by Kathy Tyers
For the first time since leaving Cabra Minor, Ming Dalamani felt like a smuggler.
The rest of Opa’s crew waited without speaking as Ming adjusted the radio transceiver on the slanting console in front of her. Her overwebbed acceleration seat felt hard. From left and right two cousins stared, making her wonder if she was somehow responsible for the silence answering her transmission.
Ming was new to this. Had she done something wrong?
Her station lay under the highest point of Deck One’s half-hemisphere metal ceiling, directly in front of her uncle’s command chair. A deck track connected the seat on her left with her chair and the one on her right, so crewmembers could slide left or right if duties shifted.
The air felt thin, and Ming sat cocooned in thick acceleration webbing. She raised the trans-C communication frequency five cycles and spoke again toward the tiny mike on her console. “Grant One, this is your contact. Do you copy?”
Who might hear, besides the ship Opa hoped to hail? That coded radio-frequency burst should read as static to anyone but their contact, unless Renasco had intercepted and broken Opa’s codes. In that case, it would reveal them as smugglers to any enforcement vessel in the area.
A trickle of perspiration started down her chest, following deceleration’s pseudogravity. No Cabran had crossed the void between Cabra and the Nexos system since the gamma-ray storm began. She pressed the key several times, swept plus and minus ten cycles around her assigned frequency, then cleared her tight throat and repeated, “Grant One, this is your contact. Do you copy?”
No answer. Touching one earring in the automatic gesture of apology, she glanced over her shoulder at her uncle, Lur Dalamani, for orders.
To her surprise, Uncle Lur—senior officer and cofinancier of this smuggling run, and her favorite of many clan uncles—had left his command chair. Scratching the side of his muscular neck, he stood on her left, grasping the metal brace that arched over her cousin Shan’s station. “They’re only being cautious.” He rapped the brace with his knuckles. “Give them a few minutes to make certain they aren’t being monitored.”
Ming reclined her chair and peered farther left. On Shan’s supersized visual monitor, Nexos’s gas-giant companion planet loomed so close that the monochrome screen’s entire background glowed a pale sickly green. Still, in Ming’s headphone and on the overhead cabin speakers, near space sounded empty.
She couldn’t criticize the Nexan contact for caution. Opa carried two thousand Cabran sunstones, enough exotic jewels to give any pickup man the cold sweats, even on a legal run. The Dalamani-Grazi clan’s Caucus of Elders insisted every trip bring a rich return, to counter the risk of interception by the Renasco monopoly. The financially troubled clan needed this mission to succeed.
Yet once Opa left the Cabra system, it trespassed. Renasco controlled intersystem space via armed scout ships, allowing other worlds commerce only on its carriers, though it governed no worlds except its colonies.
If Opa were caught…
Ming had heard rumors. Summary execution was one of the milder alleged punishments for trying to circumvent the monopoly. In light of her own small encounters with Renasco personnel, she tended to believe.
Her monitor hissed softly, steadily. On her right, Jiadra Grazi scowled, shifted her own chair, and rested a hand against the vertical weapons console. The sleek white curve of her duty-suit sleeve tapered from shoulder to wrist, and her black-brown eyes looked like slits. “That’s long enough. Try again.”
Ming flinched at Jiadra’s perpetual bossing. She shook her narrow shoulders, settling the long, loose black clan-tails of her hair behind them, then reached back to finger the closely trimmed stubble between tails. Jiadra would not hurry her into a mistake. According to Uncle Lur, they’d chosen Ming instead of a more experienced applicant because of her careful nature.
Before she could touch the transmission key, a voice boomed in her left ear and through the overhead speaker. “Opa, this is Grant One. We have you on screen. Maintain your present vector. Transmit beacon in ten seconds.”
Ming exchanged relieved smiles with her cousin Shan. A ticking pulse followed the transmission. Again she glanced over her shoulder for orders. Uncle Lur—Captain Lur—nodded, and she poised her finger over the beacon key, counting with the pulse.
On cue, she touched it again and announced Opa’s presence to everyone within transmitter range.
Four seconds later, Shan pointed up at the visual screen. “There.”
