough for a ship to drop out of Jump and tarry a time. Urgent repairs would be one reason. An importuned or wounded pilot, another. Also, a ship and a pilot might from time to time find it necessary to lie low for such reasons as tended to beset pilot-kind. It was an odd eddy of space they sat in, and far out from usual traffic. Still, they were not hidden, only inconveniently located. Despite which, a pilot of Korval had found it -- the place and the Rock -- and so another pilot might also.

A clatter drew his attention as he turned into the main hall. A clatter and a light, glowing green over the door to the galley. The lady's constitution was excellent, as was her discipline, but he had once or twice met Kareen yos'Phelium awake during the latter part of his shift. An early riser, she styled herself on the first such meeting, with a wry modesty much unlike her usual mode. She had offered him tea at that first, and perhaps not quite chance, meeting. He had accepted and they had talked the pot empty. And so it was on the second meeting, and the third. On the subject of their shared duty, he came to know her as a stern and subtle thinker, and was glad of her insights.

Indeed, he thought, putting his hand on the latch, he would be glad of her insight just now.

Nor would a cup of tea be out of the way.

The door slid aside. A slim figure in a rumpled robe turned from the counter, teapot in hand, opal blue eyes wide in a thin, golden face.

"Quin," said Luken, smiling.

"Grandfather!" the boy gasped, looking conscious. He smiled, then, and nodded down at the pot.

"Would you like a cup of tea? It's fresh made."

* * *

Grandfather looked tired, Quin thought. No, more than that, he looked worried. That was an honor. Grandfather was treating him like an adult, not like a child or a halfling to whom an untroubled face must be shown.

It was also deeply disturbing, which Quin had noticed was the case with many of adulthood's honors. He sipped his tea, watching Luken do the same, and wished that there was some way in which he could ease that all-too-obvious worry. His father, he thought, would know exactly what to do.

But his father wasn't here.

Heart cramped, Quin put his cup down.

"Would you like some cookies, Grandfather?" he asked.

Luken lowered his cup, and smiled gently. "Thank you, boy-dear, but I think not. The tea is very welcome, though." He sipped again, appreciatively, and placed his cup on the table. "Now, tell me, what brings you awake so early in the morn?"

When they had first come here, Grandmother Kareen had insisted that they keep the homeworld's hours and maintain a strict division of day and night. She said it was their duty, which Quin supposed it must be, since Grandmother knew everything about duty and how it was most properly fulfilled. For himself, Quin could have done with a little less duty and a little more Luken, though it worked out well enough once the two elders began to rotate shifts, "so that we do not become stale and accustomed," as Grandfather had it.

"Quin?"

He started, and sighed. "I was . . . thinking," he admitted, and suddenly leaned forward, his hands gripping each other painfully. "Grandfather, do you think -- do you think it goes well? It's been so long . . ."

"Has it been so long?" Luken murmured. He patted Quin's arm softly. "I suppose it has been some time, at that, and your year is longer than mine by reason of you having so few of them. Well." He picked up his cup.

Quin forced himself to sit back and picked up his own cup. The tea was good, he thought, but he didn't sip.

Neither did Luken.

"I think," he said slowly, as if he were considering the matter deeply, "that it goes as well as it may. Understand that some matters require more time than others. The First Speaker will surely wish to be certain of Korval's position and of our allies before she calls us to her side."

The First Speaker -- Cousin Nova, that was, who was almost as much of a stickler as Grandmother Kareen. Quin had once remarked to his father that Cousin Nova was no gambler, and received a sharp set-down for his impertinence.

I should hope that the one who holds the clan's future in trust for the delm is everything that is prudent. Gambling with lives is for Korval to do.

Quin bit his lip. "If it -- If the First Speaker needed pilots, she'd remember to send for me -- wouldn't she, Grandfather?"

"Things would be desperate indeed, boy-dear, before the First Speaker deprived us of our pilot."

Our pilot. That was, Quin thought, with some bitterness, him. Not that he'd been allowed to pilot anything more than a sim since they came here, and done enough board drills to last him a long lifetime. He held a second class card, but, he thought, he should have been a first class by now. Would have been, if Plan B hadn't caught them all in its net of duty and boredom.

"I'm scarcely a pilot if I'm not allowed to fly," he pointed out, his voice sounding churlish in his own ears. "Your pardon, Grandfather," he muttered, and sipped tepid tea.

"That's only the truth spoken," Luken said, pushing his cup across the table. "Pour for me, child."

He did, first filling Grandfather's cup, then his own, and put the pot aside.

"You recall the protocol," Luken said gently. "If I fall, the keys are yours, whereupon --"

"No!" Quin interrupted, so forcefully that his tea sloshed over the edge of the cup and onto his hand. "Grandfather, you are not going to fall!"

Luken raised his eyebrows. "Well, if it comes to that, it is my duty to fall, if it will buy the pilot and the passengers time to be away," he said mildly, and inclined his head. "Do you know, Quin, I think that I will have some cookies after all."

"Of course, Grandfather." He rose at once and went to the cabinet, had the tin down and took a moment to arrange the cookies on a plate. Just because we are in exile, Grandmother said, often, is no reason to descend into barbarism.

He took the plate to the table, offering it first to Luken, who took a single cookie, daintily, and bit into it with obvious enjoyment.

Quin put the plate in the center of the table, and reclaimed his chair. The cookies were his favorite -- vanilla and spice seed -- but he wasn't hungry. He sipped his tea.

"Now," Luken murmured gently, done with his treat, "what news?"

Quin blinked.

"I -- news, Grandfather?" he managed.

Luken sighed. "You must forgive a man grown old in the ways of Liad. It had seemed to me, boy-dear, that you placed a subtle emphasis on you in the declaration that I would not fall, which suggested to me that you have had news, perhaps, of . . . someone who may indeed have fallen."

Quin sighed. It was useless to try to hide things from Luken; he knew that. Really, Grandfather probably knew all and everything, even about Padi helping him crack the data-locks.

He sighed again and looked up into his Grandfather's eyes.

"Father hasn't signed in," he said slowly. "Not once since -- since Plan B . . ."

"Ah, I had forgotten that you held the access codes to the Roster," Luken said gently.

Quin pressed his lips together and said nothing. If by some chance Grandfather didn't know about Padi's assistance, he wouldn't hear of it from Quin.

"Very good," Luken said after a moment. "I must say that you surprise me, boy-dear. I would have thought you knew by now that one who listens at doors hears nothing good."

That was a lesson long ago learned, true enough, but--

"I had to know," he muttered.

"Of course you did," Luken replied courteously. He reached for another cookie and raised his eyes to Quin's. "Now, tell me: what it is that you know?"

"I --" He gasped, feeling tears rise, swallowed, and forced himself to meet Grandfather's calm, grey eyes.

"I know that Father hasn't signed in," he said steadily. He took a breath. "The rest is speculation."

"I see. Well." Luken bit into his cookie and sighed. "I agree that it is extremely vexatious of Pat Rin to have ignored protocol. His mother, your grandmother, is certain to ring a peal over him, when they are once again in the same room. For myself, I have determined to do nothing of the kind, for he will have had his reasons, you know. Your father does not much resemble an idiot."

Quin considered him, the heavy misery that had settled in his chest lightening somewhat.

"You know that he is . . . safe, then, Grandfather?"

Luken sighed and picked up his teacup.

"Child, I know nothing of the sort. I merely hope."

"Hope." He hadn't meant to speak so scornfully, not to Grandfather, and yet --

"It's no shameful thing," Luken murmured, "to hope. Nor would you be alone, did you take up the habit. We each of us hope for a Balanced outcome, and a speedy return home. Here, we hope for the safety of those who actively expose themselves to danger, while they hope to prevail, so that they and we will be reunited and that soon."

Quin cleared his throat, thinking of the last time he'd seen his father. They'd said their public good-byes at the foot of the gangway; his father had pressed his hand, and abjured him to study well, wearing what Quin thought of as his card-playing face. All very ordinary, and he was only going back to school, after all, and would be home again at the end of the term.

There had been no reason for it, but Quin had paused just as he was about to enter the shuttle. Paused and turned his head.

At the foot of the gangway stood his father still, his dark hair riffled by the evening breeze, his face . . . attentive. Quin caught his eyes, and Father smiled, wide and sweet, as he so seldom did, and never in public. Quin had smiled back; Father raised his hand, fingers rippling in the sign for soon. Then the steward called and Quin had to clear the door, find his seat, strap in, and lean back, all the while glowing with the warmth Father's smile.

"Quin?"

He looked up into Grandfather's eyes. "It would be good if we were called home soon," he said, gravely. "And in the meanwhile, Grandfather, it doesn't quite seem like Father to have allowed anything ill to befall him."

Luken smiled and put his warm hand over Quin's cold one.

"No, it doesn't, does it?"

* * *

"They've gone?"

Those were Kareen yos'Phelium's first words when she entered the control parlor to relieve Luken as guardian on duty. A sharp-tongued stickler she might be, and what she had done to his boy never to be forgot, or forgiven, but no one could say that the lady was dull or that her ability to do sums was in any way impaired.

"Directly before the last manual survey," Luken said, glancing again at the screen, yet innocent of lurkers. "I admit to a certain dismay."

"One would prefer them in eye," Kareen agreed, taking the second's chair. "Perhaps they grew bored?"

"I could find no ease along that road, though you might do better," Luken answered cordially.

Kareen sighed. "I expect I shall find none, either. It's an ill road, beginning to end." She frowned at the screen.

"Shall we take to the ship?"

According to the First Speaker's wisdom, he was the elder-in-charge; thus the question came properly to him. Of course. Nor was it an ill question, only annoying in the way that questions which have no clean answer so often were.

Certainly, one felt increasingly exposed, in this supposedly rarely traveled corner of space. Certainly, a ship afforded flexibility, mobility, that their current situation did not. And yet . . .

"A destination?" he murmured, inviting her suggestion.

Again, she sighed. "Without proper access to certain information . . ."

Precisely. A ship might also, of course, gain them the news feeds that their stable fortress location lacked. It was no use thinking of sending one out for news, of course; they had but a single ship. If one went, all accompanied.

There were, of course, sub-plans to guide them, committed to memory long ago, and each assuming a catastrophic impetus. This . . . uneasiness was formed by a circumstance that, despite the instincts of two grown old in society, might yet be only happenstance.

"If we formed a less vulnerable grouping . . ." Kareen murmured, perhaps to herself.

Oh, they were vulnerable, Luken agreed silently; never think otherwise! Two silver-hairs, two halflings, a younger, and a pair of babes-in-arms. Had they been more grown, or less old --

Well. Had they been more grown, Korval's treasures, there would have been no need to hide them away.

Luken looked to the screens . . . blinked and looked again.

"It may be," he said slowly, "that our decision has been made for us."

* * *

It was not the same ship, and it was possible that they had over-reacted in sending the children to the Ready Room, the ship keys usually on Luken's belt in Quin's hand, and the backup keys, in Padi's. Lady Kareen waited with him in the control parlor, one hand on the back of his chair, watching the screens over his shoulder, ready to move on the instant through the panel directly behind them.

On the screen, the ship approached, slowly, inexorably.

"Now . . ." Kareen breathed, and as if in response the first beacon sent its challenge.

The approaching ship made answer, properly. On the master board, Luken saw the beacon begin its countdown from twelve. If the ship were still range of its sensors when it came back online, it would die, friend or -- but there, it was past and on course for the second beacon.