Two steps left took Uncle Lur from Ming’s shoulder to Shan’s. “It’s either our contact or Renasco,” he said, pressing his hands together. “Arm up, Jiadra. Ming, transmit the recognition code.”
As Jiadra flipped a row of levers on her weaponry board, Ming set two dials and pressed the appropriate tabs. She watched Shan’s screen, its image processor set for maximum resolution. A tiny mote slipped out of its hiding place in a thickening of the gas giant’s outermost ring. It did not return code: The dark square near Ming’s coding dials, high on her board, remained dark.
Within ten minutes, the mote resolved into the distinctive oblong shape of an approaching ship. It should be a tramp freighter, but at this range it also looked disconcertingly like a Renasco armed scout.
“They’re being careful.” Shan rested a muscular arm on her chair’s edge. “Engines down, but hot. They’re coasting. Backward.”
“Could fry us with their blast,” Jiadra muttered. “Ming, be ready to assist.”
Sitting this close, Ming imagined she could feel Jiadra’s stone-stubborn temper. Her elder cousin tilted her chin toward the upper bulkhead.
Ming swiveled to face Uncle Lur. “Why aren’t they returning code?”
Uncle Lur stepped back to the helm, awkward in low pseudogravity. “For all they know, we could be Renasco ourselves.” He seemed so calm, never fidgeting, never raising his voice.
Opa’s main engine idled, humming low. The cabin smelled stuffy. Jiadra drummed shapely fingers on her board. Her lips moved. Ming thought she heard her curse.
“Relax, Jiadra,” Shan said. “It’s them.”
Immediately, Ming’s headset rang with a burst of rapid tones. The code ID panel glowed absinthe green. Three parts clear green, one maurin yellow, Ming thought, one part of her mind fleeing to the serene milieu of her artwork. “Code confirmation,” she called.
Shan’s husky voice rang out, “Confirm freighter, Captain.”
At last the other ship fired braking rockets.
Ming bent sideways to eye Shan’s screen. This tramp was no Company scout ship. It looked every meter a local carrier, too big to have been freighted in from outsystem, too small to carry the radiation shielding necessary for cross-space travel, and obviously—from the scratches and pits along its sides—built decades before Nexos requested Renasco service six years ago.
The carrier slowed relative to Opa’s direction of travel, drifted alongside, then fired a series of directional bursts to match deceleration ratios. Opa lurched. Docking latches closed together with a clang. Jiadra unclasped the webbing that cocooned her curve-heavy torso into her chair. “Take my station, Ming.”
Now Ming relaxed. The older woman never surrendered her post if she anticipated trouble. For a few seconds, Ming sat still, breathing tension out of her body.
Jiadra wheeled. “Ming Dalamani, you have an order. Move.”
Controlling her urge to answer back sharply, Ming shifted. She must obey without argument and follow shipboard discipline, even if Jiadra grew pushier under tension. Ming glanced aside to where Jiadra now leaned on a bulkhead. If some day I had my own command, would I be different?
It took Uncle Lur a few minutes to finish the docking sequence. Then he pushed up from the helm. Sweat darkened his duty suit. So, he was worried after all. Ming never would have believed it. He beckoned. “Shan.”
Her shriveled legs arched in exaggerated, reversed bows over twisted feet as Shan shuffled to the mid-deck helm. Although Shan’s upper body was hard with muscles, those congenitally shrunken legs would be little use in an operation that required walking speed. The clan-tails of her hair, each trimmed at the bottom to a V, dangled halfway down her back. She sat down and webbed herself in, for comfort more than safety.
From Jiadra’s ordnance post, Ming watched Uncle Lur ease open the boarding hatch, two meters to her right around the bulkhead’s curve. A couple of tall men stepped through, too strong-chinned to be Cabran, with odd yellowish curling hair like she’d seen in ancient vids. Now Ming knew she really was in another star system. The second Nexan carried a small cubical vault. From the bent stance of his well-muscled body, Ming saw that even in the low decel “gravity” his burden weighed him down.
“I’m Barrick Tunny,” said the first. Intriguing, how little accent he seemed to have. The muscular man presented the vault to Uncle Lur and touched a catch. Its lid sprang open.