A ship of the Clan, Luken thought, but found scant comfort in the thinking of it. Ships, after all, could be captured; and pilots subverted. The codes that held their doors against those who wished to gain Korval's treasures for their own enrichment were not invincible. And as much as he wished the vessel that was now past the second beacon and on its way to the third and last, to be the answer to all their waiting, the closer it came, the more he mistrusted it.

"Does it seem to you, good Master bel'Tarda,"Kareen yos'Phelium murmured in his ear, "that the ship we see is somewhat too . . . apt?"

"It occurs to me," he answered, his voice hushed. "One does so wish it to be a Korval vessel . . ."

"Precisely," she said, suddenly crisp.

Luken drew a careful breath, and watched the ship in the screens. I am too old for this, he thought and not nearly clever enough.

"The docking computer's been fairly answered," is what he said aloud. "Will you step aside while I go to greet our guest?"

"I'll remain here, I think," she said, not entirely surprisingly, "and monitor the situation. If matters . . . clarify, be assured that I know my duty."

None better, he thought, and pushed out of his chair, suddenly feeling all of his years and the accumulated weight of the children's.

"I daresay I won't be but a moment," he said with false cheer, and left the control parlor, heading for the dock.

* * *

Syl Vor sat with the twins, who were being very good, very quiet, in their separate carriers. That was precisely as it should be, Quin thought approvingly; Shindi and Mik were Syl Vor's job until they had to move. If they had to go before Grandmother was with them, then Syl Vor would pick up Shindi and he would take Mik, and they'd run as fast as they could, with Padi bringing up the rear. That was as it should be, too, because Padi was co-pilot; her charges, the pilot and the passengers.

Quin, watching the screen, thought that Grandfather and Grandmother had -- perhaps -- been too enthusiastic in their duty. Indeed, it was all he could do, to hold to discipline and not open the door. For surely, surely, this was recall at last, for here came a ship whose pilot held all the proper codes . . .

"Why don't we have an all-clear?" Padi demanded, echoing his thought. "The systems accept the ship -- it's docking! What more does Aunt want? A calling card?"

"They want the pilot to prove the door code, too," Quin said.

"Why?" Padi was fairly dancing from one foot to the other. "He had all the others. What proof can one more door hold?"

Quin touched the screen's keypad, accessing the camera on the hall outside the forward dock. It would, he thought, be Cousin Shan, or perhaps Cousin Anthora. Or . . . if Cousin Nova -- if the First Speaker couldn't spare any of the Line Direct for the errand, then it would certainly be Pilot Mendoza, or . . .

Familiar and firm. That was what Grandmother said. That the pilot the First Speaker sent to them, when it was come time to go home, would be familiar to them, and firm in their loyalty to Korval.

For long moments, the bay door remained sealed, ready light glowing green above it. Quin's stomach clenched. What if the pilot failed, after all, of having the proper codes for the door? That would mean -- Gods, would it mean that the ship had been stolen? Or that the pilot -- their pilot, familiar and firm -- had been stolen, and -- and coerced into revealing --

"Quin?"

Padi was frowning at him, and that would never do

He took a deep breath and gave her a smile. "Don't you want to know who has come for us?"

Her face relaxed into a grin.

"The pilot could," she agreed, "take our feelings into account and make some haste."

As if the pilot had heard her, the ready light snapped to yellow, and the bay door slid open.

"Syl Vor!" Quin hissed. "Count of twelve!"

He had never in his life seen the woman who stepped, soundless as a Scout, into the hallway.

* * *

The ship rejoiced in the name of Fortune's Reward; a ship of the line, lately assigned to the wastrel cousin, whom Korval's great enemy and the Juntavas alike had thought to be easy meat.

Not so the Office of Judgment, and in that they had been proven wise. Never an ill thing, to have the sagacity of the Judges proven.

It was ill, the pilot thought, releasing the webbing, but not yet rising from the chair . . . It was ill, indeed, that she came thus into Korval's most secret treasure-house, alone, and unknown to those who stood guard. It had been better -- but no matter. Done was done, and, truly, she had finessed more volatile situations. She would need to win them, that was all.

Win them.

She rose then, with no need to check her status. Her weapons were old friends; each of their caresses known and unique. They would not disturb her, nor unbalance her; and they would come to her hand when they were needed.

So, then, the codes; last in the series she had been given to memorize. She would in a moment open the door and step into Korval's treasure-house, where she would doubtless be greeted by one of the vigilant guardians.

Win them.

* * *

The door accepted the codes, whisking out of her way. Beyond, the hall was empty, saving the cameras and the vents that she did not doubt were an active part of security.

Happily, whoever monitored the camera, and presumably held the decision as to what sort of gas might fill this hallway, appeared to be of a deliberate nature. She had, after all, demonstrated mastery of the codes. The guard might grant an extra few minutes of life to such a one, awaiting . . . confirmation.

There was another door, at the top of the hall. She did not approach it; certainly she did not try it. Her information regarding what might happen, did she attempt either, had been specific.

By necessity, then, she waited.

For the cameras, she adopted an easy stance, proud without being prideful. She was a pilot; and pilots had pride. As did Judges, of course, and certain of the better class of Juntavas assassin.

Scarcely had she counted to eight when the door at the end of the hall -- the door that led to the interior, and all the treasures collected therein -- opened, admitting a man no longer young, his hair silver and his eyes wide and grey. Childlike, one might say, in ignorance.

As she was very much not ignorant, she bowed, supple and sweet, as she had been taught from a child.

"Master bel'Tarda," she said, in her soft, accented Liaden, "I am Inas Bhar." She gave him that name -- the one her father had bestowed upon her at birth. Her other names were such as might impart little comfort to a man with so much duty weighing upon him. Yet, there was room for comfort on both sides.

"Called Natesa," she added, straightening. She raised a hand, slowly, specifically unthreatening, and showed him the token. The tree-and-dragon flashed in the light, then held steady.

That should have been enough to seal the thing. She should have received from Luken bel'Tarda a bow, and perhaps a courteous word or two, and a pass into the rocky heart of the station.

What she received instead was the barest of nods -- scant, even meager, courtesy -- and a question, harsh in the mode of Stranger to the House.

"Who sent you?"

It was, on its face, a reasonable question, as she was, indeed, a stranger to this house, and to this guardian. Yet the mode -- not one of the kindest, no, but yet without an inherent harshness; that was from the man himself. And that -- gave one pause.

To cover her moment of calculation, she bowed again, youth deferring to years.

"Master, I am sent jointly by Korval Themselves, and by the Boss of Surebleak. Their personal names are, perhaps, known to you: Val Con yos'Phelium, Miri Robertson, and Pat Rin yos'Phelium."

Luken bel'Tarda's face tightened. It could not be said that he was inept, or in any less control of his face than one would expect of an elderly Liaden who was, in addition, a merchant of renown -- still, Natesa felt that what she had seen was hope, sternly suppressed.

"Why did they not come themselves?" Luken demanded, keeping still to a harshness that must, from all she had been taught of his nature, pain him considerably.

She did not bow this time, though she inclined her head slightly, and sent him as soft a glance as she might manage from beneath her lashes.

"You may not have heard that the Council ordered Korval to depart the homeworld, declaring the Captain's Contract void. The clan, therefore, seeks to set down roots on the planet Surebleak, where they have the advantage of kin to aid them."

She paused. He waited, his silence reminding her that she had not answered his question.

"Korval is needed at the forefront, as they are the face and voice of the Clan. yos'Galan is likewise required to show themselves good for business, and also, to supervise the peaceful settling of the house. It was thought that I would accompany Pat Rin to you -- in fact, it was quite set, until there was a difficulty among his jurisdictions which could neither be ignored nor left for a lieutenant.

"It was then decided that a young cousin -- Gordy Arbuthnot -- might sit my second; another emergency claimed him when we came to the port itself." She did bow this time, feeling that it was proper.

"Thus I came alone, Master, trusting to what I have been given to know, and to the goodwill and uncommon sense of yourself and Lady Kareen. The delm's order must be obeyed."

"That is of course true for we who stand within the delm's honor, Inas Bhar, called Natesa," Luken said, his intonation less harsh; his mode unchanged. "You must forgive me for wondering why you feel thus."

Natesa sighed. She would very much have preferred to answer this particular question in far different circumstances. Preferences were not spaceships, alas, and only truth and candor would win this old man's trust. Pat Rin had told her as much.

She met his eyes firmly. "I have the honor to stand as Pat Rin yos'Phelium's lifemate," she said.

Luken's eyebrows rose, but whatever he was about to say in answer to such a bold claim was cut off by the opening of the door.

She had seen a picture of this young pilot, but even if she had not, there was no doubting who he was. Far too much of his father showed in his face -- his father in a temper, if every truth were told.

Natesa bowed, pilot-to-pilot, that being the least challenging of the modes readily available to her, and one that observation had shown to be acceptable -- even soothing -- to all of Korval, of whatever rank, saving Pat Rin himself.

"Quin yos'Phelium, I greet you."

He did not return the courtesy, though he allowed himself to be stopped by Luken's out-flung arm.

"Why hasn't my father reported in?" he demanded.

* * *

In the end it was the recording, hastily made and poor in quality, that won them. They heard it, all together, in the control parlor, Luken standing shoulder to shoulder with Lady Kareen, a spare woman with iron gray hair and hard dark eyes. Quin and the others of Korval's treasure were ranged behind them. Even the babes were silent as the brief message played; and Quin was seen to blink rapidly several times, as if to vanquish tears.

"Father, Mother -- I greet you and I ask forgiveness, that I do not come to you myself. Necessity demands that I be elsewhere -- a fuller accounting will be made when we are all again enclanned. In the meanwhile, I desire you to accept the protection and escort of my lifemate, Inas, also called Natesa. It may seem madness that the children are desired in the midst of such disarray as she will acquaint you with. Be assured that it is the delm's madness, and very much the lesser of several risky paths.



"We are, every one of us, safe, a happier outcome than I would have predicted only a few relumma gone. Come home, now. The delm desires it no more than I do.

"Until soon."

Despite the tape, Natesa could tell that neither of the elders was entirely at ease with her -- for which she blamed them not at all. She asked them to trust much, and recordings, after all, could be forged -- or forced.

And, yet . . . There was something -- an undercurrent between them; something, Natesa thought, that they knew and which the children did not. Something that was inclining them toward her, even more than Pat Rin's voice, or her possession of the codes.

"I think that we must," Lady Kareen said at last. "If the delm is mad, it is no more than Korval has ever been, and yet the Clan endures."

"I agree," Luken said, and looked to Natesa.

"These other risks the boy speaks of. What of those?"

What of those, indeed.

Natesa spread her hands.

"There was a story told in nursery when I was a child, of a peculiar beast which had seven heads, all savage. It would seem that the best -- indeed, the only -- way to defeat such a creature was to strike off its heads . . ."

"I know this story!" cried the smaller boy -- Syl Vor, his name was. "Every time one of the heads was cut off, the creature grew two!"

She smiled at him, where he knelt beside the babes in their baskets.

"Precisely so." She looked to the lady and gentleman, waiting with edged politeness. "To stretch the simile full-length, Korval struck off the head of its enemy -- perhaps even the greater one, that ruled coordination, schedules, and necessities. But in doing that, it has freed dozens of lesser heads to act independently."

The elders exchanged a speaking glance.

"We go," the lady said decisively.

The gentleman inclined his head. "I agree."

He nodded to Natesa. "We have a ship, which of course the delm will not wish to lose. Quin here is rated an able pilot. Let us --"

"Grandfather?" the girl, young Padi, interrupted. She was, Natesa saw, staring at the screens.

"What ship is that?"

* * *

Guns -- in Grandfather's hand; in Grandmother's hands.

Father's lifemate -- her hands were held before her, slender fingers spread, declaring herself no threat.

Quin threw a glance at the screen, at the ship approaching Beacon One along the proper vector.

"You have shown them the path," Grandmother said, her voice so cold that Quin shivered.

Pilot Natesa tipped her head. "Please explain," she said.

It wasn't Grandmother, but Grandfather who did that, in a clipped, hard voice nothing like his own.

"This same ship has been lurking at the edge of scan-range the last four-day. It vanished, you appeared."

What? Quin pushed forward.

"Why didn't you--" he began, and gasped when Padi stamped on his foot.

"It is possible that I did show them the path," Pilot Natesa said, calmly; "or some part of it." There was a sharp snap, which was the safety coming off of one of the weapons.

It might have been someone cracking a nut, for all the attention Pilot Natesa paid it.

"If they have the proper codes," she continued, in her calm, musical voice, "then you may dispense with me. If they do not have the codes, I beg that you will allow me to assist."

Quin bit his lip. Father has lifemated a gambler, he thought. Of course he had; like called to like.

"Assist!" Grandmother snapped. "If they do not have the proper codes, there will be nothing to assist with, as the beacons will have --"

Syl Vor gasped.

Quin turned, his eyes leaping to the screen that showed the ship, which had not moderated itself in the least, nor, according to the legend at the bottom, broadcast any code.

A thin red line came from what must be the stranger ship's forward laser cannon.

Beacon One exploded.

Grandfather slid his gun away and bowed to Pilot Natesa.

"We accept your assistance," he said.

* * *

Quin sat at the pilot's station; Padi at second, Grandfather in the jump seat between, where he could see both boards, though he had none of his own. Grandfather might only be a third class, but he had been a pilot for longer than Quin and Padi together had been alive, and experience, so his instructors had impressed upon him, counted.

It was not their own ship they piloted, but Father's Fortune's Reward, that Pilot Natesa had brought to them. He and Padi had done a rapid board check, and he had found those pre-sets that Pilot Natesa had told him of, coded precisely as she had said. A quick check with the navcomp verified that their course was for Surebleak near-space -- again, precisely as the pilot had said.

He fingered the keys, bringing the pre-sets into the active queue. One tap and they would load. One tap . . . but not quite yet.

Padi had the audio wide on all the bands. He himself was connected by private line to the control parlor, where they had left Grandmother and Pilot Natesa. The screens showed the docking bay, live, feeds of near-space . . . and the terrible approach of the wolf-ship. All three beacons were gone, now, and the ship was on-course for the opposite-side dock.

Quin chewed his lip, and wiped damp palms surreptitiously down his thighs. What was to prevent the wolf-ship from loosing their weapons on Runig's Rock, breaching it, killing . . .

He ground his teeth, tried to bring his ragged breathing under control -- and felt a hand, firm and warm on his shoulder.

"Pilot Natesa seems to be fully capable," Grandfather said, as calm and unhurried as if they were discussing whether or not to go for a walk. "And her reasoning is, by my reckoning, sound."

Quin swallowed, inclined his head, recalled the pilot's explanation.

"They have been brutal with the beacons, yes -- but the beacons are merely mechanicals -- barriers to their progress. This place -- is a treasure-house of many kinds. They will not wish to undermine it, nor to destroy that for which they search. Their first goal must be yourselves, for hostages have a high value. However, they must also be on the hunt for any small thing that may give them an advantage, or a grasp upon Korval."

"Dragon by the tail," Padi had said, irrepressible even in this hour of danger.

Pilot Natesa laughed.

"Foolish, are they not?" she asked, seeming almost merry. "Yet they must be answered sternly, for their foolishness cannot be allowed to endanger us. Thus --"

She had turned to Quin then, keys in hand and her eyes serious. Quickly, concisely, she had given him the board-codes and the key under which the pre-sets had been filed.

He had his doubts. Especially he had his doubts about leaving Grandmother behind.

She, however, had brooked no argument.

"The pilot is wise, and I make no doubt, experienced," she said coolly. "I will remain, as I know the systems, and may provide back-up."

"Grandmother --" he began, and stopped when she held up her hand, imperious.

"I know my duty, as you know yours. Pilot."

There was no answering her in this mode, Quin knew, yet to leave two -- one of them his Grandmother -- to face who knew what kind and number of savage crew? How would he answer his father for that?

It was then that Pilot Natesa placed her neat hand upon his arm.

"So soon as this small task is completed, Pilot Quin, we will be away, in the very ship of the Clan, so that the delm will have no cause to scold either of us for losing it," she said softly, her dusky face calm, and a smile in her dark eyes.

Obviously, the pilot anticipated nothing more than a few moments' inconvenience. She was his superior, in rank and in age. And, as Grandmother had said, he knew his duty.

"They're docked," Padi said, jolting him back to the here-and-now of his board. A moment later came Grandmother's confirmation, for his ear alone.

"Our visitors are committed. On my count of six, Pilot yos'Phelium. One."

Padi hit the in-ship.

"Syl Vor, are you strapped in?"

"I am!" he called back from the cabin he shared with the twins, who had already been made secure.

"Stay that way until we sound all-clear."

"All right," Syl Vor answered, amiable as always. "Do you think Mother will be at the port? And Uncle Shan?"

"Remember, the pilot told us there was a great deal of busyness, boy-dear," Luken said, leaning forward and directing his voice toward the mic. "We shall see them, soon enough, though. No fears."

"No fears, Grandfather," Syl Vor agreed.

"Six," Grandmother said, calm and purposeful.

Quin reached to the board, and Fortune's Reward dropped away from Runig's Rock.

* * *

"They're away," Pat Rin's lady mother said.

"That is well," Natesa replied, leaning over the back of the chair. The dock light glowed a steady green in the screen; the hallway she had entered so short a time ago empty and bright.

"Am I correct in assuming that the hallway may be filled with something other than plain air?"

"You are," said Lady Kareen.

"It would be simplest," Natesa said, "if they would fall at once. Do you watch here and when they are fairly into the hall, release your most potent, non-lethal mixture."

The lady tipped her head, as if she might question this, as well she might; prisoners were always a risk, and yet --

"The delm will wish to speak with them," Kareen yos'Phelium said, and inclined her head. "I shall do as you say, Pilot. And yourself?"

"I?" Natesa shook her head. "I will assume that they are clever enough for suits, and shall be devising a secondary plan."

The lady was seen, faintly, to smile.

"Very good, Pilot," she said, and looked to her board.

* * *

The Jump point was coming up. Fortune's Reward was steady as she went. Screens in all directions clear, saving those to the rear, which showed Runig's Rock, sitting quiet in its little eddy of space, to all appearances inert.

"Approaching Jump," Quin said, unnecessarily. He glanced to the rear screens again, hoping to see the second ship -- their ship -- tumbling away from dock.

What he saw instead, in the instant before normal space blurred Jump-gray, was a jerk, as if the station had been hit by space junk, or --

The warning chime sounded, and he brought his attention to the board.

* * *

They had been clever enough for suits, and not nearly as careful as she had hoped they would be.

Natesa fell back as they entered the main hallway through the shattered door, weapons ready, spread out in a pattern that told her they knew their business well.

She regretted, for a moment, Pat Rin's mother, then gave over regrets altogether.

* * *

The warning chime sounded, and Fortune's Reward was out into normal space.

Crowded and unfamiliar normal space.

Quin snatched at the controls, bringing weapons up, demanding answers from the navcomp.

"Padi, grab the beacons, please," he said calmly, because he was too frightened to be anything but calm. "Then get the local feeds. We're off course."

A moment's wrestling with the navcomp showed that they were off-course, though not as much as he had feared. More, the reason was perfectly obvious -- in fact, it surrounded them.

Surebleak near-space wasn't merely crowded, it was crammed with ships. Scout ships, small traders, large yachts, and a great number of mid-sized craft, not meant for long-Jump, but well-enough for short trips.

Padi fed him the beacon locations; he pulled the chart, located port and fed the numbers to the navcomp. That done, he began to calculate a course of his own, and winced when Padi brought audio up a little too strong.

"Tree-and-Dragon," someone close said, and that was -- maybe that wasn't good.

"Kill our ID," he told Padi, and saw the appropriate light at the top of the board go dark.

He felt Grandfather shift behind him, as if in protest -- and then still. The pilot made those decisions for the ship, and Quin was the pilot.

As it happened, he hadn't been quick enough.

"Message from Tower, welcoming Fortune's Reward home," Padi said. "They request access, and promise a quick descent to the . . . the boss' own pad."

"The . . . boss?" Quin said, memory stirring, but failing to fully wake.

"That will be your father, boy-dear," Grandfather said from the jump-seat. "The Boss of Surebleak, Pilot Natesa styled him. You recall it."

Now he did, at any rate.

Cheeks warm, he addressed his co-pilot.

"Please thank the Tower, and allow access."

* * *

Tower pulled their files, and routed them the promised fast drop to port, whereupon they busied themselves with shutdown, not to full sleep, but to twilight. That had been Grandfather's suggestion, and while it was undoubtedly a good one, Quin felt his stomach cramp with renewed worry.

If Grandfather had second thoughts about Pilot Natesa's tale now . . .

Shutdown complete, they gathered the twins and Syl Vor. By then, the hull was cool, but it seemed that none of them wanted to open the hatch.

While they were standing in the piloting chamber, looking uneasily at each other, the comm pinged.

Padi leapt for it, got the bud in her ear, listened, and stammered, "Yes, sir, at once," she licked her lips. "Pending pilot's approval."

She turned to Quin. "Tower relays a message: The boss requests that we open the hatch."

Quin stepped forward -- and stopped, his arm caught by Luken, who handed him Shindi.

"I'll go first, boy-dear."

Quin looked to Padi and gave her a nod. She fingered the sequence and the hatch came up.

* * *

Three men in pilot leather stood in the hatchway. The biggest man was Terran, Quin thought, and he stayed well to the rear, calling as little attention to himself as a big man might.

The man nearest --

It was Father, after all! Father wearing a pilot's jacket, with his hair in need of a trim, and his face chapped, as if he spent a lot of time out in the cold wind that blared through the open hatch.

He embraced Grandfather, and Quin looked to the man who stood a little to the side. That man was . . . strangely difficult to see, as if he were somehow thinking himself invisible. Once one had him in eye, however, he was found to look like Grandmother; dark hair going to gray, and ironic black eyes.

"Quin!"

Padi snatched Shindi out of his arms and he was caught in a strong hug, cheek to cheek.

"Quin. Child, I am all joy to see you!"

Father stepped back. Quin sniffled and blinked, embarrassed to be found crying, but then he saw that he had no need, because Father was weeping, too.

"Welcome," he said, "to your new home."

He turned, then, holding his hands out to Padi and to Syl Vor.

"Welcome. Your parents send their love, and their regret that duty keeps them so long away. Directly, we will go to Jelaza Kazone, as soon as --"

He raised his head, looking beyond Syl Vor, as if expecting someone to emerge yet from the interior of the ship.

Quin gulped, and stepped forward, his hand on Father's arm.

"She's not here," he said, his voice wavering.

Father looked back to him, his face suddenly still. Frighteningly still.

"Is she not?" he murmured.

"There were intruders," Grandfather said, turning from a low-voiced discussion with the pilot who so looked like Grandmother. "Truly, the pilot came to us in the very nick of time, boy-dear -- and stayed behind with your mother to deal with the problem. Neither would see wolves among the Clan's holdings, nor would they have us pursued."