“Lur Dalamani. Welcome aboard.” Her uncle braced one foot on a bulkhead projection and balanced the metal cube on his thigh, then drew out a gleaming yellow bar and touched a console tab. A bulkhead slot opened. He set the bar inside, twisted a dial, then touched a second tab. Ming could not see the display over the slot, but Uncle Lur stood fully alert, even with all that weight balanced on one thigh. Gold, the Nexan contact had promised. Sitting straight, Ming held her breath.
Uncle Lur’s shoulders relaxed, and he tucked the metal bar back into the security box, smiling. “This way, sirs.”
Gold. Found almost everywhere humanity explored, but always rare—and in the molecularly pure state, untraceable.
Not so the sunstones. To Ming’s knowledge, sunstones were mined only on Cabra Minor. Perhaps with her earnings from this trip, Ming would buy one of the rosy-hearted yellow crystals for herself. And perhaps Uncle Lur and the Caucus would allow her a bit of the gleaming Nexan gold in addition to her pay, to plate a miniature honoring her father’s co-sponsorship of Opa’s run.
Uncle Lur led the strangers along the far edge of Deck One to the ladder way. Beside them he looked like a wrestler; Jiadra, following, a veil dancer. What a caricature that would make!
Uncle Lur and Jiadra descended the spiral second and third to give the Nexans right-of-watch, a common courtesy to uneasy strangers. Wishing she’d been granted drawing paper in her weight allowance, Ming watched as they vanished down ship to Deck Two. Soon thumps and clanging echoed below.
Shan grasped opposite ends of the helm chair and pulled her arms taut in an isometric—not posturing, but taking advantage of a break, exercising and stretching the upper body that was all her strength.
Glumly Ming glanced down at her own bony arms. Not long before her mother died, she’d used a term in conversation that now titled Ming’s self-concept: fragile.
What did it matter? She was a small-form sculptor…and now, an apprentice communication tech.
“Fifty thousand gildens.” Shan’s low voice was as rough as concrete blocks, as familiar as Ming’s own face in the mirror. One corner of Shan’s mouth crinkled upward. “You’re going to be cozy.”
“You, too. But you should have more.” Ming swiveled Jiadra’s chair to face her cousin at the helm. “You got us the shielding.”
Shan shrugged, then stretched again. “If Caucus gives me more, I’ll take it.” Subdued laughter filtered up the ladder way. “But there’s no rush. If we make it this time, we’ll have plenty of chances to turn a profit. Buy our own ship someday, you and me.”
“And maybe enough space back home for a studio.” To Ming’s mind, real wealth would be time to spend drawing, or twist-welding miniature sculptures from wire and thin rods—though she was already fulfilling one lifelong fantasy, escaping the Cabran system to deep space.
The clan’s fathers had colonized Cabra two centuries ago, just before a gamma-ray storm separated it from other inhabited worlds. The Renascence Shielding Corporation, with its secret electrostatic radiation shielding, now held a monopoly on intersystem travel. Cabra had signed for Renasco service just this year. To the clan’s surprise, Shan Dalamani had broken the data bank—and stolen Renasco’s shielding.
As nervous as Ming felt about illegal shipping, her clan stood on the verge of re-opening free space travel. Opa’s maiden voyage might prove that non-Company ships could be shielded just like the Renasco fleet, breaking Renasco’s unfair monopoly. The three Cabran systems might forge their own links with other worlds.
All systems might forge their own links—
High overhead, the cabin speaker boomed again. “Unidentified ship docked to freighter en-kay-six, retransmit ID beacon. Unidentified ship docked to—” The baritone voice spoke mechanically, but a menacing note droned beneath its sharp diction.
Running footsteps clanged in the ladder way. Ming gripped Jiadra’s console, certain she’d better not retransmit that ID beacon.
Uncle Lur emerged headfirst. Shan dropped from the helm chair and scurried back to her post. Jiadra hustled hard on Uncle Lur’s heels and evicted Ming from ordnance.
“Trans-C silence.” Uncle Lur swept past the helm, pausing only to reach down to his command chair’s sideboard controls. “Where is he, Shan?”