"Of course not," Father said, his voice cool and smooth. His gambling voice, Quin thought. He shook himself, then, and looked back, to where the big man tarried on the gantry.

"Mr. McFarland," he said in Terran, "I shall be returning immediately to Runig's Rock. Pray you take my father, and our children under your care, and see them safe to the delm at Jelaza Kazone."

"All right, sir. Daav sitting second?"

"I wouldn't miss it for worlds," the pilot who looked like Grandmother said, his voice deep and rough.

"I'm coming, too," someone said, as Grandfather and the rest sorted themselves without question, preparing to accompany Mr. McFarland.

Quin blinked, recognizing his own voice -- and the rightness of his assertion.

"Oh?" Father considered him, one eyebrow raised. "By what right?"

Quin cleared his throat, and glanced at the elder pilot, who gave him an encouraging nod.

"I left them there," he said. "Pilot Natesa and Grandmother."

"You can scarcely argue the pilot's melant'i," the elder pilot said.

"Can I not?" Father gave him a cold stare. The usual effect of such a stare was a glance aside and a bow of submission.

The elder pilot laughed, then looked to Quin, black eyes glinting.

"I have the honor to be your grandmother's brother. My name is Daav. You will address me, please, as Uncle Daav, as I don't feel able to support Grand-Uncle." He returned his attention to Father. "Pat Rin, do you go?"

"At once."

"Excellent. I engage to talk the Tower into giving us a quick lift while you, Pilot Pat Rin, look to your course. Pilot Quin, the jump-seat for you, sir; you've flown enough, and there are two here able to relieve you."

Uncle Daav had an oddly decisive way about him, for someone who proposed to sit second, Quin thought, but he folded into the jump-seat with a certain amount of relief.

He considered the screens as the pilots began their work, and so it was that he was the first to have eyes on the neat, and very familiar ship coming down near to hand.

"They're here!" he cried, snapping upright. He pointed -- and then froze, looking to Father's face.

"It may not be --"

Uncle Daav touched the toggle and the general port babble filled the cabin.

"Shadow Drake," came Pilot Natesa's soft, calm voice, riding a wave of argument over an extended wait time. "We are down and locked. Shutdown proceeds immediately."

From the pilot's chair, a sound between a laugh and a cry.

"Bother," said Uncle Daav, sweeping his hand down the board. "I had so been looking forward to a flight." He sighed, theatrically, reminding Quin of Cousin Shan. "Well, I suppose one must make the most of it. Shall we go over and display our manners, Pilot Pat Rin?"

Father gave a long sigh, and reached out to trigger the final shutdown.

"Indeed," he said, his voice not quite steady; "we should."

* * *

"It will require Housekeeping," Natesa told Pat Rin, after they had embraced and he had assured himself that she was well. "And -- I regret -- there was damage to the Clan's holding."

"Damn the Clan's holding," Pat Rin said into her hair, and sighed.

"Such terrible risks, Inas."

"Nonsense," she answered. "And, you know, I would not have your mother think me faint-hearted, or unworthy of you."

He laughed at that, which was well, and allowed her to step out of his embrace, though he retained a grip on her hand.

Elsewhere in Shadow Drake's piloting chamber, Quin sat, palpably patient, and studying the board as if he had never seen one before. Daav yos'Phelium lounged against the back of the co-pilot's chair, to first glance completely at ease.

Second glance, however, marked a certain tension in his shoulders and the cock of his hip, and the way his glance returned, time and again, to the door that led to the passenger's section.

"Lady Kareen," Natesa began, and paused as the door flicked open, admitting the lady herself, none the worse for the wear, saving some singed hair and a neatly bandaged scrape along her arm.

One step into the chamber, she paused, dark eyes on the tall shape in his lounge against the chair.

"Kareen," he said, his voice quiet, his tone absolutely neutral.

The lady took a breath deep into her lungs.

Sighed it out.

"Daav," she temperately, in the mode between kin. "Well met, brother."


Moon on the Hills

Surebleak

Yulie had the frights pretty bad this time, bad enough that he'd waited, tucked down and froze-quiet in the rugged hatcher-nut grove in the hills well above the road, shaking, until long after the noisy threesome from somewhere down-road rushed to the clearest of the paths to the south in the face of impending darkness.

What exactly his visitors had been doing he didn't know -- they'd called out hullo and whoha whoha a few times, like they didn't know if the place was empty -- and one of them called out "Captain Shaper" twice, and that made no sense since Grampa had been dead for so long Yulie could hardly remember his face sometimes without looking at the image files. Likely someone had the house-spot listed somewhere as a leasehold to the dead company, but heck, that was so far back it shouldn't matter to no one. They'd called his name once or twice too, he thought, but by then he'd been moving away and it might just as well have been a trick of the wind.

"We need to talk with you!"

Maybe those were the words he'd heard, but even as he'd thought to come down, he hadn't -- there was dread in his way. He hadn't had any company since Melina Sherton had walked up some butter awhile back, being a good neighbor like she was, for all that she was a Boss. But he'd known her since he was a kid. Strangers -- no he wasn't much used to strangers around and it did make him worry.

They'd probably been in the house if they wanted, since the door didn't lock beyond mild, and he could only hope that they hadn't searched too hard -- if he was lucky they'd left him the gun on the wall. Real luck was that they'd probably believed the ancient outhouse shoved against the outcrop was what it looked like.

The whining of the overloaded buggy died down along with the temperature, and still he waited, hearing the regular sounds return as the mindlessness of fear receded. He wilted against a tree then, aware of the tiny movements in the leaves and drying field grass, of the wind's sigh, super aware of his vulnerability. The visitors all had guns, and he -- he'd left his hand gun back in the safe and the long gun locked into the rack. He hadn't carried them with him for quite some time.

He knew better, he did, especially since some of the city folk thought they could come up and hunt anywhere that wasn't in the city. He didn't mind them shooting at rats or wild dogs or whatever someplace else, but here -- here they had no dogs, and the field creatures were few and far between mostly. The other potential targets -- well, Rollie'd explained it to the neighbors the year of the problem, and they'd posted signs, and it ought to be clear he preferred being left alone, him and the cats.

And they hadn't looked to be intending assault…

Not that he had reason to be assaulted, but they came from down the road, and Rollie'd gone down the road one day and never come back, dead from not knowing one boss from another, or from not having the sense not to antagonize a port city block-boy at a tollgate.

The odd thing was that the road -- the road Rollie'd gone down, the road that grew to carry edibles for city folks, the road that ran all the way to port; that road, it started here. Here, on the property he called his, running right by the door of the cabin, right by the vegetable patch, right to the very cliffs that marked the first dig -- and Rollie, like always, was the one wanted to wander the other way. He'd looked over Worlds End enough that he wanted to get away from it, down the road with the lectracart in front of him, cart full of produce and him full of ideas.

"I'll have news of the doings, when I get back. Big changes, you know. Big changes!"

His brother's last words to him, "Big changes!"

Yulie shivered, more from the memory than the weather. Mud, mud, mud! His old grandfather'd been a spaceman and that was the worst thing to him about being on a planet -- the dirt and the mud and the rain -- and here he was, the last of his Grampa's line as far as he knew, what with Rollie dead in the city, down the road.

That reminded him that he still owed a fetch of onions and maybe some grassnip to the lady, but he'd been pretty well shook to a standstill recently, and the debt was his accounting and not hers, anyway.

The debt-letter was still in the house, walked up from Boss Melina Sherton's closest tollbooth by a kid with a swagger. It felt like weeks ago, not like a year, like it was. Some things stick with a man, some things don't.

"You relative to Rollie Shapers?"

He'd nodded, standing at the door, annoyed enough to insist -- "Shaper, that'd be. Don't sizzle at the end of it."

The kid had shrugged, unslung his daysack, pulled out a letter and a bag. He handed over the letter, held onto the bag, eyeballing the cats around the field edge before bringing his attention back to Yulie.

"Down to the big whorehouse they had these to send on up -- 'spose to be for you, I guess. If you can write, I ought have your name here on this line to give back to Miss Audrey so she know I done it."

So Yulie had gingerly taken the big fancy pen and signed the proffered clean white sheet of real paper Yulian Rastov Shaper. He did know how to read and write, because Grandpa had made that rule for all of the family. If he'd had kids he'd teach them. Rollie -- he'd been Roland Yermanov Shaper. He'd not much been interested besides half-day gardening with side trips to The Easiery or girlfriends -- he'd also known how to write, and sometimes Yulie came across odds and ends of notes on recipe cards and such, notes that weren't from Grampa or Emily or Susten or -- any of his ladies, so it must have been Rollie.

He handed the signed sheet to the kid, who'd sealed it in one quick finger rub into a certiseal, his thumb hard on both sides before negligently dropping it into his pack, and handed over the bag.

Inside the bag, Yulie'd been given a big fancy sealed brown envelope, with a return emblem at the top of "Miss Audrey's Deluxe, Port City, Surebleak." It wasn't an address he recognized but he'd never really been deep to the city, so that names weren't much connected.

Inside the envelope was a letter, hand writ, with a date and the same return address as the outside, that started "Dear Kin or Friend of Rollie Shaper."

He'd got that dread feeling then because hardly anyone wrote to him, ever -- mostly just folks requesting extra greens or hoping for something out-of-season -- and Grampa had spoke about how he'd had to write kin-letters more than once, and how hard they were to write even if there really wasn't much to say.

Sometimes he could push that dread back so he could see, and that's what he did, pushed it away hard.

Dear Kin or Friend of Mr. Rollie Shaper, the letter went, Rollie was a patron at Portside Deluxe some days ago and on expiration of his room rental his effects were collected and placed in storage, where we have them now. Unfortunately, it later became clear on evidence that Mr. Shaper was the previously unidentified victim of an altercation, and had died of his injuries before medical assistance could be sought. The block clean-up committee's report should be attached; they had a working med-tech known to me with them who certified the negative results of revival tests and the clean-up committee's standing disposal instructions were followed, with ashes included in the weekly south garden run.

The letter went on of course, and he'd read it through, requesting him to come on down to the city to pick up the effects. What would they be? Could his Grampa's Musonium still be there? The good blade that Rollie'd always carried though it was supposed to stay at home? Cash in bits or dex or maybe gold weights? Her name was at the end, and business-like as it was, the lady's signature was bold and delicate at the same time.

He'd had to think a moment about the ashes, because it was a strange thought, that sweaty noisy busy Rollie could be something other than he'd ever been, but they said so, and had bothered to write to him, which was probably proof enough. The south garden, that was one on the far side of the port itself, down toward the flat of the land. He'd never been there, but the maps and Grampa both said that's where the small gardens were supposed to be back before the spaceport was plopped dead center on the best growing land the continent had, on account of it being convenient.

Then he'd started to look at the report, but it wasn't something kin wanted to see, really, about how many cuts and -- so he folded it in, and held himself a second or two, knowing that he wanted to know and that he didn't want to know, knowing that he'd seen something like that once, entrance wounds and exit wounds and --

The feeling was building as the boy stood there, the feeling that something was going to happen, that more bad was going to happen, that the clouds held weight beyond rain, and that something really really bad --

When it hit, the panic, it was solid, like a crashing wall of rock falling on reason, to the point that he saw that gray nothingness where vision should be, where if he concentrated and stared hard he found his shoes and his hands fearfully far away, like looking the wrong way through Grampa's optical telescope.

He'd held on, still, so he wouldn't run. He'd stood there long enough for the kid to ask "You got anything to send back? Got any smoke or …"

But as much as Yulie'd gotten to feel his breath run out, as much as he'd felt his hands go numb, and his eyes begin to search for the way out, that much so, with all that, he'd managed to scrape together the proper and secure, "We don't got smoke here, boy, nor want it. Got something for your trouble, though, and something for Miss Audrey."

For Miss Audrey, the spice herbs, prime grassnip, just picked. They'd been going to go to the city on Rollie's next walk down the road, so they might as well go now, anyhow, and then he'd picked up two of the prettiest spudfruit he'd seen in awhile -- easily a meal or two for the kid and his family -- and he'd handed them over.

"For your trouble," he'd said, "but you better go now."

The kid heard a warning, grabbed the offerings and packed out, and Yulie'd managed to get the letter and report inside, grabbing at the door, grabbing at the table, scattering cats, scattering thought, the panic rising so bad …



And then he'd given it direction, and lumbered out the door, knocking shoulder on door frame and on the door, gathering speed, running across what Grampa had named the meadow, and heedlessly over the small bed of field beans and through the bluefruits, entirely without thought for the value, or for anything but getting away, of running, of --

He'd run so far and so fast he almost ran off the edge they called World's End, which wasn't the end of the world, after all, but the carved cliff a hundred times his height and more, the first place the mining company had stripped bare with the mining machines to tug out the tiny veins of timonium in their matrix of junk rock and near uranics.

Below, the suddenly tempting vista of scrag rock, rubble, sand, and several twisty, barren streams of water. The colors of the lip of land he trembled on were the scrawny green and yellow of the local ground-grass, a touch of thatch, the dark flutter of a blowing leaf. Below was shadowed rock and water the color of the cliff walls and … nothing else, a scar a century and more unhealed.

He'd stopped, sweating, barely able to catch his breath, barely thinking, starting to think that maybe this time, this would be the time -- but no, not now, he couldn't. The nuts would need harvest, and the -- and -- but what would he do? Rollie'd always taken the stuff down road once Mom had gone away. Rollie'd always --

Dead. Rollie was dead. He'd took all their money and used it -- used it at the whorehouse without telling him! -- and now he was dead and dust!

Rage then. A black leaf spun past into the gorge, and he'd kicked a rock unsteadily at the abyss, and almost slipped in his breathless weakness, and the fear rose in him again, and now he was afraid of World's End, and of himself.

He'd run, as best he could then, in the back of his mind recalling that kid game where they'd counted, "four thousand big steps from the stoop to the end of the world!" His run was sometimes no more than a heedless willful stumble in the right direction, gathering scratches and bruises, feeling afraid of the sky, feeling afraid of the road, feeling like he couldn't find breath, knowing that he couldn't find breath. He'd skinned his shins crossing the stoop, falling into house, and barely shouldered the door shut, locking it three times behind him.

It was three days before he'd managed to get outdoors again, two of them spent huddled in the threadbare bed, staring, thinking, letting impossible things and small noises frighten him into stiff, senseless panic, closed eyes worse than open. That first night, only Nugget, the frail very skinny cat, had come to sleep with him, and then not really sleep, but sit at the bottom of the bed with big eyes, worried and unpurring. On the third day, Yulie managed to eat, and then to remember that the crops would need in, real soon.

Some days he kept track of time, some days he didn't. The crops and the cats and the auto-calendar helped him keep up, mostly. Almost a year to the day since Rollie was gone, and things still needed doing.

Today . . . today he'd actually contemplated walking all the way down to the first tollgate, but then the searchers had showed up while he was in the field, and he'd fled.

Stretching, finally, letting the leaf-fall and rough browning grass comfort him, Yulie curled his head on his arms against a wind-breaking rock.

* * *

Mr. pel'Tolian's note, franked as it was with a pristine Korval seal, looked out of place amid the piles of local paper, envelopes, and mismatched inks. He'd moved it aside several times, knowing that it could wait, knowing that the business of Boss Conrad of Surebleak was far more pressing than the business of a Pat Rin yos'Phelium, man about town on the distant and increasingly inhospitable world of Liad. The note had arrived on the overnight, likely brought in by a scout ship or a Juntavas courier; possibly it had arrived via Korval's own packet vessels. Surely it was not more than a day or two out of Solcintra Port, unlike many of the items in these piles which had taken days to travel up from the port or down Blair Road, hand to tollbooth to hand to end up here, with him, in a pile. A pile which had waited patiently while he was away to Liad, but which demanded attention now that he was returned and despite that he'd rather be walking arm in arm with his lady to his casino, or even just having lunch with his planning committee.

Piles -- piles were his bane. Back home -- on Liad -- his mail came in neat bundles, a few paper newsletters and such, invitations more frequently, business items -- rarely more than a piece or two -- and already sorted by likely priority by the early and steadfast action of Mr. pel'Tolian himself. The mail and news came self-sorted into the proper channels and databases of his day screen, where it could be added to his carry book or not.

Here, there were piles. And in the piles . . .

Some were letters on paper to begin with, others were letter size now because anything of on-world interest that needed to be shared beyond his own staff likely would need to be in paper format to facilitate that sharing. And paper format needed to be logged, signed, notated, carried, stored, lifted -- and piled.

Once that happened, of course, and items were acted on, there was a multiplication rather than reduction of piles --

Pat Rin sighed. Across the room, Silk, the resident cat, stirred, and opened one eye enough to check on the Boss and his work. Ensconced on a pile of paper land records from the old days of the mining company, his work was going fine, thank you.

For himself, Pat Rin stretched, pleased that there was neither pain nor ache when he did. He was aware, too, that his family included Healers…and that a recent three-breath, closed-eye hug from Cousin Anthora, followed by a smile and a simply-said "You've been taking chances, Cousin. I knew you could." meant that she'd gathered to him healing that a month of Surebleak clinic could not.

Well, then.

Now in hand, Mr. pel'Tolian's note had more weight to it than he'd expected. Unsealing it, he saw it contained not only a letter but several visiting cards. He laughed -- ah yes, Shan would have no doubt much enjoyed dispensing these -- after all, they still carried the soon to be eliminated Trealla Fantrol address.

Lord Pat Rin, the letter began without flowery preamble, this day I received in your name a visitation by the yos'Galan lifemates and Miss Anthora in the pursuit of the final removal, as we previously discussed. I have secured passage for myself as well as the entire contents of your Nasingtale Alley establishment. In keeping with our ongoing arrangements, I include Mistress Miranda in these travel plans and am assured that she will find the trip comfortable; rest assured she will travel in my suite and will not be paraded about the ship.

Your clan rug was rightfully of special interest to your guests and my bindings on it were checked by all. Miss Anthora and Lady Mendoza also did a "security walk-through" inasmuch as there have been several efforts by the curious to obtain a glimpse of the interior since your shot to the capital. Miss Anthora located several items long missed by Master Quin; these have been included in his desk, which is sealed for shipping. The final containers for the more precious items have also arrived. After some discussion, I have permitted Lord yos'Galan to take several cases of the finer bottles of your Lordship's sherry and port for safekeeping in Dutiful Passage's own wine cellar. Several bottles travel with me, and the rest will be in the general safeguarding of the Passage, which will carry nothing but Korval's own household goods and necessities this trip.

Odd, it was though written the words carried the weight of pel'Tolian's voice with them. Odder, perhaps, was how welcome that voice had been when Pat Rin had stood shoulder to shoulder with Val Con and Miri, accepting visitors the second evening after the blast. On the door were scouts as security, in the corner were scouts and pilots of Korval, all armed, all dangerous, and into this midst, unbidden, had come pel'Tolian -- through the security, through what surely was a madman's pattern of traffic and confusion leading to Korval's valley.

"Lord Pat Rin, Nasingtale Alley stands firmly with you."

Of a moment, he'd nearly doubted the voice, for the irony of having his houseman declare for him and for his actions was not lost on him. Neither was the man's rapid appraisal of the pilot's jacket Pat Rin wore, and of the flawless faux delm's ring he wore on the wrong finger, a ring now a fixture, against all odds. The fact that his man had come armed to this reception of allies, friends, and spies -- but yes, Pat Rin had heard the tales of the dea'Gauss taking on the enemy. Why should he be surprised that the man who'd made sure young Quin ate when his father was not to home should be prepared for such duty?

His own bow had been crisp with acceptance.

"How fares the Alley, my friend?"

"As always, Lord Pat Rin -- we have a quiet neighborhood. Should you require, we are ready this evening to drive you home ourselves and . . ."

The laughter from Miri was unexpected, but --

"All honor to you," had come his cousin's voice. A step and a bow had brought Val Con into the conversation. "Even such a secure place as Nasingtale Alley is at risk in these times, Mr. pel'Tolian. In addition, his Delm has need of Lord Pat Rin's expertise at immediate hand until matters settle somewhat. Be assured that we do the best we may at feeding and housing him!"

pel'Tolian's bow had been as precise as any could want: acknowledging a delm's right to order things yet prepared to press for his own necessities and those of his employer. If . . .

"Surely the situation is not so dire?"

That was Miri, of course, in her best Solcintran accent. He'd discovered the delmae something of a wonder, speaking Terran like a mercenary, commanding the respect of an Yxtrang, and catching the fine points of Liaden -- and able to do all with a sense of underlying good nature.

"Your employer is also our kin, and his presence is both welcome and an honor. May one inquire if you've ever used that?"

Miri's point, not to the hand gun sealed beneath a weather guard on pel'Tolian's belt, but toward his offhand pocket --

His man hesitated visibly, proving he was more a houseman than a gambler, and bowed a simple yes.

"My grandfather's," he said, "now mine."

"Too large for a pocket, sir. It is a good plan, but it needs refinement. I firmly suggest you speak to the very large man over there," here she'd pointed out the Yxtrang! "-- and tell him the Captain sent you -- see if he's got something more portable for local carry. Else ask Pilot Cheever."

And then there'd been more people to meet and deal with -- a matter of confirming landing access on Surebleak for a retired scout and -- but Pat Rin managed to convey his appreciation, and his concern, and to confirm that pel'Tolian was not interested in staying on Liad, or in leaving his service. Later Nelirikk was pleased to give as his judgment that pel'Tolian was alert and dutiful; fully worthy of carrying a weapon in Korval's troop.

Thus did pel'Tolian increase his worth even as his station altered -- from a fribble's houseman to majordomo of a back-world dictator's prime establishment.

Well, yes, that was true, the Boss told himself. It was only true.

I look forward to arranging the new house to best advantage.

Vesker pel'Tolian.

Pat Rin folded the letter and slipped it into his pocket:

"Changes, Silk, and soon. I'm afraid we will no longer get by with the modest guidance of Natesa and Mr. McFarland. I assure you that Mistress Miranda and pel'Tolian will not consider our current unruly arrangements sufficient, and will insist you work for your living."

Silk opened his eyes, flicked an ear and settled in. Silk knew how to deal with changes. And he already worked for his living.

Closing his eyes again, he left the Boss to his duties.

The Boss, for his part, saw that the day's green Action File was not yet delivered, this late in the day, and frowned. True, he'd barely returned from Solcintra, but surely procedures hadn't slipped so far so quickly. He rang the small bell he kept on a shelf above his desk, which would summon someone, likely a recruit from Miss Audrey's, to find Cheever McFarland or the green day file, or perhaps both.

* * *

The surly gaze of the double-star Chuck-Honey barely a light year away was flickerless in the breeze when he woke, more proof that the wind had turned and came now from the northwest rather than the southwest -- none of the road's smoke and smudge in the sky now, none of whatever latent heat the city and its spaceport might contribute to shimmer the sky.