The two strangers rushed from the ladder way. One carried a small locker of Cabran manufacture, the sunstone crystals, as they plunged through Opa’s hatch. A second hatch swung shut behind them.
“I can’t read him, sir.” Shan shook her head. One clan-tail half slid over her shoulder.
Uncle Lur sealed Opa and strode back to his seat.
“They caught the beacon.” Jiadra flicked yellow-barred safety panels off her row of armament switches. “The clanless, motherless—”
“Secure stations,” Uncle Lur ordered. “Prepare for reorient.”
Ming reached down alongside her chair for the pull bar and locked it into automatic mode. A clanging on her left and a lurch to the right told her the freighter had disengaged its electromagnets.
Her stomach took a turn. Opa slid through zero-g and accelerated. For a sickening instant “down” had no meaning, until Uncle Lur fired attitude jets and established course.
Where was the Company? Ming stared hard left into Shan’s huge screen. A Renasco patrol might be hiding nearby in the huge outer planet’s ring system, or at the far edge of radio range, reading Opa’s presence by satellite relay.
Only one way to find out.
“Ming.” Jiadra beckoned fiercely.
Ming unlocked her chair. Across an intensifying press of acceleration, she slid it along the metal track that connected their stations, then secured it again. As she watched Jiadra’s tracking screen for blips, she prayed it would not prove necessary to fire. If they shot at a Company ship and did not escape…
Acceleration mounted. Ming steadied her wrists against Jiadra’s board. A minute passed. She craned her neck around. Uncle Lur watched Shan’s screen. From the sudden unknotting of neck muscles below his shorter arrow-tails, she saw he too felt that the crisis was passing.
“Radiation shielding,” he ordered. Ming understood his unspoken implication. We’re going to make it.
“Sir.” Shan bent forward.
Silently Ming chanted, Go. Hurry. Go.
Shan twisted a dial to activate the shielding. A system stuck together with spare parts and hope, thus far it had performed well enough.
Bulkheads hummed. Acceleration eased as the electrostatic shielding drained off engine power.
And Opa began to moan. The sound came shuddering from bulkheads, where the shielding generators lay. No. Ming groaned silently.
“Sir.” Shan’s gravel voice rang in the cabin. She twisted aside to face her secondary computer board. “Permission to run checks?”
“Go,” Uncle Lur answered. Engine power dropped. Ming’s stomach protested. Uncle Lur looked her way. “Ming. To Shielding.”
She slid her chair left and reached for Shan’s main station controls. The moan around her continued, low and steady.
“Keep the shields full on, unless I tell you.” Shan bent to her small secondary screen.
“Right.” Ming frowned. In just over an hour, they would approach the first wormhole discontinuity in the series between Nexos and Cabra. Engaging thrust along a carefully plotted vector would instantaneously drive them through that hole in space to a location light-years distant.
Thank the All no Company ships challenged, not yet. But when Uncle Lur’s chair squeaked a silent half hour later, Ming jumped. She pivoted to see. He leaned toward his helm. Acceleration pressed her hipbones again.
“No clue, Shan?” Uncle Lur asked.
“All right.” Uncle Lur swept a hand across his controls. “We’re going for vector speed.”
Ming stayed at Shan’s station, one hand on the board, drawing comfort from her cousin’s proximity. As acceleration shoved her harder and harder against her seat, the moan rose to a howl. She glanced aside. Either the shielding was about to fail or the bulkheads were stressing.
Twenty minutes till approach.
A blip appeared. “Sir!” Ming craned her neck toward the helm. “Ship ahead—I think.”
“Track it.” Uncle Lur never turned from his navigational screen. “Is it moving?”
Ming stared at the blip until her eyes hurt. “No, sir,” she said at last.
“Then maybe it’s not a ship.”
“And maybe it is.” Ming wheeled at the sound of Jiadra’s voice. Beyond Ming’s own station, Jiadra sat fiercely upright, smiling. She wanted a fight.
Under Ming’s feet, the main engines hummed a deep background to the bulkheads’ howl. The bright high-contrast blip still didn’t move on Ming’s screen.
Shan glanced away from her terminal just long enough to eye the screen, then hastened back to work. “It’s a ship,” she announced.