This sleeping outdoors would have to stop, should have stopped now that Rollie was gone -- no one to remind him of the dangers of sleeping himself to death in the cold. And it was cold … or at least cool, despite his shirt and jacket; pulling himself to his feet using the rock he'd sheltered against. He'd managed last winter though, him and the cats. He'd get through. Boss Sherton told him when she'd walked up with some butter just a a few days back that he was a good neighbor, and besides, he traded her fresh coffee, and she told him the news.

This last time, she'd tried to get him to walk to town and trade direct, but Rollie'd got caught up in all that and never come back. And him, Yulie, he'd never been down to pick up the stuff Miss Audrey had. If he'd have really needed it, he would have known Rollie'd taken it. But trading direct was supposed to be better and safer now, said Melina. There was a new boss -- a Boss of Bosses! Not only was he a Boss, but he had brought ships to port, which had to be good for business. This Boss Conrad was a man who was making changes.

Changes -- Yulie didn't like changes all that much. Didn't trust changes, all that much.

Frost well before dawn then, that was his prediction, and the skittering he could hear in the leaves more evidence of the season and the weather. The wind on his face would quiet sometime before -- ah!

The flash of a meteor: a momentary scintillation fading into a green line fading into the gathered darkness, the light a comfort rather than a threat.

Rollie'd thought he spent too much time with Grandpa watching the sky, and Yulie wondered if he spent too much time now, on account of he knew the sky. Most of the changes in it were cyclical -- the sky would look much the same this time next year, aside from the barely perceptible flight of the double stars. His full panic came on him easily in the open day, but not as often in the night. Under the stars it was as if he sat more firmly in the universe, as wild as the universe was.

A flash -- meteor?

No, what had caught his eye was -- what? It clearly moved at an orbital speed, low to the horizon, but if he read it right it was easily as large as the largest ship he'd ever seen orbit Surebleak, maybe larger. There was more going on in the sky; it was as if a swarm of ships had arrived nearly at once -- a host of ships, orbiting almost in a stream or a ring, there were so many. He felt a flutter of energy, pushed the panic back. Boss Sherton had explained that the Boss of Bosses was busy, and that she trusted what Conrad was doing, and that there were ships. The big one that caught his eye was in a polar orbit crossing that stream; a small halo of other ships about it -- it might even be one of the legendary Korval trade ships Grampa'd always talked about.

Changes!

Yulie shivered, unsure if it was the weather or the times. Grampa had taught him to be wary of change. Change had taken away his ship, and then the Settlement Agreement he'd made with the company had turned into a debacle as the whole organization evaporated shortly after he'd set down to take over his property, prepared to lease out . . . well, a regional depression did nothing to make that work.

Yeah, change was difficult. Certainly Rollie'd never helped, always managing to take an advantage when something new did happen, from taking the newer bed when Mom left to pulling a muscle right at the time Grampa was setting work schedules so it ended up Rollie on perpetual light-duty, it seemed.

Started down that thought road Yulie rolled on, right up to Rollie helping him choose a nettle-vined hideaway for one of his few forays into hunting oversized feral Cachura pigs -- apparently one of Rollie's least successful jokes on account of Grampa finding out about it -- and for that matter, for taking such an interest in his attempts to talk to the twins hanging around the small farm market near the inner tollbooth to Ira Gabriel's blocks that Rollie'd made it a threesome, leaving Yulie out of the mix entire, claiming of course that he'd been misunderstood. And once he'd made that connection . . .

Yah, that's how it was, often enough, Rollie doing what he wanted and when, and now this, right out of Grampa's dreams, traders coming here, big traders. Ships coming, lots of ships. That was the change he'd been told, that the new big Boss, Boss Conrad, was building the port up in part so he could bring in the trade. And Rollie, he'd missed this good thing, pushing too hard too soon. The road was open, now. Not so much of tariff at each tollbooth, not so much hassle.

Yulie shivered again and heard a distant complaint. It was likely the gray one. Some cats told time better than he did. Yes, he was late, and some people around here kept schedules, even if he didn't.

But he should. The strangers might be back tomorrow, and besides, he needed to walk down to Melina Sherton's and see if somebody would talk to him, assuming he could get that far. He had tubers and late greens and cabbages that needed to go to market, some way, and the folks down at the Boss Sherton's stands understood that sometimes it took him awhile to get a conversation going.

* * *

The news wasn't good, and it didn't come until he was at Prime. Pat Rin was unfond of the Terran habits which broke meals, though often as not here on Surebleak, necessity was Necessity.

Cheever's nod pre-spoke a problem, and though he needed no permission to sit at the evening's communal table he seemed unsure…and then decisive, making his way directly to the Boss.

Low voice, a touch of hand-talk -- a glance to make sure his large person was between the room and his words.

"The plot's tended, and the door's locked. We called, but it was getting late, and Sherton's people were a little unsure, on account of the guy's some strange, they say. Like you figured, Sherton wants the thing cured proper beforehand, and so does Boss Ira.

No use spooking him or annoying a good neighbor. The road itself -- the thing is, I don't know how stuff is going to fit together there, but it looks like a straight shot from the tollbooth to the ditch. Road goes right there."

Pat Rin looked away, not angered, but frustrated. On his left Natesa asked, "The door locked? How locked -- could they have been inside?"

The big man shrugged, palms up.

"Wouldn't think so, catwise. Couple or three right there, wanting us to let 'em in, kinda sleek. Some out cats was around while we searched -- pretty much ignored us, but the ones at the door, I'd say they were wanting someone to let 'em to supper." He shrugged again, looked to the Boss.

"Should I have forced the door? Didn't seem neighborly."

Pat Rin waved the hand-talk Negative Negative Negative with a touch of impatience.

"Surely not, Mr. McFarland. I may already have an aggrieved party on my hands; it clearly wouldn't do to give him any other advantages in negotiation."

"My take, too." Cheever glanced meaningfully toward his place at the table . . .

"Tomorrow, it should be done, even if it means I go out myself. The Passage is in orbit and soon enough the logistics of the landings will be organized. If need be, you can fly surveillance for us."

Cheever cleared his throat, hard.

"There's more?"

"Boss, if you go, take somebody with you. He's supposed to be a real fine rifle shot. Real fine. Boss Ira says that, anyhow. Boss Melina says he's doing better now. Hasn't fired on people for a couple, four years, far as anyone knows."

Pat Rin nodded.

"Would I could say the same, Pilot. Thank you for your information."

* * *

Farming was like that, day comes after the night, sometimes it rains and sometimes it don't. This time of the year favored rain, so Yulie was just as glad to be up early, almost on schedule, the gray cat having forgotten to wake. Just as well, a few extra minutes was good, and he'd been a little tense anyway, when he came in, and the single glass he allowed himself did help . . . but he'd been a few minutes late getting to bed. The little Blair Road Booster news-sheet yesterday's visitors left him was a curiosity -- he mostly didn't take any of the radio feeds, and now this: talk about a clinic going to full-time, all day, all night, all the time, and something that made him laugh -- an image of road sign they called a stop sign that drivers were supposed to pay attention to even if there weren't a tollbooth and a gunman behind it.

But there was more interesting news: a new bakery, and a new school, and a meeting of the Bosses about a general safety patrol to take care of the road. And an events listing, which looked like so many times and days and things going on that it couldn't be his Surebleak.

He'd gone to sleep with a twitch of irony. That safety patrol was good from the port all the way out to the third Blair road intersection. But the road, the big road, it came all the way out to him. Was he gonna end up with more cat-hunters?

That germ of an idea had brought nightmares to wake him up -- flashbacks, Rollie'd call them -- ten of the cats from the greens field, laid out neat in a row, mostly shot, like they was food, laying on a bag. The sight of them made him throw up. Then he'd heard another shot and gone back to the house.

He'd always liked to shoot -- it relaxed him immensely. This time though, he'd brought out the rounds Grampa called Military Tops and loaded up, and walked calm as could be back past the dead cats, and found another one, along with some of the skulk rats it had taken, and so then he went to hunt mode.

Wasn't much to hunt, really: six of them, a couple with pistols, stupid about moving. He was going to try to stop them, that was his idea, but he come on them when two were sighting on a hunter-cat at work, and there, clear as could be, was his shot.

Five of them were dead where they fell; the sixth tried to pull a hideaway on him, way too late.

He'd gone back to the house with the dead cats, planning to bury them, and roused Rollie -- who'd been late getting back from a jaunt to The Easiery -- and told him he'd got himself some bad varmints, and Rollie'd better look, which Rollie did.

Eventually a couple of city-types claiming kin and friend came looking, and Rollie'd pointed out the signs about no hunting and told them there'd been a hunting accident that got out of hand, told them the farm didn't have any food animals no how.

Rollie'd already sold the intruder's guns to Boss Ira, anyhow, and wasn't much to show them, and that had been that, except of course Yulie'd spent every day for a year walking that route, back and forth, counting the cats, and some nights took the rifle out, waiting for people. Nobody else came, and eventually he'd learned to sleep again.

And so he'd got up, last night, and walked out to the disguised grow-house. He talked to a couple of the cats who guarded the coffee plants there in the cavern, told them he was sorry for not doing better by them. If they didn't say nothing back, at least they listened to his apology; then he slept well and woke up sharp, and ready to work.

The morning wake-up being what it was, he was standing at the window watching the gray horizon verging on pink, his coffee just warming his hands, gray cat leaning companionably against the back of his legs, when this thing appeared in the sky, dusty bright in the coming sunlight, unscheduled.

No meteor. No spaceship he knew of. Not even a Korval spaceship, big as Grampa had made them sound -- this thing looked like it had craters on it…and then it was out of sight.

He stood there for some time, feeling the gray cat against the back of his legs. He sighed, wondering if that hadn't been in the events columns there in the Blair Road Booster.


This time he was waiting for it, and since the world had turned under the orbit, caught it in just above mid horizon, and he stopped tossing the cabbages to stare.

It wasn't a ship, and it was cratered, but it wasn't a big thing by any means, "big" being a relative term when it came to objects in space, even in nearspace. Yulie'd heard of constructs that might be that size, but not constructs of rock; whatever it was, it was not the size of a tidal satellite, by any means.

Still, he was hardly an expert, having only the hand-me-down lessons from Grampa, and the optics scope. The sky was brilliant though, and blue, and it was still visible, with Triga and Toppa not yet risen to confuse with odd shadows. Not that Surebleak's two tidal moons were all that bright, but they both were capable of casting some light and when they were in sync were quite a spectacular sight, especially when they were in conjunction with Chuck-Honey.

Yulie checked the chronometer, almost doubting. Right. It was orbiting, and it wasn't high at all. Something that size could make a heck of a hole if it was on the way down. A heck of a hole.

He felt the panic gnawing experimentally at his vision, but no! There, an aircraft, flying low over Melina Sherton's land, or maybe over Ira's back farms. Almost noiseless, it banked, headed his way -- he thought to run, but the thing banked away, obviously interested in the growing little block-town Melina and Ira'd been working on, just in case the fools in the city actually did themselves in. Interested? Hah -- it might be it was landing somewhere over that way.

Yulie threw the striped orange cabbage from his hand to the crate, willing to call the thing full. That ought to do it. Five full crates -- time to get things moving. No time to be worried about aircraft, and --

He twisted, catching a glimpse of some low clouds coming from the northwest, which could portend a rainy morning on the morrow, perhaps even a snowy tomorrow night.

The moon-thing was out of sight now, but he was going to watch for it. Meanwhile, it was time to go if he was going to hit Boss Sherton's farmer's market before the last of the day-buyers left.


The walk was doing Yulie good, even if the plane had come by for one more pass before disappearing for good. He knew it was too soon for the return of the new moon, but scanning the sky was helping him keep the world in perspective as he trod the down slope toward the farmers market. His backpack held six cabbages -- one each for the two local bosses, and one each for the tollbooth crews to share. The other two were promise-proofs for the farmers who might come to help, knowing good food when they saw it.

The slope got steeper, and then the road went through a short valley, still tending downhill, with rocky hills acting as a kind of weather break and demarcation for the land below.

Originally, of course, that natural wall the valley pierced made for good siting for the test dig that had become World's End, and for the company's first management zone. Once the dig got going Management was inclined to prefer the portside bar and restaurants and then -- and then the company had gone slowly into decline as the commercial timonium need drove the independents, and later the big boys, to follow the joint trail of creation and destruction that was the legacy of Chuck-Honey's rapid path through the regional space.

Somewhere Chuck, or Honey, or the pair together, had swarmed upon a stony-cored brown-dwarf remnant of the same monster cloud that had formed Surebleak and its system, and that dwarf's bounty lay in the metals and transuranics -- and the encounter, sundering the dwarf, created a rogue field of rocks and high grade ore, loosely trailing behind. Asteroids and comets and potential moons, the rocks now transited interstellar space. Lucky ships could come up with lumps of near pure timonium, or gold, or lead. Hardworking ships and companies could mine instead the broken chunks, needing no excavation equipment to speak of, no investment in people and governments and law --

The company stuck with appurtenances -- excavators and law clerks and straw-bosses and crewship pilots and -- it had contracts and plans and goals enough to get it through a couple financial ripples, but in the end it was easiest to sell the company to a shell corporation and merge that with another and drag what funds there were in transit out -- and then abandon to the tender mercies of the jackals of interstellar finance the remains. The people stuck onworld belonged there after all -- who needed dirt-miners in a good clean space-rock roundup?

Grampa -- Grampa had been owed big-time when the company was going to dust, and he'd fought for what was owed him for the ship he'd bought, fought for his plans to retire to a nice planet somewhere with lots of water and lots of willing ladies . . . and filed liens and lawsuits.

The company capitulated and in a final act of law, after seven years, offered a settlement. They gave all the company's current right, title, and interest to all its holdings on Surebleak to Grampa. That included the original administrative area, and the marshaling yards . . .

Like so many others, he'd been swindled: the ditch was worked clean and worth nothing, and the marshaling yard had long been converted into farms for the portside executives.

In the end Grampa moved to his holding, found himself a wife and a girlfriend and some monographs on farming, and dug in, sure that eventually, things would turn out. It wasn't long before he was doing well enough, in the strange way that things worked on Surebleak. His daughter, of course, was brought up to farm, and then her sons, after she left…and now Yulie walked to the people next door, hoping for a boon. He had good food, what he needed was transportation and trade for it . . . especially now, a way to replace the lighting that Rollie'd always traded for.

It was a trick of geography that could let him arrive first at the market and then at the small streets and buildings, and then go through the tollbooth, if he were so inclined -- but really, since he wasn't much interested in anything but the market and the farmers, he headed that way, the day warming on him in a way that warned of incoming moisture. He walked more slowly now, not liking to overheat if he was going to be seeing people, the road now a sandy gravel as he approached the market.

Yulie could just about identify the stalls and stall owners when the edge of his hearing was tickled by an odd sound. It was not one of Surebleak's rare birds, but it bounced around considerably, and it wasn't an aircraft. It was a more like a moan, speeding up and then down, rising and decreasing in volume . . .

Whatever it was, it traveled the road, a tail of dust behind it, rapidly approaching the dimly seen tollbooth, and just as rapidly charging through, all the guards standing aside.

The distant market folk were as transfixed as he, and the sound grew both closer and louder, and down slope he could see the glint of the vehicle. It came on, shiny as dew on the grass, scattering walkers and small carts out of the way. It rushed at him, silver glinting from all the polished surfaces, and he stepped into the gully, trying to push back the panic that rose in him.

The vehicle charged on, not pausing.

Unless the driver was mad, there was only one place it could be going.

To his house.

Yulie turned and began running, up hill, toward home, the cabbages banging at his back.

* * *

The morning had been considerably hectic and much more uncomfortable than expected. Pat Rin had never expected to miss the wallow of his mother's landau but the rattle-filled car was simply not up to the paving, or lack thereof, on this section of the road he supposedly controlled. He'd gone to the road's end once before, at a stately pace, some twelve days before his expedition to Liad, but that ride had been marked by ceremonial stops at each of the tollbooths, exchanges of gifts, small sips of whatever the local Boss thought potable, and the inevitable meeting of the first three or four ranks of each tollbooth crew.

This expedition was frantic from the outset. The portacom call had shattered rest, and the breakfast thrown onto the table soon after had been functional and little else. In need of speed, they'd all drunk some of Cheever McFarland's blend of coffee, which no doubt multiplied the current feel of dangerous speed. McFarland's unfinished mission of the day before haunted them now.

Awake on need, he heard the unmistakable timbre, not of Shan's voice or Val Con, as he might expect, but of the rapidly socializing brother of his cousin.

"Boss Pat Rin yos' Phelium Clan Korval, Master Gambler, I give you greetings. I have sighted the landing zone indicated and, following my brother's wishes that this portion of his art be conducted as smoothly as possible, I have entered into a course arriving there this day. I look forward to seeing you again as we walk together with my brother."

And that was that: the tree was landing.

He'd tried of course --

"There are preliminaries, Edger, yet undone. I do not seek to school you in haste or --"

Uncharacteristically, Edger had spoken over him.

"My brother is in the throes of what may be his most elegant and urgent artwork yet. I will not fail him in this, as my delay in earlier matters of art interfered in the work in progress. We will walk together soon, you and I, and discuss this art."

"Wait at least until --"

"Before the local sun sets on the site, you will assure me that the way is clear."

And that had been the end of the conversation.

"How many more?"

"We're not there yet, Boss. Two more."

"Excellent!" is what he said, but the ceaseless cry of the siren drowned him out as he fiddled with two piles, one printouts of old company records and the second hastily written legal papers based on the admittedly thin standing his title of Boss gave him. The other standing he held -- he looked down at his ring -- that standing was certainly an odd one as well. For the first time in memory there were two Korval Clan rings. Val Con wore his, the proper original, worn and fractured as it was, while the one recognized here on Surebleak was the wonderfully crafted counterfeit given him by the Department of the Interior. Not that the materials were counterfeit, but that the whole of it was part of a scheme to turn Korval into a puppet of the Department. And now…

And now Korval was depending on him as much or more than ever.

"Can we go faster?"

Gwince managed to shake her head and avoid a lumbering truck full of squash at the same time, eyes briefly on Pat Rin through the rear-view.

"If you say so, Boss. The car's already gonna need fixing when we get home."

"Do it."

They could and they did. Cheever McFarland's overflight had spotted the apparent landowner to home and not carrying a long gun, and now they rushed past Boss Ira's second tollbooth without acknowledging the various attempted salutes as well as the gestures that were not, quite, salutes from those clearing way for him. Ahead, when he looked, the Boss could see farmers hurrying to the side, and the occasional lurch showed that not all of the travelers used enough alacrity, even with the siren. They'd have to push on the emergency vehicle protocols.

"Little more coffee up here Boss," Gwince told him. "You want it?"

"I do not. If it keeps you sharp, I suggest you use it."

They came that quickly to Melina Sherton's hold, and screamed through it, still scattering people before them. Gwince said "Last one, Boss," rousing Pat Rin from an inner debate on how many items of Code he'd broken today. When his mother arrived from her missions no doubt he'd receive particular tuition in his faults.

One last straggler before them, knapsack bouncing, gained the gully ahead, and then open road past the farmer's market, and perhaps some chance of a successful negotiation.

* * *

Yulie wasn't like Rollie -- he spent no time swearing -- but he was running now on adrenaline, a situation that always put him pre-panic. Not good to have strangers in the yard, not good to try to do this all himself, not good to --

He stopped his rapid march, stomping his feet at himself. The "not good" was more dangerous than anything, right now, because it took thought from him

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, felt his feet on the ground, the knapsack on his back, the growing breeze on his face. He opened his eyes, slowly, and stretched.

Overhead was the new moonlet, bright and motionless in the light, larger maybe than it had been, but, motionless.

That, of course, was unlikely. Anything that size in low orbit should visibly move. He craned his neck and saw no evidence that it moved.

He closed his eyes again, staggering when he opened them, and the moonlet remained there.

The other option was that the moon was larger than he believed, and in the synchronous orbit, always to remain overhead.

He faced forward, looked up.

No change.

He held no confidence in the idea that the moonlet was hovering, but --

He shook his head, saw his shadow, looked to the sky, where a small cloud's shadowed underbelly came between him and the moon. And then revealed the moon, giving the momentary sense that the thing was moving … but then as the cloud distanced itself it was clear that again, the moon was not moving perceptibly.

He felt like bolting, like hiding and covering his head until everything went away. That hadn't worked though, and he'd gotten behind --

"Doing something is better than doing nothing," Grampa had told him more than once.

He'd been doing something. He better just do it.

Keeping his head level, eyes forward, he snugged the knapsack and took a step. Then another, a little faster, and then another, faster, not quite coming to a trot. The cats needed him.

* * *

The kitchen was tidy, if one ignored the cat on the countertop. Pat Rin had been trying to ignore it, but it was large enough to do damage if provoked, and who knew what might provoke it, as skittish as it was, and the landowner alike.

His eyes were brown and wary, and he had a right to be wary. His movements were disturbing in some odd way -- skittish. Like he suddenly might jump for the door, or for the gun on the wall, or for Pat Rin himself at any moment. It was by main force of will, Pat Rin thought, that the man Yulie sat at all.

"Melina told me about you," he said, "she told me I should send to you. She told me I ought to go see you, but I didn't. She said you were an even-handed Boss, the best she's seen."

Pat Rin spread his hands slowly, turning the extremely modest bow he'd started into a nod.

"I'm pleased she speaks well of me," he admitted, "it makes one feel worthy of being Boss. Boss Sherton told me of you as well," he said; "of your holdings. Of you, as a farmer. She speaks highly of you as well. And that is why I am here, you see, because I have taken it upon myself to hold the road open, with the help of the other Bosses. It is good for farmers, it is good for the Bosses, and it good for the Port."

"But this thing about the road -- "

Pat Rin nodded.

"Yes. I have asked you if you are fond of the old ditch, and you tell me no. I repeat that what I need, as Boss and as member of Clan Korval, is a place for my kin to live. It will be a change for you, to have such near neighbors, I know, but understand, these are neighbors who will appreciate your right to privacy. In addition, they will assist in the upgrading of the road, and they will assist in Boss Sherton's plan to take the road, starting at the farmers market, toward the sea."

He'd begun, had Pat Rin, as soon as the man's cat had stopped stropping at his legs, as soon as the man had managed to catch his breath in front of the low house, with the baldest statement of his mission he'd been able to formulate on the bouncing ride.

"I am Boss Conrad, also known as Pat Rin yos' Phelium. I come as both to purchase access through your land to the abandoned pit, for my kin. Your own lands and fields will be untouched."

They'd stood in a tableau for some moments, both aware of the unnatural moon hanging above, neither admitting it was there until finally the cat had stretched to Yulie's hand, seeking a head rub. Gwince remained around the car, talking complaints into a recorder, saying things like "quarter panel scrape passenger side, gonna need filling. Door gonna need …."