How could she tell?
“Renasco,” Jiadra mumbled.
Uncle Lur’s chair creaked again. “Of course.”
But if this were the same ship that challenged them back at the rings, it made no attempt at contact now. Ming glanced repeatedly at the trans-C board over her own station. It remained dark.
Three anxious minutes later, Uncle Lur reached for the control panel of his command chair. “All right. We’re going for passage. We can get around them as we accelerate.”
Shan punched another series of commands into her terminal. “Hot sweat,” she muttered. “That doesn’t fix it either.”
“Double magnification,” Uncle Lur called.
Ming stabbed a key to make the correction on Shan’s screen. The tiny green pip resolved into a shape she knew and dreaded. Distinctly a Renasco scout ship.
Inertial pressure shifted in her hips and against her shoulders—shifted and decreased. On the right side of her own station, a light pulsed erratically. She slid over, thumbing the search panel while recording. “Permission to amplify transmission, sir.”
Uncle Lur’s white duty suit clung in dark wet patches. “Amplify.”
Ming hit another panel. Two seconds later, Opa’s comm search mode found the appropriate frequency, and the transmission Ming’s board had recorded came through: “Silent ship. What is your operating number? You are in restricted space.”
Uncle Lur sat silent. Ming stilled her hands against the edge of her console and waited for him to give an order. Another burst of acceleration thrust her chair against seat and shoulders.
“Silent ship.” The voice in the speaker changed. It sounded tired, condescending, as if Renasco crews often played disinformation games with one another. “Give your operating number, please.”
“Ming.” Jiadra, still in her chair, commanded her over with an imperious headshake.
Weapons. And this time, with a real threat in view.
Ming’s stomach twisted. She glanced aside. Shan’s focus remained riveted to her terminal. Uncle Lur watched the screens.
Jiadra pointed forcefully at the deck beside her weapons board. Ming unlocked her seat and slid it along the track until she sat beside Jiadra. She was expected to fill in wherever needed, and she would do so.
“You’ll do fine, Ming,” Shan said quietly.
Ming swallowed on a dry throat and kept half an eye on the helm.
Uncle Lur reached for a sideboard. “We are a free freighter.” He laid just the right amount of casual slur over his voice to mimic a Nexan accent. “Eff-cee-five-five-nine, outbound slowcourse.”
Ming bit her lip, aching with the hope it would work. Renasco did allow minimal, heavily taxed, free-freight traffic within its client systems. She rested an elbow on the console. It felt hard against her bones. Particle gun, missiles. Not much, but all the clan could afford.
“Free freighter eff-cee-five-five-nine, match velocities for boarding. Transmit your zone passage license.” The voice sounded crisper now, less bored.
“Lur Dalamani.” Jiadra took a scornful tone, and Ming hated the disrespect of her uncle. “Fire now. We have them at a disadvantage.”
“Negative.” Lur touched another panel. Opa lurched, still accelerating for the wormhole, but if caught in the Renasco ship’s tractor, they would go no farther.
Unless they destroyed the Renasco ship.
“Free freighter eff-cee-five-five-nine, please confirm. You are to match velocities for boarding. Transmit zone passage license. Confirm, please.” The voice was all business now.
Jiadra dropped one hand from the board. She balled it into a fist on her hip. “Captain, sir. I suggest we fire while we have them at the disadvantage of surprise.”
“Prepare for full acceleration,” Uncle Lur said tightly.
Inside the half-sphere of bulkheads, howling shield units lifted their voice to a scream.
If I ever get home, I’ll never set foot on a spacecraft again! Ming swiped at her wet forehead and leaned away from Jiadra’s board to check Shan’s screen. The Renasco ship maintained position. A cluster of numbers showed the wormhole discontinuity just ahead.
Abruptly, Ming plunged into an infinite abyss, her body destroyed. She fell, reduced to atoms. Fell screaming, knowing no one could hear. Fell…
And re-formed safely at the other end of the wormhole…
Where a second Renasco ship filled Shan’s screen.
Uncle Lur braced both arms against the command chair. “Hot sweat,” he growled. “They’ve got us in range.”