The man had glanced at Gwince, and pointed toward the house, saying, "And I'm Yulie Shaper. I guess we better talk. Come on in."

There were on the table ten cantra pieces, all of which had been examined minutely, and two tested with a knife, and there were two cups, one of which held coffee of a very potent scent, and the other, which held a fragrant tea.

"Melina Sherton never told me you was crazy."

The laugh came unbidden, a natural and not a social laugh, and Pat Rin nodded the point.

"Nor did she say that you were. It appears that the times make us crazy, Yulie Shaper."

Yulie's skittishness lessened, which put the cat at ease. The cat retracted feet until it rested like a furry log on the counter, eyes on Yulie.

"That's real money," said the farmer, touching the coins again. "Out there, that's Worlds End, and that's real. How's anybody going to live there? Nothing there but old bedrock and streams that don't go nowhere. Let's look at the reality of the situation. How can ten cantra be a balance for all that empty?"

"That empty, as you put it, that is precisely what is needed since Clan Korval has contrived, with the assistance of relatives and friends, to bring the house itself, much as the company brought here prefabbed units, growing chambers, stasis storage bins -- "

Yulie sat straight, bringing the cat to sit straight as well.

Pat Rin raised his hands away from the table and looked the farmer directly in the eyes, speaking soft-voiced.

"Yes, we do have those records -- we know -- but it is of no matter. Please understand that I am far too involved with other matters . . ."

The calm voice seemed to help, and Pat Rin spread his hands, ring bright. He tapped the ring thoughtfully.

"Mr. Shaper, had I personal designs on being a farmer I'd have thought no better place exists on Surebleak. You have the lands that were prepared with excellent soil by the company to sell stock, the equipment meant to hold food for ten thousand workers, and likely active grow sheds and prep rooms… and I come to you and request you sell access because building other access routes would be difficult, and unpopular. Personally, I have no designs on being a farmer, and farming has never been a family business. You might inquire of Boss Sherton, who is assured I have no interest in holding farms given the many I might have owned by now all in the hands of those who know what to do with them."

The man settled, nodding. The cat settled, too.

Pat Rin sipped at the surprisingly good tea, no doubt due to those stasis bins he'd mentioned. Yulie Shaper sipped at his fragrant coffee.

"Your world will change somewhat, when the house is …. installed. For some measure of traffic, there will be traffic, but it will be passing traffic. The clan is not large, and historically we spend much time in travel. But the location of that empty is perfect for us, and I think for you. "

"Suppose I want to sleep on it?"

Pat Rin declined to put on his card-player's face; and kept Boss Conrad as tightly controlled as he might.

"That would be unfortunate from my viewpoint, as my kin are in transit, along with the house. The clan's ships are arriving even now…"

"Saw that," Yulie nodded. "Big ship orbiting. Did you use that to figure out the spot?"

Pat Rin sighed lightly.

"We used that to bring the clan and possessions. We used it to leave our home world and come here. Mr. Shaper, the only practical place for the clan house to go is someplace very close to the road, yet not in someone else's territory. Boss Gabriel tells me he has no plans for the place you call World's End. Boss Sherton says the same. Your claim here is perhaps the strongest claim on a piece of land on all of Surebleak, the Port notwithstanding. It is impractical for us to move the Port, as you must know. We tried to reach you sooner, but you were not speaking with visitors."

"This is sudden --"

He stood up, did Yulie, jerkily, pushing away from the table with a clatter. Pat Rin wished he'd brought Anthora or Shan, or Priscilla, all of whom were Healers. Clearly, there was need here for calm --

Yulie spun around, touched the cat. There was a pause, and Pat Rin wondered if the gun on the wall could actually be loaded, since the man looked at it, touched the cat again, before he sat down heavily in the chair, pulled it to table, eyes staring into the distance, troubled.

The fist that hit the table was firm, and not impudent.

"Didn't answer," Yulie said.

Pat Rin bowed. Boss Conrad sighed.

"Mr. Shaper, my kin will be taking over that location. They will put the clan house and all that comes with it there. And they will do it soon. What we ask is for an access road. The contract is clear: ten cantra now and one per Standard Year in the future to lease access as long as the clan uses it."

He paused, suppressed the pilot's clear-the-board hand motion, continued.

"If you say no, the clan will put the house there and take away a hill or hills and do whatever else is necessary to reach the city over on the farside, through wastelands."

"Why don't you just take it?"

Pat Rin sighed, then.

"Mr. Shaper, I have done many things to make Surebleak workable. I have taken things. What I wish to do is to make things work well, and to deal honorably with the world. I wish not to take it. I wish to trade for it, just as you wished to trade your cabbages for what you need."

Yulie was holding on to his coffee cup now as if he was afraid it would jump from his hands, a lucky thing that he'd had so much of it already.

Pat Rin stood up, bowing.

"I will not just take it," he said so quietly that it might have been for his ears rather than Yulie's, and reached for the pile of cantra on the table.

Now it was Yulie's turn to show placating hands. Pat Rin saw them, left the coins where they were while Yulie's unschooled face showed decision crossed with doubt before finally giving way to words.

"Promise me -- write it in the contract -- that your people won't shoot my cats. And I want you here when they put the house in, and you'll tell them so there won't be any -- accidents. Write it and sign that, and I'll sign it."

Pat Rin glanced up at the cat on the counter, thought about Silk, thought about Jonni, who some called his son . . . and nodded.

"I can do that, Mr. Shaper. I may need a moment or two in order to compose it, of course."

"Take your time. But when do you think you'll be back?"

Pat Rin lifted an eyebrow.

"Be back?"

"Yes. When will they put the house in?"

Pat Rin lifted a hand to stay the query as he wrote, and then signed with a flourish, which became an offer of the stylus.

"Here, Mr. Shaper, do you agree as well, if you would."

Yulie read the words several times and mumbled "Good cats," or something like, after reading "welfare of cats shall not be imperiled" and nodded, and signed a scrawling hand that nearly filled the bottom of the sheet.

"Good, here." Yulie handed the sheets back as if they were precious, then asked "When will they be here -- I should move some of the rocks on the edge and . . . "

"When? I expect just before dusk."

"But when? What day?"

"Oh, I expect before dusk today, Mr. Shaper, today."

* * *

The rock, the moon, was almost down now; they'd followed it bright in the day, and then seen it shine through from behind light clouds. Now it was half enveloped as the light faded, and so close that it seemed it might crush them all were one wrong move made by the pilot.

Sounds came randomly: booms of lightnings from planet to moon, echoes of the winds, crackling noises as small portions of the moonlet were shed in puffs of dust. Surebleak had few birds, but they all appeared to have gathered in welcome, the preternatural light of a setting star bounced off a descending moon giving the birds' shadows the length of an avenue.

The word from the city was that all was quiet; which was good -- the news that Boss Conrad was in charge was unreasonably accepted as evidence that there would be no problem, no matter the appearance of a moon falling ever so slowly on the upcountry tilt of land that supplied the city with food.

Boss Conrad himself stood in a crowd of cats -- several dozen by his estimate. He'd been warned that the proximity of the Clutch drive might have unexpected effects, and certainly the sudden appearance of so many cats, streaming from the fields, from the sheds, from the rocks -- was unexpected.

Also unexpected was the absolute calm Yulie Shaper exhibited, as if whatever demons he usually had to deal with were exorcised by the drive's beneficent fields.

Pat Rin, for his part, was well-traveled; as passenger and pilot he'd been shipboard many times when approaching foreign worlds, satellites, and stations, and he found the experience just barely containable: there were no walls, no comforting calls of station managers, nothing ordinary whatsoever about this vision. He knew more than most what the size of things were and the size and expanse of this was beyond his knowledge. Something that size should not move, that was what he knew. The moon nearly touched the planet's surface, the wind rushed and carried odors of space and time and strangeness with it.

Whatever downward progress had been made, it all paused at once, though stones and ice, dust and clouds continued to fall. Something very strange was happening now, as the bottom surface of the moon appeared to vibrate and -- but there was no human word for the process, which occurred within their sight over the yawning chasm of the place they both now called World's End.

An earthquake's worth of sound beat at them, the ground shook, trembled, bellowed, vibrated -- and was calm.

For a moment or two the only sound was that of cats, huddled now near the people in as much awe as they were, and then a hiss, and more wind, and the surprisingly familiar odor of wood and leaf.

Almost imperceptibly, the moon-thing that filled their vision and covered the land rotated, spinning very, very slowly on an axis and then it was rising . . . rising, rising, the sounds of falling dust and noisy birds and earth trembles giving way to a rush and almost a thunderclap as the moon, disgorging the impossible thing within it, lifted, and spinning more strongly, wafted away.

Amid the haze and winds stood a massive new tower of green, the upper fronds of the tree catching the failing light as the base was in shadow, the whole seeming now to have been too big to have landed within the moon, far too alive to have come through space. The birds, still alight from the rising of the moon, swirled toward it, their calls echoing from the land and sky.

Pat Rin yos'Phelium, Clan Korval, bowed to the clan's still astounded new neighbor.

"The tree's roots grew with the bounds of the house, you see, and so we brought both. Necessity, sir, necessity."

Using his chin, Pat Rin indicated the low structure beneath the branches . . . "The house is there, where the dust settles even now."

Pat Rin sighed, waved his hand toward the lip of World's End, now full to within paces of Shaper's land.

"I believe that, if we start walking now, we can explain the rules of the contract to my kin very soon. As a clan, we're somewhat familiar with contracts."

About the Authors

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the celebrated co-authors of the best-selling Liaden Universe® series and have been writing together since the first "Kinzel" stories hit Fantasy Book in the early 1980s. They started the first Liaden story in 1984 and have published a dozen novels and several dozen short works in that series alone.


Along the way they've become fan favorites at SF conventions from California, USA to Fredericton, Canada, with Guest of Honor and Special Guest appearances at PenguiCon, COSine, AlbaCon, Trinoc*con, ConDuit, MarsCon, ShevaCon, BaltiCon, PortConMaine, SiliCon, Second Life Library, and elsewhere. Upcoming Guest of Honor apperances include Oasis 23 in Orlando, Florida in May 2010 and DucKon 19 in Napierville, Illinois in June 2010.

They count Baen, Del Rey, Meisha Merlin, Ace Books, Phobos, and Buzzy Multimedia among their English language publishers and have several foreign language publishers as well. Their short fiction, written both jointly and singly, has appeared in Absolute Magnitude, Catfantastic, Dreams of Decadence, Fantasy Book, Such a Pretty Face, 3SF, and several incarnations of Amazing.

Their work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with Scout's Progress being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and Local Custom finishing second for the same award. Local Custom was published by Buzzy Multimedia as an audio book read by Michael Shanks --Stargate's Daniel. Balance of Trade, appeared in hardcover in February 2004 and hit Amazon.com genre bestseller lists before going on to win the Hal Clement Award as Best YA Science fiction for the year.

Their most recent Liaden novel is Fledgling, published in September of 2009, with Saltation (sequel to Fledgling) and Mouse and Dragon (sequel to Scout's Progress) due in 2010. Baen will also be reprinting the original ten Liaden novels in four omnibus editions starting in 2010. The authors have several other works in progress.


Steve was Founding Curator of Science Fiction for the University of Maryland's SF Research Collection as well as Vice Chair of the Baltimore in 80 WorldCon bid, while Sharon has been Executive Director, Vice President, and President of the Science Fiction Writers of America; together they were BPLAN Virtuals, an ebook publisher in the late 1980s. These backgrounds give them a unique perspective on the science fiction field.


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